‘The very oldest?’
‘Yeah miyan, the very oldest…’
‘Old enough to be your grandma’s grandma. How do I know how old? She is the oldest. Isn’t that enough for you?’
‘An old crone,’ Reddy whispered in awe.
‘An old crone, but her haunches are as sturdy as steel. I tell you Reddy, she does not as much as flinch when I pant atop her.’
‘But Mirza, it’s pathetic. She must smell like a garbage van in bed.’
‘She smells worse. But can’t help it. She’s the cheapest in town — unless you manage to corner one of the younger ones who’re new to the trade, and have reputations befitting neither the day nor night.’
‘Must have one helluva pimp.’
‘No, no… No pimps she has… She is too popular without any pimps…’
‘But doesn’t her old, wrinkled face put you off?’
‘Who cares? As long as she makes you go dhak-dhak with the effort, gasping and sucking air out of her lungs and cursing her for it,’ Mirza chuckled.
‘What the heck!’
‘She’s so hot and feverish and all that people are known to die of extreme concupiscence, hanging on for dear life till their very last breath.’
‘The goddamn bitch!’ Reddy cried out in frenzy, and his excitement made him wring his hands in despair.
‘And she has absolutely no qualms about taking in as many men as she can at a time. Even women Reddy, can you believe that!’
‘All for a few coins… All for the sake of a few measly coins…’ Mirza waved his hands in the air at the inequity of fate.
‘How can you even bear to visit her?’
‘What do you mean? Even the holier-than-thou Mayor Saab from
Reddy’s eyes, which had until now been growing wide with puzzlement, narrowed in suspicion.
‘Who is this Grand Dame of whores?’
‘You know her well… She is the oldest
A Lost World
It is dusk in this city Imtiyaz calls his own. He looks at the rouge horizon for a long time as if searching for something, a lost jewel perhaps. The sun that had lent the sea its gentle, liquid refulgence is no more; the Necklace is lit up along its length by a string of pale, sickly streetlights beyond which is the growing blanket of a dark, inky night. His gaze ventures below, onto the thoroughfare that races along the seaface. People are walking ways that lead nowhere, occasionally shooing away shouters-o'-wares who accost them. Abba once told him — the secret of a successful city is that it can stoke desires in the minds of men which it can never satisfy.
Abba… shores apart… in another city…
‘Brother, brother…say something.’
‘You know very well that he won’t leave
‘But you are only twenty-five! Look at you… At this age, you banter as if you are the only one who can tutor them. Surely there are other ustads who can do that.’
‘What will abbu think if I leave my disciples like this?’
‘You are bothered about what abbu will think, but do not care for abbu himself or for his health. How are you to know that you will gladden his heart by returning to him!’
‘Who sent me away in the first place? It was abbu who sent me away from him to
‘It’s not true, brother. We both know that. It was Nadira Aunt — may peace be upon her soul — who dragged you away from abbu to live with her in this wretched city.’
‘But she couldn’t have done that if abbu had willed it otherwise.’
‘How could have abbu willed otherwise? Poor Aunt Nadira (for Nafasat still thought of her stepmother as her aunt), living alone in this city all by herself. Abbu told me he feared for her sanity or he would have never sent you away. Today he needs you more than ever.’
‘But if I leave, I’ll be called a coward who ran for his life.’
‘Staying in the shackles of expectations is bigger cowardice, my brother. Are you not a coward running away from your father when he needs you the most?’
‘Cowardice is of the color of fate, different for each person. We all are running away from something or the other.’
‘Running away doesn’t help things, brother.’
‘Let’s run away from this talk of comings and goings. Tell me more about
‘Very much. The baker on our canal died and now we have to row farther to get bread. I usually send abbu to fetch bread; along with bread, he brings back some of the good humour of his old times.’ Nafasat was relieved when the memory of abbu’s wittiness brought a smile to Imtiyaz’s face.
‘And you remember the concert hall a few lanes off; it has been converted into a local museum. The details might have changed, but the fabric of the city is the same.’
‘Can’t say the same about
A wry smile crept across Nafasat’s lips.
‘What are you smiling at? I’m talking about
‘No, nothing… It was just that you said she… as if the city were a living person.’
At this, Imtiyaz said nothing but waved his hand about in the air as if it were an inconsequential flourish of the tongue.
‘Why don’t you come with me to
‘Abbu wrote in his letter that you are engaged to be married.’
‘Yes.’ She shows him her ring, an answer cast in pale Welsh gold. Small answers for big questions, as if the answers were not important at all, at least nowhere as important as the questions.
‘Rich groom for my darling sister. Who is he?’
‘You remember the young cellist who came to dine the last time you visited us.’
‘Musician! You had said you will never marry a musician.’
‘His name is Frederi Modigliani. He would often come by in a gondola to listen to abbu solmizing in the night. Abbu tried teaching him some pieces, but he sings real bad. Now he just carries an Indian violin which abbu gifted and taught him, and accompanies abbu in his riyaz.’
‘Is he abbu’s choice or yours? Nafa, don’t lose out on yourself.’
‘Abbu considers him like a son. After losing you, he does not want to lose another.’
‘What are you saying? He has not lost me!’
‘Yes, we have lost you. We are losing you to this wretched city which has a way of justifying itself and its rights and wrongs. We are losing you to the murky depths which made abbu leave this city thirty years ago. And we don’t know what to do.’
‘It was not
Nafasat looks at Imtiyaz with incredulity — it pains her to hear her brother make such a sardonic comment, her brother who has always been so gentle and kind and soft-spoken. Imtiyaz realizes that he has trespassed the unspoken limits to their conversation, and he makes a swift detour.
‘You don’t have to do anything. I’ll not shift to
It is late in the evening and the breeze blows wildly, like the harmless anger of an old crone. The raucous call of the brainfever bird cuts through the cold air like knives through ice.
It occurs to Imtiyaz that time has been a cruel fiend. Bound by their singular love of music amidst a sea of differences; hadn’t he and Nafa lived through the arduous journey of impressions, losses and realization together, no questions asked? How many times had they looked for meaning and found it in the turbulence of each other’s hearts? How many times had one’s mind been troubled only to find succor in the silence of the other? How many times had they searched for solace only to find it in the loss that their eyes held? Now it seems to Imtiyaz that they no more understand each other the way they used to when they were small.
He looks unperturbed, fatalistic, dangerously teetering on the brink of indifference. Nafasat gets up, and takes his face in her hands, holding his gaze in an ultimate act of defiance. He thinks her eyes will bore into him like an auger, but they are filled with stern compassion, the way ammi’s eyes used to be when she silently mourned the loss of her husband by talking of him for hours on end and vainly singing the thumries that spoke with greater leisure of her parting and longing than speech would have permitted. Sometimes when Imtiyaz saw his ammi singing in a poorly attended concert at one of the seedy crumbling concert halls of old Bombay, it occurred to him that her face was contorted with a grief much beyond the ecstasy of the music that she was singing. He of course never found out what it was, never had a way of finding out… But he knew it had something to do with abbu, and he never forgave abbu for that.
‘Listen Nafa, I have stayed too long here to think of moving anyplace else.’
‘I understand. But think about abbu. He is dying, Imtiyaz.’
Startled, Imtiyaz turns around to face his sister. ‘What do you mean? You told me he was just ill.’
‘He is ailing, Imtiyaz. He did not want me to tell you this, but I have no other way. Come away Imtiyaz. Don’t hold such a long grudge against your own father. He has not been able to live in peace. Let him die in peace by forgiving him.’
‘If this is what you want, I will come.’
‘I’ll call abbu and tell him. He will be very happy… very very happy.’ Before he can begin protesting, Nafasat goes away to make the call.
Imtiyaz is surprised at his quick assent, at the weakness of his resolve to never leave the city that gave him his first guru after abbu and his first small recognitions as a Sitar exponent before he was even known outside
Perched on the high bough of a nearby acacia, the brainfever bird looks down upon Imtiyaz with haughty smugness and a beady eye and flies to another bough, another abode, and another story.
There is no other place quite like
A city of unending chaos that fills your ears like a thousand bees droning at once; of wide, impassable roads which grow ever so convoluted that playing chess a hundred moves ahead is easier than finding your way out of the labyrinth; and of the unending quagmire that ensues when one thinks of making home of a city where even the rooftops of the trains get squatted upon. A city that holds alcohol scarcer than bread and bread scarcer than goodwill and goodwill the scarcest of all. And in the end, simply