Excerpt: The Courtesans of Karim Street by Debotri Dhar


The Courtesans of Karim Street by Debotri Dhar, Niyogi Books, 2015, 2018 pp.

Chapter One

Excerpts from a Diary

Delhi, India, 1981

courtesansToday the walled city smells of turmeric. It sits in tiny orange heaps in the courtyard…earthy, pungent, slightly bitter. Last week I went to Khari Baoli, the spice market; I know all about the uses of turmeric. Other spices too, jaiphal and javitri and zaffran, their names rolling off my tongue like ancient Indian chants. Away from Amma’s cat-eyes, Shakuntala steals a pinch of the turmeric, mixes it with milk and smears the paste over her face. In the evening, she will glow like a firefly. She runs after me, her palms a bright, laughing orange, but, as always, she cannot catch me.

Outside, the sun glowers and the sky burns a gaseous blue. Houses in gaudy colours perch one on top of another.This is Shahjahanabad, the old city built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in the seventeenth century. Back then the city was surrounded by a wall, I am told, its gates ironclad and fiercely guarded by sentries night and day. Some of the gates still remain, silent and watchful. Kashmiri Gate, Ajmeri Gate, Mori Gate. Ajmeri Gate opens on to Connaught Place, the central business district of New Delhi, with its Georgian architecture modelled after the Royal Crescent of Bath. Amma loves to go to Connaught Place, to get her record player mended and to buy new records. This new city is only a few kilometres away from the old one, but to Amma, another country, another people. When they pile her into the battered Ambassador and take her on a drive along Rajpath, all the way from India Gate and past the red sandstone buildings on Raisina Hill, she is very quiet. On those days, she wears one of her good saris and hangs gold jhumkas from the stretched holes of her earlobes. The bright-red lipstick misses her lips entirely, but when Shakuntala moves in to correct it with the pointy tip of a handkerchief, Amma will have none of it. “Ya Allah, Hey Bhagwan,” she says resolutely, her kohl-lined eyes flashing, and that, as her son says, is that.

I do like New Delhi; it’s well planned and decidedly spiffy. But, truth is, I prefer the untidy, impossible meanderings of the old city. I have walked endlessly through Chandni Chowk, the main street; I have explored the ruins of the Red Fort, meandered through the Jama Masjid, hovered around the old havelis. I have eaten aloo kachori and gajar ka halwa, slurped on kulfi and thandai, and not fallen sick even once. I have bought boxfuls of bangles, stacking them under my bed. Yet I want more of India, more. Last week I saw a sequinned white lehanga in the bazar and knew I had to wear it for an evening at the embassy, but he wasn’t too pleased, not even with the strand of white bela flowers I had tucked in my hair. He did not say anything, but he swirled his glass absently when I spoke to him. I’m afraid I am not a good wife, not for such an important man. It is such a grief I carry inside me, and cannot share with anyone. Except, perhaps, this old city.

Like me, this city is full of buried worlds; it speaks to me, it understands. At night, I see the wind blow out the hanging lamps. In the darkness I lie, amid the tinkle of ankle bells and the perfumed giggles of the courtesans. I walk about, I am restless for hours. I wait for dawn, for new excursions, for another knowing. The lanes before me are narrow, writhing, each one a snare. Where should I go today? What should I do? I don’t know. So many countries I have travelled…but it is here, in this city of shadows, that I will lose myself, and find myself. This sudden knowledge peaks inside me, pulling me out of the lingering ambiguity of last night’s half-dreams, and towards the clear summer sun.

Chapter Two

The Letter

New Jersey, USA, 2012

The tree by the library was aflame, its redgold leaves crackling in the buttery October sun. Clutching her books to her chest, Megan cut deftly through a swarm of students to look at it more closely. Five-feet seven, and in an emerald silk skirt that matched the exact color of her eyes, she looked striking; a few heads turned as she passed.

“Burning,” she whispered, getting to the tree and crushing a handful of its leaves in her palm, curious to see if they would leave a stain. Slowly, she ran her fingertips over the peeling bark: fluted, fissured, orange-cinnamon. Tilting her palm to block out the sun, she looked up at the branches, urn-shaped, scaly at the base and flaky in the upper crown, bearing a profusion of three-lobed leaves that had turned, overnight, from glossy green to red. In between the branches were triangles of sky, their edges trimmed with clouds.

It might be mid-October, but the sticky gloom of the previous months had not abated. Megan’s dress was damp despite the breeze, and she could have sworn her mascara was running. Unzipping her folder, she drew out the letter and scanned its contents again. The words on the pale sheet of paper were bold, type-written, the ‘e’ slightly misshapen, the K missing half an arm.

You are not a scholar. You are a whore, as your mother was before you, and your grandmother, and great-grandmother. Ask anyone on Karim Street.”

It had arrived in the mail earlier that morning. The plain white envelope had a stuck-on label with her name and address, a Brooklyn postmark and no sender information. When she’d read the words the first time, she’d felt herself stiffen into so many knots, a knot for every word. Just about anyone could have dropped it into a letterbox in New York and waited for it to make its way to her. But who? Who could possibly do something as twisted as this?

“Hey Professor Adams!”

Megan quickly put the letter back into its envelope and looked up…

(contd.)

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Read an interview with the author Debotri Dhar here

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