A Foundation of Dust

Mahendra Singh sat in his parents’ house drinking a cup of tea. He chewed a clove and wondered how far he could walk before resorting to a rickshaw. The September sun was ever present and irrepressible outside. In the complete absence of clouds it was an unblinking eye. Mahendra had put on weight in the month or so since his arrival and had stopped wearing shirts, instead the same kurta pyjama, the rich white cotton flowing over his stomach like a waterfall. He was conscious of the change when he walked, when his own kids sniggered and called him Homer Simpson. But the people outside didn’t stare at him because he was fat, they stared because he was a returnee, and he was rich beyond their wildest dreams.

He scratched his beard and thought about going outside. The streets in Abadpura, Jalandhar City were narrow and lined with people instead of trees. When the Singh family arrived, Mahendra walked his boys to the family plot of land. The locals would stop and stare, some of them would reach out and shake his hand, Mahendra would touch the feet of old women he remembered clearly as a child. They had aged and their skin had darkened but they were still strong. The women would reach up and touch Surjit and Harvinder’s head, speaking to them in a Punjabi that was too distant to grasp fully. The boys smiled, nodded and carried on walking.

The family plot was on the edge of the neighbourhood, on a road where the richest residents had built magnificent three storey houses, each one trying to outdo the next. The plot was divided equally between Babu and Mahendra. On Mahendra’s land three families lived in single rooms. They looked after the plot, which was the size of a small car park. Mahendra introduced his sons to the families, the unease clear in the air.

There were two driving forces in Indian family life: money and land. When the two combined the reaction was always caustic. Mahendra’s first task was to find new accommodation for the families. They understood and did not take the news bitterly, Mahendra was not unkind nor unsparing. The next step was to find an architect. He knew exactly what kind of house he wanted – a Greek palace with white columns and a large eagle water tank perched on the roof. Above all he wanted to build the tallest house in Abadpura.

Mahendra was on the ground floor of his parents’ house, they were in their bedroom taking a nap, the boys were at private school and Prabjhot was out shopping for groceries with Gurshant, the family’s new driver. He put on some sunglasses, stepped outside into the courtyard and unbolted the gate. He could hear a brass band playing down the street, luckily it was in the other direction. He didn’t want to be distracted by another wedding. He thought of Surjit and Harvinder – they were too young to be married but he anticipated trouble when the time came. He stood back at a safe distance and watched. A white horse was waiting with the guests who couldn’t fit in the house. At some point the groom would be helped upon it and he would ride majestically to the bride and her family, then he would take her away. Mahendra wished he could have a horse to clop down the street.

He arrived at his plot drenched in sweat. Work had already begun on building the house. The foreman stood at the entrance to the site, behind him ten or so men were breaking the earth and piling it into mounds to be wheel barrowed away. Mahendra shook his hand and was quickly handed a glass of water and a stool. He sat down and listened as the foreman explained that work was progressing well, and that if there weren’t any hitches the house could be built in less than three months. Mahendra kept nodding but he was no longer listening. He could see beyond the dark-skinned, lithe men who were shovelling dirt from an old redbrick wall that had cracked and begun to crumble. On the other side was Babu’s empty plot. Mahendra smiled. His house was hardly built, but it was already overshadowing his brother.

Five thousand miles away Babu was sitting in the departure lounge of Birmingham Airport. He sat silently without much movement, though inside the landscape of his thoughts was eroding fast, almost as if he could feel each clod of dirt being moved in Abadpura. He knew that Mahendra would rush to build a house, but he hadn’t predicted it would hurt him so much. He had become a hollow man, having once been stuffed by the expectations of his wealth, he had seen his money and his dreams flake away. He had lost what little respect his employees had in him. They couldn’t afford to quit their jobs and he couldn’t afford to fire them – he had locked them into the factory by using family ties, now they had locked him out. Yet Babu was not a complete fool. He had had the sense to ask his wife Radha to manage the business. The workers could identify with her, as she had once worked on a machine. She would sit out on the shop floor with the women while Babu would hide in his office making calls and counting down the days to when he would surprise his brother. He had stopped buying his workers lottery tickets.

Money ticked and it talked, it hissed and it whispered. Babu had heard it all in the last few weeks. He had lost weight, so much so that his red turban now sat on his head uneasily like an oversized crown. He hadn’t had the presence of mind to change it. All he wanted to do was see his brother. He didn’t know what would happen, whether he would throw a fist to Mahendra’s chest or hold him close to his heart. He remembered standing in Mahendra’s front garden on Craythorne Avenue, peering into his empty house while he and his family were travelling miles away. Babu looked at his hands. He didn’t know if he was aiming for revenge or redemption.

***

Prabjhot entered the house through the side door. She tried her best not to make any sound as she crept past her in-laws’ room, up the stairs and into her and Mahendra’s bedroom. She took an iron key from her handbag and unlocked a large metal locker, the kind that looked more suited to an office than a home. Inside were the few possessions she had taken from Birmingham: some photographs, religious knickknacks, clothes and her old steel tin, which now contained rupees instead of pounds. The fragrance of the factory, the oil and the incense had faded like an unwanted memory. She looked to her open door before lifting the steel tin and the bits of underwear beneath. She was going to have to be quick.

She found her small sewing kit and took out the stitch picker. Her polyester coat was hanging on a hook on the wall. She grabbed it and sat on the bed, furiously unpicking the inside lining. She removed enough to fit her hand inside, carefully feeling to check she had the correct side, then reached into her handbag and took out her bank book. She slid it inside the pocket she had sewn a few days after her arrival in India. Prabjhot sewed the lining up, tearing the thread with her teeth and then inspected the stitching – it looked like it had been done by a machine – she afforded herself half a smile before innocuously hanging the coat back on its hook. She ran her hand down the lining. The book was well hidden except to touch. She put her things away and tided the wardrobe, neatly burying the steel tin beneath some clothes. She knew that Mahendra had a key to her locker and that he would look whenever the opportunity arose. It was only a matter of time before he would ask to see the bank book. Prabjhot winced as she turned the key in the lock. Husbands and wives are meant to have secrets, she thought as she left the room, trying her best not to look back at the grey woollen coat.

Gurshant had left the groceries in the ground floor kitchen. He had gone to his own house to eat but was on call if any of the family needed him. Prabjhot tiptoed downstairs and started to unpack. She relaxed as she began to think about the mouths she would be feeding that night and for many nights more. She looked around her mother-in-law’s kitchen. It was smaller than her own in Birmingham but was much more sturdy with heavy granite counter tops and a stove with two large gas burners. The fridge stood upon a couple of breeze blocks and the window, which looked out upon the small courtyard, was securely shut with iron bars. Prabjhot hadn’t seen a cat while she had been there but knew that they often crept into houses at night.

She had decided to make a potato and aubergine sabji for dinner. She wiped the counter top and then peeled and started to chop an onion. It was particularly pungent and after a few seconds it made her eyes water. Prabjhot remembered her mother once telling her that tears carried salt from the earth and that their bitterness was a necessary part of life. Prabjhot missed her. It had been over five years since she had died. She wiped her cheek with her sleeve and picked up another onion to chop.

Since winning the lottery money she had seen her husband take control and become more decisive, her sons lose control and become more demanding and herself drift from every materialistic dream she floated upon while working for Babu. She found it ironic that in wealth she could finally start to see the world all around her. She thought about the money and the valleys and veins in which it flowed. And then she remembered the moment her new life in India turned on its head.

It was her second week in Jalandhar. Gurshant was driving her from the bank to a new supermarket, which had opened on the other side of the city. They stopped at the traffic lights of a busy junction. Cars and motorbikes roared across while bicyclists and pedestrians took their chances. Prabjhot sat in the backseat of the new Skoda Octavia. She looked out at the family of beggars who stood on the narrow strip of concrete that divided the traffic. There were two young boys and a girl, their mother standing by a bollard, holding a baby in her arms. Once the traffic was stationary the children set to work. They were small for their age with dark skin that looked like it had been charred by the sun, skin taut across their stomachs. The youngest boy was naked except for dust and dirt and a thin red thread tied around his wrist.

The sight of the boy broke something in Prabjhot’s heart. She had never forgotten the poverty in India but, at the same time, she had never been touched by it or allowed it to affect her. She watched as the boys and the girl passed between the cars ahead, almost as if they were in a dance, their movement light yet laden with the sorrow in their faces and their constant cries for help. The youngest boy spotted her car. He instantly knew that she was rich: having a nice car was one thing but for it to be nearly empty signalled great wealth. He approached with his hands outstretched. Gurshant beeped his horn and said a few bad words but the boy did not stop.

Prabjhot had tears in her eyes. She rolled her window down and reached into her purse. She had just withdrawn ten thousand rupees from the bank. There were so many notes that they had been stapled together. Prabjhot fumbled with the first of the thick metal staples. She didn’t want to risk tearing one of the notes off. She looked ahead. From the heightened pitch of engines she could tell the lights were about to change. She looked at the boy. He stood by the window, barely tall enough to look inside the car. There was a yellow discharge in his eyes and his stomach protruded like a balloon. Prabjhot made a decision. She handed over the brick of money as the lights changed. The boy took it without realising what had happened. Prabjhot let the tears roll down her cheeks and laughed as he walked towards his mother. Gurshant stared at her too shocked to even breathe. The queue of traffic behind them beeped an urgent tune. The car moved forward with Gurshant still looking at Prabjhot, while she looked back to the boy who was being showered with kisses. The family now had enough money to live for a year. For the first time since she had arrived in India Prabjhot smiled.

***

Babu arrived in Amritsar an hour before dawn. The sky was black. Light leaked from the airport terminal and crept across the concourse, covering the hundred or so people waiting outside. He carried a small holdall and nothing more. Sandhu, his driver, was surprised but did not speak. He shook Babu’s hand and led him to the car park. They spoke little on the long, straight drive to Jalandhar.

Sandhu knew that Mahendra had recently come to India, and that he had hired a new driver. He felt slightly aggrieved, as he had not been chosen. Most of his earnings came from those who came to India from England, Canada or mainland Europe, people who would knowingly pay through the nose during their short visits. It was common knowledge that Mahendra had returned with a lot of money. Sandhu looked at Babu’s face and decided not to bring it up. He put on a cassette of old Hindi songs and turned the volume down low. Babu tried to smile. He looked out to the blur of trees and the mist that lifted as the sun rose.

They reached Abadpura at nine o’clock. Babu asked Sandhu to stop away from his parents’ house. He walked slowly down the street ignoring the small children that ran barefoot around him and the old women seated on chairs who expected him to pay his respects. He stood before the two-storey house and waited. He had rehearsed what he would say, but he was no actor, the words escaped him as he banged on the front gate.

Mahendra was sitting on a bench on the roof terrace of the house. He got up and leaned over as much as his stomach would allow. He saw the holdall and then his gaunt brother stepping back to look up at him. ‘Pajee’ Mahendra called and waved a hand. It would take him a couple of minutes to get to the ground floor. By that time Prabjhot had opened the gate. She looked shocked to see Babu, not out of surprise but because of the change in his appearance. The loss of weight had brought the lines in his face closer together, he looked etched in stone and his beard had more grey than black. Babu muttered the briefest of greetings, walked across the courtyard and into the living room. Prabjhot followed him with her head bowed down. She knew that he was there for the money, she only hoped that Mahendra was strong enough to resist. She watched as her husband wrapped his body around Babu, and then her in-laws. Prabjhot stayed in the kitchen to make him some tea, sullen that she was the outsider in a home that was now complete.

It took less than an hour for Babu to catch up on all the news. He was careful not to mention the building of Mahendra’s new house, his tentative talking making it clear that it was at the forefront of his thoughts. He left Mahendra and his parents when the conversation dried and the nagging started. His mother wanted to know whether he had started to look for a husband for his eldest daughter. His father wanted to know why the business wasn’t making more money. Babu looked at Mahendra and then went to his bedroom. A flash of deviousness spread across his face as he lay down. He was sure that his parents could make Mahendra give him some of the winnings, if all else failed.

***

Prabjhot left the house at the earliest opportunity. She didn’t have enough time to extract the bank book so she took the sewing kit and the coat with her. She told Gurshant that she needed apples, he drove to a street full of vendors. He knew that she wanted to be alone so he got out and took his time choosing whom to buy from and at what price. He carried some petty cash that she had given him for such occasions. While he was gone, Prabjhot managed to take out the book and sew her coat up again. In a way she felt slightly relieved as the constant sewing reminded her that she had a skill. She put the bank book in her handbag and folded her coat.

Their first stop was the State of Punjab bank, where she withdrew one lakh from her share of the winnings. It was 100,000 rupees, around £1,150. The bank clerk’s jaw dropped when she handed over the withdrawal slip. Over the last few weeks he had grown accustomed to her withdrawing ten or twenty thousand rupees each day. One lakh meant that something big was going to happen. The clerk carefully counted the bricks of money and then bundled them into a plastic bag. He told her to be careful as he handed it over and hoped that he would see her again.

The next stop was Prabjhot’s father, Dev Singh. He lived with his eldest son in a house on the edge of the city, having moved there after his wife had died. The death had caused a rift between father and daughter. Dev thought that Prabjhot had not stayed in India long enough following the funeral, and Prabjhot thought that her father was somehow responsible for her mother’s death, though she would never say or specify why. The rift became a divide that was crossed briefly and silently every once in a while. Now that Prabjhot had returned to India she felt it necessary to see him once a week. She wanted to show him love but was conscious that too much was often as dangerous as none at all.

Prabjhot knocked on the front gate. Her sister-in-law answered, instinctively knowing who it would be. Prabjhot offered the apples, the woman accepted them with a smile, led her to her father and then left them to make some tea. Dev had been sleeping. At first he sat on his bed, then moved to the smaller living room where he pretended to read the newspaper. He looked slightly older than his sixty-three years: slim with grey stubble and a hoarse voice from having smoked too many cigarettes. He looked up at Prabjhot from his newspaper and folded it carefully before telling her to sit down. They had little to say to beyond asking how other people were. Prabjhot held the carrier bag of money on her lap as if it were a child. She had decided that there was nothing better to heal a relationship than the telling of a secret.

She left the house as the sun was beginning to set. Her father walked her to the gate, holding her arm for stability and comfort. He looked at the plastic bag. Dev had worked for nearly fifty years. He believed that money had its limits, had boundaries like land and relationships. It was meant to be earned not won. When Prabjhot told him what she was doing, he smiled and cried thin tears. It was not foolish to give to the poor, he told her, more foolish to hold on to something that makes you unhappy. He was relieved that a trait of his was a trait of hers. Prabjhot left him and looked back as she crossed the road. She told Gurshant to take her to the river.

The sky blushed red by the time they reached the bridge, the haze of pollution thick across the horizon. Prabjhot pulled the legs of her salwar kameez up high as she walked down the steps to the riverbank. The smell was overpowering, though she resisted covering her nose with her chunni. Gurshant followed her closely, he had asked to carry the bag of money.

Around twenty people lived by the river in blue tents made of wood and plastic tarpaulins. They were not the poorest of the poor as they had homes and an identity. The women made small religions trinkets that they would sell at the roadside, the men were mostly labourers while the children either begged or did odd jobs. Prabjhot coughed as she called some of the mothers to her. They had lit special fires with black acrid smoke that kept the mosquitoes away. The women approached wearily, a few of them annoyed that a smartly dressed woman had deigned to enter their world, others plainly bemused and suspicious.

Prabjhot did not want to stand on ceremony or make her appearance officious in any way. She glanced briefly at each of the women and said that she wanted to help, then took the bag of money and handed a couple of bricks to each of them. The women were silent. They did not know on which edge of pride to fall. Prabjhot gave them no time to decide. When they looked up, she was already halfway up the stairs, her driver following closely. She did not look to the riverbank people when she passed over the bridge. She didn’t want to know what they would do, whether the money would bring them happiness however fleetingly or divide them for ever. All she wanted to know is that she had given them the opportunity to find out.

***

Babu and Mahendra sat drinking whisky in the basement bar of the Hotel Taramount. It was dark as there was no natural light and the doors to the hallway had been painted black. They were alone except for two waiters who were busy watching television. Babu had been careful not to drink as much as his brother. He was drunk but had found the words and the courage to speak clearly. He leaned across the table and held Mahendra by the shoulder.

‘Mujhe marf karo,’ he said in a whispery voice that was punctuated by a burp. Mahendra leaned back in surprise. His brother had never said sorry to him, let alone ask for forgiveness. He stared at Babu carefully then took a sip of whisky and looked into his glass. If there were words to be said, he didn’t know how to say them. Babu took the silence as an opportunity to pursue his real goal. He had gleaned that Mahendra had set trust funds for his sons and split the remainder equally with his wife, which they held in separate accounts. This gave Babu an easier target to attack. In between sips he questioned what Prabjhot was doing with her share, whether it made sense to give her so much and why had she been spending so much time with a driver on her husband’s expense. To each question Mahendra shrugged his shoulders and assured himself that he had made the right decision. After an hour of Babu’s insidious questioning he wasn’t so sure.

Mahendra called for some chilli chicken, which he nibbled and then gobbled, the insecurity and doubt appearing as sweat upon his face. Babu tried to hide his pleasure as he asked whether it was just for a wife to possess wealth. He stroked his beard philosophically and pronounced that the family unit was most important and that money should therefore be spread evenly across it. Mahendra sat stone-faced, unsure of what he was saying. Babu hit back with his coup de grace. In English he said:

‘A wife is for life. A brother is for always.’

Mahendra understood. The words in fact sobered him and cleared his confusion. He remembered when Prabjhot first told him of the lottery win, how she gave him the ticket. He had vague memories of her restlessness that night, the suspicion creeping that she might leave him. He found her asleep in the morning and knew exactly what he would do. Again, as he sat before his embittered and desperate brother, Mahendra knew what he would do. He gripped the table with both hands and pushed himself up. He staggered to the door and then up the stairs. Babu watched him disappear and thought he was close to the money. He had no idea that Mahendra would not be coming back.

It was dark when Mahendra reached his parents’ home. He banged on the side door, his mother opened it with a disapproving shake of her head. He asked where Prabjhot was, she pointed upstairs. Mahendra clambered to the first floor, his doubts pursuing him with every step. Prabjhot heard him coming. She was putting some clean clothes in her locker, her bank book hidden in her coat. Mahendra watched her, his doubts turned to anger. He brushed her aside and started to rummage through the locker. He found the steel tin. Its emptiness angered him further.

‘Bank book kiteh-ya?’ he asked as he loomed over her. Prabjhot sat on the bed. She tutted at his drunkenness, got up and took her coat off the hook. She opened it so he could see the lining and then ripped it with both hands. The bank book fell to the floor. Mahendra looked at it ruefully, knowing that he’d have to kneel to pick it up. He sat on the bed and started to calm down. Prabjhot sat next to him. Mahendra asked her how much she had spent. She straightened her salwar kameez and held him tenderly as she placed her lips close to his ear. The words were gentle blows to his heart. He didn’t remember much of what followed, the tears and the explanations. At some point he passed out.

Prabjhot woke in the morning to find that Mahendra had gone. Her first instinct was to look for the bank book. It was in her steel tin. She got changed and went downstairs. She checked Babu’s room. He was there fast asleep and sprawled across his bed. She unbolted the side door and walked down the street. It was early, the sky was a pale blue and the sound of prayers could be heard from a temple’s loudspeakers. Prabjhot walked slowly and slightly fearful. She knew where her husband would be.

The gates to the building site were wide open. She found Mahendra sitting on the ground, his feet dangling down into the empty foundation of his house. He stared into the deep hole as if it were an abyss, his face ashen and his clothes dishevelled. Prabjhot dusted the ground with her hand and sat next to him. They sat in silence, neither of them sure if they were supposed to be sad, angry or happy. After a few minutes Mahendra reached an arm across his wife’s shoulder. She nearly flinched as he pulled her closer and kissed her cheek. Even in the solitude of a building site in the cold blue morning Prabjhot blushed.

He kissed her once more and whispered that she would never be short of blessings. Prabjhot smiled, her eyes softened. She rested her head on Mahendra’s shoulder and looked across the plot. The ground had been broken, the earth beneath was black and brown. Prabjhot concentrated. She could see the house develop, watch it grow from seemingly nothing, like a sprig in the desert. It would rise taller than any house she had ever seen. And one day it would be her home, another day her children’s. Prabjhot finally felt secure in her husband’s arms. She snuggled her head closer to his chest and fell asleep to the sound of his heart beating. All the while Mahendra had been watching her as the minutes turned to an hour. He looked at the baked earth, empty and desolate beneath the sun, and then up at the sky. For the first time since he had arrived Mahendra saw a cloud.