“Is he coming, too?” Madan heard the rickshaw-wallah ask his father before turning onto the main road. It was about time, thought Madan; he could not have kept up much longer. When his father looked down to see him huffing and puffing a little way behind, Madan put on his finest smile.
“What’re you doing?” asked his father.
“Bapu, I don’t want to stay here. Please, take me with you.”
“You’re going to delay me,” he said as the rickshaw slowed down. He pulled Madan up by his arm and Madan settled in next to him.
Paying the driver outside the entrance to the factory his father said, “You better keep quiet and stay out of the way.” He caught Madan reading the sign arching over the gate, AVTAAR SINGH AND SONS TIMBER, LTD.
“When Avtaar Singh was married and took over full control from his father, he renamed the factory," his father explained. “Avtaar Singh was optimistic. But even he doesn’t always get what he wants.”
A scream echoed through the empty factory, followed by shouts. “What’s happening Bapu?” Madan resisted the urge to grab his father’s hand.
“Nothing, nothing. This won’t take too long.”
He had not been back to the factory since that first day and now, seeing the quieted machines glow in the yellow light of the one hanging bulb, he quickened his step to keep up with his father. The shouts and scuffles were clearer as they moved deeper into the darkness. Madan wanted to ask if the sound was of someone crying, but he did not want to remind his father of his presence.
The light spilling out of Avtaar Singh’s office illuminated the area outside. His father entered on Avtaar Singh’s command and as the door swung shut he heard Avtaar Singh say, “Is that your son again, Prabhu?”
Madan stood still and stiff outside, hoping that he had not got his father into trouble. Just when he thought it was safe to shift his weight, the door opened again.
“Go inside,” said his father. “Saab says you should wait there. I’ll be back soon.”
He held the door open with his body and Madan inched his way forward. It banged shut and he turned around to see his father was gone.
Every detail he consigned to his mind about Avtaar Singh seemed magnified at this second meeting. He towered over his desk, more immense, his mustache more plentiful, and his eyebrows two bristly lines over eyes that searched Madan like he was the keeper of some unknown treasure.
Avtaar Singh swiveled in his chair from behind his desk. “Come in, come in. How’re you liking Gorapur, boy?”
Not waiting for an answer, he continued, “Pandit-ji, I want you to meet this boy. Say hello to Pandit Bansi Lal.” With a wave of his hand, he indicated the elderly man sitting on a faded blue sofa along the side of the room.
Madan turned to the man in the crisp white kurta and flowing dhoti. He joined his hands together and bobbed a quick, "Ram, Ram." The balding man continued to look toward Avtaar Singh as though Madan’s entrance was an imaginary puff of wind.
“This is Pandit Bansi Lal,” Avtaar Singh announced. “If you want to live in Gorapur, better take his blessings. We all fear the special connection our pandit-ji has with the Almighty!”
Avtaar Singh’s laugh boomed through the room and Pandit Bansi Lal closed his eyes, murmuring, “Hari Om.” Madan stood stranded in the middle of the room, between the two men.
“Sit, sit,” said Avtaar Singh, and he gratefully slid to the floor beside the sofa, the pandit’s feet an arm’s length away.
“This is Prabhu’s boy,” Avtaar Singh was saying. “Can you believe it? When I first laid eyes on him, I couldn’t imagine he was from that man. I have not seen the wife yet, but the boy doesn’t look at all like that ugly goonda.”
Pandit Bansi Lal was using his pinky finger to intimately explore each of his nostrils, examining his nail every time it emerged from the orifice.
Unsure how to react to the two men, Madan focused his attention on a large photograph garlanded with jasmine flowers on the wall behind Avtaar Singh. This must be Avtaar Singh’s father. His gaze wandered to the other picture on the facing wall, of a long bumpy-shaped object crisscrossed with lines, pins inserted here and there. After staring at it for a long moment, Madan realized that in his nervousness he had failed to recognize the map of India.
“You know, Pandit-ji, sometimes one has a feeling,” Avtaar Singh went on. He leaned back in his chair, his arms behind his head. “From when I myself was very young I learned that what I feel here”-- he rubbed his lower belly--“works out for the best here”--he pointed to his head. “When I first saw this boy… there was just something…something.” Feature by feature he scrutinized Madan, then sighed, deep and loud. "Sometimes I think it’s foolishness…but you…I’ve heard you talk about it before, Pandit-ji.”
Pandit Bansi Lal eyes flickered in Madan’s direction.
“You tell us of other lives we may have lived. People we may have known, who we may have battled with or cheated or… loved. Who will call on us in this life, with familiarity?”
Madan and Pandit Bansi Lal exchanged an involuntary glance, both perplexed by Avtaar Singh’s stream of thought.
“For once I think you may have said something of use to me, Pandit-ji,” Avtaar Singh was animated again, a grin spreading across his face. “You know me, when I come to a decision, when some idea gets a hold of me, I find it hard to shake. So, what do you think?”
“About what? This servant boy?” Pandit Bansi Lal said, unable to keep the surprise from his voice.
“Who is servant and who is master? Who decided this, Pandit-ji? Your God? When you said you needed a new temple, that God would be pleased with one that rivaled Lakshmi Narayan Temple, I spent lakhs to build it. You took payment for each prayer I sent to him. I paid thousands and thousands for pujas and havans. I needed one thing, and for that I gave plenty, whatever you asked. Why, Pandit-ji, it’s like you’re my banker for God. So tell me, why does he not give me a good return on my investment?”
“You’re in a mood today, Avtaar Singh. God has been kind to you, count your blessings. You have two beautiful daughters and Gorapur would be a village of dung houses if not for you. And look at Minnu-ji. I just saw her yesterday, so pious, and beautiful with her new haircut.”
“Yes, yes.” Avtaar Singh became pensive again. “That fucking Princess Diana haircut.”
“Boys like these are as plentiful as seeds in a pomegranate, Avtaar Singh. You want a charity case, I will bring you a deserving one. This boy is nothing.” To Madan, Pandit Bansi Lal's shrill, rising tone sounded like Swati's when she whined about something.
“I give you enough money as it is,” Avtaar Singh said. “I do not need you to bring out some poor soul as another avenue to milk me.”
“Avtaar Singh, what are you saying? I’ve only done what you wanted me to do. This boy”--he grimaced--“is as good as any other.” Pandit Bansi Lal glared at Madan, like he was a fly buzzing too close to his daal.
“Of course, you know best,” Pandit Bansi Lal added. Madan felt a cold, bony hand encircle his upper arm and shake it. He looked up into the priest’s eyes, now directing God’s fury at him.
“Go and touch saab’s feet, boy. You’re lucky such a great man noticed you.”
How long until his father returned? All these words shooting overhead confused him. And on top of that, this pandit was angry. If Ma heard he upset a man of God he would get a red backside and he hadn’t even done anything.
“Go and touch saab’s feet,” Pandit Bansi Lal repeated, pulling Madan off the floor and smiling at Avtaar Singh, his grip on Madan’s arm getting more and more painful. He shoved Madan toward the desk, but before Madan could bend down, Avtaar Singh stopped him. He pulled up a chair. “Sit here,” he said.
Madan tentatively placed his bottom on the seat.
“Be comfortable,” encouraged Avtaar Singh. “Do you like pinnis?”
Avtaar Singh reached across the desk to an uncovered rectangular box and offered one to Madan. Lying in the waxy paper lining were two rows of the roundest, fattest pinnis he had ever seen, tawny brown, sugar glistening on their surface and almonds peeking out like nuggets of gold.
Madan nodded, though he could not recall if he ever had one. Avtaar Singh shook the box again in an impatient offering, but before Madan could reach for one, the door swung open and his father entered, dragging another man in with him.
Seeing his father’s stupefied stare when he saw him sitting next to Avtaar Singh, on a chair, no less, he tried to smile to show that it was not his idea.
The blubbering of the man hauled into the room by the collar of his shirt broke the momentary silence and diverted both their attentions.
Avtaar Singh leaned back in his chair again. “Mistry, Mistry, what were you thinking?” he addressed the man whose mouth was a smear of liquid red. There were gashes and cuts all over his exposed arms and his shirt hung raggedly. “You were here for a short while but we thought you were one of us, Pandit-ji and I.”
Realizing that Pandit Bansi Lal was sitting on the sofa, Mistry launched himself out of Madan’s father’s grip and prostrated in front of the priest. Unable to see clearly through his puffy, swollen eyes, he lay on the cold floor a little off-center to Pandit Bansi Lal’s feet, and when he spoke it looked like he was pleading with the sofa.
“Have mercy, Pandit-ji. You are a man of God, have mercy.”
Pandit Bansi Lal grunted with distaste and looked away. “It’s not in my hands,” he said, his eyes sliding from Avtaar Singh to Madan. “It’s Avtaar Singh-ji’s decision.”