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From the anthology, DELHI NOIR, from Akashic Books (Spring 2009) and HarperCollins India (2009)
I lay in my dark little verandah, the space I occupied in my Bua’s flat. The windows were open to the non-stop honking from Panchkuian Road. There was no breeze. The cool weather hadn’t arrived and the sulfurous smell of popping fireworks made breathing difficult. I remembered how, in our old house, my sisters hid behind each other as I lit bottle rockets on Diwali. Ma gave us sweaters and woolen socks she’d knitted herself. This coming winter, my sisters would even be lucky if their old sweaters were darned. The middle one was in a boarding school for orphans, the youngest with my frail grandfather.
I woke up late the next morning with a sensation of suffocation. I left the flat without breakfast and walked to Paharganj. I bought a cup of tea and sought out the quiet of the large Christian cemetery by Nehru Bazaar. Putting down my satchel under my favorite neem, I took out my chess set and my bitten paperback of the champion Kasparov’s classic matches. I drank my tea and practiced the Grandmaster’s moves. Worn concrete graves surrounded me on three sides.
I didn’t see Johnny, the caretaker with the salt-and-pepper hair, until he was standing next to me, his stocky arms folded. With a grin on his long, craggy face he said, Didn’t I know an open chessboard attracts spirits with scores to settle? I packed up my things, thinking he was going to escort me out. But instead he took me to the workshop by the main gate. Workers inside were sawing and hammering wooden planks for coffins. Johnny ushered me into the cemetery office at one end of the shop. He fumbled in a drawer and took out a book, as beat-up as mine, about Grandmaster Karpov, my hero Kasparov’s archrival. “Kasparov played like a bull,” he said, making a meaty fist in the air, “but Karpov was the wily fox.” When he asked me to take out my chessboard, I knew I’d made a friend.
When I got home from college that night, my Bua said: “Sarika called to remind you. Go pick up the apples.” The next afternoon, fearful but of course intrigued, I made my way to Sarika Aunty’s flat. It was in another building in Bua’s colony. Growing up, any boy who teased my sisters in school knew he had a bloody nose coming. My mother would scold me but was secretly proud. Deflecting an Aunty’s advances was a lesson I hadn’t learnt though.
Sarika’s door was opened by a wrinkled woman in a grey sari and, despite the weather, a thick sweater-blouse. Her eyes were opaque with cataracts. She stood there like a sentry, and I could barely catch a word of her rustic Punjabi. “Mataji, I am Mrs. Verma’s nephew,” I kept saying in response to her soft, toothless mumbles. “I came for the case of apples.” Finally, she cracked the door wider, and I bent forward to better understand what she was saying.
“Demon’s daughter,” she muttered, “…A snake in human form. Keeps me locked up.” She grabbed my arm so tightly it hurt. “Poison. Careful of her poison.”
I almost left when Sarika Aunty appeared. She was dressed in a loose, translucent salwar kameez which suggested that no special company was expected. The outline of her taut, shapely figure was noticeable even though she wasn’t in the form-fitting clothes she wore to my Bua’s house. Her hair, black with streaks of brown, was tied in two thick braids. This gave her fair, oval face a pleasing expression. Around her neck were rudraksha prayer beads. Her feet were bare. She looked relaxed, glowing. Perhaps my unease was misplaced.
“You’re not to open the door, Bibiji,” she said sharply to the old woman. “What if some Nepali slashes our throats?”
I remained standing in the living room while she escorted the babbling Bibiji inside. The flat’s layout was like Bua’s, but the furniture was grander than Bua’s practical, well-worn things. A carved-wood sofa with silver cushions sat on a plush carpet. It was flanked by wide lounge chairs. In the center was a marble-topped table. Ornate brass lamps stood in the corners. I thought: Sarika’s husband must be the type of Railway Officer my contractor father so resented when he was alive—the ones who demanded “sweets” for their children from contractors. My inheritance had been gnawed away by such officers.
But there were no pictures of children here. The only item suggesting a child’s presence was a tall glass cabinet. Inside were displayed rows of dolls—circus dolls in costumes, dolls with fancy hats wearing party dresses, dolls with startling green eyes. They were so well made, they didn’t seem like toys. The large ones had real expressions; one had a sly, sinister look that followed you around.
Sarika returned. She saw my gaze. “My father was in the Foreign Service,” she said proudly. “This is my collection. We traveled everywhere when I was a girl.”
She pointed to the sofa. “Sit.”
I had picked out my best shirt and ironed it myself. But now I felt like a peon offered a seat in an officer’s house. “Aunty, my Bua said you called,” I ventured.
“I don’t like this Aunty-vanty stuff,” she broke out, sitting down barely two feet from me. “Call me by my name.”
“If my mother were to hear me –” I stumbled like a fool.
“From heaven?” she snapped, before catching herself.
We both fell silent. Her fingertips, I noticed, were trembling slightly. Her nails were painted a dark maroon. As we sat close, my eyes downcast, I felt her assess me from head to foot. A prickly sensation arose on the back of my neck, just like when she teased me at my Bua’s lunch parties. “Working so hard, Mukesh?” Or, “I also need help around the house. When can I expect you?” She spoke loudly while I served lemonade and pakoras, knowing all the ladies thought she was amusing, just incorrigible. The space between us began to stretch like an elastic band, until I was sure it could snap at any second. I shifted awkwardly and crossed my legs. Her forward manner disconcerted but aroused me. Barely lifting my eyes, I could see the shadow of her bra beneath her thin shirt, the way it lifted and fell with her breath.
She said impatiently: “Why are you always at your Bua’s? Don’t you have college friends?”
I stayed silent. Those with cash to burn went to the movies with college yaars. I played chess in an old Paharganj cemetery.
She moved closer. “What’s the matter? Are you scared of me?” She picked up my hand and casually placed it just above her knee. “A burly boy like you.”
I was torn between giving in to the softness of her leg and the grave presumption of doing just that. I pulled my hand away. “Sarikaji, someone may think I am being impertinent.”
“Who is there to think that?”
I heard a scuffling noise from inside the flat. “Bibiji,” I said, my cheeks hot.
“Bibiji is resting. She can sleep through a bomb blast.”
“May I have the apples?” I pleaded. “My Bua will be waiting.”
“You took your time coming. I gave away the last case this morning. More will come soon from my brother’s orchard.” She passed her slender fingers through my hair. Every sinew and tendon in my body tensed. “So thick, like a girl’s. Comb it properly or get it cut,” she added cruelly.
She took my face in her hands and turned it towards her. Then she kissed me. Her tongue reached inside my mouth and elicited reactions in faraway places – my toes, my stomach, my quivering thighs. My heart was beating so fast I didn’t know how it would slow down. I didn’t want it to.
She stood up and removed her prayer necklace. Then she pulled her kameez up and over her head. It billowed like a banner before falling in a heap on the carpet. Her salwar had a drawstring like a man’s pajamas, but the shape at the hips and ankles was different. She loosened the string and the salwar dropped like a curtain. I remembered my middle sister Sonu’s shapeless and practical drawers hanging on the clothesline. Sarika’s panties were small and dark and lacy, fitting snugly against her light skin. Other than the flare of her hips, her frame was slighter, more boyish than I’d imagined.
She turned her back to me. “Get up,” she ordered, breaking the brief illusion that she was something frail. She reached her arms behind her. “Unclasp this.” I fumbled with her bra hook as best I could. Even from her backward glance I could feel the derision from her face.
She commanded me to lie down, knelt over me and began to undo my buttons and buckles. When my underpants were off, she said: “It seems you aren’t too scared. For a minute I thought you weren’t a real man. Now I see you are like most—overeager.”
She guided my hands to parts I had only imagined on a woman with eyes closed. With trembling fingers I outlined the orbs of her breasts. They were shiny with perspiration, and the way they rose and peaked made my jaw ache with craving. Her nipples weren’t much bigger than mine, but darker and harder. In my mouth they tasted like stiff, salty rubber. A line of fine hairs traversed down the center of her stomach to a different kind of darkness between her legs.
She was kind enough to let me make amends for my first, clumsy effort, but before that, she called my Bua. We were both naked. “Hope you don’t mind, Pammi. I sent Mukesh to Paharganj for some groceries.” She put the receiver to my ear as Bua was saying: “Any time. I’ve trained him into quite an expert shopper. Make sure he gives you a full accounting.”
“Now,” Sarika said, “I am going to show you how to curb your enthusiasm.” I shyly followed her into the bedroom, but I must have shown potential because she left me a prize I kept for several days – her nail indentations on my back and buttocks.
As the weather turned cooler, I found some release playing chess with Johnny in his caretaker’s office. I often wanted our matches to move faster, but I learned a lot by watching his methodical openings, his surprisingly lethal middlegame.
Sarika, I discovered, preferred a combination of a fixed and a variable routine. Before we began, she asked me to brush my teeth and take a bath, even if I had already done so. I would come out in my towel to find her lying undressed smoking her pipe packed with ganja she procured from a discrete Israeli dealer in Paharganj. She insisted on initiating any kissing, which she liked deep and rough. If I tried to just hold her, she would whinny and thrash like a trapped mare. My chest became bruised from her teeth marks. As soon as one set of scratches healed on my back, she covered me with another. This is what I remember from those days: her kneeling against the side of the bed, goading me on as I crouched over her from behind, my legs open and half-bent and trembling, her neck craning back and her pretty mouth distended, her spine coiling and convulsing like it was a reptile trapped beneath her skin.
She wanted me to be just as rough with her. I struggled to comply. “Bite me. Harder. Didn’t I say harder?” she cried mid-frenzy. Once, approaching climax, she halted abruptly and changed positions. “Choke me. Do it. I’ll tell you when to stop.” I hesitated, but she pummeled me until I actually wanted to hurt her. Dark and angry urges rose inside me as I pressed my fingers around her supple neck. I wasn’t sure I could stop. Fortunately, I soon lost control. Sputtering and coughing, she examined her neck in the mirror. Even from a distance I could see the bruises I’d left. The salty bile of shame rose up in my throat. “Now we’re making progress,” she said, eyes gleaming with strange pleasure.
I played chess with Johnny after that session. He frowned and stopped the game. “What’s the matter, Mukesh? You are sacrificing pawns early and without a plan.”
“I have one,” I insisted, but my lie was soon exposed.
After I’d lost the next three games, he looked at me and said kindly: “I enjoy our matches, Mukesh. But it’s not right that you come to this place so much. Go spend time with other young people.”
With a curt goodbye I left his office. If he didn’t want to play, I had other preoccupations: I could sit under the neem and read my notes from college.
In the bright early winter light I walked up the cemetery’s central path. The bustle of Nehru Bazaar was just beyond the high perimeter walls but here the only sounds were the cackling of crows and the dull whack of workmen breaking the hard ground with pickaxes. I stood beside the workers for a moment, nursing the thick sensation I carried in my chest these days, a sensation like hardboiled phlegm. The hole the workers were digging appeared too small for an adult. It occurred to me that it could be for a missing person. Only room to bury personal items was needed.
I began to dress in my Bua’s bathroom to avoid scrutiny of my wounds. She did remark on my new jeans and jacket. I told her I’d bought them cheap in Main Bazaar. Bua felt the jacket’s lining and said: “Main Bazaar or Bandits’ Bazaar?” In truth, Sarika had given me money for the items, saying she didn’t care for my dreadful clothes. She also paid for me to get my hair styled, causing my Bua to say: “Delhi air is something. Look how city wiles have sprouted.”
In addition to Bua’s chores, I was now also on call for Sarika’s household errands. Picking up her dry-cleaning one Sunday, I saw her tank of a husband lounging on the sofa in a loose bathrobe. Bibiji sat on the floor shucking peas into a steel tray. Locked away during my other visits, the old lady had become a rare sight. She rose and creakily approached, shouting: “She puts chains on my feet, but I am not a fool, you hear?” She had her dentures on.
The hair on my arms stood up. What was she reporting to Mr. Khanna? But he only yawned and stretched where he sat. His wide, bushy midsection peaked out from underneath his banyan. “Bibiji,” he barked without putting down his newspaper. “Brake lagao, or you’ll be sent to bed.” The old lady shuffled back to her peas.
Sarika came out with the dry-cleaning. Right under her husband’s nose she said: “Come back later. Mr. Khanna is going to the club by one, and the peon is out today.”
Bibiji’s face twisted with loathing. Mr. Khanna raised his thick eyebrows, but the rest of his face stayed hidden behind the paper. As I shut the door I heard him ask Sarika something in a gruff tone. She said: “No one. Mrs. Verma’s nephew. A helpful boy.”
My grandfather’s heart stopped in his sleep in December. I could not see Sarika for some weeks and found that I missed her rough attentions. A council of uncles and aunts was held at Bua’s flat, just as it was after my parents’ accident. The agenda was my youngest sister Chhoti’s guardianship. “Already we are barely making ends meet,” Bua said grimly. Another aunt added: “Mukesh, finish your B.A. quickly, beta. Everyone is counting on you.” I responded to such demands with a blank face, and silently cursed my parents for their ill-timed pilgrimage, which, like a bad investment, was bearing expense without end. The decision was made to send Chhoti to the boarding school for orphans that Sonu, our middle sister, attended. People thanked my Bua for the sacrifice of keeping me. The indignity of being charity cases sat like curdled milk in my stomach.
In the New Year my liaisons with Sarika resumed. If she knew what was happening in my family, she never asked about it. After our third meeting in January, however, she handed me a slip of paper with a lady’s first name and number. I looked at her, confused, and she said: “You want to make some money, right?”
I heard out her proposition. The Aunty on the paper would pay for small but important errands. If I was reliable, there would be more jobs.
The Aunty sounded pleasant when I called her from Sarika’s phone. She gave me an appointment for the next day. She lived in a bungalow on Doctor’s Lane near Gol Market.
Sarika smiled broadly. “Come by soon and tell me what happened.” Then she took out some money and said severely: “Buy a new undershirt before you go. Are you using deodorant regularly?”
I laughed. This was how she spoke to me after we’d made hard, sweaty love for an hour. I tried to kiss her, but she cringed at my eagerness and pushed me back.
I was the opposite of eager when I returned with my report from Doctor’s Lane. “Sarikaji,” I said, lips trembling. “Forgive me for misunderstanding. I’m not that kind of boy.”
“Oh,” she said, lifting her brows. “What kind are you then?”
I’d come in with the intention of confronting her, but her haughty self-assurance washed away my resolve. “The Aunty…she gave me the money first. It seemed like too much. When she told me what she wanted, I tried to give it back.”
“She didn’t report any problems to me.”
“I was forced to stay,” I said, shuddering at the memory. “She told me she would raise a noise if I tried to leave, have me beaten as an intruder.” I held all the money before Sarika. “Take this. I don’t want it.”
She peeled out a few notes from the bundle. “That’s my share, Mukesh. Think of this work as social service you get paid for.”
“No,” I cried.
“Then don’t come back here,” she said flatly. “I can’t tolerate undependable boys. I give you a chance and you come back wheedling and whining.”
“Don’t say that,” I said, almost hacking. My throat was dry, constricted.
“Imagine what you can do with the money,” she said, and pulled me by the arm to the bedroom. Afterwards, she looked at the bites on her breasts. “I’ve taught you well,” she said. “Luckily Mr. Khanna doesn’t like the lights on.”
With my first earnings I bought a mobile and a diary to keep track of my appointments. If the person I called didn’t recognize the name I asked for, the rule was to pretend I had the wrong number. Sarika sent me to Railway wives, lady doctors, businesswomen, young managers in offices. Now I understood why she began texting the moment we finished in bed. I saw the insides of flats and bungalows from Gol Market to Bengali Market, and as far south as Sundar Nagar. Some Aunties only wanted to meet in a seedy tourist lodge in Tuti Chowk after shopping in Connaught Place. Sarika’s instructions were to accommodate every request.
I serviced Aunties who were beautiful and bored, homely but adventurous, unabashed about their needs or shy and self-conscious. One fed me afterwards; another threw money in my face as though I’d offended her dignity. Both asked for me again. I remember the Aunty who liked to watch her favorite serial in bed. While I pleasured her she delightedly gave me a rundown of the episodes I’d missed. One roundly cursed her husband while we made love; it drove her to heights of frenzy. Most never mentioned their husbands at all. They all appreciated that I readily agreed to their commands or requests. They all enjoyed the tricks with tongue and finger that Sarika had taught me.
I’d wake up on my hard cot in Bua’s verandah, remember the day’s appointments, and think my mind was playing tricks. Then I’d feel the soreness in my lower back and thighs. A few times I caught Bua watching me with narrowed eyes. I became convinced she could smell it on me—the disrepute, I mean.
Winter was almost over when I sent a package of clothes to my sisters’ hostel. Sweaters, woolen socks, new shoes. Sarika gave me grudging advice on size and colors, calling me a simpleton. On an impulse I bought silver anklets and left them by Sarika’s bedside with my weekly payment. She said: “Money is enough. No presents.” She never wore the anklets.
For Johnny, the caretaker, I bought a chess set from a Janpath curio store, with pieces carved from dark and light wood. He was happy to see me once again. “I am in your debt for this,” he said. To remove some of his obligation, I played our next match with great focus and beat him in a fierce king and pawn endgame. Any awkwardness from our last exchange was gone.
I wasn’t surprised when Bua commented on my new shoes. I told her Sarika Aunty had given me some tuition referrals. “I see you’ve both kept me in the dark,” she said. “Be cautious, beta, that woman is very clever.”
As the days warmed, the wad of cash in my satchel grew in size. Its heft made me both excited and uneasy. I began to dream of renting a room in Paharganj. I’d bring my sisters to live with me. It would be tight at first. Bua would pretend to be upset, but secretly she’d be relieved.
I tried to open a bank account, but they wanted to know my source of income and see my guardian’s ID card. Instead, I went to Sarika and asked her to hold on to most of my earnings.
“Don’t trust me so much,” she said, very seriously.
“I have nowhere else to keep it.”
She was amused. “I will charge interest.”
“I know,” I said, defending myself with my arms as she tried to clutch and bruise my chest. “This is that kind of bank.”
She’d tied me to the bedposts one hot afternoon when we heard a footfall followed by banging on the bedroom door. At first I thought Bibiji had escaped. Then the door crashed open, and Mr. Khanna stood before us in a brown safari suit. We had carelessly left the back door unlocked. I wrenched myself free of my restraints, chafing my wrists badly.
Panic flowered on Sarika’s face, but only for a moment. With exaggerated slowness, she reached for her bra and bathrobe, while I stumbled into my discarded jeans and T-shirt.
“If you can’t knock like a civilized person, at least have the courtesy to look away,” she said to her husband. But I could see that her hands were shaking.
Mr. Khanna’s wide, brutish face appeared paralyzed on one side. “All these years I thought the hag was half-mad,” he said hoarsely. “Then one day I asked myself: Ashok, how long since Sarika nagged you for anything? She seems content. What has changed?” He licked his lips as if they were parched. “You were certainly clever, Sarika. It took my man quite a while to discover your tricks.” He took out an envelope and threw it at her. Photos spilled out.
“Get out,” Sarika said, eyes on the floor. It took me a second to realize she meant me. I was flustered, but worried for her safety. “Now,” she hissed. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Sorry, Uncleji,” I mumbled stupidly as I passed Mr. Khanna. The thick, stubby fingers of his right hand were clenched as though around an invisible club.
“Beta,” he said. “Ask your Bua to arrange your funeral party.”
I grabbed my satchel from the dining table and fled. Bibiji, let free, was shucking peas on the floor. She rocked back and forth and chanted noisily.
Later that night, I climbed up to my Bua’s flat, my heart flapping like a wild bird in a cage. Everyone was watching TV with blank expressions. Nothing has happened, I thought. Sarika has managed it. Then Bua rose and asked me to follow her to the verandah. I saw the smirks on my cousins’ faces and my legs turned to leaden weights.
Mr. Khanna had been over. He claimed I’d dropped in on Sarika asking for more tuitions. I’d complained that my Bua withheld food and money. Sarika had listened because I’d been so respectful in the past. Then, in full view of Bibiji, I’d tried to give Sarika a hug. She had smelled cheap liquor on my breath and gently pushed me away. I was a boy, and boys can get stupid ideas when they have a woman’s attention. But I had been insistent. I’d demanded a kiss. I had pulled so hard on Sarika’s arm I had badly bruised her.
I flinched. I knew who had caused that injury. Then I saw how red Bua’s eyes were.
“You have one hour to pack your things,” she said.
“Where would I go?” I said, becoming angry. My college exams were a week away.
“I don’t know. Stay with a friend. Get a hotel with all the tuition money you are making. Go indulge your new habits—fancy clothes and, now, drinking.”
“What Mr. Khanna told you wasn’t the truth,” I said quietly.
“Sarika has a known reputation, beta. But this a public shaming. Whatever his reasons, Khanna will make trouble if he sees you here.”
As I was leaving, she stuffed some hundred rupee notes into my hand. I didn’t refuse, but once outside, dropped the notes in the mail slot.
I camped outside the graveyard gates with my bags. There were any number of cheap hotels in Paharganj, but I was in the mood to see what destitution felt like. The air was dusty and full of exhaust fumes. Till midnight, traffic was brisk on Ramdwara Road, with people buying vegetables by the hiss of gas lanterns, and groups of raggedy foreigners stumbling to their hovels, high on hashish. Soon after the market began closing down. Many vendors put out their bedding right on their stands and carts. The smell of rotting vegetables hung like an unwelcome blanket in the night heat, the quiet broken by snatches of disco music blaring from hotel rooftops.
I was jostled awake in the night, I thought by someone brushing against my luggage with evil intentions. It was stray dogs chasing rats the size of small cats. I was in the way.
In the morning, Johnny took me to his bachelor abode. It was what I’d imagined for my sisters and me – one room in an alley not far from the lodge where I met some of my Aunties. It overlooked a shared courtyard with a peepal tree. Johnny owned a kerosene stove, some aluminum pots and utensils, one wooden cot and a trunk. There were no family photos. The solitary bright spot was a postcard taped on the wall showing blue skies over a white sand beach.
“My cousin in Mauritius,” he explained. “He says I should emigrate, but I’m too old.”
“Thank you, Johnny,” I said. “As soon as my exams are over I’ll find another place.”
“Play chess with me every night, and you can stay forever.”
That evening the power went out while I was studying, and, with a hand on my thigh, he made a quite different request of me. It was put gently, but with a clear expectation. Initially, I was anxious, even fearful. But unlike my last lover, Johnny was tender in his attentions before he was forceful. Later I realized I enjoyed being held in the safety of his short, burly arms.
I knew Sarika would be waiting for a message so we could settle accounts and discuss the future. If she was aware how close I was, we could find a way to meet. I was sure even she was feeling badly about turning me in.
Meanwhile, I had to resume business on my own. I phoned an Aunty by the alias of Devika. This lady, whose voice I knew well, said, “Wrong number.” I wasn’t concerned; it only meant I’d called at an inconvenient time. But two days later, the number was cut off. In this way, one by one, the numbers in my diary disappeared from service, snuffed out by an invisible hand.
I went to see the Aunty in Doctor’s Lane, and another bungalow I’d visited many times near Bengali Market. I rang and knocked in both places, but no one answered.
“Friend,” I told Johnny one morning during these harrowing days. “One more favor from you. Please take a message to a lady in Basant Lane. Tell her I need to settle my tuition account.” I’d told Johnny I’d fought with my Bua and it was awkward going back to the Railway Colony. For his trouble, I put money into the pocket of his shirt hanging on a nail.
“I am a bachelor,” he protested. “What use do I have for that?” But I didn’t listen; I needed as little charity as possible. As he dressed to leave, I wrapped my last earnings inside my underwear and locked them in my suitcase.
All day I paced in his room. As the sun got stronger, the walls heated up, until I felt I was being slowly cooked. In the late afternoon I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, my half-shirt drenched in sweat, Johnny was priming the kerosene stove in the dark, the blue flame lighting up his creased face. The way he crouched on his haunches, his compact upper body folded over as he worked, made me feel a pang of affection for him, my one loyal friend.
“I met your lady friend in the Railway flats,” he said. “She wouldn’t let me in. She said no one needs a tutor now.”
“What about settling what she owes me? For her nephew’s tuition?”
“She got angry. She said: ‘We’ve paid our dues. Tell the tutor to keep what he has. But there is no more work.’ Then she shut the door on my face.”
It was as though someone had shot me pointblank through my heart. In bed that night, I turned away when Johnny reached for me. He was silent for a while. Then he said, in his somber way: “I don’t know all your troubles, Mukesh. But if you’ve been treated unjustly, you must stand up for yourself.”
Over several mornings I wandered through Basant Lane with a dark umbrella over my head, looking over the boundary wall at the multi-storied buildings rising in staggered rows. Days of punishing sunlight had unevenly bleached the pink distemper on the outside of the buildings; to my eyes they now had a mottled, diseased appearance.
I was sure Sarika was padlocking her doors now. I noticed that adjoining flats on each floor shared the narrow servants’ balcony, with just a wall diving the balcony into two parts. A plan took shape in my head.
On Monday mornings I knew Sarika headed to her gym and beauty salon. I waited with my umbrella outside the colony gate to see if this ritual had changed, and, indeed, it had not. I followed her as she walked to the auto stand on the main road. Her slender profile from the back, the sight of her pert shoulders in a T-shirt, made me melt through the center of my body.
By the following Monday my preparations were complete. I bought a length of strong rope, a crowbar and a switchblade. I put these items inside a backpack. I got my hair cut with a quarter-inch clipper. Johnny said I looked different, tougher.
I shaved closely and wore dark glasses and clean pants, shirt and shoes. “Soon I’ll stop being a burden on you,” I told my friend. He shook his head at me indulgently, but I knew what I had to do.
I walked one last time towards Basant Lane. I entered the colony compound with confidence, my backpack over my shoulder. The guard at the gate saluted smartly. I climbed up the stairs in Sarika’s building two steps at a time.
As I had expected, the front door of her flat had a large lock on the outside. The servant’s door appeared bolted and locked from inside. Bibiji was trapped, unable to escape. But the neighbor’s service entrance was open; they illegally sublet their quarters and people were always in and out. I stepped through and walked along the servants’ balcony towards Sarika’s side. It was quiet. If anyone saw me, I was Mrs. Khanna’s nephew, locked out by my aunt.
I straddled the dividing wall between the two flats, hanging precariously over the parapet as I crossed over. A vein in my temple throbbed. I found the swing-door to Sarika’s kitchen latched from inside. But I was a contractor’s son and knew Railway construction. I cracked open the foot latch with a few kicks. I leaned against the lower part of the door. It strained open a few inches. I reached into the gap with my crowbar and pried down the top latch.
I found Bibiji cowering on the living room floor. She hiccupped and gurgled as I tied up her hands and wrapped a strip of cloth around her mouth. Her eyes widened when I used my knife to cut the rope. She fell down as if dead. I picked her up and took her to her room.
For an hour I examined every unique and ordinary item in the household: refrigerator magnets, ashtrays, the doll case, confidential files in Mr. Khanna’s desk. I lay on Sarika’s bed, but it felt strange and unfamiliar somehow. I searched through open cupboards for money, but all I found were more bed sheets and pillowcases.
I heard the front door open and close, and then the squeak of the inner deadbolt being drawn. If only we had taken such precautions before. I waited in Bibiji’s room, where the old woman lay face down, groaning occasionally.
Sarika screamed once, seeing Bibiji trussed up like a goat, but I had my knife out, and Sarika was a smart woman. I made her sit down in a chair and tied her hands in her lap and also her ankles. She was wearing a polo shirt, light jeans, sneakers. She had cropped her hair below her ears. It made her look even more like a boy. Her hands smelled of fresh nail polish. Her left eye twitched. She cringed at my touch, but stayed quiet.
“I came to settle our business,” I said, keeping my voice steady even though my temples were pounding hard.
“The network is gone,” she said, leaning forward. “I told your friend with the long face.”
“Mr. Khanna shut it down?” I said, trying to sound reasonable.
“I did,” she said fiercely. “Ashok knew about the boys, but not yet all the ladies.”
“There were other boys?” I burst out without thinking.
Contempt flashed across her face. “Poor Mukesh,” she said, despite her position. “You were only the cheapest.”
I winced and shut my eyes. I clenched my aching head between my fists, the knife in my hand. When I opened my eyes, she was attempting to rise.
“Don’t move,” I shouted. I was finished with her indignities. “I’m asking only once: Where is the money?” I held up the knife.
“There is two thousand in the almirah. Untie Bibiji and I’ll get it. But if you ever return, my husband will be waiting.” Was it fear or amusement in the curl of her lips?
“I’m not a thief who needs to hide. I came for my due, not charity.”
She looked at me as though I were an exasperating child. “Then why threaten me with this bandit act? Ask the one who has it.”
“My husband doesn’t need your money,” she said scornfully. “Your sad-faced friend. I wondered why you’d sent him. I could tell he was unreliable with just a glance.”
I felt punched in the gut. My legs became unsteady. “Why would you lie?” I cried hoarsely.
“What kind of company are you keeping? You’ve forgotten everything I taught you.” She’d gotten up despite my admonition. She held out her hands in a wordless demand to be untied. She was commanding me, just as she always had, from the day we met in her flat to the last time she farmed me out as her bull.
I stood staring at her open-mouthed. I should have known she’d efficiently neutralize my threats. Cornered and defeated, I raised my knife to slash her ropes, but just then, a sharp knock on the front door startled us both.
“Sarika,” a gruff, familiar voice called out. “Open the door. Are you alone?”
For a moment I thought time itself had unwound—a strange, sick sensation.
“Good work, Mukesh,” Sarika said. “Did you alert him before coming?” But there was a false note in her bravado now.
“What is he doing here?” I hissed, as the knocking changed into banging. The room was beginning to spin.
“He must have posted his man outside. Did you think of that when you made your plan?”
The banging grew insistent. Bibiji groaned. Mr. Khanna was making loud threats that he’d break the front door down, that no barrier could keep Sarika from him. The bolt on the door, though strong, couldn’t hold him out indefinitely.
“What should I do?” I said, my gut in my throat. I was completely in her hands once again.
We heard the cracking of wood and metal. But instead of panicking, Sarika grew thoughtful. Slowly, her face took on an expression of perverse satisfaction, like those moments when she would examine her love bruises. “Stab me,” she whispered, like an endearment.
I looked at her in fear and disbelief.
“You have to,” she said calmly. “Remember the ropes won’t convince him.”
“I couldn’t,” I said, trembling like a man with convulsions.
“Do it,” she ordered. “Now! Quick.” And she smiled the most chilling smile I have ever seen. “Bring it here, I’ll help you.”
I ran back to Paharganj. I kept waiting for shouts from behind me, a crowd chasing me down. Instead, people backed away when they saw the blood on my shirt. A foreigner with matted hair, in a torn shirt and lungi, said: “Man, are you OK?” but I brushed past him. When I got to Johnny’s, my luggage was lying outside his door. My clothes were there but the money was gone from my suitcase. The lock on the door had been changed. I peered inside through a crack in the courtyard-side window. The room was empty. I pulled out a fresh shirt. My fingers were so rigid, my hands shook so hard, unfastening and fastening buttons took an eternity.
I abandoned my luggage and went to the cemetery. The workers grinned and told me Johnny Sahib had already left for holiday. I came out in the bright, hot street and wanted to find a place to lay my head. There was so much time till nightfall. I stopped by an open gutter and heaved. Sarika didn’t have to help me in the end; the knife went into her side with effortless satisfaction. “It feels like heaven,” she’d said, her fair face twisted in pain. She had fallen in an awful corkscrew motion on her knees then her hands. “First class first,” she said, before she closed her eyes. Did she know it felt good to me too? Hell was the look on Mr. Khanna’s face as we passed each other in the living room, my bloody knife in my hand.
I wandered through the alleys and byways of Paharganj for hours. I ventured by New Delhi Station but there were too many police cars. Eventually, it was dark. I knew I had to run but first I needed to rest. I scoped the cemetery perimeter until I found a place I could clamber over. With difficulty I scaled the wall and jumped inside. I found a freshly dug grave and crawled in. The earth was cool as I lay on my back. I stared at the inky sky and waited for dawn’s unforgiving light.