The festival of lights, Jashn-e-Chiraghan, Diwali, was upon us! There was this distinct smell of money in the air! People buying new clothes, gifts, looking longingly at sweets made fresh perhaps for the first time in the year, painting their little hovels, scrounging the malls for cheap sales, regaling in an imagined time of plenty, a promise of the ephemeral and the seasonal good days!
I was not impervious to this feeling. A feeling that if you changed things around yourself, you would begin to feel different too.
So, I took myself to the hardware store and asked for a painting job to be done. The proprietor had done up my home a decade ago and told me that he would send his finest man to do the job. I waited for this finest of men!
He was a short, stocky man in his mid-forties, this Mr. Sahani. He had an intense, pecuniary look about him. He surveyed the entire space of my home very disapprovingly, casting aspersions on the state that I had let my home fall into.
He made me feel guilty about my own state of affairs. I began to feel more and more miserable as he poked at the falling plaster and remarked on the piteous state of the beams, and the dilapidated ceiling. I had let the rain come in very generously into my life and my home!
He kept muttering under his breath, “Bahut kaam hai” (there is a lot of work to be done). And every time something contracted, creaked, or collapsed, I saw my bill rising. But, like every savior of a reconstructed world, he reassured me that all would be set right by him and his able team.
And what to say of his team, a motley group of fellow cow-belters, his kith and kin, fellow migrants, who were lured into this city in the early 1990s as the real estate industry boomed. (They were all Sahanis and I was asked to address each of them as Sahaniji. There were four Sahanis in my house at the time. They however, addressed each other as Maharaj – Emperors, when they conversed with each other. The working class truly knew how to make each other feel grand.)
Scraggy, dusty with the plaster that they had brought down and the lambi that they applied on the walls and polished away, they remained etched in my memory as the noble pirates of the Mithi River! I made tumblers full of tea twice or sometimes three times a day and sat admiring their work as they painted away or polished the furniture. I cleaned up every evening the terrible mess they had made.
Grandfather Sahani took quite a shine to me and ordered me about in matters of how to cut corners when an extra man appeared for tea, why I should keep all my clothes out of the cupboard early the next morning when they polished the insides or simply gave me dirty looks when he found out that I had never cleaned the underside of the dining table ever!
Under his careful guidance, I woke up to the fact that dining tables have an underside too. That was a divine revelation!
Although I spent much of my free time with these merry fellows, my story is about Sahani, the contractor, the main maharaj, as they called him; with me around, they called him ‘aap ke maharaj’, or, sometimes, ‘aap ke contractor’.
Oh, and how he was mine! Mine for my money!
No man had indulged me as much as the contractor Mr. Sahani when he could loosen my purse strings or open my cheque book under the hated digitization schemes. His disarming – ‘ho jaayega’ or his equally inviting – ‘karva lenge’ would unerringly bring a bright smile to my face as I confided my darkest fears about the state of this aging home of mine.
Oh! yes, he has seen it all. He knew my deepest secrets about how I had tried to cover up my aging home with cheap oil paints and industrial varnish. Nothing was unknown to his keen, peering eyes. He was a cow-belt gentleman and remained perennially on the surface, never really commenting on my miserly character. And for that, I was eternally indebted.
Most days he would arrive after seven in the evening to inspect the work done, ask for his money, and instruct his fellows to clean up well every day so that I had less work. He would decline my offer to make tea for him. ‘Sugar hai’, he would say!
I would nod my head and get a glass of plain water. He would enquire about my life, about my daughter’s condition, and then quite naturally about the man of the house. Answers were neither true nor accurate and we both knew it. What was the truth anyway to a group of reconstructive artists who spent a lifetime covering up flaws, crevices, and cracks in middle-class homes?
Nor was he very open about his life. Which was rather surprising since most first-generation migrants to the city did open up about their struggles regarding getting by in the city, and then their daily miseries in eking out a living. Over the few days, he did tell me a part of his story and the other half that he did not, came from a rather unusual source.
He had come to Bombay in 1984 for the first time as a young boy. He was too overwhelmed by the big city and ran back home in a few days. Later, he was to come in the early 1990s as a mature, young man and began working as an assistant to a painting contractor. He learned most on the job as a painter, polisher, and mason. His claim to fame was masonry, and he was often called an ‘expert’ for the best tiling job.
He began making money and called his family over to Bombay. In a few years, he was a proud father of three kids, and half his extended family from his native Gorakhpur was called; they eventually settled in Bombay working for him. (He says they don’t trust the local workers. They are lazy and unlike his men, won’t work till 9 or 9.30 pm in the evening.)
His extended family is yet to call their families over. He was their role model and they believe, like him, that they too will succeed and get their entire world under one roof – someday.
Sometimes I would find them looking enviously at him from under their painting brushes or rollers. Sometimes there was a look of disappointment at the length of time it would take for them to succeed like him. For now, they were all under his mercy, and how they knew that!
Much later, I came to know the real reason for their envy!
The painting job was going to end that day and the team was waiting to rush off for their Diwali shopping. He had asked them to wait for him to pay their final dues. He was late.
The last bit of the cleaning was done, the chai was all but drunk and I waited for their maharaj to pay them off. He was late and then he was very late … and they began grumbling about how he had deceived them before. He would go back on his word often and pay lesser than promised. What a miser he was though he could never have succeeded without this dedicated group of ‘family slaves’.
As time progressed, they began talking about ‘that nasty affair’. I pricked my ear to hear what was being muttered under their breath. Grandfather Sahani had started the talk.
“You remember that pretty woman from Priti’s beauty parlour. Maharaj, our contractor, was quite smitten with her, you know,” he said. Trim Mr. Sahani had heard this story before hence he added his two-bit to the tale.
“Oh yes! She was quite a looker. Fair and rather plump, with a slight limp. I thought she was a bit on the older side, no?”
Young Mr. Sahani had not heard the tale; he was getting more and more inured into the conversation. He had passed the parlor many times and the only thing he remembered about Priti was that she came out of the parlor to hang the towels and her hair always flowed in the air. They all agreed to one fact, though. She smelt really nice.
Priti ran a beauty parlor round-the-corner where I lived. Well in her mid-forties now, she was a widow who had had a hard life bringing up her two children who were now in college. I often went to her to get my eyebrows done or a quick clean-up. She was cheap, neat and her hands were soft and massaged well.
Apart from that, I knew little except that she had just got her little parlor all done up a month ago for Diwali, with new tiles on the floors, glass doors, a false ceiling, and a very good lighting job. Must have cost her a neat little sum, I thought. It was worth it, wasn’t it? The place would now attract more clientele.
So, that was what these men of the Sahani clan could not stomach!
Sahani, the contractor, had a loving family, a home, a dutiful wife who had undergone three cesareans to provide him with three children, two girls, and a boy, and now he had a beautiful mistress, Priti. He was loved, admired, and coveted by so many. And he had made some money! Or, maybe, a little more. No one could rightly tell how much. That was what it was. He was a picture of success. Or was he? All pictures with time fade – my painting contractor too had to meet a disastrous end.
“He often visited her in the afternoons. That stout little deceiver,” exclaimed the trim Mr. Sahani. “She was quite lonely. You could see the sadness writ large on her dainty face,” added grandfather Sahani.
“It began a year ago I think but it did end quite abruptly too; remember what happened?”
Trim Mr. Sahani looked lost in thought perhaps recalling the sordid affair of his relation-in-law. I had not heard of this incident. And Priti never betrayed any of her feelings with her customers. Besides, I had noticed a marked change in her about a year ago and remembered that I commented on how happy she looked.
“That’s when he started spending all that money on her. He even did up her place all for free. Didn’t charge her a penny. He must have spent at least a lakh-and-a-half on her place. And we had to do all that work. She was nice to us, but you remember how little he paid us saying that the next job with that Bollywood star in the Oberoi Gardens would get us our just dues,” said trim Mr. Sahani.
“Just dues, my foot! He never paid us our just dues,” said a grim grandfather Sahani. “I am not bothered about that. He got what he deserved alright. And I am glad he got it right where it hurts the most,” he chuckled.
I was completely into the story by now and had to absolutely know what transpired between these characters. Before I could plead with them to tell me the bitter end, the bell rang and I opened the door to my contractor who looked harried as hell for having reached this late. Seeing him enter, his men made their hurried goodbyes to me and walked away with him.
The monetary transactions would be made outside the building. He collected his last payment and thanked me, and before leaving reminded me that if any of my friends needed to get their homes done, I should recommend him. I, of course, promised him that he was my man for all painting jobs for life.
The fellows left to enjoy their shopping that night for sweets and clothes. I was left with an incomplete story. I wondered what would have happened to that love affair. It did come to an end. How it ended, remained a mystery I would never know, or, would I?
About half an hour later I was to meet grandfather Sahani again. He came to collect an old fan that I had decided to discard. He said he would repair it and use it for his home but had not collected it in the excitement of the evening. He came back for it. And he also came back to tell me more of the unfinished story.
He stood a few minutes in the doorway as I shyly asked him to narrate the end of the story. He laughed and said, “Oh that! Our Mrs. Sahani got a wind of the affair soon enough. And, thereby, she decided to take matters in hand. What do you think she did? Did she go and confront him, yell at him, shed buckets of tears, or throw him out of the house? No, not her! That is not her style. She said she needed to make her Diwali purchases and took him to the nearest jewellers a week before Diwali. She purchased jewellery exactly of about one-and-a half-lakh and requested him to pay. Not a penny more, not a penny less. When he looked shocked at her purchase, she merely looked at him with a straight face and said, ‘this is my share of your money, exactly the amount you paid for that woman, Priti’.”
“Mr. Sahani, the contractor, paid for her jewels. He knew well enough that she would never wear them. She had never been fond of fancy jewellery. He knew this mother of his three children well,” said grandfather Sahani as he left my home.
“Madam, she is our bahu – this Mrs. Sahani!”
Read more from Nivedita here: