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“Chingariyan udney lagi shabnam ki choat se…”

The 20-year-old love song leaked out of the radio, filling the taxi Atmaram Pandit rode back home from work that evening. The line always made him smirk. Most people didn’t bother listening to the lyrics of Hindi film songs, but for Atmaram, that was the best part. It was like getting access to the secret recesses of the songwriter’s mind; and the insights usually sat there in broad daylight, for all to see, but only the attentive, like Atma, understood.

This line, he noticed, the very first time he heard it at the cinemas, was a direct reference to vaginal lubrication. Now, in a smelly taxi, after a long day, the words – allusions to female arousal, garbed in metaphors about dewy crevices – floated around him like fragments from a pretentious fantasy world, far away from the traffic, dust and grime of suburban Mumbai.

He pulled out his handkerchief from the back pocket of his trousers and fingered the money he kept in the folds. A middle-class habit he inherited from his father, Atma preferred this to the bulk of a wallet. The taxi stopped in front of the gate of his building. Now, a more recent song, a counterfeit Arabic tune, “De di, de di,” played.

Handing the fare to the driver, Atma sighed. Another ridiculous line made him smile again – something about “pyaar ke maheeney mein…” Like humans have some sort of annual mating season when women are in heat and men chase them down the streets trying to sniff their crotches. The combination of these lyrics and the blue lights inside the vehicle made it look like some sort of shady hypnosis van. The religious curios and posters on display added to the psychedelic ambience.   

In India, people wear their hearts on their sleeves, and their religions around their wrists, necks, on car dashboards, dangling from rear-view mirrors, perched on their work desks. In mere minutes, you know what God a stranger prays to, because this intimate information is accessorised and exhibited – a thread here, a smear there, a glint of metal somewhere… the clues are everywhere. Atma found this endearingly frank religiosity amusing.

When out on the streets, he was always struck by the number of references to divinity that filled his field of vision at any point – every third eatery, shop, building and street in Mumbai was named after a saint or deity. Moses Road, Jhulelal Apartments, Shiv Sagar Hotel, Something-Kripa, Shri-something, Dutta-something, Sai-something, even the most popular automobile brand was named after a mythical monkey. But for most, Maruti, named after Hanuman, hid in plain sight. But Atma saw. He also saw the morbid behind the mundane. Popular carbonated drink Pepsi, he knew, derived its name from peptides, gastrointestinal acids. And Strepsils, a cough confectionery, was named after throat bacteria, streptococcus.

Atma was exhausted. At the pathology laboratory, where he worked as a technician, he was invisible – an employee people noticed only when he didn’t show up. When he did his job, he was an insignificant cog in a large, impersonal system that didn’t recognise him by name or by face. Masked, anonymous, a harbinger of bad news, Atma had to wear a full-length plastic gown these days, lest he become host to the germs his clients spewed.

Nowadays, he made house visits, especially for the elderly and incapacitated, who couldn’t come to the lab for their tests. Atma went from house to house, drawing blood, sputum, urine and other bodily fluids crawling with invisible bacteria that gushed from his syringe into sterile test tubes. These thick microbial rivers were then studied by his superiors under microscopes, after he deposited them at the lab, in a room beyond his purview. His job ended when the reports flew from his laptop to the phones of these anxious, sick people, via cables that ran along the world’s ocean beds.

But after sundown, Atma entered a universe in which there was order, structure and a hierarchy that placed him on top. If he didn’t show up, his team faltered. In this pocket of his life, he had power; people feared him, some revered him, few even worshipped him. The line that demarcated his days from his nights was a single smear of his favourite maroon lipstick.

“It’s such a privilege to be beautiful,” he thought, as he draped his saree that evening, and went to the traffic signal downstairs, where he announced his arrival with a resounding clap.

Ashwini Gangal

Ashwini Gangal is a fiction writer based in Mumbai, and is moving to San Francisco by the end of 2022. She has had stories and poems published in literary magazines in the UK and Croatia.