Saturday, June 09, 2007

Close encounters of the interesting kind

You meet all sorts of people while traveling on trains

By Shevlin Sebastian

On a recent journey from Kochi to Delhi I meet Jacob George*, who is working in the Army. He has served for 28 years and is due for retirement in a couple of years. He is trim, with a flat stomach and a toothy grin.
“I served during the Kargil war,” he says. “It was a terrifying experience. I was near death many times but somehow I came through unscathed. Did you notice that most of the men who were maimed were young people.”
“Yes I did,” I say, suddenly remembering the pictures I saw of injured men. “What was the reason behind it?”
“They lacked battle experience, that was why they were injured,” says Jacob. “When you are under fire, you have to think calmly. When a round is being fired by the Pakistanis, you must wait till the round is over, then make your move. And always crawl when you are on flat ground. Because then when you are being shot at, there is a chance they might miss you because the bullet is hitting the ground at an angle of 45 degrees. If you stand up, you present an immovable target.”
Jacob looks outside the window. It is a serene morning: blue sky, mellow sunlight, green paddy fields.
“I know of men who crawled three quarters of the way under fire and then the last few feet, feeling impatient, they had stood up and run and got shot,” says Jacob. “There is no substitute for battle experience.”
Then Jacob tells the story of his friend Ravindran*, who was slated to retire within two months, after 15 years of service, when Kargil happened. Apparently, an artillery shell burst near Ravindran and a splinter sliced a part of his skull. He lost his memory and does not know who he is. He lives in Pallakad in Kerala.
“In a perverse way, his injury was a blessing in disguise,” says Jacob. “He got Rs 15 lakh in compensation, his wife has got a job in a state government co-operative. Since he has three daughters, they will be able to pay the dowry for their marriages. But the price may have been too high.”
Sitting next to him is Sandip Bose* who has been working in the Air Force for 35 years in the mechanical section and is now serving in Coimbatore. He is due to retire within a few months.
“I joined the Air Force because I wanted to serve the country,” he says. “My heart beat with patriotism. I love India, my motherland.”
“But now,” he says, “Is there any leader we can look up to? There is so much of corruption in the armed forces. I keep quiet, as do a lot of others. We know that if we protest, our lives and careers will be ruined.”
In the next berth sits Abraham George*, a retired engineer who lives in New Jersey. In the air-conditioned coach he sees a rat, quickly puts his legs up on the berth and says, “This is terrible. Abroad, the train would have been stopped and the rat would have been caught. The bogie would have been fumigated. Passengers would have filed several lawsuits. We are paying good money for this seat, so why does all this happen?”
His fellow passengers yawn; they have seen rats, cockroaches, ants, moths, so what’s new? Abraham looks stricken. His eyes bulge out, he licks his lower lip several times and says, “Do you think they will jump up onto the seat where I am sitting?”
“No, no,” assures another passenger. “These are Indian rats and they know where they are allowed and where they aren’t.”
On another journey to Hyderabad, I meet a railway driver. This is the first time I am meeting one even though I have been travelling on trains all my life. "I have been a driver for 25 years now," says K. Pratap*, 48, a Keralite, who is returning to Vijayawada, after his annual leave. "It is a tough job. The cabin is very hot and at night, you have to stand all the time to see the track properly. At the end of an eight-hour shift, which becomes ten or twelve, if the train is running late, I am very tired."
Pratap’s eyes droop behind steel-rimmed spectacles, he has a paunch, there is a lot of grey in his curly black hair but all this is compensated by a boyish grin.
"I have to admit that I am paid very well," he says. "But this job has taken a toll of my health. Several colleagues, including myself, suffer from high blood pressure, sugar, diabetes and heart problems."
I feel sad when I hear him talk like that. I remember, as a kid, holding my father's hand, as he led me down to the end of the platform so that I could look at the engine. It looked monstrous, with its loud horn and belching smoke and blackened exterior. And there sat the driver, his elbow on the window sill and, to me, they were heroes, because you had to be really strong and tough to handle this huge instrument.
Pratap continues to shatter my idealistic image when I ask him about trains running over people. "We are never hauled up for that," he says. "If we run over somebody we stop the train. If the person is alive, we take him to the next station. Otherwise, we leave the body where we found it. And let's face it, most of them are suicide cases."
I am thinking: 'Thank God, I did not meet Pratap when I was a child. It is always nice to lose your illusions later than sooner.'
As I look around I notice that, apart from an elderly woman, there are only male passengers. I remember, with a wry feeling what I told a friend the previous evening: "God, I hope that tomorrow when I get on the train, I will have a beautiful woman, for company."
Instead, there is Gavin Menezes. He is a Railway employee and a Kerala state level body builder. His deltoid muscles and biceps bulge under the tight blue T-shirt he is wearing. With his mass of black curls and wide smile, he could easily pass off as a pop star.
After an hour of conversation, Gavin and I exchange names and when he hears mine, he bursts out laughing.
"Do I look like Charlie Chaplin?" I ask. "I have a similar moustache."
"No, no," he says, still laughing. "Let me explain."
He works in the computer section of the Ernakulam South station. This is just next to the Area Manager's office where the slots for the Emergency Quota (EQ) are filled. Gavin is told to go to Delhi at the last minute. He buys a ticket and rushes to put his name in the EQ. The clerk, a woman, asks, "Gavin, where do you want to sit?"
And the South station resident hunk says, "Please put me next to a beautiful woman."
The woman scans the list and says, "There is a Shevlin Sebastian. She could be a beautiful woman."
And that's how Gavin ends up next to me. We both laugh at what has happened and compensate for the absence of beautiful women by talking about them for the rest of the journey.
(*: All names of people have been changed)

The joy of qualifying

Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from The Week, Malayala Manorama, Kochi.

By Shevlin Sebastian

The bar is set at 1.91m, the qualifying mark for the Athens Olympic Games for the women's high jump. Bobby Aloysius of Kerala is the sole competitior left at the 44th national inter-state athletic championships in Chennai. Sahani Kumari of Karnataka could only manage 1.80m.
Bobby does a series of spot jumps, wearing a black Nike t-shirt and tight blue shorts. Then she raises her hands and urges the audience to encourage her. They raise a clap and a cheer as she breaks into a hop, step and a run, coming at the bar sideways. She does the Fosbury Flop but her lower back hits the bar and it falls to the ground.
She returns to the top of her run and walks up and down, completely oblivious to the crowd and the heats of the men's 400m which is taking place.
Once again, she is ready and darts down and rises up. Once again, she just touches the bar. It wobbles, it trembles and suddenly, it falls to the ground. “On my second jump, I decided to put in a tremendous effort but in the process, my technique failed and I really hit the bar very hard. When I returned, I went and asked my sister Bindu Aloysius, who is a former junior national high jumper, about which jump was better and she said it was the first.”
Two failed jumps and only one more to go. The trip to Athens is hanging by a slender thread. Bobby sits on the ground and massages her calves vigorously. Then she gets up and washes her face with mineral water and wipes it with a towel. There are calls of "Come on Bobby." The tension in the air is palpable as scribes, officials, fellow athletes and spectators watch silently. Walter Dawaram, with his trademark cap, the president of the Tamil Nadu Athletics Association and who earned fame for almost nabbing bandit Veerapan as head of the Special task Force, sits on a nearby chair.
Bobby sets out on her run and loses her rhythm and goes past the bar without jumping. “I never do this,” she says. “I always complete a jump when I set out. But this time, within the first three steps, I could see that my rhythm was off and so I decided not to jump.”
She goes back to her run, takes a deep breath and this times she goes full tilt. She crosses over, the bar shakes but it remains in place. She has qualified! She goes mad. She clutches her hands together, she jumps up, she runs, she is crying, she is yelling, she falls to the ground, as she presses her hands to her eyes. Then she gets up and rushes to the stands, towards her sister Bindu, who proffers her the mobile. Her husband is on the line from London, and she shouts, "I did it, I did it. I don't know how but I did it." Incidentally, she has set a new national and meet record. She had also set her earlier record of 1.90m at an inter-state athletics meet in Bangalore in 2002.
V. Prerna, a 12-year-old schoolgirl asks, desperation in her voice, "Sir, can I borrow a piece of paper?" I tear off a page off my notebook and she borrows my pen and proffers both to Bobby, who signs with a nervous shake of her hand. Prerna herself is shaking with excitement as she returns the pen to me.
Bobby’s college coach, T.P. Ouseph comes up and congratulates her as does former national champion Saramma. So will Bobby do anything in Athens? The chance is nil. 1.91m will not get you into the final. To get a medal you need to reach closer to 2m. But she is optimistic. “Remember that this track in Chennai is ten years old. I could do at least four more centimeters on a world class track. Also, there is no pressure on me. People do not expect anything. So I will be utterly relaxed and try to perform to the best of my ability. Who knows what might happen? Do you know the silver medal winner in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, Niki Bakogianni of Greece, won by jumping three times her personal best time. In high jump, on a given day, anything can happen. So I am not giving up hope, as yet.”
Whether she reaches the final or not, she is going to become an Olympian, one of a select band of 10,000 athletes who can call them Olympians. In a world population of 6 billion, this is indeed a select band. And she can proudly tell her grandchildren that she did take part in an Olympic Games.
Sometimes, taking part is as important as winning.

The Boat Ride (A short story)

By Shevlin Sebastian

“Sir, why don’t you come?” the man said, standing near his boat, on the sloping mud bank.
Pritam and Antara looked at each other.
“Do you want to go?” Pritam asked.
“We don’t have anything else to do,” Antara said, “Ask him how much he wants?”
“Forty rupees for an hour,” was the reply.
“Too much,” Pritam said. “I’ll give you twenty.”
“Twenty-five,” said the boatman.
“Twenty,” Pritam repeated.
The boatman stared at Pritam wondering whether he should agree or not. But business at 3.30 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon in May near the church of Bandel would be slack for an hour. Reluctantly, he said, “Okay.”
Pritam held Antara’s hand as they walked with bent knees down the bank and got onto the boat, which swayed from side to side, its wooden joints making a creaking sound.
They sat side by side, in the low cabin made of matted coir sheets, and folded their legs as there was only a width of five feet. Outside, at one end, stood the boatman. He pushed the long black oar into the water and the boat moved forward, as if in slow motion.
They sat in silence for a few minutes, as they watched the languid movements of the boatman.
Pritam held Antara’s hand and whispered in her ears, “How about some hanky panky?”
“You only think of sex,” Antara said, jerking her face away from him. “We did it yesterday night and early this morning. Give me a break. It’s so stuffy in here. I am going to sit outside where I can get some breeze.”
Antara crawled on her hands and knees to the other end of the boat. Pritam stared at her posterior, covered by a maroon salwar kameez and said, in a sarcastic tone, “Your bum could easily win an entry into the Guinness Book Of World Records. Biggest bum in the Asian subcontinent.”
“Don’t be mean,” Antara said, turning around. “For a 28-year-old woman, I am quite slim. Wait for a few years and then you will also have a fat bum.”
Pritam shook his head, “No chance. I am naturally slim, plus I do exercises and go for a jog in the mornings.”
“With that budding paunch of yours, there is no way you can call yourself slim,” she said. She felt her face getting flushed and began breathing in quick, short bursts.
Pritam realised that she had got angry and became silent. Time passed. Antara gazed into the distance, trying to calm down. She did not enjoy Pritam’s obsession with sex. As if that was the only thing that mattered. Sometimes, she felt that he was using her body, and did not care for her as a person.
She leaned to the side and let her left hand slide into the water. It was cool and soothing and she watched the waves hit the boat in gentle slaps. She looked up and saw that, on one side of the bank, there were lush green paddy fields, with the usual mud partitions.
She heard Pritam ask the boatman, “What is your name?”
“Manik Das,” the boatman said, as he pulled on a beedi, and made an inhaling sound of pleasure.
“Manik Babu, why do you have such a low cabin?” Pritam asked. “It’s impossible to sit properly and to stand up is out of the question.”
“The cabin is not used for standing or sitting,” Manik said in a flat voice.
“So, what is it used for?”
“You can make a guess.”
“To make love. Is that what you are trying to say?”
“Yes Sir. Do you need to stand or sit for that?”
“How can people make love when you can see them clearly?” Pritam said.
The boatman gave a mocking smile, revealing pan stained red teeth. “I have a cane partition. When lovers ask me to close the entrance, I ask for money.”
“How much?”
“Well, I am a cunning fox,” Manik said, as he stroked a week’s grey stubble. “I wait for them to get excited. Because once a man gets excited, he is no longer in his senses and does not care for money. So, I ask for a hundred rupees to close the entrance.”
“A hundred rupees,” Pritam exclaimed. “You are fleecing them. They should refuse.”
Manik smiled and flicked the beedi into the river.
“Sir, why don’t you try? You will see how easily you will part with the money.”
Pritam wondered whether it was true. But first he had to get into the mood. He closed his eyes and visualised Antara nude, like she was yesterday evening in the hotel room that he had hired for three hours on Sudder Street. He felt a quickening of his heartbeat. Despite his sarcastic comment about her bum, she had big breasts, a narrow hip, and flawless skin. Her legs were smooth and muscular; she had thick calves. Overall, she had a voluptuousness that was addictive. And when she began licking his body from his face all the way down…he felt a shiver of excitement pass through his body. ‘What was Swati compared to this woman,’ he thought. ‘It is the difference between a desert and an ocean. Swati is dry, boring, dull while Antara is wet all over, all invitation and pleasure. What a mobile tongue she has.’
He looked at Antara, sitting with her face resting on her knee, one hand still in the water.
“Antara,” he called out softly, “come in, let’s have some fun.”
“No,” she said, not looking at him. “I am not in the mood. Stop pestering me.”
Antara could be harsh, at times, and Pritam felt embarrassed by her show of exasperation in front of the boatman. He leaned back, as if trying to hide from her reproach. He cleared his throat and said, “Manik babu, my wife is not interested. So tell me, what sort of people come?”
“All sorts,” Manik said, the mocking smile firmly in place. “Most of them are college students having their first love affair. They have no place to go where they can get some privacy. So they come here for some fun.
“Nowadays, more people are having affairs. Women are getting bolder. But I have observed that when these lovers get married, it usually does not last very long.”
“So are you saying that arranged marriages are the best way?” Pritam said.
“Times have changed,” Manik replied. “When I was young, I could not imagine that I could disobey my father and marry somebody of my choice. But I am happy now. I have a wife and four children, two sons and two daughters, who are married. I have to admit I have problems with my sons. One is a school dropout and an idler while the other is a drug addict.”
“Were you very strict with them?” Pritam asked.
“Not at all. In fact, I was very tolerant. I did not scold them. Perhaps that was why they do not obey me.”
“Besides college students, who else comes?” Pritam said, changing the topic.
“Those who are having extra-marital affairs. Maybe, they are unhappy in their marriages, I don’t know. But you can spot them immediately. They have a guilty look on their faces and the woman tries to hide her face with one end of the pallu. I punish them by charging exorbitant rates. One hundred and fifty for a ride and hundred to close the entrance.”
“They don’t say the rate is too much,” Pritam said, smiling.
“They just want to have fun and don’t care. When the man returns after the fun is over, he might regret it but it is too late.”
“Do they go all the way?”
Manik smiled. “If you are paying two hundred and fifty rupees, won’t you go all the way? And these are married people, they have experienced sex before, they will not be satisfied with a little bit of kissing, holding hands and staring at the water and talking romantic nonsense.”
Pritam fell silent. He watched Manik push the oar into the water and pull it up in a mechanical manner. A steamer boat, with a viewing deck, went past, carrying a group of young men and women, in t-shirts, jeans and sneakers. They were laughing and singing songs, accompanied by clapping. A couple of the men were drinking beer from cans. Manik raised a palm of recognition to the other boatman.
They remained silent for a few minutes. Then Pritam said, “Tell me, Manik Babu, what is the secret of happiness?”
Manik did not reply at once. Instead, he pushed the oar a few times. Then he said, “Happiness is when you have a wife, who does not nag, who is understanding and kind-hearted. A wife makes a big difference to a man’s life. A good woman is a rare and great thing.”
“Do you not get bored with your wife?” Pritam said.
“To be honest, yes, at times, I do. Things change when the children come and your wife’s attention is diverted. Tell me, are you married?”
The question was abrupt and unexpected.
“Of course, I am,” Pritam said, his eyes widening in surprise, “why do you ask?”
“Just like that,” Manik said, staring at Antara sitting on the other end, “does your wife work?”
“No,” Pritam said, instinctively realising that Manik was looking for a negative answer.
“You must make sure that she does not work in an office,” Manik said, in a sotto voce. “Women get tempted easily. Young men are infatuated by these young married women, or boudis, as they are called in Bengali. They feel that the boudis are only interested in sex and not in sentimental talk. Boudis do go to bed with these young studs because they are bored with their ageing husbands, who are not as active as when they just got married. You have to be careful.”
Pritam looked at Antara but she seemed to be lost in a world of her own, with her face still on her knees.
“I agree,” Pritam said, “but how do you know all this?”
“I am not talking from direct experience,” Manik admitted. “I have friends who work in offices in Calcutta and they tell me many stories.”
Pritam nodded. Again, there was a silence.
Then Manik suddenly said, “Young man, you should lead a clean life. Love your wife and children. Look after them properly. By looking at you, I know that you are a serious person. Your wife also looks very serious and quiet. Is she always like this?”
“She is a serious type,” Pritam agreed. “But she is a good person.”
“Then you are lucky,” Manik said. “A world without nagging woman, that is the only way there will be peace on earth. But your wife looks far younger than you.”
“Yes I agree,” Pritam said, licking his lower lip with the tip of his tongue. “People tell me that all the time, and I take it as a compliment.”
Manik had a half smile on his face.
Some time later, Pritam asked Antara, “Are you enjoying the ride?”
“It’s much cooler outside,” Antara said, shading her eyes. “You can come out.”
“It’s okay, the hour is almost over,” Pritam said, happy to hear the conciliatory note in her voice.
Once again, there was a silence. The boat was now heading towards the direction of the shore and, within a matter of minutes, they reached the bank. Manik tied a wet brown rope around a bamboo shaft that was embedded in the ground. Pritam took out his purse and gave the boatman three crisp ten rupee notes.
“Thanks for an interesting conversation,” Pritam said, as they stood on the bank, “you are wise. I have learnt something about life from you.”
“Thank you,” Manik said, raising the notes and pressing it to his forehead, “we are always learning something new every day.”
A couple arrived, the woman fluttering her eyelids, the man smiling bashfully and the haggling began. A price was finally fixed and they got into the boat. Manik turned towards Pritam and said, “Goodbye, have a good marriage.”
Pritam waved and the boat began to move towards the middle of the river. Pritam and Antara climbed up the bank and walked through a deserted field, besides the Bandel church.
“You are a bloody hypocrite,” Antara said, suddenly, her eyes filled with venom.
“What do you mean?” Pritam said.
“How can you pretend all along that I am your wife? I was listening to the conversation that you had with that boatman. He is a lecherous guy. All the time, he was staring at my breasts.”
“I didn’t notice that he was letching at you,” Pritam said defensively. “But he said some good stuff. Antara, how else can I introduce you except as my wife? You don’t expect me to walk around with a sign saying, ‘We are committing adultery. Please look at us.’”
“Then, don’t say anything,” Antara said. “Say that I am a friend. What’s wrong with that?”
“There is nothing wrong. But people are not broad-minded in these rural parts, they will come to all sorts of conclusions,” he said.
Antara realised that what he said was right. Yet, an anger smouldered within her. Perhaps she was feeling frustrated at the position she was in. They saw a priest in a white cassock and with curly black hair coming towards them.
As the priest came abreast, Pritam said, “Hello father, going for a walk?”
“Yes,” the priest replied, stopping suddenly. “I like to go to the bank in the evenings. You get a good breeze.”
“We have just returned from a boat ride. My name is Pritam Ghosh and this is my wife Antara.”
“Hello,” the priest said, looking at Antara, “I am Fr. George Joseph. I am the parish priest.”
“Father, tell me something, do you know the boatmen well?”
“I know some of them,” Fr. George replied.
“Do you know of a boatman called Manik Das?”
“Yes, yes, I know Manik,” Fr. George said. “He is famous in these parts. He has a wife and family, also two mistresses, and all have children by him. I have no idea how he maintains them. His wife comes regularly to the church to pray, although she is a Hindu. She is a simple person. Don’t be misled by Manik’s smooth tongue.”
“He didn’t look the type to me,” Pritam said, biting his lower lip, puzzled by this new facet of the boatman. “He seemed like a wise person. He gave me some good advise about life.”
“Everybody can give lectures about life and how we should all live,” Fr. George said, “but how many of us practise what we preach?”
“You are right,” Pritam said, smiling. He was finding it difficult to believe that Manik had a rakish past.
“Where are you from?” asked Fr. George.
“We are from Calcutta,” Pritam said. “I work in a software firm. Antara works as a receptionist. We came here for a day, to get away from the pollution.”
“Yes, Calcutta is very polluted,” the priest said, “that is why I rarely go to the city.”
“But if you need a good job you have to stay in the city, pollution or no pollution,” Pritam said.
“I agree,” Fr. George replied.
“Tell me Father,” Pritam said, as he looked at his watch, “it’s 4.50 now. At what time can we get a train to go back?”
“If you hurry, you can catch the next local at 5.28,” Fr. George said.
They wished each other goodbye and moved off.
“How innocently you behave,” Antara said, as they walked towards the cycle rickshaw stand, “I wonder what Fr. George would have felt if he knew that we are not married to each other and that you are married to somebody else.”
“He would have said that Casanova is not dead, long live Casanova,” Pritam said, breaking out into a smile.
“You take everything as a joke,” Antara said, giving an irritated slap to Pritam’s shoulder, “including our affair.”
“What you expect me to do?” he said, as he stopped smiling suddenly. “Be practical, Antara. I can’t understand why you are so pissed off today. You have been in a complaining mood the whole day, what’s the problem?”
For some time, Antara did not say anything. They got onto a cycle rickshaw and then Antara said, “I am tired of being your mistress. I want to be married to you.”
“What can I do?” Pritam said, looking at her. “You know how stubborn and vindictive Swati can be. What can I do if she refuses to give me a divorce? You tell me, what should I do?”
“I hate her,” Antara said, with sudden venom in her voice. “She is so jealous and a total bitch. I don’t know how you tolerated her for ten years.”
“Man is an adaptable asshole,” Pritam said, waving his hands in front of him to blow away the dust raised by a passing bus. “He can adapt to shrews and nagging women.”
“But then I saved your life,” Antara said.
“Oh no, you haven’t,” Pritam said, shaking his forefinger from side to side. “Not until I have got my divorce. And you know that she has so many demands. So much for alimony, so much for child support. One would think I am a millionaire.”
“Why don’t we threaten her?” Antara suggested.
“Like how?”
“You know, hire a hoodlum, and make him go to the house and threaten her.”
“You think the bitch is going to be scared. She is going to run to the cops and then she will run to all the neighbours and say that Pritam probably arranged all this. You know what I mean. I have to live in that area, Antara. I cannot leave. I have a building with eight flats in my name. I need the money from the rents. No, no, it is not practical at all. You know her better than me. Do you think it is a feasible plan?”
“We could get her killed,” Antara suggested.
Pritam stared at Antara, with his mouth open. “Are you out of your mind? You are talking murder, here, of your own sister. It is not a joke, to say that we can kill her. And how do you know that we won’t get caught? The police will investigate. Some clues may be left behind. The murderer could be caught and then be traced to us.”
“Not if you do a supari. We can get in touch with the underworld. For Rs. 5000, you can get somebody bumped off. The killer will be from out of the state. Probably from a village in Uttar Pradesh. There is no way that he is going to get caught.”
“You are talking out of your hat, Antara. The moment she is killed, suspicion will fall on me, and maybe you. Who knows how the cops think? We will be hauled in for questioning. They might use torture to get the truth out of us. You understand? We might spill the truth, against our will.”
Antara stared at Pritam and suddenly realisation seemed to strike her. She nodded and said, “You are right. It was a bad idea. Forgive me, I am feeling very frustrated.”
“You have to keep your nerve,” Pritam said, holding her hand. “If we have to win, we have to remain calm. And be patient. If we make one wrong move, we will end up regretting it for the rest of our life.”
“But what do we do, if she does not agree to a divorce?” Antara asked.
They reached the station and Pritam gave Rs 10 to the driver. As they walked towards the platform, after buying the tickets, Pritam said, “We have to find an intelligent way out.”
“So give me some ideas, Mister Smart,” she said.
“I don’t know Antara. It is a complicated situation. I have my two daughters to think about. As a father, I am responsible. I mean, I have no problem in paying child support, but I would also like to guide their lives.”
“You can’t have everything,” Antara said. “You have to compromise a bit. You are thinking about the feelings of everybody else except me.”
“That is not true,” Pritam said, as he saw tears well up in Antara’s eyes. “To be frank, I don’t know what to do.”
“Which is why I suggested bumping Swati off.”
“No, I don’t want to commit murder, nothing is that important,” he said, as the train arrived and they got in into an empty bogie and sat down at two window seats.
“I think the train is empty today because it is a holiday,” Pritam said, as he looked around.
They were silent. Pritam could feel a sense of claustrophobia assail him. He was being hemmed in from all sides. His wife’s constant nagging, his daughters’ never ending demands for clothes, cassettes, pocket-money, and what have you. The stresses in the office, and Antara’s frustration. Sometimes, he wished that he had not initiated this affair with Antara, which had complicated his life.
Antara began living with them when she began studying for a literature degree from Lady Brabourne College. For a long time, Pritam had been unhappy with his sex life with Swati. She was unresponsive and uninterested. Antara was the opposite of Swati, always laughing, vivacious, fun loving and outgoing. In short, she seemed to enjoy life.
One Saturday night, almost a year after she had come to live with them, they were alone together. Swati and the children had gone to her parents’ place in Shibpur. Antara said she did not want to go, as she had wanted to prepare for her mid-term examinations. Pritam told Swati he would come on Sunday morning, as he did not enjoy spending the night at his in-laws place.
That night, Pritam and Antara had watched an English film on Star movies and had dinner together. Pritam, for the first time, wondered how good Antara would be in bed. He had not thought about this earlier because as his sister-in-law, he knew it was forbidden territory. But that night, he felt frustrated and was enjoying her company. She was wearing a pink sleeveless nightie and he noticed that she had smooth arms. The nightie came up to her knees and he observed that her legs were also smooth and clean-shaven. Quite unlike Swati, who rarely shaved her legs despite repeated requests by Pritam. He told his wife that there was nothing more ugly than hairy legs and arms and even underarms, but she was too lazy to do anything and felt there was no need to excite her husband. Definitely not after ten years of marriage.
Swati did not like to so many things. She did not like to see movies or read books or have an intelligent conversation. She rarely dressed well and was always shouting at the children. The only thing she enjoyed doing was to gossip with the neighbourhood wives.
After dinner, Pritam and Antara repaired to their own bedrooms. He closed his eyes and immediately he was assailed by images of Antara with her smooth legs and arms. He masturbated silently but decided not to come. He wondered whether he should go to her room. There was always a possibility that she could slap him since she was his sister-in-law. But he had an intuition that she might not.
He tossed and turned about, wondering what to do.
Finally, at midnight, he mustered the courage to go to her room. ‘Fortune favours the bold,’ he thought. ‘Might as well give it a try. Either she will slap me or I will seduce her. There is no way of knowing the answer unless I give it a shot.’
He went to her room, stunning her for a brief while when he lay down beside him. Then he leaned sideways and hugged her. She lay stiff as a statue. Then he kissed her in the mouth and kneaded her breasts. Within a few moments, the swiftness vanished from her body and she began to respond with her tongue, which was soft and very wet, as all tongues are. But he felt that Antara’s tongue was wetter than Swati’s.
She was a natural in bed and took him in the mouth that first time. This was something which Swati had never done in their many years of marriage because she found it distasteful. But Antara had no such problems. And she was so good at it, that he easily climbed the peaks of ecstasy and he wondered, not for the first time, whether she had any prior experience. She knew a lot of things about lovemaking and when he did enter her, on another night, she did not stain the sheets with her blood. So, Antara, clearly, was not a virgin.
It was the start of their relationship. They managed to keep it secret from Swati and the daughters. They ensured that there was never any show of affection when they were around. Since Antara had the excuse of having to go to college every day, they would arrange to meet at a hotel room and spend a few hours there.
It was all so exciting. And Antara had a friend, Mallika, whose sister lived in America and she would send her the latest lingerie. Once or twice, Mallika had gifted black thongs to Antara and when she wore it in the hotel room, with black high heels, Pritam felt so excited that he almost came, just by looking at her. Antara looked like the women he saw on the porn sites at the cyber café in Park Circus that he frequented on most weekends.
But frustration was creeping into Antara. She did not like this second-class situation that she was in. She wanted legitimacy. She had no real feelings for Swati, who was ten years older than her. By the time she was a teenager, Swati had already been married and had left the house.
“I have another idea,” she whispered.
“Tell me,” Pritam said.
“We can arrange for her to have an accident. You know, when she is crossing the road and somebody runs her over,” she said.
Pritam looked outside the window. The sun was setting. It was a cool December evening. Again, the paddy fields stretched out as far as the eye could see. There was something wondrous about the scene and here in a train, he was sitting and discussing how to kill his wife, with his sister-in-law. A year earlier, if somebody had predicted this would happen, he would have laughed out aloud, thinking about the improbability of it all. ‘But life is strange,’ he thought, as he saw Antara look at him with an expectant look.
‘The problem with women,’ he thought, ‘was that they do not know how to compartmentalise sex, the way men do. It has to get mixed up with their emotions and then reason and logic does not work.’ That was what was happening to Antara, he realised. Basically, he just enjoyed the sex and did not want to complicate his life. But she wanted some semblance of permanence to the relationship.
“It seems like a good idea,” he said and saw a gleam in her eyes. A few moments later, he had a revelation. The look was one of greed and he suddenly realised that if he married her, his own life could be in danger. If Antara had no problems in killing off her sister, then she could easily bump off her husband and get the property for herself. A shiver ran through Pritam but he ensured that his face revealed nothing.
“Do you know of anybody who can do it?” he asked.
“Yes,” she nodded her head vigorously. “Do you know of my friend Mallika, the one who gave me the thongs?”
“Yes, I remember the name.”
Antara looked around and then leaned forward and said in a whisper, “Her father is a politician, with lots of contacts. He can get this done easily.”
“But then he will come to know about it,” Pritam said. “And that is risky. The news can get leaked. We will be beholden to them.”
For some moments, Antara frowned. Then she said, “I can go through Mallika. She will not betray me.”
“How can you be so sure? She is just a friend of yours,” Pritam said, sounding skeptical.
Again, Antara paused and looked around. The bogie remained empty as before. The rattling sound of the wheels hitting the tracks made it difficult for anybody to hear their conversation, even if they were around.
“Look, I am going to tell you a secret, but don’t be shocked by it.”
“What is it?” Pritam said, feeling his heart suddenly go thud thud.
“We are lovers,” Antara said.
“What do you mean?” Pritam asked, not understanding what Antara was trying to say.
“I am a bisexual, Pritam,” Antara said. “Mallika and I are lovers.”
Pritam opened and closed his mouth a few times. He was unable to say anything.
“Relax Pritam, if you keep opening and closing your mouth, flies will rush in,” she said, smiling a little.
“Amazing,” he finally said, shaking his head from side to side.
“Relax, at least I have been honest about it.”
“How long has this affair being going on?”
“Maybe, a year or less, I cannot say exactly. She is a very beautiful girl, I couldn’t resist.”
“No wonder she presented you with the thongs, she wanted to see you wearing it herself,” Pritam said.
“Exactly,” Antara said.
Pritam suddenly felt his throat go dry. He wondered whether all this was an elaborate plan by Antara. To start an affair and then get married to him, by bumping off the sister, and then probably kill him off. But then he realised that it was he who made the first move although she made sure that she was at home when Swati wasn’t.
“Excuse me, I want to go to the toilet,” he said.
Inside the toilet, as he pissed, he realised that Antara was far more complicated than he had realised. He felt that he could be playing with fire now. Things could really backfire and he could end up losing his life. But he wondered what to do now. Clearly, he had to finish the relationship but he did not know how to go about it. What a revelation this outing had been. Once again, his wife was at her parents’ place in Shibpur, while Antara told Swati that she was going for a picnic with her friends. And he had told Swati that he had some urgent project to finish and hence had to go to office. Maybe these lies were all for the good. He understood what he was up against. He took a deep breath and as he stepped out, instead of sitting next to her, he stood at the doorway, allowing the breeze to cool down his flushed face. After a while, Antara joined him at the door and held on to the rod in the middle of the entrance.
“So what do you think?” she asked.
“It seems like a good idea, but I have to think about it,” he said.
“Think fast, there is not much time,” Antara said.
“What do you mean?” he asked, looking intently at her.
Antara stared at him and her eyes widened.
“I don’t know what I meant by that,” she said, shaking her head.
Pritam realised that he was in trouble. There was no way that she would just allow him to give up on the relationship.
“Will you also kill me after we get married?” he asked.
“What are you talking about? I love you!” she exclaimed.
“Then what about Mallika? Do you also love her?”
“Yes, I love both of you.”
“You will have to make a choice,” he said.
“Why should I? We can have a menage a trois. It can be fun.”
He experienced a sudden hard on when she said that. For a few moments, he visualised two women in bed with him. It was exciting but in the sort of situation he was in, it could become very complicated and dangerous.
“I am not sure. It can also be a mess. Mallika could get jealous. She might not want to share you with me.”
She stared at him for a few moments and then said, “You are right. She is a lesbian and is mad about me.”
At that moment, he was sure that they were planning to kill him. It was an intuition and Pritam realised suddenly that his life was in danger. ‘What do I do now?’ he thought.
As he gripped the rod and leaned outside, he saw a train bearing down on the other track, and before he knew what was happening, he had stepped back and pushed Antara into the path of the oncoming train. Later, he would remember the image. Antara, her hands and legs outstretched, in a desperate bid to fall backwards and then her falling on to the track in slow motion and the engine rushing over her. There was a wild cry that was quickly smothered by the rattle of the wheels on the tracks as the train whizzed past.
With a thudding heartbeat, Pritam stepped back in shock and horror, holding his hands in front of his face, trying to ward off the fear that arose in him like a tidal wave. He rushed into another compartment. He wanted to be where other people were. He was afraid to be alone, to confront the horrible action that he had done, on the spur of the moment.
There was an aged couple sitting at a window and a groundnut vendor, in white shirt and pyjamas, sitting cross-legged on the floor, near the entrance, his basket in front of him. He was counting currency notes with the rapt concentration of a chess player.
Pritam sat at an empty window seat and felt a trembling in his hands and legs. Everything happened so suddenly and it was clear that she was dead. There was no way that she could have survived. After a few moments, he looked out of the window and saw that the red light at the back of the last carriage of the other train had become still. In other words, the train had come to a stop.
He wondered whether he would be caught. Two people knew that he had gone to Bandel with Antara: the boatman and the priest. But would they connect him to the girl? It depended on what the police did. If they regard the case as one of suicide, they might wait for a few days and then dispose of the body. She had no id cards with her. In fact, she had not carried any bag with her. But if there is an alert in all the stations about a missing girl, then things could get heated up.
Even though nobody knew that he had gone to Bandel with her. Unless, of course, Antara told Mallika. Even if she had, there was no way that it could be proved that they were together. Unless, of course, the police interrogated the boatman and the priest. And it was not impossible for that to happen.
If Mallika told the police that Antara and Pritam were having an affair and that they had gone to Bandel church, it would be easy to prove that they had been together. Manik Das and Fr. George could put the knife into him. God, there were so many imponderables. Either, he would come through cleanly or his life was going to become a mess.
His one option was to meet Mallika and then try to prove to her that they had not gone to Bandel, provided, of course, that Antara did tell her that they were going to Bandel. If she had not, that would complicate the matter further. He decided to do nothing but to keep his fingers crossed and hope for the best. He vowed that he would never get involved with women any more. ‘It is better to go to a high class prostitute in Sonagachi,’ he thought, as darkness gathered like a thick blanket outside the window.

Ayaz And His Friends

By Shevlin Sebastian

Ayaz Hussain’s father abandoned his mother and him when he was only eight years old. He went to live with another woman.
He had been a violent man. Ayaz had seen him kick his mother in the stomach many times. He would keep his eyes tightly shut, so that he would not have to see the pain, but the fearful screams of his mother chilled his soul.
He was relieved when his father left, although it became more and more difficult to have those three square meals. His mother worked as a servant in a rich businessman’s house. They survived on her salary of Rs 300 per month. They lived in a small room in a slum. Rats ran around on the floor at night.
Ayaz looks serene in the evening breeze as he stood outside the classroom of the missionary school. He is twelve years old. He is frail and small and wears a faded white shirt and unpressed brown trousers. His eyes are a clear brown and yet, there is a pool of sadness that no amount of smiling can remove.
He is in Class three of the night school conducted by the Jesuit priests for the poor. He had just got his report card and has passed all his exams! He smiles shyly when his friends congratulate him.
Ayaz can speak a little English. He wants a job and that is why he is studying. He wants to study as much as possible, but he is not sure for how long. Ayaz wants to buy his mother a saree and a pen for himself.
His mother, he said, loves him. She is his bulwark against the violence all around him in the slum: the husband hitting the wife and the children; the drunken shouts that he hears every night; the occasional frenzied violence let loose by the thug to affirm his control over the slum dwellers; the gambling and the prostitution that takes place all the time. Ayaz sees it all and keeps quiet and does not say anything.
Manoj Kumar, his friend and classmate, is also twelve years old. He is going through some suffering that is hindering him. He smiles, but it is more a grimace than anything else. His friends crowd around him as he speaks.
Sometime ago, Manoj says, he was returning home late at night when, near his house, he saw a man plunge a knife into another man. He watched, with horror, as the man staggered about, clutching his stomach and fall to the ground. Manoj’s legs trembled and shook and he ran away as fast as he could.
He has been frightened ever since.
Manoj speaks very softly and nervously. He says that he wants to study, so that he can get some work in future. All the children want work; they are obsessed by the need for it. There are many men in their slum who are unemployed. They grab the pittance their wives earn as domestic servants and spent it on drinks. When they return home drunk, they beat up their wives and children. It is really frustrating not to have any work to do.
Ayaz and his friends do not want to be in the same boat.
When you talk to them, all of them eager students of the night school, you are touched by their simplicity and innocence. They are all precociously mature because of the difficult experiences they have gone through. They know that life is a hard, uphill struggle. There is not a single moment that you can relax. You can starve as a result.
Yet, all of them, thin, wiry, children with dark, staring eyes have a dignity that you notice immediately. It is clear that Ayaz and his friends have the spirit of goodness within them; all of them firmly believe that, through work, they can lead a prosperous life.
But can they? There is always an underlying fear that all this goodness and optimism will evaporate one day. The past provides the fearful contemplation of the future.
All the violent men who live in the slums now were once children, like the gentle Ayaz and his friends. And yet, at some stage of their lives, through the brutality of the environment in which they lived, they had shed their goodness and had taken to crime and brutality. What guarantee is there that children like Ayaz will not go off in the same direction? What certainty is there that, under their goodness, they will not sprout seeds of hate and distrust?
For Ayaz and his friends, there are so few opportunities to rise in the world. In India and, especially, Calcutta, only the rich and the well-connected have all the opportunities. So, education will have to be sacrificed at the altar of the empty stomach.
They will work as labourers and servants and helpers in small dingy restaurants. The proprietor will be a hardened man, who will bully them, make them work 16 hours every day and give them a pittance in return. They will always be hungry as a result.
They will miss the sunshine and the games and the healthy life and education that are the prerogative of every child that is born on this Earth. They will forget how to smile or laugh and there will be a deadness, that familiar vacant staring, that is a symptom of the inner death.
And the politicians will love it. It is so much more easier to control a passive, materially deprived mass of people rather than an active, intelligent one. They will give their speeches, spewing hatred against one community or the other and their gang of ruffians will always be there, with their guns and threats, to ensure that the poor people voted for their leaders. This is called democracy, Indian style
It is getting dark. Ayaz and his friends go home, clutching their report cards, laughing, singing, joking, and having the time of their lives. The stranger moves on. He goes for a long walk, away from the crowds and the ceaseless traffic. It is late in the night and when, at last, he reaches a deserted park, he sits alone on a bench, surrounded by the black night and the eerie silence.
A boy approaches him and says, “Sir, do you want beautiful girl? Good price.”
“Where is she?” the stranger asks.
“Over there,” he said, pointing to a tree nearby. The stranger sees the outline of a sari-clad figure.
The sky looks vast and magnificent, filled with the lumiscence of so many stars and there is a silent question in the stranger’s eyes: ‘Oh God, if You are merciful and all loving, why don’t you allow children to have their childhood?’

(Published in The Telegraph Colour Magazine, 1986)

Sports articles

Permission to reproduce these articles has to be obtained from the Malayala Manorama, Kochi

Potent partnership
Anju Bobby George, coached by her husband, aims for Olympic glory at Athens

By Shevlin Sebastian/Bangalore

It is raining on a Monday evening in early May in Bangalore. The leaves on the trees that dot the Bangalore University campus, where the Sports Authority of India, South Centre is located, are a shimmering green. But Anju Bobby George is not thinking about nature’s beauty. She is disappointed that the practice jumps that she had scheduled on the synthetic track will now have to be cancelled. And next day, she is flying to Osaka to take part in a Grand Prix event. "No matter," says her husband and coach Bobby George. "We will train indoors."
So they move to the gymnasium hall and it is crowded with athletes, weightlifters, volleyball and basketball players. Anju takes rectangular mats and places it diagonally across the floor. As she is about to place one mat, she spots a nail sticking out from the wooden floor. "Look at this," she exclaims.
Bobby purses his lips together and says, "This is supposed to be the best gymnasium in the country. We have been asking for a top class gymnasium for years and [Union] Sports Minister Vikram Verma keeps promising that he will do something but nothing has happened so far."
He looks at me and asks, "So what do you think? Is this ‘India Shining?’"
The equipment is rudimentary and there are patches of rust on the barbells. The asbestos roof is a pale white, a clock on the wall is two hours behind, the paint is peeling off the walls and there are no proper vents.
Anju runs from one end of the room, leaps up, simulating a jump, lands on the mats and ends her run rushing into her husband’s arms. "Your knees are not going up properly," he says. Tucking a yellow T-shirt into her blue tracksuit, she nods, goes back to the top of her run and does another one.
In between runs, Bobby—who catches a glimpse of the newspaper in my hand, which has front-paged Dhanraj Pillay’s omission from the Indian team—goes ballistic: "These federation officials are so arrogant. Pillay can win the game single-handedly for India. He has such a big heart. You know, he should be made player-coach and I am telling you, he will inspire the others to win a medal."
As Anju comes up, she hears what Bobby says and adds, "Really, it is a shame."


"I was born in Cheeranchira in Changanassery in Kerala," Anju says. "It was my father, K.T. Markose, who initiated me into athletics."
Markose tells me on the phone that when Anju was in nursery class, he was excited by the coverage that P.T. Usha and Shiny Wilson were getting for their athletic exploits. "So I wanted her to become an athlete," he says.
In the beginning, Anju was not interested. "But gradually, I came to enjoy the thrill of competition," she says. She took part in her first competition in class one and in class three, she jumped three metres and won her maiden prize of a cup and saucer. By the time she was in class 10, she was doing the heptathlon. "But it wasn’t worth it, doing so many events and getting one medal in return," she said later, in an interview. In 1996, when she shifted to the long jump, she won the gold medal in the junior Asian championships held in New Delhi. It was also the year that she met Bobby George, a former national triple jump champion, at a training camp in Bangalore.
"When I met Bobby for the first time, it was not love at first or second sight," she says. In 1998, after the Asian Games trials at Bangalore, the Kerala state coach T.P. Ouseph was disappointed that Lekha Thomas (long jump and triple jump), Bobby Aloysius (high jump) and Anju were not selected. So he left. Lekha got married and Bobby Aloysius went abroad for training. "I was all alone," Anju says. "I noticed that Bobby [George] was training all by himself. So I approached him and asked him whether he could coach me and he agreed. I knew him before but we got close after we started training together. Then it became another story." They were engaged in 1999 and got married in 2000.
Bobby’s father, George Joseph, 72—whose elder son Jimmy was one of the legends in Indian volleyball before he died in a car accident in Italy—says, "Anju could not have done it without Bobby. Even though he has no formal qualification as a coach, because of his mechanical engineering degree, he tried out a lot of ideas and it worked with Anju."
She agrees easily: "Without Bobby I would have been stuck at the national level." Bobby refused to let her give up when she felt dejected after missing the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games and the World Championships in Edmonton because of injury. The prodding and the encouragement helped: in 2001, she set the national record by jumping 6.74m at a meet in Thiruvananthapuram.
In another session in the weightlifting gym, Anju places her stomach over a gymnastic vault, and her feet between two bars of a rack next to a wall. Then Bobby places a large round disk on her upper shoulders, and Anju lifts her body backwards, using her legs as leverage. She does 20 push-ups effortlessly. After she gets off the vault and moves away, I pick up the disk and can feel my shoulders almost being wrenched off. It weighs 20kg. Anju turns around, smiles and says, "Be careful, you might hurt your back."
Then she moves next to a wall, picks up a 5-kg ball, throws it against the wall and bounces it back with her upper thighs. She does this a few times. I stay away and look at the ball as if it is covered with algae.
There is a break in the training and the loquacious Bobby steps out. Anju sits on a stool, beads of perspiration sliding down her face.
I tell her about an article in The New York Times, which stated that it is impossible for any athlete to reach world class level without the help of drugs. Since everybody is taking them, the only way you can stay in competition is to take it yourself.
She hears me out silently and then, with an unflinching gaze, she says, "I don’t take drugs. I never have. I am afraid to damage my body. I want to win on my natural talent. If you go on the right path, God will reward you, At least, that is what I have learnt from life."
"What about Marion Jones?" I ask. "She is now under a cloud of suspicion."
Anju nods and says, "Check out the pictures of Marion a year ago and now and you will see a remarkable change. Earlier, she had huge muscles and was really bulky. Now she is slim and almost unrecognisable."
Then she tells me an anecdote. After she won the bronze medal at the World Athletics Championships in Paris last year, the first Indian to do so, Igor Ter-Ovanesyan—the Russian, who, along with Ralph Boston of the USA, held the long jump world record before it was broken by Bob Beamon’s immortal leap in 1968—came up to Anju and said, "I have to admire you. That you were able to win a medal from among those girls." Anju concludes, with a disarming smile, "I really don’t know what he was trying to say, but drugs are poison and I don’t take poison."


"Basically, there are ten sessions a week, mornings and evenings. Before competitions, the load is less but the intensity is high. I do 150m repetitive sprints. Sometimes, I have a five-hour session in the evening, from 4 to 9 p.m. We reach home by 9.30 p.m. Then Bobby gives me a massage and I have an ice bath. By the time I go to sleep it is 11.30 p.m. Being an athlete is a fulltime profession. I plan to take part in about 10 events before the Olympic Games."


"I had a lot of doubts. Even though my husband is my coach, he has never competed at the international level. When I trained with Mike Powell and other world class athletes in California for six months, last year, I understood how they prepared for a major competition. I learned little things like how much training to do a day before and on the day of the competition. Powell said that I had no problem with my technique. He just felt that my running on the runway was unsteady in competition. There was a lack of rhythm because of a lack of concentration. I was getting distracted by the crowds, the noise and the pressure. We worked quite a bit on the mental aspect."


"For the world championships, my deepest desire was to stand on the victory podium. I wanted a medal but that proved to be my undoing. If I had visualised a gold medal I would have probably won it. I had a very good jump of 6.90m plus, but it was called a foul. I was just 4mm across the line. It is impossible to see 4mm with the naked eye. One judge raised a white flag while the other raised a red flag. Since this was my first time at a major championship, I did not know the process of appeal. Looking back, both Bobby and I feel that if I had appealed, I would have won. [The winner, Eunice Barber of France, did 6.99m.] This time, I am just focused on winning the Olympic gold medal. It is a single-minded goal. Bobby and I are thinking about this 24 hours a day. Otherwise, I will not get it."
After a morning’s training session, we stand near her silver-grey Optra Chevrolet. Bobby opens the luggage compartment. It is filled with rucksacks. "These are all for her training," Bobby says and opens one rucksack and pulls out a red weighted jacket. I put it on and go for a jog. When I return, I say, "Hey, this is easy, no problem at all."
"Really," Anju says and takes out the weighted tracksuit, "Why don’t you wear this and run?" And then I realise that this is not a joke. The tracksuit weighs a few kilos, and I suddenly get a picture of how tough her training is.
Bobby adds, "This costs $300 and we had to pay duty on it. And remember, she works as preventive officer in the Customs in Chennai."
Before I could ask anything, he says, "We could have gone through the sports ministry and got a duty exemption but with the paperwork and the slow manner in which the bureaucrats work, the Olympics would have been long over. It was not worth the trouble."
As they get into the car and I wave goodbye, I am thinking, ‘She is the lone medal hope for a billion people. Must be a heavy burden, all these expectations’.
But knowing her quiet confidence, she would probably give a succinct reply: Main Hoon Na.

Feet first
Date of birth- April 19, 1977
Height 5’9"
Weight 62kg

International prefomance
Gold medal in the 2002
Asian Games in Busan
Bronze medal in the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester
Bronze medal in the 2003 World Athletics championships in Paris
Arjuna Award for the year 2002
Has signed up with Hudson Smith International, a top sports management firm which handles star athletes like Maurice Greene
Sobha Developers for 2004: Rs 30 lakh
2003: 4,800 euros for her silver medal at the D.N. Galan Meet in Stockholm, 5,000 euros at the Golden Gala in Rome, $20,000 for a third place in the World Athletics Championships in Paris and $5,000 for a fifth place in the World Athletics Finals in Monaco


Sharp shooter

Anjali Bhagwat aims for gold at Athens

By Shevlin Sebastian/Bangalore

"Sir, the overhead lights are not working," says Anjali Bhagwat, 35, at the Jagdale N. Radha-krishnan Shooting Complex in the Sports Authority of India centre in Bangalore. She is wearing a red and white uniform, made of canvas, with the word ANJALI in red going down one side of the coat.
"Let me try to fix it," says the portly armourer D.K. Shukla, in a blue shirt and cream trousers, as he beckons a man. The hall is hot although Anjali may get some relief from the sole Videocon cooler that is placed a few feet behind her. There are several shooters, men and women, standing beside her, practising assiduously. Now and then, the silence is punctuated by the flat sound of a bullet hitting a target.
Single-minded focus: Anjali during her training in Bangalore
Anjali lifts the rifle, stares through the lens for several moments and squeezes the trigger. Then she presses a button and the shooting card returns via a long thread. She places the rifle on the stand and stares at the floor, pondering her next shot. She is oblivious of the presence of a Doordarshan cameraman who is filming her every move, a freelance photographer who is clicking away on his digital camera, curious onlookers and the inevitable bunch of scribes. Clearly, she is the star in the hall.
And why not? Last year, in only her second appearance in the World Cup Finals in Milan, Italy—one has to perform well in the four World Cups during the season to be selected for the finals—Anjali outperformed defending champion Lioubov Galkina of Russia, world record holder Li Du of China, twice World Cup Finals champion Sonja Pfeilschifter of Germany and world champion Katerina Kurkova of the Czech Republic.
In 2002, she won four gold medals in the Commonwealth Games at Manchester and the team silver in the Busan Asian Games. For a while, in 2001, she was ranked number one in the world in the air rifle event. She received a last-minute wild card in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and became the first Indian shooter to reach the Olympic finals in the first attempt.
In Bangalore, Anjali agrees to speak to me only after the morning’s training is over. We sit on a stone bench under a tall tree, with its canopy of green leaves, just outside the shooting hall. She has now unpinned her hair and, unlike some of our sportswomen, looks very feminine. When I switch on my dictaphone, she asks whether the droning of insects will affect the taping. I say no and she smiles easily. She has a singsong voice and as she speaks for a few minutes I realise how much she loves the sport.
"I am addicted to shooting," says the Arjuna awardee of 2000. "Every day in practice I learn something new. You have to be conscious of your breathing. Your hand should be still. You have to be very aware of your muscles. If you move one muscle, the whole body moves, so you have to be aware which muscle is creating the problem. We also have to shoot on the off-beat. That is between pulse beats. We have to catch that moment."
"I am not even aware of either my pulse or heartbeat," I say.
She smiles and says, "That is why I am shooting 10 out of 10."
She is right. Earlier, I had inspected her shooting cards, which were placed on a chair behind her. I picked up the first 30 and saw that she had hit the bull’s-eye in every one of them. The surprising thing was that she was not aiming at a big, round bull’s-eye. She actually has to aim at a dot within a circle from a distance of 10m and she gets it spot on all the time.
Dronacharya awardee, Sunny Thomas, a retired professor of English, who has been the national coach for the past 11 years, says, "One of Anjali’s strongest attributes is her sense of calmness and a high degree of consistency. She is a naturally talented shooter, but she backs it up with hard work."
When she is at home in Mumbai, she catches a bus from Andheri and travels for an hour to reach the shooting range of the Maharashtra Rifle Association at Worli Sea Face. She trains from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m, with an hour’s break for lunch. From 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., she does physical training which includes yoga, free-hand exercises and jogging on one day and mental training the next. She has been in single-minded focus to fulfil her ambition of winning an Olympic gold.
"I will be taking part in two events in Athens," she says. "The 10m air rifle event and the 50m event. The air rifle is my master event and I am already in the top five. But last year I thought that I would master the 50m event. In the World Cup in Sydney earlier this year I won the bronze in the 50m." However, in the World Cup in Milan in mid-June, she came 12th.
The problem, she says, with the 50m event is that the necessary equipment and ammunition have to be imported from Russia or Germany, and for which, you need a special import licence. "It takes such a long time to get things done in India," Anjali says. "My husband, Mandar, is trying his best to get all the facilities. Just two months ago, he went to Frankfurt to get a new barrel for my rifle and new ammunition."
Frequently, during the conversation, she refers to her husband, so I had to ask the inevitable: "When and where did you fall in love with Mandar?"
"We had an arranged marriage a couple of years ago and he does not mind that I stay away for months at a training camp," she says. "After marriage, I started performing better because of the backing of my in-laws and my husband. In fact, Mandar, who has a manufacturing business, looks after my administrative work and accompanies me to all my tournaments at his expense. And when I participate in an event, because of him, I don’t have to think of anything else, except shooting."
"He is giving all of us husbands an inferiority complex," I say.
She bursts out laughing—eyes tightly shut, mouth wide open.
One of Anjali’s strongest attributes is her sense of calmness and a high degree of consistency, says coach Sunny Thomas
When she recovers, she continues with her husband-praising: "It was Mandar who said it was important that we should get publicity. Initially, I was shy and felt that I was shooting for my own self-satisfaction. He made me understand how important it was to have media coverage because sponsors will be happy."
"Do you have any sponsors?"
"For the Olympics, the Hinduja Foundation has paid for the equipment that I have imported. For example: my new barrel costs Rs 1.8 lakh. Ammunition is also expensive. Each bullet costs Rs 10 and I use around 200 bullets for practice. So my daily expense is about Rs 2,000. But for this, I have got a sponsorship from Hyundai. So I am spending a lot of money."
Like most Indian sportswomen, Anjali stumbled upon the sport accidentally. When she was in college, she was a member of the National Cadet Corps (NCC). "The turning point came in 1988 when there was an inter-collegiate shooting event for the NCC," she says. "I used to go for practice at the Maharashtra Rifle Association Hall and I saw shooters for the first time. I was fascinated by their equipment and the gear; I realised that this was something very different and I should try it."
In the national championships that year, she participated for a lark and won the silver in the rifle prone event. In 1990, under the coaching of veteran shooter Sanjay Chakravarthy, she won her first national title and ever since then, she has just got better and better.
As I watched her and the other shooters, during the morning session, I was struck by the strange uniform that they wore. So I asked H. Salim, 27, of the Border Security Force, whether I could try his jacket and he readily agreed. When I managed to put it on, it was like wearing a straitjacket or being encased in plaster. "This gear gives support to the back," said Salim. "The rifle weighs 5.5 kg and we have to hold it for nearly two hours. So, there is great pressure on the spine. This uniform—which is imported and costs Rs 35,000—is made of double canvas and we wear a linen cloth and sweatshirt underneath."
Uniforms can be imported easily, but Anjali has been waiting for a Rs 12 lakh electronic testing system (where shooting cards are changed electronically), for a long time but nothing has happened.
"And remember, I got my Olympic quota selection in 2002," says the Reliance Infocomm employee. "We had two years in hand. At the Olympic Games, only the ETS will be used. So I have a drawback when I practise with manual cards."
It is nearing lunchtime. Traces of impatience flicker across her face. The other shooters have left and the area is deserted. I quickly wrap up the interview.
"How long do you plan to go on?"
"There is no reti-rement age in shooting. If you are mentally strong, you can shoot for years. In fact, there is a shooter from Slovakia, he is in his 70s and he is still in the national team."
In a teasing tone, I ask, "So, will we see a silver-haired Anjali Bhagwat in a 2040 Olympic Games?"
But this woman is so serious about her shooting, she mis-ses my flippancy completely and replies with a serious face, "After a few years, I will slow down and, maybe, con-centrate on one event." Go for it, Anjali!

Saying yes to doping

More and more athletes are taking drugs to win medals

By Shevlin Sebastian/Hyderabad

"Let me tell you a story," said athlete Anindita Sinha (real name not disclosed), in the reading room in the National Games village in Hyderabad. The subject under discussion: doping in Indian sports. Ever since middle-distance runner Sunita Rani tested positive for the drug nandrolone at the Busan Asian Games, there has been a cloud of suspicion over every Indian athlete. Sinha's story lifts the lid on doping.

"Before the Indian team left for the Asian Track and Field Meet in Jakarta in 2000, eight athletes tested positive," said Sinha. "If they were held back, the Amateur Athletic Federation of India (AAFI) would have had to inform the press about it and there would have been a scandal. Instead, they were allowed to go ahead, but with instructions to perform badly. Most of them did not advance very far. There was a shot-putter who did a foul throw three times in a row. He was able to disqualify himself that way."

Most athletes live in fear that the federation can expose them any time; they might even lose their jobs, said Sinha. So they toe the line and will not speak out against the federation which is allowing the use of drugs. "They are locked in a tight embrace of wrongdoing," she said.

Referring to the Sunita Rani case, Sinha said: "It is impossible for the foreign doctors (looking after Rani) to have made a mistake. They command huge salaries so they have a responsibility to provide the correct drugs and have them flushed out of the system 30 days before the competition so that there is no chance of being caught. I have a feeling that Sunita and her coach tried something but this is only guesswork. The issue afforded an ideal opportunity for the federation to clean the system of the rot but instead, they defended Rani based on a technicality. Maybe it maintained the country's image abroad."

The pressure to win medals rests not only on the players but also on the authorities. "Because every time India participates abroad and does badly, the press raises a hue and cry over the money wasted on sport," said Sinha. "Dope-taking is rampant abroad. If you want medals, you have to take dope. But then that opens the possibility of getting caught. If the federation produces medal-winning athletes, they get more money from the government. The medallists will get prize money and job promotions, so there is a lot of pressure to take drugs. Basically, it all boils down to money."

But Sinha is clear on one score. "By the time an athlete comes to the national camps, she is about 20 years old and mature enough to say yes or no to drugs. The moral choice is hers. But just by taking drugs you cannot become a champion. You have to work for several years before you can make a mark. Drugs definitely help you enhance your performance."

"There is a serious problem with weightlifters. We are trying to solve
the problem about drugs," says Suresh Kalmadi, AAFI president.

"Do you know why the Sports Authority of India is not accrediting its world-class dope testing laboratory in New Delhi with the International Olympic Committee (IOC)? Because it will have to inform the IOC about positive dope tests and the matter will become public. Instead, SAI says that it needs to improve its quality systems so that it can get accredited. It's all bullshit. A massive cover-up is going on."

Sinha is aware that regular drug use can bring about physical changes in the body. "Women's voices become masculine, they develop black moles and red eyes. The throwers and weightlifters (the group taking drugs in India according to Sinha) become extremely aggressive and violence-prone as the competition nears. Prolonged use causes side-effects like delayed periods and difficulty in conceiving. I know of a famous weightlifter whose child is perpetually suffering from some illness or the other," she said. "The price of a medal is really high and there are quite a few sportswomen who are willing to pay the price. But the ones who really suffer are the honest athletes. They stand no chance against those who take drugs and it saps their motivation."
Across town, in the lobby of the Taj Krishna, AAFI president Suresh Kalmadi commented on the issue. "Look, dope is a serious problem all over the world," he said. "In India it has been magnified out of proportion. We did so well at the Commonwealth Games and the Busan Asian Games. Why don't you concentrate on that? We have big talents like Anju Bobby George, Beenamol, Bobby Aloysius and Neelam Singh. Okay, okay, there is a serious problem with weightlifters. I have to admit that. We are trying to solve the problem about drugs."

On the other hand, Kulwant Singh, coach of the Bihar team, said: "Dope-taking is widespread in Indian sport. You have to take it if you want to compete on the international level, where they all take dope. There is nothing wrong in it. If you want to bring glory to the country, you have to take it. But you must ensure that you don't get caught."

Shajan Skaria, husband of Busan Games high jump silver medallist Bobby Aloysius, revealed more. "Doping in India is an Ôofficially' sponsored programme. They target a few athletes from the national camps who are given medicines and injections for four years. They are used as guinea-pigs. All they want is medals. They don't care about the future of these athletes. When the next Asian Games or Olympics comes up, another group is selected and pumped with dope."

But who influences athletes to take drugs? Usha Nair, SAI cycling coach, said it was the "seniors encouraging the juniors to take it. Youngsters nowadays want to win at all cost and they are willing to cut corners for that."

There are, however, stray voices that maintain there is no doping in Indian sport. "All sorts of allegations about drug-taking has been hurled but nothing has been proved," said Randhir Singh, secretary-general of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). "These allegations are baseless," said P. Narasimhalu, coach of the Goa swimming team. "Athletes take ordinary tablets like Actifed, which contains some banned substances. So you get caught because of it. I have been a coach for several years and I have not come across anybody taking drugs." Manoj Lal, a member of the silver-medal winning 4x400m quartet in Busan Asian Games, said, "I take only vitamin supplements. You don't need drugs to do well. You need will-power."

Lalit Bhanot, secretary of AAFI, denied allegations that the federation had overlooked positive drug tests. "We are the first to initiate drug tests and we have suspended athletes who have got caught," he said. "People are funny. When we don't win, they ask why aren't we winning. And when we win, they say it is because of dope. We won almost 50 per cent of the athletics medals in the Busan Asian Games. And all the athletes, except Sunita, passed the dope tests."

So how can the situation be tackled? Skaria offered the perfect antidote. "We should develop potent drugs using Ayurveda. Because then it will not come up on any banned list and we can win for at least 10 years before the IOC figures out what drug we are using."

On the other hand, Dr Swarup Mukherjee, state coordinator of the IOA's Doping Commission for the National Games, sounded the right note. "We have to sensitise sportsmen about the harmful effects of drugs," he said. "If you take drugs over a period of time, you will suffer from impotency, sterility, heart failure, malfunctioning of the liver, and certain cancers of the body. A woman who takes drugs regularly is unlikely to bear a normal child. If you tell them not to take drugs because of moral reasons, they might not listen. But if you tell them that you might get cancer, they will."

The players have a champion in Pullella Gopichand, former All England badminton champion. "We should have a coach who is responsible for the sportsperson," he said. "Instead, we have a system where there is one coach at the state level, one at the national level and one who takes them for international events. So nobody can be held accountable and the sportsperson has to take the blame if he or she fails a dope test."

Manisha Arya, gold medallist in the junior Asian wrestling championships in New Delhi in 2000, is brutally forthright. "Every athlete abroad has a doctor to look after his drug needs," she said. "We need doctors to tell us how to use drugs and when to leave it, so that we are not caught. Practice and hard work are not enough. Those who are caught are labelled chors (thieves), those who are not are heroes. That's the risk you have to take. Take it or leave it."


The march of time

By Shevlin Sebastian

PAYYOLI: March 1991: I travelled all the way from Kolkata, where I used to live, for my meeting with P.T. Usha at her home. She had retired and was weeks away from marrying V. Sreenivasan, a former university-level kabaddi player. She was courteous, down-to-earth and friendly.
She lived in ‘Ushass’—the house she built with the help of a Rs 2 lakh grant from the Kerala government—with her parents, E.P.M. Paithal and Lakshmi, sisters Suma and Shobha and brother Pradeep. It was a lively household.
But it was clear that she was suffering because her career had ended. "When I was an athlete there was this ever-present feeling of tension and anticipation," she said. "Now it is no longer there. Nowadays when I get up I lie in bed and feel depressed." (Of course, she would make a comeback in 1994 and retire again in 2000.)
But that day, despite her bleak mood, her courteousness was unfailing. After lunch she took me in her new Standard 2000 car, which was gifted by the state government, to show me the beach where she had spent several years training on the sands...
July 2004: The house is still the same but it is now painted bright red. I had come to do a story. Sreenivasan opens the door and welcomes me. Inside, the living room has been remodelled, there is plenty of open space, gleaming floor tiles and classy woodwork. But the famous wall-length glass case with the hundreds of medals that Usha won is still there.
When Usha, 40, walks in from the bedroom, in a brown salwar kameez, straight-backed, steady gaze and a welcoming smile, I realise instantly that she is still the same, friendly, down-to-earth person I had known. Unlike most people, being a celebrity had not damaged her character.
But the passage of time has inflicted wounds and change. Her beloved father died in 1998 of old age ailments. Both her sisters have married and moved away. Her brother, Pradeep, lives in Kannur with his now-pregnant wife. So Usha now lives with her mother and husband and 12-year-old son, Ujjwal.
Ujjwal, who sprints down the stairs from the first floor in the way only kids can, is already five feet tall. The proud father, who is a full-time treasurer of the Usha School of Athletics in nearby Koyilandy, says, "He has sprinting ability. I feel that he could reach a height of 6’4", which is good for sprinting. But that depends on whether he wants to be an athlete."
We move out to take some pictures and I notice that the well, with its crystal-clear water, has several tiny fish. "Ujjwal bought a few fish but now they have multiplied," explains Sreenivasan.
"What do you expect?" I say. "After all, they are Indian fish."
Sreenivasan has a giggling fit.
A poignant moment comes when I ask Usha about her career and she feels such a sense of loss. "I had so much of talent but I lacked the right exposure at the right time. If I had participated in meets abroad regularly, I could have performed so much better." Her voice trails off and she gives a sad smile.
But when you see how small the town of Payolli is, the complete absence of facilities, when you remember the financial struggles of the family during her childhood, you cannot help but have a sense of admiration.

Reporter's Diary

The French connection

By Shevlin Sebastian

CHENNAI: What is a French couple doing at the 44th Inter-state National Athletics Cham-pionships? Photographer Gilles Bertrand gives me the answer: "My wife, Odile Baudrier, and I own a track and field magazine in France called VO2. We became interested in Indian athletics after seeing Anju Bobby George win the long jump bronze medal in the World Athletics Championships in Paris last year."
And so there is Gilles, 49, a slim, bespectacled man, running all over the place, snapping pictures furiously. Odile, 48, prefers to stay in the stands, but when high jumper Bobby Aloysius manages to get selected for the Olympics on her very last jump, she is at the trackside, asking me questions. She does not know that Bobby—who is conversing in Malayalam with a scribe—speaks English.
Gilles has covered three Olympic Games since 1992, every World Athletics Championships since 1991 and several Grand Prix events, and has visited more than 60 countries. "I like to do stories on how society influences sports and vice versa," he says. When I ask him about the standard at this meet, the tall man bends and places his palm a little above his knees and says politely, "The standard is a little low, but the organisation of the event is excellent."
It has been a busy year for Gilles. He has been to Morocco to do a story on Nawal el Moutawakel, the first Moroccan, African and Muslim woman to win an Olympic gold medal in the 400m hurdles in the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Then he went to Ethiopia to do a story on the country’s powerful athletics team, then on to Greece to witness the national athletics cham-pionships and to see the main Olympic stadium, and now here he is, in India.
What is depressing to hear are his views on doping. "Around 90 per cent of the winners on the international circuit are on dope," he says. I suggest that, maybe, the figure is too high and he gives a wry smile and says, "This is the reality although few are caught."
I rattle off the names of Carl Lewis, Merlene Ottey, Gail Devers, Marion Jones and even the great Haile Gebreselassie of Ethiopia. "All on dope, monsieur, but I have no proof," he says. "But you know who is on dope and who is not. Gebreselassie’s time of 26:22.75 in the 10,000m is inhuman. Most probably, it is blood doping. But he is a good man and very rich. His house in Addis Ababa is like a castle." Incidentally, in June, Gebreselassie’s compatriot Kenenisa Bekele, set a new world record in the 10,000m at 26.20.31.
Gilles tells his anecdotes in halting English and bursts out laughing when I try out the only French sentence I know: "Je t’aime, ma cherie (I love you, my darling)."

The magic drink

By Shevlin Sebastian

In September, 1996, a few years before I joined The Week, I was sitting in a library in Kolkata and flipping through the magazine. Suddenly, a three-page article by B. Krishnakumar caught my attention. It was about a drink that cured terminally ill patients: A woman politician who was dying because of a failed kidney made a remarkable recovery after having the drink, so did a terminal cancer patient. It worked wonders for those suffering from heart disease, asthma, bronchitis, skin allergies, chronic cold and what have you. Tribals in Rajasthan used it to heal bruises, sprains, jaundice and diarrhoea and even gangrene. An excitement began to rise up in me. This drink seemed to be an elixir for eternal youth.
The next day I went to the National Library and browsed through the catalogue to see whether there were any books on the subject. There was only one and reading it at one sitting confirmed all what I had read in The Week article. There was also additional information: if you splashed it on your face, your face would glow.
So I decided to try it. It was an easy to make drink and the only rule was that you had to have it first thing in the morning.
So one morning I got up at 6 a.m., made the drink, took a deep breath, took my first sip… and almost vomited. I had to hurriedly put the glass down, press my mouth with my hand as I felt the bile rise up in my throat. I took a few deep breaths in a bid to calm down. Then I tentatively took another sip and it felt okay. Soon, I took several sips and I was elated when I finally emptied the glass. It seemed as if I had climbed a mountain.
Thereafter, I began drinking it every day. Within days, I was splashing it on my face. After a week, I asked my wife whether I glowed, and she said, clearly not approving of this new habit, “You look the same, maybe a bit more run down.” When I told my childhood friend Anup about the face splashing, he said, “From the time you were a kid, you have been like this.” He then placed his forefinger like a gun against the side of his forehead and turned it clockwise a few times. I got the message and stopped talking about the subject.
Anyway, after six months, I did not sense any perceptible change in my health. The only benefit I noticed was that it miraculously cleared the congestion in my throat, especially when I was having a cold or when the pollution was too much. And gradually I began to slow down. From seven glasses, it went down to six a week, then to five and now, seven years later, I am down to one drink a week. Perhaps the only time I drink two or three times a week, is when the season is changing and people are falling sick or a virus is floating around. Then I have a few glasses and feel fortified.
So have you guessed what the drink is?
Well, thanks to The Week, I am a member of the late Prime Minister Morarji Desai’s urine-drinking club.

He's my brother (A short story)

By Shevlin Sebastian

My wife denied that she was having an affair with Calvin.
“Calvin is like a brother to me,” Sharon said.
Once when I took a day off and was watching TV, Calvin called. Sharon answered, in a slightly breathless voice, “Hello, John is at home. He took leave today.”
Calvin put the phone down. “How often does Calvin call?” I asked my wife.
“He calls up now and then,” she replied.
“Why does he call when I am not at home?” I shouted suddenly, “why not in the night or the early mornings?”
“How am I to know? He is calling me up, not me him!”
What do you say to a reply like that?
Sharon told me, a year into our marriage that she was unhappy.
“You are a poor lover,” she said.
I have to admit that I am not good in bed. I lose control especially when Sharon is on top. She would always scream, “Shit!” and pull at my hair in frustration.
In the second year of our marriage, she met Calvin. They were members of the church choir. Calvin had an aquiline nose, thick red sensuous lips and long wavy black hair. He strutted around in the parish club, flexing his biceps in the sleeveless t-shirts that he wore.
As for me, I was frenetically busy in my advertising job with its long hours and punishing deadlines. I always returned home in an exhausted mood. Sharon, feeling bored, was eager for a chat and sex but I could do neither. She sulked often.
Sometimes Calvin would give Sharon a gift – either it was a handkerchief, or lipsticks and once, daringly, a black see-through panty.
“What’s going on?” I asked, feeling nervous.
“Relax, John,” she said. “you are getting paranoid. Not everybody has a one-track mind like you, thinking only of sex.”
I reached out for her and she spread her legs willingly. I felt less scared after our five-minute session, even though it was one-sided.
One morning Sharon said, “John, I want to visit my parents in Delhi. It’s been a year since I saw them. Can you come?”
She knew I couldn’t. The Olympics was going on and I was doing a major campaign for a blue-chip company.
“I can’t come now,” I said.
“Do you mind if I go,” she pleaded. “Calcutta is so boring. I feel so depressed. You can come later.”
“Okay,” I said. And Sharon went off to Delhi.
The next I heard from her was when she sent me the divorce papers by courier. I got mad. I was sure that her ‘brother’ Calvin had instigated her to do this. I decided that I would smash Calvin’s face with a crowbar and spoil his good looks.
I drove to the parish club and saw a girl in skin-tight jeans and a white t-shirt standing next to the billiards table. I asked her where Calvin was.
She smiled mockingly and said, “Calvin has re-located to Delhi.”

The afternoon visit

By Shevlin Sebastian

Farida Begum stood, with her son Shakeel, outside the door of the sixth floor flat. As she pressed the doorbell, she quickly looked around, hoping there was nobody coming up or down the stairs. She always felt a touch of nervousness, a quick intake of her breath, whenever she stood in front of this white-painted door. She wouldn’t be able to give a plausible excuse if somebody asked her what she was doing here. She adjusted the folds of her yellow chiffon saree and touched her bobbed hair, above both her ears, to see whether everything was in place. Her four-year old son, in a denim shirt and trouser, watched her silently. A few moments later Jojo D’Souza, bare-bodied and in Bermuda shorts, opened the door, with a flourish and a wide smile on his face.
“Hi!” he said, as he looked at Farida. His eyes widened quickly in appreciation as he noted the slim waist and the bulging breasts, the smooth arms, exposed by the sleeveless blouse that she wore, and the lips a stunning red, thanks to a generous application of lipstick, and then he bent down and picked up the boy and said, “How are you little master?”
Shakeel smiled, showing white milky teeth.
“Say ‘I am fine, thank you,” Farida said, as they entered the flat.
“Fine, thank you,” Shakeel said, in the lilting tone of young children.
“Do you want a chocolate?” Jojo said.
“Yes uncle,” Shakeel said, as he stared at Jojo’s hairy chest and rippling biceps. He plucked at some of the hairs.
“Do you want to have hair like this?” Jojo said, with a smile.
“Yes uncle,” Shakeel said.
“Then you have to grow up.”
Farida looked with frank lust at Jojo’s tanned body. His skin was the colour of brown chocolate. He had a flat stomach and strong, muscular legs all brought about by the regular weightlifting that he did in a nearby gymnasium on Royd Street.
Shakeel pulled a lock of Jojo’s shoulder-length hair. “Ouch,” Jojo said, in a mock voice of pain. “Shall I do the same to you?”
“No, uncle, I want chocolate,” Shakeel said, as he released the lock of hair.
They were standing in the drawing room that had very little furniture except for a low brown sofa, which was placed next to a window. Against the opposite wall, was a Sony television set.
“Guess what Farida,” Jojo said in an excited voice. “I got a new CD player. Come, I’ll show you.” He placed Shakeel on the sofa and went to the television set. The CD player was placed in a shelf below it.
“See these discs,” Jojo said, taking out one, “How wonderful it looks. And the sound is mind-boggling.”
“Where did you get it?” Farida asked, bending down on her haunches to look closely at the player.
“Uncle, I want chocolate,” Shakeel cried out, as he jumped up and down on the sofa in his shoes.
“Just a minute, Shakeel… David, a friend of mine, was going for a holiday to Singapore, so I told him to get me one.”
“It’s beautiful,” Farida said, as she watched the colours of a rainbow being formed when she pointed the disc towards the sunlight. She then shouted, “Shakeel, take off your shoes.”
She went across and took off his shoes and placed it on the floor.
“Come on, let me play you Kenny Rogers, your favourite,” Jojo said, as he put a CD inside the player and pressed ‘play’.
“Last night, there was a ruckus in the hotel,” he said, turning to look at Farida, who was sitting on the sofa, one leg on the knee of the other. “We were playing the usual rock and roll stuff, me going crazy on the drums, when a group of men came in, totally drunk and they wanted us to play songs of K.L. Saigal. I have barely heard of Saigal and so Jeff apologised and said that we did not know any Saigal numbers. The men got angry and abused us. Things would have gone out of control but the manager intervened and a compromise was reached. We played Kuch na kaho from 1942 and Ek do teen char from Tezaab.”
“Uncle, I want chocolate,” Shakeel moaned.
“Okay, okay,” Jojo said, as he raised his hands in mock surrender. Then he went in a semi jog to the kitchen. Farida admired the strong shoulders and the bulging chest, so different from her unfit and indifferent husband. He returned holding a Kitkat.
“Say, thank you,” Farida said, as Shakeel tore open the packet.
“Thank you uncle,” Shakeel said, as he bit into the chocolate. The red cover lay on the floor.
“That’s okay beta,” Jojo said. “Farida, how do you like the sound?”
“Beautiful,” Farida said, as she bent and picked up the paper and crumpled it into a ball, “the sound is so clear.”
“Welcome to the world of CD music,” Jojo said as he sat cross-legged on the red carpet.
“I didn’t know you could play Ek do teen,” Farida said, suddenly “I thought you only played English music.”
Jojo grinned and said, “This is the only Hindi song I know well, to be frank.”
“Shakeel, give uncle a piece of chocolate,” Farida said.
“Take uncle,” Shakeel said, pointing the bar, which had teeth marks on it.
“You have bitten this end,” Farida said, “give the other side.”
Shakeel broke a piece of chocolate from the other end and gave it to Jojo.
“Thank you beta,” Jojo said, as he put the chocolate inside Farida’s mouth. A little bit of chocolate stuck to Jojo’s finger and Farida, seeing it, licked it off. He grinned and felt the beginnings of a hard-on.
“How is Niaz?” he asked and held her hand as Shakeel gazed out of the window.
“He is always on tour in the northeast tea gardens, for his company, I hardly see him,” Farida said, smirking.
Shakeel started jumping up and down.
“Be careful beta,” Farida said.
Jojo said, “Come on Farida, let’s go have some tea.”
In the kitchen, Farida dropped the chocolate packet into the waste bin while Jojo opened a wooden cabinet on the wall above his head and took out a tin of Brooke Bond and opened the refrigerator and took out a Mother Diary milk pouch.
“Is he still on coke?” Jojo asked, as he lit the gas stove.
“Yes,” Farida said, handing him the sugar bowl. “He was an addict before our marriage and has not changed. We are always having financial problems because he spends all his money on drugs. And you know that even though I have a master’s degree in literature from Calcutta University, he will not let me work. Because we are living in a joint family, we somehow manage.”
They sipped the tea from steel glasses.
Jojo stared at Farida’s midriff, which was exposed, because she had worn the saree way below her waist.
“Is he still impotent?” he asked.
“Sometimes, yes, but mostly, he is not interested in making love,” she said.
“But I am,” Jojo said and smiled and put the glass down on the counter.
“How strange that we are friends,” Farida marveled, “I come from a Muslim family and you are a Christian.”
“Fate,” Jojo replied, as he came closer, “that’s the only way to explain it. It also helps that I was Niaz’s college mate.”
Farida smiled as she put her glass down. “I am feeling hot,” Jojo said. “Can you see my nipples? They are standing.” He pressed his nipple and it began to swell up.
Farida tittered.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “Are they as responsive as a woman’s?”
“Lick it,” Jojo commanded.
Farida bent down and licked the nipple and she could see it swelling up.
Jojo picked up the short Farida, lifted her up and kissed her violently on the mouth.
She put her arms around Jojo’s mouth and responded with her tongue. They stayed like that for a while. Then she broke away and whispered, “Don’t forget, Shakeel is here.”
Jojo shut the kitchen door and placed a stool against it, as there was no lock. He came back and kissed Farida on her forehead, her cheeks, her necks and ears. Farida closed her eyes and moaned in sheer pleasure. Jojo pulled at her saree and Farida with feverish fingers unhooked the clips of her orange blouse. A madness was entering her eyes. She forgot where she was. A blind lust arose in her, as her breasts heaved from the unsteady breathing. Jojo yanked off his Bermudas and lay on top of her. His ebony skin was in striking contrast to her pale, white skin.
In the drawing room, Shakeel, feeling bored, had got up on the window sill and was standing with his socks. He gripped the thin, long perpendicular rods, and saw buildings on all sides and the ubiquitous trams, rickshaws, cars and mini buses, moving along, far below, on Royd Street.
Jojo entered Farida as she jerked her head from side to side. She lifted her legs and pressed her heels against the small of Jojo’s back. Her own back was paining because she was lying on the hard floor but she ignored the pain each time Jojo thrust forward. There was a red flush on her face and soft sighs escaped from her mouth like drops of water from a leaking pipe. Jojo was perspiring in the afternoon heat. His tongue hung out and his biceps swelled with the effort of the forward-backward movement.
Shakeel placed his head between the gills, but it got stuck. Hurriedly, he pulled his head back. He tried again and this time, by twisting it from one side to another, he pushed his head through. Now, with mounting fear and excitement, he pushed his body through and now he was outside. He looked down and experienced vertigo. He quickly turned his back and gripped the rod tightly. He called out, “Ma!” But Kenny Rogers was singing too loudly, “Islands in the stream, that is what we are, no one in between…”
As the slap of flesh became more and more loud, Farida’s long fingernails raked Jojo’s back in straight and diagonal lines.
“I want more,” she whispered with a fierce urgency. “More, more, more. Ah, oh, ah, oh God!”
Jojo cried, “Okay bitch” and increased the speed of his thrusts and Farida could feel an orgasm rise up in her, almost similar to a tidal wave, as it rose and fell with an almighty crash.
Shakeel’s head hit the edge of a wall and split into two. There was a spattering of blood all around and bits of white, gluey brain spilled on the ground, as he lay still and unmoving, instantly dead.
Within seconds, Jojo gripped her shoulders so tightly that Farida felt that she would be crushed, as he shed his load inside her.
After that, he lay heavily on her, his mouth open, breathing like a marathon runner and whispered, “Oh God, that was simply wonderful.”
And slowly Farida opened her eyes, and she could now feel a dull throbbing pain at the base of her spine.
“Jojo, get up,” she said, “my back is paining. The ground was so hard although I couldn’t remember it.”
“The ecstasy of sex,” Jojo said, as he got off Farida’s body.
“Get dressed quickly,” Farida said. “This is madness. Shakeel is in the next room.”
Jojo smiled as he picked up his shorts from the floor. His whole body was encased in a sheen of sweat. “I need a bath now,” he said. “These summer afternoons are so hot and humid.”
Farida began to get dressed quickly.
Meanwhile, the durwan, an old man with a black fez cap, had discovered Shakeel’s body and shouted for help.
People rushed from the street and the other flats in the building.
Jojo pushed the stool to one side and went into the drawing room. Shakeel was nowhere to be seen.
“Shakeel, where are you?” he called out, as he took out the Kenny Rogers CD and put in a Michael Bolton album.
He went into the bedroom. There was nobody around. The room was mostly bare. There was a cloth stand at one corner and a coir carpet on the floor. He peered under the bed. He checked the bathroom and it was empty. He went back to the drawing room and saw that Shakeel’s shoes were in front of the sofa. He lifted the sofa cover and looked underneath but there was an undisturbed film of dust. He checked the entrance but it was locked from inside.
He went to the kitchen as Farida was buttoning up her blouse.
“Have you seen Shakeel?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Farida asked, a look of fear in her eyes.
“He does not seem to be around,” Jojo said. Bolton started singing, ‘How am I supposed to live without you?’
They frantically searched all the rooms of the flat. “Shakeel,” Farida called out in a low voice. Slowly, her voice increased in volume till, in the end, she was shouting, “Shakeel, where are you hiding?”
It was then that Jojo looked out of the window and saw a crowd of people standing below. Something was very wrong.
“Farida,” he shouted, “we have to go downstairs.” He grabbed a t-shirt and the house keys and they ran down the stairs.
“Move please,” Jojo said, as he pushed his way through the crowd and stared aghast at the dead body. Farida saw Shakeel’s body and let out a long, loud despairing wail.
The body was first taken to Assembly of God hospital and after Shakeel was declared dead, it was taken to Farida’s house in Park Lane. Niaz, who was in Guwahati, was told to return as fast as possible. Relatives gathered in the flat, to bathe the body and prepare it for the funeral.
When Niaz came, thin, with black curly hair and a wisp of a moustache, he took Farida to the bedroom to hear what had happened. And when Farida tried to explain, her face streaked with tears, Niaz just stared at her. Then he put his hands around Farida’s throat and pressed hard. As Farida gasped for breath, he hissed, “What were you doing in Jojo’s flat? You know, I always suspected that something was going on. I am going to kill the bastard.”
Farida could not answer because Niza had cut off her oxygen supply.