Authors: V. S. Naipaul
‘To reduce this burden, I asked my wife to give up her studies and go into service. She gave up her studies and became a telephone operator. This was a government job, in the state secretariat. She got between 171 and 180 rupees a month, about £9, after the rupee devaluation. This was in 1969. We had a child in 1970. But, with my wife in service, I was not much worried by this.
‘Then at last, in 1972, my sister got her M.D. She informed me on the phone at 12 o’clock one day that she had got through. And that same day I resigned from the Corporation. Eight years I had been in service – while my sister was becoming a doctor, as my father wanted. The day she became a doctor, I resigned. I had no job to go to, but I resigned. All that we had was my wife’s job. Her job in the state secretariat had been a temporary one, but then fortunately she got a job as a telephone operator in the Corporation. It was an accident that she joined the Corporation when I left it.’
During the later years of service there had been Mr Raote’s parallel life with the Sena. The Sena had risen, had begun to march, had become feared. In 1968 it had won more than a third of the seats in the Corporation. It had launched an agitation about the borders of Maharashtra; it had called a strike that had brought Bombay to a standstill for four days. Immigrants from South India had grown especially to fear the Sena. And Dadar, the suburb where we were – with a view of Shivaji Park, near where Bal Thackeray’s house was, and with a view of the two-storeyed tenement where Mr Raote and his family were still living at that time in their one room – Dadar, as Mr Raote said, was ‘the epicentre’ of the Shiv Sena earthquake.
I had a memory myself of that early Sena time, from the other
side. This was in 1967, a year after the Sena had been founded. I had been visiting a Parsi acquaintance. He was a ‘boxwallah’, as the word was in those days. A boxwallah was an executive in a big firm, usually a firm with foreign affiliations; and in those days, before the Indian industrial boom, to be a boxwallah was to be secure, even exalted. The man I knew had married a Hindu woman of a well known family; and it was surprising to hear now, from people who should have been far above the day-to-day stresses of Indian life, that this ‘mixed’ marriage had made them both liable to physical attack from the Sena in their area.
It was evening; we were high up; there were lights below, some pale and yellow in the shanties. My vision of Bombay began to change: the ‘poor’, the people down there, were acquiring individuality and had begun to stake their own claim to the city; piety (or rage at their condition, or disgust) was no longer a sufficient response. The man I knew – speaking in 1967 with something of the passion I was to find this time in Papu, the young Jain stockbroker – said, of the dangers of mob attack, ‘I try not to worry about it. I tell myself that, if I find something starting to happen, I must think it’s like being in a nasty road accident.’
Yet at that time, 1967, and for years afterwards, Mr Raote, one of the original 18 of the Sena, had been working as a clerk in the Corporation, his salary rising over eight years from 218 rupees a month to 272 rupees and 50 paise (100 paise make a rupee), travelling back and forth on those crowded suburban trains between the Victorian-Gothic building where he worked and the tenement in Dadar where he had been born and where he had continued to live, in the same one room: carrying the grief for his father, the high ambition for his sister, his own frustrations at not being an officer, then an engineer, then something in the Indian Navy, daily feeling his clerkship in the Corporation, his ‘service’, as a humiliation.
Outside, he was unknown. But as the Sena had grown, he had risen in the Sena. All the time he had left over from work he gave to the Sena. He thought that in those days, between the Corporation and the Sena, he was working for 20 hours a day. He found himself running 22 Sena areas in central Bombay; he became close to the top leaders; he was put in charge of the Sena’s election organization. He began to be known; his name began to get into the papers.
Yet, when he resigned in 1972 from the Corporation, all they had was his wife’s telephone-operator salary. Then he appeared to have some luck. Just two days after he left the Corporation, he found a job as a shop supervisor in the tube-well section of one of the most highly regarded engineering firms in India. His salary was to be 750 rupees a month, nearly three times what he had been getting in the Corporation. This was a great piece of good fortune, but it hardly lasted. His Sena reputation undid him.
The Maharashtrian workers began to treat him as a Sena organizer rather than a shop supervisor. They wanted him to start a union. This kind of excitement couldn’t be kept secret from the management. The works manager called him in one day – the works manager was an old army officer: the kind of man Mr Raote had longed to be – and began to question him. Had he come to work, or had he come as an activist?
Mr Raote couldn’t endure the questioning. ‘I am a hot-tempered man. I resigned that very day. I had been with the firm for one month and 22 days.’
Mr Raote paused here. He was coming now to the part of his story he especially wanted to tell; this was the period of his life he had wanted me to know about almost as soon as he had decided to talk seriously to me, in his office in the Corporation.
So, sitting at home now, after his morning puja, with the open photograph album and the sacred Marathi books laid out on the sofa, he paused. Then he said, ‘That was when my starving started. That was my most difficult time.’
Though it was the time of his glory in the Sena.
‘I began to work the whole day for the Sena. My wife used to feed my family with what she got from her job. And now – since it was a love-match – there began to be trouble in our family. My mother and my wife couldn’t get on.’
Whether arising out of a love marriage or an arranged marriage, it was the eternal conflict of Hindu family life, a ritualized aspect of the fate of women, like marriage itself or childbirth or widowhood. To be tormented by a mother-in-law was part of a young woman’s testing, part, almost, of growing up. Somehow the young woman survived; and then one day she became a mother-in-law herself, and had her own daughter-in-law to torment, to round off a life, to balance pain and joy.
‘I decided at last to leave my place.’ To leave, at last, the one
room at the end of the upper verandah. ‘I left with my wife and children. We went to stay at my mother-in-law’s place.’
That wasn’t far away. Like the tenement he had left, the building he moved to could be seen from the flat where we were. He would show both places to me later from the roof terrace: the drama of small spaces and short distances, the settings themselves always accessible afterwards, never really out of sight, and perhaps for this reason cleansed (like stage sets) of the emotions they had once held.
‘If my mother-in-law gave me food, I had food. If they didn’t give me food there, I would starve for the day. In those days I didn’t have a penny in my pocket, not even for a cigarette. But, being a proud person, I have never gone down in front of anybody for anything. I prefer starving. And those were my starving days. Since that time, you know, I have only one meal a day. That meal is at night. I never eat in the mornings. I have only coffee.
‘One of my maternal uncles used to visit me at that time. Twice or thrice a week. He was absolutely poor, but he used to take me to a hotel.’ The word ‘hotel’, as used by Mr Raote, and pronounced
, was more of a Marathi or Hindi word than an English word, and meant a restaurant, usually of a simple sort. ‘He would give me a meal. Poor food. And a cup of tea, and a cigarette.
‘One day my father-in-law didn’t come home. He didn’t come home the next day either. We began a long search for him. After four days he came back on his own. We found him in the road. He had had a road accident, and he had been discharged from the hospital. After this he became “psychiatric”. He used to harass everybody. So I had to stay away from my mother-in-law’s place during the day. I was quite homeless. I used only to sleep at my mother-in-law’s place.
‘Then one of my father-in-law’s friends offered me a place in East Dadar. We went there, and it was there that my second son was born. During all this tormented time my wife was pregnant. In East Dadar I got settled nicely. I had a peaceful life. I used to get there at 11 in the evening, after my work for the Sena. This was in 1973–1974.
‘This period of my life lasted four years. I used to walk kilometres to take the Sena meetings. I never grumbled then. When, later, I was elected to the Corporation, and began to talk
there, all that I poured into the speeches came from these years I’ve been telling you about.’
What had supported him? Had he felt ‘guided’?
He had felt guided. He had a guru. In what I had thought of as the holy corner of the sitting room there was – not far from the small shelf of devotional cassettes – a large, perhaps more than life-size picture of a handsome, bearded man, just the face. I had seen the picture as I had come in; but with the feeling I had had that the corner was holy, and private, I hadn’t looked at the picture more closely. That man – with features of almost unnatural regularity and beauty, in the picture – had been Mr Raote’s guru.
It was of religion that now, near the end of the morning, Mr Raote wished to talk. He took me to his puja room. It was next to the sitting room. The shrine was a deep, chest-high recess in a wall. The images were freshly garlanded; there was a husked coconut with a tuft of fibre or coir at the top. Right at the back of the recess, and fitting the back, was another picture of the guru, perhaps trimmed to fit the space, but similar to the picture in the sitting room: the devotee, and the shrine, would be held in the gaze of the guru. Fresh flowers were placed on the shrine every day; the coconut was changed every month. Mr Raote spent an hour and a half every morning on his puja. He sat on a deer skin. The skin was then rolled up and placed on a high shelf.
Some days later, when I went to see Mr Raote again in his flat, I got the rest of his story.
At the end of that four-year period of starvation, good fortune came to him quite suddenly. In the garage of a friend, right here in Dadar, he began to make furniture. It was a new turn for him; but he wasn’t absolutely a novice. At school he had done woodwork and furniture-making as a special technical subject. Now, in the friend’s garage, he began to make sofas, tables and chairs; and he sold the pieces he made. He discovered he had talent.
He had made much of the furniture in his flat. Against one wall was a special table he had designed. It was like a Pembroke table, with two fold-down flaps on either side of a central plank. But in this design the central plank was very narrow, about eight inches, making it ideal for the small, multi-purpose spaces of Bombay dwellings. The design found favour; it was adopted by all the leading furniture-manufacturers of Bombay. Mr Raote also specialized in study units that doubled as room-dividers. The pieces he
made were all his own designs: the ideas just came to him. The moment I started working in the furniture business I thought of these things.’ He also made doors. He had made all the doors in his flat, and designed and made all the decorated teak architraves. The flat was a special kind of triumph for him, a proof of his success and a demonstration of his talent. There was much in it I had taken for granted and only now, with his help, began to see.
His success grew. He began to do woodwork for big buildings on subcontract; and then he thought he would go into the building business itself. Two years after he had started making furniture, he put up his first big building in partnership. Though his journey had seemed long to him, he was at that time only thirty-three. Since then he had done 15 or 16 big projects.
‘But in all my business I have tried, as a member of the Shiv Sena, to accommodate the middle-class Maharashtrian. So, instead of becoming a multi-millionaire as a builder, I prefer to follow the path of the leader, to follow the principles he has laid down.’
This devotion to the Shiv Sena and its leader was like an aspect of Mr Raote’s religion. He had always had courage, and confidence, the gift of religion, the
of which Mr Patil of Thane had spoken.
‘In my rise, my falls, whatever the problems, I faced them boldly, whether as a businesman or social worker or head of a family. Up to the time of my college days I had my father pushing me on. Then in 1964 I came across the great saint who had set up his ashram at Alibagh.’
This was the guru whose picture was in the corner of the sitting room and at the back of the shrine in the puja room. Mr Raote, from what he said now, had come in contact with him in the year he had had the great disappointment of not being able to go to the engineering college at Sholapur.
‘I used to go to see him for his blessing. I never asked anything of him. I went to him only for his blessing, to serve him because he was a saint, and I feel he changed my entire life. He died in 1968. But I feel he is still blessing me whenever I need his blessing. Though he is not here physically, in the actual body, he always gives me and my family his presence. Look,’ Mr Raote said, taking me to the teak front door of his flat. ‘My door has no latch. It is always open.’
I had caught Mr Raote just in time to get the end of his story.
Though, when we were making our arrangements, he had told me nothing about it, it turned out now that I had caught him, that second morning, on the very day he was going off to his ashram for nine days. He was going alone, without his wife.
‘I go every year, without fail. These nine days of my year I cannot give to anybody else.’
He had done other pilgrimages. He and his wife had been six times to the cave of Amarnath in Kashmir, 13,000 feet up in the Himalayas, where – an ancient miracle of India – every year in the summer an ice phallus formed, symbol of Shiva, waxing and waning with the moon.
He said, ‘I love that Himalayan place.’
The worldly man who wanted to be an officer and an engineer, the Sena worker, the devout Hindu: there were three layers to him, making for a chain of belief and action.