PINK ELEPHANTS OF JAISALMER
Jaisalmer is beige. They will tell you it’s golden. But, believe me, it’s beige. If you mix yellow ochre and burnt sienna, you will get the color of Jaisalmer. How do I know? I have learned painting in school. But I didn’t pursue it. Why did I stop? I can’t remember. But wait! Why are we even talking about Jaisalmer?
Anyway, I know Jaisalmer is beige because I was there. Was it yesterday or two weeks back? Or am I still in Jaisalmer? Where am I? I can’t quite say. Maybe if I stand up and peep out through that window on the opposite wall, I will know!
I try to lift my head, but I can’t move. It feels like someone’s sitting on my neck. You know, the way kids sit, with their legs dangling from your shoulders? It reminds me of two stick-thin legs with glittery pink shoes on them. They were hanging from somewhere, swinging to the soothing rhythm of a song. Where have I seen those legs?
“Don’t bluff. I might be a hundred years old, but I have seen a radio.” A hissing sound accompanied the song.
“Uncle, this is a Bluetooth speaker, not radio,” I replied. Whom was I talking to?
“Kachoris! Hot, hot Kachoris of Pokhran.” Then a holler cut through the song.
Yes! I have been to Pokhran. I still remember the taste of those Kachoris. It was the last thing I ate. I ate kachoris in Pokhran while a Bluetooth speaker played in the background.
Have you ever been to Pokhran? It’s a funny place, you know. “Po-Khraaaa-N,” doesn’t it sound like KABOOM? Like a nuclear bomb blasting?
But, why was I in Pokhran?
“Po-Khraaaa-N,” “Po-Khraaaa-N,” Why can’t I stop saying it? Why can’t I stop laughing? Why can’t I remember why I was in Pokhran?
My head weighs like a ton. I wish I could just detach it and keep it away. But, what if I detached my head and misplaced it somewhere, maybe on a train or something?
Ah, Yes! Now I remember! The train! I was on a train yesterday. I took a train from Delhi to Jaisalmer. That’s how I passed through Pokhran.
My mouth is parched. I can't breathe. Still, I can’t stop laughing. Ok, I know what you think. I concur. There’s something wrong with me. It’s stuffy and hazy in here. If I get a bit of fresh air, I might feel better.
What the hell? I can’t move. Someone has tied me up - on a chair, in a dingy room, in Jaisalmer! In the beige city, which they call golden.
Ok, my point is, someone has tied me up – hands and legs, both. Still, I can’t stop laughing. I might die here. But before I do, I should try and remember who tied me up.
Who tied me up? Is it that turban-man I met on the train? The one who thought my Bluetooth speaker was a radio?
No, no. It can’t be that turban-man. I had bid him goodbye at the Jaisalmer station. But, when did I reach Jaisalmer? Was it today or a week back? How long have I been tied up in this pigeonhole? I wish I could remember something.
I feel cluttered. It feels like I have a deluge in my brain. Everything is mixed up into a pulp, and it’s seeping out through my nose and mouth. But I can’t stop laughing. Have you ever had a terror-struck laugh? That’s what I am doing now. It seems like no one is around.
I look around the dingy room. I see my backpack leaning against the filthy wall. My phone and Bluetooth speaker are on a small teapoy next to it. I need to reach my phone, but I just can’t move!
Through the small window on the opposite wall, I see Jaisalmer Fort.
Yes! the Jaisalmer Fort. Someone had snatched my backpack and shoved it into a dirty autorickshaw, right in front of the Jaisalmer Fort. He pushed me into the auto and took a seat next to me. It’s not the lemon-yellow rickshaws you find on Delhi roads. It was a beige rickshaw. I told you everything in Jaisalmer is beige, even the rickshaws. It jerked, coughed, and jumped up like a demon getting ready to swallow me. There was a massive cloud of beige dust as the rickshaw finally took off.
But, what was I doing in front of Jaisalmer Fort?
“If your husband were alive, would he allow such nonsense? It’s too dangerous to travel alone. Marry the girl off. She is thirty-two. She can become this solo traveler or whatever if her husband permits,” Suddenly, a croaking voice rings in my head. I remember Amma standing next to me, head hanging low. We were at my uncle’s house. She had dragged me there to ask my uncle’s permission for my Rajasthan trip. How ridiculous!
Yes, I came to Jaisalmer alone. I know no one in Jaisalmer. Then who was that person with me in that beige auto rickshaw? Why was that auto beige? I am sorry, I know I need to focus. I may not have much time.
My legs hurt under the tight knot. I need to try and remember the fellow who pushed me into that auto.
I am trying my best but my brain has started a police line-up—the first one is the face of that man who kept pinching my inner thigh in the back seat of a crowded bus. I was just eight years old. Then it’s the jeep driver who groped my breasts when I was in high school, the bus conductor who rubbed against me in the local bus, and so many more hands that scratched every inch of my body in the last thirty-two years. You might want to stand a little apart. I think I am going to puke.
What’s going to happen to me? Whatever happens, I am sure people will blame me for it. “What else will happen to a girl who roams around alone?”
“Travelling solo, that too in India. The girl should have been careful.” They will shrug and turn the pages of the newspaper.
I struggle in the chair, but the knots are getting tighter. My head is spinning, and it’s getting heavier every second. I am yelling at the top of my voice. But nobody is responding. Am I inside a well or something? I might die of thirst even before they attack me. That would be a relief, don’t you think? I would rather die of thirst than be ripped apart.
But I won’t go down without setting a trap for them. He might come in at any moment, probably with a bunch of friends. Before he comes in, I need to find something, some clue about the man who dragged me here.
Multi-lingual—I remember reading it somewhere. It was on a visiting card—a red piece of paper with cyan letters popping out of it. Red and cyan go really well with each other.
“You are good at mixing colors,” my painting teacher had once said. I remember his face and his bold strokes. Now I remember why I didn’t finish my painting class. My teacher was arrested; they said he was an anti-national.
So, what was I saying? I wish I could be more coherent. But you know, I cannot control the speed and direction of my thoughts. They run around like kids in a primary school during recess.
So, what was I saying? Yes, the visiting card. It was a small square piece of paper with a few words printed on it. But I only remember the word multilingual. What else was written on that card? It’s all ripped up like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.
Have you ever played a jigsaw puzzle in your childhood? I had plenty of them. I was good at solving them. This will be the most important jigsaw I will ever solve in my life. I need to focus and remember it. I can almost see those cyan letters, but all those pieces are floating around me.
‘Cling!’ someone has dropped a glass in the next room! I think I don’t have much time. The clang of the metal reminds me of something—his voice, a high-pitched voice like coins rattling inside an empty can.
“Maidam,” that’s what he had called me. I remember that peculiar syllable in the middle of it. He had called me Maidam. Not once, several times. I am sure he is the one who had pushed me into that rickshaw in front of the Jaisalmer Fort.
Multi-lingual, first-class tourist guide, yes, that’s what was written on the visiting card. You’ll have to remember this phrase and pass it to the police when I am dead.
I am pretty sure they won’t leave me alive. It’s a nuisance, right? I will go to the court, I will testify against them. Why go through all that trouble, right? Sorry, I know I am talking all over the place. But I am horrified. Have you ever felt really horrified? Horrified to the extent that you don’t know if you are alive or dead?
Get a pen and write this down—multi-lingual, first-class tourist guide, printed on a red visiting card in cyan letters. Will they be able to find the culprit with just this clue? I doubt it. They are not Sherlock Holmes! Do you want to know something? I am a Sherlock fan.
Shall I tell you a secret? I like Watson more. Sherlock is a bossy know-it-all. But Watson is a real friend. I wish I had a Watson – a friend who never leaves my side, a man who hugs me without brushing my buttocks or pushing my breasts. I have met no man like Watson. Hence, I am not married. Is it why they call me a failure in my family circles?
Why can’t I stop crying now? A funny pixie is jumping up and down in my brain, running through its coils, poking and tickling. I have to hurry up. Time is running out. I need to think and remember his name.
I need water. I feel like I can drink up an entire ocean. Ocean, yes, he had told me something about the ocean.
“Maidam, I haven’t seen the beach. I have lived in Jaisalmer my whole life. I want to see the beach. That’s my dream.” The first-class, multilingual tour guide had told me in his rattling voice.
Has he tied me up for money? I wish it were the case.
Oh, no, my legs are lifting from the floor, and I am floating around in the room. I am afraid I would hit the fan or the walls. How do I stop it? Before I pass out, I need to tell you a few things about this multi-lingual, first-class tourist guide. I’ve just remembered it.
He is tall—very tall, might be over six feet. While we visited the Jain temples inside the Jaisalmer Fort, I had to crane my neck to look at his face.
What was I saying? Yes, this guy is very tall. Then his teeth, they are pearl-white, unlike the tobacco-stained teeth of men here. His hair is thin and kind of a copper color. His ears are pierced, and they have studs with red stones.
Don’t forget when the police ask you. I think you have more than enough clues to recognize him. I will list them again—first-class, multi-lingual tourist guide, very tall, no tobacco stain on his teeth, copper hair, and pierced ears with red-stone studs.
Are you taking note of all these? Hurry up; I think my time’s up.
I hear the clanking of the tin door. I can hear his steps. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. I wriggle on the chair, and the knots cut deep into my skin.
The door opens, and there he is, the first-class, multi-lingual tourist guide. He isn’t alone. There is another man behind him, a short fellow wearing a beige sweater. Didn’t I tell you everything is beige in Jaisalmer?
Should I laugh or cry? My heart is flapping loud against my chest like a bird trapped inside a carton. So, this is it. They walk towards me—the first-class tourist guide and another guy wearing a beige-sweater.
“Maidam,” I shudder as he calls me. His studs are glittering in the evening sun seeping through the small hole in the wall. A sour liquid is rising in my throat.
Are you still there? Are you listening?
“Maidam, who are you talking to? Have this.” He is shoving a small bowl in my face. It has some brown powder. What is it? Is it roofies? Have you heard of roofies – the date-rape drug?
“Is it roofies?” I yell at him as he prepares to untie me. Surprisingly, I am not terrified anymore. I am feeling stronger than ever. The moment he unties me, I will grab that iron rod near the wall and split his head into two. I am not going down without a fight.
“Maidam, I don’t know what you mean. This is Bhungra powder. Please have it.” I hear his rattling voice again.
What’s Bhungra? Maybe it’s a local version of roofies. How presumptuous of him to act polite while trying to force-feed me the date-rape drug? He is shoving the bowl again into my face. My mouth is shut tight. He seems to be a little perplexed.
“Bhang mange Bhungra, ganja mange ghee, daru mange juta,” the beige-sweater sings a folk song and laughs at me. How presumptuous of him too!
“Stop your bloody song,” I start shrieking.
“Maidam, it’s not a song. It’s a proverb. Bhungra – the roasted gram – will help you sober up. You need to eat it.” He opens my mouth by force and feeds me some of that nutty powder.
“Sober up? What the hell do you mean? Untie me, you bastard.” I am struggling to breathe as I gulp down something that tastes like peanuts. I might faint now. He unties my legs, and I kick him hard in the shin. He yelps and crawls towards the wall.
“She is still under... let’s come back after some time, Bhungra will take time to start working,” the beige sweater says to the top-class guide.
“Under what?” I violently shake my body and scream at them. The beige-sweater is standing a bit far and grinning. I wish he had come nearer. He will see the moon and stars when I kick him.
“Maidam, don’t you remember anything? Don’t you remember me? Panchu—your tour guide?” Yes! His name is Panchu. Don’t forget this. His name is Panchu. He is the one who showed me around Jaisalmer Fort and then pushed me into a beige rickshaw.
“You scoundrel, why have you abducted me? Do you want money?” Panchu looks up at me. He is crouching on the floor. My kick is doing its job. I won’t go down without a fight, I promise. I will not beg for mercy.
“Oh my God, she doesn’t remember a thing,” the beige-sweater is clutching his stomach and laughing. His howl rings in my ears like the siren of death. This is how they show it in the movies. The villains love to taunt their prey.
Panchu seems worried. He asks the beige-sweater to shut up. Then he goes out like the wind while the beige-sweater stands guard. I feel really dizzy now. I am sweating and panting. I need to drink some water. My eyes are fading.
“Maidam,” Panchu is back. He has a glass of water and my camera—my Nikon DSLR. What is he trying to do with it?
“Take it if you want, take everything, take the money, take the camera, my credit card,” I hate myself for crying in front of them. I don’t think I can hold on any longer.
“Maidam, please, don’t cry. Look at these photos. I am going to come near. Please don’t kick me again,” Panchu is begging me. I am so confused now.
He comes near and flicks through the photos on my Nikon—the turbaned-man in the train, the stick-thin legs with the pink and glitter shoes, kachoris broken in half- steaming hot, Panchu in front of the Jaisalmer Fort.
“Maidam, look at this photo. You will remember everything,” Panchu flicks right and stops.
It’s a photo of me standing in front of a shop with a metal board. “Government Approved Bhang Shop,” the name board says. I am holding a glass full of green liquid. I am gleaming.
Panchu stops for a while and then flicks past. The images are getting a bit shaky. The beige auto, faces of Panchu and the beige-sweater sitting in front of the auto, Ajay’s goat leather shop, and a flight of narrow steps, a dingy room… wait a minute, it’s this room.
“I don’t believe this. You might have tricked me into drinking it. Why did you tie me up?” I ask Panchu.
“Maidam, I am sorry, I didn’t know you were trying Bhang for the first time. You got high and started creating a ruckus in front of the Jaisalmer Fort. I didn’t want the police to arrest you. I called Ram’s auto. But you refused to get into it. So, I had to use some force. All the while, you kept clicking photos like crazy.” Panchu stopped and gulped.
“If you wanted to protect me, then why did you tie me up?” I ask again. Ram, the beige sweater, is laughing again.
“I am sorry, Maidam, you insisted. You told me you were flying up and would hit the ceiling fan. You were screaming. You calmed down only after I tied you to the chair,” Panchu finishes with a sigh and starts to untie me. My eyes slowly close with exhaustion.
“Maidam, I am really sorry for what happened. I shouldn’t have locked you up in the room and gone in search of Bhungra. I should’ve at least got my wife.” Panchu stands next to the window of the train. I have slept five hours straight. Thankfully I made it to the Jaisalmer-Delhi express in time.
“No, Panchu, I should apologize. I thought you were going to harm me. I kicked you! Do you know what everyone says? They say I am crazy. I think they are right. I shouldn’t have tried the Bhang. Maybe, I am not smart enough to travel alone.” I have no idea why I am venting out to Panchu.
I wish the train would start soon so that Panchu would not have to console me.
“Maidam, while you were under Bhang, you kept saying one thing; that you love this life and don’t want to go back to your desk job. You told me that traveling is your thing. So, please don’t stop.”
I swear I have no memory of saying this. Panchu might be making it up.
The train starts moving. But there is one more thing I need to know.
“Panchu, are you really multilingual?” I holler as the train pulls out of the station.
“Oui, Madame. French and German,” he shouts back. There is no funny syllable in the middle of Madam. Panchu smiles at me, showing off his pearl-white teeth and his glittery red stud.
I hope he will see the ocean soon.
Salini Vineeth is a Bengaluru-based fiction writer. She has been writing short stories since 2018. She has published two fiction books and two travel guides. This story was first published in 'Biryaniyat', an anthology by Eka Publishers. Her other stories have been published in Kitaab Magazine, The Bombay Review, Cafe Dissensus, Funny Pearls, and several anthologies. Find more about her work here: https://salinivineeth.in/