Dead Fish & Cardamom
In the fog of an opium-addled mind, Jahangir waits for the guards to bring his son to him in shackles. They must have crossed the river by now, he thinks. A hooded crow flutters into a rosebush nearby.
At last, the bodies of three men emerge through a brush of trees in the distance. Between two tall, firm-bodied men, a third writhes. From his body, a metal chain drags on stone. The sound echoes throughout the structure’s twelve archways as they approach.
The guards throw Khusrau, weeping, in front of his father. Sweet Khusrau, the one who, unlike his forefathers, preferred the spirit of God to the pipe or to the comfort of woman. The one who remained always obedient, who never asked for anything.
The emperor looks down at his son’s dirt-stained face. He cannot bear the beauty of his eyes. These eyes shine to threaten. These eyes have the power to erase the fact that Khusrau has rebelled against the empire. That Khusrau has tried to overthrow the emperor. That Khusrau has broken his own father’s heart.
“Blind him,” Jahangir says.
And a haze of darkness takes over.
I feel the lukewarm sprawl of bile creep up my throat as my husband steers the car off Ring Road and slopes down a dirt lot. He shifts the car into park and removes the keys from ignition. The stereo system switches off, and a song—one about a poet’s incredulity at the sight of God’s creations—abruptly ends. My desire to vomit is mediated by my wanting to know those few floating lyrics.
Who will witness the Beloved’s beauty if the sight makes you faint?
Why even speak of meeting Him someday, friend?
It takes an epoch just to meet one’s self.
The words gently settle onto the waters of my mind like oil, but it isn’t enough.
My husband unbuckles his seatbelt, glances at his phone, and clears his throat with a gritty cough.
“According to an app I just checked, the air quality is at nearly 500. Lahore is officially more polluted than Delhi,” he says, producing a gray mask from his jean pocket.
As if the atmosphere could be contained in a number.
The mask has flimsy straps and a teal plastic square adhered to its mouthpiece. “I hope you all brought the ones I gave you last night.” He secures the mask over his face and looks expectantly at his father, who huffs with amusement from the passenger seat. He then turns to his mother, who is just waking up from a nap in the backseat. Finally, he stares at me. But I am lost in the heat of a desire to vomit, and my thoughts are circular. To ward off a bodily expulsion of slime and substance, I run to and fro the edges of that song that hangs unfinished in my ear. My husband lets out a sigh.
“I’m not going to wear a mask. It looks ridiculous,” his father says. “Besides, according to an article I read online, the real danger is actually in the smaller particulates that these fancy masks of yours cannot block.”
“Your father is right. These masks are useless, and you look like a fool,” his mother says with a yawn. She glances at me with that look of playful disbelief that is tinged with the secrecy, the knowing, often reserved for female compatriots. It is a look that invites one to let loose her thoughts, but it is only an illusion. I could never tell her what I really think of her son. I hear her concerned voice asking after my health.
“I feel nauseous. Probably from the drive,” I answer with closed eyes and a few nods.
“It’s not the drive, it’s this air,” my husband says. He prides himself in what he thinks is his ability to drive swiftly and effectively through the raucous streets of Lahore. True, he manages to miss those families carried by a single motorcycle, and carts that cling to the bodies of mules, but I am convinced that his love for driving is overcompensation for the fact that he, despite being a married man, still caves under parental pressure. Indeed, as per his parents’ request, my husband has driven us to the banks of the River Ravi so that we can travel, by boat, to an old pavilion that lives in an island. And that too, in the smog.
These days, life is a game, really. To breathe is a risky act. Walking outside is a gamble. Five years off your lifespan, they say. Thirteen cigarettes a day. I think of the children. Meanwhile, the indoors are overcrowded with ghosts, the residue of smog seeping in through the cracks. They say it is because they are burning crops on the other side of the border. But those on the other side of the border say it is happening because we are burning our crops. I am certain that nowhere is safe.
But I do feel less nauseous being outside and not in the car my husband drives. I am used to the effects of smog now. I have become accustomed to the tiny knives that sting my lungs. Friction between organ and ribs first reminded me that the body is indeed a cage. The shock of that realization has numbed. Now, I expect to find black stuff coming out of my orifices. I don’t mind imagining dark fuzzy spots leeching onto the mucous membranes that line my form. But what really gets to me, what keeps me up at night, is the growing weight that tethers itself to my insides.
When the baby is born, I will not be surprised if it is a body of putrid smoke.
The parking lot and its atmosphere has the texture of a ratty brown chiffon scarf. A far cry from the area that surrounds our home, couched as it is in one of the city’s many military housing districts. Of course, no one in the family belongs to the military, but rather to a certain subgroup of society keen on the light of pallid bulbs that glare on fake marble floors, steaming bowls of starchy chicken corn soup, blank walls seducing the angels of philistinism, and the shamelessly visible hither-thither movements of servile bodies.
In the lot, I see around me young women crusted in dirt with dark, rough eyes, accompanied by men slovenly wrapped in musty shawls. The occasional crying infant erupts the silence of its parents’ blazing stare. They do not smile even though I assume that they must be on holiday.
My husband turns to me as he shuts the car door.
“No one should be breathing in this air, especially you. It’s probably what’s making you more nauseous than you’ve been in a while. Why aren’t you wearing your mask?”
“Wearing the mask makes me feel worse. I just need some air.”
“But there is no ‘air’,” he gestures. “The city’s gone to shit. Just put your mask on, I don’t understand why you have to be so stubborn. If you aren’t going to wear it for yourself, then at least wear it for—”
“She doesn’t want to wear a mask, I don’t want to wear a mask, your mother doesn’t want to wear a mask,” his father says. “You’ve been outnumbered. Now, let’s go. We have a lovely day ahead of us.”
My father-in-law ushers us down a flight of stairs that lead to the riverbank. With each step, I feel myself sift through the depths of dusty gauze that stretch over the canvas of my vision. On the bank, I see a stray dog galloping like a madman towards a pile of trash. A patch of skin seems to have been ripped off its back. It festers with a mosaic of pink and red and salmon fleshiness. The wound shines immodestly in the bleary sunlight. A tongue lolls out of mouth, revealing canines that tear into empty chip bags and squashed water bottles.
“Abu, this place is disgusting,” I hear my husband say. His voice muffles behind the fixture on his mouth. He looks like a post-apocalyptic hero, except not really the hero part.
The river stretches out in front of us like a strip of gleaming metal that is being quickly infected with rust on its edges. On the right I see the overpass from which we came. Underneath are small weary shacks. On the left, the river extends its reach into faraway cityspaces cloaked in smog. When I look directly ahead, I see a dark mound covered in foliage rising from the water. The pavilion lives inside.
“He’s not wrong,” my mother-in-law says to her husband. “There’s trash strewn about all over the place. I don’t remember it being this way. Don’t these people ever clean the place?”
She signals to the dark figures of men who huddle in dirt-stained shalwar kameez. They stand silently near multi-colored boats in front of us. With each step towards them, I felt my feet sink gently into the grainy sand. Here and there, a wrapper or shard of glass lies half-buried. The river air is thick and moist with the perspiration of a city that lies on the cusp of fulfilment, but remains hollow.
“It is dirtier than I remember, but what else can we expect in our current circumstances?”
When we mount a red boat, captained by a vitiligo-colored man my father-in-law had struck a deal with back on the bank, I sit next to my husband. I recall that it has been nearly two years since we have gotten married. His anxious prudishness is emphasized, not concealed, by his arrogant display of black dress shoes, tight khaki chinos, and dark blue sweater. Attached to his large, angular nose, the mask looks like a beak, and his gelled hair a dark plume. My husband is a large, cockish bird.
He notices me looking him over with the gaze that I know he has come to detest because of the unease it brings him. I turn my attention to the gleaming horizon. In the distance, the water appears cool and clear. It is hard to tell in this moment, given the haze, but the sun beats down on us with full force. I rest my hands on my slightly swollen stomach as the boat rocks.
I remember how we would walk hand-in-hand around moonlit campus lawns, accompanied by the gentle perfume of night-flowering jasmines. He’d tell me about his latest failure in life—an almost perfect business exam or an interview with an internship he would inevitably get—and I’d hold his hand in mine, and lead him behind an intimidating building to a dark windowsill where, safe in the shadows, skin touched skin. From time to time, the disapproving glare of a night-guard thrilled my core. Was it the glare or the touch that filled me with the double-edged illusion of fulfillment and a thirst for more?
I left him a few times, but in the end, we got married, as was expected. He became a successful manager at the local branch of an American jean company, and I, following my degree in history, a house-wife. I think you would agree that it is a historically rich occupation.
When we are halfway between the bank and the island in which the pavilion lives, I hear my husband’s father chuckle at a distant memory. His dark eyes roam the sky and his fingers stroke his graying mustache. “I used to do this back when I was a boy. We’d take the boat to the pavilion to play cricket,” he says.
“Well, that wasn’t when the air was cancerous, was it?” my husband says.
“No,” his father frowns. He pauses to retain the patience that I believe to be sourced from the moonstone that graces his round finger. He looks at me. “How are you, Saleena? Doing okay on the boat? I imagine it isn’t great for your health.”
I shake my head and assure him that I am fine.
The boat ride has, for some reason, subdued my impulse to regurgitate my morning’s chai and rusks. Something about the air, I don’t mind it. When I feel no eyes on me I breathe it in. A sickly sweet smell of industrialized cardamom mingled with dead fish invades my nostrils. The stench has the power to unleash the substances that swim in my gut. Despite this, I find myself experiencing a strange pleasure.
I breathe the odor in more deeply, and it blooms in my cavities.
The island is quickly approaching. The tangle of woods that ravishes its ridges carries within it an aura of seduction, one that manifests in an unintelligible pull. I see the effect of that magnetism in the blood that courses through the boatman’s pink and brown and white arms. His muscles tauten to expose the raised threads of his veins as he rows the boat closer to shore through gelatinous waves of slime and muck.
“In the name of God, the most merciful, the most kind,” my father-in-law whispers as the boat nudges the muddy lining of the island. The boatman hops out of the vessel and helps us get off, aiding my mother-in-law and I with a firm yet lowered gaze. I give him my thanks as I find my footing. Without replying, the boatman perches on top of a large rock near the water’s edge, and hardens into pinkish marbled stone. I realize then that the patchy boatman is mute, as were all the other boatmen selling their services on the bank. I imagine that their inability to speak is a side effect from exposure to the Ravi. Nothing here can stay the same. Mutation is a constant.
We walk upwards, along the dirt path that winds its way around the island like a loose belt. Tendrils of shrubs and dead trees welcome us as if to say, we are yours now, like they must have said to those now-lost kings who would venture through their midst in the pursuit of a site of sensorial luxury and repose. Many of the trees have been claimed since then, running gashes in their skins to call out the names of long lost lovers.
Out of the darkly moist shelter of wood and dirt, we find ourselves climbing large russet stairs that lead out to, at last, the Mughal masterpiece.
The beauty of the place tricks me into smelling fresh air and witnessing a blue sky spread out above us. Its hue is one I seemed to have forgotten. Squares of green lawns lay to our left, bordered by perfectly wound bushes that evoke the swirl of soft-serve ice-cream. A paved stone path divides the lawns and leads to, on our right, a platform upon which is built the great pavilion. Twelve arches surround its rectangular girth.
A group of sweaty men are sprawled under a cluster of bushes in one of the lawns we pass. Next to their bodies lay rusty shears and wooden baskets containing other pieces of metal and soiled fabric. One of them eats an apple, and juicy trickles down his throat.
“UNESCO funded gardeners,” my husband explains. I ask him if they get benefits, and he says that he doesn’t know. Do I want to go lick the juice off that man’s throat? The thought disturbs me, so I don’t finish it. I lose myself, instead, in the discovery that the air, though less dense here, is still sweet with cardamom and the tinge of fish.
I follow my in-laws to a particularly verdant area of one of the lawns, and watch my husband’s mother unfurl a mauve scarf from her leather purse onto the grass. My husband and his father stretch the fabric by its corners, flattening the spades that protrude underneath.
“Come sit, Saleena. You’ll feel better,” my mother-in-law says as she bends down and sits her plump body on the ground. She looks up at my husband. “The air feels cleaner here. I think you should take that thing off and not worry. Relax.” My husband’s words of protest at his mother’s suggestion are muffled behind his mask.
I stare across the empty pool that separates our lawn from the pavilion, and can only hear the shuffle of shadows that hover within its twelve arches. I feel nausea bubble inside me. Juice, throat, lick. The sun is bold here, and I wonder what sanctuary I might find in the pavilion’s damp darkness.
“I think I need to take a walk. I want to see the pavilion,” I say. My husband looks like he is about to say something. His mask, however, makes it difficult to affirm this. So I walk away.
I meander between the sculpted bushes, my hips aligning with the zigzag of stones paved under my feet. Stairs are climbed, and flies swatted. I cough a few times. My shoulder brushes that of a dark woman jiggling a tear-stained baby boy on her hip.
As I enter the pavilion, the sound of my footsteps resounds in its maze of walls and arches. My skin is still wet with sweat, but the pavilion’s whispers, ones that braved the smog and combed through trees and branches to get here, cool me off.
I recall a story about a 16th century Mughal king who had stood here and ordered his guards to gouge out his son’s eyes. The son had attempted to overthrow him. I marvel at the king’s command, and scan the place for any hint of residual violence.
Instead, I find that countless couplets and verses have been scrawled onto the walls in black and red ink. The slanted script’s voluptuous curves guide me into the minds of men who once were drowning in the depths of love, lust, and betrayal.
One verse reads, “Do not trust the people of this world. The one who ruined me was my beloved one.”
Another reads, “Listen dear, Eid is arriving. How extraordinary would it be if you also arrived with it?” The writer has left his phone-number below the couplet. I contemplate calling it, and letting him know that though Eid is long gone, I am on my way. As soon as the thought unfolds, I feel ashamed. And yet, I want. Lick, juice, throat. My husband would die. I can’t seem to figure out if I would, too.
I rip my eyes from the graffiti and look out from one of the archways. Beyond a scrim of smog, I can see the overpass containing Ring Road hovering over the filthy river I have just crossed. In the 1800s, the river’s water had risen to the level of the overpass and completely flooded the pavilion. How many betrayals has this structure endured? How many mutations?
I venture up some stairs, enveloped in a warmly toned archway, that lead straight up to the roof. I see my husband and his parents, but they cannot see me. They still sit on the mauve scarf. My husband still has not taken his mask off.
I feel alone on the roof’s surface, surrounded by leafy trees that remain still, impenetrable. I find that I am waiting, but for what I cannot say. I have the strange realization that I am not alone. The body is a cage, but an immanent one in which, with time, things die and things come alive. As I feel my body descend the staircase and return back into the bowels of the pavilion, I can smell fumes of intoxicating smoke that silence the memory of mutant waters, dead fish, and cardamom. A group of men are smoking chars, no doubt. I imagine what the insides of their lungs must look like. Treelike orbs covered in soot, engorged and slimy and black. I hear a tinny Noor Jahan song playing off one of their phones, her scratchy voice peeling into the walls more layers of history. The eyes say they want to be near you. The eyes say.
I turn my head and look up.
A man stands on the second-floor terrace. His brown eyes, their whites slightly ochre, latch onto me. Behind a cloud of smoke, I notice that he wears a puffy black jacket over a brown shalwar kameez. When he lifts a joint to his mustachioed lips and takes a drag, it looks like he is bestowing upon me a respectful form of greeting. Adab. But his eyes are hungry.
Heat rushes into my cheeks, and down my throat. I lower my eyes and blink rapidly. My breath catches. I feel my hands slide over my sloping stomach. I consider leaving and returning to the mauve scarf. I finger the shawl that hugs my body and almost lift it to veil my head, as if that could protect me. But when I look up again, my gaze has taken on the premise of a dare. His response—a raised brow, then disappearance. For a few moments, I just stand there, pulsing with my heartbeat and something else I am too embarrassed to consider.
I turn around the corner of an archway. Out from under the roof of the pavilion and its stories, I watch a hooded crow drift in the sky above me and settle into the dark shelter of a rosebush.
I have returned to the mauve scarf. My body presses wrinkles into its fabric, and my fingers linger in the grass, pulling at strands and tufts. My husband and his father are watching an impromptu cricket match on one of the other lawns. I am alone with my mother-in-law. I look up in an attempt to meet her eyes, but she is preoccupied. Her scarf has slipped and I can see the curve of her fleshy jaw, craned as if it were gently pulled by a string. Her lips are taut. I follow her gaze. She is staring at one of the gardeners. His legs are sprawled out wide as he reclines against a hedge, eating some fruit. Is it just me, or do I see her eyes attempt to trace the juice that pours down his throat, or observe the way the leaves bend against the breadth of his shoulders? Distraction dictates the movements of her limbs as she submerges her hand in the folds of her purse and extracts a guava and a knife. With a slight shake of her head, she asks me if I want. I nod. She slices the fruit in half, then quarters it. I take a slice and watch her, out of the corner of my eye, as she eats the pink flesh, green rind and all, then licks her fingers. She is preoccupied again, while the guava releases a fragrance that mingles with the sweet decay in the air. It is hard to tell what is more dead or ripe, while the crops out there are burning.
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