"TB," Mrs. Asrani whispered to Mrs. Pathak that afternoon. "He was coughing blood when I took him his tea."
"Were all going to be infected!" Mrs. Pathak screamed at her husband that evening. "Blood all over my sari when I went to feed him!"
But the doctor Mr. Pathak had called in, at Mrs. Pathaks hysterical urging, had said there was no sign of tuberculosis, and further tests would be needed to diagnose what it was--tests that cost money, and which Mrs. Pathak quickly declared out of the question, it being bad enough that the doctor had charged his full fee and didnt these doctors have any heart, even for people who slept on the landings?
And now that Vishnu had soiled himself on their steps, on the very day that she was hosting her kitty party, what was Mr. Pathak going to do, and hadnt she warned him?
Mr. Pathak thought about continuing reading his paper, but he knew this would only infuriate his wife further. He put on his glasses to better appraise her anger. "I could call an ambulance . . ." he ventured.
At this, Mrs. Pathak got very excited. "An ambulance! An ambulance! We dont have money to send Rajan to a boarding school, and youre going to order an ambulance! For Vishnu!" For a second, Mr. Pathak wondered if he had provoked his wife into her occasional ritual of removing the gold bangles from her arms and telling him he might as well sell off her dowry. Fortunately, his infraction had not been serious enough, for Mrs. Pathaks anger seemed to quickly veer away. "Weve already paid for a doctor--if anyone pays for an ambulance, it should be them!" She spat out the last word at the wall separating their flat from the Asranis.
"Go talk to them," Mrs. Pathak ordered. "Tell them its their responsibility now."
Wearily, Mr. Pathak folded his newspaper. Summer weekends were the worst. The monsoons were still two months away.
IT IS A different red. He knows this color well. It is the red of her room: the ceiling, the walls, drip red. The girls are dancing downstairs, a film song rises through the floor. She dances with back toward a freestanding mirror, her arms swaying above her head. Her fingers caress the chameli on her wrist, they undo the string that holds them. She looks up at the flowers as they cascade over her face. Her hand slides down her arm with the music, her fingers move to her breast. She pulls open a clasp, her dress parts down the front. Rounded flesh peeks out from the cloth, the skin between is powdered white. Vishnu hears the ghungroos on the dancers feet below chiming to the music.
She turns around quickly and the dress falls to the floor. She grabs a side of the mirror with each hand and presses her body against it. Her back is swaying in front of Vishnu, he has still not seen her breasts.
Slowly, she peels her body off the mirror. Her breasts rise from the surface, like moons emerging from a pool. Her hair swings free, her body arches back, and her nipples turn into view--they ascend into the air, crowning the twin mounds of her body. Vishnu stares at them in fascination: drops of blood against white flesh, they are painted a bright iridescent red.
"Squeeze them," Padmini says, and Vishnus fingers close over each nipple. He rubs them and the red comes off on his fingertips.
"Taste them," she says, still bent backwards. Vishnu leans over. His tongue traces a path up her white breast and he tastes the chalkiness of the talcum. It reaches the nipple. The red feels sticky on his tongue, it is sweet colored syrup. She laughs as he bites her gently.
"On the bed," she says, and he lifts her up and carries her to it.
"Down below," she whispers, loosening the string of her skirt.
Vishnu pulls down the cloth. Her thighs are powdered white, between them Vishnu sees a triangle of garish red. "Slut!" he whispers.
opyright Manil Suri, 1999. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, WW Norton.
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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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