Nikesh Murali's work (which include comics, poems and short stories) has appeared in more than 80 publications worldwide. His works have been translated into Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French. He won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize for the Asian region in 2011. His poetry was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2007. He has completed his Masters in Journalism from Griffith University for which he was awarded the Griffith University Award for Academic Excellence in 2005, and his Masters in Teaching from James Cook University and a Bachelors degree in English Literature and World History from University of Kerala. He is working towards his Doctorate in Creative Writing.
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Outside, the streets of Chandni Chowk were stained red with betel juice and resembled a battlefield. The night had fallen prey to the lust of men who searched the balconies with eager eyes. Women dressed in blue, green, red and yellow solicited their attention with their crimson smiles, open arms, tantalizing glimpses of their nipples and the mystic jingle of their jewelry. The temple bells were barely audible over the din as the women coaxed their prospective customers with sweet promises.
“We won’t be like your wives. First class sex Saab!” some shouted.
The children who were playing noisily in the streets earlier were now seated underneath gas lamps that burned with the intensity of dying suns. Their delicate and dirty fingers coloured in the pages of secondhand books provided to them by a local charity. They occasionally glanced up from their artistic endeavours to bear witness to the evening.
Inside, the mother sang a lullaby.
My precious, the sweetest nectar I ever tasted, Close your eyes that are like rose petals and travel to the world of dreams where the nightingale will sing sweet songs of love and the moon will bathe you in its light. My princess, you will ascend the throne of gold that shines like a thousand suns and the gods will shower you with the flowers of heaven. My pearl, the sweetest nectar I ever tasted.
The food vendors and paan-wallahs with their multicolored stalls that lined both sides of the street were busy. Pakoras, puris, roasted peanuts and pav bhajis were consumed with great delight and in large numbers, as the atmosphere turned festive with the late, but timely appearance of hundreds of decorative bulbs that were strung from treetops and bamboo scaffoldings. The stall assistants announced fresh discounts and vouched for the quality of their delicacies in unpleasantly loud voices, as men made their way through the throng, past the sizzling hot pans that hissed in protest, leaping across pools of dirty water that emanated from the overflowing drains, avoiding the decaying remnants of half eaten snacks, past the emaciated and flea-ridden dogs who lay dying in the alleys, all the while searching for love in the street.
Inside, the mother cleaned the baby with a soft wet cloth. She cooed and conversed with the baby while she applied talcum powder all over its body and listened to its soft cries with pleasure. She went to the old cupboard with rusty hinges to grab some fresh sheets and halted for a second to consider the spider, which watched the baby with its tiny predatory eyes from the dirty wall. One of the girls had drawn a huge penis and scrawled obscenities on a large white patch where the paint was missing.
Outside, men haggled with Didi over the rates. Old debts were settled; new ones were noted in red ink on a ruled notepad which had the image of lord Shiva on its cover. The old, rickety building creaked and moaned as the girls lead the men away with their tattooed hands, to dimly lit dorms where damaged coir mattresses covered in tattered and stained sheets awaited them patiently.
The mother watched a stream of dirt pour down from the middle of the ceiling and was about to grab the broom when Didi’s firm knocks stopped her in her tracks. Didi’s large frame decked in fake gold jewelry and silk salwar kameez shifted impatiently outside the door. She opened the door to her matter of fact gaze and accepted the nod with a smile. Didi turned around and muttered words of encouragement to a large man in a khaki uniform, who constantly wiped the perspiration pouring from his forehead and neck with a red towel. Didi nodded again and disappeared into the corridor.
The man closed the door behind him noisily. He struggled with the bolt a few times before he managed to push it finally in place. And then he waited patiently, wiping of his sweat and gazing at his discoloured, worn chappals, as the mother pulled out the basket from underneath the bed and placed fresh sheets in it. She lifted the baby from the bed, whispered promises into its tiny ear and placed it in the basket. She looked back at the man with a faint smile and guiltily pushed the basket under the bed.
The world outside grew fainter and the mother watched the play of shadow and light on the ceiling, past the large frame of the man, past his hairy chest, past his stained teeth, past the stench that emanated from his armpits, past the clogged pores and the ring of dirt that circled his neck like a collar. The man, out of reverence for the deity one would imagine, paused his awkward grunts when the temple signaled the final pooja for the day, but then resumed like a beast in labour as soon as the bells stopped ringing. The night was full of cruel noises again.
The mother dropped her hand over the side of the bed, reached out to the little one and sang: My princess, you will ascend the throne of gold that shines like a thousand suns and the gods will shower you with the flowers of heaven. My pearl, the sweetest nectar I ever tasted.
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