I, too, know of perverts and what they do to unsuspecting boys. In dark halls. In public toilets. In municipal gardens. In juvenile homes.
Luckily, Starburst retracts its allegation in the next issue. And saves a dabbawallah from becoming an arsonist.
Meanwhile, things are hotting up offscreen, in seat A20. The old man slides closer to Salim. His leg casually brushes against Salim's. The first time, Salim thinks it is his own fault. The second time, he thinks it is an accident. The third time, he is convinced it is deliberate.
"Mohammad," he whispers to me, "I am going to give a tight kick to the bastard sitting next to me if he doesn't stop his wandering leg."
"Look how old he is, Salim. It's probably just tremors in his leg," I counsel.
The fight sequence has started and Salim is busy watching the action. Armaan has entered the villain's den and all hell is breaking loose. The hero uses all manner of feints and tackles -- boxing, karate, kung fu -- to give his opponents a licking.
The old man's hands are also getting into action. He presses his elbow against the common armrest and lets his arm slide next to Salim's, touching it ever so lightly. Salim hardly notices this. He is engrossed in the film, which is reaching its climax.
The most famous scene of the movie is about to happen. The one in which Armaan Ali dies after killing all the bad guys. His vest is soaked in blood. There are bullet wounds all over his body. His trousers are coated with dust and grime. He drags himself along the ground toward his mother, who has just arrived on the scene.
Salim is in tears. He leans forward and says poignantly, "Mother, I hope I have been a good son. Don't cry for me. Remember, dying an honorable death is better than living a coward's life."
Armaan's head is in his mother's lap. He is mimicking Salim: "Mother, I hope I have been a good son. Don't cry for me. Remember, dying an honorable death is better than living a coward's life." The mother is crying too as she cradles his bleeding head in her lap. Tears fall from her eyes on Armaan Ali's face. He grips her hand. His chest convulses.
Tears fall into my lap. I see another mother who kisses her baby many times on his forehead before placing him in a clothes bin, rearranging the clothes around him. In the background the wind howls. Sirens sound. The police have arrived, as usual, too late. After the hero has done all the work for them. They cannot do anything for him now.
I see that the bearded man's left hand has moved. It is now placed in Salim's lap and rests there gently. Salim is so engrossed in the death scene he does not register it. The old man is emboldened. He rubs his palm against Salim's jeans. As Armaan takes his last few breaths, the man increases his pressure on Salim's crotch, till he is almost gripping it.
Salim erupts. "You bloody motherfucker! You filthy pervert! I am going to kill you!" he screams and slaps the man's face. Hard.
The man hastily removes his hand from Salim's lap and tries to get up from his seat. But before he can lift himself completely, Salim makes a grab for him. He fails to catch the man's collar but gets hold of his beard. As Salim tugs, it comes off in his hand. The man leaps out of his seat with a strangled cry and dashes toward the exit, which is hardly twenty feet away.
At that very instant the electrical power in the theater fails and the generator kicks in. The screen goes blank, and the dark hall is dazzled as the emergency lights flick on. The man is caught unawares, like a deer in a car's headlamps. He whirls around, unsure of himself.
Just as suddenly, the power comes back. It was only a momentary interruption. The film resumes on the screen, the emergency lights are extinguished. The man rushes past the black curtains to the red EXIT sign, slams open the door, and disappears.
But in that split second Salim and I have seen a flash of hazel-green eyes. A chiseled nose. A cleft chin.
Copyright © 2005 by Vikas Swarup
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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