HE COULD NOT SLEEP on the night of his return. At five in the morning Arun sat up in bed and stared out of the open window. In the pre-dawn sky the stars were still bright and Mumbai slept, its peelings and sores mercifully hidden. At that hour everything was still buried in shadow and the city belonged to the awakening crows. They filled the air with early grumbles, rising noisily from roofs and trees, alerting everyone to the coming day. Soon the sun would strip the town layer by layer; the tattered bundles lining the pavements would stretch and show themselves to be human. Arun contemplated the city; little by little it had shaped him, moulding his life, forcing him to do all he had done.
Everything was as he remembered it in the cramped room he called home. There was the same problem of accommodating his suitcases that there had been on his previous visit two years before. Lifting the edge of the metal bed he had forced the cases underneath and in the night felt the unrelenting plateau pushing through the springs and thin bedding into his spine. After three years in affluent Hong Kong his back was now used to a somewhat softer mattress and he had forgotten the years of upbringing on this very cot, beneath which the hard shapes of storage trunks or tins of grain had always been tightly wedged.
His father slept behind the flimsy partition of a faded curtain, his translucent, yellowed skin already giving him the look of death. The old man’s harsh breathing and coughing had punctuated Arun’s first night at home; it had been a relief to let him sleep and not to have to see him. Instead, it was his mother he had to face. She was so filled by emotion at the sight of him she could not speak coherently, bursting into tears whenever she looked at him. Her red, swollen eyes filled him with guilt and anger. He was sure she must have sobbed out his story to anyone who would listen in their tenement building. All the old widows, dressed for perpetual mourning in white muslin saris and with their sparse grey hair knotted identically, would have embraced her, sworn secrecy and immediately gossiped, for that was the way of the tenement.
The place lived and breathed through the whispers of its occupants. Everyone knew everyone, for all the families came originally from two neighbouring villages in the province of Sind. Like Arun’s father, they had all arrived in Mumbai as refugees, fleeing Sind after the partition of India, having witnessed murder, rape and the torching of their homes. Some had eventually reached this building and squeezed themselves inside it, families of 10 or even 15 sleeping in one or two small rooms. Those who had been rich in Sind arrived penniless in Mumbai, having escaped with no more than the clothes on their backs. Others, who before had lived in meagre circumstances, began, through luck and endeavour, to see money at last. It had all happened long before Arun was born in Mumbai. All he knew was that his father had never found a proper job there, although in Sind he had been the respected headmaster of a school. In Mumbai he supported his family by giving tutorials to the children of the wealthy, leaving home early each day and often returning late at night, trudging the streets to save bus fares. Arun knew too that he suffered the insolence of those spoiled children, who thought no better of him than to put chilli powder or live cockroaches into his open mouth if he dozed, and whose well-to-do parents refused to pay six months’ worth of tuition fees when a lazy child failed an exam.
No one stood on formality in the building: everyone knew the secrets of everyone else’s lives. People entered each other’s homes uninvited, offered advice, shared food during shortages, congregated to rejoice at births or to comfort each other at bereavements, living as one great extended clan. Everyone’s life was the property of his neighbour, Arun thought in disgust. He hated the filthy, crumbling place, alive with rats, roaches and foul odours. At first, after he arrived home, his young sisters, Veena and Jyoti, had stared at him in silence, glancing nervously at each other.
“What? Not liking a chor brother, a thief?” he shouted when he found them around his open suitcase, fingering his shirts of soft, foreign materials, looking for the gifts they hoped he might have brought them.
“Nothing is there for you! You know very well how I left Hong Kong!” He shouted, and they backed away like frightened animals.
He felt guilty then that he had no useless fancy objects for them to flaunt before their friends. If he had returned as he had on his last visit, with nonsensical novelties, cosmetics, nylon georgette saris or electrical appliances to add to the trousseaux his mother was collecting for her daughters, there would have been no need for the shame he felt now as he stared out of the window at the dark city. Those articles from foreign lands would have imbued him with some remnant of dignity, whatever he may have done. Through the window Arun watched the sky retreating before the day. He shifted position on the bed; there was no longer time to dream. This was no visit, this was return.
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