Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

Demon King

 

Demon King

 

He grabbed her by the hips, yanking her towards him, admiring the round, firm flesh of her buttocks looming before him like cardamom hills. Everything about her was alluring and supple, dripping with the sweetness of ripe mangos. When he leaned over her bare back to enter those sacred hills, breathing in the unruly curls musty as a secret cave, he felt the world stand still.

 

Outside the grimy, cracked two-story window, the building crumbled into the dirt street. The sky was just beginning to lighten, but the city’s chaos was in full force. Buses spewed black smoke, rickshaw drivers bumped elbows, rivers of people flooded the streets, parted by dozing, uncaring cows.

 

His face contorted. The zig zagging vein along his right temple swelled purple and rigid. He shuddered, the intensity almost unbearable, saliva thickening and pooling in his mouth. Until finally he collapsed on her. Somewhere in the galaxy a star died in a titanic explosion, leaving behind a black hole that had begun to consume matter at lightning speed. He sighed in her ear, oblivious to the impending apocalypse, tracing the lobe ever so gently with his tongue, still intoxicated.

 

But Samaira was already on her knees, reaching for the polyester robe threadbare at the elbows. He watched as she hurried across the hall and into the communal kitchen, her breasts still hanging out between loose folds, the areola dark as champak bark against her nipple, almost causing his member to rise again until he turned away.

 

In the kitchen, she met Chaaya, whose mood struck Samaira as too cheerful. But Chaaya always liked to joke. “Nunga, go put some clothes on. We spend so much of our time naked, you’d think you want to be dressed when you have the choice.” Chaaya laughed, her eyes bright. She had only joined them a few months ago, her blood still fresh and young. “And why are you up at this hour? You know you’ll have a long day ahead of you, don’t you? Jhanvi and Harini are both too sick to see their customers. You can be sure Ma’am will reassign them to you and me. I don’t know why that budhiya hates us so.”

 

“Tell Jhanvi and Harini to toughen up like the rest of us. We don’t get any days off, for sickness or anything else. They just have to lie there after all. Those two have always been spoiled just because they’re Ma’am’s favorites.” Samaira’s eyes darkened.

 

“Don’t forget you were her most prized girl for many years. But then you let that slum boy into your bed.”

 

“Who’s calling me a slum boy?” Saleem asked, pretending to be stern as he slid into the tiny kitchen behind Samaira. He batted her bottom playfully as she gave the frying pan an expert flip. But the unexpected jostle caused the two eggs, almost perfectly sunny side up, to splatter onto the stove.

 

“Must you ruin everything you touch!” Samaira snapped.

 

“You wouldn’t think such a satisfied woman would be so sharp,” he retorted, as he grabbed the pan out of her hand. “I’ll cook a fresh set for her.” Then seeing her gaze unhappily at the mess, he added, “I’ll eat that too. You don’t have to say it. We can’t afford to throw them away. That’s what a man is for, I suppose. We are the donkeys of the world, here to serve our queens.”

 

“Queen, huh?” Chaaya smirked at him. “Now I know why she keeps you around. As much trouble as it’s caused.”

 

“Papa,” a tiny voice called sleepily. “I thought I heard you. Have you come to take me to school?” A little girl stood in the doorway stark naked, her round belly protruding over two pudgy feet.

 

“Pihu, where are your clothes?”

 

“Nobody else wears any. Why should I?”

 

Saleem looked at the women with annoyance. “Beta, today is your first day of school, and you’ll soon learn that the rest of the world doesn’t act the way we do here. Now go put on your uniform. It’s at the foot of your cot, just where we left it last night after your bedtime story.”

 

She scurried off, returning with her beige shirt unbuttoned and flapping open, the navy skirt in her hand. “I don’t know where the straps go.” She announced with furrowed brows.

 

Saleem kissed her on the forehead, feeling the small fuzzy hairs brush his lips. “Come, I’ll teach you. Then tomorrow you will do it all by yourself.” 

 

Samaira looked skeptically at him, but after only two tries, he managed to get the criss cross just right on Pihu’s back. “Her hair needs to be brushed,” Samaira announced but just then Chaaya’s voice called brightly, “Samaira, a customer’s asking for you.” Samaira met Saleem’s eyes, and he nodded. “I’ll do it.”  

 

*  *  *

 

 

“That’s not where I live,” Pihu announced firmly. She was looking over Saleem’s shoulder as he filled out the registration form.

 

“It’s where I live,” Saleem lied. The truth was he had made up an address, not wanting the stare of the primary school teacher to be any more scrutinizing.

 

“Pihu?” The teacher read when handed the paperwork.

 

“Yes,” Pihu raised her hand shyly, as if called upon in class.

 

“Isn’t that the name of an animal? A female peafowl?”

 

Pihu looked confused. Saleem jumped in. “Yes, that’s right. It’s more of a nickname.”

 

“Perhaps something more formal would be better.”

 

But even before Saleem could respond, Pihu declared, “I don’t want to change my name.”

 

The teacher looked at her with consternation from behind horn-rimmed spectacles. “That’s fine. We’ll try Pihu and see how it works. I can’t help it though if she is teased by the others,” she told Saleem, not at all apologetic. “It’s an odd name after all.” She squinted at Pihu. “And tomorrow don’t forget to brush your hair.”

 

Saleem grimaced as he realized he had forgotten.

 

The teacher looked penetratingly at Saleem, “I assume the mother was busy today?”

 

“She has to work all the time,” Pihu piped up. “In the morning, afternoon, and late at night too. That’s why she’s so tired all the time—”

 

But Saleem’s hand had already tightened around Pihu’s shoulder. “She really wanted to be here to meet you,” he offered apologetically. And before Ms. Chakrabarti could open her mouth again, he quickly dragged Pihu to find a seat.

 

*  *  *

 

 

Saleem hadn’t thought it possible for him to love another being more than Samaira until the day Pihu was born. He had been stooped over in her dank bedroom, the ceiling too low for him to stand up, when Samaira’s labored screaming found an echo. When Pihu was placed in Saleem’s arms, the world stood still, but in a different way. She was the angriest newborn he had ever seen, her face purple from wailing, yet in an instant, he felt the aimlessness of the past eighteen years of his life float away as gently and easily as dandelion fluff in unexpected gusts. He stroked her moist skin and velvety black eyebrows and felt convinced this ugliest of wrinkled newborns would grow up to be the most beautiful girl in the universe. And he was right. But it wasn’t just her gracefully turned almond eyes or her fair coconut cream skin that kindled his adulation and led Ma’am to gaze upon her with intrigue, it was the imperious little girl who soon emerged, after learning to walk and shedding her diapers, who could with one squeeze of her arms around his neck make him forget about a lifetime of coming up short.

 

He had always been Pihu’s primary caretaker, he and the women at the brothel. Pihu liked to say she had sixteen mothers, seventeen counting Ma’am, which Saleem did not like to do. He knew Samaira’s story too well. The youngest daughter of a large peasant family in Bihar, her father had almost snapped her neck in two when she was born. Daughters were a financial drain, not able to produce as much as a son on the farm and eventually requiring a dowry to be married off. But through a middleman, Samaira’s life was spared and her father even received a handsome thousand rupees, because as Ma’am liked to brag, she could tell a good whore from the face of a newborn. And true to Ma’am’s prediction, Samaira turned out to be her best investment yet. At ten, her virginity was auctioned off to a wealthy Mumbai businessman. She had not even started to bleed yet, and her father had been assured she would not be forced to work until she reached maturity. But that was a bit of a gray area, and by then, Samaira had seen as much as she needed to. The walls were paper thin, and a lot of the women didn’t even close their bedroom doors.

 

As Samaira grew older, she soon ran the longest waitlist, for she became known not just for her stunning beauty, but for her shrewd grey wolf cunning. She could tell in an instant what a man wanted from her and shaped her mind and body to comply. In the time it took to unclasp a brazier, she could transform from a guileless, shy girl to a sophisticated, bold lover. And for those with more creative or sinister desires, her willingness to oblige knew no bounds as she emerged victorious with shiny new badges of honor on her face or arms or even more private areas of her body. For back then, she measured herself only by her tip jar, which filled to the brim every few hours. That was until she met Saleem.

 

She had been coming home from the market on a rare day off. It was Diwali, the most holy festival of the year, and even Ma’am acknowledged that some deference had to be given to the gods. He had been roaming the streets, having stopped going to school years before but only managing to find odd jobs at the ship yards or factories when other workers didn’t show up. After one glimpse of her face, he followed her, leaving behind a soccer game just as he was poised to kick a goal. His friends jeered angrily, “Abandoning us for a whore you can’t even pay for?” But he didn’t even turn around for fear of losing sight of her. When their eyes met, he—always the one to strike up a conversation with anyone off the street—felt suddenly tongue-tied. And she, having judged the faces of thousands of men by then, could tell in an instant that he was different.

 

It wasn’t long before they began to spend all their free time together. But this was not easy, as Ma’am had strict rules. No boyfriends, husbands, fathers, uncles, or men of any relation other than customers were allowed in the brothel. And so Saleem was forced to sneak in and out, climbing into Samaira’s second story window like a fairytale prince. Of course, no secret could be kept from Ma’am for long, and she soon discovered their budding love, scoffing and inflated with power like a boy about to light grasshoppers on fire and throw them over the verandah. She felt magnanimous at first, letting them enjoy a last hop or two as she pondered over what to do. But as Samaira reached marriageable age, Ma’am made a rather stunning epiphany. She knew Saleem did not have the means to provide for his queen, so encouraging their relationship would keep her prized possession trapped just where she wanted her.

 

But even Ma’am had miscalculated how much foolishness love could inspire, for it wasn’t long before Samaira’s changing body gave away that she was with child. “Ulluu!Ma’am screamed. “Now you’ve gone and thrown away your future. Nobody wants to lie with a stretched, saggy mother.” For once in her life though, Samaira did not care what Ma’am said or did. She was sixteen, filled with the overzealous confidence of youth and drunk from the hormonal rush of pregnancy. During the day, she lay in bed with Saleem, who, equally caught up in the mirage of their glorious future, stopped going out to look for work. At night they stayed awake, feeling like the only two people alive, convinced the blood moon was theirs to pluck from the sky. They spoke in secretive whispers, trying out baby names (though none ever seemed regal enough) and imagining what a combination of their features would look like, never envisioning the triumphant harmony that would result in Pihu’s visage. Their visions grew more sweeping and sublime until Samaira, caught up in passion one summer twilight as the setting sun dowsed the world in soft, faded watercolors, almost whispered in his ear that they should get married. Their naked bodies were so intertwined it was hard to see where one began and the other ended. But as she opened her mouth, he closed it with a gentle kiss, mistaking her contented sigh for an invitation. Until soon he had entered her again, his mass pressing down on her, gently and rhythmically silencing the words trapped in her throat. 

 

Then reality struck them over the head as abrupt and ruthless as Ma’am disciplining resistant newcomers: they ran out of money. Had they not been so young and enraptured with one another, they might have seen it coming. After all, Samaira hadn’t taken a customer in months, ever since her hips disappeared into a mountain of flesh. It was Saleem who went to speak with Ma’am. Samaira refused, her pride unyielding. Ma’am surprised them by offering a generous advance. She said she knew Samaira would just need a little time after childbirth to get back on her feet, and having practically raised Samaira, she was almost like a grandmother to the baby. What Ma’am didn’t tell them was that their story had unfolded before her eyes too many times to count. And while she would have found it distasteful to throw a young mother into the streets, she also knew with the shrewdness of a businesswomen that patience could lead to unexpected boons as infants grew up to become young girls. 

 

*  *  *

 

“What’s a peafowl?”

 

“You know the birds that roam Shivaji Park, the ones with the colorful feathers that fan out behind them.”

 

“Why’d you pick that name for me?”

 

“It was your mother’s idea. Her favorite god has always been Lord Kartikeya.”

 

“The god of war who split the demon king Surapadman in half?” She looked gleeful at her father’s surprised look. “Mummy prays to him every morning. She told me Lord Kartikeya destroys the evil inside people.”

 

“She’s right. Did she tell you what Lord Kartikeya turned the two halves of the demon king into?”

 

Pihu shook her head wide-eyed. Saleem noticed how round her cheeks still were, despite the mature depths of her pupils.

 

“Ah, so my little girl doesn’t know everything. Even a Papa can be surprised every now and then.” He winked at her before continuing. “Lord Kartikeya transformed the demon king into a rooster, to decorate his flag, and a peacock that he could ride around the world on.”

 

“So I’m really half of a demon king?”

 

Now Saleem burst into laughter. “I guess you could put it that way. A transformed demon king.” He rumpled her hair affectionately, noticing how it glinted amber under the sun, just like Samaira’s. “Are you going to tell me how your first day of school was?”

 

“Good,” she said dismissively. “I didn’t have lunch money but a boy sitting behind me gave me some of his biryani. Until his friend whispered he would catch something by sharing food with a brothel girl. Then Ms. Chakrabarti announced we had to bring 100 rupees tomorrow for school books.”

 

“I thought public school was free.”

 

“Ms. Chakrabarti said nothing’s entirely free in life.”

 

Saleem grimaced as he felt the change in his pocket. Then looking down at Pihu’s expectant face, so wise already at six, he picked her up and carried her, backpack and all. “Come, let’s go get some kulfi. You can pick the flavor.”

 

“But I have homework.” She wiggled until he set her down and then she took out some stapled pages to show him.

 

He pretended to study it. “This is so easy,” he announced. “It will only take you five minutes to finish. Besides, Mummy will still be working now. It’s better to go home a little later.”

 

“You know I’m usually there when Mummy is working.” She gave him a look as if he were the child.

 

“I know,” he said defensively. “But that doesn’t mean Papa can’t treat you to a little ice-cream.”

 

At that she relented. “All right, but let’s not take too long. Mummy said I have to shower before dinner now so I can sleep early on school nights.”

 

“I know. So many rules to follow now that you’re a big girl. It’s hard for me to keep track.” He looked at her lovingly, trying to keep the emotion in his chest at bay. She was growing up so quickly now, too fast for his liking.

 

Then between bites of pistachio cream, refreshingly cold in the summer heat, she turned to him and announced, “Mummy said they’re all pretending.”

 

“Who?”

 

“The men who go in her room.”

 

Saleem stiffened, but Pihu didn’t seem to notice.

 

"They make strange noises. Each one a little different. When I was little, I used to guess what kind of animal they sounded like. Pigs. Cows. Sheep. Until they began to scream. Then I would get scared. But Mummy told me that’s all part of the game. They pretend to be mad.”

 

Saleem stopped eating, the pistachio dripping down the cone and splattering onto the floor.

 

“Papa, the kulfi’s melting,” Pihu admonished. “You know I can’t finish it by myself. Besides, I picked pistachio because it’s your favorite.” She gave him a pointed smile from beneath unruly bangs, and again, he felt like the child. He’d have to remember to ask Samaira for a brush tomorrow.

 

“You know what else she told me? The louder they yell, the quieter she gets. That’s part of the game too. She never cries. She told me if even one tear falls, then she loses. Mummy’s too smart for them. They don’t know it, but she always wins.”

 

*  *  *

 

By the time they returned home, Samaira was preparing dinner in the kitchen, wearing the same polyester robe without enough fabric to cover her breasts. The aroma of fried cumin seeds and onions made Saleem’s stomach rumble. He kissed Samaira on the cheek, eliciting a faint smile, but she did not turn towards him, her face worn and tired.

 

They ate in her room sitting cross-legged on the floor. There was no furniture other than a bed whose worn headboard had dug faint grooves in the wall.

 

“This is delicious,” Pihu announced, shoveling the yellow daal into her mouth. Her parents’ faces brightened. Samaira put a hand on Pihu’s cheek still chubby even though the rest of her body had slimmed to make her stick thin. “Mummy, what’s a brothel?”

 

“Why, darling? Where did you hear that word?”

 

“At school.”

 

Samaira tried to hide her disappointment. “It’s a place where a lot of women live together.”

 

“You mean like here?”

 

“Sure.”

 

“But what’s wrong with that? Papa always said it’s just like having seven—” she caught herself and said, “sixteen mothers.”

 

“Pihu,” this time Samaira’s voice became stern. “There are always going to be people who want to make you feel little in this world. But you’re too strong to let them do that.”

 

“You mean because I came from a demon king?”

 

Samaira looked quizzically at Saleem, who could not help start laughing, and suddenly the mood in the room was light again.

 

*  *  *

 

The next day there was a blue plastic bin outside the classroom that each child tossed papers into as he entered. Saleem swore. “Pihu, we forgot your homework. It’s my fault. I should have reminded you.”

 

But Pihu just bent down and unzipped her backpack calmly. “Mummy did it with me this morning and told me to pack it away so I wouldn’t lose it.”

 

Saleem flipped through the pages in awe, looking at every completed exercise. He paused, dazzled by Samaira’s signature on the front, the curves and twists putting her in a class above him.

 

“She signs so my teacher knows we read together every day.”

 

“How does she have the time?” Saleem sputtered, trying to pretend this was the real reason for his surprise. 

 

“She gets up early.” Then Pihu added matter-of-factly, “Sometimes she never falls asleep. She told me she can’t get her brain to quiet down.”

 

Saleem was quiet for a few moment. “Your Mummy’s a queen.”

 

But Pihu only gave him a strange look before putting her backpack on the hook and sauntering into the classroom.

 

*  *  *

 

Saleem had inherited his purity of heart from his mother, who married young only to discover her worth wasn’t much more than that of a street dog to her husband. But she was lucky. He only tortured and beat her until youth just began to shed its leaves into middle age, when he was diagnosed with abdominal tuberculosis. She faithfully nursed him, carrying him to the bathroom every hour until finally she was forced to simply change his sheets as he lost control of his bowels. After he took his last breath, she turned her attention and love on her children with the tenacious vigor of dandelion weeds, living for them long after there was nothing else to live for.

 

From his mother, Saleem learned to live in the moment, every minute starting fresh, the promise of a new story with a different outcome. The past and future held little meaning for the abominably poor. All that mattered was how to survive now. Maybe that’s why Saleem never thought about all the other men. Whenever he grabbed Samaira by the hips, he was always the only one. The first one. No one else existed. And it was the same for Samaira. All those stiff, unyielding strangers exploring every last crevice of her body vanished in Saleem’s presence, for his touch penetrated depths no one else could reach. She never spoke to him of her other life, of the soreness and bruises, or the pain that could never heal. Because that would have acknowledged the monstrousness of her world… the reality of it becoming unbearable. She just smiled when she saw Saleem, his embrace reminding her that something good and safe existed that one day might be all she would know.

 

And then came the day the illusion they shared began to crumble. It was a Friday afternoon filled with the exuberance and promise of the weekend. Saleem whistled a lively tune as he arrived at school. The grounds were deserted because he was late, but that was rather typical, Saleem not known for his punctuality. What was strange was that Pihu was nowhere to be found. He was just beginning to feel nervous when he caught sight of her silhouette under the slide.

 

“Hey demon king, why're you hiding here?”

 

She refused to look at him, staring angrily into the curved steel that tapered precariously close to her nose.

 

“Mind if I join you?” Saleem ducked under the slide, settling into the shadow beside Pihu. He nestled into her shoulder and felt her stiffness give away a little.

 

“I guess I’m not supposed to play cricket,” she muttered.

 

“Says who?”

 

“Varun.”

 

She tilted her face towards Saleem, the ray of light shining through a crack in the slide revealing her black eye. The muscles in his face tightened.

 

“I asked to play when they were picking teams, but Varun said girls don’t belong on the sport fields.” She shredded a piece of tanbark until it crumbled into bits. “Least of all whores.”

 

Now Saleem’s eyes darkened with rage. “Who hit you?” Her mouth was clamped shut, but Saleem saw that her chin quivered and had to look away.

 

“I told him I could bat better than him. He got mad. Then he shouted, ‘This whore thinks she can play a man’s game. Brothers, let’s teach her a lesson.'”

 

Saleem slammed his fist into the slide, but it just rang hollowly. Then he demanded again through clenched teeth—this time his voice murderously soft—“Who did it?"

 

But Pihu had to admit she didn’t know. Once she was knocked to the ground, she was tackled from behind. That’s when Pihu looked her father in the eye so he didn’t have time to fret about her torn clothing or the loose, tangled hair her mother painstakingly brushed and braided ever day: “Now I know why they call me that.”

 

*  *  *

 

That night Saleem kept Pihu out again, strolling the green fields at Shivaji Park and watching the setting sun light up the iridescent trains of the strutting peafowls. Pihu fed them bread crumbs out of her hand until one bit her pinky. She yelped, indignantly throwing all the crumbs to the ground, which caused the entire flock to rush to feed themselves.

 

“Never mind,” Saleem rubbed her little finger gently, “They don’t know any better. Their brains are too small, not like you, my brilliant little girl.” He planted a kiss on her forehead. Then he bought chaat from a street vendor, the two of them using a tiny plastic spoon to share the puffed, spicy rice snack dribbled with tamarind sauce and yogurt. When they finished, he took her to his home despite her protests that Mummy would be worried. With worried, questioning eyes, Saleem’s mother helped Pihu bathe and change. Then after Pihu ate and fell asleep, still murmuring that she wanted to see Mummy, Saleem’s mother sat down beside him wringing her hands.

 

“Does her mother know she is here?”

 

Saleem did not answer, his eyes brooding as he lit a cigarette.

 

“You know you have to tell her. She will be worried. Any mother would be.”

 

*  *  *

 

As soon as Saleem stepped through the front door, he ran into Ma’am at the foot of the staircase.

 

“You’re arriving at a late hour.”

 

“Should I have climbed into her window like when I was a boy?”

 

But Ma’am did not smile. “She is still with a customer. You’ll have to wait.”

 

“She doesn’t usually work after 5, ever since Pihu started school.”

 

“Yes, but you didn’t bring Pihu today, and we had more men than usual.”

 

“I’m not sure Pihu will be coming back here.”

 

Ma’am squinted at him, arching her eyebrows. In the sagging, wrinkled lines of her face where powder gathered unevenly, he could tell she used to be a whore too, a pretty one in a time long past.

 

“I don’t want her to grow up like these women. What kind of life is that?”

 

“There are far worse lives than we live. At least here Pihu will always have food on the table and a warm place to sleep. It sounds so awful to men, but we women are tougher. We can live even in muddied waters. And Pihu, she will be a great success, just like her mother.”

 

His fists clenched, and he fought the impulse to put a hand around the old wretch’s neck, to squeeze his fingers closed and end her existence, when a door slammed shut and he heard hurried footsteps on the staircase. He had been so good at looking away all these years, but today he faltered. His eyes met another set, as brooding and dark as his own. A young man who couldn’t have been much older than he, equally tall and lanky, still drawing his belt closed as he dropped bills on the table and rushed out the door. And that’s when the ugly question surfaced in his mind, defying the practical, down-to-earth thinking of generations of ancestors before him, Did she ever enjoy it? More than with him?

 

When he opened the door of her bedroom without knocking, she was still lying naked on the bed. Her eyes were closed. Over her head hung the single decoration in the room, a cloth tapestry of the mother goddess Kali, destroyer of evil. He had bought it for her at the market, having noticed her mesmerized look as she stroked the colorful hand-sewn sequins. Kali’s eyes glowed red from beneath disheveled hair, fangs and tongue lolling, breasts dripping with blood. Samaira liked that the goddess stood with a foot on Shiva’s body, the Supreme Being prostrate before his lover.   

 

“Where is she?”

 

“At my mother’s house. She was attacked at school today.”

 

Samaira sat up, the muscles in her neck tightening. “Is she all right?” 

 

“One of the boys called her a whore, got the cricket team to teach her a lesson.”



Samaira leapt up and shook him by the shoulders. “Why didn’t you bring her home?” Her voice rose in pitch; her eyes ignited. She began to swell until she towered over him, intimidating in her nakedness, ballooning into superhuman form.

 

“Samaira, calm down. We need to talk. For so many years, we never discussed this.” He gestured vaguely around him. “But things are different now. Pihu’s growing up, and we can’t protect her anymore.” Seeing her eyes flash defiantly, he lowered his voice. “My mother bathed her. There were marks on her body. Bruises in places she shouldn’t have been touched.”He steeled himself but couldn’t. His voice broke. “Samaira, she can’t live this life. I won’t allow it.”

 

But she only looked down at him as if he were a moth still alive, bundled in a spider’s silken threads, waiting for the inevitable. “I am her mother. I will not give her away, to you or anyone else.”

 

He stood up then, throwing out his chest, though she still seemed a giantess in comparison. “I am her father. I have a say too in what happens to her.” But his voice faltered as he saw the sneer on her face. “That’s what you told me,” he whispered plaintively. Suddenly he felt broken and lost. Like when as a boy he had tried to stick up for the runt of the class and the bully had turned on him instead. He had ended up in a sewage ditch with a few teeth knocked out. When the bully finally spat on him and left, Saleem ran home to crawl into his mother’s lap. But he was a man now, he reminded himself. There was no one to run to anymore.

 

“Saleem,” Samaira’s face softened, becoming human again. “You know what I am forced to do here. If you ask silly questions, then I can only give you silly answers.” He watched her turn away from him to reach for her robe, her silhouette still causing a reaction in him. His face became sentimental as he remembered the passion of their youth. When they felt invincible. When the details never mattered. Because Saleem would always be Pihu’s father. 

 

“I didn’t know you could read and write. You never told me.”

 

“It never came up. Why does that matter?”

 

“Pihu showed me her math assignment. She said she had to draw ten dinosaur legs. There on her paper were the most charming pair of brontosauruses and T-rex I had ever seen.” He looked at her. “Too charming to be the hand of a six-year-old.” A look of admiration surfaced on his face. “You’ve been teaching her at home every day so she can keep up, in between all the visits.”

 

“And what of it? Shall I get an award for being a whore that can read and do first grade math?”

 

Now Saleem’s eyes grew steely and cold. “Don’t call yourself that, Samaira. You’ve never been that to me.” And before she could sneer again, which he knew her too well not to expect, he took her right hand in his and knelt down. “Samaira, marry me. Let me take you away from here. The three of us—we could have a good life. We could give Pihu a proper home.”

 

She said nothing, but he could see her press her lips together and turn away to hide her brimming eyes.  

 

“Maybe if you had asked years ago, I would still have been foolish enough to say ‘yes.’” She looked at him sadly, the knowing glint of her pupils deepening and dimming with memories of the past. He wrapped his arms around her waist from behind, drew her close to him, and she did not resist, letting him put his cheek against hers and caress the long, unruly locks that fell to her waist.

 

“Would you allow Pihu to grow up here?”

 

“If that’s the only way to keep her with me.”

 

He looked at her imperious face, reminded of where his little girl had inherited every trait and feature.

 

“So you won’t marry me then? Maybe I don’t measure up after all the men you’ve been with?” Jealously surfaced, muddying the waters. But then he reminded himself of what was at stake.

 

“Saleem, how would you provide for us? Your earnings are barely enough to help your poor mother.”

 

“I would think of a way.”

 

“No, we would go hungry and be forced back onto Ma’am’s doorstep. And there’s no telling what mood she will be in. She could turn us away. Where would that leave us?”

 

“So you would have Pihu follow in your footsteps?” He asked angrily. “What kind of mother are you?” His tone became accusing, spiteful, causing her earthly form to once again swell, until a loud knock interrupted them.

 

When the door swung open, Pihu stood before them looking stern, as if she were the mother who just caught her children awake after bedtime.

 

“Papa, you promised to take me home. And then you just left me there with Dadi Ma.” She gave him another unhappy glance before running into her mother’s arms.

 

“My sweet, sweet darling,” Samaira crooned as she petted Pihu’s hair. “Papa told me they hurt you at school. I’ll go down and talk to the headmaster tomorrow. If they let anyone touch another hair on your head, I’ll have them all dismissed.”

 

“No, Mummy, it’s all right. It’s just a game, just like you told me. Whatever happens to us, we’ll never cry, you and I. They won’t believe us anyway. The boys will deny it. They’ll call me a liar—a liar and a whore.”

 

“Don’t use that word, Pihu. That’s not what you are.”

 

“Isn’t it, though? It’s what we both are, right?” Then her voice faded, fatigue rolling over her small body in waves. “Don’t worry, Mummy. I don’t care what they say. It doesn’t matter. We’ll never cry, you and I.” And soon her face relaxed, her features softening, folding into the deepest of slumbers. Until Samaira bent over her fallen angel, pressing her face into her soft cheeks, and hid the tears that fell behind their amber locks of hair.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jennifer Wang’s fiction comes out of the struggles of her Indian-Chinese family members to survive the slums of Mumbai.

 

After pursuing several careers, graduating from Harvard Law School, and raising a family, she founded (2018) the Stanford Alumni Fiction Writers’ group, dedicated to the critique and support of local writers. Recently, her short story “The Blessing” was published by After The Happy Hour Review.