By Janet H. Swinney
Satish sits in his high chair with his spindly legs wound round one another in garudasana. He is wearing the uniform the company provided him with eighteen months ago: scarlet shorts with yellow stripes down the sides, and a blouson jacket that is far too big for him in the same colours. He also has a pair of goggles, picked up from a market stall, and a large canvas hat. The jacket has the word drishti inscribed on the back, and when he’d first put it on he’d been pretty damn proud of it. At least someone else in the family besides his mother had managed to get a job. Now, the jacket is beginning to show signs of being too long in the sun, and alongside the yellow stripes that run down the sleeves there is another one in a sort of bleached tapioca colour.
From his perch, he scans the bay. It’s still too early in the day for much to be going on. The European women might be up, but they’ll be at their yoga classes, or taking long, complicated breakfasts – that might feature cigarettes – in the beachfront cafés. As for the Indians, well God knows what they’ll be doing - knocking up a day’s supply of parathas probably. They don’t usually appear until nearly midday. The tide is just on the turn, licking voraciously at the foreshore; undercutting the beach, and leaving great creaming scallops of froth behind it as it slides back into the ocean. The sky is clear and the sun is already warming up, but the breeze is a little stiffer than you would normally expect for the time of year, making the flags on the marker posts flap briskly. Out in the blue bay, the surface of the water is covered with raised white eyebrows.
Two white men come down to the water, one young, one not-so-young. Father and son possibly. They compete with each other, swimming in towards the shore through the breaking waves. The older man is holding his own until a larger wave smacks him on the back and drags the pants off him. And that puts an end to that. Satish clicks his tongue. This is an error of judgement nearly all bathers make: they mistake the beauty of the sea for beneficent good nature. Still, this is what justifies his being here.
He watches another man in checked pants playing Frisbee by himself. Is that really possible? He looks around for a dog who might be serving as the man’s sparring partner. None to be seen. The man flicks his wrist and throws the plastic dish high into the air so that it circumscribes a parabolic arc, turning back upon itself some distance away. The man then jogs towards it at a steady and none-too-athletic pace and catches it as it nears the ground. Hai, hai! How sad. No playmates.
Having inspected his surroundings, Satish now turns his attention to his fingernails and, in particular, the one on the thumb of his left hand which denotes his membership of an obscure Vaishnavite sect. He has been cultivating this carefully. It now extends about an inch beyond the end of the digit, and is varnished a bright red. He likes the kudos the thumbnail brings him, marking him out as an insider in some clandestine group. He enjoys the look of wariness that crosses local people’s faces when they spot it. He likes the way Europeans recoil and then grow curious.
It was Dhirendra who’d got him involved in the whole business. Dhirendra is also a drishti, some years his senior and full of savvy. He says little about himself, but he rides a Kawasaki bike that his meagre wage doesn’t justify; wears a black t-shirt with the sleeves ripped out, and has a snake tattoo that starts by his ear, and curls down over his bicep.
Dhirendra is the kind of guy who mooches about the town of an evening, usually outside the loudest bars and wine shops. He’s on good terms with a remarkably large number of people it is important to know – bar owners, bouncers, security guards at posh residences and so on. After the power goes off at eight, he puts the bike into a low gear and trundles round the dark streets with the headlamp off, seeing what unusual goings-on he can uncover – fellows entering houses that are not their own; home-made hooch being transported in three wheelers; girls disposing of unwanted babies in garbage bins: that sort of thing. These days, Satish is often a passenger on the pillion, as Dhirendra roams the drinking dens and eateries and follows solitary women scuttling to get home after work.
Their meetings with their guru take place a couple of times a week. A handful of them cram into the small room he rents on the upper floor of a down-at-heel building. The form is this: the guru waits until they have all paid their respects, and then recites some scriptural homily, which he expounds upon, emphasising its supernatural properties. In no time at all, they are immersed in astral projection, the manipulation of auras, the casting of spells and all manner of other siddhis. Satish is already beginning to discover the lure of being able to menace someone just because you can, and is interested in learning more.
The guru is an excellent story-teller and, often, as he brews up some potent concoction for them all to drink, he also brews up tales of the remarkable things he has witnessed in the far-off pilgrimage places of the land. They ponder these at length, hoping to learn from them what they might apply in their own lives to right wrongs and reverse ill-fortune. Then, as they lie back on their divans, he summons favoured ones, presses a kumkum-covered thumb to their foreheads, and issues them with charms and mantras to assist them in their endeavours. Satish has already received a beginners’ mantra from which he hopes to graduate if he recites it often enough. ‘Submit to me, mere bachche,’ the guru says,’ his eyes glittering alluringly, ‘then whatever you desire, all is coming.’ Satish experiences a clenching feeling in his lower entrails.
Close inspection of the thumbnail reveals that the cuticle has started to grow back over the half moon and that he’s amassed a considerable amount of grime under it as a result of the oil change he helped Dhirendra perform on Sunday morning. Obviously some routine maintenance is required. Dhirendra has informed him that the nail will enable him to give female personages a good time. He has difficulty envisaging how, but he is loath to give up on the possibility before he’s had a chance to try it out. One thing, though: the nail is certainly a bloody big nuisance when it comes to using his cell phone.
In fact, he has two cell phones: one brick-sized one in a plastic bag that he is supposed to use for making calls to the emergency post in the main resort ˗ this he keeps strung up on the metal frame of the canopy that shelters him from the sun ˗ and his own, more slim-line affair, which he keeps in the pocket of his jacket. He takes out his own phone, and opens up Grand Theft Auto, Punjab, which he downloaded at the week-end, but hasn’t had a chance to try. He looks at the opening screen shot ˗ conveniently, the canopy means that he isn’t troubled by reflections ˗ and is just gearing up to start, when he notices the distinctive figure of Miss Mango Slice making her way along the shoreline.
Miss Mango Slice is the love of his life though she doesn’t know it. He calls her that because she always wears a yellow blouse and a concoction of yellow and orange shawls and skirts that he can’t quite fathom. And today, as usual, she has a red leather hat with a wide brim jammed firmly on her head. She makes her way towards him in a leisurely but purposeful manner, with her big basket braced on one hip, and her sweeping brush trailing from her other hand. He can’t take his eyes off her. He admires the way she paces herself. She works long hours, mostly in the hot sun, criss-crossing the beach systematically until the job is done. He struggles to think of what he might say to her once she gets close to him. He settles for a small joke:
‘Found any gold today, Miss Mango Slice?’
Miss Mango Slice looks up at him solemnly from beneath her hat. She waves her brush back in the direction from which she’s come and tells him that the Russians were fooling about late last night and had left beer bottles stuck in the sand just below the high water mark. Satish clicks his tongue to show he shares her outrage. ‘Idiots,’ he says. ‘Some kid could’ve got hurt.’
Miss Mango Slice is way below him socially. Poor though his family is, his mother would be horrified if she knew that he entertained thoughts of a relationship with a refuse collector. Miss Mango Slice is older than him too. That’s easy to tell. He doesn’t even know if she’s married, as she wears none of the usual markers. However, as he looks down into her laconic brown eyes, and notes the jittery earring that plays against her neck in the breeze, like a bunch of keys inviting entry, he knows he just doesn’t care.
Miss Mango Slice puts down the tools of her trade. She places a hand to her forehead and points out to sea. She asks him some question. Satish doesn’t follow what she’s saying at first, nor does he follow her gaze. Instead, he studies the elegant extension of her arm, the subtle angle of her bent wrist and the languid unfurling of her forefinger. He melts with desire. At last, he gathers his thoughts sufficiently to explain that, even with the help of the binoculars, he can’t see whose boat is standing to beyond the horizon. Miss Mango Slice smiles sadly. ‘Ah,’ she sighs. She gathers up her things, and drifts off again across the sand, showing him an excellent pair of pink heels and long, narrow, well-formed calves. Now it is his turn to sigh. Aam sutra! How he thirsts for her, and how hopeless that craving is. What can he ever do or say to displace in her affections the fellow who labours on the other side of the horizon?
Grand Theft Auto, Punjab is really disappointing. He has been looking forward to something that is authentically Indian, with over-laden trucks parmping their horns, meandering cows, and tractors chundering towards you on the wrong side of the carriageway. Yes, OK, the designers have factored in a few Indian vehicles ˗ a Mahindra Scorpio, a Tata Jeep ˗ but otherwise, the streetscape is undeniably American. He fiddles with it for a little while, doing his best to build up a bit of speed on the keys with his nuisance nail and his other thumb, then gives up in disgust.
Things are livening up a bit. A pallid girl comes and unfurls a towel in the shadow of a fishing boat and takes out a book. Satish examines the long slope of her breasts before they disappear into two scallops of bright pink bikini. The girl has a dog with her. It digs itself a trench alongside her, and settles down with its tongue hanging out. It looks as though it needs a book to read too. Then groups of Indian businessmen escaping from their hotels, and one or two families escaping from hum-drum domestic life start to arrive. The sea turns jade green in colour as the sun climbs higher in the sky.
Six businessmen unpack a cooler box full of Kingfisher. They disport the glossy bellies that overhang their shorts with a certain amount of pride, as evidence of the conscientious effort they have already applied to the consumption of alcohol and to the pursuit of the good life. Each of them has a compensatory stoop to offset the belly. Conversing loudly, like dowagers at a cocktail party, they dangle bottles of beer from limp wrists, as though it’s too much trouble to drink it, and finger cigarettes it’s too much effort to smoke. Perhaps they’re discussing sales figures, or maybe the women they had the night before. Satish watches them with distaste. They’re like a shoal of puffer fish with nowhere to go. He despises their indulgent behaviour, but covets the wealth that makes it possible. The men begin a disorderly game of kabbadi and are soon out of breath. More alcohol is taken.
Satish digs under his thumbnail with a tooth pick for a bit, and then gets back to his phone. He opens up Extreme Riptide, a body-boarding game. This looks more promising. He plugs in his earphones, and ties a scarf round his head to protect his face from the reflected midday sun. Beneath his hat, and above the scarf, only his shades are visible. Extreme Riptide is an altogether more interesting proposition. As Rory Riptide, you can get out on the waves, and learn to pull all kinds of tricks. The better you get, the higher you score. When you move up a level, you are rewarded with a new board. The visuals are pretty good, and the soundtrack has a pumping bass under a compelling guitar riff. You get a real sense of being on a beach on Australia’s Gold Coast. He grasps the principles quickly, and sets to with enthusiasm. As before, though, the jutting thumbnail cramps his style. Eventually, after due persistence, he manages a score of five hundred and twenty eight and feels pleased with himself.
Suddenly, it occurs to him that he’s thirsty. He glances at his waterproof watch. His shift should be coming to an end soon, but there’s no sign of Dhirendra who should be replacing him. He tries him on his cell phone. There’s no answer. He leaves a message for him: ‘Hey, bhai, where are you? Get your cool ass right down here. I’ve got something to show you.’ He knows Dhirendra isn’t easily impressed, but he gives it a try anyway.
A group of European women drop their sarongs on the beach and launch into the water. They’re followed by two young men. Most amuse themselves diving through the waves, but soon three of them are well out beyond the surf line, the two young men treading water, and one of the women doing a very commendable crawl. A party of Indian lads arrive, on high octane for the day. One of them is in a wheelchair. His mate is pushing him. The wheelchair doesn’t look anything very modern, maybe a cast off from a hospital department. Anyway, even though the crippled guy wears red leather gloves and snazzy trainers at the ends of his shrivelled legs, it’s clear he isn’t going anywhere fast. His mate heaves and shoves, but he can manage to move his cargo no more than a few centimetres at a time. The rest of the party runs shrieking into the water. The friend can contain his enthusiasm for the sea no longer. He leaves his wheelchair-bound comrade in the rough, his chair tilted forward in a nosedive towards the sand. The guy in the chair adjusts his spectacles philosophically with a leather-gloved hand. He has very dark skin. Perhaps he’s been left out in the sun more than once too often. ‘You and me both, bhai,’ Satish thinks bitterly.
Things are getting too complicated in the water. The Indians are thrashing about in the zones reserved for the whites. Of course, they haven’t troubled themselves to find out what the flags signify. The browns are supposed to go between the red flags right in front of him, whereas the whites can go in the areas on either side, marked out by red and yellow flags. Beyond that are areas where you go at your own peril, as nobody is guarding them. On the drishti training course, it had been explained that Europeans generally know how to swim and have a better idea of how to handle themselves in the water, whereas Indians, on the whole, are hopeless. This was why there were separate zones. Satish wonders about his own situation as a dark-skinned man. What should he do if someone were to get into trouble in the white-skin area? Is he just supposed to stand at the edge and shout? He doesn’t feel the course fully addressed this matter. Anyway, things are getting chaotic and he needs to do something about it.
Reluctantly, he puts his phone aside and climbs down from his chair. He stalks to and fro along the beach, blowing his whistle, and waving his arms at the errant Indians. If they notice him at all, they look back at him uncomprehendingly. He keeps at it for several minutes, effecting some minor change, and then gives up. The tide is ebbing fast, so while he’s down, he takes the opportunity to move the flags further down the foreshore, and wheels his lookout post forward. He reorganises the surfboard and his float and climbs back up again.
Dhirendra really ought to be here by now. He tries phoning him again. Still no answer. He elaborates the message he has already left, trying to sound upbeat rather than anxious, which would be really uncool.
At last, Rory Riptide performs a competent series of basic manoeuvres, and Satish accumulates a score that allows him to move up to intermediate level. Yay! He still needs to get his left hand technique sorted out though. Things are still far too slow using the thumbnail, and his rate of inaccuracy is far too high. He tries a few rounds using his forefinger, and another few using his pinkie, but no go: Rory crashes repeatedly into the water. Advanced aerial manoeuvres are going to be an impossibility if he can’t gain any greater mastery than this. He adjusts his sun glasses, furrows his brow and applies himself with fevered concentration.
Suddenly, a stillness descends, as though something has stopped. The sun is at its zenith. The white woman has finished churning to and fro across the bay; the reader and her dog have gone for lunch; the young men have trundled their friend away, and a pleasure craft has whisked the businessmen off to a drinking paradise in another bay. Miss Mango Slice is nowhere to be seen. The whole place is in suspended animation.
Satish stops playing. He is desperately uncomfortable. His mouth is dry and his belly is rattling. He is gasping for a drink of water, but there is no-one he can ask, and he can’t leave his post. If anything were to go wrong while he were away, he would be in deep trouble. He tries Dhirendra’s number again. This time there’s a mumbling voice.
‘Where the hell are you, bhai? I’m frying to a potato chip here.’ More mumbling. This time he makes out the words, ‘Fuel tank leaking.’
‘Are you stoned? Or more?’ There’s a belch followed by a scream of laughter at the other end. Shit! Satish ends the call.
He’s stuck now, torn between loyalty to his friend and seeing to his own pressing needs. If he phones HQ for relief, it could make trouble for Dhirendra. It wouldn’t be the first time he hadn’t turned up for work. In any case, the roster is pretty tight and it would take them an age to find someone to replace him and then to get them here. He decides to sit out the first part of the afternoon in the hope that Dhirendra might get his head together, realise the spot he’s placed his friend in and eventually turn up. It’s a fond hope, he knows, but he’s short on ideas. He’s furious about being exploited, but he has more than a sneaking admiration for Dhirendra’s libertarian attitude.
The sky whitens with the heat. Two hawks drift out from the palm trees that line the beach, and soar out over the sea, first one taking the lead and then the other. Four dogs prance down to the water’s edge. After a dancing a brief quadrille, two of them suddenly plonk themselves down in the waves to cool their balls. Satish sits in his spindly chair like a scorpion roasting on a stick. There’s only one thing he can do to take his mind off the situation: he sets about persuading Rory to learn some new tricks.
It’s about a quarter past two. He’s just completed a particularly satisfying game where he’s managed to get Rory to carve for ages along the barrel of a wave and emerge unscathed when he notices some activity along the foreshore. It’s Eddie Carvalho untangling the kite-boarding kit his nephew brought back from Dubai last year. There are few bathers around now, but Eddie’s noticed the lively breeze, and come down to the beach to see what business he can drum up. He’s caught the interest of one white man, a tall chap with the minimum of hair and the maximum in shorts, who’s sniffing around waiting for the kit to be assembled. Eddie gets the stuff organised, and appears to offer some instruction. Satish gathers from the shrug of the white guy’s shoulders and the flap of his hands that he’s brushing this aside. Maybe he has some experience of kite-boarding already, or maybe he thinks there’s nothing an Indian can tell him he doesn’t already know. He flounders about a bit in the shallows, and then ˗ whup! ˗ there he is, up on the board and off.
Satish watches him stutter out across the bay. He starts cautiously at first with a straight run out and a straight run back. There’s a stiffness in his body that those who are fluent in water sports no longer have. His bent-leg stance suggests someone who is trying to avoid sitting on a spike. He carries on with the straight runs until he gets the feel of it. Then he starts on arcs, modest ones initially, tacking round one side of the bay and then back. Then he tries the other side. Same again. Little by little, he increases the size of the arcs. Once or twice, he loses control of the kite and it collapses into the sea. When this happens, he stays in the water for a while, thrashing about. Then he manages to launch the kite again and, as it creeps into the sky, he is hauled from the waves to resume his quasi-seated position. The guy may not be as proficient as he would like to think, but he’s dedicated. As there’s no sign of imminent danger, Satish gets back to trying to get Rory to back flip out of the lip of the wave. It’s very frustrating: the nail makes him so much clumsier and so much slower than he needs to be. Rory topples off his board once again.
The next time he looks up, the white guy is performing a lurching series of figure eights. The bulging kite twists and turns above him, sometimes turning red, sometimes blue, against the ocean. A handful of stragglers have come down to the water’s edge to watch him. A European with a vast zoom lens on his camera is trying to follow the action. Satish wouldn’t mind being able to perform such feats himself. There’s no point in even thinking about it, though. Where would he get the money from? Unless...?
‘Submit to me, mere bachche, then whatever you desire, all is coming.’
Satish wavers momentarily, then gets back to his game.
By late afternoon, the guy is still at it. The sky is now the colour of a dirty dish towel, the sun hanging like a molten eye at its centre. The face of every breaking wave is chromium plated, and the surface of the sea an incandescent sheet of beaten metal. The man and his kite are visible only in silhouette. The stragglers have gone. The breeze has strengthened, fixing the flags on the poles at an unwavering horizontal, and sending scarves of sand snaking across the beach. Only Satish remains, wilting in his canvas tabernacle, and Eddie, pacing frantically to and fro along the shoreline. The white guy has been out there for far longer than he has paid for, with the most valuable asset Eddie possesses.
It is evident to Satish now that he is stuck here for the double shift. The sides of his throat cling together through lack of water, and he feels sick with hunger. The backs of his eyes ache. Once he gets out of here, he will have to reassess his allegiances. He looks out to sea briefly. The guy on the kiteboard is careening out towards the horizon at a tremendous lick. His figure is so small that Eddie waving to him from the beach must be totally invisible to him. What the hell is he playing at? Is it some kind of off-shore smuggling ruse? Is he expecting a delivery of gold nuggets to his generously proportioned shorts?
Satish considers what he would do if the guy got into trouble now. While further up the coast at the larger resorts, the lifeguards have a Sea-Doo at their service, he has only a battered surfboard with a bent fin and a load of running repairs along the edge. Even if he were to paddle like a fan set on turbo, there’s no way he could make it that far out. Let the fellow carry on to Djibouti if that’s what he wants, then he’ll have only himself to answer to.
But, at the last possible instant, before disappearing over the horizon, the kiteboarder changes course. Slowly he grows in size. Mercifully, despite the offshore winds, he manages to execute a change of direction, and starts heading inshore. Satish breathes a sigh of relief. The guy will be back on the beach in a matter of minutes. He attacks intermediate level again, plugging his headphones deep into his ears so that he gets the full benefit of the soundtrack. He is determined to get to advanced level, where you have to avoid obstacles, like rocks and buoys, before his double shift is over. At least then he’ll be able to say he’s done something worthwhile with his day. And he can shove that right up Dhirendra’s groovy ass.
But the kiteboarder has his own agenda. He decides to take a complicated route back to the shore. Instead of setting his sights on Eddie, he veers towards the slew of rocks that are the outliers of the headland on the northern side of the bay. Eddie dances an apoplectic dance on the edge of the beach. Not even the locals go near this shoal of rocks because of the treacherous currents.
Satish frenetically dabbles his keyboard, trying to get Rory to perfect an air roll spin.
The kiteboarder weaves erratically in and out of the rocks. Sometimes only his kite is visible as the rocks grow larger; sometimes he is visible too in the feisty gaps in between. There are strange hesitations in his line of progress, odd moments when the kite hangs in the air and nothing seems to happen, and others where he bounces forward in what appears to be a surfeit of enthusiasm. Eddie has his fists to his mouth and is holding his breath.
Satish’s thumbs jiggle frantically up and down above the keypad. Every now and then, he bangs his feet on the top rung of his chair to help him pull off a trick.
The kiteboarder is now tearing towards the headland proper. It’s not clear that he can avoid the wall of rock. Suddenly, the billowing kite jerks and pivots several times on its lines, then both it and its human freight are lost to the gaze of any observer. But only Eddie is watching, and he drops to his knees in despair.
Satish battles on furiously, tapping and clicking, the driving guitar riff swelling repetitively inside his ears. Success is within his grasp.
Then, unannounced, the kite appears above the headland, its shape like a curl of potato peel or a clipping from a fingernail. It cruises in stately fashion behind the stand of palm trees that crown the headland and then, freed from its human cargo, and as though bidding goodnight, disappears finally from view. Eddie lets out a yelp.
Satish fouls up with the thumbnail, and it skids right off the keypad. Rory executes an ungainly pirouette and takes yet another tumble. Satish swears and looks up. He yanks the headphones off and observes the empty ocean.
Like someone returning from a lengthy journey, it takes a moment for him to connect. Shit! Now he really is in trouble. He looks fixedly at the nail and then at his phone. Nail, cell phone. Nail, cell phone. ‘Submit to me, mere bachche, then whatever you desire, all is coming.’ Somewhere behind him, up beyond the fringe of palm trees, he hears the faint but familiar cackle of a motorbike. He stands on the top step of his chair and, mustering all the strength he can, flings his cell phone far out into the surf.
Janet H. Swinney is a widely published British writer whose work has appeared in ten print anthologies. The Map of Bihar was published in the UK (Earlyworks Press) and in the USA (Hopewell Publications), where it appeared in Best New Writing 2013 and was nominated for the Eric Hoffer prize for prose 2012. In 2014, she was runner-up in the London Short Story Competition. Her impressive body of work continues to grow.