“Sir, all the window seats are booked. I’d be happy to give you the seat next to a window seat but at the moment, it’s quite impossible,” the receptionist said.
Suraj Singh, male servant of Badal Mian, the famous law professor at Cambridge University, listened to the English rattling in his ear.
“Sir, what’s wrong?” Said Suraj Singh to Badal Mian.
Badal Mian, who had brought with him Suraj Singh to go along to London for purposes of housekeeping, sighed. An explanation would warrant an effort at translating into Hindi what the man had said, and besides, Badal Mian didn’t desire any attention direction toward him at this time. Something twitched somewhere in his body, and he turned to stare at Suraj Singh who had given him a tonic at home before they left, which would give them both a sort of spiritual protection from evil spirits that might haunt the plane and cause it to fall onto land.
Suraj Singh, when the receptionist called the two of them to the fore, threw the big box he’d taken in place of a suitcase onto the weighing scale. The receptionist’s voice was so laden with disgust at Suraj Singh, who had oiled his entire head with mustard oil and combed it so that his hair parted right in the middle, that Badal Mian had to go toward the receptionist’s ear and whisper that Suraj Singh was accompanying him to London, or wherever the hell Cambridge is. The memory of his village pricked Suraj Singh’s mind as he practiced some English words he’d acquired at home just for this occasion. He formed his lips to say, ‘Hello, how do you do?’ to the reception lady but something in him didn’t allow the words to come to his tongue. He bent his spine to lift his big box and straighten and align it against the metallic wall of the reception but ripped his too-tight coat when he bent a little further to catch a glimpse of the world beneath the reception lady’s skirt. Embarrassed, he stood again and looked laughing at Badal Mian who had simply gotten angry at this act of impropriety. Badal Mian asked his servant to stand away as he took their passports out and thumped them one by one on the desk.
“This one’s overweight,” said the reception lady with a look toward Suraj Singh.
“Suraj Singh, what have you put in there? Stones?” Badal Mian turned angrily.
“Books, spiritual books, sir. And a bunch of food items, like bis-cuuts and gulab jamun. Want me to give you some of them?”
“I want you to empty this box of unnecessary items right now,” Badal Mian said.
Suraj Singh cracked the box open and stood whispering prayers. Inside the box, he’d put the Gita, the Quran, the Bible and the Torah, all wrapped in exquisite fashion in silken cloth, along with a large cassette player and some audio recordings of meditations and motivational talks by gurus and saints. Underneath this layer lay a box of sweets and biscuits which Suraj Singh took the pleasure of devouring right at that instant; he offered a gulab jamun dripping in caramel to Badal Mian but Badal Mian refused.
“Chuck all the food items away. We don’t have any need for them,” said Badal Mian.
“Sir, my mother packed the gulab jamuns for me. I’ll eat these here,” Suraj Singh said.
“Alright, do it quickly.”
Badal Mian was climbing the stone steps up to their apartment when he fell and hit the back of his head against the edge of a step, and died. Suraj Singh tried to call for some help, rushing onto the cold London streets and shouting,
“Dead. Someone help. My master’s dead.”
Suraj Singh wished with his thumping heart that this turn into a dream, a nightmare even, something he could awaken from, but his prayers wouldn’t work. He held Badal Mian’s body and shook the guts out of him but this only further put him into the yarns of trouble because now he had his master’s blood on his hands.
Badal Mian’s body had become wood. Suraj Singh tried breathing into his mouth in an attempt to resuscitate him, but the wicked smell of gases formed within threw Suraj Singh against the wall behind him; ‘What did he eat?’ Suraj Singh exclaimed.
Suraj Singh had never seen a toilet like the one in Badal Mian’s bedroom; he didn’t appear very wise in knowing the correct way to sit over the ceramic bowl, so he attempted to lift his body up and over the seat and to place his dirty feet over the bowl, sitting with his hips lifted and his knees bent. A smile came across his lips as he angled into the void beneath him and started to move his bowels. The worry began as he got himself tangled between wiping as the English did, or to attempt to fill the tiny lota sitting below him with water from the tap a few feet across. He wiped. But then, he didn’t really feel convinced with himself after he’d wiped, so he tip-toed, his pants sunk at his feet, toward the sink where he filled the lota with water. He turned his hands into small fists when he saw a bird that’d perched on the windowsill, chirping and whistling, a small blue-bird, the likes of which Suraj Singh hadn’t seen in his life.
He settled into Badal Mian’s home, making a cup of tea for himself and reminiscing the moments of sheer joy he’d involuntarily spent in the company of Badal Mian. Turning toward the bedroom, Suraj Singh thought of the time his father had also involuntarily spent in the company of Badal Mian, taking care of him as if he were his own son.
“Look, beta,” his father had said to him when he was just a young boy. “We are not fated to have the wealth and the privileges of a rich man like Badal Mian. We are just servants, and we hold ourselves in high esteem because we get to serve such a man of status and wealth in our community. A near miracle, it’d be if, by chance, we get even near the current status of our master. Hummingbirds can’t envision the heights falcons reach, and we are fated never to touch the limitless skies they soar into.”
As he visualized this moment spent in deep reflection over their condition with his father, he looked into the mirror in Badal Mian’s room and surveyed his face in it. He resisted looking very deeply because, according to the saint he’d visited before embarking on this journey to England, it brought bad luck. He saw a bit of dirt of his skin and rushed to the nearest toilet (there were a bit too many in Badal Mian’s home) and washed his dirty face with soap. The lemony-orangey scent of the soap pleasured Suraj Singh and so he washed and scrubbed himself in the bathtub behind him, taking good care not to splash his dirty skin water onto the woolen rug below.
The tub had a shine on its surface, and Suraj Singh attempted to see the quality of its material by tapping it a few times.
“Ah, pure marble,” he said.
The bluebird came and perched over the window again. Suraj Singh wanted the bird to sing like it did yesterday, so he formed his lips to whistle and whistled until the bird sang, and this made him happy; at least someone in the world listened to this guy.
“Here birdie, birdie,” he said.
The bird flew. The flapping wings of the bird made a sound so delicate and so pleasing to the sensitive ear of Suraj Singh that he felt the need to sleep. He hadn’t had the chance to sleep since he’d come to this mansion because he couldn’t see himself sleeping a good sleep with a dead body lying face-up in the big entrance hall. He didn’t want himself facing the very real and scary world outside, so he sunk into the cushions on the big sofa in the living room and tried sleeping. He startled himself when he slept on his right hand and made it stop working. His mind hadn’t slept; his body felt like someone had pushed all the oxygen out of it. A fear lay somewhere deep inside him, a fear that said he could get blamed for murdering his master; all the evidence suggested that Suraj Singh murdered him. The body, the empty mansion, the malice of a disloyal servant toward his master had been reasons to doubt Suraj Singh’s credibility. A mirror image to his father, Suraj Singh hadn’t even thought of deceiving Badal Mian in any way. But today, all the odds had been stacked against him. A servant, who’d jumped with his master on an airplane to London, poor, recently seen the wealth he could steal, had taken full advantage of the opportunity and pushed down the stairs his master. This could’ve been the case forwarded by whomever caught Suraj Singh; provided they did find the dead body and provided Suraj Singh remained on the premises when they found the dead body lying face-up in the big entrance hall.
And so, Suraj Singh took a large glass and filled it halfway with water and drank the relatively cool liquid to invite positivity into his life. As he drank, he panned out all his plans of a live lived in England with his master and took to the little balcony where he smoked a relatively dry cigarette which he couldn’t remove from his thick lips because he sobbed so loud and deep that he forgot he had a menthol hanging in between. He felt the cool air of a foggy London morning on his skin and began to open his gaze and to take in the scents of the fresh garden springing before him.
The mild and conservative people of his village would’ve destroyed every living cell contained inside Suraj Singh’s body if they were given the news of the passing of Badal Mian. They had kept a close eye on Suraj Singh, who’d carried forth his dream of living in a foreign country with Badal Mian despite the evangelical wishes of his village members who considered every man who ever went outside the bounds of their village a treacherous villain to bring ill-fate to their community.
Anyway, he searched Badal Mian’s room for a diary or something that would give him any information on colleagues or acquaintances who could come out and see for themselves what had taken place here. He looked inside Badal Mian’s drawers and found nothing but research papers fixed to binders and a jelly-like substance that, when Suraj Singh applied to his fingers and face, felt wet and slippery. He saw the cover of a little book presiding over a little box on which he saw the picture of a couple having intercourse. He flipped through the pages of this little book, noticing some of the pages had been folded at the edges. The rough feel of the pages that felt like a head recently shaven enticed Suraj Singh, who took some time to digest the pictures of couples having sexual intercourse in various positions on those pages. He feared the presence of God. The little book ended, and on the last page, he found what looked somewhat like a dried rose. ‘A dried rose?’ Thought Suraj Singh.
“Ahem, ahem,” he said to the dead body lying face-up in the big entrance hall. “I found a rose in your book.”
The dead body lay stock-still. He saw Badal Mian’s eyes, blue-green with a tint of grey, for the last time, before he shut his stiff eyelids. A memory of himself as a young boy entered his mind when the body began emitting sharp odors throughout the big entrance hall. Suraj Singh battled a rabid dog in his youth and killed him using a Swiss knife. He killed the dog since nobody would come and do the dirty job of killing a dog with a bone-deep infection themselves. A miracle would bring days of his youth back but noticing that a lot of time had gone past him, he swung into the present and embraced the venomous sting of it.
He, too, had fallen deeply in love, or infatuation, or whatever someone decides to call the feeling, once in his life with a girl for whom he killed the rabid dog. The girl ran into the neighboring village with a man so big and so tall he could fight off several wolves at the same time. A little bit of venom still poisoned Suraj Singh’s heart from that time, filling it with a subtle resentment, but for the most part, he’d worn the feelings for the girl out. Every now and then, something would return him to the time when he had been in love with the girl, but only then would he miss her deeply.
He had taken his bike to the neighboring village where the girl had absconded, found the little tavern where the big man drank his beer, and emptied a blue-black pen of ink on the big man’s bike’s seat so that when the big man sat unknowingly on it, his butt would turn blue, and he would become the blue baboon of the village. The big man having the nose of a dog, he conjured eyewitnesses to the event of the inking and followed Suraj Singh, who had taken advantage of the rough roads and biked along a trail of stones and dry earth toward another small village to hide amongst fellow commoners in a market, and smacked the shit out of him with a cricket bat, to which Suraj Singh had to respond by showing his dirty teeth in an attempt to scare his girl’s lover off. The news of the big man hitting with a cricket bat the butt of Suraj Singh was broadcast on local TV and radio channels, and this became Suraj Singh’s claim to fame. The big man rushed into a local tavern to hide because now the police came menacingly after him, but Suraj Singh acted like the big man of the two and refused to press charges against the former big man. For a long time after, the streets became no-go zones when the former big man passed through, with people rushing into their homes fearing the reddening of their butts. A couple of years later, people were still scared of exiting their abodes when a former big man walked the empty streets, fearing again the reddening of their butts. A recollection of the event that took place years ago would bring fearful tears to the eyes of the villagers who couldn’t fathom going onto the streets without at least wearing a protective shield around their butts in the event that the former big man decided to come again with a cricket bat and smack their asses.
“Son of a bitch. He died on me,” Suraj Singh now said. “My worst fears have come true.”
Inside his heart, Suraj Singh knew no other way to escape this situation than to return to his homeland. He kept the little book he’d found inside Badal Mian’s drawer, put the dried rose in between Badal Mian’s lips, and went out the door. He hailed a cab to the airport, telling the cabbie to stop at a petrol pump where he needed to relieve his bladder. A small tip later, Suraj Singh got onto the terminal of the airport, and carried with him the box he’d brought to the airline reception desk, asked the lady there for a ticket to India, and stepped his first step on his journey home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
S.A.A Rizvi has previously published with Kitaab.org and has attended the MFA Creative Writing Program at The City College of New York. In 2019, he attended the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio. He received a BA in Philosophy and currently teaches at a school in Brooklyn, New York. Rizvi enjoys soccer and cooking.
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