Ayyan Mani’s thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours. His eyes were keen and knowing. A healthy moustache sheltered a perpetual smile. A dark tidy man, but somehow inexpensive.

He surveyed the twilight walkers. There were hundreds on the long concrete stretch by the Arabian Sea. Solitary young women in good shoes walked hastily, as if they were fleeing from the fate of looking like their mothers. Their proud breasts bounced, soft thighs shuddered at every step. Their tired high-caste faces, so fair and glistening with sweat, bore the grimace of exercise. He imagined they were all in the ecstasy of being seduced by him. Among them, he could tell, there were girls who had never exercised before. They had arrived after a sudden engagement to a suitable boy, and they walked with very long strides as though they were measuring the coastline. They had to shed fat quickly before the bridal night when they might yield on the pollen of a floral bed to a stranger. Calm unseeing old men walked with other old men, discussing the state of the nation. They had all the solutions. A reason why their wives walked half a mile away, in their own groups, talking about arthritis or about other women who were not present. Furtive lovers were beginning to arrive. They sat on the parapet and faced the sea, their hands straying or eyes filling depending on what stage the relationship was in. And their new jeans were so low that their meagre Indian buttocks peeped out as commas.

Ayyan looked with eyes that did not know how to show a cultured indifference. He often told Oja, ‘If you stare long enough at serious people they will begin to appear comical.’ So he looked. From behind, a girl with a bouncing pony tail and an iPod strung to her ears overtook him. Through her damp T-shirt he could see her firm youthful back. He quickened his pace, and regained his lead over her. And he tried to look at her face in the hope that she was not pretty. Beautiful women depressed him. They were like Mercedes, BlackBerry phones and sea-view homes.

The girl met his eyes for an instant and looked away without feeling flattered. She had a haughty face that would be a pleasure to tame. With love, poetry or a leather belt, perhaps. Whatever she liked. Her face did not show anything, but it did grow more cold. She was aware that she was being watched, not just by a strange brisk man but also by the unending hordes of miserable people all around who spread dengue and scratched her car. They were always there on the fringes of her world, gawking at her the way stray dogs look at good stock.

Ayyan slowed down and let her march ahead. A few feet away, a man stood still and stared at her. His head moved from left to right as she passed him. He was a short man who appeared to stand erect because his back was not long enough. Ayyan knew from the tension in his shirt that it was tucked straight into the underwear for a tighter grip. (The secret fashion of many men he knew.) A thin brown belt ran around his slender waist almost twice. His shirt pocket sagged under the weight of the many things it held. A red comb peeped from the back pocket of his trousers.

‘Stop staring at that girl,’ Ayyan said.

The little man was startled. He then opened his mouth in a sporting but silent laugh. Transient strings of saliva ran from the upper jaw to the lower.

They went to one of the pink concrete benches that were dedicated to the memory of a departed member of the Rotary Club.

‘Busy day,’ the man said, flapping his thighs. ‘I’m travelling. That’s why I troubled you, Mani. I wanted to settle this fast.’

‘It’s all right, my friend,’ Ayyan said, ‘The important thing is that we have managed to meet.’ He took out a piece of printed paper and handed it to him. ‘All the details are in this,’ Ayyan said.

The man studied it more carefully than he probably wanted to. And he tried to appear nonchalant when the envelope full of cash was thrust towards his chest.

After the little man left, with quick hectic steps to emphasize that he was busy, Ayyan continued to sit on the bench and stare. The game has to escalate, he told himself. It has to move to a different level. In a way, what he had just done was cruel. It was probably even a crime. But what must a man do? An ordinary clerk stranded in a big daunting world wants to feel the excitement of life, he wants to liberate his wife from the spell of jaundice-yellow walls. What must he do?

The crowd on the Worli Seaface was swelling: it was now a giant colourless swarm. Pale boys with defeat in their eyes walked in horizontal gangs; they giggled at the aerobics of unattainable women. And they did not give way to the hasty girls. Ayyan loved this about the city – the humid crowds, the great perpetual squeeze, the silent vengeance of the poor. In the miserly lifts and stuffed trains, he often heard the relief of afternoon farts, saw scales on strange faces and the veins in their still eyes. And the secret moustaches of women. And the terrible green freshness when they had been newly removed with a thread. He felt the shoves and pushes and the heaviness of paunches. This unnerving constriction of Mumbai he loved, because the congestion of hopeless shuffling human bodies he was born into was also, in a way, the fate of the rich. On the streets, in the trains, in the paltry gardens and beaches, everybody was poor. And that was fair.

The desperate lovers were still arriving and they quickly stole the gaps on the parapet between other fused couples. And they, too, sat facing the sea with their backs to the great passing crowds, arranged their bodies and did their discreet things. If there were ever a sudden almightly silence here you would hear a thousand bra straps snap. Among these lovers were married people, some of them even married to each other. When night fell, they went back to their one-room homes, which were as large as a Mercedes, to rejoin their children, elders, siblings, nephews and nieces, all heaped under a single roof in gigantic clusters of boiling tenements. Like the BDD chawl, the mother hell. People who knew what BDD stood for were not the kind who lived there. But Ayyan knew such things, even though he was born on a cold floor there, thirty-nine years ago.

It was a hive of ten thousand one-room homes carved inside a hundred and twenty identical three-storeyed buildings that stood like grey ruins, their paint long removed by old rains. A million clothes hung from the grilles of small dark windows. Portions of the outer walls, sometimes even roofs, kept falling off, especially in the calamitous rains of August. The chawls were built by the British more than eight decades ago in a belated attack of conscience to house the homeless. But the tenements turned out to be so badly constructed that the street dwellers refused to move in, seeing no point in forsaking the whole world and the blue sky in exchange for a small dark room on an endless corridor of gloom. So the buildings were converted into gaols to shove in freedom-fighters. The unclaimed one-room homes became inescapable cells. In this place that was spurned eight decades ago by even the homeless and which was once a prison, now lived over eighty thousand people who heaved and sighed with the burdens of new unions and the relief of death.

Ayyan made his way home down the broken, cobbled ways which ran between the stout buildings. Men and women, hundreds of them, just stood around. As if something bad had happened. Emaciated girls, with hollow chests, chatted among themselves. They were clean and eager, and there was hope in their eyes. Some of them were speaking to each other in English, for practice. They moved away to let a drunkard pass. Boys in tight counterfeit jeans, their arses like mangoes, wrestled with each other jovially, hand-to-hand, legs trying to trip. The expression of one of the boys was beginning to change. Someone was bending his finger. His face, at first in moronic mirth, now turned serious. A fight broke out.

But Ayyan loved going home. At the foot of the steep colonial stairways of Block Number Forty-One, a good marriage was the only incentive for a man to go up. He climbed the steps saying ‘kaay khabar’ to the men who were going down to drink. The women of BDD did not expect much from their men. Ageing mothers who had lost all their sons before those boys could turn thirty were still capable of laughing till they were breathless. Here the frailties of the male folk showed all the time in the tired faces of the newly dead, or in the vacant eyes of drunkards, or the resigned calm of the jobless boys who just sat for hours watching the world go by. In a way, this was the easiest place to be a man. To be alive was enough. To be sober and employed was ­fantastically impressive. Ayyan Mani was something of a legend.

Even though the men here loved Ayyan through the memories of a common childhood, he had long ago cut himself off from them. He laughed with them always, lent money and on humid nights chatted on the black tar-coated terrace about who exactly was the best batsman in the world, or about the builders who were interested in buying up the chawl, or about how Aiswharya Rai was not very beautiful if she were observed closely. But in his mind he did not accept these men. He had to abolish the world he grew up in to be able to plot new ways of escaping from it. Sometimes he saw bitterness in the eyes of his old friends who thought he had gone too far in life, leaving them all behind. That bitterness reassured him. The secret rage in their downcast eyes also reminded him of a truth which was dearer to him than anything else. That men, in reality, did not have friends in other men. That the fellowship of men, despite its joyous banter, old memories of exaggerated mischief and the altruism of sharing pornography, was actually a farcical fellowship. Because what a man really wanted was to be bigger than his friends.

Ayyan saw a young couple come down the steps. ‘All well?’ he asked. The boy smiled shyly. He was holding a travel bag. Ayyan knew that the bag was empty. It was a sign of love. In some rooms here, over a dozen lived. So the newly-weds slept on the illegal wooden lofts with the unspoken assurance that the rest of the family down below would not look up. Every now and then, incontinent couples went to cheap lodges in Parel or Worli carrying empty bags to pass off as tourists. Some carried their wedding albums too, in case the cops raided. They spent a day in a whole bed that was entirely their own and returned with fond memories of room-service and love. Ayyan had never had to do such a thing. Oja Mani came into his life after everybody else had departed. His three brothers had died of bleeding livers in a space of eighteen months, and a year later his father died of tuberculosis and his mother soon followed out of habit. He was twenty-seven-then, and Oja was seventeen. He had ushered her in, ­calculating that she would remain young long after he ceased to be fully potent.

He walked down the dim corridor of the third floor, which was the top floor. It was flanked by ageing pale yellow walls with huge cracks that ran like dark river systems. There were about forty open doors here. Unmoving shadows sat on the doorways and gaped. Old widows calmly combed their hair. Children ran happily on the ancient grey stones of the corridor.

He knocked on the only door on the corridor that was shut. As he waited, he felt the turbulence of all those open doors, and the milling shadows. An old familiar sorrow rose like vapour inside him. Oja was trapped here with him. Once, her youthful words used to rush out like a giggle; she used to sing to herself in the mornings. But eventually the chawl seeped into her. The darkness grew, and it sometimes stared at him through her big black eyes.

The door opened, somewhat slower and with far less anticipation than it used to years ago. Oja Mani appeared, her luxurious dark hair still wet from a new bath. As delicate as ever, entirely capable of touching her toes in the unlikely event of being asked to do so. But she was not sculpted by the vain exercises of those forward-caste women on the Worli Seaface. Beneath her thin red cotton nightdress, she had a slight paunch that might flatten out if she rested on her back.

Their home was exactly fifteen feet long and ten feet wide. There was a cleared patch of smooth grey stone floor at the centre. Along a wall were a television, a washing machine, a benevolent golden Buddha and a towering steel cupboard. At one end of the room, by the only window that was reinforced by a rusted iron grille, was a rudimentary kitchen that ran into a tiny stained-glass bathroom where one would fit, and two would be in a relationship.

Oja left the door open and went back to sit on the floor and stare at the television. From seven to nine every evening, she was hypnotized by the melancholic Tamil soaps. During this time she encouraged everybody to disappear. Ayyan sat beside her and watched the serial patiently.

‘Why is that woman crying?’ he asked to irritate her. ‘Last night too she was crying. She has no dialogue?’

Oja did not respond. Her own large interested eyes were moist.

He told her, ‘I come home after a hard day’s work and you just sit and watch TV?’

Her nostrils flared a bit but she chose to remain silent. That was her strategy.

‘You know, Oja,’ he said, as he began these things, ‘rich people have a name for everything. They even have a word for the time a man spends with his family.’

‘Really?’ she asked, without turning round.

‘They call it Quality Time.’

‘It’s English?’


‘Why should they name something like that?’

‘They name everything out there,’ he said. ‘You know, Oja. There are people in those tall buildings who suddenly begin to wonder, “Who am I? What am I?” And they have a name for that too.’

There was a knock at the door. Oja muttered that there was no peace in this place. When Ayyan opened the door, two little girls walked in. One was about ten and the other must have been two years younger. They said, both at once, ‘Guests have come to our house, we need chairs.’ And they carried away the two plastic chairs.

Oja shut the door and latched it firmly as though that would protect her from other intrusions that were lurking outside. She then sank onto the floor again. But the television erupted in the cheerful jingle of a shampoo commercial. She got up briskly and went to the kitchen. She knew the exact lengths of the commercial breaks. The first break was the longest and in that time she always tried to do most of her cooking.

‘Look at this,’ Ayyan said pointing at the commercial. ‘This woman has a problem. She has a big problem, actually. Her hair is thin and weak. That’s her problem. Now she is using a shampoo. Look now. She is happy. Her problem is solved. A man is ogling her and she looks at him sideways. Now her hair is very thick and strong.’

Ayyan was laughing, but Oja knew that the muscles around his temples must be moving. She did not turn from the trembling vessel on the stove. She waited for him to empty all his hate.

He was saying, ‘This is what these bastards think is a problem. Hairfall. That’s their big problem.’ Then he asked, ‘Where is Adi?’

Oja answered, ‘Girls and butterflies; boys and monkeys.’

Ayyan did not understand most of her proverbs. ‘Oja, where is he?’

‘God knows what that weird boy is up to,’ she said. Yet, it was she who had enthusiastically asked him to go away when the serial was about to begin.