Authors: V. S. Naipaul
Even in Thane, one hour out, there was a feeling that living space was still immensely valuable. In a working-class lane near the railway station – just past the bright stalls, some with fruit, some with cheap watches, some with Sunday-morning fripperies, shiny fairground goods – a simple apartment could cost two and half lakhs of rupees, 250,000 rupees, about £10,000.
The entrance to Mr Patil’s house was off this lane, in a passageway between two two-storey houses. Mr Patil lived upstairs in the house to the right, an old house; the house to the left, which was still being built, and had unexpected architectural style, was going to be substantial. The yard at the end of the passageway was like an old Port of Spain backyard, with a busy outdoor life; though the crumbling brick dependencies against the back wall had the Bombay constriction, and spoke of people making do with very little room.
In the plot or yard on the other side of the back wall, and not far from that wall, was the weathered concrete frame of a projected building of some size that looked as though it had been abandoned. If that building had gone up, it would have blocked out some of the light from Mr Patil’s yard; the yard would have felt hemmed in. As it was, with the openness at the back, there was, curiously, no feeling of oppression in Mr Patil’s yard, even with the crowd and the general noise – many scattered sounds, many varied events, running together to make something like a sea sound.
The wooden staircase up to Mr Patil’s floor was steep (saving space), and called for care. The construction was interesting, with each thick plank mortised into the side boards. In the little verandah or gallery at the top there were taken-off shoes and slippers, but we were not asked to take our shoes off.
There was a visitor before us in the room inside. He was a police inspector in khaki uniform, and he was sitting in an arm chair next to Mr Patil. The inspector hadn’t taken off his boots either. They were quite splendid boots, and must have been personal, not part of his police issue. They were ankle-high, of soft leather, with nice indentations and ridges, and they were ox-blood in colour.
The inspector was in his late thirties or early forties. He was serious and respectful, but also self-respecting. Mr Patil was frowning; the frown could be read as an expression of his authority. He was small and had begun to get plump. He was young, in his late twenties, and the way he was sitting gave prominence to his little paunch. The paunch looked new, something he was still learning to live with, like the roundness of his thighs, which was causing his trousers noticeably to tighten. He was barefooted in his sitting room. That was custom; but it was also a mark of his privilege: the local dignitary, receiving at home.
The police inspector had come that Sunday morning to ask for the Sena’s help with a local ‘Eve-teasing’ problem. The sexual harassment of women in public places, often sly, sometimes quite open, was a problem all over India. The particular incident the inspector was worried about had caused two groups in the area to square off against each other. In that crowd and closeness it didn’t take much for nerves to tear; trouble came easily.
The sitting room was pink-washed, and it had a terrazzo floor. In its furnishings and decorations it was, making allowance for period details, like rooms I had known in Trinidad in my childhood, the rooms of people who had begun to feel they were doing well and had begun to respect themselves. There was a Sony television set, with a video. A patterned lace cloth covered the Sony, and there was a doll on the cloth. On the pink walls there were plastic hibiscus sprays on sections of plastic trellis-work. A double bed occupied one corner of the room; two bolsters in faded pink were set symmetrically on it at an angle one to the other; and some clothes of Mr Patil’s hung on a hook of some sort.
Mr Patil’s mother was sitting flat on the terrazzo floor in the open doorway to the left. The room beyond must have been the kitchen. I fancied that a smell of frying fish was coming from that room, but I might have been wrong. Perhaps the Patils didn’t eat fish; in India such details were important, and could be serious caste matters. There was at any rate a smell of cooking; and it must have been this which – while the police inspector and Mr Patil talked – drew a little tiger-striped ginger cat across the sitting room to the doorway where Mr Patil’s mother was sitting. The cat was a surprise: I thought Indians didn’t care too much for cats. This was an Indian cat, lean in neck and limbs, heavy only in belly, more scrawny and desperate than the chubby cats of England.
Mr Patil’s mother was wearing a red or pink patterned sari, tied in a way which enabled the legs to be wrapped separately. She was very short, with much slack, tired-looking flesh, and she wore thick-lensed glasses. She was sitting in the doorway to enjoy the Sunday-morning company; though it was also plain from her manner that she didn’t want to intrude into any of the serious business her son might have to deal with.
The serious, impressive police inspector rose at last. He said he was glad that Mr Patil had been so understanding. Both groups in the Eve-teasing affair had enough supporters to cause real trouble in the locality, he said; and in these matters it was the policy of the police to try to reconcile people. Then he left, and he could be heard picking his way lightly down the steep steps in his boots.
Mr Patil frowned harder, set his mouth, and waited to hear what I had to say. He had no English, only Marathi. Nikhil translated for me. I said I wanted to know first of all about the locality, and about Mr Patil’s family.
Mr Patil said his family had spent their entire life right there, in that locality. His father had worked in the tool room of a factory in central Bombay for 40 years. What did the factory make? Neither Mr Patil nor his mother knew. The factory was closed down now, finished. But what was important was that his father had been in regular work. Because of that the family had not known hardship when they were children. They knew hardship as a family only when their father died, in 1975. In India there were no pensions.
Mr Patil had a dark, square face. He wore a moustache. His hair was getting thin.
He went out to work after his father died. He found a job in the packing department of a company that made transistors. A girl cousin told him about the job. She worked in the factory; in fact, she still worked there. He didn’t get much in the packing department, 300 rupees a month, working eight hours a day. He didn’t like what he had to do, but it was a job. He had made a lot of friends in the factory; many of them had remained friends.
He never thought of himself and his family as poor. He never thought of himself as rich or poor. He always felt he was middle class – using that word in the Indian way. And what he said carried an echo of what Papu, the Jain stockbroker, had said: a man has to take care of food and shelter before he can notice other things. Just as Papu’s success had given him the social concerns that his more
harassed father had never had, so, though the Shiv Sena spoke of the deprivation of Maharashtrians, that idea could come to people only when they had ceased, in fact, to be absolutely deprived.
How, growing up in that locality, had ambition come to Mr Patil? Had he been ambitious as a child? He had. He wanted to be famous. He didn’t want to be famous for any particular thing; he just wanted to be famous. At one time he thought he would like to be a famous cricketer. But now he wasn’t ambitious in that way; he had scaled it down. He just wanted to do what the Supreme Leader of the party wanted him to do.
He was ten years old when he had first seen the leader. He had seen him right here, in this locality. That would have been in 1969 or 1970. He saw a poster one day announcing a visit by the leader. At that time he had never heard of the leader: the Sena was only three years old, and the leader wasn’t as famous as he became later. But Mr Patil noticed the poster about the leader’s visit. This was during the festival of Ganpati. And now, in Mr Patil’s talk, religion and Sena politics began to run together.
Ganpati, Ganesh, the Hindu elephant god, with his long, friendly trunk, his bright eyes, and big, contented belly, was adored in Maharashtra. He was very important in the Patil house: the family kept a Ganpati image in the house. Every year there was a festival dedicated to Ganpati. The festival lasted nine days, and there was a big event on each of those days. Mr Patil as a boy would go to the big event on all the nine days of the festival; he did that every year.
He said, in Nikhil’s translation of his Marathi, his mother (much paler in complexion than he) nodding while he spoke, ‘Everything good that has happened to me has come through the grace of Ganpati. Every month there is one day devoted to the worship of Ganpati. I travel then 110 kilometres to worship at the huge shrine of Ganpati at Pali.’
On the wall at the back of the Sony television there was a colour photograph or picture of this image at Pali: the broad, spreading belly of the deity a violent, arresting red, not altogether benign.
I asked whether this idea of Ganpati as the bestower of good luck had always been in his family. He said yes. What had been the first time in his own life he had associated Ganpati with something good?
He scratched his thin hair. The tiger-striped ginger cat or kitten
was now sitting below the chair on which the police inspector had sat, and was looking delicately around. Mr Patil’s mother, sitting on the terrazzo floor in the doorway, which appeared to be her own place of sitting, lifted her head, as if thinking herself of the first time her son had been blessed by the god; the thick lenses of her glasses created pools of light over her eyes.
On the wall above the bed with the symmetrically set bolsters was a fluorescent electric tube; fluorescent tubes were used in India because they were cheap. There were two little windows in that wall. In one window the iron bars were set vertically; in the other window – for the variation and the style – the bars were set horizontally. Both windows had similar curtains, each curtain gathered up with a sash in two places.
The little pink-walled room was really quite full of things to look at: much thought here, much pride. There was a wardrobe, and there was also a black-framed glass case or cabinet about three feet high. On top of the cabinet was a very big multi-coloured candle, to balance the doll on the Sony. Among the things on the shelves were a set of stainless-steel tumblers and eight china cups with a flowered pattern. The glass cabinet and the things in it – leaving aside the aluminium tumblers – were like things I had known in my childhood. They were still here in a kind of wholeness: my heart went out to them.
Mr Patil said at last, ‘I never used to go to school. I used to just roam around, play cricket. I was finally told that I would be thrown out of the school. So I prayed to Ganpati. I was about fifteen or sixteen at this time. I told Ganpati that if I wasn’t thrown out of the school, I would make the pilgrimage to Pali. And I wasn’t thrown out. The headmistress had a change of heart. When she called me she said she was only going to warn me that time.’
Having remembered that, he remembered other occasions of Ganpati’s grace. ‘Three or four years ago my mother fell ill. High blood pressure. She went to hospital. She was on oxygen. She couldn’t talk. I went to Pali to the Ganpati shrine and I made an offering of a garland and a coconut. When I came back, my mother was much better.’
And his mother – sitting in the doorway, not flat on the floor, as I had thought, but on a thin piece of wood, perhaps an inch high – put her palms together while her son spoke, and said, in Nikhil’s translation, that she folded her hands in gratitude to Ganpati.
Even at his birth there was some element of mercy and blessing. This was in 1959. There were very bad riots in the locality. People were throwing stones. Taxis were not easy to get, but his father managed to find a taxi-driver who said he would try to take Mrs Patil to the hospital. The taxi had to drive five kilometres through the riots to the government hospital. It got there safely, and as soon as his mother went in, she was delivered of him.
Mother and son told the story in relay, and the mother, sitting on the floor, again put her palms together and said that it was Ganpati’s mercy.
And then, two years or so ago, there was a serious crisis for him. The crisis was in his political life, and it lasted nine days. That was a very long time to be on the rack. He made a pilgrimage to Pali, and vowed to Ganpati that if he came out of his crisis, he would make an offering of 101 coconuts.
Wasn’t that like trying to buy something from the god?
‘My faith is rooted in reality. I am not in the habit of offering 101 coconuts and asking to be made prime minister of India.’
Was this faith in Ganpati something deep in himself, always there? Or did he, after he had prayed, look for some sign from the deity?
He said, in Nikhil’s translation, ‘Even when things look bad I hear a voice inside. I suppose you can call it self-confidence.’ Nikhil gave the Marathi word he had used for ‘self-confidence’:
. That was Ganpati’s greatest gift.
I said, ‘How did you take 101 coconuts up to the shrine?’
‘You can buy the nuts at the shrine itself.’
He told me more about the Ganpati festival. Every year you had to get a new image from the image-maker. You kept the image at home for as long as you wanted, but at the end of the festival you had to throw away or immerse the image. It was the tradition in their family to keep the image for one day and a half; then they took it to a lake not far away and immersed it. It had been his mother’s ambition all her life to bring the Ganpati image home from the image-maker’s with a musical band. Recently, she had been able to do that. Her other son had got a very good job, and the family had hired a band and brought the image to the house, and they had had the band again when they had taken the image out of the house to the lake.
With this talk of Ganpati, of shrines and pilgrimages and vows
and offerings, I began to get some idea of the mysteries the earth held for people like the Patils, the glory that sometimes touched their days, the wonders they walked through. There was more to their world than one saw. Thane was an industrial suburb. But the land itself was very old; it had its sanctity; and the same people could live naturally with many different ways of feeling.