Mohan picked up a load of crisp, warm clothes he had ironed and arranged them in a neat stack, tying them in a bundle with a torn, green organza sari he kept for this purpose. The clothes were placed in the order of delivery; one misplaced shirt could mean an irate customer.
He opened his heavy, box iron and threw out smoldering pieces of coal. He had heard the buzz around electric irons, seen his fellow laundrymen quiver in fear when this new device started cropping up in every household, but so far it had done nothing to affect his livelihood. Mohan held disdain for those flimsy electrical devices, lightweight like a child's toy. How could you remove creases in crinkled cotton trousers from those things?
Mohan placed his heavy load on the back of his bicycle and secured it with a rope. He cast a worried glance at the overcast, darkening sky—where was Laxmi? He pushed his bicycle and jumped on the seat, wobbling forward. The motion was awkward; strangers laughed when he rode his bicycle. When Mohan was a child, he had been cursed by an angry goddess and his left leg never grew the same length as his right. At least that was the story he had been told. He had a peculiar gait as a result, leaning on the left and dragging his right. When he was anxious or angry, his left leg twitched and he slapped it repeatedly. People laughed but he did not care. He had always been langda Mohan.
His first stop was at Mrs. Sharma's house. He loathed Mrs. Sharma—her with the enormous juggling breasts, a potbelly that no sari could contain, and the stain of sweat visible in the blouse under her armpits. She haggled over prices every day, even though Mohan had been doing laundry for their family for fifteen years. Mohan rang the doorbell and settled on the dusty floor, hugging his stack of clothes.
Mrs. Sharma emerged dragging her feet, admonishing Mohan for being late. He got over the transaction with as much speed as he could, counting the single Rupee notes to make sure she had given him all sixteen.
"I'll be back tomorrow," Mohan said, leaning on potted plants for support as he heaved off the ground.
"No," cried Mrs. Sharma, "it's Thursday."
"Of course, I'll return on Friday," he replied as she banged the door shut. The superstitions of these people and they called him illiterate.
His next port of call was the Khare household, an easier assignment. As Mohan waited on the porch, he unrolled a small, brown paper bag he always carried in his shirt pocket and extracted a piece of tobacco with great care. He rubbed it between his callused palms and placed it in a corner of his mouth, chewing with satisfaction.
Mrs. Khare was a tall, statuesque woman with short hair and sad eyes. On occasion, he thought of enquiring about her wellbeing but knew it was not his place. She never counted the clothes Mohan returned nor inspected them. She even invited him indoors but he always refused, reluctant to sully the clean, marble floor with his feet caked with dried mud. On occasion they shared sweet, ginger tea, Mrs. Khare reminiscing of the hills of Kumaon. Sometimes he brought his two young boys, and Mrs. Khare always offered them candy.
Darkness gathered as Mohan set off towards his house, teetering on his bicycle, afraid of colliding with someone. A strong, swirling breeze made it harder to pedal. Electrical wires swayed overhead, cows ensconced in the middle of the road mooed, stray dogs snipped at each other, and a flash of lightning lit up the sky. Fat raindrops fell on his head, warm water snaked its way inside his collar and flowed out from the base of his frayed trousers.
Mohan's sons, eleven and nine, were waiting for him at the doorstep, towel in hand. He placed a palm each on both of their heads and brought them together, eliciting squeals of laughter. Their family of five lived in a two-room brick house with a corrugated tin roof. Mohan had built the house with his own hands. His wife whitewashed the exterior with limestone every year before Diwali. A corner of the living room had been partitioned with a curtain to serve as the kitchen. At night the living room transformed into the kids' study room. Toilet was a hole in the floor, adjacent to which was a 3 x 3 feet space with a bucket and a tap to take bath.
"Has Laxmi returned?" Mohan asked.
"Yes, she is here," replied Suresh, the older boy.
Laxmi looked up from a corner of the room where she was immersed in her books, sitting cross-legged on a jute mat, squinting to read in the light of a flickering lantern. She gave Mohan a dimpled smile.
"What are you studying?" Mohan asked, placing a hand on her head.
"Botany," she replied, "you won't understand Papa," she added with a giggle.
When Laxmi used words he could not comprehend, Mohan swelled with pride. She was beautiful, with almond eyes, glowing, mocha skin and thick, black hair like her mother. But unlike her mother, Laxmi was caring and loyal.
Mohan had distributed sweets in the neighborhood when Laxmi was born. He had named her after the goddess Lakshmi for good fortune. When Laxmi was a toddler, her mother had run away with another man. For a while, Mohan had brought her up with the help of female relatives. When he eventually remarried, he had kept a sharp eye on his new wife, to make sure she did not run away with another man and she treated Laxmi well.
His family and neighbors had been aghast when he enrolled Laxmi in school—why spend money on a girl's education? But Mohan had been adamant; he was illiterate, was easily duped, and did not want his children to suffer the same fate.
Laxmi excelled in academics, never got into any trouble at school, and came home to assist her stepmother with household chores. She also tutored her brothers. Now Laxmi wanted to become a doctor. Mohan had been taken aback. School was one thing, college, and profession something else entirely. If she became too educated it would be tough to find her a groom in their community. Besides, it would be up to her future husband and in-laws to decide on her college.
She was sixteen now; Mohan's wife reminded him daily to start looking for a good match for Laxmi. But Mohan felt he had not saved sufficient money for a good wedding ceremony and to give gifts to the groom; it would impact the quality of the match he could find.
Mohan sat down on Mrs. Khare's porch, waiting to receive a fresh batch of clothes to iron. A car honked loudly in the driveway and he covered his ears, face contorted with pain. The ear pain bothering him for the last week had kicked up a notch this morning.
"Are you unwell?" asked Mrs. Khare.
"It's nothing, mild ear pain. Probably wax."
"Wait here," she instructed and disappeared inside, placing the pile of clean clothes on a side table. She returned with a strip of Ibuprofen and a glass of water. He knew better than to thank her, she would take offense. She had been dispensing free medicine to him for years. Instead, he smiled and promised to come back the next day.
The ear pain was gone when he woke up from an afternoon nap and set about replenishing hot coal in his box iron. Suresh and Ramesh had returned home from school but Laxmi had not. His ironing cart stood on the road outside their home at all times. During inclement weather, he threw a tarp over it. As he ironed clothes he kept an eye on the road, anxious to spot his daughter.
Laxmi approached slowly in the distance, dressed in her school uniform— indigo and white salwar kameez, hair pulled together in two tight braids woven with red, polyester ribbons. Her head was bent and she was carrying a heavy load of books in her arms. A bicyclist followed her. Mohan found it odd that the bicyclist wouldn't speed up and go past her. As Laxmi came closer, Mohan saw that the bicyclist was a young man. Was he following Laxmi?
Laxmi gave Mohan a sweet smile and hurried inside the house. If she was aware of the young man behind her, she gave no indication of it. Mohan narrowed his eyes at the bicyclist, folding his arms across his chest and spreading his legs wide in an aggressive stance. The young man pedaled away in haste.
It played on Mohan's mind the whole evening. He broke into a cold sweat at the thought of Laxmi attracting male attention. Now he would have to protect her till he could get her married. Mohan thrashed on his cot the whole night, dreaming of vicious fist fights with young men.
Suresh, Ramesh, and Laxmi lined up to show Mohan their fancy clothes, twirling for effect and stretched their palms in expectation. Mohan obliged by placing a one-rupee coin in the outstretched palms. His jaw had been aching for over a week now and the pain had spread to the insides of his cheeks. There was a wedding in the neighborhood and loudspeakers had been blaring Bollywood songs the whole day. It had grated on Mohan's nerves but he could do nothing about it. He had stood on the road and ironed clothes, grimacing when the beats rose to a crescendo. Now it was time for the wedding reception and his family was impatient to get going.
Unlike other men in the community, Mohan did not touch alcohol. He liked to say he abhorred being drunk, but in reality, he could not bear the pungent smell. He wandered about under the large tent until something caught his eye. Laxmi and her group of friends were seated in a corner, whispering and giggling. Sitting a few rows behind them was a boy, his eyes fixed on Laxmi. Mohan recognized him from a few days ago when he had followed her back home from school on a bicycle. Mohan was torn, surely he should say something now. But the boy was not doing much, simply looking at Laxmi. Mohan made his way towards the boy. At the last minute, the boy glanced in Mohan's direction. Wrinkled, scowling eyes met young, excited ones. The boy leaped from his chair and raced away in the opposite direction. Mohan looked at Laxmi, she hadn't noticed a thing, still laughing with her friends.
Mohan woke up to numbness in his jaws where there had been pain. He asked for milk and chapati for breakfast; breaking the chapati into pieces and soaking it into milk. This made swallowing the pieces easier and did not raise any questions.
Over the next few days Mohan grew sores in his mouth, the numbness in his jaws receded and grew again and he began to sense a thickness in his throat as if a piece of bone was lodged there and would not let him swallow anything. When his wife enquired, he admitted only to the mouth sores.
He started taking regular naps in the afternoon, his energy waning by mid-day. One afternoon he woke up by the rumbling of thunder. A dust storm was blowing in from the east and his wife was gathering clothes drying on a wire outside.
"Is Laxmi home yet?" Mohan shouted above the thunder.
His wife shook her head. Mohan grabbed an umbrella and raced outside.
He ran to Laxmi's school, as fast as his uneven legs would carry him. He stood there panting, doubled over with pain on his sides. A moment later his daughter emerged, even as the black clouds ruptured and poured warm water in a rage. Laxmi pulled out an umbrella from her school-bag and Mohan felt like a fool, still clutching his sides.
It was then that he spotted the boy, resting on his bicycle on the opposite side of the road, staring at Laxmi.
Something snapped inside Mohan. Perhaps it was the way the boy seemed oblivious to the rain, his soaked shirt sticking to his chest. Or perhaps it was the weeks-long pain in his mouth. Mohan crossed the road in quick strides and before the boy realized what was happening, Mohan had landed a few punches.
"Don't you dare follow my daughter and look at her that way," Mohan spat and kicked the boy in the ribs.
The boy howled but did not attempt to counter-punch.
Laxmi ran to her father and beseeched him to stop. The rain came down in sheets, drenching them. Mohan slapped his twitching leg in place and dragged Laxmi away.
"Say aaaaa," instructed the doctor, shining a bright light that he wore on his forehead. Mohan opened his mouth as far as the throbbing pain would allow and croaked a weak sound.
The elderly doctor asked him questions about his lifestyle, eating, and everything about the pain. He switched off the bright lamp, took off his glasses, and rubbed them with the edge of his shirt, as Mrs. Khare and Mohan waited.
"I will need to do a biopsy."
Mohan did not know what biopsy was but Mrs. Khare's blanched face told him it was not a good word.
The doctor conferred with Mrs. Khare for a while longer, at one point opening a thick folder to show her some charts. She was quiet as they left the clinic in her car. On the way, they stopped at a pharmacy to buy medicines the doctor had prescribed. Mohan struggled to understand, even as Mrs. Khare patiently repeated the instructions. Mohan folded his hands and bowed his head in gratitude. He thought he detected a hint of moisture in the corner of her eyes but she blinked and it was gone.
When he reached home the living room was full of people. To his shock, the boy whom he had beaten yesterday was among them. He sported a purple bruise above his eye and several cuts on his face.
Mohan's brother-in-law, his wife's younger brother, was there too. He stood up and introduced an older man.
"Mohanji, I believe you are already familiar with this boy. This is his father. I think you should hear what they have to say."
"Mohanji," began the boy's father in a measured voice, "You have misunderstood my son's intentions. He is not some kind of Road Romeo. He has completed high school and has enrolled in college. He is studying computers. He is also working part-time at an electronics shop. He was a rank holder in the board exams."
Mohan shifted his attention to the boy.
"What is your name?" he asked.
"Lalit," the boy replied. He was tall and lean, with earnest brown eyes. His hair was parted and combed, and he wore a checkered blue shirt and brown trousers, well-ironed.
Laxmi, Suresh, and Ramesh peeped from behind the curtain.
"I am a tailor," continued Lalit's father, "our house is three streets down from here. Lalit likes your daughter. His intentions are honorable. That is why we have come to your house today to discuss this matter, despite what happened outside the school yesterday."
Mohan colored at his words but offered no apology.
"There is one thing, but I think we can overlook it given the circumstances," jumped in Mohan's brother-in-law, "these people belong to the scheduled caste."
Mohan stood up, furious, fists clenched by his side.
"Laxmi, what are you staring at? Go inside," he yelled at his daughter who retreated behind the curtain.
"I am never going to give my only daughter's hand to a scheduled caste boy. We may be poor but we have our honor. Now please leave my home."
He held the door open and they streamed out.
"How dare your brother interfere in our family?" he raged at his wife. "Tell him he is not welcome here anytime soon." Shaking with anger he collapsed on his cot. Generations of his family's good name would be ruined by associating with a scheduled caste family. How would he answer his father and forefathers when he met them in heaven? How would he even enter heaven if he let this pass? And here on earth, who would want to give their daughter's hand to Suresh or Ramesh in marriage if Laxmi married a scheduled caste boy? No, it was out of the question. He seethed once again at his brother-in-law's audacity.
Mohan paused as he remembered Lalit's hopeful eyes. He had not retaliated when Mohan had hit him, nor made any real attempt to save himself. He was studying computers; Laxmi kept mumbling something about computers and how important they were going to be. Under different circumstances, Mohan could have considered him eligible, but the misfortune of Lalit's caste ruled him out.
Mohan started his day by praying to Lord Hanuman. It had been a week since his biopsy and the doctor had called him today to discuss the results. As they stepped off Mrs. Khare's car, Mohan started shaking. His left leg twitched. Mrs. Khare squeezed his hands and propelled him forward.
The doctor swiveled in his plush leather chair to face them as they entered. He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He walked around his large oak desk and gently rubbed Mohan's back. Mohan wanted to bolt but remained glued to his seat.
"The biopsy results have come in. I'm afraid the findings are consistent with mouth cancer."
Mrs. Khare gasped and covered her mouth.
"What stage is it?" she asked.
"Stage 4. Cancer has spread from the mouth to the jaws, the back of the upper jaws where the large jaw muscles attach to the base of the skull. It is even present in more than one lymph node. We will have to investigate if it has spread to other parts of the body as well."
If Mohan went to the cancer treatment center in the big hospital and tried a combination of surgery with chemotherapy, there may be some chance of improvement. Otherwise, the doctor gave him six months.
Six months to get Laxmi married. Six months for Suresh and Ramesh to finish school, college and find a job. Six months to save enough for his wife not to struggle after he was gone. How could his family live their whole lives in six months?
The doctor seemed eager to help and Mrs. Khare was downright desperate. They discussed cancer specialists and how the doctor could introduce Mohan to one of them. Mrs. Khare thought of approaching welfare organizations that could help him bear the costs of treatment. But Mohan put an end to it. He was grateful for all they had done but if he had not been able to afford the cost of a visit to the doctor, treatment in the big hospital was out of the question. Besides, he had more important things to take care of. Mrs. Khare wiped tears from her eyes, there was nothing more to be said.
Mohan reached home and placed his bicycle next to the ironing cart. Suresh and Ramesh were waiting for him at the doorstep and he put their heads together in his palms as usual. Before he could stop himself, he pulled them into a tight embrace.
That night after the kids went to bed he told his wife it was now time to look for a good match for Laxmi. And so began the hunt for Laxmi's groom.
Mohan worked harder than ever, on a mission to earn and save as much money as he could. During the day he washed, ironed, and delivered clothes. In the evening he did the rounds of his neighbors' and relatives' homes, announcing he was now looking for a groom for Laxmi and asking for suggestions of eligible boys.
After a fortnight, a shortlist of five emerged. Three were in the laundry business, one a carpenter, and another a welder. All were above the age of twenty-five. None had passed high-school.
Mohan set up appointments for each to visit their house and see Laxmi. His wife labored for hours to clean the house and cook for the guests, assisted by the kids. Laxmi was made to wear a sari and makeup. When the prospective grooms and their families arrived, Mohan stood with his hands folded and back bent in respect. After a polite conversation, Laxmi was brought out, carrying a tray of tea and snacks. She was asked to recite verses from the Ramayana or Gita. Sometimes they enquired if she liked to stitch, sew or knit. She always replied with utmost politeness.
After one such visit, Mohan woke in the middle of the night to hear Laxmi sobbing softly in her bed. He thrust his fingers in his ears and turned the other way. She knew not what lay ahead.
The welder and two of the laundrymen said yes to the match. Now it was up to Mohan to decide. He conferred with his wife and they settled on the welder. His name was Raju. Laxmi and Raju, it had a nice ring to it, Mohan thought.
Problems arose from the very beginning. Raju's parents wanted the wedding to be after nine months, during the most auspicious period of the Hindu calendar. Mohan panicked. He tried to persuade Raju's family astrologer to advance the date. He pleaded and cajoled. In the end, he promised Raju a new music system as a wedding gift. The wedding date was fixed for three months later and Mohan heaved a sigh of relief.
Mohan and his wife threw themselves into wedding preparations. Invitation cards had to be printed and distributed, halwai booked, tents had to be arranged, and furniture rented. Laxmi's trousseau had to be put together—some saris, silver jewelry, cosmetics, and three pairs of shoes. Mohan did not want her mother-in-law to complain later that Laxmi's parents had not provided her with enough. And then there was the dowry. At first, Raju's family demanded nothing. "Mohanji whatever you want to give out of the happiness of your heart, we will accept with great humility," Raju's father said. But he let it be known that Raju was fond of good clothes and hoped his father-in-law would gift him five pantsuits. Mohan nodded dutifully. A few days later Raju's mother mentioned how it was important for all the women in their family to receive a sari from the bride's family. Mohan took note of it.
The wedding invitations arrived from the printer. Mohan beamed at the red and gold lettering, exactly as he had envisioned it. He took it to show Laxmi. She was sitting on the jute mat, a book spread on her lap, staring at the ceiling with vacuous eyes. As the events over the last month had unfolded, she had grown very quiet.
Mohan showed her the card but she barely glanced at it.
"Papa, I want to ask you something."
"Sure, my child."
"I want to continue going to the school right up until the.... the....wedding."
"Of course, keep going until the wedding."
"And after that?"
Mohan cleared his throat.
"After that Laxmi, it will be up to Raju and his family if they want you to continue your studies."
"Have you asked them, Papa?"
Mohan cleared his throat again. "No, I have not."
He had and they had expressed their displeasure at the idea of Laxmi attending college. She was already more educated than Raju.
Mohan watched as tears soaked the open page of Laxmi's book. She knew.
Every day a new request trickled in from Raju's family. A watch for his mother, a transistor for his father, a wooden, rocking horse for his young nephew. Mohan contained his disappointment; nothing out of the ordinary here.