The telegram came when he had reached his rooms after work. As always, it started with an entreaty for money, but this time it said something different. They wanted to see him, and see him soon enough. If he didn’t come, then they would come themselves. Why wasn’t he writing to them like before? Why did he only send money but nothing else? Money was important, but family was more important. In addition, it was now time for him to settle down. He needed a wife, and they, his parents, knew best, as always.
Gopal made a note of it and decided to send the money, the very next day by money order. Anything to keep them from coming here. He couldn’t keep them here in the city. They wouldn’t understand the city. More importantly, they wouldn’t understand him.
It had been two years since the last visit to his village—a village which he wanted to forget. He had shrugged off their enquiries, saying work load, out-country visits, and city job insecurity. By the grace of God, he had been able to hold them at bay.
He detoured to the post office after lunch and prayers, sent the customary three thousand rupees. He didn’t feel even an inkling to visit them at this time, lest write to them, but he took the detested step and posted the letter the next day.
A week later, a letter arrived with photographs of girls, with their qualifications scribbled in his mother’s clear scrawl at the back of the photographs. His parents exhorted him to pick any one of them, but their choice was the girl in green salwar kameez. Did he give his sanction? Should they start the negotiation? The size of dowry would be substantial. They even promised a Maruti 800, a TV, and a Kelvinator fridge. What more could one expect when they were giving so much? It is better not to be greedy, as he very well knew what happened to the farmer who killed the goose which laid golden eggs. Or did he have any more expectations? The girl was fair, with a trim figure and had even completed her BA in English literature. What more would he like? But if he selected any other girl from the photographs, they were all right with it. Then he will not say later that they, his parents, hadn’t given him any variety to choose from. But he would have their blessings ten-fold if he picked the girl in the green salwar kameez.
He flung the letter and tore the photographs to shreds. Then he fasted the next day, as he had been led to temptation and wanted to purge himself of the heathen thoughts. It had been mysticism at first which had started him on this path, and so he again turned to penance and spirituality so that he would be made pure again.
A chance comment from one of his atheist friends had started him on exploring about religion—whether what he was doing was right enough or was it just meaningless rituals. Another comment from a fatalist had driven him to question the meaning of human existence and whether all his choices were really his.
For more than a couple of months his heart had no feeling, but he had just floated on in his humdrum existence, speaking when his mind was somewhere else. He had even forgotten to eat for some days, turning up dazed at the office and staring at the ceiling on Sundays, having no drive to get up from his bed.
He had been led… to believe.
It hadn’t had really been his choice but…
But his thoughts to the matter of marriage never deflected and mushroomed once again on account of his mother’s telegram the next day.
What did he think of the girl? He should reply soon. The girl was very hot in his village, and if they didn’t act soon enough, someone else would claim the hefty dowry, the Maruti 800 and the Kelvinator fridge. They even would furnish his Mumbai flat. Anyhow, the girl’s parents felt a responsibility for their daughter. He should reply soon.
His stomach rumbled, giving a lurch. He wanted to throw up. The image of the girl came in his head and the wave of nausea hit him again. A hot girl? How could he see himself—bring himself to go before this girl? Impossible. God hadn’t decreed.
God had decreed for him a different type of a girl. But he couldn’t tell it to his parents. If he told, would he be spared? Definitely not.
They were dead to him. But he needed to pay the ransom of existence. They only had the hold of entry to this Earth. Without this fleeting bond he didn’t feel kinship with them. Better to pay the ransom and be free than to justify his actions to people he no longer cared about.
He had to take his faith to the next level, and he chose the beginning of next month to do the same. Then he would definitely think about the pilgrimage. But he had doubts. Was it decreed that he can go on the pilgrimage without having tasted womanly company? Even though he hadn’t completed his affairs on Earth, he was unattached, and that should mark him in favour.
He would definitely ask Babu bhai this Friday.
Babu bhai shook his head.
“If you go now, much better, but if you go and have a wife before you want to go, then you should be a husband and father before you fulfill your pilgrimage. With a wife at your side you will be giving another person the privilege of the pilgrimage.”
So it meant that he should get a wife, didn’t it? So much the better, as Babu bhai said, a wife he would get. But getting a wife was no mean task. The girls his parents were pointing out didn’t satisfy the primary requirement. If Babu bhai had any daughters, he would have asked, but sadly Babu bhai had married off his last daughter just a year back when Gopal had found the “one true path.” But he was sure about Hakim bhai. He would surely help him, and he had indicated too.
“As much as structure, a woman adds structure to a man’s life,” Hakim bhai, who was another of his guides, had said. Later, Hakim bhai had invited Gopal for a sumptuous meal on a Friday. Mrs. Hakim didn’t serve him when he had visited, but it had been Shabina, Hakim bhai’s daughter—her face uncovered!
He hadn’t read too much into the happenings—at first.
His brow throbbed thinking about these profound things so much that he didn’t notice the suitcases lying on the stairs facing his doors. Who must have put these here? He hefted the first one and positioned it away from the door.
He turned. The sound made him drop the suitcase—not so much the sound but the voice.
His eyes went to the sari-clad figure just getting up from the stairs.
“Forgotten your Amma?”
“No, no,” said Gopal.
“Where is Appa?”
“Now you are asking, only after I have asked.”
“What, no, no? Are you going to open the door, or keep your mother outside till she dies?”
Gopal opened the house, and his mother barged in.
“Don’t let me keep my things outside only? You won’t take them in?”
“I’ll bring it,” said Gopal, traipsing outside.
Gopal re-entered with the suitcases in both the hands and a couple of handbags slung on both the shoulders.
“What bare walls you have got?” said Sarita, his mother.
“I just painted the house.”
Sarita touched the wall. “Doesn’t seem fresh, but you get good paint, I won’t argue.”
“There’s not even an altar here. I shouldn’t have left you alone. Have you stayed in the city so much that you have forgotten your household gods?”
A voice filled Gopal’s head, “Do you reject all other gods?”
His hands had shuddered as he had smashed the earthen idols.
He had felt a certain relief from dread. It was his own unanimous decision, not someone’s direction. His heart fluttered and the blood raced speedily in his veins.
“No, of course not,” said he.
“Then where are they?”
“They must have misplaced by the painters.”
“Such carelessness! The idols could get misplaced, but what about the mini temple—the altar. They robbed you?”
“You can say that.”
Robbed you of your old faith.
“Such bare walls,” said his mother, “and where is the Geeta I gave you before you came here?”
Gopal’s hands had singed as he had held the torn pages over a fire while a voice in his ear whispered.
Only the word of one true God is true.
“Life without structure is death,” Babu bhai, one of his guides, had said. “Need structure.”
“I can’t say that there is any other complaint regarding cleanliness,” said Sarita.
“You want anything to eat?”
“This my son wants to go and bring something for his parents! Save your money for your wedding. Am I paralysed or what? I’ll cook. Look how thin you’ve become.”
“No, no. I’ll bring meat.”
Gopal’s heart lurched ahead.
“Meat? You have started eating meat?”
“I meant something neat,” said Gopal.
“Yes, something neat.”
“And where is the sacred thread around your neck?”
“It got cut.”
“You should have said before in your letter, then we would have brought it from the temple.”
“But it is not required.”
“What are you saying? Of course it is required. Let your father come. I’ll send him to get the thread.”
“No, not required. Don’t bring the thread.”
“Then who is going to protect you from the evil eye? You are not having even on idol. Forget idols, you don’t even have a picture of our household deity! You used to read day and night Hanuman Chalisa. What happened to your devotion?”
“Don’t keep the door open,” said Gopal. “Anyone can come in. Amma, this is Bombay not the village.” He pushed the door, which creaked as it went to close.
“Wait! Keep it open. Your father will come.”
“But I told you just now, Ma.”
“It is not good to close the door till the entire family comes inside. Don’t you know? Have you forgotten?”
“That is so rustic! So Hindu!”
“Don’t throw at me your scientific stuff! It is true because it was proven eons ago by gods. Oh how you argue! And what are you telling about Hindu?”
Gopal kept quiet till the door banged and a man barged inside. The acrid smell of sewers suffocated him. He stepped forward to intercept him without touching.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Forgotten the seed-maker from whence you came, son?”
The white hair obscured his face, but Gopal could see after the hair brushed away that it was his itinerant father.
His father collapsed on Gopal’s easy chair. Gopal pinched his nose and made a mental promise to himself that he won’t sit on it ever again.
“City liquor is city liquor, whatever you say. This same liquor if you buy in our village, it is watered down.”
Gopal’s chest burned as he saw his father lounging on his easy chair. He turned his face away as the liquor fumes wafted out of his father.
He looked at his mother who said, “A man’s got to have his liquor.”
Gopal stormed inside his bedroom.
The next day he stalked out of the house before the crack of dawn. Only an immersion in the morning prayers calmed his nerves and got his attention away from the squatters in his apartment.
The moment he entered the apartment his mother said, “Who is Mohammed Mazan Ansari?”
Gopal balked at the mention but looked straight at his mother. He tried hard to stop the quivering of his voice. “I don’t know.”
“Then what is his letter doing here? Did he stay with you in your house?”
“I think the letter is wrongly delivered,” said Gopal.
“But Raja,” said Sarita, “see the address. It is the address of this flat only. See it is written, ‘Mohammed Mazan Ansari’, and then P-203. See.”
She proffered the envelope. Gopal took the envelope and read the address. He turned to Sarita with a frown.
“Post department didn’t deliver this. It was a courier boy. Asked to see your Appa’s election id before handing it over.”
“I don’t know how,” said Gopal. “And what is that noise.”
“You Appa is putting some god icons and our miniature temple.”
The intermittent hammering sound stopped and his father breezed in the hall with a head band on his head.
Gopal moved from the path of his father and went inside his bedroom. He clutched his hands and his chest constricted. With a croaking voice he said, “You shouldn’t have done this!”
“Hear, hear,” said his father. “Don’t want gods in his house.”
Gopal came out.
“Not that there shouldn’t be any god in the house,” said Gopal.
“Then where are they,” said Gopal’s father. “Your gods?”
“Why are you people behind gods! There is only one God,” said Gopal. He stopped and went on, “and nothing else.”
“Hear, hear, Gopal’s mother. “Your son has become an atheist.”
His mother, her eyes filled with onion tears said, “Our household deity has made you come this far.”
“Not the household deity,” said Gopal.
The knife clanged on the floor as his mother lost her grip on the knife. She gasped, “Oh my god! It is true. You are an atheist!”
More tears welled from her eyes, whether of sorrow or pain Gopal couldn’t say.
“I am not an atheist, Ma!”
“Then what is the name of your god? Money,” his father sneered.
“No, nothing so temporary.”
“As if gods are temporary. Hear, hear, Gopal’s mother. The money which you worship also is a goddess. She is Laxmi—the goddess of money. Money has been there from time immemorial,” said his father.
“There is no point in talking to you people.”
The next morning Gopal awoke to the clang of bells and burning incense, with a man’s voice performing his morning prayers. The noise ceased and Gopal’s bedroom door opened and his father walked in.
“Morning tea, son,” his father said.
Gopal’s hands felt the warmth of the proffered cup. He sipped, allowing the tea to clear his head.
“I knew you still took your morning tea, son.”
Gopal sipped, thinking about the customary prayers of Friday to be performed. If time permitted, he would visit Hakim bhai and collect the book he had lent. He also looked forward to some discussion with Shabina, and also to put forward the life-enhancing question to Hakim bhai. His parents were meaninglessly forcing his hand.
His eyes squinted at his father, trying to fathom the reason for the morning tea.
“Will you get me?” his father asked.
Gopal pulled out a paper and a pen and poised to take down the name of the medicine.
“Tell me,” said Gopal.
“You’ll remember. You’ve brought it yourself in the village.”
Gopal gaped at his father.
“It’s called Naarangi. It’s orange flavoured country liquor.”
Gopal got up with a flourish, dropping the pen and paper on the table beside his bed.
While he wore his socks, his father intoned from behind.
“Don’t forget my Naarangi.”
Gopal’s time in office didn’t breeze off as expected. His expression was set in a permanent frown and his teeth ground. A couple of colleagues commented about his long face, but he couldn’t let the anger simmering inside him go. He only saw red and felt the pressure in his head. In his anger, he missed going to Hakim bhai and wandered at the seaside, taking in the cool breeze of the ocean.
They must have got a girl to show him, he thought, for he heard a girl’s laughter as he entered his flat.
Intent on marrying him off, they had brought the girl for him to see. Well, he knew what his reply was going to be.
In his hand he clutched the brown letter which would alter all the standing relationships he had with everyone.
He knew what he was going to say—get out you heathen bitch!
What else? Did they deserve better than this? Then, only they would stop. He couldn’t let go of the sound of the girl’s voice.
“Shabina,” said Gopal.
A burqa covered the girl, but she had her face visible.
“What are you doing here?” Gopal asked Shabina.
“Your book. I came to return your book. You didn’t drop by,” she said.
“Slipped my mind, what with the work and everything,” said Gopal.
“Ammi has given this for you. Fried mutton, which you couldn’t have last time.”
“Fried mutton!” shouted Sarita.
Shabina pointed at a casserole on the table. Gopal looked at the corner of the room. His mother, her face covered with tears, had her face like a statue.
“Are you out of your mind, girl?” said Sarita.
This time it was his father, “What are you feeding my son? I knew when this Muslim girl turned up outside something definitely was wrong.”
His father took the casserole and threw it at the window. It bounced from the window sill and landed inside the room, spilling its contents in a brownish sputter.
His father’s legs turned wobbly. He clutched the top of Gopal’s easy chair.
“You’ve had a few already, haven’t you, Father?”
In answer, his father took out a bottle from under the chair. The liquid inside it had an orange hue. He took a swig and exclaimed, “Ah!”
Shabina croaked, “Hai! Allah!”
“Of course, son, when you didn’t bring my Naarangi, I knew you wouldn’t bring it. When have I ever stopped you from having your English liquor? But for this cheap country liquor is like heaven.”
“You can drink, but can’t eat mutton,” said Gopal.
“What are you talking, son? Even Lord Shiva used to drink bhang. When a god can do it—”
“Drink is taboo!” said Gopal looking at Shabina.
“Non-vegetarian food is. What you a Brahmin is saying about food.”
His mother cried, “Why didn’t I die! I had to see this! My son accepting non-veg food from a Muslim girl. What have you done to my son! You witch!”
“Mother! Don’t say a word. I am eating non-veg from the past year.”
“The time you stopped writing,” said his father. “I knew it! I knew that something was wrong.”
His father let go of the top of the easy chair and took a step towards Shabina. He raised his hand. “Hey you! You witch! Get out!”
Gopal stepped in between his father and Shabina. “Father! I warn you!”
“You, my son, are defending that invader! The de-spoiler of our daughters, the partitioners of our country! You are eating non-veg food and are protecting that witch! Hey, Ram! What all will I have to see! I won’t leave you!”
His father swaggered, raised his hand and came towards Shabina in his unsteady gait. Gopal put his hand in front of him, using his body to shield Shabina.
A finger’s push seemed enough for Gopal’s dad, for he crashed to the floor. His mother screamed.
“Hey, Ram! Hey, Ram!”
Shabina screamed, “Daiya re daiya! Ya Allah!”
Only Gopal remained standing like a granite pillar.
A sound a cross between a croak and a snigger came from the floor. When his father breathed again did Gopal realise that he was whimpering.
“Hai Allah! Mazan miah, what have you done. They are your parents!”
Shabina squatted down beside the oldies, and with a handkerchief which she magically produced from the folds of her burqa, she wiped his mother’s tears.
“There! There! Don’t worry mummyji.”
In time the crying stopped, while Gopal experienced the comfort of his easy chair again after two days.
He felt a surge of something deep within his chest. It surfaced in his consciousness and then submerged again. He didn’t want to define it—as he knew that it would be revolting for these heathens. His face broke out in a grin. The air smelled fragrant as his mind filled up with pictures of accusations of inhumanity of his chosen religion. A surge of bliss blossomed in his heart as he looked at Shabina comforting his parents. Hardly inhuman! Let them look at that.
In all the altercation, he had forgotten about the letter in his hand. He still clutched it. He knew what it contained. It was from the registrar’s office. He no longer would be Gopal Kumar Bhulakia, but from tomorrow he would be called as Mohammed Mazan Ansari. He remembered the pain in his groin during the day of the circumcision, but it was long past.
He looked at the crumpled heaps of his parents and his would-be wife comforting them. The declaration of his changed name could wait. It could wait till tomorrow.
Charles G. Chettiar is an Engineer by circumstance and writer by choice. He works in Engineering in Mumbai. He started writing short stories when in college and has just now completed his first novel. His fiction genres include, horror, fantasy, espionage thrillers, and historical. Sometimes he wears his literary cap. He also takes delight in dark fantasy.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “A Task of Heathens”
We love stories that take us into other cultures, but rarely do we find them so well written as this one. In “A Task of Heathens” author Charles G. Chettiar grounds us firmly in the culture of his characters and makes us smile at the situation while he maintains a serious conflict in Gopal.
We also liked that the author never tells us directly what’s going on but drops enough hints that we can put it all together. And those last two paragraphs perfectly cap the piece.