Is Boori Ma a real durwan or not in "A Real Durwan" in Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and why or why not?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

"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 neighborhood" 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 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."

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Interpreter of Maladies

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