An exclusive excerpt from The English Teacher and Other Stories by Kiran Doshi (Speaking Tiger, 2021), a collection of fifteen delightful stories that feature women— ranging from the ages of three to eighty—the author has known, met, or learnt about from friends.
By a Thread
‘There was a call for you from Mrs. Meherali, sir,’ his PA told him when he returned from lunch.
‘Meherali?’ Rahul tried to recall if he had met anybody by that name. As First Secretary (Culture) in the High Commission of India in Islamabad, he met a lot of people.
‘She said she was calling from Rawalpindi, sir,’ the PA added.
In that case, it was unlikely that he had met her, he decided. He would have remembered the name. He met very few people from Rawalpindi. Nor did he often go there himself, although it was less than an hour away. The place made him uncomfortable: it was the headquarters of the Pakistani army; and there was no love lost between the Pakistani army and the High Commission of India— especially First Secretary (Culture), whose job it was to strengthen cultural ties between India and Pakistan. The Pakistani army, if it could have its way, would undo even the few cultural ties that existed between the two countries. It was still smarting from its defeat in the last war against India and wanted revenge, not better relations.
No, the caller was probably only someone who wanted visas for India. Nine times out of ten the calls that he got that all officers in the High Commission got—were from people wanting visas. Time was when the bulk of the visas were issued by the Indian Consulate in Karachi, which made sense. Under the Indo-Pak visa agreement, mostly only Pakistanis with relatives in India were entitled to visit India. And so, almost by definition, they were muhajirs, people who had migrated from India to Pakistan after the Partition and settled down in Karachi and other towns in Sind. It suited them to get the visas in Karachi. But during one of the periodic dips in Indo-Pak relations, the Indian Consulate in Karachi had been forced to close down. And although relations between the two countries had improved somewhat since then, Pakistan had not allowed India to reopen the Consulate. All the visa work was now being handled by the High Commission in Islamabad…
…with the result that the visa section of the High Commission had become the busiest visa office anywhere in the world. People gathered in front of its gates before six in the morning. At nine, when the gates opened, they poured in like water from a burst dam. Over a thousand people applied for visas every day. It was a tough job even to maintain order before the visa windows. Just the other day the stampede of visa seekers had almost killed an old woman. She was saved only because a burly security guard had noticed what was happening and rushed to her aid.
The High Commission had neither the space nor the staff to handle the huge workload. All applications went to Delhi for processing and approval. The clerks at the windows only collected the applications, scanned them to make sure that they were filled correctly and sent away the applicants, advising them to wait for the reply from Delhi—which could take months. Not believing this to be true, many applicants stayed on in Islamabad, camping on a huge, dusty plot of land across the road from the High Commission, washing there, cooking there, defecating in the open there…even, in a couple of instances, dying there—and adding to the chaos before the visa windows when those opened for business. Inevitably, the smarter applicants tried to avoid the whole dismaying experience by approaching officers directly.
‘Did she say what she wanted?’ he asked his PA.
‘Yes, sir. She wanted to know if you were a Gujarati.’
‘What!… What on earth for?’
‘I asked her that, sir. She said she will tell you why. From me she only wanted to know if you were a Gujarati, since many non-Gujaratis also have the surname Bhat.’
‘And what did you tell her?’ ‘I told her that I did not know if you were a Gujarati, and would have to check that up. She will call back after lunch, sir.’
A perfect PA, Arora, always alert, always protecting him from callers, never conveying more information than was absolutely necessary…
‘She is probably interested in visas,’ Rahul shrugged and said.
‘Er… I don’t think so, sir.’
‘Because she said that I should not trouble you if you were not a Gujarati.’
‘Do you mean to say that she does not want to talk with me if I am not a Gujarati?’
Rahul wondered what to make of the call. It could be a ploy to get visas. Or…wait a minute, it could be a honey trap. Pakistan’s ISI was notorious for trying to snare Indian officials through its female operatives. And by now probably everybody in ISI knew that his wife had stayed on in Delhi with the children, so for all practical purposes he was single in Islamabad.
The phone rang. He picked it up before his PA could. But it wasn’t her.
He dismissed the PA with a ‘Tell the woman that I am a Gujarati when she calls next. And connect me if she wants to talk with me.’
She did not call back that afternoon, nor for two more days. Her call came when he had almost forgotten about her. But he remembered her quickly when she greeted him in Gujarati: ‘Kem chho? (How are you?) I’m Shabana Meherali. I had called on Monday.’
‘I got the message,’ he said, in English. ‘You were supposed to call back in the afternoon.’
‘Sorry. I couldn’t leave home again,’ she said, still in Gujarati. ‘I’m calling from a public telephone booth.’
What did that mean? That she did not have a telephone at home?
‘I understand,’ he mumbled. ‘Which part of Gujarat do you come from?’ she continued (in Gujarati). ‘From Ahmedabad,’ he said, slipping into Gujarati, ‘but I was born and brought up in Bombay.’
Excerpted with permission from the writer and publisher of The English Teacher and Other Stories by Kiran Doshi (Speaking Tiger, 2021).
About the Book
‘I don’t know, memsahib,’ she said in the end. ‘But I don’t like it, that man coming here. I hope he does not come again.’
‘He will… And the next time he comes, don’t behave like a rabbit. Face him like a man.’
Miss Coelho took intimidation in her stride, whether by the underworld don’s henchmen, or rapacious builders like her new landlord. They were minor inconveniences. Her purpose in life was to serve the Lord by teaching good English to her young students and, if possible, adults as well. God knew they needed it.
The other fourteen women that anchor the stories in this collection are quite different, but remarkable in their own way. Like Mrs Hiralal Motilal Jain, in ‘Only an Indian Wife’, who’s shrewder than any crooked taxation lawyers could be. In ‘Janaki’, the eponymous housemaid is but a demure young woman—or is she? The Bombay-born Shabana Meherali, in ‘By a Thread’, might be confined to her marital home in Rawalpindi, but there’s really nothing that can stop her from finding someone to converse with in her mother tongue. Asha, in ‘Saga-vhala’, is as glued to south Bombay as to the TV, and knows more about Bollywood than even judges at a quiz contest. Freny, in ‘Her F word’, is happily married to a successful doctor like herself but harbours a secret longing in her heart. And there’s Indira, Under Secretary, in ‘Women Can’t Play It’—not one for playing chess; but the game she is adept at is far more complex and cunning.
‘Women are like men, only different, mostly better,’ writes Kiran Doshi in the Author’s Note—and then proceeds to show us how in fifteen memorable stories written with quiet, compelling humour and an intuitive understanding of life’s little triumphs and troubles and abiding oddness. The English Teacher is a book of great charm, and thoroughly entertaining.
About the Author
Kiran Doshi is a retired diplomat and educationist. His novel Jinnah Often Came to Our House won The Hindu Prize in 2016, and his short story ‘Miss Coelho, English Teacher’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Prize. His other works include Birds of Passage, a novel, and Diplomatic Tales, a work of comic fiction written in verse.