by Rochelle Potkar


    “If I begin telling you about Ruling Mirage, I might never be able to complete it,” said Ismael, face cushioned by Ratna’s bosom, as he lay on her lap. She had her period and was on a holiday. Or else, she would have been creaking a bed too, like the others in their rooms.

    He liked the rusty smell of her lap. He closed his eyes, listening to her heartbeats. They resonated into his eardrums. In these wee hours, his breath laced with ganja, they felt like galloping thuds. For a moment, the night stopped its creaking and before he could hear its music again, Ismael took his chance. “Ruling Mirage doesn’t need a jockey. He rips through the air, and his mane cuts clean through clouds on tracks. His hoofs can break the ground. Some days he is a winner, some days second-in-place, other days, a loser. A complete loser. There’s no telling. Underdog – he is a confusing metaphor. A very tricky statistic at the tote.”

    “Hmmm…,” said Ratna, gently combing her fingers through Ismael’s hair.

    “Sometimes I think he apes my moods, sala,” said Ismael.

    Ratna leant against the wall of the narrow corridor, near Ismael’s mat as he continued, “I’ve records of how he feels. I go to the paddock and follow him to the gates. When he pricks his ears, when he pins them down, arches his tail, flags it up – means he’s lazy or alert. It’s all in the trot… like between two of my feelings of complete pleasure or entire disastrous sadness. I feel what he feels. Upbeat, god-like.

    lousy, parasite-like.” Ismael chuckled.

    Ratna dug her fingers into his shirt pocket with an absentminded deftness with which she grazed her customer’s pants to check for their erections. “So, you spent everything on the racecourse again?” she asked.

    “Not racecourse, meri jaan. Ruling Mirage! I only spend on Anya Dubash. You know na her father was a famous jockey of old days. She’s 21, and likes only her name to come in the papers. But I cannot think of her without her last name.”

    The creaking from all the beds began, as if in telepathic agreement. The last stride for the night. A chorus of choreography to celebrate the breaking of dawn. This was Ismael’s favourite hour before dawn hit like bad news. He sucked onto the last of his ganja. “Imagine, this girl – her ponytail like a horse’s flying tail. A sight, Ratna! It jails my breath in my throat. I could give up anything for it. Millions, if I were a millionaire. Problem is I’m a fattichar.”

    As soon as the pink sun crawled through the buildings and spread its rays through the lone window of the house, Ismael retrieved himself from Ratna’s lap.

    The morning sat on the window sill, with promises of a humid day.

    Manju’s children were ready for school. They had on neat ironed pinafores, as they bit into their bread-jam sandwiches. This was the only hour to be quiet – the only request Manju had made to all the inhabitants of the brothel – that her children go to school with their heads collected – as she put it – so they were ready for a whole day of studying.

    Ismael suspected he was the father of either one of Manju’s children – eight-year-old Aachal or six-year-old Swati. Aachal and Swati smiled at him and Ratna as they waved their hands, faces still groggy, as Manju led them out. The trio would walk far out of 8th Lane Kamathipura, before catching a cycle rikshaw to an English-medium school. The addresses in their school diaries were of two lanes ahead, of some non-descript slum in Dalal Estate. It was where Manju’s best friend Dipti lived. Every year the school fees rose and made it difficult for her to match it with the money she rolled into a rubber-band, and kept in a rusted box. But every year a good Samaritan came by from some NGO, or the school put out notices for charity. This had become a good luck pattern. Every year started with concern and dread for Manju, ending in another good gamble of hope and faith.

    Ismael wondered if Aachal was his daughter, but she didn’t look one bit like him. Swati certainly wasn’t. By then Manju was with another man – her permanent lover – until he disappeared into the mist. But Ismael believed that one of the five children in the brothel was definitely his. He felt an odd pull from these narrow walls of someone calling out to him – craving his attention, affection, and probably sacrifice.

    Ismael fantasized of being rich, so he could do something for these children…

    The sun climbed high over the skies, atop the basti, and Ismael got about preparing breakfast, laying them on plates, keeping carrots and onions chopped for an early lunch. The women would be hungry now – their hunger as bottomless as an abyss.

    Slowly customers began stumbling out of the rooms and down the steps and he went about following-up with the other customers, dialling their numbers, and riffling through Didi’s register for carry-forward accounts. He knew the numbers by rote now: of the ones who had fucked at discounted prices for a royalty mamba-ship. Some were hawaldars, shopkeepers, hotel owners, truck-fleet owners, who could come in handy someday, when most needed, according to the brothel common sense. Didi’s wisdom.

    “We have to live cohesively,” Prajakta Didi always said. “Why use anger when politeness works? Patience and a little praise, eh?”

    But following up on credit after a heady climax, was a painful job – the real dirty, sticky work, thought Ismael. If after two months of repeated calls, they still did not pay, Didi would stop them from seeing the girls, saying they had gone to bigger brothels, or started out as exclusive mistresses, or gone to their villages. These men would back off, rebuffed and desperate. A few would still not pay, but some would succumb.

    Today a notice from a new builder came by, through the hands of a peon, to vacate their home, leave the place. Sometimes the sweeper or a hawaldar would bring such messages, always from different people.

    “So many eye this place,” Didi muttered. “Householders want brothels to close, so this locality can be cleansed of filth.”

    Vazulry received the notice today, and left it, as instructed by Didi, on the shoe-stand, until it became a kite and flew off.

    “We’re going nowhere,” Didi yelled as her voice reached out of the broken stained-glass windows. “Our door has never closed. Night or day. We are always open for business.” She made a fist of her fingers, “Built to last as long as we are together … six women. We’re here to serve God by serving man and his needs.”

    Ismael was never biased towards ugliness… or beauty. In this business, beauty was a busy cunt. But he still couldn’t tolerate Prajakta Didi with her front tooth broken during a brawl, her yellow replacement that had taken on tar from the thambakoo she chewed. Not just that – she did not brush her teeth. Smelling good was not her priority. To see the brothel bursary full, was. To see all the randis occupied, rocking their visceral lullabies over the hoods of wanting men in godly servitude was. So, her priorities were set.

    “Where is Pranavseth these days?” Didi asked, “Why hasn’t he turned up? Manju phone him. And you need to tuck those loaves hanging out of the back of your blouse in. Eat some less, you elephant.”

    Manju stared at Didi. She had always been plump. “Ah ha! This is what Pranavseth and other clients love about me,” she mumbled. “More to chew on, more on the platter to squeeze and bite.”

    Vazulry was a dainty nibble that way, thought Ismael, as he walked off with Didi’s old paan-spittoon.

    No one answered Manju’s phone call.

    Prajakta Didi would speak to no one much. Her grumblings were mumblings and prayers in front of her imagined altar. Her room was the largest in the house, but even Ismael – cleaner, plumber, painter, was never allowed to go into it, in 15 years. Didi cleaned her room herself and kept it locked all the time. Double-locked, when she went to Patna every year for a fortnight to live with an old confidante – her only one – the only man, Ibn, who she said hadn’t double-crossed her. Ibn couldn’t hear now, couldn’t see or talk, but she went to pay her respects, sucking his shrivelled fingers. A gratitude returned over years.

    No one knew about Didi’s origins. The pockmarked daughter of a renowned whore, they said her mother ran off with her favourite customer. Ismael later heard Didi was gang-raped by pimps and policemen – and then of tales of how she emerged from the ashes with her soul dead. Didi never spoke of those days and Ismael wondered if there was any truth to these stories – or rumours spread by disheartened women who lived here, spun by anger and sadness over Didi’s harshness and hard-heartedness towards them.

    The next night Ismael was back with his head in Ratna’s lap. The last night of her period.

    “Didi’s face is of a man, no doubt,” whispered Ismael. “Her sternness keeps the brothel going, even with this – these sinking roofs, leaking toilets, wet walls, the stench of an open-air piss ground.”

    Ratna said, “Yes, she holds on to this place like a fortress. She cannot do for a day without us in sight: her five fingers: Manju, Vazulry, Seema, Mira and me. Parts of her body. She feeds off us…”

    As the girls grew in her care from prepubescent to adolescent and then women, everyone began fearing Didi. And fear was close to hatred. Didi didn’t like it when Vazulry grew beautiful, when she met Rahulbabu, or Manju’s fanatic need to educate her children in the hope of some futile and fake-bright future. Nothing that distracted them from brothel work appealed to her.

    Before the men came in like malarial mosquitoes, she expected to be worshipped with freshly-cooked food and an oil-massage of her shins. Then she would give anyone who found favour with her for the day an hourly work-break, extra tip, or the next day off, or even take everyone for a movie to Santosh Talkies, if she was that happy.

    Pargat Gundappa was the brothel’s biggest client – his largesse both in his pants and his pockets. He had just walked into Didi’s hall. “I want Vazulry to come with me. To Bangkok,” he said. “You know these Malaysian girls never do it for me. I like ghar ki murghi. Someone who knows the cricks of my knees, the clicks of my knuckles, can tolerate my farts and burps.” He chuckled, “Who knows my history…”

    Pargatseth was all about history. His own and of the city and what it thought of him. Of how he came here with five annas in his pockets in the day and age of the rupee. How he set his empire. He sounded like a liar, thought Ismael. He was a businessman with thick jewellery around his neck. Slick hair combed back, smelling of chameli oil. He always wore white, even up to his footwear. He traded in cement and because the real estate prices were going through the roof, he said he was building the city.

    When he visited the brothel, Didi changed whatever she was viewing on TV. Pargatseth liked old Bollywood movies, of the 1970’s, before he got into business with one of the girls. His drinks and peanuts were served by Didi in the main hall, watching a favoured old movie on tape. Soon he would begin talking loudly, “Maybe I should dress and come here like this next time.” or “Doesn’t he have a moustache or goggles like mine?” Many-a-times Pargatseth’s jackets had the same prints like Amitabh Bachchan’s or Amrish Puri’s.

    “Would Mira do?” Didi asked Pargatseth.

    He borrowed her spittoon and spat into it with ferocity.

    Mira was a dreamer, aloof. She could be beautiful, and ugly at will. She was one woman who was totally made or broken by makeup. You wouldn’t notice it, but under her cot she had a floral, gilt-edged enamel box that had shiny things in it: buttons, rings, glinting jewellery, cufflinks, rings, earrings, a mangalsutra, a box of sindoor with two gold chains – one heavy, one light. Mira came from a Syrian Christian family from a village in Maharashtra and always imagined getting married. On most nights, working her body, her mind dreamt of a proper wedding, that would produce proper children, who celebrated Christmas, New Year, Easter in the proper way with proper sweets made in homemade oil.

    She didn’t want to leave her box under the bed and go to Bangkok, I knew it. But she was the easiest person Didi could convince. If Didi just said, “Do this for God.” Mira would do it. She wouldn’t even ask, which god or whose god?

    Pargatseth’s throbbing cock-eyes were really on Vazulry.

    Didi had groomed Vazulry as much as she had Manju, Mira, Ratna, and Seema. She had told Vazulry enough about womanhood, jointhood, sisterhood, sexhood, fuckhood, bodyhood, and lifehood. How important it was to keep God happy and the gods of our house, our very own Pargatseth, and when he went away Omseth, Pranavseth, and Debuseth. Then there were those who were not a seth – the ones who did not pay enough, or haggled as if we were selling stale fish caught dead on Chowpatty beach that was spat out from the Arabian sea.

    Vazulry said she would not go. At 5.7” she had a lithe frame, a slender waist, thick lips, thick nose, large eyes, and long hair that curled at their ends. A plump bust that grew each year, making her cholis tighter. Ask me – I was the one who managed the tailor’s orders for all the girls – shimmering blouse pieces from Manish market, bought each year. It was a centimetre more for all the girls – including Vazulry, even though her waist size remained the same. Her tandoori drumstick-thighs, her plush seat, her arms, remained the same.

    The men kept working on her bosom – was my guess. They told her secrets when they hugged her, which she soon forgot. There was only one thing she never forgot. Rahulbabu, who had come here penniless, heartbroken, many years ago, at the behest of a friend. He was a poet or became one after a heartbreak. If hymen-breaks made poets, we would have outnumbered people like him.

    That night when Rahul came, only Vazulry was available.

    Didi called wanderers like him raw corn. They visited the by lanes of our labyrinthine hamlet only once or twice. Rahul was a mistaken stray, but he left a deep impression. One was that he agreed to pay upfront. Two: his tongue was coated in poetry – not Ghalib’s ghazals or Ludhianvi’s shers or like Pargatseth’s borrowed film lyrics, but his own. Third – he made on-the-spot ghazals for Vazulry. He made love to her mind, beyond her waist, her eager cunt, her bosom, her slender neck, her gorgeous face. I am sure their love-making was nothing splendid, but he ended up unwrapping a lot in her

    Didi was against emotion. “Not good business,” she said, besides the 420 other things that only the curtains and TV of the house heard – her imagined altar. But Vazulry forgot that. Her nights with Rahul babu were unique. And he never came back.

    Some say they saw him in another brothel.

    But those nights the seeds were sown, especially the night the racecourse coursed through my veins in my sleep. I was not too far from Vazulry’s room with Rahul babu in it, and the ground thundered with the hooves of a thousand horses. Anya Dubash rode Ruling Mirage, unleashing her whip, as it flew over hundreds of other geldings and black ponies, and onto the cheering crowd.

    That day whoever bet, won. Ruling Mirage came second, but no one wanted him to win. They wanted Anya to leave with the bliss of having brushed past victory, just by the skin of it. There was something about being close to a dream – it quivering in its bud – just before a climax, before 8 am, when every morning the day broke the night’s misadventures.

    That night as my dream ended, the thumping in Vazulry’s room stopped too and Rahul babu ambled away, dragging his feet, his shoulders quite stooped. He was old, as if he had aged overnight. Vazulry slept unmoving the whole day. Didi sent her dark hot tea and butter-jam sandwiches. I took them to her. Her room smelt of rainwater on mud, a forest, a jungle, of something old and new and odd, that I had never known before.

    From that day Vazulry had a glaze in her eyes. She walked a few inches above the ground. She conducted her private business of paid fucks, as if it was a public show. She made love to many, but with a dream hooked under her eyelids – that Rahul babu would return, would send for her, and she would go live happily ever after with him. She loved him a thousand times. Each night.

    They say for once if you let yourself go, you are not yourself. I found scraps of paper with poetry on them in blue ink chaotic handwriting under her pillow, under her clothes in the wooden trunk, under her jug of water, pinched under the whirring table-fan. Months flew. But Rahulbabu never came back. The person who returned was Pargatseth with ideas from the 1970’s movies of taking Vazulry to new places. Any other whore would have been thrilled. But no matter what Didi said, nothing worked on Vazulry. No sisterhood, jointhood, womanhood, oldhood, aginghood, poorhood, businesshood, principleshood, lifehood, dickhood, Godhood, societyhood.

    It wasn’t working on the others too. Manju said her children’s exams were to begin – they had to go to school every day, and she had to be there to look after them. That Didi should tell Mira. Mira wouldn’t leave her box under the cot. Seema was too plain-looking, though I heard she was the best fuck in the dark, when the men couldn’t see. Finally, my Ratna agreed. If we had to keep face as a brothel for Pargatseth… Fat girl – I knew it. She was groomed by Didi once again to look neat and sufishtigated, her passport was made tatkaal, before she left on a foreign airplane for her duty towards god.

    “She has no lofty dreams,” Didi said through her paan-laced teeth, her saliva at the edges of her mouth, blood-red in the spittoon. “What is to be done with these other girls now? They don’t understand how hard it is to run a business. None of them have ambition. Just fucking empty dreams.”

    I didn’t look at Didi – her yellow teeth mixed with red spittle was a horrendous sight. Her oily hair partitioned in the centre for the last 30 years. Her face hard as stone. I looked at her feet instead – they were softer than her face. “And where do you think you are going Ismael miyaan?” she asked. “Get back to work. Just shit and eat and don’t do anything else. This is not a dharamshala!”

    “I have to go today. An important race,” I said softly.

    “We are all here to serve God. And God will keep us happy.” She had said the same thing when I first arrived by an overnight train, at 17. “We keep the world running on its feet. Imagine a world without us? Where would all the unloved, jilted, betrayed, wifeless, single, troubled men go? We set Pargat seth, Pranav seth right, Debu seth right, and if we are together as one…,” she clenched her fist, “we will be crucial bricks of society. Our men will build their lives and hence our lives. This is the love of God. The love of our destiny.”

    I guffawed, not knowing this snort was loud enough. But I had had enough. She came to me and tapped me on my shoulder. As I turned she slapped me. I felt numb like it wasn’t happening to me. Her eyes boiled into tears, as she glared at me, “Dare you. Get out of here, Ismael! Go to your horses. Go bury your money in your fucking delusions!”

    “That’s exactly what I’m planning to do,” I shivered as I told her, uncontrollably fearful, nodding vehemently. Ratna rushed to the front room. I heard Didi telling her as I left, “He doesn’t have a family. Eats our food. What does he care? Spends on those fucking goddamn horses. What’s in those beasts, huh? Does he fantasize about them, you think?” Ratna said something that was lost to the winds that brandished fiercely across my ears as I trundled down the stairs. My body shuddered as I dived into the musty gusts of the lanes.

    With the sky overcast, the monsoons promised to come soon. I tapped my pockets. It had wads of tenners for the tote. Today was the race I had waited for, for so long. I intended to bet my sweat and grease. Anya Dubash would take Ruling Mirage to victory, and I wanted a part of it. The betting wouldn’t be hedged over five horses today, taking in from everyone’s fear. I would bet on only one horse. Today I would risk it with my life, with bravery. No shp – second horse pool, no dodging it with Jodi or Super Jackpot. It was going to be Win Win Win. All the way. I will show this bitch – Didi what real life is.

    I drew in a deep breath and hastened, until my shins hurt and ankles ached. Enter the city, a few lanes out of Kamathipura and it is a different world of rushed time, traffic, and screeching. I usually caught BEST bus number 6, but today I felt like walking. The sun had let down its rays in a carpet. It knew the prominence of the day. I dashed past the shoulders of clean sanitized people – petulant and God-fearing – who lived with caution, smelling of hardwork, keeping our city moving. They had no idea about the edge, even if they stood on train footboards, hanging by the door, or had temporary jobs, or extramarital affairs, drug habits, and alcoholism.

    I needed this walk. The hamstrings of my thighs ached, sweat trickled down my back. But the racecourse gates were open. Mems under hats with matching bags, and men in suits got out of gleaming cars. And men like me, who couldn’t be seen, walked in too. Enter the race course and time slows with revelry. Thank God, sight had no restrictions and is tax-free. I watch the women in their dresses, their laughter – like music. Everything is like it is on TV, with me in it too, or like figurine-dolls affixed on a child’s birthday cake, a couple dancing in snow inside a glass ball, a cuckoo singing from an old clock…

    From far away, I hear the laughter of men and women like tickling glass. I can sense our hearts beating in tandem for the race. I had on my crispest yellow shirt Ratna gifted me, and had combed my hair before entering here. I square my shoulders, hold my chin up, and walk like an important person. It was all about feeling good. Think of Anya Dubash. All this would affect Ruling Mirage. Horses can pick up vibes. They knew who loved them from the stands, even when racing away hard and fast.

    Deep down, I felt incredibly small, ashamed and embarrassed for not knowing the rich at all. No one ever introduced us as humans, but we loved the same horses. That’s why I needed to come here. The brothel did not give me feelings. Every whore had lost the feeling of touch, after being touched so much. We had lost all our feelings.

    Once the horses reached their gates, I slunk into the stands.

    As the race began, I felt an orgasmic exhilaration in every part of my body. I turned into a grain in the wind in the slow-motion movie-frame-by-frame horse frenzy. In the stands, people in the upper decks sat and watched, and on the grounds we stood on each other’s toes to whistle, hoot, and cheer.

    The sun was high up in the sky. I felt dehydrated, but close to the fence I could see the race without ducking my head. For a change, there was no one in front of me. And I decided not to go for water. It was going to be a long gallop to victory, but the stands surged in an uproar, then a ravine-like hush.

    People sipped alcohol from long-stemmed glasses, laughing, talking, kissing. Somehow all this seemed dream-like.

    Is just a kiss from one person to another enough to ignite something? I know how a customer once took a blade and slashed Ratna’s ankle. He was drunk and wanted her to be only his. There were brand-marks across Didi’s back. Vazulry has cut her wrists too. Manju had a caesarean section. Mira had fractured her hand in a brawl once on a client-vacation. But she had saved herself from a gang-rape then.

    I tapped my shirt pocket for ganja and sucked on the joint. The horses raced along eye levels with their tails blurred into their heads, becoming one-moving beast. I cheered like a kid in a park. Then I saw Anya – her ponytail flaring up to Ruling Mirage’s tail. No air could tame them. They ruled the winds, high on velocity.

    I bet all on Ruling Mirage, and yelled for victory. Some men stared at me after the horses went by. I recognized three, and went up to one. “Where are you these days, huh? You don’t come to us?”

    “There are online asscot services now. Better girls,” he said. Asscot?” I asked. “Meaning?”

    Soon Ruling Mirage came in third, sinking my mirth, birthing a rage in me that had no place. I back-footed into a vortex, and there was no one backing me. No wall or hand to support the speed at which I was going back and down until I tasted dust and mud. I was going to kill myself, jump off the sea-link.

    The night outside the gates of the racecourse was dull and barren, moving at a slow pace with BEST buses and people going back and forth like ants in search of food. When I reached the sea-link, I stood for long at its railing, watching dark water rippling and the little houses that glimmered at the edge with their reflections.

    Then I turned away. The night was empty and I walked through it. When I reached home, Mira told me she found her box broken under the bed. Someone had done it. She threw up a tantrum, threatening to burn the house down. “I am on a strike,” she told me.

    I did not go to check the misery of her enamel box, but could imagine its thin fragments – shards of brittle glass powder. I sat mute for a whole week in my small corridor, caressing the bundles of my bedding and packs of beedi, my Walkman, my ironed shirts for the racecourse, and my floral work shirts. A mirror, some deodorant, a plastic comb was all that remained of me. A suitcase that I had kept locked with its keys as a locket on my chain. Now I opened it. There was nothing in it. I was poor again. Utterly… for all the optimism. I could burn down the whole earth, and this stupid congested noisy rich-poor city.

    Ratna came back at the end of the month. Plump and spruced from the change of place, her shimmering salwar kameez and bright fuchsia lipstick was irritating. She had heavy perfume on, but her eyes were blinked out like Diwali lanterns on Good Friday.

    “Hey, everything fine?” I asked. She was the only person I spoke to after a whole fortnight. The only person I cared for beyond my own miseries.

    She had marks all over her body.

    “Did Pargat seth treat you well? Something happened?” Though my ‘something’ had no fear in it, my ‘something’ now could be anything, and I wouldn’t flinch. Even if it was death. We were dying inside in this livingness every day, anyway. In a few days, Ratna turned purple – her red marks became blue bruises. “Did everything go alright?” I kept asking. “Get off me Ismael. Mind your own business.” I tugged her arm, “Where is my Ratna, huh? You left her in Bangkok? Did you gain complexes over the other whores there or what?” She was silent, unlike herself, who had an answer for everything if not a retort. I avoided conversation with everyone after that, but the next week Didi countered me, “You lost all your money no, Ismael? Tell me! I know – Yakub met me. That bastard who has forgotten to turn up in our lanes. He’s now got a girlfriend and junk.” I balled my handkerchief and bit on it. I knew I was going to do something, something to this witch. “So now you are an empty pauper. Did you learn your lesson?” “You are the most deluded of all of us!” I said, shaking. “We’re sitting on prime property worth millions and you don’t get it! Get what you can. Sell what you can and go. Leave! How long will you hold on to your delusion? YES, I LOST THE RACE – BUT I STILL HAVE TIME, YOU DYING DAME. BUT YOU WILL LOSE ALL. IF YOU DON’T THINK FAST. I HEARD MEN SPEAK AT THE RACECOURSE. THEY HAVE GIRL FRIENDS. WOMEN ARE NOT GETTING MARRIED. THEY HAVE JOBS. DREAMS. AND THEY WANT SEX. FREE SEX. NOT PAID. THEN THERE IS AKSOT SERVICE – YES – DON’T FORGET. YOU THOUGHT FLESH AND BLOOD WORKS. YOU THOUGHT WHAT COULDN’T BE SEEN OR FELT IS NOT TRUE. DHOKHA – NO! THESE AKSOTS ARE BETTER. MORE BEAUTIFUL. THEY FUCK IN HOTELS IN AIR CONDITION. THEN THERE IS TENDER ON THE PHONE – LOTS OF IT. ON THE BLOODY PHONE! YOUR GAME’S UP. AND PROSTITUTION WILL NEVER BE LEGALIZED OR DECRIMNALIZED UNTIL WE ARE ALIVE IN THIS COUNTRY. TAKE MY

    WORDS.” I clicked my fingers at Didi’s face as she glowered, red-faced huffing at me. The girls had all crept up by their door frames to watch us. It took Didi a few months, but prudence, she did shine on her. She started talking a new talk, of how society would reclaim her, and adopt her for the sacrifices she made to keep it going. For the things she had arranged to keep men happy. She sold the brothel for two crores and divided one crore amongst us. She bought a house in Mahim. The night she got the money in black from a builder, she put our share under our pillows or in the pockets of our bags and clothes. We never heard from her again. She vanished, without a kind word or goodbye.

    I had 16 lakhs with me, all of a sudden, in crisp hard notes. I was richer than I had ever been.

    I blinked at the gunny of bundled notes, festooned with rubber-bands.

    Vazulry disappeared within the first week. After fuming enough that she had been cheated and should have at least 50 lakhs for being the highest-earning prostitute. But who was listening? She used all her sources, redeeming all her favours to trace Rahulbabu. Whether she got a lead or not, we don’t know. She evaporated like a naphthalene ball or a fused, short-circuited rocket.

    Mira and Seema left together. I never thought of them as friends, but circumstances brought people together. I heard they were planning to start a beauty parlour in the front room of their new flat.

    Manju was the last to leave. She stayed until the end of the month, undeterred by the peon who kept rapping on our door to remind us they would bulldoze the building the very next day of the next month. She had to get school admissions for her children and it was proving difficult. I think both her girls had to lose a year or move to a Hindi medium school. In either case, they were the last to pack their bags.

    Ratna wanted to wait for me – our lives together were supposed to start anew. But I told her I was muddled. That it was so sudden.

    I would join her somewhere mid-way, when I had a name for what I was searching for.

    The days in the rooms were quiet now. I did not move. I had taken up Didi’s room as my own. It had nothing in it. As empty as my trunk had been all these years – as empty as her dreams of all these years.

    I came through my old corridor only once a day like a snail and sat on the brothel steps that had adorned the beautiful Vazulry making eye-contact with potential clients, where Manju smoked a beedi in a low-cut blouse exposing her bosom and wide hips, where Mira and Seema hung out making cat calls.

    The walls spoke in a hollowing echo of times gone by. I clung to the latch and cried my worst. That frightened me as it came out of my body. NGO didis came with free condoms, and vaccination injections for Manju’s kids, with a new lesson on safe sex in newer charts and books. They were the most distressed to see our brothel go. “Oh! This can’t be! Where will we find them now?” They shook their heads with concern that felt actually comical.

    “I don’t know where they are, but they’re all gone. They took their deaths from here and left, and I am off too.” I said as I wanted them to get out. In my hand, I had a new rucksack bought on the previous evening for 160 rupees. Pure rexin, and comfortably heavy with its contents.

    When I reached the racecourse, a race was on. I sensed Ruling Mirage would lose. He was lagging behind in the third round. No way he could catch up. I went to the tote and in one moment handed them the rucksack. The manager looked into it, then squinted at the stands, “Whose money?”

    I pointed in the direction of the stands at a man in a three-piece suit smoking a fat cigar. He had a white hat on. They wouldn’t verify, but if I had said it was my money, they would stall the moment for god alone knows what.

    My blood rushed past my ears. The same wind kissed Anya Dubash’s cheeks, grazing past Ruling Mirage’s mane. The sun was aglow. My pulsed raced. I had all the cocaine I needed so I made sure to stay upright and utterly still. I calibrated my steps walking on air, making sure I was walking straight and ahead.

    “What’s the bet?” asked the man.

    “Ruling Mirage. Win. Sab le lo,” I said. “Brilliant black gelding.”

    He counted 16 lakhs and gave me a receipt and a tote coupon. I mingled with the crowd. My horse was faring badly. Today with him I was ready to go down, but with an unforeseen pride. A moment that would be remembered. The sun, he, me and Anya. It was to be a colossal drowning.

    I lost track. I lost count of time. Then the cheers reached heightened proportions. Ruling Mirage had won.

    How in the world had that happened? Everyone was moving here, there, and everywhere. I clutched my coupons tightly, very tightly, balled into my fist. I feared I would tear it with that pressure.

    I had no idea what I would do now.

    I couldn’t even count 16 lakhs and here it was going to be in multiples, if I got it at all.

    Then the earth swam before my eyes and so did the sun and the moon.

    (From the story collection, Bombay Hangovers, Vishwakarma Publications, 2021)

    Rochelle Potkar is a fictionist, poet, critic, curator, editor, translator, and screenwriter. Her most recent books are Bombay Hangover and The Coordinates of Us.

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