Contretemps by Jose Varghese
Short Story Finalist, LISP 2nd Quarter 2020
Ala stands up and the commotion subsides. The two goons who were troubling me stare at her. Ala shouts at the one in front of her.
“Now what’s your problem, kid?”
The stocky guy behind him starts laughing at Ala’s croaky voice, but pauses mid-way as she guides me to the window seat and stands tall between the aisle seat and the crowd. I see him shift his gaze as she glowers at them. Her nonchalance has an effect, as much as her strong arms. Those standing near her seem intimidated by fear, or shame.
I hide my trembling fingers under my saree as they size her up through the corner of their eyes. I’m not yet ready to inhabit this new world. But one look at them moving backwards on unsteady feet, and I get what they are thinking – Is it a good idea to pick a fight with a six-foot tall Hijra, and lose it?
They squeeze their way through the crowd and disappear. Ala sits down. The teenage boys next to our seat stand at an arm’s distance, pressed against one another but never daring to come any closer despite the lack of space. Sweaty men and women sway past one another’s bodies while they struggle to stand in impossible positions. They lose their balance for real or fake it, depending on who stands next to them, as the bus snakes its way through hellish traffic at a jolty 45 km.
I know that the bus itself becomes a moving inferno, when these beasts are let out in their elements. It’s not just the goons. Hungry eyes and grinding teeth look for potential flesh to prey on. We have to learn, with time, the techniques of hiding, of staying invisible. Once the bus stops, the beasts would pack their desires within, hide them neat behind their perfumed clothes and sagely faces, and walk around as decent people with great responsibilities.
Ala searches out my hands from the folds of the saree and holds them.
“You have to be strong, my little sparrow”, she says.
“How can I be? They were taking turns to grope me, Ala. One of them almost had his hand inside my blouse.”
“Bastards! But look Renu, you should learn to defend yourself. Why wait till it’s too late and then raise a feeble voice? You saw their attitude? All those idiots tried to boo you down, enjoying the scene.”
She makes a lewd gesture towards the people around, and they move away an inch farther.
She is my mentor and guard in this big city. If Ala hadn’t taken care of me, I would have died of an infection from the crude tools they used to change my sex. It’s the third week of my new identity. What else can we afford, when our families disown us and the world around is so cruel to the in-between world where we exist as man, woman, or Hijra?
Ala thinks I should resume my work. The idiots in the previous work place fired me when I told them about my surgery. Today she’s taking me to an NGO where I can teach kids from the slums. They need a Science and English teacher. Gender doesn’t matter there, for the dispossessed.
“Get up, it’s our stop.” Ala stands up.
As we move through the crowd, I sense sharp gazes on us again. Ala is right. These scoundrels see all of us are sex-workers, begging for their favours in all possible ways. They discount everything else that’s part of us – education, resilience, moral sensibility.
As we are about to get down, I see out of the corner of my eye the stocky goon weaving his way back. Before I could raise an alarm, he stands between me and Ala, and pushes her hard. She misses the first step and stands staggering on the second. I reach out to hold her hand in reflex action, but in a fraction of a second ahead, he kicks her on her buttocks and she falls on the road, face down.
“Bloody prostitute. Eunuch!” He spits on her. I see his companion getting out from the back door, jeering at Ala and raising a victory sign to the idiot in front of me. All the power from my previous life fills me up, as I grab his arm on my way out and throw him farther down the road.
“Help! Pickpocket. He tried to steal our money.” I scream.
“What happened? Stop there!” The policeman in the bus bay comes rushing and grabs him before he could get up and run. His friend manages to escape, but I tell the policeman about him too.
“These are pickpockets, sir. They don’t leave even the poor folks like us. You know we have nothing much to fall back on and we’re just trying hard to find some decent work.”
“Don’t worry sister, we’ll take care of them.” The decency quotient in the policeman rises up, as all eyes fall on him in broad daylight. I lift Ala up. Her left knee is hurt a little and her lips are swollen. Do they bleed? I wipe them with a napkin. She smiles through all that.
“Well done, little sparrow”, she says, looking at the policeman slapping the goon’s face left and right, keen to prove to the daylight world how good he is in his job. The goon looks disoriented from the fall and the incessant slaps.
“That’s the only way to deal with it, Ala, when it’s not even a crime in this place to abuse people like us.”
“Let’s get away from here”, she says.
Yes, we can’t waste any time in escaping from the scene. No use tempting fate and getting unnecessary attention. Let them just get a glimpse of it, carry that cheap thrill to their offices, and have a great topic if they like, for tea-time discussions.
“Hurry up, Renu. Let’s be on time for the interview,” Ala says, as she trots.