Listen to Tabish Khair read this excerpt.
The auto-rickshaw had been more crowded than usual, and his father had to sit in Ashraf’s lap, which Ashraf knew his father hated, but there was no option, they had to get to the bank with the money given to them by the contractor, as the harvest had been good this year, the first good harvest in four years, for various blights, flood, drought, had destroyed much of the crop in the region year after year for years running, and then the pandemic had destroyed the market when the harvest had been good, but this season had been good again, Allah be thanked, and this time they could make a dent in the loan, the loan they took nine-ten years ago, because they needed money for seeds that had been patented and privatized, and then there were other expenses, and everyone was taking these loans, so why not, if everyone was doing it, surely there was nothing wrong in it, though there was a mullah who had warned against taking or giving loans, for interest is prohibited in Islam he had said, it is haraam, but what interest, all the Muslim farmers had said, and so had all the Hindu farmers, it was not as if they were being given any interest by the bank, why, they were going to pay interest to the bank, so if there was sin in it, surely it fell on the heads of the bankers, may they rot in hell, though there is a chance that hell has five-star hotels too and government bailouts, and Ashraf had laughed at that because it sounded funny despite his having no clear idea what either of them were, and in any case what was the option, now that the government had stopped subsidies and you could not get seeds or fertilizers, what was the option but to mortgage the land against a small loan which, it was obvious, would need just five or six or seven good harvests to repay, what was the risk, and what was the alternative?
The bank is on the second floor, which you reach by a narrow staircase that is partly locked, allowing space only for one person to enter at a time, and upstairs the bank is locked too, or chained in any case, with a guard with a single-barrel, twelve-bore gun standing behind the chain, it is lunch time he says, five other customers are already standing there on the dark landing, what lunch time asks one, who is obviously from the town, the sign there says lunch from one to two thirty and it is already three now, well, says the guard, stuffing some snuff between his teeth and lower lip by first pinching his lip and pulling it out like a drawer, well, sir, he says, and the sir is loaded with irony, since you can read signs, you must be reading the newspapers too, and since you can read the newspapers, you should have learnt by now that the written word means nothing, it is more fickle than a whore who has been paid, learned sir, surely you do not think that words in print mean what they say, at which the man does not take offense, he is probably used to such banter outside chained banks and other government offices in this little town, and he laughs and says, sir, and this time his sir is loaded with irony too, since you know so much and guard such a great bank, surely you can tell us what to believe and what not to believe, and the guard twirls his moustache and replies, sir, as you know, one should believe only what one sees, and right now you see this chain across the grills of this door . . .
and thus the banter continues, until at around three twenty the guard receives a signal from inside and unlocks the chain, at which the people outside, there are eleven or twelve now, some standing on the stairs, rush in to the counters they need to go to, which is actually not much of a help because the counters are still unstaffed, and they have to wait another ten minutes before the bank starts functioning, though for Ashraf and his Abba the wait is considerably longer, because after they deposit most of the money, which necessitates some filling of forms as the sum deposited is above what can be deposited in cash without query, after having finally had the money counted and accepted, and a pay-in slip issued to them, just as father and son are leaving, a bank official from another section comes up to them and thrusts an official looking envelope at them, and orders them to acknowledge receipt of it, which they do before enquiring what it is about, and the official informs them that it is about their mortgage, for they have missed many installments, and the bank has issued a legal notice, which must have been delivered to them, and in any case that is another matter, but what does this mean, the father asks, this means that the bank has moved to confiscate and sell your land in order to recover its loan, at which the father collapses in a heap on the floor, and Ashraf has to drag him up by both arms, the bank official shrugs and goes away to his section, but Ashraf, having deposited his father in a chair, as some other customers start helping, fetching water, fanning the old man, Ashraf runs after the bank official and asks him what it means, and the bank official says that he is not authorized to answer such queries, but then who is, well, you could speak to a lawyer, which Ashraf knows would cost money, no, he pleads, I need to speak to someone in the bank, then speak to the bank manager, but sir is not in now, he just left for the day, you will have to come back another day.
It takes Ashraf and his father two visits before they get to see the bank manager, because the next day sir is not in until late, and then leaves early, but when they do manage to get an audience, sir turns out to be a tired-looking man, with gray hairs and paunches everywhere, including under his eyes, and he looks sad, and he shakes his head, you lot, he laments, you take on loans and do not pay, and we have to do the dirty work, for we have to recover the money, why do you take loans if you cannot pay, what can I do for you, it is out of my hands, I have to answer to others too, there is pressure on us to recover bad loans, and nothing Ashraf and his father say, though Abba starts weeping, which disturbs Ashraf who has seen his father weep on only one occasion, when his mother was being put into the ground, and then he had wept because the ground appeared so cold and dark to him, and the wood they had bought to cover the corpse was so little and of such poor quality, and his father had sobbed into cupped palms and wept and said I should have taken care of her better than I did, I should have taken care of her better than I did, and now she will be in there, in there, in there, and religious people had consoled him with talk of how the body is made of earth and dissolves into earth, how the soul is immortal and returns to its Maker, how paradise is assured to a woman like her, Allah gives and Allah takes away, but Ashraf’s father had kept sobbing, uncontrollably, even when some of the strictly religious chided him for failing to be Islamic, for the true Muslim does not grieve in excess, that is like questioning Allah, so calm down, restrain yourself, your son is here, your relatives are here, but Ashraf’s father had sobbed all the way home, and that is what he does that day in the bank, he cups his face in his bony, gnarled hands with two of their fingers deformed from the time they had been crushed while ploughing, and he sobs, and sobs, until Ashraf forces him up, there is no point sitting there, the manager is checking his smart phone, and Ashraf guides his father out of the cubicle, to where the moustachioed guard stands with his one-barrel gun, and just as they are passing him the man says, there is a way, if you are smart, there is a way . . . ■