09th September 2016
Catapult – Feb 29th, 2016
No one who was even half-literate in Hindi in the early seventies would have missed the short story “Bungalow Number 43.” The story’s author was Satyadev. His real name was Akhilesh Jha and he was the son of a woman, now dead, who had once been a famous dancer in Patna, where much of this story takes place.
Satyadev would have been in his thirties when I first became aware of him. This was before I had joined the ranks of his loyal readers. He lived on our street. His house was next to ours; it was a modest yellow house with a small mango tree in the garden.
Next door to Satyadev, further away from us, was my friend Ali’s house. Ali was only a year older than I was but he had experienced the world. If you watched a Hindi film with him, he could predict how the film would end. He was also good at football and had already smoked his first cigarette. He was ten years old.
One day, when coming back from school, Ali told me that his maternal uncle had given him a set of new Montana table-tennis balls. If I came over at four, he would show them to me. And then we would walk over to the Railway Club and see if we could get to play on the table there.
I didn’t find Ali in his room and I went to the kitchen to see if he was still eating the lunch his mother would have saved for him. Ali’s family, just like ours, ate in the kitchen or in the small screened room that connected the kitchen to the living room. But the kitchen was empty.
I then looked in the bedroom and thought that maybe I had made a mistake and come to the wrong house. Satyadev was standing near the window. The room was dark but sunlight shone on the curls on his head. He was wearing a cream-colored kurta and his legs were bare like a wrestler’s. Satyadev was pushing—plunging was a word I would acquire later—against someone whose head was thrown back. She had a hand on the windowsill. I saw now that it was Mrs. Rizwi, Ali’s mother, in her own bedroom. Her eyes were on the ceiling or maybe even the sky outside. Her lovely mouth, which I had often seen stained with paan, was open in pleasure or pain, I couldn’t tell. I dropped the curtain before I could see any more.
“Bungalow Number 43,” in case you haven’t read the story, is about a young man who accidentally shoots his lover after they have had sex for the first time on his father’s bed. The story is tender about sex, and brutal about its aftermath. I read the story in my late teens and never forgot it. It was only later that I saw it as a story not about sex but about death.
Satyadev’s father was a Deputy Superintendent of Police. He had shot himself in his bedroom. My mother revealed this to me. Satyadev’s father suspected that his wife was having an affair with a music director. My mother also mentioned that there is one detail in “Bungalow Number 43” that is drawn from real life. The young woman in the story, a dancer, wears small, white harsingar flowers in her hair. That is exactly how Satyadev’s mother used to adorn her hair.
You might think that this detail was supposed to evoke an entire landscape of the seventies, when romantic Hindi films with the names of flowers in their titles were released. These were popular films, films like Champa and Rajnigandha . But in the case of “Bungalow Number 43” the mention of the flowers was Satyadev’s attempt to hew close to his mother’s life. He seemed to be saying that he had nothing to hide.
There’s one thing I forgot to mention. Satyadev’s house, though a small one, had a blue plaque on the gatepost. The plaque said “Harsingar” in Hindi.
People in Patna say that Satyadev’s mother had once performed in front of Pandit Nehru. But the family was never well off and after the father’s death they fell down in status. For several years, Satyadev had earned his living by providing tuition.
Boys and girls who wanted to do well in their last high school exams came to his house each evening. They left just as dusk was gathering. I often watched them from my window. Ali would sometimes join me and we shared remarks about each girl as she left the house.
These girls, just a few years older than we were, laughing and joking with their friends, appeared very desirable to the two of us. They often arrived alone or in pairs and waited under the mango tree for their other friends to show up. To our eyes, they were like beautiful birds and we, young as we were, wanted to hold them in our hands.
One evening, when we were sitting beside my window, Ali said that Satyadev was sleeping with one of the girls he was tutoring. I felt a stab of jealousy. Ali’s mother had gone over with some sewai one night and found Satyadev in his lungi and the girl, her hair loose, sitting on the tiny sofa next to him. He had his hand on her thigh.
That night after dinner, I went closer to Satyadev’s house. The orange curtain, lit from the inside, covered only half of the bedroom window. There was a faint breeze and the curtain stirred but revealed nothing. I was near enough to hear the radio playing inside even though it was impossible to know if there was anyone at home.
In a year, my mother had said, I would be Satyadev’s student too. She wanted me to get admitted into a good college. I was struggling in most subjects and, to be quite honest, I was distracted by the changes in my own body. Thoughts about women occupied all my waking hours.
I’d open my eyes and my gaze would rest on Zeenat Aman looking into the distance while artificial rain raked her partially clothed breasts. This was a short-lived idyll. My mother tore down the poster that I had bought for eighty rupees, a small fortune.
Ali gave me a sympathetic ear. But he was busy. Not with classes, where he excelled, but his extracurriculars. He had stopped playing football, although he still competed in races, running the mile quicker than anyone else in the state. More of his time, however, was taken by his work on the stage. He was an actor. My mother said that Ali was a natural. I told her that he wanted to write plays. That was his real ambition. She said that he was so understated, and yet expressive, that he should act in films.
I didn’t want Ali to be in films. He was my friend and I admired him but I didn’t want him to be the one who was disrobing Zeenat Aman. When I said this to him, Ali laughed. Zeenie Baby is not for me, he said. He wanted Rekha. Rekha knew how to move her hips. She wouldn’t just lie there in bed, he speculated. Then he brought his fingers to his lips and blew over them. Hot stuff, he said, and stroked his young beard.
Later that year, Ali acted in a play based on a story by Manto. Satyadev had done the adaptation. Ali played a young man named Randhir who makes love to a working-class woman taking shelter from the monsoon in his apartment building. This was my Zeenat Aman fantasy coming alive onstage! Randhir wants the girl drenched with rain to change into dry clothes. When the knot on her blouse doesn’t open, he tries to help and brushes her naked breasts. All of this was partially hidden from the audience but we were free to imagine as we listened to the voiceover narrate Manto’s lines.
Not till some days had passed did I make another discovery about the play. For some reason, Ali had kept it a secret from me that the young woman whose blouse he was fumbling with was the same girl that we had known about for two years. She was the young woman that Satyadev had been sleeping with—the one that Ali’s mother had first told us about. When I learned this fact, I wondered about Ali’s silence. I found it strange.
And in my mind, as I continued to wonder about it, I heard the voiceover in the play I had watched. The director had chosen a woman’s voice. In the silence of the auditorium, Manto’s phrases floated in the air while Ali and Medha, for that was the tall dusky girl’s name, moved like snakes in a mating dance. “Her breasts had the pliancy, the moist roughness, and the cooling warmth of vessels that have just come off the potter’s wheel.”
Two more years passed. I was now a student at Patna College. Eight months earlier, Ali left for Delhi to join the National School of Drama. My mother, in the meantime, had received an invitation from an institute in faraway Shimla to take the position of a lecturer there but she was uncertain. This was largely because of me, and what she saw as my lack of direction. She had bought me a Bajaj scooter although I had wanted a motorbike instead. Life wasn’t ideal but a new cinema hall had opened near us and I hoped to go there sometime with one of the girls from my college.
On a warm evening in March, I took Satyadev to the local cultural center for an awards ceremony. He was to receive the Premchand Puraskar for his new novel, Platform . A family arrives at the Patna railway station from a village in Siwan; they have brought an infant for medical treatment at the hospital. When the child dies, they come back to the railway station and never leave. The father has a broken leg and becomes a beggar; at first the surviving kids join him and then the older one becomes a pickpocket. The novel ends with the police making a list of the meager items in a red suitcase seized from the family on the platform.
Satyadev was dressed carefully. Silk kurta, burgundy shawl folded on one shoulder, the ringlets on his head dark and shiny. The Chief Justice, acting as the Interim Governor, gave him the award. A scroll and a check for thirty thousand rupees.
Satyadev didn’t eat any of the food offered to him. He was presenting an ascetic self to the world. Lots of bowing with folded hands and smiles. After an hour, he gestured with his eyes and a small sweeping movement of the head that we could leave. For my new scooter, he used a term from the Ramayana for a mythical vehicle of flight. He wasn’t mocking me. He only wanted to make me feel better. This put us on par because I wanted to do the same to him.
I didn’t mention Ali. Medha had left Satyadev; she had fallen in love with Ali. It surprised some of us but only because Medha was a few years older than Ali and everyone in Patna reacted as if there was something naturally illicit in this relationship. Some people even tried to bring religion into it. They suggested that Medha had maybe converted to Islam. All this gossiping was useless anyway because Medha had left Patna and was living in Delhi with Ali.
I had known about their relationship a little before it became public knowledge. It was raining one afternoon when Ali came to our door. Medha was with him. Ali asked if I could give them tea. I hurried to the kitchen, happy that I’d get a chance to talk to Medha, who was indeed very pretty. Ali must have known my mother would be at work. He came to me in the kitchen and said that there was an important matter he wanted to discuss with Medha. Could I leave them alone for half an hour?
I took my umbrella. When I returned, both Ali and Medha thanked me politely and then left abruptly. That evening, Ali and I met again. There were puddles on the ground and we just stood at the gate, talking. Ali was secretive, or maybe just shy, and all he said was that he had never before made love to Medha while her clothes were wet from the rain. Today he had a chance to do what he had so often pretended to be doing onstage.
I was titillated and wanted more details. Instead, I asked about his doing this so close to Satyadev’s house. Ali laughed. He said, Medha wanted to do it.
Motorcycles and cars, also a few rickshaws and men on bicycles, passed us while we stood at the gate. Ali was looking away from me in the dark and he began talking to me as if I was back in seventh class and he was entertaining me with stories about sex. Medha likes doing it everywhere, he said. She loves me, I know that, but there is also something more. Medha clings to me through the night and in the morning her mouth is everywhere. She has a hunger I have never experienced in anyone else. If she had her way, I think she’d want me to fuck her on top of a speeding train.
So on that night when Satyadev received his award, I wanted to spare him any news of Ali. Ali had told me that Medha’s body smelled like the earth after the first rain. Were those his own words or Manto’s? I didn’t know. The truth was that Ali didn’t need Manto. A review in The Statesman had praised his playwriting and acting in Chai Factory . This was his new play about college students who meet in a café to discuss a professor’s arrest following allegations of sexual abuse.
On our way back on the scooter, Satyadev shouted in my ear that he was hungry. He said, I have received thirty thousand rupees today and would like to spend a small portion of it on Chinese food.
We brought the food in white polythene packets back to Satyadev’s house. The spicy chicken chow mein and chili chicken we washed down with glasses of Old Monk rum. The drink went to my head. I said to Satyadev, Why don’t you get married? I saw that you had many admirers tonight.
His smile was strained. He said, Yes, I probably should get married, now that the government has given me so much money.
From somewhere the thought came that Ali had used me and forgotten me. He hadn’t bothered to write or call—the old complaint of those who are left behind—while Satyadev had not abandoned his roots. Even Ali’s mother still liked him, and visited his home sometimes to deliver snacks.
I suddenly said, I’m sorry about what happened with Ali. You have reason to—
Satyadev looked at me and I knew I ought to stop.
He was silent for a while. He didn’t take deep gulps of rum from his glass, or sigh dramatically, or make bitter, sarcastic remarks. He stayed so still that I thought that he had slipped into a deep, paralyzing sorrow. In reality, Satyadev was utterly serene. This was evident when he began to speak. He put his case most simply.
This award I got today, he said, I didn’t hear about till only five days ago because I wasn’t here. I was in Delhi. I had gone there to watch Chai Factory . I had been curious. The old professor in the play wasn’t me. But Ali had given him some of my habits. He is a good observer. The role he had written for Medha was more revealing. I was once her lover, remember. What he had her say onstage, what he had her do, was extraordinary. It was as if I was discovering her in a new way. No, it was as if she was discovering herself as an individual with independent desires. It was a magical experience. He is a true artist. His private life is not my business and, as far as I’m concerned, to even ask what type of person he is in everyday life is a complete waste of time.
All of this happened a long time ago. Several decades have passed, time building walls and then breaking them down. But all of this came back to me tonight when I got a note from a writer friend of mine telling me that he had broken up with his girlfriend. This was someone I had long admired for her beauty and for her ability to produce prose of startling truthfulness.
I called up my friend to sympathize; my loyalty to him prevented me from calling his girlfriend instead. In truth, his note had flung me into an abyss. The woman I had long coveted, whose cheekbones and mouth had fascinated me during so many conversations, was now free. But, as I said, I called my friend first.
He answered the phone immediately and then proceeded to tell me that he had ended the relationship because after he had made clear that he wasn’t going to get married, his girlfriend had hooked up with some fellow she had met on Facebook. They had spent a weekend in a hotel in Rajasthan, as my friend put it, “finding each others likes and dislikes in bed.”
That phrase sent a jolt through me. Why did she not call me instead? I would have devoted so much attention to her limbs, her lips, her small breasts. I had loved her for years. My friend was certain that she was mad but I yearned for her, and had done so in a way that no stranger found on Facebook possibly could. On a summer evening two years ago, we had gone to listen to a reading by a Booker winner. I had liked the author. But this woman, my friend’s girlfriend, had said something dismissive about the writer. She said she hadn’t liked the writer. Why, I had asked. And she replied, “After a point, a girl doesn’t see being slapped in the face by a dick as any kind of invitation. I hated him from the start.” On another occasion, while eating a bagel for breakfast, she had confided that my friend liked it if she was wearing her heels and nothing else when they had sex. The kind of candor she used to bring to her statements—I’d have wanted to do the same for a night.
I was consumed with these thoughts for a while but even before I had poured a measure of rum out for myself I remembered Satyadev. I’ve never been able to forget what he had said about what it means to be an artist. And that is why instead of getting completely drunk I sat down and wrote this account taking me back to a blank afternoon when I first encountered sex.