The latch screeched on its slow way down, then opened with a loud click. The door moved inwards, a dark slit appearing between its edge and the doorframe, but it did not open. Naresh Kumar fumed as he waited but the door stood in place, quivering, the hinges creaking with every microscopic motion.
‘Open it,’ Naresh called.
He needed to remind the CPWD maintenance office again to send someone to oil the hinges, he thought. When there is a nephew who needs a job, or a word to be put in for a promotion, they come running to me, but when there is work to be done in my house, there is always an excuse.
‘What happened?’ he asked, louder this time. ‘Why aren’t you opening the door?’ He juggled his briefcase and the plastic bag overflowing with vegetables in a bid to get one hand free. Finally, he pushed against the door with his shoulder, a little harder than necessary, and it swung open.
‘Just coming,’ said Arti from the kitchen. ‘My bhindi is burning.’
‘Why did you lock the door?’
‘Praveen has gone out somewhere,’ came the voice from the kitchen. ‘I’m alone in the house.’
Naresh walked to the dining table and dropped the plastic bag on it. The impact dislodged a lemon and three green chillies. The chillies lay where they fell, but the lemon rolled off the side of the table and down onto the floor, continuing on its merry way till it found a final resting place under the large fridge that stood just outside the kitchen. Naresh looked down, as if expecting the lemon to come rolling back out. Just one hour ago, he thought, he was in his chamber at the department, a place where people knew that he, Naresh Kumar, was the gatekeeper to Mr Asthana’s office, an office where deals and contracts worth millions and billions of rupees were made and broken. And now here he was, having to go down on his knees and retrieve a lemon that had brazenly disregarded his status and decided to settle in an unreachable corner of the room. He took a deep breath – the air was redolent with slightly burnt okra – and turned and walked to the sofa.
‘I need to talk to you about something,’ said Arti, coming out of the kitchen. ‘It’s important.’
She was still attractive, Naresh thought, looking at the woman he had married more than twenty-five years ago.
Layers of fat had appeared below her chin and on her midriff. Her arms jiggled as she walked. But the face that had fascinated him in those first few years was still there.
‘Listen,’ he said, collecting himself, ‘I’m really fed up of carrying bags and bags of vegetables. We need a servant in the house, someone who can go to the market and get all this. We aren’t that young any more.’
‘You might be old,’ she said, flopping down on the chair next to him, ‘but I’m young enough not to want a boy loitering around the house all the time.’
‘Uff,’ said Naresh, shutting his eyes.
‘And don’t say we can get a girl, because we are not going to get a girl,’ said Arti. ‘Forget all that. I have something important to tell you.’
‘What is it now?’ asked Naresh, leaning back into the sofa. The exposed wooden frame hit his shoulder blade.
Sitting back up, he glared at the sofa. With its richly polished wooden frame and tasteful paisley upholstery, this one large piece of furniture – bought after the only time Arti had been invited to Mr Asthana’s expensively decorated home – dominated an otherwise quiet room’s Formica-topped side table and government-issue wicker chairs. ‘This sofa is worthless. Thirty thousand rupees and a tired man can’t get any rest on it.’
‘Leave the sofa alone,’ said Arti. ‘Everyone admires it. You should have seen Shanta’s eyes widen when she saw it. Where did you get it? How much was it for? She kept running her hands over the wood.’
‘What did you tell her?’
‘What would I tell her?’ said Arti. ‘I said it was from a shop in Ghitorni. It cost thirty thousand rupees.’
‘Your stupidity is going to destroy us one day,’ said Naresh, in a tone more resigned than angry. ‘Where does Shanta think we got the money for it? Here I am, still riding my old scooter all over the city when I could easily buy one of those big cars, just so the neighbours don’t suspect anything, and you go around telling everyone that our sofa costs thirty thousand rupees. What next? Will you also tell them how many houses we own and how much land? How much jewellery you have in the locker and what it’s worth? I haven’t collected all this so that you can show off to your friends. It is there to secure our future, not to be put on display.’
‘Okay, okay,’ said Arti. ‘There is no need for a long lecture. And let Shanta think what she wants. Her husband is not washed in milk either.’
‘That’s true,’ said Naresh, smiling at the thought of Shanta’s husband, or himself, bathing in milk. The impromptu inventory of the assets he had collected over the years had put him in a good mood.
‘Listen,’ she said, ‘will you let me say what I wanted to say? There is something important.’
‘More important than giving your tired husband his evening cup of tea?’ asked Naresh. ‘Or do you want me to make it myself? Maybe I can make you a cup too. One teaspoon sugar, or are you trying to lose weight again?’
‘Sorry, sorry,’ said Arti, getting up in a hurry. ‘How stupid of me.’
‘That’s what I was also saying,’ said Naresh. ‘You are very stupid.’
Arti looked down at her husband. His trousers were fraying at the edges. This pair has to be discarded, she thought. When he slouched his stomach pushed his shirt upwards in an unseemly manner. She smiled. Then she leant forward, bringing her face close to his. ‘If you talk too much nonsense,’ she said, ‘I’ll put salt in your tea instead of sugar.’
‘Go get my tea,’ said Naresh imperiously. He was also smiling. When Arti returned, two cups of tea in hand, her face was grave. ‘Listen,’ she said. ‘It is a serious matter.’
‘What is it?’
‘Shanta came over this afternoon.’
‘You already told me that,’ said Naresh, taking a sip of his tea.
‘She was saying that her brother, you know, that Anil who she had suggested should marry our Seema …’
‘Useless fellow. I wouldn’t marry my worst enemy’s daughter to him.’
‘Anil saw Praveen,’ said Arti, moving to the edge of the chair as she delivered this fact.
‘Saw Praveen?’ said Naresh. ‘So what? I see Praveen everyday. I can go into his room right now and see him, snoring loudly as always.’
‘I told you he has gone out. That’s why I am telling you this now. Anil saw Praveen at the new mall in Saket. Shanta said that Anil was going to go and say hello to him when he saw that he was sitting there with some girl. A foreigner girl. Praveen was sitting in the mall with a foreigner girl.’
‘So what?’ said Naresh, exaggerating the irritation in his voice to hide his growing apprehension. ‘In this call centre business all the clients are in foreign countries anyway.’
‘The clients are in foreign countries,’ said Arti. ‘What are foreigners doing here?’
‘Sometimes foreigners also come to India. Maybe she works in his company.’
‘Listen to the whole thing first,’ said Arti. ‘Anil said that he was standing there trying to decide whether to say hello to Praveen or not. Just then a man came up to the table where Praveen was sitting. He sat down at the table and handed something over to Praveen. Praveen got up, leaving the girl and the man together, and walked away. He walked straight past Anil. He didn’t even look at him.’
Naresh put his tea down. His right hand rose to his chin, fingers grazing over the light stubble that had emerged in the course of the day. ‘So?’
‘So? Just shut your eyes to the truth. Maybe it will become a lie.’
‘I am not the one who is trying to make the truth a lie,’ said Naresh, his voice rising. ‘It’s that Anil who is lying.’
‘Why would he lie?’
‘We rejected his proposal for our daughter, didn’t we?’
‘That was many years ago. He is happily married now.’
‘In fact, he has one son already running around the house and another child on the way. Our daughter, on the other hand, can’t even …’
‘Can’t what?’ snapped Naresh, anger flooding his face. ‘She can. And she will. You may not think she will. But I know she will.’
‘You’re right,’ Arti said softly. ‘She will.’
The contrition in her voice, so rarely heard, drained the anger out of Naresh. He hesitated for a moment, then said, ‘What were you saying about Anil?’
‘No, I was just saying that Anil has no reason to lie about this.’ The diffidence in her voice was her way of thanking her husband for accepting her unsaid apology.
‘Does he even have a job that can pay for his family?’ asked Naresh, signalling a return to normalcy by deliberately speaking in the querulous voice used for everyday arguments.
‘Yes, he does,’ said Arti, gratitude replaced with combativeness as she settled back into the argument over Anil’s credibility. ‘In a big company. It’s a respectable job. Everyone has a respectable job except our son. Everyone goes to work at nine in the morning and leaves work at five-thirty, but our maharaja goes to work at ten at night and comes back at seven in the morning. God knows what he does all night, what kind of women he goes to the mall with and what else he does while we are sleeping.’
‘You don’t complain when he buys you gifts. He eats off my salary and buys his mother expensive earrings with his own.’
‘The same raag again …’ Arti said, her right hand rising involuntarily to her ear to touch the earring in question.
‘Listen to what I am saying. Our son is getting involved in all kinds of things. If this continues, something bad will happen.’
‘You should have thought about that when he was a child. Always spoiling him, buying him everything he asked for. I told you then that he will grow up not valuing anything. He will think that everything in life comes easily. I told you hundreds of times. But you didn’t listen. My darling son! My only son! My beautiful son! Now you take care of your son.’
‘And what have you been doing?’ said Arti, the pitch of her voice rising further. ‘I told you when he was finishing college, find him a proper job. Am I the only one who has to worry about him? What about your responsibility as his father? Have you forgotten your responsibility?’
Naresh put his cup down on the table. He stood up and walked to the fridge, opened it, looked inside, then slammed the door shut. Turning back, he said in a low quivering voice: ‘I have not forgotten my responsibility. I have never forgotten my responsibility.’
Arti rose from the sofa and walked up to him. She put her hand on his shoulder. ‘Don’t get angry,’ she said in a soothing voice. ‘I didn’t mean …’
Naresh brushed her hand off his shoulder. ‘I know what you meant.’
Arti smiled and cupped his right cheek in her recently spurned hand. ‘You have always provided for me. You have never forgotten your responsibility.’
‘Hnnh!’ But he didn’t remove her hand.
‘Will you do something about this?’
‘I will. Let me see what I can do.’