He stood on the balcony, in a suit unlike any I had ever seen. It was black, the kind of black that tells you that to call it expensive would be an understatement. It’s rare to find such people in these parts of the city.
It’s rarer for them to go over to the balcony, to become visible. Of course, there are one or two bold men, occasionally, who like to satisfy their fetishes out in the open, but even they summon those urges once the street lights go off.
I turned around to bolt the doors. It was rather loud, but that’s the protocol. There’s seldom any talking. You just drop things, bang doors or tables, and make noise to grab attention. I turned to find him still looking at the moon. I couldn’t see his face with his back turned to me. I then gave up, figuring it was probably all an act. After all, men are all the same.
I walked over to the bed, turned my back to his, and slowly slid my long tresses over the side to the front, as I began to look at the mirror. Many had called it beautiful, ravishing, seductive and other superficial words. Only I knew the scars that hid behind that make-up, the bloodstains under the lipstick, the tears behind the kohl, and the feelings buried in that body.
I looked on, as I waited for him to look at my bare back. Maybe that could get him started. I probably stood still long enough to feel my legs begin to go numb. Deciding this wasn’t working, I walked over to the balcony. He probably waited for me to turn him on. I ran my fingers along his bare neck, my nails gently touching his fair skin, gentle enough to send a shiver down the spine, his and mine.
He looked at me, smiled, pursed his lips, and continued to look at something in the distance. He gently slipped his hand into his pocket. I was losing what was left of my patience. I held his waist with my left arm, pressed my bosom against his, and raised myself on my toes till my mouth reached his ears. Reaching close enough to give him goosebumps, I whispered into his ear, “You know, the clock starts from when I enter the room. There’s no refund if you change your mind.”
“I know.” He said with a smile so enigmatic, for a moment, I felt like being myself. But being myself didn’t fill empty stomachs. Complaints from customers are often neglected, but this one seemed rich. And rich men are always taken seriously. He probably needed a start. I slid my hand down his firm coat, and just as I reached his belt-buckle, he stopped my hand, “I’m good. Thank you.”
I was getting increasingly frustrated now. “Listen, I don’t know what you’re up to, but I’m going to lose my job if you complain. So, whatever you want to do, or want me to do, we better get started.”
“Let’s start with small things,” he said. He was lean, tall, and a face you don’t forget soon. “Why don’t you tell me your name?” He asked. “We don’t reveal our names around here.”
“In that case, tell me what I should call you.” Men that have walked into these doors always looked for merely one thing, pleasure. Respect is left outside of these four walls. They could say a thousand nice things about you as they progress towards orgasm, as things heat up. They never mean any of it. Probably for the better. Outside these walls, we are just creatures beneath humanity.
In the dark, and within these walls, men have mutilated every last inch of my body. Yet in light of the day, in the society where they are accepted and we are not, these very same men look at us like we are untouchables.
“Abha” I replied, coming back from my thoughts. “Abha, I want you to go over to the bed. And sleep. We have until morning.”
I was perplexed. After all, why would someone pay for the entire night to do nothing. Suddenly, I was scared. This man was not like the usual lot. Usually, I could read the minds of men. They didn’t have thoughts in it. All the blood flowed somewhere else. This man, was mysterious. And we fear what we do not know. If there was a last chance to get him to the bed, and get it over with, it had to be done. I ran my hand to the back of my blouse and slowly tried to unhook it. Maybe seeing a naked woman would change his perspective.
Before I could unhook it completely, he turned to face me, and with his left hand, stopped my hand. “That won’t be necessary. Please just find the bed, and sleep this night. I’ll stay here.”
As he pulled my hand to the front, I noticed the reason he had been acting strange. There was a ring on his finger. An unhappy married man, coming here to fulfill his desires. Maybe guilt got the better of him. And now he was trying to be awkward.
“Bad marriage?” He probably needed a push. “You’ll get used to it. It’s just usually the first night that’s difficult to pass. Then you’re a regular for us.” Rich guy and unhappy marriage meant that he could become a potential regular customer. Giving him one unforgettable night could get him to come again and again. Ratan kaka would be happy, and that would mean a raise for me. The odds of losing him seemed small enough if I put in my all.
“That’s the engagement ring. I’m getting married next month. And I love my fiancé more than my life.” He unbuttoned his coat, and took out a postcard size picture from the breast-pocket. It was probably his fiancé. She looked pure, beautiful and innocent. The way he looked at her picture was enough to tell me he was irrevocably in love. I sighed, as I had long forgotten what love or affection meant.
We were back to square one again. I didn’t know his motives. “Then what is the matter?” I asked. “Have you ran out of ways to waste money?”
“No. You deserve a night’s peaceful sleep, without having to kill yourself over it.”
I lost my temper. “I goddamn don’t need your charity. This may not be an ideal life, but that doesn’t allow you to take away the last shred of self respect I have left in me. If charity is what you’re here for, the door’s that way,” I pointed to the door. “I’ll tell Ratan kaka to return your money” I decided to leave before it got messed up.
“Abha,” he stopped me. “What if I told you I’m washing away my sins?”
“Well, then you shouldn’t have come here. This isn’t the kind of place one washes their sins away. Your society believes that this is the kind of place that stains your soul.”
“And yet, I’m here tonight.”
“You are.” He seemed to have an answer for every single one of my questions. This man was dangerous. For all I knew, he could be a bloody psychopath.
“Why don’t I tell you why I’m here? Maybe that could build some trust.” He motioned me towards the bed. He walked ahead of me, and picked up that cranky wooden chair, placed a few feet from the bed. He slowly removed his coat and rested it on the chair. He unbuttoned his cuffs and folded them all the way up to his elbows.
In the meanwhile, I removed my earrings and bangles, lay them on the table, and brushed my hair once, before I sat down on the bed.
I had spent night after night on this very same bed, and yet, today it felt unholy. This is the last thing we want. With time, we learn to accept our fate and live this life. But if something reminds us of self respect, like what this man was doing, it gives us a ray of hope for a better life, making it all the more difficult for the night that follows.
Unknown to me, my eyes welled up. He took his handkerchief from his pocket, and handed it to me. I denied his offer, and wiped my tears with my hands.
He sat down on the chair, his legs crossed, as he narrated his tale. “Who I am, doesn’t matter. At least not enough to give my name. But if you want to call me by a name, you can call me Abhimanyu. That was the name my mother gave me. I left this city seventeen years ago. I caught a train to Bangalore, changed my name, and worked to pay for my schooling. I graduated in a good college, worked here for a couple of years before I had enough to start a company of my own. That’s my story.”
“Why are you telling all of this to me?” I asked. My profession didn’t allow me to get personal. It wasn’t good, for either of us. And his rants about his life wasn’t making things any clearer. “Also,” I continued, “that doesn’t answer why you’re here.”
He smiled, probably realising I wouldn’t let go. “My mother, she grew up here. She didn’t choose this life, she was forced to, since she was a kid. Around here, she didn’t have much choice. She wasn’t even 21 when she had me, with someone who even she didn’t know.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.” In his mother’s story, was a glimpse of my own. There’s rarely a moment when people feel like our own when you lead the kind of life I do. All that ever crosses your mind is paying for three square meals a day and earning for the next.
“You don’t have to be sorry. No one has to be. My mother never deprived me of a normal life, at least as normal as it can get,” he laughed. I too laughed, knowing that a normal life meant nothing more than irony for the likes of us.
“She would apologize to me every morning, for the kind of life she brought to me, and would promise me that one day, we could get far away from here. I had even seen her along with the other women fight with Ratan kaka to make sure I wasn’t thrown in with the other child labourers.”
“You lived here?” I couldn’t believe my ears. I had never imagined anyone making it out of here turning out well.
“Yes, until one day. I was probably eleven. I woke up to the sounds of women weeping. I was told to leave, without much context. Apparently, the night before, this drunk goon had slammed her head to the mirror, after she tried to leave when he said something unpleasant about me. I don’t know what happened, and I never will. But I do know this much. She gave up her life to stand up for me.”
“That must have been terrible.” I had tears in my eyes again. This time, I let them flow. “I didn’t give her anything then, apart from pain, misery, guilt and sorrow,” he said, looking at the moon.
“And today, I can’t. That’s why, I’m doing whatever I can to give her soul a shred of peace.”
“I’m touched, thank you. But you treating me with respect and trying to give me peace for one night isn’t going to solve my problems. I’ll loathe myself for a long while.” His intentions weren’t wrong. But his sympathy was misplaced. It would do me more harm than good.
“Tomorrow, it’s a different problem. Worry about today. You can choose. It’s going to be me, or some other drunkard.”
And though I didn’t sleep that night, there was peace, hope, belief and trust. We spoke about a lot of things, like the sound of a chime, the charm of sunset, the purity of an infant, the innocence of a child, the unconditional love animals give us and a lot more things.
About an hour before the break of dawn, I fell asleep. I had probably slept for quite a while, because when I heard the bolt click, yesterday felt an aeon ago. He was gone. I woke up to find an envelope by my earrings on the table. There was a wad of cash, a card with a number on it, and a letter. It read:
Here’s how you’ll solve today’s problems.
What you want to do with this cash is up to you. There’s enough for you to take as many others as you want to, and leave this city, and start a new life. Not just yours, but others’ too.
And one fine day, when you think your past does not haunt you any more, you can contact me. Maybe, come live with us a life of freedom. I would have taken you away with me today, but I understand you have grown up to be a strong woman, and you want to take control of your life without bowing down to anyone.
I will be waiting for your call. My number is on the card.
Thank you for trusting me with your real name. For a moment, I saw that little, innocent and shy 2 year old girl I fed with my own hands and you have given me reason to believe she is still within you.