Sunday, 15 May 2016

Smells and Smiles

Abhishek looked out of his car window, staring at nothing in particular. He was in his late thirties, but still managed to retain his boyish good looks. Only a bit of grey at his temples gave away his age. His long time driver, Nagaraj, drove the car at a steady pace. It was 11:35 PM on a Tuesday night and there was hardly any traffic. Abhishek allowed himself a small smile of satisfaction as he recalled his evening. He had told his wife, Aparna, he was working late. But he had got off work by 5 PM and had spent the rest of the evening making love, in an upmarket hotel room, to a lady called Saranya, He had met Saranya at an office party a couple of months back. Saranya was single, in her 30s and had been charmed by his good looks and easy grace and had indulged in what she considered to be harmless flirting. She had had no intention of having an affair with a married man. But she did not realize the ruthlessness and the need for conquest hiding behind Abhishek's relaxed outward demeanor. He had pursued her relentlessly over the last couple of months, until Saranya, overcome by the flattery and attracted by his good looks, agreed to spend an evening with him in a hotel room. After they had made love with wild abandon, Saranya wanted to cuddle up and spend the entire night in his arms, He gently but firmly told her he had to get home, called up Nagaraj and asked him to bring his car around to the hotel entrance. Abhishek dropped Saranya at her home and Nagaraj discreetly looked away as they shared a goodnight kiss.

Soon after, the car entered Abhishek's parking lot. Abhishek casually slipped a 100 rupee note to Nagaraj, told him to be at work at sharp 9 AM the next day and walked inside the house carrying his laptop bag and the lunchbox his wife insisted on packing for him every morning.

Nagaraj stared at the 100 rupee note for a few seconds, his face expressionless. He then carefully parked the car, got out and started walking towards the bus stop. Nagaraj was also in his late thirties, with a short wiry stature and thick dark hair that strangely had not grayed yet. He took a short bus ride, the city getting seedier as the bus went on and finally got down at a working class district.

Nagaraj had been working for Abhishek for over 5 years and they shared an easy working relationship. Nagaraj was discreet and could be trusted upon to keep Abhishek's secrets. Plus he drove, like all the activities he did, at a slow steady pace and treated Abhishek's expensive car well. He had never married. He had come to the city 17 years back in search of odd jobs to help his family back in the village. Over the years, he had sent home every spare penny for his sister's wedding and later his parents' medical expenses. After his sister's wedding, he had hoped his parents would find a suitable bride for him in the village. But his parents, fearing he may stop supporting them financially once he has a wife, never brought up the topic. And Nagaraj, shy and reserved as always, did not know how to broach this topic with his parents. And as the years rolled by, he stopped thinking about marriage and went on with his life. And when he did think about it these days, he felt perhaps it was all for the best. He had grown used to an independent life and was reasonably happy.

On this Tuesday night, he got down from the bus and walked down a dirty, narrow lane. As he saw the dimly lit 2 storey building on the left, his heart skipped a beat and he smiled to himself. He stepped into the shabby building and as always, a pungent odor assaulted his nose. Ignoring it, he walked up to the first floor. The Madam gave him a curt smile and a nod as he gave her the money. He then walked, with a confident familiarity, to the second door on the right and gave a tiny knock. After a few seconds, the door opened and he stepped in.

Nagaraj had first been brought to this brothel over a year ago, by his one-time friend, a guy who called himself Kumar, He had later borrowed money from all and sundry, including Nagaraj, and disappeared without a trace. Nagaraj had difficulty recalling much about Kumar, but he vividly remembered the first time he stepped into this brothel. The pungent odor had assaulted his nose as it had today and almost made him turn back. But he walked on, with a mixture of guilt and desire, with downcast eyes. Kumar seemed to know the Madam well and he asked her to select a suitable girl for Nagaraj. As she was busy called out to her girls, something caught Nagaraj's eye. He looked up and found himself looking at a woman standing in the corner. She was not as young as the other girls, but had a pleasant face. And as she smiled at Nagaraj, he found himself smiling back despite himself. He pointed out the woman to Kumar and the Madam introduced the woman to Nagaraj as "Suzie", a name he found incongruous with her rather rustic demeanor. He quietly payed the money and went with "Suzie" to the second door on the right.

After the deed was done, as he was buttoning up his shirt, he asked "Suzie" her real name. She looked surprised that such a question would be posed to her, recovered, and answered simply "Subbalakshmi". Nagaraj nodded and walked towards the door. He then stopped, took a deep breath, walked back to Subbalakshmi and asked her during which days she was free. She said she entertained customers all days of the week, but on Tuesdays, she was not too busy as it is considered a religiously auspicious day. She smiled as she said it and once again, Nagaraj found himself smiling back at her. He playfully patted her head and stepped out.

Since then, he had made it a point to visit Subbalakshmi on atleast 2 Tuesdays a month, sometimes more frequently. The Madam tried tempting him with younger, more in-demand and "expensive" girls. But he was somehow not interested. And the others girls, noticing he had neither youth, nor good-looks, nor money were not interested in him either. After a while, they all came to an unsaid arrangement. He would make the payment and go straight to Subbalakshmi's room. If she happened to be with another customer, he would wait patiently downstairs before going up.

His relationship with Subbalakshmi was easy-going and relaxed. After making love, they would talk about random things. He never asked her how she ended up in a brothel and she never asked him if he was married or had ever been married. They instead shared random vignettes about each other's past. She told him about her elder brother teaching her to add simple numbers with a slate and chalk. About how she loved watching the boys in her village fly kites. He, in turn, unable to keep the boyish pride out of his voice, told her about how he was the best swimmer among the boys in his village. And they would lie side by side on Subbalakshmi's lumpy mattress and pillow, sharing these happy, painless memories from their past.

One evening, on a whim, he purchased a foam pillow and walked up to Subbalakshmi's room with a large plastic bag stuffed with the pillow. Subbalakshmi's eyes widened with curiosity and as she pulled out the thick foam pillow out of the  bag - she laughed in delight like a small girl. The first time he had ever heard her laugh. She hugged the pillow and told him no one had ever given her a gift, let alone worry about where she was resting her head while sleeping. Then, much to his chagrin, she wrapped the pillow lovingly back into the plastic bag and tucked it safely among her meagre belongings. She could not bring herself to use her precious "gift" and they had gone back to resting their heads on her hard lumpy pillow.

As Abhishek got into bed alongside his wife, she have a sleepy moan, turned and smiled up at him. He patted her head gently and whispered "go back to sleep". As she closed her eyes, he looked at her pretty face and slim body. She was very proud of her figure which she managed to maintain even post childbirth. The only daughter from a wealthy family, their marriage had been an arranged one. He remembered all his friends teasing him about how lucky he was to land such a beautiful wife from a wealthy family. He wondered idly, why he cheated on her. The countless women he had slept with before and after marriage meant nothing to him, including Saranya. On the way back from his tryst with Saranya in the hotel room, he was already wondering how to break up with her. She may cry a bit, maybe even a lot, but he could always handle women when they got emotional. He knew how to get rid of them once he was done with them. And his wife never suspected him. To her, he was the ideal husband and a perfect dad to their 3 year old daughter, Shreya. He presented her with expensive jewellery on every wedding anniversary. Some she kept, some she exchanged at the jewelers for something more suitable. As Abhishek cuddled up to Aparna, he inhaled her smell. It was familiar yet strangely indistinguishable from the smells of the other women he had slept with. He wondered if he loved her, if he would ever know what true love means, but told himself to stop being ridiculous, hugged her and went to sleep with a smile.

In a bed across town, Nagaraj lay next to Subbalakshmi, who was sleeping. He wondered what would happen if the Madam decided she was growing too old. Would Subbalakshmi go back to her village? What if Abhishek moved to a different city, would Nagaraj be forced to move as well? If such events happen, how would their last meeting pan out? Would she cry? Nagaraj had always been terrified of women's tears. Whenever he had seen his mother or sister cry, he had felt a strange mixture of helplessness, fear and rage. And he had fled the scene rather than face the tears. But he told himself he would not do that to Subbalakshmi. And as he cuddled up to Subbalakshmi and inhaled her scent, he marveled at how she smelled so wonderful to him. Her smell made him feel "at home" like nothing else ever could. He wondered if he loved her, if he would ever know what true love means, but told himself to stop being ridiculous, hugged her and went to sleep with a smile.

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