The Labyrinth by Divyanka Sharma

I awoke to the sound of the Azan filtering through the latticed window, calling all the faithful to prayer. I groggily walked over to look at the sleepy city uncoiling itself from under a blanket of dreams. The early summer morning was piercingly bright and loud; guttural sounds of hawkers made their way to my room on the fifth floor of the Awadh Hotel. Lucknow was slowly beginning its day.

My mother had spent many a day in her young years frequenting this old city to meet my father, then her lover, on the sly. Now, with my father dead and Amrita relegated to spending her days in the cold loneliness of her bed, I was the only traveler left in the household. She worried every time I left the capital, fearing I would find a nice man, like she did, in a sleepy city and leave her alone. I would get tired of convincing her that I needed to find myself, understand myself before I could seek out another human, and that was going to take a good long while. She was skeptical when I told her that my trip to Lucknow was about our government offices taking slowly to technology. I remembered my mother with the tiffin she unfailingly packed for my trips, and began my day in the city of Nawabs.

By late afternoon, I found myself in front of Krishna’s Tea Stall, a wooden cart with a teapot perched atop a mobile stove. This little enterprise fit in perfectly against the backdrop of the faded white mansion that housed the Small Industries Association, giving the whole scene an anachronistic, old-fashioned air. There was just one other person, a young woman in a bright yellow churidar-kameez[1], who was ordering a cup of chai in the heat. She stood beside me, looking at me with interest as I ordered the same as her; I was surprisingly comfortable under her curious gaze.

Chai’s great even on a hot day, hunh?” she asked me, extending her right hand.

“Yep, relaxes you like nothing else. I’m Amar, by the way,” I said, taking her hand in mine and shaking it firmly. I looked at her quickly, hoping to get a good idea of her entire being in one cursory glance.

“That’s a strange name for a woman. Well, I am Bano. Even my name means ‘girl’,” she said, with a quick laugh. “Anyway, why are you here? Is SIA up to no good again?”

“I wish I was important enough to investigate wrong doing, but I’m just here to get your SIA to digitalize its records. Nothing controversial, but the babus[2] and officers don’t like it.”

“Hmm, yeah, change comes slowly to Awadh. When you Dilli-wallahs take to the capital’s streets, us Lucknowites just live with the facts of daily existence. Anyway, did you actually get all your meetings done?”

“No, I didn’t. The babus have been complaining about shorter lunch breaks and infrequent chai runs. I’ve had secretaries lie to my face and tell me I have no appointments with their very important bosses. A senior guy in the accounts department told me to come back tomorrow, as he wasn’t ready. And some IT guy told me he didn’t need Dilli meddling in his affairs and could finish the digitalization himself, thank you very much.”

We both laughed a little and took quick, noisy sips of our tea. Her short name rang in my ears. Bano.

“So, what do you do at SIA? You are a lot more talkative than the others I met in there,” I asked Bano, pointing to the mansion.

“Ah, well, I work here in the press room, releasing officially cleared information to pesky reporters and occasionally write a tired blog post for our terrible website. I wrote this new post around the time of that homosexuality ban thing. Thought we could look at different types of small enterprises run by different types of Indians, you know, gay and otherwise. They shut it down pretty quickly. So, mostly, I come here to get away from my cramped home,” Bano said, with a sigh devoid of emotion.

“Well, we may be similar, then. I am tasked with having to tell old men that new ways are here and that they better get changing. Anyway, Bano, I must get going. I have one last fuddy-duddy to talk to for the day,” I said as I paid for my chai.

Bano intrigued me. I felt a knot tighten in my stomach as I looked from the chai vendor to her.

“Meeting you was good, Amar. Maybe I’ll run into you again,” Bano said as she continued to sip.

By about 5pm, I had been officially removed from the SIA premises. After all the ‘come back later’ and ‘why do you Dilli people never inform us before just showing up’, I had experienced my share of Lucknow’s tameez and tehzeeb[3]. Frustrated and confused about the point of converting these reluctant offices, I hailed the nearest rickshaw and asked to be taken to the Bara Imambara. I didn’t see Bano anywhere so I asked him to speed up and get me away from the crumbling bastion of stubbornness and anachronism.

 They sat awkwardly still, both almost twitching with desire and hungry for more touch than that of intertwined fingers. 

The long, perilous ride through the city’s glitzy malls, course butcher shops, and rip off brand name stores brought me in front of the imposing Bara Imambara. The somber stone structure looked straight ahead into the skies, indifferent to the insignificance of the travelers milling around its base.

I leaned over the parapet of the Imambara and looked out at the city through the dome-topped spikes. It was a still, hot day and from the corner of my eyes I could see a pair of lovers holding hands. They sat awkwardly still, both almost twitching with desire and hungry for more touch than that of intertwined fingers. It was claustrophobic: the scene of the slow moving traffic and the lovers; there was a frustration in both places that irritated my insides. I moved away to a spot farther east and faced the Asfi Mosque, the solemn red structure standing between the city and the Imambara. There were some young boys sitting on the steps of the building, idling away their time and aiming stones at the fountain nearby. A few women, some in black burqas[4] and others in colorful salwar kameez[5], were ambling around and talking amongst themselves. Mixed groups of men and women were uncommon here and I couldn’t help but think how easy our society made it for people to hide their true selves within the folds of its fabric.

“Oye! Amar!” yelled a familiar voice. I turned around to see Bano from SIA.

“What a coincidence running into you here. Aren’t you a local? Why are you here?” I asked, happy to see my newest acquaintance.

“I come here almost every day. It’s a good way to spend my evenings before hitting the road home. The family thinks I get out of work at 7 but I actually just hang out here by myself for about 2 hours, writing random stuff,” she explained.

Bano gently slid her arm through mine and led me through the dense crowd, pushing and yelling, “hato bhaisahab,” at every young man in our way, asking them to scuttle over. I allowed her to lead me into the cool Bhulbhulaiya, the legendary labyrinth tucked within the Imambara’s 13 feet thick walls. We joined a group tour and made our way through the loops and twists, the dark and lit passages, the low and high ceilings, and up and down worn out stairs. After touring the upper levels of the labyrinth, we descended slowly and carefully into the belly of the maze, resting our free hands on the walls on both sides of the narrow staircase. Our collective breathing reached my ears as we ploughed further into the depths of the labyrinth. And then, after many painfully slow minutes of careful stepping, we stood on flat ground. There wasn’t much to see in the darkness so our guide struck a match and held up the short stick of fire. It was a white, round room, its walls covered in red spittle stains and uncouth graffiti. None of the tourists moved and neither did the guide. Bano’s arm tightened around mine and she inched a little closer. There was no sound other than that of strained, scared breathing. I could feel Bano’s presence next to me, could hear her heart beat through her rib cage. The guide struck another match.

“What is your mother’s name?” she whispered into my ear.

“Amrita,” I said softly, unfazed by the random strangeness of the question. “Why do you run away from your family so much?”

“They don’t know me and I can’t tell them who I am.”

“No one knows who we are. Not until we tell them, bare our souls to them.”

“That’s philosophical bullshit. Some people know, some people are not meant to know. I know you.”

I silenced my whispers. She knew me? I could not say I knew her, but felt like I could if I wanted to.

As we made our way back to the surface, and the signal bars climbed up in my cell phone, I felt a knot loosen in my stomach. I had walked into the underbelly of this foreign city and been a silent spectator to a fearsome and formidable silence. I had heard something in those whispered sentences I exchanged with Bano, something I could not put a name to. I looked at her side profile, bathed in the golden glow of the setting sun. Her yellow dupatta[6] was wrapped lightly around her head, the kohl dark in her eyes. There was a quiet, intense beauty about her that seemed to radiate in the early evening.

“Why did you ask my mother’s name?” I asked Bano, breaking my own reverie.

“I don’t have one. And I hoped you did. Do you talk to her often?”

“Yes, I do. She is lonely now, what with my father dead. So, I am her only companion. Coming home in the early night and leaving at the end of dawn. She is easy to get along with.”

“Hmm. Well, stay with her. I know I run from what I have, but I would give anything to cling to what I don’t. Mothers have an uncanny ability to get their daughters.”

I thought of Amrita, alone and old in our dingy PWD flat. Sometimes in a white sari, mourning my father years after his death, sometimes in bright red, invoking marital fertility. Would Amrita get me if I tried?

“Well, it’s 6:30 now. I have to leave, or my brother will start pestering me,” Bano said as she got up to leave.

“Hey, take my number. Let me give you a missed call. I want to come back here one day. Maybe I will run into you again,” I said, taking out my phone from my pocket.

Bano smiled at me and dialed her number from my phone.

She took my hand in hers and said softly; looking into my eyes as she formed the words with her small round lips, “Listen to your heart. And trust your mother.”

She winked at me playfully and I watched the outline of her body walk out the Bara Imambara. The low, pale sun framed her as she set the dupatta properly around her head and hailed a rickshaw with her slender arms.


Glossary

[1] Tight pants worn under a long shirt
[2] Clerks
[3] Courtesy and manners characteristic of Lucknow
[4] Loose black clothing worn over dress by some Muslim women
[5] Loose pants worn under long shirt
[6] Long stole worn by women with some Indian dresses

About the Author

Divyanka Sharma

Divyanka Sharma is a recent graduate of Dartmouth College, who currently lives in New York City. She travels home to India frequently and it is in the motherland that she finds inspiration for her stories. She enjoys writing about ordinary people who are made extraordinary by their idiosyncratic choices, through their daily struggles and joys. Her work has been published in Making Connections and on her personal blog. She loves dogs and hates pigeons in equal measure.


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