Nine bosses had come and gone, but all nine had seemed like fruits from the same tree to Bhogilal. The first boss came and always chose Bhogilal to accompany his wife; the second one lessened that kindness but preferred only Bhogilal for his mundane errands. To be polite by nature, to be sweet-spoken, or to be practical-minded – these are not, by any means, terrible faults. Yet, for Bhogilal, under the auspices of these three kinds of virtues, pounding away at a railway job for twenty-one years under each of the nine bosses had worn him down in nine different ways.
It is just as well that the first shloka in the second-year Sanskrit text is about how, even after being rubbed again and again over a stone slab, sandalwood maintains its sweet fragrance. And Bhogilal had studied exactly that. Otherwise, if it had been some other person, the chafing of these twenty-one years would have set him aflame.
Bhogilal was filling gasoline in the hurricane lamp. Chandulal, his oldest son, was sitting by the second lamp and memorising some Sanskrit forms. The other three children – numbers two, three and four – were lying about on the bed showing the baby the moon and singing “chanda-poli, puran-poli” to her. And with number six, a future guest, in her belly, Manivahu lay sleeping on one side of the bed. Her time was due, so the poor woman, tired from the day’s work, lay utterly exhausted.
“What’s for dinner, Chandu?” Bhogilal asked as he continued filling gasoline in the hurricane lamp.
“What vegetables have been prepared?”
“Your father wants sweets of seventeen flavours. He has no shame. Here, this boy Chandu is barely managing to cook and there, on top of that, ‘what vegetables have been prepared’? As if he’s some big millionaire!” Manivahu said.
Instead of entering the hurricane lamp, the stream of gasoline fell to the floor. So Bhogilal took Chandu to task.
“Eh-la! Chaandiya! Stand up. You are not to study. Fill this gasoline first.” Forgetting that he had spilt the gasoline, Bhogilal rebuked Chandulal.
“But you being so grown-up and spilling it – are you not embarrassed?” asked Manivahu.
“Now you just lie there on the bed, or you’ll hear a couple of choice words,” replied Bhogilal.
“Make me hear them, na? What else is there to listen to? Since casting my lot with yours, I haven’t ever eaten a morsel of food at leisure. One after another, there’s been a child, without respite. Five cannot be supported, how will a sixth be taken care of?”
Bhogilal, with the thought of the upcoming sixth, turned quiet.
Chandu kept his book to one side and silently filled the gasoline. The boy then served plates of food for all. About that time, the cowherd came by, calling out “milk”.
After supper, a man gets into an imaginative mood. Bhogilal too sat fanning his body. Before him, Manivahu slept stretched out. One child in the lap, one nearby, one between the husband and wife, they all lolled about getting ready for bed.
“The village is better than this city. Here, you get a hundred rupees, but can you ever sit comfortably cross-legged to enjoy a morsel of food?”
“It might seem like that. Go to the village, then you will know. Mathuradas went and returned, did you not see?” Manivahu responded.
Mathuradas was also from Bhogilal’s workplace. Taking a six-month vacation, he had gone to his village to produce grain from his little piece of land. But, after incurring a debt of 125 rupees, he had returned.
“But now I must get a divorce from this job. For how long can one live at Shankarlal’s mercy?”
Shankarlal was the head clerk. All the clerks under him believed that all the bosses were good when they arrived, but then Shankarlal spoiled them by pandering to their whims. In Hindu culture, relationships between a mother-in-law, a wife, and a sister-in-law have been (in)famous since ancient times. To those, modern times have added the new relationships of clerks and head clerks, and assistant masters and headmasters.
“After leaving the job, what will you eat?”
“Arrey, we’ll do physical labour; we’ll do freelance work.”
Her physical-labour-aspiring husband would not even exert himself to fill a pot of water. Manivahu was certainly not oblivious to this.
“Physical labour, na? Of course. You will get physical labour work indeed.”
“Arrey, we’ll go to the village and take care of properties. At least our health will improve.”
Having just given the example of Mathuradas, Manivahu did not say anything. The children had slowly fallen asleep and Chandu had moved a bit further away to read. Seeing this opportunity, Manivahu landed a blow: “This is my sixth pregnancy. It’s been this bad and now, after six months of bearing this child, you are troubled by the idea of how to support the family.”
Bhogilal did not like that the real reason – that he was weary and tired of his job – had revealed itself like this. He used the support of the same false shelter that people hide true faults under: “But what can you or I do about that? What is set in destiny, we have to endure that much, right?”
Nobody has seen this destiny, but it has seen everyone.
“Then what did Devshankar Bhatt say?”
Devshankar Bhatt was the neighbourhood astrologer. Bhogilal sat with him frequently and had slowly begun to believe in Raahu, Shani and Mangal. This is what happens: difficulty challenges a person’s strength of character, and also takes measure of his weakness.
“Devshankar said there will be pain for a month and a quarter.”
“So there, did I not say?”
A month and a half later, Manivahu gave birth to a son but he died after a few days. Bhogilal’s worldly affairs carried on again from 11 am to 5 pm. When Manivahu was tired from work, she would beat up one of the boys. Like labourers who drink alcohol when they are tired, women often use this as a way to relax. The stimulating sense of anger can, for some time, make one forget feelings of boredom, fatigue and drudgery.
When Bhogilal got bored with his monotonous life, he would go sit awhile in the library. There, he only read the advertisements, but that helped the time pass. The doctor had told him that, if a seventh pregnancy happened, they should keep both medicine and shroud ready together. So, in Bhogilal’s life, that particular kind of diversion had lessened.
After fifteen years, the pleasure of married life, as he had understood, had suffered a big blow. Just as the absence of alcohol in an alcoholic’s life is felt very keenly, Bhogilal felt a deficiency in his life. Now he did not have the same interest as before in conversations with Manivahu.
Previously, he used to gather a crowd when telling stories about his clerks in his inimitable way but that too now gave less cheer. His mind became calm in the library; he would read there for some time, then go to some hotel-botel for tea and refreshments, then return home. Everyone would be asleep, so he would go to bed too.
Despite everything, he talked to a nurse one day and gave Manivahu medicine for a few days. When the women of the neighbourhood often got together to talk, Champi would say, ‘Bai, that Manivahu’s body was strong and stout but, after that last miscarriage, it has become lean and wasted. That’s because the miscarriage did not happen at three months. Don’t they say that it is fine to have seven deliveries but one miscarriage is the worst?’
“Arrey, curse you, Champi, who taught you, of all people, this? Let us, ma, speak the truth. What miscarriage happened? It was made to happen. Moreover, it was falsely spread about repeatedly that it simply happened.” So someone would reply to Champi.
But Champi would not say anything further. She got three-four rupees for doing housework at Bhogilal’s.
After Manivahu’s miscarriage, her body continued to deteriorate. So, she began to stay confined to her bed. Therefore, the load of responsibility on Bhogilal increased. His oldest son, Chandu, also began to carry a share of that load. Bhogilal truly felt that life had become burdensome. To cook from 7:30 am to 10:30 am, then from 5:00 pm to 7:00 pm, to get the beds ready from 7:00 pm to 8:00 pm, and then to go to bed so as to get up early: this awful regularity would weigh heavily on even the most courageous.
The kind of punctuality that is maintained not for the sake of principles but for the sake of the clock ruins life. Bhogilal’s life was being destroyed.
He saw endless exertion in his existence. Manivahu seemed like a huge encumbrance. Chandu and the other children, who once gave him delight, now often seemed life-draining. His feet, when returning home, dragged. Any charm he had left in life was only outside the home.
A couple of moments of diversion at the office; slanderous gossip about the head clerk while walking along the street; examples of the foolishness of the government’s management despite drawing a government salary; unsubstantiated criticism of current affairs – these were the only springs of joy left in Bhogilal’s life.
Eventually, a death-like regularity draws a man towards bad habits. Just as addictions can form for alcohol, tobacco or cigarettes, so also many other kinds of addictions can happen – like reading journals and books, writing poetry, giving lectures, etc. Not for the sake of principles or pleasure, but the things that people grasp to save themselves from weariness and boredom, the things they seize not because they are good but because they are easy and at hand, these are all bad habits – be it studying the Gita or smoking cigarettes or inspecting cadavers.
These addictions appear in ways that cannot be comprehended. The emptiness in Bhogilal’s life was filled by journals; and whatever was left was taken care of by the uniformity of life. What is going on at home, what is Chandu doing, or what are the needs at home, the reading material would not shed light on any of these issues. He lost it all in reading. Bas, after waking in the morning and after finishing his work, it was only the library for him.
Before the librarian could even open the shutters, Bhogilal would be standing there. “Why, you’re a bit late today,” saying this, Bhogilal would snatch a paper from his hands.
The librarian got fed up too, and once retorted: “Bhai, you come before everyone else, you leave after everyone else, you shuffle more papers than anyone else, and you read less than everyone else – what is this craving you have for this place?”
Chandu had grown older and was taking a bit more care of the house. So, having lost interest in his endlessly monotonous existence, Bhogilal had discovered a new pleasure in the library.
The disruption that had occurred in his life’s usual rituals, Bhogilal wanted to coax it away with various stimulating substances. The enjoyment of sitting with Manivahu, the gratification from envying others in their community, the glee in making fun of the head clerk and, after all that, the pleasure of placating Manivahu – the void that came with not doing any of these things was so disagreeable that Bhogilal tried to repair it in many ways: with chevdo, tea, cinema, journals, libraries. Yet, the dreadful presence of that disruption stood like a lonely, solitary, dried-up babul tree before his eyes all the time.
Excerpted with permission from Ratno Dholi: The Best Stories of Dhumketu, Dhumketu, translated from the Gujarati by Jenny Bhatt, HarperCollins India.