Thursday, Nov 30, 2023

Book Excerpt: Understanding Between Unequals


Book Excerpt: Understanding Between Unequals

The seventh novel by the celebrated author of ‘English, August: An Indian Story’, which satirised India’s bumbling bureaucracy, is a crime thriller that explores the randomness of evil, death and redemption.

Understanding between unequals. (Representative image)
Understanding between unequals. (Representative image) Shutterstock

As a wealthy jeweller of the Walled City, with three showrooms shining like chandeliers in Delhi (at Dariba, Karol Bagh and South Ex), and a further two in Lucknow’s Aminabad and Jammu’s Lakhdata Bazaar, Nemichand Saraf’s first passion, appropriately, was diamonds. He did have a couple of others — becoming richer by the day, for one, without losing a single additional rupee to taxation, and aggressive, bullying sex, for another, preferably with tarts with rich tastes with whom he could drive some hard bargains. Life was good. A murderer of a son awaiting retribution in a police lockup was not in the least what he wished to have in his orbit of affairs.

He prided himself on his fair skin, Nemichand. He had always been smug about being the fairest in the family. He was otherwise quite short and had the face of a pug but he favoured half-sleeve shirts, even in the Delhi winters, because he could then look down on his white forearms and feel good. For the last several hours, though, ever since his arrival at Delhi airport, the milkiness of his skin had provided him little consolation.

That was only to be expected. In the jaundice-haze of an early winter’s day, he’d emerged from the airport to see his driver waiting for him but inexplicably looking twenty years older. Ah well, whatever it was, it happens, he didn’t particularly want to know. Then Atmaram told him that Pukhraj his son was in prison because he’d shot dead two people with his, Nemichand’s, gun. So he’d instinctively glanced down but his bejewelled alabaster hands really hadn’t looked so reassuring. And then — how was it even possible? — more news that was even more catastrophic. He’d waited for the car, intending to encourage the tart to take a taxi home to Kasturba Gandhi when Atmaram had driven up — in the Cielo! The Mercedes had been banged up and impounded by the police! Shocked at finding himself sitting in the rear in the Cielo, he’d begun to squirm in acute discomfort; he’d felt demeaned as though he was being ferried to prison for not having a car befitting his status. And sure enough, the flesh of his arms had looked grey and as if he’d had polio as a child.

‘My son has not committed any crime, saab. He simply had the misfortune to be there. In fact, he tried his best to prevent the second murder. Then why is he being held in prison?’

Nemichand sensed that the driver had been speaking for quite a while, more or less trying to explain why he, in the space of four days, looked twenty years older. He would have liked Atmaram to shut up so that he could concentrate on his own headaches and it was a pity that he couldn’t ask him to. Actually, why not?

‘Ghazal Madam and Anmol-jee tried to get through to you on the phone, saab, but it seems that you’d already left for the airport. We went this morning — Madam and Anmol-jee and I — to the Khan-e-khana police station. Lakhwinder-jee had phoned ahead and spoken to the Khan-e-khana SHO. So it was possible for us to meet Pukhraj.’ After an infinitesimal pause, he added, ‘I saw my son too.’
Atmaram drove expertly, carefully as usual, despite the tears brimming his eyes. He couldn’t help it, he didn’t care.

He had left Daurala on his motorbike at five in the morning and reached home a little after seven. No Parmatma getting ready for school. That had bewildered him. Where was the boy?


A murderer of a son awaiting retribution in a police lockup.
A murderer of a son awaiting retribution in a police lockup. Shutterstock

A bit reluctantly, he had asked Teej’s family next door. Wide-eyed, they told him that they had no idea and agreed that yes, it was rather unusual. He went up to the house. Ghazal Madam may have been up but it was certainly too early to disturb her. Pukhraj? No one knew where he was. But then no one ever did. His antennae on high alert, Atmaram returned to the garages to check the cars. No Mercedes either. He panicked. He trotted back to the house. It was then a little after nine. He didn’t have to ask Teej to wake Madam up because the phone call from the police station did that for him.

And that morning he almost did not get to meet his son. But he sensed that Nemichand wasn’t listening and he knew only too well that his employer could be boorish beyond belief; fully aware of when to keep quiet, Atmaram drove the rest of the way home in silence.

Anmol, Nemichand’s right-hand man from the Karol Bagh showroom, with his sixth sense of knowing where to be so as to most please his employer, was waiting, notepad in hand, at the porch of the house. As the Cielo honked once, softly, for the gates to be opened, Anmol in preparation began to stoop deferentially, ready to lick or suck or be kicked as the circumstances demanded. Nemichand nodded at him but didn’t say a word on his way indoors.

Ghazal Madam was in the palatial drawing room downstairs, playing hostess to some teary-eyed relatives. There was Ghungru, Nemichand’s younger sister and Ghungru’s husband, Kapil. Everyone made the right noises. When those subsided, Ghazal, dry-eyed but ready to let the tap drip if Nemichand so wished, announced to her husband, ‘He didn’t do it. I went to see him this morning at the police station and the first thing he said was, “Mummy, I didn’t do it.”’

Almost the first thing that Pukhraj had said; that would be quite accurate as a summary of the events of that morning.

Ghazal had sat down at the desk of the Station House Officer without being asked because he, the SHO, had really looked more fond of himself than a civil sort. Anmol had stood, ready to be deferential, just behind her chair. Atmaram, his desperation having steeled him, had sidled in to stand just at the door.

So it was the driver whom Pukhraj, unkempt and wan after a night in the lockup, first saw on entering the room; his face lit up, briefly, and he mumbled something, perhaps a greeting, before shambling forward to meet his mother. Atmaram, tense, almost trembling, waited for his son to shuffle in after the killer, and waited, and waited.

In a minute, he looked to right and left, uncertainly, then poked his head out, much like a turtle, past the curtain into the corridor, and next withdrew it back to where it belonged; finally, unable to bear the incertitude and, throwing deference to the winds, he stepped up to Anmol and whispered loudly and hoarsely, ‘And Parmatma, my son? We will get to see Parmatma also, no?’

‘Who is this man? He isn’t with you?’

Taking his cue from the SHO’s capriciously-posed questions, Anmol moved half a step away from Atmaram and, to eavesdrop more attentively, inclined even more respectfully in the direction of mother and son; and Ghazal Madam turned her head fleetingly towards her chauffeur to order through her tears and everything, ‘Go and wait beside the car.’

‘My son is innocent, Madam. How can I go away without seeing him?’

‘Oho! Is that what you’d like to see, how you can go away without seeing him?’

‘But Parmatma should be here, Mummy.’ Unexpectedly, it was Pukhraj who spoke, tiredly but calmly, glancing from his mother to the police officer and then quickly at his mother again because she was so much easier to talk to. ‘He was there. We are in this mess together. He’s my best friend, he knows I didn’t do it.’

Ghazal had then glanced shyly and beseechingly at the SHO and the policeman, always happy to be beseeched, paused for a moment, and allowed himself the hint of a smirk before pressing a buzzer just out of view beneath the surface of his desk. An oaf poked his head in around the curtain. ‘Bring the other chhokra in as well,’ ordered the SHO.

It annoyed Nemichand considerably that wife, sister and brother-in-law combined could not provide him with a coherent and logical account of the escapade of the night before. ‘So he stole the gun and the car and went for a joyride? There was no one to stop him?’ A slow, baleful, greenish glance at his wife here. ‘How did he get the gun? The car keys? They were both in my safe. He has a key to my safe?’ He called Anmol and Atmaram in. Atmaram stood near the door and Anmol three steps ahead of him.

Some of their responses seemed to displease Nemichand even more. ‘So Pukhraj is such good friends with your son that they roam around together in the evenings in my Mercedes? When the cat is away, the mice will play, is that it?’ Atmaram, stuttering, tried to explain that since they had, several years ago, briefly attended Ghungru Madam’s Special School together, they had remained in touch.

(Excerpted from ‘Villainy’ by Upamanyu Chatterjee, with permission from Speaking Tiger Books.  Upamanyu Chatterjee won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 2000, and was awarded the Order of Officier des Arts etdes Lettres by the French Government for his contribution to literature, in 2008.)