It was half past six in the morning as I trod the bridge over the moat to the looming entrance. My heart matched the pitter-patter of my hastening steps. Unlike the stolid façade I had come upon in my midday visits, the fort stood brooding in the soft morning light. A group of Buddhist monks was huddled in a communion near the ticket counter. A middle-aged Japanese couple was fiddling with a video camera under the towering archway. Other than those, not even a bird could be seen on the fat, rouge turrets.
Ambling up a slope I couldn’t help but think of the prisoners being ushered to be beheaded. The walls rose tall and tumid, witness to a thousand tales held tight under their sandstone chests. A desolation hung in the air, curling around the pillars and columns of the halls. The exquisite monotony of false windows was broken by trellis frames at intervals. I half expected a face to appear in the vacuous portals, or a shadow to burst forth and vanish in the galleries.
I tried not to think about the emperors who had made home there and found fame and followers. Nor did I stop to think of the harems brimming with pubescent girls snatched from their homes, and wives of lesser generals vanquished in swift battles. They had all gone the same way, the warriors and the courtesans, the amorous kings and their warren of lust. The dregs of life were one with the dust of time.
As more and more sightseers spilled in, I moved away from the pavilions to the eastern edge of the castle, up and down narrow stairs and little doors opening into spaces whose import was lost upon the living. I mulled at the shapes and structures buried under the endless night of history, a black hole without an egress.
It was a while before I remembered my forgotten mission, the meeting with the molester who had claimed he wasn’t one. Thinking of him, I began having second thoughts about the onetime guide. Perhaps he was an average pimp, common enough to these corners; had I not met the kind before? I felt annoyed at playing into his hands.
But something held me back within the monument and I lingered like a waif among the tourists. I returned after a quick lunch in the afternoon but my heart was not into selling timeshare resorts. Feeling wasted and spent, I fell asleep once more near a wall with slits, lulled by a zephyr blowing from the river. He was sitting next to me staring into a void when I woke up.
“You tire out easily,” He said without looking at me.
“Where were you?” I said, ignoring his comment. “I’ve been scouring the ruins since the daybreak!”
“Oh, really? I thought you were busy conning people!”
Not only this guy knew I was here, he had been stalking me too. And, did he have a sharp tongue! He left me in no doubt about his profession when he asked about my dwelling. Who else but a hustler would speak colourfully about women and would want to know where you lived in his next breath?
“Do you still molest them?” I tried to deflate him.
“Didn’t I tell you someone was making them think that? Perhaps doing it too? It first happened when I was with Annika…”
His voice grew distant as he broke into a ramble, more to himself than me.
“She came all the way from Berlin to see the Taj Mahal, and walk the grounds that were home to the lover king and his queen. Her fiancé had died taking a dive off a rock into a mountain stream. She wanted to be sure love had a life beyond death.
“She didn’t know a word of English, other than saying ‘thank you’, which she happily dropped for ‘danke’ the moment she found I could follow her. We got along very well and had become friends too. Then things started happening. Whenever we passed through a door or a staircase together, someone caressed her backside. She looked startled at first but fumed when it recurred and she would look at me sharply. I didn’t have the slightest clue to what was happening to her. I remember how when she was trying to peep into the stepwell, I stood close to her lest she stumbled, and she turned and slapped me so hard my ear rung through the evening.
“It happened again a few weeks later. It was the group of teachers from Paris, one of them fit enough to be my mother. The older one was examining the inlaid artwork in the palace when someone shoved me heavily upon her. There was nothing but hot air behind me but the poor thing must have thought I was crazy to have pecked on her ample cheek. This time though I clearly heard someone laughing behind the artwork, and I was sure it was the voice of a young girl. Then nothing happened for months.
“The worst one came on a cold winter evening when I was escorting a honeymooning couple; they were from Scotland. The girl hated my moustache at the first sight but they stuck to me because I knew the monuments like the back of my palm. We were in the Garden of Grapes in the fast approaching dusk; the Evening Star was already shining in the sky. As we were passing by a small door in a wall that we all know has been locked away for decades, I heard it open. Before I could bat an eyelid, a bangled hand sprang from the darkness and touched my shoulder. I recoiled from the shock and stumbled towards the couple, my palm landing awkwardly on the breast of the wife. The husband was apparently a boxer or something, He had me on the floor in a flash and I quickly lost a tooth to his well-aimed blows. I tried to explain what had happened but the door was locked as ever, centuries of dust smeared on its padlock —not even a blind bat hung around to allow for my fiction.
“The incensed man didn’t stop at that and insisted on complaining to their embassy. The police beat me so hard I still have trouble sitting down and getting up. My license was forfeited and I was forbidden from entering the fort.”
A fight had broken among a group of monkeys on a parapet to the left. The smaller ones kept going back and returning to attack the fat one timidly. It went on for a while before the thickset simian rose and went away unbothered.
“How come you can come in unchecked?” I still had my doubts.
“The guards know much more than they are willing to talk. They have heard the unmistakable tapping of tabla in the ghostly quiet of nights. It is not hard to feel the rhythmic beats of trinkets of the dancers who don’t know they are dead and need not dance any more. Heart-stopping wails are known to escape the thick doors of the chambers in the bosoms of the basements below. Once in a while under crescent moons, a headless general poses as a pillar. Everyone around here knew I was telling the truth so they turn a blind eye when I sneak in. But they can’t give the license back to me because of the police.”
“Why don’t you find a job somewhere else then? You are young and strong.”
“Because my job here is far from over.” His voice trailed off again.
People were looking weirdly at us as they passed by. I wanted him to keep talking. “So, did you see her again?”
“Not till I hid from the guards at sunset one day and emerged after the nightfall…
“It was a half-moon night and the shadows were faint and slanting. I sat next to the door I had seen the hand coming from, trying not to fall in a slumber. The moon tipped away as the night progressed, pulling over an inky shroud over the deserted fort. I heard the occasional calls of animals I couldn’t place from across the river end. Close to the midnight, I heard a muted rattling coming from the door under my vigil. I was ready to jump like a wound up spring as I realised the door had moved a little and now there was a gap in its flanks. With my heart thumping in my mouth, I moved towards the door and peered through the slit but met with nothing but a sheet of darkness. Flicking on the lighter I had in my pocket I could see the faint outline of a stairwell going down. I pushed the slit in the door wider and slithered in and put the lighter close to the unopened plank and turned towards the steps. My shadow bobbed on the wall to my right and much of the ceiling too. It took me several seconds to realise my shadow was not alone in that hollow. Someone was sitting three or four steps below with her back towards me.
“I could feel my fresh crawl as my eyes rested on the figure. She was covered in a hijab but her wrists were covered with bangles. The wave of fear passed as quickly as it had come. ‘Are you human?’ I heard myself saying.
‘I once was so,’ came the reply. Her voice reminded me of a swarm of bees.
‘Why did you push me the other day?’
‘I have been trying to send signals to you.’
‘Help me go home!’
‘Where is your home?’
‘Near the three tamarind trees…’
I was stunned. The only place I knew where three tamarind trees stood was my own home. But I wanted to be doubly sure. ‘You mean, in the village of Mai Bujurg?’
‘Stop lying. There is no one like you in my home. There never was.’ My mind was swerving like a broken roundabout.
‘I can feel the scent of the trees on you!’
I remembered my grandfather telling me, once when I was a kid, how no one really knew how old the three tamarind trees were, shading our front yard. They had been gnarled and bushy even when a Mughal king had visited to lay a claim on the beautiful daughter of the farmer living there.
‘When did you leave your home?’ I tried to figure out the riddle.
‘I don’t remember when. My maternal aunt sold me to the cavalry in Sikri for two gold coins my mother owed her.’
‘Who brought you here?’
‘The soldiers of the King.’
‘Why can’t you go back? The door is open at this instant.’
‘I am bound by honour till the dues are paid back to my aunt. The emperor has ravaged me twice and paid me a gold coin each time. You have taken a long while coming.’ She opened her ashen fist in which lay two golden coins glistening in the half-light.
I gingerly stepped down to her level and reached my fingers for the coins. I felt overcome by a tide of grief as my fingers touched her palm. The coins were embellished in Arabic script.
‘Please go to Sikri now. If the coins fall in alien hands, I will be doomed to be a whore forever.’
‘It’s far from here.’
‘I was taken to many places before I was brought here blindfolded. I can’t tell you how far it might be.’
‘But how will I pay them to your maternal aunt?’
‘Walk about the stables in the castle of Sikri with two gold coins in your fist and my maternal aunt is bound to appear. She can smell gold from a distance. And when you see her, fling it hard in her face and I will be free from her bondage.’
A commotion seemed to have ensued below and I could make out many feet running towards us.
‘They have found I am missing from the harem! Please return to the courtyard!’
She rose like a breeze with that warning and lurched for the stairs. In a foolish bid to stop her, I tried to hold onto her foot and undid her anklet. Realising what had happened, she froze in her flight and turned back and that was when I saw her face for the first time.
I had seen many statuesque women from all parts of the world but the scorching beauty of the face I saw in that dimly lit space stopped the march of Time forever. The blood flowing in my veins vanished like vapour and a longing coursed through the emptiness never to be requited. I became a dead man in a trice even though my heart beat and my lungs breathed. I would slay the whole world if that could reverse the river of time and take me to her. But the ghost guards caught her by her tresses and dragged her away from the middle of the staircase to the dungeons I can never ever penetrate. Some of them rushed up to me and pulled my dress apart like rice paper. The whips must have lashed my back a thousand times before they kicked me out into the courtyard with the first rays of the sun.”
With that, Ranvir bared his back by pulling his tunic over the neck. There was hardly an inch of his furrowed back that was not purple with congealed blood.
Just as the other day, it was closing time again and a guard had appeared like an apparition. He didn’t seem amused by our reluctance to leave and tailed us for long. I was burning to hear what Ranvir did at Sikri, if at all he went there? He was more keen on swearing me to silence rather telling me about her deliverance. “Let not your tongue slip a syllable of whatever went through your ears.” He was muttering again to himself and if I am able to tell you most of it today it is simply because he was half a foot taller than me and my ear was in line with his lips as we walked back together for the last time.
He did go to Sikri as he was told and it was not hard to find her maternal aunt, just as she had said. As he was passing by a woman in hijab he had a feeling as if someone had turned him inside out, as if his soul had left his body and he watched himself and the veiled woman from above. He challenged her to stop and reveal her face which she seemed to have done instantly. He hurled the coins hard as he could and they flew through her eyes like bullets and came out the back of her head. And everything froze.
He was lying on the cold floor of the police station when he came around. The neatly folded hijab was placed next to him. But someone had taken away the anklet that he had carried with him. His last words weren’t even a whisper, about a girl dancing somewhere in a brothel with that anklet on her foot, the one that must be returned to the keeper of the harem.
By now I had Ranvir against a wall near the exit and he was hardly breathing. Realising he was fading away fast, I ran towards a pair of guards escorting the Buddhist monks out. I must have howled something about calling for an ambulance, pointing towards a fallen dustbin.
PS: I never broke the promise I had made to Ranvir. My tongue hasn’t slipped even a syllable of whatever was whispered to me in confidence. My fingers though are servants to none.