Sunday, January 21, 2007

Review of "The Inheritance of Loss" by Kiran Desai

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss springs at you with the many-splendored colours of life in the North-Eastern part of India, Kalimpong to be exact. It is tragic, comic and a dark reminder of how insurgency, extremism is threatening to wreck this once-peaceful region of India. In fact, the threat of violence looms large throughout the novel, in the very words of characters that seem to have something lacking in them, just the feeling that their lives aren’t fulfilled.

Picturesque, but crumbling Chuo Oyu is the abode where young Sai is sent to after her parents’ death to live with her grandfather, the retired judge Bomanbhai Patel, who is living out the last phase of a life of a taciturn man who during his training in Civil Service in England didn’t speak to anyone for years and has painful memories of how he mistreated his wife to death, which he is trying to atone. He had sent his wife back home where his daughter was born. This daughter, a scientist, who never met her father lived all her life in hostels married Sai’s father, an orphan, who was also a scientist. The couple then go to work in Russia where Sai was born and both her parents die leaving her grandfather as the only caretaker and relation Sai has in the world.

Sai is being tutored by Gyan, in Chuo Oyu, who being a Ghurkha is sympathetic to the Ghurkha national Liberation Front (GNLF) which is violently demanding a separate homeland in this North-Eastern region. Gyan reports to his friends that the judge has two rifles in his house and one night they come and rob the house and humiliates him and his cook. The judge and the cook have a common bond that runs back to the days when the former was a district collector in a remote area where he went hunting for patridges and would write fake entries in his diary about the number of patridges he killed, whereas the truth was that he was a poor shot and killed none.

The situation in Kalimpong is shown to be getting worse as the militancy gains ground and the sisters Noni and Lola are coerced into harbouring terrorists in their house and they even come and poach on their property, building hutments over it. There are demonstrations where Khukri knives are brandished as the GNLF men demand a separate homeland. The irony of how they masquerade for what is according to them “a noble” cause, using insurgency and murder of innocents is brought out very well by the author.

Perhaps the most potent message that the novel conveys is of how a band of youth recruited by goons can threaten peace in a sleepy and peaceful haven and is only waking up to the new realities of life. These youth are inspired by re-runs of karate movies of Jackie Chan and the violent movies of Rambo. It’s a sad reflection of modern life. The novel’s principal comment, made lucidly clear, according to this writer, is how media can corrupt the youth and sow in them the ideals of violence and mayhem, manipulated by a few misguided individuals.

The cook’s son Biju is away in the US as an illegal immigrant, working in hotels run by shady Indian characters, being paid low, working all days of the month to chase his dream. But he finds that he hasn’t made any friends, and his relations are away in India. The idea of migration is well portrayed in these sections. Biju’s and Sai’s life become the leit motif of the novel with Sai being shielded from the childhood she hasn’t had neither in the convent nor in Chuo Oyu where she is a virtual prisoner and pines away for the love of the elusive Gyan, immersed in his poverty and ideals. There is a poignant section in the book when she goes in search of her absent lover and sees the depravity in which he lives.

Biju’s life is even more of that of a prisoner of his own conscience. Though he lives in New York he hasn’t the time to see the country, lives in poverty where he has to sleep in shifts, or on the floor of the hotel he works, and even has to serve beef which he detests. His friend the philandering Saeed Saeed is a colourful character from Zanzibar who is tormented by friends referred to him from his home country, as is Biju by his father the cook from India, who recommends to him stray wastrels who want to immigrate to the US from India. These “tribes” come to US for the first time and are desperate to make a living and like Biju is willing to undergo any torment to make ends meet. The novel truly depicts their sad lives.

The good father Booty who lives with Uncle Potty is found to be an illegal alien, though he has lived all his life in Kalimpong, trying to make it into the dairy capital of India. But he is thwarted by the ever present Amul brand of the original dairy capital of India – Anand. Father Booty is sent back to Switzerland for overstaying, and Kalimpong descends into mayhem with no food available, not even bread, and is overrun by terrorists and the military.

Much speculation has gone on in the media about the portrayal of Kalimpong, of how the denizen of the town hasn’t taken kindly to its portrayal by the author. But this writer feels that the novel has a valid point to make, of how an author can use artistic licence to make his/her point though it may be somewhat in the extreme. The author is primarily writing a work of fiction and not a factual account. It is a story of imaginary characters, though the settings may be real and the world he/she creates is unreal, and hints at his/her view of the truth.

She encapsulates the essence of Indian thought and thinking in this oeuvre of vivid colours of the literary spectrum. For example when the judge loses his dog and goes around asking if anyone has seen it, and the men whisper behind his back, “Sala, he is bothered about a dog, when people are dying here.” How typical.

A definite must read, even if only for Kiran Desai’s devastating wit, charming style, and the way she keeps the pace going. Desai is an author of the new breed who use multiple question marks “???” and multiple exclamation marks, “!!!” throughout the text. I think it jars and should have been avoided. The need is for subtlety and not overt exaggeration. What I also found jarring was the intimate description of the characters including some of the disconcertingly intimate habits of the judge and that of Gyan. Was the author following a stereotype here? Don’t now. However, given the Booker Award and all the salient points the novel makes, a not to be missed novel by a true artisan of the word.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Epilogue - The End of the Journey

Cross posted from my blog:

So final isn't final anymore. I have decided to extend my impressions of Delhi in a blog diary. How does it sound? Web log diary? Not nice, eh? But that's it what I want to call this series. I am writing this on the train back to Bombay in between reading Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss," as the coach has a socket to recharge laptops. Thank God!

I look outside the window and see the areas of the city that had remained shrouded till now. It is actually floating on a sea of multi-colored plastic. Plastic, plastic is everywhere. I see the equivalents of the slums of Bombay, juggies, they are called here. The masses living in them have come out to sun themselves and stand in circles, or huddle around a fire.


On the final day in Delhi I have lunch with the pretty and smiling Smita (I bought her lunch when I was in Delhi last, so it's her turn), or "one who smiles," or, smilestop (her blog name), or, land of the smiling sun, a utopian land of her own creation. Verily, knowing her is like being a citizen of a land where there are lots of infectious smiles. I am a great smiler myself, and have found true friendship in this amazing woman. I owe a lot to her, and she is, in fact, all of friend, philosopher and guide.

It was she who offered to edit my novel when nobody would even look at it, teaching me the tricks of the book-editing trade. She is the one who helped me when I visited in May 2006, and again this time. This time she introduced me to her friend Asheeth who also has her quality of genuine concern and camaraderie. This is what Delhi is all about, I think, this lack of hypocrisy, this complete trust, this age-old mehman navazi. I may be wrong because I have seen only the kind and gentle members of the community so far, except for my nephew Tommy (who, I am proud to say, has gone through a lot of deprivations in life and is now managing director of a multinational publishing house and drives a Chevrolet Optra), who is family.

Smita has found a job she genuinely likes and is so confident she will do well in it that I am truly pleased. The job involves, she tells me animatedly, in between her captivating smiles, as we have lunch, telecommunication projects, writing interesting content, giving presentations, which have made her super-confident, liberated, independent, and a new woman. I wonder why I don't meet her likes in Bombay. Or, may be I move around in the wrong circles. But there are Anita, Rekha, Sairee, Asmita, Annie, all making waves in their own ways. How do I classify and stereotype these new women? I can't. These women who are aggressively pursuing their careers and dreams defy stereotyping, and speak their mind which men tend to avoid. How does Smita manage to juggle a high-profile job, a family, a circle of friends? She says Buddhism has helped her to deal with the hurly-burly of life. I can see that it has from the glow on her face when she smiles. She really believes and practices what she says.

Asheeth, a friend I made through Smita, made sure I would attend the TC do on my first day in Delhi by picking me up from Connaught Place and dropping me back to my hotel. There I had the first karaoke experience of my life singing "Break out to the other side" and "Wonderful Tonight." I had arrived tired from my journey from Bombay and wanted sleep badly after sharing a seat with an underworld don, whose wild-eyed minions stood guard outside the door of the compartment and would touch his feet repeatedly to show their obsequiousness.  They, the underlings, gave me a fright by their constant watchfulness and their distrust of all who were seated near their boss, the don.


On the day I leave, I catch a taxi to Nizamuddin station. When I arrive there the cold is unbearable, seeping into my five layers of clothes like the tentacles of some cold, shivery sea animal. The station is swarming with people, the sort I have seen pulling cycle rickshaws that I had mentioned earlier. They have a variety of jackets, sweaters, mufflers, hoods, etc. on them. It all looks so surreal and Kafkaesque.

There are these incandescent lamps that shed their pale glow on a huddling mass, as if one big greyish black chunk of humanity, breathing stolidly, mothers pulling their children into the warmth of their bosoms, men shivering, teeth chattering, a few shouts, "Yeh, laundiye," don't know what that means. I also hear the mother profanity, but said in such low-key tenor as if it were a compliment.

What I think about is migration. Migration as from Pakistan to India, Bangla Desh to India, Central Asia to India, India to the US. They have these huge polythene sacks filled with their things, may be, pots and pans and even bedding. The floor is littered with tea and coffee cups, dirt hangs even on the incandescent lamps and no one is there to man the enquiry counter where I have to enquire which platform the Sampark Kranti Express would arrive. There are these eerie sounding announcements on the smallish public address system which instead of informing adds an amount of absurdity to the whole situation.

I ask a porter. Yes, they know such things. He directs me to platform number seven. Here the sense of migration is even more stark. People with their huge bundles cling to the doors as if for their lives. I think of the pictures of the partition of India and Pakistan where people are seen travelling on the top of trains. Hasn't anything changed? A wild-eyed man, his body covered in a bedsheet, only his eyes, nose and mouth showing asks a neatly dressed man whether the train stops at Mathura. They ignore him. Then he asks me. I don't know and say as much. It's his type that Lalloo should be helping not me. I can open my laptop log in to and immediately find whether I have been allotted a seat, or, even make alternate bookings then and there on

True the new railway minister has brought improvements in tickets bookings, upgrades similar to airlines, facile changes, but is this still what it is like? Where are the courteous public relations staff to help the illiterate masses who do not know how to book a ticket on the computer? In this respect Lallooji's initiatives have failed. There is not an inch of spare space on platform seven. The whole place is littered with huddling masses of grey and black, a huge shivering protoplasm distinguished only by the moisture that wafts from their mouths.

I ask a porter to be shown where the two-tier air-conditioned coach would be. He takes me to the other end of the platform and deserts me pocketing the twenty rupees I give him. When the train comes, I find to my dismay that the two-tier air-conditioned coach is at the other end! So I have to lug my luggage back across the entire platform.

The cold is so unyielding that thought deserts me. I try to make notes about the great hulking mass that disappears into the maw of the train compartments. But the scene is so rife with the shouts of people, the wailing of children, the eerie announcements, the signature tune that goes "trrring tooong" after the announcements that I am thoroughly disoriented. I withdraw. I give up. No thought is possible in these circumstances.


Yesterday after having lunch with Smita, I had walked in the environs of the colonial Connaught Place, eaten in Kentucky Fried Chicken (as I had done in Jeddah, when I had worked there), shopped, drank coffee at Cafe Coffee Day (where I did some of the writing of this blog post) and looked at the well-fed children of, may be, bureaucrats businessmen and executives. They seemed a different world than those that I saw on platform number seven. These people were very unlike the rickshaw pullers from whom the educated classes keep a distance, and only come together in the great equalizer of Indian Railways.

Shubhra, who has started writing poetry after nine years messages me to see if I am gone. I message back saying I am at Connaught Place and; can we meet? The reason is this poem (permanent link "To a Reluctant Writer") which I wrote to encourage a reluctant writer, which has inspired her to write after nine years. I am so glad I could help her. All my time on the networks is rewarded by the email she wrote me thanking me. She heads the human resource function of a large television network. She can't make it as it is a very busy day. This is what I mean. People in Delhi really care, and as Smita put it once, "It's our culture."

The poverty of the people I saw at Nizamuddin is amazing. They have no fancy branded suitcases. They use plastic sacks. And they carry their entire household utensils with them fearing that if they leave even their pots and pans in their hovels it would get stolen. Then it also comes handy for cooking in the villages to which they are migrating back, disillusion by the city. These are subsistence level laborers who dig the ditches, mend the pipes, make the furniture, and lay the bricks. I have worked with them in the construction projects in the Persian Gulf and their lot hasn't improved for thousands of years. They are people who lead lives of loss, I think, as I am reading Kiran Desai's, "The Inheritance of Loss." Many of them, with whom I had worked, had lost their everything in the process of emigrating to the Persian Gulf. This forms a constant leit motif of my novel ( And they are still undergoing the pangs of the age-old system of migration, of armies invading, one people subjugating the other, the victors taking over the possessions of the vanquished. It's still going on. I am shocked and amazed no less.

This time the armies taking over surreptitiously are the internet-savvy, technophiles with their laptops like me. In Cafe Coffee Day I network with my friends on and I can see another bunch on a computer with on their screen. This online tribe can network as I have done in Delhi. In this city of the Mughals, because of my network contacts I could meet a lot of friends and even extend my agenda and my goals. They work in new economies like I do - telecommunications, Internet, financial services, ATM-driven banks. Yet they are a minority of the people of this nation, and this is the case of the minority taking over the majority.

The clothes the passengers that crowd Nizamuddin wear are probably the only ones they have, a polyester make that can be easily washed and used again. Where has Laloo Yadav's superfast trains and upgrades benefited them? Where are the clean toilets, clean services he promised? Yes, the two-tier air-conditioned compartment is clean and a fellow traveller lambasts the attendant who has given him a dirty towel. "They are all together, sab mile huye hain," he says meaning this is a result of corruption. But the sleeper and unreserved compartments which I have travelled often are dirty, stinking and waterless. On my way to Delhi a group of people, irate that their compartment didn't have water, had accosted the ticket checker, who showed his indifference.

There is pain here, there is dispossession, there is dissipation and loss of faith in democracy and democratic process. What is democracy if the huge changes that the government envisages cannot benefit these people? They don't even know what booking tickets on the Internet means, and if they go to the station to buy tickets they are told that the tickets are sold out, over the Internet, over computer terminals, by ticketing agents. So they don't bother to book tickets, they hang on for dear life, cling to the doors with big plastic bags full of their precious pots and pans.

As the train moves smoothly over the rails, I think of these things, write them on my laptop. My job is to record and I am recording what I think is a crucial aspect of life that I discovered, rather epiphanically during my visit to Delhi. They say travelling broadens the mind. But if it also does broaden the minds of those poor huddling masses with their blankets around their heads and shoulders, who are indistinguishable from the floor on which they huddle, I would be more than happy.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Final Installment - Blogging on Delhi

Lots of things to write about Delhi, but don't know where to begin. Wonderful friends met online become flesh and blood realities, Vijay, Rekha, Sairee, all disembodied names in the networked world become living persons, with personalities of their own.

When I called Vijay he said he was in Connaught Place and can wait for me to have lunch. I am something of a Metro expert now as a boy comes and asks me for directions. I board the metro but lose my sense of direction and go in the opposite one. Chavri Bazar? What's wrong? It should have been Rajiv Chowk. Slightly disoriented I get down and walk to the opposite side and board the next metro to new Delhi and Rajiv Chowk. Metro expert, indeed!

Vijay Nair, carries his lawyerly success with ease. He is dressed in a natty black suit and carries two mobile phones, one of which is a Blackberry. He shows me some of his poems on the blackberry. Yes, a lot of poetry is happening on blackberries these days.

We have Darjeeling tea, which reminds me of Kiran Desai's "The Inheritance of Loss" which I am reading now. There are a few Brits around, obviously attracted by the name "Oxford Book Stores." Vijay, a corporate lawyer, tells me that the prices of property has increased many times over. It's not only the backoffices that are shifting to India but the front offices too, he says. He should know, he deals in corporate law.

Vijay is unassuming, humble about his beginnings, and we have a common background in that we have been educated in English-medium schools run by Malayalees which have Malayalam as a subject. That's why we both can appreciate the Malayalam poetry of Sachidanandan, whom Vijay translates for the literary network Caferati. He tell me that Sachi lives in Delhi, which is news to me.

Vijay drops me to Greater Kailash II where I have an appointment with a publisher for my book on Kerala. I wait in a Barista coffee shop nearby as I am early for the appointment. I overhear the conversation, as is a habit with me. A man says he wakes up at 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays as he spends the whole night chatting. I wonder how much the internet has changed people's lives as I am here myself because I booked rail tickets on, booked hotel accomodation, and even fixed up appoinments by email.

A group of girls sitting nearby turn out to be young moms discussing their first-born children. Their skins are soft and blemishless (what creams do they use?), and their excited chatter is about things like, "They are little budding flowers," obviously referring to their children. I am shocked, they don't look like moms.

Appointment over, I call Rekha. She is in Saket and says she can come to her Greater Kailash I office to meet me. Anita, Asmita and Sairee also work from that office, so I think I can meet the three of them. I while away some more time, as Rekha would be in the office only by 6 p.m.

Finally I catch a rickshaw after bargaining the fare and is left at Greater Kailash I M block market. Here I am at a loss as I am directed here and there for the address. I cross several lanes, all lined by neat bungalows of Kholis, Khannas, Gargs, etc. Some have watchmen guarding the door who seem helpful but are confusing.

Rekha, statuesque beauty that she is (we have been chatting and emailing for a long time now), is an interior designer and makes exquisite home furniture. Sairee is busy on her computer. Anita has left for the day and Asmita is in a client meeting. Rekha and I discuss family, Kerala, writing.

I ask her why she is not on the networks, and she says she writes for websites on interiors but do not get paid for it. I tell her to at least ask. She has been to Lebanon, Greece, Turkey and Italy and a website wants her to write about her "budget" travels in these countries. Of course, she doesn't expect to be paid for this. But I say "you must insist that they pay even a small honorarium which most publishers do." The joy of receiving a cheque in the mail for something you have written is unbelievable, I tell her.

Rekha gives me some tasty apple tea she has brought from Turkey. It is such a wonderful blend of tea and apple that I exclaim in delight after the first sip. Then I talk to Sairee who is still busy on the computer and tell her what a wonderful network NCR Delhi (which she manages) is. She says its the members who make it so and she wanted a network where members' questions are answered.

Meetings over, I walk in the chilling cold and am directed by a kind man who tells me it is safer to take a rickshaw and not a bus, as the bus stop can only be accessed through a jungle, "Kya jaane kaise log milenge wahan par."

A rickshaw driver takes me to Rail Yatri Niwas for Rs 60. The roads are bordered by trees on both sides and I can't see where I am going, as there are no landmarks. It's a bit like Jeddah, I mean, the well-laid roads and the absence of clearly visible landmarks as in Bombay.

Delhi is an affluent city with spare income and spare time, I reason, compared to Bombay. People spend less time commuting and waiting. I pay Rs 5000 for a first-class pass and commuting to work for which I can easily have a car and fill it with petrol and meet a lot of friends and participate in social activities in Delhi. Not so in Bombay. Even after spending that royal sum of money I am hard up for time, waiting for trains and buses and rickshaws, and generally fretting all the time.

Bombay is a planner's nightmare while Delhi's circular structure is a planner's dream. The posh Greater Kailash I visited is well spaced out and there is none of the clutter one sees in Bombay. New Bombay comes close to Delhi but New Bombay also suffers in infrastructure, activities and entertainment.

Young moms who discuss their wards over coffee, a man who chats the full night on the internet, a karaoke night consisting entirely of members, conversations and friends who are politeness personified (people drop me back home after every do I visit), all constitute Delhi.

But lurking somewhere is poverty and dispossession that remain neatly hidden somewhere behind the trees and parks, signs of which can be seen in the rickshaw puller laboring on his pedals on the slight incline of the road outside my hotel room. He is only dressed in a long-sleeved shirt, trousers with a bedsheet thrown over his shoulders in this bitter cold. A photographer clicks me as I stand making some notes at Connaught Place and moves away before I can talk trade with him. He is apprehensive I would snatch his film roll or something. I am a photographer, too, you see, dumbo, and want to ask what techniques you use.

All said and done, Delhi is happening, and this being the twenty-fifth year of my first visit to it, I would want to come back, again, and again, and again....

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Blogging While Drinking Coffee in Connaught Place

Cross posted from my blog:

Am blogging while drinking coffee at Cafe Coffee Day in Connaught Place, New Delhi (yes, technology makes it possible!). It is bone chilling cold. A cold wave is going on the temperatures are hovering around -2 degree C, close to freezing. "Wear four layers," a friend had said, "Carry sweaters, mufflers, gloves, monkey caps, wollens, anything that will keep you warm." I am wearing all these and am still cold. I think I am not used to the cold.

Rail Yatri Niwas, where I am staying, turned out to be a disappointment. But at Rs 450 a night with breakfast what did you expect? The door doesn't have a handle, paint is peeling in patches, the curtain rod has been torn off and hangs bent crookedly, the bulb in the bathroom hangs by the wire, the electrical sockets do not work (I had to hunt around for a socket that did, which is down below a table, so, good exercise for my lazy bones), and there is only some slim glass windows shielding me from the cold outside. So it is as if I am in the open, well, almost.

At night I can't sleep as I am close to New Delhi railway station and the hooting wakes me up in a dither, frenzied. Last night my leg had grown so cold it was numb, so I had to get up and walk around. There is no hot water so the precious liquid without which I can't take a bath has to be fetched by the attendant, who is as lazy as they come. I have a habit of oiling my hair before a bath, but the coconut oil has frozen, and no amount of coaxing would make it yield. So I cut the neck with a knife, my trusted swiss knife, and had to rub the oil in my palm to transform it from a goeey paste to something remotely resembling oil.

I first travelled to Delhi in 1982, on business, of course. I was working for Chemical Age of India and being the man-who-dons-many-hats I was sent off to supervise the printing of our magazine, which for economic reasons was in Delhi. I was raw and my boss was so worried that he insisted that I phone him first thing after I reached Delhi, and had the press owner come and see if I was comfortable. I loved working in CAI, it was as if I was a member of the boss's family. Until today the very word "boss" evokes memories of JPdS. Don't know where he is or what he is doing now. Forget, as I do most disturbing things, long story which I might write about sometime.

A lot has changed about Connaught Place. Brand showrooms have replaced the quaint shops selling shawls and saris. Yesterday I walked around Palika Bazar which is all glitzy, the touts are still there, and bargaining is a dream! You can get away with quoting half of their price, and can get away, too. People are much more well dressed than before. There is money, don't know where it comes from but there is a lot of greenbacks out there. There are many discount sales of winter wear, and I regret buying a jacket from Bombay. There is such a wide variety available here, and cheaper, too.

Delhi girls are still beautiful, though a bit filled out. I don't mind. I guess the cold makes them eat more and the calories stick to them more than in a humid city like Bombay. The roads are a dream come true! So what if the driving is a bit aggressive. Scooterists come at you on the sidewalk where they aren't supposed to be. Delhi people are much more polite and civilized than Bombay denizens. Don't crucify me for this, dear Bombayites, but I am yet to hear a sister... mother... or sistermother... profanity.

Attended a karaoke at Turquose Cottage organized by Subbu and Asheeth Manu. Mostly member turned up. Garima, Smita, Sachin, Bobbin, Umesh, Shalin, Shashi, Richa, Bohemian Rhapsody, besides Asheeth and a lot of others turned up, and a good time was had by all. I sang "Breakout to the Other Side" and "Wonderful Tonight," my first karaoke experience.

Makes me wonder whether online communities are THE trend of the future. I can't imagine a website programed and hosted in the US can make all this happen. Amazing! More in future instalments.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Christmas with Cheriachen

Cheriachen is sad. It is Christmas, a season to be joyful, and none of his children are around. It’s a day to be happy and jolly but he is not the least happy. He invited me for lunch on Christmas as my family was away and I went, as I am an acquaintance. We are related, yes, but a very distant relationship, in fact, he is a cousin four times removed.

The afternoon is a wintry cool, not too hot, not too cold, the plants in Cheriachen’s balcony dance in a complicated rhythm weaving patterns on the roof of his plaster-of-paris roof where Christmas baubles and streamers hang forlornly.

“There is no future in India. You know something? You should have gone abroad long ago,” he says morosely, “there is no happiness, no future here. Only sadness.”

“Then why didn’t you go?”

“See I could have gone. My brother is in the US, my daughter is in the US, a daughter is a nurse in Ireland, I can go and live with them even now, but I am comfortable in my life here, though I am not happy, I am not very unhappy here,” he says chastened.
“The same with me. I have learned to adjust. But I read there are guns in schools, violence, and racism, in fact, color discrimination, ten times that we have here.”

“What color discrimination? What are you talking? My daughters are as white as milk, put them next to the white Saiyips, you can’t tell the difference,” I forgot that Cheriachen and his children, though they were a darker shade of beige, considered themselves white, as white as an Occidental.

He pauses as his wife enters and offers me a cool glass of some colored water and Christmas cakes.

“How are you?” she asks me perfunctorily to which I give the standard answer. There is great tiredness and deliberation in her voice, as if she is not feeling too well.

“We were corporate employees. Our lives are gone. We get a pension, which is enough to make ends meet. Our children are enjoying the fruits of our labor.”

I remember, Cheriachen and his wife would walk the three kilometers from home to railway station every day, and not waste money on rickshaws. They would scrimp to the point of starving themselves, but they would save every extra Rupee. They taught their three daughters the value of thrift, and the children all grew to be responsible adults who knew the value of money, and, most importantly, how it is retained and not frittered away.

I know his routine nowadays as I live nearby. He goes for a walk in the morning, comes back exhausted, looks at an animated picture of a waterfall with sound effects, birds chirping, water falling on rocks, which the company he worked for gave him as a retirement gift. That’s all the nature he can afford in the concrete building in which he lives. The building is part of a complex named “Sahyadri,” in Vashi, New Bombay. Then he sleeps the whole day before he goes for an evening walk for purchasing groceries.

The phone rings insistently.

“Lillykutty, pick up the phone, it may be Jessy,” he says from where he sits. He has arthritis and a lot of other illnesses of old age, and is slumped in his chair, his chest collapsed into himself, his stomach protruding, and his face sagging with tissues that were once taut and healthy. His eyes have large circles under them due to sleeplessness, or, due to extra sleep. He sleeps all the time.

“It was difficult,” he reminisces, “bringing up my girls, the work was hard, I was a storekeeper you see, and if something is missing you have to take the rap. I slaved all these years.”

“Jessy is on the phone,” his wife Lillykutty says, “she wants to wish you.”

He gets up heavily from the chair and waddles to the phone re-tying his loose loin cloth around his waist. It had slipped.

“Haaaan, happy Christmas,” he cackles, “how is Shinymol? Fine? How is Joji? Fine?”

Static and an excited metallic voice at the other end.

Yes, he is happy for some time. But the happiness doesn’t last. His face droops again, his eyes again take a haunted look, he sinks into the chair.

“There, I mean in the US, they work only five days. And they don’t have to work like the company has bought our souls. They do their work and then go home. On weekends they go to beach resorts or holiday homes. If you don’t have a job the company pays you five hundred dollars a month, imagine. Around Rupees Twenty Thousand for doing nothing, just sitting at home. It’s not like here.”

It seems he is very upset and disgruntled, “Is that so?” I prompt.
“My other daughter, Jomi, who got married recently to a doctor, she is luckier,” he says pompously, “she is in Ireland and only works three days in a week and rests for four days, and draws a handsome salary, unlike here, you work six days and… all the harassment…,” he groans and shakes his head.

“And free healthcare, do they have free healthcare?”

“Yes, everything is free, absolutely free. Even education. I remember the difficulty I went through to get my daughters admitted to nursing school. I had to pay the hospital fifty thousand rupees. Then the fees, and after passing the miserly stipend they get for two years. Then for the passport, I had to bribe the officials. Yeverywhere corruption. God, it was so awful, but now they are enjoying a good life. God bless them,” Cheriachen says.

“Jomi took her doctor husband to Ireland, and he has a job in the same hospital where she works,” Lillykutty says from the kitchen. She sounds morose and depressed, too, two unhappy people in an empty two-bedroom flat. She is preparing our Christmas lunch. The smell of mutton and assorted curries fill the flat in Sahyadri housing society.

“Jessy’s daughter Shinymol studies for free. You should see her photographs,” he fishes out some photographs from the bottom of a pile of newspapers on the teapoy, “she is so fair, chubby, and fat, anyone would want to take her in hands and kiss her.”

“I guess it is the food they eat there. I read it is full of fat.”

“No. Not that. They don’t have to exert themselves, no? All they walk is inside their houses, from this room to that. To go anywhere they sit in a car, to go to school they sit in a car, to go to church they sit in a car. Not like we used to do. When I was a boy, I would walk five miles to our school, in Kerala.”

So that’s it. The number of empty, wasted miles spent walking is making Cheriachen a bitter man. He should have been in another country, sitting in a car, I think.

The phone rings insistently again.

“Lillykutty, it must be Jomi from Ireland,” Cheriachen says from his chair. He doesn’t make an effort to get up. He can’t.

Lillykutty comes into the room. Picks up the phone and says the usual “Merry Christmas.” She sounds happy.

Then she say “What?” into the phone and listens for a while. I can see her face fall, her body sag. Then she says, “Why do you want to do that? God, help us! God help us!”

Some static from the other end, a distraught voice. She motions towards Cheriachen.

Cheriachen comes to the phone, smiles joyfully, says, “Merry Christmas,” his sagging face muscles stretch, up, up, as he listens. He is imagining in his mind the heaven from which his daughter is calling him, free of worries, free healthcare, in fact, free everything. He is about to cackle when the whole muscles and integument of his face drop like a stone dropped from a height.
“What?” he says and looks at Lillykutty. Their eyes meet. There are tears in Lillykutty’s eyes. She sobs. Cheriachen puts down the phone. His eyes glaze with tears.

“Now, why would she want to do that? She has everything, works only three days a week, has around two lakhs salary per month, a good-looking husband, has everything virtually free, everything free….”

“We found the best husband for her, imagine, a doctor, handsome, too. We arranged the best wedding for her in the community. Now she says she wants to leave him, and she can’t get along with him,” Lillykutty says.

I look away. The rest of Christmas with Cheriachen was a torture, for me, at least.