And Malini? He dared not explain or attempt to articulate – even to himself, especially to himself – how she affected him. Malini was the one who made all the decisions that Rakesh thought important; it was she who steered the course of his – and her family’s – day. She had come to trust Rakesh, often asking him these days about how they should do things. “Shall we go to the petrol pump now or on our way back?” “Do you think we might be better off going via Tulsi Pipe Road?” And she had started increasingly to adhere to his advice.
There were nights when Rakesh would lie on his thin mattress on the floor of his eight-foot-by-ten-foot room, very drunk on pay day, the edges of things blurring – the small stove at the foot of his bed spinning, with him in orbit around it. These were the times when he had visions of Malini – visions of her as she might have been in the bathroom, before she had attired herself and come to meet him on that first day, shaking the water from her hair.
Rakesh could never tell whether he had willed these visions into existence or whether they had appeared to him unbidden in a drunken stupor. He held them to himself and banished them, with equal ferocity. He felt as guilty as he felt envious; as ashamed of himself as he felt bold. The following morning, his head clear after he had rinsed himself under the thin rope of water from the communal tap at the corner of the road, he would have no recollection of the visions of the night before. There remained only an unidentifiable sense of unease.
Four months after he was hired, drivers at the office told him that he was getting ripped off and that they would find him a better-paying job, now that he had learnt to drive well. They insisted he ask the Chaudhuris for a raise.
Sleepless, Rakesh thought about it for two nights. More money was a great temptation. For starters, he could buy the pair of jeans he had been eyeing at a pavement stall on Linking Road. But what if the Chaudhuris refused? What if they thought he was too greedy and ungrateful and said they wanted to get rid of him? Would he find another job? Was it as certain as the drivers in the office said it was? Or were they simply leading him on?
Finally, having seen one of the drivers wearing a pair of jeans nearly identical to the one he wished to have, he realised that he would never be able to buy a pair like that if he didn’t have more money. He wouldn’t be able to get hair gel, which he now craved. In the three months at the Chaudhuris’, he had begun to notice things he hadn’t before; he had begun to covet them too. He wanted new clothes and a mobile phone with a large screen to watch music videos on. He pined for T-shirts that at least looked like the ones Samrat wore.
One evening, as he was giving her back the car keys at the end of the day’s work, Rakesh asked Malini if his salary could be raised by another two thousand rupees. ‘”Of course, of course,” she said without a blink. The little boy hugged her knees. “We were thinking of it in any case. You have come along well. We’ll do it right away.”
As he walked home that evening, he paused to look at the big stores on Linking Road: Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger, Esprit, Mango. He dared not walk in. They sold the same sort of clothes as the pavement stalls nearby did. But these stores seemed to enclose and epitomise a world utterly removed from the one the stalls stood for. How could the same thing, well almost the same thing, such as, say, a T-shirt, command such different prices and respect? He wanted to see what those items were like, to run his fingers under the collar of one of those T-shirts, caress the instep of one of those pairs of shoes.
Rakesh was thrilled that his salary had been raised by the exact amount that he’d wanted. At the same time, he felt angry and bitter because the amount meant nothing to the Chaudhuris. It was not even worth a moment’s consideration before Malini had said yes.
“Yaar, the rich have their own problems,” one of the drivers at the office told Rakesh. “We have nothing. We have nothing to lose.”
Rakesh did not resent the Chaudhuris’ affluence, like their sudden trips to the five-star hotels near the airport or to the city’s downtown. He did not mind Madam’s frequent forays to those stores (especially the Benetton one) and her emergence from them, laden with huge, bursting paper bags, progressing towards the car like a stately ship towards its harbour, her purchases like billowing sails, her face still distracted from the present moment by the concentration she had needed to buy all that stuff in the store.
The Chaudhuris were good people, Rakesh believed. He was grateful to them. They had given him a job when no one else would have. They had given him a raise as soon as he had asked for one. They were unfailingly civil. They had bought him medicines that time he had fallen ill and paid for his visit to the doctor.
And yet, sometimes, when Madam and Sir bickered in low, taut voices that carried over to him in the hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, upholstered pod of the car, he wanted to turn around and scream: “Don’t you know how lucky you are?”
In the heat of an afternoon undisturbed by even the suggestion of a breeze, Rakesh manoeuvred the car into the lane alongside the Benetton showroom. He had on his favourite pair of jeans – mossy blue-green with an orange serpent coiling its way up from his knee to his thigh. His floral-patterned shirt was not tucked in – just as Shah Rukh Khan’s in the movie Don.
But during the brief walk from the car to the store, the shirt had begun to exhibit spreading damp patches under his arms and on his chest. Rakesh wiped his face with a handkerchief and then shoved his hand under his shirt and dabbed at his perspiring chest and armpits. Curious, anxious, afraid and confident, he stepped into the store, the chilly environs of which no summer could touch.
He had the piece of paper that he would have to hand over at the counter to get back Madam’s pair of jeans. He kept it in his hand in case someone asked him why he was here. But no one did. People did not look at him. The ground floor housed the women’s section and Rakesh saw – all for the first time, all at one go, all too much for him – women emerging from the changing rooms, pirouetting in dresses that had no proper sleeves, in dresses that were not much bigger than his handkerchief. He had involuntarily squeezed the paper in his hand into a tight ball. Uncrumpling it, he took the spiral stairway to the first floor, the men’s department.
Standing there, amid the pressed, folded, hung glut of shirts, T-shirts, jackets, trousers and jeans, Rakesh’s head began to swim. There was a pleasant and unfamiliar smell around him; he wondered where that up-tempo music was coming from.
He reached out and picked up a white T-shirt.
“Sir?” An attendant was immediately beside him.
“Can I try this on?” Rakesh asked in Hindi.
The attendant shrugged, unsmiling and pointed towards the changing rooms. Choosing one of the rooms, Rakesh slipped the T-shirt on, raised its collar, lowered it and examined himself from several angles in the full- length mirror. Peeling it off, he looked at the price tag: three thousand five hundred rupees, more than a quarter of what he made in a month.
Excerpted with permission from Thirteen Kinds of Love, Soumya Bhattacharya, HarperCollins India.