And then there was your room. The building was like any of the ghastly buildings that children draw at school, a rectangle with square holes. But no child could have colored the building the way it was, a dirty creamy yellow with streaks and streaks of grey. It was a building amongst many such buildings on a narrow road, a government subsidized block. The buildings had no names, only numbers, and the rooms had numbers like A-2/27/101. The postman who did the rounds there, was certainly increasing his brainpower with all the number crunching he did.
All kinds of people lived in those buildings. Clerks who took the local train from Goregaon to Churchgate everyday, because they worked at the Mantralay, and came back home with chickoos, bought near the bus-stop outside the station, dangling in thin polythene bags. Lawyers who loitered outside Bandra Court, in their faded black coats, smelling of sweat, peering into every rickshaw that stopped, for potential customers worth 100-200 rupees. Salesmen who left every morning, looking important, having pumped themselves up with self-confidence, and came back every evening morose and depressed, calculating for the umpteenth number of time, how much commission they had made that day, and knowing it was not quite enough. And struggling actors, who woke up after the last pressure cooker whistle of the morning had blown in the block, and sauntered to the dairy in their crumpled pajamas for a quarter liter of milk, and meeting one of their kind, stopped to have tea and samosas, before they went back to their rooms to finish their morning ablutions and step out, all bright and energetic and certain they were handsome and talented and going to be successful one day. And there was you.
I had to duck underneath three very low stairwells to reach your building at the end of the block, on the corner of the road, after which there were better buildings and more trees. Your neighbor, a sharp-eyed woman, always on the landing, cleaning rice or wheat, or sweeping out her room’s dust towards the stairs, looked at me with sharp eyes, as I rung the bell. You’d open the door, give her a cursory nod of acknowledgement, and I’d be inside your room.
Your room was quiet, and the lime-green curtains were always drawn, so that you never noticed the peeling paint, and it was cool after the heat of the afternoon in the rickshaw. You had a lamp with a faux leather shade, which was quite swanky, and a couple of easy chairs, which smelt of you. Your bed was narrow, and you had changed the sheet because I was coming, and it was clean and faded, and very soft against our skins. Your landlady had left a withered rose shrub in the ledge outside your window, when she gave the room to you. It had become quite plump and glossy under your care. Once, you had shredded several tight, white buds on the sheet when I came, and I could have laughed, but when the petals were crushed by our warm skins, it was divine, and brought tears to my eyes.
Once my husband came with me to the room. I had called you, with cold desperation, and you were prepared. It was nothing, we were house hunting, but his voice filled up the room, and he opened the bathroom and peered inside, and jumped around from one corner of the small room, to another, while you and me sat quietly, looking at him. The room was filled with little gifts from me, a book, a bottle of shampoo, a small rug, and once or twice, he tossed his head, because his mind was asking him to look at something, that would tell him something, but he tossed his head, and filled up his mind with his voice. I did not look at you too much, in case he saw what he was trying hard not to, but I need not have been afraid.
You were quite calm, and shut the door behind you, walking up to the gate with us. My husband ducked the stairwells as easily as I did, but you had to bend quite a bit, and it was just one of those things that life hits you with in the stomach. Because I did not want to go with my husband then, I wanted to say bye to him, and come back to the room with you. Instead, I sat down meekly behind him on the Kinetic Honda, and listened to his voice going on and on, as he would not say a quick bye to you, and you, too kept encouraging him to talk on. Once, you even touched me, and I trembled, but you pretended it was inadvertent, and I put an arm around my husband’s waist, and we drove off, and I did not even look at you, standing at the gate, looking at us go.
The next time I came to your room, I was afraid it would still be filled up with his voice, but it wasn’t, and there was only us. My husband and I did not find a room in your block, because we were Muslims, and for once, I was not angry with that, but relieved. I did not want to live too close to you, because there were many things about my life and my husband I did not want you to know, and because there were many things in yours which I could not bear to see. Your friends coming and going, and cooking in your house, and all of you watching the football match together, for instance, because I could never be a part of that, and I’d always feel why couldn’t I be? And maybe your other women, because there were, or may have been, I knew, but never asked.
But then, even distance did not remain a guarantee against my wanting to be closer to you. Once, we talked of a woman we both liked, and you asked me whether we should invite her one afternoon. I said yes, but I meant no, because I was jealous, and then, I knew, it would not work. Then, even when you were on top of me, I did not look at you, and even when I was on top of you, I shut my eyes. Instead, we came and came, and the tears just streamed down my cheeks. I did not open my eyes, because I knew that what you saw there would make your eyes cold and frightened, and that would hurt too much. It would wipe out all the afternoons we had spent in your room, and I’d be left with nothing. Better to take those afternoons with me, and so I walked away, as quietly as I had come.
For a few days you called, and once you even tried to talk to me on the phone the secret things we used to say to each other, but I pretended there were other people around me, and I was busy, and you knew or thought you knew that I had moved on. Then, I was desperate for your body, and called you once, but this time, you sounded distant, and I thought I heard a woman’s voice in the back. Maybe, the same woman, we had wanted to invite one day to your room, on one of our afternoons together. Twice or thrice, I walked down that narrow road, crammed with buildings, thinking maybe I’d see you, maybe I’d see you with the woman, and then, at least I’d know. I needed to know. But I only saw the sharp-eyed woman, your neighbor, who gave me a reluctant puckered-up smile. And for days, I tore up that smile into many pieces and put it together again and again, wondering what knowledge it held. And I did not dare to walk down that road again.
It is strange now that I don’t see you so much any more, but I still see your room, quiet, the whitewash peeling, the faux leather lampshade, the two easy chairs, and your narrow bed. Sometimes, when my husband is on top of me with his drunken breath, and making all those noises that he must, I shut my eyes and your room, B-2/38/301, is one of the places I go to, for a little quiet.
© Batul Mukhtiar