THE MORNING INVOCATION from the Shiva temple seeps through the holes in the faulty concrete walls of my bedroom. By the time, they reach my ears, the Sanskrit chants entwine with the pinging of my iPhone, a multi-layered vibration, which blends with the humming of the air conditioner. The resultant noise is a mix of the spiritual and the electronic, tinged with the salty air from the Arabian Sea, then filtered through dusty vents. It’s that special Bombay vibe. Unique to this urban sprawl, the former seven islands of Bom Bahia—the Good Bay, as named by its Portuguese founders.
Reaching out to shut off the phone, my hand slams into the glass of water next to my bed. It promptly falls over, the crash more effective in cutting through my sleep than the iPhone’s wake-up alarm. Opening first one eye then the other, I reluctantly slide out my arms from under the cotton sheet, which has kept my body at just the right temperature through the night.
Meanwhile, the air conditioner—a luxury I can ill afford, now that I am paying my way through life, instead of living under someone else’s roof—continues to work overtime, trying its best to bring down the temperature of the room to less than blistering hot. When the cool draft caresses my skin, the chill slithering along the dusty floor to keep the feverish temperatures of the city at bay, only then can I drift off to sleep.
I stumble out of bed, and into the adjoining kitchen and fire up the stove below the saucepan already half filled with water. Yawning, I stretch my hands above my head to work out the kinks in my back. One by one, the vertebrae along my spine pop, as I straighten.
“Where’s my chai?” Pankaj, my flatmate, props himself against the doorway to his own cubicle-sized room.
“Get it yourself, bitch,” I reply mildly, spooning out tea leaves into a saucepan.
“… Please?” He wheedles, “pretty, please?”
Ha! I’ve trained him well. “But, since you have asked me so politely … I might just make your chai. This time.”
“Haven’t I told you to wait till the water boils before adding the tea leaves?” Pankaj protests. I mentally mouth before adding the tea leaves in sync with his voice. He loves to watch my fumbling efforts in the kitchen, just for the sheer pleasure it gives him to criticise my every move.
“Okay Mum,” I mumble, splashing milk into the now boiling liquid and letting the concoction stew for a few seconds before pouring it into the mismatched cups. Looking around for the sugar, I add the white crystals to Panky’s cup, pausing in the act of adding a spoonful to my own.
“Ah! Time for the sugar dance I see.”
“Umph!” I don’t bother with a reply. It’s great having a friend like Panky who knows me so well.
It’s also uncomfortable that he has gotten to know me that well.
“Go on, do it, Ruby. A spoonful more can’t kill you.”
Of course, I agreed with him. Not that I would ever admit to it to his face for that would be totally stroking his ego, making him even more insufferable than what he is now. I dunk in the sugar, stirring it quickly. If I didn’t see it, it didn’t exist, right?
Sliding one of the half-full cups towards him I deeply inhale the scent of the steaming liquid before gulping it down. Barely tasting it, I let the caffeine kick my lower belly, feeling the blood vessels along my skin bloom as if dancing to the sudden onslaught of the monsoons.
“Don’t kill all your taste buds in one go, now.” Panky snickers.
“I have to drink my chai boiling hot.”
“No kidding!” He teases. “You are the first South Indian I know who prefers tea to coffee.”
“Strange, no?” I take the few steps needed to reach the tiny breakfast nook, perching on the sole remaining barstool. “I knew we were going to be friends for life; from the moment you called me a South Indian, instead of that hated M word.”
“The M word?” Pankaj asks, puzzled. Then the frown on his forehead clears. “Ah! The M word, of course.”
“See, I once brought my friend Tanya home for lunch. I was about seven—I think. The cook had just served up steaming hot idlis or rice cakes as Ma preferred to call them. They sound so delicious, right? I hate them.” I shudder in recollection. “I’d happily go through life without seeing the face of another of those white slimy things. Ugh!”
“What a drama queen you are, Ruby. Idlis aren’t all that bad,” Panky protests, only half serious. I know he’s only trying to bait me, but I can’t help it. I am quick to rise to the challenge.
“Ha! So tell me, Pankaj Verma, how many times have you gone to a restaurant and voluntarily ordered idlis off the menu? Hanh?” Seeing his shamefaced look, I crow in triumph. “See? Even you, who pretends to like those awful things, doesn’t ever order them out of choice.” I mutter, “Given that that woman is not even of South Indian origin—only married to one—I don’t understand why she likes them so much.”
Taking a pause, I warm to my story, quite forgetting I have sworn never to speak of my parents with anyone, including Pankaj. “Anyways …” I pause dramatically. “So, there’s Ma, in her fashionable cotton-silk blended saree, which was all the rage at that time, by the way, and sporting this big red pottu.” I touch the spot between my eyebrows, where many Indian women wear a vermillion dot, symbolic of the third eye. “She sat at the head of our antique dining table, gin and tonic in one hand, a cigarette in the other, not quite paying attention to our excited chatter until Tanya turns to me and goes, “Oh! You are Madrasi?’”
Pankaj sputters. “Whoever says Madrasi anymore? Just because Madras is one of the biggest cities in the south of India, doesn’t mean you just have to label anyone from the region Madrasi.“
“I know, right? My ma gave poor Tania an earful that day and had her run off crying. I don’t know what traumatised me more—having my best friend call me Madrasi or losing a friend, thanks to Ma’s outburst.”
Not that being called Madrasi is derogatory. Of course not. It had just felt uncool in South Bombay, or SoBo, as those square miles of eye-wateringly, expensive real estate are called. I had grown up there surrounded by prime quality human specimens, all tall, and fair, bearing genes of their Aryan forefathers from the north of the country.
My father carried the unmistakable swarthier features characteristic of families from the south.
Just a thousand miles divided my origins from those of my neighbours, yet culturally we may well have been from another planet, the smells and sounds of my home were that alien to them.
“Your ma’s quite a character, hanh?”
“Yah!” You have no idea! “You should meet my Dad, though.”
Panky opens his mouth as if to ask another question about my family. I am relieved when instead he queries, “Breakfast?”
Has he changed the topic so I stop feeling uncomfortable? That would be just like him. He really is that considerate.
“Nah … On a diet, remember?”
“No dinner, no breakfast—you are going to fade away,” he chides.
“If only that were true. This,” I pinch the pyjama-clad skin of my thighs, holding it out to the side, “is proof that I have enough fat to survive a few famines.”
“Honestly lovely” he grumbles, “you do need energy to survive.”
“I live on Vitamin C and fresh air,” I proclaim.
“In this city? Perhaps you should rephrase that to Vitamin D and recycled air.”
Panky can always be trusted to correct my ramblings; he has these facts right at his fingertips. Trust me to have the only fashion-conscious-high IQ-geek in the world for a best friend.
I pat his cheek. “Stop worrying; I will be just fine.” Tossing back the dregs of my chai, I thump my mug down onto the tiny breakfast table. “It’s an experiment,” I call out over my shoulder, en-route to my room. “I am trying to see how many meals I can skip before I give in to the hunger.”
Panky groans, “Why can’t you place the used mug in the sink? I simply don’t understand, you spoilt children from rich homes …”
It makes me grin with wicked pleasure.
Passing the machete hanging on the wall of the living room, I pull it down, brandishing it at him in a mock attack. It’s a strange weapon inherited from the past tenant that we have never bothered to take down. It’s quite ugly to look at, slightly rusted from the sea air which has corroded the metal. Yet it seems to have some kind of antique value; it’s probably by far the most valuable thing in the slightly rundown living room. It’s definitely the quirkiest item there.
Our landlady, Mrs D’Souza, has furnished the room with odds and ends of mismatched furniture. She seems to particularly favour combining antique pieces inherited from her great-grandmother with modern glass and chrome. It’s a rather unsettling combination, as if I am forever living on a portal balanced between the past and the future.
I slip the machete into its sheath, and hang it back on the hook. My regular workouts with the sword have made me feel rather possessive about it. It’s not mine, but for the time being, as long as I live in this place, I have laid stake to it. Or perhaps it has claimed me?
Walking past my bedroom into the bathroom, I drop my pyjamas messily on the floor before stepping into the shower.
Despite my earlier dawdling, I am dressed in less than ten minutes. With little effort, I throw on my usual uniform of sneakers and a plaid shirt tucked into the waistband of skinny Diesel jeans, with my satchel-like handbag slung over my shoulder. Oversized Ray-Bans are perched on my nose.
I take a last look at myself in the mirror. I may have left SoBo, but damned if I was going to give up my designer clothes. Sure I am just a lowly intern with a social media marketing company, but hey, nothing stops me from being with it, right?
No longer SoBo. Not suburban.
That’s me all right. Not belonging to either camp.
I pause at the doorway to the living room. Panky has draped himself across the settee with the delirious chatter of a hyper-excited news presenter for company. “… Coffee bean shortage predicted due to floods. Mars, Earth, and the sun all aligned last night, a rare opposition of the planets that only happens once every 778 days. But this event is even more remarkable as it occurred precisely a week before everyone on Earth will see the first of four red blood moons. An extraordinary event some believe represents the second coming of the saviour …”
“Oh! What trash,” I complain. “It’s worse than reality TV. And why is she always screaming at the top of her voice?”
“It’s breaking news, and she’s excited to break it to us. Isn’t that enough?” Panky grins. “Besides, I am a news junkie.” Seeing I’m spoiling for a fight he hurriedly turns down the volume: “Sexy model look today, I see?”
“You think?” I pose, my right hand on my slightly thrust out hip. “Really, Panky? This is hardly sexy.”
“It’s those Angelina Jolie sunglasses my dear. V-e-r-r-y sexy.”
“And here I was trying to downplay my allure.” I bat my eyelashes.
“Just the opposite, d-ah-ling!” He grins.
“Will it attract too much attention?” A little pinprick of apprehension crawls into my stomach. “Should I change, you think?”
Not that it matters, anyway. I can wear the most ill-fitting clothes in my wardrobe, yet there is bound to be at least one smart-ass, wannabe Romeo on the street who is going to whistle whilst cycling by, or offer rude remarks while I’m walking past.
“Nah!” Pankaj assures me. “You can handle yourself, no? After all if it wasn’t for you …” He lets the words hang in the air. I know he is thinking about how we met. I had been living on a friend’s couch not far from here, and one night, on the way back home, I had stumbled across Panky, surrounded by three other kids. One of them had him by the collar; the other held a knife. They had been trying to rob him of his phone and his wallet. My instinct had been to run.
Good thing I had some knowledge of self-defence to help me here.
Unable to deal with my temper tantrums, my ma had entrusted me to the capable hands of Dr Poonawala, SoBo’s most famous child psychologist. I was dropped off for weekly sessions at his clinic from the age of five till I turned fifteen. Channel your anger into physical activity, was his advice. It’s thanks to him I enrolled in as many physical training classes as possible, from sword fighting to jiu jitsu. It wasn’t long before I found myself addicted to the rush of endorphins brought on by pushing my body to its physical limits. That’s all it was though. The anger was hidden, but very alive. Now, facing those bullies I felt those sparks catch fire.
And, they had come at both of us.
If it had not been for a family passing by which had raised the alarm … I dread to think what would have happened.
Still, one rash act of courage does not mean I am used to the unwanted male scrutiny on the streets.
I am better at coming to other people’s aid than my own.
“I am not so sure.” The skin-tight jeans live up to their promise, embracing my curves, every move I make magnified through their loving touch. They are all the rage in other parts of the world, but on the roads of this city where people still strive to make ends meet, I know the trousers will seem out of place … but will they seem too provocative? Glancing down at the screen of the iPhone to check the time, I shrug. “Damn, no time to change anyway.” I pull at the shirt till it comes free of the jeans, the material now halfway to my thighs, sighing at the inevitable crumpled tail ends. “Gotta go, bye honey!” I blow Pankaj a kiss. It’s a joke between us, this role-playing at matrimony. One that I know pleases him enormously.
“Ciao, darling.” Pankaj grimaces. “We’re never gonna find husbands at this rate.”
I lean over to kiss his smooth cheek. No doubt he shaved as soon as he rolled out of bed. “With friends like you, who needs a man?” I grin.
“I do!” Pankaj’s voice follows me out the door as I run towards the gates of our bungalow in Pali Hill, the most genteel of all the middle-class suburbs of the city.
I pause on the threshold next to a man who is always there, just outside our bungalow gates. I have sometimes walked home in the early morning after a night out, just as he is setting up his little corner of the world. He doesn’t look up as I pass. I have grown fond of the balding spot at the top of his head. That’s all I ever see of his face, for he is always bent over his notebook: writing. What does he scribble day and night? Can one person carry around so much in his head?
He has curly hair worn in a halo as if to contain the flow of letters, like Lord Shiva trying to contain the restless holy Ganges River in his matted locks. As always he is wearing faded jeans, a grey shirt tucked in, and a tie loosely knotted around his neck. He also wears leather loafers, which have seen better days. The sign in front of him reads:
There’s also an upturned hat to receive any donations from passers-by. He never asks for money.
“How many days, then?” I ask as I always do. It’s another running joke in my life, this wisecracking with the gentleman-beggar. Of course, he never answers me.
Or he hadn’t till now. He holds up his fingers: All ten of them.
I come to a complete standstill. In all this time, I have never seen his face. I have forgotten he has one, for all
that has ever been visible is the top of his head. It’s the first time he has even acknowledged my presence. A premonition runs down my back. I push it away.
“Ten what? Months? Years?” I demand fiercely.
He only smiles, showing a gap between his front teeth. That doesn’t help at all. I am looking for reassurances. I get questions in return. I run out of the gates of the bungalow.
Having managed to hail down an auto-rickshaw in half the time it would normally take me on any other day, I stand on the platform of Bandra train station. I have to position myself sideways to fit between the double-door-refrigerator sized, saree-clad aunty on one side, and a girl furiously working the keys of her phone on the other. The fishy, undisguised-by-any-deodorant smell of sweaty armpits shot through with the sharp notes of attar-like perfume imported from the Middle East, all wrapped up in that distinctive smell of red carbolic—Lifebuoy soap—entangle in the hairs of my nostrils.
A ripple runs through the throng in anticipation of the arrival of the train. We are runners at the start of an obstacle race, each of us itching to be the first off the mark.
I brush away a light stroke on my thigh, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other, pushing away the large handbag of the woman next to me, which threatens to get in the way, hampering my own jump to the finish line. As the touch persists I finally look down to see a hand. It brushes my thigh, once, then again. The hand has a life of its own, detached from its owner.
It’s as if I have stepped back from my body, watching the action unfold as the fingers of the Hand walk their way up my leg, disappearing underneath the hem of my shirt. It pauses once to gently squeeze the soft bulge of my jeans around the skin of my inner thigh.
I follow the arm, the other way, all the way up to the face of the thin, gangly fellow it belongs to. Where did he come from? And I had thought it was safe to travel in the ladies’ compartment.
He stares straight ahead, a serene look on his features, as if to say, Don’t look at me, I don’t know what my hand is doing, really! It belongs to someone else.
I open my mouth in surprise to protest at the invasion, yet something stops me from saying anything aloud. Should I scream? Shove away that horrible thing even now touching my body? Will that not put the spotlight squarely on me? Yet, the audacity, the callousness, the sheer insensitivity of it all has me speechless. It gnaws at me. Surely, I should do something?
He smiles. Innocence—it flickers on his face, breaking that strange, indecisive trance I have fallen into. My hand jerks up to slap him; once, twice—and then I am falling. Shoved by the same hand, I am thrust through the birth canal of the crowds. Goaded by an unseen force, I burst through to the other side, plunging headfirst off the platform. I hit the edge of the tracks: right in the path of the oncoming local train. Pain explodes through my side.
I have always obsessed about the future … is it because I don’t have one?
Thank you for reading Ruby’s story.