All those years ago, when he was still looking for his first job, Rafiq Ansari never cared more about anything than what was being discussed at Shabbir Manzil. Since joining college in 1965, his greatest ambition had been to have tea there, to sit among the notables of Rasoolpur mohalla and speak of poetry and cricket, perhaps make a learned comment, but casually, on some bit of politics that had recently made its way into the newspapers.

Canvas: The small town in which Ahmad’s book is set is inspired by the milieu and geography of a town such as Meerut in Uttar Pradesh

Rafiq pursued this ambition with single-minded devotion, climbing above his station, marrying beyond his means, turning away from opportunities that would take him far from Moazzamabad and lose him the chance to make the one remark that would draw praise from all around him, and would be savoured by the caretakers of culture for a generation or more.

It was no easy thing to achieve. There were many guardians on the path to such eminence, great egos to be propitiated, small men to be praised, and always the need to make it all seem that he wasn’t trying too hard. Nothing would doom his chances so completely as to be known as an upstart aspiring to social recognition.

Turning down a job with the Indian Railways, Rafiq idled, a pursuit that only the sons of the rich could afford. He called it studying: he had done not just his MA, but a BEd as well, telling his parents all the while that there was a great career in education—weren’t the vice chancellors of Indian universities all great men? To be a professor was to be on the pathway to power. And his father, who had only studied up to the tenth grade, who already had a son who was an engineer and a second who was a lawyer, and who knew, all the while, what Rafiq was made of, didn’t protest too much.

But after his BEd, Rafiq had to live up to his boasts, and found that he could not. And then, six months of increasingly elaborate excuses, when even his mother mentioned something about working to feed himself, he had the good fortune to be almost run over by Ahmed Saeed Shabbir’s jeep.

‘Arre Rafiq!’ Ahmed Saeed exclaimed in the plum tones befitting the eldest son of the most prominent family in the mohalla, the only one who was a member of the Lions Club and who had dinner at the District Magistrate’s house, whose hands had so little need of work that they were softer than the calfskin shoes that he ordered from a shop in Kanpur whose name nobody in Moazzamabad knew.

‘Arre Rafiq! Kaise behke behke chal rahe ho? You haven’t fallen in love now, have you, my boy?’

The horn had startled Rafiq but he didn’t care. In all his years Ahmed Saeed had never addressed him, never in such a tone, almost as if he was talking to an equal. And Rafiq wasn’t about to let the opportunity pass. Though what should he say, and how? Only the rich fell in love, even Rafiq knew that, only the rich and the desperately poor could afford to. The closest that Rafiq was likely to come to romance was copying Rajesh Khanna’s hairstyle.

Thinking furiously, but determined not to show it, Rafiq ignored the glare that Rustam, Ahmed Saeed’s bulldog of a driver, threw his way. It was that glance that cleared his brain and, assuming a jaunty tone that went well with his superstar haircut, he replied, ‘One can also rise in love, Ahmed Saeed sahib, not just fall in it—unless brought down to earth by the honking of a car horn.’

Ahmed Saeed guffawed at the well-turned phrase, and Rafiq, who had been worried that he might be going a little too far with the implied criticism, relaxed and laughed along.

‘Jump in, Majnu,’ Ahmed Saeed said, ‘let me drop you off at your house. We can’t let lovers be run over by careless drivers now, can we?’

As Rafiq moved to jump into the rear of the jeep, Ahmed Saeed said, ‘Not back there, old man, there’s enough space in the front.’

Things changed that evening for Rafiq. What an honour it was to be riding with Ahmed Saeed, in the front seat at that, shoulder to shoulder with the most important man in the mohalla. He could hear the buzz of gossip subside and rise as they passed by tea shop after tea shop, and knew that everybody was watching them. One of Rafiq’s friends had the temerity to wave, and Rafiq’s face crinkled in distaste. He only partially raised a hand to acknowledge the greeting.

‘Who was that?’ Ahmed Saeed wanted to know.

‘Oh, Ahmed Saeed sahib,’ Rafiq said, laughing dismissively, ‘you know how it is these days, everybody thinks they are your equals. That young man is in his third year of engineering and thinks that makes him fit to have conversations with this nacheez who was mad enough to keep at it till he’d done an MA, and a BEd too.’

‘Really?’ Ahmed Saeed sounded a little bewildered. He hadn’t realized that somebody of Rafiq’s class could actually claim to be educated.

‘First class,’ Rafiq said, and then clarified, ‘although they didn’t give it to me in my BEd for a two-mark difference.’

‘They must have realized that you are Muslim,’ Ahmed Saeed said grumpily.

It seemed implausible. The examination papers went to the central examination board, and there were no names on the papers, only identification numbers. But Rafiq nodded along. Everybody knew that Ahmed Saeed had managed to pass the fiendishly difficult civil service exam three times, only to be denied at the interview stage. Three times he had faced a board of examiners armed with the air of a man accustomed to power and privilege, with the knowledge that all that was best in India could be his, and three times he had been denied by the stony faced men. It had been years since those slights, but Ahmed Saeed still brooded on them, assigning many reasons for his failure to break into the privileged club of Indian bureaucracy.

Ahmed Saeed had lapsed into silence, but just before they reached Rafiq’s house, he seemed to come out of his sudden despondency. ‘Come to my house tomorrow. If you’re free, that is.’

Rafiq had a job interview the next day, but this was an invitation to Shabbir Manzil. ‘The British are gone,’ he said, waving a hand, ‘we’re all free men now.’

Ahmed Saeed laughed. ‘Good man,’ he said and squeezed Rafiq’s thigh, a gesture that could only mean that they were now friends.

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