Wrong Turn(11.13.1995)

15 min readOct 1, 2023

The hostel phone in the lobby looks rusty and broken. I stare at it as I pace the corridor. It rings, and I pick it up on the first ring. Maybe I should have waited. I look desperate, even to myself.

“Hello?” I say gingerly.

There is a beat of silence on the other end, and in that split second, my heart sinks.

“Hey, How are you doing?.”

“Hi, Charu,” I say faintly.

“You never take my calls,” she says, sounding wounded.

“I — ”

Why do I need to explain myself to Charulata Talkar? I look around at the corridor of my hostel as if to remind myself that I’m not home, not in my own space. Even though I know she isn’t here, it feels as if she’s somewhere around here.

“Don’t you miss me anymore?” she asks, her tone implying that this is a rhetorical question, that of course I still miss her and I always will. Charulata imagines she has marked me for life, and she probably has, though not in the way she thinks.

I am silent, my mind racing. All of a sudden I can’t catch my breath.

Hang up, I think to myself. Hang up the phone.

“What do you want?” I ask, sounding smaller than I wish I did.

“I want to see you.”

“No, Charu.”

“Just for an hour.”

“I don’t know Charu.”

“I’ll meet you at the Sher-e-Punjab hotel at seven,” she says.

I’m in the process of saying another no, one more time when I realize the line has gone dead.

She is sitting at the table in the upper left corner, and I see her as soon as I walk into the hall room. She smiles at me tightly, then tilts her head back, sipping on her sweet mango lassi through the straw as I make my way to her table. I realize, horrified, that I still care what Charulata thinks of me — mostly of how I look. Does she like what I’m wearing? Am I man enough? Does she still think I’m handsome? She half rises in her seat, then plops back down when she realizes I have no intention of hugging her hello.

“No hug?”

I down my head and fumble through my pocket, mostly to give myself something to do. I can’t bring myself to look at Charulata, who I know is staring at me with a smirk on her face. She knows the effect she has on me, even after the shoddy way she has treated me. My cheeks burn.

A waiter materializes just as I’m sitting down.

“He will have a mango lassi and — ”

“Actually,” I interrupt, screeching the chair closer to the table, “I’ll have a hot chai.”

Charulata looks at me as if I’ve just ordered a urine sample.

“End of the month money issues?”

I don’t answer her. I’m counting the days between my next allowance from my parents; I haven’t been able to save anything this month for extracurricular activities besides eating one meal a day.

“I just don’t feel like having a lassi.” I shrug. “I’ve been a little tight on cash this month”- I wonder why I needed to elaborate.

Charulata is still smirking. Her eyes travel down my throat, skimming past the open neck of my shirt until she is staring. I used to like it when she looked at me like this. It made me feel manly and sexy. She knows her power over me even though she has never used it just yet, and I have no idea how I will react to it.

“How’s your mother? Has she come to visit this semester?” she asks.

“Not yet, but she is doing well,” I say dryly. This is what I always say when people ask me these days. Better, of course, is a relative term. But Charulata doesn’t really give two hoots about that.

She reaches across the table and grabs my hand before I have a chance to pull it away.

“I miss you,” she says, her big brown eyes welling up. “Can we sit and talk? Spend some time together?”

“We’re together now,” I say, looking around, slowly tugging at my hand — trying to release it from her grip. I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea here.

“Not like this,” she gestures around the room lit with harsh florescent lighting, the smells of chana masala wafting in the air, the big central hall filling up with the after-college crowd.

“Let us go to Pune. I need to visit my family. Just overnight.”

“I don’t think so,” I say.


I stare wordlessly at the ashtray sitting in the corner, my six-month unwashed jeans, and the window behind her head. I don’t say yes, but I can’t quite bring myself to say no either.

“One night, then,” she says as if it’s settled.

“We will take the bus tomorrow morning around ten. I will say hello to my folks in the noon and then we can go sightseeing afterwards. I’ll take you to MG Road. It’s beautiful in the evening. Let me go confirm it with Leena”. Her roommate Leena needs to vouch for her that she is going with her — Hostel rules. Easily subverted.

She gets up from the table and slides past me, stroking the back of my neck with her bare palm. Every pore of my body tingles at her touch. I realize with terrifying dread the power she has on me — Even after her absence last year. She had failed her second year in college and stayed home while I am now in my final year. We have moved miles apart after the way she had brutally insulted me the last time I talked to her. “I don’t want to talk to you anymore. I have friends who are more fun than someone who can’t even take me out once a week”, she had said as she left. That was a year and some months ago. An eon in terms of my college lifetime.

I watch her move through the room and out the door — Aware that there are many eyes on her, and on me by association. I know the nearest pay phones are downstairs, that I could, in fact, bolt out of here right now and she wouldn’t catch me leaving.

“Would you like a paratha or chai ?” the waiter asks. I have drained my chai cup and am sucking on the corner of the cup.

“I’ll have a Mango Lassi with extra cream,” I say.

It is almost three in the evening, and we are on the interstate bus west heading towards Pune. I’ve insisted we leave post lunch. I think I’ll have had a full meal and thus a full stomach, thereby having more control over the situation of overnight hunger that way. Charulata is sitting by the window, her dark hair flapping in the wind. Her other hand possessively clenched on my right thigh stays there, where she is absentmindedly playing with me. My head is swirling, the back of my knees sweating against the cheap faux leather seat of the bus.

“So what have you been doing with yourself this year?” she asks.

He removes her hand from me and digs into her purse for a gum.

“What do you mean?”

“This last year, when I was not here. How have you been spending your time?” Charulata asks.

Is she kidding?

“Oh, I took a little trip to Shirdi same time last year — it’s so lovely this time of year,” I say.

She looks at me quickly out of the corner of her eye.

“Is that all you did?”

“Charu, I’ve been trying to clear off the subjects that I failed last year. That’s what I did with my time.”

I don’t tell her that my piling on the failed classes had to do with her and how she left me in a complete mess.

She falls silent, both hands now in her lap, resting on the gray pencil skirt she has worn. It’s amazing that she remembered that I had told her a long time back how much I liked that attire.

“I just meant, what are you doing for fun,” she says glumly. “That’s all.”

I turn my head to look at her for the first time in a while on the bus. She has a soft, dark angular face and sharp almond-shaped eyes. Her legs are freshly shaved, her fingers carefully groomed, each nail filed into a perfect pink half-moon. She’s wearing her favorite cream silken blouse, and the slight curve of her belly barely shows even when she is sitting.

“I stopped having fun,” I say.

“That’s too bad,” she responds.

It seems the extra rice I gorged on before we left the city has done nothing to dull this edgy feeling that my life has taken a wrong turn, that I’m doing something reckless and wrong. I have no business being on this bus with Charulata Talkar, heading for God-knows-where.

“And you?” I ask. “What have you been doing for … fun?”

“I don’t think you really want to know,” she says.

This, she knows, will get me going.

“Oh, but I do,” I say. “I do want to know.”

“Well, I spent some time in Kashmir,” she says.

“huh where? What did you do?”

She mentions a name, and it’s one I — and the rest of the college know well: a well-built, painfully muscular, doe-eyed Kashmiri guy who was the heartthrob of every girl in that college.

“Are you sleeping with him?” I blurt out.

I don’t stop to think about why on earth she would not sleep with him. Years from now, halfway around the globe, while walking through downtown LA, I will pass this guy, slightly older, but looking the same. My pulse will race even faster, and I will fight the urge to stop him and ask. But what would I ask? Excuse me, but this girl we both knew once told me she had an affair with you. Does the name Charulata Talkar ring a bell?

“Here we are,” says Charu as the bus pulls into the depot bustling with the evening crowd, which looks to be going nowhere and everywhere. The driver parks at an angle next to another bus. She starts to get out but pauses when she sees that I’m not moving. I stare straight ahead. With the sun coming down, I can see my own reflection in the window behind her, an indistinct shape of a loser — with no beginning or end.

“Are we waiting for something?” she asks somewhat impatiently. I wonder how Charu handles the men she associates herself with.

“I asked you a question,” I say.


“Did you sleep with him?”

This time my voice has acquired an edge.

“Yes, I slept with him” — she shoots back at me. “What did you think? That I was living like a nun?”

I close my eyes, images of Charu in bed with the Kashmiri stud flashing like cue cards. Once, this would have flared me into a bout of irrepressible anger — Instead, all I feel is a dull thud somewhere in the back of my head.

I take a deep breath and get out of the bus. All I’m carrying is a thin old wallet containing a twenty-rupee bill and a change of clothes. The temperature has dropped since we left the college. I dig my palms deep into my jeans pocket. Suddenly I’m exhausted, and all I want to do is sleep.

She calls her folks from a pay phone only to be told by the maid that they have gone to Bombay over the weekend. As she conveys that to me, I feel like a fly trapped inside a spider’s web. She must have already known this, I figure. We roam around the city in the evening. MG Road is bustling with foot traffic — The hawkers on every corner, a long line of mayonnaise sandwich fans standing outside Mazorin restaurant. At 10.00 p.m., we take the rickshaw to head back to her place. It’s a small cottage that sits in the middle of military land — a perk of her father being an ex-major in the army. The maid has already left for the night.

“The key is supposed to be under the mat,” Charu says as she walks ahead of me, then bends forward and rummages around in the dark. She finds it, fiddles with the lock, and lets us in. There is a small lamp lit in the foyer, and some mail with her name on it propped next to a vase of flowers on the reception desk — Mostly colorful greeting cards from Hallmark, I notice. I wonder about the admirers she tends to, the suckers like me she strings along. She motions me up a narrow, concrete-tiled staircase. I wonder if Charu has brought boys here before. She certainly seems to know her way around how to navigate a stranger in her own home.

As soon as Charu closes the door behind us, she puts her hand on my chest, her fingers hooking into the open area of my collar.

“Oh, Z,” she moans, nudging me backward, onto the couch. “I’ve missed you.”

He unbuttons the first three buttons of my shirt, her fingers fumbling. She is straddling me now, her legs over my thighs, and she’s pressing herself into me. I inhale her perfume, but I can barely breathe. Her cheek is close to my face, her breath smells of something lazy and sodden, and I turn my head to the side to stop from gagging.

“What are you thinking?” she whispers in my ear. I know what she wants. She wants me to acknowledge that I want her, to remind her that she has the power over her men, but I just can’t do it.

“Nothing,” I whisper back.

There is a fake ceiling with indirect lightning running across the upper wall, and I count the beams as Charu moves on top of me, crushing me. I want to scream at her to stop, to push her off, but instead, I just lie there on the couch, like an eunuch.

Finally, she lets out a groan and moves over to my right. For a moment I wonder if she’s going to kick me out of her house in this unknown city, at this ungodly hour. I try to breathe.

She leans on one elbow and looks down at me. Pieces of hair are plastered to her forehead — stuck with her own sweat.

“What’s the matter with you?” she asks.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re like a dead fish,” she squints at me.

I move away from her.

“Thanks a lot.”

“It’s like you aren’t even here,” she says.

“Why don’t you just call your Kashmiri stud,” I say. “I’m sure he can do better.”

“I may just do that,” says Charulata, plopping herself to a sitting position, running her hands on her skirt.

I try to sleep, but rage keeps me awake. I feel blood racing through my veins, pounding in my ears. I wonder why I got myself into this situation — Alone with someone that I hated. The loneliness I’ve felt since Hetali’s death is nothing compared to this. Charu leaves the room at some point, then returns, her skirt unzipped, blouse hanging, her breath smelling of liquor — Probably from the military quota down in her father’s cabinet. She reaches for me, a hand on my thigh uncomfortably close to my crotch, and I shake her off violently. I can’t bear her touch. My side of the bed faces a window, and through the sheer brown velvet curtains, I see the sky littered with stars, an almost full moon. Branches rustle against the side of the garden, a sound I imagine would be comforting and romantic if I were wrapped in the arms of someone I loved. Charu has passed out on top of the covers.

As I watch the shadows play against the wall, I think about the past four months. Try as I might empty my mind, I find myself reliving the moment I received the phone call, the first time I saw Hetali’s sister’s face after the suicide, the image of the wooden pyre with her lying on top — The smell of charred flesh, the blur of days after.

When the first pale orange streaks of dawn finally appear across the sky, I climb out of bed and try to make myself presentable — no small feat, considering I slept in most of my clothes. I smooth my jeans and button my shirt, splash my face with cold water. When I walk over to the bed, I see that Charu’s eyes are open.

“Let’s go,” I say. “I want to go home.”

Without a word, she gets up, shrugs off her hands, pulls her hair into a tight ponytail, and zips up her skirt. She picks up her night bag and stands by the bedroom door, glaring at me. Her eyes are dark pits in the early morning light. We make our way quietly down the narrow staircase and out the front door.

As we climb on the bus, she moves toward the window side. The bus conductor comes clicking his ticket-punching instrument.

“I’m paying, Charu,” I say. Somewhere within me, the wounded man is still alive — Gasping his last breath.

It’s seven on a Sunday morning, and already there are commuters on the bus. I watch as the driver merges onto the expressway, which will be the most direct way out of the city. He turns on the music; I cringe hearing the romantic song playing on the bus speaker. Charu smiles a tight, sarcastic little smile.

“You have no idea what you’re losing,” she says after a while. I have reached across her seat and cracked the driver’s side window. The air rushing in smells impossibly fresh.

“Oh, I think I know exactly what I’m losing,” I think to myself.

With each mile we drive away from the city I feel lighter. Even though I’m dehydrated and hungry, even though I’ve been up all night tossing and turning in my clothes, I’m more at peace than I’ve been in months. I have no idea what the future holds for me, but I know what it doesn’t hold, and right now that seems like a small miracle.

Four hours later, we are speeding down Ale Phata bypass closing on the outskirts of Sangamner, approaching the downtown bus stop which is where the off-campus college students live, when Charu turns around and sweetly asks the bus conductor to pull over.

“Get aside”, she says.

“What do you mean?” I ask, my fingers wrapped tightly around the handlebar of the front seat.

“I want to get out,” she announces.

“But — ”

“Just do it,” she snaps.

I stand up as the bus driver pulls over, his hazards flashing, and as he does so, I realize that the Kashmiri students group doesn’t live far from here, that in fact she probably is within half a mile walk from his off-campus apartment. I can see she’s worked herself into a total froth. Her nostrils flare, and her eyes are slits — Narrower than usual.

“I won’t be calling you again, Z,” she says.

She waits a millisecond for me to change my mind.

“That’s it, then,” she continues.

I look at her calmly.

This is how I will always remember Charulata Talkar: She gets down from the bus and begins walking up the dusty off-beaten road, wearing a gray pencil skirt and a cream silken blouse carrying a brown tote bag, her thick black hair flaying in the wind. I imagine her getting to the top of the road and — what? Sticking her thumb out? Stopping at a pay phone and calling one of them, her admirers, to come pick her up on a bike? Concocting some story about abduction and blackmail?

I settle down on the window seat, my head pressed against the glass. I close my eyes and breathe, trying to think of something, anything that can soothe me. I can almost hear Hetali’s voice in my head. “Don’t ever get your heart broken”, she had told me once sagely, staring at me — Looking into my soul as only she could. Tears are forming in the corner of my eyes, but I’m not sad, not about Charulata, at least. I wonder what the future holds for me. Will I always be this confused? this rudderless? Flaying in the winds from one Charulata to another? Where will I end up being? Who will feel like home?

I don’t realize that at the moment, but the future is already moving the pieces on the chess board for me — Already unlocking doors to the possibilities beyond the life in Sangamner and college — Manifesting the most beautiful girl who would finally save me from myself, right in the same city that I had just come back from. Just 300 meters from the road that I had walked last night.

Oh, my boy! Somewhere inside you, your destiny has already unfurled and your past is like one of those coiled-up party streamers, once shiny, shaken loose, floating gracefully for a brief moment, now trampled underfoot after the party is over. The narrative opening up is a much better version than what you’re even capable of imagining. Who did you think you would grow up to become? You could never have dreamt in this moment, as to what you will become tomorrow.

Sit down, my dear child. Let me tell you everything that’s going to happen. You can stop running now. The girl you meet who will be the sum entire of your existence. You will not realize how she unknowingly will guide you towards the light, eons away from this darkness.

You will be alive in the man who watches you then — as the boy you are now vanishes.




Life is represented by two distinct sets of people: The people who live it and the people who observe them. These are their stories.