Faisal wanted to know where they were going, but Arun only smiled and raised a finger to his lips. He unlocked the door and stepped into the darkness of the hotel hallway. Faisal groaned. His head ached, and he was still a little bit dizzy. For the past two weeks, he and his friends had spent summer break traveling across Rajasthan, staying in shitty hotels and enjoying their freedom from parents and college by getting smashed every chance they got. The bed was warm, and all he wanted was to stay under the blankets and go back to sleep. Instead he grabbed his disposable camera. He followed Arun, past the rooms of their friends and down the stairs to the main road. Outside, the sky was paling. Two stray dogs lay curled up on a pile of sand by a construction site, twitching in their sleep. Arun hailed a bus, and they sat in the back row.
“Now will you tell me where we’re going?” Faisal asked.
“Yesterday,” Arun responded, “you said you like Malika.”
“I did? When?”
“I’ve never seen you talk to her.”
“Nothing. It’s an interesting way to have a meaningful romance, no?”
“What else did I say?”
“That you’re a virgin.”
Arun wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “Bro, it was hardly a surprise.”
Faisal cursed himself. Booze plus truth or dare always led to regret. His memories of last night were hazy yet kinetic, like a photograph capturing the lights of streaming traffic in motion blur.
The landscape changed as the bus passed the outskirts of Udaipur and juddered up a hillside road. They feasted on cold samosas Arun purchased, and as Faisal’s hangover wore off, he distracted himself from thoughts about last night and what other lies he’d told by scrolling through the news. But the headlines were the same. There were no developments in the Section 377 case.
They were quite high up when the bus lurched to a halt. They got out and stretched, popping their joints and sighing with relief. Faisal was grateful for the crisp, clean air.
“This way,” Arun said.
They walked along the road, which continued uphill, and soon caught sight of a hillside palace. Faisal stumbled as he peered through the viewfinder of his disposable camera. He was down to his final shot and was saving it for something memorable, but this was definitely not it. The palace was streaked with pigeon shit. Its white walls were stained yellow with damp and parts of it were cordoned off by swathes of blue tarpaulin. This was why he’d been dragged out of bed so early in the morning?
Inside, the palace was poorly lit. There was a run-down museum on the ground floor, and Arun hummed as he inspected the framed photographs of birds indigenous to the area. Placards carried information in faded print on their territories and migratory habits. There was a glass case in the center of the room, and in it stood a stuffed bird labeled great indian bustard (ardeotis nigriceps). It wore a crown of black feathers and was a meter tall, but its neck and legs were neither long nor short, giving it a disproportionate, ungainly look.
Arun whistled. “What a beauty, no?”
Faisal didn’t point out it was missing an eye.
“There are less than a hundred left. The ministry of environment is only now trying to protect it. Useless fellows, they’re too late. Can you believe it? There was a time when people wanted it to be our national bird.”
Faisal clicked his tongue in sympathy. Though if he was being honest, he preferred the peacock.
Arun unzipped his backpack and took out his drawing pad.
“What? You’re sketching it?” Faisal asked.
“So observant. They should make you a detective.”
Soon the only sounds in the museum were of Arun’s charcoal pencils whispering across paper and Faisal’s footsteps as he paced the room, searching for a good angle. There just wasn’t enough light. Otherwise this would’ve been a perfect shot. Arun, sitting cross-legged in front of the smudged glass case, craning his neck upward as he sketched the delicate features of the bird.
Once Arun finished, they tried to enter another wing only to discover sections of the palace were closed for renovation. A corridor led outside to a grassy courtyard encircled by ramparts built along the edge of a cliff. Hills stretched to the horizon, and nestled beneath them was Udaipur and its seven lakes. They sat on a stone bench.
“What do you think?” Arun asked.
“I like the view.”
“I don’t remember it, but apparently we came here when I was a child.”
“Me and my parents. My mom.”
“Afterward, whenever someone mentioned Udaipur, she would talk about how flamingos visit the lakes in July and how she watched them gather from up here. I never believed her. Flamingos were always on the Discovery Channel, no? To me that meant they were filmed abroad.”
Faisal smiled. He was sure he’d heard variations of these lines before, but he didn’t interrupt. This was why they’d come here. Arun continued to speak about his mother and his broad shoulders untensed; his voice turned low. Even the scars under his chin seemed to flush a gentle pink. When he was done, they sat in silence for a long time, their bodies coming into contact at the fingertips as they shared a cigarette and watched the hills, the trees, waiting for a flutter of movement.
▴ ▴ ▴
The ride back to the hotel took longer than expected. Traffic had come to a standstill in the city as protesters wearing saffron scarves blocked the road, drumming the sides of buses and chanting slogans about Section 377, homosexuality, and Mother India’s loss of values. Arun, hot and impatient, wished death upon them all. Faisal slid the window shut. He tried not to think about the space between their thighs while the bus rattled and shook in the hands of the protesters.
When they finally reached the hotel, it was early evening and streetlights were flickering to life. They learnt from the front desk that their friends had already gone out.
“Let them go,” Arun said. He suggested they stay in and Faisal shrugged like he didn’t care, though he was relieved because he was nearly out of cash. Plus, he didn’t want to see the faces of protesters in people doing routine everyday things, purchasing groceries or sitting down at roadside stalls for paper cups of tea.
They kicked off their shoes, ordered in room service, and proceeded to get drunk after finding two quarter bottles of rum. Once the plates were cleared and the bottles polished off, they collapsed into bed.
“Thanks,” Arun muttered into the blankets, “for coming with me.”
“No big deal.”
“Big deal for me. I’ve wanted to go there for ages.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“My pops. He’s always busy with his practice. And the church community.”
“You should’ve told him you wanted to go.”
Arun looked at him, his eyes glassy and tinged pink. “Since when has wanting something mattered? Come on, you ready to sleep?”
Faisal nodded. He stretched, and his shirt rode up. Arun’s eyes flicked down to his exposed abdomen before he switched off the lights and lay next to him. The bed frame creaked as he shifted his weight. Faisal could smell him, the salty tang of his body, and he was relieved the lights were off. The comfortable tipsiness which had enveloped him only a few seconds ago was gone now, replaced by a sharp awareness of body warmth and gentle exhalations.
Back home there was an adult theater with its walls covered in posters of women posing provocatively. Countless times he’d wondered what it would be like to sit inside the theater, to watch people fuck onscreen while listening to men around him try to keep silent. He knew there was no happy ending to be found here, but still he reached out into the darkness, still he slipped his hand inside Arun’s. And waited to be struck down.
Time stretched. He could hear his own heartbeat through the pillow. Television shows romanticized a first kiss, and so too did books, while all the porn he’d watched showed people ramming their bodies against each other with violence. In online forums, anonymous users recalled sexual experiences and how things never went as expected. One person described losing their virginity on a trek in another country, thrilled yet terrified by the freedom of having sex in an open field. Faisal swallowed. Waves of heat rose within his forearms, his shoulders, and he thought of how Arun’s lips were so chapped they would be rough to the touch. He lifted his head from his pillow and leaned forward, just as a man in the corridor outside started to sing.
Arun pulled away. He rolled out of bed, urinated in the bathroom, didn’t flush, then took a bucket bath, crashing water to the floor. Nothing separated the two of them from his nudity but an unlocked door. He returned to bed smelling of cheap sandalwood and wrapped himself up in the blanket.
Despite what had happened, an intense heat continued to blaze within Faisal’s body, his lungs. “You awake?” he whispered. There was no response. When he was certain Arun’s breathing had deepened into sleep, he too went to the bathroom. The floor tiles were slippery and the tap was dripping. Standing in the darkness, inhaling the scent of soap, Faisal touched himself but felt little pleasure.
▴ ▴ ▴
He started awake early the next morning. His throat was parched and he crossed the room to drink some water. Arun remained asleep, his legs tangled up in the sheets, the bed looking as though they’d spent the entire night fucking. But there was also a tranquillity to the room, which was filling with a soft light. He took out his camera and looked through the viewfinder. There was Arun’s body, his face. There were those beautiful hands. Trembling, Faisal pressed the button and captured Arun on film.
▴ ▴ ▴
He woke again to the door clicking shut. Arun was gone, along with his backpack. Sunlight streamed through the windows. Faisal dressed and followed after him. Their friends were waiting for him in the hotel lobby and they slapped him on the back of his head for taking so long. Arun stood in a corner. When they made eye contact, he looked away, and when Faisal moved toward him, he stepped outside for a smoke.
They caught autos to the station, Arun sitting in a separate one from Faisal. On the platform they waited in the shade, puffing their shirts to keep cool while the temperature soared to forty degrees. Arun puked over the tracks. He brushed aside Faisal’s offer of water and dragged himself away.
The train was pulling into the station when Faisal spotted, through the jostling crowd of commuters, Arun arguing with a vendor. He was holding a bottle of water and pointing at its label while the vendor gestured for him to go away. With a shrug, Arun let the bottle fall. The vendor swore at him and Faisal knew that any second now it would happen, a switch would flip, and this boy who spoke so sweetly of birds would transform into a creature of stubble and fury. There was a collective gasp as Arun swung a fist. The vendor leapt back. Their friends, hearing the commotion, wove through passengers and yelled, “Susie, Susie, stop! Chill, bro!” Susie. How Faisal hated that twist of Arun’s last name, D’Souza, into something so effeminate. They grabbed at his shoulders, trying to restrain him, but he writhed in their arms, his neck bulging, his face contorted. Susie. He lashed out a final time and kicked over a stacked pyramid of biscuits. An aunty berated him, but he was already being hauled away by their friends.
Faisal searched for them on the train. He found Arun sitting on a berth, hunched over, his face pale and his body reeking of vomit.
“Never you mind.”
“Why’d you try to hit him?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What’s your problem, man? Can’t you take a hint and leave me alone?”
Faisal looked out the window at the world passing by. He was familiar with these displays of anger. After his mother passed away, Arun took to yanking brake lines or slicing tires with his penknife. He often got into fights at college. The slightest of provocations and he would leap at someone’s throat. Despite knowing how his father would react.
“Is this about last night?”
“I don’t remember anything from last night. Drank too much,” Arun said. And before Faisal could respond, Arun left the compartment.
▴ ▴ ▴
Their friends picked up on the distance between them midway through the train journey and cracked jokes about a lover’s quarrel. Vinay, voice rough from smoking, laughed as he said, “Calm down, calm down, these fags are best friends. Just you watch, they’ll kiss and make up soon.”
“Maybe it’s time you shut your mouth,” Arun whispered, “before I shut it for you.”
Vinay frowned. He turned to Faisal, who looked away. An uneasy silence descended upon them and they climbed into their berths to sleep. Soon the lights were switched off and the rocking compartment was filled with snores and the mechanical chugging of the train. Faisal climbed down from his berth. Arun lay with his back to the world, the rough Indian Railways blanket stretched across his broad shoulders. His hands were tucked under his chin. Those same hands which traced the flight pattern of birds. Those same fingers which closed around his own.
Why did the man have to sing? Why then? And why did Arun have to pull away?
Faisal rummaged through Arun’s backpack and took out the drawing pad. He locked himself in the compartment’s toilet and under dim yellow lights flipped through sketches of birds and monuments. How easy it would be to rip these pages from their spine, throw them out the window and watch them take flight across the countryside. How good it would feel to witness Arun’s anguish. The last sketch was of the Great Indian Bustard. He remembered Arun sitting cross-legged in front of the glass case, eyes narrowed in concentration, and was on the verge of tearing his nails through the bird’s breast when he noticed, in the background, inspecting a placard and forever captured by Arun’s pencils, was a portrait of himself.
▴ ▴ ▴
They disembarked early the next morning. Passengers pressed against each other as they shuffled toward the exit, their eyes half closed and their bodies smelling of train compartments. Outside the station, their friends shook hands and started to leave in groups. Most, like Faisal, lived with their families. Others were staying on campus in the college hostels. Faisal murmured his good-byes.
For the first time in two weeks, he was by himself. He sat in the back of an auto which swerved through traffic and took him past the adult theater back home to his parents. They ate a quiet breakfast together, his father sifting through the hotel bills while his mother asked less about the trip and more about the food he ate. The television was on and the news was all about Section 377. Not wanting to hear his parents argue over the matter, he locked himself in his room and browsed the internet. Some of his friends had updated their profile pictures with a rainbow-patterned overlay. But in a video that was trending, a Christian lawyer thundered, “The principles of Section 377 come not from the British but from the book of Leviticus and Genesis. As such, we must obey them.” Faisal wondered if Arun had seen this video, whether he agreed with the man. It was the same lawyer who claimed that if the court legalized homosexuality then it would have to legalize zoophilia and bestiality.
He unpacked and considered what to do with the camera. The film inside it contained twenty-six photographs of monuments. His former history teacher, Mr. Rehman, believed ruins were snapshots of human behavior. Whether damaged or preserved, they each told a story. This, coupled with a reading of Shelley’s “Ozymandias,” had sparked the idea of using a camera to create double exposures where he overlapped photographs of places in his old history textbook with those of how they stood now.
But what about the twenty-seventh photograph?
He sat on his bed. The pillows had been smoothed and the bedsheet was tucked neatly under the mattress. Lying on his side, he closed his eyes and pushed himself into a darkness imbued with warm hues.
▴ ▴ ▴
A week later, he was sitting on the stone fence bordering a field near his house and watching a cricket match when Arun joined him. It was a Sunday, and Arun was wearing a tailored black suit.
“College tomorrow,” Arun said.
“Final year. My pops is already desperate for me to figure out where to go next for my master’s. Oh, check it out.” He pointed at three birds in the sky. “Black kites. Milvus…what is it? Milvus migrans?”
Faisal glanced at Arun. He was so absorbed in the birds, in the dip of their wings, their piercing trills, all of them calling to him since his childhood with his mother. The hand he pointed with was scabbed at the knuckles, but the underside was soft, the palm lines pink and running deep. He thought of rainbow-patterned overlays, and how Arun’s father’s clinic had a painting of Christ with his heart aflame and wreathed in thorns.
“What do you think the Supreme Court’s verdict will be?” he asked.
“Who knows?” Arun shrugged. “And what will it matter anyway?”
“It won’t matter to you?”
“Bro, even if they find Section 377 unconstitutional, you think people will accept it? There’ll be the usual celebrations and protests on the streets, but forget that, do you actually think all those mummies and daddies and aunties and uncles sitting in their homes will suddenly have no problem if their child is gay? This ruling won’t change people’s attitudes. And anyway, how long will it last? Didn’t the Supreme Court overturn the previous ruling?” He shook his head. “This fucking country. If I get the marks, I’m out of here.”
“Where will you go?”
“Anywhere. The UK, maybe. The UK and a master’s in biodiversity and conservation. Maybe save some birds if I can.”
Faisal’s future involved no such grand plans. Forget about the money needed for an education abroad, his parents had already decided he would help with the family business. There was no choice. Even if there was, he wouldn’t know what to do with it.
“You get the photos developed?” Arun asked.
He shook his head.
“Why’d you use a disposable anyway? Aren’t the photos rubbish in comparison to the ones you could take on your phone?”
They were. Photos from disposable cameras were often grainy and riddled with noise, but he liked that. He liked the messy space between representation and reality. He was certain Mr. Rehman would’ve liked that too. He didn’t answer though. He could feel his life narrowing into a single point of focus.
“Listen, I have to go.” Arun said. “My pops is insisting I show my face at some church community event. By the way, I wanted to ask, do you have my drawing pad?”
“It’s not in your backpack?”
Arun grimaced and looked up to the sky. It was not anguish etched across his face but frustration. “I can’t remember where I left it.”
“Like you can’t remember that night?” Faisal clenched his toes in his shoes. The words had spilt out of his mouth before he could stop himself.
“What’d you say?”
“You’re one to talk.”
“What do you mean?”
Faisal gripped the stone fence. He wanted to claw Arun’s face and he wanted to fold Arun’s hands in his own.
Before he could speak, Arun chuckled without humor. He flexed his shoulder blades. “Bro, you’re a nice guy. A clever guy. Just don’t be a cunt, okay? I can’t put up with that.”
Faisal looked down. Their shadows were one, and then Arun’s slid away.
He hadn’t been touched, but Faisal’s eyelids hurt, his jaw ached, and pain throbbed under his ribs. He took out the black cylindrical film case. He could go to the developers, pretend he was running an errand and that the photos were taken by someone else. But then he popped open the case. There was still Arun’s drawing, still that portrait of himself hidden under his bed. He unspooled coils of film and let them fall from his fingertips to catch the fading light. During their holiday they’d behaved like foreigners in another country, visiting tourist attractions and acting without care. But now? Now the emulsion of all those negatives was darkening, a horizon of black sweeping across the outlines of monuments, the contours of a body. Now it was time to go home. As evening descended, Faisal wiped his cheeks and glanced up to see bats flitting across the sky, their winged bodies similar to the silhouettes of birds.