Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Geralyn Pinto

The Djinn Walk

They were low on tourists that evening and Ariv was one of only five of them trailing behind the guide as he pointed out the melancholy charms of Old Delhi, a city built by the magnificent Shah Jahan.

As they entered the Red Fort, the sun sweated the pale wine of winter and slipped away to the west. Ariv realized that there were just two of them now: the guide and himself. The old man said, “Day after tomorrow we will meet again, yes? I will take you to the dungeons. It’s part of the deal.”

“Dungeons?” A switchblade of wind shaved his ribs and Ariv shivered.

“In sixteenth-century Salimgarh, enclosed within these walls. Till then you must attend this celebration of song and dance – promise? It will make it easier for both of us. Me in my mission and you with your salvation. When I saw you, I knew that you must be the one.”

Ariv raised an eyebrow and accepted a flyer. It announced an annual performance by ‘Thirty-Six Virgins of Paradise!’ to be held at the Fort.

The guide limped away. He was a stooping individual with henna ploughing through his hair and beard like gunfire.

***

The moon was mother of pearl.

The dancers tried hard to appear half dream, half whirling dervish. Except the one forestage. She was jasmine white against the dusty-red of ages. “She doesn’t have to try. She is an illusion. Well, umm...I really ought to be grateful to the old lunatic and to my native curiosity”, Ariv decided.

Her name, he had learnt, was ‘Angaana’.

The dancers vanished into synthetic mist. The next performance would be hers alone. A voice announced: “Now we present Angaana with “Ah Mitva”, a rendition in dance and song of Mumtaz-i-Mahal’s love for Shah Jahan.”

He wasn’t sure when she had taken centre stage but he listened as she sang:

Ah Mitva, no monument of love

will return me to your embrace.

But look for me by moonlight

and in the Stream of Paradise

you shall see my face.

And my love shall burn

in its waters...

That night his dreams were dressed in organza.

**

“You have been faithful”, the guide smiled. “Now for the baoli, the stepwell of Salimgarh, and down to the dungeons.”

They proceeded past the ‘Moonlight Garden’; then the Palace of Colours, a mosaic of black and silver by night. The quietness was broken by the intermittent cry of a bird and the tap-tapping of the guide’s feet on an ancient pavement.

The old man placed a papery hand on Ariv’s shoulder, “This path is called ‘The Djinn Walk’. The place we go to houses these creatures. Be warned: you cannot tell a djinn apart from a human. Furthermore, there are spectres and you cannot differentiate the living from the dead...”

They had reached the stepwell, dark as a pelt in the moonlight and descended, floor by floor, to the bottom. Archways led to underground chambers, while in the centre of a courtyard stood a pond: deep and dead.

“This way to the dungeons”, the guide announced, “where the dead make merry, they say.”

Ariv turned to his companion. But the guide seemed to have fallen back. Fear stabbed his insides and he bellowed, “Where has the old fool got to? WHERE ARE YOU? DAMN YOU!”

Where are you? Damn you! Damn you-damn-you! His words returned in throaty echoes.

Then a figure emerged from the recesses of the chamber: a floating blue, her arms outstretched.

Ariv retreated, “Keep away from me –djinn, spectre, whatever you are!” He scrambled for the pocket knife that he carried.

The apparition raised a finger, “Do not attempt to attack an emissary of Goodness. Beware, instead, of the One who beguiles! There behind you!”

He swung around. In the malignancy of the chamber sobbing laughter rose and fell. Then something enveloped him. It was like drowning in muslin.

When Ariv surfaced he was on the floor, the guide bending over him, solicitous. The young man croaked: “She was a spectre wasn’t she, that thing in blue?”

The old man arose and went into a paroxysm of laughter which might well have been sobbing. “No, she was not! BUT I AM A MINION OF SATAN HIMSELF!! And I have you by the skin of your soul!”

There was relish in the creature’s face as he attempted to drag Ariv by one arm to an alcove.

But the blue light returned. “I come to do battle with Satan’s hireling. In the name of the Lord of Mankind, I decree that all Powers of Darkness be bound and RETURN TO THE EVIL ONE! RETURN!!”

A ripple passed over Ariv’s captor. A weakening grip. Then the air filled with the reek of burning hide.

There was just the young man now and his deliverer.

“How did you drive away that...that abomination?” he whispered.

She replied, “I recited a prayer for release from evil. As assuredly he was. The fiend! He meant you to fall down in worship before that! Look!”

Ariv raised himself and became aware of something in the alcove. It cast a horned shadow. Then he looked about him and in the dust saw two sets of prints. One was made by his own boots. The other - by a pair of cloven feet.

“Who are you?” His tongue was leather.

“A djinn sent by the Merciful One for the restitution of justice to someone who has suffered much. Follow me.”

**

“I am all the light you need”, the blue djinn smiled, “for we were created from fire that has no smoke. Now look into that dungeon. What do you see?”

Ariv quivered: “Human bones? Whose?”

The djinn declared, “By luring you here, the emissary of evil aided me in my mission. Here, take this. It will help you to find her.”

She placed something in his palm.

Of what happened thereafter, Ariv knew only this: he was outside the walls of the Fort, lurching along, a string of ankle bells in one hand. A word was carried to him on a breeze which sprang up from nowhere: “Gaana...an...gaana...”

Angaana!

**

He stood by the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort. Here he’d wait for Angaana who might explain the terror of the baoli. He was counting the lights of Chandni Chowk for the third time when a young woman appeared, luminous in sequinned silk. He’d know her anytime!

He approached her, “I am Ariv Sircar. And you are Angaana? If we may speak somewhere...”

She nodded, “I go to Masterji ki Haveli. There in an eatery we can talk.”

As they picked their way through the refuse that chokes the more down-at-heel quarters of Old Delhi, Ariv took her hand.

“Your name, ‘Angaana’, what does it mean?”

“Beautiful woman."

Ariv studied her hand; then held it tight.

**

Ariv could have sworn that the edifice hadn’t been there a moment ago. He would never have missed its ornamental arches and painted verandas. He took in the faces of the diners who appraised them as they entered. There were sad-faced begums, courtiers and an Emperor.

“Are they the cast of a play? They’re in costume.”

“They are my world. I am a court dancer”, she replied.

He returned, “But there aren’t any courts in India today…?”

“What is ‘today’?” He winced as she fixed her eyes upon him. They were painful poems.

Her voice, her eyebrows dark as seams of coal: he’d give the world to read their stories.

She led him by the hand. “We will go upstairs and there on the terrace, I will dance for you. And you will tell me things?”

The balustrades were of a style that had been fashionable centuries ago. Ariv settled himself down on a divan.

She took the first steps and her voice rang out pure as Himalayan snow:

“Ah, dearest,

your soul counselled you

to choose me

in all worlds and times

in all the forms I take.

In you, my broken heart,

becomes forever whole.

She laid an index finger on his forehead. “You came here because you love me for what I am? As none of the others did….For me you went through the terrors of the baoli?”

His voice was hoarse, “Yes. And I’d do it all over again, my...darling. I…loved you from the first. But about the baoli, how did you know?”

Angaana smiled and rainbows flashed in the night. She held out one foot. “Give me my bells.”

She put them on and twirled, slowly at first, then quicker: ching! ching! In fading silhouette, quicker! He heard her cry, “Thank you! Ah mitva, my love!”

“Where are you, Angaana? Where do you go?” Ariv grabbed armfuls of darkness.

“You set me free, don’t you see? I must return to retrieve myself. From the dungeons of Salimgarh. Those bones you saw - they are mine!”

After a while it was like listening to the fall of dewdrops.

**

“How long have I been here?”

“A week. I’m Vipin Lal. And your name’s Ariv Sircar. We got it out from you.”

“We?”Ariv was lightheaded.

“The police and I. I had to call them in when I discovered you lying unconscious in that vile ruin called Masterji ki Haveli....You gave something else away: the name ‘Angaana’. I must tell you that I am a historian who has studied the dungeons of Salimgarh...”

“You’ve been there, too!”

Lal observed Ariv. “As a researcher. And only by day. The place is sealed off to the public. By Order of the Red Fort Authorities. I know you’ve broken the law – but young men who are spirited away by fiends may be excused...”

“Fiends! How did you know?”

“It isn’t the first time that a case of abduction macabre, and intervention by djinns has been brought to my notice.” Lal smiled, “But be that as it may, I wager that this visitation of Angaana, a courtesan executed in the reign of Salim Shah, will be her last.”

“So she was...?”

“Undead. But sometimes, to be disembodied is to be empowered. Undoubtedly true in the instance of our phantom dancer.”

They directed silence at each other.

Then Ariv spoke, “Why was I chosen?”

“Angaana didn’t quite choose you, but, Satan’s minion did - for his own nefarious purposes. You fell in love with her, I think?”

“How did you guess?”

“When a man raves about a woman in his delirium, it isn’t difficult to deduce.” Lal lit a pipe. “The brute led you to Angaana, as he did all the others. By exploiting your growing affection for her and your curiosity, he lured you into the chamber diabolic. However, even he didn’t take into account the Wheels of Justice. Read this: Angaana’s dying declaration. I recovered it during my research.”

Ariv read:

I, Angaana am innocent. I was summarily judged, thrown into these dungeons and condemned to die of thirst.

I practiced the only profession open to someone like me - that of a courtesan. The Empress Consort of Salim Shah requested that I be permitted to live in the zenana there to perform for the ladies. However, her regard attracted enmity and I was spied upon till my secret was discovered and here I put it down: I, Angaana, have a body and a soul at war with each other. While my soul is woman, my body is that of a man....

I was condemned as an imposter who had sought unlawful entrance into the ladies’ quarters.

But I am guiltless! And I will return, in age after age, till I find the love that I crave. May Heaven assist me!

Ariv put the manuscript down and sighed. “So I guessed right about Angaana.”

Vipin Lal started, “You did? How?”

“Something indefinable. The voice…the hairline, perhaps. But I knew for sure when we held hands. No woman’s grip is quite so strong. I’ve had much experience. Incidentally, I have a primal weakness: beautiful people.”

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