The Light of Heaven
by Nadya Agrawal
To ask when it started rejects the fundamental understanding of love as a continuum that
doesn’t begin and never ends. It, like energy, is possibly shifting but always present. That’s what
Rakesh believed in his heart of hearts. He woke up one day with the cosmic recognition of his
love. It blasted before him on a wintery New Delhi morning, straight to the frigid horizon, like a
rainbow bridge to the heavens.
He was standing outside on the high steps of his family’s apartment building staring into
the window of a woman who lived across the street. There was no one walking, cane akimbo,
stepping through the jagged and broken concrete paths, Rakesh was the only one, he swears, who
witnessed what occurred. As though it were a vision from God, meant only for him, the woman
upstairs unclasped her bra in full view of the window and threw it to the side. The sight of her
plump body, cascading downward, is seared into Rakesh’s vision for all time.
He was 14. It would be the last thing he saw when he closed his eyes for a final time at
The next morning he rushed back to the same spot, waiting for the vision to descend upon
him again, but the curtains were drawn. No matter, Rakesh was convinced. He was converted by
his love. He would come every day to this spot and wait. At night he dreamed of her body, the
headless thing made of two milk-soft arms, a round rippling belly, breasts that stared at him even
as he ducked down to not be seen. It was resplendent and it generously cast its light on him.
At the age of 14 and a half, Rakesh dropped out of school. He had no more need for it,
his father said and he agreed. And he could still play cricket in the alleyways with his friends.
Nothing was lost here. Instead, he was meant to find a job. His father asked around. His brother
asked around. His mother talked with the other mothers in the block to find him something, a
trade that would suit him because, as they all knew, he was too weak, unsteady, and sickly to
become a mechanic like the men in his family. Someone somewhere pulled up a cousin of a
friend who was a tailor. And so Rakesh, full of hope and love, went off to learn his trade.
The small tailoring shop in the D-block market was one of four catering to the people
in the nearby middle class neighborhood. Salwars were always in need of patching. Blouses
always in need of fitting. There was much to do at all times and Anand, a stooped man hired to
keep the other tailors on task, did not have time to look at Rakesh properly before he joined the
line. They put him in the furthest corner of the tiny back room, where the light was the dimmest
and his small hands would have to twist somewhat unnaturally to work his assigned sewing
machine. It would be two years before he’d move to the second station at the front of the room once Faraaz, the nice middle-aged man who often shared a cigarette with Rakesh and told him he
looked like his younger brother, passed away in the night.
From the second station, Rakesh could see the whole world. The woman who ran the
counter, Jenny Ma’am, moved customers in and out with startling efficiency. She recommended
silver plastic buttons and striped borders, extra zari work on the sleeves for only one thousand
two thousand more. A bargain! Do you know what that cheat Nivedita next door charges for
craftsmanship like this? Rakesh liked to listen to their conversations. The high pitches of the
women’s voices carrying over even the sound of their six odd sewing machines.
It was from the second station Rakesh could see into the dressing room. The dressing
room was a curtain attached on hooks in a loop around the front corner of the shop. It slipped
back and forth all day as women huddled inside to check the fit of their new pieces. If he angled
his head just slightly so his cheek was a few inches from the bobbin, he could catch naked flesh
moving beyond the join of the curtain. Because these women couldn’t see the men, they couldn’t
imagine that the men could see them. As it was, he didn’t think anyone else was looking. It was
something he discovered. It was uncharted. He reveled in that as much as he did in the glances he
was able to steal at the customers undressing.
Within his first week at second station he had seen the quick swipe of a large, brown
areola disappearing under a blouse and the broad expanse of a thick calf raised to slide into a
skirt. He committed each to memory and gorged himself on them when he lay awake at night
next to his brothers on their mattress. It was thoughtless, the first touch he made in the dark, just
a hand following the flow of his own body to the place between his legs. Innocent, you could
say. He was still just a boy.
Rakesh aged into his role as the third tailor, on rotation with four others who all fell
somewhere else in the pecking order. He carried his wages home in his pocket every day, with
one unscrupulous hand wrapped around the bills so that none of the young children who eyed
him hungrily from the corners could slip them out. He was afraid for weeks after his first
paycheck that the money would fall out into the dirt and he wouldn’t see it. He gave all of it to
his mother who kept it in a piece of cloth wrapped five or six times and stashed in the bottom of
a sock hidden in the back of her armoire, much like he hid the nudey magazines his elder cousin
gave him. He had dived into them greedily, flipping through blonde and brunette women draped
over the pages, but was soon disillusioned. The thrill was cut by their flat eyes gazing back at
him. It unnerved him and he shoved the magazines to the back of his closet.
His brothers also moved on to their own jobs. Their work took them to other cities and
soon Rakesh had the whole bed to himself. He spread out luxuriously every night and went over
the women he had collected – the ones that were short and tall, ugly with cracked faces or
beautiful and unblemished, round or reed thin, young and old. They all offered themselves up to
him through that two-inch gap between the curtain and the wall. Rakesh’s days felt easy then.
After all, how many men could say they went to work with the love of their lives?
He had now worked for Jenny Ma’am for five years and she didn’t mind leaving him in
the shop alone anymore if it came to that. During their slower afternoons, she would walk back
to her apartment which was only around the corner, to take her daughter off her mother-in-law.
Those times, Rakesh would lounge in the front behind the counter to deter any thieves. He’d
watch the fearless mice run the lengths of wire from the open sign to the wall and between the hanging lights. When it was hot he would sit on the doorstep and stroke the soft velvet head of
the snow white street dog they all called Dolly. She was sweet on him and barked at anyone she
didn’t like who came too near them. If customers came, he would just call Jenny Ma’am on the
phone and she would come quick enough.
Once when Jenny was out, Rakesh sat among the finishings behind the counter and
fingered all the fine things the owner had bought for them to upsell to customers. He was turning
over bead rhinestones in his hands when a woman yelled from the front door.
“Is there anyone here?” she called, her voice shrill and demanding. “Anyone? Where is
Rakesh raised his head and nodded to the woman. She was small and squashed looking
with an angry mouth and a mole on her left eyebrow. Her clawed hands reached across the
counter to tap aggressively right by Rakesh’s elbow.
“Where is Jenny?” she repeated.
“I’ll just call, ma’am,” Rakesh said, bobbing his head. He picked up the phone and dialed
Jenny’s number. “There’s customer,” he told her when she picked up.
“Can you note down what she wants? I’ll be just there,” Jenny said.
Rakesh fumbled with the pen and notepad but tried to pull himself up straight. He
couldn’t look the small woman in the eyes while he asked her the usual questions. She was hard
of hearing and he repeated himself until Jenny swung through the door.
“I’m sorry, so sorry, ma’am. How can I help you?” she said, taking the notepad from
Rakesh who gratefully slunk to the back room where his sewing machine was.
He listened to them for a while crow back and forth about silk and satin, boarders and
linings. Then he heard Jenny moving stacks of ready made pieces aside to lay out the woman’s
order. He couldn’t help himself as he glanced casually into the mirror above them, directly into
the dressing corner where Jenny was hunched over, helping the woman climb into her petticoats.
It was habit. He had no thoughts as his mind collected the images of the old woman flailing as
she put on her blouse. But he was jarred back to the present when the woman started screaming
and pointing at him in the mirror.
“He’s watching me dress! Disgusting man! Jenny!”
Jenny, startled, attempted the pull the curtain back while also stepping toward Rakesh.
She slipped on the bunched up carpet, ripping the curtain rod out of the ceiling where it had
always hung precariously. The woman stood in the shop window, half dressed, her faded undergarments on show for the whole market.
“I should fire you,” Jenny told him. “I should.”
He stared at his feet, waiting for her to slap him like his mother did when she was angry.
He wanted her to slap him. His body was cold and full of dread for the punishment that would
come but never did.
“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled.
“But I don’t want to pay a new trainee. You’ll move back to your old machine in the
It was more than he deserved, he knew that, but it was a stone in his belly. He knew if he
looked up at Jenny Ma’am when he shuffled into the store in the morning, he would glare at her, so he looked down until he found his chair. Did she know what she had done? Did she
understand that she had ripped away his love like it was nothing?
He ground his teeth as the thread spun on its stand and the table rumbled under his
elbows. Something had happened in the intervening years to this station and its uneven legs
made his whole body shake as he worked, so he had to walk through the market after dark that
night with his back aching. He could not sleep. There were no breasts or thighs to guide him
through the fog of his exhaustion. All he could see was the black expanse of the cracked ceiling
as he stared up. He could feel the cracking bones in his back against the hard mattress. It was as
though he had been hollowed out and all that remained of that dreamer Rakesh was this husk of a
When he woke the next day, his penis remained soft. He washed the soap off himself with
mugs of cold water fished out of a bucket and one foot pressed against the door that liked to
swing open. Still his mind did not wander to his collection. Rakesh went to work and returned.
His corner of the workroom was dark and cramped as it always was, but it seemed to envelope
him with reassurance, like blinders on a cart horse moving through clogged city streets. He could
see nothing from where he sat. He did not think of his love. He had been abandoned, he realized.
Even when he was called to the front of the store to advise on the measurement of a
young woman’s skirt, he did not look up from his notes. He could hear the curtain rings clinking
against the window as curtain opened and closed, but he was not drawn to it. Rakesh simply
completed his work and returned to his seat, dutiful and empty.
Had he not been a patient devotee? He had spent so many nights knelt before the
midnight altar of his obsession. But now there was nothing. He tried to call forward the images of rolling brown flesh bunching over the top of a waistband or under a bra strap, but it brought
him no joy. It was as though he lay next to a cold lover, reaching for her as she pulled away.
It was time, his parents told him one morning, that he be married. Enough of this
bachelor life, loafing around the apartment, peeping into girls’ windows. His brothers had left,
had made lives for themselves, while he remained. He hadn’t told them about his demotion. It
wouldn’t have changed their estimation of him. So he sat now, waiting for them to finish and tell
him what they had decided. He had only ever wanted one thing - to be left alone with his
libidinous thoughts - but that time was over. They could do what they wished with him.
No girl would want him, he reasoned, no family would want their daughter married to
him. He was, if he could speak truly to his feelings, a poet that this world was not meant to
understand. There was no one else on the planet, perhaps at any point in time, who had such a
deep and feeling appreciation for beauty. He could find it in any woman, and he did so gladly, all
that mattered was that they didn’t know he was looking. If he had been born centuries ago, they
would have marveled at his abilities, at his reservoirs of sensitivity. Now, they called him a lech.
He was destined for unhappiness.
They had found someone, it happened, who would marry him. And her parents would pay
hand over fist for the opportunity. Rakesh nodded his head and went off to work. There was no
use asking what was wrong with her, it didn’t matter. She could not do anything for him, nor he
for her. Their lots were tied together.
A fog settled on the streets in the early mornings as he walked to work. It muffled all
sound and smell. After a while it seemed like it would never leave him. He barely registered the landmarks of his morning commute, could only feel the cars as they shrugged past him in the
street. Thoughts slipped beyond his grasp. He remained at his table in the back, stooped over his
work, until it was time to leave again.
When the girl’s family descended upon them, proffering sweets and nervous smiles, he
felt his face shift to return the gesture, but it was as though he were seeing past her. She sat
across from him, but remained faceless. He could not remember how she tied her hair, if she
were plump or thin, young or old. She left no impression on him, excepting the limp she walked
with. The families made their plans for the wedding and he dutifully obliged.
It wasn’t until he was laying in bed next to his wife, snoring soundly next to him on her
pillow, that his consciousness fled back into his body and panic overtook him. He suddenly
didn’t recognize himself. The ceiling was falling toward his face, the walls were crumbling
inward, his breath stopped in his chest. He panted, staring around. She woke with a start.
“Everything OK?” she asked in a whisper, sitting up. Her voice was small and thin like a
flute. She reached toward him and he lept back. They hadn’t touched each other. Her hand landed
on his exposed arm like a flame. It was too warm and too soft.
“Yes,” he managed, forcing himself to settle back down. She blinked at him, obviously
unsure. She put one foot then the other on the cold lino floor and padded with her heavy limp to
the bathroom in the hallway, turning on every light as she went.
Instantly irritated, he jumped to his feet to turn them all off. Didn’t she know she was
racking up the electric? His mother would scream at them both. With one finger he swiped off
the lamp in the hall, and that’s when he heard it. The musical sound of his wife’s piss hitting the
ceramic wall of the toilet.
Down the dark corridor, a crack of light shone on the ground where the door to the
bathroom remained slightly ajar. He moved closer, hitching his breath. He could see her just
beyond, her brown knees out, her face straining as she held herself over the toilet. Her eyes were
screwed up with tiredness and concentration.
Joy flooded through him. His face was lit by more than the single naked bulb hanging
above the sink. Heaven shone on him once again. Once again he had discovered love.
Nadya Agrawal is a writer & editor based in Brooklyn. She founded Kajal Magazine, & hosts the Cardamom Pod on the Earios Network. Her short fiction has been published in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Rumpus, and others. Find her online at nadya-agrawal.com and on Twitter @nadya_agrawal.