18 June 2022

Memories From Kamathipura: 'The First Time I Saw My Father'

Fathers' Day ruminations of the son of a 'tawaif' from Kamathipura in Maharashtra: 'He came for sex. She gave him love':

The house of a former Kamathipura tawaif in Maharashtra
The house of a former Kamathipura tawaif in Maharashtra Chinki Sinha/Outlook

The first time I saw my father, he was standing naked in the room. 

I know, I know, how can I talk like that on Father's Day. Sharam karo and all. 

But that first line is the end of that story. 

Let's get to the beginning if you have no sharam.

A man got out of bed and stood in front of me. The single yellow bulb hanging from the ceiling was miraculously switched on by a person behind me adjusting her petticoat. I could tell the woman from the silvery sounds of her bangles and anklets — the music was home to my ears.

Turning around would have made me catch the woman in the act. I was too groggy to be surprised.

Indian living spaces are so tiny and they often have to accommodate unwelcome guests in bed, even when there is no room for more.

Where was my cot? 

I did not have one, or we could not afford one, but the easiest explanation for that will be that mothers like mine did not believe in sleeping away from her only child. 

Mother Rekha Gaekwad is in the centre
Mother Rekha Gaekwad is in the centre

But who was this stranger?

Tall, bushy, naked. 

He smiled and said, “Kya dekh raha hai?"

He stooped to pick his trousers from the floor and hunched to wear it. 

A thick gold chain around his neck glinted in the dim light. His smile grew into a creepy grin as he fumbled with his pants in the low wattage.

Did I stare at his genitals when he questioned me? What was I looking at?

Here was a naked man who was having sex with my mother a while ago. I was lying next to them, turned away from the sight, but not the sounds.

My ears soaked in metal sounds jangling with huffs and moans to build a rhythm. The sounds of coruscating flesh flung meteoric sparks across my closed eyelids. The two bodies slammed, trying to enter each other as if a door was shutting in their faces each time they tried to pass.

And so they continued indefatigably, sweating and smelling of liquor and fading jasmines.

What I heard was painting pictures, a voyeuristic thrill in connecting the senses to a visual performance. 

Aren’t actors in such acts drowning in ecstasy with their eyes shut? Pupils adapt in the dark as they feel the sensations clouding their whites. 

The heightened senses of sound, touch, smell and taste is what makes us inveterate nocturnal mammals, willing to substitute sight in return for its favours.

Who climaxed first?

A silence arose from their clammy loins. Heat escaped into vapour in the room. A stench reached my nose. It had the salty scent of something either sacred, or sinful, I could not tell the difference because it was done so sneakily.

Thick clouds of frankincense from a secret ritual hung in the air. Their heavy breaths were taking cognisance of what had transpired in the room. 

There was no snapping sound of a condom coming off. No one had heard of AIDS.

The man walked out of the door. The light was switched off. I went back to sleep without a word exchanged between mother and I. There was no need to.

The author's father
The author's father

I was certainly not going to remember the incident the next morning, or the one after that, if it happened so often that one recollection was enough to cancel all the other instances when my bedtime was interrupted by a post-coital kerfuffle.

I believe that is the first time I encountered a naked stranger in my bed. 

He had a boozy loftiness that comes from knowing too little in the exultant moment, but he did not register to me as a man out of his skin. He smelt like home.

My mother was his mistress in the kotha. We were not his family.

He came for sex. She gave him love. 

She gave him me, a drowsy child to a father who occasionally shared the only bed we had in the shabby tenement, and who never kissed us goodnight before he walked out of the door.

(Manish Gaekwad is a journalist who co-wrote the Netflix series She. His second book, The Last Courtesan, a memoir on his mother, will be out this year.)