Each time you forget, I tell you the first story.
It is high noon and they are sprinkling rose water on the streets. The water touches the concrete and hisses away, leaving trails of scent in its wake. The smell is thick, mingling with the redolence of freshly brewed tea and the sizzle of spiced kebabs. I rub some attar of petrichor on my wrists and I know I will have to wash my hair as soon as I get home because the smell of the bazaar smoke is in it.
Just then I am not worried about home, though, because I am listening to a qissago tell the story of the time Afrahsiyab lost the key to his palace, and the dark magic he employed to regain entry into his vaulted kingdom. A few paces beyond us is the dargah of our patron saint Ras Baras Khan. The qawwals will gather here on Thursday night and the air will ring with their voices mingling in high devotion, but just now the shrine is quiet, almost ordinary among the smoke, and the flowers, and the great minarets and domes of old Roomi. The pigeons fly in great flocks above, flapping and soaring in formation.
Then the travellers step outside the caravanserai, the troupe of tricksters, a sight to delight the children, and the afternoon revelry begins. The tents are already set up—in one, there is going to be a whole evening of dhrupad music, the entire vocabulary of the seven notes to delight the senses. In another, a small Jantar Mantar has been set up, and you will be taken through the phases of the moon and the routes of the stars if you care enough to stay. In a third tent lit in jewel tones of pink and purple, people dance, and the only rule is that no one can reveal the identity of anyone they see dancing inside. The rules are clear and strictly enforced. If the fear of discovery doesn’t ensure secrecy, then an invocation of the old magic will.
I wander between the tents and the market stalls, wearing silver at my throat and on my toes. My heart swells at being able to walk around the Sunday fair, knowing how the rest of my week will go—cloistered at home, trying hard to become the child Baba prayed for.
That’s when I see the Lady. I cannot tell if she has come with the latest caravan for the fair, because she has set up her tent further away from the rest. A jewel glitters on her nose, and her eyes dance with life. She looks in my direction and raises a graceful hand in greeting. I look behind me, startled, not believing that someone has addressed me directly. I am both too used to being left alone at the fair every Sunday, and always poised for possible discovery. A terrible combination for my nerves.
My stomach lurches a little bit. Can it be that she is from the City? Does she know Baba? I rack my brains but cannot place her. She is still looking at me, smiling, beckoning. She shifts now, and a beautiful circular sign adorned with a rose shows me she is a ganjifa reader. “Come and see what lies in your future, bitiya,” she calls. I relax, sigh, and allow my feet to lead me towards her.
“The time that I met you before I met you,” I tell you now, in the hope that the mists will clear for you, if only a little bit.
You are looking at me in a way that is so familiar my heart aches. I am almost jealous of myself, because I know you meet me as if for the first time. You will feel the stirrings of desire, you will fall in love again. I wonder if it is the same for when it is you who has to reawaken me.
“Should I go on, or do you want a break?” I smile.
“Go on, please,” you say. You are rapt. I am reflected in your great brown eyes that are like no one else’s.
Inside her tent the grass is fragrant and sunlight streams in. There is a stillness so palpable my body sighs and leans into it, the silence broken only by the metronome timbre of a heavy bell being struck. I feel its vibrations down my back, and see my face reflected in the mirrors stitched to the ceiling of her tent. Everywhere around us are brocade cushions and cotton mattresses. A filigreed paan daan sits in a corner.
At the centre of the tent is an indigo and carmine box out of which the round ganjifa cards have spilled. I sit on the mattress in front of the cards, and exclaim at the beauty of the card that lies closest to me. I have seen dozens of ganjifa decks, both for play and for divination, but none this striking. On the open face of this card blooms a great ruby rose, held in a long-fingered hand dyed with matching red lac. The colours burst from the card and the flower breathes so that I feel I could pluck it and tuck it behind my ear.
The Lady lets me take my time admiring her card. She has busied herself in preparing paan, which she now seals with a cardamom pod. This she puts in her mouth, reddened with the preserve of sweet rose petals smeared into paan she has already consumed. Then she takes the cards and puts them all in her magnificent box with the radiating red lines against the deep blue wood. Out of my sight the cards are shuffled in their mistress’s hand.
Out they come—six all in a circle, and one at the heart. It is not a spread I know.
I am riveted. Baba made me give away my cards when I came of age, and he does not approve of fortune-telling in general.
She upturns them. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.
The Cups. The Rosebud. The Eyes. The Cave. The Tempest. The Crone.
“Do you sing?” she asks.
I shake my head. “I tell my father I learn every Sunday, but I come here instead,” I answer.
She chuckles. “Have you a lover?”
“No. I have tried once before.” I bristle when she looks at me with amusement. It is clear she does not believe me. “All right, I’ve tried a few times.”
“And they do not … satisfy you?” she asks delicately.
“It’s not that.” My cheeks are afire. “They do not see me as I am. They do not meet me where I am.”
“What will you do when your father asks you to sing, bitiya?”
“I don’t know. He probably won’t.”
“Oh, but he will. And when he does, you had best be prepared. The cards tell me a portal opens for you. What you seek most ardently is coming to you. Either a skill, or a love, or a lifelong friendship. Do not take it lightly. Be open to it when it comes, even if it comes from somewhere you do not expect.”
I sit up straighter, nod at her.
“There will be difficulty. But there will be great music.”
“What kind …” I start to ask, but she raises her hand to stop me.
“You will try to hide. But you will eventually be found out. When you are, you must run. You may have to run for a while before you are safe. But when the time is right, you must believe in yourself, do you understand?”
I don’t, but I nod anyway. In the sunlit tent with the smell of sweet paan in my nostrils it is difficult to take her warnings to heart. I am here to be in her company, that is all.
I pay her for the reading. As I rise and begin to leave the tent, she calls.
“Bitiya, what is your name?”
“Sarika, when the time is right, ask for a door. Ask for the right door. It will appear.”
Now she is looking down and making herself another paan. I am dismissed.
I walk from rooftop to stair, navigating this city of levels and terraces, light-footed and sure of my way. Starlight on my skin. I walk, descending until I reach the wilderness that surrounds Constantia, where the aging queen decays with her thirteen ravening jackals. She will die without her kingdom. Until I lose you for the first time I do not understand her.
In the woods the light is scarce; every shadow could be a snake. I am wearing a midnight blue kurta and trousers, and occasionally my veil shimmers when the light from my tiny lantern hits it. When something twines itself around my ankles I shake it away, starting to run. Something swings from the banyan tree; it catches my veil in its hands, my sequin-spangled veil chosen especially for this night. I grab what is mine, hear the apparition guffaw, and pull back harder, snarl at it. And I continue. The forest itself would have to part for me tonight.
When I arrive at the riverside I am drenched, like the grass of the first morning. You are already there, and for the first time I notice how fresh and cool the night smells. It rained earlier in the evening, for the first time after many portentous dusks. The world is remade. A cool breeze dances in the long grass by the riverbank, and wordlessly we slip into an embrace. If someone were to walk by now they would see nothing amiss in the tall, swaying grass. Out of the sight of even the moon I am coming alive in your hands.
Our palms meet at the base, then intertwine. With another hand you are gently lifting my chin up so you can engulf my mouth with yours. No kiss has tasted saltier than this. The fire in my blood is cooled by the depth of you. By the breadth of you. It rages on but it does not destroy me. With your mouth on me I am more than myself. With my legs around you you are more than yourself.
We leave things in the grass. A monogrammed handkerchief, an earring. The next night whoever is there first holds the fallen object from the night before, and the game of love begins again. Words, spoken clearly and coherently, meant for conversation, belong in the daytime. In the night, in the grass, they are whispers of intent, of possession. The greatest struggle is to remain quiet enough to stay undetected, and the struggle bursts out as greater passion. I have never had a love like this, so still and so moving.
In the daytime I am distracted; I count the hours until I can cross the city again to meet you by the river.
“Open your eyes, meri jaan.”
There is a warm hand on my face, and when I blink my eyes open, your concerned face swims into view. I am nauseated, and the desire to go back to sleep is immense.
“Sarika, no, wake up, wake up.” You are shaking me awake. I don’t know who you are, and I just want to sleep.
“Your name is Sarika. I am Yusuf. We’ve just been through a lot. That is why you feel faint. It will be okay, in a while. You will remember.”
You seem familiar, like someone I saw once in a dream, or maybe someone I saw once in a crowded place, but I cannot place you. Your words are reassuring, but I am barely able to listen.
You hand me some water, which I gulp in great hungry gusts, letting the remnants spill over me.
We sit in silence for a while, as my head clears. I notice how beautiful you are, the way your great brown eyes seem to hold entire worlds in them. How your mouth droops when you focus.
“Sarika, do you remember the first story?”
Again, there is something familiar about your words, about your face. I try to place my finger on it. I almost have it, almost … but I don’t. I shake my head. “What is it?”
“I will tell you. But before that let me tell you about the first time we spoke.”
There are many ways in which to order the world.
The three seasons—summer, monsoon, winter. The two almost-halves of the day—light, dark, and the shadow spaces of dawn and dusk. The phases of the moon—new, waxing, gibbous, full, waning, balsamic.
The five prayers that divide your day. The two that divide mine.
The time of longing, which is whenever we are not together. The time of union, which is whenever we are.
Open your eyes, meri jaan.
It is me. You know me. Let me remind you.
I raise an eyebrow, feeling my mouth scrunch as my other eyebrow half-rises too. I try again, and fail, as I know I will. I try a third time, with a hand on my other eyebrow, to prevent it from rising.
This makes you laugh.
Then you look at me with recognition, expertly raising first one eyebrow, then another, and I launch myself at you, our laughter melting together like honey on the tongue.
Roomi is divided by its High Gate. An eagle soaring above the city would see it; east of the gate, where you live—the blue tarpaulin that covers shanties, the small brick houses, the crowded market stalls, the factories belching smoke, the way the river is dammed so that it splits into a tiny stream choked with the refuse of the City. And by the City I mean west of the gate, where I live—a wide, glimmering river, an ocean of verdure, gleaming cars gliding on smooth streets. The minarets and temples, the mosques and imambaras are in the middle, where the one old practice still continues from before the Separation: the Sunday fair, where anyone can go for an afternoon of enjoyment. Well, theoretically, but we know how it works—we know who sells, and who buys. We know who borrows, and who lends.
The threshold is where the old magic still holds. Where the patron saint of old Roomi, Ras Baras Khan, is revered by those who still keep the faith. Where you and I can still lock eyes in public without fear as the qawwals sing in harmony.
The world can be divided in eighty-seven ways. Each circular card of the ganjifa deck is a portal. Why, then, did my ancestors choose the cruellest way?
On Sunday the road to Constantia is filled with titillation. It is a tickle at the back of my throat that I have to fight to suppress, otherwise it would rise out of me in its voracity. And then Baba would know where I go every Sunday, instead of to the small music school on the grounds of Constantia, where the embittered prince offers lessons in vocal music.
The sight of the tremendous High Gate, faded by time and moss, its brick and mortar still standing, its plaster cupolas and eldritch sculptures intact, the two fish kissing at the very top still leaping, defiant, in the air.
And now, each time, the memory of the first time I see you in that crowd, three weeks after the Lady tells me my fortune.
I start to slip. To misremember. My embroidery is sloppy.
Baba notices me rubbing the sleep out of my eyes. He hears me humming under my breath as I work.
One dawn I slip back like a shadow, like I have done most nights for the last six months, and all the lights in the house are lit.
Baba is drooping, disappointed in me. My clothes are stained with grass, my hair is a wild mess of sweat and dew. The sweetness of the river is still in my eyes and my limbs. There is no point lying. He knows. Anyone who witnesses your great love streaming through my body, watches me at dawn-time, knows the deepest truth.
I have broken Baba’s heart. So he must break mine. He has me followed. I cannot go anywhere without Ravi. He is in Baba’s employ. He follows me to my lessons. He follows me to the shops. He follows me, on Sunday, on the road to Constantia.
I have been enrolled in music lessons. I may not step beyond the grounds of Constantia to where you must wait, each night. I may not go to the fair on Sunday. I may not slip you a message through a friend, nor send a letter.
I must practice music for six hours a day. Ravi counts, and Baba asks me to sing.
The first time I see you is when the qawwals put on a special show on Ras Baras Khan’s death centenary.
I have wandered away from the tents and the stalls. I have finished the steaming cup of tea in my hands, having savoured every milky sweet drop. I am almost sated, but something about the evening pulls me away from the thought of home. Not yet, not yet. Baba is away on business, and I may linger.
I drape the scarf of embroidered cotton around my head, and tuck my hands in the pockets of my skirt. I leave my sandals at the door of the dargah, and enter its alley. Pilgrims around me are carrying gifts of attar and incense, flowers and fabric. Everyone, or almost everyone at the High Gate is a traveller. Hardly anyone from the City comes here. If my classmates in the City ever found out, they would be horrified. To them the enchantment of the Sunday fair would be incomprehensible. Where I witness magic and camaraderie, they would only perceive dirt and danger.
More fool them. I round the corner, and see that the qawwals have already taken their seats. I sit among the devout in companionable silence. I know nobody will ask me my name or address. Anyone who comes to Ras Baras Khan’s shrine is welcome. A small child with a scant head of hair and a mark on his head to ward off the evil eye chases a friend. The head qawwal launches into the first song.
Na toh karvaan ki talash hai
Na toh humsafar ki talash hai
I do not look for a caravan
Nor do I look for a co-traveller
Mere shauq-e-khana kharaab ko
Tere reh guzar ki talaash hai
The ruined place of my desire
Looks for a path that leads to you
The people around me are starting to sing. People of indeterminate age, of all genders, women holding hands, mouthing the familiar words that have passed through their hearts countless times. The qawwals are now clapping, a syncopated rhythm that sets off the rapture of the song. The refrain is about husn-e-ishq, the beauty of love …
Yeh ishq ishq hai ishq ishq
Yeh ishq ishq hai ishq
The walls of the dargah are echoing, and the clapping and rich timbre of the qawwals’ voices hypnotise; the voices of the people have risen in response, and suddenly I am starting to feel awake and alone, very awake and very alone, the scarf is slipping from my shoulders …
And you have risen, you are wearing black from head to toe, you start to whirl in time with the melody, your wrists and face are eye-wateringly beautiful.
Yeh ishq ishq hai ishq ishq yeh ishq ishq hai ishq
Ras Baras Khan blessed this land again the night I saw you whirling.
Ras Baras Khan himself opened the door when it was time, meri jaan.
I hear your voice soaring in laughter before I see you at the dhaba where we arranged to meet when we talked last Sunday.
When you spot me coming in you stand up, smile, and welcome me in a way that disarms me immediately. You are popular in the dhaba, and later it strikes me that it isn’t even necessarily because they know you. You are easy to like, generous with your smiles and laughter, genuinely curious about people and the world.
Your name is Yusuf and you are a teacher. You grew up in a comfortable, but not-too-comfortable house east of the gate. You lost your mother early in life, but not for the same reasons I lost mine. You aren’t close to your father, but not for the same reasons I am not close to mine. You like to read about history. You love to dance. You are the one who cooks, most nights, at home. You hated school, because the other children picked on you.
In the space between sips of tea, which you devour in great quantities, you lean back in your chair to smile your very particular smile at me. A corner of your mouth turns down, while the other one crinkles. I stop speaking mid-sentence, and hold your gaze.
You will tell me weeks later how I looked to you in that afternoon (“Your hair was wind-swept, and you were looking directly into my eyes where most people look away.”) We will confess to each other that we wish the evening had ended with a kiss, if it had to end at all.
The more we talk, the more I realise how much I already like you. You walk me to Constantia, and watch as I look for a rickshaw that will take me into the City. Once I find a rickshaw and sit in it, we smile and wave, and I feel my face getting warm.
I pray fervently that this is not a passing flirtation. I have a feeling about you, at the pit of my stomach. A knowing.
When we have all the time in the world, when we are no longer exhausted from running, when we no longer have to reawaken each other’s memories, when we are in our shared home, perhaps with children around us, perhaps with twelve cats, perhaps we will quarrel.
Perhaps you will meet someone else, perhaps I will fall out of love with you.
Perhaps the meeting of our bodies will stop thrilling us. Perhaps the things about me you love now, my gauche attitude, my bluntness, perhaps they will begin to grate on you.
Then we will part honourably, though it will feel unbearable and at least one heart will shatter.
But we will part on our own terms. Under a covenant of peace. Not for a flag, not for anyone else’s idea of how the world should be ordered, and certainly not because a third person willed it.
Until the day I die, you will be the first person who discovered the edges and depths of me, including who I really am, not a daughter and not a son, fluid, indefinable in any language that Baba was taught.
And I will be the first person who found the same about you.
Meeting every Sunday isn’t enough anymore. There is no privacy at the fair, although we have stolen a few kisses here or there, in the dancing tents, in the Jantar Mantar. In the daytime I have university and chores, and you are teaching at the primary school.
We have been laughing about our sameness. The things we have told and not told other people about ourselves. As a joke, we have told each other we will both wear white today. I arrive in a lightly embroidered kurta, and you take my breath away dressed in a crisp shirt of linen. You take great care with your appearance. This is not encouraged anywhere in Roomi, not in boys, either east or west of the gate. You have brought me a roundel of jasmine for my hair, which you pin into it with great care.
“Mmm, how much I love the smell of jasmine,” I murmur, when your careful, gentle hands tuck pins into my hair. You plant a small, wet kiss on my cheek.
“How was your week? What did you do?” You pull at my hand, and we find a bench on which we can sit and talk for a while.
“Arre, do you remember I had told you about that boy in school, Bilal? With the sister? Well, his parents landed up today …”
You tell me about work and home, and I tell you about the rhythms of the days and weeks. The more we talk, the more I cannot imagine these days without you.
Nor these nights. Your lashes are immense, and they fleck your face.
Soon, too soon, our time together is up, for now. You are walking me to the rickshaws. The thickets are silent, except for the occasional mynah. I stop, take your hand.
“Listen, I don’t want to wait until Sunday. Will you meet me by the river tonight?” I surprise even myself with the question. But I am glad I have finally asked, pricked the bubble so the air can escape.
“Tonight? Are you sure? What time?”
“Midnight. By the river.”
I walk away, and I can feel you gawking at me. I only turn to look at you when I am inside the rickshaw, and in the middle of the street, I blow you a kiss while you start to laugh even as I speed away.
My eyes are tired from crying, my face is streaked with angry tears, and still Baba will not budge. I have lied to him and he does not owe me mercy.
It has been a week since he discovered me returning after our rendezvous at the river, and he will not allow me to see you, not even one last time, not even to let you know what has happened.
I explain to him what you mean to me. I imagine that describing your work, your kindness, your deep love for me, telling him all of this would make him happy. Instead, his nostrils flare. “Just like your mother.” I am stunned by the violence in his low voice, by the disgust.
“What about my mother?” I demand.
“She had all kinds of wrong-headed ideas about the other side of the gate too. At the centre of the city, she said! The centre! Pah!” He snorted. “Look, we are not the same kind of people. We are not.”
I am starting to argue, and he cuts me off. “You have these great ideas about coexistence. You think love will conquer everything. You think you will be able to live there, in his home with him. You think you will be happy there. You think you will be able to raise children there. You know nothing, you bloody stupid girl.” I hear the venom in his voice, the venom the City is injected with, the neon venom that I have argued about with him a million times before. He has pretended tolerance. He has even preached it, tutting at uncles who get carried away after a few pints of beer, asking them to rein in their ranting. But nothing has changed. Underneath it all, venom is still venom.
I try to run away twice, and the second time I try to physically outrun Ravi, and then beat him when he catches me, but I am no match for him, even in my ferocity, and in return my lessons are suspended and I am locked in at home. Now both Ravi and Baba guard me and two pairs of eyes follow me wherever I go, even inside the house.
At night Baba and I take our meals silently, where once there used to be conversation.
On the sixth day I stop eating. This has no effect upon my incarceration.
On the seventh day, I am lying wide awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, when a pebble hits my window.
We run, full tilt, from terrace to balcony to street until we reach the thicket that leads to Constantia, and beyond.
At Constantia the aged queen still waits for Roomi to be declared hers, while in the City they decide what it is they need to do with men from your religion falling in love with women from my religion. All such marriages are a ruse, they decide. All such marriages should be suitably punished, they say. If you and I marry in new Roomi, they will take me away and put me to work in an ashram, and they will put you in prison, hard labour for five years.
My mother is in an ashram; I have not seen her since I was four years old, but Baba and I never talk about this.
We run, and run, and run, while in my mind, unbidden, flash the Lady’s dancing eyes. I wish for a door. Something twines itself around my ankles, and your hand, gripping mine, tightens.
We have fallen on familiar soil. My skirts askew, I lift my head to see that you are looking anxiously at me. We are shaken, stunned by the suddenness of being thus transported. But we are unharmed.
Under the vast sky on this quiet night, we have been brought to the dargah of Ras Baras Khan, master of melodies, seeker of sublimity. It is said in legends—that are now whispered rather than proclaimed—that he understood the nine elemental emotions so beautifully that even when he hummed under his breath he could make you feel, in your whole body, exactly the one he meant for you to feel. It is whispered about him, even today, how during the Separation, doors opened near the High Gate so that people could escape, even though those ferrying them were beaten bloody.
It is whispered even today that his greatest devotee was Zohra, named for Venus, the planet of love—for Ras Baras Khan was a master of all the nine emotions, but the one he prized above all else was husn-e-ishq, the beauty of love. The sap of life flowed from Ras Baras’s songs, and long after he died, Zohra was born to mirror him in love and influence. But though Ras Baras’s glory still survives, Zohra’s legend has faded away.
“Bitiya,” she says.
I look at the Lady, and run to clutch at her sleeves. I cry, and cry, and cry.
She holds me, and pats my head while you watch.
Then she tells us the only way forward, the gate through which so many lovers before us have gone. In the vast, unfurling rose that is the multiverse, the Lady says, there is a Roomi in which our meetings by the river will not be censured. It is that Roomi we must find. And when we find it, we must protect it with the flame, and with the rain, and with the loam, and with the breeze. We are charged with this sacred duty.
She tells us how we would always find the gate to return from every wrong Roomi back to the assured protection of the shrine. She tells us which song to sing in order to conjure the gate. She tells us how, in the first few minutes after returning, one would have to make the other remember.
The High Gate is destroyed. Where there was a dargah, there is now a shopping centre where a person may enter only with their wallet, and exit laden with all manner of objects. When we arrive, though, it is closed. The whole city is closed, eerily silent—this is not the silence of desertion, but of terror. Something is happening. Smoke is curling in the sky.
Then we see them, a group thundering towards us, armed with iron rods and wearing saffron headgear. My legs start to tremble; your hands find mine, and we run for our lives. This is our Roomi, sometime after us, in which everything we fight for has already been subdued under a suffocating leather boot.
We have run to where the Sunday fair is usually held. We have lost the crowd behind us, but there is a smaller one here, just as deadly in its intent. I start to think of and sing for the door, but you are pulling away from me, you are running towards them, you want to push them back, you want to make sure they are not hurting anyone else who may be here.
I run after you, the blood in my veins getting cold with fear, and beg you to come away. I beg you to come away and do not recognise my own fear-stiffened sobs. You whirl around and we conjure the door.
Later, after I have reawakened your memory, we fight about this.
“How could you put us in danger? Why did you do that?” I demand, convinced of my own rightness.
“You will not understand. No one has spoken about your people like this. You have not had to hear filth about your family, you have not had to hear slurs in school.”
“Really?” I ask. “I have not been picked on? I have not lost people?”
“Yes, really. You haven’t. Not like that.”
The first impulse, to argue, dies away as I look at your face. I nod.
“We have to find it. We have to,” you say, quietly. “I can’t stand it any more.”
Later, in the silence, we hold each other, and we whisper the first story to each other.
Our limbs sore and the welts on our bodies healing, we rest a while in the shrine. By the Lady’s grace, we will find water here, and we will find food, and we will find friends. After some sleep and succour, we will set out again on another voyage. To find the Roomi in which we may live together in love, and where we may leave each other honourably, if either one or both of us so wishes.
Before your mother died, or before my mother was exiled, one of them told one of us a story. I forget who. It is the time of the night I remember the river, and honey melted on the tongue, and the outline between us is fuzzy.
Anyway, the first story is this. A weary child snoozes somewhere in Roomi. When she wakes up to the freshness of the rose-tinged dawn, there is new energy in her body. While she was asleep, Ras Baras and Zohra visited her. They asked for shelter in her happiest dream, and when she granted them this, in blessing, they gave her the gift of music.
Note: Qawwali translation by Mr and Mrs 55. The lyrics are excerpted from the well-known qawwali written by Sahir Ludhianvi for the film Barsaat ki Raat (1960).