The light from the tube flickered a harsh green, giving Kiran a headache; and the silhouettes she saw in the queue outside the drug store, a dramatic resolve. People united by the needs of their physical bodies had become a single, hypnotic organism that was losing a head, adding a tail, swaying patiently on its many feet unmindful of the cold – December, or the time – nearly ten at night. Kiran had already counted three fidgety middle-aged women, one barefooted teen, and some well built men in colorful vests. The latter had jumped off the back of a truck to add themselves in the chain. She spared a glance at her fingers, white with their grip over the wheel of her battered Hyundai. She saw that the drug store was making a few people very happy – those black plastic bags they came out carrying did not seem to contain just medicine. Too nervous to step out and too wound up to sit still, Kiran had already attempted to dial Abhay five times since the evening. But she didn’t go through. She had waited for three hours, willing his dog – and the boys who had gone in search of it – to emerge from one of the alleys of the ‘village’- a cluster of homes, really, that belonged to one of Mumbai’s oldest communities. Kiran picked up the phone to call Abhay again, but dialled Fiza instead.
“Hey! How’s Sri Lanka! Did you bite off your mum-in-law’s head yet?” she sang into the phone.
“Hey! What’s with the false liveliness!? Didn’t we speak after I landed,” the old faithful zinged back. Fiza – of their precarious, hopeful days of new jobs; navigating Mumbai’s local trains, counting planes overhead, bitchy scrolling through of other people’s lives, making ‘get rich and getaway’ plans.
“I lost the ugly dog.”
“Roxy? Abhay’s dog? Kiran!”
“Yeah. During the walk this evening. She slipped off her leash.”
“How do you know she’s completely lost?”
“Perhaps not. The kids said they saw a fat dog somewhere here. I’ve sent them to take a look.”
“Kids from the village.”
“And where are you?”
“In my car just where…you know…all the dirty lanes start.”
“What’s the dog worth?”
“Fizu, it would be worth many puppies to a breeder. I need to find her. Abhay loves her to death.”
“You don’t even like the dog,” she said, and paused. “File a police complaint Kiran, and get out of there. Go home.”
“I can’t leave without the dog. You know how Abhay is such a poor, little rich boy, he can’t handle…”
“- and the one you love and are engaged to.” Fiza, always good with priorities.
“What do you see outside your window?”
“Um, what? I don’t particularly know. This whole city looks like one big public toilet if you ask me.”
“Do you have someone with you?”
“Like whom? You were my one and only.”
“Why don’t you call someone at work maybe?”
“No one talks to anyone… Everyone’s worried their smelly corner of the toilet will be usurped. I don’t know.”
“If you think a breeder might have stolen it, you have to go to the police. You will need help. And then go home. Mumbai is not safe. I’m happy I got out.” Kiran heard Fiza bite her tongue soon as she said this.
“Thank God I have Abhay.” Kiran said, her voice quite small.
“Yes! I love him, I need him. He loves me. The math is quite simple.”
“Does Abhay know of the layoffs in your company?”
“I don’t want to narrate my morbid stories to him.”
“Well if he’s marrying into morbidity he should know.” She took a sharp breath, “Do you need some money, Kiran?”
“That’s not why I called, Fiza! I’ll call you later.”
Kiran cast about for some food. Something oily and unhealthy would feel so good right about now. Abhay’s flat was close by, she could raid his fridge. She abandoned the idea as swiftly as it came to her. She felt too guilty about Roxy. Perhaps she could order on an app? Would they deliver to a lonely person in a lonely car parked in the middle of a street? She sighed. She called the watchman of Abhay’s building to check if Roxy had returned. No luck.
Kiran started when she heard tapping sounds. The boys were back. They were peering into her car, their faces pressed against the window. She rolled down the glass. They had found nothing. They had spread out into teli galli, shiv galli and even pererawadi, which was apparently forbidden to them. They had called out ‘Rosie, rosie’ but no dog barked in response. Hadn’t they said someone had seen the dog wander into the village? Could the dog have wandered into the water of the creek? No, didi the boatmen would have noticed. Was there someone in the village who had a lot of dogs? The boys shrugged. They weren’t used to knowing anything for sure. Her eyes fell on a paper cone that one of the kids was carrying – she spied some peanuts in it. What wouldn’t she give for some salted, mud-roasted peanuts that carried just a whiff of the sea! Abhay preferred the nut butter available at the organic store, which was fine of course, except that it was so dense she could feel her throat close up. The boy noticed her look achingly at the cone and passed it to her. While she took her time munching through each peanut, the boys set about making a tiny bonfire, a sigree, in front of the drugstore. She watched them coax a robust flame out of it. Its warmth was too inviting to say no to. She pulled a jacket around herself, stepped out of the car and bent ever so lightly over the fire. As she took in the warmth, she sent a silent message to the dog to find her.
When Kiran and Abhay met through friends a year ago, she had found eighteen-month old Roxy adorable, if maladjusted. Mumbai, humid and crowded, did not have the same access to wide roads or open parks that Delhi did, and nowhere was it more evident than in the dog’s panic-pooping and incessant whining. Just about anything made it jump. Its large frame and frail heart began to irritate Kiran soon enough and the dog had sensed this. It did not help that she felt the animal was vulgarly huge, which it was – with a face resembling rotting lettuce. The nights she stayed over at Abhay’s were spent negotiating leg space with the dog. A year of this had somehow not tired her out, among other things, and what’s more – Abhay had given her a ring as an invitation to have his dog walk all over her for its life. She had accepted. Abhay was a good man – he knew the right way of the world, the right way to do things, the safe way to live.
The boys were having fun, passing around peanuts and whatnots. The average age of the gang must have been about twelve. Kiran felt guilty for engaging them for over three hours. They wore modest clothes and had on sensible shoes. She needed to act like Abhay would in such situations; and pulled her wallet out. She handed each of them a hundred rupee note. They tried to laugh away her generosity but she waved the notes insistently by their faces. She felt good when they finally accepted the money. They counted the money and a minute later, started making plans for ways to spend it. A smile spread across her face and she leant back on the bonnet of her car. The cool night air and the bonfire was bringing some cheer back to her. A few minutes passed. Her reverie was broken when a voice screeched suddenly, tearing through the silence. Kiran stood up straight and looked towards the village. Soon, a woman, kind of burly, appeared.
The streetlamp under which the woman stood made her features sharp and gave all the jewellery she wore around her neck and arms an otherworldly glint.
“My son does not need your money! Get away from him.” The woman was pointing her index finger at Kiran.
“No, no, aunty, I was just thanking him,” Kiran managed.
“Thank him when he’s dead of alcohol poisoning. Who do you think you people are? My son does not need your help.” The woman started thrashing her son, till he handed the currency note back to Kiran. The other kids scurried away. Kiran was mortified. A crowd gathered – a mix of villagers and bored renter-types. The woman kept up with the screaming – this woman was out to corrupt and hurt their children.
Kiran got into the car, as a few men banged their palms against her windscreen and her doors. ‘Why did you give them money?’ Someone offered, ‘kidnapper’. She started to tremble, her fingers fidgeting to find the keys. Two men tried to pacify the crowd but they seemed adamant, for entertainment, or for worse. Her breath became shorter, and she broke out in a cold sweat. The banging was getting louder in her head. The space around seemed to close in and claw at her throat. She felt a blackness growing, her mouth going dry, her pulse slowing.
Just then, a voice rang out, “atiye sab”. It carried authority and a hint of threat. The people in front of her windscreen started to clear out. The crowd dispersed, and only the man remained. He made gestures at her to leave. Kiran tried to get her bearings. She found her keys, the keys found the ignition and her hand found the gear stick. As soon as he heard her clutch grate nervously against the gear plate, he turned to go back into the drugstore. But in about ten seconds, he popped back out. He hadn’t heard her car fall into reverse gear. In fact he didn’t hear the engine at all and walked towards her, he seemed about twenty seven years old.
He mouthed in English, “Need help?”
She rolled her window down and stared blankly at him for a whole minute. He said, “Ma’am?” a couple of times.
What she thought to be her voice, that rose in her throat was now something that had to fight its way out of the tight knot in her stomach, climb resolutely up her windpipe – causing it to burn up – and come out through her throat. She heard it tell him that she could not leave. She absolutely needed to find Roxy. She stressed that it belonged to her fiancé. He shrugged it all away and said, “Come back in the morning.”
He was firm that now she had attracted the attention of nervous renters and daily wagers, she could not stay much longer. Helplessness swamped Kiran. So this is how it would all end. Abhay would hate himself for finally deciding to trust her with his precious things, especially his Roxy, he would not get over losing her, they would grow distant, she would have to leave Mumbai, her parents would make her forsake reason and sanity, her independence would be taken away and with it her life force.
Twelve years in Mumbai brought to a definite end by an ugly, ill-behaved dog. Kiran covered her face, as tears rolled down. The young man looked at her pitifully for a minute and then left.
Kiran must have sat there for thirty minutes more, maybe an hour. She saw the man shutter down the drugstore before appearing by her window.
“Do you want some water?” He asked. He had brought a bottle with him. She accepted it gratefully, but couldn’t help check its seal.
“Please don’t worry, I have not spiked this bottle.”
Kiran was embarrassed and said, “Why do you people assume the worst of us? That we want to ruin a child, that we think you have spiked our drink?”
“Us? You people? What is you people?” He asked.
She shrugged, spread her palms outward, indicating where they were, she in her car, huddled over her wheel and him standing wide-chested, looking down at her.
“What else do we people do to you people?”
“My fiancé’s dog ran into these alleys and it hasn’t been seen since then.”
“And where is your fiancé?”
“He’s out of town.”
“Wait till tomorrow. It will come back.”
“How can you be sure? I need to find it today.”
“I see. Yes, it is possibly here somewhere.”
“Will you help me find it?”
“No, no, Ma’am.”
She got out of her car and leant on the side of the driver’s door, her arms folded across her body adamantly. She noticed the man’s eyes travelled to the scrapes of peeled paint across the driver’s door of the car; and she moved her body involuntarily in a bid to cover it but gave up immediately.
Tonight should have been different. She should have been in her apartment, vegetating on the sofa, allowing some soothing TV show about arrogant lawyers or naughty doctors to wash over her as she sipped on some red – the almost perfect single life while it lasted. But here she was, alone, desperate and guilty, a few streets away from her fiancé’s apartment, having probably lost his dearly beloved Labrador Roxy for good.
Kiran picked up a torchlight from inside her glove compartment and made to walk into one of the smaller alleys.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“You didn’t lose your dog.”
“Dogs are not like humans, Ma’am. They are very intelligent animals.”
She shot him a look. “Why are you still here?”
“For you. In case you create any more nuisance I will need to cart you out of here.”
She stopped for a moment, and returned to the car. She took something else out of the glove box and put that inside her shirt, making sure the waistband of her trousers secured it. She looked to see if the man was looking but his face was turned away. The shape of a screw driver was visible where her jacket did not cover her white T-shirt.
The alley was about two-shoulders wide. Isolated tungsten bulbs glowed in the winter darkness; illuminating a multi-coloured veranda here, an advertisement for ‘home-cooked fish meals’ there. The air was heavy with the smell of sea and drying fish. Several houses were 3-storeyed – all looked like heavily made up clowns in a circus to her – intended to be warm, but very grotesque.
“So what do you do?” she asked him.
“You saw me. Ajinkya drug store. That’s me.” He said, before continuing, “And you? Is being adamant and childish your day job?” He walked ahead of her without giving her a chance to shoot a repartee at him. He was muscular, had strong arms and a supple gait. He looked over his shoulder at her now and then. It was almost one in the morning now. His phone had rung twice and he had declined the calls both times.
“Do you live here?” she ventured, testing.
“Yes, all my life.”
“You haven’t travelled outside of here?”
“You know, for work.”
“You mean, to find money? The sea gives my family plenty. You have travelled. I can see that you are not from here. What have you gained?”
“A job. A man who is the love of my life.”
“An outsider, whose only protection is the money you make – which can be taken away at any instant. Are your connections here as permanent as the sea? Or as the land that gives abundantly if you tend to it long enough?” He paused to look at her.
She went blank, and didn’t respond. She had not eaten, and the sugary tea they had shared some time ago was giving her a head rush. A chuckle escaped her. He looked at her quizzically. “I think I am going to be very hungry.” He gave her a look of absolute derision.
“It’s alright, I can find my own food.”
“Really, could you? Without nearly getting yourself mobbed?” Ajinkya was not the villager of her presumptions.
When she had first landed in Mumbai as an enthusiastic twenty-something ready to mine the capitalist system for its storied riches, Kiran had found this village on the map of every heritage walk tour, celebrated for its warm hospitality and fabled food. Twelve years since, on days that she took her morning walks with Abhay, she pointed to him the evidence of what, according to her, old-fashioned living had done to the community – carrom games and drinking that had gone on all night in the lane outside St Jude’s church, daily wagers, low-rent job seekers and general layabouts who had been taken in as boarders, raucous festivals where alcohol flowed free in the open, children who led unstructured lives. Patrolling cops and area residents like Abhay, whose sea-facing flats were just a few metres away from the village were glad to turn a blind eye to this – the community was after all the keeper of a historical land that had the best view of the sea and the mangroves. In Mumbai terms, this was real estate gold. If not for the them, greedy land sharks might have long-descended here to provoke violence and clear out space for grotesque buildings. So what if they took in a few boarders.
She felt jealousy. She did not belong to her hometown like he did to his land. She had found it small, lesser – she had left it. Kiran had represented the new order, that that dealt with the idea of money and happiness being available for the taking, elsewhere. Happiness was to be found by constantly looking outside for it. And here he was, walking like the king of the alleys, almost as if she should be honoured to being shown the sights by him.
She whispered ‘Roxy, Roxy’ as loudly as the sleepy neighbourhood would allow. A few who were sitting on their porches did not bother looking at them.
He stopped outside a home and said, “You will get food here.” They waited quietly by its steps.
“What is this place? Is it a dhaba?” She asked.
“It is an all night place to eat; open to everyone,” he could hear footsteps approaching the door. “You wouldn’t know if you are not from around.”
The door opened and an old lady appeared. They spoke for a minute before she invited them in. As soon as she entered the house, she panicked, like in anticipation of untold dangers. She said she wouldn’t go in and walked back to the little iron gate. Ajinkya looked at her disbelievingly. A mat and some food was brought out. They ate sitting under the street light, unpretentious local fare of rice bhakri, and fish coated with a fiery masala. His hand touched hers as they split some rice among them. But she didn’t see any reaction on his face.
When what looked like prawn crispies were brought out, she had to say no. It looked too potent for her. The old woman’s face fell; she had clearly gone out of her way to fry them up. He took the plate from the lady and proceeded to bite into the dish. Kiran stood up to look for her phone. As she bent to search for it on the mat, the screwdriver fell out of her shirt. He looked at it bemusedly. She felt embarrassed. He helped himself to a few more crispies and asked with his mouth full, “How did you make it in Mumbai if you are such a scared person?”
She felt indignant. “I am out tonight, am I not?”
“Yeah, that you might be, but what about this dog running away is scaring you so much?” She should have followed Abhay’s instructions and walked Roxy the first thing in the morning. She should have walked her every single day for the past four days that Abhay had been away for. And when she did finally walk Roxy today, she should have allowed her to stay out for an hour at least – she had attempted to impatiently cut their walk short at ten minutes and an unhappy, angry Roxy had given one massive tug to the leash and dashed into the darkness.
She had been the over-eager one pushing Abhay to give his domestic help a few days off. She should never have taken on something she couldn’t see through. So many should haves now taunted her for not having listened to their said-so’s. An inner voice had nagged Kiran on all the mornings that she had thought of a grumpy, 40 kilo-heavy Roxy going insane without her daily walks inside the 3-bedroom apartment, but Kiran had been so happy to get a break from Abhay’s life that she had paid little heed.
“You seem so sure the dog is safe.”
“Well, not every person who loses their dog is so scared to go home and sit by themselves that they rather spend it alone, out on the streets with a stranger.” That stung. “What happens if you don’t find the dog tonight, but tomorrow or in a week?”
“Well, by then the dog would not be the only thing I’d have lost.” They returned their plates and glasses. She had only a ‘thanks’ to offer the lady, which surprisingly, seemed more than enough.
Kiran felt comfortable enough to ask the lady if she could use a restroom. She was shown a cubicle not inside, but behind the main building – a closet-sized room probably reserved for servants, with a gunny bag for a door. The commode was just a hole in the ground. She couldn’t do it. She came out to see Ajinkya laughing.
“You knew this would be too much for me, didn’t you?” He smiled like he was extremely satisfied.
“I can’t hold it in for too much longer.”
“Why is it my problem to find you a toilet.”
“Well, you were the one who made it your problem.” They walked a small distance, he showed her a public restroom. It smelt rank, putrid, foul. It stank to the heavens and back. He shrugged when she looked at him pleadingly. She entered, she had no idea what she was stepping on. She held her breath and did her business. As she washed her hand at the tap inside the restroom, careful to let only her fingertips touch the metal, her glasses fell into the basin, drowning completely in the clogged, filthy water.
This night did not seem likely to end anytime soon. She rolled up her sleeves, shut her eyes, held her breath and plunged her hand elbow-length into the basin. She felt about for her glasses, not helped in the least by the water’s murky consistency. She swilled the repulsive fluid with her bare hand till she found her glasses and pulled her hand out. A deep hollow formed in her chest and the walls spun. She heaved, hurling out her stomach’s scant contents. She tried to wash her arm, her mouth, the glasses as assiduously as she could – the mossy metallic tap didn’t seem so bothersome in comparison now. She was getting ready to step out of the toilet when she heard a small, unmistakable bark. She knew this bark. She rushed out, hands dripping wet. He had the same question on his face. They went around the smelly building. Roxy’s laboured, whiny, unmistakable bark was growing louder. I hope she’s safe, I hope she’s safe, Kiran repeated.
It was Roxy alright. She ran into Kiran’s arms like they were really good friends. Kiran felt relief flood over her when she saw that Roxy didn’t seem attacked or bitten. Roxy, dirty, weak and scared, had been hiding behind some shrubs. She couldn’t seem to get enough of Kiran.
Ajinkya took them to a tap near a tea shop where Roxy and Kiran could clean themselves. Relieved, with time to spare, the three of them tottered off to the beach to catch some morning waves. The village was waking up, sounds and smells came to her from all sides.
He took them to his corner. A perch on the fishermen’s part of the beach that was bordered by boats and nets. They sat down on a green patch where someone was growing marigold. Roxy nuzzled the both of them as she excitedly ate the fresh bun they bought her. He pointed out the different distances into the waters where various fish might be found – fast-selling, commercialised fish like black pomfret, catfish, prawns, ghol, lobster were caught by mechanised trawlers while anchovies, stingray and squid were caught through specific, ancient fishing methods. The waters were separated on the basis of the kind of fish to be caught.
Was he in the business too? His father had ended up losing a lot of money a particular year, so he had had to open something on the side. But he was saving up to go back into the sea with him. They sat silently for a long time. Kiran was grateful for the ginger tea a boy brought them. Roxy had put her head on Kiran’s lap and gone to sleep. This was the calmest she had felt in a long time. She showed Ajinkya a photo of Abhay, Roxy and her together, pictures of them in Abhay’s flat celebrating, Roxy being an absolute goof. He showed her pictures of his parents, his sister, his friends – “how do you like the ‘you people?’” he teased her. Kiran lay down on the sand, coddled by the sweet winter air. She dozed off. When she woke up, Roxy was splashing about in the water with a few young boys. She turned to see Ajinkya watching her face. She smiled at him, asked if he’d be fine to watch Roxy for some time. She felt like having a jog on the beach. He said yes, and ran off to join the frolickers in the water. She dusted herself off, gathered her things and started at jogging speed. She made her way through the cold, nippy air, staying close to the waterline. The salty air stung her face. She took a sharp left turn, ran into the main alleys of the village, passed her car which he had parked under the drug store’s awning, passed Abhay’s building, passed her own and kept running. Tears ran down her face. She said sorry to Abhay in her heart. She would stop when she had found a village of her own, this was not it.
Aparna Ram is an engineer-turned-media executive from Mumbai, whose day job is to make fiction shows for the audience that lives on the internet. She is the daughter of a coffee-plantation expert and a banker from Coimbatore. Gardening, sacred geometry, human consciousness research, cultural anthropology – especially Tamil history from before the deluge are her enduring loves. Her short stories and poems are forthcoming in various publications.