By Sameer Khan
Asif stopped his bike outside the house. Tiwari noticed Bablu staggering towards their direction and walked away. Both belonged to the same caste and their families were from the same village in the state of Uttar Pradesh but they always had issues with each other.
“I want to talk to you,” stuttered Bablu.
“Yeah, tell me,” answered a disinterested Asif.
Bablu was known for exaggerating things and throwing in blandishments. Since he was fully aware of his antics, Asif ignored him.
Bablu spoke again, “Asif, it’s important.”
Asif remained unimpressed and answered in a cursory manner, “Ok, I am listening.”
“Today an old man was asking questions about you.” Asif was intrigued hearing about it and inquired, “An old man asked about me? Who was he and why was he asking questions?”
Bablu spoke again, “I don’t know. I have never seen this man before, but he looks like Anna (South Indian man). He kept asking questions about you at the naka (street corner) this evening.”
“What did he want?” asked a visibly perturbed Asif.
“I don’t know, but it seems he has some important work with you,” said Bablu trying to balance himself.
Asif wondered what the old man would have to do with him.
“What did you tell him?”
“I just told him that you are not around and you will return late. So he left.”
“Did he say anything else?” quizzed Asif.
“No, he did not say anything. He said that he would return tomorrow.” Bablu staggered his way home. Meanwhile Tiwari returned and asked in a rather condescending manner, “What was the “bevda” (alcoholic) saying?” It was amusing to note that he called Bablu a “bevda” when he himself was totally drunk. Asif chose not to respond to him and bid him goodnight.
The following afternoon Asif stood outside Babu Bhai’s restaurant. Babu Bhai was a Malayalee. This was a regular meeting place for Asif and his friends. It was an unusually noisy day, cars kept honking and a loud speaker played music at a wedding at some distance. Tiwari was busy buying mawa from the paan stall outside the restaurant. He would often bully the paan vendor for fun and indulge in pranks like snatching a packet of gutka or eating a pan without paying for it…
While Tiwari was busy bullying the paanwala, Asif’s attention was drawn to a bespectacled quaint old man staring at him from the footpath across the road. He found it very unusual and felt uncomfortable. The man’s face looked familiar. He wondered if he had ever met the man before but could not recollect it. He ignored him and looked the other way. Soon he realized that the man was persistent and kept staring at him. It was highly annoying and made him very uncomfortable…
“Aaseef, I want to talk to you,” said the man hesitatingly. “Yes, tell me,” answered Asif.
The man looked at Tiwari and said, “Aaseef, I want to speak to you alone.”
Asif gestured toward Tiwari, who went back to the paanwala.
The old man began to speak, “Aaseef, do you remember me?” Asif had no clue about the man and shook his head.
The man’s eyes moistened and he spoke in a cracked voice, “I am Mr. Rodriguez from Mangalore.”
A tumultuous wave of emotions swept Asif’s heart. It was almost six years and he had never returned to Mangalore since his painfully agonizing departure. He stood numb and was at a loss of words and could not imagine that he was facing Mr. Rodriguez, an imperious man who detested him so much. He had forgotten the man’s face. Now his memory was afresh. He realized Mr. Rodriguez looked much older than he actually was and his face had turned darker with many more freckles and wrinkles on it. Asif saw his blue eyes and remembered Jenny. She had inherited his deep blue eyes.
Asif gathered his composure and said, “Hello uncle! How are you?” A doleful Mr. Rodriguez dropped his shoulders and started to weep. Asif was dumbstruck and did not know how to react to the situation. People walking nearby watched them with curiosity. He instinctively said, “Uncle, let’s sit in the restaurant and drink some tea.” He ushered him to walk towards the nearby restaurant. Mr. Rodriguez followed him to the restaurant like a zombie…
Asif was perplexed at his behavior and could not understand the change. He let him settle down for a while and offered him some water and spoke, “Tell me uncle, what’s the matter?” Mr. Rodriguez drank some water, gathered his composure, and spoke, “Aaseef, it’s about Jenny.”
Asif felt a painful pinch in his heart when he heard Jenny’s name; his throat ran dry. As he reached for the glass of water, he asked, “What about Jenny?”
Mr. Rodriguez looked into his eyes and his voice cracked as he spoke, “Jenny is lost.” He once again burst into tears.
A wave of emotions crashed through Asif. He waited for Mr. Rodriguez to pause before he asked, “Jenny is lost? Lost where?”
Mr. Rodriguez lowered his gaze and spoke in a choking voice, “Jenny was never the same after you left. She would remain aloof for hours. She had changed a lot.” Asif interrupted “But uncle, it was so many years ago…”
Mr. Rodriguez didn’t pause and continued speaking, “She barely spoke to me for all these years. Some months ago, she just disappeared. I kept looking for her, I even lodged a police complaint but there was no trace of her. Last week I got a call from her. She was in great fear and said that she had left the house to find you. But someone had trapped her and tricked her. Now she is in a brothel in Bombay at a place called Grant Road.”
Asif felt his head was spinning and the walls were going to crash on him. Mr. Rodriguez began to sob loudly. “My child, who had never left the confines of our village, is now in a brothel in this city.” Asif was shell-shocked and completely befuddled but he gathered his composure.
“Did Jenny tell you where she was on Grant Road?”
“No, she was about to speak more but her phone got disconnected. I don’t know where or in what condition she’s now.” He broke into sobs once again. Asif asked him, “Did you inform the Police?”
“No. I cannot tell the police. I cannot let the world know my daughter is in a brothel or that she is a prostitute.”
Mr. Rodriguez looked into Asif’s eyes for a second before turning his face away. He pressed Asif’s right shoulder with his left hand and walked away. Asif stood there watching Mr. Rodriguez walk towards the Mahalaxmi Railway station and disappear in the sea of commuters. He stood staring for a long time and wondered whether Mr. Rodriguez asking Jenny to spurn his love or the fact that he was walking out of the situation was worse. He was ashamed that he had obstinately been blaming Jenny for spurning his love and held a grudge against her. On the contrary, she had loved him all those years and had now taken the audacious step because she loved him.
He was resuscitated from the traumatic thoughts when he heard Tiwari call his name from across the road. He crossed the road and joined him on the other side.
“Who was the old man?” inquired Tiwari. Asif remained mute.
Tiwari could sense that Asif was disturbed after meeting the old man and asked again, “Who was the man?”
“An old acquaintance,” he replied.
Finding Jenny was never going to be an easy task. Grant Road was a huge area and consisted of hundreds of brothels. Some were well known but there were others that were lesser known and rather inaccessible.
He could not think of anything other than Jenny ever since he had met Mr. Rodriguez. Asif remained lost in his thoughts and wondered how he would locate Jenny in such a populous place and maze like Grant Road. His best bet was no other than his dear friend, Tiwari, who had been visiting brothels since an early age. He had invited Asif to join him to a brothel some years ago. After being politely refused, he had never pushed him for it.
He met Tiwari in the evening at usual. It was a Monday. Being a devotee of Lord Shiva, Tiwari would visit the Shiva temple every Monday evening and avoided alcohol on that day, owing to his weekly fast devoted to his favorite god…
Both met that evening and took a taxi for Falkland Road. They alighted from the cab outside the Delhi Durbar restaurant situated near Peela House. Peela House was a hybridization of the words ‘play house’ which was founded during the British rule and was once host to many cinema halls and theatres. Tiwari led the way towards Shuklaji Street, an old section of the Mumbai red light area. The street across was bustling with people. A number of theatres were situated in close proximity on the same lane. The movie halls built after gothic architecture had imperial names like New Roshan, Alfred, Edward, Royal, a legacy and remnant of the British rule…A large number of prostitutes were standing outside the cinema halls waiting for potential clients.
Asif dragged his gaze away from the raunchy women and followed Tiwari towards the Shuklaji Street, Kamathipura. It was called Kamathipura because it was home to a large number of Telugu-speaking prostitutes and workers from the Telangana and Andhra Pradesh region. Numerous prostitutes dressed in Sarees and blouses exposing their midriff and others wearing nightgowns and ostensible make-up stood outside the brothels and sidewalks facing the main road, making lewd gestures and verbally inviting prospective customers. They sometimes asked seductively, “Chalta kya?” When a man would pass by ignoring them, they hurled profanities at him, “Saala kam ka nahi hai, uthta nai kya re?” (Useless fellow, do you have a problem in getting an erection?)
They walked brushing their shoulders against other men on the busy but squalid street. Tiwari suddenly turned his face towards Asif, winked, and said. “You see this road? It’s called Safed Gully (White lane).” During the British days, it was the home to white prostitutes, Gori Chamdi, white skin and not all this desi stuff.
Asif had never been to that part of Mumbai and was blindly following Tiwari like a blinkered horse, ignoring the noises and lurid spectacles around…
Asif was perspiring heavily due to humidity and consternations of being inside a strange brothel in the red light area. Tiwari turned towards him and said, “You just stay here, right in this corner. I am going inside to meet Maharaja; he’s an old pimp and will surely be of help.” Tiwari did not wait for Asif’s assent and quickly disappeared into a dimly lit room that had its door ajar…
They walked towards the Peela House amidst the cacophony of noises of prostitutes, honking of taxis and the annoying pimps that tried to gain their attention. Asif quickly asked Tiwari if he had got any information from Maharaja. Tiwari spat the tobacco from his mouth on the road and said, “Maharaja said we should try Kennedy Bridge brothel. There is no Mangalorean girl in Shuklajee Street, according to him.”
“Are you sure?” asked Asif
“Well we have to take his word. I believe the man. There is one pimp I am acquainted with at Kennedy Bridge brothel. We will have to try him. Maharaja feels he should be the right person to help us. I actually dislike the creep but we have to take a chance based on Maharaja’s input.”
The excerpt is from Chapter 3 and 4 of the novel. Excerpted with permission from the author.
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