The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
Fiction

Miss Mala

When the songwriter Azeem Gobindpuri was hired at ABC Productions, he immediately thought of his friend, the Music Director Bhatsave. Bhatsave was Marathi and had worked with Azeem on several films. Azeem knew how talented he was, and yet how can a man show off his skills when he’s working on stunt films? The poor guy was having a hard time making a name for himself.

Azeem spoke so highly of Bhatsave that the producer hired him. They signed a contract for three thousand rupees. As soon as Azeem signed, he got five hundred, which he gave to those he owed money. Bhatsave was very thankful for what Azeem had done, and he wanted to pay him back in some way. But then he thought about how Azeem was unlikely to accept anything. “No problem, I’ll get him later,” he thought. According to the contract, he was going to get five hundred rupees every month. He didn’t mention anything to Azeem. They both were busy doing their jobs.

Azeem wrote ten songs, four of which the producer liked. Bhatsave wrote two songs. They set these to music, and the producer liked them a lot.

They rehearsed for two or three weeks. The film’s first song was a chorus. The production manager was asked to find at least ten singing girls. But when he couldn’t find them, Bhatsave called Miss Mala. He knew she had a good voice, and she also knew a handful of other girls who sang well. Miss Mala Khandekar, as her name makes clear, was a Marathi girl from Kolhapur. Her Urdu was better than most, and she liked speaking it. She was quite young, but her face made her look older than she was, and she spoke in a way that gave the impression she was an adult. She had experienced life’s ups and downs. She called all the men at the studio “bhai jan,” and she became friends easily with everyone.

When Bhatsave called, she was very happy. It was her responsibility to find a dozen girls for the chorus. The very next day she showed up with twelve girls. They auditioned for Bhatsave. He kept seven and sent the rest home. He thought that would be fine: seven was enough, but he went ahead and asked Jagtap, the recording artist. “I’ll make it right,” Jagtap said. “I’ll record it so it sounds like there’re twenty girls singing.”

Jagtap was good at his job. Instead of using a soundproof room, he took them to a room whose walls were free of any sort of padding that might dampen the sound. The film “Faithless” celebrated the start of its shooting with a chorus. Hundreds of people came, including famous producers and distributors. The owner of ABC Productions went to great lengths to make sure everything was right.

Before the celebration, they went through the number a couple times. Miss Mala did everything Bhatsave asked. She told each and every girl to be on her toes and not to miss a beat. The first rehearsal pleased Bhatsave, and yet he wanted several more. Bhatsave asked Jagtap to make sure it sounded good. When Jagtap went to the sound truck and put on the headphones, he listened for a bit then said very loudly, “OK.” Everything was just as it should be.

Everyone was given headphones. The recording began. The microphones were turned on. Bhatsave’s voice boomed, “Song number one. First take. Ready, one, two … ” The chorus began to sing.

It went well. Not one of the seven girls made a mistake. The guests were pleased. The producer didn’t know anything about music but was very happy because all the guests praised the number. Bhatsave congratulated the instrumentalists and singers. He praised Miss Mala especially for how she was able to find singers at such short notice. He was hugging Jagtap when an assistant to Ranchord Das (the ABC Productions owner) came up saying that he would like to speak with him, Azeem as well.

They hurried to the studio’s other end where a party was underway. In front of all the guests, the producer gave a hundred-rupee note first to Bhatsave then to Azeem. The guests were seated in a little garden, and the sound of clapping echoed around them.

When the celebration finished, Bhatsave turned to Azeem, “We’ve got cash. Let’s go outdoors.”

Azeem didn’t understand, “Outdoors?”

Bhatsave smiled, “My boy, let’s go have some fun! You’ve a hundred rupees, and I do too—let’s go!”

Azeem finally got it. But he was scared of what Bhatsave meant. He was married. He had two small children. He’d never done this sort of thing before. But for the time being he was happy. He told himself, “OK, then, let’s see what happens.”

Bhatsave quickly flagged down a taxi. They got inside, and after a while they arrived at Grant Road.

“Where are we going, Bhatsave?” Azeem asked. Bhatsave smiled, “My aunt’s house.”

When they got to his “aunt’s” house, Miss Mala answered the door. She greeted them very warmly and welcomed them in. Then she ordered tea from a restaurant.

After drinking the tea, Bhatsave said, “We’ve come to have some fun. We’ve come to you. Please arrange something.”

Mala understood. She was indebted to Bhatsave. She spoke to him in Marathi, and the gist was she was ready to do anything for him. Actually, Bhatsave wanted to pay Azeem back for getting him the job. So he asked her to get him a girl.

Miss Mala freshened her makeup and they left. First, Miss Mala directed the cab to playback singer Shanta Karunakaran’s house. But she was already out with someone. Then they went to Ansuya’s house, but she wasn’t up to joining them.

Miss Mala was very upset that she’d taken them to two places, only to be disappointed each time. But she still thought things would work out. She turned the cab toward Gol Peitha. Krishna lived there. She was a fifteen- or sixteen-year-old Gujarati girl. She was an excellent singer with a delicate voice. Mala went inside and several minutes later came out with her. The girl clasped her hands together in greeting. Mala winked at Azeem, which seemed to say, “This one’s for you.”

Bhatsave felt like everything was going well. Krishna sat next to Azeem. Mala had told her what was going on, so Krishna began flirting. Azeem felt uncomfortable in the presence of women. Bhastave knew this, and so he stopped the taxi in front of a bar. He called Azeem in with him.

Azeem had drunk only on a couple occasions, and that too was in conjunction with work. He did as Bhatsave asked, drank two shots, and got drunk. Bhatsave bought a bottle and they went out to the taxi. But he didn’t know that Bhatsave had also bought two glasses and some bottles of soda.

Later, Azeem found out that Bhatsave had already told Krishna’s mother that the recording they’d done during the day had been bad so they had to rerecord at night. Krishna’s mother never let her daughter go out at night, but when Bhatsave said that they would be paid more money, then she told her daughter to go but to come back immediately after the recording and not to waste any time at the studio.

They arrived in Worli. This was where men looking for a good time would come with some girl in tow. There was a type of hill. I don’t know if it was natural or manmade. They climbed this. The whole area was like a plateau.

There were benches spread out, and each couple chose their own bench. Everyone understood you weren’t supposed to interfere in other people’s business. To complete his mission, Bhatsave turned Krishna over to Azeem, and he and Mala started walking off in another direction.

Bhatsave must have been 150 meters in the distance. Azeem, who felt thousands of miles separating him from unknown women, suddenly felt as though his fidelity began to wobble when left alone with Krishna. Krishna was a good-looking local girl. Light brown skin. Meaty. Brimming with youthful energy. In her youth were all the promises that such a girl presents. Azeem was drunk. He’d forgotten his wife. He thought to himself how good it would be to treat Krishna like his wife, if just for a little while.

He was thinking all sorts of naughty things. In part, this was due to the rum, but it was also due to the nearness of Krishna’s body. Usually he was very withdrawn and reticent. Then he started to tickle Krishna. He told her some jokes in his broken Gujarati. Then, who knows what he was thinking, but he yelled out to Bhatsave, “The police are coming! The police are coming!”

Bhatsave and Mala came over. He cursed out Azeem then started laughing when he realized Azeem had been joking. Bhatsave thought it would be better if they went to a hotel where there would be no danger of the police. The four were about to get up when a yellow-turbaned man came by. He spoke just like a police officer, “What are you people doing here at eleven o’clock at night? Don’t you know you can’t come here? It’s the law after ten!”

“Sir, we’re all in the movies,” Bhatsave answered.

“And this girl?” the guard said, pointing at Krishna.

“Her too. We didn’t mean anything in coming here. We work in the studio nearby. When we’re tired we come here to relax a little. Our shooting starts again at midnight.”

The yellow-turbaned guard seemed satisfied, but then he asked Bhatsave, “Why were you sitting over there?” At first, Bhatsave was worried, but then he regained his composure. He took Mala’s hand in his own and said, “This is my wife. Our taxi’s waiting at the bottom of the hill.”

There was a little more conversation then the four of them were free to go. After they got in the taxi, they tried to decide which hotel to go to. Azeem didn’t know anything about the type of hotels where a man can bring an unfamiliar woman to spend several hours alone. Bhatsave mistakenly asked Azeem where to go, but he had no idea. Then Bhatsave remembered the Sea View Hotel in the dockyards. He told the taxi driver to go there. Bhatsave paid for two rooms. One was for Azeem and Krishna, and the other was for him and Miss Khandekar. As she had been the whole night, Krishna was just waiting for what was to come, but Azeem, who had drunk two more shots and so had become philosophical, looked deeply at Krishna and wondered why such a young girl would set out on such a frightening path of sin. Why despite her tender years, does she seem so sexually uninhibited? How long would this dear girl—who didn’t eat meat herself—sell her own flesh? Azeem felt very sorry for her. Then he turned preacherly, “Krishna, leave this life of sin. For God’s sake, turn away from the path you’re on. You’re being led into a dark place from which you’ll not be able to escape. Prostitution is the worst thing you can do. Think of tonight as the night you saw the light because I’ve told you what’s right and wrong.” Hearing these words, Krishna thought instead that Azeem loved her, and she pressed herself against him. With this, Azeem forgot all he’d said.

Afterwards, he felt very ashamed. When he left his room, he found Bhatsave walking back and forth on the verandah. The way he was pacing made it seem as though an entire colony of wasps had stung him. When he saw Azeem, he stopped. He looked at the happy Krishna, and then he gnashed his teeth, “The bitch left.”

Azeem was so lost in his own world of shame that he didn’t understand, “Who?”

“Her—Mala.”

“Why?”

Bhatsave spoke with a strange annoyance, “We’d been kissing for a long time, but when I said, ‘Come here,’ she said, ‘You’re like my brother. I’m already married.’ And then she left. Her damn husband must’ve come home.”

Contributors

Matt Reeck

Matt Reeck has published translations from the French, Hindi, Urdu, and Korean. The Chronicle, his translation from the Urdu of the Man Booker International finalist Intizar Husain, was published in Nov. 2019 by Penguin-India.

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955) is a giant of South Asian fiction. His Urdu stories, vignettes, anecdotal prose, and satire place him squarely at the center of the Urdu canon. His continued cultural relevance can be attested to new dramatic works centered on his life and writing: the 2018 film Manto by the famous Indian actress, activist, and director Nandita Das, and the 2019 staging of Manto’s work by Motley, the Mumbai theater troupe of the famous Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah.

Aftab Ahmad

Aftab Ahmad earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Having served as the Director of the American Institute of Urdu Studies Program in Lucknow for five years, he began teaching as an Urdu lecturer at UC-Berkeley in 2006. “Reflections on Growing up Muslim in India,” his essay about being a religious minority in India, was recently published serially in Fire, an Urdu-language newspaper in Lucknow.

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues