Thinking about it night and day in the lockup – for two days actually, although it seemed to him that ages would have passed in the world outside, while he inhabited a separate world made of the yellow-washed cell walls – he tried to locate the beginning of it all, while Dogra slept most of the time. How could Dogra sleep in such a situation? He could not understand, although from his abrupt twitchings and tossing it could be made out that his sleep was not an untroubled one. Serves him right, he thought vengefully, he deserves worse. Surely, god would have watched Dogra in the whole thing, as he watched everyone; he will punish.
The idea had taken shape no more than fifteen days back, he decided. The day he had stayed back late on overtime to finish the interest-calculations on Time Deposits; the day it had rained and rained so heavily that it was almost like ’81 when there had been an earthquake in the districts bordering China, although it was only April, the tourist season, not misty August when clouds got into the already soaked houses.
It was after postal hours and the office was empty, except for him and the chowkidar; and though it was only six in the evening, the sky outside was dark like midnight, and streaks of lightning slithered across the wet windowpanes like forked tongues of unseen undersea monsters. In the late afternoon, when his overtime had been ordered, he had gone out behind the Post-Office for two glasses of the fiery Country. He had taken to this drink recently, after months of sarcastic persuasion by Dogra, and he was beginning to enjoy drinking it alone at night in his room; it wasn’t expensive. When after several attempts to wave a fly away from his ledger had failed, and he had looked closer and seen that it was only the page-number, he had realized he was drunk.
He had felt deeply at peace, sitting alone in the empty Post-Office, with the roar of rain falling on the corrugated tin roof blotting out all other sound. He realized that in his four years in Shimla he had got used to loud rain on tin roofs. Back home, in Punjab, the sound of rain he had known was of rain falling on earth or on cement roofs. The office lights had been switched off except in his section, and lightning glistened on the counters and desks sleeping in darkness. Thunder was rolling and crackling, trying to tear apart an untearable sky. He was alone and comfortable, surrounded by a world in upheaval. It was like the familiar loneliness of his room.
But in his room, where he had been thinking about her every night for more than two years, there was no Savings Certificate counter. He had stared at the counter. It was her counter, filled with endless meaning, where lightning was furiously flashing messages in a half-known language. He had felt in wonderful control, even in command of his destiny; and he had felt himself breaking through the last barriers in his wind, on the way to attaining what he had wanted of her.
It was only fifteen days back and now, in the Police lock-up, he was pondering the swift passage of destruction, while Dogra fought with his sleep on the adjacent cot.
He looked at the prone form of Dogra sleeping with his socks on, as if he meant to get up and go out anytime. Typical. In his eyes Dogra had always had an air of being one up in any situation. Dogra was actually younger than him and yet, ever since he had come to Shimla four years back, he had seen him as smarter, worldlier, handsomer man. Dogra was the man with the ready answer, the man even the Post-Master did not scold in front of others, the man who was known to get the girls. He knew the worst about every employee in the office, particularly the women. He still remembered the scandals Dogra had told him about the matronly women in the office. Unbelievable stories, by the look of the dumpy brittle women, but in Dogra’s telling they had sounded believable after all. Dumpy-looking women are the worst, Dogra often said with disconcerting wisdom.
And it was this which had caused his first dispute with Dogra about her. It was two years back, the first time he had seen her in a sari; he still remembered it, green with millions of tiny purple flowers. He had watched her back all day as she dealt smartly with the public at her counter, and in the evening, when he had happened to see some real flowers, he had felt that he was understanding flowers for the first time in his life. Dogra had been speaking badly of her, as he spoke badly of everyone except perhaps his father, whom he feared. He had been saying that she was chaalu, that she drank, that he had seen her with his own eyes playing cards in hotels with the tourists; in short, that if she was not a whore already she was on the sure road to becoming one. That day he had not been able to contain himself.
‘Janaki is not dumpy’, he had told Dogra.
‘At her age nobody is dumpy. They become dumpy, from doing it with too many men.’
They were having tea in the evening. He brooded for some time. ‘Janaki would never become dumpy’, he had said. ‘Did you see her today?’
‘Just watch her backside. Their backsides always give them away. They can’t control that.’
He was furious, but he had controlled his voice.
‘There is nothing wrong with her backside.’
‘Aha, so you’ve been watching it! Boss, go carefully; she is not your type. You don’t understand backsides.’
And since that day Dogra had needled him, by saying that he was in love with her. He also said that she wasn’t good for him.
The truth is that everyone in office needled him about Janaki. It had become a standing joke in which even she joined. Since the evening a year back, for example, when he was sheltering from rain under a tree on his way home, and Janaki had asked him to join her under her umbrella, everyone in office shouted ‘Janaki, he had forgotten his umbrella again’, whenever it was raining. Everyone laughed and, seeing that she was laughing as well, he too smiled. In Shimla everything got known, or she might have told them.
But he remembered that evening, like he remembered most things connected with her. Nearing the fork on the road, where she was to take the wooden path to Longwood and he the desolate road to Kelston, her hairy arm holding the umbrella had brushed against his, and she had looked up at him. ‘You did not forget your umbrella deliberately, did you?’
‘No, no’; he had said in confusion, at which she had laughed her piercing laughter.
‘No, really, I actually forgot in the morning, I was waiting for the doodhwala. He came late, … believe me.’
‘I believe you’, she had said, and had laughed again, differently.
Later walking alone to his room, his arm had felt scratchy for a long time.
Had he been in love with her? Looking at sleeping Dogra, he asked himself for the thousandth time. Everyone seemed to know what love was, except him. When he was a schoolboy, he had understood, from the muttered conversations of his parents, that his wayward uncle, who had a small tyre-retreading shop in Ambala cantonment, had somehow managed to kill his first wife because he was in love with his present wife. And whenever he visited them now, on festivals in place of his dead father, he saw his aunt screaming at her many children, or at the municipality or at the hot weather; and his uncle in his shop in the evenings, drunk and smiling kindly, ordering several Campa Colas for him. And he had seen Sharmila Tagore in a bordered white sari, singing her song of hopeless love across the sad river on which forlorn boatmen poled their crafts, because she could never dream, being a dancing girl, of marrying a sad, impossible thing. He had experienced it only in Cinema halls, during hurting songs which made hair rise all over his body. Love could not be experienced directly, with real, living people.
And there was nothing sad about Janaki. She had come to work at the Post-Office about two years back, and within a week she was talking and laughing with everybody, first with Dogra. She was not as fair as other girls, but her actions were smarter. She walked fast, and well yes, her backside did wobble somewhat more than other girls. At her counter, she was brisk with the public, and she had many friends outside who sometime visited her at lunchtime – college girls, nurses, and smart women who stayed at YWCA. Her old parents were in Mandi, and at Shimla she lived with her widowed aunt. He admired her. He rejected the snide comments on her. He had seen the duplicity of Shimla people; they would be embracing warmly and chatting on the Mall, and the next moment they would start backbiting on the person who might have moved on. Even Dogra, in a philosophical mood, had said that the stories about women were ‘ninety per cent false’.
He had not been in love with her, he only liked her. But, some day when he would be rehearsing since morning something to say to her, connected with work, and she would surprise him by choosing that very day to chat with him and offer sharing her tiffin. Sometimes, he would time his walk to office in the mornings and also to his room in the evenings, so as to meet her on the way casually. He liked walking beside her, half listening to her endless cheerful chatter, feeling the eyes of other passers by seeing him and her as a pair. But he didn’t do this too often. He didn’t want to appear conspicuous, and anyway her timings were irregular in the evenings – she had many friends. Lately even Dogra had tired of saying that he was in love with her. He had been beginning to feel natural with her.
And it was only fifteen days back, on that evening of the big thunderstorm, sitting alone in the dark office, when he had felt an emptiness filling up at last, an emptiness he seemed to have been carrying inside him since he left school after doing Matric.
Next day, at lunch, he had told Dogra that he liked Janaki. Dogra hadn’t said anything and he had felt relieved. Then, after a week, when they were having tea in the evening, Dogra had suddenly mentioned in sober voice.
‘Why don’t you invite her for dinner?’
He had shaken his head, also soberly, and she was not mentioned after that.
That was last Monday. Since that day, it seemed that suddenly his conversations with Dogra had become fewer and strangely sober. He was filled with a natural joy, and thought that he had reached the steadiness of manhood, like his uncle at Ambala. In the office he had worked quietly, absorbed in his work. Three days later, again during a sober exchange with Dogra, he had wondered.
‘Will she come?’
He thought endlessly. Too much was involved if she agreed, and also if she did not. It was like coming out in the open, with no going back, ever. He had not taken such decisions before.
The difficulty had been removed automatically. On Friday, two days back, when they were leaving for lunch together, they had passed her counter and Dogra had told her casually,
‘He is giving us dinner at his place. Will you come?’
They had walked out, Dogra clamping his arm over his shoulders. It had been so easy, and he had felt grateful towards Dogra. In the evening Dogra had told him that he would look after the arrangements.
Next day, since he left his room in the morning, he had felt his heart hugely lifted, like some horizon – spanning grounds – well of an ocean. He did not look in her direction all day. He had expected some of her usual chatter, but she did not even speak to him. Even Dogra had seemed stilled.
Towards the evening he had seen her leaving earlier than office time. He had wanted to speak about this to Dogra but he had gone out to make arrangements. Dogra has returned at closing time, saying that it had been difficult to make arrangements for his room. It was far off – in Kelston; no restaurant was convenient. And so, Dogra had decided on his own. That they would have dinner at some restaurant on the Mall, and afterwards, they would walk to his room and have coffee there. He had also met Janaki on his way back and had told her. She had said that she would join them at the restaurant at eight.
‘Is it alright?’ Dogra had asked.
He had not understood the details, but Dogra was, after all, good in making arrangements. They had walked about all evening not speaking much. He had felt that he was seeing the crowd on the Mall towards glass, like from inside a silent car.
At five minutes to eight they had gone to the underground restaurant on the Ridge. It was a place where usually couples went; it was dark. They had sat silently, waiting for her; they didn’t have anything to talk about. She had come fifteen minutes late, and he had noticed that she had changed clothes. As she was sitting down she had given him a bright smile, and had seemed to avoid looking at Dogra.
The meal had come quickly. He had not had much appetite. They had talked about people at office, and Dogra had spoken about some fresh scandals. He had noticed that whenever she thought people were looking in their direction, she had smiled wider and spoken louder. He had paid.
Afterwards, they had walked to his room. All the way only she and Dogra talked; he hadn’t known what to say. On reaching his room he had gone to his small kitchen to make coffee. He had only an electric heater, and water took a long time to boil. She could hear their conversation in the room. She had seemed much more cheerful than at the restaurant. Dogra had come into the kitchen, and had clasped his shoulders.
‘She has agreed to stay all night’’ he had whispered, and had gone back to the room.
His mind numb, he had looked at the water beginning to boil. Small bubbles were forming at the bottom of the pan, struggling at their roots, and rising deliriously to the surface. Stay all night? Agreed? He had only one bed. That meant …… He had heard her laughter again, as if she was being tickled. Dogra was saying something in a low voice. Mechanically, he had poured milk on the turbulent peak of boiling water, and stared at the strange stillness of the cups. He had felt he had never seen cups independent of their function, never as objects alone, unrelated to any human utility. His fascination fastened on their stillness, shape, and mute reality, and his hearing of Dogra and Janaki faded. Then Dogra had come in again, breathless and trembling.
‘Look, you go out for a walk.’
‘Do as I say. I will have to go home soon. Don’t worry, she will be yours all night.’
He had wanted to hold on to Dogra and talk to him for a long time, he had wanted to feel their friendship. But Dogra had gone back, shutting the kitchen door. The foaming milk was rising in the pan. He had switched off the heater and gone out by the second door through the toilet. The first thing he saw outside were stars, millions of pointed stars shining intimately to him, twinkingly aware of some new knowledge. He had looked at his watch, and was surprised that it was not even ten.
He had stood outside, not knowing what to do. On other days at this time, he would be having his second glass of Country and relaxing into his detailed thoughts about her. He thought about the unopened bottle under his bed. He couldn’t get it now. She would be in his bed, and Dogra ……The night was very still, conserving every little sound like a treasure. He had heard her laughter again, rising slowly, cut off by a palm, continuing muffled, as if underground.
He had started walking on the main road, looking at the silent dark houses of the neighbourhood. In some windows there was light, and sound of TV. There was no breeze, for which the trees were waiting patiently in darkness. He looked down into the valley and across, at the rising hills towards east, neon lights of the Signals Station glowed on the distant peak, watched over by the single light of the Dhingu Mata Temple.
The dark hills, the silent houses, the star-filled sky, all seemed new, as if he, a stranger, had just arrived on his first day at Shimla. He had remembered his mother in tears at the doorstep of their house in Punjab, thrusting Devi’s Prasad into the hands of her first-born, going out into the world as a man, and his father, moved to silence, coming with him to the Bus Stand to put him onto the bus to Shimla. Those days were gone, his father was dead, and his years in Shimla immersed in the thoughts of Janaki were over. He felt propelled into the night, banished from all comforts he had known.
He had wanted to weep, but he didn’t know if grownup men wept. A weeping child knew that it would be comforted, but what did a weeping man know? Suddenly, in a flash, he had understood the gentleness of his uncle at Ambala, the kindness that came from unwept weeping. He had started walking faster, breathing hard, feeling the existence of his limbs as if after long years.
A policeman had stopped him and asked for a match. As he lit the policeman’s bidi, he saw the calm mustached face that would patrol the streets all night, a man of long familiarity with walking alone in the streets of sleeping dark houses. And it was then that he had told the policeman, of a ‘bad’ man doing ‘mischief’ with a woman in his room. He had told him as one would to a friend.
After that, he had remained detached from the events. Another policeman, the rapid rush towards his room, loud banging on the door, Dogra without shirt, Janaki weeping on his bed, neighbours in pyjamas, dog barking in the valley. His feeling of detachment had remained at the Police Station. Words like ‘medical examination’, ‘character certificate’ had floated around him. He had been waiting for all this to be over, so that he could go out and walk along the empty streets all night. And only when he was being nudged towards the lock-up, he had learnt that he too was an accused. Of abduction and rape, based on the FIR recorded by Janaki.