Excerpt: 'Manual for a Decent Life' by Kavita A. Jindal
Nulkazim, Uttar Pradesh
A single magpie, one for sorrow, on the drive. Waheeda’s car slid up the paving; the bird scuttled to the shrubbery, pausing there, unafraid. It put its head to one side. Waheeda pushed open the back door to clamber out. The bird flew up into the Ber tree, shrilling.
She put her hand to her forehead in an automatic adaab, returning the gummy smile of the leathery gardener who’d set down his hosepipe to bend at the waist. Behind her Hira bounced out of the car, calling out ‘hello, mali-ji,’ and plucked a gerbera on her way to the front door, where she jumped up to reach the bell.
Waheeda looked up at her childhood home. When she was eight she’d been excited at moving into it, and being allowed to select her own space—innocently plumping for the largest bedroom. The house had taken two years to build, a rapid construction project overseen by her adoptive father, Aseem. ‘For my family,’ he would say with a flourish, the unuttered words being: for the children I intend to have.
It would feel so empty with his two sons gone. The house’s façade betrayed none of the upheaval within, the paint remained fresh white with light-green accents on the mouldings over the front door and on the terrace balustrades.
Six months since she’d been here last, for the funeral of her brothers Rohail and Irfan. No new facts uncovered about the train fire that killed them. No one to blame or take revenge on. The family was holding it together. They were all good at that in their own ways: she, her mother, and Aseem. When your younger brothers have died in suspicious circumstances you feel yourself an usurper in life. You are ambivalent about your good health, your veneer of defiant cheerfulness. You hug your daughter too tight each evening when you return home, so that if you’re next to be taken away, she’ll remember the intensity of your love. When you arrive at your parents’ home you feel the mantle of their expectations settle on you. What will they ask of you? How will you measure up?
The front door opened and Ammi scooped up Hira to kiss her before releasing her. She hugged Waheeda, peering over her glasses into the car, as if expecting another passenger to appear. ‘Isn’t Nafis with you?’
Waheeda took a moment to compose herself. The driver unloaded their cases. The late-afternoon sun was mellowing. It was going to be a cool evening, she hoped winter fireflies would rise up in the back garden in the last warmth of dusk, she’d told Hira to look out for them. She swallowed.
‘Ammi, I told you Nafis won’t be travelling with us. He has work…an art gallery in Delhi has shown interest. They want large canvases and he hasn’t produced any sizeable works recently.’
Everyone knew that her husband spent most of his time in his small lodge in Theog, ostensibly painting mountain scenery. They knew, but they asked after him. They marked his absence.
Her mother pushed her specs back up her nose and wiped under her eye. ‘Doesn’t he want to spend some time with Hira?’ She spoke in a low tone, although Hira had skipped off inside.
‘He was in Delhi just a few days ago—an especial visit to see Hira.’
Immediately she regretted her phrasing. She’d admitted aloud that Nafis came to Delhi to see his daughter, not his wife. When he visited Delhi now he didn’t even stay with her, in his own home! He spent a couple of days with a friend who liked to visit Theog in return. Waheeda had to laugh. In those few years he’d lived in Delhi, Nafis had made no effort to acquire his own friends, complaining relentlessly about materialistic Delhiites. Now that he lived elsewhere he’d found congenial company in the city.
‘When will he have an exhibition?’ Her mother made no attempt to lead her inside for tea although their bags had been taken in. ‘Is the gallery the same one that showed his work earlier?’
Nafis rarely offered his work to a gallery to sell, and when he was commissioned, he often didn’t fulfil the commission. He marched to his own drummer. Waheeda didn’t believe that he would produce what he’d been asked to deliver this time. ‘I don’t know. All I can tell you is…’ she parroted his flat pretext for not joining them, ‘…he has some paintings to finish.’
Ammi opened her mouth, closed it, and Waheeda knew she would not mention him again during her visit.
Her old bedroom was the same, the bed neatly covered by a faded bedspread, the one she loved. Its familiar print of blue and yellow sprigs reminded her of being a girl, of what she had left behind, of what she had made of herself. Hira was sprawled on the bed, banishing any aura of gloom with her infectious happiness. Waheeda had peeped into her brothers’ rooms on the way and nothing had changed in them. That had made her chest squeeze up. But to find her room exactly as she liked it gave her a sense of peace.
She unzipped one holdall but before she could unpack Hira’s clothes, her daughter said: ‘Mama, I want to sleep in the sewing-machine room.’
Waheeda didn’t ask why. She knew. Hira wanted to copy whatever her father did. When Nafis had rushed down from Theog for the funeral he’d asked for a bed to be made up for him in the sewing-machine room. He’d explained to Ammi that he was an insomniac. It was better that Waheeda and Hira stayed together while he found ‘another place for my head, where I can be lying churning, or up pacing, without disturbing anyone.’
Not that any of them had slept properly, for days, but late at night they had retreated into their own silent zones of grief.
She stroked Hira’s fine straight hair. It had not been cut for a year and her bob had grown past her shoulders. When Waheeda was young, she’d wanted hair like this. Instead she had thick wavy hair which she now appreciated. She couldn’t quite remember when she’d stopped wanting to have different hair or a different nose.
‘Let me see if I can arrange it,’ she said. Hira followed her downstairs, listening in as she had a quick word with Ammi. Waheeda dusted down the small cane bed in the room of bright yellow walls. She lifted the Singer sewing machine off the table—‘this is very heavy,’ she panted at Hira—and placed it on the floor. She arranged Hira’s things on the wooden table: hairbrush, sketchbook, pencil tin, and the books she was reading to her. She cleared a shelf in the triangular corner cupboard for clothes. She made up the bed with crisp linens and on the tasselled violet eiderdown she placed Hira’s beanie baby. ‘All set.’
‘Topar Khan waits on the pillow,’ Hira adjusted the brown bear’s position.
Aseem’s deep tones resonated through the house and Waheeda could hear him querying her mother as she came out of the shower. She sniffed at her wrists to inhale the scent of her rose soap before it dissipated. Later. She would greet him later. He would be impatient but it would have to wait until she was dressed and down for dinner.
His voice, drifting up, was firm and strong. Yet on the phone to her this past month, he’d sounded more faltering. Ever since the train fire she’d felt nothing but pity for him, and when he asked her for small favours, or for her opinions, she responded delicately, cooperatively. The last errand had strained her patience. Aseem asked her to meet Chetna Mura, a lady of about forty-five, a fringe member of the Nulkazim Peace Forum party who had recently become more active. Aseem wanted to shake up and re-shuffle the Peace Forum’s small Delhi operation. ‘I think Chetna has greater potential as a fundraiser in Delhi circles than Faisal, what do you think?’ he’d asked Waheeda on the phone.
‘I don’t want to get involved.’ But she was thinking: curious. Faisal Ahmed was the political party’s head in Delhi. Aseem thought of Faisal-ji as his brother. Faisal had been with him since 1970 when Aseem founded the party. Would he really replace him as the figurehead in the capital?
‘Chetna would be a good front-person. Show how we are an inclusive party. Not limited to Muslims only. Or elderly men.’ A pause. ‘She has good contacts, Wija. I want you to meet her and give me your feedback.’
‘I’m really busy with my work, Abba, and with Hira always waiting for me at home, alone with the maid, I really don’t have time…’
‘Wija, it’s good for you to get to know some people.’
‘I know plenty of people. I don’t want to meet the kind of people you think it’s good for me to know.’
‘Who else am I going to send? I need someone I can trust, I need family…’
It was that word, family, that sense of his loss, which held her back from standing up to him. One last-ditch attempt to deflect his will that she become his antenna in Delhi. ‘Can’t it wait until your next visit? Aren’t you coming soon?’
Aseem used his second card. ‘I don’t want to leave your mother alone here all the time. So, yes, I should be in Delhi more. But…I’m going to spend more time in Nulkazim…at least for another year.’ He lowered his voice confidentially, ‘I’d like a woman to meet Chetna. I’d like to know what you think of her. She may become our consistent ‘face’ in Delhi, after all.’
‘OK, Abba. I’ll meet her.’
He wasn’t finished. ‘After that, arrange a meeting with Faisal too.’
‘All you have to do is find out diplomatically whether he wouldn’t be slighted if asked to take a backseat. He would still be the driving force, of course. The main decision-maker. Always.’
‘Of course,’ she echoed back wryly. ‘I’ll make that clear.’
Although how was she going to elucidate ‘taking a back seat’ to a man whom she’d been taught to address respectfully at all times?
At dinner Aseem presided over the table as normal but unspoken anguish filled the room. Waheeda ached for her parents, sitting at this long table night after night, just the two of them, gazing at the six unused dining chairs, missing their two sons, missing the clatter of young people. Hira was too drowsy to chatter on brightly as she usually did.
Aseem’s peculiar blue-grey eyes fixed on Waheeda. ‘Did you have those meetings in Delhi last week?’ His longish grey hair was slicked back. It struck her again how he’d lost that mantle of bravado he’d always had. Every time she saw him he’d aged a tiny bit more. His voice retained its dictatorial quality though, why had she imagined that it had become weaker?
‘Yes, Abba,’ she nodded.
Her mother looked at them both. ‘What meetings?’
‘NPF,’ he said shortly.
Her mother appeared even more puzzled.
‘Rehana,’ Aseem explained more patiently to his wife, ‘I requested Wija to help me with some party work in Delhi.’
Ammi shot her a you-didn’t-tell-me squint.
‘Let’s talk in my study after dinner,’ Aseem said to Waheeda.
‘How was the new driver?’
‘Habib? Good. He drove carefully. He didn’t speak much. Perhaps he’s the strong silent type.’ Waheeda had thought him a bit surly, but she knew from his size and muscularity that he’d been selected for security reasons, not his social skills. She didn’t mind his reticence, she preferred to be quiet too, and anyway on this journey Hira had prattled on beside her.
When they’d finished eating, Waheeda carried Hira from the table and sang a lullaby to her. Usually she read to her at night, but in Nulkazim, Hira liked to regress somewhat and enact earlier babyish rituals. Waheeda was tired herself from the effects of the long drive and the pervasive sadness in the house, but she went into Aseem’s study to give him her report.
‘Should we install Chetna as chief?’ he enquired straightaway.
What he was really asking was whether this was the right move to increase visibility of his provincial minor party. I have no clue, she wanted to reply. She had no interest in and had never been involved in party affairs. ‘I don’t know which of them is better with the media or knows more of the right people. Chetna was very forthcoming about her ambitions…’
She didn’t say what she was thinking: It doesn’t matter to me if the religion of one is a higher draw than the religion of the other in that city. She said, ‘They aren’t all that different in their operating style. Faisal-ji is male and Chetna is female… and younger…’ Despite her initial reluctance, she’d enjoyed the meetings. There’d been a frisson in the discussions and she felt she was making things happen. Her reasoning skills were being deployed and she was being trusted to make decisions for Nulkazim Peace Forum.
‘Hmm, I thought you’d say something like that. You’re always fair.’
Surprised, she looked into his face. His wan eyes were encircled by a dark puffiness. Again she felt sorrow, for the loss of his sons, and for herself, for losing her little brothers. Her dear mother, destroyed and stoic. Ammi did have God, though, she had the verses she chanted, and a few times a day she unburdened herself to God, so that to everyone else she appeared unruffled. A picture of acceptance. Serene was the word most commonly applied to Rehana Zafar.
Aseem stood from his desk to go over to the console table at the side of the room. Waheeda’s gaze got stuck on the blank wall behind his chair. Where were all the photographs? The portrait of Aseem’s father that never left its place. Had it been taken down for cleaning? But everything was missing: the old pictures of Aseem with the extended Zafar family—all his cousins, and the newer portraits of her brothers, and the picture of Hira as a toddler on her first visit to Nulkazim’s rose garden.
Before she could ask why the photos had been removed, he returned to set two pieces of origami on the desk. White chits perfectly folded into miniature triangles, upright on the green baize. At the lower corners of the triangles, the outermost layer of paper was tuned up in a sharp fold. She could only stare, a blackness beginning to spread in the pit of her stomach. What was this about?
He sat down. Said nothing. Her foreboding grew. They were playing a game. Why? What were the stakes? She didn’t know, but she was damned if he would win. I’ve been feeling sorry for you, but your machinations will never cease.
‘So, Wija, I also got some feedback from your meetings.’
‘You did?’ Her tone lifted in astonishment. ‘The why ask me to give you an account? And who reported to you? About me?’
Then the meeting with him had been the opposite of what she’d thought she was doing. It was she who was being assessed in some way. It was her skill or tenacity on trial, not Faisal’s willingness to step into the background for the good of the party. ‘Did you lie to me? Did you go up to Delhi the next day and talk to him yourself?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘You told me not to discuss it on the phone. So how did you get a report? You’re full of deceit, a fraud—’
His blinking eyes betrayed how stung he was. ‘A fraud? That’s what living in Delhi teaches you? To call everyone a fraud? To speak like this to your elders?’ He opened a drawer and brought out a mobile phone. ‘Seen these?’
‘You have one?’ Waheeda hadn’t known that.
‘This is not tapped. This is how I got my report.’ He opened the drawer again, bringing out another phone. ‘I’ve bought a cell phone for you as well.’
‘Oh.’ She waited, still angry. He’d made a fool of her. Why? She pushed back her chair. ‘If you’ve heard all the news, you don’t need any more from me. I’ll head upstairs—’
‘But Wija,’ he protested mildly, ‘we haven’t talked about your life yet.’
‘Yes, yours. I’m your father. Perhaps, I should say that I’m a concerned father. Would you agree that you’ve reached a crossroads in your life and you need some guidance as to what happens next?’
Waheeda felt her palms prickling. She was tempted to open her hands and look for answers in there. It would be written, wouldn’t it? If this was a crossroads there would be a line, surely, a contour bisecting her life-line at the age of thirty-two, a line to show interference.
‘Abba…’ She couldn’t help but reveal her surprise, and even her vulnerability to his declaration of concern, ‘my life is fine. I don’t need guidance.’ Most definitely, I don’t need your guidance. She lowered her eyes, out of habit, so he wouldn’t read her rebellious rejoinders. The white triangles loomed up at her, malevolent. Did both chits have the words No written on them? If form was being followed, then whatever the question, the answer was ‘No.’
But she hadn’t made an appeal. She had no need to escape. When she was sixteen, she’d made a request to leave Nulkazim, to go to boarding school, and he’d asked her to pick a chit from a bowl that had two pieces of paper in it. The luck of the draw. She hadn’t realised until much later that both must have been marked ‘Nulkazim.’
She had gone to boarding school in the end. After interventions from Ammi she’d escaped her stifling life. She’d relished her time at St. Ann’s, up in the hills. She’d been lucky to stroll through its colonnade corridors and red brick buildings and to enjoy brisk walks in the forest around the school. She’d made friends for life there. St. Ann’s had been her springboard to an independent existence as an academic in Delhi. Without her sojourn there she would not now be a history lecturer at Prajna College. If she hadn’t determined her own path, in opposition to him…at sixteen, at eighteen, at twenty-one, at twenty-four—
His clipped voice brought her back. ‘Wija, I cannot let you live as you are.’
She replied sarcastically, ‘You want to kill me?’
Tears sprang into his eyes and she averted her own, warm blood rushing to her face. Her shoulders slumped. Stupid, stupid woman.
‘You don’t have a husband,’ he said.
‘He lives elsewhere. That doesn’t count. You’re a lone woman living in Delhi.’
‘I’m not alone, I’m living with Hira.’
‘I’m coming to that. You’re at work most of the day and Hira is being brought up by maids. I want better for my granddaughter than that run-down rented house of yours.’
‘You want to give me money?’ Waheeda was confused.
‘No. I want you to return to Nulkazim. I want you to bring Hira to live with her grandmother. She will care for her. You will both be comfortable.’
I don’t want comfort. I want my freedom and I want my work. She tried to begin tactfully but Aseem ignored the words she found, addressing mild–mannered arguments to the air between them, as if the air was a sitting judge.
‘What pittance do you receive for your work? Not much when you consider you’re living in a city where your monthly salary wouldn’t buy a meal for two at the Orient Express restaurant.’
‘That doesn’t matter to me.’
‘Money will matter soon. And even if you claim it never will, although it will one day, I guarantee that; Hira matters to you, doesn’t she? Look at your daughter’s life. Tell me she is not better off here.’
Waheeda unclenched her jaw. ‘What do you suggest I do with my life, Abba?’
Would he ask her to start a teaching career in Nulkazim? In a school maybe? Imagine. From a university lecturer to downgrade to a school. Did he know how suffocated she would be here, every step watched? There would be those who sucked up to her and those who maligned her. In this town, no one would be neutral. In Delhi, she could ignore the people who fell into camps, there was a whole population who had no idea at all of what went on in this part of the country. She could trust her close friends there. So many millions in Delhi, and so many thousands who couldn’t care less what their local politicians did, much less who wielded backstage power in a small Uttar Pradesh town they’d never heard of.
‘You should use your talents, Wija. I need your help in my work.’
Waheeda turned her palms up and scrutinised them. She shook her head slowly and a tear began in her left eye.
‘Have I said anything at all that didn’t make sense?’ he asked.
She was silent, the tear left her eye and slid down her cheekbone. It was a small tear, just a tear of shock really, an insignificant tear, she could leave it alone. Let it show. Let her misery show.
‘I need your support at NPF. You are my daughter. I cannot let you live a shabby life alone in Delhi.’
‘I love Delhi.’ Her voice cracked. ‘I love Delhi.’
‘You will be able to go there as often as you wish.’ He gave a nonchalant shrug although the news he was imparting was yet another amazing dodge.
Visit Delhi whenever she liked?
‘The flat in Sangeet Vihar can be yours, to use when you want. I travel there less often now. The main bedroom can be yours. The small room will be fine for me.’
Replaying the scene, Waheeda would pinpoint this moment as her moment of weakness. He’d ambushed her, batting away anything she said and impatiently closing the discussion with: ‘You will be making the decision, Wija, not me.’
She stood up at once. ‘I’m glad to hear it.’ She flicked her dupatta over her shoulder. ‘I’ll consider everything you’ve said,’ she mimicked his mild-voice tactic. ‘I’ll let you know what I decide.’
Aseem pointed at the green baize. ‘Pick a chit.’
‘You already know what is better for your daughter and even for you. But see what Fate has to say today. Today is as good a time as any.’
‘What’s written on the chits?’
‘One says: Nulkazim.’
Translation: A life in Politics. Translation: Aseem wins. Nafis loses his wife and child. If he had any chance of bringing them to him, however slim, that chance would vanish. But other translations also jostled in her head: Love, security and care for Hira; family around Hira; comfort for Waheeda, and even if her adoptive father hadn’t spelled it out, because he was cunning enough not to, she was sure the role of political heir was on the plate; hers for the taking, if she put the work in, if she stepped up to it, if she sank her faith in him. ‘What about the other chit? What’s written on that?’
‘Nothing. It’s blank. Because that’s the state of your life now.’
How easily he slighted her. ‘That first time,’ she pointed at the chits, bitterness creeping in, ‘both had the same word on them. “Nulkazim.” There was no “St. Ann’s.” I didn’t know it then. I realised your methods later. That was sixteen years ago, but don’t think I’ve forgotten.’
‘I know you haven’t forgotten. Do you think I’d do the same again? You’re grown up now. You should know it’s not you choosing which chit will appear in your hands, it’s your destiny.’
‘You really believe that? After all that’s happened…’ She didn’t think he did. But she also knew that even the most robust politicians were apt to believe what was suited to the moment, apt to be superstitious when needed and sceptical when required. When your career was based on the fickleness of people and on luck, as much as on anything you did, it helped to attribute let-downs, tragedies, and ill-will to another force, a greater force. At least Aseem was not invoking God, he knew calling on Allah wouldn’t work with her.
Her life a blank? It wasn’t true, but he was a master of psychological demoralisation. He knew how to turn someone’s mind. It’s what he did daily.
Where was Nafis in this equation? ‘There is an option you don’t seem to have a chit for.’ She liked the teasing quality she injected into her voice.
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘What’s that?’
‘Theog. My destiny could be in Theog.’
‘What will you live on? And will you live in that garage that Nafis calls a house?’
‘Nafis has enough money. He’s managing on his income, isn’t he?’ She gripped the top of the chair and leaned forward. ‘If you were keen to help me, you would buy us a bigger house there, and then—’
‘—you would live happily ever after.’ He completed the sentence with a snort.
The usual defensive streak took over on behalf of her husband. ‘It could be. Somehow you missed that option.’ Because you want me here. You’re not packing me off to be with Nafis, not telling me to keep gossip at bay. If your sons were alive, you’d be saying something quite different. If my brothers were alive…
In truth, Theog was not an option. If she scratched out Nulkazim on a chit and wrote Theog the translation would be the same: the end of her independence. Worse, it could herald the start of a new and deeper depression for Nafis. It would end her university career, although she could do something low-key in the local villages or the closest town. Importantly, Hira would live in the same home as her father. But in other ways, her daughter wouldn’t benefit. Theog didn’t even have a choice of good schools as Nulkazim did. Hira could be sent to a boarding school. Waheeda’s head buzzed with a sudden pain. Then, without my daughter, my life really will be a blank. I will have made it so.
She felt drained. ‘Good night, Abba.’
‘Wija, you can pick a chit. Then you can go.’ He got to his feet and turned his back to her. ‘I won’t see what you’re doing. Choose one.’
This was a strange psychology but it was working. She said, ‘It doesn’t mean anything if I pick a chit. It doesn’t mean anything.’
She lifted one of the origami triangles. The paper dry in her tense hands. She looked up quickly. Aseem’s back remained turned. She unfolded the paper. Nulkazim. Like all those years ago, the same neat black fountain-pen word. She picked up the other chit and without opening it crushed them both into her fist as she left the study.
Excerpted from Manual for a Decent Life, by Kavita A. Jindal, published by Brighthorse Books, February 2020.
Republished with permission from the author.
Image CroDigTap via Flickr (cc)