He rolled the empty beer can between his palms. The glittering roll of metal reflected the pale light entering the apartment through the bay windows. It was getting late; you could tell by the purple outlines. Taroon was watching me now, following my eyes. He smiled.
“Remember when we were small and Nani would tell us stories after dinner? She’d start exactly after she washed the dishes, drying everything with her tattered, white sari. I can still remember the paisley design on it. The little flowers here and there along the edge.” He enveloped himself with little finger movements and rumbling laughter. “And you would always bug her about why she only wore white saris, even though she never answered. And then you finally got her that green one. Man, that was one ugly sari! I can understand why she never wore it.”
I smiled to show that I did remember, but what my smile didn’t show was that though I was in my thirties, it still didn’t make sense that she wore plain saris every day. Why did she never wear green or even yellow ones? Why had she been afraid of colour?
Taroon’s smile was swallowed into his face and he looked down at the beer can. His voice was now charged.
“Nani would talk to us until it got dark outside. God, the stories she could make up! Hunting and tigers. And even when she was sad, there were always good endings. They always got the maneater, they always got the bastard. Some Ingreji would come with his polished boots and gleaming gun, and not leave until he did.
“Did you ever wonder if she maybe wanted to tell us about what happens to a woman who can’t pay her dowry? How she was beaten and then taken to the police station to be raped? How she watched her own children starve? How maybe she wished every day that she would die first? But no, Nani always had a dead tiger for us. And she always stopped when it got dark outside. I think she was fearful of what she might say. I guess she thought, like Father, that knowledge is a splendid thing but it is dangerous for children. There was no point in telling us the unhappiness that would come to us later.
“But I think something deep and watchful inside me knew when the stories were about to end. The moment that Nani would get up and fire the lamps, remembering whom she was talking to and she wouldn’t say any more. And as the light would fill the room, I would always be filled with darkness. I knew that every day I had moved a little closer to the blackness outside. The blackness outside is what Nani would never talk about. It was where she came from. It was what she had endured. And she knew that if she talked any more, she would tell us what had happened to her, and we would know too much, too soon, about what was going to happen to us.”
Taroon looked up at me. There were tears rolling down his face. They looked like blood in the receding light.
“Why didn’t she ever teach us that we’d be husbands too, hey? Maybe even work with the police, huh? Why never mention what we’d have to face? Why did it have to come upon us like a thief one day? Why did we always get the same damn tigers? Because there’s nothing to fucking hunt in my jungle. I’m the one they keep in a dark little office, and in that small room, I am the prey. Even when I leave, there are only dead, hard people outside, whose eyes move me to the side of the road. And you ask me why I ‘drink, drink and drink’, and I say, because I have nothing else to hold.”
He looked outside.
“And there’s no change. No brave hunter who will come along and fix everything. Nothing.” He crawled up on the couch and folded his knees, pushing his face down. And while he cried, I watched the smooth baldness on the top of his head. “And you’ve just got to keep on going, holding on. Because it’s so easy to let go, man, so easy to lose. And you can’t fight it with a gun, no, you can’t squeeze with your hands, because it always finds a way to slip out. It crawls its way back to you, this big, bad thing. You can’t argue with it because it doesn’t talk. It just sits there in some little waiting room inside your head, knowing you’ll return.”
He crushed the beer can between his palms, and the metal lay there, shiny like a knife.
“You feel dirty, like you can’t let anybody look into your eyes. You watch people go by from your window, and feel the darkness inside you and how it shuts you right where you stand. You hold your breath because you can’t even stand your own stink, and listen to your heartbeat because it all hurts like shit, it hurts!
“And hey, there’s no one who can touch it. Because if you can’t do it yourself, if you don’t know how to make yourself, who can? Because at the core of it all, at the very centre of you, where everything is tied into a little parcel around your soul, you think you deserve it. You have made it that big, that bad, because it’s got to be. And it’s not a cry for help. It’s gone way past that. Maybe sometimes you wish they’d know, that they’d feel it, but you know they can never touch it. Because it needs to stay there, at least while things are this way, at least for now. But one day you wake up and it’s too late. The thing has taken over. It’s branched out through your veins, and it controls the way your body looks, the way you walk. When you unwind the damn thing, all you have is bits of string and wire. There’s nothing left inside. It has fucking wiped out who you were, who you were protecting and hiding. It has become someone else, someone who doesn’t even like you.
“And I’m telling you, I think I’m there, I’m about ready to quit.”
With that, he stood up, the length of him an exclamation. And it struck me that he last thing he’d do, the last thing we’re taught to do, was give up.
Excerpted with permission from Taxi Wallah and Other Stories, Numair Atif Choudhury, HarperCollins India.
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