Literary Yard

Search for meaning

By: Ram Govardhan

Nudging six feet, one the most rational eunuchs in Chennai, Rafael, while tucking pleats of his sari below the jewelled navel, was too careful not to hide the punch-line under the elaborate Cupid tattoo—naked winged boy with a bow and arrows—that said, “Best Girls & Deals”.

Jaywalking into Central Station, one of the most audacious prostitutes, Esther, Rafael’s soulmate and rock, plucked the fag out of his lips and waved, “How many?” As Rafael raised four fingers, Esther chose the abandoned RMS corner, kicked the drowsy mongrels up and gasped a little more than a lungful. Feverishly waving Rafael to come closer, securing the Japanese rose in her her plaits, aiming her ballooned mouth skyward, she blew five rings of smoke. Battling with his slipping sari, after counting the wafting loops, Rafael cheered her with a thumping high-five. Taking pride, Esther twirled both ends of her imaginary moustache upwards. As she stuffed the fag back into his mouth, he patted her back for bringing off the feat; he had laid a wager that she could never effect more than three rings in one blow.

Charmed by the wavy circlets, couple of beggars, including a one-legged leper, rollickingly whistled, rocking from side to side. Even if stone deaf, as elder stateswoman of scores of whores, Esther is the uncrowned empress of the junction. She is also the permanent arbitrator between perpetually warring factions of pickpockets and snatch-thieves, who outnumber the whores and the pimps. The enchantress has all the blessings of the chief general manager, while other workaday whores are often locked up.

Spurred by an afterthought, she threw a ten-rupee note at the one-legged leper for whistling with half fingers. She then sat on a bale of newsprint on platform number 12, their rendezvous. Drawing the sari up to knees, tossing the Jerusalem cross onto her back, cursing the humidity, she loosened her blouse—her time-tested, most productive ploy to numb men in their tracks. As couple of shaggy, penniless peasants kept goggling at her, she threw a sandal at them; they scurried away, balancing bundles of odds and ends on their heads.

The commotion drew half a dozen coolies, who, snuffing their thin beedis, said, ““Golden globes”” in unison, gaping at her chest. Elbowing them aside, a podgy coolie, who had majored in chemistry, said, “No, they are made of platinum…with a very high melting point.” 

As if they had tumbled out on their own, she pushed her breasts back into her blouse and yelled in sign language, “Wretched bastards…want to sleep for free? Rotten buggers, all…all of you will die of syphilis…”

That’s one of her most civilized ways of saying no, hence the coolies kept ogling, despite Rafael’s word for word interpretation. 

With a poncy lilt in his voice, if Rafael is as gaunt and lanky as Lincoln was, Esther, with hair simple yet elegant with a fall, is as beefy and as sensual as Ashley Graham. The duo operated out of an insanely congested whore-house abutting Chennai Central, the superabundant source of lecherous men on the move. Across the road, although the squalid alleys put off even the most women-starved men, there are dirt cheap dungeons and lavishly upholstered elite suites inside the high-roofed colonial brothels bequeathed by the Brits before sailing back to their cooler climes.

“Imagine making love on a dirt floor…spend a little more and spare your knees…” Rafael always advises his miserly patrons.

A past master of hooking, castrated when he was eight, Rafael had slogged in several massage parlours in Pondicherry before stumbling on Esther while assisting an Anglo-Indian hooker on Marina beach. Despite her seductive looks, he considered Esther just okay for the gaudy bawdy houses, insisting that his serene indulgence towards desires of clients was more of a determinant to lure—he was also at ease with policemen, courts, politicians, peddlers, betrayal and all the four stages of syphilis.

“We are a matchless twosome in town for whores are seldom bosom friends with eunuchs,” Esther often says, “…Whores befriend whores and eunuchs befriend eunuchs…says an old Tamil maxim”.

Evolved over six years, their enterprise is a well-oiled machine now, taking hooking to the level of fine arts and, into the bargain, pioneering an altogether new genre. Unlike other pimps and whores, they had never argued, not even once. Before and after the working hours, both remain quiet, rather pensive, and their reserve reaches the levels of saintly aversion for conversation. Their lifestyle too is severely simple, almost monastic in its rigour and self-denial. They toil only for food, shelter, and their son James’ convent education.

The duo on the beat are a pair of hungry wolves baying at every man wandering by, but, that Friday, even after prowling up to Elephant Gate, they couldn’t convert even a sucker. As they returned to platform 12, it was already three in the afternoon; time to reach home before little James returns from school.

As Rafael was fetching tea, the coolies encircled her and kept leering until she delivered a wholesome slap on the heftiest who tried to touch her breasts. While every one scurried away, the crook fell in a heap. Pound for pound, Esther is more muscular than a sturdy man and she fears nothing except heights and cockroaches. As he rose to his feet, she landed a slight kick; he keeled over again after doing a chicken dance, the dread of another kick conspicuous in his eyes.

It’s always a lot easier for her to kick such men than to kick cigarettes.

Having netted none since morning, on the way home, they stalked men dying for instant bliss that they provide right inside the station, inside the abandoned wagons or, on occasion, if the bargain is sufficiently lucrative, inside the lavatory of Duronto Express—post the deal, they are acrobatic enough to get off a speeding train without a scratch.

Esther plucked a pan (laced with dope) from a pickpocket as they began patrolling the Wall Tax Road. Unusually, the shopkeepers spat expletives; Esther wasn’t at all hassled—patience and persistence, on most days, on the same stretch, yielded a pretty penny. Shortening strides, they winked at every one of them, separately, in vain.

As a last resort, clapping in quintessential eunuch style, Rafael barged into a store and perched on the cash counter, dangling his clean-shaven, aftershaved legs. As the trader rebuffed him, Rafael kept annoying him by lifting his sari; the trader flung a few notes and spat on Rafael. Esther feverishly waved Rafael to get moving, after spitting a mouthful on a masticating buffalo in the middle of the road; the cool animal didn’t give a hoot.

Before long, the kid as the centre of their universe, life turned exciting and work tedious. Coarse as their voices were, obvious was the value of lullabies and as unmistakable was the fact that it was not the soothing refrain but the metrical cadence that eased the babies into sleep.

James began enriching their lives four years ago, on a billowy day, as great swirls of sleet hurricaned into the station. Rafael sensed faint cries of a baby emanate out of a garbage bin. He stirred the litter, peeked and saw a baby, hardly few weeks old, naked and miserable under the rubbish. As they looked at the baby together, the baby looked at them, and they looked at each other. Wrapping the baby in sheets of newspaper, as they dashed out, a pedlar harried them assuming it to be a bundle of dope. The babies cries were doused by the noisy traffic.

The realisation that there can be a purpose to life surprised Rafael, who, by now, was bored to tears with years of macabre existence, wholly sinister in retrospect. When other whores and pimps celebrated festivals, birthdays, anniversaries and mourned deaths, he felt like an outcast. 

Rafael discarded his feminine outfits and, puffed with pride, called himself a ‘father’. Biological? While Rafael can never be, Esther’s womb was excised long before she met him. Until she turned fifteen, Esther wanted to be a nun and die a devout virgin, but traffickers had nobler ideas; three days later, she found herself in a brothel. Ever since she began praying, she couldn’t grasp as to why Roman Catholic Church was vilified as the whore of Babylon. Anyhow, getting used to harlotry, she often discovered that she was pregnant much to the chagrin of her madam.

“You are way too fertile, darling…” said the madam, “and no bugger wants to put on the rubber…let’s scissor away your f****** womb.”

A sought after girl in the most sought after brothel is always offered a Hobson’s choice. Despite the doctor’s word, Esther entertained number of men right away—quietly taking on extra work was young Esther’s way of registering her dissent. The madam had taken note of the protest but she had her own mounting debts.

“Running a brothel is donkey-work,” cried the madam, “the great breed of obedient pimps is extinct, bloodsucking policemen are the pimps now…”

Neighbouring whores and pimps stormed in half naked to know who the kid was; Rafael viciously cursed at them, they disappeared en masse. The eunuchoid idiom is largely made up of cuss-words; every second word is preceded by an ‘f’ word and emotions are embellished with even more uncouthly ‘f’ words. The weaponised, full-mouthed lingo also keeps in check the perverse men who demand twice the bargain for the price of one.

Esther proposed the name James, her father’s name and it was also Rafael’s grandfather’s name; their eyes teared together. After resolving to raise the child the way middle-class people did, as soon as Esther gestured a confident, “We-will-do-it”, wiping tears off, Rafael rushed out and returned with baby clothes and one of the most expensive cradles available in Parrys.

The risks of raising the kid in such a dirty locality made them move into a polite neighbourhood, where they presented themselves as man and wife and that, along with James, they were a family. Apart from getting trendy furniture, and learning what processed cheese was, they ensured that all the curtains tone with the bedspreads.

Soon after James was admitted into a prestigious convent, both of them resumed, in their words, the ‘manhunt’ for the high net-worth prey.

Few years of schooling was enough for James to make out that his parents were utterly illiterate, who couldn’t even tell A from B. He stumbled on this secret when he asked them as to why two-plus-two and two-multiplied-by-two both make four? And why, then, three-plus-three is six but three-multiplied-by-three is not six?  Their ignorance was the first of the two blows that would jolt James before the third that was to hit him too late, much too late, by when insight was as good as ignorance.

If the precociousness was a godsend, it might turn out to be a bane—what if he finds out what they do for a living? With the help of few of their benevolent clients, they ensured that the kid gets the best of education, clothes, food, toys, and best of everything else.

“James is a gifted child…let’s plan his further studies rather carefully. Don’t fret, I will talk to the principal of a prestigious high school…am issuing a recommendation letter too,” said the headmaster few days before James was to complete his primary.

On their way to the high school, one of Esther’s patrons spotted her, opened arms and hugged. And then, stepping back, staring from head to toe and up, said, “Oh my gosh! Your assets are still in shipshape condition…no, they look better than the last time I saw them…you are my evergreen cracker darling, would love to have you tonight.” 

“Not tonight, later…couple of days later,” said Esther.

“When I want you tonight…I want you tonight,” said the man turning grim, squeezing a wad of five-hundred rupee bills into her blouse, before driving away. 

Bigwigs, film stars were seeing their kids off at the imposing gate of the elite school. It looked like an expo of high-end cars and the hatted chauffeurs, escorts, bodyguards, gatekeepers, guards were garbed and embellished like militia. Although daunted, summoning courage, Rafael pushed Esther inside. 

The offence the principal took was palpable, but, after dipping into the letter, mumbling with disgust, said, “I am granting the admission…but pay the fee in time, every time, every month…”

The admission fee was so exorbitant that Rafael was stupefied, but Esther was undaunted; she gestured, “Let’s do it….”

But such money can only be earned at El Dorado, the blue-blooded bordello in central Chennai frequented by scores of Europeans, Americans and Koreans who shelled out thousands if a woman was sufficiently quiet, seductive and pleasant to taste.

Mrs Iyer, the madam of El Dorado, was hesitant but, over a cup of tea, what clinched the deal was the Japanese rose in Esther’s plaits. Mrs Iyer rattled on about the rare rose—that it is also called ramanas rose, that its botanic name is Rosa rugosa, that its hips are orange-red, that its leaves are dark green, its deep pink petals smell heavenly and things that have nothing to do with the flower.  

“But you have to be bighearted in serving the big white men darling…they are carnal brutes,” Mrs Iyer said, “I just take twenty percent, the rest, including tips, is all yours. Adapt to their ways…your mute appeal is a blessing, they hate gabby girls, want girls who put up with…Welcome aboard…” 

The costs were too unpalatable; with a large carnal repertoire, the big-built Europeans had their own elaborate rituals for every part of her body. It was not in the least like sleeping with Indian men, who, all of a sudden, looked like infants of the erotic world. In fact, taking on Indian men on the trot was a cakewalk, whereas now, without the doses of dope, she stayed bedridden for five days after being battered by one European.

Soon though, few weeks of all that was well worth the trouble to cause a seismic shift in their fortunes; they got James into the elite school and, with the remainder of the windfall, to keep James from the truth of their wretched lives before he turned twelve, they could also rent an apartment in a decent neighbourhood of T. Nagar.

But, within years, the dwindling El Dorado yields couldn’t fund James’ expensive post-college coaching classes. Luckily, the advent of cellphones rendered the membership of brothels and unions optional and now their office was in their palms, sort of hotline between them and their regulars. Through social media, they discovered the limitless potential of Marwari stockbrokers at the Madras Stock Exchange.

“The brokers are known for their deep pockets and for their largesse…” said one of Rafael’s friends, “And the beauty is that they don’t make difficult coital demands…but the problem is that they hate whores…”

“Don’t worry, men are men…are bothered only about finding their sexual mojo,” gestured Esther.

All that the brokers sought was some diversion in the afternoons to calm their nerves ruffled by bearish trends. Although hardcore punters, they were amateurs when it came to copulation. They ejaculated in their pants and shelled out excessively just to keep the ignominy from reaching others in the fraternity. Esther wondered as to how these fumbling acts busted their stress.

“Even if we are half-baptized, Virgin Mary grants our wishes,” gestured Esther upon hearing the news that James was admitted into the premier management institute Calcutta was proud of. Now that Mary was sending their son so far away, backbiters would have no chance to play their wicked games—as long as James was in Chennai, the prospect of the kid knowing about their vocation had terrified them.

Truth, however, comes out into the world at the time of its choice. Couple of months later, one summer morning, when James reached Chennai to see his parents, they were not at home. One of the neighbours grabbed the only chance he was to get. James’ age-long misgivings about his parents proved to be spot on; that Esther was a prostitute, that he was not her son, and that Rafael was not even a man.

James waited for them until they reached around midnight. He could see that his parents would always have issues in living in Chennai. He asked his parents to pack up and fly to Calcutta to be with him. They were hesitant but James was adamant; they packed whatever was essential and flew to Calcutta in the wee hours, to the neighbour’s infinite chagrin. 


Ram Govardhan’s short stories have appeared in Asian Cha, Open Road Review, The Literary Yard, The Bangalore Review, Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Cafe Dissensus, Indian Ruminations, The Spark, Muse India, The Bombay Review and other Asian and African literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai.

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