Authors: Tania Malik
Dedicated to my parents,
Rita and Ranbir Gambhir
AWDUST, SOFT AND FINE AS MA’S BEST MUSLIN DUPPATA
, tickled Madan’s nose, making him sneeze. His father’s grip on his hand tightened, as if the sudden movement would make Madan lose his footing on the timber mill’s uneven brick floor. Madan flexed his fingers to make his father loosen his hold, but his father was using the tightness of his grip to navigate Madan through the obstacle course of whirring saws and hot clanging plywood presses. Everywhere, piles of logs lay in misshapen triangles. Madan felt his grimy kurta adhere to his skin, the sweltering temperature of the midafternoon intensified by the raging furnace in the center of the factory. Struggling to keep pace with his father’s determined step, Madan faltered, and his father grunted impatiently.
“Keep up, you son of a bitch,” his father said. “He’s waiting for us.”
By the time they reached the offices at the far end of the factory, Madan had lost sight of his mother and six-year-old sister sitting outside the high iron gate. Swati was asleep, curled up in Ma’s lap, her sari’s pallu protecting Swati from the sun and flies.
His father knocked on the glass half of the factory owner’s office door. “Stay here till I call you. Okay?”
Madan jerked his head up and down in a gesture he hoped conveyed deference. His father’s lips twisted into what Madan took for a smile, but it was not one of reassurance or welcome. If his father could, he would pack the family back on the train to their village, continue to send them money intermittently and visit them only when he wanted. But now they were here, and his father was adjusting to this development as if he’d discovered that someone had taken a piss in his morning cup of tea. The smile hovered around his father’s lips but Madan didn’t bother returning it. He knew to fear the capriciousness of that smile, how it teased and promised many things yet was easily tempted away by a quarter liter of desi tahra.
He nodded again but his father, responding to the call of “Aaho!,” disappeared into the office.
Placing his back to the office wall, Madan looked out onto the factory floor. Men, black as the cawing crows above and shiny with sweat, worked in groups around large machines. They glanced curiously at him. He turned and faced the wall. It was yellow and chalky, with ridges and bumps, and when Madan rubbed his hands against it, they came off covered with a delicate white dust.
The door opened suddenly and his father’s hand reached out, catching him by the collar and pulling him to the other side of the wall.
He kept his head bowed. He dared not raise it. Through the opening at the bottom of the large desk he saw two monstrous feet, dried and cracked like parched earth. Broad-strapped leather sandals, each with a big brass buckle in the center, glinted up at Madan.
“This is my boy,” his father said.
“Come here,” he heard.
His father pushed him forward. “Say salaam to saab.”
Madan lifted his head and his first thought, even before he could articulate the “Salaam . . .” was if Avtaar Singh stood up, he would surely go through the roof. He loomed over Madan and his shiny wooden desk, in a striped blue short-sleeve shirt hanging loose over his trousers, his hair swept away from his face and cropped short to the fold of his shirt’s collar. A thick, hooded mustache dominated his otherwise clean-shaven face, and the deep blackness of his eyes twinkled with the reflection of the bright overhead tube lights.
“What’s your name, boy?” The sound boomed in his ear like the thundering train he’d just got off. Madan lowered his gaze to the watch ticking on Avtaar Singh’s wrist, his only adornment besides the deep red mauli string looped tightly around the other wrist.
Avtaar Singh swiveled his chair toward him. Madan had never seen a chair do that, let alone have tiny wheels under its legs. It looked like a ride at the fair.
A hefty hand cupped his chin. Though the hand wasn’t packed with heavy muscle, every action seemed generated from some explosive power source. “And how old are you, Madan?”
“Eleven . . . twelve,” he stammered.
“Eleven or twelve, boy?”
“Twelve . . . saab.”
Avtaar Singh fixed his gaze on Madan, and Madan tried to glance toward his father but the tight grip on his chin wouldn’t let him.
“What is that?” Avtaar Singh asked, and Madan flinched. He followed Avtaar Singh’s gaze to the top buttons of his kurta. A folded comic book peeked out of his collar. Madan felt the smooth paper disengage from his sticky skin as his body cooled down in the air-conditioned room. He’d stuck it in there before they’d left the village.
“Show it to me.” Releasing Madan’s chin, Avtaar Singh held out his hand.
Madan reached into his shirt and unfolded the comic, handing it to him. He watched Avtaar Singh scan the comic book.
“But . . . this is in English?” Avtaar Singh looked from Madan to his father. For a moment Madan thought Avtaar Singh’s bulging eyes looked comical. But just for a moment. Avtaar Singh shook the flimsy pages at his father, saying again, “Did you know this is English?”
Madan, relieved that his chin was finally free, also looked to his father for an explanation.
“Saab.” His father laughed, but it sounded like an abrupt cough. “In the village . . . there was a crazy army-wallah, saab. Some retired colonel. He tried to teach the children English. My wife told me Madan used to wait for him every day to come and teach. But what are we people going to do with this fancy-type language? Children . . . they don’t understand. Don’t worry, saab. I’ve got him a job at Prem Dhaba, serving tea, earn a little money for the family . . .” His father trailed off when he saw Avtaar Singh wasn’t listening.
This was the first Madan had heard of a job, but before he could begin to daydream about what he would buy with the money earned, Avtaar Singh asked, “Can you read this, boy?”
Madan glanced at his father. He didn’t want to get into trouble, and the look on his father’s face promised a belt on his back.
“Don’t look there. I’m talking to you.”
Madan forced himself to look at Avtaar Singh. Slowly, he nodded.
Avtaar Singh’s finger moved along the title. “Start.”
Amar . . . Chitra . . . Katha
,’ ” Madan read. “ ‘
.’ ” He was not sure if he was saying it right. “ ‘
The Brahmin, the Goat, and Other Stories
he finished quickly.
“And this?” Avtaar Singh opened the comic and pointed again before Madan could catch his breath.
“ ‘How . . . could . . . the villiager . . . villager . . . pl-ay such a . . . treeck . . .
Avtaar Singh brusquely whipped the comic book away before Madan finished. He folded it back up and handed it to Madan, but did not let go right away. Unsure what to do, Madan held the comic by the other end.
“Can you read this, Prabhu?” Avtaar Singh asked his father.
“No . . . no, saab,” Madan heard his father’s quiet reply, sounding distant and inconsequential. Madan wanted to go to the toilet, but he willed himself not to tremble or look in his father’s direction.
Avtaar Singh finally released his hold on the comic and Madan scrambled back to his father.
“So, Prabhu, now your family is here, I want no more excuses. I want to see hard work, that’s what I pay for.” Avtaar Singh appeared more preoccupied with the papers on his desk.
“Where’s your woman?”
“She’s outside, saab.”
“Send her to the kitchen tomorrow. I’ll tell memsaab and she’ll work out her pay.”
“Thank you, saab.”
It was time to go. As his father swung open the door, ushering Madan out, Avtaar Singh spoke once again, still not looking up.
“Prabhu, bring the boy in next week. He’ll go to school. To my Gorapur Academy. I will take care of it. No dhaba work for this boy.”
They stood paralyzed within the doorframe, his father’s fingers digging into the nape of his neck. Madan glanced up to remind his father of whose neck was in his pinching grip, and caught the whiplash of anger across his father’s face, the sharp intake of breath and then the quiet, “Yes, thank you, saab.” The door swung shut behind them.
ADAN WATCHED SWATI’S SLEEPING FACE BUMP ALONG ON
his father’s shoulder. He trailed behind his parents as they kept to the dirt sides of the road. Trucks and cars whizzed by with a ferocity that blew sand in his eyes and made his head spin.