This week, as an end-of-summer treat, we present you three stories by The Commoncontributors originally published in our special Summer Fiction Issue. Enjoy!
By BIPIN AURORA
We sat in the veranda in the back of our simple quarters. An open drain ran nearby. A bridge was above us. The bridge was really no more than three long wooden boards. But they had put them there, nailed them with diligence and care.
The bridge connected two buildings, with small flats made of stucco. When people walked on the bridge, it swayed and the boards creaked. Mister Sharma, the businessman who lived next door, told us that we should be careful, that we should stop eating in the veranda. “What if the bridge collapses?” he said. “What if the people fall? They will fall on you. Where will you turn, where will you go?”
Mister Sharma was right, or almost so. One day a servant was crossing the bridge and the boards broke. The servant fell, not on the veranda but on the ground next to the veranda. He fell about twenty feet. There was a pool of blood, a crowd of people gathered.
The servant did not fall on us, thank God. But he did lie there. And what now? What next?
No one intervened, no one lifted a hand. At last Sandeep Ravindran did. He was from the south—from the state of Tamil Nadu. It was by accident that he had ended up in Delhi. He had no respect for northerners, and certainly no respect for the low-class Punjabis who filled the city.
“I am a Hindu,” he said often, “a devout Hindu. I pray to the Lord Shiva, I pray to the Lord Vishnu. These Delhi-wallas, they pray to money. They pray to the bank, to the corrupt officials who can help them steal money from the bank.” He seemed to have made a joke, was pleased with the joke that he had made.
When the servant fell, no one but Mister Ravindran intervened. He did it with hesitation, but he did it. He went to the neighbor’s house, the one with the telephone. He called an ambulance. When the ambulance came, he accompanied the servant to the clinic.
But did Mister Ravindran realize what he was in for? The clinic was a private, not a public, place. The servant was there for twenty hours, and then he was transferred to a public hospital. But there was a bill. The bill came to an astounding eight hundred and fourteen rupees—and someone had to pay the bill.
“What is this?” said Mister Ravindran. “I went to the neighbor’s house; I used the phone and made the call to the ambulance. Is that not enough?
“I accompanied the low-class one to the clinic—the ambulance people insisted that someone must. Is that not enough? I stayed at the clinic for four hours—four. I had not read the newspaper for the day; I had not even done my morning ablutions. Imagine!”
But the rules are the rules. The servant was admitted; the servant was taken care of. Charges had been “incurred”—just the word the lady at the clinic repeatedly used. Must someone not pay for these?
“It is the sign of the times,” said the cheerful lady at the clinic. She sat behind the desk, all the papers in front of her. “Everything is so expensive nowadays. But he must be a good servant, Mister Ravindran. Take it in good spirits—you did the right thing. It is so hard to get good help nowadays.”
Good spirits! Good help! “But he is not even my servant!”
The lady was at a loss. “What is this?”
“He is not even my servant.”
“But you brought him here.”
Mister Ravindran shook his head. “A mistake, you see, an oversight. Chance, just chance. These other idiots—these Delhi-wallas—they just stood around. They babbled, they gawked. The boy was bleeding, bleeding. Perhaps he was dead.” Here, Mister Ravindran wished that the servant had been dead. “No one lifted a hand. They talked, they talked. Someone had to do something.”
The lady was bewildered. A servant, just a servant. Where was the obligation? What would she have done? The lady was lost in thought for some time. Would she not have talked and talked as well?
“But you did the right thing, Mister Ravindran,” she said again cheerily. “You did a good thing. God will reward you.”
“But eight hundred and fourteen rupees…” began Mister Ravindran, but he did not finish. He was a stupid man. He had always considered himself superior to the Delhi-wallas, but was he really so superior? He had done it all for a stranger—a stranger. For a servant, no less. Who was the superior one now?
The days passed. Mister Ravindran fretted; he fumed. Eight hundred and fourteen rupees—what had made him do it?
He brushed, he shaved, he castigated himself. He walked to the bus stop, he cursed himself. He sat at the office, busy with the ledgers in front of him, his mind wandering.
Eight hundred and fourteen rupees. How long does it take for a man to save so much? He was not a big industrialist—a Birla, a Tata; he was a simple man who worked in an office. He made eleven hundred rupees a month. Not a paltry sum, but hardly anything of consequence.
Mister Ravindran was ashamed of his action, he mostly kept the secret to himself. But once in a while, he shared his secret with others. And to his surprise, the others seemed intrigued.
“Eight hundred and fourteen rupees,” they said. “Quite a sum!”
“For a servant no less!”
“And he is not even my servant!” said Mister Ravindran.
The others expressed wonder. Some chuckled. Some guffawed. But most were in awe—actually in awe. “Wah, wah!” “Indeed!” “A tale for the ages, Mister Ravindran, quite a tale!”
Mister Ravindran was surprised, and intrigued, by the reaction. He thought they would laugh at him—but they did not laugh, at least not often. Eight hundred and fourteen rupees—it was a waste, of course it was. But there was a tale that the others liked. Perhaps it was not a complete waste—no no, not a complete waste after all.
The days passed. Mister Ravindran went to work, he came home. He crossed the veranda where the servant had fallen. The blood.
He went to work, he came home. He reproved himself. He told the tale. One day he paid the money to the clinic—half the amount. Another day he paid the rest of the money.
But there was a tale in it—was that not something?
“No one else lifted a hand—I did!”
“What a villain I am—an idiot!”
“A servant he was, yes, but is a servant not a man?”
The others would purse their lips. They would nod their heads—nod in appreciation, nod wisely.
“A tale, Mister Ravindran, quite a tale!”
“You will be rewarded, Mister Ravindran, rewarded for years to come!”
“Not just years but lives—for lives and lives to come!”
Mister Ravindran liked the words—he liked lingering on them. He would be rewarded—what would be the reward? A promotion, of course. A promotion to Supervisor I. Or, forget Supervisor I, why not Supervisor II? His mind would begin to wander; his imagination would take over. “Why not Manager—am I not qualified? Of course I am. Why not Manager as well?”
Yes, in this way Mister Ravindran would indulge, in this way his mind would wander. He allowed his mind to wander.
Mister Ravindran would come in to work, he expected the reward to be there. A cake on his desk. A letter from the Manager about his promotion. Not a letter but a personal visit. No no, a visit from the General Manager himself!
But no, no visit came. There was no cake and no letter either. Just the ledger on his desk. The work, the work.
“Is the job finished, Ravindran?”
“The job, sir?”
“Is the ledger done?”
“The ledger, sir?”
“We have deadlines, you know. This is a private company, not a government office. Deadlines mean something.”
Deadlines, deadlines. Who could ignore them? Work, work—always the work.
The servant had been taken from the clinic to a public hospital. He was there for eight days. There, he was paid for by the government—by society. A fractured arm, a fractured ankle. “But it all depended on the way he fell,” they said. “It could have been worse—so much worse.”
The servant was released, and one day, he came to thank his benefactor.
“You are a god, sir.”
Mister Ravindran looked at him imperially.
“My life, sir…” And he fell at Mister Ravindran’s feet.
There was a cast on his arm, a cast on his ankle. Mister Ravindran was quite pleased at the scene at his feet, but he tried to hide his feelings. “Oh ho, what is this?” he said with some severity. “A deed is done, a man does it. He does what is best…”
He was moved by his own words—how could he not be? But he found no reason to continue.
The servant lay there weeping, kissing his benefactor’s feet. The servant’s brother was nearby. He had come from the village to take care of the servant. He fell at Mister Ravindran’s feet as well.
The two simple ones wept, they praised their savior. And then they rose. They left.
The servant was in no condition to stay in Delhi. The brother would take him back to the village—give him care, affection. The other relatives would be there—they would give him the proper time to recover.
Mister Ravindran was left to himself. He had observed the scene, enjoyed it. But what now? What next?
Mister Ravindran had spent eight hundred and fourteen rupees. Did he not deserve a better reward? He had spent all this money for a stranger. Should he not come to thank him daily—day after day, day after day?
But no, life is not like that. The servant was gone and Mister Ravindran was left by himself. Left to ponder life, left to ponder the world. What a strange world it was indeed.
More days passed. Mister Ravindran went to the office, he came home. And did it help? He wandered the streets, he tried to lose himself in them. But did it help?
He saw poor people on the street—laborers, servants. He imagined that they fell off buildings, off ladders. He rushed to help them—or perhaps he did not. They garlanded him with marigold flowers, they asked him to make speeches. He complied—or perhaps he did not. Should he get involved? Was it really his business? Had he not learned his lesson already?
It was a big world, yes. It was a complicated world. He had done his great deed. It should accumulate him merit for years and years to come.
“But the reward,” he said. “Where is the reward?”
He tried to comfort himself. Was the good deed not reward in itself? The servant had come to thank him, he had fallen at his feet. Was that not reward? He had played cards four nights ago, won forty-two rupees. Forty-two rupees, was that not reward?
One day he was running to the bus stop and stumbled and fell on some thorns. He cut himself, his right arm and elbow bled for some time.
“But who knows?” said a colleague at work. “You may have been destined to fall not on thorns, but on a snake. Your good deed—did it not help you? Help you even there?”
Mister Ravindran paused, listened to the other. There was truth to what the other said. Or was there? And was Mister Ravindran convinced—was he really convinced?
Mister Ravindran tried to forget the deed—why indulge in unpleasant things? He tried to lose himself in his work. And work, there was always that. The files, the ledgers. The files, the ledgers.
There was the file on the Gupta case—he worked on that. The file on the Mahajan case—he worked on that. These low-class people, these merchants, and how much money they had! It was all in the files, it was all there in front of him. He won forty-two rupees in cards, he lost eight hundred and fourteen rupees for a servant. And these northerners, these merchants, they dealt in thousands—in hundreds of thousands! My Lord, were there really people like this in the world? They went to lunch, they had food, they had drinks, the bill came to sixteen hundred rupees. Five hundred more than his salary for the whole month. It was all right there—all there in the memos and vouchers in front of him.
Mister Ravindran sat there, he brooded. What an unfair world it was! Some wore suits and Rolex watches, they went to the Taj Hotel. Others wore simple shirts and pants, they sat with the ledgers—always the ledgers—in front of them.
Mister Ravindran’s mind wandered. He married a rich woman—the daughter of an industrialist; he became a rich man. He wrote a famous book, he came up with a big invention—the telescope, the rocket; he became a rich man. He defeated the enemies of the country—China, Pakistan, some enemy not yet known. He was garlanded and given a rest house (he liked the term) and pension for life.
But ah cruel life, cruel fate. Were these things really happening—were they coming to pass? Did they have any chance of coming to pass?
Mister Ravindran admonished himself, he admonished the world. He castigated God’s creation—“A joke,” he said, “all a joke.” And he sat at his desk, and he brooded.
One day Mister Ravindran rose from his desk and he made his way home. Usually he took the bus, but today he decided to walk. It was a long distance—almost three miles—but why not? A man needs to indulge. He repeats the same thing day after day, day after day. He gets into a routine, a rut. Does he not deserve a change?
There was the bank on the way—he passed that. There was the taxi stand—he passed that. There was a market—so many restaurants there, so many confectioners’ stores. Ah, these Delhi-wallas, how they liked to eat! Low-class people, nothing but low-class. The people of the South, of Tamil Nadu, they had breeding. They studied mathematics, they studied science. Why had he not studied science himself? He had studied commerce—a low-class thing. Perhaps he should start again. Too late now. But in his next life he would do it differently. The next life, yes….
A small boy walked by, begging for money. He was in his bare feet, his legs were caked with dust. “Four annas, sir, two annas.” He rubbed his stomach; he raised his fingers to his mouth, indicating that he needed food, that he would use the money for food.
“Not for drinks, boy?” said Mister Ravindran. “Are you sure that you will not use the money for drinks?”
The boy was startled by the words. They were strange words, what did they mean?
“Go, go,” said Mister Ravindran. “I already gave eight hundred and fourteen rupees. Eight hundred and fourteen.”
The boy looked at this strange man with wonder. Was the man drunk? Was he ill?
But Mister Ravindran had no patience for the boy. He moved on.
There was a cinema hall with a long line outside. He passed that. There were white pillars outside the cinema, posters all over the pillars for upcoming films. There were walls nearby—more posters pasted on these.
He passed an alley to the right of the cinema. The smell of refuse and urine was strong. He covered his nose with his handkerchief, hurried on. “These Delhi-wallas,” he said again. “What low-class people they are.”
He walked, he walked, he continued to walk. He had walked to change his routine, to lift his spirits.
Mister Ravindran arrived home. He was tired, just that. He boiled the water, he made the tea. There were some old curried vegetables in the icebox. He took out the vegetables, he heated them.
“A dog’s life!” he said. “Stuck in the north, stuck in a pointless job. Does a man not deserve better? Does he not deserve more?”
Many months passed. Mister Ravindran went to work, he came home. He went to work, he came home. One day, Mister Ravindran was sitting in the front room, facing the window with the crisscrossing wooden shutters and cursing his fate. There was no decent veranda in his humble quarters—he could not sit there.
He sat in his front room reading his newspaper. His mind wandered. He turned the page. He heard some scraping at the front steps. Who was it? Someone was climbing the cement steps, scraping his feet there.
Mister Ravindran lowered his newspaper. It made a loud crinkling sound.
There was a dark man at the open front door. Five feet, three inches or so—perhaps an inch more.
He had seen the man before. Where had he seen him?
“I am Ratna, sir. Do you not recognize me?”
Ratna, Ratna. Who was this Ratna? “My boy!” he called out. “My boy!”
It was the servant, of course, the servant whose life he had saved. The great deed he had done. The large sum, the rupees—the eight hundred and fourteen rupees.
“Ratna, Ratna,” he said warmly, rising briefly from his chair but then sitting down again. (Was it not the respectful thing to do?) “Are you better?”
The hair on the visitor’s head was shaved. The cast on his leg was gone. The cast on his arm was gone as well.
“I am better, sir, much better. It is God’s will, sir. It is God’s blessing.”
“And my blessing?” Mister Ravindran wanted to add. But he checked himself.
The servant stood at the entrance—it would have been presumptuous for him to proceed further. He did indeed look better. A little weak, perhaps, but better. What a cry—a far cry—from the man he had taken to the hospital. From the man who, accompanied by his brother, had fallen at his feet.
Did he not want to fall at Mister Ravindran’s feet again? Was it not the right and proper thing to do?
“I am back from the village, sir.”
“Yes yes, so I see.”
“I am now a messenger, sir.”
“What is this?”
“The servant work, sir, it is too hard. My condition…” He pointed to himself and did not finish the sentence. “But the company, sir—the bank nearby—they have been kind to me. I get them water, I make them tea. I do small errands. But in the evenings, sir, I go home. On Sundays, sir, they are closed. I get to stay home as well. To rest.”
“That is great,” said Mister Ravindran. “That is great.”
And did he mean his words? Or was he jealous of the servant—actually jealous? The servant was moving up in the world. Off in the evenings. Off on Sundays. Was he becoming like him?
“That is great,” he said again.
The servant bowed. “I just wanted to come, sir. To thank you. You are a kind man, sir. God will bless you, sir. Bless you with all the rewards of the world.”
All the rewards—ha! How little the low-class one knew. Mister Ravindran lived a donkey’s life. He worked, he worked. He waited, he waited. Did the rewards ever come?
The servant bowed—bowed again. And he began to leave. As he did, he hesitated about turning his back. It might be seen as a sign of disrespect, and he did not want to be disrespectful. But did he have a choice? The steps were there, all the steps leading to the dirt ground in the front. He did not want to stumble down the steps and fall—to fall all over again.
The servant left, his back turned, and Mister Ravindran was left by himself. He returned to his chair. To the newspaper. The servant was better. Was that a good thing? The servant was back. Was that a good thing? Mister Ravindran was reminded freshly of his great deed. “And the reward,” he said. “Where is the reward?”
Mister Ravindran sat there, the newspaper in front of him.
He sat there for a long time. The light in the room began to fade, the shadows in the room grew long. And then, softly, very softly (perhaps he did not want the world to hear): “I will see him, yes. I will see him more often. And perhaps he will come and thank me—he has to, it is his duty. He will come and thank me again and again for my great deed.”
Bipin Aurora‘s fiction has appeared in Quarterly West, Epiphany, Harpur Palate, Prism Review, Southern Indiana Review, North Atlantic Review, Quiddity, Puerto del Sol, Southern Humanities Review, and Rosebud.