A SPLASH OF LIGHT from the late-afternoon sun lingered at the foot of Nariman's bed as he ended his nap and looked towards the clock. It was almost six. He glanced down where the warm patch had lured his toes. Knurled and twisted, rendered birdlike by age, they luxuriated in the sun's comfort. His eyes fell shut again.
By and by, the scrap of sunshine drifted from his feet, and he felt a vague pang of abandonment. He looked at the clock again: gone past six now. With some difficulty he rose to prepare for his evening walk. In the bathroom, while he slapped cold water on his face and gargled, he heard his stepson and stepdaughter over the sound of the tap.
"Please don't go, Pappa, we beseech you," said Jal through the door, then grimaced and adjusted his hearing aid, for the words had echoed deafeningly in his own ear. The device was an early model; a metal case the size of a matchbox was clipped to his shirt pocket and wired to the earpiece. It had been a reluctant acquisition four years ago, when Jal had turned forty-five, but he was not yet used to its vagaries.
"There, that's better," he said to himself, before becoming loud again: "Now, Pappa, is it too much to ask? Please stay home, for your own good."
"Why is this door shut that we have to shout?" said Coomy. "Open it, Jal."
She was two years younger than her brother, her tone sharper than his, playing the scold to his peacemaker. Thin like him, but sturdier, she had taken after their mother, with few curves to soften the lines and angles. During her girlhood, relatives would scrutinize her and remark sadly that a father's love was sunshine and fresh water without which a daughter could not bloom; a stepfather, they said, was quite useless in this regard. Once, they were careless and spoke in her hearing. Their words had incandesced painfully in her mind, and she had fled to her room to weep for her dead father.
Jal tried the bathroom door; it was locked. He scratched his thick wavy hair before knocking gently. The inquiry failed to elicit a response.
Coomy took over. "How many times have I told you, Pappa? Don't lock the door! If you fall or faint inside, how will we get you out? Follow the rules!"
Nariman rinsed the lather from his hands and reached for the towel. Coomy had missed her vocation, he felt. She should have been a headmistress, enacting rules for hapless schoolgirls, making them miserable. Instead, here she was, plaguing him with rules to govern every aspect of his shrunken life. Besides the prohibition against locked doors, he was required to announce his intention to use the wc. In the morning he was not to get out of bed till she came to get him. A bath was possible only twice a week when she undertook its choreography, with Jal enlisted as stage manager to stand by and ensure his safety. There were more rules regarding his meals, his clothes, his dentures, his use of the radiogram, and in charitable moments Nariman accepted what they never tired of repeating: that it was all for his own good.
He dried his face while she continued to rattle the knob. "Pappa! Are you okay? I'm going to call a locksmith and have all the locks removed, I'm warning you!"
His trembling hands took a few moments to slide the towel back on the rod. He opened the door. "Hello, waiting for me?"
"You'll drive me crazy," said Coomy. "My heart is going dhuk-dhuk, wondering if you collapsed or something."
"Never mind, Pappa is fine," said Jal soothingly. "And that's the main thing."
Smiling, Nariman stepped out of the bathroom and hitched up his trousers. The belt took longer; shaking fingers kept missing the buckle pin. He followed the gentle slant of sunlight from the bed to the window, delighting in its galaxies of dust, the dancing motes locked in their inscrutable orbits. Traffic noise had begun its evening assault on the neighbourhood. He wondered why it no longer offended him.
"Stop dreaming, Pappa," said Coomy. "Please pay attention to what we say."
Nariman thought he smelled the benign fragrance of earth after rain; he could almost taste it on his tongue. He looked outside. Yes, water was dripping to the pavement. In a straight drip. Not rain, then, but the neighbour's window boxes.
"Even with my healthy legs, Pappa, walking is a hazard," said Jal, continuing the daily fuss over his stepfather's outing. "And lawlessness is the one certainty in the streets of Bombay. Easier to find a gold nugget on the footpath than a tola of courtesy. How can you take any pleasure in a walk?"
Socks. Nariman decided he needed socks, and went to the dresser. Looking for a pair in the shallow drawer, he spoke into it, "What you say is true, Jal. But the sources of pleasure are many. Ditches, potholes, traffic cannot extinguish all the joys of life." His hand with its birdwing tremble continued to search. Then he gave up and stuffed bare feet into shoes.
"Shoes without socks? Like a Pathan?" said Coomy. "And see how your hands are shaking? You can't even tie the laces."
"Yes, you could help me."
"Happily—if you were going somewhere important like the doctor, or fire-temple for Mamma's prayers. But I won't encourage foolishness. How many people with Parkinson's do what you do?"
"I'm not going trekking in Nepal. A little stroll down the lane, that's all."
Relenting, Coomy knelt at her stepfather's feet and tied his laces as she did every evening. "First week of August, monsoon in fury, and you want a little stroll."
He went to the window and pointed at the sky. "Look, the rain has stopped."
"A stubborn child, that's what you are," she complained. "Should be punished like a child. No dinner for disobedience, hanh?"
With her cooking that would be a prize, not a punishment, he thought.
"Did you hear him, Jal? The older he gets, the more insulting he is!"
Nariman realized he'd said it aloud. "I must confess, Jal, your sister frightens me. She can even hear my thoughts."
Jal could hear only a garble of noise, confounded by the earpiece that augmented Coomy's strong voice while neglecting his stepfather's murmurings. Readjusting the volume control, he lifted his right index finger like an umpire giving a batsman out, and returned to the last topic his ears had picked up. "I agree with you, Pappa, the sources of pleasure are many. Our minds contain worlds enough to amuse us for an eternity. Plus you have your books and record player and radio. Why leave the flat at all? It's like heaven in here. This building isn't called Chateau Felicity for nothing. I would lock out the hell of the outside world and spend all my days indoors."
"You couldn't," said Nariman. "Hell has ways of permeating heaven's membrane." He began softly, " 'Heaven, I'm in heaven,' " which irritated Coomy even more, and he stopped humming. "Just think back to the Babri Mosque riots."
"You're right," conceded Jal. "Sometimes hell does seep through."
"You're agreeing with his silly example?" said Coomy indignantly. "The riots were in the streets, not indoors."
"I think Pappa is referring to the old Parsi couple who died in their bedroom," said Jal.
"You remember that, don't you, Coomy?" said Nariman. "The goondas who assumed Muslims were hiding in Dalal Estate and set fire to it?"
"Yes, yes, my memory is better than yours. And that was a coincidence—pure bad luck. How often does a mosque in Ayodhya turn people into savages in Bombay? Once in a blue moon."
"True," said Nariman. "The odds are in our favour." He resisted the urge to hum "Blue Moon."
"Just last week in Firozsha Baag an old lady was beaten and robbed," said Jal. "Inside her own flat. Poor thing is barely clinging to life at Parsi General."
"Which side are you on?" asked Coomy, exasperated. "Are you arguing Pappa should go for a walk? Are you saying the world has not become a dangerous place?"
"Oh, it has," Nariman answered for Jal. "Especially indoors."
She clenched her fists and stormed out. He blew on his glasses and polished them slowly with a handkerchief. His fading eyesight, tiresome dentures, trembling limbs, stooped posture, and shuffling gait were almost ready for their vesperal routine.
. . .
With his umbrella, which he used as walking stick, Nariman Vakeel emerged from Chateau Felicity. The bustling life was like air for starving lungs, after the stale emptiness of the flat.
He went to the lane where the vegetable vendors congregated. Their baskets and boxes, overflowing with greens and legumes and fruits and tubers, transformed the corner into a garden. French beans, sweet potatoes, coriander, green chilies, cabbages, cauliflowers bloomed under the street lights, hallowing the dusk with their colour and fragrance. From time to time, he bent down to touch. Voluptuous onions and glistening tomatoes enticed his fingers; the purple brinjals and earthy carrots were irresistible. The subjivalas knew he wasn't going to buy anything, but they did not mind, and he liked to think they understood why he came.
In the flower stall two men sat like musicians, weaving strands of marigold, garlands of jasmine and lily and rose, their fingers picking, plucking, knotting, playing a floral melody. Nariman imagined the progress of the works they performed: to supplicate deities in temples, honour the photo-frames of someone's ancestors, adorn the hair of wives and mothers and daughters.
The bhel-puri stall was a sculptured landscape with its golden pyramid of sev, the little snow mountains of mumra, hillocks of puris, and, in among their valleys, in aluminium containers, pools of green and brown and red chutneys.
A man selling bananas strolled up and down the street. The bunches were stacked high and heavy upon his outstretched arm: a balancing and strong-man act rolled into one.
It was all magical as a circus, felt Nariman, and reassuring, like a magic show.
On the eve of his seventy-ninth birthday, he came home with abrasions on his elbow and forearm, and a limp. He had fallen while crossing the lane outside Chateau Felicity.
Coomy opened the door and screamed, "My God! Come quick, Jal! Pappa is bleeding!"
"Where?" asked Nariman, surprised. The elbow scrape had left a small smear on his shirt. "This? You call this bleeding?" He shook his head with a slight chuckle.
"How can you laugh, Pappa?" said Jal, full of reproach. "We are dying of anxiety over your injuries."
"Don't exaggerate. I tripped on something and twisted my foot a little, that's all."
Coomy soaked a ball of cotton wool in Dettol to wipe the scrapes clean, and the arm, smarting under the antiseptic, pulled back. She flinched in empathy, blowing on it. "Sorry, Pappa. Better?"
He nodded while her gentle fingers patted the raw places, then covered them with sticking plaster. "Now we should give thanks to God," she said, putting away the first-aid box. "You know how serious it could have been? Imagine if you had tripped in the middle of the main road, right in the traffic."
"Oh!" Jal covered his face with his hands. "I can't even think of it."
"One thing is certain," said Coomy. "From now on you will not go out."
"I agree," said Jal.
"Stop being idiotic, you two."
"And what about you, Pappa?" said Coomy. "Tomorrow you'll complete seventy-nine years, and still you don't act responsibly. No appreciation for Jal and me, or the things we do for you."
Nariman sat, trying to maintain a dignified silence. His hands were shaking wretchedly, defying all the effort of his will to keep them steady in his lap. The tremor in his legs was growing too, making his knees bounce like some pervert jiggling his thighs. He tried to remember: had he taken his medication after lunch?
"Listen to me," he said, tired of waiting for calm to return to his limbs. "In my youth, my parents controlled me and destroyed those years. Thanks to them, I married your mother and wrecked my middle years. Now you want to torment my old age. I won't allow it."
"Such lies!" flared Coomy. "You ruined Mamma's life, and mine, and Jal's. I will not tolerate a word against her."
"Please don't get upset." Jal tried to calm his sister, furiously caressing the arm of his chair. "I'm sure what happened today is a warning for Pappa."
"But will he learn from it?" She glowered at her stepfather. "Or will he go out and break his bones and put the burden of his fractures on my head?"
"No, no, he'll be good. He will stay at home and read and relax and listen to music and—"
"I want to hear him say that."
Nariman held his peace, having spent the time usefully in unbuckling his belt. He now commenced the task of untying his shoelaces.
"If you don't like what we're saying, ask your daughter's opinion when she comes tomorrow," said Coomy. "Your own flesh and blood, not like Jal and me, second class."
"That is unnecessary," said Nariman.
"Look," said Jal, "Roxana is coming with her family for Pappa's birthday party. Let's not have any quarrel tomorrow."
"Why quarrel?" said Coomy. "We will just have a sensible discussion, like grown-ups."
Though Roxana was their half-sister, Jal and Coomy's love for her had been full and complete from the moment she was born. At fourteen and twelve, they were not prey to the complicated feelings of jealousy, neglect, rivalry, or even hatred, which newborns evoke in siblings closer in age.
Or perhaps Jal and Coomy were grateful for Roxana because she filled the void left by their own father's death, four years earlier. Their father had been sickly through most of their childhood. And during brief stretches when his lungs did not confine him to bed, he was still weak, seldom able to get through the day unassisted. His chronic pleurisy was the symptom of a more serious pulmonary disease, its two dreaded initials never mentioned among friends and relatives. Just a little water in the lungs was how Palonji's illness was described.
And Palonji, to alleviate his family's anxiety, made a running joke out of this coded description. If Jal, always full of mischief as a child, did something silly, it was due to a little water in his head. "You must plug your ears when you wash your hair," his father teased. Clumsy hands meant the person was a real water-fingers. And if little Coomy cried, her father said, "My lovely daughter does not cry, it's just a little water in the eyes," which would promptly make her smile.
Palonji Contractor's courage and his determination to keep up his family's spirits were heroic, but the end, when it came, was devastating for Jal and Coomy. And three years after his death, when their mother remarried, they were stiff towards the stranger, awkward in their dealings with him. They insisted on addressing Nariman Vakeel as New Pappa.
The word stung like a pebble each time it was hurled to his face. He made light of it at first, laughing it off: "That's all—just New Pappa? Why not a longer title? How about Brand New Improved Pappa?"
But his choice of adjectives was infelicitous; Jal told him coldly that no one could be an improvement on their real father. It took a few weeks for their mother to convince her children that it would make her very happy if they dropped the New. Jal and Coomy agreed; they were maturing rapidly, far too rapidly. They told their mother they would use whatever word she wanted. Merely calling him Pappa, they said, did not make him one.
Nariman wondered what he had let himself in for by marrying Yasmin Contractor. Neither had come together for love—it was an arranged marriage. She had taken the step for security, for her son and daughter.
And he, when he looked back on it all, across the wasteland of their lives, despaired at how he could have been so feeble-minded, so spineless, to have allowed it to happen.
But a year after the marriage, into their lives had come the little miracle. Roxana was born, and with the quantities of affection lavished on the baby, it was inevitable that the warmth of it should touch them all. Love for their little Roxana rescued them from their swamp of rancour; unhappiness was thwarted for the time being.
Six o'clock approached, and Nariman began to get ready for his birthday dinner. He had been waiting eagerly for this evening, to see Roxana and her family. And as he dressed, that enchanting time of his daughter's birth filled his mind.
The rain started again after having let up most of the day. A new shirt, Jal and Coomy's gift, was waiting on the dresser. He removed it from its cellophane wrap and grimaced, feeling the starched fabric. No doubt, it would bite him all evening. The things one had to endure for one's birthday. There were perfectly good shirts in his dresser, soft and comfortable, that would outlast him.
Over the thrumming of the rain a hammer commenced its noise somewhere in the building while he fumbled with the tight new buttons. No one considered the problems of the old and the frail, the way they packaged shirts for sale with impregnable plastic wrappers, pins stuck in all the trickiest places, cardboard inserts jammed hard under the collar.
He smiled as he thought about Roxana, her husband, and their two sons. He'd never imagined, delighting in her as a tiny baby, that one day she would be grown up and have her own children. He wondered if all fathers marvelled like him.
And if she could have remained that little baby for a while longer? Perhaps that one period of his wedded life when he'd been truly happy might have lasted longer too. If only we could have the impossible, he thought, we could vanquish unhappiness. But that was not how things worked in the world. The joyous family time had been short. Much too short.
He remembered the moment when Jal had taken the baby in his arms. How thrilled he had been as she clutched at his finger. "What a grip she has, Pappa!" Then Coomy had clamoured to hold her sister. "Look, she's blowing bubbles, just like my ring!" she had exclaimed in delight, referring to the soap-bubble kit she had bought at a fun-fair.
But Jal and Coomy's devotion to Roxana—even that had come to an end, felt Nariman, after she married and left to live in the flat he had procured by paying an enormous pugree. That was the time when they first began throwing at him the "flesh and blood" phrase, accusing him of partiality.
If at least the childhood bond, when relations were not tainted by "half" or "step" combinations because hyphens were meaningless to them then—if at least that had endured, it would have offered some consolation, something good salvaged from those miserable years. But this, too, was denied him. Naturally. Only a rotten ending could come out of such a rotten beginning.
And what was the beginning, he wondered. The day he met his darling Lucy, the woman he should have married? But that was not a rotten day, it was the most beautiful of mornings. Or was it later, when he renounced Lucy? Or when he agreed to marry Yasmin Contractor? Or that Sunday evening when his parents and their friends first broached the idea—when he should have raged and exploded, stamped out the notion, told them to mind their own damned business, go to hell?
Thirty-six years had passed since. And still he remembered the Sunday evening, the hebdomadal get-together of his parents' circle of friends. In this very drawing-room, where the furniture was still the same, the walls carried the same paint, and all their voices still echoed from that Sunday evening.
. . .Much rejoicing had erupted when his parents announced that their only son, after years of refusing to end his ill-considered liaison with that Goan woman, refusing to meet decent Parsi girls, refusing to marry someone respectable—that their beloved Nari had finally listened to reason and agreed to settle down.
He could hear every word on the balcony where he sat alone. As usual, Soli Bamboat, his parents' oldest friend, semi-retired and still a very influential lawyer, was the first to respond. "Three cheers for Nari!" he shouted. "Heep-heep-heep!" and the rest answered, "Hooray!"
Soli Bamboat's vocal machinery, despite a lifetime's struggle with the treachery of English vowels, was frequently undone by them. His speech had been a source of great puzzlement and entertainment for Nariman in childhood.
Counting his parents, there were ten Sunday-evening regulars. No, nine, he corrected himself, for Mr. Burdy's wife, Shirin, had died the year before, following a swift illness. After the mourning, Mr. Burdy had reappeared at the Sunday gatherings and, in Nariman's opinion, tackled the part of widower with admirable diligence. A tasty pakora or someone's special homemade chutney would make him sigh dutifully, "Oh, how my Shirin would have enjoyed it." After laughing at a funny anecdote he would at once add, "In humour my Shirin was number one-always the first to appreciate a joke." But he never seemed comfortable in this role and, a few months later, decided to try the jovial born-again bachelor. The group accepted the change, giving its approval tacitly; Shirin was no longer mentioned on Sunday evenings.
So much for love and loyalty and remembering, thought Nariman. Meanwhile, the group responded thrice to Soli's heep-heep-heep before commencing with an assortment of individual cheers and good wishes for his parents.
"Congratulations, Marzi!" said Mr. Kotwal to his father. "After eleven years of battle you win!"
"Better late than never," said Mr. Burdy. "But fortune always favours the bold. Remember, the fruits of patience are sweet, and all's well that ends well."
"Stop, Mr. Proverb, enough," said Soli. "Save a few for the rest of us."
Curious about their comments, Nariman shifted his chair on the balcony so he could observe them without being seen. Now Mrs. Unvala began professing that she had always had faith in the boy to make the right choice in the end, and her husband, Dara, nodded vigorously. Their opinions were offered as a team; the group called him the Silent Partner.
Then Soli entered the balcony, and Nariman pretended to be engrossed in a book. "Hey, Nari! Why are you alone? Come and join the circle, you seely boy."
"Later, Soli Uncle, I want to finish this chapter."
"No, no, Nari, we nid you now," he said, taking the book away. "What's the rush, the words won't vaneesh from the page." Seizing his arm, he pulled him into the drawing-room, into the centre of the gathering.
They thumped his back, shook his hand, hugged him while he cringed and wished he hadn't stayed home that evening. But he knew he would have to face them at some point. He heard Soli Uncle's wife, Nargesh Aunty, ask his mother, "Tell me, Jeroo, is it sincere? Has he really given up that Lucy Braganza?"
"Oh yes," said his mother. "Yes, he has given us his word."
Now Mrs. Kotwal scuttled across the room, pinched his cheek, and said, "When the naughty boy at last becomes a good boy, it's a double delight."
He felt like reminding her he was forty-two years old. Then Nargesh Aunty beckoned from her seat on the sofa. She was the most softspoken of the group and usually drowned by its din. She patted the place beside her and bade him sit. Taking his hand in hers, which was shrivelled from burns in a kitchen accident during her youth, she whispered, "No happiness is more lasting than the happiness that you get from fulfilling your parents' wishes. Remember that, Nari."
Her voice came to him from a great distance, and he had neither will nor energy for argument. He was remembering the week before, when he and Lucy had watched the tide go out at Breach Candy. Some children were dragging a little net in pools of water among the rocks, searching for sea life forgotten by the amnesiac waves. As he watched them splash and yell, he thought about the eleven years he and Lucy had struggled to create a world for themselves. A cocoon, she used to call it. A cocoon was what they needed, she said, into which they could retreat, and after their families had forgotten their existence, they would emerge like two glistening butterflies and fly away together . . .
The memory made him weaken for an instant—was he making the right decision? . . . Yes. He was. They had been ground down by their families. Exhausted by the strain of it. He reminded himself how hopeless it was now—Lucy and he had even reached the point where scarcely an evening went by that they did not quarrel about something or the other. What was the purpose in continuing, letting it all crumble in useless bickering?
Then, while the children nearby squealed with excitement at a creature caught in their net, Lucy tried one last time to convince him: they could turn their backs on everyone, walk away from the suffocating world of family tyrannies, from the guilt and blackmail that parents specialized in. They could start their own life together, just the two of them.
Struggling to maintain his resolve, he told her they had discussed it all before, their families would hound them, no matter what. The only way to do this was to end it quickly.
Fine, she said, no use talking any more, and walked away from him. He found himself alone beside the sea.
And now, as his parents and their friends discussed his future while sipping Scotch and soda, he felt he was eavesdropping on strangers. They were delightedly conducting their "round-table conference," as they called it, planning his married life, having as much fun as though it was their whist drive or housie evening.
"There is one problem," said Mr. Burdy. "We have indeed shut the stable door before the horse bolted, but we must provide a substitute mare."
"What did he say?" asked Nargesh Aunty.
"Mr. Proverb believes the bridegroom is ready, but we nid to find heem a bride."
"Don't you think," she said timidly, "that love-marriage would be better than arranged?"
"Of course," said his father. "You think we haven't encouraged it? But our Nari seems incapable of falling in love with a Parsi girl. Now it's up to us to find a match."
"And that will be a challenge, mark my words," said Mr. Kotwal. "You can look as far from Bombay as you like. You can try from Calcutta to Karachi. But when they make inquiries, they will find out about Nari's lufroo with that ferangi woman."
"Impossible to hide it," agreed Mrs. Unvala. "We'll have to compromise."
"Oh, I'm sure Nari will find a lovely wife," said his mother loyally. "The cream of the crop."
"I think we'll have to forget about the cream of the crop," said Mr. Burdy. "As you sow, so shall you reap. You cannot plough the stubble of the crop one day, and expect cream the next."
They laughed, and their jokes became cruder. Soli said something insulting about ferangis who wiped their arses with paper instead of washing hygienically.
The detachment with which Nariman had been listening evaporated. "How sorry I feel for you all," he said, unable to choke back his disgust. "You've grown old without growing wise."
His chair scrooped as he pushed it away and returned to the balcony. He picked up his book, staring blankly at the pages. There was a light breeze coming in from the sea. Inside, he could hear his parents apologizing, that the poor boy was distraught because the breakup was still fresh. It infuriated him that they would presume to know how he felt.
"Prince Charming didn't appreciate our humour," said Mr. Burdy. "But there was no need to insult us."
"I think he was just quoting from a book," said Mr. Kotwal.
"My big mistake," said his father, "was books. Too many books. Modern ideas have filled Nari's head. He never learned to preserve that fine balance between tradition and modernness."
"Time weal pass and he'll become normal again," said Soli. "Don't worry, prosid one step at a time."
"Exactly," said Mr. Burdy. "Act in haste, repent at leisure. Remember, slow and steady always wins the race."
Disregarding their own advice, in a matter of days his parents' friends arranged an introduction for him. "You will meet Yasmin Contractor, a widow with two children," they told him. "And that's the best you can expect, mister, with your history."
Either this widow, they explained, or a defective woman—the choice was his. What sort of defect? he asked, curious. Oh, could be cock-eyed, or deaf, or one leg shorter than the other, they said breezily; or might be someone sickly, with a weak lung, or problems in the child-bearing department—it depended on who was available. If that was his preference, they would make inquiries and prepare a list for him.
"No one is denying you are handsome and well educated. Your past is your handicap—those wasted years, which have thrown you beyond the threshold of forty. But don't worry, everything has been considered: personality, family background, cooking and housekeeping skills. Yes, the widow is our number-one choice. She will make you a good wife."
Like an invalid steered by doctors and nurses, he drifted through the process, suppressing his doubts and misgivings, ready to believe that the traditional ways were the best. He became the husband of Yasmin Contractor, and formally adopted her children, Jal and Coomy. But they kept their father's name. To change it to Vakeel would be like rewriting history, suggested his new wife. The simile appealed to his academic soul; he acquiesced.
And that, perhaps, was my first mistake, thought Nariman, still struggling with the buttons on his birthday gift. How had Jal and Coomy felt, as children, having a different name from the rest of the family? Had they resented it? Felt left out? He should have considered their perspective before agreeing with Yasmin. He should have tried to make up for the loss they had suffered with their father's death, tried to give them the normal childhood they had missed, taken them on excursions, on picnics, played games with them, tried to be a friend to them . . . and perhaps things might have turned out differently. But the knack of thinking like a child, empathizing, were skills he had not learned then. Nowadays it was so much easier.
Defeated by the buttons, he put the shirt aside and started for the wc. His stomach was rumbling ominously. He tried to remember what he had eaten, as he went down the long passageway to the back of the flat. It was the only toilet of the three that still worked.
Each step was an effort of concentration, while his shaking hand sought support from the wall that was covered with large pictures hung high along its length. His forefathers brooded in their dark frames, their stern expressions and severe mouths looking down on him during his frequent trips to the wc. He often worried about reaching the toilet in time. But this unhappy flat, he felt, at least justified the gloomy style of portrait photography. To his eyes, the ancestral countenances grew increasingly cheerless with each passing day.
He shot the bolt in the door and sat, grateful that the sole surviving toilet had a commode. He couldn't imagine how he would have managed to squat in either of the other two.
Down at the other end of the passageway, Coomy was calling into his room to hurry, that Roxana's family would soon be here. Her steps approached the wc, and she tried to open the door.
"I should have known from the stink!"
When he returned to his room she was waiting. The hammer was still going, somewhere in the building.
"You broke the rule, Pappa, you went without telling me."
"Sorry. I forgot."
"I need to do number one, I could have gone first. Now I must sit in your smell." She paused. "Never mind, get dressed. They'll arrive any minute and blame me for not having you ready."
He held out the new shirt, his distal tremor making it seem as though he were shaking a flag. "The buttons are difficult."
It was a long-sleeved shirt, and she helped him with it. He inquired about the source of the persistent hammering.
"Edul Munshi downstairs, who else," she said, fastening the cuffs. "Only one maniac handyman lives in Chateau Felicity."
The doorbell rang as she buttoned the front. Nariman's face lit up: Roxana and Yezad and Murad and Jehangir, at last! His eager fingers tried to help with the shirt.
She brushed them aside and raced through the last few buttons, skipping a couple at the end, flustered about things still to be done in the kitchen. The Chenoy family always had to come on time, she grumbled, even in a heavy downpour.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry. Copyright © 2002 by Rohinton Mistry. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.