Something of Nothing
(Written for London Library magazine)
Rakesh winced as the car lurched into a pothole. A tremor of annoyance radiated through the hand that he rested on the steering wheel. He had taken his eyes off the road again. Again, he had been looking at the mannequin in the Benetton shop window. It reminded him of Madam.
For months he had wanted to go inside that shop. He would, for the first time, later today. Madam had asked him to collect a pair of jeans – her jeans! – that she had sent to be altered. He checked his reflection in the rear-view mirror. His was swarthy, clean-shaven, not unattractive; its skin was stretched taut over a strong jaw. If he narrowed his eyes and knitted his brows, he managed a look of brooding machismo. When he looked at his own face, Rakesh fancied what he saw.
His hair, oiled and gelled into a quiff early in the morning, was not sticking to the required degree of rigidity. Rakesh noticed this in the mirror, and swore. He raised and patted and mussed his hair till he was satisfied. As he righted his hair, his biceps – the impressive result of a lot of unremitting work – tensed. The short sleeve of his close-fitting T-shirt rode up. Rakesh smiled.
He had first turned up at the Chaudhuris’ home ten months ago, after someone who knew someone he knew had tipped him off that Mr Samrat Chaudhuri was looking for a driver. ‘Arrey, the family is good,’ his acquaintance had told Rakesh. The smoke from the open fire over which dinner was being cooked on the pavement stung their eyes. On the filthy beach in front, the fishing nets lay in a jumble of confused cobwebs. ‘Look, Rakesh, you have no experience. To train, you’ll need a job such as the one they have to offer. School, office, home. Nothing else.’ He winked and patted Rakesh on the back. ‘See if you get lucky.’
Rakesh had rung the bell at 12A, the Chaudhuri’s flat in Imperial Heights, one morning in the middle of a rainy spell. No one could recall the rain having let up in the past three days. Under a cloud-bloated sky, colour seemed to have leached from the city, trees and buildings had lost their definitions. It was hard to remember what everything looked like when it wasn’t raining.
It was a Saturday. Samrat, his hairless legs protruding from his shorts and at odds with his flabby upper body, opened the door, a beer in his hand. Learning that he was the driver who had come looking for a job, he called out, ‘Malini, that fellow has come,’ and shuffled off down the hallway, leaving the door a little ajar. His voice was friendly. Rakesh was touched that Samrat had not shut the door in his face. Through the chink, he saw bits of blond wood cabinets, swirls of colours from paintings on the wall and, in a photograph, the face of a child with floppy hair.
Mrs Malini Chaudhuri emerged from one of the bedrooms, calling out to the maid to put on the rice. She was shaking her hair dry. Standing there at the entrance to the apartment, Rakesh saw how beads of water scattered and flew from her hair and, somehow managing to gleam even in that nothing light, landed at her feet. His trousers, dripping, were rolled up to his knees. He held his umbrella in his left hand, fearful that it would muck up the marble floor if he put it down. He glanced, guilty, at the spreading puddle at his feet. In those days, his hair used to be parted on the left, and combed across his head.
It was settled in a few minutes. Rakesh admitted that he had had no real experience (at the Bombay port, he drove imported cars that had arrived from the gangway to a shed a couple of hundred metres away), and agreed to a salary of four thousand rupees. He promised to be careful with the car and always be polite. He started the following day.
Samrat was the creative head of an advertising firm. He spoke to Rakesh mostly in abstracted grunts and single words that indicated the destination he wanted to be driven to (‘Worli’, ‘Parel’, ‘Juhu’), as though the effort of speaking in complete sentences was too monumental an undertaking. All the way to and from his office in Colaba at Bombay’s southernmost tip, he read or worked on his laptop, or else he listened to music on his iPod – something that Rakesh had first mistaken for a fancy mobile phone. ‘Sir, your phone,’ he had called out, running after Samrat one day when he had left his iPod behind in the car, his arms outstretched as if he were holding out a votive offering, no more than the merest tips of his thumb and index fingers on the gadget. Samrat had taken it from him and smiled – a smile made up in equal parts of thanks, amusement, indulgence and almost imperceptible pity. Unlike his colleagues, Samrat did not go to parties.
As he got to know him, Rakesh began to grow fond of the Chaudhuris’ little boy, Arnab, making sure that he was never late to drive him to school, and always vigilant in traffic when he was squirming around on the back seat with his mother. He carried Arnab’s heavy school bag for him, and enjoyed having him hang on to his finger when they crossed the busy road in front of the school gate. He took care of the boy’s pet poodle when the family went on holiday. He offered Arnab a single rose, a red ribbon round its dethorned stem, on his birthday.
And Malini? He dared not explain or attempt to articulate – even to himself, especially to himself – how he saw her. Malini was the one who made all the decisions that Rakesh saw as important; she it was who steered the course of his – and her family’s – day. She had come to trust him, asking him often these days about how they should do things – ‘Shall we go to the petrol pump now or on our way back?’; ‘Do you think we might be better off going via Tulsi Pipe Road?’ – and, more and more, adhering to his advice.
There were nights – lying on his thin mattress on the floor of his eight-foot-by-ten-foot room, very drunk on pay day, the edges of things blurring, the small stove at the foot of his bed spinning, and he, it seemed, in orbit around it – that Rakesh had visions of Malini as she might have been in the bathroom, before she had attired herself and come to meet him on that first day, shaking the water from her hair.
Rakesh could never tell whether he had willed these visions into existence, or whether they had appeared to him unbidden as he lay drunk. He held them to himself and banished them, both with equal ferocity. He felt as guilty as he did envious; as ashamed of himself as bold. The following morning, his head clear after he had rinsed himself beneath the thick rope of water from the communal tap at the corner of the road, he had no clear recollection of the visions of the night before. There remained only an unidentifiable sense of queasy unease.
Four months after he was hired, drivers at the office told him that he was getting ripped off, that they would find him a better-paying job, now that he had learnt to drive well, and insisted that he ask for a raise.
Sleepless, Rakesh thought of it for two nights. The increased money was a great temptation. For starters, he could buy the pair of jeans that he had been eyeing at a pavement stall on Linking Road. But what if the Chaudhuris refused? What if they thought he was too greedy and ungrateful, and said they wanted to get rid of him? Would he find another job? Was it as certain as the drivers in the office said it was? Or were they simply having him on?
Finally, having seen one of the drivers wearing a pair of jeans nearly identical to the one he wished to have, he realised that he would never be able to buy a pair like that if he didn’t have more money. He wouldn’t be able to get hair gel, which he now wanted. In the three months at the Chaudhuris’, he had begun to observe things he hadn’t before; he had begun to covet them too. He wanted new clothes, and a mobile phone with a large screen to watch music videos on. He pined for T-shirts that at least looked like the ones Samrat wore.
One evening, as he was giving her back the car keys at the end of the day’s work, Rakesh asked Malini if his salary could be raised to six thousand rupees. ‘Of course, of course,’ she said, without a blink. The little boy hugged her knees. ‘We were thinking of it in any case. You have come along well. We’ll do it right away.’
As he walked home that evening, he paused to look at the big stores on Linking Road: Lacoste, Tommy Hilfiger, Esprit, Mango. He dared not walk in. They sold the same sort of clothes as the pavement stalls did nearby. But these stores seemed to enclose and epitomise a world utterly removed from the one represented by the stalls. How could the same thing, well almost the same thing, such as, say, a T-shirt, command such different prices and respect? He wanted to see what those items were like, to run his fingers under the collar of one of those T-shirts, caress the instep of one of those pairs of shoes.
Rakesh was thrilled that his salary had been raised by exactly as much as he’d wanted. At the same time, he felt angry and bitter because the amount meant nothing to the Chaudhuris. It was fifty per cent of what till a moment ago had been his month’s pay, and to them it was a trifle; it was not even worth a moment’s consideration before they said yes.
‘Yaar, the rich have their own problems,’ one of the drivers at the office told Rakesh when he narrated to him how the Chaudhuris hadn’t thought twice before raising his salary. ‘We have nothing. We have nothing to lose.’
Rakesh did not resent the Chaudhuris’ affluence, their sudden trips to the five-star hotels near the airport or to the city’s downtown. He did not mind Madam’s frequent forays to those stores (especially the Benetton one), and her emergence from them, laden with huge, bursting paper bags, progressing towards the car like a stately ship towards its harbour, her purchases like billowing sails, her face still distracted from the present moment by the concentration she had brought to bear on buying all that stuff in the store.
The Chaudhuris were good people, Rakesh believed. He was grateful to them. They had given him a job when no one else would have. They had given him a raise as soon as he had asked for one. They were unfailingly civil. They had bought him medicines on the occasion that he had fallen ill, and paid for his visit to the doctor.
And yet, sometimes, when Madam and Sir bickered in low, taut voices that carried over to him in the hermetically sealed, air-conditioned, upholstered pod of the car, he wanted to turn around and scream: ‘Don’t you know how lucky you are?’
In the heat of an afternoon undisturbed by even the suggestion of a breeze, Rakesh manoeuvred the car into the lane alongside the Benetton showroom. He had on his favourite pair of jeans – mossy blue-green with a serpent stitched in orange coiling its way up from his knee to his thigh. His floral-patterned shirt was not tucked in – just as he had seen Shah Rukh Khan wearing his shirt in the movie,Don – but in the brief walk from the car to the store, the shirt had begun to exhibit spreading patches of damp under his arms and on his chest. Rakesh wiped his face with a handkerchief, and then shoved his hand beneath his shirt and dabbed at his perspiring chest and armpits. Curious, anxious, afraid and confident, he stepped into the store, the chilly environs of which no summer could touch.
He had the piece of paper that he would have to hand over at the counter to get back Madam’s pair of jeans. He kept it in his hand in case someone asked him why he was here. But no one did. People did not look at him. The ground floor housed the women’s section and Rakesh saw – as though it was too much, all this for the first time, all of this at one go – women emerging from the changing room, pirouetting in dresses that had no proper sleeves, in dresses that were not much bigger than his handkerchief. He had involuntarily squeezed the paper in his hand into a tight ball. Smoothing it out again, he climbed the curving stairway to the first floor, the men’s department.
Standing there, in the pressed, folded, hung glut of shirts, T-shirts, jackets, trousers and jeans, Rakesh’s head began to swim. There was a pleasant and unfamiliar smell around him; he couldn’t tell where the up-tempo music was coming from.
He reached out and picked up a white T-shirt. ‘Sir?’ an attendant was immediately beside him. ‘Can I try this on?’ Rakesh asked in Hindi. The attendant shrugged, did not smile, and pointed towards the changing room. Rakesh slipped on the T-shirt, raised its collar, lowered it, and examined himself from several angles in the full-length mirror. Peeling it off, he looked at the price tag: two thousand and five hundred rupees, more than one-third of what he earned in a month.
He hurried downstairs, handed over the paper at the counter, cradled the wrapped package containing Madam’s jeans as one would an infant, and walked out.
Linking Road was empty, the pavement stalls dulled into torpor by the heat. Rakesh swung the car around, spinning the steering wheel with unwarranted force. From the lane in which he had parked, he bulleted on to the main road and turned left towards his employers’ home.
Through the windshield blazing with the afternoon light, he saw the cat – mottled grey-brown and not very large – begin its scamper-slink across the road. A cat crossing your path was a bad omen. All drivers waited for the cat to cross, and then waited some more for the residue of that feline-induced bad luck to pass before driving on.
Rakesh revved his engine. He wouldn’t let the cat get away. The cat’s tail tensed, but it didn’t look up. It scurried, but was exactly in Rakesh’s path as he closed in on it.
With a yard between them, Rakesh hit the brake. The cat darted across, still not looking up. A car was honking behind him. ‘Next time, the next time you cross my path, chutiya, see what I do,’ Rakesh mumbled. Unhurriedly, he drove on.