A Moment’s Indulgence
I ask for a moment’s indulgence to sit by thy side. The works that I have in hand I will finish
—Rabindranath Tagore, “Gitanjali”
News of the affair between Mukherjee Madam and Principal Siddiqui blew from one corner of the Academy to the other—hot and stinging like the Jeddah wind that rolled bits of garbage and dry leaves across the school’s tarmac-covered grounds.
The “revelation,” as some called it, was made the day a group of Class XI girls followed Mukherjee Madam in a second-floor corridor, mimicking her hip-swinging walk, and made her burst into tears. “Poor thing,” said the Hindi teacher, Gupta Madam. “Started crying like she had just been eve-teased by some loafer on Tahaliyah Street.”
According to eyewitness accounts, an hour later, Mukherjee found refuge in the principal’s arms. “You should have seen the way he hugged her!” said Nawal Al-Abdulaziz to a group of wide-eyed Class XI girls. “God forgive me for saying this, but I cringe to think that she’s our teacher!”
In the cleaning supplies room, Mamhood, the head custodian, peppered the rumour with his own theories about the embrace. “Sala motherfucker must have ghusaao-fied his finger under her blouse to feel that soft-soft skin.” Mahmood plucked at the wedgie, caused by the pants of his orange coveralls, and scratched his rear with a fingernail. “I would’ve done it if she hugged me.”
“Only, you wouldn’t have fingered her blouse,” a cleaner said. “You would have gone directly for the . . .” He lowered his hand to the groin and squeezed.
Around the cleaner, mouths wagged with laughter and whistled suggestive short-long phrases: phwee-phweeeeee.
“Come now,” someone said, his shoulders still shaking. “She is a married woman. Let us give her some respect.”
“Ha!” said someone else. “As if your thoughts are as white as milk!”
“No, re,” said the groin-grabber, “such thoughts only belong to our hero, Abid miyan. Where is he, by the way? Mukherjee Madam is supposed to be his apsara from heaven.”
A few heads turned in unison to glance at a cleaner who stood at the periphery of the pack, about a foot away from the grimy concrete wall. He had a chubby, brown face, a beaked nose, and protruding red-veined eyes. His legs, which were skinny and disproportionately long compared to the rest of his body, gave him the appearance of a stork or a man on stilts. But if he had heard his name being spoken, the man—Abid—gave no sign of it. He kept his head lowered and shifted his weight from one foot to another, like a child who wanted to go pee.
“Respect,” he muttered under his breath. “Respect, they say! Just listening to these bastards is like walking through a sewer. By God, if they say another word about her, I will cut out their tongues!” He considered the instruments to perform this deed. A butcher knife, perhaps? A scalpel? Or perhaps a fishhook—long and sharp like the ones they used in his village back home—to pull the muscle from the root and slap it on the floor, where it would twitch for some time. Yes, he decided, nodding. The tongue would stay alive for a few seconds: grey-pink and meaty, screaming the filth of the owner’s mind.
“Oye, Hero!” a voice shouted. “Why are you hissing like a pressure cooker?—Look at him, he’s not even listening!—Oye, Raja Satyavadi Harishchandra! Why don’t you tell us to be ashamed of ourselves? Where is all that talk about mothers and sisters and defending their honour?”
“Leave the idiot alone,” Mahmood said. “He’s probably counting the dirt particles on the floor.” He glanced at the clock on the wall and clapped twice. The sound had a metallic ting to it, as if Mahmood had hands of steel instead of flesh and blood. “Okay, chalo, party time over now. The geysers in the bathrooms need to be fixed. Haz-Mat has been on my case about them since last Saturday,” he said, using the code name for the Academy’s headmistress, Begum Hazrat.
Abid waited for the others to leave before stepping out of the room. He rolled his cleaning trolley down the long, tube-lit corridor, careful to keep his eyes straight ahead and not look at the paint chipping off the concrete walls or the tube lights that blinked overhead under plastic covers grimed with dust and dead flies. It was as if Mahmood’s essence had somehow seeped into that narrow tunnel, along with the reek of dried sweat and curdled milk. Abid held his breath till the sunlit patch on the tiles at the end of the corridor, the point that marked the beginning of the ground-floor classrooms.
He dipped the mop into a bucket of white Dettol-water and twisted the handle to drain the excess liquid. Fumes of antiseptic rose from the mop and entered Abid’s nostrils. He inhaled the clean, pungent scent and said, “Bismillah ur rahman ur rahim.” In the name of God, the most gracious, the most merciful. He asked for God’s forgiveness for his violent thoughts about Mahmood and the other janitors and exhaled several times to drive them from his body. Slowly, his muscles relaxed into the push-pull rhythm of the mop. Forward, backward. Right side, left side. Heat, thickened with humidity, steamed the back of his coveralls like a tailor’s iron.
Air conditioners rumbled inside the classrooms in the corridor. Some teachers left their doors open, and their voices floated out to reach Abid’s ears:
“. . . A plus B, whole squared can be expanded to A squared, plus two AB, plus B squared . . .”
“. . . headless, brainless, shameless! Hindi class mein bhi always you talking in English . . .”
“. . . the ruins at Harappa, Mohenjo-Daro and Lothal give evidence of a highly sophisticated civilization in the Indus Valley . . .”
“. . . He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair . . .”
Abid paused in front of the last door, listening to the singsong voice of the English teacher—the one the girls called Paan Madam because of her dyed red hair. He did not understand many of the words, but he liked the way they sounded, dropping from her mouth—one after another, precise and beautiful like pearls.
He’d often wondered what Mukherjee Madam sounded like when she taught. He had tried to find out in the past: pretending to wipe the closed door of her classroom with disinfectant and then pressing his ear to the wooden surface when the corridor was empty. Her words had pulsed behind the door like heartbeats—audible at times, but mostly indecipherable.
Abid did not often think of Amirghar, the village of his birth. The one time he saw it on a map—on page eighteen of the Oxford School Atlas Bari Sir carried around with him for geography classes—he was surprised to see how small it truly was. Bari Sir had pointed it out to him: a speck on the coast of the River Ganga, somewhere between the towns of Haridwar and Bijnor in the state of Uttar Pradesh, amidst a slew of other smaller villages.
“You must have fond memories of that place,” Bari Sir had said as he closed the book. “How simple village life seems when you compare it to living in a city like Delhi or Bombay.”
Abid’s first memory of Amirghar was that of the door to his old house—a wooden door his father had painted blue, three years before dying of a stroke on Moneylender Munshi’s field.
The women of the village would sometimes open their mouths to spit on the door—a spray of paan or phlegm-logged saliva, leaving rust-coloured trails on the door’s faded blue surface. Most times, however, they just said the word thoo.
“Killed her own mother when she was born,” yelled Moneylender Munshi’s wife, Sita, whenever Abid’s mother passed her in the market. “Ate her husband’s soul three months after marriage and killed him too. Now she pecks away at our husbands, our homes, our happiness! Thoo on you, you light-eyed Muslim cunt! Thoo!”
Yet, as much as she screamed at Abid’s mother, Sita did not dare interfere in her husband’s business of collecting unpaid debt, including the method of collection. Moneylender Munshi would wait outside their hut door at nightfall, three times every week. Abid’s mother would prepare a meal for him—thick rotis made of corn flour and mustard seeds, a stew of onions and chickpeas, and a few extra green chillies to eat after the meal.
She would then shoo Abid from the house, to the netted cot set up next to the covered well at the back and bolt the door and the windows from the inside.
They ate, Abid saw once from a hole in the wall, like a married couple. His mother did not eat while Munshi did. She waited for him to finish with a small silver lota of water in her lap, and then poured the liquid into his cupped hands. Later, Munshi plucked food stuck in his teeth with a fingernail and watched her eat, the way one would watch a mildly interesting puppet show or a motion picture at Amirpur’s open-air theatre.
Abid never saw what happened after that; his mother and the moneylender doused the lamp and went to the big cot in the corner of the room, within hearing range, but out of sight. Munshi grunted for a few minutes like a water buffalo and then fell asleep, snoring. His mother shook Abid awake in the morning when the moneylender was gone, her anklets and bracelets tinkling with each movement, her sari reeking of sweat and the paan Munshi chewed.
In public, his mother wore a burka over her sari. She attended the village mosque the mornings after Munshi’s visits—“to atone for the sin she will commit again,” said the women cutting grass in the moneylender’s fields. “There is no limit to shamelessness!”
When his mother walked back home with Abid, the women would talk in loud, crow-like voices to make sure she could listen. Their mouths would be wide open and their tongues soaked scarlet with paan like the black four-armed Hindu goddess in the Kali temple across the river.
The sun crept up behind Abid as he worked—tying up old garbage bags, tossing them onto the ground next to the bin, spraying the plastic bins with disinfectant, tucking in new ones—and moistened his uniform under the arms and on the back.
Fortunately, the grounds were mostly empty at this time, with most of the little demons safely tucked away in their classes. The teachers who walked past Abid at the end of each forty-five-minute period paid him no attention.
The garbage bag of the sixth bin was wedged in place. Abid paused. The last time something like that had happened, he had pulled a little too hard and the plastic had ripped, sliming the bottom of the large orange bin with mud-coloured filth. Mahmood had docked fifteen riyals off Abid’s salary for “wasting resources”—disinfectant, tissues and an extra garbage bag.
As he struggled with the bag, a few teachers emerged from the staff building, followed by a pair of senior girls carrying notebooks.
“. . . with poor Mukherjee,” said one teacher. “She was crying, did you know? The principal asked her to take a day off work. Students can be so nasty at times.”
“Why blame the girls?” said another. “The way she dresses in those small-small sari blouses and the way she walks, shaking her hips like a pendulum! I privately told her to change her behaviour. But did she listen to me? Of course she didn’t. That woman has no respect for her seniors.”
The girls carrying the books looked at each other and smirked.
The first teacher, perhaps understanding the impropriety of such talk in front of the students, frowned at her colleague.
But the other woman did not seem to care. “No wonder he likes her so much,” she continued, without lowering her voice. “His wife has a face like a fish and is probably as cold as one, too. And poor Mr. Mukherjee! The man is just too simple for a flashy piece like her.”
The garbage bag finally loosened. Abid dumped it on the ground, harder than intended. The girls glanced at him quickly and looked away, but the teachers did not notice.
“Now look at us,” the second woman said. “Does anyone watch us in that way? Of course not.”
Of course not. Abid eyed the brown, cellulite-veined belly that sagged over the second teacher’s sari petticoat. What was there to see?
“It’s all about respect,” the first teacher agreed. “If you don’t dress appropriately, how will you expect the men to respect you?”
Abid tucked a new bag into the bin. A flash of colour appeared against the grey of the staff building. Mukherjee Madam walked towards him, wearing a loose-fitting churidar—bright pink like the bougainvilleas draped over the school walls. It wasn’t immodest, he thought. But the teachers wouldn’t like the colour. Too showy, they would call it. He paused for a moment and admired the way she walked, a dancer’s steps, light and graceful.
Her eyes looked amber in the sunlight. Abid turned away and pretended to hunt for something in the trolley. He did not want to embarrass her or, worse, make her think he was some sort of pervert. He waited until the sound of her footsteps faded from his hearing. Abid pushed the trolley forward and hummed a song.
His mother, as far as Abid understood, was happiest indulging in the pleasures of a ten-year-old child. Coloured ice shavings on a stick, Ram Leela plays and puppet shows. She liked walking barefoot along the shore of the Ganga at midnight, a kerosene lamp in hand. Sometimes she wore an old pair of dancing ghungroos that rattled on her ankles, like the ghost woman from that old Hindi movie, and walked towards the steps of the ghat to spook the washerman, who left behind the clothes in wet heaps and ran back through the village, yelling, “Bhoot! Bhoot!”
Unlike the other widows at the village, his mother did not wear white or black. She continued to wear her gold anklets and bracelets even after her husband’s death, explaining that she liked the tinkling sound they made when she walked.
The mullah at the village mosque said, in his sermons, that it was a sin to listen to music and wear coloured clothes and ornaments. “Haram,” he called it, which meant forbidden.
At school, the master sometimes called a misbehaving boy harami, a word which also meant bastard. This confused Abid because the boy, in most cases, was born of a legitimate marital union, blessed by the villagers and the perpetually clapping, hai-hai chanting transsexuals who came over from Saharanpur to dance at village weddings.
Abid and his mother were not invited to the neighbours’ weddings or naming ceremonies. His mother would stand at the window, watching the firecrackers pop smoky heat in the black sky, and move her feet restlessly to the music. He was afraid that if they were invited, his mother would quite possibly ignore all decorum and start dancing with the hijras.
“Stop it,” Abid would say when she did such things, even though there was no one in the hut to see her. “Stop it. The mullah said it is a sin.”
“Ha!” his mother would reply. “That old hypocrite who throws hundreds of rupees to drink booze and see girls dance in Lucknow kothas? What does he know of God’s will?”
Moneylender Munshi often watched his mother dance to the song from the movie Mughal-e-Azam, the one where the dancer Anarkali twirled before Emperor Akbar, claiming her fearless love for his son, Salim.
Munshi brought his gramophone and record those evenings. She lined her grey eyes with kohl, painted her lips red, and replaced her anklets with the ghungroos. She did not dance very well, Abid thought. Not like Madhubala, the heroine of the movie. Her movements were graceful, but flawed, like a bird that had learnt to stay in the air without really learning how to fly.
Yet, one evening, when Abid peeked into the hut, he saw Munshi watching his mother with the reverence of an ascetic who pressed his palms together before the rising sun and then dipped himself into the gold-lit waters of the Ganga.
“Watch me!” A crumpled ball of paper traced a parabola in the air, hit the plastic rim of the garbage bin, and landed on the ground.
“That’s all you can do? No wonder you didn’t get on the team, Hammy!”
“Oh, shut up! You can’t do any better.”
“Oh ya? Watch this then.”
More balls. None finding their mark.
“Stop it, girls,” Abid said.
They ignored him.
“Girls, please! Don’t throw papers on the ground. Do you do this in your own home?”
“Gaarls pa-leeeze!” screeched the one they called Hammy. Laughter, light and frivolous, floated around Abid and warmed the back of his neck.
Demons, he thought. Foul little jinns. Why did he have to deal with these foolish girls who did not think, not even once, about how much time it would take him to clean up the mess they made, about how much paper they wasted on these senseless games, when that paper cost their parents money? Abid thought about the times before Moneylender Munshi began visiting his mother, when his father would rip off pages of an old calendar and make notebooks for Abid to take to school. How the schoolmaster had frowned at those poor books whose pages were clean on one side and printed with fat English numerals and Parle-G advertisements on the other.
“What are you doing?” a sharp voice called out, pronouncing what in the South Indian way: vaat.
He looked up. It was the teacher with the sagging belly—the one who had accused Mukherjee Madam of being immodest. Even before the girls froze in place, their smiles flattening, Abid knew they would not dare make fun of this woman’s accent.
“Playing with paper balls at your age!” the teacher shouted. “No wonder you’re failing all your tests!”
“Sorry, Verghese Madam,” the girl whimpered.
The teacher waddled forward and caught a girl’s ear between her fat little fingers. “Sorry, are you, Hammy-da?” She twisted the ear. “Sorry doesn’t make a dead man alive. Sorry, they tell me, the little hypocrites.”
The anger that had steamed in Abid’s gut seconds earlier hardened to unease. Verghese Madam’s fat arm twisted, screwing and unscrewing the girl’s ear. Her friends stood behind her, their gazes lowered to the floor. The girl gritted her teeth, as if refusing to give the teacher the satisfaction of hearing her pain.
Footsteps in the corridor behind Abid. The voice that followed them was low and smooth and held the hint of a smile.
“Verghese Madam, I’m so sorry to interrupt,” Mukherjee Madam said. “But there’s a phone call for you in the staff room.”
Verghese Madam’s mouth puckered as if she’d just heard something really obscene. She said something under her breath and, after another hard twist, released the girl’s ear. “Make sure you punish them properly, Mukherjee Madam. These children have no respect for their elders.”
“Yes, of course.”
Once Verghese Madam left, Mukherjee Madam turned to face the girls, her pink dupatta swishing in the humid air.
“Sorry, Mukherjee Madam, we won’t do it again we promise please don’t punish us please please ple—”
“Hush!” Mukherjee Madam said. “You will have a punishment—no don’t look at me like that Hamida dear—because you have been littering the grounds and it’s not really fair on our staff is it? These people work very hard to keep Qala Academy clean, and we don’t want to burden them with unnecessary work.”
“Yes ma’am.” The girls looked glum, but nowhere nearly as frightened as they had in front of the other teacher.
Mukherjee Madam made them pick up the paper and deposit it into the garbage can.
“Thank you, madam,” Abid said in English. The accent didn’t sound right to him, but Mukherjee Madam didn’t seem to notice.
“You’re welcome.” A quick nod, the barest hint of a smile, and she walked away.
Some nights, he thought of Mukherjee Madam without her clothes. He wondered if her skin was really as smooth as it looked or more velvet in texture, if it was covered with the fine, down-like hair that is nearly invisible to the eye on women with dusky skin.
He thought of Principal Siddiqui’s hands. Large and clean with no hair on the skin between the knuckles. The fingernails were square and trimmed so that no white bordered the tops. They looked like the plastic gloves surgeons wore on television. Smooth and unstained. Abid wondered what it would be like to slip on those hands and stroke the bare skin of Mukherjee Madam’s belly.
Abid thought about this as he masturbated. In his thoughts he did all the things Mahmood had talked about in the storeroom, and more, grunting all the while like a fat animal settling in the water.
The self-disgust usually came after the release.
Abid would go take a bath and change the sheets on his bed. He would prostrate on the prayer mat, turning north to face the Ka’aba in Makkah.
“There is no god but He,
The Living, the Everlasting,
Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep,
To Him belongs all that is in the heavens and the earth . . .”
Once finished with the recitation, he would lie down again, feeling like a cloth with a faded stain.
“Eat it,” said the boys at the village school.
Two of them held Abid to the ground: one for the spindly legs, one for the stubby arms, their fingers digging into his flesh.
The third boy, one of Munshi’s cousin’s sons, poked at Abid’s tightly shut mouth with the fingers of his left hand. In his right hand, he held a handful of wriggling brown earth. “It’s your birthday, whore-son. Would you like to sweeten your mouth with some cake?”
A worm, slick and slender, fell from the boy’s hand on Abid’s cheek.
“NNNNNNnnnnn!” Abid screamed from deep inside his throat, his mouth still shut.
“Fuck that.” The third boy smeared mud over Abid’s face and pushed the worms inside his shirt. He used the schoolmaster’s cane to mash them into Abid’s chest, where they squirmed until the breath was snuffed out of them.
“Turn him over,” he said to the other two captors. He stood at ease and repeatedly smacked the cane on one palm, like the fat tobacco-chewing constable at the police station. “And pull down his pants.”
“Who did this to you?” his mother demanded that evening, when Abid limped back home, blood blacking the inside of his pants.
Not what or how. But who. As if she’d expected it all along.
“Who did this to you?” she repeated. Unshed tears added a silvery sheen to her grey eyes. “You must tell me.”
Abid said nothing. He stood in place and rocked from heel to heel.
“Abid,” she said, kneeling. The scent of paan brushed his nostrils.
He waited till she placed her hands on his shoulders, till he could see her brimming eyes.
He spat on her face. “Don’t touch me, you whore,” he said.
Her hands fell. She did not ask him any more questions.
A week later, he found her hanging by a rope from a tree by the river, her dirty feet bare. She had left the anklets and bracelets in a brown package with Abid’s name written on it and placed it in the hut beside the moneylender’s Mughal-e-Azam record.
Abid liked being inside the Academy at sunset. Sometimes the sky turned orange or pink or violet and soaked everything—the buildings, the potted palms and bougainvillea at the entrance, the other workers—in a single, pastel shade. It was like seeing the world through coloured sunglasses without wearing them.
It was also quiet at this time. The students and most of the staff had gone home, with the exception of both the headmistress and Principal Siddiqui, who almost always worked late, a few teachers, and members of the male custodial staff.
Abid usually stood at the base of the water tank’s painted iron ladder and watched the sky deepen in colour, sometimes waiting till a star or two pricked through the darkness. His body stilled in those moments; stillness, he felt, was a blessing for a man like him, who was restless even in sleep.
It was on an evening like this that Abid saw the principal and Mukherjee Madam walking across the school grounds, towards the entrance of the cleaning-supplies room. For a long moment, Abid did nothing except stare. They were talking. Mukherjee Madam moved her hands in front of her face and threw her head back. Laughing. Principal Siddiqui turned his head back to see if they were being followed.
He said something to her. They quickened their steps. They stepped into the room and closed the door.