Feast

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Illustrations: Neelakash Kshetrimayum

THE VAMPIRE strolled into the Arrival Lounge at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, a faint smile on his face. He looked like a man of means, silver-haired, clean-shaven, handsome and tall. He had concealed the extreme pallor of his skin with touches of rouge, giving himself a complexion befitting a European traveller who spends his summers idling on the sunlit sands of expensive beaches. He was dressed in a light summer suit, pushing a luggage trolley with two cases on it, one large and one small, both in black, hand-tooled leather.

It was 3 am, yet the huge brightly lit hall was seething with people awaiting the arrival of their friends and family. Metal barriers had been set up to create a channel through which the newly arrived could process through the hall. Standing right up against the barriers were a number of young men holding up placards with the names of arriving passengers variously scribbled by hand or printed out, in large black capital letters, in English.

A thin trickle of fellow passengers straggled along beside the vampire, their faces turned towards the waiting crowd, looking for anyone familiar. So plump! thought the vampire, as he too looked out into the throng, though not because he expected to recognise anyone. So eager. So innocent.

A moment later he had caught sight of a signboard with ANDREW MORTON inscribed upon it. He had chosen to affect a plain-sounding, forgettable name. The young man holding the board wore a dark maroon uniform with gold-embroidery on his pocket announcing the name of the establishment to which he belonged. A hotel: the Maurya Sheraton.

“Ah,” said Morton, broadening his smile as he inclined his head towards the young man. “For me, I think?” He had an excellent repertoire of accents but had chosen, for this trip, to affect a culture-neutral anglophonic voice.

In another few minutes, the young man had introduced himself as “Satish, driver” and was trotting industriously ahead of the vampire, pushing the luggage trolley. The mass of hot, sweating bodies parted briefly to let the two of them through before surging back to fill the breach. To the monster’s finely attuned senses, the scent given off by the entities around him was as ripe and heady as tropical fruit, pungent with a quality he could not quite identify.

Was it uniquely local? he wondered. Or did it vary from one principality to the next?

There would be time enough to find out.

Then they were outside the terminal building and the mild humidity of the interior of that over-bright Arrival Lounge was revealed to be an air-conditioned version of the sauna conditions outside.

“Oh … my”, said the vampire, temporarily nonplussed by the viscous quality of the air. He dabbed his mouth with a fine white handkerchief. The atmosphere was practically liquid! It was unlike anything he had ever encountered before. Unpleasant, yes, but also intoxicating. Exotic. Rich with chemicals, human air-borne ejecta, germs, dust particles, scent molecules, pheromones.

Astounding!

A minute buzzing distracted him briefly. He snapped his head around to discover its source and saw a tiny insect coasting like a surfer on the current of warm air that flowed off Satish. Indeed, there was a cloud of them trailing the young man. Mosquitoes, thought the vampire. How quaint!

Of course he had encountered such creatures before, but there was a subtle difference. Here, in the Third World, they were still a force to be reckoned with: carriers of disease, minuscule assassins. As he had no scent, they paid no attention to him.

Then he was once more within the temperature-modulated environment of the vehicle that Satish Driver was currently in command of. Once they were on their way, the young man attempted to engage the vampire in conversation, asking about his family, his home, his country. Morton listened and responded absentmindedly. His keen intelligence was sucking in information about this new and unfamiliar environment with the same avid hunger that he turned upon his victims when he fed. Why has it taken me so long to come here? he wondered. Why have I never thought of visiting before?

THE CITY streets were shrouded in darkness, streetlights spaced at long intervals. There were broad avenues lined with trees and bushes. Behind the trees reared the silhouettes of tall buildings, punctuated by the vertical strip of their lighted stairwells. Other vehicles careened by on either side. But whenever his own car paused to acknowledge a red light, permitting the vampire to sample his surroundings, he could sense the presence of countless warm bodies lying unguarded in sleep on the sidewalks. They revealed themselves as long and low bundles, giving off a faint glow.

The hotel was like a fist of brightness, thrust up against the night sky. Satish saw Morton to his room, collected a juicy tip and agreed to return the following evening, in his capacity as driver and informal tour guide. By this time, it was close to dawn, so the vampire drew the heavy drapes across his windows, turned off all the lights, then went into his bathroom and lay down, fully clothed, in the tub. It was the closest thing to a coffin he would find while travelling and he greatly preferred it to the suffocating embrace of a bed. He lay in the cold white container, listening to the murmur of water rattling in the plumbing and entered into that state of suspended animation that passed for sleep amongst entities of his kind.

For the next three evenings, he went out in the company of Satish Driver, to the most densely populated areas of the city. Chandni Chowk was the name of one. The area around the shrine of Nizamuddin Aulia was another. The third was an underground shopping mall called Palika Bazaar. He immersed himself in the fragrant, living heat of his prey, stoking his hunger like a child teasing a caged animal, enjoying its keening protests.

In places where the teeming hordes were especially dense, squishy soft bodies pressed against him on all sides with a surprising lack of reserve. He had never before encountered such uninhibited yet anonymous physical contact. In Europe, it was unheard of for strangers, even in the grip of football hysteria or Oktoberfest revelry, to tolerate intimacies at this level. When he managed to persuade Satish to introduce him to a commuter train, bursting at rush hour like a pod full of human peas, he practically swooned with the intoxication of being squeezed butt-tobutt, thigh-to-thigh, chest-to-chest against dozens of fellow passengers. With their slick-skinned brown faces inches from his own, the aroma they gave off filled him with quivering delight. Cardamom and clove, onion and ginger, mustard oil, pepper and… something else. In the beginning he decided that it wasinnocence. Yes. It was innocence that produced a fragrance as precise and particular as that of a spice.

Returning from the third foray, sitting in the passenger seat beside Satish Driver, the smile on Morton’s face as he acknowledged the pressure of the need building within his body had grown into a grimace. Every individual hairfollicle was tense with longing. His hands were literally twitching in his lap. In his belly, the furnace of his craving burned so hot and bright that it was all he could do to avoid crying out. As it was, he had to keep his lips parted to allow him to pant softly. His canines thickened and grew long within his mouth, throbbing painfully as he reined them in, keeping them concealed.

At the hotel, he invited the driver to come up to his room. Within minutes of entering the chamber and locking the door, he had turned upon the lad and accomplished the deed. Satish didn’t resist at all. He closed his eyes as the vampire embraced him, allowing himself to be bent backwards. Even as the gleaming white teeth punctured the soft, yielding skin of his throat, the driver merely stiffened and gave out a tiny gurgling moan. Nothing more. For long minutes, Morton’s senses reeled with the familiar blinding radiance that blotted out all thought, all awareness. He knew nothing of his surroundings until he had drained every last drop of the sweet, rich, life-sustaining elixir complete with all the other liquids that animated mortal frames. Only a dry, rattling husk remained in his arms when he was done.

Then he lay back on the carpet, sated.

Ah! he thought. Ahhh. It has begun.

His reign of passion in this new country. His personal, private bloodfest.

IN HIS suitcase, he had a small electric saw with which he sliced up the late driver’s body. The tub was an excellent location for the operation. When he had rendered the body down to a series of two-inch-thick slabs, he packed the bits into zip-lock plastic bags then scrubbed the tub clean of corpselitter. He transferred the now unrecognisable remains of the driver to his cases, called for room service, went down, hired a taxi and checked out of the hotel.

By evening, he was in the Taj Mansingh, with a new alias and a passport to match.

He waited till after midnight to go on a long slow walk, carrying the zip-lock bags in his backpack and emptying a few of them into garbage dumps as he passed them. In order to avoid attracting attention, he assumed the shrunken frame of a scavenging beggar, complete with matted hair and dirty, swarthy skin. Changing shape always required an enormous output of energy and by the time he had completed his task for the night, his stomach was growling again.

He was perhaps a half-mile from the hotel. Keeping to the deep shade of the shrubbery and creeping along the boundary wall of one of the gracious mansions lining the avenue, he found a sleeping human form, curled up like a dog on a patch of jute sacking. He did not attempt to find the tramp’s neck, but bit down into the wrist at the pulse point.

The rank scent of the skin, unwashed perhaps for weeks and sticky with oozing wounds, did not deter him for even a second. He took his pleasures where he found them, which was frequently amongst the poor and the destitute, defenceless as they so often were.

When he had recovered from the storm of his own delight, he resumed his own shape, rearranged his clothes and rested for a few moments, with his back against the brick wall. Once again he had tasted that flavour, the one he had initially identified as innocence. It was sharp, sweet and unmistakeable, like a citrus fruit that concentrates all the passion of summer within the plump grains of its flesh. But what was it? He, who had drained countless containers of human blood in the course of his unnaturally long life, could not remember encountering this quality before. Was it connected to the climate? Or something specific to this culture? And if it was culture, then how curious that he could detect it even upon this castaway, this stinking derelict with no discernible society to call his own!

Leaving the desiccated remains where they lay, the vampire returned to his hotel feeling thoughtful.

IN THE course of the next couple of weeks, he continued his forays into the city’s night-time streets. He was astonished at the ease with which he found victims. The best locations were near garbage dumps, inside the many ruined tombs that dotted the city and under park benches. But public toilets and the stairwells of apartment buildings were equally well-populated by unresisting targets. Never yet had he encountered such extreme submission, such a total absence of struggle. It was true that he’d always had a gentle touch, an almost surgical skill at locating the exact point on an artery that would produce the swiftest results and with the least discomfort to the owner. Even so, it amazed and slightly unnerved him that he should have such easy success.

Equally astonishing was the fact that no reports of mysterious deaths or sudden vanishments were starting to appear in the press. He had been expecting to cover his tracks with meticulous care, as he had done with Satish. But it wasn’t necessary. If an encounter took place in a park, he buried the remains in a pit he dug in the same location. If in a building, he folded the dry husk into a sack and carried the small bundle away to the closest convenient water tank. He had even, on a couple of occasions, affected the appearance of a Indian coolie carrying a headload in broad daylight. No one turned to look twice at him.

Though he fed only under cover of darkness, he no longer hid inside the hotel during the daylight hours. Instead, he travelled in buses and trains, walking through bustling market places and plunging into the crowds flocking outside shrines and other places of worship. He assumed a number of different disguises, finding that a young foreign male back-packer elicited the most positive responses from ordinary people. He talked to anyone who looked friendly, trying in various oblique ways to find answers to the questions that could never be asked directly of any mortals: What is the meaning of this unique local taste? Why have I not encountered it before? Is it possible for culture to impart an actual physical fragrance? And if so, why have I never heard of such a thing before?

In the hotel, he sought out fellow Europeans now and then, just to confirm that the scent or flavour or whatever it was did not stick to them. And it did not. Only long-time expatriates gave off a slight trace of it. Twice he’d been invited to Embassy receptions and had mingled with crowds of his own compatriots, feeling nostalgic for the familiar, uncomplicated scent he associated with European victims. It amused him to contemplate luring a fellow guest into the bushes for a quick nip, but he easily resisted the temptation. On the one hand, he was sated with daily feeding. On the other, he guessed that a disappearance from an Embassy party might result in alarm bells being rung. The tell-tale wounds would be recognised for what they were and the hunt would be on, with all the frenzy associated with it. How many years had it been since he’d last had to save himself from imminent exposure or fight off an attack from someone armed with The Weapons? He couldn’t remember.

Back in Europe, he had got used to living so frugally, so mindful of the dangers associated with being a vampire that months would go by when he fed only on vermin, stray cats, crows plucked out of the air and even, on occasion, raw meat bought from a supermarket. He shuddered at the memory of the last time he had been driven to suck sustenance out of an inert lump of dead flesh bought at a Safeways counter. He wondered now how he was going to adjust back to his home environment. He’d grown flabby during his stay in this country, not just in terms of his physical dimensions, but in the loss of his vampire instincts. He simply didn’t have to worry about exposure, here. The majority of citizens were apparently unconscious of monsters of his kind and therefore had no defences against him.

But his six-month visa was running out and the stack of Euros he’d brought with him had dwindled alarmingly. He could not own credit cards or any other financial instruments because of the peculiar problems associated with immortality. Not only did he need to suppress bank records which revealed the unnatural length of his life, but Morton, or Martin Payne as he now called himself, routinely struggled when handling currency notes that made direct reference to the religion of his culture. US dollars, for instance, were out of bounds for him because of that pernicious line: “In God We Trust”. He had to wear gloves in order to avoid coming into direct contact with the notes before picking them up.

SIPPING A cup of coffee in the hotel’s lobby restaurant one morning, fretting over the prospect of returning to Europe, he became suddenly aware that the hair on the back of his neck was prickling. He turned in his seat, to find a blonde woman standing near him, smiling in the way of someone requesting permission to join his table.

“May I?” she now said, as she came around to the empty chair opposite his.

Taken by surprise, Payne could not muster excuses quickly enough.

“Why… uh… yes, I suppose so, of course,” he said, beginning to stand up.

The woman stopped him. “Oh, don’t bother,” she said, sitting down. She was a little over middle-age, with fashionably streaked hair and an amethyst necklace around her neck. Her crisp white linen jacket and skirt partnered with an ice-mauve silk blouse

spoke of expensive good taste.

“My name’s Cindy,” she said, in an accent that owed more to America than England. “Cindy Wright.” She did not offer her hand for shaking. “You needn’t bother looking around to see if there are empty seats elsewhere,” she said. She paused for him to absorb the implications of her remark. “I’m here because I think I know what you are.”

The vampire raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”

Already his mind was racing, estimating his chances of success if escape became necessary. Already he was berating himself for his lack of preparedness, his loss of caution. In a crowded room, in broad daylight, the only option was an extreme change of form — a bat, for instance

“Relax”, said Cindy, as if she perfectly understood his train of thought. “I’m not about to expose you.” She paused with that annoying, knowing smile playing upon her lips. “I’ve been shadowing you for a couple of days so I’m pretty sure.” She shook her head at him as he continued to look blankly at her. “Come on! Surely you’ve not lost all your instincts?” She leaned forward now and very quickly, in a gesture that shocked him because it was so unexpected, she flicked her upper lip with a finger, just enough that he could see one of her canines. Sure enough, there it was: the sharp unnatural point, unmistakeable even in its sheathed and quiescent state.

Relief flushed through Payne. “My goodness!” he gasped. “For a moment I thought…”

“I know, I know,” said Cindy. “It happens to all of us. Exposure Panic Response! But that’s the least of your worries. Don’t just sit there gulping like a fish! Do you mean to say you really don’t have the slightest idea what I’m talking about?”

“Well — I… ” stammered Payne. “This is so unexpected! I’ve not met anyone else for so long, that I’d stopped hoping. One of us, I mean. Are… are there many? Of us?”

“Yes and no”, said Cindy. “Very few with active teeth.”

“Huh?” said Payne, his eyes narrowing. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

Cindy glanced away. “It’s one of the final signs”, she said, “that we’ve been here too long.” She looked back at him. “Mine stopped descending after my first year. But there are other signs. Just the fact that we’re both sitting here in the open, in daylight, for instance. Didn’t that surprise you? No? You’ll find that fresh-flowing water isn’t much of a problem any more either. As for the reflections in mirrors, well…” She tapped one of the shiny metal spoons lying on the table. “Pick one of these up and surprise yourself!”

Payne sucked in his breath, feeling deeply disturbed. “What about…?”

Cindy pre-empted him. “Each of us is different,” she said. She held her right arm up. “Can you look at my charm bracelet?” Payne winced and averted his face, but not before he’d seen the small gold cross dangling from her wrist. “There you go. You’re still sensitive. But I can wear one now. You’ll be able to as well, if you stay here long enough.”

“But… why?” said Payne in a hoarse voice. “It makes no sense!”

“On the contrary,” retorted Cindy, “it makes all the sense in the world. We’re products of a very specific belief system I won’t name it, since you’re still too sensitive and all our dark powers, even though they’re forged in opposition to that system, require our absolute belief in it.” She stopped abruptly, staring at him with a searching expression. “In fact, just by telling you this, I might be weakening your powers. Do you want me to stop?”

“No, no…” said Payne, in a low voice. He was finding it difficult to control his breathing. “Please continue. I have indeed been puzzled and curious. Whatever it is, I need to know.”

“All right,” said Cindy, “you asked for it.” She was no longer smiling. “The belief system we belong to is an austere one. Think about it: one immortal soul, one life on earth, one chance for heaven or hell. Right? Within that system, by choosing to suck the life-essence out of our fellow creatures, we gave up our rights as mortals. In exchange we acquired supernatural privileges such as immortality. But in order to maintain our powers we must uphold our own belief system! Are you beginning to get my point? In order to be culturespecific monsters we ourselves have got to be True Believers!”

She gestured at the brightly lit, bustling hotel lobby in which they were sitting. They were surrounded by guests and employees, a majority of whom were Indians. “In this culture, the rules of faith are completely different. There’s no precise heaven or hell. There’s no immortal soul — not in the sense we understand it — and there’s no single… uhh… divine authority. Instead there are infinite births, infinite deaths, infinite divinities. It doesn’t really matter whether they formally believe in reincarnation or what names they give their deities or whether they even believe in anyone or anything. Just by being here they get recycled. So when we come here, we’re exposed to a system that’s directly opposed to our own. Instead of a single life and a single fate, there’s a raging torrent of lives and fates, truths and deaths!”

Payne listened intently, saying nothing.

Within this system, though they have monsters, even one they call ‘vampire’, there’s nothing fixed and definite about them. Some say their feet are on backwards and that they lurk in lonely places. But there are no crucifixes or silver bullets to dispatch them with, no well-defined appearance or behaviour. They’re not feared in the same way we’re feared back home.” She shrugged. “After all, if one life slips away in the hands of a ghoul or a demon, there’s always a chance of better luck the next time around! In the next life. The next incarnation.” She sent him a searching look. “It’s a system based on infinite abundance, in which nothing and no one matters because there’s always more where it came from. So when we, who belong to the one-life-onechance system, come into contact with a multi-life-multi-chance system, we begin to drown. Not right away, but slowly, over time.”

PAYNE SAID, his voice plaintive, “But they succumb to us! How can we be their victims?”

Cindy was shaking her head. “Numbers matter. All they have to do is keep on and on succumbing until finally, our resistance is overwhelmed. That sweet flavour you’ve noticed? It’s not just a tropical spice. It’s a lack of fear. They don’t fear us because they know, in their deepest hearts, that their sheer numbers will prevail. Without active fear to define us, we cease to be monsters. Our powers wane. We begin to die.”

Payne could feel a churning sensation within himself. Already, he could sense the truth of what Cindy was saying. His teeth were aching strangely for instance. “Surely it’s reversible?” he whispered. “Surely when we return to Europe we get our powers back?”

“No idea,” said Cindy. “I’ve only met those of us who’ve chosen to stay.”

“But — but — mortality!” said Payne, grimacing. “Don’t you mind dying?”

“Ahh,” said Cindy, stretching luxuriously and leaning back in her chair. “You get used to it after a while. And besides, once you’ve been here long enough, you find yourself starting to hope…” She was smiling once more.

“Hope! Hope for what?” “Better luck next time!”

 

Manjula Padmanabhan (born 1953) is a writer and artist. Her books include Hot Death, Cold Soup, a collection of short stories, Getting There, a travelmemoir, and Kleptomania, a second collection of short stories. Harvest, her fifth play, won the 1997 Onassis Award for Theatre. Padmanabhan has illustrated 24 books for children, including her own two novels, Mouse Attack and Mouse Invaders. Her most recent book is Escape, a novel set in a dystopian future in which all women except for one little girl have been exterminated.