Updated: Nov 21
The evening sun lit the wooden flooring of Neelam’s room as she put on her make-up for the oncoming night. And just like always, used the heavy powder Madam had given her to conceal all her bruises from the previous ones. It wouldn’t be long before someone would come up and call her downstairs for her performance; Madam liked to save her for the last. “You have to tease them and starve them just enough until they’re willing to comply with your charges,” she’d always say.
For the longest time, her performances had been the only part of her life that didn’t make her skin crawl. It was the only piece of dignity that remained with her from whatever she was left to inherit from her deceased mother. Each dance had been taught to her before she was even taught words.
Watching everyone look at her mother awestruck as she resurrected centuries-old culture through every twirl and spin of her body was everything that Neelam had looked up to. Bringing life, magic, and warmth to each mehfil, just like her mother, was all she had wanted to do. Anarkali, the town used to call her. It was quite suiting too. She was the beauty of the town and so was the woman whose story her mother had read her to bed every night.
Her hair was darker than fresh tar and her skin was smoother than caramel. Her hands would be decorated with mehndi and gajray and when she walked, the jingling of her anklets would ring in the ears of the palace. She was a local dancer who used to dance for money and men until one evening, the half-eyebrowed advisor of the Padshah saw her in a mehfil he had gone to enjoy. Captivated by her beauty and the flicks of her wrists and ankles, he kept coming back to her each night as if under a trance. His eyes couldn't get enough of her so, in desperation, he recommended her to the palace. She became a royal courtesan of Akbar’s darbar. She was one amongst fifteen others, but when they’d perform, she’d draw all the eyes on her and her alone. Her feet were lighter than a feather, and her curves would bend more seamlessly than honey dripping down the side of a matka. She made each vibration of the plucked tanpura and each beat of the struck tabla run through her veins faster than blood. The air around her stood still in anticipation as she gave the Mughal culture a new reason to thrive.
Neelam’s mother had taught her everything. The rich history of every twist and twirl, the dignity, delicacy, and etiquette of their profession, and, of course, the rumours. She had assured her that they were a respectable class. “We are the celebrators of our tradition, the tradition of our ancestors, Neelam.” Tawaif was the word she'd use. “We do not let anyone touch our bodies, and those who do, those women in the brothels, are a disgrace to our tradition and profession.”
But, this was all before her mother left her. The times were changing and she couldn’t make the ends meet through her performances alone. She fell into debt, a pit so deep that she couldn’t make her way out and died, starving on the streets of Heera Mandi. But her death didn’t give people their money back. And so they sold Neelam to a brothel in the bazaar.
Madam took her in immediately. With all the sanctions and declining customers, she could cash the girl’s beauty and craft that she’d inherited from her mother. She stripped Neelam of all her petty belongings and gave her new sparkly ones that jingled when she moved. She gave her lipsticks and coloured powders to paint her face over. Neelam didn’t like her much. Her thick kajal running up to her temples, her dark eyelids and smudged lips, the way she made her hair look so big and stiff, and her creaky voice from smoking too much hukkah, it all gave Neelam the creeps.
Though she was scared of her, she sneaked into Madam's room one night, after planning for a week, and stole back her one precious belonging.
“Aahh, Anarkali, I missed you so much!”
The storybook was her only comfort left after her mother. Though all its ink had begun to smudge, she'd read the worn-out pages, again and again, every night. She'd read it before getting ready for her performances and remember the way her mother used to dance. When reading the book, she wondered how happy she’d be if this was her only job; to go on the stage and steal the show, just like her mother. And, of course, she was the star of the show, but with that came the unwanted demands of the after-hours.
Neelam had usually liked to dance, it was the only part of her day she used to look forward to. But, with every passing night, as her job after her performances became more and more intolerable, she had started hating her dances too.
"They don't come to see me dance," she muttered under her breath, as she dusted the blush on her cheeks. Her delicate, bony fingers gripped the brush so hard and her jaw clenched so tight until frustrated tears pooled in her eyes. "They come to use my flesh at their disposal. They come to use me as an object that they can just buy."
There was a knock on the door, it was her time to go. She quickly took a nice, deep breath, wiped her tears before they could ruin her makeup, and put on her most attractive smile before heading downstairs.
When her mother used to dance, people looked at her in awe and appreciation of her craft. But when she danced, nobody noticed the delicacy behind her steps. There was just lust, lots of it. Each night when the music ended, she desperately hoped for a bursting round of genuine applause for her. Tonight was no different, but, as always, she was met with hungry eyes of impatient men instead. And, as usual, Madam dragged her and other girls off the stage and sent them to their rooms before she went on bargaining the charges with the customers for the night.
One of the Eids had just passed, she remembered when she first saw him. Unlike the rest of the men trying to peel off her clothes with their eyes, there he sat in the corner observing her, actually interested in her movements. When she waited later in her room, he came but didn’t jump at her like the men usually did. Instead, he sat down on the floor in front of her as Neelam watched him, confused.
"What's your name?" the man asked.
"Neelam," she responded, quietly, somewhat surprised at the unexpected question.
"Neelam," the man repeated as if tasting the name in his mouth. He looked up at her standing figure, then patted the spot beside him on the floor.
Unsure of where this was going, she warily came to sit down beside him. She noticed him watching her every move and that made her self-conscious.
They sat there awkwardly for a painful few seconds. Neelam could think of some questions to ask to break the silence, but talking to a man about anything except her job was part of the rulebook. And the last thing she wanted was an unsatisfied customer complaining to Madam.
"What are you thinking?" his smooth voice broke her out from her thoughts.
She noticed not for one second had he looked away from her face. She didn’t know if that creeped her out or flattered her.
"I was thinking if I could ask you something," she replied, still not looking up at him.
"Why are we sitting here?"
The man paused as if thinking about his answer.
"You might work in a brothel, but I believe every person is more than a body. Every person is a soul," he gently touched his fingertips to hers on the floor, "and I want to get to know yours."
She didn’t realize when her eyes started swimming in his, and she didn't want to stop. No one ever, since the day she was sold, looked beyond the flesh of her body.
"Your session is running out," Neelam whispered, still wary if he was really not bluffing.
"I can come back tomorrow," he breathed back. "And the day after, and after, until you let me near you."
She wondered if he could see through her skin how hard her heart was beating against her ribcage. Suddenly getting the bravery to ask more, she probed, "What's your name?"
She knew she caught him off guard by the little shoot in his eyebrows. But she didn't get in trouble.
"Let's get to know you tonight," he replied instead. And they did.
They talked about her performance, her heritage, her family, her past, the future that she always wanted, and still wants. Word by word, she found herself getting more and more caught up in his conversations, in the way that he spoke, in the way he used his hands to explain, in the piece of his hair that rested on his forehead, in him. And for the first time in two years, someone had shown her.
She didn’t sleep that night, replaying their conversation over and over again in her head, every word, every sentence, every laugh, every pause. She wasn’t just an object of pleasure; she was a person, and being with him made her realize that. She asked him his name every night, but it was their fourth when they first lied in bed when he told her.
"Haris," his voice breathed on her bare skin as his fingertips stroked her hair. "My name is Haris, love." Her heart fluttered unevenly in her chest and there was this warmth in her whole body. She felt like falling in love, with him, with herself. It reminded her of her favorite passage from the storybook,
The wind moved to her will and so did the eyes of every soul in that room like a ribbon twirling around her finger. Anarkali knew she had become Akbar’s favorite. She knew it by the tightness of his closed fist, and the tenderness of his touch against her cheek. She knew it by the haste of his eyes and the uprightness of his spine upon her entry. The Darogah told her he was her way out of the little mouse class she belonged to, up to the position where fakhta soar. But maybe it was because she never knew how to climb her way up, or maybe it was because she wanted love more than she wanted the position, that instead of the Emperor’s, her eyes met with someone else’s and stayed there until the thumping in her chest became so loud that it consumed her whole. It coerced fire in her blood and it flushed her face, it beaded her neck with sweat, yet she couldn’t look away from the Prince. It was their first meet after his month’s stay away, but the journeys ended in lovers meeting. She was entranced by his sight and eagerly performed each evening in hopes of getting to see him again. But it was the night of her life when the Darogah passed her a handwritten note from the Prince. He had asked her to meet him out at the fountain. She left in the darker hours when everyone in the harem resembled the dead and met the Prince under the half-moon. If dancing in front of him was entrancing, being with him was like being under the influence of a thousand hookahs. He sang praises of her beauty, vowed promises of his love. The twinkling stars witnessed their secret affair.
Neelam didn’t know a feeling as grand as the feeling of being with him. He chatted to her about his life outside. He was a fine arts student. His parents had always focused on their business more than him. He had friends, but they only came to him when they needed his money. And the only real thing he had ever found was Neelam, he had told her. He felt like he could finally be himself with her and talk to her about anything. He loved her, he had confessed.
He visited every Tuesday. And after every visit, Neelam would believe him, even more, when he’d say he’ll get her out of this place. She’d spend every second of her day fantasizing about the future she’ll have with him; how they'll convince his parents that they love each other, how they’ll both struggle to make ends meet when they start their new home, how she might go into show-business, how they'll always be happy as long as they had each other.
Most of all, Haris was her secret. The promises he'd whisper, the money he'd leave under her pillow for their future, all were a secret. No one would know them once they'd leave this place. They'd start a new life someplace and their past would just be a memory. A ghost, he'd whisper. Just like Anarkali and Salim were. A ghost.
Cover credits: Illustration Anarkali (BG removed) courtesy: Anarkali & Saleem - A Mughal Love Story by StrateGeek Digital | pinterest.com