Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Ruby, Queen of the Midnight Hour

I.

“Everything sells in Mumbai,” Rubaiya reminded herself.

Everything sells, even people. Tonight, at the stroke of midnight, Rubaiya was going to sell herself. She was busy applying gaudy red lipstick onto her already heavy makeup. She was wearing a fluorescent pink tube top and a pair of skinny jeans, and she felt quite naked in them. It was her first day (or rather night) at her new job at Deepa Bar in Chembur. It was a smoky place with room for about forty people. The tables were arranged around a stage which, now empty, would soon fill with the sweaty gyrations of glittering women. The cheap glass chandelier cast a ghastly and unnatural light over the assembled patrons, who were leering at the stage in their private alcoholic stupors, waiting for the nautch to begin. Rubaiya was grateful that she wasn't dancing on her first day. She hitched up her tiny tube-top as far over her cleavage as she could and began serving drinks to the men. “Zor se pakro. Hold it firmly!” reminded Ashok the bartender as she felt a beer bottle almost slip through her fingers. Perhaps it was the moisture of the bottle, or perhaps it was her shaking palms!

Rubaiya somehow managed to place the bottle and glass on her customer’s table. As she was walking away relieved, however, her client barked out. “Arre, khol! Hey, open!” She turned around slowly to find the man, his polyester shirt stained with food and straining to camouflage a middle-class paunch, steadily gazing at her. His beady, sunken eyes were boring into her skull. “Khol de, Open it up.” he said more gently, looking at her supple body straining again her clothes with a satisfied look on his flabby face. Rubaiya started shivering: so is this how it happened? Right here, in sight of everyone? She stared around helplessly wringing her hands, but nobody was looking her way. She felt ready to scream, when he held up the beer bottle to her face and said irritably, “Damn it girl, kuchh samajh mein nahi ata kya? Go and get a bottle opener!”

II.

Rubaiya had come to Mumbai five years ago when she was fifteen. Her husband had brought her from her village in Madhya Pradesh the day after their wedding. They had lived in a one-room tin-walled shanty in the slum adjoining Mankhurd station. Abdul, her husband, had been a zari worker in Ghatkopar. At first he was very loving and gentle with her. He would grin broadly when he came back home in the evening and caught a glimpse of his beautiful wife. But what Rubaiya did not know was that Abdul was a terrible drunkard. He and his family had carefully hidden this unsavoury aspect of his character when they had come to her father’s house to arrange the match. She was too naïve to know that the road to her destiny would be paved with tears.

The beatings started from the third week. Abdul would take his daily wage straight to the liquor shop, get drunk, come back home and take out his guilt on Rubaiya. At first she used to scream for help. When no help came, Rubaiya learned to bite her lower lip and suffer in silence. Abdul would slap and beat her until her tears flowed freely, and then he would get on top of her. Sometimes he would fall asleep after he had satisfied himself of his conjugal rights. Afterwards, Rubaiya would get up and go back to her housework as if nothing had happened. She would keep up this pretense for the sake of the neighbours. The room had thin walls, and she could not tolerate them thinking poorly of her husband. Pity did not mix well with her pride.

“Come back right now, I’ll get you a better husband,” her father insisted, his baritone voice making the telephone handle vibrate. Standing in the STD/ISD booth, straining to hear in the torrential Mumbai monsoons, Rubaiya knew that things were not so simple. There was no rewind button for life. Besides, she was too proud to return to the village like a dog with its tail between its legs, after having left for Mumbai with such pomp and ceremony. “I’ll be back to attend my own funeral, not before that,” she told her father with finality.

In time, God blessed Rubaiya with a son. Little Ismail was the joy of her life. She would look longingly into his guiltless young eyes while she was nursing him and whisper softly into his ear, “Mera beta, I promise to build a better life for you, full of laughter and love.” She swore she would send him to the best school she could afford—a proper English-medium mission school where her employers sent their pretty children. Rubaiya had started working as a housemaid to make ends meet; she had long ago stopped depending on Abdul’s income to buy bread in the market. In a small plastic jar hidden among the many pots and pans adorning the corner with the stove, she had secretly hoarded nearly three thousand rupees. She was already saving up for Ismail’s English education.

III.

Rubaiya patted her rouged cheeks one last time. The chandeliers were all ablaze. She could hear the music swell on the loudspeakers. The audience was whistling in anticipation. Her sequined skirt made soft tinkling noises. On cue, she burst onto the stage, her hips swaying rhythmically to the music, smiling coyly and sometimes winking to the crowd, making seductive mudras with her polished fingers. She felt the beats take over, and soon she was dancing—vigorously, sexily, superbly—like a siren on the stage of Deepa Bar. Her patrons went wild, thumping the tables. The song spoke about love that is lost and regained through penance. Nobody listened to the lyrics though; they were all too busy gawking at her exposed midriff and what lay below. She was no longer Rubaiya, but Ruby: the Jewel, the Mystery, the new star of the night. “Marry me, Ruby!” screamed an over-eager young fan. Ruby just kept dancing. In her tiny realm of the dance bar, she was Queen, she was Goddess of the Midnight Hour.

“Marry me, Ruby,” said Ashok the bartender very seriously. Rubaiya’s shift was over; she was lounging at the bar for a bit with the other girls before she went home. Last year, she had found a 1BHK in Govandi for four thousand rupees a month. It was just half an hour by bus to her ‘work’. Rubaiya liked the privacy the thick cement walls afforded her, which was some small measure of solitude from the world. But catching a auto-rickshaw at 6 am was always a pain. “And why would she marry you?” came the giggling reply from Saira, “when she knows you are for me only?” Saira was drunk, slurring her words. “C’mon baby, let’s go,” muttered Saira’s escort, a middle-aged school teacher with a salt-and-pepper moustache. Unlike Saira, Rubaiya didn’t mix work and pleasure. She never brought customers home. She made less money, but at least she was sure she wouldn’t die of AIDS. In fact, nobody but the owner of the bar knew where she lived. “If she’s not careful, she’ll end up on Grant Road, and then they’ll sell her off in Dubai.” Rubaiya told Ashok when the others had gone. “One less rival for you then,” Ashok said with a wry smile, “now, let me take you home.”

“Go back to your wife, Ashok. I can take care of myself,” she said as she got up to leave.

IV.

Liver failure is a painful way to die. The moment of death is of course the same for everyone, but the moments preceding death are particularly excruciating. Abdul’s face was set in a tortured grimace as he writhed on the hospital bed. His life-long alcoholism had caught up to him at last. He was thirty years old, but looked sixty. His waxy face looked pale and emaciated.

Rubaiya wept openly at his bedside. She could not afford a transplant. Her three thousand rupees were long gone. They had hardly covered the cost of all the medicines. Her life’s savings, meant to give her son an easy life, could not even purchase her husband an easy death. She had already borrowed money from everyone she knew to pay for his treatment. The doctor had informed her that Abdul would die within the next couple of days. Rubaiya sobbed uncontrollably because she did not know what else to do. On the floor, near her feet, Ismail celebrated his first birthday gleefully playing with a bedpan.

In the end, Rubaiya missed Abdul’s last moments. She had fallen asleep on the wooden bench kept outside the hospital ward, her cheeks streaked, and her hair loose and unwashed. She was dreaming of the trip to Mecca Abdul had promised her the day they had first met, in her father’s village. She dreamt that Abdul was saying sorry for not keeping his promise, again and again.

After the final rites, Rubaiya fell into a depression. Even if she swept and laundered from dawn to dusk, how would she ever pay back the money she borrowed? How would she provide for Ismail? In her melancholy, she wondered if she should really return home to her father’s house. But how could she? Would anyone want to marry her? How long could she be a burden on her parents? No, she could not burden her parents unnecessarily. And turning to anyone else was out of the question. Zindagi bahut bari hai. Life is a very long time. Rubaiya felt she would soon overstay her welcome. Nobody wants a young widow and her child hanging over them like an unfortunate omen.

“Would you like to dance for a living?” asked Sujata with a wink, after hearing how much debt Rubaiya had taken on for her late husband’s hospitalization. Sujata worked as a maid in the same building as Rubaiya. Her daughter worked in “the line”, as she called it.

Rubaiya considered the question seriously. “Well, I don’t know... does it pay?” she asked tentatively.

“A lot more than sweeping floors, I can guarantee! My daughter will tell you all about it!”

“Thanks, but…will they want me?”

“Haven’t you heard, my dear? Mumbai mein sab bikhta hain. Everything sells in Mumbai.”

V.

It was almost eleven pm. In an hour's time, Ruby would be sashaying onto the stage.

Ismail was deep asleep. He still had an infantile habit of sucking on his thumb. Rubaiya stroked his head lovingly. He was in Class I now. The fees were steep, but one had to make sacrifices for a convent-school education. Rubaiya liked it when he read out his English lessons aloud. Just last December his teacher had told her what a clever little boy Ismail was: Rubaiya had never had a prouder moment! A woman in her “line of work” was lucky to even keep her baby.

Rubaiya knew that a few years down the road she would have to tell Ismail the truth. He would meet Ruby one day. He would discover that she was his mother by day and his father by night. He too would know that the road to her destiny was paved with tears. Would he still recognize her after that? Would he still care to call her ‘mother’? Rubaiya could not say for sure; after all, boys grow into men, and men may grow cruel. But for now, she wished her child good night, locked the door gently, and prepared to sell herself at the stroke of midnight once again.


***The End***
Re-opening my account! Also, my very best to this semester's WIP folks. Happy imaginings!!
PS. This is a fictionalized account based on a conversation I had with a former bar dancer.

2 comments:

RBC said...

Welcome back, Sharad. Very good work. Restrained but gritty and well realised. This could be the basis for a longer work, easily. A few typos and words missing. Also shouldn't it be 'Zindagi bahut lambi hai'?

Sharad said...

Yeah, I was a bit careless. I suppose technically it should be 'Zindagi bahut lambi hai', but I was quoting from the person on whom the story is based, and she said 'bari hai'.