29 April, 1999
Andheri, Mumbai, Maharastra
"I'm so hot!"
Everyone around her bursts out laughing, and Shonali scowls. "Not like that, you idiots," she mutters, and tugs fretfully at the gaudy and altogether too flashy parrot green dress that Pooja Mehta insisted she borrow.
"No, no, Sho, you are definitely very hot! Absolutely phataphati!" one of the random male classmates whose name she has never bothered to learn calls out amidst other appreciative cheering, and she turns around to glare at him. The dim lights in the restaurant combined with the head-ache inducing strobe flashes on the dance floor make it hard to see details in the blur of bodies behind the tables occupied by her already tipsy batchmates, but her glance catches on a slim, golden figure standing aloof in the corner.
A very still pair of eyes look back at her, and even in the gloom, their colour sparkles unique and exotic. Shonali stares those eyes down like she does any stranger who dares to visually intrude, and only when those lashes blink, and deferentially dart away, does she realise that there was something else in that glance, something rare and complicated. She wants to know what it is, so she gets up from her table and offers to go order the next round of drinks.
She has to stop five times on the way to have falsely friendly conversations with boys who think that her presence at a dance bar in a Bollywood bling dress makes her more approachable than the Sho in classes who had her hair in a tight, oily plait and whose forbidding frown inspired the pet name 'chipkali', muttered sotto voce only after her notes had been borrowed and copied over.
When she finally reaches the bar, she just tells them to send a waiter to the table with all the girls, and asks for a bottle of Bisleri for herself.
"Like, just water?" she hears from over her shoulder, and she snaps defensively, "I'm feeling hot..." when she turns and sees that the questioner is the girl with Konkani green eyes, and the question is only challengingly teasing to mask shy curiosity. "I was hot," she repeats much more gently.
"You know, like you still are." The glittering golden girl smiles, "Hot, I mean."
Shonali is utterly disarmed, and extremely confused all at once. She picks up her bottle of water and glances once at Pooja and company's table before following the strange, beautiful girl's retreat to a corner near the dance floor. The music is too loud to be able to have a conversation, so when the girl starts dancing, Shonali joins in, feeling herself relax in a way she hasn't been able to since she danced with her cousins at weddings back home in Kolkata, when they'd shake their hips in exaggerated mockery of all those Bollywood vamps, and the family Maashi Monis would shake their heads and mutter in Bengali about all these Punjabi songs and Westernised movies ruining good Bongla biye traditions.
The girl looks very good dancing, but she moves with just enough hesitancy that Shonali wonders if maybe she feels awkward here too, if the very tight jeans and halter top she is wearing feel as much of an uncomfortable costume to her as Shonali finds her stupid green dress to be. There is an increased cacophony from the sound system – the famous bar dances that everyone decided were the necessary thing to see on the night they are all graduating are about to begin.
The girl leans forward, close enough so that Shonali can smell the expensive alcohol-flavoured deodorant the girl is apparently drenched in, and she wonders with a pang if the remnants of neem oil in her own hair still stink, as Pooja claimed it did.
"... bathroom..." Shonali hears, and nods obligingly, which seems to be the right thing to do as the girl ripples her way through the dance floor, with a secret, backward smile that leaves Shonali's breath stuttering.
Fifteen minutes later, Shonali is standing indecisively in between the bar and her classmates' table, wondering if she missed a crucial invitation in the unheard words. She feels sweaty, and sticky, and worst of all, as though it is other people's excretions that are making her feel so. She throws one last, hopeful glance at the corridor that leads to the bathrooms, and then sticks her elbows out so that she can stride unimpeded towards the main door. She needs some air. There are a bunch of taxiwallahs hanging around the entrance waiting to get a savari, and she listens to them talking about the latest police 'encounter shooting' that apparently happened last night just a few kilometres down the road. It seems one of the 'terrorists' killed was a brother-in-law of one of the drivers, whose only crime was being poor and Muslim in the wrong place and time.
Shonali shakes her head. This is the kind of thing that her father has spent the better part of his years writing little-read articles in Marxist journals about. It is the kind of vicious misrepresentation of crime-solving that she daydreams of preventing. She has spent the whole year studying for the central civil services exam, and though she knows her mother would prefer it if she followed in her footsteps into the IFS, ever since she saw that photo of Kiran Bedi wielding a lathi, she has dreamed about the IPS.
A couple of kids sidle up and whine for money until she does an elaborate once-over of her skin-tight dress and demands, "Does it look like I have my purse with me?" which prompts the younger boy to grin and say, "Kya madam, apun ko competition dega kya?" and the older one to whistle and start pelvis thrusting as though he is Govinda.
"Ki pagol," she teasingly calls out as she reenters the club, her head clear and her decision to end this experimental night of partying confirmed. She reaches her table and retrieves the dupatta she had arrived with, and then starts pushing her way through the crowd to find Pooja, to tell her that she is leaving.
Instead of Pooja, she finds herself facing a disconcertingly recognisable pair of hips, undulating in gyrations that make the wavy trellis of hair above them sway in counterpoint. Tight, tight jeans, sparkly silver halter top, and the dark bronze expanse of skin that is the girl's mostly naked back, now covered in a sheen that culminates in a drop of sweat running towards the pool at the small of her back.
Shonali is about to say something, when she sees that the girl is dancing with Jai Dixit – the obnoxious, awkward boy who dropped out of the swimming team after Shonali beat him and a whole bunch of overconfident boys in a sea swimming race on a group trip to Goa that resulted in some very smug girls and very sheepish, sarong-clad men. He dances with the same energy he brings to tackling the waves; jerky, aggressive, and utterly ill-at-ease. Shonali can't understand why the girl would waste her time with him, grinding up flirtatiously at the expense of stepped-on feet.
Then she sees the girl's arms wrap around his waist, and head tilt in towards his ear. A few seconds later, one of girl's hands snakes back around, with a wallet grasped smoothly between the fingers that gets tucked into a back pocket that Shonali would have sworn was too tight to contain it.
Shonali feels a tension thrumming in her chest; she is not sure if it is anger or excitement. She edges around and bumps ostentatiously into Jai's bony backside.
"Oof, I'm so sorry," she giggles, as he turns around, and then turns sideways so that he can try to include in his line of vision both the beautiful women who are inexplicably talking to him. The girl retreats a step or two, though her eyes remain on Shonali with an expression of pleased surprise that makes her feel both warm and distrustful.
Shonali claps her hands to the music and jumps about as though she is just a little inebriated, and neither Jai nor the girl seem to mind her bumping into them at all. Which leads Shonali to doing some over-the-top hip bumps, in the entirely accidental process of which Jai discovers that his wallet is lying on the floor. At the same time the girl's waist stiffens against Shonali's arms. Shonali notices those green eyes flicker in confusion and just a satisfactory note of fear.
"My wallet," Jai says in a master stroke of redundancy, and Shonali snaps with just a little too much barbed sweetness, "Oh, Jai, so lucky you spotted it! Who knows, in a place like this there also there must be people who don't care about anything except what they can get for themselves."
The girl has slickly and silently allowed two dancing couples to come between her and Shonali, but her eyes have never left them. Shonali tries to match steps with Jai, but it is impossible; the man moves like a constipated block of wood. Giving up, she sways her hips to the beat and concentrates on keeping her feet out of his way. Looking past his jerking shoulders, she sees the girl is matching her movements.
Shonali can't help but quirk her lips, and the girl's crescent eyebrows rise in hope as she sends a tiny smile back.
Jai, oblivious to the role of Wall that he is playing, grumbles something subsumed by the music about safety and money and how if the police didn't waste their time on all their political lafdas they could catch more bloody thieves.
Shonali smirks, arms raised in counterpoint to a three-two matka that the girl is effortlessly mirroring. "Yeah, that's why I keep my valuables close to me all the time. Most chors are too stupid to know where the real maal is and go after it." She slides her hands down her sides in a self-caress, and then dips the fingers of her right hand into the ostentatiously plunging neckline of her dress.
"Most chors," she says, as she draws out the folded hundred rupee note tucked securely inside her bra, "don't understand that it's not enough to just recognise something valuable when it's in front of them..." she snaps the note open and furls it in between her fingers to fan herself, "they have to know how to go looking for it, if they really want to find it."
And Shonali turns away from the dance floor with her cab money in hand, and the card with the address of her PG and emergency landlady contact number might have unpeeled from the note and fallen on the dance floor, but after all, it is dark, and she is going back home to Cal in three days, and there are worse ways to end encounters with beautiful strangers than by walking away, knowing their eyes are following you.
12 October, 2000
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel National Police Academy, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
"Like, this isn't what you're thinking..."
"No?" Shonali walks towards the girl who is in her room. Her locked room, at 11 o' clock at night. Well, she mentally amends as she catches a glimpse of the neatly unscrewed metal grill over the window, her formerly locked room.
The girl is dressed in a very aquamarine and rani pink Benarasi sari pleated tight and low across her hips. The purple and gold bikini top from a designer boutique seems a little too big for her; the fabric doesn't stretch across her breasts the way it does when Shonali wears it. Shonali sees a thick black cotton dupatta lying near the doorway to her bedroom. She bends down to pick it up, the aim of her handgun never leaving the centre of the triangle made up of the target's shoulders and hidden bellybutton.
"Like, I would have thought a lady police officer would be different from all the encounter specialists who just shoot innocent people without asking questions, but I guess not, huh?"
Shonali walks closer to the girl, who hasn't moved since she poked her head out of Shonali's bathroom and saw a gun pointed at her. The girl is holding a bottle of hair oil in her hand; it's the special amla and hibiscus mixed with til ka tel that her Dadi stuck in old Parachute bottles and sent with any convenient Bong going from Kolkata to the wilds of Hyderabad.
The girl's eyes are still coastline green, wide and stunning.
Shonali's hand closes around the girl's throat, clasping it securely like a necklace. "Tomar naam?" she murmers, raising an eyebrow.
"Sun..." the girl obviously realises giving out her real name is a stupid mistake, and bites her (utterly delectable) lower lip.
Shonali nods and thoughtfully taps the gun between the girl's collarbones as she speculates, "Sunaina, Suneeta? Sunanda? Sunalika?" She lets her unarmed hand crawl up the girl's neck, flipping over to cup her chin, one finger (nails cut short, trigger ready) flicking her dangling kundan earring that the girl seems to have picked up from the counter and put on, leaving her own plastic costume jewellery on the edge of the sink. "My Tumki Maashi gave me those to wear at Protesh's wedding."
"They're beautiful," the girl says with undiluted admiration.
"They're pure gold," Shonali says evenly, as she reaches down for the girl's hand, and pulls it up towards her earlobe.
The girl flicks her eyes towards Shonali's face in brief question before beginning to unscrew the earring. "Like, I know," she says after a beat, as though they were continuing a normal conversation that had been briefly interrupted by something trivial.
Shonali steps back and leans against the open bathroom door, raising her leg and resting it on the countertop, her knee bumping up against the girl's hip. "I'm sure you do, Sun.. ehri."
The girl smiles at that, a luminous flash that encompasses the earring cupped tenderly in her palm, and Shonali's face beyond. "Su-neh-ri," she drawls out, "like, that's a good name."
"Yes," Shonali agrees. "It is a good name. Just like mine."
The girl eyes her and then answers, "Shonali." It's not a question, and probationer Bose's name isn't written on any letterbox. It seems Shonali's old landlady did hang on to the forwarding address she left.
Shonali gestures with her gun, come here, and Sunehri steps forward, hesitation in her eyes, but bravado in her cocked hips. Shonali brings her leg down from the counter, and stands up, her waist pressed up against the other woman's bare midriff. Shonali reaches a hand behind her and slams the door shut, feeling the flinch in the shoulder muscles tensing against her chest. She puts her arms around Sunehri's stomach, the gun lying flat against her rounded belly pointing up the gully between her breasts. Shonali turns them a quarter of a clock to face the mirror on the door. She cocks her head and buries her nose in Sunehri's hair. It smells of... neem.
"Did you..." Shonali reaches out and feels her towel. It's damp.
Shonali's eyes widen in spite of herself. She jerks Sunehri around and pulls the girl's arms behind her in a lock, both of them facing the mirror, looking at Sunehri dolled up in clothes from Shonali's almirah, smelling of Shonali's soap and shampoo, held still by the silent threat of Shonali's gun.
Shonali's whispered hiss fills the moist, close air of the bathroom. "Were you... checking me out?" Green eyes skitter towards and then away from the reflection of questioning black ones. "Sunehri?"
Shonali's fingers fill the silence, as they set the gun barrel facing away on top of the septic tank of the toilet, metal clinking against ceramic.
Sunehri straightens her spine haughtily, arched hourglass out, hands planted on hips. "Like, I only let you catch me. I was just testing to see if that police academy taught you anything."
Shonali starts pulling out the pleated folds at the girl's waist. "You know what it taught me, Sunheri?"
Sunehri's voice is just a little flustered as the sari pools around her feet, and Shonali tugs the bikini top off of her. "Like, what?"
Shonali's arms wind around Sunehri's mostly naked body as her hands clamp down over her mouth.
"It taught me never to enter a burglarised building without backup," Shonali snaps, and pulls the bathroom door open just a crack, enough for Sunehri to get a glimpse of a stolid, sleepy hawaldar standing with a rifle slung across his back, at the end of the corridor leading to her room. He turns at the sound of the door opening, and Shonali extracts herself from the bathroom smoothly and blandly, both gun and recovered clothes in hand, leaving the door half open behind her, knowing that Sunehri will be quiet as she stays jammed between the mirror and the wall.
"Shob theek aache!" Shonali exclaims breezily, "I must be studying too hard at the library, that I forgot I had left the window open myself before leaving because with all the power cuts the room was getting so hot and stuffy. I'm very sorry to have disturbed you, I'm sure you must be used to all those police academy students thinking there is a chor in every tree and a gangster in every galli."
The man glances towards the bathroom and then around the bedroom, where clothes are scattered on the bed in an untidy mess very unlike the meticulous neatness that characterises the books on the shelves and study table.
Shonali smiles beguilingly. "Brinda must have been in here to borrow some clothes for her cousin's wedding, too impatient to wait for me to get back from studying."
The hawaldar shakes his head and turns to leave, grumbling about what Vishal Sir would say about aaj kal ki ladki-log.
Shonali saunters back to the bathroom with a nighty over her shoulder.
Sunehri is hunched mutinously silent on the bathroom stool, looking ridiculously gorgeous and out of place in her stolen panties, sitting amidst the plastic buckets. Shonali reaches past her to turn the tap on, letting water fall noisily into an empty bucket.
"I want my clothes back!" Sunehri snarls, and Shonali shakes her head in disappointment.
"If you want to be good at this, there are two things you have to know. One, Sunehri, is that men aren't the only people who are going to be attracted to you."
Shonali feels rather delighted, and just a bit smug, as Sunehri gapes while she shrugs out of her khaki shirt, unbuckles her belt, pulls off her trousers, and takes off her bra. Shonali reaches for her facewash and rubs up a lather, then leans over the bucket and fills up a mug of water. She is very pleased to notice that although Sunehri sits up tighter and more skittish as the move brushes the tips of Shonali's breasts against the other woman's shoulders, she does not jerk away from the contact.
Shonali washes her face, pats it dry, rubs in some Ponds cold cream, and then tugs her nighty on. "Sunehri."
It is very satisfying to see Sunehri snap her mouth shut and drag her gaze upward to Shonali's face.
"The second thing you should know," Shonali slithers a pair of handcuffs from the back pocket of her trousers and snaps them open, "is that women," she pulls Sunehri's wrist towards herself, and pries open the fist curled protectively around her earrings, "are much more difficult," she bends over and whispers as she turns the water off, "to distract."
The handcuffs are left like a joda on Sunehri's naked arm, steel exchanged for gold, as Shonali steps out of the bathroom, switching the light off, the bathroom door extending open towards the bed in invitation.
When Sunehri finally slinks out, she stalks to the window where her thick black cotton salwar kameez has been placed neatly folded, and makes a great deal of unnecessary noise picking them up and shaking them out.
"I'm not asleep," Shonali says finally.
"Like, I know," the scowl in Sunehri's voice is obvious.
"You're a funny girl," Shonali says with not entirely manufactured sleepy fondness, because this is farther than she had actually expected.
"Funny girl," Sunehri repeats contemptuously.
"You can stay the night," Shonali says, finally realising that maybe she needs to say it. "And you can leave."
The sounds that blossom in the darkness after that are very soft, and tremulous, and sweet as raat raani.
At dawn, Shonali wakes up to the clink of handcuffs slipped under her pillow, and she smiles with slowly awakening pride when she realises that the key is still in the pocket of her trousers.
Sunehri jerks her hand out from under the pillow when she touches the gun, and makes a face.
"Sunehri..." Shonali murmurs placatingly, and the girl looks confused for one vulnerable second before Shonali draws her down and reminds her in kissed whispers across her face, "Does Sunehri remember how she trusted someone's hands?"
Sunehri goes very still, before nuzzling back like an ungainly colt, "Like... Sunehri. Remembers."
Shonali laughs. "In one of our training sessions they told us how the best way to remember our aliases was to constantly say them out loud to other people."
6 May 2006
A Nirula's Pizza restaurant, New Delhi, India
"Like, check me out!"
Shonali starts, and frowns. Sunehri is getting better, is, in fact, really good, and while Shonali appreciates her talent when it is employed against nosy CIA officers and Swiss Banking bureaucrat babus and politicians who have Dawood Ibrahim on their speed dial, it bothers her when such stealth and sneakiness is used to catch her unawares.
Shonali ignores the riotous and admittedly sexational outfit that Sunehri is flaunting and gestures to the burger sitting on the bright red tray. "I ordered for you," she says, and moves the tomato sauce over out of habit.
Sunehri grins and chomps down. "Funny girl, what's the hurry?"
Shonali sighs. "I have a meeting with the Chief Minister's office in an hour," she says. "They want to 'discuss' the surveillance we are doing of that chootia Health Minister's son who is opening his third private clinic from his supposed NGO funding."
Sunehri makes a sympathetic face and slices a hand across her throat in mute question.
"Yeah." Shonali runs her hands through her hair and then buries her head in them. This job is getting harder and harder to do, the more successful she gets at negotiating each previous pitfall. "The worst thing is that they are pulling me off all my cases to concentrate on some clown who has been watching too many Hollywood stunts and has too much vella time and money on his hands."
Sunehri cocks her head inquisitively.
"Have you heard about a chor called 'A'?" Shonali asks, and rolls her eyes when Sunehri looks blank. "See? Of course you haven't. He isn't a real chor, he's not connected with any of the networks or players. He just likes to dress up in fancy foreign-manufactured costumes and spend his holiday time proving that Indians can use as many cool gadgets and adventure equipment as James Bond."
Sunehri has taken the file out of Shonali's hands before she is done speaking, and is eyeing the notes with professional appraisal. The restaurant is not too crowded at 11.30 in the morning, though enough people are trickling in to escape from the scorching summer heat that Shonali glances around before gently stroking the curve of Sunehri's bare arm with the tips of her fingers. Sunehri continues to keep her neck bent down over the file, but her feet have been entangled in Shonali's since she sat down.
"They're sending me to Mumbai, Sunehri."
The wistfully happy expression on Sunehri's face fades quickly as she sees the look Shonali gives her. "They're sending me there to play chor-police with a bunch of 'encounter specialists' who treat Mumbai like their personal video game, to get me out of the way so that all the investigations I've been working on can be thrown in the dust bin."
"That we've been working on," Sunehri says sharply, and Shonali snipes back, "Oh so now you're acting like we're partners? What happened five months ago when you decided you were so good that you didn't need anyone's help, and the next thing I hear is that you've been caught in an unauthorised robbery that I still don't know why you haven't been charge-sheeted and thrown in jail for?"
"I told you, like, I took care of it!"
"And I'm just supposed to believe this, without knowing how or why, or not knowing when you'll disappear out of contact for two weeks again, at a time when I might really need you? You know, it doesn't always seem as if you really care about my investigations as long as you get to break in people's houses and go undercover as a model or dancer at all the fancy parties and parade around like the queen of the underworld. You'd probably be just as happy if I asked you to get into some chor competition with this A fellow."
"I bet I could beat him! I'm good."
"That's not the point!" Shonali stands up, exasperated. "The point is not to beat a thief, the point is to catch him or get rid of him, or do whatever it takes so that I can get back to my real job. And I need a partner I can trust."
"Well," says Sunehri nonchalantly, "maybe I don't care about your point. Maybe I think you're getting so stressed out and khadoos that a holiday in Bombay will, like, chill you out. And I can work with someone who doesn't mistrust me."
"I don't need a holiday."
"Like, maybe I do!"
"Fine." Shonali stands up, "Fine! Go take your holiday – go to Amsterdam or Australia or wherever you think is better than Andheri, and maybe you can find this Mr A and have lots of fun chasing each other up and down the sides of buildings in water skis," she snatches her cell phone and bag up, "And when you finally get tired of that, if you could be so kind as to bring him back to me so that I can turn him in and be reassigned to my old job, it would be very kind of you," and pulls out the new SIM card tucked between Sunehri's breasts, "since obviously a great chor like you could steal him away from Tihar jail if you wanted to."
A blast of blistering hot, dry wind scalds Shonali as she walks towards her car. She has managed to avoid even visiting Mumbai all these years, and she knows that Sunehri has noticed it.
Mumbai will be humid, and sea-salty, and red-bussed, and dance-barred, and it will be Sunehri's home turf.
Shonali gets into her car and rolls down the window to let some of the suffocating heat out. She looks across the parking lot through the big glass windows of Nirula's, and is entirely unsurprised to see Sunehri looking back at her, an unrecognisable expression in those ridiculously beautiful eyes. It does surprise Shonali that she finds herself near tears because she does not recognise it.
16 July 2006
Forest Bungalow, Junagarh, Rajasthan
"Pick up the bloody phone, Sunehri. Please."
It's 4.30 in the evening, and Shonali is pacing up and down the verandah of the rest house, partly to stretch her legs after their helter-skelter flight from Mumbai, and partly because it's the only way she can assure herself of some privacy from the mess of orderlies and constables and reporters who have nothing better to do than bother the police about a ridiculous anonymous tip sent in to a public-pandering news channel.
"Pick up the phone, Sunehri, pick up the phone, Sunehri, pick up the phone, Sunehri," she chants like a pundit during Pujo, and finally, blessedly, Sunehri does pick up.
"Oh, hello," Sunehri says so blatantly cheerful that the last bit of hope in Shonali's mind crumbles to dust.
"Sunehri. You funny girl, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
"What? I'm doing, like, nothing, Sho. I'm on holiday, remember? Yaad Ashche?" It is a very bad sign when Sunehri starts to snipe in pretend Bengali back at her.
"Don't treat me like a fool, Sunehri, I know you made that call to Aaj Tak. What were you thinking? I was about to resign from the investigation and go back to Delhi and then you pulled this stunt and now this ridiculous fellow Jai Dixit whom I've been assigned to gets enthusiastic enough to drag us all here to Junagarh and what I want to know is have you even bothered coming here too, or are you comfortably relaxing in Andheri having a good laugh at making me run up and down?"
"I'm not all that comfortably relaxed," Sunehri says with that thread of tension that accompanies her voice when she is prepping herself for a big job.
"Oh God. God, Sunehri, you are really going to try to steal the stupid sword, aren't you? What... what is wrong with you? Do you think you're really going to get this A madman to come after you and catch him for me?"
Sunehri's voice crisps. "Oh no, how could I do that, after all, for that you'd need a partner, and I'm just, like, an untrustworthy chor, right?"
"Sunehri, this isn't a bloody game! They were shooting bullets in the street while thousands of people were running in a marathon, do you understand this? Jai talks about using his brain to outsmart a thief when I bait him because he knows I've reported other officers for human rights violation charges before, but he and his goonda in suit pants have killed at every arrest they are supposed to have made. When they catch you they won't question you, they will kill you!"
Sunehri laughs. "Of course. Like, you are so sure they'll catch me. Like, I don't have a good plan! Because you don't know me, do you? You don't really know me, or else you'd know how good I am."
"No, that's not even my name, it's just a name you gave to me, along with everything else so you could make me your convenient spy, just like any stupid girl who can get tricked into..."
"Sun, sun.... Sunehri," Shonali's voice is quiet in her desperate attempts to soothe, "it's your name, I didn't give it, you took it from me, you can keep it, Sunehri, it's yours, like... like gurudakshina, because you taught me something. Sunehri, you taught me that I didn't need to know your real name in order to trust you. Sunehri, please, I do know you, and I know that when you get angry and go into a job with your heart instead of your head... you lose, Sunehri. And I don't want you to ever lose."
Too late, Shonali realises what her last sentence sounds like, and she knows that Sunehri will disconnect the phone even as she hears the black silence against her ear.
Shonali stares into the desert sun like it is a target on the range, and she is calm enough to drill a perfect cross into it. Of course Sunehri thinks she has a plan; she always does, and then gets into trouble because, although she is a very good thief, she is a complete duffer at strategy.
Shonali goes into the guest house and starts figuring out how much ammunition for her Mauser she will have to carry tonight. It is such a needlessly dramatic way to go about helping people, she thinks, as she sits down with a map of the fort and a list of the security provisions.
5 August 2006
Police Hospital, Worli, Mumbai
When Shonali wakes up, she is all alone.
This should not be such a surprise, Shonali thinks drearily. She has been alone all her life, first at boarding school, then in college, then at the police academy, then at work. Simple knowledge about another person's actions should not make the routine act of waking up in a room by oneself feel so dramatically different.
But it does.
We would not have worked out, anyway, she bitches pettishly to herself. Neither one of us would agree to stay at home, and neither one of us can cook. We would need to find a nice housewife who would welcome us home with fresh hot rotis off the tava. Or a man, she reminds herself bitterly. Other women find themselves such men.
Even, it seems, Sunehri.
Who has been, according to Jai, living it up in one notorious nightspot after another, flaunting the wealth of the recently criminally successful, and preening about her enigmatic encounter with the mysterious chor whose name, solely though Sunehri's own efforts, is now a hot topic on talk shows and news programmes.
Shonali has not had to work at all to look tired and dispirited every time Jai shows up with his non-news of the Mr A's inscrutable silence. If only someone would show up with some actual information so that she can make a plan. If only Sunehri would...
Walk in through the door. Like she just does.
Walks in, and sits down in the visitor's chair, and knits her fingers together meekly as though she is... nervous.
"How is your leg? I heard it got broken?"
"Oh," says Shonali blankly. "It is fine." That's not a lie. Her leg is not the problem at all.
"That's, like, good," Sunehri offers.
"How's your partner?" Shonali asks, just to up the stakes a little, and because it hurts to see Sunehri sitting there like a polite stranger.
Sunehri looks up with a mixture of guilt and happiness that makes Shonali wish to drill bullets into something, preferably someone, although she cannot decide between A, Jai, and Dawood Ibrahim.
"He's fine," Sunehri says.
"He saved my life!" Sunehri bursts out, and her heart is in her liquid peacock eyes.
"From who?" Shonali enquires dryly, just to be sure.
"From, uh, you. That is, like, he didn't know you weren't going to try to kill me."
"Oh, well, that's nice," Shonali says brightly, "I didn't know he was going to try to kill me either."
Sunehri cringes. "He didn't kill you!" she says it, if Shonali is being honest, clearly as much to reassure herself as to reassure her, but Shonali is in no mood to be fair.
"No no, of course he only kicked me off a 60 foot fort wall."
The silence in the room is rather wretched for a while.
"So Jai tells me you're working for him now?" Shonali offers after a while, at which Sunehri looks predictably surprised, because of her apparent inability to believe that other people might not be the brainless idiots she considers them to be.
"Yeah, like, it's a plan."
More fidgety silence.
"Well, ok, it was a plan, but now the funny guy wants me to go to Rio with him in two hours; he gave me my ticket and passport with my popcorn, and Jai says I should because he can't arrest him unless he catches him doing a crime, and like, I've never been to Brazil!"
"To tumhe rok kaun raha hai?" Shonali asks flippantly because her head hurts to think about saying it any other way.
"But you're here in the hospital," Sunehri says, and Shonali lets out a breath, and uncurls her toes, and shakes her head and sighs, "Oof, Sunehri..." because now it's ok, and she can.
"Is this A fellow really all that good?" Shonali asks, because it is hard, to let go, in more ways than one.
"He's the best, Sunehri thinks," is the answer, and it will have to suffice.
"Pass me my cell phone," Shonali sighs, and dials Jai's number. "What, you've got a lead? Yeah? Achha, Accha ok. Ok. Brazil? Rio? Oh, what a strange coincidence; my twin sister lives there. Haan. Monali. Ya Ya, I'll give her a call. Ok bye."
Sunehri has flung herself from the chair to sit with her nose buried in Shonali's hair, as close to the phone as she can get. "You and your sister will, like, help us?" she says with a smile of delight so incredulous that Shonali has to roll her eyes.
"Don't betray me this time," she warns, curling a lock of Sunehri's hair around her fingers.
"I never betrayed you!" Sunehri sits up, affronted. "I was going to catch him for you!"
"Mm. And now?"
Sunehri reclines against Shonali's shoulder with entirely too much decadent contentment. "Now, now I'm just going to catch him."
Shonali just shakes her head. "Well, remember the first rule of being a chor."
Sunehri's eyes shutter, and she mutters, "Yeah yeah, trust, like no one," and she slinks out of the door with an absence of a goodbye explained by Jai's arrival four seconds later.
Shonali sighs. Ali, ever over-attentive, raises his eyebrows, "Kya, Sho?"
"The first rule of being a chor..." she says, even more glum as Jai and Ali look at her blankly.
"It's – don't get caught."
23 September, 2006
Floresta da Tijuca, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Shonali looks at the body lying crumpled in the damp earth next to her and sighs. In spite of everything, she hadn't intended to let him get hurt. She had wanted it, yes, because he had been reckless and selfish and his kick had left bruises, but she had not acted out of that desire.
The man groans and rolls over and Shonali crouches down next to him, her boots squelching in the mud.
Green eyes stare at her, surprisingly steady after having just regained consciousness, and Shonali frowns. Of course Sunehri would have fallen under the charm of a mirror image that was everything she was, just magnified to male proportions and shiny with success.
"You are a dangerous, idiotic clown, and you almost got yourself killed, so I will say this once, and then..."
"Get away from him."
Sunehri is standing in the middle of a dirt path with a gun in her hands.
The gun is pointed at Shonali, and doesn't waver.
Shonali gently sets Aryan's head down from the cradle of her hands she had offered him, and stands up. "Sunehri. Are you alright?"
Sunehri has never been good at deadpan, which means that the numbness on her face must be frighteningly real. "No. I'm not. You tricked me."
"I... what?" Shonali feels the weight of the tropical air in the sudden awareness of the dampness of her shirt clinging to her underarms, the sweat trickling down her forehead, the loamy richness as she remembers to take a breath.
"I told you about our plans so that in case, like, anything went wrong you would know what happened. Because I thought you were like lying worried in a hospital in Bandra, with no way of like, interfering."
For the second time in a month Shonali feels like she has been kicked and thrown in the air; it feels much worse when it is her own heart doing it to her. "Sunehri..." she fumbles, disbelievingly, "Sunehri, I thought you knew I was here. Did you... Sunehri... did you not recognise me?"
The earthquake of emotions across Sunehri's face mirror the upheaval in Shonali's head. She does not know how things could have gotten this messy, this confusing, this uncontrolled.
"Sunehri really is pathetically stupid about recognising people in disguise," says Aryan casually, sauntering into the strained silence like a gatecrasher. Both women glare at him, and he shrugs. "I thought she was playing dumb purposely, until now. But I guess if she actually bought that twin sister crap, I could have saved some money on disguises with a fake mole and a story about getting separated in a Mela."
Sunehri, predictably, reacts with fury and points the gun at him, while Shonali shakes her head and sits down with her head in her hands. "This is ridiculous," she mutters, and how she hates that the tears clogging her voice are discernible. "It wasn't supposed to go like this. You're not supposed to have to use guns, Sunehri. I never wanted it to end the way those idiots think it needs to."
"I thought you loved guns," the cocky, casual brat reclining in the mud observes. Shonali looks up and sees him take in Sunehri's eyeroll. "Oh." There is a dawning deference in his voice that makes up just a little for all the things Shonali resents him for. "You're very good."
"Not as good as she, like, thinks she is," Sunehri snarls, and in spite of her own devastation, Shonali feels a pang at the emotional battering that Sunehri's dried out, bitter voice reveals she has undergone.
"You were the best," Sunehri throws at Aryan, "like, you were supposed to be."
Sunehri's eyes waver with her gun. "And I am, like, good. I don't need any partner."
Sunehri draws back her arm and both Shonali and Aryan flinch; the boy probably at the gun being thrown, safety still released, into the water, and Shonali at the coldness and betrayal in Sunehri's turbulent paddy field eyes.
"I never, like, betrayed either of you," Sunehri says, and it is clear that a world has been destroyed and reborn and transformed irrevocably inside her.
Shonali watches as the slender figure walks into the green undergrowth that will eventually become paths and roads that lead to a place further and further away from her.
"I'm going with her," Aryan says calmly, and Shonali thinks, of course you are, because he is the kind for whom love is drama and passion and playfulness and possibly a fetching concussion-related collapse in the arms of a beautiful girl at an airport.
Whereas for Shonali it seems to be worrying about fingerprints and speeding violation citations and international gun trafficking regulations and whether when people imply concepts like 'forever' in their actions they can possibly mean it.
"Hasta la vista," she says with all of the Monali flippancy she can muster. "Your golden sunset to walk into is in that direction."
9 March 2007
Pacific Harbour, Viti Levu, Fiji
"Yeah, Sunehri. Like, me."
"I don't believe this. Why was this funny guy talking to you? When he passed me the phone I thought it was some customer, and now I find out he's going behind my back to talk to some other woman, and like, why are both of you laughing now..."
"Sunehri. Sunehri! Calm down."
"I imagine Aryan is laughing at the idea of me being interested in being his saut in any other way than the way I am now."
"What's wrong in being interested in Aryan? He's still the best."
"His eyes aren't even close to as beautiful as yours."
"Listen, Sunehri, I was talking to him because I was letting him know that he's finally officially on the team. He proved he had the staying power to maintain a long-range cover while remaining inactive, and he showed that he knows how to be a team player when he helped us out during the coup negotiations."
"So that's why Jai finally showed up?"
"Yeah, well, sometimes the only way out is through. He was supposed to arrest you both back in Rio and I had already worked out how to manage the testimonies with Ali so that you would be let off with commuted sentences and we could get back to the job, but then he pulled his normal macho melodrama and it's taken me six months to set up how the department will deal with the ridiculous story he's going to be bringing back to us."
"Especially since that watch is nakli, like full blank."
"Like, how was I to know it was part of your plan? You never tell me anything!"
"Sunehri, just because I love you doesn't mean I'm going to tell you every single detail of every single plan. You of all people should understand how that works."
"That's the first time you've like said..."
"Oh, what rubbish, Sunehri. Or did Aryan not tell you anything about what I said that day when you ran off without waiting for any explanations."
"He said you yelled at him for like, teaching me how to hold a gun and for talking to Jai instead of you even though he recognised you and for kicking you when you had, like a gun pointed at me and for trying to run off after me without a plan that accounted for, like, the fact that you always go after a chor with backup."
"He also said when you offered him the deal to like, avoid arrest that he thought you'd include leaving me alone as part of the conditions but that when you didn't he realised like something, and when I asked what he called me an idiot and then I hit him and then we got... like, distracted. Why are you laughing?"
"I'm laughing because that boy of yours can be very charming, when he wants to be."
"But you still don't, like, want him, right?"
"Oh, I want him, Sunehri, but only because this promotion to the international crime taskforce means that I need all the help I can get, and because I want him in Amsterdam and Australia and America working very hard for me so I don't have to go there."
"Like, we're going to America?!"
"Well, eventually there is something I need you to do with him there. But the reason I asked to talk to you was because, I was wondering..."
"Well, if you felt like coming home for a while, for a holiday. Maybe."
"Like, to you? Obviously, yaar. You're free? Should I come now?"
"Well. Actually, I meant Andheri. But. I can be there too. Oh, shut up."
"I didn't, like, say anything!"
"No, not you – Ali. He's been pestering me to let him go back home so he can see Sweety's baby. He sits and worries about Jai's wife when Jai himself could be least bothered; I think he's completely mad. Ok, fine, you think I am yeda, we're even... Ok! Sorry, Sunehri, I have to go back to work."
"So do I. Like, my cook's on strike."
"What? Oh. I get it. Still playing games, then."
"The game's never, like, over."
"No, I suppose not. Well, losing to you is almost as fun as winning, so it all works out. Ok, I'll catch you later."
"Ok, bye. Oh! And, Sho, I, like..."
"Yeah, Sunehri, I know. Me too."