Mumbai has about 14 million people living in it. So he’s told. So it isn’t impossible that there’s someone else somewhere among the teeming millions who looks like him.
It’s just that he’s never expected to find that out via being kidnapped from his Mumbai Central flat. By a man in a red car who looks like nothing more than an over-pampered cat, all sleek fur and smug smiles, and purring (incomprehensible) babble, and the pure, certain belief that he’s someone called Charlie, which doesn’t get shaken in the least by all his fervent (and steadily-incoherent) protestations to the contrary.
*** *** ***
The first time, Mikhail will laugh about later, call himself a fool for being uncertain, being scared. But he says it, always, his skin against Charlie’s, because he had been scared, and his hands had shaken when he curved them around Charlie’s jaw, and kissed him, as he ran them through his hair and down his spine, and unbuttoned his shirt and tugged his jeans down, and went to his knees and kissed the hipbone jutting out.
He had still been scared when he woke up, because this had already meant something that he’d be sorry to drown in drink.
Charlie thinks he will get away with sleeping with Sophia afterwards, which delusion lasts exactly two hours after she throws him out of her flat. Then there’s Mikhail collaring him at the race-course and dragging him away—Mansoor grins and hollers and gets a fuck-you thrown at him—and there is something a little like rage in his eyes, and his hands are grasping and his mouth brutal. It takes him time, afterwards, to admit that he had liked that, liked being something it hurt to lose, as much as he’d liked Mikhail inside him, demanding and a little desperate.
The first time he proposes to Sophia, Mikhail leans in across her and croons, “Don’t marry her, fuck me,” and when he leans back, there is something speculative in Sophia’s eyes. How they go from that to the bedroom of Mikhail’s bolt-hole—some boys and girls he doesn’t bring back home—is anyone’s guess, but watching Mikhail stretched out over Sophia, languorously fucking her, makes him feel invisible, extratenuous, even with their hands on and in him, even with his mouth on her breast, even curled up between them, because they fit like puzzle pieces, and he has never belonged.
Sometime in the year he turns twenty-four, Mikhail falls in love. Not with him. Not with Sophia, though he thinks that is a pre-existing condition. Her name—because of course it’s a girl, and he can’t do anything constructive like find an excuse to beat the shit out of her—is Lata, and she’s so beautiful, and erudite, and classy—none of which he is, starting with in possession of breasts and a cunt—and Mikhail’s so clearly-infatuated that when Mikhail kisses him messily, coming back from breaking legs, he goes with it instead of punching him in the eye.
Charlie will claim—to himself, he hasn’t anyone to tell—that he knew, ahead of time, that this really was the last. It isn’t true, of course but he can’t think of another reason for having spent long minutes kissing Mikhail when it had only been supposed to be a quick celebration, for having actually embarrassed himself by telling him ‘I love you’, like a teenaged girl. Of course, Mikhail—being Mikhail and inarticulate and an idiot—had thrown him out of the car and nearly run him down, but at least he died knowing it. Like that fucking helps.
*** *** ***
Baba dies in ’89, two days after the Berlin Wall collapses. Mr. Majumdar babbles a lot about it being a moment in history, and how lucky they are to see it, but all Shumon can think of is Dada’s pinched face, asking Baba whether it will in any way affect the gun-running they’ve recently started. It isn’t anything they’re used to, and already Hamid Chacha has called Baba away many times from meals and Mikhail, and stood guard while Baba’s grinned at men waving guns at him, and even taken them from their hands to admire make and manufacture. He doesn’t like it anymore than Ma does, but Dada sides adamantly with Baba—to show fear is to admit defeat, you know that, Shumon, can’t survive this business without bravado.
Which is all fine as it goes, and Dada does know better, with a decade’s experience on him. He has been thinking about it, though, and having guns around to threaten and maim and occasionally kill is a very different proposition from having crates of them packed in grease in the basement—makes you more conspicuous, for one, and stepping on someone else’s turf—several someones, here—is never smart.
He never gets to say his piece, because he goes home that day and finds himself smothered against Mashimoni’s breasts, and hears her rave at Hamid Chacha—why didn’t you go get him, what if something had happened, what the hell do you mean nothing did, what if it had, what would I tell Sharmila? It takes effort to pull away from her—her nails leave raised welts along his arms—and ask—ki hoyechhe? Mashimoni, what’s wrong, what’s happened, why are you here anyway? Mashimoni! But she only cries, and pulls him close, and picks Mikhail up, confused and protesting, and trying to kiss away her tears, and he has to shove her forcefully off and demand the story from Hamid Chacha.
Who takes him by the arm from the room, and puts a loaded Colt in his hand, and folds his fingers around the trigger before saying—your mother was raped. Your father was made to watch. They were both killed. We haven’t found the pieces yet.—like the slow ringing of church bells, like the call for namaaz, irrevocable.
The first thing he says, when he can hear himself over the pounding of blood in his ears, is—Dada kothae? Then, eyes clearing—Do we know who did it?
The night is a welter of bullets, and asking for ammunition in whispers—hand it to Baba, the new guns are all magnificent. He goes home in the morning, hands stinking of blood and sulphur, while Dada drives straight to Howrah and Mikhail runs down to the car while Mashimoni throws things into a bag and Nimisha fails to baby-sit, and puts his face in his lap and sobs—ami jabo, take me, take me, don’t leave me here, Shumon-da, please, take me with you, please, please, please.