Fiction

​Jharokha – A buried episode of the Lodhi Empire

It was the time when Badshah Salamat was returning after signing a treaty with Hussain shah, the ruler of Bengal. A lot of chaos and blood was averted as both the kings had sealed a political friendship. The ruler of Bengal presented the Sultan of Delhi, Sikander lodhi, a tohfa (gift) as a departing felicitation.

I was the 15 year old tohfa and the youngest addition to the King’s Harem, a priest’s daughter. I had forgotten my voice after they abducted me from the ghats of Jamna, where I witnessed my father’s martyrdom.

Upon arrival, I was examined to make sure I didn’t have any physical defects or any diseases. I was taken to the Hamam (bath house) and taught how to clean according to the traditions.

My education began with religious training about Islam, etiquette at the royal court and skill training in embroidery. Most time was spent caged in the four walls of this glamorous inferno where they taught us the palace attitude, how to greet people, and walk backwards to leave the Sultan’s room. The other concubines told me, Sultan liked his women obedient, silent and who had firm flesh.  Apart from the fear, terror and suffocation there was a relief of security and a foolish hope of becoming the Sultan’s confidant.

Most girls were awestruck with him. Sikander was endowed with an extraordinary physical charm, had a rare quality of eloquence and was fond of literature and poetry. After knowing his inclination towards poetry, I felt my first connection with Sultan, a week before I was scheduled to serve him. 

The harem was comfy prison which housed beautiful foreign girls. The prison wardens were eunuchs who kept a close watch on us. Sometimes they brought news and gossip. One of them told me, Badshah salamat was born as the third son of his father Bahlol from the abduction and rape of Ziba, the daughter of a Hindu goldsmith of Sirhind.

Sikander was a devout Muslim and was intolerant towards non believers. From the Jharokha, I watched him practice his Morning Prayer and recitation of the Quran before he began his administrative duties. May be he noticed me too, but that was only my imagination. 

The night of my first encounter with Sultan arrived. I took timid steps towards his bed where he lay. My gaze never moved from the floor, carpeted with white feathers. Sultan approached, gently lifted my face and asked, ‘What’s your name, delicate one?’

‘R… Ruk… Rukhsar,’ I answered faintly, ending a year long silence and beginning a barren relationship. A night after another and in a few weeks, I became his preferred. 

Sultan was kind to me. Sometimes he would spend the entire night talking gallantly about his conquests and even reading his poetry. He composed poems more often than before, called me his missing inspiration. At times, I could find myself in his compositions, which described the way he saw me;

Her sapphire eyes and chestnut hair,

Masha-allah is there a maiden so fair?

Tender like a bird, yet fierce like a sword,

Her touch is gold, her absence despair.

On a moon lit night he called me his Gulrukh (Rose face) and soberly told that he had to leave the city for his next conquest. He gave me his Persian katar (dagger) as a safety measure. With a promise to write letters, the next morning he left for his expedition against Gwalior.

At the court, the other concubines had already grown hostile due to his fondness towards me. They saw me as a thorn in their way. With the Sultan gone and after a week of alienation, I was thrown in the dungeons. 

I cried for days, begged for weeks to let me out and speak to Sultan, but no one returned a word.  I never received a letter from him. I was hurt beyond repair and felt deceived. After two months, the misery came to an end when a guard on official orders grouted me with a bow string. 

It was a fleeting vision, oblique like the rays of sun. My cheek rested on a dusty floor, followed by a fainting sight of footsteps leaving the cellar. A familiar white feather swirled with my last gasp.

A constant screeching on the stone walls broke my spiritual sleep. A hand with a pointy stone drew something on my face. Baffled, I aviated out of the wall surface and saw some designs. The jharoka has been my home for some 500 years. 

These walls have several clustered letters drawn on them.  Apart from hearts, arrows, petals and leaves I never understood what they meant.

A young boy and a girl were talking some sweet nothings and it seemed acceptable. Strangers visit this place, ignorant of the dead. Insufficiently dressed people pose openly in the gardens just to be seen by another man through small black bricks. 

I moved away to the corridors of the mosque which once shimmered in all its beauty. The tiles had lost their blues, but I hadn’t. Sikander’s faux promise still aches like a violent cut refusing to turn into a scar. I spent countless days and nights revolving around his tomb with the katar. Maybe someday he will rise and I will confront him.

Sometimes I hesitantly stare at his grave, and he appears to be smirking at me for my ignorance. And I laugh, at how foreign people use his burial site for reading, exercising and feeding birds, completely disregarding his once royal being. These inferences are only a failed attempt to feel better. So, I looked at the sky and hatefully cursed him.

A sudden thunderstorm struck and a flock of pigeons near his grave, dispersed in fright.

One of them shed a feather. It glided down gently and perched on Sikander’s grave. As it did, the grave started sinking in the ground. The tomb pillars and walls started falling apart. The earth swallowed everything that surrounded it. In that bewildered minute, the spot turned into a vast green field with only an old banyan tree under which I stood. I saw a vague shadow of a horse coming in my direction. As the vision got better, I couldn’t trust my eyes.

It was Sultan! He stooped on the horse’s back, bloody and wounded, like escaped from a battle. My eyes pooled.

He fell from the horse and I rushed to help him. His hand hung around my shoulder as he struggled to sit, and uttered with pain, ‘Rukhsar, my love. Forgive me. I failed to keep my promise. I am a gunehgaar.’

‘Rukhsar has always loved you Jehanpanah,’ I choked and tears escaped.

‘Ya Allah,’ he ached ‘only your love can save me my Gulrukhsar,’ he pleaded. 

‘My father taught me, God is one and can’t be split into Ram and Rahim. Like love, ignorant of names and beliefs,’ I reminisced.

‘What do mean Rukhsar?’ he was puzzled.

‘The priest you burnt alive, was my father. And I am Rukhmani, not Rukhsar.’

I silenced him with a jab of katar in his chest. A few minutes later I started flying on my own, amazed at my new white feathers.

Interview, Women

Journey of a Dancing Queen

“I quite jokingly say that rhythm runs inside me as my mother is a dancer and father a drummer. I used to watch all of her shows. So, dance has been a really important part of my life and will always be”, says Abhina Aher, a transgender and trans rights activist.

Born in a middle class Maharashtrian family, Abhina, at a very early age of 3, lost her father. Defying the stigma, her mother, a strong and graceful woman, raised her sole child very elegantly.

While she was at work, I’d pull out her saare and playfully wear it with makeup and jewelry. Embracing that aura, I gazed at my own shadows on the wall and pictured a beautiful woman dancing. That is what I was longing for! But when my mother found out about this craziness, she got really mad. I protested that I wanted to dance! Dance like her. She said. No, Boys do not dance.

Abhina who was an extremely feminine kid, hated wearing boy’s clothes. Like her friends she wanted to wear frocks. People used to make fun of me. At school they called names like chakka and all those lingos they use for female aesthetics.

Growing up, I faced a lot of problems. The teachers insisted me to use the boy’s washroom. So I used to wait till recess got over and stealthily use it during lectures when nobody could harass me.

In India, parents seldom talk about sexuality and sexual behavior. Even girls are not sufficiently made aware about menstrual cycle or body changes. In our patriarchal society women are taught not to have sexual pleasures.

When I was in 9th standard, I was nearly raped by a bunch of boys. They tried to rip my clothes, brutally kicked me and also tried to beat me with a metal ruler. But I was too ignorant to understand that it was a sexual harassment.

I was in total aghast when my own teacher said that the problem is with you. Because you don’t behave like a boy, they tried to punish you. I was too scared to tell my mother. The entire world tried to tell that I am not a girl. But I knew I was a girl.

I would get attracted to males. There was no body I could talk to. I had no friends, felt lonely, afraid and used to sulk all the time. I tried committing suicide 3 times.

But with that 3rd unsuccessful attempt, I knew I wasn’t meant to die. I had some unfinished business and I decided to serve that purpose.

After school, Abhina studied arts and economics from the R D National College in Mumbai. She graduated college in male clothes.

In 2010, Abhina moved to Delhi and worked with a plethora of organizations. She worked for 8 years at Humsafar trust and learned counseling, research, advocacy, capacity building. She also worked with bar girls and sex workers. She has been a part of WHO for HIV issues, tran violence, trans acceptance, gender discrimination, consultant at John Hopkins Univ and India HIV Aids alliance, Family Health International (FHI), International Trans refer group (IRGT) on HIV, Global Action for Trans Equality (GATE).

I want to set a solid foundation for progress of transgender people and give back as much as possible.

After 20 years, today Abhina runs her own organization called Tweet (Transgender Welfare Equity & Empowerment Trust)

But in between this journey there are a lot of sub stories.

8 years before, the Kathak dancer started a dance group called the dancing queens which is a tool to advocate gender and sexuality issues like coming out, family support, main streaming, stigma, violence, employment and education.

The group has done about 67 shows across India. We raise money for pride walks and for HIV positive trans people. 30 % of dancers are HIV+ she states. Recently they did a corporate show for Godrej which was attended by around 600 people. Aftermath, Godrej hired their first Trans person!

At times when we performed people threw pebbles at us. So you are always vulnerable. There are some chapters of my life which I never might talk about. These are miserable times when I had to struggle for Rs 100 a day. There are steep challenges in what we do.

While there are challenges around violence, stigma, health care, education and employment, the biggest of all is poverty. Poverty is killing people, she says worryingly.

The 2012 census reported 5 million trans population but that’s just the tip of iceberg. A lot of people do not declare or come out. A lot of trans men are living as women. As of 2017 there are an estimated 25 million trans people in India.

But as compared to foreign countries India is still ahead. We are the only country which has liberated a third gender acknowledgement. The NALSA verdict by Supreme Court sensitized the judges and it was a huge achievement though a lot of work still remains.

She has been a part of various new initiatives and believes in creating history.  We are trying to create work for Trans people. We run online campaigns on trans phobia focusing the main stream society. Unawareness is the biggest form of stigma. Which is quite contradictory as our culture goes back to 7000 years. We had a dignified positioning in the society. We were the fortune tellers, dancers, makeup artists. There’s a temple in Mehsana, Gujrat called the Bhaucharaji mata temple where the priest is also a trans person. Unfortunately today we are only mimicked in movies and TV shows.

Trans people also have a heart and are struggling for dignity and respect. The community has given us role models like Laxmi narayan tripathi, Akkai padmashali, Manabi Bandopadhyay who are pushing the boundaries and defeating the taboos.

From a shy, lonely person to an eloquent speaker addressing a crowd of a lakh people, Abhina too has come a long way.  She says, I will be proud when a lot of people would come to show strength when I die. We don’t take anything with us but only the good deeds. I may not be the best looking person, but I have the best heart inside me and that is what I would cherish all my life.

She then hums a song… Ghir ghir aayi badariya kaari… as she wipes a premature tear in her eye.

Dating & Relationships, Fiction

The Blind date.

A typical weekday. But not so typical evening. Who knew the girl, Sagar was chatting with for the past week worked in the same building as he did.

So a time and place was agreed upon and they decided to meet that evening. Sagar was there before Antara. He picked a table just opposite the bar counter. An interesting bouquet of dim coppery lights hung like a pendant above the table.

It was 6.30 when Antara entered. Sagar was on a phone call. He waved at her from his chair, as he continued the call. When she reached near the table he apologetically took an excuse, as he indicated 1 minute with his finger. He didn’t get up to receive her.

“So, how are you doing! You know you look prettier in person than your pictures.” He remedied the situation as he put the phone back in his pocket.

Antara smiled her thanks and fixed a hair strand behind her ear.

“Interesting watch!” She returned the compliment.

Sagar started talking about his collection of watches. Then they talked about usual things like work, what they did, hobbies, music and so on.

They had ordered coffee but after 10 minutes they cancelled the order. The music and ambience warranted a drink.

“Tell me a secret!” Antara asked notoriously.

“But if i did, it will no longer be a secret” he evaded.

“How about we trade a secret” she made him a deal.

“Okay,” he leaned in closer, “I never told this to anyone but I once used to be a ballet dancer” he mocked.

They both burst into a fit of laughter. And Sagar subtley tucked her loose hair strand behind her ear.

“Let’s dance” she insisted.

“I really can’t” he excused.

“But this is my favourite song” she got up this time.

Sagar was hesitant. He made a face and said would like to enjoy the drink. This upset Antara a bit.

He could have at least accompanied her. She felt offended and embarrassed.

After finishing their drinks Antara said she must leave. He nodded.

They got up and shook hands. Thanks were exchanged. He looked at her in anticipation for another date. But she didnt return the eye contact.

They made their way towards the door. Antara was a little ahead of Sagar. When she got outside she turned back and discovered that Sagar was still walking.

Well not exactly walking. He was slow and was limping with one hand on his crutches. Sagar’s left leg was…. He only had one leg.

A ghost of guilt and regret clogged her chest. So that’s why he never got up and said he couldn’t dance. And she was being so pushy. Why wouldn’t he tell her about it. How could she be so blind to notice. Antara was sad, angry and embarrassed.

I hope to see you again! Sagar said with uncertainty.

“Indeed!” She replied. Trying not to look at the leg.

It had started raining. “My cab is waiting” she waved hurriedly.

Sagar stood there and watched her walking swiftly, then taking quick and long steps, and then running towards the main road.

Fiction

Winter wine

The room was full of excitement and cheer. Soft ballad music made of piano, violin and cello played in the air. The chandeliers were just perfectly lit to cast a magnificent golden shadow upon the beautiful gowns that ladies wore. While some gowns glared in crimson and sliver, some flowed with the violin sonata.

The New Year was shying away from 60 seconds, and the tempo had risen! The dancing couples took a delicate pause, all eyes fixed on the giant clock, where the second hand stole all the show.

The others stood encircling the love birds, ready with their champagne. With a sonorous clinking everywhere, it was 12 when the three needles came together and so did some lips. The dancing continued with more wine and louder music.

Further away from that joyous halo, sat a maiden in a blue chiffon ensemble, sipping on some red and dancing her fingers on the wine glass. “If this is love, it’s everything I always want to be” she hummed to herself. A perfect moment it was.

Let’s go out! You don’t want to miss the fireworks! Whispered Adrian in her ear.

“But its freezing, not to mention it would pour in sometime”, she remarked without turning back.

“Please!” Adrian extended his hand. So they walked out towards the icy garden. The fireworks were faintly visible as it was disadvantaged by the twigs. So they crossed the pavement to take the downhill road until they had a clearer view.

They both shivered, she because of the cold and Adrian in excitement. In a moment, the sky lit in a thousand colors and they stood still.

It’s magical isn’t it? Smiled she.

It is, he nodded

They both had the reflection of this magic in their eyes. An anticipated silence thrilled the two.

One again they shivered. But this time, both due to a fragile moment they had landed in.

What are you thinking, Adrian broke the ice.

Umm, nothing! She concealed.

When their eyes met, Adrian came closer and wiped off a tear drop from her cheek.

Well, it wasn’t from her eyes. In a moment, it started raining. They rushed and took a temporary shelter under a bus stop kiosk. She looked down at her gown which was drenched in rain water.

No bus or taxi could be seen. The rain only got heavier mixed with unattackable wind currents.

They shivered.

Their eyes met again. She stepped closer and removed a tiny leaf from his hair. He extended his hand, “May I have this dance?”

The fireworks had now stopped in the skies, leaving for some potential under the kiosk.

 

Uncategorized

Cosmopoem

You and I, We sit,

Unplugged chords you try to strike,
The dim lights take me on a stroll,
My head spins,
Listening to rock and roll,
Assorted music my phone plays,
To top it up,
Your teasing me in mysterious ways,
I’m lost in trance,
I wish to dance,

The heart beats faster,
As you watch me type…

A raw memory starts to ripe

So much to say, so little you talk
Eyes making conversation 
even though you try to lock
that unsaid expression,

Wish you could say it all,
pour like a waterfall,

While we talked in glances
Days and nights grew dead,
Wonder if take chances,
But some things are better unsaid..

Dating & Relationships

NEED for SPEED MEET

After lunch hours are drudgingly slow at work. I was browsing on the internet and came across an interesting event on my Facebook page. Speed meet, the extrovert name peaked my interest. I clicked on their link and read about it, went through their previous event shots and without further contemplation decided to enroll for it.  Also, just another perquisite of being single.

Two days later I received a scrutiny call and after that an email from the DateTix team said I was shortlisted for this event. I was really excited! Till now I had only seen it in the movies or read about speed dating, but to be actually trying it felt like taking adrenaline shots in a row!

I had a lot of questions on my mind. What am I gonna wear? What questions should I ask? What question would they ask? What if I feel out of the place? Are people going to judge? What if it’s stupid? But what if it’s actually worth it? What if I do meet someone great! Would we click well? …  Again, what am I going to wear!!!

The concept of speed dating is still young in India. It could be because people are shy or they fear about being judged. But I think it is a great way to meet legit, single, like-minded, decent and sensible people. It is definitely better than those online apps where you can’t be even sure of someone’s gender. Also, it is better than been matched by your uncles and aunts in a family or a cousin’s wedding function. And the matrimony sites are only being operated by parents these days.

And here is this opportunity where you are sure to meet with only a filtered crowd of working professionals of near or similar interests. There isn’t any rehearsed or a copied “about me” but a five-minute face to face real-time interaction. And you do not have to go through the painful steps of texting, worry about exchanging numbers or sharing any personal info. You only need to know whether you are ready and if in case you are, what are you seeking in your partner to be?

So the day arrived and I reached the venue on time. Now being punctual is really important as you get to browse a bit and shortlist a few faces as it gets challenging to remember when you are meeting them rapidly. You are given a sheet of paper with 10 or 12 names listed down. After every meet you can write a Yes or a No against the name of the person depending on how it went. But remember, 5 minutes.

There’s an announcement which keeps you on track. After 2 meetings it gets repetitive but also crazily interesting. In my case, it was a roller coaster ride. When you realize the time is ticking you can bomb with some unique questions. Let me share what I discovered from the experience and remember,

  1. Certain guy came prepared with questions like, Google or android? Friends or family? Hollywood or Bollywood? India or abroad? Too close ended.
  2. Another was too much into traveling and kept talking about his expeditions. He actually went on for the entire 5 minutes like a little kid. That was funny.
  3. The next meeting was weird as my name reminded him of his sister. Awkward! But we laughed.
  4. The next person was also a Taurean and we became a team empowering all the Taureans.
  5. Someone talked about their pet and got too deep into it. Well I like them but don’t own any.
  6. Guys talked about their singing talents, their reading lists, photography, and a lot of them talked about traveling. Actually most of them did.
  7. A guy initiated the conversation with a fancy pick up line and it made me laugh, “Is that how you plan to begin this?’’
  8. One of them spoke in a serious tone, like mafia, dressed sharp and no voice modulation.

It was so much fun as you get to know so many new things and learn about people. Although I didn’t find anyone I could click with, but it was worth a try and definitely made my Sunday. I really felt good that now there is an arena where I can meet and decide on my own whether I like the person or not without having to go through so many steps as time is of the essence.

Given an average life of 75 years, for someone who is 27, he or she has only 2496 Sundays left in their lives. And if you plan to get married by 30, that leaves you with only a 104 Sundays my friend.

I say invest in these Sundays intelligently and decide for yourself, who you want to spend your rest of your weekends and weekdays with because you don’t need validation from anyone.

I might try my luck again. Who knows he might be thinking of trying his luck as well!

Cheers and spread joy!

Rhymes

Sad Diva

Once again the heart has defeated the  brain
I am guessing that is why, we are injured again

I wish things turned out, the way we had planned
A moment I was flying, the next I was alarmed

took one minute to quit, on a promise for lifetime
Feels regrettably hopeless, yet I wait for a sign

As you remain silent, I am fenced with dreadful worries
So afraid to lose you, when you’re not buying any sorries

Apologies won’t work, so can’t we at least fight?
Unable to sleep, I just keep turning off the light
Guess I’m nothing more, than a criminal in your sight
Wish I could rewind and make everything All right

I know these words are plain and my excuses are lame
But my world’s an empty cellar, when you don’t even blame!

Speak to me baby, I’m stuck in this Suck fest
Where do I go now? Your heart’s been my nest

Just take away my wings, I don’t deserve a flight
This sorry, selfish birdie, has no reason to delight

So I flew fingers to the joy
when you left with no goodbye
Although they drip from the skies

Warm rain dwells in the eyes.