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Authors: Mahesh Rao

The Smoke is Rising

BOOK: The Smoke is Rising
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‘A darkly comic novel … Rao veers between sharp, economic dialogue that can be both hilarious and disquieting, and set-piece extravaganzas crammed with colour.’
Spectator

 

 ‘A fascinating drama of Mysore’s halting journey into an uncertain future … it left me wanting more.’
Guardian

 

‘An auspicious debut – its comedy is dry and biting, its perceptiveness acute, and its picture of India ringingly truthful.’ Neel Mukherjee

 

‘The medieval and the modern India are depicted here as co-existing, and Rao has succeeded in capturing this with delicacy and insight.’
Times Literary Supplement

 

‘A subtle, tender and withering portrait of a society in confused transition. This is an exceptionally accomplished novel.’ Siddartha Deb

THE SMOKE IS RISING

MAHESH RAO

DAUNT BOOKS

TO MY FAMILY

Dusk was stealing into the city. The pitiless heat of the day was now only a memory as a light wind picked up, bringing with it grit and dust from the Bangalore–Mysore highway. The furrows in the sky turned an inky violet and the coconut trees loomed solid and grey. At the northern approach to Mysore, the acrid smell of burning firewood drifted across tin rooftops. By six o’clock, the constant commotion of car horns, autorickshaw engines and accelerating scooters had risen up a register. Trays of freshly baked buns and puffs were being laid out in the Iyengar bakeries, their smell disorienting school children in the streets.

In the centre of the city, the crumbling houses seemed to breathe a sigh as they released residents on to porches and pavements. Office workers stood around food carts, hungrily watching expert hands slicing, seasoning and ladling. A stream of anxious out-of-towners took a wrong turning and headed away from Mysore Junction, their holdalls swinging recklessly. On the corner of Lansdowne Building and Sayyaji Rao Road, several neon signs sparked into action.

Girish paused as he made his way down Staircase B of Jyothi House. Procrastination after work had become something of a habit. He decided against continuing on into the basement to pick up his motorbike and emerged into the smog of Irwin Road. One of his junior colleagues was smoking in front of the building.

‘What, sir, had your coffee?’ he asked, hurriedly stubbing out his cigarette on the ground.

‘Not yet,’ replied Girish.

He glanced down at the butt, mashed into the mud. His colleague caught the look.

Shrugging, he said: ‘Very dirty habit, sir. What to do?’

Girish did not respond. There was a moment’s silence before the young man tried again.

‘Going to have your coffee now, sir?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe. See you tomorrow.’

‘Definitely, sir. I will definitely see you tomorrow.’

Girish walked slowly past the vegetable vendors, their gas lanterns emitting a pale, ghostly light. Trade at the novelty shops and fancy stores was picking up, their windows crammed full of
bindis
, bangles and piles of furry toys. At the Central Post Office junction, a boy selling dishcloths and almanacs had stationed himself in a prime position, anticipating the evening rush. In a shop doorway on Kali Temple Road, a tailor raised his voice as he defended his expertise.

As Girish cut through a side street, he glanced into the houses crammed into the block. Artless curiosity still enjoyed full respectability in this part of Mysore. Some windows were shut against the unexpected wind but a number had stayed open, revealing the yellow-blue haze of television sets. In one room a mother fed her baby little scoops of rice while he banged on the floor with a spoon. Next door, a card game was in progress, bowls of roasted peanuts and raw onion scattered across the table, the television’s sound turned low to a manageable hum. Further along, an elderly woman was laboriously trying to bring some order to the chaos of newspapers and magazines on the sofa in her sitting room. In the house at the corner, a boy and a girl lay sprawled on the floor, their neglected homework pinned under their elbows as they stared up at the screen.

All the English, Hindi and Kannada news channels were reporting the successful launch earlier in the day of Chandrayaan-1, the first
Indian unmanned mission to the moon. The media had seized the historic moment. One television studio had transformed itself into a mini-planetarium, with a backdrop of shooting stars in front of which a giant silver moon revolved seductively.

‘This is the future,’ panted a reporter. ‘This mission will ignite the imagination of all youngsters. It will give hope to every struggling child in this country. Won’t we all remember where we were on this day?’

Girish turned into Sawday Road and stepped into the Vishram Coffee House, smoothing down his hair. He walked to a small table at the back of the restaurant and ordered a sugarless coffee. Service would be slow: the place was almost full.

A television was mounted on a precarious bracket in one corner of the restaurant. Images of the satellite flashed on the screen. There were sound bites from space experts, politicians and, inexplicably, a well-known wrestler. A number of white-coated, venerable-looking scientists sat in a row, their faces fuzzy with anxiety. Archive footage of the first moon landings was spliced with shots of the Deep Space Network centre at Byalalu, an unremarkable village outside Bangalore, stunned by its sudden fame. The camera swooped in to capture the scene it was seeking: cows grazing in the scrubland under the giant antenna that would enable the communication of pictures and scientific data from the satellite.

Next to Girish, the chat at the large corner table of the Vishram Coffee House was becoming animated.

‘Seriously Kumar, just suppose you are a politician and you want to take a bribe. Some fellow turns up to your hotel room with crisp notes in a nice briefcase. Will you just count them in front of all and sundry, rub your belly and go home? There have been so many of these sting operations that you would at least be having a few doubts, no?’

‘What I am saying is that their greed is too much.’

‘But how can they not know about secret cameras? How? Even street sweepers are using them to catch their cheating wives.’

‘Look at our poor Kumar. If he was a politician, with a face like that, no one would try and film him, even for some sting-ping operation.’

‘And now see this nonsense. Sending spaceships to the moon.’

‘You don’t know? The government is looking for new areas for housing plots. We have run out here so it is exceptionally vital that we get to the moon before anyone else.’

‘But I say, there is no reputable water source there.’

‘No matter. There has been no water in Vidyaranyapuram for the last two and a half days. People from here will not notice any difference.’

On the pavement outside the restaurant a flower seller continued to string together jasmine blossoms at top speed. Her head was covered in a maroon knitted scarf and her eyes darted into the crowd, seeking any passing regulars. A novice priest clutching two overfilled plastic bags hurried past a throng of worshippers and walked into the Ganesh temple’s side entrance, late for the evening
aarthi
. Charcoal clouds had pushed their way across to settle high above the spires of St Philomena’s Church on Ashoka Road and, further away, dark rents had appeared in the sky over the horizon. A minibus stopped abruptly on the corner and disgorged its cargo of student nurses before nosing its way towards Nazarbad.

A sudden flash lit up the television screen in the coffee house, followed by an assault of reds and oranges as enormous globes of smoke moved in. Seconds of dull, lifeless sky later, the space vehicle’s tail flared into sight. It pierced through the pale clouds and streaked upwards for a moment before being shrouded by a heavy mist. The white-coated scientists began to clap and cheer,
hugging each other and making the thumbs-up sign at the cameras. It had been a perfect launch.

Girish had allowed his coffee to grow cold. He sighed, drained the glass and motioned to the waiter for the bill. It was getting late and he was expected at home. In a short while he would push open the front door to hear his wife turn the television off and scramble to her feet. He would hang his keys on the hook above the metal folding chair. The room would smell of food now cold in its pans.

The waiter finally brought the bill, slapping it down on the table.

‘So long to bring one small bill?’ asked Girish.

‘So long to drink one small coffee?’ asked the waiter, his face expressionless.

Girish dropped a few coins on the table and left the restaurant. As he reached Ashoka Road, there was a bang as a tyre burst. The darkness had completed its descent through the branches of the tamarind trees and over the drizzle-spattered shop fronts. Most of the crowds had thinned out but small groups remained outside KR Hospital and in front of the main entrance to Devaraja Market. Girish stepped into the road to avoid a glossy slick on the pavement. A steady stream of autorickshaws still honked their way down Irwin Road, leaving clouds of ugly fumes in their wake. Opposite Jyothi House a ragged figure was dragging a small Godrej wardrobe down a narrow alley that stank of urine.

Girish disappeared down Staircase B. A few minutes later he rode up the ramp from the basement, paused to nod at the watchman and then headed in the direction of Sitanagar. As he passed the approach road to Mysore Junction, he could hear the sound of an express train pulling in to Platform 2. In the distance, looming above his head, the clock on the tower near Sangam Talkies showed a quarter to two, a time it had proclaimed for at least three years.

S
USHEELA moved the Leaning Tower of Pisa so that it formed a straight line with the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. She noticed that the Pyramid of Giza seemed to have slid of its own accord below St Paul’s Cathedral. The thought crossed her mind that Uma kept rearranging the formation simply to annoy her. Each fridge magnet secured a vital piece of information and was positioned for ease of reference. Susheela detached a crumpled card advertising a furniture showroom. She ripped it into little shreds and clasped them in her hand. The manager of the showroom had turned out to be a complete buffoon. He had shown no understanding of his trade or her requirements. She would not be repeating that mistake.

She opened the fridge door. Mini cartons of juice were lined neatly along one shelf: apple, orange, grape and guava. Next to them a jug contained about a litre of freshly made lemonade, condensation flecking its rim. If anyone wanted
badaam
milk, the morning’s delivery would be boiled and cooled, the ground almonds stirred in, before being chilled in the freezer. As an emergency option there would always be yoghurt, thinned out and churned into a cold
lassi
, spiked with a dash of cumin.

Susheela remembered why she had come downstairs. It was this business with the missing sack of manure. She shut the fridge door; the manure was hardly likely to be there. The bag had invaded her thoughts just as she was beginning her morning exercises and the urge to carry out some form of investigation had been overwhelming. She had abandoned her stretches and come to the kitchen to see if the
mali
had arrived. In spite of his lengthy
protestations, she was convinced that he knew something about its disappearance. The nursery owner had been quite clear that he had sent over the sack and she had no reason to suspect his motives.

She walked across to the dining room windows to see if the
mali
was anywhere on the front lawn. Currents of dry heat were already beginning to claw their way up through the room, even at this time of morning. She turned on the air-conditioning unit and it let out a sinister growl. It had not been serviced for a while and a reminder needed to be slipped under the Eiffel Tower. There was no sign of the
mali
. Whether or not he had pilfered the manure, he was definitely late. She wondered for a moment whether he and Uma could have planned something together. Susheela had not spotted any signs of collusion and she had a fine instinct for intrigue being conducted under her roof. Uma was too aloof and reserved to indulge in such treacherous behaviour. Even if the
mali
dropped dead, she would probably just carry on with her work, silently mopping the floor around him.

Susheela knew she should return to her room and complete those exercises but her irritation made her immobile. Behind her, squares of sunlight shimmered on the rosewood table, polished through its nineteen-year life with great dedication. She noticed that the cracks in the plasterwork above the mirror had lengthened, forming a long and lopsided arrow. In the garden there was no movement at all; only a shocking white glare that would become even more ferocious as the day progressed.

Susheela shook her head and disposed of the tattered card. She supposed there was little point in compromising her health over what was essentially a bag of goat waste. The
mali
would be here sooner or later and there would be ample opportunity to uncover the truth. She switched off the air-conditioning unit and went back upstairs.

The
mali
rode past the 42 bus stop where buses from the villages outside Mysore came to a shuddering, shrieking halt on their way into the city centre. He slowed down, half expecting to see Uma in the vicinity. He looked around. The morning’s pageant in this part of Mahalakshmi Gardens was playing itself out but there was no sign of Uma. He pedalled on, sweat running into his eyes.

At Bamboo Corner a group of rubbish collectors were having a meeting in the shade of the giant bamboo. Their blue jackets had been pulled over their saris and their carts stood parked in a neat line down 6
th
Main Road. Also under the bamboo, a couple of elderly women were stooped over the parched sward, trying to pick long blades of grass for their
pooja
. The Nachappas’ dachshunds were out on their morning constitutional, their little legs plugging along inefficiently. Up and down the locality’s streets, newspapers were being lobbed over gates into verandas and balconies. The steady rasps of brooms sweeping out yards interrupted the demented chatter of bulbuls. The shutter of the provision store on 11
th
Cross Road was half raised; inside, the shop owner was deep in prayer before a sandalwood carving of Ganesh.

Opposite the main gates of the Gardens, the
mali
ran into the Bhaskars’ night watchman, squinting at the sun as he adjusted the clutch of plastic bags in his hands. The
mali
brought his bicycle to a halt, trailing his feet against the hot surface of the road.

‘Left your shift late again?’ he asked.

‘Yes, all because of that bastard,’ said the watchman, putting down some of his bags.

‘Which bastard?’

‘He is meant to relieve me at six but not even one day does he turn up on time. He is the purest type of bastard. The genuine article. One of these days I will bury him alive.’

The
mali
had heard details of the proposed interment numerous times and was keen to avoid a further account.

‘You are always wandering around with countless bags every time I see you. Like an old woman you are,’ he said with a laugh.

The watchman thought hard before responding.

‘Of course, make fun, big man. How many months have you been trying to get close to that tasty item inside the house? Seems like your Uma has no appreciation for a hero like you.’

‘These things take time.’

‘Don’t be simply buzzing for too long. The flower will droop and wilt.’

‘Go home,
ajja
.’

‘Eunuch.’

‘Bastard.’

They parted good-naturedly.

The last of the early walkers were completing their final circuits in the Gardens. A huddle of retirees could usually be found by the main gates, caught up in an intense exchange of news: all that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. The last few years had seen an influx of iPod-clutching, midriff-baring, visor-wearing joggers, who had returned for good from Houston, Manchester or Auckland. The t’ai chi habitués were adrift in their practice in the southern corner of the Gardens. A relatively new phenomenon in Mysore, this still attracted the gaze of alarmed older gentlemen, their loose cotton pyjamas flapping as they strolled down the paths. An aggressive display in electric blue spandex was taking place on the monkey bars. The regulars were all there: the speed-walking couple with identical lacquered hairstyles; the man whose principal exertion appeared to be clapping at the
neem
trees; the three rotund, middle-aged brothers who spent their forty-minute amble discussing breakfast options; and the woman in the Yale T-shirt who ran backwards, regularly flicking her head back to avoid an ugly mishap.

On Gulmohar Road the
mali
paused to wipe his face. He had
tried to set off earlier than usual, knowing that his conduct needed to be exemplary over the next few days.
Amma’s
eyes would be following him continually until she forgot about that missing sack of manure or found something else to occupy her mind. But he had slept badly and was now struggling to make it on time. He began pedalling again, past the large bungalows with their forbidding wrought-iron gates, the Spanish-style villas set in green quads and the corner house shaped like a violin. He finally turned into 7
th
Main Road and stopped outside a neat house, smaller than its neighbours, surrounded by a low compound wall.

Knowing he was in full view of the front windows, his features creased into an expression of honest industry. He wheeled the bicycle in through the gates and propped it up against one of the pillars of the carport. It looked like Uma had not arrived yet and so he stayed away from the front and back doors. The gravel on the path leading to the shed looked white in the dazzling sunshine. Deciding not to take on the blaze, he squatted in a small patch of shade under the dining room windows, sluggishly tracing his fingers through the desiccated soil. His days usually began with a steaming coffee, set down in his steel
lota
by Uma next to one of the sinks by the back door. He leant over the spent blossoms of the hibiscus shrubs. As a bead of sweat from his face dropped on to a bud’s wrinkled lobe, he settled down to wait.

In the master bedroom Susheela inhaled deeply and tried to hoist herself up on her arms, fixing her gaze on the corniced ceiling. Her wrists seemed to be made of moist clay. She renewed her attempt, managed to hold the position for a few seconds, before setting her head back down on the mat. A strange pain had launched itself between her shoulder blades, as if to counterbalance the throbbing circle around her right ankle.

There was a time when she would have taken herself off to see Dr Bhat for any such complaint, even if it meant having to endure his hyperactive receptionist and the jolt of her vigorously hennaed hair. Such frequent visits to the doctor, however, had become embarrassing. Although his manner was always solicitous, he probably assumed that she had little else with which to occupy herself. She recalled their last conversation, which had taken place as the doctor scribbled on a pad.

‘You must think I’m a hypochondriac, doctor, but truly, this cough has not gone for weeks,’ she had said, wishing he would look at her, rather than at his own jerky hand.

‘There is no need for any concern at all, you are absolutely in the pink,’ he had responded, still failing to meet her gaze.

‘But, after all, something must be causing it?’

‘Without a doubt. But you please don’t worry. I am here, no? How are your daughters? Doing well, I hope?’

‘They are doing very well, thank you. They were also a little worried about this cough, you know. They have been pestering me to get it investigated.’

‘Oh yes, good thing that you came to see me. The body is such a complicated instrument, isn’t it? The important thing is to be happy and enjoy a positive outlook. Joyful thoughts, in fact.’

‘Doctor, to be most frank with you, I don’t think my thoughts are more or less joyful than anyone else’s, but not everybody goes around having a strange cough for weeks.’

‘That is true. But in worrying about such matters one forgets that cheerfulness is the true medicine in life. An elixir, in fact.’

Susheela had given up. She had taken his prescription, a tonic that was apparently beneficial for general health and all-round well-being, and left the clinic in a state far removed from the recommended joyfulness.

Apart from the ankle and the shoulder blades, the last three
months had also seen the appearance of a patch of dry skin on one thigh and an unaccountable watering of her eyes every time she lay down. Susheela had learned stoicism and a benign neglect. She no longer discussed matters with the Nachappa boy, who was a junior doctor at St Theresa’s, and avoided the temptation of consulting an online compendium of illnesses. Given the array of symptoms, no doubt she would be able to diagnose herself with everything from aphasia to scurvy.

Some aspects of aging were easier to accommodate than others. The trouble, she thought to herself, in her most private moments, was that having had a face once widely acknowledged to be beautiful, one could hardly be expected to make an accurate assessment of its current merits. Just as an old but treasured cardigan would fail to reveal its frayed seams and baggy sleeves to its devoted owner, Susheela had begun to suspect that she had been rendered blind to a number of indignities in her facial appearance.

When she looked at her face she saw a woman who looked perhaps fifty-four rather than sixty-four. She saw good skin, lighter than the matrimonially prized ‘wheatish’, large brown eyes flecked with hazel, a fiercely proportionate nose and a well-defined Cupid’s bow that gently dropped her mouth into a soft vulnerability. She saw a slightly fleshy chin and a deep fold of skin that had somehow nudged its way to the top of her neck. She saw a deep dimple in her left cheek when she smiled and a faint crease radiating out under each eye from the top of her nose.

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