In Dubai recently, at Emirates Mall, browsing for nothing in particular, I notice an Arab family of five, with a nervous maid (Indian, Sri Lankan?) in tow at a department store. Why? The scent. And racket. The whiff of exotic oud coming from this group is overwhelming, but peculiarly, alluring as well, so I linger close to them. The father, an overweight man with a budging belly and a hooked nose, harshly discusses prices of purses and shoes and clothes and designer sunglasses with a couple of harassed Filipino salesgirls, who clearly show sings of fatigue. He gestures wildly, making the worry beads on his fingers crackle and jerk wildly, as if they, too, share his temperament. The salesgirls warily keep on stating prices are non-negotiable, but this fact makes no impact on the man, as he persists with negotiating a lower price.
The obvious wife, a short squat woman covered in black except for face, sits on a chair and rummages through boxes and wrapping without care or courtesy, discarding them and demanding more. Two daughters, very much replicas of their mother, except with gold and diamond jewelry flashing on their fingers, matching glitter on their abaayas, join in gleefully, jabbering in union so I am unable to tell who is listening to whom. A boy, apparently the son, almost dad’s duplicate, as obese, remains aloof, lost to the cellphone world, either texting or gaming, I cannot tell. The maid hovers in the background, ignored. It is, however, the third girl in the group that stands out and grabs my attention.
This girl is exquisite, lean and with a face that makes me stare. She is veiled in beauty and silence, watching the others with measured reserve. I doubt she is from the same family, but could be wrong, certainly don’t look Arab. Blatantly, I admire her demure, lowered eyes, delicate jawline, soft tilted nose and the full curve of firm, fresh lips. Unlike the other two girls, she is almost devoid of makeup, save a trace of lipstick on her full lips. Elusively, the face looks kind of familiar.
I know I should move on, not gawk, but the girl’s fascinating face consumes my attention. Then this girl, she must sense me staring at her, for her attention shifts and dismissively glances my way and away. I am about to rouse from my trance when her eyes suddenly revert my way and we lock eyes. It must not be for longer than three seconds, at most, but feels like an eternity that we speak of I know not. My heart skips a beat and then accelerates; I feel my breathing quicken. These eyes, I have seen them somewhere. My mind immediately processes stored data and retrieves a similar set of eyes. The eyes that briefly, intensely, warmed my heart, from a very long time ago, the eyes of baby Sultana…
Way back in December 1994, when I am in Bombay (then, Mumbai now) researching for my first novel, I chance upon meeting a girl-child on Chopatty Beach off Marine Drive. I have spent an entire day at Central Library, so my mind is full of ideas that need processing and ponder. I therefore decide on a nice long walk, with fresh cool(er) winter sea breeze to give me just that, before putting my life to peril on the Western Railway Line to Bandra, where I live as a paying guest at a kind hearted, albeit grumpy Goan widow, Mrs. Maria D’Souza’s house. It is a pleasant evening, the weather comfortable and the brisk ocean breeze feels good on my face and (then) hair.
Although a weekday, there is plenty of activity all along Marine Drive; middle aged men jog, desperately tying to rid disposable guts, housewives doing the same for hips and thighs, walking but complaining as well, about wayward children, ever increasing price of tomatoes, shocking developments of favorite serial drama, elderly men reading newspapers or worrying about retirement stock market portfolio and couples chancing upon opportunities for intimacy. The ocean growls, swells and crash at the restraining walls, as if venting anger at being stopped in her high tide march. The vendors; chaiwallas, maikaiwallahs, maalishwallahs, madafuwallahs and the beggars, all look up hopefully as I near them, only to divert their hopes to someone else as I walk unseeingly by.
It is almost twilight when I reach Chopatty Beach, which is packed with crowds out to enjoy the mild weather. The evening rush hour traffic jerks forward, stops, jerks, stops; BEST busses ply by spluttering dark toxic fumes. The roads, however, belong to motorbikes, young men with wives or girlfriends plastered to their backs, zoom in and out of the serpentine queue, making headway with every nook and space that open up. I am about to hail a cab to Victoria Station (now renamed a mouthful Chakrapathy Shivaji Station) when I notice a young girl sitting on a caste-off wooden crate, sobbing. She is clearly in distress, her head lowered on her laps and the back rocking in convulsion of grief; I, and others, hesitate for few moments before moving on. One half of my conscience tells me to return and ask if she needs help but the other half cautions otherwise. I retrace my steps and find her sitting up, staring at the distant water with puffed up, watery eyes.
She is no more than eighteen, very pale, much paler than any Bombaite I see, wearing a mismatched faded salwar-kurti. Before I can say anything, she glances at me, averts her face and says, ‘Phooto loafer, I am not for sale.’ I am so stunned and hurt, I am unable to speak, but glare at her for a moment before abruptly turning and walking away. I am so mad (and sorry) at myself, standing on a curb trying to flag down non-vacant cabs that I don’t notice her by my side, talking to me.
‘Maaf karo Sahib, I was rude to you; so sorry. You look to be a decent man and I should not have said what I did. I am very upset, I have had very trying few weeks.’
I am so mad, I want to lash out at her, give her an earful but before I can open my mouth, I see tears in her eyes and my anger evaporates. These eyes, they are different. I am used to black eyes that all Indians have; hers are almost colorless, like cat eyes, and it gives me an uncanny feeling looking at them. Warily fascinated, I ask her the reason for the tears and she tells me.
Zulaikha Bahadoor is a prostitute, and eight weeks pregnant. She tells me this as we sit side by side on a cement bench on Chopatty Beach, facing a robust high tide of the Indian Ocean, eating roasted peanuts and drinking hot chai. She is from the state of Bihar, brought to Bombay by her cousin brother who promises her a sewing job, something Zulaikha is quite good at, at a garment factory. Mired in poverty, with her father desperately trying to raise enough dowry to get the eldest daughter in the family married, Zulaikha is easily lured away; the promised five thousand rupees a month is a lot of money, enough for her family to live comfortably and her mother treated for crippling arthritis that ails her.
They take a crowded train, Zulaikha tells me, from her village in Muzafferpur to Mumbai, which takes almost two days. Once in Mumbai, the cousin takes her for a ride in a black taxi to an isolated place two hours away. There, outside a row of rotting warehouses, she is traded to a group of men who take her in and rape her. They do things to her she cannot tell me, and hurt her in ways she never knew possible. After some time, she does not care what they do, as long as the hurting stops. A few days later, when the ‘animals’ tire of her, she is brought to the red light district near Grant Road where she is sold again and put to work servicing men; drunk, smelly and uncouth men who use her body. There are a few exceptions, gentlemen who treat her tenderly and tip her over and above what is paid to Khaala. This extra money makes it possible to indulge in paan, mixed with a dab of cheap ganja supplied by Rafeek, a local pimp and pusher. The paan eases the taste of filth that customers’ leave on her tongue and the ganja eases the torment of memories; that of her village, ailing mum and family.
She is crying, she says, because she is very desperate, has run out of paan-ganja money and the craving is intense. About ten days ago, she feels dizzy and throws up poori-bhaaji immediately after breakfast, right in front of other eating sex-workers, under the ever-watchful eyes of Khaala, who promptly whisks her away to a shoddy lady doctor who pronounces her very pregnant. When Khaala insists on an abortion and Zulaikha refuses, Khaala slaps her, swears she will not feed another mouth for free and stops Zulaikha from taking on any customers. Although this is a great relief, the paan-ganja stops as well. When she begs Rafeek for some as loan, he demands her body in repayment, something Zulaikha finds loathsome but says she might succumb to if there are no alternatives.
Once again, the two sides of my conscience debate, giving me conflicting advise. Zulaikha has obviously, cleverly, caught on to my vulnerable side and she exploits this, with life tragedies and tender pleas. Alone in Mumbai, recently divorced, with solitary research and writing only to occupy my time, I swallow hungrily, bait, hook, line and sinker. Although I am awfully tempted, and Zulaikha very willing, I am never intimate with her, prompting her to accusingly question my manhood. I give her my reasons, but these are neither relevant nor important to this saga.
To be continued…