True Life

Living with Lalli

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One afternoon on a bus in Mumbai, writer Kalpana Swaminathan discovered her detective, Lalli—a collector of curiosities that hint of murder

Lalli moved into my life one rainy afternoon. She didn’t take up much space. I was on a bus, and she introduced herself in four spare lines on the back of the ticket. I remembered that when I took a bus ride today. I realised then it was a very long time ago.

This morning, I got on a bus at Pump House, quite against my will. I would have walked if a squall hadn’t ambushed me. There I was with four well-intentioned brown paper bags rapidly dissolving into a brown slurry as my shopping quit on me.

Autorickshaws sped past with disdain, but the bus stopped. It was a bus that looked like a bus—no Bollywood heroes romanced on its flanks. It was a bus without disguise, a red BEST bus.

I hopped on, singing.

It wasn’t crowded. The grey seats looked posh compared to the ragged dark rexine I remembered, but everything else was much the same: the stenciled warnings on the walls, the miasma of urban angst trapped in polyester. Some things were new, though.

Laminated placards featuring a hirsute astrologer promised quick relief from every grief every way I turned—he seemed to have commandeered the bus. The BEST of old would have bounced such interlopers.

Except for a paan splat or two, the interior was austere, and even those red maps had the rusty dignity of ancient bloodstains.

But the couture hadn’t changed. The driver’s thick neck looked familiar. I remembered that checked kerchief stuck in rakishly to save the collar from his honest sweat, remembered too the good humoured wave he had for passengers who fussed at the exit.

How could I have neglected the BEST all these years?

I greeted the conductor like an old friend, found a seat next to a student, and prepared to pay my tithe.

That’s when I began to notice I’d spent the last five minutes in a time warp.

The conductor sneered at my shiny Rs 5 coin. The ticket, he said, was Rs 10.

I had barely recovered, when he thrust a flimsy scrap at me. It looked like an ATM slip, the sort that pales at second glance and erases itself in a week.

Ten rupees for this?

There was nothing fiscal about my outrage—it was, purely and unabashedly, moral. The exchange of paper for money is, to me, a very literal transaction. The paper represents nothing but its own self. In possessing it, I have bought myself space.

Usually, it is a maddeningly exciting purchase. Anything might alight on that space, the possibilities of a blank page are endless. But this was a complete swindle.

I had paid Rs 10 for a fragment a little bigger than a Bandaid. And it wasn’t even paper. It was coated with some kind of evil polymer that made ink break into a cold sweat and slide off the edge, leaving nothing more definite than a smudge. Out came my pencil, but the lead could have been a blade of grass for all the indent it made. Angrily, I pressed down, resolved to etch if not write, and of course the damned ticket tore.

I told myself my anger was misplaced. It was too paltry a space to start a thought in.


I wish I hadn’t heard that, but Lalli was there.

It’s a very small bit of paper, I protested. Weakly, as it turned out, for one can write a murder in four lines:

They loved.

He lied.

She shoved.

He died.

I felt Lalli move away. She quits when I get farcical, but not always. She might just be back to point out the second line’s not logical.

I quickly amended the first line to: She loved.

I heard her remark. “It’s never so simple.”

I pretended deafness.

Couldn’t she give me a simple murder for once? A murder stretched taut between A and B, straight as the crow flies? There are dozens written every day, squelchy with putrefying bodies. Psychopaths jostle to audition for these, vying to outdo Hannibal the Cannibal in creepiness.

But that won’t ever work for Lalli, will it?

You see, Lalli isn’t interested in murder. She collects curiosities. At least, that’s how she introduced herself that long ago afternoon.

My aunt Lalli collects curiosities. In the natural order of things, aunts collect curios, and uncles, curiosa.

But Lalli is interested in the unnatural disorder of things. And so she collects curiosities that will, inevitably, lead to murder…

As soon as I recalled those lines, to block off the memory of what had compelled them, I turned to my neighbour.

He was, as I had observed earlier, a student. And a student he might have stayed if Lalli hadn’t been around. Now I was forced to concede the fine lines at eye and mouth, the slack jaw, the stray grey fibril in the brown frizz above his ear. I noticed too the sheen of sweat on his cheek, the tremor in the fingers that fumbled hesitantly at the book on his lap.

I noticed these things, and should have let them go.

But Lalli did not permit that.

We were both waiting to see if he would open that book.

He did.

Then he read it page by page, tracing each inked line with a trembling finger, which, I now noticed, had an ardently cultivated nail. It was long, and so dramatically curved that its beveled edge curled like a cassowary’s talon.

I was too engrossed in his book to bother about the nail. Each page had a woman’s name mis-spelt in vile English. Beneath each name was a drawing in blue ballpoint, and all the drawings were of sari blouses. The patterns were what are called fancy by your average Ladies’ Specialist, but this man was no tailor.

“Oh? How do you know that?”

Well, to begin with, there were no measurements.

Besides, the drawings were peculiar. They did not emphasise the things tailors generally drew—neckline, buttons, sleeves. Nor did they have the panache of a designer’s imagination. They were garments isolated from their mis-spelt owners—there was nothing to tell us what Mangle, Svetta, Zharin, or any of the others looked like. They could have been fat or thin, young or old. All I could gather was that each woman either desired or deserved a certain blouse.

Each page had four blouses. Some had directives inscribed in the same laboured hand: Parpal band, ribin, sort slivs, hux.

His finger followed these words hesitantly. It was much more sure over the drawings.

His nervousness grew as he turned the pages. A tic galvanised his right eyelid.

He was on his way to an interview, I decided. He was a Ladies’ Specialist who was on the verge of taking the plunge into high fashion.

I glanced at the floor. There was no bag between his feet. He carried no samples. Everything depended on his pattern book. Mangle, Svetta, Zharin would catapult him from Pump House to Paris.

Or not.

Silently, I wished him luck.

When he got off at the next stop, I stayed on the bus. But Lalli followed him.

Now I’m stuck with Mangle, Svetta and Zharin till Lalli puts me out of my misery by assuring me that, yes, all that was ahead of that man was an interview.

I’m hoping that’s what she’ll tell me. Meanwhile, I’m going to be furtively checking the newspaper for bodies, identifying, well ahead of the police, disintegrating bits of Mangle, Svetta and Zharin.

Questions will keep battering me:

Why were those names in English, a language he didn’t know?

Why weren’t there any measurements?

Why did his anxiety almost verge on panic as he reached the end of his book?

I will find perfectly banal explanations. The names were in English because it was not his book. There were no measurements because he was a costumer for a film set—not a tailor. His anxiety was nothing worse than a distended bladder.

But I also know that Lalli will return to tell me he’s nothing so mundane as a serial killer, a blouse fetishist, dreamt up for prime time TV.

She will discover instead the story of the life he was trying to escape through his book.

And perhaps, because it usually does, that life and this book might add up to murder.

As you can see, it’s not easy living with Lalli. It makes me edgy when I read the newspaper—I have to block off a 250-page story behind every two inch news report.

I can no longer read past crimes within the family: matricides, parricides, the murder of children, suicides. I can no longer stomach euphemisms for ritualised murder—no dowry deaths, infanticides, honour killings in my lexicon. There’s just one word for murder.

And murder cannot be dismissed.

Writing murder has nothing to do with the actual fact of it, the tangible truth of extinguishing life.

In real life, murder is messy. It’s horrific. The body’s spillage is disgusting even if there is no bloodshed. And the body itself, stilled, inert—doesn’t go away. But it must be vanished because it’s evidence, and to that end, abhorrent deeds are done to it, things inconceivable to the ordinary mind, and yet—Is there such a thing as an ordinary mind?

Without Lalli, I might have presumed so. But time and again she’s shown up the extraordinary depths to which the ordinary can plunge. It’s a terrifying thought that any human mind could have in it the same compulsions and evasions as a murderer’s. It leads one to ask how much does it take to push you over the brink.

Not very much, according to Lalli. Not very much in a society that denies the soul leg room. Not very much when tradition protects you from introspection, when all you need is to conform. And the pressure to appear respectable is so immense that no crime is too heinous, no guilt too heavy a price to pay.

Understanding that has put a burden on me. It makes me ask if I too contribute to such pressures, if I too have begun to show their strain. Above all, it makes me dread what this lack of introspection will do to the young.

I need solutions, endings, explanations, and I worry till Lalli finds them for me. It’s exhausting, sometimes. But then, there’s the flip side.

When I’m despairing over the skull beneath the skin, Lalli embraces life. She has taught me the solace of small pleasures.

It’s naive to think such trivia can offer any kind of foothold out of the abyss of murder. How can a perfect cup of coffee or a subtle whiff of perfume, a spoonful of marmalade, or a rose, ever reconcile you to human wickedness?

They don’t. But they do sustain curiosity.

They make it possible for the bludgeoned mind to become sentient again.

That long ago afternoon, I met Lalli soon after I noticed on the empty seat next to me, a fine dusting of yellow powder. It was granular, a deeper shade of yellow than haldi, almost a drift of amber. What made me notice it was the odour. It had the sharp distinctive pong of Vitamin B, all 12 shades of it.

I should have let it go.

But Lalli turned up, and I had to investigate.

Yes, it was Vitamin B complex powder without question, the stuff that spills out when you pull apart a capsule.

And it hadn’t leaked out.

It had been blown by a puff of wind when somebody had pulled open a capsule.

Why on earth would anybody want to do that on a bus?

“I’ll take that one,” Lalli said. “I collect curiosities.”

And it was a very curious tale.

Kalpana Swaminathan’s latest Lalli book, I Never Knew It Was You (Penguin) is now available in bookstores