The Complaint – A Short Story by Lainy Malkani
MR KUMAR, a merchant from India, paced up and down behind the counter of his store on Water Street, blowing on a sheet of parchment and waving it in the air. When he was sure that the ink was absolutely dry, he wrapped the item in a white cotton cloth and wedged it between two rice sacks, brushing away the grains that sprinkled on the rough wooden floor.
Sitting propped against the wall next to him, out of sight of the customers, was a young boy. Eyes wide open in sunken sockets, he swayed his head while water trickled down the sides of his gaping mouth. Mr Kumar held a wooden spoon to his lips.
‘Here, Khanna, drink some more,’ he said to the boy, kneeling beside him. But the poor child was unconscious and could no longer hear him. Mr Kumar sat back on his heels and reached under the counter for an empty rice bag to cover him.
‘Sleep, child,’ he said, patting him gently on the shoulder. ‘For a while at least.’
Opening the back door of the store, the merchant listened to the cool night breeze sending whispers through the trees, and wondered if his family across the Kala Pani in Calcutta still remembered him after all these months.
‘I am not the man I used to be,’ he whispered back, easing himself into his hammock before closing his weary eyes.
When the sun rose the next day, the boy was nowhere to be found and Mr Kumar was glad, because just as he opened the store, the Protector of Immigrants walked in. A boisterous breeze pushed past him, covering the store with a light shower of dust. He tipped his cork hat into his hand as he entered and rested it on the counter. Kicking the dust off his boots, he said casually, ‘So – how’s business, Mr Kumar?’
Mr Kumar opened the shutters and light flooded the store, which had opened just four months earlier. It was chequered with shelves secured to the walls; here were displayed large bottles of oils and jars of spices. Tattered rice bags laced with string lined the lower shelves, and on the counter, not three feet away, was a set of scales with weights piled beside it.
Mr Kumar wiped the counter and glanced curiously up at the Protector.
‘I see the planters have made you a very wealthy man,’ the Protector continued, opening a barrel of ghee and drawing his fingers along the thick yellow paste.
Mr Kumar puffed out his chest in a flash of pride.
It was true – he had profited from the new arrivals from India. Since he had opened the store, the demand for rice had increased four-fold in as many months. The planters had developed an insatiable appetite for cheap Indian labour, and their workers all needed to be fed. In recent weeks Mr Kumar had doubled his shipments and had added mustard oil, spices, castor oil, salt and flour to his list of imports. But he had become greedy. The more money that rolled in, the more he wanted. He found that he had started to care less about his customers and more about profits.
Until Khanna came into his life.
‘If I am a fortunate man, I am grateful to you all,’ he replied graciously.
The Protector was taller than the merchant and had a wide gaping smile that curled the edges of his black moustache. He could have been a handsome man except for a rash of silver scars across his cheeks. Durban’s burning sun did not agree with his sensitive pink skin.
Resting one hand on Mr Kumar’s shoulder, with his free hand he wiped his sweaty brow.
‘It would be a shame to lose it all,’ he murmured, tipping back bottles of mustard oil and peering at the labels.
Aware of the disguised threat, Mr Kumar pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his own brow, glancing surreptitiously at the empty space on the floor where the emaciated boy had first come to plead for help so many nights before. He had promised Khanna’s father that he would speak to the Protector about his son’s injuries, in the hope that the beatings would stop. Mr Kumar was not one to shirk from his promises, and as a free Indian – and a wealthy merchant to boot – he believed he had some influence. But now that the Protector stood in front of him, he felt his courage slip away.
‘Lose it?’ he echoed nervously. ‘Why would I lose it?’
Before the Protector could answer, a young Madrasi girl called him from the street and pointed towards the sea. Mr Kumar had seen her before; he knew that she worked for the Protector. The Adventurer, a large cargo ship from Calcutta, had arrived after three days lost at sea and a stream of people were running down Water Street to meet it. The sun was ferocious in a cloudless blue sky and the Protector winced before grabbing his hat.
Pushed along by the crowd, the merchant followed him and before long was standing at the edge of the sea watching the majestic ship moored out in the bay. It reminded him of his own gruelling journey from India – eight weeks instead of five. ‘Enough time for a man to lose hope of ever seeing Mother Earth again,’ he whispered to himself.
Sheltering his eyes from the sun, he watched a string of small rowing boats arrive at the shore; the passengers, men in large white turbans, dragged their tired bodies out on to the sand. Business would be good today, Mr Kumar thought as the newcomers were led up the bank to the long, stone-walled depot. The Protector, standing among a group of men dressed in suits and high hats, was there to meet them.
Suddenly, Mr Kumar felt a sharp tug at his shirt sleeve. It was the boy’s father.
Before the man could utter a word, the merchant had grabbed him by the arm and hustled him back up the shore into a small hut a short distance from the depot. When Mr Kumar manhandled him, he cowered and held his arms over his head.
‘Have you gone mad?’ the merchant hissed. He paced the hut, up and down, up and down. ‘What if we are seen? I cannot risk everything for you!’ he cried out, remembering the Protector’s veiled threat earlier that day. ‘If I see you hanging around again, even in the shadows, it is you who I will report to the Protector.’ He jabbed Khanna’s father in the chest.
Mr Kumar was about to slip out of the hut but quickly pulled back, peering in the direction of the barracks. The Indians had formed a line and the Protector was walking along, inspecting them. A second man threw handfuls of white delousing powder over their bodies. Two children in the line clung to their mother’s legs; they were almost too weak to stand.
‘They say,’ the old man quivered, ‘that if the beatings continue, my son will die, and many more after him.’
‘Do not torment me – there is nothing I can do,’ Mr Kumar groaned. Reaching inside his pocket he pulled out a coin, opened the man’s hand and pressed it into his palm that was peppered with blisters. As he stared into his sunken eyes in the dim light, for a moment he saw the gaunt face of Khanna staring back at him.
A gavel sounded in the distance, followed by the leathery voice of the Protector, and the line of Indians shunted along. Their term of indenture had begun.
‘It can take five years to die in this place,’ Khanna’s father said. He tugged again at Mr Kumar’s sleeve, handing him back the coin. ‘Money cannot save you,’ he told him. ‘In a few days my son will die and I will die too. I will jump into the sea with him in my arms. The ‘Kala Pani, the waters of death, will carry us home.’
He stood up, and before leaving the hut, he spoke to the merchant one last time. ‘And you, Mr Kumar,’ he said, his voice strong now, and dignified. ‘What will you do?’
Mr Kumar studied his long shadow as he walked back to the store, the man’s words ringing in his ears. He let himself in and immediately dusted the counter where the Protector’s hat had lain earlier that morning; then he lit a low candle. After setting the bottles of mustard oil straight, he locked the door and went behind the counter. Carefully, he leaned the first sack of rice towards himself and pulled out the wrapped sheet of parchment. Taking the candle from the counter, he sat in the same spot where Khanna had collapsed the night before, and began to read.
To the Protector of Immigrants
Sir, the indentured Indians are forced to undergo unimaginable hardships. They do not receive sufficient rations of rice and dhal, oil and salt. The planters hound them, forcing them to rise at 4 a.m. and return to their houses at 5.30 p.m. They work on Sundays, sometimes without water, and dare not complain for fear of being assaulted.
I have been visited three times by these people and have heard terrible accounts of hardship. Mumtaz, a pan boiler, has been badly burned. His hands and back are blistered. I fear that he will not be long in this world. Khanna, a boy of no more than sixteen, is barely able to walk, such is the punishment he receives at the hands of the planters.
I urge you to help them. Mr Kumar, Water Street
After reading the letter for a second time, Mr Kumar folded the parchment in two and held it over the candle, daring it to catch fire.
‘What should I do?’ he breathed, waving it closer and closer to the flame. He imagined the Protector, his cheeks red raw where the sun had scorched his face, sitting behind his desk composing a letter of his own:
I write to inform you that the Indians are treated very well in Durban.
They are a diligent people who take pride in their work and are often happy to do copious amounts of overtime when the season demands. They are well fed and live an altogether charmed life in the Colony.
Rest assured, you have nothing to fear here, Signed, The Protector of Immigrants
Mr Kumar slumped down to the floor again. Pulling up his knees until they touched his chin, he snuffed the candle out and sat in the darkness.
The following morning, Mr Kumar dressed early. He put on his smartest suit and fiddled nervously with his tie. Brushing flecks of dust from his hat, he set it aside on the counter then pulled back the curtains and opened the shutters. Unexpectedly, he saw the Protector sitting across the street. Despite the yellow haze of the morning light there was no mistaking his long, thin body – perched like a black crow on a wooden bench. He was staring over at the store, puffing on his pipe until swirls of smoke concealed his face. But nothing could conceal his identity.
Mr Kumar stared back at the Protector who, on seeing him open the shutters, had got up and begun to cross the street. His heavy boots kicked at the dry earth, throwing up dust into the air. Wiping his brow with the back of his hand, Mr Kumar stood firm at the door.
The Protector did not wait to be invited in but pushed past him and strode into the store.
‘I warned you,’ he said, fingering the bottles of mustard oil on the shelf. ‘Now where is the letter?’
He glared at Mr Kumar as he held up a bottle and very slowly let it slip from his fingers. It smashed, throwing splinters of glass and yellow oil across the store.
‘Oh yes,’ he said as another bottle smashed to the floor, ‘I saw you down at the docks yesterday with that boy Khanna’s father. Curious, I sent my men to fetch him and bring him to the barracks. I didn’t realise what a talkative fellow he was, especially when I told him that it was me – not you – who could stop the overseer from punishing his son.’
Mr Kumar dashed towards the Protector and tried to stop him from breaking things. The taller man easily shrugged him off. He swung around and gripped the merchant by the neck, digging his fingers in painfully as he pulled him close. Hot breath smothered Mr Kumar’s face.
‘The letter,’ the Protector demanded.
Hardly able to breathe, Mr Kumar gurgled and shook his head. The Protector released him and shoved him away, then wiped his hand disgustedly on his coat. The merchant watched, horrified, as the Protector began prodding at the sacks of rice behind the counter.
‘By the way, did you hear the news? Your little friend Khanna is to be buried today,’ he said with a sneer.
Mr Kumar’s eyes filled with tears and he lurched once more towards the Protector. Ignoring him, the Protector continued to hunt through the sacks. He quickly found what he was looking for, snatched up the letter and marched out of the door.
Mr Kumar cried out at the top of his voice, but the Protector had gone. Closing the shutters, the merchant sank to the floor and sobbed like a condemned man. He clawed at the dark stain of mustard oil, then got up and ran to the back of the store to fetch a scrubbing brush. Throwing himself down on his knees, he tried desperately to erase the memory of the Protector’s destruction. Shards of glass pierced his skin. He scrubbed harder until his knuckles were red raw and he could scrub no longer.
Without thinking, he hurtled out of the store towards the Protector’s office and in a rage banged on the front door until it opened. The familiar face of the young Madrasi girl who had called the Protector the day before appeared in the doorway; she was balancing a tray in one hand. She beckoned Mr Kumar inside, pointed to the door marked Parlour and then disappeared down the hall.
‘Come in, Mr Kumar, we are waiting for you,’ the Protector called out from inside the parlour. His voice was light and mischievous.
Mr Kumar gripped the brass door handle to steady his shaking hand. He took a deep breath to prepare himself.
‘Come in,’ the voice insisted.
Mr Kumar pushed open the door and saw a group of men standing by the window. The Protector was seated behind his desk on the far side of the room. He invited Mr Kumar to sit down, saying, ‘You wanted to see me?’ and puffed on his pipe.
The smoke caught the back of Mr Kumar’s throat and he coughed before replying.
‘I am here to bring to your attention the plight of Indian workers who are maltreated every day by devilish planters,’ he said bravely.
At that moment, one of the men, neatly dressed in a white suit, broke away from the others at the window and took his seat next to the Protector. He crossed his legs and the two men smiled at each other.
‘You were saying?’ the Protector said.
Mr Kumar was never seen on Water Street again. After forging the merchant’s signature, the Protector had his men frogmarch Mr Kumar down to the docks that same afternoon. In a few weeks’ time he would arrive in Mauritius, to be indentured for the next five years to a sugar plantation in Bel Mar.
True to the Protector’s threat, the merchant had lost everything.
On board the Gypsy, Mr Kumar stared out to sea. He thought of Khanna sitting on the floor of his store, his body too weak to move. He licked his lips as he recalled the boy’s dry mouth and the wooden spoon dripping water into it. Heavy-hearted, he wished he had been braver, stronger; more willing to stand up to the Protector sooner than he had. Flushed with guilt, his mind shifted towards India and his family back home. They would no longer recognise him. His smart suit, tie and hat had been replaced with a new set of clothes: a loose white shirt, cotton trousers that barely covered his knees, and a turban that weighed him down when he walked.
The glaring midday sun hurt his eyes and he felt his skin tighten as it burned. Turning towards the deck, he noticed a woman standing a few feet away from him, cautiously watching him from under her veil. Although she was a stranger to him, her eyes were the same as Khanna’s eyes, the night that the boy came to his store for help. The same eyes he saw in so many of the poor, exhausted Indians who purchased their supplies from his store.
Mr Kumar bowed his head in shame.
‘I should have done more,’ he said quietly to himself.
Feeling inside the bag of rations that was slung over his shoulder, he found a single coin, the one that Khanna’s father had refused to accept the day they met on the shore. He had grabbed it from his jacket pocket just before the Protector’s men arrested him, and had held it tightly in his fist all the way down to the docks. It glistened in the sunshine now as he opened his palm to reveal it.
‘Money cannot save you,’ he remembered the boy’s father saying.
Mr Kumar slipped the coin back in his bag and walked over to the woman. He smiled gently at her as he took her hand and comforted her. Her trembling fingers wrapped tightly around his as the ship rose and fell over the waves, propelling them towards a new beginning.
Protector of Immigrants to Colonial Secretary 1884:
I would draw attention to the fact that the Memorial is signed by M.A. Doorasamy Pilley on behalf of the Indian residents in Natal.
I cannot conceive in what way M. A. Doorasamy Pilley has obtained the right to explore the wishes of the Indians here. As I point out in the accompanying papers, he has been a resident here since April of last year.
(S.d) L.A. Mason
8.8.84 Protector of Immigrants
British Library IOR/l/pj/6/145
‘The Complaint’ appears in Sugar, Sugar: Bitter-sweet Tales of Indian Migrant Workers by Lainy Malkani, which is published on 25 May 2017 by Hope Road Publishing.