Tuesday, January 10, 2012
THE PRAYING MANTIS
It was funny, sunny one moment and eerily cloudy the next. Seemed like the weather Gods were a confused lot that particular day. But that didn’t seem to bother Manu. His eyes were on the back pocket of the morbidly obese gentleman in a suit, which had an equally weighty wallet threatening to pop out any moment. He followed the man in an unhurried pace, as he moved ponderously down the pavement. This was to be one of those rare moments of fortuitous grace, where he didn’t have to do any actual work. Would the grace be granted quicker if he made the fat man run a little? Just when he was planning some clever trick to end this annoying wait, the man walked into an ugly looking building.
That’s where he saw her, sitting at the reception desk with the look of a beatified saint on her face, playing with her short, black hair and lost in a private reverie. The fat man was now standing at the coffee table in the reception area, reading a newspaper with his back towards them. The room was empty except for the three of them. Manu stood at the doorway, wondering if he should go ahead with his little crime. As if she had read his mind, she slowly averted her gaze towards him, without hesitation and without changing her posture. Her icy stare made Manu freeze in his spot. She sat there and he stood there, looking at each other for a few moments. Then suddenly, the frosty glaze in her sharp, black eyes thawed a little, releasing Manu from her hold. She now looked challengingly at him; a closer or longer observation would have revealed a mocking glint in her eyes, seeming to encourage him to go ahead with his petty diabolic deed. He wanted to go talk to her, and stealing the wallet now became an impediment. He wanted it done with, and she wanted it done. A few short steps, a swift and silent swish of his hand and the wallet was his. He walked over to her, carelessly placed his hands on the desk and waved the wallet in front of her beaming face. She was trying hard not to, but then she smiled a small, confident smile. He took her out that evening.
He would take her out every evening for the next two weeks. The ultimate purpose of their evenings was to relive the magic of the first time they met, to make it grander in scale and give it different situations and possibilities. The customary city park, movie or restaurant that preceded this climax didn’t compare in excitement or necessity. She’d point out a guy on the street, and he’d close in on him, to filch his wallet or steal his chain. Sometimes it was something as inane as discreetly slashing the guy’s arm, neck or whatever exposed part with a razor blade. The guy wouldn’t instantly notice of course, till a trickle of blood and a faint jab of pain gave away this impish act. She’d be delighted when Manu came back with the spoils of these little acts of bravado. She would giggle and clap her hands and seeing her happy made his head giddy with joy. But she wasn’t just happy; there was some other sinister emotion that lay hidden beneath that exuberance. A few days later he had given up on deciphering.
There’s something about her that makes you lay your soul bare at the altar of her conscience; letting her judge you, however she wanted. You would do it willingly, without dissent. Quiet on the outside, but on the inside having lengthy conversations with herself. You could see it on her face when she’s silent and not smiling - her eyebrows would twitch, knot, unknot, her lips would purse, twist, untwist. While they lay in his small bed in his single-room apartment every night after their little escapades, he’d curl up in her embrace and watch this silent performance on her face. He had never asked what she was thinking about.
Their devilish dalliance reached its crescent two days ago. After a quick meal at a roadside chaat shop they had followed a rich looking man to a desolate street; going by his urgent strides he presumably wanted to relieve himself. While she stayed back at the entrance to the street, Manu went behind him. In a flash he had the man pinned against a compound wall, with one arm locked tight under his jaw and the other frantically searching his pockets. This was to be his first rough encounter during his time with her. He kept throwing quick glances at her, as his heart swelled with pride over this display of masculine dexterity. She stood there, a murky shadow against the streetlight, a silent sentry keeping watch over this atrocity. He hadn’t been prepared for what was to happen next though. The man swung his elbow into Manu’s stomach, throwing him flat on his back. Humiliation rushed through his blood, head to toe; he wouldn’t dare look at her now. The damage had to be undone, quickly. He pulled out his trusty razor blade and sprung up. He drove the jagged knife repeatedly into the stunned man till he felt the humiliation drain out and onto the dirty ground. He walked back to her, panting and sweating, hoping the animal rage made him more appealing. Wide-eyed and jaw tight set she slowly reached out, took his hands into hers and lifted it close to her face. She turned them this way and that, letting the blood glisten in the streetlight like liquid ruby.
The murder came to light the next morning and found its way into the evening newspapers and idle chatter and gossip across town. The whole day was spent in silence in his apartment. That night, with the rain pounding on the single curtain-less window, a night-long merry-go-round of plans began. Somewhere between two and three am, logic gave way to fantasy and images of islands, yachts, drugs and mansions begin to swirl around in the cramped apartment. She had thoroughly enjoyed this part, suggesting one grand idea after the other amid fits of teary-eyed giggling. He had played along of course, while in the back of his mind he charted a solid escape route. Finally, when her fantasies trickled down to a subtly frilled version of logic, he told her what they were actually going to do. She was disinterested now. She lay on her back, on the bed, and analyzed the patterns formed by the paint peeling off the ceiling, vaguely catching snippets of his plan - Aunt’s place... next town… lovely backyard… decide city… settle down… babycorn soup… train journey… are you listening?... Richards park… six in the evening… Kanth… Staring, analyzing, nodding, eyes closing, nodding, she had fallen asleep, with the phrase ‘settle down’ swimming in her head, alphabets coming together in a dance. He lay down next to her, feeling safe and content, as the rain lulled him to sleep.
They woke up late the next morning, close to noon. She left saying she’d be back with her bags and would meet him at Richards Park as planned. He had things to do himself – inform Kanth, his trusted confidante in crime (personally and professionally) about his grand plan. How thrilled he’d be! And he wanted him to be a part of this defining moment in his life as well; he’d ask him to get the train tickets to the next town.
Evening came, quicker than usual, and Manu was now outside the Park, on the pavement, leaning against the latticed fence. The rains last night had been harsh, but had left behind a bitter-sweet aftermath – clean air, slushy roads, clearer minds and plans and a little apprehension. He realized he felt no remorse for that night, and was a little surprised that he felt smugly happy. Looking down at a large pool of muddy rain water next to him, he saw the evening sky reflected in it, with wispy orange tinted clouds sailing past in silent ceremony. As he stood there looking at that painting in motion he heard his name being called out from a distance. He didn’t look up. A second time now, louder and closer.
It was Kanth. He was now standing next to him, pulling out a cigarette from his pocket. They didn’t greet each other, for they knew and liked each other well.
“Have you got the tickets?”
“Oh yes. It was quite easy. There’s just one train and nobody goes there quite often. The train arrives at seven, leaves ten minutes later.”
Kanth handed him the tickets and leaned against the fence next to him.
“I met this girl at Brigade Dreams last night, Kanth. Quite something I should say! Unlike Anita that I mentioned to you last time.”
The tales of his amorous conquests kept Manu’s attention somewhat occupied, while in a distracted manner he slowly turned now and then to the left and squinted his eyes against the setting sun. She’s always on time. Not once in the past two weeks had she made him wait.
“Manu, it was perfect!”
“A little hesitant at first, but later, BAM! She fell in line, just like that!”
“If I saw her again, I’d kiss her feet and say ‘It was perfect!’. I didn’t say that then of course. I told her she was pathetic.”
As he listened to how a pair of heavily fortified lips were conquered with the slightest pressure and how a carefully timed sigh unlocked an unwilling tongue, he turned again, to see her walking down the footpath. The sunlight behind her framed her petite figure, a slender piece of sunset cloud drifting down to the earth, gliding towards him. He suddenly realized how diminutive she was, with a sort of fragility that did not match that mysterious strength inside. He liked this duality; it made her even more desirable.
He straightened up and nudged Kanth, “Ok, ok, she’s here. Go to the station and wait there”
“Hey! I want to see her! After all…”
“Yeah you can, at the station. Now, off!” Manu felt another new emotion – a vague pang of jealousy. Kanth walked away hesitantly, turning back now and then, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.
She was walking towards him with a carelessness that only extremely confident people seemed to possess – side-stepping puddles of water, languidly scanning the traffic on the street, clasping her hands behind her back, swinging them, clasping them again. Not once did she look in his direction. And she did not have any bags. She had somehow wound her way towards him, almost by accident. He wanted to hug her, but then settled for the warmest smile he could beam. It was quickly murdered in cold blood by her expressionless face.
“I’ve informed the police”
Manu stared into her face, waiting for her eyes to light up and her lips to stretch into that self-assured grin which came to his mind whenever he heard her name or said it to himself. But she stood there, vacant, right hand clasping left wrist, right forefinger carelessly tugging at a sacred thread on her wrist. Once, twice… in a rhythm now.
“I gave them your address. I told them we’re meeting here. I told them where we are… where we were to go.”
In his head, Manu’s first reaction was to lean back against the fence and let it take his weight along with a heaviness that had descended over him. But her empty stare dissuaded him from showing any emotion, willed him into going numb. A car horn began to blare next to them on the street, a death knell that traveled through Manu’s head, filling up the vacuum that had suddenly revealed itself, with sound.
He realized he had to say something; in the right tone. Angry preferably, but the best that he could conjure up was a cross between scared and hurt.
“Why did you do it?”
She wavered her stare a little and turned back to face him. She held him with her eyes, strangling him, choking him. He couldn’t say anything more.
“It had to stop somewhere… you know. I had enough.”
Confusion whirled in reels inside his head, and he felt like a child who had lost his father at the fair.
“I don’t get it, everything was going fine!”
She closed her eyes for three full seconds. When she opened them they were softer, with a faint glow that threatened to not last for long.
“Yes, but things can’t remain that way… for good. I don’t want to live in a world created by you, for me.”
“Don’t ask for further explanations. Just go try and save yourself. You’ve shown enough promise that you can. If you cannot, thank you… for everything I guess”
With that she turned around and proceeded to cross the street, looking to the left and then to the right. He watched her, silently, as she performed this small act of trying to safeguard her life; while she had shattered his own. It then suddenly occurred to him, like a tapaswi attaining nirvana on the mount that is what she had been doing all along - safeguarding and shattering.
She looked back one last time at him, for the final chapter in her memory book – him standing there with his shoulders stooped, gazing at the traffic. Satisfied with the image she looked ahead and walked on a little faster, lighter, with a buzzy feeling in her gut. She was headed towards her workplace. She thought of her desk, her phone and her entry book and felt a strange satisfaction she knew wouldn’t last. But there was the excitement of waiting to learn if he indeed managed to escape. Moreover, the interrogations and inquiries would ensure a steady flurry of activity for the next few weeks. Those two week worth memories though, they’d be summoned again and again to redeem her. When the phone on her desk stared back, threatening to break the silence at any moment. When she looked across at the street and couldn’t find anyone interesting to build a story around. When she took out her entry book to read the names and couldn’t find anyone interesting to build a story around there either. They’d be recalled till they grew trite, weary and dog-eared with the constant dragging back from the past. They should last her a good few months. Then she’d look out again, for the next experience, the next sacrifice.
Praying Mantis Laila.