The market was a maze of alleys with bumpy roads, pockmarked with ditches. Narrow streets intersected in a big open space in the middle, the heart where beggars, balloon shapers, and cotton candy vendors convened amongst the cars lucky enough to find parking spots.
Haldee Raam’s shop was the third one in the middle of the third alley way. To the right was a used bookstore, a tiny place with walls of Mills and Boons, Georgette Heyer’s, Agatha Christies, Enid Blytons, and in the towering stacks Byron, Keats, Coleridge, a dictionary or two, Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, the odd Ghaalib or Iqbaal to be found, Shakespeare mixed with Borges, Rumi, Haafez, Saadi, the random Purple Fairy Book, Peter and Jane, Burda magazines. To the right of the bookstore, on the corner by the open center, presided the naan wallah with his platform built above and around the wood fired pit, in and out of which moved fresh bread, hot fluffy moons that cooked in a minute. The two stores to Haldee Raam’s left were always shut, the ridged metal grates pulled down and locked as long as memory serves.
Haldee Raam sold spices, seeds, nuts, fruit. Sacks of deep yellow turmeric powder, orange cayenne, green cardamom pods, brown cumin powder, black kalonji seeds. Deep baskets brimming with doe eyed almonds, brainy walnuts, golden raisins, dried apricots, and sticks of rust colored cinnamon. He sat, big bellied, bald headed, bristling browed on a stool behind a set of scales where he measured and weighed and priced his wares. He lived upstairs, and whenever I popped into his shop for sweets, sticky black ovals of tamarind and date mixed together with chillis, I’d see his daughter, Zuljabeenaah, looking out from behind the curtain by her balcony. She’d stare off into space with a faraway look on her face and I’d wonder what distant places was she wandering about in.
As it turned out, one of the market boys, Khizzr, told me her tale one day while he was emptying out his bag and checking on his cobra. He was one of the boys from the interior, born into a family of snake charmers and he was one himself. A source of pride for him as none of his brothers had the gift. Snake charming was an involved affair he’d declared; when he was a babe he was fed ten drops of cobra venom, as were his brothers. When the time came to go out into the bare fields and grasslands outside Kuchkhaas, to seek out a snake, his brothers hadn’t been able to sense one. He on the other hand, well he’d smelled his snake and they’d met and greeted each other, joined in sangam.
He sensed all kinds of snakes and could call them, but the cobra was the one he carried around in his bag. For a year at a time, this was the agreement he’d make with the ancient snakes; he’d had six and was on his seventh: Kaaloo Raaj. I’d seen the sleek black reptile with fanned hood and tawny underbelly, a menacing version of the black snake in our chicken coop and garden, fanged and deadly. Kaaloo Raaj slept with Khizzr in his bed and drank milk amongst other things. In the market, Raaj was carried around coiled up in a bright pink-mirrored basket with lid, woven by Khizzr’s mother, within a large patchwork bag, a purple and yellow mosaic pattern stitched by his sisters and aunts. No, the women didn’t handle the snakes, but were familiar with them and used to being around them. The bag also held his been or pungi, a wind instrument made of two reeds going through a dried bottle gourd; given to him by his father who had taught him the art of playing it as part of the cobra performance. He charged ten rupees a show, and Zuljabeenah, the spice sellers’ daughter, was one of his regular patrons. She watched him perform daily and gave his cobra little treats at the end of the day. This is how he knew the story of what she gazed toward.
It turns out she had a beau. He used to make jalebis in a bubbling vat of oil outside the naan wallah’s, that’s how they’d met. When he asked her father, Haldee Raam, for permission to marry her, the spice seller had asked him where all he’d been, where was he going, was he going to be a jalebi maker all his life? The reply Haldee Raam received was this:
Though he was guised as a jalebi seller, named Rizzaq, the truth was that he was the son of the son of the son of Bahaadur Shaah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor. That he had deep pockets, and travelled many places around the word, of this Haldee Raam could be assured. He was selling jalebi’s as a way to earn on his travels, as an adventure, nothing more. Why on his last journey, he had visited Baseerah, where his father had commissioned the building of a structure that was taller than any other in the world! At this, Haldee Raam had asked him, how tall? Rizzaq didn’t know, it was so tall there were no measuring devices that could count its height, imagine. Why, he’d heard from the roof of this building, you could reach up and caress the moon, blow kisses at stars! It was so grand a monument, a hammer had been dropped from the roof and it had not yet made it down to earth, and that had been two years ago! This was certainly where he and Zuljabeenah would live, indeed!
Haldee Raam’s bald pate had glowed at this point, a warning sign to those who knew him well, his big round belly had rumbled, his bristling eyebrows had quivered and after spitting out a spray of dark red betel nut juice, he’d informed Rizzaq that when this hammer reached the ground, then and only then, would he consider a marriage between his precious daughter and the son of the son of the son of the last Mughal emperor. Shortly thereafter Rizzaq had disappeared and Zuljabeenah, well she was watching him through time and space and moonbeam and stardust, where he sat under the tallest building in the world, waiting for that hammer to break ground.