A YYAN M ANI’S THICK black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours. His eyes were keen and knowing. A healthy moustache sheltered a perpetual smile. A dark tidy man, but somehow inexpensive.
He surveyed the twilight walkers. There were hundreds on the long concrete stretch by the Arabian Sea. Solitary young women in good shoes walked hastily, as if they were fleeing from the fate of looking like their mothers. Their proud breasts bounced, soft thighs shuddered at every step. Their tired high-caste faces, so fair and glistening with sweat, bore the grimace of exercise. He imagined they were all in the ecstasy of being seduced by him. Among them, he could tell, there were girls who had never exercised before. They had arrived after a sudden engagement to a suitable boy, and they walked with very long strides as though they were measuring the coastline. They had to shed fat quickly before the bridal night when they might yield on the pollen of a floral bed to a stranger. Calm unseeing old men walked with other old men, discussing the state of the nation. They had all the solutions. A reason why their wives walked half a mile away, in their own groups, talking about arthritis or about other women who were not present. Furtive lovers were beginning to arrive. They sat on the parapet and faced the sea, their hands straying or eyes filling depending on what stage the relationship was in. And their new jeans were so low that their meagre Indian buttocks peeped out as commas.
Ayyan looked with eyes that did not know how to show acultured indifference. He often told Oja, ‘If you stare long enough at serious people they will begin to appear comical.’ So he looked. From behind, a girl with a bouncing pony tail and an iPod strung to her ears overtook him. Through her damp T-shirt he could see her firm youthful back. He quickened his pace, and regained his lead over her. And he tried to look at her face in the hope that she was not pretty. Beautiful women depressed him. They were like Mercedes, BlackBerry phones and sea-view homes.
The girl met his eyes for an instant and looked away without feeling flattered. She had a haughty face that would be a pleasure to tame. With love, poetry or a leather belt, perhaps. Whatever she liked. Her face did not show anything, but it did grow more cold. She was aware that she was being watched, not just by a strange brisk man but also by the unending hordes of miserable people all around who spread dengue and scratched her car. They were always there on the fringes of her world, gawking at her the way stray dogs look at good stock.
Ayyan slowed down and let her march ahead. A few feet away, a man stood still and stared at her. His head moved from left to right as she passed him. He was a short man who appeared to stand erect because his back was not long enough. Ayyan knew from the tension in his shirt that it was tucked straight into the underwear for a tighter grip. (The secret fashion of many men he knew.) A thin brown belt ran around his slender waist almost twice. His shirt pocket sagged under the weight of the many things it held. A red comb peeped from the back pocket of his trousers.
‘Stop staring at that girl,’ Ayyan said.
The little man was startled. He then opened his mouth in a sporting but silent laugh. Transient strings of saliva ran from the upper jaw to the lower.
They went to one of the pink concrete benches that were dedicated to the memory of a departed member of the Rotary Club.
‘Busy day,’ the man said, flapping his thighs. ‘I’m travelling. That’s why I troubled you, Mani. I wanted to settle this fast.’
‘It’s all right, my friend,’ Ayyan said, ‘The important thing is that we have managed to meet.’ He took out a piece of printed paper and handed it to him. ‘All the details are in this,’ Ayyan said.
The man studied it more carefully than he probably wanted to. And he tried to appear nonchalant when the envelope full of cash was thrust towards his chest.
After the little man left, with quick hectic steps to emphasize that he was busy, Ayyan continued to sit on the bench and stare. The game has to escalate, he told himself. It has to move to a different level. In a way, what he had just done was cruel. It was probably even a crime. But what must a man do? An ordinary clerk stranded in a big daunting world wants to feel the excitement of
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