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Authors: Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

East Into Upper East

BOOK: East Into Upper East
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By the same author

NOVELS

To Whom She Will (
US
Amrita)

The Nature of Passion

Esmond in India

The Householder

Get Ready For Battle

A Backward Place

A New Dominion (
US
Travelers)

Heat and Dust

In Search of Love and Beauty

Three Continents

Poet and Dancer

Shards of Memory

STORIES

Like Birds, Like Fishes

A Stronger Climate

An Experience of India

How I Became a Holy Mother

Out of India (Selected Stories)

© Copyright 1998 by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

First paperback edition 2000

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the Publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

The following stories originally appeared in
The New Yorker:
“Expiation,” “Farid and Farida,” “Husband and Son,” “A Summer by the Sea,” and “Parasites.” “A New Delhi Romance” also appeared in Tri-Quarterly, and “Independence” appeared in
London Magazine.

Illustrations on page 2 and page 136 by C. S. H. Jhabvala

Library of Congress Cataloguing-in-Publication Data Jhabvala, Ruth Prawer, 1927–

East into Upper East: plain tales from New York and New Delhi / Ruth Prawer Jhabvala.

p. cm.

Contents: Expiation—Farid and Farida—Independence—Development and progress—A New Delhi romance—Husband and Son—The temptress—A summer by the sea—Great expectations—Parasites—Fidelity—Bobby—Broken promises—Two muses. 1. New York (N.Y.)—Social life and customs—Fiction 2. New Delhi (India)—Social life and customs—Fiction. I. Title.

PR9499.3.J5E27
    
1998

823-dc21
       
98-34881

Printed in the United States of America on acid-free paper that meets the American National Standards Institute Z39-48 Standard.

COUNTERPOINT

P.O. Box 65793

Washington, D.C. 20035-5793

Counterpoint is a member of the Perseus Books Group.

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e-book ISBN 978-1-61902-881-4

CONTENTS

East

Expiation

Farid and Farida

Independence

Development and Progress

A New Delhi Romance

Husband and Son

Upper East

The Temptress

A Summer by the Sea

Great Expectations

Parasites

Fidelity

Bobby

Broken Promises

Two Muses

EAST

T
EMPLE, OFF
C
HANDNI
C
HOWK
, D
ELHI

EXPIATION

I was thirteen when he was born. He was the youngest of seven of us, of whom only I, my brother Sohan Lal, and one sister (who is married, in Kanpur) are still living. Even after he had learned to walk, I used to carry him around in my arms, because he liked it. The one thing I couldn't bear was to see him cry. If he wanted something—and he often had strong desires, as for some other child's toy or a pink sweet—I did my best to get it for him. Perhaps I would have stolen for him; I never did, but if called upon I might have done it.

Our father had a small cloth shop in the town of P—in Haryana, India. Today this town is known all over the world for its hand-spun cotton cloth, which is made here, but when my father was alive he could barely make a living from his shop. Now we take orders from all the rich Western countries, and our own warehouse is stocked so full of bolts of cloth that soon we shall need another one. I have built a house on the outskirts of the town, and when we have to go any distance we drive there in our white Ambassador car.

On that day—a cold Friday in January—I stood outside the prison gates. I wore a warm grey coat. There was a crowd there waiting, and everyone looked at me. I had got used to that. For more than two years, wherever I went people had pointed and whispered, “Look. It is the eldest brother.” My photograph was often in the newspapers; whenever I went in and out of the court, I had to walk past all these people with cameras, from the newspapers and from the television station. So when they took my photograph outside the prison that day, I didn't mind it. I stood and waited. My brother Sohan Lal was with me, along with some cousins and one elderly uncle. We waited and shivered in the cold. Our thoughts were only
on what was going on inside. I kept reading the words that are carved over the prison entrance: “Hate the Sin but Not the Sinner.”

When they opened the gates at last, everyone rushed forward, but they would permit only me to enter. The old uncle tried to squeeze in behind me, but he was pushed back. I felt angry with him; even at that moment I had this anger against the old man, because I knew he was trying to come in not out of a feeling of love but to put himself forward and be important. They led me through the prison, which I had come to know very well, to where the body was. Everything was different that day. The courtyard and passages were empty, for whenever there is an execution they lock all the prisoners inside their cells. The officials and the doctor spoke to me in a very nice way. They stood with me while we waited for the municipal hearse, which I had ordered the night before. They had put a sheet over the face. I uncovered it to see him once more, though I knew it would not be the same face. Then I covered it again. I stood very straight and looked ahead of me. They offered me a place to sit, and I thanked them and declined. They spoke among themselves about the other body, which no one had come to claim. They would have to cremate it themselves, and they were discussing which warders should be assigned to this duty. They had neglected to place an advance order for a hearse, so they would have to wait. I didn't know where the other body was; it was not with his. They must have put it aside somewhere else.

His name was Ram Lal, but we always called him by his pet name, Bablu. Besides being much younger than I, he was also much smaller in build. All our family, including the girls, are big; only he stayed small. I could lift him even when he was grown up. I used to do it for a joke. When I put him down again I would hug him. I often hugged him and kissed him. He knew I loved him. Before my marriage we shared a bed, and when he cried out in his sleep—he often had bad dreams—I pressed him against my chest. He was six years old when I was married. A little satin coat was stitched for him, and he sat behind me on the mare on which I rode to the bride's house, with a band playing in front and cousins and friends (they had taken opium) dancing in the street. My wife's family made a good wedding
for us, and he enjoyed it all. But he never liked my wife and she never liked him. From the beginning there was this between her and me. She tried to change my feelings for him and could not succeed.

It was not just weddings he was fond of but all festivals where special food is cooked and good clothes are worn. He didn't like anything that was old or ugly. He didn't like our home—two rooms in an old house in Kabir Galli, where we had to share a bathroom with eight other families. He was also unhappy sitting in the shop with me, because the bazaar is so crowded and smelly. At that time, the whole town was in a bad state, with all the old houses falling down and with dirty water from the gutters overflowing in the streets. In the old parts, it is still like that—in Kabir Galli, for instance, and in the bazaar where my father's shop used to be—but now there are also completely new areas, with bungalows and the temples that people have donated out of their black-market money. When we were children, all these areas were fields and open ground where we could play. He spent many hours there alone in those days. He sat by the canal or lay under a tree—whole days sometimes.

I expected him to be a good student when he grew older, because although he was so quiet, his mind was always busy. Even at night he was alive with those bad dreams he had, while the rest of us, heavy with food and the day's work, lay asleep like stones. But it turned out he wasn't fond of studying, and whenever possible he stayed away from school. By this time, with the growing market for our cloth, I began to get free of the debts by which our family had been bound hand and foot since my grandfather's time. There was nothing to spare yet, but when he wanted some little sum he could ask me and I was in a position to give it. He was fond of going to the cinema, and if it was a good film he would see it six or seven times. Like everyone else, he knew all the film songs, though he didn't sing them out loud. He never sang and he didn't speak much, either; he was always very shy and alone, even when he was enjoying himself in the cinema or at a wedding. His face was always serious. It was unusual, almost strange, to see him smile. That may have been because his teeth were so odd—very small and pointed with spaces in between. When he did smile, his gums showed, like a girl's, and when he grew up and became very fond of chewing betel they were always red and so were his lips and tongue.

Now I must record a small incident that I have never liked to remember. It was not just one incident, in fact, but several. The first time it happened, he was about nine years old. One day when I came home, my wife told me that she had seen Bablu taking money out of the metal box that I used to keep under my bed. Her eyes shone as she told me this, as if she were happy that it had happened, so I frowned and told her he had taken this money at my instruction. She didn't believe me. “Then why did he say he was looking for his slippers under the bed?” she said, challenging me. She said that he had tried to run away but that she had caught him and given him one or two slaps. When she told me that, I became angry, and said, “How many times have I told you never to raise your hand to this boy?” For she had done it before—she is a strong woman, with a strong temper—and he had come to me crying bitterly and didn't stop until I had rebuked her. But when she slapped him because of the metal box he never mentioned the incident to me.

From then on, she was like a spy with him. She would watch his movements, and more than once she reported to me that she had awakened at night and seen him searching through our clothes. I wouldn't believe her; I told her to keep her mouth shut. She became cunning, and one night she whispered in my ear, “Wake up and see.” I didn't open my eyes. I didn't want to see what she wanted me to, so I turned around on my other side and pretended to be angry with her for waking me. Next day, when he came to bring me my food in the shop, I said, “Bablu, do you want money?” He said yes, so I gave him three rupees and said, “Whenever you need money, I'm always here.” He was silent, but he looked at me as if he were saying “Why are you telling me this? I know all that very well.” His eyes had remained as I remembered them when he was a baby. All small children have this very serious look—as if they know things their elders have forgotten—but with him it remained till the end.

People say that you can learn a lot from a person's eyes. The moment I saw that one—the other one, the one whose body no one wanted to claim—I noticed his eyes. Although he was dark-complexioned, his eyes were very light—like a Kashmiri's or a European's, or even lighter, for they had no color at all, so that at
first it looked as if he had no vision but had lost it because of disease. I hated and feared him from the beginning. We all did, yet we had to tolerate his presence in our house. I even had to be grateful to him, because it was he who had brought Bablu back after he was lost to us for over two years.

When Bablu was sixteen, he wasn't like other boys—nothing like the way Sohan Lal had been at that age, when we had to find a bride and marry him off before he became too troublesome. Bablu was no trouble at all in that way—or in any other way. He never even smoked or drank anything. He was fond of nice clothes made of terylene, and modern shoes with pointed toes. He also grew his hair long, and to keep it in place used a costly brand of oil, with a very sweet smell. But it is common for young boys to be careful of their appearance. Sohan Lal also dressed up and sat with his friends outside the Peshawar Café, and they talked among themselves the way boys do, and when girls walked past they shouted. This behavior is to be expected before natural satisfaction is obtained in marriage.

Bablu, though he dressed so nicely, never sat with friends in the Peshawar Café. He was always by himself. Never once did I see him with a friend. He didn't care to come and help us in the shop or with the rest of the business, which was just starting to do well. Most of the time he stayed at home. We were still in our house in Kabir Galli, it was a very small place, but during the day the children were at school and Sohan Lal's wife liked to go to neighbors' homes to talk. So usually there was only my wife at home with Bablu. She didn't like it; she kept asking me to send him to the shop or find some other work for him, but I said let him be. Although he never did anything or had anything to read except some film magazines, I could see that he was thinking all the time. I had respect for him for being such a thoughtful person and not at all like Sohan Lal and me, who were always busy and had no inclination for thinking at all.

One night when I came home, my wife called to me from the other room—the one where our beds were put out at night, and also where I kept a metal safe I had bought when the business began to progress. When I went in, she wouldn't let me put on the light, but I saw at once that the safe was open; the bundles of money I'd had in it were gone, though the jewelry was intact. My wife was sitting on the floor. “Quickly,” she said. “Help me.” I squatted down beside
her, and she put one hand over my mouth to stifle my cry. I saw that she had tied up her arm with a bundle of cloth, but already this cloth was soaked in blood. Neither of us spoke. I threw a shawl round her and, hurrying through the other room where the family were all sitting, I took her out into the street and put her in a cycle rickshaw, and we went to the hospital. There she explained that the knife had slipped while she was cutting up a chicken that she was preparing for a feast.

BOOK: East Into Upper East
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