Fiction / February 2010 (Issue 10)

This Side of the World

by Alka Khushalani

"I want to be physically close to you," he said.

I had known Rakesh just a few days when he reached for my hand on the backseat of the company car. We were stuck in traffic on Marine Drive, also known as the Queen's Necklace, for the lights that curved around the darkened Arabian Sea at night. Through my window I could see a man reading a newspaper in the back of an SUV. The taxi ahead of him held the shadows of a couple with a squirming baby. Outside the morning sun burned hot and horns blared, but in the cool shade of the Mercedes sedan, I let Rakesh hold my hand in his.

I was in Mumbai on business, a weeklong trip I made several times a year. Rakesh was the junior associate assigned to me by the bank. I had grown used to his lanky frame and broad shoulders beside me, the faint whiff of sandalwood when he got into the car, and the silence that followed. I had tried to make conversation when we first met—where did you go to school, what do you do with your time off, that sort of thing. He had responded with the information I asked for—St. Xavier's, read, meet friends—and nothing more, until now.

"Did you hear me, Almona?" he asked.

"I did," I replied.

I looked down at our hands, uncomfortably entangled, then at him. He was young, not yet thirty I was certain, square-jawed, fit, not at all the type who would look twice if I were walking down the street.

"I know a place we can go," Rakesh said. "There's someone whose grandmother died some years ago. Some friends use her flat for this purpose now."

In the front seat, the dark brown column of the driver's neck was perfectly still, and I wondered how much he understood. I knew he spoke English. For a moment I entertained the idea that he was not the kind of person who listened to the conversations in the back, but then, what else was there to do in his line of work?

Rakesh continued, "It's a quiet place near Opera House. There's no danger of recognition out there."

The car began to inch toward another traffic light. Rakesh put his mouth on mine, a surprise. His chest held at some distance, his tongue sliding in, the sensation wasn't unpleasant, but I pushed him away lightly and gestured toward the front, "We aren't alone."

He smiled, his face still close, his breath, moist and sweet, "He's seen much worse than this."


"We can ask him," he kissed me again, until I kissed him back.

We made it through the rest of the day in much the same way as we had the rest of the week. He walked by my side, a couple of paces behind. In our clients' offices, I spoke of rates, synergies, strategies.

But in the blue Mercedes, our bodies entwined, Rakesh's hands on my skin, I avoided any close examination of what I was doing. It was the first time I had been kissed in the backseat of a car. I knew an opportunity like this one was unlikely to present itself again to a divorced, single mother of two with a PhD. I had to seize it now, or let it fall back into the sea of improbable possibilities.

Rakesh pulled away from me as we neared the hotel on Nariman Point. I kept my hand on his leg, "Why don't you just come up?"

"Not possible. I'm known here."


"I've been asked to accompany executives before you, and all were men. I've never gone up, and it would be noticed if I did today. Bombay's a small town."

The driver opened the door and I stepped out of the car. Rakesh gathered my briefcase and tote bag, still heavy with plastic bound presentation books, and handed them to one of the bell captains who came forward.

We shook hands, then Rakesh said, "I'll send the driver back for you. He'll pick you up here, at nine."

I waited until five minutes after to go down to the carport. The lobby was bustling. My shoes clicked noisily along the veins of the marble floor, keeping me aware of my exposed legs, and the eyes on them as I walked beyond the concierge desk to the side door.

I felt a chill as I stepped outside into the damp heat and saw the blue Mercedes waiting for me.

"Good evening, madam," the driver said.

I got into the car, suddenly queasy. I reached for the front seat, "Do you know where we're going?" I asked.

"Yes, madam. Café Leopold. Colaba. Very popular with visitors."

We pulled over next to a wide-open verandah closely packed with foreigners. The few Indians I saw appeared to be like me, from somewhere else. The driver dialed a number on his cell phone, and on cue, Rakesh emerged from the crowd. He had changed into a t-shirt and jeans. I watched him stride toward me and open the door, the noise from the café drowning out his greeting. Music and laughter and air heavy with smoke poured into the car along with him, the plastic bag he held clanged against the seat.

"Nice of you to feed me first," I said.

My ex-husband had always accused me of lacking spontaneity, imagination. I wondered what he would think if he could see me in this moment, with this boy, in this city, at this bar. I couldn't help but smile at the thought.

"I want you to meet someone," Rakesh said.

A man leaned down behind him. "Hello," he said pleasantly.

"This is Kasim."

The man got in and shook my hand across Rakesh, "Nice to meet you, Almona. I've heard plenty about you. Excuse me." He took a ringing cell phone out of his shirt pocket.

"What's going on? Aren't we having dinner?" I asked Rakesh, alarmed.

"We're going to Kasim's grandmother's place. I told you. He has to tell the watchman it's okay for us to go up."

Kasim said something to the driver in Hindi, pointing back the way we had come, toward the hotel. He turned to me then, "We're picking up a friend. Just on the way. I hope you don't mind."

I pushed my unease down, and spoke in the tone I reserved for my team meetings and my children, "Look, this is a company car. Why don't I drop you both off and you do your thing with your friends and we'll catch up another time?"

"Come on, Almona. We'll pick up his girlfriend. They'll leave us and we'll have some privacy," Rakesh stroked my leg as we drove down one side road, then another.

"There she is," Kasim put his hand on the driver's shoulder and we followed his gaze through the windshield. The headlights fixed on a tall woman with ample hips and next to her, a shorter one, thin in oversized clothes.

"Shit. She brought Zakhi," Kasim opened the door and stepped out to meet them.

"I'm sorry about this," Rakesh said. "It'll be over very fast. Kasim will tell the watchman that we're going in. And then …" He moved to kiss me.

I wanted a drink. "What am I doing here? What do you have in that bag?"

"Kingfisher. Indian beer."

"I don't drink beer," I said. "Indian or otherwise. Let's pick up something else for me. Something stronger."

"There's everything we need where we're going. You'll see."

Kasim returned to the back of the car. The women stood arguing with the front door open.

"Just sit in my lap, Zakhi," the tall one said.

"Listen. I'm not some baccha and you're not my mummy. We can do side-by-side, or I'll take a cab."

"Don't be stupid. Just get in."

"You first."

"I want to be near the window," the tall one crossed her arms, her wrists heavy with oxidized silver bangles.

"No. Sorry."

"I'll get car sick, Zakhi."

Kasim pushed the button to roll down the window, "Just get in!" To Rakesh and me, he said, "I'm sorry. These girls can be annoying."

The women squeezed into the passenger seat together, the tall girl near the window.

"Hey! Kasim! Whose wheels are these? Who's she?" They both looked at me in the back. The short one had a nose ring and glasses. The tall one, who I guessed was Kasim's girlfriend, had long hair and the soft, even features of a temple sculpture.

"This is Almona, Rakesh's—boss," Kasim caught himself, "and friend."

"She's not my boss," Rakesh said.

The short girl twisted around to get a better look, "Interesting. How long are you staying in India?"

The tall one had pushed herself to her haunches to face the back. Their eyes moved over me in unison, my dress then my necklace, the clutch purse in my lap.

"How long have you been Rakesh's boss?" the tall one asked.

I smiled, "I'm his boss's boss. Put it that way."

The short one gave Rakesh a thumbs up, "Well done, maestro."

Rakesh leaned back and closed his eyes. The short girl asked the driver to turn on the radio. She reached into her bag. "I'm Zakhi. I'm a DJ," she said.

She slipped in a disc and began pushing buttons, slowly flooding the car with the kind of electronic dance music I knew I would never hear again.

"Are you married?" the tall one asked.

"I was, but not anymore," I replied.

"Was he Indian?"


"He probably couldn't handle his wife being more successful than he was," Zakhi said.

"They're all like that, yaar. Whether from here or from there," the tall one interjected. "She must be tall, but shorter than me. She must make money, but less than me—"

"—she must achieve orgasm, but after me," Zakhi threw back her head, laughing, and gave her friend a high five. I laughed too.

Music surged out of the speakers but a hush fell over the car as it snaked its way down what looked like a completely deserted street. It was a narrow passage with five- to six-storey buildings crammed together on either side. I had spent enough time in India to know the mounds on the pavement were sleeping bodies.

"Zakhi, turn it off," Kasim pointed to a building on the right and told the driver to pull over. His cell phone beeped again and we waited as he read the words glowing on its screen.

"Chalo. Chalo," Rakesh elbowed Kasim out the door as he typed.

"I'll be back," Kasim said to the tall girl.

As I got out of the car, I had a vision of a woman waiting at home for the driver, small steel bowls containing his dinner in her hands. I walked back to him, and took two hundred-rupee notes out of my purse, "Take them where they have to go. Have some tea, then come back here. Come back soon."

"Yes, madam. Thank you, madam."

Behind me Rakesh and Kasim stood in a doorway with the slim shadow of the watchman, their heads bowed together, voices barely audible. The girls were outside too, climbing into the backseat, but watching me. Zakhi, the short one, came forward. The word "Famous" was scrawled across her t-shirt in white. She handed me a business card and a CD case, "It's a little dirty up there. Don't remove your shoes."

"What does that mean? What's up there?"

The tall girl joined us. "It's okay once you get inside. It's safe. Not to worry."

"This one's been up there too many times to count," Zakhi joked, putting her arm around her friend.

The tall girl shook her off, "Stop it."

"Maybe Kasim could talk to his brother about getting you a small cupboard for your things up there. What say, Kasim?"

Kasim ignored the girls and took my elbow. "There are people sleeping. Just watch how you walk."

My eyes had adjusted to the darkness by this time, but I held on to Kasim as we tiptoed over the still, blanketed bodies. He stepped expertly, without once catching a hand or leg. I followed, and wondered which of these people worked in the apartment upstairs, readying it for us. It was a familiar feeling in Bombay, the guilt about my real life far away from this footpath, my apartment in New York, my children with their soft beds, their color coordinated sheets. They had never even been to India, had never seen this side of the world.

A vague corridor led to a single light within the building, an open elevator car, and Rakesh. Kasim pushed the number three, then pulled both of the webbed brass gates shut. We lurched up, the elevator letting out a long, low moan before settling into an ascent. Each floor we traveled past appeared first as a block of concrete above our heads, then floated down in front us, disappearing quietly beneath our feet.

"Who lives here, yaar?" Rakesh asked.

"Only the fogeys who've been here since Partition."

The elevator stopped suddenly. Kasim opened the gates, Rakesh stepped out. "Are you ready?" he asked me.

"I don't know," I said, not moving. I looked down at the card in my hand. It read, DJ Zakhi, Masti Loves Company, Inc.

"Look. Those are delicate, South Bombay girls," Kasim sighed. "They shouldn't have said anything, and I hope you don't mind my saying, but you shouldn't listen to them."

"I told you not to bring them," Rakesh said to Kasim, then to me, "I'm sorry. We can go back. Or, we can just go inside."

Though they were half-whispering, their voices echoed through the hallway. Both Kasim and Rakesh were on the landing, but I remained in the elevator, vulnerable in their company alone, surprised I had come this far.

Kasim tried the lock with a key, "You must be curious after all this."

"Maybe not," I said. I could hear a humming from a high corner of the old elevator car. I looked up and saw there was a cage around the light fixture, the shadows of dead insects held within it.

Rakesh extended his hand, "Come on, Almona. You've never seen anything like this. Believe me. This is a once-in-a-lifetime place." The words had a strange ring to them, as though they would be replayed when I thought of this night in the future.

The blue Mercedes was still downstairs along with the driver and the girls. My hotel room was five minutes away. My children would be getting ready for school at home. My ex-husband was still unemployed, so he would be lying asleep with his new wife on our old bed. The market would close early today. All of this passed through my mind as I slipped my hand into Rakesh's.

Kasim stood holding the doorknob, "This is the hard part. We have to run through the main room to the bedroom on the right."

"It's the only closed door. We'll go together," Rakesh said.

"Wait. Why do we have to run?" I asked.

Kasim's phone began to beep again. He quickly reached into his breast pocket and turned it off, "There are some birds—"

"—just some pigeons. They won't harm us," Rakesh said.

"But there are plenty of them," Kasim continued, "so we need to run fast, very fast, right? Ready?"

I didn't have time to answer. I was pulled into a concrete shell of a room. There was just enough light to allow me to see the uneven surface of walls, thick and wet, like clay. There were no windows, just open cavities where they might have been, yet the air was suffocating with the stale, hot smell of animal bodies and ammonia. All around us, above and in front, perched and flapping on a table, the birds sounded the alarm and the empty room shook with their ooorh! and hiss. The floor was spongy, pulling and sliding beneath us as we ran to a closed door through the dark.

I took a deep gulp of air in the second room. Kasim flipped a switch, and we were surrounded in resplendent gold. A red bed with an ornately carved headboard was in the center. A crystal chandelier hung above it. A flat-screen television dominated one wall, while posters of Mohammed Ali and Jimi Hendrix were hung on another. There was a glass armoire full of crystal birds, cranes and peacocks. Every surface gleamed and blinked, as though suddenly awakened.

Kasim reached out for a pack of cigarettes and matches lying on a chrome trolley crowded with glasses and liquor bottles. "Do you mind taking off your shoes? Make yourself comfortable."

"The toilet is there if you need to use it. There's soap and a towel at the basin. Help yourself, whatever you need." Rakesh sat down on the bed and removed his shoes.

"Where the hell are we?" I asked.

"It was my nani's house. She died some time back, but my family's not about to give it up. We brothers, we're sentimental." Kasim poured two glasses of water, handing me one, "It's filtered."

"Just leave the cigarettes, yaar," Rakesh told his friend. He seemed comfortable or close to it, for the first time, his hair falling across his forehead, his eyes shadowed by the overhead light. He stretched, the crimson satin bed cover slipping away from the mattress beneath him, revealing floral sheets.

This was it, I thought. Fill or kill. Stay or go. I drank in Rakesh's long body, his hands behind his head, the slim muscles of his upper arms, smooth and light on the inside. The bed was firm; it barely dipped around him. Everything looked clean, everything but our shoes, which had thin crusts of muck along the edges from the other room.

Kasim picked them up and placed them out of sight on a mat near the door. "Okay then," he said. "Enjoy."

The air in the room felt strange once he had gone, like the wind had changed direction. I set my purse on the table where Rakesh had dropped his keys and wallet while he got up and opened a bottle of beer, "Would you like one?"

"I don't drink beer."

"Right," he said.

"Tell me something," I took his place on the bed, but remained sitting. "Have you been up here before? With someone?"

He hesitated, "I used to come here with a girlfriend."

"So, what happened to her?"

"What about a drink for you?"

Rakesh went over the offerings on the trolley, a jagged landscape of half-filled liquor bottles. He turned the tops so he could read the labels. He looked back to me, watching him. I could see his youth now, could imagine my daughter bringing home someone like him.

"I'll take a scotch."

"Got it. Johnnie Walker Black—the choice of Indians around the world."

He poured a glass and handed it to me, sitting down near the foot of the bed. I knew I would have to move first. "So what happened to the girlfriend?" I said.

"She wanted to get married. I didn't."

"Why not?"

Rakesh shrugged, "She had no ambition. And I'm twenty-eight years old. I have time. What about you?"

I could see myself getting married at the age of twenty-eight, my daughter being born two years later, then my son five years after that. All the while I kept my job, which became more and more demanding, as did my husband. I could still hear him saying to me, I want a wife. I want a home cooked meal. I want sex twice a week. You don't give me these things.

Moving closer to Rakesh I said, "My husband wasn't ambitious either."

"Do you think you'll ever get married again?"

"Never," I said against his lips.

We were quick, like in the car. I let Rakesh unzip my dress and pull it down and then up, but I didn’t take it off completely. He followed my lead, and undressed just from the waist down. "There should be some boundaries, no?" he said, turning off the lights.

I pulled him back to me, the weight of his body pushing out my breath. He buried his face in my hair, my neck, his teeth finding flesh. "Don’t leave any marks on me, okay? I’m going back to my kids tomorrow."

"Shit—you have kids?"

"Don’t think about that now." I moved on top of him, closed myself around him, letting him in with flickering images unspooling, streaming out in grainy, color film: the dark, sinewy muscles of the tiffin carrier pulling his cart up the road; stalks of sugar cane pushed through the hand-cranked roller press, the juice transferred to a cloudy glass; the blackened palms of a street child against the car window.


Afterwards, in the room next to the pigeons, we lay on our backs, shoulder-to-shoulder, quiet. I slipped my arms through my dress and covered myself.

Too late, Rakesh reached around to stop me. "Were you born here?" he asked.

"I was."

"Breach Candy Hospital?"

"I don’t know."

"We can stay here tonight. It’s no problem," Rakesh said.

"I have a hotel room. We have an early morning tomorrow, and then I go home," I replied.

"Can I ask yousomething?"

I reached for my underwear beneath the pillow, glad to have had the foresight to tuck it in as it had come off, "Sure."

"I’ve put in for a transfer. Nothing’s working out for me in this area. Sudhir doesn’t like me."

"Oh. Okay," I was sitting at the edge of the bed. He turned away from me and got up on the other side.

"I’ll email you. Maybe you could make a recommendation. I’d be willing to relocate. Anywhere," he said.


I put on my shoes and necklace, and waited for him to dress, the only sound coming from the air conditioner, which rattled, growing loud and soft in frequent intervals. When we rushed through the next room, there seemed to be fewer birds, just a couple of them, startled by our entrance. In the elevator I looked at my watch, ten minutes to eleven, early enough to catch a late movie on television back at the hotel.

We got into the company car outside, the solid, expressionless presence of the driver a relief. As we drove back the way we came, a large group of people streamed out of a brightly lit doorway. They looked like office workers but I didn’t ask Rakesh about them or what they were doing in the middle of the night. I just watched as some lit cigarettes, some yawned and stretched.

"New York isn’t so far," Rakesh said.

With the next turn we were back to Marine Drive. The driver’s cell phone began to ring. He reached into his pocket and switched it off. Rakesh put his arm along the backseat, behind my neck. I held myself straight, the twinkling lights of the Queen’s Necklace washing over me.

(A different version of this story has been previously published in The Kartika Review.)

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