Most people have some bad habits. Some pick their noses. Some chew their fingernails down to the skin. Some pick at their pimples. I had one too.
I used to spy on women changing clothes.
I don’t know how I developed this habit, or why. I wasn’t particularly sex-crazed or sex-starved. I was a normal guy, who had a string of steady girlfriends who I was active with. Maybe it was because I had accidentally stumbled on my cousin changing her clothes when I was twelve. Obviously, she hadn’t noticed. My first reaction on seeing her was – embarrassment. So I hurried out of the room. But then I reasoned with myself that I would have to be embarrassed if I got caught, not otherwise. There was also the pull of novelty. I’d never seen anyone in just their skin before, in real life. So I went back, opened the door to a crack, and watched the whole five-minute show. She wasn’t a looker particularly, but that was my first experience of a skin show. The sight of bare skin with not a shred of clothing on it was, of course, sexually exhilarating, but what appealed to me far more, was that I was getting my first taste of something considered classically ‘forbidden’.
Okay so maybe I do know why I started spying on women. I had a very, very strict childhood. Throughout childhood and even well into my adolescence my father ruled the house with an iron fist. Ours was a ‘ghungat‘ and ‘purdah‘ type of household where women were not allowed to mingle with men, and men were all subordinate to the patriarch of the family, that patriarch being my father. We had dictates on what time we were to wake up, when to sleep, what to eat and what not to, who we could see and where we could go. My father had a strict moral code that he forced on everyone, even if that meant giving us a few licks to drive the point home. And naturally, anything even remotely hinting at sexuality was absolutely forbidden. Heaven forbid if we were ever caught even looking at pictures of provocative women in a magazine, we were sure to be, at the very least, locked up in a dark room and kept hungry till we agreed to repent. Needless to say, my encounters with women were limited to my own mother, my sisters, and some cousins, because even my schooling was at an all-boys school. My exposure to women was minimal.
College was where I tasted freedom. I fought to be admitted to a college outside the city. And that’s where I had the freedom to indulge this habit of mine – hone it, perfect it, till I became the self-proclaimed ‘Spy-King’.
Don’t think I’m making any excuses for this habit of mine. I’m not. I know it was wrong, now that is, but I’m not really sorry about it. Correction, I wasn’t sorry about it. The way I saw it, I wasn’t hurting anyone. I wasn’t using those episodes to relieve sexual tension. I wasn’t harbouring some sick fantasies that I’d later force over my partners. I wasn’t a serial killer who preyed on women. I never even took pictures or made videos. I only craved the view, the thrill of watching someone be vulnerable, unbeknownst to them, knowing about their flaws intimately the way only lovers can do, and best of all, getting away with it… everytime!
That is until she happened to me.
It was a particularly cold, January night. New Delhi winters are generally foggy and bitterly cold. To add to the weather woes, it rained that night. The smog that perennially hangs about Delhi in winters, had intensified, so much so that you couldn’t see a thing beyond ten feet. I and my lone assistant in Babuji’s (my father’s) textile shop were eagerly looking forward to closing time and retiring to our respective shacks, above the shop.
‘Oye Monty, close that door, yaar. It’s freakishly cold out there.’ I told my assistant.
‘But Bhaiya, Babuji has strictly told me not to shut the doors until closing time. If he comes to know…’
‘I’ll tan your hide before Babuji ever gets the chance to. Shut the damn door and pull down the shutters. Let’s call it a day. No one’s going to want to shop for clothes on a night like this.’ I commanded, rubbing my benumbed fingers together. I would have given anything for a piping hot cup of chai between my fingers to warm them up.
Monty complied like a zombie. He started with the shutter outside, but before he could pull it all the way down to the bottom, he spotted a bright red jooti at the steps to the shop. Expecting a last minute customer, he quickly pushed the shutter back up, and just as I was about to holler at him for never listening to me, in she came, bringing in a fair bit of the fog with her that swirled around her breezy salwar and curled her loose hair around her shoulders. She made such a breathtaking sight that neither me nor Monty spoke for a few seconds. Then she waltzed into the shop, idly checking out the clothes hung on the rails and on the hangers. She touched a few pieces to feel the material, ran her long, manicured fingers along the edge of the counter, and circled her way to me.
And I… I was dumbstruck by her wild, vivid beauty. I knew at that moment that I wanted to watch her change. No, I didn’t want her that way. A goddess of beauty like her would never find me attractive, but there was just one way I could be intimate with her, and I knew I had to immediately work out a plan so I could get her into the changing room, so I could spy on her.
But first, I had to get Monty out of the shop.
‘Monty, go out to the corner Chaiwalla and get some tea and snacks for Madamji here.’
Monty tore his gaze from her and looked suspiciously at me. ‘Now?!’
‘Yes! Go before Banwari closes his tea stall for the day. And get some for us too!’ I said emphatically. That should keep him out long enough, I thought. He scowled at me. I knew he wanted to stay in the shop too, but I needed him to get out of my way. He gathered his jacket from the broom closet, took one longing look at the woman, and stepped out of the shop, closing the glass door behind him. Finally!
I shifted my gaze back to the woman and smiled broadly at her. She smiled back with equal vigour.
‘So, how can I help you Madamji ?’ I asked in a saccharine sweet voice. I gestured for her to take a chair and be comfortable. She did that – sat down sensuously and crossed her long legs. I could see the silhouette of her legs through the gauzy fabric of her salwar, and it just kicked my longing up a notch.
‘We have the best of fabrics in this area. What should I show you?’ I asked her rapidly.
‘Well…’ she began in a musical voice reminiscent of the cooing of doves, ‘It’s my wedding soon. I was looking for some lehenga sets. Could you help me with those?’
For a woman to be married soon, it did strike me as odd that she was out here shopping alone especially on a night like that, but what did I care. I just wanted my show.
‘Absolutely. We have the most beautiful sets with the trendiest of blouses! Zari work, kundanwork or brocade, whatever you like. I’m sure we won’t disappoint you.’ I hurried over to the nearest shelf where the wedding lehengas were stacked and pulled out a few that I thought would suit her curvaceous built and her buttery complexion. Actually, anything would have suited her but I had to look like I was doing my job. If I came on too strong she would sense something wrong and run away. I couldn’t let that happen.
I quickly took out the lehengas from their plastic cases and started displaying them carefully for her to peruse. She eyed each one of them only half-heartedly. I knew she wouldn’t be interested in such pieces. After fifteen years in this line, I knew how to read my customer well. I upped my game.
‘Madamji, I know someone like you won’t like these ordinary pieces. You deserve something better. Something that will make you shine. It’s your day and you should be the star. I have just the thing for you. Gimme a minute. I’ll be right back!’
I ran to the back of the shop, opened the small warehouse where we kept our special pieces and doubled back to the shop with the lehenga clutched to my heart. Thank god, she was still waiting inside. She gave me a huge smile. Again, I wondered briefly why someone like her was out alone that night. Why was she so friendly? And why was she so scantily dressed? She had only one light cardigan on her salwar-kameeze, while I was swathed in four layers of woollens. Maybe she came here in a car. Oh, why do you care? Hurry up!
I threw open the lehenga for her to admire and I knew from the way her eyes sparkled that she loved it. Now was the time…
‘Madamji, this is it! I know it is. You must try it on. I know after you see yourself in it, you won’t want to look at any other piece. Go ahead…’ I handed her the blouse and the lehenga skirt, and pointed at the nearest changing room.
‘But Bhaiya, let me see a few other pieces. And how much does this cost? I’m sure it must be very expensive.’ She eyed the lehenga longingly.
‘Madamji, I’m telling you, na? You will love it the moment you see this on yourself. Look at the embroidery and the zari work on this. Artisans from Jaipur were specially commissioned to work on this piece. You won’t find another one like this anywhere else. I urge you to just try it on once, just once…’
Here our gazes met and I knew she was flirting with me. Did I think that was odd? Yes. Did I care? No. I smirked at her and she made a show of getting up, throwing the dupatta of her salwar-kameeze off on the chair she had just left, and swayed all the way into the changing room. She knew my eyes were on her. Oh, what a tease! Too bad she was getting married.
The makeshift changing room was nothing but two sheets of plywood attached to each other at a 90 degrees angle by some shoddy carpentry. A tin sheet with a latch served as the door. The back wall of the shop was the only solid wall in the changing room. One of the plywood sheets was fitted with a mirror, which reflected the inside of the back wall. On the outside of this solid wall, I had managed to pry one tile loose and drilled a cherry-sized hole that went right through to the other end of the wall. So if I went to the back of the shop where the hole used to look out, I could see the reflection of the person inside the changing room as it was reflected on the mirror. This minimized chances of anyone noticing because most people are absorbed by their reflections inside the changing room. This was how I used to do all my spying. I had even given the hole a name – The Skin-show Kaleidoscope.
While she was still in, I ran to the back of the shop, removed the loose tile and positioned myself to peep through the hole. My heart was thudding in my throat. I had sweat rolling down my back even in the icy winter of January. But I peeped and peeped and there was nothing on the mirror.
Did she step out already? Impossible! Lehengas and their blouses are cumbersome to put on.
I stepped inside the shop again and called out to her, ‘Madamji, are you still trying out the lehenga?’
Her melodious voice came loud and clear through the changing room, ‘Yes. This blouse is giving me some trouble though. The zipper at the side is stuck.’ She sounded like she was struggling with it. There was still time. I ran back to the peephole and peeped in again.
All I remember seeing were huge cracks on the mirror, and in those cracks was the reflection of the most horrific looking pishachini* looking straight at me, through the mirror. I saw charred skin, caked with oozing, bloody scabs, white pupils with pinpoints for eyes and a bloody mouth that had not teeth but fangs.
I was seized by a terror like I had never known. Undiluted fear clawed at my insides and seemed to clutch my lungs in a vice-like grip so I couldn’t breathe. I tried moving but my legs wouldn’t work. It’s as if a force was pinning my face down to the peephole, forcing me to keep watching. The pishachini’s eyes began to blaze and in turn, I felt a searing pain in my own eyes, like they were being poked by white-hot iron pokers. I felt hot blood ooze and make runnels down my face. I knew exactly when my eyes popped out because of the intense heat. I remember praying for death or for me to faint, but I got no relief. I suffered that painful agony, writhing in those agonising flames that charred my whole person, till I finally heard a distant sound… My name being called out by Monty. Only then did I find relief, because that’s when she and her flames vanished and darkness claimed me.
They say when they found me in the burning shop, my peeping eyeballs had melted in their sockets.
*Pischachini – The female of a Pishacha, who are flesh-eating monsters in Indian Mythology and folklore.