The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The unbridgeable distance between neighbouring localities

“I can give you some material for your column,” my mother said to me recently. I nodded; people are always suggesting to me what to write. I’m not talking about the people who review my books; I mean ordinary people. Ordinary people give me their manuscripts — their novels or stories — and want me to tell them how to write better, or that they write well, or in what way they might get published and become famous, or at least read by others. But some — relatives, strangers — might ask me to fictionalize their life-stories, or someone else’s. They seem to sense, rightly, that the burden, and the material, of the writer is anonymity; not only his own, but others’.

My mother’s offer came to me from a sense of affront and outrage. She has a greater faith in the efficacy of newsprint than I do. She has an unarticulated belief that newsprint is an instrument of social and political change; and whenever she encounters something appalling or unjust in this city, she turns to me and says, “Tui likhbi na'” This time it was no injustice, but her driver’s room that had moved her — she perhaps saw it as a form of injustice.

“You must go and see it,” she said. “It’s not far away.” The previous day she and my father had been to Ravinder’s room. Ravinder (I have changed his name), the tall, rather gangly driver of the Maruti Esteem, has been working for them for about eight years now. He was there, in the front, behind the steering wheel, when we brought our newborn daughter home from the Belle Vue nursing home.

But from time to time he disappears, always leaving my parents at a loss, searching for a replacement. Something at home beckons: his wife; his two children; a relative’s illness; a problem with “sampatti”. Off he goes to a village near Giridih, and comes back thinner and darker, expecting re-employment. He is always taken back after the first admonitory noises. The last time he returned, he resolved to put an end to this back-and-forth movement, which was being caused by his father’s inability to get on with his wife. “Khali jhaada kore,” he said: “jhaada” is his way of pronouncing “jhagda”; it captures the violence of these domestic differences. So he decided to move to a room that would accommodate his family.

Once, when he was absent, we looked him up in a room on Broad Street which he was sharing with six other people; later, he shifted to a room near the Ruby Hospital, the area in which the driver of my car, a young Bihari boy, now lives. In other words, Ravinder, during his employment, has never lived very far from where we do; he’s always been a walk or a short drive away. It has to do with the extraordinariness of this city, where neighbouring localities can be so different from one another, economically and socially, and the way the inhabitants of one locality, or even a corner of a locality, become familiar with another neighbourhood and yet remain in a sense strangers to it; this is true, for instance, of both Ravinder and myself, and will continue to be true for us in the “foreseeable future”, as they say.

Giridih or its environs is where, as I’ve said, Ravinder comes from. A good-looking young man who stands outside the Emami shopping centre on Lord Sinha Road, wearing spotless white kurta and pyjamas and a Gandhi cap, and who assiduously tries to sell me flattened chana garam in a packet, tells me he comes from Sitamarhi in Bihar, which is, he informs me, “Janaki’s birthplace”. Two older men, dressed identically, stand with him outside the mall in the evenings. The young man expounded a theory to me once: that most Biharis in this city come from Sitamarhi and — but I can’t remember what the other place is. So I went looking for him, but was disappointed to hear he’d gone home to a relative’s wedding. “Not his own'” I asked. “Oh no, he’s married with children.” Later, I took a solitary walk in my own “district”, passing the Birla temple into Queen’s Park. This lane still has the quietude of affluence; as I was walking back, I saw a man pulling a rickshaw. Why was he here' Would he have plied the Japanese consul general, or Mr Khaitan, or Mr Todi home' I asked him; he told me he’d delivered a fan — a “pankha” — from Ballygunge Phaadi. He’d been pulling a rickshaw for “ten-twelve years” now, and he came from Giridih. “From Giridih' Or near there'” “Oh, near — just like here and Park Circus, “ he smiled, “or like here and Gariahat.”

In my head, thus, proximities, distances, localities have been confused of late: I run into Giridih in Ballygunge; and a driver’s room in the middle of the national elections. “My room is near ‘chaar nambar bridge’,” said Ravinder, “not at all far from here.” A few evenings ago he took me there: as you descend the “chaar nambar bridge”, you go a little way into the bypass and turn left into a lane. The lane winds past the high walls of granite and pharmaceutical factories till it comes to an open field with water on one side; and beyond the water is the bypass again, on which cars dart swiftly towards the ITC Sonar Bangla or Lake Town or the airport, or, on the other side, back to the South.

Ravinder parked the car here; it is very quiet in the field. It struck me I’d often glanced idly in this direction, across the water, while being driven down the bypass. To stand here, looking back, was like irrevocably entering a mirror. Ravinder took me back down the lane and we reached, in less than a minute, a gate on the left that displayed a poster asking for votes for Mohammed Salim. Then a short, narrow alley, with a series of room on one side. I think Ravinder’s was the third room on the right; a room three-quarters the size of my bedroom, with a large double-bed that had no mattress, lit by a tube light, and a fan — transplanted from the “servant’s quarter” in our flat to this ceiling — whirling overhead. A two-year-old girl was tottering on the bed, surrounded by the puffed rice she had evidently scattered. And here was the diminutive wife, shy, standing on one side, with whom Ravinder’s father found it so difficult to come to an agreement. A pillow was offered to me to sit on: I recognized the pillow cover. Just as we were about to leave — for Ravinder’s working day was not over — his seven-year-old son wandered in.

“Do you know,” said my mother, her memory of the room still fresh, “they have a tiny shared toilet at the back of the alley. But they have no closed space to bathe in. Which is all right for Ravinder. But the wife has to bathe in the room itself. There’s a drain in the corner through which the water flows out into the alley.” She sighed, and added with a faintly bewildered smile: “They’re so boka, you know, they’re very happy. They think they’ve found a wonderful room to live in…”

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