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Mr. Dangerous and Mumtaz

by Liesl Schwabe


I don’t remember meeting Mr. Dangerous, only that I never knew him by another name. In turn, he never knew me by my real name, never struggled with the s/z sound at the front of the second syllable that, in a mouth normally committed to the aspirated and lingulate shapes of Hindi, comes out more like a kazooed “j.” Mr. Dangerous always just called me Mumtaz. Mumtaz Mahal was the name of Shah Jehan’s wife, for whom he built the Taj Mahal over the twenty-two years following her death in 1630. Mr. Dangerous never explained that he would be calling me Mumtaz, he just yelled Mumtaz in my direction. When I looked up and we locked eyes, he beckoned me with his hand and that was that. I’ve always been drawn to the short vowel sounds of Islamic names. Ifat. Fatima. Tillat. Nuzhat. These are the names I’ve yearned for, the names I’ve found myself repeating in the back seats of rickshaws when daydreaming over who I would want to be, if I could choose, and what I would be called.

Mr. Dangerous usually had a full mouth of paan that came precariously close to spilling over the tops of his bottom teeth when he spoke, but kept itself steady in the well under his tongue and around the moat of his lower jaw. His mouth was stained brick red and, as with all men who chew paan and spit bloody-looking streams of betel nut juice on the side of the road in between sentences, I eventually stopped noticing. He said “bastard” all the time and seemed to either be sitting in the same spot for long hours at a stretch or going somewhere very important in an awful hurry. In his mid-thirties, Mr. Dangerous was Hindu, married, had four children, often smelled of liquor, and lived somewhere off the back road to Gaya. Once I met his youngest daughter, Puja, who was coming home from school, but even that was only in passing. She was tiny inside her big dress with a zipper up the back and a bow at the sash.

The dusty town of Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha was enlightened twenty-five hundred years ago, has arranged itself according to three major landmarks: the river, the stupa, or temple, built at the site of the enlightenment, and the road. In the winter, the Falgu River, a tributary of the Ganges, dries up and the riverbed becomes a public toilet. The stupa stands several stories high, is covered in carved images of the Buddha, and looks out over the flat town like a beacon. The road, which runs alongside the river, used to reach all the way to the stupa, at which point it made a sharp turn west. In an effort to lessen the honking and diesel exhaust from outside the stupa gates (which have only increased with time and traffic), the road was rerouted. It is still L- shaped, but with a rounder intersection that now avoids the center of the town.

The bottom of the L, the part that runs along the river, is lined with tailors, cloth shops, a hardware store, a mattress maker, a fishmonger, and three or four restaurants, two of which are named Pole Pole. The top of the L, which turns toward the west, leads to all the other temples in town—which is to say a temple for every Buddhist country on earth—and to some nicer hotels, particularly the Sujata, which caters to Japanese tourists and boasts a marble bath you can rent by the day, and, in winter, to the field of temporary Tibetan tent restaurants, with three-foot-high brick foundations and plastic tarp roofs. The top of the L and the bottom of the L differ enormously in that the bottom essentially stays the same throughout the year. It is top of the L that swells and deflates with the seasons and that, in the fall, is flanked on the left by Indian pushcarts of miniature stupas and glow-in-the-dark Buddhas and on the right by Tibetans selling old prayer wheels, new acrylic blankets, and air-brushed thermoses from China—everything necessary for the logistics of pilgrimage. In their own way both extensions are timeless: the bottom provides the pillars of everyday life, cloth and chicken and hammers, while the top becomes a crossroads for religious trade and bartering among pilgrims.

~

Mr. Dangerous mixed business with pleasure along the bottom of the L, around the two Pole Pole restaurants. He had taught himself enough Japanese to start making his livelihood off of Japanese backpackers during the cool season. The original Pole Pole, beyond advertising Bob Marley music, had a few lines of Japanese on their sign. In a town where Hindi, Tibetan, and English duke it out anywhere business is done, the sign attracted Japanese kids with all the pull of green tea and sashimi. Here Mr. Dangerous would start talking sitars, which have maintained their spot on the international hipster accessory list since the sixties. Mr. Dangerous could sell a sitar that cost about twenty-five dollars in Gaya to a dreadlocked Japanese hippy for about two hundred. He got the difference and a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label for his trouble. Mr. Dangerous also was paid, occasionally, to be a guide, organizing impromptu trips to Varanasi and Calcutta for Japanese tourists traveling alone or in groups of two who wanted to someone to buy their tickets, guard their bags, and negotiate the guest house price. Business was unpredictable and ultimately on hand for little more than a few weeks a year. Mr. Dangerous usually wore a green windbreaker and old brown jeans rolled around his ankles with black plastic slippers, split at the sides. I heard that before I knew him he had a habit of approaching timid-looking Westerners and screaming in their faces that he was Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Dangerous and I, in spite of his name or perhaps because of it, became friends. The time we knew each other best was before I became a mother, and mainly we talked movies. Dil Se (From the Heart) was big that year, and Kuck Kuch Hota Hai (There’s Something Between Us), and Mission Kashmir. We talked about how I would go to the cinema with him, about how much I wanted to see Shah Rukh Khan on the big screen again, about how Hrithik Roshan was rumored to have three thumbs, and about how I could sing along to almost every song. I knew I would never ride on the back of a motorbike with him to sit in a dark theatre in Gaya where women never go, even in the daytime. It was an impossibility we silently agreed to entertain.

I’d picked up a pack of playing cards in Varanasi. On the flip side was an illustration of a lady with bangs and long dark hair bending down to fill up her jug at a stream. She looked toward the water with half-closed eyes. Her sari was sheer and, though covering her torso, revealed the copious breasts and pomegranate-seed nipples underneath. Initially, I thought the cards were a tame version of titty cards, not quite topless, not quite real live girls, but it turned out they were of Mumtaz. Besides the princess Mumtaz, there was also a mod-squad-in-a-sari Bollywood film actress of the late sixties named Mumtaz. Of Iranian descent and destined to marry the richest man in Africa in the late seventies, Mumtaz remains one of the most prolific actresses of her time, having starred in over 120 films. It seemed, in popular culture, that the name Mumtaz had stretched to embody almost everything, from the wife of the emperor whose death put the entire kingdom into mourning for two years, to the lipstick-luscious film star with the figure and allure of a courtesan. Playing poker one night at the Pole Pole and being told the woman on the back of the cards was Mumtaz, I wasn’t sure which icon of the same name the illustration represented and it seemed, almost, that it could be either.

I never thought about the Taj Mahal or the titty cards when Mr. Dangerous called me Mumtaz. To a fault, perhaps, I didn’t think much of anything. While it was obvious enough that something was up his sleeve when it came to making money, nothing seemed up his sleeve in the way he related to me and the way I related back. Despite assumptions that Western women are loose and local men are only pursuing money or sex, something akin to symbiotic trust arose between us, more so than in my interactions not only with other men, but other people. In retrospect, what could have been deemed inappropriate was not any sort of romantic undertone, but a kind of genuine friendship, born out of two people’s ability to level with one another, to check in every day if not a few times every day, to smoke a cigarette and not ask questions, to look one another in the eye and call each other by different names.

~

On the other side of town, along the other branch of the L, sitting cross-legged inside a white-washed stall of wood and tin that felt from the outside more like a circus wagon than a shop, a man really named Mumtaz sat stringing prayer beads and making a good, albeit well-deserved, profit off of every kind of Buddhist. Unlike Mr. Dangerous, I remember meeting Mumtaz, who never called me by any name and instead referred to me indirectly, through the man he understood to be my husband or, eventually, through my son, to whom he gave mango juice boxes. Even when I was alone, Mumtaz never addressed me more personally than with a vigilant “Namaste” from the shade of his shop, where it was hard for me to see inside. There was a photograph of Mumtaz receiving a blessing from the Dalai Lama taped to the glass in the corner.

Mumtaz was always pristinely dressed in a crisp, bleached, white kurta that reached almost to his sandals. He was known as the mallawallah, which simply meant he sold malas, Buddhist prayer beads, like rosaries. The malawallah of Bodh Gaya was a Muslim, as stonecutters and jewelry-wallahs throughout history have been. Mumtaz dealt in everything from cheap wooden beads and mid-priced lotus seeds to expensive, antique Tibetan coral, new crystal, and, as often as not, precious stones. Mumtaz never had dirty feet, even though mine turned black and callused no matter how often I soaked them or how hard I scrubbed with the pumice stone brought all the way from Delhi.

I remember meeting Mumtaz for the first time because I fell a little bit in love with him. His beard, a dignified salt and pepper, was tidy even as it hung off his jaw, and his face was clean shaven down to the squared-off edges where his beard began. When he smiled, his nostrils flared and his perfect, plump lips lifted to reveal the tops of his teeth and the little silver crowns that outlined the middle two. The crocheted kufi on his head was as white and precise as his kurta and Mumtaz kept his hair neatly cropped underneath. His nose was broad and his eyes seemed to know where you were going before you got there. He was the only man in Bodh Gaya I ever found myself shy and tongue-tied around, distracted instead by his poised, gentle demeanor and the easy way with which he made most conversation seem extraneous. As if when talking about stones, the stones spoke for themselves, and when talking about anything else, there was just very little that needed to be said. I liked the way he held pearls in his creased hands and considered them in the sunlight. I liked the way he sat in his dark shop, sipped short glasses of sweet tea, and watched every single thing that happened. I liked the way he knew everyone in town, but kept his distance, and found it all amusing. More than anything, I liked when he spoke to someone else and I could stare at his mouth through my sunglasses, pretending to consider the benefits of sandalwood. As it was, he was also at least twice my age, the father of eight, and arguably one of the most conservative Muslims in town.

Once, after buying turquoise, I mentioned under my breath to my friend Katie, an older British woman who’d spent the majority of the last twenty years in India, that I thought Mumtaz was the most beautiful man I’d ever seen and that something about him made me weak. She did not stop walking and she did not raise her voice. Katie, who’d also made her livelihood selling jewelry and having stones cut and who’d spent time in Peshawar, veiled and buying aquamarine, matched my hushed tone and simply asked me if I ever thought about how the women in Mumtaz’s family lived, about how his wife wore full chador, and if I could imagine myself in his household, looking after the goats and keeping Halal. I didn’t respond, but neither did my crush on Mumtaz wane.

In the early evenings, before closing up shop, Mumtaz lay propped with one elbow against a bolster and tossed popcorn into his mouth with his right hand, without his hand or the popcorn ever touching his lips. This was the time of day when Bodh Gaya bustled the most, glowing in the tawny winter light of the western sun, when hoards of people left the stupa for a dinner break and there was a daily exodus towards the Tibetan tent restaurants. Across from Mumtaz’s shop was the biggest, most prosperous chai stall in Bodh Gaya, with rows of seats and tables, where everyone who wasn’t headed to a Tibetan tent restaurant stopped for tea instead. It was particularly during these times that Mumtaz’s shop seemed a kind of shadowy oasis. As if in a time-lapse photograph, his shop would be the one still point surrounded by the blurry colors of people swarming, not unlike those pictures of the Kaaba during the Haj.

Behind him hung strings of beads arranged by color and stone and size. There was lapis and jade and quartz, available by the bead or by the string or by the gram. There was sandalwood of varying purity and questionable provenance and ivory, illegal but in small enough, round enough shapes to go almost unnoticed. There were rudraksha beads, bumpy as lychee nuts, for the Hindus. The lotus seeds came in all dimensions, from beads the size of a ladybug, almost too tiny to count with your fingers, to ones the size of gumballs, favored by Korean monks, in strings that could reach past your waist. Lotus seeds start off the color of pale and speckled almond flesh, but turn dark as tea over time, thumbed with millions of mantras, stained with dirt and sweat and devotion.

At the front of the shop, strewn about with less caution than the one-rupee coins stacked up for change inside the kiosks on the train platform, precious stones, cut and uncut, were scattered over simple white cotton or collected in small bowls. Rubies, garnets, pink sapphires, opals, and black star of India stones sat unceremoniously behind a tiny glass door. Fistfuls of rings were tied together with twine, and the odd Roman coin, not necessarily out of context but surreal nonetheless, was thrown in with the mix.

The shop was a few feet up, accessible by two makeshift steps, and it was just tall enough for someone to sit cross-legged and just long enough for someone to lie down. Two wooden shutters, one along the top that folded up during the days and one along the bottom that hung down until nightfall, were all there was to to protect the thousands of dollars worth of stones inside. They were chained together at night with a dinky lock I could have picked with a hairpin. It never occurred to me that the stationery store just behind Mumtaz's closed up at night with a big metal gate that came down with a clunk and locked on either side. It never occurred to me that Mumtaz kept what was debatably the most expensive three square feet in town under less protection than the paper and envelopes in the shops across the way. Behind a wood-and-tin shutter sat more worth than most people in this town would ever see in their lives.

Mumtaz had known my son’s father, Justin, for years. Justin had worked for a gemologist in high school, had a good eye for good stones, and took the planning of his own malas very seriously. From early on, the two of them talked emeralds and coral, and, to some extent, domesticity and politics. Justin knew that Mumtaz’s house was three floors high, unusual in a town where two rooms to share between three generations is standard, and where the local pump is for public bathing as much as for collecting water. Justin also knew Mumtaz’s nephew, Mohammed, the only man in Bodh Gaya to wear a flak jacket and combat boots and a pleated, woolen Afghan hat, even in the heat. Mohammed had gone to Germany, armed with his own stash of gems to sell. Before his trip to the West he was open, warm, and quick to discuss the similarities in all religions with a soft shake of his head implying his understanding and acceptance for the layers of history and faith that built themselves around the town where he was born. After returning home from Germany, he wore the flak jacket along with a newfound disdain for what he deemed rampant homosexuality, and a vapid disgust for the whole of Western culture.

~

More because of geography than anything else, I never drew a connection between Mr. Dangerous calling me Mumtaz and the real Mumtaz across town, who sat cross-legged and never seemed to worry. Mr. Dangerous I knew from the back of the Pole Pole. He spoke quickly and moved quickly and got nervous and got drunk and needed money and yelled out loud when something pissed him off. I was more myself, in a way, around Mr. Dangerous–smoking cigarettes, talking movies, talking motorcycles, humming lyrics. Mumtaz I knew from the other side of town. Before passing by I made sure my dupatta, the meter-length scarf worn over my chest, was properly arranged, and I made sure to keep my glance down until he acknowledged me first. Mumtaz was quiet and perfectly dressed, even in the dust, in a kurta you knew he had not worn the day before. Mumtaz knew me as a wife, and then as a mother. There was no need for him to know my name and he never did. Mr. Dangerous knew me alone, by a name whose breadth I could not understand.

One day, shooting the shit with Mr. Dangerous, I mentioned Mumtaz’s name. I don’t remember now what intersection there would have been in conversation between that side of town, that side of myself, and this side of town, having tea with Mr. Dangerous. Mr. Dangerous snapped to attention, looked at me with a kind of determination I did not recognize, then looked away, and asked if I was talking about Mumtaz the malawallah. Mr. Dangerous put down his chai, stood up, and lifted the bottom of his shirt to his chin, revealing his chubby tummy. Mr. Dangerous held his shirt with one hand and used the other to follow the outline of a scar that covered nearly his entire chest and dipped down below the top of his jeans. He grew indignant and spat a mouthful of paan at the road. “Do you see this?” he asked. “Acid. Mumtaz put acid over me. Many days burning.” He dropped his shirt, scanned the horizon for an escape and saw someone he knew coming down the street on a motorbike. As it approached, he hopped on the back. “Bye, Mumtaz,” he yelled as he sped off, not stumbling for a second over the name, my name, not my name, the name of a dead princess and the man who’d almost killed him. Mr. Dangerous came and went as quickly as always, leaving me quiet on the side of the road.

~

Not long after telling me about Mumtaz and the acid, Mr. Dangerous asked me for money. I didn’t want to give it to him, but I couldn’t not give it to him. I would rather have bought a dress for Puja, but knew money was never that simple. Wearing a new dress could be cause for even more teasing than wearing an old one, because everyone knows the dress didn’t just fall from the sky and nobody wants a daddy who has to get his money from a white lady. Mr. Dangerous still called me Mumtaz when he saw me, but he essentially stopped being seen.

As with every passing year, when the spring grew warmer the stupa emptied out, and the village readied itself for the nothing and everything of the unrelenting hot wind that forces everyone to close up shop and wait for nightfall. The Bhutanese went back to Bhutan and the Burmese went back to Burma and the Westerners went down south to the beach or up north to the mountains and the Tibetans went back to all the places they go back to as long as they can’t go home. I was alone that spring, and because of this, Mumtaz and I no longer had tea outside his shop, which was open less and less as the opportunities for business waned. Bodh Gaya became a little Indian village again; the echoes of crowded bartering and all the different ways of praying evaporated with the dust. The loudspeakers were disassembled, the pushcarts put away, and the field of Tibetan tent restaurants returned to the local kids for playing cricket.

In turn, we—Mr. Dangerous and Mumtaz and I—seemed reduced to who we were by definition and appearance, who we had been, who we would remain: the charming hustler drunk on coconut moonshine, the wealthy malawallah keeping cool on marble floors, the memsahib who could buy conversation along with cigarettes or coral, packing up to leave when the sun grew too strong and too much had been said. I gave Mr. Dangerous the money he asked for, and with it the friendship, or the guise of friendship, was dropped. The season was finished. The pseudonyms of our interaction were put away with the sweaters. There was no longer a need for the business of chitchat. And yet, the change in season and in how I was referred to didn’t necessarily seem to undo what had been between Mr. Dangerous and I, but spoke instead to what was inescapable—that I could play princess and he could play dangerous, but we had our intentions and our needs. He needed money. I needed to feel as if I wasn’t just a Westerner on the go, uninterested or disconnected, even though we would have never become friends at all if it wasn’t understood from the beginning that I was only around for a few months.

What had come to pass between Mr. Dangerous and Mumtaz explained why the mala shop needed only an ornamental lock. Beyond that it seemed to reinforce what separated them and, ultimately, what separated me from them. Divided by centuries of history and the weight of gold and a single kilometer, Mr. Dangerous and Mumtaz would sit out the summer monsoons as they always had, until autumn came again and the money from the East and the money from the West could be earned and negotiated once more. And when I came back to town business would be good and the air cool. We would assume our other names, giddy at not being ourselves, yet somehow more ourselves, pretending over tea that the money and cultures that spawned us didn't matter.

 

Liesl Schwabe has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. She teaches at Yeshiva University and the Fashion Institute of Technology and lives with her son in Brooklyn, New York. (1/2006)


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