Saikat Majumdar’s wonderfully incantatory story, “The Father of Man,” is about political expediency and the deviousness of the young. It casts an ironic eye on the current political climate, and imagines habits of sophistry that may breed within it. It does so, not from the outside, as material for news reportage or citizenly judgement, but, as befits fiction, from a compromised but also vulnerable insider view.
“The Father of Man” was summarily dropped by Mint Lounge, just as the paper was on the point of carrying it in a year-end fiction special issue. Mint’s editor, R Sukumar, did not respond to an email from Vantage inquiring into the reasons for the story’s dismissal. Majumdar was told earlier that the decision was taken at the advice of the Mint’s “legal team” and that the newspaper did not want to publish the story because of “the violence of the words.” The dropping of the short story is in many ways a sign of the times. In the public domain, the respect for others’ sensibilities seems to be overwhelmed by demands for silence, and the urge of writers, artists and others to sew up their own mouths. Often, no distinction is made, as Majumdar points out below, for the special qualities of fiction and its ambivalent effects.
We are glad to publish “The Father of Man” on Vantage and let readers decide for themselves.
Statement from Saikat Majumdar
I must come clean: as a fiction-writer, I just cannot muster enough enthusiasm about the moral. Or for that matter, the immoral. I try my best to be moral as a citizen, a teacher, a critic, a colleague and partner and friend and father, and I cannot help but wonder when I succeed and when I fail. But fiction, for me, unscrambles the tapestry of moral value; it offers rough weather even to the demands of a political conscience.
There is a frame around art. Literature is not life, not even when it looks and smells like it. The difference lies all in the frame that holds the wild things within.
The frame is also kind of a nice cage. Through which people like us—citizens, teachers, friends and colleagues and partners and fathers—view the animal of art, sometimes hissing and clawing at its bars. This time around, the ethical thing to do is to keep it caged. Let its intense odour—sometimes floral and sometimes canine —blind our senses, but we’re good citizens only if we try not to poke through the bars and touch the petals or the bristling fur.
Censors miss the point of the frame sometimes, and with good reasons. Because people do as well. Teenagers run away with lovers because that’s what they do in movies. Novels about adultery give people an itch. Nonetheless, missing the frame altogether means a failure to recognise art for what it is.
When it happens, we know we are in a brave new world where we write with fear lest our words spill blood in the act of birth.
Shatru Singh led me to his friendly adda that brought the streets into his house. The sunny room beckoned people. To drop in for a cup of chai, share a heartache, and wrap their soul around the throbbing colors of The Party. I was to lie around there for a while, blend in with the musty old calendars and groaning ceiling fans and the stray dog curled up asleep under the chairs. Lie around and soak in the sound bites flying in the air like specks of dust.
The three women came in before I had learned to make myself invisible. I must have stared, for no reason but for the way they came in, conscious of the act, unlike most citizens of the adda who slithered in and out as they blah-blahed, unaware that they were moving back and forth between a street and a house. They could have been troubled women from nice homes in the neighbourhood who had come to snitch about drunkenness or firecrackers too loud round the corner. Almost. But there was something. Something that said that their lives were tied too close, too tight. As in the rhythm of string puppets. Were they tall members of a co-op market that had run into a snag?
For they were tall, two of them, tall and regal, and a third who looked like their teenage daughter at the first glance. Renoo, who caught my eyes before the rest perhaps because she was closer to my height, with eyes that touched mine though I’d done my best to look away as soon as I’d seen her. But Renoo, as I would learn soon, could make whole speeches in a glance, and from the scrap thrown at me that afternoon, I knew that she was older than she had looked at first. Intelligence crept out of her face softly, hiding the moment it saw you looking, a knotted intelligence that belonged to no teenager. She had to be in her twenties.
Even so, you had to stir a bit to hear her speak before the others, to become the voice of that co-op group.
A strange co-op group it must have been, bruised by violence too beastly for language. Suddenly, both Renoo and Shatru were teenagers lost in a flow of jagged slang. But I hung on, not daring to blink, in the fear of losing their words, in the fear of turning into a real person whom people could see. “They enter our rooms as clients,” Renoo spoke in a voice laced with calm wrath. “And beat up our girls. Cigarettes, belts, the works.” They come in groups so large and so brutal that they blow away our wimpy muscle-boys like straws in a storm.
It was a co-op where you walked in to buy women. Sometimes small girls. By the hour, for the night. It was a co-op that needed be run smooth, that sent its key players out in the world to get business sorted with leaders of the people. Renoo grew deeper in years as she laid out the madness of it all. Making my way through the coded language, I saw a mind to which you could not say no.
The wives of their key clients were pulling a cheap trick this time to get their men off the hookers who tended to them every evening.
Mean bitches. They had rallied themselves into a cranky ring cast around the right party. The party that hated meat. The meat of women that men liked to eat behind illegal hotel rooms and the meat of cows that men liked to hide in their freezers. Eating cows and fucking whores. Fucking cows and eating whores. Meat set their blood boiling. They rammed down doors of hotels and refrigerators with sharp tridents to wrench out the flesh of people who liked to eat.
The bitches had egged those butchers to break up the honest circle of business where perky women picked up hardworking men at the end of a tiring day to give them the free run of a woman’s body. Mountains deserts oceans. Climb hike swim. What would those bitches offer in homes littered with kids? Hardly a tender word, and you could forget about a hike or a swim.
But why would the bitches bear the pain of their men’s pleasure? Rough with anger, Renoo’s face revealed a cruel woman of the world. Gooseflesh stood throbbing on my skin at the smell of her body – a live whore sitting and talking in the very same room, wicked brilliance reddening the tips of my ears. Her crisp features held a strange beauty, of a powerful woman cupped in the body of a shy teenager, delicate fingers that beckoned you with killer strength. Hidden under a silken sari, her body swelled with stories to tell and my heart jumped to my mouth in terror as I glimpsed the smooth, light-brown skin of a flat midriff between her blouse and sari, a stretch of skin over which she had neglected to draw her anchal.
The rival party had jumped at the chance. The cowboys were pushing the frontiers and staking their trident on wilder and wilder soil, crushing whorelickers and beefeaters. They had bullied hotels into asking couples to show legit fuck-licenses approved by temples and civil courts so that men couldn’t lock rented doors with their hired whores. Angry women of soot-stained homes made up a bank of votes that rarely reached the polling booths. When they did once in a while, they shadowed the voting habits of their men, which followed the Will of The Party like tailwagging dogs. Losers saala! Here was their chance to win over the women who wanted their men to come home with the money made in the day and not blow it by the bed of some woman who could curl her body like a snake. Sway the will of the homes too, bring Colgate happiness into wailing wicker homes. So why not beat up a few whores? Catch the men with their pants around their ankles, penises drooping faster than they stood up. Make it the house of shriek and shame it was meant to be.
A fly on the wall of that adda, I saw the birth of a beautiful thing that evening. A future. Between the two of them, Shatru and Renoo opened up a way of thinking that I didn’t know existed in this world. The bearded MLA and the small, doll-like hooker pushed the limits of what you thought was possible, beyond the mere fighting of goons by goons, of twisting parties with parties, muscle with muscle. Pretending to dust furniture and photo frames, I realised the crying need that had hid itself so well in the air blessed by stale cigarette smoke and Renoo’s sharp, maddening fragrance. The need of a strong collective will of hookers. A common shrieking voice. Not a shriek, a cold, steely voice of demand. A union of their own.
Renoo had brought her sisters-in-trade to the party that could do more than lend some muscle. This was the party that could help shape their anger into a firebomb, balled fists and a cold, calculating set of claims. The Party. The Party of honest hardworking people that did not care about what you had in your kitchen or bed. Ours is a free country where all kinds of meat, faith and genitalia can mix freely together. The cowlovers can go hang themselves from the teats of their goddesses.
“And why not?” Renoo creased her brows. “We run a good house. We give what we promise. We raise our children with care, better than some of those bitches wedlocked by their husbands…”
“But of course.” Listening to Shatru’s voice, you could believe that he was dealing with a stubborn knot of railway coolies or a wronged group of jute-labourers come to beg havoc. “Children…” He hummed, his voice trailing away in the silken forest of his beard.
“Why don’t you come and sit here?” Looking at me, he flouted his own rule with such careless abandon that my flesh grew red and warm and I hunted for a place to hide. I was not to talk, and they were to pretend I don’t exist. To soak in the weather, I had to be a fly on the wall. For days and days. How could the man betray me in the middle of a maddening mist of fragrance?
Pushing leaden legs, I edged ahead, stood near the coffee table around which the four of them sat. Perilously close now, Renoo looked up, gave me a smile of such molten warmth that the world turned, in a flash, to an airier, sunnier place. “Come and sit, little man,” she said, the dark blue anger from a moment ago gone like a nightmare that had never been.
“Some of you have children his age, right?” Shatru asked in a voice that wandered, a little aimless.
“My daughter would be a couple of years older than him,” one of the tall women said. “She goes to school too.”
“Yes, many of us do,” Renoo said softly. “I have a son a few years younger than him. It’s hard to believe that our kids live with us and watch us work.” Her face darkened. “Life! What are you going to do?”
“Here’s what you are going to do.” Shatru leaned ahead, the old glint of revenge peeping through the forest of his beard, through his half-visible mouth, the tiny, slit-like eyes. “Talk to the world. Tell them your stories. Claim your rights.” He grabbed my hand. “Have him around. He is a boy with special gifts.”
He looked at me with a helpless smile. A smile that was shielded from the three women, not in body, but in soul.
He dared me to do it.
A few weeks later, the beast was born.
Justice for Sex workers. Said one orange banner, the same colour and texture as that announcing local volleyball tournaments. The National Sex Workers’ Union. Said the cool white banner pinned across the wall behind the raised platform. Which made no sense. What was national, the union or the sex workers? And what was national about hookers and pimps from the sleepy houses across the railways station getting their anger knotted together? People!
There was music, and songs, and poems. Paul Robeson and all that. The gambit was opened by a fattish woman with weird hair in jeans and khadi kurta. She was studying for a doctorate in London and was a professional hellraiser for the cause of prostitutes. It was a cause, she told us, that had a life of its own, in many corners of the world, where hookers worked with licenses just like doctors and chartered accountants. She spoke in a singsong and from time to time looked like she needed a chalk and a blackboard. But the pale banner of the National Sex Workers’ Union was all she had behind her. They were not just some pillow, she said, men clamped their legs around to masturbate and could throw away when soiled. Her acute analysis of masturbation – repeated several times in her speech – thickened the knot of people before the stage and sent strong murmurs through them. These were, she sang, human beings, women just like those who helped them at banks and stores, those who cooked their meals and washed their dishes. Agile women who cleaned their pipes to flush out needs that might have turned them into rapists and murderers. By drawing out the violence, taking it on themselves, these women were like sharp, skilled snake-charmers. Help them stand up for their rights. She flung a khadi-wrapped arm in the air, palm wrapped into a ball.
Oh, and pillows did not spread diseases. Human beings did. Without a sane system and a sprinkling of peace, they would all be wiped off by STD. Not standard trunk dialing. Sexually transmitted diseases.
Shooting little arrows of terror into the loins of every man, she stepped down.
Next was the hookers’ chorus, a song by a famous dead poet about mountain-climbing. Hiking across endless deserts and swimming through bottomless oceans. All to be done in the dead beat of night.
And then Renoo walked up to the stage. She spoke the same way she had spoken in Shatru’s adda. Pumping up the volume a little bit perhaps. But I could tell. It was the same clear, simple, cutting spray of words, the straight attack at the jugular, the same intimate manner addressed to what was now a sizeable crowd. And what a crowd! College boys tickled by the colour of the gathering, housewives back from grocery-shopping shocked and frozen on spot, railway coolies unable to un-glue their eyes off the protestors. Not that Renoo cared. She had a story to tell, a story of horrors, and you couldn’t run away from it. Madamji was right, she said. Could you get away by bashing up the shopgirl who showed you clothes? Would you have the balls to stub out your cigarettes on your housemaid’s cheeks? On her bare breasts? Would you? She paused, looking urgent and composed at the same time. Was it that hard to pull off, for someone who could look sharply pretty and dead gloomy at the same time? Would you? Then tell me, why would you do it to the girl who was just there to do business with your body?
As I walked up to the stage, I repeated my mantra of disbelief. That I did not believe a word of what Renoo said. That I didn’t have a thing to do with them, with their sorry lives on which goons stubbed out cheap cigarettes. Even a fragment of belief would kill me, for how could I hold up against the limpid clarity of Renoo’s emotions?
Shivering up the steps, I passed her, on her way back. Her mouth melted into the smile that gave me deep comfort. “My little man.” Lightly, she pulled my cheeks as she passed. “Go tell them.”
I had to play it like a game. A game at which one was very, very good. Honesty would get me nowhere.
Play the people like a stringed instrument. Shatru had told me. And show the whores what we can do. Oooh-la-la. Ooooooh-la-laaaaa!
Lovingly, I touched the microphone, moistened it with my slow breath. I’m a student, I told them, at Corporation School Number 16, over by the bus terminus. At least I knew where it was, the rundown jailhouse for the bustee kids. Neither did anyone laugh at my calling it a school, not even the housewives from the cooperative flats frozen in their tracks at the sight of the singing hookers. Most of us, I told them, bring nice lunches from home. Sabji & paratha. Bread and omlettes. Rice and egg-curry. Noodles. In tiffin-boxes that shine like mirrors. Superman stickers across their tops. With hand-kerchiefs folded into triangles on which you wipe your hands after washing. Colourful water-bottles with water and sometimes with warm Bournvita, chocolate-flavoured. I checked myself sharply. Bournvita, superman-stickers, triangulated kerchiefs –what next, lawns the texture of moleskin? When was someone going to throw a cloud of spit at me across the podium? Careful now, I continued: Lunch hour brings new shocks and surprises, every day. There were vacant-eyed, spittle-mouthed idiots who commanded respect due to the shininess of their tiffin-boxes, the deep-fried fragrance of their food.
The shine on the boxes and the fragrance of the food, we knew, in the hidden shadows of our hearts, were shaped by the ladles and scrubs of our mothers at home.
There were a few ragged kids who brought neither shiny tiffin-boxes nor fragrant food. On a good day, they got street-food wrapped in greasy paper, grease darkening the covers of their notebooks. Savoury stuff sharpened by street-salt. On worse days, a few rupee notes to thrust at the street vendors outside the school for some spiced junk in a knitted bowl of dried leaves. Good money, some of them brought, rich enough to buy pista ice-cream for a whole row of boys. But never ever did you see them with a tiffin-box or a home-boiled egg. Sprouting guilt in my voice, I lowered my eyes, looking at the crowd in front, and not quite. We got them to treat us as often as we made fun of them, the tiffin-less brats who didn’t even bring a messy blob of home-made yogurt. It was a drag sitting next to them as their mothers didn’t care to pack well-oiled shocks and surprises in their bags.
Deepening the shame in my voice, I told the stunned crowd that strange was the day when our teacher, a smart young woman who loved us all, told us that the mothers who never packed tiffin didn’t hate their boys, and nor did the boys deserve to be hated. Did she really think we were idiots? No, she didn’t, and these boys with street-food wrapped in grease-stained paper just happened to have mothers who had jobs outside home. Just like fathers. In offices, typing letters. In shops, crunching numbers. Sometimes, in other people’s homes, watching over growing kids. Bringing money home for food and rent.
Finally grabbing the neck of the mike, I told the crowd that the stuff didn’t really make sense to us. We cut down on the mean jokes cracked along the spines of the ragged boys who didn’t have mom-made lunches to show, but the idea of moms who didn’t have time to think about it was a wispy snatch of fog that just messed with our heads.
I realised that I wasn’t talking to a crowd, but to each individual in it. Each of them were alone in a room with me, each and every one of them. I was bearing them down with the force of my delicately faked impulse. Just you and me. The unshaven pimp standing in front like a demented man. The cobbler who had dropped his work and was staring so hard at me that I could not look back. The scandalised housewives who wanted to drag me down from the sick stage but couldn’t help drink every word I said. Fiercely, I told them of the day when we cracked a nasty joke across the back of another boy, an idiot from another class whom we saw lunching on sliced bread bought at the store next to the school. Something nasty and stupid, something about bread from that shop being laced with rat poison. The boy who’d said it swore that his mother had said so, that not even a rat would let her baby feed on that bread. As we broke into stomach-splitting laughter, our teacher appeared from nowhere and smiled a little at us. We hoped that she found the joke funny too.
Smiling, she told us that the idiot boy’s mother loved him no less than the other mother loved hers. The other mother who had given her son a warm tiffin-box full of home-made sweets and the myth of the rat-poison. But then, you see, idiot-boy’s mother couldn’t stay at home making lunch for her son as she was here teaching you all.
We wanted to melt into the deepest cracks on earth. That the boy we had whipped with our malicious laughter was the son of our very own teacher. The smart young woman who loved us all and had taught our fingers and eyes and minds a thousand things to do. A thousand and a million. Running around us like a slaving mother to seventy kids when she could be home frying tasty parathas for one.
Passionately, I looked at the cobbler who was looking at me more intently than he had looked at any customer’s feet. Through the microphone, my child voice had attacked him, strangely tinny and shameful. Searing through his body. Freezing everybody with a glance meant for them, and them only, I said that once and for all, in Corporation School Number 16, once and for all, a roomful of boys understood the meaning of a woman who had a working life outside of her home and family. Who couldn’t send her son to school with a well-scrubbed tiffin box and well-fried pooris.
And then, I told the cobbler, while looking at the scandalised housewife – no one but her – we got a blow we didn’t deserve.
It happened after less than six months of sobriety and tolerance. A boy in our class came back to school after missing classes for more than a month. A happy boy we all loved, most of all, our teacher, because he was agile with his fingers and eyes and mind, picking up with thoughtless ease all she had to teach us. He came back to school a broken boy with the strange, confusing news that his mother had been beaten so badly at work that he had to stay back home to take care of her.
A cup of boiling-hot tea had been thrown at her face, leaving her skin scarred for life.
Her head had been smashed so hard against the wall that her hair had become sticky with blood.
And, I told the crowd, my fingers loosening around the mike, we didn’t even know the boy’s mother worked to make a living.
As she lay unconscious, they had poked glowing cigarettes at her, burning holes through her skin.
How would we know? I asked a college boy who had stopped at the rally for fun. We fought with one another to trade food with him at lunch hour. It was hard to believe that home-fried eggplants could taste that good. Or that it was possible to make parathas so magical that they tasted fresh-cooked after three hours inside a tiffin box. Oh, and what a beautiful tiffin-box it was. Old, but old like a house in which families had lived and loved for many, many years. How did a mother like that find time to work at a job and pay for her son’s books and school-fees?
Who would want to kill her?
Who would? Slowly, I moved a little away from the mike, a stricken soul about to take his leave. Go away unnoticed. You can ask her, I said softly. Silence had thickened in a dark clump around the rally, faintly bitten off by the whistle of trains taking off from the railway station nearby. She is sitting right there. I turned at an angle from my silent brood of listeners, pointing to the dark tribe of hookers seated to the left of the stage. The beaten up whore was there too, dressed in the finery of bandages and a plaster-coated arm.
She had no child that I knew of. Sweetly barren, the best kind in her line of work.
Teasing them, threatening to walk away from the microphone, my thirteen year old body had woven a spell out of which it could not claw its way out.
The hookers’ choir had been spared the effort of the last protest song. God was generous with small mercies.
That evening saw the birth of a new labour union. The first of its kind in the area. A newborn, solid block of votes for The Party. The cowlovers would never own this place.
The birth-pangs were loud, lovely and cruel. The flurry of songs and sweets and laughter marked a drunken trail all the way back to the burrowed houses across the railways station, where Bollywood songs were already ricocheting off the walls. Mountains, deserts, and oceans had been climbed, hiked and swum across. Finally.
Renoo picked me up at one end of the narrow corridor ripped apart by the blaring music. Her strength surprised me, and the muscles on her arms like wiry snakes. “My little man.” Breathlessly, she had stuffed a furry sweet into my mouth. “You are blessed, my sweet, sweet boy.” Her voice was hoarse, as if from a cold, and it took me a few seconds to realise that she’d been crying. “Today, I’ll feed you to your heart’s content.” Pushing open the door to her room, she had drowned me in a sea of goodies made by the ladies of the house and in the fragrance of her strong, sinewy arms. Laddoos, gulab jamuns, a platter of sweets made with cashews and pistachios, the warm breath of her moist lips. The slipperiness of her silken sari.
Small, sharp and curvaceous, she surprised me with her beauty that refused to show cracks even at that distance. Of a few inches. Somehow, I’d expected her looks to thin and wither, age a little, when brought up that close. No such luck. Close, very close, her delicate features seemed etched by an artist of greater talent than I had thought at a distance, in the adda, on the stage.
I missed her heartbeat of happiness as she crushed me to her chest. Choking on cream-soaked cashews, my lips mashed themselves against her high, angular collarbone. Like a baby-bird thirsting for water, my tongue slipped out and licked the hollow of her neck, morphed into a panting dog as it sucked its way down to the soft crevice on her chest. “My little man.” She laughed, pulling herself back to unbutton her blouse, mocking the violence with which I fell on her bared shoulders and upper arms, smoother than I’d imagined human skin could be, the violence against which she struggled to wriggle her arms around to unclasp her bra. A blessed devotee, I scooped her firm and fragrant left breast into my palms, licked and bit its puckered areola.
Painfully, I tore myself from her body to admire it, the large, proud breasts over the arched stomach, the deep belly-button, the sari worn low on the waist. She shone with deep laughter and her brown nipples glistened with my bubbly saliva. I know not how long I had sucked them.
My heart throbbed in my mouth. My lips and tongue were caught in a storm that scratched and bruised and chewed her skin. The hollow of her shoulder, the underside of her breasts, smoothly rough. Her toylike ribcage and the cave of her stomach. I wanted to be kind and loving but ate her like a beast.
Pushed against the wall, her body shook with laughter. Laughter billowed through her body, an undulating river. She squeezed my bursting penis in her palm roughly, wrenching the tip between her thumb and forefinger. “My big little man.” She had whispered. Fingers laced with killer strength. Suddenly, she laughed no more.
Helplessly, I’d bucked and come in a hot spurt against the taut flesh of her inner thigh. Spent all of a sudden, I’d marveled at my love for her, a love more like a devotion. A giant, sucking need to be nourished and blessed.
Saikat Majumdar is the author, most recently, of the novel, The Firebird (2015). He has also published a book of criticism, Prose of the World (2013), and an earlier novel, Silverfish (2007). He teaches world literature at Stanford University and is a visiting professor at Ashoka University.