You sit across from her on the blue line of the Delhi metro. It is a little past noon. Not even an hour since you woke up with a throbbing in your skull as if a little man were battering down at it with his little hammer. Last night was rough. It’s coming back to you in flashes. There was a party. Endless bottles of cheap liquor were emptied. Who paid for them? You slide a hand into your kurta pocket and turn it inside out. It was you.
One of the guys had returned from the village with his new bride. The rest of the guys ganged up to tease him about his wedding night, liquid courage coursing through your veins. You’re the oldest of the lot, and unmarried still. Everyone presumes you’ve had your share of experiences with women. Every now and then, when the guys get drunk, they turn to you for stories of your wild escapades. You can’t disappoint them, can you? They’re a bunch of inexperienced men, fresh off the train, inept at the art of making love in the big city. So, what if your only sexual experience stems from a night spent in a whorehouse on GB Road two years ago, and so what if the woman did most of the work while you lay back on the cot? You’ve seen enough films to improvise on it. Certainly enough to teach a guy what to do on his wedding night.
So, you pretend to know your way around a woman’s body, how to undress her, touch her, and make it work for you. As always, the gathering of drunk men is enthralled by your machismo and worldly ways.
The throbbing in your head refuses to go away. Your body can no longer withstand alcohol the way it did when you first moved here. You remember your first taste of alcohol. Some of the guys at your first job noticed you were new and took you to a hole-in-the-wall bar across town. With every sip, your throat burned with newfound pleasure. You could barely throw back two drinks, but you remember the freedom you felt that night – a freedom unlike anything you’ve ever known. The freedom to live for yourself, by yourself, no questions asked, no one to answer to. The freedom to be whoever you want.
That freedom has since been replaced by loneliness and a never-ending struggle against destitution. But you will never forget your first taste of city life and the dream of everything you thought you could be. Back in the village, you tilled your family’s ancestral lands and had all your meals served to you by the womenfolk. The youngest of four brothers, you were never content with that life. One day, you packed your belongings and got on the evening train to Delhi. Don’t ever come back, they said. You haven’t since.
This life is not so bad, you tell yourself. Sure, you work on construction sites eight hours a day with a group of stinking, foul-mouthed men. But while commuting, you take the air-conditioned metro whenever your pocket allows. You jostle through the crowd, poking blindly with your elbows and knees to be the first one through the door. Your eyes are fixed on a singular goal: the corner seat opposite the two seats reserved for ladies. You’ve come to realise that the view from here makes up for the heat, dust, and cement that fills your days.
You’ve been dozing for the last few stations, lost in a reverie, when the train comes to a halt with a piercing screech. Your head is flung sideways, forcing you awake. You gape at the incoming crowd with drowsy disinterest. A group of young boys in school uniforms clearly coming from the mall, an elderly couple holding on to each other for support, and her. As your eyes land on her, you feel your pulse quicken. What a vision! She is alone and comes over to stand in your corner, her ass pressed up against the glass partition. You can smell her perfume, a heady mix of flowers and audacity.
At the next station, one of the ladies’ seats falls empty, and she sashays over to sit across from you. She looks twenty-five, but you can’t be sure. Women in your family age too soon. You can hardly tell by their looks how young or old they are. Not that you’ve ever observed a woman from such close quarters. The few women you’ve known always covered up before they’d step out, unlike these rich city types who will flaunt everything God has gifted them.
When you first moved here, you were taken aback by the endless display of the female form. You’d never seen so much make-up, skin-show or boldness before. The most you ever saw in your village were bare ankles and wrists, and the occasional glimpse of wilting breasts on the ghats of the Ganga. Jarring at first, city life has grown on you with all its titillating promise. Pretty women practically rule the city. TV, movies, hoardings in the streets, bus stops, even on the sides of buses – they are everywhere, serving as a welcome distraction from the drudgery of your life in this city that often resembles an abattoir.
You worry sometimes. What if your mother were to forgive you one day and come to visit? Would she say you’re living a life of sin? Are you?
The woman looks like one of those city-bred madams, their presence both alluring and unapproachable. Her appearance on the dull metro scene shakes you out of your lethargy. She has generous curves and very fair skin. Dressed in jeans and a fitted white shirt, she is staring into her phone, conscious of all the eyes pinned on her. The air in the crowded compartment is heavy with sweat and masculinity. She looks small, non-existent. Why is she here? You wonder. Why not in the ladies coach with the rest of her ilk? What business do these men have, anyway, staring at her as if sizing up a prized goat at an Eid auction? You feel a rush of protectiveness.
And yet, you cannot take your eyes off of her. Your gaze is constantly drawn to her neck. Partly obscured by long, open hair and encircled by a gold chain, it seems to play hide-and-seek with your eyes. You’re only human! You take the bait.
The neckline of her buttoned shirt sits tentatively over ample breasts. Hungry for a better glimpse, you wish she had sat down in your corner instead. She catches your gaze and stares back questioningly. But you aren’t about to be caught in your act. It isn’t your first time. You know the tricks of the game. It is all about timing. You look away, feigning innocence, and wait for a few seconds before fixing your eyes on her again. You aren’t a lecher after all – just a curious observer fascinated by the beauty behind her fidgety manner. Not like the other men.
Life in the city is not nearly how most men imagine it will be when they first arrive here. All the yelling and fighting for space, searing summers and soulless winters, foul mouths and fouler living quarters, hungry nights and water that never quite quenches your thirst. Day in and day out, you detach a little bit from reality, until one day you wake up waist-deep in the quicksand of addiction. Some men take to intoxicants, some to whores, and the most desperate of them to marriage.
But you’re not one of them, because you’ve discovered the secret to getting through the endless days and months. What you need is a grounding ritual – something that always reminds you of the beauty and joy the city has to offer, even to a guy like you. Something like a pet shop.
Every time you pass by one, you are drawn in by the scent of tiny things packed into tinier tanks, red, white, and a hundred other colours, swimming laps around their little worlds. You eye them through the glass as the shop assistant, a different guy every time, rattles off the names of the prettiest ones, the same every time. Your gaze eventually comes to rest on the one you came looking for.
The goldfish enraptures you. Breezing around the tank in short, elegant strokes, her gilded body quivers with unspoken pleasures, her mouth permanently puckered for a kiss.
You pucker your lips in return and plant them on the glass. She scurries away, only to loop back to where your lips are still planted for a kiss. Dressed to show off her assets, madam goldfish is the perfect respite from a hot Delhi afternoon. Her marble skin glints in the sunlight. Tiny droplets of sweat glisten at the nape of her neck, soaking her shirt collar. As she dabs at them with a napkin, her face puckered, her arms graze her chest. You catch a hint of a protrusion through the form-fitting fabric. A hardened nipple? She is obviously enjoying the attention. She tucks her hair behind her ears and adjusts her top. How can you avert your gaze now? She is in on your intentions. The realisation makes your organ twitch.
She looks up from her phone again and catches you ogling. You are lost in thoughts of your hands unbuttoning her shirt and grazing her bare shoulders. The throbbing in your head has long moved to another part of your body. You’re smiling unconsciously. She looks irritated. Or, is that a look of impatience? Maybe distant gaping is not her thing. Of course! You chide yourself. Slow romance isn’t the way of the city folk. She crosses and uncrosses her legs, then clutches her bag close to her chest. You consider getting up to stand next to her seat. Maybe that would get you somewhere. You would have a much better view down her shirt, while she could have a closer look at her impact on you. The thought makes your pajama bulge. You are not carrying a bag, and you do not care to hide it.
A pretty woman like her must have plenty of men chasing after her. Men of money, men of power, men of looks. Why would she even acknowledge your gaze unless she is interested? She must be aware of the maddening effect she has on you. She would not be travelling in the general coach dressed like that if she hoped for something different.
You’re busy imagining her buttery white breasts in your hands, their softness yours to bite and fondle, when you feel a push. A fat old woman has just parked herself in the seat next to you. Brought back rather harshly to your senses, you realise you’re staring at her torso. Has your gaze been stuck there this entire time? How long has it been? You raise your eyes to meet hers. She is glaring at you. What’s wrong? Why does she look angry? Isn’t she enjoying the attention anymore?
While you ponder your next move, the speakers overhead crackle to life. A deep, manly voice announces: next station is Rajiv Chowk, doors will open on the left. She gets up, bag pressed to her chest, and hurries to the door amidst a sea of passengers. You sit there, wondering if you would ever see her again in this city of thirty million faces. Why is everyone always in such a hurry? You don’t even own a watch.
At the door, she stops. You look up, confused, as she turns around and marches in your direction. In a split second, she’s towering over you, flashing the most gratifying smile a woman has ever directed at you. You stare, incredulous. Is this really happening? You, and her? Has she really come back for you? You smile in a daze. Then it comes: a sharp stinging sensation on your left cheek as it is struck with inhuman force. Your head begins to swim. Everything goes blurry.
It takes you a while to become aware of your surroundings again. Raising your eyes slowly, you look at the closed doors and imagine her standing on the platform, smiling as the metro speeds away. You look around and feel the heat of all the eyes pinned on you. You feel small, non-existent. What a fool.
You take out your phone and stare at the screen. The battery is dead. You look up at the metro route map to find out where you are. You were supposed to get down at Rajiv Chowk and change trains for Chandni Chowk, the biggest labour market in the city, where you would sell your sweat to survive another day in this urban slaughterhouse. You wonder how long it’ll be before you forget madam goldfish and her pretty face, unlike the countless others you have fixated on and forgotten by the end of the day for as long as you’ve lived in this city of thirty million faces.
The doors open at Barakhamba Road, and a sea of women clad in shirts and trousers walk in. You want to look at them, see if anyone catches your fancy. But the flush of shame is still fresh on your face. You step onto the platform and make your way to the exit, determined to take the bus to work.
Mahima Kohli is a writer and book editor from Delhi. She has edited a dozen books, and her fiction has been translated into Hindi and Tamil and adapted into sleep stories for adults. A believer in the cathartic value of self-expression, she conducts online workshops to make fiction writing more accessible and fun. This is her first publication in a literary journal.