Suddenly the air turned cold. A wild draft came crashing on her as she opened the window and dragged in some fresh air. She had been struggling to find some for a long time now. The place had turned musty with the smell of the unwashed bed sheets that she had pulled out from the wardrobe. Once sated, she took a moment to look up. The horizon by then had broken into a grim spread, spread like the geography of her desire. Soon, tearing at the thick air, will be heard, voices from the bazaar ahead. People will return and choke up the despairing calm into a mindless clamour. Shutters and lights will go up and the darkness spoilt. Dregs of the passing day will spill beneath the city lights. Aniruddho will be knocking at the door. Though it tugged at her, she let the urge rest for a moment and pulled out the curtain from its hook. She dumped it on the pile of bed sheets in the middle of the room and pulled in the iron stool nearby. She sat there on the iron stool looking at the fading light of the window pane, with a small box clutched firmly in her hand, waiting for the muezzin to call.
When she had first come to the house with Aniruddho, she had told him how she liked the stale odour of the house. The walls had blotched up some new creases from the water collecting on the terrace. She kept staring at them, merging into a blue-flame in a far-end corner; darker than the rest. For a moment he had felt embarrassed and thought of it as a loose, sarcastic remark that only dignified women made. Though he was sure he wasn’t messy like most men of his age, he felt he recognised in her a mild air of contempt. But soon, he realised that it was only the smell of naphthalene—coming from the bed, the wardrobe, the sofa, the curtains, and every piece of furniture in the house. He was happy that she, like many of his male-friends, did not ask him if he had some sort of an OCD. In fact, she pulled in the iron stool from the corner and sat by the window holding the curtain close to her face and smelled at it like a distant fragrance she had once lost in a dream.
When she started coming everyday while he was in office, he didn’t doubt that she had fallen in love with the house and that she must be sitting in the same place, near the window and smelling at the curtain. Every day, he came back home and saw her sitting at the very place, with a loop of the curtain curled in her fist, close to her. The window was only closed, and the curtain drawn back, when the muezzin called from the nearby mosque. Aniruddho didn’t like the idea of calling God in a conspicuous fashion. He found it blatant and disturbing. For the first few days he had kept quiet and had politely asked her to close the window, draw back the curtain to the sound of the Adhan but when he could no longer bear to think that by doing so he was disrespecting her faith, he asked her if she would leave him if he didn’t believe in their way of calling God. She had said that according to their faith she was never allowed to call God in such a way, not that she wanted to, but she was a woman. And women weren’t supposed to call God. What if they awakened lust in Him, and worse, made him human?
Aafia had long forgotten about gods and verses in her tender years, while growing up with a father who shared beds with his wife and daughter equally, in shifts and got up at three in the morning to invoke his God in the same disturbing manner that Aniruddho almost always complained about.
The day Salma, her mother passed away, Rashid, her father, came close to her at night, fearless and desperate. All he could do was to elegantly remove her chunni and smell her then petite breast. His heart was pounding like a juvenile organ. The next moment he broke into sobs, nuzzling his grey chin into her softness. She let him rest his head over her and put him to sleep before guilt could crush him down to death. That morning when he opened his eyes at three, he found the clammy odour of the wet bedsheet infiltrating the room. It lay tangled around his body, washed with sweat. His body burnt with the fiery marks of freedom. For some time he could not locate where the fire was spreading out from but shuffling his hands all over, wrapped in that moist bed sheet, he felt he saw a clot. He put his hands behind and found below his neck a fresh tear wedged into his skin. It speared inside and turned into a thirst searing his throat. He turned his head and looked at Aafia, to ask for water; it was time for prayer. She had her eyes open. They seemed to glow as if she had slept centuries back. And now, were meant to remain open like broken pieces of a mirror, forcing Rashid to see in them, the ugly face of an unacceptable truth. He felt his thirst slowly dying when she came close and let him weep into her. He fell back to sleep, while the morning weighed down. God had been awakened and Rashid couldn’t get up from his bed to call Him. Ever.
During those years, following Salma’s death, Aafia found the muezzin’s call injecting a certain melancholy into her. Every evening while crossing Laad Bazar on her way back from the embroidery school, she stared at the doors of the mosque. Looking at it she imagined her father’s death. When the men bowed down to their God and lost in whispers, she imagined a grotesque blade fly down, slicing the stillness and rip her father’s head off his body. The vision released a wave of madness in her, it tore at her and day and night the only thing she wondered about was when Rashid would pass off. As he aged and drew closer to death as all old men do, she stopped school, and didn’t go out to see the mosque. She sealed the windows with black cardboards and stuffed cotton balls into her ears while she slept. In the darkness she would keep her palm on his chest, what if it fell any moment and failed to rise. She wanted to hold back his life. She would make him sit naked in the bathroom and shave his grey pubic hair, oil his wrinkled skin wilting against her indisposition and rub herself all over his weak body, wound her skin around like wool. Doing so would perhaps put back some life into him and once again he would love her the way he did, in the days of her mother. But her desperation made him age faster. She would often turn violent, when after making whatever rudimentary form of love he could; Rashid would turn his back and rest for a while.
“Don’t sleep. You may die, if you close your eyes.”
Rashid would stay silent and smile at her gloomily. She could see the helplessness in his eyes, lacerated with salt, losing its lustre as if corroded by some subterranean cataract. The desperation was growing, spreading along the lines of her veins that seized at her. Before it could kill her, Aafia left a dying Rashid on a busy afternoon. She put on her dead mother’s burkha and scuttled her way through the bazaar. Near the Minar, she called an auto and asked the driver to take her to Hyderabad Central where her friend Nazia worked as a waitress in one of the food-marts.
Rashid died by dusk. No one came to bury his body.
“No burial for a kafir. Let him rot his way to Qayamat.”
Aafia didn’t dare to go back to her old house anymore. Rashid’s dead pearly eyes haunted her. At nights she dreamt herself fornicating with imaginary animals, with horns and hoofs that had the eyes of Rashid. She passed her days horsing around Nazia’s quaint, little room, crying aloud into its pillars and walls, and devising ways to kill the animals inside her; parts, he had stitched to her soul. Nazia never asked her the reason behind her near palpable insanity but thought of it as a natural after-effect of her sudden spurts of realization at being parentless. She decided to give her time and suggested her on finding some work. That, according to her, would help ease the pain. Aafia grew worried of the truth coming out any day. If not anything, a desperate heart was the weakest thing in the world. It could split up any moment. She had to leave this place. She thought of writing a note to her before she did. She could cook up a story: that she had a lover to whom she was going back, or that she didn’t want to be a burden on her, or she was visiting her Khala in Ajmer, anything. But the more she wrote, the more she found herself resigning to the truer version of the story. In the end she tore it off to pieces and threw it to the wind.
Life stretched like a perpetual sin chasing her till it pinned her down with remorse. Forgetting Rashid, killing the animals inside, had now become a compulsion for self-preservation’s sake. Yet, the thought of letting him die that evening and fleeing like a murderer, broke into her being every time she thought of burying down her past. It stayed there, at the bottom of her heart rotting into poison.
Behind the station at Hussain-Sagar, she found a room let out by a group of drunken widows. They had found business there and Aafia didn’t mind giving in a share. The nights still didn’t leave her alone. Sleep eluded her and the animals inside, ached to tear up and become human. After struggling all night she would fall back tired and sleep throughout the day. By dusk she would wander off into the raging chaos of the city and return back quiet with men she met at various places. Roads, bus-stops, long dark curving streets where mad dogs mated—let out inglorious howls and meat shops where the gosht and the blood smelled of her father. To her they were but all bodies and faces changing shapes like incense mist, swirling in turbulence, stretching and shrinking in an attempt to fit to her imagination. While on bed with the various men, she always wore her mother’s burkha, and imagined Rashid inside her, trying to feel his sagging folds and creases, moving her fingers along the contours of their bodies, yet failing miserably. Unlike her, all men went satisfied, stuffing the notes and thanking her in their prayers, asking if they could come again. She never let the same man return. Every day it was a different Rashid.
One drizzly evening, she decided to visit Minerva, the nearby coffee shop at Somajiguda Circle, for a cup of coffee and perhaps a new man, desirous enough. Wafting through the rain were the notes of a popular, sad hindi song from the Piano bar across the street. Through the glass walls of the café she tried to look at the people walking through the zebra-crossing as if attuned to the keys of the music being played. Black and White. Slower and sadder.
Waiting in the rain at the end of the crossing was a man in an orange T-shirt. With the freshness of a sudden sun on a rain-soaked evening he stood there talking animatedly with someone on his phone. Aafia kept looking at him. Something shifted inside her and no matter how much she tried to ignore it, it threatened to dampen her will. Before she could figure it out, he crossed the street and entered the café. A queer smile crossed her face and he caught it.
Drenched, dripping water over the floor with every step, he walked towards her and in a fleeting tone of surprise asked her.
“Sorry, do we know each other?”
His youthful face reminded her of an old photograph she had kept locked in her trunk. It was Salma’s favourite photograph of Rashid, in a starched white kurta sitting near his meat shop; and the only memorabilia of Aafia’s love. Rashid had gifted it to her on her 13th birthday. He was always aware of her desperation.
“That actually doesn’t matter,” she smiled, extending her hand forward, gesturing him to sit next to her. “I’m Aafia Sharique. We know each other now, don’t we?”
“Ah yes, thank you!” he replied back, smiling, “I’m Aniruddho Sarkar. We’ve got the same initials, you see.” He winked and a drop of rain fell from his brow.
“Well then,” she exclaimed in assertion, “Let’s find out what more we have in common.”
Aniruddho felt heaven pouring down on him that evening. She needed company for the night, and he, a fire to consume the cold. The week followed with Aniruddho struggling to understand his epiphany. When he asked her how she felt about it, she looked into his eyes and lied most convincingly, that her Khala in Ajmer wanted to marry her off to an old man and she had no choice but to escape. That evening when she met him, she was on her way back from a friend’s place who had promised her shelter, but later denied. It had rained and till she could find a way out, she chose to sit in Minerva and warm herself up. It was then that she saw him and craved human touch; that which she didn’t know she had longed for. Like the men she had summoned not to come back to her for the second night, she had summoned Aniruddho into believing the most understated and not ask for more.
While at night they competed against each other, trying to locate paths and curves through which one could escape beyond the mundane needs of the body, the naphthalene balls lay tucked and scattered in all corners of his old house like secret evil-eyes, filling up the room with a sharp chemical odour. Even at office he carried a ball or two in his pocket, for it reminded him the joys of the night and her generosities. Towards the end of that monsoon, the rain had dragged in the sea to his bed and he had found its waves tugging at his heart, back to an old familiar feeling. Love.
When Aniruddho told her how he wanted her in the house forever, she laughed. She knew of the trail of words that would follow and the disturbing conviction with which he will hold onto them. She laughed pulling his hands close to her breasts thinking that desire could curb all voices. But it was too late. Aniruddho pulled his hands away and said that her smell had woven itself into the curtain by the window and every time she left the house he felt an inconsolable urge to make love to the piece of cloth. His love, that moment, surrounded her like a storm. His innocence turned her insides. She wanted to drive a knife through his heart and throw it into the rain. She felt like a mother wanting to kill her child for having contracted her illness; that which would only add to misery if she kept it alive.
“You doubt I’ll leave?” she asked him, her voice sardonic.
“No”, he said, “I know, the moment I do you’ll be gone.”
To his words, she felt a corner of her heart turn sore, as the blue-flame in the other corner of the room changed into a human face. Rashid’s face loomed up in a dim haze.
Aafia decided to stay. The animals inside her had slept off for sometime but the face on the wall grew larger. It spread like an ugly blot and spat out a mouth to consume. She thought she was seeing things now. The larger it grew the more it turned her mad. After Aniruddho left for work in the morning she would pull out every piece of cloth from the wardrobe and heap it up in the middle of the floor like a mound. Rummaging through it she would pick up, a moth-holed bed sheet and wrap it around herself; the smell of naphthalene clung on to it. She would remove his shirts from the wardrobe and cry into them, dabbing her kohl laden eyes and when she’d grow tired of her own madness, she would drag in the iron stool and sit by the window, seeing the quotidian sun vanishing like a dissolving red dot; the curtain by her shoulder releasing the scent of relief. At night she would lie beside Aniruddho and stay awake looking at his face—searching for Rashid—lighted by the moon. It was a struggle to be with him and feel estranged at the same time. She thought of a way she could leave and never come back. Not the way she had left Nazia, but something like a hole in the sky that could suck her in or the mouth on the wall that could gobble her up. She remembered she had once asked Salma about the burial of the dead against cremation by burning. Salma had dismissed it as sheer profanity, asking for her daughter’s forgiveness in front of her God. It was Rashid who had then whispered in her ears while in bed at night,
“Burning would leave nothing. What your mother says, for a change, is somehow right”, he had smiled pulling her into a warm embrace. “This way, I can always come back to you and you to me.”
In the falling light of that cold evening, when she remembered Rashid’s words echoing inside her head, she opened up the window breathing hard at her freedom. Scraping back the stool she got up, took off her salwar and wrapped the curtain around. She walked up to the centre and let the room shrunk into boulders of bed sheets sprawled around her. It was time for the Adhan and she stood there looking at the face on the wall; its mouth only a pale smudge now. The blue-flame had died out. Outside, a storm was beginning to stir wild, and grappled to find its way out through a crack in the sky. Anirrudho will be coming soon.
Aafia closed her eyes and waited for the Adhan. The loudness would help mask her anguish. She kept the kerosene bottle from the kitchen ready and the matchbox clutched firmly in her hand. The bed sheets were wet enough to rise up in a passionate blaze. It wouldn’t take time, she told herself.
Someone called God and the voice blared, setting disturbing ripples inside her skull. She tried to think of the divine against all sins and lit a stick. By the time the Adhan died away she had set herself free.
As the sooty smell of her charred flesh left the window, the men in the mosque who had been bowing down looked up in guilt, midway, sniffing their own lust.
Gaurav Deka lives in Guwahati, Assam. His fictions, poetry and reviews have been published in The Open Road Review, The Tenement Block Review, Café Dissensus, The Four Quarter Magazine, The Bombay Literary Magazine, The Thumb Print Magazine, Fearless [poetry zine], The Northeast Review, and DNA-Out of Print, among others. His fiction, “To Whom He Wrote From Berlin”, won The Open Road Review Short Fiction Contest, 2014.