An excerpt from a work in progress
Vengeful life had sizzled through the black silken forest of his beard as Rajesh Palit had led me to his gossip-chamber that flowed smoothly into the streets in front, pleading with people to drop in for a cup of chai, share a heartache, and wrap their soul around the warm, throbbing colors of The Party. I was to lie around there for a while, blend in with the musty old calendars and groaning ceiling fans and the occasional stray dog curled up asleep under the chairs, the carom board propped up outside on the pavement. Lie around and be a moth on the wall, the chai boy who sauntered in and out, humming, soak in the sound bites flying around there like squawking crows.
The three women came in well before I had mastered the art of making myself invisible. I had probably stared, because of no reason but for the way they came in, self-conscious of the act of entering, unlike most citizens of that chamber who slithered in and out as they chatted, never quite noticing that they were moving back and forth between a street and a house. But for that, they could have been troubled women from nice homes in the neighborhood, come to snitch about drunkenness or firecrackers too loud round the corner. But, no, not quite…something about them suggested that their lives were strung together too close, in the kind of perky rhythm beyond the reach of mere friendly neighbors. Were they tall members of a co-op market that had run into a snag?
For they were tall, two of them, tall and regal, and a third who fooled you, at first glance, as their teenage daughter. Renoo, who caught my glance before the rest perhaps because she was closer to my height, with eyes that touched mine though I’d done my best to look away as soon as my glance fell across her. But Renoo, as I would learn again and again, could make whole speeches in the fragment of a glance, and in the fragment thrown at me that afternoon, I saw that she was older than she had looked at the moment of walking in along with her taller companions. Intelligence crept out of her face softly, hiding the moment it saw you looking, a knotted intelligence that belonged to no teenager. She had to be in her late-twenties at the very least.
Even so, you had to stir a bit to hear her speak before the others, to be the voice of that co-op group.
A strange co-op group it must have been, getting grief from violence that could be spoken of only in codes. Codes that seemed to belong to the sage Rajesh Palit as well as they were owned by the suddenly-flustered Renoo, both bizarre adolescents lost in a jagged flow of slang. But I hung on, not daring to blink, in fear of losing their unintelligible words, in fear of becoming a real human being who drew attention to himself. “They enter our rooms as clients,” Renoo spoke in a voice laced with calm and seasoned anger. “And beat up our girls. Cigarettes, belts, the works.” They come in groups so large and so violent that they blow away our paltry muscle-boys like straws in a gale.
It was a co-op where you walked in to buy sex. A co-op, too, that needed smooth, sensible running, that sent its key players to have a reasonable conversation with political leaders to get goons off its back. Renoo grew deeper in years as she lay out the unreasonableness of its all, and making my way through the code-thickened language, I saw a mind persuasive in its logic, sharp and clear in its goals. The wives and other women of their key clientele were playing a nasty trick this time to get their men off the hookers who looked after them in the evenings. They had rallied themselves into a cranky ring cast around the rival political party, seeking their help to break up the honest circle of business where perky women picked up hardworking men at the end of a tiring day to give them the free run of a woman’s body. Well, there were some things they wouldn’t let a man do, but never mind…what would those bitches at home offer after the homes were littered with kids? Hardly a tender word, and you could forget about any fun beyond.
But why would the bitches stand the pain of their men’s pleasure? Rough with anger, Renoo’s face revealed a woman of the world that I didn’t know existed, not with the kind of crafty beauty that layered her face. Now I feel stupid about the gooseflesh that caressed my skin at her aura – a living whore sitting and talking in the very same room, her fragrance touching my senses, her no-nonsense intelligence reddening the tips of my ears. My memory paled, weakened right there, of a row of dolled up, beastly women sighted in a row along a street where I lost myself, it felt, a hundred years ago. Was that how I’d wandered into the streets fringing a brothel, a cocky child light years ago? It did not seem as if Renoo could belong there. Her sharp, crisp features enshrined a strange beauty, of a powerful woman nestled in the body of a shy teenager, delicate fingers that threatened you with fatal strength even as they cut arcs of protest through the air. Hidden under a plain silk sari, her body swelled with stories to tell, and my heart jumped to my mouth in terror as I glimpsed the smooth, light-brown skin of a flat midriff between her blouse and sari, a stretch of a skin over which she had neglected to draw her anchal.
The rival party, too, had jumped to the chance. Angry women of soot-stained homes made up an untapped treasure-trove of votes that usually never reached the polling booths. When they did once in a while, they merely shadowed the voting habits of their men, which followed the Will of The Party like tail-wagging dogs. Losers saala! Here was their chance to win over the women who wanted their men to come home with the money made in the day and not blow it at the bedside of some woman who could curl and bend her slimy body like a snake. Sway the will of the homes too, bring TV commercial happiness into wailing wicker homes. So why not beat up a few whores to get your way? Send goons to shake up the houses and dry up their roadside business, shame the men with their pants around their ankles, penises drooping faster than they stood up. Make it the house of shame it was meant to be, a house of frantic shrieks.
A fly on the wall of that gossip-chamber, I saw the birth of a beautiful thing that evening. A future. Between the two of them, Rajesh Palit and Renoo opened up a way of thinking that I didn’t know existed in this world, glimpses of political math that I’d never sensed these last few days in the room, around the carom board in front, over para boys come to raise hell over the use of property and middle-aged men planning Puja committees. The bearded politician and the sharp-browed hooker pushed the limits of what you thought were possible, beyond the mere fighting of goons by goons, of twisting parties with parties, muscle with muscle. Pretending to dust furniture and photo frames, I realized the obviousness of the need that had hid itself so well in the air blessed by stale cigarette smoke and Renoo’s sharp, maddening fragrance. The need of a strong collective will of hookers. A common shrieking voice. No, no shrieks, a cold, steely voice of demand. A union of their own.
Renoo had brought her sisters-in-trade to the party that could do more than lend some muscle to get the goons off their back. This was the party that could help shape their anger into a fierce firebomb, balled fists and a cold, calculating set of claims. The Party.
“And why not?” Renoo had creased her brows. “We run a good house. We deliver what we promise. We raise our children with care, better than some of those bitches with wedded husbands…”
“But of course.” Listening to Rajesh Palit’s voice, you could believe that he was dealing with a stubborn knot of railway porters or a wronged group of jute-laborers come to seek redress. “Children…” He hummed, his voice trailing away in the silken forest of his beard.
“Why don’t you come and sit here?” Looking at me, he flouted his own rule with such careless abandon that my flesh grew red and warm and I frantically looked for a place to hide. I was not to talk, and they were to pretend I don’t exist. To soak in the weather, I had to be a fly on the wall. For days and days. How could the man betray me in the middle of a maddening mist of fragrance?
Pushing leaden legs, I edged ahead, stood near the coffee table flanked by the four of them. Perilously close now, Renoo looked up, gave me a smile of such genuine affection that the world turned, in a flash, to an airier, sunnier place. “Come and sit, little man,” she said, the dark blue anger from a moment ago gone like a nightmare that had never been.
“Some of you have children his age, right?” Rajesh Palit asked in a voice that wandered, a little aimless.
“My daughter would be a couple of years older than him,” one of the tall women said. “She goes to school too.”
“Yes, many of us do,” Renoo picked up the unkempt thread of the conversation. “I have a son a few years younger than him. It’s hard to believe that our kids live with us and watch us work.” Sadness weighed down her smile. “Life! What are you going to do?”
“Here’s what you are going to do.” Rajesh Palit leaned ahead, the old glint of vengeance shining through the forest of his beard, through his half-visible mouth, the tiny, slit-like eyes. “Talk to the world. Tell them your stories. Claim your rights.” He grabbed my hand. “Have him around. He is a boy with special gifts.”
He looked at me with a helpless smile. A smile that was shielded from the three women, if not in body, but in its soul.
He dared me to do it.
An evening a few weeks later gave elegant shape to the future imagined by Renoo and Rajesh Palit. An idea that they claimed had a few precedents, in a few other parts of the nation. Justice for Sex workers. Said one orange banner, the same color and texture as that announcing local volley ball tournaments for teenagers. The National Sex Workers’ Union. Said the cool white banner pinned across the wall behind the raised platform. That couldn’t be right. What was national, the union or the sex workers? And what was national about a hookers and pimps from the sleepy houses across the railways station getting their anger knotted together? Why do people let their ideas run away with them?
There was music, and songs, and poems. Paul Robeson and all that. The gambit was opened by a fattish woman with weird hair in jeans and khadi kurta. She was studying for a doctorate in London and was a professional hellraiser for the cause of prostitutes. It was a cause, she told us, that had a vibrant life of its own, in many corners of the world, where hookers worked with licenses just like doctors and chartered accountants. She spoke in a singsong and from time to time appeared to miss a chalk and a blackboard. Sadly, the pale banner of the National Sex Workers’ Union was all she had behind her. They were not just some pillow, she said, men clamped their legs around to masturbate and could throw away when soiled. Her acute analysis of masturbation – repeated several times in her speech – thickened the knot of people before the stage and send strong murmurs through them. These were, she sang, human beings, women just like those who helped them at banks and stores, those who cooked their meals and washed their dishes. Agile women who cleaned their pipes to flush out desires that might have turned them into rapists and murderers. By drawing out the violence, taking it on themselves, these women were like charmers of venomous snakes, sharp, skilled charmers. Help them stand up for their rights. She flung a khadi-wrapped arm in the air, palm wrapped into a ball.
Oh, and pillows did not spread diseases. Human beings did. Without a sane system and a modicum of peace, they would all be wiped off by STD. Not standard trunk dialing. Sexually transmitted diseases.
Shooting little arrows of terror into the loins of every wandering man, she stepped down.
Next was the hookers’ chorus, a song by a famous dead poet about mountain-climbing. Hiking across endless deserts and swimming through bottomless oceans. All to be done in the dead beat of night.
And then Renoo walked up to the stage and spoke much in the same manner she had spoken in Rajesh Palit’s adda-chamber. Maybe pumping up the volume a little bit. But I could tell. It was the same clear, simple, cutting spray of words, the straight attack at the jugular, the same private manner addressed to what was now a sizeable crowd. And what a motley crowd it was. College boys tickled by the nature of the meet, housewives back from errands scandalized and frozen on spot, railway porters unable to un-glue their eyes off the protestors. Not that Renoo cared. She had a story to tell, a story of many horrors, and you had no way from running away from it. The madam was right, she said. Could you get away by bashing up the shopgirl who showed you clothes? Would you have the balls to stub out your cigarettes on your housemaid’s cheeks? On her bare breasts? Would you? She paused, looking urgent and composed at the same time. Was it that hard to pull off, for someone who could look sharply pretty and dead gloomy at the same time? Would you? Then tell me, why would you do to the girl who was just there to do business with your body?
As I walked up to the stage, I repeated my mantra of disbelief. That I did not believe a word of what Renoo said. That I didn’t have a thing to do with them, with their sorry lives on which goons stubbed out cheap cigarettes. Even a fragment of belief would kill me, for how could I hold up against the limpid clarity of Renoo’s emotions?
Shivering up the stairs, I passed her, on her way back. Her mouth melted into the smile that gave me deep comfort. “My little man.” Lightly, she pulled my cheeks as she passed. “Go tell them.”
I had to play it like a game. A game at which one was very, very good. Honesty would get me nowhere.
Play the people like a stringed instrument. Rajesh Palit had told me. And show the whores what we can do. Oooh-la-la. Ooooooh-la-laaaaa!
Lovingly, I touched the microphone, moistened it with my slow breath. I’m a student, I told them, at Corporation School Number 16, over by the bus terminus. At least I knew where it was, the rundown jailhouse for the bustee kids. Neither did anyone laugh for calling it a school, not even the housewives from the cooperative flats frozen on their tracks at the sight of the singing hookers. Most of us, I told them, bring nice lunches from home. Sabji & paratha. Bread and omelets. Rice and egg-curry. Noodles. In tiffin-boxes that shone like mirrors. Superman stickers across their tops. With hand-kerchiefs folded into triangles on which I wipe your hands after washing. Colorful water-bottles with water and sometimes, one more, with warm Bournvita, chocolate-flavored. Quickly, I checked myself. Bournvita, superman-stickers, triangulated kerchiefs –what next, lawns the texture of moleskin? When was someone going to throw a cloud of spit at me across the podium? Carefully now, I continued: Lunch hour brings new shocks and surprises, every day. Batter-fried eggs scattered over chowmein? A stinky blob of cottage cheese? What trick will your neighbor pull today after the geography lesson? There were vacant-eyed, spittle-mouthed idiots who commanded respect due to the shininess of their tiffin-boxes, the deep-fried fragrance of their food.
The shininess of the boxes and the fragrance of the food, we knew, in the hidden shadows of our hearts, were shaped by the solicitude of our mothers at home with steaming ladles and bristled scrubs.
Groveling in the dust of this food chain, I told them, were a few ragged kids who brought neither shiny tiffin-boxes nor aromatic fare. On a good day, they got street-food wrapped in greasy paper, grease darkening the cover of their notebooks. Savory stuff but sharpened by street-salt. On worse days, a few rupee notes to thrust at the street vendors outside the school for some spiced junk in a knitted bowl of dried leaves. Good money, some of them brought, rich enough to buy pista ice-cream for a whole row of boys. But you couldn’t catch them dead with a tiffin-box or a home-boiled egg. Sprouting guilt in my voice, I lowered my eyes, looking at the crowd in front, and not quite. We got them to treat us as often as we made fun of them, the tiffin-less brats who didn’t even bring a messy blob of chhaana from home. It was a drag sitting next to them as their mothers didn’t care to pack well-oiled shocks and surprises in their bags.
Deepening the shame in my voice, I told the stunned crowd that strange was the day when our teacher, a smart young woman who loved us all, told us that the tiffin-less mothers didn’t hate their boys, and nor did the boys deserve to be hated. Did she really think we were idiots? No, she didn’t, and these boys with street-food wrapped in grease-stained paper just happened to have mothers who had jobs outside home. Just like fathers. In offices, typing letters. In shops, crunching numbers. Sometimes, in other people’s homes, watching over growing kids. Bringing money home for food and rent.
It was hard for them to find time to scrub tiffin boxes so shiny that you could see your face in them. To even think about it.
Finally grabbing the neck of the mike, I told the crowd that the stuff didn’t really make sense to us. We cut down on the mean jokes cracked along the spines of the ragged boys who didn’t have mom-made lunches to show, but the idea of moms who didn’t have time to think about it was a wispy snatch of fog that just messed with our heads.
I realized that I wasn’t talking to a crowd, but to each individual in it. Each of them were alone in a room with me, each and every one of them. I was bearing them down with the force of my painstakingly shammed impulse. Just you and me. The unshaven pimp standing in front like a demented young man. The cobbler who had dropped his work and was staring so hard at me that I found it hard to look back. The scandalized housewives who wanted to drag me down from the sick stage but couldn’t help drink every word I said. Fiercely, I told them of the day when we cracked a nasty joke across the back of another boy, an idiot from another class whom we saw lunching on sliced bread bought at the store next to the school. Something nasty and stupid, something about bread from that shop being laced with rat poison. The boy who’d said it swore that his mother had said so, that not even a rat would let her baby feed on that bread. As we broke into stomach-splitting laughter, our teacher appeared from nowhere and smiled a little at us. We hoped that she found the joke funny too.
Smiling, she told us that the idiot boy’s mother loved him no less than the other mother loved hers. The other mother who had given her son a warm tiffin-box full of home-made sweets and the myth of the rat-poison. But then, you see, idiot-boy’s mother couldn’t stay at home making lunch for her son as she was here teaching you all.
Wishful of melting into the deepest cracks on the ground, we realized it. That the boy we had whipped with our malicious laughter was the son of our very own teacher. The smart young woman who loved us all and had taught our fingers and eyes and minds a thousand things to do. A thousand and a million. Running around us like a slaving mother to seventy kids when she could be home frying tasty parathas for one.
Passionately, I looked at the cobbler who was looking at more intently than he had looked at any customer’s feet. Ever. Through the microphone, my child voice had attacked him, strangely tinny and shameful. Searing through his body. Freezing everybody with a glance meant for them, and them only, I said that once and for all, in Corporation School Number 16, once and for all, a roomful of boys understood the meaning of a woman who had a working life outside of her home and family. Who couldn’t send her son to school with a well-scrubbed tiffin box and well-fried luchis.
And then, I told the cobbler, while looking at the scandalized housewife – no one but her – we got a blow we didn’t deserve.
A strangely browbeaten and inspired bunch of kids we were, never again to mock a tiffin-box-bereft boy, one who had to share his mother with the world. For the price of food, and rent, and books. A mother who was a kind of a father too. Thrust out in this new world, we deserved better than the horror that was to come down on us, soon.
It happened after less than six months of sobriety and tolerance. A boy in our class came back to school after missing classes for more than a month. A happy boy we all loved, most of all, our teacher, because he was agile with his fingers and eyes and mind, picking up with thoughtless ease all she had to teach us. He came back to school a broken boy with the strange, confusing news that his mother had been beaten so badly at work that he had to stay back home to take care of her.
A cup of boiling-hot tea had been thrown at her face, leaving her skin scarred for life.
Her head had been smashed so hard against the wall that her hair had become sticky with blood.
And, I told the crowd, my fingers loosening around the mike, we didn’t even know the boy’s mother worked to make a living.
As she lay unconscious, they had poked glowing cigarettes at her, burning holes through her sari and her skin.
How would we know? I asked a college boy who had stopped at the rally for fun. We fought with one another to trade food with him at lunch hour. It was hard to believe that home-fried eggplants could taste that good. Or that it was possible to make parathas so magical that they tasted fresh-cooked after three hours inside a tiffin box. Oh, and what a beautiful tiffin-box it was. Old, but old like a house in which families had lived and loved for many, many years. How did a mother like that find time to work at a job and pay for her son’s books and tuition?
Who would want to kill her?
Who would? Slowly, I moved a little away from the mike, a stricken soul about to take his leave. Go away unnoticed. You can ask her, I said softly. Silence had thickened in a dark clump around the rally, faintly bitten off by the whistle of trains taking off from the railway station nearby. She is sitting right there. I turned at an angle from my silent brood of listeners, pointing to the dark tribe of hookers seated to the left of the stage. The beaten up whore was there too, dressed in the finery of bandages and a plaster-coated arm.
She had no child that I knew of. Sweetly barren, the best kind of her line of work.
Teasing them, threatening to walk away from the microphone, my thirteen year old body had woven a spell out of which it wasn’t sure it could swim out on its own. For another thirty-three minutes.
The hookers’ choir had been spared of the effort of the last protest song. God was generous with small mercies.
That evening saw the birth of the birth of a new labor union. The first of its kind in the area. A newborn, solid block of votes for The Party.
The newborn wouldn’t learn to crawl for another couple of months, but the birth-pangs were unmistakable that evening. The flurry of songs and sweets and laughter marked a drunken trail all the way back to the burrowed houses across the railways station, where Bollywood songs were already ricocheting off the walls. Steep mountains, endless deserts, and bottomless oceans had been crossed. Finally.
Renoo picked me up at one end of the narrow corridor ripped apart by the blaring music. Her strength surprised me, and the wakened muscles on her arms, like wiry snakes. “My little man.” Breathlessly, she had stuffed a furry sweet into my mouth. “You are blessed, my sweet, sweet boy.” Her voice was hoarse, as if from a cold, and it took me a few seconds to realize – and a few more to acknowledge – that she’d been crying. “Today, I’ll feed you to your heart’s content.” Pushing open the door to her room, she had drowned me in a sea of goodies made by the ladies of the house and in the fragrance of her strong, sinewy arms. Laddoos, gulab jamuns, a platter of sweets made with cashews and pistachios, the warm breath of her moist lips. The slipperiness of her simple silk sari.
Small, sharp and curvaceous, she surprised me with her beauty that refused to show cracks even at that distance. Of a few inches. Somehow, I’d expected her looks to thin and wither, age a little, when brought up that close. No such luck. Close, very close, her delicate features seemed etched by an artist of greater talent than I had thought at a distance, in the adda-chamber, on the stage.
Her heartbeat of happiness eluded me as she crushed me to her chest. Choking on cream-soaked cashews, my lips mashed themselves against her high, angular collarbone. Like a baby-bird thirsting for water, my tongue slipped out and licked the hollow of her neck, morphed into a panting dog as it sucked its way down to the soft crevice on her chest. “My little man.” She laughed, pulling herself back to unbutton her blouse, mocking the violence with which I fell on her bared shoulders and upper arms, smoother than I’d imagined human skin could be, the violence against which she struggled to wriggle her arms around to unclasp her bra. A blessed devotee, I scooped her firm and fragrant left breast into my palms, licked and bit its puckered aureole.
Painfully, I tore myself from her body to admire it, the large, proud breasts over the arched stomach, the deep belly-button, the sari worn low on the waist. She shone with deep laughter and her brown nipples glistened with my bubbly saliva. I know not how long I had sucked them.
Roughly, she had squeezed my bursting penis in her palm. “My big little man.” She had whispered.
Helplessly, I’d bucked and come in a hot spurt against the taut flesh of her inner thigh. Spent all of a sudden, I’d marveled at my love for her, a love more like a devotion.
A giant, sucking need to be nourished and blessed.