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Impeccable Cuts
Sex, politics, media, an unholy menage a trois. Shobhaa De’s first fiction in a decade. Exclusive excerpts:
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Sethji
SETHJI
BY
SHOBHAA DÉ

PUBLISHED BY PENGUIN INDIA | PAGES: 304 | RS. 250

Amrita swiftly shut the door behind her after making sure the room was empty. Sethji looked at his beautiful daughter-in-law and touched her upper arm lightly. She reminded him of the lotus blossoms that she daily offered to the marble goddesses in the family temple in the courtyard. Amrita had obviously left her puja halfway this morning. Sethji inhaled deeply. Amrita exuded such a special fragrance, he could recognise it anywhere. He shut his eyes briefly and the image of her naked body flashed before him. He didn’t want her to break the spell. Sethji reached out in an attempt to enfold her in his arms. The heady aroma of sandalwood paste, rose petals, joss sticks, pure ghee, incense and kumkum filled the room. Amrita looked like the goddesses she worshipped so faithfully at dawn each day.

She was clad in a freshly starched white sari with tiny embroidered rosebuds scattered over it. As always, the neckline of her choli was low and deep. The cut so impeccable she didn’t require a bra to hold her shapely breasts in position. Sethji yearned to pull her on to the bed in the corner of the room. She appeared so chaste with her long and lustrous hair covering half her back, the parting in her hair filled with sindoor, the keys to various cupboards and the heavy iron tijori of the house anchored at her narrow waist in a heavy silver bunch. Sethji imagined Amrita’s ankles which were always hidden from his view. The soft tinkle of the gold anklets she wore always alerted him that she was approaching. He loved the way the ankle bone jutted out provocatively. He loved the arrangement of her toes—especially the way the smallest one looked all twisted up and out of alignment.

Amrita’s urgent whisper pulled him out of his reverie. “Babuji, Babuji. Aapne suna nahin? Suraj has done something terrible.” Babuji held her at arm’s length. “He has done something to himself, right? That’s okay. If somebody had done something to him—then I would have been worried.” Sethji tried to embrace Amrita. He wasn’t looking for sexual satisfaction at that moment, just the indescribable comfort that proximity to her warm, supple body provided. Amrita pushed him away impatiently. “Babuji, please pay attention to what I’m saying, it’s serious. Suraj has raped someone. The girl could die, we have to do something.” Sethji stepped back, looked skywards and chuckled. “Bas? That’s all? Just a rape? Then why all this tamasha? Couldn’t this big news have waited till I finished my massage? You people are impossible. How many times do I have to remind you not to interrupt my maalish? That is the most important part of the day for me. What is all this rape nonsense?”

Amrita’s eyes were cold and expressionless as she led her father-in-law to the narrow cot. The same one she had often slept on, bearing his weight over her own strong muscled body. “Babuji, rape is a serious crime these days. Forget your own years in the village when a man could pick any woman from the field and force himself on her. Times have changed.

If even a single word about this gets out, Suraj could land in jail, and if the girl dies, then he has had it. Plus, you have had it too, Babuji. Rape is seen in a very poor light now. A criminal light. There are strong mahila samaj groups. You know that if Kavitaji hears about this incident, you will have to face hell. It’s such a critical day for you— think, Babuji, think carefully. Kavitaji will blow it all up at the meeting to disgrace you. Babuji, this incident could cost you the confidence vote. This is just what Kavitaji has been waiting for. If it is not handled immediately, Kavitaji wins, you lose!”

***

Seeing the party workers who had arrived to escort her father-in-law, Amrita hastily covered her head with the edge of her starched sari pallu. She knew it was going to be a particularly rough meeting. She hoped Sethji would calm down sufficiently en route to the distant venue. He needed to remain cool while the party leadership decided his political future.

A major news channel had done a report on Sethji’s ‘extremely’ close ties with industrialists and how he had compromised his position as Minister of Road Transport. Ten years ago, news like this barely mattered and Sethji could have brushed away his party’s concerns like swatting off flies. But not now. Cleaning up politics was the flavour of the month, championed in the party inevitably by Kavita Saxena who had been gunning for his position for years and who (he knew) had been responsible for delivering the anonymous file to the media house that made the links between him and his industrialist friends.

Kavitaji was known for the prominent ribbon of bright red sindoor she plastered into the parting of her jet-black hair. Critics referred to it as “Kavitaji’s airstrip”. Her admirers liked her tenacious personality. “Kavitaji ke saath takkar mat lo, bhaiyya,” they’d half-joke. She was a seasoned political creature who had inherited her father’s passion for netagiri. When he died, she took over, bullying her way into local politics, supported by her meek husband and a daughter who wore a permanently distraught expression, especially in her loud, domineering mother’s presence. Kavitaji projected the picture of the perfect ‘Bharatiya naari’—the idealised Indian woman, modestly attired, a loyal wife and caring mother. But those who knew her well insisted there was another side to her—a demanding, aggressive sexual side that was carefully kept under wraps. Her affairs were conducted during her constant travels. “I am the party’s most energetic campaigner,” she would boast, setting off for yet another rally in the badlands, accompanied by a muscular party flunky. Nobody minded. Kavitaji had her uses. She was the only one who could occasionally checkmate Sethji and counter his autocratic diktats with her chutzpah and sliminess. Despite such skills, Kavitaji remained a political lightweight, sometimes used by Sethji’s enemies but rarely taken seriously, much to her frustration and rage.

Kavitaji and her faction were planning to withdraw their support to the shaky government coalition that ABSP was a part of. It was an alliance that Babuji had pushed hard for, cajoling his reluctant party along with him. He had argued that by joining the government, their regional, UP-based organisation would finally gain national importance, and this was crucial. Sethji had anticipated, of course, that the ministerial position he would be given as part of the deal would be very lucrative. And it had been. Extremely. This era of coalition politics, where the ruling party was heavily dependent on its partners, was a godsend for wheeler-dealers like Sethji. People like him held all the important cards in their hands, and exploited the insecurity of those in power. Threats to withdraw support received instant conciliatory responses from the ruling party. Sethji loved it! He felt important, even invaluable as he cut deal after deal, always making sure the sword of Damocles hovered over a few VVIP heads. But now with the instability in the government and the corruption charges on him, his position had weakened. The party’s old doubts about the coalition had resurfaced. Kavita Saxena claimed Sethji had become a liability. If the party were to survive, it was time for a change in leadership.

***

Star anchor Akshay Tiwari’s cologne was heady. Amrita guessed this freshly showered, tall, athletically built, heavily made-up peacock of a man with a permanent sneer across his face and the supercilious air of a person who knew he could get his way around almost anyone or anything was ready to grill her like a breakfast sausage. She squared her shoulders and pushed a strand of hair off her damp forehead. She had had just enough time to go home and change into her trademark pastel-coloured sari before rushing to the studios and now she felt another wave of exhaustion. Would the day’s dramas never end? “Coffee?” he asked smoothly. “We still have...let’s see...seven minutes before we go on air. Black?” Amrita shook her head and declined his offer. Even though her mouth was dry, she wasn’t going to let on just how nervous she was. She knew his type—conceited SOBS who strode around the cold, intimidating lobbies of Delhi’s posh hotels like they owned them. She’d watched him give Sethji a hard time during a particularly tough election rally, making her father-in-law say the most ridiculous things because of the language barrier. Akshay’s snobbishness was based on nothing more than his own Oxbridge credentials but today she wouldn’t allow him to get the better of her.

“We have the raped girl’s sister in the studios,” he said with a suggestive smile. “No point denying anything. Suraj is a dead duck. He’s over. He’s history. Minimum ten years in the anda jail. Let’s not play games. You have a minute and a half to touch up your make-up, dab the sweat on your forehead and mic up. Come on...let’s go. By the way, you are far better looking in person than in your pictures! This show is going to rock!”

Amrita’s face gave nothing away as she followed Akshay out of his small cabin (she’d taken in details—pictures of two kids with him and his pretty wife outside Buckingham Palace, scrawled ‘We love you dad’ across them, wilted red roses in a chipped vase, a Zegna bomber jacket on a hanger, squash gear crammed into a Nike bag) and into the freezing studio with people going about their tasks in silence.

 
 
“We have the raped girl’s sister in the studios,” he said with a suggestive smile. “No point denying anything. Suraj is a dead duck. He’s over...minimum 10 years in the anda jail.”
 
 
He pointed to a swivel chair next to his. “You’re there,” he whispered as a man with a powder puff touched up his face and held a hand mirror in front of him. “Brush,” said Akshay softly, as his earpiece was swiftly clipped on. Akshay was obsessive about his hair, and used far too much gel to spike it fashionably. He readjusted his Ferragamo tie (sober, for a change) and looked sideways at Amrita. “Let the show begin,” he said with a smirk as the signature tune blared and camera-1 zoomed in for a tight close-up of the anchor’s face (angled perfectly to catch a flattering light).

“Hello India...” Akshay began in the voice which was recognised by the majority of one billion Indians. Crisply, bluntly and efficiently he rattled off the top stories (oil spills near the coast of Mexico, some more American soldiers killed in Iraq, another landmine explosion triggered off by Maoists near Nagpur) before plunging gleefully into the Big Story. Amrita only half heard all the words which were accompanied by gory clips showing the half-naked body of the girl Suraj was alleged to have raped. Akshay stressed on the word ‘alleged’ several times, and Amrita picked up the text as it appeared on the teleprompter from which Akshay was reading. It was sounding and looking so awful, she wanted to shut her eyes and plug her ears. Oh god! Amrita groaned inwardly. If only that bloody Suraj had kept his pecker to himself!

She heard her name being uttered forcefully by Akshay as he described her dilemma—caught in the middle of a nasty family drama with a father-in-law about to lose the confidence of his party members and an alleged rapist of a brother-in-law! Amrita could see camera-2 closing in on her face. It was a format she was familiar with, since she watched Akshay’s show avidly each day. She could feel the nation’s eyes boring into her. In a flash she remembered the words of a seasoned politician who had told her, “Madam, the camera catches everything—it never lies. You can try any trick under the sun, but if you try and fake something—you’ll be instantly caught. Nobody can fool the camera.”

And then she was on air. Amrita was being asked about Suraj, what this meant for Sethji. Amrita had two choices—to lie or to tell the truth. During that do-or-die moment, Amrita instinctively opted for the second—truth. Or at least her version of it. “Think on your feet, Amrita” was the slogan she had committed to memory as a young girl, with no resources other than her body and her brains to fall back on.

She looked into the camera, her eyes shining with tears. “Today a shadow has fallen on our family. Yes, it is true my brother-in-law Suraj has raped this young woman. We know he has made a terrible mistake. Let the courts decide how to punish this unfortunate young man for the crime he has committed. But let me also admit here with deep shame and sorrow that Suraj needs help. For the past few years, he has been struggling to cope with a severe drinking problem that began when the deep, emotional trauma of losing his mother really hit him. While the family stands staunchly behind Suraj during this difficult hour, and will ensure he checks into a rehab clinic, we also want to extend all possible help to the victim and her family. Such a shameful thing should not happen to any woman. My heart goes out to her as it would to a younger sister who has suffered a terrible attack that could scar her for life.”

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