WHEN MRS PATHAK opened her front door, the first thing she noticed was the smell. "I think their toilet is backed up again," she announced to Mr. Pathak, sitting in the living room. "Ill bet she tries to take some water from the kitchen, you just wait and see!"
The Pathaks were involved in a long-running battle with the Asranis over the first-floor kitchen, which the two families shared. It was the wives who did most of the fighting, except when things got so heated that spousal reserves had to be deployed. The main problem seemed to be the rusty green tank in the kitchen, water from which was supposed to be used for cooking purposes only, but which each side was tempted to raid on days that the terrace cistern allotted to each flat ran out. Coupled with this were the perennial skirmishes over counter and cupboard space--although several formulas had been suggested over the years, at least one (sometimes both) of the wives was always simmering under the suspicion she had been cheated of her rightful share. Frequently this simmer, stoked as it was by the fumes and the heat of the four kerosene stoves in the cramped kitchen, would come to a boil, and then the fight would erupt charges of stoves being tampered with and dinners burnt, countercharges of utensils being pilfered and spices misappropriated, and accusations of meals being given the "evil eye," or even, on some occasions, poisoned.
"Shes going to take the water, you wait and see!" Mrs. Pathak said again, sliding the gold bangles up her arms and licking her lips. Her thin frame twitched. The kitchen had been very hot lately, and almost three weeks had elapsed since the last fight.
"If she wants it, let her have it," Mr. Pathak suggested, without hope. He knew what was coming, this was going to be a big one. Possibly, he and Mr. Asrani would be required to serve as well.
Mrs. Pathak stood at the door and wrinkled her nose. "It seems to be coming from downstairs, though. . . ." There was disappointment in her voice. "I wonder. . . ."
Mr. Pathak heard her shuffle into her slippers and descend the steps. There was no sound for a few seconds, then Mrs. Pathak gasped, and he heard her running back up the steps. He looked up from his paper, just in time to see his wife burst through the door, her face red. "Are you listening?" she shouted. "Its Vishnu." Hes gone to the toilet, all over our stairway! Mrs. Pathaks eyes flashed ferociously. "I told you not to let him come back here."
When Vishnu had fallen ill some months ago, he had come to Mr. Pathak and asked him for money to go back to Nagpur. "My brother said he will look after me, sahib--all I need is train fare--my brother said he can get me into the hospital there. Free." After he had given him the money, and Vishnu had gone, Mr. Asrani had informed Mr. Pathak that he, too, had given Vishnu "train fare." There had been no sign of Vishnu for some weeks, and both the cigarettewalla and the paanwalla had been eyeing the vacant landing. Then one day, Vishnu reappeared at Mr. Pathaks door. "Salaam, sahib!" he had said, saluting Mr. Pathak and giving him his toothy grin. "They said I didnt need to be in the hospital after all."
Both Mrs. Pathak and Mrs. Asrani had been most unhappy at this return. They had just completed negotiations with Short Ganga, promising her the first-floor landing if she agreed to lower wages. (Short Ganga had, in turn, paid off the paanwalla and the cigarettewalla to quell potential claims, and rented the landing to Man Who Slept on the Lowest Step, at a profitable rate.) However, neither Mrs. Pathak nor Mrs. Asrani had been willing to tell Vishnu he could not return; they had nagged their husbands to do it. The plan hadnt worked: Vishnu had been reinstated, much to their
He had fallen extremely ill almost immediately. "He was coughing quite badly this morning," Mr. Asrani said to Mrs. Asrani one day.
opyright Manil Suri, 1999. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, WW Norton.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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