An introductory note:
It is 1856 in Lucknow, India. Malika is a dancer in one of the city’s most famed kothas, or courtesan houses. On this day, exactly one year after the death of her young daughter, she receives an unexpected visit from her patron, a French engineer named François, and their adolescent son, Etienne. In line with kotha tradition, Etienne left his mother’s home at the age of five, and now attends a boarding school on the other side of the city among European students.
Perhaps a bad idea
Tugging her dupatta over her head, Malika opened the door of the kotha’s main room to find Uncle Hamid downstairs.
There, eyes lowered, stood Govind, the principal eunuch who served the household.
“Aadaab,” he stammered in his high-pitched voice. His hand flew to his forehead as he bowed. “I tried to tell them they would have to wait, but Monsieur insisted.” He nodded over his shoulder.
François came into view, his ordinarily composed face a flustered canvas, mouth pinched sideways in acknowledgment of the situation’s impropriety. What had happened to bring him like this? Perhaps it was because of the date.
“Aadaab,” François said into the room with an apologetic smile. His eyes searched Malika’s but she looked away, afraid of seeing an equal pain in his, and just as afraid to find it missing.
There was movement in the stairway. Govind had said “they.” Surely François would not have brought…But yes. Etienne emerged from behind him. His green eyes gazed out uncertainly. Their color always took her by surprise. He was a bit rumpled. His unruly swath of hair fell over his forehead, partly covering his right eye. He smiled shyly at Malika and his face held a question, as though he was worried about her. Malika experienced a familiar ache. At first she was relieved—perhaps there was not something so wrong with her after all—but then fear of what that ache might re-open took over. She was unprepared for this encounter.
“Mallu,” came Dhaya’s sleepy voice. “Have you grown roots? Who has come?”
“Yes, what is this?” Amma said, approaching the door. “Have you forgotten how to conduct yourself? Oh! Monsieur Villiers. Aadaab. You should have sent for Malika if you wanted her. And shouldn’t he be in school?”
“Yes, he should,” François said. “But something happened there. A fight.”
Amma raised an eyebrow and waved them in with obvious reluctance.
They entered. The smell of masculine sweat mixed with perfume in the movement of air around them. Govind backed out, closing the door. Etienne had changed in the two months since Malika had last seen him. He looked less coltish. Almost fourteen, he was on the cusp of manhood. His eyes alighted on her, searching, hungry. She looked down. The cuffs of his trousers were encrusted in brown muck.
Amma sat back at her desk. “A fight. I see. And this explains your visit?”
“Amma,” Dhaya said from the daybed, “maybe it’s not his fault. Muna, Zehra, have you even greeted your cousin?”
The girls rose shyly, hand to forehead. They eyed Etienne with curiosity. Always sequestered in the private rooms of the kotha during the boys’ visits for etiquette lessons, they had never met him. Even from across the room Malika could discern the shadow of memories flitting across his face. The girls were only a year younger than Vivienne had been the last time he had seen her. Malika closed her eyes, steadied her breathing.
“Boys get into fights,” Amma said. “He seems to have recovered.”
François wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. It was the one that matched Malika’s, with an embroidered gold F instead of an M in the corner. She had wondered if he used this in front of Marie, if he had given her one as well.
“Perhaps this was a bad idea, bringing him here today,” François said. He looked to Malika. His eyes were tender; they still held a trace of desire. She looked away, searching for a safe place to set her gaze.
Etienne stood so close to Malika that she could have reached out and touched him.
“Etienne!” Dhaya called out from her pile of cushions. She sat forward and her blouse, the top hook unfastened, revealed an expanse of pillowy softness. Her daughters nestled against her and stared out with owl eyes. “Come, sit with your cousins. You have grown so much. What a handsome young man. But you look like a bag of bones! Just like your mother. Don’t they feed you at that firangi school of yours?”
Etienne looked down, but he moved toward the daybed.
“What is this mess on your trousers?” Amma asked. “Please do not dirty anything.”
He backed toward the edge of the rugs. There was an awkward silence during which one of the errand boys ushered in a dapper man in a maroon silk waistcoat, black eyes shining like river stones between the thick bristle of a white mustache and the smooth rim of a black top hat.
Muna and Zehra erupted in synchronized squeals. “Uncle Hamid!” They ran to him, each one encircling a striped trouser-clad leg. As usual Amma barely acknowledged the arrival. She always behaved as though Hamid Abbas was a servant, when in fact he was a master craftsman. His workshop downstairs turned out some of the city’s finest zardozi embroidery of gold and silver. He was the only male, other than the errand boys and the musicians who rented quarters downstairs, who was ordinarily allowed inside the confines of the kotha at times other than mehfils. Every rule, Amma said, had one exception, but she never explained this one.
“Aadaab.” Uncle Hamid lifted his right hand in greeting and tipped his hat with the left. He patted the girls on the head. They giggled and clung to him like macaques.
“Have I arrived at an inopportune moment?”
“No, of course not,” Amma said, glancing up and considering him more intently. “Although we are having an unusual confluence of visitors. It is always with pleasure, however, that we receive you. But what is this attire of yours? With every passing week you look more like one of those firangi fools overrunning the city.”
If François was offended by her use of the derogatory term to refer to all foreigners, he did not let it show.
Uncle Hamid, however, looked contrite. “It is not to your liking?”
“Respectfully, Uncle,” said Dhaya, “I prefer your usual smart clothing. Why adopt these foreigners’ ways?”
Malika cleared her throat. “I like it,” she said quietly. “And the waistcoat as well.” François often dressed in this manner. It was a fetching look.
Uncle Hamid nodded his thanks to her and François’s mouth twisted into a half smile.
Amma fixed them both with a defiant look. “We were just discussing a new patron for Malika.”
Malika’s throat hardened. Mallika shook her head at Amma. How could she bring this up now, in front of François? Of Etienne? Yet François might be able to help Malika avoid a new patron. Perhaps he could provide enough of an extra payment that Amma would be placated.
He stood straight. “Zeenat Begum. It happened to us an unexpected turn of events this morning. Luckily we were aided by one Henry Collins. A senior officer with the Company.”
Uncle Hamid tapped his cane on the floor. “Henry Collins? I have made some clothes for his wife. A perfectly decent man.”
Amma followed the bait. “An officer with the Company, you say? Does he have insight into British activities? I could use someone who can provide us with news from the Residency and the cantonments. I’m afraid you’re not quite positioned well enough for that.”
“He did mention a recent report about the difficult conditions outside the city,” François said carefully.
“And what type of woman does he prefer? You Europeans like the skinny ones. Perhaps you could share our Malika with him?”
Amma’s tone was airy but the words were sharp. They flew across the room and hit Malika in the chest, knocking the air out of her. But she knew her mother was examining her face for a reaction, and she would not give her that satisfaction. This was just talk. Amma had specifically said there would be no more foreign patrons. She was doing this to test her, to test François. He shook his head with a weary look. He, too, was familiar with Amma’s tendency to provoke. But Etienne did not know this. He stood to the side like a wounded crane, eyes darting from one person to another. He bit his lip, pulling at a shred of dried skin. Malika felt a sharp burn on her lower lip and realized she was doing the same.
“Begum Zeenat,” François said, his voice measured. “Officer Collins is happily married, with a new child.”
“So?” Amma was petulant, as though she knew she had gone too far.
Dhaya rolled her eyes. The twins hugged their knees to their chests. Banu Jan sat motionless, but her eyes were now open.
“Why don’t you go change?” Uncle Hamid said gently to Etienne. Govind had reappeared with a neatly folded pile of clothes.
Etienne nodded and followed the eunuch out. François strode to a high-backed chair across from Amma’s desk. He placed his hat on a low table and gripped the chair back, knuckles white against his pinkish skin.
Amma picked up the copy of Tilism, the newest Urdu newspaper, and waved it about.
“We should be better informed of what the angrez are doing. Something does not feel right. That Governor General, Lord Dalhousie, is doing too much all at once. Telegraphs, railways, the new postal system. That Ganges Canal they just finished building. It is foolhardy to do all this.”
Uncle Hamid spoke up. “What is so foolhardy about these projects? Is it not good to be able to travel more easily, to receive letters faster? It seems like progress to me.”
François had extolled the virtues of these new technologies to Malika. The possibilities they offered—for travel, exploration of other places—seemed boundless. She wished she could ride a train somewhere. She had a vague recollection of a voyage—part on foot, part in a carriage. Her mother was there, and there was a baby who must have been Dhaya. And two boys waving. Were they relatives? Malika didn’t recall ever returning to the place they had left. It was a one-way journey. But when she had once asked Amma about it, her mother had said they had never done such a thing. So Malika never asked about the other memory, of a curly-haired girl who did not make the journey with them.
Amma snorted. “This ‘progress,’ you do not realize at what cost it comes. And who is paying? You think the British are emptying their own pockets? Hah!” She slapped the table with the newspaper. “This smells rotten to me. If it is their own money, their queen will demand something to show for it. If it is not their money, they are sucking it from Awadh and the other provinces. Either way, it cannot end well.”
Uncle Hamid leaned forward, both hands on his cane. “Perhaps, Begum Zeenat, we should find out why Monsieur Villiers is here today?”
Everyone turned toward François.
“It’s Etienne,” François said. “He was defending his mother’s name at school. But I don’t believe he understands what it is that he defends. Often he asks to come here. Today being the day that it is, it appeared the right thing to do.” He lifted his palms.
Amma’s expression softened a bit.
“I think it would do the boy good to spend some time here,” François continued. “And perhaps, also, for Malika Bai.” This time he did not look toward her.
The door opened and Etienne reappeared. He wore a cream-colored silk pajama and a long, maroon kurta trimmed in gold. He stood taller than before, and although the clothes hung loosely on his frame, they suited him better than the discarded school clothes. He looked much as he had as a little boy, just taller.
“Wah! You look like a prince!” Dhaya exclaimed. She patted the cushion next to her. “Now you are clean, join us.”
Zehra held out a sandalwood elephant. Etienne hesitated, but Muna hopped over and pulled him by the hand. He smiled.
“For me?” He took the figurine and made it lumber along the bed to Muna. “Young lady, I am terribly confused. You look so much like your sister—which one are you? Muna? Zehra? Zuna, Mehra?”
Muna giggled. Malika’s heart constricted. From across the room François watched as well. That is where they came together, their gazes both on their son. I need to speak with you, she said in her mind, willing him to hear her.
Dhaya ruffled Etienne’s hair and waved Govind away. “Make sure his clothes are washed.”
“Why is he like that?” Etienne asked Dhaya, pointing to Govind’s retreating form.
“All… soft. And with that funny voice. Like a girl.”
Banu Jan cackled wetly in her corner. “Temptation reigns, the risks are legion / Besetting the man whose lower region / Over his judgment casts a cloud. / Thus only those whom it behooved / To have their manly parts removed / May be allowed.” She looked mischievously at Etienne through slitted eyes.
Amma pinched her lips together but failed to disguise her smile. “Well put, Banu Jan.”
Etienne’s eyes widened.
Dhaya laughed. “Well, some parts gone. We allow only eunuchs access to our private rooms. No real men in the kotha at all, unless they are dance or music teachers, or here for a mehfil. With occasional exceptions at your Nani’s discretion, like Uncle Hamid. When we travel to other homes, well, that is a whole other matter. You will understand it all in time. You are almost a man yourself. Although one would not know it, the way you are playing now!” She ruffled his hair again as Etienne ducked. “Monsieur Villiers, there is some education to be done with this boy.”
François reddened. “I don’t believe that type of education is necessary yet,” he said. He pulled out his pocket watch. “I must go.” He looked questioningly at Amma.
She pursed her lips. “I suppose he might as well stay the remainder of the day.”
“The whole day?” Etienne said, pausing with an elephant mid-air. “Thank you, Nani!” His eyes sparkled, his enthusiasm overwhelming.
François cleared his throat. “It would be better if he returned to school in a European conveyance. I will send my carriage and driver.”
Amma rolled her eyes. “Better? As you please.”
He raised his hand to his forehead.
“Khuda hafiz, may god be your protector,” Amma said, rising.
Street noises—the call of the rope seller and the rough laughs of men gathered at the kebab stall—floated up as the main kotha door briefly opened to release François. Malika stepped onto the balcony, remaining concealed behind the reed blind that encircled it. Etienne slipped under the blind to lean over the balcony’s edge. Behind him, pressed against the rough reeds with their grassy odor, Malika peered through the slits.
Below, just outside the gates and flanked by Banu Jan’s two musclebound grandsons who served the kotha as watchmen, Govind was speaking with two men. They were Indian, but in British uniform. Not sepoys, but rather something Malika did not recognize. Etienne called out and waved, but when François, about to step into a bagghi, looked up, he motioned quickly for Etienne to go in. Something was amiss. Malika scraped at the blind with her finger and called Etienne back. As he brushed past, her heart quickened. He would be here for the day, expect time with her. He had heard her mother talk of François “sharing” her. Surely he would have questions. She followed him back into the room with a lump in her throat, wishing instead she could have left with François.
To simply fly off
Everyone dispersed. Khala Dhaya suggested they gather again later to eat, and she herded the twins away, giving Maman something of an odd look as she left.
Now Etienne was alone with his mother for the first time in as long as he could remember. She stood, arms still crossed, as though barricading herself against something. Perhaps she did not want to be alone with him. Perhaps, like Papa, she was ashamed of him. Leaning forward, he traced a geometric pattern on the rug with his big toe, the weave of the wool alternately bristly and smooth. All his questions swirled in a tangle in which he could not discern a single accessible strand. When he raised his head, she was looking toward the window. Had she seen the two stern men speaking with Govind when Papa left?
She turned back to Etienne. “Shall we go up to the roof?”
The roof was one of Etienne’s few clear memories of his life at the kotha. That was where he and Maman had always conducted their prayers. One day Uncle Hamid had brought him up to see the pigeons. He remembered picking up feathers, brushing them against his palm to see if he could tickle himself. But his mother had come running and yanked him back down. She’d said something to Uncle Hamid about how easily he could have fallen. Etienne wondered now if she remembered any of this.
She glided down the hallway as if her feet barely made contact with the carpeted. The kotha was like a cocoon where everything was soft and comfortable, where the smells—of incense wafting down from the Hindoo servants’ puja area on the roof, of rice and cardamom from the kitchen—were sweet. He was reminded of how his ayah at his father’s house would drape bedspreads and sheets over the chairs and sofas and create secret hiding places for him, filled with pillows and muted light.
Etienne tried to remember the kotha’s full layout. The ground floor consisted of Uncle Hamid’s back room and workshop that gave onto the alley; the perfume shop; some rooms that were rented to musicians; and the water storage area. One flight up was the large main room, the dance room, the little book-lined room in which lessons took place, the kitchen, and the food storage room. He remembered the latter, its dark coolness, the way he would sneeze from the dusty bags of rice and jars of spices. On the top floor, accessed either via the main staircase or the narrower back one, was the floor that housed the various tawaifs, each in her own quarters, with her own maidservant.
And, of course, there was the interior courtyard, each floor of the kotha cut out to look down on it. At its center was the shyonak tree that spread its branches upward toward the rectangular patch of sky, seed pods dangling like sickle swords.
Etienne hurried after his mother, inhaling her faint smell of champak flowers. Tapestries and miniature paintings hung on the walls, as well as scrolls on which calligraphed poems in Urdu and Persian cascaded on cream-colored backgrounds. They climbed a dim stairway and emerged onto what looked like a miniature village square, just as Etienne had remembered, rimmed by what had seemed to him as a very high wall years ago but was now only waist-high. A jungle of flowering potted plants cluttered three sides. The fourth was layered in bed sheets and clothing drying in the sun. Etienne’s school clothes lay among them like a molted lizard skin. The pigeon cages were still there, stacked four high. The floor around them was grey-white with droppings and stray feathers. A dozen or so birds cooed and flapped, scraping the bamboo enclosures with their scrawny feet. Under an awning strung up with wooden poles, a cluster of servants squatted around a glistening mound of sliced red onions, peeling and dicing, while others sat on overturned wooden buckets mending clothes. They stared at him with curiosity.
Disconcerted, he headed to the far wall. He squirmed his way between the flowerpots to lean his elbows against the crumbling ledge. The city spread out around him like a gilded, dozing dragon. Domes and towers and parapets poked the sky. Immediately around the kotha was a jumble of rooftops and walls perforated with narrow windows, like a worm-eaten piece of wood. Down below, four bearers trotted by carrying an open palanquin.
Seeing the conveyance from above brought back a flash of memory. Etienne was five. He stood on the balcony, waiting for Papa. His father was taking him away to live in his house in the European neighborhood across the city, just the two of them and an ayah. His mother, holding one-year old Vivienne, was glassy-eyed. Khala Dhaya hoisted him up, pulled him to her soft chest and pointed out how lovely the palanquin was, how finely decorated, and how lucky he was to ride in it. He remembered the salty warmth of his tears on his tongue as he licked them, and Khala Dhaya’s smell of sandalwood. Maman had said little. When she’d opened her mouth to say goodbye, her voice had come out as a whisper. She’d squeezed his shoulder, told him he was a strong little man, and that they would see each other soon and often. Vivienne had started to cry as well, and he had thought: She is staying with Maman and I am not. But now here he was, and Vivienne was not.
Etienne leaned forward, hoisting his stomach onto the wall’s edge and letting his feet dangle, to peer down the façade’s lattice-work. His mother came to stand beside him, just out of reach. She looked out over the wall, pulling her dupatta closer around her face, and propping her chin on her palms.
“This is my favorite place in the house. Well, not ‘in’ I suppose. No real walls, no ceiling. Don’t you wish we could just fly off like that?” She pointed to a red kite that flapped above them with a papery swish.
The way she said it, with longing, was unsettling.
“I always wanted to fly kites up here, but Amma wouldn’t let me. She said the string would cut into my hands, make them rough.” Maman made a face.
Etienne thought of Uncle Hamid’s hands, his right palm and the space between his thumb and forefinger criss-crossed and reddened by years of tugging at the string coated in powdered glass.
“Papa brought me in the fish boat,” he said, squinting at the river and hoping to reel Maman back in.
“Oh! I love that boat!”
“You have been in it?”
“Of course. Your father has taken me out on most of the king’s boats. He’s a good man, your father. You know this, yes?” She kept her gaze trained toward the city.
Etienne nodded, but his questions started bubbling. Did good men pay to be with women? Did they share them? He thought of his father’s words: orchids and stinkweed.
“Then why does he so often not tell the truth?” The question came out before Etienne could stop it. His mother flinched.
“Is there something wrong with me?” he asked. His voice wavered. He knew he sounded like a child, but the kotha that made him want to be one again.
Maman turned to him. “No. There is nothing wrong with you. Absolutely nothing. You are perfect.” But her voice was pained.
“Then is it you? Is there something wrong with you?” Etienne held his breath.
She looked away again, took a deep breath, exhaled. “Things are different for Europeans. They believe men and women should be married. Anything else is… immoral.”
“But you couldn’t marry Papa?”
She shook her head.
“Because he was already married.”
“Something like that.” Maman pushed herself back from the wall. “Let’s talk of something else.”
But what had been mounting in Etienne burst and gushed out. He threw his arms around her the way he had when he was little, burying his head in the crook of her neck.
“I don’t want us to have to share you!”
In his arms his mother’s body stiffened. He could feel her wanting to pull back as though she was trapped, but he couldn’t let go.
“I don’t want to either,” she whispered into his hair, one hand alighting on his back, gentle as a palm frond. She pulled away.
Etienne thought that if he looked at her, she might retreat completely. Instead, he looked out at the groves of mango, pomegranate, and cypress. A flock of starlings swirled in a cloud that turned from silver to dark grey back to silver as the birds changed direction in unison. Etienne wished he could stop time and remain forever in this place, this moment with his mother, the birds, the breeze.
A pigeon swooped down and landed on the wall beside them. Maman started and moved away. She looked flustered, as though she had let happen something she had been guarding against.
“How did that one get out, Maman?” he asked, pointing to the pigeon. He always called her by this French term for mother. It felt odd to him when they were at the kotha, yet she had told him many years ago she preferred this to the usual “Amma.”
His mother’s relief at the change in topic was palpable. “It must have flown off when Uncle Hamid let them out last night, and just not returned until now. They do that sometimes.”
“Do they all always return?”
“Always,” Maman answered. And he sensed that if she had been a bird able to fly away, perhaps she would not return.