When the city rests in the night, wisps of desert breeze latch on to lives, some half-asleep, the others splayed over pavements or king-sized beds, where potpourri in porcelain bowls are left to rot, surrounded by opaque desires.
Men twitch and squirm around them all night, trapped in thoughts that grow on you over time in Jaipur, painted pink by rulers whose dreams and whims often surpassed Don Quixote’s absurdity.
The migrant’s son follows his father, behind a bicycle with three unsold balloons tied to its carrier, and a rusty cylinder that becomes a source of impromptu music, every time the tyres touch potholes. The fair has ended.
He wishes if they all can come at the fair someday- father, mother, sister and Zahur- not to sell balloons but to ride the giant wheel. How does the world look from behind the lights?
Will the scene make his father happy? He used to laugh loudly, while telling pirate stories from the Arakan peninsula to his son. Occasionally chiding her husband for scaring their child, mother fed him balls of rice, soft like the clouds which sung to him the day they left home. As the giant wheel stops with a lasting screech and livid managers shout on petrified clowns, night fills out the empty spaces inside the ground. The venue changes the next day, but the balloon seller and his son float around, footnotes in festivals, marriages and birthday parties, they shift to every contour of the city.
At times they are pushed to the edges and outskirts, where his father sells the orange, blue, green orbs right across tents with Hindi placards, promising back a man’s potency with one swig of desi dawa. They walk past the closed markets of Chandpol, the gate standing like a skeleton of forgotten Rajpootana, reminiscent of a time when Scots treaded through the rocky Aravali terrains, their breeches rolled up and Winchesters ready, searching for game. Like Dorian Gray, their pictures are perfect after death, auctioned off in flea markets of some foreign land, as their bodies gave in to arthritis, never quite coming out of the colonialist’s stupor.
Late in the evening, figures draped in flowing salwar suits and smiles which stop just before reaching their eyes, sit on some of the ancient window hinges in the market, amidst sudden strains of music and pink lights that reflect on the fake Belgian glass lanterns.
On days of blackout, as the furtive glances of people riding heavy bikes past the streets try to pierce the dark silhouettes of the women, their souls live many, many furlongs away from the mujra mehfils. Lonesome bodies seek company elsewhere, as they drive caterpillar trucks across Mewat and Mala Khera before entering the capital, where the price of psychedelia and half-hearted cuddles differs for the genteel and rich but they promise the same bliss or purgatory.
The father is a long way from home, the land of his birth, where bamboo shoots are taller than any man in the Rakhine and bullets form patterns defying the gravity. Their family lives at the Welcome Colony at Sodala, better than the dingy camps of Cox’s Bazar without the smell of bile and fear lingering around. Here, his mother gets to look at empty Metro trains slithering over a grey bridge everyday, as her hands sift through pieces of junk which they sell to the garbage depot agent. It’s also better than Baruipur, on the outskirts of Calcutta, with councillors having Rabindra Sangeet as their mobile caller tunes, who seemed promising with their friendly rhetoric when they raised money for Durga Puja on the name of the refugees.
Later, these men were the ones to drive them away, sealing their fates in dubious property deals. Colours were abundant in the City of Joy. Shades of red, saffron, green touched their lives and for once, their family was lost in between larger interests, at least that’s what they were told by journalists, filmmakers, politicians and activists. They fought with each other- dhoti clad puritan comrades against cow loving Sanatanis, Maulavis against logic and Dylan fans who bickered over literary awards.
After intelligent scribes eked out many newspaper bylines to make the perfect portfolio for foreign fellowships, overzealous film institute graduates filmed them in black and white, in efforts to make an indie Pather Panchali. Five months later when the family finally boarded the Sealdah-Jaipur Express, the young Apu asked to himself why father returned from the police station with bruises all over his back. Giving them company near the bathroom door of the general compartment was 16-year-old Anjali, heading towards Dholpur to marry a man double her age.
He will keep her safe, she has been told, like many other women from Bengal, away from the poverty in Cooch Behar. Her grandmother once told a story about a princess from her hometown who found love in a king from the desert land some half a century ago, but the thought doesn’t quite allay her worries. Near the Ajmeri gate they see an old man taking a lonely stroll back home from the coffee house at MI Road, with its freshly painted exterior and dust clots on photo-shaped squares on the walls.
“Iced Tea,” one of the missing pictures read.
Nehru and his daughter too have disappeared from the walls, but traces of the conversations remain, ranging from the Emergency to art, revolving around teenage crushes and sons who won’t leave Kansas this year for the routine visit to parents in Diwali. He latches on to the corner of his father’s lungi, a policeman yawns, casually measuring them before taking off towards the sulabh toilet. Is this the man who comes every month to the colony to check on them and counts each currency note with spit? The boy doesn’t know, they all look the same to him.
Another man in Khaki repeats the exercise several hundred miles away, when the people at Jaisalmer’s Bhil Basti pray to Jhulelal, with their chaste Urdu accents. They hope for a permanent home at the golden city, with dried chillies from Umerkot strung over the doorways, last remnants from a lost abode across the border. Tonight, his mother will read lines from a pocketbook Quran, her hum almost matching the pace of a short soliloquy.
Sleeping over a dirty rug the boy will dream of Zahur and the way he keeled over in a blur, before his tail disappeared under the paddy fields. The clouds sung to him at that moment, urging him to run, because in his world, soldiers don’t hesitate before putting a bullet through a Rohingya kid… or his pet dog.
Deep Mukherjee is a scribe and writer based in Jaipur, India.