The stranger, dark and muscular, was on top of her, thrusting himself into her with all his strength. He gagged her with his hand to prevent moans from escaping her mouth. She still had a fragment of modesty draped around her upper body in the form of a black stole that she wore occasionally. He was relentless. It went on for a long time until she was woken up by a call from her mother. “Maa, it’s Sunday. Will call you later,” she said and hung up. She woke up to a feeling of guilt, made worse by a tingling sensation in her breasts where she had seen the black stole some time ago. Now, half of it was lying on the other side of the bed. The other half was carelessly spread on the floor like an intimidating python.
She kept on thinking about why Samir made her that offer last night, of all the women at the party! The feeling made her heady, leaving her with a hangover more severe than from the little rum she had there. She never drank at such formal get-togethers. But she couldn't fight the urge to get sloshed after he made her that offer. Sujay remained out of her mind all this while.
She and Sujay were about to tie the knot in a few months. The difference between Samir and Sujay was the same as that between dream and reality—the two never coincide. Samir belonged to the category of men she had always liked: humorous, intelligent, and with a disarming personality that made it impossible to face them without a feeling of nervous excitement. All the same, she had known that she was too mediocre to aim for such lofty targets when it came to men.
So she decided that it wouldn't really destroy Sujay if she hid this from him. She wanted it to be her nasty little secret after marriage that would remind her of the wild things she once did before getting domesticated into a life of limited adventure and boundless drudgery.
Under the shower in the hazy mirror she noticed the tiny freckles that had appeared over her thighs and the cellulite on her waist. But she loved her sharp collar bones, the rounded breasts, and the curves. She traced with her fingers their depressions and elevations. She turned on the knob of the shower and felt the gush of water hitting her delicate breasts. “What if we end up making love in Samir’s studio?” she thought. The brief moment of titillation was rebuked by prolonged guilt.
When she pressed the doorbell at Samir’s house, she felt her body tightening up and didn't know if she would be able to pull off a smile when he opened the door. For a moment, she even considered going back. The reality of what she had prepared herself for dawned on her at that very moment, the one that elapsed between ringing of the doorbell and the sound of feet approaching the door. She heard the knob being turned. She thought of telling him that she didn't feel ready for it. She could apologise and leave after having coffee with him, if he would be nice enough to offer. But before she could make up her mind, she saw him flashing a smile at her.
He straightaway led her to his studio and they passed through a small corridor that overlooked his bedroom. It engulfed her in a strange sense of intimacy with him; in that moment, she was privy to his life and all things personal. It occurred to her that they both had willingly risked exposing themselves to each other. The walls of the studio were painted in pastel violet and bright sunlight filtered into the room through broad glass windows. There was little furniture besides an upholstered sofa and a wooden chair-table. She couldn't see any paintings in the room. As if he had read her thoughts, he said, “I use this room as my office as well as studio. I don't keep my paintings here because having nudes around can be distracting.” They laughed, albeit rather contrivedly.
“Make yourself comfortable here. In the meantime, I will get us some coffee,” he said and walked out of the room humming a song. She perched herself on the sofa and took a few deep breaths. She noticed the tiny hair that had begun sprouting on her arms. She was relieved that it was hardly noticeable. For the first time after she had arrived, she thought about how he looked that afternoon. Wearing an off-white kurta payjama, he looked as handsome as ever. She started fiddling with her phone to see if there were any new messages. There was one from Sujay, the reply to a message that she had sent him the
“Hey, you need some more time?” He was walking towards her with two mugs of coffee. “No, I think I’m okay.” She didn't know how else to answer. “No, I mean do you need some more time to get ready to pose? It’s okay. We will begin when you are totally comfortable,” he said matter-of-factly, as he placed the mugs on the table. A sudden surge of boldness took over her. It could turn out to be one of the most exciting experiences of her life. “Give me five minutes,” she said and he walked out of the room again.
She quickly came out of her clothes and put them neatly on one corner of the sofa. When she noticed that she had stacked her bra on top of other clothes, she instinctively stuffed it under her t-shirt. And then she had a good laugh at herself. She laughed at the fact that she was all set to let a man see her naked, but didn't want him to see what bra she wore. It was a strange feeling for her, standing there like that. She had shed her clothes for men before. But it had been in impassioned moments of madness when rational consciousness of bodies took a backseat. She hadn't exposed her body to the eyes of a male who seemed capable of devouring her whole that very moment. With his eyes alone.
He came into the room after a small tap on the door. She had occupied one corner of the sofa and sat there demurely cross-legged waiting for an instruction to leave his mouth. He threw cursory glances at her and began adjusting his canvas. Then he asked her to move to the centre of the sofa so that light fell on her adequately. Something about the way he looked at her made her feel both comfortable and humiliated. Comfortable because there was not a whiff of lust infecting the atmosphere. Humiliated because of the same reason perhaps. She felt insulted that her body wasn't interesting enough to evoke a reaction from him. Battling nebulous emotions in her mind, she quickly chided herself and sat upright. The idea of somebody lending permanence to her form seemed more exciting for the time being.
For the next couple of hours, he sketched in impervious silence while she shuttled between feeling acutely bored and extremely conscious of his eyes roving over her body. When she first saw him looking at her breasts, it sent down such tremours of pleasure that she could feel herself melting away. But the sincere expression on his face made her debauchery feel very trivial. Gradually, she began to feel like posing for a nude was something that came most naturally to her, it wasn't any different from sitting at a parlour stoically and watching someone paint her nails or scrub her toes. She couldn't wait for it to get over.
Then he motioned at her to tuck the hair that had strayed to her face behind her ear. She did that without too much movement to avoid disturbing his sketching. But he seemed dissatisfied. He looked at her for a moment longer and then came over to her. He leaned precariously close to her naked body and started playing with her hair. She was afraid he could hear the wild throbbing of her heart but felt his heart reciprocate. It was difficult to say who yielded more power in that moment, who could have led on the other. But it was a spell that came to an end when he found a perfect place for the stray hair to rest. He went back to his canvas and she sat there motionless trying to comprehend the moment that had passed her by. Her head began to spin.
They settled into calm after the brief storm that touched their bodies. He diligently sketched for another hour. The sun was about to set and he seemed in a hurry to finish the sketch. He narrowed his eyes and looked at her waist intently. The expression on his face was the most contemplative that she had witnessed in the last few hours. He let out a sigh and went and sat on the floor near her feet. She watched him in silence trying not to anticipate anything. He looked tired. His eyes were fixed on her body and she had grown used to it by then. Suddenly, he touched her at a spot on her lower stomach and traced his fingers on the mark where skin coalesced in the shape of an anchor.
“What is this?” he asked. “Hysterectomy. Eight months ago,” she answered. This was the moment she hadn’t seen coming but had feared nonetheless. Now she was exposing herself to him, telling him something that she didn’t tell most other people. For they didn’t need to know.
She suddenly felt incomplete, sitting there in full glory of her body and yet with a deep sense of deficiency. She felt that the revelation made her a lesser woman in his eyes. She had an instant urge to cry. He noticed that and scooped her in his arms. “Hey, it’s nothing major. It gives you more freedom to enjoy your life,” he tried to comfort her but she retorted, “I’m sick of people telling me that it doesn't matter. It matters to me a great deal. Why can't anyone understand that?”
He was taken aback and didn't know what to say. But she saw in his eyes a willingness to understand what she was saying. It was difficult for her to not go further. She wanted him to know how she felt. To her, he seemed to be at a vantage point from where he could see not just her bare body, but see her insides through it. No one had been in that position before. “It’s a matter of personal choice, you know. I had always wanted to experience the joy of giving birth. But now I can't. I love children and wanted to have one of my own. I feel incomplete. Then why is everybody telling me that it doesn't matter?”
“I’m sorry,” he muttered. “No, don't be. I’m marrying a man in a few months who says the same thing. My family thinks he is a godsend. But they don't know that he doesn’t care about most other things apart from his job.”
She thought she was telling him a bit too much, giving him unsolicited access to her life. But then she thought—who was he, anyway? What difference was it going to make in their lives, her and Sujay’s? She decided not to speak anymore. They sat together, holding hands, watching the sun go down from the glass windows. The night took over and the city came alive with dazzling brightness. “What about the sketch?” she finally asked. “Oh, don't worry, it’s done,” he said as he took off his kurta and lay beside her. She could feel something vibrate beside her hands. She put the phone off and tossed it on the sofa. She could think about how to handle Sujay later.
Nandita is a film journalist based in Mumbai. She writes on independent cinema and film festivals for national and international publications. In her free time, she dabbles in short fiction.
Ananya is a design student and dog lover. When she's not busy drawing odd faces, she loves munching on some grape-flavoured Tang while keeping her stationery intact. She has a weakness for fine-nibbed black pens and