From the novel-in-progress, The Exile Chronicles.
Circa 2009 CE
… But let us return to the naming of Billa as Billa Meter. For prior to that he could only boast of rather pedestrian dual identities; necessary in his career path, but altogether lacking any spark. The decidedly staid Babu, for example, or the somewhat more happening Saleem Pistol and the utterly unimaginative and boringly utilitarian Muhammad Irfan. Billa’s branding was as yet underdeveloped and his niche market still more or less obscure. Not that he deliberately chose to be called Meter. In his experience, those adopting grandiose, menacing, fatal or artistic names such as Prince, Bullet, Death and Disco were invariably quite a disappointment in person; often devoid of any semblance of royalty, speed, doom or dancing capability. Billa personally knew a Tariq Terror whose wasted, drug-abused body and formidable body odour did perhaps evoke terror in friend and foe alike, but not of the nature that the said Tariq deeply desired. He had also frequently come across an Asif Deadly who was invariably amongst the first to surrender in any police encounter and always the one who routinely wet his pants at the first hint of any intensive investigation at the police station. The best were the names that were well and truly earned and not self-appointed. Billa, it seems, earned his. During the days that encompassed the events that led to his being called Meter he is rumoured to have actually gone totally Meter or berserk – that is to say that he overshot all readings of normalcy according to any acceptable gauge of sanity.
Here is how it happened.
The heat was on in a particular criminal investigation owing to that case getting transferred to a smart and proactive police officer, and hence Billa and his gang were predictably on the run. In order to be less conspicuous, the comrades separated and dispersed for the time being and Billa arrived to lie low for some months in the ancient Walled City of Lahore. He occupied an obscure top-floor room in one of the typical old-fashioned five-storey houses with their peeling paint, coloured glass ventilators, crumbling wooden jharokas and latticed balconies. Saplings of a peepal had taken root where the brick and concrete had crumbled, which gave certain parts of the rooftop the look of a minor Mayan or Khmer temple. The room faced a vast and open rooftop courtyard that provided a panoramic view of similar rooftops extending in all directions, dotted with the ubiquitous silver of TV antennas, the dark blue of plastic water storage tanks, rainbow colours on clothes lines and browns and greys of discarded furniture and other household goods. In the distance could be seen the ethereal-looking red stone minarets and white marble domes of the Mughal Badshahi Mosque, seemingly suspended in hazy mid-air.
The remoteness and elevation of his hiding place was meant to provide advance notice of any signs of trouble in the streets down below as well as the option of an aerial escape by jumping from one adjacent rooftop to another. The rooftops were a world within a world – up, above and away from the daytime noise, bustle and chaos of the streets far below which, depending on the time of the day, could be serene, animated, cloistered or exposed. The rooftops were also the places to truly get to know the seasons. The thick, low clouds, when they descended, seemed like a slowly undulating upside down river. They gave freely of their fresh produce forming thousands of small grey-blue pools, bounded and divided by the low brick walls and ledges separating the rooftops. The roof drains and gutters produced a special gurgling music as they deposited the fresh water into the sludgy streets down below, where in the dank darkness it was very hard to imagine the play of fresh air and moisture far above. It was the same with the light – vivid and brilliant above and muted and lustreless below.
There was always something or the other going on in the rooftop world – nimble-footed children scampering up the stairways and clambering structures at dizzying angles, kite-flyers with eyes fixated on the skyward trajectories and distant dogfights of their gaily coloured paper kites, pigeon enthusiasts cooing and tending to their coops of prized birds and gardeners pruning the potted plants and flowering vines in their precious square feet of lush green wilderness in a roofscape of faded brick and cement. Older people basked in their favourite spots under the sun or sought refuge in their choice nooks of cool shade, regular devotees of the morning and evening breezes paid homage to the winds, women hung out their washing or dried their hair, smokers enjoyed their puffs in privacy and lovers admired the phases of the moon or exchanged fastidiously nurtured life plans in secluded corners.
Billa had only moved in for a week or so when he noticed a young woman pacing on the rooftop next to his. She was a bit plump, with long hair and a come-hither smile. Over the next few days he noticed that she started coming to the rooftop much more frequently; sometimes to dry her hair or hang up her washing, and on other occasions to just frivolously walk around, peek keenly into other people’s ground floor courtyards, snatch quick conversations with neighbours and to steal glances at him. Billa ignored her. No hanky-panky with anyone from one’s own neighbourhood – it was a taboo he had always observed. In any event, there was Faiza Kanwal’s perpetual presence in his ear to keep him occupied…
British Colonial India
Circa 1857 CE
… Lahore, during the troubled days of the mid-nineteenth century Raj, was abuzz with people vying with each other in the relentless pursuit of their private paradises. Though geographically segregated into separate colour-coded quarters, the lighter-skinned inhabitants of the city were increasingly conspicuous in the browner sections of Lahore, which lay apart from the cantonment and the civil lines that constituted the White Town of the rulers. Sahibs and subalterns, clerks and administrators – they were the civilian and martial employees of the waning East India Company and the officious functionaries of the waxing Crown. There was also a motley sprinkling of itinerant painters, gentlemen of leisure and incurable flâneurs with an eye and taste for the exotically picturesque. Lahore was as good a launching pad for oriental sensual escapades as it was for oriental careers.
Others of a less obviously self-indulgent bent were also afoot. The Free Masons, for instance, had long since arrived on the scene. The first Masonic Temple was to come up only a couple of years later in a bustling neighbourhood named after one Anarkali – the Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s fabled femme fatale, though in this case fatal to none other than herself. One Rudyard Kipling, no less, was destined to be one of the Free Masons’ initiates a mere three decades later, and was to describe the Masonic Temple as the ‘Jadoo-Gher’ or ‘Magic House’ in his writings. The few present memsahibs were resolutely ensconced in bungalows and occasionally graced the club, while the equally prudish evangelists were now a well-entrenched lot. Their fervent presence was a source of escalating unease amongst those natives who were worried sick about enforced conversions. The champions of local faith systems too had risen to the challenge. Religious reinforcements were in ample supply and the city received a steady stream of traveling sadhus, fakirs, sanyasis, mystics, bairagis and holy mendicants arriving to fortify the walls of the faithful against any unholy breach.
Long had the British mistrusted such obscurantist men for their vagrant lifestyles and wayward views. They were difficult to document, unaesthetic to superior sensibilities, resistant to reform and impossible to govern. Furthermore, those British who were of a more utilitarian bent had found it more than persuasive to believe that asceticism in Hindustan was a guise for indolence at best and brutal crime at worst. A long battle had been waged not too far back against the menace of the cult of thuggee; the delinquent native mind was now an established theme for pseudo-Darwinian research. The legal gradation and sociological classification of local sects and tribes according to their innate propensity for criminality was also an active work in progress.
The last proverbial nail in the coffin for any remote possibility of the rulers ever warming up to these wandering spirituals was forged by the mounting suspicion that quite a few of them were acting as proponents of a rabid new nationalism. A government could conceivably tolerate the unwashed, but not such unhygienic non-conformism that festered into seething dissidence and political dissent. The local British intelligence had been mustering all its resources to thwart this new peril. Native informants and moles played a cardinal role in weaving the intelligence web and Altaf Gulfam was a prince amongst spies. The reason was straightforward. His natural instinct for the clandestine could have put any Free Mason to shame; his single-minded devotion to self-promotion, on the other hand, eclipsed the messianic zeal of the staunchest evangelist.
Though ostensibly a perfumer, Altaf Gulfam peddled everything from remedies for arthritis and leprosy to aphrodisiacs of unnatural promise from a small shop in Anarkali bazaar …
It is said that during the first quarter of the seventeenth century, the mighty emperor Jahangir came one day to pay his respects to a famous Sufi faqir who had taken up residence in Lahore. Quite scandalously, the monarch and his retinue were asked by the fakir’s devotees to wait at the doorstep while they informed the revered saint of his arrival …
… Over two centuries later, sentinels no longer barred anyone from walking through the soft pink stone gateway to the shrine of Hazrat Mianmir. Perhaps because the dogs to worldly desire that frothed in this age were of an even lesser pedigree? They did not seem to set much store by even the occasional bout of spiritual cleansing; far too vain and entangled were they to leave unattended their frenzied pursuits of earthly power. Even for a day. Even to pay a small homage of humility. What self-indulgent pygmies they were for even mighty Jahangir had the magnanimity to acknowledge the limits of his worldly domain, and his was a domain that was truly worthy of being called an empire. Not the truncated and half chewed pieces that constituted that day’s Hindustan, over the scraps of which so many nawabs and rajas had snarled and snapped through most of recent history.
As they had scuffled and scraped, a voracious new breed had long leaped onto their shores. A breed possessed by an unnatural hunger that routinely outsmarted them. It seemed to have come from a land of great deprivation or of overwhelming avarice, as it was decidedly more vicious. Those that it displaced were to either end up as pets in its kennels or declared pariahs and turned out into the wilderness. An ancient Civilisation, an entire culture, and a particular way of life, were to be lost forever. Such were the grim thoughts that occupied Mahmood Ali’s distracted mind as he passed through the portal to the great saint’s shrine.
Beyond it stretched a very spacious courtyard; a small world within the world. Hundreds upon hundreds of grey pigeons with green and pink neck feathers cooed and scurried across the brick floor. Silent devotees of diverse faiths gravitated towards the saint’s elegant white marble tomb situated in the courtyard’s centre. Raised on a platform, it stood out for its distinctive eaves, ceramic tiles, frescoes and fretwork screens. A small cupolaed mosque and a series of cloisters occupied the courtyard’s corners. Large trees provided a ceiling of living green that shaded the entire area. It was so quiet that if one paid attention, the whispers of the devotees’ prayers could be heard, flowing outwards and upwards from their lips. In this amazing quarter, time moved at a different pace. And all were welcome. No one knew for sure of the many different realms from which devotees arrived – not just from those of the Muslims and the Sikhs, but also from those of the djinns. From wherever they came, they joined the muted introspection that the place inspired. In the spirit of the saint that it commemorated, it was a place that seemed oblivious to the world outside: calm and untroubled by the extraordinary events that so often brought the minds of worldly men to a fevered pitch.
Come the evening, however, and devotion would put on a more flamboyant garb. The qawwals would sing devotional songs so enthralling that even birds on wing would try and halt mid-flight to listen. Those in the throes of spiritual ecstasy would dance the dhammal or perform the haal. The entire enclosure would be lit up by clay lamps like the house of a bride awaiting her groom. For wasn’t the entrance of the soul into the realm of the spiritual a truly festive occasion? The reunion of the creature and the Creator to be joyously celebrated? With song, and dance, and lights? And yes also a feast, for cauldrons of food would be distributed amongst the poor. For even while many came solely to appease their spiritual starvation, the hungry still needed to eat.
But Mahmood Ali’s contemplative heart was ill at ease. Wasn’t all this nothing but a convenient retreat? There were those of course who truly sought nothing anymore. They remained on the earth but in transition, keenly awaiting their time to move on. Others were in pain for they had suffered in life, or found the very concept of existence to be insufferable. What was the difference between the malang with the matted hair and glazed eyes who sat smoking his precious pinch of hashish under the peepal outside and that elegant well-dressed man who ardently prayed besides the footsteps to the tomb, his beard wet with tears? Did they both not feel so aggrieved with the given order of things that they dearly sought to escape? Whether through the pungent fumes curling out of a clay pipe or an invisible stairway of prayers? Was their desire for benevolent intercession – of an intermediary that could help ease their anguish and bring them to the doorstep of salvation – not the same?
Or was this a consortium of the truly selfish and the self-obsessed? Solely consumed by nothing except the pain in their precious lives and fixated on finding recourse for their eternal souls? They declared the world they lived in to be nothing but a painful illusion for which they harboured revulsion and contempt. Yet permeating their renunciation was a deep underlying sense of relief and a smug triumph. They evaded both life and the living. What then was their bond with others who like them had suffered but were too tired and lost to even contemplate escape? What then was their kinship with those who shared their deep distaste for their lots but chose to step up and face it, who questioned it, who resisted it?
For those that remained outside, the everyday terms of existence were far from illusory. They lived real lives. Increasingly uncertain lives. An old order was on its deathbed and a new one stood by it. Mirthful. Urging it to die. The mockery in the eyes of the Firangi was not illusory and neither was his musket, his gunpowder and hard bullets that ripped through defiant flesh. There was nothing illusory about the cataclysmic displacement of an entire ethos of living with another that was so alien – that spoke an alien language, followed alien norms, and worshipped an alien god. About the insult felt by a grey-haired Indian of wisdom and honour who could be randomly ill-used by a freckled, pale-faced novice, recently arrived on a ship full of rats. About dignity earned over generations turning into a chain around one’s neck, while upstarts paved their paths to ascendance through flattery and connivance. No! These men and women of perpetual devotion did not quite resonate with him. They never had.
Mahmood Ali still said a prayer. Should the holy saint choose to intercede on his behalf, he wanted to be blessed with the courage to fight for a life of honour. Hazrat Mianmir would surely relate to that, he thought, for was he not a courageous man? It took some pluck after all to put the mighty Mughal in his place.
The Subah of Lahore
The Mughal Empire
Circa 1620 CE
Nur-ud-din Mohammad Salim Jahangir – Emperor of Hindustan, World-Seizer, and Shadow of God – sat musing in his sprawling gardens. Over the years, he had often sought perspective and solace from different saints and sages. He had gone, for instance, to pay his respects to Hazrat Mian Mir of Lahore who, though surrounded by his doting followers and proximate to the bustle of the bazaar, remained steadfast in his pious aloofness to the world and its distractions. The saint was also staunch in his contempt for those who waged massive wars to occupy more and more land. Jahangir had also spent many an hour conferring with the vaisnava ascetic Gossain Jadrup of Ujjain who lived all alone in cramped caves or in a narrow hole dug up in the side of a hill, and had observed how years of unstinting meditation unleashed great wisdom and insight. These and other men of similar calling had made a great impression on him. More so than the often drab and punctilious clerics of various faiths whose debates he organised sometimes, but that left him wanting as they invariably dissolved into quibbles and castigations …
He thought of days long past – days when he was still Saleem growing up in the Lahore of his youth. Days when Saleem was an undoubting romantic, and the fervour of love was the sole hegemon of his senses. What a remarkable coincidence it was that the breeze suddenly picked up just as he was reminded of those cherished and carefree times. The tall stately cypresses and the fragrant flowering maulsari trees swayed sideways, as did the pines, chinars, white poplars, willows and sandal trees which, not native to this soil, had been especially brought there by his ancestors from other climates. The water shooting from the fountains swirled and frolicked at the whim of the gusts. Panicked servants noisily ran to and fro to attend to unravelling tents and upturned furniture and, more importantly, to shelter the King’s prized flower beds of tulips, irises, lilies, poppies, roses and peonies, with protective wicker covers. The wild wind played havoc with Jahangir’s nostrils – for he like his predecessors was a lover of perfumes – and the garden was full of aromatic chambeli, mogra, champa, bela, juhi, nargis, harsinghar, madhumalti, kamal, ketaki, keora, hina, rae bel and a variety of citrus.
All of a sudden, one end of the vast embroidered canopy shading the King came undone in the wind and flapped about with a loud crackling sound. Peacocks added to the general melee with screams that sounded so similar to the handmaidens in the women’s quarter, welcoming the refreshing rain after a sultry day. The air carried the wet fragrance of an approaching storm and myriad birds left their nests in the trees and flew about, perplexed by the sudden turn of events.
His mood somewhat uplifted by the change of air, Jahangir reached out for an intricately carved and turquoise encrusted silver box that held his opium. His eyes caught sight of the pomegranate tree and its blood red blossoms – and he thought of Anarkali. Only a score of years had passed and yet Anarkali was already a legend rather than a memory. Being entombed alive in a wall had that effect. Yet that face – like a dew covered pomegranate blossom – still lingered in the mind. Had she breathed her last in the close embrace of brick and mortar or was the rumour true that her mother managed to contrive her escape? In the days after her condemnation by Emperor Akbar for becoming Saleem’s paramour, he had looked for her like a man possessed. But he was destined to never set his eyes on that comely face again. And now all these years had passed and in the few that remained he would never know. Ah but to catch a glimpse of that shy and radiant smile once more! He remembered the lines he had had inscribed on her commemorative tombstone all those years ago, and when he said them aloud the old pain gnawed at his heart.
Ta qayamat shukr goyam kard gar khwish ra
Ah! gar man baz beenam rui yar khwish ra
Ah ! Could I behold the face of my beloved once more
I would give thanks unto my God unto the day of resurrection
Jahangir withdrew his hand from the carved silver box. Though painful, this was not a memory to be drowned in opium. The sky was darkening by the minute and once in a while a drop of cool rain splashed on his face …
An Additional Excerpt that describes the Lahore District Courts
Circa 2009 CE
Rafiya Begum carefully climbed out of the rickety auto rickshaw. Tightly wrapping herself in her shawl against the nip of the early December morning, she gathered up her various files and pink polythene bags and tiredly braced herself for negotiating the fare. The rickshaw driver’s face was not unkind and so she was hopeful.
‘Baita. May Allah bless you and your loved ones! Do not ask me for more for I only have this much to spare.’ She started her litany while observing whether the target of her plea averted his eyes. That was always a bad sign. Mercifully he did not. ‘Maa ji! You told me as much some days ago. How come you always have an exact amount and that never exceeds fifty rupees?’ There was a twinkle in his eyes and he hadn’t even looked at the note that she had held out.
Rafiya Begum was taken aback by the response. Expecting as she was the usual exasperation or ill temper, she had been silently rehearsing the next part of her supplication that followed her standard opening statement. But he had responded to her calling him ‘son’ by calling her ‘mother.’ ‘Acha baita? When was that? Have you brought me here before?’ She asked.
‘At least twice in the last month alone, Maa ji. You always arrive early and I too am an early bird.’ Seeing that he was about to set off, Rafiya Begum felt the urge to have a longer conversation. ‘Baita now that you have called me mother, do listen to my story.’
‘No Maa ji. Fifty rupees will do for the moment. I can’t today but surely some other time, God willing! I have to go and seek my roti paani now as it will soon be the rush hour.’ The driver smiled and took the fifty rupee note which the old woman had neatly folded thrice over so that it seemingly gained in mass what it lost in volume. The recipients of her compact offerings invariably unfolded them to inspect for fakes, for trust was generally in short supply in these times. This did not deter Rafiya Begum; folded up they looked like holy amulets, she thought, and perhaps acquired greater power of persuasion than their mere face value. This one did not unfold it. Saying salaam he started his rickshaw and launched into a haphazard diagonal trajectory onto the busy road, continuing on that reckless tangent till he somehow squeezed into the fast lane. Overwhelmed by this early morning largesse, Rafiya Begum muttered ‘God keep you.’ Then thinking of the Surah in the Quran called ‘Small Kindnesses,’ she navigated her way through street hawkers and the general multitude towards a large metal gate.
Her intended destination was the ‘Aiwan-e-Adal’ – the grandiosely named ‘Pavilion of Justice’ where the intricate and long-winded legal battles of the residents of the Lahore district were schemed and fought. Its highly unattractive cement-faced edifice lay more or less hidden in the thick grey December fog. The front gate was manned by a few armed policemen who tried to introduce some order amongst the fast swelling influx of entrants. Occasionally, they persuaded them to pass through the metal detector frame placed just inside the gate and on a whim sometimes even frisked them. Rafiya Begum made her way through both entrances but was not frisked as the female police guards were nowhere to be seen at that early hour.
Purely by instinct, she covered her head with her black shawl and then walked discreetly with her face averted from the gaze of those on her left. They were the ones who controlled the political economy of the vital services at the fringe of elaborate legal combats – proprietors of photocopying shops, notaries, legal paper-sellers, typists, translators, booksellers, purveyors of cheap and shiny black rayon ties to absent-minded lawyers who often forgot this compulsory article of their uniform when they left their homes, and a varied cast of shady-looking touts and hangers-on. They perched and looked on from across a large and ramshackle scaffolding-like establishment, a warren of corrugated iron-roofed shacks, crooked narrow lanes, wooden benches and makeshift cardboard partition walls. Rafiya Begum owed money to quite a few of them and they were increasingly impatient with her ineffectual currency amulets. In consequence, she always tried to pass this stretch of the premises as unnoticeably as possible.
Towards her right appeared some more warrens of equal or marginally superior solidity that housed some of the lawyers’ offices. These amounted to no more than a desk and a couple of plastic chairs. Discoloured sheets of thick cloth or canvas or cardboard or plywood, held up on bamboo poles acted as their ceilings. They were distinguished by at least two walls; their fronts and the backs, however, were invariably exposed to the elements. White Urdu or English letters on black and rusting metal plaques – hung up with string or plastered or nailed onto any available surface – gave their names, castes, qualifications and political affiliations.
Less than the usual throng of lawyers attended to half-hearted morning adjustments to the precise placement of their meagre office furniture. However, as she approached the now visible façade of the four-storey court building – a darker and soul-shatteringly depressing grey against the lighter melancholic grey of the fog – she saw many of them heading towards the inner courtyard. She too followed them through an unlit corridor and waded through on instinct as her weak eyes took time to get accustomed to the pervasive bleakness. The silhouettes of black-clad lawyers seemed to float through the gloom like spectres. She had heard that spectres also flocked at twilight to the shrines of saints, in order to pay their respects. But this was no holy place.
Corridors led straight and to the right and staircases led to the upper floors. The corridors were partially blocked by makeshift lawyers’ offices, constituting rundown desks, wood and rattan chairs for the lawyers and a couple of less comfortable plastic chairs, a bench or some stools for clients. The most prized of these furniture items were invariably tied down with chains to the nearest pillar or to heavier pieces of furniture, if available. This was a necessary precaution against any lawyers in adjacent corridors looking to augment their furniture collection; also, against vindictive clients inclined towards settling scores or petty thieves specialising in this particular sub-category of crime. The murk cleared somewhat as Rafiya Begum reached the open and unpaved courtyard. It had a dilapidated and over-priced cafeteria at one end and a small mosque at the other. Overhead, the balding ancient peepal hung its despondent branches, its trunk invaded by the lawyers’ introductory plates, announcement posters for conventions, rallies and protests, and schedules of pilgrimages to the shrines of pirs. Towards the end of the corridor and on the right, another steel gate and metal detector frame led to a more or less identical and adjacent four-storey building that also housed various courtrooms – two twin and towering edifices of grey shrouded gloom.
The courtyard was already filling up with lawyers, litigants, snack vendors and others with no discernible purpose. Rafiya Begum took careful stock of her belongings and then slowly climbed the nearest staircase. She tried to keep well away from the wall which was covered with lurid betel juice stains and the tattered introductory posters of lawyers – they were everywhere except for the ceilings – and precariously dodged those descending fast and recklessly from the floors above. Step by step and holding on to the cemented banister, she made her way to the fourth floor. The corridors were humming with litigants milling around the entrances to courtrooms and offices. Some, however, stood forlornly against the cement railing that overlooked the courtyard below. Others occupied the few cement benches placed along the corridors and leafed through their legal documents or stared vacantly in front of them. She thought of the many long hours she had spent at these familiar spots over the past five years or so since she had first started coming here. Turning right she walked to the very end of the corridor where it met the open bridge leading to the next building, and started searching for her lawyer. He was nowhere to be found. There was no place to sit as the few available benches were already taken. She deposited her various bags in the furthest corner of the corridor and stood leaning against the cold wall.
The crowd swelled as the hours passed. The courts went into session and people came and went as the day grew longer but not any brighter. Twice she attempted to enter the room of the ahlmand to ask the court officer if he had seen her lawyer. At her first attempt she simply could not enter as the room was full of lawyers and their clients negotiating the next dates for their hearings. The second time, the ahlmand was in the courtroom next door and the clerk sitting there simply ignored her as he made some entries in a large register. She then asked quite a few of the loitering lawyers who at least acknowledged her but said that they had no idea. One thought that perhaps her lawyer had a case in session before the High Court and thus wasn’t even present on the district court premises. When she mumbled in surprise that he had told her that her case was up for hearing that day and insisted that that she come and meet him, the helpful lawyer simply shrugged and smiled sympathetically.
Rafiya Begum dared not enter the courtroom as her lawyer had strictly forbidden her. She had done so a few times in the early days. The judge seemed kind and acknowledged her with a nod as she stood meekly by the wall while her lawyer spoke. But she could make no head or tail of what was being said by the lawyers and the judge – it was all so complicated and alien-sounding. Then one day, the kind-looking judge was replaced by another man who looked bored and distracted. On his very first day, he had turned to his staff and said that he was feeling suffocated by the crowd in his courtroom. Thereafter, she and some others were pushed out by a policeman summoned from outside, though many of the seasoned litigants stayed put. Afterwards, her lawyer told her that the judge didn’t want any people idly standing around in his courtroom as it disturbed his concentration. In any event, what was the point of doing so? Didn’t she trust him? What could she say? She didn’t know who to trust anymore. On and on her case had stretched so that she had quite forgotten the number of times she had attended court hearings and held meetings with her lawyer, coming all the way from her two room apartment in the old walled city. As she stood hour after hour in these dreary surroundings, she often felt it was like a bad dream from which she would never wake up.
She was brought out of her musings by the loud thumping of a drum and people shouting in the courtyard. Various lawyers waiting to be summoned for their case hearings or consulting with their clients rushed in that direction with great anticipation. Rafiya Begum also walked towards the railing and leaned over to look. A large marquee had been erected in the open courtyard. Several laughing, chattering, and excitedly gesticulating lawyers had collected there. Many more were making their way towards it. Near the entrance, a brightly dressed drummer was gradually working himself up to launch into an incessant and upbeat rhythm.
It was then that she spotted her lawyer. He too was walking towards the marquee’s entrance along with some friends. A large, balding man with large, bushy moustaches and a prominent paunch, he moved with unusual speed. Holding hands with the lawyers on either side of him, he was literally dragging them along in a state of high animation. Nearing the entrance, he let off a loud elated squeal and then burst into an impromptu dance. Several other lawyers were similarly inspired and soon most of the legal counsels gathered below were dancing with abandon. It turned out to be a feast arranged by a candidate canvassing for the bar elections as they all shouted slogans in his favour. The railings above the marquee crowded with unhappy looking litigants, wordlessly looking on. Others resigned themselves to sport and compared notes on whose counsel was the better dancer. Though this was not her first exposure to the scene below, Rafiya Begum still gazed at it with growing astonishment. It would have been amusing had it been an illusion.
This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol I., as part of the Coldnoon journal.