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, two 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. Chatterjee believes 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 for help 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 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.”
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.
Rumor 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. Rumor becomes fact when the Dalals leave 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.