| Anit Singh | January 2024 | Short Story |

You can easily tell who Beiji is. She’s 78 years old, has violently red hair, is half mad, and is always found sitting in her shop opposite to the sea selling trinkets from the 40s, 50s, and the 70s, but not the 60s. She hated the 60s, because that was when her father passed away, leaving her the matriarch of the ‘Salil House’ and therefore unable to dance. But most of these stories are whispers, never uttered aloud. Respectable women don’t dance in our society, and Beiji, the grand matriarch is the most respected of them all. Still, she started dancing two years ago on a Thursday afternoon and has done so everyday between the dead hours of 2-4 in the afternoon when customers start to collapse like wet cotton balls in the humidity. 

This is not the first time in the known history that Beiji has lost it. There are three recorded incidents in the book ‘Salilnama’ the official history of the Salils, when Beiji tried to dance and a great misfortune befell the house of the Salils on all three occasions. The fortune of the ‘Salil House’ has followed a downward trend since the early 18th century with the fall of the last Great Mughal; but even so, we like to keep accounts of the smaller misfortunes, if only to remind ourselves how much worse it could’ve been.

Nearly 20 years after he took over the shop, father is still too shy to be able to look Beiji in the eye and to tell her what she shouldn’t do. Instead, he does everything to control things ‘around’ the event. He announced an afternoon siesta break for all the attendants, placed a bush in front of the shop to prevent curious tourists from looking in and clapping when Beiji dances. Even the birds have stopped circling the open air central courtyard of our house in the afternoons, and I suspect that this has something to do with father. Only I am allowed to sit under the shade of the lemon tree, watching Beiji move soundlessly, despite wearing dozens of strung brass bells on her legs.

‘Salma Antiquarian and Oddities’ named after Beiji, is now being run by the third generation of our family. The Salils had come to the city five decades ago with a few antiques and oddities, wrapped in the hope that the city of dreams could hold one more dream. ‘The Great Arrival’ is covered in the 2nd chapter of the ‘Salilnama,’ about the first chapter of our lives in this new country of Hindustan and the book goes on tirelessly for 30 more chapters covering a span of 50 years, until its author Harun Begum collapsed with the pen still in her hand.

Harun Khala was our oldest aunt and the only one who could stand up to Beiji. She had started maintaining a chronicle of our family fortune starting in the 50s when the ‘Salil House’ was being built. The project started out as a diary of a romantic teenager, but it had to become something more than that, because the diary had come out of the ‘Trunk’ and Harun Khala of all the Salils was the most attracted to the idea that the ‘Trunk’ could decide our destiny. The ‘Trunk’ gave them each a coming of age gift, and everyone who partook of it got consumed by their gifts.

Beiji doesn’t believe in any of it. But she’s generally skeptical of everything written down in books, of doctors, diets and anything that gets shown on the TV. As coincidence would have it, none of Beiji’s sisters married. The persistent rumours have linked us to royals & perhaps it was also the last gasp of this very royal quirkiness that marooned the three sisters into high towers, determined to see through their destinies alone. The fourth tower, that Hasan Salil built for Beiji remained empty, until of course I turned it into my clinic.

The first Salil to set foot on Bombay was Hasan. When he was 12, he was considered to have come of age in the God fearing old city of Lahore. He opened the sealed ‘Trunk’ – an wooden box which was always called the ‘Trunk,’ and sealed his destiny. He found a Bollywood movie poster inside it.

The ‘Trunk’ was a relic of family’s faded past, a way of clinging on to our lost glory, and for Hasan’s daughters, it served as a sentence of a lifetime of maidenhood; because they believed that all of the eligible bachelors, by which they meant the ‘real’ men who descended from the royal Mughal household, had gone across the border to Pakistan. The women bore their life with a quiet dignity, and used their considerable energies into transforming the ‘Salil House.’ Beiji was the only one who rebelled, much to the consternation of others. Her feuds with Harun Khala were supposed to have been so violent that the sisters were often banished to the underground basements lest they vitiate the peace of the ‘Salil House’.

The ‘Salil House’ was intended to be the image of heaven on earth, specifically a heaven imagined on an expensive city plot. If you cross the threshold of the house, you’ll find yourself drawn into a small flower garden murmuring the melody of pebbles, a small stream going around hundreds of flowers. The garden was meant to prevent the lingering eyes of the outsiders from getting a glimpse of what went on inside, a purdah of sorts, but made of the bushes embroidered with hibiscus and chrysanthemums. The household functions downstairs near the coolness of the ground. The four rooms on the first floor; situated on the four corners of the house, like minarets, had been built for the sisters. They might’ve frayed in the heat and the rains of the minarets had they remained for long. But none of them did.

One of the four corners now functions as my office, where no one comes, because we’ve hidden the entrance. My job, my destiny, as written on a side column on the 320th page of the ‘Salilnama’ was decided to be a dentist the very day I turned 12. I had started to see teeth differently from that day onwards, as if they weren’t a part of someone’s body, but a wretched thing to be avoided. Like a reluctant pilgrim walking on a bogus pilgrimage, because of the fear of a God he doesn’t trust in, I’ve walked too far on the path to not be a dentist. I still study the auxo-action of Merogel for operative cavity epithelialization, chanting the words like an atheist’s mantras.

If it had been just my life which had been consumed by the God forsaken ‘Trunk’ of the stupid Mughals, then I would’ve at least felt special. However, the ‘Trunk’ has swallowed many more lives, chief amongst those being that of Harun Khala. She fervently believed that she’d become an author of national renown and though her ‘A Road Too Long’ and ‘The Artist of the Riverbed’ received some good reviews for her prose, but she was ultimately done in by her excess verbosity that left her works pretty much unreadable.

Contrary to all expectations, the ‘Salilnama’ states that the happiest day in the life of the four sisters and their brother was the day when they got the right to open the ‘Trunk’ on their coming of age day and found their lifelong passions. An empty bottle of perfume would make Sakina Khala dedicate her life in making the extraordinary elixir of Ittar, a perfume so strong that the scent of roses still haunts the household 20 years after the last bottle was manufactured. A baking mould would make Fatima Khala learn baking from a retired chef and to spend countless hours in her kitchen to come up with savouries so perfectly baked that the people who had her Kachori once, could not go back to having an ordinary one.  Beiji was the only one who didn’t take the ‘Trunk’ seriously. She had found dancing bells and just tossed them in her cupboard where they gathered dust over five decades while she engaged herself in taking care of the house, marrying and giving birth to the Salil clan and meticulously controlling the lives of everyone who was subsequently born in the family.

Sometimes, sitting in my empty, stuffed office, it’s curved walls dropping on me, I wish for Beiji to die. I am wracked with poisonous guilt every time I get this thought, but then every time I have to climb my empty office, my mind goes back to the time when Beiji took me to the ‘Trunk’ and it decided to give me the stupidest thing possible: a twig of Neem tree. And this, in the eyes of my family was enough to turn me into a mediocre dentist. I wanted to use Beiji’s example to get out of my ‘destined’ profession, but Beiji seems to be dancing her swan-song just for me. My teenage rebellion has become crystallised within me, a thorn that I scratch everytime I breathe.

I spend my time reading the family history and adding a few of my own morose comments, my handwriting eerily resembling Harun Khala’s. ‘All the watches in our shops stopped with the stroke of midnight in the middle of August of 1947,’ begins the melancholic account of Harun Khala. She has systematically noted down every tragedy that befell the Salil family from the day she knew how to draw her sadness on paper. In a scrupulous hand, she’s noted down every heartbreak and reversals that the family faced. The happy events were left for footnotes or when they were too much, left unrecorded by her pen.

That Beiji’s life was mentioned in more detail than anyone else’s, is largely due to the tragedies that Beiji had to bear on account of her fate. She devotes an entire chapter to the first time that Beiji danced and then how their father locked both of them in the cellars for the blasphemy. Beiji was locked for dancing and Harun Khala for predicting the death of her father at the same time as Beiji started to dance.

Thereafter, Harun Khala was careful to state that all her predictions were due to the fate of the individual and not in any case linked to her making them. She had become so proficient in making these readings that she could make them doing anything, from throwing of bones to horoscopes to tea leaves, and then there were times when she’d just watch the spiders web and predict, accursed to keep on doing so like some tragic Greek mythological character. Her favourite was the idiosyncratic reading of the ‘eating marks,’ which meant that she’d look at the dirty plates of people to accurately foretell the disasters they’d face. After she told Fatima Khala that she’d have to face the fires of hell for leaving a ‘U’ shaped mark on her biryani plate, there was a dread in the household with regards to her predictions; so much so that no one let their plate lie dirty in the pantry where Harun Khala would inevitably greet them with tragedy or horror; the only two genres she practiced.

Hasan Salil could never love his last child, the one who had caused his wife to die. At two days old, Harun Khala was entrusted to the care of a Banjaran, a tribal woman who’s alleged to have fed her both milk and enchantments. Harun Khala didn’t speak for the first five years of her life and when she did, it was in a sacred and forgotten language that no one else could comprehend, more so because her wet-nurse had left her when she was 13 months old and yet, for the next 80 years, Harun Khala would struggle to learn any other language hanging on to the semantics of an extinct language.

“Her dance will bewitch a killer..,” she threw this prediction casually at Beiji, just by watching her put her blood stained linen to dry with a twirl and a dip. Sufficiently chastised, Beiji took extreme care to not move her limbs in a way that may be construed as a dance move. She even started to keep her hands in her pockets, lest they betray a movement on their own.

Driven deep inside her, the dance surfaced in an unexpected way. She started dancing, in the intense solitariness of her room at 3 am in the morning where she would sleepwalk into a dance. No one, including Beiji knew that she had danced.  Her feet brushed soundlessly against the carpet, a capital requirement in a house where everyone listened to everything, always. This is Harun Khala’s best conjecture on how Beiji learnt to dance despite remaining entombed within her room: she was learning from the past masters who rarely taught the living.

In the fine annotations of the history of the Mughal kings, the Salils find a place under the title of the ‘Ministry of Trunks.’ There was just the one trunk that the family kept ready for the Mughal progeny.  It opened for Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jehan and Aurungzeb, and gave them each a gift, a steel sword, a pair of golden scales, a marble slab studded with stones and a bloody prayer cap respectively. When his time came to rule, Aurungzeb dismissed the ministry, along with magicians, the singers, the storytellers and the acrobats. His was a dreary rule, which so sapped the Mughal household of imagination that there was never to be another great king born in that house again.

The Salils in the meantime struggled to find a customer for their precocious art. After 3 centuries of straying from the lines of our venerable ancestors, the Salil Kabaadi was was set up in 1848 to trade in used wooden items, and by the time the 20th century rolled by, no one even remembered the old ‘Trunk;’ the one that could not be pried open, burnt down or be broken down using the best of the axes. It was used as a steady stool to sit, refusing to draw attention to itself, until the day that Hasan’s father got injured in 1931, and the 13-year-old Hasan had to sit on his father’s seat. The moment that he touched the trunk, Hasan was sent flying with the force of the ‘Trunk’s’ opening. When he looked inside, he found a film poster.

The legends were revived. The family stayed in a state of intense expectations for years afterwards, believing that Hasan had come with a great destiny. Hasan practiced singing, dialogue delivery and stunts – with the uproarious approval of his close family. Though it soon became clear that his skills were mediocre at best, his persistence was able to draw out the already stretched thread of family lore into a solid mass of absolute certainty.

Nothing  happened for the next 14 years as Hasan worked in the shop, got married, had kids and had even stopped performing at the customary family functions. And when it was certain to everyone that the incident with the ‘Trunk’ had been a freak anomaly, Hasan left Lahore.

Twenty seven, plump and sprouting a shock of red hair, Hasan arrived in the city of dreams with a belief that he would become a leading actor. Within a few months of his arrival, Hasan had become completely sure that he only needed a chance on the big screen and that he only needed to bide his time till then. It was then that he decided to open shop, as an interim measure.

His trade honed by over three centuries of family practice served him well. He spruced up the shop with the new name, ‘Salma Antiquarian and Oddities,’ which had been suggested by a departing Englishman, but had been adopted with great gusto by the locals. His family arrived just before the partition of the country and any links that he had with his ancient land was broken after the borders closed. For a decade, Hasan only sold the repaired household items of the English. These were a terrific draw for a new class of merchants who wanted to emulate their departed colonisers, till they didn’t.

When the ‘Trunk’ opened again for Beiji with a pair of Ghunghroos, the shop was already past its peak years. Hasan had enough time to perform for his children, which he often did. He wrote and performed single man performances and his stories were often fantastical, infusing the ordinary with magic, till no object of the household was free of wonder to the utter and total disgust of his wife Sofia Begum who could foresee the dangers of such dreaming.

Sofia maintained to her last day that nothing could come out of the Hasan’s lies. Hasan decided to wind down business after losing his wife, to only entertain select clients – which, in retrospect, was the best thing he could’ve done. His shop held an irrepressible charm for men who had recently come into money and wanted by all means to look respectable, men who wanted to seem interesting, cultured and above all, worthy of the items that Hasan sold.

Beiji called them ‘Hollow men,’ and Hasan’s skill was in finding the right trinket to fit them. Thousands upon thousands of these hollow men came to Bombay, and private whispers guided them to the shop, to buy an object and to hear its story from Hasan.

“Then what is it that they really wanted Beiji?”

I ask Beiji again, because each time that I do, I get a different answer.

“Having had gotten all that they could imagine in their lives, they wanted something to reassure them that it wouldn’t suddenly be taken away.” She begins, with a different answer this time.

“How do our artefacts give them this… this feeling you speak about?”

“The objects don’t. Our stories do.  That’s what gives the objects their power and the hollow men place them near their hearts and they feel solace… till it’s time for a new story.”

She is swaying gently with the breeze, as if gauging the wind with her hair. Beiji is always in motion, as if she is secretly dancing an arcane micro dance. The sputtering Bombay sunset attempts to light her burgundy head, and she blushes, as if she’s slipping away from her geriatric lover. The story is told with the tiny movements of her eyes and I am bewitched. She always does this, if you pay  too much attention.  

“Beiji tell no, why are you being so difficult today?”

“The topic calls for this difficulty Dudu. I’ve been trying to tell you this, and yet you come back to me in different ways, asking the same question. The answer is unspeakable, it’s in the winds, in the dance, it is unspeakable and you want me to put words to it. How will you ever be happy with any answer?”

The wind picks up pace, prancing about the leaves and for a moment we are lost witnessing the dried leaves twirl.

“Beiji, don’t call me Dudu. I am grown up now.”

“Grown ups don’t eat candy wool off of their fingers.”

“This is the hair of an old witch.”

She smiled, radiant. “Trying your hands at the stories. Dudu, the stories have to be felt out, not thought out…”

She hummed a tune that sounded familiar and yet I couldn’t quite place it. It’s a nostalgic tune, equal parts joy and sadness.

“What is the one thing that you never want to forget?” Beiji’s eyes light up whenever she hears a question she hasn’t heard ever before.

“Oh there are so many things. When I was a little girl, we used have a Manipuri teacher here, who had come at first as a nurse, but then later on she started a dance school. So many of us went to her and for us, it was the best part of the day, dancing, chatting with the girls and oh, I still remember every part of it.”

When she doesn’t speak for a whole minute, I realise that she’s gone into one of her reveries.

“Beiji you’ve told me this story many times. Tell me this, is there no way you can teach me to tell these stories of yours?”

“Son, everyone can tell these stories, they’re like a non-stop record, playing on and on and on inside of us. You’ve taken your needle off as if you’re afraid to feel. How can I help then?”

Something in the way that she said these words make me tear up with pity; for me, and for the endlessly playing record player forever unable to tap into the music.

“I… ah.. I didn’t want to become a dentist just because I got a Neem twig from the trunk.”

“No one told you to.”

“But… but everyone did! They filled me with all sorts of guilt.  And you always said that it’s a Salil thing, right? You dance, Harun Khala wrote…”

Beiji waved her hand, and smiled with her eyes closed.

“People took what they wanted from the ‘Trunk’ and so did you. We gave meaning to our decisions in the same way the stories do for our customers. If you wanted, your twig could’ve turned you into a wood artist, a painter, a philosopher… it was you who chose to be a dentist. You never once said what you wanted to be. No one ever stopped you from changing, except you.”

I didn’t know what to say, except “But Harun Khala…”

“Oh she said a lot for things. She said I would marry a killer. I didn’t pay two hoots to her and married someone who I loved. His family owns an abattoir. So what? Even now it’s not about what others do, the question is what are you choosing right now?”

Her eyes stay on me for too long, like two leaden balls weighing me down, crushing something inside of me into powder.

“Enough of your questions. Give me some tea now. My throat hurts with all this roughness.”

“But mother said not to give you anymore tea.”

“Bah, what does she know. Is she even here? Your job is to be reckless, ‘you be you’.”

“You’ve learnt the phrases of our generation.”

“Yes, I speak your language. Now take this bit of lemon grass here and boil it in the water before you pour in the milk.”

“I know Beiji.”

Our family is a tea fanatic and the tea making has been elevated to an art in our kitchens. She smiles as she sees me pour out a glass for her.

“And add a touch of brandy to it, just to make it Punjabi.”

“You mean Irish?”

“Irish have a bad name for no reason. They’ll be considered sober in Punjab.”

Beiji sips the tea tentatively. Even after so many years of drinking my perfect tea, she fears tasting tea that hasn’t been made exactly to her standards. But once she likes what she tastes, she sits down comfortably. The wind ruffles her hair into a frilly knots and she looks like a very old child. How could I have wished for her to die? I watch as my angst flows out of me, dissolved into tepid tears and tea vapours.

“Isn’t the tea too strong?” I say, trying to hide my tears.

“It’s good enough for the pain in my joints. Much better than those tablets that your mother gives me.” She takes a big slurps of the piping hot tea and lets the scalding water gyrate in her mouth. She pauses, relishing the last few sips. I know with experience that she shouldn’t be disturbed when she’s near the end of her glass.

“The burnt room belonged to your Fatima Khala. During the heydays of her business, she rolled out so many different savouries. No one makes ‘khari’ like how she used to, with little aniseed and the zest of lemon. Ah, ah, ah…”

If nostalgia had a sound, then this is it.

She puts her cup down and stands up slowly with the 3 point touch, first rolling on the sides to get enough momentum going and then pushing herself up towards a full standing position.

“She might’ve been the best cook, but she wasn’t happy. No no no. All she really wanted was a small girl of her own. And gradually, it slowed her down and then made her stop. Full stop! That happened to all three of them.”

The wind blew in a new scent, flowers from another season. Beiji went on.

“But all of them had their chance to turn back, to change. In the 50s,  there was a time when your Sakina Khala had produced 10 different scents in a week, and your Harun Khala’s book got released, triumph was everywhere. Father thought that the Salil glory was about to come back and indeed it was a glorious week. We celebrated by throwing a reckless party. Ah, that was something… and I…”

“You started dancing?”

“Well, in a way I did. First I danced with your grandfather who came at the party and then I danced the slow dance of domesticity, the dance of the household and the dance of selling. The dance was never meant to be literal for me like it was for others.”

She’s quite serious when I look at her. She smiles with all of her 11 teeth. And it is just then, looking into her foggy eyes that I can see clearly.


Anit Singh was born in the foothills of the Himalayas and has changed schools more times than he could keep count of. He has completed his post graduation in liberal arts from Ashoka University, and currently resides in Mumbai with his wife. 


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