TBASS

It had happened again. He could hear it in the flatness of her voice. He felt that familiar rage taking shape inside his head, but forced himself to concentrate on her voice. “Yes,” he said, “I have noted down the list. Shall I repeat it, Didimoni?”

“No, no need, just bring it over when you have the time,” she replied, her voice flat and exhausted.

If he could, he would have rushed over with the groceries right away. But that would not help. Making a tremendous effort, he kept his mind on his work, on Barun da’s endless chit chat and instructions. He even managed to smile at one or two of his jokes. As they shut down the shop, Barun da helped him to load the three or four grocery bags, for the home deliveries Rongon would make before he went home. And, as every day, Barun da called after him—“Go home straight after the deliveries, Rongon—those boys are not good for you! And come on time tomorrow.”

As Rongon cycled away, he thanked the Universe for bringing him to Barun da’s doorstep, and as he did unfailingly, as he thanked the Universe, he remembered to register his complaint against it. But there was no time— here was the Banerjee house, and he got off his cycle to deliver the bag of groceries. As he completed the next three deliveries, his heart began to quicken. He slowed down as always, his emotions slowly spooling away from his control, slowing his cycle, tightening his voice, clamping down on his soul.

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TBASS

“Chikki called in the morning,” Amma begins, seated at the dining table.

Dinner conversations at home have always been severely orchestrated, progressing into a chaotic crescendo. It always begins with the most neutral subject, me. And usually Achan sits silent, regarding his food with empirical interest. He is on standby for his cue.

“She’s had fever for two days now,” Amma continues.

“Has she been taking medicines? Ask her not to self- medicate.”

“Why would she self-medicate?”

“Alla, isn’t that what everyone in your family does?” Achan asks.

“I’ll be grateful if Chikki doesn’t inherit your arrogance.”

“You should be grateful if she turns out like me,” Achan responds grimly. “God forbid she becomes like you.”

Silence.

TBASS

There is very little light in this cell. I stare at her through the iron bars. She looks angry. There is no remorse in her eyes. She is tired, I know she is. I am tired too, like her and Siraji and the two other porters in our small team. But why is she angry? Her smile is gone. Why does she look at me like that? Like I am a stranger? She is the only mzungu here, and people are staring at her. 

My name is Lucas Mtui and I have spent the last five days with her. I am not a stranger to her. I am an assistant guide of the Kilimanjaro National Park (KINAPA), but after this I am not sure if I will be, because she has taken away my name and given me a number. She says I am a thief.

TBASS

She remembers the conversation like it had happened yesterday.

“Is the trip going okay, Ma? You sound tired,” she’d said on the phone, from her hotel room in Kochi.

“Yes, yes, everything is fine. The weather’s been acting up a little. And the helicopter rides were not available. We had to take mules, instead, for the climb to Kedarnath. It was drizzling throughout. But we’re here now.”

“Have you found accommodation?”

“Oh, yes, yes, everything has been arranged by the tour company. We’re staying at a comfortable guesthouse. It’s not far from the shrine. We will go for the darshan in the morning. Don’t worry about us. We’re fine. How is your dance tour coming along?”

TBASS

“There’s no poison in this,” Grandma said.

The teacup rattled, sending spurts of black liquid onto the saucer. Grandpa grunted. He ignored the wafts of steam that curled out of the cup like fine strings floating in the air. He kept his eyes on the typewriter as his fingers drummed on the keys, weaving crisp black letters on paper. Grandma shook her head, knowing that there was no way Grandpa was going to inch away from the machine.

For as long as I could remember, it was the same routine every morning at ten. Grandpa, or Tok as my siblings and I fondly called him, would crouch on a stool in front of his butter-yellow Remington typewriter. He would take a Good Morning towel and rub the machine until it gleamed like Aunty Noh’s marble table. Satisfied, he would load a sheet of paper and turn the carriage knob. After adjusting the paper arms, he would set his fingers free to do the jig on the keys, competing with the sound of Grandma’s ladle on the wok as she busied herself in the kitchen.

TBASS

I figured I must have fainted and dropped the phone. Probably I got a bump on the head, and that was the cause of the change in my eyesight. I hurried to pick up my phone before anyone could step on it. I saw my arm reaching out—but somehow my hand couldn’t pick the thing up. I tried several times, thinking I had bumped my hand as well as my head and numbed it, like when you hit your funny bone. The feeling was different, though. Not a flash of painful sensation in my elbow or tingling in the wrist. Just—nothing. I was puzzled. How could I have hurt myself so badly that I didn’t even feel any pain?

Thinking I’d go and find some help, I stood up slowly, my feet on either side of the smartphone to keep it from being stepped on. That’s when I noticed that there was no one nearby. Turning carefully, I saw that a small crowd had congregated in front of a train which had stopped on the other side of the platform. The light and the colours were still blinding, but the sounds from the scene came up only gradually. I began to hear exclamations, and one or two women screaming breathlessly. Suddenly, a brilliant flash of white rushed past me—two men in white uniforms, with a stretcher between them piled with blankets. A group of policemen followed closely behind. Like the light and the colours, the movement of the men was so intense it made me dizzy. The policemen hustled the crowd aside while the men in white jumped down in front of the train and busied themselves with something there.

TBASS

Eric looked up from his music player and realized that the series of speeches was over. He removed his earphones and handed them, along with his music player, to one of his classmates. Clad in their white judogi and black belt, he and Dennis marched to the centre of the quadrangle and cued for their background track to be played. Eric limbered up when he heard the first beat of a Mortal Kombat theme song, while Dennis approached from behind and was soon pretending to attack him. In defense, Eric swiftly turned around and grabbed Dennis’s upper arms and threw him over his shoulder. He followed through with another shoulder throw, a basic martial arts routine which nonetheless drew loud cheers. Eric carried on oblivious to the cheers, wishing he could fast-forward their number. It could have been worse—Mr. Santos had initially suggested that they perform their routine to Eye of the Tiger.

After their performance, Eric and Dennis dashed to the farthest bleacher. Eric put his earphones back on. A few minutes later, the emcee announced the exhibition game line-up: Warriors versus Tigers, billed as THE basketball match between the strongest teams. “How did basketball become so popular here? These guys are half the height of NBA players,” Eric whispered to Dennis, who rolled his eyes in response.

Just then the Warriors’ cheering squad, in orange costumes, emerged chanting, “We are the Warriors, never the worriers! Warriors mean victory and Tigers will soon be sorry!”

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.

by Zafar Anjum

Debotri Dhar (on the left) at the launch of her debut novel in New Delhi
Debotri Dhar (on the left) at the launch of her debut novel in New Delhi

Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?

I write because I have stories to tell. Stories of love, loss and laughter, of travel, mutating histories and multiple geographies, of emotions and impossible choices. And because I’m in love with language, with the way words can hurt and heal…

courtesansTell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?

My novel The Courtesans of Karim Street has recently been released. It’s a story set in India and the United States, and straddles the historical past and contemporary present. I wanted to write about courtesans, situating them in a shifting political, cultural and material landscape. The courtesans tend to be frozen in time and in our cultural imagination; on one level, I was therefore trying to recuperate their voice. At the same time, I also wanted to engage in cross-cultural conversations, and dismantle the hierarchies between the West and the rest through my narrative choices. So rather than a historical romance, I decided to do something more creative, hybrid and contemporary. It’s a fast-paced, entertaining story, with lots of romance and a hint of intrigue. The two key protagonists in the novel are Megan and Naina. Megan Adams is an academic, and some of the university classroom scenes are inspired by my day job as an academic in America. (Writing fiction is the night job, so to speak!) Naina is a music teacher who hails from a family of courtesans. These two women are supported by a rich array of other characters from the past and present. The story, ultimately, is of the future – of hope, friendship, and love.