She pushed aside the beaded curtain and peaked outside. The corridor was teeming with people, the late-night clients. She caught Meena, her best friend’s eye. Meena was holding the hand of a shy 20-something boy. She winked. It was going to be a good night.
She turned to find Nafa Aapa standing with a fat man. He was looking her up and down lasciviously. Her insides churned. She put on her most seductive smile and sashayed towards him, twirling her pallo in the air.
“You are our best customer till date, SP saab. I have given you our best. Juliet, saab ki achhi khatirdari karna (take good care of sir).”
“SP” grunted and winked at her. She felt like laughing at him, but controlled herself. She laced her fingers with his and led him to her room.
Tonight would be the last time.
It was late, he thought as he hurried down the street. He had promised her he would be there by 12. It was already 11:45. He imagined her waiting for him at her balcony outside her room on the chawl, her face flushed with emotions like when she told one of her stories about clients, wiping sweat off her forehead, brushing aside strands of her long hair escaping from the messy bun and chewing her red lips in impatience.
He stumbled and fell. As he dusted his trousers, his hands brushed against the cool metal of his revolver. He hoped there would be no reason to use it tonight.
The SP rolled off, grunting. She felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. She lay still for awhile, trying to catch her breathe. Suddenly she got up with a start. She heard the clock chime twelve. It was time. She cautiously got off the bed and made her way to the bathroom.
In the bathroom, she peaked out of the tiny window. She could see no one. He was late.
He turned into the small gully leading into Rangeela Chowk. Even at this hour, the street was packed. Wherever he turned, he saw hundreds of women, young and old, trying to entice men with shimmering saris and red lips, tinkling bangles and sashaying hips, attempting for another night’s pay, another day’s existence. No less than three girls approached him on his way, throwing themselves at him, bargaining rates. He shrugged them off and walked on, marvelling at the rainbow of lights reflecting of the colourful glass beads, the din of bangle and human sounds and the pathetic existence of the community.
Her thought flashed into his mind. She might be with another man this minute. Revulsion rose in him like bile. But he suppressed it. He would save her tonight.
“Bhai’s instructions are clear. We have to capture them tonight. We have heard they are going to try escaping tonight,” said Popat. “He even said kill whoever comes in the way. And no one dare argue or disobey Chand Bhai.” Ali nodded, as he loaded bullets in his handgun. He didn’t care about who he killed, and whose orders they were, as long as he got his share. Besides, he had a separate account with Chand Bhai.
“So, where do you think they are?”
“Rangeela Chowk, where else?”
“Hmm. Guess after our work is done we can have a bit of fun too, eh?”
Popat grinned in reply.
She splashed water on her face. As she reached for the napkin, she glanced at her reflection in the mirror, Her eyes were redder than usual, and her lower lip had a blood clot from biting it to keep from crying out loud. She shuddered and pushed aside the night’s memories, thinking instead of him. Her lover, as she liked to think of him in her mind. Though he hadn’t touched her once. Not since the day they had bumped into each other at Rangeela Chowk, when he had tried to snatch her chain and she had caught him red handed. But there was something about him, some quality, that she couldn’t place. So her punishment had been spending the night with her, in her quarters. He had timidly said that he might not be able to afford her. She had laughed then, a long throaty laugh. And seductively said that it was alright, maybe they would just talk.
And so they had ended up talking all night, and almost every other night since then. They chatted endlessly, about professions, friends, families they had never had, dreams, ambitions, everything. And everyday, he would leave with the same promise. That one day he would save her.
They parked the jeep at the turning and walked into Rangeela Chowk, tucking their revolver in and blending with the crowd. Ali looked around, leering at the women, but Popat walked on with a single mind purpose. He would kill those two if it was the last thing he did.
The sound of a stone falling broke her reverie. The stone was lying on the bathroom floor. She ran to the window and looked out. There he was, she could clearly see his silhouette in the darkness. A warmth spread in her heart. She waved out to him and gestured him to wait. She took out the rope fashioned out of dupattas that she had hidden behind the flush tank and threw it out of the window. He caught it and fastened it to the metal tap sticking out of the ground. She climbed down as fast and softly as she could and leapt into his arms.
The sound of a gunshot sliced the cacophony of noise that was Rangeela Chowk.
Popat and Ali ran through the crowds, chasing their victims and firing randomly into the air. It was mayhem. There were women, half dressed men, eunuchs, pickpockets, drunkards everywhere. Popat spied them entering a small gully off the side and ran behind them, yelling threats and warning, followed by Ali. There were few people in the gully, some couples and beggars. Popat saw the two of them at the other end. One of them raised his gun and fired two shots at them. Popat and Ali crumpled to the ground in pain, but not before firing at those two rapidly, killing them in moments.
Police sirens could be heard in the background.
THE TIMES OF INDIA, 15th June ’95, page 2, Times City :
GANG-WAR IN RED LIGHT DISTRICT, 15 KILLED
LOVE STORY EMERGES THROUGH THE DARK
“A gang war broke out at midnight of 13th and 14th June at Rangeela Chowk, a well known Red Light area in the city, killing 15 and injuring at least 10. Popat and Ali, well known gangsters belonging to Don Chand Hakim’s gang were allegedly following two members of their gang who had ‘betrayed’ them. The police reports that they have full confessions from both of them, who claim they did this only on Chand ‘Bhai’ ‘s orders. “The bodies of the 15 persons who were caught in the gunfire have been retrieved by the police who will conduct a complete post mortem in order to identify the deceased, though most of them are likely to be those of pickpockets or sex-workers of the area, said the Sub-Inspector, S P Singh, who was first on scene of crime…”
“A love story has emerged from the dark events of the gang war. Among the 15 bodies were those of young Romi Raj, a petty thief and Juliet, a well known sex-worker, of the circles of Rangeela Chowk, both of them hugging each other. Talks with Juliet’s friends and co-workers confirmed that the two of them had planned to run away for many months and intended to go to another city and settle down together…”