IN THE DARKNESS (Our National Shame)
14th June 2014
The sounds of their voices still echoed in her head, but a louder, rhythmic noise engulfed it. It muffled the harsh, firm sound of her shoes clicking against the asphalt road, her frantic gasps for breath, the sound of a lost scream, of gritted teeth grinding against each other, it muffled everything- it was the sound of her heart beat.
The front door opened noiselessly and she stumbled in and slammed the door shut.
Darkness surrounded her. The landline phone was ringing. She wanted to pick it up, but suddenly she couldn't remember where it was. She couldn't move. She felt dizzy; she was falling into a deep, dark pit, with nothing to hold on to, no one to hear her screams, cold, rough hands reaching out through the darkness , to touch her, slipping into her clothes, squeezing her breasts, wet tongues slithering behind her ears, scarring, she shut her eyes and screamed inside, biting her teeth, falling, falling, pressing her eyelids together until the darkness turned into blots of red and green, a world of blurred designs jiggling around in a nameless vacuum, until the tears began to sting, until her ears turned deaf, a screaming pressure filled her mind and then her eyes fluttered open.
The darkness was a monster; it was waiting to grab her. It made her choke. She reached over and flipped on the light switch. 'It is over.' She told herself, shaking. I am home. I am safe, I am safe.. She slid down the wall and cupped her mouth. The sobs came in small fits first. She hugged her duppatta fiercely around her shoulders, her nails digging into the fabric. She was angry in a way she had never been before. It wasn't just anger, but hate, a fierce, raging hate. She could see him, see that grin on his face, she wanted to stab him. She wanted to scream, she wanted to hold him by the collar of his shirt and slap him, to erase that grin, as if the grin was smothering her, suppressing her, tightening around her throat. She wanted to make him confess, to make him cry, to make him shudder and stumble and suffocate, to make him plead for mercy and then she wanted to stab him and stab him and stab him.
Her sobs had turned into gurgles. She had been crouching in the same spot for half an hour, afraid to move, afraid to trust the world again. The landline phone was ringing persistently. She had lost all feeling in her legs. She floated to the coffee table and slid the receiver off the hook. She sucked in her tears, her gasps. Be brave, she told herself. It is over. I am home. I am safe, I am safe.
"Anita? Phew, I was so worried for you! Where were you? And why didn't you pick up your mobile?"
"Appa...", she gasped again, struggling to get the words out. " Is a-amma nearby?"
"Dear, is something wrong? Why is your voice like this?"
No. Not you. Please not you. I can't tell you, daddy.
"P-please appa.. It is n-nothing.. Give the ph-phone to her..."
The receiver grew cold in her hands, shaking, shivering, out of control. She couldn't do it anymore. She tried to steel herself, to think away, to slip out from her body and become something else.
Her voice broke and the sobs came unobstructed. She could not hold them back, she could not stop the words that tumbled out.
10th June 2014
"Ani!" her mother cried from the hallway. "Open your room di, the telephone people are here"
"It is already open ma!" Anita hollered back from her bed, bent over the novel she was reading. She could hear the metal gate complaining, footsteps shuffling in, and the gruff, hoarse voice of Moorthy as he requested her mother for a glass of water.
Anita remembered Moorthy. He was an old, heavy-set man with soft features and a limp in his left leg. It was a face she had known since her childhood. He seemed never to age, always appearing with the same dirty telephone department uniform, the same toothy grin on his face, his hair combed the exact same way and even the same extent of graying. He was a part of their lives- one could see him chatting with the security guards, or sharing a beedi with the water boys. There was always a smile on his face and a greeting on his lips.
The door opened slowly and his face peeked in. "Madam?"
"Huh, yes, come in, come in."
Anita bundled up the lump of clothes on her bed and stuffed them into the cupboard as he entered the room. He was followed by an associate, a dark, portly and balding man named Sivakumar, much younger than Moorthy. He had an awkward smile on his face and he kept wiping the sweat off his balding head with his kerchief. They looked tired and beaten, a thick grime of sweat on their temples. It must be pretty humid out there, Anita thought to herself.
"Moorthy anna, there is problem with my internet. It doesn't last for even two minutes." She pointed to her broadband modem, flickering on and off, struggling to stay alive.
"Hmmm... This is a frequent complaint this week, thanks to that rainstorm," he grunted.
The associate nodded and shuffled off immediately as Moorthy stood still, staring at the modem for a signal of life.
Her mother called out from the other room, "Ani! Come here! Get Moorthy anna some water, I have my hands full!"
Anita smiled politely and trudged off to the kitchen, promptly returning with a glass of water.
Moorthy thanked her and downed the water in one gulp. "Going out of station? I saw your mother packing," he said.
"Uh, not me, just my parents. I have my exams coming up," she shrugged.
Sivakumar, the associate, came back, whistling an incomprehensible tune and stopped next to Moorthy. The modem flickered and came to life at last.
"Good, let us wait and observe for some time, Siva" Moorthy said.
Sivakumar nodded. "Madam, yours is an old type of modem. First-class quality. We don't get these nowadays- long-lasting, nothing to worry about." He beamed.
Anita smiled back and said nothing.
"Why don't you check if the net is working?" Moorthy said, pointing to the laptop.
She nodded and switched on the laptop, shaking it awake from its hibernation. The screen came alive, and her eyes widened in horror at what she had done. Blown up on the screen was a fully naked brunette sprawled on a couch exposing to the world her deepest secrets. Anita wanted to hit herself. She had forgotten to close the window. Panicking, she pressed down on the power button frantically, killing the laptop.
Every muscle in her body tensed. She knew that the men standing behind her had seen it. She tightened her grip on the mouse, clicking feverishly, pointlessly.
It was Moorthy who cleared his throat. "The modem is working well. Maybe you can check later..."
"No no", she said, ashamed to look at him, and powered it on. Once again, the same picture flashed across the screen. The same dilated eyes, the same flowing brown hair, the same ring on her nostril. Anita cursed under her breath and closed the window. She opened a facebook tab and refreshed a couple of times. "It is working," she said. "Thank you."
15th June 2014
Sivakumar felt he was in a dream. He wished he could again feel that searing headache he had woken up with- it would spare him the guilt, the heavy, painful thoughts he tried to wish away, but they returned to him, again and again, like corpses floating to the surface, ugly, bloated, disfigured, reeking. He moved in a daze, brushing his teeth, slapping water on to his face, all the while far away, hiding in a childhood memory, in the beats of a queer old song he inexplicably remembered, in the lather of the soap, in the sound of the bucket overflowing- anything to drown that voice in his head, anything to assure him that he was far away, in a distant land of new beginnings, and today was the first day of another life.
Mani banged the aluminum bathroom door and shook him out of the daze. "How long are you going to take? We are going to a funeral, not a photo-shoot!" he bellowed. And then, reality engulfed him again. He felt a shudder down his spine, as if his body just realized the meaning of those words. It was there, all around him- the truth. It was a truth that will haunt him all his life.
14th June 2014
"Do you remember that girl from 3-B?"
Sivakumar grinned. "Yeah. I saw her today afternoon, walking to the auto-stand. And you know what, she winked at me."
Moorthy shook his head, laughing. "The liquor has got in your head, boy. You are imagining stuff."
"No, no," Sivakumar said, slamming his plastic cup on the table and dragging his chair towards Moorthy. "You are just blind not to see the signals."
"She knew we were coming to check the internet the other day, right?"
"Oh, Come on, Sivakumar, let it pass, she must have forgotten."
"Really? You remember what we saw on that screen? Do you really think a decent girl would watch such shameless stuff? And that too in the middle of the day?"
"Don't get angry, but you have a daughter. Would she ever do something like that?"
Moorthy remained silent, toying with the almost empty bottle of La Martine, watching as the clear, golden liquid trickled along the glass bottom.
"And she showed it to us twice. Even after you offered to leave, she stopped us and showed it again. Even I was ashamed to look at it."
"She told you she was going to be alone at home.. Why would she tell you that? You are just the telephone guy! And today, I swear it, she winked at me."
" But... I mean, Siva, I am old enough to be her father."
Sivakumar chuckled and patted Moorthy's back.
"You don't know today's girls. Do you see how they dress? The other day I saw a girl wearing such a thin dress that I could clearly make out her insides. The humble, homely, pious girls of your times have all disappeared. They behave like whores now. Going around with boys in public, straying on the streets well past the decent hours, smoking, drinking.. Who knows what else? Maybe she is into stuff like this. I think she has been wanting you for a long time, and now she has made the move."
Moorthy picked at the little pieces of chicken on his plate, still unconvinced.
"Come On! This happens everywhere. I have a friend, a house-keeping boy in this huge star hotel. He is always going on about how loose these upper-class girls are, they seduce him in the night, use him every which way and tip him for it! Beneath all that make up and haughtiness, who would have known!"
Sivakumar leaned back in his chair, brows furrowed in thought, finding more clues.
"My, I should have guessed earlier. The way she kept on smiling at me in her room, and remember the dress she was wearing? Looking back now, I realize how transparent her dress was.. Wow, how stupid are we!"
Moorthy emptied the last of the liquor into his mouth.
"And just look at her. She is young, beautiful, with that silky, clear skin! Don't you want to know how she looks beneath all those clothes? It will be our secret. No one will even have to know. Think, Moorthy na, when will you ever get another chance like this? She is practically begging us to take her. What do you say?"
Moorthy was immersed in deep thought. Images of the girl flitted in and out of his mind, and Sivakumar's words cut deeper and deeper. Moorthy thumped his fist on the plastic table.
"What do you say?" Sivakumar repeated.
"It makes sense. I don't think there was anything wrong with her internet at all, in the first place." He took a long deep puff on his cigarette. "Maybe she was asking for it, like you said."
14th June 2014
Hot nicotine clouds floated on the windless air. Sivakumar was pacing up and down the lane, checking the street every few seconds, as Moorthy leaned on a parked bike, waiting. The brandy still coursed through his body, blurring his vision, easing out his thoughts, his problems, his fears, he was born then, a different man birthed by that quiet street, and the moths that slammed themselves repeatedly against the street lights, the stench of urine, a silence filled with the wail of nocturnal insects.
"She is here."
The half-burned cigarette dropped to the ground, protesting as it met a premature death. Moorthy stood up, clear, consumed, camouflaged under a cloudy ignorance, he rose an animal, an alter he could hide behind.
The streetlight glorified her features, the brandy amplified them. The slim, perfect body, her hair tied in a tight pony tail, that flowing chudidhar, the glow of the mobile phone on her face, a tiny frown scribbled across, pleasantly absorbed in the matters of another world, unaware of her next step.
He met her in the middle of the road. Anita stopped in her tracks, stunned. Moorthy grinned, that open, toothy grin from another life.
"Good Evening Madam. How are you?"
He watched as her face hardened, a tightness clenched her throat, her nose scrunched up to shield her from his brandy breath. She was afraid. She took a step backwards, eyeing him warily. He liked that.
"I just wanted to talk to you about the internet."
"Huh... C-can you t-talk to-tomorrow?"
"No, it can't wait," he smiled again, moving towards her.
She turned sharply, trying to get past him. Moorthy stretched out his hand awkwardly, blocking her way. In a flash of panic, she pushed him away and he crashed to the ground, caught out of balance. She began to run.
A quiet dark shape broke away from the shadows and scuttled to the road, leaping behind her, a shadow pouncing on its prey, enveloping it in its darkness. Sivakumar caught her as she fell, stuffing his fist into her mouth, holding her by her waist.
"Moorthy!" he called, struggling to hold her still. "Moorthy!"
The side-lane smelled of piss and smokes, and of the reeking garbage dump at the far wall. The street light cast dull, amorphous shadows, and it seemed like the sounds were brighter than the colors. Sivakumar dragged her, struggling, kicking, protesting, and pinned her to the wall.
"Siva, let's leave her. She is not interested."
He turned and glowered at Moorthy. "You fool! You terrible fool! We can't stop now.. We've got to finish her, or she will turn us in!"
"She will do it anyway."
"No. Once we are done with her, her decent, middle class family will shut up and bow their heads to us. They don't want their sweet daughter to go unmarried."
Moorthy stood still, blinking. Anita moaned, a low, desperate plea, muffled through the plastic garbage cover stuffed down her throat. Sivakumar pushed her against the wall, her body almost slamming it.
"Look at that sweet, pompous ass", he slapped her buttocks, and grabbed her between her legs. She screamed and shook, like a goat being slaughtered. "What nerve you have, huh? To entice us and then refuse us? We are not your slaves, we are not your playthings. Your daddy can throw all the money he wants but he can't buy you back what we take from you. Understand, bitch?"
He rammed her against the wall again, growling through his teeth. "Moorthy, we've got to do it here."
"Yes, we can't risk moving her. Do you wanna go first, or shall I?"
"You go," Moorthy mumbled. Sivakumar grinned. "You want me to tame the bitch for you eh, old man? Get her all wet for you? Then you better come and hold her for me."
The wall was hard and rough, little cement stones piercing into his back. He smelled the sweat of his prey, he felt his body against hers, he smelled the sweet perfume, and felt his sweaty arms wrapped around her. She had become more violent now, like a fish caught in a net, now that she knew what was coming. As her nails dug into his flesh, Moorthy realized they should have plugged her ears too, for he knew he was only just strong enough for her.
Sivakumar stood close to her, taking in her smell, her fear. Moorthy saw the animal in his eyes, a look from afar, a hardening of his face, a darkness come onto him. It scared him. Anita kicked furiously, a landing a few thuds on Sivakumar's body, fighting to keep him away.
"Bitch!" he slurred and slapped her, full on the face. Moorthy shook, the impact of the slap swaying him. He slapped her again, more forcefully than before. Then he slapped her again, and again. Anita stopped kicking. It was only tears she could offer.
Sivakumar pulled out the garbage cover from her mouth and grabbed her face with both his hands and kissed her, digging his nails into the skin of her face. Then he looked at her, taking it all in, all the glory, all the power. Her eyes were swollen and weak. "Pl..ease," she mumbled. He broke into a smile, a smile so alien, a smile so loaded. It was a smile no man should ever see on another man's face.
It must have happened when Sivakumar was struggling to pull down her pants, a silence of a couple of minutes as he fumbled with the threads. Sometimes, all it takes is a moment's silence.
The brandy had lost all its power. Moorthy would later not remember if it was a conscious decision he had made. He wouldn't know why he did it. Was it pity, was it exhaustion, was it fear? He would keep asking himself again and again as he walked home alone that night.
He loosened his grip on her. It took her a few seconds to realize it. And then her muscles tensed. Moorthy didn't warn his partner, Moorthy didn't save her either. Anita remained silent for a moment, perfectly still, as if testing Moorthy's intentions. Sivakumar swore and stood back a couple of steps, for the street light to filter in. That was the moment.
Anita slipped out of his hold and leapt forward, driving her knee right into Sivakumar's groin. He screamed and collapsed into the ground, into a pool of drying piss. "Get her!" he yelled. Moorthy panicked and reached for her, but she was too fast. Moorthy took barely a couple of steps as he found the strength drain from his body.
Anita grabbed the dupatta off the road and ran. She never looked back, never paused, she never heard Sivakumar's screams, she ran, as her legs failed her, she ran, barely thinking, she clutched her dupatta close to her body and she ran.
14th June 2014
The world had slowed down. The walk home was longer than he could remember. The street lights looked brighter than before. The few people who passed him by turned and looked at him, and he could see the doubt, the suspicion, a heaviness descending upon his shoulders, suffocating him. Moorthy tried to turn away from their glare. He wished the night was darker. He felt the roads breathe, he felt the air around him ebb and flow, his vision undulate. He felt weak all of a sudden, as if all will had been sucked from him. He wished he could stop, but he knew he couldn't. He needed to get home. He thought of his wife. Geetha. Ah! Geetha... Please forgive me. He wanted to hug her feet and cry. Maybe the weight would lessen. Maybe it wouldn't. But now, he felt like ripping his shirt apart and screaming, screaming into the darkness. He needed to see Geetha, look into her eyes, feel her close, and the world would be all right again.
The door creaked open on the third knock. Ramya smiled at her father. "Ma, look! Appa is home early today!" a glint in her eyes. It stung him. She took his bag from him and ran to the room. He was home. He was in the world he created, the blue paint on the wall with black and brown smudges, the chipped mosaic floor, the groaning ceiling fan, the clattering of utensils, the whistle of the cooker, the furious swiping of pencil on paper, the incessant sound of the television- it was his world, his corner of the earth, but he felt uneasy, restless, he felt like an outsider.
He stood in the kitchen doorway, looking at his wife whose back was turned towards him.
She answered after a pause.
That stern note in her voice. He felt she was talking to someone else, yet involuntarily, his muscles tensed.
"How many times have I told you not to come home early when you're drunk? Am I the only responsible adult in this house?" She turned to look at him. He looked away, afraid to meet her eyes.
She didn't reply. She turned back to the stove, mumbling something under her breath. He tried to speak, but merely croaked. He decided to leave.
"Where are you going?"
"It is okay, wait in the hall, dinner will be ready in a while."
"Uh.. No.. Geetha, it's all right. I don't want dinner."
Moorthy reclined on his cot, watching the ceiling fan rumble along. He was safe, he was home. He could forget. The rhythm of the ceiling fan soothed him, the certainty that it will rotate again, its previous rotations forgotten, hidden away, lost. The thought relaxed him and he drifted off, into a cozy darkness, an assurance.
In the darkness, he found uneasy memories, in the darkness he couldn't lie to himself, in the darkness he went back, to the quiet street, to the moths that slammed themselves repeatedly against the street lights, to that lane that smelled of urine, to a silence filled with the wail of nocturnal insects, and in the darkness he saw her again. He saw her face, her eyes, the twitching of her lips, the smooth, pure touch of her skin, the panic, the fear. He felt the wounds fester and burn where her nails had dug into his skin. A pool of sweat, a shadow creeping over flesh, little candle flames fighting against the wind, the crack of gravel crumbling slowly under his heels, a hot, sticky liquid in the back of his throat, crawling, acrid, scalding.
He stood behind her, holding her pendulant form, thrusting, thrusting, in and out and in again, his hot breath on her skin, the heaves, the moans, the shuddering flesh. He heard her sobs, she was crying, Look at my face, bitch, she turned to him, Appa, he staggered back, a blow to his gut, a lurching scream from unknown depths, Oh Ramya, It was you, It was you, my dear Ramya, Oh God, I did not know, Oh God , Oh God, Oh God, she was smiling at him, Ma, look! Appa is home early today, she moved closer, holding her hand out, Give me your bag Appa, he pushed her away and he ran, a crippling pain burned his soles but he ran and he ran. He felt a heaviness in his chest, a deep, inner gash, a flesh wound in the depth of his heart. But he did not stop, he ran and he ran.
15th June 2014
One of the perks of dying on a Sunday is that your death is well attended. The 3rd Cross Street acquired a cheerful look as people began milling to the house in the early hours. A shamiana appeared promptly, and then flowers and garlands, fresh from the day's load from the Koyambedu market. Water cans arrived in a wheezing share-auto driven by a neighbor. A large container of tea was procured from the opposite tea-stall and little, red paper cups were passed around, as people drank tea and nodded to each others' whispers. A dark portly man in a baniyan and white dhoti screamed orders to everybody, and negotiated with the caterers.
Soon, the street-sides filled up with motor-bikes parked in multiple rows, carelessly shoved into whatever gaps could be found. The women arrived in groups, looking as ugly as they possibly could and immediately disappeared into the house, to sit and comfort the female mourners. The men peeked in at the dead body and generally walked out immediately to stand under the shamiana and chat with acquaintances.
Groups of people came and left, men, women, woken from their extended weekend slumbers. The priest arrived in his Bajaj Pulsar and immediately started demanding this and that, obviously annoyed at being awoken so early.
Death worked like a machine, grinding along, towards its natural conclusion. It organized itself, like a pre-planned script. Everyone shared responsibility, everyone chipped in, dark portly men in baniyans and dhothis appeared from nowhere and shouted at caterers.
Moorthy was found dead early in the morning. He was rushed to the hospital by a couple of neighbors, but that was only a formality. Geetha knew from her husband's cold body that he was already gone. The duty-doctor, a young chap just out of medical school had announced in a low whisper, trying hard to hide his indifference, that Moorthy had suffered a heart failure and had died in his sleep.
Geetha was told that he had been lucky, he died in his sleep, a calm peaceful death. She was told that Moorthy was a good man, an honorable, decent man who never thought harm to anybody. Friends and colleagues discussed his life, his sacrifices, the good deeds he had done, and how the slight early morning drizzle meant that his soul was pure and was going to heaven. They decided that he deserved to die in his sleep, the purest form of death.
The APSRTC bus rattled on, twenty kilometers from Chennai. It was an uncharacteristically crowded Sunday morning, and all the seats were filled already. The conductor spotted a dark, portly, balding man dressed in a brown shirt in the corner-most seat, his face dug into his hands, crouching silently. He couldn't remember seeing him get in. The conductor walked over and tapped on his shoulder. The man woke with a start, and shrunk back, terrified. The conductor was taken aback.
The man looked like a ghost. Beads of sweat had formed on his balding head, and his eyes stayed bulged in terror. There was something about him that terrified the conductor. Was it his eyes? Was it his shaking fingers? He couldn't figure it out, but in the man, he saw a distinct presence, a negativity, a deep, mortifying darkness. He looked like a murderer on the run. The man couldn't meet the conductor's eyes.
"You haven't bought the ticket, Sir."
He grunted under his breath and slipped his shaking fingers into his shirt pocket and promptly pressed a 500 rupee note into the conductor's hands.
"The farthest you can take me."