Wednesday, July 3, 2013

"Abdul Rahman is appointed Chief Secretary of State": A Short Story

I usually post pictures on this blog, but occasionally I like to give the old format a toss and put myself out there for all of you to laugh at. So here's a short story I wrote this morning, while I was supposed to be working but had firmly decided to try out this (fantastic) online journal called I stumbled on to this in pretty much the same way as I have stumbled into the person who sent it to in recent years, purely by chance.

The guy who came up with it wanted to have a private place to write online everyday, so he could both cultivate a writing habit and analyse his moods with some fancy-schmancy stats. It's cool, you should check it out! And read this story too, while you're at it. You are welcome to air your opinions, point out inconsistencies and pour out all your work-related-angst in the comments section at the bottom of this post. Just don't forget to add your name so I can hunt you down and psh, sob with you over a cup of coffee later. :)

Abdul Rahman had prepared for this day his whole life. As a child, he had roamed the streets with his topi held at an angle higher than everyone else's, his kurta starched at the hem and bleached, and in full but secret possession of the knowledge that he was destined to be special. While other children would play marbles crouched close to each other in the street, Abdul would sniff disdainfully at them, flick the edge of his kurta, and walk off to think grandly about how he would change the world.

He was not a curious child, at least, not curious enough in that playful way that children usually are. But he wasn't entirely sullen either. He talked to the adults about things only adults talk about; the rising inflow of foreign goods and how it meant the closening of ties between India and its colonial forbears -- whom all the adults coveted in private and completely disregarded in public, the shameful state of politics when women were in charge (Indira Gandhi had just declared emergency), and the vagrant youth.

"Not you, of course. You're different.", they assured him.

And so he walked around bearing that chip on his shoulder, practising his smile in the shard of mirror he'd salvaged from the street one day as it came hurling down towards him in a pink plastic frame. The mirror had been the inevitable result of a morning's hysterical tears over a boy who had overnight left the young mirror-hurler to marry a girl that his mother had chosen for him. (Mothers are more sizeable, complicated forces to reckon with than the most ardent lovers.) For all he was concerned with, the mirror was his for the taking. It had fallen right into his lap, had it not? And so would his big break, he was sure of it.

So he worked just hard enough, cosied up to just the right people -- teachers, principals, those lowly administration fellows, and anyone who could potentially 'put in a word' -- and found his way into the national administrative services. Reputation was everything, and looking serious and committed enough went a long way in building it. So he worked longer hours than the people around him on the floor, grew a moustache that made him look trustworthy in powerful positions, married a nice girl who busied herself with building and then running a household, and with making and then rearing children he didn't have to concern himself with -- except to yield the occasional cane, figuratively or otherwise -- and led his life in anticipation of the day he would finally come to the fore. Like a house of cards, stacking one card on top of the next, slowly but consciously.

And that day was finally there, so close that he could feel the electricity passing through the single rogue hair that refused to sit down with the rest of his moustache. He had just signed the papers to become Chief Secretary of State. It was all hush-hush for the moment, but the big media splashout was scheduled for Thursday, just in time to make that day's front page.

He was bubbling as he came home that night. "It's done", he smiled and slid his hand around his wife's waist, perhaps for the first time since those first few months of marriage, and definitely the first time outside the privacy of their bedroom. She squealed and shook him off, not used to such extravagant, open displays from this man she had been married to for so long. She had learnt to live with him and his archaic world view in which he took centre stage. She had gotten used to the time he spent away from them pretty soon -- life was easier for them without this bellowing beast of a man. She had gotten used to the endless lines of peons with their perfect smiles and greasy, ever-ready palms open. In fact, his entire family -- his wife, his daughter, his two sons -- lived primarily in two states: when he wasn't around, there was laughter and sharing and the signs of living in a house with growing up children, and when he was, the house took on the distinctive, suffocated quietude that he preferred his family to exist in. Their worlds stuffed quickly into notional cupboards, their personalities swept under the carpets and white lies shadowed within the folds in the curtains. "Shelba wasn't feeling well today, she won't be joining us for dinner" when at that moment she really was out infusing her body with illegitimate substances. Or, "Roshan has cricket on Tuesdays" when really, he was not quite outside the closet in his contemporary jazz class. The lies all the more effortless because of his pointed disinterest in anything other than his own inevitable-seeming rise into prominence.

But the one thing she could never get used to was his morning routine ("It is important for a man to have a routine"). A series of cacophonous events that started with him rustling out of his side of the bed before dawn, brushing, gargling and spitting loudly enough to wake three of the four other members of the house, doing his namaaz (the quietest part of his routine), rattling all the doors in his way while stepping out for a walk, the infamous cane in hand, the yellowing sports shoes replaced after every eight months of light use, and coming back in to his behind's characteristic depression in its chair, from where he looked onto blank pages in a book he planned to 'one day' write his biography in. A routine that achieved no real purpose other than the purpose of having a routine. He would subject the household to this every morning in a pathetic, passive-aggressive attempt to thrust the force of his personality into someone else's lives than his own, however adversely or unwantedly.

All these were inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, he thought.

And anyway, the day he had been working towards all his life almost here now. In thirty-six hours they would announce it, and in fifty one, he would be seeing his face all over the cover pages of every newspaper in the city. All that hard work and the one, persistent goal of his existence would finally be validated. So, right now his main concerns were what to wear to the ceremony, how to part his hair, which direction to look as he shook hands with the president and smiled that smile he had been practising for so long (though he had long since moved from that mirror-shard to standing in front of a convex mirror), and of course, whether to buy copies of four different newspapers (only the ones with the best ink, of course), or to let others bring them to him and act gallantly surprised. Maybe he could he buy some copies anyway, and allow his well-wishers to keep them with themselves. Maybe he could make framed prints, only for "close friends and family".

Oh, this was all too much, his lip quivered. His eyes started to moisten, nostalgic for a time not yet passed. His time had come and he could barely bear the wait.

The morning after the ceremony -- R-Day morning, he liked to call it, the R standing for Rahman -- he woke up thirty minutes early, not by choice, shuffled around in the corridor for seven minutes and twenty four seconds, drank two glasses of water, rushed thrice to the bathroom to empty his bowels, which were at this moment as desperate to be emptied as he was to see the papers, did his namaaz, and stepped out with his usual banging of doors for a walk, his face a little flushed, and his left lace a little undone.

When he got back, the papers still hadn't arrived, so he busied himself with making some tea -- he rarely did such menial tasks, these things were better off left to the servants -- resulting in more noise and more clanging of vessels until his wife was finally awake and beside him, groaning slightly from the by-now emanating waves of pompousness that had infused with the distinct odour of someone with an anxious stomach.

"Haven't they arrived?", she asked, somewhat amused at his condition. And then they heard that familiar thud. R-Day had begun with a bang and Abdul was at the door in an instant, tugging the elastic band off the rolled-up sheaf of papers with the ferocity of a child unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. "Who decided to tie them up with these irritable things!" he bellowed, throwing the fluorescent piece of rubber till it rolled irretrievably under a sofa. Breath half-bated, half-hysterical. Flipping through each page of every newspaper he had asked to be delivered specially today for the giant, glossy photo of him shaking hands with the president. "Where is it?", he ripped open The Times, then The Express, The Daily with the force of a tempest. As if he hadn't already woken up everyone anyway. Bleary-eyed, they all emerged; Shelba, Roshan, Azfan, rubbing their eyes and even in their half sleep, all-too aware of the situation.

Because there it was, on the front page: "PMO Scandal Shocks Country", and "PMO Goof-up Bears Down Hard". On the cover pages each and every newspaper, there was news about this massive scandal that had erupted late last night, about the 'horrifying lack of privacy' and the 'complete absence of trust' the Indian citizens could place in politicians these days, and about how the root of all this was an inefficient bureaucratic system. Almost every square inch was filled with the ceaseless churnings of media powerhouses quoting just those two contradictory statements issued by the government again and again and again. How dare they wipe out his big news.

He needn't have been anxious about whether his moustache would glisten from the right angle after all. He shouldn't have worried whether his bespoke suits would stand out, or whether his wife would look presentable, or whether they would misquote the speech about him he had carefully drafted and 'urged' to be used after all, because there, forgotten in a corner at the bottom of the page among all the big, sensationalised news, was his life's ambition turned to wood-pulp: thirty words in a small, pictureless grey box.

"Abdul Rahman appointed Chief Secretary of State"

NB: my mother pointed out that from my story, it seems that the process of getting into the Civil Services in India is tainted by corruption. Though I wanted to show that some people do get by on a good word, it was not my intent to imply that it applied to the UPSC entrance exam. Most of my family has been through the grind of the exam, and I know only too well how much hard work it takes. (That's why I promptly excuse myself from any conversations that propose I apply to them). My apologies for any confusion!


  1. This is really amazing. I'm so proud of you!

  2. You really ought to read Rohinton Mistry's 'Tales from Firozshah Baag'. This story could almost have been pulled straight from that book. While his work is a tad raunchier, he paints a very believable picture of lower-middle-class typically 'desi' culture.