In Kolkata, autos don’t run freely. They have particular routes that they tread, like buses. An auto driver can’t just go off route and a passenger, no matter how much money he might have, has to share the auto with four other people. A whiff of democracy. Maybe it’s the strong unionization.
I have been making this auto journey every week-day for a month, from the metro station at MG Road to my aunt’s house in Kadapara, so named for being a dirt (kada in Bengali) road. An erstwhile slum in the suburbs newly being gentrified with big apartment complexes, a flat in which my aunt occupied with her family and where I was a guest for three months.
On this particular day, as I got into the auto, a couple of young Muslim boys, Bilal and Rehan, joined me in the back seat. They seemed innocuous enough. I had a long beard then which made me look like a Mussalman myself. They must have thought I was one for they started talking to me immediately. Such friendliness. I wasn’t used to it. Besides, I was stoned so I wasn’t feeling too talkative. But I didn’t want to come across as Islamophobic so I responded to their queries about how I was doing, what I was doing, where I was going, where I was coming from, etc. They invited me to their house for Eid, I laughed and said sure.
Then, unexpectedly, Rehan asked me for my phone number. It was a little suspect but I thought what the hell, he is just a kid, what could possibly go wrong. I gave it to him. Both of them took it down in their respective phones, asked me for my name.
Now that they knew I wasn’t a Muslim, I wondered how they would behave. Rehan launched into a proof of his secular character.
‘I have many friends from your caste, Akshay, Akash. I went to a school that had many people from your caste. I have many friends. You should come celebrate Eid with us, they do too, they really like it, I celebrate the festivals of your caste as well.’
Sure I thought, maybe I will celebrate Eid with him. Maybe I would learn something, see another community, celebrate their festivals, god knows I hated celebrating my own. Diwali was more boring than a scientific documentary about the history of pimples. On Holi, people turned into their most disgusting selves, hoping that a splash of colours gives them the license to unleash their repressed lecherousness onto the world. It’s like a day of purge when men can go feel up all the women in their vicinity without any consequences. The exchange of niceties and gifts at Rakhi, a festival to assert the bonds of patriarchy where we are supposed to promise to protect our sisters, was positively vomit inducing.
Even if I hated the festivities of Eid, at least they would give good home-made mutton biryani, the pleasure of which I was deprived of in my militantly vegetarian Jain family. We don’t kill animals but we are okay with paying less than minimum wage for 12 hr workdays.
I wanted to tell him how what he wanted to say was religion and not caste, instead I just beamed my smile at him and told him I would try to make it on Eid. Then I proceeded to ask him some perfunctory questions about his life, like where he lived and what he studied.
‘Do you have any brothers or sisters?’ He asked me after the conversation had lagged for a few seconds.
‘Yeah, one elder brother, married, with a child to boot.’
‘Oh, just one? And no sisters?’
‘Na, just one, my mother refused to carry anymore, said it was too god damn annoying and thankless.’
‘So, when are you getting married?’
‘Who knows, maybe never, we will see.’
‘Do you have a girlfriend then?’
‘You know, on and off.’
‘Youngsters today don’t have any values anymore, they go out and get hitched by themselves with no regard for their families.’
‘Yeah, I am a youngster of today.’
‘So do you believe in love marriage?’
‘I believe in arrange marriage. I think parents should find us our mates.’
I smiled. ‘I believe everyone should do whatever the heck they want.’
We were about to reach Raja Bazaar, the Muslim ghetto where he was supposed to get off.
‘How long into the night do you stay online?’
I thought that was a weird question. But then again, he was just a kid, and from a conservative family, maybe he had a curfew he had to follow at home.
‘I don’t know, till whenever I am awake.’ I said with a faint smile on my face.
‘I am only asking because we usually chat at night.’
‘You will chat with me right.’
‘Sure,’ I said very unsurely.
‘I will send you a message tonight, do reply.’
I looked away.
Should I tell him I don’t chat to boys on WhatsApp or should I just let it slide, I thought. I believe WhatsApp is purely a means of flirtation and nothing else should be done on it – especially something like talking to other men, what a waste of time to chat with men. I let it slide. I could easily ignore him I figured and anyway he wouldn’t really want to chat, we just met, he is probably just being nice.
While I was constructing a narrative in which he didn’t exist, he decided to get involved with me in a money relationship. He wanted to pay my fare, to which I said a strict ‘no’ on account of him being younger then I. I didn’t really care about the protocols of age in the settlement of bills, I just didn’t want to be indebted to him in any way. I knew how people worked. They did a favour for you, no matter how small and then expected that favour to join you in some kind of perfidious bond – its nature being as odious as the nature of the person forcing it into existence. I had suffered once for expecting favours indiscriminately, I knew better than to accept his slyly generous gesture.
It was when he insisted on paying the bill, and only settled after losing an argument over rights, that I started feeling an inkling of suspicion towards his ultimate design in trying to chat me up.
I came home and told my cousin about the curious incident of nice Muslim boys who mistook me for one of them and then didn’t know how to get out of the situation without being even nicer than they originally were. She said I was an idiot to give my phone number to random strangers. I said they were just kids, what could they possibly do with my phone number.
We went to the roof so I could smoke a joint. The mother had gone to a temple to meet a Jain novelty, a completely naked fakir or holy man, called ‘maharaja ji’ by the initiates. They move around blessing their followers in small packs all over the country, their travel and stay arranged for by the local Jains. Every evening they give what is called a ‘pravachan’ or a sermon. Wonderful things they say about people to make them happy. I have recently come to realise that Jainism how I have seen it practiced is a completely Brahminical enterprise, with all the attendant staunchness about purity and karma, concepts whose sole purpose is to prevent guilt and existential anxiety from destroying a Jain’s existence. And this is what these nude mendicants provided in almost a public relations exercise for the temples owned by wealthy trusts coupled with a motivational speech to keep the donors rich, and just anxious enough to keep coming to them for their happiness.
People from near and nearby come to see them, listen to them and feed them. A special routine has to be followed when feeding one of these paranormals. They don’t use utensils. So they have to be fed in the hands of the disciples, an ‘ahar’ it is called. You put your palms together such that it forms a shallow bowl and from that you feed them liquids and semi liquids directly into their oral orifices. Suggestive imagery aside, it is an honour to feed one of them and in exchange for receiving this delightful opportunity to pour liquid into the holy mouth itself, they ask their disciples to sacrifice a bodily pleasure for an arbitrary length of time like 1 month or 10 years depending on their level of hopelessness that day. It can be giving up potato, or giving up eating food at night, purely mundane unnecessary stuff that didn’t mean anything but could still cause massive amounts of inconvenience. Nobody ever gave up alcohol or meat at one of these vents because if they could, they wouldn’t be allowed to give them ahar in the first place. Always the dumbest and most annoying stuff, my mother refuses to be in the same room as a ladyfinger because of one of these stupendously trite and pointless events.
While I was smoking a servant, fashionably called housekeepers and maids these days by the politically correct children of feudal parents, came to the roof. They dry their clothes up there apparently, separately from all the actual tenants of the building, but together with each other. The community of underlings united by a clothesline. Sensing another presence around me while I was doing something illegal and potentially a source of unneeded attention and concern, I became a little bothered about how I would evade this human while continuing to smoke my already lit joint. My cousin told me not to worry, innocently adding, ‘People don’t come upstairs, only maids do so you don’t need to be afraid.’ Implying that maids didn’t care two shits about what we, the children of the tenants, did there. And also that they were subhuman. She did that subconsciously of course, she doesn’t really mean they are not humans, it’s just that our subconscious is a casteist hinterland which prevents us from seeing our cleaners as anything more than dirt which comes home every day to magnetically take all the other dirt away. They were like the small amount of disease that is inserted into a body as a vaccine so it can kill the larger disease along with itself.
Meanwhile, I got to writing because that’s what I do when I am high. I chanced upon the observation that writers make a living through talking about people who have conventions. Reducing conventions to contradiction and mockery has been the occupation of writers since Socrates, that champion of the oral tradition whose dialogues properly inaugurated the writer. While I was ruminating on these thoughts that made me feel greater than myself, Bilal was finishing that day’s Roza.
Soon enough, he started messaging me. This below is an exact replica of the messages he sent on WhatsApp over the course of the next 6 hours, between 7 p.m. and 1 a.m.
Are r u bro
Wre r u bro
talk to m bro
Ksa ho bhai (How are you bro?)
I like u
U like me
I love u
I like u
Hm tmko sb dega (I will give you everything)
U duck m
U fuck m
talk to m
Ap bht ache ho (You are very good)
Now here was the boy, who earlier had told me about how he couldn’t have sex with a girl before marrying her, asking me to have sex with him. I don’t know if I gave any gay vibes to him but even if I did, this was entirely too straightforward. I mean, where was the flirting, the courting, the beating about the bush before you ask someone for a fuck. I proceeded to block him when he started calling me.
My cousin laughed and laughed. She was being vindicated, random stranger was doing some weird shit with my phone number and I wasn’t very comfortable about that. But still nothing bad had really happened, I just chanced on a young person who was looking to hook up with someone from out of town. That’s not exactly any concern of mine. My life would continue unabated.
The worst of it was still to come though. He had asked me where I was putting up in Calcutta and I had told him about the apartment complex where my aunt lived. Lake District Apartments on Kadapara. The next day when I left through the main gate, I saw him standing there with flowers.
‘Holy shit,’ I thought. ‘Now what does he want, how will I get rid of him without making a scene.’
I didn’t talk to him or make eye contact with him. I just got in an auto and left. I had shaved my beard over the weekend, and now looked like what a girl describes as a shaved dildo, so maybe he didn’t even recognize me. He certainly didn’t seem to make a move towards me as I exited. Maybe he would stand there all day and then go home with a broken heart or something, it wasn’t my problem anymore.
And so I went to the Seagull School of Publishing, where I was doing a course in editing books, and forgot about him. At Seagull, we did more grammar and punctuations, more preparation for our thankless jobs as editors, the backstage managers of the book world.
When I got into an auto, outside MG Road, in the evening to come back home, he appeared out of nowhere and got into the same auto. Now we were in trouble.
He kept looking at me, I looked away.
‘I know you got a shave, don’t think I don’t recognize you.’
‘What do you want? I don’t swing that way, go find someone else.’
‘You looked better with the beard.’
‘I don’t care.’
‘I was standing there with the flowers, you shouldn’t have ignored me.’
‘I don’t want flowers from you.’
‘But I like you.’
‘What does that even mean, we may have talked for all of ten minutes in an overcrowded auto, you can’t just start liking a person in that much time.’
‘I can, the moment I saw you, I felt something special.’
‘Just leave me the fuck alone.’
‘Won’t you get down with me at Raja Bazaar? I will take you to a nice restaurant.’
‘Don’t you have to keep your Roza?’
‘I won’t eat, I will just watch you eat.’
‘I am not hungry.’
‘We can get tea as well.’
‘I don’t think I want to talk to you or ever see your face again, so leave me the fuck alone alright.’
‘I like you, won’t you just spend some time with me.’
‘Why did you block me on WhatsApp? I just wanted to talk to you.’
‘You were getting on my nerves.’
Then he said something in Bengali to the auto driver. We were at Raja Bazaar. He motioned us outside.
‘But I have to go to Phoolbagan,’ I protested.
‘Not going today sir, get another auto.’
‘Don’t drop me here, this guy is crazy.’
‘Get out, I am in a hurry.’
They were all in it together, the bastards. They had it in for me. I always thought something like this would happen one day. I got out and Bilal took hold of my hand. I was afraid, we were in a Muslim ghetto, I couldn’t just pick a fight with him. I am not a racist, I have nothing against Muslims but I am afraid of them at times. They make me uncomfortable. I don’t think it makes me prejudiced, I wouldn’t do badly by them.
It’s how I feel about gays. They make me uncomfortable when they display their affection in front of me. I admit that. But it does not mean that I wouldn’t make friends with them or hire them or would in any way consciously hurt them. Now someone can say that I shouldn’t feel uncomfortable around gays and I agree with the gentleman or lady, but I am unable to change the almost physical reaction that I have. It’s like an ingrained feeling of disgust, sure it is ideology, but it’s there and has to be acknowledged and beaten consciously. Just by saying I am not disgusted, I don’t think I can get over it, in fact that’s a more delusional position to take.
I was afraid of being in a Muslim area with a Muslim boy who apparently wanted me to fuck him. I hadn’t been to a lot of such areas, a few times to shoot for a documentary or to eat at a restaurant, but not enough to become comfortable with them. Raja Bazaar is a crowded street, with shops on both sides of the road like much of this kind of Calcutta. These places had people oozing out of them, all sweating profusely and in some sort of a hurry to get from some disgusting point of the city to another. Bilal was leading me by hand in the middle of this crowd and I was trying to chalk out a plan to get the hell out of there without causing any major damage to myself.
We stopped at a tea shop. Chai in a brown earthen vessel. Calcutta special. Well at least he wasn’t holding my hand anymore. And I had a cup full of steaming hot liquid. All I had to do was throw it in his face and run towards the auto-stand. And that’s what I would have done had I not been inordinately afraid of Muslims. They would definitely catch me and then they would ask me why I had done this to him. I would tell them of his gay advances, he would tell them I was lying and that I hated Muslims and he had got me here to sensitize me, they would believe him and I would get a sound thrashing for being a complete douchebag. So I just drank my tea quietly. Bilal kept staring at me. I was feeling a little violated. Perhaps I was getting a little bit of understanding on the subject of how men make women uncomfortable.
What was I going to do? I definitely wasn’t going to go into a closed room with him. I had no intention of having a gay experience. Even if I complained to the police, they would probably just laugh at me for letting a young boy terrorize me. I had to fight him and hope to win. That was the only way. No one would interfere in a fair fight between two adults. I got ready to fight him. I raised my fists and challenged him to it. Right there on the street we were going to fight. He said he didn’t want to. I tried a right hand jab, he ducked. Left, dodge. He kept dodging till I was tired and then dodged some more after I recovered. At some point, I think he got annoyed and then he started giving it to me. Bam, bam, wham, pow, I was getting the shit kicked out of me.
When I woke up, I was still lying in the street but the rest of the world seemed to have moved along. I looked around, no one looking at me. I slowly got up. Touched myself all over to check the damages. Pants on, shirt on, good signs both. No phone, no wallet, of course. What’s that, they left me a 20 rupee note, great, at least I can get home – I thought and ambled pathetically towards the autos which I could see shining in their yellow blackness a few crossings away.
Indian Literature Magazine | Author | Akshat Jain
Genre: Short Story