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9 Love in Mehrauli

THERE ARE only three ways of becoming instantly rich – inheriting a family fortune, robbing a bank or receiving an unexpected windfall. Some receive it in the form of a winning lottery ticket, some as an unbeatable card combination at a poker game. I found mine two days ago in a dustbin.

After retrieving the briefcase from the rubbish bin I caught a bus and headed home to the temple. Mother was in the kitchen and Champi was listening to the TV. I entered my room and tried to find a suitable hiding place for the briefcase. But a small kholi does not afford too many locations for concealment. Eventually I had to push the briefcase underneath the mattress, where it formed a rather bulky outcrop.

Later that night, after Mother and Champi had gone to sleep, I took out the briefcase and began counting the money with the help of a torch held between my legs. There were twenty wads of notes in denominations of one thousand and five hundred. The notes were brand new, fresh from a bank. I opened the first wad and began adding up. One thousand… two thousand… ten thousand… fifteen thousand… fifty thousand. My head started spinning with all the zeroes I had never used. By the time I reached the twelfth wad, my fingers had begun to ache, the saliva in my mouth had run dry and my eyes were losing focus. To put it crudely, there was more money inside the briefcase than I could count.

A wave of happiness swept over my body, providing me with a more exhilarating rush than high-grade smack. I had more money in my possession than seven generations of my family would have seen. But even as I was rejoicing at my good fortune, the first doubts crept into my mind. What if someone had seen me take the briefcase and reported it to the police? What if a robber came into our hut and stole the briefcase? Desperate men know no bounds. The adjoining Sanjay Gandhi slum has plenty of hired killers willing to slit a man's throat for just five grand. To get their grubby hands on my briefcase, they would stop at nothing. The rich can sleep easy because they have money in the bank and round-the-clock guards and alarms in the house. But how can a poor man protect his stash of cash? I fretted, I sweated, I stayed up all night.

This is the strange thing about money – too much of it can be as problematic as too little.

When I was studying in the government school, we had a teacher called Hari Prasad Saini who liked to play mind games with the students. Once he asked us, 'What would you do if you suddenly got a hundred thousand rupees each?' I remember Lallan said he would buy an entire toyshop. Another boy said he would spend it all on chocolates. I said that I would give the money to my mother. But now, when I actually have much more than a hundred thousand rupees, the last thing I am going to do is tell Mother. She is quite capable of dragging me to a police station and making a public announcement: 'Inspector Sahib, please find out where my son has stolen all this money from!'

I had intended to keep the news of my fortune even from Champi, but within two days I knew that was impossible. I never keep secrets from her, and I have to tell someone. So when Mother goes to the temple for her daily chores, I call Champi to my side of the room.

'I have got money for your operation,' I tell her.

'How much?'

'Much more than we need to pay the doctor.'

'I don't want any operation,' Champi says. 'I am happy as I am.'

I know she is lying. She wouldn't mind the operation, if not for her sake then for Mother, who worries constantly about her marriage. 'Who will marry my Champi, the way she looks?' she frets all the time.

Mother is right. Who will marry Champi? She is a walking disaster. The nicest girl in the world, she is also the ugliest. She has a harelip which makes the lower half of her face a grotesque caricature. Her left arm is completely wasted, and she has pockmarks all over her cheeks. The good thing is she cannot see her ugliness. She is as blind as a bat. Yet she is more famous than anyone in our locality. They often put her picture in magazines and newspapers and she has even been featured on CNN.

Champi is known all over the world as the Face of Bhopal. There was a big industrial disaster in Bhopal more than twenty years ago. Poisonous methyl isocyanate gas leaked out from the Union Carbide plant and all those who inhaled it died, or went blind or became mad. Champi's mother Fatima Bee was living in Bhopal at the time. She too was affected by the gas, although she didn't know it then. She gave birth to Champi five years later. When the doctors saw the newborn baby, they told Fatima Bee that the gas had caused the blindness and all the deformities. It still intrigues me how the gas was locked up in Fatima Bee's body for five years and did nothing to her, yet pounced on poor Champi the moment she was born.

The people affected by the gas were promised some money by the government, but it didn't cover people like Fatima Bee who were affected later. So she joined an organization called Crusaders for Bhopal which has been fighting for compensation. As happens in our country, the case has been dragging on for over twenty years with no resolution in sight. Every three months Fatima Bee would come to Delhi, do the rounds of the Supreme Court, participate in a couple of rallies, and go back to Bhopal. Ten years ago she decided to move to Delhi permanently, along with her husband Anwar Mian and Champi. They lived in the Sanjay Gandhi slum in Mehrauli, which is full of Bangladeshi refugees. Anwar Mian found work in a cement factory in Mahipalpur. I am told he was a grim, taciturn man who drank like a fish, smoked twenty beedis a day and hardly ever spoke to anyone. One fine day, he went to work as usual, returned home in the evening as usual, and dropped dead during the night. Bole toh, heart failure.

It was a big blow to Fatima Bee, who now had to support Champi all alone. She was forced to start sewing clothes for a living. That is how she came into contact with Mother, who got a couple of my shirts stitched by her. She was a superb tailor. The shirts she made me fitted me more perfectly than anything I have worn since. Unfortunately, Fatima Bee also fought a running battle with illness. Three years ago she passed away of tuberculosis, leaving Champi all alone. That is when the Crusaders for Bhopal people came to the temple. They sought a volunteer family which would be prepared to take care of Champi's upkeep in return for three hundred rupees (subsequently increased to four hundred) per month. There were no takers for their offer, till Mother showed up. She is the queen of all do-gooders, ready to feed even a sick snake. Mother took one look at Champi and embraced her like her own daughter. There was some grumbling from the temple management. The slimy priest, who makes a tidy profit from the daily offerings, objected to a Muslim girl being given refuge inside the precincts of a Hindu temple. But Mother had made up her mind. 'What kind of priest are you? Does humanity have a religion?' she rebuked him, silencing his protest. Since then Champi has lived with Mother and me in our house at the back of the temple. I suppose I could call her a sister of sorts. Crusaders for Bhopal pay Mother the regular monthly stipend and take Champi away for just one day each year – 3 December, which they call Bhopal Action Day. They try to raise awareness of the disaster by going on a huge rally, often with volunteers in outrageous costumes. Last year they had people dressed as skeletons. But the star of the show is always Champi, who doesn't need any make-up to remind people of the horrors of Bhopal.

When Champi first came to live with us, Mother promised her that we would get her face set right. We even showed her to a plastic surgeon. He told us that the surgery would cost the astronomical sum of three hundred thousand rupees. Since that reality check we stopped having conversations about Champi's face. She accepted our helplessness just as we accepted her grotesqueness.

Now I am trying to rekindle that old hope, but Champi remains adamant.

'I don't want to benefit from gangsters' money,' she declares after I recount the full saga of how I acquired the briefcase.

'How do you know it belongs to gangsters?' I counter.

'Who else would leave it in a dustbin? And what if they trace it to you?'

'They won't. Now this money is mine. And I am bloody well going to enjoy it.'

'Ill-gotten gains can never lead to enjoyment. You have to think of the consequences.'

'Life is too short to worry about the future.'

'It may be for you, but not for me and Mother. She worries about you all the time.'

'You can tell her to stop worrying. From tomorrow she need not even work. I have enough to feed all three of us for a hundred years.'

'Don't let your head swell,' Champi cautions me. 'Better to lie low for a while before making your grand plans.'

Her advice is sound. 'You are right, Champi,' I nod. 'No one must know about this briefcase. I will not touch it for another week. And if no one comes looking for it by then, we can breathe easy, start spending some of the dough, get your operation done.'

'I don't want a penny of your loot,' Champi says firmly. 'But before doing anything, won't you take the blessings of Lord Shiva? Go and bow your head before your God at least today.'

'What did God have to do with that briefcase? I don't need to offer Him any thanks.' I dismiss the suggestion with a wave of my hand.

Champi sighs. 'I shall intercede for you with Allah, the Forgiver of Sin, the Bestower of Favours. La ilaha illa huwa, to Him is the final return,' she says with both hands raised to her face.

I shake my head. Considering what has happened to her eyes and face, Champi's faith in God is even more remarkable.

'Don't breathe a word about the briefcase to Mother,' I instruct her and saunter out towards the main gate.

It is a Monday, Lord Shiva's day, and the temple is already filling up with worshippers. By noon there will be a half-kilometrelong queue for the darshan.

The Bhole Nath Temple of Mehrauli is a recent construction, no more than twenty years old. It was probably built for the same purpose that most temples in the city are built – to grab land. But its fame spread quickly and it has now become a place of pilgrimage. Devotees believe it has wish-fulfilling properties and they can be seen thronging the massive marble hall at all times of the day, sitting on the floor meditating or chanting. This is also where Mother can be found in the mornings, diligently mopping the floor, scrubbing the tiles, rinsing the side drains of any obstruction.

Several useful activities can be conducted on the temple premises, but the only one which interests me is girl-watching. Because Shiva is considered to be the granter of good spouses, there is a constant stream of unmarried maidens and young brides entering the temple to pray for a suitable husband or a harmonious family life. If only the chicks could be made to realize that an excellent groom is lurking just round the corner, in Kholi Number One!

The temple has been a part of my existence since I was six. I have been a witness to its growth and expansion. I have seen the garden bloom and trees populate the compound. I have grown up watching the increasing prices of flowers and sweets and the widening girths of sweet-makers and priests.

Some of the temple's luck has also rubbed off on us. Before Mother started working here, we lived in the Sanjay Gandhi slum, in a makeshift hut made with corrugated-metal sheets. We had no electricity and no water. Mother cooked with cow-dung patties on a mud hearth which used to fill the entire hut with smoke and make my eyes water. Now we have a pukka one-and-a-half-room house, with a paved brick fireplace, a ceiling fan and even cable TV (which I have siphoned off the temple's connection). Of course, it is still extremely cramped for three people. We have divided the main room into two parts, separated by a wooden partition. I have one side, with my mattress and a small wooden table, and Mother and Champi have the other side. I have decorated the walls on my side with posters of Salim Ilyasi and Shabnam Saxena, though they are mostly obscured by my trousers and shirts draped over the wall-mounted hanger. Mother has some faded old calendars with gods and goddesses on her walls. She also has an aluminium trunk containing some of her clothes. Its top serves as a mantle for a framed black-and-white picture of Father, garlanded with brittle roses. It is Mother's most prized possession. She sees her husband in that photograph, but I see a martyr.

Mother never talks about it, but I have learnt that my father was killed in a road accident. Even though I was only six years old at the time, I still remember Father's dead body lying outside our hut, wrapped in a white sheet, and Mother breaking her bangles and bashing her head repeatedly against the wall. A week later a heavy-set man wearing white kurta pyjamas came to meet Mother with folded hands. He shed a few crocodile tears and gave Mother twenty-five thousand rupees. He also got her the job in the temple and this house. Father gave us in death what he couldn't give us in life.

'It has been a month since you quit working for the Bhusiyas. Are you going to look for another job or not?' Mother asks me the moment she returns in the evening. It has become her constant refrain. 'What is the use of all that university education if you are going to remain idle? Arrey, if you don't think of your old mother at least think of your sister Champi. How will I get her married if you refuse to earn money? God, why did you make me give birth to a wastrel?'

I smile at her. 'I was waiting to give you the good news. I have just landed a new job – operations manager at the box factory on MG Road. They will pay me ten thousand a month.'

'Ten thousand?' Mother's eyes open wide. She looks at me sternly. 'You are not pulling my leg, are you?'

'I swear on Father, I am telling the truth,' I say solemnly.

'Lord Shiva be praised… Lord Shiva be praised.' Mother looks up to the heavens and races out of the house. She will probably start distributing sweets to everyone in the temple complex.

Champi is not amused. 'How can you lie so brazenly? I pity the woman who will marry you.'

'But won't she prefer a millionaire liar to an honest pauper?' I grin.

A young woman wearing denim jeans and a printed kurti has come to interview Champi. She is rather pretty, with short hair and brown eyes. Her name is Nandita Mishra and she claims to be a documentary film-maker.

'I am doing a film on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and the situation twenty-five years later. I have come to get Champi Bhopali's perspective,' she tells me as she sets up her tripod. Champi quickly goes to the kitchen, scrubs her face with water, puts a flower in her hair and returns to face the video camera. She has become quite adept at giving interviews, peppering her sentences with words like 'contamination', 'conspiracy' and 'compensation'.

After the recording with Champi is over, the woman turns to me.

'Do you know any people in the Sanjay Gandhi slum?'

'Why do you ask? What work could someone like you possibly have there?'

'My next project is a film on slum life. Something along the lines of Salaam Bombay, but grittier, edgier. We see slums from afar, sitting in trains and cars, but how many of us have actually ventured into one? My documentary will seek to give viewers an authentic experience of slum life.'

'A slum is not a tourist attraction, Madam,' I scoff. 'To experience slum life, you have to be born in one.'

She looks at me sharply. 'That's quite a good line. Would you mind repeating it for the camera?'

So I, too, prepare to give an interview for the first time in my life, expounding on life in the Sanjay Gandhi slum. It is a subject

I know well. The slum has been my playground since the age of three. I have many insights into slum living – how a family of six manages to squeeze itself into an eight-by-eight-foot space. How a girl protects her modesty while bathing underneath a municipal tap in full view of hundreds of people. How a married couple makes clandestine love with furtive eyes watching their every move. How grown men sit in rows and shit like buffaloes at the edge of the railway track. How the poor breed like mosquitoes and live like dogs, while the dogs of the rich sleep on Dunlopillo mattresses in mosquito-free mansions.

I could have said all these things, but face to face with the lens of the camera I falter and become tongue-tied. Nandita Mishra tries to prompt me, but the words have suddenly dried up inside me. She gives up after a while and begins packing up her equipment.

After she has gone I brood upon my failure. Was it because of the camera in my face or the briefcase under my bed? Is it possible that because I now have wealth, I am unable to think like a slum-dweller?

Ten days have passed since I acquired that briefcase and no one has come looking for it. As per plan, inside the temple I will continue my life exactly as before. I will be frugal and abstinent. But outside, I can afford to be an entirely different person. I can start spending some of the money, enjoy the fruits of my good fortune. I decide to begin with a taxi ride.

The taxi stand is two streets down from the temple. There is a yellow-and-black taxi parked on the kerb and the driver is reading a newspaper inside the car. I knock on the window pane. 'Are you free?'

The driver, an old Sikh with an unkempt beard, unrolls the window and spits out something. 'Who needs the taxi?'

'I do.'

He looks at my dirty clothes and dusty face with unconcealed disdain. 'Oy, have you ever taken a taxi in your life? Do you know how much it costs?' he asks tartly.

'I have been riding in taxis all my life, sardarji,' I bark, surprised at the arrogance in my voice. I flash a couple of thousand-rupee notes in front of him. 'Now take me to Ansal Plaza. And make it quick.'

'Yes, Sahib.' The driver's demeanour changes immediately. 'Please get in.' He dumps the newspaper and cranks the meter.

I settle down on the back seat of a taxi for the first time in my life, cup my hands behind my head and stretch my legs. The high life has begun.

I shop with a vengeance at the upmarket mall. Everything which my heart has always desired but my wallet couldn't afford, I buy. I purchase a shirt from Marks & Spencer, a leather jacket from Benetton, jeans from Levi, sunglasses from Guess, perfume from Lacoste and shoes from Nike. I compress ten years of window-shopping into an hour of frenzied purchasing, blowing twenty thousand rupees in just these six stores. Then I go into the fancy toilets, wash my face and change, putting on my new jeans, shirt and shoes, with the leather jacket on top. I spray my body with the expensive perfume and stand in front of the full-length mirror. The man who stares back at me is a handsome stranger, tall and lean with a clean-shaven face and curly, tousled hair like actor Salim Ilyasi's. I snap my fingers at the mirror and strike a pose like Michael Jackson. Then I stuff my old clothes and shoes in a shopping bag and swagger out of the toilets in my dark glasses. A hep-looking girl in jeans and T-shirt glances at me appreciatively. Ten minutes ago she wouldn't have noticed me. It makes me realize how much garments can change a man. And I know that there is nothing intrinsically different about the rich. They just wear better clothes.

I feel like breaking into a jig and singing, 'Saala main to sahab ban gaya!' Munna Mobile has become a gentleman. And now he needs a rich lady friend.

I spend the rest of the evening in South Extension Market, watching the chic girls in their chic clothes. They alight from their expensive cars and enter expensive stores selling designer handbags and brand-name shoes. I follow a group of girls into the Reebok showroom and the guard at the entrance salutes me and holds open the door. The manager inside asks me if I would like a soft drink or a cup of tea. I laugh and chat with the sales girls. They flirt with me. The experience makes me feel all warm and happy inside. Stepping out of the centrally heated showroom, I decide to try the Deluxe Indian Restaurant next door. I have a lavish meal of butter chicken, seekh kebabs and naan bread, costing eight hundred rupees. Back again on the main street, I make a final survey of the stretch of brightly lit emporiums, their plexiglass windows full of dazzling goods. The lurid glitter of the city does not seem alien today. I, too, have become a denizen of its showy world.

My next stop is Infra Red, an exclusive dance club, considered to be the most hip and happening place in the capital after dark. Dinoo, a friend from the slum who worked there briefly as a waiter, had told me that the best-looking girls come to the joint, and 'half naked' too.

The taxi drops me right in front of the club's sparkling neonlit entrance. It is only nine p.m. but there is already a fairly long queue in front of the carved wooden door, which is blocked off by a velvet rope. Two muscular, bald bouncers in identical black suits stand in front of the door and screen customers. There are a couple of beggars on the pavement who line up hopefully before every car that pulls up. I get in the queue and reach the door after a fifteen-minute wait. One of the bouncers gives me a quick onceover. He nods to his partner, who asks me to fork out three thousand rupees as a 'cover charge for singles'. 'Three thousand rupees? That's outrageous!' I want to shout, but say nothing and strip off three more notes from my wad. I am given a voucher, the velvet rope is unhooked and I am ushered through the door. I go down nearly twenty steps to what seems like a basement. I can hear the distant sound of pumping music. The sound becomes louder as I reach another door. A uniformed doorman checks my voucher and presses a button. The door flips open and I step into a dimly lit hall packed with people. The music is so loud I fear my ear drums will shatter. Immediately to my right is a bar shaped like an island surrounded by small yellow sofas. To my left is the dance floor, a vast space constructed almost entirely of mirrors, with a massive strobe light hanging like a chandelier, flashing green, blue and yellow at regular intervals. The mood is celebratory and the floor is packed with swaying, sweaty bodies dancing with manic energy. The DJ sits some twenty feet above on a projecting balcony made of glass and steel. From time to time white smoke erupts from the middle of the dance floor like a ghostly fountain.

Dinoo wasn't wrong about the club. Every other girl wears a body-hugging dress, halter tops with plunging necklines expose half their breasts, short T-shirts leave midriffs bare and micro mini skirts barely conceal underwear. The dance floor has more skin on display than Fashion TV.

The smoke, the light, the music all contribute to an atmosphere of reckless abandon, as if India has been left behind and we are in some bold new country with its own rules and regulations.

As I become more accustomed to the translucent neon d'ecor and the dim lighting, I recognize some famous faces sitting at the bar. There is Smriti Bakshi, the TV soap star, Simi Takia, the actress, and Chetan Jadeja, the former cricketer. Another familiarlooking man with gelled hair and bulging biceps is chatting to a foreigner. There is a group of girls in designer jeans and stiletto heels, looking like glamour models. Everyone seems important. I feel like I have gatecrashed a party full of movie stars and celebrities.

The bartender, a young man with slick hair and a bow tie, asks me if I would like a drink. 'What do you have?' I ask. 'Everything, Sir.' He points to the array of bottles stacked behind him. I try to eavesdrop on what the models are ordering. They ask for drinks like Long Island Ice Tea, Pina Colada and Strawberry Margarita which I have never heard of and flash their credit cards nonchalantly.

I feel like taking a leak and move to the men's toilets. As soon as I open the door I hear strange sounds. There are a couple of firang white girls inside, giggling and snorting cocaine at the washbasin. They glower at me, making me feel like an intruder. 'Go away,' says one.

I leave hurriedly and head for the dance floor. The DJ, who has been playing English music till now, puts on a remix from the film Dhoom 2 and a loud cheer goes up. It is a song I know very well, having seen the film no less than twelve times. I have memorized each and every move of Hrithik Roshan's amazing dance routine. And I am not alone. Every slum kid is a Michael Jackson waiting for his moment in the sun. It has always been my secret fantasy to go to a dance club one day where the DJ will put on my favourite number and I will show off the moves perfected over ten years of watching dance shows on TV. I will do the moonwalk and the spot shimmy, I will spin on my head and walk on my hands. The crowds will part and everyone will stand to the side, applauding my every move. But now, when I have the opportunity, I feel strangely nervous and diffident, as if my dancing will expose me as an impostor.

I feel suffocated. The dance floor doesn't seem rocking any more. That is when I notice that behind the dance floor there is another screened-off area. I push my way through the packed, jostling mass of bodies and enter yet another lounge, which is much more informal. Instead of sofas and bar stools it has carpets and cushions. There is a widescreen TV and a few artificial plants. There is also a small bar with a bartender who is yawning. Only a handful of people are in the lounge – a couple sitting in a corner exchanging whispered confidences, a bored-looking girl with an older guy, trying to send a text message from her mobile phone, and a group of foreigners with long hair taking turns smoking a hookah.

I see a girl sitting all alone, with her back towards me, watching the TV, which is tuned to NDTV instead of MTV. She is slender, with long black hair, and is probably the only girl in the entire club wearing a desi dress, a blue salwar kameez.

I step closer to her. She senses my presence and turns around. I glimpse an oval face, a well-shaped nose, full lips and a pair of dark eyes which look like they will break into tears at any minute. She is one of the most beautiful girls I have seen in my life.

'Hi!' I say, because rich people speak only in English.

She looks at me with a helpless expression and does not respond. I notice she is biting her lip.

Another girl, wearing tight jeans and a studded belt, appears suddenly by her side. She has put on crimson lipstick to match her red-striped T-shirt, whose deep V-neck clearly displays her cleavage. 'Ritu, I hope you are not getting terribly bored, yaar,' she says in Hindi. 'Bas,Tony and I will have a couple more dances and then we'll leave.'

Then she notices me standing behind Ritu. 'Hello, Mister. Aren't you going to buy my friend a drink?' she says in English.

By now I have exhausted all the English I know. 'I prefer to speak Hindi,' I tell her, sounding sheepish.

'Cool,' says the girl and offers her hand. 'My name is Malini. This is my friend Ritu. She also speaks only chaste Hindi.'

As Malini disappears back to the dance floor, I extend my hand and this time Ritu grasps it. Her grip is soft and delicate. I sit down next to her.

'You know my name. What is yours?' she asks in Hindi.

I realize instantly that Munna Mobile will cut no ice in this upmarket club. I need a powerful new name and I need it fast. The most powerful person I know is the Butcher of Mehrauli, Inspector Vijay Singh Yadav, and before I know it, I have blurted out that name. 'Vijay Singh, my name is Vijay Singh.'

She brightens up. 'Are you also a Thakur, like me?'

'Yes,' I nod. 'I am also a Thakur.'

'What do you do, Vijay?'

That's easy. I do what every tin-pot trader does in this city.

'Import-Export.'

'Where do you live?'

That's tougher. I dare not say Kholi Number One. 'Here and there.' I wave my hands. Before she can cross-examine me any further, I launch my own offensive. 'What about you? Where do you live?'

'Oh, I am not from Delhi. I live in Lucknow. I am just visiting.'

That explains her dress and her language. 'What do you do?'

'I am a final-year BA student at Lucknow University. Doing my honours in Home Science. When did you graduate?' she asks.

'A couple of years ago,' I reply.

'Where from?' she persists.

'Delhi University,' I say glibly, conveniently glossing over the fact that it was a correspondence course and that I took four years to pass – and only then with a third-class degree.

We manage to string together a conversation for the next couple of hours, speaking of this and that. She asks me what books I have read and I gently steer her on to the topic of films I have seen. She tells me about Lucknow. I tell her about Delhi. It emerges that we have much in common. We share a distrust of politicians; we decry the arrogance of money and we are both fans of Shabnam Saxena.

Around eleven o'clock, Ritu prepares to leave. 'It was good talking to you, Vijay. I hope we meet again,' she says and passes me a slip of paper. It has her mobile phone number.

I follow Ritu and her friend out of the club. The queue outside the door has become even longer. A black chauffeur-driven BMW draws up and a tall moustachioed black-cat commando carrying an AK-47 opens the door for her. Ritu studiously avoids looking at me as she gets into the back seat with Malini. The car drives away, leaving me standing on the kerb. Throughout the evening Ritu had tactfully evaded answering personal questions about her family, but that uniformed gunman makes me wonder. Who is this mysterious girl and why has she given me her mobile number?

Before I can ponder the question any further I am accosted by a smelly beggar with a bent arm who grips my leg like a leech, a telling reminder that I have stepped back into India. 'I have not eaten for three days. Please give me some money. Kuch dede baba!' he implores. I search my pockets and come up with a couple of one-rupee coins. I get rid of him, and then duck into a quiet alley to change into my regular clothes. Vijay Singh has had his fun. Now it is time for Munna Mobile to hit the sack.

I catch a bus back to the temple. Mother is asleep but Champi is still awake. 'You smell different,' she says as soon as I enter, making me freeze. This is the thing about Champi. She may be blind, but she sees more than people with both eyes.

'Yes, I have put on some perfume.'

'Seems expensive. Looks like you have started blowing the money.'

'Well, ten days have passed.'

'Did you meet a girl?'

'What?'

'You are also carrying her smell with you.'

I am left speechless by Champi's powers of intuition.

I wait for her to go to sleep before taking out the briefcase and opening it, both to receive that special thrill again and to count the remaining wads of notes. But once again, the enterprise proves unsuccessful. Not because I cannot count, but because tonight my concentration is broken by another ten-digit number buzzing in my brain. Ritu's mobile.

There is no doubt that I am smitten by her beauty. That old suppressed desire to seduce a rich memsahib rears up in my mind like a coiled snake. I debate when to call her. If I call her tomorrow, I might appear too eager and impatient and it could spoil my chances. On the other hand, if I delay too much she might consider me arrogant and uninterested.

Even as I am thinking what to do, it dawns on me that I don't actually have a mobile phone. So the next morning I go to Delite Phone Mart and purchase a basic Nokia 1110, so as not to rouse any suspicion. It is the same cheap phone that the corner tobacconist and the neighbourhood washerman use. It feels funny paying for a mobile phone for the first time with my own money. Well, it is my money now, isn't it?



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