Meet “The Invisibles” of India
An introduction to my book, Kismetwali & Other Stories
(finalist, 2016 Townsend Prize for Fiction)
Once we dreamt that we were strangers.
We wake up to find that we were dear to each other.
The house where I grew up in northern India had eight entryways, some wide and welcoming, others narrow and inconspicuous. Early every morning, before the dudhwala had delivered fresh milk to the kitchen or the newspaperwala had tossed that day’s neatly folded edition of the Times of India onto our dew-covered front lawn, my arthritic grandmother would shuffle from room to room to unlock (and in some cases merely unlatch) all eight doors leading outside, opening my childhood home to those whom I came to know as “The Invisibles.”
Throughout the course of the day one could expect periodic visitations by these Invisibles, each of whom was allowed to enter the home by one specially designated threshold, and each for a specific purpose. Some of them, like the presswali dropping off a load of freshly ironed clothes, were required to ring the back doorbell before being granted entry to the premises; while others, like the safaiwali whose job was to clean the house, freely sauntered in via the front foyer with a loud, lilting “Namaste!” to announce her arrival.
For a long time I knew nothing of their privations or aspirations. A child, however, does not remain a child indefinitely. As I grew older I began to see these Invisibles not as nameless strangers but as people whose acquaintance I had not yet made, subject to the same joys, sorrows, hopes, and fears as those born more fortunate. I came to realize that the strict lines of demarcation that set us apart were just that: lines, and not insuperable stone walls.
Interwoven across the burgeoning cities and rural towns of India, this collection of eight stories, like the doorways of my childhood home, may provide an illuminating glimpse into the parallel lives of the privileged and penniless, zeroing in on the moments when the gap between the parallels vanishes, along with the distinction inherent in the preordained roles of master and servant. It is in those moments when boundaries blur, when barriers are broken down by compassion or contempt, and lines are crossed to serve a greater purpose—an unthinkable, unexpected purpose—that we meet the characters in this book.