Shivani Sibal's book Equations is set in the New Delhi of the 1980s where Aahan Sikand and Rajesh Kumar are childhood playmates. They have been brought up under the care of the same woman, living in the same house, but with starkly different realities – Aahan is the only son and heir of the fabulously wealthy Sikand family, and Rajesh is the son of the family’s driver, who lives in a tiny staff quarter on the grounds of their sprawling bungalow.
The book tells the stories of boyhood and the coming of life of the two friends. As Aahan and Rajesh grow up, the natural friendship they shared as children reaches an uncomfortable end, as both become aware of their places in the world. While Aahan is expected to keep what he has inherited intact for the next generation, Rajesh, in the eyes of the world, can, at best, hope for a life better than his father’s, free of domestic servitude. But he has much larger plans for himself.
Equations is a story of aspiration and social change through which Sibal tries to explore individual ambition and family bonds. It announces the arrival of a striking new talent who examines the secret worlds of New Delhi’s political and business families.
Below is an excerpt from the book:
Sana and Rajesh got into the rear seat of the sarkari Innova allotted to Rajesh. She looked at the party stickers, both half-peeled and new, stuck carelessly yet cheerfully on the windshield, with writing in Hindi, a language she spoke but could not read. He asked her to pick up some leaflets and an empty can of Coke to make space, which she did.
Sana noticed his perfectly manicured hands, animated as he spoke, and wondered about his contrasting attitudes to vehicular upkeep and personal grooming. As they drove past the Gauri Shankar Mandir (she thought it was Ram-Sita but he corrected her), past a spanking-new Starbucks and a local clubhouse preparing for a wedding that evening, they continued the interview. ‘You were asking about how my education helped me, Sana ji. If I had to distil down to one word what my education did for me – English. It was that I could speak English properly. 128 Shivani Sibal It is a gift, given by circumstances, to a selected few in this country, which can open up so many doors. I first learnt English growing up at Sikand House, from talking to Aahan Bhaiya, my employer’s son, watching cartoons and movies, and reading his old books, Hardy Boys and Enid Blytons. I went on an official tour of the United Kingdom recently, a delegation to study council estates as a model for urban housing.
It was my first trip abroad, Sana ji. My parents were so excited, they insisted on dropping me to the airport and everything. When I got there, I expressed a desire to my hosts to try scones and clotted cream – I had grown up reading about these foods, and had no idea what they tasted like until six months ago! ‘The only thing of use that I learnt in school and through Aahan Bhaiya’s books was English. Still, I was not so good, even at Kanti College. Hindi was okay to get by over there. Later, when I left college, I had to get a job, quickly. Politician’s ke beta-beti can join politics full-time in their early twenties because they don’t have to earn rozi-roti. I had to earn, to find a place to live after college life finished and I had to vacate the hostel room.
Returning to my father wasn’t possible. And I wanted to continue in politics also. Here also Manoj Bhai helped me. He helped me get a job at a call centre in Gurgaon.They gave me training. It was a night shift, graveyard shift as it is called, and I would work at the time set by you Americans. Worked for me. Gave me an income, and I shared a rented room, my room partner worked in the day and me at night, and it left me free for my political work too. And my parents used to visit me there, so proudly. We celebrated festivals Equations 129 there, freely, the way we liked to. My parents experienced the freedom that I had, since college days, for the first time with me. What busy days, Sana ji. Pata nahin kaise kiya sab kuch. ‘At the call centre, my English became perfect. I can confidently speak to a reporter like you,’ he said with an American twang. Sana didn’t correct him, she was a researcher and not a reporter, and she had never heard an actual American speak with that accent.
‘The party can use these skills, my knowledge of the ways of bade-log, unka uthna-baithna kaise hota hai, ladies se kaise baat karte hain. My party has dedicated people, very hard-working, but they haven’t had the privileged upbringing that I have had, so I have a special place.’ A teenaged beggar girl with a listless newborn in her arms started tapping at the window of the car with a metallic ring, worn to make more noise against the glass, to attract more attention to her fate from those who tried to look away. Sana pulled out her camera, rolled down the window, and started taking pictures of the girl. She was in a colourful lehenga with pretty glass bangles. Emboldened, the girl stroked Sana’s hair, asked for money from her ‘pretty didi’. A kinnar saw an opportunity and left her post at the adjoining three-wheeler. She approached Sana’s window. ‘100 rupees for a picture! Jodi salamat rahe!’ she proclaimed. Rajesh’s driver got out of the car, and shuffled the duo along.
‘Chalo, chalo, sarkari gaadi hai,’ he said, pointing to the stickers. 130 Shivani Sibal The baby, of indeterminate gender, was still asleep, as if it had been drugged. Rajesh leaned over to Sana’s side and rolled the power windows back up. ‘These are people, Madam, humans. Not animals in a safari park to photograph,’ he said roughly, as the traffic light changed and the car moved along. Tears rolled down Sana’s cheeks. Taken aback, Rajesh pulled out the hanky that he always kept in his pocket and handed it to her, and put his hand on hers to comfort her. He noticed that her forearm had some words written on them, with a blue ball-point pen, partially hidden under the rolledup sleeves of her loose flannel shirt.
‘We are all’ and ‘Light’ was all that he could decipher. ‘What’s this?’ he asked. Sana rolled up her sleeve and showed him the entire quote. ‘We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in,’ it read. ‘I look up motivational words and phrases, on the internet, and write the ones that appeal to my frame of mind on my arm every day. It helps set intent, gives me positivity. My healing master, who I met while working in Montana, taught me,’ she explained. ‘I can see in your eyes great loss, great pain, great sadness yet a lot of strength. Something bad has happened to you, and you have come out on the other side,’ Rajesh said. She was happy, here, in this car, talking to him, and she told him the highlights of her life story: her parents great love that didn’t last, their determination to stay in America at all costs, those lonely days with her father’s new family, her Nana’s death, of which she learnt years later. ‘I want to go to Meerut, to ask Nani why she sent me away like that, all those years Equations 131 ago.
Was it planned? Or did he just land up one day without any warning?’ She had never received a satisfactory answer from her father. Rajesh listened intently, and as they entered a by-lane that led to the camp, she noticed that his hand had lightly brushed against hers a few times again, but she didn’t mind. Guneeta had phoned Chotu, Rajesh’s cousin and unofficial coordinator of his visits to the camp (he was hoping for a more concrete role soon), to organize everything.
A foreign mem was coming with Rajesh Bhai to the camp, he had to show her slum life, the brighter side. This would include four-or-five women in ghunghat, tilak and garlands, ringing the bell at the Shiva Mandir behind the market, as the welcome party, before they began the grand tour. They would end with some tea, biscuits and Bisleri, at the charpai near the tea shop. He was seriously thinking of turning the routine into a slum tour that he could ticket if he was able to find some connection with foreign tour operators.
He went into the houses of a few aunties watching television in their nighties and cutting vegetables, and told them to change into sarees, bring their puja thalis and come to the mandir. Five hundred rupees was the rate decided upon, rather inflated with a cut for Chotu built in, as there was little advance warning. The ladies and Chotu assembled at the Shiva Mandir. It wasn’t too hot yet, but the sun was threatening them with what was to come in the months ahead. Regardless, the gallis of the basti were always in shade, staying cooler until longer, but cloying in the humidity of the monsoon months. They saw the Innova pull up around the bend of the garbage dump,