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Funny, she thought she had developed a thick skin by now, but that remark on her not being good enough for school riled her up. Made her want to claw his eyes out.
Faded tapestries on the walls, their colours barely discernible under a thick layer of grime. The overpowering smell of ittar perfume pervading the room. Two bulbs trembling overhead, their yellow light casting long, dark shadows on the scuffed wooden floorboards. A rather gaudy red lamp next to a bed and a dressing table.
A dinginess hung about the entire room, the red glow from the lamp lending an almost otherworldly touch. The bed, for all its shabbiness, was a four-poster that had seen better days. Stained curtains hung from its canopy along with a mosquito net looped around one column.
She sat on the bed, her feet folded underneath and her head bent low. She waited, quiet as a mouse, long hair cascading down her back, and a vermilion dot on her forehead. Her saree was loose around her, strategically draped so that the pallu was no more than a rope that crossed over her delicate shoulders and in between her breasts, leaving not very much to the imagination.
Meenu had the luxury of her own room, as she was much in demand by a slightly higher grade of customers.
The sky outside the window had darkened to a deep orange and lilac hue. Bright stars winked out here and there from the blackening palette.
Dusk had fallen. And her day had begun.
Meenu heard the doorknob turn. Taking a deep breath, she looked over to the side putting up a perfect picture of shyness and modesty. No.1 purposefully walked in, a lazy grin plastered to his face. Spotting her, his grin widened into a leer and he commenced taking his shirt off. She noted his expensive-looking clothing.
So mechanical, Meenu thought. Like something memorized off an anatomy book. Saunter in, that lustful grin, take clothes off, climb on the bed, do the act, wait for a beat, clothes on, head out. And then, in some time, repeat all over again with a different body.
She stared at the ceiling while he was busy above her. There were those stickers of stars up there, the ones that glowed in the dark. She had stood on the bed one day, on her tippy toes to stick them there. She needed something interesting to look at during her work and something that would be at a vantage point.
Her mind wandered to the planets that made up the Solar System. Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus…wait, did Saturn come before Jupiter? Or was it after? She panicked and quickly recited the special verse in her mind – Mrs. V Eavesdropped on Me, she is a Jealous, Slimy, Ugly, Nag of a Person. She calmed down, reassured. Jupiter was before Saturn, she was right.
No.1 raised himself off her with a final heave, got dressed, and left the room without a backward glance. She preferred it when this happened. Some of them tried to stay behind. Many a time it had gotten a bit violent when they refused to leave. Mrs. V had to come and intervene. Despite being ugly and a nag, that lady was still quite efficient at running her premises.
But that didn’t stop Meenu from harbouring a certain nervousness every night. After all, the men who walked in her door were hardly the picture of morality. She always got bruises and cuts as they were never gentle, but for the most part, she was lucky that there was never a situation so bad that it went out of control. Yet. Some of the other girls there were not so fortunate.
So yes, nights were scary for the dangling possibility that something could go wrong. It was like waiting for a wave to hit you with your eyes closed. You know its coming, yet you resist the temptation to open your eyes. You wait and wait till the last second before it submerges you. Drowning was not the worst part, it was the toe-curling wait till then which was unbearable.
No. 2 had walked in but now Meenu hardly paid attention. She went through the regular choreography but her mind had already strayed far away, to the Pythagorean Theorem, algebra equations, and geometrical concepts. While No.2 went about his work, she lay feverishly going over Newton’s three laws of motion in her mind, the order of the Mughal Emperors and rules of English grammar. She was desperate to revise everything once again.
It was when No.3 was climbing over her that he noticed her staring over to the corner of the room. He looked too and saw a bunch of books stacked on the dressing table. He turned back to her with suspicious eyes.
“Why are you looking at those books?”
Startled, she quickly gathered herself and smiled coquettishly. “Nothing, I thought I saw something there, but it was nothing.”
He raised his eyebrow and glanced back once more. She could see that it had unsettled him.
Men. They really are just scared little boys, aren’t they?
Later when he was pulling his trousers back on, he surprised her again with a question.
“So, what’s the deal with those books? Why would you even need books in here?”
She paused weighing the consequences of answering him. Would this lead to a scary situation? Or would answering him be a safe bet so that he could be on his way? Refusing to answer might also cause unwanted trouble. Resigned as she was to her fate, Meenu absolutely hated this constant flux of fear.
So she replied with the truth.
“I go to school during the day. I need those books to study and pass my exams”.
He stared at her for a second before bursting into loud guffaws.
“You? Study? Come on ya, don’t talk stupid things. You don’t need school, you already have a job. It gives you money. And best, you just need to lie there. No effort.” He waggled his eyebrows in a vulgar manner, gesturing over to the bed.
She wished she could get up and smack his bloated face. Probably smack it into something which would be slightly less disgusting, which was unlikely seeing what was there in the first place. But she kept a straight face.
“Look at me, no school, and straight to politics. I’m the most respected MLA in the area, ask anyone and they’ll know my name. You keep treating me well like this and I’ll make sure you get places too. Without those books.” He slapped on a humongous gold watch on his wrist and slid at least 3 rings all with different coloured stones onto his fat fingers. His large body enclosed in a white shirt and pants reminded her suddenly of a corpse she had seen in a funeral, lying on the ground dressed all in white.
He looked back before leaving. “Don’t aim too high. School is way beyond reach for you. What’ll you use addition-subtraction for, to count how many guys a night? And English for the firang ones? Speaking is not needed for what you do.”
Still chuckling, he lumbered out, leaving her to seethe quietly behind his back. Funny, she thought she had developed a thick skin by now, but that remark on her not being good enough for school riled her up. Made her want to claw his eyes out. It was a rage that came from deep inside her soul, from somewhere primal.
Stay calm. Keep your head down. Don’t look directly into the eyes. Remain suppliant. Do what they ask. Don’t ask questions. Don’t even talk. Just do what they want, when they want and how they want. That’s the only way you’ll survive. Or else…they’ll hurt you. Bad.
After all, wasn’t she and the others taught this their entire lives?
The night wore on. It was a busy night. After No.4, she was mercifully left free for a few hours until daylight. She pored over her books, thumbing through the dog-eared pages, reading and re-reading the parts she had underlined, committing them to memory. Just as she had done every other day, foregoing sleep and hunger. Managing to squeeze in hours of study between customers. She had fought for this, sacrificed a lot to Mrs. V just to let her go to school. She had to make it worth it.
The first rays of dawn touched her bare feet and traveled up her hunched torso, illuminating the taut dark skin and long hair. The dim light of the night had obscured her eyes but in the sunlight, they danced and blazed a striking chocolate brown.
She left her books on the bed and walked to the room’s single window. Loosening the latches, she threw open the glass and stuck her head out to deeply breathe in the morning air. It was intermingled with the scent of smoke, burned palm leaves, fish and flowers, for the city market was not too far away. Already, the faint sounds of vendors calling out drifted through the air.
She looked down to see the last customers groggily exit the building. In the morning light, they looked so small and pathetic. A sad lot who just had money to throw around, thinking that they held true power.
Meenu’s lips curled up. True power. What was true power?
Was it being the most ‘respected’ around? Committing dishonorable acts just because you can? Beating up wives and daughters to silence their voices? Subjugating the opposite sex? Treating them as objects?
She kept her eyes and ears open, she knew the sordid details of every ‘high-status’ customer who came through her door. Violence. Murder. Rape. She also knew that trouble was never far away.
Mrs. V sometimes liked to watch this English actor called Sylvester Stallone on the big TV in her ostentatiously carpeted bedroom. The other day, she had repeated something he had said in extremely broken English that Meenu had to break down to decipher. What was it again?
“There’s a natural law of karma that vindictive people, who go out of their way to hurt others, will end up broke and alone.”
No. 3 and the rest had it coming to them for sure.
Meenu sank down, lazily crossing her elbows on the windowsill. Fear might engulf her every night but it was just a matter of time. Just a matter of time before she learned everything there was under the sun. Going to school and getting an education was the most potent weapon against them and she would wield it to her greatest strength. It was the biggest threat to their so-called ‘masculinity’, to their firm belief that women were the weaker sex.
She would learn, she would go to the top and there she would stand, past be damned. She would become the Prime Minister and then the world would change. No one would dare raise a hand against a woman for the consequence that such a crime would hold. The nights would be free of fear once again.
Meenu smirked watching the herd below, stumbling like blind cockroaches. Let them enjoy for now. They didn’t know what was coming.
This short story had been shortlisted from among many, for the July 2020 Muse of the Month contest.
Image source: a still from the film Chandni Bar
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Swathi is a freelance content writer, who lives and works in the city of Bangalore.
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