The Silence of Silk

By Sarah Mast Garber

Dawn broke over Varanasi. At the River Ganges, devout men and widows bathed on the banks, pouring out handfuls of water in adulation to the sun. Bells rang and incense rose from the two thousand temples tucked into the winding lanes of the old city. In the street of sweets, the chaat wallahs started their fires to heat kettlefuls of cooking oil. Cows wandered out to begin their daily raids on the vegetable vendors. The main thoroughfares filled up with bicycle rickshaws and bicycle trailers, huge loads of propane tanks or televisions strapped together with twine and balanced precariously behind the cycle driver.

Vijay Kumar wished a good day to his mother and his children and even his wife, and stepped out of their little gated court into a narrow street flanked by high brick walls. The morning sun had yet to reach the recesses of the old city, and the path was dim as he made his way to the business district. When he arrived at the silk shop where he worked, Mr. Kapoor was not there and the door was still locked. Mr. Kapoor hated Vijay to be late, yet he didn’t trust him with a key, either. Most days Vijay arrived early and waited on the stoop for Mr. Kapoor to arrive. Today he strolled over to a nearby tea stall, where he could enjoy a cup of chai and still keep his eye on the door. Upon hearing the ever-closer chug of an approaching motorcycle, Vijay paid the chai wallah, hurriedly dropped his clay cup on the ground, and returned to the shop door just as Mr. Kapoor pulled up. “Ah, Mr. Kapoor, good morning sir,” he said.

“Vijay, here you are…yes, good morning. Well, here is the key,” said Mr. Kapoor as he presented it to Vijay. “Now hurry up and unlock the place, boy. I have a business to keep up. As you know, the running of a successful business has more to do with diligence than with luck.” Vijay nodded his agreement. Mr. Kapoor usually gave him at least three maxims for a successful business every day, and after four years Vijay knew most of them by heart. Still, he didn’t want to lose his job, so he always looked thoughtful when Mr. Kapoor started talking.

They climbed the narrow whitewashed staircase up to the shop. Mr. Kapoor rented out the top story of the building, and Mr. Sanjay ran a small travel agency down below. His sign proclaimed in large, red, hand-painted letters: SANJAY TRAVEL AGENCY: TOURS, SILK SHOPS, HOTELS, NEPAL! Above it was a smaller sign in blue: Kapoor Silk Emporium: Shawls, Pillows, Tablecloths, Benarasi Saris, Pashmina. This same wording appeared on Mr. Kapoor’s business cards, which Vijay sometimes handed out to tourists arriving along the main street.

The shop consisted mainly of one room, most of which was covered by a thick mattress. Along one wall ran an aisle of sorts; it provided a place for shoes and also a walkway to the cramped stock room in the back. From floor to ceiling, the shop walls were loaded with shelves of silk, gleaming burgundy, saffron, spring green, and deepest purple.

Once inside, Vijay swept the concrete aisle and made sure the shelves were fully stocked, even though he had done these things ten hours before when they closed for the night. Mr. Kapoor lit an incense stick for the dusty statue of Ganesh presiding in the corner, replaced yesterday’s withered jasmine garland with a fresh one, and performed a short puja ceremony. Then he went into the back stock room and began poring over inventory lists and contact information for restocking.

“Vijay!” he called.

“Yes, Mr. Kapoor?”

“I’m expecting that shipment of cashmere this morning. It comes on the A11 Express.”

“Very well, sir,” said Vijay. “I’ll get ready to leave soon. Is it important enough to rent an autorickshaw, or shall I just use the bicycle?”

“No, Vijay,” said Mr. Kapoor. “I’ve been waiting for this shipment for nearly a month now. As a business owner, I take personal responsibility for my stock. I’ll take the motorbike to get them myself. What I meant was, you have responsibility for the shop when I’m gone. This is a serious matter, my boy. No gadding off to the chai stand, understand? Your first priority is the shop.”
When Mr. Kapoor left, Vijay made himself comfortable against the wall, his head pillowed on a bulging stack of shawls. He had swept the shop, folded and reshelved any silk left out from yesterday, and double-checked the books. Now he had time to sit and think. He enjoyed this time alone, although more customers meant continuing business and job security for him. Ah well, it would take very bad business indeed for Mr. Kapoor to actually fire him.

Vijay had not passed the 10th class examinations, even after taking the test twice. Since his family hadn’t had money for university anyway, the end of his education hadn’t been a significant disappointment to him. But now that he had children and a steady job, much better than his rickshaw-driving father, he wanted them to succeed in their education. Anu and Sangita were only four and five, but already he was sending them to a private, English-medium school. Though it was more expensive than the local Hindi school, Vijay considered the cost a worthwhile investment. Mr. Kapoor’s children were both in the university, studying to be computer engineers. And his nephew had even made it to the United States. Yes, Vijay did listen when Mr. Kapoor said that education was the key to success in today’s world. The Kumar name would travel farther in the world than his father had ever dreamed possible. Perhaps Anu would also live in America, like Mr. Kapoor’s nephew. What an honor that would be! Then Vijay and his mother and his wife could live in a nice house with a walled courtyard all around, with running water and a rooftop terrace, just like Mr. Kapoor.

Vijay’s reverie was interrupted by the arrival of customers. He unfolded his legs and jumped up to greet them. “Ah, welcome, welcome,” he said in English. Like most of their customers, these were tourists. Upon closer inspection, though, they differed from the usual backpacking crowd. For one thing, the group of three women and two men didn’t stink and they wore clean clothes. The women even wore conservative salwar-kameez, of the same sort his wife was wearing when he left her this morning. To his further consternation, they greeted him in Hindi and asked after his well-being.

“Oh, I am alright,” he answered. “Please, come in and sit down. I am not the owner of this store, but if you settle yourselves I will go and bring him to you. He will show you our stock. We have shawls, saris, tablecloths, everything you could imagine.” From their confused looks, Vijay gathered that they didn’t know much Hindi beyond the standard greeting. Still, they took off their sandals and sat down on the raised mat. Five occupants was pushing the limit of the mattress’s capacity, and the customers gingerly rearranged their knees and elbows to accommodate everyone. Vijay smiled broadly and asked them if they would care for something to drink. “Chai? Coke? Would you like some?”

One of the women seemed to understand and translated for the rest of the group. They began nodding their heads side to side and saying, “Coke! Coke, please. Yes, Coke.” Vijay put his hands together in respect and shuffled out of the shop. At the top of the stairs he added an English phrase he had heard on television: “Feel free to look around.” Then he loped on down the stairs and into the bustle of mid-day Varanasi in February. Mr. Kapoor should be arriving back any moment now, which was a relief because he spoke English. Vijay didn’t know how long he could keep these customers entertained while they waited. Hopefully the drinks would keep them busy and happy enough to keep from leaving before Mr. Kapoor came back. He hurried to the shop on the corner which had electricity and sold cold drinks. Hastily nodding hello to the owner, Vijay ordered five bottles of coke and five plastic straws. Fingers laced around the bottle necks, he made his way back to the silk shop. From the steps he heard urgent whispering and then a sudden silence.

At the top of the stairs he froze in shock, nearly dropping the coke. The shop was awash in fabric, dripping off the shelves and slopping into great pools on the raised mat. Every conceivable variety of silk, whether scarves or tablecloths or pillow cases or even a few enormous patched bedspreads, was pulled from the shelves and strewn about. Sitting waist deep in the shimmering mass, the five foreigners looked distinctly shamefaced. Not knowing what else to do, Vijay slowly began popping the metal caps from the coke bottles, inserting a vivid green or red straw, and passing them across the silken sea to the marooned customers. One of the men spread a turquoise blue bedspread over the mat, as if to hide the disaster underneath.

They all sat in silence for a few moments, while Vijay tried to think of the way to proceed. What would a business owner do? Then he heard the heavy tread of Mr. Kapoor making his way up the steps. He entered the shop like a prince returning to his kingdom, ready to reign uncontested. Immediately he noticed the shoes on the floor and began to charm his customers.

“Namaste, friends,” he said in English. “Very welcome to my shop. What would you like to see? Do you like scarves? Famous Varanasi silk scarves…” Mr. Kapoor’s words ended abruptly in a strangled choke when he saw the blanket spread out over the mat. His goodwill evaporated, and he turned to Vijay.

“What has happened here?” he rattled off in rapid Hindi. “The silk is already out. Did you start showing by yourself? You know you are always to wait for me.” Vijay stammered helplessly, trying to explain what he himself didn’t understand. With a desperate smile, Mr. Kapoor once again addressed the foreigners.

“I see you admire my bedspreads. Let me show you some more. I have dozens of blankets, and if you don’t like them, I can special order just as you prefer.” As Mr. Kapoor talked, Vijay picked his way through the Americans and pulled down the box of bedspreads. Handing them to his boss, Vijay then squeezed himself into a corner and watched as Mr. Kapoor pulled out blanket after blanket, spreading them out over the mat with an expert flick of his wrists. Since the customer wasn’t inclined to choose a bedspread, Mr. Kapoor called for silk scarves for the girls. Against their mild protests, he again spread out scarf after scarf, until the layers of silk on the mat reached to their elbows in places.

Finally, Mr. Kapoor said, “Now I have showed you all, we will go back. If you see something you like, just say so and I’ll keep it out.” That said, he began flipping the pieces back to himself, pausing just long enough to acknowledge the women’s positive or negative head shakes. The chosen scarves he piled on the right, and the rejected ones he threw against Vijay. Vijay nimbly folded the silk into neat squares, the fringed edges left out, ready for Mr. Kapoor’s next showing.

The stack of scarves gave way to the stack of bedspreads. Vijay watched with growing nervousness as Mr. Kapoor neared the original blanket. So far the foreigners had chosen one scarf, and were waffling on the bedspread. This would be a poor day if they only sold two pieces to five destructive customers.

“So, you will want a bedspread. It makes a good gift for your mother or sister back home in America.” Mr. Kapoor coaxed the reluctant foreigner. “See, this is beautifully woven. Brocade. You cannot get this anywhere but Varanasi. Here, I will set this one aside. Later, I think you will choose it.” So saying, Mr. Kapoor pulled aside the turquoise blue blanket, uncovering the wreckage underneath. Vijay watched his eyes dilate and his cheek muscle begin to tick. He realized with dread that his boss was angrier than Vijay had ever seen him. Vijay felt sick as he realized this day could very well end his hopes for his children. Although it may have been good business to flatter the customer, Mr. Kapoor’s code said nothing about treating his employee well. Once again, Mr. Kapoor addressed Vijay in Hindi.

“You incompetent nitwit!” he gritted out. “How many times have I told you that silk is our livelihood and that it must be cherished? How is it that I see half my stock crushed and thrown about as if a herd of buffalo had come through? How could you do this? Did you think you could play with silk the way a child plays with his toy?”

Vijay stared at the ground. He didn’t know whether to defend himself or to save his dignity in front of the customers by not speaking at all. Mr. Kapoor didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, he grimly faced the riotous tangle of silk and began unwinding it, piece by piece. He stopped speaking, and the silk-laden walls and floor closed in around them until the only sound was the rustle of fabric and the occasional word from one of the women, asking him to put aside a certain pillow case or table runner. When he came upon a particularly crumpled specimen, Mr. Kapoor shuddered in actual physical pain. Vijay did his best to smooth the creases out, but the folded end result was still sadly misshapen. As Mr. Kapoor unearthed the history of the foreigners’ silk frenzy, the customers in question also remained studiously quiet, other than a few whispers and frowns amongst themselves.

“Well,” said Mr. Kapoor. “Now you have seen everything and it is time to choose. What do you like? These pillowcases, I think. Very good, very fine work. And some beautiful scarves. You can wear them in your hair, around your neck, your waist, however you like.” The foreigners sat dumbly, clutching their empty coke bottles. For a suffocating moment Vijay was afraid they would walk out without purchasing anything. Would he then be responsible to buy any damaged silk? That was even worse than losing his job outright.

The Hindi-speaking woman spoke. “I think we would like some scarves. And a pillowcase or two. Right?” The other two women nodded assent. Then one of the men cleared his throat and said, “Yes, I would like to buy a blanket. A big blanket, like for a double bed.” Vijay relaxed as Mr. Kapoor graciously talked them through their purchases. In the end, the group bought five scarves, three table runners, six pillowcases, and an expensive blanket and pillowcase set. Vijay carefully folded and bagged their purchases, and both he and Mr. Kapoor bowed politely as they left.

Mr. Kapoor sat cross-legged on the mat, content at making such a valuable sale. Vijay gathered up the empty bottles and brought them back to the corner shop, bringing back some chai for Mr. Kapoor. When he returned, Vijay was surprised to see that his boss was still sitting in the same place. He hadn’t even put away the money.

“Ah, Vijay,” he said. “You know, I always say to please the customer, especially if you are dealing with foreigners. Americans like to choose, so give them the choice, I say. And you see, it has paid off. Today I made a record sale; never have I sold so much in one showing. Vijay, I have a successful silk business, with enough money to send my sons to university. And my nephew is in America. Just think.”

“Yes, sir,” said Vijay.

“Well,” continued Mr. Kapoor. “This has been quite an afternoon.” He roused himself and pointed to the entrance. “Over there you can see a large package of cashmere shawls to be inventoried and shelved. They won’t put themselves away, boy.”

“No, sir,” said Vijay and left Mr. Kapoor to his chai. Picking up the box of shawls, he carried them to the back stock room, where he worked alone, wrapped in the silence of silk.