Sucharita Dutta-Asane is a writer and independent fiction editor based in Pune. In 2008, she received Oxford Bookstores debuting writers’ (second) prize for her anthology, The Jungle Stories. Her short stories have appeared in various national and international anthologies such as the Africa-Asia anthology Behind the Shadows (Amazon Kindle), 2012 and Zubaan’s Breaking the Bow, an anthology of speculative fiction based on The Ramayana (2012). Her articles, book reviews, short stories, and a novella, Petals in the Sun, have been extensively published across electronic publications, such as Asian Cha, among others.
The day was beautiful and calm, nothing in it to remind me of the preceding two days of violence except my searing article on the absurdity of avoidable, concerted action that destroys lives and homes. I had established, once again, my credibility, a voice to be taken seriously. But I was tired and wanted time to myself, a liberty I deserved after the hectic pace of the last forty eight hours, my gift to myself for another job well done.
My bath was ready and tempting, aromatic and full of known pleasures. As I stood before the full-length mirror, massaging oil into my scalp, my hair in a tangle around my fingers and over my shoulder, the doorbell pealed through the house. In the mirror, I saw my eyebrows come together in an unbecoming scowl as the peals crashed into one another and then stopped.
In the commodious bathroom, the water was warm in the bathtub, the froth a lovely, bubbling green, the green of apples. I stepped in gingerly, letting the water lap around my ankles, trying to wash off the feel of the muck through which I’d waded in pursuit of a story waiting to be exposed. The violence and its sheer needlessness stupefied me, despite my years of field reporting. I felt like a rookie at that moment, shaken by the mayhem around me, by the way it had been manipulated and imposed.
I slid deeper into the froth. Ah! The luxury!
The bell pealed again, a shrill insistence ending in a jangle. Heavens! It must have broken under the persistence.
Of course I was irritated. I had every right to be. It was my privacy at stake.
I took my time, soaked in the scented water, rubbed myself vigorously till my skin came alive before I wrapped my lithe form in a lilac silk gown that fell in soft folds around my contours. As I walked towards the door, I half expected to find the doorbell lying in broken pieces near the entrance. I knew I’d find nobody at the door, yet a small inner voice urged me to check, to do justice to the tortured contraption.
Afternoon is a time of silence in this colony, siesta time, a luxury I have willingly foregone, replacing it with edit meetings and endless coffee. The sun pours down in swathes of brilliance, cutting through the shadows of plants and the ivy I have allowed to grow around the trellised terrace. From my eyrie on the 10th floor, the garden, play area and swimming pool look like slivers of green and tiled blue.
Not a soul around.
I have a meeting in the evening with some colleagues planning to launch a community paper. I have a few ideas I think are brilliant, but nothing is free these days, I must state the price. This is a blip on the horizon, another stepping stone to my final destination. Should I even bother about it?
I finally decide to go along; one never knows how one thing leads to another.
The afternoon wears on, somnolent and tranquil.
Hoshang is crazy about Chinese food, and it is his idea to meet in Hwang Ho. Why should anybody name a restaurant after a nation’s river of sorrow? Beats me, but the food is delectable, authentic Chinese, not Indian Chinese with its ubiquitous coriander and curry leaves. Partho is a soup freak. The Manchow he orders is superb. The spread is unique and we gorge while the agenda languishes in the back of our collective mind; the conversation is fun, full with bonhomie collected and preserved from the battle fronts of our work.
It is Ravi, I think, or Annie perhaps, who asks, ‘How much more before the black swivel chair is yours, Meera?’ Shrikant’s swivel chair, the symbol of his pelf in the world of newspaper editors; its black, soft leather sits snug on our dreams.
‘It’s marked for her. So what’s the worry?’
‘All in good time buddies, all in good time.’ My answer seems lacklustre but who cares.
Ice cream bowls arrive, softening our moods further. What’s happened to the community paper we were supposed to discuss? Oh well! Some other day.
‘Anybody for a late night show?’ I am high on the pleasures of a stolen day.
‘Home and bed for me.’
‘When was the last time you watched a film?’ Partho asks. His question is loaded because he knows; we are alike, slaves to work and deadlines.
‘Yaar, who has the time?’ I turn to Hoshang. ‘Game for a movie?’ He nods.
Will he accompany me for the late night show?
‘And then drop you back home. Is that it?’
I laugh with Cassata in my mouth. ‘Is that the motive?’
‘If you allow me.’
‘So Hoshang hasn’t stopped chasing you.’ Annie winks at me.
It takes us an eternity to finish ice cream, dinner table banter, delayed bills, and a sinful round of kulfi at a roadside joint.
Hoshang and I book corner seats. In college, we would all vie for these seats, our temporary love nests for surreptitious kisses and hand holding, the innocent yet taboo closeness of puppy love. Been there, done that. Life is beginning to lose its newness. I know what to expect. Hoshang will slowly drape his arm around my seat back, his fingers lightly touching my shoulder, sometimes my hair; I will pretend not to notice, secretly enjoying the touch and the attention. A few more years and my relatives will consider me over the hill. I still have it in me to enjoy the sunset of my youth.
‘Why this film, babes?’ Hoshang stretches his arms, already looking sleepy.
‘I love film adaptations of classics, but I may have messed up with my choice this time.’
The movie threatens to leave me cold. The book is immensely enjoyable, thought provoking; the movie barely skims the surface, replacing feeling with technology. Hoshang’s predictable fingers are enmeshed in my hair, a little too assertively. I can’t pretend, so I lean back, allowing him to rub my neck. This has not happened before. Perhaps the movie does touch an emotional chord in me. I feel the points of tension along my neck. On the screen, in the midst of a dusty desert, the swarthy hero tries to establish his territorial sovereignty, poised for the kill, a muscled arm around his girl’s slim waist.
The tension points on my neck worry me, a nagging reminder of something I can’t quite place. I shut my eyes and let Hoshang’s fingers knead the stress out of me. When I open my eyes again, the screen erupts with a storm; Hoshang looks at me, his eyes smoky. I have led him on. Was this what Ma meant when she said, ‘There’s a time for everything, Meera. Don’t let life slip through your fingers.’ I had brushed off her insistence. ‘Give me a break, ma.’
The break has been too long, perhaps.
Hoshang’s eyes are still on me. Just like Shrikant’s that day when we were stuck in the office lift due to a faulty electrical connection, trapped for long minutes; after doing small office talk, staring out of the capsule lift, staring at the domed ceiling and then at the floor, we had only each other to look at. Our eyes had locked till his started to stray. I hadn’t been able to look away, fascinated by the admiration in his eyes, watching it slowly replaced by more, much more, feeling a tingling sensation in the small of my back, itching to blow honour and caution to the wind. Perhaps Ma was right. I should have married and enjoyed what life has to offer. Latent cravings were resurfacing, a little too often.
I shift in my chair, pretending to wake up suddenly, pretending to not know that Hoshang and I had been seducing each other.
‘Shall we go?’ His whisper is drowned in the emotions raging on the screen.
‘I want to watch this.’
‘Some other time.’
In his car he holds my hand, my palm small in his large one. Where are we going? What am I doing?
Ah! My necks hurts.
At the lift in Tower C, the building in which I live, I extend the clichéd invitation to coffee and he accepts.
At four in the morning, for the first time in my life, I wake up in a man’s arms. Hoshang looks peaceful; I should have been too after a fulfilling first experience, but something still nags.
Nah! Not at this age.
I stretch and switch on the bed lamp, shading its glare with my palm. 4.15. He opens his eyes, smiles and nestles into my obliging body. Is this what marriage is about, this snuggling and cuddling, this physical closeness and warmth, this security of not being alone at four in the morning?
I am unusually late for office. Annie raises an eyebrow as I stop at my cabin door. ‘Had a good time?’ her lips form around the question.
‘What’s happening here today?’
‘Lots. Political kidnapping. Hot on TV. Shrikant’s hopping mad because he couldn’t break the story.’
‘Is he hopping mad at anybody in particular?’
‘You’re late. He’s been waiting for you.’
After a rabid discussion on how to flash the kidnapping story in the late evening edition, everybody is hungry. We decide on a cosy joint down the road. Dosa and hot sambhar seems a welcome idea after the previous night’s gustatory overkill.
Five of us walk down in the sunny afternoon to the eatery under a Banyan tree; the colourful cloth umbrellas give the place a cheerful and warm appearance. We sit in momentary and sudden silence around a circular table as the Banyan’s roots brush the Pipli shades above our heads. After the office clamour, this is heaven, but I have pending work and want to return.
‘Another murder and a kidnapping. I’m sick of this crime beat, yaar.’ Shonali munches on a cereal bar as she speaks, looking and sounding afflicted. The tone sneaks up on me, makes me want to slap her.
‘You’re still learning the ropes of your crime beat and you have a good mentor in Aakash. So chill, Shonali.’
She looks at me. ‘Chill seems to be a buzzword for everything. I’m upset at the crime, not my work.’
Sassy for a newcomer. Good. She’ll need the sass to last.
‘Crime’s not new to society, what made you choose crime reporting?’
She looks me straight in the eye. ‘Reformist urge, etc; you don’t want the usual prattle, do you? The bottom-line is this; what pisses me off is not the crime alone but our response to it…
The waiter cuts short her rant with plates of soft, fluffy idlis, paper thin dosas and bowls full of sambhar and chutney. The aroma of coffee wafts in from the open kitchen behind us. Roshni scoops up a spoon of coconut chutney, places it lovingly on her tongue and turns towards Shonali.
‘What revolution are you planning to herald?’
We laugh. The hardened laughter of veterans.
The coffee’s good.
‘Heard of this murder yesterday, woman and her lover. They returned from the grocer’s and were taken by surprise just as they were entering their house; she was raped in front of her lover, their wrists were slashed, they were gagged and left to die. Their maidservant found them, naked and bloody.’
The only sound in the breezy afternoon is of the banyan roots scraping the cloth above.
‘What’s happened to the woman?’
‘Still in hospital. The man died.’
‘Are you covering it?’
‘Not clear as yet. Could be.’
The waiter brings tumblers of coffee. Its strong, rich aroma stimulates our appetite once again and we dig into our food. Other stories trickle in; a bank scam that is set to be a major issue in the coming days, an extra marital affair between a socialite and her friend’s husband, missing children, the state of society, live-in relationships, job worries, and finally, salary concerns; the last overwhelms all other thoughts.
I return home late at night. My article on the street fracas that had escalated into mob violence is the talk of town. I’ve talked to innumerable media persons, given my tuppence on violence, social apathy, insensitive governments….. God! Was I tired.
The colony is quiet, somnolent. I seem to be at home only when the rest of humankind sleeps.
The mobile rings out loud in the quiet night. Hoshang.
‘Hmm. I’m sleepy.’
‘No, you’re desirable.’
I smile as I turn the key in the lock. ‘Not now, Hoshang. I’m dead beat.’
‘I know. Ok, here’s why I called. I’ll be interviewing a rape victim tomorrow morning. Wanna come?’
‘I? I mean, why should I?’
‘Give me company.’
‘I have a meeting in the afternoon.’
‘This won’t take much time, the usual stuff, filling in for Tushar.’
‘Why don’t you ask Shonali? She was angsty about some ghastly rape-and-murder case.’
‘I know; ed doesn’t want this mushy, and besides, I thought you would be interested.’
‘You’ve been talking about rape for some time.’
‘That’s a generic concern, sweetie. I’m not in the habit of pursuing every rape that occurs.’
The bed was still ruffled from last night’s tumble.
‘What’s the harm?’
‘Where did this take place?’
‘I’m working on insider information, babes. The police are tight-lipped. The privileged must be protected, after all.’
‘I still don’t understand. Why should I be a part of this?’
‘We’ll report the crime, love; you do the analysis. Right up your alley.
In the car I let Hoshang hold my hand, his long fingers drape around my manicured ones, one hand on the steering. I still can’t do that, drive with one hand. He smiles at me. ‘Dinner tonight?’
‘Who’s the victim?’
‘Tell me, Hoshang, seriously, why are you doing this interview?’
‘What’s in the question?’
I shift in my seat to look at him. ‘After all, what could you ask of an individual who’s been mentally and physically brutalised?’
‘Are you being deliberately dumb or plain bitchy? Line of duty.’
‘If you were to see the crime happening on the street, you wouldn’t do anything to prevent it.’
‘Is your use of the second person gendered or general?’
‘Aww, Hoshang! This is not about your poor, battered, under-doubt male ego. Don’t avoid the issue.’
‘You were on the streets when the mobs ran loose that afternoon. What did you do to prevent it?’
‘A mob is not the same as…. Anyway, who lifts a finger to prevent crime? We only talk about it.’
‘That’s a subjective viewpoint. Not everybody sits on the fence. This one took place inside the woman’s house. Who was there to prevent it?’
‘What if it had occurred in a public place?’
‘That’s a ‘what if’ scenario, Meera. I can’t answer that on behalf of every other citizen or even to address your ‘civic responsibility’ agenda.’
‘Is she critical?’
‘She’s still in the hospital.’
I shift in my seat again. The morning sun is on my window, warm on my bare arms, around my neck where the turquoise neckpiece lies cool against the skin. Why am I going for this interview that is not even mine? To analyse rape? Bah! What newness can one bring to a discourse that threatens to become empty litany?
Last night is still fresh in my mind, on my body, isn’t that why I am tagging along with Hoshang? I turn away to hide the smile whose warmth I can feel on my face.
The hospital is around the corner.
The room is at the end of a short corridor, antiseptic and bright with its light blue walls, white lights dangling from the ceiling over a white, tiled floor; the luxury room, a rectangle slashed into the rear end of the hospital, has heavy drapes on its tall windows; shadows fill its corners, a slant of light lambent on a man sitting upright in the lone sofa, his head bent over a newspaper; on the bed, a faceless figure in white.
As soon as Hoshang taps on the door the man with the newspaper looks up at us.
‘Her husband. I spoke to him before coming here,’ Hoshang whispers.
The blanket-swathed figure on the bed moves a little. The husband walks up to us, shakes hands with Hoshang, smiles wryly at me, and leads us into the room, into a corner where sunlight through the semi-shuttered window plays chiaroscuro on the floor. He offers the sofa to me, I decline. On the bed, all I can make out are curls of dark hair on the white pillow.
‘I’m sorry about what happened,’ Hoshang says; the man is quiet, I catch only the hint of a nod from him.
‘When did this happen?’
Hoshang’s voice is sombre. Will he also ask how the husband feels at this outrage?
The man answers sotto voce. I don’t want to hear the questions and answers, they are not important, the usual stuff. We should have a template for such interviews.
How much has she endured? Check
Why did nobody hear her screams? Check
How did the rapist/s escape the security at the gate? Check
Ok, so that’s an important issue. Security.
Will Hoshang pursue that aspect, the security of our citizens, rather than the emotional angle?
Outside the tall window with its loose glass panes, a crow picks at a dead rat under a mango tree.
Hoshang’s voice bothers me because I have nothing to do here and I feel piqued at having submitted to the visit.
I turn towards the men but I have no questions. The man moves a few steps towards me and speaks very softly. ‘You don’t know us, but of course, we know you.’
I nod in acknowledgment. Having heard this statement often enough, I’m immune to it. What a thing to remember at this time! I hope he doesn’t ask for an autograph.
‘Is she able to speak?’ I ask out of courtesy.
‘Would you like to speak to her?’
Before I can reply, he ushers me to the bedside. The woman turns to look at me, her pain reflected in her features, in their wounded lines and grooves. I bend low towards her and take her hand under the sheet.
‘I’m so sorry about this. Is there anything I can do for you?’
She looks at me for a few minutes, her eyes dilate, and I see the depths of her fear and outrage in them. She looks towards her husband for such a long time that I feel compelled to look at him, barely in time to catch him nodding at her. When she looks at me again, her lips tremble, the effort at a smile accentuates the tiredness around her mouth.
‘I must have broken your doorbell that day.’ She looks away; her fingers slowly ease away from mine. ‘They got me before you did.’
I sit up straight and look at her husband.
When I look back at her, a trickle of tears runs down her left eye to her left ear.
I confront him. ‘What did she mean?’
‘We are neighbours, ma’m. Tower C, 9th floor. She tried to get help from others including you. Nobody answered the door bell.’
Hoshang filled in the details later. He insisted and I listened.