Ameera’s gaze travelled across the heads of children seated in front of her. As she shuffled the cards, she noticed that the audience included teenagers and adults too. It was not new to her. Occasionally some villagers did drop by, their excitement matching the childrens’ as she made coins and cards and feathers appear and disappear. The jaadugarni’s act drew a good crowd at the yearly bazaar. That’s why the organisers always allotted her a tent near the entrance of the fair and put her picture up on the advertisement board.
The flap of the tent opened and three boys came in. They wore pants and shirts, not the dhoti and kurta preferred by the folk of the region. Maybe her fame was spreading. Ameera smiled to herself. A couple of years ago a television crew had recorded her show. They were firangs, with fair skin, golden hair and blue eyes. But then, she knew that all the people with fair skin and golden hair need not necessarily be foreigners. Her father, for instance, had been fair, a rosy tinge on his cheeks, and green eyes, like a cat. She had inherited his skin colour, but the intervening years spent under the sun, absorbing the fiery glare bouncing off the grainy desert sand had darkened it considerably. To her regret, she did not inherit his eye colour, no, it was her sister who had his green eyes, down to the spot of golden light trapped inside it. How she used to envy her sister for her eyes; making her sit through the staring she used to subject her to. But her dear Ameeumma never used to complain and would obey her command to sit against the window with the light streaming in, just at that angle when the golden dot in her eye shone as if it were a tiny bulb. Five years short of a half century. That’s how long it was since she had looked into her sister’s eyes. She pulled her attention back to the present.
“Now we’ll do the coin trick,” she said and the children sat up straight. Boys sat up a little straighter than the girls. They often did that, straighten their spine, lift up their heads a bit, thinking that by looking carefully from a higher angle they could catch her out. The girls did not sit up straighter, if anything they slouched further, trying to merge into the ground, to make themselves as inconspicuous as possible. Another tactic but the intention same in either case—to catch the Jadugarni’s secret. With alert eyes, they studied her actions, wondering how the coins were disappearing and appearing, how she turned a red rose into a yellow one, how she turned a seed into a mango tree with its fruit hanging on its branches. She used to do that, try to decipher the magic on her own. Some she guessed and seeing her interest, her father-in-law taught her the rest. If not his son, at least his daughter-in-law, he used to tell her, a smile brightening his weather beaten face, excited at her interest.
She took out a coin from her purse and showed it around. Then she placed it on the wooden board kept on the ground. She laid a piece of cloth over it—a tie-dyed dupatta her granddaughter no longer used; folded and stitched in half. She mumbled nonsensical words and rotated a long stick in her hands. She pulled the cloth and lo, there was no coin on the board.
The children’s eyes, wide and searching, roamed the space around her—her open palms, the folds of her skirts, the ground in front of her—for the missing coin.
“Where is it?” she asked
She pointed to a boy in front, “Do you have it?”
Then to another at the back, “Do you have it”
They shook their heads. But they anyway slipped hands into their trouser pockets, per chance the coin may have found its way into them.
She placed the cloth on the board and tapped against it with her make shift wand, mumbling, hissing. When the pulled the cloth, abracadabra, the coin was back. She had made it reappear.
Her audience clapped and she smiled. How easily children marvelled at simple tricks. No complication required to get their attention, to make them believe in the impossible. Her son was no longer a child but he did not seem to have left his childhood behind. He was not slow like his father yet sometimes she wondered if a defective gene had found its way to him too. For why else did he persist in the belief that he could make his wife give up begging; that she would leave her group to come back and set his house for him. He did not seem to realise that he was a man with a grown up daughter and an aging mother to look after. She wished she could at least make her son appear as she had done with the coin. But how could she do it when she did not even know where he was?
She took out a long rope now. “See, look here all of you,” she commanded the attention of her audience, “isn’t this one long piece of rope?”
The children nodded. Some of them whispered a yes.
“Speak louder, what has happened to your voices? Tell me, can you all see one long piece of rope?”
“Yes,” the children said loudly, shy smiles lighting their faces as they looked at each other. How innocent they were. Ameera felt buoyed by their happiness. Children were indeed the greatest gifts. Do they stop being gifts when they go along stubborn paths against the advice of their parents? It was true her son did not find it fit to be at her side, providing for his mother and daughter. But how could she blame him, he was only searching for his wife. She had told him when he announced his intention of marrying the girl, “That girl is used to wandering from place to place, she will not stay.”
But he had a ready reply, “Ma, we are banjaras; we are used to travelling from one place to another, it is in our blood, so how can you say this about her.”
Ameera wanted to tell him that only his father was a banjara, not his mother. Anyway, they too had given up their travelling to settle down in this land of salt and sand, going against their traditions. They transformed themselves from travelling jadugars to plain jadugars, ekeing out a living out of magic, which apparently was not strong enough to banish the bleakness of their lives.
But she could not complain. A husband and wife peddling magic had taken her in, a runaway, a shivering stray, without question on a foggy night. They did take a price for their hospitality, but it was a far better alternative than what awaited her at home had she gone back. After all, her husband may have been slow of mind and giant of frame, but his uncomplicated love was far preferable than the black wealth of her brother’s friend.
A cough sounded and she snapped back to the present. The children were looking at her hands that were pulling and twisting the rope on their own accord. “Ok, now I’m going to use this scissors to snip this rope.” She picked up a scissor from the cloth spread out on top of the board and cut the rope into two.
How easy it was to cut off things. Whether it was a piece of rope or relations with your family.
“And now watch, watch as I put them into this bag, see this bag is empty. Now when I take out the rope, ” she drew in a deep breath, “when I take it out, it is one piece again. See, not two pieces but one long piece of rope.”
The children clapped loudly.
Her magic was not strong enough to rejoin the broken rope of her life just as simply. She had gone back to the street where her house once stood when she happened to be in that city of her childhood. The house was still there, but it was empty, its occupants missing. When she asked the man standing guard, he said the family had sold the house and moved. He did not know where. She did not go hoping to see her brother or his wife. She had gone hoping to see her sister who had boarded the train to their hometown all those years ago with her infant daughter in her arms, telling her repeatedly to look after their father, to protect him from their brother. Ameera wanted to see her, hug her, lay her head on her shoulder and ask forgiveness for allowing their brother to shout at Baapa, for not seeing their father collapse, for being on the terrace hanging clothes when she should have been defending Baapa against the ranting of their brother. If only her sister hadn’t gone to their hometown, if only she had not left her father in the room alone with her brother, if only…a broken phrase that couldn’t repair her life even if she chanted it every day of her life.
“Please. May I take some photographs?” A voice interrupted her thoughts.
She looked up, unseeing, unable to focus. She blinked her eyes. It was one of the young men she had seen entering the tent a while ago. He spoke in Hindi, words coming out as if he was reciting a line memorised in a hurry. The haltingly asked question had a tinge of an accent that seemed familiar. Ameera smiled and said, “Sure, you can take pictures.”
Now that he was nearer, Ameera felt as if she knew him somehow. The broad forehead, the swell of his cheeks, his way of standing, leaning on one foot and then on another, restless, he reminded her of her son when he was younger. But then ever since her son had taken to wandering in search of his true love, she often noticed a mannerism, a face, a gesture resembling that of her son, in the people she came across.
She shook her head. Dreaming about the past would not get her money and she had to collect as much money as possible, after all the fair happened only once every year.
After the show, the fabric spread out on the ground started filling with money. She was grateful for it; the audience who had already paid the ticket money were again giving her extra, which meant they liked the show. These days she worried that her repertoire of tricks was not enough to amuse people. If her son had taken up the tradition, he could have learnt new tricks and attracted a larger crowd. There was a limit to the magic an old woman like her could show. But that was also part of the attraction, The Grand Jadugarni. Maybe her son would return, after searching for his wife at Haridwar, Benaras, Rishikesh, Omkareshwar, with her or without, after all how many years could he search?
When his friends called and asked him if he would be interested in joining them on a tour to the North he agreed immediately. After all, he did not have a job and he was still undecided about his future. A bus ride, dusty and bone jarring, brought them to this border town, a sepia toned place tinged with flats of white, so different from the familiar green tones of his native land. The sights were ones they saw on television and in movies, never first hand, and it fascinated them—the colourful dresses of the people contrasting sharply with the vegetation coated with the fine dust of the desert that lay just beyond, quaint cottages housing small scale enterprises devoted to creating colourful fabrics embellished with mirrors and beads, synchronised flocks of birds travelling the skies, men in uniform standing guard at the border of their great nation. They planned to stay for a day or two and then move on, another journey, another ride in a train or a bus, clicking pictures, watching the dance of life in villages along the way until they reached the capital of the country.
But now, he wanted to stay back for a few more days and he did not know why.
The posters caught their attention first. The Grand Jadugarni. The smiling woman in the advertisement held his gaze and when they found that the fair was still on they decided to take a look at it.
“It happens only once a year, there will be the usual stuff, giant wheel, some rides, stalls selling traditional embroidery and dyed fabric made by the women in the cooperatives, and oh yes, a magic show.” The receptionist at the hotel told them with a smile.
And that’s how they landed at the fair. As soon as they walked in, they saw the Jadugarni’s stall. Lifting the flap of that tent and entering the darkened space lit only by a bulb hovering above the jadugarni’s head was like entering a different world. Though all of them were mesmerised by the sight, he felt as if the woman was looking at him, speaking to him, as if only the two of them were in the tent.
Even though the tricks were simple, the mannerism of the woman held their attention. It was like looking at a person from another world. A lined face topped with white hair covered by a black dupatta fitted with tiny mirrors that flowed past her shoulders and melted into her voluminous skirt made of alternating grey and black patches fitted with beads and mirrors, blackened silver bangles running on arms covered till elbow by a similarly embroidered fabric, the woman had an electrifying effect.
“Wow, the woman may be old, but she sure has dressed for the part,” one of his friends whispered and Taariq could only agree.
But it was not only her dressing that caught his attention but the face itself. Browned face with deep set eyes that twinkled, animated chatter in a sing-song voice engaging her viewers, making him feel as if he knew this woman from someplace. Her actions captivated and held not only his but his friends’ attention too even though the magic she displayed was nothing new, they had even tried out one or two tricks themselves after watching tutorials on the internet.
Later in his room as he looked at the pictures, he kept coming back to a close-up shot of the woman’s face where he had caught her as she gazed in his direction, her eyes wide, lips open as if she was telling him a secret. The image rested in his mind through the night and he knew he had to see her show again.
The boy came alone for three nights in a row and every night left behind a generous tip on the tie dyed fabric on the ground. On the fourth night, just as he turned to go, she called out to him,
“Wait, don’t go yet.”
He turned back surprised, “Me,” he asked looking around.
She nodded and went closer to him abandoning her pack up. “Where are your friends?”
“Oh, they have gone to see the salt marshes.”
Just then, the flap of the tent lifted and a young girl came in.
“Heera, you have come. How are you?” Ameera rushed to her granddaughter and hugged her.
“Dadi, I’m fine. Finally my exams are over,” the girl said as she enveloped the woman in a hug.
“That’s good.” Ameera gazed at her and she said, “Is your show over, I wanted to catch it” Ameera laughed, “For tonight it is over, you can help me pack up.” She suddenly remembered the boy standing patiently and turned. She smiled, “Look at me, I forgot all about you. This is my granddaughter Heera, she is studying in the college here.” Her pride in her granddaughter came out even though she did not intend such a familiarity with the boy.
“Oh, that’s good.”
“I wanted to know why you keep coming, you seem to be from the city.” Without waiting for a reply she went on, “My tricks are old, surely you would have seen better in your place.”
The boy’s forehead creased and he smiled. When he spoke, the phrases came out slowly, as if he was testing it out in his head first, “Your show is interesting—I wanted to take pictures—this place is very different.”
Just then the boy’s phone rang and he turned to speak, “Hello.”
When he started speaking, words poured out of lips unlike his halting conversation earlier. Ameera stood in shock. Long forgotten syllables from her childhood danced in the air, enveloping her within its cocoon. To her surprise, she found that she could follow his one sided speech even though the twisting words had not flowed out of her tongue for ages.
When he clicked his phone shut and turned his attention back to her, she said, “I used to speak your language once.”
Both Heera and the boy looked at her in surprise.
“A long time ago.” She continued, her eyes looking far away.
The boy looked at her and asked her as if she had not spoken. “I cannot believe it. How did you learn my language?”
Ameera said, “How do you learn your mother tongue?” She answered her own question, “On your mother’s lap.” Ameera’s did not hear the boy gasp in surprise. She went on as if talking to herself, “My Ameeumma taught me my language, and do you know who Ameeumma is, no, not my mother as you might imagine. After delivering me my mother became ill, she could not get up from bed. My sister took care of me. My Ameeumma,” she repeated again, her voice travelling out of a throat that tightened and threatened to close, “Where are you now?”
As if in response, the boy standing in front of her croaked, “Ameeumma?” He directed her attention to his phone, to an image of a woman sitting by a large window, wearing a long white blouse, hair completely covered with a white cloth edged with silver lace, her eyes green with a speck of gold shining inside them, “This is my Ameeumma, my grandmother.”
Fehmida Zakeer is a writer from Kerala. Her work has appeared in several publications, and her fiction has appeared in Indian Quarterly, Himal Southasian, Indian Literature, Asian Cha, Muse India, Out of Print. Her short story collection titled Keeper of Secrets is forthcoming from Dhauli Books.