Theyd tried, without much hope, to dislodge Vishnu from the landing. But all the shopkeepers on the ground floor, from the electrician to the tailor, from the paanwalla to the cigarettewalla, knew about Vishnus contract with the ganga. Since nobody actually owned the landing, it was clear that all inhabitation rights to it now belonged to Vishnu; it would have been ridiculous to usurp this order. Vishnu was perfectly entitled to store his meager belongings there, to eat, drink, and sleep there, even to spit paan juice on its crumbling walls if he wanted. (He did.) And at night, the occupants of the building were expected to carefully feel their way past the thin edge of his blanket in the dark, just as they did for the inhabitants of landings higher up along the stairway, even though Mrs. Asrani could not help prodding his reposing form accidentally a few times, such was her frustration with the situation.
They did, of course, cut Vishnu off, both from his duties and the tea and chapatis. In his place, they hired Short Ganga, who while not particularly short was called that to differentiate her from her predecessor. Short Ganga wanted neither a place to sleep nor stale chapatis to eat; in lieu of these perks, she insisted on a higher salary, and this caused both Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani some agony.
It was Mrs. Pathak who finally integrated Vishnu back into the scheme of things. Noting that her stale chapatis (which she had started giving to the woman who begged next to the paanwalla shop) were not really getting her anything (except, she supposed, peace of mind), she brought the topic up with Mr. Pathak one day. "Its impossible to starve him out, you know--all he does is drink, anyway--he doesnt care about food. Why dont you tell him we will start feeding him again--even pay him once in a while--he can help in return--stand in the ration line, take the wheat to the mill, that kind of thing. We might as well make some use of him, if hes here to stay." Mr. Pathak, who had not been aware that they had been trying to starve Vishnu out, or even that they had cut off his chapatis, dutifully talked to him later that afternoon. Vishnu started performing chores for the Pathaks, then the Asranis, then the Muslim Jalal family on the second floor, and then for Vinod Taneja, the widower who lived alone in the large third-floor flat at the top of the building. Within a month, Vishnu had been able to pay back the first installment of the two thousand rupees he had borrowed from the cigarettewalla.
Thus was Vishnu rescued from starvation, and, more importantly, from the rigors of sobriety.
THE LIGHT SHINES through the landing window. It plays on Vishnus face. It passes through his closed eyelids and whispers to him in red.
The red is everywhere, blanketing the ground, coloring the breeze. It must be the red of Holi. He is nine, hiding behind a tree, fistfuls of red powder in each hand. He has been waiting for the festival for so many weeks. All morning he has played Holi--his hair is purple, his clothes blue, bright red and yellow streaks run across his face. He can taste the color on his lips--it is gritty, like mud, but more metallic.
His father sits with friends on the other side of the tree. They have been drinking bhang since morning, the milky liquid in the earthenware pots is almost gone. They are all quite intoxicated by now; some of them are weeping, some are laughing. His father lifts a pot to his mouth, drinks deeply, then lets it smash at his feet.
Vishnu has been saving the powder for his father. He emerges from behind the tree and runs to the squatting men. He opens one fist and hurls the powder at them, then goes over to his father and rubs the powder from the other fist on his face. He tries to run away, but someone catches his foot. He trips, his lip splits open on the ground. He feels himself being dragged back by his leg. The men are all over him, laughing and weeping, holding him down to the ground. He sees his fathers face, all round and bloated, there is a pot in his hand. "Open his mouth!" his father says, and someone pulls his jaws apart. Fingers press into his torn lip, the blood trickles out into his mouth. His father tilts the pot and a stream of bhang splashes against the inside of his throat. He gags and tries to swallow; the liquid burns down to his stomach. The hands are pulling his mouth open wider, he feels the bones in his jaws will break. The liquid is spilling from his mouth, gushing through his nose, washing the color from his face. Finally the stream stops, he sees his father look down at him. Laughing, his father lets the pot go--it descends, and bursts on his forehead.
opyright Manil Suri, 1999. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, WW Norton.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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