Sunday 10 June 2012

Short Story 2012 Longlist, Hippu Salk Kristle Nathan

A Door Without A Handle

It is Monday. For him, every Monday begins at 4.30 AM. He has to be at his workplace by 6.30AM. The workplace is a forty minutes’ walk from his kholi. His job is to keep a three-storey building neat and clean.

Sunday’s rest has a hangover; it slows his pace. He has to complete his work before Aditi madam comes and switches on her table fan. The sound of the blades will give life to the ambience which seems dead since ages. Almost everyday, among all the sirs and madams, Aditi is the first to occupy her seat. When she enters the room, invariably the clock on the opposite wall shows the hour and minute hands at eight and four― full ten more minutes for the place to hum with people.
He looks at the opposite wall and his hands move faster. He has four more window panes and the exit door at the end to clean.

The door is worth looking at. It has all the smell of a virgin. It is a new door installed the day before. Like a new dress it has stickers all around. But somehow the door seems incomplete to him. On a second look, he realizes the handle of the door is missing. The fitting markings are there. But he wonders why there is no handle. The bigger question is why the earlier door, which was perfectly working, needed to be replaced at the first place. The answer to this question perhaps lies within many similar questions like why the flooring at the ground floor is being redone, why the not-so-old chairs are scrapped, why the lift repairing is taking infinite time. He feels restless. Normalcy prevails as Mohite babu’s usual remark –‘Tumko kya’ – buzzes in his ears.

Nevertheless the door appears elegant. It has smooth spotless transparent glass. There is nothing to clean. He just removed the broken broom lying there. He looks at the opposite wall again. Today he has finished his morning job before time. He proceeds to the canteen for his chai and pav.
On the stairs he meets Aditi Madam. She is her usual self, her eyes smiling as she greets him “Rahim chacha, namaste”.

Salaam Madam”― that is his usual reply when Aditi greets him. Under these disguising words he actually blesses her ‘sadaa khus reh beti’. Aditi is wearing her favorite pink dress. No, he is not sure about her choices; rather it is his favorite for her. As he walks down to the canteen he thinks if he had a daughter of his son Aman’s age she would have looked like Aditi, be like Aditi. He remembered his financial debt to her - three hundred rupees borrowed two years ago - which he always tried to pay back but had never been able to.

Rahim’s life, in the eighties, was different. He never struggled financially. Of course, he was always in debt as a bachelor. But after Sudha came into his life, with the same income they managed well with some savings. He spent quite a chunk of the saving in purchasing books. His passion was to fill his cupboards with all the good Hindi and Urdu novels. Fictions gave him temporary solace in the hard hitting race for survival. In fact, this reading habit of his, took over his relatively ordinary look to win Sudha’s heart during graduation days. However, his income from tailoring shop, which he ran from home, was not enough for his expensive pursuit of possessing books. Particularly, after putting Aman in a local English medium school, he was left with very little resources to feed on his desire. Yet, whenever he had any extra income, he went to the university street to collect a Munsi Premchand or a Mirza Mohammad. Though he was not entirely happy with his job, given the circumstances, this was the best he could have. He had a dream to set up a school sometime in life for children and teach them language.

Vaibhav serves him tea. Hot. He looks into the hazy horizon beyond the Gulmohar tree in the canteen backyard. He could clearly see the kitchen smoke coming out of the adjoining slum. The smoke that changed his life’s course reappears in front of him. Whole of Bombay was on fire during those riot days. His room was attacked by an unknown mob. He could save Sudha and Aman from physical injury; but not his belongings. The dearest of his treasures, his books, turned into ashes. Like all his Muslim friends he could not flee to his native land, as long back, he was barred from entering the village for his alleged marriage with a Hindu girl. His friend Gangadhar, who worked as a gardener here, came to his rescue. He helped him to get this job; a sweeper’s job. He initially thought his graduation in Hindi literature would come in the way as over-qualification. But the director did not feel the same and was happy to appoint him. He was surprised to find quite a few like him. Some of the gardeners, housekeeping staffs and canteen boys were as qualified as him. Vaibhav is a twelfth pass. 

At the other table there is a roar of laughter. Rajendra Sir is saying it aloud how the early nineties have brought prosperity to many. Not only Rajendra Sir, he has heard several times from many that the entire country has gained from certain government policies in the nineties. But his life has changed in the reverse direction. He lost all his belongings and almost was on streets. Sudha had to clean dishes in the neighbourhood to add to the household income. Since then, Sudha started looking to the floor most of the time rather than looking straight to anybody’s face. Aman had to discontinue his studies and was later put in a Municipal school. Rahim himself has lost faith in the education system. No more does he dream to set up a school. He is yet to touch a novel.

The well deserved breakfast is over. He feels this diet of bread and tea is the best meal he could have – it has protein, vitamins, caffeine and what not – most importantly, he does not feel hungry till it is past two. It is time for him to resume his work. Today he has to clean all the computers – the black and white TV like machines. He feels privileged to do this work rather than clean floors and panes. He understands these machines are very delicate, expensive and immensely useful. Aman has asked for one such machine several months back. He is waiting for institute’s annual second sale. He wipes the screen again. He needs to take care of these machines well as one of these may become his sometime in future. Otherwise too, he enjoys this part of the job. Sometime during early hours, when no security guard is around, he sits at the desk to feel a sense of privilege. Rahim has always been prestige-loving with his set of ego. However, over the last three to four years, since he has been on this job, he has increasingly felt spineless. Rahim, once very talkative, has learnt to become more silent. Nobody here, apart from Gangadhar and his friends, knows his name, let alone his life. Of course, Aditi is an exception.

He is through with all the machines of the room, and about to leave. Oh! He sees some spots on the handle-less exit door. In the meantime Shilpa madam left through the door; another set of spots. Whenever the door is pushed it leaves spots. Different people push it differently at different places. It obliges; but at the cost of its appearance. He feels connected, and thinks this new door deserves a better treatment. He walks fast towards the door, and cleans it back to its spotless status.

Next day, to his disappointment, he finds some fresh spots on the door. He cleans those. In fact everyday, he makes it a point to clean the door to the best of his ability. But over time, the smooth glass develops inerasable spots. At home, before going to sleep, he sometimes thinks about the poor door. He cannot digest the fact that in some days the door is going to look ordinary. Like him. The mere fact that he is a sweeper, troubles him even now. He had felt most uncomfortable when Aman asked him to fill a form mentioning his occupation. He could feel the deep pain of the hangmen, garbage collectors, cobblers and porters – all the people at the lowly ranks. They are all like handle-less doors. They need to lay their backs straight for others to walk on them.
Months pass by…

Today is a special day. He has seen the cobbler on the way smiling. He stands in the corridor, looking towards the bright sunshine. Gangadhar’s friend has cracked a joke and they are all laughing aloud while watering the plants. The office atmosphere is warm and party-like. It is Aditi’s birthday.
Aditi comes running towards him, with a beaming smile. She takes out from her bag two volumes of ‘Jhuhta Sach’― by Yashpal.

It is my birthday chacha, and I have brought something for you.”
Rahim cannot believe his eyes; he takes the volumes and caresses them as if he has found a lost friend.

Par beti, it is your day; I should have given you something instead.”
Chacha, I need only your blessings.”
Somebody calls Aditi from inside; she goes back. The door opens up again with Aditi’s gentle push. It closes. No further spots appear. The once shining door has turned dullish.  It is still without a handle. But it seems to enjoying its status.

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