Chitra Gopalakrishnan uses her ardor for writing, wing to wing, to break firewalls between nonfiction and fiction, narratology and psychoanalysis, marginalia and manuscript, and tree-ism and capitalism.
The midday sun catches Noor’s eyelashes. Her fair cheeks. The ridge of her hawk nose. Her chin. And descends lower. It tastes her head to toe, skin to soul, in tumescent joy. Being caressed by the sun, being turmeric-streaked this way on a blistering day in June in New Delhi would mean only one thing for the many residents of India’s capital: sunstroke.
Not to Noor though. Being swept up by the sun thus, in Mehrauli, in the first of Delhi’s known seven cities and the oldest version of what one recognizes to be today’s Delhi, is nowhere near a painful scorch. It is merely playful warmth. One that adds to her lush languor in the tropics.
A glint of triumph lights up Noor’s face as she descends lithely on the broad, dust-cakedsandstone steps in her flowing, mercury-green sharara and kurta and her translucent floating chador, taking the globular sun, its broad blaze, down into the shade with her.
And then into the cool, sulphur-rich waters of the stepwell, the Ghandak ki baoli, Delhi’s oldest surviving stepwell built by Sultan Iltutmish in the 13th century, where her garments, which match the color of the water, swell like ripe secrets unburdening themselves.
Noor luxuriates in the baoli’s mossy waters, in the feel of its exiled fish, in the rainwater of the last year and the years before that, her skin captive to their dervish-twirling waters like it was to the rays of the sun just a while ago. She watches in delight as the yellow globe of a sun gives way from its center inside of the baoli. As its melting rays mingle with the yellow flowers of the thorny kikar trees that surround the stepwell and the mottled marigolds that someone has discarded, flowersthat are oblivious and unencumbered by the place’s invisible history. And then as the sun dissolves into a liquid light, turning the waters lime green. She waits for it to seep into her interiority. In its completeness, like the jasmine ittar she wears.
As she wades out of the waters and steps into the baolis corridors that line both its sides, a row of speckled, decapitated stone arches passages that are cold, damp and quiet, holding within her the sun and the stepwell waters, Noor thinks to herself, and not for the first time, ‘It is within my power to make different worlds meet, the brilliant sun, the sky, the cool waters and the earth. And I can move from water to land, from liquid to solid, from full to empty and from dead to living.’
She descends into the baolis lower reaches, through long, dark, tapered passages, she hears the gurgle of the water within its underground chambers, the cooing sounds of resident pigeons, the flapping of their wings and then the symphony these sounds create in togetherness like the whoosh of gently flowing waters.
It is here that Noor has set up her nest of sorcery along with a mascot cat, a snake god and a hunch-backed Urdu-blabbering ghost. Finding a world to call her own when there seemed none. She has done so for seven hundred and eighty years.
Her life should not have been taken away by the wolf-pack of the Sultan Iltutmish’s soldiers here at the baoli when she was not finished with her lush business of living. They had cut short her deep needs, her nagging wants and her personal passions,obeying their Sultan who grew tired of her and reproachful of what he called this “particular Malka’s willful and demanding ways.” He had forty Malkas.
She had enjoyed her vengefulness upon the Sultan in his lifetime, exacting her revenge when he came to bathe here in so many deliciously dirty ways. She took him to a place where he lost his God, where fire penetrated his soul without destroying it and to a place of continual darkness where despite the darkness he could see the evil he had unleashed. Though it was the nail-sharp, cunning, bodily cruelties to his soldiers that really delighted Noor more.
It has been pleasurable to wield justice openly in these intervening years and bring the deliberately kept invisible and the unspoken to light, Noor thinks back. To make her wants and time her own rather than to sob under the shadows of her own monsoon-dark grief as she had done in life.
Yet the best years are now.
Foolish urbanites have set up ‘Shadow Walks’ to trap ghosts. To present them as objects of curiosity and not allow them to shrink into shadows.
‘How do they think they can ensnare the likes of me?’ she wonders as she waits expectantly to mangle their limbs, with the help of her terror agents, her snake, cat and helper. She hears their clumsy steps as they come looking for her inside of the cavernous interiors. Tomorrow, they could be alive or not, who is to tell? Perhaps, justice. There is a strange fire in her eyes, a forensic cruelty in her gaze. She radiates a vitalizing energy, the zest and gaiety of an inexhaustible joie de vivre, something denied to her in her lifetime.