Sara takes the bus that goes south, bears west, till it reaches a tip of reclaimed land, the cluster of buildings by the sea. She likes taking the bus to Rajat’s place. It makes the long trip longer. It stretches anticipation, creates the appropriate build-up for the moment when she has gone up the lift to the ninth floor, rung the doorbell of the PG room with the independent entrance, and walked through Rajat’s room to the balcony. In this balcony, she can look down at a city that has been almost gobbled up by the sea.
But when she goes upstairs, Rajat is waiting for her. “Couldn’t get tickets for the night show,” he says. “We’ll have to leave right away.” He switches off the TV, picks up his car keys. He gives her a quick kiss, turns her around gently so she is facing the door.
Sara is back on the roads, this time with Rajat, heading in another direction altogether. The long day, beginning with the night on the train, is catching up with Sara. There is no taxi driver in this crawling car, no bus conductor or fellow passengers to wrestle with; the city outside has an air of being offstage, thinking its own thoughts, waiting for the cue to begin its night. It yawns now and then to store up oxygen.
“I’m off on Monday,” Rajat says. “Back end of the month. Will you be here?”
“I don’t know,” says Sara. “I’ll check.” She yawns.
The light turns red as the car reaches the crossing. Rajat looks irritated, but when he says, “We should coordinate our plans better,” he says it lightly, he’s not complaining.
Sara dozes; again, Rajat doesn’t seem to mind. It’s happened before — sleep seems to come to her more easily when she is with him. She finds Rajat’s comfort with silences deeply restful. He doesn’t need to be constantly airing his opinions on everyone and everything.
It’s well worth the long drive. If not for the film, for the theatre, a throwback to another time. Unlike the multiplexes they have got used to, this is a theatre, a great big bulbous fantasy of a building. Its ornate white façade is decorated with hoardings of people the size of myths. Inside, the chandelier is right out of a film set, the red-carpeted lobby has statues of curvy women from movie paradise ushering them in. The grand staircase with the gleaming wide wooden banister takes them up, leads them to a hall that would be appropriate for a blockbuster of yesteryears, Lawrence of Arabia, say, or Mughal-e-Azam.
The hall is absolutely packed; it’s Saturday night, and this is a family film, which means there are entire generations present, avidly demanding entertainment. There are the practically newborn babies who will wake to test their lungs only when the film reaches a tense moment; there are the deaf old uncles who won’t understand what is happening unless every scene, every character and motive is deconstructed in loud and minute detail. In between, cell phones will light up, ring to the sound of the Airtel signature tune or sare jahan se achcha, loud and relaxed conversations will follow despite the party-pooping Shhh, bags of popcorn will be passed down the row, the too-thin plastic glass of coke will overturn even before it is tasted.
But as of now, it is only the expectation of this variety of fare — along with the ads they have already seen on TV — that keeps the audience going. The usher’s torchlight is still following latecomers all the way to the end of the occupied row. Seats are pushed back, feet stepped on. There is a mutter of disgust from a woman whose eyes are glued to the screen, though it’s only a public service slide slipped in after the advertisements and before the trailers. The slide exhorts the public to fight terrorism by reporting strange packages and people to the relevant authorities. The familiarity of it all lulls Sara; when Rajat puts his arm around her shoulder, she takes the hand hanging at the end of his arm and holds it against her neck.
When it’s all over and the credits are rolling up the screen, it’s hard to believe everyone was so eager to be here that they queued up for tickets or booked them in advance or bought them in black. They simply can’t wait to get out; there are wayward branches of people sprouting in all directions in search of the closest exit. Rajat lingers a step behind Sara so she can go ahead.
Stuck in a traffic jam on the grand staircase between the second and first floors, Sara has that unaccountable feeling that someone is staring at her. The line is inching forward a step at a time. She looks down the stairs, all the way to the landing on the first floor. She sees the man immediately. He is in a corner on the landing, his family round him in a modest-sized herd. He cranes his neck to get a good view of Sara’s face.
When their eyes meet, he looks shocked, as if he can’t believe how right he was. Then he looks away.
Sara too knows him instantly though she met him only once, briefly, and that too many years ago. His face has filled out a little and his moustache is gone so the face looks bigger, emptier. But it’s him; Sara knows those probing eyes, its ability to look both puzzled and knowing at the same time. She wants to see if he will look in her direction again; she takes a step forward too soon. Rajat puts out a hand to keep her from falling. The man – and she remembers his name now, Rasheed – has finally noticed that his family is holding up the throng behind them. He looks embarrassed, apologetic, as if he has been caught out doing what he shouldn’t be doing. He hurries his family forward; he doesn’t turn back for another look.
It’s Rasheed, the man who used to be married to Laila for a couple of years. That was before she married again, this time for love. Sara feels something turn over in her stomach, then it becomes a dull weight; it’s the masala of the noodles or the butter of the popcorn; or it’s her periods, showing up a week too soon.
Outside the theatre, she moves slowly though the crowd has thinned. All the way back to the car, Sara lets Rajat lead her as if she is a child who may get lost if not watched every minute.
After all these years, Laila’s Rasheed. The virtuous bore Laila escaped, the husband who escaped death by fire unlike his successor, the love match. Rasheed is alive, he goes to films on Saturday evenings with his sensible matronly second wife and their children. Unlike the married-for-love husband and Laila, both dead and gone, buried with official epitaphs that have melted the individuality out of them, reduced them to statistics. All that’s left of them is a phrase or two in some official document on the 1993 riots. At most, a couple of sentences in non-government reports, bleeding heart details of yet another round of looting and hatred and violence. The same old revulsion, the same old sense of taken-by-surprise, the same old shock that it was allowed to happen, that it wasn’t stopped before it happened.
Sara feels the shock of Laila coming back to the present, even if it is only by proxy. It is a shock in which disbelief takes charge, keeps Sara from coming face to face with unknown sources of terror. The pictures in Sara’s head, the knowable: there’s Laila, maybe seventeen, eighteen, grown-up and glamorous, condescending to the younger Sara. Then the Laila of some years later, by then the two of them mere acquaintances for old times’ sake; that’s the day they had lunch, it was the day before Laila got married the second time. Then nothing.
Then nothing; then news, indirect, months late, as garbled and unbelievable as a message that has come via too many people passing it on, that Laila and her husband burnt to death when Mumbai erupted; then the shock that it can happen to someone you once knew, perhaps even loved; then again, nothing. Or almost nothing. If a coffin is opened once it has been shut, it is difficult to predict what kind of state the body inside will be in, to say whether it will still be a body or merely remains.
Seeing Rasheed, seeing him see her, somehow makes it possible that this unseen coffin was a real one after all. It also makes Sara a little girl again, travelling back across what seems centuries, visiting the joint family quarters in Bombay in Dilkush Mansion. It sends her back to summer holidays in childhood; to Laila; to the gang of three that lasted at least two summers – Samar, Sara, Laila. Or Sara, Laila, Samar, Laila in between, the two of them competing for her, the sort of situation Laila enjoyed best.
Laila was unlike any of their other regular, year-round friends. To begin with, she was older than both Samar and Sara. Samar tried to make up for this by often reminding Laila that she was only a girl, so age didn’t count for much. Sometimes this worked. There were many places Laila wanted to go to where she was not allowed to go alone. But Samar too could never be sure of her. Just when it seemed he had nothing to worry about, Laila would lose interest, in the middle of some game or on the verge of an outing that needed all three of them. She always caught Samar by surprise. But Sara could see it coming. Laila used to have a snaky shiny plait that she wore over her right shoulder to rest against her breast, just like a heroine in an old black and white film. But when she was bored or angry or impatient, Laila would flick the plait in a quick movement, send it flying over her shoulder to hang chastened in a black spine down the length of her back. She would follow this up with a toss of her head, letting the plait know who was in charge.
It was as if her parents had unknowingly typecast her by naming her Laila, starting her on the road to romance. Laila took the name to heart, built romances around herself; it was impossible for her to be anything but a romantic heroine. At the end, of course, her name made her someone else; someone in whom the men who lit the fires saw nothing romantic or heroic; all she had, in their eyes, was a religion.
“There’s some biryani in the fridge,” says Rajat. He is barefoot, he has stripped down to his shorts. “Shall I heat it?” But instead of going to the fridge, he’s rolling up Sara’s T-shirt till it becomes a fat cotton ring. She slips her arms out of the sleeves and he gets the ring to roll higher, past her face and head. He drops the shirt so it lies on the floor, a small cushion with a hole in the middle.
He pauses to admire the old but pretty bra. He undoes its hook, then tackles her skirt.
“I’m not hungry,” Sara says. She kicks off her sandals.
His lips brush the hollow of her throat. His hands help his lips check the nape of her neck, the curve of her breasts and their weight, the depth of her belly button, the texture of her pubic hair. He feels his way like a blind man reassuring himself that the shape of the landscape is still the same, there are no new landmarks to be learnt by feel, taste, smell.
She lifts her arms, dangles them loosely round his neck.
His lips graze their way back upward, linger at her breasts, reach her face. “What’s the matter,” they whisper into the skin of her cheek.
She pushes him away so she can look at him. “Nothing. I saw this man I used to know at the theatre.”
“Oh?” he raises one eyebrow, an achievement he knows she admires. “The past catching up with you?”
Sara can sense that the evening with Rajat, Saturday night out, is in danger of escaping her. Seeing that man, remembering Laila and what happened to her — what could have happened – has set something in motion, not just what happened years back but in the years since. If she lets it unfold, even a little, it may take away the point of the evening, which is to keep the night firmly pinned on the body of the present.
She looks at Rajat’s face, into it. There’s a smile there, assuring her she is entitled to a past. It’s a teasing, sweet smile. It tells her he will listen patiently if she must tell him who that man in the theatre is. But he will be happier blind and deaf, going back to her skin — where he belongs — wordlessly.
Rajat is waiting; his hand is still at her breast, her arms are still round his neck. His hand, her breast, her arms, his neck – his body and hers fill all the room the present has, take up all its air. The past is always there. It knows how to wait, lying below the balcony of this room like the sea. Sara thinks she can hear it breathe in the distance, a gentle watery heave.
The past, always trying to catch up.
The heaviness in her stomach lightens; in its place there is something glowing, stirring, making a little fire.
“Let it try,” she says, so passionate that Rajat chuckles with surprise. “Screw the past.” And Sara proceeds to demonstrate how by pushing him so he falls back on the bed, pulling her on top of him.
Every night Yasmin waits for sleep to find her.
She lies as still as possible, eyes shut tight. It should be easy then, the easiest thing in the world, for sleep to come to her, settle on her like a warm blanket. But like Yasmin, sleep is afraid of the dark.
Often it’s almost morning before she can fall asleep. And once sleep finally comes to her, it has trouble leaving. Sleep sits on her head all day like a thick fat cloud. Sometimes it fools her into believing that the day is only a distraction, a dream. It’s the long wide-awake night hours that make up her real life. A secret but real life.
This morning though, a whirring sound is drilling a little hole in her head so the sleep can leak out of it. It’s her Ammi’s sewing machine, humming its flat one-note drone to help it run for its life.
It’s almost morning, but it can’t possibly be time to get up.
The machine thinks it is; it refuses to shut up. It seems to know that there are more than the usual reasons for Yasmin to get up today.
Yasmin found out about the board exam dates yesterday. She has less than two months to cover the portion of five subjects. She has less than a week of school and then she never has to go back. She can be finished with school, all her three schools. The newest school where her classroom is so packed that the teachers barely know all the students’ names and faces. Not one of her teachers may recognise Yasmin if she walks past her on the road. The new school before that, the year Yasmin was tired all the time, and her Abba had to take her to school every day because it was so far. And then the old school, the one she went to in her old life. In her earlier life.
But in a few days, it will all be over, worrying about being allowed to go to school, or about going and coming back safe. About buying uniforms and textbooks, finding a friend, keeping the friend, passing the tests, pleasing her teachers. She’ll be finished with it all for always.
But first there are the exams.
This time she has to really study history and geography. She has to learn the textbooks by heart so she can write them down word for word, in her sleep if that’s what the examiners want. History and geography are two of the three subjects she failed last year. She has to pass this time.
She has to pass because she’s already seventeen and a half, almost eighteen. Because she has already lost two years, once when she couldn’t do the tenth boards because of what happened, once last year when she failed the twelfth boards. Two years lost. Lost is a better word than gone; what is lost may be found.
She has to pass because her mother is working too hard and her father is getting sick too often. It doesn’t matter how much housework Yasmin does, they still have a hard time earning enough, sending her to school. If she passes, she can go to college, her mother has already agreed. Then maybe she can get a job.
Then maybe they can get out of here.
She has to pass because Akbar Bhai is gone. Earlier she used to think that it was only till he came back from wherever he was hiding that she had to be Abba and Ammi’s daughter and son. Now she knows he will not come back; she has to be their daughter and son forever.
She has to do it all alone, somehow. Then everyone who tells Ammi and Abba she shouldn’t go to school will never be able to open their mouths again. They’ll know they’re wrong, they won’t say it’s not safe for girls, anything can happen. They won’t say it’s no use, it’s better she goes to sewing class like Sultana, it’s better she does some work right now. It’s better she helps you.
It’s hard to get out of bed when the reasons for getting out of bed are so powerful. They weigh you down, keep you lying flat.
But there they are, the words that ring shrilly when they come together in a sentence. It’s better she helps you. That’s Yasmin’s alarm clock; just thinking the words makes her eyes fly open.
The first thing she sees is Ammi bent over the sewing machine, her hand chasing the wheel so it will turn faster. The sewing machine sounds like a busy insect, an insect that doesn’t know the rules about daylight being for work, the dark being for sleep. Because of this ignorant insect, Ammi is already at work though the sun is barely up.
Yasmin rolls up her mattress and carries it to the other room where she stacks it against the wall. Though she moves silently, Abba groans then coughs; he must be sick again.
Yasmin hurries. The stove in the kitchen is waiting for her, her work-loving insect. But when she goes to the bathroom, she wastes a whole minute looking at the tap before she opens it. She can’t help it. She looks at the tap with such fervour, with such a speaking look, that if the tap had a heart, it would melt, it would let the water flow. But Yasmin knows the tap has heard many eloquent pleas before, it’s not going to be moved so easily. She only looks at it; she’s not going to waste any words on it. It’s god she is really talking to as she fixes her eyes on the tap.
She silently mouths her daily morning prayer: Allah, your grace can do anything. You know better than anyone that anything can happen. Let your grace melt to become water, corporation water. Let it come to your thirsty children through the city pipes. If the city pipes are broken, if the government has forgotten to repair them or thinks we are worthless, we don’t need pipes, let the water find other ways. Let it find invisible pipes only you know of, and travel all the way to this little tap of ours. Allah, only you can teach this tap what it means to be a water tap.
Yasmin opens the tap. It makes a spluttering noise as if announcing that good news is almost here, just around the corner; then it burps empty bubbles of air. But Allah the Merciful must have decided that He is tired of solving only big problems. He has decided that this morning at least, Yasmin’s extra minute in the bathroom should not go to waste, and nor should her prayer. His grace sweet-talks the tap into letting a thin trickle flow till it fills two small buckets; Yasmin can keep one bucket aside for the dishes to be washed after her kitchen work, and there’s still a whole bucket left.
By the time she is ready to leave, Ammi has almost finished one skirt, she has reached the bottom edge to be hemmed. But that’s nothing, Yasmin can tell from Ammi’s fierce look of concentration. Ammi has to finish as much of the machine sewing as she can before the other women arrive; the machine is not hers, it’s common property. It has to be shared. Ammi is bent over the machine now, her prayer is rushing straight down the hemline. She’s willing the narrow band of cloth to stay in place so the racing needle can run over it like an express train.
Yasmin sets a slice of bread on the machine table so Ammi doesn’t have to get up. Ammi pauses, her finger holding down the place where she has to continue her run. The single naked bulb sticking out of the wall by her makes Ammi somebody else, a moving machine that has arms and legs that do the same thing over and over.
“Did you comb your hair?” she asks Yasmin.
Yasmin’s hair is combed and pulled back, her hair is practically stitched into place in the fat straight plait. Maybe Ammi has trouble seeing. Maybe her eyes are all used up by the needle, its need to be constantly shown where to pierce the cloth.
Or maybe it’s just the dark room. The dark room and the dark house and the dark building.
It should make them feel as safe as a hidden cave, this dark, but it only makes them sad and ask each other obvious questions. It keeps them from asking “Why is this place so dark?” or “How did we get to this cave and when are we leaving?” Instead they grope blindly, asking “Are you there?” When they find a body in their way, they touch it, feel its shape and ask, “Is this you?”
But Ammi has no trouble seeing when she opens the red round box where she keeps buttons and hooks, also small change. She squints at the shiny little things, the plastic buttons and steel hooks as bright as the five and two rupee coins. She chooses two fat coins, one thin one, hands them over to Yasmin.
“You’ll be careful?” she asks, as if Yasmin has to guard something precious, say ten thousand rupees in her schoolbag. “You’ll come home directly? Don’t talk to anyone once you’ve left Sultana at her class.”
She has made so many promises to Ammi, to Abba, to herself, to Akbar though he is no longer with them, that sometimes she feels heavy with promises, fat and swollen with it like the crazy pregnant woman upstairs. If Yasmin runs, if she trips or falls, she will break a promise. The promises she has made to herself are the worst of all; they are huge as airy balloons, but they’re made of such fine glass that they can break without being touched. Keeping a promise to someone else sometimes means breaking the promise you made to yourself. This is a strange and troubling thought. Yasmin has not found anything to explain it in her schoolbooks; it must mean that she is now really grown-up.