Eye of the Tiger
She found him outside Howrah Station in Calcutta at work behind his battered roll top desk. He seemed to be asleep, but that would not do. She had urgent need of his services.
“Namaste,” Anaya said softly.
The old man blinked and turned to face her. He wiped his brow with a linen handkerchief. In spite of the heat he wore a woollen toque.
“Good morning, madam,” he replied. “I wish I could offer the shade of a jacaranda tree, but this corner has been my place of business for 31 years and I am too old to seek a new location. How may I be of assistance?”
Anaya offered a bejewelled hand.
“I don’t how you put up with it,” she said. “I find the heat intolerable at this time of the year.”
“I imagine madam lives in a house with a cool veranda and punkahwallahs to stir the air,” he replied. “But it will be cooler, even in the city, when the rains come.”
Anaya smiled. “We have air conditioning, which is noisier but more efficient than servants with fans. May I sit?"
The old man adjusted his toque from which spilled a tangle of grey hair, the colour and texture of his beard.
“Of course, madam. Please.” With one foot, he nudged the customer’s chair in her direction so she could squeeze in beside him.
“I cannot imagine so gracious a lady requiring the services of a humble scribe.”
He selected a pen from among half a dozen tucked into his shirt pocket, and turned to a blank page in his notebook.
“I need a letter,” she said. “That is what you do, is it not?”
“It is, madam. Usually for people who are illiterate or otherwise unable to express themselves. I would venture to suggest you don’t qualify either way.”
Anaya said nothing.
“Perhaps it is a delicate family matter,” he added. “Or madam wishes to recover a debt, or importune a favour from an obdurate banker.”
“I want a love letter,” she said. “To my husband.”
The old man’s expression gave nothing away. He closed his eyes as if summoning a distant memory.
The midday sun hammered down like a pile driver. For several seconds he sat perfectly still. Anaya wondered if he had dropped off again.
“A letter,” she prompted. “I was inquiring. A letter to my husband.”
The old scribe reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a laminated rate card, running his index finger down a column of figures until finally it came to rest.
“Letters to a spouse,” he quoted. “Declarations of eternal love. Bespoke melancholy lamentations.”
Anaya said nothing.
This time she nodded, encouragingly. It was too hot to barter.
The old scribe bent over a book of forms, separating an invoice from its perforations and handing it to her.
“Madam, forgive me for asking, but surely a love letter would be better phrased in your own words.”
Anaya turned to face him.
“I am a painter not a writer. And you’re right. It is a delicate matter. I cannot find the words.”
“Something only he can give.”
“So why does madam not just ask him? Sometimes it’s the best way.”
“Because he is away on business,” Anaya said. “And because having to ask would detract from the pleasure of receiving.”
“I see,” he said, although clearly he did not see. She may as well have been speaking in riddles.
“So the gift must be entirely of his own giving,” he ventured. “Perhaps you want a Burmese ruby set in an antique silver brooch, or you want a necklace of diamonds sparkling like the Ganges in the setting sun.”
Anaya put her lips close to his ear.
“I want to be spanked.”
The old man blinked and rearranged the pens in his shirt pocket, as if that were suddenly a most pressing need.
“I beg your pardon.”
"I want him to spank me. I want to be thrust over his knee and spanked until my bottom stings like a symphony and my cheeks blush like persimmons in a Kashmiri market.”
Anaya shivered deliciously despite the heat and sat back in her chair, knees together, prim as a maiden aunt at a Victorian tea party.
The old man scrawled a few notes on his pad. He was all business.
“What is his profession, this husband of yours? A corner office man no doubt, a professional, but apparently not much skilled at interpreting your intimate needs.”
Anaya smoothed an imaginary wrinkle from her sari.
“He is deputy managing director of the Kolka-Shimla Railway.”
The old man chuckled into his beard and it was several seconds before he could continue.
“A railway man,” he said. “That would explain it. And, let me guess, submission on your part followed by a firm hand is not standard operating procedure.”
“Vihaan is gentle and considerate,” she assured him. “But his whole life runs according to a timetable. Mine does not.”
“The marital train always departs at 21:57, and always on a Sunday night, unless it’s a bank holiday,” she said.
“The carriage lights dim. He twiddles a knob that spins a cog that activates a lever, which pumps a piston, and slowly the wheels begin to turn. But it’s all too mechanical, too predictable. And, the train never reaches its destination.”
“And you believe the introduction of something more stimulating before departure would be the precursor to a more satisfying ride?”
Anaya held nothing back now.
"I honestly don’t know. I just want him to, that’s all. I want him to pour on the coals, I want us to go hurtling through night…”
“Hugging the curves…”
“Swinging from ceiling fans…”
“Bouncing off canyon walls…”
“Yesss,” she said.
“We come together.”
“And all aboard are spent.”
“Yesss,” Anaya said again, the sibilant last gasp of a locomotive running on empty.
For a while they were both still in silent contemplation.
“Leave it with me, madam,” the scribe said.
And so Anaya’s letter was written and sent to her husband c/o the Oberoi Cecil Grand Hotel in Shimla.
It was artfully written. There were references to coupling rods, hot boxes, grease nipples, pumps and horizontal pistons. Yet between the lines, it was a plea for a new routing for the 21:57 and entirely new operating procedures.
A week later, she received a reply, addressed in her husband’s precise engineer’s handwriting on hotel stationery. She tore it open.
My darling Anaya,
I can’t tell you how pleased I was to receive your letter. It appears, in my absence, you have been studying the mechanics of steam locomotion. I can hardly wait until the next time we’re in Delhi together and we can visit the National Railway Museum.
You say you’re stuck in sleeper class when you want to be getting off like Stephenson’s Rocket.
Well, all I can say my darling is wait until you see the museum’s display of vintage rolling stock.
Running a household may not be as technically challenging as operating a mountain railway, but both require strict rules and penalties for non-compliance, so I can quite understand your need for discipline.
Finally, why do you want a wooden hairbrush? I hope this doesn’t mean that the silver one you inherited from Grandmamma has gone missing. Have you inquired of the servants as to its whereabouts? However, if it pleases you my dear, I shall go tomorrow to the Lakkar Bazaar in Shimla, and send you a spanking new brush by first class post. I hope it will satisfy your needs.
Your loving husband
Anaya read and re-read the letter, feeling more despondent by the minute. In her fantasy, she was stripped naked and tied to the tracks. Instead he had sent her Bradshaw’s Railway Guide, with a foreword by the stationmaster at Pondicherry.
It was time for another visit to Howrah Junction.
“I honestly thought the letter would to do the trick, or at least get him thinking,” she told the old scribe. “But look at his response. Pathetic. It makes me wonder if he even cares what I want.”
“Madam should not abandon hope,” he replied. “The fact that your husband says he understands your need for discipline is a good sign.”
“That’s not what he is saying at all,” Anaya said, dismissively. “He‘s telling me to be stricter with the servants.”
“But madam he did send you a ‘spanking new’ hairbrush. Surely that implies he sees a possible use for it, other than madam’s coiffure.”
Anaya smiled, sadly.
“It does not imply anything,” she said. “Vihaan went to school in England. I think that’s where he learned to speak. He played cricket for Eton and Oxford. He is always on about ‘spiffing this’ or ‘smashing that’, or ‘spanking new’ something or other. It’s just the way he talks.”
The old man wondered if the railway man’s schoolboy lexicon extended to a flexible willow followed by ‘six of the best’, but as he had not yet counted to ‘one’, it was unlikely he would open the batting.
“We must broaden our strategy,” he said. “We must be more visceral. We must appeal to all his senses.”
He lowered his voice to a whisper so as not to attract the attention of the masses, and Anaya leaned in so she could hear him.
Outside Howrah Station the tumult of India hurried past, the air redolent with jasmine and marigolds. Myna birds strutted and squabbled at the kerbside. Buses, taxis and tuk-tuks added to the chaos, horns blaring. A team of water buffalo, rings through their nose, walked by like a funeral procession.
Anaya listened intently, occasionally nodding consent.
“I think it’s a splendid idea,” she said at last. “Of course there will have to be a covering letter, which you will write for me, plus there will be your fee for preparing and posting the package. I think I can get it finished within a week.”
The old man stood up slowly, hands in front of him, palms pressed together, fingertips touching. He bowed formally to his visitor.
“It is my pleasure to do business with you, madam.”
When Anaya got home, she set up her palate and easel at the foot of the marital bed.
She portrayed herself naked, stretched out on her stomach, her modesty protected by silk sheets that billowed to the top of her thighs. Propped up on her elbows, her back was arched, exaggerating the upward thrust of her buttocks. The tilt of her head, the angle of her spine, indicated she was not in repose, but was waiting for something.
But for what?
If he looked at the picture carefully, he would see the hairbrush he had sent her from Shimla. It was sitting on an ornate lacquered sideboard at the head of the bed. Inlaid into the back of the brush was the outline of a crouching Bengal tiger. Painting the eye of the tiger, bringing it to life, had aroused her. She put down her paintbrush and reached for it, feeling its heft, imagining the chastening sting. She closed her eyes and saw him holding it, showing it to her as he invited her to assume the position. Finally, from daubs of red ochre and ivory, she mixed a pigment the color of an English rose and painted a faint blush on each of her cheeks. Then she stepped back to admire her work.
It was perfect.
As before, she got a reply one week later.
My darling Anaya,
Thank you for the beautiful painting, which reminds me of the comforts of home. My mattress is too firm. I can’t tell you how much I miss my own bed.
Incidentally, what happened to the lovely nightdress I bought you in Paris during the
Conference of Railway Operating Authorities? I know Calcutta is suffering a heat wave, but you should really wear something at night in case you catch a chill. Also, I noticed a rash, which likely was caused by the heat. However, if it spreads you should consult a doctor, as it might be contact dermatitis, which can be quite itchy if left untreated.
Finally, Anaya, you must speak to your maid. Look where she left the hairbrush. She should be reminded that items of personal grooming do NOT belong in the bedroom.
That said, thank goodness my work here is complete and if all goes well I expect to be home on Sunday at 6:15 pm, a bit earlier than expected.
It would be wonderful if you would cook my favourite Moghul Lamb Curry for dinner, with vegetable korma and basmati rice. And some garlic naan. I miss your cooking so much. The menu at the hotel has not changed since the days of the Raj, and I’ve had my fill of steak and kidney pudding.
I remain, your loving husband
Anaya crumpled the letter in her hand. She could have wept.
“What more can I do?” she asked the old scribe? “I send him an intimate portrait that would send most men wild with desire, or at least encourage a happy ending. He thinks I have a skin rash.”
The old man, however, was not discouraged. By this time his client’s plight had touched him deeply beyond the incentive of an additional 85 rupees. He urged her to give it one more try.
“You must appeal to his sense of smell,” he insisted. “That is the way to a man’s heart leading to unbridled lust. Cook him his Moghul lamb curry, but save a few precious spices for yourself. The aroma will assail him. Madam’s beauty, her perfume, the garam masala, – oh my god – you will be irresistible. He will be putty in your hands. That will be the moment to slide across his lap.”
Anaya went home to cook dinner and afterwards she took a long hot bath. Then as the old man had suggested, she once more opened her spice box.
On the nape of her neck and behind her ears, she dabbed a drop of ghee infused with cinnamon and fennel. Between her breasts she rubbed powdered coriander. Her nipples would taste of lemongrass. In the recess of her navel she secreted cumin and star anise; down below she dusted a mix of turmeric, cardamom and nutmeg. Finally, she wove threads of saffron into the dark curls of her lady garden so that it glistened like pampas grass in the early morning sun.
She breathed deeply. The earthy, musky scent of her yoni was like the summer rain in the hills above Shimla.
She was ready.
She looked at her watch. It was a quarter past six.
Seconds later she heard his key in the door. She slipped on her bathrobe and ran to greet him.
At the doorway they hugged and kissed. She took his briefcase and followed him into their bedroom.
“Mmmm, something smells good,” he said.
“Lamb, your favourite,” she told him. “I bought it fresh this morning.”
She watched as he prepared to shower after his long, hot rail journey from Shimla. When he was naked, Anaya took off her robe and pulled him onto the bed.
Vihaan knelt beside her massaging her shoulders. With his long fingers he traced the outline of her spine, pausing for a few seconds before lightly stroking her buttocks.
Anaya moaned softly, undulating her hips in anticipation. Was this the moment? He kissed her ears, the nape of her neck, her breasts; his tongue found the cumin.
Suddenly, he sat up and grabbed her wrist, pulling her to him. His linga was as rampant as a bull elephant in a state of excitement she had once witnessed outside the palace gates in Jaipur.
“I know what you’re up to?” he said. “Your sudden interest in discipline…all that ridiculous railway talk, the portrait I had to keep hidden away, and now this, you coming on to me smelling like the spice market in Old Delhi. You think I don’t know what’s been on your mind?”
Sometimes, when he was teasing her, Vihaan parodied a Bollywood accent. He did so now, laughing salaciously, twirling an imaginary moustache.
“Goodness gracious me.” he said in a voice like Peter Sellers. “It is being very naughty of you, doesn’t it? Very naughty indeed.”
“Oh, dear,” she responded. “Oh dear, dear, dear.”
This time she would not be kept waiting.
“Where is the brush I sent you?” he said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“It’s in my dressing room. You told me…”
“Bring it to me please.”
At Howrah Junction, on the west bank of the Hooghly River, the non-stop train from Delhi was at that moment pulling into the station, whistle blowing, scattering pedestrians and bicycles. Outside, the old scribe was packing up for the day. He gathered up his pens and notebooks, locking them away in a drawer, and carefully he draped a dust cover over his desk.
He was thinking about Anaya and her lamb curry, which made him hungry. He took a last look at the station clock. There was almost an hour to go before the scheduled departure of the 21:57 and he hoped for her sake it had already left the station.