Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Sexual and Gender Violence - Stories: JANICE PARIAT

The first of a series of short fiction pieces that we will run through the April-June quarter. The stories fit the current Out of Print theme, sexual and gender violence.

This story by Janice Pariat captures the sense of oppression and helplessness of someone who is watched, and the same time throws at the reader the ambiguity of position of guardian and voyeur.


Fish Eye
Janice Pariat

Every night, the fish would lie above her, and wouldn't move.

It wasn't a small creature, not something out of a domestic aquarium she could flick away with a finger. It covered the length of her, perhaps more – she couldn't tell where the tail ended. In the dark, its eyes glowed a dim silver. She caught it in a dream, one night, in which she found herself on an island with a lake in the centre. And in the lake, the fish. Dull, ugly mud brown. Round–nosed and heavy. With a pair of long prehistoric antennae. It had, she supposed, followed her back. For here it was. Looming above her, almost touching, slippery, shiny yet dry, fins rippling, its gills quietly working the air. When she’d fall asleep, from exhaustion, and awake in the smoggy Delhi dawn, it’d be gone. Dispersed by daylight.

Then, she could see the window at the foot of her bed. The one everybody passed on their way up, or down, for her room was just off the curving staircase of the paying guest accommodation she lived in. Hers was the only single with a tiny attached bathroom. The others shared by young women working mostly at call centres and advertising agencies. She could hear them, on their way to the dining room or the terrace, in twos and threes, chatting in Hindi, their slippers slapping hard against the marble steps.

The silent ones were the household help, three young men, and her landlord.

She’d liked the place when she first saw it. Tucked away in GK II, along a wide, reasonably leafy road. With a gate, she noticed, low enough to jump over if required.
The owners occupied the ground floor: a middle-aged man named Sanjeev, his sari-clad wife, and their five-year-old son. Her dealings were with Sanjeev. The negotiation of rent, evening curfew, meal times, utility bills, laundry. ‘Welcome,’ he said, patting her shoulder, ‘I’m sure you’ll be very comfortable here. We are like your family.’

Her room was compact but airy; one window overlooked a frangipani tree, which she knew would blossom in winter. A few more months of caustic heat to bear. She’d filled the bookshelves, draped the table lamp with a scarf, strung up a line of blue fairy lights, laid out her hair brush, a vase, a pot of Pond’s face cream. It almost – for she’d come from far away – felt like home.

In the evenings, after she returned from the publishing house she worked at in Panchsheel, she’d leave only the fairy lights on, take a cool shower, and walk out of the bathroom enjoying the feel of fan-spun air on her naked skin. On a Friday, she’d usually get dressed, meet friends at a bar in a nearby market, get dizzyingly tipsy, flirt with someone she’d just met, either go home with him, or return to her own place, leveraging herself expertly over the gate. On other nights, she’d drape a towel around her shoulders, lie in bed, read. Often, she allowed her hand to slide lower, over the flat plane of her stomach, the dip of her thigh, between her legs. The book would fall, unattended. The towel torn astray. Against the low pull of her own breath, she would hear distantly, as though the sound was travelling underwater, the clink of dishes, a tv jingle or sudden laughter. After, she’d open the window and, even though it was against house rules, smoke.

Once, or twice, she thought she heard a shuffling, a quick movement outside her door, but, she told herself, it could be anyone rushing past. It was the staircase, after all, accessible to the entire household.

She didn't discover the gap at the bottom left edge of the window until over a month later. On one stiflingly hot Sunday afternoon, when her room had turned into a small, fierce furnace. There was nothing else to do but lie down, naked, with the fan swirling as fast as it could possibly go. Her skin was perpetually damp. It was too warm to read. To smoke. To lean over and pick up her Walkman. In boredom, she ran her fingers down her thigh, feeling that faint travelling tingle, a familiar tightness. Her eyes stayed closed. Until a sound, from the foot of her bed, no beyond that, the window, startled her. A short scuffle, a flurry of whispers. She thought she saw a shadow. There for a second, and then gone. She sat up, and noticed it because someone shifted, a perceptible slit in the frame. Suddenly, the quick rush of footfall, fleeing downstairs.

She rushed to the door, then realising her nakedness, leaned against it in shame. She grabbed her jeans, a t-shirt, and yanked the door open. The staircase was innocently empty, dull and musty in the heat. She paced, covering her room in nine steps. Replaying with each, in sequence, the vision of the shadow, the sound of fleeing, and the gash in the wood like a wound. If it was warm before, her face was now burning. Her hands suddenly clammy. After a while, she quietened. Brushed her hair. Put on a bra. A less revealing t-shirt. And walked downstairs.

The family were in the living room. When she rang the doorbell, Sanjeev’s wife was clearing away tea things, while father and son played with a cycle.

‘Please, please come in…’ he said, gesturing to the sofa. ‘Have some tea?’

She declined.

‘Is there some problem?’ He sat next to her.

‘Yes. I want to leave.’

‘Oh.’ His eyebrows almost touched his hairline.

He asked his wife to take the child away. ‘Did anything happen? Do you need something?’

She shook her head. ‘I have to leave.’

‘But beti … why? I thought you were happy and comfortable here.’

To her horror, she could feel the tiny hot prickle of tears.

‘Tell me…” he said, ‘we are like family only.’ Lightly, his hand grazed her knee.

She looked up, into his face, and knew he’d watched her too.

The smell in the room sharpened, of stale food, incense, and onions.

She repeated that she wanted to leave.

His face rearranged itself slightly. ‘If you want, beti, but you know I keep the deposit.’

The afternoon swung around her, or perhaps it was just her stomach. A sudden nausea. Three months worth. She couldn't afford it. ‘Please.’ Her voice was barely audible.
‘What can I do?’ He shrugged helplessly. ‘It’s in the contract…’  
  
She patched it up as best she could. With cello tape and paper. But returned to her room the next evening to find that someone had pierced it, a pinprick of a hole. She stuffed it with cotton wool. Then later found it on the floor. If she passed any of the young men who worked in the house, serving food, mopping floors, cooking, she’d keep her eyes lowered to the ground. She stopped eating in the dining room, bringing in cheap Chinese take-out, or watery Thai curries. Her laundry piled in the corner of the bathroom. She couldn't bear to take it upstairs, hang it out to dry. The girls who’d tried to talk to her when she’d just moved in gave up, passing her with a nod, a brief smile. She’d make it through to the end of the month. And then where would she go? She couldn't move in with someone from her work place. Her friends, since she was still so new to the city, were few. She took to sticking a cardboard square over the gap in the window; inevitably it would be pierced.

So she stopped stripping in the room, and dressed in the bathroom after a shower. If she lay on the bed, she covered herself with a sheet, pulled up tight to her chin, regardless of the weather, the heat. But at night. What would she do at night? When her body moved of its own accord. And her arms and legs might arrange themselves in provocative positions. When a t-shirt might slide up, the sheet slide down. When a strap may slip off her shoulder.
I mustn’t sleep, she chanted silently.

What would they see in the dark?

Everything.

She dreamed of the island the first night, after many, that she finally drifted off. It was small, everywhere around it, the sea. And she walked through an overgrown woodland path, the sunshine bright, glinting off trees and leaves. The lake was in the centre. The water so clear she could see all the way to the sandy stone bottom. And the fish unmoving, except for the light tangle of its antennae in the current. Only when she moved closer, did it heave forward, and she darted back in fright. But it stopped, at the edge. And they watched each other, silently, before she awoke.     

Now, every night, the fish would lie above her, and wouldn't move.
*
Janice Pariat is the author of Boats on Land: A Collection of Short Stories, 2012 and a novel Seahorse, 2014 both published by Random House, India. She was awarded the Young Writer Award from the Sahitya Akademi and the Crossword Book Award for Fiction in 2013. She is a literary columnist for The Hindu BL Ink and lives and works in Delhi.