In this spell-binding tale, a Pakistani storyteller captivates a group of wide-eyed tourists with a nesting doll of interlocked stories about a trickster and a hidden city ruled by the Queen of Red Midnight.
1: FROM THE LIPS OF BABA KAHANI
Hatim took them to the chai-khana on Main Boulevard partly because they were jet-lagged and wanted to kill time, mostly because it had been years since he had visited and he wanted to see Alif Laila, the Book Bus, again. No such luck. The tiny park near Main Market where the double-decker used to stand was empty. Hatim was inclined to discount the donkey standing in knee-high grass gazing at the dusk.
They tell you many things, but they don’t tell you absence makes the heart grow older. Ghostly. As if one of your what-might-have-been lives just evaporated.
They bought badly needed travel accessories and retired to Tandoori Teahouse, a makeshift establishment in the parking lot of a building. Beneath a white canopy two chefs in shalwar kameez cooked chai in boiling clay pots and poured it into tin cups—the first sip a crackling, rich, earthy shock that jolted them awake.
“Ho-ly shit, Hatim,” Maurice said. “Imma be up for days now.”
“Indeed,” Hatim said.
They had flown in for Lahore Comic Con two days ago, five artists and writers from a world so different it might have been another planet. Thirteen years in the US, away from the city with hardly a visit (Hatim came for a weekend when a cousin died from cardiac arrest a few years back), and now, gun to his head, he couldn’t take them to more than a few landmarks. Lahore had rearranged itself, indifferent to his memories.
They sat drinking tea, chatting. The subject of the conversation was a panel Maurice and Lyssa were supposed to be on in twenty-four hours—LOST TALES OF YORE: How Imperialism Has Influenced Storytelling Around the World. Maryanne and Tolya were of the view that one of the worst legacies of colonialism had been “cultural terrorism” and removal of traditional modes of storytelling from the mainstream. Lyssa and Maurice played devil’s advocate: such erasure was the legacy of every dominant culture in history and led to assimilation and desired change in language and literature.
So engrossed were they in their discussion they didn’t notice the man who had pulled up a chair and sat himself at their table until he coughed.
“Well, hello,” Lyssa said in surprise.
It was eleven p.m.
A stocky man in his sixties with a bushy mustache and almond eyes shining behind a pair of thick glasses. Long wavy hair oiled back. He wore a sequined waistcoat over pale blue shalwar kameez. His lips were his most singular feature: thick and large, like mutant tulips. Hatim’s first thought was he’d had an allergic reaction.
“Hello jee,” the man said, comfortably. He spoke in soft, flawless English with a subcontinental accent. “Forgive my intrusion, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. I know a thing or two about stories, you see.”
His name was Baba Kahani, he said, and he was a qissa-khwan, a devotee of the oral storytelling tradition. He had learnt his art from a troupe that hailed from the oldest family of Peshawar’s famed Bazaar of Storytellers. Now he went city to city exhibiting the wonders of his trade to Pakistani youth, reminding them of what had been lost to the illusory grandeur of this New World.
Would they like a demonstration?
Intrigued, they ordered yellow cake and tea for him. A musician duo had been entertaining the teahouse patrons for tips, moving from table to table. After beckoning them over, Baba Kahani leaned in and whispered to the rabab player. The chubby man with the white skullcap nodded and began to pick a dark and distant tune. Alyssa listened. “Double harmonic major,” she said, smiling. “Fitting.”
“That so?” Tolya said.
“Hate to use the phrase, but we once called it ‘gypsy major.’”
“Listen, my new goray friends,” cried Baba Kahani, rising to his feet, becoming taller by the act, “as I tell you a story first told by the sages of Samarkand, buried in the annals of history, lost to centuries of marauding and pillaging; then revived in the rumors of the unlettered, the street-sons, who seeded it into the bosoms of their troubadours; and finally passed it to us through the songs of those sweet-lipped.
“Of a time when stars and sorcerers ruled the fate of man. This is a story of a land well removed from us, yet so close you could almost reach out and pluck its pearls—like our Prophet, midst a divine trance, once parted the world’s veil and nearly plucked a pomegranate from a tree of heaven.”
Baba Kahani sighed. His hands drew toward his mouth, forming a prayer bowl, then flew forth, coming apart, as if releasing the subtlest of enchantments into the evening.
“Listen, listen, my dear goray sahibs,” the storyteller whisper-chanted. “Now with your permission I recount to you—”
2: THE MARVELOUS TALE OF TAIMUR THE TRICKSTER AND THE MOON-MAD ROSES
It has reached me, my friends, that there once lived in the God-guarded city of Old Lahore a trickster named Taimur.
This Taimur was from a family of apothecaries and hakims. He made a living by selling medicines, sherbets, and potions out of his ancestral shop, The Dawa-khana of Empathy, but, unbeknownst to his neighbors, Taimur had mastered the arts of subterfuge, illusion, guile, and disguise.
Taimur was half-orphaned in his mother’s womb after his father fell from a horse and broke his neck. As a consequence, Taimur was a wild, sibling-less child, the bane of his mother’s existence, who gathered fame (and curses) around the neighborhood by squeezing through skylights and chimneys no wider than a man’s hand.
“Look, look, O mother of Taimur,” women would shout after him as he sped down the street with a stolen chicken leg ’neath his vest, “there goes your thief again. Oh, if you can’t take care of him, next time I will box his ears and redden his bottom for you!”
As a grown man Taimur’s many gifts and preoccupations included changing gold coins into tobacco leaves, replacing penned cattle with confused old men, and climbing up the sides of tall buildings without a handhold.
Taimur was careful to limit his practice of these interests to nighttime or to other cities where he was less apt to be recognized. Yet one delight he found irresistible—which by its very nature had to be indulged closer to home—was to make fools of rich merchants who passed through the gates of Lahore in search of Red Street.
“This way, gentle sirs!” Taimur would cry, disguised as a fakir, after accosting them in Anarkali or by the Blacksmiths’ Gate. “Follow me and I shall take you to the alley that hides the opening to the wretched horrors of Red Street. Right you are, sir. The very one!”
Thus cajoling and enticing, Taimur would lead these men down twisting streets until they reached narrow alleys impenetrable to their horses. The men would be forced to dismount and as they did, Taimur would pickpocket their purses and steal their rings and leave them yelling at a shadow disappearing fast into the maze of back streets.
Now, of course, you have heard the legend of Red Street and its claim to eminence.
No, my august hosts? Indeed! And the mysterious epidemic that spread like an ill rumor through northern India?
It happened thus, my dear sirs and madams, that there came a time when from Lahore to Lucknow the families of idolaters and iconoclasts alike were gripped by a gruesome sickness.
Their womenfolk began to turn.
Between the ages of twelve and forty, these unfortunates suddenly became vicious, venomous, and vile. Far from comforting their hardworking men, fetching them food when they returned home late at night, cutting them slices of mangoes, or pressing their sore legs, these wretches—were they berated even gently for good cause!—would seize and fling the nearest pot or bucket filled with the day’s garbage at the heads of their poor husbands, their earthly gods.
“May your face be blackened forever, you swine-faced dwarf,” shouted one woman at the master of her household.
“May your mother turn inside out, then squeeze you back in,” yelled another.
Some clawed at their men’s faces; others kicked them in their ball sacks. A few went so thoroughly insane that they ripped their chadors and lifted their dresses and dashed into the street, lighting up the muhallahs with the moons of their bountiful behinds.
Ah, what dismay they caused, what horror they wrought into the hearts of their loved ones.
“Would that the earth had devoured me,” wept one such man, “before this evil should have come to my home. Would that the sky had swallowed me!”
“Oh, why had it to be me,” groaned another. “Why mine!”
Strange, however, and noticed soon by the menfolk, was that this madness occurred for only a few days every month, usually around the lunar fourteenth. Come daybreak of the third or fourth day, the women would return to normalcy, their demeanors placid and habits docile. They would, in short, again become the homemakers, peacemakers, muhallah caretakers, and keepers of gossip they were known to be.