A cart laden with sweet, crunchy pethas is before me. I take a piece and roll it between my fingers. It feels sticky, and rough like soft stone. What magic transforms white pumpkin into this treasure? I close my eyes and take a bite—rosewater floods my mouth. Mmmmmm…
What’s this? I look at my hand, ready for another nibble but it’s empty. My fingers caress nothingness.
It’s evening, I’m very hungry. The Taj minarets fade into dusk—glowing columns of translucent petha. So close … my mouth waters. I reach out to pluck one but Hazrat-chacha intrudes: “Lazy boy, can’t get two customers into my shop! If I don’t get some gora tourists today you’ll have to answer me understand? Look at these leather bags, embroidered dresses and marble plates! You think I’m stockpiling them for your wedding hanh?” He shakes his head and clicks his tongue.
My body rocks violently. I awaken with a jumping heart and roaring ears.
Ammi stirs: “What’s wrong with you restless child?”
“Uh … nothing Ammi-jaan; the thunder slapped me out of my sleep.”
“It’s too early,” she murmurs coughing beneath her thin blanket.
With arms crossed over my thick red sweater I try to sleep. Ammi got this sweater from one of her houses: “You’re growing fast, this will keep you warm.”
“I don’t need it Ammi-jaan. I’m not cold.” Yet she forces me to have warm milk with turmeric all the time. My little sister Naina doesn’t drink it, nor does Ammi who needs it more. She works four houses sweeping, mopping and washing utensils.
It’s still dark except for the streetlight shining through cracks in the metal and blue plastic walls. When Abba was alive we had an electric light. As a child I would jump and try to touch the bare bulb dangling from a wire hooked to the metal roof. Of course I couldn’t reach it but I wouldn’t give up. “Dance! Jump!” father would say hitting a stick on the ground as if I was a street bear.
Somebody cut our electricity line—now there’s little warmth.
I drift and the pethas seem within reach … then the sky crackles open and swallows my sleep. I jerk up taken by an idea. Naina who is cuddled up with Ammi whimpers. I wait until she settles down, my nose wrinkles from the nearby sewer that goes to the Yamuna.
Creeping out of bed, I stay on my knees. “Where is it? Where is it?” I rummage under my bed. I pull at a tin box which causes Ammi to shift.
“I remember now … ” I crawl towards my treasure pile tucked out of Naina’s reach and sift through it: a tire from a toy bicycle, a half-pack of cards, a windup solider, several keys and an old petha box with a mouthwatering photo that Abba gave me. The marbles inside tinkle as I push the box aside; dust sticks to my fingers. A slice of light from outside falls on me.
“There it is!” My heart falls at the sight of the rusted arm and dusty old black fabric. I pull at it carefully. Soon I’m at the door.
“Beta where are you running off this early?” she asks sleepily.
I stop, “uh, nowhere Ammi, be right back.”
Outside, in the dawning light I look up and pray. Soon a ghostly dark cloud smothers the eastern sky. I walk in the gloom, umbrella tucked under my arm. I don’t dare open it.
At the tea shop I inquire: “Aslam-mia…what time is it?”
“What’s it to a boy like you?” He asks in an irritated voice, his head bent as he lights the stove.
“I have a need to know today. Is it six-thirty?”
“The mosque called eons ago … look there the sun creeps up,” he gestures to his right.
“Oh no!” I run into the back road which is my shortcut jostling past the early risers. An old man with a tin can glares at me as I rush past. Rahim, my classmate, lives nearby.
A cow coming from the opposite direction blocks me. She sways lazily, chewing on a banana peel shaking her head. “Hut, hut …,” I push her with the umbrella tip but she won’t budge.
The sky is clearing. I can’t be late! I turn back and dive into another lane. The umbrella slows me down.
At last … I reach the gates and things are quiet. Cars are not allowed here so tourists take a cycle-rickshaw, electric car or just walk from the barricades. My breath races as I look around. There are barely any tourists. Usually many come for the sunrise at six-thirty. The rain must’ve slowed them down. At least my shop isn’t open or Hazrat-chacha will be sending me off for chai and paan.
A lone rickshaw crawls up the grade, I know the driver Munna. The lady wears a peacock blue kurta, white churidaar and has a shiny dupatta wrapped around her head. The Sahib looks like a potato—dressed in green pants and sweater, with a tight woolen cap. He gestures wondering if the Taj will greet him in sunrise.
I’m desperate for rain. I cut them off as they get out and walk towards the security gate. “Sir sir, umbrella, for rain?”
He stops and looks at me. “Janaab, are you selling it?”
“No Sahib, just for hire. You return it after seeing beautiful Taj.”
“How much, kid?”
Begum intrudes: “Jaane do Ashish, the sun is coming out already. Why waste money?” She gives me the same stern look I get at school. Only she is very beautiful … like Empress Mumtaz.
Sahib hesitates and turns towards the gate. I’m doomed.
Just then, like a wounded tiger the sky emits a mighty roar that unsettles my stomach.
Begum’s dupatta flutters in a strong breeze that brings fat droplets of water.
Subhanallah. “Only hundred rupees Sahib. Begum can enjoy Taj in comfort.”
He turns to me, “I can get a new umbrella for that much is it not?”
“No Saab, shops are closed just now.”
“How convenient. Fifty.”
“Sahib…you’re my first customer,” I plead.
The droplets keep coming as Begum looks on in a bad mood. I put the umbrella in his hand before things change.
“If I don’t return it what happens?”
“Then that’s your fortune Sahib.”
He laughs, “what’s your name?”
“Nazeer,” I answer grudgingly. I know he wants to bring down my price by acting friendly. I should have waited for a gora, they pay more.
“Where will I return this umbrella?”
“I’ll be right here Saab.”
“Even if we take a few hours?”
“Please enjoy our Taj at leisure.”
They walk to the entrance. I cringe when he tests the umbrella. Thankfully he tries it partway and closes it.
Begum looks back at me suspiciously as they disappear inside. She must think I stole the umbrella. It’s Abba’s, I’m sure it’s older than me.
I pray for sun as soon as they enter the courtyard. My breath releases.
The flaky biscuit dipped in tea tastes delicious and I don’t have to pay. I finish it off and look to Aslammia who passes me two more. I sit in the shelter behind his cart. Such a good-hearted person, Allah will shower him with blessings. If only he offered pakoras with tea and a petha—I would be in heaven every day.
I lean out towards where the sunrise should be. It barely rained half a bucket, now golden rays sneak out. That’s good—the umbrella won’t be used and my money is safe. But what if Sahib refuses to pay saying he didn’t use it?
The warm tea and food lulls me. My eyes close, sleep envelops me in her warm blanket:
We float in a boat on the Yamuna. It’s early morning and the mist is heavy. Ammi-jaan sits at one end of the boat and Naina—who looks much grown—has her back to me. I hear the oars slapping the water and the whoosh of the boat. I must be the oarsman … but are those my hands? Ammi smiles at me. How happy and healthy she looks!
The Taj sails into view as we make for the far bank. It’s small as a souvenir and carved out of petha. As it bobs up and down sunlight glints off the dome, I can reach out and take it. I’ll eat it by myself. No, I must share with Naina and Ammi.
“Nazeer! Not at school? Half the time you’re missing. Remember how teacher’s slap stings?” I recognize my schoolmate Rahim’s voice. What’s he doing here? I’m on a boat, he can’t just walk over unless he’s a ghost.
A sting on my cheek awakens me—sharp drops of rain, big enough to hurt. I stand up dazed, “Aslam-mia! What time … ”
“Don’t you start again…what’s gotten into you today?! Khuda is your timekeeper not me,” he grumbles.
“But, but…I’m terribly late.”
Aslam-mia mutely stirs his pot of boiling tea.
“Khudahafiz,” I run into the muddy street. How long has it been? If Sahib disappears with the umbrella I’m sunk.
Old, toothless Bhavani-ma who sells flowers waves to me; her basket is covered with a gunny sack while she shelters next to the mango tree. The faster I walk the more mud splatters my pant. The sweater’s getting wet and heavy too. Ammi is going to be so angry.
I see several shops open, though desolate. I circle around Hazrat-chacha’s shop. Really I don’t want to go there today come what may. Afternoon school will be better; I can sleep in the back row.
At the gates things have changed—an electric bus pulls up and several men hawk umbrellas. But where is mine? There’s no sign of Sahib or his Begum. I hope they are slowed by this rain but what if he broke it? I’ll blame him for being careless and charge him more.
I take shelter at Salim-bhai’s drinks shop. Rain crashes down tearing at the plastic awning. I shake my head dry and wring out water from my sleeves.
A bright flash then an explosion—the hairs on my neck stand up. I crouch and cover my ears. Salim-bhai looks on, his face expressionless. I’ve never gotten anything free from him.
A small plastic bag blows by, I stuff it in my pocket. Before me cigarette butts dance in a puddle.
Suddenly, the tap turns off and there’s sunlight. I shield my eyes from the glare and stand up. Beyond the gate the marble dome floats on waves of blue. The main road is a glittering sheet of glass.
“Ullu ka patha! This is where you’re hiding … ”
My head is wrenched to the right as a strong hand twists my ears, “ah … ah! Let me go!”
I know who it is—Irfan the goonda—he’s the enforcer for Hazrat-chacha and a few other shops. Making sure the boys are always hawking to tourists.
“Where have you been? Chachaji has been asking for tea all morning.” I kick his shins as he drags me towards the shop.
Now I’m doomed. There will be no money for the umbrella … no pethas, just another dull day.
“Irfan-bhai, I’ll bring tea right now for both of you!”
No answer. He’s about eighteen, thin as a broomstick but acts like a filmi hero—cigarette dangling from mouth, steel bracelet on wrist. If only I could give him a nice slap. His grip is like iron. What to do?
Out of the corner of my eye I keep a lookout for Sahib dreading that he will see me and come straight towards us.
Just then I see the carcass of an umbrella near the gutter—spokes poking through tattered fabric, it’s shape lost forever. Oh no! I tug at Irfan’s loosening grip.
“Stop squirming like a rat.”
All around I see tourists approaching; there’s a group of goras. “Handicraft … nice key chain, marble Taj, brass, woodwork. Please this way,” the boys call out.
“I need to get those tourists for Chachaji … let me go!”
“You promise … ”
“Have I ever lied to you Irfan-bhai?” He’s diverted by a woman, his grip loosens. I jerk away.
I hide out of his sight on the far side of the gate behind the food stalls. What’s taking Sahib so long? Is he gone after dumping my umbrella in the gutter? I shiver and step into a patch of sun as hope deserts me. Before long Irfan will be on my tail.
Oh, it’s him! I see the tall Sahib first, umbrella in hand then Begum appears.
I push a few people aside and reach Sahib before he gets too far.
“Here Sahib!” I call out trying to get them in the corner.
“Nazeer?” asks Sahib. “You look like a wet puppy.”
My eyes go to the umbrella—bulging on one side with bent spokes. Forcing a smile I say, “I like running in the rain Sahib. Please follow me.”
“Why are you taking us away?”
I must move fast before the hawk swoops in. Begum, who was talking to a sales boy walks over. Her dupatta is draped over her shoulders, her face glows in the sun. “It’s sunnier this side,” I say weakly.
“Ah, Nazeer your umbrella didn’t really help you know. We just sheltered. It does appear in many of our photos though.”
Lies. “Beautiful photos I hope—the Taj must look like it was carved from pethas … ” I regret the words the moment they slip out.
They laugh loudly and Begum claps her hands. “Well said, did they teach that to you in school?” She asks appearing a bit softer.
“No Sahiba … it’s just, just nothing. I do like pethas that’s all.”
Handing me the umbrella Sahib inquires: “have you been inside and seen the Taj Mahal?”
“No Sahib, that’s for tourists like you.” Their cycle-rickshaw driver Munna appears.
“Here,” says Sahib handing me fifty Rupees which I quickly put away in the bag in my pocket. “Now what shop are you going to send us for souvenirs.”
“Sahib … ,” I hesitate, “just go to Kinari Bazaar for better items.”
“Thank you for your honest advice,” says Begum. “And where would we buy pethas?”
“They’re still in season Sahiba. Any good shop will welcome you.” I’m eager to run away before Irfan gets his hands in my pocket.
Begum gets into the rickshaw. Sahib looks distracted, still staring in the direction of the Taj as if he lost something. He turns to me and says, “here,” handing me another fifty Rupees, “that’s for repairing your umbrella.”
My heart smiles, “shukriya Sahib.”
“You must go to school tomorrow,” he adds.
“I do want to go … sure I will,” I muster enthusiasm.
I strike a salaam as they are driven towards the car park. Tucking Abba’s broken umbrella under my arm I steal away from the gates my mouth watering in anticipation.
It’s evening, I get home before Ammi and fall asleep in her bed. When I wake up it’s dark except for the band of white light on my chest. Is it day or night? My ear hurts, my head feels like a lump of glue, my right arm throbs and my legs are tired stumps of corn from running around at the cloth market.
I rub my eyes as my stomach growls—if only I had a petha.
I hear the jingle of Naina’s anklets. Ammi walks in with her, “where have you been Nazeer? I was looking for you all afternoon! Rahim said you didn’t go to school.”
I sneeze, “I wasn’t well Ammi. Tomorrow I go.”
We sit down to eat. She’s got chicken and palak from one of the houses. It smells heavenly. Naina and I eat very well.
Bent over her plate, Ammi glows in the lantern light. I imagine her floating on a boat and can’t wait for her to sleep.
Just then Naina looks under my bed, “what’s that?”
“Shush … ” I elbow her.
I sit up until Ammi finishes washing the plates. She finally lies down with Naina. I sneak over and cover them with the thick new blanket; the best I could get.
She stirs, “what’s this Nazeer?”
“I bought it for you today.”
“Where did you get so much money silly boy?”
“It fell from the sky Ammi-jaan,” I yawn and sink into bed.
Malay Jalundhwala is a writer and consultant based in San Francisco. His current writing projects include a novel and a story collection.
Chitra Divakaruni: “I appreciated the fine use of voice and character, the well-chosen details, and the fun, unexpected ending.”
Bharti Kirchner: “Believably told; the story stays with you; got the voice right.”