Bun-maska crept tentatively, one foot at a time, ascending the staircase that swung feebly around the decrepit Mira chawl like a barbed wire. Tiny glasses of chai clinked in the iron glass holder he carried, as though deliberately trying to betray the silence their owner hoped to maintain. The late afternoon sun washed the wooden steps with lemon light and the staircase squeaked with every step the intruder took.
“Buuuun!” Came a ferocious voice hurling towards him. “You little insect, you are late again!”
A lull hung outside the Kalootiputra red light district. A bus meandered through a road that dissected the empire, carrying a handful of passengers. Many of those within were accustomed to the row of women that lined the windows like diwali lights. Some of the women whistled provocatively raising their chaniyas, inviting the curious onlookers to come take a peek, while others impishly combed their hair or seductively pulled on a beedi, enjoying the theatrics. Afternoon heat invaded the gullies and seeped into the tarmac. Bun-maska squatted on the ground, perched on his broken rubber slippers, listening intently to a borrowed radio. India had just lost Sehwag and it was now Sachin’s turn to create magic.
“Bun, what are you still doing here? It’s 4 pm already. You have to go deliver tea to Madam Helen’s girls. Do you want to get beaten by her again?” Anna yelled, sprawled on the chair.
During the day, Bun-maska worked as the principle chai-boy at Anna’s dhabha, delivering afternoon tea to Madam’s women, many of whom woke up late after a long night of service. In the evenings however, when the sun dipped behind the sliver of the moon, Bun-maska would serve as a waiter at the same thatched dhabha, which heaved with Kalootiputra regulars.
The young boy tried to negotiate, “I’m going only, Anna. Just five minutes… Sachin is batting right now.”
“Do you think Madam Helen will sit pretty while Sachin finishes playing?” Anna asked muscling tobacco in his palm. “Back in the day, when that beast of a beauty was black beauty, she didn’t even wait for her customer to finish after the allotted time was over… Ask me,” he blurted under his breath.
Bun-maska didn’t reply. He was lost in a self-abandoning reverie, imagining himself to be right there at the stadium, with the crowd, cheering Sachin Tendulkar on. He could taste the sweat in the air and feel the anxiety pulsating through the blanket of devotees. It was as though the entire moment was a still, captured in a photograph, like a frame from his favourite Bollywood movie.
It was five in the afternoon when Anna finally rolled off his throne and trotted towards the 12-year-old. “Get off your behind now, Bun-maska. Sachin is making money while playing. Now you go make some for me,” he said pinching the boy awake.
The boy hesitated for a few moments and then obliged. Reluctantly, his thumb reached the steel button that protruded from the yellow transistor. Click. And the radio was off.
“Gilheri?” Bun-maska called out, as he stood in the common hallway of Mira chawl, waiting for one of Madam’s girls to respond. He had brought her tea and was waiting outside the girl’s one-bedroom apartment. A few moments later, he approached the entrance. Delicately tracing the outline of the curtain with his fingers, he tipped his head forward tentatively to peep in. Blue plastered walls encased a bed, a dwarf-sized table, an old television set and a clothing-line draped with saris and blouses. Gilheri was lying on the bed, mesmeric, like an Egyptian queen. Hoisted on her elbow, her body faced the window and she looked outside longingly. Wreaths of smoke swirled like dervishes with every puff. In a corner of the room, framed photographs of various Hindu gods hung across the wall. “And that still doesn’t stop Mastana from requesting bizarre performances!” Bun-maska had heard Gilheri giggle to her co-workers once.
Gilheri was the hippie of the Madam Helen’s clan; a firebrand who loved poetry and spurted verses by the hour. Often Bun-maska found himself to be her only audience. Her performances were theatrical: she would let her long hair loose and walk listlessly around him, as though in a state of trance and recite lines from a particular poem. To her, for that fleeting moment, Bun-maska became her lost lover whom she romantically summoned or confessed her sorrows to. When she narrated, it was as though every verse, every word that left her painted lips was steeped in an aching memory.
“Gilheri,” the boy called out again.
The owner of the name looked up; her eyes were dark as the black eyeliner that defined them. “What is it?” she slurred.
“I brought tea…to wake you up. You don’t completely wake up without having Bun-maska’s special chai,” he reminded her, grinning sheepishly.
“What time is it?” Gilheri asked, tucking a curl behind her ear.
“It’s 5:30 in the evening,” he replied.
“You’re late,” she mumbled and resumed looking outside. The boy didn’t know how to respond and stood quietly at the entrance, fidgeting. Gilheri was the last person he wished to disappoint. She was Madam’s only girl whom he liked. If he left her annoyed, she would become reclusive, almost taciturn around him.
“Move on her lips / the tip of your tongue,” Gilheri whispered finally breaking the silence.
Bewitched by her voice, Bun-maska placed the glass holder on the floor, and slowly, almost inconspicuously, made his way to the ground as well.
“Do not scare her/ by biting hard,” she progressed in her deep, South Indian drawl, closing her eyes as the ball of her thumb reached out to caress her lower lip.
“Place on her cheeks / a gentle kiss;
do not scratch her / with your sharp nails.
Hold her nipple / with your fingertips;
do not scare her / by squeezing it tight.
Make love / gradually;
do not scare her / by being aggressive.
I am a fool / to tell you all these.
When you meet her / and wage your war of love
would you care to recall / my ‘do’s and dont’s’, Honey?”
During the narration of the last two lines, Gilheri had sat upright and artfully steered her body towards the boy, looking intently at him.
“What language was that in?” Bun-maska asked after a while.
“Telugu,” she muttered. “It’s written by my favourite poetess, Muddupalani.” She leaned forward holding on to the arch of her feet. “Don’t tell anyone,” she whispered. “The last thing a customer wants is to have a literate whore riding him. This is going to be our little secret.” She titled her mouth to one side, sighed and then resumed looking outside.
Bun-maska kept quiet, unable to respond appropriately. But he was curious. “How do you know….”
“Long story,” Gilheri said cutting him. “We’ll leave it for another time.” Night had fallen and had draped itself around the facade of the building. The room was drenched in darkness. Outside, the streetlights came to life and light invaded the room, drawing abstract lines across her face.
“What did that poem mean then?” Bun-maska probed, toying with his slippers.
“The poem?” Gilheri asked curling her lips. “It is an advice Radha gave to Lord Krishna, the man she loved, on what to do on the night he consummates his marriage with his wife, Ila Devi.” She paused for a moment and then looked directly at him. “Tragic, isn’t it?” She asked.
Gilher’s eyes betrayed the pain that lurked behind them. “It’s an advice similar to what I have been asked by Madam to give to Mastana. He’s asked for Leela, my younger sister. It’s her first night,” she reported stroking her hair that snaked down to her bosom. Gilheri took another drag from her beedi.
“You know who Mastana is?” She asked.
“Yes,” replied the boy. “He is a regular of yours. Also your lover.”
“Was a regular…” she corrected, still in a daze. “Was my lover.”
She turned towards Bun-maska again, this time mischievously biting her lower lip and beckoning him with a slight nod of the head. He approached her steadily, before coming to a halt in front of her bed. Gilheri lifted her hand and let her fingers run through the boy’s hair. They transgressed and reached out to tug at his ear.
“Ow!” Bun-maska cried.
A hint of hysteria gleamed in Gilheri’s eyes. Suddenly, she broke into a maniacal laughter, as though momentarily possessed. “Remember the time when you were nine and you naively asked me…” She paused to mimic Bun-maska in a child’s voice: “What do you do behind closed doors with those men, Gilheri?”
“Yes,” Bun-maska responded, looking away.
“And I had smiled and said, ‘Magic, Bun. Someday, I will show you too.’”
“Yes, yes. I remember,” he conceded.
She laughed again and then, in an almost solemn voice offered, “Come tomorrow. You will finally get to see the magic.”
“Really?” Bun-maska asked, almost in disbelief.
“Yes,” she whispered to him affectionately and returned to stroking his hair. “In fact, you will get to see one of my best performances till date.”
“Buuuun! You little insect, you are late again!” Madam Helen’s voice roared through the hallway of the Mira chawl the next day, “I know you are out there, I can hear your footsteps, you idiot!”
An hour ago, a dare had been proposed amongst a clique of street children: one of them had to lie on his belly on an empty cart and grab onto an Ambassador taxi that was waiting at a signal. When the light turned green and once the vehicle gained considerable momentum, the boy had to let go of the taxi, flinging the cart in a manner that would send it whirling. If, by the time the cart came to a halt, the boy remained on the plank, he would win himself the opportunity of batting first at a local test match.
Bun-maska had proudly (and foolishly) stepped up as the Kalootiputra daredevil. Ten minutes later, had found himself flung into a garbage dump by an uncontrollable pirouetting cart. Not only did he lose the dare miserably, but also broke his nose. After having quite an eventful day then, all Bun-maska was looking forward to was meeting Gilheri and finally see her in her avatar.
“How many times have I told you to arrive on time?” Madam Helen yelled from behind the curtain that separated her apartment from the building’s hallway.
“I…I know,” the boy stammered, standing outside Madam’s apartment. He placed one foot in front of another, ready to flee, in case she decided to step outside and swing her fist at him. Shying from a potential squabble, he threw in a couple of phrases of apology to keep Madam at bay. “I’m really so-sorry Madam. Just give me one more chance. Mother-swear, I won’t be late again.”
“Fine,” he heard her growl in response. “Go on with your work then. And make sure you’re not late tomorrow, otherwise there will be hell to pay!”
Without saying another word, Bun-maska chased the endless hallway. When he finally arrived in front of Gilheri’s door, like a child late for attendance, he tucked his shirt and laced his fingers with spit to gel his hair. A smile skirted the corners of his lips.
“Gilheri?” He knocked at the door. “Guess what happened today! I broke my nose!” he informed her, shyly placing his palm at the nape of his neck.
No one responded. He took a deep breath and struck his knuckles at the door again.
“Are you not talking to me because I’m late again? I know you are in there. I can hear that stupid song that you like, playing on the television.”
When Gilheri refused to open the door, Bun-maska nudged it slightly. Without protest, the door yawned open quietly. As Dev Anand sang, “Abhi na jao chordh ke, ke dil abhi bhara nahin,” in the background, the boy, all of twelve, saw Gilheri’s feet in mid-air; her body suspended from the fan.