Shortlisted for the 2009 Commomwealth Writers' Prize
Shroff's vibrant narratives in this concept collection of 14 stories set in contemporary Bombay feature a range of beautifully drawn characters in fascinating situations: from the laundrywallas' water shortage problems, to the doomed love affair of a schizophrenic painter and his Bollywood girlfriend, to the wandering thoughts of a massagewalla at Chowpatty Beach, to the heart-warming relationship of a carriage driver and his beloved horse. Each of these stories is richly crafted and arranged against the grand chaotic backdrop of life that is Bombay. Shroff's love for his hometown shines through, but so does his deep understanding of its challenges and problems. The reader is afforded an insider's view of this pulsating city, and through an unforgettable emotional and cultural journey comes to care for the characters presented in these stories.
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Murzban F. Shroff is a Bombay-born writer. His stories have been published in over 25 literary journals in the U.S., including the Gettysburg Review, the Louisville Review, the Minnesota Review, and the Southwest Review. He has received two Pushcart nominations and is currently at work on his first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Meter Down, a short story from Breathless in Bombay
Through sleepy, sun-soaked eyes Mohitram Doiphade looked at the slim, smartly dressed woman who sashayed down the carpeted exit of the Hotel Taj Intercontinental and tictocked, in high metallic stilettos, toward his cab. Shutting firm his eyes, Mohitram Doiphade began playing the about-to-be-enacted scene in his mind. He had been through it so often that he could visualize the confidence with which she would open the door, the marked disappointment when he refused her fare, the beseeching note in her voice while she pleaded her case, and the pout that came on when he adamantly refused her business. So often had he been through this pantomime that he chose to stay recumbent while she approached, his parched black feet, bare and swollen with corns, sticking out through the window.
“Bhai sahib,” she purred, in a dainty sort of a way. “Famous studio, bhai sahib.”
Without opening his eyes, Mohitram shook his head curtly, and flicked his hand in a gesture of annoyance. He could well have been shooing a beggar.
“Please bhai sahib,” she pleaded.
“Told you, no, I don’t want to go,” he replied in gruff Hindi, opening his eyes slightly to show sleep and surliness.
“Take pity, brother. I have to get to a shoot.”
“Go! Bother me not,” he snapped. “If you are a model, you should get yourself a car.”
“But I don’t know how to drive,” she confessed charmingly, spontaneously.
“Good! Women shouldn’t drive anyway,” he replied, feeling satisfied for having aired a long repressed bias.
“Dukkar! Pig!” she spat, and slammed the door vengefully, shaking him out of his stupor.
He sat up and glowered. “Your father’s car or what?” he asked.
“If it were so, why would I have to ask a pig like you?” she retorted, and marched off heatedly.
Mohitram’s eyes followed her tight buns swinging rhythmically. Temper in a woman was certainly desirable, he thought, awake now and reaching for the water bottle between his seat and the door. Uncorking the bottle, he let the water flow down his gullet. The water was warm from the heat of the flooring. Yet, he drank greedily, splashing, in his hurry, some of it on his chest. He dropped the bottle to the side. It fell on the rubber mat, in between his chappals.
He shuffled in his seat to adjust his weight. The Rexene of the seat squeaked plaintively. Flipping a greasy napkin over the open window, he leaned against the edge of the door and slept.
Soon he was snoring. It was a light slumber, as inert as one could hope to be on the streets of Bombay. A nice part of Bombay, this was: breezy, lazy, touristy, nonetheless humid and scorching for those who worked outdoors.
It was twelve years since Mohitram Doiphade had arrived in Bombay. He remembered the rush of excitement he’d felt when the big brown engine with the dust of India stormed into the Victoria Terminus and settled with a hot hefty sigh against its girders. Everyone had rushed to the door, to catch the first impressions of the big city, where dreams could take shape, where fortunes could be built, if one persevered long enough. First, the city put you through the grinder, the chakkhi, as his uncle would call it. It pummeled you and pushed you, strained you and stretched you, and broke you in, bit by bit. Then, it would immunize you to its hardships. Once you were seasoned, it would reward you for your penance – lavishly, in a way no other city could.
It was Nathuram Doiphade, the younger, more serious brother of his father, Jagatram, who had given Mohitram this happy talk, sitting in a dark, cheerless hovel in a South Bombay slum. Nathuram had boasted about the city, while black soapy water gathered and foamed outside, and toxic fumes from frantically primed kerosene stoves rose and made Mohitram’s senses swim.
“Bombay is a city with a great history,” Nathuram said. “It has seen many changes, many rulers: the Arabs, the Marathas, the Portuguese, and the British. It has also seen many tragedies, faced many hardships. It has survived a fire, a riot, three bomb blasts, and a flood. It is not a city for slackers, but for the strong. You will have to work hard, sweat, if you wish to succeed.”
Twelve years hence, Mohitram Doiphade had come to some understanding with the city. He had worked as a canteen-boy, a houseboy, a coolie, a handcart-pusher, and had run a cab for a timber merchant who paid him a meager thirty percent of the profit. By holding two jobs and rationing his money - he sent some of it home and kept some for a little release in the livelier neighborhoods - he had saved up enough to buy his own black-and-yellow: MMU 4977. With that he was accountable to no one – except of course to the traffic police, who threw their weight around because of the uniform they wore. He smirked inwardly to see how the traffic constables caved to his bribes; how ten rupee notes slipped along with his license could help skirt over troubles like a broken signal, a wrong turn, and forays down one-way streets.
A thin voice disturbed him again. “KC. College, Churchgate. Will you come?” The voice sounded urgent, like all Bombayites.
He looked up. The intruder was a boy in his teens, bespectacled, studious, with a soft face and mild, querying eyes.
“No,” Mohitram snapped. “Meter down. Can’t you see?” He closed his eyes in a show of resolution.
“Please … I’ve got my exams,” the teenager pleaded.
“Said no, didn’t I?” snarled Mohitram. These boys of today: how foolish they were.
The boy looked distressed. “Please, I am very late. I will miss my paper.”
Mohitram gave him a long hard look. Raising a leg over the dashboard, he waved his foot at the meter. “Meter down, meter down,” he mocked, grinning at the boy with paan-shot teeth.
The boy backed away in panic. He was convinced that Mohitram was an ill omen. Extended commerce with him would damage his prospects at the exams.
In a sense, the boy was right. Mohitram was a misanthrope. Specifically, he was a hater of all those who made him sweat and toil, who commanded him to fly them to their destination, who made him slave for his survival, driving him through narrow lanes and crowded spaces – while they worked in plush air-conditioned offices and drew fancy salaries, and went home at a reliable hour, knowing that their savings were gaining interest in the bank.
He hated them all: harried executives who told him how to drive; fat, slovenly housewives who clawed into their blouses for loose change; teenage couples who nuzzled and fumbled in the backseat like hypnotized calves; old men and women who took forever getting in and forever getting out – he was always worried they would fall, and then he would have to rush them to hospital and answer to a barrage of questions. More than he hated his customers, Mohitram hated the prospect of losing money. And right now, strange as his behavior was, he didn’t mind losing out on some fares, the ones over short distances, which didn’t amount to much. That’s because today was an important day. He had to make decent money. And that kind of money didn’t come from hoity-toity models, or from breathless, panicky students. It came from, well, the man who came bounding across the entrance of the Hotel Taj Mahal. The man who was young, fair, athletic in his stride, and rich, as could be deduced from his clothes and from his demeanor. Mohitram straightened up and wore his pleasant, most inviting smile. “Where to, sir?” he asked, his voice coated with subservience.
“Airport,” replied the man. He opened the back door and threw his tan-colored bag on the seat. Mohitram’s heart soared. The airport was at the other end of Bombay. With the fiddle on the meter which he had done that morning, Mohitram could hope to pocket nothing less than rupees four hundred. More, if he went into bottlenecks and jams. The trick was to keep the conversation going, while the digits flew and the meter reading rose steadily.
Mohitram wondered for a moment if he should demand a special fare from his passenger: rupees six hundred flat. He could say he’d get no business on the return trip, he’d have to drive back empty. He had done this recently with an Arab on Marine Drive, who appeared in a hurry to get back to his hotel, and - fool that he was! – the Arab had paid up.
But here it might not work. These foreigners were no fools. He started the cab. The ignition whined. The engine roared to life. Passersby recoiled to avoid the black fumes.
Mohitram studied his passenger’s face in the rearview mirror. He looked pleasant and relenting, not the kind to grudge some extra baksheesh. These goras usually carried five hundred rupee notes on them. So, if he could arrange for the fare to touch around four hundred and twenty, he might just get to keep the balance.
The taxi hit the wind-swept stretch of Nariman Point, the beginning of Bombay’s pride-ride: the Queen’s Necklace. The breeze made Mohitram happy. He could feel its moisture against his face. The city stretched out lazily, in a wide-arched smile. Mohitram thought it was the right time to start a conversation.
“You have seen our Mumbai, sir? What you think? You like it? You come back?”
“Oh, I love it. It’s got so much life, so much warmth,” replied the foreigner graciously.
Seeing Mohitram stare blankly, he amplified in simple English: “Very good, yes. I like it very much. Thank you.”
Mohitram struggled, and began again. “Taj very good hotel, sir. But very expensive, no?”
“Yes, but very efficient and convenient.” Again, seeing the look on Mohitram’ face, he spoke simply: “Location good! Everything near-near! Service also very good. I like it very much.” The passenger might have found the broken English offensive to his own ears, but then what to do – this way at least he was getting through.
Mohitram smiled and nodded. He liked this fellow. It was a shame he would have to rip him off, but then these goras were so wealthy that even the poorest in their country made two thousand dollars, which was around hundred thousand rupees. What was an extra hundred rupees, then? Mohitram would take it as a fee for putting up with a conversation in English.
“Our politicians very bad. All robbers, sir,” Mohitram said, anxious to incur the foreigner’s confidence.
“Oh, yes, I read about Bofors. Amazing, how the crooks still haven’t been brought to light.”
“Bofors?” Mohitram looked puzzled. He was hoping to complain about the harassment to Bombay’s taxiwallas: the threat of introducing harsh pollution norms, the expense in changing to CNG cylinders, the sharp increase in road taxes, and the ban on bar dancers, which had led to good night-time business being wiped away. This Bofors was beyond his understanding. Besides, it had not threatened his pocket in any way. So it couldn’t be anything serious.
“Bofors!” said the foreigner impatiently. He was getting fed up with this parenthetical conversation. “You know the arms scandal?”
“No, sir, not in Mumbai,” Mohitram said with a frown. Breaking into a smile, he continued, “Mumbai most important city, sir. No city like it. That is why all big robbery happens here. Harshad Mehta, Ketan Parekh, that Telgi-walla ustaad - all big chors work here.”
“Wouldn’t know about that, pal,” replied the foreigner cheerfully. “I guess it’s the same everywhere. Look what happened to Enron and Arthur Anderson.”
Seeing defeat on Mohitram’s face, the foreigner expanded, “O’ robbery is everywhere. We have to live with it.” He opened a newspaper, hoping Mohitram would get the message.
Mohitram grinned. Robbery everywhere, huh? Well, by his own admission, the foreigner had asked for it.
They were at Peddar Road now, slowing for a jam. Mohitram switched off the engine and let his mind roll to the issue of the flyover, the overpass. The government wanted to construct an overpass over the main road, between the residential buildings, to diffuse jams and keep the traffic flowing. It made sense, for so much time was wasted on this stretch, especially during the peak hours. The overpass would have been built, had it not been for the bulbuls of Bollywood, India’s nightingale sisters who joined hands with the residents and led a protest march. They threatened to stop singing; threatened to move out of Bombay, to leave the country.
The bulbuls were unassailable, a national treasure. Their songs were classics: they had made people fall in love, fall out of love, families rejoice, lovers reunite, prime ministers weep, and soldiers rise in nationalist fury. The matter of the overpass was suspended – for a while at least. And Mohitram waited in his taxi, sweating, swearing, whilst around him people in luxury sedans cooled under the throb of powerful air-conditioners and tapped away to soft, pounding music.
His passenger was buried in the newspaper. Through the mirror Mohitram studied him. His beige-pink suit was rich and expensive-looking. His dark red tie stood well against the white of his shirt. The tie had a long, carved silver pin going across it. Mohitram decided to remember this detail. Not for any occasion, but for when he would dress for the wedding of his sister, Meena, Meenoo to him, nine years his junior, yet so close to his heart that it hurt just to think of her. Meena was the nucleus of his life. She was the reason he didn’t want to take on smaller fares today. She was the reason he wanted to earn well, so that he could lavish her with gifts when she arrived later, at eight-thirty P.M., on the 104 Mumbai Express. Oh, he couldn’t wait to see her. He couldn’t wait to hold her, hug her, his own flesh and blood. His foot tapped impatiently on the pedal and he drummed with his fingers on the steering wheel.
The traffic started again. This time it moved smoothly. Mohitram picked up speed and kept pace. He didn’t want to slacken, lest he get late for Meena. He wanted to shave, bathe, buy flowers. He hoped that that rogue Ghasitram had used fresh flowers for the garland he’d ordered, not flowers from the graveyard. If Ghasitram did anything as inauspicious as that, Mohitram would wring his neck. He worried about some people in his chawl. Would they mention to Meena about his drinking? Or about his liking for matka, for street-corner gambling, which had become a habit? He didn’t want Meena to know an...
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