My farmhouse in Sidhrawali was quite small, built on a half-acre plot. I had bought it off my old office peon, Ch Shyampal, six years ago. He had now retired and further down the road farmed his two lots of ten acres each and drove a red and white Mitsubishi Pajero with “CHOUDHARY” written proudly on the back windscreen, along with a graffito of a man in a resplendent pink turban twirling his moustache.
Once, in his front room, from inside of the mango-wood diwan I had been sitting on, he had pulled out two 10-kilogram sacks of fertilisers. One had been filled with bundles of thousand-rupee notes and the other with five hundred-rupee ones. To the brim. The land boom of the past decade along the NH8 has been very good to him and my neighbours.
My farm had a two-storey mud house built by local artisans and a smaller brick and mortar outhouse in which a farm labourer couple from Malda lived. They worked in the nearby fields and also took care of my tiny farm. They grew seasonal vegetables on it and sold them at the local market in Sidhrawali. I had plans to put in sprinklers in the new year. I had bought this farm to get away from the city and till now it had suited me quite fine. My wife and my eight-year-old son, too, loved the place but in the summer we didn’t visit too often and even then rarely spent the night as the electricity supply could be very erratic. But in the winter months, from November to March, we visited every weekend.
Rifat works as an actuary for a leading shipping concern in Chanakyapuri and was now on an assignment to Boston for three weeks along with our son Robin. This long work-related travel was also due to the fact that, for the first time in our twelve-year-old marriage, we were facing problems. She suspected me of carrying on with one of my authors, an excellent Bihari Dalit novelist from Calcutta.
Her new book, Goghana: The Visitor, done, she was off to what she saucily called a “ChutSpa” in the Himalayas to recuperate from post-partum depression. One hears they work wonders with Amaryllis belladonna over there. Just a month back I had sold the North American rights of the book to Masters, Stuart & Goodman in New York.
Rifat had read one of her very effusive yellow sticky notes attached to the second proofs when she had returned them. That was not much to go by but Rifat had volunteered for this Boston sojourn to “think things over”. I knew I was in the clear and that Rifat Pandita-Nair would be back before long. I had been very, very discreet.
“You have no understanding of caste, John. This Dalit literature thing is just a fad with you. A Jatav is as good as a Jat to you. Or an Ansari to a Sherwani for that matter,” Rifat had once said to me. I had bristled at her acuity and snapped, “And so it should be, dear girl.” At the Hindu College hostel in Delhi University I had marvelled at the profound sociological nous of my friends from the small towns of Bihar, UP, Haryana, and Rajasthan; their innate ability to decipher caste or “phylum”, as they called it, from a name, an accent and sometimes even physiognomy.
It used to trouble me that I couldn’t pigeonhole people by their noses. That perhaps I was not Bharatiya enough. Not authentic enough. But not anymore. I realise now that in India too much knowledge of caste is as debilitating as too little. A studied indifference, I feel, is the best course. Of course it helps a bit if you are born a Nair and not a Nadar.
After the last Eid celebration at my in-laws’ place in Greater Noida, Robin had narrated the event, the rituals, the feast, the presents he got in the weekly “sharing time” period at his school. A friend of his called Chauhan told him afterwards that Muslims were not Indians. They were foreigners, Chauhan’s grandfather had informed him.
Naturally, Robin was a bit upset when he came home that evening. But more than him it was Rifat I could see who was more disturbed. So I took Robin aside and told him, “Well, Chauhan should know. He is a Rajput and they always gave their women to the Mughals for land, possession, and office. Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, Shah Alam – they were all half-Rajputs. I will get you a book on Mughal miniatures and in it you will see how their noses straighten over the course of centuries, from Babur to Bahadur Shah Zafar.”
“One of these days you will cause a riot,” Rifat laughed and told me later that evening after Robin informed his mother of our conversation. “And listen, women are not property. I am certainly not your property. Sometimes I worry about your authors. For an editor your views sometimes are startlingly regressive.”
“In India, everyone faces prejudice. From the Dalit to the Brahmin. From Sherwani to the Ansari. The Jaat to the Mazhabi. From the Kashmiri to the Malayali. Even Rajputs, as dear old Chauhan will realise tomorrow. Only the degrees vary. God, how I hate ‘sharing time!’ It is counter bloody intelligence. And listen, dear girl, you may not be my property but I am certainly yours.” I then reached out and kissed her full on the lips.
Excerpted with permission from The Time of the Peacock: A Short Novel, Siddharth Chowdhury, Aleph Book Company.