You still keep a photo of the actress Nargis, black and white – cut out from a computer print-out and pixelated like starburst – pasted on the top right hand corner of your laptop screen. She is holding to a door post or a window frame, hair parted in the middle, face tilted to the right, eyes looking beyond you, mouth slightly open, top row of teeth. She is laughing, her laughter – luminous cloud, screen-right: above your head.
You imagine her laughter as fireflies, or electricity – something warm and light – while you tap on the computer keys, typing out letters demanding that loans be paid back in time. There is no need to think, Patrick says. Just match the bank statement to the money due and type in the name and address of those who have not paid the monthly installment. Fold and put into envelope. Stamp and send out. The debt collectors will take care of the rest.
The debt collectors do not come into the office. Even Patrick rarely does. Everything works by text messages and telephone. There is a telephone on your desk. But you do not pick it up when it rings. You have been told not to. Those who pay have no need to call, Patrick says. Don’t waste your time on those calling to explain. So you pause, fingers arched above keyboard each time the telephone rings and suck your breath in. One-two- three-four- five-six- seven-eight- nine. A few call a second time. Sometimes three. Nobody calls more than four times. The phone calls become more frequent at the end of the month – a gentle, insistent buzzing. You pause each time the telephone rings. It seems like the right thing to do.
You think of Nargis refusing to trade her body in exchange for a loan settlement in the movie Mother India, the one that made her famous. You imagine offering your body so the loans of a poor family can be cancelled. You sink in to a hard bed in a cheap, small hotel room – the straps of your dress already sliding down your shoulder. The debt collectors stand around the bed, laughing and joking. You have seen them before when they came into the office with Late Payments. Tall bodies smooth and hard as dark wax. Bulging out of tight, collarless tee shirts. Their faces bright with mocking. Small, colourless eyes roving.
There is always a window on the far wall. Warm sunlight floods in and lights up the side of your face. You settle back, adjust the curve of your bum on the mattress and smooth your skirt down at the same time. You are prepared for what must happen. The family is always the same. Middle-aged father, early forties, worried look – middle range executive. Mother with short hair and an office worker’s clothes. Sweet, reliable, almost sexless. Three children. You haven’t had time to sketch in all the details. Sometimes they are all daughters, the oldest twelve or thirteen and the youngest about five. Sometimes the youngest is a son. The family is both there and not there when the guys move in on you. You are not sure that you would like them to see you fucked but you want witnesses for your sacrifice, your martyrdom.
It makes you guilty that you are aroused imagining them watching you. In the end, the family thanks you. It is always the same. You stand up clutching your clothes – tired, exhausted – as the family crowds around you, just in front of the hard, single bed. We would have committed suicide. You have saved our lives. We will always remember you. But by now they are disembodied voices, their bodies faded out in the bright sunlight shining in from the window. You are the only one in the sunlight. The father promises to name one of his children after you. Or perhaps the children will name one of their own after you.
You look at Nargis in the photo each time you leave your cubicle. Your dress is bunched around your waist each time you get up. Flesh hangs from your cheeks, uppers arms, belly, waist and thighs like small sacks. The office is small, just a small square room, almost unfurnished – no windows, two tables adjacent to each other and a door. You pivot out of your seat carefully, like a glass bottle. You are careful not to knock over the small potted plant on the cubicle divider. It is plastic-shiny, stiff and thin after a year under flickering fluorescent light. A gift you bought for yourself one lonely Valentine’s Day while wandering around a shopping mall full of far brighter lights. The plant looked slightly more hopeful then.
You always take care not to upset the small things. It is the small things that upset you.
The corridors smell of sewage as you walk to buy your lunch, carefully locking the office door. It is an old building and reminds you of the rotting hulk of an old cruise ship moored deep inland, separated forever from the now far-away sea. Marooned tenants wander around corridors with faces full of resignation, careful to avoid eye contact with each other. You cross Tibetan Buddhist arts and crafts, Lucky Forever Maid Agency, Poh and Lee – Lawyers and Solicitors, Roxco Tours and Trav [the el missing] and three-and-a-half downgoing escalators to reach the food stall.
You prefer to eat your lunch alone. People have now started being a bother. Mothers talking about their children, young women taking pictures of food, texting their boyfriends, men adjusting the shoulder crease on women’s tops, food stall holders asking if you want a larger portion – all while you wait in the queue. You prefer to eat your lunch in your cubicle, watching Nargis movies on your hand phone. But you keep the sound muted – playing the soundtrack in your head and answering the male lead in your own voice. You know all the lines in each movie by heart.
Sometimes you just play songs from Nargis’ movies in an endless, silent loop. You sing the words out loud in the small, empty office. Rich film music – clarinets, trumpets, sitars, tablas and accordions – rises like strong, heady perfume inside you, laying rough hands all over your body: intoxicating, seducing.
You stand up, gathering the used food containers in your hand, flicking your hip in time with the music.
You are a lonely, rich girl – Rita in Awaara and Kammo in Chori Chori – full of goodness, adventure and life, yet misunderstood by people around you. At forty-three, your friends are all married and have children. They have stopped asking you about marriage. They now instead send you tired, old jokes on marriage, singlehood and sex. Usually sex.
You now live alone in a three-room flat full of unworn office clothes, silky burgundy bedspreads and travel bags. In the middle of a Housing Board heartland. The wooden surfaces of your flat smell of fragrant soap. Your parents divide their time between your married sister and brother and rarely come to your flat. You buy your dinner back home everyday.
Perhaps it was the music in your head, or the sudden draft of warm air from the old air conditioner that brushes your cheek. You decide to pick up the phone when it rings after lunch. He speaks in a deep baritone voice and even laughs as he tells you that he cannot pay his monthly payment. A lively, musical laugh. Something Shankar Jaikishan could have composed for Raat Aur Din or even Shree 420. You have always liked men who could laugh in difficult situations. Most men are too self-conscious and panicky – too tripped up over the small things. But here was a man laughing as he tells you he can’t pay his loan. You are head over heels.
You banter and play with him. You tell him that he should tell his wife to pay the loan for him. He tells you he does not have a wife. You are a cunning little devil. You have found out that he is single without even asking. He tries the same question on you. You stammer and your head is filled with the strangest music. He is kind. He tells you that a woman like you probably has more boyfriends than you can count.
You make little doodles on office stationery as you keep talking to him. He tells you he is a foreigner (why not, local men can be such bores!), runs his own risk consultancy (man with intelligence, ambition and drive!) and that he got into debt to pay for his sister’s kidney operation (thought so, a kind-hearted man being robbed blind by his relatives!).
When you finish, you have spent three hours talking to him. You put down the phone, find his record and fill it in with a fictitious record of monthly payment made.
He calls you again the next day, the day after and every day after that. At the same time. Right after lunch. You now both speak serious things – relationships, art, religion, politics and literature. He tells you he is too busy for a relationship or even for coffee. You figure out that if he is indeed so busy he will not have time for other women.
Small things such as these now make you happy.
At the end of each month he tells you he cannot make his monthly payment again. His family needed money urgently. His friends are in trouble. You decide that he is too kind and generous for his own good. You think of Nargis reforming the lovable criminal, the adorable villain in Awaara and Shree 420. You go on filling in fictitious monthly payments under his name.
You are in love. If there is one thing you can learn from watching Nargis: love fixes all things.
It may have been several months later. His entire loan is now paid up. You are doodling more firmly on office stationery as you tell him that you both must absolutely meet. It has gone on long enough and you want to see him.
He coughs and says that sure, you can meet. He is going on an important trip and you can both have dinner when he comes back. Two weeks from now.
Maybe they will find out one day that you have been cheating the company by filling in fake payments under his name. Or they may not. You make a call two weeks later to the hand phone that is in the company records and find out the line has been disconnected. You even write down the address of his flat and go there one evening – holding a file to make it all look official. An Indian family lives there and has never heard of him.
You stand there – expressionless, sanguine even. The ending just like it is in Mother India, where Nargis keeps her promise by shooting her bandit son to save the moneylender’s daughter from shame and dishonour.
It does not take you long to realise that he will never call again.
About the author
Sithuraj Ponraj writes fiction in both English and Tamil. His first collection of short stories in Tamil Maariligal [The Invariables] won the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize for Tamil Fiction as well as the 2017 Karikaar Chozan Award in Sri Lanka for Tamil short fiction. His first collection of Tamil poetry Kaatrai Kadanthaai won the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize Merit Award for poetry. His English short fiction and poetry have been published in international journals. His first English poetry collection The Flag Party has been scheduled for publication at the end of 2018.
About the artist
Born in Hunza, North Pakistan, Fatemah Baig moved to Rawalpindi with her parents when she was 6. She has loved drawing and painting since childhood. She completed her bachelor’s degree in design at National College of Arts, Lahore, in 2008. She is currently based in Lahore where she now works as a freelance graphic designer. Her art can be found on Instagram.
Images may not be reproduced without permission.