There were no new ideas to be found in the city so I retired last year to this small town an experiment to see if I could live in a house with a tiled roof that sometimes leaked and little storybook windows that muffled rather than let in light. Four months straight it rained with pounding urgency, bookended by two of drizzle. Sentences that I thought had no currency any more, not in the twenty-first century, still applied here, in this drenched hill town. It was a dark and stormy night. Or, The wind howled in the trees and loudly rattled the windowpanes.
One could imagine a very old place, a sparser and hardier monsoon existence hidden in the folds of the green valleys, even though they’d been killing off the vestiges in recent years building hotels over the Christian graveyards and glassy shopping complexes where there’d been trees and empty space. Still, a few bungalows with compounds and driveways from a hundred years ago remained, and in the bazaar lots of those crooked little two-storey split-level shophouses with wooden casements, which too must have been here at least since the British were writing in their gazetteers about who was up to exactly what business in the district. With the rain and the daily power-cuts, the Gothic mist creeping over everything all the time in season and the silence that lay over the hedgerows in the lanes away from the town centre, this was still a place where you could play at being someone else.
I’d seemed to be coasting along like everyone else in the city but was really eyeing something deeper – a love affair or a glittering friendship.
I was lonely and didn’t see it. When this hit me, when I turned forty, then forty-five, and still felt unmade and unresolved, still chasing something just around the corner, I stopped. I had some money from two decades in the industry – if not scaling the heights of the corporate ladder, then not sliding down it either. Enough to ride on for a few years if I yielded all ambition, so that’s what I decided to do. Become nobody or, at least, a sincerely regular man. Cease thinking I was going to get anywhere either in the realm of intellectual achievement or human relations.
What can better aid coming down to earth than a half-forgotten small town: that stained suburban air, the permanent emanations of open sewers and busy bakeries? A whole population’s worth of people with reduced hopes, happy to cut their coats according to their cloth.
I’ve been here almost a year now, one monsoon to the next, and I have a house of three small rooms which is too big for me, a talkative cook in a burka and a target of getting through all the mouldy books in the back rows of the local library, which no one seems to have touched since circa Independence. I do try to give some kind of shape to my days – watching the blackbirds with my morning coffee; walking with the late afternoon sun when there is one; helping, because I was inveigled into it, the landlord’s middle-school-going boy and girl with their homework; just sitting around reading in the evenings as I drink brandy with hot water, or bad wine, or whisky with ice on summer nights when it’s really warm and I’m feeling like I might start to be sorry for myself. Who was it who said Proust’s pinings and dissatisfaction represented the illness of the cultivated classes in a capitalistic society? I’m trying, with the benevolent aid of my neighbourhood liquor store, to undo my cultivation, and sometimes casting off these chains can hurt.
I wake up in the dark: it could be 4 am or well past seven. The clacking rhythm of rain on the roof seems to be saying, I’m here to stay. Okay, I tell it. I can live with you. It’s all right to wake up in an indeterminable darkness, not knowing what day of the week it is, and no longer needing to call up the thought of the project I’m working on or dwell on the inexorable nature of modern work. I stay in bed till Amina bangs on the door. The ell’s stopped working.
“Is it Tuesday, Amina?”
“I don’t know. I just fell.”
I look at her left hand, cradled in her right. “You haven’t broken it?”
She glares at me. There’s a thick, determined moss everywhere, and layers of black mould and grey lichen on the compound paving, mushrooms growing from fallen branches, grass sprouting from gaps in the roof tiles – a whole rain-fed lushness trying to break out of the earth and swallow the town.
Amina’s burka is soaked on one side and her kohl-lined eyes a little teary. I ask if she wants me to take her to a doctor. “I’ll go home and see. Can’t move it just now but it might be better tomorrow.”
“Go by the pharmacy and get some painkillers at least.”
“Don’t know if the shops are open. They burnt the Koran last evening, those bastards. Sons of bastards. I heard about it on my way here.”
“Again?” I ask, startled. But it was different in the winter – someone had stoned the mosque in a nearby taluk. The explanation in the bazaar was that it was all “political”, meaning that someone had been paid or instigated to do it. A riot was said to be brewing and protest marches were undertaken, the town shut down, then the pressure of the incident dissipated.
“They burnt the Koran Sharif. Someone should die for this.”
But she says it in the voice of one who is expected to be outraged and in an idiom that is clichéd, borrowed. She is more upset about her hand. She abuses the rain with quaint curses in pidgin Urdu and takes the money and analgesics I give her.
“What will you eat?” she asks.
She knows I could easily walk down to town and have lunch in any of the small places lining the main road, but perhaps she’s come to believe that I’ll be wretched without her daily meat curries. More than the food, it’s the liveliness of her talk that interests me – her ongoing account of her ladies’-tailor husband who has recently transformed himself into a chauffeur in Dubai, her persistently ailing mother-in-law and untameable teenage twin boys, her never-sedate life in the Muslim neighbourhood of squashed houses strung out along Ganapati Street. But there is also something haughty and inscrutable about her hooded face; she seems to, without saying it, disdain her job of cooking for me and two other families, while at the same time seeing herself as indispensable to us. Her eyes are too proud to be a servant’s, and she cooks messily and talks loudly. She seems to be waiting for some chance to break out of her role, yet never mutes her tirade or pauses in her narrative, never gives the listener a chance. She has absolutely no curiosity about me even though she cannot have known too many layabouts in her life, grown men with nothing to do.
She goes away, planting slow, firm steps across the compound, and I watch the rain for a while, how it levels out the world. Today, or a century ago, the same rain, falling on the same landscape, feeding the roots of the same deciduous hill forests, softening the clay of the same roof tiles. Yet a contemporary sordidness intrudes, the actions of men that deliver this place into the present.
Excerpted with permission from “The Stranger” from A Day in the Life, Anjum Hasan, Hamish Hamilton.
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