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Authors: Meira Chand

House of the Sun

BOOK: House of the Sun
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House of the Sun

MEIRA CHAND

For
Vikram and Anjali
and
in fond memory
of
Kiki

 

All the characters and situations in this novel are fictitious. Any coincidence of the actual names, locations or situations is entirely unintentional.

HOUSE OF THE SUN

Lady Dr Agarwal – abortionist

Ali Akbar – businessman and smuggler

Mrs Balani – wife of businessman, now living in the US

Kamal Balani – her lawyer son

Mr Bhagwandas – jeweller, third-floor resident of Sadhbela

Mrs Bhagwandas – his wife

Bhai Sahib – holy man second-floor resident of Sadhbela

Burmawallah – clairvoyant consulted by Mrs Watumal

Lokumal Devnani – much-revered fifth-floor resident of Sadhbela

Prakash Devnani – his son

Jyoti Devnani – Prakash’s wife

Ravi and Bina Devnani – young children of Prakash and Jyoti

Gopal – the liftman of Sadhbela

Mr Hathiramani – former journalist, fourth-floor resident of Sadhbela

Mrs Hathiramani – his illiterate wife

Pinky Lalwani – friend of Rani Murjani

Mataji – seer consulted by Mrs Hathiramani

Murli Murjani – rich industrialist, resident of Sadhbela

Mrs Murjani – his wife

Rani Murjani – their eighteen-year-old student daughter

Kishin Pumnani – former headmaster, seventh-floor resident of Sadhbela

Rekha Pumnani – his wife

Meena – their married daughter

Sham Pumnani – their only son

Lakshmi – eldest unmarried daughter of Kishin and Rekha Pumnani, later married to Hari Samtani

Padma and Veena – younger unmarried daughters of Kishin and Rekha

Chachi – widowed sister of Kishin Pumnani

Raju – Mr and Mrs Hathiramani’s twelve-year-old servant

Hari Samtani – husband of Lakshmi Pumnani

Mrs Samtani – his mother, mother-in-law to Lakshmi

Dr Subramaniam – doctor, ground-floor resident of Sadhbela

Tunda Maharaj – Lokumal Devnani’s holy man

Mr Watumal – factory-owner, sixth-floor resident of Sadhbela

Mrs Watumal – his wife

Mohan Watumal – their only son

Sunita Watumal – their unmarried daughter, aged 31

Lata Watumal – their younger unmarried daughter, aged 29

Ama
mother.
Amil
A person employed in the professions, civil services or education in the Sindhi community.
Baba
Respectful term for old man, father or grandfather.
Bhaiband
A merchant, trader or any self-employed person in the Sindhi community.
Bhau
Respectful term amongst Sindhi men for someone of same age or older.
Brahmin lock
Long lock of hair on crown of head worn by Brahmins.
Chapati
Unleavened bread.
Dal
Lentil stew.
Dhobi
Washerman.
Dhobi ghat
Washermen’s workplace, usually beside river or sea.
Dhoti
Ankle-length loincloth.
Ghee
Clarified butter, used for cooking.
Gita (Bhagavad Gita)
Religious discourse
Gul-mohr
Flowering tree of Leguminosoe family.
Hari Om
Auspicious greeting or exclamation.
Hare Ram
Auspicious greeting or exclamation.
Khoya
Milk-based sweet.
Koki
Thick, rich unleavened bread.
Kurta
Long, loose shirt.
Lungi
Sarong.
Papad
Thin wafer of gram flour.
Pandit
A learned man, with particular knowledge of Hindu religion, tradition.
Paratha
Rich, unleavened bread.

Bhai Sahib examined Mrs Hathiramani’s horoscope. He sat cross-legged on the stone floor in a once-white vest and
dhoti
. The vest had a hole, and a remnant of his lunch, eaten hurriedly at the sound of Mrs
Hathiramani’s
arrival in his temple, had left a deep yellow stain upon it.

Mrs Hathiramani had arrived out of breath after the climb downstairs from her home on the fourth floor, two stories above Bhai Sahib in the building they called Sadhbela, and shouted, ‘O, Bhai Sahib. Anybody there?’ She carried a plate of cashew nut sweets, covered by a yellow checked cloth.

Behind the faded curtain dividing his living quarters from the front room of his home, set aside for use as a temple, Bhai Sahib stopped eating. His wife frowned and rested a spoon in a pan of
dal
before continuing to serve her husband. She gave him a meaningful look. Neither replied to Mrs Hathiramani’s loud summons.

‘Do as you wish, then. I know you are there. I am waiting,’ Mrs Hathiramani threatened. Her voice was gruff and masculine. She removed the cloth from the plate of sweets and put it on the altar under a picture of Guru Nanak, beatific and serene. Then she lowered herself awkwardly on to the floor, placed the red, cotton-bound horoscope before her and stared grimly at the curtained doorway, beneath which she could see Bhai Sahib’s bare, sandalled feet, and the legs of a table and chair.

Bhai Sahib returned with a sigh to his lunch. Soon Mrs Hathiramani heard him hawk and rinse out his mouth. He appeared from behind the curtain, wiping
his nose on a small blue towel. He was a corpulent man with protruding eyes, cheeks of grey stubble, and a coarse moustache.

‘I was eating,’ he announced, folding the towel over a shoulder. Mrs Hathiramani gave him a well-rounded look.

‘Only
dal
and rice every day,’ Bhai Sahib informed her and sucked his teeth.

‘I too can eat only
dal
and rice and not complain,’ said Mrs Hathiramani in reference to past bad times and her fortitude through them.

‘Nowadays, even for God, people will not pay,’ Bhai Sahib grumbled. Mrs Hathiramani ignored the remark.

Bhai Sahib squatted down before her, picked up the horoscope and sighed. In the open window a crow alighted, folded its wings and strutted about the window sill. Bhai Sahib belched and settled to his work. Outside the sun was high, white and hot upon Bombay, carrying the stench of drying sardines from the beach into the room.

Very little of the room was left to the temple, Mrs Hathiramani noticed with disapproval. When Bhai Sahib had been younger, his family smaller and his faith less easily compromised, the room had been unadulterated by wordly objects. Now, a grown family of married sons, a widowed mother and the constant arrival of new grandchildren pressed hard behind the curtain, and had finally spilt beyond it. The altar, upon which rested the sacred book, was bulky as a
four-poster
bed, draped and cushioned and garlanded, but the space where Mrs Hathiramani and Bhai Sahib sat, once bare and serene, was now hemmed in by walls of tall metal cupboards in a depressing faecal colour. Upon them were stacked boxes and suitcases and plump bedding rolls, jars of pickles and tins of oil. Some shelves of medicines and a water jar occupied a corner beside a long bench. Space had recently been
made before the altar for a large, imported television upon a black metal stand.

Once, coming down a few weeks ago in the evening to see Bhai Sahib, Mrs Hathiramani had been unable to enter the temple for the crush of Bhai Sahib’s family before the lighted screen. And Bhai Sahib himself
suggested
she return later, his eyes riveted upon the box. Mrs Hathiramani had vowed she would never return at all.

Bhai Sahib examined the close lines of faded blue script, written down long before at the time of Mrs Hathiramani’s birth, and the symmetrical designs in the worn booklet. At a page with a drawing of a sun surrounded by lotus petals, he paused. The sun, besides long rays emanating from it, had a human face with large sober eyes and a heavy moustache. Within each of the lotus petals was more blue script which Bhai Sahib read with a serious expression.

‘What is it?’ Mrs Hathiramani asked, leaning
forward
. She was alarmed, not so much at what might be written in the horoscope, but at the change in Bhai Sahib’s expression. She sensed already it would be
difficult
to dilute the course of whatever destiny was in store for her.

Bhai Sahib shook his head, squinting at the booklet. ‘The Sun is now Lord of the Tenth House and occupies the Ninth. In March Saturn is coming into the House of the Sun. Saturn is strong and will bring trouble. Be careful, otherwise he will do you harm.’ Bhai Sahib looked sternly at Mrs Hathiramani over ancient
spectacles
, as if she had deliberately arranged this
beleaguered
state in her affairs.

‘Aiee,’ Mrs Hathiramani moaned softly. ‘How long will he stay in the House of the Sun?’ She pulled the end of her sari tighter about her ample breasts. She was a soft-fleshed, mountainous woman with a small, beaked nose, and small, hooded eyes.

‘He will not move out until June. Three months he will be in the House of the Sun,’ Bhai Sahib announced. He stood up to spit out of the window. The crow rose with a squawk, Bhai Sahib sat down again. The bird settled back, a mean look in its eye, its gaze upon the cashew nut sweets.

‘What shall I do?’ Mrs Hathiramani implored, hands to her cheeks. The upper half of her face was narrow, as if all the flesh had suddenly slipped to her jaw.

‘The only thing Saturn fears is a sapphire. Wear a sapphire; then nothing can harm you,’ Bhai Sahib replied and suppressed a yawn. The air in the room was unmoving, he stood up to turn on the ceiling fan. From the window the crow croaked in an insolent manner.

Mrs Hathiramani nodded at Bhai Sahib’s advice, and held down her sari against the sudden gale
sweeping
the room. She looked up at the creaking, speeding fan apprehensively.

‘I will buy a sapphire,’ Mrs Hathiramani decided hurriedly. ‘I will buy one right now from Mr
Bhagwandas
. He will be home for lunch.’ She paused, then asked, ‘A cheap one will do?’

‘The quality is not mattering, only the stone is
mattering
. It must be a sapphire,’ Bhai Sahib replied. ‘I will also perform some rites, so that no real harm can come to you,’ he added, averting his eyes.

‘How much will that cost?’ Mrs Hathiramani asked. ‘You have only just finished those prayers for Mr Hathiramani’s health, and that was costing too much. Mr Hathiramani has no belief in these things; he was angry. He is an educated man and you know the harm education does a man in these matters. How much?’ Mrs Hathiramani’s small eyes grew bright. There was the sudden shrill sound of children in the corridor
outside
as she spoke.

Mrs Hathiramani rose, levering her bulk up in
stages. As she approached the door Bhai Sahib’s three grandchildren burst noisily through, dancing about upon bare feet. One collided with Mrs Hathiramani, knocking the horoscope from her hand.

‘Even your grandchildren you cannot control. You are only charging money and doing nothing,’ Mrs Hathiramani shouted in sudden angry frustration at Saturn. As she bent with difficulty to retrieve the
horoscope
, her sari slipped from her shoulder, and her flesh spilt forward.

Bhai Sahib yelled at his grandchildren and flicked out at them viciously with the blue towel. They jumped about, laughing louder before finally retreating. As Bhai Sahib slammed the door upon them the crow dived in, snatched up a sweet and flew off to a mango tree. Mrs Hathiramani, out of breath from levering herself up and down, gave Bhai Sahib a look of disgust. She rearranged her sari, opened, then banged the door behind her.

The corridor, like all the passages in Sadhbela, was narrow and dark; Mrs Hathiramani’s hips almost filled the space. Some light filtered through from the lift shaft and Mrs Hathiramani lumbered towards it. She shook the ancient bars of the grille vigorously; the bell would not work. The metal clattered and Mrs Hathiramani called loudly down the shaft, ‘O, Liftman. Lift.’

But no lift appeared. The liftman was chatting with a sweeper and refused to hear. By pushing her face up to the bars and squinting down the long dark shaft, she could just discern, far below in a pool of sun, a hairy leg and a portion of his khaki shorts as he lounged against the open door. She would see to him later, he would not get away with such insolence. She had
already
been forced to walk downstairs to Bhai Sahib, he had been unavailable then.

Mrs Hathiramani gathered her sari clear of her ankles, and began to climb the stairs to Bhagwandas
the jeweller, who lived on the floor above Bhai Sahib. An odour of garlic sank into the sour stairway, stained with the red spittle of betel nuts and the filthy
discharges
of lazy servants, who used it sometimes as a urinal. Mrs Hathiramani reached a landing and there met the mad beggarwoman who inhabited the corridors of Sadhbela. She was haggling with a vegetable vendor for a cabbage leaf to cook, jumping dementedly at the wide basket of produce he balanced on his head.

When the beggarwoman saw Mrs Hathiramani she turned upon her and began to pull at her sari. Mrs Hathiramani, who would normally have flung her away, thought now of Saturn before the House of the Sun. She dug down the front of her sari blouse and produced a warm one-rupee note that she thrust at the beggarwoman. A donation of such proportion had not been known before from Mrs Hathiramani – the beggarwoman drew back in amazement and forgot to appear quite mad. Mrs Hathiramani pushed past her and climbed heavily on her way, arriving at last upon the third floor.

As she pressed the Bhagwandas’ doorbell she heard the faint sound of Mrs Murjani’s cuckoo clock float down from the seventh floor. It cuckooed twice to mark the hour. Mrs Bhagwandas opened her door, and waited to listen with Mrs Hathiramani before inviting her in. As they looked up at the flaking ceiling, wishing their gaze could penetrate Mrs Murjani’s elegant lounge, a dull grating sound swelled up from below and the lighted cage of the lift came into view, rising slowly. Mrs Hathiramani turned to see through the bars the smug grin of the liftman, Gopal.

‘Rascal,’ she shouted. ‘You are not paid to gossip with sweepers. I’ll see to you; you wait.’ She raised a fist, then caught sight of Mr Murjani in the rear of the lift, on his way home for lunch. ‘He is only wasting
the building co-operative’s money,’ she informed Mr Murjani as he rose up before her.

Mr Murjani cleared his throat, touched his
moustache
and said a word of greeting. His face came level with Mrs Hathiramani and travelled on. His polished shoes and Gopal’s bare, hairy legs, sturdy as
mahogany
, were suddenly before her. Then there was the empty, silent darkness of the shaft again, all
illumination
gone.

‘When we fled Sind, Murli Murjani was still a child,’ Mrs Hathiramani remembered, marching angrily into Mrs Bhagwandas’ living room. ‘On a refugee train from Karachi after Partition, he sat upon Mr
Hathiramani’s
lap and wet himself as he slept. Mr Hathiramani had only the trousers he wore when we ran from our home before the knives of those Muslims. Not until we reached Delhi did Mr Hathiramani get more trousers at a charity camp. Two months he carried upon him the stain of Murli’s pee. And now, just see, he is such a big man he cannot speak with us. See how money changes people.’

‘But in Sind the Murjanis had money. They were great landowners,’ Mrs Bhagwandas reminded her, apprehensive as always of contradicting Mrs Hathiramani.

‘I’m not talking about our Sind,’ Mrs Hathiramani frowned. ‘Rich or poor, we left everything there at the time of Partition. I’m talking about money Murli has made in Bombay. This money is new money, the other was old. Both have a different effect.’

‘In Sind we were happy,’ Mrs Bhagwandas sighed.

‘There we lived a pure life.’ Mrs Hathiramani pursed her lips, looking out of the window at Bombay. For a moment they sat, side by side upon a black rexine couch, silenced by thoughts of the past.

In Sind, Mrs Hathiramani had not known Mrs Bhagwandas, who came from Sukkur, a short distance
from her own home in Rohri; but she had heard of the family by the same flow of gossip that had made her own people known to many. Almost all the residents of Sadhbela were from Rohri or Sukkur, towns either side of a bridge across the Indus river. All had been Hindu refugees at the time of Partition, all had fled from Sind. Their land lay to the north-west of what was once India, and is now Pakistan. The people of Sukkur had been known to show their superior wealth extravagantly, riding about in ostentatious
horse-drawn
carriages. The people of Rohri had made do with rickshaws and thrift, and swore to their purer hearts and resident saints their hospitality and their food. In those far-off days before they all became
refugees
, fleeing from a Muslim Sind, each town disdained the other. History, chaos, poverty and death soon changed such parochial ways.

Mrs Hathiramani sat silently in Mrs Bhagwandas’ bare, spacious room, with its stone floors, and
hard-backed
chairs pushed up against the walls in the manner of a waiting room. In spite of a substantial accumulation of money, Mr and Mrs Bhagwandas were not ambitious. The diamond solitaires that pierced his wife’s nose and ears were of such superior quality that Mr Bhagwandas’ status in Sadhbela was never
threatened
; only Mrs Murjani owned diamonds to equal them. Mr and Mrs Bhagwandas had never got used to all the unnecessary things the owning of money seemed to require. It was too much of a bother to keep up with their wealth, and the life it demanded was too far from the cool, cracked floors and string beds, the
white-washed
walls and the bushes of jasmine they had known in Sind. ‘I’m a poor man,’ Mr Bhagwandas insisted with a giggle. The men about him laughed and poked him in the ribs.

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