Fiction December 2003

The Red Carpet

What if, after all his talk and boasting, she disgraced him as only she could?

Rangappa was content to live in a realm of different names. Officially, as per his one-page résumé, prepared for a small sum by one of the roadside typists who served the lawyers outside Bangalore's Mayo Hall, his name was T. R. Gavirangappa. Tarikere Ranganatha Gavirangappa. Anyone reading his name would instantly know that he hailed from the village of Tarikere, near the hills of Chikmagalur, and that he was the son of Ranganatha. His family called him Rangappa for short.

But at work he was known as Raju. This nominal transformation had been announced to him, quite casually, at the end of his job interview. "Your driving test was satisfactory," his prospective employer had said. "The job is yours, provided you are courteous, prompt, and steady in your habits." And then: "Oh, and on the job you will be called Raju."

He had not really thought to protest, so everyone in the house, from the cook to his employer's three-year-old daughter, called him Raju. It took him three days to get used to it. And after a while he even began to like it. There was a film star called Raju. It was that kind of name—snappy, spry, with a certain air about it. After many months on the job he suggested to his family that perhaps they, too, should consider calling him Raju, but his father laughed at him and that was that.

He had heard about the job from his cousin, who worked as an office boy and whose boss needed a driver for his family. It would not be a company job, unfortunately—that was the best kind, with all sorts of perks and bonuses and (best of all) membership in a union that prevented you from getting fired easily. Instead he would be hired directly by the boss's family; but they were good people, his cousin said, and would pay well. Raju (or Rangappa) heard this out with reserve; if he got the job, his cousin would be sure to earn a tip, and the promise of that was bound to make any boss look good.

He was to go interview immediately with the boss's wife, a Mrs. Choudhary. His heart sank at the news. His father, who had also been a driver, had once worked for a Mrs. Choudhary. He had taken the young Rangappa (or Raju) to see her, hoping to receive a gift for his son—some money, perhaps, or even a packet of biscuits. Rangappa remembered standing with his father on the steps of a large house, not daring to sit, waiting for Mrs. Choudhary to emerge for her ritual round of morning shopping. He remembered a formidable woman, clad in silks and jewelry and with a round red bindi on her forehead, drawn so large that it seemed to swallow him up. His father presented him; she ignored him and told his father to hurry up with the car. Rangappa-soon-to-be-Raju had never been more scared in his life.

Now he wished he could turn his cousin down. He decided he didn't like the sound of the job (the other Mrs. Choudhary's voice resonated frighteningly through the years), and besides, he didn't really want to be beholden to his cousin, whom he suspected of harboring evil designs on his younger sister. Far better to say no: to his cousin, to this Mrs. Choudhary. Far better, indeed, to spend his time getting his younger sister married off and safe.

But he didn't have a choice. His salary had to support his parents, his sister, his wife of four years, and their little daughter. The driving job he had right now paid enough to feed any two of them, after he deducted his daily bus fare to and from work. They were all always a little hungry. This new job, this Mrs. Choudhary job, offered much more—at least, according to his cousin.

He woke up early on the morning of the interview, and rushed to fetch two buckets of water for his house from the pump down the road. He hastily washed his face and hands before joining his family for morning prayers in front of the puja altar, manufactured by placing colored portraits of various deities on a shelf and decorating them with flowers, turmeric and red kumkum powders, and a bit of green velvet with gold trim. The smoky fragrance of the incense sticks filtered through his senses. He and his father chanted the Sanskrit prayers for the spiritual welfare of the family and the good of the world, but his mind charted an alternate course of prayer: for this new job, and a little bit of money.

Afterward he stood in front of a mirror that hung lopsided on a cracked and peeling wall. He felt sticky and tired from the heat of the night, but a water shortage in the district prevented him from having a bath. Two buckets of water would have to last his family for that entire day. He took a little coconut oil from his wife's bottle and rubbed it into his hair before combing it neatly through.

"You should take a bath," his father said, from the stoop in front of the house. He had sat there every morning, sipping his morning tumbler of coffee, since an injured back had forced his retirement. "And, very important, you need a new, clean shirt. Otherwise they won't hire you. You should look smart. I know these things. Daughter, give your husband a new shirt."

Rangappa's wife looked timidly at Rangappa. He had no new shirt, hadn't had one for a while. "There is no new shirt, Appa," Rangappa told his father. "Never mind. I'll go as I am."

"Well, don't blame me if you don't get the job. I know about these things. If you come back empty-handed, don't blame me."

The Choudhary house stood in a large garden, two stories high and gleaming whitely at the end of a cement driveway edged with rosebushes whose blossoms would never be plucked for the altar but would remain in the garden to wither and die at their master's pleasure. Rangappa's first glimpse of the house didn't reduce the tension in his back. He knew that the obvious wealth of his prospective employers didn't automatically translate into good working conditions. Some of these memsahibs could fight over the last rupee with all the possessive fierceness of those old crones who sold vegetables in the early-morning market.

The guard at the gate escorted him to the front door, surrendering him to the maid who answered. She asked him to leave his shoes at the door and step into the foyer. "Wait here. I'll tell her you've come."

Rangappa studied the maid carefully. She looked well fed. She wore a sari that he would have loved to buy for his wife. She didn't seem cowed or rude. These were good signs.

"Who is it?" A woman's lazy voice came from the landing of the curving staircase in the corner, and Rangappa looked up. He felt himself seized by shock. He stared at the apparition for a quick instant, and immediately looked down at the floor in embarrassment. The voice said, "Someone for the driver job? Oh, good. Ask him to wait, I'll be right down."

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