The minute Shanti saw the dead fruit seller, she knew her prayers had been answered.
She had been praying for this particular miracle all her short life. She had even done the unthinkable on her eighth birthday last month. Despite all the taboos drilled into her since she was old enough to go to temple, she had dared to prostrate herself before the dark goddess, the one whose name Maa had warned her never to speak aloud. The one whose effigy was kept in a separate altar, behind the main temple. Shanti had left her pallet at night, crawling past her six siblings, parents, grandparents and uncle, all asleep in the twelve by ten tinfoil hut. She padded silently through the narrow gullies of the chawl, crept into the temple silently, and made her way to the back. Clasping her palms together, she had spoken the name of the devi aloud, and had been struck by a moment of utter terror when she felt the deity’s eyes open wide. She recalled what Bharti had told her—whatever happens, don’t open your eyes until you finish your prayer—and muttered the mantra by rote. Then, the devi invoked, she placed her offerings of appeasement on the altar: a small swatch of uprooted hairs and nail clippings.
Her little dark hands trembling, she pulled the pin out of her mouth where she had kept it hidden beneath her tongue all evening. She raised her finger over the little roll of her own hair and nail clippings and pricked her thumb as Bharti had told her to do. She poked too hard and the pin bit cruelly into her flesh. Blood welled up in a round, pearly drop that grew fat and dripped onto the offering. One, two, three as instructed. As it fell, she voiced the boon she desired the devi to grant her. And it was done. Only then had she dared to raise her chin long enough to bow and kiss the feet of the devi. For a heart-stopping moment, she felt the devi’s searing gaze fall directly on her face. As her lips brushed the tiny sculpted stone feet, she heard the faint clink of ankle bells sounding, the rustle of silk petticoats, and a faint ringing laughter that sent a needle of terror through her brain. Then she was backing away, exiting the shrine, and sprinting through the winding alleyways of the chawl as fast as her callused bare feet would take her, back to the safety of her own hut. And she had lain awake till dawn, convinced that she could hear the hysterical laughter of the devi as she searched from hut to hut, seeking the presumptuous young girl who had disturbed her long sleep. Every night since then, she had started at every sound at night—and in a chawl this size, it was often an orchestra of sounds at night.
But now she knew the devi had heard her prayers.
Because here it was, as plain as daylight, and as impossible as magic.
A miracle. No question about it. Answered prayers.
She glanced up the road, then the other way.
It was a relatively less busy side street, a branch of Ambedkar Road. Further up, the road headed toward Pali Hill, where all the film stars and movie producers stayed in their plush bungalows and marble-foyered apartment buildings. Down the other way, the road led back to the Pali Hill vegetable, fish, and meat markets. But here, for a few hundred meters, sandwiched between the markets and the residences of the city’s glamorous film folk, was Ambedkar Chawl. On either side of the road, stretching out almost three square kilometers, was a vista of corrugated aluminum sheds huddled together. Television antennae bristled like the feelers of angry insects, and the assorted junk of impoverished lives lay scattered across the roughly patched roofs: cardboard boxes, rusting oil tins, scores of empty bottles of government-manufactured country liquor, tattered rugs . . . the pathetic effluvia of slum dwellers, over fifty-five percent of Bombay’s population. In these three square kilometers alone, more than 100,000 wretched souls made their homes. Hindus, mainly, with a small population of Roman Catholics. 100,000 people. In three square kilometers. And right now, every last one of them would do anything to share even a sliver of Shanti’s good fortune. Would go insane with delight at the sight before her eyes. It made her miracle that much sweeter. The old fruit seller lay in his stall, slumped back between the crates of mangoes and the boxes of jackfruit and bananas. As dead as one of the rats that Shanti often found on the road, squashed under the wheels of a speeding car. Bleeding from the mouth, the ears, the nose, the eyes—the eyes!—and even a broad patch of rusty maroon across the front of his tattered trousers. He had been dead for several hours, she guessed. Probably from the previous night. What killed him? Even at her tender age, Shanti had seen several varieties of violent death. But nothing like this. He didn’t seem to be hurt externally. This wasn’t the work of any of the chawl gangs. They would have emptied the stall of its produce, for sure. So would thieves. No. This looked almost as if something inside the old Bhaiyya’s body had . . . exploded? Shanti shivered at the memory of what Bharti had told her, that evening as they sat by the little stream of grey effluent oozing from an open sewer, watching a group of naked slum boys splashing in the water pooled in an open ditch, as happy as rich children in a swimming pool.
“The Devi can do anything,” Bharti had said, her pretty sixteen-year-old face glowing with the reflected light of the sunset. “She can give you anything you ask for. But she takes a price.”
“What price?” Shanti asked, watching her brothers somersaulting into the filthy ditch water, their wet brown bums gleaming in the slanting sunlight.
“Depends on the boon,” Bharti replied. “But it has to balance.”
“An eye for an eye, a gift for a gift . . .” The older girl hesitated, lowering her voice. “A life for a life.”
“You mean . . . if I ask the devi for a new comb . . .”
“Then you have to give a new comb back to her, in exchange. Or something equivalent to a new comb.”
Shanti frowned. “But then I won’t have anything for myself!”
Bharti shrugged. “That’s why nobody dares pray to the Devi anymore. Unless they’re desperate. And even then, my baba says, when it comes time to pay the price, everybody’s bum gets torn open.” She used the Hindi phrase for that last gem, gaand phatthi hai, with the casualness of a veteran profaner.
But Shanti didn’t care about the profanity. She was trying to figure out what the price might be for a box of mangoes. Or a dozen. Or just one, juicy, ripe, big Alphonso mango. Like the ones that adorned Bhaiyya’s stall in the month of May. Shanti didn’t know the fruit seller’s real name, but everybody called him Bhaiyya. Which meant not just the universal “brother,” but “UP bhaiyya”: a farmer from Uttar Pradesh, the country’s largest and most populated state. Most fruit vendors in Bombay were UP Bhaiyyas, Shanti knew, and they were shrewd as devils. She had heard her father tell her mother that they bought mangoes at 50 rupees a dozen from Ratnagiri, the district which grew the world’s best Alphonso mangoes, and sold them in Bombay at 250 rupees a dozen in high season! Even at the end of the season, when Alphonso crops shriveled and rotted at the first monsoon showers and had to be disposed of instantly. Even then, Bhaiyya would not sell for less than 150 rupees a dozen. More than 10 rupees for a single mango.
Each year it was the same. Shanti’s mother would cajole and plead with her father to buy at least one—just to taste. And he would return home with perhaps three or four over-ripe, oozing Alphonso mangoes, bought for the princely sum of 40 or 50 rupees, a day’s pay for their entire family. And Shanti’s mother would painstakingly attempt to cut the half-rotting fruits into slivers of slices. With twelve greedy mouths, and her being the youngest, Shanti was lucky if she got a slice as large as her thumb.
And this year, her father had yelled at her mother not to even ask for a single ghaandu Apoos (the Marathi word for Alphonso), because the ghaandu things were four hundred ghaandu rupees this season because unseasonable rainfall had ruined most of the crop, or so the ghaandu fruit sellers said.
And Shanti had looked at her mother, condemned to her life of eighteen-hour days filled with hard labor and wretched squalor, and felt the tears rise in her eyes. Those few mouthfuls of mango were the only golden moments in her mother’s life, she knew. None of her six brothers, work-allergic uncle, senile grandparents and abusive, alcoholic father understood that. But Shanti did. She knew what the mangoes meant to Maa. She would live without having them one season, but it would cut out another piece of her heart and throw it to the slum rats to chew on. Another hammer blow in the daily bludgeoning of her hopes and dreams.
And now, here they were, right before her astonished eyes. Dozens upon dozens of the best Alphonso mangoes money could buy. Not the usual B-grade and C-grade ones that Bhaiyya sold in the chawl. The real A-quality ones that he took to Pali Market to sell to the servants and cooks of film stars and movie producers. The ones that came in the two-dozen cardboard boxes with the big Alphonso logo and the words Export Quality printed on the top. The ones that were exported to countries like America and Europe-land, where they sold for unimaginable sums, in dollars!
The ones that Shanti’s father had said would cost him more than his own prick was worth. Except he used the Marathi word for it: lauda.
She glanced at the pile of identical boxes stacked neatly in rows behind the dead fruit seller’s body. How many were there? More than she could count. Which meant more than 15. Each box filled with 24 beautiful golden fruits, nestled in yellow straw and white tissue paper. Worth more than several hundred laudas, by her father’s reckoning. She giggled at the thought, then stifled herself.
First, she had to figure out what to do about Bhaiyya’s corpse. Then she had to get these mangoes out of here. Before someone else found them. And shouted the word to the whole chawl. And 100,000 desperately poor souls descended on this cramped little fruit stall like a horde of bandicoot rats on a milk-fed infant, ripping and tearing and clawing every last golden gem to pulpy shreds.
She didn’t really care how Bhaiyya had died. The devi had done something to him, she guessed. Probably cancer or AIDS or that new disease she heard her older brothers talk about at night, the one the drug addicts always died of, OD.
She emerged from the stall and stepped back on the street, looking up and down both ways. Then she looked back at Bhaiyya’s stall. From out here, his body wasn’t visible, just the tips of his leather slippered feet, as if he was asleep in there.
The fruit stall was jammed between a seller of greeting cards and film star posters and a video parlor where all the slum boys lost their day’s earnings in those hungry slot machines. Three pulls on a brass lever and if the same fruits appeared in all three places, brass coins poured out like rain, a year’s earnings for any family in Ambedkar Chawl.
Neither of the other two places were open at this hour. It was only six in the morning, after all. The only people awake were the women thronging the municipal taps, doing their day’s washing, filling the buckets and pots and pans with precious water for the day’s cooking and cleaning. The taps were way on the far side of the chawl, but even so, Shanti could hear the distant tintinnabulation of brass, copper, steel and aluminum pots clashing as the women fought to fill their utensils in the one short hour of running water. In another half-hour, the early office commuters, the men and women who worked as cleaners and peons in offices in the city’s downtown business district, would emerge to catch the bus to Bandra Station. The bus stop was just down the lane, and anyone walking there would have to pass the fruit stall.
She had perhaps twenty minutes before they started coming. Perhaps they would walk past without looking too closely but if they did, if even one curious person peered too intently into the fruit stall and saw that Bhaiyya wasn’t just sleeping in there, then that would be the end of her mango fantasy.
She had twenty minutes to do something.
Her first thought was of Bharti. She could run to her hut, wake her and tell her what had happened. Bharti would understand. And she would know what to do. Together, they could get rid of the body. Or conceal it. Or whatever.
Then she remembered: Bharti was at the taps. And Maa would be, too. If Shanti went to the taps, Maa would see her and order her to help. As it was, she had pretended to have a tummy ache when Maa woke her, and it was only after five minutes of histrionic whining that Maa had allowed her to stay in the hut, supposedly sleeping.
She would have to take care of this on her own.
She heard the sound of an auto-rickshaw engine and started. Peering out of the stall, she saw old Doiphode starting up his rick, yanking hard on the lever that started the ignition. It caught and stalled twice more before finally roaring and farting into life, the sound loud and carrying in the early morning quiet. He was starting early today. Damn him.
She crouched inside the stall, behind the jackfruit boxes, until he had passed. He didn’t even glance inside as the three-wheeler bumbled past. But if he had . . . If he had turned his bony, misshapen head and looked directly into this crevice between the stacks of fruit boxes at Shanti squatting astraddle the Bhaiyya’s dead body . . .
Even the devi might not be able to get her out of that soup.
She peered out, watching the rick disappear down the road, heading toward Pali Market, leaving a trail of evil-colored puffs of pollution. The lane was clear now. But it might not be for long. Shanti didn’t need to check the wristwatch on Bhaiyya’s hand to know that she had perhaps fifteen minutes left to act, maybe less. She could tell just by listening to the sounds of the chawl.
She looked around, chewing the soft skin on the arch between her thumb and forefinger, the spot the rats liked to nibble on. She looked around desperately, her little brain whirring as fast as it could work, trying to figure out a way.
Her eyes fell on the ditch across the lane, the large rectangular hole cut into the ground by municipal workers to lay pipes or whatnot and left unfilled after they were done, over three months ago. And the open round mouth of the sewer hole beside it, its cover broken by the same workers and left un-replaced too.
Shanti stopped chewing on her hand and lowered it slowly. Her beady black eyes lit up with an inner light.
She had an idea.
• • • •
“You did what?” Bharti said, shocked. Then looked around and lowered her voice. They were in the open chaukhat, the square, tiled clearing in the center of the chawl that served as a community meeting place. Right now, it was filled with several women, grinding spices in large stone bowls with meter-long stone rods. It took two women to do the job, both working in tandem, thumping the crusher down on the spices and herbs in the silbutta, then raising it to allow her partner to do the same. Shanti had difficulty raising and lowering the crusher fast enough to keep pace with the grown women, but Bharti was patient enough to go slow for her sake.
“You dragged his body across the lane and pushed him into the sewer drain?” Bharti whispered, leaning over the silbutta. Shanti leaned forward too, the sinus-opening, eye-stinging odor of Indian masala wonderfully pleasing to her supercharged senses. “All by yourself? At six in the morning? Hai Ram, Shanti. I never realized you had such balls!”
Shanti giggled at the comment. “I don’t. That’s why I could do it. Because I don’t have those two squishy little tomatoes that men carry between their legs. That’s what always gets in their way and keeps them from doing any real work! But we women, we get the job done without talking too much. Right?”
Bharti stared at her, as if seeing her friend for the first time. And in a way, Shanti realized proudly, she was seeing her in a completely new light. Not as a younger girl to advise and guide, but as a young woman. A young woman with balls, as she had just said!
Then Bharti sniggered. The full meaning of Shanti’s response came to her and she coughed, choking back her laughter. They grinned at each other over the aromatic silbutta.
“So what are you going to do now?” Bharti asked.
Shanti glanced around. The other women were all busy grinding and chattering, lost in a rhythmic thump-thump chatter-chatter that was almost hypnotic. She leaned forward again, as much to smell the spices as to keep from being overheard.
“Have a mango feast!” she said.
Bharti nodded and shrugged her bony shoulders, as if to say, What else?
They resumed their pounding, working into a perfect tandem. The steady impact of the crusher striking the cushioned mass of the half-crushed spices in the bowl sent shivers of muscular stimulation up Shanti’s shoulder, down, down, all the way to the space between her thighs. Exciting her. Arousing her. She licked her lips. She could taste the mangoes right now. Juicy, ripe, swollen with dripping pulp. She could feel the nerves in her chin twitching with anticipation, tickled by the juices trickling down her face and neck, into the crevice between her unformed breasts.
She pounded harder, raising the crusher almost as high as Bharti’s, bringing it down with a force that shook all her joints. Building up to a crescendo. Her eyes met Bharti’s as she worked the crusher up and down. Their shared secret glowed like lightning in their eyes, leaping from one to the other like a rope of energy. Bharti’s mouth was open, and Shanti saw her tongue emerge, wet, red and glistening, to lick her parched lips, her face shivering with the impact of each down-thrust. Shanti concealed the gasp of her first orgasm with a thrust of the crusher that felt hard enough to crack the silbutta itself. And when she shut her eyes, an image of Bharti and she, naked on the floor of her hut, lying on a bed of skinned, juicy, ripe, Alphonso mangoes filled her mind.
• • • •
The first shock came when she opened the first box.
“Ch’aeela!” she exclaimed, her palm covering her mouth in that universal Maharashtrian reaction of surprise. And stared at the top layer of apoos fruits neatly arrayed in rows bifurcated by cardboard dividers. Her fists clutched handfuls of straw, and the straw tickled her cheeks and neck until she put it down and stared.
The mangoes were red.
Not golden yellow, as ripe Alphonso mangoes should be. Not green, as raw Alphonso mangoes should be. Not any shade between lime-green and golden yellow, as ripening Alphonso mangoes might be.
They were deep, maroonish red. The shade of her municipal school sash. The color of the BEST buses that plied Bombay’s roads, in anachronistic imitation of their British forebears. The color of a Hindu bride’s wedding gown.
The color of blood.
She was scared at first. Too scared to do more than stare at them and feel, in rising anger, that she had somehow been cheated. That the devi had answered her prayers but had tricked her by giving her bad fruit. Shanti felt as angry as if old Bhaiyya himself had sold her the fruit and she had spent her life savings and then opened the box only to discover that they were all rotten, maggot-infested.
“Cha’aeela,” Bharti repeated, coming closer to stare with disbelief at the impossibly colored fruits. She had been watching from the entrance of the stall until now, afraid to actually come into the place where death had struck down the old fruit seller. But now her curiosity got the better of her.
She peered short-sightedly at the box, eyes wide with disbelief and myopia. Shanti shoved the box aside, startling Bharti. She picked up another box, broke the paper seal—DO NOT BUY IF THIS SEAL IS BROKEN—and opened it up, riffling noisily through the straw concealing the top layer. Another dozen mangoes lay exposed.
They were red, too.
She searched through five more boxes before finally giving up. Then slumped to the ground, clutching her hair tightly at the roots, as if she meant to pull it out in huge clumps of frustration.
“Why?” she asked. “Why are they all like that?”
Bharti sat down beside her, cradling a box in her lap. She was examining the fruit with less fear now. “Look,” she said. “Except for the color, they look perfect. So nicely shaped, like a film star’s breasts. Firm, unblemished, and . . .” She poked a finger hesitantly at one, “just the right feel. Look at them, Shanti.”
Shanti looked at them. “But they’re red!” she cried. “Why are they red?”
Bharti’s hand stopped just short of picking up one. “Because they’re gifts from the devi. The devi killed UP-bhaiyya so that you could have them. They’re blood mangoes, Shanti.”
Shanti stared at her. “What?”
“Blood mangoes. Don’t you see? They’re the fruit of black magic and murder. They’re stained with the blood of their owner, the old fruit seller.” Bharti glanced around as if afraid that Bhaiyya might still be around somewhere, listening.
Shanti looked at the Alphonsos again. She picked one up and held it cupped in both her palms, like prasad, sanctified food. It was heavy and warm. And almost . . . alive? No, of course not. That throbbing was only her own angry blood rushing through her veins, her too-sensitive nerves working overtime.
“Blood mangoes,” she said.
“Yes,” Bharti whispered, staring in hushed awe at the fruit.
Shanti held it for another moment. The mango seemed to grow heavier, much heavier. And within her, a tiny voice seemed to speak, cajoling seductively, Eat me, enjoy me, relish me now.
She used the tip of her over-grown thumbnail to poke hesitantly at the eye of the mango. Bharti drew in a sharp breath and leaned back, away from her.
Shanti gripped the Alphonso with one hand, firmly, and pierced the eye with her thumbnail. For a second, she thought the mango would crack open like an egg, revealing a coiled serpent within, glistening red from its birth juices, small mouth flashing open to reveal a predator’s bone-white fangs, dripping venom as it flew at her face in a flurry.
Then Bharti exclaimed happily and Shanti forced herself to open her eyes.
She had peeled off one long strip of skin from the blood mango, from the eye to the other end, revealing the soft, juicy, succulent flesh within.
On the inside, it was golden yellow, just like an ordinary Alphonso mango. Shanti gasped in amazement and pleasure.
She exchanged a delighted smile with Bharti, then brought her thumbnail to her mouth, carrying a pulpful of dripping yellow flesh.
She forced herself to keep her eyes open, watching Bharti’s mesmerised face ripple with anticipation. She tasted the flesh, bit once, felt the fruit melt away like warm flesh, it’s just like living flesh—jelly on her tongue. And swallowed.
“Perfect,” she said with an enormous sigh. “The best Alphonso I’ve ever tasted.”
Bharti laughed once, shortly, in delighted relief.
Shanti held out the blood mango to her. “I told you, if it worked, I would share equal with you.”
Bharti hesitated, then took it. She skinned the rest of the blood mango in a few quick strokes. Then held the naked fruit in her hands, clasped together. She bit into the golden flesh and juice spurted across her cheeks and neck. She laughed in excitement.
“Perfect!” she echoed.
Shanti smiled and sent up a silent prayer to the devi. Forgive me, I should not have doubted you, Maa. Thank you for your gift. She then bent and picked up another blood mango.
• • • •
She figured out the solution to the next problem on her own. She waited until everyone else in the hut was asleep. Until her father had finished doing that thing he did some nights after he drank too much—rolling and groaning on top of Maa like he was wrestling with her. When she heard the arrhythmic orchestra of snores from the nine sleeping men in the house, she dug the blood mangoes from her school bag and carried them over to Maa.
Maa responded instantly to her nudging. Sitting up at once, concerned.
“Kai zaala?” she said softly.
Shanti pressed a finger to her mother’s lips—warning her to silence as well as giving her a whiff of the precious fruit—and indicated the rear of the hut. Maa joined her in the tiny rear space that served as bathing room, clothes drying space and wardrobe by day. By night, it was empty—leaving even a rag outside would be begging the neighbours to steal it. It was a moonless night, the only illumination coming from the street lights a hundred or so meters away, blocked by the only concrete structure in the chawl, the temple.
Shanti sat cross-legged, her mother joining her with a weary sigh. There was none of the shared thrill she had felt when she was younger, when the two of them had sat out here on poornima nights, oiling their hair by the light of the full moon, basking in the intimacy of being the only two women in a household of men—grandma was too old and cranky to count. She missed that intimacy, and in a way, she realized with a flash of insight, it was that feeling she sought and found in her time with Bharti now.
Maa was frowning at her, feeling her forehead. “Shanti?” she began. Then fell silent, staring at the fat ripe apoos Shanti was holding out to her. One in each hand.
Shanti was glad there was no moon. She had failed to take that into account when she hit upon this solution. If there was a moon, Maa would have been able to see that the apoos Shanti was giving her were not the normal golden yellow or lime green of ordinary apoos. But now, in this faint light, all she could see were two large mangoes, their shape unmistakeably Alphonso.
She took one, held it in her hand, staring at it in disbelief.
“For you, Maa,” Shanti said, her heart bursting with pride. “Both of them. I already ate.”
But her mother didn’t eat. Instead she looked at her strangely, her head cocked at a suspicious angle as she tried to make out Shanti’s features in the darkness.
“How did you get these, girl?” she said.
“Maa, they’re a gift. Just have them. They’re so juicy and sweet, you won’t believe!”
“Did you steal them?”
“Your friend, Bharti. She stole them?”
“Then what did you do to get them?”
Even in the darkness, Shanti could sense the disapproval and doubt in her mother’s eyes.
“Maa, believe me. They’re a gift. Enjoy them. Please.”
“A gift from a man?” her mother asked. “A boy? An older boy?”
Shanti sighed. “No, Maa. Not a boy.”
“Then who? Talk to me, girl. Tell me. What did you do to get these fruit? These are expensive. Twice the price your father bought last year. Who gave you such an expensive gift?”
Shanti was prepared for this too. She had worked it all out in her mind, knowing she had to give Maa the mangoes at night so she couldn’t see their skin color, and an explanation that satisfied her suspicious Maharashtrian mind.
“A memsaab I did some housework for,” she lied now. “She needed some masala ground in her house and Bharti asked me if I could help out.” She had told Bharti too, just in case Maa actually asked her to corroborate. “It was just two hours work on two days. And she said she could give us twenty rupees each. Or she could give us six mangoes.”
“Twenty rupees? But six mangoes like these would be worth five times that much!”
Shanti smiled. She knew her mother’s mind well. “Not six mangoes, Maa. Six each. That’s one dozen in all.”
Her mother gasped, astonished.
Shanti went on, pre-empting the inevitable question. “Her husband owns a plantation, Maa. At Ratnagiri. This year, because of early rain, the crop was getting spoilt. So they have lots of extra stock, but they don’t want to sell it all because then the prices will fall. So they hoard it in their house. You should see their bungalow, Maa. Hundreds of crates!”
Her mother looked at the mangoes now. Raised one to her nostrils and sniffed.
“Good ones,” she said. And Shanti could hear the tone of longing in her voice. “Eat them, Maa. Bharti and I already ate two each. And I hid the rest.”
Her mother hesitated, casting a glance at the interior of the hut.
“But your father, your brothers . . .”
Shanti had expected this as well. Her mother had a heart as soft and soluble as soap.
“Forget them, Maa. If we tell them, Baba will get angry with me for going to the memsaab’s house to work. The boys will be jealous because I got paid so well for so little work. That’s why I’m giving them to you quietly. These are for us, Maa. Just you and me. Please. Just eat them.”
Her mother was silent, thinking it over. In the distance, a pack of street dogs howled. Rats scuttered in the shadows of the tinfoil wall that separated their hut from the next one. The chorus of snores from inside continued to rise and fall raggedly. Shanti heard the faint yearning voice of the mangoes crying out silently, Eat me, enjoy me, relish me now.
Finally, her mother grunted in agreement. She began to peel the mango in quick, efficient strips.
“In any case,” she said softly as she began to feed greedily. “He bought one and ate it with his friends at the chawl bar the other night,” she said. “He thinks I don’t know! Ghaandu.”
Shanti smiled and hugged her knees, watching her mother eat.
• • • •
The trouble began two mornings later. A small forewarning came the day after she first ate the mangoes. She didn’t pass a movement the entire day. Squatting in a stall of the communal toilet at the far end of the stall—beside the municipal water taps, of course—she waited and waited. She was used to the stench of the place. And to the frogs and roaches and overhead dripping pipes. After all, like all the other chawl denizens, she helped clean them out when her number came up once a month. But it wasn’t the toilet that prevented her from relieving herself. She was just . . . empty. As if she had eaten nothing the previous day. Like the times she fasted with her mother, on Karvah Chauth and other Hindu festivals. But even then, there was usually some trickle of watery emission, the result of the tea and fried potatoes that was permissible on fasting days. Today, there was nothing at all. No deposit, no return. Although she had eaten four full mangoes—greedy pig—and a couple of rotis and daal for lunch, and was expecting loose movements rather than constipation.
Still, she thought nothing of it. Just went about her chores as usual. And in the late afternoon, when she and Bharti met again in the fruit seller’s stall, they gorged on more blood mangoes. She told Bharti about how she had fed her mother the previous night, the sheer thrill of having been able to do something that gave her mother pleasure. Bharti nodded empathetically, sucking on a seed like an infant at the teat.
Her face and hands were mango-smeared.
There was a sound on the street outside and Shanti started. She waited until the sound resolved itself into the familiar clankety-clang of old Dhondhu’s rusty bhelpuri handcart leaving for its evening business.
She and Bharti exchanged a quick, relieved smile. They had rearranged the stall to suggest that it was locked shut from the outside, leaving a small gap in the rear through which they let themselves in after making sure nobody was watching. But the sense of guilt was still as thick as smoke in here, especially to her. Each time she came in, she still expected to see UP-bhaiyya’s body lying there. Perhaps with the eyes open, orifices oozing blood, and grinning at her with teeth smeared with blood the way Bharti’s were smeared with mango juice, grinning and saying: “I’m getting married. Next month.”
Shanti blinked and paused in the middle of a bite. She was about to look around to see who had spoken. But the smile on Bharti’s face held her gaze. She was beaming and blushing both at once. Furiously proud and fiercely embarrassed.
Shanti put her mango down slowly.
“Married,” she repeated. “Next month.”
“To Ramesh Narayan,” Bharti went on, using a strip of newspaper to clean herself. There was a picture of Shah Rukh Khan on the paper and the superstar’s face was also smeared with mango juice when Bharti finished.
“To Ramesh Narayan,” Shanti repeated. She felt dull, brainless, dead.
Bharti looked at her curiously. “Why are you so shocked? You knew, didn’t you? My parents were talking about it for many weeks. Everybody knew.”
Shanti looked down for a moment. “Yes, I knew.”
And she had known. Had heard the usual girlish gossip and smutty jokes. But hadn’t believed. Hadn’t wanted to believe.
The tears started to come, unexpectedly and surprisingly quickly.
“Shanti?” Bharti said, concerned. “Shanti, what’s wrong?”
Shanti shook her head slowly from side to side. Then was unable to stop.
Bharti took her by the shoulders. And kissed her. The contact of their mango-lubricated mouths and lips was shocking, electrifying. Shanti moaned and leaned her head back, shutting her eyes. Tears flowed down her face, leaving snailish streaks through the drying mango residue.
“I’ll always be your friend, Shanti. But you know how it is. A girl is a burden on her parents until she’s married away. I have to do this. Someday, you will too. And then you’ll understand.”
But Shanti only shook her head again from side to side.
Bharti stared at her, alarmed at her reaction.
Shanti opened her eyes and Bharti recoiled at the pain and hurt revealed there.
She looked away guiltily. Then sighed with Hindu resignation and shrugged. What must be must be. Better to accept and go on. She kissed Shanti one last time. On the forehead this time. Like the first time they had shared one another’s intimacy, and it felt like the last time.
Then she left.
Shanti remained there in the fruit stall, surrounded by boxes of mangoes and other fruits. Crying freely.
After a long time, she realized that the unfinished mango still lay in her hands. She looked at it strangely, forgetting for a moment what it was, and was about to throw it away. Then she stopped herself, and continued eating.
She finished six more that same afternoon.
• • • •
The next morning, she woke feeling like she was pregnant. Or what she thought being pregnant must feel like. She had seen dozens of pregnancies in the chawl—there was a baby born at least every other week—and had a fair idea of the various stages involved. So when she woke and felt the weight of her belly, her first thought was, Ai-ga, I’m carrying. It was what all the girls said when they ate too much. But as the morning progressed and she went around her chores, the analogy began to take on literal meaning. It was as if she was carrying.
She barely managed to work the pump and haul the buckets at the taps that morning. Even some of the other girls noticed her slowness and remarked on it. She didn’t attempt a reply. Once, she felt someone’s eyes on her and raised her head to see Bharti looking away quickly. Shanti pursed her lips angrily and worked the pump harder, until Maa cried out to her to wait, foolish girl, the bucket was overflowing! After bringing the buckets home, she wanted nothing more than to lie down on her pallet and sleep another hour or two. But that was unthinkable. The boys were already up and about and there was physically no place for anyone to stretch out once the house was awake.
The toilets were full with long queues outside each stall. Little kids crossed their legs and grimaced as they strained to hold back their morning loads. Shanti would normally have waited. But something was stirring within her bowels. Something . . . strange. She remembered the mangoes she ate eaten with such relish and wondered for a moment . . . No, there couldn’t be anything wrong with them, could they? They were blood mangoes after all. Devi’s gifts. They wouldn’t affect her in any way. Still, some inner instinct made her step out of the line and walk the long way round the chawl to the little rubbish ground at the back. The open rectangular area was originally supposed to serve as a football ground, but over time, it had become little more than an alternate toilet-cum-rubbish dump. Dogs, cats, rats and roaches flourished here, and she had to step carefully among the aromatic refuse to find a clear spot. A few younger ones were already squatting at their business, clutching their cracked plastic mineral-water bottles. She recognized Coke among them: a slightly retarded boy who got his nickname from the giant 2-liter plastic bottle of Coke he always carried with him. He had it with him now, and for once it was serving some use, although not the one that manufacturers back in Atlanta might have envisioned, or desired.
A knife shot through her bowels, making her gasp softly. She glanced around guiltily to see if anyone had noticed, but they were all busy with their ablutions, sullenly squatting in the early morning stillness.
She picked a spot and squatted.
It happened almost immediately.
Something began to move within her. Really move. Not just the natural spasmodic jerking of the bowel muscles squeezing out their daily load. This was actual movement. She could feel it moving lower, lower, approaching her rectal passage. Then entering the last tunnel.
It was too big for her small passage. Much too big. She broke out into a sweat, perspiration dripping down her face. Scrunching up her face, tears spilling down her face.
She put a sleeve of her nightie into her mouth, champing down hard on it to keep from crying.
Still, the moans and cries of agony that left her clenched mouth turned heads and attracted curious, amused stares.
“Ay, tuzha mulga hoil?” called an older boy who ran with Shanti’s brothers. Usually, she would have shot back the standard response: Yeah, I’m having a baby, and you know what, I think he’s yours, motherfucker!
But she could barely stay conscious. Let alone speak.
The pain was unbelievable. She gritted her teeth, bit her tongue, chewed the insides of her cheeks, but nothing worked.
Finally, she felt it slide down, down, until its head was between her ass cheeks. Of course, the term “head” was metaphorical. She didn’t think it could be a head—what the devil was this thing anyway?—but the pain was so enormous, she couldn’t think of it as anything other than a birth. So much so, she kept glancing down to check that the thing was emerging from the rear passage, not the front one. Shanti, eleven, far too mature for her years, knew more about sexual procreation than most Indian grandparents.
She was convinced she was bleeding now. The sensation was so overpowering, the strain so great, she had to be bleeding.
But there was no blood emerging from her anus, not that she could see.
Just a trickle of milky, transparent fluid.
The trickle soon stopped. And then there was a moment of excruciating inactivity. Shanti peered down at her nether regions, bending her head down ostrich-style until she could smell the odor of her own emissions.
She waited. A couple of boys at the other end of the lot were squatting next to each other, their hands reaching out, chuckling suspiciously. She knew what they were up to: tweaking one another’s little-johns. She could see the tip of the “head” emerging from her anus. It was coated in that milky white fluid, slick and dripping off in large viscous drops. She clenched, and could see it emerge more fully, but it still stayed stubbornly jammed. Released, and it went up again, her sphincter ring forcing it back up.
There was no more pain now. Just agonized waiting. And the anticipation of more pain.
She had seen this stage before, in the chawl women undergoing labor. It was that time when the women were exhausted, drained by all the hours of labor, almost too tired to finish it. And then, urged on by midwives, doctors, nurses, whomever, they were motivated into trying harder one last time, using all their remaining strength to push the parasite out of their bodies.
“Push,” she told herself. Calling up the frenzied enthusiasm of those deliveries she had attended. “Push, Shanti, for God’s sake, push!”
She heaved, and strained, and clenched. Biting the sleeve of the nightie so hard, she actually tore through the bunched fabric, tasting cotton fibers in her mouth, chewing it like it was the jaw-breaking jageri taffy that the neighborhood sweetshop sold at Gudi Padwa.
And finally, it happened.
In one enormous swell of muscular clenching—the pain was blinding—Shanti felt her bowels finally release the object and shove it out through the virgin sphincter of her anus. It felt like the time she had swallowed a piece of jackfruit, a lump barely two inches long by an inch round. That had felt like she was dying.
This . . . this felt like . . . like nothing she had ever experienced before.
The last thing she felt was an enormous rushing out of her energies through that tiny ring of muscle at the base of her body. And then the slippery emergence of an object far too large to even comprehend, let alone imagine or actually see.
And she keeled over, falling into a heap of refuse, losing consciousness.
• • • •
She came back to her senses almost immediately. She knew that because the sounds around her were much the same. If she had been out for more than a few minutes, the chawl would be hustling and bustling with noise and activity. The other kids were gone, though. She had a faint memory of the boys calling out to each other about Shanti having a heart attack or something, and thought they might have come up close to take a gander at her naked lower body—she was lying with her chaddi down and her feminine secrets exposed to the dirty blue sky and the rest of the whole wide world—but she didn’t think they had dared to actually touch her.
Still, they might have told someone else, someone older, that Shanti had fainted dead away while doing her potty business, and one or more adults might arrive at any second to investigate.
She didn’t want anyone else to find her in this state, or to see what she had just produced.
Because it was unmistakable, lying there on the mud of the field in its viscous coating of milky white fluid. A fluid that was some kind of lubricant, she realized. And without which it would probably have torn her insides up badly.
It was enormous. Larger than any others of its kind that she had ever seen before in her life. Or had heard of. At least eight inches long—the length of her skinny forearm from wrist to elbow. Swelling egg-like to about five inches at its center: the span of her hand. Now that it was actually out of her body, she couldn’t imagine how it could have come from her tiny hole. No wonder it had felt so heavy inside her. It was as large as a small infant. Hell, she had seen babies smaller than this.
She used a shred of newspaper to wipe off the white lubricating fluid.
The sun emerged from over the building-tops just then, hot and bright even this early. Peeking over her shoulder, casting her shadow long and dark over the refuse-strewn ground. Shadowing the product of her bowels.
The fruit of her bowels, she thought, with her life-saving sense of dark wit.
Because that’s what it was. Impossible as it was to conceive. Or to deliver!
The largest, most perfect mango she had ever seen.
Not blood-red either, like the blood mangoes.
Golden yellow. Huge. Beautiful. Alphonso.
• • • •
Bharti’s father looked at her suspiciously. He was a short, crotchety man with a harelip and a foul temper. Shanti had often heard his reedy voice bellowing at night, audible across the half kilometer of chawl that separated her hut from Bharti’s hut. And of course he beat his wife, but that was common. He had never beaten Bharti, or used her the way some of the other fathers did, and for that reason alone, he was a good father by chawl standards. Also, he was a good provider, earning enough in his job as bank peon to put one square meal a day on the table. Which was more than most could claim.
“Bharti is sick,” he said gruffly, rubbing his hairy arms. In the torn, once-white banyan, he looked twice his age. Then again, everybody in the chawl looked twice their age.
“What’s wrong with her?” Shanti asked.
He didn’t reply. Instead, he hawked, called up a gob of paan-tinted phlegm which he spat into the trickling drain that ran parallel to the front door of his hut.
Shanti tried to find out about Bharti from the other girls. But nobody had seen her since that morning. Come to think of it, when Shanti had caught her looking at her at the taps, she had noticed a weariness about her friend. And a stiffness in her movements.
Of course. Bharti had been eating the blood mangoes too. Not as many as Shanti, perhaps three or four to her eight. But enough. She had probably been constipated, just like Shanti. And now she was trying to pass out the . . . dakshina. It wasn’t the right word for that thing that Shanti had passed out of her rectum this morning, but what else could she call it? Dakshina meant a gift for one’s lord or lady. And what else was that . . . mango . . . if not a gift owed to the devi.
After passing her exotic stool that morning, Shanti had wrapped it carefully in a discarded plastic bag she found in the rubbish lot. Had carried it discreetly to the mandir, to the tiny room at the back where almost nobody went. And had presented it to the devi with the suitable genuflections and mantras of invocation.
She had no doubt that this was the repayment demanded by the devi. The price of the blood mangoes.
She wanted to speak to Bharti, to tell her to simply pass the mango that was surely in her belly right now. And then to do with it what Shanti had done.
But Maa needed her to take care of chores that afternoon. She had to go to the ration office to get their quota of government-discounted sugar, wheat, rice and kerosene fuel for the month. And Shanti had a dozen things to take care of around the house. By the time she finished, it was evening. She ran to Bharti’s hut, dodging the inevitable unemployed young men lounging around in shorts and vests, smoking beedis, playing cards or carrom, and generally doing everything but looking for a steady job.
They called out an obscene comment that referred to the incident at the rubbish heap that morning, and she knew that the two homo boys must have spread the word of her noisy toilet session. If they only knew the truth.
Bharti’s hut was latched and padlocked. She stared at the large seven-level Godrej lock uncomprehendingly for several minutes, getting her breath back.
“Pata nahin,” said the surly neighbour, digging his nose, looking at the booger that emerged, and popping it in his mouth and chewing on it morosely. “Shayad hospital gaye.” Maybe she went to hospital.
At the mention of the word hospital, Shanti’s heart skipped a beat. Surely, it couldn’t be because of the mangoes? It had been torture, but Shanti had managed to pass it out all by herself. But then again, Bharti had once told her about a problem she had with potty. What was it she’d said? Piles? Yes, that was it. She suffered from piles. That was some kind of ailment that made it difficult to pass a movement. That much Shanti knew.
Could Bharti’s piles have caused her too much trouble in passing the mango? Perhaps that was why they had taken her to the hospital?
The next problem was finding out which hospital they had taken her to. Shanti would have guessed the local municipal hospital, since none of the chawl people could afford to pay for private medical care. But that was too far for her to go now, at this late hour. Her father would be home from work at any minute, and he wouldn’t accept any excuses for her not being home when he arrived. That was the strict rule. Unmarried girls had to be home after dark. Or else.
Shanti went home and tried to explain to her mother how important it was for her to go see Bharti in the hospital. But her mother was harried about the fact that she had only been able to get half their month’s supply of kerosene fuel, and no sugar at all.
“How are we going to cook food?” she asked herself as well as Shanti. “And if your father doesn’t get sugar in his morning tea, he will throw a fit, you know.”
Shanti didn’t reply. She was thinking of Bharti, lying in a hospital bed, suffering from the strain of the enormous mango trying to pass through her inner passages.
Please, devi, she prayed silently, let her be all right.
• • • •
But the next morning, when she awoke and heard the wailing of the women, she knew her prayers had not been answered. She learned the worst when she and her mother emerged from the hut to learn the source of the wailing. Bharti’s mother beat herself on her bony chest, tearing at her arms and hair as she lamented the untimely death of her young, marriageable daughter.
Shanti cried so intensely at the mourning, that afterward several chawl women remarked to her mother that it was sad that her daughter had lost her best friend. Only Ramesh Narayan looked at her through his beady, squinty eyes. As if he knew what she and Bharti had been doing all along, and hated her for it. Go fuck yourself, she told him silently through her eyes. At least you never got a chance to lay a hand on her. But that reminded her that she would never touch Bharti again too, and that brought on a fresh spell of crying.
“There, there,” her mother said, comforting her as the men dressed in white raised the bier to shoulder-height and carried the body away to the burning ghat. For once, Shanti was glad women were not allowed at cremation grounds. She couldn’t bear to see that beloved body scorched by the flames.
• • • •
That night, Shanti crept to the mandir, going around to the back. She peered into the devi’s altar room. As always, the leering blood-red deity sent a shiver of unease down her spine and she averted her eyes from the devi’s image. She scanned the floor, seeking the object she had placed before the altar the previous morning. The mango dakshina.
She saw the discarded skin of the fruit, lying in a corner, curled and drying. As if it had been torn apart and flung aside.
She forced herself to look at the deity.
There was a distinct smear on the mouth of the devi. The protruding red tongue glistened with juices. The jagged fangs, meant to portray the devi’s anthropomorphic abilities, were also smeared with the fruit’s pulp. A fleck of stringy mango was caught between a foretooth and a canine.
As she leaned closer, amazed at the implication of what she was seeing, Shanti heard a rattling voice whisper huskily:
Still hungry for more, child?
She had a hard time falling asleep that night.
• • • •
People were beginning to wonder where old UP-bhaiyya had gone by now. She heard the boys at the video game parlor muttering about a strange smell from the gutter across the street. And the greeting card seller was staring intently at the fruit stall as if he wanted to go inside and check out something for himself. Shanti waited until a distraction drew their attention away: a fire brigade arriving at the municipal school building up the road. Then, when nobody was looking, she slipped into the alley and went around to the rear of the stall, slipping through the hole in the corrugated aluminium that she and Bharti had bent back and then covered with a sheet of cardboard. There were several dozen blood mangoes still left. Shanti stared at them for almost half an hour, remembering Bharti and the things they had talked about, the things they had done together. She remembered the taste of her friend’s mango-smeared mouth on her own, and felt a quickening of her pulse, a tingling in her crotch. Tears fell from her large eyes.
I hate these ghaandu mangoes, she thought through a mist of grief. I’d give them all back just to have Bharti alive again. Every last one of them.
And then it struck her. Of course. That was the answer.
• • • •
She cut a small swatch of her hair, one square inch. It left a bald spot at the top of her scalp, but she didn’t care. She wasn’t interested in boys and marriage anyway. The blood was more difficult. She sliced too deeply with the razor blade and the bleeding wouldn’t stop. Finally, she had to rip off part of her nightie and tie it around her finger as tightly as possible.
She took the blood offerings to the devi’s shrine. Spoke the mantra with more passion and fervor than she had ever prayed before in her life. Beat her head against the floor of the shrine until her forehead was slick and wet and the dark stone flagstones were smeared with her blood.
Give me back my friend, she prayed. Give me Bharti again, alive and well.
A stirring in the shadows. But she never took her eyes off the deity. The protruding tongue of the goddess seemed to mock her desperation.
I demand it, she cried out silently. Raging. I have been your loyal devotee. I paid the price for the blood mangoes. Now give me this boon.
A distant rumbling in the sky sounded like the thunder of approaching monsoon clouds.
But it was months before the monsoons were due.
Shanti felt a soft, hot breath at the back of her neck. A prickling sensation that raised her fine downy arm hairs like static electricity. A voice that was neither recognizably male nor female spoke in a guttural whisper from behind her.
Will you pay the price? The full price?
Shanti almost hesitated. The memory of Bharti’s words flashed through her mind: “An eye for an eye, a gift for a gift . . . “ the older girl had hesitated, lowering her voice. “A life for a life.” The memory brought an ache to Shanti’s groin.
I will, she replied.
And the devi laughed behind her and disappeared.
• • • •
The next morning, Shanti woke and knew that it was done. The devi had kept her promise. The rest of her family was still asleep as she left the hut. She hurried directly to the only place possible.
Bharti was seated inside the fruit seller’s stall, in the shadows at the back, where they had always sat. Her back was to Shanti when she crept in through the rear hole, but she turned slightly, cocking her ear. She didn’t look burnt, even though Shanti had seen the urn of ashes brought home by Bharti’s father. She knew this was another Bharti, the devi’s Bharti, but she didn’t care. It was good enough for her.
“Shanti,” she said softly.
Shanti clutched her from behind, feeling her soft large breasts, her warmth, her feminine comfort. Tears spilled from her eyes, fat and salty.
Bharti’s belly was still full and swollen, as if with child. Shanti bent to kiss the full stomach, caressing it affectionately. She knew what was inside. More gifts for the devi.
“Never leave me again,” she sobbed. “Never.”
Bharti turned slowly to face her friend, her lover. Her eyes were as red as blood mangoes, her teeth jagged and sharp like the devi’s, her tongue lolling from her mouth.
Her voice rattled as if she had tiny pebbles in her mouth.
“Never,” she said.
And bent her head to Shanti’s neck.
To extract her price.