Strangers

It was a hot, dusty summer morning. She covered her nose with her dupatta to avoid the smoke coming from the minivan in front. Sitting right in front of the bus, especially during the summer, was a bad idea, she supposed. She looked at her watch. It was getting late. She had to be home soon and the traffic didn’t seem to have any way of letting go. The man opposite the aisle slapped hard at his wrist, scaring her. She stared at him flicking the dead mosquito off. He looked up suddenly and noticed her staring. He smiled a slow, lecherous smile. She looked away hurriedly.

She checked her phone messages. Then laughed at herself. Who would text her? She didn’t have any friends who would text her, especially not at 8.15 in the morning. She tried to push away the feeling of boredom that began to settle in her mind. She rummaged in her bag for the book she usually brought along. She carefully smoothened the pages of the old paperback and sat down to read.

***

He dodged the honking cars and leapt onto the bus. He looked around victoriously, and noticed that no one was looking at him. He straightened up, dusted his clothes and made his way to his favourite seat on the last row. His phone buzzed against his leg. He grimaced and whipped it out, not in any mood for socialising with another one of his million friends. He checked the text, turned the phone to silent and smiled at the old lady sitting next to him. He plugged in his iPod and sat back to listen to some music. That was when he saw her.

She was sitting right up in front, curled up on the bus seat cradling a paperback which looked as though it would fall apart any moment. Her hair was over one shoulder and he could see only half her face. The sunlight pouring in from the window behind her had illuminated her hair, and it almost looked like a halo around her. The book was certainly entertaining for he could see her suppressing her laughter at some points. He noticed himself smiling along with her, and stopped. He took out his sketching pad and began sketching her.

***

A loud honk by the bus driver jolted her out of the world of her book. She looked outside urgently, wondering if she had missed her stop. She hadn’t. She relaxed, but put the book away in case she actually did. She smoothed her hair over her forehead and looked around. The swatter was gone, and was now replaced by a paan-chewer. She turned to look around at the rest of the people. That is when she saw him. IPod plugged into his ears, a sketchpad in his hands and looking right at her. She stared at him, trying to spook him into looking away. To her surprise he smiled at her. It was too late for her to look away so she smiled back uncertainly. He was waving his sketchpad at her. She smiled and shook her head. She wasn’t going to take some good-looking yet funny guy’s book on the bus. He looked disappointed. She smiled again and turned back.

***

He realised he probably came across as a bit crazy, waving his sketchpad at some random girl like that. It was obvious she wasn’t going to come over and strike up a conversation with a stranger on a bus. He looked down at his sketch of her. The side profile did no justice to her. She was a beauty. But he could see her getting ready to leave. Her stop was probably coming. He hurriedly tore the sheet off and gave it to the passenger in front, asking him to pass it on to her. The sheet was passed forward, till it reached her just before she got off. She looked incredulous, but took the sheet and got off. As the bus began moving, he craned his neck to look at her, get a final glimpse. There she was, looking at the sketch. He thought she looked up and smiled, but just then, her face got lost among the sea of people.

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Impossible

She sat alone at the beach, playing with the sand, feeling the gentle roughness against her palm. She looked out into the horizon, and wondered how long it will take for her to travel that far. Then she realised, she won’t ever reach – it will keep moving further away. She smiled. ‘Some things are just impossible,’ she said, almost to herself.

‘What things?’

She looked up, her reverie broken. ‘Taken to speaking to yourself now, have you?’ he said, as he put out his hand to life her up. She laughed, and shook her head, patting the sand next to her. He sat down and put his arm around her, kissing her on the forehead. She smiled and leaned against him. They both sat together in silence for awhile, letting the waves wash over their feet.

‘So, what things are impossible?’ he said. She giggled. ‘The horizon.’ He repeated, puzzled, ‘The horizon?’ ‘Yes, the horizon,’ she said. ‘It’s always going to be away from you, no matter how far you go.’ He shook his head. ‘You think of the weirdest things.’ She grinned. ‘I still love you,’ he said, gently squeezing her shoulder. ‘It’s been too long. I have missed you, you know?’

It had been too long. Years, since she had left him and gone back to her mother. Left the impossibility that had been their marriage. One, that everyone who knew them thought was ideal, divine and perfect. They seemed made for each other. Only she knew that the fabric had begun to unravel long before anyone could tell.

It started small, arguments, disagreements – nothing other couples don’t get over, they thought. They figured it would go away, with time. But it didn’t. There came a point, when she couldn’t stand him. Him, or his constant stream of questions, misplaced jokes, misunderstandings – anything.

One night, it came crushing down on her. Her marriage was over. She couldn’t be with him anymore. He was a wonderful human being, the only man she would ever love. But she couldn’t live with him anymore. If she did, she would kill him with her bare hands. That was when she made up her mind. She got up in the dead of the night, and walked out of home – going to the one place she knew she would be fine.

She looked at him. ‘I’ve missed you, too. But it was the right thing to do. You know that.’ He thought of all the years he had spent alone, pining for her, hating himself for what he had done. ‘It was right for you, yes. But I was lonely without you.’ ‘You were lonely in your mind long before I left,’ she said. He nodded. She was right, she always was.

He looked into her eyes, searching in them the answer for the question on his mind. She smiled and took his hand in hers. ‘I left you then. But I won’t leave you now. Whatever you do, I will be with you. I promise.’

They stood up together, hand in hand, just like they used to, when they had been newly married and in love. He turned and looked at her face for the congest time, trying to register every detail, every curve, every wrinkle. He cupped her face and kissed her. She pulled away, the familiar glow returning to her face. They smiled and turned, looking at the horizon. ‘Impossible,’ she said, smiling. And they both walked into the ocean.

Rangeela Chowk

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.

“Juliet!”

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…”

Hunter

My first sensation is of pain – a searing, ruthless heat burning my whole body. I can’t make out where it comes from. I try to open my eyes. I can’t see anything clearly. The pain is not letting me focus. I drift back to unconsciousness.
I am aware of a slow movement. I seem to be lying down on some hard surface. Now I can make out where the pain is coming from. My limbs are caught in a sharp metal object. It is digging into my flesh. I can’t remember how I got here, though. I try to think back.
***
It had been more than a week since my last hunt. I was walking towards the water hole. A herd of deer was grazing near it. I scanned the herd to mark my prey. My eyes fell upon a doe. She was sitting to one side, away from the others. She seemed to be nursing a wounded limb. Suddenly she looked up, right into my eyes. I froze. She nodded imperceptibly. She was offering herself. I debated. This would be no fun. No chase, no rush. But she clearly wanted to die. That limb must hurt more than it seemed. I could even hunt another one if I wanted. I nodded back, and began walking towards her.
I was almost close enough to pounce when a sudden sharp pain ripped through my right forelimb. I was caught in a trap! I thrashed about trying to escape, but it had snapped shut, breaking my bone in half. My vision began to go hazy. Through the mist, I could make out the doe walking away nimbly. She stopped to turn and look at me. I blacked out.
***
The movement has stopped. I hear voices. I have heard these voices before. They bring back memories of my childhood, my mother; of her death. I don’t remember it clearly – I was very young then. I only remember her anguished growls of pain.
It dawns on me. I am going to die. Just like my mother had, like all my previous mates in the jungle. There were very few of us left in the forest anyway. And now, they are going to kill me too. For what? I don’t know. Maybe they will eat me. I think of the doe. I remember the look on her face when she turned. She looked triumphant, wicked, even. Had she known about the trap? I would never know now.
Now I am a prey, a victim. Is this how my prey felt before I killed them?
I hear a sound behind me. I am in too much pain to move. A man comes in and shines a bright light in my face. I cower in the sudden darkness and blink. He shouts out to the others. He lifts a big log of wood and swings it at my head. I roar as a new wave of pain floods my consciousness. The end is near, very near. The man bends down and looks into my eyes. I can see my reflection in his eyes. As I stare into his eyes, they change. Slowly, they become the eyes of the doe. Glinting.  Darkness begins to engulf me. I try to fight against it, but I lose my will easily. I roar, a last feeble attempt. And I die.