PROLOGUE 1. SMALL TOWN IN INDIA – SEVENTEEN YEARS AGO
Arunav Kumar lurched forward in the passenger seat as his uncle swung the refurbished Army-surplus Jonga to a halt in an arrogant swirl of dust. His uncle Bhringi Dev was the MLA – Member of the Legislative Assembly – from Aurangabad constituency. Uncle and nephew watched the trio of attendants come scurrying out to the veranda of the British-built inspection bungalow, whose cavernous portico extended a welcome coolness after the drive through Aurangabad’s scorching mid-afternoon heat.
The sleepy town, eight hours of bone-rattling drive over rutted roads from Patna, consisted of around one lakh people. Two dusty state highways intersected each other at a central bazaar comprising dozens of little shops jammed against each other. Most were shut in the afternoon heat. Only the bus-stand showed some signs of activity, with a couple of mofussil buses desultorily loading up with passengers. Aurangabad had no railway station.
A dozen narrow, winding lanes made their way like tentacles from each main road. They criss-crossed other lanes in a haphazard fashion and were lined with small grey houses, sundry governmental buildings, some commercial establishments and vacant plots overgrown with weeds and grass. All the lanes were festooned overhead with thousands of wires strung higgledy-piggledy from roof to roof. Nobody paid electricity bills in small-town India if they could help it.
Bhringi Dev was like the uncrowned king of Aurangabad. In his mid-forties, he was Arunav’s tau ji – his father’s elder brother. Of medium height, Bhringi Dev had hard muscles and a coal-black complexion. Along with his bulging eyes, thick bushy eyebrows and the two rows of massive gleaming white teeth enclosed in thick, sensuous lips, he projected an imposing personality. He treated everybody in his constituency with regal disdain.
Arunav was in complete awe of his tau-ji. This awe was shared by lakhs of toiling peasants in the dry, poverty-stricken patch of earth that was Aurangabad. They had elected Bhringi Dev to the Assembly three consecutive times. Over twelve years, he had made it his personal fiefdom, with power of life and death over his subjects. He brooked no interference from any other authority in his handling of Aurangabad’s affairs. But he had unstintingly provided his party bosses in Patna with a steady stream of funds. As long as he was there, the party considered the constituency safe. So senior party officials never interfered and Bhringi Dev continued to reign over Aurangabad.
The inspection bungalow’s attendants sprang to their lord’s service, one running to open the door on the driver’s side and another rushing to open Arunav’s door. A third scuttled nervously around the vehicle, peering in through the windows to see if there was any baggage to be hauled out. There wasn’t any. Leaning back in his seat, Bhringi Dev lifted his Ray Ban Aviators onto his forehead and surveyed the scene.
Spotting a figure skulking in the portico’s shadows, he leaned back with a satisfied smile and slapped Arunav chummily on the thigh.
“Hah, my boy, today afternoon’s entertainment has arrived!” he chortled in his gruff voice. “Come, today I shall initiate you into the world of men! You should learn what happens in the world before you start your IIT.” So saying, the MLA swivelled off the driver’s seat, allowed his feet to land on earth and allowed all the attendants to pay obeisance to his presence.
He beckoned to his nephew and threw a hand around the boy’s shoulders, ushering him up the three steps into the veranda. Arunav, for reasons he did not understand, suddenly felt nervous. He scrambled to keep up with his uncle, who didn’t deign to acknowledge the shadowy stranger fidgeting nervously with his shirt, half hidden behind a pillar.
The MLA was attired in a sparkling white silk kurta and cotton pyjamas cut in the sleek style that was becoming popular with politicians across northern India. His dark brown leather sandals had the thick soles that were needed to traverse the stony and dusty village lanes by foot. Bhringi Dev often walked around Aurangabad to conduct surprise checks whenever the whim took hold. He liked to keep officials and party workers on their toes with his unpredictable nature.
Apart from these simple white clothes, he wore only gold – a gold Swiss-made Corum watch adorned his left wrist and a thick bracelet of hand-worked gold adorned his right. Every finger of both hands had gold rings gleaming dully on them, offsetting his dark skin. Within the dark hair on his coal-black chest nestled two gold chains, one of them with a diamond pendant reflecting flashes of light from a hundred angles.
In contrast, Arunav was dressed like any college kid in small town India, his slender shoulders encased in a brightly coloured T-shirt, his slim legs in a pair of beaded and embroidered jeans and his feet encased by a pair of leather chappals. Arunav had the bulging, unblinking eyes that ran in the family and he looked out onto the world in a continuously inquisitive manner. His brown skin was stretched tight over the frail body. He was clearly unused to extensive physical exercise. His large, almost oversized head showed the promise of premature baldness and he sported the gangling slouch typical of boys his age.
Arunav Kumar was about to learn a very important lesson that afternoon, one that he was destined to use to good effect in his future. He was about to learn how power was displayed to common people. But right now he was still a callow teenager, unaware of what was coming. His uncle’s words had made him more than ordinarily nervous.
They strode into the spacious drawing room which accommodated two sets of sofas, each with its carpet, teapoys, centre table and bric-a-brac. The MLA walked directly to a vast gold-brocade covered arm-chair placed between a French window and a huge fire-place and sat down. The arm-chair commanded the room, which was always set for him to hold durbar, whenever he so wished. A pack of State Express cigarettes, a gold-plated lighter and an ashtray had been placed within easy reach. Behind the chair was a little alcove containing a serving table. On the table was a mini refrigerator. In the old days, the British had offered their civil service officers a lifestyle they could not have dreamed of in their home country. In colonial India, even junior officials had lived like kings.
Now, free India had new kings.
A bearer appeared. Drawing out a bottle of chilled beer from the fridge, he wordlessly poured out half of it into a large glass mug. He placed it along with a bowl of salted peanuts at Bhringi Dev’s elbow. Upon a sign from his master, the bearer poured out a similar serving for Arunav, who had taken a seat on a sofa by the window.
The MLA inclined his head in an imperious manner and an attendant at the door ushered the stranger from the veranda, a lad who looked maybe two years older than Arunav, into the presence.
“What is the girl’s name?” the great man asked, allowing a mouthful of cigarette smoke to billow into the air.
“Huzoor, Vaishali, huzoor,” said the lad.
The MLA picked up a string of mogra flowers lying on a small salver at his side and wrapped it carefully around his right wrist. Arunav and the stranger watched as the thick fingers tied the ends with surprising dexterity. The attendants stood rigidly at their posts, staring off into the middle distance.
“She is your sister?” asked the MLA, moving his wrist with the band of flowers leisurely under his nose, savouring its sweet fragrance.
“Huzoor, own sister, huzoor.”
“Hmm. She did well in the class twelve exams?”
“Ji huzoor. By God’s grace, she has scored eighty seven percent. She needs your blessing to get a seat in Allahabad Medical College, huzoor. We are very poor people, huzoor. If you put in a word the college manager will waive the donation. She will –,” here the scrawny lad paused to swallow, his adam’s apple bobbing nervously inside his thin throat, “she will do everything to justify your favour, huzoor.”
The MLA watched the lad’s every move like a hawk. “Hmm. Where is she now?” he asked. The stranger looked at the bearer for help.
“Huzoor, she is in the Rose Bedroom,” the bearer answered, “The AC is on and the girl is ready, huzoor.”
“Hmm. You can go now. Come back after two-three hours.” He dismissed the lad, who bent low, joined his hands together in genuflection and withdrew from the presence.
Arunav gripped his beer mug tightly, so tightly that his knuckles were almost white despite his brown skin. Beads of sweat formed under his armpits. He couldn’t dare to look at his uncle.
Bhringi Dev took a long swig from his mug, drained close to half of it, burped and stretched his legs out in satisfaction. “This is what a good afternoon’s entertainment is like, Arunav bête,” he said.
He looked appraisingly at his nephew and continued, “What thought have you fallen into, son? Why so quiet? You are about to enter a man’s world! All this,” he paused to wave his mug in a wide arc that seemed to include, not just the palatial inspection bungalow and the girl in the Rose Bedroom but the town outside, while with his other hand he thrust a handful of peanuts into his mouth, “all this has become our family’s birth-right in the past twelve years.”
He took another swig and remarked, “Good beer. And when chilled like this, cannot be matched. All this, my dear nephew, is ours to take care of and build further. Our family needs people like you with smart brains to add to the wealth.
“And for you, I have big plans. First, you go and do well in IIT. After that,” he paused to take another large swig of beer and thrust more peanuts into his mouth, “after that, I will prepare you for big things in a big city. You just wait and see.” He smiled indulgently as Arunav looked up and gave a nervous smile in return. The teenager’s mind was trying to grapple with the imminent moment of truth. His body was quivering with apprehension. He would have to prove his manhood to his uncle today.
The cold sweat under his armpits continued to flow.
Bhringi Dev sniffed at the band of flowers again. “Ah, this mogra. Its magic is something else. Creates the right mood. Arre Ramu,” he said to the bearer, gesturing regally, “Give my nephew also some mogra. Arunav bête, you are looking a little pale. Nervous, no? No problem, this is the first time, it was like this for me also. Have another beer, I will take about half an hour to warm the oven, then you can go in, eh?”
With a wink the MLA downed his beer and ambled to an inner room, patting his nephew affectionately on the cheek as he went past. There was a tiny gust of chilled air as his uncle opened the door to enter the bedroom.
The minutes went slowly by. Outside, the blazing heat had brought the whole town to a halt. Above the tube-light fitting on the wall opposite Arunav a lizard watched him, staying still in the afternoon heat. The bearer brought another string of flowers for him. Arunav looked at it silently. His wrists strained at the beer mug. His ears strained for sounds from within. Faintly, he heard voices. His uncle’s deep, gruff tone. Then another, lighter, feminine voice. Was it sweet and tinkling, as he had imagined in wet dreams so many times? Or was he imagining it? There was a creak of heavy woodwork, then silence. The beer warmed up in his hand, forgotten.
When his uncle emerged, the mogra wrist-band was gone.
The MLA gave his nephew a pat on the shoulder and shook him gently. “Chalo Arunav bête, now your turn. She’s sweet, young and fresh. Treat her with nice words and she’ll co-operate well.” With a smile he gestured for another beer.
Arunav didn’t move for a while. His legs were not feeling strong enough to raise him from the sofa. Now that the moment had come, he found his confidence draining away. And the girl’s brother appearing on the scene like that had been unexpected. How could he have expected otherwise, he told himself. She had to be escorted by someone and he had done the job. Still.
“Go on, Arun,” his uncle repeated. “Don’t worry about anything. She’s a cute little doll, your age only. After two-three times you will also become an expert like me. Go on, go on.” This time there was an edge to his uncle’s voice and it penetrated. Arunav looked at his beer, drained the glass in one swallow, put it down on the teapoy with a rattle and thrust himself up with both hands. The bearer had discreetly made himself scarce and his uncle’s encouraging smile was all that Arunav could see.
He took a deep breath and strode manfully to the bedroom door. Twisting the knob, he opened the door and slipped inside. As he shut the door behind him, he saw the girl, intent in the act of winding her green polyester saree around her slender form, and she gave a startled gasp as she looked up. It was not the first time he was watching a girl put on a saree. But it was the first time that he was doing so in full view of the girl in question. She had full breasts for her age and they were heaving rapidly. She had dressed to please the carnal desire of the MLA and her saree had been chosen for the way it clung to her nubile form. Her blouse was of a diaphanous material so that her blood-red bra with lace trimmings could be clearly made out underneath. For a moment he stared at her undulating breasts and her deep navel, nestling in the soft, smooth curve of her belly. Suddenly conscious, she clutched up the folds of her saree and hid her torso. Her hair was astray but her facial make-up had been left undisturbed. Small beads of perspiration were still there on her upper lip and small patches had formed at her armpits. Arunav felt his arousal begin and his ears start to pound with desire.
Emotions flitted in quick succession across the girl’s face. At first she had become thoroughly frightened, looking over his shoulder to see if any more men were going to follow. Then came the shame that her breasts were exposed to view. That was when she had clutched at the folds of her saree to cover herself. The knowledge hit her that, with the MLA and who knew how many more men outside the room, she was trapped and would have to submit her body once more, to this new stranger, a mere boy from the look of him. Her helplessness was absolute and her shoulders sagged in surrender.
Arunav saw this and stepped backwards. “Vaishali, look, you don’t have to --,” he left his sentence hanging when he saw the flash of frustrated anger light up the girl’s eyes at the mention of her name. “Oh, I meant, no don’t – look, let me – oh,” he stuttered lamely. He lost his nerve and began moving backwards to the door, reaching one hand out behind for the knob.
At this, the girl got alarmed. She knew enough from talk around her mohalla that if the upper caste men thought that she had denied them their pleasure, retribution on herself and her family would be brutal. And everybody knew that the MLA was one of the cruellest men in the district.
She ran forward a few steps and burst out, “Don’t go! Don’t go, you are –,” here her mind groped desperately for the right words to utter, “You are such a sweet-looking boy. Stay a little longer, please!”
She came to a nervous halt three feet away from him and then, seeming to notice for the first time that her saree was awry, began to hastily adjust its folds. In her haste to arrange her saree, Arunav was treated to intimate views of her soft curves. As she fumbled with the garment, she fluttered her eyelashes at him and smiled shyly, “I’m not yet used to wearing sarees. Oh God, can you please help me?” She turned slowly around. “Has it come off anywhere?” she asked anxiously. Indeed a portion of it had come untucked above her right derriere. “Can you tuck it back, please? I cannot go out like this.” She looked back at him with pleading eyes and he gulped two or three times in succession.
“Please?” she repeated and he moved forward to comply, his throat dry, his knees and hands trembling. Her flesh felt soft to his touch, softer than any other human contact he could remember. His fingers and then his palms caressed her and then his arms went around her yielding form. She was in control now and he didn’t resist when she turned, reached up and pulled his head down for a deep and lingering kiss. He didn’t resist as she gently pulled him towards the bed, strewn with crushed mogras, the sheets still crumpled. He didn’t resist as she ran his hands over her quivering body. His arousal had returned and this time there could be no going back.
Instinct took over and all conscious thought left him. He slammed into her with primordial force. Her slim body bounced against the bed, tossed up and down like a rag doll under a savage animal, yielding to every thrust. She gasped each time he drove in and that only made his movements more frantic. Very quickly he reached his climax. His brain burst into a million shards of multi-coloured light as he emptied himself into her.
The girl rose from the bed before he could wind down from the high of his orgasm. She gathered up her clothes and ran into the bathroom so that he wouldn’t see the tears streaming down her cheeks. Once his breathing had returned to normal, he put on his clothes and, smoothing his hair, walked out into the drawing room without a backward glance.
His waiting uncle looked up anxiously, surveyed his nephew’s body glistening with sweat all over and broke out into a proud smile. He called out to Ramu to give the lad more beer.
A few days later Arunav Kumar, shopping for clothes before heading off to IIT Bombay, bumped into the girl’s brother in the marketplace. Arunav, who was in the act of paying up for his purchases, recognised the boy at once. He found himself at a loss for words. But he saw that the other boy was equally nonplussed. They looked at each other, frozen in silence for a while. Then the boy, dropping whatever he had planned to buy, scuttled past Arunav and rushed out of the shop.
Arunav Kumar scurried after him. “Wait!” he called out. “Wait, I want to tell you something!”
These words made the other boy quicken his pace. He dived into a side lane and rushed headlong, half running. Arunav followed, conscious that they were evoking curious stares. He hurried on, making sure the distance between them didn’t widen, waiting until they reached a relatively secluded spot so he could accost the girl’s brother.
A thought had been forming in Arunav’s mind, borne out of guilt ever since the day at the inspection bungalow. He had wanted to make some gesture of conciliation. His guilt needed to be assuaged before he left for IIT – and she to the medical college in Allahabad. Once they had left Aurangabad, chances were that their paths would never cross again. His brain was filled with all the things he wanted to say to the girl; of how he would seek her forgiveness and of what he could offer her to make amends for what had happened.
Arunav was pre-occupied with these thoughts as he scrambled to keep the other boy within hailing distance. It wasn’t long before he realised that they had turned several times and that he was lost. They had reached a humble neighbourhood that he had never been to before. The houses on either side were small and low, made of simple brick. Most had not been painted or whitewashed. An open sewer ran along, giving out a strong stench. A stray mongrel tucked his tail between his legs and scooted out of sight.
Arunav was brought up short at a small square dominated by a scrawny tamarind tree. Under its shade a gang of boys had been lounging. They sprang up when the girl’s brother appeared, panting hard. When Arunav emerged from the lane, he walked straight into a waiting circle that had formed. The girl’s brother, who had been whispering urgently to the group, stopped and stared at the intruder.
Arunav had not bargained for this kind of reception. Six hostile pairs of eyes drilled into him. The leader, a tallish youngster, stepped forward and threw a pose.
“No, no, I only want to talk to this man,” began Arunav, pointing to the girl’s brother. “I want to tell him something urgently!”
“But he doesn’t want to talk to you, saala! You people think you own us because we are poor, eh? You have some guts, coming here into our area. Now we’ll show you who rules this mohalla, saala!”
The gang leader gave Arunav a hard shove in the chest, sending him staggering back a few steps.
“He is from the MLA’s household!” shouted the girl’s brother, flinging an accusing finger at Arunav. “He has already robbed my sister’s modesty, now he wants to enjoy some more! Shameless bastard! Thrash him, saala!”
The circle of youngsters gathered menacingly around Arunav. The few windows that had been open were shut hastily. A passing bangle vendor emerged from another street, surveyed the scene, quickly turned around and bolted. Arunav’s heart was thumping. He backed off from the gang until he fetched up against a wall. He was trapped. The situation was turning ugly fast.
There was the sound of feet stomping the lane had brought Arunav into the square. There were shouts from male voices, raised in excitement. The boys of the gang cocked their heads. The sounds grew louder. It was the determined hammering of several hard-heeled feet on the packed earth. No sooner had the first of them come around a bend in the lane that the gang surrounding Arunav melted away. In seconds he was left alone, staring at doors and windows firmly shut.
He slumped in relief as he recognised some of his uncle’s men. There were only three of them but they would have been armed with knives, Arunav knew. The boys had instinctively realised that it was time for them to scram.
Bhringi Dev called Arunav into his office when he was driven back from the marketplace.
“Arunav bête, what madness took hold of you to go into that mohalla alone, my son? It was pure luck that my driver saw you going in that direction and knew immediately that you could get into trouble all by yourself.
“If you wanted that girl so much you should have told me – I would have had her brought to you!”
“No, tau ji, it’s not that,” said Arunav, shamefacedly hanging his head. “My mistake, tau ji, I just thought –”, he ran out of words, not knowing how to explain his feelings.
Bhringi Dev was an old hand at this. Shrewdly, he understood that guilt was eating into his nephew. He threw a hand over Arunav’s shoulder and said, “Bête, I understand. You are young, still have a lot to learn about the world. In two days, you will leave this town and learn many new things in your IIT. Now you should spend those remaining two days with your parents and your sisters – they will miss you once you are gone. Until then, if you want to go anywhere, take my men with you. Understand?”
Arunav nodded tamely.