Anie Onaiza

A Letter For Kashi

The first time Kashi ran away, we thanked the saints and said, good riddance. Quietly of course. Then, like good neighbors, we went to the Burneys to commiserate. The women sat down with Mrs. Burney on her bed, below the long-stemmed ceiling fan, and were shaking their heads and touching their ear lobes. Allah, Allah, what times have come upon us, they said. You take them in, treat them like your own, and they just run away, without a word. What godlessness. Mrs. Burney stared at her wrinkled, unvarnished toes, curling and uncurling them, careful not to nod.

The men sat with Mr. Burney in the courtyard, on the charpai along the path of the rotating pedestal fan, and asked if he had called the police yet. Was anything of value missing, they asked, jewelry, watches, cash? Mr. Burney said he hadn’t checked yet, lost old man, and the men said would he please at least check the safety vault in his bedroom at his earliest possible? Everyone in our town had a safety vault, all metal and heavy as forty men, with a combination lock and all.

“Don’t worry Mr. Burney,” one man said before leaving. “You will find another boy in no time.”

“The boy at our place has a younger brother,” another offered. “I’ll ask their father to bring him over.”

The Burneys stood politely at the door and thanked us when we left. Outside, we heard the door latch, and an excited Mr. Burney telling his wife he remembered keeping the paper with the contact details in the safety vault.

“The vault, of course,” said Mrs. Burney. “Why didn’t we think of that before?”

We lingered at their door, admiring the pink bougainvillea creeping up their wall. We heard an exclamation, “Here it is, here is the number.” Then footsteps heading to the drawing room at the right of the front entrance. And finally, what sounded like a rusty old bicycle wheel interrupted in its spin, seven times. Mr. Burney was dialing a number on his old rotary phone.

“Hello,” we heard him say. “This is Imdad Burney from Karachi. Can you send someone to Hameed Bhangee’s house and tell him his son Kashi ran away from our house this morning.” He paused then added, “No, no, Kashi is the eight-year-old. His father left him with us two weeks ago.”

The next morning, just after our children had left for school, Hameed Bhangee came dragging that little devil by his ear through our swept and sprinkled street and knocked at the Burney’s door. Mrs. Burney opened the door with tired eyes, looked at Kashi and called out to her husband.

“Are you listening?” She said, two octaves higher than usual. “Kashi is here.”

Mr. Burney came quickly, his hair wet, a faded towel on his shoulder.

“I have brought him back, sir,” Hameed Bhangee told Mr. Burney. “He is your servant, do to him as you please. He should learn a lesson, upsetting gentle folks like you by running away.”

“Let go of his ear,” Mrs. Burney told him sharply. Hameed Bhangee jerked back. Kashi claimed his ears, and stepped away from his father.

“Come, child, get some breakfast. We were so worried.” Mrs. Burney ushered the boy in, while Mr. Burney paid Hameed Bhangee for his bus ride and sent him off.

We would have told the Burneys to send the boy back with his father. We would have found them someone suitable. But they were an odd couple, the Burneys, and we knew they wouldn’t listen to us.

***

The Burneys moved to our street two years ago with cartons full of books and furniture that we suspected was from Mrs. Burney’s dowry. They were older, perhaps in their sixties, and the wife was taller than the husband. Young men and women helped them set up their rooms and unpack their books the first couple of days. The third day, we went to welcome them to the neighborhood, and yes, to see the inside of their house. It was sparse and clean. They had turned the drawing room into a library, with shelves full of books, and a red Persian rug on the floor. Next to a faded green chaise stood an old table with a large rotary phone.

“How quickly you have settled,” we said to Mr. Burney. “And what a lovely Persian rug.”

“Oh, that’s not a Persian.”

“Ah, what beautiful crystal pieces.” We pointed to two candle stands on the dining table.

“Those aren’t really crystal.”

In time we would learn that much wasn’t as it seemed with the Burneys. But at that particular moment, we felt shushed. We didn’t want our new neighbors to think we didn’t know our Persians and crystals.

“We couldn’t have settled in so quickly if it weren’t for our students,” Mrs. Burney said, while pouring from a teapot that looked like fine china. “They heard we were moving, and offered to help.”

“Ex-students, really,” Mr. Burney added. “We retired years ago, but our students keep in touch. I taught economics and Mrs. Burney taught English literature.”

We asked them which school, and when they told us we were impressed. Everyone knew the chief minister’s son went there.

“How practical of you to turn the drawing room into a library,” we said, carefully. “You must read fast; there must be a thousand books in this room.”

“I am more of a collector,” said Mr. Burney, pointing to his wife. “She is the reader, really. Must have read them all twice.”

We laughed, but he hadn’t been joking.

They had no children, poor Burneys, so naturally our hearts went out to them. We helped them settle in, sent them our milkmen and our newspapermen, told them what time the fruit and vegetable sellers came to our street, and how they haggled, and got Mr. Bhatti’s son – the boy is tall as a tree – to fix the TV antenna on their roof. We even sent our children, the adorable ones, to Mrs. Burney with questions on English grammar so she would feel more important, and less childless. They would later tell us that Mr. and Mrs. Burney often spoke to each other only in English, as if not wanting them in on the conversation. We figured they were unhappy. What childless couple wouldn’t be. So we invited them to our children’s birthday parties and aqeeqas, and Quran reading ceremonies. They always arrived early and left before food and gossip.

The Burneys received many guests, most of them their ex-students. They came at random, in late afternoon, or early evening, some with their families, and we would hear them talking and laughing with the Burneys till late. The guests made their own tea and washed their own dishes. Some we knew. There was a Marxist columnist whose last book had been banned in the country. Another, a television producer with soaps known for their razzmatazz. A politician whom we knew from the 9 p.m.  news. And several white Pajeros with green number plates. Most acted as if the Burneys’ was the only house on the street and ignored the rest of us. After a while, it got annoying.

The Burneys also got mail every day. Nizam Dakia, our postman, who visited our street once or twice a week before the Burneys, now arrived every day, his khaki satchel bulging with letters and journals for the retired teachers. They greeted him by name and even invited him in for tea or sherbet.

We have always had servants to do our dishes and sweep our floors and fetch our groceries. And young boys and girls, between eight to twelve years old. That’s the right age really for boys; any younger and they cry for their mothers, any older and they squabble and steal. With girls, older years work too, but you have to not let them go to their villages except once in a year, for they come back with nits and illness. Lice from their head hop to other servant’s heads, to your children’s and before you know it, the whole street is infested. It is loathsome.

The Burneys had no servants, except for an old gardener who came once a week to trim their bushes. Every morning at ten, Mr. Burney left home with a bright green plastic basket, on foot. He arrived back an hour later with vegetables and meat, while Mrs. Burney swept the outside of their main gate all by herself with a broom half her height, looking like a horse shoe. It made us uncomfortable, watching them do what our help did. We told them about the boys and girls who worked for us and how little they cost and wouldn’t they want to get someone too. They told us they didn’t.

Which would have been fine, except for how the Burneys behaved towards our servants. When we complained of servant girls stealing food from our refrigerators, or of servant boys talking back to our sons, Mrs. Burney never nodded or sympathized. When our servants served Mr. Burney tea or Coke, he asked them their names, and their ages, and if they could read or write. Directly too, instead of asking through us. As if he had spent his whole life in a capsule playing cello.

We knew the Burneys judged us. And so, when we heard that they had hired eight-year-old Kashi as house-help, we felt undeniably validated.

***

Hameed Bhangee worked as a janitor at the private school where the Burneys taught before he was fired for sniffing glue. He now worked at a hospital, forty miles south of our town, smoking God knows what, because the first time he came to our street, he smelled like a cardamom plant. He asked one of our boys where the master and his wife lived and walked up to the Burney’s dark green gate. Mr. Burney was not pleased to see him.

“Hameed, what are you doing here?”

“Salam Master sahib, may I please use your latrine.”

Mr. Burney blinked as Hameed shifted his weight from one foot to the other, that shameless schemer, then let him in.

When Hameed Bhangee was leaving, Mrs. Burney called out to him from the front door and said she would report him to the police if he dishonored their deal. Hameed Bhangee said yes madam and thank you master sahib as the Burneys closed their door, and then he walked back, hunched like a beggar, meek like a worm, saying Inshallah this and Mashallah that, when he thought we were listening. As he turned from our street, his back snapped straight and his walk turned breezy, and yes, we heard him whistle.

***

Kashif Bhangee, son of Hameed Bhangee, was the fourteenth of fifteen children. The day he came to work for the Burneys, he wore a cream shalwar kameez that may once have been white and had seemingly been ironed. His hair was oiled and combed, his sandals were worn but washed, and his left cheek was smeared with a spilling smudge of kohl. Around his neck he had a thick black thread carrying a cloth amulet, the kind you get at shrines for four cents a piece, dark with sweat. He carried a plastic bag in his right hand with his clothes, and his fingers dug into it as Hameed Bhangee knocked on the Burneys’ door, his other hand on Kashif’s shoulder.

“Salam master sahib, this is my boy Kashi.”

Kashi stared at the door, that defiant little mouse. Only when his father squeezed his shoulder did he say Salam.

“He doesn’t look twelve.” Mr. Burney looked at the boy.

“He is an age-thief, sir,” Hameed added quickly. “But he is very strong and sturdy.”

“What is your age, son?” Mr. Burney asked Kashi.

“Eight years,” he said gruffly, ignoring his father’s glare. Mr. Burney looked at his wife. Hameed lowered his head to his shoulder, as if expecting a smack.

“What is that on your cheek, child?” Mrs. Burney asked Kashi, still blocking the door.

“It is his mother, madam, that stupid, superstitious, woman,” said Hameed. “An ignorant wife is like an ugly face, madam, there is no cure.”

He lifted the long front of his shirt, wet it with his tongue, and rubbed it on Kashi’s face.

“That foolish woman makes kohl spots on his cheek to ward off evil. Now someone tell me, what evil can come to a house of angels like yourselves? Here, it is all gone now.”

Kashi winced under the rough rub of coarse cotton, and the Burneys at the stench of Hameed’s saliva.

“Did she not want to send the child to work here?” Mrs. Burney asked him, with the naïveté of an English teacher.

“No, madam, she was very happy. She got him ready herself.” Hameed spoke quickly, then added, “She doesn’t sleep without him, master sahib. But I told her, woman, Kashi needs to be a man now. And he is so lucky to work for master sahib and his good wife.”

Kashi stared at the Neem tree in the courtyard.

“Here’s your advance.” Mr. Burney pulled out an envelope. Hameed reached for it with both hands, then relaxed his grip as he realized the old teacher was keeping hold.

“You lied about his age,” Mr. Burney continued. “If you lie to us again, or if we hear that you have broken our deal, we will call the police on you. You know, the Superintendent of Police is my old student.” He let go of the envelope.

“No, sir, you are so kind, sir.” Hameed stuffed the envelope into his chest pocket. “Why would I upset you? What father wants to send his younger children to work. But what to do. The belly has no heart.”

“What to do?” Mrs. Burney growled. “Have less children!”

“Madam, what less children,” Hameed Bhangee pleaded. “By the time I am an old man, two to four will die, two to four will run away, I will only have a couple left by my side.”

The Burneys watched with disdain as he left. Then Mrs. Burney told Kashi to call them Uncle and Auntie and to think of their house as his new home. Kashi just stood at the door and  watched his father leave. There was no grief in his eyes, only contempt.

***

We saw very little of Kashi during his first week at the Burneys. The Burneys stuck to their routine. Mr. Burney went to the market every day, as he did before, while Mrs. Burney swept the outside of their house, as she did before. They opened the door for the milkman, and hanged their laundry, and argued over this book and that, and occasionally, we would hear them call out to Kashi, asking him to wash his hands, or bring this here, or take that there, or if he was hungry.

The second week, Mr. Burney started taking him to the market in the morning, talking to him along the way, introducing him to us as if he were a nephew or a guest, calling him ‘child’. The Burneys bought him trousers and t-shirts, and shampoo and talcum powder, though it appeared he didn’t know at first which was which. He looked like a crow dressed as a peacock. But he pretended to not care. When Mr. Burney stopped to talk to us and asked after our families, Kashi never said Salam, staring at doors and trees and drainpipes. When we said, boy, is that a tongue in your mouth, he just looked at us, his face flat but never blank.

Quiet and brooding, Kashi started sweeping the outside of the Burney’s house. Other servant boys tried to talk to him. They are good that way, the boys on our street. But the little schmuck rebuffed them. Once a candy wrapper blew over from Mr. Ramzan’s trash to the Burneys, and Kashi yelled at the much older boy who worked at the Ramzans. “Oye,” he said, “clean your trash.”

He missed his mother. They all do. She must have coddled him, foolish woman. When our children left for school in the morning, and their mothers hugged them, or brought them lunch boxes, or wept with the weepy ones, Kashi stared from behind the Burneys’ door, motionless. We complained to the Burneys, and they said he meant no harm.

At the end of that week, Kashi ran away. He stole twenty rupees from the jar in the Burney’s kitchen, sneaked out when no one was looking, bought a bus ticket, and went to see his mother. She fed him choori, oiled his hair, hid him under the bed when Hameed Bhangee got home, and feigned surprise when a boy arrived in the afternoon from the shop with a phone, carrying the message from Mr. Burney that Kashi had run away. Hameed must have smelled the coconut oil from his hair, because sure enough, he found little Kashi, beat him up good, not on the face though, and dragged him back to the Burneys. And what did the Burneys do? They told the boy he could call his mother every day!

They messed with his brains, those Burneys. They messed him up completely.

***

It took a couple of months for Kashi to settle down at the Burneys. They let him talk to his mother every day, and made a show of it by keeping ajar their drawing room window that opened to our street. At noon, they would dial a number and at a small shop forty miles away, someone would answer the only phone in the village and graciously pass the receiver to Kashi’s mother who would be waiting by the door. After each call, Kashi’s gloom and the Burneys’ guilt faded a little, until it disappeared.

This one time, the Burneys asked Kashi if he wanted to buy anything for himself from his salary. Kashi asked his mother if she needed anything. A tube of ‘fair and lovely’ cream, she said. She must have seen an advertisement on the TV at the shop with the phone.

“What kind of mother lets her eight-year-old work in other people’s houses and then asks him to buy her a beauty cream!” Mrs. Burney said to her husband when the boy was out of earshot.

But when Hameed Bhangee came to collect Kashi’s salary, he got it in full, along with a large tube of fair and lovely cream and a box of sweets for his wife. Kashi looked proud. He then told the Burneys he didn’t need to call his mother every day.

***

Kashi was always curious about our sons. He took everything in, what they wore and ate and played and said, all the time. At morning, he would peek out of a window and watch them go to school. The Burneys thought it was because he wanted to go to school.

“Kashi, did you go to the school in your village?” Mrs. Burney asked him one day.

“Sometimes, jee.” Kashi used a deferential ‘jee’ at the time when addressing the Burneys, instead of calling them Uncle or Auntie as they had offered.

“Did you like it there?” We laughed at the question. Had the good old Mrs. Burney ever been to a public school in the city, let alone a village?

Kashi said nothing.

“How was your teacher?” Mrs. Burney pressed on.

Silence.

“Can you read or write?”

Kashi shook his head.

“Not even in Urdu?”

“No, jee. But I know the letters.”

Mrs. Burney told Kashi she could teach him to read and write in no time. First in Urdu, and then maybe even in English. And who knew, she said, Kashi could even become a doctor or an engineer one day.

“Like the other children, jee?”

“Why not,” said Mrs. Burney. “What’s so special about them?”

We wanted to tell the old woman that our children were special. And that no bhangee ever became a school-master, and no school-master a minister. We didn’t realize at the time how soon Kashi would learn this lesson, or that it would be the Burneys who would teach it to him.

***

Kashi started calling the Burneys Uncle and Auntie. Their students knew him by name, and we often saw him through the half-open windows, fetch them biscuits and coke, crumbs on his mouth, when they visited. They asked him questions, what life was like before the Burneys, what words he could read, and was that an English word he just used? The Burneys beamed and gleamed, as Kashi responded, as if auditioning to be like our children.

Most afternoons, our sons played cricket on the street. Kashi stood outside the Burneys’ door, leaned against the wall, and watched them bowl and bat and field. While our servants did their chores.

“Do you know how to play cricket?” Mr. Bhatti’s son, the fattest, asked him one day.

“Yes,” said Kashi.

“You can field in my place when it is my turn.”

“And can I bat too?”

Of course, our sons laughed at that greedy little bastard. They may have said a thing or two, as children sometimes do, something about his mother he would later allege, nothing too offensive, we’re sure. But Kashi lost his mind. His face turned red, his eyes bulged to the size of a cricket ball, and the next thing we heard, he picked a stone and threw it at the Bhatti boy. It missed him, despite his size, and landed on Mr. Alvie’s older son. He cried out loud and held his head. A trickle of blood ran down his cupped hand. Our sons froze.

Whoever heard of that! A servant boy, throwing a stone at our sons, drawing blood! Our boys did what any boys would have done. They beat that little bastard until he bled from his nose and his mouth, and until he remembered where he came from. The Burneys came running out of their house to rescue their little project. We rushed to the scene too, Mrs. Alvie crying, beating her chest, Mr. Alvie promising to break Kashi’s neck. The Burneys ignored us, completely, picking up Kashi and taking him inside, not even looking at the Alvie boy. Twenty minutes later, a white Pajero stopped at their door and the Burneys rushed outside, Kashi in Mr. Burney’s arms, and went to the hospital.

We took our boy to the hospital too. At first the doctor said he needed a stitch, then he said he didn’t, thankfully, but he was traumatized, poor child. When we got back, everyone gathered at Mr. Alvie’s house. This is an outrage, Mr. Alvie shouted. Mrs. Alvie was given to bouts of hysteria. She had fainted, for a few seconds, when she heard it was a servant boy who had hit her son. They had a servant boy at home too, a scrawny seven-year-old whom they often punished for this and that by locking him up in their store-room at night, and the idea that one such boy inflicted pain on their son drove them mad. We didn’t like the Alvies, but we agreed that the Burneys were disrupting the peace and quiet of our street. Kashi had to go.

The Burneys didn’t get back till much later. Most of us were in bed when they returned with a slinged and bandaged Kashi, a police car following the white Pajero. A respectful-looking officer opened the door for Mrs. Burney as the suited man from the Pajero carried Kashi inside their house.

“You didn’t have to come, really,” Mr. Burney told the officer. “Kashi will be fine.”

“Sir, if there is any trouble, please call me,” the police officer was apparently an ex-student. “Any trouble at all.”

They stared into our windows when they left, the police officer and the man in the Pajero. We knew we were in the right. But we didn’t want policemen on our street.

Mr. Alvie saw the police car too. He didn’t knock at the Burneys’ door or break Kashi’s neck, as he said he would, but he mocked us for our gutlessness and dared us to be men. We didn’t think it was a good time to be dramatic. Kashi was blue and black everywhere, while the Alvie boy looked like he had just slept too long in the wrong position. Nizam Dakia told us Kashi got twenty stitches, and we realized how things might look to outsiders. And to the Burneys. Matters had escalated, and our boy’s infraction could seem bigger than it was.

The Burneys were resourceful. And we didn’t exactly like the Alvies.

***

For weeks, Kashi’s injuries hung over our street like a mushroom cloud. The Burneys stopped speaking to us. They stayed indoors, and when they came out, they looked straight and walked fast. Kashi stayed in too, except when he swept the outside of the house. Mrs. Burney went to the market one day and came back with bags full of books for him, English books with pictures, and we heard her teach him to read.

“That boy has really taken to the books,” Nizam Dakia said to us one day. “He doesn’t even watch the television anymore.”

Of course, he had taken to learning English. One had to be a servant boy to want to speak in English with that kind of stupor.

The Burneys’ students continued to visit them, in big fancy cars, some with green license plates. When they left, they too looked at our windows with judgement. Who knows what that boy told them.

We are not brahmins or feudals. We don’t own acres of land with serfs and slaves, held against their will. We have small houses with thin walls that we receive from our fathers and pass on to our sons. We belong to the service class, make an honest living, and try to do right by our community. Mr Ramzan, to the right of the Burneys, is a clerk at Karachi Electric. He goes to work every day, through rains and riots, pounding through paperwork, sitting all day on a three-legged chair balanced with a pile of phone directories, answering to bosses who treat him like mold. Mr. Bhatti, four doors from the Burneys is a doctor, and was once abducted by the Afghans to treat their wounded, and robbed of his wallet and watch, and you know what he did the next day? He went back to work. Even Mr Alvie wipes his boss’s behind with the front of his shirt. There are doctors, and engineers, and clerks on this street, simple people with white-collar jobs. We provide for our servants, giving them food and shelter when their parents wouldn’t. We don’t hit them on the face, or lock them up in store-rooms, Mr Alvie excepted. We know our servants. We know how their minds work, what they can handle, what makes them explode. Our reservations about the way the Burneys were treating Kashi were for his own good.

So we swallowed our pride and reached out to the Burneys. We did so with dignity, asking them for their opinion on matters only the elderly would know, taking to them books we found at random, sending them homemade puddings and sweet-rice. They relented. Things got back to normal for everyone but Kashi. He didn’t fit anywhere any more. Not with our boys, and not with the servants. And he knew it.

***

Kashi learned fast. We saw him mouthing words scribbled on walls. We heard him read the newspaper to the Burneys, slowly at first, then fluently. He began to sort Mr. Burney’s mail from his wife’s. And when he went to fetch groceries, he asked for the bill, and pretended to read through it word by word, annoying those waiting in line. He was no Plato, that boy. He struggled with phrases, and watching him read big words was a painful experience, but the Burneys and their students beamed at his progress. They treated the boy like a precious little project.

We now saw the Burneys for what they were: blinkered Marxists who had spent their lives nurturing elites at a snooty private school. Now they wanted to redeem themselves by teaching one servant boy to read and write. Kashi was a picture frame for their hypocrisy. They looked down at us from their home, not realizing that what they thought a window was actually a mirror.

“When you are older and you work in the city, you can write me letters,” Mrs. Burney would tell him. “And I will write you back.”

Kashi bulged with pride. We felt sorry for him. It wasn’t books he was interested in – he just wanted to be like our sons. It was like our children were happening to that boy.

These are different people, the janitors and the gardeners and the servant boys. God creates them with a worldview that serves them best. It is cruel, burdening them with the gruesome task of reconciling the real world with the one that Burneys painted. It is heartless.

***

Mr. Burney’s mother lived in Hyderabad with his older sister in their family home. One day, she fell down stairs and broke her hip. The sister called, asking Mr. Burney to come quickly; their mother needed a surgery and a son. The Burneys packed their bags, and called Hameed to their house. They wanted to take Kashi with them, they said, and Hameed would continue to get his salary by mail until they got back. Hameed demurred.

“Master sahib, we are your servants,” he said, a little less bent. “But Hyderabad is another city, and Kashi is just a boy. Perhaps he can come home with me while you are away.”

We suspect the Burneys knew Hameed would place Kashi at a different household, and they would lose him, and all their hard work, for good. They told Hameed to come back the next day. Hameed agreed. After he left, the Burneys called their ex-student at the Police station, who suggested the matter was far more delicate than it seemed. Kashi was, after all, Hameed’s son and his source of income so trying to strong-arm Hameed could back-fire.

The Burneys then walked over to the Ramzans and asked if they would be willing to take Kashi in for a month while they tended to their family emergency. Everyone knew the Ramzans were quiet and mellow, and that their servant boy had recently run away.

“But Kashi is a little …,” Mrs. Ramzan struggled with her words, “spirited.”

“But he is just a child,” Mrs. Burney smiled sweetly. “And it is not forever. We will be back in a month, maybe sooner.”

“And we will pay for Kashi’s salary while we are away, of course,” Mr. Burney added quickly.

The Ramzans considered the proposition. Their children were all grown and away, and they didn’t fancy doing household work themselves while looking for a servant. Kashi came for free, with the Burneys’ personal guarantee, and only for a month. It was a tempting offer.

The next day, when Hameed Bhangee came to see the Burneys, they told him of the arrangement, in a matter-of-fact tone. They reminded him of their deal – that the Burneys would pay 500 rupees extra each month, and in exchange, Hameed will not send Kashi’s younger brother to work. Hameed bent and bowed and said yes master sahib and of course master sahib. Then he helped the Burneys load their two suitcases in a car that their student had sent to take them to Hyderabad.

Kashi stood by Hameed as the Burneys said goodbye and got into their taxi. He had an inscrutable face, that boy. The taxi picked up speed. Just as it got to the end of our street, Kashi freed his shoulder from his father’s grip and ran behind it, fast, like a mad dog, crying.

***

The month dragged at first, then rushed by. Kashi did his chores, quiet as a mouse, and avoided leaving the Ramzans’ house. He went for groceries after our children left for school, and returned before the little ones got home from their nurseries. Outside, he spoke of the Burneys as if they had just gone to the market and will be back any minute.

“When Uncle and Auntie are back, we will call you again,” he told the newspaperman when he asked why the Burneys stopped buying from him.

He swept the outside of the Burney house every day when he thought the Ramzans weren’t looking, and watered the bushes. With the Burneys gone, Nizam Dakia visited our street less frequently, once or twice in a week, but when he did, Kashi sought him out and asked if there was any mail for the Burneys, or any from them. He kept count of the days, confirming with Nizam Dakia when the month would be over. Every night, he read the books the Burneys had bought him, and silently read the newspaper the Ramzans asked him to discard.

The Ramzans had grown boys who lived with their families, but they didn’t have a room for household help. As a courtesy to the Burneys, they told Kashi he could sleep in the drawing room and turn on the fan at night. Soon, he slept like our servants and worked like our servants and we started to lose interest in him. His defiance was special, his compliance was not.

***

The month passed, but there was no sign of the Burneys. Hameed Bhangee arrived promptly after thirty days and told Kashi he would have a new job if the Burneys didn’t return in the next two days.

Later that day, the whole street watched as a man arrived in a white Pajero, Mrs. Burney’s ex-student, a truck of movers trailing him, and unlocked the door to the Burneys’ house. He instructed the movers on what to pack and how to mark the cartons, and to be careful with the books. Kashi ran to the Burneys’ house, confused. The man saw Kashi and walked over to him, pulling out an envelope from his pocket.

“Mrs. Burney sent you this.”

Kashi looked at the man as if he spoke mandarin.

“Mr. Burney’s mother had a brain hemorrhage. She is paralyzed,” he explained. “They have found a house in Hyderabad to be with her.”

Kashi walked back to the Ramzans looking like a thousand pieces. Then he watched us watching and straightened his back. We looked away.

The next morning, just after 8, Hameed Bhangee entered our street, smelling of glue and sweat. Mr. Alvie called him to his door. Hameed Bhangee bent and bowed and saluted him, and shrank his body. Mr. Alvie offered to hire Kashi at the same salary the Burneys offered.

“That boy has a lot to learn. The Burneys taught him nothing. But we are good people, my wife and I. We will teach him what he needs to know.”

Hameed Bhangee dropped his head further.

“What father wouldn’t want his son to learn from good people like you, sir. He is your servant, jee. I will bring him to you in no time. You are our lord, jee. Allah sent you to help my Kashi.”

Hameed headed towards the Ramzans. Mrs Ramzan opened the door. She called out to Kashi, then again, then to her husband. Kashi was nowhere to be found. They looked upstairs, and in the street, and sent a neighbor’s boy to the nearby market. There was no sign of Kashi.

Hameed asked to see his things. The Ramzans took him to their store room and showed him the small carton they let Kashi keep there. Hameed sighed when he saw Kashi’s clothes were gone. He found in the carton a tin of cheap talcum powder, three books of English, a fountain pen, and an old newspaper with a full-page picture of a famous cricketer. Under the newspaper, there was an unopened envelope with Kashi’s name on it. Hameed tore open the envelope. Inside, there was a letter and five crisp thousand rupee bills. He stuffed the bills in his pocket and threw away the rest.

 

Comments
  1. Haroon Khan on

    A thought provoking tale narrated in a very absorbing and sensitive manner. Crisp story telling without any superfluous details makes this a truly enjoyable read.

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