After a month's vacation

when Papiah returned to work,

his hands were spotted white,

as with leukoderma.  Preceding him,

the news of the scandal had spread:

the seniormost driver of the firm

discarding his wife and children,

had settled down hereabouts

with a woman of ill-repute.

Recently, in a fire at her house,

instead of deserting "the whore,"

he had risked his life to save her;

and in the process, the burns.

Faced with all this slander,

Papiah conducted himself

with laudable indifference.

With a spitefulness peculiar to children,

I decided to try him:  with feigned innocence,

I asked him the reason for the spots.

Papiah unbuttoned his collar and cuffs,

showed me burn-marks all over:

"The neighbour's house was on fire

with all the womenfolk trapped inside.

In saving the life of one,

I sustained the burns."  I persisted:

"But how did you save her?"

"By pulling off her ­sari­."

I pretended to be shocked;

slightly nettled, he protested,

"What else could one have done in the situation?"

The topic ended there, with Papiah

breaking into a violent cough.


"He's coughing his life away,

can't you see, and yet

the wretch knows no repentance.

Each evening after work,

he's back with his slut,"

a fellow-driver

told me after a few months.

That was the first time

I realized he had consumption.


For the next six months

Papiah reported regularly to work,

though visibly weakened.

Gossip was now his only companion:

"He doesn't send a ­pai­ home,

squanders it all on his `keep.'

But does she care?

No Sir, not her.

Even his wife refuses

to see his face now,"

A former friend of his

affirmed in a conversation.

When I enquired after his family,

I was told by another:

"What can they do, Sir?

they are begging by the roadside;

yet, perhaps he has some land

which his wife manages at home."

"Why can't you reason with him?

after all, you're his friend,"

I ventured.  "Sir, he has no friends;

I gave myself a headache

trying to talk him out of his vices,

but the fellow is adamant.

He has completely lost

his honour and reputation.

Do you know that he spends

his medicine allowance on liquor?

He's half the size he used to be,

spitting his life by the hour.

He'll die soon, no better, surely

than a stray dog in a gutter...."


Some weeks later,

Papiah was confined to a sanatorium.

My mother wrote off all the debts

he had incurred for his medicines.

The Management, too, was kinder to him,

paying his expenses without stinting.

They even published a photo-feature on him

in the house journal.

The write-up was in English,

a language he had never learned

and I don't think he ever saw his picture.

Papiah sank rapidly, dying soon after.

The last comment he evoked was

"Poor man, he willed himself to death."


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  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape