When Babu Har Gopal came from Lahore, Hamid found himself without anywhere to turn. As soon as Babu Har Gopal got there, he ordered Hamid, “Hey, get a taxi, quick.”
“Why don’t you take it easy for a while?” Hamid suggested. “You must be tired after your long trip.”
But Babu Har Gopal was stubborn. “No, no, I’m not tired at all. I came here to have fun, not lie around. It was hard for me to get these ten days off. You’re all mine—you have to do whatever I say. This time I’m going to do everything I want. Now you get me some soda water.”
“Look, Babu Har Gopal, don’t start drinking so early in the morning.”
But his guest didn’t listen. He opened a cupboard, took out a bottle of Johnny Walker and unscrewed the cap. “If you’re not going to get any soda, then at least get some water,” Babu Har Gopal said. “Or don’t I get any water, either?”
At forty, Babu Har Gopal was ten years older than Hamid. Hamid obeyed his guest because he was a friend of his deceased father. Hamid immediately ordered some soda water, and then implored, “Look here, please don’t force me to drink. You know my wife is very strict.” But nothing he said had any effect on Babu Har Gopal, and so Hamid had to drink, too. As expected, after Babu Har Gopal downed four shots, he said, “Okay, then, let’s go see what we can see. But look, let’s get a nice taxi, a private one, I like those a lot. I hate the meter ones.”
Hamid arranged for a private taxi. It was a new Ford, and the driver was also very good. Babu Har Gopal was very happy. He sat down in the taxi, took out his big wallet, and looked to see how much he had. He had a bunch of hundred-rupee notes. He sighed in relief and muttered to himself, “That’s enough.” Then he turned to the driver. “Okay, then. Driver, let’s go.”
The driver turned his hat on sideways and asked, “Where to, sir?” Babu Har Gopal motioned to Hamid. “You tell him.”
Hamid thought for a moment and then mentioned a destination, and the taxi headed in that direction. Minutes later Bombay’s most famous pimp was sitting next to them. They went around to a number of places to see the girls, but Hamid didn’t like any of them. He liked things neat and tidy; he loved cleanliness. Hamid thought the girls looked dirty and vulgar in their makeup and wore the expression that all prostitutes share. This disgusted him. He wanted all women, even prostitutes, to maintain their dignity, and he didn’t want whores to lose their feminine modesty just because of their job. On the other hand, Babu Har Gopal had dirty habits. He was very rich, and if he wanted to, he could have ordered all of Bombay washed clean with soap and water. But he didn’t care about personal cleanliness. When he took a bath, he used hardly any water, and he wouldn’t shave for days on end. He would pour expensive whiskey into even a dirty glass. And he didn’t care whom he held deep in his nightly clasps. He would sleep with even a dirty beggar woman and then the next morning exclaim, “That was great! She was wonderful!”
Hamid couldn’t get over his surprise about what kind of person Babu Har Gopal was. He wore an extremely expensive shervani and yet his undershirt made Hamid want to vomit. He carried a hanky but used the hem of his kurta to wipe mucus from his runny nose. He ate off dirty plates and was unfazed. His pillowcase was soiled and stank, but he never thought of changing it. Hamid thought long and hard, but he couldn’t understand him. He often asked, “Babuji, why aren’t you revolted by dirtiness?”
Babu Har Gopal would smile. “I am revolted. But when you’re obsessed by it, you see it everywhere. How can you cure yourself of that?”
Hamid had no answer, but his disgust didn’t abate.
They drove through the streets for hours. When the pimp realized how picky Hamid was, he said to the driver, “Go to Shivaji Park.” Then he thought to himself, “If he doesn’t like her, I swear to God I’ll quit being a pimp.”
The taxi stopped near a bungalow by Shivaji Park. The pimp went upstairs. He came back after a little while to take up Babu Har Gopal and Hamid.
The room upstairs was spick-and-span, and the floor’s tiles were sparkling. There wasn’t even so much as a single mote of dust on any of the furniture. On one wall there was a picture of Swami Vivekanand(1). On the wall in front of them there was a picture of Gandhiji, as well as one of Subhash(2). Marathi books lay on the table.
The pimp asked them to sit down, and they sat on the sofa. Hamid was impressed by the house’s cleanliness. There were few possessions but everything was in order. The atmosphere was very chaste and bore no traces of a prostitute’s shameless love for the gaudy.
Hamid waited impatiently for the girl to appear. A man came out from the next room, whispered something to the pimp, looked in Babu Har Gopal and Hamid’s direction and then said, “She’s coming. She was washing up. Now she’s putting on some clothes.” Then he left.
Hamid began inspecting the room. In the corner by the table there was a pretty, brightly colored floor-mat. On the table ten or fifteen magazines lay next to the Marathi books. Beneath the table there was a pair of finely made sandals, and it looked as though the wearer had just taken them off her feet. Rows of books looked out from the glass-fronted bookcase opposite them. When Babu Har Gopal used his sandals to squash his cigarette on the floor, Hamid got upset. He was just about to pick up the cigarette butt and throw it outside when he heard a sound like that of rustling silk coming from the next room. He turned to look and saw a fair-skinned girl was coming in barefoot and wearing a new kashta(3) sari, the edge of which slid from her head. Her hair was parted in the center. She came up to them and pressed her hands together in a gesture of welcome. Hamid saw a white leaf pinned to her bun, thick and neatly put together, which nicely accentuated her beauty. Hamid got up and greeted her, and blushing, the girl sat in the chair near them.
Hamid guessed she was no older than seventeen. She was of average height and so fair-skinned that her complexion seemed to have a light pink hue. She looked as new and fresh as her sari. After she sat down in the chair, she lowered her big black eyes, and Hamid was captivated. The girl was clean and full of light.
Babu Har Gopal said something to Hamid, but Hamid didn’t hear him. It was as though someone had just shaken him awake. “What did you say?” he asked.
Babu Har Gopal repeated his question, “Say something, will you.” Then he lowered his voice. “I don’t like her that much.”
Hamid got angry. He looked at her again. Youth itself was sitting before him in its purest form—fresh, stainless youth wrapped in silk—and he could have her, not just for one night but for many, as once he paid for her, she would be his. And yet this thought saddened him. He didn’t know why such things happened—this girl should never be sold like merchandise. But then he realized if that were true then he could never have her.
“So what about her?” Babu Har Gopal asked crassly.
“What do I think?” Hamid was again startled. “You don’t like her, but I… ” He couldn’t make himself say what he wanted to.
Babu Har Gopal took good care of his friends. He got up and in a business-like voice asked the pimp, “So how much for her?”
“Look at the girl,” the pimp began. “She’s just started working.”
“Okay, okay,” Babu Har Gopal interrupted him. “Just answer my question.”
The pimp lit a bidi. “A hundred rupees for a day or a night. Nothing less.”
“So what do you think?” Babu Har Gopal addressed Hamid.
The transaction offended Hamid. He felt as though the girl was being disgraced—one hundred rupees for this alluring, radiant youth? It upset him to think this rare beauty was only one hundred rupees, but at the same time he was grateful she was available. She was the type of girl to give up everything for.
“So what do you want to do?” Babu Har Gopal asked him again.
Hamid didn’t want to admit what he felt. Babu Har Gopal smiled, took his wallet from his pocket, and gave the pimp a hundred-rupee note. “Not any less, not any more.” Then he turned to Hamid. “Okay, let’s go. Everything’s settled.”
They went down and sat in the taxi while the pimp brought the girl down. Still blushing, she sat next to them. Then they drove to a hotel, booked a room, and Babu Har Gopal went out to look for a girl of his own.
The girl was sitting on the bed with downcast eyes. Hamid’s heart raced. Babu Har Gopal had left a half-full bottle of whiskey, and Hamid called for some soda water and then downed a large shot. The liquor gave him some courage. He sat down next to the girl and asked, “What’s your name?”
The girl raised her eyes. “Lata Mangalaonkar.”
She had a sweet voice. Hamid drained another big shot, and then pulling the end of the sari from her head, he stroked her shiny hair. Lata bashfully batted her eyes. Hamid unwrapped the sari from her shoulders and saw how Lata’s plump breasts were trembling beneath her tight bra. Hamid’s entire body quivered. He wanted to be the bra wicked against Lata’s body, and he wanted to feel her soft warmth and fall asleep!
Lata didn’t know Hindi. She had come from Mangaon two months before, and she spoke only Marathi, which though a choppy language became tender in her mouth. She tried to answer Hamid in broken Hindi, but he told her, “No, Lata, speak Marathi. It’s really good, really changli.”
When Lata heard him say “changli,” she burst out laughing and corrected his pronunciation, but Hamid couldn’t make the sound between “s” and “ch,” and so they laughed again. Hamid didn’t understand her Marathi but enjoyed listening, and from time to time he would kiss her lips and say, “These sweet, sweet words you’re saying, drop them into my mouth—I want to drink them.”
She didn’t understand any of this and would laugh. Hamid would hug her. Lata’s arms were svelte and fair, and her bra’s tiny sleeves hugged her arms, which Hamid kissed over and over. He loved everything about her body.
When Hamid dropped Lata off at her house at nine that night, he felt hollow. The touch of her soft body was sheared from him like bark from a tree, and he spent the entire night tossing and turning. In the morning Babu Har Gopal came back, and when they were alone, he asked Hamid, “So how was it?”
“You want to go back then?”
“No, I have something to do.”
“Don’t talk crap. I told you, you’re mine for these ten days.”
Hamid assured Babu Har Gopal that he really did have some important work to attend to in Pune where there was a man he had to meet. At last Babu Har Gopal relented and left to continue his carousing alone.
Hamid took a taxi to the bank where he withdrew some money. Then he went straight to Lata’s house. She was bathing, and the same man was sitting in the front room that had been there the day before. Hamid spoke to him for a while and then gave him a hundred-rupee note. Then Lata came. She looked even fresher than before. She pressed her hands together in her traditional greeting, and Hamid got up and told this guy, “I’m going. Bring her down. I’ll get her back on time.”
He went down to the taxi. Lata came and sat next to him. When she touched him, Hamid felt all his tension flush from his body. He wanted to hold her, but Lata raised her hand, forbidding him to.
He dropped her off at seven thirty that evening and immediately lost all peace of mind. He was restless all night. Hamid was married and had two small children, and he knew he was being truly foolish. If his wife found out, there would be a scene. If he had seen Lata just once, that would have been one thing but it looked as though the affair wasn’t going to end anytime soon. He resolved never again to go to Shivaji Park, but by ten the next morning he was sleeping with Lata at a hotel.
Hamid went to Lata’s for fifteen straight days and in the process spent two thousand rupees. On top of this, his absence had put his business in trouble. Hamid knew what was happening but Lata had taken possession of his heart and soul. Finally Hamid drew up his courage: he forced himself to go back to his business, stay busy, and forget Lata.
In the meantime Babu Har Gopal finished his research into filth and debauchery and went back to Lahore.
Four months passed, and Hamid kept his promises. But one day he happened to be going by Shivaji Park, and he spontaneously told the driver, “Stop here.” The taxi stopped. Hamid thought, “No, this isn’t right. I should tell the driver to drive on.” But he opened the door, exited the taxi and went up.
When Lata came out, Hamid saw she had put on weight. Her breasts were fuller, and her face had gotten chubby. Hamid handed over the hundred rupees and took her to a hotel. Once they were there she told him she was pregnant, and he lost all presence of mind. Stunned, he asked, “Who—who is the father?”
Lata didn’t understand what he was asking, and once he finally got through to her, she shook her head and said, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t have any idea?”
Hamid cleared his throat. “So—it’s not mine?”
“I don’t know.”
When Hamid questioned her in detail he found out that Lata’s keepers had tried to get her to abort the baby, but nothing had worked. No drug had any effect, other than the one that made her so sick she had spent a month in bed. Hamid thought things over, but only one thing made any sense, and that was that he needed to get a good doctor’s advice as soon as possible because they were planning to send her to her village.
Hamid dropped her off at her house and went to see a doctor friend who told him, “Look here, this is very dangerous, a matter of life and death.”
Hamid was at his wit’s end, “It’s a matter of life and death for me too! It’s got to be mine. I’ve calculated it carefully, and I’ve asked her too. For the love of God, think about what this means for me. What if it’s a girl? The thought makes me tremble. If you don’t help me, I’m going to go crazy thinking about this.”
The doctor gave him some medicine, and Hamid gave it to Lata. He was almost rabid in his expectation of good news, but the medicine did nothing. He managed to get a hold of another drug but this one didn’t work either. Now Lata’s pregnancy was showing. They wanted to send her to her village, but Hamid told them, “No, wait a little longer. I’m going to try something else.”
But he didn’t do anything. Hamid became paralyzed from thinking too much. What should he do, what shouldn’t he do? He couldn’t figure anything out. He cursed Babu Har Gopal over and over, and he cursed himself too. If Lata had a girl, she too would become a prostitute. He couldn’t bear this thought—it was reason enough to drown yourself.
He began to hate Lata. Her beauty no longer stirred the emotions it once had, and if he happened to touch her, he felt as though he had thrust his hand into burning embers. He wanted her to die before giving birth to his baby. She had been sleeping with other guys—why the hell did she have to get pregnant with his kid?
Hamid wanted to stab her swollen stomach, or do something else to kill the child, and Lata too was beside herself with worry. She had never wanted to have a baby. Moreover it was physically painful. In the beginning she was weak from throwing up, and now she had abdominal cramps. But Hamid imagined she didn’t care—if she didn’t care about her own situation, then at least she should look at what he was going through, feel some pity, and do away with the baby!
After the drugs failed, Hamid tried charms and quack remedies. But the baby was stubborn. Admitting defeat, Hamid gave permission to Lata to go back to her village, but he also went in secret to see where her house was. According to his reckoning, the baby was due the first week of October. Hamid decided to get someone to kill the baby and so started hanging out with a gangster. He wined and dined him, wasting a lot of money in order to prime him for his request.
Then Hamid told Dada Karim everything, and the price was set at a thousand rupees. Hamid immediately handed over the money, and then Dada Karim said, “I don’t have it in me to kill such a young baby. I’ll bring it to you, and you can do whatever you like with it. Your secret will die with me—you don’t have to worry about that.”
Hamid agreed. He planned to put the child on the railroad tracks so a passing train would crush it—that or something else. He took Dada Karim to Lata’s village. Dada Karim learned that the child had been born fifteen days earlier, and suddenly Hamid felt the same joy rising in him that he had felt when his first boy had been born. But he immediately repressed this and said to Karim, “Look, let’s get it over with tonight.”
At midnight Hamid was waiting in an abandoned field; a strange storm was raging in his mind. With great difficulty, he had resolved himself to commit the murder at hand. The stone on the ground before him was large enough to kill the baby, and several times he had picked it up to measure its weight.
At twelve thirty, Hamid heard footsteps. His heart began to beat so strongly that he thought it would burst from his chest. Dada Karim appeared from out of the darkness, and he was carrying a small bundle wrapped in cloth. He came up to Hamid, put the bundle in his trembling arms, and said, “My part’s done. I’m out of here.” Then he left.
Hamid was shaking badly. The baby was squirming in the bundle. Hamid put it on the ground and tried to get his trembling under control. When he calmed down a little, he picked up the heavy stone. He felt over the bundle for the baby’s head and was about to bring the stone down when he thought he should look at least once at the baby. He put the stone aside and with his tremulous hands got out his box of matches and lit one. It burnt out in his fingers, as he couldn’t bring himself to look at the baby. He thought for a moment. He gathered his courage, lit another match, and pulled back the cloth. After a quick glance, he looked back at the baby. The match fizzled out. Wait—whom did the baby look like? He had seen this face somewhere, but when and where?
Hamid quickly lit another match and examined the baby’s face. Suddenly the face of a man came into focus, the man who lived with Lata at Shivaji Park. Hamid swore, “Well, fuck this! It’s his spitting image. Just like him!”
And bursting with laughter, he walked off into the night.
(1) Vivekananda (1863-1902), a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, championed Vedanta philosophy and religion both in India and abroad. He represented Hinduism at Chicago’s Parliament of Religions in 1893.
(2) Subhash Chandra Bose (1897-1945) was a leader in the Indian Independence Movement. He formed an army in neighboring Myanmar that he led against the British at the border. His slogan was “Give me your blood, and I’ll give you freedom.”
(3) A sari that at nine yards is longer than average and that is wrapped in a special way—passed from the front between a woman’s legs and tucked into the waist from behind—and associated with the underclasses and coarse eroticism.