The headlines screamed out from the front page of the newspaper : " NOTORIOUS SMUGGLER AND KEY AIDE TO ABU RAJAN GANG KILLED LAST NIGHT IN SPECIAL ENCOUNTER" and under the caption, a black & white close up of the dreaded (now dead) man.
She stared for an eternity.......the caption playing & replaying in her head, begging for meaning. The letters coiled and recoiled in a blur of questions, her focus on the slightly distorted image....the face that was crystal clear in her mind where it had been captured and held for seven long years.
It was raining that night, business was low. The barowner was trying to engage all his efforts to ensure that the handful of patrons stayed on long enough to cover the night & its losses. Two semi-clad girls in their late teens were swaying to a sleazy number, glancing coyly at the drunk red eyes of the few men lustily swallowing every move of their body. That is when she was sent by the manager, to the foor, to sizzle the night and ensure that the glasses kept on filling.
She struck the perfect posture, flashed the enticing smile, made the most suggestive moves all accumulated results of hours of punishing practice in front of one cracked mirror. She was engaged for the kill, feet tapping, arms lifting, torso bending, in just the right angles. It was then that she felt his eyes looking at her from a corner away from most of the other men, a solitary figure among the shadows. She had the distinct sensation of his eyes engaging hers, he was not staring, just embracing her with his look. She wondered if it was a dream, for what else could it be? And barely conscious of what she was doing, she dropped her practiced perfection and became herself, her most seductive self. She danced like a wild peacock oblivious to the hungry night. Tonight she was Cinderella and he was her Prince. It was a dance of courtship, to attract her mate, a dance without inhibitions.....or vulgarity.
It was still raining when he took her out for a walk to Marine Drive. The barowner was beside himself with joy at the sudden turn of fortune, for all his worries have been swept away with one great stroke of good fortune. He even managed to sing an urdu couplet to the few remaining men, all too stoned to hear anything, with the effect of declaring that when the Almighty chooses to give, he bestows his worshippers with both hands.
They walked in the rain, with easy, relaxed steps. They talked. She spoke animatedly of movies she had seen and actors she admired. At one point he sang a couple of lines from her favourite movie song and tried a little jig. They laughed. Her feet ached, so he hailed a tanga (horse-cart) that usually ply for tourists whole night all along the Queen's Necklace. He bought her spicy pani-puris (crispy wafer balls filled with pungent tamarind & mint water) and iced lollies from a midnight vendor. She was the queen tonight.
They drank hot cutting chai (Mumbai special tea) from a stall by the pavement just as the night of dreams was pushed away by the inevitable, interfering rays of dawn. It had stopped raining. He had paid a fortune for one night with her and his time had run out. They parted.
For a long, long time afterwards she wondered what had made her accept the generous tip from the manager to spend a night with a stranger. She was an elite bar dancer, not a prostitute. She willed herself to bellieve that she had to worry about her rent, her son's school fees, but she knew that was not the reason. It was just that for the first time in her endlessly meaningless life someone had looked into her, a look whose intensity had transformed her from being an object to be enjoyed to being a very special woman to be cherished.
He had never touched her that night, neither did he buy her a gift to be kept and treasured. All she had with her was the experience to be savoured timelessly.
And as she sat staring into those eyes, the black and white image looked back into her. Somewhere in the background it must have started to rain for she could faintly hear or maybe feel the cool drops....she was not sure and she vaguely realised for the first time that she had never asked him his name.