| Sayani De | April 2024 | Short Story |

Nishank was not the type of man who could do much on short notice. Yet, when his childhood friend Syed called in the dead of the night on a Saturday, declaring that he was going to visit India soon, Nishank found himself looking for a flight from Bangalore to Lucknow. He booked it between the nappy changes of his toddler; it was his turn to look after the baby over the weekend. On Sunday, he ordered his wife Maya’s favourite breakfast of sabudana [1] khichdi from a nearby restaurant. As she devoured the food, he hatched his plan. Her face turned a shade of pink that usually preceded a blame game. However, she soon relented when he offered to take the baby off her hands for a whole weekend so that she could go visit her aunt in Mysore. The toddler bounced around the room with his unsteady gait and new-toothed smile.

[1] Sabudana: Tapioca pearls

He reached the airport an hour earlier than usual and hung out at a pizza joint outside the entry gate. Young couples, families, and children all running around. He wondered why a lot of the men seemed to have developed breasts that needed a bra. He touched his chest in reflex and gave out a smug chuckle; his consistent gym visits amidst all the chaos in his life have paid off. Have women in Bangalore become more beautiful in the past year? Or are the sun and clouds playing to create the right lighting. One in which portraits always come out as if they have been washed in a halo? He shook his head in regret that he had forgotten to bring his DSLR camera, a gift from Maya when he had turned thirty the year before. 

In his people-watching stupor, he entered the airport late, only to face a long line of people like an army of ants before it rained. Impatiently, he rubbed his palms when a young teenager moved past him to the ‘Hand-luggage only’ line that he hadn’t noticed earlier. He sheepishly followed suit. Moving past check-in and security was a Waltz without any luggage and baby gear. He started feeling taller without all the baggage he didn’t even know he carried around. 

When the plane took off, leaving Bangalore felt more exciting than meeting Syed after seven years. But just then, he remembered the time when Syed had made their History teacher, Mrs. Gupta, shriek so badly that the class thought she was going to have a stroke. A spray of spit had come out of her mouth as she had hollered at Syed. The serious teacher had asked at the end of a chapter, what their conclusion was about the war strategy of the king. Syed had answered that the king liked fort walls a lot, so he sat on it, dangling his feet, when the enemies came. Nishank was smiling at the recollection when the slim air hostess offered him tea. Ah! The day is starting to get better, Nishank thought to himself.

Syed spotted him at the Lucknow airport as soon as he got out. Syed looked even bigger than his social media photos. After a brisk hug and a few pats on the back, the two friends were on the way to Syed’s home, which Nishank had frequented during his childhood. Syed’s mother passed away a couple of years earlier, leaving the house bereft of its sole occupant.

Aur bhai [2], how did you make it here? I was not sure you could.’

[2] Aur bhai: And brother

‘Politics bhai, family is politics’

‘Say more,’ Syed said with a twinkle in his eyes.

‘Traded a weekend with Maya when she would visit her aunt.’

‘While you cook and look after the baby?’ Syed neighed a shill laugh.

‘Haan, so? But no cleaning or cooking for me; we have a maid and a cook. Don’t tell me you get off without any work at home. I’ve heard you have to do all the housework by yourself in the US. No maid business.’

‘Yeah, but we have a dishwasher that I load. For the rest, I do my chores so badly that half the time, my wife takes them away from me in frustration,’ his belly jiggled with bubbles of mirth.

Their car reached Syed’s house. Dust comfortably sat on the furniture. Only one bedroom had a fresh bed sheet on it. On the marbled floor, Syed’s bags were half unpacked.

‘I didn’t get time to unpack yet. Anyway, I’ll head off to Delhi in a week’ he said, following Nishank’s eyes. Nishank freshened up in the musty old bathroom with a Victorian bathtub and stretched himself out on the four-poster bed. Syed beat some dust out of a nearby velvet armchair and plonked on it. He started rolling a joint. 

‘Where did you manage this stuff? I thought you just came in yesterday.’

‘I have my sources,’ Syed swayed his full-haired head as he licked the paper to make it stick.

‘I can’t remember the time I last smoked.’

‘This is your chance when your boon has been granted. The gods have listened to you,’ Syed passed the joint to Nishank like old times.

‘How old were we for the first one?’

‘Eighteen..no nineteen. We were back from college. You had brought the stuff the first time.’

‘Yeah, and my father found out later.’ Nishank instinctively touched his left cheek where his father had slapped him.

‘Where is Colonel saab [3] these days?’

[3] Saab: A respectful way to address someone superior in rank

‘In Patna, at our ancestral home. Mom is there too.’

‘Good for them. They can finally be together with you guys out of the house.’

‘And good for me too! His 5 AM puja and chanting get Maya out of sleep and out of her mind when they visit us.’

‘Then I guess Maya would go mad in this neighbourhood with a call to prayer five times a day’

‘For sure she would, she does love her sleep. But I have always been curious to go to a mosque for prayer’

‘But why bhai?’

‘For the experience. Plus, the way you guys pray, head to the ground, looks like good exercise, almost like Balasana.

‘Now what’s that?’

‘A yoga pose. Good for your back and concentration. However, I wonder how you would prostrate yourself with the belly you have grown’

‘Don’t underestimate my flexibility bhai, I can still do many things you won’t dare to imagine,’ Syed winked.

Saale, you brag just like old times for sure!’

‘Come to the mosque with me tomorrow for Jumme ki namaaz’ [4]

[4] Jumme ki Namaaz: Friday prayer

The air in the room was thick with cannabis smoke. The furniture seemed to be levitating a few inches above the ground. Nishank giggled uncontrollably trying to envision Syed doing Balasana, no, praying at a namaaz session, sitting with his knees folded, head to the ground. 

‘Done. Take me there tomorrow

Syed started singing in his classically trained voice, ‘Aj jaane ki zid na karo…’ (don’t insist on leaving today)

‘Nobody is insisting to leave, you moron. I am going to stay here for two days,’

The words on the food delivery app looked blurred. Syed called a local restaurant and ordered kebabs and rolls. ‘Only chicken, no bade [5], yes, that’s it,’ Nishank heard him repeat to the restaurant guy. The food looked enough to feed an elephant and yet, somehow, everything was finished in an hour. Nishank chomped on the last pieces of chicken galouti kebab [6]with his eyes closed. ’You never get this kind of taste in Bangalore’ he said between mouthfuls.

[5] Bade: A common way to refer to beef in Uttar Pradesh, India

[6] Galouti kebab: a kind of soft meat kebab

‘I recently found a Pakistani joint in Jersey City that sells something very close to this. But Lucknow kebabs are Lucknow kebabs.

They were still hungry. To quell it, they made Maggi, a few packets of which Syed had stocked up. They gobbled it ravenously. The watch said 4 AM, but it seemed to be nothing more than a mere number in someone else’s life. Sleep descended amidst old Hindi songs playing on the phone speakers, without the knowledge of the two happily intoxicated friends. The last thing Nishank remembered was Syed whining about how long Martian was and how he had fallen asleep in the movie hall for a part of it. 

When the strong sunlight of mid-morning hit Nishank’s face, he woke up with mild confusion about where he was. Syed called him for breakfast. Nishank was surprised to see that Syed had already bathed and was clothed in a crisp, off-white kurta. Nishank stuffed the crisp, soft puris with potato and peas curry into his mouth.

‘Pandey’s puris still have the same taste, don’t they?’ Syed mused with a hint of pride. 

‘For sure,’ Nishank slurped.

‘Chal, take a bath and get dressed soon.’

‘Where are we going?

‘To the masjid [7], for namaaz…. How high were you last night?’

Nishank felt embarrassed at the ambitious plans he made the night before.

‘Is it interesting enough to go to? I rarely even go to temples.’

Saale [8], you are not wriggling out of this. You said you wanted the experience. When else would you get to do something like this?’

[7] Masjid: mosque

[8] Saale: a mildly offensive way to address someone, common and accepted among friends

Nishank considered his friend’s argument for a moment, but his heart beat fast.

‘What if they find out there is an imposter kaafir among them?’ Nishank said with a half-smile.

‘I guarantee you, they won’t shoot the kaafir [9],’ Syed gurgled with laughter. ‘Remember the times I accompanied you to the Durga puja [10] and Dussehra mela in Patna? Don’t think they considered shooting me either.’

‘You used to accompany me to ogle at all those beautiful, decked-up girls’

‘It was more for the mouth-watering pakoras and chana ghugni [11] than the girls’

‘Ah yes, the chana ghugni! ‘Nishank’s mouth watered despite a belly full of Pandey’s puris.

 ‘Bas, enough bakar [12] about this. You are coming with me today unless you left your balls behind in Bangalore.’

[9] Kaafir: a non-believer

[10] Durga puja: A Hindu festival of worshipping goddess Durga

[11] Chana ghugni: a savoury dish made of spiced and boiled legumes

[12] Bakar: idle talk

Nishank had heard the same tone in ninth grade when Syed had convinced him to stealthily throw dung-filled water balloons at eleventh-grade bullies. They had never got caught but the status of the bullies had fallen in the school.

He bathed and got ready with a trepidation that he didn’t admit to himself. The two friends sauntered to a mosque two kilometres from Syed’s house; Syed insisted that he wanted Nishank’s experience to be in a nice-looking mosque. The narrow, serpentine streets leading up to the monument that looked more than a hundred years old, swarmed with men, mostly dressed in white kurta, some wearing skull caps. As they got closer, Nishank marvelled at the intricate blue and green floral carvings on white marble walls of the mosque. The dome seemed to kiss the midday sun. Nishank missed his camera again. He liked the anonymity that the crowd provided. 

Things rapidly changed when they entered the ablution area before entering the prayer hall. Nishank tried his best to copy Syed’s every action, from washing hands to waiting in the hall for the Imam to begin. There was pin-drop silence once the service began. The kind of stillness that reminded him of a yoga ashram he had once attended. The next few minutes were a blur of moving heads in a certain order, sitting, prostration, head to the ground and prayers by the Imam. Syed was struggling to prostate, but his spirit trumped his lack of physical fitness. Nishank was too tense to take note and mock him later. He was certain that a few people on his right side were watching him doing everything wrong. After the prayers ended, he noticed a couple of them whispering and lightly pointing in his direction. The back of his neck tingled. One of them was walking up in his direction. To make matters worse, Syed had moved forward and was speaking to an old, silver-haired man. With his heart in his mouth, Nishank stepped backwards towards the exit door, but it was jam-packed with people leaving. As he looked around, Syed and the bearded, whispering guy came up to him. From the look of it, they knew each other.

‘And janaab [13], how did you like the service?’ the bearded guy addressed Nishank.

[13] Janaab: a respectful way to address someone in Urdu

‘It was nice,’ Nishank squeaked, feeling a little naked.

‘First time?’ the guy asked.

‘Yes,’ Nishank mumbled.

‘The mosque is from the time of Nawab Wajib Ali. Syed, you should take him around the mosque. Most people don’t even know about this small place,’ he added before leaving the two friends with a benign smile.

As they walked out into the streets, Maya called.

‘How have you been? You didn’t call since you reached there,’ Maya squealed.

An unruly guffaw rose to Nishank’s throat.

‘What’s the matter? Are you okay?’

‘I am more than okay. I tried some new food and it tasted better than I thought.’

‘Sounds like you’re having a good time,’ Maya sounded sullen.

‘I’ll video call you tonight,’ Nishank said. A satisfying answer, Nishank thought from Maya’s grunt. She disconnected.

‘You should have seen your face when he came up to talk to you! ’Syed’s eyes had a mad sparkle as if he was bursting at his seams with glee. 

The two friends meandered through the gullies to their favourite lassi shop.


Sayani is a bibliophile, compulsive traveller and sustainability enthusiast. Her work has been featured on Muse India, The Selkie anthology, Borderless Journal, Women’s Web and won a contest at Story mirror. She lives in Bangalore.


Homepage image by Abdullah Ahmad via Unsplash

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