Jan/Feb 2004  •   Fiction

India, September 11th, 2001

by Kavita Dorai

Writer's Note: I travel frequently across India by train. Most passengers trade life stories, true stories, adventures, and myths as readily as they share their food and drink. The following was narrated by an oldish-young man whilst courteously proffering his paper screw of roasted peanuts. He had a sad, faraway voice and was interested in my forthcoming trip to New York in the autumn of 2003. He got off the train rather abruptly at Nagarawadi, a dusty station in rural Maharashtra, before I could ask him what became of Usmaan Ali, Shantabai, or the foreign tourists.

Being a pimp in Bombay (or Mumbai, as the New York of the East is called now) is a lucrative business, if you are reasonably pleasant to all, reasonably unpleasant to a few, and have no overt interest in climbing the Mafia ladder. Usmaan Ali was one such minor player, an urbane, paan-chewing pimp on the payroll of Shantabai. The Shantabai in question being a top-of-the-food-chain gharwaali in Kamathipura, Mumbai's oldest and Asia's largest red-light area. A hulking-buffalo of a woman, her ominous rages were muttered uneasily about, and in the pockets of her silences lurked a ShivSena acolyte, a Deputy Inspector General of the Mumbai police, and most chilling of all, the Capo di tutti capi of Mumbai.

Like everyone else in Kamathipura, Usmaan too had a dream. He did not dream of escaping to stark poverty in a Bihari village like Champakali did, or of finding a rich patron to set him up in a Malabar Hills apartment like Rukhsana did. He did not dream like Shankar did, of appearing on the "Kaun banega Krorepati" show and shaking hands with the movie star Amitabh Bachhan.

At nine, Champakali's brat Shankar was a poet of some promise. Perhaps it was the result of the opium Champakali drugged him with as an infant, before shoving him under the rented 8-hour cot on which she serviced her customers. He was being taught the metrics and the intricacies of Urdu poetry by Maulvi Sahib, one of his mother's regulars. Maulvi Sahib claimed he had been present during the filming of the advertisement for Brittania biscuits, the one that goes "Gabbar Singh ki asli pasand—Brittania glucose biscuits," and had taught the film star model to give the word "pasand" a graceful flourish. He dreamed of doing likewise for Madonna someday. Usmaan's dreams were not so lurid, though his canvas was grander. He dreamed of becoming an assistant to a god-fearing butcher in a delicatessen in New York city. A distant cousin, Khalid Bhai the butcher, had almost promised him the position on one of his trips to Mumbai, provided of course Usmaan could save the money for his fare and then some. "New York," Khalid Bhai had explained, "was a "Badaa Seb," a Big Apple, full of people eating and drinking, mostly eating. He made a good killing during Id-ul-Fitr and Id-ul-Zuha, when families were desperate for sacrificial goats. He could afford to employ a helper-boy, especially now that he was growing older and it took him longer to say his prayers.

These days at night, when furious fights broke out between the mangy street dogs and the whore-children squabbling over fish-scraps from the rubbish dumps, Usmaan would wake up disoriented at finding himself in the sweaty squalor of Kamathipura, instead of in the freezing courtyard of a New York mosque listening to the muezzin's call float high above him. Usmaan ran side-errands for Shantabai's mafia contacts, and as a reward was given part shares in Phoolmati, one of Shantabai's whores. She was a throwaway, a half-price bargain, unlike the fair-skinned, light-eyed Nepali whores who were smuggled in from across the Himalayan border. Dark-eyed, dark-skinned Phoolmati was from nearby Nagarawadi, a small town steeped in the sense of its own nothingness. Brought up on a steady diet of Bollywood films, she ran away to Mumbai with her lover, who predictably abandoned her in Kamathipura after he had gambled away her jewelery. It was tacitly understood Phoolmati had no dreams, and Usmaan was careful not to corrupt her with his own.

Usmaan ran a side-business as well, its profits like everything else in his life depending on Kamathipura. He arranged guided tours of the whore-cages for groups of foreign tourists. They paid quite handsomely, for without his protection, their cameras would be smashed, and they would be stoned by the denizens of Kamathipura. The tourists stood out in the crowd: burnt-red and ungainly in shorts and sweaty Tshirts and the all-important camera, gawking at everything. "Say Jaawhn, did ya get a load of that!" "Lil ol me's for a tall cool beer right now." "OK folks, let's get this show on the road..."

Sometimes, to while away the tedium, he would ask one of the tourists for his address.

"I'm coming next year to Amreeka for my cousin's marriage to attend, Sahib. I am visiting you in your home? Or your church if suiting you? I am bringing fresh-fresh photos for you of dirty-Indian-womans, yes?" he'd say and watch their eyes bulge out as the veins in their foreheads turned purple.

The New-York-Girl was different. Emboldened by the fact that she was a native of his magic-city, he had asked for her address. She studied him awhile before answering in a curious twang, "Sorry Ozman, no can do. I never mix business and pleasure." At first Usmaan was apoplectic with rage that she thought he wanted to pleasure her. What dirty minds these women have, Allah Tobah! Then with a rush of hot pride, he understood she was acknowledging him as a business contact. Indeed, he reflected, they were in the same line of business, the Human Trade one could call it. Though personally he drew the line at traffic-light beggar children.

The New-York-Girl took lots of photos of them though, all big eyes and rags. She took lots of photos of the women in Kamathipura too. Not just the ones he herded and arranged in a group for her in their fluorescent greens and oranges, posing behind the bars of their cages. No, she stuck around with her cameras hanging around her neck, talking to the women before and after their customers, smoking their beedis and eating their greasy biryani. His mind winced away from the memory, but he had tried questioning her once. "Why you are always wanting to photo these gutter-people? All foreigners coming to India, why for? For looking at hungry, dirty, naked loag. I know in Amreeka you are not having such peoples, so always you photo-photo here. But you are not having Taj Mahal also, not having Lakshmiji temple also. Now we're having many Computer-loag for customers, and we're having Cable-TV also with Baywatch for them. Why you not want photo them?" he asked while she continued to pack her cameras in a flat silence. In frustration he caught her arm and stilled her for an instant, forcing her to face Tulasa, who was unbuttoning her blouse with a lewd wink for a passing customer. "These womans not having shames are forcing to do such things for rozi-roti," he said. "Why your mother not teaching you shames also? Not teaching you respecting other peoples shames?" he spluttered as his words made spit patterns in the lane. She touched his cheek with a long white finger. It felt like a stinging slap. "See you tomorrow Tulasa Bi," was all she said over her shoulder, before walking off in her dirty-yellow tee-shirt. He never saw her again.

One of the new-fangled Computer-loag liked watching CNN instead of the usual soft-porn flicks while being serviced. The whorehouse was happy to oblige. It was much quicker and more hygienic. So it was that, on the 11th of September, 2001, while on his way to Shantabai's den to make arrangements for the latest across-the-border consignment from Bangladesh, Usmaan Ali saw New York city burn to cinders and crumble to dust. He watched in stunned disbelief as his dreams were buried forever under a million tons of metal, glass, concrete and burnt human flesh. The blue skies of his beloved city turned black as the twin towers of the World Trade Centre continued to crash and rain death and debris on the city and its people on that sunny September day. The observation deck of the WTC had been the first landmark he was going to visit when he finally arrived. He would stand there all alone and look far ahead into the future and far beyond into the past...

Strangely enough, he could hear a keening voice rising above all the strange American accents on TV, moaning "Ya Allah, raham kar. Ya Khuda raham kar," and with a cold shiver he realized it was his own.

"Not to worry, Usmaan Bhai, the Amreekans will take revenge," said some of the customers who had come running at the strange sound of a pimp wailing. "Arrey, they will throw atom bombs and hydrogen bombs on Baluchistan and Pakistan and Hindustan. They will make a "Kabristaan" of the whole Afghanistan. So please do not disturb yourself, Usmaan Ali," blurted one over-excited man.

"Will the Amreekan-loag come and bomb Nagarawadi as well?" Phoolmati asked no one in particular, with a puzzled expression on her vacuous face.

"Oh yes, indeed," sneered Usmaan in a white-hot rage. "The most powerful man in the world, the Amreekan President Sahib himself, is going to come in his jumbo jet airplane and bomb everyone in Nagarawadi. All the 10 Rupee whores like you one can buy in the dingy grocery stores of Nagarawadi, and all the bowlegged rickshaw-wallahs and all the municipal school raggedy children." The iron buckle of his belt left angry red weals on her torso, and purplish-red blood oozed out of little punched out holes. Hot tears of shame made dirt tracks down her cheeks.

"I was only asking," she whispered. He whipped her with his belt and punched her with his fists and kicked her with his boots and slapped her with the palm of his hand, all in a mesmeric rhythm.

"What do you have in Nagarawadi that is so precious? So great, that when New York is attacked you think Nagarawadi is next, do-takiye-di-randi!" his fists rapped out his words on her body in a fast, furious tempo.

Phoolmati did not answer. It was dark in the room, and the shadows grouped around her thick and fast. Through the slit of the bloodshot eye she had left, she could see, framed in the sunlit doorway, a little girl chasing a butterfly down a dusty mud path.

"Qatl: Qatl bin Qatil bin Qatil Maqtool nahin. Ishq: Ishq bin Aashiq bin Aashiq Mashooq nahin." Shankar's reedy voice learning his Urdu lessons aloud could be heard long after Usmaan's footsteps had faded into silence.


Three first-year medical students at the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College got first hack at Phoolmati's cadaver. They sawed diligently at her purple, bloated stomach, unaware of the ghosts of sad-eyed village children clustering around their knees, or of the butterfly-ghosts fluttering around them, or of the firefly-ghosts dancing frenziedly around the naked light bulb above their heads.