She walked with a gait that was prose itself. A kind of sashaying of the hips marred by the limp she bore from a childhood fracture, further accentuated by the bobbing of her shoulders. Her head was cocked to one side, and her proud nose and wide mouth were set off by those big brown eyes. She had a certain arrogance to her gaze, which was quite an affront to those unfortunate souls who turned to stare each time she swooshed by. Yet it wasn’t arrogance. No, it was ignorance of her own charms, that so made each average male turn to look, and every other woman cringe inwardly at her presence. But behind that disarming naiveté lurked passion. Born to a poor family, for generations repaying unfairly a debt bestowed upon her clan by her forefathers, she nursed an ambition to be free of her shackles. An ambition that had manifested itself in her after seven generations of bonded labour.
Raped by my uncles on her thirteenth birthday, the year she first draped herself in a saree, she was condemned forever to a future devoid of hope. Her lot would not have her in the house, and no man would purchase her for all the chattels and assortment of livestock her father promised. Instead, she was forced to live among the buffalos on the landlord’s land, tending to the calving and milking, and walking for miles with the goats. Yet strangely, she bore no resentment in her. Shed and forgotten like the pubescent hairs of her stolen womanhood, her memory was short-lived.
The two of us had been playmates for years, our profound innocence no threat to either family. I was a scruffy child, forever scrapping with the other kids in the village, and being the landlord’s only son, born of his third wife, I enjoyed most favoured child status in the region. My misdemeanours were tolerated with a benign smile, and it was only my middle-aged father who instilled any awe within my bones. A large man, with big muscular arms and a proud moustache, he ran the village like his personal fiefdom. But he had a tenderness about him that calmed the most stressed cow during birthing, and made every child want to mount his lap and rest against his big stomach. Rama was his favourite, and this annoyed me no end. She was far from shy, a bully actually, but never did I ever see her lift her gaze from her toes each time he treated her to a lump of jaggery.
As we grew older, my jealousy manifested itself in a possessiveness of her, and on her part she too bore a proprietary air about me. Our games saw us wander miles in any direction, and each day I’d tell her I’d climb the mountain on the horizon, behind which the sun set. She’d listen in dead earnest, never once scoffing at my pipe dreams. Once, in a bid to impress her, I walked until evening, but with the sun beginning to set on my destination, I realised I was too far from home and too alone. I sat and cried among the mounds of mud and ant hills, fearing the jackals and leopards I knew roamed these parts. I curled into a bundle, my shorts no match for the mosquitoes or the impending cold. I waited, shivering in anticipation of the first swipe, the first bite on the back of my neck, of the way I remembered Papa describing how leopards killed their prey. By now, the sky was just a slice of amber in the west, the rest of it merging to inky purple via grey, dotted with silver sparkles.
And then I heard it.
Over the droning symphony of the crickets and the mosquitoes, I heard it, the mechanical whirring of a motor, the only motor I’d ever heard and recognised as my father’s. It was his old jeep, a left hand drive relic which ran on petrol and which Papa boasted could be used as a tractor to plough the fields and get him to Bombay faster than the daily express train. I watched the jeep meander among the mounds, and suddenly something stirred me to action. I ran, screaming “Papa! Papa!” waving my hands about. I watched as the jeep traced a wide arc, a cloud of dust billowing in its wake as it headed towards me.
The jeep halted beside me, and in the fading light I saw for the first time a hint of concern in the coldest eyes I’d ever see in my life. Years later as I lay in my bunk smoking, I’d recall that evening to my men aboard Gayatri, the coal barge I owned. When we got home, it was dark, and the cows had retired for the night. My anxious family smothered me in hugs and kisses, my mother crying as she clasped me to her frail bosom. Never my father’s favourite, he was nonetheless civil to her. But this was not the night she would be in his bed. No, this night belonged to his first wife, an ample woman who loved me like her own. As I was fussed over with warm milk and a bath, my father shuffled into his room, muttering a curt refusal to dinner. I drank my milk, watching Rama as she went about her chores. She didn’t acknowledge my presence, and expected me to do the same. But as she finally turned down the lamp, I realised that I was staring at her, looking for some faint trace of approval for my day’s feat. Instead I was treated to a liquid gaze that anguished me more. I tossed in my bed that night, too exhausted to sleep, listening to the whimpering of my father’s first wife in the stillness of that night. I was nearly thirteen then, and I found I had an erection. As I stroked myself, I thought guiltily of Rama, to the days gone by when I would lift her skirt inquisitively. I thought dreamily of her soft labia and sweet-sour scent as I climaxed in my pyjamas, fantasising of her rough hands on my penis.