Autumn 1998 (6.3)

Used to Scoldings
A Short Story by Mir Jalal

Translated by Hasan Javadi

Habits! Some say habits are a good thing; others say, no, they're bad. But who's right?

In the winter our apartments are heated with hot water pipes. In the basement, there are huge boilers that send hot steam up through the pipes.

The person who stokes the boilers and turns them off - the boiler room attendant - is always busy fussing around with them. His name is Ghulam. Everybody knows him. He's a very good guy. He knows everybody and everybody's profession.

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Upstairs from us is an apartment which belongs to a government minister. I don't know why Ghulam always used to keep such a close watch on that apartment. He always tried to see that the minister was comfortable by making his apartment pleasantly warm. The minister also paid special attention to this matter.

Every morning you could see him standing down in front of the boiler room, addressing Uncle Ghulam in his husky voice, "Ghulam, the kids are freezing. Why don't you heat up this damn thing? What's the matter?" Or "Ghulam, why is it so hot? The house is almost on fire, man!"

For a period of several years, Ghulam put up with the minister's comments - sometimes raising the heat, sometimes lowering it. Every now and then, he would even go upstairs and check the temperature himself. Then he'd come back down and take appropriate action. He was so accustomed to these things that he took orders from the minister as if he were in the military, ready to fulfill every command.

The minister realized that Ghulam needed to be ordered around, and so he would say, "Ghulam, that's enough. Don't turn the apartment into a sauna. Lower the heat of the boilers." Or, "Ghulam, why is it so cold? There's no hot water. What's going on?"

Ghulam would raise his hand up to his forehead and say, "Upon my eyes." Then he would rush down to the boiler room.

One day the minister moved out of the apartment and another one took his place. This one was from another ministry. I'm not quite sure where he worked. But it was clear definitely that he was a minister because every morning a car would come and take him to his office. And every evening it would bring him back home. Of course, Ghulam wanted to keep his job, and accordingly, he was very attentive. Again, he would stand at the door waiting for orders. But strangely enough, no one ordered him around. This minister would simply reply to his greeting and drive away. Ghulam expected him to complain. But not a single word. One day, two days, five days passed the same way. Ghulam got bored and rather annoyed.

"How is this? The minister doesn't say anything? Why isn't he demanding anything of me? Is he annoyed? Doesn't he want to talk to me? Perhaps someone has told him something bad about me?"

A few times Uncle Ghulam even waited at the door for the minister and once after greeting him, dared to ask, "Comrade Minister, how is the heating system? Are you suffering from the cold?"

"We have no complaints! Don't worry. Thanks a lot."

Uncle Ghulam came back downstairs dejected and disappointed. He was puzzled, "What's going on? To be a minister and not order the boiler attendant around? No, this wasn't right. Definitely, someone has been gossiping behind my back. The minister doesn't even look me in the eyes."

The next morning Ghulam was at the door again. This time he inquired of the minister's wife, "Ma'am, how is the central heating working? Is the temperature of the rooms to your liking?"

Before she could answer, the minister's voice was heard, "It's fine. Thanks a lot, Uncle Ghulam. It's just fine!"

Ghulam was surprised. "My God! this good-for-nothing fellow doesn't understand anything about hot and cold. Last night all of the boilers were working, and it was blazing hot, but he didn't say a thing!"

The new minister, it turns out, was a quiet, patient and orderly person. Whenever it was necessary, he would turn the heating control on or off in the apartment and maintain the temperature at an appropriate level. He didn't demand anything from Uncle Ghulam.

But Ghulam was apprehensive and kept wondering, "What's going on? What has this man heard about me? Why isn't he saying anything? He has heard something bad about me. That's why he's avoiding me."

It was obvious that Uncle Ghulam was used to being scolded and didn't want to give up this habit. While most people who get bashed over the head do their best to avoid such abuse and free themselves of it, there are others like Ghulam who start worrying if they aren't getting bullied around. Ghulam kept wondering what had happened and why the minister wasn't ordering him around.

"What has he heard? God help me!" Uncle Ghulam said to himself.

He didn't have to wait long. One day he was instructed to go to the manager's office. When he heard this, he became worried sick, "Ah, I wonder what's up? I wonder what the minister has said to the complex manager? Is he angry with me?"

When Ghulam arrived, the manager stood up, shook his hand and told him that he was going to be honored in an upcoming celebration.

"Uncle Ghulam, we're pleased with your work. You've been working here night and day. You try your best to make the people comfortable here. May you live long and always be healthy. I've consulted the Committee of the Workers' Union, and we've decided to reward you with an extra month's salary."

The complex manager smiled and shook Ghulam's hand again.

"Do you have any objections?"

Seeing that the boiler attendant was standing there very quietly, he motioned for him to sit down.

"Please, make yourself comfortable," he said.

Uncle Ghulam was so overwhelmed with joy he didn't know what to do. He was witnessing an unexpected situation and listening to words he wasn't used to hearing. Nobody was scolding him. Nobody was ordering him around. No one had come on the hour to check the boilers or to readjust the temperature. Raising his head, he looked around. He gazed out the window at the clear blue sky overhead. Instead of the badgering and scolding that he was expecting from the manager, there was only bright sun shining overhead.

Smiling quietly, he looked at the manager, thinking, "Wonder of wonders, why couldn't things have always been this way!"

From Azerbaijan International (6.3) Autumn 1998.
© Azerbaijan International 1998. All rights reserved.

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