R: Not for those who consider themselves minors.
“You know, I love you.”
Darkness was gathering outside, with occasional attempts at countering it conspicuously emanating from the windows of a few apartments strewn all over. But, none of the two made any such attempt. He looked out through the oval vent and wondered if it was the window to the outside world or a barrier in the completeness of his solitude. He somehow could never come to like those tiny illuminated dots in this vast sea of darkness. He did not like the tiny rebellions. They scoffed at the darkness around… and within. He could close the window, but no, that would not change the fact. He had to turn them out himself. And thus, he looked at her for an answer before she answered.
She was taken aback that she had allowed the tea to overboil ever so slightly. Was it his words? She was readying the plates for their snack. And as she answered, she brushed back a wisp of hair that had fallen over her forehead using the back of her hand with disdain that one usually reserves for things of years of acquaintance. That wisp was definitely one of those things–mildly irritating, but persistent in its presence.
“They all say that when inebriated”.
She looked at him from the corner of her eye as she dismissed him. Her gaze returned to the plates fully knowing he would have no answer. How could there be an answer?
He was reclined on the divan–one mattress carelessly thrown over the other. The divan served–both as a sofa as well as a bed. That after all was all the furniture her dwelling required. And a small table, and a chair. But now he slumped forward, his elbows resting on his thighs as the situation summoned greater involvement of his mental faculties.
“Not that kind of love, Munni! I’d love you even if you don’t take it up your ass or suck me off later. I’d love you even if you don’t fake your orgasms. I’m not one of those. You’re getting me?”
Now, this was getting interesting, she thought. A light laughter escaped her mouth, which lingered on as a subdued smile. She was amused.
“So, you are alleging some other kind of love is possible?”
Her heightened interest was the reason she gave him the benefit of her full face, this time moving not just her eyes. Her gaze lingered on his face as he prepared to speak.
He got up from the seated position, and walked up to the vent behind her. Her gaze stopped following him, and returned to her plates, not sure herself if she was not interested in his answer, or felt better to not show interest.
With his back against the vent, he continued.
“You know, I’ve been observing you for a month, now. I love your zest for life. How you know you want something, and you know what that something is… snatching away from life, one thing after the other despite having nothing to have started with. I love it that those conceited cowards come to you, just wanting to prove their power over you, thinking you to be powerless. I love it when they pump their money into you, as you fake orgasm after orgasm. I love it when they go back, pump their soul into the world, and fake their life, moment after moment. And all the world does in return is spit back at them. You know, they all spit on each other! Gullible bastards!”
She was shocked. Her hands were paralyzed for a moment. Was he speaking standing behind her, or was he a voice in her head?
She turned around to face her fear. She surveyed his face. Calm. Could those fierce words have come from that mouth? Unrevealing. Those folded arms? Unshaking. Those eyes? Blank. Or was it the semblance of illumination peering through the obstructed vent playing tricks on her eyes? Or was it playing tricks on her mind? She concluded, words were his; the fear, hers. Now she too leaned against the kitchen cabinet, half-sitting on it, and folded her arms, trying to match his composure, by trying to match him in his posture. She hoped he could not see her eyes from where he was standing. But she wondered, if he needed to.
“How do you know you’re not one of those gullible bastards?”
“Bastard, I am, but not gullible. And besides, I’m not inebriated, am I?”
A smile played on his lips. But, she was not sure. She was afraid. But, she was not sure. Maybe, it was the darkness getting to her. Maybe, she should put on the lights. But, she was not sure. She was intrigued. She was sure.
“I’ve not even touched you in last two hours!”
He was right, she thought. Most of her customers wanted her to wear some particular dress. Most of the customers would book her only for half-an-hour, and get it done with. Though, she did get occasional jerks, who would book her for two hours because they would want to do it “slow, sensual, filmy” style, but actually end up exhausted in little over an hour–in great parts because of her skill at quickening things up.
But he was different. He was not one of those regular customers. He had not asked her to wear anything specific. He had booked her only for 12 hours–from five in the evening, to five in the morning, yet paid her an advance for 48 hours! His behavior had irked her. This show of ‘goodness’ had got to her. She wanted to take her sweet revenge; as it is, she had got her advance. She decided to wear one of her regular night gowns with Disney motifs, and not wear any makeup, nor arrange the room into any setup, nor wear any fragrance.
But he was nonchalant. He was not affected. He did not ask her to alter anything. He was not one of those regular customers.
“What do you want?”
She asked in her straightest possible voice, trying to keep an edge out of it.
“You!”, he said, with no edge to his voice.
“Meaning? You have me! In fact, I don’t mind even if you actually extend your stay for two days. You’ve after all, paid me!”
“I want to marry you”
At this point a jet of laughter spurted out of her mouth. She laughed uncontrollably, almost falling as she staggered along half the width of her small room. She even clapped her hands, once. She tried to quieten up, and stay still, but her mind replayed his fresh image that had said “I want to marry you”, and she burst out laughing, yet again, this time leaning over the kitchen cabinet and banging her palm against its top. She quietened up as the last milliliters of air in her lungs escaped out in alternate coughs and laughs.
She thought how she had faked her laughter a countless times as her drunk customers would try to impress her with their pathetic jokes, which were insufficient to make their girlfriends and mistresses laugh. And she would slyly watch them smile in satisfaction that would wash away their frustration of being inept jokers. This thought made her laugh again, but she was already feeling lightheaded, and decided she could no longer afford to spend her air.
This was the first time she had not faked her laughter and she felt wonderful.
She stood straight and looked at the source of her joke. Or was he the joke, she wondered as her bout of laughter had made her forget her fear. She decided she could put on the lights.
Both squinted as their eyes bore the sudden assault of illumination. Their eyes met, and she laughed yet again, covering her mouth with her hand, this time regaining composure faster, clearly embarrassed by his certain scrutiny. But she was surprised. He too was smiling–taking in the mirth her pure, uninhibited laughter had exuded. He was not offended in the least. She bit her lip. She was losing her professional touch in his presence. After all, he was a valuable customer, and she could not afford to lose him. Which other duffer would offer her an advance for 48 hours, and do nothing to her, save cracking the occasional hugely entertaining jokes? He was truly valuable!
“What kind of marriage are you suggesting? Wherein, we hold hands, laugh and giggle, go out for movies together, you put your head in my lap in the wet grass, under the Moon and the stars saying a dozen times how much you love me? Then we have children; we name them Chunnu, Munnu? Our children grow up, leave us, and we still hold our hands, and profess our love for each other, saying would like to die before the other? That kind of marriage? That kind of love? The one they show in the movies?”
She laughed yet again at her own description, more circumspect this time, yet with lingering awareness of the lack of control over the self.
He slightly raised his left eyebrow still smiling–the most animated his face had got hitherto, and said, “So are you alleging some other kind of marriage is possible?”
“Yes, of course, the normal kind! Involving gullible bastards!”
The lines between his eyebrows further furrowed as he questioned her, “Between you and me?”
She was taken aback. She realized, they were venturing into territories where she had no experience. Her profession and life had not taught her how to ramble quasi-philosophically about love and marriage. She sought to bring the course of events to her territory. The well rehearsed moans, calculated depth and rhythm of her inhalations and exhalations, critically timed feigned gasps, opening and closing of eyes in slow motion.
“I’m not one of those regular customers.”
The joke was turned on her now. She was desperate. She had to be quick. She lowered her gaze gently, and made calculated adjustments in her voice to make is sound optimally sultry, keeping in mind the keen perceptiveness of one she was dealing with.
“That means, you’ll just stand there. You say you love me, and you don’t even feel like touching me, dear?”
She was half-expecting him to dole out some filmy line like “touching of souls”, or some such crap, and bracing to avoid laughing at him.
But instead, he took a gentle step forward. “I never said that!”
There was something about him that frightened her. Though, he did not pounce on her, only took a step forward, there was a certain suddenness about him; not the quickness of his motions, but their inherent unpredictability. She had moved up a lot in life, and more than her appearance, it was owing to her ability to understand people, to be able to extrapolate, and thus, anticipate what they wanted, and what she could extract from them. She was a master judge of people. But not of him. He was not one of those regular customers. This frightened her. She had thought his approaching her would make her feel comfortable, but it only made her heart beat faster. She remembered to try to quicken her breath, but it was already quickened!
He came and placed his hands gently around her waist, but somehow their grip seemed inescapable to her. He regarded her face, and twined his fingers in that wisp of hair on her forehead. He pushed it back gently and placed his lips on her forehead. She raised only her eyes, not moving her head, trying to come to know better her fear of the unknown. Now, with his hands behind her back, his lips were tickling where her nose was about to end. She was having a hard time controlling the rate of her breath. Her instincts told her to return all of his money, and bid him goodbye forever. Her breath was racing and she wondered if he even breathed!
His lips met hers, and a primal fear gripped her as she tried to push it away through her tongue in his mouth, by now.
She felt like a four-year-old-kid having forgotten her rhyme midway, and the entire class and teachers looking at her with bated breath to continue.
Her practice had failed her in this moment, and she mumbled in her body language. She thrust forward her hips a bit too jerkily. She tried to hold his neck with her hands, not knowing if to place them a centimeter below or centimeter above where they had ended up. She was thinking where had she kept that money he had given her as an advance.
Then suddenly, he moved back. But she felt as if he had pushed her.
“Do you find me attractive?”
“Are you feeling turned on?”
She just half-shrugged her shoulders, and released and installment of air that had felt trapped just like her. That was her reply.
“Then why are you pretending to?”
His voice was raised by now. She could sense a touch of what she thought to be emotion. Or was it merely his proximity. She regarded his questions. Attractive? She had learned to classify men only on the bases of how much pain could the potentially inflict on her in their attempt of display of power over her. Where was the question of frigging attractiveness? Turned on? Yes, she felt turned on, like her MP3 player would, on pressing the PLAY button, and it would dole out the preloaded songs. And that is what she had just tried to do! What “turned on” was he talking of? The kind of turned on her customers felt, drunk, thinking her to be Tiffany, or alternatively, Anarkali when she would teasingly reveal her body parts? How could she feel that way for him? Or, anyone? What was the need? Her thoughts glossed over the absurdity of his expectations, and she felt like giggling, like a naughty student suppressing her laughter standing before a teacher shouting with ominous anger.
“I think you’re not prepared for me yet.”
Just as she opened her mouth to speak he added, “But eventually, you would be.” He then turned back and asked her, “You were saying something?”. But she knew, what he meant was he was not going to buzz off.
She could not find her voice, and a “no” escaped her mouth. She cursed herself. That was not what she had wanted to say!
He went to the divan and collapsed on it, and squealed with the bubbly enthusiasm of a three-year-old, “I’m hungry, Munni! Can we eat something?”
They drank their tea, only mildly warm by now, and started having pakoras for their slow dinner.
They started telling their stories. A year of life per pakora, and couple of years per sip of tea.
She had got into the business ten years back when she was fourteen, pushed into it by the warden of her orphanage. Over the years, she had come to wonder what was it that other people did in their lives? What made them gather so much frustration in their lives just to try to own a large house? To be able to travel in their own cars? What pushed them to wait for that seventh day of the week they used to call “holiday”? What was it that made a child look longingly at a poster displaying an ice cream? What was it that made people wear shades even in dark and made them feel somehow superior to others who did not? What made people stand outside the multiplexes to watch feigned lives?
She had never understood any of those things. All of them required one thing–money. She could indeed indulge in pleasures–one-by-one, on occasions. But no, she did not want to do that. She wanted to have so much money that she would never again require to count how much she would be left each time she were to spend.
With time she had learned that buying clothes a shade lighter, heels an inch shorter, and applying a lipstick a shade shy-er, would not allow people to make out that she was not one of them. Though, she had known how to read, and somewhat, to write, her manner of speaking would still give away she was different. She read books, watched movies, learned to speak English. Eventually, she also learned to fake her accent as well as all her customers and their female toys had learned to fake. The sound of h after all the hard consonants, the unuttered r at the end of words. She started using French words, too. That was her another milestone. How to convolute the tongue in the mouth to “gedet rayht”.
She started going to the gym, doing the same repetitive exercises, day-after-day, just picturing herself behind a steering wheel.
With time she learned, the trick was not to stand out, but to gel in. No wonder, they stopped calling her a whore. She got herself a new name–Monica. She had anyway long forgotten she was Padma some time in her life. She also noticed, with each new thing she learned, people paid her more for doing the same things, in as much time. Sometimes, she was also taken to parties at costly hotels. She knew she had arrived on the block as an arriviste.
She had amassed enough money to open a small snack bar. She had learned that for whatever reasons she could not fathom, people thronged to places that had distorted spellings. Hers was CRUNCHEZ n’ MUNCHEZ. It was an instant success, but she herself never ate there. She could never like the taste of that bland, oily food.
She had also been able to get herself a 50 percent partnership in one of the liquor shops. Liquor shops did not fail to generate humongous profits. It was a very safe investment. And now, she planned to take it over one of these days.
He was from a distinguished family. Bright, right from the childhood. He had attended the best of the schools, the best business school. Nobody who met him was left unimpressed. He had sipped vices, but never gulped them down; bathed in them, but never drowned. They did not engage his thirst.
He was an investment banker. Everything he touched, turned to gold. He had a knack for picking up the right mind. He could read people’s minds like large captions splashed over billboards. None of his ventures had ever failed.
But he never knew why he continued in that business. Two years out of his business school, he had got bored of it. He saw business ventures as arithmetic questions at the end of the chapter. He would find it thrilling to solve few questions, then the thrill would evade him. He would attempt to solve the last question, the most difficult of them all, struggle a bit, but would eventually solve it. What would he do then? Take up the next chapter. Repeat the grind.
He had invested in it all–vada paav stalls to swanky restaurants; spring-loaded tops to electronic chips; illicit watering holes to poshest of pubs; student union elections to sponsoring election campaigns for incumbent chief ministers; environment-protection NGOs to battalions of goons to disrupt construction works; orphanages to old-age homes–all had reaped him profits. None had ever failed to.
He had nothing new left to try. No maths question he felt could challenge; no business venture could fail with his involvement.
An uneasy purposelessness had gripped him. He was suffocated by it. He had wanted an anchor for his life; something to return to everyday, that which would wait for him to return.
Thus, they told everything about themselves. Or, so the other thought.
She wondered, if he anyway did not know about her whatever she had told. Yet, he had heard her with utmost interest, just like he would hear any business proposition. He knew, after all, he was investing in her. He had already invested an advance, which she thought to be her fee for 48 hours.
“So, what do you say?”, he asked.
“I’ll have to think.”
“What is there to think?”
“I’m not sure if I’d like to leave all this I’ve started here. I’ve planned all my life around expanding my businesses. To earn things for myself. To reach where nobody with my kind of deprivation could have thought to reach.”
“You could do that even with me around. In any corner of the world. That [pointing to his bag] has everything that we could ever need, in fact much more. I won’t assist you with finances.”
She feigned a yawn.
“I’ll go, wash my face; return in a moment.”
She returned in few minutes, but found him sleeping. She went to her small table, and started writing a letter. Suddenly, an alarm buzzed; it was his cell phone. It was two in the morning, and he had woken up.
“I want some tea.”, he said.
She was about to get up, when he asked, “What are you doing?”
“Nothing, just seeing my schedule for the week, and taking down some notes.”
“Never mind, I’ll prepare it myself. You’d like some?”
You’re kidding me? Have you ever touched a single utensil, Mr. the Gautam Malhotra?”
“You’ll see Ms. Monica!”
“Oh, then I’d like to see. Maybe, taste also!”, she winked.
She was surprised, as he effortlessly reached for the utensil containing milk in her fridge. Equally effortlessly turned on the burner of the gas stove with his lighter. She wondered how closely must he have watched her sitting on the divan.
“You smoke?”, she asked looking at the lighter.
“Occasionally, if I feel my smoking would make my prospective associates more comfortable doing business with me.”
“You call them associates? Not, gullible bastards?”
“There are gullible bastards, and there are cunning bastards. I associate with cunning bastards.”
“That’s why you want to associate with me?”
“‘Cuz I won’t be making a fool of them here on. I’ll leave the job to themselves.”
“So, you wouldn’t want me also to keep on fooling them, pretending to be powerless before them and enjoying their company?”
“Would you want to continue?”
“No, even I’ve got bored of wimpy jokers.”
He filled two cups with tea, arranged them on a tray, and motioned her to come to the bed.
They both sipped their tea. It was one of the strongest she had had. Burnt, almost. Bitterness not neutralized by the sugar in it.
He looked out the vent. It was dark outside. Totally dark. He liked it. A smile played on his lips. But the very next moment it disappeared as he thought how again there would be tiny rebellions tomorrow. But he knew at least he was doing his job.
She thought about the phone call she had made, and the letter she had written. She wondered what it was in this man sitting before her that made her make those allowances. Was she falling in L.O.V.E.–she spelled it in her head? No way! She brushed aside the thought, and the wisp of her hair that had returned to her forehead. But, this time with care, feeling how it smoothly slid against her fingers, making her aware of a life of its own.
He looked at her. She was beautiful also, he thought. Her eyes, they were captivating, but something about them put him at unease. He saw a flitting smile on her lips, and that gave him the confidence to plan his week ahead.
They both finished their tea. He pushed aside the tray onto the floor, and said, “I want to teach you something.” She looked at him, questioningly. “To be yourself”.
She laughed, not with contempt, but frank amusement.
He got up, and started unzipping her gown. That was all she had on. Then, he eased her frame onto the bed.
“I want you to be just yourself. Not someone’s fantasy. ‘Cuz you’re my fantasy. You’ve no business trying to please me. I’m paying you to be just yourself. So, that’s your professional obligation.”
She wondered what was this disease–“just be yourself”! She had been a thousand men’s thousand fantasies. From demure school girl to tyrannical ring master; from wretched widow to newly-wed neighbor’s bride. But what was this “just be yourself”! She wondered.
She felt the same fear gripping. Fear of not knowing how to be “just herself”, or plainly put, how to be ‘nothing’.
He regarded her, first from a distance, then he laid himself on her. He untied her hair, and intertwined his fingers in them, and kissed her on the forehead. She was sure, it was the same fear she had experienced in the evening. But she was determined. She stayed still.
She wondered what kind of man was he? All her customers would get drunk before trying to violate her. But here he was drinking tea. Strongest of them all. He did not violate her. He studied her.
She felt a new feeling for the first time ever. She felt exposed! His all the five senses were making love to her. He looked at every part of her body with the watchfulness of a diamond trader; he smelt her; tasted her; felt the smooth texture of her skin, and with gentle pressure made out what was beneath. He even put his ears to her chest to listen to her heart beat, and the air that wafted in and out of her lungs. He made love to every part of her body, in all the ways she could imagine; and, those, that even she could not.
She felt vulnerable. She had never felt violated when her customers sweared at her in their moments of misguided passion thinking her to be Tiffany or one Anarkali. But here he was, calmly making love to her, drowning himself in all that she was. He caressed her gently, and she felt violated. But, he was not one of those regular customers, she thought.
Suddenly, she felt that vulnerability spread to all of her body. A small speck of her mind thought of the phone call, and that letter, that they were terrible mistakes. But rest of her brain was overwhelmed by the sensations she was experiencing for the first time.
What was it that he felt for her? What was it that made him experience her in parts, and in entirety, with equal pleasure? What was it that made him make love to her, like he wanted to memorize her? What was it that made him make love to her, as if it was for one last time?
It was love she thought. The confidence you could find everything you could ever want from someone. That is why she loved herself.
She did not realize when this violation turned into pleasure, and she wanted to love him back. She urged him to kiss her, and she kissed him back. She tried loving him the same way–experiencing which that was him.
She shouted out, “I love you, Gautam. I want to be your wife. I need you. Please love me.”
It was at that moment his two hands gripped her neck. It was with passion? It was with malice? She could not decide. His malice was his passion. She thought, how many of her customers would just do that. But they would release her in time. He was not one of those regular customers.
She tried to throttle him back. He was out of reach. Her hands barely reached where they wanted to. She felt vulnerable. She felt violated. She felt suffocated. She felt trapped. She felt a pain in her head. And, she felt pleasure. She thrashed her legs, but without oxygen, they had started going limp. She tried to scream. Nothing came out of her open mouth.
She thought of the phone call, smiled; had her first ever orgasm, and died.
Now she was motionless, but he was still making love to her through all his five senses. Her hands gripping his neck, but barely squeezing him. She was cold. She was blue, but he still continued to push into her. He tried to memorize her, as if making love for one last time. Now, she was a cadaver, but he was not one of those regular customers. He valued his victims. He was always grateful to them even after they had died. After all, they had all valued him the most just before dying.
He looked at those eyes, and remembered the unease. Her eyes, the way they twinkled, reminded him of those tiny rebellions. The illuminated apartments. He had hated her for one whole month since he had discovered her. How dare she be so sure of what she wanted? How dare she think she had a purpose? How dare she go about achieving that purpose? How dare she scoff at him? At his purposelessness? At his helplessness? She paid for her folly. And though, she could no longer pay, he was still extracting. One more successful venture of his. He never failed.
He looked out the vent. Still there was darkness, but he knew, there would be tiny rebellions, yet again, tomorrow. But, he smiled in satisfaction; at least, one less.
He chose his victims only by one criterion–those with a zest for life; those who wanted something in life, and were inching towards it. Those scoffing at him, spitting him in the face. Like, that street child, all he had wanted was chocolates. He treated him to chocolates, till he felt most alive, till he puked out of cloy-ness. He then drowned him in chocolate syrup. That old lady–all she had wanted was to meet her long dead son. He stayed with her. Heard her stories. Cooked her food. Took her on a tour of the city, massaged her legs, as she was slowly dying, hung from the roof.
There was a small sound, but he was drowned in his thoughts and his sensations. A hand covered his mouth with a kerchief. He felt lightheaded, but immediately jerked it away. He did not collapse. He immediately exhaled all the air he had inhaled. The two intruders had expected an inebriated, exhausted weakling. But here he was, still high on all the tea flowing in his blood, and high on rage.
Their instructions on the phone were clear. To just break one of his legs, and temporarily render him unconscious–and, not to kill him. But his countering their assault had infuriated one of them. He kicked the new victim who was till then trapped between her two hands stiffened by rigor. They looked at her spasmed body, and were pleasantly surprised, as their victim had done to her exactly what they had planned to. The intruders started looking for the bag.
They had slashed his carotid, and he knew, he did not have enough time to replay the whole of his life. Even in immense pain, and drowsiness, he saw things clearly. He was dying, he knew. But he did not want to die? Why? What purpose did he seek to achieve? His hatred had pushed him to turn out all lights, and that had become his purpose. He had never realized how much he had started loving his purpose, and started living by it. He was also one of those. But, he did not want to die gullible. He could not die gullible. From the corner of his eyes he could see the faint figures of those robbers who had deceived him–the first time ever he had been deceived. That it was to be the last did not matter to him. He did not want to die gullible. He tried to raise his hand to stop them, but it had stopped obeying his orders. It just fell across her legs, as if reaching for something, but it could not reach those figments of motion in the corner of his eyes. Her image, now not even a blur came to his remnant of attention, and her stiff arms raised in air, as if reaching for something, still etched in his mind, made him smile. He thought of all the counterfeit currency in that bag, smiled. He did not die gullible.
But he died with the sound of an alarm clock buzzing. Underneath it was a page from the diary, fluttering with the wind intruding from that vent, rejoicing in its insignificance.
When you read this, it will be too late, and very insignificant. I’ll be gone far away, chasing my dreams.
You had it in you, what could stall me. But I’m still that little girl, wanting to enjoy her ice cream, as if it will never get over; enjoying a movie, as if it will never end; driving a car, with wind rushing through my hair, as if it will never stop.
You had it in you to make me feel I was incomplete without you. That, I’d be nothing if not for you. But, that’s not what I had wanted to feel.
Yet, I wanted to feel for once, what it meant to be loved, to be needed; to love, to need. I’m sure you’ll give that to me, and I’ll be able to live by those memories.
I’m sure you’ll find an anchor for yourself, with which you will intertwine your being.
I’m going far away from you. Don’t try to find me. ‘Cuz, I can’t be that anchor.
Love, only this once.
The alarm clock quietened, knowing it had done all it was meant to do in its lifetime. It was five in the morning, dark outside, but tiny rebellions, different from those in the evening, started glowing, one-by-one, all over…
1. Small thanks to Tangled Up in Blue for the encouragement.
2. If you feel this story has more to it than what meets the eye, then you are not hallucinating.
3. If you feel this story has nothing more to it than what is contained in the words, then you are not blind.
4. Gail Waynand is a character from the story ‘The Fountainhead’, who seeks to destroy those with true love for the vocations they practice.
5. Midas Mulligan (search on the linked article), is a character from ‘Atlas Shrugged’, who was immensely successful in his investment ventures, and from who the character of Gautam Malhotra is partly derived.