|Golden Temple |
(Photo Credit: A. Peter)
Fish were quiet this morning when I said goodbye. Pervez and Penaaz huddled in a corner of the fish tank and watched me. I knew they would stay tense until I returned. I felt sorry for them, but, in a freakish way, I felt happy too – someone loved me and was waiting for me to return.
I located a kiosk, keyed in my PNR details, grabbed my baggage tag and walked slowly to another queue, this time a long one. I thought about my trip. It was going to my first one alone and I was beginning to feel tense. Would I make it safely to my hotel?
Last night Fish went through a long list of dos and don'ts with me. They insisted I return to my hotel before dark, installed a safety app on my phone and showed me how to use it and told me to hold my purse tightly at all times – at which Genie jokingly suggested I put my cash in my bra instead.
This is a fictional series about a 30-something Mumbai woman, her former pet fish and her parents former manservant Genie.
The narrator is going on a holiday alone for the first time. A surprise awaits her at Delhi Airport.******
In any case, the lecture on safety did nothing to soothe my nerves. Plus the headlines every day of rapes and murders. Roma visited us yesterday and told me to read the newspaper. She spoke so oddly and in a roundabout fashion that I was not sure what she wanted.
But when I opened the paper, I felt ill. An inside page was full of cases and how none of the victims had found justice.
“You know, Genie, Roma was acting so weird. Told me to read today's newspaper, especially page 12... but it's full of stories of rapes that weren't solved or cases that are stalled in court. Why did she want me to read it? So urgently too...”
I knew the answer before Genie formed the words. “Roma doesn't want you to go... now. She's afraid for you. That's why she rambled so much.”
I was having second thoughts too. Things were never going to change for women here. There had been a recent rape-murder that was highly publicised. Worse, the victim's name and other details had been published, which was an absolute no-no.
My thoughts went immediately to my early working years. I was returning home past 11pm one day and jumped into the first class compartment of a moving train, only to find it empty. It was a super fast train and was only going to stop at the big stations. The compartments next to this one were general and a number of men leered at me through the thick metal mesh separating the first class section from general.
I stood at the door, trying to stay out of their sight. At Charni Road, I thought about getting off and running to a second class ladies compartment. But the train started moving – I had procrastinated too long.
Suddenly a man jumped in and my heart nearly jumped out of my mouth. “This is a ladies compartment,” I said, hoping he wouldn't see my fear.
“Yes. I know. I'll get off at the next station,” he winked and flicked his head back to budge the oily cowlick out of his eye, but it stayed put. He was thin and dressed in drainpipe, stressed jeans, frayed at the heels and slim fit light blue shirt. He turned to look at the guys behind him in the general compartment and let out a short shrill laugh. It made me uncomfortable and I moved into the compartment and sat down. My heart began to race.
I prayed God would protect me. How foolish was I to enter an empty bogey. This first class bogey was usually deserted at this time of night. I felt panic when I saw him come towards me... smiling. It was not a calming smile.
“What? I'm your friend, let's talk. Want some sweets?” He lunged and I screamed in terror, but couldn't avoid him. I screamed and screamed and one of his hands grabbed my neck and squeezed and the other covered my mouth.
I punched his solar plexus and bit his shoulder and refused to let go of his flesh. I heard him scream and we struggled wildly. I felt a whack across my face and he pushed me hard across the compartment. I fell heavily on the ground, feeling dazed.
He pulled out a knife, his face red and twisted in a rage. I screamed and screamed and jumped on the seat and over it to the next and pulled the train’s chain. Nothing happened.
I jumped off the seat and ran towards the men on the other side and screamed for someone to help me. But all I heard was frantic babbling from the men.
He lunged at me again. I remembered Papa telling me to bash the nose, dig my fingers into the eyes, punch the solar plexus and knee the crotch. “Hard, mol, hard!”
I stilled my thoughts. I could hear the men behind me urging me to jump off the train. I waited for the man to come closer. He was running towards me snarling, blood on his shirt where I had bitten him. I had a sudden thought – would I get an infection from biting him.
When he was about two feet away I let out a blood curdling scream and leaped at him, punching upwards as hard as I could in the direction of his nose. He was stunned for a fraction of a second, then howled in pain and fell backwards.
I jumped over him, but he caught my ankle and I fell heavily on him. We wrestled and I bit him again and he cried out. I jabbed my fingers into his left eye and he howled. I felt sick at inflicting so much bodily harm on someone but I was drowning in terror.
“Stop screaming, you idiot!” I screamed at myself, managing to free myself from his grip and running to my bag on the floor across the compartment.
He stood up and I tore open my bag and grabbed the canister. He rushed towards me and I cowered on the seat, spraying and spraying and spraying, my face turned away and screaming in terror. He screamed, now begging me to stop. I ran after him, spraying all the while. He scratched at his eyes and I saw the lights of the next station loom in to sight. Dear God. Help was at hand. I ran to the doorway and screamed hoarsely for help.
I prayed the platform would come to me faster. I heard the men next door shouting at me not to jump. When the train slowed into the station, I screamed for the police. People stared but no one budged.
I waved at a police man screaming that I was being attacked. Some men from the next compartment jumped off and ran into mine. But the man had jumped off from the other side of the compartment and we couldn't see him in the dark.
Someone gave me my bag and told me to go and file a police complaint. I sat on a nearby bench and burst into tears. Some women came towards me and patted my head, trying to console me.
After a long time, I called my friend Jasmine in office, who spoke to our boss Leonard who had just put the edition to bed.
“If you go to the police it will take forever and they'll only try and fob you off,” Leonard said.
I felt sick and incredulous at what Leonard was suggesting. My parents were out of town and there was no one at home. If I called them they'd be sick with fright.
“Er, er, but he attacked me... I think I should be filing an FIR,” I said, crying.
“Not a good idea. Everyone will come to know, police won't do much and for all you know that bastard will be waiting for you at the station tomorrow. You wait there. Jasmine and I will be there in 25 minutes. Don't go anywhere.”
They did come for me, but I was a mess. There was not a soul I could tell that time of night, so when I reached home I called up Anjali and burst unto tears.
She was furious I didn't file the FIR. But we talked and she hung onto the phone until I dropped off to sleep. At 4am, my doorbell rang. I sat up, feeling every part of my body ache. I felt fear course through me and sat transfixed.
Then there was a frantic knocking. “It's me, Anjali! Open the door. Open the door!”
I flung the door open and threw myself into her arms and started bawling. Anjali pulled me into the house and onto the sofa and we held each other tightly. When I was done, she cleaned my wounds and I told her the whole story again.
“Do you need to see a doctor?”
“No.” Everything ached, but I was sure I'd be sorted in a few days.
“When do your parents return?”
“What are you going to tell them?”
I was silent. I was safe now. There was no point in telling them. Besides, I could think of more serious consequences for me. If my relatives came to know, I'd be forced to leave my job. Or, worse, get married. Plus, I was sure I would be blamed for what happened because I was out so late.
“Nothing,” I said, not looking at Anjali. It was strange. I didn't do anything wrong, but I felt guilty.
Anjali's arm came around me. By the time my parents called, Anjali and I had cooked up a story. My parents believed me when I told them that I had stayed late in office the previous day and had fallen asleep as soon as I reached home, forgetting to call them.
I strapped myself into my seat. I never told Roma about that incident. I still feel a frisson of fear in dark places and never enter an empty bogey. I haven't seen the man either.
At Delhi airport I walked slowly to my boarding gate. The connecting flight was delayed a couple of hours and I tried not to worry about getting to my hotel at night. Genie had told me to take an Ola/Uber taxi just before getting out of the airport. “That's fairly safe.”
I stopped in my tracks near Gate 42B. I could see long black curly hair and men staring at a woman who was immersed in her book. My feet moved faster, until I was next to her. There was a knapsack in the seat beside her.
I kicked her foot and her head whipped up angrily. The beautiful face crinkled into a smile. “I was waiting for you, babe. Our flight is late.” Anjali jumped up and hugged me. “I missed you!”
“Where are you going?”
“Amritsar. We were supposed to go to the Golden Temple together, remember?”
With Roma. Part of a wild pact we'd made in our late teens – which involved hot Punjabi men, booze and food and, of course, the Golden Temple. We'd managed none of it because Roma and I had married early.
“What about your deadline?” Anjali was in the middle of writing a book. She lived in a small town in the Himalayas, preferring the quiet and peace there to Mumbai. Mostly she hated big city humanity. She wrote literary fiction and smut. Her literary fiction couldn't find a publisher for years. But side by side she wrote romance novels filled with sex – Roma and I had read all the first drafts and were hooked. The sex-filled romances had made Anjali money. The success of her “rabid romances", as I called them, had also been the reason her publisher finally published her literary fiction.
"I thought I'd take a break."
After talking for what felt like ages, I opened my bag to look for the bars of chocolate Genie had bought me at the airport. “Did Genie know you were coming?”
Anjali smiled. “And Roma. She's feeling miserable she's not with us.”
“Where are you staying?”
“With you. We'll can move to a double room. I checked with the hotel.”
“I rented the room at a big discount. We may not get the discount.”
“We'll swim that moat when we get to it. Now, let's get something to eat.”
“Er, wait.” I unzipped the inside pocket of my handbag and pulled out the pink, wrapped roll. A whiff of kebab hit me. I unwrapped the bundle, covered in Fish's favourite writing paper, and stared at the wad of cash in my hand.
“Whoa! That's a lot of money. Who's it from?” Anjali said.
I smoothened out the paper and my heart turned to mush.
A little something to enjoy Amritsar with. We don't want the ‘something’ back. Eat well, stay safe and send us pictures.
Call us everyday at 11.09pm.
Your biggest loves,
Anjali read the letter. “Why 11.09pm?”
“Last night they watched James Bond – a Sean Connery one with a lot of under-cover-of-darkness calls.”
My heart felt full thinking of my dear big hearted Fish’s sweet gift and my best friend with me on a trip that we'd always planned but never attempted. I was finally here. And, I wasn't alone.