Arrival – May 26, 1983
As the Bombay Mail chugged through the winding Ghats section, no one paid any attention to the young man in Seat 31A, looking pensively out the window. He was pondering, with increasing dread, the prospect of the approaching city. He liked to think of himself as adventurous, but really he wasn’t: he lacked the streak of recklessness that is the hallmark of the genuine adventurer. The chatter of his fellow travellers, mostly Tamilians heading back to Bombay after visiting relatives in the South, revealing an enviable familiarity with the city, had a chilling, isolating effect. The arid landscape, the stony hills, the scant, desiccated, tan-coloured vegetation, so different from the perennial green of Kuttimannoor, added to his sense of alienation. It was only a few minutes past six, and the air still retained the night’s cool, but already the sharp light hinted at the heat to come.
After Khandala, the train began to descend and the humidity became oppressive. Soon they were passing through the outlying suburbs. Nothing could look more hopeless than the small, ugly, three-storied apartment buildings rising from the midst of the vast mangroves. Arindam tried to imagine the lives of the people who lived within those dismal, water-stained buildings.
One of the passengers, a stern Tamilian Brahmin with two needle-sharp caste marks of sandalwood paste running down the centre of his dome-like forehead, emboldened by the fact that any conversation begun now, with the end of the travel imminent, carried no risk of imposing a forced friendliness on both parties for many hours, approached Arindam. Arindam had noticed him earlier, before the train left Madras, in the way anyone notes overly active, garrulous people one is going to spend twenty-four hours with in a small enclosed space—that is to say, cautiously, and with a note to oneself not to make eye contact or initiate conversation.
The man said in English, “First time in Bombay?”
Arindam said it was.
“For wurrk, or for holidaying purposes?”“Work.”
“Ah.” The man turned to his companions—an elderly couple and a matronly woman who was almost certainly his wife—and said with the satisfaction of someone who has been proved right, “He is going to Bombay for wurrk.” The women smiled and nodded at Arindam. The man said, “Your good name?”
The ice having been broken, the second man said, “What kind of work?”
The two began firing questions at him. “What is your job title?” “Which company?” (To Arindam’s gratification, they nodded knowledgeably when he said Hochmann. “Good company,” said the man with the caste marks, approving.) The questions resumed; they took a personal turn. “What are your educational qualifications?” “How old are you?” “What does your father do?” “Where is your hometown?”
When he said Kuttimannoor, they looked puzzled. He added, “It’s in Kerala.”
“Ah!” “Kerala, you say. You must be a Malayali then.”
Arindam said he was. As he had expected, after that the group’s interest rapidly waned. They turned away and began talking among themselves.
This confirmed what he had already begun to suspect: that he was the target of an impromptu matchmaking investigation by the quartet. His name had probably drawn them in: Arindam Kumaran could, conceivably, be a Brahmin name. But being Malayali had instantly disqualified him.
Their rudeness would have annoyed Arindam if it hadn’t amused him. He was an earnest young man with progressive ideas, contemptuous of old-fashioned people with antediluvian views on caste. Fortunately, this earnestness was countered by a sharp and irreverent sense of humour; otherwise he would have been quite insufferable. In college—he had graduated from American College, Kuttimannoor—he had belonged to a ginger group on the extreme Left, with a reputation for espousing revolutionary views on politics, religion, and society. One of the members of this group, a Namboodri Brahmin from a prominent family in Kuttimannoor and a close friend of his, had taken a vow to marry only a widow or a divorcee. If the woman was from another caste, all the better. Arindam amused himself by imagining the stormy conversation that would have ensued had his friend been on the train and the man with the caste marks had approached him.
The train stops became more frequent, as if, now that the Bombay Mail had almost completed its journey, Indian Railways had lost all sense of urgency. The Tamilians chaffed at the delay and passed sarcastic comments about Indian Railways. The sharp man with the caste marks said, “This would not have been tolerated during the Emergency.”
His friend said, “That is true.”
“Say what you will, some good things were there about the Emergency. Nobody can deny this.”
“Yes, yes, that is correct,” the women murmured, waggling their heads as if they were wobble-head dolls.
Many of the trains that passed the stationary Bombay Mail were locals, filled with commuters heading to work. The passengers in the Bombay Mail, mostly newcomers like Arindam, stared at them. They were Indians like themselves, but there was something extraordinary about them. They were better dressed and seemed to be in better health than Indians in general. Their skins glowed, and their hair shone. The commuters in the locals for the most part ignored the passengers. Occasionally someone, conscious of being stared at, would look up with an expression of mild exasperation or amused tolerance that was, somehow, far more devastating than any expression of arrogance could have been.
Finally the Bombay Mail crept hesitantly into Bombay Central. Before it had even stopped completely, the coolies charged in. They ran up and down the aisle shouting at the passengers, “Do you want a coolie?” They cast resentful looks at the single VIP suitcase at Arindam’s feet before rushing off in search of likelier prospects. Negotiations broke out all over the coach. Over the hubbub Arindam heard the Tamilian with the caste marks say in heavily accented Hindi, “Arrey! Do you think this is our first time in Bombay?” Soon everyone had left (they seemed to know exactly where to go), leaving Arindam standing alone in the vast, crowded terminus, echoing with public announcements garbled by ancient, cobwebbed loudspeakers.
But he had not gone unnoticed. Touts are the same everywhere, possessing the startling ability to materialize out of thin air, right at one’s elbow. The man gave Arindam a start. “Do you want a hotel?” he said bossily. “I know a hotel. Very close; two minutes from the station. Very clean.” Having reeled out his spiel, he reached for Arindam’s suitcase as if Arindam had forfeited all rights to think for himself.
But Arindam had been warned about touts like this fellow before he left Kuttimannoor. He held onto his suitcase and told the fellow in broken Hindi that he didn’t want a hotel.
The tout changed tack. “You want taxi?”
“No,” said Arindam.
“Where do you want to go? I know a taxi driver. He will take you. By meter. He won’t cheat. Come.” Once again he reached for the suitcase. His fingers, warm and sweaty, closed over Arindam’s hand. He gave a tug. Alarmed, Arindam tugged back. The tout said, “Arrey! What are you doing? Let go.”
Arindam, panting, said, “Go away! I don’t want a taxi.”
The tout let go. “Why didn’t you say before?” Muttering, “Bloody Madrasi, wasting my time,” he sauntered away.
Fearing that he was attracting unwelcome attention, Arindam decided to make his way out of the terminus. He stopped at the exit, taken aback by the crowds and the traffic. The heat pressed on his face. A small horde of khaki-uniformed taxi-drivers came towards him, shouting, “Do you want a taxi?” “Where do you want to go?”
Shaking his head, he ploughed past them. He was following instructions issued by an uncle—the one who had warned him about the touts. “Don’t take a taxi from the station. They are all hand in glove with the police; their meters have been tampered with. You will end up paying two, three times the legal fare. Instead, go to the main road and take a taxi from there.”
This uncle had, as a young man, ventured out of Kuttimannoor. He had lived in Bombay and Delhi and other cities in the North. Because of this the family considered him worldly and sophisticated. He was called Airforce Uncle because he had been, for a brief while, a trainee pilot with the Indian Airforce. The Airforce had let him go after he crashed three of their jets. He had returned to Kuttimannoor to look after the family’s agricultural lands.
Arindam hailed a taxi on the main road, a decrepit black and yellow vehicle. The driver, a Muslim wearing a skullcap, with a grey, wispy beard, was equally decrepit. Arindam, still full of Airforce Uncle’s warnings, decided he was shifty. But it was too late. He had already climbed out and was hoisting the suitcase on the roof rack.
Arindam fished out a paper from his wallet. Kamini Atai, a distant cousin of his mother, had kindly offered to put up Arindam until he found his own accommodation. His mother had written the address on the paper. At the sight of her neat, rounded letters, he felt a sudden, wrenching stab of homesickness. It came to him, for the first time, how far he was from home. He wondered what she would be doing now; a picture of his home rose in his mind. He gave the driver the address and settled himself in the cramped back seat. It closed about him like a protective womb. Despite the taxi’s decrepitude—each time it went over a pothole, Arindam thought the rattling chassis would break in two—he was grateful to it for providing a temporary refuge from the city.
From within its metallic embrace, he gazed out at the city, at the footpaths crowded with people and the dense traffic. He got a sense of a vast metropolis, thrumming with buzzy energy. At a major intersection there was an enormous poster for the new Hollywood movie, Gandhi, that everyone was talking about. Apart from filling bit roles and working as extras in the crowd scenes, Indians had had little to do with making the film—even the title role was played by an actor who was only ambiguously Indian—but still the country was proud of the movie because it proved that India was being noticed by the West. The poster was a magnified photograph of a scene from the film. When the taxi drew close to it, Arindam could see the differently coloured dots composing the photograph. The sophistication of the printing! The tastefully muted colours, so different from the lurid colours used in posters for Indian films! A poster like this in Kuttimannoor—not that one would ever be put up there—would have drawn admiring stares. That the people on the footpaths here and the people in the cars could ignore it, could carry on with their day as if it were nothing special—this, somehow, was the thing about Bombay that impressed him the most.
Incredulity swept over him. He, Arindam, was in Bombay! It was with the same incredulity that, two months ago, he had opened the glossy, blue and white envelope emblazoned with the crest of the German multinational company and read the letter inside. It stated, “After a careful perusal of your application, Hochmann India Ltd is pleased to accept you as a management trainee in the agrochemicals division. During your training you will receive a stipend of Rs. 1800.” Arindam’s breath had caught when he read the figure. So much! He had marvelled at the generosity. “After your training, you will be posted at our Bombay Branch as an Agrochemical Sales Executive. Should your performance be satisfactory, after six months you will be inducted into the management cadre (Level 5) at a gross monthly salary of Rs. 2750.” The letter was from the HR Director of the company. It closed with a message. “I am certain,” he wrote, “that you will be a wonderful asset to the company, furthering our mission to become the leading pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals company in the country and the world.” As he read the words, Arindam had felt a deep love for this man he had never seen. He hugged the letter to his chest and murmured, “I will, I will. I won’t let you down.”
News of Arindam’s landing a job with a foreign company had spread quickly in Kuttimannoor. Uncles and aunts had come calling. His father, proud and relieved, and secretly as euphoric as Arindam, had tried to strike a sober, pessimistic note. “Getting a job with these companies is all very well, but working for them is no joke.” When he said “these companies” he injected a dismissive note into his voice, as if suggesting that he was not taken in by the glamour of multinationals. “It is not like working for the government. With these foreign companies, it is perform or perish.”
The relatives replied, “Don’t worry, Cheta. Our Arindam is a smart boy. He will not let you down.”
“I’m just saying. He will have to work hard.”
“He will make you proud.”
When a visiting relative reported that Hochmann was listed in Fortune Magazine’s list of the top 500 global companies, his father’s eyes had crinkled into slits of pure happiness. “Is that so? I didn’t know that. Did you know that, son?” Arindam hadn’t deigned to reply.
He wasn’t the first person from Kuttimannoor to get a job outside the state, or for that matter outside the country. Several people from the town now worked in the Gulf. But they were in menial work: cooks, waiters, dishwashers, drivers, pipe-fitters, electricians, welders, plumbers, housemaids. There was a certain cachet in going to Bombay to take up a management job with a multinational.
His cousins had organised a celebratory party in a toddy shop by the backwaters. He had reached home after midnight, reeking of toddy, and collapsed into bed. The next morning his mother reproachfully served him breakfast. “Where were you last night?”
“With the gang.” He felt sick; his head hurt.
“Your father is upset.”
“I won’t do it again.”
His sister Bala said, “Chettan drank toddy. He got drunk.”
His mother said, “You sit without talking. Isn’t it time for you to go to school?”
His batch-mates from American College dropped in. He was careful with them: he did not exult. Accepting their congratulations with appropriate modesty, he put on a relaxed air implying that he, for one, didn’t consider his achievement to be anything out of the ordinary.
He fooled no one.
Underlying the pride was relief. All those years of fretting about whether he was good enough to find a job outside Kuttimannoor! It had all been for nothing. If a company like Hochmann wanted to hire him, it meant he was. His worrying about the gaping holes in his psyche he now put down to an overactive sensibility.
From time to time he would take out the letter from the company, to read it or just to look at the tastefully designed blue header emblazoned with the company’s logo, or to feel the glossy bond paper. He took them as signs of his life to come. There would be a posh apartment with modern furnishings, a car, a modern office peopled with friendly colleagues, and beautiful secretaries with whom he would have professional relationships that did not exclude—the ambiguity adding a delightful frisson to their exchanges—the possibility of romance. He would have many friends, and they would all be young, attractive, and interesting. There would be parties. Though his work would be challenging, success would never be in doubt. He would gain the affection and respect of his bosses; he would climb the ladder. Marriage would happen, but not too quickly. His wife would be beautiful in a classical, not filmy, way, and accomplished in her own right. Their children would be bright and full of promise. If he had stopped to think about it (he didn’t), he would have seen that to build such a picture from a letter was a foolish thing. The life he was imagining had no basis in reality; it was inspired by Hollywood movies he had seen.
The taxi stopped outside a swanky apartment building. Wide French windows reflected the sun and the sky. A strong, brackish smell indicated that the sea was close by. Arindam asked the driver how much he needed to pay. From the modesty of the sum and his gentle, disinterested manner as he accepted the money, Arindam knew he had been wrong about the man. He wasn’t a crook. Arindam saw now how fine the bones of his face were and the lost expression in his weary eyes.
Arindam gave his uncle’s name to a Nepali watchman at the gate. The man pulled out a dog-eared register. Arindam entered his name, the purpose of his visit, and the time of his entry. “Second floor,” said the watchman, closing the notebook without looking at what he had written.
Arindam walked through a marbled lobby and up the stairs. There were only two doors on the second floor. His uncle’s name was displayed on a bronze nameplate. “Mr. S. Ramachandran,” it said in oversized, overwrought letters. He rang the doorbell and heard a dog bark. Someone said authoritatively, “Quiet, Tubby.” The spyhole in the door darkened. Someone was looking at him. Arindam straightened up and squared his shoulders.
The door opened, revealing a girl in shorts that ended well above her knees. “Yes?” She had a small bony face and a sloping jaw. Her hard, nasal voice fit the impression Arindam had instantly formed of her.
He introduced himself, trying not to look at her matchstick legs.
“Ah, yes. The cousin from Kuttimannoor.”
Arindam smiled foolishly.
The girl turned her head and shouted into the apartment, “Mummy! It’s your nephew.” She turned back to Arindam. “I’m Monica. I’m your cousin.”
A tallish woman appeared. Her saree was draped carelessly about her; a strand of hair had worked loose from her bun and straggled messily across her brow, which was shiny with perspiration. “Aha!” she said in Malayalam. “Is it Arindam?”
Arindam said shyly that it was.
“I’m your aunt.”
Arindam bent to touch her feet. At the same moment a dachshund, barking raucously, squeezed past Kamini Atai, claws clicking against the marbled floor, and, teeth bared, launched itself at Arindam’s face. Kamini Atai screamed, “Tubby!” Arindam straightened hurriedly. Finding that his face was out of reach, Tubby went for his ankles. Arindam skipped nimbly to avoid the needle-like teeth. Kamini Atai screamed, “Tubby!” again. It had no effect.
Monica’s intervention was as silent as Kamini Atai’s was noisy. It was also devastatingly effective. With cool deliberation, she swung her leg out just as Tubby lunged for Arindam’s ankle and slammed him against the wall. Tubby gasped; his stubby legs worked frantically, the surprisingly large claws clicking futilely against the tiles. But it was no use—Monica’s foot was on his neck. She pressed down, a faintly amused look on her face.
Tubby began to gag. Kamini Atai wailed, “Monica, don’t.”
Monica said briskly, “Mummy, shut up. He was going to maul our guest. Do you want him to maul our guests?” She looked down at Tubby. “Bad boy! Will you attack the guest? Will you?” She pressed a little more. Tubby’s legs went still; his eyes began to roll. Arindam became alarmed, but Monica said calmly, “Do you want a tight smack? Tell me if you want a smack. I’ll give you one.”
“Monica! Stop! You’re hurting him.”
“He deserves to be hurt. Nasty bully.” She took her foot off his neck. Tubby staggered to his feet and wandered off disconsolately. Monica said, “It’s not his fault. I think he thought you were going to attack my mother.”
“He was only trying to touch my feet!”
“Try explaining that to Tubby, Mummy. What does he know about our glorious sanskriti!”
Kamini Atai smiled at Arindam. “Anyway, no harm done. Come in, come in.”
Arindam picked up his suitcase. He followed Kamini Atai into a luxuriously furnished hall with large oil paintings on the walls and giant vases scattered about, seemingly at random, but Arindam could tell the arrangement had been made with careful deliberation for maximum effect. Plump cushioned armchairs and a large sofa stood at the periphery of a lustrous pink and grey carpet. The hall opened onto a dining room. He caught a glimpse of a dining room with a long, rosewood dining table and ornate chairs with curved legs. He had never seen rooms like this outside of a magazine. The elegance had an intimidating effect: he became stiff and formal.
Kamini Atai said, “Sit, sit. Why are you standing?”
He made for the sofa.
Monica let out a small scream. “The carpet!”
Arindam stopped, his leading foot in mid-air, as if someone had warned him in the nick of time that he was about to step on a landmine. He stepped back.
Kamini Atai smiled apologetically. “Sorry. It’s a silk carpet. If you walk on it, it damages the fibres.”
Searching for love is the human condition. Only love gives meaning to life. The search for love and meaning, in some form, is every individual’s story. Arindam is a novel about one man’s search for love and meaning in Bombay, India.
The novel has three main characters: Arindam, the protagonist; his wife, Madhavi; and his son, Jeet. It is divided into two parts. In the first part, Arindam, a South Indian, arrives in Bombay to take up a job. It is the early ’80s. He hates his job, but he is helpless. The country has been ruled by socialist governments for three decades; the economy is stagnant; there are few job opportunities. Adding to the general unhappiness are societal tensions. The local Maharashtrians dislike South Indians. The Shiv Sena, a local organisation led by an ex-cartoonist, runs hate campaigns against them. Arindam runs into greedy landlords, conniving colleagues at work, and helpful stenographers. A roommate becomes a good friend. A stenographer becomes infatuated with him. Then the roommate leaves, and Arindam feels the full force of the loneliness that afflicts all immigrants to big cities. He attends a disastrous New Year Party. A young man dies.
Then—it is part of his good luck—Arindam meets Madhavi. They get married. They move to a terrible place. Still, she provides him with the stability he so badly needs. His son, Jeet, is born. He is fired from his job. Just when the situation couldn’t get worse, another stroke of luck: an uncle offers them his flat in a cooperative housing society.
The second part of the novel deals with the family’s life in Lucky Housing Society. The narrative perspective is no longer restricted exclusively to Arindam’s point of view. It shuffles from Arindam to Madhavi to Jeet and back. Madhavi goes to work every morning; Arindam stays at home and looks after Jeet. The couple maintain the fiction that Arindam is “working from home.” Arindam becomes enmeshed in the life of Lucky, particularly with the members of the Carrom Club. New tensions—this time between Hindus and Muslims—poison the air. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, Babri Mosque is torn down. In Bombay there are bomb explosions and riots. The members of Lucky band together to protect the single Muslim family among them. Jeet goes to school. He makes friends but also encounters prejudice and cruelty.
Meanwhile, the government discards socialist shibboleths in favour of market reforms. The economy takes off. Arindam becomes an instructional designer—one of the new economy jobs—and for the first time tastes success. It corrupts Arindam for a time, but then he shakes it off. Success builds on success. An opportunity to work in America presents itself. The novel ends with Arindam and his family moving to America.
R. J. Brahmi is a 61-year-old writer living in Mumbai, India, with his wife and children. He took to writing late in life, though he often toyed with the idea of writing as a career as a young man. He finally resigned his job to become a writer in 2014. Arindam is his second book. When it is finished it will be in the region of 175,000 words. His first book, Travelling with Anandi, is a nonfiction narrative about a trip he took to Europe in 2016 with his wife.
Embark, Issue 8, April 2019