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A Real Durwan
SUMMARY
Boori Ma, an increasingly frail 64-year-old woman, is the durwan (live-in
doorkeeper) to an APARTMENT building of Calcutta. Each day, she trudges up
the stairs, lugging her reed broom and flimsy mattress behind her. As she
sweeps, her raspy voice details the losses she has suffered because of Partition.
She was separated from her husband, four daughters, and home. Tied to the
end of her sari is a set of skeleton keys belonging to coffer boxes that housed
her valuables. She chronicles the easier times in her life, the feasts and servants
and marble floor of her home. Each litany ends with the same phrase, “Believe
me, don’t believe me.”
The details of her journey across the border shift in each retelling. But her tales
were so impassioned that no one could dismiss her outright. Each resident of the
building had a different interpretation of her tales. Mr. Dalal of the third floor
can’t fathom how a landowner ends up sweeping stairs, wives think she is the
victim of changing times, Mr. Chatterjeebelieves she simply mourns her family
and wraps herself in illusion. Nevertheless, her tales harmed no one and she was
entertaining. Best of all, she kept the stairs spotlessly clean and the outside
world at bay. She routed away any suspicious person with a few slaps of her
broom. Though there was nothing to steal from the APARTMENTS , the
residents were comforted by her presence.
Boori Ma suffers from sleepless nights. Mrs. Dalal, who has a soft spot for Boori
Ma, comes to the roof to dry lemon peels. Boori Ma asks her to inspect her back
for the mites she assumes torment her in her sleep. Mrs. Dalal finds nothing.
Boori Ma talks again about her lost comforts – such comforts Mrs. Dalal can’t
dream of. The women commiserate and Mrs. Dalal offers to buy the woman
new bedding. Later rains turn Boori Ma’s mattress into yogurt, so she focuses
on the offer of new bedding.
Boori Ma is allowed to wander in and out of the apartments, offered tea and
crackers forhelp with cleaning of children’s activities. She knows better than to
sit on the furniture, so she crouches in doorways and takes in life from a
distance. She visits The Dalals. Mr. Dalal asks her to help tote basins to his
apartment. Mrs. Dalal is not pleased. A basin does not make up for not having a
phone or a fridge, or other amenities promised but not delivered. The argument
rings through the building and Boori Ma does not ask about bedding. She sleeps
on newspaper that night.
Mr. Dalal installs one basin – the first of the building – in his home and another
in the foyer for all of his neighbors to use. Instead of being moved by the
gesture, the residents of the building are awash in resentment. Why did they
have to share, why were the Dalals the only ones who could improve the
building, why couldn’t they buy their own basins? To appease his wife after their
argument, it is rumored that Mr. Dalal purchased lavish shawls and soaps. He
takes her away for ten days and Mrs. Dalal assures Boori Ma that she has not
forgotten her promise of renewed bedding.
While the Dalals are away, the other wives plan renovations and the stairs
become choked by workmen. Unable to sweep, Boori Ma keeps to her roof,
keeping an eye on her dwindling set of newspapers and wondering when she had
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her last glass of tea. When she grows restless of the roof, she wanders around
the town spending her life’s savings on treats. She feels a tug at the end of her
sari and finds her purse and skeleton keys gone. When she returns to the
building, she finds the basin has been torn out of the wall.
The residents carry her up to the roof and accuse her of telling robbers about
the new basin. She tries to convince them, but after all of her lies, they say, how
can they believe her now? The residents seek the advice of Mr. Chatterjee. He
comes to the conclusion that the building needs a real durwan to keep their
valuables safe. They toss Boori Ma out of on the street muttering, as her figure
recedes, “believe me, believe me.”

ANALYSIS
A Real Durwan is primarily a story about class and the resentment it can inspire.
Boori Ma, a poor woman forced to sweep stairwells in her old age, comforts
herself with tales of her previous riches. Whether or not these anecdotes are
true, they have the same effect. They are an oasis for her, a way to escape the
reality of her life for just a moment. When the Dalals install the basins in the
building, their neighbors react with jealousy instead of gratitude. They rail
against the Dalals for trying to show up the rest of the building. Mrs. Dalal, it is
rumored, doesn’t think the basin is classy enough. At the end, Boori Ma is cast
out of the building, blamed for the theft. Mr. Chatterjee says that they need a
real durwan for their building; his desire to promote the illusion of the building's
upward mobility is a fatal punishment for Boori Ma. She is a reminder of their
true place in the social structure, and she is a reminder that her fate can await
any of them. Casting her out is casting out the truth of their meager lives.
Dismissing her means they can never be her.
Partition again is a theme here. In the exile of Hindus from Muslim lands and
vice versa, millions of people were left homeless. Boori Ma, though she may be
lying about her previous wealth, is proven to be a refugee by her accent. As in
When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine, Partition feels arbitrary. By focusing in on the
life of one person affected by the treaty, the reader can glean the human toll.
Though the caste system – the stratification of Indians into ethnic or class
categorizations – and its notion of untouchables was banned in 1950, class and
race made Boori Ma untouchable.
The structure of this story is built upon irony. Almost as if in an O. Henry story,
Boori Ma is promised new bedding on the precise day that Mr. Dalal brings home
the basin, and the precise day that her old bedding is ruined. The basin and the
ensuing fight between Mr. and Mrs. Dalal pushes Boori Ma’s needs to the side.
Mrs. Dalal says that she has not forgotten about her bedding before she leaves
for her vacation but she does not arrive home in time to save Boori Ma, let alone
to provide new bedding. Yes, Mrs. Dalal is considered flaky, but Boori Ma is cast
out when she is out of town and unable to protect her. The irony here less a
dramatic device than a comment on the fickle nature of life.
Rumour and gossip also shape the story. Boori Ma’s insistence that she is telling
the truth, despite the details she changes at will, is at first a source of comedy
for the residents. They think that she is entertaining even though the tales are
sorrowful. When the Dalals buy the basin, their neighbors gossip about the fights
that take place behind closed doors. Rumour becomes fact when the Dalals leave
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for vacation. This blurring of lines between truth and gossip can be blamed for
Boori Ma’s punishment at the end. Since the wisest man in the building, Mr.
Chatterjee, has not picked up a newspaper in decades, word of mouth and
hearsay are taken as gospel. In a way, this is a reflection of society as the truth
is often elusive.
Objects take on important meaning in A Real Durwan. The basin becomes a
symbol of both wealth and resentment. The skeleton keys tied to the end of
Boori Ma’s sari are both remembrances of her past life and a totem of her
strength. They reassure her. When they are stolen, she is thrown out shortly
thereafter. Boori Ma’s bedding, she believes, is full of mites that keep her up at
night. Though the mites are a figment of her imagination and a manifestation of
her worries, the bedding can be read as her livelihood. Once destroyed, her life
slips away.


e
Is Boori Ma a real durwan or not in "A Real Durwan" in Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri,
and why or why not?
e
"Durwan" is a word comprised of Urdu, Hindi and Persian roots. According to Oxford Dictionary, it
means a porter or doorkeeper, yet in many cases, like Boori Ma's, durwans may only be cleaning
women. These sorts of doorkeepers can be found all around India, where they are called durwans, as
well as all over Europe, where they are often called "concierges" (this is similar to yet very different
from the concierges found in HOTELS). At the best levels, this sort of porter or doorkeeper lives-in
and oversees order in the building and cleans all the public areas. In buildings where only rooms are
rented, they clean water closets, bathing rooms and kitchens. In Boori Ma's case, in the old building
with cramped quarters, she is there to clean the public stairs to the different floors and the different
renters' dwellings.
"I live in two broken rooms, married to a man who sells toilet parts." Mrs. Dalal turned away...
To be a real durwan in this scenario one has to fulfill actual duties and implied duties. The actual duty
for Boori Ma is to sweep the stairs and keep the public areas in order. Boori Ma's implied duties are
the same as for higher level durwan and for European concierges: they ensure none but residents and
residents' guests enter the building. This is an important function for doorkeeper: they keep the safety
of the premises by restricting who enters the doors. According to this, Boori Ma is a "real' durwan.
She performs actual and implied her duties and, for doing so correctly, she is given a place to sleep
"underneath the letter boxes where she lived."
Trouble comes to Boori Ma with the promotion and vacation of the Dalal family. Everyone in the
building is jealously inspired to make improvements because of the improvements the Dalals made,
even adding a public sink to the stairway. Boori Ma is anxious "restless on the roof" because of the
Dalals absence. She begins "circling the neighbourhood" going further each day and incautiously
spending her savings on"small treats" at the surrounding shops (until she is robbed at the Bow
Bazaar). The trouble comes for her because, while she is out wandering, she is not being a diligent
durwan since she is not in the building guarding who comes in and out of the gate and doors. Had she
been there, it is presumed that she would not have allowed the thieves to pass, therefore, they could
not have stolen. The residents are irate and blame Boori Ma for not being diligent and thinking of her
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duties above her own pleasure. In fury, they also blame her for helping the robbers by giving them
information.
This is hard criticism because all they give her is a place for sleeping in exchange for sweeping the
"stairs top to bottom." Nonetheless, since she was away from the stairs and the gate and the door, and
since thieves entered the building, robbing and damaging it, Boori Ma is accused of failing and of
therefore not being a "real" durwan because a "real" durwan would not have abandoned her duty. This
is a cruel twist of situationally ironic fate because, after all her service and her own robbery, her
restless, aimless wandering leads to disaster and her looming destitution. It also leads to the false
accusations of complicity with the robbers. Thus, to the residents, she is not a "real" durwan because a
"real" durwan would never sidestep duty and thus would never fall under suspicion of helping
robbers.
"This is all her doing," one of them hollered, pointing at Boori Ma. "She informed the robbers. Where
was she when she was supposed to guard the gate?"
"For days she has been wandering the streets, speaking to strangers," another retorted.
"We shared our coal, gave her a place to sleep. How could she betray us this way?" a third wanted to
know.
... "Believe me, believe me. I did not inform the robbers."