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“Night” Dark Fiction by Amita Basu

“Night” Dark Fiction by Amita Basu

From his third-storey hostel room Vikesh jogs down, hands in pockets jangling coins and keys, knees loose as if about to give way, happy knees relaxed and loose, Bata floaters clapping on speckled granite stairs. He saunters into the mess. The long steel tables and steel stools, all welded together against theft, clang with 500 young men’s steel dinnerplates and steel-strident voices. Vikesh greets friends on his way to the front of the queue, where his junior – a first-year History undergraduate, and his neighbour in hostel – makes way.

On the counter sit aluminium vats. Daal yellow-green-red with turmeric, coriander, and tomato. Sabzi – potato again, always potato, twenty rupees a kilo. Jeera rice. A plate of sliced radish and cucumber and onion, all colourless bar the occasional fingerprint. And a giant casserole of chapatti. Vikesh serves himself one chapatti and some salad, tours the mess saying hello, explains his plate – “My stomach’s upset” – and sits down near the door. He nibbles at the radish, sweet and young with a hint of pepper. Under his baseball cap he’s vigilant for glances cast his way.

When the influx ceases and everyone in hostel is in the mess, Vikesh deposits his plate in the cobalt-blue plastic used-plate basket, slips out, and heads gatewards. The boys’ hostel has no curfew: he could embark early tomorrow. He’s too restless to sleep, so he’s embarking now.

Approaching the security guards, Vikesh wonders how Simran felt, signing the attendance-sheet then sneaking out of her hostel before curfew. To avert suspicion she wore her homeliest clothes – salwar calf-long and two sizes too big, dupatta drawn up to chin – and avoided the guards’ eyes. But they never stopped her. For Simran’s got an angel face. What an innocent she was when she came to him, that first night in the hotel room he’d booked. He coaxed her open, showed her what he liked, and got her – as a man does – to show him what she liked. Their nocturnal education notwithstanding, her face still is like this full moon in the murky autumn sky. His blood churns in his heart and throbs in his groin.

He passes the frangipani, ravaged daily by 19-year-old boys plucking tributes for their girlfriends. Under the tree lie the fallen flowers. Fleshy, white, and brown-edged, these past-best flowers complain against their abandonment with the broadcast odour of staleness – the odour of Vikesh’s old-maid aunts. He steps around the fallen flowers, as his mother taught him. On the eve of love’s last great adventure his lips soften with affection for those plain-faced, simple-hearted old women, who struggled to earn your affection, who’d sweetly surrendered all hope of earning respect.

He wheels his motorbike towards the security guards, meeting their eyes. Who knows what’ll happen to him tomorrow: but he’s doing the right thing, and he must keep looking the world in the eye. As he approaches the hostel-gate, his Rubicon, his heart pounds in his ears.

Retired from the army as unranked jawaans, the security guards pull twelve-hour shifts to earn the same pittance as a domestic servant. All three years of his undergrad studies, Vikesh has bid them Good evening every evening, and has paused to chat with them on vacant evenings. For these men have served India honourably; besides, you never know who you’ll need on your side. Tonight he stares at them, and wonders whether they’ll see anything different in him, his breath coming shallower.

They bid him Good evening as usual. He returns their greeting, nodding graciously. His trepidation retreats, making room for other feelings. God, if his own hair ever got as thin as this old man’s, he’d know better than to oil it flat. These poor men don’t seem to care what face they turn to the world. No proper pride.

“That’s the cousin of the student body president,” he hears the long-time security guard murmuring to a new colleague. “His cousin controls contracts worth crores of rupees, yet Vikesh sir” – that’s how the 45-year-old secondary-school graduate speaks of the 21-year-old months away from getting his B.A. – “Is as modest and affable as my five-year-old.”

Vikesh pretends not to hear but, mounting his Royal Enfield outside, he pulls himself up straight. In their eyes he’s still the man: if something goes wrong they might be useful. God willing, nothing will go wrong on his last date as a free man with the love of his life.

###

He rides down Bank Road lined with hostels. Show your money and take your pick: private hostels and public, old buildings and new, red-brick and cement-and-glass, five-to-a-room and one-to-a-room, air-conditioned and hot-tin-roofed. At 9pm the November smog is settling, smudging the yellow streetlights into halos. The smog’s at streetlight-height: hasn’t yet descended to the asphalt. How wide the streets look, traffic-free, night homogenising the potholes and dung-stains that give a street its features but steal its spaciousness.

The fragrance of shiuli turns his head this way and that, seeking the inconspicuous bush that perfumes late monsoon and early winter lemon-vanilla. Can’t see the bush – must be behind a wall. He remembers the shiuli bush in Simran’s hostel garden. He’d stand waiting at her gate, his nostrils flaring and narrowing to draw in the fragrance from the small cream-petalled orange-stemmed flowers, which the girls gathered for evening puja in the tiny-idolled flashing-lighted shrines in their rooms.

Simran doesn’t go in for that old-fashioned nonsense. Sometimes she cradles a few flowers in her handkerchief – shielded from body-heat, keeping their freshness – and sniffs them when they’re riding down a particularly rubbishy or cowdungy street on their Allahabad tours. She sits pillion on his Royal Enfield, face dupatta-veiled against the dust, arm lightly circling his waist, cream-coloured legs in thigh-shorts resting against his hips. Under her oversized salwar-kameez Simran wears these party outfits, disrobing at her friend Ishita’s. But she bares her skin only when Vikesh is there to protect her.

He’s never had to ask her. Simran’s a feminist, but sensible.

It would’ve been awkward having to ask her. It’s alright when you can tell people to do things. But Simran’s never been the kind of girlfriend you tell – at best, with trepidation, you ask her, and watch for the lip-pursing that’s her only indication she’s displeased. Alone among his friends Vikesh has a girlfriend who has her own mind. He’d never admit this to his chauvinist-pig friends, but he’s proud of Simran’s mind. For a pole cannot lean on a creeper. His chin rises into the descending smog, and his heart surges thinking of the treasure he’s won.

He’s slowed his bike to a crawl: the wind’s less biting so. Shivers run up his spine. Seeking the cause of his alarm, he peers over his shoulders. It’s like there’s a lizard on his upper back, on the one spot he can neither see nor reach, but it’s there: a cold damp blight on his soul.

The streetdogs sit majestic as sphinxes, ready to riddle passersby. Their corneas shine green-gold with the light reflected back from their retinas, reflected back with an offset that makes each dog look both squint-eyed and all-seeing. The offset disorients you: you don’t know where to look, to look the dog in the eye. Already in the night the dogs are on edge; your shifty eyes push them over.

As Vikesh crawls past, one dog stares and tries a guttural growl, just to see how it feels and how the others feel about it. The growl proves infectious. Soon the pack is chasing Vikesh’s bike through the night. The lead dog sprints at Vikesh’s heels, just a few feet behind. Vikesh pictures himself ribboned by streetdogs, and across his consciousness like lightning streaks the thought: ‘I deserve this.’

As he accelerates away he remembers years ago a stranger riding through the night, chased by a pack of streetdogs. The rider kept glancing over his shoulder, slowing down and speeding up, teasing. He capsized at a pothole outside Vikesh’s house, leg trapped under bike, fangs gnashing, Vikesh watching from the balcony petrified, but thinking that man must’ve deserved what he got. At 21 Vikesh has shed his belief in God, but the fatalism that was one of God’s fathers haunts him still.

That man got what he deserved, and what will Vikesh deserve to get now? He speeds up, looks back, and slows down again. He lets the dogs catch up, looks away again, and prays fate to show him what he deserves.

On the air behind his ankles teeth snap. Excitement clenches his heart into a fist and drums in his ears. He speeds away a few meters, then slows again for the dogs to catch up. Teeth catch in the hem of his slim-fit chinos. He accelerates away, the baritone drone of his Royal Enfield one half in tonight’s jugaalbandi. The other partner in the impromptu music-jam is the dogpack, snarling barking growling.

‘If they catch up again, I’ll stop and let them have me,’ he decides. He slows down, but the dogs are falling away, trotting back home. He crawls around the corner. The dogs have given up; their leader stands barking, claiming victory. Disappointed, Vikesh decides, ‘Fuck them. They’re just dogs. They’d chase a good man as soon as a bad.’ Fate has refused to tell him what to do, so Vikesh tosses his fatalism to the half-moon glimmering through a rend in the smog, and speeds away.

###

This road runs between campus scrubland and Company Garden’s flowering trees. Stripped of their flame-coloured flowers and fan-shaped leaves, the gulmohars’ branches lifeless taupe under the white streetlights. The amla trees flaunt their silver-green foliage and pale-green clusters of super-sour fruit, bleached in the artificial light. Here amid greenery the smog falls early and thick; here the smog’s sulphur nausea is dispelled by amla’s earthy freshness: for feasting squirrels have left the fallen fruit, half-eaten, to scent the air. Vikesh slows and sniffs. For weeks he’s looked forward to tomorrow. Now his heart aches with all that he’s giving up. Never has the amla smelled so delectable, nor the smog-blanketed city looked so cosy.

The headlight of an approaching motorbike looms disembodied, rocking as wheels sink into potholes and roll over the speedbumps that fight a losing battle against Allahabad’s traffic. Vikesh remembers the lantern-bearing ghost – out on a foggy night, approaching the man whose hour had come – with which his grandmother frightened him on demand as a child. Emerging briefly from the smog, the motorbike passes by. Vikesh smiles, remembering what silly things used to scare him, then purses his lips as he realises nobody warned him about life’s real dangers.

He draws up outside Simran’s hostel, facing the university’s Science Faculty campus. The light’s on in her first-storey room. Has she already returned from the mess, or is she cooking her own dinner? She’s a good cook, producing traditional recipes with remarkable consistency and gentle twists: aloo jeera with saunf as well as jeera, baigan bharta with capsicum instead of eggplant. She’s made lunch for him all year. They eat her cooking out of his tiffin-carrier on the lawn, under the peepul that murmurs its wisdom patiently to the flighty winds. They watch their peers straggle down the History department’s wide stone corridors, cool even in June. The university’s buildings date from the British Raj. So does its syllabus.

Staring up, Vikesh wonders if Simran’s convection heater is on. It’s not cold enough for her to need the heat, but perhaps she’s cooking on it. Cheap to buy, costly to run, electric coils naked, blazing orange-red, these little monsters electrocute a few people every winter. But they’re cheap, and in this city of students they sell like hotcakes. One of them disfigured Simran’s cousin as a child. Still Simran refused to let Vikesh buy her an induction cooker and a sensible space heater.

‘This is what I’ve grown up with,’ she said. ‘Just have to be careful. I keep my eyes open – I’d never have an accident.’

‘Then think about the electricity bill,’ said Vikesh. ‘These things suck up electricity like, uh, like something into a black hole.’ Picturing Simran crouching cooking over a death trap upset him too much to conjure a proper simile.

Simran tossed her head. ‘The hostel pays the electricity bill. Besides, everyone else has one.’

‘By that logic,’ said Vikesh, ‘You should get an AC too. You’re always complaining how hot your room gets in summer.’

‘Oh, coolers are good enough for me. That’s what I’ve’ –

– ‘Grown up with,’ Vikesh supplied, and a laugh ended the argument.

But she perplexes him: a one-in-a-thousand woman whose favourite phrase is ‘good enough for me,’ an intelligent woman who’s convention-bound. Vikesh knows now that ‘good enough for me’ is Simran’s way of refusing to argue. As for convention – after tomorrow she will have to think for herself. He’s giving up his own freedom to set her free.

Engine idling, rolling down against the chill the carefully-folded-up sleeves of his blue-and-white-checked Superdry button-up – he remembers how she’d fast all day before she came to him: self-conscious about bloat and food-babies. God bless women, inventing things to worry about. She hadn’t been as innocent as she looked, not even that first night, when she yielded to him after eleven months of coaxing. When applying for an overnight pass she told her hostel warden it was to visit her local guardian. And she’d meet him only once a fortnight: any oftener and they’d suspect, she said. Vikesh didn’t argue: he understood she was projecting her own guilt, and it saddened him that she felt guilty. His own conscience was clear: they weren’t violating ethics, only hostel rules set by sex-starved wardens.

A jamun tree insinuates a sturdy primary branch towards Simran’s second-floor balcony. On the nights she wouldn’t go to him, he could’ve come to her. The hostel’s boundary wall is fifteen feet tall, but the plaster’s coming off, providing footholds, and there’s no barbed wire on top. Drop into the garden, clap to scare off snakes, scale the jamun tree that pelts the earth all July with large-stoned, God-fleshed purple fruit, and crawl along the branch to Simran’s balcony. He suggested this scheme to Simran in February.

Her head whirled to him and her brows knit in that childlike wonder he loves to earn. ‘How did you know all that? Does being related to the president mean the guards let you into the women’s hostel compound also?’

Vikesh grinned. ‘I despise people who use their status to get privileges… No, I just keep my eyes open. You can see all this from the gate… So? May I come? We’ll be quiet, and your cooler’s fan will cover up any noise. I can come to you, and you can stop complaining about running the gauntlet of the security guards’ eyes.’

No, said Simran. Someone would find out. One of her neighbours, her bosom friends would expose her. She’d lose her hostel room, her reputation, and probably her life: for the hostel warden would write home and her parents would ask her, ‘Have you gone there to study or to fuck?’ and then they’d kill her.

‘Hmm.’ Busy considering logistics, Vikesh hadn’t considered consequences. So all year he’s made do with her rare visits. After tonight there’ll be no worry about logistics.

Vikesh turns off his engine. All his first year of undergrad, before she said yes, he haunted this road. He didn’t stop haunting it afterwards, still alone most nights. Here he came to watch the moon rise and set, listening to the night’s yawning silence, to its sudden sharp noises like the choking snores of sleep apnoea. Sometimes they spoke on the phone, Simran staying inside her room; but mostly she was busy studying, her phone switched off. He’d stay here till he got pleasantly drowsy; then he’d return to his room and leaf through textbooks in bed till he drifted asleep.

Leaning on his handlebars, he closes his eyes and smells her lying beside him on the hotel bed, jasmine perfume mingling with musky nether odour. She learned fast. Her nervous giggles ceded to the same grave interest with which she regards textbooks, civil-service exam-prep books, their lecturers, and everything else she’s decided is important. As a teenager, Vikesh taught his younger brothers cricket and football: they still play fervently, while Vikesh dabbles. But it was Simran who really taught him how to teach: how to communicate the most intimate things one person can to another. Gratefully he spent hours showing her the city and the state, discussing his plans for their future. They’d move far away from this cultural backwater, and surround themselves with progressives: that’d make it easier for him to act right, for of course he knew the patriarchy had tainted him too. She looked and listened. But when he asked her what she’d do after graduation, or how she liked this banyan that was its own forest, she only tilted her head and pouted her lips.

Sometimes her passivity annoyed him. But he reminded himself she’d grown up beautiful. It’d been enough for her to arch her brow, to make her breasts shift under her teeshirt. She hadn’t had to plan and opine. Nor, he reflects, drawing up his collar against the cold, had she had to become brave. That’s why they’re doing it this way.

After two years sneaking out of hostel to meet him, she told him last month that her parents had arranged her marriage to a 25-year-old Brahmin software engineer. After he recovered from his shock, Vikesh rode to Chandigarh to scout his rival. He brought Simran back an accurate picture: flabby, only ever goes to work, boring car. Simran listened attentively, for she wouldn’t meet the man herself till the engagement. Then she shrugged. ‘A man doesn’t need to be interesting, only kind.’

Vikesh begged her to tell her parents about himself, to tell them it was him she wanted to marry. ‘They’ll behead me,’ she said, ‘If they know I’m not a virgin. And they’ll hunt you down and strangle you and toss your corpse into the Ganga. When people fish you up, your own mother won’t recognise you.’

‘They wouldn’t hurt us,’ Vikesh protested. ‘We’re in love, it’s right for us to be together. We just have to do the right thing, God will look after the rest.’ Exigency had made Vikesh religious.

‘Maybe if you’d been a Brahmin too, I might’ve dared tell them,’ she said. ‘You know I don’t believe in that caste nonsense myself, but… D’you want to get us both killed?’ Her coal-black fire-bright eyes beseeched him to see sense. He could see only the blank of a future without her.

That’s why they’re doing it this way. When the alarm is raised, please God, they’ll be where nothing else can hurt them. Filling his eyes one last time with her window’s square of light, stark behind the jamun branch, he rides off.

###

In Civil Lines, the new small malls and high-street shops stand fog-shrouded. He runs into Partha: on his Honda Aviator motor-scooter, a secondhand piece-of-shit a grease-monkey cousin fixed up. Cost when new: Rs.56,000; cost of being seen riding it now: Partha’s whole manhood, such as it was. Riding pillion is Partha’s girlfriend Ishita, Simran’s best friend. The two two-wheelers draw up alongside midstreet.

“What’s up?” says Vikesh.

“Nothing much,” says Partha guardedly.

Partha and Ishita have dined at the factory-sized, no-standing-room, chicken-biryani-only Eat On. Now they’re heading to the room Partha rents. His landlord lives in Aligarh, his moral policing confined to his proximal tenants – so Partha can have anyone he likes. Scenting on them the biryani’s star anise and rosewater, Vikesh’s stomach rumbles. He didn’t like Partha’s tone just now, so he draws him into discussing the one-day-international tournament.

“I like Australia’s chances,” says Vikesh. “This team’s stronger than it looks, under Clarke.”

“I doubt they’ll make it to the semis,” says Partha.

Annoyed to be contradicted by this cheap-ride punk, Vikesh scoffs. “Seriously? Whoever makes it through will be playing England for God’s sake. In the last qualifier England almost got beat by the minnows.”

“In the qualifiers only the minnows make a serious effort,” says Partha. “You can’t judge a serious team by their qualifier performance. No, England will beat Australia, and it’s 50-50 they’ll beat us too.”

Vikesh scowls and draws breath, then remembers tomorrow and shrugs. “We’ll see. No point speculating… What did you think of South Africa yesterday?”

It’s Partha’s motor-scooter they’ll use tomorrow. Vikesh can’t use his own motorbike: Simran’s parents would trace that easily – whereas it’ll be a while before anyone notices Partha’s absence. For Partha isn’t in Vikesh’s primary social circle: look at his no-brand shirt, his girlfriend with the haandi-round face and belan-flat chest. Nobody will suspect Vikesh chose Partha for his getaway ride – just as nobody would deny Simran’s prettier than Ishita, better worth a man risking all he has.

Vikesh mustn’t alienate Partha, but neither can he end the conversation on a losing note. He crosses his arm and leans back on air, discussing the ODIs, tossing at Ishita hints about tomorrow’s mission. That’ll teach Partha to toy with him. Partha side-eyes his girlfriend, clears his throat, and stammers terse replies to Vikesh. Enjoying Partha’s perplexity, Vikesh keeps nodding at Ishita, including her in this conversation which he knows, which he hopes, is gibberish to her.

Does Ishita suspect about tomorrow? It’s possible. Ishita’s told Simran, and Simran’s told Vikesh, that Partha’s always slightly drunk when he fucks Ishita, for Partha thinks sex is wrong. And Partha blabs when he’s drunk. If Partha has blabbed to Ishita about tomorrow’s mission, then the whole thing is off. Please God don’t let her know, prays Vikesh as he continues dropping hints. Ishita yawns at the moon, oblivious to both cricket and the two boys’ plans.

His nose crinkling, Vikesh remembers that Ishita’s one of those inert women who let their men speak and feel and listen for them. Simran at least is beautiful: she has an excuse for inertia. Simran at least turned out not to be inert at all, and Vikesh has accepted that fact, is preparing to rejoice in that fact. Partha grows more tense and Ishita grows wet-eyed with yawning. Vikesh stops toying and lets Partha go – with a magisterial nod, confirming they’re still on.

Riding away, Vikesh wonders what Partha makes of tomorrow’s plan. Partha knows he’s driving Vikesh to Simran’s hostel. Partha knows Simran’s engaged to marry another man. Does Partha know Simran refused to tell her parents about Vikesh? But even the best women are changeable, Partha knows – for Partha himself spent a year wooing Ishita.

Partha hasn’t dared ask Vikesh what their mission is. Partha owes Vikesh. This spring Partha’s brother became infatuated with the girlfriend of a student thug. The thug threatened to bash in the brother’s head. Vikesh got his own cousin, the student body president, to intervene; they paid for the abortion, arbitrated peace, and hushed everything up. If Partha’s mother found out, she’d be here on the next train, herding both boys home to the village – not because they got a girl in trouble, but because they risked their own heads. Now Partha would rather run the gauntlet of the police and Simran’s parents than face his own mother.

So Vikesh can count on Partha doing the right thing. Tomorrow, when Vikesh runs from the hostel gate back across the road to Partha’s motor-scooter – Partha might be shocked, but he won’t be petrified. Politics runs in Vikesh’s family: his uncles and cousins have graduated from student body politics to the state assembly. Vikesh knows that when the people are shocked, they’re likely to obey the first strong man who raises his voice. And tomorrow the people will be Partha, and the strong man will be Vikesh, telling Partha to go, go, go.

What if Partha won’t go? Ungrateful bastard, disputing Vikesh’s views on cricket! Before he met Simran, Vikesh played division cricket for Uttar Pradesh. Partha can’t even finger-spin. Anticipating betrayal, Vikesh shifts gears. His bike’s whine rises into a roar. Serves him right for helping a nobody fucking around with a somebody’s woman.

If Partha won’t go, Vikesh will go on his own bike, abandon it midway, and jump onto a train’s third-class carriage, where nobody’ll think to look for him. Simran always enjoyed slumming it with him, drinking in the stares of malnourished idlers drinking in her bare cream-coloured flesh. If Partha won’t go, he’ll go alone. The rest is up to God, who might or might not exist – he’ll find out soon.

###

It’s 1121 on Vikesh’s Titan Black Dial, the readout dim behind the streetlamp’s yellow glare. Chattering with Partha, Vikesh forgot the time – he’ll be late, and he’s never late. He speeds across the city, taking turns without slowing down, picturing himself as he’d look to someone peering through the curtains of a third-storey window: his wheels at an acute angle, the asphalt grazing his calves. Of course he isn’t really going that fast – impossible on these streets – but playacting never hurt.

They call Naini Bridge the rocking bridge – but really it just trembles under the weight of the eighteen-wheeler trucks that’ll be allowed into the city after 11pm. On the Ganga’s slothful surface this windless night, the yellow moon fractures into big clean shards. One night he brought Simran here, she leaned over, and the pendant he’d given her broke its slender silver-link chain and dropped 300 meters waterwards. He watched the panic in her eye, her hand snatching at air. He saw himself jumping after the trinket, plunging into the river which, below its slothful surface, hurtles seawards, a million gallons a second. It would’ve been worth it to calm her panic.

When he was six months old his mother had left him on the table with the cassette player. Playing with the cassette covers he’d dropped one, and pursued it down, racing gravity, earning a head-bump. His family loves recounting this story, laughing at him. But love has made him a child again, eager to dive after the impossible.

‘Forget it,’ he said, taking Simran’s wrist, steering himself away from the edge. ‘I’ll buy you another – or a different design, if you prefer it.’

‘That was my favourite piece of jewellery ever,’ Simran insisted. Moved, he’d pecked her lips. Pecking was all the PDA she allowed, even on a deserted bridge at dawn.

The lost pendant was a leopard: Simran’s favourite animal, he’d discovered. A month before her birthday, this discovery had cost him a mazelike conversation with Ishita, his question buried in the maze’s heart – lest Ishita guess his intention, blab to Simran, and spoil his surprise.

Outside Higgins, Roshan’s waiting, pacing by his hot pink TV Pep Plus. A female cousin who graduated last year gave it to him, and he doesn’t seem embarrassed to use it. But Roshan was raised by women: can’t hold him to normal standards. Stamping out his cigarette Roshan crosses the street to Vikesh, who’s leaning on his bike. Roshan smells of green apple and menthol, the most popular flavour of hookah. Hookahs, outdoor dining, and orange chicken are the three sirens beckoning to Higgins people across Allahabad over the Ganga.

“Enjoying yourself?” says Vikesh.

Roshan replies with a shrug studiedly casual. The bad boy look is a motorcycle jacket Roshan’s still growing into.

Vikesh remembers Roshan from their first year on campus: a Sociology student, thin and stooping, his face pimple-strewn, in thick eyeglasses and ill-fitting plaid button-downs picked out by his mother. But no wimp. A student thug sauntering near the teashop knocked down Roshan’s books for fun and felt a fist flying into his throat. Only Vikesh’s presence saved fifty-kilo Roshan from annihilation in broad daylight. All that first year Roshan pored over his books and resisted his hostelmates hustling him out for a night of fun, viz riding around mildly drunk, wildly whooping, courting the police. He told his hostelmates straightfaced that his widowed mother depended on him to study well and enter the Civil Services.

Now glancing left and right, like a trainee thug himself, Roshan hands Vikesh the package. Brown paper and tape. Slender and flat. Trust Roshan to have the packing skills of a gift-shop clerk. This ordinary-looking package will alter the course of many lives.

“Nobody knows,” Roshan assures Vikesh. “A friend’s friend had the key. I’ve covered my tracks.”

Vikesh claps Roshan’s back, lightly, but Roshan stumbles and his eyes fly open – as if Vikesh were already an outlaw, and contact with him contamination-by-proxy. Briefly Vikesh pictures punching the lights out of this small-town soft-brain shrinking from him. Vikesh totters on a cliff, ready to fall down either side. He falls into laughter: first gentle, then rising into hysteria. Roshan watches him wide-eyed, waiting for the laughter to explode into a punch.

Vikesh wipes his eyes and sighs breathless. “Aunty would be proud,” he says. They’re not related, but every civil young person addresses elders as relatives. “You wanted to grow up fast and make your mother proud. Now you have.”

Roshan grimaces. Where his hostelmates failed to bring him out of his shell, the big city’s charms succeeded. Roshan’s found new friends, and they’re very friendly indeed, for night after night Roshan loses money at poker, and doesn’t see how, and pays unfailingly if grudgingly. Since May it’s with Vikesh’s pocket-money that Roshan’s been paying his poker debts. ‘Pay me back later, or never,’ Vikesh told him, long before he had any idea he’d need him – for Vikesh pitied the small-town boy gone astray.

“You haven’t told me what it’s for,” says Roshan, gesturing at the package distantly, eyes averted.

Vikesh understands. Now that the package is out of Roshan’s hands it’s not Roshan’s business. Roshan’s got enough troubles of his own: gambling, failing classes, lying to his mother. Vikesh met Roshan’s mother when he invited Vikesh to his village last spring for Holi. Now a letter, telling her what’s become of her bright boy, her life’s hope, would give the widow a heart attack. Whatever Vikesh is planning – and Roshan doesn’t know, Roshan doesn’t know – is better than a letter home from Vikesh.

“I told you what it’s for,” says Vikesh. “Science experiments.”

“You’re a History student.”

“Not a good one!” His smile fades. His hysteria has taken the edge off his feelings. Gazing at the restaurant’s yellow-orange lamps, he becomes reflexive. “There’s nothing for me back here, nothing I can do with my own efforts I mean. I could get someone to get me a plush job, grow flabby and smug, but that’s not my style. If you’ve got nothing to lose, it’s easier taking a risk, eh?”

Roshan’s eyes widen at this uninvited confidence, then turn back towards the restaurant, where his new friends are preparing him for another night’s play, one last night’s chance to win all his money back. Slowly he repeats, “You haven’t told me what it’s for.”

“Yes, I haven’t told you what it’s for. You’re safe.” Anger gone, laughter gone, Vikesh feels a tranquil comradery. After all, Roshan and he are in the same boat. He holds out his hand – Roshan dares not refuse – and says thanks.

“Good luck,” says Roshan, sincere now that he’s out of it. He knows about Simran. Vikesh has told everyone about the love of his life, the woman he’s going to start a whole new life with.

The Royal Enfield glides back over the river. The fat lazy water rustles in Vikesh’s ears. The water dampens the wind, blunting its blade; but the water chills the wind into a hammer of cold. Going at 70kph, Vikesh’s unhelmeted face numbs. To awaken his muscles he grimaces at the moon in the river, shrugs mightily, and jogs his shoulders, all without slowing down.

Roshan’s a coward, but most people are. He’s done his bit. Mentally Vikesh promises Roshan, ‘Whatever happens, I won’t involve you.’ He pictures Roshan, miles away, with his friendly friends who’re treating him to the green apple-flavoured hookah to ease him into the night, for you’ve got to spend money to make money. Roshan inhales from the hookah too deeply, gets giddy like the innocent he is, and feels invulnerable. ‘I’ll say I procured it myself,’ says Vikesh. A good friend deserves loyalty unto death. This thought spasms in Vikesh’s heart, pumping out a flood of blood suddenly alive, throbbing alive, pushing into Vikesh’s consciousness the fact that all this while he’s been terribly lonely. Tears blind him. Midway over the bridge he slows down and wonders: should he jump in? That, too, would solve all his problems. Simran still has enormous qualms about running away.

He can’t jump in. When he was a kid, his father told him: ‘If you get beaten up at school, don’t come home till you’ve beaten the other boy up.’ What would his mother think, when they found his corpse and showed her her grown son beaten by a girl?

###

Back in the city proper, in old Katra he stops at the Kali temple. One of those waist-high steel-trunk-sized temples that guard every street corner, the exterior lumpy cement and stripes of gaudy paint, the idol within a black dwarf in a gilt crown, its body garlanded in layers of sunshine-smelling orange-and-yellow marigold. Kali’s room is locked for the night, but from the low ceiling, behind the grill gate that constitutes the temple’s front, the naked yellow incandescent bulb still flickers. Over the gods the lights must never go off.

Yes, Kali’s the right deity for a last-minute appeal. A super-goddess who defeated the rakshasa threatening humanity, then went on a killing spree and trampled her own husband. Vikesh dismounts and stands, arms by side, asking Kali for a sign for tomorrow. Yay or nay?

Kali bids him search the sky. Vikesh throws back his head. The smog blurs the yellow streetlamps and veils the moon. He sees nothing unusual. He faces the goddess – she tells him he already knows what he must do. Vikesh bows his head in thanks and resumes his last ride around the city, savouring every second.

Tomorrow at 0850 when Simran hurries out of her hostel gate, soft fingers adjusting satchel straps, feet stepping lightly as if nothing’s wrong – Partha’s Honda will be parked outside the sweetmeats shop, Partha idling the motor, looking across the road at Vikesh. By the hostel-gate, out of sight behind the wall protruding from the cowshed next door, Vikesh will be waiting. The brown-paper bag ready, the flat bottle inside opened, his arm raised.

Simran said they couldn’t be together. Vikesh has wept and pleaded and argued. Now he accepts her decision. But if he can’t move forward with her, then he must move radically backward without her. If he can’t have her, then she must lose something too.

She must lose her parents’ approval. Her parents think she’s a do-it-all: acquiring a western education while clinging to her Indian sanskaar, preserving her virginity for the man they’ve chosen for her.

She must lose the life that’s been planned for her. A life with that mama’s-boy, a flabby virgin who has bought Simran with his upper-caste birth-certificate, and with the plush job that is the reward of a lifetime’s mindless grind.

She must lose her beauty, which draws strangers’ eyes from across the street – but seldom draws their whistles, for her beauty’s babylike, her face an angel’s face, protecting her even from street harassment. A woman who flings away her virginity, then flings away unblinking the man to whom she flung it, deserves a face to match her heart, a face to tell the world how to treat her right. The prospect of their parting doesn’t seem to trouble her: too late, he’s realised she’s always considered this a fling, and that he’s fallen for a whore.

What will they do to him? It doesn’t matter, for he can see no life without Simran. He’s told everyone about the woman he loves, the woman he’s going to marry, and she’s made him lose face, so she must lose hers. Tomorrow at 0850 Vikesh will be waiting, bottle uncapped, to fling sulphuric acid into Simran’s face.


Amita Basu is a cognitive scientist by day. Her fiction has appeared in over forty magazines and anthologies including Fairlight Shorts, CommuterLit, Bandit Fiction, Bewildering Stories, and Gasher. She lives in Bangalore, and blogs at http://amitabasu.com/


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