A beautiful man with a rich beard and a nose sharp enough to slice a tomato stood ahead of Viju at the Falafel cart. He looked a lot like the man he’d seen Gita with at the cinema house last week, his Gita, at least she used to be. Viju grunted before he could catch himself. The man turned but looked away, scrunching his nose as if he were near a heap of garbage.
Viju knew everyone was looking at him now: the hurrying locals, the dawdling tourists, taxi drivers, haggard-faced passengers in the bus nearby, everyone. It seemed to him as though they were pointing at the rust-red lumps on his face and laughing at the way they covered half of his left eye, most of his mouth. Such that when he spoke, he had to speak slowly to make himself clear, especially to the customers at the shop where he ran the photocopiers.
He shrank further into his t-shirt and left the queue. He started for home, choosing not to take the bus. He didn’t want to give people another opportunity to stare. He was used to it though, from when he was ten, the kids in his lane wouldn’t play with him, instead they teased him, called him names.
He was twenty-six now and the teasing hadn’t stopped. They chased him, called him bandar, because of the redness of his face: “Aiee, bandar, here’s a rupee, dance for us;” “Want a banana?” They laughed, aping the walk, the mannerisms of a monkey. When it bothered him too much he raised a hand and lunged at them as if to slap them. They scattered away, giggling.
He crossed the road, into the barking traffic boiling with the heat of those heading home to fuck, to die, to sleep, to lick, to live, the thick of their wrists shoving the horn. The pedestrians snaked on the pavement, stepping around vendors and beggars. But when they saw Viju approaching, they leapt out of the way willing to give their lives to a passing lorry or a car than grazing against him, not wanting any part of his on them. Even the raggedy girl begging for bread, for a rupee, didn’t look at him, digging her back into the electric pole on the side of the pavement. But the second his shadow hissed past her, she started again, Sir-sir, Madam-madam, one rupee pliss. Gita leaving him was no surprise, he always knew she was going to.
When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges.
He walked on the edges of the road where the street-light wouldn’t fall directly on him, driving his chin deep into his chest, a headless man. He walked past the railway tracks, the tiny paan stalls, grocery store, the cemetery until he got to Wadi, the slums, alleys after alleys of small, identical tin shacks on either side, so close to each other no one had any secrets: Baloo’s daughter had run away with the sweeper; Bimala died in her sleep; Amir the truck driver had AIDS.
One of those homes was Viju’s. The door was open—it always was—and just as he entered, bottom-exposed children chased a shrivelled chicken into the street across the alley. The kerosene lamp in the corner licked long black lines into the wall and shed wavy shadows. Coughing on the cot was his father, his body half raised. He rushed to comfort him, patting gently on his back, but the dry, wheezing cough persisted. Some nights it was so intense he spat blood. Viju gave him some cough syrup and when the coughing subsided, he turned the radio on to listen to old Hindi songs. His father’s yellow lifeless eyes were on him, awake yet lost.
He leaned against the wall waiting for his mother to return from the market and make dinner. She came back with two plastic bags of vegetables, a weary smile and held the door frame to catch a breath. They are used to seeing me like this. Viju wondered if he went away for a long-long time and returned one day, will his parents shriek in horror or embrace him; will they ask him where he had been, if he had had something to eat?
The adjoining room where he slept doubled up as the kitchen—a kerosene stove, a small wooden cabinet with a handful of vessels was next to his head. The holes in the corroded metal sheet ceiling threw sharp lines of moonlight on him. Lying on the thin straw mat, he could hear his parents snore in the next room. He traced his face with his fingers counting the number of ridges and Gita’s beautiful face appeared before him, like it had every night for the past year.
* * *
When he turned twenty-five, life had almost been kind to him. A customer at the shop said he knew of this miracle baba near his village who could definitely treat him. Up until then no doctor, no priest or swami had been able to help with his condition. The customer said baba had divine powers to bring the dead back to life, cure cancer. In his presence the blind saw and the lame walked.
Thrilled and full of hope Viju made all the arrangements, booked his train tickets, borrowed money from neighbours for the treatment. But days before he was to leave, his father fell from the sixth floor at the construction site he was working in and broke most of the bones in his body. Viju cancelled his trip to take care of him. To him it was a sign: nothing good will ever happen to him.
It was during that time that Gita, a nurse at the local government hospital, started coming to their locality once every week. She had long, black hair and smelled always of coconut oil.
There were rumours that she’d been fired from the hospital a month ago as a patient had died under her care. But she continued to wear her nurse’s outfit: her cap, apron, the dress tight at the chest, going from home to home asking if anyone was sick in their family. And since she didn’t charge, no one thought too much of it.
Viju liked it when she came, the gentle way in which she spoke to his father. When his mother offered her tea, she thanked her and sipped graciously from the steel tumbler, leaving red lipstick marks around the edges.
Up until then he’d only been in love with cinema actresses: Katrina, Deepika, enjoying the goings-on in his pants each time their songs came on the colour TV at the shop, when they moved seductively in the rain or a strong breeze exposed their low blouses. But he fell in love with Gita immediately, imagining dancing with her like those heroes, holding her close, his lips grazing her smooth neck, her face, his fingers passing through her long, soft hair.
Friday evenings when she visited, Viju returned early from work, showered, lathered himself with talcum powder and put on a clean shirt and trousers. And when Gita looked at him or asked him a question, those brief moments he even thought himself as attractive. He’d stand close to her, bring her things she asked for: cotton balls, dettol, bandages, medicines, thermometer. He’d listen to her instructions, nod along: “You will have to change the dosage of this medicine; you should often ask your father what he wants, check if he’s thirsty or hungry, or needs to go to the bathroom. O.K.?”
He noticed also the way his mother was around her—shoulders curved, always smiling, always agreeing—poor woman wanting for her son a bride; she wanted to see him married, have a family. And to have such an educated woman as her daughter-in-law would make her so happy. His mother’s desire, too, made him look at Gita differently.
There was really no need for her to visit. His mother took his father to the government hospital for check-ups, pushing him in the wheelchair Viju had managed to buy from a thrift store. But because Gita continued to, Viju started to believe that she liked him too. The way she smiled at him, or when their fingers touched when he brought her a glass of water or handed her his father’s medical reports. He even started believing that his father’s accident was a blessing; that if his father hadn’t fallen, Viju would’ve left to see the village baba and not met Gita.
“Take care.” She’d smile before leaving, her smile, he thought, was a secret shared just between the two of them.
One day she came home in a yellow salwar kameez and looked so different it took a moment for Viju to realise it was Gita. He felt that maybe she’d dressed this way to do away with the formality a nurse’s uniform created between them. Maybe this was her way of saying, Let’s be more.
“Ma has gone for the Vat Poornima puja,” Viju said when she asked about his mother.
A stream of women in red saris and glass bangles walked past their door carrying fruits, coloured threads, brass pots with water, pieces of red cloth and clay idols. A current of joy passed though his body as he thought that after becoming his wife, Gita too would observe fasts and pray for his well being like other married women. But in the very next moment, he felt a wave of grief knowing that this was just a hollow dream, that if she learned what was on his mind she’d hit his face.
“How’s uncle?” she asked.
“He sleeps through the night now. His pain has gone down.”
He made her his special tea with crushed ginger and cardamom. When she took the tumbler from him, their fingers touched as usual. He stood in the semi-dark room, watching her quietly have her tea.
That night he pictured Gita naked.
* * *
In the morning, a customer with a chin carved out of butter: big, shiny, ample stared at him as Viju repeated his order: three copies, front and back?
“Yes-yes,” he said, trying not to gape.
“Page won’t photocopy well because it is worn. The copy will be darker, O.K.?”
The fat man had a French beard, a toilet-brush sticking out of soft dough.
“Dark page is alright?” Viju asked again.
The page was illegible, but the man only blinked twice and left with the blackened sheets of paper.
“Chutiya. The idiot didn’t even ask for his change.” The owner laughed and scratched the webbing between his toes.
Viju noticed the owner’s daughter; she was parking her two-wheeler. The afternoon light illuminated the bleached blond hair along the edges of her jaw. Every Monday, after her computer classes, she came to the shop to collect her pocket money. Five hundred rupees for the week. Viju’s blood turned black just watching the owner hand her the money and the girl taking it mechanically, as if she deserved it, when Viju had to work the entire month for much less.
“Be right back,” he said, wishing to be away.
“Again? Didn’t you just go to shake your dick minutes ago?”
“Before I went to get your gutkha, now I want to go to the toilet.”
“Acha. Bring two more packets on your way back.”
He went to the washroom on the lower level of the two-story building, ahead of the row of shops: mobile repair, compute spare parts, ATMs, stationery. The weak tube-light hummed a few seconds before flashing to life. He used the commode and washed his hands at the basin. He looked in the mirror with dark spots around its edges. What’s the point? But still he splashed cold water on his face and dabbed gently with his handkerchief. And hoped like he always did to have a regular face when he looked in the mirror again.
He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided.
“Hi, handsome,” he said aloud and laughed bitterly. He thought of Gita and how he must appear to her. Surely she saw something in him he couldn’t. How much he had enjoyed her touch, and soon had a bulge in his pants again. He imagined caressing her and was about to pull his pants down but there was an urgent knock on the door. Quickly fastening his buckle, he opened the latch and pushed the door open. The man waiting outside, desperate for a piss, jumped back as though afraid. Viju could tell he was reconsidering using the toilet now knowing Viju had been in there. The man decided against it and walked away.
* * *
Week after week, Viju waited desperately for Gita, wishing secretly, guiltily, for his father to remain sick. Each time his mother reported back wearily what the absent-minded doctor at the hospital told her—bones are still weak, not healing fast enough, maybe six more months—Viju tried to mirror her emotions. But when the temperatures peaked in the summer and his father grunted in pain or in frustration from the incessant itching on his toes or calves, places he couldn’t reach because of his casts, Viju’s selfishness pricked him.
The next time Gita came, she left her sandals with their silver straps in the corner and walked to his father’s cot by the only window in the house.
“Eat chicken soup to strengthen your bones, Uncle,” she said and his father nodded with half-closed eyes. Viju sat on his haunches beside them, and wondered where the money for the chicken soup would come from. He watched Gita take his father’s pulse. His mother was in the kitchen cooking and from inside asked how her day had been. Gita said, “Busy as usual, Aunty,” and smiled. The sight of her white, uniformed teeth titillated Viju.
She rested her hand on the railing of the cot, a dainty golden-dial watch on her wrist. It took all of Viju’s self-control to not grab her hand and rub it all over his face, kissing it till her palms turned red.
“Viju, do you want to learn how to take his pulse? Here, let me show you,” she said, taking his quivering hand in hers. “You place two fingers between the bone and the tendon over your radial artery — I mean on the thumb side of your wrist. When you feel the pulse, count the number of beats in fifteen seconds. Then multiply this number by four to calculate the beats a minute. Got it?”
* * *
Viju tossed in bed, staring at the rays of silvery light streaming in through the ceiling, wishing for the week to pass quickly so that he could see her again. This was all new, these feelings he was experiencing, his dreams wet and sticky, a swelling desire to dip his tongue into the taste of tomorrow.
The week after, Gita came home on a Wednesday, just after Viju’s mother had left with his father for his check-up. As if she knew. This was the first time they had been alone and a fear gripped him; what will people say? Will they wonder what an eligible woman was doing with a man like him when there was no one else at home? Will they complain to his mother? But Gita entered without care, asked him how his father was. He offered to make her chai, she accepted. After finishing her drink, she reached out and touched his face. Viju took a sharp intake of air, which made her giggle. His mind went blank, the pulsating beat of his heart knocking behind his eyes. She blew gently and a rush of her cold, sweet-smelling breath brushed his lips, his cheeks.
This went on for days. She’d come home when his parents left and stayed till just before they returned. He’d weave his fingers through hers and relish the wetness in his pants, the world forgotten; for once someone just for himself; the weight and heat of another body pressed against his. He latched on to her like a child to its favourite blanket, cautious, worried someone was after it.
She allowed him only to play with her fingers; he sucked on them, kissing them one by one. If he tried to do anything else, like touching other parts of her body, she’d leave. He was afraid if he said something, if he protested, she’d put an end to it. Why was she like this with him? He wept into his hands, but whatever this was, he was taking it, he decided. A bone, a soggy biscuit, he’ll take it.
* * *
At work, finding him unusually talkative, the owner snickered. “Wah-wah today your voice is coming loud and clear. What’s the matter? Someone blow you?”
Viju whistled as he photocopied an entire grade 12th physics book for a student. Two girls who passed by eyed him. He smiled then waved at them. He held his head high and proud, feeling O.K. with the way he looked, even a little love for himself, returning in his mind again and again to his encounter with Gita.
He wanted to be with Gita, like the couples he’d seen outside his shop sharing golgappas out of the same leaf bowl, laughing, looking with love at each other, sharing a joke; or like the ones he’d seen kissing in parks behind thick bushes, the girl’s dupatta over both their heads, a delicious intimacy between them. He wanted to tell Gita how he felt about her, but each time he said aloud things he planned on telling her, his throat closed and he found it hard to breathe. What if she slapped me? What if she told everyone what I said to her and they all mocked me? What a chutiya, they will say.
That night in bed, he recalled the goose pimples on her smooth skin, her scent. But that feeling didn’t last long as unease wrung his innards; made him sit up and wonder what she was doing with someone like him? This was just a phase, this affection was temporary. Any day now she was going to realise how hideous he was and tell him, “Stop touching me, bandar.” Once when he asked her if she wanted to go to the park with him, she said, “What’s wrong with spending time here?”
* * *
These days it surprised him, the insistent, pressing urge to masturbate—there was no other way of satisfying this creature—that came upon him often and at the most unlikeliest of times: on the bus to work, or while the photocopy machine whirred under his hands; when eating dinner—one flash of Gita and blood thrummed in his groin.
These impulses soon started interfering with his life, his work. Unable to focus, he was frequently messing up the instructions customers gave him, half-listening, worried his erection was showing. He’d make too many copies or forget to start the photocopier. Once the owner’s daughter caught him rubbing himself against the machine, and the owner who would’ve usually laughed off something like this, fired Viju.
* * *
Back in his lane, children trailed him, snickering: Bandar, oi bandar, where’s your bandariya today?” He kept walking, not engaging them. His mother met him at the door.
“Everyone knows,” she said and gave him a surprised laugh.
“Why are you yelling?” Viju said. “Go inside.”
“So it’s true? You and Gita….”
“Yes.” Although it seemed like a lie to him; what were they, Gita and him?
“She likes you?” she stared at him. “She’ll marry you?” but immediately she lowered her eyes as though ashamed by her question. He could sense her relief but also her scepticism that a woman was interested in him. She cupped his face between her hands.
“I already have bangles and earrings for my bahu,” she said proudly.
Now he just had to find another job, as a man about to get married rightfully should.
* * *
On the bus, going from shops to offices, looking for work, any kind of work, his lower abdomen purred. If he ignored it, it will go away, not bother him, not today, not now, but when had it ever listened to him?
He found an empty seat at the back and because it was crowded, he had to be discreet, quick. He slowly slid his hand inside his pants, keeping one leg over the other and spread his handkerchief over his lap. He was nearly done, eyes closed in concentration when a woman shouted. “See-see what he’s doing? Stop him, stop him,” she yelled and Viju realized his kerchief was on the floor. The passengers and the conductor got hold of him, dragged him out of the bus and kicked and punched him till he blacked out. When he woke up he was in jail.
The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape.
He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but he saw his mother kneeling at the inspector’s feet, begging him to release Viju, her face weak and crumbling. Finally, after calling Viju and his mother names and laying a fresh, loud slap on his cheek, the inspector let him go. She was silent on the way, her hands fists.
Viju and his mother got out of the rickshaw. The sky was bruise-purple. As soon as they entered the alley they heard stray dogs howling. He smelled it even before he heard the neighbourhood women wailing at the mouth of the lane, pallus drawn over their faces, beating their chests. They were standing outside Amir’s house. Viju saw the truck driver’s ammi by the doorstep, her expression frozen, hair frazzled, sari falling off her chest exposing sagging breasts. Viju’s mother pulled him roughly by his sleeve, demanding he come home with her.
“Please, son, please,” Amir’s mother cried suddenly on seeing Viju, collapsing at his feet. “Please take him to the graveyard, no one else will. They refuse to touch him.”
Viju’s heart thumped. The neighbourhood men stood at a distance and their women, the edge of their saris between their teeth, stood next to them.
The old woman was caressing Viju’s face, taking his hands and pressing them into her bosom. He looked at Amir, most of him eaten away by the disease, pale, a white ghost.
Viju went home with his mother, ate the food she served. But he couldn’t sleep, not because Gita kept him awake, it was the sight of Amir, his neglected body, the old woman’s tears.
He walked back to Amir’s house, the woman was still at the doorstep.
Viju bent, picked up the corpse and followed the curved narrow street. The woman didn’t follow him, just kissed her son’s toes and wept. A few dogs walked after him, some growling, some curious. The air was muggy with the smell of sewage, the lane lightless and quiet.
He remembered how once when he was young, he was playing on the road when a scooter had knocked him down. Bleeding from his head, he laid there alone and hurt. The kids playing with him had run away. People stood and stared, or walked away. It was a long time before someone finally took him to the hospital.
The gravedigger asked him to pour three handfuls of soil into the open hole, before burying the corpse and patting down the grave to shape. The man in his undershirt stepped back and put a hand on Viju’s shoulder. The skin on his face was dark and dirty, alcohol on his breath. He spoke slowly in a gravelly voice, “I have buried hundreds here but I don’t have anyone to lower me into the ground.” The man was crying slowly, lost in sadness.
Viju made up his mind; he wanted to be happy, why shouldn’t he be? He deserved it and would fight for it if he had to. The sun was starting to light the sky; he knew what he had to do. He was going to ask Gita to marry him. He’d joke that his mother already loved her bahu more than her own son. He was thrilled by these thoughts.
He enquired of shop owners, people in her neighbourhood walking down the street with their families; rickshaw drivers. “Know where Nurse Gita lives? Do you? Do you? Do you?” After hours of seeking, a man finally pointed him toward her building.
Gita wasn’t home. But he was happy to be there, to walk the same floor her feet too had touched. In the dank, cold corridor, sitting by her door, he could almost taste her: coconut oil and rose-scented perfume. Someone had spilled milk in a corner and a swarm of red ants were gathered around it, drinking with their small mouths.
He imagined her house, what it may look like from the inside: neat, clean, nothing out of place; white walls, small colour TV, white curtains with red flowers on them. She’d call him into her bedroom and pull her kameez over her head, remove her pyjamas, take off her bra and underwear. She’d lie down on the bed and beckon him. He felt excited by the thought of being naked with her, she opening her legs at his touch.
He heard footsteps and before he could react or duck, a heavy wooden staff whacked him on the side of his thigh. His flesh stung, burned. He cried with pain. It was the watchman.
“For one second I leave and scum like you get in. Get out before I break your head,” he said. “Go, go,” the guard shoved him, digging the stick deep into Viju’s back. “Bloody cattle-class.”
As Viju limped out, stroking his femur, he saw a woman in yellow salwar kameez, the fabric shimmering, her backside swaying left-right-left-right. It was Gita he was certain. He started following her, yelling her name, waving, jumping. “It’s me, it’s me, I love you,” he shouted. But she didn’t turn. He followed her until he lost her in the crowd.