Ghana was besotted with the little whore, a beautiful young girl from the south, dark and smooth as ebony, who had hit town some seven or eight months back. He saved the little money he made on the side and cut down on his cigarettes and paans so he could visit her at least once a week. If you were a bit thick-skinned you could manage to cadge a couple of cigarettes and paan from colleagues and visitors, Ghana would chuckle to himself, but free whores? Maybe in some bygone golden age. Sometimes, tickled by the idea, he’d ask an unsuspecting colleague out of the blue: ‘So brother, when will the golden age be back again?’ The look of incomprehension on the colleague’s face would make him break into bouts of helpless laughter. ‘You never know with that crackpot,’ the man would remark later, ‘who can guess what strange thoughts are going through his head!’
Ghana had already taken two momentous decisions: one, never to let his whoring friends wise up to the existence of his darling; two, never to go to her in the evening, when there was a queue outside her hut and a dim, smoking kerosene lamp burning inside. He preferred to skip the office and drop in in the afternoon when there was no line, when a million arrows of dust-speckled sunlight pierced through the holes in the thinning thatch of the hut, transforming the girl into a magical being.
‘You’re the only one who comes by in the daytime,’ she noted.
‘Your place is a hundred times better than my office,’ he replied, dropping a ripe grape into her mouth. ‘It’s so much better to be with you. Makes me feel younger, healthier, wiser.’
‘What do you sit on in your office? A chair, or the floor like here?
Do you have mats?’
Running his hand over the uncluttered expanse of her naked body, he smiled. ‘Remind me to take you to my office on a holiday so you can see for yourself.’ He gently ran his fingers over the pink birthmark in the middle of her right cheek, something he always did. Not a bad idea, he thought to himself. Most relatives, especially those from villages, wanted to be given a tour of the town, and in order of importance the office figured right after the Lingaraj temple and the Khandagiri and Udayagiri hills.
‘Have one more,’ he said, holding a grape inches above her half-parted lips. ‘Have you any idea how much a quarter kilo of these costs? Never mind, I’m keeping a mental note. The day it adds up to fifteen rupees you’ll be mine for free.’
‘But you eat half of them!’
‘Do you think I like grapes? Hell, no! I need to eat a few to keep up my strength. So you could say I’m eating them for your benefit and pleasure, my dear.’
‘Take me away from here.’
‘Where to?’ he smiled, stroking her well-oiled curly hair. ‘To the office? It’s a den of wolves. They’ll take less than five minutes to tear you to pieces.’
‘Is it any better here?’
He caressed her face.
‘Tell me,’ she said. ‘‘Doesn’t anyone make a remark when you slip out of the office and head here?’
Outside, a dog rushed past the hut, yelping as if its tail was on fire, followed by a woman whose juicy abuses and curses made him chuckle. A bird landed on the palm-leaf thatch. The whore waved lazily, ineffectually at the ceiling.
‘For my colleagues it’s the secretariat that I’m visiting on these occasions. Who’d imagine that I’m headed for the sextariat instead?’
‘Someday you’ll be caught.’
The girl laughed. ‘Don’t worry. I’ll hide you in a corner.’
‘The day you save me I’ll reward you with a pomegranate. Not a tiny, sickly home-grown pomegranate, but a big, juicy one, imported from Afghanistan. And I swear I’ll not eat a single seed of it myself.’
‘If you only watch me eating it, I’m sure I’ll end up with a bellyache.’
‘If my hungry eyes can give you a bellyache, how come you’re still all in one piece? Is there any part of your body I don’t covet?’
He looked around. A garish calendar of Laxmi, goddess of wealth, hung on the mud wall. Close by was a bamboo stake driven into the wall, weighed down by clothes. An aluminium pot hung from the ceiling in a jute sling. A glance at it and Ghana smelt dried fish. His whore, generous in her nakedness, lay sprawled in the middle of the room, and he sat cross-legged like a devotee beside her. Near the mattress a soldierly line of black ants led to a dead beetle, and two flies sat watching a red bindi fallen on the floor.
There were heavy footfalls outside.
‘The police?’ he asked in a whisper.
‘My uncle,’ she laughed. ‘He wears shoes two sizes too big with wads of paper stuffed inside them.’
‘Does the bugger give you a little pocket money sometimes?’
‘Pocket money? Are you dreaming? He grumbles when he has to buy me oil, soap and talcum.’
‘You clients must give you tips.’
‘Not everybody, and not always. But where can I hide the little I get? I tried the rafters, but that auntie of mine sniffed out my cache. To hell with that barren bitch!’
‘Why don’t you open an account in a bank?’
‘A bank? Keep money in a bank?’
‘I’ll take care of your account for you.’
‘Hey, hey, take me for a dimwit, do you? Want to give with one hand and take away with the other?’
Ghana laughed. ‘Come, open your mouth. Here’s the last grape.’ He squeezed the overripe fruit between his fingers and smeared the juice on her lips. ‘So you think I’m a conman?’
‘Take it to heart, did you?’
The sound of dogs fighting came from far off.
‘Sounds like our Tiger,’ she said. ‘He’s always getting into fights.’
‘His wound has healed?’
‘It never will.’
Ghana wadded the empty paperbag into a ball. ‘You should have a clock. Necessary for the clients.’
She snatched the ball from his hands. ‘No one but you wants to know the time. You’re the only one who comes during office hours.’
Ghana snatched the ball back.
‘You know something?’ she said. ‘I confronted that bloody uncle of mine yesterday. I told him point-blank that if he ever lined up more than seven clients a night, he’d find me gone one fine morning. The bugger can sing the Lord’s praises all he wants.’
‘That must’ve pissed him off.’
‘Of course it did. What does he think, that he and his bitch of a wife will live off me? I didn’t come here to wear myself out!’
‘Time we went to Puri on a little outing,’ Ghana said, running his fingers across her quivering belly. ‘Puri’s a fine place by the sea. Abode of our Lord Jagannath. The good Lord won’t mind us, I know.’
‘Got anything else to eat?’ she asked.
‘I gave you all the grapes. What else do you want? Now you give me your two little grapes.’ He ran his hand over her breasts, and her purple nipples, crinkled like raisins, came alive. She shivered.
Outside, a gust lifted the palm-fronds of the thatch. The silvery rows of light swayed. There was a fetid odour of drying shit and open sewerage. A train passed and the ground shook.
‘No sweet paan?’ she asked.
‘What’ll I do if you want one every time? You know I gave up paan and cigarettes to save money to come to you.’ He laughed.
She joined in.
‘Besides, I think you’ve already cadged paan worth several rupees.
What I should do is keep an account. I’d better tuck a piece of paper and a pencil in the thatch. Your aunt wouldn’t be interested in them, would she?’
‘First you feed my habit and then you become stingy. Wasn’t it you who pressed sweet paan on me?’
‘Did I have any choice? You were so heavily into smoking your vile, hand-rolled tobacco leaves that I could barely stand you.’
The snow-white cat with black polka dots jumped down the wall.
‘Here it comes!’ she laughed.
‘Thank God it had the sense not to slink in in the middle of our lovemaking like last time,’ he laughed. ‘You know something, I’ve a feeling he’s a spy.’ A lizard ticked as if in agreement.
‘He’s a she.’
‘Female cats make better spies.’
She laughed. He ran his hand over her body, still rippling like gentle waves. He loved these quiet moments afterwards, and wondered at his luck that had brought this wonderful little woman so full of life into his otherwise drab existence. To think he could’ve easily missed her had he not stopped by the railway station shop to buy a paan a few months ago.
‘Sir,’ the shopkeeper had said, rolling him a paan to his specifications. ‘There’s a garden-fresh thing in Malisahi.’
‘Since when?’ Ghana enquired, scooping out a little lime with the stem of the betel leaf.
‘Must be close to two weeks already.’
‘Two weeks! Two weeks have passed and I haven’t heard a thing!’ He stared at the picture of a well-known film star, her breasts bursting out of her skimpy top, pasted on the wooden wall of the shop. ‘Never mind. Who’s the pimp?’
‘God, no! Don’t say that fellow’s name. No way I’m going to his place. He boozes away all he earns and doesn’t pay the police regularly. Every second night there’s a raid!’
From the wooden slats of the shop wall a plump cockroach darted out and sprinted across the actress’ breasts.
‘All that’s history, sir,’ the shopkeeper said. ‘Nowadays it’s his wife who runs the show. For one thing, she beats the hell out of the old boozer if he tipples more than half a bottle of toddy. For another, it was her bright idea to bring in fresh blood. And this one she’s got this time is a traffic-stopper.’
Ghana looked at him with as much interest as incredulity.
‘Sir,’ the shopkeeper added in the same breath, ‘why has Cavenders given up on its sales promotion campaigns? You remember those sailors on stilts?’
‘It’s fallen on bad days. Better brands have flooded the market.’
‘Right, sir. Capstan rules the market at the moment.’
‘Two weeks, you say? Two weeks is a hell of a long time. They must have pulled her inside out by now.’
‘I tried three nights after she arrived and there were twelve men before me in line. It seems for an entire week there was no business in any other hut in the whole of Malisahi.’
Ghana sighed. ‘Hey, what’s happened to the triple five cigarette packet you had on the shelf?’
‘Bugger my cousin’s son, sir. He came here to see the chariot festival and wouldn’t budge until I had given him the empty packet.’
‘You want a few empty packets? The boss in our office smokes only foreign-made cigarettes. Gets them duty-free.’
‘If you’d be kind enough to collect a few for me, sir. It’d add to the decor.’
‘What’s the going rate at Rangaya’s?’
Rangaya gave Ghana a big, cheesy grin. ‘Come in, sir, come right in.
I’ve saved a wonderful dish for you.’
‘And you’ll ask the heavens for it, huh?’
‘Not at all, sir. The rate is most reasonable. But I beg you, go scour the whole bloody town, from Khandagiri to Rasulgarh, from Station Square to Santrapur. If you find a girl half as delectable as this one, I’ll refund your money fully.’
‘Enough hype! You’re never short of superlatives, are you?’
The pimp made a face. ‘I touch my eyes and swear.’
‘Stop at your eyes, for heaven’s sake. I don’t want you to touch any other part.’
Rangaya’s wife came into the hut with a sprig of spinach. Thin and emaciated after her prolonged illness, she looked like a witch. Her brisk career as a whore had come to an end too. She gave Ghana a smile. ‘Fresh fruit, sir. Garden-fresh. All you need to pay upfront is two crisp ten-rupee notes.’
‘For two crisp ten-rupee notes I can have a film actress,’ Ghana said.
‘Go fuck your film actress, then. The five-rupee days are over in Malisahi since the war broke out.’
‘Woman, the war hasn’t reached Bhubaneswar, has it? East Pakistan is a million miles away.’
‘Have you noticed how the prices of everything have shot up?’
‘Wait until the refugee girls from East Pakistan flood the Bhubaneswar market. Whore prices have crashed in Calcutta already, let me tell you. It’s just a matter of time.’
‘That’s still far-off.’
‘That may be, but you can’t have a hike from five rupees to twenty overnight. Certainly not in one go! Show me another commodity whose price has skyrocketed like that. Tell me the right price, woman. Who wants to haggle? And remember, I’m an old client. Let’s settle for ten rupees. Or ten fifty. Eleven. No? All right, twelve then. That’s the limit. My God, how could you ask for twenty?’
Rangaya intervened. ‘Make it fifteen, sir. You’re an old customer after all.’
His wife looked daggers at him. ‘Fifteen then,’ she grunted.
‘Explain to me how you arrived at fifteen, will you?’ Ghana wouldn’t give up. ‘How many clients do you get in the afternoon? And how many of them are as loyal as I am? Haven’t I given you a calendar every year? And remember the bunch of plastic flowers I brought you last year?’ For days after Ghana had swiped them from the office on an impulse, the office superintendent had raised a hue and cry. What the hell, Ghana thought, just a bunch of pale pink plastic flowers. Roses, were they? Three thick green leaves attached to each. All splattered with blue ink at that. ‘And you come from a place so near to mine.
After all, Icchapur is only a stone’s throw from Chikiti. And you speak Oriya as well as I speak Telugu; what’s mother-tongue to you is auntie-tongue to me. With such a lot in common, surely you won’t charge me the market rate! No way. Now, let’s inspect the goods.
‘Here,’ said Ghana. ‘I’d completely forgotten. This is for you.’ He fished out his pocket notebook and extracted a parrot feather he had picked up on the road two days before on his way back from the market.
It was bright green with a hint of blue at the edges. A money-order receipt fell out and he tucked it back between the pages.
‘Can I eat it?’ she laughed, twirling the feather.
‘It’s better than food,’ he said, taking it away from her. ‘It’ll give you more pleasure. Let me show you how. In a moment you’ll see not just one but all fourteen worlds.’ He ran the feather slowly over her nose, lips, neck, breasts and belly. She trembled like a leaf in a high wind.
‘How’s that?’ he asked.
‘I’m dying to pee.’
‘You’ll never change! You’ll remain the dud you were when you first came here. Stupid thing, haven’t you watched the rasalila scenes in your village? Radha lolling on a bed of kadamb flowers and Krishna running a peacock feather all over her?’
‘Bring me a peacock feather, then. I love peacock feathers. They’re so beautiful!’
‘All right, I’ll get you one.’
She stretched like a lazy snake. ‘Never mind, give me the parrot feather. After all, you’ve brought it for me with so much love. I’ll stick it in the wall, near the hole for the joss-sticks. See if you can find me a red feather too.’
‘There’re no real red feathers. Conmen dye white feathers and palm them off as red. More often than not what you’re left holding is a hen or a crane feather.’
‘Talking of conmen, did you hear what happened here two days back?
There was this young college boy who tried to palm off two fake ten-rupee notes to a sister. Not only was he beaten black and blue, he was stripped to the skin and sent back to his hostel.’
‘Really?’ Ghana was surprised. He had always dreamed of resorting to the same trick. ‘Not pulling a fast one on me, are you?’
‘Pulling a fast one on you?’
‘That’s some story!’ He took a red plastic comb from his shirt pocket and ran it through his thinning hair. ‘Let’s call it a day. That son of a pig, the office superintendent, must be frantically looking for me.’
‘Stay a while longer.’
‘Shall I ask you for something? Will you say yes?’
‘First say yes.’
‘Swear that you’ll not say no.’
‘I swear.’ She laughed. ‘All right, yes, you can have me for free.
Now. Any time.’
‘I know I can have you for free if I can manage to slip past your aunt.’
‘Cut the suspense. Out with it.’
‘Let’s go to a movie. A matinee.’
‘Why, what’s showing at the Talkie House?’
‘Devdas. Dilip Kumar, Vijayantimala and Suchitra Sen.’
‘They’re good, are they? Is the flick full of songs and dances? Plenty of fight scenes?’
‘Plenty,’ Ghana laughed, remembering the tear-jerking melodrama he had seen last week; a young colleague had paid for the tickets.
‘But swear that you’ll not sneak your hand inside my blouse and fondle my breasts all through the show. Remember last time?’
‘Don’t worry. This film will have you in tears right from the first reel. You’ll be soaking wet by the time it’s over.’
There were sounds in the next room—people walking in, talking in low voices, the door being shut, a mat being rolled out. The mud wall was thin enough for the two of them to hear clearly. Someone cleared his throat, spat a jet of betel juice.
‘Don’t tell me people have taken a leaf out of my book and started coming here in broad daylight!’ Ghana whispered with a low chuckle.
The whore chuckled too and flung the paper ball up into the air and caught it before it could hit the floor. Her breasts bounced. Ghana caressed them gently. The visiting cat tensed and with a solitary mew of irritation jumped onto the low wall and went out.
‘I should be able to unplug these two delicious things of yours and take them with me. I’d plug them back in when I come next week.’
‘Oh, take them. Take them away, do,’ she said. ‘They cause me no end of trouble. Everyone except you paws them as though they’re mounds of dough or something. Believe me, some nights, after I’m through with the last client, my breasts feel like bruised brinjals.’
‘The bastards should have their hands cut off.’
They could hear a woman’s voice from the next room. Ghana smiled.
Someone began to groan.
‘He groans like our office superintendent,’ Ghana said.
‘For all you know that’s who it might be,’ she laughed.
‘How I’d love to catch him red-handed.’
The whore turned on her belly. Her back bore the impression of the reed mat. She had an inch-long scar right below her right buttock.
Ghana realized he had never asked her about it. Her spine looked like a swift-running mountain stream, falling into a deep gorge between the sculpted hills of her bottom. On the left cheek of her arse she had a unique birthmark: a shocking pink mole the size of a rupee fringed with pale straw-coloured hair.
‘The golden island!’ Ghana said, running a finger around it.
All of a sudden the whore struck up a conversation in Telugu with the girl in the next room. ‘Why’re you complaining so loudly, sister? Is your client a man or a buffalo?’
‘A middle-aged Oriya,’ her friend replied. ‘I need to shout out once in a while to make him feel he’s getting his money’s worth.’
Ghana’s mouth widened in silent laughter. ‘Do you also,’ he asked his whore, ‘take me for a ride? I’m just as much of a middle-aged Oriya.’
She turned on her back and put a finger on her Adam’s apple to indicate she’d never dream of it. ‘What kind of a fellow is he, sister?’ she carried on her conversation. ‘A good client?’
‘Good?’ her friend replied. ‘When it comes to humping, he straddles me like a one-ton turtle, but does it ever occur to him to leave a tip?’
‘Why don’t you ask for it? So what does this turtle look like?’
‘Like anyone else. Short. Dark.’
Ghana smiled and whispered, ‘Ask her if he has a moustache.’
Once the whore had relayed the question the reply came back: ‘He has.’
‘Thick or thin?’
‘Neither thick nor thin.’
‘What about his hair, black or grey?’
‘Sister, bugger me if I have an answer to this. Bald as an egg, this one.’
‘I think I know him,’ whispered Ghana. ‘Just ask if his front tooth is chipped.’
‘Can’t see it right now,’ came the reply. ‘He humps with his lips shut.’
‘What why? Do you know something, sister? This man rinses out his rubber and uses it more than once. I told him I’m clean. But he wouldn’t forget the rubber.’
‘If he’s so scared of getting the clap, why does he come to Malisahi?
You can’t live in the water and not make friends with the crab!’ The whore shook her head. Ghana ran a finger across her breasts. She gently pushed his hand away. ‘Don’t. I feel terribly ticklish.’
‘Here I am gabbing away bang in the middle of it all,’ the girl next room spoke up, ‘but does he mind? Not at all. A hole in the ground would do for him.’
Ghana pursed his lips. The girl looked askance at him. He motioned to her to bring her ear close to his lips.
‘I’m sure,’ he said, ‘that man is our office superintendent.’
‘Is your office superintendent short and dark?’
‘No. Not really. Ask your friend if the fellow has hair sticking out of his ears.’
‘Your office superintendent does?’
They girl next door began to giggle hysterically.
‘What’s up?’ Ghana’s whore enquired. ‘His rocket went off too fast?’
‘I’ve pushed one of his shoes behind the door. It’ll be fun to watch the bugger look for it.’
‘Good idea, sister. Tell him it might have been taken away by a dog or a cat.’
Ghana shook with suppressed laughter. ‘The dog,’ he whispered, ‘might take it and put it under the table of the office superintendent of the state civil supply department.’
‘Is that where you work?’
‘Do you really think that man could be your office superintendent?’
‘Who knows? He might have come in disguise.’
‘Will a tall man look short, or a fair one dark even in disguise?’
‘You want me to barge into the next room and check him out?’
‘His disguise must be as good as mine. No one can make us out.’
‘What do you really look like if this is your disguise?’
‘In real life, my dear, I look like our office superintendent.’
She winked at him. ‘You clown!’
‘Not a clown. A buffoon more likely.’ He rose to his feet and began to put on his clothes. While slipping his shirt over his head, he made faces at her as if she were a child easy to scare. His hair became tousled and he took out his comb and ran it through several times. He cleaned the comb by running its teeth briskly against his overgrown thumbnail before putting it back in his pocket. A lovely afternoon was over. Outside, the gentle November sun had paled and a strange golden light was streaming in through the wooden slats of the door. The mosquitoes had woken up and were flying about; one got into his ear but escaped before it could be slapped to death. The tingling sensation continued for a long moment.
His darling whore twisted like a boa constrictor that had gobbled a deer.
‘So long, waterfowl,’ he said.
‘Wait a moment,’ she said, getting up. ‘I’ve got something for you.’
She went to the clothes hanging from the peg and began to rummage.
From somewhere she fished out a packet of cigarettes. ‘Here,’ she said, offering it to him. ‘The tobacco’s strong, but ....’
Ghana examined it: an old Cavenders packet, crumpled up.
‘I tried one this morning,’ she continued. ‘My head spun so much that I couldn’t stand up straight.’
Ghana opened the packet. The protective foil was missing and there were half a dozen assorted cigarettes—Cavenders, Capstans, Charminars and a Goldflake, the Charminars more bent and crooked than the rest.
‘Last night,’ she said, ‘there was an old boozer of a client, drunk as a pig. I flicked the packet off him.’
A boozer who visited whores and collected different kinds of cigarettes? Water came to Ghana’s eyes. He wanted to make a wisecrack, but let it go. With a gentle pat on her head, he opened the door and stepped out.