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Short Story 2013 Featured First
 

Bad Nerves

Siddhartha Lal

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It was a perfect postcard for the dysfunctional capital. Coughing out ominous looking fumes that would have put the snot-nosed tempos of the city to shame, it presented a funny sight on the city streets, wobbling and gasping its way to glory. The dirty green shade had been bright parrot green once. On being questioned about his aesthetic sense, Ritwick’s father had used some of the choicest cuss words and remarked that the ‘lovely’ colour would spruce up the dreary atmosphere at home. Nobody had dared question his artistic acumen thence. Indeed, the woebegone LML Vespa was more a member of the Sharma family than anyone would give it credit for.

Years of misuse and negligible maintenance meant that grime and soot had settled in every nook and corner of the contraption, not only depriving it of any bright colours but also the least amount of dignity. Even traffic policemen seemed to be wary of stopping the lumbering beast. The license plate had all but fallen off and one would be hard pressed to make out any of the numbers or alphabets. It seemed as if they had once gone for a ride with the wind and had never quite managed to make their way back. Every now and then, the engine would sputter and threaten to give out. But a quick shift to neutral and a gentle reassuring tap on the side seemed to put it back in high spirits.

The famed transportation was now used only for dubious purposes. Only last year, after a bout of drunken revelry, Ritwick had expressed his desire to march to Sitapur on foot for some godforsaken reason, and then proceeded to enlist Shlok in his cause. Several alternatives and negotiations were bandied back and forth. Eventually, Shlok managed to convince him to ride the Vespa instead. When the battered vehicle gave out just outside Janakipuram, hardly ten miles into the momentous journey, Shlok had breathed a huge sigh of relief and thanked his stars several times over.

Both of them had walked back home at 4 in the morning, leaving the scooter to its fate at an all-night dhabha on Kursi Road. (But not before they had regaled the proprietor with their sorry tale and engorged on some mutton kebabs). Next day, his father had made Ritwick lug the piece of junk all the way to their home. Thereafter, he had never expressed any desire to march, on foot or wheels, whenever he was drunk. Today, uncomfortably perched on the weather-beaten seat and brows furrowed in deep concentration, he was on his way to Shlok’s place in order to put another one of his harebrained schemes into effect.

“Today is a special day, boss”, Ritwick beamed as he daintily parked the Vespa outside the gates.

Bakwaas!” Shlok brushed him off. Despite his promise to stay away from Sitapur, Shlok had learnt to be suspicious of his bright moods ever since the fateful march had failed to materialize. The Vespa had only added to his misgivings today.

Boss, dheeraj rakho. You will know. I got the Vespa. Get dressed. We are going to get some action.”
Shlok raised his eyebrows in exclamation but then let out a sigh in defeat. Besides, there was no harm in getting some fresh winter air. Soon the sun would be out and the dust that had settled down due to the mist from last night would be stirred up again by automobiles jostling for space on the narrow Lakhnavi roads. There was nothing left to be done. So he put on his jacket and rode pillion while Ritwick zig zagged through the congested by lanes of modern day Avadh.

They took the Barrage route out of Gomti Nagar, past the architectural monstrosities that Mayawati had constructed in and around Ambedkar Parivartan Sthal in honour of every living and dead Dailt fellow she knew. Shlok noticed that they were making their way towards Old Lucknow, past the wistful window shoppers in Hazratganj, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the entire market was being renovated, much in the fashion of its more famous counterpart, Connaught Place. The racket made by the construction workers did not seem to be dampening the holiday shopping spirits of the seasoned Lakhnavi shoppers either. They were all pretty much unperturbed.

 

The Baradari was festooned in gay coloured ribbons to celebrate Deepak’s birthday. Little bratty kids in fluorescent costumes could be seen being chaperoned by their harried parents. It was quite evident that the poor relic of yore had come a long way from hosting lavish dinner parties and solemnizing nikaahs for the erstwhile Nawabs. As if in cruel irony, the Kaiserbagh traffic also made sure that the once spotless white monument was slowly turning into a sorry shade of dirty brown.

Once they were past the wide avenues of Parivartan Chowk, the traffic became a lot worse. Soon they were milling through the insane chaos of Aminabad – the real shopping district of the city – and Shlok couldn’t help smirking at Prakash Kulfi. The proprietors of the original falooda kulfi in Lucknow leased out their premises to the Defective Sari Sale people every winter. Hapless kulfi aficionados invariably ended up buying a sari or two in search of the phantom winter kulfi. The sight of a toothless peanut vendor shook him out of his reverie and he thought it wise to seek a fraction of Ritwick’s attention.

“Where the hell are you taking me? he shouted over the wind.

Hein? Patience, boss, patience”, Ritwick replied over the deafening din of horns. As he narrowly missed plunging headfirst into a rickshaw puller who had decided to execute a ‘Main Hoon Na’ style stunt, Shlok shouted “Ghusand” while suggestively waving his fist back and forth.

The Lucknow beyond Aminabad and Chowk had remained persistently elusive for Shlok. When young, he had never bothered to explore the parts of the city known mostly for their morgue vans – the words Laash Ke Vaaste emblazoned in bright colours on each and every one of them – and brothels. And now, with most of the jazzy malls, coffee shops, and à la mode joints coming up in the Trans-Gomti area, especially Gomti Nagar, the lure of the real heart of the city had faded further. On one occasion, in search of the original Tunde Kebab outlet, he had ventured deep into that uncharted territory. However, he had managed to get lost just as quickly and had to make his way back without the mysterious kebabs. The memories of that fateful day came flooding back.

“Tunde ja rahein hain kya?” (Are we going to Tunde’s?)

“Ha ha, no! Something even better than Tunde!”

The cryptic reply shut Shlok up for the rest of the ride. Meanwhile, Ritwick would stop every now and then, enquire of a place from whosoever he could lay his eyes on, nod his head in a knowing fashion as the deluge of instructions came pouring forth, and then try to follow them to the best of this ability. This continued for some time and before long, he stopped in front of a building that seemed remarkably alien for its surroundings.

Instead of cramped aisles that were packed with parked vehicles, this house was located in the midst of a huge garden. A gardener was pottering around the lawns and occasionally pruning the roses. The building looked huge in comparison with its stunted neighbours and consisted of three floors. There was no address plate or any other sign that could help in identifying it. It seemed as if people got around to that place entirely by means of secondary navigation.

Ritwick seemed satisfied with the look and feel of it and said slowly, “This is Madame Sophie’s place. The finest hunting ground for tits, chudai, and glory in all of Lucknow!”

Shlok looked as if he had just been slapped for breathing too loudly. “What! What the hell is wrong with you? What made you think I would want to come to a brothel? Are you fucking insane?”

Bhosdi ke, don’t act so innocent. It’s not like you’ve never fucked anyone whose name you did not know. It may a blast from the past. But don’t get preachy on me. You told me you were missing out on all the action. So I thought to surprise you. I have already made the bookings here. The time’s been paid for. With my money. So you can jerk off in a room if you feel like it. But you are coming inside and not leaving until I am done.”

The sudden outburst from a usually jovial and amenable Ritwick caught Shlok off guard. He needed to reevaluate his strategy. He could always just sit and wait. Besides, he was already fascinated by Madame Sophie and her operations. So, with his conscience sufficiently guilt free because of his ignorance of the deal, he grumbled a bit about family, respect, and changed ways, before meekly following Ritwick inside.

During the short time it took to walk from the verandah to the main hall, Shlok had already come up with an image of Madame Sophie. Sitting on an old fashioned diwan and smoking a hookah, she turned out to be every bit the brothel mistress he had imagined her to be – very much Madame, though hardly Sophie. Years of vicarious exposure to villainous vamps of Hindi movies had created a likeness that blend in perfectly with the uncomfortable dignity that seemed to exude from Madame Sophie. But, to her credit, it was difficult to tell if she was imitating art or if art had imitated her.

The hallway on the ground floor was some kind of reception area where Madame sized people up with her experienced eye and then offered them services based on her acute appraisal. Both of them were spared the screening process since Ritwick had already made an appearance before her and sorted things out. A few vicious looking men loitered about, trying to look busy doing absolutely nothing. Amidst all this apparently displaced commotion, Madame Sophie looked completely at home and the only odd thing seemed to be her name. Sophie? “It must be courtesy one of her lovers” Shlok quickly concluded.

Seeing them enter, she nodded ever so slightly and gestured to one of her minions who bowed deferentially and went inside a room. Shortly, five young girls dressed smartly in churidar salwar marched out in single file. This was when Shlok noticed the first aberration. Unlike their celluloid counterparts, the girls did not look distraught or defeated. They were actually quite cheerful and their smiles seemed genuine. At least on the surface. “Maybe it’s not bad as people make it out to be”, he reasoned.

***

“Boss, look at the size of the tits on that one!” Ritwick whispered, suddenly finding himself preoccupied with the mammaries of a certain girl introduced as Shailja.

“Will you cut out the boss crap? I don’t want to look like I was the one who dragged your sorry ass out here. Just pick someone and get this over and done with. I am going with that one. What was her name? Reshma.”

“Ok, already. Where did all your modesty disappear now? Who is insane now, eh?” sniggered Ritwick. Then seeing Shlok beginning to work up a temper, he added. “No need to get all worked up. Just let me know when you are done. Damn it, you don’t make it any easy, do you?”

***

Reshma turned out to be a feisty little thing and, for a few guilty seconds, Shlok felt sorry for his friend. Despite all his prudish indifference, Shlok had let out a sigh of disappointment on hearing her name. He was expecting something a bit more clichéd. Like Malati or Chameli, or even Rani. And though be bore this silent grudge against Reshma before they’d even exchanged a word, he let himself be led away from the hall by her. He wanted to find out more about her. Or so he thought.

Soon they came upon a dimly lit looking corridor with several doors on either side. A dull brown carpet was spread along the length of the passage. ‘Things are beginning to look up now’, thought Shlok. The upper floors seemed to be straight out of the set of a seedy Bollywood movie with an even sleazier name like Kanti Shah ke Angoor. A fearsome looking pimp sized him up. He was wearing a checked lungi over a worn out vest and chewing on his paan very slowly and deliberately. Every now and then he would spit out the crimson coloured juice into a vase kept in the corner. After what seemed like an eternity, he let out a disapproving grunt but let them pass anyway. It was clear that Mr. Pimp was not paid for a lot of things, least of all his opinions, dressing sense, or cultural etiquette. Madame Sophie waged a lonely battle in those spheres.

Reshma led him to the third room on the right. Number 214. Despite its tiny size, it was garishly decked up in every kitschy colour one could think of. Shlok felt blinded by all the mismatched furnishings and felt like ripping off the red curtains from the windows and the velvety bedspread. But he inhaled deeply and closed his eyes. All this would come to pass. When he opened his eyes, he found out that his consort was quite adept at getting rid of her garments. She giggled for a second seeing the surprise on his face but through that involuntary action she unwittingly conveyed that she was new to the whole shebang. There was still a hint of a sparkle in her eyes, although it seemed to be losing the fight. Her carefree demeanour further unsettled Shlok. “Too casual”, he murmured.

Kahan se ho tum? U.P. ki hi lagti ho (Where are you from? Seems like you are from U.P.)”, he asked.

“Madame ji charges extra for talking with customers.”

“I am not talking to Madame ji, am I? Where are you from?” he replied, trying to act smart.

“Lakhimpur. Chhatri hai?

“Chhatri? Oh, condom. Haan hai”, Shlok said as he fumbled around for the pack Ritwick had slipped into his pocket as they had entered the building. “You don’t keep them?” he quipped.

“We do. Do you need anything special?”

She looked expectantly at Shlok, expecting him to take off his pants any moment now and passionately devour her. Or something to that effect. That stare seemed to be sizing him up in that weird manner which women all over the world seem to have perfected.

But he did not get the chance to find out. The thought of a strange naked body gyrating to the rhythm of his own made him sick to the stomach. He did not know why since, as Ritwick, had mentioned earlier, all this wasn’t exactly new. He made an effort to touch her breasts, if only to prove to himself that this bizarre uneasiness was not caused by what he feared. But he could not bring himself to. He clenched his fists in despair, let out a defeated sigh, and just sat there.

Reshma, understandably, looked surprised even though she had had her share of eccentric clients. After a few minutes, Shlok quit fighting the feeling and felt better. He hugged the girl he was supposed to have had coitus with and said something that sounded vaguely like “Badhiya hua”. Thereafter, he rushed across the corridor, down the steps, and across the hall, to the place where Madame Sophie held court.

“Madame, uss chutiya ko bula dijiye (Madame, please call that asshole).”

If the suave Madame Sophie was surprised at the use of such vulgar language in her presence, she did not let it show. A minion was nodded at and he proceeded to do the needful. As an afterthought, she invited the unrefined gentleman for a round of hookah. Maybe he would learn something. The gentleman could not have asked for anything better to occupy his time with while he waited for his friend. He took a long drag at the pipe and let his worries scatter away with the bhang laced smoke.

***

“What happened, boss? You came faster than a Bollywood rapist. A case of bad nerves?” Ritwick enquired of his partner in crime.

“No. Just that of a lonely wife, I guess”, Shlok smiled and motioned him towards the scooter. “I am driving. You can enjoy the view”, he added. If nothing else, he owed him a ride.

That night, as he shared the bed with Akanksha, he managed a smile. “Vespa,” he mumbled, before drifting off into a drugged sleep. And that’s all.

 

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