He was at peace as he pressed his face hard against the cold glass that formed the window into their home. Akash stood there for over an hour, his breath misting over the pane as he devoured the picture of family bliss in front of him. The objects of his interest immersed themselves in the hustle and bustle of family life, so much so they did not notice him. Soon he feared, they would chase him away, shouting obscenities, the mother fearful and the father full of rage. Little did they know that Akash was no monster though he himself and many others perceived him as one. He was a weary, broken man. He breathed in the everyday happiness of strangers because his had been lost to him long ago.
Akash had lived in Mumbai since his boyhood and it had never occurred to him to leave, not while his once-lover remained there. By day Akash looked for her. He searched for her for so long he lost track of time. It was perhaps his fifty-sixth year, but with no one to mark the passing years with him, his certainty waned. His memories fragmented and the years slipped by as if through a net. He walked the streets of the city, a haggard, foul-smelling man with yellowed, crumbling teeth, wearing his shame like a comfortable old coat. Self-important businessmen strode past him in dark, tailored suits, an army of men with tiny mobile phones pressed to their ears, moving fast and rendering him invisible. Akash revelled in his invisibility, grateful for it. He disappeared into the cracks and crevices of the bustling city, mingling with the dust from the stinking streets, merging with the spicy vapours that rose from Mumbai’s kitchens and restaurants and street corners.
He wished at these moments of invisibility to reappear as if by magic beside his former lover or disappear altogether. Not even the oblivion of sleep soothed him. Until he found his way back to her his only joy arose from his nightly escapades to the families of Mumbai, witnessing them love and argue and comfort each other. Sometimes he pretended that he was their grandfather, out on an errand to bring sweets home for the children, jelabi perhaps, or some mango lassi. These moments of make-believe became a balm for his soul. Akash dove deep into their worlds for as long as possible each night, sustained by their lives, rooting for them and hurting for them. And his alienation was complete.
Tonight came to pass like every other night since he lost her. As darkness fell, he made his way through the city’s streets in the sticky air, drawn to a white-washed mansion in Juhu that he had not visited before. Glittering white lights framed the house as if from a fairy-tale and as Akash approached the pungent smell of pink rose bushes overwhelmed him. He crept across the courtyard, camouflaged by the grime and dust that had become his natural attire. It was the best and worst decision he had ever made.
As he peered through the glass, a maid with flour in her hair kneaded dough for roti. A baby slept in a basket, wrapped in a deep orange swaddling blanket despite the heat. Nearby a young woman in an embroidered salwar kameez sat in a rocking chair. At the table a thick-set man read a newspaper, his shirt buttons popping across his belly, his dirty bare feet in contrast to the sterile extravagance of the floor tiles. Now and then, he looked up to speak to the woman by the baby. Then an older woman entered the kitchen and Akash’s stomach lurched as if he was riding a ramshackle fairground ride.
She was taller than the average Indian woman. She pushed her shoulders back with pride and her sari pulled tautly across her body in haughty dismissal of accepted styles for older women. Akash recognised her before she turned. The hair on the back of his neck rose in anticipation and his chest constricted as he saw her in profile. As she turned towards him Akash’s head emptied for a moment before an explosion of unwarranted thoughts filled its cavity. Then, his mouth slackened, and all thought only I wish I was someone else. Someone without my history. Someone cleaner, fitter, richer, deserving of her. His legs shook, and he flailed as his feet became tangled in the fairy-lights, falling against the pane of glass with a dull thud. For a moment he held his breath, considering himself lucky. Then all hell broke loose.
“Ye kya hai? Maa, call the guards! Jaya, stay inside with the baby!” shouted the man as he grabbed a flour-covered rolling pin from the kitchen worktop and dashed out of the room.
Akash staggered up, held captive by the image of his lover for a long moment before moving back into the shadows on feet that did not want to do his bidding. He could not risk being recognised. His legs felt submerged in tar as he urged them forward, passing landscaped gardens and a swimming pool. Akash ploughed on, reeling from the sight of her, making it onto the gravel drive before the man even reached outside. His pursuer fought against his weight and the humidity, slow and heavy, cursing as the gravel slowed his bare-footed progress. Laughter bubbled up inside Akash as if from a dormant volcano, uncontrollable and unwelcome, as his joy at finding his lover threatened to send every other emotion into the stratosphere.
He had to get away. Experience taught him that millionaires were the most vengeful if they caught him. Like gods in their palaces, with iron-wrought fences, sleeping guards and noisy dogs to keep them safe, they rose up in squawking outrage at their pillaged sanctity. Fat, manicured men, with great wealth and photo-ready families, belonging to the ranks of the privileged few in a city where the streets teemed with the god-forsaken. This one continued his cries of vengeance as he chased after Akash, his breath heaving, driven on by his anger and hatred.
They caught him. The guards, woken by their master’s shouts and the old woman’s call, unleashed their snarling dogs. Fear filled Akash’s belly at last, like a serpent unfurling and stretching deep within him. He screamed when a large dog, its fur ravaged, sank decaying teeth into his bare leg. The men surrounded him, panting as he was, their eyes filled with glee and self-righteous anger. Vice-like they gripped his forearms, paying no heed to the dogs still snapping at his legs. An outbuilding with dimmed lights nestled in bushes a few hundred yards away. There they made their way, Akash’s leg bleeding and bruises springing up on his arms as if he were an ageing piece of fruit.
He had grown accustomed to this dance. There will be no police: sweet relief. The beating he receives will render him unrecognisable, even from his lover’s eyes. This amounts to a small mercy. He will become the outlet for his tormentors’ collective rage. They will guard him selfishly, unleashing their fury until they decide to freed him. When it is over they will nurse their bloodied knuckles with satisfaction and retell the story of this night a thousand times, earning praise from their listeners for the justice they deliver. When the surge of power and pride leaves their slackening bodies, it will be replaced by seeds of shame but only in the best of men. Either way, Akash will return to the pink-rose mansion as soon as his body heals.
So it began. Like countless times before, Akash gave himself over to reverie as the men did their worst, but this time his ageing memories of his lover intertwined with the ones he had just made. He let himself see her soft body through the vibrant blue of her sari. He breathed a sigh of relief she was alive and well, even as the their blows rained down on him. The men had found their rhythm now. It did no good to fight back and Akash took the punishment gladly, not for the crime he had committed, but as penance for that ill-fated night long ago. His blood tasted salty on his lips as they took it in turns to pummel him. The men grunted from their exertion and the film of sweat covering their master’s forehead reached his effeminate eyebrows. A rib cracked with the ease of glass. Akash curled up into a ball on the cool stone floor, screwing his eyes shut while he waited for the flurry of punches to stop. He heard a belt-clasp being unfastened and braced himself for the impact when suddenly stillness filled the room.
A rustle of silk reached his ears. Akash was too afraid to open his eyes.