He was fifty now. He had come from a town in Bihar, Udhampur-Teenteri, when he was twelve. His name used to be Nakuldev, shortened in Babu’s house to Nakul, Naaku or Nakle. He was a good-looking young man. His curls were cut short to the nape of his neck, his hairline bleached by the sun of his father’s diminishing fields where he had broken his back for eight of his twelve years. He got off the hot, dirty train at Howrah station and there he was, standing on the concrete smelling of hot metal and urine, hustled by a group of coolies to carry their smaller loads, then a tea-boy near the huge throbbing station, and then one day wandering away from that raucous shop full of truck-drivers and petty thieves and pimps, on a wide street with the sun beating down on slippery cobbles looking like the broken backs of a million tortoises, the serpentine trams gliding ominously over the rutted tracks going in every direction. So there he was, at a crossroads he had never seen before. This was the most open space he had seen in this city, Kulkutta of the village. He squinted up to see billboards and marquees three, four stories high, and his eyes ached from the sunlight as well as the glossy, yellow curves of Hema Malini’s hips and that hissy Chaniachori Bindu’s cleavage, the brilliance of Dharmendra’s rage-soaked eyes and Pran’s menacing scowl. He had seen two Hindi movies in the village. Obviously, there was no getting away from these godheads. Silently he tried to mutter a prayer, an obsequy, but his heart rang hollow, his desire eluding him.
A car stopped before one of the larger shops, and a tall man with wispy floating hair and rounded wire eyeglasses stepped out and hurried into the store. Nakuldev squatted on the pavement and watched the car, its mudguard and steel handles and the curves of its doors like the lines of a boat at dawn on a muddy river, and the yellow and black pattern (later he learned these were taxis) and the dancing figure at the end of the bonnet all made him feel empty inside, and quiet, though he was also hungry.
He had left the teashop not knowing where to go next, but he had left because he knew that these were not to be his masters. If serve he must, he would make a softer bed for himself elsewhere. He knew that household servants were not cuffed and thwacked as frequently as his master the teashop owner habitually dealt these out to him. The city was for hope. How much time had gone by in this reverie he did not know, but the tap of a hand on his shoulder startled him so that he nearly rolled off on his side in his learned hurry to get away from a kick or a smack.
Instead, the tall man was telling him something in Bengali and pointing from the shop to the car and back in Bengali, a language he still barely understood. He looked from the man’s fingers jabbing methodically back and forth to the shop, its large plate glass front keeping the insides a cool, blackish mystery. He didn’t want the job; he just wanted to sit there and stare at the car, until it went away, like all things did. But the man kept jabbing, jabbering, breaking into Hindi, now that he understood Nakuldev was not from the city, that he had brought a sun-dried dusty plain with him, right between the great buildings of the city, like an avenging tornado.
Nakuldev remembered that he had to eat, that the tea-stall owner who would have missed him since six in the morning, his usual hour of duty, would probably break his head or throw a boiling kettle at him if he went back now, seven hours later. He thought about money: about the few grey, yellow, mossy rupee notes and the mostly coated paise that he had seen in the last three months. He smelled their smell and he remembered their power as well as the horror of parting from them for tea, chapattis, a little soap. He got up and went into the shop and began bringing out the heavy bundles that the shopkeeper’s boy started handing to him. The driver of the car took them from him silently and stowed them into the back part of the car that opened like the beak of a great bird. Then Nakul held out his hand to the tall man who said something else and the driver coaxed him into the front passenger seat, removing a dirty red rag from the seat to make a place for him.
So riding in a motorcar for the first time in his life, Nakuldev went to a big house with the Babu, where he unloaded the monthly supplies for the household. When the man offered him the predictable couple of soiled notes, he shook his head, pointing into the house and then at his own stomach.
The man looked at the fingers, jabbing methodically from the stomach to the house, and back, and understood slowly that the boy was asking to stay. He thought for a second, and saw something that passed like a shadow behind his eyes, for he broke out into a mild smile.
Thus Nakuldev, Naka, Nakle, Naaku, became another one of the downstairs people and kitchen in that house.
Now, Nakul lit a bidi as he tried to fall asleep. His bed was, as it had always been, on the last landing before the terrace door, and the wrought-iron pattern of the spiral staircase was as familiar to him as the lines on his own face. The night was moonless, so it was very dark. He could not see his toes, but he felt a few susurrating movements of his long-time companions, mice and cockroaches.
Thirty-odd years, he counted. Thirty or so years have passed in this house, and I will live and die in this city.
In those days, the cheapest Hindi cinema hall seats cost ten paise. Nakul found the money in the pockets of the shirts he had to wash – a twenty-five paisa coin here, a rupee note if he was unbelievably blessed. Away he ran after six to the nearest hall, the Star. Usually a Dharmendra and starlet blockbuster was playing somewhere, he did not really know or care what it was as long as it showed lots of leg, improbably hairless and golden legs adorned by those heavy village anklets that he recognized in their overall fantastic designs but had never set eyes on back home where the scorched earth had cracked upon the heavy footfall most years of his lived memory. Nakul watched the narrow hips of Dharmendra packing power within the jeans and other tight pants that the star favored, his improbable good looks competing with the beauty of the heroine who waved cleavage and bare torso at the hungry streaked faces of boys like him who hugged their knees and each other, who interrupted their craning adoration of the gods onscreen to pair off and dance, imitating the godly couple, doing the male and the female moves, bumping hips and buttocks in simulation of the copulation that never happened onscreen. Their yips and screeches disturbed the decent folks in the boxes and seats behind and sometimes they got cuffed and boxed, dragged out and left licking their wounds. But they came back, night after night, skipping a meal, skipping a place in the cue for a pavement sleeping slot under the arching bridges. Nakul counted himself very lucky that he had a house to enter through a broken back window every night, however late he stayed out. But generally he did not venture far or stay out late. He had to be up every morning at five or the maid would rain abuse and sometimes brandish a broom over him.
He was never one to say much. In this house, no one had beaten him, mostly. He had three meals a day, and a cup of tea with two Britannica biscuits every evening. Sometimes in the winter evenings, one and a half cups of sweet milky tea. As he grew older, he began to shave in the alley behind the house where the servants bathed and washed, borrowing a blunt razor from some older man. He felt his manhood coming upon him, and he fondled himself at night as he found it pleasurable. No matter how tired he was, usually he felt pleasure. Faint down had turned into curling bushes of hair on his chin, upper lip, his pubic area. He went to the cinema every weekend and sat in the twenty-five paise seats and threw peanuts at the curvy heroine. Sometimes he masturbated with the other boys there, hooting and thrusting.
He had never returned to the village. When his father died, a smudged postcard arrived to tell him so. He didn’t go back. He tried to remember his mother’s face, brown and dry, with deep lines etching her face like the dried riverbeds of summer. He couldn’t. He had said to himself, if I cannot remember their faces, who are they to me?
He had never sent money home, even after some neighboring Bihari servants whom he met at the tea-stalls and shops around had sent word back home on the grapevine that Nakul had been found in Kulkutta, working in a Babu’s big house. His mother had written him through the postmaster’s hand, the tremulous, twisted letters gawking on a small faded brown postcard, “Send money. Father is ill.” And then “Send money. Sister is to be married.” Nakul could not read but he knew what the letters said. He had thrown the postcards into the clay oven of the kitchen, watching them flare for a second before crumbling into incandescent ash. He could not remember his sister’s face. Or that of his eight other brothers and sisters.
The first year in the big house, during the worship of the goddess Durga, he went around for a day with a small allowance, as did all the other servants in the house, to look at the images of the goddess being worshipped in puja pandals all around the neighborhood. He walked and walked, and bought peanuts when he was hungry. He looked very closely at the buffalo demon who lay sprawling in agony beneath the goddess’ tiny, rosy feet. He wondered about that. She was so lovely, with her yellow skin and large leaf-shaped eyes, her small mouth with the red lipstick on it, such as the women in Babu’s house wore some times, and her thin waist and ample breasts beneath the careful pleats of her voluminous sari. He longed to touch her breasts, run his fingers down where her arm raising the spear was joined to the swell of her breast. He imagined the soft creaminess of that region, imagined putting his mouth on it, eating it like Prasad, nothing like his mother’s dry, brown flaps of flesh. His groin started to sweat, and his legs trembled. The demon looked up at the goddess with lust and rage in his eyes. Nakul knew what he felt, why he was being punished.
That night he ejaculated twice, thrice. He couldn’t stop remembering the buffalo demon, his swarthy, hairy body swollen into a blue turgidity like that of his own penis just before his ecstasy shot out of him, wanting to penetrate the creamy goodness, pierce strong, healthy flesh, make large eyes open wider. He felt that he mustn’t, shouldn’t think these thoughts, but in the end he didn’t care. No one would know. He remembered the demon’s blue-blackness and saw his own skin fitted on that muscled, turgid maleness, and came again.