Luxury. This must be it. Clean linen, heavy mattresses both tough and soft. Paintings wasted on assuming guests. A bowl of fruits, untouched, unsavored and healthy on the outside. Hairdrier, kettle, shaving mirror. Private swimming pool. Everything was neat and clean, but she never felt it. Kajal never found true luxury.
True luxury was getting rid of the dark, terrible monster that sat on her back, constantly telling her who she was. This five star hotel deluxe room could have easily been her shady shanty tucked into the hustle and bustle of invisible whispers. And Kajal felt as much at home here, for she knew none else. Kajal lived everywhere, within everyone.
“A man’s lust is like a bubble -a dense noise that fills his senses, wrapping his mind in a very selfish delusion.”
“Delusion of what?” Kajal asked the mirror, at the towering image of Lalitha, who had paused braiding her hair to smile at her.
“What?” Kajal asked again. Lalitha bent down to her ears, and whispered softly,” that he can have even the prettiest of girls; that he can have even you.”
Kajal blushed. “Akka, you’re too kind!”
“Now now, no need to feel shy. Look at yourself in the mirror. See how beautiful you are. It is not wrong to feel proud of it. If you don’t know your own value, how will they?”
“You tease me too much, akka.”
“ Kajal, this is important. You won’t last one month with us, if you let them dominate you. Now, sit tight, it’s taking too long to tame this wild hair of yours.”
She is such a little girl, Lalitha thought to herself- Eyes large, innocent and distracted, back slouching, her lips forming an impatient curve as Lalitha tied her hair. “How old are you?”
“Fifteen”, she replied.
Fifteen. She could have been at school now. In another world, she lived in a two bedroom housing board apartment, waking up at 7 and getting ready for school, her mother always after her, for not helping with household chores. She went to school in a bicycle, with a basket in the front for her Hello Kitty lunch bag. She sat in the first bench at class, flanked by her two best friends- all in pony tails and ribbons and uniform frocks. Boys fought over her, and did her all sorts of favors. Maybe she had a crush and blushed when she thought of him. A dream within a dream.
Lalitha liked to dream for others- she believed it was too late for herself.
“What are you thinking,akka?”
“You know what, Kajal? I will show you a happy place.”
“What is that?”
“Just close your eyes, and you can see yourself sitting in the first floor balcony of your house, looking on to the streets as your mother braids your hair.”
“Really? ” Kajal closed her eyes and a little smile washed over her face. “ You’re right akka.. And I have a little brother too!”
“Oh, I didn’t see that!”
They both laughed together.
“Now, you’re all set to go.”
Kajal stood up from the chair and admired herself in the mirror.
“You look lovely, dear.”
“Oh Thank you, akka! It is all because of you!”
“You give me too much credit. Come here, wear these flowers. The dogs love the smell.”
“Why do you call them that Akka? They give us our livelihood.”
“…and take away our lives. We are better humans than them Kajal, always remember that.“
A sharp knock on the door, and Prasad’s raspy voice. “Are you two heroines ready yet? We don’t have all day!”
Kajal stiffened. “Prasadji sorry, we’ll just be a minute.”
“You don’t need to ‘ji’ that badu. He is mere muck,” Lalitha said. “Dei, if you can’t wait, go fuck him yourself.”
Lalitha pulled out a small basic model mobile phone from her bag and thrust it into Kajal’s hands. “Here, have it. I have stored my number. If there is any trouble, call me. Okay? It is time, ”
“I am scared.”
Lalitha paused. A look of concern came over her face. “This isn’t really your first time is it?”
Kajal bowed down and shook her head, slowly. This wasn’t her first, but she was young enough to feel shame. “Its just… just that this man-“
Lalitha sat down next to her and placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“I know how he is. You have to be strong, Kajal. Don’t let him smell your fear. You have to work him up, lead him your way. And whatever you do, don’t burst his bubble.”
Kajal nodded carefully.
“Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon. Tonight we’ll go to the chat shop and celebrate. All of us- Bindhu, Preeti, Lakshmi- everyone. I will get you that large falooda that-“
“Will he hit me?”
The words stuck in Lalitha’s throat.
“If it gets too difficult, close your eyes and go to your happy place. That is what it is for.”
Kajal smiled. “I will remember that.”
“And Kajal…” Lalitha paused. “Your happy place-Uh… Was I… Was I in it?”
A plush smile lit up Kajal’s eyes. “Of course, you were! You were my mother!”
Kajal stood up and hugged her. Lalitha chuckled.
If it was as happy for me, then I would probably be your father.
A gentle click and the sound of the sun creeping in. One step, two and three. Granite floor, a child’s distant laugh. A housekeeping trolley, smug and knowing- Kajal counted her witnesses as they stood in a corner and watched her pass.
And then Prasad, the muck.
“My Goodness! Kajal, darling, you look like a princess!”
Kajal blushed, she couldn’t help it. “Go on dear, Room number 421. Have fun.”
A wink behind his face-mask.
Smooth metal in her palm. A click, a twist and then, coldness.