The windows were open to the non-stop honking from Panchkuian Road. There was no breeze. I remembered how, in our old house, my sisters hid behind each other as I lit bottle rockets on Diwali. This coming winter, my sisters would even be lucky if their old sweaters were darned. The middle one was in a boarding school for orphans, the youngest with my frail grandfather.

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The windows were open to the nonstop honking from Panchkuian Road. There was no breeze. I remembered how, in our old house in Jalandhar, my sisters hid behind each other as I lit bottle rockets on Diwali. This coming winter, my sisters would even be lucky if their old sweaters were darned. The middle one was in a boarding school for orphans, the youngest with my frail grandfather. New Delhi. Photo by Madhu Kapparath. I woke up late the next morning with a sensation of suffocation.

I left the flat without breakfast and walked to Paharganj. I bought a cup of tea and sought out the quiet of the large Christian cemetery by Nehru Bazaar.

Worn concrete graves surrounded me on three sides. But instead he took me to the workshop by the main gate. Workers inside were sawing and hammering wooden planks for coffins. Johnny ushered me into the cemetery office at one end of the shop.

Go pick up the apples. Growing up, any boy who teased my sisters in school knew he had a bloody nose coming. My mother would scold me but was secretly proud. Her eyes were opaque with cataracts. She stood there like a sentry, and I could barely catch a word of her rustic Punjabi.

Keeps me locked up. Careful of her poison. She was dressed in a loose, translucent salwar kameez which suggested that no special company was expected. Her hair, black with streaks of brown, was tied in two thick braids. This gave her fair, oval face a pleasant expression. Around her neck were rudraksha prayer beads. Her feet were bare. She looked relaxed, glowing. Perhaps my unease was misplaced. A carved-wood sofa with silver cushions sat on a plush carpet, flanked by wide lounge chairs.

In the center was a marble-topped table. Ornate brass lamps stood in the corners. My inheritance had been gnawed away by such officers. But there were no pictures of children here. Inside were displayed rows of dolls—circus dolls in costumes, dolls with fancy hats wearing party dresses, dolls with startling green eyes.

The large ones had realistic facial expressions; one had a sly, sinister look that followed you around.

Sarika returned. She saw my gaze. We traveled everywhere when I was a girl. We both fell silent. Her fingertips, I noticed, were trembling slightly. Her nails were painted a dark maroon. As we sat close, my eyes downcast, I felt her assess me from head to foot. When can I expect you? The space between us began to stretch like an elastic band, until I was sure it could snap at any second.

I shifted awkwardly and crossed my legs. Her forward manner disconcerted but aroused me. Barely lifting my eyes, I could see the shadow of her bra beneath her thin shirt, the way it lifted and fell with her breath.

Those with cash to burn went to the movies with college yaars. I played chess in an old Paharganj cemetery. She moved closer.

Are you scared of me? I pulled my hand away. She can sleep through a bomb blast. I gave away the last case this morning. Every sinew and tendon in my body tensed. She took my face in her hands and turned it toward her. Then she kissed me. Her tongue reached inside my mouth and elicited reactions in faraway places—my toes, my stomach, my quivering thighs.

She stood up and removed her prayer necklace. Then she pulled her kameez up and over her head. It billowed like a banner before falling in a heap on the carpet. She loosened the string and the salwar dropped like a curtain.

She turned her back to me. She reached her arms behind her. Even from her backward glance I could feel the derision from her face. She commanded me to lie down, knelt over me, and began to undo my buttons and buckles. Now I see you are like most—overeager. My trembling fingers outlined the orbs of her breasts. They were shiny with perspiration, and the way they rose and peaked made my jaw ache with craving.

In my mouth they tasted like stiff, salty rubber. A line of fine hair traversed down the center of her stomach to a different kind of darkness between her legs. She was nice enough to let me make amends for my first, clumsy effort, but before that she called my bua. We were both naked. I sent Mukesh to Paharganj for some groceries. Make sure he gives you a full accounting. I often wanted our matches to move faster, but I learned a lot by watching his methodical openings, his surprisingly lethal middlegame.

Sarika, I discovered, preferred a combination of fixed and variable routines. Before we began, she would ask me to brush my teeth and take a bath, even if I had already done so. I would come out in my towel to find her lying undressed smoking her pipe packed with ganja she procured from a discreet Israeli dealer in Paharganj. She insisted on initiating any kissing, which she liked deep and rough. If I tried to just hold her, she would whinny and thrash like a trapped mare.

My chest became bruised from her teeth marks. As soon as one set of scratches healed on my back, she covered me with another. This is what I remember from those days: her kneeling against the side of the bed, goading me on as I crouched over her from behind, my legs open and half-bent and trembling, her neck craning back and her pretty mouth distended, her spine coiling and convulsing like it was a reptile trapped beneath her skin.

She wanted me to be just as rough with her. I struggled to comply. Once, approaching climax, she halted abruptly and changed positions. Do it. Dark and angry urges rose inside me as I pressed my fingers around her supple neck. Fortunately, I soon lost control. Sputtering and coughing, she examined her neck in the mirror. The salty bile of shame rose up in my throat. I played chess with Johnny after that session.

He frowned and stopped the game. Go spend time with other young people. The bustle of Nehru Bazaar was just beyond the high walls but here the only sounds were the cackling of crows and the dull whack of workmen breaking the hard ground with pickaxes.

I stood beside the workers for a moment, nursing the thick sensation I carried in my chest these days, a sensation like hard-boiled phlegm. The hole the workers were digging appeared too small for an adult. Only room to bury personal items was needed.


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