CHAMPA BAVDI (the step- wells of champa)
(this is a story narrated by a champa tree, my biggest muse and inspiration. If the word romance were to take a physical form, I am convinced that it would be that of a champa tree, my champa tree.)
Mandu, at this time of the year tends to get chilly. Early November. The evenings are so beautiful; I feel that Roopmati will walk down the Jahaj-Mahal steps any minute. Not that I have been around long enough to have ever seen her. Now that would have really been something. But everyone, and i mean everyone, keeps talking about her. Raajan even wrote about her, sitting right here, by the pool. But how I wish he would get a hair cut, that Raajan. He might come here, one of these days, by the way. Raajan always comes down to Mandu, to Jahaj-Mahal, to me, every winter. He makes love to Roopmati every winter, on parchment; at least that is what one of his women had said, repeatedly. And he comes here with different women, firangs mostly; or those artsy damsels from Bombay or Kolkata. But I like Naahid the best. The kohl below her eyes… The evenings are so beautiful; I feel that Roopmati will walk down the Jahaj-Mahal steps any minute.
I generally like to see through one of the numerous baaris, it is almost like taking pictures. Raajan also takes a lot of pictures, but never of his women. I wonder if my baaris are like his lens…the vista are rather ambiguous. The frames provide a kind of definition, context. It is very important to provide a context, unless you are talking to Freud. And anyways, if that is the case, then Freud would be doing the talking, not you. His libido astounds me, though. Not that Raajan’s does not, if Naahid is to be believed.
But I don’t think Naahid is the sort to lie, unlike Sarup. And Sarup does not even answer if you call her that. You have to call her Sarup Rani. The cheek of the thing. But Sarup Rani is not from Bombay or Kolkata. She probably does not even know that she is lying. She sold Raajan nimbu- paani for one rupee in front of people whom she had sold the same for four rupees. But then she claims to love Raajan. And selling the paani at that price is a sure sign of love, you know. The urbane streak appeals to her. And the juvenile girl keeps singing to him. I wonder why Raajan sometimes puts up with her. Not that I don’t. But when she signs those songs from umrao- jaan, trying to play the sultry courtesan, you really cannot help but wonder. And Sarup Rani is always applying kohl to her eyes if she knows that Raajan is coming. But, … the evenings are not so beautiful; I never feel that Roopmati will walk down the Jahaj-Mahal steps any minute. Her naiveté is touching, but only for about three minutes, and then Rani starts singing her song. Always the same song, dil cheez kya hai aap mere jaan leejiye…but we never interrupt her, not Naahid, not Raajan, not me.
Mandu, at this time of the year tends to get chilly. Raajan always puts his arms around Naahid, or whomever the object of his affection may be, and reads his poem. But the poem is about him making love to Roopmati, then I wonder why the women get so touched. . Their naiveté is touching, but only for about three minutes. The poem never fails to touch me, though. Raajan, I must tell you, that every time you have recited that poem; all I have felt like telling you -… dil cheez kya hai aap mere jaan leejiye…. But I never interrupt him, not Naahid, not the other women. . But how I wish he would get a hair cut, that Raajan. Sarup Rani has the best hair in Mandu, by the way. And she knows it. So well, too.
Her naiveté is touching. The gait and the swishing of those tresses. The frayed frocks, the inane looks she gives Raajan.
Sarup had dropped a glass-full of her nimbu-paani, the other day. On my roots, while she was busy gaping at Raajan, while he was doing what he does best. Raajan noticed her and gave her an indulging smile. Her heart must have skipped a beat. And then he mentioned me. But to Sarup. “Oh silly girl, are you selling the paani to trees now? Haha, not that you shouldn’t, the champa looks like it could do with a drink of tangy lemon juice”. My heart skipped a beat. A shiver ran down my branches. Mandu, at this time of the year tends to get chilly. Then Sarup scooped up her skirt and gave him a doleful look. But raajan was busy with his lens. He would not like to be bothered now. He had indulged in inane conversation with Sarup, now he would work. Suddenly he turned around, away from the bavdi, the mahal, and looked at me. At strange look crossed his face. He called to Sarup, much to my chagrin. I mean, here he was, my Raajan, looking at me, in his intense way. But calling that rag. Nevertheless, he was looking at me. I think I must ignore the fact that he called out to her. All I remember is that he looked at me. And then, without once pulling his eyes away from me, he asked Sarup Rani to go and sit by me. I can live with that. He talked about the light being just right. I don’t know, right for what. But i can live with that too. I don’t know why, but I knew that I must do something for him, and at that very moment, what with the light being just right too. He was looking at me through his lenses; I could feel Sarup at my feet. I let a flower fall. At that very instance he clicked. I could see, what effect the flower had on him. His eyes were moist. Sarup was untouched by the whole affair. But, her naiveté is touching.
He picked up my offering to him, looked at me. Came close to me, and murmured one magical word,’geetanjali’.
I know now, what it is to be Roopmati. She was queen. But for that day, she was a backdrop; the bavdis and the Mahals of Mandu was a backdrop. I was being celebrated; he was celebrating me. Raajan walked away after that, and I have not seen him since. It has been fourteen years now. But I am content. He murmured to me, and that for me, is enough. My naiveté is touching, even to me. But then I think Roopmati would understand, maybe Naahid would too. I don’t know, and I don’t care. I am content that he whispered. The sun is setting now, it is getting real dark. Maybe Raajan wont come this year too. I don’t know. Mandu, at this time of the year tends to get chilly.