The first translated book to win the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Jayant Kaikini's No Presents Please, translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana and out next week with Catapult, traces the lives of people struggling to get by on the margins of Mumbai. In the story below, “A Truck Full of Chrysanthemums,” a middle-class family grapples with their responsibility to their ailing servant.
A window in the last kholi of the municipal chawl is always open. Seen from the street, the open window looks like a blind man’s eye. Covered with a Sholapur chadar that smells of Amrutanjan, Durgi lies with her eyes open, her small arms and legs making her look like a child in spite of her sixty years.
The discarded dresses of the girls of the house, who have grown quite big, now clothe Durgi. Even those sit loosely on her. However weak she feels, Durgi crawls to the window on her stomach and looks out. When she sees a new day spreading itself out on the street, she opens her eyes as though a flower of gratitude has bloomed. She looks down at the children going to school, without the strength to call out to them. Her belongings—the old cup, the plastic mug, the comb with its big teeth, the palm-size plastic mirror—sit near her mat. A strange silence seems to surround this mat.
Sudhir Mahajan worked in a municipal office. His wife, Jyoti, on the strength of a long-ago college education, gave after-school lessons at home. The two children, Rashmi and Varsha, were growing up rapidly. Both had the mother’s attitude and the father’s walk. When the elder one, Rashmi, was an infant, Durgi came into this one-room envelope of a house to look after the baby and do the housework in exchange for two meals a day, a sari once a year, and the promise of a separate bank account “in which we will put your salary.” When Rashmi was three years old, Varsha was born. By the time the baby woke up and needed to be fed, the older sister had to be made ready for school. By the time Durgi plaited the girl’s hair, it was time to wash the clothes and scrub the vessels before the water supply stopped for the day. Just as all the household chores were done, it was time to go and stand in the ration queue. Since there were so many things to take care of, the Mahajan family did not think of throwing Durgi out, and thus twenty years passed. By the time the girls’ dupattas were to be found lying everywhere in the house, and they had gone through college, Durgi had become an inseparable part of the family, like the worn iron handle of the metal cupboard, and like the faded embroidered cloth over the TV set. “She’s of some help to us, and who else does she have?” With this wobbly logic, Mahajan stopped putting money into her account. After dinner, on the rare occasion when there was an apple being eaten, the fact that Durgi always got a small slice was a matter of great pride for the Mahajan family.
For the grown-up children, however, Durgi’s presence was like an obstacle. Where has my hair clip disappeared to? they would rage. When Durgi sat down to supper after they had all eaten, the girls would start taking out their homework as though to hasten her. In that small space, there was no question of all of them sleeping with their limbs stretched out. Especially after the girls had grown so tall. They all felt as though they were sleeping standing up, like in the local train.
It was during Rashmi’s tenth-grade exams that the symptoms of Durgi’s illness first began to seem serious. She kept getting a fever. Without sending her to a doctor, the Mahajans treated her with balms and aspirin. Since Rashmi had to study late, it was almost impossible for Durgi to sleep whenever she wanted. Her face and limbs began to swell. A hundred aches and pains exhausted her. “You take it easy, Durgi. Don’t put your hands in water. It’s not good for you,” Mrs. Mahajan would say. But since she never got up to do a task, Durgi would end up dealing with the chores. Then Mrs. Mahajan would pretend to be angry. One day, unable to contain herself until she could reach the mori, Durgi puked all over the house, and on the people around.
Then she began to wipe the vomit desperately with her weak hands from a thigh here and an arm there. The crack that existed between her and the others revealed itself in that awful silence. They all sat unmoving while Durgi tried to clean up the mess from their clothes. From that day onward, the smell of vomit lingered permanently in the house.
“All this happened because we’ve let her stay here. Let’s at least send her away now,” whispered Sudhir Mahajan.
“What will the neighbors say? That we threw her out after all these years when she fell ill? Let’s take her to the doctor and then send her off,” said the wife.
As though possessed, Mahajan dragged Durgi to three different doctors. But it didn’t look like the sickness was going to end soon. Seeing the blood test reports, one of the doctors began to speak gravely of big treatments in big hospitals. Mahajan’s limbs began to shiver. He never took his wife and children to doctors for fear of the expense. So he came home with a few lies: taking some vitamins will do the trick, maybe a change of climate would work. He spoke without looking his wife in the eye. Mrs. Mahajan remembered the days when Durgi, upset at some small thing, would say she was leaving, and her employer would cajole her back, saying she was like her elder sister, and that they would look after her.
“But is she your real sister? Is she a blood relation? If you pay a salary, anyone will work for you. There’s a limit to how much we can do,” said Mahajan, drawing his wife outside.
“But Durgi looked after our girls without neglecting them. During your strike, for months she lied to us that her stomach was upset, and ate only a small meal once a day. We can’t forget all these things,” said the wife.
After this discussion, both of them would come back with fresh enthusiasm and put up with Durgi for a while longer. “Let me know if you want to go to your native place, or to your relatives. I can take you there. Try to remember, do you have any relatives?” coaxed Mahajan. But Durgi only stared blankly at him. Even during daylight hours, Durgi’s tattered mat was always spread out, and seemed to make the silence harsh and noisy.
The students began to avoid coming for their lessons. Rashmi and Varsha began to kick up a row over the smallest matter, and sometimes would get up and leave in the middle of dinner. They said their friends didn’t want to visit them at home. The chawl people began to say Durgi’s sickness was infectious. But they would come to borrow some onions or a matchbox, and say how good the Mahajans were, how nicely they were looking after their sick servant without sending her away. Now Durgi could not stand up by herself. She had to be led by hand to the toilet. She had fallen down while coming back from the chawl’s common bathrooms, and it needed several people to lift her and bring her back. After this she took to her bed permanently. Mahajan sat with his hand on his head. It was clear that Durgi would not now leave the house alive. Even if she called out from her bed, they pretended not to hear. The couple had been saving every paisa for the weddings of their daughters, and did not dare think of a hospital for Durgi. And the neighbors kept saying so that Durgi could also hear: “How good you people are. Even her family would not have looked after her like this.”
Mrs. Mahajan could not stomach having to help Durgi with her ablutions. Durgi, who could have died of embarrassment for causing trouble, stopped eating altogether. Only when her mouth dried did Durgi sprinkle a few drops on it. Mahajan’s blood pressure started rising. His daughters, instead of sparkling, were looking like the windows of bankrupt shops.
“Now people will start coming home to see the girls. How can we have them in here?” Mrs. Mahajan began to cry out loud in the neighbors’ houses.
Some said to her: “Stop giving her food and water.”
“Cheh, cheh,” she would respond, but on coming home she would peer into the water tumbler by the mat to see how much was remaining. It was still full.
“Why don’t you drink the water?” Mrs. Mahajan would shriek tearfully.
Like a frightened sparrow, when Durgi put out her shaking hands toward the tumbler, Mrs. Mahajan screamed, “Don’t drink it if you don’t want to. Don’t do me any favors!” And Durgi would draw her hand back inside her sheet.
Mahajan spoke to his well-wishers at his office. On someone’s suggestion, he went to a doctor in an old lane of the suburb. The doctor welcomed him silently. In a low voice, he asked for details of Mahajan’s problem. Then he took a large amount of money as his fee, and said: “My name cannot be mentioned anywhere, mister. Give her these ten pills before she sleeps. Let her swallow them herself. You may go now.”
Trembling, Mahajan walked back through the lane.
Although it had been nearly a month since Durgi stopped eating and drinking, her life still burned bright. Her eyes looked deeply into things. Like an animal, she would drag herself, stomach on the floor, toward the window, where she would cling to the bars. Outside on the street was a wholesale distribution center for fruit, vegetables, and flowers, where trucks came from all corners and emptied themselves. Years ago, she herself had come in one such truck, having begged a ride from its driver. She wondered where that truck was now. The incense burning on its dashboard still lingered in her nostrils. So many kinds of trucks, carrying watermelon, cabbage, cauliflower, orange. As she gazed, her sight grew dim and she leaned on the window bars. When she opened her eyes again, the trucks stood empty. But the truck full of chrysanthemums in the corner stood as it was. She gazed until her eyes dimmed again, and then dragged herself back to her mat. In her eyes, the truck full of chrysanthemums kept standing there without ever getting empty.
That night the Mahajans sent their daughters out of the room, and after bolting the door, they came and sat with their heads bowed in front of Durgi.
Mahajan began to say “Durgi . . .” and could not finish his sentence.
“Rashmi, Varsha, to be married . . . society . . .” stammered Mrs. Mahajan, her throat dry.
As though she understood everything, Durgi waved a trembling hand at her and then put her hand out obediently.
As though sleepwalking, Mahajan reached out for his office bag, took out the packet of pills with a shaking hand, and gave it to Durgi. She seemed to be struggling to say something. Mrs. Mahajan bent down and put her ear close to Durgi’s mouth. “I’ll take them . . . but tomorrow . . . I’ll take them tomorrow,” whispered Durgi.
As though all this did not concern them at all, the Mahajans rushed out of the room and started walking in the street. If they stopped, they seemed to hear Durgi’s helpless plea: “Tomorrow . . .”
Let her be today, they thought.
When they came back to the chawl, Rashmi and Varsha were already eating their dinner. They had the TV on full blast. The husband and wife did not have the courage to look in Durgi’s direction. Mrs. Mahajan changed the water in the tumbler next to Durgi’s mat. She went to plait Durgi’s hair, which she did once a week after oiling it, and Durgi refused, pressing her head tight against the window. But afterward, she called Varsha and Rashmi and insisted that they should be the ones plaiting her hair.
Afraid of the fiery look their mother gave them, the girls quickly put some oil on Durgi’s thin hair and then braided it. As she shook her head while it was being oiled, the reflections of the tube lights in the room trembled like silver lamps in Durgi’s eyes. Then Durgi spoke with great effort about a long-forgotten birthday of the infant Varsha when she had piddled in front of all the guests. She asked them to hold a mirror in front of her, and gazed into it as though looking at a picture. She then signaled to everyone to turn out the lights and go to sleep, and dragged herself to the window. Rashmi and Varsha fought with each other as usual over the bedsheets. The Mahajan couple sat sleeplessly at the entrance to the room.
As the night wore on, there were fewer and fewer people in the street below, and one could see it quite empty in the distance. The empty trucks were hiding here and there. Except for the truck full of chrysanthemums, the rest of the fruit market looked like a piece of wastepaper. Soon someone would open the back of this truck and start shoveling the flowers into the street. This longest night of the century was holding off tomorrow with all its might.
Translation of “Sevanthi Hoovina Trakku,” 1997. From No Presents Please by Jayant Kaikini, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana. Forthcoming from Catapult. By arrangement with the publisher.