The English Tutor
A Short Story
It was 2:43 am, on the clock.
It is obvious though, isn’t it? I mean, it couldn’t be 2:43 am on the sofa, or the shoe rack, or even the pile of discarded clothes. It’s always on-the-clock. And if you happen to be awake at the time, it is there on your face as well — you sleep deprived corporate slave you — what would you not give to get the luxury of another shut-eye that some evil thing called a day-job has robbed you of.
I wish I could say it was a dark and stormy night, for all mildly engaging stories, those of childish sensibilities start like that.
On the contrary, the night in question was a very quiet one. Dogs didn’t howl unnecessarily on the streets, for there were no vagrant rag-pickers walking past residential areas. The roosters were still roosting, waiting for the appropriate ungodly hour to break their cacophony. There wasn’t a flicker of a thunderstorm in the sky. It was a night when all was quiet and all the world was asleep.
And yet, the crime that took place in a night so quiet was so singular and so extreme that it caused quite a thunder in the society and set the tone of my sojourn in that place.
I am a firm believer that there is a chilling quiet observed before the first crackling of a storm. That night, I was just too preoccupied to realize it.
It was one of those days when I had begun to plan my first novel. I had a stack of rejection mails in my inbox for a previous hundred thousand word manuscript, but this was indeed the first novel I intended to get published from the start. I had written it like I meant it.
It had everything — a strong plot, an expansive setting, an interesting set of characters, and most importantly, an end in sight! I had actually written a draft of it already, as a short story, which ran for about twelve thousand words before giving me an indication that it wasn’t meant to be short at all! Being mindful that in its current state, the story wasn’t fit to be inscribed on a toilet paper, I decided to revise the whole draft, to keep the skeleton while discarding the meat.
It was one such night that I had woken up and had been turning in bed for nearly three hours nursing a fermenting heartbreak, that I decided to sketch the outline of the narrative again, just to keep my mind occupied. But the darkness didn’t seem to yield. I needed light, I needed warmth and vigor. It was at that moment that I started to miss Mrs. Sharma immensely.
Mrs. and Mr. Sharma were my neighbors. Passionate couple, for the walls could only stifle so much noise, but on the wrong side of thirties. Mr. Sharma was a curt man. He wasn’t one who would be available for a heart-to-heart to you even if you met him by accident in the elevator, and there was little chance of it anyway.
I missed Mrs. Sharma because she was always handy with tidbits of such conversations (gossip for some of you). She was discreet — it was only after I had won her confidence that she revealed such things to me — but to the women in the society, she was a recluse and a somewhat ill-mannered woman. I liked her also because she displayed a certain depth that you wouldn’t find in an average married person. She didn’t have any creative pursuits, but sometimes she would spin a sentence so I would just listen to her, amazed at how excruciatingly insightful she was. Also, she had nice skin.
If I had Mrs. Sharma handy at that moment, I could perhaps think of something witty to quip, for the character I had been writing was one of witty disposition. All that was required was a pretext. And it was difficult to manufacture one.
I fought through the grime of early morning dreams and wrote half-a-page of drivel about the man-eating monkeys attacking Mumbai in some near future. It was absolute tosh, which suddenly made you appreciate how relevant and beautiful life actually is and how we trivialize it through our want for gore and murder. We draw sense of existence and purpose from incredibly outlandish and impossible tales.
When I woke up again, the sun had already climbed above my window. I saw the stalks of rose in the grill and got up to water them. By way of religion and faith, I only ever asked the almighty to bring another flower to the bush. A swan-song, if you will, for it was a very old bush. My landlord had told me that it had been in the grill for close to fifteen years now, drying up now and then, but yielding a few flowers in the year anyway. “Only a truly despicable man could actually kill it.” He had said. Although I knew I had it in me, I didn’t want this honor upon myself.
After watering the plants, I put milk on the stove, and fixed myself a cup of tea. My one redeeming quality as a writer was the pride I took in writing, and man-sized man-eating monkeys in Mumbai was perhaps the last thing I ever wanted to put to paper. I used those papers to cover the puddle of tea spilled on the floor.
As the first gulp itself, I began to come to life and noticed the world around more clearly. When you wake up, your senses are dull. The noise is faint, the light is soft, basically, world seems a perfect place. The first sip of tea acts like the blue pill that Morpheus gave to Neo — it brings to life the world behind the world.
I feel I must explain better, and I will.
To be precise, there were three incredible things taking place in the world around me that day. One, the dog in the apartment opposite to mine was quiet. It was incredible because she rarely ever was quiet in the morning, given the amount of pedestrian traffic on the street that excited her frenzy as she looked down from the window. Two, as I later found out, the lady two apartments down on my floor had just become a mother.
She had delivered a set of twins in the night, 5 minutes apart, just around midnight, the upshot of it being that the twins were born a millennia apart — a girl and a boy. In the years to come, the people of the society would comment upon how much more matured the little girl behaved in comparison to the boy.
Third, and perhaps not so incredible a detail, at the moment I was writing this, a woman was murdered in the adjoining building complex. I have missed telling you but this was around the time I lived in the apartment close to a red-light area, and the woman in question, as we found out later, was a creature of the night. She was used to servicing the late customers, odd laborers and taxi-drivers, and last night she had picked up the wrong driver. Usually the prostitutes, I knew this because I crossed that street every day for commute, finished in the early hours. But since this was an incredible day, it stands to reason that there should’ve been extenuating circumstances which caused the said woman to prolong the visit of her customer, at the end of which, she was discovered with her throat slit, lying on a red mattress. The driver was reported absconding, although there was an abandoned taxi found nearby with the keys still inside.
I wouldn’t have gotten to know these things had Mrs. Sharma not briefed me later that morning (except the dog being quiet due to my proximity to the apartment). There was a small crowd on the signal where the red-light area was located, and a decrepit ambulance was parked there as I passed it on my way to work. Several sleep-deprived women carried mild concern and irritation on their faces.
Because it was a pair of twins that born on the same night, it came to pass that there was a witness to the incident. Their father had to go out, to a 24-hour pharmacy to get additional medical supplies when they had found that there was another one coming out. They said he saw the driver run away from the scene on foot. “Deepak came out of the place and stopped once beside his taxi, then, on noticing me standing there, he ran away directly.”
Personally, I had a key benefit from the whole affair. While the gossip increased tremendously, it gave me a chance to spend some quality time in the vicinity of Mrs. Sharma, who guided my piffling efforts at writing.
Secondly, and more importantly, there has always been an inkling at the back of my head, that I had never written a dark character. This day seemed to open up a world of opportunities for me. To a fertile imagination, every person who didn’t speak about it was a potential killer. Since there were a lot of upright gentlemen and genteel women in the society, I could imagine a thousand different ways where one of these had ran afoul of the murdered woman and had paid off the taxi driver.
The soil was rich. All that was needed was the seed, and that was provided by our dear Mrs. Sharma.
“It’s about the girl,” Mrs Sharma told me the next evening after the fateful day. “You know the family in 614?”
I had a vague recollection of seeing them through the door in passing. If I wasn’t very much mistaken, they were a decent sized family, with a grandparent of unknown gender, a couple in their mid-40s, a boy of about 12 years of age, and a girl of around 16. I had particularly recalled the girl for she was a shy creature and it was my wont to notice that which was deliberately hidden, or those who deliberately tried to hide. I had noticed how, if we happened to cross in the corridor, she would stand aside with her face hidden by her hair that fell in two braids around it. Her father looked out for her in the doorway if she happened to be out by the time he returned from work.
For all practical purposes, this girl was nondescript. If Homer felt elation after discovering Achilles, I suffered something diametrically opposite. I am not a writer of infinite talent. Many writers could look at a stone and write a story about its pitted skin, and the crevices where odd weed has tried to take root and cleave it in two. They could look at the stone for what it was, a piece of the earth ejected in a violent upheaval of a primordial volcano and dropped into the riverbed by the side of a mountain, taken perforce to the plains and deposited on a bank to live out a nondescript existence.. For me, a stone is a stone. It may have color, yay, for if it’s white, and there are many of it, it can be used to decorate those glass tables in the house. But there, it draws value from the multitude. Single and alone, it accounts for little. And single and alone, that girl accounted for lesser. To me anyway.
Not so for Mrs. Sharma.
In the days that followed, I spent many an evening discussing with her the possible reasons for the macabre death in the neighborhood. We sat by the French window of my apartment looking at the sky, or what was left of it by the tall commercial towers that were under-construction and the adjoining lean slum rehabilitation buildings.
“Nobody cares, really,” Mrs. Sharma quipped. While the law really didn’t, it excited the people to contemplate the causes and wind up with catechisms — ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’, or ‘nothing good will happen to a bad person’.
“You have seen her, and her father.” She would often say, through a cloud of smoke, “Think for yourself and tell me if they are not related to all this.”
“Pray tell how though” I would invariably respond.
“The girl was having a fling with the driver.” Mrs. Sharma would respond, and blowing a puff, “The prostitute assisted their meetings. The father had the prostitute killed and got the driver in the middle. What conceit! Nobody in the society would they believe such a thing. But if you overhear a few conversations, you will know who doesn’t.” I was yet to believe it myself.
The demure girl had become only more drawn-in after the incident. It wasn’t difficult to assume that the incident had affected her. But even so, it was too tall a tale to believe that she was a centerfold in this magazine serial which attained a more grotesque tone each passing day.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Sharma had become a common occurrence in my apartment for Mr. Sharma had had to leave for a work related trip to Myanmar or Vietnam — I am not sure which — and had been detained indefinitely by it.
Since monsoon was giving an early knock on the window, I had no cause to worry about the rosebush. Mrs. Sharma helped me put an organic fertilizer in it, something made from Neem, so that the stalk turned green after a few days and leaves came to adorn its gloomy skeletal frame. We, Mrs. Sharma and I, spent lazy evenings sitting by the window, gazing at the darkening sky, discussing my novel, and the general gossip of the society, bulk of which revolved around the recent murder. Even today, when I think back to those days, I feel a sense of calmness and dejection, for that period was so precious and so short-lived.
Mrs. Sharma too had become very comfortable in my surroundings that, one day while sitting beside her at the window sill, I felt the warmth of her naked arm against mine (for she always wore sleeveless blouses only) and in an impulsive moment I turned to her and held her gaze for far too long, it provoked in me something not entirely human, a desire to ravish all things beautiful, and it was stoked more by the fact that I found in the calm daze of her eyes an answering beacon across distant mountains, for they reflected the sunset almost perfectly.
When I took her by the shoulders and reached out for her lips, she pushed away from the window and sank into the bed with her arms around me. Afterwards, she lit a cigarette and told me that the rosebush finally had a blossom, pointing to a red spot on the shoulder where I had bitten her despite her protests. I noticed later as I stood by the window that, nestled in the new leaves, the rosebush had indeed sprouted a new bud. That evening as Mrs. Sharma left, some of her usual nervous energy had left her as well.
While we were both concerned about setting the tongues wagging, it never came to pass for some sort of evil angel was keeping watch over me. Between the elopements of their daughters, the picking of their sons by the police for pick-pocketing, demolition of illegal bars and grocery stalls along the pavements, the people of the society had no time to worry about us. Our apartments opened to each other and the doors were hidden from view of the other residents of the floor. Additionally, we didn’t get any other visitors.
I read verse to Mrs. Sharma that I had written the previous night.
The flower that greeted me every morning
Had fallen in the night by the awning
And the rose-bush I thought was dead
Had yielded a flower instead
And as we raised a toast to new beginnings, she asked me if she were both — the flower that fell and the rosebush that came to life.
Another fortuitous incident that occurred in the early days of the monsoon. The girl living in 614 came under my tutelage. One fine Sunday afternoon, there was a knock on the door, and assuming it was either a food delivery or ironed clothes, I opened the door in my usual groggy state.
“Writer sir, do you take tuition?” said the woman who stood there.
It had been long since I had stopped helping students with their English homework, yet a slip of the tongue at the grocery store downstairs had carried words on the wind and this woman had deigned to try out her luck at my place.
She introduced herself and I invited her inside once I recognized that she was a neighbor.
“My daughter needs help with English,” she said, “We were looking for a home-tutor, but since you are in the next apartment, it’s practically home. Please help us out.” She smiled.
There was a villainous innocence in that smile. I must clarify, villainous here means village-like which is where the word originated from, and not evil as the word has come to mean nowadays. Her smile reminded me of old days in distant sunny climes, where raw mango had dropped from the trees and had been cut and seared, laid out on sheets to dry in the sun, for pickle needed to be made. It reminded me of earthen pots and bicycle-peddlers selling ice-cream-lollies as a rugged loo ran amok through the parched afternoons. The wrinkles of her kind face made such an impression on me that I couldn’t help but accept her request without having even discussed the remuneration.
It took me a while to realize that having become a part of her story, it would become difficult for me to separate fact from fiction. Hence, it would also become more difficult to manufacture the latter, since a conscientious voice always begins to intervene when you try to fictionalize real-life characters.
Distance was of paramount importance. As Mrs Sharma said, “A muse is like a magic trick — you get too close and the magic is lost.” It was hence that I began to lament the loss of my muse while my novel was still unfinished and my half-baked ideas still in the oven.
Two days later, when the girl came for the demo class, I realized how mistaken I had been in evaluating my prospects. Having prayed plenty for my rosebush, I turned the object of my prayers towards her well-being, for only I knew what possible depravity might ensue from one such coincidence. I knew for certain then that my guardian angel was on absence without leave, and the one filling-in was of a very devious bend of mind.
As she entered, she sat on the sofa, the first object that offered space to sit, her head obsequiously bowed.
“What is your name,” I asked her, and after a moment of indecision she looked up. That was when I realized how indescribably pretty she was. The black hair provided an apt background to the round face that was perched upon a tall thin neck. She had a broad forehead, and huge black eyes flanked the bridge of a sharp nose. She had a small mouth but her full lips bore a hint of red gloss upon them still. Yet the most unnerving feature about her aspect was her gaze, which wasn’t one of hesitation, but defiance. That this girl wasn’t here of her own will was never in question. The moot point was that this girl had the authority to send the whole charade rumbling down the hill at the first sign of a foible, and she was very much looking forward to it. She smiled.
“Leena,” she said.
I was awkwardly aware as well of her mildly provocative sense of dressing. Her clothes were well fitting and her posture which had shed its coquettishness a while ago, was deliberately feminine. Brimming with confidence and carrying a misleading countenance, this girl was trouble.
“How old are you?” I asked her.
“Nineteen,” she said, and smiled again. It was more of a devilish grin, like in a game of chess, when one player coaxes the other to take a chance, make one false move. You don’t have to take my word for it, for you don’t know what unspoken thing was going on in there. I knew I had to close this tuition business once and for all.
Yet at this point another startling revelation came to me — that perhaps she wasn’t a character that needed to be fictionalized at all. She was a living and breathing mystery herself if only I could get the reality out of her, in her own words. All I had to do was to report it with limited use of imagination.
The prospects seemed bright but the constant dread of it falling apart gave me a queer rush, and a sort of self-destructive streak that I had nurtured since childhood egged me on.
What’s the worst that could happen, really? And isn’t all life, in the end, an experience? I was hooked. I imagine my guardian angel smiled in her wicked way, flashing her teeth streaked in blood of her unheeding wards.
So as not to arouse suspicion, I always bought contraception from a distant pharmacy. Meanwhile, Mrs. Sharma’s skin had begun to positively glow. I noticed she had changed the body moisturizer that she had been using to a rose-scented one, and it had become an internal joke between us that I had brought her rosebush to flowering again, however much of discomfort this thought brought to me. My novel had made some progress and an unsolved homicide had added an allure to it that had hitherto been eluding me. I had also on occasion, shown the work to a few peers who approved of its direction although there were a few editorial comments around the tempo of the work and the needless detailing that it entailed.
At the onset of monsoon, Mrs. Sharma caught a throat infection. “Just a strep throat, the doctor said. Nothing major.” She told me in a voice that had turned raspy. I asked her how long it would last and if she was under medication. “A week maybe. The doctor has given me antibiotics. I almost died though!”
It piqued my curiosity though I figured it only another tall tale. “Oh?” I said.
“He gave me the wrong medicine. Penicillin! Despite my express warning that I was allergic! They would have killed me, for sure, had I not read it on the medicine strip.” She cleared her throat once, “Let the record show that I am still hale and hearty although the world has thrown its best against me!” She smiled. I embraced and made her a black-pepper-cloves tea. “So hot!” she gasped, her eyes closed in some ecstasy as she took the first swig. “Little piece of heaven!” she said, as I kissed her lips.
It was a season of utter and indelible bliss. Mrs. Sharma was wont to spending the evenings at my place. I would read out to her my morning’s efforts, and try to decipher in her harrumphs and mutterings the strength of my stories. She was, however, much interested in the stories I could relate to her concerning the object of mutual intrigue — Leena.
As I found out in the course of my interactions with her, sporadic at first for studies and decorum took center stage in early weeks, Leena was quite a talkative creature once something caught her fancy. There was a small number of topics that interested her, but they interested a good deal. She also believed in the utter non-necessity of discussing the unnecessary topics, one of which, woefully, was her twelfth grade English.
While I knew she had lied to me about her age, I treated with the sense of maturity she deserved. Between the two of us, we had established a small plan to improve her comprehension and coverage of English, enough so she could clear the board exams. Reading comprehension and essay writing were particular areas of concern for her, so I started taking a download of English newspaper from her and after some cajoling, convinced her parents agree to let her watch a few English movies and TV serials in the week.
The most interesting homework though was her diary entries. As I had prescribed daily recording of her experiences in a journal, it was only a matter of time before the indifferent monologue gave way to a more personal and expressive narrative, and she began to open up about her relationships with her mother, her father, and people in society in general.
“Why were you waiting at the taxi stand?” I asked her once, having read in her journal that she had done so. She was caught by surprise but composed herself almost immediately.
“A friend,” she said, “I had asked her to meet me there.”
I asked her to write a short account of the meeting, its purpose and its culmination. I knew that this child didn’t have a problem with the language itself — she was very handy with her native tongue and her breadth of expression amazed me at times. The problem was only in the fundamentals of written English. I tasked her accordingly. Beyond that, I wasn’t really concerned about her performance in the exams.
Towards the middle of the season, as rain settled to a brisk everyday evening affair, and men carried their raincoats with them to work, and the gossip guns around the murder of the woman in the next compound had finally died down, although without a resolution as to the reason and the culprit, there happened another event which brought the atmosphere to life again.
The street that I passed on my way to work, and which was the area where the prostitutes usually stalked, was cornered by a banyan so old that the road curved around it. There, a small cemented platform had been raised around if where a few of the elderly women sat in their crimson painted cheeks and bawdy sarees pulled up almost to the knees. A solitary yellow bulb hung from a wire on one of the branches of this tree, and cast a ghastly glow on its surroundings. On a late evening prior to the monsoons, when the summer was at its peak and humidity made everything worse, the effect of passing under this tree was indisputably alarming, for the figures of the women all looked like wraiths waiting underneath. Yet after a while I got used to it, and during the monsoons, as the women sat listening to an occasional Jagjit Singh song on the old radio, the scene became surreal, having altogether lost its ghostly quality.
A few weeks later, as Leena’s mother stopped accompanying her to the classes and her father stopped dropping in unannounced in course of our sessions, I began to see nuances emerging in her writing. As if the place had actually become an alcove to her in an otherwise unyielding world. She wrote about her few friends in detail, outlining their familial obligations, their girlfriends, boyfriends and their obnoxious characteristics, and her own family, rounding everything up to show how she had become what she was. It seemed like a very deliberate and conscious effort to me, and I appreciated the effort she was putting in, emotionally, while the task only demanded mental capabilities. Once, I had told her in passing that she could speak to me freely if there was anything that was bothering her. She was yet to use the privilege.
One day, in the middle of July, as we were going through her independent interpretation of a poem by P. B. Shelley , she paused for breath, and said, “I went to the taxi stand again last night.”
I imagined her walking in the gathering dark, making her way past the old banyan and to the taxi stand. I waited for her to continue, for I knew this wasn’t an idle comment. It was leading up to a disclosure.
“They have not even removed the taxi,” she said, somewhat agitated.
“What taxi?” I asked.
“His taxi,” she said, as if I was supposed to know ‘him’. “The driver. One they said killed the woman in the brothel.”
“Three months on and they haven’t even removed the taxi from there. It’s like no one even wants to know the truth.” She sounded peeved.
“And…” I spoke chancing each word, “You know the truth?”
She looked up and waited. “No,” she said finally. “I don’t know everything, but I know he didn’t kill anybody.”
“And that’s because?” Despite knowing that the girl was recounting evidence to a murder, and that it would become my legal liability to report the same which I wouldn’t want to do anyway, I prodded her more.
“We were having a thing,” she said, smiling. “He was a village boy. Didn’t know anything about the city and the customs here. I met him once passing through the place, and he began to wait for me their everyday. Told me he loved me and everything.”
I had been listening patiently. As she paused here, I egged her on. She burst out laughing.
“I am only joking. There was nothing between us. Romantically I mean. He was a distraction. I like to indulge his fancy. For a while anyway. But I know for a fact that he couldn’t have killed the woman.”
“Yes, and that’s because?” I repeated bullheadedly.
“Chuck it,” she said, “Not your circus, not–” she paused for effect, “– your monkeys.”
I was at once proud and disappointed.
Later as I told this to Mrs. Sharma she merely nodded for the facts were a mere corroboration of her theory. I was thankful that she didn’t press me to coax more information out of Leena, which I believe was because she, Mrs. Sharma, had begun to enjoy our time together and all such conversations which had earlier been the mainstay of our discussions had become now only the pretexts. She had often asked me if I liked the way she looked, and in a fit of inspiration, I had composed a 3 stanza poem for her, outline the contours of her body and the sharp features of her face, omitting entirely her worldview and expressiveness.
Often, in moments of utter and indefinite calm, that were brought about by a power cut (for the building didn’t have any backup power supply), Mrs. Sharma would lay in the nook of my arm as I ran my fingers through her thick, dark curls. My patent ginger-honey-mint tea was perhaps one among the many reasons that I continued to enjoy the privilege of Mrs. Sharma’s company almost daily.
I used to sometimes think about Mr. Sharma returning to his household and finding the utter mess that had been created in his absence, but I was not so old as to be able to imagine his rational response, or response of any kind for that matter. As I said, I knew my guardian angel was having fun at my expense, and I didn’t intend for him to be the only one. I must tell you though, I had already decided that the moment Mrs. Sharma would have even an inkling of his return, I would start looking for a home in another place somewhere far from here. All things considered, a broken heart is still better mended than broken bones.
If I must come out with it, I suppose I must. I had fallen for Mrs. Sharma, that lady with the brown skin and a delicate expression in her words. This, I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt, would eventually lead to ruin of both of us.
I had given to Leena for reading my dog-eared copy of ‘Twenty Poems for the Young’. It covered the poems on courage — Kipling, Frost, Henley and such. While it was meant for critical analysis only, I hoped she will imbibe some of the grit that those poems inspire.
Towards the end of July, when monsoon had temporarily attained the fury of a storm and the rose bush had shed all but the smallest of its leaves, another event jolted my tiny ecosystem of contained bliss. As I sat helping Leena with an Emily Dickinson poem, one of my favorites since it spoke of hope, I leaned in a little too close to her and was taken by surprised when she planted a kiss on my cheek. Even the sense of speechlessness took a while in arriving, for I just kept staring at the page for a full minute before I raised my eyes to hers. She was nervous, standing at the precipice of a laughter I was sure she had prepared for this moment, but I could see that in a reflection of the mirthlessness on my face, her hope was slipping away.
That evening, as we wrapped up the session, I told her not to repeat it. As I sat down shaking after her departure, I knew this matter would only get more knots in the future. Despite having lived alone for most of the past decade, I found myself yearning for company at that exact moment.
Later I scourged for an old bottle of rum that I hadn’t touched in past six months, for pretending decency in Mrs. Sharma’s company. I poured myself a tall one and sat contemplating the fallout of what had just precipitated. I could pretend it hadn’t happened, and with an added measure of distancing myself from the teen-aged girl, I could probably continue my peaceful existence in the society. On the other hand, there was a strong possibility that Leena, being an impulsive and willful person that she was, would pursue this to an end of whichever kind.
In the morning, I was awakened by the dog barking next door, and I blessed her dear heart for it was that sliver of hope that the world retained some sense yet. I contrived to spend the afternoon with Mrs. Sharma so as to avoid thinking about the incident of the previous night. With respect to the event itself, I felt only a sense of a calm, and indifference. What unnerved me was the lack of moral responsibility that I should’ve felt for dealing with a trouble child. I think, at the back of my mind, I was also trying to explain to myself the sudden urge I had felt last evening to pull her up and crush her in an embrace. Another minor inconvenience had been the fact that I had thought about the full lips on her small mouth for an inordinate number of times, especially with the faded gloss as I first saw them.
I wanted distance, solitude, and indifference. Mrs. Sharma could supply all three.
After taking a leave of a couple of days, I resumed teaching Leena. For my own sake though, I left the door to my apartment open this time, with a standing invitation to her father for my patent ginger-honey-mint tea. “Walk in any time,” I told her father, “think of it as your own home only!” Being desperate as I was, I made sure that Leena had heard me. I was getting impatient with the games that my guardian angel had been throwing at me. I think the angel had grown weary as well, for come August, Fortuna’s storm-cloud had moved elsewhere.
As the month of August opened on a quiet note, there was found one morning, on one of the branches of the same old banyan, the body of a woman, hanging by the shoulders, for its head had been removed.
The details might come to you presently. There is little or no juice in writing about the murder of a chawl-resident. Still in the newspapers dating back to the day after, you will find a few columns dedicated to the item “Headless body found near Ganesh Gully area.”
By the time I had reached the place, the body had been removed, packed and shipped to a mortuary. Only a few people standing nearby gave me an account of what had been taking place so far. “Police arrived,” one said. “Took the body,” another said. “Whatever will happen,” said one, pointing out that life will resume its own in short while.
An octogenarian woman, who I had often seen sitting at the foot of the banyan in the morning hours, stood a few steps away, looking desolate. I bought a pack of peanuts from a vendor-on-foot nearby and walked on to greet her. “Amma, what happened?” I asked, as I offered the peanuts to her. She looked at me once, with such a strange expression that I felt even expressing contempt was too much for her aged faculties. “Mind your own business,” she said, and using her tall walking stick, she walked away.
By the bye, I found out, from a reporter who had been trying to cover the incident, that it was a middle aged woman from the same brothel where the previous incident had taken place. In course of his investigation he had succeeded only in finding out that she came from a village in Bihar, through means that couldn’t be reported with certainty, and had no kin here. The reporter also tried to speak to the madam of the house, but was persuaded otherwise.
“They are connected, aren’t they?” Mrs. Sharma said to me. She stood by the window, wrapped up haphazardly in her sari and as I admired her silhouette.
Later, Leena told me that the first murder was — “hardly anything but”. She would tell me in a painfully concise manner, that the first woman to die was a friend of the taxi driver, who was in turn, Leena’s friend. Leena hadn’t met her herself, but had heard of her a few times from Deepak, the driver. “He was just a boy,” she said, “just a boy from the village.”
I related the story to Mrs. Sharma later. “So they weren’t in love?” she asked me. I confirmed. It was just a chance meeting that had blossomed into a friendship, but it had nothing to do with the death of the first woman. “Shriya, was that her name?” She asked. I nodded.
“Shriya was killed because Leena’s father didn’t like Leena meeting the taxi driver.” I told her, in a hushed tone.
She blew through another cigarette before responding, “Maybe. But it’s interesting. Oh the things that happen in this place!” and she threw at me her familiar sideways grin that had often made me swoon in the early days of our acquaintance.
In the days that followed, things attained a disquieting quietude. Perhaps it was only my imagination playing tricks on me, or perhaps it was the fact that I was missing Mrs. Sharma who had gone abroad for a few weeks to visit her husband.
“Conjugal visit,” she had said, testing me. I for my part, gave a good imitation of being tested. Yet it must be remarked that whereas the first death in the neighborhood had visibly impacted Leena only, the second seemed to have little-by-little altered the whole vicinity.
The friendly grocer on the ground floor shop wasn’t friendly anymore. The lady who delivered my tiffin perhaps thought that soggy chapatti too must be a delicacy someplace. All in all, the place seemed to turn more hostile, although I couldn’t quite figure out if I was the only person subjected to this sentiment. The watchman’s manner was brusque and a couple of weeks passed before the sweeper even deigned to collect the garbage from outside my apartment again.
I had assumed my relationship with Mrs Sharma to be a purely symbiotic one. For this reason too it was easier for me to turn over as Leena came calling with her adolescent rush of hormones and mild depression.
“If you can’t influence it, enjoy it,” Mrs Sharma had said once.
The girl, was looking for some comfort and company only, and I, as the designated oasis for a lonely wanderer in a sprawling desert was glad to provide it. I decided not to tame the current. In fact, the only conscious choice I made was not to attempt to contain or channelize its ebb and flow. If she said nineteen, nineteen she was. I had always found the laws of mankind a tad too arbitrary anyway.
“They don’t like the outsiders,” Leena told me one evening, during our sessions. “They believe that it’s the outsiders bring bad luck.”
I believed her. Given the recent commotions by Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, and the violent attacks on northerners in Mumbai, it was a surprise that my landlord even agreed to rent out the apartment to me.
“But why all of a sudden?”
She shrugged, “What does it matter? This is the second death in three months. Those who don’t know have to find some way. This is how they can sort this out. It’s always difficult to trust the outsiders. Your language, customs etc — always a mystery.”
‘Because I don’t have any!’ I wanted to tell her. I felt I would only be venting my anger at the one person who had found compassion for me.
“In the general body meetings of the society, they discussed this,” she continued. “There was a similar case long back. Five years maybe. A man from Uttar Pradesh had raped and killed a girl in one of the flats here. You have seen 702? Locked right? That’s the one. Never found another tenant, nor buyer. The court put a stay on leasing or sale of the property until the file is closed.”
“But why now!” I eventually cried. “I was always an outsider!”
“And they were always unfriendly, no?” she said.
“This is different,” I said resolutely, but I think she disregarded it with the same teenage disregard that she had submitted everything to so far.
I had moved the timing for Leena’s classes to noon, and had begun to lock again while I coached Leena. Due to the additional exercises, the sessions usually lasted longer than the ordained hour.
As September drew to close, the rosebush dried out. The stalk looked like emaciated limbs and the nodules had been reduced to arthritic knuckles. It was a painful discovery, for I read in it the prophecy of an impending doom.
The investigating officer maintained that the woman had been killed by a zealous lover and was hung to make an example of. “Must’ve taken her away in the night and brought the body back in early hours of morning. Nobody noticed in the dark.” So it went in theory.
“This is how most cases, where finding the culprit seemed needlessly difficult, wrap up.” Leena said later on. “They don’t even have a clue where to look. Or maybe, they know and they don’t want to.”
We were lying on a comforter on the floor of my apartment. I had been reading the poem Raven by Edgar Allan Poe. I had just finished reading the second verse, emphatically voicing ‘Nevermore’ just as the bell rang and I believe, color drained from my face.
We dressed in haste and leaving Leena to position herself next to the study table, I went to answer the door.
It was Mrs. Sharma.
I was happy to see her, though not quite able to display it at the moment. She seemed agitated for some reason and walked right in. “Make me a cup of that tea, won’t you?” She said to me sitting down beside Leena on the sofa. Leena shrank, I sensed, and more the silence lingered in the house, more uncomfortable it became.
After a quiet couple of minutes where I stood staring at Mrs. Sharma, she got up. Perhaps it was the state of the room — the creased comforter, the used tea mugs on the table, and slight scent of sweat in the air, or the minute disarray of Leena’s braids, but Mrs. Sharma knew. Her legs trembled as she collected her bag and made for the door.
“How could you,” she mouthed as she crossed me, and in response, I, for I had been trying to force a smile out, gave up and just shrugged.
My days in the society were already over. I realized I was living on borrowed time.
I heard the loud slam as Mrs. Sharma disappeared behind the door of her own apartment. I wrapped up the session with Leena after going through what we had earlier planned to cover.
In the evening, I wrote to my landlord that I was vacating the premises with immediate effect and was willing to forfeit the deposit. He recovered well when I spoke of the forfeiture.
I went to meet Mrs. Sharma at her apartment, but it turned out to be a grave mistake. She let me inside, but after staring me down for a good long while, perhaps measuring me, she fell at me with a scream, attacking my face and clawing at my arms, exposing the flesh everywhere. Without another recourse, I placed my hand over her mouth, drowning out her cries, and suffered her assaults without a word.
After what seemed like an excruciatingly long while, she calmed down and I released her. Her eyes were red and bulging out of their sockets from exertion. I brought her water. Her voice was hoarse from crying out. Later, in those steely steady eyes, there trickled from some unknown place, a solitary tear. Right away, it fueled her anger again, causing her to seek out my face and dig her fingernails into it. I suffered through the mercurial palpitations of her mind until she was had fallen entirely devoid of strength.
I returned to my apartment after giving her a sedative from her own medicine drawer. On an impulse, I had also collected from her drawer the EpiPen for the adrenaline shot that she kept for her penicillin allergy. I had often seen Mrs. Sharma fumble in her bag and drop the pen-shaped injection of epinephrine that she carried around ‘just in case I have an attack’.
“You never know,” she had said. I was in a mind to test it out.
I spent the night researching penicillin allergy and how a patient could go into an anaphylactic shock. Untreated, it could cause death in an hour.
As I fell asleep, sometime after 3, I think, I had already planned how to bid farewell to the place.
When the dog woke me up in the morning — for the last time — I muttered to myself, I recollected the dream I had had the first fateful night. I had dreamed of man-sized monkeys with huge baboon-like jaws running full tilt towards a crowd of defenseless people, with lust and murder in their eyes. Their teeth were blunt but long, and evidently capable of tearing all flesh from the bone in a single graze. I had woken up sweating that night because I had stood among the humans watching their death approach and I had a spine-chilling recollection of it again this morning.
I had a faint inkling that I had dreamed something similar today, and again, I felt the urge to write a dark character. The plot was nearly ready. A post-apocalyptic world where law and order situation have broken down, civilization is long past, literally anything goes. And here, our protagonist is born, in the deserted landscape, where only stray weed finds root, and dust blows at all hours.
As I turned off my screen, I saw the pages still open on penicillin allergy and anaphylactic shock. Mrs Sharma’s epipen was lying on my tea table. I realized I hadn’t a need of writing that dark character. I was living it.
Hence, though I prided myself on my convenient moral code, I sat down heavily and spent a long time jumping from thought to thought, event to event, trying to link the series of incidents that had brought me to this juncture. At the end, I was mentally exhausted and had nothing to show for the effort.
I began wrapping up my books and clothes. The rest belonged to the landlord.
Leena came to see me before noon. I handed her a copy of Poems for the Young People and hoped she could make something of them. I hadn’t told her I was leaving yet.
“You know he wanted to sell the apartment.” She said.
“My landlord?” I asked her. “He never asked me vacate it!”
“No,” she said, “Because he couldn’t refund your deposit. That’s all. But there is going to be a good price on this apartment now.”
I shook my head in a no.
“Just as well.” She said. She was sitting on the sofa again, somewhat more at ease today. She wore a white salwar suit with a stole draped over her chest. A gentle smile played on her lips. There was a hint of red gloss there. “That lot has been bought by a builder.”
“Which one?” I asked her, my curiosity rose through the depths of my exhaustion.
“The one with the old banyan,” she said. “Where that brothel is put up and where all those illegal metal workshops are going on. That one.”
“Meaning that it will all come down now,” she said, “any day now.”
“The residents here will be relieved, I’m sure?” I hazarded.
She disregarded it, “They weren’t bothered. We were all born and brought up here. We have all seen the brothel since the youngest days. They say it was running for fifty years at least! Used to be one of the many. Industrial encroachment killed it. They found a new madam easily every few years, but the new madams didn’t find it easy to keep the machine running.”
“Because of the real estate men?”
“That too, yes.” She said, “But mostly because the textile mills shut down. Everything got converted into swanky offices and banks and trading firms and malls and restaurants and what not. The odd wage-labor of the textile factories disappeared and the new white-collar man didn’t have the same standards — or lack thereof — as the earlier customers. Hence the brothels on the whole Ganesh Gully succumbed little by little.”
“It’s incredible that she held it out for so long, no? The madam,” I asked her. “The last brothel of Ganesh Gully!” I voiced grandly.
“I think she would’ve held out longer. She is not afraid of dying, you know.”
“Dying? What?” I exclaimed.
“The builder!” She said, with her brow perked up, “He had the area cleaned up! You weed out the bad seeds, and turn the soil, and then voila! What marvelous towers begin sprouting from the ground!” She paused to inhale deeply once. “That’s what happened to the two women who worked in there. They got cleaned.”
I saw now. The madam didn’t want all her women to hang naked and dead from trees. The people of the society becoming hostile, the builder buying the land, the promise of gentrification, the boost in prices of real estate, new shops and offices opening up nearby, outsiders coming in and willing to pay huge amounts for chicken-coop sized accommodations, it all made sense. No wonder my landlord was happy.
I mulled it all over as I made for Leena a ginger lemon-grass tea one last time, and then told her that I knew she would do well. “In life, I mean,” I told her. “You have it in you.”
She looked at me expectantly. I told her that I was going to move on. She didn’t react. I assumed it will take time for her to process it. Instead, she walked out.
A few minutes later, as I stacked my few belongings together, she came back, and started rummaging in her bag.
“I had bought this for you some time back. I didn’t know what will be useful,” she said, handing me a wrapped packet. From its weight I discerned it was a book.
Later when I sat in the cab that was to take me to the hotel where I was going to spend the week, I unwrapped the package. It was a collection of poetry, from Wordsworth to Sylvia Plath, all over the place, to be honest.
I would later imagine that was precisely the point of this gift — a slice of this all-over-the-placed-ness. I suppose she saw me in the same light. Haphazard, divided, indecisive, in all probability — a problem case. Deserving of compassion perhaps, but not love.
On the title page, Leena had copied lines from Matthew Arnold’s poem in a beautiful hand.
Yes! In the sea of life enisled,
With echoing straits between us thrown,
Dotting the shoreless watery wild,
We mortal millions live alone.
Underneath, she had remarked, ‘Life is long. Doesn’t need to be boring as well.’
And I took it to heart.