Manu Joseph’s debut novel created quite a stir when several publishers in the UK bid for it last year.
Open | 16 Jun, 2010
Manu Joseph’s debut novel created quite a stir when several publishers in the UK bid for it last year. A chapter from the book
Ayyan Mani’s thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours. His eyes were keen and knowing. A healthy moustache sheltered a perpetual smile. A dark tidy man, but somehow inexpensive.
He surveyed the twilight walkers. There were hundreds on the long concrete stretch by the Arabian Sea. Solitary young women in good shoes walked hastily, as if they were fleeing from the fate of looking like their mothers. Their proud breasts bounced, soft thighs shuddered at every step. Their tired highcaste faces, so fair and glistening with sweat, bore the grimace of exercise. He imagined they were all in the ecstasy of being seduced by him.
Among them, he could tell, there were girls who had never exercised before. They had arrived after a sudden engagement to a suitable boy, and they walked with very long strides as though they were measuring the coastline. They had to shed fat quickly before the bridal night when they might yield on the pollen of a floral bed to a stranger. Calm unseeing old men walked with other old men, discussing the state of the nation. They had all the solutions. A reason why their wives walked half a mile away, in their own groups, talking about arthritis or about other women who were not present. Furtive lovers were beginning to arrive. They sat on the parapet and faced the sea, their hands straying or eyes fi lling depending on what stage the relationship was in. And their new jeans were so low that their meagre Indian buttocks peeped out as commas.
Ayyan looked with eyes that did not know how to show a cultured indifference. He often told Oja, ‘If you stare long enough at serious people they will begin to appear comical.’ So he looked.
From behind, a girl with a bouncing pony tail and an iPod strung to her ears overtook him. Through her damp T-shirt he could see her firm youthful back. He quickened his pace, and regained his lead over her. And he tried to look at her face in the hope that she was not pretty. Beautiful women depressed him. They were like Mercedes, BlackBerry phones and sea-view homes.
The girl met his eyes for an instant and looked away without feeling flattered. She had a haughty face that would be a pleasure to tame. With love, poetry or a leather belt, perhaps. Whatever she liked. Her face did not show anything, but it did grow more cold. She was aware that she was being watched, not just by a strange brisk man but also by the unending hordes of miserable people all around who spread dengue and scratched her car. They were always there on the fringes of her world, gawking at her the way stray dogs look at good stock.
Ayyan slowed down and let her march ahead. A few feet away, a man stood still and stared at her. His head moved from left to right as she passed him. He was a short man who appeared to stand erect because his back was not long enough. Ayyan knew from the tension in his shirt that it was tucked straight into the underwear for a tighter grip. A thin brown belt ran around his slender waist almost twice. His shirt pocket sagged under the weight of the many things it held. A red comb peeped from the back pocket of his trousers.
‘Stop staring at that girl,’ Ayyan said. The little man was startled.
He then opened his mouth in a sporting but silent laugh. Transient strings of saliva ran from the upper jaw to the lower.
They went to one of the pink concrete benches that were Serious Men ~ 3 dedicated to the memory of a departed member of the Rotary Club.
‘Busy day,’ the man said, flapping his thighs.
‘I’m travelling. That’s why I troubled you, Mani. I wanted to settle this fast.’
‘It’s all right, my friend,’ Ayyan said. ‘The important thing is that we have managed to meet.’ He took out a piece of printed paper and handed it to him. ‘All the details are in this,’ Ayyan said.
The man studied it more carefully than he probably wanted to.
And he tried to appear nonchalant when the envelope full of cash was thrust towards his chest.
After the little man left, with quick hectic steps to emphasize that he was busy, Ayyan continued to sit on the bench and stare. The game has to escalate, he told himself. It has to move to a different level. In a way, what he had just done was cruel. It was probably even a crime. But what must a man do? An ordinary clerk stranded in a big daunting world wants to feel the excitement of life, he wants to liberate his wife from the spell of jaundice yellow walls. What must he do?
The crowd on the Worli Seaface was swelling: it was now a giant colourless swarm. Pale boys with defeat in their eyes walked in horizontal gangs; they giggled at the aerobics of unattainable women. And they did not give way to the hasty girls. Ayyan loved this about the city—the humid crowds, the great perpetual squeeze, the silent vengeance of the poor. In the miserly lifts and stuffed trains, he often heard the relief of afternoon farts, saw scales on strange faces and the veins in their still eyes. And the secret moustaches of women. And the terrible green freshness when they had been newly removed with a thread. He felt the shoves and pushes and the heaviness of paunches. This unnerving constriction of Bombay he loved, because the congestion of hopeless shuffling human bodies he was born into was also, in a way, the fate of the rich. On the streets, in the trains, in the paltry gardens and sudden beaches, everybody was poor. And that was fair.
The desperate lovers were still arriving and they quickly stole the gaps on the parapet between other fused couples. And then they, too, sat facing the sea with their backs to the great passing crowds, arranged their bodies and did their discreet things. If there were ever a sudden almighty silence here you would hear a thousand bra straps snap. Among these lovers were married people, some of them even married to each other. When night fell, they went back to their one-room homes, which were as large as a Mercedes, to rejoin their children, elders, siblings, nephews and nieces, all heaped under a single roof in gigantic clusters of boiling tenements.
Like the BDD chawl, the mother hell. People who knew what BDD stood for were not the kind who lived there. But Ayyan knew such things, even though he was born on a cold floor there, thirty-nine years ago…
… He walked down the dim corridor of the third floor, which was the top floor. It was flanked by ageing pale-yellow walls with huge cracks that ran like dark river systems. There were about forty open doors here. Unmoving shadows sat on the doorways and gaped. Old widows calmly combed their hair. Children ran happily on the ancient grey stones of the corridor.
He knocked on the only door on the corridor that was shut. As he waited, he felt the turbulence of all those open doors, and the milling shadows. An old familiar sorrow rose like vapour inside him. Oja was trapped here with him. Once, her youthful words used to rush out like a giggle; she used to sing to herself in the mornings. But eventually the chawl seeped into her. The darkness grew, and it sometimes stared at him through her big black eyes. The door opened, somewhat slower and with far less anticipation than it used to years ago. Oja Mani appeared, her luxurious dark hair still wet from a new bath. As delicate as ever, entirely capable of touching her toes in the unlikely event of being asked to do so. But she was not sculpted by the vain Serious Men ~ 5 exercises of those forward caste women on the Worli Seaface. Beneath her thin red cotton nightdress, she had a slight paunch that might flatten out if she rested on her back.
‘Forgot to tell you,’ Oja told her husband, ‘his teacher has written a complaint in the handbook again. You have to meet the principal tomorrow morning.’
Adi looked up and giggled. He was sitting on the floor and writing something.
His hair was oiled and severely combed. He was in a T-shirt that had the image of Einstein sticking his tongue out jovially. The boy had clear black eyes: Oja’s eyes. A hearing-aid was strung to his left ear.
Its white wire ran into his T-shirt.
‘What has he done now?’ Ayyan asked with a proud smile. Adi winked at his father.
‘You are the one who is spoiling him,’ Oja said. ‘They are going to kick him out of the school one of these days.’
She went to Adi and twisted his ear gently. ‘He asked one of those questions again in the class,’ she said.
‘What question?’ Ayyan asked, now chuckling.
‘I don’t know. I wouldn’t know even if you told me now. This boy is crazy.’
‘What did you do, Adi?’
‘The science teacher was saying that if you throw anything up it has to come down. Basic things like that. So I asked her if the acceleration due to gravity of any planet anywhere in the universe can make an object travel faster than light.’
Oja was staring at her son with a mixture of fear and excitement.
Ayyan loved that look on his wife’s face, that sudden awakening in her from the gloomy acceptance of a life in BDD.
‘He is just ten,’ she said. ‘How does he understand these things?’
Last month, in the middle of the class, Adi had asked the science teacher something about arithmetic progression. A few weeks before that it was something else. Oja heard these stories from his teachers who were usually in some sort of happy delirium when they complained to her.
That night, Adi was sleeping near the fridge, as always, and his father lay next to him, holding the glass-bangled hand of his wife.
Ayyan wondered if he must build a wooden loft. He turned towards his son who was facing him, but he was fast asleep. After a few minutes the boy turned in his sleep and hid his face under the fridge. That was a heartening development.
A pale light was coming through the rusted grilles of the kitchen window and Ayyan could see Oja in the blue glow. Her open palm, with its clear fatelines, rested loosely on her forehead. Her red nightgown was far less arousing than the saris she used to wear after marriage. She was always in a sari in those days because her mother had said that she should not come across as liberal. Oja’s legs were joined together and folded at the knees. Her silver anklets lay still. Ayyan ran his hand over her waist. She opened her eyes without confusion or protest. She lifted her head to check on Adi.
The couple then moved with skill. They could caress and even tumble and roll a bit without making a sound.
They were in a sort of common entanglement, with Ayyan’s shorts hanging at his knees, Oja’s nightgown lifted, her legs parted, when she, yawning, decided to check on Adi again. He was sitting with his back resting against the wall.
‘They wouldn’t let me play that yesterday,’ he said.
In the morning, when Adi was having his bath in the glass enclosure, Ayyan told his wife, his eyes dejected and voice deep, ‘I have something to say.’ Oja looked at him and then at the boiling milk. ‘For the sake of our son,’ he said, ‘we must stop seeking our own pleasures.’
One hour later, as he was walking Adi to school, Ayyan thought of how Oja had readily accepted his decision. She had nodded, with one eye on the milk. It was an image that stayed with him till he reached a back lane in Worli and approached the tall black gates of St Andrew’s School. The decay of a man is first conveyed to him by his wife.
Oja’s face, in the inconvenience of love, was a cold face. These days when he made love to her, she looked as though she was waiting for the bus.
When she first began to assume that hollow gaze, he used it as a device in a private game in which the goal was to extract a reaction from her—a yelp, a sigh, a moan, anything. Then the game transformed. He imagined he was a powerful tea-planter raping a worker who had come to him asking for a loan. But the blank stare of his wife continued to haunt him. Eventually, he put an end to all his private games. And he accepted her detached love in the same way that he accepted her cups of tea.
But her blank disenchanted face sometimes frightened him. It reminded him that the woman he loved so much was stranded in a dull life because of him. There was a time when he thought he could save her from BDD and everything else, that love alone could make him superhuman and somehow take them to a better life. But that did not happen, and it probably was never going to happen.
He suddenly felt an irresistible urge to fall down and go to sleep, like the perpetual drunkards of the chawls. He felt like fleeing to some place far away where he would be single, where he would expect nothing from people and people would expect nothing from him. He would eat from the fruits of a tree owned by no man, and sleep under clear blue skies, lulled by the sound of the waves and the winds from faraway lands. He imagined himself on a giant hoarding, his back to the world, walking on a long tapering road towards an endless sea, and from the horizon of the sea rose the incandescent words—‘Free Man ®’.
But, he knew, the freedom of a bachelor is the freedom of a stray dog. On such days, when he felt stranded in family life, he always invoked the memory of the evening when Oja had first walked into his home as a terrified bride. She was so beautiful, and her fear was so arousing. But on the first night, when he sat beside her on the conjugal mattress that was filled with funereal roses left by neighbours and friends, he discovered that his new wife had cut her arms and legs with a Topaz blade. She had done it very carefully and methodically so that she did not damage her veins.
She wanted an excuse to be left alone. It was her way of saving herself from being undressed by a stranger.
‘I was afraid’ was the first thing she ever told him.
‘Of what?’ he had asked. And she looked even more frightened.
Ayyan had read that a woman had to be ready, whatever that meant. So he decided to wait. Sometime in the second month of their marriage, Oja’s cousin was sent by her mother under the guise of a casual visit to check if everything was all right. In the middle of churning curd, the girls talked about private matters.
‘He has not done it yet?’ the cousin screamed. ‘Something is certainly wrong with him.’ She spoke of the dark thing, ‘that looks half eaten,’ that nailed her even before she could give her man his milk on the wedding night.
‘It was big and it hurt,’ the cousin had said in a whisper. ‘I walked like a spider for two days.’
Ayyan did claim his rights soon, one Sunday afternoon, when Oja was sitting on the stone floor cutting onions. When it was over, Oja looked up at the ceiling, an onion tear running down her cheek, and asked, somewhat disappointedly, ‘That’s it?’ Then, unexpectedly, she lifted both her legs and pressed her knees to her face in a curative exercise. The first year of their marriage went by in their endless chatter about things they no longer remembered, and in moments of loneliness that sometimes bore the gloom of exile and at other times the sweet isolation of elopement. And in their infrequent physical love through which Oja maintained a calm, interested gaze. And in Ayyan’s perpetual knowledge that a box of condoms in their home outlived a jar of pickles.
During that time, he had a nightmare that he would never tell Oja. He dreamt that he was summoned by God, who looked exactly like Albert Einstein but highly illuminated. God asked him: ‘Why did you get married?’
Ayyan answered earnestly, ‘To have sex any time of the day or night.’
God looked at him with a thoughtful face for an instant, and then the creases of a smile appeared. The smile became a laugh and the laugh burst into echoes. Men and women on the streets, too, looked at Ayyan and laughed uncontrollably. People who were dangling from the doors of a local train threw their heads back and laughed. The motorman stopped the train to laugh. Fish-sellers in the market covered their mouths and laughed. Even the framed portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru held his stomach and laughed until the rose fell from his buttonhole. Then Ayyan saw the face of his beautiful wife on a giant public hoarding, so embarrassed and so elegantly distraught by it all. That wraith woke him up because he could not bear to see her like that.
When he realized it was just a dream he turned to her sleeping figure and hugged her. Though her eyes were shut, she accepted the embrace hungrily as though she too had arrived at the same scene in her own dreams.
At the school gates, Ayyan feasted on modern young mothers. Their faces were still youthful, loose flesh shuddered inside their small tops like water in the immoral pink beds of Tamil films; their trousers were aghast at the tightness of it all and their asymmetric panty-lines were like birds in the sky drawn by a careless cartoonist. These days many young mothers wore long skirts too. They looked nice, he thought. In the chawls, mothers never wore skirts. Two years ago, misled by aspiration, a woman had tried. By the time she reached the broken cobbled ways, so many people had laughed at her, so many eyes had judged her intent, that she ran back home, made peace with her fate and returned in a salwar.
In the mornings, the air was somewhat tense around the school gates. Boys in whites and girls in blue pinafores walked away from their parents with unhappy faces. In the evenings, they ran happily towards the gates, the way earthquake survivors in this country might run towards the BBC correspondent.
Ayyan inspected his son. Adi was in a white shirt and shorts. And smart black boots. His bag, oversized for a boy of just ten, was in his father’s hand. The sight of the calm studious boy comforted him. And the secret game that they were playing, the mother of all games, filled Ayyan once again with anticipation. That’s all he asked from life some days, the exhilaration of anticipation.
The solitary guard, in the khaki uniform and cap he was forced to wear, was looking at the backs of the departing young mothers as though his wife was morally superior. He gave a friendly nod to Ayyan, almost nudging him with his eyes to pay attention to one very fleshy young mother. Ayyan ignored him. He always did because he wanted the guard to know that they were not equals, that he must respect him the way he hurriedly saluted the fathers who arrived in cars. But the guard knew that he did not have to concede.
The principal was a tough Salesian matron. Her veil rested on half her scalp. She had a thick volatile face and severe eyes. She was square and muscular, and the calves that showed beneath the habit sported wiry hair. Her name was Sister Chastity.
Jesus Christ, with a crown of thorns on his head, surveyed the room morosely with a hand on his visible heart, which was on fire. The principal was environmentally conscious (uncharacteristically for a Catholic matriarch). Her table was littered with articles made out of paper and other recycled things. ‘Everything in this woman’s room was once something else,’ Ayyan had told Oja after he first met Sister Chastity.
‘So, we meet again,’ Sister Chastity said unhappily, pointing Ayyan to a chair. She usually spoke to him in Hindi with a faint Malayalee accent. ‘How come the mother never comes when there is trouble?’ she asked.
‘She is scared of you and very ashamed of the boy.’
‘Where is Adi? Already in class?’
There was an uncomfortable silence, because Sister Chastity wanted it. She then said, ‘Mr Mani, I don’t know if your son makes me happy or sad. When he is asked to do addition, he talks about things that boys many years his senior do not even understand. He wants to know about the speed of light and the acceleration due to gravity and things like that. Obviously, he is some sort of a genius and we have to nurture him. He is very special. But his conduct in school, the way he blurts out things in the middle of class, questions the authority of his teachers, you know, we cannot tolerate these things.’
‘I am going to make sure that he behaves. It’s hard to control him but I am going to make sure he is disciplined.’
‘Discipline. That’s the word. And that’s all there is to education.’
When it looked as if the meeting were over, she pushed two books towards Ayyan. They were about the life of Christ. ‘My small effort, as usual, to bring you closer to the Lord,’ she said, with a smile. Her eyes grew kind.
‘I love Christ,’ Ayyan said softly.
‘Why don’t you accept him?’
‘I accept him.’
‘Accept him in a formal way, I mean. There is no compulsion, obviously. We never compel. As you know, the fee waiver and other small things we can offer, purely as a concession laid out for financially backward Christians, will benefit you immensely.’
‘I am giving it some thought. I am trying to convince my family. You know, there is this mindset against conversion.’
‘I know, I know. The human mind is so ignorant,’ Sister Chastity said. She held him with her deep hard eyes. She loved pauses. With nothing more than silence she usually asked him either to leave, or stay right there. This silence now was the calm before a sermon.
‘Mr Mani,’ she said, ‘in a way, you are a good Christian.’
‘You are, Mr Mani. How beautifully you’ve forgiven the people who brutalized your forefathers. The Brahmins, the kind of things they did. The things they do even now. In private, they still call you the Untouchables, do you know that? In public they call you “Dalits”, but in private they call you such horrible things.’
‘I know,’ Ayyan said, trying to appear angry and moved, because that was what she wanted.
‘Hinduism is like that, Mr Mani. It has the upper castes and it has the Dalits. The Brahmins and the Untouchables. That can never change. People only pretend that it has changed.’
‘You speak the truth, Sister. The Brahmins ruined my life even before I was born. My grandfather was not allowed to enter his village school. They beat him up when he tried once. If he had gone to school, my life would have been better.’
‘Absolutely,’ she said. ‘Tell me, Mr Mani, in the great institute where you work, all the scientists are Brahmins?’
‘And all the peons are Dalits?’
‘But that’s not because the Brahmins are smarter than the Dalits,’ she said.
‘No,’ Ayyan said, now allowing himself to be somewhat engulfed by rage even though that was what Sister Chastity wanted. ‘The Brahmins were three thousand years in the making, Sister. Three thousand years. At the end of those cursed centuries, the new Brahmins arrived in their new vegetarian worlds, wrote books, spoke in English, built bridges, preached socialism and erected a big unattainable world. I arrived as another hopeless Dalit in a one-room home as the son of a sweeper. And they expect me to crawl out of my hole, gape at what they have achieved, and look at them in awe. What geniuses.’
‘What geniuses,’ she whispered angrily.
‘They are murderers,’ Ayyan said, noticing that she smiled exactly like him. Invisibly.
‘That’s why you’re a good Christian, Mr Mani. You’ve forgiven them, the Brahmins, whose great fiction Hinduism is.’
‘I have not forgiven them,’ Ayyan said, ‘and you know that. I have long renounced Hinduism. I am a Buddhist.’
‘Mr Mani,’ she said with a tired face, pushing the two books she had gifted further down the table towards him, ‘Hinduism, Buddhism—all the same thing.’
Even though Ayyan was late for work that morning, it was inevitable that he would stand in front of the blackboard in the porch of the Institute of Theory and Research. It was a morning ritual that always cooled the fever in his chest. THOUGHT FOR THE DAY, the blackboard said in indelible white ink. Under it was an ephemeral thought, written in chalk:
God does not play dice—Albert Einstein
Ayyan took a duster from the top of the blackboard and erased Einstein’s famously abridged message. Then he pretended to look into a paper, just in case somebody was watching. And he wrote:
It’s a myth that Sanskrit is the best language for writing computer code. Patriotic Indians have spread this lie for many years—Bill Gates
Bill Gates never said that. Some days, Ayyan invented quotes that insulted Indian culture, that exclusive history of the Brahmins. Nobody remembered when exactly Ayyan was assigned the task of writing the Thought For The Day or by whom. But he did it, without fail, every day. Most days he wrote genuine quotes. Some days he had fun.
He took the lift and travelled in the carefully maintained silence of three sweet-smelling elderly scientists who were lost in very deep, expensive thoughts. He got off at the third floor and walked down an almost interminable corridor that was jokingly described here as ‘finite’. The corridor was flanked by numbered doors. Behind every door a great mind sat, and in between solving the mysteries of the universe, some of them were hoping that one man died. Things were getting a bit tense. A war was brewing. Everybody knew it here as The Giant Ear Problem.
At the far end of the corridor was a door that said ‘Director’. It opened to a commodious anteroom, almost as large as Ayyan’s home. He yawned as he sat in a nook behind a monitor, three telephones and a paranormal fax machine that suddenly came to life with the furtive whisper of a secret. Facing him across the width of the room was a seasoned black leather sofa, now vacant but with the irreparable depressions of long waits. Between his table and the sofa ran a short corridor that led to the door that announced its infernal occupant—Arvind Acharya.
Ayyan looked at the door without fear and dialled a number. ‘I am sorry I am late, Sir,’ he said. ‘Any instructions for me?’ The line went dead, as expected. Ayyan put the receiver down and calmly studied his fingers.
A peon walked in and filled the anteroom with the faint odour of jaggery. Some peons had that smell. He dropped a thick wad of papers on the table.
‘For the Big Man,’ he said softly, throwing a nervous glance at the inner door.
Ayyan flipped through the pages of the material and chuckled. It was yet another epic analysis of cosmic observations by a visiting researcher. This one tried to prove that a distant object was indeed a White Dwarf.
‘What is this, Mani?’ the peon asked with sudden curiosity. ‘Do you ever understand these things that land on your table?’
‘I do, my friend, I do,’ Ayyan said, and tried to think of a way to explain. ‘The chap who has written this is trying to say that an object far far away in space is a type of star.’
‘That’s it?’ the peon said, almost angrily.
‘Yes, that’s it. And this type of a star has a name,’ Ayyan said. ‘White Dwarf.’ That made the peon giggle.
‘One year later,’ Ayyan whispered, ‘another man will say, “No no, it is not a White Dwarf, it is a Brown Dwarf.” A year later, someone else will say, “No no, it is not a Brown Dwarf, it is not a star at all, it is a planet.” Then they will argue over whether it is a rocky planet or a gaseous planet and whether there is water out there. That’s the game, my friend, that’s exactly the game.’
The peon covered his mouth with his hand and giggled again, partly from lack of comprehension.
‘You are such a clever man, Mani,’ he said. ‘If only you had the fathers that these men had, you would have had a room of your own today with your own secretary.’
‘There are bigger things in life than that,’ Ayyan said. ‘See where I go.’
The main door outside opened, startling the peon who always stood erect when surprised. Murmurs from the corridor filled the room like fresh air. Jana Nambodri, the convivial deputy director of the institute and a radio astronomer who was incurably infatuated with corduroy trousers, stood in the doorway holding the door open. ‘Good morning,’ he said cheerfully. His hair always distracted Ayyan. It was a silver tidal wave that lent him an amicable flamboyance. And he had a long benevolent face that clever women usually mistrusted.
There was always a quiet dignity about Nambodri, something very calm, even though he was at the heart of The Giant Ear Problem. He wanted to scan the skies with radio telescopes and search for alien signals, but Arvind Acharya would not let him.
‘I believe he has come,’ Nambodri said, making eyes at the inner door in a conspiratorial way.
‘Yes he is inside, Sir, but he has asked me not to disturb him for thirty minutes,’ Ayyan lied. He never missed the slightest chance to cause the smallest misery to a Brahmin. Nambodri stared at the floor for a moment and left.
‘There is something happening here, Mani,’ the peon said. ‘My chaps are telling me that something big is going to happen. Things have been very tense. Old men are speaking in whispers in the corridor. What i–––s it?’
‘War of the Brahmins,’ Ayyan said. ‘That’s what is going to happen. It’s going to be fun.’
‘War? What war?’
Ayyan studied his fingers thoughtfully. ‘It’s like this,’ he said slowly. ‘Some men here want to search for aliens in space by using something called a radio telescope. They think we might receive messages from life forms in outer space. But the Big Man inside says they are talking rubbish. He won’t let them search for aliens that way. He says there is only one way to search for aliens—his way.’
‘And what is his way?’
‘He says aliens are as small as germs. They are falling all the time from the heavens to the Earth. So he wants to send a balloon up and capture them.’
‘That’s it?’ the peon whispered.
‘Yes, that’s it,’ Ayyan said.