The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Ar­dashir Vakil


It was al­ready dark when Ke­shav was wo­ken from his snooze by the coo­ing of pi­geons. Their tight, stretched-out moans re­minded him of the pros­ti­tute girl he had been with ear­lier in the day. He smiled; in his mind’s eye, he was still look­ing at her rouged cheeks, the tiny beads of sweat above her cherry lip­stick, the dim­ple on her slen­der chin. Though he knew the moans were part of her job, his per­for­mance to­day had pleased him, and he al­most al­lowed him­self to believe her ex­pres­sions of plea­sure were gen­uine. His first en­counter with Gopi had taken place more than three months ago. He had to call it an en­counter, be­cause he wasn’t able to fin­ish what he had paid for. Since that trans­ac­tion, a month af­ter he had ar­rived in Mum­bai, he had been go­ing back to Nay­yar’s brothel al­most ev­ery other day. The brothel was con­ve­niently lo­cated—only a ten min­utes’ walk from his fa­ther’s work­place, where Ke­shav was liv­ing—tucked away, at the bot­tom of an al­ley so nar­row and crowded with shop fronts, you wouldn’t know it ex­isted un­less you had been di­rected there. He’d been shown it by Som, a friend he had made at the com­puter stud­ies col­lege. With his fin­gers, Ke­shav slowly, re­peat­edly, combed his glossy, black hair, send­ing ant-like cur­rents run­ning over his scalp. As he lay here in the shared ser­vants’ kholi at the back end of this huge apart­ment where his fa­ther worked from early morn­ing to late at night, he imag­ined Gopi also ly­ing on her bunk in the brothel at the end of the al­ley. In his mind, he could make that space dis­ap­pear: all the phys­i­cal ob­jects that lay be­tween them—chairs, ta­bles, doors, houses, trees, birds, walls, shops, build­ings, bus stops, streets, peo­ple, lanes, cars, buses, cy­cles, mo­tor rick­shaws—all these things could be made in­sub­stan­tial, as if a huge wave had washed them away, leav­ing only Gopi and him ly­ing to­gether in their sep­a­rate beds. He could see her now: her cheeky rice-white grin; her neck, so thin that he could al­most en­cir­cle it with one hand; her teas­ing slaps. In his newly dev­as­tated world, only he would have the priv­i­lege of her lovely smile, her bodice, her lit­tle girl’s feet stretched out, reach­ing only three-quar­ters of the way down the bed. Though she said she was nine­teen, her slight frame, her tin­kling glass ban­gles, and her play­ful­ness re­minded him of his sis­ter be­fore her face

had turned blank. Gopi’s face was an­i­mated, af­fec­tion­ate, but sharp. That’s prob­a­bly what made her so pop­u­lar with the men who came to Nay­yar’s. Of­ten, he had to wait for Gopi to fin­ish with an­other cus­tomer be­fore it was his turn. If only he could make it so that right now, for in­stance, she were also think­ing of him at the same time as he was think­ing of her; if he could make that hap­pen, life would be perfect. Again, he tick­led his scalp with his fin­gers. He wished he could—per­ish the crazy thought, but he couldn’t, so he let it run on—find a way to make Gopi his wife. If he could get them both work­ing for some­one like Mrs. Shroff, his fa­ther’s em­ployer, who never needed to know what Gopi’s old job was, they might to­gether be ly­ing down on the floor of some cor­ri­dor or ser­vants’ kholi. But then, what if she couldn’t stop her­self from sell­ing her body to the male ser­vants sleep­ing next to them? That im­age cur­dled his fantasy and brought him back to the present. He was ly­ing on a dou­ble-layer of card­board on the floor in the cor­ner of this ser­vants’ room in Mum­bai, while his older sis­ter was in Bil­imora, her hus­band’s vil­lage. An over­ripe smell came from Ke­shav’s dank armpits. He hadn’t changed his shirt in three days. It was May, month of mur­der­ous heat and sleep oiled by sweat. In the vil­lage, at least he would be able to search out a breezy spot un­der the trees, down­wind from the nala. He imag­ined him­self sit­ting there with his fel­low tru­an­ters, Dilip and Manga, en­joy­ing the rip­ples of cool air that would bring dif­fer­ent smells, some­times of soap from the nearer reaches of the stream where their moth­ers or sis­ters washed clothes, and some­times of piss or shit from fur­ther down­stream, where, ev­ery morn­ing, they all—women and men on sep­a­rate banks—went to do sun­daas. Soon, some half-blind grand­fa­ther would hob­ble into the grove of trees, a cor­ner of his dhoti in his hand, and shoo Ke­shav and his friends away, as if they were cows who had wan­dered into the wrong field. “Hut, hut! Lazy id­iots! Get up, go to your stud­ies, dammit!” As they sloped off to a dif­fer­ent part of the grove, the naughty one, Dilip, would shout, “Arre, Mu­raji bhai, tamaru lungi ut­tri­jai! Look out, old man, your lungi has slipped down!” Ke­shav blinked from one vi­sion to an­other, back to this af­ter­noon’s plea­sure. Gopi had such a spongy bum. Go­ing into her was soft and sat­is­fy­ing, like a meal he re­mem­bered from long ago: the balls of rice mixed with dal that his mother’s fin­gers had plied him with when he was a lit­tle boy.

ii The first time he went into the brothel in Ka­math­ipura, there were some half-dozen girls in the three-story build­ing that was lean­ing for-

ward over the al­ley like an old man who needs a stick to prop him­self up. Nay­yar, the Ker­alite oaf who ran the place, had barked, “Boy, you take this one. She will show prop­erly what to do, okay? Don’t look so wor­ried, boy, ev­ery­thing will be­come good.” How had Nay­yar, with his glow­er­ing dark face and his burly arms, guessed it was his first time? Once in the cu­bi­cle, Ke­shav watched the slen­der girl ex­pertly rip a con­dom from its square pack­age. “Pen­cil nikal!” “Out with your pen­cil!” she or­dered. Then, af­ter a strong hand pump to make him hard, she un­furled the con­dom onto his pen­cil and said, “Front or back?” When he looked un­sure, she rolled down onto her back; beck­oned him to ad­vance be­tween her legs, “Aa jao ither”; and guided him in with­out fuss. Im­me­di­ately, look­ing straight ahead, he be­gan gal­lop­ing to­ward his cli­max. “Arre, aste kar, chukrum! Slow down, crazy boy!” she said, push­ing on his right shoul­der. To stop him­self, he thought of school pen­cils be­ing sharp­ened. Then, he thought of his mother’s face. He thought of his sis­ter. He wanted to make this first ex­pe­ri­ence mem­o­rable. And, he wanted his money’s worth. In try­ing to hold him­self back, he slipped out of her, and the con­dom al­most slith­ered off. The girl gig­gled. “Why are you laugh­ing?” he said in Hindi. She an­swered in his mother tongue, Gu­jarati, but with a dif­fer­ent in­to­na­tion, “You’re tick­ling me! Chee! Now look what you’ve done. This one is ru­ined, it won’t go back on. I’ll have to chuck it. You need to pay me ex­tra ten ru­pees for the new one.” While Gopi re­placed the Nirodh, Ke­shav picked up mu­sic com­ing from the next cu­bi­cle: Ganga, aayay ka­haa say, jaayay ka­haa ray, lehray paani may jaise dhup chaaow ray. Ganga, where do you come from / where do you go? / Your waves catch the sun / and the shad­ows as you flow. Strange to hear a re­li­gious song in a brothel. It made him think of his mother who liked to pray to Kr­ishna, her sad face float­ing up. He tried to block out the singing, when, af­ter a swift re­place­ment by the girl, he re­sumed his bump­ing down and up on her like when he was a lit­tle boy ter­ri­fied to be rid­ing pil­lion on the child-mo­lest­ing landowner’s mo­tor­cy­cle. He felt his face scrunch up with fa­tigue. The girl was mak­ing a poor ef­fort to con­tain her splut­ter­ing laugh­ter. It was em­bar­rass­ing. His arms, placed on each side of her torso, ached like he was try­ing to do press-ups. He was only used to mas­tur­ba­tion, so much eas­ier and more en­joy­able than this dis­com­fit­ing ex­er­cise. But then, a sur­prise—in a

trice, the girl had flicked off the front-hooks of her turquoise blouse, let­ting him gaze at her loos­ened breasts. He was mes­merised by their mango shape and the way they jounced from side to side as if hun­gry boys in the vil­lage were shak­ing the branch from which these fruit were hang­ing. He re­mem­bered the ques­tions Gopi had asked him at that first meet­ing. “When did you come to Mum­bai?” “About four months ago. I’m stay­ing with my fa­ther who works as a ser­vant for a rich Parsi fam­ily.” He had stopped his press-ups, look­ing at her breasts had made him hard, but us­ing his arms to keep his torso erect was hurt­ing his weak el­bows. “Just a bac­cha, you are! Don’t you have any shame com­ing here and in­dulging in these dirty prac­tices?” “You’re a kid too!” “Go, go! Fin­ish off now, oth­er­wise that black devil will come and throw you out and hurt my ears with his shout­ing.” “Do you have to do it with him too?” “No way, he’s a sis­ter-fuck­ing hi­jra. Can’t get it up un­less he’s got a co­conut shoved up his arse.” Her lit­tle arm came up and she slapped him lightly, lov­ingly, on the chin. They both snig­gered. Ke­shav was limp again. An­other con­dom spoiled. “What gives you money to come here? You got a job? Hope you’re not us­ing your fa­ther’s salary!” “I’m study­ing com­puter sci­ence in a col­lege.” “Wah re wah! Big man, hain na? Can’t even keep your lauda hard, and you want to study com­put­ers now.” “What’s the name of your vil­lage?” “What do you care?” she snapped. He didn’t have an an­swer; he was just try­ing to talk. There was a bang­ing on the cu­bi­cle door. “Hey, Gopi! Tell the boy, if he wants more, he will have to pay more, or re­turn an­other time.” “Hurry up, damn it, oth­er­wise he’ll take dou­ble money.” Ke­shav grabbed his gray half-pants off the floor and pulled out a hun­dred ru­pee note. “Take this for an­other ses­sion.” “Are you sure? I can just . . . ” she said, peel­ing off the con­dom and tak­ing hold of his pen­cil, “bring your water on, then you can keep your money and come back an­other day.” She started her hand-pump and he closed his eyes, but he was feel­ing too tense. “It’s okay. I’ve got some money—i can pay an­other hun­dred.” “No, no, don’t do that. I’ll give him a shout.” She went to the swing­ing shut­ter, opened it and screamed. “Kaka! Two min­utes longer . . . cus-

tomer will come, he is hav­ing a prob­lem.” She gig­gled. “He will come, don’t worry!” She said the last line in Malay­ali to pla­cate the Ker­alite brothel keeper. Gopi grabbed, from a hook on the wall, a damp, greenand-white hand towel and wiped him down. “Don’t worry, this is clean.” Then she poured some oil from a medicine bot­tle and started mas­sag­ing his pe­nis in long slow move­ments re­lay­ing it from one hand to the other. “This will work, don’t worry.” She was ex­pert, but me­chan­i­cal, though he told him­self that be­cause he was a Guju like her, she was putting in a lit­tle more per­sonal ef­fort for him. It wasn’t hav­ing much ef­fect. Be­mused, he looked at her face where he no­ticed some marks of acne on her cheeks. And yet, she had such lovely brown eyes lit up by chinks of green in the mid­dle of her pupils, al­most lu­mi­nes­cent, like the stray cats that slunk in and out of the back en­trance to the ser­vants’ quar­ters. But the cats car­ried sad looks of hunger and fear while Gopi’s eyes sparkled. They re­minded him of the multi-col­ored glass ban­gles his sis­ter used to col­lect in a wooden box when they were chil­dren. Gopi’s face had the same look of mis­chief as his sis­ter’s when she chased him round the bushes of their vil­lage, play­ing catch the thief and other games— even in this huge, un­friendly city of Mum­bai, Gopi had some­how kept the glint his sis­ter had long since lost. “What are you look­ing at, stupid? Some­thing wrong? My work is not good enough for you, or what?” “Can I take a selfie picture of you and me?” he asked her that first time. “No way! Are you mad? I know your type. You’ll put it up on Face­book to show to your friends. I don’t want peo­ple to see my photo.” “Kasam, prom­ise, I won’t do that. I just want it for my­self.” “Go, go! Lots of fel­lows like you come want­ing pic­tures—then they will try and sell them some­where. Some even say, ‘I lovey to you!’ be­cause they have seen all that in the cin­ema. When I say, ‘ Chul, hut!’ they try and make me take naked ac­tion pic­tures with them, to sell on in­ter­net. But what they don’t know: if I’m in trou­ble, I can make the sound of a smashed plate. I have prac­ticed it. One screech of mine, and Kaka will come run­ning in here with his big co­conut chop­per. And don’t think he won’t slice your head off like the top of a naryal— one neat chop, and then he’ll bury it in the sand on Chow­patty Beach. No po­lice­man will come run­ning to look for you.” Again, her tiny palm swished across and caught Ke­shav a neat swipe on the cheek. The slap re­laxed him. Made him feel al­most broth­erly to­ward her. “But just tell me your name, so I can ask for you next time.”

“Not meant to ex­change names, but be­cause you are Guju like me, I’m go­ing to tell you. My name is Gopi,” she said with an­other hand tickle to his chin. She reached for his pen­cil again, but be­fore she could restart, the shut­tered swing-door opened and the grim-faced Nay­yar said, “Time’s up—train has left the sta­tion. Boy, you need to get out now. Cus­tomers are wait­ing in line.” Gopi gave him a fright­ened side­ways look. “I’m com­ing now,” she said. Then, while hook­ing up her blouse, she grabbed a hair­brush and took short swipes at her long hair. “Jaldi kar, soft boy, belt up your pants! Come back, and see me an­other day. If I’m busy, you ask Kaka for my name, and then wait till I fin­ish with pre­vi­ous cus­tomer, okay? Come on, come on, pull up your chud­dis, phut a phut. I’ve got to carry on work­ing. Don’t feel ashamed, okay? Next time will be much bet­ter.” She flashed him a smile and pushed him out through the wooden shut­ters.

iii He’d got his selfie with her. More than one. Over these past three months, they’d taken lots of pic­tures of each other on their phones. Some to­gether, some of Gopi in Hindi-film se­duc­tive poses; some of her pout­ing, mak­ing strange faces, look­ing sullen. Best of all, though, were the close-ups of her face, with her fe­line eyes that seemed to smile on him with a spe­cial fond­ness. He had saved one of these as his screen­saver on his shiny new red-and-sil­ver lap­top that he had bought at Happy Com­put­ers with Mrs. Shroff’s money. But he was care­ful not to take any lewd pho­tos of Gopi. There was only one picture of nu­dity: a selfie of him with his shirt off sit­ting next to Gopi who was in her skimpy, green blouse. He’d saved it onto “Pho­tos” on his lap­top, so he could delete it from his phone. The thought of his new lap­top, es­pe­cially the large screen­shot of Gopi, made him go hard with plea­sure. He would love to show it off to the boys in the vil­lage. He could send a picture via his mo­bile, but he didn’t want to at­tract at­ten­tion. They would won­der where he got the money to buy it from; they would be jeal­ous, try and spoil things, find him out, spread ru­mors. Ru­mors that, af­ter all, wouldn’t be far from the bloody truth. They were horny bas­tards in the vil­lage, but he wouldn’t mind treat­ing Dilip and Manga to one of those rundis, not Gopi, but one of the South In­dian girls at Nay­yar’s—hardly the clean­est or the best, but not as bad as the twenty-ru­pee caged whore­house around the cor­ner. His friend Som, who had shown him Nay­yar’s, had ad­vised him to go with as many dif­fer­ent girls as he could, and to aid the process by al­ways

tak­ing a few glugs of some cheap vodka. “White Mis­chief, one hun­dred eighty-millileter quart, only one hun­dred twenty-five ru­pees. Gives at least three good highs!” the friend had said. “And it doesn’t make your breath smell. With­out booze, you might get nerves, or start feel­ing sorry for the girls,” he warned. “Also, don’t ever touch the small tea-glasses of be­wda they of­fer you for free be­fore you go in—god knows what bat­tery liq­uid they put into that drink. It stinks, and it’s just meant to make you spurt—then you don’t get the full en­joy­ment for your money.” Ke­shav was play­ing with him­self. It was 10:15 p.m., still half an hour be­fore the ser­vants nor­mally gath­ered for their night­time meal, so he needed to hurry: his fa­ther would soon come into this cor­ner room to call for him. He mas­tur­bated at least twice a day, some of the time just to get rid of his hard-on. Some­times, he had fan­tasies about the Shroff fam­ily’s teenage daugh­ter, Zarine: she would call him into her bed­room and of­fer him sex; he would get her preg­nant. And if she did, then what? He stayed with his picture of Zarine’s fair-skinned thighs, which she of­ten dis­played while walk­ing around in re­veal­ing shorts or tan­ta­liz­ing skirts. Hav­ing wiped him­self down, he waited for his fa­ther’s ar­rival. The prospect of hav­ing to eat more than a few bites of any food al­ways made him feel sick. He was thin; he liked be­ing skinny; he liked his crooked, dou­ble-jointed el­bows. He pre­ferred fast­ing to eat­ing. He had liked cer­tain foods when his mother was alive. She used to feed him, some­times with her own hands, tri­an­gles of black­ened rot­las sweet­ened with gur, and her poha, the beaten rice she toasted for their break­fast, its yel­low grains had a spe­cial scent that he had never been able to find again. He couldn’t tell if it was the aroma of the food, or the spe­cial smell of her fin­gers and the smile she gave him when he ate that he was yearn­ing for. But she was rarely happy. So many girls in the vil­lage were like that—joy­ful un­til ten years old—laugh­ing, skip­ping, play­ing the fool, but then, af­ter ten, most of them changed, like with Vrinda, his sis­ter who, in her teens, had taken on a cloudy, va­cant look. When she wasn’t do­ing chores, she lay on the bed sort of sprawled to one side, her head rest­ing on her thin arm just star­ing out in front of her. It was not ex­actly pain—it was a kind of numb­ness to life. A re­sponse, maybe, to the sex­ual in­sults she had suf­fered. He didn’t want to ask. A lot of that stuff went on in the vil­lage. He tried not to hear about it, not to think of it. At fif­teen, his fa­ther and un­cle man­aged to marry Vrinda off to a boy in Sankri, a neigh­bor­ing vil­lage. The dowry pay­ment was six months of Bhag­wan’s salary, which he bor­rowed from the mem­saab to be paid back in in­stall­ments—the same mem­saab who was now giv­ing him the money for his col­lege fees.

He liked to re­mem­ber his sis­ter when they were chil­dren, when her eyes still had a gleam and she ran in fig­ures of eight be­tween the trees. They played games with col­or­ful mar­bles in the baked mud out­side their hut un­til their clothes were dusty and damp with sweat. Most of that was be­fore his mother died, be­fore the small bumps ap­peared in Vrinda’s blouse and then, a lit­tle later, the va­cant look. Damn these mem­o­ries! Ke­shav wished he could block them out. Im­ages of his sis­ter, his fa­ther, his dead mother awak­ened his con­science and spoilt the plea­sure he got from dup­ing the mem­saab. He had a word for these think­ing jags— bak­waas. He’d heard peo­ple use that word in Mum­bai, bak­waas na kar! Thoughts like these are like bak­waas: talk, made up of words and im­ages that are non­sense, a waste of time and en­ergy. No one ever made money from think­ing. He stroked his scalp with his fin­ger­tips. No one got sex from think­ing. Your cock goes soft when you start think­ing. Think­ing is a racket to make me go on be­ing poor. It stops me from tak­ing things and getting rich. It stops me from en­joy­ing the thrill of fresh ban­knotes in my pocket, the thrill of hand­ing out crisp, new hun­dred-ru­pee notes to Nay­yar to get my sweet Gopi time af­ter time.

iv His fa­ther crept in and switched on the sin­gle bulb that hung from the ceil­ing of the kholi. Bhag­wan al­ways wore a kindly, hang­dog ex­pres­sion. His char­ac­ter­is­tic ges­ture was a cir­cu­lar move­ment of the head to show as­sent. If he bore mal­ice, he took great care to keep it deep in­side of him. If he dis­agreed with any­one, he would say so with a bent torso and a smile. Ke­shav could not imag­ine him re­ally an­gry. It was as if his fa­ther had locked away all ex­tremes of emo­tion and de­cided, quite firmly, to tread the mid­dle ground. Bhag­wan’s be­hav­iour irked his son, be­cause the way Ke­shav read that slightly down­cast look was: “I am de­fined by the ser­vice I do for this fam­ily; giv­ing my la­bor to this fam­ily, say­ing yes to ev­ery­thing they ask me to do.” His fa­ther of­ten used to in­tone, “What­ever the hard­ships of life are, they are nat­u­ral, they must be borne. There is no al­ter­na­tive. What is there to do now? We must ac­cept our lot.” Ke­shav saw him­self as one of those black hexag­o­nal kilo­gram weights on the shop­keeper’s scales, adding to the bur­den that his fa­ther ap­peared, will­ingly, to carry. “The oth­ers are serv­ing up food. Come along, Ke­shav, have some rice and dal.” “No, I don’t want to go in there and eat with them. They don’t like me. Couldn’t you just bring me a small plate here?”

It was im­por­tant that he wasn’t seen in the kitchen too much, only when he was needed, but he knew that he shouldn’t ask his fa­ther to wait on him; the other ser­vants al­ready dis­ap­proved of Bhag­wan spoil­ing his son. But he was a com­pli­ant man with ev­ery­body. That’s what peo­ple liked about him. “Bhag­wan!” they called out, “come and do this and come and do that. Just look at this mess! Could you clear it up quickly? Do some jhadoo here, wipe this stain, sweep that dust, get me a nim­boo pani with two spoons of sugar, jaldi!” No “please”; no “thank you.” And now, Ke­shav too was tak­ing ad­van­tage of the good na­ture of his fa­ther. “Bhagi, how are you, Bhagi?” Zarine would say to him, stroking his head with gen­uine af­fec­tion. She had known him since the age of two. And his fa­ther, more than twice the girl’s age now, would smile at her shyly. He never com­plained. He just got up from what­ever he was do­ing and mouthed, “Yes sir,” “Yes miss,” “Com­ing now,” “It will be done now.” Doz­ing, brush­ing, shav­ing, shit­ting—what­ever he was do­ing, he stopped and ran off to see what was the mat­ter. What does mem­saab want? What does baba want? What does beebi want? The house was a great big ele­phant of desires: it could never be fed fast enough, never be sat­is­fied. But Bhag­wan would never stop try­ing. Ke­shav de­cided to face the heat in the kitchen. He put his lap­top to one side and sprang to his feet, ran his fin­gers in short sharp shocks through his hair, slipped on plastic san­dals, and si­dled down the cor­ri­dor to the table where the three other ser­vants—labhu, Nitin, and Tunda—were al­ready bent over steep-sided metal plates, scoop­ing rice, dal, and rot­las into their mouths. They ate with vigor, nois­ily ab­sorbed in the plea­sure that a pile of food al­lowed them at the end of a long day. At the cen­ter of the table, there was a small dish of green chilies, slices of pink onions, and left­overs from the Shroff’s din­ner—fish and bhindi curry. To Ke­shav, the fish smelled pun­gent, the bhindi slimy—both were un­ap­peal­ing. “Come, sit,” said Labhu, a dark, bony fel­low with a crazy cackle, the only one whom Ke­shav liked. His fa­ther beck­oned him to the empty stool. Though he had been liv­ing here for al­most four months, he still did not feel re­laxed when eat­ing with the rest of the ser­vants. They tol­er­ated him like an un­wel­come guest. But then, they had worked for this food with their con­stant scur­ry­ing, fetch­ing, and serv­ing for this fam­ily. He was just stay­ing here as his fa­ther’s son, shar­ing their ra­tioned grains for free: a par­a­site, feed­ing off the par­ent tree; worse than that, poi­son­ing the tree. When he’d washed his hands and sat down, his fa­ther un­cov­ered a plate on which he had saved some dal and rice. Ke­shav bent over the

food. With his fin­gers, he slowly scooped the rice over the splodge of dal. He hid the yel­low lentils un­der the mound of fluffy white grains pre­tend­ing to him­self that it was like golden treasure he was bury­ing and then slowly dig­ging out. He re­peated the process while putting very small amounts of food into his mouth so as not to ap­pear un­grate­ful. He imag­ined the dal as the money he had se­creted away in the in­side seam of his hand-me-down ruck­sack; the money given to him by Shroff mem­saab to pay his col­lege fees. He al­ways needed to con­jure up some kind of game to make him­self swal­low. All he wanted was to con­sume just enough to keep his body func­tion­ing. One day, he thought, I might put my­self up as a spec­i­men, go with­out food for days and days, turn my­self over to one of those trav­el­ing show­men from dis­tant parts of In­dia who used to come to our vil­lage with scrawny mon­keys and med­i­cal pow­ders to cure ev­ery kind of sex­ual ail­ment. “I said to mem­saab,” Labhu broke in, “I said, what­ever you want, what­ever you say, I’m will­ing to do it, but please, don’t bring a woman to work in this house. No, no!” He shook his head, “We don’t want a woman here, that is the truth. Women cause trou­ble. Not that I have any­thing against them. Truth is, my wife is a good woman. But that is in the vil­lage, I’m talking about the vil­lage. Here, in this wild Mum­bai city, no chance! She wouldn’t like it; she couldn’t stand it. No way! And we wouldn’t like it ei­ther.” Ke­shav’s mind turned to his mother. Dead nine years. How she had held on to his hand till the end; even his nine-year-old boy self could tell there was a part of her that had lost the de­sire to con­tinue. All the witch­craft reme­dies brought to re­lieve her of her fever weren’t go­ing to make any difference. Oth­ers cried, and some pleaded with his fa­ther to take her to the town to the proper doc­tor’s clinic, but there was no money, and Bhag­wan was al­ready heav­ily in debt. When she died and all through the mea­ger cre­ma­tion rites, Ke­shav didn’t cry: his heart stayed like a stone, crouch­ing as close as he could to his mother’s pyre, getting hot­ter and hot­ter in the flames un­til he felt his skin might melt like wax and trickle down his arms and face. He had caught her fever. It lasted for a week, and though he sur­vived, it marked the end of his ap­petite for food. When she lived, he was hun­gry, mainly for the food she cooked, but also for the food his friends shared when, af­ter some re­li­gious fes­ti­val or rel­a­tives’ visit, they were lucky enough to have bis­cuits or sweets. Af­ter she died and af­ter his fever, eat­ing be­came a chore. As if read­ing his thoughts, Labhu said to Ke­shav’s fa­ther, “It was sad, sad for this boy of yours, los­ing his mother so young, wasn’t it?”

Bhag­wan nod­ded his head mod­estly. “Noth­ing could be done. They tried ev­ery­thing. What can you do—this is the way things hap­pen, isn’t it?” Ke­shav wanted to shout at him, “They tried ev­ery­thing! Who is ‘ they’? What did you do? Did you try ev­ery­thing?” Speak­ing in be­tween mouth­fuls, Bhag­wan said, “Af­ter that, any­way, his older sis­ter took over. She did a good job of look­ing af­ter him, that I have to say. But then I had to bring him down to the city. What can I do? I have to try and find a job for him. I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate all of you be­ing kind to him, let­ting him share, mak­ing room for him here in our kholi. Don’t think I don’t see that!” The youngest fel­low, Nitin—an en­vi­ous, clever man with wom­anly, full lips, whom Ke­shav liked least of all—said, “Yeah, that is also true. We can’t just go on hav­ing him liv­ing here, feed­ing him for free like this.” Then, for max­i­mum ef­fect, with his fin­gers he rolled a huge ball of mixed rice, dal, and veg­etable into his mouth, and turned to Tunda, the least con­fi­dent of the three, and asked, “What do you say, huh, Tunda?” “Haanh, no doubt about it, what you are say­ing is the truth.” Echo­ing oth­ers was Tunda’s main mode of re­sponse. Here we go, thought Ke­shav, this is why I would have been bet­ter to stay hun­gry in the kholi. Thank­fully, Labhu came to his de­fense, skil­fully de­flect­ing the sub­ject away from the food is­sue. “One thing I have to say, it’s re­ally good that mem­saab is pay­ing for Ke­shav’s col­lege fees. What­ever you say about her, she does a lot of kit-kit and nakhra. But truth be told, she’s a good woman, I have to give her that. Much bet­ter than other em­ploy­ers. That I have to say. The truth of the mat­ter is, to find an­other em­ployer in the city who would act like that, Bhag­wan, pay­ing for your son’s ed­u­ca­tion and board, would be im­pos­si­ble.” “That is also def­i­nitely true, no doubt about it,” said Tunda. He tilted his head back and tipped a stream of water into his open mouth. “I mean, you could get more money, more salary then she gives us some­where else, but her heart is full of pity for us. She shows us a lot of daya!” “Haanh, haanh, Tunda, daya and all that is well and good, but it doesn’t buy ro­tis, does it?” said Nitin. He was the youngest, had the best ed­u­ca­tion, and could read and write ba­sic English and Gu­jarati. Con­sid­er­ing all this, as Mrs. Shroff’s driver, he of­ten com­plained about be­ing both un­der­paid and un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. “She has been so kind to Ke­shav, pay­ing all his fees at the col­lege, but what if I wanted to go to col­lege? Or, if your son wanted to go to col­lege, Tunda, would she pay then? It’s only be­cause Bhag­wan is her fa­vorite that she is putting her hand in her pocket.” He gave a cyn­i­cal laugh and used the English word “fa­vorite,” but he pro­nounced it more like “fayb­horit.”

Ke­shav stayed quiet. So as not to ap­pear rude, he copied his fa­ther’s bowed head and its slow, ro­tat­ing move­ment. This topic came up a lot, and he wanted it to stop. He wanted to squash the tail of the lizard that still moved af­ter its body was lopped off. He was still pick­ing up tiny discs of cold lentil and mash­ing them into his rice to the point of dis­in­te­gra­tion, shift­ing flecks of gold and white around the plate, pre­tend­ing to eat so he didn’t have to speak. “Haanh, and what about this new lap­top his col­lege has given him?” Nitin said, look­ing at Ke­shav with a twin­kle in his eye. “Have you heard about that? Can you believe it!” “Wah! This col­lege of yours is re­ally amaz­ing!” Tunda said. “Do they give all the stu­dents new lap­tops?” “Only stu­dents who have paid their fees on time,” Ke­shav said qui­etly. “How long will they give it to you to keep?” He could tell that Nitin and Tunda had dis­cussed this be­fore­hand, and they were en­joy­ing this in­ter­ro­ga­tion, this hu­mil­i­a­tion in front of his fa­ther. “As long as the course lasts, nine months or one year,” Ke­shav replied as meekly as he could. “And what if you run away with it? Then what, haanh?” “They have this ad­dress,” his fa­ther said. “They will send some­one round.” “Hanh,” said Nitin, “but any­one could just give a fake ad­dress. Also, I don’t want the po­lice around here, that’s for sure. Next thing, Bhag­wan, they’ll be putting us all in jail and beat­ing us up, the way they al­ways do. No ques­tions asked.” The men were mov­ing around and clear­ing up now. Ke­shav quickly slid his un­eaten food in the bin, but eagle-eyed Nitin spot­ted him and started to tut and shake his head. “Look at these mod­ern-day chil­dren. In our time, we would never dream of wast­ing a sin­gle grain of rice, and if we did, our Puppa would give us a beat­ing to re­mem­ber.”

v Ke­shav had found his col­lege nearby in Grant Road East, on the edge of Ka­math­ipura, the red-light dis­trict where Gopi worked. It gave it­self the grand ti­tle of Je­hangir Peer­boy Col­lege of Com­puter Tech­nol­ogy, which of course im­pressed Mrs. Shroff who did not know that it was only two streets away from what had be­come Ke­shav’s fa­vorite haunt. “You see, we Par­sis have been giv­ing money to char­i­ta­ble ed­u­ca­tional trusts in Bom­bay for more than a hun­dred years,” she boasted. The col­lege was two small com­puter rooms with seven or eight nar­row desks and a cor­ner re­served for ad­min­is­tra­tion, but it pro­duced a glossy brochure, and its web­site had a picture of a group of black-

gowned stu­dents wav­ing square hats in the air, like the grad­u­a­tion shots Ke­shav had seen in Hindi movies. The prin­ci­pal gave him a brief ap­pli­ca­tion form, one half of which de­tailed the fee struc­ture over twelve months: 2,400 ru­pees monthly and a de­posit of 9,200 was re­quired up front. His fa­ther had taken the brochure with the fee-struc­ture sheet to mem­saab. She had sum­moned them both to wait out­side her bed­room. Af­ter keep­ing them stand­ing in the cor­ri­dor for half an hour, Mrs. Shroff al­lowed a space for their pe­ti­tion to be heard. They were called into her bed­room. There she had asked Ke­shav some abrupt ques­tions (which he was used to by now), un­clasped the gold but­ton of her black hand­bag, and counted out and handed over to Bhag­wan a stream of five hun­dred ru­pee notes from a thick bun­dle. She asked Ke­shav to bring her a writ­ten re­ceipt for the de­posit and the first month’s fees, and then she ad­mon­ished him to work hard and make his fa­ther proud. Ke­shav had never seen such large amounts of money up close, han­dled with such ease and con­fi­dence by any­one, let alone a woman. But then, in his per­cep­tion, Mrs. Shroff was not re­ally a woman, more like an alarm­ing an­drog­y­nous Ama­zo­nian crea­ture from an­other planet. When she ex­hib­ited signs of wom­an­li­ness, he reg­is­tered them with a kind of in­ner dis­be­lief. No woman in the seven­teen years of grow­ing up in his vil­lage came close to speak­ing and act­ing in the bizarre ways of Mrs. Shroff.

What a fright­en­ing ex­pe­ri­ence it had been to be in­ter­ro­gated by Mrs. Shroff in her bed­room for the first time. His fa­ther had shoved him in front of this fair-skinned gi­ant of a woman, dressed in some kind of coat with a blue back­ground that showed large green flow­ers, who was prepar­ing and eat­ing her break­fast. The gown was wrapped around her with a belt and only reached her knees; it was hard for Ke­shav to avert his eyes from the hem that kept fall­ing open, giv­ing a glimpse of her bare thighs. Mrs. Shroff had a huge nest of black hair. She peered at Ke­shav through a pair of pointed spec­ta­cles. When she looked at him straight in the face, he felt ter­ri­fied. He kept his head bowed, watch­ing the strange way she ate her break­fast—cut­ting a pa­paya in criss­cross lines with her sil­ver knife and then carv­ing un­der the flesh so each of the squares popped up eas­ily onto a small fork. It re­minded him of pic­tures he’d seen of sci­en­tists in a lab­o­ra­tory with gloves and plastic glasses. He had seen peo­ple like Mr. and Mrs. Shroff in films, in im­ages on the in­ter­net, and on ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings, but never in per­son; never in flesh and blood. “What will he do here all day?” she ad­dressed Bhag­wan, who had brought Ke­shav to in­tro­duce him to Mrs. Shroff that first time. While

con­tin­u­ing to pop squares of livid, orange fruit into her mouth, she took up the news­pa­per on her lap, leav­ing fa­ther and son to stand there wait­ing and won­der­ing how to an­swer her ques­tion. While all this was go­ing on, her hus­band was dart­ing in and out of the bath­room in var­i­ous stages of getting dressed for work. “What’s your name?” he bel­lowed. Ke­shav man­aged to whis­per a re­ply, but he wished his fa­ther would just an­swer for him. Mem­saab spoke such a shrill kind of Gu­jarati. Un­like Gopi’s way of speak­ing, which Ke­shav thought added a lyri­cal soft­ness to their lan­guage, this Parsi woman’s sen­tences sounded grat­ing, like an owl hoot­ing, ev­ery word and ev­ery rep­e­ti­tion—she liked to repeat her­self—louder than the last. “What will you do here all day? You can’t just lie in the kholi wast­ing your time!” He didn’t know what to say to these ag­gres­sive ques­tions. Bhag­wan spoke for him. “Mem­saab, he will help out with the clean­ing and other jobs.” “Arre, Bhag­wan, we have more than enough ser­vants in this house. I cer­tainly can’t pay any more salaries. Can you cook any­thing, Ke­shav? Did you ever teach him how to make any ba­sic food, Bhag­wan? Our Parsi dal chawal pa­tio, for in­stance? He must make him­self use­ful.” “Mem­saab, af­ter his mother died, his didi, my daugh­ter, did all that; all the house­keep­ing chores.” There he goes, thought Ke­shav, us­ing my mother and sis­ter to ex­tract pity from this woman. “No cook­ing at all? Well, it’s high time you teach him some­thing, so he can make him­self use­ful in the flat—at least in help­ing you ser­vants with your meals or some­thing. Some­thing use­ful, he must do, Bhag­wan! All of you learned, he should also learn. When we have peo­ple for din­ner par­ties and all, we need some­one to help in the kitchen—ba­sic things like chop­ping onions and all that. Ask the Mistry, he will know. And he should help you with serv­ing at the table. Please teach him how to do that, at least. Oth­er­wise, how can I let him stay here?” “I want him to find a job, mem­saab. Please, if you know any­one who could help by giv­ing him a job, I would re­ally, re­ally ap­pre­ci­ate it.” “But what kind of job will he be able to do? What class did you study in school? What’s his name again—kuldev?” He still couldn’t find his voice. “He must have reached stan­dard nine,” said Bhag­wan, be­fore prod­ding Ke­shav’s shoul­der. “Speak, say some­thing, baba, an­swer mem­saab’s ques­tions. Don’t just stand there look­ing dumb! Why did you stop school?” Again, Ke­shav tried to force some words out of his mouth, but no sounds came. “Af­ter eighth stan­dard, he would have had to travel to Bil­imora ev­ery day to go to the SSC school. What can I say, mem­saab? It’s far away.

We would have had to buy him a bi­cy­cle for which there was no money, mem­saab.” “So? Why didn’t you send him? You should have sent him. You should have told me, Bhag­wan. You know Soli saab will al­ways pay for ed­u­ca­tion. We would have bought him the bi­cy­cle. We would have paid the fees. What is there in that? I don’t like giv­ing money for wed­dings and all that, but ed­u­ca­tion is an­other thing. You know how im­por­tant ed­u­ca­tion is.” The last sen­tence was said in English with great em­pha­sis and vol­ume. Mrs. Shroff of­ten punc­tu­ated her speech with English words and ex­pres­sions, only some of which Ke­shav un­der­stood, the oth­ers he learned to work out by her ex­pres­sion and the emo­tion she con­veyed through her voice. She spoke of school and bi­cy­cles as if they were easy choices to be made in their lives. He won­dered if she knew how dif­fi­cult it was for his fa­ther to come with a beg­ging bowl to ask for a bi­cy­cle or, as he was do­ing now, gen­tly ma­nip­u­late her into a position where, a few weeks later, she would find it dif­fi­cult to refuse him the money for Ke­shav’s col­lege fees. The truth was Ke­shav hadn’t much de­sire for ed­u­ca­tion. He skipped classes in the vil­lage school when­ever he could. He did badly in all his sub­jects ex­cept math­e­mat­ics. All he wanted was to come to Mum­bai to find a way to make money. Most of the books that they had to learn by heart, he did not un­der­stand, and, any­way, they didn’t show him how to get rich. He wanted to be paid a salary or get in­volved in sell­ing some­thing. All his friends were the same: they wanted money. You couldn’t buy any­thing with times ta­bles and sto­ries: picture books with smil­ing fam­i­lies and happy end­ings; round-faced, fair-skinned peo­ple who didn’t look like any­one in the vil­lage, or, for that mat­ter, like the gi­gan­tic Shroff cou­ple in their bed­room with over­flow­ing clothes, per­fumes, lip­sticks, books, and paint­ings. Still, he had learned to read and write ba­sic Gu­jarati and could even un­der­stand a small range of English phrases. Some of his friends were good at English, but he was too shy to try speak­ing more than some ba­sic sen­tences. Of course, like all the boys in the vil­lage, he was re­ally in­ter­ested in play­ing on com­put­ers. But in the vil­lage school, there was only one desk­top com­puter, which their teacher rarely al­lowed them to use. Ke­shav wanted to know how com­put­ers worked, and most of all, he wanted to own a com­puter, prefer­ably a lap­top.

vi Now, three months into his stay and much sooner than he could have imag­ined, Ke­shav had his own lap­top. On his re­turn from the kitchen hu­mil­i­a­tion, he lay down in the cor­ner of the ser­vants’ kholi on the dou-

ble layer of card­board. With his neck on a grimy pil­low jammed against the wall, he pried open the shining, red HP ENVY with a thir­teen-inch screen and placed it on his stom­ach as if it were a small table. He went onto his Face­book ac­count to check if he had any new posts, and then he started watch­ing a foot­ball match be­tween Shakhtar Donetsk and Rapid Wien in the UEFA Cham­pi­ons League. Luck­ily, from this spot in the cor­ner of the kholi, he could just pick up a de­cent sig­nal from the Shroff’s Wi-fi. Just days ago, he had started a con­ver­sa­tion about foot­ball with Rus­tom in which he had praised Manch­ester United, the team the Shroff child loved. Af­ter their chat, the twelve-year-old couldn’t refuse him the Wi-fi pass­word—jum­boshroff747—which he had now saved on his ma­chine. His fa­ther came back into the kholi, leav­ing the oth­ers sit­ting on the bal­cony out­side, talking and smok­ing beedis. Soon, Nitin and Tunda would re­tire with their bed­ding to the liv­ing room floor where they would fall asleep while watch­ing TV turned down to a low vol­ume. Ke­shav pre­tended not to no­tice his fa­ther, who seemed to be search­ing for some­thing. “Can you show me the re­ceipt for this lap­top?” He pointed at the com­puter with his long in­dex fin­ger. “The col­lege didn’t give me a re­ceipt.” “There has to be a re­ceipt. If the col­lege gave it to you, then where is the pa­per, the perchee to show for it? They must have given you some­thing.” Ke­shav stayed silent. “Why have you dragged our name into the dust? This is a sin you have com­mit­ted!” “What sin?” “I don’t know. I don’t want to know. All I know is that it is go­ing to bring shame on me. Do you think the oth­ers don’t re­al­ize that you have stolen from some­where to buy this lap­top? Ev­ery­one knows col­leges don’t give out lap­tops like samosas!” His fa­ther’s eyes were glassy, fear­ful, stricken by the be­trayal of his son. He held Ke­shav in a de­feated, mourn­ful gaze, a look his son re­mem­bered from the days when his mother had been very sick in the vil­lage. Ke­shav stared at his fa­ther’s dark pupils like when he was a boy and had lost him­self gaz­ing into the bot­tom of the vil­lage well. He sensed in Bhag­wan’s eyes a dis­ap­point­ment that was stronger than anger. But why didn’t his fa­ther just beat him? The first thing that par­ents in the vil­lage did when their chil­dren were caught or sus­pected of do­ing any­thing wrong was to thrash them. The first thing the po­lice would do when they took him in was break his bones with their lathis, and

prob­a­bly worse, abuse him sex­u­ally too. But his fa­ther was squat­ting on the floor now, look­ing sor­row­fully at the limp scrap of pa­per Ke­shav had given him: the ac­tual re­ceipt for his pur­chase of the HP lap­top from Happy Com­put­ers. His fa­ther had been born with a woman’s heart, or per­haps, Ke­shav thought, he had let him­self take on the sub­mis­sive role of his dead wife. What­ever it was, Bhag­wan was not able to hit any­one. Ke­shav wished his fa­ther would slap him round the face at least. In­stead, now there were tears in his eyes. “I don’t know what to do with you.” “Let me go back to the vil­lage—i’ll go to Sankri. I’ll stay with Vrinda.” Bhag­wan wiped his wet face, over and over, with a long yel­low rag. “Okay, go to sleep now. I’ll wake you in a few hours’ time.”

At 3:30 a.m., his fa­ther shook him by the shoul­der. Bhag­wan’s eyes were red-rimmed from lack of sleep. It was al­most chilly, and both men rubbed their limbs with their hands to warm up. Ke­shav packed his few be­long­ings in his ruck­sack and crept in the dark to the small toi­let at the back of the ser­vants’ quar­ters, per­haps for the last time. He took what was left of his fee money, which was hid­den un­der the bot­tom lin­ing of his ruck­sack; rolled up the notes; and stashed them in the front of his un­der­pants, so he could feel them next to his skin. Ke­shav had the HP wrapped in a plastic bag in his ruck­sack. Bhag­wan was so tired and con­fused, he had for­got­ten to ask Ke­shav for the lap­top. Or, Ke­shav thought, his fa­ther just couldn’t bear to make him part with it. When they reached Dadar Sta­tion at four fif­teen, it was still semi­dark. There were al­ready work­ers car­ry­ing bales of co­rian­der, spinach, and other veg­eta­bles on their head, wait­ing for the first train car­riages to take them to the big mar­kets at the cen­ter of the city. Fam­i­lies who had been sleep­ing on the con­course of the sta­tion all night were per­form­ing quick ablu­tions in var­i­ous cor­ners of the sta­tion plat­form. The tea stall own­ers were light­ing up their stoves. Ke­shav bought a ticket with his own money and then went to bend down and touch his fa­ther’s knees to show he was sorry. That’s when his fa­ther re­mem­bered: “Where did you leave the lap­top?” “It’s un­der my pil­low where I nor­mally keep it,” Ke­shav said. Then, with­out wait­ing to catch his fa­ther’s eye, he turned and jogged up the stairs to­ward the plat­form where his train, the Ram­na­gar Ex­press, was com­ing in. When the train stopped, Ke­shav stood back and let the crowds rush off, fight­ing against the push­ing and shov­ing of the pas­sen­gers who were try­ing to throw them­selves on. He heard the warn­ing whis­tle, but he stood his ground. At four forty-five, when the train left the sta­tion, Ke­shav wasn’t on it.

vii Al­most five hours later, at nine thirty the same morn­ing, Ke­shav was stand­ing in front of Nay­yar’s brothel in Ka­math­ipura. It was way too early for any busi­ness, but he was will­ing to wait. He had al­ready spent four hours loi­ter­ing around in Dadar Sta­tion. In the first hour, he had felt re­morse for ly­ing to his fa­ther and giv­ing him the slip, but soon he grew tired, watch­ing the place fill with peo­ple un­til, even crouched down by the wall, he felt like he would be knocked over or squashed by the rush of trav­el­ers. The din of a thou­sand com­muter voices, to one who had barely slept the night be­fore, was tor­ture. His guilt faded into the back­ground. With his back to a wall, squat­ting on the bank of this im­mense river of hu­mans flow­ing to and fro, with the stolen lap­top like a bomb in his back­pack, he felt as if wher­ever he hid, peo­ple were point­ing at him; shout­ing his name; want­ing to catch, beat, and im­prison him. It had been such a re­lief, even in the gather­ing heat of a May morn­ing, to make his way onto the sun­lit roads and walk the few miles south­ward back through the crowded city to­ward Ka­math­ipura where he had slipped into the nar­row lane the way he al­ways did. Now, he was stand­ing at the counter of a tea stall from where he could keep an eye on the en­trance to Nay­yar’s. While he waited, he wor­ried. Did any­one know where he might be? Had his fa­ther or any of the other ser­vants ever tracked him to this gullee? He stood at the metal counter and or­dered a plate of poha and some tea so as not to ir­ri­tate the owner of the stall by wait­ing around and tak­ing up space. When the hot dish was slapped down in front of him, the rising steam from the yel­low rice brought with it a sur­prise: that same nutty aroma he re­mem­bered from his mother’s feed­ing fin­gers. With his nose bent low, he nib­bled at the flat­tened rice, not for the food, but to keep the scent flow­ing. It was as if, through the whiffs and tastes from each bite, es­pe­cially if he closed his eyes, he could see his mother’s out­line. So it wasn’t just her fin­gers: some­thing here in this dish of beaten rice, fried up in this slit of Ka­math­ipura so far away from their vil­lage home, gave him the same feel­ing of sat­is­fac­tion. Eat­ing slowly, he sa­vored ev­ery last grain of the turmeric-stained rice and sipped three glasses of the hot, sweet tea while he waited.

At eleven fif­teen, Gopi came out of Nay­yar’s. She looked dif­fer­ent in a loose, black kurta and baggy, gray pa­ja­mas. Not dressed for the job. Not made up. See­ing her like this, he felt a twinge. “Why don’t you just come run away with me to the vil­lage?” he wanted to pro­pose. “Or, chul, let’s

go live in some other vil­lage, or, best of all, some­where in this city where no one knows us?” Idi­otic, point­less thoughts again. He knew she would laugh at him, and any­way, it would just dou­ble their trou­ble adding a knife-car­ry­ing pimp to the po­lice­man al­ready in pur­suit of him. He had texted her, so she wasn’t sur­prised when he walked up along­side. “What you do­ing here at this time?” she looked at his cap and said. “What have you done?” He went straight to the point. “I have some­thing for you.” He took out the plastic bag that ad­ver­tised women’s clothes. “What is it? I don’t wear saris, you know?” “My lap­top. The one you liked.” “Why are you giv­ing it to me?” “My fa­ther and the other ser­vants found out.” She paused. “Won’t they help you?” “No. My fa­ther is sure he will lose his job. The Parsi woman will call the po­lice to come ar­rest us both.” “So, what will you do?” “I will prob­a­bly go to my sis­ter, though I don’t want her hus­band to get into trou­ble. Or, I’ll hide some­where.” “They will find you. Any­way, why are you giv­ing me your lap­top? I can’t help you, you know.” He looked at her as if to say, “Do you want me to say that Hindi-film phrase like the other men?” “Gopi, if you don’t want it, sell it and keep the money. Maybe I will be able to re­turn here and see you in a few months’ time, I hope.” “I don’t want any trou­ble.” “Don’t worry. I made sure no one from the house knows I come here.” “What about Nay­yar? He doesn’t al­low us to keep any­thing in our rooms.” They were stand­ing in a noisy spot on one side of the lane, in the shade of an open-front, lean-to shed with a cor­ru­gated plastic roof. Two men were sort­ing onions and pota­toes into gunny-sacks on the floor, right next to the counter of a bank that said, “State Bank of In­dia: For­eign . . .” Ke­shav couldn’t read the word be­gin­ning with “R” that came af­ter For­eign. Two clerks were sit­ting be­hind the counter deal­ing with a queue of cus­tomers. Gopi tugged him by the sleeve fur­ther into the dark­ness, be­hind the old men sit­ting un­con­cerned on the floor sur­rounded by the piles of onions they were sort­ing. “Hey, Ke­shav, is there some­thing else go­ing on? Are you try­ing to trap me?” “No, mera kasam! I’m telling you the truth. I told you hon­estly about all this laphra from be­fore, didn’t I?” He combed his fin­gers through his hair. She had al­ways liked the way he did that. “If you don’t want it, I’ll

just take it and go.” He be­gan to re­turn the plastic bag to his ruck­sack. “I just thought . . . ” “Okay, okay. I believe you.” She twisted off two glass ban­gles from her wrist. Here, you keep these. I hope they bring you good luck.” She started to tie back her hair, which had fallen loose from its bun. “I’d bet­ter go now. Give it here.” She took the plastic bag with­out look­ing in­side it. “I’ll try to keep it hid­den un­der the floor of my bed for a while, but I can’t prom­ise the fuck­ing bitch and her daugh­ter won’t sniff it out. If they call in the po­lice, I’ll just say you left it here and I don’t know any­thing about it. Of course, they’ll take money, as usual. Maybe I should just sell it as soon as I can. Let’s see what hap­pens, I’ll try and work some­thing out.” Then she gave him the light­est pair of slaps on the edge of his chin. And he heard a catch in her scold­ing voice, “You know what, you’re an id­iot! Next time, don’t steal from your owner. Don’t steal from your fa­ther’s owner. Steal from some­where no one knows you, and then you can es­cape. Poor chap, you are. Go, go! You bet­ter run now.” He turned to leave, but af­ter a few steps he felt her hand on his arm. “Wait. Go and stand in the back as if you want to have a piss. I’ll come back in five min­utes.”

He found a low brick wall be­hind the hut and sat down on it. His body ached. He no­ticed a man come through, walk round to the far cor­ner where a half-built struc­ture stood. Par­tially hid­den, the man re­lieved him­self on the wall. Ke­shav sat and watched some pye-dogs ly­ing in a small cir­cle in the mid­dle of the lane. The young one had a fist-sized open wound on one thigh where flies were buzzing around. The other two dogs, which looked like the mother and fa­ther, were sniff­ing around the bloody scar. Ke­shav thought they would prob­a­bly have to watch the dis­ease slowly maim­ing their child. He knew his own fa­ther would be in deep trou­ble by now. The worst part was the shame. The fam­ily shame. He wished he could take his fa­ther’s place and suf­fer the beat­ing his fa­ther would cer­tainly re­ceive from the po­lice. Then he stopped the flow of his thoughts and just sat on the wall and waited.

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