The first thing that comes to your mind when you reach Madiwala is definitely not murder. Mayhem, maybe –because the place is a mélange of roads cluttered with vehicles, garbage, urinating cows and pissed off pedestrians seeking to find relief from the incessant clamour. But definitely not murder.
So it was that Prakash Sundaram, carrying a black leather bag in hand got down from the bus with murder being the last thing on his mind. The bus ride from Coimbatore was comfortable but as soon as he got off it, he was covered by a swarm of auto drivers. “Sir, auto, sir?” they all said in varied tempos.
And kept repeating disregarding the firm headshake in the negative from their prospective customer.
“I just have to walk down that lane!” Prakash said eventually, pointing down one of the small lanes ahead of him.
The auto-rickshaw drivers now turned their attention elsewhere. Prakash sighed in relief. He really hated this city.
The hotel where Prakash was booked at was hardly a 2 minute walk away from where the bus let him off. It was the same four storied executive class hotel which the company booked for him every time he came for a meeting in Bangalore.
“Executive” was a misnomer, though. The place looked more like a house which was hastily transformed into a hotel, though the amenities were decent enough. Also, more than the mid-tier business traveler for whom the place supposedly existed(“Business stay at a budget” said the tagline on the board out front) it was more the family crowd that stayed there- this Prakash knew from his previous stays.
The hotel was overpriced though-the ‘budget’ idea notwithstanding. Not that Prakash was complaining. The company was paying, though this time he would have liked them to book a place closer to the client’s office at MG Road.
Something to do with the owner of this hotel and his boss being old buddies.
After checking into his room, Prakash took a long hot shower. After coming out of the bath, he found that he still had about 3 hours before the meeting. Though hungry, he didn’t feel like stepping out. He tried the reception but all he got was a monotone buzz.
“Some Executive class!,” he muttered and slammed the receiver on the cradle.In another two minutes he was out of the door.
It was while walking down towards the lift at the end of the corridor that he saw her. At first, he wasn’t entirely sure if it was Tara. Her cheeks were a little fluffier than he remembered and her skin even though still smooth without any marking of ageing appeared to be of a slightly paler hue than how it was more than ten years ago when they were both students.
She wasn’t startled by the voice though she did look up at him with a surprised expression.
Now that he had a straight view of her face rather than the profile, he said, “I wasn’t entirely sure that it was you!” There was a smile in his lips.
She squinted, observed him closely. But no recognition came.
“It’s me, Prakash…from college?” he added in a somewhat embarrassed tone. Indeed, he rubbed the back of his head, not being aware that he was making such a gesture.
It took another moment or two before she recognized him. He was beginning to think that he was not at all in her memory when she smiled- the radiant smile which had captured the hearts of many in his college, including himself.
“Oh, Prakash,you have changed so much!”
That one statement coming from her made him feel more self-conscious than he has been in a long time. His receding hairline, the tiny pouch of a belly that has grown in the past decade and the gray hairs on his moustache all appeared before him as though he stood before a mirror.
“I never thought that we would meet again.”
He wondered if there was a touch of sarcasm in her tone. Because the last time they parted, he had said that he would come meet her again, quite possibly the very next day, only never to have seen her again.
“Are you here with your husband?” he said in as straight a tone as he could summon.
Tilting her head ever so slightly, she observed him with a calculating look in her eyes, as though wondering how much she should tell him.
Eventually, letting out a soft sigh, she said, “I was thinking whether I should lie to you.” She waited for a cleaning lady to pass them by and be out of ear shot before continuing, “But I reckon it would be…unbecoming. Besides, even if I lie you would just speculate, you who knew me.” She stressed the word ‘knew’ making Prakash blush.
All of a sudden, he wasn’t sure if he did the right thing by stopping to talk to her.
Maybe he should have passed her by without inviting her attention to him. It was, more than anything, an intense curiosity to know what became of her that made him decide to converse with her. But now, he wasn’t too sure if he wanted to know what she was up to these days.
“The room was booked for me,” she said, “By a client, of course- an ageing potbellied alcoholic who owns a chain of bakeries in the city. This hotel, as you know,is respectable enough. Also, it’s far enough from his hometown to make him feel secure. He is already late by 2 hours. The motherfucker.” She said all this, including the expletive in the most neutral of tones.
“What about you?”
In town for a meeting. In fact, two meetings –one today and one tomorrow. Will be leaving tomorrow night. Prakash said all this trying hard not to meet her eyes.
He felt embarrassed by the apparent lack of embarrassment in her. She still looked at him with wide open eyes, a serene smile adorning her beautiful face.
He couldn’t help but notice how her breasts pressed against the fabric of her T-shirt.
“I was just stepping out for breakfast,” he said, more because he didn’t want to talk about himself than anything.
But she said, “Oh, I was thinking of ordering something. But if you are going out, I guess I will join you. I will feel bored just sitting in the room watching the television. Unless you mind..You don’t mind, do you?” For the first time, he detected in her voice the sense that she might be doing something that’s considered wrong.
Prakash thought but just for a second- he didn’t know anyone in this city. And he could use some company for breakfast-though he left home just last night, he was already feeling lonely.
“Yes, sure,” he said.
“Cool. Just give me a minute. Let me change into something else.” She disappeared into the room.
He imagined her changing her clothes.
During the breakfast t both stayed clear from topics that might be awkward.
Technically, this meant they spoke about things other than themselves. Mostly about Bangalore where Tara said she has been staying “these last few years.”
“My bother did his MBA here. He just finished his course. So, when he came over for doing the course, I joined him. We are very close,” that’s as much of personal information that was passed from one party to the other during the breakfast.
By the time he was back in his hotel room, Prakash was ready to sleep. The appam and kadala curry that he had for breakfast was rather filling, making his brain pleased and delightfully lethargic.
But once his head hit the pillow, it was some time yet after which he finally slipped into sleep. Thoughts about Tara’s naked body kept intruding his sleep.
The meeting went okay.
As the Client Relations Officer for an advertising firm, Prakash’s job was that of a liaison between the clients and the agency’s creative department- a much harder job than one might imagine: For a client is always focused on business and the creative department’s main pre-occupation is aesthetics. And no matter how compelling an evidence was given to the client that showed that things like beauty actually influenced people’s buying decision, they would eventually come back to the same point, saying, “Just tell them what the product does and it’s price!”
As for the creative team, it’s quite crazy to do something like that because that’s what everyone does and when you do what everyone does, how will you get enough attention to your product?
Reconciling these two viewpoints and bringing out a piece of advertising that’s pleasing enough to both the parties involved was often like trying to create a perfect blend of oil and water, or so Prakash felt. But there were times when magic happened- when the artwork that came out of the agency came across as spellbinding to the client.
The meeting that he had today was with a footwear client. They were coming out with a new line of women’s designer footwear- their most ambitious project till date. They would like the agency to submit a proposal that outlines all the major activities and campaigns that should be done for the product’s launch-which was to happen in another two months.
The client has been largely supportive of the agency’s creative culture, giving nod to some of their most unconventional ideas. There was a good chance that the agency could create something unique-something that they could be proud of, with this latest project.
And Prakash was pleased with the faith that the client had shown in the agency while giving him the briefing. In fact, unlike previous times, they didn’t provide any briefing per se, instead they just gave him the overview of the product line(along with a catalogue) and the command that the agency has a free hand in this one.
“Come up with whatever strategy that you might think would work for something like this.”
Usually, a meeting like this-which in advertising is as common as lightning striking the same place twice would delight Prakash no end. God only knows that such meetings afford a great relief from the usual ones from which he would come out feeling like he wanted to kill himself- most clients are just downright arrogant, as he has found-but something that he wouldn’t say to anyone except his closest friends.
Not that he wasn’t feeling happy with the meeting this day, but there was something else that occupied his mind more than the happiness.
He tried to distract himself from such preoccupations of the mind by having a sumptuous lunch after the meeting. He in fact had a grand buffet from a North Indian restaurant in town known for their spicy delicacies.
And when the preoccupations persisted he called up his wife and even talked to his daughter(as much as one could hold a cohesive conversation with a two year old).
His wife was surprised to get a call from him at this time of the day. Usually when Prakash was away he would call home twice a day-once in the morning after he arrived at the destination(which he did this morning) and once at night before having dinner. When she mentioned the unusual timing of the call, he just shrugged, alluding to the happiness of the well-concluded meeting.
But the preoccupations persisted even after he got off the call with his wife. And this time, the persistence made him somewhat sad.
For the preoccupations were nothing but thoughts about Tara, the kind of thoughts that no happily married man should be entertaining.
Sure Tara was not exactly an ‘untainted’ damsel.
She wasn’t untainted even when he came to know of her through someone in his college hostel all those years ago. But even after all these years(in which God only knows how many men she slept with) she retained that easy sensuality of hers which would make even the most beautiful women jealous.
Maybe it’s because she was ‘selective’ of her clients- even in college she was like that. If ever she slept with a student it would only be with someone who came from wealth. Prakash was one of the few exceptions and that too because he came ‘heavily recommended’ by one of her regulars, a friend of his whose father had mangoes and iron ore among his multiple business interests.
Whatever the reason, she still looked strikingly good to him, and evoked in him passions for a flesh of another kind.
He prolonged going back to the hotel as much as he could- he knew that he would just feel miserable in his room, knowing that just a few doors away, Tara was being banged away by some old businessman.
After taking in an exhibition of handicrafts and a movie though, he was feeling tired and was ready to go back.
At the hotel, as he passed the room where Tara stayed- room number 305, he willed himself not to look at the door, imagining moans and whispers floating out from the space between the door and the floor.
He lied in the quasi-darkness of his room, staring at the ceiling lit up by the neon lights of the establishment opposite- another hotel in which stayed people with another set of preoccupations.
He lied there waiting for sleep to come.
Tired though he was, the sleep was still elusive.
Even though the AC was on and he had stripped down to his boxer shorts he still felt somewhat hot. He could hear the sound of his heart hammering away in the darkness within his chest cavity, beating to the rhythm of passions most abominable and yet so delectable.
At first, he couldn’t distinguish the knock on the door from the sound of his pounding heart.
The sound was so soft, barely over the threshold of his hearing. But once the sound was adjudged to be that of the soft but unmistakable rap of knuckle on wood, he dragged himself out of the bed.
On the way to the door, he grabbed the crumpled shirt which he had left on the back of a chair and put in on. He turned on the soft yellow light that lit the short corridor from the door to the bed area of the room before unlocking the door.
He hadn’t dared hope for it and yet, there she stood- Tara, with her black wavy hair curling around her shoulders, wearing a transparent nightie which made it very clear that she didn’t have on anything underneath and a thin smile that would have made Mona Lisa’s look the least mysterious ever.
“I am so sorry if I am bothering you,” she hoarse whispered. “But can I come in for a while?”
It took just a couple of seconds for her to be inside the room and for him to close the door.
We are just going to talk. Old acquaintances talking for a while. Nothing else. Prakash told himself even as he gestured her to one of the two seats around a small round tea poe on the other side of the bed, nearer to the glass window through which came the flickering neon lights- the pulse of a city which afforded both crowds and anonymity.
“Would you like something to drink? I am afraid I have just Coca-Cola, though I think I can order something from the reception-some coffee, perhaps?”
Tara merely shook her head and gestured him to take a seat on the chair opposite.
He took the seat, watching the dance of lights on the beautiful face.
After apologizing for intruding once again, she said, “The man passed out drunk. By the time he reached here it was already evening. And almost as soon as he got in the room, he started drinking. He did spend some time with me but no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn’t get it on. There I sat stark naked on his lap and he still couldn’t get it up!”
If the mention of her being naked was meant to stir Prakash, it succeeded. But he remained silent and still like the night sky. He hoped that she wouldn’t notice the bulge in his boxer shorts. The room was dark enough to afford him that much obscurity.
“Somehow, the old bastard managed to order some food for both him and me, and even more miraculous-he even ate his food though he was so far gone by that point. He started drinking again, and around 10 he just dropped off. I will be leaving early tomorrow morning, you see.”
Prakash stayed just a moment in silence before he said, “It sounds like you are almost remorseful that he dozed off without having sex with you.”
He hadn’t meant to be so blunt.
But somehow, the words just tumbled out of his mouth. Part of the reason why he said it was the perverse pleasure he felt at talking about sex with the beautiful woman in the dark of the night in a hotel room so far away from home.
Tara looked nonplussed though.
“Sorry if I said the wrong thing,” said Prakash.
Just a moment more of non-animation and Tara began to cry. Not in a loud voice but her quiet sobs broke the sexual tension which has built itself around Prakash in the preceding few minutes.
Before he could say anything, she looked up and spoke in a quivering voice not at all like the loquaciously confident tone she usually used. “I don’t know how to say it. I mean, I don’t think that there is any way of putting this without you getting shocked. So I might as well say it straight. The man in my room, my client-he is dead. To be more precise, I killed him.”
Prakash flinched though he didn’t say anything. He was too shocked to make a response.
“I have planned this for a while,” Tara continued, “The truth is that I had had gone out with the man-the bastard twice before. And both the times, he raped me. After the first time, he called and apologized, saying it was a mistake. The second time, he promised not to hurt me, and offered me more money. A lot of money than I could usually expect. You see, I have been earning all this while for my brother’s education-he is the only one I have. So I went with the man a second time and this time too he did the same to me as the first time, only more violently. I just felt so bad, so rotten…I wanted to kill the bastard right then and there. But I was unable to. So, I bided my time, hoping for him to call again- the pervert that he was, I knew that he would call. And when he did, he made the same promise again- of not hurting me, saying how sorry he was for what he did to me.”
In the slow quivering voice, she explained how she had made sure-with the aid of a hat and a pair of glasses and some carefully applied makeup that no one among the hotel employees would be able to recognize her. Prakash remembered how she had averted her face when the cleaning woman passed them by on the corridor earlier in the day and also how even when they were breakfasting in a restaurant, she insisted on having her dark glasses and hat on.
She said how she decided the hotel would suit her purposes seeing how there were CCTV cameras only in the lobby and not in any of the corridors- ironically one of the reasons why her client insisted in this hotel.
“My brother got his first job last month. Nothing big-more of an internship than anything but I am sure that he has a great future. He is bright, unlike me..,” She broke off her monologue for just a moment and smiled wistfully. “I have saved up some money for myself too-enough to help me leave this city, go somewhere where I don’t know anyone and no one knows me, and start over. Not doing what I do now. Oh, god, no! But doing something else- maybe a garment salesperson or something- you know how I like clothes!” She laughed, a loud whip like noise that sounded strangulated within the confines of the room which to Prakash suddenly felt too small.
She looked up, the red neon light reflecting off her teary eyes. “You were the contingency in the plan,” her voice was barely over a whisper now. “That for which I have not prepared. You are the only one who could identify me…..” After halting and letting an uneasy silence hang between them like a question mark, she said, “Would you betray me?”
Before he could frame an answer, she said, “I will do whatever you want.”
Back in his office cabin, on the table, there was a picture of his wife holding their darling daughter when the child was just 6 months old. In the photo, both the mother and child were smiling. They stood against the backdrop of the Brihadeeswar temple in Tanjore- one of the first places of pilgrimage that Prakash- a lifelong devotee of Lord Shiva took them to.
It was that picture that Prakash thought of now, to defend himself against the words, “I will do whatever you want.”
But like rotten flesh consumed by maggots, the picture fell apart.
There is something about the act of having a woman who isn’t your wife submissive on bed that makes everything else a moot point.
The memories of the myriad nights in which he and his wife stayed up to take care of their feverish baby was easily stifled by the moans of Tara. And the sense of flesh on flesh as she wrapped her legs around his thighs brought a deeper sense of relief than the thought that he has a family- a familiar comfort waiting for him when he returned home.
He made love to her twice that night. After the second time, he felt exhausted. Unable to keep his eyes open, he fell asleep soon after, the gentle weight of her head on his shoulder, both of them asleep in a lover’s slumber.
But when a thought he couldn’t recollect once he was awake brought him out of sleep the next morning, he saw that she was no more in the room.