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The Muse
By Rochelle Potkar

June 2009

The Hub was a new restaurant that Shweta and I had decided to go to. Its food was ‘finger-licking awesome’ according to the recent tabloid article, its ambience sober and price good. This was to be the second restaurant on our New Year’s wish list of once-in-a-month-restaurants.

‘Where are you? I have reached’, I texted her as I hurried to cross the road and enter the restaurant. It was much smaller than what I had been expecting with dingy lights and a floor upstairs. There was one vacant table in sight.

“Can I have that table?” I asked the waiter.

“That’s the only one left Ma’am. Please hurry.”

I sat down and drank water. Only then like the slow recognition of passive smoke, I realized that the room was full of men, their sleeves rolled up, their top buttons undone, stooping over their drinks. Few looked at me through roomy eyes swimming in sloshed faces.

Should I leave? I thought. Should we go somewhere else?

I was in the sixth grade when I was walking home from school when a group of boys accosted me. One outstretched his hand and grabbed my breast. The others laughed. I continued walking, stunned. For a week after that, I stared at people wondering if they had similar things on their minds too but I never told anyone.

I asked the waiter for the menu and began reading. The guys at another table further away suddenly burst into laughter.  They turned around and looked my way.

I was in college when I was once walking through a crowded corridor when a hand felt my behind. I turned around and slapped. What I hit turned out to be the back of the culprit. He stared at me in surprise.

He and his group couldn’t pronounce my name – Marilyn - but they remembered me by my surname - D’souza and henceforth whenever I passed that way they called out to me till I went into my classroom.

A text message arrived on my mobile. ‘Another 5 minutes.’

I turned my mobile on Silent and pretended to talk into it as I looked around. A bunch of elderly men sat crouched at a corner table. One looked like an uncle whose family I had lived with as a paying guest when my office changed locations. And though we were distant relations, he didn’t think we were that distant.

He offered me rides on his scooter. ‘Sit closer, hold tight.’ and made it a point to wait for me at dinner. My aunt was too mild. She perhaps wasn’t aware of the corners in her house that had suddenly sprung up for purposeful accidents.

I finally enrolled at a varsity for an autonomous business course. It brought me home two hours later than usual by the hour of which my uncle was asleep. I was sure the subjects I learnt because of him would some day come in handy.

“One miloni biryani.” I said to the waiter.  It was a highly recommended item on the list.

The men from the adjoining table also ordered for the same. They exchanged glances and grinned.

I wondered what Shweta would think of the place.

She and a group of friends had once gone to a local cinema hall to watch a movie. When they were entering the dark arena of the hall, they felt a sticky wet something on their skirt and hands.

 “Shee! Fevicol.” said a friend’s kid sister rubbing the substance away. It left a starched-out mark on her skirt. All through the movie, Shweta’s eyes kept darting across the darkness to find the man with glue on his hands. She never went to that cinema hall again.

Years later, she was accompanying her favorite cousin to a Navratri dance ground when four men accosted them. Shweta fled. By the time she returned with a neighbor, her cousin was missing. If she hadn’t overheard her mother, she would have never known about her cousin being gang-raped. From then on, whenever a rape scene played out on television, Shweta fled.

The waiter placed a glass of Coke on the table. More men entered the restaurant, one moving close to my table and allowed his eyes to linger.

Once when a puny man in a marketplace was walking in my direction with his elbow angled out, I angled my elbow too. When we collided, he turned half way round. I didn’t stop to apologize.

When in the bus I would find my male co-passenger spreading his thighs to touch mine I would place a folder or umbrella between us.

‘Just 2 more minutes’ beeped my mobile.  The men at the adjoining table were filling their plates.

I tried to remove my mind from the mist and haze of the restaurant and think clear.          

When you are used to the run or chase you can hardly distinguish from one man to the other. All look the same and the sense of fear is the same too. If I was to imagine them buttoned up and tie on and un-sloshed faces and cuffs rolled down and buttoned they could be any person working in an office perhaps my next door workstation colleague or neighbor, college mate or perhaps even boyfriend. They were not the same faces that I had encountered travelling in buses and crowded train stations and yet they seemed one and the same.

Another text alert: ‘I am not coming in.’ it said.

I dialed Shweta. “Where are you?” I said.

“I am outside the restaurant but I am not coming in. All I can see are men and they seem to be drinking.”

“Well”, I tried to keep my voice low, “this is a restaurant-cum-bar so there would be drinks.”

“But I am not coming in.” she repeated adamantly.

I hailed for the waiter to watch over my table.

“I’ll be back”, I said rushing out. Few men watched me go. One looked like our former boss whom Shweta had dreaded.

He would ask her to sit back after office hours, summon her to his cabin more than needed and call her to work on Saturdays. Later he started e-mailing her suggestive stuff.

“Why don’t you say something? I had asked.

“I can’t, I want to work here for another eight months at least.”

If Shweta’s marriage hadn’t been announced I would have no clue how she would escape.

I rushed outside the restaurant. It was humid. I tugged at Shweta’s arm who was standing outside pretty uncomfortable just waiting to go.

“Let’s leave”, she said when she saw me.

“Not really, I said, “These are harmless men. Trust me.”

“What! How do you know that?”

“Listen, Shweta we are in a city. Nothing can just happen to us.”

Right enough, the city went bustling around us with its heady night time traffic. To the far end of the road a flyover was being raised. Somewhere a traffic police man was waving for a speeding biker to stop. We turned to look inside through the glass door of the restaurant. Even as the men were drinking with not a woman in sight, the city outside looked reassuring.

I ushered Shweta in before she could find another counter-point.

We sat down to eat. The waiter immediately placed the food on the table. I ordered for another Coke. Shweta lowered her head unwilling to watch around her. The tables were indeed placed too close for comfort. The men at the adjoining table looked up at us and studied us as we dug into our food. Some men from diagonally opposite watched before getting back with their drinking.

We ate slowly, wordlessly allowing the spicy grains of biryani to hit across our palette. Shweta smiled after few initials mouthfuls. “The food is yummy”, she whispered.

We washed it down sip by sip with hard, tangy Coke. I asked for the bill when we were done. “Are you sure you don’t want any desert?”

She shook her head.

We left with our heads held high. Just then a bunch of men and women office colleagues entered the restaurant.

Shweta looked at me and smiled.

----

Rochelle Potkar wrote her first piece of fiction in 2005. She won a gold place for her short story, 'The Point of Irish Coffee' at the 2008 Revenge Ink contest. Her stories have appeared in Muse India, Shine Journal, a print anthology of paranormal stories by Unisun publications and is due to appear in Cantaraville and Bewildering Stories. She earned a post-graduate degree in Advertising and an MBA in Marketing before realizing she preferred creative writing to a corporate job.  She now works part-time as a scriptwriter for children's education films. When she's not writing; traveling, watching movies and daydreaming are her favored pastime.  She lives in Mumbai.

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