Fiction | My Best Friend’s Wedding – Alina Gufran

Alina flies down to attend her best friend’s wedding, and it becomes a backdrop for introspection, anxiety and finally, epiphany. Battered emotionally by the sparkle of wedding festivities, she stumbles through multiple moments of exhaustion – a scenario familiar to the more decided introverts among us. However, all is not lost. Alina finds a semblance of resolution towards the end of her tale, “I begin to understand why it’s hard to let go of old friendships even when they distinctly seem to have run their course, why I would take the time and energy and money out to wear a saree and a smile each time my best friends expected me to, if it meant making them happy.” – Shreya, The Bombay Review

The airplane felt stuffy, too hot, the seats too cramped, the aisles reeked of pickle and mustard oil, the air hostesses’ make-up wasn’t blended right. Everything was overdone, stereotyped, wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on why. I realised the vowels of the foreign tongue grated my nerves; foreign yet within my own country. I found my tired brain jumping to hateful clichés when I heard a man sitting behind me on a phone call. My education prompted me to ask him to shut up; the flight was about to take off. Exceptionally irritable, I’d been feeling little of the snugness that a best friend’s wedding is supposed to bring. I felt anxieties and fears – familiar and new – sitting at the base of my navel, sitting as tightness in my chest. Inhale, exhale, repeat the steps, go through the motions until I can manufacture some of the heady happiness I’m supposed to be feeling. I suspected that the discontent stemmed from me.

Chennai seemed familiar and alien all at once. The weather was balmy, the air smelled of a pungent, tired sea, knock-off designer perfume and cocktails made with cheap alcohol. What was it about this over-the-top, bourgeoisie wedding nestled in the posh but ultimately, trite quarters of a boutique hotel by the beach that summoned my inner critic? Was it the expensive, rather gauche bar where a highly mediocre Negronis cost 800 rupees? Was it the attractive North-Eastern sommelier’s disapproving brows, disappearing into his hairline when I chose the least expensive wine on the menu? Was it the oblivious American working-class hero from Wisconsin with his steady diet of greasy cheeseburgers and coke, or his Asian-American girlfriend, with a sixth-generation Chinese father and first-generation Chinese mother (the right degree of exotic?), who steered every conversation towards herself and her modern-day immigrant inconveniences? Why was I trying so hard to disassociate?

At Radio Room, the bar where everybody congregated for an informal ‘meet and greet’, I finally saw Naina, my childhood best friend, who’d been sending me increasingly excited voice notes in the weeks leading up to this. Despite warm greetings and liquor trying its best to smooth every social interaction, I was out of place amidst the throng of guests making small talk. I missed my former best friend, even though she was right there. The cruelest distances are the ones with people next to you. She was my first real friend, at a ridiculous time of unshaven legs and acne and crushes on boys with dull personalities. At fourteen, she’d chucked my first packet of cigarettes out of the window of my eighth-story home and in retaliation, I’d thrown her phone to the floor. She was everything I wasn’t. Charming, warm, open, loving. I was everything she wasn’t. Assured, aloof, unpopular, slightly feared. Best friends have an interesting way of complementing each other.

We’d taken to each other without judgment, Indian schoolgirls in Dubai, and fallen into our own groove of friendship. We’d stalked young Arab boys in libraries, walked by the beach in a strange land where we didn’t know the language but couldn’t get enough of the exotic sights, sounds, smells and strange social hierarchies. Together we’d understood what it meant to be cool or rich, to live in a particular pin code, to have the means to pursue a PhD abroad, to allow yourself the freedom of studying philosophy. We’d been through our first heartbreaks and first major bouts of depression together. Most cultures attach so much significance to romantic relationships that we easily forget how for many of us, the first real adult foray into love comes through our closest friendships.

I moved from event to event, cocktail dress to Indian attire, with a lingering sense of nostalgia and an abject lack of pathos. I was there for Naina, but I didn’t feel the need to be charming or friendly or approachable or distant or sexy, I didn’t feel the need for anything. I found myself imagining how, decades ago, my parents had their whirlwind romance that spanned continents and religions. I know how that turned out. I wondered if I had believed that I, too, would meet the right person at 16 and marry them and live out the various boring but ultimately safe rituals of a high school romance turned life-long partnership. Well, now I felt an immediate discomfort with anything not characterised by the brand of cynicism and hopelessness that had marked my twenties. Increasingly, the idea of a wedding, of a marriage, of a life shared with one person was beginning to look like some other girl’s dream. At a bar called ‘The Library’, its name legitimised by a wall lined with first edition hardcovers locked behind a glass panel, doused in angled mood lighting, their dusty sadness proving they’d never been opened, I sat across from the American couple. “Do you meditate?” Wisconsin boy asks me. I catch myself before an audible groan can slip out. He briefly tells me about his brush with drugs, how he’s debating selling his DJing gear since he’s been unemployed for four months, how it’s beginning to take a toll on his Brooklyn life. We discuss siblings, growing up Catholic and their desire to move to New Orleans. The Asian girl wants to get married at Monterey Bay Aquarium and only asks me questions about film because she works as a copywriter in New York. I marvel at their easy, almost simplistic relationship, the blind spots that come with growing up with an American passport, the myopia that comes with believing the country you’re born in is the only world you’ll ever need to inhabit. The girl whips out her phone and shows me her Chinese family in LA. The genteel, shrewd looking grandmother, the grandfather with an oxygen tank, the conspicuously masculine pit bull, the buff younger cousin, the straight-edged ‘work hard, play hard’ second cousin, the matching Christmas sweaters. I realise her ease with her dissonant identities and her doting boyfriend make me slightly jealous. We smile widely at each other, we take sips from each other’s drinks, we exchange antique silver and gold-plated neckpieces for an event later and hug goodbye. Away from the wedding bedlam, I feel a grudging affection for her.

The sangeet begins with all the aplomb one would expect at a fancy Indian wedding. Copious amounts of liquor, a lavish buffet, a DJ spinning house remixes of Bollywood classics from the 90s, generations and nationalities brought together by the blend of tradition and intoxication. I hadn’t been eating well since my break-up. Food was mere sustenance, but that meant I couldn’t keep up with the drinking. Naina’s eighteen-year-old brother grabs me by the wrist and pulls me towards the bar. A pale, lavender liquid in a shot glass materialises, and I clutch it with desperation. The brother’s eyes glazed with a post-charas haze, he bounces on his toes as a group of people – including his parents – form a circle and clink shot glasses. I slip away, handing the shot glass to the bartender. “Hide it.” My best friend finds me through the crowd and makes her way to me. “Are you not going to dance to shitty Bollywood songs at my wedding?” I shake my head vigorously, accompanying her to the dance floor despite my inability climb out of my head and be present for her.

Naina’s family were diamond merchants from Gujarat who’d immigrated to Dubai – the erstwhile land of opportunity, lack of taxes and material abundance. Her father had chalked up enough money to raise three kids in a palatial beachfront home, send them to one of the better schools in Dubai, and finance their move abroad for their respective universities. The kids, all said and done, possessed a certain humility that others our age conspicuously lacked when thrust into the obscene power of new money. The shots were a celebratory indulgence, an attempt to impress overlaid onto their endearing Gujarati simplicity. The husband’s family hailed from Tamil Nadu and Punjab respectively. His father was the CEO of an Indian airline fast fading into obscurity. Despite more access and exposure than the average Indian, the acute consciousness of their own class led to a gnawing lack of acceptance of what they deemed to be a lack of sophistication from the other side. Religion wasn’t the divisive factor here, but their different backgrounds and predilections were.

Naina’s father’s best friend’s son makes his way to me across the carpeted dance floor, his face streaked with red and green neon. A flash of a house party in Friedrichshain at 5 AM on New Year’s Eve, two years ago. Neon lights, spindly bodies snaking across a makeshift dance floor, my then boyfriend behind the decks, me whispering into his ear, trying to convince him that Eric Andre was at the party. Life’s displacements were like tectonic plates shifting beneath you, the heart and mind struggling to create and conquer old meanings in new contexts. The boy went by Nemo and complimented me on my hair, my moves. I smiled a sincere smile and excused myself. My initial response to compliments was now to accept them and then look away. This wasn’t a tactical move, nor a sly maneuver meant to elicit a reaction. Maybe it was shades of discomfort, that slight consciousness at being put on display and yet aching to be put on display. Either way, I really just didn’t know what to say.

Outside the basement ballroom, an oxymoron in itself, I light a cigarette and observe the flames across the expanse of water flanked by Grecian columns on either side. I lie down on the cold marble, lehenga askew, hoping to see some stars in the sky. A whiff of Versace. I chuckle inwardly at the contours of my hyper-capitalist upbringing as a slender boy with impeccable sartorial sense slides in next to me. 

“I cried this morning after three years. It was so beautiful,” he says in a distinctive drawl, his diction chiseled with private education as he begins to roll a joint.

“Hash?”

“Crying is cathartic, isn’t it?”

“Yes, anti-depressants don’t ever allow for that sort of release.”

I’m unsure how we’ve slipped so easily into such an intimate conversation. I find myself drawn to his pale skin, freckles and eyes with schisms of empathy and impenetrability. We smoke lying on the freshly trimmed grass, discussing the merits of the male contraceptive, the current political climate in the country, and raising puppies. I find myself withdrawing slightly as he showcases a certain shade of martyr complex, placing himself at the centre of the nation’s political turmoil. He pulls me back in by telling me about his mother’s internalised patriarchy, and how hollow victories feel when they’re against your parents. Our effortless conversation is interrupted by a local gentleman who’s down a few drinks, slurry as he shakes our hands. Arnav gets up to address him. I feel a familiar flicker of irritation despite the pot’s pleasant haze and excuse myself yet again.

Back inside, hearing about some perceived insult by the groom’s father, I wonder why institutionalised marriage even exists anymore. Why is the bride’s father’s identity inexorably tied up with the grandeur of his oldest daughter’s wedding? Despite coming from a fairly regressive North Indian family, my father only ever mentions marriage as an afterthought, a private joke shared between the two of us on a phone call late at night, the thought only really occurring to him in passing when I say I want to shift jobs or cities or continents. I remember him threatening me with marriage when I failed my 11th grade exams. I remember regarding it as an act of betrayal – succumbing to the idea of women as property to be passed on from the father to the husband. Perhaps his intended outcome was what happened next year, with me acing my school graduation exams. After my parents decided they wanted different things and that more importantly, they didn’t want them with each other, he could never use marriage as a threat. We all developed an almost sinister sense of humour to deal with the separation. All talk of marriage faded into sardonic jokes about how they should have expiry dates, feeding into my fatalistic assertion that being alone is the only constant.

I was sharing a room with Naina’s other best friend, who I’d methodically avoided despite years attending the same school. She’d lost her voice on account of spending the last two months attending a slew of weddings. When I returned to the amber-lit darkness of the room, I found myself unable to focus. The girl was snoring like a truck while I tried not to breathe too loud, lest I wake her up. Later, she helped me tie my saree almost perfectly as I took my place beside her in front of the bathroom mirror. We both lined our faces with powder in silence, me conscious of the music playing from my laptop. She wants to borrow my eye shadow palette; I apologise for only having nude colours. She laments the weight she’s put on through her adult years in Bangalore, working through late nights with erratic food schedules. I glance at her sideways.

“You’re beautiful.”

“Thank you, you’re kind.”

“I’m not being kind, I’m only being honest,”

She meets my eyes and smiles – a genuine warmth filling up her eyes. That’s all it takes. One sincere interaction after years of avoiding each other, not having much in common except a best friend and suddenly, I feel the warm rush of winning somebody’s favour when you least expect it. Over the next couple of days, when I find myself slinking out of parties early or hiding behind marble columns to smoke, I often receive texts from her, checking in. I reply with platitudes but don’t go back.

The next morning, I managed to steal an hour or two for myself. The wedding was done, after a hazy sequence of ceremonies and rituals. Still, there was a drunken brunch and some sort of reception to follow. I go for a swim, savouring the solitude of the cool water, until my thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of Mariliria – the chubby Greek girl with no understanding of personal boundaries and a propensity for flattery. She tries to make conversation with me as I continue my swim. It is a strange dichotomy; how comfortable I can make others feel in my presence and how quickly I tend to withdraw from them if they reveal anything true about themselves. Mariliria wants to talk to me about the guy she hooked up with last night. I passively notice the tension between them as he comes out to the sun-beds. I vaguely wonder what sex looks like when Mariliria has it, how conscious is she of her body, what the boy finds attractive about her. She says she thinks I’m the most beautiful girl at the wedding, after the bride. I’m flattered but later bemused by the off-hand comment, as though beauty superseded anything else, I might have to offer as a woman; as though such a compliment was anything but definitive and entirely suffocating.

Later that morning, Naina and I get a few moments to ourselves. All her friends flock around her, air kisses and goodbyes one hopes would be finite ones. I observe her cycle through the hugs and the pleasantries with the ease and charm of a politician and I laugh to myself. I think of how I’d always been a bit of a ‘back pocket friend’ – neatly tucked into the compartmentalised folds of somebody else’s life, my value increasing with the need to be hidden, preserved and I could settle into the backwash of somebody else’s limelight. I wonder what I can ask her that will not be weighed down by shared histories or stories. A couple of evenings earlier, I’d immediately asked if she still planned on pursuing her PhD, my head swaying and my eyes brighter than usual with the wine. I want to ask if she thinks of a time where she might not want to be with Tarun anymore, if she plans on only doing this once, if she knows what the moment was when we drifted inexplicably but surely from being attached at the hip to living such different lives? Did she know or remember?

 Instead, I find myself faltering when she wants to know about my love life; my mind turning over the various threads of romance resistant to definition, paling in comparison to the weighty, resounding certainty of marriage. I lay my head on her shoulder and we take a few selfies – ephemeral moments to be captured and stored. Moments that make sure that once I recede into the comfort of my solitude, I can still reach out and indulge in a past that no longer exists.

To everyone’s surprise, I had made a concerted effort to dress up for the brunch. Something about being away from the mundanity of Bombay made me want to exploit the opportunity to pretend to be someone else, hoping that this physical transformation would enable an emotional one. Instead, as I bitch on the phone to my other best friend while she mocks my privilege, I’m overheard by Naina and Tarun. “You’re just a pretentious writer who’s entirely self-involved,” he tells me as his face cracks into a self-satisfied, silly smile. I’m disconcerted but nod along to his assertion. The day’s too bright, the conversation’s too dull for me to defend myself. Naina breaks out of her post-wedding haze, the unremitting lull of satisfaction only some of us can afford, to defend me. “Alina has a tendency to agree with anything negative said about her even if it isn’t true.”

I wonder why I’m there, why I missed the memo and turned up overdressed to this event, why my facades are so brittle, why I haven’t slipped away to meet an old friend who is in Chennai – a cinematographer I know through my ex who’d once advised me on a script that never went anywhere.

Slipping out that evening wasn’t difficult, given everyone’s exhausted mental and physical state. After a forty-minute rickshaw ride I found myself at a rundown rooftop bar overlooking a beach, barely visible under the night sky. Advith was a good listener, unafraid to wear his limitations on his sleeve, leading a wilder life than his slender, non-threatening frame and kind eyes suggested. We’d last met years ago at a quiet, nondescript wine bar in Neukölln, and I worried about the unsaid discomfort of knowing each other through my ex-boyfriend, the longest relationship of my life that almost felt imagined at this point. Yet, I found myself relaxing in this presence, the tension in my shoulders and back receding as my tongue loosened with the wine. The conversation went from film to collective anxieties – the lack of money in attempting to pursue an artistic life in a developing country, the possibilities for art in a nation on the brink of outright dictatorship, his brother’s pending wedding, the absurdity of legal contracts and gold bands meant to bind people together. Despite all the wine, it was ironic that I felt more comfortable talking to somebody I’d barely known three years ago than to my best friend who I’d known for decades.

The attendant baggage of old relationships is that people tend to want to pull you into directions they remember you from, into patterns they constructed with you. If, like me, you have a habit of wanting to give before somebody can ask, relationships can often exist in eternal limbo, in a space where finding words to express exactly what is it that you need becomes harder each time you nurse the idea of expression, and then reject it. Physical distances can often make way for emotional ones and as women grow up with the idea of being somebody’s somebody, the phone calls taper out, continents change, text messages are few and far in between, time zones and husbands and kids (I’m told) get in the way. Childhood friendships are now defined by making the effort to turn up at each other’s engagements, weddings, baby showers, anniversaries – the gradual, inevitable shift into ‘acceptable’ constructs. I can barely wrap my head around the present, much less the deceptive nature of the future. I find comfort in Advith’s uncertainty, in the humility that comes from not pretending to know all the answers, in the shared identity of being an outsider. 

We finish our drinks and walk through empty Chennai roads towards the main highway, dodging stray dogs, lazy bulls, parked cars and buses. We stand by the highway as he calls me a taxi. We chat absent-mindedly about the incoming rise of right-wing supporters in Tamil Nadu. I argue that the state’s political mechanics would never agree to a largely north Indian political party gaining and exerting majority control; he’s dubious – the fast deteriorating state of the nation relegated to an intermediary chat before the taxi arrives.

Inside, I feel a pang of longing for the private jokes Naina and I share, how easily my dumbest comments make her laugh, how widely I grin when she’s impressed by my most transparent ploys and most ordinary expressions. I remember how often, at social settings, she rolls her eyes at me after running out of patience or charm, how often I’d called her up beset with tears, hiding in my room as a teenager, fruitlessly attempting to drown my parent’s rising voices with some insipid pop album, how she’d defended me against bullying senior boys when I refused to grant them the respect they felt entitled to. I begin to understand why it’s hard to let go of old friendships even when they distinctly seem to have run their course, why I would take the time and energy and money out to wear a saree and a smile each time my best friends expected me to, if it meant making them happy.

I remember, vividly, the moment from two nights before, when all the girls – the loud ones from New York, the shy ones from Dubai, the conventionally pretty ones from Chennai, the rich Gujarati aunties with large hips and larger jewels – congregated in the bride’s suite, attempting to help each other with the folds of our disintegrating sarees, charming and laughable in equal parts. I remember Naina, decked head to toe in a bejeweled lehenga that weighed over 10 kilos, her skirt unnaturally starched, standing across me, arms akimbo, against the setting sun, a complete silhouette, asking me how she looked. Her hair perfectly coiffed, swathes of make-up across her elegant face, her expression as vulnerable as the text messages I hid behind. In that moment, she was all of twelve years old again and I couldn’t help but smile.

Alina Gufran is a fiction-writer and poet who writes about urban alienation and female identity based out of Mumbai. She is an alumna of the 2019 Dum Pukht writing workshop and her work has appeared in The Bangalore review, The Swaddle and Sister-hood magazine. 

Fiction | The Alligator of Aligarh – Aditya Gautam

“Kalua finds a friend in the grey alligator he finds at his workplace, the sewers. A heartbreaking exploration of hunger, crippling poverty and human suffering. Gautam deftly runs through a gamut of emotions as he portrays a world in which compassion has to be conditional. His protagonist tries to exercise basic humanity by taking care of a helpless, injured animal. But the burden of his caste and his poverty forces his hand into brutality.” – Shreya, The Bombay Review

Kalua listened to his belly groan with hunger.

He mopped at the beads of sweat on his forehead with a gamcha1 and peeked over his wife’s shoulder into a pot wherein she was cooking some nameless concoction.

It was a homogeneous sludge, the color of mucus, with a few pieces of onion here and there, trying to drown themselves. The sight of it was enough to dull his appetite a little. But, to make things worse, there wasn’t nearly enough of it to sneak some off to Safeda.

His friend would just have to go hungry again.

He looked at Gudiya, his little sister, reading the scraps of a newspaper in a corner, and felt guilty about thinking of Safeda when he was failing to provide enough even for his family. Only last month, Gudiya had fallen sick and the doctor had advised Kalua to include meat in her diet at least once a week to make up for protein deficiency.

Despite this guilt, however, Safeda was also important to Kalua.

Like many other people in the world, Kalua had found his best-friend at his workplace. Only, the workplace happened to be a gutter, and the best-friend happened to be an alligator.

Kalua never knew how Safeda came to be there, only that it was hurt and starved when they first met, and so Kalua fed it his own lunch and applied cool mud on its bruises.

Because of the grey color of its skin, which Kalua thought unusual, he named it Safeda. The absence of sunlight in the creature’s life might have had something to do with it. Or, maybe it was just an anomaly. But in any case, the name’s contrast with his own amused Kalua to no end.

That was twelve years ago.

Kalua had not been married then and Gudiya hadn’t even been born. In those days, he used to go into the sewers only when his father’s cough was exceptionally bad. He hated every second of it and swore daily to himself that he would become anything but a jamadaar2.

That, of course, was before the world had explained the inescapability of his caste to him, and before his parents had died of tuberculosis, leaving him all alone to bring up his baby sister.

‘Ae, Gudiya, what are you doing reading in this bad evening light? You’ll ruin your eyes’, he called out to the girl whom he had managed to keep away from the sewers, and had even sent to school.
Up till now, at least.

Gudiya was now close to 10 but looked like she was only 5-6 years old. It wasn’t unusual in their neighborhood though—malnutrition made the kids all look younger there than they actually were, and the adults older.

Gudiya looked at him and threw aside the newspaper scrap she was reading. ‘Went to the butcher in the afternoon, but he had already gutted and skinned everything. He asked me to come only when my cut had healed completely.’

After her school, Gudiya often went to help the neighborhood butcher in his shop and he tossed her a few coins for it every now and then. Two days ago, she had cut herself on the side of her hand while slicing a piece of meat. It was an ugly gash, and Kalua had tied a clean piece of cloth around it, hoping that it would not get infected.

The butcher, Kalua knew, had sent Gudiya away not out of concern for her but because he did not want to risk her blood making the food impure for his customers.

‘It’s okay, beta3, don’t worry about it. This is just a temporary situation. Things will go back to normal soon’, Kalua told her with a conviction he did not possess himself.

His wife joined them and put the cooking pot between them, holding it carefully with rags in each of her hands. She rotated it a few times on the circumference of its bottom, as though trying to pull off some magic trick that would turn that mixture of water, flour, and salt into real food.

There were only two spoons in the pot.

‘Aren’t you eating, bhabhi4?’, Gudiya asked.

‘I’ll have something later. You two eat now, and please–take care to wipe off everything from the pot.’

But, there was nothing to be had later, Kalua knew that well enough. It would be a week tomorrow since either of them had gone to work. This muck in the pot, this was the last of their rations.

He got up so quickly that his head swam a little and his stomach growled in protest.

‘I am sorry, I remembered just now–Varshney-ji had asked me to visit his house today. He wants me to help unload some stuff from his terrace. I’ll just go there and come back in some time, okay?’

‘But your dinner?’, his wife asked, not meeting his eyes.

‘You two finish it off. I’ll have some chai-nashta with Varshney-Ji.’

Kalua did not wait for her response, but at the door he paused for just a moment to look at her moving slowly to sit beside Gudiya. He came out of the shanty and took a few steps to the right so that they wouldn’t see him standing there.

Then, he let out a long, heavy sigh. It was a sigh that can crush those who hear it, and must therefore, only be released once you are at a safe distance from the people you love.

His wife must have seen through his lie. She knew full well that he wouldn’t even be allowed to sit on the curb of a baniya’s house, let alone invited inside and asked to handle their possessions. Not in a million years–a pamphlet of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan fluttered near his feat and Kalua spat at it in disgust–not after a thousand more Swachh Bharat Abhiyaans had come and gone, could that happen in their world.

The only place Kalua, or anyone from his caste, could go to in the house of someone from an upper caste, like Varshney-Ji, was the latrine. Straight in, straight out, and a few coins dropped on their palms at the door without a word exchanged.

Kalua and his kin were like elves. Shit-scooping, latterine-scraping elves. Invisible and inaudible to everyone else.

But still, even while wading through the literal and figurative shit in their lives, they had been going on, one way or another. Until a fortnight ago, when a saffron-robed rally had snaked its way through the Jamadaar Basti5 with bright posters that most of the residents couldn’t read.

Fat government men came in that rally with their sweat-shined faces, their saccharine smiles, their noses scrunched up against the smell of Kalua and his people. The fat men declared proudly on their loudspeakers that no one would be required anymore to lower themselves into a sewer. If anybody asked them to do so, the government would penalize that person and put him in jail.

They were told that the credit for all this went to their Chief Minister and the Prime Minister, both of whom cared deeply for all Hindus, including dalits like Kalua and his neighbors.

The fat men waved to the people from their vehicles and were careful not to shake hands with them. Among much fanfare, with satisfied smiles, they went out the same way they had come in and breathed freely once more in the clean air outside the slum.

As Kalua, his wife, and their friends realized a couple of hours later, the government men had forgotten to mention what would be their new employment, now that this one was illegal.

And so it was that the slum had begun to crawl towards starvation. They had held up until now on the tidbits saved over their lifetimes. A few had managed to get odd jobs here and there, but no one really wanted to employ a jamadaar in their shop or house, or anywhere that there would be a chance of being touched by them.

Kalua wondered where he could go to pass the time while his family had their dinner and decided upon the only place that felt a little like home. A horrible home, true, but still a home, with the comfort of an old friend.

Maybe he would also be able to catch a few rats down there and feed them to Safeda.

***
‘Do you think bhaiya6 will be able to get some work today?’, Gudiya asked her bhabhi, back in the house.

‘Yes, yes, of course, he’ll find some work. Don’t you worry about it.’

But, Gudiya did worry about it.

Just as she worried about the fact that her brother had not been able to feed his pet in the last two weeks and it was making him even sadder than usual. Gudiya had never met this pet, but she knew its name was Safeda because it had slipped out of Kalua once, though he had not noticed it.

Gudiya liked to imagine that Safeda was a fluffy white dog like one of her classmates had at her house. Only, her bhaiya kept it in the sewer instead of the house. To a 10-year-old’s mind, this did not seem all that strange because she knew that bhabhi would never have allowed bhaiya to keep the dog in the house, not when they never had enough food or money even for the three of them.

Like most kids in the neighborhood, Gudiya knew that the last couple of weeks had been especially bad for everyone.

It was evident in the way that people she had known all her life to wake up at dawn and go to work now spent their days sitting desolately in front of their shacks, waiting for something to happen. They reminded Gudiya the days when she was a toddler and had kept waiting for the ice-cream man who, somehow, never went through their gully.

The worst of it all was the change in her bhaiya.

No matter how bad things got in the past, he had always had a joke tucked away somewhere in his head, ready to be called and released to laughs when things began to look too grim. He did things instead of waiting for them to happen. Like, when Gudiya had waited, and waited, and waited, for the ice-cream man, he had gone out one day and had brought back three orange ice-creams from God knew where.

These few days, however, he hardly talked to her at all.

Some days while taking a bath, Gudiya moved her fingers slowly underwater in the bucket and watched them for minutes on end. That’s how her brother looked these days. Like a man living underwater in his head; walking around in a bubble of vacuum and space where no one could really reach him.

Except for his pet, maybe. It might cheer him up if Gudiya brought it to the house and surprised him. Anyway, she was sure that it would cheer her up!

So, after her bhabhi had put her to bed, and went to sleep herself, Gudiya put on the robe that Kalua wore while going into the sewers. He had made it by stitching together discarded polythene bags.

It was too large for her, of course, and fluttered behind her like a superhero’s cape. The multicolored polythene bags shimmered in the weak light leaking inside from a streetlight and looked like an undisciplined rainbow.

She also put on Kalua’s yellow safety helmet and his brown leather boots.

Quietly, Gudiya stole out of the house and closed down the door behind her. She walked up to the open manhole down which she had seen her bhaiya disappear many times.

Then, with a look at the moon overhead, she lowered herself down into the darkness, down the iron rungs of the sewer.

***

This manhole into which Gudiya had lowered herself was connected to other manholes in the city through large pipes constituting Aligarh’s sewage network. As Gudiya descended further down the hole, she could hear the water splashing at the bottom and her guts contracted a little with the inherent fear of invisible damp things.

The stench of sewage was overwhelming and made her feel a little faint.

To steel herself, she looked up at the circle of the night sky through the open manhole, but it looked so far away suddenly that she thought it better to concentrate on her descent.

Finally, after a few moments, or minutes, or millenia, her boots found mushy ground.

A small part of her mind wondered how a dog could live in a place where the water came up to her ankles. But before she could give it a thought, there was a sound of water splashing nearby.

It sounded like she wasn’t alone. Someone else was also taking a night walk here. Or, maybe it was just the sound of her heart tumbling out of her mouth and falling into the sewer.

Gudiya moved forward, putting one foot after the other, like a little soldier in large boots. Her polythene robe made an almost-but-not-quite-silent slithering sound behind her.

A few more steps and the darkness would be absolute. Gudiya pressed a little wire in the helmet and the bulb-battery combination that Kalua had taped together jumped to action.

The feeble light threw long shadows on the sewer’s walls and Gudiya saw that the pipe turned sharply to the left a little way off in the distance.

Again, she heard the sound of water splashing. Despite an instinctive urge to run back with her tail tucked between her legs, she kept walking in the direction of the sound. And then, as she stood at the pipe’s turn she saw in front of her a man tossing something into the water at his feet.

No, not into the water. Tossing something to a creature on the ground.

A creature that definitely was not the fluffy white dog from Pinky’s imagination. White teeth glinted in an evil grin at her. A pair of dull green eyes with black slits for pupils measured the flesh on her bones. In the wavering light of Gudiya’s helmet-bulb, she saw a ripple of excitement pass through the monster’s dirty rubbery-white body.

The man standing beside it, startled by the light, turned to face Gudiya. It was her bhaiya, of course, and how shocked he looked!

The dead rats dangled by their tails in his hand like the balls of the neighborhood butcher, who had shown them to Gudiya last week and had given her 20 rupees just for touching them.

She looked from her brother to the monster at his feet and she opened her mouth to scream but found the sound missing. She closed her fists so tightly at her sides that the cloth Kalua had tied as a bandage came off and two tiny drops of blood dropped down from the open cut into the water.

The starving alligator, half-blind, but no less a predator for it, caught the whiff of fresh blood like a drowning man catches a rope thrown at him out of the rescue ship.

***

Kalua’s mind tried to make sense of the situation and failed irrevocably. His thoughts came to him only as snatches of the self-evident truth. Must do something. Quickly.

His friend, whose primary trait in the last twelve years had been laziness, was now paddling furiously towards his sister, who stood rooted to the spot.

A large stone brick, dislodged long ago from the sewer’s wall, was lying near Safeda’s tail, and Kalua picked it up.

‘Gudiya! GUDIYA! Run. NOW!’

But, Gudiya’s eyes were locked on Safeda, as though hypnotized, and she looked like she could not even hear Kalua.

Kalua moved toward Safeda, stumbling in the water and almost falling down. In a couple of strides, however, he was near the alligator’s head. Safeda turned to look at him and for a moment Kalua thought he could see the trace of human intelligence in the green eyes, a hesitation in moving towards Gudiya.

But, hunger is hunger.

It turned again towards Gudiya and with a flick of its tail almost hit Kalua, as if warning him to not meddle with its dinner.

Kalua raised the brick in his hand, stepped forward, and brought down its corner in Safeda’s left eye. He wanted only to buy enough time to send Gudiya away, but it was as if the violence had unleashed something inside him which he did not know existed.

So, before Safeda could turn towards him, he crossed his leg over its back and brought the brick down once again. And then again, and again, until there was no movement left in the body and the light had gone out of Safeda’s eyes. It felt a little like the final cleaning away of the shit that other people had flushed his way. Regular work, nothing odd. A frightened little giggle escaped Kalua’s mouth at this thought.

He did not know what made his hand stop finally. Maybe, it happened when Gudiya managed to find her voice again.

‘Bhaiya, please. Enough’

Her face looked so small, so fragile, in the half-light-half-shadow of the bulb in her helmet. It reminded him, strangely enough, of how little Safeda had been when he had found it starving in the sewer.

‘Come, let’s go.’

Kalua crossed his other leg over Safeda and took Gudiya by her hand.

He took one last look at the body of his friend before turning his back on it: an eyeball, dislodged from its socket, dangled from the destroyed face by a thin string of flesh. Even as he watched, the eyeball gave up to gravity and fell down to the sewer floor. ‘Plop!’

Kalua bent down for Gudiya to climb over his back and like that they walked to the manhole’s iron rungs before they climbed out of it.

***

In her cot, tucked down by her brother, the monster in the sewer seemed little more than one of her regular nightmares to Gudiya.

With half-closed eyes she watched Kalua put on the polythene robe she had taken off–he had thrown his own in the street, blood-stained and grimy as it was–and pick something from the kitchen shelf before going to the door again.

Fear crept back into her heart. ‘Where are you going, bhaiya? Come to sleep, please?’

As he put the thing that he had picked up from the shelf into his pocket, Gudiya saw that it was the knife she took with her when she went to work at the butcher’s shop.

‘Don’t you worry, I’ll be back up in no time at all’, he said with a tired little smile. Then with a little hesitation, he added, ‘And maybe tomorrow, we will have meat again for lunch. It’ll be good for you, the doctor said.’

***

Glossary:

1. Gamcha: A cloth used sometimes as a towel and sometimes as a scarf of sorts in various parts of India.
2. Jamadaar: A sweeper or manual scavenger.
3. Beta: A way of addressing a kid.
4. Bhabhi: Sister-in-law.
5. Jamadaar Basti: A neighbourhood, or ghetto, in which mostly sweepers and people of lower castes live.
6. Bhaiya: Elder brother.