But several days went by before Forid stopped in to see Khalamma. It wasn’t a long visit, as they never were, for Forid was usually there to run some errand. Yet when he returned to Modern he had lost his usual repose. As if he had swallowed some bitter fruit, his nostrils flared, the sides of his mouth turned slightly downwards. In a while the bitter rose within him and he could contain it no longer. He told Kamal pointblank: Khalamma wanted Johir to come and work in their house. She had approached Johir’s mother, who had refused. Hashi was unwilling to let any of her children work as house-servants, she wanted her children with her.
Khalamma felt affronted. Trying to protect a daughter she understood. There was always a risk of what a girl might get herself into. But a boy? Why would Hashi not grab at the opportunity to give Johir to her? Didn’t they see Forid and his good fortune? And people should also consider how hard it was on her, at her age she couldn’t be expected to maintain this household by herself. So now, it was up to Forid: he was responsible for bringing Johir to her and cajoling the mother into agreeing.
“They’ll never agree,” Kamal said. “Why should they?”
That was a question Forid had no answer to. “But don’t you think he’ll be better off?” Kamal looked at him and then looked away, without saying anything. Forid felt helpless before Kamal’s gaze—this boy knew more than he had ever understood. Or let himself understand.
The silence between them continued like a ball of yarn dropped on a slope, growing smaller the longer it unwound. Forid walked to the wall—the dog was not there. Makku had regained mobility and was gradually increasing the boundaries of his rediscovery of the area. But Makku was usually here at this time, when Forid came. Johir wasn’t here either; where was Forid’s tea? Kamal should have gotten it by now. Was he paying the boy to take care of that damn dog?
Kamal spoke suddenly. “Johir hasn’t been here all day. Maybe his mother told him not to come here anymore.” Forid realized he didn’t even know where Johir lived. But why was he even wondering about that? What was that boy to him?
Kamal asked, “What did you say to Khalamma?”
Forid was saved from answering as a bark sounded from behind the wall. Makku was back. He had figured out the rules of his world and never entered the store. When Makku wanted one of them he barked from behind the wall; if impatient, he trotted to the entrance and bark. But he never came in. Makku knew the boundaries.
Kamal called and Makku came to this side, twisting to lick his hands as he rubbed him all over. “Bad Makku dog, where were you? You’ve missed your pills.”
The antibiotics were over, but the doctor had prescribed a new one for a week because the few inches still hanging from his butt looked redder than usual. Kamal put the pill bottle on the counter and brought out a small piece of cream-bun. That’s how he and Johir made Makku take his pills—they crushed it and then kneaded the powder into a milk-sogged piece of the bun.
Forid seemed mesmerized by Kamal’s movements and watched as if his eyes could sense the very ripples in the air. The Dean’s voice from behind took him by surprise. “Forid, have you taken care of your Khalamma’s request? We need someone quick, I can’t be traipsing here, ferrying groceries at my age.”
Forid felt Kamal’s eyes on him as a frantic scrambling arose in his head. Various answers scrabbled for a foothold and then plunged into unformed thought. Makku had retreated behind the wall and they could hear him make snuffling noises.
“But they don’t want to,” he said finally. “Hashi and Johir don’t want to.” It seemed strange to him that this crystal-clear answer had evaded him a few hours ago.
“Don’t want to?” The Dean repeated as if mouthing a language that sat heavy on his tongue. His brows creased as he noticed what Kamal was doing. “You’re buying drugs for that beast, is that how you’re using my money? You’re rich enough to do charity for animals now? Bighearted, eh? Well, then, make a donation to the orphanage, I won’t mind. But stop this nonsense. Get rid of that damn animal, Forid, I’m warning you.”
Before Forid could say anything, Kamal broke in. “He’s not spending anything. Doctor Sir gives us free drugs for Makku.”
The Dean looked at Kamal fully for the first time. “Is that so?” He said slowly. “You have learned your way around, haven’t you.” Forid wasn’t sure which one of them the Dean was talking to.
“Sir,” he said. “It’s almost better, it can walk. But it’s used to being here now. I rickshawed it to the other side of campus this week, it keeps coming back.”
“Then take it further. Further enough so that it can’t find its way back.”
Forid looked at the Dean’s fingers tapping out a steady staccato on his chipped countertop. He didn’t understand. There were many strays around the campus. Why was this one making the Dean angry?
The tapping stopped. “I’m warning you Forid. This is too much.”
“I’ll find a boy for you,” Kamal said suddenly. “I’ll find a young boy, not too clever. So he doesn’t run away. He’ll take care of the cooking and the rest of the household. Until then I’ll come in the mornings to get the shopping list and bring the groceries back by afternoon. You won’t have to come here anymore.”
It was probably the longest speech Kamal had ever made. Neither of the men said anything to the boy. Kamal spoke up again. “You won’t need to come here. You won’t have to see the dog.”
The Dean turned towards Kamal, but before he could say anything, Forid held up a piece of paper. “It’s the shopping list from the house, sir. I brought it from Khalamma.” He put it down on the counter, between them. “I’ll take all the things home to Khalamma in a little bit, sir. You don’t have to worry about it, you can finish your walk.”
The Dean looked from one to the other, as they stood side by side behind the counter. Forid had grown up in the Dean’s household; for years and years Forid had seen him the first thing in the morning when he carried in the hot water for the Dean’s morning shave. He had been the last person to see the Dean at night when he went to his room to put up the mosquito net. But they had never exchanged many words. Servants were the women’s business anyway.
The Dean brought out his wallet and stood clasping it in both hands as if he didn’t know what to do with it. He ran a tab for them but the Dean could never remember to pay it off monthly, and Forid never asked. The last time Forid had been paid must have been several months ago. “How much do we owe you, Forid?” he asked. “Look in your books. I keep forgetting.” The Dean turned to look at the unfinished wall. The grey was now covered with uneven splotches of paint. Those boys must have been monkeying around, Forid thought. “I keep forgetting,” said the Dean. “I guess I’m getting old.”
Forid said, “It doesn’t matter, sir. I’ll look it up later. It’s getting late; it’s time you went home.”
* * *
The night felt quieter than usual as Forid looked out into the darkness. Kamal was bustling about, readying everything to close shop. There were times that took up space in one’s life in a way that could never be repaired. After leaving home to come to work at the house, he had seen his mother twice, perhaps three times, before she had died. By the time the news had reached him, she had been buried two weeks, his father already on the lookout for a replacement wife.
He had come to this campus when he was eight. He had been one of the lucky ones—Khalamma and Dean Sir were both kind, generous people. Khalamma had even taken the trouble to teach him how to read and write. And when sir had caught him trying to read advertisements in the newspaper, he had sent Forid to school. None of the other servants he knew had gone to school. He couldn’t be enrolled in the university school, of course, because that was for the children of university staff and who wanted their child sitting next to a servant? So Forid had public-bussed to an out of town NGO school which allowed him to attend at Sir’s request. And he had completed the nine years of schooling that allowed him his job now. He had had a good life so far, hadn’t he? Perhaps it was now time to look at different kinds of luck.
He turned to Kamal and said, “I’m going to make this store bigger. I’ve applied to extend a fence and awning over that wall. We’ll sell tea and snacks. We don’t have any of those this side of town. It’ll do well, I know it will. Maybe Johir can help bus the tables. He’d have to be here on time, regularly. I’ll pay him a wage.” The night air was heavy with the scent of jasmine. Forid thought of the saying that jasmine at nighttime drew snakes. He had always wondered about that, were the snakes too drawn to the delicate beauty of the tiny blooms?
“I’ll ask him tomorrow,” Kamal said.
* * *
Kamal stood with his back to the store, his eyes towards the east. It was much too early for them to consider opening the store. Forid mama had called at his house before the sun had risen and made him come down here with him. Kamal didn’t understand why, but he felt content to stand by him, watching the dawn cut through the swathe of darkness like a knife.
With the retreat of night, the glorious green spread in front of them like driven desire. The bunch of keys hung from Kamal’s hand clinking against his thigh. His body felt weightless; as if a breeze light enough to ruffle the grass would be enough to lift him to the skies.
Forid said nothing and Kamal didn’t ask. Makku had woken up, and hobbled over to stand by their side. The wet nose snuffled against Kamal’s palm now and then, quick and sweet. The sunlight was growing stronger, everything around them limned and glowing, the very air sharply white. The day lay ahead of them. They waited.