Maan Singh Gabbar by Reeya Banerjee

 

Photo of dilapitated house at night
Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

 

It was about 2:45 a.m., and Sherin George sat miserably on a ratty sofa in a cabin in rural Uttarakhand State in North India. She was exhausted and wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep, but she forced herself to stay awake. She was waiting for a knock on the door. She was hoping to hear it soon. It would be much easier to proceed with the plan if it happened before her boyfriend came home.

Earlier that night, around 9 p.m., Richie had left, after whining petulantly for a half hour about why he was entitled to go out, though Sherin wasn’t actually objecting. “I want to hang out with my friends! We’re taking the train to Kerala tomorrow! I don’t know when I’ll even see them again!”

At this point, ten days into a three week trip to visit Richie while he was wrapping up teaching a half-semester class at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology before they both continued on to South India to visit her relatives, Sherin simply didn’t have the energy to say anything except, “Okay, have fun then.” Richie whinged for a few minutes longer and then promised he would be back by midnight.

It was not the first time Richie had left her alone in the ramshackle cabin—which really more resembled a shack—with a non-functioning lock because on the second day of their trip he had lost his keys and had to break in through the front door.

On the third day of the trip, Richie had proposed marriage to Sherin.

Sherin said yes to the proposal, mostly because she couldn’t fathom how the rest of this vacation would go with a traveling companion she had turned down – though she also couldn’t fathom the thought of visiting her very Catholic family in Kerala while engaged to Richie under duress. She dreaded the idea of a big engagement celebration, relatives all over the world contacted with the good news, having to speak to her mother in New York, pretending to be happy.

When she voiced her concerns to Richie about getting engaged, though, she stuck with the most obvious ones. Richie was a barely functioning alcoholic with a love of opioid pills prescribed to him by an easily-bribed doctor who practiced near his family home in Humboldt County, California. In India, he had turned to drinking bhang—a milky drink infused with cannabis—smoking hashish, and not long after she arrived, opium; a potent substitute for his beloved Percocet and Vicodin. Sherin wasn’t comfortable with the idea of spending her life and raising children with a drug-abusing drunk. She didn’t even understand how he had been teaching his classes the past month while constantly inebriated.

Richie swore up and down that he would quit all substances for her. “That’s how much I love you,” he said. “I will quit. I can quit. I will prove it. I will do it for you.”

What Richie had done instead in the ensuing week was disappear several times, returning to the shack at strange hours of the night behaving so erratically that it was obvious he was high, stinking of whiskey and stale cigarette smoke.

Okay, Sherin thought. I’ve been through this before with him. I just have to gut my way through the rest of this trip and then deal with it when he comes down from the drugs.

Sherin wasn’t familiar with North India – her childhood trips to India had always been down south, visiting her grandparents and cousins in Kerala, with occasional excursions to Pondicherry to see her favorite uncle. While she wasn’t bothered by North Indian food—it was the only type of Indian food that she had ever encountered at restaurants growing up in America—she was disconcerted by the climate up near the Himalayas, much colder at night than she was used to, and by the language barrier. Her conversational Malayalam allowed her to get by in Kerala, but her Hindi was limited to a few phrases she had learned via songs from the Bollywood movies her best friend Malaika was obsessed with.

Hindi love songs. That’s all I know, she thought, the irony not lost on her.

The night before, while Richie was out partying and Sherin was alone, trying to work her way through an LSAT prep book before she sat for the exam next month, Richie’s neighbor and day drinking buddy Sam, a grizzled middle aged ex-pat whose typical daily outfit was loudly patterned board shorts, a wrinkled, half-unbuttoned shirt, and filthy sandals, wandered in. He was in a cheerful and chatty mood, slurring his words, asking if Richie had left any liquor in the cupboards. Suddenly, mid-sentence, he slumped to the floor against the wall, hitting his head. Sherin had rushed over to shake him awake, and asked him a series of questions she had learned in EMT training to determine he was okay.

Sam blinked his eyes repeatedly, seeming to have trouble focusing on any one object in the room. Then he turned to look at Sherin and squinted. Suddenly, he seemed very lucid.

“So. Richie’s left you alone here, huh?”

“Yeah,” Sherin responded.

“He does that a lot, doesn’t he?”

Sherin was embarrassed. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s not great. I don’t know anybody here except him.”

“You know me,” Sam said. “I’m here.”

Sherin didn’t know how to respond.

“If you were mine, there’s no way I’d leave you alone like this. No way,” he said, emphatically. “It’s a damn crime, is what it is, to leave a gorgeous girl like you all alone in the night.”

Sherin noticed him gazing at her up and down, appraising her. She wished she wasn’t wearing a tank top and jogging shorts. She dropped her eyes to the floor.

“You know what, girly? Why don’t you come on over to my house. Richie’s out having fun? Fuck that. I can show you some fun. I can show you a real good time. How about it?” He reached out and put his hand on her thigh.

It took Sherin a minute to understand what was happening, and then her stomach dropped in panic. “You have to go. Now,” she said, mustering up all of her strength. “NOW!” She shoved Sam towards the door, sliding his flopping drunk body across the floor.

“I’m going, I’m going. God, you’re a real bummer, man.” Sam raised himself onto all fours and crawled out of the shack.

Sherin slammed the door shut after him and realized she had no way to lock him out. She dragged a chair over and wedged it under the doorknob.

She had had enough.

She rooted around in the cushions of the couch for the prepaid TracFone her mother had insisted on giving her before the trip, knowing that her smartphone data plan didn’t cover international calls and texts. “What if there’s an emergency?” her mother said, tucking the phone into her backpack. At the time, in the international terminal at JFK, Sherin had thought her mother was being overly paranoid. But now that Richie seemed to be on a multiple day bender and she was terrified of the neighbor, she realized that this was, in fact, an emergency.

She texted Malaika. The TracFone was a cheap flip phone and texting took some effort on the number pad. Hey. So u know how I told u that Richie has been disappearing off to do drugs all week and leaving me alone? I think it’s now gotten out of control. I need help. I don’t know what to do.

Malaika, nine and a half hours behind, sitting in her office at Google’s NYC campus, responded immediately. I know someone who can help. Remember my boyfriend Saurav?

Sherin did remember. Briefly in college, Malaika had dated the son of an Indian diplomat from New Delhi. Their breakup was amicable and the two had remained friendly, often emailing each other after graduation with updates on their lives.

Sherin’s phone chimed loudly, startling her. It was a 212 number she didn’t recognize. She answered the phone after two rings. “Hello?” she said tentatively.

“It’s me,” Malaika said. “I’m calling from my desk phone. I figured Larry and Sergey can absorb the cost of an international call or two. So look, I can reach out to Saurav and he will help. I don’t know where he is right now but his mother is in New Delhi. They can get you out of there. Do you know the name of the town you are in? Do you have an address?”

Sherin wasn’t exactly sure. “I’m somewhere between Dehradun and Mussoorie, I think? Or nearby. A place called Herbertpur. It’s really remote.”

“Herbertpur?!” Malaika spat in disbelief. “There’s a place called fucking Herbertpur in India? Wow. Now I’ve heard everything.”

The shack was tucked into an expanse of large trees next to a swimming hole that eventually connected to the river Asan and most certainly didn’t have a house number. If there was a street name, Sherin had no idea. There was barely a driveway, and only a dirt road beyond. She described the location as best she could, hoping it would be enough to be helpful.

“Okay,” Malaika said. “I’m going to call Saurav now.”

Sherin sat there on the couch, numb, staring at the chair wedged under the doorknob. She couldn’t believe it had come to this. When she and Richie had begun dating, she knew that he was a heavy drinker, but over the course of their two year relationship she began to see that what looked to the world like a life-of-the-party charming tall hippy-esque brilliant scholar with an expertise in botany, fluency in Hindi from his years of research in the forests of North India, and a great fondness of Marxism was actually someone struggling mightily with many demons; the legacy of a family history dotted with drunks and drug-users and early deaths from drinking and drug using. She had stayed with him because when he was sober, he was sweet and generous with his affection, showering her with love and gifts and compliments. He thought she was a genius. He thought she was the best thing that ever happened to him. He thought that she could help him right his path.

For a while, Sherin had thought she could help him too. But now, in the middle of the night in a shack in rural fucking Herbertpur, it was clear that there was no way for her to do it. Richie’s behavior on this trip had been far worse than anything she’d seen during their shared life together in Brooklyn. It had crossed the line from recreational substance abuse into full-blown addiction.

Sherin’s phone buzzed. Malaika was texting.

Okay, it’s set. Saurav is actually in Berlin at the moment, but he called his mom. She is going to get one of his dad’s colleagues to geolocate you based on your description and her driver, Maan Singh Gabbar, is going to come get you.

Sherin was stunned. Seriously?

Yes. It may take a while for him to find you, but they think you can expect to see him in about a day. Let me know once you are in the car.

And so now, a day later, closing in on 3 a.m., Sherin was waiting for a knock on the door. For Maan Singh Gabbar to save her from Creepy Sam and from her ostensible fiancé, who she knew back when he left at 9 was not actually going to follow through on his promise to get home by midnight.

Suddenly, she heard an urgent tapping on the shutters. The shutters? Sherin thought. Maan Singh Gabbar is going to get me through the window?

But it was Richie. “Sherin, let me in! Hurry!” He tapped on the shutters even more rapidly.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, Sherin thought. She grabbed at the two-by-four that secured the shutters from the inside and Richie tumbled through the window, again smelling of whiskey and cigarettes, babbling incoherently about how he was being pursued. By whom, it was hard for her to discern. He told her to turn on all the lights. He peered through a crack in the window, breathing hard, telling her to turn the lights off, than on again, then to turn on some music, then to hand him his black hoodie, covered in dried bhang, for him to put over his head. He rattled off some nonsensical story about two guys calling the police on him while he was looking for his friend’s dropped motor-scooter helmet in a ditch by the road.

At this point, Sherin knew better than to believe anything Richie said. And she also knew not to be scared, because the story made no sense, though Richie’s obvious fright was making the hair on her arms stand on end. She could easily imagine him getting in trouble for breaking into a house, for instance, looking for something to sell so he could buy drugs or booze.

“Richie,” she said finally when he had paused his long, random story to take a gulp of breath. “What is going on?”

He exploded. Sherin was expecting this. “What the fuck is your problem? Why did you ask me that?”

“Because you’re acting like a crazy person.”

“What the fuck? What the fuck! You don’t trust me. You think I’ve been doing drugs. Do you really think that that’s what I would be doing? I was just hanging with my friends, saying goodbye, and you don’t trust me, you don’t trust that I wasn’t doing drugs?!”

“Richie, you told me you’d be home at midnight, and now it’s 3 a.m. and you’re jumping through the window and telling me to turn the lights on and off and trying to hide under a hoodie and I’m just trying to understand what is going on? What actually happened?”

“You don’t fucking trust me! I told you I would quit for you, I can’t believe you don’t trust me! What the fuck, all you do is hound me about everything, you don’t leave me alone, I can’t have even a shred of privacy, I don’t need a fucking Mommy, okay, Jesus Christ!”

Sherin kept looking at the front door. “I’m not trying to hound you, I’m just asking because what you are doing now is not what you would do if you were sober. I’m just trying to make sense of what is happening.”

“YOU TALK LIKE THE POLICE!!!” he yelled, now seemingly not frightened of being discovered by the actual police.

Sherin choked back a laugh. “What does that even mean?”

“You don’t want to marry me, do you?”

No, she didn’t. She really, really didn’t. But before she could answer, the front door swung open with a bang, crushing the chair she had wedged under the knob again when Richie had left the shack earlier into splinters. She felt a flood of relief.

Maan Singh Gabbar.

Maan Singh Gabbar, dressed in an immaculate suit and a saffron-colored turban, looked at her. “Miss Sherin?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

“Pack your things. Now. Fast.”

She froze for a second. Yes, it had come to this. She was being exfiltrated from a shack in Herburtpur, Uttarakhand State, India, by her high school friend’s college boyfriend’s mother’s driver Maan Singh Gabbar. This is how out of control her life was.

Maan Singh Gabbar looked at her urgently. “Quickly! Pack!”

Sherin ran to her suitcase and started jamming things into it. Clothes, books, shoes. She could hear Richie bellowing. “What the fuck is this? Who is this? What have you done, Sherin? What the fuck! What the fuck!”

Sherin didn’t know what she had been expecting when Malaika had told her Maan Singh Gabbar was on his way, but she definitely wasn’t expecting a well-dressed man built like Duane Johnson with the face of Waris Ahluwalia and the accent of Colin Firth. She frantically started throwing more and more things into her suitcase. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Shampoo. A bottle of Dr Bronner’s soap. She didn’t even bother putting them in her toiletry bag; if they leaked onto her clothes and books she’d deal with the mess later.

Richie charged at Maan Singh Gabbar, cursing at him in Hindi. “Kaun ho tum? Yahan kya kar rahe hain, chutiya? Fuck off! Saale kutta! Lund ka makkhan! Bahenchhod!”

Within seconds, Maan Singh Gabbar grabbed Richie’s right arm and twisted it behind his back, immobilizing him, with the ease of someone flicking a mosquito off of their shirt. “Bahenchhod tera baap! And no need to try to impress me with your bloody Hindi, firangi. The Queen’s English will suffice.”

Richie shrieked incoherently.

“Miss Sherin, have you finished packing?” Maan Singh Gabbar asked.

Sherin was frenzied, looking at the mess of clothes on the floor, a pile of dirty laundry that mostly appeared to belong to Richie. Had she gotten everything? Was she leaving something behind? Did she have her passport? What shoes was she going to wear, did she pack all of them? She unzipped her suitcase looking for her flip-flops.

“What are you doing Sherin? What the fuck is this? Who is this bougie asshole? What have you done? You’re leaving me? I can’t believe you’re fucking leaving me! You fucking coward! You can’t deal with anything real! You don’t understand anything about the real actual world!”

Sam, hearing the commotion, came ambling over. “Whoa, whoa, whoa? What is going on? What is going on?” he slurred, obviously having sucked down his usual nightly two-thirds of a bottle of Bombay Sapphire before noticing anything awry next door.

Maan Singh Gabbar turned slightly, still holding Richie’s arm with his right hand, and punched Sam in the face with his mighty fist. Sam toppled over onto the threshold. “Oh, dude. Dude. That was not cool,” Sam slurred. “You’re such a bummer, man.”

Richie spun out of Maan Singh Gabbar’s hold but couldn’t break free of his grip. Maan Singh Gabbar spun him back and immobilized him again.

“Sherin! Sherin!” Richie said, sounding almost like he was crying. “I can’t believe you are fucking leaving me, I can’t believe this, you’re going away with this fucking bougie pig. What the fuck did you do?” Tears were now streaming down his face but his voice was thick with fury. “You stupid fucking chickenshit! You’re afraid of everything! You’re afraid of fucking everything! You stupid coward! You fucking Upper East Side princess!”

“Miss Sherin,” Maan Singh Gabbar said. “Are you ready?”

Sherin closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “Yes,” she said. She picked up her suitcase.

“Come with me,” Maan Singh Gabbar said, reaching out a hand while still keeping Richie pinned. Sherin grabbed his hand, noting how surprisingly soft it was. Maan Singh Gabbar released Richie and pulled her out the door. “Quickly, quickly, let’s go.” They stepped over Sam, still moaning on the threshold, and ran outside.

Sherin was stunned to see a huge black Ambassador on the dirt road in front of the shack, incongruously standing out even in the darkness amidst the thick trees around it. Maan Singh Gabbar took her suitcase and loaded it in the trunk, then opened the back door of the car and put Sherin inside. He ran to the driver’s seat. Sherin could hear a definitive click. The sound of the doors locking. She felt something release inside her diaphragm.

Richie had run out to the driveway. “SHERIN, YOU FUCKING BITCH! YOU FUCKING SELLOUT! YOU’RE A FUCKING CAPITALIST SELLOUT! YOU’RE A FUCKING CAPITALIST BITCH! SELLOUT! YOU’RE A SELLOUT!” he howled after the car as it pulled away from the shack.

They drove about a mile before they could no longer hear Richie’s voice echoing behind them. “SELLOUT! SELLOUT! SELLOUT! FUCKING SELLOUT!”

Maan Singh Gabbar turned to Sherin. “Are you all right?”

“Yes,” Sherin said, trying not to hyperventilate.

“Good. It will be a long drive back to New Delhi. A little over five hours. But when we arrive, Lalita Memsahib will be there and she will have a hot breakfast for you, and then you can sleep for a while. And then we will get you a flight home. Manhattan, yes? That is where your mother is? Or would you prefer to go to your family in Kerala?”

Again, Sherin couldn’t fathom visiting her very conservative Catholic relatives after this experience. How could she even explain what happened? “I think it would be best for me to just go back to New York,” she said.

“That’s fine. We will arrange that. Here, I brought you some chai,” Maan Singh Gabbar, said, passing a Thermos back to her. “I thought you might want some. Red Label tea, with cinnamon and cardamom and cloves and condensed milk. My aunty’s recipe. Much better than your Starbucks ‘chai tea’ lattes.”

Sherin smiled weakly.

“Lalita Memsahib also made you some sandwiches, if you like. I have them in a cooler up here.”

“That’s okay,” Sherin said, taking the Thermos from him. “I don’t really have an appetite at the moment.” Sherin realized that Lalita Memsahib must be Saurav’s mother. She didn’t even know these people. They had just dropped everything they were doing, on Malaika’s word, to help a stranger. She was overwhelmed. She could feel tears sliding down her cheeks. She started crying, quiet hissing sobs, trying not to let Maan Singh Gabbar hear.

He looked through his rearview mirror with alarm. “Miss Sherin, are you sure you are okay? Are you hurt? Did he hurt you? Shall I find a doctor?”

“No, no,” Sherin said. “I’m not hurt. Physically, at least. But yes, he did hurt me.”

Maan Singh Gabbar took this in for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. I understand. Your heart is broken.”

Now her tears were really flowing. “Yes. Yes, that’s exactly it.”

“I understand,” Maan Singh Gabbar said. “I do.” He paused, looking for where to turn onto the main road that would eventually lead to Dehradun, and from there, a highway to New Delhi.

Sherin sniffled for a bit, trying to calm herself.

“I know. No matter how it happens, we all experience heartbreak the same way,” Maan Singh Gabbar said gently. “It’s what makes us human.”

Sherin’s eyes welled up again.

She thought back to the confrontation at the shack. Maan Singh Gabbar restraining her fiancé, punching Sam in the face, pulling her to the car. She realized, suddenly, that amongst all of the things Richie had yelled at her while she was getting ready to go, he never said “I love you.” Never said “Don’t leave.” Never said “Please don’t leave me.” Not even once. Richie had stood in the driveway as the car drove her away, this man who had just over a week ago told her he loved her so much that he would quit using just to get her to marry him, stoned and drunk, screaming, insulting her politics.

“The worst part,” she told Maan Singh Gabbar, “is what a fucking disappointment he is. What a waste. He’s so smart, but he’s pissing it all away. I tried to help him, but it’s more than I could manage. He’s gone. The man I met two years ago is completely gone.”

They were stopped in the road, waiting for a gaggle of hens to cross. Maan Singh Gabbar was silent.

Sherin wiped the tears from her face and opened the Thermos. “Thank you for the tea,” she said.

Maan Singh Gabbar turned around to face her. “Don’t worry, Miss Sherin. You are safe now.”

The hens had finally cleared. The sky was starting to lighten, from mottled grey to dusky pink and slight hints of shimmering gold. Maan Singh Gabbar pressed the accelerator, taking them away in the quiet dark of the early morning.

Photo of sunset
Photo by Ahmed Nishaath on Unsplash

Reeya Banerjee

Reeya Banerjee is a Hudson Valley-based writer, musician, and voiceover artist. She is a contributing writer and podcaster at Story Screen (www.storyscreenbeacon.com), a regional arts publication affiliated with the Story Screen independent movie theater in Beacon, NY. She recently received an Honorable Mention in the Poetry category of the Peauxdunque Review 2020 Words & Music Writing Competition, and her poem will be published in their Spring 2021 edition. She also has a self-narrated story forthcoming on CurtCo Media’s A Moment of Your Time podcast (https://www.curtco.com/amomentofyourtime). Her music can be found at www.reeyabanerjee.com/music. In her other life, she works in accounting, enjoys watching Law & Order: SVU reruns while eating gummy bears, and has a film degree from Vassar College that she does not use.

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