By Nabina DasShe steps out of the black-and-yellow taxicab and looks around. Not because of any unfamiliarity. Mostly because she imagines someone else in these surroundings, not him. But is that even possible, this imagination? She hasn’t even met him once. For the first time, they will walk into a room he has booked; for the first time she will know a person called Raj. So many handsome men called Raj have walked about the silver screen in and out of women’s lives with coffee cups in hand. Lives of Jazz, the name she has given herself today.
Chandni Chowk is resplendent tonight. Perhaps every night it is like that. Jazz doesn’t know much. She knows the locality but doesn’t come here every day. Every day is not her day of “meeting”.
When Raj asked casually, perhaps chewing on a cigar or hard cigarette, what do you do, Jazz had notched up her casualness and said school teaching was her passion, especially literature. She never understood though why he had to say, we might have a lot in common, then. All she gathered was that he was a high-flier, literally, travelling from conference to conference as a consultant. But when he rang her and asked her for a “meeting”, he insisted she bring her favorite book over.
The room is not dank exactly, not fresh either. Maybe it is the walls, slightly rough in the texture of a coarse powder and painted a faint dream-blue colour with patches dark and light here and there. She has tiptoed to the window already and has seen that the street below their fourth floor. Chandni Chowk is gurgling tonight like a gem-studded night pigeon. Its wings are spread and taut in excitement or nervousness depending on what she is thinking moment by moment.
She feels Raj’s steady stare at her calves, her back and her nape. Has he seen her face properly? She wonders if she should wash the perfume off her neck in case he wanted to nuzzle there. Her calves are smooth even without waxing. After two waxing sessions with friends from college several years ago, no hair grew back on her body. Lucky girl, J, friends squealed. You’ll save your husband’s money. What is this man’s obsession with the back anyway, wonders Jazz, still feeling his glance sliding now from her wings to the small of the back right above where her buttocks start. Clearly, till now, he hasn’t looked at her face as much.
Coffee arrives from the door and Raj opens it just enough apart following the knock. He collects it at the threshold while the room service lad quickly surveys the room like a weasel stuck at the door. No, he hasn’t seen Jazz because she has now stepped into the bathroom with its pink lollipop-green cupcake motifs. She hears voices behind the little glass window above the shower, close to the ceiling. It is dark outside but the voices are rather clear. She wonders if it is a terrace above and there are people sitting out there who can see inside the bathroom through the layered-glass slides of the window opening, right into the shower.
Jazz, he calls, and she steps out into the room. Coffee, Jazz. He stirs the spoon and she quickly says, no sugar, no creamer, please. Now he looks at her face. Then nods. I thought so, Jazz.
“Sorry, this is not the best place I could find.”
This sounds like an apology. But why he needs to apologise, she has no clue.
“Did you bring a book?”
Jazz has brought a book. She looks for it in her backpack. It takes her a while. The underwear straps and the nightwear laces obstruct her fingers. Then there are a couple of protein bars. For two occasions in the past—she hasn’t added much to her experience in this area—there was no dinner, instead, there was the bitter taste of being touched with course fingers and on one occasion, listening to tasteless ugly jokes. This second person had an obsession, she realised. “Ma behen ma behen ma behen”, and the refrain rang on and on in her head to turn into a “to be or not to be to be or not to be”, and so on and so forth.
She finds the book past a plastic packet that crackles at the touch. Condoms are her responsibility too, she firmly believes. For a moment, though, she wonders if Raj also got his own pack. Should she ask? That is not being bold; that is being cautious. But he looks relaxed, sipping his coffee. Unlike the previous two, not rushed to pull her and peel her off from her skin.
“I was very curious about you,” Raj says between the cup and the froth. “The hobbies you mentioned. Not really usual here.”
Jazz wonders before her how many he had seen for a “meeting”. Because he seems to know the “usual”. It wouldn’t be right to ask perhaps. It’s not the rule of the business.
“I like the calves. Do you run?” He is slouching on the bed and waves at her to come sit next to him.
“N-no.” She is startled. “Just some exercise, gym, you know.” Her Capri pants sit snug at the mound of the muscle. She hesitates to take of her jutti sandals. Her nails are terrible and she was hoping there won’t be an occasion when she will have to stretch her legs and sit beside him on the bed. It has not happened in the earlier meetings.
He notices her fidgeting and bends down and looks at her jutti sandals. They are beautiful, he thinks. Embroidered and beaded. Following his looks, Jazz remembers these shoes were bought from Chandni Chowk. One of the narrow lanes off the secondhand market of bags and tees and sandals. About the time when she became a teacher of English literature.
“Really not my type, this place,” Raj says, as she finally settles down beside him. “Not yours too, I know. Look at the ceiling, like sawdust.”
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels/And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells, Jazz mutters silently.
He hasn’t asked her to shower yet. She likes his eyes. They have crow’s feet at the corners. And the mouth. Not exactly smiling but with the coffee froth still visible, the lips seem like zapota fruits freshly sliced. He picks up the book from her hands with two fingers and thumbs open to the first page. His left hand cradles her nape, exactly where he was looking intently a while ago.
Outside, Chandni Chowk is all glittering and chaos. Cycle rickshaws are ringing their bells to outdo each other, taxicabs are crawling and screeching on their clutches, pedestrians are hurling abuses at cars trying to swerve past their footfalls, a street stall belching out ‘Chunari Chunari’ in high decibels, and the sound of the hour’s express train chugging in to the sky in a muffled roar and puff from the Old Delhi Railway Station at a distance. The men on the terrace above the shower window seem to have gone since there was nothing to watch from the glass opening. Chandni Chowk is now a dancer, whirling crazy, throwing off her jutti sandals and bangles and hair ties. There is just one voice that takes over. Gently, urgently.
Let us go then, you and I.
She will not ask what it is. They cradle the book together now, she wrapping her left arm on to his back.