Samir sprang to his feet and eyed the picture. It was a shot of him and his sister at a party after she'd left home, but it had been tampered with -- the restaurant had been made to look like a brothel, and his sister's sari a see-through veil. "This is a lie," he croaked, "and you are a monster!"
The guy snatched his phone back and called to someone behind him. "Did you get all that?" His confederate shouted back, "Every delicious bit."
The whole thing had been live-streamed, or at the very least captured on video. Once that spread, Rahila's job prospects would be shattered, their reputations blackened. "I never thought I'd hear myself say this," she said, rising to her feet, "but there's no caste on Earth low enough for that slime!"
Samir stood, slack-jawed, staring blindly into space as their assailants melted into the crowd and disappeared. He shook his head weakly, and looked at Rahila. "I'm ruined," he whispered, "and so is Maharla."
An awkward stillness enveloped the cafe for the few seconds it took for the narratives lurking in people's minds to sweep away the messy details of what had just happened and paint their memories in the subtlety-free shades of preconception. As Rahila glanced around, what eyes she met either quickly averted, or hardened into accusatory stares. She had just started to turn back towards Samir when a shrill cry made her wince.
"Away with you!"
A bent old woman in a faded sari was trying to push Samir off the cafe''s bit of sidewalk with the package in her arms. She shook her head in derision and launched into a string of tasteless epithets, but she was having no effect. He was oblivious.
Rahila pushed the woman's package away and bent close. "This has nothing to do with you, grandmother," she said firmly but quietly. "Give us a moment's peace and we'll leave."
Several people stopped dead when they saw her stand up to the older woman and bathed her in angry glares. One of them shouted, "Leave her alone!" Another spat at her.
She glanced from one to the next as she put her arm behind Samir and started guiding him towards the street. Within seconds, a hubbub arose, leaving her with the certainty that the rabble were already embellishing their misconceptions. This would not be good for either of them. But what should she do now? Where should they go? She didn't know where he lived, so she could hardly bring him there. That left the room she'd found after being thrown out of the women's shelter for being single and over forty. She figured it was too long a walk for Samir in his present condition, so she threw frugality to the wind and decided to flag down an auto-rickshaw, hoping that she wouldn't be overcharged again.
The driver of the first three-wheeler that stopped refused to take instructions from her, so she told the next one that her husband had taken ill and she needed to get him home. While the open cab wove through the usual late-afternoon flood of human- and motor-powered vehicles, Rahila tried to get Samir to talk about whatever dark memory had enveloped him. Asking him about Maharla at least got him to breathe more regularly, but he hadn't unclenched his fist since they'd boarded. When they were about a block from her rented room, she told the driver to stop.
While Rahila nervously counted out the fare, the driver turned to study Samir. When she held out the cash towards him, he smiled and said, "No, ma'am. I cannot take your money. Your friend is obviously in distress."
"My friend?" she said, taken aback. "But I said he was my husband."
"I know. But I could tell that that was not true. What is true is that you are family to one another in a different way, and that you are doing him a kindness, as I am for you."
"Thank you," she said gratefully, her eyes tearing up, "thank you."
"You are quite welcome," he said. "Now get him somewhere he can rest, and take good care of him."
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