Short Stories of the Indian Subcontinent
A Short Story
by Abha Iyengar
"The Red Singlet"
The dirty red singlet, the faded blue jeans which must have been second or third hand, the cheap brass amulet at the throat and arm tied with a thick black thread, most probably to ward off the evil eye, all added to the earthy attractiveness of the man whose long blonde curls touched his shoulders. They glinted now under the green light of the salon, as he sat hunched on a table, nursing his solitary drink. It was clear, must be gin or vodka, Shirin thought wryly to herself, watching him while she did her item on the dance floor.
He did not look up even once, and the thunderous applause that followed by the aroused men around did not make him raise his head to see what was causing such display of adulation. Shirin was surprised at this lack of response on his part, and it posed a challenge to her.
She worked at a bar called “The Green Room”, located in one of the busy streets of Mumbai, not very high-class, but the crowd was good on weekends. She worked as a go-go girl, in other words, a cabaret artiste. How the “go-go” term came to be coined, she did not know, nor was she really interested in finding out.
Shirin sighed as she looked at him. There would be enough men waiting to take her home for the night, she knew, but tonight this man would take precedence over them. Later, she would regret not having the good sense to spend her working hours lucratively, but tonight nothing would shake her from her target. She had to know what made that man tick.
She flounced off the stage and walked to the bar, asking Johnny, the bartender, to make her a drink. “A small one,” she said, showing him her finger horizontally, “one finger, that’s all.” Despite the air conditioning, she was sweating. She took a couple of tissues and wiped her face gently, not wanting to rub the age lines in too fast.
“One finger,” Johnny said, showing her his finger vertically and crossing it halfway through with another finger, grinning from ear to ear. She smiled and shook her head to say ‘no’. She wound her way through the tables to the back, avoiding invitations along the way from men asking her to sit with them. Tonight she had already made her selection.
She walked up to his table. She let slip a ten rupee note on the floor and made as if to pick it up. Her long red nails scraped the marble floor, and the sound broke his reverie. He looked down at the floor and then at her, his eyes disinterested. Shirin was suddenly ashamed of her bosom spilling out of the tight confines of the blue sequined bra that she wore for the show. She straightened up fast and made to move away, no longer interested in figuring him out.
“Since you’ve tried so hard to distract me, why don’t you join me now?” His voice was husky and low, and had a rough edge to it, the voice of a man who smoked too much. There was no cigarette in his hand though.
Her drink had arrived and had been placed on the table already. She decided to stay. “Yes, why not,” she said, “since you knew all along that I wanted to know more about you.”
She made herself comfortable on the chair opposite him, took a sip from her drink, and placed her glass next to his on the table. The glasses were almost touching now. Shirin moved her glass a bit away, a little towards herself.
“One should not withdraw, once one makes the beginning overtures,” he said, and placed her glass back to where it was earlier. The colour of the two liquids mingled with a strange hue under the green overhead light.
She saw him watching the liquid in the glasses. He had not lifted his face yet, and had been talking into his glass till now. He now looked at her, staring directly into her face. The abject pain in his startling blue eyes shook her. She noticed the stubble on his cheeks and chin, the lines of dirt and sweat on his gaunt face. He looked as if he had been to hell and back.
“You like what you see, huh?’ He spoke again, a derisive note in his voice.
“Not really,” she said, caught off-guard. “I’ve seen better.” It was a fact. She had slept with men handsomer than him, macho men, chocolate boys, gentlemen of leisure and pleasure. However, he had a raw sexiness which she had not seen in many men, and a heart wrenching pathos on his face which would break any woman’s heart.
He returned his gaze to studying the contents of his glass. Shirin sipped her drink slowly, running her finger around the rim of the glass occasionally.
“What do you want?” he asked, his voice shattering the silence that had begun to descend between them in the midst of the noise around.
“What do you think I’d want, a girl like me?”
“I don’t have the money, time or inclination.”
“Time, you seem to have all in the world. Money, if you have none, it’s alright with me. Inclination…” Shirin licked her lips, “…we’ll see about that.” She wasn’t playing any come- hither games with him. Her curiosity had got the better of her, and she also liked his stand-offish behavior. Most men just wanted to grab and pull and feel her all over.
He looked up now, his eyes not really focusing on her. “You’re wasting your time,” he said. “I am a man who has no place to go, nothing to do, and life is a meaningless path leading nowhere. Don’t join me in my pursuit of destruction, even for a day.”
He dressed like a labourer but spoke like a poet, Shirin thought. “Come to my place,” she said.
“I’m warning you. Don’t make my problems yours.”
“I’ll take the chance,” she said. She watched him as he sat absolutely still. Then he gulped the remains of his drink in one go, and picked up her glass.
“Drink!” he said.
When he began to move, she noticed a slight limp in his walk. It was not very discernable, but it was there. Shirin had covered her costume with a light summer coat. They walked the distance to her house, it was not too far. She enjoyed the animal intensity generated by his close proximity. They walked in silence, the wind the only sound as it swished through the leaves on the trees that sheltered the sidewalk.
Her small two room apartment was on the fourth floor of an apartment building. The linoleum floor was cracked, the green sofa set faded, the furniture cheap and the light came from an old- fashioned overhanging bulb with a conical blue shade. Shirin did not earn too much, and most of her earnings went into the day to day expenses. She was not ashamed for she was not dependent on anyone and not living on the streets either.
Shirin went into the bedroom to change into a kaftan while he sat on one of the sofa chairs. She tied her hair up into a chignon, and removed her make-up. Feeling comfortable and clean, she entered the kitchen to fix a whisky for both of them and carried the drinks out, along with some potato chips to munch.
She sat on the sofa opposite him. The fan whirred at break neck speed above them, but did little to alleviate the heat. She did not open the windows, because it would let the mosquitoes in. The heat was oppressive, and she was glad that she had changed into a loose outfit.
“Mind if I become comfortable?” he asked.
“Oh, please. Sorry I didn’t ask earlier. I am not used to having people over.” She grimaced. “I mean…”
“It’s okay,” he said. “Please do not explain.”
He then went ahead and removed his red singlet and draped it on the sofa. His body was covered with light beads of sweat, and his muscles were taut, his stomach firm like a young man’s, though his face did not look so young. He must be in his forties, she thought to herself. She watched as he stripped himself down to his shorts and then pointed the way to the bathroom to him.
On his return, they sipped their drinks in silence. Exhaustion had overtaken her now, and she felt her eyes closing. His voice broke her drowsiness.
“Thank you for bringing me to your place. I had nowhere to go and had been thinking of climbing one of these high rise buildings and jumping off. The ground would have had to accept me then.”
Her eyes flew open. “You can stay here as long as you like.”
“You have no one else?”
“No. What about you?”
“I had a wife, and a kid. No longer.”
“I am sorry. What happened?”
“They were on the plane that crashed into one of the Twin towers on September 11. They were holidaying in the U.S. This was their first big holiday outside the country. I had planned to join them a few days later. It never happened.”
He continued, his eyes glazing with pain, “After that, I seemed to have lost my mind. I have no one else in the world to call my own. They were all I had.”
Shirin thought, ‘That was some time ago. But he still bleeds.’ She watched him as he talked, hearing the tremor in his voice.
“After that, I lost my job, had to sell my car, my home, everything. I seem to be free falling through time and space. Now I have nothing, nothing. I just want to disappear from the face of the earth, somehow.”
Shirin wanted to move close to him and hold his hand. To tell him that he had at least had a time of love. She had never had anyone to call her own or share her life with. She only knew this life as a ‘go-go’ girl, and did not even remember the time when it became her way of life.
Sunlight was streaming in when she awoke. The man slept next to her, restless, his blondness brightening her drab drawing room. She left him quietly and went into the kitchen to make coffee. She did not need to report for work till six p.m. and could spend her morning at home.
His eyes opened in surprise when she entered the room. Gratefully, he accepted the coffee.
“Thank you,” he said.”Sorry to have overstayed.”
“You’re welcome,” she offered him a smile.
He did smile then, a slow flicker that momentarily lit up his face.“I guess I should leave now,” he said, as he finished his coffee. “You have to get on with your life.”
“Please stay,” she said. “I want to have you around.” It was not in her nature to ask for anything. That is why she maintained such a low-profile life despite being a very popular dancer. However, now she was asking.
“Why? “He asked. “I’ll just get in your way. I’m a no-good person.”
Shirin sat on the floor, hugging her legs. “I don’t even know your name,” she said. ”Let’s begin by introducing ourselves. I’m Shirin.”
“I’m Mark, and before you start wondering, I’m a Keralite Christian, with a German mother. Of course, this information was given me at the orphanage in Pondicherry where I spent my childhood. However, I practise no religion. I can’t believe in a God.”
“Okay,” she said, “tell me more. But before that, let me get some breakfast ready.” Shirin returned with eggs, toasts and more coffee. She ate slowly and watched as he wolfed down the scrambled eggs and toast as if he had not eaten for days.
They sat and talked. Shirin, who had never been an inquisitive person, found herself wanting to know a great deal about him. She replenished him with coffee and listened to his story.
He had been brought up in an orphanage, and did not know anything about his parents other than what the orphanage authorities had told him. He had been stricken by polio when young, and that accounted for the slight limp in his walk. Luckily, it had not disabled him. He felt that the limp may have been a reason for his parents having abandoned him-maybe he did not fit their concept of a perfect child.
“To make up for this,” he pointed towards his game leg, “and the fact that I had been dumped by my parents, perhaps for this,” he again pointed to the leg, “I have strived hard for perfection. Straight A grades, scholarships, a well paid job with an architectural firm, a perfect partner and married life.” He hung his head. “Nothing worked. I have lost it all. I was born a loser.”
Shirin put her hand on his shoulder and he flinched. She quickly removed her hand, surprised at his response. In the evening, she readied herself for work. At the bar she did her usual stint, but her heart was not in it. She also did not agree to accompany anyone home for the night. She knew this would be bad for business, and that she’d have to shape up.
Tired, she let herself into the apartment, and flung her keys on to the sofa, kicking off her heels and opening her shirt buttons. She heard a noise in the kitchen, and went in to see what was happening.
Mark had some sandwiches ready, and had begun to open one of the cheap bottles of wine she stacked at home. Shirin closed her shirt buttons quickly and was about to protest about him being in the kitchen, but stopped herself. Instead, she helped him take the plates and glasses into the drawing room.
He was looking fresh and clean. “Thank you, Mark,” she said, as she gulped down her drink. “Let me have a quick shower, and then we’ll sit and talk.”
After her shower, Shirin padded out to the drawing room in a salwar kameez and slippers. Mark had poured another glass of wine for her.
“Thank you, Shirin,” he said, “I drink a toast to you. You have saved me from some kind of hell.”
“If I have, then it has been worth the effort of having you around,” she said, smiling.
“You look good in this Indian dress,” he said.
Shirin looked at him. He had said it in an off-hand fashion, there was no intensity in his tone.
“Thanks,” she said, and concentrated on the redness of the wine in the glass.
“I hope my being here is not interfering with your work,” he said. “I guess you must not be returning home so early on your usual days.”
“No customers today,” she lied. “I must be growing old.”
“That figures,” he said quietly. He smiled then and once again his face lit up for her.
She looked out at the tiny verandah that let the outside sky peep into her otherwise closed apartment. His red singlet was hanging to dry on the line outside. She felt like taking it down and smelling its freshly washed sweetness.
She shook her head. The wine was affecting her thinking. She got up from the sofa, and put her hand against it for support. Her fingers lightly brushed his hair. Electricity surged through her. Though he had not moved away this time, she remembered his earlier flinching from her touch. She had to be careful not to come too close to him in any way. She went to the kitchen and splashed some cold water on her face and returned.
“I would like to go out tomorrow,” he said. “I have some work...”
“As long as you don’t get lost.” Shirin stopped her heart from beating fast. She could not stop him from leaving.
“Oh no, no chance of that, I know Mumbai like the back of my hand.” He stood up. “Look at me. I have been to places you would not want to know about.”
The next morning, Mark left early. He had not returned by the time Shirin left for work in the evening.
That evening, Shirin found the bar overcrowded and the smell of cigarettes and alcohol stifling. People milled all over the place, and by the time Shirin had completed her number, she felt nauseated. She signalled to Johnny, her bartender friend, that she was going out for some fresh air.
She hurried out, taking in a lungful of the hot Mumbai air. It was not very helpful, but at least she felt she could breathe. Inside, she had found it suffocating.
A man staggered against her, drunk out of his wits. “Come with me, dearest,” he said and leered.
She tried to shake him off, but he was heavy and unsteady on his feet. He fell, his whole body weight on hers, and she felt herself crashing to the ground.
When she opened her eyes, she was lying on the sofa backstage in the dressing room, and Mona, her fellow dancer, was fussing over her.
“Thank God you have opened your eyes,” she said. “We were so worried.”
“What…what happened to me?” Shirin asked.
“You fell under a big boor of a guy who wanted to take you home with him. We put him in his place, of course, that is, packed him off home, alone.” Mona gave a nervous laugh. “We were so worried about you.”
“I’ll be fine,” Shirin said. The room blurred and she passed out again
This time when she awoke, she found Mark looking at her. He was wearing his red singlet again. She was back home and in her bedroom, but she did not know how. Seeing that she had regained consciousness, he said, “Don’t talk. I’ll explain. I brought you home. Went to the bar to find out where you were. I know, wrong of me, but I am glad I did. Wait, let me get you something…”
He went out and returned with some chilled lemonade for her to drink.
“That’s nice,” said Shirin. “Thank you.”
He sat near her now, putting the lemonade to her lips. She took a sip and gestured to him to put it aside. His nearness was making her uncomfortable. She wanted to touch him.
“You know I went out today. Got lucky too,” he said.
“I’ve got a job. I can pay to stay. I’d like to stay a while if I may.”
“Of course,” she whispered, feeling faint.
“Thank you,” he said, “I’ll be outside on the sofa. Call out if you need anything.”
Shirin got up unsteadily in the night, fumbled for the light switch and fell on the floor. She managed to lift herself up and sat on the bed, wondering at her weakness.
Mark was at her side at once, switching the light on. His hair was tousled and he looked bleary-eyed.
“Why the hell are you moving around? The doctor has advised complete bed rest,” he said, his voice angry.
“I didn’t know that,” she said, suddenly defiant. He had no rights over her.
“You must give up your job. It is undermining your health.”
“Stop this talk. Please. It does not work with me.” She was not used to anyone talking to her like this.
His hands came down to grasp her shoulders. “I didn’t want to admit it to myself. How could this happen so suddenly, I asked myself. I felt guilty. But when you lay there looking weak and sick, I decided that I would have to tell you how I felt. I cannot see you suffering.”
“What? How? What are you talking about? ”
I want to take care of you, want to be with you.”
“But you…you don’t like me touching…”
“I was resisting you. I kept telling myself it was not possible.”
“Oh,” she mumbled, suddenly dumb, “And now?”
“I can’t do it anymore. I love you… already.” His voice shook with emotion. His blue eyes were hot like live coals.
“Love me?” Shirin stared at him.
“Say something more positive …please…” she saw the uncertainty return to his eyes.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”
“We’ll talk later… thank god the doctor did not say anything about this… ” He held her face in his hands as though she was a fragile flower who would disintegrate on his touching. His lips came gently down on hers, afraid to hurt or bruise her in any way. He pulled her closer. The red singlet against her smelt of him, of desire and hope.
© ABHA IYENGAR. First published in The Ripples Anthology of Short Fiction 2010
Abha Iyengar is an internationally published author and poet and a creative writing facilitator at Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication. She does individual mentoring for short story and novel writing. She also writes poetry in Hindi. She has worked as fiction editor with Leadstart Publishing. Her work has appeared in Bewildering Stories,The Asian Writer, New Asian Writing, Arabesques Review, Muse India and others. She is a Kota Press Poetry Anthology Contest winner (2002). Her story, 'The High Stool ' was nominated for the Story South Million Writers Award (2007). She writes articles on health, spirituality and travel. She is also writing for the CAB (Conversations Across Borders) project. Her poem-film, "Parwaaz", has won a Special Jury prize in Patras, Greece (2008).Her book of poems, "Yearnings" has been published (Serene Woods, 2010). She received the Lavanya Sankaran Writing Fellowship(2009-2010). She was Featured Poet at the Prakriti Festival (2010) and invited Speaker at CEC (2011). Her collection of micro fiction, “Flash Bites” (2011) and her fantasy novel, “Shrayan” (2012) are available as ebooks on Amazon and Smashwords. She is from New Delhi.
I am so glad to have discovered her work and honored am honored that she is a follower of The Reading Life.
Her webpage and blog are both very interesting and I expect to learn a lot from them
I commend her work to anyone who enjoys a wonderfully written deeply felt story that can take you in a few pages to a world that might be very different on the surface from your own. Go a bit deeper and you may see your own life in Ivengar's marvelous story.