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Short Fiction: Two Views of a Street

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I.

The white sedan crawled down the Indian thoroughfare. In front, the driver gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, ever alert, ever watchful. A child ran in front of the car, and with a slight a motion, he pressed the brake. A cacophony of noise surrounded the vehicle; thousands of bodies swarmed in and out of shops lining the street. The road lay choked with vehicles blaring their horns and contributing to the white haze hanging above. It was a starry night.

Behind the driver, in the spacious rear compartment, Mohan was taking his family out to dinner – or trying to. His wife, docile and uneducated, gave her restaurant preference as she did all else: “You know what is best.” Mohan, having just grown richer through a series of land deals outside the city, wanted to spend the evening in style. Their son, Kumar, age 16, sulked in the back, not saying a word. They decided upon Pizza Hut, which they referred to as “Pidja Hut”.

It was an awkward journey. Mohan, his mind still reeling from the millions of rupees he pulled in that week, thought of what he could do with it. The smart thing, these days, was to give it to the Americans. Now they knew how to make money! You give a cool million to some white entrepreneur, watch your money double! Stock market, buildings, IT sector – it was all booming. You just had to be careful not to invest in a fraud, something Mohan was sure his American partner would be able to avoid.

At the back of his mind he thought of his teenage son. His wife had found a small bottle of liquor in his backpack two weeks ago, and they still hadn’t confronted him. Mohan began to wonder if they would – or should. After all, were these not the same freedoms he worked so hard to provide for his son? The freedom to be rebellious, to be free of tradition, from the need to work incessantly not to starve? A confrontation would only alienate their son – and he was all they had.

Mohan looked out the window and saw a man and his daughter huddled beneath an overpass. Their filthy rags gleamed in the streetlight. Mohan’s wife, Parvati, looked out the same window at the same scene – and perhaps thought the same as Mohan: That is what we worked to avoid. Our son may be a lout, but at least he’s a rich lout!

As if reading their thoughts, Kumar piped up: “Listen, when will you get me those Reebok shoes? You know I need them for school.”

Mohan laughed, a booming laugh: “Oh, we’ll get them tomorrow, I suppose, but for now, aren’t you excited? You love Pidja Hut.”

Kumar sniffed. They were driving through an affluent portion of town, and dozens of signs and billboards assaulted Kumar’s eyes: Reebok, Nike, McDonald’s, Ralph Lauren, Levi’s. Kumar wanted them all.

“Look, the store’s right here,” he whined, “Couldn’t we just stop and get them now? In America they say: ‘Shoes make the man.’.”

“Ah, but we are not in America!” Mohan was in a playful mood. The transgression with the liquor momentarily forgotten, he ribbed his son. “Reebok-Geebok – what is all this? You know when I was your age I wore sandals made of old tires!”

“When you were my age, you couldn’t get Reebok in India,” Kumar said, “All of my classmates have them – why shouldn’t I? They’ll make fun of me! I’ll be miserable without them. What kind of father are you, anyway?” Kumar’s tone was not playful.

Mohan laughed, nervously this time, “Take it easy, Kumar – I’ll get them for you.”

Parvati watched the exchange in silence. She had seen it play out a thousand times, for brand-name clothes, for a television in Kumar’s room, to justify Kumar’s school-marks which descended every year, for Kumar’s ever-growing allowance. She wondered where her son spent the thousands of rupees monthly, and refrained from asking only out of fear for the answer.

Mohan was proud of the things he could buy his son, proud of the business acumen which allowed him to rise above the teeming millions, but he wondered whether his long work hours and scarce interaction had poisoned his relationship with Kumar. At such times he always made an effort to connect with his son, efforts which he increasingly believed were a waste. They followed a similar pattern.

Mohan cleared his throat. “So, Kumar, tell me… how are your studies?”

Kumar looked up from his cell phone, on which he was writing a text message to his friends: “meet at pub 10:30 PM”. “Fine,” he said, “why do you ask?”

“Any subject you’re interested in particularly?”, asked Mohan.

“No, not really…”

“Have you given any thought to what you would like to be when you grow up?”

“I want to be rich like you.”

“What do you think will be your vehicle to riches?”

At this point, Kumar invariably grew irritated. “How should I know?”, he snapped, “I’m only 16! What, don’t you make enough money to support us? I’ll think of some way when the time comes.”

“Your grades have been slipping,” Mohan said hesitantly. It was a sensitive subject.

“Not this again! I told you, I’ll improve them! What more do you want from me? I’m doing the best I can!” Kumar crossed his arms and began to pout.

“All right, all right,” said Mohan, not wanting to fight, “So how are your friends doing?”

“They’re fine,” said Kumar.

Mohan could not think of what else to ask. Kumar broke the silence.

“Oh, speaking of them, I need some money. Maybe 2,000 rupees?”

“2,000?” Mohan feigned shock. “I just gave you 5,000 last week! What did you spend it on?”

Kumar shifted uncomfortably, “Oh, you know, this and that – I went out a couple times with my friends – you know how it is.” He did not want to say he would spend it that night after dinner at the pub.

“Well, I’m sorry, Kumar”, said Mohan, “I need to teach you to be responsible with money.”

Kumar turned red. “Mom!” he exploded, “Tell Dad to give me some money! I’m a good soon to you aren’t I? I don’t deserve this! All my friends get to go out with money in their pockets – how can I show up like a pauper?”

“Oh, Mohan, just give him what he wants, poor thing – he doesn’t ask us for much, does he?” said Parvati, “How much did you make this week? What’s a paltry 5,000 rupees?”

Mohan quailed. He could not stand up to both Parvati and Kumar. He knew would give his son the money he asked, but did not want to know what he would spend it on.

This world of pubs and girls, of drinking and partying, of drugs and alcohol, was totally alien to Mohan. They had none of those things when Mohan grew up. For him it was study, study, study – and face a beating if you did not make the grade. He worked hard, miserable, throughout high school and university, and slogged his way through the ranks of a construction company, where he was an overseer, before leaving to work as an independent contractor. A few well-placed bribes, some insightful business deals, and Mohan could give his son the youth he never had. He would send Kumar to England to study – maybe even the United States. There he would learn business. There he would live the life Mohan could only dream of.

Kumar thought of the fun he would have after this ordeal with his parents. One of his friends had scored some marijuana; there would be girls, cigarettes, and plenty of beer at the pub. He felt not a tinge of guilt for deceiving his parents. Was this not what life was about? These nerds who sat up all night studying, they were dead – worse than dead; they were their parents’ creature. Kumar was free.

Parvati thought of the television shows she was missing on this excursion. She wondered if their servant had completed the housework.

Kumar said, “Listen, you just take the driver home after dinner; I’ll meet up with my friends and take a cab.”

Mohan said, “What will you and your friends be doing?”

Kumar said with irritation, “Look, I don’t know. We’ll figure it out when we meet. Why do you ask? You don’t trust me?”

Mohan was silent.

Parvati said, “Well, have fun. Don’t stay out too late.”

Kumar said, “Why not? I don’t have school tomorrow.”

Parvati was silent.

The driver heard everything.

II.

On a busy thoroughfare in India, a white sedan passed Gopal, who lived with his family underneath an overpass. This was their home, noisy and open though it was, and Gopal was proud of it. A migrant laborer, his experiences included working on a cotton plantation, standing in ankle-deep water for hours picking rice, and moving to the city to join the million day laborers who made the buildings rise. An accident at a construction site (for which he received no compensation) ended his industrial career and left him with a gamey leg and no employment prospects.

He had taken to rooting through garbage dumpsters for recyclable goods at night to earn an extra few rupees. He spent his days under the scorching sun by the roadside, begging what loose change could be extracted from the wealthy inhabitants of the neighborhood. Lately, they had grown stingy. On a good day, he could scrape together enough for some rice and lentils for him and his children. On a bad day, they went without lentils. His wife had died nine years before, giving birth to his second child, Pallavi. His son Sunil, age 15, and his daughter were all he had in the world.

It had been a good day. Gopal had returned three hundred bottles and netted 75 rupees. Sunil would return with at least 100 rupees. They would have lentils tonight, and could maybe even splurge on a bottle of Kinley brand fresh water.

Out of the rushing chaos in the street, Gopal saw Sunil approach.

“What kind of work did you find today, son?” he asked.

“Oh, father! I got a job at a shopping mall! Security, top class! They gave 150 rupees for the day!”

This was an unexpected windfall. Gopal hated that his son had to work, but with a 9-year-old sister and a crippled father, Sunil had little choice. Regular employment was far out of Sunil’s reach; instead, like many children of his economic means, he took odd jobs as they came: one day as construction worker, another as an amateur mechanic, a third serving tea in one of the city’s innumerable cafes. Few employers were looking for regular help – it was so much easier, after all, to hire unskilled labor by the day. You pay them less that way. Sunil was flush with pleasure – mall security was one of the most sought-after jobs for children like him: simple and lucrative.

Pallavi stirred from her bed, a heap of rags.

“Sunil! I was worried abut you. What did you bring me?”

She grinned a gap-toothed smile.

“Ah, little sister, do you think I had forgotten you? Here, one of the pakkas at the mall dropped this.”

In his outstretched hand lay a plastic guitar pick.

“What is it?” she asked before putting it in her mouth.

“No, no, this is what they use to play guitar. You know, like the rock stars.” Sunil pantomimed a rock star. “Here, with this you’ll grow up to be the most famous musician in India!”

Pallavi laughed with pleasure, but a passing bus obscured the sound.

Gopal looked around for a police officer and started a small fire. Fires were illegal, but one of the few ways for the city’s homeless to cook their food.

“Here Pallavi” he said, “go get two bottles of water and some buttermilk. When you come back we’ll have nice, hot rice and dal.”

Pallavi smiled and sprang to action.

When she was gone, Gopal turned to Sunil.

“Did you have a good day at work?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, father,” said Sunil, “The sun was not so hot today, and they let me go after only ten hours.”

Gopal’s face assumed a pained expression. “You shouldn’t have to work like this,” he began, “A boy your age… you should be in school. I wish you were in school.”

“No, no. Not at all,” said Sunil. This was a frequent conversation between him and his father, one in which he refused to feel the slightest self-pity. “I tell you, I am happy working to feed my family. Listen, at the mall today I saw so many kids my age. They had the nice clothes – the jeans, the T-shirt – walking in and out of the stores. They must have spent thousands of rupees on those clothes. And food! KFC, McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. But then I think – it all looks the same when it comes out the other end, doesn’t it?” Sunil smiled, “This rice and dal we eat, those pizzas they eat – it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it?”

“What a good son I have,” said Gopal, “I only wish he had as good a father.”

“You are a good father, and I am a good brother,” said Sunil, “We must think now of Pallavi, the little one. If we can avoid taking her out of school, at least we will have that success. She’s a smart girl – who knows? Maybe she’ll be the next CEO of Pepsi!”

Gopal laughed. “And maybe my leg will heal itself.”

Sunil smiled, “It isn’t so improbable as all that. Anyway, my life is pretty much set. What university will take an 8th class dropout? But Pallavi – if we can make sure she stays in school and gets good grades, she could easily get a place at a top university.”

Tears sprang to Gopal’s eyes. “You are truly your mother’s son,” he said, “Now let us tend to the food. The water is boiling – do you have the rice?”

They poured four cups of rice into the boiling water, covered the tin pail, and began preparing to boil the lentils. Gopal sang softly to himself. He had raised two fine children, alone, and with a game leg to boot. He felt proud. He was happy.

Half a kilometer away, a crowd began to form. Gopal and Sunil could hear sirens in the distance.

Gopal shouted to a friend across the street: “What’s going on? Some big-shot actor with police protection?”

His friend shouted back: “I think there was an accident. Let me go find out!”

He left and returned.

“I couldn’t get through the crowd,” he reported, “But I think a little girl was struck by a car. All anyone could make out was a white vehicle speeding away. A hit and run! The bastards!”

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Written by pavanvan

March 24, 2010 at 8:15 pm

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