by Sa’adat Hasan Manto
Kulwant Kaur got off the bed, as Ishhar Singh entered the hotel-room.
With razor eyes, she glared at him and closed the latch on the door. It was after twelve that night. Outside, the city spread her skirts, hushing all into a strange, mystifying silence.
Kulwant Kaur sat back on the bed and crossed her legs. Distracted perhaps, in trying to unravel his tangled thoughts, Ishhar Singh stayed in a corner, twirling a kirpan idly in his hands. In this silence, moments passed. After a while, Kulwant Kaur, irritated with her seat, stretched out and started to swing her legs from the edge of the bed. Ishhar Singh remained silent.
Kulwant Kaur was a full-bodied woman with wide, inviting, fleshed-out hips, and breasts higher than they should be. She had a penetrating gaze, and grey, downy fuzz clouding her upper lip. The way she comported herself gave an impression that she was a woman of authority and resolve.
By his physique and by the way he carried himself it was obvious to anyone that Ishhar Singh was the right male for Kulwant Kaur. For now, he hung his head, in his corner, not making a sound. On his brow, an otherwise tightly wound turban was slowly unravelling. The hand that once held fast onto the kirpan now began to tremble.
A few more minutes like this and Kulwant Kaur could take no more. Still, she lowered her angry eyes and cried: “Ishhar, my love!” Ishhar Singh lifted his head and turned towards her. But instead of meeting her bullet-gaze full frontally, he could only turn away.
Kulwant Kaur cried out again: “Ishhar, my love!” Then, holding her anxieties inside herself, she got off the bed and moved towards him: “Where have you been for all these days?”
Ishhar Singh ran a tongue over dried lips: “… I don’t know.”
“Is this any fucking answer?” Kulwant Kaur retorted.
Ishhar Singh tossed his kirpan to one side and stretched himself out. It felt as if he had been unwell for several days. Kulwant Kaur looked at the bed, now brimful with Ishhar Singh. A wave of sympathy washed over her. She put a loving hand on his forehead and asked: “What’s wrong, dear?”
Ishhar Singh’s eyes were fixed on the ceiling. Slowly, he turned his gaze away, fidgety eyes fixating on her familiar face: “Kulwant!” His voice was stricken. Kulwant Kaur shrank into herself, said: “Yes, dear,” and began to bite her upper lip.
Ishhar Singh unburdened himself of his turban. He turned to Kulwant Kaur, with entreating eyes. He then slapped her fleshy rump, hard, shook his head and muttered to himself: “This girl’s crazy.”
This sudden action made his locks fall loose. Kaulwant Kaur ran her fingers through his tresses like a comb, and asked in a voice full of affection: “Ishhar, my love, where were you all these days?”
“In the motherfucker’s house!” He stared at her and suddenly, reached out to her uplifted breasts and began to knead them. “Kasam Vaaheguru ki, you are one lively woman!”
Kulwant Kaur brushed his hands aside and insisted: “Swear on my head, and tell me, where were you … did you travel to the city?”
Ishhar Singh gathered his hair back in a bun and answered: “No.”
Kulwant Kaur's temper rose: “No, no, you did go to the city … where you looted a lot of money, and now you are hiding this from me.”
“Let me not be the fruit of my father’s loins, if I lie to you.”
Kulwant Kaur was taken aback for a bit, but soon she started again: “But what I do not understand is … what happened to you that night? You were right as rain, lying next to me. You had adorned me with all the jewellery you stole from the city. You were kissing me all over, but what happened then? You got up, dressed and left.”
Ishhar Singh’s skin paled to a sickly yellow. Seeing this, Kulwant Kaur said: “Look, how your colour has changed, Ishhar sainyya! Kasam Vaaheguru ki, there is surely something you are not telling me.”
“Nothing. I swear on your life.”
Ishhar Singh’s voice was nearly lifeless. This raised Kulwant Kaur’s suspicions even more. Pursing her lips she spoke, stressing each word: “Ishhar, my love, what. is. it? You are not the same person you were eight days ago.”
All of a sudden, Ishhar Singh sat up, as if someone had attacked him. He pulled Kulwant Kaur into his broad arms, and shook her with all his strength: “I am the very same, darling. Hold me tight in your embrace; let me feel the warmth of your very being.”
Kulwant Kaur did not resist, but continued complaining: “What happened to you that night?”
“Won’t you tell me?”
“I would, if there was something to tell.”
“Set me alight with your own two hands, should you lie.”
Ishhar Singh wrapped his arms around her neck and buried his lips in hers. The hair from his moustache tickled Kulwant Kaur’s nostrils, and she sneezed. Both started to laugh.
Ishhar Singh pulled off his sadri and looked at Kulwant Kaur with naked lust. “Come to me; let’s have a hand of cards.”
Little beads of sweat formed on Kulwant Kaur’s lips. She blinked her eyelashes, and in a sly, shy voice said: “Fuck off!”
Ishhar Singh pinched the flesh on her bottom with vengeance. In pain, Kulwant Kaur jumped to one side: “Don’t do that, Ishhar sainyya! It hurts!”
Ishhar Singh reached out, bit Kulwant Kaur’s lips and began to chew on them. Kulwant Kaur let herself go completely. Ishhar Singh tossed his kurta off and said: “All right, let’s play trumps.”
Kulwant Kaur’s lips started to quiver. Ishhar Sigh grabbed both ends of Kulwant Kaur’s chemise and, like a butcher who sloughs of the skin of a goat, pulled it off her body in a single motion and threw it aside. He gazed at her nakedness longingly and stated to pummel her all over: “Kulwant, kasam Vaaheguru ki, you are a woman worth waiting for!”
Kulwant Kaur looked at the welts all over herself: “And you, my love, are a tormentor!”
Ishhar Singh smiled, under his lush, dark moustache. “Shall the torment commence?” And so saying he started to have his way with her with increased vigour. He bit into Kulwant Kaur’s lips, her earlobes, played with her upraised breasts, spanked her full bottom with loud slaps, kissed her cheeks passionately, suckled at her nipples, slathering them with his saliva. Kulwant Kaur too bubbled over in throes of passion. But despite all his overtures, Ishhar Singh could not get an erection. Every skill, every strategy, every throw of cards he could remember, he put to use like a failing gambler. Nothing worked.
Kulwant Kaur’s body was thrumming like a well-tuned instrument. Rejecting Ishhar Singh’s unnecessary movements she said: “Ishhar sainyya, that’s enough of shuffling, show your hand now!”
Hearing this, Ishhar Singh felt as if he had dropped an entire deck of cards. Taking a deep breath, he put his head on Kulwant Kaur’s lap and broke into a cold sweat. Kulwant Kaur did everything to warm him, but failed. So far everything took place without a word being exchanged, but when Kulwant Kaur realised that the rising ardour in her intimate parts was fated to remain unfulfilled, she got off the bed in a huff. There was a sheet hanging from a peg, which she quickly wrapped around herself, puffed her nostrils and struggled to speak: “Ishhar Sainyya, who is that bitch with whom you have been getting it off? She has wrung you dry!”
Ishhar Singh remained on the bed, taking torturous breaths, but did not say a word.
Kulwant Kaur’s anger grew: “I’m asking you! Who’s that bitch? Who’s your lover? Who is this card up your sleeve?”
Ishhar Singh answered, tiredly: “No one, Kulwant, no one.”
Kulwant Kaur put her hands on her hips and said with determination: “Ishhar, my love, I will get to the bottom of this today … swear to me in the name of Vaaheguru … that there’s no woman behind all of this?”
Ishhar Singh tried to speak, but Kulwant Kaur would not allow him to get a word in: “Before you swear, know this – I am the daughter of Sardar Nihal … I will hack you to pieces if you lie to me … all right, now invoke Vaaheguru and tell me there’s no woman behind all of this?”
Ishhar Singh with great sadness bent his head and acquiesced.
Kulwant Kaur lost it completely. She leapt to the corner, picked up the kirpan, removed the sheath like a banana peel, threw it on one side and attacked Ishhar Singh.
Fountains of blood sprayed everywhere. Unsatisfied even with this, Kulwant Kaur scratched and pulled at his hair like an army of demented cats, abusing her unknown rival in love with the foulest of curses.
After a while Ishhar Singh begged weakly: “Let it go, now, Kulwant! Let it go.”
His voice had all the pain of the woebegone. Kulwant Kaur stepped back. Blood was spouting from Ishhar Singh’s neck and drenching his moustache; he opened his trembling lips and looked at Kulwant Kaur with a combination of reproach and gratitude: “My love, you acted in haste … but then, it was all for the best.”
Kulwant Kaur’s envy surfaced again: “But who was she? Your mother?”
The blood had reached Ishhar Singh’s lips. As he tasted its acridity, his skin crawled: “And I … and I … killed five or six men … with this very kirpan.”
Kulwant Kaur’s mind was only filled with the thoughts of the other woman: “Just tell me, who is that bitch?”
Ishhar Singh’s eyes were clouding, but he managed to bring a faint glimmer in them and said this to Kulwant Kaur: “She’s no bitch.”
Kulwant screamed: “I am asking you, who is she!”
Ishhar Singh’s voice choked: “Let me speak.” He ran his hand over his neck, gazed at his living, pulsing blood and smiled: “People are such motherfuckers, I tell you.”
Kulwant Kaur was impatient: “Ishhar sainyya, come to the point.”
Ishhar Singh’s smile spread under his blood soaked moustache: “I will … now that you have cut my fucking throat … I will, by and by, tell you everything.”
And as he spoke sweat broke out on his brow. “Kulwant, my dear … I could not bring myself to tell you what happened. People are strange … there was rampant looting in the city, so, like everyone else, I too took part in it. Whatever ornaments or money I could lay my hands on, I brought home to you … but there is one thing I did not tell you.”
Ishhar Singh’s wounds had begun to throb and he stated keening in pain. Kulwant Kaur turned a blind eye to his state, and asked him spitefully: “What is it you did not tell me?”
Ishhar Singh tried to blow blood off his moustache and attempted to speak: “In the house … I targeted to loot … there were seven … seven inhabitants. I killed … six … with this very kirpan that you used to … let it go … listen! There was a girl … really pretty. I picked her up and brought her with me.”
Kulwant Kaur heard him out in silence. “Kulwant, my dear, I cannot begin to tell you how lovely she was … I would have killed her too, but then I thought, no, Ishhar sainyya, you enjoy your Kulwant Kaur every day in any case, why not have a taste of this sweetmeat?”
Kulwant Kaur merely responded: “Humph!”
“So I lifted her on one shoulder and set off … on the way … what was I saying? Yes, on the way … by the edge of the canal among the bushes and shrubbery, I lay her down … my first instinct was to play my cards, but then I thought, no …” Ishhar Singh’s tongue went dry.
Kulwant Kaur swallowed, wet her lips and spoke: “What happened then?”
With great difficulty, words emerged from Ishhar Singh’s mouth: “I did … I did play my cards, but then … but then …”
His voice sank.
Kulwant Kaur shook him awake: “What happened then?”
Ishhar Singh opened eyes that were now failing him. He looked at Kulwant Kaur’s body. Every sinew was throbbing.
“She … she was dead … a corpse … just cold flesh … my love, my love, give me your hand.”
Kulwant Kaur placed her hand on Ishhar Singh’s, which had gone cold. Colder than ice.
Year of Publication: 1950
© Mustansir Dalvi, 2018. All rights reserved.