When Sheela held her hands up to undo her hair from a bun, her blouse could hardly contain her tender voluptuousness.
Kartar Singh, seated on the bed with her, was sweating profusely. And that wasn’t because he had never been with a woman before, or that he was in a brothel for the first time in his life.
While Sheela had ample experience in the sleeping business and was due to undress at any moment now, Kartar felt underprepared and overdressed for what he had come to accomplish.
Nervously, he got up and checked if the door was properly bolted. Sheela couldn’t contain her fountain of laughter on seeing the flustered rookie. She was used to men with raging hormones who’d be spent within moments from when they stepped on top of her. But this case would be much longer, she surmised. Maybe she’d have to undo his pants herself, so she thought.
She dimmed the lights of the kerosene lamp. In a slow, inviting manner, she undid a hook of her blouse.
There had been a power outage in the neighbourhood. The dark room smelt of damp wood, betel nut and cheap perfume. The growling clouds in the sky gave an ominous forecast for the night.
Sheela took Kartar’s hand and put it on her chest. The wayward wind rattled the ageing windows, startling them both. The rain felt just moments away. Sheela got up with a sigh and turned around to close the window.
When she turned around, what she saw made her shriek like a frightened mouse. Kartar Singh had lost a garment.
It wasn’t his pants. It wasn’t his shirt.
It was his beard and moustache.
Sheela was shocked to find the greengrocer across the street, Vinod, seated on the bed. For long had he been watching her in hope from his shop across the narrow street in this damned red-light district of the city. They’d never spoken before. Sheela didn’t speak Hindi. But what does language have to do with communicating an intense longing? She had been observing his furtive, love-filled glances for far too long. Their eyes had been meeting merely once a week, the only time when she came to dry her laundry in the balcony. Mondays at noon.
Sheela could understand why he was on that bed. But couldn’t understand why he had to come in a disguise. Confused, she sat on the bed.
Vinod took her hands in his. They were cold as ice. He rubbed them gently to warm her up. She didn’t breathe a word. The cold nonchalance in her being had deserted her.
She shivered from the draft seeping through the cracks in the window. Vinod undid his bright red turban layer by layer and draped it around Sheela’s half-naked body. It was the same shade of red as her saree.
The sultry seductress felt a nakedness she’d never experienced before. She shed a tear, then she whimpered, and then it began to rain.
Amid blinding lightning and deafening thunder, she cried.
Vinod put his hand on her thigh. It had a tender touch that had no intention of venturing anywhere beyond. It was a touch of reassurance, from a gender that had only broken Sheela’s spirit ever since she’d known life.
She was crying not because she’d been robed respectfully for the first time in life. She cried because she realised that she’d begun to see everyone in the world, especially men, as heartless beasts. She had begun to look at herself the way other men did, as a body meant to be derived pleasure from.
Through Vinod’s gesture of draping her in the turban’s cloth, she felt the possibility of having dignity in life. She felt the weight of all the men she’d had to sleep with, on her soul. She breathed heavily amid snuffles.
Vinod smiled. He took out a tubular plastic toy from his pocket. He uncorked the top of the cylinder and took a little plastic handle out of the toy. It was dripping with a soapy solution. As he blew into it, a flurry of bubbles floated in the room.
Sheela felt distracted and attracted, from and towards the right things.
Vinod dipped the handle in the solution again and held it in front of the crevice in the window. The incoming winds gave rise to more bubbles in the room. The wind was changing.
Vinod dipped again and held it in front of Sheela’s face. She breathed deeply, perhaps for the first time in her life, and blew.
Thus they played, as the rain pelted on the roof above. They felt as if they had spent a distant childhood, in a distant life, together. That’s what bubbles do to a suppressed soul.
It took them an hour to finally embrace each other. It was a new feeling for both of them. Vinod had never embraced a woman, and all the men Sheela had been with had never bothered to embrace her. Had it been an ordinary night with a customer, Sheela would have had to undress and sleep with a stranger, like a draining day at undignified work. But today, she curled in the warmth of the long red turban, and Vinod’s shy embrace.
What was this feeling? Was she ready to accept it the way it was?
Time flew. But Vinod had only reached halfway in the execution of his plan. He had his eye on the clock. He took a letter out of his pocket and presented it to her. It was written in Telugu, the language Sheela spoke. But alas, she couldn’t read. All she could understand was the little heart scribbled at the end of the short message in the letter.
For the first time that night, Sheela looked straight into Vinod’s eyes. Vinod allowed her to read him. His gaze was a disarming surrender. To Sheela, it felt like an invitation to a place called home. After an eternity, she nodded and held Vinod’s hands wanting to never let it go. That was all Vinod had been seeking all these years.
It rained all night, flooding the entire red-light district. The next morning, as the brothel owner came wading through the water on the street, he felt a rude shock. Not from the electric wires dangling from the poles into the water . It was a different kind of wire. A red saree and a red turban were tied end to end and fastened onto the window sill of Sheela’s room. That garment just managed to reach the puddles of water on the street. A familiar slipper was floating near the runnel.
In a frenzy, the brothel owner hurried up to the first floor to check on Sheela’s room. A pair of fake beard and moustache lay on the floor. A letter blotted out by tears fluttered on the bed.
Only the little heart at the end of the letter remained.