FAIZ RAI remembers sitting cross-legged on the faded carpet in his father’s study, sipping on his evening glass of milk and reading Target, while at his desk his father unlocked his briefcase and bent over his files, the only sounds between them the scratching of a heavy fountain pen and the rustle of a magazine’s pages, punctuated by soft slurps and footsteps scurrying in the kitchen.
He thinks of that time as ‘peace and quiet’ – the way he thinks of nesting birds as ‘panic’ or the winter scent of haarsinghar as ‘first year, college’.
Which is why when they had that huge fight and his wife, Shyamali Banerjee, screamed that all she wanted was some silence in the house and how was that going to happen if the two of them were always at each others’ throats, Faiz retreated to what was now his study, sat down on a newly-acquired Fabindia dari and composed a letter on a pad of yellow, lined paper he had saved from his father’s documents when the ageing barrister died silently and unexpectedly in his sleep a year ago.
Dear Gautam, he wrote,
Frankly, our situation is untenable. If we are all to live together in this house then we must all agree to abide by its rules. Spending the evenings in a drunken stupor is not one of them. Neither is bringing girls to your bedroom at two in the morning — nor, for that matter, leaving plates full of crumbs on top of the television or finishing other people’s toothpaste.
But these are minor transgressions — concerning only the basic politeness and empathy I would expect from an utter stranger, let alone my own brother. Your financial jugglery over the past 12 months is a far more serious matter.
I don’t mean the loan — that I gave you willingly enough. Nor do I mean your failure to contribute in any way to running the household (do you know that the electricity bill alone comes to over 5,000 rupees a month? Somehow, I doubt it). I am aware that a business takes time to bear fruit (or, in your case, to flower. And really, Gautam, to realise an MA in History and then go into the business of selling flowers – was that really a wise idea? What are you, a mali?)
What I do resent, however, is the petty pilfering. If you think that I don’t notice when a 500 rupee note disappears from my wallet, or when you come to me with inflated accounts of the — very occasional — grocery shopping you undertake so grudgingly, then I’m afraid you’ve made a very poor assessment of my sensibilities. I’m only 33, Gautam. That doesn’t make me senile.
Nor does it make me a millionaire. For those of us who haven’t chosen to venture into the brave world of business — for those of us who still live off salaries, earned through 4 weeks of labour every month regardless of our ‘moods’ — money is yet to become the everyday gamble it seems to be for you and your friends.
Friends, I might add, scarcely worthy of the appellation. You know I have never liked Ali — he has no stability, no ethics, no family. If you cannot see how he uses you — your house, your connections, your far too liberal access to my whiskey — how he flatters your ego, stokes your resentments — how he throws his sister at you…!
I know that at least one pair of Shyamali’s earrings has found its way into Zahra’s purse. I suppose you feel that your great ‘love’ justifies anything, even theft.
She doesn’t love you, Gautam. I suspect, like any woman who sees a man so utterly enthralled, she finds you rather ridiculous. Your recent, near evangelical, espousal of hair gel cannot be doing much to change that impression.
I cannot afford you anymore, Gautam. If it were only a question of your living off my income, I suppose filial loyalty would have prohibited me from issuing this ultimatum. But your conduct has now begun to affect not only my wallet but my peace of mind — and that of Shyamali. We live like atoms in this house, connecting only to explode, leaving mutilated egos behind.
This is not what our father would have wanted. You know as well as I do what store he set by integrity of intention and action. You have displayed neither, so far.
I shall give you another month under my roof. If, by then, you have demonstrated no change in your behaviour, then I shall insist you find alternative accommodation.
Having to pay the occasional bill will not hurt either you or your ambitious young friend.
I hope, of course, for the best between us — but be in no doubt, Gautam: I will not let the best stand in the way of the good.
The next morning, Faiz found his letter crumpled into a ball on the breakfast table, a sexually explicit imperative scrawled across his own neat, tightly packed handwriting. Gautam sat chewing on cornflakes at one end. “I’m glad,” said Faiz, carefully tearing the letter into strips and letting them fall gently to the floor before helping himself from a bowl of chopped fruit, “at any rate, to see you up so early.” He speared a piece of papaya with a fork and put it in his mouth. Swallowing, he said, “Or have you just come home?”
Receiving no reply, Faiz called to the maid for an omelette and toast. “Some for you, Gautam? Another strenuous day ahead, I imagine you’ll need the strength. Eight hours of sitting in a plastic chair, surrounded by overpriced lilies. Can’t be easy.”
The maid brought out a cup of coffee on a tray. “Where’s my omelette?” asked Faiz.
“I’m bringing it just now. Gautam baba wanted coffee.”
Faiz crunched loudly at a wedge of green apple. “Yes,” he said, “But Gautam baba wants so many things. I’ve only asked for some dry toast and a little egg.”
The maid hesitated between a smile and a silent exit, and chose the latter course. The sound of crockery smashing on tile followed her out.
Inside, the brothers stood staring at each other. “It’s not enough you drink my coffee from my cups, is it; now you want to break the set on my head?”
“Shut up,” said Gautam.
“And who’s going to pay to get the stains out of this chair? Your pet leech, Ali?”
“Shut up!” Gautam said, louder.
“Get out of my house,” said Faiz.
“It’s not your house.”
‘I imagine you’ll need the strength. Eight hours of sitting in a plastic chair, surrounded by overpriced lilies. Can’t be easy’
“You? You’ll take me to court? You can barely put your trousers on without help, Gautam.” He glanced at his watch and turned to leave. “Get that stain off the chair or pack your bags. It’s up to you.”
ON HIS way to work, blindly watching the early morning traffic, Faiz remembers how he would once explain his relationship with his brother. “It’s all written in our names, really. When I was born, my parents were Commies. By the time Gautam came along, they’d become Buddhists. It’s not an age difference, it’s a cultural chasm we’ve inherited.”
It doesn’t seem all that clever anymore.
Faiz breathes in. If only Gautam would realise how unnecessary this is, how much better he could do if only he gave himself to some real pursuit, something that challenged his brain and his heart. He needs someone to push him, someone with authority, someone to trust. Someone whose only interest isn’t money.
A stray memory sears through his brain, burning his cheeks. A six-year-old Gautam following him into his 8th standard classroom on his first day of school, wailing his insistence, wetting his bright red shorts on the cold stone floor. The teacher’s rebuke. His father’s deep, pleasing laughter.
“Faiz, let me tell you a story,” his father had said that night, as Faiz blurted the day out over dinner, a welt of embarrassment darkening his voice. “Once upon a time there was a Sheikh Burhanuddin, a great Sufi mystic who lived in the very heart of India and had many devoted followers. So devoted, in fact, that when they were in prayer, they would call to Burhanuddin as if he were god himself.”
“Now,” his father’s voice rose imperceptibly and Faiz stopped kicking his legs against his chair, “now you know, of course, that this is a great blasphemy – Muslims recognise only one god, one Allah. Do you know that, Faiz?”
“Yes,” Faiz spoke to his plate of rice.
“Well, then, Sheikh Burhanuddin couldn’t possibly allow this to continue, could he? He called his students together and told them to curtail their enthusiasm, locking them up in their khanqah – do you know what a khanqah is, Faiz? No? A seminary, have you heard that word? Well, look it up – he locked them up until they saw the error of their ways. But, of course, they were all far too devoted to pay any attention to their teacher’s warnings.”
His father reached for a bowl of aloo-gobhi and Faiz looked up. “What do you think he did next?”
“Kicked them,” Faiz muttered into the far distance.
His father laughed. “You’re rather close. He sent them to the local qazi, the judge. The judge, now, he put them in prison and reasoned with them, asked them to end their foolishness. And, of course, they didn’t listen. So,” Faiz scooped a mouthful of warm rice into his mouth and felt it flow down his throat, “so the qazi had no choice. He had them executed. A little more drastic than ‘kicking them’ but, in the long run, less humiliating, I suppose.”
The sound of his jaw chewing hurt Faiz’s ears, but his father didn’t seem to notice.
“I’ve always felt a strange sympathy for the hapless qazi.” His father paused and looked from one son to the other. “Faiz?”
“After we’ve finished eating, help your brother pack his bag for tomorrow.”
Faiz blinks against the light when his driver opens the door. Maybe if he can persuade Shyamali to organise one of her, what are they called, kosha mangshos tonight, they could all sit down and have a civilised conversation over dinner.