By Sharika Nair
The stain on the wall looks like a fish with its mouth open. He tilts his head, and it starts looking like a crooked hut with a thatched roof. The 204 old man walks out of the lift. Tapan straightens up and tries to look as alert as possible. When he first started work, he would clamber to his feet and perform an awkward salute each time a resident walked by. Manjunath of block 3 had told him that was not required. “We will end up doing sit-ups through the day,” he said.
Mornings start with the maids and cooks coming in, followed by a temporary exodus of the residents. School kids leave first, with their heavy bags and water bottles, the parents herding the playful, younger ones so they would reach the gate in time for their school bus. The office goers follow, men in neatly ironed shirts and trousers, women in colourful salwar kameez and to his initial surprise, women in shirts and trousers as well. He tries to imagine his mother or sister stepping out of their house in men’s clothes and fails. It would never happen, of course. His father would knock sense into their foolish heads or they would get booed at the market and return shamefacedly home.
Evenings entail a reverse rush through block 1 lobby. But noon sees little traffic. A few housewives walk to the apartment gym located in the adjoining building. Courier guys come in occasionally, hands full of packages and sign in at his desk before taking the lift.
It is chilly at his chair. He looks longingly at the gentle sunlight on the concrete, just outside the lobby. In his first week on the job, Tapan had gone for a stroll, to chat with the security guards stationed at other blocks. The supervisor had noticed, and unleashed a torrent of abuse, making him squirm. Mortified, he stopped venturing out unless he knew for sure the supervisor was not on the premises.
With the lobby completely deserted for the time being, Tapan leans back on his chair and looks up at the ceiling. He is free to daydream.
Like sudsy brown water flowing single-mindedly to the bathroom drain, his thoughts are drawn to Sahapur. The soot covered walls of their kitchen, his mother’s downturned lips twisted into a permanent scowl, his father stretched out near the front door, massaging mustard oil into his legs and complaining about aches, the Mahananda sparkling in the sunlight, the trees, the goats, the stinking gutter behind his house, the mango orchards, the greasy singharas and piquant jhalmuri sold by street vendors, the mishtir dokan with flies hovering in delirious delight over syrupy chomchom, the quiet of his schoolyard on holidays.
There had been a teacher who had taught him in 7th grade. She had been different from the other teachers who were slow to edify, and quick with the cane. What was her name? Shivani? Priyali? She had asked them to improve their writing by keeping a diary. They had all giggled and sniggered. Now, he wonders if he should have tried harder at studies.
He knows his lot is better than many from his village. Bablu, who was a year ahead in school, is a construction worker. Tapan used to see him caked with cement, dust and sweat when he was loafing with his friends at the water tank. A security guard’s job is easy. He just has to sit in the lobby and ensure no visitors go upstairs without signing in.
He eats his lunch quickly in the CCTV room. The supervisor told him on his first day, keep to two toilet breaks of five minutes each and a fifteen-minute lunch break.
By 4, the 305 and 402 women leave to pick up their children. The old ladies from 106 and 601 come down for a walk a little later. After their walk, they usually sit on one of the benches and exchange gossip till night falls.
Tapan straightens the register and keeps a pen ready when he sees the first of the maids rushing in for the evening work.
Rashida is a haven of effortless conversation, amidst his everyday struggle with Hindi and Kannada. Most of the maids speak either Kannada, Tamil, or Hindi, except for the Bangladeshi immigrants like Rashida, though her Bangla dialect is quite different from his. But Rashida is always in a hurry, rushing from house to house, washing dishes and mopping floors, as if on an assembly line. She calls out a cheery kemon achhe before rushing off.
By 8 pm, his shift is done and Tapan sets off on the long walk back to his room. When he first came to Bangalore, he had stayed with Biswa on the other side of the city, and would take a bus early in the morning to reach the apartment. He now rooms with two Andhra men, cleaners in a nearby Udipi restaurant. He was startled the first time he heard them conversing in rapid-fire Telugu. An angry sounding language, he thought. Now, their voices are a familiar background noise as he falls asleep.
Tapan shares the expenses of the groceries. Ranga and Venkatesh take care of most of the cooking. Most days dinner is rice and dal. Ranga beckons him with a teasing “tinadaniki ra Tapangaru”. He responds with the only word he has picked up, “ounu, ounu” which elicits laughter from his roommates. On Sundays, they prepare chicken curry and the aroma hangs around in the room long after the dish disappears. On Sundays, Tapan’s mouth waters in anticipation, and all he can think about is the meat drenched in the reddish, spicy gravy, as he waits for the end of his shift.
He had lost his temper with his mother for making ilish only when his sister and her husband were visiting. “Is your son-in-law some minister? I am not human for you,” he had screamed. Instead of sniping back as usual, she had leaned back against the wall and buried her face in her hands.
Before he falls asleep, he always thinks of Palomi. She had been two years behind him in school, though he had not noticed her then. After he flunked twice in 10th, he had taken to roaming around with his friends, to avoid the melody of his mother’s harangue. He had seen Palomi at a Pohela Boishakh mela. It had felt like he was in a movie. She was smiling as she tried out glass bangles, and his heart beat faster.
A truck rolls in one morning with furniture and household things. 602 has been lying empty for a month since the couple with the brown dog moved out. The new 602 woman is beautiful with fair, flawless skin and long wavy hair. She looks like Alia Bhatt.
He gathers the courage to stand up and say “Good Morning ma’am”, the way the supervisor wishes the residents. She looks taken aback for a moment and then smiles and nods at him. He feels a satisfying thrill. On the way back to his room, he buys a tube of Fair & Lovely, hoping it would lighten his scars and his dark skin.
He watches the Muslim man from 303 taking his son to the mosque. They go every Saturday, dressed in starched white kurtas, looking like a big cloud and a little cloud from a distance.
In school, Firoz had been his constant companion. When they were in the ninth grade, Tapan’s mother had run into Firoz in the market and suspicious as always, had questioned him about her son. Firoz had confessed to their recent escapades after bunking school. He had lashed out at Firoz after. “What can be expected from a Muslim? You are a breed of back-stabbers.” Firoz had punched him on the jaw and they had grappled, scratching and clawing at each other. After that he started hanging out with Diptiman and Suvajit, whiling away drowsy afternoons in the orchard behind school, smoking beedi and laughing over bawdy jokes.
He had met Firoz last year at the ration shop. He was working for his uncle, a silk weaver at Malda, he said. They had made small talk as the queue inched forward.
The 602 man often leaves with a suitcase and returns in two or three days.
Tapan starts greeting the 602 woman every day. Often, she is preoccupied with her phone, though she mostly wishes him back.
Tapan had bought his phone with his first salary. Ranga taught him to use it. A few weeks back, Ranga whatsapped him a few video clips, a meaningful grin on his face. Tapan had watched adult movies back home, featuring voluptuous women, dancing in midriff baring outfits, the camera lingering on heaving bosoms and exaggerated pouts, the theatre erupting with whistles and lewd remarks. He had seen nothing like these videos, though. He closed the first one half way through in shock.
Soon he starts watching them frequently, hiding the phone under his desk with the videos on mute.
At night, Tapan fantasises, replaying the videos in his mind, with Palomi replacing the women. His lust is fuelled by anger, at her, and at himself, for failing to be a real man.
After following her around for a few months, he had lain in wait for Palomi, as she walked home after tuition. He had grabbed her and dragged her behind the hedges off the road, but she had put up a surprisingly strong fight. Breaking free, she had run to her house and he had snuck back home. An hour later, her brother and two of her cousins had pounded on his door. They had left him with two broken ribs, a fracture, and several stitches across his face and body. The two months he spent recuperating at home, his mother’s laments at having been cursed with a deviant son and his father’s disgusted silence had left him feeling suffocated. Even worse had been his friends, mocking him, calling him impotent, a eunuch, for failing to overpower the bitch.
His neighbour Biswa had come back for Pujo, bearing gifts for his family, and job opportunities for willing young men. The idea of becoming a security guard in far off Bangalore had seemed a welcome escape. It was only after the long bus ride from Malda to Kolkata, and the two days in train, that he became truly aware of the distance. He had felt unmoored. Now he is ambivalent about his new life. Some days he misses home, some days he is glad to have escaped. He does have more money than he ever did at home.
After his shift, on his way out, he sees the 602 woman standing outside the gate. She seems to have just alighted from a taxi and speaks animatedly on her phone while taking deep drags on a cigarette. He remembers seeing a few prostitutes near Malda bus stand. Draped in gaudy saris with bright make up, calling out to passing men. Even among them he hadn’t seen anyone smoking.
The 602 woman starts replacing Palomi in his fantasies.
He gets into the lift and walks to her apartment. She smiles and embraces him, takes his hand in hers and walks him to her bedroom. Pulling him down on to the bed, she moans and trashes about like one of those depraved white women in his videos.
Of late, the woman looks preoccupied. She brusquely nods her head or even ignores him, while looking blankly ahead each time he wishes her Good Morning.
The 602 man leaves with a suitcase in the morning. In the evening, on her way to the lift, the woman smiles at him when he wishes her Good Evening ma’am. He is almost certain there is an underlying lasciviousness to her smile.
An hour later, he finds himself standing up and walking into the lift. The floors light up one by one, stopping at 6. He walks towards 602. His palms are sweating.
He has been at the door only once in the three months since the couple moved in. The supervisor had asked him to hand over electricity bills, and the man had opened the door, to his disappointment.
He rings the bell. She opens the door. She has changed in a maroon sleeveless night dress, her hair is twisted into a topknot. “Haan? kya hai?” she asks with not a trace of a smile on her wary face. He has a moment of epiphany. This was going the same way as Palomi. He steps inside, kicks the door shut and grabs her. Her scream pierces his ears. He muffles it with his palm tight against her mouth.
Tapan had accompanied his father to the butcher’s shop to buy mutton when he was ten. The butcher had wielded the knife with precision, silencing the goat mid-bleat. The blood had crept sluggishly towards his feet, the colour bright and alluring. He had felt revolted, yet unable to move away till the crimson kissed the tip of his worn, blue and white chappals.
He walks slowly out of the apartment, the blood making his shoes slippery on the marble floor. The blood stains look black on his grey uniform, contrasting with the bright red on his hands. The old woman from 601 is peeping out of her door. She gasps on seeing him and slams her door shut.
He learns the dead woman’s name from his lawyer. Sneha. It is a beautiful name - love. In the court, the woman’s fiancé and mother look at him with such palpable loathing that he keeps his head bowed, as much as possible, not making eye contact with anyone. The prosecutor tells the court in great detail how he kept stabbing the woman even after she died, 28 times in total. He is surprised they know the exact number. He didn’t know that himself.
He spends the entire trial daydreaming. The verdict is arrived at in just 11 months. His lawyer says it is because of the sensational coverage in the media or the case could have dragged on for years. Life imprisonment. He can appeal for remission after 14 years, one of the lawyers tells him. You are just 22, you could be out before 40, he says.
Parappana Agrahara central jail is crowded, the ragi mudde bland and the sambar watery, but food is plenty and there is chicken or mutton curry on Fridays. He works in the candle making unit and uses the money to buy snacks from the tuck shop. There are a few Bengalis, so he gets to converse in Bangla. He moves around till warden declares ‘lock up’. Toilet breaks are not strict. There is always chatter, even laughter.
Gradually, he starts enjoying his new found freedom.
By Sharika Nair