Businessmen, businesswomen. The biggest ones swamp our attention—ghostwritten autobiographies, biographies, rags-to-riches accounts follow. Contemporary fiction, too, will every now and then see protagonists in them. The warped visions of real tech tsars or their speculative versions, for example, provide rich themes and plots speaking to everyone. But what of the men and women of small businesses—businesses hingeing on one bumper deal or one big client, businesses that can be ravaged by an event in a distant country, businesses tied to their owners’ social positions, so that a dip in one can lead to an instant fall in the other?
In ‘Steel Brothers,’ Sonal Kohli gives us a story of two men of business. Kamal and Roshan are brothers; they are also joint owners (with their mother) of a manufacturing business. The wealth they have is hard-earned and probably enough to secure their university-ready childrens’ futures. While advancing age now demands a slowing down, a lifetime of running has trained them only for acceleration. So when a big client visits, being overprepared is better. Sonal’s story gives us an ordinary evening in the brothers’ lives, and yet we get a ample sense of their collective past as well as their possibly divergent futures. Whether it was love, necessity, or injunction that kept them together is a question to ponder, but the ache of what time does to their lives, to all lives, is what is unmissable in this ingenious story.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
It was warm inside the car which smelt of jasmine, and on the CD player Farida Khanum sang an alap. Unaccompanied, she let her voice loose, made it meander. The road was packed, ruby tail lights as far as the eye could see, street lamps smudged by the smog that had settled over the city, the heater weaving its own patch at the edge of the windshield.
‘Looks like it will be an hour before we reach home,’ Roshan said. ‘Let’s stop at Joshaba.’
Kamal nodded his silver head.
Roshan honked, inched the car leftward, honked again, braked. The green arrow tick-tocked on the dashboard, matching tempo with the tabla, while traffic trickled by on either side. Kamal lowered the window and waved his arm, causing a Maruti to brake. The driver cursed. The brothers cursed back. They reached the far lane finally and turned left, leaving behind the clogged main road and its screeching horns. A letter box on the curb stood dusty red.
The traffic was lighter here, and the car rolled smoothly for the first time since the brothers had left the factory. Roshan rolled his shoulders, eased back in his seat. Khanum sang languorously, fuller throated than before, as though she too had a sudden sense of freedom. Roshan felt like pulling out a cigarette, but for a while now he had been sensing Kamal’s distaste, so new and abrupt that it was puzzling, the way he swatted at the smoke or rolled down his window. On the pavement smoke curled up from the clay pot of a peanut seller, shops rushed by, a woman in a gaudy blue shawl, or was it a mannequin? Roshan glanced in the wing mirror. Men huddled around a bonfire, toasting palms.
‘Did you give Mr Henry the new catalogue?’ Roshan asked.
‘I told Verma to put it in the car for him. I highlighted the round snack warmer so that Mr Henry would remember it.’
‘Good. I think he’ll order a small consignment to start with. In case he doesn’t, remember to send him a few complimentary pieces with the next shipment.’ Roshan had worked for months perfecting the snack warmer, improving remarkably on the Chinese sample it was modelled after, smoothening the joints, replacing the curved legs with straight ones for a modern look, instructing the operator on how to buff its edges to roundness, making the polishwala work until the snack warmer gleamed like a trophy. It was an expensive product with a 100 per cent margin. Mr Henry’s visit could not have been better timed.
Roshan slowed down. He could see the grill jutting out of the tiny kebab shop, chicken strung on skewers, partially roasted, curled tight, glistening with marinade, and three men eating busily at a plastic table set on the pavement. He parallel parked in a tight spot, cut off the engine, but let Khanum sing.
‘So, malai tikka?’ Kamal said. ‘One plate each?’ He lowered the briefcase that he had been holding between his knees into the seat well and climbed out of the car. A cash payment had come in today for a batch of pet bowls for which only a handwritten bill had been drawn without logging it in the books, and the brothers were taking the money home to keep with their mother. Among her other talents, she could open a heavily stapled bundle by giving it an expert twist and pulling it apart at the same time. Of her two sons, Roshan was her favourite.
‘Don’t forget the chutney and onions.’
Kamal ducked at the window to nod. His silver hair – caused by sinusitis, according to the family homeopath – made him appear the elder of the two. He had large eyes, though they didn’t betray much, and their mother’s compressed lips. He snuck his hands into his coat pockets and padded off towards the shop.
Roshan lit a cigarette and turned up the volume. Khanum’s laments filled the car, her voice husky, torn, like curdling milk, like a cloth ripped rather than cut. ‘Mohabbat kame wale kum na honge / Teri mehfil mein lekin hum na honge.’ Roshan hummed along. An urchin, a boy in shorts despite the weather, hurried across the road with a steaming plate of biryani. He knocked at the window of a parked car, passed the plate in and scampered back, picking his way through the thin traffic. Kamal stood by the grill, watching the cook rotate the skewers. The cook fanned the coals and sparks erupted, a burst of fireflies. In the car ahead, two silhouettes shared a plate, almost forming a heart. Roshan exhaled smoke through his nostrils. He remembered the Black Label lying in the dicky. He took a long puff, smoking an inch of the cigarette, and climbed out of the car. Kamal was still at the grill, arms folded, always on the defence.
Roshan returned with the whisky, and with plastic cups and club soda that he had procured a few shops down. He poured two drinks, holding the cups against the street light, mauve rather than orange as it slanted in, ensuring the peg was neither smaller nor larger than what he had every evening.
He leaned and opened the passenger door, and Kamal slid into the seat, holding aloft plates of tikka piled with red onion rings. Kamal smiled, noticing the whisky. ’Where did this come from?’ He passed Roshan a plate, and the brothers lifted the drinks from the holder. Carefully, they touched the brimming cups together. ‘Cheers.’ Not loquacious by nature, the brothers didn’t say it, but they were toasting Mr Henry’s successful visit. They brought the brimming cups to their lips. The aroma of the tikkas saturated the air, a heady fragrance of flesh roasted patiently on charcoal. The tikkas were tender, coated with creamy marinade, instantly dissolving in the mouth. It had been a long but good day at the factory. After the welcome tea, they had taken Mr Henry, Procurement Manager, Beckman & Co., for a tour, stopping first at the original karkhana their father had built in the sixties, somewhat cavernous, smelling of grease, but busy, a giant cogwheel machine dominating the floor. They escorted him next to the new workshop that had a salmon brick facade and stood in the shade of a grand neem tree. This workshop was large, modern; the brothers had set it up three years ago after exports took of£ Here they walked Mr Henry from station to station as Kamal explained the process of manufacturing a kadhai, showing him first how steel was rendered malleable in the electric furnace at 1100º C, then conducting him towards the final step when handles would be fitted on to the buffed utensil. The kadhai, or balti dish as it was known in the US, was Beckman & Co.’s largest import, and Roshan had designed the tour around it. Now he walked with his hands clasped behind him, like the pigeons on the wide windowsills, while Kamal, who spoke better English, led. The silver hair gave Kamal a certain suaveness, a polish he hadn’t possessed in his youth. One hand ensconced in his trouser pocket, he let Mr Henry know that the family had been in this line of business for three quarters of a century, with their father eschewing the traditional brass for the versatile stainless steel when he re-established the business in Delhi after Partition. At the deep-draw hydraulic press, they watched the operator mould a plate of steel into a wok as easily as though it were wax. Kamal was supposed to tell Mr Henry that the hydraulic press, imported from Germany, was one of its kind in India, but when he didn’t, Roshan cleared his throat and hesitantly supplied the information himself.
Kamal blew his nose now, folded the napkin. ‘Verma’s taking the day off tomorrow, so we’ll have to stop at the bank ourselves on the way to the factory.’
Roshan took a large sip of the whisky. He placed the cup back in the holder. ‘I think Verma’s sullen because I set him to clean the filing room. He was limping more than usual today.’ Verma’s limp tended to worsen and improve with his mood. Addressed as Verma Sahib even by the brothers, he was a retired public-sector bank manager who looked after the accounts for the business. Additionally, on days when the brothers had an argument, he was made to hobble between their offices with documents Kamal needed Roshan to sign or a sales query Roshan had for Kamal. He shared a desk with the clerk in the filing room, which had been the mother’s bedroom when the family still resided in the factory. One morning, he limped into the office, lunch pail in hand, hair flattened by the helmet, to find the clerk using the company internet and watching porn. Verma cordially reported the incident to Kamal.
‘Verma asked why we didn’t bring Mr Henry to the filing room. He had spent three days sifting through old documents and ledgers. He thought we overdid the preparations.’ Roshan had a coloured catalogue designed to showcase the inventory. A fresh coat of paint was considered for the office. He got every surface, switchboard and fan blade scrubbed thoroughly. Net curtains were ordered. The wives were sent to Gaffar Market to buy a bone china tea set and Danish cookies. ‘I doubt Mr Henry noticed the new curtains, and we put them up in such a rush.’ Kamal looked sidelong at his brother.
A lot would not be possible if we didn’t have Beckman & Co.’s business, the new house, for example, the boys’ education, Roshan would have replied, but his shoulders felt tense, his toes weary. He bunched a tikka with some onion and placed it in his mouth. The tikka was warm, so was the plate. He weighed the plate in his palm. Low-grade steel, lacklustre, easily dented, possibly from a factory in Wazirpur. He cleaned the yogurt-and-mint chutney with a plump finger and licked it. Outside, a car cruised by, one headlight out. The road lapsed once again into its mauve darkness. The tanpura struck a plaintive note. A pack of skinny dogs loped from car to car, sniffing at windows, hoping for a bone, a shred of meat.
‘Mother was saying she wants to gift one lakh rupees at Radha Auntie’s grandson’s wedding.’
‘One lakh!’ Roshan said, eyes wide. A similar sum had already been spent on wedding clothes for the family and plane tickets to Amritsar. Only Roshan was staying back since a consignment was sailing out the same weekend. The final inspections done, the cartons on their way to the port in Bombay, Roshan planned to remain in bed on Sunday, smoke and sleep. In the evening he would drive to Dilip’s guitar store for drinks, and later dine with him and Deepa in their apartment upstairs that could be accessed from the outside by a wrought-iron staircase. But now, Mother wanting to give away one lakh rupees threatened the equanimity of the weekend. She was part-owner of the business, holding a third of the share, and from time to time liked to make her weight felt.
‘I told her it isn’t like we have a money-minting machine, but she got angry.’
‘I’ll try and speak with her, let’s see,’ Roshan said. ‘Anuj and Raghu’s semester fees are due soon too.’
Roshan nodded. He contemplated the shimmering whisky. Apropos of his thoughts, Khanum sang ‘Sari duniya ke ranj-o-gum dekar / Muskurane ki baat karte ho’. The rupee was at a high of thirty-nine against the dollar, and while that was working out for exports, school fees for the University of North Dakota had become more expensive than the year before. The brothers just hoped that, equipped with an American education, their sons would one day manage the business even better than them. But for now, the two toiled alone to fulfil the needs and fancies of a family of eight. The stress of running the business had given Roshan his dark, aubergine-coloured lips, for he couldn’t think without a cigarette, and Kamal his prematurely grey hair.
Roshan turned towards his brother and crossed one leg on the seat. He thought of extracting his feet from the flawlessly polished Florsheims but only wiggled his toes. ‘Yaar,’ he said, ‘I was speaking with the broker yesterday and he suggested some bank stocks, said they could quadruple within a year. I think we should invest. It’s been six years.’
Kamal crossed his arms, elbows pointy even through the coat.
On the pavement, the urchin wiped the plastic table for a scarfed, heavily bundled family of four. Joshaba hung behind powdery fog, the blue of its billboard grainy.
Roshan mopped up a tikka with the chutney. ‘If you’re still thinking about what Verma said, I don’t believe he can really read palms. He couldn’t have foreseen our loss in the stock market.’
‘He did though, and quite accurately.’ Kamal rotated the mirthless red stone on his finger. ‘In any case, we should consider chopping down the neem.’
It was rather touching how he brought up the tree now and then. But the neem had stood in the compound for as long as Roshan could remember, offering shade in summer, staying green through winter. He felt the tree said something about the years the factory itself had accumulated, the life it had seen, the experience it had gained. At night, soaked in moonlight, it looked like it was made of stainless steel.
That slow afternoon, however, after the palm reading and just before Verma lurched out with helmet and pail, he leaned importantly on his short leg and said that, according to Vastu Shastra, the tree was in the wrong corner and in time would sap the brothers’ relationship of all love and light (or something to that effect). Neither Roshan nor Kamal had repeated the words thereafter, for that would have been a touch sentimental. The brothers never hugged each other, there was never a reason to. When they wished one another ‘Happy Birthday’ every year, there was an awkwardness on both sides. In the family albums, there was no picture of just the two of them. Sipping the last of the whisky, Roshan wondered what would happen to the business if their relationship crumbled. The thought was many pronged. He felt like a smoke. The red-and-gold box lay in the small space behind the gear stick.
‘Should we order some seekh kebab?’ Kamal said. In the dark of the car, his nose shone pink. Sinusitis was a sign of repressed anger, Verma had said. Kneading the mounds of Kamal’s palm, some cushiony, some flat, he observed Kamal was ambitious, hardworking, but he never got his due, to which Kamal nodded, lips compressed, chin dimpled. Verma was an old rat in a double-breasted coat, trying to claw a place for himself in the fast-changing world. In the lines in Roshan’s palm, he read his ill luck at the stock market and ostensibly the Harshad Mehta scam that followed six months later, turning the brothers’ colossal holdings to rubble.
The urchin was on the other side of the road, delivering a food packet. Roshan honked and signalled him over, then unscrewed the cap and refreshed their cups.
‘Chotu, two plates mutton seekh kebab,’ he said when the boy appeared at the window, ‘two rumalis, and don’t forget the chutney and onion.’ He glanced at Kamal’s pink nose. ‘Some napkins as well,’ he added.
The urchin nodded and scurried to the shop, stopping for a second to kick a scabby dog in the flanks and send it yelping into a dark alley. The night had grown chillier, tinged with more mauve, benumbed by the cold. Roshan rolled up the window.
‘Tum hi socho zara kyun na rokein tumhein / Jaan jati hai jab uthke jate ho tum.’ Khanum held the notes in her fist, reined them in, then let go with an unfurling of slender fingers. Every evening Roshan waited for the CD to come round to this ghazal, number six in line. He hummed along despite himself. Through the cold windshield, the tail lights of the next car appeared smeared. He had heard Farida Khanum for the first time at Dilip’s guitar store, late one evening as the dim lights deepened in the mirror behind the counter. If there hadn’t been a picture on the cover, he would have imagined Khanum to be like Deepa, sculpted cheekbones, a faint scent of guavas. His fingers tapped the steering, eyes shut. Khanum’s voice seeped to the part of him that was an artist, an architect, a romantic. And he would have become all those things if he hadn’t dropped out of school to work at the karkhana after their father passed away. He had learned to compensate for his education by talking less, by ironing the creases of his trousers until they were razor sharp, by wearing shoes a size small to make his bulky feet look elegant. He wiggled his toes now, enjoying the cramped feeling, the pain from the ingrown toenails. Before bed, he ritually soaked his feet in warm water, smoked another cigarette. ‘Yoon hi pehlu mein baithe raho…’ Khanum sang with leisure, slowing the world to a churn. Roshan reached for the cigarettes, then remembering, drew back his hand. He turned on the ignition and switched on the heater. The clock blinked 7.45. Another thirty minutes.
‘Is that Ravi Sood?’ He pointed to a white Mercedes across the road. A gold-ringed hand gleamed on the steering.
Kamal peered. ‘He’s sending his son to the US too. Same university as Anuj and Raghu.’ He glanced at Roshan. The brothers exchanged a smile.
Roshan shook his head. He felt somewhat loosened by the whisky and his head wobbled more than he had intended it to. Kamal had been a good foot soldier and the brothers had come far together, but it had to be said, and he said it: ‘No one’s ridden the wave better than Sood.’
Sood flashed the dipper and beckoned to the urchin with his ringed fingers. The boy rushed towards the car, almost colliding with a scooter in his haste. Sood was once a mere clerk at the government-owned Steel Authority of India Limited. He would ride in an autorickshaw to the brothers’ factory twice a month, a faux leather pouch, the sort cheap merchants carried, dangling from his wrist. No rings back then. He would go round behind the karkhana where scrap lay in a shapeless, thorny cloud. He would stuff the scrap into jute sacks, hunker down with a long needle to stitch the mouths, load the sacks into the waiting rickshaw, and take them to the steel market in Naraina. Today he owned an export-import company and three manufacturing units – one produced cutlery, another surgical instruments, and the third top-of-the-line chafing dishes – all in the seven years since the markets had opened up in 1991, freeing trade, pegging the rupee to the dollar. In the beginning, with the new money, Sood emulated the brothers, getting his trousers and suits stitched at Jagdish Tailors in Connaught Place, buying a royal blue Maruti moo (the brothers owned a white one), transferring his son to the school Raghu and Anuj went to. Now, of course, he had surpassed them in wealth. Now if he visited the factory, he sat in the office with the brothers instead of behind the karkhana. He was the one who gave them the name ‘Steel Brothers’, to credit him for it.
The urchin wore a woollen cap on his shorn head when he showed up with their order. A warm fragrance of minced meat and chillies plumed from the kebabs. ‘What took you so long?’ Roshan said, his mouth watering. ‘Now bring the bill in ten minutes.’
The car filled with the sound of the brothers eating, for a while drowning Khanum out. The kebabs were cinnamon-coloured, licked with oil, dripping with juices. In between bites, the brothers doused the onion rings in chutney and chomped them intently.
Kamal blew his nose, snivelled, wiped his nostrils. ‘I booked a table for four at House of Ming tomorrow.’ He folded the napkin.
‘Chinese. At the Taj.’ Kamal’s wife was convent-educated; marriage had refined his tastes. ‘Would you and bhabhi like to join? I could change the booking.’
Roshan shook his head. In any case, he preferred the narrow, dimly lit Fujian tucked away in Connaught Place, where the staff knew him and the hot and sour soup was excellent– a dash of soya sauce, just the right amount of vinegar. He would have liked, though, to sit down for a drink with Mr Henry, and attaining a certain volubility, recount the story of how he found Beckman & Co.’s contact. A family relation, who exported rice to the Middle East, happened to tell him that people were using the internet to expand their businesses. The handiness of the idea, its feasibility, appealed to Roshan, and he had the computer moved to his room. Every night after he had soaked his feet, he searched Yahoo and Altavista for importers, sent out introductory emails, and noted down addresses to dispatch samples to the next day. Finally, at around 12 o’clock, he squeezed two drops of Cineraria into his dry eyes, savoured its brief burning sensation, and retired to bed. It was a few days before Dussehra, a year had passed, at least a thousand emails had been sent out, when he stumbled across Beckman & Co.’s listing that described it as a manufacturer of premium melamine products and a supplier of world-class food service equipment. He would tell Mr Henry he still remembered spotting in the attached picture of the New York showroom, on the far side of the second shelf, a stainless-steel round roasting tray with rack. Roshan had three international buyers today, but Beckman was still his biggest find. At this point, he would shake Mr Henry’s absurdly large hand. With his little finger, Roshan pried some meat from between his molars. ‘What time are you meeting Mr Henry for dinner?’ he asked, mouth tasting faintly of cloves.
‘Seema’s taking his wife to Janpath in the afternoon, so I booked the table for eight.’
‘Don’t be late.’
‘Of course not.’
Roshan smiled, easy from the alcohol. But this morning, when Kamal had got them late for the factory again and the two found themselves at a thirty-degree slant in the jam on Shadipur flyover, Roshan had lost his temper, face red, the many moles ready to pop like mustard seeds. Kamal stayed quiet, neither arguing nor apologizing. Arms folded, he looked out of the windshield. They arrived at the factory well after ten to find the curtainwala waiting with the new curtains. The rest of the morning the brothers avoided each other, communicating only through Verma. The curtains were barely up, the office boy still picking wayward threads and hooks off the floor, when the family driver, who along with a car had been put at Mr Henry’s service, drove him through the large rust-coloured factory gate.
‘Let Mr Henry and his wife order whatever they like, drinks, duck, dessert,’ Roshan said. ‘Don’t hold back.’
Outside, the fog had eaten parts of the road, shuttering shops before they actually closed down. Sood’s car had left, and in its place stood a banana cart shawled in fog. The tabla percussed, Khanum’s voice bloomed, making up for the lack of the moon. The brothers unfurled their rumalis on their plates, lay the last seekhs on them, layered them with onion rings, dribbled the green chutney along their lengths, and then rolled the rumalis tight as cigars. It was oddly reassuring, this harmony of their movements. Almost in unison, they bit through the soft, handkerchief-thin rumalis, into the crunchy onion, past the chutney to reach the succulent kebabs. Kamal nodded his approval of the roll to Roshan. Roshan nodded back. The tax accountant had recently told Roshan that Kamal had borrowed money from the joint business to start up an electrical cable trade. Verma hadn’t uttered a word, though he must have known. The young tax accountant suggested that Roshan also look after his own interests. The brothers had spent five years in building the new house, lovingly and painstakingly supervising each stone laid, every arch constructed. Together they selected doorknobs, bath fittings, stone grilles for the balconies. Then Roshan let Kamal pick the largest room, the one with five spacious closets and a grand sunk marble bath. To this day, Roshan’s wife was upset about the closets. He hadn’t shared with anyone yet the tax accountant’s revelation. Kamal bent his silver head and looked into the seat well. ‘Under the seat,’ Roshan said. Kamal bent further, drew out the briefcase and clamped it between his knees. The brothers returned to the rolls.
The urchin knocked on the window. He passed toothpicks and saunf on a plate. ‘A sahib in a white Mercedes paid your bill.’
Roshan shared the information along with the toothpicks and saunf with Kamal. He fished out his wallet and tipped the boy.
Roshan turned on the headlights and eased the car on to the foggy road. ‘Shukriya, shukriya,’ Khanum breathed as the last recording came to an end and the audience broke into applause. The CD gave a few guttural clicks and spun to begin again. Roshan didn’t play the CD in the morning. In the morning, the brothers drove in silence.
Reproduced in arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers India Private Limited from the book The House Next to the Factory, written by Sonal Kohli and first published by HarperCollins India. It is available for purchase from booksellers everywhere, including Amazon.
Sonal Kohli grew up in Delhi and now lives in Washington, D.C. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia, UK, and a BA in Economics from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University. Her stories have been shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2019 and Fish Short Story Prize 2014. The House Next to the Factory is her first book.