Ram Persad was up. He was sitting on his bed, chopping onions on a wooden board: I heard the tack, tack, tack of his knife hitting the board.
What the hell is he chopping onions so early for? I thought, turning to a side and closing my eyes again. I wanted to go back to sleep, but the tack, tack, tack of the knife hitting the board insisted:
This man has a secret.
I stayed awake, while the man on the bed chopped onions. I tried to figure it out.
What had I noticed about Ram Persad in the past few days?
For one thing, his breath had gone bad. Even Pinky Madam complained. He had suddenly stopped eating with us, either inside the house or outside. Even on Sundays, when there would be chicken, Ram Persad would refuse to eat with us, saying he had already done so, or he wasn’t hungry, or…
The chopping of the onions continued, and I kept adding thought to thought in the dark.
I watched him all day. Toward evening, as I was expecting, he began moving to the gate.
From my conversation with the cook, I had learned that Ram Persad had started to head out of the house at the same time every evening. I followed at a distance. He went into a part of the city I had never seen before, and walked around a few alleys. At one point I distinctly saw him turn around, as if to make sure no one was following him; then he darted.
Ram Persad’s secret
He had stopped in front of a two-story building. The wall had a large metal grille divided into square units; a series of small black taps jutted out from the wall below the grille. He bent down to a tap, washed his face and gargled and spat. Then he took off his sandals. Shoes and sandals had been folded and stuffed into the squares of the grille – he did the same with his sandals. Then he went into the building and closed the door.
I slapped my forehead.
What a fool I’d been! “It’s Ramadan! They can’t eat and drink during the day.”
I ran back to the house and found the Nepali. He was standing at the gate, rubbing his teeth with a twig broken from a neem tree – which is what many poor people in my country do, Mr. Premier, when they want to clean their teeth.
“I just saw a film, sir.”
“A great film, sir. Lots of dancing. Hero was a Muslim. Name of Mohammad Mohammad.”
“Don’t waste my time, boy. Go clean the car if you’ve got nothing to do.”
“Now, this Mohammad Mohammad was a poor, honest, hardworking Muslim, but he wanted a job at the home of an evil, prejudiced landlord who didn’t like Muslims – so, just to get a job and feed his starving family, he claimed to be a Hindu! And took the name of Ram Persad.”
The twig fell out of the Nepali’s mouth.
“And you know how he managed to pull this off? Because the Nepali guard at this house, whom the masters trusted absolutely, and who was supposed to check up on Ram Persad’s background, was in on the scam!”
Before he could run, I caught him by the collar. Technically, in these servant-versus-servant affairs, that is all you need to do to indicate: “I have won.” But if you’re going to do these things, it’s better to do them in style, right? So I slapped him too.
I was servant number one from now on in this household.
Moving up the ladder
I ran back to the mosque. Namaz must have ended by now. And indeed, Ram Persad – or Mohammad or whatever his name really was – came out of the mosque, took his sandals down from the window, slapped them on the ground, wriggled his feet into them, and began walking out. He saw me – I winked at him – and he knew that the game was up.
I did the needful in a few precise words.
Then I went back to the house. The Nepali was watching me from behind the black bars. I took his key chain from him and put it in my pocket. “Get me some tea. And biscuits.” I pinched his shirt. “And I want your uniform too. Mine is getting old.”
I slept in the bed that night.
In the morning someone came into the room. It was ex–driver number one. Without a word to me, he began packing. All his things fitted into one small bag.
I thought, What a miserable life he’s had, having to hide his religion, his name, just to get a job as a driver – and he is a good driver, no question of it, a far better one than I will ever be. Part of me wanted to get up and apologize to him right there and say, You go and be a driver in Delhi. You never did anything to hurt me. Forgive me, brother.
I turned to the other side, farted, and went back to sleep.
When I woke up, he was gone – he had left all his images of gods behind, and I scooped them into a bag. You never know when those things can come in handy.
In the evening, the Nepali came to me with a grin on his face – the same fake servant’s grin he showed to the Stork all day long. He told me that, since Ram Persad had left their service without a word, I would be driving Mr Ashok and Pinky Madam to Delhi. He had personally – and forcefully – recommended my name to the Stork.
I went back to my bed – all mine now – stretched out on it, and said, “Great. Now clean those webs off the ceiling, won’t you?”
He glared at me, but said nothing, and went away to get a broom. I shouted:
From then on, every morning, it was hot Nepali tea, and some nice sugar biscuits, on a porcelain platter.
Excerpted with permission from The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga, HarperCollins India.