Dressed for a Kill
She peers at herself in the chipped mirror hanging above the dirty, cracked sink in the girls’ lavatory, running a tongue over her newly glossed lips.
“Meena beti, you are smudging. This is how you do it,” her aunt had said with a rare smile three months earlier when she and her uncle had suddenly shown up at the orphanage. They arrived in an old, beat-up, originally-white-now-yellow Maruti car, which her uncle later told her he had bought a month earlier. To her surprise, they had ushered her to the car and drove her into town.
After nearly eight years in the orphanage, with not a single visit from anyone, their arrival had come as a shock. It had been even stranger when they treated her to a meal in Haldiram’s restaurant—she pigged out on papri chaat, drizzled with yogurt and tamarind chutney spiked with julienned radish, black salt, and the fat golden-brown gulab jamun soaked in cardamom syrup, eating so fast that her stomach hurt—then they took her shopping for a sari at Tulsi Creations in the Santushti Shopping Complex, a murky maze of shops, restaurants and beauty parlors as cramped and teeming as an ant colony.
Her aunt took the glossy pink lipstick she had picked out from the lipstick display at the New Fashion Beauty Parlor in Uttam Ganj. “Purse your lips together,” she said, leaning in so close Meena could smell the talcum and attar that she remembered Mami applying to her face after her morning bath.
She shifted uncomfortably, looking into the small mirror that the girl behind the makeup counter had handed her.
“Apply the color first to your top lip. Then the bottom,” Mami said, smacking her lips together to demonstrate. “And now, open your eyes wide so I can put on some kajal. Yes, there.”
She stepped back a little and admired her handiwork. “Aaah, see how pretty you’re looking.”
Meena had slowly turned to the mirror on the opposite wall and gazed at her reflection, marveling at what a little lipstick and kohl liner had done to her heart-shaped face. The peacock blue shaded silk sari with the thin gold border made her brown eyes gleam. For the first time in her eighteen years, she felt beautiful.
“Come in, come in,” the mother superior had said as she brought them into her office on their return.
Her aunt laid the parcels on the armchair in the corner of the room and waved her near her. The mother superior retreated through the door, closing it behind her.
“We have to make something of this hair,” Mami muttered, twisting and pulling it back as Meena fidgeted in front of her. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up, unused as she was to the touch of another human being. Mami plaited her thick hair and twisted it into a bun at the nape of her neck. When she was done, Gopi Mama pulled out a camera.
For the first time that day, her Aunt’s customary hostility towards her returned as she lost her patience trying to ‘get something usable’. Meena followed her instructions demurely, but her posture was deemed too stiff or she squirmed too much in front of the camera, unaccustomed as she was to having her photo taken.
“Meena, turn your body sideways,” she had yelled. “No, no, more to the left.” She clucked her tongue crossly. “Now, tilt your head down, girl.”
After Gopi Mama had snapped a few pictures, her aunt grudgingly nodded her head. “I think this is the best we can do. Go on, Meena, take off the sari and blouse.”
At Meena’s obvious disappointment, she quickly added, not quite meeting her eyes, “You won’t be able to keep them nice in this place. We’ll keep them for you.”
“Does that mean I will be seeing you again soon?” Meena asked hopefully, clinging to the only family she had. She could barely stand her aunt and did not have much love for her uncle, who had turned into a complete stranger since he had dropped her off at the orphanage. But without them, she would have no family at all—nothing to make her feel that one day she would get out of this place.
“I hope so,” answered her aunt cryptically, with a vague wave of her hand. Meena’s mouth formed the words to ask Mami what was going on, but her aunt was busy swatting at a fly hovering near her face—no doubt attracted by her Himalayan-scented talcum powder—and the moment was gone.
Now, all these months later, Meena gives her lips one last admiring look before going downstairs to meet Gopi Mama and her aunt who, once again, turned up unannounced this morning. She is summoned to the mother superior’s office just before classes are to begin.
Without being told where they are going, Meena obediently gets into the car and silently gazes out the window while her uncle drives them over pot-holed roads to the other side of town. They pass through fields of grain before finally struggling up a muddy, treacherous road to a well-kept, two-story brick house sitting at the end of a long, gravel driveway behind an iron gate.
Honking his horn and gesticulating wildly through the open window, Gopi Mama shouts at the chowkidar, “Arre, open the gate, man. We are late already.”
Meena gingerly climbs out of the back seat, confusion writ large on her face, as her Aunt pulls her forward. A lanky man in a pale grey Safari suit approaches them, his underarms stained with sweat. His slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair reeks of coconut oil, and his skin is the color of glossy ebony with deep pockmarks etched into his face. He greets them fawningly, but the look he directs at Meena is sly and greedy. Later, she will find out he is a well-known marriage-fixer.
The man leads them into a drawing room with large wicker chairs and a divan arranged in a semi-circle. Two well-dressed men in suits and ties sit on the chairs across from two women who recline, dressed in Banarasi silk saris and heavy gold jewelry, on a green-and-cream patterned sofa. Meena’s aunt and uncle bow their heads and push her quickly upstairs without introducing her. Her brow furrows after they enter a sparsely furnished bedroom with a small white bed where the clothes bought for her three months before are laid out on the bed.
“Put these on,” says her aunt sharply, before she slips out of the room. Her uncle follows silently behind with a furtive look on his face.
Meena gets dressed quickly, suspended in anxiety. Then she creeps over to the window to gaze out over the city of Kalanpur, marveling at the way the larger-than-life houses in this area gradually sink into low shacks and the shanty houses of the slums.
At the orphanage, once they reached the age of sixteen, they had sometimes been allowed to go out in the city unsupervised. She, of course, was always marked by a green wristband as an “untouchable” or Dalit—a caste so low and noxious to a highborn Hindu that, until recent times, the slightest physical contact with a member was considered personally polluting. She’d heard of Dalit girls being raped by upper-caste men in her village, and the one time she ventured out, she shrank into herself. But neither that nor the mark of a Dalit stopped upper-caste men from hurling lewd comments about her pubescent body, from smacking their lips at her. A man wearing thick black leather boots followed her as she ran panting—over loose concrete and dog turds—all the way back to the safety of the orphanage’s gates. After that, she never left the orphanage unaccompanied.
Dreading what might be coming next, she considers going downstairs or sticking her head into the corridor and calling for her aunt. By the door is a walnut dressing table with an oval mirror framed in gold. On the wooden surface lays a kajal—a deep black eyeliner pencil, a box of bright, pasty eye shadow ranging from dark brown to light blue, and the gold tube of glossy lipstick she’d selected at the beauty parlor where her aunt had taken her three months ago. Her aunt had said nothing about makeup, and though she does not really know what she is doing, Meena picks up the kajal and tries her best to remember how her aunt had applied it around her eyes. Her first attempt makes her look like a junglee boy in need of grooming, so she hurriedly wipes it off. After her third attempt, her kajal-lined eyes shine like coiled, black cobras. The eye shadow she picks is pale bronze, just a few shades lighter than the color of her skin. She suddenly looks beautiful, almost like a Bollywood movie actress. In awe, she sits in front of the mirror admiring herself, preening in her beautiful blue sari with the design of floral sprigs in the corners, marveling at the slip-shiny feel of the silk against her skin.
The door swings open, making her jump, her heart leaping in her chest.
Her aunt appears with an approving look on her face. “Ah, good,” Mami says with a nod, “you have put your own makeup on.” She inspects her face. “Well, I wouldn’t say it was a good job, but we are pressed for time. He’s waiting. I will do your hair and your bindi. Go ahead and put on lip gloss.” She opens the door handle. “I will be back in a few minutes.”
Within a few minutes she returns and piles Meena’s hair into a bun, then hurriedly applies a sticker bindi on her forehead. She seems nervous. Meena wonders who she meant by ‘he’. Then Mami frog-marches her downstairs.
Gopi Mama and the marriage-fixer circle Meena as Mami pushes her toward the door leading to the kitchen. On the countertop, she notices there is a plastic tray bearing a teapot and some cups for tea with a plate of Parle Glucose biscuits. “Be nice to him,” they whisper. “Don’t talk too much,” “Don’t be too quiet,” “Answer his questions,” “Don’t stand like that!”
Meena’s head spins as a handsome young man with an eye-catching smile strides confidently through the mesh screen door. His eyes widen appreciatively as their gazes meet, before she quickly looks down, aflutter with shyness. She feels a tiny falling in her stomach like a pebble dropping; no other high-caste man has ever looked at her like that, his face hard and almost feral.
“Meena,” the man says, pulling a folded white handkerchief out of his pants pocket and wiping his forehead. He sounds nervous as he wraps his lips around her name. “I am Bhavesh.”
* * * *
This sari is vermillion red, not the peacock blue with gold border one she had been wearing when they met. Somehow, a tiny scrap of it just about retains the original color, shot through with a twisting embroidered vine of saffron. The rest of the sari is either charred or burned away altogether, as with the body beneath it.
Bhavesh stands above the remains of his wife in the kitchen of his mother’s home. A space had been cleared in the center of the room, with the table and divan pushed to one side and the floor is bare concrete. Despite this, it had seemed for a moment that the blazing woman would set the house on fire, so fiercely had the mixture of paraffin, clothes and human flesh burned, her body twitching like some hibernating animal dug out of its winter earth. The air is still acrid with the smell of it and, every now and then, Bhavesh almost gags. His mother holds a corner of her pallav across her nose and mouth like she sometimes does on the days when the wind blows the stench across from the sewerage plant a couple of miles away.
“Well, that is that, then,” she says almost matter-of-factly, her lips stretched into a thin line.
He remembers holding Meena down as she struggled, the reek of the newly-poured paraffin wafting from her, while his mother struggled with matches—brown knotty hands a little unsteady—complaining that they should have invested in an actual firelighter for the job. When the flames caught, so did his sleeve. There had been several moments of panic as he rushed to put it out.
“Time to find you a better wife,” she says, “one who will give you a son. One who hasn’t gone to seed.” Bhavesh’s mother catches his eye, jabs him in the ribs with her elbow. “Honestly, Bhavesh, what were you thinking? Five years of your life wasted on this rotted thing.”
What had Meena whispered to him, her chest heaving, just before the tongues of fire started to lick her body? “I’ll come back, back . . . reborn . . . praying mantis . . . bite.” Yes, those were the words that had tumbled out of her parted lips. Bhavesh looks down, brow furrowed, at the woman who had been his wife for five years. He is glad to be rid of the stupid barren bitch. But why had she said that? What is a praying mantis? He will have to look that up.
He bends down and rips the unburnt section of her silk sari free, snatching his hand back as it touches something that is still scorching hot.
“What are you doing?” his mother asks as he crosses to the sink, throws the scrap of clothing into it and soaks it in paraffin. Bhavesh doesn’t answer her, instead taking the matches from her before turning to the sink to strike one and drop it in.
“Go get the rest of her clothes,” he says, smoothing first one side of his handlebar mustache, then the other. “I want to burn them, too.”
Anoop Judge: "Born and raised in New Delhi, I now reside in California, where I am an award-winning author, TV presenter, and blogger.
“I am the author of two books: Law: What's It All About & How To Get In, a “Dummies”-style guide to breaking into law, and a novel titled The Rummy Club, which won the 2015 Beverly Hills Book Award and received three other awards. My second novel The Awakening of Meena will be released by Black Rose Writing press on May 27, 2021.
“My essays and short stories have appeared in Down in the Dirt magazine, in Scarlet Leaf Review, in Moon magazine, and in Litbreak magazine, amongst others.
“Most of my work can be found online at www.TheBrownNeighbor.com.
“My short story, 'Grace & Mercy' originally published in the 2019 annual issue of Green Hills Literary Journal was nominated for The Pushcart Prize in November."