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Sita Bhaskar

For Kala Kahani

Sita was born and educated in India. She spent her college years in Bangalore and moved to Madras when she got married. Sita is a computer software consultant by profession and currently live and work in Madison, WI, USA.

'Shielding Her Modesty' is her first book, and the name of one of her short stories.

Shielding Her Modesty

“Another day, another billboard,” said Muruga as he climbed down from his perch high above the busy street. Even at this height, the non-stop din of Madras traffic rang in his ears. The wooden ladder wobbled as he placed one callused foot after the other and made his way down to the pavement. His foot slipped past a missing rung, and he swayed while his toes searched for the next.
On the pavement, Muruga unwound his makeshift turban, shook it out with a sharp snap, and tied it around his waist. It really was his lungi – his sarong. He couldn’t risk having it slip down from his waist while he was intent on his artwork one hundred feet above the ground. It wasn’t a misplaced sense of modesty, he did wear a faded pair of shorts under it that held his pack of beedis and tobacco pouch. But, if it slipped, there was no point in climbing down to retrieve it. It would have long disappeared from the pavement, almost snatched in mid-air by pavement vendors. It would be tied snug around a vendor’s waist and there would be no use arguing with him. The miscreant would swear on his mother, father, his unborn children, Amma - as they called her who ruled the State - the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, and even the Prime Minister of India, that the lungi belonged to him.
“Report to the Arts College site,” the foreman said as he paid the daily wages. Muruga’s interest perked up. The Arts College site was a prime location and always had choice assignments. Dare he hope – a cinema billboard with a voluptuous heroine or maybe a painting of Amma? Amma was a three-day job, for sure. Even though painting her sari was a simple job, she wore only dark shades in single colors, it was the richly embroidered shawls draped over her expansive shoulders that took a lot of detailing. Also, her expression had to be serene and benevolent, or the foreman would risk the wrath of Amma’s henchman. The foreman always understood the strain on a painter with an Amma job and sent up an extra cup of tea. Daily wages and two cups of tea were the terms of Muruga’s contract with the foreman. A third cup of tea was a silent acknowledgement of the stress of the job.
Muruga walked toward the bus stop thinking about the promise behind the foreman’s words. Even though there was a bus shelter, Muruga knew that he had to stand a few feet ahead of the shelter. If he was lucky, the bus driver would slow down and he would grab the door rail and run alongside the bus before leaping onto an already packed footboard. Only the brave of heart could do this and the other footboard travelers would acknowledge his expertise by allowing him to squeeze his body into the limited space. Muruga liked riding the bus this way. The exhaust fumes didn’t bother him, in his line of work he was used to petrol and diesel fumes. Far better than sitting inside the bus packed like sardines among sweating bodies.
When the bus reached the turn near his home, Muruga slid off the footboard in one practiced move, unmindful of the blare of car horns, ran alongside the bus for a few steps to slow down the momentum, and slipped into the throng on the pavement. Experience had taught him to look for lurking khaki-clad policemen before making this unscheduled exit from the bus. Who knew where and when the bus would stop next and how far he would have to walk back?
He stopped to buy a pack of beedis at the pavement stall, when he heard a familiar nasal voice in the milling throng around him. He ducked behind the newspapers strung like a garland across the stall, so that most people stood with their heads tilted to the side to read the headlines without buying the newspaper. He looked toward the voice and saw his sister hurrying her two brats in the opposite direction. Away from the single room tenement that Muruga shared with her, her children and – when he bothered to show up – that good-for-nothing, his sister’s husband. And that meant – Muruga hastened his pace - Kala, his new bride, was alone at home. They had only been married for three months. He had brought her directly from her village into the single room tenement and all attempts to lure his new bride away from the brood were always thwarted by his sister. All their outings had been in the company of his sister and her pesky children. Now Muruga wasted no time. He didn’t care where his sister had gone; this was a god given chance to get his wife to himself.
Kala was preparing wicks for the oil lamp when Muruga entered the house. He took the wicks from her and urged her to hurry. They hastened down the narrow, uneven cement steps, and walked toward the main road. They were close to the bus stop when he heard his sister’s voice. “Muruga, Muruga,” she called. He couldn’t see her, but she made her way through the crush of bodies to his side. How could his sister, who couldn’t see the snot running from the nose of her very own offspring, manage to spot Muruga in this crowd? Muruga escaped – by lying that they were going to the temple, God forgive his lying tongue – and he took Kala to the beach.
While walking on the sand, Muruga managed to let his hand brush lightly across Kala’s as if by accident. Instead of looking at him, his new bride glanced around quickly to see if anyone else saw this intimate gesture. Then she held her hand stiff by her side, while he swung his, brushing it against hers with every step. Emboldened by her silent approval, he took her hand at the crossroads, as if to pull her back from oncoming traffic and did not let go even after they had crossed the street. They walked slowly, looking at displays in pavement stores. Kala pointed at a blue and yellow checked lungi spread like an unfurled fan hanging from the awning in one store.
“Why don’t you buy that for yourself?” she asked.
“Why? My old one isn’t torn yet.” Muruga was practical. “And I still have the one your father gave me at our wedding.”
“I like blue and you like yellow. When you wear that lungi, it will be like we are intertwined,” she finished, breathless.
Startled by this bold innuendo – almost like in the movies – Muruga bought the lungi in dumb delight.
This romantic interlude loosened Muruga’s tongue. “Come, I’ll take you to my work spot,” he said and hailed a cycle-rickshaw, never mind that his work spot was high above the streets and moved from day to day. He showed her the billboards as the rickshaw meandered through the streets. “See, there’s the board I painted today.”
That morning Muruga had drawn the short straw and been assigned to one of the boring boards, a billboard for a computer training school – several lines of A-B-C-D and 1-2-3 as he called them: JAVA, J2EE, .NET, XML, UML. How many things could one computer do? Training school billboards were monotonous. At least, a painting job for coaching classes for entrance exams to foreign universities had an exotic touch to it. Those boards often had a picture of an airplane with a dollar sign trailing it, disappearing into the clear blue sky – CALCUTTA TO CALIFORNIA, MADRAS TO MASSACHUSETTS, HYDERABAD TO HARVARD, ONE STOP SHOP TO M.I.T.
Computer training billboards drew no crowds at all. No one glanced up at the lone figure perched high above the streaming traffic. Muruga doubted they would stop for him even if he missed his footing and fell into the swarming traffic. The motorcycles, scooters, cars, and buses would probably swerve around his inert body and drive on. This was the nature of his job.
“You never told me about the dangers of your job,” his wife said. “I thought boards were put up after you painted them.”
“No one realizes how much thought and preparation go into each billboard,” Muruga said. First the white-out painter climbed up and slathered white paint over the previous advertisement. Then the drawing master marked lines on the picture proportionate to the size of the board, climbing up and dividing the board into square sections and drawing the outline from the picture he had in hand.
“My job comes next,” Muruga said. He painted colors within the outline. Sometimes the foreman told him what colors to use – something about company logos that he did not understand. At other times, they let him use his imagination. Those were the jobs he liked best.
“You know to read English?” Kala sounded impressed.
Muruga couldn’t read. The drawing master drew the outline of text on the board, and he knew which A-B-C-D came after which A-B-C-D and even knew where to put the 1-2-3. After all, the drawing master had gone to school and was seventh class (failed).
“I stay close to the drawing master and laud his artistic skills in hope of getting plum assignments, especially ones with -“ Muruga bit his tongue and swallowed the next words “half-naked women.” What would have happened if he had let his tongue run on - “And then I can let my hands wander all over the unpainted parts of the female anatomy while people gather on the pavement below, admiring my art as I clothe her with soft sweeps of my paintbrush.” The unexpected outing had turned his brain to cotton. Luckily Kala was gazing at a giant billboard of amma, the Chief Minister.
“I like doing amma paintings,” Muruga said.
“Yes, such a great honor,” his wife said.
“Yes, that too, I suppose. But I like it because it takes three days to complete her billboard.” Three days in which the foreman could not replace him with another painter, three days in which Muruga was assured of daily wages and an extra cup of tea.
“But after that you can say that you painted amma,” Kala said.
“That’s nothing. Tomorrow is a big day for me. I have to go to the Arts College site. Maybe a big job, a cinema star. I’ll wear the new lungi.”
The rickshaw pulled up at the tenement. Muruga helped Kala down from the hard imitation leather seat. “My, my, a rickshaw to return from the temple,” his sister said.
The next morning Kala handed him the lungi, neatly folded. “I kept it under my pillow so that it looks ironed,” she told Muruga. He draped the lungi around his waist and set off for the Arts College site, aware of his wife’s eyes following him until he was out of sight. The foreman pointed to the billboard. The drawing master had drawn the outline of a woman, almond-shaped eyes with long curved lashes, a classic nose, and lips the shape of a warrior’s bow. Long wavy tresses for the hair, too. And the body – Siva, Siva, the body – Muruga couldn’t wait to unleash his creative juices on that body.
He told the foreman it was a two-day job. “Too many curves, saar,” he said, while the other painters exchanged leery grins. The foreman grunted and waved him away. Muruga positioned the ladder against the billboard. Solemnly he untied his lungi, folded it and tied it as a turban around his head. He placed his right foot on the first rung of the ladder and climbed up.
All morning he lavished attention on the face and hair – if the figure had life, and the paint were warm oil, then Muruga was an experienced masseur giving her a head massage. He picked a bright yellow paint, almost as yellow as the color in his lungi, for hair and a cobalt blue paint for the eyes. With great care he worked yellow paint into the long wavy tresses, willing it to resemble willowy blondes he had seen on television in display windows of electronic retail stores. Next his brush invited a seductive glance into those blue almond-shaped eyes. “Just like an American,” he said. But the foreman sent up a stern message through Raja, the little urchin who brought his morning tea. Raja was light-footed and nimble. He held a glass of tea in one hand, while he used the other hand to grasp the rungs. He handed the glass to Muruga and stayed, leaning on the ladder. Muruga drank his tea, gave the glass back to Raja, and smoked a beedi.
“Enough with the American look. Make the eyes black. If you want to paint Americans, go to America,” Raja said, imitating the foreman.
Muruga shook his head. He had never seen a blonde with black eyes on TV. It was the fashion to look American. Everyone was either going to or coming from America. What would they say if they saw a blonde without blue eyes in such a prominent spot? What would they think about the billboard painters of Madras? But he had to obey the foreman or he would be relegated back to the A-B-C-D boards. So he painted the eyes black, but he did not stem the creative flow when his brush changed the classic nose to a pert, saucy nose. He proceeded onto the bow-shaped mouth with the dedication of a plastic surgeon. When he was done, the mouth was a full-lipped, luscious red with a prominent pout. He painted in smoky blue eye shadow and traces of blush on the cheeks.
“First class, annai,” Raja said during the afternoon tea break. “After this you can become a make-up artist for cinema heroines, instead of toiling under the hot sun.”
Pleased, Muruga shared his beedi with Raja.
Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would get his hands on that body.
The next morning, he was at his post early. He began ravishing her neck until he reached her creamy white shoulders. After that it was easy, just skin color paint in wide sweeping brush movements. Then he started on the cleavage. He placed his hand lovingly on the unpainted breast while his brush caressed the dark valleys between the breasts. When Raja brought up his morning tea and surveyed the work with a loud wolf whistle, Muruga’s heart swelled like the swell of the breast above the tight-fitting choli. He did not waste time shooting the breeze with Raja over a beedi, the bare skin beneath the choli called to him. He had journeyed from there to the waist and was adorning the deep wells of her navel when lunch break rolled around.
Muruga walked across the road to Senthil’s Lunch Hotel and took a token. It was a busy time of day, when the people who had ascended into musty, cavernous offices in the morning emerged for a dose of harsh Madras sunlight and some sustenance. Senthil’s was known for its fast service, seating patrons wherever there was an open chair, throwing strangers together to share a table for their noonday meal. A couple in the heady throes of a romance might suddenly find a harassed mother with a snot-nosed child seated in the empty chairs at the same table. Together they would form an awkward group, the romantic couple suddenly self-conscious in the presence of an audience, the mother oblivious to all but her own concerns, the child staring unblinkingly at the couple.
Muruga decided to smoke his forgotten beedi while waiting his turn and settling down on his haunches at the edge of the pavement in front of Senthil’s. Soon another painter sidled up to him, and they smoked in companionable silence. Then the painter nudged him and pointed with a wink across the road. At first Muruga thought it was an envious nod to the plum assignment he had managed to get, but his gaze fixed on the crowd beneath the billboard. It must have started out with a few urchins gathering under the billboard, gazing at the half-painted blonde apparition. Then the crescendo of lusty catcalls and wolf whistles had attracted a swelling crowd of roadside Romeos. “Annai, they are all lusting after your woman,” said the painter. Muruga was assailed by a protective feeling so strong he rushed across the street, blind to the oncoming traffic and deaf to the screech of cars and buses trying to avoid him.
“Have you told your family you won’t be coming home this evening, you madaya? Go and meet your Creator by all means, but not from under the wheels of my bus!” the bus driver screamed at him.
Muruga untied his blue and yellow checked lungi from around his waist, threw it over his shoulder and climbed up to his woman in swift, decisive steps. He should have never left her here alone, half dressed, and so close to the Arts College, too. Everyone knew college boys were starving sex maniacs. Thank Heavens he was close by. God knows what they would have done to her if he were not there to shield her modesty. He should have painted something over her tender lower parts instead of leaving her here unprotected, to be ogled by these goondas. He wrapped his lungi around her waist. It did not cover her ample proportions completely, but at least it kept her intimate parts covered until he returned to clothe her, stroke by stroke, with his paint and brush. There were boos and jeers from the crowd below, but he ignored them in dignified silence, made his way down and back into Senthil’s Lunch Hotel. The proprietor patted him on his back and acknowledged Muruga’s decency by seating him alone in a four-seat table.
Secure in the knowledge that his lungi was protecting his woman, Muruga lingered over his lunch. But as he walked back to continue his work, he saw that the crowd around the billboard had grown. The sea breeze flirted with the languid afternoon heat and Muruga’s lungi fluttered out from the billboard in the breeze. The crowd sighed collectively and swayed closer to the billboard to catch a glimpse of skin under the modest covering. Enraged, Muruga yelled at them and made threatening gestures to disperse the crowd. “This is what is wrong with the youth today!” Muruga spat the words out. “You drape a dress around a donkey, and they will run panting after the donkey with their tongues hanging out of their heads.”

“Why do you care? Is she your mother or your sister?” Muruga heard the grumbling above the wolf whistles. Then the miscreants walked away from Muruga’s scowl and the crowd thinned out.
Muruga collected his paint cans for the rest of his job. From waist down, his woman wore tight-fitting shorts barely covering her delicate parts. He would need more skin-color paint to cover her long, sinewy legs. But he would first shield her modesty by painting the shorts. He caressed her unpainted delicate parts with his left hand as his imagination followed his brush through curved mounds of her body.
At the end of his workday, Muruga brooded in the bus stop. He brooded on the footboard of the bus. He brooded as he jumped off the bus, and forgot about the lurking khaki-clad policeman, until he heard a shout behind him. He looked back and saw the policeman at the tea shop. Muruga waded into the sea of bodies and ran all the way home. He had narrowly missed being booked for jaywalking. He wasn’t jaywalking, he was jay-jumping-off-the-bus. Had amma ordered the policemen to prefix every offense with her name, Jayalalitha? What would happen when she lost the next election to her arch-enemy Karunanidhi? Could they still book him for jaywalking?
His wife looked pained when she saw splashes of paint on this new lungi. He removed his lungi and gave it to her. He sat outside the tenement in his shorts, on his haunches, and brooded while smoking a beedi.
When his wife went to the communal tap, he followed her. She used her tightly rationed quota of water at the communal tap trying to wash the paint spots out of his lungi. Muruga’s sister lamented that precious family supply of water was being sent quite literally down the drain.
“Never mind, I will walk to the next Kuppam and bring water for cooking,” his wife said.
Muruga brooded. The youth of today were a moral blemish on society. He shared his views with his wife and told her how he had come to that conclusion.
“I had to hide her from lecherous glances of hundreds of men,” Muruga told his wife as he walked with her to the next Kuppam for water. “If I had not covered her with my lungi – the one you selected for me – their lecherous glances would have burned her skin.”
“I don’t know what I did in my last birth to deserve such a decent man like you as my husband.” She gazed up at him, misty-eyed. Hefting a brightly colored pot on her head, she started on the long walk to fetch more water.