Day and night are separate countries in her mind, and the days are that much easier to get through. It is possible to cram things into the daytime, fill the hours with frenzied though solitary activity that keeps her busy, preoccupied enough to not think about what had happened, at least not in any well-ordered, logical way. There are days when she might start on a major housecleaning chore that could have been put off for another fortnight so that she’s nicely tired out by dinnertime. Or she might bake and frost a cake from scratch and eat it by herself over the next three days. She piles up such purposeful housework upon the web design projects she does for a living, working from the smallest bedroom in this tall and narrow red brick house in a South Calcutta bylane. She cannot sleep unless she is bone-weary. The Zolpidem tablets she continues to take, and has been taking for years, do not help.
When the evening arrives, there is a change. As the light descends slowly from the sky, the morning’s milk cartons, kitchen knives, coffee cups and newspaper comics retreat to a part of her mind that comes alive in the morning, and droops, flower-like, in the hard sun of this tropical city she has resided in all her life. She is able to snooze any serious alarm connected with any unfinished business that the day might have left in its wake. The prospect of tomorrow—an insistent prompting that tomorrow again she must deal with cooking meals and putting the garbage out—falls into a gentle and unobtrusive orbit around her, and does not seem to be in the nature of a burden.
She thinks there is a place in her head where she has learned to stow away thoughts that bob up and down in her mind half the night, things that have to do—one way or another—with what had happened. A dank, unlit, obscure little place, a hub of elderly bryophytes, like some medieval oubliette where the lords kept their prisoners and perhaps also their nubile female spoils of war. Something like the room where it happened, which was close and filthy and smelled of stale cigarette smoke and sweat from many different bodies. The bulb had gone, so they had left the door open to catch a shaft of light from the corridor.
They sat on the floor. They put on music and drank the cheap whiskey she had brought and in a short time she was very drunk; she had skipped breakfast because of her new diet, and lunch after a violent argument with her mother, and she had drunk little to begin with. She often brought them whiskey or cakes or books, because they liked to drink and because she had nothing else to give, and because they had been good to her, had taken her in each time she needed to get out of her mother’s house. They did not appear to be irritated or amazed by her bursts of weeping and her rages, they were infinitely patient, they didn’t let her pay at restaurants and loaned her money when she was short.
There were times when she plodded through whole afternoons trying to keep up with their protracted talk of films she hadn’t seen, and politics and travel. They each had opinions they defended stridently, and they were all seasoned backpackers. She listened and foraged in her mind for crumbs of unimportant but interesting, clever things she might say to prompt their respect, attain their approval, but they didn’t seem to expect as much of her. It was as if her being there was enough for them.
And they paid attention when she talked about her life and the novel she wanted to write. They listened with a loose, dry curiosity, in ways that her mother or boyfriend did not. Retrospecting about it all, while trying steer away from such thoughts and failing, she sees now that they told her nothing about their lives, nothing concrete, nothing identifiable. In fact, nothing at all.
She fumbled in the dark, found the edge of the narrow bed and hoisted herself up. She tried to dance.
Clapping. Hooting. An ovation of sorts. A crude glee sizzling in the darkness. She doesn’t remember a presentiment, any sense of danger, not at that point. She shook her ass harder—she was proud of her rump, she thought it ample and nicely shaped—and somebody patted it approvingly.
She tried to sit down and realized she was on the cool floor already. There were other hands on her breasts, her crotch. Her glasses removed gently. Hands—she wasn’t sure whose—light as feathers and warm, running up and down her body. Hunting. For buttons. The clasp of her belt. Fingers coaxing her mouth, then prising her jaw open and trickling in the leftover whiskey.
She needed to urinate. She’d had too much to drink. Somebody helped her to the toilet. A new, unclean stench here. She left the PVC door unlocked, in case she fell, or couldn’t undo the twitch. She was sick. She sank down on the damp concrete. When she opened her eyes, she was back in the room where it had happened, lying on her back. They were asleep. Five bodies, including hers, strewn in disarray across the discolored mattress.
She was fully dressed, except she had to fasten her belt. She couldn’t find her sandals and she didn’t spend time looking for them. She wanted to call a cab, but her phone had died. She picked up her handbag and walked out the door on her bare feet.
She gives thanks that it happened in a room. She knew a girl in college who told her about the time she had been picked up in a jeep and then three men had taken turns to rent open her vagina. She reads reports nearly every day; stories of women and girls—children—dragged away to warehouses, to fields of growing crops. Mutilated and abandoned. Choked. Burned. Grated to unrecognizable bits.
She hadn’t seen blood on her underwear. No swellings or blackenings or telltale bruises. No serious soreness or aches, aside from the unremitting reverberation of her heart about to leap out of her chest.
She is grateful that it happened in a room. Infinitely better than some meadow of dead, dry grass, or the backseat of a car.
She hadn’t slept, not really slept, for months afterwards. The summer nights were heavy, stifling, sultry. If she were exhausted, and if she opened all the windows and had all the lights turned on in the house, she was able to sleep a little toward morning.
Some days she went up and down the stairs time after time. Anything to spend every last drop of her strength. She jerked open the old wood shutters at every landing in the stairwell, counted the number of stairs, the flecks of dirt on the green-painted iron grilles, tallied the cracks on the red cement floors.
The monsoon arrived. She would be twenty-seven in July. She bought a camp bed and set it up on the terrace. She found she slept better there, under the dark, softly mobile cupola of the sky.
She did not try to shield herself when it rained, she did not run for cover. She let the cool water soak through her night-clothes and meet her skin like a lover.