Litro: Translating India

Page 1


Shashi Tharoor

Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay

Perumal Murugan


K.R. Meera

Vivek Shanbhag Manasi

Susmita Bhattacharya

Anita Goveas

Paul Zacharia

Dani Brubaker

Manisha Kulshreshtha

Cover | Hari Menon price: £6.99 | € 12| $6.99 | A$10

Editor- in-Chief

Eric Akoto:

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Story Sunday:

Guest Editor

Shashi Taroor

Cover image by Hari Menon

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January 2018


Tis edition of Litro Magazine marks a return journey to India, following our frst exploration in October 2016’s #156. Tat issue looked at expatriate experience, focusing on diasporic Indian literature particularly of the global South, and included English-language writing from emerging and celebrated Indian writers. We were so inspired by India, its passion for literature and its community ethos, that we were keen to return, but this time we wanted to explore the diversity of Indian languages, and the rich world of literature and thought they represent –our pages here are flled mostly with fction translated from various Indian tongues: Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi.

In “Sabotage”, by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay, the gunfre and explosions of rival land mafas’ battles provide the backdrop to a woman pouring out the secrets of her troubled marriage, while in “Byepass Road” (an Indian spelling), by Perumal Murugan, things turn ambiguously sinister when a repair crew heads out into the night. In Benyamin’s “Solapur”, a desperate couple’s desperate deal doesn’t go according to plan; in K.R. Meera’s “Te Moles of the Angel” we have children dealing with trauma and loss; and there are questions of identity in a chance meeting in a hotel in Vivek Shanbhag’s “Nirvana”. Tere’s a disturbing encounter in Manasi’s “Te Rite of Passage”, a Bollywood actress’s fall from grace in Anita Goveas’s “Fragments”, and a widow’s voyeurism in Susmita Bhattacharya’s “Te Taste of Onion on His Tongue”. Finally, Paul Zacharia explores his own past in the memoir, “Sinning in Mysore”. Artwork in this issue is provided by the Los Angeles based fashion and lifestyle photographer Dani Brubaker, Dani’s lenses has captured the likes of musician Ciara for Harpers Magazine, actor Jovana Adepo for Interview magazine, Aja Naomi King, Will I Am and more. Regarding her photography, Dani states, "For me it's all about the eyes, the connection I have with my subjects. My camera embodies a powerful medium of expression and communication; nothing is more moving than capturing raw human emotion...whether it's a twinkle in a child's eye or the playful banter between children, or the wholesome, sexy glance of an adult. Capturing those moments for posterity is what my photographs are about."

Cover artist is photographer Hari Menon, a freelance photographer who loves to travel, his play of colours and shapes in the photos he takes talk deeply about his passion and love for photography. He hails from a village near Cochin called North Paravur.

Again guest-edited by writer and politician Shashi Taroor, this expanded edition (twice the size of our usual issues) will be accompanied by a series of literary and cultural festivals in London and across the globe, beginning in January 2018 at the world famous Jaipur Literary Festival and at the inaugural Mathrubhami International Festival Letters in Kerala, a celebration of Literature across borders!

Later this year, in May, our next World Series issue will be Korean Women Grab Back and will showcase fction by Korean women authors, including those from diaspora communities who write in languages other than Korean. Te issue will be will be guest-edited by Deborah Smith, co-winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s Te Vegetarian, and will feature work by Han Kang, Krys Lee, Janet Hong and more. As in so many countries, the canon of modern Korean literature has long been dominated by men. However, Korea's extraordinary fourishing of contemporary writing has been led by women, who frequently dominate domestic prize lists and have had the biggest success abroad. Featuring writing by women which foregrounds female experience in the fullest sense of the term – aware that there are no issues, political, societal, artistic or philosophical, that are not also women's issues – we aim to show how Korean women are “grabbing back” the canon and writing themselves into literary history.

Eric Akoto - Editor- in-Chief

FICTION NON-FICTION PHOTOGRAPHY FICTION INTERVIEW ART FLASH FICTION NON FICTION ESSAY POETRY #168 Translating India 10 05 07 Byepass Road by Perumal Murugan Solapur by Benyamin Sabotage by Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay The Moles of the Angel by K.R. Meera Nirvana by Vivek Shanbhag The Rite of Passage by Manasi The Taste of Onion on His Tongue by Susmita Bhattacharya Fragments by Anita Goveas Sinning in Mysore by Paul Zacharia Photostory by Dani Brubaker Guest Editor's Letter Contributors 18 26 32 46 70 76 78 86 54 62 F F Ff E P I Art Art @LitroMagazine @LitroMagazine Nf Nf The Abode of Seasons Remain Vacant by Manisha Kulshreshtha
d N

Shashi Tharoor

Following the success of Litro’s special issue in 2016 featuring recent writing in English by the Indian diaspora, it is a pleasure to bring readers an edition focusing on contemporary Indian writing in what is often called “vernacular” languages, ably translated into English.

Te challenge of making Indian writing accessible to an international readership is not an easy one. Writers in Indian languages inevitably make cultural assumptions that are not easily comprehensible to readers in other languages; they also use words and allusions that, when translated, can come across as stilted. Tis may explain why their quality is not always apparent. In his preface to Te Vintage Book of Indian Writing 19471997 (1997), which he edited with Elizabeth West, Salman Rushdie made the now-notorious comment that "prose writing—both fction and non-fction—created in this period by Indian writers working in English is proving to be a more interesting body of work than most of what has been produced in the sixteen ‘ofcial languages’ of India, and the so-called ‘vernacular’ languages, during the same time: and indeed, this new, and still burgeoning, 'Indo-Anglian' literature represents the most valuable contribution India

has yet made to the world of books".

Rushdie's comment raised a great many hackles at the time, and the controversy has not entirely abated two decades later. In a sharp riposte, Amit Chaudhuri, editing Te Picador Book of Modern Indian Literature (2001), asked a blunt question: "Can it be true that Indian writing, that endlessly rich, complex and problematic entity, is to be represented by a handful of writers who write in English, who live in England or America and whom one might have met at a party?" But Chaudhuri’s own selection, skewed as it was in favour of his native Bengali, hinted at some of the challenges of making a representative selection of writing from the wide variety of Indian languages in which modern literature is written. Not only are India’s languages mutually incomprehensible, they also vary signifcantly in literary culture and in the quality of translations available.

Tis edition of Litro sidesteps this particular problem by making no claim to being representative. It cannot possibly represent the entire range of what is available in Indian literature in Indian languages today. Instead, in the stories here, by some of the most interesting and original talents writing in Indian languages, it ofers a taste of the ex-

citing literary smorgasbord that is available to Indian readers today.

In many ways Indian language writing draws from an older literary tradition than the British or Western canon does: the great epics the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are over two millennia old, and the fables of the Panchatantra inspired the works of Aesop. Indians have been telling each other stories in their own languages for far longer than they have been able to express themselves in the English of their colonial overlords. But whereas Indian writing in English, notably that of Rushdie himself, has been commended for smuggling a new idiom past the immigration-inspectors of English literature, writing in Indian languages coped with a dissimilar set of challenges. Tere was no comparable set of literary conventions to emulate or rebel against, the yardstick by which “Indo-Anglian” writers were long judged. Instead there was the challenge of expressing, in a language rooted in the Indian soil, the experience of a nation coming to terms with its own development and transformation, adjusting to modernity in a vocabulary that harked back to a premodern era. Te writer in an Indian language is simultaneously describing a world that has

not been described in the same way in her language before, and demonstrating not only her creative talent but the adequacy of the very vehicle she is using for this new journey.

We believe the stories and verse before you give you a glimpse of how well some contemporary Indian writers have risen to this challenge. If they whet the appetite for further exploration, this special edition of Litro will have served its purpose.

@LitroMagazine @LitroMagazine

Born in 1974, Sangeeta Bandyopadhyay wrote her frst poem at 13, and was published for the frst time at 25. Her frst novel, Sankhini, was a critical as well as commercial success. She has written over ffteen novels and sixty short stories in Bengali, and her novels Panty and Abandon have been published in English translation in India (Penguin Random House, HarperCollins) and the UK (Tilted Axis Press). She lives and writes in Calcutta.

K. R. Meera is an Indian author, who writes in Malayalam. She was born in Sasthamkotta, Kollam district in Kerala. She worked as a journalist in Malayala Manorama. She started writing fction in 2001 and her frst short story collection Ormayude Njarambu was published in 2002. Since then she has published fve collections of short stories, two novellas, fve novels and two children's books. She won the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award in 2009 for her short-story, Ave Maria. Her novel Aarachaar (2012) is widely regarded as one of the best literary works produced in Malayalam language. It received several awards including the Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award (2013), Odakkuzhal Award (2013), Vayalar Award (2014) and Kendra Sahitya Akademi Award (2015). It was also shortlisted for the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature.

Benyamin has published eighteen books in Malayalam including eight novels and three short story collections. His most famous work, ‘Goat days’ is translated into many languages including English, Arabic, Tai and Napali. It is a text book for many universities and received Kerala Literature Academy Award in 2009 and long listed for Man Asian Literature Prize 2013 and Short listed for DSC prize 2014. His other major works include Euthanasia, Second book of Prophets, Yellow lights of death and Al Arabian Novel factory.

Manisha Kulshreshtha is a popular Hindi writer. She is the author of four novels and seven short story collections. Her recent and well received novel Swapnpash tells the story of the life of a schizophrenic female painter. She has received several awards and fellowships. She is currently working on a biographical novel based on famed Hindi writer Bhartendu Harishchandra’s protégé and companion, Mallika. And getting Senior fellowship from ministry of culture for a travelogue based on traveling on Path of MEGHDOOTAM (cloud messanger) of Kalidas. She received a senior fellowship from the ministry of culture for a travelogue about Kalidas’s lyric poem Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger).

Perumal Murugan is an Indian author, scholar and literary chronicler who writes novels in Tamil. He has written six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry to his credit. Tree of his novels have been translated into English: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize in 2005, Current Show and One Part Woman. He was a professor of Tamil at the Government Arts College in Namakkal.

Vivek Shanbhag writes in Kannada. He has published eight works of fction and two plays, and has edited two anthologies, one of them in English. He published and edited the literary journal Desha Kaala for 7 years.

Vivek’s novel Ghachar Ghochar was published in English translation to critical acclaim worldwide. He was a Honorary Fellow at the International Writing Program 2016 at the University of Iowa. An engineer by training, Vivek Shanbhag lives in Bangalore, India.

Sashi Taroor, an Indian politician and former diplomat, has published 15 bestselling works on India covering its history, culture, flm, society, foreign policy and more. His monthly column, India Reawakening, appears in 80 newspapers worldwide. He is also a passionate lecturer and speaker-globally recognised for his contributions on current issues in India.

Paul Zacharia has published over ffty works of fction and nonfction in Malayalam. Tey include short stories, novellas, travelogues, flm-scripts and essays on politics, literature and culture. His fction has been translated into various Indian languages as also English, German and French. He writes regularly for Kerala’s leading newspapers and magazines and his columns have appeared in India Today, Outlook, Te Week, Te Hindu and Tehelka, etc. Zacharia has traveled widely and has published travelogues on Africa, the Lake District, Saudi Arabia, China and the Kumbh Mela. Literary awards include the Kendra Sahitya Akademi, Kerala Sahitya Akademi, Odakkuzhal, Muttathu Varki, Padmarajan, Katha, Pravasa Kairali, etc. He lives in Tiruvanathapuram, Kerala.


Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fueled by strong cofee and paneer jalfrezi. Her stories are published and forthcoming in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, the Word Factory website, Pocket Change, Haverthorn, Moonchild Magazine, Riggwelter Press and former cactus mag. She tweets erratically: @cofeeandpaneer

Dani Brubaker, frst a painter, now a fashion photographer was born in Oklahoma. Part Choctaw Indian, she grew up by the code of the Native American Indian which reveres children, yet allows them freedom of self-expression -- which is refected in Dani's art. Regarding her photography, Dani states, "For me it's all about the eyes, the connection I have with my subjects. My camera embodies a powerful medium of expression and communication; nothing is more moving than capturing raw human emotion… whether it's a twinkle in a child's eye or the playful banter between children, or the wholesome, sexy glance of an adult. Capturing those moments for posterity is what my photographs are about." Manasi is a contemporary Malayalam writer whose oeuvre spans from short stories to articles on women’s issues as well as contemporary socio-political themes. She has won various literary awards, including Kerala Sahitya Academy Award, instituted by the state apex body in literature, for the collection of short stories Manjile Pakshi. One of her stories has been made into a flm that won the Kerala State flm award for the best original story. Susmita Bhattacharya was born in Mumbai and sailed the world on oil tankers before settling down in the UK. She is an associate lecturer at Winchester University and leads the SO:Write Young Writers workshops in Southampton. Her debut novel, Te Normal State of Mind (Parthian), was published in 2015. Her short stories, essays and poems have been widely published and also broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She won the Winchester Writers Festival Memoir prize in 2016. She lives in Winchester with her family. She tweets at @Susmitatweets

Hari Menon is a freelance photographer who loves to travel, his play of colours and shapes in the photos he takes talk deeply about his passion and love for photography. He hails from a village near Cochin called North Paravur.


Translated from the Bengali by Arunava Sinha.

Mini rang the bell once, then a second time. Tere was no sound inside. Meanwhile there was another bomb explosion, more gunfre. Mini hadn’t counted, but there had been at least three hundred rounds of fring. Te granite lobby was wrapped in an icy silence. One lift was still on the twenty-second foor. Te other two were stuck on the ground foor. No one was coming up or going down in any of them. If someone were coming up Mini would have assumed it was Sumit, that he was on his way. He hadn’t called because it was often a struggle to get the network in this area, particularly inside the complex. Mini had called Sumit as soon as the frst bomb had exploded, but the network had been unreachable since then. When the fusillade of bullets had begun she had called the main gate on the intercom: “What’s going on? What’s all this fring? Tere’s no trouble inside the complex, I hope.”

Te security ofcer had reassured her: “No, madam, how can anything happen inside the complex? Don’t worry, whatever’s going on is over at the Singhanias’. But the main gate has been locked, the entrances to the towers are being locked too. Please stay inside your fat.”

It would have been safest for Mini to have done just that. But most of these fats had glass walls. Even the railing of the balcony running the length of the building was of glass. Mini considered these glass walls instead of concrete extremely dangerous in any case. And up on the twenty-third foor she felt no security at all in the balcony; it was as though she might fall any moment. She would drift downwards like a piece of paper on the wind, except that she would be hurled onto the ground at the last moment. It was true that these glass walls had created the proposition of all manner of light and shade playing with the lives of the residents. A glow at dawn, twilight at dusk, the uncompromising noonday sun, the threatening night – all of these could enter every corner of the fat unobstructed. But the same glass walls vibrated so uncontrollably under the impact of loud noises that a cowardly woman like Mini felt the ten-foot-by-ten-foot panels would be shattered, the splinters raining down on her head.

Te frst bomb exploded not at one or two a.m. in the morning but at precisely ten thirty p.m. Ten came an unrelenting barrage of explosions and gunfghts, and with them the constant shuddering of the glass barricade on the twenty-third foor. It was fear that propelled Mini out of her fat. No one else lived on this foor. All she knew was that one fat at the other end of the twenty-second was occupied. Te lights were visible from the driveway. She didn’t know anything more, just as she didn’t know anything beyond the fact that the combatants in the bomb- and gun-battles were rival land mafas here in the Rajarhat area of Kolkata. She climbed down one foor out of fear, and spotted a thread of light beneath the door. So she rang the bell. Once, then a second time. With no response forthcoming, she was about to leave when the door opened. A man in track-pants and a T-shirt was looking at her,


his eyebrows raised questioningly. In his eyes lay the annoyance of having had his sleep interrupted, and one single query: what is it? Salt-and-pepper hair, freckles on his face. Handsome and broad-shouldered, with powerful thighs and an enormous watch on his right wrist. He had only parted the door slightly. A tall lamp inside the fat gave of a faint glow. Tese fats were three thousand square feet each, it was impossible to tell whether anyone else was in there. Wasn’t there a woman in the fat with whom Mini could talk for a few minutes, at a time when all this fring was going on, her husband wasn’t home, and the glass walls were about to be broken into smithereens? Mini knew they wouldn’t be, but still she was frightened.

“Yes?” said the man, the irritation palpable in his eyes.

Mini was so taken aback by his reaction that she didn’t know what to say.

“Yes?” the man repeated. “Any problem?”

Mini answered in broken English. “I live on the foor above yours. My husband isn’t home yet. Which in itself is not important, he’s often even more late. But I can’t reach him on the phone, there’s no network.”

“Oh, so you want to make a call?”

“Not exactly. Tere’s a lot of gunfre, they’re throwing bombs too. Tugs, the land mafa, criminal syndicates. Aren’t you aware of all this? And these wretched glass walls. Every bomb sounds four times louder from the echoes. Tere must have been a hundred rounds of fring, maybe two hundred. I can’t stay inside my fat. Security has forbidden us from going outside the tower. I’m frightened. Te glass walls may break, aren’t you afraid?”

“Is that so?” said the extremely handsome man. “Gunfre? Bombs? I didn’t know. I’ve heard of such problems in Rajarhat. But I don’t live here.”

“You don’t live here? Do you live abroad? Most of the fats in this complex are owned by Non-Resident Indians. Te fats are locked up all round the year. Te glass walls are covered with blinds. Te lights come on just once every year. But why do the lights burn in your fat even when you’re not here? I can see the lights whenever we’re driving in and out of the basement parking.”

Mini had no idea how someone could sleep peacefully through the explosions and fring. “Come in,” said the man. Despite his annoyance he had probably realised Mini was frightened and helpless. “You can sit inside.” He fexed his biceps. How old was he? Forty-six? Forty-seven? Clearly he wasn’t a Bengali. Was he a Punjabi? Would it be right for her to enter? Was the glass in his fat reverberating to the sound of the bullets? He was sleeping through the deafening noise – was he very tired?

Te man shrugged and moved away from the door. She stepped in hesitantly, beset by doubts. Tere was no other light besides the lamp in the living room. Her eyes were drawn to the bedroom door as soon as she entered. Te man had obviously come out though it. Tere was subdued lighting inside the bedroom. “You stay alone here?” she asked.

“Yes, alone,” he answered. “I’m Captain Nishant Sharma. I’m a pilot. Tis is a company fat. I drop by four or fve times a month here. So do other pilots. Stewards and air hostesses too. Tat’s why you see the fat lit up most of the time. Besides, the company caretaker is here as well, though he doesn’t switch on the lights, he lives in the servants’ quarters.”

“Oh, you’re a pilot.” Mini stared at him in wonder. Te sound of the fring had stopped suddenly. How terribly silent and cold this fat was. She could easily leave now. But she decided to interrupt the pilot’s sleep instead and sat down on a soft couch. “I’ve never spo-

ken to a pilot before, Captain Sharma.”

Suppressing a slight yawn, the man said, “Te fring can’t be heard any more.”

“Yes, it’s stopped. I should go.”

“Why don’t you stay? I’ll make some cofee, would you like some?”

“Yes, thank you. You’re leaving again tomorrow?”

“Te car will be here at three a.m. to fetch me. I’m taking the fve a.m. fight to Dubai. From there to London.”


“Is there a problem here? Rajarhat is a lovely new township, I’ve been coming here for two years now. I’ve seen it grow gradually. It could become one of India’s most modern places. Which is probably why the land mafa has become so active.”

“Tey’re a huge menace. Te Singhanias are building a housing complex across the road, they’ve hired a gang of criminals. Tey roam around openly with pistols at night. My husband and I were returning home late one night when we saw imported marble being looted from a trailer. Still, there’s never been fring on this scale before.”

“Do you want to call your husband?”

“No, no need. He’ll call me when he gets back.”

“How will he enter?”

“He’s put a computerised lock on the front door. You can open the door from anywhere in the world with a password. You can also use the cameras in the fat to see what’s going on inside from anywhere in the world.”


“Tat’s why I hate being in the fat. Believe me, I’ve never been able to live there the way I want to. Everyone has their own way of living when they’re by themselves. I have never been able to do that.”

“How do you mean?”

“How do I mean?” Mini looked at the pilot sceptically. “You won’t believe it.”

“Tell me, let me try. Of course, you don’t have to if it’s very personal.”

“Personal? It’s very personal. No woman has ever told a man anything so personal. But what if you tell my husband?”

“How can that be possible? I don’t live here, nor am I your neighbour. It’s not as though I will gradually develop an intimacy with your husband and then blurt everything out one day in a ft of drunkenness. It’s entirely possible that the airline will never even put me up in this apartment again. For all you know this is my last visit here. Wait, let me get that coffee.”

“Where’s your caretaker?” Mini asked. “Won’t he make your cofee for you?”

“He isn’t here today, I’m not sure why. I’m not bothered. I’ve brought a packed dinner, I’ll heat it in the microwave later.” Sharma went to the kitchen, returning a little later with two cups of cofee. Suddenly Mini’s phone began to ring. It was Sumit. She didn’t answer.

“Was that your husband?” asked Sharma. “Why didn’t you answer? He must be looking for you.”

“Let him.”

“Let him? Are you planning to get me into trouble?”

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“If he’s back I’ll have to tell him where I am. What should I tell him?”

“Te truth.”

“Te truth?” Mini paused to think. “Impossible, he’ll divorce me.”

“He’ll divorce you for such a trivial reason?”

“Sumit is capable of divorcing me for even more trivial reasons.” Mini took a sip of her cofee. “Take all those personal ways in which a person wants to live. Sumit will never let me live my way, he never has. We’ve been married three years.”

A text message arrived in Mini’s phone: “Will be late.” Mini said, “Sumit isn’t back. He just texted to say he’ll be late. How late? It’s eleven already. He never returns before one or one thirty in the morning. And I am driven mad by loneliness, you know?”

“Does it frighten you to be alone?”

“Uh-uh. I’m not frightened, not of being alone. But I have to pretend to Sumit that I am. For instance, when he returns tonight I will say, ‘Oh, how scared I was for you, Sumit. So much gunfre, so many bombs.’ I know what Sumit will say then, he’ll say, ‘Give it another year or year and a half, Mini, you’ll see how this place is transformed. Only those who cannot aford to live here will still be living in old Kolkata then. And you will be proud of me then for my decision to buy this property.’”

“So you’re telling me, Mini, that your coming downstairs and ringing my doorbell wasn’t really out of fear?”

“Security is very tight here. Close to two hundred of them guard the complex every night. Tey have guards with rifes at the main gate, haven’t you seen? All the towers have CCTV. It’s still a little scary when there’s gunfre on winter nights. It feels like there’s no one anywhere, and some unknown danger is lurking. My maid comes every day from a distant village, she says there was a graveyard here earlier.”

“A graveyard?”

“I asked the estate manager. He said it’s a rumour. Te records say this used to be farmland. Mustard. A hundred acres of land, not exactly a small area. And there were Muslim villages where the Singhanias are building their complex. A mosque, too, and yes, a graveyard. So there certainly was one, though at a distance. But even that didn’t frighten me.”

“Ten why all these signs of fear? Are you acting?”

“No, why should I?” Mini tried to settle down comfortably. “All my fears are centred around Sumit. Like he’s put in cameras in all the rooms and I cannot forget them for even a moment and breathe. I cannot live normally. For instance, when I’m not paying attention I often … I’m embarrassed now, Captain Sharma.”

“Please continue.”

“I might pick my nose unmindfully…”


“Pick my nose.”

“Ha ha ha, Mini, look at you, you look really frightened now.”

“Terrifed. I was picking my nose, and wiping it on my sleeve, he saw me. It was recorded. And how he harassed me about it! He had all my clothes laundered, all the things I use cleaned.”

Nishant Sharma cupped his face in his hands. “Mad guy!”

“He once wanted to divorce me for something even sillier.”

“What can be sillier than this?”

“My family used to live in a rented house in north Kolkata,” said Mini. “Once my brothers began to earn well, they built a new house elsewhere. I was living there with them when I got married. So Sumit never saw our dilapidated house with the paint peeling of, shared by fve sets of tenants. It was in a very old part of Kolkata. My two brothers and I were brought up in two rooms. Our parents slaved to look after us. I had never been able to tell Sumit about this life I had left behind.

“But one day my brother happened to tell Sumit how there would be waist-high water in our neighbourhood when it rained, and how this dirty water would get into our house. Tere would be water in the yard, a quarter of the way up the walls, waiting to rise all the way to our beds. And once, after three days of unceasing rain, our entire home was fooded. We had to wade through the water to go from one room to another, but it was like a celebration, we had so much fun. No school, no college, no ofce. Pure and simple holidays. My mother and the other tenants upstairs were frying up snacks, everyone was playing cards and Ludo and carrom on the roof. Do you know how to play Ludo, Captain Sharma?

“So my brother was telling Sumit all this with great joy. Fond memories from our childhood. And Sumit was wrinkling his nose in disgust as he listened. Suddenly he began to retch and ran to the toilet. All of us were astonished. What on earth was he vomiting for? Do you know what he said when he came out of the toilet? ‘You used to wade through that flthy water? It used to be inside your rooms? Your bodies were immersed in it? And you ate and played games amidst all this? How could you? Are any of you human?’

“Tat night Sumit told me, ‘Now I see why you’ve never developed a sense of hygiene. Can anyone who’s lived this way ever understand the value of cleanliness? Who else will pick their nose and wipe it on their sleeve if not you?’

“All this information amounted to breach of trust for Sumit. I never brought up any aspect of my past in our marriage ever again. Tat we had grown up in great hardship, that the three of us used to split a single egg, that I had studied using my brother’s old books. Our bathroom was used by all the tenants. My mother had to come out of it every day in a wet sari. Rats used to infest our kitchen. Te yard was covered with pigeon stool. Our bed was our living room. Tat was were we studied, where we snacked, where we listened to music, where we slept with our arms and legs wrapped around one another.

“Sumit will be mortifed if he gets to know we used the same towel. Tat he still eats what I cook or still goes to bed with me next to him is more than enough.”

“It’s clear that there’s a class diference between the two of you. How did you happen to marry each other?”

“Sumit’s grandmother saw me and liked me. I had gone to their neighbourhood with my friends for Durga Puja. A posh area in south Kolkata.”

“It’s obvious looking at you that someone may like you, Mini.”

“Don’t talk about all that. It would have been better if she hadn’t. I wouldn’t have to spend my days so miserably. Tis life of constant fear.”

“What else do you fear?”

“My biggest fear is with myself, Captain Sharma. I’ve begun babbling in my sleep these days. It’s Sumit who used the word ‘babbling’. ‘What do you babble in your sleep these days Mimi? Whom did you call and say hello hello to? What’s going on?’ I have no idea what I say. I’m afraid to sleep next to him. Who knows what hidden compartment of my mind is

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revealed in the things I say in my sleep. Does Sumit watch out for them? Exactly what has he heard so far? Every morning I fear my husband will confront me with some hidden secret from my life. Take the fact that I’ve become involved in an extramarital relationship with Sumit’s friend Arnab – what if he fnds out this way? Maybe the person I call in my sleep is Arnab. Suppose I moaned Arnab, Arnab in my sleep? Can you imagine how utterly dangerous it is for a woman with a secret lover to be prone to talking in her sleep? Ten there are many things I do which are not caught on camera but which I know are unpardonable sins in Sumit’s eyes. What if I reveal any of those? Because it’s true that my subconscious is constantly wrenching at my suppressed actions and thoughts.”

“What sort of things do you do that aren’t caught on camera?”

“For instance, I … I … use Sumit’s toothbrush to clean the sink.”

“Which means your husband hasn’t put a camera in the bathroom.”

“No. Tat’s why I talk to Arnab from the bathroom. But that’s as far as it goes. I don’t meet Arnab, we can’t be together.”

“Why aren’t you walking out of this marriage?”

“Breaking a marriage is a lot of trouble. A great deal of confict. Tis loneliness is preferable to all that. Tis humiliation too. No one else gets to know. Everyone knows Sumit has some idiosyncrasies. But Sumit loves me. Sumit tells me the same thing, that he loves me. Do you know how much he loves me? Let’s say he buys something from a brand outlet for ten thousand rupees. He gets a three-thousand-rupee gift voucher, which he gives me for my shopping.”

“Your husband is extremely selfsh.”

“Captain Sharma, the heroines in our literature and our cinemas are so proud, so rebellious, so brave, they fght so staunchly on behalf of others. I don’t want to be like any of them. I’m content with my own small acts of sabotage. I’m only as wayward as I can be by talking to Arnab on the phone. Or, for instance, by doing what I did today.”

“You have an interesting life.”

“Today, for instance, when I was making an omelette for Sumit I found that the eggs were quite dirty. And an even dirtier feather was stuck to one of them. I stirred that dirty feather into the omelette. Sumit has no idea what he ate. An omelette smeared with chickenshit.”

“You’re a lot like my driver Ram Singh,” said Nishant Sharma. “When you scold him he takes it all meekly, saying, ‘Sorry sir, I made a mistake.’ Te next day he dents the car. I’m beginning to be afraid of you, Mini.”

“Did I tell you there’s a graveyard here? Sumit is terrifed of ghosts. And he knows I’m not remotely afraid of them. Our relationship rests on a mixture of my fear and his fear, my helplessness and his helplessness. We had a special puja soon after we moved in here. Te priest, Sadhan-babu, was from my old neighbourhood in north Kolkata. He knew exactly what he had to do. As he started the rituals, he began to behave peculiarly, muttering to himself. After much questioning he said, ‘Tere’s a spirit in this fat.’

“Sumit leapt to his feet. ‘A spirit? A woman or a man? Look, Mini has to spend the entire day here by herself in this desolate place. What if she faints or something in fear? Do something, please.’

“Sadhan-babu said, ‘I’m not an exorcist who can get rid of spirits. You’ll have to

make your own arrangement. I can just conduct some rituals to ward of trouble.’

“So the spirit remained with us. Tese days it’s not just me, even Sumit sometimes senses someone standing stealthily behind him. Or someone disappearing in a fash from the twenty-third-foor balcony. He calls for me then.”

“Superb! Tis is what you call mutual dependence in a couple. A wife who can handle spirits must be specially valued.”

Suddenly Mini jumped to her feet. “I’ll leave now, Captain Sharma. I interrupted your sleep, told you all these strange stories. Even if you aren’t a resident here, you’ll go away with a twisted opinion of me. When you return you will think, even if feetingly, that there’s a woman in this building who deceives her husband. Constant deception. For instance, Sumit is late every night, one a.m., one thirty a.m. I have a full meal around ten, I eat whatever we have, whether it’s chicken sandwiches or custard or a curry or cake. Ten I watch TV comfortably till Sumit comes home and says, ‘Have you been waiting for me? Why do you do this? You should eat.’

“And I get very angry and say, ‘How can you say that! You expect me to eat? You come back after a hard day’s work, and you expect me to have eaten before I give you your food. I may come from a poor family but I’m not selfsh like you.’ Sumit thinks I’m a typical husband-fxated housewife. He has never asked me whether I love him. I know what I’ll tell him if he ever does. With tearful eyes I’ll say, ‘Can’t you tell? You’re the frst and only man in my life. I don’t care for anything else.’

“I’ll tell him, ‘Yes, when I was in school there was a boy I used to exchange glances with. He used to wait for me on the road. And I used to go out on some pretext, to buy a notebook or a pen or a hair-clip. But that was as far as it went.’ I will never admit how much I loved Sagnik, how deep our relationship was. We used to sleep together. I wasn’t a virgin when I got married. I’ve been pretending with Sumit ever since that wedding night.”

Going to the front door, Mini opened it and set one foot outside. Captain Sharma followed, stopping close behind her. “I had a strange time. Tank goodness I’m not married, or else even I’d have started suspecting my wife after this.”

“If you’d been my husband and had come to know of all this, what would you have done with me?”

“I’d have set you free. I’d never have installed cameras. If you’d picked your nose and wiped it on your sleeve I might have scolded you but I wouldn’t have divorced you.”

Mini walked into the lobby and pressed the button of the lift, which was now stationary on the seventh foor.

Te lift would arrive any moment, and she would leave. Tere was nothing to keep her from telling this man anything she wanted to. She said, “Do you know what purpose it serves to eat in secret? I am never hungry. On the contrary, I get gas, I can’t tell you how terrible the gas is, Captain Sharma. Do you know it’s even worse than babbling in my sleep? On these winter nights, my entire body is racked by discomfort under a shared quilt, a distressed wind swirls around in my belly, wanting to emerge. My stomach makes so many sounds. I cannot sleep for fear that he will hear all those sounds, all my secret thoughts. Sumit has studied abroad, you see. He detests snoring or farting. Te woman in his life should be as perfect as his perfectly decorated fat, an enigma. But I’m not an inanimate piece of furniture. I’m a fesh and blood woman, my mouth falls open in an ugly way when I sleep. My buttocks have

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pimples on them all the year round. I don’t like showering during my periods. I really am terrifed to sleep under the same quilt as Sumit on these winter nights.”

Tere used to be as many as thirty villages here. Te people who led an easy, earthy life in the area had been evicted in order to build this intricate and complicated housing complex. Te residents had to swipe magnetic cards to get in and out. Even the smoke from an incense stick set of the fre alarm in the lobby. Tere had been such a fuss when Mini had tried to light joss-sticks at her front door. Tere used to be a cemetery over on the other side. Mini had convinced Sumit that even if it was across the road, no one knew how many tunnels the skeletons had dug beneath the surface to infest this complex. Maybe the spirit in their fat came from a grave in that cemetery. And besides, no small number of people had been killed during the transfer of land. Teir souls must also be wandering about with all their unfulflled desires.

As the door of the lift was closing, Nishant Sharma’s hand shot inside in an attempt to take Mini’s. Even in the last scene the pilot appeared to be a generous man to her. Climbing up to the twenty-third foor, she unlocked her front door carefully with the right combination of numbers. A lamp was glowing in the living room, a wine cellar stood on the left with a mirror on the door. In it Mini saw a woman in a black kameez step into the fat. Ten she entered her laboriously imagined, hard, metallic marriage, lifted high of the ground with a crane, and shut the door. At the crack of dawn Mini felt the pilot fying his plane through a lightening sky while she was still gasping for breath next to Sumit in bed.


Translated from the Tamil by V. Geetha.

It happened on the ffth day after Kumaresan accepted a part-time job. His place of work was the feld-hut that stood on the edge of the byepass road. A small fat bulb emanated light, around which the darkness sat in waiting. He had to spend nights alone at the hut. If a “party” were to come by, at any odd hour, he was to call Valavan on his cellphone and let him know. Tat was the work for which he had been hired.

Te week before. Midnight. He was reading a novel by the light that illumined his house-front and was not aware of what time it was. Nor was he sleepy. Valavan came down the road, raising a din, but stopped on seeing him. His voice rang loud and clear over the thundering of his bike.

“Hey, Mapila! Reading into the night?” He left but not before he had woken up several people who were asleep on the road. A day or so later, he came by again:

“You’re hanging around doing nothing, except reading. So, why don’t you come there and read? Sleep if you wish to. Call me if a ‘party’ comes by. Earn something for yourself.”

Tat’s how he had landed this job.

Valvan had knocked a piece of wood onto the edge of the road, and hung a tyre with a red lamp attached to it. Inside the hut, covered with broken cardboard sheets for a roof, were a bunch of things to help mend a puncture. Outside the hut was a rope-cot, and a single lamp.

You could lie down on the cot in such a way that the light fell on the page you were reading. Insects that clustered around the light were a nuisance of course. If the light hurt, you could always move the cot into the dark. In four days Kumaresan had got the hang of it all. But he hadn’t got used to the sound of vehicles on the road. Each vehicle that screamed past him flled him with dread. Tere were a couple of houses in the distance. He was not afraid to be alone. Once he began to read, time passed rather quickly. He had planned to read a book every night.

On that ffth night, the book that he had picked up to read was not interesting enough. One sequence was straightforward narrative, the second was pseudo-philosophy. His mind was not on the book. He put it away and lay on the cot, gazing at the sky. After a while, he got up, and sat on the edge of the byepass, watching the vehicles go by. A skip and his feet landed frm on a covered storm-water drain. He began to walk along it.

In those brief moments when no vehicle came down the road, nothing but walled darkness. If it was the night of the waxing moon, it would have been nicer. Nothing as far as the eye could see. He felt odd, walking alone. He returned and fung himself on the cot. Te ropes were frayed and the cot seemed a hanging cradle. He got up, moved it into the dark, and fell asleep very soon.

He did not know what time it was, but he woke up startled at someone touching

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It looked like the man had been to a temple. Tere was sacred ash and kumkum smeared on his neck and forehead. His bike had developed a puncture. He had parked it at that very spot and come searching for a mechanic. He must have come half-walking, halfrunning. His neck and face were bathed in sweat. “Come, let’s go,” he said, imagining Kumaresan to be the mechanic. He looked as though he was ready to drag Kumaresan of with him. He was perturbed and in a great hurry.

Kumaresan called Valavan on his cellphone. Te phone rang but was not picked up. He tried twice, but still the same. Te man was impatient.

“Could we go now?”

“Te guy’s got to come,” replied Kumaresan. “Sit down.” He pointed to a stone nearby. Before he could call Valavan again, he called himself.

“Will come,” Valavan said, and switched of without saying anything more. Te man did not sit down.

“When will the guy come?”

He asked the same question in many diferent ways. Kumaresan tried talking to him about other things, but it didn’t help. Te man’s heart was not in these attempts at conversation. Perhaps he was anxious at having left his bike there, thought Kumaresan.

It did not take long for Valavan to come. He was there at the tenth minute. His village was not too far from the road. He had got up, fetched his bike and was here. He looked as if he had just had sex. He looked at the man.

“What kind of bike is it?”

Te man replied, giving the bike’s name. A regular, heavy vehicle.

“Where have you left it standing?”

Te man was unable to tell him clearly. But he said that it was within walking distance.

“What wheel?”

“Back wheel.”

Valavan went into the hut and brought a broken steel chair. He set it outside and sat down.

“Sir, let’s go.”

“What’re we going to do? Tell me! Can’t remove the back wheel. Even if I bring my tools there, there’s not enough light for me to mend the puncture. And even if I do that, can’t fll it with air. You tell me what I ought to do.” He spoke, smiling. Te man did not know what to say.

Finally, he said, “Sir, what do you think we should do?” Valavan looked at Kumaresan, now seated on the cot.

“Hey, Mapila! What should we do?” Valavan appeared as if he was deep in thought.

“Uncle! Can’t we go in your vehicle and bring the wheel back?” He wanted to somehow help the man who had come to him.

“Easy enough if it were the front wheel. Not so easy, taking a back wheel of. Especially from this kind of bike. You’d need a workshop to do that.”

“Sir, do something, won’t you? Have left the vehicle all by itself…” Te man moved close to Valavan, almost begging him to act.

“You’ve left it on the road?”

“No, on the side. But I am scared.”

“Feel sorry for you. What could you have done all alone? Tink you could push the bike to this spot? I could then maybe fx the puncture.”

“I don’t think I could do that. It’s too far.”

“In that case, there’s only one thing to be done. We need to get a minidor, a small van. And get the bike onto it, bring it here, and fx the puncture.”

“At this time of the night? Tink we’ll fnd a minidor?”

“Let me see. Know a couple of chaps who have such a van. But they are probably dead drunk and fast asleep. Don’t know if they’ll pick up their phones. Should I call them, I wonder. But it would cost you something. Do you have enough with you?”

“Sure. Call them, Sir!”

His words came out in a hurry, as if he were ready to hand over his entire fortune to them. Valavan took out his cellphone and handed it to Kumaresan.

“Call Seelan!”

He tried, but no one picked up at the other end.

“Try Chandan!”

No reply. He asked him to try the numbers of a few others, but to no avail. Even Kumaresan began to feel anxious. It seemed to him that even if one of them picked up his phone, the puncture could be mended and done with.

Valavan rubbed his jaw. “Tere’s a fellow in the next village. Good sort of chap. He’s sure to come if I call him. But it’ll cost something. Should I try?”

“Sir, please try. Te vehicle stands solitary…”

Valavan asked for his mobile, searched for the number and called. Te man at the other end picked up the second time.

“Chinnava! At home? Could you bring your minidor? Tere’s a party here. Feel sorry for him. I have no business calling you at this time of the night. But the man looks worried … yes, come, we’ll add that to our bill. No problem. Counting you there’s four of us, and we should be able to roll the bike on to the van. Not to worry about money. Won’t you come, for my sake?”

Valavan hung up.

“He’ll come. If he doesn’t come when I call him out for a job, chances are I won’t call him the second time.”

“Te bike stands alone, Sir. Ask him to come soon.”

“Patience. I’ve woken the man up from his sleep. He needs to wash his face, get going. Come, sit down. See this byepass road. Vehicles on it all the time, but not one of them would stop. Tis is almost a nowhere land. No one’s going to take your bike away. Is it a new bike? First time you are riding it, after you’ve got it? Why this hurry?”

Valavan continued to talk. Te man sat down, on his haunches, with his head bent low. He wiped his eyes from time to time. Kumaresan felt sorry for him.

“Brother! Crying? Don’t worry, nothing will happen to your bike. Should you and him. Te dark whispered, “Sir, Sir…” He could make out a shape moving. He roused himself from sleep and stood up. His frst “party”. Te man was probably thirty to thirty-fve years old. Regular pants and shirt. A pair of rubber slippers on his feet. But one can’t judge a man by any of this. In these parts, there were folks who had crores of rupees yet managed to look starved and impoverished.

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I go there, and wait for these men to catch up with us. Uncle, should we go, and you follow us?”

Kumaresan tried to console the man.

“You’re such a clown! You’re going to walk all the way? Te minidor should be here anytime. Stay quiet!” Valavan sounded angry.

Hearing him yell, it suddenly struck Kumaresan that he and the man whose bike had stopped were being added on as new characters to what was clearly a familiar piece of drama. Valavan must have seen many men, mended hundreds of punctures. Tese men have obviously worked hard at being theatrical, have trained up for it. Kumaresan got ready to play his part of interested spectator.

Hardly had Valavan quieted Kumaresan, when the light from the minidor came splashing across the inside road that led from the villages to the byepass. Chinnavan parked the van opposite the workshop, got down and lit a cigarette. He looked at Kumaresan.

“How’s he here?”

“He sleeps here to notify me if a party were to come. He’s book-mad. I told him that he could read into the night, and if anyone should come by, let me know. Tat way, I told him, you tend your goats, and also fnd a bride for your brother,” replied Valavan, laughing.

“Sir, shouldn’t we go? Have left the bike standing…” Te man pleaded and began moving towards the minidor.

“Hey, wait awhile. Tell us how far we need to go, and where your bike stands. I don’t want any haggling later on over costs,” said Chinnavan. Te man realized that there was nothing he could do on his own.

“It stands two to two and a half kilometres from here. Will give you whatever you ask for. Let’s just go. Te bike’s stood alone for too long…” Te man was ready to fy his way to the spot.

Chinnavan threw his smoked cigaretted stub on to the ground and stabbed it with his feet. “Look, fve hundred rupees for up to fve kilometres. After that one hundred rupees for every kilometer. Tree chaps to drag your bike up, and that’s two hundred rupees for each of us. Pay us after the work’s done. But no whingeing afterwards, saying that you have only this much money and so on. If you do, then we won’t hand over your bike. You’d need to bring us the money before we hand it over. Is that alright with you?”

Te man pulled up his shirt, put his hands into his pocket and took out a purse. He opened it, and showed it to them in the light.

“Will pay up, Sir. Let’s go. Te bike stands by itself.” His purse had several colourful banknotes. Valvan looked pleased.

“Right, let’s go. Why this anxiety, as if you’ve left behind your newly wedded bride?” Valvan smiled crookedly as he got ready to leave.

Valavan sat in front with Chinnavan. Kumaresan and the man climbed onto the back of the minidor.

“Look, the van has to go left for a kilometer, then turn right again. Tere’s no other way out. One kilometer up, then one kilometer to the right, and that is already two kilometres. And after that, hopefully we stop within a three-kilometer radius. If we go on, then you’ve got to give us the money we asked for. If you’re going to fuss and say this way, that way and so on, that won’t work.”

Chinnavan spoke up loudly from the front. Te man shood his head in assent. He

must have realized that there was no other way out for him.

In the night the byepass appeared one long whir and blinding brightness. It was not clear how much the man was familiar with the night road. As Chinnavan had noted, the van went ahead for a kilometer, turned right and came back to a spot opposite the puncture shop.

“Tis is where we started out from” said Kumaresan.

Te man kept his eyes fxed on the road on the other side. He must have some marker in mind to identify where he’d left his bike. But he did not say anything. Suddenly, at one point on the road, he yelled: “Stop here! Stop here!”

Kumaresan pushed the small sliding door and put his mouth into the space that opened up to speak to the driver.

“Uncle! Stop!”

Te van slowed down and stopped on the side of the road. Te man jumped of even before the van had come to a complete halt and ran to the other side of the road.

“Careful!” shouted Kumaresan. A vehicle that appeared far away on the byepass could be upon a man in a trice.

Te men melted into the darkness on the other side. He returned after fve minutes.

“Not here. We need to go ahead.”

“Why do you wake us from sleep and make us go here and there? Tell us correctly. We’ve already done four kilometres,” said Valavan.

“Drive slowly, let me keep my eyes on the road.”

“If we crawl along the byepass road, we’d be thrown of it, remember!” Chinnavan was angry.

“Brother, do you have any landmark in mind? Tell me, I could also look out for it,” ofered Kumaresan. Te man had at last started to trust him.

“Tere’s a small temple under a pala tree,” he said. “You hear the sound of spear-bells all the time. On the west side.”

Kumaresan was familiar with the road and all the villages around, but after the byepass road had been built, recognisable landmarks had all disappeared. Tousands of tamarind trees on both sides of the road had been chopped down, and with them went old and well-worn markers. Currently, there was only one marker – the tar on the road.

Kumaresan shut his eyes and thought. Pala tree, a small temple, the sound of spearbells – his mind summoned all these images. After a while, it appeared as if he knew the place.

“Is there a long fence close to the spot?” he asked.

Te man had not registered such a marker, but Kumaresan had actually guessed what place it could be. He should tell Valavan, he decided. He was sure to get scolded, though, for the two in front wanted to literally wander on the byepass.

Kumaresan looked out for the place, and when he spotted it said that they had arrived. Te man yelled to the men in front. “Stop!” Only after they slid the small door and shouted into it did the van stop.

Te man jumped down and disappeared into the darkness. Tere was no sign of him afterward.

“Where the hell has he gone now?” Chinnavan was annoyed.

Te man returned after fve minutes. Yes, this was the place.

“Can’t turn here to get to that place. We’d have to go for a kilometer at least. Remember the rates we quoted?” asked Chinnavan.

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“I’ll wait here for you. You go and come back this side,” said the man.

Tey did not trust him and so asked Kumaresan to get of and stay with him.

Te man crossed over, faster than any vehicle could. Kumaresan followed him at a leisurely pace. Te temple stood ffty yards away from the road. Te pala tree was dense with foliage. Te man had already begun to wheel the bike that stood underneath the tree and towards the road. As he had noted, the spear-bells tinkled. Tey sounded a musical note that you could hear, when the din on the road ceased. Te bike was not all that new. Perhaps a few years old. Why did the man fuss over such bike, thought Kumaresan, who was now somewhat irritated.

Kumaresan helped heave the bike on to the side of rhe road and sat down next to it. Te man disappeared again into the darkness surrounding the temple. Must be his stomach churning. All that fear and worrying.

It was not clear how far the minidor had to go before it turned back. Even if they could veer around soon, they would return late, stop at some point and then start again. Valavan had a workshop in a nearby town. Tis sort of night job probably came his way once in a while. And brought him extra income. He probably had to pay something to the man who owned the land, where he had put up his makeshift hut. Te bulb burned into the night, and he probably had to pay for that as well.

Kumaresan looked at every passing vehicle with double lights, wondering if it was the minidor, only to be disappointed. He was reminded – god knows why – of a flm sequence featuring the comedian Koundamani. Te latter hides from his wife the fact that he can’t see come sundown and continues to drive his lorry: “Two bikes were ahead of me, still I thought I could get in between them!” He laughed silently. Imagine sitting out on the road at that unholy hour and laughing within, surely that makes him a madman. Te thought pleased Kumaresan.

At last, the minodor appeared on the road and stopped at Kumaresan’s feet. Te man who had gone into the darkness was yet to return. Chinnavan opened the back door of the van. Te man returned just then, and helped to wheel the bike towards the back of the van.

“We had to go around for two kilometres. Why would anyone come on this road at this time of night? No one ought to, even in the daytime! What’s the hurry that you should drive during the night?” Valavan had plenty of advice to ofer.

Chinnavan climbed onto the back of the van. Valavan lifted the front wheel of the bike and placed it on the incline of the back door. Chinnavan pulled at the front wheel, and the other three pushed the bike from below and without trouble it climbed onto the van.

“Climb up!” called out Chinnavan.

“One minute,” said the man and ran towards the temple. When he returned, they saw a woman walking alongside him, her head bent to the ground.

“Te man whined that the bike was standing solitary. Didn’t know he meant this bike!” laughed Valavan.

“Check out to see if it’s a new vehicle. After all, you’re the mechanic!” said Chinnavan.

As soon as they came closer, the woman covered her head with the ends of her sari. A slightly built woman. She looked rounder than she was, clad as she was, in a shining bright

sari. Kumaresan was eager to see her face.

“Hey! What’s this? You’ve brought a woman…”

“Not that, Sir. She’s my wife. We’d gone for a function. We have some work in the morning, so we left even though it was late. Didn’t imagine the bike would develop a puncture.” Te man sounded as if he was pleading.

“Whatever. In any case, give us your name, address. We don’t want any trouble,” said Chinnavan. Te man attempted to absolve himself by providing names of his family, kinsfolk, village… Much of what he said pertained to places that were within a close radius of where they were, yet they could not quite place him.

Te woman kept her face turned to the dark. Perhaps he had spoken the truth. But Valvan and Chinnavan spoke as if they suspected him of the worst. Maybe she was that sort of a woman? If so, would Valavan and Chinnavan speak to her? And what should he, Kumaresan, do? He stood, wondering.

“After this byepass was built, all sorts of chaps, drunkards, louts, those who are into debauchery hang around here. Te darkness provides them all with the opportunity to do what they wish. Can’t trust a man, these days!” said Chinnavan, and added: “Okay, get on to the back. Pay up for that ticket as well!”

“She’s my wife.” Te man sounded weepy. He put his foot on to the door of the minidor and hoisted himself up. He then held his hand out to his wife. She looked as if she was not even breathing. She clambered up and went and stood behind him. Valvan was all set, having shut the back door and was ready to go up front, when he stopped suddenly. He opened the back door and climbed up.

“Brother, I thought you were going to climb up front! But you’ve climbed behind!” said Chinnavan from the wheel.

“I am bored climbing up front all the time. Why not climb onto the back, this one time?” said Valavan, his mouth to the sliding door. Kumaresan heard them both laugh out loud. He was both afraid and worried. His mind searched in the pages of the books he had read, if they featured scenes such as this one. He did not know what to do. He could not also fgure out which way his own mind was inclined.

Te van started of on the road. Te man and his wife stood behind the bike. On the left stood Valavan and Kumaresan. In fve minutes they would be at the workshop. But Valvan could not stay quiet even for that short period of time. He started to say this and that. Te wind that blew from the opposite end swallowed his words so none could actually hear what he said. Kumaresan asked from time to time: “What, Uncle? What’re you saying, Uncle?” But he could not make out what Valavan was saying. But he realized that his words were spilling over with laughter.

Te van arrived at the workshop. Te man held out his hand and helped her get down. She adjusted her sari ends that had slid of and went and stood near the van, at its very edge. Tey brought the bike down.

“Tought it was a new bike? Been riding it for long?”

“No, Sir. An old one. Bought it second-hand. Over a year now.” Te man sounded humble.

“You were excited over this old bike? Let me ride it around once, after I’ve mended the puncture. I’ll know the condition it’s in then,” said Chinnavan. Valavan went in to the

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hut to get all that was needed to mend the puncture.

“You get your cash from the party and leave. I’ll handle this,” said Valavan.

“I’ll go. But what’s the hurry? Let me check this bike out!” said Chinnavan. He was laughing.

“You don’t let a bike be! Broken or old, you try and get on to it. Alright, stay. Good to have someone to talk to. Mapilai here is new. Look at him. One look at the bike, and he’s shivering in his pants” said Valavan.

Te man went and stood by the woman’s side, half hidden from view.

“Why don’t you come and sit here? Don’t you want to see what’s happening to your bike?” shouted Valavan. He and Chinnavan sounded excited.

Chinnavan turned to Kumaresan. “Ever mended a puncture? Want to try doing it now?”

“Brother, I don’t know how to.”

“Hey, he says he doesn’t know how to…” echoed Chinnavan. Valavan laughed aloud and Chinnavan joined him. Valavan pulled the tube out and held it in his hand.

“Te tube’s frayed and almost gone. You must have rolled the bike along nicely.”

Valavan shouted in the direction of the van, where the man was standing. He came out of the darkness.

“Brother, please mend it somehow. It’s enough if the bike gets me home. I’ll deal with it in the morning.” Tere was a tremor in his voice.

“Not possible. If there’s a puncture you ought to stop right there. If you roll the bike this way and that, the tube is bound to get this way,” said Valavan.

“Will the tube work or not? Tell us that!” said Chinnavan.

“You feel it now and tell me what you think,” retorted Valavan.

At that moment Kumaresan realized there was not a word in the language that meant only one thing and nothing else.

Let me tell you at this point that things did not turn out as Kumaresan had anticipated. I shall summarise here what actually happened. Valavan said that they’d have to go and wake up the cycle shop owner and get a new tube. He asked the man to go along with Chinnavan. But the man refused. He did not move away from the woman, even for a moment. So Valavan and Chinnavan went along and returned with the tube. Tey changed the tube and handed the bike back to the man. Te cost of renting the mindor, money owed for pulling the bike on to it, the price of the tube, labour costs for changing it: Valavan got this numbers together and demanded a considerable sum of money. Without saying a word, the man gave him whatever he had asked for and then sped away on his bike. She sat behind him, but even then did not show them her face.

Valavan and Chinnavan argued amongst themselves about whether she was his wife or not. Tey left thereafter, but not before they handed a fve-hundred rupee note to Kumaresan. He was, however, disappointed. His mind refused to accept the money – wages of sin, he felt. What was he to do with it, though, now that he had it?

Should he drop it in a beggar’s bowl? But then he was determined never to give money to beggars. Should he send it to an orphanage? On the other hand, was it right to pass on the wages of sin to another? It was best that he dropped it of in a temple hundi. But he did not quite believe in God. At least not that much. After thinking about it for a long time, he decided at last to use the money to buy a book that he had long wanted.


Translated from Malayalam by Murali J. Nair

Tey locked up the house and left at six in the morning. If they could reach the main road before seven they could catch the frst bus to Solapur. Tey wanted to get to Pune before noon. Tat was what Gopal had them agree to do. For lunch on the way, Shobhi had packed some chapatis and subzi. To prepare those items, she had woken up at four in the morning. She was condemned to listen to the abuses hurled at her by Chandamayi for getting up late. Chandamayi would not understand Shobhi’s sickness or her need to take medications. With an angry face, she would keep on scolding Shobhi with words such as “lazy bum” and “daughter of that stray bitch”.

“You have taken the mobile phone, right?” Tough she had asked it several times before, Shobhi repeated the question to Hanumanta as they were crossing the dried-up canal in the middle of the felds.

“Yes,” he replied, running his hand over his pocket.

“Be careful!” said Shobhi. “Te bus is flled with pickpockets from Barshi. You know how much it costs.”

“I know. I will be careful with it. I won’t fall asleep,” Hanumanta promised, clutching his pocket.

Tey had to wait for the bus under the tree on which bats were practising sleeping yoga. People were already crowding for their morning tea at Ram Bapu’s dhaba across the road. Tough they prayed not to be seen by anyone known to them, they were spotted by Lakhu Bappa, who wandered around to tell people’s fortune by having his parrot pick the card.

“Where are you two headed to so early in the morning?” he shouted at them.

“To Solapur, to buy some clothes.” Tat was the lie that came to Hanumanta’s mind instantaneously.

“To buy clothes? In these bad times? Did you hit the lottery? Or did someone help you with their undeclared money?”

Hanumanta did not have to reply because the bus arrived, raising a haze of dust, and stopped between them, blocking the view.

Te morning bus was not crowded. Both of them got seats. Hanumanta sat gazing outside. It was misty. Te mist hung above the drought-hit felds like a blanket of fear. Tese were the felds where wheat and lentils grew once upon a time. Te felds where Hanumanta and Shobhi had worked throughout the year. Te felds that had brought them fun and laughter and happiness. Hanumanta sighed at the drought that had scorched those happy days.

“You will fall sick, cover yourself.” Shobhi gave Hanumanta her shawl.


“No, I have covered my ears.” Hanumanta pulled his head-garb down enough to cover his ears.

As the bus picked up speed and the wind grew stronger, Hanumanta held the mobile phone close to his chest as if it were a piece of paper that might fy away.

“It is turned of, right?” Shobhi asked again, to confrm. “Do not drain its battery.”

Teir house did not have electricity. Even the neighbouring houses did not. Tey recharged the phone at Prahlad’s barber shop, in the village market far from their house, where it cost ten rupees. Shobhi knew the value of the distance she had to walk for charging the phone.

Gopal had given them this phone when he visited the last time.

“You can pay for it in instalments,” Gopal had told them. “When I see the common people like you stepping into the new age, the dream of digital India seems not too far.”

“But I don’t know how to take pictures, Gopalji,” Hanumanta expressed his helplessness.

“Oh Hanumanta, you know how to ride a bicycle, how to drive a tractor, how to operate the water pump to irrigate the farms, and how to work the thresher. Ten what is there with a mobile phone? I will make you a master in this in two hours. You wait and see.”

He was right. Hanumanta was able to learn all the tricks faster than he anticipated. It was that mobile phone that rested in his pocket like a baby bird who had grown enough to fy.

In Solapur, they had to wait a long time for the next bus. Some of the buses headed to Pune were expensive air-conditioned ones whose ticket fare they could not aford. As he heard the amount they charged, Hanumanta thought with regret that he should have come alone.

“How was that possible? Didn’t Patil say that he wanted to see me too? It is okay. On our way back, we will have enough money in our pockets instead of this mobile phone. Ten we can ride the air-conditioned bus,” Shobhi consoled Hanumanta.

Eventually they got a regular bus. A bus that ran really slow, stopping at all points.

“Would Jani have eaten anything? Or that old lady would eat her head,” Shobhi worried while she was on the bus.

“Mother is angry only with you. She likes Jani,” Hanumanta consoled her, holding her hands.

Shobhi was not at all in favour of leaving their daughter with Chandamayi. But they had no alternative. Tere was no guarantee that they would return today, and even if they did, they didn’t know how late in the night would it be. So Hanumanta was forced to leave Jani with his mother, who lived four tenements away from them.

Chandamayi was angry with them ever since the day he brought Shobhi home as his bride.

Shobhi’s mother was a sweeper at the Chapalgaon village market where Hanumanta went to buy seeds and to sell his produce. Shobhi used to come with her mother to help her clean the market. Hanumanta had met her there and liked her. But his mother Chandmayi had issues with Shobhi, “the stray bitch who cleaned the market and who belonged to a caste lower than ours.”

“Who on this earth is lower than us in caste?” Hanumanta used to ask his mother.

“Oh you brainless idiot, there are ffteen sub-castes in our own caste, and she be-

longs to the lowest of them all. We will lose all respect if you married her,” she would say, crying.

But Hanumanta paid no attention to his mother’s objections. He married Shobhi. Tough he moved out from the house, had two children, and several years had gone by, his mother’s misgivings did not go away. It was with that mother that they had to leave Jani now. Shobhi was in agony because of that.

“Oh Hanumanta, why are you leaving your daughter with her grandmother?” asked Bheemsha the stone-mason, who was playing with children by the side of the street. “Are both of you planning to commit suicide, or something like that?”

“Not any time soon, Bheemsha,” Shobhi retorted. “When the time comes, we will let you know. You should defnitely bring the television crew then.”

“If the drought continues like this, it wouldn’t be too long for anyone to do that,” Bheemsha muttered to himself.

Tey could not reach Pune at the time agreed upon. Hanumanta switched on the mobile phone and called Gopal. Gopal scolded them for being late.

“You expected Patil saab to wait for two lowly animals all day? It is not in vain that Chandamayi scolds you as people who slept until the sun shone into their asses. No wonder you people can never make it in life.”

Gopal went on scolding them like that. Hanumanta kept his mouth shut. Gopal hung up the phone saying that he would come and get them.

After a little while Gopal came to the bus stop and brought them to Patil’s shop in a rickshaw. Patil was a young man below thirty. But he had the arrogance of a forty-year-old, cunningness of a ffty-year-old, and maturity of a sixty-year-old.

“Patil saab, these are the people I told you about.” Gopal introduced them.

“Go upstairs and wait for me, I will come and see you,” Patil said in a grave tone, sending them to the terrace upstairs.

Tey were ravenously hungry. Shobhi opened the packed lunch and they shared the chapatis and subzi.

“Let me see,” Gopal said after he brought water for them to drink, and extended his hand to Hanumanta for the mobile phone.

“No Gopalji, we are shy,” Hanumanta clutched his pocket tightly.

“No, brother, if someone from our village saw it, it would be disgraceful to us,” Shobhi supported her husband. “Tat is why we came all this way to Pune. Otherwise we could have sold it somewhere in Solapur.” Tough Gopal felt like laughing at her ignorance, his face did not betray it.

“What is there to feel shy in front me, Hanumanta?” Gopal asked. “Don’t I have to see it if I have to try and get you a few extra rupees from Patil saab when he comes here and sees it?”

On hearing the question, Hanumanta’s hold on his pocket loosened. Hesitatingly, he handed over the mobile phone to Gopal. Shobhi lowered her face to the chapatis that she was eating.

It happened in an evening three months ago. Hanumanta was sitting at Ram Bappu’s dhaaba, smoking. Gopal, who came and sat near him, opened his mobile phone and secretly showed him some pictures. Gopal was the son of Chandulal, who was the lone policeman in the village. Gopal was the most educated person in the village. He was running some

27 28

big business in Pune. He always smelled of tobacco. He visited the village only occasionally. He would stay at his house for a few days and return. It was one of those visits.

Hanumanta was fabbergasted to see those pictures. He had heard such pictures existed but never had seen one before. Ten Gopal showed him some videos on the mobile phone.

“Where do you get these from, Gopalji,” Hanumanta asked, opening his mouth in awe.

“Tese are available in plenty on the internet,” Gopal said. “But people have lost interest in these white women. Now people like the pictures of village folks like us. Do you know how much money is there in this? For just a picture, one could earn as much money as he would make in a life-time working in a farm. I am here to help those who want to make money. But they should have the willingness to do it.” Gopal fnished his thought as if he weren’t addressing anyone in particular.

Hanumanta got up and walked away silently, as if he had not heard what Gopal said.

Hanumanta did not sleep that night. Shobhi thought that he was sleepless because they had quarrelled in the evening over the lack of money to buy vegetables. She knew that even a small argument was enough to drain her husband’s strength. So she placed her head on his chest, apologizing and pacifying him. At that time, Hanumanta told to her about the pictures and videos that he had seen on Gopal’s mobile phone, and also about the large amounts of money that was waiting for the villagers who were willing to capture such pictures and videos. Shobhi also could not sleep that night.

Tat weekend, when Gopal was waiting for his bus to Pune, Hanumanta asked him, “Could you get a camera phone for me?”

Shobhi was beautiful, Gopal thought as he looked into Hanumanta’s eyes with a sly smile. Hanumanta lowered his face. As he put his hand into the pocket to give him the money, Gopal said calmly, “You can pay me later.”

“Tis is super! Patil saab will like these very much, for sure!” Gopal said excitedly after he saw the pictures and videos on the mobile, and eyeing Shobhi through the corner of his eyes. She covered her head and body with her sari more tightly.

A little later, Patil saab came in. Hanumanta and Shobhi got up and greeted him with folded hands.

“Are you the actors?” he asked.

Hanumanta shook his head afrmatively, though he was not sure what the question meant.

Patil parted Shobhi’s sari from her head and peered at her, head to foot.

“Hm, the features are not bad. Passing grades can be given, right?” he asked Gopal in hushed tones, as if he were a judge at a beauty pageant.

“Yes,” Gopal agreed.

“I asked you to come in person to ensure that the people in the video are genuine,” Patil saab said, to no one in particular. “Tere are some deceitful people who bring stuf shot by cameras hidden in other people’s bedrooms. If there are legal issues, we would be the ones getting caught because we upload the videos. Anyway, let me see your piece.”

Hanumanta handed over the phone to Patil saab, with all the humility he could muster.

“Did they shoot with this one, Gopal? Tere won’t be any clarity. People want HD now. At least 10 megapixels is a must. Otherwise, they would not take it.”

Hanumanta could not understand what he was saying. But he guessed, horrifed, that something was wrong.

Patil saab opened the picture gallery on the phone and started viewing the pictures and videos.

“See, I told you, Gopal, these pictures have no clarity. Looks like they were shot in a dark cave. Did you see this, this old man on top gasping like a bike-riding bear in a circus? Maybe if we give these to some comedy channels, they might take it. Looks like they were shot by someone who was terrifed by the act. See how the camera is shaking.”

Patil saab went on making such comments as he saw the pictures and videos.

“Look, Gopal, this woman is staring at the camera repeatedly. Tey are doing this of their free will, in this day and age, so does it have to look like it was shot with a hidden camera? Oh, what is this dirty scar on her tummy? It looks like someone had attacked her with a sword! Do you think any decent men would enjoy watching such videos, you rat?”

Patil saab looked at Hanumanta scornfully. Hanumanta lowered his head.

“Tat scar is the result of selling my kidney,” Shobhi said. “Tree years ago, an agent took us there, promising three lakh rupees. But they sent us away giving only thirty thousand. Our son Shambhu had cancer. We tried to save him with that money. But it did not work. We lost the kidney, we lost the money, and we lost our son. Tis dirty scar remained.”

She covered her face with her hands, and started sobbing. “Our debts from his treatment are mounting manifold, Patil saab! How can we repay the debts in these times of drought? We did not enjoy making these pictures, saab.”

Hanumantha started crying too. But Patil saab did not budge.

“No, you take it with you. Tese days, we can easily get plentiful bathroom selfes shot by beautiful city girls.”

Patil saab left, angrily.

“Gopalji, please help us,” Hanumanta hurried to Gopal and fell on his feet.

“Patil saab’s question was right, who shot these videos? If you had told me, I would have come and shot them nicely. All the pictures and videos are bad. But let me talk to him one more time.”

Gopal followed Patil saab who was on his way down.

“We should give them something, they have come all this way,” he said.

Patil saab winked at him. “Te pieces are superb. You get the mobile somehow and give them some pittance. I will take care of you properly.”

Patil saab laughed. Gopal joined him in the laughter.

“Patil did not like them at all, he said he did not want them,” Gopal told Hanumanta. “You give me my mobile back. You don’t need to pay me anything for it. After all you came this far, I will get you the bus fare from Patil saab. Tat is all I can do.”

Gopal took the mobile phone and started on his way down. Hanumanta and Shobhi accompanied him, wiping their tears away.

“Gopalji, the pictures on the phone,” Hanumanta asked, in an unsure tone.

“Don’t worry about them, I will delete them.”

Tey trusted Gopal.

When they reached downstairs, Patil saab handed fve soiled hundred-rupee notes

29 30

“I am giving you this because Gopal insisted,” he said. “Now here is another mobile phone which has much better clarity. What we need are not the pictures of you donkeys who look like drought-hit farmland. Aren’t there young girls in your neighbouring huts? Capture them secretly with this camera. I will give you enough to pay of your debts.”

Hanumanta took the phone and put it in his pocket, without saying a word.

Tey got a bus for the return trip without delay. During that journey, as Hanumanta sat looking at the dark, parched farms, it was his daughter Jani’s face that came into his mind repeatedly. Each time it happened, his eyes flled up with tears. So did Shobhi’s.


Translated from the Malayalam by Ministhy S

Angela was murdered in front of her children. It was her husband who killed her. He plunged the knife into her creamy, voluptuous stomach. When it was buried to the hilt, he pulled it out and drove it in again. She writhed like a serpent as the blood hissed and spurted. She was drenched in sweat and her hair stood on end. A groan emerged from her and the gleam in her eyes dwindled. Angela became silent and still; and slipped into an eternal sleep.

When the killer was sure that she was dead, he turned to face the children. Tey had glued onto each other in terror. He stared at the younger child with visceral hatred. She was not of his bloodline. He looked compassionately at the older one. She was of his blood. Sighing once, he moved away with determined steps.

Outside, the desolate day wrapped the transparent wedding gown of the rain –stained with Angela’s blood – around itself. Te room flled with the unnerving smell of blood. Like a black raincloud, fear spread darkness and iciness. When the children realized that they were completely alone and that their mother would never wake again, they screamed loudly. Tey were the orphans left behind by their murdered mother. Tey embraced her crimson body and shuddered in horror as the droplets of red glued onto them.

Te elder child, eight-year-old Ann, was the one who informed Narendran. He was breaking into a cold sweat as his advocate elaborated on the punishment for being a loan defaulter and highlighted the thin possibility of an appeal. When Narendran heard the heartrending cry, “Uncle, my Papa killed Amma!” he disbelieved his ears. It appeared to have emerged from a tunnel forcibly shut at both ends. Narendran felt dizzy.

“What is the matter, Narendran?” the advocate enquired.

Narendran swallowed with difculty. In a tremulous voice he said that an erstwhile lady subordinate of his was no more. Te advocate murmured his sympathy. Narendran walked out – his feet seemingly stepping on blood and getting glued on the foor. Jaya Mohan, the copywriter of his failed advertising frm, and a few other workers were waiting for him. Narendran leaned onto Jaya Mohan’s shoulder.

“Angela died…”

Jaya Mohan recoiled in shock and stood dumbstruck for a while. Ten he sighed deeply and told the others.


Tat day, the sky had resembled a hired killer disguised in black oil, waiting in ambush.

Angela left the ofce at twelve thirty, after applying for half-day leave. Reaching the school in her Kinetic Honda, she sought the principal’s permission to take her children away. Teir eyes sparkling in joy, the children had raced across the verandah. Tey were dressed in

31 to Hanumanta.
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the Friday uniform of pristine white. Te younger one, with the mushroom haircut and a star-like mole to the right of her nose, had let go of her sister’s hand. Her schoolbag on her shoulder chimed like a bell as she skipped towards her mother. Her elder sister had a blue, raindrop-shaped mole on her left cheek. Te children had glued themselves like two white wings on either side of Angela. She had smiled radiantly while hugging her wings close.

Mother and daughters few past the school gate, laughing and rejoicing. Tere was a cold breeze. Te older child, Ann, rode pillion, and sat with her arms around Angela. Te younger one Irene stood in the front, clutching at the wind shield. “Chechy”, Ann, teased about how “Vava”, Irene, had unwittingly joined in her own happy birthday song along with the rest, during the morning assembly. Vava, who was enjoying the slightly moist breeze, admitted with an endearing embarrassment, “Mommy, I was not aware at all…”

Angela burst out laughing. Unable to restrain her bubbling afection, she dropped a kiss on Irene’s head. She made both of them laugh by narrating about a School Day function of hers: when she was busy chatting with another, unaware of the curtain having risen. A pretty lightning waved a magic wand in the black sky. Mother and daughters sped away to the town’s Biriyani House, dropping pearls of laughter before those who stood waiting for the town bus, and those who stood near the shop fronts.

Te air-conditioned hall lit up with Angela’s aura as she stepped in, following the children. Te magical body, all of thirty years: with the searing brown eyes, the high and sharp nose and lips that bared themselves as she laughed. Te men inside found their eyes glued onto her, as if hypnotized.

It was then that Narendran’s phone call arrived. His voice was fraught with tension.

“Amma and children must be having a total bash, right?”

“Yes, we are at the Biriyani House. Are you coming over?” Angela’s eyes were halfclosed as she smiled.

“Not now… In the evening, I shall be there for the cake-cutting. Where is my birthday girl?”

Angela handed over the phone to Irene.

‘Okay, Uncle. Yes, Chechy is here,” Irene lisped sweetly.

Angela gazed at her and Ann, totally enraptured.

“What did Uncle say?” she asked lovingly, when she took the phone back.

“To tell Amma to get a fairy-queen ice cream for me… Will you?”

Touching the mole on the right side of Irene’s nose, Angela made an afectionate sound in agreement. “Mmm…”

Ten she looked at Ann. “What about you, Molu?”

“Strawberry milk shake…”

“Oh, Chechy’s stupid shake!”

“Vava’s stupid fairy queen!”

While enjoying their food, Ann revealed that Irene had given only one sweet to Joseph, since he was not her friend.

“Is that so?” Angela asked in mock-anger.

“I won’t do it again,” Irene said meekly.

“Tat was not a proper thing to do.”

“I want to give everyone a milky bar on my next happy birthday…”

“Jesus! If I buy a milky bar for everyone, what will be left of my salary?”

“Uncle has promised, Mommy…”

“Ten you get it from Uncle.”

“On my next happy birthday, Amma, you should buy me a satin frock with red frill…”


“Red ribbon, too.”

“Where will you tie that?” Anna teased.

Irene’s little face became vexed.

“Mommy, you should not cut my hair any more…”

Angela laughed. “We will grow it after some time…”


“Hmm… When you are in third standard.”



“Mommy, you should not go back on your word…”

As they waited for the bill, Irene snuggled against her Mommy like a puppy. Angela held her close. Irene glued herself onto her Mommy’s soft breasts.

It was then that a middle-aged man approached them.

“Hi, hope you remember me?”

His eyes had the brass-like gleam of a tomcat in the dark.

“Are you not Alexander’s wife?”

“I am wife to many like that.”

Te man was rattled.

“I heard that you are separated.”

He ficked his tongue out and moistened his lips.

“Tese kids… Who are they?”

Angela paused before replying. “Tey are mine.”

He sniggered, looking at Irene’s rosy face.

“Been four or fve years since you left Alexander, right?”


“Ten this child…?”

“It is not just Alexander who has reproductive ability, is it?”

Angela’s lips bared themselves as she smiled. Te man finched, recoiling like a snake that had been hit. He glared at her vengefully.

“Alexander has got out… Did you know?”

She smiled again.

Tat had been the lone hint that Angela received about her impending death. Angela had gazed at Ann’s face – with its blue, raindrop-like mole on the left cheek. A few hours later, just before her murder, Angela would be staring at Alexander’s face and thinking of Ann’s mole.

Te had waiter brought the bill by then.

“Let me pay…!”

Te middle-aged man tried to pick up the bill.

Angela stopped him contemptuously. “No, thanks, I have enough means for paying

33 34

Ten they started for home. He might have stood there, gazing after her rhythmic walk. She had not looked back.

As Angela rode her scooter through the town, the lightning sharpened its knife edge amidst the rain clouds. Tey reached the bakery to buy the preordered pink cake with “Happy Birthday, Irene” written in white icing.

Tey were staying in the upper storey of a house in Vyttila. On reaching home, Angela put the cake packet on the table. She was putting the school bags in the children’s study room, when Narendran called again.

“Angela, I might be late. Tere are some issues…”

“Are they serious?”

“To an extent… Te judgment of the case might come tomorrow.”

Her face lost its sheen. “Do not worry… Everything will turn out alright.”

“Forget that. Is the cake ready?”

“Te cake is ready, the knife is ready. Te person to get the frst piece is yet to arrive.”

Both of them laughed.

“If I am not dead, I will be there. What if I am unable to come next time, eh?” Narendran had uttered these words because he had been sure that the judgment would go against him. But when Angela was killed, his words had proven sinisterly prophetic. She had died before he had reached to cut the cake. Te knife meant for the cake had been used to kill her.

Te birthday cake stayed on the dining table till Angela was buried the next day. When Narendran went to lock the house, he saw something sparkling like a black pearl on top of the words, in white, “Happy Birthday, Irene”. When he touched it, it stuck to his fnger. It was Angela’s blood. And Irene was his blood. Her blood had glued itself to his skin like a black mole.

As he sat next to the sleeping children in Jaya Mohan’s house, Narendran wished to wipe of the endearing mole on the right of Irene’s nose tip.


“Will Mommy never come back, Chechy?” Irene asked, whimpering.

Tey were journeying to the cemetery, and the little girl was glued close to Ann in the backside of the car. Jaya Mohan, driving the car, tilted his head and looked at Narendran. Narendran’s heart skipped a beat.

“Hmm… Hmm…” Ann murmured softly.

“She won’t come even for my Happy Birthday?”

“Hmm… Hmm…”

“So the cake will never be cut again.”

Ann’s little eyes, already swollen with crying, started fowing again. As she hugged her young sister close, Narendran’s heart throbbed with pain.

He remembered the frst night when he had slept with Angela. Tat had been a burning desire of his, ever since she joined work at his place. Tey had met when she had come for the walk-in interview for a receptionist in his advertising frm. She had been twenty-fve then.

But her face had the unyielding look of forty-fve. Hers had been a serpentine beauty that could mesmerize.

“We will assess you for three months. Ten we will consider ofering a permanent position.” He had been acting very dignifed.

Angela stabbed his heart with her searing brown eyes.

“I need this job. Whatever the price happens to be…”

His breath went still.

“What price?”

She sat up straight.

“I am a woman who eloped to marry her lover of four years – only to be pimped by her husband to his friend. Don’t act naive before me.”

He swallowed hard. “I am married.” His voice was feeble.

“Same here.”

Angela’s lips had bared themselves in a genuine smile.

She had been staying with a distant relative then. Narendran had ofered Angela a job. He arranged rented accommodation, and school admission for Ann, who was four years old. He remembered the day when he had made love to Angela for the frst time.

Lying to his wife Sunita that he was on tour, Narendran had reached Angela’s place. Clad in a pink nightie, she had been giving food to her child. Her silk-like hair had been gathered lazily into a knot. A few strands had fallen loose on her shoulders. After bathing and dressing Ann, Angela had carried her to the bedroom. Nestled close to her, Angela had read the story of “Beauty and the Beast” in a mellow voice. Te child had laughed occasionally. Angela had laughed too. Teir laughter had glued onto Narendran’s madly drumming heart.

Later, Angela served him chapatti and dal curry. Tough Narendran hated chapatti, he found it delicious when Angela served it. She had done up the interior of that small house in a very pleasing way. Everything about her had been attractive. After cleaning the kitchen and taking a shower, she had come into the bedroom, wearing a sleeveless blue nightie. She had shifted the sleeping child to a mattress on the foor.

Narendran had put his trembling hands on her shoulders.

“Tis is my frst time…” he stammered.

“Tis is not my frst time.” Like a snake, she raised her hood.

Suddenly, he felt inadequate. “Tere are many men with more money and status than me in this town.”

“Just money will not sufce for me…” She held him close. “Tis body is a huge liability. It is difcult to live without a job, while possessing it. It is difcult to get a job too, while having it. I utterly detest the intrusively piercing stares of men. So in each place, I choose the most infuential guy around…”

“Why do you need to change your job so often like that?”

“By that time, Alex would invariably fnd me out…”

“Can you not divorce him?”

She laughed. “You can divorce only after marrying, right?”

“I am a middle-class guy with much family burden,” Narendran said, feeling mediocre yet again.

“But no one else has this mole of yours… I want this to be mine.”

35 36 it…”

Stretching her arm, Angela touched the mole on the right side of Narendran’s nose. For the frst time in his life, Narendran felt goosebumps at the touch of a woman.

Whenever he was with Sunita, Narendran had compared her with Angela. His wife’s hair that constantly emitted a rancid odour. Her obvious distaste when she came to bed, and the way she would freeze whenever he touched her.

Narendran had been the most satisfed man in town, until Sunita discovered their afair. Soon, squabbles, outbursts and tears became a bitter daily routine. His sons looked at him with resentment. His relatives had started shelling out advice to him. When Narendran became frustrated, he had spoken to Angela.

“Shall I get a divorce?”


“I want only you.”

Angela had gazed at him for a few moments. “An ingenuous wife and two sons aged ten and twelve. No, that is not the right thing to do.”

“As far as I am concerned, you are the only right thing. It is you that my body and mind desire… It was you who made me realize what a woman is all about… Tat too, after having lived for thirteen years with another woman.”

“Tat is not Sunita’s fault. She has been taught that good women should not delight men.”

“What about you then?”

Angela laughed. Her lips were exposed. She embraced Narendran and pulled him to her breasts. “If all men loved their women like you love me – this world would be a better place.”

When they made love, Angela kissed the mole on the right side of his nose. “I want this mole. I am going to take it over.” ***

He had soon found out that she was pregnant, and was stunned.

“My Ann needs a companion. Even if I am no more, she needs a brother or a sister to love and to be loved in return. Besides that, I want that mole of yours too. But we are parting ways…”


“I cannot hurt another woman. Could this overburdened advertising guy bring up four children?”

Narendran had been distraught.

“Be a father to my children. Come to cut cake on their birthdays. When you meet them, give them a father’s kiss.” ***

On the day they parted, Narendran and Angela had gone to the Church at Edappally. Tey had lighted one hundred and one candles – those that look like solidifed milk. Tey had burnt up together, melting like the rain. Angela had knelt down, and prayed for a long time. Narendran had seen her weeping for the frst and last time. Tears had fowed from his eyes too.

Teir separation had been a brutal stab in Narendran’s heart. He would be bearing that wound for the rest of his life. He, in turn, had stabbed Angela’s womb with his mole.

Irene would be bearing that for the rest of her life.

When the knife plunged into her stomach, Angela tasted blood in her mouth. Te blood reminded her of her children.


Te sky had gone pale, bleeding away slowly. As the Father of the Diocese recited the prayers, the children – their voices weak from incessant crying – heaved with sobs and called out “Mommy, Mommy.” Teir helpless cries pierced a hole in Narendran’s heart.

Angela slept in a cofn studded with ornate brass buds. Her face was angelic – the sadness and strain having fowed away with her blood. She seemed to be in a serene sleep after a very loving intercourse. Narendran felt like touching her.

He had last seen her on Ann’s birthday. Tat day too, he had wished to touch her. But Angela had become the receptionist of the town’s biggest jeweller by then. Te inferiority of a debt-ridden businessman had prevented him from touching the rich and elegant Angela. When they had parted, she had smiled at him with moist eyes, holding his hand in hers. Tat time too, her face had turned angelic. ***

Narendran had remarked once, that only one in a thousand men would get a companion like her. She had burst out laughing. “Nonsense, you feel such interest only because I am not your wife.”

“Tere is not a single day, when I do not wish that you were mine…”

“If I were, you would have tired of me like Sunita…”

“Who can tire of a woman who is as passionate as you?”

“For a woman, love and lust are the same. For a man, they might be diferent.”

“Just listen to that! Women are selfsh. Except for materialistic pleasures, they have neither love nor lust for anyone.”

“I spoke about myself.”

“Sunita was never passionate.”

“Poor thing… Maybe she is afraid. No woman can sufer the accusation of being lusty.”

“Not even you?”

She lay straight, and laughed.

“Not even me… It was because I could not contain my passionate love for Alex that I eloped with him. But he interpreted it as being sex-crazy. He murdered my love. My lust died along with it.”

Her smile dimmed suddenly. “We would fght daily. But still I pulled on. But that day when he threw me before his friend…”

Although she was smiling, tears streamed through the corners of her eyes.

“I wanted to stab myself to death that day…”

Narendran, becoming distressed, caressed her gently.

Angela held onto his palm. “Due to the stupidity of that tender age, I had felt all that passionate love. Now I know the truth. Man, woman, lust, and love – these are of no use at all. Life is not about that…”

“What do you mean?”

Angela had raised her sharp brown eyes to his. “I only know what it is not. I do not

37 38

know what it is.”

Ten she had sighed.

“Now, my children matter most to me. Te love that a mother has for her child and the love a child has for her mother – that is the only everlasting love in this world.”

“Why did you choose to have this child then…?”

“I had no other way to express my love for you!”

“Love…! Is that why you left me and found a rich guy for yourself?” Narendran had pushed her away with intense jealousy.

Angela had looked at him seriously.

“I have to bring up my children … ensure their future … I need money for that. Once I have sufcient money, you just watch, I will become a nun. Women like me cannot do much else…”

His heart throbbed in pain, when he recollected her face. Tat face – which he would never see again. Tat voice – which he would never hear again.

Tey were lowering Angela into the grave. When the cofn vanished – the last few fstfuls of earth falling on it – the children fainted. He picked up Irene and carried her on his shoulder. Jaya Mohan’s wife held Ann close. Te children’s lifeless sobs kept echoing in the cemetery. Te wetness of their mother’s blood – as if still glued to their feet – remained with the children.


Lying on Narendran’s shoulder, Irene saw Alexander again; in her half-conscious state. She relived her mother’s death once again. Tat sight would be glued to her eyes forever.

On the day of Angela’s murder, mother and daughters had reached their little home full of laughter. Te rain dropped all over like molten candle drops. It was then that Alexander had arrived. Te door had not been shut.

Irene entered the room – in her underwear, after throwing of her uniform – holding a green-coloured birthday cap. She stood wondering, and had called out: “Mommy.” Becoming bashful about her nakedness, she had run inside.

Angela had been setting the cake on the table, the pallu of her sandalwood-coloured chifon sari, studded with pearls and zari-work, tucked daintily into her waist. She sighted Alexander while tying a satin ribbon around the knife meant to cut the cake. A deep sigh had escaped her. Tey stood staring at each other for a few moments.

Alexander was a heavily built man, with no trace of compassion on his face. On his left cheek, the scar of a stab wound stood fagrantly visible. When Angela had been in love with him, Alexander had had a mole on that spot.

“Alex! How long since we have met! Where were you all the while? So, you have not forgotten me, have you?”

As she spoke, Angela opened the top cover of the cake box. “Today is the happy birthday of my Vava. Good that you came today, Alex!”

Alexander’s swarthy face puckered up. Te muscles of his face throbbed with blood and turned red. He wiped the sweat on his forehead with the sleeve of his soiled blue shirt. He stared at her wrathfully. His furious look pierced Angela’s luscious stomach which was revealed momentarily through her tucked in sari-pallu.

It was then that Ann had entered the room. Seeing him, Ann hugged Irene close. Ann remembered her Appa. Appa was an inefable terror in her blood. Looking alternately at her sister’s face and her mother’s, Irene had started to sob.

“What did you have for lunch? How come you have lost so much weight? What are you doing now? Are you still onto redeeming loans by catching cc?” Angela enquired.

Without replying, Alexander had stepped closer. Her beautiful house. Her lovely children, and her lovely body. Te light in her home, the fragrance all around. Above all, her laughter. His blood boiled. Stretching his hand, Alexander grabbed the knife and mockingly looked at the satin ribbon bow. Angela tried to say something, her lips exposed in a smile. By that time, the knife had sunk deep into her feshy stomach.

Te children had gaped all aghast: their eyes popping out.

“You sinful bitch, after betraying me you are having a great time whoring about, eh?” Gnashing his teeth and cursing fervently, Alexander pulled the knife out and stabbed Angela again. She shuddered in her deathly throes. ***

“Mommy, I need a gilt pencil … English Miss told us. I need a gilt pencil tomorrow.” Irene murmured from Narendran’s shoulder. “Chechy, don’t go … Chechy, stay with me. Let us have ice cream.”

“Sweetie…” Narendran patted her shoulder with moist eyes.

“Mommy, don’t go today. Don’t go to the ofce or to the party. Sit by my side. I want to sleep on Mommy’s chest. It is so nice to sleep on Mommy’s chest…”

He could feel his heart getting torn into two. Someone sliced through his it like a cake, unhurriedly. Te knife edge sank into the fesh. Blood spots appeared very, very slowly.

Blood! Blood that glued on when dry – transforming into moles.


Angela had laughed while dying. She had not felt the pain. Alexander had already murdered her, years before.

It had happened that day, when Alexander’s friend had grabbed her green nylex sari. She had begged with folded hands, “Please spare me!” She had screamed for help calling, “Alex, save me!” Te friend had pounced on her, licking his chops. He had played around with her lifeless body like a cat teasing a mouse. Angela had seen little Ann’s wondering eyes, as she stood watching it all, at the door. Angela had been murdered that day.


Life betrayed Angela yet again by acting like a pimp. It lasciviously ofered her to death. As the knife pierced into her, she saw her children: four eyes widened in horror. Angela was shattered. She few forward to save them. She fell, her wings cut of. Te knife was retrieved by the killer. It plunged in again.

Two stabs. Two wounds. Two big moles. Angela did not cry. Te body could never make Angela cry. Life could never make her cry. Alex could never make her cry.

Whenever Ann closed her eyes, she saw her mommy’s shudder. Her mommy had felt pain when the knife pierced her. Mommy had convulsed. She had writhed in pain. But she had not cried. Mommy never cried. Mommy would convert tears into smiles with her magic

39 40

Mommy would never be afraid either. ***

Angela had fought with the owner of the jewellery shop, once. Ann had been witness to that too. Angela had made chapatti and chicken curry that night. Narrating the story of Cinderella, she had made Vava eat two chapattis. Sitting in her inner wear at the dining table, Irene had listened intently – forgetting to chew her food. Although she had heard the story before, Ann had listened too. It was then that the jewellery owner arrived. He had been heavily drunk. His pudgy body had rolled in, like a vat of tar. Angela’s face had darkened.

“It is not yet ten thirty, sir…” Angela said softly.

“Oh … baby … I can’t hold it…”

“Te children have not slept…”

“Tey will sleep.”

When he had tried to pull Angela close, Ann had got up, confused.

“Te children will see…!” Angela had become extremely perturbed.

“Let the girls learn by watching…” Te owner had smirked.

Ann would never forget the face of her Mommy as she tightly slapped his face; her hand still moist with food.

“Get out now!” her mommy had shrieked.

“Angela…” Te man had gaped at her, his hand covering his face.

“I have a kitchen knife… I will stick it inside you!”

Te employer had stood staring at his employee for some time. Ten he had left the house.

Mommy had turned to look at Ann and at Vava, who were both gaping. She had winked and smiled at them. “A silly joke … just like that… Did my little ones get scared?”

Angela had washed their faces and taken them to the bathroom. She had helped them into their nightdresses. Adjusting the fan suitably, and making them lie on either side of her, she had gently patted them on their shoulders.

“Why did he come so near you, Mommy?” Ann had asked in a feeble voice.

“Why did he come?” Angela had tried to laugh.

“To kill you?”

“Nah! No one will kill Mommy…” Angela had turned to hug her close. “Sleep now, sweetie … sleep…”

Angela had rung Narendran late in the night. Narendran remembered it well. Sunita had not slept as yet. Seeing the number, Narendran went into the bathroom.

“Hmm?” he had queried softly.

“Something happened … that owner came inside my home, stone drunk. I slapped him…”

“Good…” Narendran had laughed quietly. “I was just thinking that it was time for you to change this job too. You tire of men very fast, after all.”

Angela had laughed weakly. “But he will not let me go.”

“Why don’t you admit that you don’t want to let go of him?”

“Don’t be so jealous. I know that it is a sin to sell one’s body. But it is not my body that I am selling, it is my empathy. Poor thing, I have only pity for that jeweller. All his life,

no one has ever loved him. Tey have only pretended to love him. For his money. He too knows that. He realizes that – but for his money, nobody can ever love him.”

She had laughed.

“So, feeling pity, you are simply giving him a little love…”

“Not exactly. I understand him. So, I can forgive him. Will I not forgive my little Ann? Will I not forgive my Vava?”

“Ten you better forgive Alexander too.”

“Alex never deserved my love. He knew that truth of course, but it was unacceptable to him. Hence he pushed me into prostitution. He wanted to see me degraded, and then possess me. I understood all that, rather late. But I have already forgiven him.” Angela had sighed.

“Ten why make a fool of me?”

Angela had burst out laughing. “I never loved you for money. I loved you in return for the love you always gave me; the love you still give me… Besides that, I also wanted that mole of yours.”

His voice became pleading: “Angela … I cannot live without you.” Angela’s laughter echoed through the phone. Later, unexpectedly, she had spoken about the jewellery owner.

“He is a devil. Have you seen his teeth? Have you seen his smile when he senses pain? A real jackass. Come and see my body. Bite marks – clotted blood all through. Countless. A bite on my breast turned septic. For one week, I endured a death-like pain. I feel pity when I think about it. Men like him have never lain inside a decent womb.” She had said all of that jokingly. She had laughed. In between, her voice had trembled. Ten she had laughed again.

On that night when Angela lay murdered, lying next to Sunita – who was dead asleep – Narendran wept without making a sound. Alexander was evil. He had not succeeded in killing Angela; instead he had killed Narendran . Alexander was also a crass fool. To kill Angela, he should not have stabbed her. He should have stabbed the children instead.

Ann concluded the same. Appa should have killed us too. What will one do, without Mommy? Where will they live now? In the morning, who will make dosa for them? Who will make chutney? Who will make toast for Vava? Who will help Ann with her homework? Who will carry Vava to the bathroom so that she did not pee in her sleep? Who will apply medicine, whenever they hurt their knees by falling down? Who will make them laugh, when they cried?

Where would they go now? Ann was apprehensive about that too. Her tiny heart – as small as a fstful of rice – was ill at ease . Who will give them food now? Who will give them the fees for their school van now? Who will sign their progress reports now?

When she remembered that she would never see her Mommy again, she was shattered.

A heavy silence glued itself to the house, while the two kids slept.

“What should we do now, Narendran, sir?” Jaya Mohan asked compassionately. “Where will we send these children?”

41 42 wand.

When Narendran went home to take a shower and change his dress, he spoke, as if to the air. “Angela died.”

Sunita’s face turned satanic. “Oh yes, sluts end up like that.”

“Do not denigrate the dead. Tink of those poor kids!”

“Shut up!” Sunita shouted in frenzy. “She is the woman who wrecked my home. Whore! Vampire! She shoved me and my kids to the street. She deserved it. What happened to her was due to my tears – the curse of a chaste wife! Having seen it in front of your own eyes, you refuse to learn. Now you will sufer too. You will scream inside the jail. Just look at the way she died! Intestines spilled out by a knife! It had to happen that way, of course! It has not ended. My tears have not been fully accounted for even now. Te children she had given birth should beg on the streets. I want to see them howl hungrily like a dog for the sake of a single meal!”

Te scream for a meal in Ann’s tear-flled eyes appeared before Narendran.


Angela’s children. Te moles on the face of earth.

Alexander’s sister and husband came searching for them one afternoon. Te woman – a cheap cotton sari wrapped around her head – had the indiferent and hardened look of a butcher.

“We’ve come to take away our brother’s child,” the woman said, after a cursory greeting.

Narendran was shell-shocked.

“Tat is my brother’s instruction. He told us so, before he was taken to jail. At least the child should not go astray.”

“What about the younger child?” Jaya Mohan asked.

“Why should we bother about her? Let her father take care of her.” Te woman gazed alternately at the moles on Irene’s and Narendran’s faces.

Feeling drained, Narendran hugged Irene close.

“Te elder one will stay with us in the estate. Tere are enough facilities. My two kids are there for company. Tere is a school nearby. We will send her there. Alexi will come as soon as his case gets over. Ten he will take care of her. He wishes to make her a nun. As a penance for her mother’s sin.”

A knife pierced through Narendran’s heart.

“You want to separate the children?” Jaya Mohan was furious.

“Are they of the same father?”

“Don’t you have a heart? Tey have lost their mother. Is it not cruelty to make them part from each other?”

“We cannot carry the burden of her bastard child. You give us our child.”

Te woman reached out to Ann who screamed and wriggled away. Te little girl –crying and exhausted, her body still smelling of blood – rolled on the ground. Lifting her weary head from Narendran’s shoulder, Irene slithered down; then throwing herself on top of her sister, she burst into tears. Te white frills of the frocks they both wore became stained with the crimson colour of red mud.

“I won’t come. I won’t come. I won’t come leaving my Vava!”Ann screamed loudly.

“Chechy … please don’t leave me,” Irene wept.

Someone waved a wand of tears over Angela’s children. Tey cried without stopping. Like cutting a cake into two, Alexander had split them too.

“Don’t take me away. Uncle, please don’t let me go.” Ann screamed, stretching her arms towards him.

“Please take me along. Please take me along with my Chechy.” Irene clung to her sister.

“I want to be with Vava. I want my Mommy…” Ann wailed desperately.

“Chechy … Vava will die … Chechy don’t go…” Irene pleaded.

Alexander’s sister took away Ann, who was crying for Vava, in their vehicle; forcibly shutting her mouth with her hand.

Narendran and the child of his blood were left behind. Crying relentlessly, Irene soon became feverish. Waiting for the fever to subside, he sat by her side.

“Now, what are we supposed to do, Narendran, sir?” Jaya Mohan’s voice was flled with regret.

“I do not have the means to bring her up. Or else I would have…” Narendran hugged Irene close. She opened her tired eyes. Two little eyes that were too weak to stay open.

“What will you do when the court order comes?” Jaya Mohan asked faintly.

Narendran had no reply to that.

“Now listen to what I say. We will take her to the orphanage – that is the only way out. I have spoken to the priest of the diocese and he has agreed.” Jaya Mohan spoke quietly.

Not having the strength to look at Irene’s face, Narendran shut his eyes tightly. “I cannot send her to an orphanage, Jaya Mohan.”

“What other way is there, sir?”

Tat whole night, Narendran lay glued to Irene. Irene laughed and cried in her sleep.

“Mommy, my tummy is full,” she cried out. “Chechy is teasing me,” she pouted. “Ayyo, please don’t take my Chechy away,” she screamed. “Mommy has been killed,” she complained, whimpering weakly.

Narendran hugged her close to himself. He felt deeply remorseful. He should have met Angela earlier. He should have loved her, married her, and should have become the father of her children. Ten Angela would not have been killed. Both he and Alexander would have been spared from going to the jail.

In the morning, he woke Irene up early, and after consoling her with a kiss, spoke gently. “Baby, if Uncle tells you something, you should not cry.”

Irene opened her mouth to cry.

“You should not cry. Aren’t you Angela’s little girl? Don’t you know that your Mommy dislikes crying?”

Wiping her eyes, Irene swallowed her tears.

After a while he said: “Honey, you have to stay in the orphanage for a few days. By that time, Uncle will come to take you home. Ten both of us will bring Chechy back, and then visit Biriyani House, Park, Cinema, Beach … have a great time like the old days…”

Irene gazed at him. She did not smile. Neither did she cry. She did not believe in what he had spoken either.

43 44

“When will you come, Uncle?” she asked in a lifeless voice.

“When should I come, honey?” he asked in a lifeless voice.

“On my Happy Birthday,” Irene murmured.

“On your Happy Birthday,” Narendran repeated after her.


Translated from the Kannada by Deepa Ganesh.

I could have run into him anywhere: in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, or in one of those resorts where large companies conduct their training programmes. It could have been in some management seminar. But of all places I bumped into him in a hotel lobby in Jakarta. Had I met him anywhere else I’m sure we wouldn’t have spoken. We would have walked by pretending not to know each other. Tat evening, those hunger pangs, and above all the alien land – if not for all of these reasons, we would not have met. Happenstances are like that – they collapse in the twinkling of an eye.

It was already seven in the evening; my ffth day in Jakarta. I had fnished work early. Te weekend mood had kicked in, and most people in the ofce had left by the afternoon. I returned to my hotel room and took a short nap. I woke up, checked my email and was disappointed to see I had no new messages. I browsed through the old ones, wrote a line or two to people I usually never wrote to. I changed the names of the recipients, but copy-pasted the same text into all of them. It hardly mattered whether I wrote to them or not. It was a way of keeping contacts alive. If I didn’t have even these people, who else would I write to? One in America, another in Delhi and yet another in Australia. Classmates and former colleagues scattered across continents: daybreak for some, dusk for others. Anyway, I was sure there would be a couple of replies by the next morning. Soon I was restless again and logged into my ofcial account; in two hours I had received twenty emails. But for one everything could be junked. I exited after a cursory look. I called home, wondering how they were doing without me.

Shalini was still enjoying her siesta. She sounded annoyed by the call.

“Hello,” I said.

“What?” she asked.


“Didn’t you call this morning?”

“Oh yes, it was today, wasn’t it? How are you?”

Same as usual…”

“Well … same with me … I wanted to call to…”

“All right, then.”

“How is Sumanth? Is he back from school?”

“School? It’s vacation!You remember nothing. Ofce work flls your head, and for no great glory. Don’t force a conversation.”

“Oh, yes! Don’t know how I forgot.”



“Call once a day, it is more than enough. Everything’s fne here without you…”

She hung up on me. I’m simply incapable of such meanness. She can even hang up in the middle of a conversation, while I’m still speaking at the other end. It’s humiliating. So


what if I forget about my son’s school, doesn’t she forget many things too?

On a long-distance call I can never tell why she’s angry. Te reasons are seldom simple. So I turned my attention to a more immediate worry – dinner. Having so much time on hand was a rare luxury for me. When work chases you endlessly, the need to think hardly arises. Problems crop up when you have plenty of time; it could be the beginning of philosophical moorings as well. Small fssures in the mind are dangerous. Tey can be as menacing as an air bubble in the blood stream. I stood by the window of my seventh foor room and stared outside.

From the window I could see the residential areas of the city. Tey had grown wildly and made their way into the city’s crannies. I sank into the luxury of the soft chair, and stretched my legs on the footrest. Within thirty minutes, the bright day slipped into twilight. I decided to take a stroll before having dinner, and took the elevator down to the lobby. Tat’s when I saw him.

Te lobby of a star hotel in Jakarta. It was in this very place that a bomb blast had taken place two years ago and blown many like me to bits. Now, it’s under heavy security. In a corner was a fountain. Resting a foot on its bulwark, back turned towards me and a phone stuck to his left ear, he was speaking loudly in Hindi. Hearing a familiar language in an alien land, I turned towards him. He kept saying “haanji, haanji” and bobbing his head. He was the only one creating noise in that entire lobby. It was a plush place: silken carpets on the foor, huge marble pillars, roomy lounge sofas, a gently gurgling fountain. A regal silence usually pervaded the entire area, but now it was being broken by a man on the phone. I was reminded of my colleague C.K. Singh. He was enraged by Indians who spoiled the image of the country. And only he knew what that image was. After a couple of pegs he enjoyed tearing into such Indians. Four days ago, it was at this very hotel that he launched into a tirade.

“You must enjoy these fve-star hotels with a mock seriousness. You may well be overwhelmed by all the luxury, but you must pretend you are used to it. But our Indians –do they have any etiquette? No. Tey are completely unaware of where they are, and how they should behave. Tey imagine they are in the privacy of their homes and shout into their phones. Especially the ones with IT money, the shameless fellows. Overnight they think they’ve scaled the ladder of class. Does class come with money? If there’s a bufet and there are ten Indians, two are sure to drop their spoons. At least one will stain his shirt. Tere’s a good chance that there will be one person who will ram into a guest with his food plate. Tere will certainly be two fellows chattering away, either in Tamil or in Malyalam, and then, with their food-stained hands suspended in mid-air, they will frantically walk the quiet corridors of these hotels asking passersby for “hand wash, hand wash”. By the time they hit twenty-fve, they have pot bellies. When they check out, all Indians without exception tuck away the soap and shampoo from their rooms. You might ask – don’t people from other countries do this? Of course they do. But when the rich man does it, it is not such a bad thing. Let’s get it right. If the rich steal can we call it theft? If the poor steal, can it be anything but robbery? It is no diferent even when nations are involved. Tink of those military missions with fancy labels like war against terror, self-defence, protecting one’s turf… If the booty is shared, it’s called a strategic alliance.

I walked along, thinking of C.K. Singh’s rant, and that’s when this man turned slightly in my direction. He was still on the phone. I saw him from the side and thought I

recognized him. It’s him. Is it him? No. Yes, it is. As I deliberated, hundreds of names fashed across my mind, but I could not settle on one. Unknowingly, I took a step in his direction. Had I been in a similar situation in India, I would have certainly walked away. Tat unconscious step in his direction would not have happened. But a foreign land is after all a foreign land. Everything appears magnifed to us; we are diferent people out there.

Several names buzzed in my brain but his name failed to come to me. Didn’t we work together once upon a time? My mind was ridden with doubt, but a name that could turn this speculation into certainty failed to come to me. I paused for a minute. He turned around like he knew me. Now there was just no question of going back. I was still trying to remember his name. He continued to talk on the phone, but he smiled and motioned to me to wait. Tis was the point of no return. I took another step forward. With the phone frmly pressed against his ear, he held out his right arm and we shook hands. We exchanged initial pleasantries through gestures and smiles. It was like being trapped in the limbo of what is called a Tirupathi kshoura – a barber who leaves your head half shaven and disappears: neither is the job done, nor can you leave for another barber. Without the slightest urgency to fnish the haanji conversation, he fxed his eyes on me and continued to talk. He was dressed in a striped blue shirt, black trousers, and tasteful designer shoes. A thick fat wallet bulged from his back pocket.

Finally, he ended his conversation and came towards me. “Oh, ho! You? And here?” he shouted, followed by loud laughter. He held my hand frmly, and gave me a vigorous handshake. His loud greeting made me feel that everyone in the lobby must be looking at us. At that instant, his name came to me – Jyotirmoyee! Yes, that was his name.

He used to be in the marketing department of our company. How grey his hair had turned. Tere was a patch on his nose, which meant he must have been wearing glasses for a long time. But I had never seen him wear glasses before. Was it him? People do change, but so dramatically? Or had he not changed at all? Maybe I anticipated change, that’s perhaps why I’m in a bit of a quandary. But that nose … typical. It had to be him. Certainly him.

“What a surprise! I was badly in need of company. What is your plan for the evening?” he asked.

“I have set out for dinner. Nothing more.”

“Come, let’s go to my room. I have some frst-class whisky. You’ll have some, won’t you? Why must we go to the bar and pay those ridiculous rates?” Without waiting for my answer, he had pushed me towards the elevator.

I remained silent. “If you like the bar, let’s go there. No compulsion to go to my room,” he said.

“I’m fne with either.”

“We can chat peacefully in the room. As the night warms up, the bar gets crowded and noisy. I don’t even like the music they play. I went there the last two nights, and the bastard feeced me. First of all, the recession, and then this! Tere’s good whisky in the room… Come, see for yourself.”

His room was on the sixteenth foor. As we went up, I looked at him in the elevator’s mirror. He had gained weight. His belt could barely contain his stomach. How much he had changed!

He kept talking till we reached his room.

“Do you know who I was chatting with? With the fnance secretary’s secretary. My

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brother-in-law is an infuential fellow. He put me in touch with this person. Our company believes in action. Tey don’t care how it gets done. Latch on to your brother-in-law or to the Prime Minister, it’s up to you. Government contacts are very important. My previous company was far better. No hassles. You just said ‘professional charges’ and the bribe was a part of it. At least they kept our conscience clean. Te recession is just an excuse. You know how shops are ransacked during riots? Tey wait for an opportunity like this to launch a clean-up operation, to sack people… I have changed jobs seven times in the last twenty years. I am a restless person. I get bored very fast – same boss, same team, there’s no challenge. And there are hardly any opportunities to move up. A new job is like a new step on the ladder. You occupy it and wait for the step above to clear. Keep pushing, hoping to dislodge the one above you. People from below are pushing too. If you are not alert, and press them down, you are sure to fall. When I get tired of playing these games with the same set of people, I quit my job. If I don’t change my job every three years, I feel something is wrong.”

He wouldn’t stop chattering till we reached his room. 1610.

On one side of the room was his bag lying with its mouth wide open. With sheets and pillows all over, the bed was a mess. “Sit down, sit down,” he said. I looked for a place to sit. He picked up his trousers lying on the chair and threw them on the bed to make room for me. He opened the curtains. Out there on the streets were cars, with their parking lights appearing in lines. Te cloud of dust that daylight revealed, the corners and crannies had gone into hiding in the dark. I stood by the window, watching; the same scene was visible from my room, but from a diferent angle.

“Oh no, oh shit…” he exclaimed. I turned to see what calamity had struck him. He was holding a half-empty bottle of whisky. “Tis is just not enough,” he said.

“It should be fne. I don’t drink much. Do you need more?” I asked.

“For me, this will last two days. I don’t know how much you drink, but when two people sit down together it doesn’t take long to empty a bottle. We could always order more… What would you like – ice, soda?”

“Ice and water.”

He brought some ice cubes from the refrigerator and dropped them into my glass. As the cubes clinked into the glass, he watched my face, and smiled. He elegantly poured whisky and water and handed me my drink.

“Cheers,” I said.

“To our friendship,” he said. “Long live our friendship.”

After our frst sips, we relaxed a bit. We sat on chairs that were facing each other with a table between us. To my right was the glass window, and beyond which was the city at night. Far below, lights streamed endlessly from moving vehicles.

“Enough of me now. Tell me about yourself,” he said.

“What can I say? I am still with the same company. Career-wise, I’ve done well for myself. I took a transfer as the head of the HR department. My third collection of short stories was released this year.”

“Wonderful … you write stories? I didn’t know. You are a silent operator. Tree books! Wonderful. Te corporate world should have more people like you … it’s an unusual hobby.”

“I’ve written a novel as well. I think of writing as my profession. Working in the corporate sector is my hobby.”

He laughed. “Well said. You’re saved because you head the department. If someone from your company heard you say this, you would be in for it! Now I remember reading your name somewhere, but I had no clue it was you… I forgot to ask – where do you live these days?”

“In Bangalore.”

“God, it gives me goosebumps to think of the trafc in Bangalore. It’s truly a pensioner’s paradise. People have all that time to spend on the roads. Tey sufer the trafc without uttering a single word.”

“Oh please, I don’t want to discuss Bangalore trafc even in this country. I’ve had all kinds of discussions about it, from philosophical to metaphysical.”

He was quiet for a moment. He took a couple of sips and spoke slowly: “Listen to this… You are a writer so you will understand.”

Such statements were not new to me. Tere’s a strange trust that people have in writers – they believe that writers understand what nobody else can. All the extremes of life – the mysterious, the weird, coincidences, upheavals. And above all, love. I have ended up listening to plenty of love stories. “Tell me,” I said.

“My father lived in Bangalore for four years. I went to high school there. Do you know where? Near BEL Factory. In those days, it resembled a village. My school was very close to our home. Tere were two trees right in front of the school – a banyan and a mango. Tere was an empty feld opposite, and that was our playground.”

I didn’t know Jyotirmoyee had lived in Bangalore. Had I known, I would have perhaps been more sympathetic towards him. He became emotional as he remembered all this.

“I went there two months ago. You will not believe it, but I couldn’t fnd my school. I went round and round in circles and got exhausted, but I simply failed to fnd it. Everything had changed. I couldn’t recognise a single thing. Te driver kept asking me, ‘Tell me where exactly you want to go, sir. We can take directions from someone.’ But I was adamant. I wanted to fnd the school on my own. Much as I tried, I couldn’t. Te places that existed in my memory were no longer present in reality. Te Ahmed’s shop, the playground, the trees, the big house at the turning, the huge well … had I found even one of these I would have known where I was. I fnally mentioned the name of the school to the driver. He asked around and we found it a couple of streets away. Even when we found it, I couldn’t recognize it. Te mango tree was no longer there. Shops and houses had come up like anthills around the banyan tree and the trunk was no longer visible. It seemed like the tree was growing out of the roofs of those houses. Tere was now a three-storey building in place of my school. Te playground was gone and buildings had come up in its place. Whatever was left of the playground had been cemented. We used to kick up dust when we played, we used to pee on the anthills –it all seemed part of some other world. Tose wide spaces had vanished from the face of this earth. A large, colourful board in front of the school announced that they taught a nationally recognized syllabus. It feels like a part of my childhood has been erased. When you spoke of change and Bangalore…”

He seemed to be choking up by the time he ended his story. Tis side of Jyotirmoyee was unfamiliar to me. I was at a loss for words. I don’t know what he made of my silence, but he laughed awkwardly and took two more sips. Tere was silence between us for a few minutes. I re-opened the conversation. “Let’s talk of something else. Who are you married to?

Do you have children?”

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He responded with enthusiasm.

“My wife Jayashree is a home-maker. Well, she shops, takes care of me. Her father is a wealthy industrialist. She grew up in Kolkata. We now live in Mumbai, but apparently she gets bored in this city. So she always keeps herself busy in social service. She thinks of Kolkata all the time. In fact, she lives her life in the memory of the city she grew up. She buys paintings, sells them, holds exhibitions. Great woman. She was twice on page three of the Times of India. You know where I met her? Outside the Prithvi Teatre canteen. She has many friends in the cultural world, you know … artists, playwrights, actors, writers. Somehow they all know each other. In the initial days of our romance, I felt I had developed interest in this arty circuit. Or was I pretending? I don’t know. But it never progressed from there. I could never make it on time even to a single music concert. Even if I did, I’d be bored in less than half an hour. It was beyond me. And those painting exhibitions! Tell me, do you understand them? Te plays are any day better. If there is a bit of a storyline, you can somehow sail through it. Anyway, after two years she stopped asking me to accompany her. In those years I was enthusiastic about building my career. And soon, our son was born. I don’t know what would have happened to us without him. I have worked very hard to come up in my career, but she has no regard for it. ‘What’s money good for?’ she asks. What can anyone do without money! If I mention that her father also made money, she says she has no respect for him either. ‘You are becoming just like him,’ she complains. We fght every day. My son is growing up watching television and eating chips. I ask him to play and he plays computer games. What more do you need for a happy family? Tere is hardly any conversation between me and my wife. My son doesn’t listen to me. Tere is a hell of a lot of work at the ofce. My bank balance keeps increasing. Everything has changed. When I look at the picture of the two of us taken twenty years ago, I don’t see any love from the way she’s standing by my side. Tings have become ugly between us.”

His phone began to ring. “Excuse me,” he said, moving away and answering it.

“Hello, yes, who do you want to speak to? Yes, yes, it’s me Phaneesh speaking… I am in Indonesia. I will return in three days. Let’s talk when I get back. Yes, I am interested in the property. I will speak to you when I'm back. Okay, good night.”

Who is this Phaneesh? I was stunned. If he was not Jyotirmoyee then whose story was I listening to all this while? I didn’t know any Phaneesh. Should I tell him? Just then – as my mind tossed between these thoughts – he hung up and returned.

“Right … so what was I saying? Forget it. It’s important to listen. It’s good to fnd people with whom you can share. Let me narrate a bizarre incident to you. You can use it in one of your stories. You know what happened? Two months ago, in January, I was travelling to Lucknow. I few to Delhi and was supposed to board a connecting fight from there. Tere was thick fog in Delhi. Te airport was milling with people. Tey refused to say when the fight to Lucknow would leave. So they herded us like sheep into one of the lounges. Tat’s when this guy appeared. ‘Hello, it’s been ages since we met,’ he said, and drew me into an embrace. He resembled my classmate Biswas. I was overwhelmed by his warmth and didn’t have the heart to ask him his name. We discussed all kinds of random people in a roundabout way. ‘Do you remember Nagesh?’ I asked. ‘Tat senior who was going out with Jamuna?’ I didn’t even remember if we had someone named Jamuna in our class. For all you know, Nagesh may have been going out with her. ‘By the way, how is Professor Rao?’ I asked him. ‘Tat rogue, he retired,’ came his reply. Rao is such a common name that you’re sure to fnd

someone by that name in every institute. I kept trying to think of ways to fnd out his name. But no ideas came to me. He insisted I visit him. As our conversation went on, he began to address me as Sundar. It was bizarre … I didn’t know his name, and he thought I was someone else. Yet for nearly an hour our conversation went smoothly. In fact, he didn’t even realise there’d been a mix up. I knew, but didn’t know how to escape. Tankfully, they announced the Lucknow fight, and I was saved. But as I thought about it, I felt sad. It felt terrible that my life was so commonplace. As we add years to our lives, we remember only the immediate. Except for names that might be diferent, our lives are shockingly similar. Even if we were to switch places, nothing would change. I remembered my art teacher from school who always encouraged me to express myself. ‘Paint, write poetry, sing… Do something that can be called your own,’ he would say. But who wants to listen to advice that adds nothing to your score card? We made fun of him. Now all kinds of thoughts crowd me. Why do we buy anything at all if it is only for the pleasure of acquiring? I have no answers. Tere was something profound in what my teacher said. Tat’s why I went to Bangalore, looking for him. I haven’t told this to anyone else so far, not even to my wife.”

I was tongue-tied. Te Jyotirmoyee I knew was someone else. And who was this Phaneesh?

His phone rang again. He answered the call. “It’s my wife… Excuse me.”

Te story found its twist now. And then I overheard his conversation.

“Yes, I will be back the day after. Oh sure, you can go… Right, I will certainly come. By the way, do you know who is with me now? Ratan Kavale! Te famous writer Ratan Kavale. I will tell you everything when I come back. Yes, yes, it’s him, the same person… okay, good night.”

It got stickier. He had mistaken me for some Ratan Kavale. If I told him the truth, the entire evening would be spoilt. All I wanted was to have a couple of drinks and leave. I suppose I could answer his questions vaguely and get out of there. Or I could tell him I was not Ratan Kavale, and say something like, ‘At least we met because of the misunderstanding.’ But the truth wouldn’t have changed our conversation much. Our names would have been diferent, that’s all. Didn’t we do anything in our lives to distinguish ourselves, make ourselves unique? I decided to be Ratan Kavale.

He was in a good mood. “My wife was happy to know that I was with you. Enough about me now. Tell me about yourself. What’s your wife’s name? How many children do you have?”

I was about to tell him about Shalini when I thought of Kamini, who I was once madly in love with.

Since I was Ratan Kavale, what diference did it make?

“Her name is Kamini,” I said.

I felt a new kind of freedom with my reply. I began to think about Kamini. He flled my glass.

Kamini … what could I say about her? I couldn’t decide. I had not thought about her in years. What was she interested in? In knitting … she had once made a sweater for me when we were in college. We got married. Ten? We had a baby boy. Ten? I had kept moving up the ladder at work. Ten? She took good care of me… It was the same story all over again – no diferent from my life with Shalini. Nothing new or sparkling came from this story.

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He was listening eagerly, sipping his drink every now and then. I felt the pressure of meeting his expectations with my story.

“She is the one who runs the household,” I said. “Without her things wouldn’t have been the same…”

“Tat’s true. It’s the same everywhere.”

Suddenly it seemed like we had nothing to talk about. I took a large swig and emptied the glass.

“Another drink?” he ofered.

“I’ll leave now,” I said and rose from my chair.

“Sorry… I had a bit too much… I'm unsteady. I have to leave early tomorrow morning,” he said.

“Good night.”

“Take my number. Call me sometime.”

He came to the door.

“We must keep in touch. Wait, let me give you my card.” He pulled his wallet out of his rear pocket. He had some trouble fnding his card in the half-light near the door. Finally, he placed one in my hand. “I assume it is mine,” he joked. Without looking at it, I slipped it into my pocket.

“I am not carrying one,” I said. “But I have to tell you something.”


“I am not Ratan Kavale.”

“What?! Who are you then?” he asked.

I didn’t reply.

I smiled and walked away.

Te long corridor on the sixteenth foor was lined with rooms on either side. Tey all looked identical, except that they had diferent numbers on them. In the dead of the night, it is a strange experience to walk past these closed doors.

I heard him call out from behind me.

“Who are you? Who are you?”

I pretended not to hear him and walked briskly on. I heard his voice again.

“Who are you? Bastard…”


A memoir.

At the everlasting age of sixteen, like greenhorn Adam into the Garden of Eden, I was released into the bustling alleys of Mysore city. And I, rascal of a dreamer, was dumb enough to imagine that I had become a freeman at last in the sprawling and anonymous city. For Mysore was so far, far away from my tiny village in the spice-hills of Kerala where intoxicating Sin fowered and fruited lovingly everywhere along with pepper, ginger and pappaya. It rippled down the rocky streams. And God patrolled us relentlessly and inexorably. For all I knew, God partook of our sins and laughed in secret from the dark caverns of the rubber plantations, exulting shamelessly in his double-facedness.

Mysore in those days had the eternal odour of horse dung and urine, of jasmine and masala dosa and of cofee and cow-dung cake whose smoke rose in blue whirls like wraiths melting in the sun. And as I discovered to my utter horror, God stalked every nook and cranny of Mysooru Nagara, round the clock, as a thundercloud of unknowing and a chastising mystery. He sat upon the summit of Chamundi Hills, disguised as the far-away row of lights burning in the cold night, flling us with an unspeakable longing for the black sky as we lay in our hostel beds looking out the window through the white and mesmerizing veil of the mosquito net.

In those days God had flled Mysore with music. Te city was like an immense jukebox in which robot arms kept playing music from every direction. Music hung over the city like a magnetic feld. It drifted into our classrooms, playgrounds, beds, toilets and dining rooms. It stood guard over our masturbations, daydreams and terrors. Our college, St Philomena’s, was then the last urban point of the city on the Bangalore road. Beyond were tomato and groundnut farms, coconut groves and paddy felds and Tippu Sultan’s Srirangapatna and Cauvery the mother-river. On bicycles hired from shops opposite St Philomena’s church for ten paise per hour, we would race like madmen up the pot-holed Bangalore road to Tippu’s Fort at Srirarangapatna, hang around staring at the ancient things, huddle at the spot where Tippu fell and died, and watch Cauvery go by, churlish, dark-green and elusive among the waterweeds and sandbanks.

I had already learned to hum “Begani shaadi mein Abdallah deevana…” because “Jis desh mein Ganga bahti hai” was still playing in Mysore when I made my frst entry into the city. Our small group of bare-footed Malayali initiates into the city had made the pilgrimage to Gayatri cinema under the patronising wand of senior students and sat riveted and dumbfounded, watching Raj Kapoor and Padmini and crowds of dancers illuminating the magic screen. Soon I was at the frst frst-day showing of Junglee, fghting my way dizzyingly through the wild crowd and snatching a ticket for thirty paise. At that moment I knew I had become a citizen of Mysore. Te flm took me in custody. As the silky lines of “Ehsan tera hoga mujh par…” winged in through the orphan night into my hostel room from NR Mohalla or Lashkar Mohalla, or from Banni Mantapa, I would lie staring into the mosquito net’s


undulating whiteness and wet my pillow with tears shed copiously, for nothing and nobody. I didn’t know that I was becoming a changeling for myself, drop by drop, night by night. I merely cried into an emptiness that hurt my soul as it hurtled through the smoky skies of the alien city.

Te music invaded our souls and cleaved unto them. And we cleaved unto the music. We understood no word of the Hindi lyrics but we needed to know nothing. We only needed to hear. It was lovely and lucky to be alive and young and foolish in the Mysore of Shankar-Jaikishan, OP Nayyar, SD Burman, Madan Mohan, Ravi, Salil Chaudhury, Naushad, Roshan, Khayyam, Laximikant Pyarelal, Jaidev. It was hard, very hard, to invest a whole four-anna coin to listen to a single song. Yet I would grip it in my hands determinedly and push it into the jukebox’s metallic mouth and glow with joy as the player’s arm picked up exactly my record and the restaurant flled with my song. I would look around shyly as the song rose over the clang and tinkle of trays and cups and saucers, the shouts for service, the litany of bills and the abiding roar of conversation. Ten, borrowing twelve paise for the next cofee that would give me a further perch on my seat, I would wait for another millionaire of fourannas to make the magic pilgrimage to the jukebox.

I and my friends had heard the songs a thousand times but this was the ultimate pleasure. We made the songs sing. With our country-bumpkin ways and backwoods Malayali dress, we would sit coyly yet smugly, as the jukebox sang at our command. At that moment we felt we had mastered the city. Raf, Mukesh, Lata, Asha, Kishore, Talat, Suman Kalyanpur, Mahendra Kapoor – our Mysore overfowed with their song and we were its fotsam and jetsam. Te music put wings to our nitty-gritty village hearts and launched them into incredibly beautiful yet forlorn spaces. It made the city fecund with mysteries whose existence we could only guess at.

God, like the abominable Alien entrenched in the spaceship’s clockwork, was perhaps the invisible and implacable disc-jockey of the Mysore jukeboxes with their winking red and blue bulbs. He had, no doubt, followed me all the way from the humid shades of my village Urulikunnam to sing unto me – and to catch me sinning. With the anonymity of a forger, He scripted into my heart “Allah jane kya hoga aage”, “Tumhari mast nazar”, “Kahin deep jale kahin dil”, “Mere mehboob tujhe”, “Mein chali mein chali”, “Diwana hua baadal”, “Mujko apne gale laga do”, “Tasveer teri dil mein”, “Jo wada kiya”, “Mujhe kitna pyar hai”, “Bar bar dekho”, “Mehtab tera chehra”, “Sau saal pahale” and a hundred other thrilling melodies as if He were calligraphing a miniature prayer-book. And He charged me four-annas per song, like a fend. Tat was how matters stood between me, Mysore and God in those days.

I did not venture into the by-lanes and interiors of the city at frst. From St Philomena’s College, which stood at the Mysore-end of the lengthy island formed by old and new Bangalore roads, I would take the straight path into the city, sticking to familiar landmarks, one of which was the huge, dark, granite heap of the Church of St Philomena’s. Just where the island tapered and the two roads came together, there was a grove of tall trees and on the opposite side a pond where bufaloes wallowed all day and skinny girls made, dried and stacked dung-cakes. My eyes would craftily search the girls for any sign of what I imagined to be the desire that cities faunted, but only listless and gaunt poverty stared back at me blankly. Te grove was made up of trees unfamiliar to me, huddling together in a circle. It appeared to me as distant and lonely as a planet that had frozen in its orbit. It had a grassy foor awash with the moving shadows of the conferencing trees. Every time I looked at it, I would be flled with

sweet misery and a premonition of all the dreams I would see. I never did pick up the will to cross the few hundred feet of grass, bush and dry leaves and enter the grove to subdue it. I have a worrisome feeling that that was one of the lairs of God in Mysore – thank God I never walked into it.

From here, the road was an uphill stretch for about a kilometre, with old, gnarled shade-trees on both sides. It was near-deserted most of the time and turned very lonely as the day wound down. A bullock-cart dragging its feet as if it was sleepwalking, a cyclist milkman with a collaborating cow in tow, a Bangalore bus grinding unhappily on its way, farm workers’ families, haggard, covered in mud and dust – such were the occasional travellers on this road. In the evenings, after hurried encounters with the city, our pace quickened to a halfrun downhill in order to reach the hostel before the gates closed and Fr D’Souza, the warden, shook his head at us, his lips tightly pressed in a knowing smile. Dusk would gather its forces around our truant fgures, encircling us from the sky where clouds turned dark orange, from the branches overhead swelling with eerie bird-talk, from the tarred road where night slithered under our feet like a fog, and from the distant lights beginning to twinkle, hinting at dreadful uncertainties. And behind us, like a gilded serpent with a tongue of cold fre, the city would hiss and growl. Ten a song would break loose from the commotion like a shining night-bird, overtake our lonely trajectory and transform the dusk into an arena of sweet and compelling longing: “Naina burse rim zim rim zim…”, “Yeh wadiyaam, yeh phizayem bula rahe he…” – so would sing the lovely singers. ***

Up the hill. Past the Fountain Circle. Past the black mountain of the Church. Past its grotto where Mother Mary stands open-armed, speaking ghostly words of wisdom. Down shabby Ashoka Road with its row of Marwadi pawnshops to Nehru Circle. Go round the Circle to the right and take Irwin road till you turn left on Sayyaji Rao Road. Down you go till you see the two kings, Krishnaraja Wodeyar and Chamaraja Wodeyar, their bulging crowns and fowing gowns splattered with the white shrapnel of bird shit, looking over the city from marble balconies, immune, frozen like autistic warriors wrapped in amnesia. We never enquired whether Krishnaraja and Chamaraja were good kings or bad. We were just happy that they stood there as reliable landmarks. Te great palace of the Wodeyars was a few thousand feet away, its towers and domes soaring behind the high walls like a magic mountain. We did not ever gather sufcient courage to seek to enter the palace grounds. Once in a while we would furtively go up to the southern gate pretending to worship at the temple there, but essentially to peek at the sex-sculptures that decorated its walls. It took a lot of staring and screwing up of eyes to decipher the precise nature of the erotic activities of the fgures on the granite panels placed high up on the wall, but we always managed to get an erection or two. Our giggles and exchanges of lewd looks must have alerted the pujaris and worshippers to our profane intentions, but no one took our pornographic pursuits seriously enough to evict us.

In the horizon loomed Chamundi Hills, rocky, near-barren and blue-grey. Te temple and the palace on its summit looked, from afar, like a white patch shorn of a passing cloud. We knew the hilltop also held a huge granite holy bull whose robust and smooth balls always received our admiring attention, and a big, technicolour rakshasa with unsheathed sword in hand, his mouth gaping, bloody and toothy. It was hard to say whether the demon was smiling or screaming. If memory serves me right he was about to eat a baby. Chamun-

55 56

di Hills was one of the targets of our periodic cycling assaults on Mysore. We would huf and puf and push our way up its hairpin curves, gaping at tourists, wondering at girls and checking out all the usual sights. Ten we would let speed swallow us as we raced downhill. In the evening we would tell loud and chattering stories about who fell down and how and who cheated in the bet on pedalling all the way to the top without getting down and pushing.

A time came when I decided to explore the Hill in my own way. By then I had taken to wandering the city all by myself like a secret agent smelling out uncharted territory. Tough the acknowledged object of my quests was Sin and I was an inveterate coward, my searches took me into sad and forsaken places, scummy and dangerous city backyards, lonely alleyways that breathed down your shoulders and made your steps tremble and shake, crowded places where evil walked neck to neck with you, exuding strange smells. I also found sweet places under park trees, benches on the side-walk that hugged you, theatres that kissed you, roads that caressed you and restaurants that bathed you in indescribable desire. I was a specialist in getting lost, panicking and retreating. I was ridiculed, stared at, chased, shouted at, threatened, humiliated, thrown out. I walked into snares that no ordinary damn-fool would walk into. I was the Best Readymade Schizo in Mysore city.

I was not planning to climb the Hill by the regular road. At one end the Hill gradually sloped down till it fowed into the land. It fascinated me that Chamundi Hill had this secret pact with the soil and that I could, if I wished, touch the Hill at the spot where it grew out of the earth. It thrilled me that the Hill had a beginning and an end and I could connect with that. One late afternoon, keeping the general direction of the hill-end in view I started walking towards it. Soon I was out of familiar streets and sights and moving farther away into the limbo where village and city met and merged and lost worlds emerged. Ten the clusters of huts too vanished and the dusty cart-road straggled for a while, fnally leaving me in the middle of wide felds where only the hardiest crops grew in the dry and shallow soil. A few goats and bufaloes wandered around biting at leaves. I looked back and was astonished to see that I had left the city far behind and lights were beginning to glow in it. Te sun was sinking and an overwhelming twilight was falling over the land. I understood I had misjudged the distance to the Hill because I could see that it was still a long way of, beyond a lengthy slope covered with bushes. Te goats and bufaloes were gone. Suddenly I realised I was all alone, that the Hill was beyond my reach, that I was a stranger under a sun setting over a strange land, that the Hill had stood there for tens of thousands of years and it had no use for me. I felt the evening grow dark all of a sudden. I didn’t seem to know the direction I had to take to get back to the city. I stood under a vast sky, with a mountain turning dark before my eyes, listening to a silence that was overpowering, the faraway lights of the city making my loneliness all the more terrifying. I started walking back, looking to the lights as my guide. It had become cold and I thought I was about to start shivering. At that moment I knew I was being followed. I knew somebody or something was close behind me and getting closer. I jumped round in panic to see who or what it was. Tere was nothing; only the felds rolling away into the twilight and the Hill covering itself with a sheet of night. I started walking again. Tis time I had no doubt that I was not alone. Tere was something close on my heels. It was a most powerful sensation. When I moved, it moved; when I stood still, it stood still. I was sure that when I listened, it watched me listening, and it saw the fear washing over me. I was afraid to move, yet I knew I must move – run. Each time I turned in terror to look back I near-

ly jumped out of my skin anticipating what I might see. But there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Te Hill stood still. Te night was beginning to sweep over the land. I knew I was being stalked and that I was constantly in the stalker’s line of sight. I looked at the city lights for support, but they were blinking in another world. In the dim light cast by the black sky I screamed once and ran for my life. In a way I knew I was running away from nothing. But I could feel the stalker, like a heat-seeking missile, keeping up its invisible pressure behind me. I kept sobbing and running. Bushes scratched me and stones bit into my feet. I ran breathlessly through the tide of darkness swiftly rolling in, and slowly the stalker melted away. But with remembered terror I continued to run till I reached the frst cluster of huts. I walked through the village quietly like any other stranger meekly passing by. I marvelled that none knew that I had just been lured into a phantom world a few thousand feet away from the circles of light of their lamps.

Was it the Devil? God? Or was the Hill evicting an intruder through a whif of its selfhood? Were the felds laying an illusion-trap for a stranger? Was the sky deluding me with a phantasm of anonymous forces? Was the twilight mounting an instant drama in fear? Or was it a random burst of electromagnetic energy that had lost its way and was trying to cling to me like a motherless kitten? I will never know. I like to think it was a part of me that hovered there, lost and afraid, alien and lonely, slinking after my retreating steps. It must have been as terrifed as me. Maybe it still wanders out there, alone, all alone. I rule out the Devil and God from this event because it would have been very silly of them to waste high-value time chasing me out of Chamundi Hill’s evening world. Both are, by profession and by compulsion, hidden persuaders, operating from secret chips in our brain. I think, in general, they had helped my schizophrenia along so that each could manipulate a separate me and have fun watching me trying to be saint and sinner at the same time. When I ran screaming, God might have been an interested bystander and Devil busy in the city lanes – I don’t think he cares much for greenery.

I wonder what it was that made me fall in love with both boys and girls in Mysore. It was pure love, head over heels, which would transfer itself to another after a while. It was silent love. I never managed to convey my tender sentiments to my lovers. I just allowed myself to be haunted by them, and they themselves never knew it. Tere was my junior hostel-mate, J, a sixteen-something plump boy from South Canara’s arecanut groves in half-pants and checked shirt, hardly handsome or pretty but very self-possessed and warm. I used to wrap myself around him and look after his every need. I must have even fantasised Sin but it was unthinkable in real terms, considering the pureness of my love. I taught him cycling and accompanied him on his frst solos like a mother. He was a shaky rider, always on the verge of falling of. One day on Irwin road he was riding ahead of me and a bus squeezed him to the road’s edge. He lost balance but didn’t fall because he and the cycle were leaning on the bus! As soon as the bus passed he fell on to the road and when I picked him up in my hands I overfowed with tenderness. Perhaps I wanted to kiss him then, I don’t remember. I was in love with most of the girls too. I think some liked me as a strange toy. When they allowed me to get close I would backtrack, projecting them as mystery creatures from a magical world. Once my classmate, one of the stars of the college, asked me to go to her house in the evening to help her with English – a language where I had exhibited some talent except in talking – hinting that

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she would be alone. I crawled the half kilometre from my hostel to NR Mohalla where she lived, like a python who had swallowed too huge a meal, stopping and staring at the cacti hedge, meditating at a wayside pond, climbing the sloping road to the Mohalla as if it was Golgotha. Ten, having crept up to her house, I stood hiding myself in the shadows on the opposite side, watched her with pounding heart for a while and returned, empty, defeated, consoled only by the softly rising moon and the music that came foating beneath the just-risen stars. I still hadn’t been sanctioned chappals and pants and I was a barefoot lover in a dhoti. ***

RK Narayan was living in Mysore then. UR Ananthamurthy had, I think, just started teaching there. Prof CD Narasimhaiah was the uncrowned king of English and Indo-Anglian studies. A galaxy of Kannada writers and thinkers resided in Mysore. Sardar KM Panikker, the historian, was our vice chancellor. Oblivious to all this, I lived out my close encounters with the Other city. I lived blithely, hand-to-mouth, alternating between diarrhoeas and constipations, between fevers and falls from the cycle, pawning one day my precious cycle and another day my precious watch, following women on the streets to Restaurants at the End of the Universe and bitter fnishes. I learned to confess in English so that I needn’t confess to Malayali priests in unambiguous Malayalam and instead pass up a garbled and undecipherable list of sins in English to French and Tamil priests. I certainly must have mixed up nomenclature and categories, for one well-meaning retreat preacher who heard my confession in English became so overcome by my Sin Agenda that he kept following up on the state of my soul for months afterwards. I had begun to buy my frst English books from the grimy second-hand shops and pavement-sellers, was discovering the marvels of Economics as retold by Kewal Krishna Dewett and, more than anything else, immersed in selling over my soul, lock, stock and barrel, to Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, Tagore’s Reminiscences, Keats, Shelley, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Milton and a million-dollar textbook called An Anthology of Contemporary English Verse, edited by (May God Shower Everlasting Bliss on Her) Margaret J. O’Donnell.

It was only when I had fnished my degree in Mysore and started post-graduation in Bangalore and my Kannadiga fellow-students treated me with a certain respect, that I discovered that for the past three years I had been enjoying the singular privilege of studying under the Gopalakrishna Adiga, great pioneer of the modernist movement in Kannada poetry. It shows the state of abysmal maya in which I spent my years in Mysore. I am amazed at my daftness and sometimes wonder whether I might not be equally daft today about many things even as I experience them. To me Gopalakrishna Adiga was, all those years, just Adiga Sir whose every word I captured, chewed, swallowed, and regurgitated. So much so he would ask to see my notebook to refresh his memory on something he discussed a week back. He would also admonish me that I must think beyond what he taught and not be just a copyist. Little did he know that he was dealing with a cunning cannibal of sorts – that I was a ruthless alien waiting to be born as soon as sufcient life-soup had been sucked in. For I was not only a guaranteed schizophrenic but also an overfed, greedy bookworm. Nearly all my reading was in Malayalam and I had gnawed into almost everything that was to be had in local libraries around my village, good, bad and ugly. Now, all my instincts were gathered and poised for the next change-over, fuelled by nostalgia, emboldened by freedom, powered by awakening adulthood, fred by sexuality and instigated by the city. All my reading and experienc-

ing were now on their toes on the springboard of chance. And Gopalakrishna Adiga threw the door wide open and let me in to a world whose existence I never had suspected. He was not doing it specially for me. He was, like any great teacher, giving his students everything he had. And there were only four of us majoring in English Literature: two beautiful Coorgi girls who were essentially beating time (one of whom had invited me for the aborted homework), a boy called Victor, and myself. I was just learning to speak English, though on the writing of it I had some claims. Victor was an earnest and bright student but I had an edge over him as a diehard bookworm. It was upon this motley group that Adiga bestowed his magic as teacher and – now that I know what he was – as poet. He made me step through the looking-glass of imagination and see literature in reverse – as a process. He showed me the bits and parts that made creation work. With great ease he went behind the work and brought into view the blueprint of aesthetics and technique. Everything I had read now stood before me in a diferent light. I slowly realised that literature was not only about reading yourself into an ecstasy, that it had a premeditated form, purpose and plan, that it was possible to create literature if you tried. In my interior tours with Adiga Sir, I became both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, sat with Keats near the winepress, breathed the west wind with Shelley, laughed with Gulliver at the Lilliputians, climbed to precipices with Wordsworth.

In the sun that is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

Once Adiga Sir had taken me indoors of Eliot, Auden and Dylan Tomas, the alien-seed in me was ready to pounce.

In my third year, I left college hostel and moved, adult and free, into the annexe of Carlton Hotel, a Victorian establishment run by Mr Mysorewala, a Parsi gentleman with polished manners and, if my memory is not wrong, unpolished greed. Te annexe was an outhouse of sorts with a few dark and dingy rooms where students and suchlike lower phenomena stayed as lodgers. We ate at the main table in the Hotel with the regular guests, which involved learning western table manners and making conversation in English with those guests who asked us a kind question or two. Te boy from Urulikunnam was now learning to breathe in another, rarefed air. I fell in love with almost every white woman guest of the Hotel, most whom were in their ffties. Tat we were a lower form of life was evident from the fact that we had, with the help of the attendant Hassan, established peepholes into most bedrooms of the Hotel, from the rooftop and from other vantage points. Terefore, other things being equal, any lovemaking and female undressing that took place in the Hotel had at least a dozen breathless viewers. My room was at one end of the outhouse, with a small, mesh-wired window opening onto a dirty veranda and staircase, beyond which was a side-lane. Te staircase led to a Marwadi residence and I was laved with music levitating down the whole day,

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Radio Ceylon and Binaca Geethmala embroidering my unrest and sorrows with the greatest melodies of our times. A beggar woman and her child took shelter on the veranda at night and left behind disquieting odours. Sometimes for days both were ill. At other times dogs took their siesta there.

Te door to the veranda was permanently locked and it was inconceivable for me that I should enter the world on the other side, seemingly a million miles away. However the door had a wooden board which could be shaken loose from the veranda. A young, precocious boy from the Marwadi house upstairs would sometimes remove the board and squeeze in through the gap. He was a master of tantalising, excruciatingly oblique sexual stimuli, played out with great innocence. I practiced yoga, read and reread Dale Carnegie, took postal courses in self-improvement and hypnotism and pored over Quiller-Couch and Fowler trying to fght my way into the English language. For days I had been trying to translate “Preludes” into Malayalam for no other reason than that Eliot haunted me like one of my phantom lovers. I was, therefore, working face to face with the bewitching clockwork of his craft and the bookworm’s hoard of Malayalam words were being put to test. One day, moving away from the translation, I tried to write something of my own. I wrote it in English and abandoned it after a few sentences. Another day I ran into it again, completed it in Malayalam and found, to my great surprise, that it had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was a story about my home, my stream, my farm and my childhood. Adiga Sir had let loose the alien and he was now ready to swap bodies, invade minds and travel time’s secret places. I drank Eliot’s blood and grew. I ate Dylan Tomas’s fesh and fourished. I devoured them all. I was a full-grown cannibal. And I had learned how to mix memory and desire to make seducers out of words.

Mysore remains a great and calm city. It has become bitterly crowded, but seems to retain its sanity. I go back there once in a while and walk my old trails. Te obscure landmarks of my tramping paths are gone. I can’t even recognize my favourite theatres. But I was immensely happy to fnd in its old place the little magazine-vend on Sayyaji Rao Road where I had bought the Republic Day issue of Mathrubhumi Weekly carrying my frst story. Mysore was also the favourite city of my elder brother Joseph. It was he who brought me to Mysore and he died there. Many things have died with him. But I return to Mysore because, as I said, perhaps a part of me waits for me there. God, I am sure, still stalks sinners in Mysore. But all His old lairs must be gone. About the jukeboxes, I am certain. So where does he dispense music from? Does He still burn brightly from Chamundi’s summit? Does He still waylay sex-maniacs in the form of hard-hearted women? Does He still sufer schizophrenics to fall in love without gender-compulsions? He gave me a long rope in Mysore and may He continue to be lenient to all sinners there as He was to me. May Mysore fourish and grow ever more sensuous!

Every street-lamp that I pass Beats like a fatalistic drum, And through the spaces of the dark Midnight shakes the memory

As a madman shakes a dead geranium.


“For me it's all about the eyes, the connection I have with my subjects. My camera embodies a powerful medium of expression and communication; nothing is more moving than capturing raw human emotion …whether it's a twinkle in a child's eye or the playful banter between children, or the wholesome, sexy glance of an adult. Capturing those moments for posterity is what my photographs are about.”

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Translated from the Malayalam by Rithwik Bhattathiri.

Te morning dew still lingered on the grass blades in the park. A group of old men was sitting in a corner. In their whites, they looked like a fetid wound on the green of the grass-bed.

I watched them from the cold bench I had to myself. I was vainly trying to bury myself in the book I’d been holding for some time now. Te world was already up and about. Sitting in that tiny alcove of tranquillity, the old men were singing praise to a god far removed, for granting them the earthly paradise. In the calmness of the park, their tired and broken voices faltered like dregs and hung about like an irritating impropriety.

Te sun had just started beating down. Teir singing over, the old men dispersed and gathered themselves in the shades. I pushed my feet further into the soothing dampness of grass and tried to crawl back into my book.

“I’d rather sit here,” said the old man. “I’m sure you don’t mind.”

I had seen him coming but pretended I hadn’t. Tat he came to where I was sitting, though there were empty benches around, made me uneasy. However, for the sake of propriety, I said, “Please.”

He sat down right next to me and smiled. “You stay alone?”

I was a little taken aback. What a question! Tat too from a complete stranger!

“Nope. With family.”

“Same here. Kids?”

“None,” I said, without taking my eyes of the book.

“Oh! Husband, then?”

I shot a look at him. My lack of interest in continuing the conversation must have turned him of. He lifted his bony, sinewy hands to his eyes and looked up at the sky. A piece of the sun lay puddled on the bench next to his leg.

I hadn’t meant to be rude. But that patch of the sunlight on the bench, that crumpled fgure, those creases on his skin, those varicose veins, everything about him was detestable, I felt. Tat expression I saw on his face nearly brought bile to my mouth.

“Want to move into the shade?” I added as an apology. “It’s getting warmer.”

“Tanks,” he gave me a wet smile. His eyes were rheumy, I noticed. He wiped the corners of his mouth with the back of his shirtsleeve and smiled at me again.

“He’s travelling, my husband is.” I gave a hurried answer to avoid having to hear the question again.

I didn’t know what else to say.

I hadn’t known what to say to my husband either, as he walked out the door that morning. I hadn’t known whether to stop him or let him go. It was only last night he’d told me about the other woman in his life. But I didn’t know that a mere “Bye” and a nod of the


head was how it would all end this morning. I had replied, “I understand.” He was very civil to me. So, I too met him with imperative nonchalance. Looking back, had he lost his cool, I would’ve looked down on him with derision. Perhaps despised him, too. Instead, we had made it an unintended display of highbrow civility. I went about the morning as if nothing happened. I made some cofee for him, put the water on the boil. It was then I decided to give him the shirt I had bought for him some time back. With a word of thanks, he returned it. I took it and stood there not knowing what to do. I dropped it on the table and was assailed by an avalanche of questions. What is she like? Is she beautiful? Did they hold hands and talk sweet nothings in their private moments? Did they talk about me? … I wondered all this as he hesitated at the door. He was expecting me to say something. When I didn’t, he said bye and nodded as if it were the sum total of a dozen years of sharing a life together, closed the door and walked away. It was quite a while before I could shake myself loose from the cufs of a past barricaded by the rejected shirt and a future that lay beyond the closed door, and step out of the house.

“Bad move!” the old man startled me. He was pressing the walking stick to the ground as if to drive home the point. “Your inhibitions, that’s what did you in. Bad move!” It was only then I realized I was unburdening myself to him. My words were gushing forth like puss from a burst boil. He was a complete stranger. Probably I did it because he was a complete stranger. I hesitated…

“What else could I do?” I mumbled.

“Give that girl a tight slap. Tat’s what you could’ve done.” He continued, “You think it’s shameless? Blame it on your age if you do. Instead, what did you tell him? Ah, ‘I understand…’ Like hell you do.” He drove the walking stick deeper into the ground and leaned closer to me. “Look here … after I retired, my son wanted me to look after his son, my grandson. I agreed. I too had thought, ‘I understand…’ ‘It’s not about money,’ my daughter-inlaw told me as she was leaving for work one morning. ‘Peace of mind, that’s what it’s about. When we leave him with you, he’s the least of our worries.’ She winked and added, ‘But beware, he is baby dynamite!’”

Te old man went on, “But at that age his dad was an even bigger goon. So sure, I thought, I can tame this little fellow. So no worries, Sumathy. Long ago, in the past, I saw my son’s tiny hand falling across my chest like a feather as I put him to sleep. All the marbles, toys and balloons that fell out of his hand had adorned my years for a long time. ‘Biscuit at three. Have an eye on him all the time. He can be quite a handful,’ Sumathy reminded me. “What she said was right,” reminisced the old man. “Te child proved to be more than a handful. Tere was no respite as he was up to something or other all day long. I couldn’t take a break or snooze in the afternoon. Te days were longer and nights shorter. I was so spent, when my son and his wife got back from work, darkness too stormed into the room and into my mind as well. I started venting it out on my daughter-in-law. I knew it wasn’t right. But I didn’t know how else to deal with it. I could not pacify the kid. He wailed all day long. My backache worsened. I started taking it out on the boy too. ‘Are those idiots, your parents, bothered about you? I’m running after you day in and day out. And what the hell do I get in return? Forget peace of mind. I do not even get cigarettes. Tere’s not so much as the stub of a cigarette in this bloody house, you know?’ I stopped feeding him on time. He started losing weight. He was always on my nerves. And it got worse by the day. Tat’s when I started sending him out with the maid in the afternoons, just so they were out of earshot

when I took a nap. I had bought over the maid with a portion of the boy’s milk and biscuits and a few bucks. Still, why did the she betray me?! Tat evening when his parents returned, the boy was screaming. I had forgotten to feed him. Tey didn’t even look at me or ask for an explanation. My son stopped bringing cigarettes for me from that day on…”

Te old man seemed to smile to himself. “I was boiling. ‘Tree cigarettes a day for looking after your son, eh?’ I spat out at him. And I’ll never forget the look my son gave me. Looking back, I feel like retching at those words.”

Te old man kept on turning the walking stick in his hand. “It wasn’t so long ago that I used to carry my son on my shoulders, you know? Once, I remember, he cried a lot for a pinwheel and I got him a red one. And we ran along the riverbed, up and down, up and down … and he laughed and laughed. On the way back, he fell asleep in my arms and I kept my chin away so the stubble wouldn’t bother his sleep, you know? And his sleepy legs kept a tiny rhythm to my stride…

“Are you listening?” the old man asked all of a sudden.

I was. Tere was rheum in his eyes and they were moist too. Probably from sitting for so long in the sun. I thought he would wipe them, but he did not. Maybe he knows it is not easy to wipe it of. Why else? I saw saliva welling up at the corner of his mouth. He didn’t wipe that either.

“Where is the boy, now?” I asked.

“Tey don’t leave him with me any longer. Mrs de Souza takes care of him. Nowadays, he cries when he sees me.” His voice faltered. “Tat day I had met up with an old friend and downed a few pegs. Before I knew it, I was fast asleep.” Te old man lapsed into the past.

“I hadn’t heard my son walking in early from work. Te baby had fallen from the crib and was screaming. It looked I hadn’t fed him the whole day…”

I think I stared; he avoided my eyes and looked away, and added like an apology: “It hurts my back if I sit for too long. Tat’s when I feel like lying down. At my age, the biggest struggle one has is with one’s own limbs.”

Tat patch of the sun was on the old man’s thighs and stomach, but he wasn’t aware of it. People at the park were slowly thinning out. A steady stream of trafc formed a fence around the park.

“Come, let’s move out, it’s getting warmer here,” I said, helping him out of the seat. As I had nothing to look forward to back home I said, “Let me see you of at your home.”

Te old man stared as if I had said something stupid. “Don’t trouble yourself,” he said. Cupping my hands in his, he added quickly, “Not just that, I haven’t been to anyone else’s house for a while. Let me come over to your place, instead… Tat way you won’t feel lonely either.”

I froze at his words. Te returned shirt, the unmade rooms, the untouched food … all the innards of my personal life that lay there like an open book. I didn’t want the old man to see.

“Oh no! Today’s your turn to be the host!” I jerked the words out.

I saw blood draining from his face; he was shaken. He pulled his hands from mine as if he had touched a cold rail. I pretended not to see it.

We walked down the narrow road to the old man’s house. I saw his walking stick ricocheting of the sharp edges of the pavement rocks. Te loose end of my saree caressed his pyjamas. Te road was familiar, I’d been through with my husband many times before. He

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might not have gone to work today, I thought. Probably he’d be recounting our last evening together to that woman. He’d be lying in the bed, smoking. What’d he be feeling now? Melancholic? Sad? Relieved? She’d be sitting in front of the mirror doing her hair, listening to him… I had forgotten to ask him, was she married too? Tat way I could’ve gone one up on him. I’d missed the chance.

“It was a similar fower she was wearing.” Te old man halted, pointing to the bushes. “She was standing in front of me at the temple and I snatched the fower and ran it down the nape of her neck…” He smiled as if he was reliving that moment. And when this girl turned to look at him, he froze – she turned out to be a newly-wed from the village! Te old man burst into an irreverent laughter.

By now, exhaustion had gotten better of him. He was perspiring heavily. I slowed down further to match his pace. Te house he had pointed to had its windows closed. Despair hung over the place like an old cloak. “Careful, the steps might come loose,” he said as we climbed the stairs. He sounded so grave all of a sudden. A strange grimace had replaced the old man’s salivary smile. He fumbled with the key and opened the door a crack. A sigh of stale air and damp darkness jumped out at us from inside. He seemed to sneak inside and was eager to close the door behind us.

“Have a seat,” he said, tucking away the keys. “Let me get you some tea.” As he was about to go inside, he turned around and hastened to switch on the fan. “Don’t open the windows, it’s boiling outside.”

A tinge of unpleasantness hung in the air. No longer did the old man seem to be interested in any of the past stories. Te dry, stale air from the fan beat down on me. He went inside and I felt the viscous silence spread around the room in his wake like a drop of oil on water. Silence howled above the strained drone of the fan and even above the ruthless sun. Sitting there in the damp dimness, I started feeling that silence had eyes and it was staring at me out of them. I wanted to open the window, but decided not to, though the heat inside the room also had started burning my skin like an open gash.

“Can I have some water please?” I might have raised my voice a bit. “It’s so warm in here.”

“I’m making some tea,” he said from inside, and it seemed like he was speaking under his breath.

But I couldn’t bear to be alone there. “No worries, I’ll fx it.” Casting aside the sense of propriety, I hurried inside. He was clearing all the food that had been made for him from the table. On the stove, the kettle trembled like an irregular heartbeat. He did not turn to look at me.

I stood at the kitchen door for a moment. He neatly wrapped the food into a pack and bound it tightly and dumped it into the waste bin. He then covered it with carefully folded old newspapers, closed the lid and washed his hands again and again. His wrinkled face looked spent. He didn’t even utter a word. Silence wailed inside these walls like a haunted spirit. Even here the windows weren’t open.

Tat staleness of air, that hunch on his back, that piercing silence, that irregular beat of the kettle on the stove, everything worked up an unbearable crescendo, and I suddenly turned the stove of.

“You could’ve had the food. I can keep you company,” I said to break the silence.

Te old man shot a glance at me. I didn’t know why, but I saw a wave of fear crash

on his face. Without taking his eyes of me, he slowly edged towards me. I felt my fear swell like a balloon about to burst. He had transformed from the person I had met in the park earlier. Inching away from him, I suddenly turned around and picked up a glass of water from the table behind me.

Moving closer still, he hissed, “Do you know my son?” His breath fell on me like the lick of a fame.


“His wife, do you know her? Do you?”


Tat posture, that awkwardness, reminded me of the state I left my home in. Probably when I tried to cleaned up the mess back there, silence would stalk me, ready to pounce, like the old man did now. With a shiver, I turned away and wiped my face hard. And my eyes fell on a door that was bolted and barred with from inside. His stare continued to fall on me like a welding torch. I saw his skin tighten. And I saw a tinge of froth at his mouth. I put down the glass of water without drinking it.

Tis is my room,” he said without taking his eyes of me, as if taking them would mean my escape. “Come in.”

Damp stale darkness inhabited the room like water in a gutter.

For a moment, I was wondering if I should enter, when he slammed the door shut behind me.

I reeled in pitch darkness.

“Where’s the light?” I shouted. Tere was not a thing that I could see. Raising my voice probably had him in panic. He rushed to cover my mouth. I slithered out of his touch, before I even realized.

“No. Don’t!” he pleaded. “No lights or he will know I’m here!” I had to strain to hear him.

In my state of shock, he lit a wick. In the shaky fame, I saw the room, the lone window that was barbed and buttressed with crisscross wooden planks. Tere was leftover food strewn on the table. Tere was some water in a bucket.

“He tries the window at night…” Te old man was shaking. “He knows I’m alone … I don’t sleep. But he scares me … he’s younger, stronger…”

My eyes fell on the handle of blade that stuck out from under the pillow.

“For my safety,” he said, thumbing the rusty blade as if it were a charm to ward of spirits. “I got this the day I knew I was a burden to him.”

To my shock, I realized that the smell of the room seemed strangely familiar as it flled me with nausea. Last night, when my husband spoke about the other woman in his life, the many questions that came tumbling into my mind had smelled the same too. It was to escape this sufocating smell that I stepped out later into the night. I retched at this realization. With a start, I reached for the door.

“Don’t!” he squealed. “He won’t stop at anything. Even this food is spiked! When I fed it to the crows this morning, they dropped dead!”

Tose beads of sweat, that matted grey hair, that hot breath – I wanted to scream. Cold fear hung around my neck like a tight noose. I tried not to show it and reached for the door again. He grabbed me with the hand that held the blade.

“He … he asked me if I can move in with him…! Do you know what it means?!”

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His face was fush with blood that nearly dripped. Tat shock, that fear, that bitterness of his splashed on me like dirty water. “Do you know what it means?!” he repeated epileptically. “He shouldn’t have said that…” I replied, frantically groping for the lock.

Te exhaustion on his face should have prompted me to force him to the foor and ask him to relax, that’s what I would’ve done. But that heat, that stench, that darkness was unbearable and I was despairing now of getting out. Tat’s why, when my hands found the lock, I yanked the door open.

“Don’t leave me… Why? Is your husband coming back after all…?”

Te last bit stung like acid. “Don’t know, but I must go!” I barked.

As I leaped out of the room, he wound around my leg like a piece of rag. Even a gentle shove wasn’t enough. I unhinged his claws from my skin. In the darkness scarred by the open door, I saw his rheumy eyes flling with tears.

“Don’t! Please don’t…” Probably because I was expecting him to roar an order, I felt he was meekly begging. “He knows I’m alone here. His mother died here. On this very foor. But he doesn’t care, he doesn’t,” the old man wailed. “He can easily break in! Please, please don’t leave me!” His face was dripping wet. On that wetness, words foated like dead ants on water. For a moment, I wondered if what I felt for this man now was what my husband felt for me when I ofered him the shirt that morning. I recoiled as if I touched a fame. I turned to leave.

“Stop it! Leave me alone,” I spat. “It’s stupid! Why would your son want to kill you? You’re only blowing it up! You’re tired from sitting in the sun, that’s all. Take a break, and you’ll be fne. Why not open the windows…?”

I stopped. Te old man was braying. Te wrinkles on his soggy face were shamelessly wet with tears, rheum, and saliva. I suddenly felt relieved that I hadn’t wept in front of my husband last night.

“You don’t understand … my kid doesn’t speak to me now … it’s been almost two years…” His voice trailed of into a long wail. Te old man wasn’t looking at me now. But his gooey tears came fooding into my mind. His howl was so piercing. I didn’t want this to haunt me ever after. Tat’s why I threw my hand at him.

It was the sloppy wetness of his face that hit my hand as I shoved him away from me. I desperately wanted to wash it of. I didn’t bother to close the door to his room as I rushed out. Nor did I bother to pick him up from the foor where he had fallen like a discarded rag, or even blow out the wick that was burning despite it being only noon. Outside, the scorching sky hung petrifed over me. It’s humanly impossible to tie up all the loose ends, I told myself, and took unfappable comfort in the irrefutable justifcation of that argument. After all, we are only human!



When the sky deepens into shades of violet, I wait by my window. Te street, so deserted in the afternoon, except for the mewling cats foraging in the bins, has come alive with bicycles jangling and auto rickshaws swerving around cars. I listen to the sounds of people rushing home. I smell dinners being cooked, a cloud of aromas hanging over the dusty streets – the clanging of metal pots and pans, the sizzle of spices, the waft of steaming rice – riding in the evening air.

I have nowhere to go. Te last time I went out, I cremated my husband, and returned to this empty house. He left me when we were young and healthy and here I am, chained to this house by my inability to face the world. Te wardrobe along with my silks and chifons has been devoured by moths and mites. I wear this excuse of widowhood: a scrap of white cloth wound around my body. My body, once swelling like the mango in season, delectable, sweet, fragrant, has withered. Now the odour of my own decay clings to me all the time.

So I wait by the window, and watch other people. Especially him. His window is opposite mine. Just a sliver of street separates both our worlds.

Tey have been married ten years. He brought her as a bride to that fat. I was there, with the other women, ululating, showering rice and smearing vermillion on her forehead and welcoming her to her new life.

Last night he made love to her. Te streetlamp made slanting patterns over their bed, and I watched the long shadows move on the wall. I gripped the sides of my bed and felt the tension in the pit of my stomach. His fngers, long like an artist’s, stroked me and his nails, trimmed every Sunday, scratched and made white marks on my skin. She moaned, and I cried, “Shut up, you whore. Disturbing the neighbours with your screams.” He shut the window with a bang. And I was left alone, unfulflled, cheated out of my happiness, helpless. He’s here. Tat’s the sound of his scooter. I shufe to the kitchen, and warm my dinner. I heat up the lentils and rice, and pour them into a bowl. I slice an onion into four chunks and put it on a side plate. By this time, he is climbing up the fve fights of stairs to his house.

Balancing the steaming bowl and sliced onions on the tray, I take my place by the window again. He’s removing his shirt. I cling to my dressing gown, smelling his sweat, my tongue outlining the sweat-circles on his sleeves. I taste the saltiness from his skin. He drops his clothes on the foor, and she picks them up after him.

She has found something in his trouser pocket. She is shaking it in front of his face. A bottle. It is the same story once again. A man needs his drink, especially if he’s married to a barren woman; ten years and no signs of a child. Tirty years, and the seed refused to bear fruit: I remember it only too well. So what if my body was oozing with lust, and my ripeness turned on the desire; the inside was a dry, wasted desert, where nothing could take on life.


Tose years sucked out our happiness. We made a charade of living together, knowing every single time the passion arose, there would be no result to those meaningless actions.

She is crying, and shouting at him. I hear her stinging words. Tey are an echo of mine. But I know better now; I know he needs it to forget what he cannot have. He takes a step forward and slaps her. I finch. Forgive me, forgive me, I cannot help it. Don’t drink so much, it will take you away too. Like it took him. She moves away from him, face buried in her hands, shaking convulsively. He steps into the bathroom. Ten minutes. He’s going to wear the blue pyjamas tonight. Te white pair is hanging on the clothesline outside the window, fapping in the evening breeze, dancing and teasing me to come and join him on that line. He sprays talcum powder on his back, his chest and under his arms. If only I could just reach out and touch his chest, and stroke it and lick the talcum powder, which looks like icing sugar. He combs his hair carefully, frst patting it dry with a towel. His hair has thinned a bit more at the top. I want to run my fngers through and feel the moistness, and smell the freshness of his hair.

He looks at her, she is still crying. He wants to have his drink, but I know he has run out of Coca-Cola. She has forgotten to replace it. He is shouting at her, and she is trembling. She has to buy them now. He throws the empty plastic bottles at her, and she ducks. She goes out of the house and I sigh with relief. At last, I have him to myself for a while. I chew my meal slowly, and watch him cut onions. He likes munching them with his rum. I wonder what his breath would be like if he made love tonight. Pungent, acidic, sharp. I crunch into my onion, and chew slowly, letting the sharpness trickle down my throat. In the night, when I hear them move, I can whisper his name, and feel his pungent breath on my face, and taste the onions on his tongue.

She has returned. But she is empty-handed. She will never learn. He yells and she cowers. “Why, you stupid woman, are you messing up my evening?”

She turns away from him, and I can see her in the kitchen, stirring the pot vigorously, cursing him under her breath. He enters, with his bottle, and drinks it straight up. He then raises his hand and hits her from behind. I hold my breath. She nearly hits the pot bubbling with their evening meal. She turns of the gas and runs out of the room, while he staggers around, trying to control his movements.

Ten he looks out of the window, his eyes turn to slits, as if peering to spot me in the shadows. He looks straight into my eyes. I tremble in the intensity of his gaze. I follow the movement of his lips.

“Crazy bitch,” he mouths and slams the window shut.


Te phone is ringing when she walks into the room but Deepika ignores it. She doesn’t want the husky, anonymous voice to spoil her day. Everything is going perfectly. Her cleavage is mesmerising her ageing co-star, Chet, into speechlessness, and she’s slowly upstaging him. Her ability to turn up sober and on time is making sure the director, Hanif Masood, is letting her get away with it. If she has a reputation for being over-friendly, she might as well use it. Tis is shaping up to be her second big break, what she needs to banish the spectre of Sajani for good. She kicks of her shoes, and throws her peach and gold dopatta over the violet plush armchair. Te colours clash magnifcently. Tere have been fresh fowers every few days, and this time it’s jasmine, sweet and heady.

Te phone is fnally silent, and her hand hovers over it. She could call Jayvita, but their father will be preparing for bed and wouldn’t let her answer. Tey keep early hours in Shirgaon. She decides to test the kitchen at the Novotel and her starlet status, and order room-service. She could get ukdiche modak, truly commemorate where her resurgence started, meeting Adarsh at the Ganesh festival. Tat might be tempting fate, the movie is only halfway through. She settles for mango poli, made with Alphonso mangoes, and ginger tea.

She’s soaking in the tub with the marble surround, in the bathroom that’s the same size as her fat in Kolad, when the phone rings again. She takes it of the hook, and settles into the king-size bed, into well-pressed, lavender-scented sheets. She’ll need to be rested for tomorrow. Te hotel’s almost inperceptible aircon has tamed the Mumbai humidity, but they’re flming on Juju beach tomorrow. Even with the sea breeze, the temperature will be exhausting.

“I was surprised to see you at the Ganesh festival. I thought you’d left Shirgaon for good, the flm career was going well?”

“You must be the only person who didn’t hear the horrible things my co-star said after we fnished shooting Sajani. I’m taking a rest from the drama.” ***

Deepika’s kept the studio taxi waiting, looking for her powder-blue high-heeled mules, which she’ll need for the scene in the nightclub today. She wasn’t supposed to take them of set, but they match her favourite sequinned top. She’s fve minutes late walking to the lot and she’s mobbed by reporters as she tries to cross the street. Tey’re waving cameras and microphones at her face, but she’s learnt her lesson after Sajani, so adjusts her Donna Karan sunglasses and holds one beringed hand up to block them out. Te trick is to feed them enough for them to think you’re worthwhile but not let them devour you. Te blaring of horns and the shouting of a panni puri vendor is almost drowning them out.

“Deepti, Deepti, what’s your relationship with the happily married Legislative Member Tandon?”

“He knows my father.”


“Deepti, what do you say to rumours there is proof you have a more intimate relationship?”

“Rumours are just rumours. You know this. Tere will be no proof.”

“What about the proof that he’s fnancing this movie?”

She sees her chance and squeezes between a sunshine-yellow rickshaw and a man waving at his cow that’s decided to sit in the middle of the road. Te reporters get stuck behind the trafc patiently waiting for the cow to make up its mind, and most turn away. As she slides into the lot the set bodyguard, Vandit Singh, strides out to meet the press stragglers. He nods at her. With his tall, broad-shouldered silhouette and imposing turban, he could have made it on camera if it hadn’t been for the smallpox scars that cover his face. She rushes into make-up and is having her long, wavy hair teased into a beehive as Chetan “Chet” Mehrotra slinks into the room. He reeks of stale smoke, Vicks VapoRub and something saccharine. He’s been trying to catch her undressed since the begining of the shoot last week. Her powder-blue mules match his eyes, and he’s taken that as a sign.

“So, Deepika, those reporters, hein? Already, we’re creating buzz.”

“Deepti, please. Only my father still calls me that, and you’re not old enough.”

He runs his hand through his thinning, slicked-back hair, secure that those famous eyes and square jaw are still enough to cast a spell.

“You don’t need all that make-up, muje phool, my fower.” Nila, the willowy darkskinned make-up artist, snorts. He folds his manicured hands over his burgeoning paunch and licks thick lips. “So, your outft today. Good change from those widow clothes. For a Mussulman, Masood knows what sells a movie.”

Deepika pouts for Nila to apply dark-red lipstick but futters her eyelashes for Chet. He swallows and licks his lips again.

“So I’ll see you on set. Make sure that kipstick is lissproof.” As he oozes away, Nila breaks into giggles.

“Make sure that kipstick is lissproof! I’m sorry for you, darling. I could smell the Bacardi from here. He thinks that Vicks covers it up! Watch out for wandering hands.”

“Oh, Nila.” Deepika stands up and adjusts her long, silver, fligree earrings. “Tere are worse things, believe me.”


Te phone is ringing as she rushes into the hotel room, dropping her bag, kicking of her shoes and untying her hair as she goes. Jayvita has promised to ring today, a “frst day on set” tradition. But the voice on the other end is mufed and she doesn’t catch what they’re saying. Ten there’s a clicking sound and she hears herself speaking, low and seductive.

“He was lying, you know. I’d never throw myself at a boy like him. I prefer older men, more experienced.” A pause, flled with rustling and murmurs. Ten, lower still, so the voice is almost unrecognisable:

“Tumhi mlaa kru shkaal kaay, can you help me?”

She hangs up, and sits trembling on the edge of the dark-covered king-sized bed, that seems now like a fathomless hollow. ***

Hanif has hired out fashionable China House in Bandra for Chet’s birthday party. Tey’ve stufed themselves with Cantonese and Sichuan delicacies from a vast bufet, tended by slender girls in gold and red kimonos with gold chopsticks in their hair. Tea-smoked duck, spiced

fsh, crispy squid, all fragrant and delicious. Deepika is fnshing a plate of lychees, perfumed but cloying. Vandit has brought his wife, and they are just leaving. Tey made a striking couple, in matching blue turbans and chunky steel braclets. Him in a Prussian blue linen kurti and tightly-laced black Oxfords, her in a lavender salwar kamees and jewelled slippers. Tey’re starting to clear tables to make space for the dance foor, and the achingly hip DJ fown in from Hong Kong. Deepika is staring at the Singh’s retreating backs as a soft voice, as honeyed as the lychees, says:

“Have you heard the story that he lost that fnger on his left hand in a machete fght? Or the one about a tiger? Everyone has a backstory in this place.”

She smells citrus and menthol, and turns to see Suria, the PR lackey from Jaguara Petroleum. She’s poured into a green and silver kimono-style dress she must have brought with her from Singapore, and four-inch strappy silver sandals that bring her up to Deepika’s chin. Her hair is back-combed into a bun and studded with fake diamonds. If she didn’t insist on wearing yellow-toned lipstick that doesn’t fatter her very white teeth, she’d ft in with the models that fock to Hanif’s parties. Even though he’s married and always brings his wife.

“I was thinking about leaving, I’ve never heard of this DJ, and it’s my big scene tomorrow.”

“Stay a half-hour more. Hanif will notice who eats and leaves. Chet’s chasing one of the servers, he won’t bother you.”

Tis woman has been in Mumbai for fve minutes and she thinks she’s worked out all the angles. Deepika raises one eyebrow and picks up her Mai-tai.

Tere’s nothing happening with Chet. We’re just co-stars.”

“So is it the young gangster with the girlish cheekbones you have your eye on? I think you might not be his type.”

Curly-haired, sallow-faced Xavier Alva is standing by a golden statue of a laughing Buddha, looking uncomfortable in a crisp white shirt that strains across his well-muscled chest. He’s with Geet, just Geet, the bald cinematographer with the thin moustache and the Rolex. He usually leaves his wife at home. Tis is Xavier’s fourth picture, and his frst co-lead, and there are whispers about his sexuality. Something about always wearing open-toed sandals, even on his Harley. Bollywood’s ability to make 2+2 into 22 is breath-taking, and Deepika seems to be talking to a master of the art.

“I haven’t got my eye on anyone. Tis picture is just business for me.”

Suria is biting her bottom lip, as if she’s trying to stife a smile.

“I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable? It’s just my job. Making sure nothing comes out of the woodwork that we can’t spin. Your love-lives are much messier than oil spills!”

Deepika must have laced up the strings of her sequinned bustier too tight. Tis woman is openly confessing to professional stalking. She puts down her glass and reaches for the water jug.

“But you’ve got nothing to worry about, right? All that’s behind you. Everyone’s almost forgotten about, well your other movies.”

Deepika holds the cold water against the pulse jumping in her neck. Suria is primping at her hair, sure of the efect she’s having. Te glass feels slippery in her hand.

“Tumhi kaay mehntaa te melaa sumjit naahi, I don’t understand you.”

“Oh, is that Hindi? It’s one of my languages but you speak so fast here. My Tamil is

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“It’s Marathi. I said, I think you’ve got lipstick on your teeth.”

Suria produces a compact from an invisible pocket, and starts staring at her face. Deepika slides away and takes refuge in a white-washed niche containing a tall bamboo plant, on the way to the bathrooms. Was all that a threat? Or just casting a lure, to see if she bit? Professional, not personal.

Her chest is easing, and she slips out of her mules. Two slim almost-defnitely models glide past, in short silk skirts, Jimmy Choos and a cloud of Anna Sui.

“I don’t know if I could show my face.”

“She’s been through this before, yaar, with Sajani. All publicity is good publicity.”

“But with Adarsh Tandon! I mean, he has that older man, touch-of-grey hottie thing, but he’s old enough to be her father.”

“She’ll be older than she looks, And, Sweetie, it’s her father who introduced them!”

As they walk, giggling, into the black laquered bathrooms, Deepika throws up the lychees into the plantpot.


“So, your family is well, Deepika?”

“Tik aahe, they’re well, Mr Tandon. But did you bring me to your hotel room to talk about my father?

Deepika sprawls awkwardly in the plush violet armchair. She wants to call Jayvita, hear a friendly voice, but the phone hasn’t stop ringing since she got back from the set two hours ago. She grinds her toes into the cofee-coloured plush carpet and realises she’s only managed to kick of one of her high-heeled powder-blue mules.

Her low-cut matching blue dress is starting to wrinkle, worn all day for nightclubscene reshoots, but she can’t summon the energy to get changed. Her long dark wavy hair is loose and sticking to her neck, she’s forgotten to turn on the aircon. She misses the whirr of ceiling fans, brushing cool air over skin. Te indigo walls, splashed with gold fowers, are swamping her. It’s not only that the phone now rings every hour, on the hour, until three a.m. every night. If she did ring someone, what would she say? And is this room bugged too?

Suria has told her to meet her at the Jungle cafe in the Mega Mall. Te shiny, white, faux-marble monstrosity has glass automatic doors and coloured fags futtering at the top. A man in a white dhoti and brown chapaals spits red paan juice into the street nearby. Te petite Malay woman is holding a menthol cigarette as Deepika walks up.

“Tat’s a great dress. Fashion Street? I can’t get into any of the clothes at the market, they’re not made for women with hips.”

“Tey’d look at your shoes and charge you double anyway. Is this a social visit?”

“Sit down, order something. Tey have great seafood.”

A waiter appears, dressed like a forest ranger with short-cropped hair and an apron. Deepika points to the frst thing on the menu, crab salad with mango salsa. Suria gets a grilled chicken sandwich and iced tea. Across the mall, denim-clad teenagers are giggling at the fshpond with the statue of Venus, before taking selfes next to the glass elevator.

“So, you know we’re both village girls? I expect Shiragoan’s got nothing like this

place. And it’s hard being a Malay in Singapore business. You have to work much harder if you’re not Chinese.”

“I’m glad there’s nothing like this in my town. You should see the Hanuman temple. We’re not bonding, Suria.”

“I was just trying to make this easier for you.” She pushes her shiny, black bob over one ear, showing of yellow gold studs.

“Tere’s been some … concerns about how things are going on set.”

Te waiter brings their drinks and she smiles at him automatically. She squeezes the pineapple slice from the garnish on her Jungle Juice. Hanif wouldn’t have told, he’s an Actors’ Director. Chet wouldn’t dare, she knows too much about him, Vandit is the only one who looks her in the eye. She moves to crushing mint leaves. It couldn’t be Nila?

“Everything’s fne on set. I’ve had a little stomach bug. Hanif gave me the day of, they’re flming the ambush at the gang hideout.”

Suria takes out an ice cube and crunches it. Ten that bitten-bottom-lip trick is back.

“Come on, we both know your big scene was a little … lacking. You’ve been … distracted. You’re looking tired.”

Tere are dark circles under her oversized sunglasses, and under the turquoise chiffon maxi-dress she hasn’t bothered to shave her legs or paint her toenails. All ofences that would put her at the top of the Walking Disaster column in Femina magazine.

“Te company are wondering, do you need some more time of? Maybe go back home? Tere’s time to recast.”

Te pressure is back again on her chest, and the aircon must have stopped working. Suria is sipping iced tea calmly, lipstick perfect, showing no sign of equipment failure.

“Everything is fne.” She tries to breathe slowly through her mouth.

“Look, cards on the table. I know about the Ganesh festival. We both know your best performances are … of-camera.”

Deepika picks up a toothpick and stabs it into the table, pretending it’s Suria’s stubby-fngered hand.

“Are you threatening me? Are you working for the company, or for him?” Te toothpick breaks. “Are you phoning me?”

“Calm down, you just sound paranoid now. I’m trying to help you. You know, this business isn’t for everyone.”

Te waiter has brought their food. Deepika pushes away from the table.

“I’m not hungry. “ Suria is smirking openly, reaching for her sandwich. As she strides away, Deepika whispers to the waiter. “Hya sāheb sarva denan detīl, this lady will pay for everything.”

It’s a tiny victory.

Tere was a diferent hotel suite, with soft velvet curtains, a mini-bar and a larger bed with a purple, quilted-silk bedspread.

“So, your father is well, Deepika? And your sister? She was promising well. But then your mother was a very beautiful woman.”

“Tik aahe, they’re well, thank you, Mr Tandon. But did you bring me to your hotel room to talk about my father?”

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“I thought you might like a quiet drink, my dear. Hanif throws excellent parties but they can be crowded. We have privacy here.”

“Coke and a splash of whiskey then, Mr Tandon. Can I sit here on this bed? I’ve never seen anything so comfortable.”

Tere is the sound of throat-clearing, the swish of silk and the bounce of bedsprings.

“Hrmm, call me Adarsh, my dear. Let me just get those drinks.”

Te clink of glass, liquid glugging. Soft, indistinct murmurs.

“Do you know Hanif Masood well? I hear he’s casting for a new movie.”

“He’s talking to me about fnance. I’ve helped him before and the petroleum company is doing well.”

“Oh yes, you’re opening an ofce in Singapore. How exciting! I’ve never been further than Jodhpur, for shooting.”

“Tat’s why I was surprised to see you at the Ganesh festival. I thought you’d left Shirgaon for good, the flm career was going well?”

“You must be the only person who didn’t hear the horrible things my co-star said after we fnished shooting Sajani. I think he got caught up in his own publicity. I’m taking a rest from the drama.”

More chinking, perhaps ice in whiskey tumblers. Or earrings as hair is tossed. Or bangles being removed.

“Tat’s a very pretty dress, my dear. You know, if I’m going to make a success of this run for the Legislative Assembly, I’ll have to spend more time here in Mumbai.” Words overlaid by footsteps. “I’m thinking of buying a place on Marine Drive.”

“I think that was more than a splash of whiskey, Adarsh.”

Te last word is breathy, then voices are mufed again by movements. A clunk, a glass being placed down. Louder rustling of fabric.

“He was lying, you know. I’d never throw myself at a boy like him. I prefer older men, more experienced.”

Murmurs now, indistinguishable sounds. Crinkling? Creaking? Someone whispers, tumhi mlaa kru shkaal kaay, can you help me? ***

It’s her big scene today. Chet has tracked her down, and is about to tell her the real story of her husband’s death, killed by gangsters behind his nightclub. She has to show surprise, disbelief, grief, anger, resolve. All while being back-lit in her white window’s sari so it’s partly transparent. Tey’re on the eleventh take.

She covers her ears, and turns her head away.

“No, no. I don’t believe you. My husband would have told me. He wouldn’t take on … gangsters.”

Chet has spent two hours in make-up with cold cucumber slices on his eyes to reduce pufness. Someone has told him Brut smells better than Vicks. It’s not true. “He wanted you to be safe. No one else was standing up. It was something he had to do.”

“But, Adarsh…”

“Cut!” someone yells.

Deepika fops to the foor. Rajesh. Her fake dead husband’s name is Rajesh. Hanif is suddenly in front of her, she can see his brown leather sneakers. She tilts her head up slowly, past Calvin Klein jeans, and a dark-grey Armani shirt with trails of white embroidered ivy

leaves up to a ponytail and neatly trimmed goatee. She squints tentatively at his face. He’s rubbing his bulbous nose.

“Deepti, look. Sometimes it just doesn’t fow. Xavier’s here, Chet’s here and mostly functioning. We can block out the scenes in the gang hideout. Take a day. We can come back to this.”

He gives her that charming, mischievous smile that has actors nodding along and models focking to his parties. She knows she’s being dismissed. She gathers her belongings and waves at Nila, who catches her eye in the mirror but doesn’t wave back. Vandit nods, his thick, frizzy eyebrows drawn together and his mouth a thin line under his greying moustache. Someone starts a slow clap as she walks of the lot but she doesn’t look back.

Te phone is silent tonight, and Deepika is sprawled on the bed wrapped in the white cotton hotel bathrobe. It’s the motorbike chase tomorrow so she won’t be needed until the afternoon.She didn’t let the maid service in today, suspicious of strangers, and the jasmine is starting to brown. Te heady fragrance bordering on overripe. She turns on the forty-inch fatscreen TV, and fips to MTV. It’s the Celebrity section of the news. A skinny VJ in skinny jeans and false eyelashes fnishes gushing about Shah Rukh Khan and starts talking about her movie. She turns the sound up.

“Deepti Kamble’s new movie Badala was set to be a smash hit. It’s her frst since the scandal that was Sajani, but Sssh!” Fake fngernail held up to pouting pink lips. “She wouldn’t want us to talk about that. She played it smart and waited for this remake of a Sri Devi classic, directed by award-winning Hanif Masood and shot by the one and only Geet. Deepti plays a young woman whose soldier husband is killed by a gang leader, played by hot commodity Xavier Alva. She turns for help to Bollywood darling Chet Mehrotra, a nightclub owner and love interest with underworld connections. But how far will she go for revenge?

“Now the set is dogged by rumours of how far Miss Kamble will go for a role. Her friendship with Legislative Assembly member Adarsh Tandon is also in the spotlight, and threatens to overshadow anything that’s happening on scr—”

Deepika jabs at the of button, then throws the remote on the foor. She needs some time away. Some quiet time.

“Tat’s a very pretty dress, my dear. You know, if I’m going to make a success of this run for the Legislative Assembly, I’ll have to spend more time here in Mumbai. My wife would stay with the children in Shirgaon. I’m thinking of buying a place on Marine Drive.”

“I think that was more than a splash of whiskey, Adarsh. But I’ve always loved Marine Drive. And the good thing about this dress is, it’s so easy to take of.” ***

She leaves through the kitchen and the tradesman’s entrance, as the front is still mobbed by reporters and photographers. In a dark green salwar kamees, hair simply tied back, just eyeliner and no powder to cover up her freckles, Deepika blends in with the crowds that fock to Juhu beach. No cameras turn in her direction.

She passes a panting beige street dog with an upturned tail, a dark-skinned man in a thin white singlet selling buta, roasted corn, and people eating bhel puri. Tere is salt in the air and the smell of prawns from the fshing boats, who’ve sold their catch and gone home. Tere used to be an elephant before they cleaned up the beach, and now there are horse-

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drawn carriages for the tourists. She makes straight for the edge between sand and ocean. She removes her sandals and lets the waves splash over her feet.

Te sun is starting to set, and the sky is turning pink, creating purple highlights on the water. A crowd is gathering around a dancing monkey, the emerging shadows darkening its fur and creating deep pools under its liquid brown eyes. It moves slowly and deliberately, in contrast to its bright red fez, gold waistcoat and the bangra music coming from a radio held by a tall, scrawny man. She pictures the Hanuman temple, with the fanking coconutpalm trees and carved stone arches, then brushes at damp eyes and looks back at the sun.

It was a place like this where she was discovered for the best-friend part in Pyaar, that lead to Sajani, that lead to this. Tere is nothing left for her here. Tey can fnish the picture without her. She could take up some modelling ofers in Kolad, but she never really unpacked there. She could apologise to her father, fnish college. Spend her evenings sipping mango lassi on the porch with Jayvita talking about her day at school.

Water swirls onto the beach and washes everything away.


Translated from the Hindi by Aparna Anekvarna

the abode of seasons remain vacant people dwell within walls and doors.

Tis time, she was dead serious about it. Te day had been dripping-wet and that particular colour of the season did not mean anything to her anymore. She felt the pain shooting beyond its threshold. It caused a kind of short-circuit in her brain-wiring. At its peak now, her loneliness was complete.

Curled close to a heap of books and the television left on the whole night, she had to brace herself to face yet another forsaken morning in that corner, its faded pink curtains, in the same decay of that very house, area, city and country in the same old world. She woke up like this maybe for the one thousand and thirtieth time, that day.

Carrying a three-year-old pain in her lower abdomen, a dead appetite, swollen anaemic face and pufy eyes, chipped nailpaint and raw fngernails.

Her mind was made. Tis was no emotional blackmailing or any wrath-driven impulse. It had sprouted to become a necessity now. Tis day, suicide had turned into a desperate need. To her, nothing had remained the same as before, in fact everything was over. Te will to live or sleep, the occasional daydreaming, trust over god or her own self, physical attraction towards men, indulgences and fetishes, even her interest in grooming, food or drinks was over. Days went by without even a single glance at the mirror.

“Let me do away with this troublesome continuation of inhaling and exhaling.”

She dragged herself to the balcony of her third-foor apartment and peered down. Te jamun tree there was in full splendour turning the road below purple, with the plump, dark berries falling now and then. Te plums fell to their squashed end, creating pleasant purple patterns on the road. If she willed so, she could have easily taken a similar plunge just as she had been imagining a thousand times, and at times dreamt about it as well.

“No, this ain’t the correct way.” She couldn’t bring herself to fall to a squashed end and turn the road red like a jamun plum. So what next? She went back inside. A note, with a phone number, in bold black markings on the wall near her bed’s headrest read “Sumaitri: Life is precious”. A friend had scribbled the number of the NGO when she was there to drop her home from a hospital. At that time, she had attempted suicide by consuming phenyl.

“Listen, just dial this number whenever you have the same inclination again. Tankfully I arrived in time and you went through the abdomen-wash and saline was administered

@LitroMagazine @LitroMagazine

and we are not even talking about the side-efects right now. And please, leave such disgusting toilet stuf alone … you could have done better…” she had taunted. Her only friend was very irritated by then … after all that running around and warding of persistent interrogation by the cops.

“Do you have any idea about why she consumed phenyl?”

“Mmm … maybe to clean her stomach-walls…” she had murmured to herself.


“I mean, she apparently got confused between the bottles of the liquid antacid and phenyl. She got them both from the market and had kept them on the table. At night, she must have picked the wrong bottle after a bout of acidity … so … it was a mistake you see.”

“Oh! Okay! Okay!”

“Aah!” she sighed as she dialled the number. Following the connecting tune, the customary pre-recorded message in a lousy pronunciation said: “Tis number is out of coverage area. Please dial later.” She tried unsuccessfully for two more times then she put her phone away. Walking up to the mirror she gave herself a good look. Dead lifeless skin, swollen sunken deep brown eyes, dry lips, thinning sparse hair, stared back at her. She rubbed a little lotion on her face and changed her flthy, frayed chemise-like nightgown into a new pink kurta and slacks. She weighed her decision as she applied eau de cologne to her underarms.

“Yes, it is over.”

She began tidying up her room. No one ever visited her, but they will after her death. Her elder brother and his family who stayed in the same city, neighbours, her few friends and colleagues from her old ofce and of course, her ex-husband and son!

As she threw away an ant-eaten rotting apple, long forgotten on the computer table, she recalled something she had once watched on television. It was about numerous websites which tutored easy and painless methods of committing suicide. She switched on her computer and googled it. Right from the Wikipedia to many websites and blogs, the net was teeming with free information. Absolutely free. She clicked open one such website, and lo and behold! It talked about the pros and cons of jumping to death from a great height. “It is quite possible that after such a fall you might have to spend your life in a wheelchair.”

“No way! Not that!” She went on to another blog, Painless suicidal help.

It was hardly a blog but more of a forum. People had submitted their suicide notes there. Such diverse pain, so much of unparalleled loneliness. Te blogger had distributed a pack of advice to each of them. One dejected anonymous note read, “I wish it was easy to slit my throat with a blade. Tis life is just pain. Tey say for everyone in this world there is love somewhere … utter rubbish! For I happen to be a living example. I am a 40-year-old lonely bachelor ravaged by bouts of migraine and no job, in spite of my being a topper student. Tis festive season, Christmas has ushered in melancholy for me.”

In answer and advice to this, the blogger had written, “Love is just a label given to this extreme emotional high by some fool. You can down a few sleeping pills with alcohol but my friend, just before you do that, do smash few heads of the rich and the elite this Christmas. Tey have turned this world into a gutter.”

Another despondent anonymous wrote: “Sitting on the steps of a temple, all I can think about is death. I am an engineer and have full-blown AIDS. I long to do some good before I die. Specially for these beggars and orphans, shivering in this bitter cold. Maybe this is what God wants me to do.”

Te answer to this said, “I hate God! Tere is no such thing as ‘God’! Chloroform would be the best for you. You must be in deep pain, you need a sweet sleep forever.”

As she scrolled down, her head reeled. Te blog was brimming with endless gloomy posts and rambling of hopeless faceless people. A girl sufering incestuous abuse for eight years now, a woman going through husband’s infdelity, a disabled youth, sentenced criminals, drug addicts, bedridden aged people! Te blogger had an answer for each of them along with a sure-shot way of a painless death.

She got up and fetched herself a glass of water. She had a few sleeping pills. Pondering over the start of her suicide note, she decided it had to be a bit poetic… Underlining pain and loneliness, on the useless existence of her empty barren body, post-hysterectomy. “I wanted love, romance from this life … to yearn and be yearned for in return! A touch that would have awakened this numb body … but now, all I want is to get rid of this life. For some time now, the woman, the mother in me is dead. I am a schizophrenic!” It wasn’t very poetic, after all. She posted her suicide note on the blog and kept it anonymous. Te blogger answered almost immediately: “Go ahead!” Something trembled in the water-flled glass… Te yellow pills in the brown transparent bottle smiled and turned into smiles. Te faded pink curtains ballooned with air. Te rain intensifed and through the wire-meshed door, began to dampen the foor of her room. She got up and shut the door, opened the lid of the bottle. Te smiling pills wore sadness now.

A new post appeared on the blog page. “Dear Anonymous, can I help you? Can I call? Give me your email id.” She thought for a second and sent her email address across. Immediately after, there was an online ring on the computer: “hello Farzana!”


“Farzana, I am Srinivas! Are you really contemplating suicide? Do you have just fve minutes?”


“How would you rate your death wish? On the scale of ten?”


“Ten it is fne. Have you gone through this blog?”

“Yes. A little bit. Is it yours?”

“No. But I have read and gone through it thoroughly. And I have done its technical analysis as well. Tis is a foreign blog. Providing a platform to thousands of people – sick, in pain, desolate. It simply indulges the hopelessness and suicidal tendencies. And did you notice the many advertisements on it?”

“Yes. So what are you implying?”

“Use logic. Te viewership is quite high and the blogger is minting a whole lot of money. See, the strategy is to lure such vulnerable people to your blog and encash their pain, their loneliness through these ads.”

“Oh! I never gave that a thought, and why anyone contemplating suicide would ever think about it?”

“Yeah! that makes sense. I myself am sufering from autoimmune disorder. I have all kinds of skin diseases. I was in your shoes just a month ago. And the pain, oh! let us not even go there. Tat particular day I would have rated it nine out of ten. I had made my mind to die for even my loved ones felt repulsed by my body. I spent months in a sanatorium and

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had returned just a month ago. It was then that I came across this blog, and many other similar blogs, websites. I was also herded towards death. A room flled with carbon monoxide was my fx… I wondered how many more were following such instructions from by an anonymous entity over the internet. Ten I discovered that half of these cases were fake, probably posted by the blogger himself, just to lure more visitors to the site.”


“Farzana! I would never say that life is beautiful! It sucks! It is pathetic, bursting with pain and pus! But guess what! Pus can be cleaned and distraction can take care of pain, even if for just a little while. A couple of days ago, a friend gave me a puppy with an injured limb. It was probably lost and on its own. I took care of the cast and left it in my courtyard. Today, I found it playing with a ball, dragging itself about. Watching it eat and play, I wondered if the idea of suicide ever crossed its mind as well? Of course not, no beast has this option ever. Tey might be injured or sick or banished out of the pack, they survive by licking their wounds alone. It is us, the humans who have found ways to murder others as well as our own selves…”


“I won’t ask your reason for this death-wish, or if you are still interested in the same. I just want you to rate, yet again, this desire to die. Out of ten…”



Te room resonated with the sound of the disconnected call. She strolled out to balcony again. It wasn’t raining anymore. Te road beneath gleamed clean as the purplish jamun pulp had been washed away by the rain. Te earlier distraught sky was calm and poised after the heavy downpour.

“Hi, Farzana!” Rita called out from the neighbouring balcony. “You are glowing today in this pink kurta. Any plans?”

“Umm … not really!”

“How can you stay shut inside on such a glorious day? No morning walks anymore…?”

“…but where do I go?”

“Hey listen! I have baked some quiche using your recipe. Why don’t to come over and try it, madam!” she teased. “Let’s see how the guru rates it.”

“Okay. Alright, I’ll be right there.” ***

“Five out of ten!”

“Tat’s it!?”

“No silly! I am just joking. It is hundred out of hundred actually.”

Rita got up to beat some cofee and Farzana … she smiled.


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