by Ambareesh Sr Ja


“Have you been fucked… Neel?”

The question lingered in the smoke that had ejected with the words, and it seemed to hang there forever, before– “No.”

The pause should have been awkward, since there were just two of us in the room, and my name wasn’t Neil. Or Nilak. Or Neelakanta, or anything that could be shortened to Neel. Still, the name wasn’t as important as the question. Maybe the wrong address, quickened the lie.

“I’d thought so…. Ever…..  Ever smoked a cigar?” the voice was dreary and rugged, and had seen its share of fire and ash to get that rasped edge. Blunt but not broken, sonorous yet not strong.

“A Cuban? No. I don’t think so.”

No thinking, on these terms, Steve- go on, take a bite- and don’t worry- these ain’t Communist! Hahaaahhh…..”

The laughter was a full one, one that rung in the air and forced you to join in, even if the idea wasn’t remotely funny. The wrong name did not bother me this time – not enough to refuse the offered packet. A pleasant hour of silence passed. Red light seeped in through the broad tainted glass. The windows were fastened, but transparent. There were hardly any furniture on the floor, unless you counted a broken sofa. It must have belonged to an old lady, downtown. She must have made that embroidered sheet- pieces of it still clung on- as if reluctant to leave a carcass. She must have sat through the monsoon, with her cat by her side. The cat might have died, and it was probably still inside the sofa. Nothing else would explain the room’s odour.

“You know why they banned these? Hah, Reed? All these……? Alcohol…. And cocaine, and….. Smoke….and cigarettes and … whiskey…. And women… and whiskey?”

“Women aren’t ba-”

“YOU know why? Because these- make us men- make you, alive. And they are all afraid of the living. They all want you dead and broken and …. Lifeless. Not the live ones, Oh no no, never, ever-”

The clock chimed ten times, and he kept muttering through it all, and while it subsided- I couldn’t wrap my head around his words. There was no pressing need to clarify, or any assurance that he’d remember whatever he had blabbered. He took a long draught and let a sheet of smoke rise up through the nostrils, clouding his eyes. That technique-It was called something fancy, something after France- I could never recollect the trivialities. It was terribly annoying.

Another hour of sullen silence, yet the train of thought hadn’t past the last bridge, fully. Oblivion and pleasurable bliss were banned to keep us dead inside? Couldn’t be. How could something dead, care? Be cared for? How could something dead fall in-

“You fallen in luv, Bran? Ever? Huh?” The gruffly old beard, could read my mind now. Great.

“Yes, Guv’nr. Yes. Over and over and over again- a hundred times the very least.”

“Hahaaahhh! Good for you, son, good for…..”

It was true.  Every single day, every single time I killed the ones I was paid to – I fell in love. Especially the brave ones. I had a choice. Indeed I did. To walk away and meet a wife and kiss her and cry on her lap like a baby. But I wasn’t a strong man- I could never cry. Couldn’t shed a drop, even when they slit her throat and dropped her at the doorstep.

That was the second time I’d fallen in love. And since then, every single time I let the crimson warm color drip, I fell in love. It was magical.

The clock struck twelve.

“Mind if I borrow these, Guv’nr? You won’t be smoking no more” He nodded drunkenly.

I stood up.

Next morning while washing the blood stained shirt, I got it. French Inhalation- that’s what it was called.

-Sr Ja [22/12/14]