Tucked away in the frenzy of Lahore’s traffic congested Mozang Chungi, a framer’s shop, narrow, dark and dusty, bears on its back wall a minor conceit from history. A slight, which made the freshly formed impressions of a newcomer, even a tough customer like me, obsolete. At least it does in my memory, an old and faded letter, dated a moment in the late 19th century and attesting to the fine quality of the shop's work, signed John Lockwood Kipling: Curator of the Lahore Museum and Principal of the Mayo School of Arts. Perhaps it’s all gone now, what with newer buildings encroaching on that old downtown area– I don't know. It used to be there when I was there way back in the eighties. “Le' go! Le' go!” I hear his voice. Tonight, as usual, a smattering of tiny twinkling mirrors wink and cover me, cautioning that the past is for the willing but it seems the only way to divine sleep.
The letter always caught my eye and was framed behind the tea and grime stained cloth covered counter. Must have been around the same time when his young son was in Lahore working as an assistant editor at the Civil and Military Gazette.
Such a long time ago I was there, visiting routinely the emaciated and chain-smoking septuagenarian owner of a framer's shop, as delivery dates on orders placed were rescheduled over and over again. The shop’s dark interior, open to the street, smelled of every day ordinariness: car fumes, tinged with the fragrance of chambeli flowers that lay on the shop counter strung in garlands; their scent folded into the smell of a mosquito repellant coil and the stale smoke of cigarette butts and an incense stick; all of them mingled with the smell of the antiseptic floor-wash, phenyl. Ordinary, normal, comforting. We would make our way there, my son and I, after I had picked him up from school. We'd stop at the dry-cleaners' or the shoemaker’s or tend to some other need of mine, to pick up seemingly endless additions to my treasured and admittedly flamboyant wardrobe. A pair of shoes here, a shirt there, a belt I could not resist. Inevitably, at every stop, I'd run into someone I knew. One knew, it seemed, everyone, and of course immediately a ritual would ensue: of exchanges of perceived slights and complaints, disappointments, let downs and clarifications of a phone call not returned, an invitation not honored or reciprocated, a rebuke, a rebuttal followed by mutual admirations of haircuts and various other personal effects and of course, always the weight gain or weight loss of each other duly noted.
“Great shirt! Egyptian cotton?”
“No pure khaddi, a new supplier down in Shalmi!”
“Very nice. Putting on a bit of weight eh?”
“Am I? No! I don’t think so! Do I seem to have?
“Don't see you around the courts much anymore!”
“No its far too hot for me now! We'll see after the rains.”
An encounter was incomplete without an opening salvo or a parting shot aimed at weight. And all this time, from the corner of my eye I could see my restive son’s rising frustration, as I kept delaying our final destination. On one such occasion, chewing through clenched teeth the plastic straw in his empty fruit juice pack, Sher had shouted at me “Le’go! Please, le’ go!”
“Le’ go?” I had inquired in his direction, winking indulgently, at my chance encounter acquaintance of the moment.
“Yes! Le’go, now!
“I’m not holding on to you!”
“I said Lets go!” Sher had roared, back at me.
“Oh!” I said, thoroughly amused “That’s better, beta, enunciate, enunciate!”
And off we went, finally. Even as we moved through the traffic, I’d constantly nod or wave to someone or the other. It seemed everyone knew us, and we knew everyone. And in such a manner we would make it to the framer's. For Sher such visits were always full of promise, first the expectation of delivery, to see his creation framed, then the frustration of a promise not kept, followed by the framer’s apologies and excuses in between his hacking cough, and finally his plying of consolation in the form of a cup of karak chai or a lassi. Sher always chose the lassi, grasping the glass eagerly with his small handsas I looked on in consternation, anxious about the possibility of his contracting jaundice from drinking lassi in the bazaar. But I never stopped him on the grounds that it was good for him, it helped create anti bodies, made a man out of him. And I always accepted the cup of tea.
To the framer’s shop, we had brought a piece of embroidery. It was a large piece, one square yard of red damask with tiny mirrors worked in with yellow thread. It had been completed by Sher, in home economics class, perhaps the largest in his portfolio, of which he was very proud, for included in it was his entire repertoire of stitches ranging from chain, to cross, to mirror work. Twenty years later the piece travels with me, red, mirror worked, covered in swirls of needlepoint. Back then, I had thought it quite hideous, but it was rendered by my son, and deemed by Mrs. Moinuddin, Sher's teacher, fit for framing. And I agreed, whole heartedly. Mrs. Moinuddin was a great source of solace and joy for Sher each Friday afternoon, in her classroom located in the basement of the school building, accessed through what seemed a secret stairway. Here, taught by her, in her comfortable, narrow, elongated, parlor-like room, my son reclaimed through needlework, his sense of poise and grace, which had recently been lost to the dance teacher, a great maestro of classical dance.
Sher had appeared at the audition for the dance class dripping with sweat, right after soccer practice in soccer cleats and shorts, and attempting to strap on to his bare ankles a heavy pair of ghungroo, the wide leather swatches covered with tiny metal bells, he had, all the while there, giggled at the maestro’s head and eye movements. With this, Sher had sealed his fate and that of several others who had been inclined to giggle along with him. “Your deportment has all the beauty of a flatfooted elephant!” Judged, the great, but affronted, maestro.
“An elephant!” An indignant Sher had protested.
“Yes an elephant,” The great maestro elaborated serenely and with graceful employment of eye, neck and hand movements, “An elephant listlessly wandering down the Mall towards Kim's gun, after having escaped from the Lahore zoo on a late afternoon in the month of June!”
My son had been inconsolable that afternoon when he had plunked himself on the seat next to me in the car on the way back home. “An elephant, a lazy bum! That’s what he thinks!” Sher had complained quite broken-heartedly, that the great maestro of dance had not even left him wiggle room for redemption by at least caricaturing him as an energetic or an enthusiastic elephant. And so Sher was not to be found charging towards Kim’s gun, down the tree canopied and shaded gracious Mall road; no, instead, just wandering as an elephant. And of course, a listless one, at that. And so there was to be no consolation commentary, like the school report card, where the failed Math grade was offset with the comments section, “displays tremendous esprit de corps”. Sher had always displayed plenty of esprit de corps. I had considered having a word with the dance teacher, but had thought better of it. Life’s knocks; not all a bowl of cherries y’know; can’t always have it your way; good with the bad; good for the boy, make a man of him.
I had always been overly protective and had felt my child's bewilderment at even the slightest of rebukes. The framed embroidery with its dozens of twinkling mirrors with yellow chain stitches laboriously worked by Sher hunched over it for hours, tongue sticking out in concentration was in some measure restored pride for him. But watching his peers twirling across the stage in a blur of turquoise, mustard, and fuchsia, peshwazes and saris, while he sat in the darkened audience, plainly awestruck, had, naturally left my Sher subdued and grumpy. Neither Kathak, nor Bharat Natiyam, nor the Dhamal were to be performed by the likes of junglie brutes like him, as the maestro seemed to have implied. And I could do nothing to make up for it, except to frame his embroideries.
And on rainy afternoons when the weather was fine and monsoon was at its height, I’d take Sher to the outskirts of the city to the dense mango grove at Niaz Baig, it was our special hidden place. We’d drink steaming small cups of thick heavily sugared milky tea at a truck stall and then make our way into the thicket to sit by the canal and watch the rain come down. Submerged this way in every shade of green, the grass alongside the canal, the mango trees, the surrounding fields of rice; koyals and wild parrots fluttering through the foliage overhead; we’d sniff till intoxicated, the smell of sweet wet mud. Sher had discovered a water well with an inscription inside dated 1898, it read “prem kuwan”, well of love. I hadn't understood it then, when I had visited the framer’s shop, almost a century apart from that curator of long ago, this sense of belonging, because it was mine to be had in such abundance.
Tonight there is no more of that but more to blame for the state I'm in, there is for one, the breeze. It carries a train’s whoa-whoa cautioning over to where I am about to fall asleep, transporting me back. Back to a house on Upper Mall, where at round about the same hour, every night, perhaps at midnight, a passenger train, the Tez Gam or the Shalimar Express or perhaps another with an altogether different name and purpose, cargo perhaps, would go rattling by trundling onwards through the sprawl of the dead and the living crammed up against each other. Mian Mir, a human and concrete tapestry, just beyond the high walls of the serene compound, where I lived. A densely packed graveyard competed to exist with squatters settlements, of multi layered illegal overnight constructions housing refugees: those fleeing riots at Partition; then war ravaged border villages during ’65 and ’71; and more recently from the deprivation of the countryside. The graveyard’s existence was assured having been there for centuries, it had history on its side, while the squatters did not enjoy this luxury of permanence, newly arrived in comparison and without leases to the land.
Tonight for me it is the shores of the Aegean Sea at a hotel, called Kismet, where on the wall in the lobby, there are dozens of photographs. I peer at the one with two sun tanned young people, wearing white holiday gear, who lean into each other as they pose with their backs against the balustrade on the terrace of the hotel. The caption tells me that they are the King and Queen of Denmark on their honeymoon back in 1966, having stayed in rooms 201 and 202. “Not separate rooms surely,” I muse, out loud, “Presumably, a suite, but then who knows, what arrangements lead to a marriage.” The bellboy who stands beside’s me and gives me his unhurried attention, given that there are only a handful of guests at the hotel this evening, is unsure of my joke but laughs anyway. He knows his job well, he is there to please. I look at him, he must be my Sher's age. Just shy of thirty? My eyes may have lingered too long on his face, for, as I note self consciously, he moves closer to me as he points out another photograph. It is something about my manner, which always brings on such unsolicited attention, and I am at a loss to figure out what it is.
Two other testimonies to the hotel's excellence and as a choice of destination catch my attention, a photograph of the Nizam of Hydrabad and another of a lady called Kenize Murad, Princess of Kotowar. I remember her from a copy of a society magazine, read not too long ago. A story of a woman by birth an Indian princess, born in Paris, to a Turkish mother, on the eve of World War Two and the Nazi invasion, born to a mother who escaped an unhappy marriage into wealth in Kotawar. I imagine marigolds, ithar, rubies, diamonds, peacocks and elephants. Listless elephants from whom, escape was sought. Turbulent times those, of war and uncertainty, of high romance and history.
The bellboy having shown me to my rooms and placed my bags on the table throws open the doors leading to the balcony and steps out. I follow. The fragrance of lemon blossoms just below in the garden, mingle with the sea air. He points out the view of the open sea, the Greek island on the horizon, and the night clubs along the shore, then turns and looks into my eyes. Perhaps you would like to visit one tonight? I sense, half dismayed, half flattered, that he senses an old and lonely soul in me, perhaps, after my earlier comment on the nuptial attitudes of Danish royals and the far too long gaze upon his face. Or perhaps, there is the less complex economic explanation, to tip me off to tip generously. The tourist season it seems will be slow this year. And the horn of a cruise liner in the distance, just as I am falling asleep, disorients me, completely, as she glides into the night. I have my piece of red embroidery with its winking and smiling mirrors spread out as a cover over the light wool hotel blanket that covers me inadequately. Outside, above the lemon aided breeze, as a crescent moon rents open with its light, a sliver into the indigo sky, and rises steadily over the sea, it seems to whisper a rebuke to me. It’s the first of Muharram, and I've postponed a trip back home, to Lahore, yet again. Would it not have been the occasion, to return? To watch the Zuljana make its way to Kerbela Gamey Shah; watch the procession in Shalmi, enter the Lal Haveli inner courtyard from a latticed balcony, for the matam on the night of the ninth? To listen. to the beating of hands against chests, keeping time with the dirges of the believers, the powerful, frightening rhythm of sweet sorrow. To weep, for atonement, to merge, sorrow, into an eternity of grief. And I am forever postponing return, for too many things, too many places always seem to get in the way. It's nice to have you stay, but go away, moon, I mumble in a traveler’s weary whisper, stop chasing me relentlessly, with the same refrain, where ever I venture. It’s Ephesus, this time. Revisiting history instead of, mourning it. And yet, there it is, I am back. I am back with you. A sardonic grin; a swagger in my walk, a khais, memorably, slung over one Boski-swathed shoulder. Eyes, that impossible, shade of home-brew. Wearing an expression hard to decipher, just a little bemused, a little amused; a little tired. I lean my body against the wall, cross those polo-playing, horse-riding legs of mine and shoot you that look, like I’m firing, I don’t get it. That look. I couldn’t give a shit look. A little bit like, “fuck it, let’s blow this joint” look. And you’re thrilled. I’ve thrown you that look, you’re the chosen one tonight for that fuck it look. We were the very best, weren’t we? The best kind that can ever be, deciding to live our lives together. So simple, that decision, between you and me. You and me. You, beloved, my perfect accomplice, my escape hatch, my haven, from a match made, by parents. We had saved each other it seemed.
“Well why not?” You had said of her, that very lovely pick of the crop chosen, it seemed by everyone for me. Chosen by everyone but me.
“She’s beautiful!” You had said.
“She's stupid-dull, what more do you want me to say?”
“C’mon! She's gorgeous!” You said.
“So is the cover of a girlie magazine. Only thing is that I could use a magazine to light a fire to keep me warm or as shade from the sun. She on the other hand is a total waste of space.”
“God, you are mean. You do have a point though, she is rather chilly.” You giggled.
“Tundra-atic.! She just has to come in to a room and the temperature drops by at least ten degrees. She could be Lahore’s answer to load shedding as a substitute for air conditioning.”
“What?” I had protested. “It’s true. And boring as hell!”
“She is pretty!” You teased.
“Stop going on like a jammed CD! She is pretty, there’s no doubt about that, but beyond that there’s not much else. I mean she’s gorgeous, I want to be her, I mean I want to be her body! I don’t want it!”
“She’s a beauty! Look at her eyes, gorgeous!” You persisted.
“Sure, nice shape, but where’s the light in ‘em, where’s the cheer? I tell you, if it weren’t for those rocks, those huge twopointfive carat diamond studs punctuating either side of her face, she’d be lacking any redeeming sparkle.”
“Ouch!” You laughed.
“And her conversation, oh my Gawd!” I continued “Her conversation is mainly to refute any of my ideas or concepts with her standard, that, is not the way it should be!”
“Listen don’t you think it would be a good idea to at least let your parents know that you’re not interested in getting married, at least not to a woman.” You suggested.
“Are you crazy?” I screeched.
“They are your parents, how long do you expect to continue to lie to them?”
“Forever, just like they have to each other.” I was firm.
“No one needs to know, about what really goes on in one’s head.” I said impatiently.
“Would you consider marrying me?” You had suggested softly.
“You don’t want that!” I was floored.
“I’d like to have a baby!” You were so matter of fact, simple.
“Right. Let’s get hitched.” I was simple too.
“Thanks. Love you.”
But we got fucked didn't we? We made a mess of it. I blame them all for it, for our child. The entire city. How can it be that no one stopped? For God’s sake! A car accident, a child, lying on the side of the road, a busy street at the busiest hour, and no one stopped. At the corner of Zafar Ali Road and Upper Mall and no one stopped! How could they have not stopped? Because it wasn't one of them? Not one of theirs? They didn't think it could be Sher? Everyone knew us. Everyone! It’s my fault, how could I have let him go in a rickshaw with the aya to school that morning. I was in a hurry, had to get to work! Needed the car to pick up clients on the way to the Katcheri, the High court! How could I, have done that? And when I finally got to the hospital you were there, leaning against the wall, you wouldn't look at me. Sher was gone. That was it. You wouldn't look at me. And life went on. If Sher had been in our car instead of a rickshaw would they have stopped to help? How many of them were our friends, who passed by that day without a second look, at a child bleeding to death as a frantic woman tried to stop a car, any car for help? It took her an hour before someone stopped! An hour! How did that happen? But you look away, not from all of them, only from me. My best friend, the keeper of my being. The one who ran to me for all things to be escaped, the one I escaped with. I ran. Because this was not about you, this was not about me. This was about all the goodness we could ever be. An impossible shade of home brew that I could not safekeep. That look away from me, said all this to me. How could I have let this happen? My needs were the sole reason for Sher to be in a rickshaw that morning. Oh God. Oh God! And life goes on, and I spend it, rescuing each day and running as far away as possible from the look that you will not look at me.
And you have not tried to reach me, though I have from each place sent you a postcard. One today. At this time of the year, it’s unseasonably quiet. But even then, for so long now things have been my companions. Winking, whispering, cautioning, rebuking, smiling, soothing. I've spent the day gazing at the cerulean landscape from a canvas chair. From time to time I glance at others around me. As outsiders, barring conversation on history, what else can we say for this place that we find ourselves in for a short interlude? With no sense of the place and its people, its daily rituals, the other guests and I are left with banal commentary.
“Pity the lack of tourists!”
“I know! I worry! The coast is almost free of tourists.”
“Yes. The people here worry they may not come this year, the tourists, what with September eleventh and now the threat that Iraq may be bombed. The bellboy said as much in the lobby earlier and so did the taxi driver!”
“Yes our guide mentioned it as well!”
“Such things would damage the tourist industry, the hotel industry could collapse!”
“But Ephesus would still stand.”
“Ah yes, well, thank god for that!”
“Yes, yes, indeed!”
It's not clear why it declined and ended, everyone says it’s because the harbor silted up and it lost its port. All economic reasons. But surely life is more than economy, more than that? More than news? It is about the favors of Gods and Goddesses. It’s about mothers and their grief. Artemis, Nike, Mary, Mary Magdelene, Fatima, Zainab. The same story over and over again. And I concede, though my grief runs far too deep, it is also about fathers and sons.
At Ephesus, there are the clay pipes still intact underneath the marbled streets. Evidence of a water and sewerage system, a direct connection between the longevity of empire and the availability of public utilities, this, I quip to a well-paid and appreciative guide. With you in mind, I think of having a photograph of me in front of the pile of excavated clay pipes with the senate in the background, you would appreciate the significance. But of course I don’t, there’s no point. Then, there is the positioning of the grand library opposite the town brothel. Legend has it that there was an underground passage way connecting the two. I can just hear it now, old Marcus Maximillinus, calling out “Darling, I'm off to the library!” Sher would have said that, would he have? And we would have stood there laughing with our beautiful young man.
The longing has been so intense, so intense that I can't seem to ever get back. Difficult this, to imagine a place, which exists without me, and exists with me, somewhere else. Indispensable to me. If I go back, what if, it might not be there? The, there, where I was. So I carry it with me, intact, the way I left it. Only thing is that I’ve taken the embroidery out of the frame, it travels easier. Perhaps, tonight, over dinner where I will be asked to be joined by another guest, equally alone, I can make up a story of who I am. A lie is so much easier as a way to tell the truth. With all the photographs in the lobby serving as subliminal props, I will build a story, about a drawing room, a well appointed one, redolent in perfume, cigar smoke and whisky fumes, its sofas spilling over with guests who've known each other over generations, smug, at ease, exclusive and excluding, and at home. Here, women battling bulge and boredom with their anorexia induced stick bodies and big heads, looking much like giant lollipops strike poses of gaiety. They try to ignore the dizzying amounts of food around them, taking note only of each others’ blow dried and uniformly tinted hair; glittering bijoux, forms and fashions. Here, their men, bloated, with self indulgence and marinated in liquor, swollen faced and pot bellied, congregate in corners nursing whiskies, trying to forget their existence.
“And so you see from there that cocoon, of ennui and self satisfaction I have banished myself!”
“So you live here?”
“For the moment yes, finding refuge, in this hotel, a runaway from a far away unhappy situation.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, it sounds intrusive but may I ask why?
“No not at all! Not intrusive at all! I assure you. But the fact is that I just couldn’t fit in you see.”
“You couldn’t fit in?”
“Yes, I was the wrong type. If, you know, what I mean. But my darling mother, god rest her soul in peace had the foresight to save me her only child from the stigma of her profession.”
“The wrong type? What was your mother’s profession?”
“You see I am the child of a courtesan.” I pretend to ignore the change of emotions on my listener's wide eyed face. I shrug my shoulders for effect, “Perhaps I am the wrong type.”
“How did she save you?” I am asked breathlessly as the listener rapt with attention moves closer across the dining table.
“Well you see she was very progressive and forward thinking. It is often the case in such cases. She had me sent to a boarding school in the hills. To a hill station embedded with Catholic missionary boarding schools. From there, I would have returned to Lahore. But the society there is unforgiving though such things as courtesans and their children are an integral part of the culture there.
“Boy that's unfair!”
“Indeed it is. It is. Quite. It is, shall we say, a tradition of self congratulation, of feeling one’s importance by having someone at one’s mercy. I can buy you therefore I am. That collective sense of superiority. If you know what I mean. We can watch you be humiliated therefore we are respectable. And so I have rebelled . I have chosen to run.”
“You are brave, a very brave person! I am pleased to meet you. You should come live in America. We aren’t prejudiced against people that way!” And with that I would need to endure a lecture on civil liberties.
Or I could say that I am looking into the possibility of joining the monastery at the House of Mary up on the hill at Selcuk. For, I too, am mourning a son. No, it won’t work, not for me.
Or perhaps the story is to be of a murder.
“Murder?” That would make them sit up and listen. The murder would be of a woman who having married a rich and doddery feudal landlord, miraculously produces a child which she of course claims is his. The sons of the patriarch from previous marriages are seething with fury. A courtesan's progeny to inherit, a portion of their wealth? Never. And then one night, when the child has come of age, they send assassins to do away with the mother and her child as they lie sleeping in their large and darkened bungalow in Lahore’s snug, well appointed, verdant residential enclave and military cantonment, called Chowni, a few miles away from the yellowing squat structure of Rahat bakery at the hour when the bakers have just begun cracking eggs for the pound cakes for the day, and the beggars who work at this busy and lucrative locale, are finally beginning to call it a night, curling up to sleep on the floors in its verandahs on their burlap beddings kept in the crevices of walls and the branches of tree in the bakery’s compound. The mother is stabbed and strangled brutally, the child escapes. “I am, of course that escapee!” Admiration all around, and plenty of sympathy. Yes and would you please pass the gravy. Boy the folks back home will never believe it, we’re so lucky to have met you. Having thus established myself as interesting and colorful, there would be, naturally, a photo opportunity, insisted upon, at the customary balustrade, out front to be mounted later on with the others in the lobby, after I am gone. No, for now it won't come to me. A story line that is authentic, for a city so beloved, belonging to so many and to so many times. And a story about traveling the world and running out of time seems somehow too mundane for consideration, too unattractive for a dinner conversation. A conversation that keeps a stranger interested yet at bay.
I hear that huge cruise ships call into the port every day here. Up to, six a day during the peak season. I cannot bear the thought of it. The air itself shakes with the noise of a ship when it comes into port as it blares multi lingual instructions to its passengers, in Japanese, American, French and German come blaring across the waters. The air shakes, with the engines rumbling, the horns blaring, and the smaller shuttle boats disgorging passengers from the ship to the shore for day trips. Here in Kusadasi a cruise liner calling into port must dwarf the surrounding shore. Everything changes when strangers arrive and the residents are forced to sit out an invasion.
And here it is finally. I feel it coming. I can hear her call in the distance as she glides on the water tonight. Just one more chance, let me have this, this moment to dance with you, and you agree, dragging me through the bar tonight, holding my hand firmly, gently, saying don't worry, I've got you, follow me, come through. And I slightly intoxicated by you, slightly by the wine, knowing, right place, right time, but more by my own sense of happiness and knowledge. Just thirty years shy? Wall to wall men, pressed against each other, bodies pressed against each other, loving each other. And I in my black leather jacket, naked underneath, long, longed for full flowing claret red taffeta beaded skirt to my ankles, high heeled pumps, being dragged gently through, squeezing, oozing my way through the pressed bodies, feeling them against me, legs, torsos, backs, hips, feeling hands on my hips, feeling hands against me, shutting my eyes, not caring, let them touch me, there is no harm meant here. Are all of them loving each other, yes, perhaps, they just want to make sure, perhaps they think I’m a woman, perhaps they know, I too am a man. What if I am, I don't care, for them I can, be, I'm here and this is all I want. And now I feel this, it’s you dragging me through, shining me, reflecting you to me, so many images coming at me, of myself, refracted back to me, for the first time, me, not them, not their blinding light blinding me, taking you away from me.
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