Dancing in the Ruins

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Dancing in the Ruins, Zeenat Jahan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Sunday, February 23 2003 (http://www.khyber.org)


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Dancing in the Ruins

Zeenat Jahan

Publishing Date: Sunday, February 23 2003

"There are many ruins near my house,"was the bait Basma used. She knew the past fascinated me; I had dragged her often enough, to explore promising sites. Having received Basma's letter during a particularly difficult time, I was glad to get away from it all. Arriving at her doorstep the very next day, I promptly fell in love with her house. Clinging to a hillock near the Attock Fort, it had a sweeping view of the River Indus.

"Have you had time to study the ruins?"said Basma's husband, Hamid, as we sat on the terrace after dinner.

"Not yet. Anyway, my interest is more of an over-powering curiosity than a serious study. Sometimes I can almost feel the emotions of the people who used to live there, that's when I really get a really good idea for a story."

"Yes, they say the aura of a person is imprinted on a place where they have lived. Especially if they have been especially happy or sad there,"said Basma.

"Ruins always make me wonder about the loves, the sorrows and the secrets of people who had lived there. That's what really fascinates me about ruins. I was thrilled when you wrote about your transfer. It's such a lovely coincidence that you should be posted to Attock Fort, of all places."

"I don't believe in coincidences,"said Basma firmly. "There is a purpose to everything. I don't believe God plays roulette with the world!"

"You had written about the ruins near your house,"I said, hoping to bring the conversation back to the real purpose of my visit. "I saw some on the way up, but don't really know much about them."

"Yes, I knew that would attract you,"Basma chuckled at my predictability. "That is why you were the first person I thought of, when we came here."

"Well here I am, so give me some details!"

"I don't really know many historical facts,"she said, "only the tales told by the local people. There is a large Serai near the east end of the Attock Bridge. You know, rooms surrounding a courtyard. They call it the 'Begum's Serai'. It is said that it used to be the Queen's favourite picnic spot."

"Yes, I think I saw it. There were some steps leading up to it from the road."

"Unhunh, that's the one. Then there is Bahram Khan's Baradari. It's a raised building with high arches, facing a small rectangular courtyard. It is smaller than the Serai, and you might almost miss it. Over the years the road has been raised so often, that the Baradari is now almost ten feet below it."

Basma was thoughtful for a moment. "But first I must tell you about the 'Kanjri's Tomb.' She was not really a prostitute, poor thing, just a little dancing girl who had caught the King's fancy."

"Then why is it called a prostitute's tomb?"the name intrigued me.

"It seems the Queen's sarcastic name stuck with it, and Gul Lalay's Tomb is known to posterity as the 'Kanjri's Tomb'."

She was telling me about the single-domed square building that straddles the road near Attock Bridge, when the lights went out.

"This often happens here,"I heard her sigh in the dark. "Anyway it's late and you must be tired; now is as good a time as any to turn in."

My imagination aflame, I tossed and turned all night. Finally at dawn, pulling on a light cardigan, I crept out of the house. It was threatening to rain, so I went cross country to the Baradari, which was closer. The little courtyard seemed so forlorn and empty. Yet, the eerie stillness of the place set my nerves tingling! My shoe dislodged something, which fell with a dull, tinkling sound. I picked it up and rubbed it against my sleeve. It was a small tarnished bell, green with age. What if it had fallen off the anklet of a dancing girl long, long ago? The thought pleased me, and I put it in my pocket as a memento.

I climbed one of the flights of steps on either side of the Baradari, and sat facing the courtyard. Lost in thought, imagining the hustle and bustle that once enlivened it, I had an uncomfortable feeling that I was not alone. Turning, I saw a girl standing in the shadows. The intensity of her gaze had made me aware of her. Seeing she had my attention, she stretched out her hands mutely, beseechingly. She must belong to the village down the road, I thought, following me here she hopes to make a few rupees before breakfast.

"Go away, I don't have any money,"her intrusion annoyed me.

She did not go away. Every time I turned, she was there, palms out-stretched. I tried ignoring her presence, but the magic was gone. Irritated, I walked away. The girl followed me. Before turning into the 'Begum's Serai' I looked back and saw a brief, startled expression on her face. Then she spun round and ran in the opposite direction, as though the devil himself was on her heels. I was glad to be rid of her.

The 'Begum's Serai' was a disappointment. It was inhabited by gypsies, and looked more like a slum. Standing on the raised platform in the middle of the courtyard I looked around, witness to the great leveller, Time. Maybe the Queen's retiring rooms now house the gypsies' goats, I mused, hearing their frantic bleating.

By now the sun was rising, chasing away the last clouds. Busy with their chores, the gypsies looked at me curiously and feeling like an intruder, I finally returned home.

"You are up early!"said Basma as I stepped onto the terrace.

"Actually I haven't slept a wink all night. I got up at dawn to explore the ruins."

Basma smiled indulgently at my impatience.

"You better go to bed after breakfast if you want to enjoy the party tonight,"said Hamid.

Sipping my tea, I listened to their early-morning-just-before- going-to-work conversation, hurried and full of instructions. I could not bring myself to talk about the girl. I remembered the quiet desperation in her eyes and felt a little guilty now.

Waking up quite refreshed from my mid-morning nap, Basma and I went down to the river for a walk. An invigorating walk was just what I needed, to clear my head, she had said. In the distance I noticed the girl from the Baradari. She was sitting motionlessly on a rock, staring into the raging torrent. Her arms were tightly wrapped around her knees that were drawn up to her chin. Turning to ask Basma about her, I saw Hamid waving from the terrace.

"Oh, he's back early! I'll race you to the house."exclaimed Basma, setting off at a quick lope.

That evening, while every one was having a good time at the party; I could not shake off a nagging feeling of having unfinished business to attend to. Finally, whispering an excuse to Basma, I left. She only allowed me to go after I promised to go to bed the minute I got home.

"No more exploring tonight. I want you to be fresh for a long gossip session tomorrow!"she said, shaking her finger in mock anger.

"Yes, yes I promise."I laughed.

The house was quiet when I got back. Restless, I was drawn to the ruins. Finally, ignoring my promise, I decided to have another look around the Baradari. I wanted to savour its magic by the light of the moon. Hearing music in the distance, I guessed there must be a wedding in the village. Not wanting to draw attention to myself, I turned into an unused path. I need not have bothered. The Baradari, ablaze with light from almost a thousand torches, was full of people in fancy dress. The Tourism Department must be staging a 'son et lumiere' show that Basma had forgotten to tell me about; I thought, glad to have chanced upon it.

"Do I have to buy tickets?"I asked a costumed person close to the door, but he ignored me.

"Where are the seats?"I asked another who was rushing about and did not bother replying, either.

I was losing my patience at being ignored. Pushing my way through the milling crowd, I climbed the steps. Hoping I had not missed much, I squeezed myself into the only available space, next to a man in fancy dress, who was sprawled on a brocade-covered divan. Finally having found myself a seat, I looked around and noticed that the Baradari seemed quite grand. The floor and walls, glistened in the light and looked as good as new.

Then an expectant hush fell upon the audience. In a flurry of tinkling anklet bells, a lithe young girl started dancing. Everyone fell back. I guessed she was the star of the show. Her red and gold dress was a melody of colour and light, shimmering with each graceful movement. At first her face was covered with a veil, then coquettishly removing it, she threw it up to the man sitting next to me. He, pleased by the gesture held out his arms, and she came to him smiling shyly. They had eyes only for each other as she swayed up the steps. When she was alongside, our eyes met. She looked startled, and I stared in disbelief. She was the very girl I had seen earlier. Then, silently, she stretched out her palms.

"What is it that you want of me?"Her pleading was making me angry and frustrated. "I don't have any money, see!"I said, turning out my cardigan pockets.

The little bell fell out. Her eyes blazed with joy as she pounced on it. I remember thinking 'It must be precious,' as I dived to get to it before her. Next, I found myself crouched on the cold stone floor of the dark, silent Baradari. Dazedly, I looked around. All the splendour of a moment ago had disappeared. The Baradari was once more the time-ravaged ruin I had visited earlier. Shaken by my experience, I ran home. Bewildered, I was still trying to make some sense out of what had happened, when Basma and Hamid returned.

"Why are you sitting in the dark?"said Basma as they walked onto the terrace.

"And why aren't you in bed, as you promised?"teased Hamid.

"Oh I am glad you are back. Let me tell you what I have seen. I hope you can make some sense of it. I have been trying to figure it out, but the only logical explanation is not logical at all!"

I told them about my trip to the ruins, and the knowing glances they exchanged did not escape me.

"You both know something about all this, what is it?"

"I'll first get some coffee, then I'll tell you all I know,"promised Basma.

"You have seen the local ghost,"she said bluntly when she returned, handing me a steaming mug. "As the story goes, the King was deeply smitten by a local girl. Bahram Khan, a courtier, owned the Baradari. They say the king used to spend most of his nights at the Baradari, where the girl entertained for him."

"Carry on, this is very interesting."Impatiently I tried to hurry her along, while she took a leisurely sip of coffee.

"The Queen had once found an anklet bell in the King's possession and setting her spies' the job of finding the owner. She soon learned the truth, but bided her time. When the local tribesmen rose in revolt, the ladies were moved to the fortress for protection. Gul lalay was one of them,"continued Hamid. "That is when all the trouble started."

"From what they say, the Queen seems to have been quite a terror,"said Basma, taking over the story. "The story goes that, while the King was away she had the girl thrown over the battlements, into the river."

"Oh, the poor thing!"I couldn't help exclaiming, thinking of the rough, wild torrents of the Indus. "The King was heartbroken. Although everyone whispered about it, no one could prove the Queen's guilt. A monument was built in memory of Gul Lalay, his little dancing girl. It was called 'Gul Lalay's Tomb' for as long as the king was alive."Basma was quiet for a moment and then continued, "Local people swear they have heard music in the Baradari on nights of the full moon."

"Tonight was a full moon. The anklet bell. Yes, it is the key to the whole story."I muttered. Suddenly understanding, I whispered dry mouthed,"I have exorcised the ghost of the Baradari! Everything disappeared when she got the bell. In another time dimension, where it is all happening over and over again, she has been trying to change the story. She must have been searching for the bell all these centuries. I have finally set her free!"I said softly.

"Yes, everything has a purpose, there are no coincidences."said Basma thoughtfully. "It was time that the restless spirit was pacified and set at rest. You had to be here. You had to make it all stop."

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Dancing in the Ruins, Zeenat Jahan
Published in Khyber.ORG on Sunday, February 23 2003 (http://www.khyber.org)