SCENES FROM A ROADSIDE METAPHYSICAL DEBATE (or THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE PHANTOM FIREFLY)
OI have often mulled a treatise entitled, “The Genealogies of Native Recipes: From the Mughal to the Musharraf Era, From the Pathan Hinterland to the Arabian Sea,” but have only managed to read an essay.ne afternoon during the Holy Month, I have that indistinct but unmistakable sensation that I am being followed. It first occurs in the broad vicinity of Empress Market, environs I know like the inside of my pocked thigh; once upon a time, I would routinely accompany Papa to the landmark to purchase meat & vegetables for the kitchen at the Olympus, clutching an extended finger, cloth bag slung over my shoulder. The market’s sturdy walls and imposing tower always reminded me of a storybook castle. Indeed, some of my fondest memories reside in the stalls and alleys of the sprawling compound—a musty, magical realm inhabited by that spirited, mercurial species, the butcher, Heir of the Original Man. I remember that if you did not know what you wanted, they would jeer at you like harlequins, but if you did, and Papa did, they were obliging technicians: a slight turn of the wrist would yield a cut of clod or brisket. At the time, of course, I could not distinguish tongue from tripe, but I have since developed the sense, a sensibility that allows me to appreciate the modalities, indeed, the majesty of meat.
But I am not in the market for protein or produce. Barbarossa procures the meat for the household, and my roots, tended recently by one Bosco, are famous across the Garden. Since being entrusted to my guardianship, I have lectured the lad on Topics in Gardening, addressing matters that include the Appropriate Amount of Water for the Healthy Development of Vegetation in Sandy Loam and Coastal Subtropical Conditions. Brow furrowed, legs crossed, he takes notes. There are, however, secrets about the process—the Modulation of pH Levels in Soil with the Use of Milk, for instance—that I cannot, or rather will not disclose. You have to learn some things by doing, by living.
No, I am on my way to pick up reference books required to tackle the only enterprise of any meaning, The Mythopoetic Legacy of Abdullah Shah Ghazi (RA), and, if Lady Luck smiles, several dog-eared copies of a local digest that features lesbian trysts. Bless the Lesbians! Bless their trysts! To be honest, however, the fact of the matter is that I need to get out of the Lodge, get out of my head. Although not temperamentally paranoid—anxious, yes, but not paranoid—I can sense a sulfuric conspiracy. There had been intimations even prior to the Major’s visit.
The other day, for instance, I had woken to an unfamiliar mechanical clamour, like swarming rickshaws, deriving from the general vicinity of the vegetable garden. To my shock, my weak-kneed horror, a large diesel generator, as alien as a UFO, had materialized by the boundary wall, belching smoke. My calculations suggested that the contraption occupies nineteen percent of my patch, ravaging the sweet zucchinis and cherry tomatoes that garnish my cold pasta salads. When Babu returned in the evening, I protested vociferously. I was told in a reasonable tenor, a tenor reserved for the recalcitrant, that the “loadshedding situation” compelled him to acquire a secondhand Korean manufactured 6kVa generator.
“I’m not concerned about the capability of the dashed device! I’m concerned about its placement, partner! And the smoke—look at that smoke!”
“We had no choice.” WE who? I would have liked to ask. “You see,” he gestured, “the line from the street enters here from the grid?”
The fact had the force and function of a full stop. But it’s not just a matter of generators: if I were to construct a treehouse for the children in the old banyan in the backyard (a project I had been mulling for some time even if I do not possess the stamina or know-how), there would be strident demurrals, drama. And a treehouse is a major infrastructural undertaking; I even have to inform the authorities if I solicit the services of a plumber when the commode gets backed up. A plumber for God’s sake! I cannot even relieve myself without negotiating with the administration!
There is no doubt in my mind that nefarious developments are afoot. I feel unstable, unhinged, and in good company: everyone turns lunatic in the Holy Month. We become mean, testy, preachy, sanctimonious. The only time one feels the presence of God during this disconsolate period is when one happens to find oneself on the empty streets at the break of fast. The city seems uninhabited then, and in the resonant silence, there are Intimations of Divine Order.
The streets remain raucous till then, teeming with the faithful, mealy-mouthed, and hurried, haggling over the price of pakoras and samosas before heading home for an afternoon siesta. I find myself walking in circles. I am not a famous walker: my gait is laboured due to the girth of my thighs and the recurring gout in my knee. I also have a cotton sack slung around my shoulder, weighed down by a thermos of water, a box of cardamom biscuits, a spare pair of knickers, and a volume from Müller’s Sacred Books of the East. And, of course, my size, complexion, the drama of my parasol—all attract street children, gawkers, the attention of the roving pye-dog. Try as I might, I cannot avoid notice.
But I have attracted something odd, ineffable today, like the shadowy fireflies that flit across the field of vision in the sun. Perhaps it’s the heat; perhaps it’s Ateed or Raqeeb. It is, after all, the Holy Month. By the time I arrive at the narrow covered environs of Afghan Alley, among merchants lounging on rolls of bright fabric, swatting flies and scowling, I am parched and panting like a husky. Reaching into the satchel, I grab the thermos, unscrew the cap, and raise the rim to my maw. A hoarse admonition rings out: “Kya karti hay?” or, What are you doing?
Turning, I find a lupine lad, sporting a beard fashioned of pubic hair. “Kya lagta hay kya kar rahi hoon,” I reply, or What does it look like I’m doing?
“Tum pani peeti he,” he observes, or, You’re drinking water. I shrug. “Tum musalman ho?” he persists, or, You a Musalman?
In the bright light of the day, I am asked to elucidate my relationship with God—a query fraught with peril in the best of times. What to do? When I was young, I would have run. I attracted violence then: the boys would trail me in the playground at Jufelhurst—the Brothers Ud-Din in particular, neighbours, nemeses—chanting, Fatty Boy, Fatty Boy, turn around Fatty Boy, Fatty Boy touch the ground. I was chubby, but not quite corpulent, & the jibes were not particularly clever, but I was also tripped or biffed on occasion. Returning home, I would shove my head in Mummy’s ample bosom, red-eyed, and lie, complaining of headaches. Since she suspected migraines, she took me to a hakim, an autistic fellow who lived on a farm among goats and a broken Jeep and prescribed proprietary medieval remedies. Packaged in satchels tied with string, the foul concoction wrought of reddish powdered leaves turned glutinous and slimy when mixed with milk. I suffered it daily even if it made me retch. I suffered it for Mummy’s sake.
Later, much later, I attracted violence for different reasons: when I would brush against some young hothead at the Shadow Lounge, or spill some drunk’s drink, I would find myself in a pickle. I learned to avert my gaze, slouch, shrink into myself. But not anymore; I am too old, I am too large. Breaking wind, I holler, “This is Currachee, my city! I could be Catholic, Protestant, Pentecostal, Hindoo, Amil, Parsee. I could be Shia, Sunni, Ismaili, Bohra, Barelvi, Sufi, Chishty, Naqshbandy, Suharwardy, wajoodi, malamati, dehria, anything, everything. If you want to ask such questions then go back to Kabul!”
As the commotion attracts attention, I find myself surrounded by five or six chaps, intent on trouble if not a riot. The smell of sweat is thick in the air like spoiled meat. “O you who believe,” the boy proclaims, flies swarming around his head, “fasting is prescribed for you as it was for those before you, that you may become pious!”
“Do you know,” I retort after a chorus of alhumdulilahs, “the Prophet (PBUH) said, What is better than charity and fasting and prayer? It is keeping peace and good relations between people!”
And for the next five, ten, fifteen minutes, a dashed eternity, we are locked in an excitable roadside doctrinal debate that features piecemeal quoting of scripture, anecdotal evidence, tenuous analogies, madcap allusions, CP4. The learned perspectives of uncles, grandfathers, the neighbourhood maulvi, a veritable renaissance man, are invoked. I want to say, “Bhaar main jaye tumhara chacha!”—The Hell with your uncle!—but instead attempt to communicate that there are manifold realities, that they have no claim on mine.
“My piety,” I proclaim, “is between God and me. How dare you intervene!” They can do what they want to do—shave their mustaches while letting their pubic beards run amok—only if I can do what I want to do: drink a flask of water in the middle of the street in the middle of the Holy Month. My God allows it if theirs does not. “If you’re sensible then your God is sensible,” I proclaim, “but if you’re a dolt, your God’s a dolt.”
My antagonist swats my flask to the ground. The horde smells blood. Fatty Boy, Fatty Boy, turn around. Fatty Boy, Fatty Boy, touch the ground. I am ready; I have been ready since my birthday. It will be a good death, a noble death. But before I am knocked down, kicked in the ribs, beaten to a fleshy pulp, interred at the end of the urine-stained alley, I perceive movement from the corner of my eye. Could it be the Phantom Firefly?
Turning I behold a real looker in the fray, an equine, flinty-eyed dame in a low-cut canary kameez and tight tangerine pajama. “Oye!” she cries like a traffic warden. As I wonder what she is doing among the boors, the barbarians, they jeer and jostle, shove and shout, “Scamp!” “Hussy!” “We will break your legs!”
But before the knives come out, I stand before her like a boulder. “You pray five times a day,” I proclaim in a stentorian tenor, “you keep your fasts. Is this the way you treat another human being? Is this the way you treat another human being, a lady? Shame on you! Shame on you all! If this is your Islam then I am a Kafir!”
There is a pause, a moment pregnant with peril, then one of the lads picks up my flask and rather graciously hands it to me. I put my mouth to the rim. I guzzle the remaining half litre before my audience in one glorious swig. Oh, water, sweet water, the Very Essence of Life! Bidding my friends farewell with a wave, I beckon to my Godsent savior. She hops over an overturned crate like a lady and grabs my hand like a man. And we dash off like Bonnie and Clyde, leaving the orthodox to contemplate themselves and the mysteries of the world.
“I’m very grateful to you,” I say hailing a taxi.
“You should be,” she replies matter-of-factly.
I ask her name. I hear Jugnu. I ask where I should take her. “I am with you,” she announces. I look into her fantastic, indeed obsidian eyes. I realize I know her from somewhere else.
ON POETICUS, FUROR (or COME, IF ONLY TO LEAVE AGAIN)
Any civilized human being can tell you that in the Taxonomy of Verse the ghazal is not only unique because of the associated protocols of rhyme, refrain, and metre, but because as a form it functions only to address love, particularly the unrequited variety. Imagine if the limerick were exclusively devoted to pain, say arthritis, or the villanelle only pertained to matters of geological time! And the triolet! What about the triolet? One could undoubtedly rearrange the otherwise flat topography of contemporary poetry in this way. Who wants to read another poem marrying mundane diurnal rituals that characterize modern life with profundity?
Recall that the lover in the ghazal is typically a fool, a masochist. The Inimitable Ghalib, for instance, wrote, “I will be dust before you realize I am here.” Why couldn’t he have just dispatched a note? “Madam, you stir me. Yours, G.” Note or not, the lover is, by definition, doomed, and the beloved is typically elusive, illusive, cruel, and sometimes God. Consequently, every word is a metaphor. Arguably, the homologous conceit suggests the Multidimensional Dominion of Love: the ghazal asserts that divine and profane love are fundamentally, organically the same stuff. That is elegant, profound, tip top.
I’m no poet, no philologist, no authority on Urdu. I cannot pen ghazals much less rearrange the topography of contemporary poetry, but after the incident at Afghan Alley, I find myself composing spontaneous doggerel in my head. I am stirred, affected by Afflatus, but God has nothing to do with it; I cannot recall the last time a dame had smiled at me—just smiled—and this Jugnu has saved my worthless life.
Sitting side by side on the ride home like a child thrust with another by serendipity, I find myself stealing glances at Jugnu’s slender neck, swimmer’s posture, the zircon stud embellishes a nostril of her aquiline nose. I have to remind myself not to stare. But I suspect she had no such compunction: when I stutteringly, circumspectly, inquire whether she was the one who spied on me the other day, my birthday, she looks me in the eye, and avers, “Tum nangay thay,” or, I observed you in full plumage.
The response induces a couplet—”Dallying outside, she spies a small indiscretion / Admittedly, I’m no Priapus, a peacock perhaps”—and colour in the cheeks. I change the subject: “What,” I ask, “were you doing in Afghan Alley?” Jugnu offers but a smile in response. One can only discern this much en route: the dame wafts talcum powder and tobacco and is cool as a cucumber. As we swerve through traffic, for instance, my knee keeps knocking against hers—an electric sensation but behavior generally unbecoming of a gentleman. When I turn to apologize, she places a long hand on my gouty knee. “Koi nahin,” she coos, or, No worries.
In turn, however, I behave in an ungentlemanly manner: when we arrive outside the Lodge, I do not, or rather cannot, invite her in. How can I? There is always somebody if not somebody else installed in the parlour—Babu and Nargis, Bua, Barbarossa or the Childoos—somebody always coming in or going out, especially in the Holy Month—Nargis’s neighbourhood gang, housebound malcontents who find solace in the sermons of a revivalist preacher, that famous swine Chambu, or our squawking relatives, Badbakht and Gulbadan Begum, who drop by unannounced for supper at the drop of a hat—but at that moment I espy Bua lurking in the shadows, undoubtedly conspiring with her good-for-nothing husband and good-for-nothing son. Imagine if I am seen going up with a dame! Imagine the authorities get wind of it! It would be a dashed debacle! There is a social law that few acknowledge: All Relationships Are a Function of Logistics. Fixing a time to meet at the zoo the day after, on the benches outside the Reptile House—what the Yanks would call a date—I dispatch her into the night with a small fortune for carriage.
Lying awake in my quarters, staring at a gecko on the prowl, I plan a picnic in my head as if planning a banquet—silk napkins, silver cutlery, a candelabra. There would be samosas and pakoras and hunter beef and butter sandwiches! There would be bottles of pop, soda, Pakola! Strawberries, chocolate syrup, ice cream! Although I might not be able to arrange entertainment on short notice—a bubble blower, snake charmer, mariachi singers—I would charm her with jokes and droll anecdotes and romantic poetry: A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread—and Thou. In the interim, I install myself at my desk, committing pen to paper, composing verse after verse like an adolescent in the throes of calf love:
Would have offered samosas, tea,
My jackfruit maybe —
But how to get in? And out?
Rendezvous day after, we agree,
Sky purple before dawn,
And bloated like a belly;
Distant gunfire, or firecrackers,
Restlessness pervades, and dew.
I should have woken with the crows at first light but instead wake at midday on the morrow like a dolt, a delinquent, panicked and palpitating; the probability that I can organize a picnic banquet is next to nil—a soufflé rising in a sandstorm. Girding my loins, however, I reckon I can, at the least, fry up some samosas. Dashing to the downstairs kitchen, I go about the project doggedly. Those in the know know that the manufacturing of a samosa requires skill, stamina, and nimble fingers. Although I ably shape the snooker-sized balls from dough, flattening them into paper-thin discs is trying, fashioning the miniature cones, testing. But I am a man possessed. “Who is the Cossack?” I ask myself. “I am the Cossack!”
As the skinned potatoes come to a boil in salty, starchy water, I am reminded that my only pair of linen slacks is stained with frosting. Since the Bua is nowhere to be found—she must be conspiring with her husband somewhere—I retrieve the cauldron from the kitchen and squat on my haunches in the bathroom upstairs for first time since the tit-for-tat nuclear tests in ‘98, scrubbing like Lady Macbeth. There are fireworks. I pass out in the tub. I wake panicked for the second time in a couple of hours; the samosas are not sorted and the trousers remain wet along the lining. Damn Murphy, and damn his law!
Scrambling down, I place the trousers in oven at 40°C and drop the limp fritters into boiling corn oil. As I persist heroically, I hear yawping in the parlour; Toto has banged his knee on the table and Guddu is weeping in fraternal sympathy. Since neither Nargis nor the Bua is in sight—they would have resorted to that absurd strategy of beating the villainous table—I sit the Childoos on my knees to relate the fable about the Lion & the Mouse. Naturally, they forget why they were crying. If only I had children of my own to spoil! But I am only capable of spoiling samosas: the first batch is burnt, and badly. Collapsing on a stool, I hold my head between my hands. As always, Barbarossa emerges, transistor tucked under arm (playing that old number “Khayal rakhna”), to save the day: “Leave to me,” he says in English, “leave to me.”
Climbing up, thighs chafing, I brush my dentures fut-a-fut, administer a sponge bath, don my lucky red shirt, and splatter eau de toilette under my jowls. But just as I have managed to organize myself, I find Chambu, the manager of my garment-dyeing business, stretched in a dark safari suit on the deck chair on the lawn, waving as if we are childhood friends reunited at a beachside resort. It is a matter of fact that you can appraise the measure of a man from his teeth and toes. It is a matter of Chambu’s teeth recall yellowing Scrabble tiles; his sponge slippers expose talons. Once he seizes you by the scruff, he will eat your brain: “We are both gaseous individuals,” he might begin, “and you know how dangerous gas can be.” You might ask, What to do? ”Boil two grains of jaggery and a slice of ginger in water and take a tablespoon before and after lunch and dinner. It will make you a new man, a better man.” What an elegant elixir! you think. It might just revolutionize gastronomy—and me!
As soon as Chanbu opens his battered portmanteau, a portmanteau that inevitably yields a stack of ancient files, a tape recorder, a can of olive oil, and a packet of dry fruits—”it’s for the Sex Drive,” he claims—I holler, “Not interested in your nuts today!”
“You know I would never even think to bother you unless there is an emergency, unless Hell is upon us, and to be honest, to be very honest, Seth, Hell is upon us—”
“Hell is below—”
“The inspectors are threatening to cut off power,” he continues, brandishing a file, “because we do not comply with the new wattage quota for industrial units—”
“But it is not technically an industrial unit—”
“If you do not come with me this very instant, you will regret the decision for months if not years, because if they shut off the power, we lose our contract, and if we lose the contract, the workers will not be paid, and if the workers are not paid, they will show up at your place and we will have a riot—”
“I cannot come right now!”
“Do not say I did not warn you.” Chambu shrugs, turning on his heel. Oh, such blithe skullduggery! “You can deal with them yourself if you like.”
“How much do you need?”
“Just a lakh, Seth,” he chirps.
“I am writing a check for twenty.”
“You know, that might just work if the check does not bounce, but I cannot promise—”
Somehow I manage to make it to Gandhi Garden at the instant the muezzin stridently announces prayer. Slumped on the bench, picnic basket in tow, I imagine the fraternity of animals—the elephants, baboons, foxes, the sole American turkey—breaking fast together. I imagine that a reunion with Jugnu is just as ludicrous. I hum an old tune, cross and uncross my legs, careful not to crease my trousers. But Jugnu doesn’t show. I have only mosquitoes for company.
Quiet bench, picnic basket,
I am left bereft in the twilight.
Come, I say out loud, to nobody
Come, if only to leave again.