This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
The chaos at stock market was at its worse. Sanduk Singh’s neck muscles suffered the most as he had to spend long hours looking up at a tiny screen. One hand on the steering, he used his left hand to gently press the sore muscles, as his lips moved quickly, silently. He was now driving on the Red highway. Unlike his friends he never gave in to temptation and always kept his eyes on the road, and only on the road. Every day he drove by this road, which lasted for about two minutes; first Sanduk told himself that he loved his wife very much and then he recited his grandmother’s Mantra, to ward off all evils.
He reminded himself her precious words that accompanied the Mantra, “Evil can take different shapes and forms. It could become a person who wants to harm you…it could even sneak in there” She said poking his temple, “in a form of fear or desire…know it! Fight it! Recite the mantra!”
There are other shorter roads, but they are all too narrow and too many twists and turns not to mention the human traffic! Sanduk preferred to zip on the wide highway even if it took him a long time to reach home, rather than crawling through the stream of stubborn motorcyclists and pedestrians who acted deaf to honking. He really enjoyed his ride back home…if only the Red Highway did not fall his way; if only he did not have to face the loyalty test, every single night. The mantra reciting was becoming a tedious task – he wished there were other less boring ways to ward off evil.
Sanduk slowed his car, when he spotted a crowd gathered in the middle of the road. One man was showing a gun, lot of shouting and screaming going on…sh*t! It felt like he was suddenly placed in the street of LA, where he had been as a student; only he was not. He was stuck in the rotting city, surrounded with piles of dirt, poverty and now, the prostitutes. He drove to the side of the road and parked at a spot that looked reasonably quiet, and waited. Out of nowhere, a girl peeped inside, making him jump. Straight shoulder length hair, dyed almost pink, she wore a sleeveless black dress. Soft curve of her bare shoulder almost touched his skin…and he accidentally saw her armpit hair, which was also dyed pink.
She smiled pleasantly, showing her pink lipstick stained teeth. “Sir…you seemed to have lost your way…can I be useful?” She asked him sweetly.
Sanduk rolled up the window. His lips trembled a little when they started moving again reciting, Om Namah Shivaya-Sh*t! That’s not the Mantra! Om Bhur Bhuva-Sh*t! Sh*t! Sh*t! And slowly rolled his eyes to the side, to look at the pink girl. She was gone.
He had barely gained his composure, when a man strolled by in a sleeveless black vest, both hands in his pockets, clutching a phone on his shoulder by his cheek, “Mm…yes, so…She’s waiting. Ok? Third light of the Red Highway. Got it? Yes, yes, so…” He was saying.
Shortly later, a girl wearing low-waist tight red pants, high heeled sandals and black blouse that looked more like a bra, emerged. She held her purse under her armpit and lit a cigarette. A red Volkswagen drove past Sanduk, and stopped near the girl. He thought he heard a male voice calling “Climb aboard!” from inside the car. The girl climbed in and the car moved ahead, turned, and entered a dark alley. No sooner did the car disappear, a boy entered the scene from the very alley with a rack full of colorful bottles hanging from his neck. He took out a metal bottle-opener, found a spot that met his approval and sat down. He placed the rack in front by removing the rubber strap from his neck, and ran the bottle-opener on the bottles – a composition of quick low-high and then high-low. He kept repeating the symphony, looking expectantly at everyone who walked past him.
“Rice beer sir? Strawberry, Lemon, Orange…” A gunshot rang throughout the street. The boy picked up his stuff and ran, disappearing back into the alley.
Sanduk drove inside the alley as well, which was between two rows of three storied buildings. The stone paved road had only two street lights working. Shoved inside any available space, in the tiny nooks and corners, were Motorcycles. Sanduk strained through the windshield, to spot a place to hide – a big enough space available to shove himself with his car, which is not too far from the highway. He traced one – just towards a left side corner. He could not believe his luck as it looked like a proper parking area lighted by a tiny bulb. It had only one car and couple of motorcycles sitting.
It was only matter of few minutes; he thought. Once the excitement subsided, he could go home. The later it was, the easier it became to drive in this city. The police seemed to have arrived. The siren caused a stir in the quiet street and frantic looking partly clothed men were all over, carrying rest of the clothes in their hands, rushing in different directions. Some got on their motorcycles and roared off. For a second Sanduk was tempted to follow them, but fear of being discovered by police, paralysed him. The fear dried up his throat and he thought about the Rice beer boy as he waited. He could now hear the ambulance.
The Rice beer boy had his face pressed on the window. He left a foggy imprint of his face when he removed it.
“How much for a beer?” Sanduk asked him extracting the wallet from the glove compartment.
“Sixty.” He replied.
Sanduk took out the money and handed it to the boy, “Open up one Lemon.”
The boy opened the yellowish green bottle and gave it to him. “What kind of girl are you looking for?”
“I know a girl. She’s the best over here. ”
“I’m not looking for a girl.” Sanduk said.
The boy sat down near his rack of beer and began cracking his finger one by one. Sanduk finished his drink and asked for another one – the Orange, and then for Strawberry.
Sanduk paid the boy, for two more beers, and started the engine. When his car slid through the dark alley thereafter, he looked up at the buildings. All the windows were covered by curtains. Soft classical music flowed from one of the houses and a little further, someone was playing Sitar. A fast Bollywood track was playing from one of the windows – a dance practice going on it seemed, because a female voice commanded steps “One, two, three, four, and turn!”.
Sanduk had not noticed all this before. He imagined the lives of the people who lived inside these buildings. A woman playing Sitar…her eyes closed, trying to drown all the memories of her gay happy life before she was sold to the Red-market. And in another house, the one with the green curtain; he imagined a baby being pushed to sleep in her crib, her mother nursing the brutal love bites all over her breasts…
Back on the highway two cops were posted inside the sealed area, where the shooting had taken place. They were pacing to and fro, talking to their walky-talkies. Sanduk did not care anymore. The beer made the fear go away. He even met the eye of one of the police men, as he was calmly navigating around the area. He was in no hurry to leave the Red zone and go back to live his safe life, where there will be no pink girl, no shooting, no flavored rice beer…no excitement. Life had become a routine of work to home, home to work, weekends at his in-law’s, with mind-numbingly boring combination of politics talk, poker and deep fried liver chops, every single time. He had started to loathe the oily burps on his way back.
Even sex had become a part of the routine. His wife Sudha did not like trying anything new. The first time he told her about his sexual fantasy, she acted shy and walked away. Second time, she plainly refused, saying she was not comfortable with his ideas. The third time,
“Why don’t you pay some one to do it?” She had told him.
“Do you realize what you’re suggesting?” Sanduk asked her.
“Yes. Find a prostitute. I’m ok with it as long as she’s a prostitute.”
Sanduk had felt insulted and he never brought up the topic again. Wasn’t it a wife’s duty to fulfill all her husband’s needs? How could she behave casually in this matter, as if…as if she was asking him to find a doctor to fix a problem. It has been two years since they had the conversation. And he had been determined not to control himself and not give-in to his urges and lower himself, by listening to his wife, but the hour of detainment in the Red highway, revived all the senses that had been put to sleep. The Mantra that had helped him for two years was not working – he couldn’t even remember the verses.
Sanduk chuckled to himself when he saw one pedestrian overtake him. If this was LA, driving at the pace, a cop would be following him by now to give him a ticket for driving way below the speed limit. He saw a girl standing…something not right about the way she was dressed.
Sanduk cleared his throat. “So, yes…She’s waiting, in blue at the…sixth light of the Red Highway. Yes, yes, so…she’s not dressed properly, but I’ll give you ten rupees discount for that…” He mumbled to himself, slowing down further. “You’re not dressed appropriately for this zone Miss! How dare you be covered up top to bottom in a traditional outfit? You should be fined!” He babbled on to himself. He stopped about ten inches away from where she was standing looking in the opposite direction. Hello miss! He shook his head. How much do you charge for one night? No, too insulting…or may be not.
Sanduk rolled down his window, “Climb aboard!” He said.
Hearing his unnaturally loud drunk voice, the young woman recoiled. She immediately gained her composure however, after having studied his face thoroughly. She irritably looked away.
“Climb aboard!” He cried again, louder and holding out some cash.
The girl stole a sideway glance at him, and then at the money. Reluctantly she stepped forward reaching out for the money. Sanduk withdrew his hand and put the money in his shirt pocket; he then leaned over to his left and opened the door for her. She quietly walked around and took the front seat beside him.
I’m ok with it as long as she’s a prostitute Here we go!
The lodge they found was outside the Red zone but its purpose became clear when the owner asked him “How many hours?” He need not have prepared a false story about the girl’s identity.
Two hours later when he was about to drop her, “How much do I owe you.” He asked her.
She gazed out of the window and did not answer him.
“Look, I’ve never done this sort of thing before. So I don’t know the going rate. Please tell me.”
She looked at him and gave him a wry smile. “Me neither.”