She was at the corner of the alley playing with the girls, and her mother was looking for her in the chali (a big building with many floors and many small rooms). Sarita’s mother had asked Kishori to sit down, had ordered some coffee-mixed tea from the tea boy outside, and had already searched for her daughter throughout the chali’s three floors. But who knew where Sarita had run off to. She had even gone over to the open toilet and had called for her, “Hey, Sarita! Sarita!” But she was nowhere in the building, and it was just as her mother suspected—Sarita had gotten over her bout of dysentery (even though she hadn’t taken her medicine), and without a care in the world she was now playing with the girls at the corner of the alley near the trash heap.
Sarita’s mother was very worried. Kishori was sitting inside, and he had announced that three rich men were waiting in their car in the nearby shopping market. But Sarita had disappeared. Sarita’s mother knew that rich men with cars don’t come around every day, and in fact it was only thanks to Kishori that she got a good customer once or twice a month because otherwise rich men would never come to that dirty neighborhood where the stench of rotting paan and burnt-out bidis made Kishori pucker his nose. Really, how could rich men stand such a neighborhood? But Kishori was clever, and so he never brought men up to the chali but would have Sarita dress up before taking her out. He told the men, “Sirs, things are very dicey these days. The police are always on the lookout to nab someone. They’ve already caught two hundred girls. Even I am being tried in court. We all have to be very cautious.”
Sarita’s mother was very angry. When she got to the bottom of the stairs, Ram Dai was sitting there cutting bidi leaves. “Have you seen Sarita anywhere?” Sarita’s mother asked her. “I don’t know where she’s gone off to. If I find her, I’m going to beat her to a pulp. She’s not a little girl anymore, and yet she runs around all day with those good-for-nothing boys.”
Ram Dai continued cutting bidi leaves and didn’t answer, seeing as how Sarita’s mother usually went around muttering like this. Every third or fourth day she had to go looking for Sarita and would repeat these very words to Ram Dai as she sat all day near the stairs with a basket in front of her as she tied red and white strings around the cigarettes.
In addition to this refrain, the women of the building were always hearing from Sarita’s mother how she was going to marry off Sarita to a respectable man so that she might learn how to read and write a little, or how the city government had opened a school nearby where she was going to send Sarita because her father very much wanted her to know how to read and write. Then she would sigh deeply and launch into a recitation of her deceased husband’s story, which all the building’s women knew by heart. If you asked Ram Dai how Sarita’s father (who had worked for the railway) reacted when his boss swore at him, then Ram Dai would immediately tell you that he got enraged and told off his boss, “I’m not your servant but a servant of the government. You don’t intimidate me. Look here, if you insult me again, I’m going to break your jaw.” Then it happened. His boss went ahead and insulted Sarita’s father, and so Sarita’s father punched him in the neck so hard that this man’s hat fell to the floor and he almost collapsed. But he didn’t. His boss was a big man, and he stepped forward and with his army boot kicked Sarita’s father in the stomach with such force that his spleen burst and he fell down right there near the railroad tracks and died. The government tried the man and ordered him to pay five hundred rupees to Sarita’s mother, but fate was unkind: Sarita’s mother developed a love for gambling and in less than five months wasted all the money.
Sarita’s mother was always telling this story, but no one knew whether it was true. No one in the building felt any sympathy for her, perhaps because their lives were so difficult that they had no time to think about others. None had any friends. Most of the men slept during the day and worked nights in the nearby factory. Everyone lived right on top of one another, and yet no one took any interest in anyone else.
Almost everyone in the building knew that Sarita’s mother was forcing her young daughter to be a prostitute, but because they weren’t in the habit of concerning themselves with others, no one ever contradicted Sarita’s mother when she would lie about how innocent her daughter was. Once when Tukaram harassed Sarita by the water spigot one early morning, Sarita’s mother started screeching at Tukaram’s wife, “Why can’t you keep track of that dirty rat? I pray to God he goes blind for eyeing my little girl like that. I’m telling you the truth, some day I’m going to smack him so good he won’t know up from down. If he wants to raise hell somewhere else, that’s fine, but if he wants to live here, he’s going to have to behave like a respectable person, got it!”
Hearing this, Tukaram’s squint-eyed wife rushed out of her room tying on her dhoti. “Watch out, you old witch, if you say anything else!” she said. “Your little angel flirts with even hotel boys. You think we’re all blind, you don’t think we know about that fine character who comes to your place and why your little Sarita gets dressed up and goes out? You—going on about honor—you must be kidding! Go! Get out of here!”
Tukaram’s wife was notorious for many things, but every single person in the building knew about her relationship with the kerosene seller, about how she would call him inside and close the door. Sarita’s mother made it a point to mention this. In a spiteful voice, she harped, “And your gigolo, the kerosene seller? You take him into your room for two hours just to sniff his kerosene?”
And yet Sarita’s mother and Tukaram’s wife wouldn’t stay mad for long. One day Sarita’s mother saw Tukaram’s wife whispering sweet nothings to some man in the black of night, and the very next day when Tukaram’s wife was coming back from Pydhoni, she saw Sarita seated with a “gentleman friend” in a car, and so the two agreed that everything was even and began talking again.
“You didn’t see Sarita anywhere, did you?” Sarita’s mother asked Tukaram’s wife. Tukaram’s wife looked through her squint eyes toward the alley’s corner. “She’s playing with her friend over by the trash heap.” Then she whispered, “Just a minute ago Kishori went upstairs, did you see him?”
Sarita’s mother glanced right and left. Then she whispered, “I just had him sit down, but Sarita’s always disappearing right when she’s needed. She doesn’t ever think, she doesn’t understand anything. All she wants to do is play around all day.” Then she headed off toward the trash heap, and when she reached the concrete urinal, she went up to Sarita who immediately stood up and a despondent expression spread over her face. Sarita’s mother angrily grabbed her by the arm and said, “Go home—get going! All you do is play around, you good-for-nothing.” Then as they were on their way home, she whispered, “Kishori’s been waiting. He brought a rich man with a car. So listen. Hurry and run upstairs. Put on that blue georgette sari. And look, your hair’s all messed up. Get ready quick, and I’ll fix your hair.”
Sarita was very happy to hear that a rich man with a car had come. She didn’t care about the man but she really liked car rides. When she was in a car speeding through the empty streets, the wind whipping over her face, she felt as though she had been transformed into a rampaging whirlwind.
Sarita must not have been any older than fifteen, but she acted like thirteen. She hated spending time with women and having to talk to them. All day long she kept busy playing meaningless games with younger girls. For example, she really liked to draw chalk lines on the alley’s black asphalt, and she would play this game with so much concentration that it seemed as though the world would end if these crooked lines weren’t there. Or she would take an old gunnysack from their room and spend hours engrossed with her friends on the sidewalk—twisting it around, laying it on the sidewalk, sitting on it, and such childish things.
Sarita wasn’t beautiful or fair skinned. Her face was always glossy because of Bombay’s humid climate, her thin lips looked like the brown skin of the chikku fruit and were always lightly quavering, and above her upper lip you could always find three or four glistening beads of sweat. And yet she was healthy. Although she lived in a dirty neighborhood, her body was graceful and fit, and in fact you could say that she embodied youth itself. She was short and a little chubby, but this chubbiness made her seem only healthier, and when she rushed about the streets, if her dirty dress should fly up, passing men would look at her young calves that gleamed like smooth teak. Her pores were like those of an orange, its skin filled with juice, which, if you applied the slightest pressure, would squirt up into your eyes. She was that fresh.
Sarita had good-looking arms as well. Even though she wore a poorly fitting blouse, the beauty of her shoulders was still clear. Her hair was long and thick and always smelled of coconut oil, and her braid snapped like a whip against her back. Sarita didn’t like how long her hair was because her braid gave her problems when she played, and she had tried all sorts of ways to hold it in place.
Sarita was blissfully free from worry. She got two meals a day, and her mother did all the work at home. Sarita did only two things: every morning she would fill up buckets of water and take them inside, and in the evening she would fill up the lamps with a drop or two of oil. This had been her strict routine for years, and so each evening without thinking she would reach for the tea saucer in which they kept their coins and grab a coin before taking the lamp down to buy oil.
Once in a while, meaning four or five times a month, Kishori would bring customers, and the men would take Sarita off to a hotel or some dark place, and she considered this good entertainment. She never thought much about these nights, perhaps because she thought that some guy like Kishori must go to other girls’ houses too. Perhaps she imagined that all girls had to go out with rich guys to Worli to sit on cold benches, or to the wet sand of Juhu Beach. Whatever happened to her must happen to everyone, right? One day when Kishori brought a regular john, Sarita said to her mother, “Mom, Shanta’s old enough now. Send her out with me, okay? This one always orders me eggs, and Shanta really likes eggs.” Her mother replied evasively, “Okay, okay, I’ll send her out once her mom comes back from Pune.” The next day Sarita saw Shanta coming back from the open toilet, and she told her the good news, “When your mom comes back from Pune, everything’s going to work out. You’ll start coming with me to Worli.” Then Sarita told the story of what had happened one recent night, making it sound like a wonderful dream. Shanta was two years younger than Sarita, and after listening to Sarita’s story she felt a ripple of excitement course through her body. She wanted to hear even more, and so she grabbed Sarita’s arm and said, “Come on, let’s go outside.” They went down near the open toilet where Giridhari, the shopkeeper, had put out dirty pieces of coconut to dry on gunnysacks. There they gossiped for hours.
Behind a dhoti’s makeshift curtain, Sarita was putting on her blue georgette sari. The cloth gave her goose bumps, and the thought of the upcoming car ride excited her. She didn’t stop to think about what the man would be like or where they would go, but as she quickly changed she hoped that the car ride wouldn’t be so short that before she knew it she would be standing in front of the door to some hotel room where once inside the john would start drinking and she would begin to feel claustrophobic: she hated those suffocating rooms with their two iron beds on which she could never get a good sleep.
Smoothing out her sari’s wrinkles, she let Kishori look at her for a second, asking him, “Kishori, how do I look? Is the sari okay from behind?” Without waiting for an answer, she went over to the broken wooden chest where she kept her Japanese powder and rouge. She set her rusted mirror up against the window’s iron bars, and bending over a little to look at her reflection there, she put powder and purple-tinged rouge on her dusky cheeks. When she was ready, she smiled and looked at Kishori for his approval. Then she haphazardly covered her lips in lipstick. The sum effect was that she looked like one of those clay dolls that appear in toy-sellers’ stores over Divali.
Sarita’s mother came in, quickly fixed Sarita’s hair, and said to her daughter, “Look, my little girl, remember to talk like a grownup, and do whatever he says. This man is very rich, okay? He even has his own car.” Then she turned to Kishori, “Now, quickly, take her out. The poor man! Just think how long he’s been waiting!”
Outside in the shopping bazaar, there was a factory wall stretching into the distance along which was hung a small sign that read, “NO URINATING.” Next to this sign there was a parked yellow car in which three young men from Hyderabad were sitting, each one covering his nose with a hanky. (They would have moved the car, but the wall went on for a long ways and the stench of piss ran its entire length.) When the driver saw Kishori, he said to his friends, “Hey, he’s coming. Kishori. And…and…hey, this girl’s really young! Guys, look—the one in the blue sari.”
When Kishori and Sarita came up to the car, the two men in the backseat picked up their hats and cleared space between them for Sarita. Kishori stepped forward, opened the back seat’s door and quickly pushed Sarita inside. Then he closed the door and said to the guy behind the wheel, “Sorry it took so long. She had gone to see a friend. So…so…?”
The young man turned around to look at Sarita and then said to Kishori, “Okay, then. But, look…” He scooted over, stuck his head out the window and whispered to Kishori, “She won’t put up a fuss, will she?”
Kishori put his hand on his heart. “Sir, please trust me.”
The young man took two rupees out of his pocket and gave it to Kishori. “Go enjoy yourselves,” Kishori said, waved goodbye, and then the driver started the car.
It was five in the evening, and traffic filled the Bombay streets—cars, trams, buses, and people were everywhere. Sarita didn’t say anything as she sat scrunched between the two men. She squeezed her thighs together and rested her hands on her lap, and several times just as she had built the courage to say something, she would suddenly stop. She wanted to tell the driver, “Sir, please drive quickly. I’m about to suffocate back here.”
No one said anything for quite some time: the driver watched the road, and the men in the backseat were silent as they thought anxiously about how for the first time they were sitting so close to a young girl, one who was theirs, one with whom they could mess around without getting in any trouble.
The driver had been living in Bombay for two years and had picked up girls like Sarita both during the day and at night; he had had many prostitutes in his yellow car and so wasn’t nervous in the least. His two friends had come from Hyderabad: Shahab wanted to experience all the big city had to offer, and so Kifayat, the owner of the car, had bought Sarita through Kishori. Kifayat had said to his second friend, Anwar, “You know, there’d be nothing wrong if we got one for yourself.” But Anwar thought it wrong and couldn’t bring himself to consent. Kifayat had never before seen Sarita because Kishori had kept her a secret, and despite the novelty she presented, he wasn’t interested in her just then seeing as how as he couldn’t very well drive and look at her at the same time.
Once they left the city and entered the suburbs, Sarita sprang to life. The cool wind rushing over the speeding car soothed her, and she felt fresh and full of energy again. In fact she could barely contain herself: she began to tap her feet, sway her arms, and drum her fingers as she glanced back and forth at the trees that streamed past along the road.
Anwar and Shahab were growing relaxed, and Shahab felt he could do whatever he wanted with Sarita. He reached around her waist, and suddenly Sarita felt someone tickling her. She sprang away, wriggling onto Anwar, and her laughter trailed from the car’s windows far into the distance. Again Shahab reached out for Sarita, and she doubled over laughing so hard that she could hardly breathe, forcing Anwar to scrunch against his door and try to maintain his composure.
Shahab was in ecstasy, and he said to Kifayat, “By god, she’s really spunky!” Then he pinched her thigh very hard, and Sarita reacted impulsively, twisting Anwar’s ear for no reason other than he was closest. Everyone burst out laughing. Kifayat kept looking over his shoulder even though he could see everything in the rearview mirror. He sped up, trying to keep pace with the laughing in the back seat.
Sarita wanted to get out and sit on the car’s hood next to its iron medallion of a flying bird. She leaned forward, Shahab poked her, and Sarita threw her arms around Kifayat’s neck in order to keep her balance. Without thinking, Kifayat kissed her hand, and Sarita’s entire body tingled. She jumped over the seat to sit next to Kifayat where she began to play with his necktie. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Me? I’m Kifayat.” Then he took out ten rupees from his pocket and gave it to her.
The money distracted Sarita, and she instantly forgot what Kifayat had said as she took the bill and crammed it into her bra. She was a child—ignorant and happy. “That was very nice of you,” she said. “And your necktie’s nice too.”
Sarita was in such a good mood that she liked everything she saw. She wanted to believe that even bad things could be redeemed, she wanted the car to continue speeding along, and she wanted everything to fall into their whirlwind.
Suddenly she wanted to sing. She stopped playing with Kifayat’s tie and sang, “It was you who taught me how to love/And woke my sleeping heart.”
After singing this film song for a while, Sarita suddenly turned around and said to Anwar, “Why’re you so quiet? Why don’t you say something? Why don’t you sing something?” Then she jumped into the back seat and began to run her fingers through Shahab’s hair and said to him, “Let’s sing together. You remember that song Devika Rani sang, ‘I wish I could be a bird singing through the forests’? I really like Devika Rani.” Then she put her hands together, propped them beneath her chin, and batting her eyelashes began to tell the story, “Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani were standing next to each other, and Devika Rani said, ‘I wish I could be a bird singing through the forests,’ and Ashok Kumar said…” Suddenly Sarita turned to Shahab, “Sing along, okay?”
Sarita began to sing, “I wish I could be a bird singing through the forests.” And in a coarse voice Shahab repeated the same.
Then they began singing together. Kifayat began honking the horn to the song’s rhythm, and Sarita followed along, clapping. Sarita’s feminine voice mixed with Shahab’s raspy one, as well as the horn’s honking, the wind’s rushing, and the engine’s rumbling—it all sounded like the music of a small orchestra.
Sarita was happy—Shahab was happy—Kifayat was happy—and seeing them all happy made Anwar happy too, and yet he was embarrassed for having been so inhibited. He felt a tingling sensation in his arms, and his repressed emotions awoke: he stretched loudly, yawned and then felt ready to join in the revelry.
As she sang, Sarita took Anwar’s hat from his head, put it on and then jumped into the front seat to look at herself in the rearview mirror. Seeing Sarita wearing his hat, Anwar couldn’t remember whether he had been wearing it from the beginning of the car ride. He felt discombobulated.
Sarita slapped Kifayat’s thigh and asked, “If I put on your pants, and wore your shirt and your tie, would I look like a well-dressed business man?”
But this talk of cross-dressing upset Shahab, and he shook Anwar’s arm, “By God, you’re such an idiot to have given her the hat!” Anwar took these words to heart and for a while considered just how he was an idiot.
“What’s your name?” Kifayat asked Sarita.
“My name?” Sarita took the hat’s elastic cord and strapped in beneath her chin. “Sarita.”
“Sarita, you’re not a woman but a firecracker,” Shahab said.
Anwar wanted to say something, but Sarita began to sing in a loud voice, “I’m going to build my house in the City of Love and forget the rest of the world!”
Kifayat and Shahab felt transported, but Anwar still couldn’t get over his nerves. Sarita kept singing, “I’m going to build my house in the City of Love and forget the rest of the world…” and she stretched out the last word for as long as her breath lasted. Her long hair was blowing back and forth, and it looked like a column of thick smoke spreading in the breeze. She was happy.
Sarita was happy—Shahab was happy—Kifayat was happy—and Anwar once again tried to join in, but when the song ended, everyone felt as though a hard rain had suddenly stopped.
Kifayat asked Sarita to sing another song.
“Yeah, one more,” Shahab encouraged her. “If they could only hear us now!”
Sarita began to sing, “Ali has come to my courtyard. I’m staggering from joy!” Hearing these lyrics, Kifayat began swerving the car from side to side. Then suddenly the winding road ended, and they found themselves at the sea. The sun was setting, and the breeze off the ocean was becoming colder by the minute.
Kifayat stopped the car. Sarita got out and set off running down the beach, and Kifayat and Shahab joined her. She ran upon the wet sand by the tall palm trees that rose along the ocean’s open vista, and she wondered what it was she wanted—she wanted to fade into the horizon, dissolve into the water and soar so high into the sky that the palm trees stood beneath her; she wanted to absorb the sand’s moisture through her feet, and…and…the car, the speed, the lash of the rushing air… She felt transported.
The three young men from Hyderabad sat down on the wet sand and began to drink beer, but then Sarita grabbed a bottle from Kifayat and said, “Wait, let me pour you some.”
Sarita poured so quickly that the beer’s head rose over the glass’s edge, and this pleased her extraordinarily. She dipped her finger into the beer and licked off the foam, but it was very bitter and she immediately puckered her lips. Kifayat and Shahab burst out laughing. When he couldn’t stop, Kifayat had to look away to calm himself, and then he saw that Anwar too was laughing.
They had six bottles—some they poured quickly so that the head overflowed their glasses and its foam disappeared into the sand, and some they actually managed to drink. Sarita kept singing, and once when Anwar looked at her, he imagined that she was made of beer. The damp sea breeze was glistening on her dark cheeks. She was very happy, and now Anwar was too. He wished that the ocean’s water would change into beer, and then he would dive in with Sarita. Sarita picked up two empty bottles and banged them against each other. They clanged loudly, and she burst out laughing, and everyone followed suit.
“Let’s go for a drive,” she suggested to Kifayat. They left the bottles right there on the wet sand and raced ahead to the car to find their seats. Kifayat started the engine and off they went, and soon the wind was rushing over them and Sarita’s long hair streamed over her head.
They began to sing. The car sped lurching down the road, and Sarita kept singing where she sat in the backseat between Anwar, who was dozing, and Shahab. Mischievously she started to run her fingers through Shahab’s hair, and yet the only effect of this was that it lulled him to sleep. Sarita turned back to look at Anwar, and when she saw that he was still sleeping, she jumped into the front seat and whispered to Kifayat, “I’ve put your friends to sleep. Now it’s your turn.”
Kifayat smiled. “Then who’ll drive?”
“It’ll drive itself,” Sarita answered, smiling.
The two lost track of time as they talked with each other, and before they realized it, they found themselves back in the bazaar where Kishori had ushered Sarita into the car. When they got to the factory wall with the “NO URINATING” signs, Sarita said, “Okay, stop here.”
Kifayat stopped the car, and before he could say or do anything Sarita got out, waved good-bye and left for home. With his hands still on the wheel, Kifayat was replaying in his mind all that had just happened when Sarita stopped and turned around. She returned to the car, removed the ten-rupee note from her bra and dropped it onto the seat next to him. Startled, he looked at the note. “What’s this, Sarita?”
“This money—why should I take it?” she said before she turned and took off running. Kifayat stared in disbelief at the note, and when he turned to the back seat, his friends were fast asleep.
For the first time in four years Trilochan found himself looking up at the night sky, and that was only because he had come out onto the terrace of the Advani Chambers to think things over in the open air.
The sky was completely clear but hung like an enormous ash-colored tent over all of Bombay. For as far as he could see, lights burned through the night. It seemed to Trilochan as though countless stars had fallen from the heavens and had attached themselves to the buildings, which in the dark of the night loomed like enormous trees around which the fallen stars glimmered like fireflies.
For Trilochan this was a completely new experience, a new plane of existence, to be out beneath the night sky. He realized that for four years he had lived caged in his apartment, oblivious to one of nature’s greatest gifts. It was about three o’clock, and the wind was delightfully light. Trilochan had grown used to the electric fan’s artificial breeze, which oppressed his very existence: every morning he got up feeling as though someone had been pummeling him all night long. But now he felt rejuvenated, as the morning’s fresh breeze washed over his body. He had come up to the terrace feeling anxious, but after only half an hour the tension had eased. He could now think clearly.
Kirpal Kaur lived with her family in a neighborhood known for its fanatic Muslims. Many houses had already been burned, and several people had already died. Trilochan felt it was no longer safe for them to live there, but there was a curfew in effect and no one knew how long it would last, maybe forty-eight hours. He felt he could do nothing surrounded by Muslims of the most violent sort. Then troubling news reports were coming one after another from the Punjab saying that Sikhs were terrorizing Muslims. At any moment, any Muslim could very easily seize delicate Kirpal Kaur’s wrist and lead her to her death.
Her mother was blind. Her father was paralyzed. And her brother was staying in Deolali to supervise his newly acquired construction contracts there.
Trilochan was very upset with Niranjan, Kirpal Kaur’s brother. Trilochan read the paper every day and had told Niranjan a full week before about the intensity of the sectarian violence, advising him in clear words, “Niranjan, drop this small-time contracting work. We’re passing through a very delicate time. Whatever your obligations are here, you really have to leave. Come to my place. No doubt there’s less space there, but we can find a way to get by.”
But Niranjan hadn’t listened. He had let Trilochan finish his lecture, then smiled through his thick beard and said, “Hey, you’re worrying for no reason. I’ve seen a lot of this sort of thing here. This isn’t Amritsar or Lahore. It’s Bombay, Bombay! You’ve been here for, what, four years? I’ve been living here for twelve years, twelve years!”
Who knows what Niranjan took Bombay to be. He must have thought the city kept some charm so that when violence broke out, it would quell itself. Or he thought it was like a mythical fort, upon which no harm could be wreaked.
But in the cool morning breeze, Trilochan could clearly see that the neighborhood was not safe at all. He was even preparing himself mentally to read in the morning papers that Kirpal Kaur and her parents had already been killed.
Trilochan actually didn’t care about Kirpal Kaur’s paralyzed father and blind mother. If they died and Kirpal Kaur escaped, it would suit him just fine. And if Niranjan was killed in Deolali, it would be even better because then no obstacle would remain. At the moment Niranjan sat like a boulder in his path, and so whenever Trilochan got the chance to talk to Kirpal Kaur, instead of calling him Niranjan Singh he would call him “Boulder” Singh.
The morning breeze blew slowly over Trilochan’s close-cropped hair, pleasantly chilling it. But his worries wouldn’t subside. Kirpal Kaur had just entered his life. Unlike her brother, she was very gentle and delicate. She had grown up in the countryside but hadn’t absorbed that hardness, that wear and tear, that manliness, usually in Sikh country girls who spend their lives moving from one strenuous labor to the next.
She had a slim figure, as if she still hadn’t filled out. She had small breasts, which would have been more pleasant if plumper. In comparison to average Sikh country girls, her skin was fair, more like the color of raw cotton, and her body was glossy like the texture of Mercerized clothes. She was extremely shy.
They were from the same village, but Trilochan hadn’t spent much time there. He had left for high school in the city, where he had begun to live permanently. After high school he had enrolled in college, and while during those years he had gone to his village countless times, he had never heard of Kirpal Kaur, probably because he was always in a hurry to get back to town as soon as possible.
Then his college days had become a distant memory. Ten years had passed since he had last seen his college hostel, and in that time many strange and interesting events had taken place in Trilochan’s life: Burma — Singapore — Hong Kong — then Bombay, where he had been living for four years.
And in these four years, this was the first time he had seen the clear night’s sky. A thousand lights glowed, and the breeze was pleasant and light.
While thinking about Kirpal Kaur, Trilochan thought of Mozelle, a Jewish girl who had lived in the Advani Chambers. Trilochan had fallen hopelessly in love with her, a kind of love he had never experienced in his thirty-five years.
He crossed paths with Mozelle the very day he got an apartment on the second floor of the Advani Chambers through the doings of one of his Christian friends. At first she seemed frighteningly crazy. Her bobbed brown hair was in irremediable disarray, and her lipstick, cracked in spots, clung to her lips like clotted blood. She was wearing a loose white gown whose open collar revealed a generous view of her breasts, large and marked with blue veins. Her upper arms, which were bare, were covered with a dusting of extremely fine hairs as though she had just come from a beauty salon where during her haircut these hairs had fallen onto her arms to stick like crushed nuts on sweets. But more than anything, her lips held his attention: they weren’t that thick, but she had smeared burgundy lipstick across them in such a way that they seemed as fat and as red as chunks of buffalo meat.
Trilochan’s apartment was directly opposite Mozelle’s and only a narrow corridor separated their doors. Trilochan was walking toward his door when Mozelle came out from her apartment wearing wooden sandals. Trilochan heard their sound and stopped. Through her disheveled hair, Mozelle looked at him and laughed, and this unnerved Trilochan. He took the key from his pocket and quickly started toward his door, but as they passed each other Mozelle slipped and fell on the slick cement.
Before Trilochan realized it, Mozelle was lying on top of him with her long gown at her waist and her naked, fleshy legs on either side of him. Trilochan tried to get up, but in his embarrassment he only entangled himself further with Mozelle, as if her body were coated with a soapy lather and he couldn’t find a grip.
Panting, Trilochan apologized earnestly. Mozelle adjusted her gown and smiled, “These sandals are completely worthless.” Then she recovered her lost sandal, fit it between her big toe and its neighbor, got up, and went down the corridor and left.
Trilochan thought it might not be easy to get to know Mozelle, but she opened up to him very quickly. And yet she was very self-centered, and she gave no weight to what he said or did. He bought her food and drinks, treated her to movies, and stayed with her all day when she went swimming at Juhu Beach. But when he wandered beyond her arms or lips, she scolded him. He became so subservient that he waited on her hand and foot and catered to her every whim.
Trilochan had never been in love. In Lahore, Burma, and Singapore, he had gone to prostitutes, but he had never imagined that as soon as he reached Bombay, he would fall deeply in love with a careless, self-centered Jewish girl. Whenever he asked her to the movies, she would immediately get ready. But after they reached their seats in the theater, she would start glancing through the crowd and if she spotted any of her acquaintances, she would wave vigorously and without asking for Trilochan’s permission go sit by them.
On other occasions they would be at a restaurant, and Trilochan would order a huge spread just for Mozelle. But if she saw one of her close friends, she would leave in the middle of eating, and Trilochan could only watch and fume.
Mozelle would often infuriate him when she would callously leave him to go out with her close friends and then not come back for days, sometimes on the excuse of a headache, and sometimes an upset stomach, although Trilochan knew hers to be as strong as steel.
When she ran into him again, she would say, “You’re a Sikh. You can’t understand these delicate matters.”
Trilochan would burn with anger. “Which delicate matters? Your ex-lovers?”
Putting her hands on her wide hips, Mozelle would spread her powerful legs and say, “Why do you keep on bringing them up? Yes, they’re my friends and I like them. If you’re jealous, then be jealous.”
In a pleading manner, Trilochan would ask, “How long will we last like this?”
Mozelle would laugh loudly. “You really are a Sikh! Idiot! Who told you we were together? If you’re so concerned about having a lover, go back to wherever you’re from and marry some Sikh girl. I don’t care what you say, I’m not changing.”
Trilochan would yield. Mozelle had become his big weakness, and he always wanted to be with her. And yet she often humiliated him, and in front of worthless Christian boys, she would embarrass him. While the usual reaction to humiliation and insult is revenge, for Trilochan this wasn’t the case. Many times he made himself forget what she said and forgive her for how she acted. It didn’t matter because he loved her, not just loved her, but as he had told his friends over and over he was completely head over heels in love with her. There was nothing left to do but relinquish himself heart and soul to love’s quagmire.
For two years he suffered like this. At last one day when Mozelle was in a giddy mood, he threw his arms around her and asked, “Mozelle, don’t you love me?”
Mozelle shook herself free, sat down in a chair, and began looking at the hem of her gown. Then she raised her big Jewish eyes, batted her thick eyelashes and said, “I can’t love a Sikh.”
Trilochan felt as though someone had tucked a bunch of burning coals into his turban. He flew into a rage.
“Mozelle, you always make fun of me. But it’s not me you’re making fun of, it’s my love!”
Mozelle got up and, in her alluring way, shook her well-trimmed brown hair. “Shave your beard and let your hair down. If you do this, guys are going to wink at you—you’re beautiful.”
This spurred Trilochan into action. He strode forward, brusquely drew Mozelle to him, and pressed his lips against hers.
“Don’t!” said Mozelle, as she pushed him away, disgusted. “I already brushed my teeth this morning. Don’t trouble yourself.”
“Mozelle!” Trilochan cried out.
Mozelle took out a small mirror from her purse and looked at her lips where she saw scratches on her thickly laid lipstick. “I swear, you don’t know how to put your beard to good use. It could really clean my Navy blue skirt. I’d only have to apply a little detergent.”
Trilochan became so angry that he gave up. He sat down calmly on the sofa, and Mozelle came and sat beside him. She let down his beard, sticking the pins one by one between her teeth.
Trilochan was beautiful. Before his beard had started to grow, people always mistook him for a striking young girl. But now his beard hid his features beneath its bushy mass. He knew it obscured his beauty, but he was obedient and respected his religion. He didn’t want to lose those things that showed his faith was complete.
After Mozelle finished letting out his beard, Trilochan asked her, “What are you doing?”
With the pins between her teeth, she smiled. “Your beard is very soft. I was wrong to say it could clean my Navy blue skirt. Triloch, shave it off and give me the clippings and I’ll weave them into a first-class coin purse.”
Trilochan could feel his face turning red with anger beneath his beard. In a deliberate voice, he said, “I’ve never made fun of your religion, so why do you make fun of mine? Look, it’s not nice to do that. I would never tolerate it except I’m helplessly in love with you. Don’t you know this?”
Mozelle stopped playing with his heard. “I know.”
Trilochan drew his beard together neatly and took the pins from between Mozelle’s teeth. “You know my love isn’t nonsense. I want to marry you.”
“I know.” Giving her hair a light toss, she got up and began looking at a painting hung on the wall. “And I’ve nearly decided to say yes.”
Trilochan jumped up. “Really?”
Mozelle’s red lips grew into a broad smile, and her white teeth sparkled for an instant. “Yes.”
With his beard half-folded, Trilochan squeezed her to his chest and said, “So—so— when?”
Mozelle pushed herself away. “When you cut your hair and shave.”
Trilochan was resigned to his fate. Without thinking, he said, “I’ll get it cut tomorrow.”
Mozelle began to do a tap dance. “You’re talking nonsense, Triloch. You’re not that courageous.”
Suddenly religion was the last thing on his mind. “You’ll see.”
“I will see,” Mozelle repeated. Quickly she came up to Trilochan, kissed him on his beard, and left, grimacing.
It is impossible to describe how much Trilochan suffered that night as he thought about getting his hair cut. The next day in a Fort barber shop he got his hair cut and beard shaved. He kept his eyes clamped shut throughout the proceedings. When the business was finally over, he opened his eyes and stared for a long time in a mirror—now he would draw the attention of even the most beautiful girls in Bombay!
Now Trilochan felt the same strange coldness he had felt leaving the barbershop. He began to pace back and forth on the terrace over to where there were a number of water pipes and tanks. He didn’t want to remember the rest of the story, but he couldn’t stop himself.
The first day after getting his hair cut, Trilochan didn’t leave his apartment. The second day he sent a note to Mozelle through his servant saying he was sick and asking if she could come by for a moment. Mozelle came. Seeing Trilochan, she stopped short. “My darling Triloch!” she cried out before throwing herself onto him and kissing him so much that his face turned red from her lipstick.
She stroked Trilochan’s soft, clean cheeks, ran her fingers like a comb through his short English-style hair, and began babbling in Arabic. She was so emotional that her nose began to run. When she noticed this, she took up her skirt’s hem and used it as a handkerchief. This embarrassed Trilochan, and he drew her skirt down and reproached her, “You should really wear something down there.”
His words didn’t have any effect on Mozelle. She smiled, her lips smeared with stale and spotty lipstick, and then she said, “They make me uncomfortable. This way’s better.”
The memory flashed through his mind of how that first day he had run into her and the strange mix-up that had followed. He smiled and drew her to his chest. “Let’s get married tomorrow.”
“Of course,” Mozelle said, rubbing the back of her hand over his soft chin.
It was decided that the wedding would be in Pune. Because it was a civil marriage, they had to give ten to fifteen days’ notice. This was a legality. Pune was the best place for the marriage as it was close and Trilochan had some friends there. They decided to leave for Pune the very next day.
Mozelle was a salesgirl in a store in the Fort. There was a taxi stand near her store where she asked him to wait. Trilochan arrived at the agreed upon hour and waited for an hour and a half, but Mozelle didn’t show up. The next day he learned that she had left for Deolali with an old friend who had just bought a brand-new car and that she was going to stay there for a while.
What happened then to Trilochan? That is a very long story. The short version is that he drew up his courage and resolved to forget her. Soon after that, he met Kirpal Kaur and fell in love with her. Then he realized that Mozelle was nothing more than a wild girl with a cold heart who jumped from here to there like a bird. At least, he consoled himself, he hadn’t made the mistake of marrying her.
Despite this he would think about Mozelle from time to time. These were bittersweet moments: she didn’t care about anyone’s feelings, but Trilochan still liked her, and so he couldn’t help but wonder what she was doing in Deolali—whether she was still with the guy with the new car or if she had left him and was with someone else. Regardless, it was painful for Trilochan to think that she was living with someone other than him, but at the same time such behavior was nothing but in character.
He had spent not just hundreds but thousands of rupees on her. But he had done so willingly, and furthermore Mozelle’s tastes weren’t expensive. She liked cheap things. Once Trilochan took her to get some earrings he had picked out for her, but when they got to the store Mozelle became fascinated with a pair of gaudy, cheap imitation ones, and rejecting Trilochan’s favorites begged him to buy the others instead.
Trilochan really couldn’t understand Mozelle. They would spend hours kissing, and he would run his hands all over her body. But she never let him go further. To irritate him, she would say, “You’re a Sikh. I hate you.”
It was obvious that Mozelle didn’t hate him. If she had, she would never have agreed to spend time with him. She didn’t put up with things she didn’t like, and so the thought of her spending two years hanging out with him and hating every minute of it was ridiculous. Mozelle made up her own mind about things. For example, she didn’t like underwear because they felt tight. On many occasions Trilochan had stressed their absolute necessity and even tried to shame her into wearing them, but she never reformed her ways.
When Trilochan raised the subject, she would get irritated and say, “This shame-blame stuff is nonsense. If you get offended, close your eyes. Tell me, you’re naked underneath your clothes, and so where are the clothes to cover that up? Where are the clothes that can prevent you from imagining what’s underneath? Don’t give me that crap. You’re a Sikh. I know you wear those silly baggy underpants. They’re a part of your religion—just like your beard and your hair. You should be ashamed. You’re an adult but still think your religion is hidden in your underpants.”
When they had first met and Mozelle said things like this, Trilochan would get angry, but as time passed he started to consider what she was saying, and sometimes his prejudices gave way. Then, after getting his hair cut, he was overcome by the feeling of how much time he had wasted carrying around his heavy mess of hair.
Trilochan stopped near the water tanks. He cursed Mozelle and forced himself to stop thinking about her. Kirpal Kaur, pure and innocent Kirpal Kaur, whom he loved, was in danger. She lived in a neighborhood full of the most violent sort of Muslims and already two or three incidents had taken place. The problem was that there was a forty-eight-hour curfew in effect. And yet who really cared about that? Muslims living in her building could very easily kill her and her parents at any time.
Concentrating on this, Trilochan sat down on a large water pipe. His hair had grown out, and he was sure that in under a year it would look as though he had never cut it. His beard had grown fast as well. Nonetheless, he didn’t keep it as long as he used to, and there was a barber in the Fort who trimmed it so neatly that it looked as though it was untouched.
He stroked his long, soft hair and sighed deeply. He was about to get up when he heard the hard slap of wooden sandals. He wondered who it might be, as there were many Jewish women in the building and they all wore the same wooden sandals when at home. The noise grew closer. He glimpsed Mozelle near the next water tank—she was wearing the special loose gown of Jewish women and, with both arms raised above her head, was stretching in such a sexy way that Trilochan felt as though the air itself would shatter.
Trilochan got up from the water pipe and asked himself, “Where in the hell did she come from? What’s she up to now?”
Mozelle stretched again, and Trilochan’s bones throbbed with desire.
Mozelle’s large breasts heaved beneath her loose gown, and suddenly the thought of their delicate veins flashed through Trilochan’s mind. He coughed loudly. Mozelle turned and looked in his direction but didn’t seem surprised at all. She approached him, and her sandals clapped against the ground. Once she reached him, she looked at his dwarfish beard and asked, “You’ve become a Sikh again, Trilochan?”
His face began to burn.
Mozelle came forward and rubbed the back of her hand against his chin. Then she smiled. “Now this brush could clean my Navy blue skirt! But I left that in Deolali.”
Trilochan didn’t respond.
Mozelle pinched his arm. “Why don’t you say something, Sardar Sahib?”
Trilochan didn’t want to be made foolish again, but he couldn’t help but look searchingly at her. No special change had taken place, other than how she looked a little weaker. “Have you been sick?”
“No,” Mozelle said and gave her bobbed hair a light shake.
“You look weaker than before.”
“I’m on a diet.” Mozelle sat down on the water pipe and began to rap her sandals against the ground. “So you’re trying to be a Sikh again?”
“Yes,” Trilochan said nonchalantly.
“Congratulations!” Mozelle took off one of her sandals and beat it against the water pipe.
“Have you fallen in love with some other girl?”
“Yes,” Trilochan said flatly.
“Congratulations. Is it someone in this building?”
“That’s really wrong.” Fixing her sandal, Mozelle got up. “You should always give first consideration to your neighbors.”
Trilochan remained silent. Mozelle got up and tickled his beard with all five fingers. “Did she tell you to grow it out?”
Trilochan felt uneasy, as though he were unsnarling his beard with a comb, and when he said “no,” there was a curt edge to it.
Mozelle’s red lipstick made her lips look like old meat. When she smiled, Trilochan felt as though he had entered a village butcher shop where the butcher had just cut in two a thick-veined piece of meat.
Then she laughed. “Now if you shave your beard, I swear I’ll marry you.”
Trilochan wanted to tell Mozelle how much he loved Kirpal Kaur and how he was going to marry her, and how in comparison to her, Mozelle was wanton, ugly, faithless, and unkind. But he wasn’t spiteful. “Mozelle, I’ve already decided to get married to a simple girl from my village who upholds our religion. For her sake I’ve decided to grow out my hair.”
Mozelle usually didn’t spend any time thinking about details, but she reflected for a moment and after pivoting on one of her sandals, she asked, “If she obeys your religion, then how can she accept you? Doesn’t she know you’ve already cut your hair?”
“She doesn’t know yet,” Trilochan admitted. “Right after you left for Deolali, I started to grow out my beard, just to spite you. Then I met Kirpal Kaur. I do up my turban in a way so that even one man in a hundred has a hard time telling I cut my hair. Anyway, it’s going to grow back very soon.” Trilochan ran his fingers through his hair.
Mozelle lifted her long gown and scratched her pale voluptuous thigh. “That’s good. But look at this stupid mosquito! See how hard it bit me!”
Trilochan turned his gaze away from her. With her finger Mozelle applied saliva to where the mosquito had bitten her and then let go of her gown and stood up. “When’s the wedding?”
“I don’t know yet,” Trilochan said before suddenly becoming pensive.
For several seconds Mozelle didn’t speak. Then noticing his worried demeanor, she asked in a very serious manner, “Trilochan, what are you thinking about?”
At that moment Trilochan needed someone to talk to. Even Mozelle would do. He told her about the danger Kirpal Kaur was in, and then Mozelle laughed and said, “You’re a first-class idiot! Go get her! What’s hard about that?”
“Hard? Mozelle! You would never understand the delicacy of this situation, the delicacy of any situation. You’re so careless. That’s why our relationship didn’t work out, something I’ll be sorry about forever.”
Mozelle banged her sandal against the water pipe. “To hell with your regret! Stupid idiot. You should be thinking about how to get your what’s-her-name out of there, but you sat down to cry about the old days. We would never have lasted. You’re a silly coward and I need a fearless man. But screw all that. Come on, let’s go rescue your girl.”
She grabbed Trilochan’s arm. “From where?” he asked in fear.
“From where she lives. I know that neighborhood inch by inch. Come on.”
“But listen! There’s a curfew.”
“Not for Mozelle. Come on.”
She grabbed Trilochan’s arm and pulled him toward the door leading to the stairs. She was about to open the door and go down the stairs when she stopped and looked at Trilochan’s beard.
“What?” Trilochan asked.
“Your beard. But it’s okay. It’s not that big. If you don’t wear a turban, no one will take you for a Sikh.”
“Don’t wear a turban?” Trilochan was taken aback. “I won’t go without a turban.”
“Why?” Mozelle asked, feigning ignorance.
Trilochan pushed back some stray hairs. “You don’t understand. I have to wear it there.”
“Why don’t you understand? Up till now she hasn’t seen me without my turban. She doesn’t know I’ve cut my hair, and I don’t want her to know.”
Mozelle rapped her sandal against the door’s threshold. “You really are a first-class idiot. Stupid ass! It’s a matter of life and death for your what’s-her-face.”
Trilochan tried to explain, “Mozelle, she’s a very religious girl. If she sees me without a turban, she’ll hate me.”
This irritated Mozelle. “Ah, screw your love! I wonder if all Sikhs are so stupid. Her life’s in danger and you’re insisting on wearing a turban—and maybe your silly underwear too?”
“I always wear them.”
“Good for you! But we’re going to a neighborhood where it’s Muslim after Muslim and they’re not type you want to mess with. If you wear a turban, you’ll be slaughtered the moment you get there.”
Trilochan responded curtly, “I don’t care. If I go, I’m going to wear a turban. I’m not going to risk losing her love.”
This incensed Mozelle. She writhed in anger, and her breasts twitched and trembled. “You ass, what will her love matter if you’re dead? What’s your slut’s name? When she’s dead—and her family’s dead as well—then, well, you really are a Sikh. I swear to God, you’re a Sikh and a real dumb one too!”
Trilochan was furious. “Stop talking nonsense!”
Mozelle cackled. She put her arms around Trilochan’s neck and swung lightly from side to side. “Okay, darling, as you wish. Go and put on your turban. I’ll be waiting for you outside.”
She began to walk downstairs. Trilochan called out, “You’re not going to put on any other clothes?”
Mozelle shook her head. “No, I’m okay like this.”
She continued on down, her sandals slapping against the stairs. Trilochan listened to her reach the last stair, then he smoothed back his long hair and descended towards his apartment. Inside he changed his clothes quickly. His turban was already made up. He fixed it carefully into place, locked the door, and went downstairs.
Outside on the sidewalk, Mozelle had her sturdy legs spread wide and was smoking just as a man would. When Trilochan approached, she mischievously blew a mouthful of smoke in his face. “You’re really awful,” Trilochan said angrily.
Mozelle smiled. “That’s not very original. I’ve heard that before.” Then she looked at Trilochan’s turban. “You’ve really tied it up well. It looks like you still have all your hair.”
The market was completely deserted. The wind blew so slowly that it seemed as though it too was afraid of the curfew. Lamps were lit but their light seemed sickly. Usually at that hour the streets would spring to life, as the trams started up and people began to come and go, but now it was so quiet it seemed as though no one had ever used this road and never would.
Mozelle was walking ahead. Her sandals clattered against the sidewalk and their noise echoed through the silence. Beneath his breath Trilochan was cursing her for not having taken two minutes to change out of her stupid sandals. He wanted to tell her to take them off and walk barefoot, but he knew she wouldn’t listen.
Trilochan was so terrified that when a leaf stirred, his heart lurched, and yet Mozelle walked ahead fearlessly, puffing on her cigarette as though she were enjoying a thoughtless stroll.
They reached an intersection and a police officer’s voice burst upon them, “Hey, where’re you going?”
Trilochan flinched. Mozelle approached the policeman, and once she reached him she gave her hair a light shake and said, “Oh, you—don’t you recognize me? It’s Mozelle.” Then she pointed down an alley. “There, over there. My sister lives there. She’s not feeling well. I’m bringing a doctor.”
The officer was trying to remember Mozelle when from God knows where she took out a pack of cigarettes and offered him one, “Here, have a cigarette.”
The officer accepted. Mozelle took the cigarette from her mouth and extended it toward the officer. “Let me give you a light.”
The officer took a drag. Mozelle winked at the officer with one eye and at Trilochan with the other, and rapping her sandals against the ground, she set off for the alley leading to Kirpal Kaur’s neighborhood.
It seemed to Trilochan that Mozelle got a strange pleasure from defying the curfew, and it was true that she liked to play dangerous games. When they used to go to Juhu Beach, she was a headache. She would dash against the ocean’s enormous waves, swimming out so far that Trilochan feared she would drown. When she came back, her body always had bruises all over it, and yet she didn’t care.
Mozelle forged ahead, and Trilochan followed, surveying from side to side skittishly, fearful that a knife-wielding assailant would spring upon him. Mozelle stopped, and when Trilochan caught up with her, she explained, “Triloch, dear. Being scared like this doesn’t help. If you’re scared, something bad will certainly happen. Believe me, I’m talking from experience.”
Trilochan remained silent.
Leaving one alley, they made for one that led directly into Kirpal Kaur’s neighborhood. Mozelle stopped abruptly. A little ways ahead, people were looting a Marwari’s shop. She considered the scene and then said, “It’s nothing. Let’s go.”
They set off. Suddenly a man carrying a large brass basin on his head ran into Trilochan, and the basin fell. The man looked Trilochan up and down and realized Trilochan was a Sikh. Quickly, he reached for something inside his waistband, but Mozelle stumbled forward as if in a drunken stupor and rammed into him. “Hey, what’re you doin?” she asked in a drunken voice. “You wanna hit your own brother? I’m gonna marry him.” Then she turned to Trilochan. “Karim! Pick up the basin and put it on this man’s head.”
The man withdrew his hand from his waistband and leered lasciviously at Mozelle; then he went up to her and nudged her breasts with his elbow. “Enjoy yourself, lady. Enjoy yourself.” Then he picked up the basin and ran off down the road.
“How rude, the dirty bastard,” Trilochan muttered.
Mozelle rubbed her breasts. “It wasn’t that bad. Shit happens. Come on, let’s go.”
She set off quickly and Trilochan hurried after her.
After passing through this alley, they found themselves in Kirpal Kaur’s neighborhood. “Which alley is it?” Mozelle asked.
“Third alley—corner building.”
Mozelle started off in that direction. The road was completely empty. The buildings were crammed full of people, but not even the cry of a baby could be heard.
When they approached the alley, they saw something suspicious ahead: a man rushed from a building to disappear into a building on the opposite side. After a little while, three men emerged from this building. They glanced back and forth over the sidewalk and then raced into the first building. Mozelle stopped. She motioned to Trilochan to step into the shadows. Then she whispered to him, “Triloch, dear, take off your turban.”
“I’ll never take it off, never.”
Mozelle twitched with anger. “Whatever. But don’t you see what’s happening?”
What has happening was easy to see—something sketchy was going on. When Mozelle saw two men coming from the building on her right carrying gunnysacks on their backs, she quivered with fear—a thick liquid was dripping from the sacks. Mozelle bit her lips, thinking. When these two men disappeared into the alley’s mouth, she told Trilochan, “Okay, this is what we’re going to do. I’m going to run to the corner building. You come after me like you’re chasing me, okay? But we’re going to have to do this fast.”
Mozelle didn’t wait for Trilochan’s answer but took off running for the corner building, and Trilochan ran after her. In a matter of seconds there were inside the building. Next to the stairs, Trilochan gasped for breath, but Mozelle was just fine.
“Which floor?” she asked.
Trilochan ran his tongue over his dry lips. “The second.”
Then she clambered up the stairs, and Trilochan followed her. Blood stained the stairs, and seeing this, Trilochan went numb.
Once he reached the second floor, Trilochan went down the corridor, stopped in front of a door, and quietly knocked. Mozelle remained next to the stairs. He knocked again, put his mouth to the door. “Mahanga Singhji! Mahanga Singhji!”
“Who is it?” a faint voice said from inside.
The door opened slowly. Trilochan signaled to Mozelle. She came quickly, and both went inside. Mozelle found herself standing next to a skinny, terrified girl, and for a moment Mozelle stared at her. She was very slight and her nose was very beautiful, but she seemed to be suffering from a cold. Mozelle hugged her against her broad chest, and wiped Kirpal Kaur’s nose with the hem of her loose gown.
Mozelle spoke tenderly to Kirpal Kaur, “Don’t be scared. Trilochan’s here.”
Kirpal Kaur looked at Trilochan with terrified eyes, and then separated herself from Mozelle.
“Tell your father to get ready quickly, and your mother, too,” Trilochan instructed her.
Then, from the floor above they heard a loud voices and someone crying out as though mixed up in a fracas.
Kirpal Kaur emitted a stifled cry from her throat, “They took her.”
“Who?” Trilochan asked.
Kirpal Kaur was about to answer when Mozelle grabbed her by the arm and dragged her into a corner. “Good for her,” she said. “Now take off your clothes.”
Kirpal Kaur hadn’t had time to react before Mozelle quickly pulled off the girl’s blouse and put it aside. Mortified, Kirpal Kaur tried to hide herself behind her arms. Trilochan looked away. Mozelle took off her loose gown and put it on Kirpal Kaur. Now Mozelle was completely nude. Very quickly, she loosened the drawstring of Kirpal Kaur’s pants, took them off, and then said to Trilochan, “Go, get her out of here! No, wait!” She unfastened Kirpal Kaur’s hair and then said, “Go. Get out of here.”
“Come on,” Trilochan said. But then he suddenly stopped and turned toward Mozelle who was standing shamelessly naked. The hairs on her arms were standing on end from the cold.
“Why aren’t you going?” Mozelle asked with irritation.
“What about her parents?”
“To hell with them. Get her out of here.”
Suddenly from the floor above them, a bunch of men clambered down the stairs. They came up to the door and began to pound on it as if they were going to break it down.
Kirpal Kaur’s blind mother and paralyzed father lay moaning in the next room.
Mozelle thought for a moment, gave her hair a light toss and said to Trilochan, “Listen. I can think of only one thing. I’m going to open the door.”
A stifled cry fell from Kirpal Kaur’s lips, “Door!”
Mozelle instructed Trilochan, “I’m going to open the door and go out. Run after me. I’m going to run up the stairs and you come too. Whoever’s at the door will forget everything and follow us.”
“Your what’s-her-name—this is her chance to escape. No one will say anything to her dressed like that.”
Trilochan quickly explained everything to Kirpal Kaur. Mozelle yelled loudly, opened the door, rushed out, and fell among the men outside. They were so startled they didn’t react, and she immediately got up and climbed up the staircase. Trilochan ran after her, and the men gave way.
Mozelle blindly raced up the staircase. She was still wearing her wooden sandals. The men regained their composure and set off after them. Mozelle slipped. She fell down the staircase, hitting each hard stair and ramming against the iron railing. She landed in the corridor below.
Trilochan immediately came back down the stairs. He bent down and saw blood running from her nose, mouth, and ears. The men gathered around them, but none of them asked what had happened. Everyone was quiet, as they looked at Mozelle’s pale, naked body, cut up everywhere.
Trilochan shook her arm. “Mozelle! Mozelle!”
Mozelle opened her big Jewish eyes, red with blood, and smiled.
Trilochan took off his turban, unwrapped it, and covered her naked body. Mozelle smiled and winked at Trilochan as blood bubbled from her mouth.
“Go, find out whether my underwear is there, I mean…”
Trilochan understood, but he didn’t want to get up. This angered Mozelle, and she said, “You’re a real Sikh! Go and see.”
Trilochan got up and returned to Kirpal Kaur’s apartment. Through her dimming eyes, Mozelle looked at the crowd and said, “He’s a Muslim, but because he’s so tough, I call him a Sikh.”
Trilochan came back, and his look told Mozelle that Kirpal Kaur had already left. Mozelle sighed in relief, and a tide of blood gushed from her mouth.
“Oh, damn it!” she said, and wiped her mouth with the back of her wrist. Then she turned to Trilochan. “All right, darling—bye bye…”
Trilochan wanted to say something, but the words stuck in his throat.
Mozelle removed Trilochan’s turban. “Take it away—this religion of yours,” she said, and her arm fell dead across her powerful chest.