Bombay Duck : Part 3 -- Ajay Mathur finds his mojo
Chapter V: A Sunday with the Mathurs
The Worli address on the calling card was well-known, and the taxidriver drove right through the wide gates, only slowing slightly as he drove past the security cabin with his white teeshirt-and-bermudas clad passenger. Normally, a new visitor would have been asked to disembark and enter his name in a register, but Henderson was clearly special.
Henderson climbed out and stooped to pay the cabbie, who wondered how the gora managed to fit all of his large-boned, fleshy frame into the cramped backseat. Then he strode into the spacious building, and waited for the lift. “15th floor”, he told the liftman, favouring him with a little smile.
He was met at the door by a short servant with shorts and knobby knees. “Yes?” he asked blankly. “Mr Ajay Mathur please”, replied Henderson.
“This way please”, said the servant, turning, and leading him to a grand little anteroom with a coffee table laden with an eclectic mix of Booker Prize winning books, obscure coffee-table publications, and international weeklies. Essential reading for those who are interested in nothing really, but want to stay abreast of whatever people are talking about, thought Henderson, before Ajay Mathur walked in, looking slightly rumpled.
“Good morning, old boy!”, he said patronizingly, assuming what he thought was a sophisticated British accent. “Leela will be here in a moment. We had a late night.”
“Lovely place”, said Henderson, frankly impressed by the marble-and-teak interiors, and the magnificent sea view. “We can't open a window, can we? Just to let in some fresh air?”
“Not unless you want all these books to be blown away”, said Ajay, lighting a cigaratte. “We have quite a breeze here. Smoke?”
“No, thanks”, said Henderson.
“Mind if I do?” said Mathur, and lit up with a fancy brass lighter, without waiting for a reply.
Henderson started to explain that he was actually allergic to smoke, but gave it up as a doomed effort. Three minutes later, when Leela emerged from her bath in a lustrous white nightgown, with her long hair tied in a towel, Mathur was on his second cigarette, and Henderson was wheezing softly.
“Archie!”, said Leela effusively. “So good to see you!”
Henderson took her hand and gave her a sickly smile, remaining seated. His eyes were automatically registering everything about her -- the flow of the opaque, silky material over her curves, the hemline at her ankles. Ah, the fragrance of a freshly washed woman! Heavenly!
But when he opened his mouth to speak, all that came out was a choking cough. And then another, and another. As he fought to regain control over his convulsed lungs, the blue veins stood out on his temples.
“Archie! Is something wrong?”, said Leela, putting her arm around his shoulder. “Ramu, pani lao! And you, put out the damned cigarette, and open a window or something! Let in some fresh air!”
Mathur stubbed out his cigarette, the servant came in with a glass of water, and Leela Mathur sat on the arm of Henderson's sofa, stroking his back as he drank. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead, and his eyes were moist, as he managed to regain some composure.
“For heavens' sake, open the window Ajay!” said Leela sharply. “No”, said Ajay stubbornly. “I'm sorry, but the sea wind would ruin all the books, and you know it!”
“Well then, let's go out to the balcony and get some fresh air”, said Leela.
“I'll stay in here and finish my smoke, if you don't mind”, sulked Ajay, as Leela ushered out the Englishman by the hand.
The balcony was rather a small sea-facing terrace with heavy glass sliding doors, and as they stood leaning against the banister, she removed the towel and let her long black hair dry in the wind. She wasn't an especially beautiful woman, but this was an exceptionally beautiful moment, and Henderson's head swam as he struggled to keep the small talk going, shouting to be heard above the wind. And after several minutes conversation, he found himself dreading the end of this heavenly interlude, and a return to the sitting room and the company of Ajay Mathur.
“This is a beautiful house you have, Mrs Mathur!” he shouted, feeling himself drawn tantalizingly to the edge of a precipice.
“What?!!!”, she shouted back, cupping her ear to him.
“I SAID YOU HAVE A LOVELY HOUSE!!!” shouted Henderson.
“Oh!”, she said, and stood gazing into his gray eyes, her hands crossed over her chest against the wind, a lock of her uncombed hair over her face.
And then Henderson decided to let go, and let himself be drawn over the precipice. “AND YOU ARE A LOVELY WOMAN, MRS MATHUR!!”, he shouted.
He saw from the sudden flush of her face, and the change in her expression, that she had clearly heard him. His heart missed a beat as he wondered whether he had said the wrong thing. He mentally prepared himself to apologize.
“WHAT DID YOU SAY?”, she shouted, and cupped her ear at him. This time, Henderson bent his face close, so close he could so close he could feel and smell her hair in his face, so close that his lips brushed against the soft downy hair near her ear, as he said in a normal voice, “I said you are the most beautiful woman I have ever known, Mrs Mathur.”
The grinding sound of the sliding door opening made him draw back sharply from whatever it was that he had meant to do next. It was the servant, and he held out Henderson's mobile phone. Whatever he had seen had made no difference to his habitual blank expression. “Phone, saab“, he said.
Henderson took the phone and stepped into quiet of the sitting room to talk. He saw at a glance that it was Tony, and cursed the man under his breath. Then he cursed himself for having completely forgotten his appointment with Tony.
“Mr Henderson, I am here at the hotel reception”, said Tony. “Where are you? Are you coming?”
“No, I am not coming, Tony. I'm with friends today, and I want to cancel our appointment.”
“What about Namita?” said Tony belligerently, after a long pause. The thought of what he considered his money continuing to sit in this stupid gora's pocket made him mean and vicious.
“WHAT about Namita, dammit? WHAT about her? We'll see her tomorrow, Tony, and that's final!”
“I'm have to go Nasik tomorrow, Henderson-saab“, lied Tony. “I may not be back for a month. So our meeting will have to be today. I hope you can meet me in the evening!”
Henderson viciously jabbed the end-call button, and sat on the sofa, staring blankly. Suddenly, he felt his life was barely worth living.
“What's the matter, Archie?”, said Mrs Mathur, settling into the sofa next to him. He wondered how much to tell her.
“What's it, old boy?”, asked Ajay Mathur, coming into the room. If he was angry with the Britisher for flirting with his wife, that anger had been put aside for the moment.
Henderson was overcome with a wave of gratitude and optimism. If anybody could help him solve his problem in this confusing city, it was these people. They were his friends, genuine friends, and he should tell them everything, he decided.
“I'm being blackmailed”, he announced.
“Blackmailed!”, the Mathurs exclaimed together, almost in unison.
“And framed too!”, said the Britisher. “My visa and passport have been impounded by a corrupt cop who won't accept a straightforward bribe, and I am coming to increasingly rely on a crook and a liar who is my only friend in this city, and who is taking me on a merry ride, and there is F**KING NOTHING THAT I CAN DO ABOUT IT!” Henderson brought his meaty fist down hard on the heavy onyx table.
They all watched with horror as the circular stone teetered and slid in slow-motion off the stone pedestal. At the last moment, Henderson took a lunge to save it, but only succeeded in bringing the disk down even more heavily on the marble floor. The floor chipped where the edge came down, and the circular disk split neatly into two pieces, and then finally slid to the floor and shattered into several large pieces.
Ajay Mathur was the first to break the long silence that ensued. “Nice work, Henderson”, he said, with malice. “Nice work. That was specially imported from Pakistan, and it cost a small fortune.”
The Englishman sat there on the floor, looking dazed, muttering, “I'm sorry, I'm very, very sorry. I sincerely apologize, Mr Mathur. I'll make it up to you, I promise.”
“No you won't”, said Ajay Mathur, in a rising voice. “You won't, you British bastard, because I can afford to lose ten of these onyx tables everyday for the rest of my life, and it still won't make a difference. Now let us stop talking about this perfectly good table that you've completely ruined with your childish temper, and put our heads together on HOW TO SAVE YOUR BLOODY WHITE ASS!!!” Ajay Mathur's British accent was gone now. His confidence level instantly shot up 500 per cent.
“Ramu, clear this mess”, he said imperiously to the servant who had come in to see what the commotion was all about.
Ajay Mathur was now in his element, and thoroughly enjoying himself.
Chapter VI: Namita
At 4.00 in the afternoon, Henderson called Tony from his mobile. “Read me Namita's address, Tony, and tell me a nearby place where I can meet you in one hour.”
“She lives in a slum at Bandra”, replied Tony evasively. Meet me at the Mahim Church. Have you got the cash?”
“Read me the address, please, Tony”, cajoled Henderson. “Just a precaution, in case we miss seeing each other.”
“No! You will go there alone and mess it up. You come with me. Meet me at the yard. Be there at 5.00. Have you got the money?”
Henderson cut the phone, just to keep him guessing. Stupid bastard! Of course he had the money! He always carried that much cash wherever he went.
“He won't give me her address”, he reported, sitting down heavily on their sofa. “Now what do we do?”
“We play his game till he makes a mistake”, said Ajay Mathur. “Let's go, let's go, let's go!” he said Hollywoodishly.
It had been a busy night at the Surahi Bar, where Namita was a dancer. She had danced till 2.30 in the morning, and she had crawled into bed after 5.00, when the milkmen and the paper-boys were starting their rounds. She had slept all day, and woken up feeling great. She now regarded Sunday night with eagerness. Life was good to her nowadays. She only danced on weekends now. The bar would be overflowing with customers tonight, and she would make a lot of money -- more than five thousand if she was lucky. Good.
A lot of men would be pawing her everywhere tonight, even reaching into what little clothes she wore at work. Not so good, but she was used to it now. No pleasure, no revulsion, almost no feeling, no matter where they touched her. It was all in a night's work.
Was she a prostitute? That was a debatable point.
Drunken customers who had stuffed a sweaty fistfull of cash down the elastic band of her pink sequinned knickers did not think of her as a prostitute. All they wanted from her was a caressed cheek, a lusty look, a flying kiss. Sometimes, when she saw a group of big spenders, she went and lay down across their laps for just a brief moment that allowed them to see, to touch a tiny bit, and to kiss. It was done in rhythm to music, it was called cabaret dancing, and it was somewhat respectable.
The men were happy with just that. At closing time, the girls disappeared from the backdoor into taxis waiting in a squalid back alley, and the men, barely able to walk, went out through the grand, brightly-lit front door.
If a bar regular met his favourite dancer outside his bar in the light of day (and it had happened to almost every girl that Namita knew), he couldn't recognize her. Stripped of all the gaudy makeup, the vulgar clothes, the hip-wiggling, pouting mannerisms, they were just normal people in Bombay who lived normal lives. They went to the market and bought vegetables like everyone else, and nobody knew or cared enough to gossip or point a finger at them.
Prostitutes were different, reasoned Namita. They lived in disrepute and filth day in and day out. Bar girls were like housewives, she reasoned. They did whatever they had to do at night, in order to go on living respectable lives during the day. So she wasn't a prostitute. She was, in a manner of speaking, a housewife.
The problem was, Inspector Gaitonde didn't quite see it that way. To him, Namita was a prostitute. She had made his acquaintance after a surprise raid that the police had conducted on the bar. It happened from time to time because "ladies bars" were against the law. It was entirely another matter that there were hundreds of them all over the city, and not one was hidden from the local police station, who regularly got their payoffs, their haftas. The city police however had to make some crackdowns every month, just for the the record.
On the night of September 12, 1999, Namita had been arrested along with 14 other girls and 55 customers.
The customers had been allowed to go by 3 a.m. after a mild bashing. Of course, they had been relieved of every rupee, every bracelet and every gold chain that they had on them.
The girls had to spend the night sleeping fitfully on the cold, stinking floor of the lockup, to be let off in the morning after their contractor had furnished the bail amount. But Namita and another very attractive girl had not spent the night in the lockup. They had spent the night in a nameless little shack, ‘doing' a dozen policemen of varying ranks . The other girl had wept and pleaded. Namita had given in quietly, and "done" each cop with all the smiles and charms that she reserved for the cabaret floor.
And that was why the middle-aged, paunchy Gaitonde thought she was a prostitute.
Funnily, when he called her a prostitute, he meant it as a compliment. “Arre, kya raand hai tu, Namita!”, he said to her the morning after. “Tere jaisi Bombay main koi raand nahin hai, saali!” Gaitonde had a two-room kitchen flat in Byculla, which he owned benami in the name of a poor nephew. Gaitonde had given her the key to this flat, so that she could let herself in whenever Gaitonde summoned her.
Of course he got to do her for free. But it was to her advantage. When the word spread about their special relationship, she became the most special dancer at the Surahi Bar. The customers whispered and pointed her out to each other, and gave tips only in multiples of five-hundreds. Now she would lie down across the laps of only special guests, municipal corporators, MLAs and visiting police officers, whom she could recognize at a glance, even though they were never in uniform. Only a few got a feel of Namita's private parts, and even fewer were given the privilege of enjoying them.
Namita felt there was a very definite improvement in her standard of living. But somehow, she couldn't agree with Gaitonde about her being a raand.