“For real?” she asked.
“For real” I said, firm.
“Okay…So, my father, when I was younger I wanted him to die, yeah?” she said, and I sat up in my seat.
“Amma wanted the same thing too, I knew, although she didn’t say it out loud on most days. “It’s terrible to think that way, Sindoori” –“Sin” to you, by the way– she’d say, but I couldn’t think of a single reason. Her husband – my father – was the prodigal, entitled son of patriarchy: good caste, good name, good job – the whole package! The big, fat catch of an Indian husband back in the day, complete with all the egotistical features, y’know what I’m sayin’? Pfft!…’ she stirred her gin-and-tonic absently and looked away, a wry, mysterious smile on her face “Almost wasn’t necessary that he be an alcoholic too, but nope!” her voice slurred, “Daddy ticked every box there was on the fucking list!” She took a big gulp of her drink and ground her teeth even as a vein bulged on her gorgeous neck, a lone disturbance in what was otherwise a golden, undisturbed desert of a landscape all the way to her waist. “Vikram, yaar, another, please!” she said to the bartender and turned her swimming, bloodshot eyes back to me:
“Anyway so my dear Amma, meanwhile, well, she was the model traditional wife, y’know?” she continued, “And I was the only daughter of this great-looking, temple-going, tied-up-real-nice-with-a-bow blue-collar family, the only live-audience of exclusive, behind-the-scenes madness of everybody’s favourite family drama, “The Subramanyams on Shastri Nagar””
Wow. I had not expected that. I had come to Paharganj about forty-five minutes ago from the Karol Bagh metro station to escape the mind-numbing, spirit-crushing embrace of the UPSC exam preparations I had landed myself into right after six years of being the bottom bitch at IIT, Delhi and, subsequently, your average above-average MNC. Before that night I had either crammed or worked a third of my life away for someone else so efficiently I had become most comfortable reducing all the interactions in my life into the MCQ format internalised into my brain as early as sixteen when I started prepping for the JEE or the BITSAT so I could later write CAT, GRE or GMAT so I could join GE or IBM or UPSC or whatever-the-fuck else the next acronym going to define who I was in life was going to be.
I had crunched numbers, devoured theorems and shat out headlines day after unchanging day for so long I could not remember how to begin having a conversation anymore that was not about a job, a package or yet another exam. I had never been out of Delhi, never moved out of my joint-family house and never had so much as an indiscretion inside it. I had never had sex, never had a girlfriend, never had so much as a fucking choice in the matter! Heck, I mean, a money-generating kiosk was a more likable me than me, and I was sick of it! Oh my God, I was so fucking sick of being me that night, and all I was looking for when I had entered that bar was to have one night of someone better; one peek beyond the curtain, one drunken fantasy.
That’s when I had found her, filling out that black blouse under the mud-coloured saree and sitting self-assured on a bar-stool with her legs folded across each other at “My Bar”, sipping on her drink and tipsily topsy-turvying with her thick, side-parted hair – so out of place, so out of Sin City, so out of my league. Yet when I had sat next to her and ordered my Rum-and-Coke, she spoke to me first.
Next thing I know, we’re talking. She suggested I buy her her next gin-and-tonic, and by now I had a million pornos and TV shows running in my head telling me where this was going if I managed to not fuck it up; if I managed to just, you know, be cool, and I didn’t care who I was anymore or who I had to be for it to happen, so much so that I gave her a fake name better than Bhooshan Lal, invented a collection of poetry and told her that I liked to take risks and chase after whatever excited me within half an hour of awkward flirting and two pegs of Jack Daniels.
She chuckled to herself at my last comment, stirred her drink, sipped, and stayed silent. My confidence sank a little, and I managed: “Well, enough about me. Tell me: What’s the wildest thing you’ve done?”
That’s when her story had started, and let me tell you, no porno, no TV, no fucking movie could have prepared me for the story that she began to tell. Even now as she was talking her voice was pensive, focussed, slurry but not meandering as she told me the greatest hits of the Sharma family: the boozing, the berating, the belts, blisters and bruises, the random nights of disappearance where father did not come home and both she and Amma wished this would be the night when he did not come back at all.
“But he always did! Like a particularly annoying infection he kept coming back, and you know what I realised?” she paused, but did not wait for me to respond: “I realised I wasn’t going to be granted any wishes, not with my life. If I wanted him gone I’d have to do it myself”
Okay, hold on! Was this actually happening? Surely she couldn’t be telling a complete stranger how she used to plan to murder her father – surely she had caught my lies and now she was concocting hers. Surely this was all part of the game, except I did not know how to play anymore. I did not know the first thing to say to her, but I knew what I definitely did not want to convey: that I wanted her to stop whatever she was doing, for she seemed to be enjoying herself. Her posture had slouched to the bar-counter, and her fingers were now casually running circles on my jeans.
“It was not as hard as you’d think from there actually” she said. “Did you know that perfumes have fair amounts of methyl alcohol instead of the stuff you can drink – the ethyl alcohol?” I nodded. I knew that. “So this methyl alcohol causes alcohol poisoning, which, incidentally, also happens if you drink too much too quickly.
Bingo! All I had to do was slip enough into his drink and maybe it’d all be over for Amma and me once and for all. There it was! And so simple also, don’t you think?”
My face flushed white with anxiety. She had stopped talking. Holy Shit! She actually wanted a response! What was I fucking supposed to say to that?
“What happened? Am I making you uncomfortable?” she asked as her hand began to caress the in-seams of my jeans. “There! Does that feel better?” I swallowed and nodded, equal parts stunned, embarrassed and horny. What was she really doing telling me this murder-mystery? And, worse, did I want her to stop doing it?
“No! No, no. Carry on! Not like I believe everything you’re saying” I said, and she smiled, her eyes never leaving mine and not for once second sharing in the smile.
Manali trance blared out of the speakers. The music at My Bar had turned to louder songs, and Sin had shifted her chair closer to mine in order to talk over the music. She leant over me now, speaking into my ear and swaying with the music as she spoke in between slurs and sly smiles. Her hair was in my face, her bulging blouse in my eye-line. The bar was not very crowded that night, but suddenly it seemed like there was nowhere in it to breathe easy! So, cornered but not exactly uncomfortable, I ordered another JD and her story continued:
“What you shouldn’t believe, mister, is how easy it can be. You see, my father was a mean drunk, but he was a disciplined drunk. He had a routine, more or less, and it always started with Amma in their bedroom.
So, he’d set his booze down in the hall sometimes, and once the show started you could expect at least fifteen minutes of whimpers and 8-10 whiplash sounds before he’d come out and it’d be my turn, or not, depending on how much trouble I’d caused recently, how much noise I had made, what clothes I’d worn or how much I had tried to defend Amma. Either way, once he went in you could expect to have more than enough time to, you know, slip something special in his drink” she said, playing with a tiny ice-cube from her drink as she did so, before she dropped it in mine. “Which is what I did. Oops.”
“Lo and behold! The next morning daddy went to work feeling slightly unwell. Fatigue, headache, nausea – the usual suspects, y’know what I mean? He didn’t make much of it – the real show doesn’t begin for a long time with alcohol poisoning. By that time I knew it’d be too late.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I managed to interject, finally more uncomfortable than all those other things I was in that moment with her hand mere inches from where my pants had become uncomfortably tight.
“Well, you asked me what the wildest thing I did was. I thought you’d just loouve a real wild story.” she said, nonchalant, her drunken eyes unwavering until I dropped my own.
“But you’re making it all up, right? I mean, you didn’t really poison your dad, c’mon!”
“Let’s get out of here, darling, and I’ll tell you” she said, before signalling to Vikram to get her check ready.
Fuck! So it was happening at last! But…what exactly was happening? And was it worth sacrificing this otherwise perfect fantasy? I considered going back home at only 10:30, and that thought was enough for me to consider any other option, much less this one. Whatever was left of my indecision Sin’s sensual voice vaporized. “I thought you went after what you wanted. C’mon, don’t you wanna sin a little?” She had said to my ear and given it a slight lick before she got off her stool and breezed past me and out the door.
It hit me a couple seconds after she had disappeared that she had left, and both the stories she had brought with her were left unfinished. And that’s when I knew: for the sake of one or the other I had to go after her. I threw a couple thousand on the table, asked the barkeep to keep the change and sped out of the bar, only to find Sin lounged against the boundary wall with a lit cigarette slipped deftly between her fingers. She looked at me, crushed her cigarette under her feet and then began to smile like she’d been smiling all evening.
“So what happened to your father anyway?” I quizzed, trying to deny the obvious about my situation.
“Oh, him! Well he came back home that afternoon while Amma was at work, helped by two of his colleagues who asked me to heat up some water for his stomach while the doctor came home. So I went into the kitchen to do exactly that – poor little me, doing as I was told, only 16 years old, what were they going to think?” Here Sin abruptly began to laugh, and it was only after she had caught her breath that she revealed what was funny:
“So I remember his colleague coming into the kitchen to take a look at me. He had those eyes – those “poor kid’s gonna lose her father” eyes, and I totally played my part in that domestic tragedy, y’know, I sold the fuck out of it! You have no idea how nervous I was, but I didn’t break character for a second while he watched me.
Then, when he turned to go back to tend to daddy again, I observed him carefully as he walked to the door. I knew time was running out but supressed the urge to check my watch. I took a deep breath and started counting in reverse under my breath: Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven… and I remember thinking “I hope he has time enough to remember what he is dying for; I hope he sees all the terrible shit he did to us one last time before he turns blind”
The air of September had somehow acquired a chill. I could feel the breeze leaving a tingling sensation near my spine where it touched the sweat from earlier, but I was not sure if it was entirely the winds. Something about Sin’s expression had changed – the nonchalance of her tone was absent on her features. For the first instance since I had met her it seemed she had broken character.
“Did he?” I had to know.
“Did he what?”
She was looking at me with droopy, intoxicated eyes but even in them I could see unmistakably a surge of excitement run through like electricity. Her lower-lip twitched ever so little as she tried to suppress a smile, and the whole thing, despite everything, goddamnit, made me want her even more in that moment.
Until Sin began to laugh. Uncontrollably. Almost in cue a car’s headlights flashed, washing Sin’s drooped, besareed, hysterically laughing frame in yellow as if it were under a spotlight in a play.
“Wha…What? What’s so funny?” I asked finally, starting to feel stupid all over again, and that’s when she finally attempted to catch her breath and let me in on the joke
“No, he did not die! I was just messing with your head a little man. I didn’t know you’d take it so seriously, I mean, Jeeeeeee – and she broke, one again, into a breathless fit of laughter—Zus, you should see the colour drain off your face, honey”
She was right. The colour had drained off my face because she had just told me the simple explanation that could make our entire conversation okay and yet the plausibility of it still hadn’t so much as touched her eyes. I didn’t think it was true. I’m not even entirely sure if I wanted it to be true.
The car that had bathed us in yellow stopped with purpose next to where Sin was standing. She lit another cigarette and signalled to the driver that she’d be right over once she had finished smoking.
“Wait, don’t you want me to drop you home?” I asked, always way too eager.
“Oh, no. I thought when you didn’t come out that we weren’t doing this so I called a friend. He’ll drop me home. Eventually.”
Wow. I didn’t even know what to say. What was there to say, except that I either did not understand this whole game at all or I had just had a brush in with one of the Grandmasters of its underworld. I watched her, out of words, while she took two more drags on her cigarette, crushed it under her feet and fished into her bag to find a pen. With that pen she wrote her number down on my palm as I still watched and she said:
“Give me a call sometime. You don’t even have to worry about my old man giving you a hard time, y’know what I mean?”
Then she walked to the car, opened its gate and turned around to give me a last glance, laughing, once again, as she disappeared inside and left, and I stood there, shocked, and wondering what story she told the man behind the wheel and if it included me.