Keshava Guha is a writer of fiction and literary and political journalism. He was raised in Bangalore and studied history and politics at Harvard. This is the opening of “The Tiger’s Share”, a novel set in contemporary Delhi.
The Tiger’s Share
My father had been retired five years when he convened a family summit. That phrase sounds too grand for a meeting of four people, three of whom lived in the same south Delhi neighbourhood, two in the same flat, and one of whom, my mother, was never likely to be an important participant. But anybody who knew us could see that this request was unusual. I measured the potential weight of it by the fact that it had taken Rohit, my brother, less than an hour to respond, not with mere agreement but with his flight details.
When Rohit was still a student, it had been so painful to coax him back for short visits that we’d long since stopped trying. Now that he was in the final months of his Optional Practical Training, with no prospect of an H-1B visa, you’d think he’d want to hold firm to every day he had left in New York, and maybe steal an extra week or two past the expiry date. From April to October, Delhi was too hot for him. From November through February, its air was too polluted. That left March, where the weather might be doable, but even so…in Delhi it was impossible for him to feel inspired. Delhi, so far from the action. The city was dead.
My mother visited him twice a year. Between visits, every few weeks she’d demand that I issue one of those embarrassing Facebook appeals, asking if anybody was flying from Delhi to New York. Sometimes I gave in, and some poor bakra was saddled with frozen parathas, bottles of home-made mango pickle, and Maggi noodles. Then one of these kind couriers sent me a bill for his excess baggage fee, and I told Ma I was done indulging her.
As for my father: he had never visited my brother, neither in New York nor in London. Nor was Rohit ever known to seek out Baba’s company when in Delhi. I don’t wish to give the impression that they disliked each other. They just didn’t quite know what to do with each other. They were the sort of people who, encountering each other as strangers at a party, would have diagnosed within five minutes a fatally mutual lack of sympathy. Thrown together irrevocably as father and son, they did what each must have regarded as his best. As a teenager, Rohit would rage against Baba’s dullness, not out of resentment at the fates for having granted him such a father, but out of what he called love. And when Rohit, in the certain knowledge of failure, had failed to turn up for his Chartered Accountancy (CA) exam, my father didn’t even scold him. The only consequences were his agreeing to fund successive foreign degrees in design and filmmaking. By then each had given up on trying to change the other. Even Baba’s not visiting wasn’t personal. He never went abroad in his life.
Under normal circumstances, if my father had asked that we all talk, my brother would have suggested Skype. But, at least in Rohit’s eyes, things hadn’t been quite normal for some time. Baba retired on his sixtieth birthday. He’d announced the decision two years earlier, after Rohit’s non-exam. With no one to leave his practice to, he gradually wound it up. You can never predict how someone will respond to retirement, but it was easy to be worried about him. It was as simple as: how would he pass the time? All our lives he had worked twelve hours every weekday, and filled as much of the weekend as he could with more of his practice. My mother was not the sort to push back against this, but if she had, we all knew what he would say: I owe it to my clients. It’s a question of duty.
His duty to his clients didn’t allow for outside interests. There were, there must have been, things other than work that he did. 45 minutes in the park, starting 6.30 a.m. in winter, 5.30 in summer. Beyond a close reading of the pink papers, which was work, that is duty, he spent three minutes each on Dennis the Menace and Hagar the Horrible, and when he was done, if today’s strip was up to scratch, the mark of his satisfaction was a single yogic exhalation. In later years he added another five minutes for the Sudoku puzzle; if it took longer than that to finish he passed it on to my mother and got on with his day. Then there were those Sundays when India was playing Pakistan in Sharjah or Toronto, and his brother, my chacha Vikram, would come over for the free beer and larger TV. Baba, his beer pristine, would supply us with statistical permutations at the end of every over. But we knew that he couldn’t spend his retirement analysing cricket scores.
More than worry I felt curiosity. I thought I knew him as well as anyone did. Others said better. And there was nothing stray or accidental in my father’s days. Everything was planned and accounted for. It must be the same with his retirement.
He closed the practice on a Friday, and gradually I had my answer. My old bedroom, left untouched in the thirteen years since I’d moved to the next block, became his study. Now that he had saved the hour he used to spend commuting to and from Nehru Place, he took out subscriptions to the Hindu and the Indian Express, and he read these at the dining table before moving to his study for the equivalent of the working day.
I am never quite sure of how much I know or knew about what he did in that room. No one was ever invited in, but he kept the door three inches ajar, and if my mother or I went in with a question he never seemed to mind. We found him at the desk, taking notes by hand as he read on his desktop or iPad. Less often it was a printed magazine or pamphlet, these always in Hindi, and he would place whatever it was on the desk with the pages facing up, so I never saw a cover or spine. Like all lawyers in this city I spoke sarkari Hindi well enough, but I read it only haltingly, certainly not well enough to make a useful spy. Once a day, for a little under an hour, my father would close, but not lock, the door. This was usually around 4 p.m., the hour at which he used to pause his practice for a session of hatha yoga. It had been decades since he’d needed a teacher.
Later, Rohit would argue that my apparent absence of curiosity proved beyond doubt that I had always known exactly what Baba was up to. Of course I was curious, but I assumed that if we needed to know what he was reading and writing and thinking about, he would tell us in due course. In the first year, Rohit once speculated that my father was unable to retire and was in fact handing out accounting advice online.
That was all I knew him to say or think of the matter, until we were four years into Baba’s retirement and I began to hear from Rohit’s Delhi friends. These were all boys already in the position Rohit was soon to be in. They had studied abroad and, unable to secure work or a work visa, had returned to Delhi, one and a half eyes fixed forlornly on that lost world of mixology bars, Peruvian restaurants, and blondes who did CrossFit and longed for an Indian man to teach them authentic yoga. Back in Delhi some spent sulky days at the family business, browsing MailOnline, pausing periodically to abuse an underling. Others simply drifted. They usually had some entrepreneurial scheme forthcoming, never actually going, something to make Delhi less unlike London and New York, to bring it into the 21st century. One of them once asked me to draft a pre-nupt for his (arranged) marriage. I was willing, although I warned him of what ended up happening. The girl and her parents didn’t just refuse to sign; they decided to find a new groom.
All these years that was the only case of my being contacted by a friend of Rohit’s. Many of them probably never knew that he had a sister. Rohit– I credit him with more intelligence than his friends– ought to have thought of this before he began issuing instructions.
Each time it went like this. The friend would message on Facebook (they were born in the late 1980s, seemingly too late for e-mail). Hi Tara, he would begin. I don’t know if Rohit told you that I moved back to Delhi. Anyway, it would be great if we could catch up some time over coffee. There’s some stuff I’d love to talk to you about, someone like you who’s a hotshot lawyer and really knows how to make things work in this city. I’m still trying to get a handle on it [university aside, every last one of them had spent their entire lives here]. Rohit’s always talked about how smart you are and how your killing it as a lawyer. Really awesome stuff. Anyway, hope to catch you soon. Serious shit aside, will just be nice to hang! xx Pavit. Pavit was the first, and he was representative. I grew quite fond of it all: the xxs, the agreeably fraudulent flattery, and the growing confusion of tone caused by the unfamiliar exercise of typing 100 words at one go, addressed to someone thought too serious to tolerate netspeak.
We would meet at my office. They always wore a jacket but no tie, usually cufflinks, loafers or smart sneakers, and dark jeans or chinos. Substitute the last for salmon pink trousers, or do a similar exchange with the jacket (you play with the jacket or the trousers, never both) and it would be what they wore on cocktail bar dates. They would accept my offer of chai once I assured them it could be made without sugar, and then I would do them the kindness of getting straight to it. “How may I help you?” if this one had just returned from the UK. “What can I do for you?” if he thought in American. They never needed any loosening up. A female audience for their passionate blabbering was theirs by birthright, and they had a young lifetime’s experience to prove it. Each time I learned anew about the places they had left, the buzz, the energy– the frisson, one said hopefully– and their student entrepreneurial ventures. Then they would move on to their plans to shake up Delhi, and their families’ boneheaded refusal to invest in their visions. “My dad doesn’t get it,” they would say. “He thinks that because he’s made money one way for the past 30 years, we just keep doing the same shit over again. His loss, he could have had a real stake in the future.” The more sentimental among them might add, “Now he gets to watch someone else’s son do it instead.”
I would be encouraging in terms general enough to avoid outright lying. “Always nice to see someone who wants to take a real entrepreneurial risk rather than just join Papa’s business. And you’re right, some of our parents’ businesses don’t make sense going forward.” I would say that I knew very little about this sector, but I could put them in touch with a former client of mine, etc. At this point they would move on to their real business.
“I’m worried about Rohit.”
“Oh no, what’s wrong? Ma speaks to him every day and she hasn’t mentioned anything.” With Pavit, since this was the first time, I was genuinely curious.
“He’s really worried about your dad. It’s getting him down. I hate to see him like this.”
“That doesn’t sound like Rohit. Besides, there’s nothing at all the matter with Baba. He’s in excellent health.”
“Physical health, yes, touch wood.” This being my office there was plenty of wood to hand, and they always took the opportunity to touch. “But hasn’t he become, like, a hermit? Spending all his time hidden away, reading, and not talking to anyone. A lot of Sanskrit stuff, your mom told Rohit. And they didn’t even know he read Sanskrit. And your dad’s never been like, religious, before, no?”
“He’s as religious as the next man. Plus I’m not religious at all, so I don’t really know too much about that side of him.”
“But whatever it is, this isn’t healthy. It can’t be right for anyone to live like this. Rohit just wants to make sure that your dad’s ok, that he doesn’t do something silly. And everyone knows the bond you and your dad have. Only you can get through to him.” On the first few occasions, this was the point where I decided to end things, so as to save them the strain of searching for ways to shake my evident lack of concern.
“There’s nothing to worry about. No man in the world has ever needed less taking care of than Baba. He’s so self-sufficient that sometimes I wonder if he brought his parents up rather than the other way round. But, since Rohit is so worried, I’ll look into it a little more.”
And then it was the turn of Kunal, the friend of Rohit’s that I knew best, if mostly by reputation; his sister, Lila, was my age, and twenty years previously we had been in the same maths tuition class. Since then she had been the kind of person I met only once or twice a year, but was immeasurably fond of; a part of me had always thought we ought to be best friends, but was restrained by that other part that said that such fondness depends upon a certain distance. Since she was married, and had recently had a child, I didn’t think we would get any closer. New mothers of Lila’s age and type seek out others like them. She had recently helped set up the Indian office of an American private equity firm, as the only woman partner.
Kunal followed the usual script, but something adversarial lurked beneath his words and tone. He had refused the chai, and each time I answered him he made it too evident that he wasn’t really listening. I couldn’t tell if this was because he simply didn’t like me, or if Rohit was now frustrated at how little I was able to tell his friends.
As I began to say that I would look into it, he cut me off.
“No,” he said. “Can you really not get it?”
“Get what?” I said.
“This isn’t just about your father’s health. This is Rohit’s future we’re talking about. His rights as a son.”
“The right to know what my father is up to? What he’s reading? As a daughter, I’ve never felt entitled to such a right.”
“So you don’t get it. Or you do get it, but you get it too well.” Now he stood up, and took two steps towards the door, planting his feet so he stood at forty-five degrees to me for his valediction. So Lila was right about him; he really did take his ideal of dramatic conversation from the Angry Young Man era of Bollywood.
“Whatever religious shit your father is reading,” he said, “it’s easy for you to say it’s not your business. You’ve always been his favourite. He’s never given Rohit his fair shot. What kind of father doesn’t appreciate a son, doesn’t love and cherish him? God only knows. And now he’s gone religious, and we all know what happens next. He will say he wants to devote his life to the poor and needy, go Gandhian, and start giving away what is Rohit’s. And Rohit will lose the chance to be what he can. But Rohit’s too nice to fight for his rights. And you won’t help him, you never have and never will. But I won’t stand for it. It makes me sick to see this happen to a man like Rohit.”
It was only the next day that I realised that I had forgotten to close the door, and that the whole office– my two juniors, the clerk, the receptionist and the office boy– must have heard him. At the time I found myself fixated on something else. Rohit was thirty, and this was the first time I could ever remember someone referring to him as a man.
Before the onset of Rohit’s ambassadors, it had been many years since I had any cause to think about my father’s money. This doesn’t speak to something in my character; only to the structure of our lives. I was financially self-sufficient, and so were my parents, and nothing was likely to change on either side. With no husband or children of my own, I didn’t think of money as a bridge across generations, or as a matter of right. Of course I was aware of the privilege that underpinned this lack of concern. At twenty-two, I could afford to pass up corporate law in favour of litigation because I had the option of living rent-free at home– most advocates pay their juniors less than their chauffeurs. Many of my classmates were expected to pay a family cess on their salary from day one, to go towards the medical bills of grandparents or a sister’s wedding. My salary was really pocket money– tiny, but spent all on myself. After three years I started working for a senior counsel, and could afford to move out.
But in that distant time when I was dependent, I felt the limits more keenly than the privilege. Unlike so many of Rohit’s friends, and a few of my own, we never had any prospect of going abroad for college. As CAs went, honest ones at any rate, Baba was successful, but not to the extent of contemplating dollar-fees. Not even my mother ever suggested otherwise, which means Rohit can’t have asked her. When I finished law school, I thought briefly about asking Baba if I should look at an LLM in the US. One year versus the four that college would have been. At that time India was opening up and felt new to the American touch and even a slacker from my law school could get into Harvard or Chicago. But what would be the point? I didn’t need an LLM to practise successfully in Delhi. In truth I thought Baba would say yes, and I feared this more than a refusal.
Then came Rohit’s graduation, and his CA exam no-show. He started work at an ad agency, and said he liked it. I had moved out, but still had dinner with my parents most nights. Whether due to work or clubbing, I never saw him there. In those months I established a pattern that still holds. I never had to say in advance that I was going to be “home” for a meal. I moved between my parents’ flat and my own barsati as if they were rooms of the same house. This is why I remember so clearly the announcement of what I can now call the First Tiwari Summit. It was the first of two times that my father actually requested my presence at home at a particular date and time: Sunday lunch. An hour later he called again, brimming with apology. Rohit couldn’t do lunch. Could I come at 11 AM?
I arrived to find my father seated at the dining table. Rohit sat next to him, but he had moved his chair to allow enough space for my mother to stand between them. She never sat if she could help it; it impeded the natural flow between kitchen, living room and bedroom that kept the house going and her weight down. Baba had arranged five documents before him, side by side rather than stacked. I recognised them as title deeds.
We had known, dimly, that Baba had always invested what he could in property, beginning in the late 1970s when he bought our Hauz Khas home. It was the first place anyone in the family had ever owned, other than lost village land that had passed from history into myth. But none of us– even my mother– had anything like a full sense of his portfolio. Until now.
“I’ve called you both here,” he said, “because Rohit has decided to go abroad for higher studies. He applied some time ago; neither he nor his mother saw fit to inform me. He has been admitted to a college in London. I haven’t heard of it, but he assures me it is famous in its field. Designing.” When my father had to speak at any length he did so in neat chapters, pausing to indicate a narrative break rather than to invite interruption.
“Rohit tells me– I know nothing– that no designing college offers scholarships. In England the tuition fees aren’t so high as America. But living is expensive. He says he can work part-time, but your mother says if he works it will distract from the studies that are the point of sending him. I agree. So the question is, how does he pay for it?”
He went through the options, making a show of the tokenism of the exercise, the fact that each had been pre-rejected. It was too late for external scholarships. Loans made little sense for a course in which job and employment prospects were dubious. The trust funds established for our respective educations had not been with a view to foreign degrees. Only then did he come to the point.
Our father, we learnt, owned five flats in addition to the one in which we lived. Each had been, at the time of purchase, in an unfashionable colony; some still were. But over time their value had grown by several multiples of ten. The cheapest would have funded an LLM three times over.
“Rohit can pay for this degree,” he said, “If we sell one of these. Paschim Vihar is the one I have in mind; the price won’t rise much further. I’m told that this is the right thing to do. It’s our duty; it is an investment in Rohit’s future. What is a flat none of you will ever live in compared to an education? All the same, I don’t know. It’s an asset. The rent alone is more than Rohit’s current salary. Will he earn more as a designer? Maybe I’m wrong, and with the new Metro line the value goes up. Plus, right now we own six properties; that’s an even number. But if I talk like this people will say, Brahm Tiwari, he can only think like an accountant.”
All through it was never spoken, but always clear: he was addressing me. And so it was I that resolved the dilemma. Of course he should sell, I said– he had said “we”, I said “you”– Rohit wanted this, and deserved it. He would justify it in time, I said.
The flat sold for so much that when Rohit had to leave London there was enough left to fund another degree, this time in America. And my father, capable of concealment but not outright dishonesty, would remind me every six months or so that he had never bought another.