Blood had stained the floor, like the veins of Carrara marble. Jagannath took it to be wine, spilt at the party the night before. Stepping gingerly, he looked for broken glass, for remnants of the buffet or a nose ring lost in a moment of heat. Nobody had told him about the party, not the security guard or the girl who bolted the locks after visitors and staff left Gallery Hormone. Had he known, he would’ve arrived an hour early. Saali! – he cursed Lady Luck for dashing all hope of finishing quickly and catching a train back to his sick mother. Luck was Jagannath’s enemy, indeed of all those destined by fate to clean up a city as dirty as Mumbai.

It was his job to keep the gallery spotless. When you enter, it must feel like entering paradise – he was told when he had joined and was reminded often. Not a speck of dust must irritate the visitors’ nostrils; the clear glass door offers a perfect reflection, and feet slide over the floor like a skater on ice.

Paradise! Jagannath scoffed every morning. Whoever had thought to lay a white marble floor in paradise? Like the devil, it spoiled the party – the white floor and white walls, all too ready to capture the delinquent dirt of this earth. The purpose – as he understood – was to display the paintings, hanging them under the spotlights for the visitors, after they’d been chosen from the stacks of the storage room.

He was warned never to touch the paintings and to use a feather duster to brush the canvases lightly, as gently as a lover. Only the staff were allowed to handle the gallery’s treasure – the three angels of paradise.

Of them, Ronnie Sen, was the dirtiest, his desk littered with visiting cards of clients and some from Juhu’s massage parlours. He expected a salaam from the gallery’s sweeper whenever his eyes fell on him, and Jagannath obliged, pocketing his tip. Privately, he and Rahman, the guard, joked about Ronnie who arrived in an auto but pretended to own a Mercedes.

Atiya’s corner was the cleanest of the three. “She’s not Chinese; she’s from Manipur.” Rahman had corrected Jagannath, who didn’t know where Manipur was. Like a dutiful maid, she cleaned up her mess before leaving. There were no girlie things in her trash, like hairbands or an empty bottle of nail polish. And then, there was the chutiya – the boy who was just as lowly as Jagannath but had managed to become the boss’s pet. Kamlesh Kumar or KK, as everyone called him, even had his own visiting card, came to work suited-booted and handled clients all by himself. “He’s a prankster,” Rahman said of KK, and Jagannath agreed with him. “He’s the mongrel who’s sneaked into paradise while the gods were sleeping.”

Fetching a pail and mop, Jagannath paused before the boss’s office, partitioned off by walls. He was permitted to enter before Ishvat Irani arrived at noon. Everyone called him Sir. Clients called him Ish. There were cameras inside the gallery, but none inside the boss’s chamber.

“His eyes are better than any camera,” Jagannath was warned. “He’ll know if something has moved an inch.” In his two years at the gallery, Sir had spoken to him just once, to ask if he could read English. “No, Sir,” he had smiled shyly, “only a little bit of Odia.”

Collecting his files from the table, their boss had smiled back, “Good!” Jagannath wasn’t allowed to enter the antechamber attached to Sir’s office, which was permanently locked. Whatever was inside required no dusting. The most precious of the gallery’s treasures were kept in the antechamber, he had heard rumours, and only the choicest of clients allowed to take a peek inside. Even Rahman, with his prying ways, didn’t know anything about it. The stain on the marble had its origin inside the locked room, Jagannath was certain.

Squatting, he put his nose to the floor.

Over the years spent as a sweeper, he had developed a special quality that made it possible for him to trace the exact source of an odour and its true nature. Shifts at a hospital had taught him the difference between urine and watery discharge. During his brief sojourn at a nightclub, he’d become an expert on vomit. The city’s conservancy had marked his senses, indelibly, with myriad varieties of waste. But this, as Jagannath concluded, still squatting, was neither urine nor vomit or waste. Furthermore, spared by the cool gallery air, the thin stream was still viscous, bubbling with a faint vitality.

He hesitated before touching the stained floor with the tip of his little finger and taking a proper sniff.

It was blood. Leaping up, Jagannath started to shake. He knew it from the hospital and the nightclub, from his mother who coughed it up from her dying lungs. Teeth chattering, he prayed to Jagannath – Lord of the Universe. What followed next could only be classed as an act of misdemeanour on the part of the sweeper. Casting off all warnings, he pushed against the antechamber’s door and found it to be unlocked. The air was just as warm inside as street air and smelled of dry paint. Barely able to see in the darkness, Jagannath spotted his Sir among a jumble of canvases, collapsed and emanating the stream that had stained the Carrara marble floor. Then, without a look back, he bounded out of the gallery, leaving behind ugly marks of red on the precious white.

Excerpted with permission from “Fake” from Filmi Stories, Kunal Basu, Penguin India.