A Chip of Glass Ruby

A native Johannesburger, NADINE GORDIMER is one of the most gifted novelists writing about the divided world of the union of South Africa. She began publishing her stories at the age of fifteen, and now she has to her credit two novels and three collections of short stories, the latest, FRIDAY ‘S FOOTPRINT, published last year by Viking.

WHEN the duplicating machine was brought into the house, Bamjee said, “Isn’t it enough that you’ve got the Indians’ troubles on your back?” Mrs. Bamjee said, with a smile that showed the gap of a missing tooth but was confident all the same, “What’s the difference, Yusuf? — we’ve all got the same troubles.”

“Don’t tell me that. We don’t have to carry passes; let the natives protest against passes on their own, there are millions of them. Let them go ahead with it.”

The nine Bamjee and Pahad children were present at this exchange, as they were always; there was no room for privacy in the small house that held them all, for the discussion of matters they were too young to hear, and so they had never been too young to hear anything. Only their sister and half sister, Girlie, was missing; she was the oldest, and married. The children looked expectantly, unalarmed and interested, at Bamjee, who had neither left the dining room nor settled down again to the task of rolling his own cigarettes, which had been interrupted by the arrival of the duplicator. He looked at the thing that had come hidden in a washbasket and conveyed in a black man’s taxi, and the children turned on it, too, their black eyes surrounded by thick lashes like those still, open flowers with hairy tentacles that close on whatever touches them.

“A fine thing to have on the dining room table” was all he said at last. They smelled the machine among them; a smell of cold black grease. He went out, heavily on tiptoe, in his troubled way.

“It’s going to go nicely on the sideboard !” Mrs. Bamjee was busy making a place by removing the two pink glass vases filled with plastic carnations and the hand-painted velvet runner with the picture of the Taj Mahal.

After supper she began to run off leaflets on the machine. The family lived in the dining room — the other three rooms in the house were full of beds — and they were all there. The older children shared a bottle of ink while they did their homework, and the two little ones pushed a couple of empty milk bottles in and out of the chair legs. The three-year-old fell asleep and was carted away by one of the girls. They all drifted off to bed eventually; Bamjee himself went before the oldest children — he was a greengrocer’s hawker and was up at half-past four every morning to get to the market by five. “Not long now,” said Mrs. Bamjee. The older children looked up and smiled at him. He turned his back on her. She still wore the traditional clothing of a Muslim woman, and her body, which was scraggy and unimportant as a dress on a peg when it was not host to a child, was wrapped in the trailing rags of a cheap sari, and her thin black plait was greased. When she was a girl, in the Transvaal town where they lived still, her mother fixed a chip of glass ruby in her nostril; but she had abandoned that adornment as too old-style, even for her, long ago.

She was up until long after midnight, turning out leaflets. She did it as if she might have been pounding chilies.

BAMJEE did not have to ask what the leaflets were. He had read the papers. All the past week Africans had been destroying their passes and then presenting themselves for arrest. Their leaders were jailed on charges of incitement, campaign offices were raided — someone must be helping the few minor leaders who were left to keep the campaign going without offices or equipment. What was it the leaflets would say — “Don’t go to work tomorrow,” “Day of Protest" “Burn Your Pass for Freedom"? He didn’t want to see.

He was used to coming home and finding his wife sitting at the dining room table deep in discussion with strangers or people whose names were familiar by repute. Some were prominent Indians, like the lawyer, Dr. Abdul Mohammed Khan, or the big businessman, Mr. Moonsamy Patel, and he was flattered, in a suspicious way, to meet them in his house. As he came home from work next day he met Dr. Khan coming out of the house, and Dr. Khan — a highly educated man said to him, “A wonderful woman.”But Bamjee had never caught his wife out in any presumption; she behaved properly, as any Muslim woman should, and once her business with such gentlemen was over would never, for instance, have sat down to eat with them. He found her now back in the kitchen, setting about the preparation of dinner and carrying on a conversation on several different wave lengths with the children. “It’s really a shame if you’re tired of lentils, Jimmy, because that’s what you’re getting — Amina, hurry up, get a pot of water going — Don’t worry, I’ll mend that in a minute, just bring the yellow cotton, and there’s a needle in the cigarette box on the sideboard.”

“Was that Dr. Khan leaving?” said Bamjee.

“Yes, there’s going to be a stay-at-home on Monday. Desai’s ill, and he’s got to get the word around by himself. Bob Jali was up all last night printing leaflets, but he’s gone to have a tooth out.”She had always treated Bamjee as if it were only some mannerism that made him appear uninterested in politics, the way some woman will persist in interpreting her husband’s bad temper as an endearing gruffness hiding boundless good will, and she talked to him of these things just as she passed on to him neighbors’ or family gossip.

“What for do you want to get mixed up with these killings and stonings and I don’t know what? Congress should keep out of it. Isn’t it enough with the Group Areas?”

She laughed. “Now, Yusuf, you know you don’t believe that. Look how you said the same thing when the Group Areas started in Natal. You said we should begin to worry when we get moved out of our own houses here in the Transvaal. And then your own mother lost her house in Noorddorp, and there you are; you saw that nobody’s safe. Oh, Girlie was here this afternoon, she says Ismail’s brother’s engaged — that’s nice, isn’t it? His mother will be pleased; she was worried.”

“Why was she worried?” asked Jimmy, who was fifteen, and old enough to patronize his mother.

“Well, she wanted to see him settled. There’s a party on Sunday week at Ismail’s place - - you’d better give me your suit to give to the cleaners tomorrow. Yusuf.”

One of the girls presented herself at once. “I’ll have nothing to wear, Ma. ”

Mrs. Bamjee scratched her sallow face. “Perhaps Girlie will lend you her pink, eh? Run over to Girlie’s place now and say I say will she lend it to you?”

The sound of commonplaces often does service as security, and Bamjee, going to sit in the armchair with the shiny armrests that was wedged between the dining room table and the sideboard, lapsed into an unthinking doze that, like all times of dreamlike ordinariness during those weeks, was filled with uneasy jerks and starts back into reality. The next morning, as soon as he got to market, he heard that Dr. Khan had been arrested. But that night Mrs. Bamjee sat up making a new dress for her daughter; the sight disarmed Bamjee, reassured him again, against his will, so that the resentment he had been making ready all day faded into a morose and accusing silence. Heaven knew, of course, who came and went in the house during the day. Twice in that week of riots, raids, and arrests, he found black women in the house when he came home; plain ordinary native women in doeks, drinking tea. This was not a thing other Indian women would have in their homes, he thought bitterly; but then his wife was not like other people, in a way he could not put his finger on, except to say what it was not: not scandalous, not punishable, not rebellious. It was, like the attraction that had led him to marry her, Pahad’s widow with five children, something he could not see clearly.

WLx the Special Branch knocked steadily on the door in the small hours ol 1 hursday morning, he did not wake up, for his return to consciousness was always set in his mind to half-past four, and that was more than an hour away. Mrs. Bamjee got up herself, struggled into Jimmy’s raincoat, which was hanging over a chair, and went to the front door. The clock on the wall — a wedding present when she married Pahad — showed three o’clock when she snapped on the light, and she knew at once who it was on the other side of the door. Although she was not surprised, her hands shook like a very old person’s as she undid the locks and the complicated catch on the wire burglarproofing. And then she opened the door and they were there — two colored policemen in plain clothes. “Zanip Bamjee?”

“Yes.”

As they talked, Bamjee woke up in the sudden terror of having overslept. Then he became conscious of men’s voices. He heaved himself out of bed in the dark and went to the window, which, like the front door, was covered with a heavy mesh of thick wire against intruders from the dingy lane it looked upon. Bewildered, he appeared in the dining room, where the policemen were searching through a soapbox of papers beside the duplicating machine. “Yusuf, it’s for me,” Mrs. Bamjee said.

At once, the snap of a trap, realization came. He stood there in an old shirt before the two policemen, and the woman was going off to prison because of the natives. “There you are!” he shouted, standing away from her. “That’s what you’ve got for it. Didn’t I tell you? Didn’t I? That’s the end of it now. That’s the finish. That’s what it’s come to.” She listened with her head at the slightest tilt to one side, as if to ward ofl a blow, or in compassion.

Jimmy, Pahad’s son, appeared at the door with a suitcase; two or three of the girls were behind him. “Here, Ma, you take my green jersey.” “I’ve found your clean blouse. Bamjee had to keep moving out of their way as they helped their mother to make ready. It was like the preparation for one of the family festivals his wife made such a fuss over; wherever he put himsell they bumped into him. Even the two policemen mumbled, “Excuse me,” and pushed past into the rest of the house to continue their search. 1 hey look with them a tome that Nehru had written in prison; it had been bought from a persevering traveling salesman and kept, for years, on the mantelpiece. “Oh, don’t take that, please,” Mrs. Bamjee said suddenly, clinging to the arm of the man who had picked it up.

“Sorry, lady —” The man held it away from her.

“What does it matter, Ma?”

It was true that no one in the house had ever read it; but she said, “It’s for my children.”

“Ma, leave it.” Jimmy, who was squat and plump, looked like a merchant advising a client against a roll of silk she had set her heart on. She went into the bedroom and got dressed. When she came out in her old yellow sari with a brown coat over it, the faces of the children were behind her like faces on the platform at a railway station. They kissed her good-by. The policemen did not hurry her, but she seemed to be in a hurry just the same.

“What am I going to do?” Bamjee accused them all.

The policemen looked away patiently.

“It’ll be all right. Girlie will help. I he big children can manage. And Yusuf—" The children crowded in around her; two of the younger ones had awakened and appeared, asking shrill questions.

“Come on,” said the policemen.

“I want to speak to my husband.” She broke away and came back to him, and the movement of her sari hid them from the rest of the room for a moment. His face hardened in suspicious anticipation against the request to give some message to the next fool who would take up her pamphleteering until he, too, was arrested. “On Sunday,” she said. “Take them on Sunday.” He did not know what she was talking about. “The engagement party,” she whispered, low and urgent. “They shouldn’t miss it. Ismail will be offended.”

They listened to the car drive away. Jimmy bolted and barred the front door, and then at once opened it again; he put on the raincoat that his mother had taken off. “Going to tell Girlie, he said. The children went back to bed. Their father did not say a word to any of them; their talk, the crying of the younger ones and the argumentative voices of the older, went on in the bedrooms. He found himself alone; he felt the night all around him. And then he happened to meet the clock face and saw with a terrible sense of unfamiliarity that this was not the secret night but an hour he should have recognized: the time he always got up. He pulled on his trousers and his dirty white hawker’s coat and wound his gray muffler up to the stubble on his chin and went to work.

THE duplicating machine was gone from the sideboard. The policemen had taken it with them, along with the pamphlets and the conference reports and the stack of old newspapers — not the thick dailies of the white men, but the thin, impermanent-looking papers that spoke up, sometimes interrupted by suppression or lack of money, for the rest — that had collected on top of the wardrobe in the bedroom. It was all gone. When he had married her and moved in with her and her five children, into what had been the Pahad and became the Bamjee house, he had not recognized the humble, harmless, and apparently useless routine tasks—the minutes of meetings being written up on the dining room table at night, the government blue books that were read while the latest baby was suckled, the employment of the fingers of the older children in the fashioning of crinkle-paper Congress rosettes — as activity intended to move mountains. For years and years he had not noticed it, and now it was gone.

The house was quiet. The children kept to their lairs, crowded on the beds with the doors shut. He sat and looked at the sideboard, where the plastic carnations and the mat with the picture of the Taj Mahal were in place. For the first lew weeks he never spoke of her. There was the feeling, in the house, that he had wept and raged at her, that boulders of reproach had thundered down upon her absence, and yet he had said not one word. He had not been to inquire where she was; Jimmy and Girlie had gone to Mohammed Ebrahim, the lawyer, and when he found out that their mother had been taken — when she was first arrested, at least—to a prison in the next town, they had stood about outside the big prison door for hours while they waited to be told where she had been moved from there. At last they had discovered that she was fifty miles away, in Pretoria. Jimmy asked Bamjee for five shillings to help Girlie pay the train fare to Pretoria, once she had been interviewed by the police and had been given a permit to visit her mother; he put three two-shilling pieces on the table for Jimmy to pick up, and the boy, looking at him keenly, did not know whether the extra shilling meant anything, or whether it was merely that Bamjee had no change.

It was only when relations and neighbors came to the house that Bamjee would suddenly begin to talk. He had never been so expansive in his life as he was in the company of these visitors, many of them come on a polite call rather in the nature of a visit of condolence. “Ah, yes, yes, you see how I am — you see what has been done to me. Nine children, and I am on the cart all day. I get home at seven or eight. What are you to do? What can people like us do?”

“Poor Mrs. Bamjee. Such a kind lady.”

“Well, you see for yourself. They walk in here in the middle of the night and leave a houseful of children. I’m out on the cart all day. I’ve got a living to earn.” Standing about in his shirt sleeves, he became quite animated; he would call lor the girls to bring fruit drinks for the visitors. When they were gone, it was as if he, who was orthodox if not devout and never drank liquor, had been drunk and abruptly sobered up; he looked dazed and could not have gone over in his mind what he had been saying. And as he cooled, the lump of resentment and wronged ness stopped his throat again.

Bamjee found one of the little boys the center of a self-important group of championing brothers and sisters in the dining room one evening. “They’ve been being cruel to Ahmed.”

“What has he done?” said the father.

“Nothing! Nothing!” The little girl stood twisting her handkerchief excitedly.

An older one, thin as her mother, took over, silencing the others with a gesture of her skinny hand. “They did it at school today. They made an example of him.”

“What is an example?” said Bamjee impatiently.

“The teacher made him come up and stand in front of the whole class, and he told them, ‘You see this boy? His mother’s in jail because she likes the natives so much. She wants the Indians to be the same as natives.’ ”

“It’s terrible,” he said. His hands fell to his sides. “Did she ever think of this?”

“That’s why Ma’s there,” said Jimmy, putting aside his comic and emptying out his schoolbooks upon the table. “That’s all the kid needs to know, Ma’s there because things like this happen. Petersen’s a colored teacher, and it’s his black blood that’s brought him trouble all his life, I suppose. He hates anyone who says everybody’s the same, because that takes away from him his bit of whiteness that’s all he’s got. What d’you expect? It’s nothing to make too much fuss about.”

“Of course, you are fifteen and you know everything,” Bamjee mumbled at him.

“I don’t say that. But I know Ma, anyway.” The boy laughed.

There was a hunger strike among the political prisoners, and Bamjee could not bring himself to ask Girlie if her mother was starving herself too. He would not ask; and yet he saw in the young woman’s face the gradual weakening of her mother. W hen the strike had gone on for a week, one of the elder children burst into tears at the table and could not eat. Bamjee pushed his own plate away in rage.

Sometimes he spoke out loud to himself while he was driving the vegetable lorry. “What for?” Again and again: “What for?” She was not a modern woman who cut her hair and wore short skirts. He had married a good plain Muslim woman who bore children and stamped her own chilies. He had a sudden vision of her at the duplicating machine, that night just before she was taken away, and he felt himself maddened, baffled, and hopeless. He had become the ghost of a victim, hanging about the scene of a crime whose motive he could not understand and had not had time to learn.

THE hunger strike at the prison went into the second week. Alone in the rattling cab of his lorry, he said things that he heard as if spoken by someone else, and his heart burned in fierce agreement with them. “For a crowd of natives who’ll smash our shops and kill us in our houses when their time comes.” “She will starve herself to death there.” “She will die there.”"Black devils who will burn and kill us.”He fell into bed each night like a stone, and dragged himself up in the mornings as a beast of burden is beaten to its feet.

One of these mornings, Girlie appeared very early, while he was wolfing bread and strong tea —alternate sensations of dry solidity and stingingheat — at the kitchen table. Her real name was Fatima, of course, but she had adopted the silly modern name along with the clothes of the young factory girls among whom she worked. She was expecting her first baby in a week or two, and her small face, her cut and curled hair, and the sooty arches drawn over her eyebrows did not seem to belong to her thrust-out body under a clean smock. She wore mauve lipstick and was smiling her cocky little white girl’s smile, foolish and bold, not like an Indian girl’s at all.

“What’s the matter?” he said.

She smiled again. “Don’t you know? I told Bobby he must get me up in time this morning. I wanted to be sure I wouldn’t miss you today. ”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

She came over and put her arm up around his unwilling neck and kissed the gray bristles at the side of his mouth. “Many happy returns! Don’t you know it’s your birthday?”

“No,” he said. “I didn’t know, didn’t think —” He broke the pause by swiftly picking up the bread and giving his attention desperately to eating and drinking. His mouth was busy, but his eyes looked at her, intensely black. She said nothing, but stood there with him. She would not speak, and at last he said, swallowing a piece of bread that tore at his throat as it went down, “I don’t remember these things.”

The girl nodded, the Woolworth baubles in her ears swinging. “ I hat’s the first thing she told me when I saw her yesterday — don’t forget it’s Bajie’s birthday tomorrow.”

He shrugged over it. “It means a lot to children. But that’s how she is. Whether it’s one of the old cousins or the neighbor’s grandmother, she always knows when the birthday is. What importance is my birthday, while she’s sitting there in a prison? I don’t understand how she can do the things she does when her mind is always full of woman’s nonsense at the same time — that’s what I don’t understand with her.”

“Oh, but don’t you see?” the girl said. “It’s because she doesn’t want anybody to be left out or forgotten. It’s because she always remembers, while other people forget; remembers everything —people without somewhere to live, hungry kids, boys who can’t get educated — remembers all the time. That’s how Ma is.”

“Nobody else is like that.” It was hall a complaint.

“No, nobody else,” said his stepdaughter.

She sat herself down at the table, resting her belly. He put his head in his hands. “I’m getting old” — but he was overcome by something much more curious, by an answer. He knew why he had desired her, the ugly widow with five children; he knew what way it was in which she was not like others; it was there, like the simple fact of the belly that lay between him and her daughter.