AN INTRODUCTION BY JONATHAN LEE
I began reading Vivek Shanbhag’s sentences, translated from the South Indian language Kannada by Srinath Perur, a few weeks ago on a crowded F train heading into midtown Manhattan. A stranger’s armpit was in my face. The conditions weren’t ideal for concentration. It’s become a cliché to say that good writing transports you, opens new spaces in which a reader can think, but sometimes clichés achieve their status on account of being true.
How refreshing. How clear. How confident. Shanbhag’s sentences never show any strain. Every character you meet on a page of his prose inspires a thirst to know more. The reader’s greed is mirrored in the acquisitive spirit of the characters themselves — a desire for more furniture, a new TV, beautiful saris, jewelry, items they can suddenly afford. “In retrospect,” Shanbhag’s narrator tells us, “many of the new objects had no place in our daily lives. Our relationship with the things we accumulated became casual; we began treating them carelessly.”
Is wealth itself a sufficient force to create careless people? This isn’t a new question in fiction, but Shanbhag’s story, set in a rapidly changing India, makes it feel fresh again. “It’s true what they say,” he writes. “It’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us.”
Today, re-reading these words, the consequence of privilege having its way with us, condemning us to a principle of human distance, feels as relevant as ever. I haven’t met Vivek Shanbhag, but I can tell you that he’s an extraordinary storyteller — one astutely alive to the competing forces of self-interest and empathy.
Author of High Dive
Note on the translation: the Kannada names for mother, father, and uncle, Amma, Appa, and Chikkappa, have been retained.
“Malati” by Vivek Shanbhag
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Malati had always been unstable — a pile of gunpowder waiting to go off. All it took to light the fuse was our improved finances. She was in college when we moved to the new house. We’d been painstakingly frugal until then; what choice did we have? We consulted each other when money was to be spent, gave precise accounts. We thought of the family as being interdependent: a person who spent money was also taking it away from the others. All that changed overnight. There was enough now to buy things without asking for permission or informing anyone or even thinking about it. Appa’s hold on the rest of us slipped. And to be honest, we lost hold of ourselves, too.
We needed things for the new house, and this freed us in the matter of making purchases. For the first few weeks we bought as we had never bought before. Amma and Malati obeyed Chikkappa’s instructions with diligence and emptied his friend’s furniture shop. Soon the house was crammed with expensive mismatched furniture and out‑of‑place decorations. A TV arrived. Beds and dressing tables took up space in the rooms. In retrospect, many of the new objects had no place in our daily lives. Our relationship with the things we accumulated became casual; we began treating them carelessly.
Malati personified the chaos in our family. She’d always been quick to anger and inconsiderate of others, and those attributes found fuller expression in our new way of life. Her restlessness revealed itself in the harsh tone she took with others, and in violating the household’s unwritten rules. She was the first in the family to start eating out whenever she felt like it. Then she’d pick at her food at home, which would lead to a tussle between her and Amma.
Until then, eating at a restaurant had been an infrequent treat. Every fortnight or so we would all go out for tiffin on a Sunday afternoon. Appa was in the habit of taking a nap after lunch on Sundays, and on the appointed day we’d wait impatiently for him to wake up, Malati growing increasingly desperate for her masala dosa. The budget was fixed — it bought a masala dosa for each of us and a single coffee shared between Appa and Amma. Sometimes one of us would ask for another snack. Then, Appa wouldn’t feel like a coffee. You only had to see the plates off which Malati and I had eaten to know what we thought of the food — not a trace remained, even the chutney licked clean.
It wasn’t easy to confront Malati. You’d have to listen to ten words for each one you spoke. Amma asked Malati once with some hesitation if she had eaten out. “Yes, Amma, I ate out,” she said loudly. “I ate till I was full and then I drank coffee, too. What about it?” If anyone asked Malati where she’d been, she would give it back to them: “Do I ask you where you go? Why is it that everyone only asks me? Don’t you trust me?” There was no one in the house who could stand up to Malati in a battle of words. Rather, there was no one until my wife Anita joined the household.
It’s true what they say — it’s not we who control money, it’s the money that controls us. When there’s only a little, it behaves meekly; when it grows, it becomes brash and has its way with us. Money had swept us up and flung us in the midst of a whirlwind. We spent helplessly on Malati’s wedding. No one asked us to; we simply didn’t know how to stop. The main actors in that month‑long orgy of lavishness were Amma and Malati. I don’t think even they knew what they wanted. They’d set out every morning to shop, and when they were at home they spoke of nothing but saris and jewelry. The most expensive wedding hall we could find was booked. The caterer was dumbstruck by the number of dishes he was asked to serve. He would come to inquire about the menu and when he gave options of chiroti, holige, jalebi, pheni for the sweet, they’d say yes to all. He had only to mention a vegetable for them to say, “All right. Add that one, too.” On the wedding day, after the ceremonies were over and the guests had been served, we all sat down to eat in the last round. Amma was weighed down in gold, beaming as she accepted compliments about the food. The couple was having their photo taken as they fed each other. Appa was sitting at the end of the table, looking dazedly at the plantain leaf crammed with food in front of him.
Perhaps it is not right to conflate Malati’s short‑lived marriage with the wedding expenses or our family’s wealth. But I can’t help wondering if she would have given up as easily if Appa had still been a salesman. Maybe she had gotten used to having whatever she wanted and it diminished her capacity for making the inevitable compromises that ac‑ company marriage. Her husband, Vikram, was not a bad man. He ran the family business — a large sari shop — and worked from morning to dinnertime. He was free only on Sundays, but Malati expected him to spend more time with her. Initially they had small fights after which she’d come home in a huff. “He doesn’t care,” she’d say. “He would die for that shop of his.” Perhaps her vision of an ideal life lacked room for hard work. Vikram, too, was helpless, having no source of income other than the shop. Her breaks from her husband’s house began to grow longer and longer. In less than two years, she announced she wanted to leave him. Appa, Amma, and I went with her to Vikram’s house to see if a reconciliation was possible.
We went on a Sunday afternoon around four. It had been cloudy all day. By then Malati had not lived there for three months. They received us in their large hall, where Vikram and his father engaged us in inconsequential talk. Malati was in the kitchen with her mother‑in‑law. I suppose we — all four men in the hall — were struggling to get to the point. We didn’t have to. Just then there was a crashing noise from the kitchen. Malati stormed into the hall. Her mother‑in‑law, who was arthritic, limped out behind her, looking distraught. “Look what she has done,” she said. “She’s broken the whole tea set. It was such a good one.” She was panting with rage and exertion.
“Tell them what you said first,” said Malati, with a familiar curtness.
“What did I say wrong?” her mother‑in‑law asked. “I asked why she unpacked a new tea set, that’s all.”
“Why not a new tea set for my family? Why serve them in old, chipped cups?”
“We’ve never used old or chipped cups in this house. There’s nothing wrong with the cups we use every day. I only asked what need there was to open a new one, that’s all . . .”
“And that’s why I broke it. There’s no need for it after all.”
Her mother‑in‑law couldn’t resist. “Is this what your parents have taught you?” she asked, in front of them.
“Yes. This is what they have taught me. You can ask them yourself since they’re here. Go on, ask!”
It had all gotten out of hand. Vikram’s father said to Appa and Amma, “Look, now you’ve seen for yourselves. How is it possible to get along when anything we say leads to a scene?” Malati’s mother‑in‑law was in tears.
Vikram couldn’t stay quiet any longer. “Why are you weeping, Amma? Everyone’s seen how she behaves. Let her go stay in her parents’ house if she doesn’t like it here.” His tone was not particularly harsh, but there was an obvious touch of male authority in his words.
His father raised his voice now. “Look,” he said, pointing to his wife. “I’ve lived with her all these years and not once have I made her cry. It’s only after this girl has arrived that I’ve seen her in tears.”
Malati could hardly be expected to stay quiet. “Yes, yes, it’s all my fault. You’re all very gentle people.”
Her mother‑in‑law wiped off her tears and said, “You can’t buy graciousness. It’s something that’s handed down through the generations. They say the newly rich carry umbrellas to keep moonlight at bay . . .”
Amma was wounded by this. “Yes, it’s true we’ve lived in poverty. That doesn’t mean our heads have spun around because some money came our way.”
It was clear that all this was not going anywhere. We rose to leave. They didn’t ask us to wait. Nor did they come to the door to send us off. Malati led the way, still fuming. I felt it was mostly her fault, but I wasn’t going to say anything while she was in this frame of mind. Appa hadn’t said a single word all through the afternoon’s farce.
The next Sunday I went to see a film in the afternoon.
When I got back home, everyone including Chikkappa was sitting in the hall. Something about the way they were gathered struck me as ominous.
Appa and Amma were on the sofa. Malati was sprawled in a chair. Chikkappa was in the chair opposite her. Malati was somewhat triumphantly ticking items off on a list of jewelry. I knew there had been some concerned talk of recovering her jewelry from her husband’s house. It seemed to have been done while I was out. Chikkappa greeted me as soon as I entered: “Come, come, you were the only one missing.”
Malati started from the beginning for my benefit. “I went there at one in the afternoon,” she said. “I knew they’d all be home between noon and two. Chikkappa’s friends were waiting in the park nearby. Their leader is called Ravi. He’d told me, ‘You just get there and give me a missed call, sister. We’ll be there in no time.’
“I went there and rang the doorbell. My mother‑in‑law opened the door. She refused to let me enter. ‘If you don’t let me in, I’ll scream and make sure all the neighbors know what you’re doing,’ I told her. She said, ‘Go ahead. I’m tired of your antics.’ I quickly called Ravi from my mobile. He and his friends were there in no time, six of them, hefty men. My mother‑in‑law was scared. ‘Who are these people?’ she asked me. ‘Just my uncle’s friends,’ I told her. ‘Are you trying to scare us?’ she asked. Just then Ravi pushed her aside and entered the house. Vikram and his father emerged from within. ‘What’s all this? Who are these people?’ Vikram shouted, looking at me. ‘I’m going to call the police,’ he said. And then you know what? Ravi simply stepped up to him and gave him a sharp slap. You should have been there! Vikram was so scared. ‘Please, sir, don’t hurt me. Please,’ he started saying. I wanted to laugh. He was actually calling Ravi ‘sir’! I told Vikram, ‘Look here, I’ve just come to take my jewelry. I only want what belongs to me. You can keep whatever your parents gave me.’ He didn’t say anything. ‘What? Did you hear what she said?’ Ravi asked, taking out a long knife and placing it on the table. One of Ravi’s guys shut and bolted the front door from inside. I went into the bedroom. The keys to the almirah were still where I remembered them. My gold was all in one box, lying there since the wedding. I brought it out with me. I took my taali and the bangles they had given me and threw them at my mother‑in‑law’s feet. You should have seen their faces! Vikram’s father was sitting mute in a chair. Ravi was speaking to Vikram in a low voice. Every time I heard Vikram calling him ‘sir’ I had to stifle my laughter. I opened the box in front of him before leaving. ‘I’ve only taken what is mine. See for yourself,’ I said. He didn’t look. He didn’t say a word. I left. Ravi called sometime before you got here. He said they sat there for a while after I left and even had my mother‑in‑law make tea for them. He’s warned them that the matter better end here, peacefully.”
Chikkappa was sitting in his chair, looking very pleased with what Malati was reporting. Amma didn’t approve of the phone call. “Was it so important to report that they had tea?” she asked.
Appa didn’t seem happy with the day’s events. “This means we’ve broken all relations with them,” he said to Malati. “You shouldn’t have gone there and frightened them like that.”
Chikkappa cut in: “They’re all my friends, nothing to worry about. Don’t family members go in these circumstances and bring back valuables? Same thing. It’s also their work. They call themselves recovery agents. It’s these times we live in . . . Nothing is straightforward. If I didn’t use their help to get payments due to Sona Masala, all I’d be doing is walking from street to street, knocking on doors.”
Appa got up and left the room. My guess is that Amma didn’t approve of these rough methods, either, but she would never say that. “Where’s today’s paper?” Chikkappa asked, indicating there was nothing more to be said. Malati went to her room. I followed soon after. When I passed the closed door of her room I thought I heard sobs from inside. Perhaps it had all gone too far, and she was being pushed down a path she really didn’t want to take. I wanted to go in and console her, but I didn’t know what I would say. And what if she thought it a loss of face to be seen crying? I went on to my room.
Amma had hopes that Malati’s marriage could be salvaged. I suspected that Malati was not entirely indifferent to Vikram either; perhaps she even loved him. But she settled in at home and attempted no reconciliation. Nor did he. None of us had the courage to ask her where she went or what she was up to. Occasionally, she halfheartedly helped Amma with the housework. But this was aimed only at asserting her position in the house, and it became more conspicuous once Anita joined the household. The rest of the time she was thumbing messages into her phone. Sometimes I heard her on the phone late at night and wondered who it could be. That Ravi? Or was it possible she was softening toward Vikram and meeting him without the knowledge of the families? Malati forever invoked a friend named Mythili with whom she would watch films, at whose place she would stay, in whose company she would take trips to Mysore and Madras. I suspected this Mythili was a front behind which she was having an affair with someone. But even if that were true, what could I have done?
Malati’s restlessness, her lack of peace, touched all of us. She was outspoken, rude, aggressive, it’s true; yet we had lived for years in some sort of harmony. How could that aspect of our life together have vanished entirely? In the middle room of the old house where she and I used to sleep, sometimes we’d chat late into the night and she would confide in me. She told me about her college, her classmate Vandana, whose stepmother served her leftovers, and who was in love with a boy they called Koli Ramesh. It was Malati who carried letters between them. In the new house, we were locked in the cells of individual rooms, and there was no opportunity to ex‑ change casual confidences. Lying alone in my room, I sometimes wondered if Malati’s happiness would have been better served had Sona Masala not existed at all.
It isn’t easy for a woman to leave her husband and live in her mother’s house. In our case, the trouble was not so much the people who lived there — we were ultimately on Malati’s side after all — but others: guests who visited home, people we would run into at weddings, well‑wishers ever eager to put us on the defensive, busybodies. We all grew a little paranoid, suspecting malice on the part of anyone who spoke to her. Terrible stories spread about her after she got back her gold from Vikram’s house, stories in which she was made out to be an incarnation of Phoolan Devi: she had led a band of goons and ordered them to vandalize the house; she had herself held a knife to her husband’s throat. I know she could have done without all the talk. I’m sure she, too, wanted to live a regular, happy life, but things had somehow gone awry. I’m not sure how. Perhaps it isn’t right to place the entire blame on Sona Masala, I don’t know.