Simi Singh — from An Agreement of Wonder


As Nigar shouted at the houseboy, her two older sisters, Sanjali and Manjali along with their brother Mamu sensed her desire for solitude to sip Scotch and stir salan in the company of her cats. The trio shuffled down the hall to occupy their nephew’s spacious bedroom and entertain each other with their poetry. Sanjali, Manjali, and Mamu, frequent denizens of Baba’s bedroom, elevated the mushaira, their symposium of self-expression to a strategic chess match.

Manjali was bookish, petite, with middle-parted dyed-black hair twirled at the nape of her neck in a chignon held together with one thick bobby pin. She wore a South Indian sari with a green border and a long-sleeved blouse. She could easily be mistaken for a sister of the Order of the Missionaries of Charity except for her hyena laugh. Mamu had a smoker’s neck with a toned expansive chest under his wife beater, and a few missing teeth. The remaining teeth were striated and stained orange like the inside of his cheeks from chewing betel nut. Slightly taller than Lily, he roamed the halls of the flat during the day, catching his image in every mirror. He pushed out his white-haired chest and flexed his arms to ask anyone in earshot if they could see his muscles. “Chickpeas! From eating chickpeas!” He laughed like an asthmatic sailor and bore a slight resemblance to Popeye.

Once again, a septuagenarian poetry slam was unfolding. An elderly performance of the pearls of verse whirled out of the threesome when their homespun symposium began in the comfort of Nigar’s Darab House flat. Lily was here for all of it. Baba’s room was their arena, the insular world off bustling Kemps Corner that no one had yet to pull the curtain from and expose to modernity.

They seated themselves in a circle on the floor. The lights were dim, the faint scrape of the ceiling fan circulating warm air served as a metronome. The oriel windows hung unlatched, facing an old monsoon-weathered mansion converted into a series of flats. It was evening and the honking of “horn please” taxis strayed closer to Kemps Corner and away from Forjett Street. The surreptitious nature of Sanjali, Manjali and Mamu’s poetic prowess, and their utter lack of desire for acclaim, except amongst each other, afforded Lily the company of living jewels.

Sanjali leaned forward, lit a candle, and solemnly placed it in a brass tray on the buff colored Porbander stone floor in front of her, gently coaxing the tray forward, like a Hindu widow releasing her love’s ashes in the Ganges. She returned her hands to her lap and gathered herself. The candlelight rose to illuminate her stately jaw and the lines on her face, casting a shadow above her ancient eyes. Sanjali’s long thick gray braid curved to the side caressing her soft neck and lay heavily on her kurta draping over her breast. The sacred tone was set. The traffic outside seemed to heed her gesture and faded to a distant hum.

Sanjali glanced up and saw Lily standing in the doorframe. Her face softened and her eyes gently invited Lily into their circle, “Chiefie, Aap bhi tashreef layeeay,” Chief, Chiefie, the moniker that Baba had given Lily was adopted by the entire Asif clan. She formally requested in Urdu, “Chiefie please grace us with your presence.” Lily moved towards them, quietly excited to witness their poetry competition. There had been so many evenings at dinner parties in the States where she sat on the shag carpeting, an unintentional young witness to her parents’ fellow professor and doctor friends, delivering their own recitations of the famous Mir and Mirza Ghalib poems as she pretended not to listen. The love poems had felt out of place, far from home, just like the dinner guests did in their leisure suits or wide ties, their blushing wives gazing demurely into their fruit cocktail. She had felt uncomfortable in the awkwardness. Lily knew that this poetry belonged in the voices of those not constrained by the formalities of an

academic tradition or a conformity to Western dress. She learned from her parents that this was an oral tradition passed down by bards on the trade routes. She felt relief and wonder to be among their descendants.

Sanjali, meaning “hands in prayer,” was a childhood nickname given to the oldest Sultana sister, which was further affectionately shortened to “Salle” by Baba and the other Asif siblings. Her given name was Nayab, or “priceless.” Khala meant “aunt,” so Sanjali Khala was Aunt Salle and Manjali Khala, shortened to Malle Khala was Aunt Malle. The Asifs gave nicknames to nicknames.

“Shukria, Salle Khala,” Lily said. “Thank you.” Lily gently bowed to her in an adab and took a seat, cross-legged on the floor between Manjali and Mamu. Sitting across from Sanjali, Lily felt her ephemeral presence and the comfort of reflected wisdom. She imagined her as Isis incarnate, from her favorite childhood Saturday morning television show. There was a maternal light and sensuousness that lived in her. Lily was eager to sit with them; a whole universe intact in this velvet jewelry box she stepped into.

Mamu copied Asif Sahib’s distinctive smoking style in an attempt to set him apart in his own class of self-perceived machismo. Mamu held his cigarette in his right fist so that the embers of the cigarette faced away from him, the filter buried in his palm. He kissed the circle created by his index finger and thumb and sucked in the smoke from the hole in his fist. He exhaled dramatically as if a camera was rolling somewhere, and flicked the ashes away by snapping his fingers. Qadir eagerly darted to the area of the floor with his palm frond broom to sweep away the ashes. He grinned shyly in his excitement to play his role in the unfolding night. Qadir proudly served the Asifs as if they were royalty, and displayed a special affection for Baba, who treated him like a friend. As this was happening in Baba’s room, he was extra dutiful to make sure it was clean. Lily felt sad that such a pure hearted young man did not have the comfort of tidy clothes and could be summoned at any hour.

Before Sanjali began to recite, Mamu turned to look at her, raised one eyebrow like a nautch girl, and insisted, “Sanjali Appa, taranum mein.”

“What does ‘taranum’ mean?’” Lily whispered to Manjali.

“Chiefie, taranum is when a poem is sung,” Sanjali answered for Manjali. She closed her eyes for a moment as if she was gathering herself up, humbly opened them in a lowered direction towards the floor and began to sing her poem in an ancient sonorous voice. Lily felt time evaporate, and what was left was the sound of Sanjali’s poem and maybe the stars in the sky above Bombay:

Shor ishe zapte fughan kam hai mere dil ke qareeb.
Silsila tuth na jaayee kehin manzil ke qareeb.
“The clamor of love’s storm close to my heart grows quieter;
Let not the situation of lovers break before the destination is reached.”

Lily envisioned Sanjali entangled in a grand romance and heartbreak. Was it her husband, or a lover she was referring to? Was she a widow? Lily knew that she could not stop looking at her. Sanjali’s hair was streaked white with traces of henna, but her face reminded Lily of a Hyderabadi Helen of Troy. The

melancholy memories of relationships past hung in the air as her couplets unfolded. Baba had told Lily stories of Sanjali’s youth and beauty.

Because Sanjali’s glance was too ethereal to be considered eye contact, looking into her eyes was like looking back in time. Her demeanor was that of a Bernini sculpture breathed to life, but moving in slow motion as though it were not completely thawed.

In a stunning turn, Sanjali inserted her given name, Nayab, meaning priceless, in the last couplet; her own personal signature. She lifted her head and with the faraway gaze of an Empress, recited,

“Dundhoge agar mulkhon mulkhon; Milne ke nahi,
Nayab hai hum.
Tabir hai jiski hasrat o gham,

Aye hum nafas, woh khwab hai hum.”

If you look from city to city,
You will not find,
The one that is Nayab, priceless,
The result of which is longing and sadness. Oh searchers of rarity,
I am that dream which you seek.

Mamu sighed defeatedly in contrition of her prowess. Lily thought to herself, he’s pissed.

Time stood still when these three congregated. The collective depth of their knowledge of an oral tradition formed on the silk trade routes, and the Mughal courts imbued them with priceless wealth. Lily felt like this could turn magical. They could rise up and fly, and Mamu could draw a sword. They could turn youthful again or perhaps choose to remain wise and old. On the fringes of their family and society, the elixir of life resided among them. Sanjali and Manjali seemed to wander, and their brother had no occupation Lily could decipher, though it was said that he had published a book of poetry. They were the Jedi masters of Urdu poetry on Forjett Street, her very own tribal elders. Lily felt seen and alive in the presence of their ordinary greatness. Exalted.

Mamu and Manjali seemed silent in thought about their own memories of love. Sanjali repeated the last stanza to capture their attention:

“Nayab hain hum. Taabeer jiski hasrat-o-gham. Eh ham nafas woh khwab hain hum. I am that dream which you seek.” Sanjali appeared to enter Mamu’s daydream, and he enthusiastically praised her last line: “Wah, wah, wah…”

“Mashallah, that is God’s grace,” Mamu rasped.
He explained to Lily that the signature of the poet was the takhallus.

“Takhallus is something like a pen name, though it’s not exactly what a pen name is, in the sense that it is very common to use the takhallus with the poet’s actual name,” Mamu said.

Lily thought it was ingenious that Sanjali inserted her own name in the poem as a double entendre. Lily felt at once grounded and elevated at the same time, in contrast to the drowsiness she had felt in her junior-year English class, forced to listen to Mrs. Trivette recite Andrew Marvell. She remembered thinking the poem didn’t have the same cadence in a Southern drawl, in a classroom where spelling tests and definitions were administered. It belonged where it was written: in the heart of a handsome English poet.

Not to be outdone by his older sister, Mamu carefully contemplated his couplet as his turn would soon come. Summoning his wits, he looked to the east, drew his poetic sword, and unleashed the first line, thinking himself the incarnation of Vayu, the wind god:

“Shatranj ke khiladi,” his original poem using the metaphor of a chess player engaged in the game of life, suffused the room like undulating incense, highlighting each careful step, when to yield, when to sacrifice, when to boldly step forward and when to retreat. The charisma and the varying force of his delivery compelled both sisters to sit up straight and draw in deep breaths. Their eyes were shining. Lily’s eyes darted among the three, mesmerized by their engagement and the sisters’ rapt attention to his words. She dared not break the flow to request a translation. Lily reveled in their reactions. She realized it did not matter that she could not understand the words. What are words? The sepia-colored light in the room, the three poets, the air; she did not need the words. The world could retreat into silence.

Mamu’s two sisters refused to let him win. Sanjali folded her hands across her chest and arched her right brow. Manjali adjusted her bobby-pin and modestly covered her head. They were clearly impressed by the proposition of the idea. Lily knew that Shatranj was a precursor to chess, invented by an Indian Maharaja, but the other Urdu words were impenetrable. Not for long, she thought. She was determined to learn. This surprised even her, as she did not have this razor-sharp motivation in high school. The only novel that made a visceral impression during that time was Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth.

The sisters closed their eyes to allow the words to settle into their souls as Mamu smiled victoriously. Manjali twisted the satin tassel of the bolster cushion around her finger on which she was reclining. The ceiling fan marked rotations around the sun. An idea seemed to land on her shoulder. She rose to challenge Mamu. “The alliteration of the second verse lowers the gravitas of the narrative, Bhai Jaan. As man moves towards his destiny in this game of life, the use of your technique takes away from his journey.” Manjali smacked her lips and rubbed her hands together in delightful discovery. She hyena laughed, her incisors sharp and gleaming. Mamu spat betel nut sideways into a spittoon. Sanjali questioned the veracity of his contention.

“Rashid Bhai jaan, man is not the master of his fate as you contend, the merciful Allah is.”

Lily, immersed in the beauty of belonging, wondered why no Urdu poets were published in The World’s Greatest Poetry.

Lily was shifting. A painful understanding rose in her. Her whole life had been spent in a world which never reflected her back. This validated what she could not articulate at the time, and now enraged her.

It was Manjali’s turn. She pushed the stray tendrils of her hair away from her eyeglasses, glanced at her brother and sister, and slid the candle in front of Lily.

“Manjali Khala, me? Are you sure? I can recite a poem, but I don’t understand the meaning.” Lily’s cheeks flushed. The room felt hot.

Manjali cackled. “Chiefie, a flower never asks permission to bloom. Its destiny is to be a flower.”

The feathery fluttering in Lily’s chest dissipated momentarily. “I know a poem that Nigar Auntie taught me,” Lily said faintly, perspiring. She would recite it. The only one she knew so far. With Manjali’s gentle nudging, Lily felt comfortable enough to be a novice. They all had shown her so much affection. She cleared her throat, her voice high and child-like, everything around her blurred:

“Be ishq zindagi to koi zindagi nahin.
Yani jahan mein phir koi dil bastagi nahin.
Yusuf ko log khus ravay, Quban kaha kare,
Meri nazar mein aapse barhkar koi nahin.”
“Without love in life, there is no life.”
They all said the last line with her in unison,
“In my gaze there is no one more valuable to me than you.” “Waah Chiefie! “Subhan Allah!” they called out in encouragement.

“Your talafuz is perfect, like pearls hitting marble. Your pronunciation!” Sanjali said. The horns began to honk again on the street. They woke the sleeping Qadir in the corner. Lily lowered her eyes and brought her cupped right hand to her face in adab, the form of respectful thank you, which Nigar had taught her earlier. She had refined her adab to a dramatic gesture, watching Madhubala on a black and white episode of Chayageet. She repeated this version of genuflection, in the direction of each poet.

“Shukria Sanjali Khala.”

“Chiefie jaan, you inspire us with your tender voice and innocent tone.” Sanjali raised her palms in a gesture of affection as if she was pulling jealous spirits away from Lily and brought her fists to her temples so that they would enter her instead.

“Shukria Manjali Khala,” Lily thanked her.
She lowered her head towards Rashid Mamu, “Shukria, Mamu.”

Mamu was in competition with everyone, including the servant Qadir. He could not concede in poetry and glanced away in feigned distraction.

“Kya baat hai, Chiefie, fuhst class!” Manjali beamed.

Lily relaxed in their company. She felt seen, even by Mamu. The smell of lamb biryani floated into the room. Manjali conceded to Sanjali for the addition of her name to the couplet. Mamu argued against Manjali that Sanjali’s poem eclipsed his. Huma called them to the parlor for dinner.

Mamu took a swig of his Scotch and blew out the candle. That night Lily dreamt in Urdu.

The next morning, Lily tried to resolve this paradox: her anger that she was never surrounded by literature in which she felt represented, set against her vivid memories of the prior evening. She thought about The World’s Greatest Poetry. The book, a gift from her grandfather, Big Dad, to her older sister, when he arrived from India to live with Lily’s family, became the Singh’s Bible of poetry.

The official, faux leather hardcover was adorned with gold embossing on the spine which also calligraphically framed the lofty title on the cover. As a child, Lily would trace her index finger over the gold and rub her hand over the paper, wishing her grandfather had given it to her.

A neighborhood boy, Richie, stole the book and she saw it on his living room shelf on St. Patrick’s Day when he invited her over for corned beef and cabbage. “To hell with Erin Go Bragh” her older sister seethed, coaxing Lily into a coup. Lily rescued the book, Big Dad’s inscription faintly erased, but still visible on the first page, as incontrovertible evidence of ownership. After a counsel of stern children and a tearful confession from Richie, his transgression was forgiven and leniency dispensed in the knowledge that Richie’s father lived under the sea in a Navy submarine off the coast of Tripoli, and no gift-giving-grandfather resided in his house. Their friendship was restored by dinnertime the next night at his house over lime Tupperware bowls of yellow Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. Feeling competent with cursive, Lily retraced Big Dad’s faded words with a ballpoint pen and the incident was never spoken of again.

She had memorized “Annabel Lee” by Poe, with Big Dad standing stick straight beside her chair, slurping hot Lipton tea, the tag still stapled to the string, with honey and sliced lemon from a green glass in one hand, and smoothing his long white beard over his flowing white tunic, with the other. The pages worn and underlined now, smudged with young fingerprints from the dirt clods of Churchland fields hurled beyond Lily’s backyard, corners diligently creased, marking each of her sisters’ respective readings, and Richie’s intrusion. Big Dad had committed most of the poems to memory. He concluded evenings before bath time with a thunderous rendition of his favorite Alfred Lord Tennyson poem, Charge of the Light Brigade. In his British-Indian accent from serving in Her Majesty’s police regiment, he transformed the dining room into a battlefield and led Lily and her sisters on horseback over shag carpeting, “Cahnons to thee rright uf them,” pointing his long bony finger to the right, the long sleeve of his tunic draping down from his wrist, his steel bracelet glinting, “ Cahnons to thee lehft of them,” pointing to the left, Volley’d and thunderrr’d; Storrrm’d at with shot and shell.” Lily covered her ears as his voice rose and her sisters, in various iterations of pigtails shouted the refrain, rolling their r’s too: “Boldly they rrrode and well, into thee jaws of Death, into thee mouth of Hell rrrode the six-hundrrred.” The British army was there, Byron was there, Keats, Emily Dickinson. Where were Ghalib or Zauq? Where was Sanjali? Even Richie was there.

Simi Singh Juneja was born in India and raised in the American South. She graduated from NYU in Paris with an MFA in Creative Writing. She is the keeper of stories in her family and the resident poet. Her debut short story, “How Doc Met Lady J,” was published by the Smithsonian Indian-American Heritage blog. Currently, her own novel set in Bombay is in the works. She is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and was Executive Producer on the feature film Miss India America. The film premiered in theaters in 2015, and went on to win best film at the Bentonville Film Festival and many others. It can now be seen on Netflix. She is a member of the Authors Guild, a Voices of Our Nation alumna, and a three time recipient of a Visiting Artist Residency at the American Academy in Rome.