1. Choco Bar
“Will you wake me up when we reach Goa?” Agneta lifts her niqab and takes a bite of her choco bar. I look around the crowded compartment, worrying she might make a spectacle of herself.
“That’s what Abba did on our trip…” There we go, again! Abba did this, Abba did that! During our one-year-old marriage, ‘Abba’ is the word that Agneta has uttered the most. We are on this trip, in the second class of Mangala Lakshadweep express, during the peak of summer, thanks to her Abba.
“Harris! Are you listening?”
The half-eaten choco bar is about to fall apart. Agneta is struggling to manage her niqab with one hand and the fast-melting choco bar with the other. She isn’t an expert at handling either. Vanilla ice cream oozes through the cracked chocolate shell.
“Ok. I will wake you up.”
I try to tear my gaze away from her chocolate-smeared lips. A fragment of the chocolate shell falls down onto an olive-green suitcase. The middle-aged lady with two teenage sons stares at me. I shouldn’t have agreed to this trip.
“Harris, will you say no if I ask something?” Agneta had asked me a few months ago. We were interlocked in a posture that made it impossible for me to say no.
“Tell me,” I said, panting.
“Shall we go to Aurangabad in May? During my summer vacation?”
“Auranga… Where??” I thought she wanted to go shopping or to a movie.
“Aurangabad, in Maharashtra.” She sat up and collected her hair in a top knot. Aurangabad, Aurangabad. The sound of it intimidated me. But, as usual, I was a fool around her. I agreed.
“I should be cuddling a grandchild by now, but they are still on their honeymoon!” I overheard my Ummachi complaining to my elder sister. Of course, she didn’t say anything to my face. She never does.
Agneta has finished her choco bar and lowered her niqab.
“On our trip to Aurangabad, Abba woke me up before sunrise. We sat on the side berth and watched the paddy fields of Goa. He told me that the Konkan railway was indeed a boon, cutting our travel time by at least fifteen hours.” Agneta explains as if I was one of her students. And, of course, she remembers every word of her ‘great Abba.’ No, I shouldn’t think ill of the dead. I should offer a Tawbah.
At night, we lie on the middle-berths across from each other, lulled by the soothing oscillations. It’s my first night on a train.
“Why do you want to go to Aurangabad again?” I ask her.
I should have asked her months ago. But I have been preoccupied with my family’s concerns. How will you protect your wife in that unknown place? What will you do if someone harms her? You have no experience in travel. You don’t even know Hindi. How will you get things done? Why can’t you go someplace nearby, like Munnar? But I had promised Agneta, and I couldn’t break it.
“Since the days I can remember, Abba, Ammi, and I would go on a trip every summer vacation. When I turned eight, Abba told me I was old enough for longer trips. Aurangabad was the first place I visited outside Kerala. So, it’s special. Abba had friends all over India.” Agneta’s eyes glisten under the shimmering yellow light. Her Abba was well-read, well-traveled. Agneta too. I haven’t even gone as far as the borders of Calicut. I will never be good enough for her. Maybe, I should have settled for an average girl.
“Harris, do you regret marrying me?” Her voice turns mellow.
Did she just read my mind? My parents weren’t keen on this relationship. They didn’t want me marrying a working woman. But, Agneta’s Abba had passed away a few years ago, and her uncle, Uppa’s friend, wanted to get rid of her before she crosses the ‘marriageable age.’ Uppa yielded and arranged the marriage. Last year hadn’t been smooth. Problems started when Ummachi heard Agneta calling me ‘Harris’ instead of the customary ‘Ikka.’
“Harris?” Agneta’s kohl-lined eyes are looking deep into mine.
“Don’t be ridiculous.” My heart beats fast. I reach out and stroke her hair—an ‘ahem’ from the upper berth. I retract my hand as if I had touched fire.
The next morning, I wake up before Fajr. I put on the map on my mobile, so that we don’t miss Goa. When the first rays of the sun enter the coach, I wake her up. The rest of the compartment is fast asleep, despite the scorching heat. We sit across each other on an empty side berth. Our legs are stretched, our toes nuzzle against each other. We look outside at the vast expanse of paddy fields—waiting in the sweet expectation of a new season.
“I still remember that morning, Appa telling me how paddy is cultivated.” Agneta presses her nose against the iron bars of the window. Yes, of course! Her Abba had told her. I wish she said something romantic instead.
I pick up my brush and walk to the toilet. People are sleeping on the floor near the washbasin. I wade through them and reach the stinking toilet. I yearn for the comforting routine of home. I shouldn’t have agreed to this trip.
The next evening, we reach the Manmad junction. From Manmad, we get a connecting train to Aurangabad. The jam-packed local train feels like an oven. Men, women, and children are stacked together—sticky and damp like the layers of a chiroti.
2.Tughlaq and Lipstick
“Harris, are you ok?” Agneta asks, seeing me flushed. We have just reached the Aurangabad railway station. I have never seen such a big crowd—their attire and language alien to me.
“Yes, I am fine.” I squeeze her hand in mine, trying not to get lost. She looks at me in disbelief. It’s the first time we are holding hands in public. Agneta hails a taxi and negotiates the rate—all in Hindi. I didn’t know she spoke Hindi. What else don’t I know about her? The driver keeps staring at Agneta’s eyes that are revealed through the niqab. How do I keep her safe in this alien city full of strangers?
“Everything has changed. Aurangabad had no flyovers or malls back then.” Agneta wistfully mumbles as we pass a huge mall named Prozone.
“Even in Feroke, everything has changed.” I console her. But the fact is, nothing has ever changed in my life. I still live in the same house I was born in. I have always worked at our supermarket. I have known my friends since childhood.
I gape at the city outside—women with colorful dupattas wrapped around their faces, a man selling some green liquid in huge earthen pots, street vendors selling Amul ice cream, colorful pushcarts full of skillfully sliced fruits—watermelon, mango, papaya, and muskmelon.
It seems like the taxi keeps going and going. The Google map shows it’s the correct route, but uneasiness grows on me. How did Agneta’s Abba manage to travel with two women? Wasn’t he worried?
“Aurangabad is called the city of gates,” Agneta blurts out, snapping me out of my thoughts. We have just passed through an ancient archway.
“The gate we passed through just now, it’s called the Delhi gate. It faces the North, towards Delhi. Aurangabad has a strange connection with Delhi, you know,” She is about to start a story. I love her stories. She seems to have inherited them from her Abba. Sometimes I feel she is the Scheherazade from the Arabian Nights.
“You have heard of Tughlaq, right? In 1329, Tughlaq decided to move his capital from Delhi to Devagiri, near modern Aurangabad. Tughlaq asked his entire populace to walk from Delhi to Devagiri, more than a thousand kilometers. It was the high summer, just like now. Many people died on the way…”
“You know so much history,” I marvel.
“Harris, I am a history teacher.” Agneta laughs. “Abba never missed a chance to teach me history. When we were in Aurangabad, he told me many such stories.” She turns silent and stares at the dusty sidewalks—as if she hopes to spot her Abba in the crowd. When he died six years ago, he seemed to have taken a piece of her heart with him. Will I ever be worthy of her heart?
“That summer, Abba, Ammi, and I walked around this city, exploring every corner of it. My lips dried up and started cracking in the heat. Much to Ammi’s disapproval, Abba bought me a ruby-red lipstick. It smelled like rose petals…”
So, one mystery is solved. Even though I have never asked her about it, her lipstick has puzzled and amused me. None of my sisters wear lipstick. Agneta’s lipstick was another thing that bothered my family.
“We should wear modest clothes and make-up. Every woman in our family wears niqab.” Ummachi often stated loudly, not to anyone in particular. A few months into our marriage, to my surprise, Agneta started wearing a niqab. I saw her struggling in it while she walked to the bus stop every morning. Something stirred in me, but I didn’t dare discuss the niqab. I was relieved when my family wholeheartedly accepted this new Agneta. However, Agneta never failed to wear her lipstick. It was her silent defiance, and it gave me goosebumps. But I didn’t know the lipstick had such long history.
I picture the eight-year-old Agneta hopping around the streets of Aurangabad in her colorful summer dress, proudly displaying her stained lips. I look at her, clad in black cloth, her lips hostages under the niqab. I suddenly feel that I am Shah Zaman, the Sultan in the Arabian Nights. Does Agneta tell stories to stay alive too?
3. Stolen Kiss
We are in front of the cave temples of Aurangabad, looking at the valley below. It’s bleak, vast, and overwhelming. Our house in Feroke stands in a narrow lane. Hardly two vehicles can pass through it at a time. In the distance, I see a grand marble dome gleaming against the sun.
“Is that Taj Mahal? But…” I mumble. I can’t believe it!
“Yes, yes, it’s Taj Mahal,” Agneta laughs, clutching her stomach.
How is it possible? I know she is making fun of me.
“Harris, it’s not Taj Mahal. You know the Taj Mahal is in Agra. Don’t you remember at least that much? That’s Bibi Ka Maqbara.”
“Never heard of it.”
“When I saw it first, I too had thought it was Taj Mahal. But I was just eight then.” Agneta giggles again. I feel a lump in my throat.
“How will I know? Uppa never took us anywhere.”
“Anyway, now you know. Let’s go in.” She leads me into the front yard of a deserted stone temple.
“Are we allowed inside?” I have been taught never to step inside the place of worship of another religion.
“Come on! It’s not even an active temple.” Agneta drags me by my hand. We climb the rugged stairs into the portico of the rock cave.
“Is this Buddha?” I gawk at a stone sculpture carved onto the front wall of the cave. I have never seen anything like this.
“No, not Buddha. It’s the sculpture of a Bodhisattva, like umm… a prophet in Buddhism,” Agneta explains. I didn’t know she knew so much. We enter the cool yet humid interiors of the cave temple. I walk around, gaping at the stone sculptures. Who are all these people? The world is a strange place.
Agneta takes her niqab off, and her unruly hair flies in every direction. Her small face is all red. A drop of sweat rests on her button nose. I don’t know what has come over me. I press her against the stone wall. Under the silent gaze of a half-naked goddess, I kiss her.
What have I done? —kissing her in public, that too in a temple! “Will Buddha punish us?” I ask. But Agneta’s lips muffle my voice. I am lost in the scent of rose petals.
At noon, we start climbing down the thousand stone steps leading into the valley. At a distance, a white horse is grazing near a small pond. The rocks radiate heat. Agneta has lowered her niqab, and under it, our stolen kiss is safe.
There is a temple complex at the landing of the stairs. It seems like a religious ceremony is in progress. Bald men in saffron robes are walking around the stone platforms—chanting and sliding rosary beads between their fingers. In brass pots, incense sticks are burning. The temple complex is covered with champak trees. They have flowered in abundance—saffron flowers. It seems the summer has rained fire on them.
“They are Buddhist monks,” Agneta whispers.
My legs automatically slow down. A strange fear engulfs me. Am I an invader in their sacred space? Agneta, as usual, takes the lead. She starts walking— confidently, yet modestly. I follow her, my eyes fixed on my sandals. No one notices us as we walk across the temple complex. It’s a contrasting sight—Agneta, in her pure black niqab, walking amid the saffron-clad monks.
4. Fruit Punch
“I ate my first ever kulfi here, in Aurangabad. The kulfiwala released the kulfi from its aluminum casing like magic. Abba got me the casing as a souvenir.” Agneta tears the plastic wrapping of her kulfi. We are in front of the Himayat Bagh. The street vendor with the branded ice cream cart looks on indifferently.
“The old kulfiwala told us many stories. He said that he had been making kulfis for half a century, and the mangoes in his kulfis came directly from the Alphonso orchards in Devgad. Abba had had a long chat with him. They talked in Hindi, and later, Abba translated the conversation for me.”
We walk under the lilac canopy of jacaranda trees in the Himayat Bagh. A light breeze is playing with her niqab as we stroll along a canal. The retreating spring seems to have spent its last ounce of energy on the pink, white, and blue water lilies. Pieces of the sun have fallen into the water, creating alluring patterns. I smell mangoes, water lilies, and dried grass. Or am I just imagining them? Do memories have a smell? I don’t know.
There is nothing memorable about my summer vacations as a child. All I remember is the long hours I spent playing football on the dried paddy fields. I also remember Uppa scolding me for not going to the mosque or not turning up at the supermarket for work. None of my memories is as vibrant as Agneta’s. Her Abba was a poor lower division clerk, but he created memories for her. Memories that she holds onto and smiles at. Will Agneta and I create memories together?
“Harris, If I ask something, will you make fun of me?” Agneta breaks the fragile shell of silence. I feel a rush of excitement. Does she not want to go back to Feroke? Are we going on another adventure? I am in.
“I want to find out something.”
“A fruit punch,”
“Oh, it’s a long story.”
“Longer, the better.”
Agneta turns into Scheherazade, but I don’t want to be Shah Zaman.
“Abba had a friend in Aurangabad. His family had migrated from Karachi during the partition. One evening, they made their traditional biryani for us. The cooking was like a ritual, a celebration. We finally sat down to eat around eleven at night. We ate, sitting on a velvet rug, around a table that was just two feet high. In the center, there was this enormous pot of steaming biryani. We ate from brass plates. I still remember the taste of that Sindhi biryani.” Agneta turns silent as if relishing the taste.
“By the time we finished our dinner, it was late at night. The heat was unmanageable. I stood near the whirring cooler as water droplets splattered over my face. Around midnight, Abba’s friend suggested that we go out and get some breeze. I was thrilled. Back home, we never went out after eight or nine. We all hopped into the back of his open gypsy. We roamed around the city.”
I picture Agneta on the back of a gypsy, her hair flying around in the warm summer breeze.
“Then we stopped at a crowded juice bar. I couldn’t believe so many people roamed around at night—not just men but women and children too. Anyway, we had this amazing fruit punch. It came in such a big glass that I couldn’t hold it properly. I still remember those bright layers of juice—red, orange, purple—their boundaries gradually blurring. It was like, umm… like having sunset in a glass. Harris, we should find that fruit punch.”
If Agneta had said such a thing back in Feroke, I would have been dumbfounded. But, now that we have roamed around Aurangabad for two whole days, it feels quite natural.
Around the time of Zuhr, we exit the Himayat Bagh. Under the angry noon sun, we walk to the Jama Mosque. After Zuhr and lunch, we set out on our fruit punch hunt.
“These were busy markets with rows and rows of makeshift shops. I don’t know what happened to them.”
The footpath is now lined with branded shops on either side.
“We had the fruit punch in a roadside shop. It must be long gone now.” Agneta’s voice is smeared with disappointment.
“We will try anyway.” The optimism in my voice even surprises me. For hours, we hop in and out of juice bars, sampling varieties of fruit punch. By sunset, we are too cloyed to walk. Every juice shop we visited was crowded— men eating big slices of watermelon, women boldly biting into ice cream cones, kids eating ice golas and showing off their stained tongues to each other. No one pays us any attention. And I have started feeling like one among them. They are no longer strangers.
“I don’t think we will find it,” Agneta says as if dismissing the quest.
“Let’s try one more shop,” I beg. I am sure we will not find that fruit punch from two decades ago. Maybe that fruit punch wasn’t special or anything. It was just that summer vacation, her Abba, and the excitement of that midnight adventure.
“You really miss your Abba, right?” I ask. We are at the last stop of our fruit punch hunt, sitting on plastic chairs set on the footpath.
“Harris, I keep wondering what my life would have been if Abba hadn’t gone.” I can see her eyes turn moist under her niqab.
“I miss Abba, but more than that, I miss the person I was when Abba was around. I used to feel… umm… so free and light.”
I don’t know what to say. “Umm… Will you take me to all those places?” I ask her instead.
“But we’ve seen every place in Aurangabad.”
“Hmm, no. I mean, every place that you visited with your Abba. Will you take me?”
Agneta suddenly raises her niqab and looks at me strangely. I don’t know what to make of her expression.
“I will.” She says after a few minutes. Her face breaks into a smile, and she removes her veil. She fans her face with her palms. Something tells me she is not going to wear the niqab again. I wish she wouldn’t. The fruit punch arrives.
“This tastes almost like the one I had with Abba.” Agneta smiles again. The dimples on her cheeks flash, relishing the warm summer breeze against them.