Jhumpa Lahiri

A Real Durwan

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A Real Durwan Summary

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“A Real Durwan” is a short story by Indian-American author Jhumpa Lahiri from her 1999 Pulitzer-prize winning collection Interpreter of Maladies. It follows an older, exceedingly poor woman who is unjustly treated by her community in Calcutta. Its themes include disillusionment, callousness, and displacement.

“A Real Durwan” opens with a description of sixty-four-year-old Boori Ma: she’s very small in stature and seems as thin as she is wide. She’s often seen carrying a tawdry broom, which is actually a bundle of reeds. She sleeps under the community mailboxes for the debilitated apartment building.

She’s a familiar sight around the apartment complex, usually mourning over her long lost families. With one family, she claims that she lived in a two-story home with four daughters and a husband. She keeps these keys (known as skeleton keys because they only open “dead” things) tied to the end of her sari, along with her life’s savings. Boori claims that before the war divided India and Bangladesh, she was a major property owner. Everyone in the building has at some point or the other heard the story of her third daughter’s marriage: the daughter was married to a principal and the celebrations lasted for weeks. Everyone in the building has heard Boori narrate this story to herself while climbing up the stairwell. They’ve decided that her lies are harmless, so most people just ignore her.

Mr. Dalal, a business manager who lives on the third floor, says that there’s no way a previous landowner would be reduced to being an unpaid stairway sweeper. Others entertain the possibility that she did, in fact, live a well-to-do life then lost everything as a refugee.

Over the years, everyone in the building has seen her as a sort of security guard. Though she’s not paid, she’s expected to keep possible vigilantes out of the building. She isn’t paid, and thus not a real durwan (durwan means ‘porter’ or ‘doorkeeper’ in Urdu and Hindi). But despite the lack of financial rewards, this unofficial role gives Boori personal meaning, and she starts to imagine she’s the durwan of a nice building in a wealthy neighborhood.

As Boori waits for her laundry to dry on the roof, she observes Mrs. Dalal on the third floor setting out some salted lemon peels to dry in the sun. Boori and Mrs. Dalal talk about their day. Boori says that the mites in her quilt blanket are getting more energetic in the growing summer heat. Mrs. Dalal says the residents of the apartment can get her mite-free bedding easily, but Boori is prideful and claims that she doesn’t need it. But Mrs. Dalal insists, so Boori gets rid of her mattress and sleeps on a group of newspapers for the next few days.

As life progresses, Boori spends her days observing the residents of the apartment building; she feels lucky when residents offer her a free cup of tea.

One day, Mr. Dalal returns home early and full of joy. He’s just received a major promotion at the financial firm he works at. He’s used the bonus money to buy two new faucets. It’s an impulsive decision that doesn’t make much sense, and Mrs. Dalal asks him why on earth he would spend money on two new faucets when they only needed one.

The Dalals end up installing the second faucet in a communal area of the apartment. Now everyone, including Boori, can enjoy indoor plumbing. But jealousy among the residents soon rises: especially among the housewives, who start to question why the Dalal’s should have their own private faucet where they can lazily keep their hygienic material on the sink while everyone else has to share. True to character, Boori roams the halls talking about how much better the faucets in her old life were. She claims the water was rose-scented.

Mr. Dalal’s gift of faucets was just the first of many gifts. Soon, Mrs. Dalal is receiving fine clothes and perfume. She is so busy with her new, wealthy lifestyle that she forgets all about Boori’s need for new bedding. While catching a cab, Mrs. Dalal says they haven’t forgotten about their promise to Boori. In the meantime, Boori has to spend the night sleeping on old newspapers.

Unable to sleep because of the heat, constantly being bitten by bugs, having not had a decent night’s rest in over a week, Boori becomes restless and chooses to walk outside of the apartment. She goes to a street fair where she spends a good portion of her life’s savings on minor pleasure items, like sugar treats and trinkets. Days pass like this, with Boori just sleeping wherever she can and traveling to other parts of the city.

When she returns to the apartment days later, she finds all of the building’s residents gathered in the lobby, waiting for her. They’re each furious. In her absence, someone stole the public faucet from Mrs. and Mr. Dalal. They blame the theft on Boori. The mob thinks that if Boori had been there, she would have prevented the theft. Some speculate that she was the one who told the burglars how to steal the faucet. They say that they no longer need Boori; in fact, she’s a menace. And now that Mr. Dalal is moving up in the world and has contributed to new improvements like yellow shutters, the building can afford to pay “a real darwan.”

When Boori protests her innocence, none of the residents believe her: all these years, she’s gained the reputation of being a liar. The residents throw all of Boori’s belongings out on the street. As the story ends, Boori has nothing else left: no key, no valuables, no home. She reaches for the end of her Sari that once held her life’s savings and skeleton keys but finds nothing.