A Fictional Queer lovestory in a Colonial India
Red bow tie in place and umbrella in hand, June set off for the night. This morning she received her fine chestnut brown suit from the dry cleaners. Before leaving through the front gates of her ancestral home, she made sure she touched the feet of her father and then her mother, the two people who despite their shortcomings never left her side. Her father gave her his top hat to wear. It tied her outfit together perfectly.
Women like June Niyogi, who dressed, walked, talked and behaved like men, were less in number when she was younger. Growing up she knew she was different and wanted to be different. Luckily for her, her family never stopped her from expressing herself to the fullest. The suffragette movement shaped the minds of many upper middle class families and June was glad to be a part of one of these. From her childhood she was treated equal to her brothers and progressive thoughts were encouraged within the household. Unlike most other Indian girls that were her peers in school, she was taught to think, to question, to speak up. Of course there were girls who were jealous of her and there were girls whose families were not like hers. Many of them planned to get married and did not pursue further education beyond school. Many of them laughed at her for being the way she was. Many elders outside her family too did not like her much and it was visible in the way they talked or communicated with her. But June never let that change who she was. It was difficult at first, but she learnt to fight her wars with words and not guns unlike the world around her.
It was a fine summer night in 1939. Outside, it was drizzling ever so slightly. Inside the local bar however, the night was only getting started and so was the heat. Celebration accompanied warmth and alcohol only made the heat rise faster. For June and her friends that wasn't even the slightest of problems.
She had recently finished her LLB in London and returned to her homeland to start practicing. Her father, who was a barrister, was incredibly proud of her and allowed her one night of absolute freedom. Of course he didn't have to know about her countless other nights of escapades with her friends before. As long as she was pleasing her parents, everything was fine.
On this particular night, she was enjoying her redefined womanhood free of prying eyes. She was happy not because of her academic achievements but the direction in which the world was heading. Between drinks she looked around her to find countless more tables filled with people who redefined gender in their own image, and not just women like her. She felt a sense of pride and belonging.
After the fifth glass, things started to blur. The jacket came off, and then the bowtie and eventually the waistcoat. Soon enough the tie was nowhere to be found and the first two buttons of her shirt came loose as well. And not just hers but her entire friend group. Hours must have passed but the drinking persisted.
June was so distracted by her drunken stupor that she did not realize when she was being pushed towards the back quarters of the bar. She had a vague idea why she was being forced there but she didn't want to accept the reality of it all. After all, she had seen countless of her male friends visit this place before. Hushed voices behind drawn curtains, peering eyes from behind half closed doors, and teasing giggles were its residents.
She knew what this place was.
And she knew that most women like her, even though they had the independence of being as manly as they wanted, were virgins.
Because after all, society had not progressed that much yet.
But today, her friends were inclined to change that.
In her rather morally weakened state, June wasn't thinking about how she would have dealt with the consequences of this later. Technically her family should not be angry or even bothered by this. Her older brothers are much worse after all. But she couldn't have been too sure. She had never actually asked about it after all, the sex education bit. Her mother might have mentioned about using protection once or twice. But that was all after marriage, right? Did she even want to marry?
It was too much to handle for her brain then. Despite her feeble attempts at resisting, June was pushed in through double doors which were quickly clicked shut behind her as soon as she was inside. It would remain locked till dawn, she assumed.
She could only barely compose herself before her eyes landed upon the apsara infront of her, sitting coily atop a king sized bed, gently inviting her over with a curled up index finger.
June felt the air being punched out of her gut.
That was definitely the most beautiful woman she had ever seen in her entire life.
She wasn't too old herself, in the peak of her early adulthood. Witnessing such raw beauty unsheathed was like a sharpened blade being held against her throat and her unusually large Adam's apple bobbing against it as she swallowed the temptation.
The apsara probably felt it, and understood that something was slightly off.
“It's free tonight Babu, I hope you know that,” she reminded June and her voice made June's knees wobble.
That's right, that's why they chose this bar. She remembers now.
They were regulars and there was something– some occasion other than her graduation, that June can't quite recall, which lined up perfectly for tonight's outing. All the drinks were on the house and some “after service” too.
June hadn't even considered for a second that this was what they meant by “after service”.
June was drunk, the apsara noticed. June was forced, the apsara noticed.
June was trying very hard to contain herself and maintain that gentlemanly look but whatever her “friends” had mixed into her drinks before throwing her in was apparently making itself known.
June needed her help, and that's what the apsara was there for.
“लोग इस अपाहिज को रागिनी बुलाते हैं,'' echoed the angelic voice.
The apsara introduced herself with confidence and swiftly lifted her lehenga to reveal her paralyzed lower limbs, barely crisscrossed to keep her balanced.
“लेकिन आप मुझे क्या बुलाओगे बाबू?” She added flirtatiously with a hint of a smirk.
It was evident that she wanted June to make a move, to get closer and sit near her on the bed, to claim her. But June was tense. Or atleast was trying to be, while her drink was working against it.
With much difficulty June made her way over to the bed. She almost knocked herself over a couple times but her spectacles saved her. Once she sat on the bed facing away from the apsara, she realized for the first time the condition of her garments which was a direct result of the over drinking.
Somehow she had a flower garland around her wrist. White flowers the same as the apsara, Raagini was her name wasn't it?” was also wearing around her hair bun. White flowers that she had seen on many occasions around here before. Noticing this made June's cheeks turn red. Suddenly she felt naked, even though she was at least two more layers away from it.
June was trying very hard not to look but she couldn't help it. Her poetic eyes always got attracted towards beauty, and under influence it was worse.
Why would her friends do this to her?
It was practically torture. They knew she had never laid her hands on a woman before and yet they still sent her in. She agreed on free food for the Babus, but not whatever this was. This was kept from her. And she was now furious on them, furious on herself and scared of what would come next.
June felt a sensation on the top of her palm that rested on the mattress beside her. She looked over to find Raagini's bejeweled hand tracing her protruding veins and the flower garland. June felt a shiver down her spine. It was divine and she wanted more. She wasn't sure if she hated the fact that she wanted more. She looked over her shoulder and Raagini was now quite close, painfully close. June's shirt felt tight, and she wanted to rip it off. But she stayed there, not moving. Just breathing one shuddering breath after the other. Her brow was furrowed, she had beads of sweat on her forehead. June was a mess and it was all her fault for agreeing to come along in the first place.
Raagini tusked. “Look at my poor Babu, all tired and spent.” She lifts her other hand and places it against June's face and June can feel a soft cloth wiping her worries away. She keeps staring deep into the apsara's eyes while she takes care of her and discovers how deliciously brown they are. June wants to drink them. Instead she makes the terrible choice of asking a question.
“W-why,” she hesitates. Raagini shifts her attention from her forehead to her eyes. June gulps. “Why do you do this........for free?”
Within a second of the initial struggle she realizes her mistake of blurting out words without thinking. But before she can do anything about it, it is already too late and she is too drunk to handle this anyway. She watches the apsara's eyes unfocus and turn slightly gray before they pierce a hole into her soul, a smile still attached under her nose ring.
“Are you going to insult the littlest dignity I have left before you ruin me in bed?” Is her bone chilling reply.
If June hadn't been quite on the edge already she sure as hell was by now.
They were close, so close, June noticed. She had never seen a stronger sense of hate from someone's eyes and lips before even though they were a hair's breadth away from a kiss.
June wanted to collide so terribly, she wanted to rip her shirt off and tie the apsara's hands on the bed with it while she “ruined” her. But that wasn't proper. That wasn't June. That was a rabid beast waiting to be unleashed. Her father would not be very proud of that beast. And neither would she. So, instead she breathed into the defiant soul in front of her.
“An apsara like you does not deserve such a fate,”
She could feel their bodies move now, almost matching in sync. The hatred in Raagini's eyes had subsided ever so slightly and a wry smile had replaced it.
“The world is far crueler than the stories you've been fed with as a child, Sahib.” Said Raagini as she pulled the hair in June's nape using her fingers, and June made a sound she had never heard herself make before.
“Especially to people like me.” Raagini finished.
June's hand was already on Raagini's anchal. She took it off, gently, fighting the drug induced inner beast. The veil came off from Raagini's head and body like the purdah sinning to reveal secrecy. But what emerged from underneath was nothing less than a temple. June drank in the sight. Raagini's other free hand started unbuttoning the white shirt June was wearing, that she only bought yesterday. June got busy with the flower's in her hair now. One round after the other and the flowers came off, and long fell a gorgeous braid of thick, black, lustrous hair. June took the braid and gently placed it on the owner's shoulder, bringing all of it to rest against her body till the very end. It got over around the waist and June looked up. She found eyes waiting to be fed.
“Then be mine. Just mine. I'll feed you those same stories I grew up with, and you'll be safe here, with me.” June offered.
At that the Apsara gave a hearty laugh. Suddenly the room was colorful and the night birds were singing a melody June could not recognise. The sliver of the moon coming in through the window grew brighter and defeated the subtle yellow flame of the candle and bathed her trophy in love.
June was drunk. June was in love.
June had never experienced love before, or so she thought. For now, suddenly she recognised the apsara. A laugh was all it took to jog up her memory.
She had seen her before in the marketplace, in glimpses, and heard her too. Heard her laugh. That very same one. An old man usually drove the wheelchair she sat on. She had a sort of air of command around her wherever she went. She would always wear something in black, and still end up looking stunning. She would buy her groceries and the sellers could not play with her. She would laugh when they tried to do so. And that laugh would melt hearts not in a way a lover's does but in a way an arrow of justice pierces the chest. Those who witnessed it face to face would not dare raise another finger in fear of what lies beyond that very saintly laughter. Everyone around her would always obey without questioning. As if she was God herself. June noticed her sometimes in the bar too. But inside the closed doors she was different. Less commanding, more flirting. She would wear red instead of black when inside, and so she was tonight.
In her drunken haze June had been slow to recognize. But now she remembered all those times she noticed stolen glances towards her from this very apsara. She remembered every time she had wanted to interact with the god gifted beauty but somehow something had prevented it. Now that the drink took its turn towards triggering her memory, June remembered every single night she thought about the woman sitting in front of her. She knew her, or at least she wanted to. June wanted Raagini. June wondered what it would feel like to be commanded by an apsara like Raagini.
Before her train of thought could continue any longer, Raagini spoke.
“You're drunk sahib, you do not know what you speak.” She said, still laughing and wiping a tear off from the corner of her eyes. She supported her weight with her hands around June's neck and June didn't notice when her hands went instinctively around her waist.
There was a pause where both of them stared intently into each other.
There was a breath.
“You asked me what I shall call you tonight, when I first came in through that door” said June.
“I did. Has your eminence decided upon something?” Chuckled Raagini, playing it cool.
“Shall I call you Raag?” Asked June, innocently.
“Anger?” Raagini asked in a wry tone and perked up an eyebrow, curiously. “Why anger?”
“If I chose love over lust tonight, would you not be angry with me?” Replied June.
There was complete silence.
“Oh Raag, sweet Raag,” June continued with the given opportunity, her drink taking over again, “Tell me, if I tell you even in my drunken stupor I've been telling you the truth? If I tell you that this is not the first time I've seen you and I've wanted to know you ever since I saw you in that bazaar? If I told you only fate has brought us together tonight and I wouldn't touch a cell on your body unless you ask me to, would you believe me? Or would you be angry with me?”
More silence. June continued.
“Tell me Raag, am I like the others who come in through those doors and don't leave before dawn? Or am I special? Lie to me that you haven't noticed me from behind the curtains every time I came into this pub to drink away my frustration? Tell me you haven't dreamed about this night every time you've served me a pint and rolled out of my sight the moment I raised my head and asked your name? Tell me Raag, tell me you aren't angry with me because I've noticed you? Tell me a lie that's sweeter to my ears than your rejection. Tell me you hate me, tell me you don't want me, tell me that you're doing me a service. Tell me once more to ruin you and watch me deny–”
There's an audible slap. Bejeweled hands collide with soft cheeks and Nick the skin drawing blood as red as shame. June's head turns to the side. She raises her palm to her swollen cheek on the place of impact and rubs it gently.
“You do hate me don't you, Raag?”
Raagini is crying, June can tell.
June can tell by how hungry their kiss is. How much Raagini whimpers and shakes under her but refuses to let her go.
June lets Raagini take her in. She opens up her mouth. She allows Raagini to ruin her while she only rests her hand on Raagini's hair. Raagini is furious, all consuming. Her hunger is untouchable, uncontrollable. The rest of the buttons from June's shirt rip open and her torso is exposed. Raagini traces her fingers over June's chest scars and June shivers under her touch as she breathes into her mouth. She makes noises she would later be ashamed of.
And then, as suddenly as it started, Raagini stops.
They're both breathing heavily when they part.
“How dare you?” Raagini's voice is hoarse, barely a whisper.
“How dare You?” June pants heavily, like a loser.
It's sickening. It's painful, this love. But tonight, two souls decide to burn.