There was a young man down in the street, labouring away at the kebab stall. From two storeys up, I couldn’t see his face; just his back and arms as he went about his work. He had kneaded the keema and I had watched his shoulders moving, wide and muscular, as he worked the meat. His muslin kurta stretched across a broad back as he chopped onions and mint, pounded masalas, reached out to pour oil into the heavy iron kadhai, and pumped the kerosene stove, arms moving rhythmically back and forth, back and forth.
I drew back, breathing deeply of kebabs and kerosene, roses and sweat. A glorious bit of maleness there. Glorious from a distance of twenty feet, in the gathering gloom of a Ramzan twilight. At close quarters, the attraction would probably fade into nothingness. He probably sniveled. Or had a harelip. Or wasn’t interested in girls anyway.
I opened my eyes and looked up at the clock above my bed. It had once been Ammi’s clock, Ammi’s room. I remembered her standing there, just as I was now, waiting for seven o’clock. Always seven. ‘Ameena, don’t step out of this room when they come. Do you hear me?’ Her voice cracking with stress, her eyes grey like mine, scared and bitter.
Yes, Ammi. I hear you.
I hadn’t gone out of the room; they’d come in when Ammi died. But they rarely came in now, because there was no need. Well trained, that’s what I am, like one of those dancing monkeys I had once seen. The monkey-man, his face pinched and hungry, would jerk the string, flinging it up, and the monkey, perfectly trained, would pirouette in unison…
Those are the opening sentences of my latest short story to be published. One Night’s Work is, as the title suggests, about a night’s work—in a setting both modern and historical: the heart of contemporary Shahjahanabad, the busy, sometimes-sleazy, sometimes-charming (often both at the same time) area that most Dilliwallahs refer to as ‘Old Delhi’. Here, while the faithful get ready for an iftaar during Ramzan, as the markets bustle and heave with excitement, an orphaned girl, trapped in a job she hates, is escorted out on yet another assignment.
One Night’s Work has been published by Rupa Publications as part of an anthology titled Why We Don’t Talk. Compiled and edited by Shinie Antony, this is a collection of short stories set in contemporary urban India; stories by writers such as Anjum Hasan, Amit Varma, Jahnavi Barua, Rajorshi Chakraborty and Chetan Bhagat, among others. The book was released in Delhi in August, and costs Rs 295. You can ask for it in major bookstores, or buy it online at the Rupa website and at Rediff Shopping (yes, Rediff have got the details mixed up a bit, but the book’s the right one).
Update, two days later: The Times of India has published a brief review of Why We Don’t Talk: A ‘short and sweet’ collection of 27 stories, some by well-known Indian writers. This volume is like a breath of fresh air – poignant, serious, funny, bitter-sweet and quirky. Amit Varma’s ‘Urban Planning’ is a hilarious account of how politicians, media and the police are foxed by the mysterious movement of landmark buildings in Mumbai. Anita Nair’s ‘Trespass’ tells the story of a chance meeting between two women, one of whom is the mistress of the other’s husband. Samhita Arni’s ‘My Great-Grandaunt’ is one of the best of the lot. A great collection with a brilliant mix of stories.