A story from Sonal Kohli’s debut collection of linked short stories, The House Next to the Factory, published by HarperCollins India in September 2021.
I remove the measuring tape from around my neck and put it in the drawer along with the shears and chalk. If Masterji comes on time, we can start with these salwar suits tomorrow. I fold the cut fabric, the back, the front, and the sleeves and put them away too. Cherry is lying by the bed with a scrap of yellow chiffon between her teeth. She’s probably hungry or bored or both. I pick up the jigsaw box and turn off the fan and she follows me out.
Ram Rattan hasn’t rolled up the chick blinds, and the veranda is cool and dark. I place the box on the table where the pieces I have assembled so far wait for me. I stop to appraise the progress. It’s like a moth-eaten view of the Tower Bridge, with gaping holes in the scene. The bridge itself and the towers are missing, but I have the buildings in the background on the bank. They have been easy to do, owing to the varied colours, the old ones with brown brick façades and the new ones that glint blue and green in the evening light. ‘Yes, Cherry?’ She’s barking. She’s prodding the bamboo chicks with her head to find the gap. I tug at the rope to raise them. Light rolls in and climbs up the veranda walls. I secure the rope around a pillar. Mom is watering the pomegranate tree, drops slipping off the leaves to form a puddle at the bottom. Cherry stands at the lip of the veranda and wags her tail. The henna streaks in Mom’s hair shine copper. She waters the shaggy roses and the bed of canna lilies. Sparrows are chirping on the garden wall amongst the bougainvillea.
I sit on the sofa and sift through the pieces in the box. There are still so many of them. I find a lavender corner piece with two smooth edges and keep it aside on the table to use when it’s time to patch the sky and the reflecting waters of the Thames. Cherry splays herself on the floor and rests her chin on my slipper. I stroke her with my toes. Mom has moved to the far side of the garden to water the mulberries. A bus trundles by on Shahdara Bridge, making the sparrows jump and scatter. The bridge passes just outside the house, but its fat, ugly pillars screen us from the main road, which is always busy. Three sparrows return to the bougainvillea. I riffle some more and spy what may be the top storey of the building on the right. I try it and it interlocks perfectly.
Ram Rattan brings cold coffee, tea and a couple of Marie biscuits and sets down the tray. ‘Where’s your mother?’ he says in his sullen voice and goes out to the garden. The air smells muddy and moist. Cherry lifts her head and winks at the biscuits. I slide one off the tray and she catches it in her mouth. I sift through the box again, letting the pieces run through my fingers. I should start with the towers, don’t think it can be put off any longer. I search for beige pieces. I find one, and one more. I chance upon a crenelated balcony. Cherry looks like a large rat, the way she is nibbling at the biscuit.
Mom takes off her slippers before stepping on to the veranda. She sits in the chair and reaches down to rub Cherry. ‘Bhardwaj called,’ she says.
‘An hour ago. He’s bringing a buyer tomorrow. It’s two brothers. They have a steel business. He says they are interested and want to see the house.’ Cherry rolls on to her back, presenting Mom the length of her belly, eyes shut with pleasure.
‘Did he say how much they are offering?’
‘I asked twice, but he said we’ll discuss that when we meet. Enough, Cherry. Come on. Good girl.’ She picks up her tea and I sip at the coffee. I find a purple piece that could be one of the cruise boats on the Thames. ‘Leave it alone,’ Mom says. I was scratching behind my ear with the piece. I drove to Chandni Chowk this morning to buy chiffons, georgettes and laces for Simi’s order, and then stood at the dyer’s while he coloured and dried the fabrics. The air conditioner didn’t work on the way back and I was soaked in sweat even before I reached Kashmere Gate. That could be when I got the sunburn, or perhaps it was at the dyer’s. Anyway, the margin’s going to be double since I sourced the fabrics myself. We should have the money from the suits next week, and the fixed deposit is maturing soon too. Hopefully we’ll be okay for a while. Alcohol is getting expensive, so is meat. Sometimes Mom quips we should become vegetarians. The rent from the grocer’s shop cancels out with what we buy from him every month. We can increase the rent by 10 per cent when the lease renews at the end of the year, but let’s see, maybe the house will sell before then. I find two pieces of the golden steeple, tabs and blanks already linked.
Colour is seeping out of the sky and it’s turned pale and peach. The heat is settling down. The sparrows have flown home. Bells are ringing at the Swaminarayan Temple and will continue for the next twenty minutes. Dad used to hate their incessant jangling, especially when he was bedridden and had to endure it every morning and evening. He had learned to complain effectively just using the corner of his mouth. A horn wails from the bridge, displacing the sound of the bells for a moment. Mom stretches her legs and Cherry creeps under. Maybe someone somewhere is doing a jigsaw of Shahdara Bridge with Mom, Cherry and me showing through its fat, ugly pillars.
I get up and switch on the lights. The pieces have become indistinct blotches of colour, and it is hurting my eyes to concentrate. The light is sallow. It always is in our house.
Ram Rattan passes by with a pile of ironed clothes to put in my room. I cross my legs on the sofa. My thighs are getting bulky. I should start going for a morning walk. Mom gets up, retrieves her slippers and goes to her room. Cherry is snoring. Outside, the sky is as lavender as the one over the Thames. It’s beautiful how the summer sky segues from one colour to the next, and one can spend a whole evening just sitting here and looking out. In winter night arrives all too quickly. Ram Rattan emerges from the room, letting the screen door clap loudly behind him. I ask him to bring a table lamp from the drawing room. He grumbles under his breath. This present bout of surliness owes to the fact that Mom has ordered him to wear a shower cap in the kitchen. He places the lamp on the side table and jams the plug into the wall. Poor Ram Rattan. He does look funny in the cap, but we can’t have his hair in our food, can we? ‘Cherry, come. Dinner,’ he says. Cherry opens her eyes, stretches and trots off after him to the kitchen.
The light is better now. I have a grey spire with the golden steeple on the top and a balcony complete with windows. The pieces are starting to link. Mom has turned on the tube light in her room, and I can see her through the wire mesh sitting on her bed, turning the pages of the paper. It will take us time getting used to living in a two-bedroom apartment in Gurgaon. I’m afraid it will be like living in a box, and like a rat one will always be trying to climb out. Here we have so much space. The garden looks placid, lit only by the lamps on the bridge. The mulberries have receded into the shadows. In Gurgaon, Mom will have to make do with a few pots on the balcony. But at least we won’t have to worry about our finances all the time. At the first meeting, when Bhardwaj said we could expect thirty crore rupees or more, Mom’s jaw dropped. Here we were, sitting on a gold mine yet barely making ends meet. Bhardwaj smirked and slurped at his tea. It’s a large house, of course, that too in Civil Lines, but we never imagined actually selling it. Dad was too unwell to realize he was signing over his share of the business to his brother. Thankfully the house was in my name. Grandpa had bought it in the early fifties from a Muslim family that moved to Hyderabad after Partition. Grandpa loved its mix of Indian and English sensibilities – the long veranda with the two octagonal rooms on either end looking on to the garden, the high roshandans, the pantry alongside the kitchen – so he decided to keep the house as it was. I wish we could continue living here, but there’s little point in being sentimental. We are already making lists of things we are going to buy: a big TV, new wardrobes, Mom wants a microwave and griller, we need a new car. We are thinking a Honda City. The Maruti is so old and battered, it’s embarrassing driving around in it. Dad bought it nearly twenty years ago, after our sports equipment company received a contract for the Asian Games of ’82.
Mom is clipping something from the paper, could be the three-cheese lasagna recipe she was talking about. For a while she ran a takeout restaurant from the back of the house where we have my workshop now, between Ram Rattan’s quarters and the grocer’s store. She called it ‘Mrs Singh’s Kitchen’ and hired Ram Rattan’s son to deliver the orders on his cycle. Everyone loves Mom’s cooking. Her saag meat, chicken hara pyaz, kathi rolls and toffee pudding are popular in our circle. The toffee pudding is really nice and sticky. It’s a nice sort of stickiness. My mouth’s watering. The orders kept us busy the whole day, the phone rang every five minutes. It turned out to be more than Mom could handle. People started to complain that the food arrived too late, too cold. Mom doesn’t take criticism very well. She closed down the restaurant. I think she still has the menus somewhere in her cupboard.
I didn’t realize that the temple bells had stopped ringing. Ram Rattan is listening to the radio in the kitchen, and Cherry, it seems, is pushing her dinner bowl across the floor. I sit back to regard the twenty-odd miscellaneous beige pieces lined on the table. One with a crenelated moulding jumps out at me. I move it below the balcony and it fits. I review the image on the box. There ought to be windows below here. This piece maybe, and this one. Ah, I almost have two storeys of the left tower. The doorbell rings. Cherry comes running from inside the house and shoots out to the garden and the gate beyond. Ram Rattan ambles after her, digging in his ear with a matchstick. I patch together the arch where the tower meets the bridge to let the traffic through. I move the arch and the balcony along with the lower storey to their probable places on the table. The view still looks moth-eaten, but the gaps are filling up.
Simi appears on the veranda panting, with Ram Rattan restraining Cherry by the collar while she tries to paw towards Simi. ‘Don’t let go of her,’ Simi warns.
‘She likes you,’ I say. ‘See how she’s wagging her tail.’
‘No, please.’ Simi shakes her head, making her diamond earrings wiggle. She’s wearing a pastel green lakhnavi, with the dupatta wrapped like a shawl. ‘I just stopped to check on my suits.’ She looks my way, and like always, her squint disconcerts me.
‘I’m going to put them into production tomorrow.’ I arrange the remaining beige pieces in a line.
‘Satsriakal.’ Mom emerges from her room. She hugs Simi. ‘Congratulations on your sister-in-law’s engagement.’
‘Thank you, Auntie. We are going to the boy’s for a dinner party just now. Param and my sister-in-law are in the car outside.’
Cherry barks. She tries to sink her teeth into Ram Rattan’s hand, and he flicks her ear.
‘Ram Rattan, no,’ Mom says. The house is a bit livelier with all of us on the veranda and Simi’s lovely earrings. Mom and I should go out for dinner sometime, maybe we could go to Chor Bizarre. They always play nice old Bollywood songs.
‘Where does the boy’s family live?’ Mom asks.
‘Punjabi Bagh. They are an old Delhi family. Sound, good people, Auntie.’
‘That’s nice. Don’t forget you have to find a boy for your friend too.’
Simi smiles. It is hard to say whether she’s looking at Mom or me. The squint came a few years after the marriage, and I’m not sure if she’s really happy.
‘Do you want to quickly see the fabrics?’ I say.
She nods, swaying her earrings. We go to my room and Mom takes Cherry to hers.
Simi sits on the bed. ‘I haven’t been to your room in a long time.’ She looks around. ‘But nothing really changes in this house, does it? You still have the same watercolour paintings on the wall and the picture with your dad. I think I even remember this embroidered bedcover.’
I smile. We used to sit together on the school bus. Now she has a fifteen-year-old son whom she drops at and collects from the same stop. I show her the fabrics. She likes the lilac georgette and approves of the yellow chiffon too. ‘The blue is similar to what I’m wearing today. I was thinking more aqua.’
‘Sure. We can do that.’ She usually doesn’t like Masterji’s stitching and places an order only when she needs something urgently.
A horn blares outside, two-and-a-half toots. ‘That’s Param! I’ll go. Just please get everything done by next week.’ She rushes out. ‘Bye, Auntie.’ She waves across the veranda at Mom and clatters off.
I keep the fabrics in the cupboard, turn off the light and return to the jigsaw. Mom is on the phone in her room, cradling the base in her lap. Cherry is lying by the bed. I cross my legs on the sofa and focus on the jigsaw. From the miscellaneous row, I move a portion of a window to the lower storey of the left tower. It interlocks. I check for the adjoining pieces. Simi’s perfume lingers in the air.
‘Dinner is ready,’ Ram Rattan says.
Mom’s still on the phone. I close the jigsaw box and pass it to him to keep in my room.
The table is laid. There’s fresh naan in the roti basket. Cherry ambles in and settles down next to my chair. Ram Rattan pours water from the jug. Everything replicates in the long mirror on the opposite wall. The mirror is freckled in one corner. It almost looks stained. The white-and-red chandelier overhead has grown lacklustre and gives off a milky light. Simi is right. Nothing ever changes in this house. I can remember forever eating from these plates with a rose border. This one is chipped at the edge. I feel its roughness with my thumb. Atul found all this charming. It lends the place character, he observed. He liked these old, hand-painted runners too, and when Mom said she had got them done by a Kashmiri from Chandni Chowk, he scribbled a note in his pad. He wanted to write an article about the house and had come to us through Tejinder Auntie. He carried a backpack and wore sandals instead of shoes. He was handsome, though not good-looking. We asked him to stay for lunch. Mom cooked. The article featured in The Brunch as ‘The Last Colonial Bungalow’. It opened with an impressive photograph of the façade, which Atul had shot from the bridge, adjusting the light so as to camouflage the peeling paint. In between paragraphs were pictures of the garden with the mulberries in bloom, the veranda with its white colonnade and cane furniture, the crossed swords on the drawing room wall, and Cherry curled up in one of the ornate chairs. Atul wrote that our house had a great sense of having been lived in. Mom wanted to frame the article and hang it in the drawing room, but I thought it would make us feel we lived in a museum. Maybe we can hang it in the new apartment. Right above our beds. I laugh. Cherry looks at me. ‘Nothing, Cherry.’ I stroke her chin and she licks my hand. ‘I’m just being pathetic.’
Mom takes her place at the head of the table. She lets out a sigh as she places the napkin in her lap.
‘What happened?’ I serve myself some keema and pass her the bowl. The naans are warm and fluffy.
‘Kuku’s wife hit him.’
I’m sure she had reason enough, but Mom is looking at me so I have to ask, ‘Why?’
‘They had an argument over his petrol expenses. He says his face is swollen. You know how thick her fingers are.’
Cherry is smacking her lips. Her nose is quivering. I wrap some keema in naan and give it to her. I hope Kuku Mama will lie low for a while and won’t bring more proposals from widowers and divorced men.
‘I’ve asked him to come stay with us for a few days.’
‘Why?’ He’s going to eat all the meat in the freezer, ordering Ram Rattan to make shami kebabs and mutton curry and keema paranthas. In a week Ram Rattan will be threatening to leave.
‘He always looks out for us, doesn’t he? It was his idea we sell the house.’
I can only sigh. I hate the thought of him lounging on the veranda all day in his vest.
‘It’s good he’ll be here tomorrow when Bhardwaj comes with the brothers.’
Ram Rattan clears the table and brings the chocolate cake Mom baked yesterday. The shower cap gives him a matronly air.
Cherry is clawing at my chair for a piece. Mom scolds her and she barks back in the same tone, making Mom laugh. She calls out to Ram Rattan to bring Cherry a biscuit.
The cake is rich and moist. I suggest serving some with tea tomorrow. Mom agrees. She cuts the remaining cake into slices. We decide on cream-and-cheese toasts and aloo medallions as well.
Mom and I watch the nine o’clock news. I pour her whisky and fix myself a gin with lemon juice and sugar. Mom flips channels during the ad break to catch up on her soap. She has to press the worn keys of the remote with both hands, and for a second it looks like she’s shooting at the TV. I go sit by Cherry on the bed. The news was boring in any case. I sip at the gin. The glass looks pretty with sugar crystals on the rim. Cherry is lying with her head on Dad’s pillow. I stroke her ear. It’s warm and velvety and long. When she was little, her ears were so large compared to the rest of her that they swept the floor. Mom shoots at the TV to return to the news. Two years ago, she decided we should get Cherry mated and sell her babies. She figured that even at 7,000 per baby, we could make 35,000 a year. We had the vet calculate Cherry’s ovulation cycle and paired her with three different beagles, three different times. It turned out Cherry is barren. There’s a tick on the underside of her ear. I pluck it and carry it to the toilet. Mom’s handwash has a refreshing orangey smell. I might sleep with Mom and Cherry today. I don’t feel like sleeping alone. I return to the room to find Cherry scratching at the screen door. ‘I’ll take her,’ I say, and Mom nods. Her glass is already half empty. She might have a second drink tonight.
Cherry scuttles to the garden with her nose to the ground. I turn on the tube light and walk to the gate to switch on the lamps over the gatepost. The neighbours must be out. Our Maruti stands alone under the bridge. Over at the Swaminarayan Temple, fruit and flower vendors sit in the glow of their gas lamps waiting for after-dinner customers. Ram Rattan’s son pedals up, whistling a tune.
I pace outside the veranda while Cherry sniffs around the garden to pick a spot. She’s considering the queen of night. The flagstones are still giving off heat, and the sky is a flaming purple, almost the colour of the bougainvillea that covers the wall. The night is calm though. The jigsaw pieces rest on the table, and on the bridge cars whizz up and down smoothly. Gurgaon is all concrete and business-like, too new to really have a sense of self. It wouldn’t match our temperament. I sniff a lock of my hair. It smells sweet after the shampoo this morning. What if the house knows we are selling it? I look up, and the house looks back kind of sad. The cheap whitewash has given it an indigo pallor. I hope the brothers won’t tear it down to make cramped, unappealing apartments, but that’s been the fate of most old properties around here. The families moved outside Delhi, to Noida, Ghaziabad or Gurgaon. This is a beautiful house. It is meant to be lived in. I hope the brothers will allow us to visit once in a while and sit on the veranda with a cup of tea. Cherry is peeing on the mint, one leg raised. It is her favourite spot.