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, 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 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. 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.