Black Dog by Shruti Swamy

There was woman with small yellow teeth who had framed her head with her arms on the pillow as she lay on Vikram’s bed with her breasts small and bare as a girl’s. She was a student at Sophia Ladies’ College, and Vikram, a student at IIT Bombay, had never made love to a woman before, a fact he feared was obvious. The terror of bungling the whole thing had given way to the exhilaration of the act itself; after, for a handful of precious minutes, giddiness had come over him. She seemed on the precipice of sleep, even with her eyes half-open. When her breathing slowed, a mixture of habit and impulse made him reach for his Polaroid camera. He arranged the shot of her naked torso, taking care not to include her face, and she didn’t wake, hardly stirred, even through the blinding flash as the machine spat out her image. At dawn they sneaked past the guard at the gate who pretended not to notice. By the time Vikram had put her in a taxi, the giddiness was gone, replaced by an animal fear, and then a strange feeling in the throat and mouth. He spat.


Had he allowed it, the photograph of the breasts would have been continuously passed around Hostel 7, he would be made a hero among his peers. Instead, Vikram tucked the photograph between the pages of his physics book and inspected it in spare moments. She had a mole in the hollow of her throat, and her nipples were large and dark as candies, but the photograph washed out her skin and could not capture its delicate texture. Then he put it away. After class, he studied for hours alone, without stopping to eat or to use the bathroom, sometimes late into the night. He thought of this work as a kind of penance, like a monk’s. Down the hall his friend Raju practiced the flute in the evenings and Vikram put down his books to listen. When night had fallen and spread out the hours, Vikram broke his evening fast with Raju, wildly eating snacks.


‘I’ve heard that New York is just like Bombay,’ said Vikram.


‘I’ll live in New York only.’ Raju wanted to be a poet. He was much shorter than Vikram, but that was only because Vikram was exceptionally tall, tall and pale, with dark features like Frankenstein’s monster, and had a stooping walk. Raju was heavy; not plump, but his body was dense with muscle. He cultivated a fashionable moustache on his upper lip, and dressed in tight polyester shirts and bell-bottoms. There was an amulet in the shape of a silver bullet that he wore around his neck on a piece of black thread.


‘Bombay’s better than Zoo York.’ Vikram would have liked to live in Paris and be a bohemian, though by that point it was too late. They knew, already, they would both become engineers. Still Vikram smoked cigarettes, despite his asthma.


‘Maybe Chicago,’ said Raju. ‘My father has an uncle there.’ ‘San Francisco,’ said Vikram, dreaming. ‘London, Prague, Berlin, Boston.’ ‘Will you come with me?’ ‘I’ll come with you.’


Once they found a dog that was almost dead on the side of the road. It was late at night and they had gone out for street food, a formerly illicit dealing that still maintained the residue of the forbidden. Raju had gotten several pani puris, gulping down one after another until he looked sick. Vikram had gotten bhel puri and eaten it delicately with a plastic fork. They threw their bowls on the street and began to walk back to campus.


Then Raju said, ‘look.’


It seemed though someone had cut open the poor creature’s belly. It lay on one side, a black dog, skinny and wheezing with pain. Covered in blood that was darker than blood-colour, deep purple clotting into black. Blood and dust covered the dog, and it closed its eyes and made a sound like a child’s cry.


‘Oh,’ said Vikram.


Raju’s eyes began to fill up with tears, and he brushed them away. He had spent his whole life in this city but somehow he hadn’t hardened himself against it. Each wound was fresh, each time. Vikram marvelled at it. Long ago he had grown his city skin. ‘Vikram,’ said Raju. Vikram could hear a bright note of pain warbling in his voice. ‘Vikram, look.’


Behind the high walls on either side of the street slept the rich, and the street was long and oddly empty, even for this time of night. A rickshaw clattered by, slowed, but they waved the driver away and he left. They stood twenty or so paces from the dog, and Vikram moved closer, until he was kneeling beside it. Raju stayed where he was. His eyes were wet, his hands hung down sadly by his sides, opening and closing. Vikram removed his shirt, and turned to the dog. The breathing was heavy and slow, and somehow sweet, like the breathing of a sleeping woman. ‘Hello, friend,’ he said, quietly, so that the creature would not be alarmed by his presence. He put a hand on its back. Then he wrapped the shirt around the muzzle of the dog and pressed its jaws together so it couldn’t breathe. Vikram imagined his face as the dog was seeing it, before it closed its eyes. He imagined his face to be death’s face, colourless as the moon’s. To Raju, too, he must look like death, but he could feel Raju’s eyes on his back like two warm hands. The dog was weak, and didn't fight him, just whimpered low in its throat. He glanced back at Raju, who had jammed his hands into his pockets. He was sweating, still crying, and took a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face.


‘It’s okay,’ Vikram said, as he killed the dog. ‘It’s okay.’ When Raju looked up at Vikram, his eyes were glittering. Gratitude, or admiration, there was something that flared up, nearly electric between them, and Vikram had to hold himself away until it faded. He wiped his hands on his pants.


In November, Raju learned how to balance a passenger up on the handlebars of his bicycle and took his girlfriend Esther for rides in the afternoon when class had finished. From the window, Vikram watched them circle the courtyard before launching off, headed for Lake Park. Raju, when Vikram could see his face, was laughing, Esther’s expression was quiet and serious. Sometimes he felt lonely with his room all to himself, so he closed the door and pulled down the shades. He lay down on the bed and took out the photograph of the breasts. He had studied it so many times he didn’t even need to look at it any more, but he did. They were pretty, but he had forgotten the smell of her hair, and the dampness of her skin. Of course he couldn’t miss her, only the idea of her, the space she had taken up in his bed.


At ten pm there was a knock on his door. The sound woke Vikram up. He was quick to hide the photograph and then he wiped his face; in his sleep he had drooled a little puddle onto his physics textbook.


‘Raju,’ said Vikram, and smiled. The air was almost unbearably heavy, as it was before it began to rain.


‘I’m going to marry Esther,’ said Raju. He came inside. He had been sweating, and his face was alight. Vikram sat down on his bed. He wanted a cigarette, but Raju didn’t approve of his smoking, so he stayed where he was.


‘Esther?’ ‘Yes, Esther,’ he said. ‘Don’t you like Esther?’ ‘Of course I do,’ said Vikram. ‘I’m only worried – what will your parents say? And hers?’ ‘They’ll come around.’ He went to the record player and put a record on. It was the Rolling Stones album he loved so much, and he smiled, then did a funny, tripping little walk in the style of Mick Jagger to make Vikram laugh. When he didn’t, Raju said, ‘Come on, yaar, aren’t you happy for me?’


‘Of course I am.’ Vikram smiled, with his mouth, not with his eyes, though he was trying. Esther was beautiful, yes, a wide, smooth forehead and black eyes. But Raju and Esther had only been going together for a few months at most. Her Christian parents, and Raju’s Hindu ones, surely would not approve of the union, and Esther was poor. Vikram saw her walking sometimes from ballet class, looking fresh in her cotton dress, she walked miles just to save the few rupees of bus fare. He had never once seen her sweat.


Vikram got up and pulled open the shade. He was itchy, for a cigarette, or for one hit of marijuana, which he could hold in his lungs until the world became liquid and suffused with lightness. It had begun, finally, to rain. At first the sound was soft, then it grew and grew, muscling in against the music. He opened the window, his hand began grasping for the falling water, it was warm outside. Vikram realised that Raju was looking at him strangely, and shut the window.


‘You know what happened to me yesterday?’ said Vikram. ‘I was taking the train to Juhu, it was very crowded, the train, people just packed together. I felt someone brush against me and turned and saw this little fellow’s hand in my pocket, pulling out my wallet. He was tiny, no taller than a child. So I held his wrist in an iron grip until we got to the next station, and I dragged him out, and he was so scared of me because I was so much taller than him.’


‘You rode all the way to Juhu with his hand in your pocket?’ ‘I didn’t hurt him.’ ‘Don’t you like Esther?’ said Raju. He rubbed his upper lip, newly bare; it took away a bit of gravity from his face. They were the same age, but Vikram felt so much older than Raju, whose quick and bright movements reminded him of a sparrow.


‘Of course I like Esther,’ said Vikram. ‘Of course I’m happy for you.’ Then he said, ‘I wanted to make him sorry. Do you know what I mean? I felt so angry.’


‘He was just poor, that’s all. He wasn’t being cruel.’ ‘You always give beggars your money and then they follow you for hours.’ ‘Better than not,’ said Raju, he spread out his hands.


Over the December holiday Vikram went with his father to their ancestral home in Dehradun where he raced his strong, tall cousins on bikes. It was cooler there, the air was thinner, but the hours pooled together and became sticky and more unbearable than Bombay’s heat. His male cousins were constantly ribbing him about one thing or the other. Like him they were tall, but they had learned to wear their tallness, and had grown up with each other, while he was an only child. They didn’t like the quietness he had, and tried to draw him out like they had cruelly drawn out the stray cats and dogs in the street when they were younger, provoking them into hissing anger. Vikram for the most part kept his cool. Some afternoons he went with his dad to the sports club, where he would swim in the pool while his father played tennis with Vikram’s uncle. In the water, slicing through it like a blade, he thought of Raju. The water was cool against his chest and mostly calmed him. But he began to sprint from one side of the pool to the other, as if towards Raju, or away from him. He knew Raju couldn’t swim, and was afraid of the ocean. Raju was so afraid of the ocean that he fretted about how he was going to get to America if he was ever able to leave India and become a poet. Vikram imagined himself on the plane with Raju, how he would be able to calm him on his way to Paris, or maybe he could be a Bohemian in New York instead.


At dinner Vikram sat very straight in his chair, and all around the table were the faces of men, his cousins, his uncle and father. The women were in the kitchen and stayed there until the men ate. The noise of them cooking and laughing permeated the house, and made the dining room seem cold and empty. There was a girl cousin everybody called Baby with whom he felt a certain affinity; he liked her around, in the same space as him, laughter always in her eyes, though alone they would never have much to say. The men talked about war and weather, cricket, the economic weakness of the rupee. Vikram’s uncle was a retired colonel and always encouraged Vikram to enlist in the army, like Vikram’s eldest cousin, but his father would make some excuse for him.


One night Vikram had an asthma attack and woke up with lungs tight and burning, sat with his hands on his knees and tried to calm himself and to be still. For a moment it was so dark he forgot not just where he was, but who – and a deep welling panic rose up, his heart pumping desperately, his lungs bruised and weak. With his lungs so tight, he was somewhere else. Endless days in bed, as a child, when the world marched on without him. He could hear the noise of other children playing after school though the open windows, the sounds of the neighbourhood dogs and the vegetable wallas and the rickshaws. Pinned down and helpless, his weak lungs struggling inside him like the drenched wings of a moth, the black knot of himself, like a weeping sore – the room changed colour, leeched of the light outside, became a pale sick yellow, the bitter colour of rind. Then he remembered his mother, the way she sang to him to calm him. He could remember the smell of her, and her hand on his chest in the night when she put him to bed. He could hear her saying his name: Vikram. He pushed each feeling aside. The world was sour, and then it was nothing.


Raju returned to campus in a state of dejection, his December vacation having been significantly less successful than he had hoped. At Esther’s house he had been welcomed, even celebrated, in his own, Esther had been the subject of scolding and scorn from his parents and from his sister, who could not see Esther’s clear eyes and good heart. They thought she wanted his money. At Christmas he had gone to mass with her family in St Thomas Cathedral, lit candles and prayed to an amorphous god, for Esther’s sake – there had been a vague promise of converting to Christianity, which Raju had no intention of following though. He told this all to Vikram, looking tired. There was no change in Esther, from what Vikram could see. She carried herself well, with dignity. In the afternoons they still went for rides on Raju’s bike.


‘The marriage will still happen?’ ‘Next spring, after we finish.’ ‘What’s the rush? Are you in trouble?’ Raju blinked at him. ‘Trouble? No trouble. Esther is a good girl. She would never...’ He looked down, blushing. ‘Tell me, does it hurt?’ ‘Does what hurt?’ said Vikram, and then he said, ‘Oh. No, it feels nice.’ ‘Nice like how?’ ‘Sort of warm, and kind ... it is...’ Vikram trailed of, blushing too. ‘Too much,’ said Raju, after a moment, shaking his head. ‘I didn't know it would be such a big tamasha, nonsense out of a movie. Do I look like a hero to you?’ ‘Yes. Not Amitabh, though, you’re too short.’ ‘I’ll tell you what we did. Esther made me promise not to tell. But I married her, Vikram. Already I married her.’ ‘What? Why?’


‘We woke up early in the morning and met at her church. There was nobody there. She gave me this ring,’ he held out his hand, ‘and I had this necklace I bought on the street on the way over for her. She wore a white sari. She said, ‘In the eyes of god we are married,’ and that was that.’


‘You know in Islam, they get divorced by saying, ‘I divorce thee’ three times. That’s it. I don’t think they even need to be in a mosque.’


‘Vikram…’ Raju seemed to be arranging a difficult sentence in his mind, and Vikram did not know if he would be able to bear it, what Raju would say. But all he said was, ‘Well, good thing I’m Hindu. That sounds too easy.’


Then Raju got sick. There was a big exam coming up and everyone was in a state of mild panic. Sometimes Raju would emerge from his room, sweaty and grey faced, to vomit in the toilet down the hall. His days and nights were occupied with fever dreams. Vikram brought him concoctions of honey and ginger in hot water, the only thing he could stomach, and met Esther downstairs in the courtyard, since she wasn’t allowed in the hostel. She was wearing a green cotton dress that showed her shins and her thin waist and her black hair was pulled neatly into a braid.


‘How is he today?’ ‘No better, no worse. But the doctor came and prescribed something.’ ‘Western doctor or Ayurvedic?’ ‘Western.’ ‘Good,’ she said. He realised that he had never before seen her sweat because he had never stood this close to her, and never met her without Raju. Now he could smell her coconut hair oil and the dampness of her underarms, mixed with the sweet scent of talcum powder and wet cotton. He held out the empty tiffin container he had brought down for her.


‘Did he eat?’ ’He ate.’ ‘Good that he never lost his appetite.’


In fact it had been Vikram who ate the food, not wanting to let it go to waste, or to hurt her feelings. Her food was delicately spiced, with a particular balance of sweet and salt; she used golden raisins in her rice and in her curries, which were dry without meat.


‘Is he okay here? He should go home.’ ‘He won’t talk to his parents.’ She was studying him, studying his face, sizing him up as one would an enemy. But when he caught her eyes she looked down modestly, showing the neat part in her hair. ‘He told you, didn’t he?’


‘He did.’ ‘Everything?’ ‘I think so. Many congratulations.’ She looked at him, and for the first time he felt pity for her. She did not know Raju as well as he did, he saw now, and she would spend her whole life fighting for him, fighting against his family. ‘No one’s very happy right now. His mother…’


‘Don’t worry,’ he said. He could not touch her, so he smiled at her to reassure her. ‘The whole thing will blow over if you are patient.’


He could tell that she recognised the lie, but they both pretended otherwise.


On Saturday after the exam Vikram let himself into the room of his friend with his camera around his neck. It was dusk, and the windows were open, the tiles of the floor cool underfoot. Raju was wearing a cotton kurta, damp around the arms and the chest, sleeping on the bed. He looked wholly different in Indian clothes; Vikram hadn’t realised before how clownish Raju’s former costume had made him look. Despite the illness he looked at ease in his own skin, and brightly handsome. Raju was mumbling. ‘If velocity is equal ... amount of leaves in the universal neem, and the initial velocity is ... to the time of rain in personal winter ... theta t is how much ... love to speak to dogs in monsoon ... Vikram, Vikram.’


‘Raju, you’re dreaming,’ said Vikram. He came close to the bed. The sheets smelled damp and animal, and Raju looked quite thin. His eyelids were fragile, spread tightly against the balls, Vikram could see the quick saccade of his eyes quivering underneath. Then his eyes opened.


‘Vikram,’ said Raju. Even his voice had thinned, become full of breath. He looked a little embarrassed. ‘I was sleeping.’


‘How are you feeling?’ ‘Not so good,’ said Raju. He smiled. ‘Did you see Esther?’ ‘She’s worried about you.’ ‘Are you worried?’ ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said. ‘The doctor just says you need rest.’ ‘I feel very lonely here, Vikram,’ said Raju. He turned over in the bed. ‘I come visit you every day,’ he felt anger in his voice, and pressed it out. ‘Esther doesn't come.’ ‘Esther can’t come, here, Raju, they won’t let her in.’ Raju looked at Vikram. He had the polish of illness in his eyes, and his skin, yet his eyes were clear and lucid. He looked at Vikram in a way that he never had looked at him before. He said, ‘Tall people wear sadness differently.’


‘I’m not sad.’


But Vikram was pierced though by Raju’s gaze. He knelt by the bed, so his face was level with Raju’s. Raju’s breath was slow, and he looked very fragile, like a little bird. Seeing his friend in such a state, all the care he had taken to hold himself at a distance from Raju fell away. It was a sudden feeling. Vikram reached for Raju’s hot hand and held it in his own cool palms. Vikram felt the way he did when he was a child, and he forgot himself. Even then it was rare, so conscious was he of his face, his height. But there were times in his childhood when he emerged from a bout of asthma related confinement, when is body had been nothing more than a receptor for the senses: pure taste, pure sound, pure light. His mother had been the only one who ever touched him. And now: Raju. Right now. Raju. His body seemed to have a magnetic pull.


‘I’m frightened of what it is,’ said Raju. He let go. Then Vikram remembered again his face, and how it must look. Pale and colourless as the moon to a dog, to a sick friend, the colour of death. He thought the look in Raju’s eyes had been admiration or gratitude or love, but now he saw that same look again, and realised he had been mistaken. He moved away from the bed, a creature running from the torches. Raju had closed his eyes again, seemed to be moving into sleep.


Vikram raised the camera to his eye and adjusted the lens. Raju mumbled something. The blankets were thrown off his torso and his hands lay open on either side. He hardly winced at the flash of the bulb. Before the square of grey showed even the faintest outline of Raju’s form, Vikram had left the room.




This story first appeared in Kartika Review that has since closed down.



Shruti Swamy lives and writes in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from The O Henry Prize Stories 2016, Agni, Kenyon Review Online, Boston Review, Prairie Schooner, and elsewhere. In 2012, she was Vassar College's 50th W K Rose Fellow, and has been awarded residencies at the Millay Colony for the Arts and Hedgebrook. She is a Kundiman fiction fellow.