This is the story that several recent posts have been about. If you compare the sections I included there, you can see the sort of editing that I do before declaring a story finished. It is the second in what has become a series that began with “Unspoken“.
“One Final Indignity”
(Part 2 of a series)
by P. Orin Zack
Watching Rahila in profile against the row of storefronts beyond the sidewalk café, Samir noticed the tilt of her head change slightly in response to what the well-dressed man seated across from her had just said. A visceral reaction like that, he had told her, could sour the interview. She dare not panic and defer to him at this point, not after the build-up he’d just given her. Arranging an interview with a tech company’s Chief Technical Officer had been difficult enough. Carrying it out professionally was essential.
“Mr. Goenka,” she said unsteadily, “I do not regret how I handled that situation. Until the moment I was let go, there had never been a complaint about my work, and even then, the reason for my termination had nothing to do with my job performance. In fact…”
While she spoke, Samir shifted his attention and watched Goenka’s body language to gauge how Rahila was doing. The grey-haired man had finally unlaced his fingers and relaxed his hands on the table.
One of the things he’d learned at the first meeting of the newly created single-woman support network was that the emotional triggers that brought on discriminatory treatment was usually accompanied by a tell. Recognizing a person’s emotional state from such subtleties made it possible to use wordplay and body language to avert the worst of it. If he had known what to observe when his sister announced her plans to the family, he might have been able to stop their father from hurting her so badly.
As Rahila neared the end the narrative they had discussed, Samir noticed that Goenka’s hands had tightened, so he started looking for other clues. The man drew his head back slightly, blinked a few times and peered distractedly at something that was between and behind them. Just then, something broke through the din of chatter and street noise. A hoarse-voiced man was shouting angrily, and from the sound of it, approaching quickly.
“Don’t let this man fool you,” hoarse-voice said, machine-gun fast. “He’s a fraud. Samir Singh hasn’t even—“
Samir froze. Not this. Not now, not when Rahila’s chances hung by a thread.
“—known that woman for a week!”
Goenka pushed back against the chair, his expression edging towards panic.
“He’s pimping for her in exchange for—”
Time dilated. Samir glanced at Rahila, pressed his eyes shut momentarily, and started to turn towards their accuser.
The clatter of Goenka’s brusque departure abruptly reclaimed Samir’s attention. He glanced over just as Rahila was reaching towards the receding executive in frustration. By the time he finally saw the intruder’s psychopathic grin, the guy was tapping at the photo on his cellphone.
“I’ve got you,” the man rasped, shaking the phone. “I’ve got proof that you’ve done this before. Mark my words, Singh, I’ll ruin you and take that network of yours down, too!”
Samir sprang to his feet and eyed the picture. It was a shot of him and his sister at a party after she’d left home, but it had been tampered with — the restaurant had been made to look like a brothel, and his sister’s sari a see-through veil. “This is a lie,” he croaked, “and you are a monster!”
The guy snatched his phone back and called to someone behind him. “Did you get all that?” His confederate shouted back, “Every delicious bit.”
The whole thing had been live-streamed, or at the very least captured on video. Once that spread, Rahila’s job prospects would be shattered, their reputations blackened. “I never thought I’d hear myself say this,” she said, rising to her feet, “but there’s no caste on Earth low enough for that slime!”
Samir stood, slack-jawed, staring blindly into space as their assailants melted into the crowd and disappeared. He shook his head weakly, and looked at Rahila. “I’m ruined,” he whispered, “and so is Maharla.”
An awkward stillness enveloped the café for the few seconds it took for the narratives lurking in people’s minds to sweep away the messy details of what had just happened and paint their memories in the subtlety-free shades of preconception. As Rahila glanced around, what eyes she met either quickly averted, or hardened into accusatory stares. She had just started to turn back towards Samir when a shrill cry made her wince.
“Away with you!”
A bent old woman in a faded sari was trying to push Samir off the café’s bit of sidewalk with the package in her arms. She shook her head in derision and launched into a string of tasteless epithets, but she was having no effect. He was oblivious.
Rahila pushed the woman’s package away and bent close. “This has nothing to do with you, grandmother,” she said firmly but quietly. “Give us a moment’s peace and we’ll leave.”
Several people stopped dead when they saw her stand up to the older woman and bathed her in angry glares. One of them shouted, “Leave her alone!” Another spat at her.
She glanced from one to the next as she put her arm behind Samir and started guiding him towards the street. Within seconds, a hubbub arose, leaving her with the certainty that the rabble were already embellishing their misconceptions. This would not be good for either of them. But what should she do now? Where should they go? She didn’t know where he lived, so she could hardly bring him there. That left the room she’d found after being thrown out of the women’s shelter for being single and over forty. She figured it was too long a walk for Samir in his present condition, so she threw frugality to the wind and decided to flag down an auto-rickshaw, hoping that she wouldn’t be overcharged again.
The driver of the first three-wheeler that stopped refused to take instructions from her, so she told the next one that her husband had taken ill and she needed to get him home. While the open cab wove through the usual late-afternoon flood of human- and motor-powered vehicles, Rahila tried to get Samir to talk about whatever dark memory had enveloped him. Asking him about Maharla at least got him to breathe more regularly, but he hadn’t unclenched his fist since they’d boarded. When they were about a block from her rented room, she told the driver to stop.
While Rahila nervously counted out the fare, the driver turned to study Samir. When she held out the cash towards him, he smiled and said, “No, ma’am. I cannot take your money. Your friend is obviously in distress.”
“My friend?” she said, taken aback. “But I said he was my husband.”
“I know. But I could tell that that was not true. What is true is that you are family to one another in a different way, and that you are doing him a kindness, as I am for you.”
“Thank you,” she said gratefully, her eyes tearing up, “thank you.”
“You are quite welcome,” he said. “Now get him somewhere he can rest, and take good care of him.”
“I will,” she said, taking Samir’s hand and glancing around to gauge the foot traffic. “Well,” she told herself dispiritedly a moment later, “I’ll try.”
“You’ll… you’ll try what?” Samir said unsteadily. He released her hand and watched the auto-rickshaw drive off. “Where are we?”
“You’re okay!” she said happily. “Um. Nothing. I mean, I’ll try to take good care of you. And… we’re near the room I’m renting. I couldn’t think of anywhere else to go. Come on. It’s this way.”
The crowded street was lined with stalls. Those running them were either busy with customers or chatting up passers-by. In this part of town, most of the modest apartments above the shops had been rejiggered so their owners could overcharge for minimally private bedrooms that had shared kitchen and bathroom privileges. Access to the converted apartments was via the staircase doors wedged between some of the shops. Rahila slowed as they reached a biryani stand. The door just beyond it had opened, and a plump woman emerged. “Oh,” she said as she saw them, “back from your interview so soon?”
“Yes, Mrs. Kahn.”
“Well, I certainly hope it went well. Your rent is past due, and I can’t afford to let you stay in a room that is not paid for.”
Rahila nodded politely and stepped past her landlady into the tiny alcove at the foot of the stairs, but when Samir attempted to follow, Mrs. Kahn blocked the way.
“Ma’am?” Samir said in confusion.
“You’re not having a man up to your room, now, are you? I thought I made it clear when I rented that room to you that it was for your use only.” She turned an accusatory eye towards Samir. “Do you have a name, or is this an anonymous liaison?”
Before he’d had a chance to respond, Rahila pushed between them. “He’s family, if you must know,” she said with barely controlled anger, while urging him up the stairs, “and he’s just been through a very difficult situation. Do you intend to prevent us from having a private family conversation?” While Mrs. Kahn stood dumbfounded, they flew up the stairs, into her room, and shut the door.
A moment later, from just outside the door, Mrs. Kahn said sternly, “Do not think that this will be the end of it, young woman. If whoever that is has not gone by the time I return, I will throw you out on the street myself!”
“It’ll be worth it,” Rahila whispered. After a beat, she closed her eyes, squared her shoulders, and took a long, slow breath.
Samir smiled as he watched her relax and re-center herself. When she didn’t immediately open her eyes, he rubbed at a kink in his neck and glanced around the small room. The carefully dressed cot ran lengthwise along the right-hand wall, starting at the near corner, effectively hiding it from view until the door was closed. Her bedside table was cattycorner across the room, below the rear window. A well-worn chair faced into the room from the left, just in front of the table. And directly in front of him, perched on a water-stained dresser with a missing drawer, was an unframed photo of what looked like a sunset, flanked by what he guessed were personal treasures. The quirky functionality of the arrangement seemed to suit what he knew about her, the paltry sum of which, he now realized, was nowhere near enough.
“It’s a place I’ve never been,” she said softly, nodding towards the picture. “One I’ve dreamed of visiting, though.”
“Are you okay?”
She chuckled. “Am I okay? That’s what I ought to be asking you. So, are you?”
“Better than I was. I don’t know what I’m going to do, though. Between that video and the doctored picture, it won’t really matter if any of it is true or not. All three of us will be slandered, and my sister won’t even have any warning.”
“Can’t you contact her?”
“Not right now. She’s out doing field work. But maybe we can defuse this before she returns.”
Rahila retrieved the tiny bell that sat on the right end of her cot, and held it in her palm. “After I was turned away by the women’s shelter, one of the women I met there handed me this. I put it in the southwest corner of my room to attract the help I needed. That was you, Samir. I trust you. But I don’t see how we can stop someone we don’t know from spreading lies about us. What did you have in mind?”
“Sit,” he said, indicating the cot. “I’ll get the chair.” Once they were settled, he pointed at the photo. “You said that was a place you’d never been. But if you’ve dreamed about it, you have visited it, in a way.”
“I suppose, but what does that have to do with—?”
“We’ve both been handed a moral challenge. A man appeared out of nowhere and acted to ruin our reputations. But he did more than that. He also threatened to bring down the single women’s support network you found me through. If he does that, a lot of other women will be hurt as well. The thing is, when I joined the network I never imagined that I was putting myself at risk, much less my sister. I doubt the other men in the network did either. But this man can hurt all of them as well. We have to do something.”
“And my picture…?”
“A place you’ve never been. We’re both in a situation we couldn’t even imagine a short while ago. I’m terrified of putting myself up as some kind of leader, and yet somehow we’ve got to convince an awful lot of people to risk their own reputations as well, because that’s what could happen to anyone who doesn’t distance themselves from the organization. Dreamed about it? More like a nightmare.”
She closed her hand around the bell. “Then I’ll do it. Mrs. Kahn was the last straw. I’m not going to put up with the kind of treatment I’ve been getting any longer. She can throw me out tonight for all I care. When’s the next meeting?”
He cupped his hands around hers. “It doesn’t matter. We’ll call one. This can’t wait. And maybe we’ll find the help we need together.”
Copyright 2012 by P. Orin Zack