The Wandering Burkha

Because some peeps have trouble reading the online issue, here’s the story I wrote for Punctum. It accompanies photographs taken by the Thai photographer Ampannee Satoh, who shot the series to protest against the French government’s law that bans wearing the burqa in public. I’m not sure if the story works if you don’t see the photos, but here we go…

The Wandering Burkha

The bastards were shutting down early. There were usually at least eight paanwallahs on this little stretch and till last week, not one of them would even think of shutting shop before midnight. The first to fold up his stall was generally that Tamil fellow and the last Babua the Bihari, who insisted he was from Uttaranchal, and was popular in this neighbourhood for staying open past midnight. But not today. It was barely 11.30 pm and the wooden shutters of Babua’s shop were closed. Two boys were standing in front of it, incredulous, as though the light had gone out of their world because Babua the paanwallah had gone to sleep. Behind them, a white jeep, marked ‘POLICE’, moved down the street so slowly you’d think it was being pushed rather than driven. Its occupants felt a disappointment that was no less than what the boys were feeling.

Because for the two policemen inside, Babua had been the last hope of the night. It was Wednesday, the middle of the week. People had to go to office tomorrow. The chances of post-midnight drunken driving were low, even in this posh, foreigner-infested neighbourhood. (Not that you could do much with foreigners. They were off-limits and in any case, most didn’t seem to carry much cash on their persons.) In these circumstances, the paanwallahs were the only ones to whom Inspector Hadpude and Constable Lad could turn. Today, however, there was no one to haul up for staying open too late or selling imported cigarettes; every one of the bastards had decided that it was better to not make any money than to cough up a couple of thousand to the friendly neighbourhood policemen.

Not that Inspector Hadpude could complain tonight. He had managed a fairly good haul from the little strip two streets away: Four wine shops, three restaurants and six paanwallahs was brisk business. Plus, he and Lad had caught four tipsy drivers; an unexpected bonus on a weekday. One of the drivers, of course, had given them his watch instead of cash because this champion, with his American-accented Hindi, didn’t carry cash, only cards. Lad was getting the watch. He was young, he liked shiny toys. Hadpude was now too senior, in age as well as experience, to go around hawking watches. He settled back in his seat and rued that Babua had played it safe. Forget the bribe, a nice, sweet, juicy paan would have been a perfect way to end the night.

A plate of chicken lollipops at Paradise before going home had become something of a habit for Hadpude. The Shetty who ran the joint was a pleasant, oily man. Over the years, this Shetty and Hadpude had developed something that wasn’t quite a friendship but was definitely more than an acquaintanceship. Shetty gave Hadpude chicken lollipops, a drink and a corner table where Hadpude had the peace and privacy to count his extracurricular earnings. It was as simple as that. Hadpude’s first boss in the police service had taught him that being organised was the most important skill for a government servant. People could catch you out otherwise. So, no matter how small or big the amount, every time Hadpude made some money, he organised it. First according to denomination and then, on the basis of allocations. There was his wife’s share, his fund for the car, the girls’ studies, general savings and the holiday account. By the time he’d figured out how much money was going where, a few notes bore oily, reddish fingerprints on them and the chicken lollipops were usually over. He would put the money in separate plastic bags, all of which went into his bigger bag, and then go up to Shetty, ask after his family and health, and go home.

Today, however, the plate of chicken lollipops was virtually untouched. Hadpude ordered a second whisky. The money sat unsorted and ignored. All of Hadpude’s attention was on photographs spread out on the table. With his eyes trained on the photographs before him, Hadpude emptied his glass. One of the envelopes had contained not money but photos of some Muslim woman.
There was some money in there, but it was small change. Literally; chillar, coins with one and two marked on them, and from foreign countries. Nine photos and foreign chillar. Hadpude cursed himself for having given Lad the watch. He bit into a chicken lollipop. If only he could figure out which bastard Bihari paanwallah had given them this envelope, he’d teach the little runt a lesson the bastard wouldn’t forget.

Then again, it may not have been one of the paanwallahs. What paanwallah kept foreign chillar? Maybe it was one of the restaurants or one of the drivers. Hadpude tried to remember who had given them this envelope. There was nothing distinctive about it. It was white, it was creased. All the restaurants and bars on their beat gave Hadpude and Lad their money in envelopes like this one because Hadpude let them know he was not some uncouth illiterate who just stuffs cash in his pockets.

Unfortunately, the classy way in which Hadpude took bribes was of little consequence at the moment because it meant there was no way Hadpude could tell who had given him photos of a girl in a damned burkha instead of a bribe. Lad would take that watch to one of those traders who had Saudi connections and sell it for Rs 10, 000. Maybe more. While he had a faceless bitch in multicoloured burkhas. Who the hell wore a red burkha anyway?

Suddenly, Hadpude couldn’t bear to count his money. He stuffed it all into one envelope and put it in his bag.
“Saheb?”
Hadpude looked up to see Shetty standing by, a glass of whisky in his hand. Great. Small talk. That was just what Hadpude needed right now.
“Shetty,” he replied with a quick nod.
“All well with you, saheb?”
“Yes, yes. And you?”
“God is great, saheb.”
Hadpude grunted.
“Everything ok, saheb?” Shetty asked again. “I mean, you don’t generally take more than one drink.”
“I’m fine, Shetty.” Hadpude looked at the photos on the table and idly moved them around. Shetty looked at them with careful curiosity.
“Are you working on a case, saheb?” he asked tentatively.
And that was when every muscle in Hadpude’s body became as still as hardened cement. He felt as though he had swallowed grenades – with their pins taken out – instead of a chicken lollipop. He looked at Shetty’s face and then down at the photographs. He babbled in his gruffest, most inspectorial voice; something about needing some peace and quiet and another whisky and the man immediately nodded and left.

Hadpude took up the photos again. Slowly, he arranged them into three columns. Even in Paradise, where there were more shadows than there was light, the photographs gleamed like jewels. A woman in a burkha. In five of the photos, she stood in front of monuments. One of them was the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It was strange to see not Shammi Kapoor or another Bollywood star, but a woman in a red burkha in front of that tourist attraction. Hadpude couldn’t place the others but he was sure they were foreign. These photographs couldn’t be in India.

A woman in a burkha. World monuments.

Sweat broke out all over his face, even on the sliver of skin between his nostrils and the start of his moustache. He swallowed, even though the saliva in his mouth had dried up. He didn’t want to put it in words but once you’ve thought a thought, it’s there in your head and you can’t unthink it. In the process of taking bribes on a random Wednesday night, had Inspector Hadpude chanced upon a global terror plot?

His finger trembled as he touched one of the pictures, as though it hoped the images would melt away, like a hallucination. But they didn’t. Hadpude gathered his belongings. It was time to go home.

By Ampannee Satoh (this one’s part of a series, selections from which you can see in Punctum)

On his way home, he wondered if he should share his fears with one of his colleagues? But who could he talk to? After all, the envelopes were evidence of money he wasn’t supposed to have. Who could Hadpude trust to not take advantage of knowing he took bribes? What if they thought he was an accomplice?

A Muslim woman, face covered, standing alone in front of world monuments. Who had taken the photographs? How was it possible that there was no one else in them? Where were these places? What if the monuments were targets? Was it a map? There could be a code just in the choice of colours. No one wore a yellow or a purple burkha. Hadpude had been stationed to Muslim localities. He had a Muslim friend or two. He’d never seen the like of these technicolor burkhas. Once again, Hadpude wished he had taken the watch and left this bit of the collection for Lad.

That night, Hadpude dreamt he was receiving a medal for having foiled a worldwide terrorist plot. He saw himself giving interviews. He saw some of the world’s most powerful leaders telling news channels, Inspector Hadpude was a hero and the entire world was grateful that it was he who had chanced upon the photographs that had, thanks to the brilliant inspector’s deduction skills, saved millions of people from certain death.

He also had nightmares in which he was gagged, his hands and legs were tied and he was in a dark place. He could see through a rectangular opening at eye level. Outside was a camera on a tripod. It flashed and Hadpude felt blinded. Someone waved a photograph in front of him. It showed a burkha-clad person and Hadpude knew that it was a picture of him. Under that burkha — it was red in colour — he was trussed up and unable to move. Then everything tilted. There was a horrible sound, like the earth was bellowing in pain. He felt himself falling. He felt his vocal chords tauten and tense as they tried to push out a cry, a wail, anything. But the gag soaked every scrap of his scream and he knew it was a matter of seconds before his body would break into pieces, like a glass thrown on the floor.

In short, Hadpude had a terrible night.

His attempts to free himself from the restraints that rendered him immobile in his nightmare resulted in his kicking his wife – twice. According to Hadpude’s mobile, it was 4.32am when he gave up trying to go to sleep. He got up and, as quietly as he could, found his bag and the photographs in it. Taking them out, he tiptoed his way to the kitchen where he shut the door and then turned on the light. Hadpude stared at the photos again. He needed to figure out a little more about them before speaking to his superiors, but he needed to do this subtly. It wouldn’t be done to be known as the policeman who goes around carrying photographs of a dubious Muslim on his person. Plus, it was a woman. Who knows what started rumours?

Was it even just one woman? He peered at the photos. Four of them were taken against a backdrop of a sea that was too blue to be Indian. In one, she had her back to the camera. She was wearing a black burkha and looking out at the horizon. Hadpude found himself remembering the story of Kanyakumari who waited for her lover by the seaside and was heartbroken when she realised he wasn’t coming to marry her. A truck honked as it rattled past on the road outside. Hadpude blinked and focused on the photograph in his hand. It really wasn’t done to see a goddess in a potential terrorist. He bit his tongue, muttered an apologetic prayer and sternly told himself to not get distracted.

Hadpude separated the sea photos from the monument photos. He needed to find clues. His elder daughter could help him figure out where the monument photos had been taken. She was a quiz champion and always scored top marks in geography. She would know. He also made a mental note to pick up a few English newspapers tomorrow — no, today — to see if there was anything in them that would help him work out if the places in the photos were targets. Which left him with the sea photos.

Hadpude made his way back to the bedroom and found the magnifying glass his wife kept on the little dressing table. Back in the kitchen, he floated it over the photographs. They seemed to leap towards him, suddenly lifelike. He could see every blue curve on the waves of the sea. The satiny material of the burkha shone where it caught the sunlight. It stretched, dipped, billowed and moulded against her body because of the wind. The magnifying glass inched down her form, past the arc of her covered head, along the fluid lines of wind-puffed material. Hadpude didn’t blink. He just looked. His eyes travelled from head to toe, from photo to photo. They rested at certain points, lingered over pools of shining colour, slipped past flat sections.

Through the magnifying glass, the figure in the photograph wasn’t tiny. It came up close, almost life-size, almost near enough to feel the slither of the satin of her burkha.

He realised it wasn’t the same woman, at least not in the sea photos. Blue had a slight belly and small breasts. Red had long, slim legs and the wind was pulling at the lower part of her burkha in a way that suggested you could cup her between her legs. She was standing as though she wanted you to do it, to just fit your hand in that darkened, shadowed bit.

Hadpude switched off the light. He wasn’t going to tell anyone about these photos. Maybe it was nothing and even if it was part of a terrorist plot, the targets were obviously abroad and it wasn’t as though uncovering one would really stop those lunatics from concocting some other plan.

Light was breaking outside and it leaked in lazily through the kitchen window. Hadpude put all the nine photographs in one envelope and returned to his bedroom. With the envelope under his pillow, his cheek felt like it was being warmed by the photographs, a comforting caress that was as smooth as satin and filled the darkness behind his closed eyelids with jewel colours.

And just like that, Hadpude fell asleep.

*

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The Wandering Burkha in Punctum

A new issue of Punctum, a pan-Asian photography magazine that nevertheless makes space for words, is out and a story I wrote is in it. Yup, the one up there in the photo.

The way it works is that Punctum sends writers a number of photo essays but doesn’t tell the writers anything about them (no name of photographer, location; nothing). The writer picks one photo essay and writes whatever the photo essay inspires. It could be poetry, non-fiction, or fiction.

Wisely, I steered clear of poetry.

My short short story is titled “The Wandering Burkha” and was written way before ACP Dhoble made us hyper aware of the muscle-flexing tendencies of the police and its impact upon Mumbai’s nightlife. Also, thanks to my friend Rohit Kulkarni, without whom I wouldn’t have the beautiful ceramic bowls I do (he moonlights as a potter) or a name for the protagonist of my story, Inspector Hadpude.

Sadly, I haven’t been able to spot a copy of Punctum on the magazine stands, but you can also see it online or buy it. There’s good stuff in there. Buy it.