Happy Birthday!: And Other Stories

BOOK: Happy Birthday!: And Other Stories
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Published by Random House India in 2013

Copyright © Meghna Pant 2013

Random House Publishers India Private Limited
Windsor IT Park, 7th Floor, Tower-B
A-1, Sector-125, Noida-201301, UP

Random House Group Limited
20 Vauxhall Bridge Road
London SW1V 2SA
United Kingdom

All characters and situations in this publication are fictitious.
There is no intended resemblance to anyone, living or dead.

This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

EPUB ISBN 9788184004526

For making this gravity called life something to laugh with. Thanks, Papa

We love and lose in China,

we weep on England's moors,

and laugh and moan in Guinea,

and thrive on Spanish shores.

We seek success in Finland,

are born and die in Maine.

In minor ways we differ,

in major we're the same.

–Maya Angelou

CONTENTS

The Gola Master

Hoopsters

Happy Birthday!

The Gecko on the Wall

Friends

Lemon and Chilli

The Message

Clip and Cane

The Bailout

Shoulder Blades

After Ashes

Dented and Painted Women

Shaitans

Acknowledgements

A Note on the Author

THE GOLA MASTER

It's been twenty-eight years, but I know instantly that it's Kaka at the corner of the sidewalk. He's shrivelled now, older than the man in my memory, who is still standing at the gola stall with his ice pick and coloured bottles. The man whose face shines as he lifts me up in the air and I sit strong upon his shoulders.

I want to go up to him and ask how he is. Where are Venkat and Sita—his children—who were always wrapped around his legs? But will he even recognize me? After all, I've changed as much as this street, as this city. And I'm old now, or—to be kind to myself—a man at the cusp of old age, a father whose son is going to be married in three weeks.

In any case, this is not the time for a reunion. Sanjay's fiancée Devna and her father are stepping out of their chauffeur-driven Mercedes. I met them only a few days ago and they've brought Sanjay and me here for a surprise.

I look around to see what the surprise could be.

My eyes fall on my old school, an ochre one-storeyed building that's been converted into a nine-storeyed brown monstrosity. Guarded by a sombre watchman who looks better suited to patrol a prison, the school bears the insignia of a hawk. I should be happier chancing upon my school like this, but it no longer feels like a familiar place.

Anyway, this cannot be the surprise; my own son doesn't know what school I went to and I cannot tell him now—not in front of these fancy new people.

Across the road, the street vendors and textile mills have been replaced by a multitude of upscale cafés and restaurants, and a shiny gallery selling contemporary art. Is the surprise a nice meal or a viewing of paintings? Then why would the car stop on the opposite side of the road?

I turn around and in front of me is a construction site where work on a building is in full swing. The place has at least fifty workers, most of them dressed in loose trousers and torn brown vests, which at some point must have been white. Some of them are swinging from flimsy bamboo scaffoldings tied together by jute ropes, while others are pouring water into mounds of grey cement, which they shove into half-moon metal pots and carry on top of their heads, up the stairs, to slap onto bricks to build walls.

Next to the compound wall, near the nali, are makeshift huts outside which dirty-looking children with snotty noses are not attending school. A few women are drying clothes on the terylene sheet roofs, and some are boiling ragi kali in clay pots over gas cylinders.

I feel a hand on my shoulder and turn to see my son's soon-to-be father-in-law, Ravi Mirchandani. His mouth is open in an apparent attempt to smile, giving me an inside view of the gold-plated cavities lining his teeth. His lips are brown from an addiction to the gutka he carries in his pudgy gold-, diamond- and ruby-ringencrusted hand.

‘Vora, follow me,' he declares. His voice, its authority, remind me of his wealth from the stock market, his business trips around the world, and his Aston Martin with a made-to-order number plate 008 (like my figure, he jokes). He's one of Mumbai's most renowned stockbrokers. And my son will soon be joining his business.

I follow him to the construction site, with Sanjay and Devna behind me. At the gate, a security guard salutes Mirchandani smartly, and immediately another man appears carrying four yellow helmets and a large smile that doesn't crinkle his eyes.

‘Welcome, sir. Welcome,' he says to Mirchandani, licking his chapped lips and folding his hands in a namaste. He bends down so low that I worry for his back. ‘Myself, Mr V. Bhaskar. We are very much honoured by your presence.'

‘Oberoi is an old friend. I can't give his building a miss.' Mirchandani says. His eyes become narrow. ‘Even though Lakhandwala is offering more FSI.'

I have no idea what FSI means, but Mr V. Bhaskar clearly does.

‘Chaa!' he says. ‘Lakhandwala is too big cheat, sir. I swear to my mother. He try to sell carpet area as super built-up area. How he can do that, sir? But we, we are honest people. More god-fearing person than Mr Oberoi you will not find in whole of the earth.'

‘We'll see about that,' Mirchandani says dismissively, his gaze now focused on the red light blinking on his BlackBerry. ‘Take us to the flat.'

Flat? I turn around to ask Sanjay what we're being put up to, but instead find myself watching as he fastens a helmet on to the head of a giggling Devna.

I put on my yellow helmet, which is too flimsy to protect me from even pigeon shit, and cover my nose as backhoes send swirls of cement dust into the air. The metallic sound of a drill lends urgency to the site, wrenches and hammers fly in and out of wall-less apartments, as naked wires spiral out of the ground like poisonous snakes. I look up at the men dangling from several feet above. An overhead crane carrying a stack of steel sheets rises above them, looming over the building; one slip and we will all be instantly crushed.

‘Please come,' Bhaskar says over the construction noises.

Mirchandani walks past me, without putting on the helmet, while Sanjay and Devna follow him, oblivious to the dangers around us. I start chanting the
Gayatri Mantra
. I look left, right and above me, before sprinting to the unfinished building that has to be safer inside than on the outside. But there are no solid floors or walls to hold on to for safety. Instead, there's an open-air lift with a liftman holding the doors apart.

‘Are we going up in this
thing
?' I ask Bhaskar when he reaches my side.

‘Yes, sir. But lift only go till twenty floor. Then we walk to thirty floor, if you be so kind,' Bhaskar says, his anxious eyes begging me not to make a fuss. His job probably depends on Mirchandani liking this building.

I study the electric motor over which the liftman has placed one hand and the flimsy panel beneath his feet. I look up at the single rope attached to this so-called ‘lift'. There are no guide rails along the sides of the lift shaft.

I cannot risk my life for this man's commission.

‘Certainly, this cannot be safe.'

‘It is too safe place, sir. We follow all safety rules,' Bhaskar says, his eyes falling on Mirchandani who has caught up with us.

‘Is there a problem, Vora?' Mirchandani asks, entering the lift without a pause. He takes a handkerchief out from his Valentino suit and dabs the beads of sweat dropping from his forehead.

‘Sir was worried about life. But I guarantee this is best lift in India.'

I glare at Bhaskar, who smiles in return.

‘Why are we going up?' I ask.

‘You'll see,' Mirchandani says. He comes over to me and slaps my back. ‘You Americans worry too much. God has been so kind to us, why will he stop now?'

I look at Sanjay for support, but he hasn't taken his eyes off Devna, as though he's won her at some fair. They go into the lift as if entering the gates of heaven.

I see that I have no choice. I enter the treacherous contraption.

Mirchandani turns to the liftman. ‘What are you waiting for? My baraat?'

The liftman shuts the doors and starts the motor. The lift begins to rise, wheezing and jerking, shuddering ever so slightly. I stand frozen at the far end of the lift car, clutching a metal bar with both my hands.

Mirchandani looks at me in amusement, revelling in my fear.

‘Isn't this shaking a lot?' I ask.

‘Really, you Americans,' Mirchandani says with a grotesque smile, stressing the word ‘Americans' as if he's just invented it.

‘It is just little windy today, sir. No need for worry,' Bhaskar replies. His eyes fix on Mirchandani's as if they've finally understood each other.

I look down.

The day is the colour of mustard.

The lift sways back and forth.

I clutch the metal bar tighter.

My body floats above my old school.

BOOK: Happy Birthday!: And Other Stories
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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