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November 10, 1997


Farzana Versey

Trading places

Dominic Xavier's illustration I don't know if Mona is a prostitute but I do know she has not forgiven me. Every time I think of her, and it is often, I feel guilty about having a bank account of doing things that others cannot do. But while these are dull aches, with Mona it's different. There is a stinging slap.

Mona came into my life with a loud curse. In the dead of a summer night, I spotted her in a by-lane of Colaba (a hub of Bombay), hurling abuses into the uncaring darkness. I was scouting around for interesting people for night story. She was looking for some food. We seemed made-for-each-other. I bought her a meal and we got talking. It hadn't been an easy life. Childhood lasted till the age of 10. After that, she was physically abused by her brother and brother-in-law. She was from a well-placed family. Soon, her soul was torn to shreds. She lost faith. She lost sight of where she was going, and found her way into the streets.

When I met her, she was angry; there were needle marks on her hands. Then she took me further into the lane, muttering all the while, "I have a baby." There, lying on the footpath was a black child. "Yes, the man was a nigger." She said she was not a prostitute. "Look, if I were a whore, do you think I would be dressed like this? Do you think my breasts would sag?"

In less than an hour, I had tried to capture eternity. In a fraction of this time, she had gobbled up her meal. Before I left, she asked me my address. I scrawled it on a piece of paper. She kissed my hand, "You are my friend," she said.

The story was published, with Mona as the grand finale. Two days later, she tuned up at the office, sozzled, screaming, "I'll kill her!" I wasn't there. The next day, I made it a point to be around. It's not everyday that people want to kill you. When she arrived, I took her to an inside room and asked her what the problem was. I got her a cup of coffee. She was misled by someone who was who couldn't read straight that I was out to get her. I brought out a copy and read out every word, explained what it meant. I repeated her quotes to her, including this one: "I don't sleep around with men. I don't need sex. I only need to feed my baby and myself." And she had spoken all this in perfectly intelligible English. Now she merely nodded and again took my hand, Though she refused to admit she was on drugs, she agreed to get herself cleaned out.

I called up a friend who was working at the rehab centre. But Mona was no more interested. She started giving me stories about the terrible times at such places. She started coming when I was away, barging into cabins. She had only to walk towards the washroom and there would be a fright. What if she had AIDS? What if she was diseased? Almost everyday, I'd get a report of her goings-on.

I wanted to give her clothes and my colleagues warned me that this would become a habit. The only thing I could do and she wouldn't let me, was to get her into a centre. "It's boring," she said. He manner became difficult. Once she interrupted my conversation with the production manager with an arrogant wave of her hand. He just had to stop. Another time she insisted I take her into another room. She was in pain. She took off her clothes and showed me all the bruises, "They beat me up, they do it all the time." We are almost friends and it wasn't even fair weather. I had never felt so helpless before.

While everybody around was aware of the embarrassment she was causing me, few knew about the agony. Till date, I don't know where I went wrong, if at all I did. But somewhere along, work and concerns got mixed up. She became another woman. She could have been in my place, I in hers. How would I have responded? What could my expectations have been? Isn't it possible that all she wanted was someone to talk to, and her aggressiveness was merely a means of getting my initial attention, accustomed as she was to be ignored as any other drunken hussy? How could I put myself in her shoes?

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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Farzana Versey