I swear I will tell you each word of the story as he had whispered in my ears.
I first met him at Sadar Bazar in Agra. I had just purchased a paperback called Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and was sipping a cup of tea at a footpath stall. There was little of note about the guy at the other end of the wooden bench except for his handlebar moustache. One more man sat between the two of us, who left unnoticed as I sat pondering the course life was taking. I had recently joined a company that sold holiday resorts on timeshare basis. It was my job to lure people from the ruins and mausoleums to the less frequented valleys and hill stations of the country.
I remember clearly my feet going up in the air, and my back hitting the road with a thwack. He had stood up to leave and set the bench tipping crazily at my end. Fortunately, the cup with scalding liquid was flung into a harmless trajectory. For a moment I lay on the wayside figuring out the change in perspective before he offered his hand and pulled me up with a jerk.
“Your book!” he said, barely moving his mouth as he put it in my hands and turned away without further ado.
I was walking down The Mall Road a few minutes later, having settled the dues with the stall owner. A tepid gust was dragging away an empty ice cream cup, a reminder of the sultry summer ahead. Dry fallen leaves were breaking into a folkdance on the dusty pavement. After a while I realised someone had been tailing me, matching me step for step. It turned out to be the author of my ungainly tumble as I spun around to confront him. He didn’t stop however and kept walking past with his face turned to a side. But it was hard to miss his ravenous eyes which had a glint of some lingering anger, or an unquenched hunger. Whatever it was, it was very unsettling to meet his gaze. It made you want to sprint away from him. Weirdly, it also made you want to cling to him.
I had not been able to sell even a single timeshare package the whole week no matter how hard I pitched the idea to the wanderers of the monuments. And I didn’t know even a bird in that city with whom to share my cup of miseries. Unwilling to return to the seedy lodging I had chosen, I just followed him, barely aware that I was doing so.
He turned left on General Cariappa Road ignoring the rickshaws and autos, and on and on he went for kilometres. Marching resolutely to the imposing gate of Agra Fort, he melted into the figures milling to get inside. Unlike the Taj, I had always felt repelled by the old Mughal bastion, its sagas of treachery and avarice chanted ad nauseam by pesky guides. Lust and oppression hovered in its cavernous arches and domes like insistent cobwebs. Its crevices stank of bondage, slaughter, torment and rape. Unlike the memorial of love that Taj was, the Fort was an epic of lechery and barbarism written in hate.
Forgetting the moustachioed youth with searing eyes, I began eyeing the throng for bored looking housewives and men pretending to be rich, for those were the easiest targets. Moving in and out of courtyards, I floated about the halls and palaces, latching on to this and that group or family. I loitered around the octagonal tower where the emperor was incarcerated by his own son and died looking at the marmoreal tomb of his wife. Reconciling to the drought of prospects, I sat against a wall in the Garden of Grapes and dozed off, lulled by a pleasant draft.
I might have slept for an hour or two, it is difficult for me to remember. But I woke to the cool touch of a palm on mine. A shadow was leaning over me against the darkening sky. A wave surged through the pores of my body as recognition hit me. The face with a handlebar moustache was back; the eyes seemed to be drilling holes in me.
“You followed me here,” he said.
Realising I was being charged with an offence of which I was only half-guilty, I mustered my voice and tried to call his bluff. “You made me fall at the tea stall to begin with… Then you hypnotised me.”
“Never hypnotised anyone,” he snapped.
And yet, it was impossible to look away from him. His pupils seemed unfocussed and unusually dilated like deep, shiny pits. He swivelled and sat next to me, looking towards the ripening sky. “My name is Ranvir. Who are you?”
“I am Vinay,” I said, a tad miffed by the patronising stance.
“I have seen you here before.” He said.
“I am a timeshare holiday salesman.”
“Figures. I used to be a guide around here.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I was popular with the foreigners, mostly women. I preferred them younger. I know bits of French and Italian, also German. Then they began accusing me of molesting them.”
“I touched them the wrong way. Brushed my fingers against their breasts, pinched their bottoms, tried to kiss. I was arrested and locked up and thrashed. They took away my license.”
The courtyard wore a deserted look. The last bunch of tourists was about to exit the precinct. A guard had begun moving towards us, tooting a whistle. The man sitting next to me had just confessed being a convicted molester. I felt a great urge to bolt from his invisible grip but my limbs lay numb next to me.
“But that was not the truth, of course,” he said. “Someone was making them think like that.”
The guard was now standing on top of us and tapping at his watch with his finger. We stood up and moved towards Amar Singh Gate together. “It is a long story. Come tomorrow,” he enjoined at some point before he slipped away.
I didn’t stop for the customary triple-creamed milk served out of boiling pans that night. I was gripped by a fit of drowsiness so vicious I was barely awake as I unlocked the door to my room. I fell on the bed and it was like I had stopped breathing. But I woke up in the wee hours of the morning feeling like I hadn’t touched food in months. I brushed my teeth longer and harder as if that would douse my craving. I bathed hurriedly with the cold water stored in an iron drum. Donning a clean pair of shirt and trousers, I hit the street and found myself a rickshaw to Agra Fort railway station. I could already smell the omelettes I’d eat there.