Authors: Piyush Jha
First published in 2012 by
Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd.
7/16, Ansari Road, Daryaganj
New Delhi 110002
Allahabad Bengaluru Chennai
Hyderabad Jaipur Kathmandu
Copyright © Piyush Jha 2012
Cover design: Nitesh Mohanty
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination
or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, events or locales is entirely
This digital edition published in 2012
Piyush Jha asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
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f I don't marry Tanvir today, I'll die!' Rabia's words tumbled into the phone that fateful morning. Standing at the STD booth on the corner of Khetwadi Lane No. 10, she spoke with just the right amount of determination to put an end to any further discussion. This manner of speaking, with threatening undertones, was uncharacteristic of the otherwise demure beauty. Most of the time, her soft voice was in concert with her even softer mannerisms. The placidness with which she copulated with her few customers made them use a not-so-flattering adjective for her: homely.
Perhaps that was why there was silence on the phone line. The person on the other side seemed to have been taken aback by Rabia's resolute pronouncement. Waiting for a response, Rabia now began to display her true self. She fidgeted, letting her mind wander down to the street corner where Tanvir had walked up to her one evening and looked at her with those earnest eyes of his. 'Will you go with me?' was the question he had posed. Without answering, she had gestured towards the seedy entrance of Friendship Lodge.
the two words, spoken with calm finality on the other end, jolted her back to the present.
Now, as she stood with the phone receiver lying limp in her hand, she shivered, wondering if those words were meant to be good wishes for a long life ahead, or an ominous farewell.
Aalamzeb put down the phone after his conversation with Rabia. The rat-faced teenager sitting next to him, reading an Urdu newspaper, glanced at him and sneered, 'I told you so!'
Aalamzeb didn't reply. The expression on his lean and craggy young face was incomprehensible He sat silent, staring out of the window of his sparse tenement in Mumbra, a far-flung suburb of Mumbai. His eyes were focused on the Mumbra harbour that lay in the distance; on four Koli fishermen, who were passing through in a thin tapered wooden fishing boat. It was a sight not normally seen in the small harbour, usually home to rusty sand barges and tired tugboats.
Silence had always been Aalamzeb's friend. People would wonder what wheels were turning inside that broad forehead whenever Aalamzeb lapsed into those long silences. While some said it was just his way of unnerving people, others felt he always thought four steps ahead.
After a few minutes of being ignored, the rat-faced teen couldn't take it anymore. He folded the newspaper, threw it down and said, 'We should have killed this Tanvir long back.'
At the harbour, the man sitting at the fishing boat's prow broke into a song. The lilting Koli melody energized the others in the boat, and harmonized the dip and pull of their arms to its rhythm. The boat now rose smooth and proud against the tide, and slipped merrily out to sea, past the silent line of sand barges.
'Everything happens in its own time,' was all Aalamzeb replied .
He began to type a message on his mobile phone.
As she trudged back up the stairs of the Friendship Lodge, Rabia remembered how she had led Tanvir up the same dark staircase the first time, past the corners infused with a stench of urine and lacerated with paan stains, to her handkerchief-sized room on the third floor. Locking the door behind her, she had let her clothes drop to the floor. The blue light of the bedside lamp had given her bare body a strange glow. As his hungry eyes had roamed over every nook and corner of her incandescent skin, she had felt a warm feeling growing behind her ears. She had wondered why Perhaps it was his lean rugged face, or his rock-hard muscular body. It was his eyes, she had concluded. His eyes had an honest expression she had never seen in any other man's.
He had undressed himself and taken her into his arms. Then he had lifted her up, laying her with utmost care on the bed. Every pore in her body had opened up for him.
He had left the next morning, after handing her a small wad of money, and promised that he would be back soon. Somehow, Rabia was drawn to believing that he would be back.
Her roommate, Zohra, had raised an appreciative eyebrow as Tanvir had passed her by in the corridor on his way out. Rabia had blushed. Zohra would laugh if she told her what she felt. Here, in the busy red-light district, no prostitute could have the luxury of believing her customers' promises of returning. In fact, there was a mantra chanted by every prostitute on Mumbai's streets:
'Khao, khujao, batti bujhao.
Enjoy them till they last, turn off the lights when they leave. And yet there was an ache, a yearning somewhere deep inside her.
But true to his word, Tanvir had returned two days later and spent another sweat-soaked night with her. He had visited her again and again over the past three months, till Rabia could almost feel that his desire for her was more than just physical.
Tanvir's expression was always sincere, almost childlike. He seemed to be a gentle man with a certain earnestness, something that made him immensely attractive to her. He had a promising job as a gym instructor in Juhu, and was constantly in demand for private training by the loaded Gujarati businessmen who frequented his gym.
Soon, Rabia began to sense signs of her own eagerness at Tanvir's impending arrival. For every little tryst with him, she chose her clothes with care, making sure that she wore only the fresh-smelling ones. Using only imported lipsticks and kohl to highlight her features, she always added a tiny drop of attar on her pulse points as a finishing touch. She needn't have bothered, for each time he stepped up the stairs for their hurried moments of togetherness, he brought with him a breath of fresh air. Blotting away the fact that Friendship Lodge stood in the narrowest of the narrow stinking lanes of Kamathipura.
The night before her phone call, he had told her that he had been offered a lucrative opportunity by one of his wealthy clients, to become a managing partner in a small gym in Dubai. He wanted to take up the offer, but only if he could share his good fortune with her.
An involuntary 'yes' had escaped her lips when Tanvir had proposed a nikah, to be solemnized the very next day.
As he strode through the already teeming narrow streets of Pydhonie, one of the oldest parts of 'inner' South Mumbai, Tanvir Khanzada was in a pensive mood. Dodging between the early morning bargain-hunters, the handcarts delivering bartans and dry fruits and the already bumper-to-bumper traffic, all he could think of was getting the task at hand over and done with, in the shortest possible time.
Tanvir had just left Rabia with the promise of meeting her at noon at Sultan-e-Hind Restaurant in nearby Dongri. He had promised to be there with a pliant qazi, who would seal their marriage vows, sitting across the sunmica tables at the restaurant. After the nikah, they would have the choicest falooda at Sultan-e-Hind as a treat, and though their relationship had been consummated three months ago, he had planned a motorbike trip to a hotel in Khandala for a symbolic 'suhaag raat'.
As Tanvir walked past small shops crammed with jewellery, zari-embroidered saris, fabrics and assorted knick-knacks, and turned a corner onto Kolsa Street, he saw a sight that stopped him in his tracks.
A police constable, standing right in the middle of the street, was beating a mangy beggar with a stick of sugarcane.
A crowd had gathered around, but was standing silently. A man in the crowd whispered that the beggar, a Muslim, had made the mistake of trying to steal prasad from the puja thalis at the Pydhonie temple. Pydhonie separates the middle-class Muslim inhabitants of the eastern part of the inner city from the Hindu-dominated areas to the west. Although there is harmony between them for most part, situations, such as the one at hand, tend to spark off communal flare-ups. The crowd watched, seething inside. Tanvir hesitated, wondering if he should do something. He was about to step forward and attempt to stop the atrocity, but someone else got there before him. It was a clean-cut young man, who looked like a computer salesman. The young man casually picked up a stone lying on the street and hurled it with force at the police constable. Before anyone else could notice his act, he turned and slipped away into the crowd. The stone hit the constable on his head, and he doubled over in pain. Blood gushed from a wound above his eyebrow. 'Run!' came a loud cry. True to form, the crowd dispersed without anyone thinking twice, running helter-skelter, leaving only a few broken slippers and an angry bleeding constable alone on the street.
Back at Friendship Lodge, Rabia's mood turned upbeat as she packed her best clothes into a cheap plastic suitcase. She was trying hard to maintain a calm demeanour, but the quiet smiles to herself didn't go unnoticed. Zohra, in her trademark blunt manner, confronted her. 'Are you up to something which I should know about?' she asked.
After a moment's hesitation, Rabia let slip, 'Tanvir is going to marry me today'.
Zohra didn't break into an ear-to-ear smile, as Rabia had anticipated. Instead, a worried crease appeared on her forehead.
'Will he be able to take care of you...financially?' was her first reaction.
Rabia walked away from her, irritated and pouting. She busied herself with packing her few belongings. 'In our business, when love knocks on your door, you don't start fixing a price with it,' said Rabia.
But, Zohra didn't back down. 'But what about Aalamzeb?'
Rabia, who was busy folding a shimmery maroon duppatta, didn't turn towards her. 'He said he loved me. But where was he all these months?'
Zohra didn't back down. 'There will be consequences! You know Aalamzeb's temper. And what about...'
Rabia cut in, speaking as one would to an uncomprehending child, 'Aalamzeb doesn't own me. He cannot keep using me whenever he feels like it. Don't worry about anything. It's all been taken care of. We have a
, Zohra. Long before anyone realizes what's going on, we will be gone'. Rabia smiled and waved her slim hands in the air as she added, 'Poof! Like dhuan!'