Do You See?
My short story “A New House for Mr. Abbas” is pasted below. Featured on LANGUAGE>PLACE>BLOG CARNIVAL # 15 — Encountering the Other — hosted by writer-editor ABHA IYENGAR. There’s a pic to go with it. Take a gander.
“A New House for Mr. Abbas” By Nabina Das
Mr. Abbas had been screaming for the last hour. God, what’s wrong with the people of Delhi these days? Earlier, he never had to stand on the mason’s head to get a tiny bit of work done. Plastering a small wall and doing something nice with it.
“Scrape the surface unless it is as smooth as your bottom! First the primer, then the paint. First the primer, then the paint,” he said, and added “you rascal” silently.
But it appeared that the likes of Abu, an unskilled villager, were not at all used to picking up a concrete mixer, a brick trowel or an industrial paintbrush. Let alone construct, Abu seemed to know nothing about basic home repairs. The house that Mr. Abbas lived in was at least a quarter of a century old. He had moved to this affluent South Delhi neighborhood of Hauz Khas in 1981 after his parents’ death. Huge leafy Gulmohar trees sheltered a park facing the bungalow-type house with red roof tiles. The gated neighborhood opened up to a tree-lined street. A few meters down the road stood a small shopping complex, a two-year-old lopsided election poster reading “India Shining” still adorning the top of its entrance. Mr. Abbas was happy living here, more or less. Just that his recent project was needling him. Abu, an eighteen- or nineteen-year old mason given to profuse scratching of his head as he spoke, looked a bit confused. “I know, I know, your backside isn’t smooth,” Mr. Abbas wanted to taunt him. But that would be too much. How could Rashid Abbas, sixty-plus and well groomed, say such a thing? But does that matter anyway? All Mr. Abbas wanted is re-plastering and re-painting the garage wall of his home. That’s it. Not building a Taj Mahal.
“What?” Mr. Abbas felt sweat drops of exasperation falling down the bridge of his aquiline nose causing his bifocals to slip downwards. That caused his upper cheek muscles to flex in an attempt to hold up the eyeglasses. His square face became a hexagon in that process.
“Saar, I wasn’t sure if to scrape down the entire wall.”
Abu scratched his back with the trowel, where the shirt was torn. His soiled trousers on which spots of dry old cement formed a strange design were torn in places. His hair was the color of ginger peel, probably from too much sun and the lack of washing.
Seemingly alarmed at his employer’s annoyed look, Abu now scratched his unshaven jaw gone chalky with cement dust.
“Is that what you want, saar?” The mason repeated.
Of course Mr. Abbas wanted that, to scrape down the entire face of the wall. That’s what he has been explaining to this nincompoop. What a waste of the early summer morning. And for Mr. Abbas, a recently retired government official, it was absolutely important that he enjoyed his morning tea and newspaper as long as the breeze remained cool and fresh.
“Okay, I won’t repeat, Abu Mian.” He menacingly pulled up his five-foot-four frame.
From his former government job, Mr. Abbas knew how to appear intimidating. He knew that workers like Abu came from far-flung villages. Everyday Mr. Abbas read in the newspapers that farmers were drinking pesticides, artisans losing their livelihood, and folk artists becoming petty laborers in the cities. Among them, some also learned vices like smoking cigarettes – not bidis – watching asinine Bollywood movies, and prying on old retired people. All wannabe city-folks. So what if all of them lived in squalid slums and wore made-in-China watches and cheap T-shirts that said ‘Top Gun’ or ‘Fight Club’.
Very patiently, Mr. Abbas retraced the details of the garage wall repair. Although the whole house resembled a molding cake and could use some repairs, scraping down the garage wall and giving it a makeover would at least make the façade look better. Finished with instructing, Mr. Abbas straightened his dark gray trousers, thumped away imaginary dust from his spotless white shirt front, and settled down in his chair on the porch. His eyes squiggled over the morning newspaper. The stuff they write in the newspapers these days! Makes his blood pressure climb Mount Everest. Apart from dirty political squabbles and corporate rivalry stories, there are accounts of unrests and communal clashes. In fact, even his posh neighborhood with its clean roads, the latest car-driving populace and up-market residential homes was slightly tense these days. Now, who wanted to live in a situation where life could be held hostage by mad terrorists and equally mad politicians? Not Mr. Abbas. But before he planned his ideal retirement in London, he must set a few things straight here. That was the reason why he decided on re-doing his old garage wall in a v-e-r-y special way. Too bad it was taking Abu long to understand this was no ordinary masonry job, but something more refined and exalted.
Something that’d ensure that Abu Mian was really lucky, to be the chosen mason. For Abu would need to chisel a design on the wall and paint it. A design Mr. Abbas thought that came to him like a sign. He hadn’t ever thought of it earlier, he couldn’t. But thoughts change, as does time. Impatiently flicking his wrists holding the morning newspaper, Mr. Abbas stared towards the wall that was an almost square side of the garage that housed the old white Premier 118NE he had bought in the late 1980s. The garage itself was located to the right of his three-bedroom house where he lived alone. Wife Fauzia had died four years ago and Roshan, his management professional son, lived abroad.
“Saar, saar, were you telling me to inscribe this on the garage wall?”
What does this worthless man want now? Abu was pointing to a sheet of paper on the table in front of Mr. Abbas.
“What?” Mr. Abbas was indeed angry now.
“Saar, I can’t read this, I can read only Hindi. Saar, if you can kindly tell me what’s written here saar … ” Abu droned on.
Oh, that’s right! Abu can’t read the language of the Holy Book. Wait, so, this means, others too would not be able to read this verse. Which means, his purpose would totally be defeated for no one would know what was inscribed on the wall. Ah! Problem averted on time. But Mr. Abbas decided to show his annoyance.
“You pathetic slob, what’s your worth if you can’t read a sacred verse? Did your parents never send you to a religious teacher?”
“I’m an orphan sir.” Abu said, standing gaunt and scratching his chin with the chisel. “I read and write Hindi because Govind uncle used to hold free classes in my village. He took me in saar. My parents died since I was three, saar. Govind uncle told me I was called Abu by my parents.”
“Oh, stop, will you?” Mr. Abbas was exasperated. More at the mention of this ‘Govind uncle’ than Abu’s whining. What a shame. What a shame. Which means, Abu would’t even understand the meaning of the verse.
“What a shame. What a shame,” Mr. Abbas kept saying aloud.
At the same time he thought quickly – since the objective was to have everyone read the wall inscription, even English wouldn’t be a good choice. Hindi it is then. He sat down with a sheet and quickly wrote down from memory the sublime verse in large letters of the Hindi alphabet.
“Here! Now get it done and don’t disturb me. I’d have finished reading the newspaper but for you.”
Abu slowly read the Hindi version, gave a satisfied nod, and went back to finish scraping, humming a film tune.
“Don’t sing. What you’re writing on the wall is very important, and very holy. No singing while doing that.”
The unkempt young man nodded sheepishly. Mr. Abbas observed him as his trowel and chisel worked in tandem. The boy wasn’t bad. He could train to become better. As the letters took shape, Mr. Abbas knew why he wanted to do this. He wasn’t able to tell anyone the reason yet. Not even his friend and neighbor Manohar.
“Rashid, ey Rashid, what’s going on?”
Think of the devil and he’s here. Mr. Abbas sat up hurriedly. He had slept off for a while. The newspaper lay on his lap in a discarded heap. His eyeglasses had slipped on a thick trickle of sweat to hang precariously on the far end of the bridge of his nose. His near-bald head was warm from the sun that had shifted from the eastern eve of his home and hovered somewhere in between the sky.
“What’s with all this cement and bricks?” The cynical voice now climbed up the stairs at the façade of the house, heavy-footed. “Are you pulling down the garage? Selling your car? Moving?”
Gosh, Manohar Arora is a mobile questionnaire! Mr. Abbas winced. Although Mr. Arora, a sixty-three-year-old tall man with jaunty strides, didn’t ever drink water in his friend’s house citing health reasons asking for water to be specially treated, etc. etc. (which Mr. Abbas suspected to be a pack of lies), he almost never left without drinking tea. A bit of a crook he was, this Manohar. Drove a car with a “Jai Shri Ram” bumper sticker. Fought with him on India-Pakistan cricket matches and the need for all-night prayer meetings on the public address system – those infamous Delhi “jagarans”. Always sniggering at everyone other than his own type. Even accused Mr. Abbas of becoming fanatical these days. But Saturday morning tea, Sunday afternoon chess – with Mr. Abbas. The routine never failed.
“Had your mid-morning tea, Rashid?” Mr. Arora bellowed again.
“Ah, don’t scream Manohar, I’m not deaf like you. No, tea will come.”
Mr. Abbas saw Abu was done only with the first coat of plaster. He was slow, this village buffoon. Thumbing up the glasses between his eyes, he scrutinized his friend. Mr. Arora was wearing a faint ‘teeka’ of white sandalwood paste on his broad oval forehead. The fragrance of incense stick wrapped his sparse gray hair slick from bath on his large round Muppety head.
“Sit, Manohar.” He pushed forward a chair. “This bum’s helping me repair the garage wall. I was wondering for a long time how I could make it look nicer, you know, maybe make a design, write a nice line on the wall.”
“What line? Like ‘a thing of beauty is a joy forever’?” The caustic neighbor cleared his throat in a chain of “eh-eh-eh” sound, seemingly finding the idea amusing. “By the way, please remind that cook of yours not to get me any pastries. He forgets I don’t eat eggs.”
Depositing his flip-flops by a pillar, Mr. Arora plunged himself into the garden chair, carefully lifting with both hands his impeccable white ‘kurta’ so as not to crush it.
“Hey, what’s this?” He picked up the sheet lying on the table in front of him. “What kind of writing is this? An Urdu poem? Persian?”
“Let that be, let that be.” Mr. Abbas snatched it off his hand. It was the original verse he wanted Abu to work on.
“What is it?” Mr. Arora looked surprised. “Now, now, Rashid … I’m not ridiculing you for reading or writing poetry in secret. People do all kind of things in old age, worse stuff, in fact …”
“Saar, Abbas saar was reciting it in his sleep!” At this point Abu butted in, his teeth doused with cement soot. “I didn’t understand any of it, saar, so he wrote it down in Hindi. Here, saar.”
“Ah, translating poems! So what’s the shame, Rashid?”
Mr. Abbas was angry, very angry. This moron who had no education, no etiquette, no job skills and no religious integrity whatsoever, was giving him away to Manohar.
“Reciting classical poetry in sleep? Is this potential insurgent right, Rashid?”
Even that joke irked Mr. Abbas. But Mr. Arora was unstoppable. The latter picked up Abu’s sheet, and started reading the Hindi verse in a slight nasal intonation, rocking his large head back and forth.
Mr. Abbas listened, slowly calming down. No jokes, how much Mr. Abbas would miss his sanguine neighbor if he were to go away.
A phone ring inside the living room forced Mr. Abbas to get up. His friend stopped reading.
“To have that up on the wall will take me two days’ payment. I’ve to tell him that.” Abu said, gesturing at Mr. Abbas’ direction, who could see from the doorway Mr. Arora was mulling something. Something heaved inside his chest.
He barked a Hello into the phone’s receiver.
“Did Jamshed serve you those pastries again?” Mr. Abbas emerged after fifteen minutes, red in the face. “I’m going to bludgeon him.”
Something had agitated him.
“Oh, I haven’t touched any, luckily. Who was on the phone?”
“From London? He normally calls at night. Is everything okay?”
“I don’t want to go, Manohar!” Suddenly Mr. Abbas’ voice turned heavy. “I don’t want a new house in London.”
He began crying. Loud enough even to startle Abu.
Roshan had called to tell his father that as per his earlier orders he was buying a house in a locality befitting his retired father’s aptitude. A house with a lawn, a garden and a garage with remote controlled doors. A house surrounded by suitable neighbors. From Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Turkey, even Chechnya! Roshan was fulfilling his father’s desire, never mind that he hated that neighborhood.
“I’d feel so alien there. Past sixty, one needs continuity … and not … not want to be a sociological experiment! How can I tell Roshan that?” He bawled.
He bawled about people whose languages he didn’t understand, whose jokes he didn’t share or whose food he’d little care to sample. He bawled at the fear of losing his chess partner Manohar; the Abus of the world who’d rather earn money through honest labor; Mrs. Arora’s semolina halwa and masala chai, and Manohar again to argue with, to laugh with and tell his sorrows to. What would he do in a gray London suburb where zealots might be worse than those at home? Did the Almighty design a test for him at this age? Mr. Abbas sobbed and sobbed.
“Ah, look Rashid,” Mr. Arora stuttered. “Surely, you don’t have to go if you don’t want to. Tell Roshan.”
That’s right. Not too late.
“Can you believe Roshan really took me seriously?”
“So it’s his fault? You always criticized his lack of religiosity. Always told him that he lived in immoral surroundings.”
“All fathers say things to young godless sons.” Mr. Abbas was still inconsolable. “I’ve seen you yell at Mahesh for not coming with you for the Vaishno Devi yatra…”
“Calm down now,” Mr. Arora interrupted, typically, not ready to be accused. “More tea? Jamshed –”
Like a genie, Mr. Abbas’ cook Jamshed appeared with tea and samosas. Mr. Abbas slumped into his chair, wiped his glasses, and took out the sheet of paper kept in his pocket.
“I won’t write this on my garage wall Manohar.” Mr. Abbas whined like a reluctant child being sent to school. “And I won’t go to the new house in London.”
Noticing that Abu, who had long stopped mixing cement, was curiously eyeing the duo, Mr. Arora barked: “Hey, you! Doesn’t mean you don’t plaster the wall. Finish it up boy, fast!”
Mr. Abbas, who was sitting upright for a while and had his eyes partly closed, saw his Muppety neighbor glance at the table at the other sheet.
“Know what Rashid? This poem makes so much sense. But by Jove, do you have to always translate everything into Arabic? Or vice versa? You fanatics, I tell you.”
Mr. Arora read on, rocking his large head.
What a Muppet, thought Mr. Abbas, ready to forgive his eccentric friend.