Submissions open for Wingword Poetry Prize 2020

Red Light

Katyayini Budakoti

Midnight. It was almost midnight. But the night was still rippling with life in the narrow bastis of insectile existence. Clustered together in mounds of disgust and dirt. Dark and dingy like the moist corners of a musty wall, with algae and fungi breeding on them. Like some predator invading the host. An insectile existence to the urban milieu of aristocratic lights and plebeian survival. And amidst this pristine society was bustling the rustic concrete of brothels. Away from the city, in the corners where light was unknown. Where red glimmered like halloween lights and blazed the streets that reeked of festering nosh.

And in the nook of such existence sparkled the loud and bold concrete structure. Glimmering in the dark where the street ended and a parallel world began. The world of lust and satyrs. The world of the strangers we knew. Of people who disappeared when the light gleamed but manifested into objects of desire at the brink of dusk. And one out of many such concretes was the Chandini Bar bustling with heavy customers. The night had just begun for this brothel and for the women who resided in here. Endorsing the shimmery clothes and loud rouges, sold in many shapes and sizes with discounts on special occasions. And just in case you were wondering about the address, it lay just beyond the red light of every city.

But tonight was exceptionally harsh, the rush was great resembling some festivity in a pristine sanctum. The end of the month was near, so was the burdening onerous of survival. And like every escape route, drowning in strange settings topped the list. So here were they, lost people, tired, exhausted and defeated. Trying to get lost in a stranger, trying to win a battle.

Red beamed in the dingy room of Tara, one of those who existed here. The bed creaked as she clipped her blouse back and ruffled her hair. The sheets ruffled as her last customer for the night buttoned his shirt back up and took out his wallet. Digging through it he brought out two flimsy notes of 500. Tara scrunched her brows as she took the money and rubbed the notes together.

"It's 1500 for 1 session. You know the rate"

Her creaky voice resonated through the dirty blue walls while the man cluelessly looked for some lost valuable. Tara's sudden interjection annoyed him as he continued to look through the room.

"I'm a regular. I deserve a discount. Besides, you aren't even that good anymore."

"Not good? Aye you should have left in that case. I need the money. Now!"

Her back jabbed with the hard concrete of the wall, as her cheeks were squeezed together in a harsh hold. Her hands struggled to free his hold. Her nose scrunched in disgust as his mouth lingered over her throat.

"Don't you dare talk back to me again. You are a whore. I decide the price. Clear?"

Rage swept across her brown eyes, but soon flickered to an emotion so familiar that Tara could barely nod her head in agreement. Her body thumped ahead as he released the grip and waltzed out of the door. Her lips threatened to wobble as her eyes stung. Unshed tears brimmed in the void of brown. Sex was she felt. In ways that transcended the realm of physical. She had felt it creep it's way into her heart where a black gaping hole stared back. Toxic friends were rather hard to leave.

Her hands lost themselves in her hair, fingers curling together in a fist when the knock on her door startled her. Irritated and annoyed she opened the door to find a young lad of maybe 20 or above reeking of alcohol. The presence of the new customer made her twitchy with discomfort. He wasn't the first of his kind, but the discomfort of experiencing physical intimacy still lingered. There was a difference of a decade between their existence. He wasn't the first, nor would he be the last.

"I'm closed for tonight. Come tomorrow."

And with that the door had slammed closed had the barging leg of the intruder not invaded. He swiftly pushed her struggling frame aside and stumbled inside her room. He was drunk. But not too drunk to not know what was happening. Or so Tara pretended to believe that. Her eyes accusingly roamed all over his face. His stubble was overgrown which probably made him look older. His features were sharp and the circles under his eyes too bright. Realisation dawned upon Tara. She was conveniently 15 years older.

"I'm closed for today. Is that too hard to understand? Leave."

The customer mumbled some incoherent words as his eyes threatened to close. His eyes widened occasionally in efforts to stay awake, but would soon cringe again with a heavy head.

"I'll...I'll pay extra. Hmm. Yeah....a little extra...."

His words died in an unclear blabber but the words had perked Tara's ears. Extra. The word stood out. Her eyes twitched again in discomfort when his juvenility stirred questions. But she was already at a loss of 500. A little more money could be used. Uneasiness stirred her decision before her eyes fell over her reflection in the mirror. Her belly had started to protrude a little. And her face now carried visible marks of stress. She was aging. Not attractive enough as she was a decade before. And her dwindling income was all the reason she needed. Suddenly her eyes snapped back at the young man. He wasn't that young either. She had attended younger men, even older occasionally. If things were to be seen more openly, this one was half unconscious too. It would be over soon. No discomfort.

"Okay. 2500. Not one penny less. Clear?"

His reply was a low hum. Tara let lose a rugged sigh before she loosened her blouse and pushed the man down. The smell of alcohol was too sharp. He groaned lowly as he nuzzled his lips closer to her ears and mumbled something. A name. But it wasn't the name that stiffened her stance, it was the warmth that it carried that froze her in her place. Slowly she raised her head up to stare at the man who laid half conscious on her bed.

"What."

Her feeble voice resonated in his ears and he mumbled it again. The name, of some girl, carried in tenderness that seemed too alien to be real. And then he mumbled it again. With the same tenderness and warmth that almost threatened to melt the ice off her life. But it did not. Because it wasn't her name. It was the name of his lover. And that stirred things within her. A myriad of emotions passed across her eyes before she stood up and backed off. Her blouse hung low but she could care less. She could only stare at him. And think, about this girl. Whoever she was, about the potential heartbreak that pushed him into wasting himself off. And about love. If there was any.

"Who is she? This girl, this...Shreya?"

The words rolled out on their own. Unplanned and uncontrolled. Her heart picked up a beat when she saw him struggle with an answer. He was too wasted, and she wondered if he would even answer. But he did. And the answer was nothing less than what she expected.

"Everything."

Something hit her then. Something hollow, like emptiness. Shallow and void of anything. Banal. But it irked her curiosity. This emotion that she suspected he felt. How did it feel? What did it feel like to be someone's everything?

"Then why are you here? Why not with her?"

He stiffened. His body went rigid for a minute before it was back to being turbid. Silence took over the room. Stealthily a tacky number faintly penetrated through the window. A few seconds passed and Tara was convinced her customer had passed out when his raspy voice broke out.

"She left me."

A small smile tucked the corners of her lips. The same old story of estranged lovers. Those suitors of angels who seeked cocottes like her to mend the strings of their hearts. And then never came back once the stitches were done. The same old stories. Her heart felt heavy with something that pricked it, but she let it pass away.

"So you decide to sleep with a stranger. The same old heartbreaks."

Her voice bland and mocking, perked her customer up at her response. Hurt maybe? That's what caused this sudden alert stance, wondered Tara.

"You know nothing of heartbreaks."

His voice seeped in. Harsher and louder. Tara chortled at his worked up tone. What is it about heartbreaks that brought unnamed men to her doorstep. Dripping in hurt. She didn't know. Not of a heartbreak by a lover. But there are categories of heartbreaks. Like there are of love and every other emotion. She knew heartbreak. She felt it every day, every hour and every minute. Even with a customer and at night when darkness took over. She felt heartbreak. Why, she didn't know.

"I have a son. He is 12."

She replied to his answer. Almost hoping to prove a point. That heartbreak was known to her. Of a different kind for sure. But heartbreak nonetheless.

"You are married?"

The man asked. His eyes were half closed and he slurred when he spoke. Tara knew he was close to passing out. So she contemplated answering his question. It was a difficult question. Something fluttered in her stomach. Not butterflies, but something terrifying. And slowly it travelled up to her chest and bursted into fireworks of tingles. Tingles that trapped her in crippling fear. Or something close. That shook her entire frame. So she leaned back on her chair and opened the side drawer. Grasping a bidi she lit it and took a long puff. Wisps of silver and grey covered the thick darkness as they danced in a mystical aura. The acrid of tobacco travelled the room. Shivers travelled down her chest, warm smoke choking her throat.

"No. I'm not married."

"Who is the father then?"

Who was the father? The question annulled the ripples of pleasure as the familiar tingles broke out again. Instinctively her hand closed near her lips as they inhaled another puff. A blast of tobacco invaded her mouth as it slowly mottled with a sour taste. She could feel her throat burn a little and her lungs suffocate a bit, but the item had brought a euphoria of calm that smothered the perking purls of anxiety.

"I don't know."

Silence covered the room again. She knew why. But her conscience believed he had not heard her. Another puff and those tingles smothered again. The small glow from that stick caught her attention as her mind wandered in the wilderness of her life. A small smile reappeared as the thoughts of her child hovered her.

"His name is Rajan. I don't know what the word means but Sunila, my friend here suggested it. She said it's perfect for him. I liked it too. It suits him."

That smile refused to leave her lips as she took in another puff. From the corner of her eyes she could see the ghost of a smile on the stranger's face. He was almost going to pass out. But the smile explained he heard her.

"It's a beautiful name. I bet he is handsome too."

A small chuckle escaped her mouth. Was her son good looking? She didn't know. She hadn't seen him in years. But she knew he was. Her eyes traveled again to the stranger. He had sharp features. A long straight nose, sharp jawline and a pair of thin lips. Maybe her son looked nearly as good as him. She could hope though. Or maybe he was better. She smiled again at the pleasant thought.

"I don't know. I haven't seen him since he was 4. He lives with my brother back in the village."

"Why?"

Her smile faltered at the question. His words slurring at the end. Why hadn't she seen her son in so many years? She pretended to not know. Of reality that struck her hard like a lightning bolt. Her skin perked up with pebbles of terror and her lips longed for the burn that blurred her reality for minute abstractions. But her lips tucked down in a frown when it's heat burned the skin of her fingers. Slipping down the fingers, her feet crushed it into ashes of dust.

"Because he doesn't want to."

Lost in oblivion her world faded into the void. The bitter reality numbed her senses. Her eyes traced the sound of soft snores. She held her stare for a moment before she settled down on her chair, staring out of the window. Into the ocean of lights that were flickering off now. The world was sleeping but she was wide awake. Aware of her existence in this ocean of people that had somehow succumbed to life and survival.

***
It was early morning and Tara was already ready in her bright shimmery orange suit. She had all day before her customers would start to roll into her room. Occasionally her eyes stole glances of the unconscious man on her bed. Her brown orbs stared at his reflection in bemusement when a raspy voice broke in. He was awake. And terrified. Her smile faltered at his posture.

"Who are you?"

He asked and she fell silent. Her words choked in her throat. His eyes roamed her room as realisation dawned upon him. Hysterically his frame rushed out of the room. But Tara stayed rooted there. Never blinking. And then she wondered. Was this the same man she had opened her heart to? Clawed the scrapes of her life out. Talked about her son.

She was lost as the faint sound of quarrels seeped into her ears. Sunila was fighting with someone. Probably a customer refusing to pay dues, or the constable who was up again for another session. Perhaps an estranged lover with his memory wiped out to even remember his name. Her eyes met their reflection in the mirror. Lost in the ocean of brown that consumed her thoughts. Then suddenly her hand grabbed the red lipstick lying on the table. And with a swift movement it glided over her lips. Bold and loud. Just like her life.

Who said only satyrs needed an escape route. Maybe everyone needed a stranger to lose into now and then. Everyone at times. So Tara went on. Rushed through the lanes across the red light to post the money order. Her hands shivered as she dialed the number of her estranged son. To hear the voice that could mend her heartbreak. And life. It moves on. Every second. Always leaving trails of hope to hang on. For people with escape routes that ended at a red light.


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