I remember dying. Most people don’t want to be left with the gruesome details of how they met death, but I have little choice. You see, that’s my first memory into this life. I can recall every moment of what happened to the other girl, the one I used to be. She was in a small, congested room, dark and cool, a recreation of her womb if you enjoy terrible metaphors. They’d just cut the baby out of her and there wasn’t any crying. She was so focused on hearing that little voice that she’d failed to pick out the pertinent details. Such as: the troubled murmurs around her. The blood and shit streaming down her legs. The fact that the baby was a dud, of as much use to anyone as an amputated leg. Eventually all conversation around her slowed. Then, her father-in-law whispering into her ear: “Sleep, daughter”.
Of the interval between my apparent death and my new life, I know nothing. I suppose I could tell you what my people usually do to women who end up like me. The ones who die during their time of the month or while delivering babies. The ones they call inauspicious women. First, you have your lips and eyes sewn shut with thorns, so that you can’t accuse your in-laws of any more injustices. Then you are turned on to your back, because I suppose Yamraj has an anal fixation. Finally, heavy stones are placed all over your body, just in case your ghostly body levitates and starts telling everyone in the village just how bad your husband was in bed. A sentimental afterthought: sweet smelling mustard seeds sprinkled all around you, to distract your womanly body when you are on the prowl. Now, all these years later, I find myself bemused by these trivialities. You see, I was always destined to come back.
What we call India now was once very different. It was an assortment of unruly little kingdoms, one of which was my home. Five hundred years ago, Vasco Da Gama got kicked on his arse and thrown out of Calicut by an irate Malayali. Babur was taking over large swathes of territory and fucking teenage boys on the side. The fat Hemu briefly conquered Delhi, only to be decapitated by Bairam Khan. My people were not too different from what they are now, ruled by odd customs and rigid hierarchy. Five hundred years ago, I came into my own as a chudail.
Now that you’re getting the full narrative treatment, let me take this opportunity to clear several misconceptions about my kind. No, we are not witches. You will never catch us relying on cheap magic tricks. Our magic lies in our shapeshifter bodies. Nobody knows a chudail’s true form other than another of her kind. We alone know what lies behind the facade: a lumpy belly, hair everywhere, the trail leading up to a cunt whose demands never seem to be met. I don’t even remember what I used to look like earlier. I have no desire to look at what I’ve become now. You will look at us and never see beyond what you’ve chosen to see. Most people see a fair-skinned teenager with a small waist and big breasts. They see the Fair and Lovely fantasy, a young girl, barely legal, always alone on an empty highway so that you can screw her in peace. Funny that despite all this, I’m still the one that gets called a predator.
It isn’t easy balancing the demands of a modern life with the cavernous appetite of someone like me. Job, nosy landlord, filthy pollution. I could be any average twenty-something girl out to conquer her 21st-century goals. Promotion, vaguely clean-looking husband, proud elderly parents; it’s the Whisper Ultra dream, really. The truth is that I must drop all this pretence when my body’s churning starts. I have little control over what happens next. It starts like a fever and it keeps me up all night, riding out every remnant of seismic waves. Copious masturbation doesn’t help and so I must embrace my destiny. I become the chudail on the prowl. Nobody can help you if I’ve decided that what I want is you. You will come where I call you. You will hear my voice everywhere. You won’t be able to rest at night. Finally, your body will give in, marionette-like, and find its place in my bed. You see, it is not enough to possess a man’s heart. I must also bathe in his blood and devour his guts.
It’s been a while since the churning took hold of me. The last time it happened I had three bodies to dispose. The last thing I want is for it to happen to me on a Monday. I begin a long week of a dead-end job, like everyone else. Unlike everyone else, I have no illusions about what I do or its importance. It’s trite and meaningless but it pays my bills. I work at what people call a ‘PR’ company, another sham industry that has come up to meet the quixotic demands of capital. My moderate talent with words got me here. I am prized as an in-house vocabulary cow. Prod me, and nonsensical jargon pours out. JTBD. Strategic cohesive synergy. Key takeaways. I belch out these words and am justly rewarded. Sometimes it can be fun, especially when we engage in a peculiar activity called ‘brainstorming’. But Yudhisthir is in today, so everyone is a little tense.
That’s my boss. My patron. Mon chef. Yudhisthir A Chanchlani. He’s bellowing loudly in the corridor as he passes everyone, “Where’s the money?” “Where’s the fucking money, Eric?” “Nobody has got any fucking money.” My colleagues, shame-faced, unable to give a response, mutter about the bad economy and recalcitrant clients. He passes my desk and his unnerving eyes fix on me, “What are you doing today, sweetheart?” He barely waits for me to respond, before moving on. Yudhishthir is the kind of man who has spilled his seed between two ex-wives and a revolving harem of assistants. At first, it’s difficult to see what other women see in him. He’s balding, paunchy and way past his prime. Then you look into his green eyes and see some spirit of the alien Aryan invader alive and well. It’s enough to trick anyone.
On the surface, you could say that he’s very nice to me. He spares me from his torrents of verbal spittle and makes sure to smile at me whenever we pass by each other in the corridors. But I do not deal in superficialities. I know the language of the flesh, the miasmic connections, the flares in one’s blood. Yudhishthir would like nothing better than to bend me over his desk and fuck the living shit out of me. It amuses me to no end when I realise what he sees in me. Little comments on my perceived skin tone: “You look just like Bipasha Basu”, “I love that lipstick on you, darling.” Accidental touches. A gaze that persistently refuses to rise above my chest. Oh, I’m going to have so much fun with him.
To plant the seed for what comes next isn’t a straightforward business. I start small, just a little conch shell under where he sits. Next goes some spilled milk on the floor that leads to the firing of one new assistant. I go to Yudhisthir’s cabin when nobody’s watching and systematically rub my body over every surface. The final step is the most difficult for me, but to complete the process it must be done. I bow my head whenever he looks at me, cheeks flushed, responses low and meek. The refusal to meet his eye bothers him, I see now that he will succumb to my call within a week. Every chudail has her own sign, a calling card to her style. It’s silly to call it a bad omen. We’re just showing you our personality, what we love, inside jokes native to the chudail community. Make no mistake, we will kill you eventually, but we do it with a flourish. Call it our murder Pinterest moodboard, if you will.
He cracks on a weekend when we’re drowning with work. It’s just a few of us today. Me, an assistant and some rat-faced intern who hasn’t learned to say no to exploitation yet. When Yudhisthir is in full flow, as he is today, we are mere stenographers. We exist to listen to his ideas, murmur appropriate cooing noises and then type up and do the dirty work of translating his vision to clients. Behind every award-winning advertising gasbag, lies an exhausted woman who had to edit his claptrap first. It’s why I’ve lasted so long in this job. Credit theft may compel a righteous woman to hand in her resignation, but when you’ve seen this story play out your entire life, you no longer bother. I have infinitely more important tasks to plan, which start with the dismemberment of Yudhishthir’s body and end with a long-scheduled pilgrimage to the gutter.
Our colleagues leave, my time comes. I step in a little too close and for the first time, see a hint of wariness in his eyes. He’s been smelling nothing but my scent for a week, experiencing nothing but docility and monosyllabic responses. His cock is raging, but the last shred of his intuition must have picked up on what I really am. Not that men listen to feminine intuitions and emotions, really. He places his hand on my shoulder and I mime an outward tremble. “What are you playing at?” he whispers. “Does your mother know that you’re a little whore?” he continues and I have to stop my laughter from erupting uncontrollably. He’s started caressing my ass a little, moving my skirt out of the way. For him, I no longer exist. It’s the fulfilment of the fantasy he had when he first saw me walk into his office and saw the shy smile, the dark skin, the ample breasts. It was a picture of his Malayali nanny come to life.
He’s thrusting deep into my ass, making soft grunting noises. My body is tensing up and I know it’s coming. He starts feeling it immediately. “What are you doing?” He screams and I see it now, the expression of mounting horror. I turn to face him so he can see what I truly am. “Never call a woman who works for you sweetie, darling or baby,” I snarl, right before I rip his head off. The last sight he sees is the face of the witch, the one that’s been lurking under nanny for over a year. I go straight for his jugular and rip it apart. The blood spurts and I lap at it like a house kitten does at milk. It’s all mine. The blood, his spleen, the juicy intestines. My reward for surviving this place for a year. When I’m done, it’s just me and his skeleton. The head I will keep, a little souvenir from this humdrum sojourn. The rest will go straight into the Mithi, the moving gutter that circles this city.
Who came next? Difficult to say. The faces melt into one another. Momentary confusion and then a flash of clarity. Paunchy entrees must always be paired with a nice palate cleanser. Mine came in the form of an athlete. I first meet Arjun Kamte on my way back from South Bombay. I go there as a treat every once in a while. To luxuriate in the art deco and planned roads: the only part of Bombay truly free from pollution and garbage. I’m here to catch an art show of Jehangir Sabavala’s and I’m happy because a street artist told me he’d love to paint me. I’m crossing the maidan, lost in my own thoughts, when I hear a voice, clear and commanding, say, “Excuse me miss, your dupatta is trailing.” I look up and that’s when I see him for the first time. He’s just seventeen, dressed in pristine white cricket gear. He holds my gaze for a while and neither of us breaks to look away. Finally, he asks me for my name and then demands, “Wait here while I finish.” When he walks away from me to bat again, I see the strut of a peacock. He’s playing only for me and I know it. He lifts the bat in synchronised beauty and hits the ball, four after four. I’m unable to look away from him. Cricket has always seemed to me the daftest legacy inherited from the British. I’m reluctant to classify it a sport, seeing only men with soft middles where athletes should be. But he isn’t like that. His body is lean like an unbending arrow and there’s a certain geometrical beauty to the way he holds himself. He’s mathematics in motion and, even better, desperately young. There’s chatter around me about the game, the players, their prospects and statistics and that’s when I hear his name for the first time. Arjun Kamte. Once scored a triple-century in a match. A fine batsman and a bowler with a mean hook. Destined for Ranji Trophy greatness.
When he’s finished, he lingers to talk to his mates. He’s not the captain, but they all hang about him, drinking in his words, eager to have some of his own stardust rub off on them. When he’s done, he walks up to me and quietly says, “Let’s go.” We walk all over town, eager to drink in more of each other as the night rays turn to early pale gold. He gets one phone call from his mother, which he fends off in a short, abrupt burst and then it’s just us. When I get ready to leave, he takes my phone and punches in his number. Then he kisses me lightly and walks away. He never once looks back. My relationship with Arjun was in many ways a mirror of the one he shared with his mother and sister. He spoke to me the same way he told his mother to quit nagging him already or when he told his sister to shut up now, please. Even at seventeen, he demanded the servility of every woman around him. My beauty, my wit, my personality, all of these were only for him. To other men I must appear as a ghostly spectre, the woman in white, someone you may gawk at on the street but never truly have the courage to approach or pursue. One of Arjun’s most common refrains to me was “Fix your dupatta.” There was an art to the way I was expected to drape the cloth. First to cover my shoulders completely, then to ensure that nothing but a pale column of neck peeked through. As a final touch, I was expected to never look another man in the eye. The intimacy of looking was also restricted only to him.
He was a feudal landlord in the body of a teenage boy. Everywhere he went, he brought with him the gospel of Arjun. He was very good at proselytising his own charm and I saw how he kept his coaches, fellow players and teachers all under some kind of spell. On the field, Arjun’s shine inhibited the other players. Chief among them was a village boy called Eklavya, evidently some kind of cricket prodigy who, among other things, fetched water bottles for my Lord Sahib. Our relationship mirrored a certain traditional model, one that involved him issuing orders and me remaining mute. To him and the outside world, I was just a virgin girl, the kind whose sense of beauty emanates precisely from not knowing how attractive she is to others. He guarded me like I was a minor Rajasthani royal, hulking around me and serving dirty looks to anyone that tried to give me the glad eye. A month passed by on the cricket field in complete isolation, then two. Just me, waiting for my man to finish his runs and give him a proper swagatam with a towel and water bottle. In this time, Eklavya was the only other male who dared initiate conversation with me. “Sir’s in very good form today,” he would start and then we would both admire Arjun’s pose, seeing it for the art it was. Eklavya called Arjun ‘Sir’, as did every other boy there. Even some of the coaches were not immune, adding an affectionate twang to the word every time he passed them. I resolved never to call him that.
In matters of sex, he was suspicious and I learned fast to only show inexperience. If I took the slightest initiative, I would see his eyes flare up, imagining a cavalcade of former lovers, each older than the other. So, I played dumb, yielding to his inexperience and remaining patient with his awkward fumbling. More rules followed after we became intimate. I was to call him every night, at 9:00 pm sharp and we would speak for the fifteen minutes he had allotted under ‘leisure activities’ in his clockwork schedule. There were certain things I could no longer wear: the colour black, any kind of a swimming costume, red lipstick and choker necklaces. These were all the signs of a prostitute to him. Why did I put up with all of this, you ask? Was it some kind of Stockholm syndrome? To all this I say is that love is all very well, but never mistake the motivating power of boredom. Riding substandard dick for over four centuries can kill something in you.
The more Arjun expected me to be meek in public, the more beastly he would become in private.
Little pushes, the tendency to grip my arm and leave bruises, deep bite marks on my neck. It was on a Tuesday that he tried to force a blowjob on me. I remember it clearly because it was right after an important match. He was trembling with the adrenaline of winning and outperforming all his peers. I, the eternal towel girl, had been tasked with mopping the sweat off his brow. I tended to my little lord patiently, he was lost in recreating his innings. “Did you see my six?” he asked, adding, “That was a complete beauty,” before I could say anything. The heat in the locker room combined with his own euphoric win had given him an undefinable high. He pulled me on to his lap and we started to neck ferociously. “Arjun, someone might come in,” I said gently. He looked me straight in the eye and responded, “They know when not to encroach on my territory.” I had barely got him out of his cricket gear when he jerked my neck painfully. He had caught it in a terrible grip and was choking me down. To submit. Something went very still and very free inside me. The chudail wanted to come out and play. So, I let her. I took him fully into my mouth and looked into his eyes. As I got more ferocious, I saw terror spark, “Somebody get this bitch off me”, he screamed as I drew the life force out of him. Nobody came, Sir’s instructions were always meant to be followed. Ergo, nobody ever saw his lifeless body, drained of all its juice, dropped into the Arabian Sea like the pile of trash it was. I wish I could tell you that it was easy for me, but Arjun turned out to be a glorious pest even in death. “Budding cricketer Arjun Kamte found murdered. Another Pakistani Ploy?” blared insouciant news channels. They pored over his soggy corpse (discovered via a helicopter hunt no less) but chudails leave no DNA. We don’t leave bodily fluids, marks, hair, imprints or indentations of any kind. Hell, we don’t even leave our shadows. I was sad that I would remain invisible to them, once again. They’d probably find a way to blame it all on poor Eklavya.
After Arjun, I decided to lay low for a while. I couldn’t afford another mistake. The hunger grew inside me once more, knocking and wailing and demanding to be let out, but I maintained a stern hold over it. I’ve not survived for so long without a smidge of self-preservation. I locked myself in my flat, cooing over lizards and hissing at the neighbour’s cat for fun. My neighbour Mrs Sharma, poor thing, was convinced that I had developed some kind of rare and infectious disease. I sent her fluttering away, pink fluffy thing, no longer trailing in my wake and asking if I could spare any extra sugar.
Much time passed, with the comings of only nameless food delivery men, unlikely to return to their families ever again. I felt rotund and full of glut. More than ever, my hard, lumpy body disgusted me. The hair overgrown, my forever lopsided breasts, pubes hairier than whatever’s left of the Amazonian jungle. “Nobody will ever love you,” I catch myself saying to my reflection, for the second time in a row. She stares back, unimpressed by my little pathetic monologue. Self-pity passes, but boredom remains persistent. Even the murderess of a man as accomplished as Arjun Kamte must confront her destiny once again. Time for a refill. My weapon of choice this time? The much-maligned dating app. The bane of romance, the boon of professional murderers everywhere. I choose several shadowy pictures and put them up in what I hope is an intriguing display. “Hi! You have 11 likes. Update to Pro and see who all have liked your profile.” Nobody is insecure enough to fall for that. If I bide my time and play the text game right, I know my bait will come. A new set of skills to be honed now: the ability to trade in banalities, the correct positioning of emoji, shy-monkey to show your bashfulness, rolling eyes to employ a bit of sass. Must stay away from the winking emoji at all costs, the favoured tool of desperate middle-aged men with a predilection for afternoon affairs. The assault begins. My prospective options trickle in. There are the ones who respond immediately, those who never respond, the ones who overshare. The nihilists.
Nakul is one of the rare ones, a profile I do not immediately reject. His bio says simply “Football. Music. St. Xavier’s, Class of 2016”. Hmm. This one will suffice. We begin tentative conversation and I am subjected to lyrical gems such as “hahaha” multiple times. We play the game of mutual disinterest, ignoring each other now, followed by a frenetic burst of text bubbles. He has on his side the coolness of youth. I have on my side 500 years of disappointment. I know exactly how this works. We wait.
Only to yield. Nothing draws a man closer to you than the scent of another man in your pussy. Suddenly he wants you, propelled by some leftover primordial instinct, a gift from the hunter-gatherers. I met Sahdev around the same time; a fact only hilarious to me now, in light of what came later. I remember the first time I saw Nakul, he was at the designated meeting spot early, speaking calmly into his phone. I wonder now if it was a show put on for my benefit. I spent a good thirty seconds observing him before he became aware of my presence. He seemed so consummately cool. The captain of an imaginary football team, the boyfriend of a manic-depressive girl, the son of proud, middle-class parents. (Such fantasies!) The complete opposite of the one that came with him. (More on him later.)
I could see what he saw in me, a milky white Punjabi-looking plump duck. The kind of girl you take home to your parents but never fuck on the first date. When he waves me over, I feel like a long-forgotten acquaintance, invited over to the popular table for a quick chat. I take my time. With these ones, a hint of tartness is key. “I hope I haven’t kept you waiting,” I offer in lieu of pleasantries. Pat comes the reply, “I don’t wait for anyone but I can make an exception this one time.” “Then be prepared to wait a long time,” I boom back and our little parley is over. I see the slightly glazed look in his eyes, and so I lean in and go for the kill.
I’m kidding! Who do you think I am? Never on the first date, yes? I just kissed him, is all. A shy, sweet kiss and it was enough. From that day, Nakul Arora was mine. The other, his competition, troubled me so much more. But he was a very different boy. In the beginning, Sahdev was just a boy I met at a music concert. Skinny, lacking social cues of any kind. He was comfortable in the presence of women, and large groups of men scared him. When I noticed him, he was wearing a skull nose ring, smack in the middle of performing jaunty dance moves. His height only enhanced his ungainliness. When he moved, his body rippled like he was formed wrong. As if an inventor haphazardly placed a jumble of limbs in a jenga formation. I wanted to play with him the way orcas toss baby seals.
It takes a lot to surprise a 500-year-old chudail except when she discovers that she’s accidentally trapped a pair of brothers. I suppose you could say that they had absolutely nothing in common except how they saw me. Turns out that they both liked Punjabi ducks.
Brothers different. The planet and the satellite. Parent’s pride versus relatives’ disapproval. You mustn’t blame me for failing to pick up the sameness of their blood. Surfaces mislead when they are coloured differently. Sahdev had no interest in playing his brother’s games. He blew my phone up with all sorts of trivia about the most obscure of creatures. A sample from his mind, on the mating dance of birds-of-paradise in Papua New Guinea:
Consider the Vogelkop bop. A sublime dance display for the benefit of one dowdy she-bird. The male Vogelkop, resplendent in his plumage and finery, dancing for his mate. He twirls faster and faster, a midnight blue shaman. He must secure the attention of the female, future pollinator of his race. At last his dance comes to a stop. The cruel female has left the branch, rejecting his offer of nest, food and love.
If I failed to respond, he carried on with the barrage of texts. Nakul, ever distant on the phone, ever aware in person. Sahdev confident in his eccentricities, Nakul insecure despite having the approval of all. It ended messy, I couldn’t tell or separate either of their entrails after it was done. In death, their final and only union. Bloody serendipity. I blame the parents. They should have never left for that ghastly temple tour. Then I wouldn’t have been Sahdev’s booty call. Never would have discovered their shared surname. Never would have watched Nakul attack his only brother. And never would have to snap both their necks. They snapped as easily as chickens do.
Ah love, I never get enough of it. I am invisible. Nobody to see my form, nobody to glimpse the truth. All these years and all I’m equipped with is the dreaded arsenal of cute: pouting, playing the infant, coquetry, faux sadness, all designed to put the enemy at ease. The chudail’s ballad: teasing, then sex, followed by murder and dispatch. A hard life with no one to see past the fantasy. If only you’d ever look into my eyes.
With Bhim, it starts one smouldering afternoon. I crossed him as he hauled cement onto the road. He was working hard and I could see his muscles roiling with the effort of hauling and unloading. Hauling and unloading. I could not stop looking. Bhim’s people have spent years in Bombay serving the whims of corrupt contractors. Break a road here, build a new one there. Destroy the work of your political predecessor. Fulfill the vanity project of a municipal commissioner. Whatever the reason, fixing roads fills their bellies for eight months in a year. The remaining four are scrounged in the village. When Bhim looks at me, I think he sees the ghost of a woman with gajra in her hair. Maybe he hears a sweet melodious voice. He’s the only one who looked at me right in the eye. He’s married as far as I can tell. His wife works alongside him, sometimes I see a baby joined at her hip. I’ve taken to stalking them from afar. They work in tandem, each keen to get the work done in time and break for the day. In the nights, they play songs and sing. The baby passes from hand to hand. I want to join them more than anything, but something always holds me back. I wonder if he’s as aware of me as I am of him. Sometimes I think he observes my presence but I’m too scared to talk.
I content myself with watching him. I become a shadow flaneuse. Wherever he goes, I retrace his steps. I’ve become accustomed to watching his every movement, like I’m painting him in motion. Just for that one glimpse of recognition. Anything for that again. I get my chance one day when I see him part from the rest of the crew. He’s a little forlorn today and I’m aching to speak to him, but still the coward in me prevails. I try to be as quiet as possible, but I trip and my gasp gives me away. Then, his startled “Kaun?” and he sees me as clearly as I see him.
All at once, I see myself in his eyes. In all my terrible beauty, unmasked and free. He gives a great big cry and I turn and I flee.
I saw my lover and he saw me. I run faster, deeper into the dark, alone, scared, terrified but understanding the meaning of love for the first time in my 500 years.
Read our editorial reflections on the 2019 short story competition.