I first visited Nargis-begum on a dirty, muggy day during the endless monsoon of Delhi. The rain in Delhi is different from the rain in London, I found; there is less cold and more conviviality involved; less drizzle and more odour—so much more odour. The city invariably and inexplicably comes to a standstill but its occupants are accepting of it in the idiosyncratic Indian way of acceptance that arises more from a sense of ennui than of harmony. Children made miniature gondolas out of litter and set them to float along the narrow canals of water that had, for the time being, replaced the narrow lanes of the neighbourhood I mistakenly categorised as a basti—or a slum—in my head. The word “leptospirosis” chimed in my head like a West End chorus.
Nargis-begum’s building was identified with some difficulty. There were no numbers or lettering on the gates to distinguish each edifice, and the sickly green and pink hues that predominated their facades offered no insight either. It was only through sheer determination of will and judicious use of my broken knowledge of Hindi that I managed to have myself pointed in the right direction. Three tortuous flights of steps later, I was banging on her door.
“Haanji? Aap kaun hai?” The startled queries of the teenaged girl who opened the door provided me with a decent idea of the ludicrous figure I must have presented, the blonde sahib dripping water from head to toe, but I was too bent on my mission to give a damn.
“Nargis-begum!” I cried peremptorily.
The girl stood immobile, confused and alarmed. Another voice called out, “Rukhsar? Kaun hai?”
A volley of Hindi ensued, beyond my powers to relate, but the long and short of it was that I was ushered into their cramped living quarters and seated on a lumpy divan. In my belligerent state, I took quick stock of the peeling walls, single crackling light bulb and ancient steel chest. I was surprised by the absence of the overpowering damp smell my olfactory senses had become trained to expect, but my quarry appeared on the scene too soon for any deliberation.
“Aha!” I stood up with what I hoped was relish but strongly suspected was melodrama, and brandished my plastic bag.
“Yes?” she inquired with a touch of impatience. “Can I help you?”
Mildly dashed by her failure to recognise me, I said, “I bought this from you yesterday, in Khan Market. Do you remember?”
“Ah yes,” she replied, after a moment’s consideration, “you are the romantic English-wallah. You bought a doll for your fiancée.” She pronounced it as “fee-on-see”.
“Yes, and you assured me it was the best quality, that it was worth my six hundred rupees!”
“No! Look,” I pulled it out of the bag, “one of its eyes has already come off!”
She examined the doll. It was a bright red thing, a puppet doll of Jaipur, I’d been told. “Rukhsar! Zara mere chashme la de.”
The girl came back into the room and knelt by the steel chest. She extracted a pair of glasses from it, their lenses clogged by grime and disuse, and I wondered how Nargis-begum expected them to assist her vision. She placed them firmly on her nose and re-examined the doll.
“It is only a weak stitch,” she pronounced, “it can be fixed. If you leave it with me, I will—”
“No!” I cut her off. “I don’t want a doll with a defect! Either replace it or give me my money back.”
She pulled her glasses down her nose and frowned at me. “Sir, this is a lot of trouble to make over six hundred rupees. I know the exchange rate is very good for you right now.”
“It’s not about the money! As I told you, it’s for my—for someone very special. She had one exactly like this when she was a child; her grandfather was an officer here. But the doll was lost when they moved houses. It has so much sentimental value for her; it has to be perfect! That’s why I asked you yesterday where I could find you if something went wrong.”
“I didn’t think you would actually come looking for me.”
“Well, I suppose I’m not as gullible as the other foreigners you deal with.”
“Or maybe you’re just more pompous,” she countered, her eyebrows raised. I felt a little ashamed and noticed, for the first time, her high cheekbones and small aquiline nose.
“I’m sorry…it’s just a very important gift.”
“What is your name?”
“Arthur,” I told her. Suddenly struck by the comedy of the situation, I said, “I suppose it is a little ridiculous that I waded through all those ponds of water to harass you over a weak stitch.”
“Arrey, baap re!” she exclaimed. “Now you will catch a cold and your fate will be on my hands! You need a towel and—aha!—some hot tea.”
Rukhsar reappeared from what I deduced was the kitchen with two cups of tea. It is inaccurate to describe them as cups, really; they were two small glasses of tea, rather inconvenient minus handles to grasp in protection against the piping heat, but somehow more satisfying in the torrential weather. Nargis-begum went over to the chest—evidently the fount of all her earthly belongings—and handed me a towel. It was fraying at the edges and far from clean, but I took it from a desire not to offend a vaguely-understood concept of Indian hospitality and even made a show of wiping myself. Rukhsar disappeared again.
“Is she your daughter?” I asked Nargis-begum.
“No,” she replied, “we share this flat, with two other people.”
I looked around the diminutive room and tried to reconcile it to its description. She seemed to read my thoughts and quickly continued, “It’s worse when it rains.”
“Why do you stay here? You have a business in one of the best markets in the city…”
She laughed, not quite pleasantly. “You need to spend more time here before you can understand the economics of Delhi, young sahib. You can’t make a fortune selling a few dolls on the pavement—and just see, today I couldn’t even go to the market because of the rain!”
An ant raced across the floor. She followed its progress. “I didn’t always live like this,” she said. There was a note of, I hardly knew what, in her voice; defensiveness, perhaps, mingled with a touch of wistfulness.
“Oh no!” she assured me. “I had a beautiful house once, in one of the most posh areas of the city—you know Safdarjung Enclave? It’s next to all the embassies. My family had a big house, almost like a mansion, with such beautiful rooms! It was white, all white, with big columns in the front and a porch where our neighbours would sit and gossip with us in the evenings. There was marble flooring and chintz everywhere, all over the carved furniture we had picked up on our honeymoon in France. My bed was four-poster; I draped white muslin all around it, it was so beautiful! And at the entrance we put up an oil painting from a flea market in Paris; we were sure it was some lost Impressionist piece!”
I watched her in some fascination as she spoke, her dark eyes glowing with recollection and the faint light from the crackling bulb sporadically casting a golden haze on her greying hair. I judged her to be about sixty years old, but she may have been younger or older. It was hard to associate the plump, faded woman in front of me, her thin salwar-kameez stained and torn, a ratty fan moving at a staccato pace above her, with the picture of erstwhile grandeur she was painting, but her English was certainly much more fluent than that of any other pavement-seller or shopkeeper I had encountered.
“What happened?” I asked.
The glow vanished. Her hands, animating her soliloquy, fell. “1984.”
I thought stupidly of George Orwell. “I’m sorry, ‘1984’…?”
“Oh, you wouldn’t know,” she snapped. “The anti-Sikh riots. Our Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguard so Sikhs were massacred throughout the city.”
“Oh my God—I think I read about that…but, might I ask, isn’t ‘begum’ a Muslim title?”
“I was born a Hindu, I married a Sikh and now the Muslims I live with call me by an Islamic name. That’s India.”
“But if you were a Hindu, why did they target you during the riots?”
“I married a Sikh, remember? Ours was officially a Sikh household. They branded houses in all the colonies and attacked them accordingly.”
“But what about the police? The government? Didn’t anybody stop them?”
“How do you think they knew which houses to mark? It was the politicians who gave them with voters’ lists and other resources to carry out their mission. Indira’s son, Rajiv—our next Prime Minister—went on national television to say that when a tree fell, the Earth would shake! It was all allowed. They were allowed to burn down our homes, massacre us, destroy our lives…I watched with my own eyes as two of our neighbours were cut into pieces, with their wives and children waiting to be next; I saw my own husband—”
She stopped short and let out an angry sob. “Don’t believe what they tell you about communal violence in India, Mr Arthur, it is never about the government. It is about the people. Whether it is Delhi, Gujarat, Muzaffarnagar, Nellie…it’s the same. Those mobs of people, they’re…monsters; they don’t belong to any party or group! I saw them, they went to unarmed people, complete strangers living in peace, and they ripped them into shreds, one by one; nobody should be capable of doing that. And you won’t believe how many, many were; how many caused violence by going into the streets and killing, and how many caused it by staying home and staying silent. And those grand intellectuals, in their comfy armchairs, they say, ‘A person in a mob has let loose the animal within them!’ Well, I have never seen an animal be so cruel, so senselessly cruel, to its own kind! No, they didn’t behave like animals. They behaved like human beings. Only human beings could do that, only human beings.”
She closed her eyes. I thought of taking her hand and pressing it in sympathy, but I wasn’t sure that would be appropriate. I stared mutely at her instead, sorry for crimes I hadn’t committed. For the first time, I noticed a fragrance in the room; a delicate, inimitable fragrance, almost like a whisper—an invitation to a forgotten world. It disturbed me in the most exquisite way; I felt at once a frantic need to capture it and a tormenting conviction that it would slip through my fingers.
“And that was it,” said Nargis-begum, finally opening her eyes. “I lost my husband, my house, everything. They didn’t spare anybody, nobody, nobody…but now, you know,” with a sudden change of tone, “1984 is forgotten; now it is more fashionable to talk about other riots. They speak of Gujarat like it was something new and different. I suppose if no one remembers our horrors, they can’t have been that bad.”
“You didn’t have—other—family who could have helped you after that? Your parents, perhaps…?”
“My parents disowned me when I married Inderjeet. They said I had brought shame on the family, that I wasn’t their daughter anymore. They thought I should deal with the consequences of my decisions. It was very film-y,” she said, with the ghost of a smile.
“Friends? Oh, people can easily erase their friends. The same people I had grown up with, shared my tiffin with in school and played on the swings with at home, they all closed their doors to me when I became an outcast. The only person who gave me shelter was Dr Thakur, he whom I had only started going to after my marriage. I owe him and his family something.”
“Did you stay with them, then?”
“For a while. I started doing some odd jobs and ended up here. Now I will only move once more.”
“Are you going somewhere?”
“Oh yes, I’m building my house. This NGO, Mahila Manzil, they help low-income women like me make their homes; their volunteers do manual labour and they find cheap materials. I only need—I think—around six lakhs more to build mine.”
“That’s a lot of dolls.”
She set her teeth. “I’ll do it. I’ll make my new home exactly like the old one.”
“Oh, is it going to be in Safdarjung, the place you mentioned?”
“No, it’s going to be in a colony nearby. It’s a hundred-square-yards plot.”
I did some mental mathematics. “That’s not very big.”
“It won’t seem small when it’s like my old home. Wait and see.”
I wondered at her fortitude. I wasn’t sure I would be able to match it if I underwent that level of trauma.
“You’re taking my interview like a journalist,” she said, irritable again. “You don’t work for a newspaper, do you? Nobody will care about this story.”
“Oh no, I work for a market research firm in London and I’m coming to the end of a three-month assignment in India. I’m actually trying to save enough money for a Ph.D. at Yale University, in Comparative Politics.”
“And the girl? Your fiancée?”
“Judith? Well, we were together for nearly a year in London, but she’s an American so she’s gone back to Connecticut now. She’s actually the reason I want to go to Yale; I want to be near her. I haven’t actually asked her to marry me yet so technically she’s not really my fiancée. I do intend to, though. I know she’s the one.”
Her laughter held a note of derision. “Ah, to be young and to be in love!”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes, well, clearly it makes me behave in rather imbecilic ways at times.”
“Kipling said, ‘A man in love is always a nuisance. We must learn to forgive him.’”
I smiled, hesitated and then asked her, “Nargis-begum, what is that fragrance?”
“What fragrance? Oh, you mean this?” She reached into her hair and pulled out a string of tiny white flowers that had been wound around her bun. “This is my namesake, nargis. In English I think you call it narcissus-something. We also call it raat-ki-raani.”
“The…queen…of the night…” I fumbled with the translation.
“Well,” she said, “I’ll try and get your doll for you. I don’t have this kind left in stock. I’ll have to ask the man who makes them in Jaipur.”
She had risen, so I followed suit. “By when may I expect it? It’s just that I’m leaving in a week.”
“I can’t say.”
I felt a surge of frustration at her insouciance. “But Nargis-begum, I’ve paid you the money for it and—”
“Money, money, money! That’s all you young people ever think about!” she expostulated. She went to the chest and produced a small embroidered pouch, from which she extracted six hundred rupees. She pushed the notes roughly into my hand. “Here, take it and find your doll!”
“I didn’t mean—”
She looked so fierce that I judged it best to obey.
I looked for Nargis-begum at the market every day for the rest of the week. The fury of the heavens subsided to a few gentle tears, but she didn’t come back. On the fifth day, as I was completing my daily pilgrimage, a man emerged from the shoe-shop next to which her stall had been.
“’Scuse me, sir, can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m looking for Nargis-begum, the lady who sold the dolls.”
“You are Mr Arthur?”
He gestured towards his shop and I gathered he wanted me to come in. A cautionary light went off in my brain, along with a rapid montage of articles about missing tourists in India, but I dismissed them. It was a busy marketplace in broad daylight—and I was curious.
The shop smelled of leather; lots and lots of leather. The man disappeared to the back and as I stood around uneasily, I watched a gawky teenager try on his first pair of “grown-up” shoes; it was evidently something of a family event, judging by the suppressed excitement on his parents’ faces. The quaint rite of passage made me smile; it was heartening to see that Indians hadn’t lost all their traditions in the sweeping flood of globalisation.
My Pied Piper finally returned and put an abrupt end to my amiable musings by handing me a bright green object. It was the doll. Well, it wasn’t the doll, as in the same doll, but a new one in mint condition, with every stitch and every detail perfectly in place.
“Nargis-begum send this for you,” he said. “She say to give to Mr Arthur, young foreigner who come.”
“Thank you, that’s wonderful! It’s absolutely perfect.”
Deeply relieved, I reached for my wallet and began fumbling with the notes, but he waved aside my efforts. “Nargis-begum say no payment for this. Already paid.”
“But I haven’t already paid; she gave me back my money.”
“It’s already paid, she say to us. You ask her when she come back.”
“But I won’t be here when she comes back!” I exclaimed in alarm.
“Sir, we cannot take payment.”
The gawky teenager flashed me a shy smile as he left.
The second time I visited Nargis-begum, the neighbourhood was tinted beige by the lethargic attempts of the sun. Making my way along the damp lanes, I saw a man on a cycle with bunches of tightly-wrapped white flowers on the backseat.
“Hey! Ruko!” I cried out excitedly, sprinting towards him. He was transporting the nargis flower. I quickly bought a couple of strings from him, parting with the princely sum of fifty rupees for the fragrance I knew I would yearn for for the rest of my life. Then I savoured it like a daytime drunk. I couldn’t get enough. It was intoxicating, beautiful and, in that moment, all things to me: dusk, Nargis-begum, India and time.
Another girl received me at the door this time, older and rather sour-looking.
“Kya hai?” she barked.
“I’m looking for Nargis-begum,” I said.
“Nargis-begum not here. Come tomorrow.”
She started to close the door—I suspect she wanted to slam it in my face—but I flung out my elbow in time.
“I can’t come tomorrow,” I explained, “I’m leaving India tonight.”
“Can’t help it, sir.”
“Look, could I just, I don’t know, come in and leave something for her? Will you make sure she gets it? Please?”
“You want to leave moneys, you leave in money-pouch.”
She pointed to the big steel chest and stormed into the kitchen. I walked diffidently over to the chest, opening it and rummaging through its contents for the precious money-pouch. There was a lot of clutter to sift through: Mahila Manzil pamphlets, a banking passbook, dried flowers, a few Kipling titles, and saris that could barely hold themselves together. My hands had just closed on the pouch when I caught sight of a familiar-looking title: Architectural Digest. It seemed an odd thing to find there, so I pulled it out. It was from November 1987. My eyes travelled to the chest again. World of Interiors. House Beautiful. Period Home. There was a whole pile of them, from the 80s till the late 90s. Their dog-eared pages were yellowed but unmistakeably graphic: white columns, chintz fabric, muslin canopies, Impressionist paintings, French furniture…it was all there.
I had no idea where she had gotten them and I hazily wondered why she had lied when it hit me: she wanted me to pity her. In the most idiosyncratic Indian way of all, she had constructed an elaborate fantasy in a bid to see how far she could exploit the guileless foreigner. She had even, in the process, led me to believe she was serving me a good turn with the doll. Of course she had never had that gorgeous home or cruel family, or lived through those terrible riots; she had merely used them for her own means. I was a fool—and she was a conniver. Anger gripped my insides. I gathered the magazines together to put them back and a few loose papers slipped out. As I retrieved them, my thumb scraped against a stiff surface.
It was an old Polaroid shot of a man, a woman and a boy. The man and the boy wore turbans, the latter donning the child’s variety, and the woman a dark salwar-kameez. She held on tight to the boy, their eager smiles in some contrast to the solemn scrutiny of the father. They were tautly posed, picture-perfect. I turned it over and read the scribbled inscription: “Inderjeet, Nargis and Karan, Mansingh House, March 1984”.
I dropped the photograph. My head began to spin. There had been a child. She had had a son. They killed the boy. They killed her boy. There had been a child.
“What this mess you make!” The shrill voice jerked me back to my surroundings. “Ya’allah, saara samaan nikaal diya!”
I hastily stuffed the photograph and other papers back into one of the magazines, and restored the whole to the chest.
“I’m sorry,” I said, rising. “I have to go.”
She shouted out as I left, but I couldn’t wait. I had to leave. I found my way out of the neighbourhood in a trance, my feet guiding me by instinct, and realized when I tumbled into my waiting taxi that my fingers hadn’t stopped quivering.
Why hadn’t she mentioned him? In the midst of her long, impassioned narrative, why hadn’t she mentioned what happened to him? I was afraid to imagine it, but I knew. I could see it. I could hear it. I could smell it. She had lost a child. My heart, pounding madly with questions and explanations, twisted itself into a knot. Perhaps she felt that if she could recreate her fantasy of the past, it would not be so lost to her. Perhaps she was trying to build a haven for her ghosts. I couldn’t know. I cursed myself for my impulsive arrogance and idiocy; Nargis-begum, cantankerous, self-deluding and broken, was further from home than I could ever be. She had made it so far. I wondered, with a strange ache, if she would make it all the way.
The taxi’s horn sounded, loud and unmusical, as we drove through a chaotic main road. I slowly relaxed the vicious curl of my fist. The flowers looked forlorn. Outside, the ubiquitous black-and-yellow of a Western Union zipped by and something about it compelled me to take out my phone. My savings, as of that day, totalled £6,831. Almost seven lakh rupees. I was frozen for about five seconds. I knew what had to be done. I silently asked Judith for forgiveness.
“Stop here, please.”
Photo By: Lloyd