"The Neighbors" by Pravinsinh Chavda, translated by Mira Desai

Note: This is the second of three Pravinsinh Chavda stories Mira Desai has been kind enough to send our way. To read the first one, "Instantly" and/or Mira's introduction, click here.

The Neighbors

Both families lived in similar, adjacent houses, but Kanchanben believed that the similarity was forced by circumstance. She, for one, had climbed down several flights at the large bungalow near the polytechnic to reach this two-bedroom tenement. While they had probably vacated a nameless chawl or a tiny, single-room dwelling in the area across the river to reach this humble rowhouse, climbing up not merely a step or two, but several floors in the process. The first few days passed in a daze-as if after a serious accident- but later they began to revel in their circumstances after a fashion. New surroundings and new people seemed to bring the same kind of delight as reading a book with a different literary style. She’d drag Isha from whatever she was reading, and place her before the kitchen window. See! The appearance of a guest retinue at that house nearby. Watch quietly. A couple riding double-seat on a cycle, but just see their enthusiasm! That woman’s worn her saree in the marwari style. Ok! Now here’s an exam. Without asking anyone, just by observation, decode which of the camel’s eyes is missing?

These brief moments of hilarity were not limited to that family alone. She had become happy-go-lucky; every night she’d recount the day’s tales and make Isha laugh. She’d get off the bus and take a dusty route through the fields, wiping a trickle of sweat, and watching this, some village woman standing by the fields would smile and say, “Lo, the lady is drenched without a drop of rain”. Far from the city, small houses had been arranged in a grid amidst fields- but in the way that even a paper tree implanted in the ground bears root, a few essential services had cropped up. At the corner where the housing society began, a tea stall and panwallah had surfaced, and some vest- clad men could be found there, all hours of the day. Right from dawn, guttural sounds like that of the buffalo family could be heard. Every afternoon, when hawkers would drop by to sell fifty-paise or a rupee worth of red-yellow ice fruit, doors and windows would quickly open and unkempt women dressed in a blouse-skirt attire would rush out to relish this modern fruit. The bangle seller, the balloon seller- each had their schedules. Kanchanben would gravely explain the economics of these, and also explain the meaning of candy floss. Everything is in a state of transition in this country. The wheels of fortune surely turn, but here they turn with a little more energy. See that? That old man is seated on the porch outside his son’s tiny bungalow, but in the same way that he’d sit outside his mud home in the village, dhoti clad, languidly drawing upon a hookah. The son may, for all we know, now be a conductor or a section clerk in the municipality-is that a small feat? He must be a man of some measure in the village; looked up to in the community. That’s perhaps why that proud white turban worn with a flourish, adorns his head.
His wife- she must be pushing seventy! Yet she draws a respectful half-veil before her man. Her name must be Samthaben or Chanchalben. No third choice.

It was a time of freedom. She had reached this spot free of encumbrances, completely light. If we don’t laugh, don’t you know what’ll happen, o’ lass? When she’d feel particularly affectionate, she’d desert civilized language and use this word. So laugh, for you must! Let me tempt you with fresh reasons for laughter. For instance, just consider our next door neighbors. Based on whatever we spy from this window- tail, trunk or pillar-like feet- guess the animal’s shape, its nature and state of mind. You say you’ve studied deductive logic, now solve this simple puzzle-outside a home stands a Fiat circa 1962, neither can it babble nor can it hobble, what do the eyes of the lady of the house look like?
Isha would chip in with the expected reply-like a cat’s!

Every time the girl would be tempted to turn and look back, she’d lift her away with a surge of such tales. The girl was good. She wouldn’t speak about certain events. She had once stood on a chair to affix her father’s portrait on the wall, but had not waited there to weep. Sometimes in a state of stupor this wisdom would slip, and she’d remind her mother of some instance, quite unaware of the blow that she delivered. She couldn’t, for instance, get over the lemon tree in the old bungalow. It was her favorite study spot, and everything that she read there, would be magically retained. When they shifted, they’d deserted a cat and her brood of kittens. It was a precarious balance-the works of Robert Frost at one end of the fulcrum, hapless kittens at the other. Her daughter’s penchant for corners to inhabit and nest in, often tired her out. And so she’d sometimes say, even though this was somewhat exaggerated; in our days a girl your age would be a mother of four children. She’d be way too busy with her own brood to be concerned over a litter of kittens!

The kitchens of the two homes stood opposite each other. She’d pull the lines that were visible from her window, and gently tie a few knots. Until now, a total of four characters had cropped up in this television serial. There was a man and a woman, and for ease of characterization one would only have to assume that she was his wife, because her behavior was free of any wife-like devotion. Clad in a pajama and vest, the man always seemed to be pleading, or so it seemed. Would you term the woman overbearing or imposing? Think about it and give me a reply. She must have learnt to wear her hair open from those TV serials. There is a third actor- a girl of about 18- I’ll leave that one to you. Some day if you feel like playing with her, climb the compound wall and whistle to the pet. That girl seems to have inherited her façade of beauty from her mother, and everything else from her father. Whether or not she has a tongue- there is no evidence of this or the contrary. The director hasn’t allotted her any lines to speak. Whenever one spots her, she is cutting vegetables, filling water or at the clothesline.

Then she’d lower her lower her voice and say, you can’t build a play on these characters alone. There must be a fourth character in this play act. I can hear the growl of an ogre, stomping in anger, “I smell a man, I shall eat him”.

One fine day an arm reached out across the wall. Do you happen to have a lemon to spare? Kanchanben said, “Why only one lemon, help yourself to the entire grove!”.

Then the two hands played about the lemons in interesting gestures. “My sister-in-law’s husband is visiting us. He’s in the diamond trade in Navsari.” With a grimace she continued, “Our practice of gifting and largesse for sisters and daughters is never ending. We just don’t seem to be done with it! Here the quality of the water is good. I’ve just washed my hair. You, ben, teach at an English school? I had to leave school after SSC, else like you, wouldn’t I be working too? If at all you need anything, just call out. Jeera, honey, saunf- we get supplies of all of these from the village. If you’ve not stocked jeera already, shall I send across a kilo? Viraj has been telling me for long- Mummy, talk to Aunty. Mummy, introduce me to Didi, can I go and study with her? I told her, of course you can go, why not? Just to ask-if one starts a beauty parlor here, how do you think it would do? You know how it is with me. Viraj goes to college. Her father goes to the office, and Bapuji has his temple and visits to religious shrines.”

Kanchanben interrupted this tirade, “I liked the girl’s name a lot. And yours?”

“Kashmira! But her father’s name tips the balance- Chaturdas!”

Kanchanben repressed a smile and changed the topic. “What’s wrong with that name? It’s just the way you said it, that made me smile. Since you’re so beautiful and fair, it is right that your name is Kashmira, but my brother must truly be sharp to have spirited you away.”

That evening she expressed her disquiet to her daughter. “Lips, eyes, the tone, there is a great deal that is captivating about her, but that fellow Chaturchand is a simpleton- which is why the accounts don’t quite tally.”
“Ma, which accounts are you trying to balance out?”

They were exiles from their homeland and were forced to seek refuge here, but Kanchanben was clear on policy. We are different from these people. We have a higher standard of education. Our values are different. She’d forcibly light a lamp to the Gods. She’d perform rituals, and fill up the home with the fragrance of dhoop and incense. On the doorplate outside the home, large letters stood out-MA B.Ed. She’d laugh and comment. Even ghosts and dervishes would be scared if they read these. They’d not dare step in this direction. An English newspaper was an indulgence on that budget, yet it had been accommodated, and she’d hold the paper aloft and read it on the porch. There were a few books in the house, yet these had been carefully arranged so that they’d be seen from the road. There were curtains at the window, but these were not ironclad, so sometimes it was difficult to keep score, and sometimes on a holiday afternoon, a group of women would sweep in, saying, “Today we decided to have tea with you”. Like a priest officiating at a ceremony, Mummy would look very pleased with herself. This was something that Isha could see. Not far from this was another land, but that secret chamber would never be opened in the girl’s presence. Sometimes when she’d take a break from reading perhaps past one or two in the night, and come downstairs for a drink of water, she’d find the bed empty and her mother sitting on the dark porch. Isha would see this from the grill door and tiptoe away. She’d return thirsty, afraid of the interruption the clattering vessels would make.

She didn’t have to summon with a gesture. The little kitten crept over the kitchen wall one afternoon of her own accord. They fussed over her as if she were something to be wondered at. Isha stood in the center of the room, touching the statue-like girl. Mummy just look at her hair! Just look at her skin! She doesn’t speak at all. Does she have a tongue? See here! Look up- this way! When she looked up, large blue eyes could be seen. The mother and daughter duo were laughing, but at some stage their smiles slipped away. The girl was dripping with something, as if she’d just jumped out of the shelter of a pond and was standing all alone amidst the elements of nature. She stood still, not even moving her eyelashes. She had to be led to the sofa and made to sit. To explore whether or not she indeed possessed a tongue, very cleverly, insignificant questions were asked, in reply to which she made slight eye movements. C’mon say something, she was cajoled, and after a great deal of such wheedling, sounds like hmm and mmm emerged, fashioned with lips and throat.

After a few days Kanchanben was forced to announce, “Kashmiraben, we’ll have to bring down the wall! She springs across with a hoop ten times a day, and if she breaks a leg you’ll find fault and pick a fight.”

“I’m going to study with Ishaben,” she says, and rushes here. I tell her, “Go! If one sits with good people, one learns good things and picks up good values.”

Viraj would get into a bus everyday and go to study commerce in a college in some winding lane in the city. She didn’t know how to ride a cycle. She’d be surrounded by a gaggle of aunts and escorted to maybe a movie or two a year. Isha was doing her MA at the University. On her face, along with humor-lines, sometimes a line or two of sorrow would spring up, her eyes were always moist. In the home that she lived in, there were more rooms than could be physically counted or seen, and in these, she walked about, all alone. When she was studying in the 12th grade, she’d completed her arangetram. She had been to Jaipur and Bangalore with the Girl Guides. On Sunday mornings, when she’d dress for flying lessons, it would seem as if she were readying for battle.

No clash broke out between Commerce and English literature. Isha only had a small complaint. “Mummy! She doesn’t study, and doesn’t let me study. She brings in a pile of books and flings them in a corner, Ishaben your nails, Ishaben your hair, what do you wash your hair with,what do you put on your lips? What should I do to be like you? I tell her, it’s so simple, stand for a month in the glare of the sun and perform a penance so that your skin takes on a dark purple stain like mine! Mummy, she doesn’t even know about Geeta Dutt or Talat Mehmood! She asked me, “The promise of the fragrant night? What does that mean?” Now if I hear such a thing, what should I weep about? Even I wish to weep, the scented night is my head, I tell her. The scented night is my left foot. My mother starves me and thrashes me with a cane- so I weep. If you had a mother like mine, even you’d say, “Dear heart, take me far away…”. ”

Sometimes, Viraj would pull Isha’s hand- “ Ishaben, c’mon! Lets go away someplace”- quite unmindful of Kanchanben sitting there.

With a great deal of motherly affection, Kanchanben would force some snacks on Viraj’s plate. “One can count the bones on your face. I’ll have to tell Kashmiraben about this. Does she feed her daughter anything or not?” Isha would feign anger and say “Mummy, don’t keep butting in, just go! We’re reading the poetry of Robert Frost.” Kanchanben would counter, “What will this rose understand of a poem?” And Viraj would say, “This rosedey* understands everything. Don’t repair the walls. Break them down.”

After the girl would go home, she’d tell Isha, “This poor girl does not get a chance to laugh in her home”
“Why do you suppose that is so, Mummy?”
“Keep quiet. You won’t understand these things.”

Sometimes loud voices could be heard from that home. Doors would be slammed and in the kitchen, sounds of flying metal, of serving spoons and cups, could be heard. Toned muscle could be seen past the thin vest. Kanchanben would say, “It’s ok that the hair on his head is white, else Dada seems younger than Chaturbhai.” Kashmiraben would say, “All these prayers- pilgrimages. does he have an option but to work? Some deal in land here, or a flat bought and sold there- that’s how the household expenses are covered. D’you suppose this house runs on his salary?”
Bapuji could often be seen carefully wiping the motorcycle clean, rubbing it to a shine, then he’d kick it to a start and smartly drive away, Kanchanben would watch thoughtfully. Shining shoes, specs, sometimes even a T-shirt. Would any one say the old man was 62 years old?

The loud and blunt residents of the society did not believe in polite niceties. And that is why, on behalf of the entire society, the lady from house no 11, Bhavnaben, cleared the air with a minute or two of admission. I have guests at home, can I borrow half a cup of milk? And on her way out, she paid back the debt-Oh you live right next door and you don’t know?! The whole world knows this- will you believe this after its printed in the newspapers? Can’t you deduce based on the view from this window? She puts such a large vermilion mark on her forehead- as large as a rupee coin- mark me! She prances about the house with her hair worn open, whom does she do all that for, that Chaturbhai? Poor Chaturbhai lost his senses. Was that all unprompted? And the old woman- she died of a paralytic stroke- did that happen on its own?
No! I don’t have the time. No I cannot possibly sit right now, she said; and spinning around merrily she raced away and left Kanchanben leaning by the wall. “No! How can that be?”

The girl laughed loudly. And Kanchanben turned suddenly and barked, “What on earth did you find so funny?” “And what should I do if I find something funny?” Isha countered. “You don’t understand anything!” “Oh I understand everything for sure!”
“Shameless one!” she angrily grumbled, and sat by Isha. “Throw away that book. You’ve become a scholar, everyone knows that”. Then mother and daughter held each other and sat benumbed. The silent calls of the night-thieves must be chasing the girl about all day…

When Isha’s friends dropped in, their loud raucous laughter and raised voices would scare Viraj away. Kanchanben would push her into the living room. Everyone was intrigued by this quiet girl from the neighborhood. As if it were a wild multicolored bird caught from the jungle, all the girls and boys would gather surround and examine her. Did you see her hair? Look at her eyes! How cute! The boys would touch and examine her red palms and fine fingers. When she’d reach the verge of tears Isha would shoo everyone into silence, grab hold of the girl and lead her to the room upstairs. In the quiet of the room no language was necessary. They would hold on to each other and the words that emerged after the sobs would sound something like “You will take me away, won’t you, Ishaben?”
A small plot was being formulated with much intrigue by the mother-daughter duo. Sunil was a senior at Isha’s flying club. Like his compatriots, he too had scientifically examined the quality of Viraj’s hair and nails. For this research, it had been necessary to smell the girl’s head frequently. He had announced-that a human can smell so fragrant- this is something that I’ve learnt for the first time! When Sunil would visit, Viraj would rush upstairs or hide behind the door; then she’d be caught and produced like a prisoner and made to recite a few memorized lines-say that you’re not afraid. Say that you’re very confident. Sunil’s behavior was gradually moving away from laughter and teasing.

Just as suddenly, the barter of a lemon or two, of the half cups of milk stopped and the kitchen door remained shut for days on end. The ravine opposite was shrouded in mist. Viraj was not to be seen. If Kashmiraben had to visit that part of the house on some chore, she’d avert her gaze and quickly walk away. It was impossible to fathom these people. Kanchanben thought to herself with some irritation, “Why does she have to move about with such a sullen face?” The world refuses to be conquered and grovel at her feet, that’s why she is offended. Muffled voices could be heard from behind closed doors. Sometimes, Chaturbhai’s shouts could be heard. At times such as these, without any pretence at disinterest or lack of curiosity, all the neighbors would take prime positions on their porch to witness the event, and discuss openly, “The father-in-law and wife duo are mercilessly caning poor Chaturlal”.

Both the bungalows were physically identical, but the other home had many secret storage spaces and basements. Obscene animals would periodically emerge from that ugly darkness. After finishing their romp of classical dance, they’d cackle in glee, return to their dens, and then the monkey man would sweep the ground, wash his face and step out.

“Ben can you give me a 50 rupee note. I don’t have any change in the house.”

No other words were exchanged. The note was handed over. After the door closed, Kanchanben told Isha, “Did you see the layers of powder? Does she have any shame or remorse? Greed prompted that mother to come begging. But that other one? Your girl? She’s become very arrogant!”

Isha broke into a laugh. “Mummy! What are you talking about! That poor girl! What kind of pride can she have? Come, let’s take the window seat to this spectacle. See- that’s your pet there! But her eyes are red. And there’s a bruise on her face…”

Two incidents happened at about the same time. The other house had grown high walls, it was difficult to guess what was happening there. But the neighbors carried the news - they are scheming to marry off the girl, turn her out. Isha thought - it can’t be like that. In this day and age, in these times, this can’t possibly be true. She’d rush about, pace on the terrace, while away time at the kitchen door, find any excuse to loiter about on the main road, spend the entire afternoon waiting at the main bus stop. There’d be a million chores in a house with wedding festivities. There’d be shopping to do. The bride would have no option but to go out someplace, sometime! One afternoon as she was returning home after waiting for an hour and half with sweat dripping off her forehead, a postman appeared, swimming on the heat wave, and handed her a letter. Reading the words “British Council”, she almost fainted. She stood still and read the letter. Celebrations! Congrats! She’d won a British Council scholarship to do her Phd at Edinburgh University. She placed the letter in Kanchanben’s hands, “Mummy, see what a clamor life is making! She isn’t giving me time to arrange things in order, or to tie up loose knots, she’s dragging me by the hair and yanking me away from the space between the adverb and noun mid-sentence…”

Similar activities were scheduled at both the homes. After Isha returned from Bombay with her visa, preparations were in full force. In the other house, the prospective groom dropped in for a visit and the people in the society were heard muttering, he is as coarse as the trunk of a babool tree…He failed the 12th class exams and dropped out of school. His father has a business buying and selling land, where is the need for the boy to study! These people have been slandered everywhere, who would accept this girl then? Isha would softly say, “Mummy, is life? Like this?” Kanchanben would say, “We do our work.The darlings! Will they send us an invite or not?” Every evening, crowds of relatives and friends would gather. They would speak of that faceless statue. Isha watched with wonder. The marriage of a girl still studying in college was an ill custom. It did not seem as if anyone else was interested in the matter. Once she prompted Sunil, “Tell me! Do you dare? All it needs is a pebble! Hit a pebble at her window past midnight. She’ll grab the pebble like a lifeline and climb down”. Sunil shook his head and sat dumbstruck. Maybe a pebble felt like a mountain. Isha would sit, numbed, in front of the packed suitcases. Kanchanben would push her, “C’mon girl, what can I get you?” “I don’t need anything, Mummy” then she’d look up with huge tears in her eyes and say,“You won’t be able to give me what I need”.

No shamianas were built, nor did festive drums ring out, but a small packet of sweets was handed over the next day. The walls were drawn down and a delicate hand stretched out,“Some sweets, ben”.

Kanchanben stood quietly near the kitchen door, head lowered. Watching her quivering face, Isha nudged her on and said, “Take it, Mummy”.She reached for the packet.

“We did everything so simply. Bapuji believes in modern views, you know. Twenty-five people and not a person more! I hear Ishaben is going abroad?”

Isha said, “Mashi, I don’t understand these matters that you older people talk about but…”

“To hell with our older people’s talks. That’s one chore over and done with. One that we’re free of, that’s all. Those people are simple, like us. They have a house in Chanakyapuri although mostly they live in the village. They own a lot of land. Ishaben will study heavy tomes abroad and Viraj will gather dung and droppings in a farm. To each his own. Its a farm that she’d come from, to a farm that she’s gone.”

The last sentence was a like a burning rod and Isha felt dizzy. The only consolation was that these words had not been spoken by her mother.

It was the last night before she had to leave. It was about one, everyone who had dropped in to wish her had left. She spoke to her mother, who was looking at her, and at the empty home, “No mummy! Don’t say anything!” She switched the lights off, and ordered her mother to sleep. Riding on a wave of incredible lightness, she floated into her room. There was nothing left to be done. Just a few hours of the night to while away. She stood holding to the window bars in the dark. Then, knowing well that no one was going to come, she reached out and said, “Here, kitty…”

(* wild mare)