[Issue 9 / May 2014]

After a relatively sheltered existence shuttling between her family home and all-girls’ college in Calcutta, the capital beckoned Rimi with the promise of independence and a more eventful life than she had at home. It was the late Nineties and she had just turned 21. She was eager to grasp life by its curling Gaur horns and make it hers. In Delhi for a sedate entrance exam to a post graduate course, she decided to try her luck at an up-and-coming television office.

They stared at her open mouthed when she walked in. She wondered why, after all, they had asked her to the interview. Introducing herself with a nervous wobble in her voice she hoped they couldn’t hear, she realised they were more interested in looking at her. She had got a lot of that recently, especially since she had arrived in Delhi. The only woman on the interview panel eventually smiled, almost sympathetically, and opening the portfolio of bylines for big Calcutta dailies the girl had left earlier, said, “You write beautifully, would you like to be a trainee here?” The men harrumphed nervously. “It would be a behind the camera job though, if you’re happy with that.”

Of course she’d taken it. The stipend offered was tiny but she could think of at least a dozen people who’d kill for that job. She had no idea where to stay and worse, she didn’t know how to break the news to her anxious parents that she wasn’t going home.

“Where will you live? How will you live?” her mother sounded shocked but not, fortunately, tearful. “It seems too soon. Are you up to it?” This irritated her, though she loved her mom. Of course she’d be fine. She was young, but of age. And she hadn’t used up all her lives yet.  Her mother said ever after that at this moment her hair turned grey. But if she were honest, she would have to admit the greying had preceded her daughter’s bid for freedom by a decade.

Finding a place to rent in the city proved far more difficult than getting a job. Single, young and conspicuous, she scoured Delhi for a suitable place to stay. The choices were varied in that each was more horrific than the last; from a warren of hutches for a horde of perpetually stoned women to rooms that reeked of something sinister that was neither smell nor atmosphere, but the fact that the only way in or out was through the leering landlord’s bedroom.

She rejected these for a place owned by the most massive woman she’d ever met. It had felt relatively safe yet the claustrophobia engendered by tiny windows, rigid house rules and an ever-watchful male servant soon found her homeless again. With the arrest of a roommate for public obscenity (a.k.a. necking with a boyfriend in the back of a car, parked in a dark alley) and the resultant gossip amongst Delhi-based familiars of a certain age about Rimi’s own “wild and wanton” life (if only, she thought), she finally gave up searching for a place of her own.

By then her problems with accommodation—though not rare in that city, but made infinitely more interesting because of her way with words–had spread all over the office. People nodded their heads in sympathy as she walked past; some came up with alternatives, which reconnoitres revealed to be as revolting as the ones she’d rejected. A few friends put her up from time to time in university dorms, shared dives or impossibly small Barsatis where the single bed would be occupied in turn. This handful of large-hearted friends ran the risk of expulsion for “subletting” (though no transactions in cash or kind took place). Their kindness warmed her even more than the occasional roof over her head. Intermittently, someone senior and prosperous would take her home to feed and she’d crash on their sofa—that was as far as it went. A good thing, she thought, mostly. Sometimes there was a whiff or even the pong of other intentions but those advances were not from the more desirable men, it was the lonely, gauche, far-from-home younger ones that made those. They did not tempt her with their clumsy interest. She chose, on nights when she had no other option, to stay within the safe confines of the basement television studio in South Delhi where she worked.  Rimi learned to bat away mosquitoes and hunger with equal élan after the first few months.

One night she wandered into the gloom of a late edit. It was a cold night and she had wrapped a scarf round her face and head. Inside the room, she could see the dim outline of the most interesting man in her office—Rahul. He was handsome in a tall, dark, craggy way.  He had bags of confidence and a rather brusque, teasing way with women they lapped up.  She didn’t mind a bit of it herself but it didn’t come her way much. As she approached the huddled form on the chair and squeaked hello, he whipped around and jumped. In the interminable pregnant pause, he collected himself in what seemed like slow motion, reached out and tugged at her scarf.  She was acutely aware of his fingers brushing her cheek. She wondered whether she was meant to scold or step away.  Try as she might the sense of such rules eluded her. She liked how it felt so she stayed put. But then he wrapped the scarf back round her face like a Burkha and said, “Your eyes have such fire in them. I want to look at those alone.” And then he gave her the slightest shove towards the door, so gentle you couldn’t complain, but as she stumbled back out into the common room to try and snatch some sleep that night, she couldn’t help the hurt that swamped her.

Later, huddled on a sofa, she touched her face gingerly, wondering if anyone could ever look past it again. The feel of her cold, ruched skin brought back memories of another day; the kind of day that insidiously sneaks into dreams even as it is wilfully forgotten in the waking hours.

Sure enough she dreamt she was back in the half-light of that Calcutta dawn. In her excitement at being off to the airport to nab cricketing hero Steve Waugh for an interview, she hadn’t given much thought to the driver of the hired car the paper had sent. But when his head lurched forward the first time, Rimi felt her exhilaration turn to a cold anxiety. Was the man falling asleep? She started talking to him.  Loudly, to keep him awake. He looked at her dismissively in the rear-view mirror as if he couldn’t be bothered to answer someone so young and female.  His bloodshot eyes worried her even more. Was he also drunk? “Stop,” she said, and again. But the car kept going. And the next time she met his eyes in the mirror, the unsteady, resentful stranger had morphed into Rahul. She awoke feeling frazzled.

Thereafter, quite unwillingly, she developed a Rahul-radar, knowing instantly when he was in the room by the prickling of her hair. She would make a big show of not looking at him when really she was sneaking glances all the while. She heard his laughter at office parties followed by the answering tinkle of a female giggle and felt a twinge, no, a deep stab of jealousy. But he didn’t know she was alive. Or if he did, he didn’t care. He never looked at her or said hello, much less try and touch her again. She, on the other hand, had a massive, hopeless, yawning chasm-like crush that was taking up too much headspace. She reapplied herself to work but somewhere in the back of her head, or like a tiny splinter in her heart, was the memory of how she felt about him, just waiting to be reawakened.

That feeling rekindled one winter evening when she was looking for a place to spend the night. No suitable digs had presented themselves for months and tonight the office was being pest-controlled. All the office vermin were at risk, including her. But she had found none of her usual saviours, despite a whole morning spent searching for them in the nooks and crannies of their basement office.  The common room appeared deserted when she settled down to handwrite an outline for her next story. Scratch, scratch, scratch went her pen. Screech went a chair. Pulled forward into the light from the dark corner its inhabitant had been dozing in after a night edit.  Rahul leaned forward and said, so softly she almost didn’t hear, “Do you have somewhere to spend the night?” They were his first words to her since their night-time collision in the edit suite and only the second time he had spoken to her. “No,” she said hesitantly, not at all sure where it was leading, not at all wanting to seem in need of his help.  “Come back with me,” he commanded, in no doubt that someone in need of a bed would want his, especially his. “Gopal will make you Luchi-Aloo-Dum in the morning.”

This confused her. Was he proposing breakfast for her services or was it a straightforward offer, from the kindness of his heart, of a bed for the night and breakfast in the morning?  That she didn’t have a place to stay was common knowledge but he’d never cared before. And it wasn’t his large heart he was known for. But she still felt a little puff of warmth forming inside, expanding as she thought of his kindness into a cloud of good feeling. Then that other thought struck her again and the cloud popped.  He was a notorious womaniser and even though she was the farthest thing from his type, it clearly didn’t matter on a slow-woman-day. She would be nothing more than a notch on his bedpost when she wanted to be much more. Yet she felt a tingling anticipation, a head-swimming excitement beginning to mount. She said yes and proceeded to worry about it all day.

He came looking for her late in the evening, just as she was contemplating dredging up another acquaintance with a spare bed for the night. He led her to an old Volkswagen parked carelessly on the studio’s dusty drive. If the wayward parking screamed “I’m too cool for school”, the car itself was attention-grabbing in that painstakingly planned contrarian manner of his; a rust bucket of a rare model in a sombre colour to shore up his intellectual pretensions. But that’s what she thought later. At that moment, heading for what lay in wait at his home, she was too besotted and too nervous to care about anything other than being with him in the enfolding, forgiving darkness.

Climbing the dimly lit stairs of Rahul’s apartment building in the “nice” neighbourhood of Chittaranjan Park, she remembered the weeks she’d spent in a rented room nearby with a door leading to the landlord’s lodgings that only locked on his side. She hadn’t slept a wink till a friend helped her move the heavy wooden wardrobe in front of the disturbing door. The landlord had found her in contravention of her contract for moving furniture without his permission and she was out on the street again. The memory almost made her turn tail and run but then she thought–what’s the worst that could happen? Rahul wasn’t an axe murderer. Every woman he dallied with turned up to work the next morning. At best it would be a comfy, mosquito-free bed for the night and at worst, an exciting experience with a man she was drawn to.  Or maybe that was the best bit.

He shut the door behind her and walked down the corridor. But she hung about the door, shifting her waifish weight from foot to foot. She expected “Gopal” to emerge from the gloom. To offer them dinner. She thought Rahul would sit her down in the living room like any host with a new guest; they’d have a chat and a cuppa. Or maybe Scotch which she knew he liked (the girls at work talked about him incessantly). She would have declined and asked for a gin and tonic instead. She liked fruity drinks. Would he think her a child?

It was dawning on her that he didn’t think of her as a child or a guest.  He was holding a door open. Even from the other end of the corridor, she could see the very large bed within. Fear and mortification engulfed her as she walked toward the room in slow motion. Marooned, standing between the door and the bed, she searched Rahul’s face for some emotion. Whatever his intention, a smile, a softening of his expression, would have calmed her nerves, but he was poker-faced. As he gestured toward the bed, she sat on it with an anxious thump. He scanned the room as if he were setting up a television shoot.  “Take your top off”, he said gruffly as he moved a desk lamp nearer so she sat in a pool of light. With no illusions left about his intentions, she ran through the options very quickly in her head; a) she could have heartless, humiliating sex, b) she could bolt or c) she could talk him into letting her stay the night minus the shenanigans.  As she cleared her throat to suggest Plan C, he exasperatedly ripped her shirt off. In one swift practiced movement. As she watched buttons clattering into the corners of the room, he proceeded to unclasp her bra in a manner so vexed and disinterested, she could have been a particularly recalcitrant piece of meat he was carving for dinner. Her legs felt heavy, her throat had gone dry, so she squeezed her eyes shut, hoping in her inexperienced way that it would make it go away. Instead her eyelids burned as an orange glare pierced them.  She opened her eyes to see the desk lamp pointed at her in Abu Ghraib fashion. He slapped the lamp’s neck down impatiently so it focused on her breasts. “I don’t need to see the rest,” he growled. She gasped. And then something began to burn inside her. It was not desire.

She felt like a snake’s intended prey, snagged in its hypnotic gaze, knowing death to be imminent but unable to move.  And it was a snake staring at her, not just the snake in the grass he had turned out to be, but his trouser snake, out now, in his cupped hand, looking at her with its sly beady eye, making her stomach churn. She was terrified he would try to make her touch the thing or worse, put it in her mouth. Instead he began to stroke it himself. She was irrelevant in this equation; it was between him, his penis and that lamp he had trained on her breasts. The last so important, he stopped fondling himself for a minute to ensure its light stayed squarely on her nakedness.  He was close to doing The Nasty now. But just as he leaned in for the spill, she rolled away. No longer in awe of him, Rimi knew she didn’t want his repugnant spunk on her. Screaming “Bitch!” in frustration, he came all over the bedspread and himself.  Then he stormed out like a diva whose waterbed had deflated. The sound of the front door slamming meant he wouldn’t be back for a while. For the night, she hoped, as she carefully locked the door and stripping the bed, lay down to sleep.  It was 1 am. She knew from experience, running out into the Delhi night would not be wise. The pervert’s bedroom had become the safest place in the city. She slept. And she dreamt.

She was back in the car taking her to Calcutta airport. It weaved erratically as she yelled at the driver, slouched unnaturally over the steering wheel. “What ARE you doing? Are you awake? Are you unwell? Can you hear me?” And then rolling down the window, “Can anyone hear me? Help, someone, please!” Her frantic shrieks were sucked into the maelstrom of screaming metal speeding past on one of Calcutta’s busiest roads, even at that time of the day.  She watched horrified as the driver’s head smashed into the steering wheel with a resounding thwack and the car careened out of control. Then something large and heavy ploughed into them.

She awoke in a strange room with a bitter taste in her mouth and found she’d chewed her lip raw in her sleep. There was blood on the pillow. Spunk on the sheets on the floor. She remembered where she was, and opened the bedroom door a chink to observe the lay of the land. Sunshine had flooded the mise-en-scene. A man was singing in high-pitched rustic Bengali. Not Rahul. Gopal perhaps?  Wrapping her gap-fronted top around her, she inched out to assess him. Perps sometimes work in pairs, after all. But Gopal was the opposite of his employer. Small, unprepossessing, and to her relief, smiling.

“Uthechhen?” he beamed, “bekphasht baniyechhi.”

Had he known she was there all along, or was he just used to seeing strange women in the morning? She wondered about post-molestation etiquette; should she or shouldn’t she stay for breakfast? She decided that food (she hadn’t had any after lunch the previous day) might settle her somersaulting stomach. Peeking inside the silver tureens, she was unable to hide her disappointment at the absence of the promised Aloo Dum. There was Luchi though, with an aromatic cauliflower in cumin accompaniment. Gopal saw her face fall and said apologetically, “Aloor dosh achhe.” She dropped the ladle with a clatter. Was this an admission of Rahul’s peccadilloes?

“Hya, aloor dosh acche” he said again sadly, “tai Aloo Dum banate parlam na, Mish. Dukkho korona, arek din eshe aloo kheo.” I bloody won’t, she thought, not any kind of aloo Rahul had to offer, but smiled sweetly—it wasn’t Gopal’s fault his employer was a jerk and the phoolkopi he was now spooning up for her smelled delicious. “E barir kechkola ta-o dekhe joto ta bhalo hobe mone hoye, kokhonoi hoi na,” he gave her a snaggle-toothed grin. She was sure now he was referring to his employer. She tittered. Then guffawed, and Gopal joined her. She felt so much better for it, almost as if the humiliation of last night hadn’t happened. Like all she was doing was having a hearty breakfast cooked by this sweet old man who was also taking the trouble to make her laugh. She decided she could laugh the whole incident off. Till Gopal put a folded currency note down beside her.  500 Rupees. “Shaart chhire gechhe bole”, he said, as if it had been an accident. Worse, they thought she could be bought, and for such a paltry sum!  Whilst she couldn’t make up her mind which part of this offended her most, she was relieved that no services had been rendered, he had done it all himself.

She walked out.  Then she ran, putting as much distance as she could between herself and the seeping horror of the previous night, as if it had only just hit her. Hit her with the force of the two ton lorry that had railroaded her car that fateful day. It may have been months ago but she still remembered that ear-shattering screech, then being thrown in a blur of twisting metal and flailing limbs that ended with overwhelming pain. Agony like she’d never known before. But her face felt ice-cold. Strangely, considering she had been in the back seat, her cheek was resting against the windshield. Resting was the wrong word—pinned was more like it—with shards of glass she could see from the corner of her eye. It should have been excruciating but the pain was already receding. Darkness rushed in to take its place.

When she came to, people had gathered around her. There was no shattered glass. No blood or unbearable pain.  No twisted, pulverised metal. She was lying on the road but a narrow, pungent side road–a gali. She wasn’t in the midst of the carnage of half a year ago. She was in the present, minutes from Rahul’s South Delhi apartment. Did she fall, she asked the people propping her up. Just like that, they told her, nothing had struck her.

“You are fine, Beti, thank God” said the kindly old lady peering at her, “So what is that on your face?” “My face?” Rimi wondered woozily. Then she knew. It was so much a part of her now; she sometimes forgot it was there. But not for long. Because nobody else did.

She pulled the little mirror out of her handbag.  It was tiny and she could only see half her face in it. She moved the mirror slightly so she could see the other half. The half she usually avoided looking at. That half everyone else averted their gaze from. The half Rahul had blocked out on each of their encounters. She scrutinised the mashed up half, the disfiguring, crinkled scar that gave her face the look of a partially blighted potato. Another aloo with a dosh.

She would have to live with the legacy of her terrible accident, her pulped aloo face, but why should she, or any woman, put up with Rahul’s perverse aloor dosh? She now knew what she had to do. And as she headed for her office, with knees scuffed from the fall, top torn from the previous night’s humiliation, and face shredded from the crash of six months ago, she could hold her head high.  She was sure she was just one in a long line of mistreated women. All the heated talk about Rahul was from the women who were waiting to be chosen. Never from those who had had the privilege. Well, she would change that.

She didn’t have to worry about losing face, after all.

*

Shreya Sen-Handley is a former journalist and television producer who now writes and illustrates for the British and Indian media, including The Guardian (UK), The National Geographic, The Hindu and the Times of India. That is, of course, when she’s not looking after her young children, husband and home in Sherwood Forest, England.