If the Howrah Bridge faces West, then, am I looking East? Boys in black boxers bathe in the murk of the river, cleaning themselves with what is unclean, laughing at what isn’t funny. A stoic girl, too too tall for her age (she thinks she is eleven, but for all she knows she might be a newborn) sits and watches them, they are very fit, yes yes, good bones, a six-pack of ribs, brown eyes like shit flying against the night sky – inside her body goes tinkle tinkle but the Howrah Bridge is the only love she cares to subdue.
“Give it up, Rubina, you will never leave Kolkata! How can you be sure Kolkata even has an end! Might be the whole world, no? What.”
One of the boys speaks to her as he pours Kali’s water over his shaved head, his eyebrow ridges muscular but his eyes demoniacally straight and narrow; his skin is lighter than all the others, and his voice hisses like a bat that has eaten too many spices. She has known him all his life, longer than she’s known any of her parents, and brother too –more on him later – but he is like Kolkata itself; always present, never desired.
“You want to leave here? What for? Isn’t it better to live in the shit you’ve always known? Foreign poverty no good, yes, better home-grown starvation!” You never knew whether he was joking or being prophetic.
Rubina, bedecked in her overgrown orange-yellow sari, continued ignoring him, looking beyond the bridge, through the fog that enveloped it, and into the celestial Sundarbans that lay far far away yet so so close.
There, her long-dead brother waits for her, a Mughal reigning over an invisible kingdom; everything there worships him, the tigers the peacocks the deer the crocodiles the wolves the bacterium the lakes; they worship him for he is part of them. The good book always speaks of a Garden awaiting the not-so-living, doesn’t it? But why go to one in the sky when you have one right here ready-made. Paradise Made in India.
The note he left her was the note that inscribed her fate – only because she wanted it to, you see. It was the day before he died, before the car so tragically gave him wings, in a street so crowded no one noticed him flying, thought it was another flying god or angel. It was as if he knew, could foresee, his own flight into the next-door life. He did joke about wanting to be a fortune-teller. Used to tell Rubina’s future and tell her, in unpardonable French: “the gods and Jinns are all unanimous, Rubina: we are fucked.”
But this Rashid of a brother was a peculiar one: he used the same word for future and past – saying the word for present to describe both. That way, Rubina could never tell what time and date he was talking about. Her brother really was timeless. On that day, as he went out of the abandoned house they lived in, he left her a note that simply said: “today I won’t be coming back, so make sure that by today you come find me in the Sundarbans.” Now, of course, Rubina cannot be sure that her bro is dead. She never saw his body, he was dead only in rumour. So she hoped against hopping hope that he is pulling off a great escape, running away, letting her catch him up, and that, when she got to the Sundarbans, it was not his metaphor that she would find but him, you know, really him. But, no no, he wouldn’t abandon her this way, would he? She only survived on the streets this long because of him – he would not be so callous.
She wasn’t sure how she could survive for much longer. Philanthropy had seen a rise in reluctance to give alms and scraps to the bloody beggars. More and more, as she begged with her dirty hands cupped, she got the ubiquitous reply: “get a job!” Implying that the modern, pretty-beauty state of India was the mother of us all, taking care of all its children, so, if you were a filth poor beggar, it is your own fault for refusing mama’s TLC. So, it was with defiant reluctance that she listened to Salim’s oft-repeated offer:
“Come work with my boss, it’s easy, do the dirty dirty with some men and he pay up, no need to beg or plead, you can be your own woman, no?”
Salim was trying to join a powerful gang that made its fortune stealing and racketing hawkers and customers in and around the Mullik Ghat flower market, under the bridge, a pretty-pretty place, as colourful as the end of a rainbow, bordered by rusty shacks that look like the ground’s proud tumours. Salim was fifteen, he ran away from him the year before, unhappy at being raised by a single mother that loved the booze more than him, and was taken in by Raza, vice-leader of the gang, who noticed Salim’s debilitating limp in his left leg and, for the first time in Salim’s life, praised him for it: “that’s cool, bro, yes yes, you look like Tamerlane.”
Timur the Lame. Salim was gob smacked to learn, from infinitely knowledgeable Raza, that Timur was the greatest conqueror the subcontinent had ever known, he was the heir of Genghis Khan, a Muslim usurper, self-proclaimed “sword of Islam” who established the Timurid Empire that stretched from Syria to India. When Tamerlane’s body was found by Russians in 1941 he was found to have been tall, broad-chested, a veritable sex-god amongst other things, and upon his tombs were inscribed the words When I rise from the dead, the world shall tremble.
Salim, though Muslim like Tamerlane, knew enough Hindus to have grown to fancy the idea of reincarnation. Maybe the limp Salim was born with, along with his tall stature and equally broad chest, were signs that he was Tamerlane reincarnate; and, being a huq-him puberty-ridden adolescent, Salim interpreted the world shall tremble as meaning, women shall shudder. Much like his self-declared ancestor, Salim would go into the women business. It was his idea that his gang should start a prostitution ring. Of course, good good, we like, but, show us you can do it. Salim was looking for employees. And Rubina, well, he always liked-loved her, why not start with her.
“Rubina, you know it makes sense, if you don’t join, you’ll be made to join, yes?” Rubina snarled at the foggy threat.
“What do you mean!”
“Ha ha ha.” Salim went away, looking back only to see Rubina’s big god-perfect eyes watching him, scowling, but not enough to perturb their beauty, those light green spheres like a distant planet with a butterfly’s atmosphere, her large forehead un-wrinkled, her long brown hair falling over her withdrawn cheeks like a receding glacier.
Walking away with his head turned Salim bumped into a man that smelt like oranges. Boom.
“Hey, watch where you’re going.” The man said in a friendly tone. Salim grunted and walked on, still looking at Rubina. The stranger, a Caucasoid (whitey-whitey) watched Salim disappear unto the bridge, still looking back, looking at what, he looked to where he was looking and saw. Well, yes, he saw. Adiah? No, no, sir. Can’t be. Won’t be.
Rubina reclined against the wall of the red, derelict house that had a bouquet of flowers placed next to its barred front-door. She cupped her hands instinctively and resumed the pose she was ready to die in. The stranger was overcome with curiosity. Something caught his eyes. Something impossible yet seemingly poss… no no. Curiosity overcame him as it did those wanderers who first happened upon the god-forsaken ruins of Gomorrah. He walked over to Rubina and when she saw him come she changed her expression into one of well-rehearsed misery. She needn’t rehearse it. But she milked it so much that the honesty became disingenuous.
“Some rupees, mister, kind sir, please won’t you?” She said putting on an accent she had acquired, professionally. Like some Bollywood tearjerker.
“How old are you?” The stranger asked strangely.
“I am eight-years-old mister. Some rupees won’t please?”
“You’re not eight.”
“You’re not.” He insisted with his arms crossed and a smug smile peeping from behind his half-parted lips.
“I am, how can you say I’m not.”
“You’re too tall to be eight.” He said letting the clandestine smile free.
“You know my age better than I do, yes? Go away, mister.”
“So you don’t want rupees then?”
“Sure?” He reached into his pockets and took out a handful of coins. Her eyes gleamed. Generosity was a strange skin to her naked life.
“Do what you want.”
“I tell you what, why don’t you come get something to eat with me?”
“What, why, what do you want?”
“Nothing, you just look like you could do with a hot meal.”
“Mister, in India every meal is hot.” She said with defiant humour.
“That’s true.” He laughed a gentle laugh. “You coming then?”
“What’s your name?” She asked, getting up, refusing to say yes, but forbidding the bouquet next to her to say no.
“My name’s Antoine. And you?”
“I’m called Rubina. But I’m not sure that’s my real name.”
“Well, do you mind if I call you Rubina? It’s a lovely name.” She shook her head and they began walking, away from the bridge –shit! – into the city centre.
As they walked Rubina observed the man who claimed to be called Antoine (never trust anything a foreigner says). He was young, surely, can’t be older than 30. Looks like one who travels a lot, has a backpack and trainers, anyway. His face is white but not shaped white. More, round, and his eyes dark dark brown, almost Saracen. He was tall and well-built and clearly could not afford to shave. But even the dark proto-beard did not obscure a certain kindness on the stranger’s face. She could feel herself walking next to him, as in, of course, she could feel everyone looking at her walking beside him, like a dog behind a master, maybe, or those wrong girls following the wrong men. It smacks of wrong, but she’s hungry and he’s curious, so let’s move along.
He took her to the restaurant of the Kali Hotel, a few blocks away from the Howrah Bridge, and there, sat on a terrace overlooking the flower-market and the flowering river, he asked her what she would like.
“To eat.” She replied.
“I really took a liking to the Chingri Malai curry, I think they use river prawns to make it, it’s quite unique.”
“I’ve had river prawns before.” She said sat with her hands between her thighs, her shoulders facing inwards.
“Have you now?”
“Yes. Some of the boys here fish for them. Prawn for them. Whatever.”
“That’s the best meal, fresh and local.”
“That’s all I eat.” She said with a jingly-jangly smile, her body still un-moving. Her eye-contact was focused on the herethereandeverywhere.
“Am I making you uncomfortable, Rubina?”
She shrugged. He had the impression she was tapping her foot, as if she were playing an unseen drum-kit beneath the table.
Antoine ordered two Chingri Malais and some Baigun Bhajja as a side. The waiter went away, Rubina watched him – why should he have work and I be a piece of left-over bone not even a dog would pick up? From underneath the table Antoine’s phone vibrated. Not without tepid self-consciousness, as you can well imagine, he took out his white Smartphone and opened his message.
“Is it your girlfriend?” Rubina asked with the brazenness of a child; she was older than eight, but not by much, lest it be forgotten. She spent many an hour thinking about boyfriend-girlfriend, and she thought herself too corrupted to describe her thoughts as innocent, but, she would make it clear: she had no clue.
“In a way, I suppose.” Antoine replied as he tapped the mirrored screen; Rubina could see the speech bubbles reflected in his dark, wide-screen eyes. Not HD but it will do.
The message was from Adiah. What did she want?
“Thinking of you.”
“How sweet, yes.” Rubina flicked her eye-lashes when he showed her the message. She was a trout on a hook – at last. “You miss her?”
“No.” Antoine replied suddenly.
Rubina gasped. “You’re a bad man!”
“It takes a woman to make a bad man.”
And Antoine was speaking honestly – subjectively, but honestly. There is no such thing as verifiable truth when it comes to romance. Antoine was not allowing himself to miss Adiah. He was on a mission one could be crass enough to term impossible: falling out of love with the woman he had left his one and only girlfriend for.
“Tell me something about yourself, Rubina.” He asked her as he watched her wolf down the curry and leaving him none of the Baigun. She ate like a giraffe, her long neck uncomfortably bent over the low-down plates, her legs splayed out.
“I’m a street child. What more, ah?” She said between sadness and gluttony; sin and hurt blended well on her indefinable face.
“But.” He paused to chew the last few bites of crackling prawns. “How, if I may ask, did you become a street child?”
“My parents left me. They found a job in Delhi and left me.” She shrugged off the impossible to shrug.
“Why would they leave you behind?”
“I cost money and I am lazy. Yes – it’s true. I never wanted to work. They should look at me now!” She mumbled some curses beneath her breath.
“How old were you?”
“Not old at all.” She replied with her eyes lowered into the plate. A silence. Was that a blossoming moustache on her upper lip? No, it’s just the light.
Antoine took a pause from the spontaneous interview and he answered Adiah. He told her what he had told Rubina, quite simply, “no.” It didn’t take long before her reply crossed thousands of miles half-way around the world to arrive at his phone, to bitch at him as if he were right next to her.
“You said you’d always love me, remember, that night on the cliffs?”
That night again! Yes, it was special, if it never happened he would not have left Mia, his girlfriend. The way she composed those poems for him – ah, what a womanly thing to swoon at, boyo! But still: she told him she was his ship that took him sailing across the cosmos, taking him to new and wild planets, where all inhabitants awed and worshipped their love, brighter than the brightest quasar. What a beautiful mind stored within that Levantine body made for belly-dancing.
But now: “Adiah, even as you told me those words, you were seeing Alfredo.”
He knew this then. And she never hid her faithful infidelities. But back then, he was too stars-struck to see them. Oh she was such good friends with everyone, she is a magnet of empathy and kindness, and her friends were always so exciting, world travelers that came and went like shooting stars – even that Croatian woman, she had seen shit, man! (But nowhere near as much as what Adiah showed her.) But now, now, he could bite back and throw her promiscuity back at her.
Oh, but she was always right, she must be, otherwise, she would be a clam without a clam. “He was friend, a good friend, no one ever compared to you.”
No one ever compared to you… and they say language is infinitely variable… that every sentence we speak has never been uttered in the history of the planet before… Oh but not that sentence, not on Adiah’s sharingiscaring lips!
“Why are you asking so much, can’t you just eat!” Rubina sighed in the ghost of anger.
Antoine vaingloriously ignored her redolent request. “So did you live on the streets alone?”
“No! As if I would be here. I lived.” Her face was suddenly eclipsed by the figure of some giant memory. “I lived with my brother. He took care of me. Got food for me, found us places to sleep.” She nod-nodded.
“Where is he now, did he leave?”
“Bite your tongue big-chin!” She said slamming the fork into her plate. “He’s dead, alright? Happy? He died.” She crossed her arms in a huff and her lower lip shot out like a chameleon’s starving tongue.
“I’m so sorry, Rubina. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t know.”
“You should know!”
Seconds, minutes, an hour passed and the silence that first started off as a whimper grew and grew into a whole non-universe. There stood a child who was not a child, a child with roots that poison her and the ground she walks on, how she must wish to be dead, at least, then, her voice could be heard, and how she must wish that lives could be stolen just like flowers could be, so that she could steal another’s life and leave hers behind like discarded skin, she wouldn’t steal a rich life, just a life, anyone’s, so long as it wasn’t hers, even a mosquito’s would do.
As the silence ballooned Adiah continued messaging him. She was getting foul-mouthed now (isn’t a loose-woman always foul-mouthed?) and was blaming her loneliness on him. “You are a selfish asshole to leave me.” Selfish, yes, of course. Let’s see. Travelling was the only thing Antoine had ever dreamed of doing. Seeing the world and letting the world see him. But how could he do it, when his mother had suffered for so long with dreaded dementia, which is, don’t let anyone say otherwise, contagious. It makes all and sundry demented. It was the curse that couldn’t be helped, after all, he was born fifteen years after his older brother, so by the time he was a newborn his mother was already pensioning.
And then, his brother, or rather, his brother’s wife, would not even allow talk of mercy killing. “She’s a human being not some dog!” So why should a dog have more rights than her? Was her demeaning suffering worth less than a dog’s? But no, she dragged on and unfortunately for Rosalind, the mama, she was perfectly healthy. Perfectly healthy. Just dementia, small detail. So her lifeless life dragged on well into the eighties. (If Antoine’s brotherwife was so pro-life why didn’t she take care of her, rather than leaving her to Antoine?)
Now, and now, that merciless God has finally taken pity on her, Adiah is calling him selfish for reaping some pleasure from the misery life had so long sown for him?
“What are you doing here?” Rubina asked him, breaking the snake-biting-tail silence. “In bloody Kolkata, like?”
“I’ve just come here from Vietnam. I’m travelling for the first time as if it was my last.”
“Isn’t it nice for you.” She said her arms crossed and her head bobbing from shoulder to shoulder. Antoine felt guilty. What did his and his mother’s measly suffering amount to in the grand miserable total?
“What,” he cleared his throat, looking shyly into her Saracenic eyes. “What do you want to do, Rubina?”
“I want to travel too.” She scowled, as if to say, I’m no less than you, mister. “But not to stinky Kolkata and vietanam or whatever.”
“Where to then?”
“The Sundarbans, mister.”
Antoine took a sip of coffee and bent his head to the side, his frothy lips swallowing each other. “Huh, that’s interesting, why there?”
“My brother is there.”
“Your brother? Didn’t you say…?”
“He is there!” She said like a shark snatching at a hunk of meat. Her eyebrows folded in on themselves, eclipsing her rotund eyes.
“Ok, ok. What’s stopping you from going?”
“Ah what a simple boy you are for such an oldie.” She shook her head looking down. Hand-palm moment, maybe, but she wouldn’t know that. “You think I have money or balls to go?” The cussing seemed shamefully suited to her young lips.
“Can’t you just a hitch a ride?”
“Me? Oh I hope a girl is never unfortunate enough to be born to you, mister! You want me to hitchhike in no-man’s-bloody-land? Genius, really, genius you are. You have no idea what it’s like being a girl, mister ballsy-man.”
“Can’t say I do.” He sighed, imposing a silent breeze which she wouldn’t succumb to.
“I hate it.”
“Come on, you can’t hate being a girl!” He said disdainfully, leaning back against the back of his chair.
“A-ha. Of course I can, mister. Even if I wasn’t a street child, I would never be able to go anywhere. A girl is for cook-clean-cookclean. You see?”
“Says who?” Look at this proud humanist on a safari in the godlands.
“Says everyone and their god. I would rather have not been born at all than being born a sissy-girl.”
Antoine, did you get my message?
He had seen it. But he was ignoring it. He was letting Rubina talk. What she was telling him now were the most important words he had ever heard. She was a fallen angel deserving reinstatement. Hers is the voice of nature red in tooth and claw, her sadness was the sadness of our species. What did his affair of the heart matter? He was too privileged. Yes, he felt then, there is such a thing as the disease of over-privilege. He wasn’t rich by any means. But he was living, free, had no one hunting him but his own idiosyncrasies. He knew then what he had to tell Adiah.
“I got it, yes. Adiah, we’re over. It was fun. Don’t hate me. Move on. Ciao.”
And the phone vibrated, louder and louder, like an earthquake pirouetting into aftershocks without an interlude. Adiah was calling him. He hung up. Once twice thrice. Then the nasty message came. There wasn’t even any point in reading it. He deleted it with saintly prescience, as if by deleting her message he was deleting her from history. He turned his attention once again, this time vigorously, to Rubina.
“Come on, let’s go.” He said finishing his coffee and taking out money to pay the bill from the wallet Adiah had got him for their first Christmas together.
“Where we going now?”
“To the Sundarbans.”
As they left the hotel he walked, with her following like a duckling behind its imprinted-imposter mother, to the first car-rental shop he found, with a half-collapsed sign and a façade blackened by smoke. As he made the arrangement with the mono-browed man (Oh but his chin structure was exquisite!) she asked him, tugging at his sleeves, what are we doing, howwherewhen talk talk! But he maintained an imperial silence. His determination was prophetic and saintly. A man reincarnated mid-life. Is it possible? Oh yes. But not Nirvana. Never Nirvana.
Why was he driving, out of a city crammed with sacred cows and unholy traffic, a skyline swarming with golden temples and silver antennae, past the Howrah Bridge, to take a girl off the street into the mangroves? It’s not that he couldn’t think why. It’s that he wouldn’t. His relationship with Adiah (the relationship-breaker herself) was over, all he had in life was to travel, to travel and this Rubina. She didn’t say a word in the borrowed Maruti, fit for a princess that didn’t ask for much, but her eyes were beaming all the way, like emeralds from the deepest dirty sea-floor, absolutely, my my. Her unspoken happiness made Antoine visibly ecstatic.
But you know, two happinesses don’t make more happiness. There is another story, louder than any myth, more creative than any creation, that we have dared forget. Salim, Salim! Our limp tiger, little Timur the lame.
As was his customary routine he had been following Rubina the whole day, into the hotel, into the rental shop, and, on his bike, out of the city past Howrah Bridge (Antoine was an unsteady driver, lacked confidence, so he drove like an arthritic old man). He couldn’t help think, the whole time: “the bitch, she is prostituting herself to him!” Maybe I didn’t offer her enough, he thought. But why him not me! God!
The more he thought about the situation, the angrier he became, and the angrier he became the more he was convinced of his love for Rubina. Shit! What can a street boy do with love? Bunch of shit, ah, love, use it as fertiliser then burn it, who wants it but the fields! But its stench, grrr, he couldn’t get rid of it. It hung around him like a tattoo on his skin. He had to do something for her. For him, but. She wouldn’t like it. She couldn’t. But it’s for her own goodgood. Timur was bubbling within. The limp growing ever more steady.
The drive, being several hours long, was hard for steed and rider alike (the Maruti was as lame a Rocinante as Don Quixote), so after over two hour’s driving they stopped for a rest at a roadside playground they came across. Rubina was in wonderland. Not only for the swings and roundabouts, but for their backdrop. Situated along a riverbank blanketed by the clear-blue fog that enveloped the Sundarbans Rubina could already begin inhaling the spirit of her brother.
“Ah I could just live here!” She said running to the solitary swing (the playground turned out to be just a swing and a roundabout, and part of someone’s rice-fields, oh well).
“Give it chance we’re not even there yet!” Antoine said laughing at nothing in particular as happy people are prone to do.
He could see what she meant, though. The heavy silence, the primordial arboreal skyline, the sun through the trees, and the shy water hiding behind the fog; this is what man was made for. He always dreamed of isolating himself like this. But then he’d miss the good booze, the eccentric company, and the stories cities were wont to tell. Still, urbanite as he was, in his heart he joined in Rubina’s chorus: yes, I could live here too! It seemed as though whatever she said was worth more than any verse in the Quran that spawned her and any proverb in the Bible that neglected her.
“Just out of curiosity, Rubina,” he said as he went behind her to push the swing. My God she has long legs! It won’t take her long before she’s. “What will you do when you get to the Sundarbans?”
Happily, she shrugged her shoulders. Maybe, just maybe, Antoine, she isn’t as special as you think. She’s just a child like the rest of the however-much billion around the world.
“Salim?” The disillusionment was broken by her hopeful voice speaking to the distance: direction roadside. She swung off the swing and began walking, her eyes scanning the clouded horizon, Antoine watching her and her tall, hunched frame, like a tigress stalking a fawn.
“Salim, you crazy son-of-a-cow it is you? What are you doing here?” She said in a loud voice that made a flock of birds take flight from the top of a nearby tree.
Salim who, for Antoine, was an intimidating and peculiar stranger, emerged from the roadside wearing a heavy expression crowned by small, frowning eyes. You see, you see, how many boys she knows, she’s just any old child, Antoine. You’ve left Adiah for a child. Weirdo, no?
“Rubina, tell him to go away.” Salim said scowling, his hands in his threadbare jacket pockets, his head nodding towards the mystery white man.
“Salim what you doing here whatyoutalking about?” Rubina’s accent went uncomfortably guttural; she sounded local now, as she spoke to a none-tourist, but Antoine mistrusted her tone, like a father who knew when his child was scared. Father – pah! You? Daughter, her!
“Tell him to go away, or I kill him.” Salim said in a voice loud enough for Antoine to hear. Naturally, Antoine walked over to Rubina.
“Stay away, mister. She is a girl, you know, not your property.” Salim said cracking his neck on one side, as his words buzzed around his venomous mouth like a horde of wasps.
“What are you talking about stupid Salim?”
“Rubina, get away from him, we don’t want any trouble mate, leave us alone.”
“Leave you alone, listen to the sick Britisher, that’s all he wants. Get back hook-nose, I warn.”
“Salim!” She hit him on the shoulder. It was like hitting a boulder: he didn’t move an itch. “The man is helping me! Like you never did, no. You tell me to stay, Kolkata is the world, bah, stupid Salim! This man will take me to Sundarbans, not you, so: aahh!” She screamed as if she forgot how to finish a sentence.
“What a stupid lamb you are still Rubina.” Salim spoke with grueling anger in his voice. “He take you to Sundarbans to leave you raped and dead. You see?”
“Oh, I see, so you’re here to rescue me, yes, rescue me so I can be your piece of meat!”
“You’ve got it all wrong mate. I’m just taking her there, then I’ll bring her back.”
“If you bring her back, she’ll be dead.”
“Hey, leave her the hell alone, back off!” Antoine growled – he who had been accused (by dumped girlfriend no. 1) that he no fire in his belly.
“I tell you, Rubina, if you go back to city, the boys will tear you apart. They know you here with this touristy, they’re furious, see, you go back, they rape you one by one and if you make it out alive they’ll sell you to anyone who’s willing to pay for a piece of broken meat, a-ha.”
“Don’t you dare talk to her like that you piece of…”
“… Get back, scum.” Salim said as he pulled a knife out of his jacket, a knife so rusty it was more likely to kill you with tetanus than its blade. He held it towards Antoine as if it were his extending finger and he was making a very sharp point.
“Woah, calm down mate, listen, I’ll see to it myself that nothing happens to her, put the knife down.”
“No! You go down, go on, get down, on the ground!” Antoine fell to his knees faster than a Buddhist at temple.
“I take care of her. I always have. I take her back, she get good job, work with the boys, she’ll make money. But not before I have her. I deserve her, hell, yes!”
“Salim you insane moron, what are you saying, stupid!” Rubina pleaded on the verge of breaking, her defiance quite literally on the edge.
“Take it off Rubina! Now, take off your clothes or I’ll take off your skin!”
“Don’t be stupid, my my, Salim!” She said with quivering lips.
“Enough of this, leave her alone: Enough!”
Everyone was shouting, screaming and groaning, Rubina began taking off her clothes, Antoine watched, eager to intervene, but unable to summon up a whiff of courage, Rubina stood naked before him, unblemished, slender, a giraffe in the clandestine sunlight, her backside flat and dimpled, not a strand of hair to be seen, the skin like sunlight languishing on a foggy river, ah, so she blended in, even her budding areola, my, what a premature sin! But before she could prostrate herself, weeping, this child of monumental ill-fortune, another story intervened in this one, to make at least this one thing right.
It was never a lie, for how could it have been, that Rashid was to be journeying, like thin air, like a Jinn, the lands around the Sundarbans. He was alive but he wasn’t alive, as an old storyteller might put it. Ever since he was sent flying by that random car into a random piece of sky, his leftover spirit kept flying, all the way here, so that, now, he was everywhere and nowhere in everything and in nothing.
Death is not the end. Not for Rashid. For some, yes, death is a long-long sleep, but for Rashid – of course he was sleeping too, but not, poof, vanished – his sleep was to be allowed the privilege of dreams. Every day since he died he dreamed he was a leaf, a butterfly, the mist, the rice in the fields, the tiger’s stripes, the peacock’s call… and he was free, no two ways about it, he was free like he never could have been… but his sister wasn’t… he often thought of choking her in her sleep to give her true freedom, but, such a gentleman, he could never do that without asking. So he never did. But now, finally, he could free her another way.
And that which can never happens in mysterious, long-winded ways. Forced to look upon Rubina’s forcibly naked frame Antoine was mulling over, hating himself, cannibalistically, over his lack of courage, he was losing faith yet again – as he had done in god, humanity and Adiah, in that order – this time in himself. A man is supposed to be a man at least when asked of him, right? And if he was willing to harm Adiah to help Rubina, couldn’t he risk harm to himself now to help her? Bloody hypocrite. Jesus.
But then, when Salim began to force Rubina’s mouth into his lap, Antoine – and this he swears on it until his dying day – heard a voice speaking inside his head. No word of a lie. Well. It spoke with the frantic pace of his pulsing heart, it too was frightened, my God! This was no stoic delusion, but a schizoid siren. But at least, at this we can’t complain, the voice was clear: “Free my sister, and I will free you.”
To understand what happened in the near-future we must jump ahead and look now at the more distant future. Three months after the playground rape (?). We are no longer in India on the misty borders of the Sundarbans. We are in Malta. Outside a townhouse overlooking an old valley, its ex-Inquisitor’s Palace overshadowed by a newborn skyscraper skyline. A girl stands at the door with a suitcase that clearly belonged to someone more manly than she. The bell is rung and the door is answered by a woman with large green eyes, a tall frame, skin like sunlight languishing on a foggy river. When she opens the door she sees her own reflection standing before her, a few inches shorter; both sets of eyes alight and think: ah, now it makes sense!
“Ms. Adiah? I am Rubina. I was sent here by your friend, Antoine.”
At this the woman called Adiah wrapped her hand around her mouth and broke out in heart-rending sobs. She tried to swallow them but they swallowed her in return. In her hysteric fit of impassioned confusion she hugged Rubina as if she were a long-lost daughter. Why, she might not have been, but she was carrying with her something of even greater import: the last wish of her ex ex-lover, the recently departed Antoine.
“I can see why he liked you, Missus, you’re very very pretty.” Rubina said in as polite a tone as she could muster. Adiah un-hugged her and took a few steps back to look at this ghostly reflection.
“You’re only saying that because you look like me!” Adiah joked with her as if she had known her all her life. Indeed, she felt as though she had known her as long as she had known Antoine. Which isn’t long, but now she has known Antoine’s absence for three months, so their past together feels amplified.
“I have his things here.” Rubina said lifting up the heavy suitcase. “And some of mine. But not a lot.”
“Please, please come in.” Adiah pleaded.
And Rubina went in, with the smoke-borne dreams of Rashid and Antoine following her. Neither Rubina, nor the shadows of those men, would ever leave the kind abode of the once-ex Adiah. They were all free now. Well, maybe not Adiah, but she never really asked for freedom, so it’s ok. She gladly gave up what she never had for the sake of that girl. The ex-street child grown into a free woman.