Harilal & Sons

By Sujit Saraf

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Hari soon discovered that a boy of twelve could do little but sit around the office and wait to be sent out on errands—a glass of rose sherbet for Khemchandji, a message to the durbaan at the door, a trip to collect rent from the flour mill. When he was dispatched to collect on debts, the amounts were small—125 was a pittance, he soon learned—and the payments involved no delays, because that would require some haggling over the interest rate with the debtor. However much his ten rupees had seemed at first, he was the lowest paid clerk in the office. The eight annas he had saved every month vanished as soon as winter required him to buy a muffler and a new pair of Nagra sandals. He kept scrupulous accounts, yet his earnings seemed to slip away and there was no prospect of accumulation.

Walking through the narrow, circuitous lanes of Bara Bazar, he shrank from the dirt and the rude crowds, the boys bathing at roadside pumps, the women cooking in a sea of slush, their pots and pans collecting splashes of water from tonga wheels. Then there was the problem of the fish market, which became impossible to avoid on his way to Cotton Street. There he saw goat carcasses, snails and fish that were still living, flailing when held by the tail, dripping blood on counters. When passing these, he longed for the open spaces of Rampura where a boy could wander in the fields and chew on bajra, or jump into the pond near the dam for an afternoon bath, without having to deal with Bengalis, crowds, English sahibs or tongawalas.

He had hoped this was to be a temporary situation that would enable him to start his own shop, as Seth Daulatram had done in Cotton Street, but where would he get the money for a shop, given that he had been unable to save even a few annas in nine months? Trade is in our blood, his father had told him, but that blood had to be sweetened with capital. No one would trust his money with a boy of twelve who knew nothing but arithmetic and Modhiya. Perhaps he could become a dalaal—a jute or opium under-broker; he could learn how to tell good jute from bad and arrange deals for Khemchandji. A good dalaal at a European firm could earn three hundred rupees in a month, but such firms employed experienced men who had already been brokers in Indian firms for years. The capital of a dalaal was his reputation and his word, and no one would trust the word of a boy. Besides, a dalaal had to know how to speak Bengali with Bengalis, a little Hindi, and perhaps some English when dealing with sahibs.

In June, eleven months after he had arrived in Calcutta, he asked the cashier in Lalgodam to show him his account. A red binder was produced and opened to a page that contained too few entries: his accumulated savings were three rupees and six annas.

Later that day, he walked down Cotton Street to collect on a bill. There was a letter from his father in his kurta pocket. Having received no news of home for seven months, and having sent none, lest his father—laid low by the Chhappaniya—be burdened with his misfortunes in Calcutta, he was afraid to read the letter. When did Raamji ever send good news from Shekhavati? June was the month of blistering heat in the tibbas, of preparation for bajra planting, of scanning the sky for wisps of cloud. Perhaps the Chhappaniya would return this year, as the Saiya famine had followed the Bhaiya. He sat on a bench and bought a glass of tea, knowing he should not drink anything when on an errand. With the tea calming his nerves, he opened the note.

‘… Rukmini is now sixteen, and her father-in-law has already asked thrice, “When will you send her to us?” I cannot delay her departure any longer, even if I am unable to buy the gifts that must go with her. Your mother has put together everything she could find in the house—after setting aside the gifts that must be given to Jasoda and Muniya when it is their time—but I do not know what I will give to her husband when he comes to take her away. Panditji has determined Aashaadh sudi dashmi—the day Raamji had chosen for your wedding last year—as auspicious for Rukmini’s departure. If you are able to, send a gold ring from Kalkatta. I have made enquiries, and gold has declined to twenty-four rupees in Kalkatta—some even quote twenty-three rupees, fifteen anna and a paisa for a tola, a rate I have not seen in fifteen years. Do not spend too much: a one-tola ring will be sufficient. You will find many men in Lalgodam leaving for Shekhavati in a week or two, before the chaumasa begins. Send the earrings with them …’

Hari could read no more. He understood what the letter left unsaid—his sister Draupadi had not survived the fever that had attacked her a few days before his wedding. His father would not make the mistake of communicating such inauspicious news in a letter. Instead, he had named everyone but Draupadi, letting Hari divine the rest.

He wished he had never come to Disavar, and never believed those stories they had told him about Seth Daulatram. But for the Chhappaniya, he would be sitting in the shop with his father, weighing mounds of bajra and moth, gwar, cucumber and melons, bantering with customers, speaking of trips to temples in Sikar and Jhunjhunu. Why did anyone in Rampura have to step out of Shekhavati at all? ‘There is much to buy and sell,’ Hemrajji had said, ‘and a hundred ways for a good bania to make money. Once a boy has learned the ways of Disavar, he starts out on his own.’ Yes, but not a boy sent out before his time!

He could simply pack his trunk and return to Rampura. He would have to borrow money for the gold ring—Khemchandji would perhaps extend a loan. He would have to ask for more than twenty-four rupees: his father had not accounted for the cost of workmanship—two-and-a-half annas in a rupee. Excited, he stood up, then sat down immediately when reminded of the train fare. What would his father say about the waste? Ten rupees to go from Delhi to Calcutta, another ten to return, with nothing to show for the expense but a gold ring and a debt of thirty-five rupees! In any case, he could not return empty-handed. When someone—even a boy—returned from Disavar, he was expected to arrive with gifts for everyone, with stories of Kalkatta, English sahibs, trains, tongas and bales of jute. What stories would he tell?

Forlorn, he walked down Cotton Street, entered number 67 and took the staircase directly to the second floor, avoiding the crowded courtyard where a meeting appeared to be in session. As he had done hundreds of times, he slipped off his chappals, placed his bills respectfully before the munim at the cash box, and sat down cross-legged in a corner of the mattress to await his turn, knowing he would not be noticed until closing time three hours later, yet had to remain seated to be noticed at all. Had he arrived at closing time, they would have asked him to come the next day. Everyone wanted to avoid the ill omen of a creditor early in the afternoon, when three hours of business remained, yet no one wanted to see him at the end of the day. I am the agent of ill-luck, he told himself as he drifted into a waking slumber that he had mastered over a year of waiting in gaddis.
An hour later, his indiscretion with the tea returned to haunt him. He could not seek permission to go to the latrines. The munim would surely taunt, ‘Have you come to collect money or piss in my building? Do they not have latrines in Lalgodam?’ So he ignored the urge until he could bear it no longer. Gently, hoping the munim would not notice, he slid off the mattress, slipped on his chappals and walked out into the balcony. There seemed to be no latrine on the floor. He went upstairs; that floor, too, seemed to have nothing but offices. He climbed to the roof, thinking they might have built a latrine there. A thick pillar stood in the middle, supporting nothing, apparently part of an abandoned plan to add another floor to the building. Dark clouds hung overhead; a drizzle appeared imminent. Someone had thrown maize and bajra grains all over the roof. Hundreds of pigeons flapped about, feeding busily, trying to climb each other to get closer to the grain. Beyond the birds, a channel of concrete had been laid in the floor to collect rain water and direct it into a pipe that descended to the courtyard below. A boy slightly older than Hari was squatting on the channel, his dhoti pulled above his knees, urinating.

So they never built a proper latrine in this building, thought Hari.

He walked to the other end of the channel and squatted, taking care not to expose himself to the other boy, and began to urinate. The boy sprang to his feet, ran to Hari, pulled him up by the shoulders and dragged him behind the pillar. A storm of pigeons blinded them. Hari was terrified. Was this not a urinal?

Had he not seen the boy squatting there? Before he could utter a word, however, the boy clapped a hand over his mouth and pointed to the stairwell.
Two men in turbans came up to the rooftop in great agitation. After looking anxiously at the sky, they bent over the concrete channel to study the stream of urine as it flowed and emptied into the drain. When the first drops spilled out of the pipe at the bottom, a cry went up in the courtyard below.

‘Khaya! Khaya!’

The men on the rooftop frowned, scoured the sky again, held out their hands to catch imaginary raindrops and looked down at the channel in consternation, where the flow had now reduced to a trickle. They argued for a few minutes, then went downstairs. The boy released Hari and chuckled. ‘How much did you wager?’

Hari did not understand. ‘What is khaya?’

‘Three for me,’ said the boy. ‘At seven to two.’

‘What do you deal in?’ asked Hari.

‘What do you deal in?’ the boy responded.

‘I am a clerk with Daulatram Gulabchand in Amherst Row.’

‘You look too young to be a clerk,’ the boy said, though he himself was not much older.

‘I started a year ago.’

‘What are you doing on the rooftop? There are no gaddis here.’

‘I drank too much tea …’ Hari said weakly.

The boy laughed. ‘What is your name?’

‘Harilal Tibrewal, son of Shri Duli Chand Tibrewal of Rampura in Shekhavati.’

The boy appeared surprised. ‘Are you the son-in-law of Narayan Dasji Nangaliya of Chirawa?’

Hari nodded. The boy turned to face him, folded his hands and bowed. ‘I would have touched your feet if you were older, but this will have to do.’
‘Who are you?’ Hari asked.

‘Janardhan Kedia, son of Shri Sawarmal Kedia of Chirawa. I consider Narayan Dasji’s daughters my sisters, so his son-in-law is my jija. Consider me your saalaa, jijaji.’

Hari was relieved: a boy from his wife’s side of the family certainly had lower status—there was no reason to be intimidated by him. ‘You have not told me what you deal in,’ he said boldly.

Janardhan pointed to the sky. ‘Rain.’

‘That is not yours to sell.’

‘Everything made by Raamji can be bought and sold if a bania knows how to price it,’ Pointing to the concrete channel, Janardhan continued, ‘This drains into a metal pipe, which flows straight down into rain-gauges on the ground floor.’

‘I saw no gauges when I came up.’

‘They are hidden in a double-ceiling to the left of the courtyard. Look down there, but keep your head out of sight.’
Hari peered over the steel rail into the courtyard. It was bustling with men, all shouting at the same time, right hands held up in the air, fingers dancing to flash secret signals to hidden partners.

‘Those are all khayivals,’ Janardhan said. ‘They had bet that it wouldn’t rain today, and have lost a lot of money because the odds of rain were only two to seven.’

‘But it did not rain.’

Janardhan shrugged and looked at the channel, where the trickle of urine had disappeared. ‘It did, at least three millimetres according to the Calcutta-mori rain-gauge that sits under this pipe. It would have been more had you been quicker to piss, or if I had remembered to drink tea this morning.’

‘Is there a latrine here?’ Hari asked, suddenly reminded of the pain in his bladder.

Janardhan laughed. ‘Your piss is worthless now. Why give it away for nothing? Betting resumes tomorrow morning.’

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