By Natasha Joshi
Green. The colour hits his iris. It is light and bright, covering her body and flowing down to her shins. Her kurta flaps lightly in the morning breeze, entering the space between her legs where no one is looking. No one except him. Kamath is late. Must be arguing with his wife as usual. She never lets him be. A nag, that woman. Some ladies are full chudails. He smiles thinking of Suhasini. When they had gotten betrothed, she had acted real coy. But, once married, her reticence fell away. His mother snidely remarked how the girl’s shame had faded faster than her henna. As time went by, she lamented at his refusal to hit Suhasini. In his mother’s words “a wife is a door mat. Every now and then, she must be hung out and beaten.” But Suhasini’s personality didn’t bother him. On the contrary. He was too good looking to end up with a simpleton and, since she wasn’t the prettiest, her spunk counted for much more. Just this morning, with a hint of cheek, she had threatened to starve him. If you forget to buy the regulator, your friend’s wife will serve you dinner, said she with bright eyes. The green flashes in front of him again, expelling his reverie. The girl carries a camera strapped around her neck. She is taking pictures with an annoying deliberateness. Show off, he thinks. As if she knows how to use a fancy camera. Behind her, a boy steps up and she angles the screen toward him, showing what she had captured.
Kamath turns up now with Arvind. “What took you guys so long?” Vinayak asks. He is starting to feel hungry but the kichri stall is locked shut.
“Relax a bit,” Kamath replies with a smile “it’s your first day of freedom, savour it like a cigarette.” The boys laugh and slap him on the back. Vinayak grins good-naturedly. This is the first time since the wedding he is out with the old gang again. “Is Gokul coming?” The ring leader – Gokul – with his dark chest and brutal hands. Vinayak and he never quite got on. They started out together in school but Gokul’s mobile repair business had outdone Vinayak’s cycle repair shop. Now he roamed around in stone wash denims while Vinayak wore the same brown pants all week.
“Look at the spread brother,” Arvind says, turning his eyes towards the tourists - the girl in green and the boy with her.
“You referring to the girl or the boy?” Kamath teases.
“Take it in the ass, mother fucker,” Arvind replies. Vinayak turns his eyes upwards to confront the mellow sun. It’s still early for Talyachi Wadi – the sleepy half town abutting Ellora. Stifling a yawn, Vinayak realizes marriage turned out well for him. He got meals on time, Suhasini did everything around the house. All he had to worry about was the shop. Not to mention the sex. He would lie awake, rubbing himself, till ai started snoring. Once in the clear, he would quietly consume Suhasini every night. Some nights were rushed, him galloping towards the finish line. Other times, it was slow and thorough, the way one licks melted chocolate off a wrapper. Thinking about sex gets him hard. Kamath is on the phone while Arvind ogles at the girl in green. Watching Arvind gaze lecherously stiffens Vinayak even more. Shit. He pinches his cock till it retreats to its original size.
Gokul finally arrives. Pleasantries are exchanged in the guise of profanities. Gokul addresses Vinayak, “Oye, where’s your dog collar?” Laughter.
Vinayak smiles, “where it belongs, around her neck.” Gokul bares his teeth wide and sticks out his hand to shake. Some tension eases out of Vinayak.
“Brothers, time for some fun?” Gokul says and leads them into the temple complex.
The boys come here often on Sunday, the one day they have off work. The entrance fee is steep but you can stay as long as you like. These Ellora caves were carved in years ago in honour of Gautum Buddha. Vinayak knows this from the board outside. Who was Gautum Buddha? They had taught him some of that in school but he dropped out after 6th grade and couldn’t remember any more if Buddha was a person or a god. He definitely looks like a god. No man has apsaras dance around him the way they are shown on these cave walls. These Ellora goddesses are the main draw for the boys. Women carved into stone, unmoving. Their heaving breasts on display, hips swished to one side. You can touch these women, pose with them, and kiss their bodies without dappling their serene etched faces. This time though, it isn’t the stone nymphs that has got the attention of the boys. Gokul and Kamath have their heads turned in the direction of the girl in green, the one Vinayak spotted first. He sours at the encroachment.
“Lottery, guys!” Gokul whispers before crouching behind a large elephant statue. The others cross over and press together in the same space.
“What is everyone hiding for?”
“Don’t want to make a plan, or what?” Arvind hisses. Vinayak feels sweat dot his upper lip. He’s promised Suhasini he’ll get the regulator by lunch. “Leave it ya, not today,” he replies in his best casual voice. Gokul jumps up, tall and square, in front of Vinayak and reaches out to grope his chest. Vinayak parries but Gokul arrests the retreat with his free hand. Guffaws ring out as Vinayak squirms under Gokuls pinching. “’Not today’ huh? See, boys. This one is getting all the action he can handle. Give Bhabhi a break one day ya.” Vinayak wants to shoulder Gokul in the groin but spends his energy wrangling out of the strong hold.
“Let go, ya. I’m anyway leaving early today. You deadbeats do whatever you like after that.”
Arvind asks, “Why? Where you going?”
“Sampat market. I need to buy a regulator for the gas,” but immediately Vinayak regrets uttering this. To his surprise, there are no loud eruptions of laughter. The reason quickly becomes apparent. The girl in green is right next to them now! So close the breeze blows her perfume straight to his nostrils. She is crouched low with the camera pressed hard against her face. He studies her from the corner of his eye. Her arms are white as cheese. Kamath pulls out his phone and points it around, trying to get her in his frame. The other boys crowd in front and pretend pose. Kamath steps right and bends, his face set in mock concentration. The phone is pointed at his laughing companions. One sly twist of wrist and the picture inside the frame is totally different now – no boys. A sharp line of green. But too obvious! Ah! She’s realized! A jerk, a turn, and the green swiftly moves much further away from them.
“Did you get it? Did you get something?” They pass the phone around clicking tongues at the beige green blur on Kamath’s phone. “This is why we need a ‘plan’,” Arvind chides Vinayak. Gokul is sitting on the temple stairs, looking bored as he cleans his nails, then quips, “I’m getting out of here. If I stick around with you calves, I’ll grow udders.”
Kamath and Arvind are quick to placate. “Gokul bhau, stay na. Come on. We’re having fun. Please na.” Vinayak’s blood thickens. Such sycophancy. If Gokul thinks he’s better than us, he can buzz off. Hunger suddenly pinches Vinayak’s gut. “What?” he snaps at Gokul, “What do you want? One picture? See this temple, it’s completely open. Where will that slip of a girl hide?”
Gokul scratches his nose and gets upright. “Did you get this machismo on rent? You could have used some that night at Sarjerao’s joint.” The provocation is deliberate. Vinayak knows Gokul has a proclivity for rough teasing. Still, he smarts at the reference. It was the day before the wedding and they were doing the usual theka run. That night, Sarjerao refused to serve more beer as the joint was closing. The inebriated boys got into a shouting match and Vinayak pushed Sarjerao. What followed was a scuffle that ended with Vinayak face down in the mud suffering a sizeable gash across his forehead. Gokul learned of the incident at the wedding and through the ceremony, pointed at his forehead and laughed every time Vinayak looked in his direction. How delightful it would be to point at Gokul someday and laugh, Vinyaka thinks as he scans the thin crowd inside the temple.
Then it strikes him. If he gets the picture of the girl in green, a full good one, he can gloat for a month! Look, that’s my girlfriend, he’ll joke. Gokul was there, oh ya, but she let me take her picture. Ah, what a thought. Gokul will decompose with envy. But, wait, where is she? A panic rises inside Vinayak. He spots her, taking parting shots at the temple gate. “Kamath, I have a plan,” Vinyaka pipes, “hurry! Toward the gate,” and they walk with speed. “Now, you stand right outside the gate ok. In front of her. Then when I say, you duck. Fix your sandal or something,” Vinayak speaks rapidly.
“Arrey, why this drama. Can’t we do our usual style?” Kamath asks with consternation. “Kamath don’t be a tuttoo. This will work. I want her face. Not the garbage you keep clicking.”
Time is running out. The green kurta sometimes closes, sometimes expands the gap between itself and the door. She’s still deciding whether to take that last picture. In a blink, Kamath is there. Standing right in front of her. The view finder freezes momentarily. Then, it comes on!
“Kamath!” Vinayak yells and just like that, khachak!
He’s done it. He’s gotten it. Warm blood starts returning to his extremities. But then, from close quarters, a word rends him. “OYE!” He’s gotten caught.
She is upon him now. “What are you doing? Taking my picture is it?” She speaks Hindi with a city accent. “I’m talking to you,” she says loudly and points at him, “show me your phone!”
Vinayak feels weak in the knees. “No. I was taking bhaiya’s picture,” he lies pointing at the boy next to her but she does not back down. “Nonsense. I know you’ve taken my picture. Show me that PHONE!” The girl, with arms white as cheese, spews rage with a ferocity he has never witnessed in women. He steps away while the girls speaks to her boyfriend in English. They look at him a few times, then storm out of the temple. He exhales loudly as Kamath thumps him on the back. “Bhau! What was that! The girl turned out to be a scorpion,” he says and laughs nervously. Gokul and Arvind are beside him now, inquiring, but Vinayak shrugs it off. “City women - they have real hang ups.” As seconds pass, the surprise of the confrontation burns off leaving in its place the sweet full feeling of being master in a small universe. The picture has come out perfect. Wide eyes, full gait and her lips even have a hint of a smile. Vinayak bloats thinking how fancy this picture will look as his wallpaper.
The sun beats down now and he is positively starved. It’s time to leave but before he can speak, Arvind grabs his sleeve and exclaims “Arrey deva!” Vinayak looks up with the nonchalance of a man whose mind has moved on to the next order of business. What he sees confuses him. Even from this distance, that shade of green is unmistakable. And it is coming closer. Kamath exhorts everyone to run but they are at the temple door with the temple behind and the girl in green advancing toward them with a policeman. The group goes into a tizzy. “Delete it! Delete it!” They reach for his phone but he clutches it tight. “Abbey, you want a thrashing?” Arvind shouts.
The picture, he can’t just delete it. What if he jumps the boundary wall? The policeman is close and rises wave-like, carrying a swelling crowd with him. Vinayak feels sharp panic slice through him. Ok. Delete. Delete. The picture opens on his phone in all its splendour. Are you sure you want to delete, it asks. He clicks down and the eyes and full lips vanish as suddenly as they had appeared. Just then, a strong grip falls around his collar. He whirls in the direction of the applied force and faces the policeman. “This guy?” the cop asks her.
And then, it comes. The hard blow across the face. The sun at high noon can’t obliterate vision like this slap. Phataak! Straight across his face. Before he can recover from the first blow, a second whack shakes his jaw. Out of instinct, he pleads innocence. Sir, I’ve not done anything. Please! Through this blur, he sees a constable clutching Kamath. “Fond of photography, eh? Mother fucker,” the cop riles, and strikes him repeatedly without mercy “come, let’s get your picture taken at the police station!” The skin on Vinayak’s cheek burns bad and tears sting his eyes. Before he can fully register what has happened, he is walking toward the chowki, and Kamath, Arvind and Gokul are being dragged behind. Moreover, the string of punches and slaps is repeated en-route for the benefit of onlookers. Gokul is crying out loud, “Sir, what have I done? I don’t even know these boys! I’m not part of this. Ask the madam if you will.” Arvind and Kumar mouth the same lines but everyone is trundled into the chowki followed by the couple. Gokul beseeches even louder, madam please!
“Ai, CHUP!” the cop bellows.
The constable cuffs their legs and orders them to squat on the floor. The chowki resembles a bunker; a small muddy patch, bounded by cement sacks piled waist high and a tarpaulin roof held up by poles. Vinayank is grateful for the shade. The policeman offers plastic chairs to the couple and sits behind a small desk. It is starting to look official and, soon as the inspector pulls a blank sheet out from his drawer, Kamath holds his ear lobes and apologise profusely. Denial is pointless; it is better to appeal to the girl’s kind heart. “Please, sister, pardon us. This one time.”
Gokul executes an obsequious crawl toward the inspector, “Sir, please confirm with the madam that I am not involved in this.” Nodding once, the cop looks at the girl who agrees. Yes, I don’t recognize him. Pointing at Vinayak she repeats, “It’s this guy. He stood right in front of me. And that other one, his friend. These two I can definitely identify.” Her eyes are trained on them and Vinayak notices how small and beady they are. Ugly red, rabbit-like. Black clouds settle on him as he watches Gokul and Arvind bend low, thank the inspector and step out of the chowki. Seconds later, the constable clamps his ear and twists it hard, spitting expletives at him. The couple listen as the inspector explains the process of lodging a complaint. Kamath again pleads for forgiveness but Vinayak has given up inside. These foreigner-type women are not the women of Talyachi wadi. Underneath their smooth skin lie nasty high voltage cables. Expecting kindness from them is wishful thinking. Vinayak’s mind is already calculating the money in his wallet. He knows these urban kids are lodging a complaint the policeman has no intention of filing. After they leave, it will be the usual palm greasing.
The seated couple talk in English for a bit and the policeman watches patiently. “Only when women complain will things change. I’m not doing this for myself. It’s for all women in India,” she explains to the cop in Hindi. Oh really? Steaming anger rises inside Vinayak. If she doesn’t want her picture taken why does she get shirts tailored to fit so close? Even the inspector is having a hard time keeping his eyes off that special place where the fabric strains against her chest. In response to the girl’s sermon, the inspector leans over and slaps Kamath before starting on her complaint. Fifteen minutes later, the couple rise. The boy leans toward the cop and speaks in a firm tone. She stands upright and looks at them. Her face is a brick, hard and dry and he hates her now. “Have you learned the consequence of teasing a woman?” she speaks to them in her English-type Hindi, “Don’t dare behave this way again. And go tell every man that women will no longer take this lying down.”
Now he really wants to slap her. But he swallows his rage which is the only thing that’s entered his stomach since morning. As soon as the couple leave, Kamath grabs the inspector’s feet and begs for release. Vinayak does the same. He isn’t taking any more risks. “Sir, can’t an arrangement be worked out?” The inspector is reclined deep in his chair, ostensibly working off the strain of having his usual routine disrupted. As though recoiling from a snake bite, he snaps up and shoos them off.
“Hat! Don’t irritate me. It’s not that simple. They’ve given some, you see,” he says, rubbing his thumb against his fingers. “Now I am morally bound to work off that debt.” Desolation settles on Vinayak with the import of those words. The two friends are summarily loaded onto a bike behind a constable and told to head to the police station four kilometres away. The inspector follows behind. The station is a small structure with one room and a rusty lock-up. Vinayak’s hunger has turned into a granite fist sitting heavy against his gut. When they re-attempt persuasion, the inspector cuts them, “Boys, it is no use. You committed a crime, and the law dictates you be punished. I am powerless before that law.” His words are grave but the accompanying grin mocks their meaning. “However, we are from the same city so I can make it less painful for you. Do you know what the boy said to me before leaving with his girlfriend? Actually, it’s none of your business. All you need to know is this – if I want, I can have your backs broken and leave you in this cell overnight. But I’m in no mood to burn off my breakfast on you. So what will it be?”
Between the two, they shell out four hundred and twenty rupees yet the inspector is not impressed. “What do you take me for? A traffic policeman?! You’ve committed an offense under IPC Section 345D. Do you illiterates understand what you’ve done?” Oh sure, they don’t understand, Vinayak fumes inwardly. But what is the inspector doing? Is this not against the law? Does no law stand with poor men against corrupt officers and wallets stuffed with notes from the ‘righteous’ rich? This is the end of the line for Vinayak and he flatly says, “Sir, this is all we have. Do with us what you please.” This softens the inspector who orders the constable to lock the boys up for the day. “Release them by evening,” he pronounces before leaving.
Summer afternoon in a jail cell tests a man’s will to live. The cell smells of rat droppings and there is no hint of breeze. Kamath, the poor gentle boy, sits in a corner cursing his friend who has landed him in this situation. Vinayak knows he is to blame for their predicament. He feels guilty about Kamath having to suffer because of one innocuous photo he took. But he is not sorry for taking the picture. When you live in a society, you live by its rules. The law is made by people somewhere in big offices but real life transpires on the ground and it abides by the dictates of land. It is custom for a son to inherit his father’s debt, for a widow to weep at her husband’s death, for brothers to protect the honour of sisters and in return, for sisters to comport themselves with dignity. No law can alter the writ of nature. Numerous thoughts swirl behind his eyes till he falls into a disturbed sleep.
A violent hunger pang jerks him awake. The cell is dim and empty. Kamath has left him here, left him behind. His friend, his brother. He calls out to the constable who shuffles up and unlocks the jail. “Go.” Where is the other guy, he asks. “He left a while back,” the constable says and pads the cell door shut. He asks for water and the constable obliges. “Cha?” With the inspector gone, the constable and he are alike - boys from the same neighbourhood. Vinayak gratefully accepts and sits on the bench. They wait quietly for tea and, after it arrives, slurp in silence. The tea sloshes around inside Vinayak’s famished stomach. He downs it quick and thanks the constable before setting off for home.
As he walks, scenes from the day jab Vinayak’s mind. The perfect picture, her first ‘Oye!, the hard slap. He takes his phone and opens the photo folder to make sure her picture has been deleted. To have that cursed woman on his phone will bring even more bad luck. Her white cheese filled arms and small rabbit red eyes –Oh! He would destroy her this minute if he could! Exhausted, Vinayak leans against a tree and lets out angry gasping tears. By the time he is home it is past ten. Ai and Suhasini are sitting on the door steps looking upset. “Ah, he’s here! Please get the prayer bell, Lord Krishna has arrived,” his mother remarks.
“Where have you been?” Suhasini asks shrilly. Vinayak cuts straight to the rear side where he can wash his face. “Oh don’t bother,” his mother continues screaming from outside “he doesn’t need to be answerable. He’s a big man now.” The granite fist in his stomach has clawed its way up to his chest holding his heart in a suffocating grip.
“Ai, shut up.” He screams back. But the fist clamps even tighter. Women! There will be no peace in this world as long as they exist. “Why should she shut up?” Suhasini chimes, mother and daughter-in-law united for the first time. “Do you think you can disappear in the morning and turn up hours later? I’ve been asking for a mobile for this reason, if we have one for the house, I can at least reach you.” Vinayak feels as if someone has heaped all the brick in Talyachi Wadi upon his head. “Suhasini,” he growls through clenched teeth, “shut your mouth and serve dinner.” She looks stumped and it comes to him then – the regulator. He forgot! She gets it at the same time and blows like a whistle, “you didn’t get it? Arrey deva! I thought maybe you didn’t find it in Sampat so you went further away. If you didn’t get it, what were you doing? The kerosene gas doesn’t work, you know that…” She rattles loudly, her face hardening with every word. Ai is by the door shaking her head.
The hold around his heart is so tight he is sure the arteries are about to burst. Shut up and leave me alone, he mutters but the ladies are not dissuaded. They complain about their plight and heckle him till Vinayak can’t breathe any more. Suhasini’s sharp face slashes his vision and he doesn’t want it anywhere near him. “How can anyone run this house….I’m so fed up…” she is carrying on and it is more than he can endure. His fingers curl tight, the way they would around that girl’s throat if he ever got a chance, and he swings his fist. It connects cleanly with Suhasini’s talking jaw. Snap! Then, silence. Heavenly silence. His chest eases allowing him to breathe again. He walks out of the house, in search of fresh air as soft sobs rise behind him. A few steps on, regret pinches and he turns around, hoping to find his wife following behind. Instead, his eyes see a dirt path leading to a doorway where two women sit consoling one another.
Natasha runs the Mumbai Readers Club for Desi Writer’s Lounge, a platform that promotes South Asian writing in English. She holds a certificate in Fiction Writing from University of Iowa and is in the process of editing her first novel.