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An Area of Darkness


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Something had startled where I thought I was safest. The tourist’s terror of extortion gripped me. ‘No, Ali. You take me see first. I like, I bring here.’

He turned to face the hot box and the toast again. It had been a momentary impulse; he never mentioned dancing girls again.

And after the hot box, improvements came fast. Two strips of torn matting were laid down the narrow, pansy-lined path that connected the kitchen with the dining-room. The strips lay at a slight angle to one another; when it rained they looked black against the lawn. And presently – the lake giving up more of its treasures – uneven lengths of old board appeared on this matting. The polisher, a silent boy, came. He polished the ‘sofa-set’ in the sitting-room, and the old writing-table (stuffed with Russian propaganda: Ali brought back armfuls from the Russians he met at the Tourist Reception Centre). He polished the chairs and the bed and the dining-table; he polished day after day, saying nothing, ate platefuls of rice in the kitchen, and at last went away, leaving the furniture almost exactly as it had been. The turf-layer came; he tore and rammed and tamped on one bare bank.

It was all activity now. But there were periods of repose, especially in the afternoons. Then Aziz squatted on the kitchen veranda before the hookah and pulled; he had changed his woollen nightcap for a fur cap and had become a workaday Kashmiri, with a gift for instantaneous repose. Visitors called, boatmen, vendors; and from the hut came sounds of romping and chatter. After one outburst of gaiety we had a glimpse of Aziz running out to the veranda without his cap, and he had changed again: he was quite bald. On sunny afternoons Mr Butt and the khansamah wrapped themselves in blankets from head to toe and slept on the lawn.

The painters came, to give that second coat. One was purely medieval; he had the labourer’s broad friendly face and he wore a dirty cotton skull-cap. The other was bare-headed and wore contemporary green overalls. But their skills matched. They painted without any preparation. They couldn’t manage straight lines; they ignored the division between concrete and timber, between ceiling and walls, between glass pane and window frame. They dripped paint everywhere. Their abandon infected me. I took a brush and on an unpainted wall drew birds and animals and faces. They giggled, and drew some things of their own. The man in the overalls asked the man in the skull-cap in Kashmiri: ‘Shall I ask him for bakshish?’ Skull-cap looked at me. ‘No, no,’ he said. But when Skull-cap went out of the room Overalls said in English, ‘I make room nice for you. You give bakshish?’

The painters left and the glazier came to complete the dining-room windows. He measured the panes by eye and hand, cut, cut again, fitted, tapped in little nails and went away. Then a new coir matting was laid down on the steps and corridors and top gallery. It was too wide for the gallery – a sewage pipe stood in the way – and it remained curled along one edge; on the steps an absence of rails made it dangerous; and after every gusty shower the matting in the corridor was soaked. Two days later a patterned green plastic tablecloth covered the dining-table. And that was not the end. Overalls turned up again. He went from green door to green door, painting numbers in chocolate, wiping out inelegancies with a rag, leaving each shaggy number in a brownish blur; then he went to the kitchen and ate a plateful of rice.

Nothing more, it seemed, could be done. And when Aziz brought me coffee one morning he said, ‘Sahib, I request one thing. You write Touriasm office, invite Mr Madan to tea.’

Mr Madan was the Kashmir Director of Tourism. I had met him once, and briefly. Then, in response to my plea for help in finding accommodation, he had said, ‘Give me twenty-four hours’; and that was the last I had heard. I explained this to Aziz.

‘You write Touriasm, invite Mr Madan to tea. Not your tea. My tea. Mr Butt tea.’

Meal by meal, waiting on us, he pressed his case. The Liward was new; it was neither houseboat nor hotel; it needed some sort of recognition from the Tourist Office. I was willing enough to write a letter of recommendation. It was the invitation to tea that worried me; and it was this that Aziz and Mr Butt, smiling shyly behind his spectacles, insisted on. So one morning, with Mr Butt and the English-reading secretary of the All Shikara Workers Union looking over my shoulder, I wrote to Mr Madan and invited him to tea.

Mr Butt himself took the letter into town. At lunch Aziz reported that Mr Madan had read the letter but had sent no reply. Solicitous now of my own honour, Aziz added: ‘But perhaps he write and wait get typewrite and send by his own chaprassi.’

Aziz knew the forms. But no chaprassi ever came with Mr Madan’s reply. I had a typewriter; a uniformed army officer brought me invitations from the Maharaja; yet I was without the influence to do a simple thing like getting Mr Madan to come to tea. Perhaps it was not only language that kept Mr Butt silent. And a further humiliation awaited me. The secretary of the All Shikara Workers Union wished to get up a petition to the Director of Transport for a more frequent bus service. I drafted the petition; I typed it; I signed it. It wasn’t even acknowledged. Aziz knew the forms. So when, not long after, I complained about the weakness of the bulbs and asked for one to be replaced, and he said, ‘Two-three rupees. You buy, I buy – what difference?’ I didn’t really feel I could object. I bought.

*

The season had begun. The hotel was not recognized, but accommodation was limited in Srinagar, our prices were reasonable, and soon we began to get guests. I had been full of plans for publicizing the hotel. I had put some of these plans to Aziz and, through him, to Mr Butt. They smiled, grateful for my interest; but all they wanted me to do was to talk to those tourists in jacket and tie whom Ali brought back from the Reception Centre. When I failed I felt humiliated. When I succeeded I was miserable. I was jealous; I wanted the hotel to myself. Aziz understood, and he was like a parent comforting a child. ‘You will eat first. You will eat by yourself. We give you special. This is not Mr Butt hotel. This is your hotel.’ When he announced new guests he would say, ‘Is good, sahib. Good for hotel. Good for Mr Butt.’ Sometimes he would raise one hand and say, ‘God send customer.’

I remained unhappy. Being an unorthodox hotel, we attracted the orthodox. There had been the brahmin family, the first of many, who had insisted on cooking for themselves. They shelled peas, sifted rice and cut carrots in the doorway of their room; they cooked in the broom cupboard below the steps and washed their pots and pans at the garden tap; they turned part of the new turf to mud. Others threw their rubbish on the lawn; others spread their washing on the lawn. And I believed that the idyll was at an end when Aziz announced one day, with a well-managed mixture of enthusiasm and condolence, that twenty orthodox Indians were coming to the hotel for four days. Some would sleep in the dining-room; we would eat in the sitting-room. I was beyond condolence. Aziz recognized this and offered none. We waited. Aziz became morose, almost offended, in our presence. But the twenty did not turn up; and then for a day or two Aziz looked genuinely offended.

There were other difficulties. I had had it established that the radio in the dining-room was to be turned on just before eight. As soon as we heard the pips we went down to breakfast and the news in English. One morning no pips came, only Hindi film songs and Hindi commercials for Aspro and Horlicks: the radio was tuned to Radio Ceylon. I shouted through the window for Aziz. He came up and said he had explained to the boy from Bombay about the eight o’clock news from Delhi, but the boy had paid no attention.

I had loathed the boy from Bombay on sight. He wore tight trousers and a black imitation-leather jacket; his hair was thick and carefully combed; he carried his shoulders with something of the left-hander’s elegant crookedness; he had the boxer’s light walk and his movements were swift and abrupt. I thought of him as the Bombay Brando; I set him against a background of swarming Bombay slum. We had not spoken. But now, leather jacket or no leather jacket, this was war.

I ran downstairs. The radio was on full blast, and Brando was sitting in a derelict wicker chair on the lawn. I lowered the volume, almost to silence at first, in my ha

ste; and turned to Radio Kashmir. Ali was making toast; the curve of his back signalled that he wasn’t going to interfere. Nothing happened during the news. As soon as it was over, however, Brando pushed violently through the curtained doorway, went to the radio, wiped out Radio Kashmir for Radio Ceylon, and pushed out again violently through the curtain.

And so now it went on, morning and evening. Aziz I knew to be neutral. Ali I thought to be on my side. He crouched silently before the hot box, deprived now of his Kashmiri devotional songs. The conflict had reached stalemate. I longed for some development and one morning I suggested to Ali that Kashmiri songs were better than the commercials from Radio Ceylon. He looked up from his toast with alarm. Then I discovered that in the few short weeks of the tourist season, of tourist transistors tuned to Radio Ceylon, his taste had changed. He liked the commercial jingles, he liked the film songs. They were modern, an accessible part of that world beyond the mountains from which the advanced, money-laden Indian tourists came. Kashmiri music belonged to the lake and the valley; it was rude. So fragile are our fairylands.

Then I went down with a stomach upset and had to stay in bed. The next morning there was a knock on the door. It was Brando.

‘I didn’t see you yesterday,’ he said. ‘They told me you were not well. How are you today?’

I said I was better and thanked him for coming. There was a pause. I tried to think of something more to say. He wasn’t trying at all. He stood unembarrassed beside the bed.

‘Where do you come from?’ I asked.

‘I come from Bombay.’

‘Bombay. What part of Bombay?’

‘Dadar. You know Dadar?’

It was what I had imagined. ‘What do you do? Are you a medical student?’

He barely raised his left foot off the floor, and his shoulders went crooked. ‘I am guest in the hotel.’

‘Yes, I know that,’ I said.

‘You are guest in the hotel.’

‘I am a guest in the hotel.’

‘So why you say I am medical student? Why? You are guest in the hotel. I am guest in the hotel. You get sick. I come to see you. Why you say I am medical student?’

‘I am sorry. I know that you have come to see me only because we are both guests in the hotel. But I didn’t mean to offend you. I just wanted to find out what you did.’

‘I work for an insurance company.’

‘Thank you very much for coming to see me.’

‘You are welcome, mister.’

And, leading with the left shoulder, he pushed through the curtains and left.

Thereafter courtesy was imposed on both of us. I offered him Radio Ceylon; he offered me Radio Kashmir.

*

‘Huzoor!’ the khansamah called one afternoon, knocking and coming into the room at the same time. ‘Today my day off, and I going home now, huzoor.’ He spoke rapidly, like a man with little time. Normally Aziz came with him to our room; but this afternoon he had managed to elude Aziz, whom I saw, through the window, reclining on a string bed in the kitchen veranda.

‘My son is sick, huzoor.’ He gave a crooked bashful smile and shifted about on his elegant feet.

It was not necessary. My hand was already in my pocket, detaching notes from a stapled wad of a hundred. It was all that the local State Bank of India had that week. It encouraged this type of protracted furtive activity: I knew how easy and dangerous it was to excite the Kashmiri.

‘My son is sick bad, huzoor!’

His impatience matched mine.

‘Huzoor!’ It was an exclamation of pure displeasure. Three notes had stuck together and appeared as one. Then he smiled. ‘Oh, three rupees. All right.’

‘Huzoor!’ the khansamah said one week later. ‘My wife is sick, huzoor.’

At the door, fingering the notes I had given him, he stopped and said with sudden consoling conviction, ‘My wife true sick bad, huzoor. Very bad. She have typhoid.’

This worried me. Possibly he wasn’t being merely courteous. At dinner I asked Aziz.

‘She not have typhoid.’ Aziz’s tight-lipped smile, suppressing laughter at my gullibility, was infuriating.

I had, however, betrayed the khansamah. He came no more with tales of sick relations. I did not like to think of his humiliation in the kitchen; and I liked to think least of all of Aziz’s triumph over him. On that small island I had become involved with them all, and with none more so than Aziz. It was an involvement which had taken me by surprise. Up to this time a servant, to me, had been someone who did a job, took his money and went off to his own concerns. But Aziz’s work was his life. A childless wife existed somewhere in the lake, but he seldom spoke of her and never appeared to visit her. Service was his world. It was his craft, his trade; it transcended the formalities of uniform and deferential manners; and it was the source of his power. I had read of the extraordinary control of eighteenth-century servants in Europe; I had been puzzled by the insolence of Russian servants in novels like Dead Souls and Oblomov; in India I had seen mistress and manservant engage in arguments as passionate, as seemingly irreparable and as quickly forgotten as the arguments between husband and wife. Now I began to understand. To possess a personal servant, whose skill is to please, who has no function beyond that of service, is painlessly to surrender part of oneself. It creates dependence where none existed; it requires requital; and it can reduce one to infantilism. I became as alert to Aziz’s moods as he had been to mine. He had the power to infuriate me; his glumness could spoil a morning for me. I was quick to see disloyalty and diminishing attentions. Then I sulked; then, depending on his mood, he bade me good-night through a messenger or he didn’t bid me good-night at all; and in the morning we started afresh. We quarrelled silently about guests of whom I disapproved. We quarrelled openly when I felt that his references to increasing food prices were leading up to a demand for more money. I wished, above all, to be sure of his loyalty. And this was impossible, for I was not his employer. So in my relations with him, I alternated between bullying and bribing; and he handled both.

His service, I say, transcended uniform. He wore none; and he appeared to have only one suit of clothes. They grew grimy on him, and his scent became riper and riper.

‘Can you swim, Aziz?’

‘O yes, sahib, I swim.’

‘Where do you swim?’

‘Right here on lake.’

‘It must be very cold.’

‘O no, sahib. Every morning Ali Mohammed and I take off clothes and swim.’

This was something; it removed one doubt. ‘Aziz, get the tailor to make you a suit. I will pay.’

He became stern and preoccupied, a man worn down by duties; this was a sign of pleasure.

‘How much do you think it will cost, Aziz?’

‘Twelve rupees, sahib.’

And in this mood, catching sight of Ali Mohammed about to go off to the Tourist Reception Centre in his shabby striped blue suit, his waistcoat and watch-chain, I surrendered to the pathos of his appearance.

‘Ali, get the tailor to make you a new waistcoat. I will pay.’

‘Very good, sir.’

It was hard to tell with Ali. He always looked slightly stunned whenever he was addressed directly.

‘How much will it cost?’

‘Twelve rupees, sir.’

It appeared to be a popular price. I went up to my room. I had hardly settled down at the blue table when the door was roughly pushed open and I turned to see the khansamah, blue apron on, advancing upon me. He seemed to be in an uncontrollable rage. He put a hand on the jacket that was hanging on the back of my chair and said, ‘I want a coat.’ Then, as if alarmed by his own violence, he stepped back two paces. ‘You give Ali Mohammed jacket and you give that man Aziz suit.’

Had they been taunting him in the kitchen? I thought of Aziz’s tight-lipped smile, his stern look of a moment before: suppressions of triumph that had inevitably to be released. Ali had been about to go off to the Tourist Reception Centre; he

must have gone back to the kitchen to break the news.

‘I am a poor man.’ The khansamah made a sweeping gesture with both hands down his elegant clothes.

‘How much will it cost?’

‘Fifteen rupees. No, twenty.’

It was too much. ‘When I leave I will give you coat. When I leave.’

He dropped to the floor and tried to seize my feet in mark of gratitude, but the legs and rungs of the chair were in the way.

He was a tormented man; and I knew, from what I heard and saw, that there were rows in the kitchen. He was careful of his honour. He was a cook. He was not a general servant; he had not learned the art of pleasing and probably despised those, like Aziz, who prospered by pleasing. I could see that he would provoke situations with which he could not cope; and after every defeat he would suffer.

It must have been a week later. For dinner he sent across meat stew and vegetable stew. The stews were identical, apart from the shreds and cubes of meat in one. I was not a meat-eater, and I was irrationally upset. I could not touch the vegetable stew. Aziz was wounded; this gave me pleasure. He went out with the stew to the kitchen, from where the khansamah’s voice was presently heard, angrily raised. Aziz returned alone, walking carefully, as though his feet were sore. After some time there was a call from behind the curtained doorway. It was the khansamah. In one hand he held a frying-pan, in another a fish-slice. His face was flushed from the fire and ugly with anger and insult.

‘Why you don’t eat my vegetable stew?’

As soon as he began to speak he lost control of himself. He stood over me and was almost screaming. ‘Why you don’t eat my vegetable stew?’ I feared he was about to hit me with the frying-pan, which he had raised, and in which I saw an omelette. Immediately after his violence, however, came his alarm, his recognition of his own weakness.