An Indian, born (1991) and raised in Bahrain, Michelle D’costa has short fiction/ poetry published in Antiserious, The Bombay Literary Magazine, Open Road Review and others. Her poems are forthcoming in the anthology ’40 under 40′ edited by Nabina Das and Semeen Ali. She blogs here.
Gaurav was at the bookstore (opposite the bus stop) when he saw her waiting for the bus.
At home, a little while ago, his mother had declared for the umpteenth time: He wouldn’t find a life partner by himself. She should intervene; she would intervene and then decide for him.
He had stormed off, again.
He had always craved to be like those couples who claimed their love with three words ‘It just happened’ accompanied by a tilt of their head and a shrug of their shoulder like it was a top secret between them, afraid to admit who had proposed thereby risking implying who was more desperate. He wasn’t desperate; he took pride in his never give up attitude. He felt he deserved those three words. He only had to try. He had always imagined if he were to fall in love, it would be love at first sight- with the telltale signs of a dupatta accidentally flown across his face or a scarf’s fringe accidentally lodged in his shirt button but he could be flexible. He had to.
The girl at the bus stop was sweating profusely, her hair stuck to the nape of her neck. The big dark semicircles of sweat (on her kurti) under her armpits made him look away and he looked at his watch. He had meant it to be a cursory glance but the fast moving seconds hand on his wrist watch reminded him of his biological hourglass and he boarded the bus after she did.
He became conscious of himself, but then he remembered the regional movies (clones of other regional movies) wherein the hero who pursued the heroine undeterred by anything eventually won, and he gained confidence.
The girl had worn a light pink kurti and white leggings – Modest. Since the bus was full, she was standing by the pole occasionally looking behind her to ensure she wasn’t too close to the men – Decent. Her wrist gripping the pole reminded him of the Bollywood song ‘Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan’ (White wrists) – Beautiful. Sunlight highlighted her brown hair in installments – The dye suited her. As the bus halted in traffic, light fell on her buttocks and he could see her panty line through her kurti – Poor thing. Before he could imagine her front view she turned around to alight from the middle door. Her breasts looked like dough flattened by a rolling pin – Smart.
Maybe this was the right thing after all. He followed her.
He stood in a corner as she entered a building two streets away from the bus stop. Could it be her workplace? He read the board on top of the office, ‘Kanishka Travels’. It only had a ground floor. He didn’t want to be noticed by anyone from within the building through the windows and glass door so he looked around for shelter. He wondered if he had visited that area before. Convinced that he hadn’t, he became nervous.
After scanning the vicinity for a few minutes, he spotted a café just opposite the travel office. He entered it quickly and noticed a shelf of books on one side of the café and a shelf of board games on the other side. He knew at such places customers spent hours reading or playing a game without arousing the suspicion of any. He picked a book randomly – Lolita.
He settled on one of the chairs of a two-seater table facing the door of ‘Kanishka Travels’ and ordered a cappuccino. He had tried the beverage only once before. He couldn’t afford anything to go along with the cappuccino (he had just lost his job). He prayed that the girl from the bus stop would exit the office soon. He decided that if she didn’t exit in a few hours the office would probably be her work place.
He opened the book and let it lie flat on the table but then he raised it so that its spine was erect and parallel to his. He read the synopsis on the back cover and found it exciting. His eyes hovered a little above the book to stare at the door of the office. He pretended to concentrate on the opening lines when he remembered her panty line and imagined squeezing her butt cheeks. He realised that his hands had responded to his thoughts, he was pressing the book hard. He straightened up and looked around hoping no one had noticed. His cappuccino arrived. He didn’t make eye contact with the waiter like a guilty child. But the thought of lovers professing their love for each other from terrace tops made him forget his guilt.
He turned a page feeling its texture and squinted at its thinness thinking of her brown hair strands, wondering about their taste on his tongue. He remembered the beverage waiting for his attention. He blew on it and the froth only unsettled a bit. He kept the book down and lifted the spoon from the saucer. He pushed the froth away with the spoon like holding a wave at bay then he blew at it again and sipped it thinking of Rita’s breasts devoid her flattening bra. He decided to name her Rita until he could learn her real name.
Some youth stayed at the café for more than an hour. College students playing chess, jenga, other board games. Some youth read Indian fiction, love stories – more or less the same. It made him feel old looking at them, he had graduated years ago.
Rita hadn’t come out of the door. A few other people had entered after her; the peon had come out briefly to clean the window from outside with a spray bottle and a cloth. That’s it.
After 2pm, he returned the book to its rack having read nothing and picked To Kill a Mocking Bird. He ordered a pastry at 3pm, unable to contain his hunger. While he licked the whipped cream he thought of her vagina. Shaved or unshaved?
He stared at the book; he just wasn’t in the mood to read anything.
His phone rang. He put it on silent and ignored it.
He took to observing the customers and fantasising about Rita. Had she shaved her armpits? He lost track of time.
Around 6pm the waiter came to his table, ‘Sir shall I get the bill now if you don’t need anything else?’
‘Yes, you can.’ Gaurav answered, considering the waiter rude to make him feel guilty for lingering and returned the book to its rack.
He exited the café and felt exposed. He could see the interiors of ‘Kanishka Travels’ from where he stood. It looked empty. He cursed himself. Rita could have exited from another door. Shit! Would all this waiting go to waste?
He approached the window casually, his hands in his pockets. He recognized her brown dyed hair. She was on a swivel chair. He could see her side profile. She was watching something on her phone. He looked to her left and right to see if anyone else was there in the office, he couldn’t see anyone from where he stood. She appeared to be alone. He decided to touch his nose to the glass and bracket the sides of his eyes with his hands so that he could see what she was watching.
As his eyes narrowed, he almost stopped breathing. No. That is not possible!
He walked away from the office shaking his head in disbelief.
How could I have not paid heed to the signs earlier?
– He had always found ‘kurti and leggings’ vulgar. The outfit might have become the trademark of a modest urban Indian woman but he didn’t think so. Rita’s kurti especially had high slits revealing most of her thighs only enhanced by the translucent white leggings!
– She had been sweating like a whore. Decent girls didn’t sweat like men, they smelled of flowers. Their hair flew and did not stay greased to their necks!
– In the bus, she wasn’t afraid that she might be too close to the men. She was giving them hints that they could come closer and that she would enjoy an “accidental” brush of a male hand on her buttocks!
– She had reminded him of the Bollywood song not because of her beauty but because her character suited the lyrics, she was the type to spread her legs in return for ornaments and other perks!
– She didn’t even wear a dupatta! She had wanted to flaunt her vulgar pre-pubescent breasts!
– Her brown dyed hair looked like the choice of a whore and the split-ends reminded him of the first half of a shampoo ad!
– She would definitely be a secretary. What else could explain her sleeveless kurti and visible panty line?
As he walked back to the bus stop,
He dreamed of her in different scenarios.
She is strolling in a supermarket looking at the rack containing colourful packets of condoms. She picks one and flips it over in her hand, reading the fine print on the cover enjoying the salesman drooling over her flat yet enticing breasts.
She is watching TV at home with her family, the remote in her hand and the trailer of The Girl in Yellow Boots starts showing, she doesn’t flip the channel. She says the movie is a must watch, undeterred by her parents’ discomfort.
She has a mini-skirt and halter top in her office bag which she would expertly change into en route to the pub.
She is humming the song ‘Khoon Choos le’ (Suck my blood) with fervour at the bus stop undeterred by the people watching her.
He didn’t have to wait long for the bus. He looked at the time on his watch and regretted having considered the seconds hand as his cue earlier.
It had been a long disappointing day.
As he sat beside a window, the breeze made him doze.
He heard a voice in his head,
You feel cheated, don’t you?
He found himself replying, ‘Yes! Yes!’
You are jealous, aren’t you? That she has a job and she is jeopardizing it?
‘What! No way!’ he said in defence.
She might be a secretary. You are qualified to be an engineer, but you don’t have a job.
‘Engineers are in demand!’
Your only hideout-the bookstore had become claustrophobic. It reminded you of your Mother and how you narrowly escape from stabbing her every time.
‘I love it there! I love my mother!’
You wanted to prove that someone could love you without your Mother having to arrange for it, so you stalked her.
‘I wouldn’t call it stalking, besides I have never been more courageous than today!’
You are desperate. You know you are getting old.
‘I’m not desperate! I’m only thirty!’
You are a pervert. You didn’t even look at her face.
‘I’m not. Fantasising is not perverse, it is normal, every man does it.’
You didn’t even think for a second that she could be committed. Did you?
‘She is a whore!’
You know the only way you could claim to read classics is through Wikipedia, then why pretend?
‘They were boring!’
You ran away like a coward without even knowing her name. Rita? Why Rita? Why not Veronica or Diana?
‘I’m not a coward, I know I deserve better than that whore.’
If watching porn makes her a whore, then does it make you a gigolo?
‘I thought she was decent! How can she watch porn? That too at her workplace? Chhe Chhe! Being a man I would have never dared to.’
Go home. Don’t fight it. Your mother is waiting.
It won’t be that bad. Imagine.
Gaurav’s matrimonial profile:
Hobby – Reading classics
Favourite Book – Lolita
Age – Thirty
Movies – Hollywood
What you hate – Racism
Profession – Software Engineer
He woke up as the bus jerked.
He had almost reached home.
‘Only if.. she hadn’t been watching porn..’ he said softly and checked his phone. Over 30 missed calls from his mother.
He imagined his mother’s annoying face and flung his phone outside the window. It cracked, broke into many pieces and scattered.
Illustration: Swarna Jana