By Kinshuk Gupta

    There were just three days left for the exam and my belly was grumbling, heart racing against the clock.

    When mom woke me up at around 6:30 in the morning, there was a feeble hope that the sun would arrive at the chest of the sky – the clouds were partly red and orange; something I had loved in the last few months of my preparation at home. It was monsoon and even though I had tried to attune my eyes to a sky knotted into thick, jet-black clouds, nose to a peculiar dampness, I always imagined a thick slab of ice grazing past my spine during such days. That day, something was different, a day gushing with life and force.

    I came to my room, made my bed, fluffed up the pillows before I began revising important concepts in Organic Chemistry. After half an hour, while I was glancing at the structures of tertiary amines, a faint yet familiar smell hit my nostrils. I sniffed it twice, but as I opened the wooden door covering the mesh jaali, I could see a fat layer of clouds muddled in the gray sky. ‘It would rain today,’ I thought, estimating their fleshiness, but then consoled my mind, ‘May be, it wouldn’t. The clouds would slowly drift to another place.’

    ‘Shut the door and try to concentrate,’ mom screamed from the kitchen, her voice shriller than the steel vessel dropped on the floor.

    When it rains, something inside me dampens. It is hard to explain–the closest metaphor that I could find is a heartbreak–you know that it is there, its muscular limbs tightening across your waist, shrinking you into an insignificant speck. Mom shouted again, this time she gurgled with rage, ‘I know you haven’t begun studying.’ I opened the book but my eyes fixed on the hibiscus imprinted on the sunmica of my study table–blood-red, stamen crisp yellow, petals curling into one another as if making love to each other.

    Outside, I could hear shoes marching, which meant that it had rained. Everything–the snakes carved on the walls by the flaking paint, a plant trying to jut out from the cracks within the marble floor, blue buckets aligned in a row to procure slots for using the bathroom, and my room with fluorescent sticky notes–sprinted across my mind. In the next moment, I was walking with a mug cupped in my hand, holding my toiletries in the narrow aisles of my hostel.

    They had allotted me and Siddhant a twin-sharing room. I had wanted to take a single-seater room–despite the fact that it was expensive and my mother had feared that I might feel too lonely–but I disliked having people in such close vicinity that I had to smell the sweat. Even though the hostel in-charge promised a single room soon, I had to stay in that room for some time.

    He came into the room, carrying two heavy suitcases, one in each hand, and a tote bag slung from his shoulders, he drew his lips into a thin smile, raised his eyebrows, and moved his hands towards me for a handshake. My hand was flaccid, but his grip was as tight and warm as was to be our relationship during the initial days. I would find ways to irritate him–turn off his alarm, or fling his clothes hanging on the line on the floor or slip his bucket at the end of the row–but he took everything with an ease, maturity rare at that age. When almost a month later, the scores of my monthly test touched a significant low, and I shut the door before he could get in, to masturbate, he could have easily plotted with the warden to catch me red-handed. But he didn’t. And I couldn’t think of any logic to justify it. And in a split-second, an enormous wave of guilt rushed over me as if his forgiveness was not forgiveness rather my punishment. I hugged him tightly and kept mumbling sorry in his ears.

    The days that followed were electric, like the star nearing an end shining its brightest. We stayed together, sat side by side in the classes, slept and woke up together. I could feel the hardness between my pants when he used to come back to the room after bathing, in his underwear–thighs broad as pillars of a temple, sturdy with a promise to hold the weight of my longing for him.

    The day he came back from his brother’s marriage, carrying a tin box of sweets, he slipped from the stairs and smashed five of his ribs. For the next three months, he would wake me up in the middle of the night asking to take him to the washroom. He would prop his head easily, but when he lifted his chest, he would exhale a loud moan. Some days, I felt like banging my head on the wall because it would leave my forehead throbbing with pain, but the weight of his burly arms across my shoulders left me with a deep satisfaction

    During the searing temperature of December, I got sick, my forehead ablaze with high fever, sucking my energy. Thankfully, it didn’t incapacitate me, but I kept hoping that it would restrict me to my bed. I wanted him to feed me, take care of me, keep asking again and again if I was feeling better but except once in the morning, he was never bothered. I would justify it by thinking that he might be stressed due to some stuff at home, or he doesn’t want me to feel sick by asking it a multiple times, but I could never blame him..

    ‘What are you doing here, Anant?’ Mom questioned in her sour voice. A tinge of guilt washed over me but concentrating on the chemistry between us looked more fruitful.

    A long-lashed boy, with a black mole on his forehead came to our room when we were about to gobble up the first bite of our chapatti speckled with black polka dots, and invited us to his room. We never talked to our hostel mates except when they came to ask for notebooks to complete the pending work. Strangely, he looked friendly with his fat smile. We gazed into each other’s eyes and agreed to go with him.

    A gust of smoke escaped when the door of his room unlatched, initiating a series of ferocious coughs. Part of it smelt like a hookah or bidi, and we attributed the smaller clouds to drugs not knowing their specific names. Our jaws dropped watching toppers of our batch, whom we admired, flick the ash on the floor while smoke trickled from their nostrils. My coughing subsided, but Siddhant was still gasping for breath. I knew that he was allergic to smoke, but the moment of realization had hit me hard, almost like an iron rod, and all I could make out from the boys’ outlines were bonsai, once appearing like trees with thick roots and lush leaves. Siddhant tapped my shoulders furiously and rushed towards our room.

    I realised about his allergy only after I saw him heaving, inhaling and exhaling swiftly through the inhaler. I clasped him by shoulders and began rubbing his back clockwise, not knowing what better I could do.

    ‘Calm down, Siddhant. Take deep breaths.’ I gestured towards my abdomen caving in and out, but he wrapped his arms across my waist while his chest still moved up and down like the notes of an Opera singer. Then, a drop tickled the bare part of my shoulders. I pursed my lips, signalling him to stop crying. But, as soon as I made that sign, tears rolled down his cheeks in thick ropes as if they were waiting for a signal. I pointed towards the wooden planks that walled our rooms, murmured in his ears softly, ‘Somebody would drop in anytime if you continue weeping like this.’ His tears halted abruptly as if he was enacting a scene, now delivered with perfection. He left my grip, pushed me with a slight force and withdrew to his bed.

    Knock. Knock. Knock.

    ‘Do you think us your father’s servants hired for your service? How dare you leave your plate in my room?’ The boy, who looked harmless an hour ago, asked in his cactus voice.

    ‘I am sorry, bhaiya. Actually, my room partner got an asthmatic attack. I am coming to clean it.’ I replied in a voice peppered with guilt.

    ‘No, sit and eat there. Bade Sir wants to check your etiquettes.’ He spoke as walked away from the room.

    I wanted to ask what he meant by etiquettes, or who was this Bade Sir, or why at all, he was interested in watching me eat food. Confused, I wanted to ask Siddhant, wiser than me in understanding slant things, but he was already in a deep sleep, snoring after every five laboured breaths.

    An abrasive cry of a lost bird and the ululations of crickets had draped the hostel in a strange uneasiness. Only the slit between their room door and its frame leaked a sliver of light, which felt almost auspicious. This time, the room had a newer set of people, none of them drugged, most of them unknown to me till then–a punk with an earring in his ears and hair gelled into crests of a wave, another, with a scar on his face shaped like melting wax and few others hooked to the porn on their mobile phones, a mocking smile stretching across their lips every time the girl exhaled a loud moan. When I about to sit on a metal chair, a screech startled me so much that my plate almost fell on the floor.

    ‘How dare you sit while your seniors are standing?’ One of them howled, his eyes bloodshot.

    ‘Sorry, bhaiya. I had no idea,’ I mumbled, shrinking my body, stooping my chin into my chest.

    ‘Bhaiya, kaun?’

    ‘Oye randi, main tujhe bihari bhaiya lagta hun.’

    ‘Sorry, sir. Mujhe pata nahi tha. Aage se dhyaan rakhunga”

    ‘Abe oye, angrez ki aulad. Tujhe sikhana padega sab kuch, madarchod!’

    ‘Sir, khaana kha loon?’ I requested after the convulsions in my stomach intensified, turning unbearable.

    Papa came in the verandah looking for his leather shoes, when he began lecturing in his husky voice, ‘Why don’t you understand that you are t-h-r-e-e days away from your future? If you don’t qualify for the merit this time, don’t ask for money for a private college. It takes sweat and blood and bones to earn money. You think, it is a j-o-k-e. Go to your room immediately.’

    ‘I won’t,’ my voice was rigid for the first time in front of him.

    I was about to leave after a polite goodnight when a pot-bellied, dark-skinned boy entered the room. He gathered his fingers into a stiff fist and the scorpion on his wrist glinted. Each one of them left their places in the blink of an eye, prostrated on the floor to touch this boy’s feet. I saw fear seep into their eyes, and so, while I bent down to do the same, the boy twisted my ears and lifted me up. He positioned his palm flat the way priests do while blessing and others resumed their activities.

    ‘Bade Sir ko apna intro de, bakrichod,’ the punker ordered with his nose dug in his mobile phone.

    I bent my head, my eyes on the contorted cigarette stubs on the floor and started, ‘Mera naam… ,’ and I continued while they chuckled every time I said a word in English, as it appeared to me to originate from Devnagari, and I had to start from the beginning.

    It took me a full hour to complete ten lines. After it completed, I sighed. I was thinking how these people have reduced Hindi to a language of slurs while I turned towards the entrance to leave when the boy with the disfigured face pulled me from my shirt and smirked, ‘Itni jaldi kya hai, abhi etiquettes bhi toh dekhenge, Bade Sir!’

    Bade Sir was busy in watching a video when he pointed at two boys standing at my back, who pulled down the elastic of my pyjamas.

    ‘Please, Please, sir!’ I clutched the folds of my pyjamas in my wrists tightly while the boys kept fiddling with the elastic.

    Sharam kyun aa rahi ab, meethe? Tum logon ne gandagi bhar rakhi hai,’ he hissed.

    I asked him, confused, ‘What do you mean by meetha? What wrong have I done?’

    He showed me the video where Siddhant was hugging me, his arms and my arms crossed against each other. I immediately understood that by meetha, he meant gay.

    How dare you record this? And, what on earth, does this mean we are gays? I asked, agigated.

    He stood from the chair and slapped me tightly that I bit my tongue. ‘Dare! Let me show it to you,’ and he whacked me again with his tight fist.

    One of the two boys, standing on my back, asked me in a hushed tone, almost in my ears, ‘Kaale ka kaala kaisa hai?’ When I didn’t answer, they got agitated and pulled down my pyjamas in a stride. Bade Sir, with his ring finger, touched the bulge lurking from my underwear. I tried to pull up the limp pyjamas over my waist, but his burly arms didn’t allow even a flicker of movement.

    I yelped, ‘Warden sir, Warden sir…,’ but the silence seemed so dense that I felt that my shouts reflected from the walls echoed back in my ears.

    Somebody knocked on the door. I was relieved, my teeth clasped tightly, thinking the warden would punish them and I would be saved. The warden came twirling his moustache, whacking his thick cane on the floor. And, while I had begun praying the God for coming disguised as the warden, he spat my butt hard with the cane.

    I winced in pain, and a few drops of urine moistened my underwear.

    ‘Shame shame, puppy shame…,’ everyone burst into loud guffaws.

    ‘Shame shame, puppy shame…’

    I felt like a goat about to get slaughtered and asked in a subdued voice, ‘What more do you need from me?’

    They pushed an iron chair towards me. ‘Now think this is a girl. The space between the rods in the backrest her vagina. Start a fuck jihaad,’ the boy with disfigured face spoke while curled his thumb and index finger and passed his middle finger from it.

    ‘No, no, this is damn boring. Isko loda de choosne ko,’ Bade Sir intervened.

    They filled a piece of rubber pipe with cigarette butts, wrapped it with cotton from the first aid box and hurled it towards me.

    ‘Put in your mouth. Suck it, else we will put this on your batch’s WhatsApp group.’ They hinted at the video.

    I folded my hands, while my fingers shivered, ‘Sir, I will do all your assignments. Please leave me.’

    ‘We are not leaving you without watching you salivating.’

    They pinned their eyes on me. I put an inch, waiting for them to stop me, but the warden thrust it inside my mouth. I gagged. Nobody bothered. And each one of them kept taking turns and thrusting it inside my mouth.

    Everything that happened last night replayed in my mind, while I rubbed my groggy eyes in the morning. I wanted to sleep over Siddhant’s frail body, compress my world between us, but decided against it, frightened of the hidden camera. I woke him up and asked if he was alright, a question not for him as much as I asked myself.

    He brought me toasts and milk and left a thank- you note tucked on the study table. Even though after moving out from their room, I had requested, rather begged them to not leak the video, and they had promised me, I could not help but think of the repercussions of the video. I didn’t know why, but I was more stressed for him.

    My trail of thoughts broke after the phone beeped and realised that I was late for the institute. I rushed for the class. During our physics class, when sir was explaining force, that all bodies are under some or the other force, I was pondering over those questions, measuring their implications on my and Siddhant’s life.

    Suddenly, our phones beeped incessantly. I glanced at our hazy outlines in the notification. They had uploaded the video on the batch’s common group. Who doesn’t enjoy gossiping–within next 10 minutes, porn sites, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, the video spread like wildfire. Instagram flooded with our photos together, hashtagged #GayLivesMatter and #LetThemLive.

    I wanted to laugh loudly at the foolishness of the people around me, and I thought it would be best to explain Siddhant everything immediately because it was easy to cripple his thought process once he began thinking about what would people say. I turned to look out for him two rows behind me, but he was not there.

    I asked the person sitting beside him, but he had no clue. I called him, but each time the call died even before ringing. I called the guard in our hostel to check if he had already left for the hostel to ignore nasty comments of people, but he wasn’t there either. I rushed towards the washroom, inspected each cabinet, but there was no hint of him.

    I began asking the students coming out of classes in small groups on each floor, showed them his photo on my mobile phone, but nobody had seen him. I sat on the stairs, panting, my palms cupping my face.

    A friend of mine tapped my shoulder and told me that somebody in his batch saw him climbing the stairs to the terrace. I darted towards the terrace, my brain muddled with possibilties most of which hinted towards something devastating.

    He was there, standing on the ledge of the terrace. I wanted to shout, but realized that the my voice might startle him and he can lose his balance. I turned towards him, with as light feet as possible, praying that he does nothing before I reach to him.

    I said softly from behind, ‘What are you doing, Siddhant? Don’t worry, don’t worry bhai, this is nothing. Come back, and we will resolve these things together. I am with you. Don’t worry!’

    He clenched his teeth and said, ‘Firstly, you did all this for a single room, and now, you are trying to offer sympathy. Why did you do this to me?’

    His words stabbed my chest. I wanted to tell him how badly I love him and all the trauma I underwent the previous night just to stop them from leaking this video, but I didn’t. My grip on his calves loosened and I receded back.

    I moved my finger around the jagged edges of the hibiscus plant he gifted me on my first birthday with him. While his caustic question, why did you do this to me revolved in my head, I lifted the pot and smashed it on the ground.

    My cheeks flushed with the rays of a blazing afternoon sun, but suddenly, they turned pale, for the sun was snatched by black clouds.

    Kinshuk Gupta is a doctor, bilingual writer, poet and columnist who works at the intersection of gender, health and sexuality. His debut book of short fiction, Yeh Dil Hai Ki Chordarwaja, modern Hindi’s first LGBT short story collection, was published to great critical acclaim in 2023. He is the winner of prestigious awards and fellowships including the India Today-Aaj Tak Sahitya Jagriti Udayiman Lekhak Samman (2023); Akhil Bhartiya Yuva Kathakar Alankaran (2022); Dr. Anamika Poetry Prize (2021). He has been shortlisted for the Toto Awards for Creative Writing (2023); The Bridport Prize (2022); Srinivas Rayparol Poetry Prize (2021); All India Poetry Competition (2018). He edits poetry for Jaggery Lit and Mithila Review. He has been awarded the prestigious South Asia Speaks 2023 Fellowship to work on his poetry manuscript with Tishani Doshi.

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