When he was invited to dinner at the home of his employer, Bhavesh Pawar was assured by his host of transportation back to his room at the end of the evening. The boy demurred, assuring his employer that a ride back to their office building on Elphinstone Road in South Mumbai would be more than most gracious. The older man recognized in this the boy’s reluctance to reveal the exact location of his rooms, which were no doubt humble.
Bhavesh was filled with joy and nervous expectation as he prepared that evening. He was generous with the sandalwood oil he shook into his handkerchief and rubbed on his jaw after carefully shaving. He believed that this evening was to be his introduction to a different world than the one in which he lived. Thus far he had only mimicked its gestures but he knew that eating pav bhaji at a roadside stall was very different from dining at the Tanjore with a view of the harbor. Everything until now was preparation. He would meet important people tonight, he would listen to their worldly conversation, he would smile agreeably; he would let his good looks work for him. Perhaps there would even be a young woman who would be taken with him. A new life, he thought, as a respected citizen of Mumbai.
Until recently, Bhavesh had let his family plan his future. He was to study at the University of Mumbai in order to become an engineer after which time he would rescue them from a life of genteel poverty. The phrase “genteel poverty” made the boy’s father feel better about the abjectness of their living conditions. Though the boy had thus far shown no particular aptitude for studying, hopes were pinned on him, the only boy among three sisters. His family worked hard to pay his tuition, even his two older sisters and the husband of one of them. Bhavesh would better his opportunities to advance in the world; as he rose so would the rest of them. Such was the family dream.
“An engineer is always needed in country like India,” went the wisdom of his father who owned a tailoring business near their apartment in the suburb of Dadar. He had selected the career path for the boy after much discussion with some business associates gathered in the teashop run by his oldest daughter. “There is always something to build,” one of these associates said. “There are always plans to be drawn up,” said another. Such conversation bolstered the family’s confidence in the boy’s future. There would be a proud day of graduation with his parents in attendance, followed by the purchase of a businessman’s blue suit to wear to his apprenticeship, which would lead to a permanent job and eventually a partnership. Also in the future were improved living conditions for the family: Bhavesh’s mother imagined a fully rigged-out modern kitchen, his father a flat-screen television set to watch soccer games.
Bhavesh was unsure what an engineering career actually entailed; something to do with pipes and electricity and mathematics, according to his father, something to do with building bridges and office complexes, this latter a phrase that gave his father much pleasure to pronounce. In Mumbai, Bhavesh imagined, the buildings were slick and the temperature inside cool and sweet smelling; the women would be as beautiful as film stars. He would drink French wine, learn how to wear English-made suits, read the International Herald Tribune. He would become a man of the world.
His first week in Mumbai presented him with a seemingly endless series of disappointments. Though the university buildings were architecturally impressive, the campus was not limited to one location, but spread across the entire city, so that Bhavesh spent a good part of his days on buses and trams going from the main campus in the southern end of Mumbai to the Nehru Library in the central suburbs to the Thibaw Palace in Ratnagiri. He found the air in the streets sticky and foul smelling. “So much truck and automobile exhaust!” he wrote to his father. “So many unwashed people.”
His engineering classes were more difficult than he would admit to in these letters. Though he was gifted with a quick intelligence, he was also saddled with an overabundance of imagination; his attention wandered when it should have focused. He would read a sentence describing heat conduction and insulation and find his mind drifting on the scent of cumin and curry to its source in the spice market near the bay. Soon he would let the book close without marking the page and think about the pretty girl in a green sari he’d seen that morning in the Zaveri Jewelry Bazar, gold chains slipping through her fingers like running water.
Living among boys who had grown up in posh South Mumbai–boys from educated families, boys with rich fathers who drove Mercedes automobiles and were assured of jobs in their father’s firms–Bhavesh gradually lost whatever confidence had been pumped into him. He saw the members of his own family as these other boys might and realized he did not have the bright future about which his family had dreamed, that in fact his future was just that: a dream.
He did not tell this to his family. He hoped somehow things would come out right in the end, that there would be a job waiting for him, that he would earn enough money for his sister to close her teashop, for his mother to have her fully equipped kitchen.
He explored instead of going to class; he spent his very small allowance on boat trips to Elephanta, on entrance tickets to the private beaches along the bay, on films, on scented candles he burned in his room late at night to stimulate his imagination of a life of ease. He liked to stand outside the art deco hotels on Marine Drive and imagine what it would be like to walk inside, stride up to the bar and order a vodka martini. He walked through the markets to stand against the sea wall at the Gateway of India, eating spicy samosa and watching Mumbai life, feeling that he had left his past behind him forever, that this very idleness was proof of a cosmopolitan nature.
At the end of the year, Bhavesh broke the news to his family that there was no future in engineering, that there were no engineering jobs to be had, that the engineering industry was at a standstill, that experienced men were being let go in droves. “The economy of India is in disarray,” he wrote in a letter to his father, who accepted this disappointing news as evidence of Bhavesh’s new sophistication and understanding of the ways of the world. “Mumbai holds opportunities,” he continued in the letter, as a way of explaining his intention to stay in the city. Employment opportunities were limited for a boy without a university degree but Bhavesh needed to pay his father back for the money he’d spent on engineering school.
The Government of India Tourist office was on a high floor of new building at Nariman Point, the most metropolitan part of the city, filled with other important corporate offices. “An office complex,” Bhavesh wrote to his father with pride. “I work as official assistant to the head of the entire staff.” The four-person office was run by Mr. Jichkar, a round and tidy man who wore voluminous seersucker suits, a great deal of French cologne and, if Bhavesh was not mistaken, kohl around his eyes. Bhavesh thought his father would find the man outlandish. Mr. Jichkar, however, was the first man Bhavesh had met who had spent time away from India, traveling to New York and London, arranging and rearranging things in the foreign offices to his satisfaction.
In addition to sweeping the floors and making morning and afternoon tea, Bhavesh sat at a table where he cut color photographs of Mumbai from magazines and leafed through newspapers for stories that praised Mumbai, which he then filed alphabetically, all the while studying his employer for cues as to how to behave like a man of the world. His conversation became more formal, slower, softer, accompanied by much nodding of the head. He raised one finger as prelude to proffering a point of view. Soon Bhavesh was jumping to his feet whenever one of the secretaries walked past his desk and dousing his handkerchief with scented oils, though he dared not do anything so theatrical as to paint his eyes.
New duties were added as the months went by: sorting brochures, opening mail, answering the telephone and learning a new computer program designed to translate tour specifications into different languages. Noting the boy’s ambition and diligence, Mr. Jichkar began to take him along when he led groups of tourists around the city, grooming him, he said, for eventually taking these tourists out on his own.
Since beginning his work at the tourist office under Mr. Jichkar’s mentorship, Bhavesh had become quite confident in his appearance, gratified to notice that female tourists who came into the office, mainly Germans, looked at him admiringly and were often visibly disappointed that it was Mr. Jichkar and not Bhavesh who was to show them the sights. Bhavesh noted that this asset did not escape the attention of Mr. Jichkar and wondered in what way its exact value was to be realized.
When he accompanied Mr. Jichkar and a group of tourists, Bhavesh stood at a respectful distance while he listened carefully to the older man regale the group with what he wanted them to know about India: the romance linked to this fortress, the tragic history of that ruined palace, the rising and falling fortunes of royal families and a few choice tidbits of Bollywood gossip. Bhavesh saw that no one had any interest in the few things he had learned about Mumbai at university; sewage treatment and copper piping and other engineering feats. And so day by day, his engineering training faded further and further into the past; instead he learned what he could about Indian history and culture by reading the tourist brochures he had spent his first few months at the office sorting into neat piles.
Mr. Jichkar’s house was on the far curve of the Queen’s Necklace, a part of the city which Bhavesh had not yet explored but whose lights he had watched many times as he strolled along the beach. To get there one walked past the public beaches and high rise office buildings, past the Towers of Silence and climbed up into the hills where the vegetation was lush and the air noticeably sweet smelling. In the northern part of the city where he rented a room with a tiny kitchen, Bhavesh saw only spindly shuddering palm trees and thirsty vines drooping from balconies on streets no wider than alleys.
The interior of Mr. Jichkar’s home was unlike any Bhavesh had seen. He imagined this was what a home looked like in London or New York City. There were shelves that reached the ceiling, full of books, and where there were not books there were statues and vases. On the wall were pictures, not like those in his parents’ home, which depicted gods and goddesses, but of European people wearing lavish clothes, of beautiful pink-skinned plump women surrounded by flowers. Nor had Bhavesh ever seen furniture as he saw in Mr. Jichkar’s living room: overstuffed furniture, so soft to sit in he immediately felt sleepy. He wanted to weep with joy to be so comfortable, so protected from the poverty of his rented room by the luxury of these soft pillows. The room smelled of roses, of gardenias, Bhavesh thought, smiling to himself to think that he never had actually smelled a rose or a gardenia, that he was used to incense, oils and petrol fumes; these new scents were intoxicating and so elegant he realized for the first time how the proper education of one’s senses elevated one in the world.
There was a large room next to the main room in which Bhavesh could see a long table. Surely this was meant to be the dining room. A dining room was something he had never seen but this must be one for what else would one do at such a long and serious table? But also in the main room was another table, smaller, round, and on it were set three plates, glasses and silverware. Bhavesh had expected other people to be there and did not know whether to be flattered that he was the only guest or embarrassed that he was not considered worthy of meeting the friends of Mr. and Mrs. Jichkar.
A servant in white jacket and trousers entered the room bearing a tray on which were perched a plate of potato patties, yogurt and fritters, and bhel puri, all snacks his own mother might serve. The servant set the tray on a low table in front of the sofa on which stood a pitcher of water and three glasses, and left the room. Mrs. Jichkar seemed to him as beautiful as a film star, bracelets glittering on both wrists, swathed in a red sari trimmed in shining gold threads. She sat down, adjusted the sari on her shoulder, and indicated with a gracious sweep of a plump arm that Bhavesh sit near her.
“Have something,” she suggested and reached for a potato patty.
Bhavesh copied her movement, delicately popping a patty into his mouth. It was unpleasantly spicy; for a moment he though he would choke.
He watched her fill his glass, which he drank in one long satisfied draw. “Delicious,” he said, holding back another incipient choke, and Mrs. Jichkar kindly filled the glass again.
Mr. Jichkar sat in a chair opposite and drank what Bhavesh thought must be whiskey. The silence was broken only by sounds the servant was making in the unseen kitchen. Bhavesh drank another glass of water and Mrs. Jichkar refilled it as she began telling of their last sojourn in London, where her husband put the tourist office in shape.
“Such chaos,” Mr.Jichkar said, nodding at his wife and they both laughed at the memory. Bhavesh joined in; he often heard Mr. Jichkar complaining of the imminence of chaos in their own office.
“Your home is surely not the chaos,” Bhavesh said, smiling at the books in neat rows, pillows on the floor in neat stacks, the furniture tight up against the walls. Mrs. Jichkar cast her glance briefly at her husband. Had Bhavesh said the wrong thing? He meant only to be sophisticated and polite; had the wife of his boss disapproved? Was he too familiar in his comment? The laughter ended; the silence resumed. Bhavesh drank his water.
“Why not tell us about your family?” Mr. Jichkar suggested. Though his host said this kindly, Bhavesh felt in it the opinion that he had no other conversational topics.
Bhavesh looked around in a slight panic. “There is little to tell,” he said but with a sinking heart recognized that in fact it was the only thing. He imagined his father and mother were standing in the corner, waiting patiently to be spoken of in the glowing terms they expected from their only son. He could not disappoint them. “They worked very hard to send me to school and I failed them,” he said.
From beneath lowered lids, he saw Mr. and Mrs. Jichkar exchange another look, this of pity, he thought, perhaps of disgust. “No,” Mrs. Jichkar said. “I’m sure they’re very proud of such a handsome son.”
“With respect, Mrs. Jichkar, I am sure they are not. They looked to me with great hopes of my success but I am not a success. My mother thinks only of a modern kitchen, my sister only of closing her shop. My father would like to stop working. His hands pain him a great deal…”
“Yes,” Mr. Jichkar said. “That would be arthritis.”
Mrs. Jichkar nodded; her hands, Bhavesh saw, were folded neatly in her lap and had the same unmistakable twist of his father’s hands. Had he said the wrong thing again?
But now that he had begun he found himself unable not to continue with a litany of his family’s ills, comforted in the knowledge that such tales of misfortune would never run out. He could hold the attention of the Jichkars all evening! He told them of his uncle’s chronic bowel problems whose cure resided in the hands of Mumbai’s medical professionals to which his only access would be through his successful nephew; of his sister Smita’s inability to conceive a child and her husband’s infidelity; of his father’s gout, his sister’s Usha’s lazy eye, his grandmother’s gangrene and subsequent amputation. “My dear mother puts up with it all, even though she herself has rheumatism in her hips and must be standing in the kitchen all day…” Mr. Jichkar sipped his scotch and soda. Bhavesh’s throat was dry. Mrs. Jichkar lifted the water pitcher and filled his empty glass.
He was struck by the sound of the water gurgling from the mouth of the pitcher and realized that he needed badly to relieve himself. He cursed himself for he had resolved to take care of such an eventuality before he arrived and in his enthusiasm for the coming evening had not. In addition, he had not reckoned on the combination of his dry throat and the obligation a polite guest has to a hostess who continually refills his water glass. His gaze traveled to the corners of the room then to the closed door of the kitchen and to the darkened recesses of the room that contained the long table but he knew that even if he saw where the bathroom might be, he could not possibly request its use. By exhibiting such crudeness he would certainly reveal himself to be the ignorant uncultured boy he was trying so hard not to be. But the fullness in his bladder was so acute he felt he would burst if he did not relieve himself soon.
In his discomfort, he saw that Mr. and Mrs. Jichkar were speaking, their mouths moving, their hands gesturing, but he could hear nothing. The periphery of his vision had begun to blur. To stem the whimper he felt rising in his throat, indeed to wake himself up, he forced himself to choke again. Mrs. Jichkar poured more water into his glass. He shook his head as he saw at her swollen fingers gripping the glass, moving it closer to him. He could not look up.
“Go ahead,” she said.
He could not refuse. He drank. “Thank you,” he managed to say but his urge to void was so intense he continued to choke and finally, in despair, replaced the glass on the table, then let himself slide off the sofa with a soft moan, first to his knees, then to his side.
Mr. and Mrs. Jichkar were standing above him. “He is quite pale,” Mrs. Jichkar said and bent to slap Bhavesh’s face lightly on each cheek. Bhavesh did not move, only lay there; his breathing was shallow, his eyes closed.
“He must not have eaten all day,” Mrs. Jichkar said. “These boys. I told you…” She stopped speaking; Bhavesh knew why.
“Oh dear,” he heard Mr. Jichkar say. Now they had both noticed Bhavesh’s accident. Mr. Jichkar called the servant’s name; Bhavesh heard the rustle of Mrs. Jichkar’s silk sari as she walked quickly out of the room.
Mr. Jichkar kneeled at his side. “You foolish boy,” Mr. Jichkar said, close enough to Bhavesh’s ear that he felt his warm breath. “You should have asked.”
Bhavesh looked up but did not move. Mr. Jichkar’s face was close to him; such deep brown eyes with such heavy lids, such sympathetic eyes.
What have I done, Bhavesh thought. “I must die now,” he managed to say.
Mr. Jichkar nodded, as if at the good sense Bhavesh made. “Not at all,” Mr. Jichkar said. “Someday, when you are back in your home, when you are a father and a grandfather, you will tell this to your children and it will make an amusing story.”
Bhavesh heard the rustle of silk that told him Mrs. Jichkar had returned; the scent of roses and ammonia came with her. Her husband assured her there would be no stain.
Barry Jay Kaplan’s stories have been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize.His story His Wife appears as part of Best of the Net Anthology 2008. Other stories appear in Bryant Literary Review, Upstreet, Descant, Brink, Perigee, Apple Valley Review and others. His musical Like Love (composer Lewis Flinn) was produced at the New York Musical Theater Festival.
© 2010, Barry Jay Kaplan