DESPERATELY BOLD IN LUCKNOW by Giorgia Stavropoulou
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Lucknow, India – June 24, 2014

 

Sitting on my balcony, gazing out on the paper mill colony slum near Nishatgunj bazar, I lit one Marlboro after another, thinking about my gorgeous Indo-Persian lover, my ashiq, my splendid poet, my stunning storyteller, wondering where the hell he was, and – while putting out my cigarette butt in my trendy ashtray and exhaling – I was obsessing about becoming fluent in that mysterious, enchanted language of his.

 

As fast as possible, I do have to emphasise. I was scared that without Urdu, I would be sucked back into a meaningless existence in West Hollywood with my two plastic-surgeon fathers Karl and Michel.

 

At that particular moment, I was still unaware of the sickly thing that would happen in less than five minutes. All I could think of was my beautiful bard and his language.

 

And I must confess, with embarrassment, that I was also obsessing about Priyanka Sharma, my roommate. Not only was she stunning, she also had the habit of running around the house wearing only a t-shirt and white panties which distracted me big time.

 

I was pacing from left to right on my balcony, holding my phone in my right hand in case Ejaaz Hussain finally called, and my cigarette in my other. I was terrified that Priyanka would come into my room again half-naked to distract me. I can still hear my footsteps on the marble floor, thinking about all that, I can still see my red-polished toe-nails.

 

I sent Ejaaz Hussain another text, ‘where are you?’ adding twenty or so question marks and persistently pressing my finger on the send button, as if that could make it reach faster.

 

It was hot as hell, and my pores were bulleting out drops of sweat. Now and then, in between checking my phone and rereading his last messages, I gazed down at the crowds. Supporters were still loudly celebrating the victory of the Hindu Nationalist Party that had won the elections a month earlier for the first time in the history of modern India. Not that I cared much. I didn’t even know that the nationalists hated Urdu. I just wanted to be away from California, see my very own Urdu storyteller again, my dastango, and have him whisper sweet, poetic words in my ear.

 

To calm down, I poured myself a glass of wine, even though it wasn’t even four in the afternoon. It was a Shiraz, if I remember right, you know, of the Four Seasons Vineyards in Maharashtra. I gulped it down in one go. Poured another one and gulped it down, swiped through our photos, sucked on my ciggy, admiring Ejaaz Hussain’s satin-like skin, his voluptuous eyelashes, his deep dark-brown eyes, his raven-black hair and felt a few hot tears rolling off my cheeks. We both looked so intense together, as if we were ecstatic or possessed – majzoob – by something that was larger than life. What was it? Was it art? A poetic spell perhaps? And what a sharp contrast: my pale, almost paper-white skin against his.

 

I inhaled again deeply, kept the smoke in my lungs for a few seconds, exhaled through my nostrils and thought about my marvellous but lost Indian prince: he was my key to learning Urdu and leaving America forever. He was the key to my new life.

 

Back home, I had never felt attracted to boys. Girls yes. But boys never. They looked like emotionless robots to me. I tried. So many times. It always turned into a theatre of disasters: his became elastic like an overcooked macaroni and mine even dryer than the Sahara Desert. But with Ejaaz Hussain, it was something else: we were like two rutting animals caught in a small cage. And when he spoke Urdu to me, I just melted in his words. Perhaps I wasn’t a lesbian after all?

 

Three blissful weeks into our relationship, however, he evaporated into thin air, not answering any of my calls or my messages. That sorrowful afternoon, I missed him so badly that this feeling of lack seemed to kick my belly again and again like a burglar wearing a stocking mask, breaking through my front door, throwing a guitar string over my head and pulling it against my throat as hard as he could. I filled up the bath with just as much cold water as needed to fit my head, plunged my head in the water and screamed, persistently, as long as I could, to exorcise the nasty burglar.

 

You have to understand, we were a love-triangle, Urdu, Ejaaz Hussain and me, Barbara Bukowski, a ménage-a-trois. But what about your feelings for women, and Priyanka in particular, you ask. Just wait. I’ll tell you everything that happened during that student year abroad in India.

 

Right away, during my first class at the American Institute of Indian Studies in Lucknow, when my first Urdu words were rolling around my tongue in my mouth, I felt we were bonded, Urdu and I, as if I had been a ferocious Urdu-speaker in a previous life, maybe even a wandering poetess.

 

After a few more classes, words like mohabbat, ishq, intezaar, majzoobiqlaab, zindabad started humming in my head, louder than the jubilations of the Hindu Nationalists out in the streets. I could even hear these words in the gusts of the loo, the strong, hot, dry summer winds that blew from the west over northern India. These whispers made me crave to read all of Urdu’s literature and I developed a library addiction. I started exploring Mirza Ghalib, Sadat Husain Manto, Ismat Chughtai, Naiyer Masud, Quratulain Haider, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and so on, nonstop, like a madwoman. I simply had to become fluent in Urdu, no matter what, even if it would be the last thing I would do on this earth. But there was a problem: a huge problem. No local wanted to speak in Urdu to me. Instead, much to my exasperation, everybody wanted to practice their English with me. All that changed when Ejaaz Hussain burst into my life, during one of our Friday morning poetry workshops.

 

And so, in spite of gradually but steadily becoming drunk that late, humid, sunny but sad afternoon in June, after I had screamed my lungs out in my bath water and calmed down a bit, I sat down in one of the cane armchairs I had bought from a gentleman who had his entire showroom on the streets. I tried to forget about Ejaaz Hussain (and Priyanka too) – indeed, near-impossible – and focused instead on reading an Urdu newspaper aptly called Aag, meaning fire, something I had to do anyway for school. What was about to happen, that horrible thing I mentioned before, you know, the one that would make me question everything, would happen in less than one minute, but not even a single one of the abundant blond hairs on my sweating scalp had a clue.

 

I was trying to decipher an article about a young woman who had committed suicide in a shopping mall called Fun Republic. The moment I started wondering if she might have been a victim of in-laws demanding a higher bride price, ding dong, the bell rang.

 

So it began.

 

I quickly dumped the rest of my glass of wine into the cactus pot (no idea why) and enthusiastically jumped up. Naturally I thought it was Ejaaz Hussain. Wobbling, I ran into the living room.

 

‘Are you getting that, Barb?’ Priyanka’s soft, almost child-like voice echoed from her room.

 

‘Will do’, I said with a thick tongue.

 

From Priyanka’s room, florid baroque tunes were flowing. She always listened to classical music when she painted. It was her dream to become a famous painter, someone like Georgia O’Keefe.

 

At the front door, I looked through the peephole. And there he was, Ejaaz Hussain! He was wearing his leather outfit again. In one hand he held his black helmet. He was wearing sunglasses. I felt a puppy within me, running around like crazy and peeing out of sheer joy. Finally! I released a sigh and the butterflies inside my belly were going wild. But then suddenly this feeling turned into anger. I wanted to open the door, run to him and hug and kiss him but also wanted to slap him. Where the hell had he been? Why hadn’t he informed me about whatever was going on? He couldn’t even send me a text? Nothing? If he really cared for me, why did he leave me in the dark like that?

 

I decided to unlock the door anyway. I simply was too thrilled to see him. How could I take my anger seriously? While other girls in high school and college had boyfriends, I always sat alone, eating my lunch in the company of my phone. Ejaaz Hussain was my first boyfriend. Perhaps he had lost his phone? Or someone in his family had died? His mother become ill? I tried to reason with myself.

 

The moment, however, I almost turned the key, I heard a loud moan from the direction of the staircase. A woman’s moan. My enthusiasm again shifted to anger, and I started doubting him; had the bastard brought another woman with him?

 

Looking through the peephole, I was puzzled to see a corpulent lady wearing a traditional Muslim salwar kameez, puffing and panting, leaning on her knees. Ejaaz Hussain, on the other hand, was looking in the direction of the peephole, shaking his head, gesturing wildly with his hands, I think, to not open the door. He seemed to be trying to mouth, ‘don’t open’. What the heck is going on, I wondered.

 

The corpulent lady was resting after having taken the stairs. Why didn’t she take the elevator? I thought, but she looked like she came straight from some rural hamlet in the East of Uttar Pradesh. Perhaps she was scared to take the elevator. Did he want to introduce me to his Mum?

 

She came closer to the door and through the peephole I studied her face: chunky, swollen and seemingly very angry. Furious even. Then she closed one eye and tried to look through the peephole with the other. What an idiot, I thought, you can’t look inside from the outside, everybody knows that.

 

How can she be the mother of an Indo-Persian prince who has won the Mr. Urdu contest for five consecutive years? I asked myself. Almost as if she could hear my thoughts, her face turned even more sour, making her already chunky features look chunkier, as if someone had blown air into her facial muscles.

 

This can’t be Ejaaz Hussain’s mother, nor his sister or cousin, I concluded. She could definitely not be his lover or wife. That much was certain. I could not imagine tall and slender, elegant and witty, classy and well-spoken Ejaaz Hussain being intimate with this creature, this witch. That was impossible. Never. Nunca. Jamais.

 

I wanted to shout, ‘Hey lady, who are you? Why are you banging on my door like a maniac?’ but then I saw that her head was hanging down and her body was trembling. She was sobbing. This made my hands tremble as well: I was flabbergasted and terrified but also felt sorry for her. Unfortunately, what happened next didn’t exactly sooth me. The corpulent lady wiped her tears, came to the door, raised her right arm and made a fist. With a force I hadn’t seen in a woman, she started hitting the door, bang, bang, bang. She must have been desperate. I took a few steps back.

 

Then she growled, ‘Bitch, are you there?’

 

My heartbeat took a hike. The screams were muffled because the door was well insulated but the message was crystal clear. ‘Open the fucking door, bitch.’

 

I took another step back, took a deep breath and slowly I collected myself, got back into the hallway and looked through the peephole again. This time I saw Mr. Biswaas, our neighbour. He was a retired army officer. His wife divorced him when he started spending all his money on a Russian prostitute in Delhi. He was trying to calm the woman down. Ejaaz was trying to pull her away. Then Mrs. Sharma, our other neighbour, appeared on the stage. Her husband was an invalid, and she was bored.

 

My fear turned into anger, and for a few fleeting seconds, I thought of opening the door, walking towards that lady and telling her I felt sorry that she was going through a rough time but that I would call the police if she didn’t leave. After all, I was a head taller than her, and I went to the gym at least three times a week. But then, I saw Mr. Valmiki, one of the guards, trying to squeeze himself into the scene as well. And Ejaaz Hussain was shaking his head and gesticulating not to open the door.

 

Everything started to look blurry and chaotic from then on. Different bodies moved in different directions, there was incomprehensible screaming, Mrs. Varma seemed to pull the lady’s arm in one direction, Mr. Biswaas in the other, Ejaaz Hussain tried to grab her from behind. Everything went so fast that I couldn’t see how the furious lady suddenly disappeared.

 

Had she left? I started feeling relieved. Ejaaz Hussain looked in the direction of our door, still shaking his head. His forehead was wrinkled, and he looked extremely pale. He also seemed thinner than the last time I had seen him, a week ago. I felt sorry for him. But seeing that calm had returned, however, the adrenaline in my body slowly ebbed away.

 

But then, the woman reappeared from the staircase in full force. She ran like a mad elephant and smacked her whole body against the door. That created such a loud bang, that I exited the hallway once again, trying to catch my breath in the drawing room.

 

The moment, the lady yelled, ‘open the fucking door, you filthy cunt. My name is Samra Hussain. I’m Ejaaz Hussain’s wife’, Priyanka – probably shaken up by the commotion or just plain curious – came galloping into the drawing room like a teenager interested in making trouble. For a few seconds everything seemed to have gone mute in my head, and an invisible pot ladle got pierced into my skull, stirring intensely what was left of my poor brain. ‘He’s married. He lied to me. I want to strangulate him,’ I found myself muttering.

 

Unfortunately, though, what I had been afraid of actually happened: Priyanka Sharma was standing in front of me wearing only a t-shirt and white panties. If that wasn’t enough: her pubic hair was showing through. I simply couldn’t control my gaze. It was magnetic. Wasn’t I in the middle of a relationship crisis? Hadn’t I just discovered that my first boyfriend ever was a married man? But then Priyanka smiled warmly at me. Or at least, that’s what I think she did.

 

‘Barbara Bukowski,’ she said, ‘what’s going on?’ I smiled back at her, and for a moment the chaos at the other side of the hallway moved to the background.

 

‘Who’s ringing the bell? Open up …’

 

Then, unexpectedly, even to my own mind, I said, ‘Religious fanatics, sort of Jehovah Witnesses but the Hindu sort, or Muslim, I don’t know, sweetheart, I don’t care. Show me your painting.’

 

Priyanka was dying to be a painter. She was painting all the time. I hoped I could seduce her with my interest. ‘Come on,’ I said, holding her by her shoulder and turning her around. Gosh, this girl had soft skin. ‘Show me your painting.’

 

We started walking hand in hand in the direction of her room, but then Ejaaz Hussain’s wife seemed to have gone totally berserk and started threatening me in Urdu, ‘I’m going to have you killed, you worthless bitch.’

 

‘Wow, what the fuck is going on,’ Priyanka said. ‘What is she saying?’ Priyanka didn’t speak much Hindi or Urdu.

 

‘Nothing sweetheart,’ I said pokerfaced but my bladder turned instantly full. ‘You know these new born Christian types, they become upset easily,’ I tried to look innocent but I started sweating. ‘Let’s see your beautiful painting,’ I insisted.

 

Then Priyanka grinned. ‘Hey,’ she said, ‘let me see who this monster is,’ and ran in the direction of the hallway.

 

Her pubic hair distracted me again, but I still managed to run towards her and squeeze myself between her and the door of the hallway. She bumped against me: her torso against mine, our faces an inch from each other. I could smell her breath. It smelled sweet, like strawberries. Of course, she didn’t smoke. I could have kissed her. She was too beautiful. I had been called beautiful too but, I don’t know, she was breathtaking. Besides, if I would have taken the lead…

 

Lost in all these little ponderings that take lots of time to talk about but moved like a high-speed train in my head and thus didn’t take up more than ten seconds really, I thought in anguish: ‘How the hell will I become fluent in Urdu now?’

 

Quickly I turned around, opened the door, ran into the hallway and looked through the peephole of the front door. There was nobody. Even Ejaaz had disappeared. My anger made way for fear, fear that I wouldn’t manage to become fluent in Urdu without Ejaaz and thus would have to work in the plastic surgery clinic of my two dads.

 

‘Let me see as well,’ Priyanka pouted, finally succeeding in pushing me away.

 

‘Okay then, if you so insist,’ I told her like I was her older sister.

 

I tried to remove my gaze away from her boyish, or girlish, or perhaps both or neither – I’m not sure – but nevertheless very arousing silhouette, walked back into drawing room and looked out of the window. There I saw Ejaaz standing just outside of the gates, arguing with his wife while our guards were staring at him. It struck me that from afar Ejaaz Hussain looked more like a bum than an artist.

 

‘Hey … there’s nobody there,’ Priyanka said.

 

I saw that Ejaaz tried to go close to his wife but some buff guy carrying a rifle over his shoulder and wearing pitch-black sun glasses came between them and then escorted Samra into an ambassador car that had two little flags above its headlights. When I saw that the flags had the symbol of the Hindu nationalist party, I became terrified. Ejaaz just stood there, looking like a bum, a dog really, with his tail between his legs.

 

Leaning on the car door with her elbow, Samra looked in the direction of our apartment. Boy, what an ice-cold gaze, like she was a witch casting a spell. Then she got in and the car drove off. Ejaaz looked dumbfounded. He stared in the direction of our apartment, pressing his eyelids and shaking his shoulders. Charisma truly is as fleeting as a fart, I caught myself thinking but then I got worried again about my Urdu.

 

Ejaaz finally managed to flag down a cycle-taxi. I studied how his back slowly started to disappear in the dust. I felt sorry for him. He looked defeated.

 

‘Who’s E?’ Priyanka, walking into the drawing room, said.

 

‘There’s a note here. Your so-called religious fanatics have left you a message. It says ‘Thank God you didn’t open the door. Will come soon. Kisses. E. Is it the E that I think it is?’

 

Priyanka came standing next to me and together we watched Ejaaz turning around one more time and looking in our direction, before he disappeared completely from our view.

 

‘Oh, it is.’

 

She giggled and, I found myself thinking in Urdu about Urdu, Priyanka’s pubic hair, lesbian women, matrimonial fights, my two dads in West Hollywood, the relationship between Sadaat Hasan Manto and David Foster Wallace and that I simply had to become fluent in Urdu no matter what.

 

But feeling terrified that I might never become fluent in Urdu and that I would be forced to live with my two dads, or that I might not even survive this adventure at all, I grabbed Priyanka’s hand and heard my mouth say, painting dikhao, meri tamanna. Urdu had spoken through me.

 

And Priyanka said, ‘Babe, your Urdu sounds so sexy.’

 

*


Giorgia Stavropoulou is an MFA candidate at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, living in California and rural Greece. Her work has recently appeared in Zombie-Logic, City (Journal of South-Asian Literature), Journey Curves Anthology 1: Writers reading in Athens and is forthcoming in Clockwise Cat.

Giorgia also holds degrees in Urdu and Anthropology and, has lived for three years in Lucknow.