Ram Kumar could not remember his father, who had been a printer and had died of a sudden fever, leaving his wife and five small children to be supported by his brother, a postal inspector.
The impression that Ram Kumar’s mother gave of her husband was, on the one hand, that of a man all tenderness and generosity and, on the other, of one very much like his brother the postal inspector – that is to say, a man who was often drunk on raw liquor, was careless of his family and beat his wife. In her moments of depression – which were
frequent, for her life among her sisters- in- law and mother-in-law was not easy – she favoured the first impression:
‘Ah,’ she would say, ‘if my children’s father were still alive, it would be different for me’; and then she would suggest how her husband in his lifetime had cared for her, brought special foods for her when she was pregnant, given her and the children warm things to wear in the winter, and on festival days had taken them to see fairs and processions. But when things were not going too badly for her, she gave a different picture. Then she spoke with a kind of bitter satisfaction of the way all men were the same, all given to drink, selfishness and wife- beating; and she compressed her lips and nodded her head up and down, suggesting that, if called upon, she could tell many a tale from her own experience of married life to illustrate this truth.
Her eldest child – not Ram Kumar, who was the third – was fortunately a boy, and all her hope was in him. Vijay was a strong, healthy, daring boy, and she could hardly wait for him to grow up and earn money and take her and her other children away to live with him. But when he finally did grow up, he turned out to be too fond of strolling through the bazaars, going to the cinema and having fun with his friends to give much of his attention to the jobs that were found for him; so that within two years he had run through fourteen such jobs – all of the nature of office messenger or contractor’s errand boy – and it became clear even to his mother that he would not hurriedly earn a lot of money. After these two years, he disappeared and was not heard of for another two; at the end of which time he came back and said he had been to Calcutta, where he had earned a lot of money and had been about to send for them when a thief had come in the night and stolen it all from under his bed. He was now in no hurry to look for another job, but stayed around in his uncle’s home during the day and went out towards evening to enjoy life with his numerous acquaintances.
At the End of the Century by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala will be published by Little, Brown on 9th November, £20.00