The men who had led me there, had whipped off the cloth bag covering my face and pushed me through the doorway, closing it with a firm clank behind me. For a moment, I thought I was blinded – everything was white. Squinting, my pupils contracted and the lines of the room took shape: white walls, blazing tube lights, white floor, white sofa with a dark woman sitting on it.
There was something disturbingly familiar about her face. Unfamiliar, but more disturbing, was the gun she was pointing at me.
“What the…? Put that down. Jesus!”
She continued looking at me with those dark, dark eyes, but lowered the gun a fraction. It was now pointing at my feet, and I executed a hopskip sideways flinching out of the line of fire.
The room was so still, I wondered if it was soundproofed. That would account for the lack of a silencer, I thought bleakly. My voice came out small, muffled by the press of whiteness: “Who are you? What is going on?”
She smiled a half smile. “Don’t you recognize me, Aman?”
“Do I know you?” I said, flipping fast through the card index of memory, placing her against different backgrounds like a trick photographer: Delhi, Karachi, Singapore, Edinburgh… airport terminals, bars, nightclubs, offices, streets, home…? Nothing. She tilted her face slightly – a strong, slightly horsey nose – and looked back at me from under long, dark eyelashes. Teasing.
My heart was still hammering. The long, dark car ride, the shoving and pushing, the fear, then the boredom, ending with the adrenal rush of the gun – it all came at me at once. I was hurt, confused, tired, half-blinded, half-deaf… in no moods for games.
“Look, I don’t know who you are, or why I’m here. Why don’t you just tell me what the fuck is going on and…” I took half a step towards her. Instantly the gun came up and I stopped, holding my hands flat out towards her and twisting away, as though the bullet, when it came, would ping off the palms.
Her upper lip lifted in that strange half-smile again. Her eyes were dark, hard, unaffected. There was a pause and then, bizarrely, she began to sing, softly – almost to herself….
“Bum bholey, bum bholey..” She laughed, a slow, throaty, smoker’s laugh.
The blood pounding in my ears and the muffled, white stillness of the room made sound indistinct. Her hair fell straight as a ruler. Her wrists were thick. Her legs, crossed at the knee, so smooth the light shone off the shins in a strip, as though they had been dipped in some flesh-coloured plastic. “Bum bhole, bhole bam,” she was still singing.
“Stop it.” It came out harsh. “What the fuck are you playing at? Who are you?”
“..har har Mahadev…”
And then it dawned on me.
“Ah!” she breathed out, smiling, “finally.”
“What… what have they done to you?”
She tossed her hair to one side. It fell in a single sheet over her bare shoulder, like gunmetal. “They?” she said, scornfully. “Who is they? This is all my own – hard – work. Me.”
I stared. The gun lay forgotten.
Back in 1999, Mayank was a spindly youth with a big nose and a nervous giggle. We became friends at college – a Spanish elective course which we attended more for the air-conditioning than the linguistic pleasure.
It had been his idea to do the pilgrimage. “Haridwar to Delhi,” he said, elbowing me, “C’mon. Ma is thrilled – she’s already told everyone, my son the kanwaria.”
“Are you crazy? That’s like… that’s like…” I wanted to say, that’s like so lower class, but something of the craziness in Mayank’s dark eyes transmitted itself to me, and I thought, yeah, why not? Exams over, monsoon madness, me and my friend – running for Shiva. “We’ll be heroes,” he had said, finally. And we shook on it.
The bamboo poles chafing the skin on our shoulders through to the bone, drenched with sweat so it looked like we’d emerged straight from the river, we pounded along the hard tarmac every jolt of that cursed 200 kilometers pounding straight into our heads. We were dak kanwarias – the pots of sacred water being passed from one to the other as we ran, passed, stopped, sweated, sang and cursed our way along the roads. Dropping like dead things in the heat of the afternoon at makeshift shelters along the way where the loudspeakers squawked devotional songs into our sleeping brains, then up again as the sun ebbed lower and running through the night.
He was right, though. We made it. And we were heroes – that mad, magical monsoon – before I went off to law school, then the internship in New York, the posting to Singapore, the town house in Edinburgh, the partnership… and he? Well, we kept up for a while on email but then his stopped, and my life took off and there never seemed enough time or reason to rekindle the connection. At least, for me. Trapped in this white room with this plastic creature wielding a gun, I began to suspect that Mayank’s interpretation of our slim history was a little different.
“You should have called,” he said.
“What?” It sounded like a bad line of film dialogue. The wronged woman. “I should have… what the hell is this all about, Mayank, huh? What do you want with me?”
“Shiva is great,” she said ruefully. “He granted me my wish. But even god needs money – this,” she indicated her body with a dancer’s gesture, “does not come cheap, my friend. Not cheap at all.”
“So that’s what this is all about, then?” I glared at her. “Money? It all comes down to money, right? How much do you want?” I fumbled in my pockets for whatever loose change I could find.
The gun immediately came up. I stopped. And slowly withdrew my hands – empty.
“What do you think? What choice did I have? I should have become a hijra?” She spat the last word out, and clapped her hands together in parody. The gun went off.
We stood stock still in a shower of plaster.
“Oops,” she said, and giggled – that giggle.
“Is this a kidnap?” I started to laugh. The whole thing was so absurd. “You want ransome, is it, Mayank? Is that what it’s all about?”
“Mayank is dead,” she said. “My name is Malinche.”
Our Spanish teacher had told us a story. Cortes and his conquistadors and the woman he took, took her from all the slaves: proud, beautiful. His dark lady. How she translated for the Spanish, negotiated for their lives, stood in his long, long shadow and pulled the strings. Their child – the mixing of their blood, the wellspring of all Mexicans. The mother of a new race
“La Malinche,” I repeated, remembering. “The Fucked One.”
And we both laughed.
Vislumbres, Spanish Embassy in India, Volume 2, 2009