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.
Inevitably they were sat down, probed, and prodded by their men and elders, mothers and grandmothers (among whom were some impertinent spinsters who said they didn’t care and would welcome a little insanity themselves). Slowly but surely a disturbing, wild tale emerged, which made many a heart shiver and many a pair of hands come together in prayer, for none wished to have such a terror visited upon their household. Notably chronicled too was the fact that each woman described arriving at her strange destination the same way on the same night, although the distance between the affected houses was such that the fastest Arabian horse couldn’t cross it in a month.
The following is the tale the women—later referred to as the moon-mad roses—told their men (a tale Taimur the Trickster knew well and used to his advantage in his dealings with foolish merchants), and with your gracious permission, I shall now relate it to you.
It has reached me, my auspicious friends, that one of the men said to his youthful spouse, “What happens to you every month that you aggrieve me so?”
That fair woman replied, “My dear husband, may my soul be sacrificed for you—”
3: THE ROMANCE OF THE RED ROAD AND THE ONE WHO CALLED THE TRAVELERS UPON IT
“It happens to me the same way every month: when the moon becomes bright and full like a houri’s lips, there fall upon my window three loud knocks.
If I don’t answer by the third, a smell fills the room, like raw meat or dung; it makes me gag until my head spins and I pass out. (I am out for days and only awaken to the sound of everyone fussing over me, loosening the chains around my hands and feet.)
If I answer and open my window, there sits a pigeon on the sill. It gazes at me with ebony eyes until I step onto the ledge.
Allah be praised, it is no ordinary bird. Its beak is blue, its feathers ravish-red. In its shadow the moonlight turns the color of blood, and as this devil-bird snaps open its beak and gurgles gootter’goo, behind it materializes an opening made of moonbeams, a smoky cave hovering in the air.
Whispers roll from the cave like a Turkish rug, soothing me, calling me inside. I leap off the ledge into the cave mouth and find myself on a red brick road under a shining white moon.
The road trembles, then stills. I begin walking and it leads me through hills and dark forests quickly, so quickly, as if time has changed here. But before I can get dizzy or too frightened to move, the road has brought me to the Red Bazaar!
My godly husband, may my soul be sacrificed for you, the Red Bazaar is a wondrous place, with its air bathed the color of firebrick, its ground soft like a baby’s palms, its niches illuminated with oil lamps and coal pits. It is set up like a Friday marketplace, busy with street food in carts large enough to need two horse-pulls. Stalls made of wood and thatch flank the market square. Bright canopies with incense-filled doorways beg to be entered, swinging doors lead to taverns overflowing with—may Allah forgive me—wines of a hundred species as well as tea shops with myriad teas and mounds of mithai and delicacies from every part of the world.
Yet there is not a living soul in the Red Bazaar. Not one.
Instead, behind every counter and weighing scale stands a clay puppet, tall as a man, with ruby insects for eyes. The puppets’ lips are parted in circles; eternally startled, they gaze at their wares and me with a red gaze. The collective weight of their gazes is heavy and I find myself flushing. Warm is the Red Bazaar, sultry this air of another world, and I begin to imagine I am submerged in a tub of madder root tea.
The first three times I was taken to the Red Bazaar, I wandered the square for days, fearful and bewildered, my only company the mute puppets and the blazing coal fires. I tried to escape but discovered that the red brick road had vanished, leaving a trail of dull feathers behind. I would follow the trail and circle right back to the Bazaar. I did that until I tired of it. Yet hunger and sleep evaded me. I had no sense of sunset or moonrise. Silence, red as desire, filled my ears and mouth until I became hollow, a cavern of occasional echoes that rose from elsewhere.
Each of my visits would end with the fires dying suddenly, the oil lamps puffing out, leaving me in absolute dark; which would lift as the lifting of a veil from my eyes, and I would find myself back in my home by my hearth and kitchen and you, my godly husband, and my sweet children.
The fourth time I walked the Red Road, however . . .
Arms outstretched, I am standing in the middle of the market square, listening. Something is different this time, a hint of smell in the air, saffron or camphor. I cannot recall if I have smelled anything in this world before.
Comes a distant rumble. I strain my ears. A rhythmic sound, like drums beating.
The puppets shiver. Their eyes burn.
I am seized by horror.
One by one the puppets turn and sink, rapidly, as if swallowed by the earth. Have the fourteen subterranean realms of Paataal crashed and taken them? The stalls shake from the puppets’ descent; fruits and vegetables and mithai plates tumble and plunge. The ground rises in mounds, as if hundreds of monstrous fish are trying to break water beneath my feet. The mounds surge forth in waves of grit and mud that spread toward a distant canopy.
And now I can hear the sound of someone singing.
I remember then a story I heard as a child on my mother’s lap, a legend of Younan.
Sailor-soldiers on a king’s mission ignore the warnings of their oracles and allow themselves to bask in the lambent, enchanting music of sea nymphs on a remote island. These creatures with heads and bosoms of beautiful women, torsos of sparrows, and feet of pigeons play tortoiseshell lyres and sing sonorously. Their music lulls the unfortunate mariners to sleep, upon which the creatures climb up onto the ship’s deck and tear them to pieces.
I remember too another part of the story: Should the men muster strength or cleverness and pass by the creatures without getting bespelled, the bird-women will shed all feathers, turn white, and fling themselves into the sea. Their perished bodies form stony islands that will forever float on the waters; desolate, desireless.
The sound of drums grows louder. I can feel it in my body.
All fear leaves me. I turn and follow the music (and the moving mounds) to the distant canopy.
Wherein I find in a sconce-lit chamber, surrounded by hundreds of puppets of all shapes and ilk, a woman tall and beautiful with a crown of feathers and rubies on her head. In the middle of the puppet sea she stands pounding her feet on the ground, one then the other, and from her lips pours this sweetest of songs in a language I know not, but which is familiar. It is her pounding that has shook the Red Bazaar and fetched the puppets, her song that has called me, and thus it is that I know her to be a creature of enormous power and sway.
I say, “Who are you, O lady, and why do you beat the earth so?”
She stops her pounding, smiles coyly at me, and her face is fierce and handsome, the kind of face that does not betray its parries with time.
“I am the Queen of Red Midnight,” says she, “and I pound at the rotten core of the world.”
“What gain have you from this pounding, O Queen? What sort of kingdom dubs itself Red Midnight, and why has your magic—for it cannot be aught else—plucked me away from my comely home and hearth?”
“Never have I plucked a maiden who didn’t desire to be plucked.” She resumes her pounding and the puppets tremble. “And the ones who follow the Red Road stepped on it long before I came along.”
I will not believe this, so I cry, “Never have I stepped on such a road as you speak of until that demon pigeon alighted on my windowsill.”
Without pausing her beating she glances at me, and I see that she too has a red gaze that bores deep into my soul and fills it with all manner of anxieties.
“I glimpse the truth otherwise in your heart, my fair rose,” she says in a voice that stirs the hair on the nape of my neck, “but I see also that you do not see it. Would it perchance help if I tell you the tale of how I came to be in this place and how Red Midnight surrendered its kingdom to me?”
I tremble a little at this, my dear husband, but I am filled with a mighty curiosity. I nod, and she smiles, her face glowing like the melting sun of dusk. She strides up and puts her arms around me, embracing me to her bosom. She smells of cinnamon and saffron and roses that grow only on hilltops, and my breath stops in my chest for a few moments.
She gestures and two puppets fly like hawks and bring us a pair of gao takiya and a very fine quilt.
The magnificent queen bids me sit on the floor next to her and says, “My fair love, hear then the tale of the Kingdom of Red Midnight and my ascension to its throne.”
“And with your permission now, my godly husband, I will recount that tale to you.”