A short story
The fullness of Shanti’s buttocks was unmistakable on an unremarkable Saturday winter morning. Badri Narayan hadn’t slept the night before. His mains were over and once again he hadn’t made it. He had to get ready for his prelims. His last attempt, as they say. The roundabout at Old Rajinder Nagar paani ki tanki wasn’t the quietest of places at the best of times, but today, at nine degrees Celsius, his own voice surprised him with its clarity, as he said to the woman, overtaking her from behind and planting himself in front, facing her:
“Will you have sex with me?”
He had often seen her walk past his house as the tea bubbled in the saucepan. The kitchen window opened into the car park below. No house in his block had engaged her services as a cook. So, there was no real threat of neighbours knowing about the incident. It was more than a sentence for him; he felt as if he had moulted – this turning 30 in an eight-by-ten room with a common kitchen with younger boys; this memory of that buxom girl from Bihar who would never wear a perfume but topped the UPSC interview and promptly dumped her live-in partner. To think he had almost succeeded in sleeping with her last winter! And then his father’s plans of repairing and renovating their ancestral house in Gorakhpur with money he would bring in as dowry. That was last year. This year he just had to do it.
For a month now, Badri Narayan had been feeling that if he could somehow shed his yellowing virginity, he would be able to face those exams and clear them. Taking a woman like Shanti to bed would be the cleanest way to do it. He was sure she would be perfectly discreet about it. He knew quite a bit about her already from a few unreliable sources. Migrant labour from Tikamgarh, two sons and an effeminate husband who was too shy to ask for work, too quick to switch on the porn to stem the rot in his rural soul.
I was sipping my morning tea when Shanti told me about the incident. She had only just started cooking for us. I had been married for three months and was on a study leave from college for my doctoral research. At the moment, though, immersed in that most intimate of banal pleasures, I was caught completely unaware. In that kind of a Shankar-Menuhin mood, you do not expect to hear the word ‘sex’ – not its Hindi equivalent but the English one – from your cook, articulated with a confused smile. I was quick to dismiss the momentary thrill I felt and seize upon the crudeness of the proposition. It was as if sex had travelled down my throat smelling of chamomile.
Our conversation had tipped the ordinary and spilled into unknowable niches. I will be unable to describe its impact on either of us, but we felt quite a few tremors till it lasted.
“Didi, I had just crossed the empty juice stall. My heart was beating fast. He walked towards me. I wondered… what if he touches me.” Shanti gestured with her arms, shuddering at the memory, now tinged with embarrassment.
“I pulled the shawl tight and started to cross the road. Not a soul, Didi, the street is completely vacant. About 100 metres away, a guard is asleep outside one of those kothis.”
“He looked like an ordinary man. Neither are the eyes bright nor is the nose shapely. He seems buried. I am nothing to him but a stranger who can save him. He blocked my way.”
“‘Will you cook for me?’ he asks,” Shanti added.
She continued: “And sex? I threaten to scream and call people out of their houses. He says, ‘I know you won’t, your biraadari will never forgive you if you do. Why do you want to create trouble for yourself?’”
“I see that he isn’t the one to take a risk. I can see it in his eyes. Hear it in the subdued pitch,” Shanti said.
21/35, second floor. Please come, he had said to her.
“You won’t believe Didi. Without thinking, I told him I will. I will end it once and for all.”
Next day, and it is afternoon. Shanti walks up the dark steps of the ‘backside’ entry. She is determinedly quiet. She thinks no thought during her ascent to the second floor. He opens the door. He has shaved but his eyes still have that wounded look. She has taken off her shawl. The sun is out.
“You have come.”
“Yes, I told you I would.”
“Will you, I mean…?”
“If you can’t live here like a normal person, why don’t you go back home? Begging like this…”
She has sensed the problem. He bristles at the word ‘begging’, but calms down. He wants to appear in control. It is a moment like no other.
“It isn’t a place to go back to.”
“Where is your village?”
Suddenly everyone has heard of Gorakhpur.
“Oh Gorakhpur!” she says.
“Jai Baba Gorakshnath! Take my affliction,” Badri had prayed last week when the channels started streaming the news of the deaths from encephalitis in his hometown. Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Little children dressed as Krishna thronged the streets. Janmashtami. His eyes had filled with tears. He thought of the lamps burning in the homes of the dead children.
They sit across each other, only their eyes make contact. She can see his greed. She smells his tormented desire but knows he wants bigger. She notices how his eyes shift and stray, one thing and another.
“You want to be a Collector,” she asks.
“Something like that.”
“You will have bungalows and servants.”
“A lot more.”
Badri’s earliest memories were of a maternal uncle in the Indian Administrative Services. At every family gathering, the moment he would alight from his white Ambassador, everyone would be transformed. His presence was like an authentication of the relevance of family ties. See how humble he is… he moves around with the CM and yet he has come for the puja. The host would preen as if heaven itself had sent its blessings. Even the man in safari suit who held his uncle’s umbrella would be served prasad on a bone china plate. He would see the rare spring in his mother’s step, some luminous dust over her brother’s halo, the identity card hanging from his neck. MHA, Deputy Secretary.
His thoughts are broken when she asks, “How many years have you lived here?”
“So many years for a job,” she laughs out loud.
“We all need some opium to live.”
“Do you want tea?” she asks.
“Yes. I will make it. You haven’t said yes to working here or to the other thing.”
She sits on the wrought-iron chair and looked around. A tousled bed and a few books on the table. Few tablets and two unopened syringes beside the framed photos of the monkey god, the elephant god and the charming cowherd. A couple of busts she can’t recognise. A clean ashtray and a 20-litre Kingfisher bottle mounted upside down upon a water dispenser. Three bottles of Benadryl in the corner near the bathroom door.
Ab aksar chup chup si rahein hein
Yu hii kabhu lab kholey hein
Pehle Firaaq ko dekha hota
Ab to bohut kam bole hai
Now, often, we are silent
Only at times our voice is heard
You should have seen Firaaq then
He speaks very little these days
The smell of the dying incense sticks mixes with that of damp clothing drying outside on the small balcony, which looked more a product of callousness than design. Shanti glances at the clock.
Jao na tum in khusq aankhon pe
Hum raaton ko roley hain
Do not go by these dry eyes
It is at nights that we weep
Badri Narayan’s humming ends as he enters the room with a stained tray.
“Tea,” he says.
She sees how he has brought the steaming liquid in identical cups. Their hands do not touch as he gives her one.
“It’s very cold today,” he says.
She can see the sadness in his eyes again. It casts a thin veil over the look of detached impunity he had in the morning of the day before. He falters.
“You have children?” he asks.
“Yes, two. Do you have siblings?”
“A sister. Older.”
The winter afternoon wears itself off with little difference as the sounds from the street below reach their ears. With the balcony offering the only ventilation apart from the main door, the room is hospitably noisy, enough for two strangers to sip their tea and gather their thoughts about how to continue their conversation. God knows how Shanti likes the warm cup in her hands. She had been cooking and washing utensils all morning and her hands were like gloves of ice.
“I will have to leave now. It’s time to go to House No. 9”
“Opposite Salwan School.”
“Will you cook for me?”
“I don’t know yet. One time or twice?”
“Once, in the afternoon. I will keep the key under the mat in case I am not here.”
He often went to one of those ‘basement libraries’ to read after lunch. She leaves, closing the door behind her.
Badri Narayan sits on the chair just warmed beneath her. His mind gives the impression of stillness. He had noticed her laughing eyes, like that of a wise child.
These days I wait for her to come. It has actually been only two days since our conversation and she hadn’t brought it up again. Today, while telling her what to make for lunch, I looked intently at her, but she went hurriedly into the kitchen. In my soggy imaginings, I saw a cleanly made bed, a nondescript man unbuttoning her blouse. Him entering her with a broken desire, waiting to be mended before that big exam he would have to take. As she gave in, did she imagine her husband watching those videos on his phone and feel a thrill? This will make me part of his world. I am the woman you are watching.
Did Badri Narayan have a passing thought about his bedsheet, pillow cover and blanket?
They would need to be given to the Laundromat. If he gave it to them before 5 pm, they would give it back by the afternoon the day after.
That preserves the two axes of my imagination, sex and purity. I encounter my own reticence about imagining their bodies. I can’t seem to get beyond his hairy buttocks and her nipple of a navel.
I will never make a good writer. You can’t be allergic to moral greyness; everyday living itself is a source of infection.
The phone rang the next morning. Shanti, the cook was calling.
“I won’t be able to come today.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Guests from the village.”
I put the vegetables I had kept on the kitchen counter back in the fridge again, quickly drawing up a dinner menu before Samar came home. Her absence had interfered with my plans for the evening. I came back to the table but couldn’t get my momentum back immediately. It took me a while.
This restlessness needed to be put down in the diary as a side effect of marriage. The ihalok was finally taking root.
Four days after the incident, I was halfway through writing the climax of her amorous adventures when Shanti walked in. She was in one of her busy, pensive moods. I told her the night’s menu and got back to the coffee table to work. She cooked in silence, looking out of the kitchen window. I was prepared to wait for her daily chat, not willing to disturb my train of thoughts. I opened a cruel book masquerading as a study of the memories and suffering of war. It filled me with anger. I was lucky enough to catch a crow outside the window tighten its muscles to release its excrement and had an impulse to catch that white stuff within the pages of this book as a perfect metaphor for my feelings. The lauki koftas made a hissing sound as she fried them, every now and then. I was still thrilled but no longer twitchy. A confession would have been vulgar.
Badri opens the door.
“You have come.”
Shanti walks into the kitchen.
“How long has it been since the last cook left? There are dead cockroaches beneath the burner.”
“Her two-year-old son died of encephalitis in August. She is scared for the surviving ones now.”
“Oh. Bhaiya, how could so many children die in a place with so many temples?”
“Yes, they just kept dying, one after another.”
Badri Narayan feels like saying ‘karma’. But a joke now would be superfluous, perhaps even upsetting, with both her sons away.
“Perhaps the temples are too few. We need some more to appease the gods.”
“Only he knows why children pay for our sins!”
He takes his cup of tea and walks into the room, shutting the door behind him. The kitchen in Badri Narayan’s one-room set is outside, adjoining the corridor. He sits on a chair near the balcony door and looks at the birds sitting on the wire outside. The Nepali boy on the pavement is cleaning his stall. His momos with mayonnaise had been an instant hit in the market. Badri Narayan recalls images of the reporters outside those hospitals, fuming, gesticulating. He wanted someone to say “Let us mourn for a minute or two.” The future officers and diplomats in the coaching classes discussed the tragedy animatedly. Oregano for flavour. The phone rings. He disconnects and scrolls through the messages, typing something hurriedly.
Pehle Firaq ko dekha hota
Ab to bohut kam bole hein
Gham ka fasana sunne walon
Akhir-e-shab aaraam karon
Kal yeh kahani phir chedenge
Ab to zara hum soley hein
Ab aksar chup…
You should have seen Firaaq then
He speaks very little these days…
You who listen to fictions of melancholy
Rest, before night is gone
We will tell this tale again, tomorrow
Let us sleep now for a while
The wind has opened the door. Shanti hears his singing from the kitchen. The voice of a man trapped by a dream.
Shanti takes her tea and stands in the corridor, drinking.
“Come inside,” he says.
“I am alright here.”
“It is warm in the room.”
The bed has been freshly made. The blanket looks as if it has been dry cleaned. He leaves the chair for her and sits on the bed.
“Your fingers are swollen.”
“The chicken was frozen. You should have kept it outside the fridge. I had to use boiling water to get rid of the ice.”
“Didn’t think of it.”
He goes into the kitchen and gets her a biscuit.
“Thank you,” she says, giggling self-consciously.
“They also say ‘My plajar’, don’t they?”
“Yes. My son tries to teach me new words when he comes here for his holidays.”
He takes off his glasses and his eyes hold her.
He sits on the edge of the bed. Shanti can see the chholey-kulchhe walah through the balcony. Aggarwal Sweets has downed their shutters by half, too. Shanti looks at Badri Narayan. Before he realises, Shanti has dragged her chair closer to the bed. He gets up and shuts both doors. She closes her eyes and calmly disrobes herself as he watches. He quickly undresses and draws her inside the blanket. Fuck foreplay, he thinks. After a few mandatory moans and shrieks, it is over. She breathes slowly, pretending to sleep. He has fallen asleep by her side. Shanti lays inside for some more time, liking the warmth of the excellent blanket. She does not feel much tenderness towards him now, as she had before this afternoon encounter. She smiles, gets up, arranges the room and trudges home. Her husband is asleep with the phone beside him. Today she will not scroll down the videos or check his messages.
When Badri Narayan awakes, night is already in through the open door. The chair is empty. The clothes are folded and the curtains drawn. The talcum powder and hair gel that smeared the dressing table have been cleaned. She has kept the underwear aside, neatly arranged. He gets up and walks slowly into the kitchen. The hot case that contained his dinner is on the counter. The gas burner sparkles and the pot holders are drying on the clothesline. He smells the cleanliness of the house and senses that he will never see her in his room again.
In the last few months before he quit Delhi, people saw little of Badri. His friends from the coaching centre had hardly any time to waste on a case like him. It was winter again. Badri Narayan Gorakhpuri had finally packed his bags. One fine day, Shanti noticed two girls reading on the balcony as she walked past hurriedly. New occupants. She felt an urge to climb the steps and see the room. For a month after she had left that peacefully breathing student in bed, her body smelt of incense sticks and Benadryl. Though she hid it from everyone, she would hear voices at night. Dimming lamps. A glimmering river. Children asleep. Sounds of bells, dogs, cars all night. And slowly that dreadful feeling would come on.
It was as if someone was turning the oxygen off.