Velvet Impact

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Moonlight poured into the garden. She stood on the threshold, looking out at the flowerbeds patterned in silver light and black shadow. A cool wind blew up from the river. All around the teak veranda, hibiscus blossoms were falling. She longed to catch them, to feel the cool petals against her upturned palms.

She stepped off the veranda and onto the gravel footpath. Dew-heavy petals rained down upon her gold silk dupatta. Impulsively, she flung it off, and the wind carried it deeper into the garden. Petals kissed her cheeks as she chased the golden glimmer through the roses.

She felt the thorns tearing at the thin skin of her kurta and she stopped, panting, the roses pressing all around her. The moon had vanished, enveloping her in utter darkness. She could see nothing, hear nothing. She inhaled the scent of the roses. Their wild sweetness flooded her being, and she thought she might drown in the fragrance. She struggled against the thorns, and suddenly the moon returned. White light penetrated the darkness. She was face to face with a tiger.

Fear thrilled through her, causing the breath to catch in her throat. The great cat was perfectly still, crouching beneath roses that glowed blood red in the blanched night. Silently, the tiger glided toward her, taut muscles working beneath the thick velvet of his brilliant coat. She struggled harder, but the thorns held her fast. The beast drew closer. Closer. She felt his heat as he lunged at her, blocking the moonlight, filling her field of vision. The world went black, but she could still see the tiger’s eyes blazing, one green, one blue …

Shameena awoke, gasping. Her body shuddered in anticipation of a velvet impact that did not arrive. Trembling, she ran her fingers across her eyebrows, her jaw, down her throat, tracing the curved lines of her collarbones. She was whole. She was safe.

Another nightmare.

She tried to banish the vision of the tiger, but those eyes — Shameena shuddered again. Those eyes — the baleful, divided gaze. It seemed as though it were riving her in two, as though she were caught between blue and green stars, exploding.

She leaped from her bed. She was no longer a child, to be frightened by tigers in the night. She slipped into a rose-silk kurta and moved to the window. Standing in the pale moonlight, she possessed an almost ethereal loveliness. Her face was fine-featured with fair, glowing skin. She rarely smiled, but when she did, her rosebud lips parted to reveal small, even teeth, like pearls. Slender brows arched inquisitively over large, luminous eyes tipped slightly at the corners. Her eyes were jet pools touched by moonbeams … water in the fountains of a midnight garden … black crystal.

The moon plunged behind a cloud, and she could no longer make out the bougainvillea and passionflowers blooming just below her secondstory window. She sighed, restless, strangely awake, body thrilling with a kind of contained lightning.

The zenana was hot and dark, and the air smelled thickly of the thousands of flower species that flourished in Nawab Al’Saif al’Dawla’s gardens. The palace gardens were intricately arranged with interlocking flower beds bordered with red sandstone, each bed containing blossoms of a different color. There were walled courtyards for animal fights and stone platforms for dancing; there were bamboo stands and cypress trees and orchards with hunting villas, mosques, arcades, and baradaris. The various buildings of the palace complex were interspersed throughout the gardens — towers and bathhouses enclosed gardens of grapes; pavilions surrounded waterfalls; countless terraced buildings with baluster columns and walls carved with flowers — all connected by paved walkways and water channels, bounded by the Gomti River to the north. In the Holy Qur’an, paradise is described as a garden of perpetual bliss, rivers flowing beneath, bubbling up in clear fountains from which the righteous drink. The gardens of Saif al’Dawla fulfilled that image of eternal beauty. It would be difficult to call the majority of its inhabitants righteous, however.

Shameena was no longer a child, but she did not want to be a woman. She wanted to be free to wander the palace gardens, learning the secrets of the orange-belled buddleia, hiding in the bowers of scarlet cypress vine, shaking rain from the lantana, marauding for guavas and mangoes with the noisy green parrots. Shameena gazed into the darkness, surprised by a sudden rush of tears. She pressed her fists against the cool stone on either side of the window.

Why couldn’t she be a spirit of the lilac? Why couldn’t she sleep under the stars? Why couldn’t she live in the orange groves, barefoot, weaving wreaths of fragrant citrus twigs? These days the arcades and pavilions of the palace were always thronged with residents, guests, transient pleasureseekers, craftsmen, and servants; the Nawab’s retinue was always growing. The palace echoed with the sounds of construction, of girls practicing their scales, of cooks bellowing, maids shrieking, awful foreigners muttering in their many languages, the arrogant laughter of British traders. How much longer could she even expect to enjoy what freedom she had? Shameena tried to push back the thought, but her mind raced. The eerie night had opened the door to all her anxieties, fears she suppressed by the light of day.

Lucknow was the wellspring of Indian culture, and the court of the Nawab was the heart of Lucknow. Thanks to Nawab Al’Saif al’Dawla’s generous patronage, the palace buildings housed innumerable luminaries — philosophers, astronomers, painters, sculptors, poets, musicians — as well as stranger, sometimes less savory, figures: dervishes, religious pilgrims, and foreigners from every country in Europe. These foreigners drank and gambled alongside the Indian courtiers, passing around jade goblets of heady liqueurs, sharing hookahs, even wrapping their odd, brightly colored hair in turbans and donning jeweled slippers. Europeans, particularly the British, had become an increasingly noticeable presence in recent years. Shameena despised them all. They were the force transforming her paradise garden into a lurid lair, a place of sensual rather than celestial delights.

Often Shameena would fall into reverie in the gardens, dreaming beside an ornate gate twined with Porana paniculata. The tiny pure-white flowers opened in the light of either sun or moon. Standing under the arch of the gate, surrounded by the masses of florets and drooping white bells, Shameena fancied she was inside a cloud. To the foreigners roaming the grounds, smoking cheroots, swigging whiskeys, titillated by signs of the Nawab’s boundless wealth, the girl with the upturned face in the bower of green vines and white petals, the graceful figure draped in white and gold muslin, looked like an angel from the Christian Bible.

“If this were London, she’d act like an angel, too!” That afternoon a British captain had caught sight of her in the gardens. Older hands in the Empire’s service enjoyed boasting to recent arrivals, awkward adolescents from Oxford and Devonshire who had yet to experience the wonders of the Oriental fantasia. The captain shook his large head, a knowing expression playing across his florid, detestable face.

“London ladies,” he’d sneered. “Nole me tanger-ing a man to death, swaddled up to the chin in itchy cambric or trussed up in metal underwear. In Lucknow, my boys, the women look like angels, but they practice the devil’s art.” Chuckling lewdly at the mixture of abashment and eagerness in the younger men’s eyes, the captain continued. “Fornication. Not just practice, mind you, they’ve perfected the art. I thought I’d done it all, but they taught this salty dog a few tricks, let me tell you.…” And then he did tell them, in lurid detail, orating loudly to the circle of leering young men. Each had pricked his ears to the captain’s words, eyes fixed on Shameena, who came to awareness gradually, her reverie interrupted by the boisterous chuckling and back-slapping of the booted officers. She turned the black fury of her gaze on the drunken louts. How she disdained their tobacco- and saffron-stained teeth! Their bloated and bleary faces! The way they swayed and held each others’ shoulders for balance, belching and laughing, licking their lips in her direction!

The British! They were crude. They were impossibly decadent. They pandered to the most excessive aspects of the Nawab’s character. It seemed to Shameena that court life had ceased to revolve around the appreciation of art, of nature, and instead revolved around acquisition and the satisfaction of base desires. Around pleasure. Pleasure.

Shameena had just celebrated her seventeenth birthday. Girls who came of age in the palace — girls who showed any hint of cultivation, who had beguiling faces or endearing manners, whose voices were melodious or whose bodies swayed invitingly — made advantageous marriages for their families, or else joined the ranks of Lucknow’s elite courtesans, many of whom lived in the palace complex. Shameena knew that it was only a matter of time before her father married her off to some foul-smelling zamindar. She imagined her existence as a zamindar’s wife. There were many of them at the Nawab’s court, women at once beleaguered and dissolute, as grasping and money-hungry as their husbands. Shameena wanted no part of it, of any of it. She rested her forehead against the stone. She felt helpless. Everything was spinning away from her — her hopes, her dreams. Shameena had grown like a wild flower, untended. Her mother had died in the birthing bed while Shameena drew her first breaths; her father’s interest in his daughter did not outlive his wife. Her nurse had always tried to show the motherless girl affection, but from the very beginning, Shameena was a skittish creature, shy and fragile but also proud. As a young girl, Shameena would escape the stifling heat of the zenana and sit by the flowing fountains in the quieter corners of the garden. She would sit alone, dreaming or painting. Sometimes she would beg audience with one of the court artists. From these men, Shameena learned of Mughal miniatures, Persian manuscripts, Urdu literature, and the finer points of calligraphy and composition. She would come back to the zenana as the sun sank over Lucknow, eyes sparkling, her shining black hair disordered and cascading over her shoulders. In her hair and in the folds of her silk shawl, she carried the scent of budding things, and her bare feet were always glistening with dew. She would pick at a plate of saffron rice, lost in her imagination, oblivious to the women around her, and the nurse would look at her radiant face, fearing for the girl, knowing that her unmistakable beauty would be her curse — a flower of such wild beauty was bound to be plucked. The nurse only hoped the hand would not be rough.

The clouds broke open, and again moonbeams fell on the garden, illuminating the narcissus that encircled the white marble fountain. Shameena’s mind was unquiet. She needed to taste the night air, to be cradled in the arms of a banyan tree, to feel the moon’s caress. She couldn’t bear the still, close, sickly sweet air of the zenana a moment longer.

She crept down the stairs and ran out of the women’s quarters into the small chaharbagh. Even the brightest flowers glimmered palely in the moonlight. The garden was silver and black, like a dream. On their own, Shameena’s feet found the cold stone pathway around the fountain, and she skirted the narcissus, letting her fingers sweep the wet petals, which surrendered their silkiness. She headed north, toward the river. Her heart was thudding queerly. The night was so hot, she felt as though the air were liquid. The air was oil of roses. As she passed the jasmine bushes, she could taste the jasmine on her lips.

What was the hour? She guessed from the moon and the heaviness of the dew that it was just before dawn. The night’s dancing and feasting would have ended long ago. Shameena came to a baradari at the intersection of causeways and entered the open-sided pavilion. It smelled of sandalwood, and she could see a low ember where incense still burned. Giddy, she spun in circles, arms thrown out. The moon passed through the perforated marble screens and dappled her body in an intricate pattern. Shameena imagined that she too was white marble: beautiful, inviolable, a changeless part of the palace landscape, without master, never to be possessed. The incense choked her, and she burst out again into the night. She could hear birds moving in the treetops. She called to them, a low musical note, and was surprised by the sound of her own voice. She realized she could hear other voices, that the darkness was alive. Parrots? Parakeets? Shameena hesitated. She heard cries and whispers, and then — distinctly — a woman’s laugh, fullthroated and rich with promise. Shameena cast her eyes about wildly, but the shadows between the trees and causeways revealed nothing. More cautiously now, she picked her way toward the banyans along the Gomti. She was close enough to the river to feel the cool breeze stir the silk around her legs. The touch of the fabric caused her chest to burn.

What was wrong with her tonight? In all her years, she’d never felt so aware of her skin, of the way fabric lay against the curve of her hip, the way the river breeze moved her hair across her cheek. Running, compelled by an urgency she did not understand, she abandoned the path and entered the orchard, weaving through the fruit trees. By day, the oranges hung red and round, fiery globes, but the moonlight leached everything of color. The oranges looked like so many smaller moons, silver-white globes suspended in the shining dark of the leaves. Gazing up at the oranges, Shameena almost stumbled into shadowy forms that at first seemed one with the trees. She heard a woman’s bangled wrists chime and saw the glimmer of the bracelets. She froze. A man’s voice was whispering, a stream of soft sounds, rising and falling. Shameena caught the flow of his cadences and made out the words. The man was reciting a poem:

Amidst flowers, wine in hand, my
lover I embrace

King of the world is my slave on
such a day in such a place.

Bring no candles to this, our
festive feast, tonight

Full moon is pale beside the light
of my lover’s face.

Shameena caught her breath, willing herself to be invisible. The lovers were leaning against an orange tree. She could make out a woman’s slender back and tumbling, moon-gilded hair. The heat that had been concentrated in Shameena’s chest radiated out through her body. Her hands and feet were tingling. She felt faint. The man was still reciting, but he had tightened his embrace; his face was pressed in the woman’s throat, her shoulder. His words were muffled, coming in broken phrases. The fragrance of your hair. Speak not to me of sweetness. Since my lips. Your treasures.

Shameena let out strangled sob, and the man lifted his eyes, gazing at her across the woman’s shoulder. The ruins of my heart, he whispered, and he smiled, tauntingly, at Shameena, his fingers moving through the thick black hair of the woman who leaned into him with more insistence, her wrists crossing above his head, knuckles pressed against the orange tree. The man kissed the woman’s shoulder, eyes still locked on Shameena, and the woman turned her face to intercept his kiss. It was the delicate profile of her childhood friend, Nadira, now a courtesan at the palace. She was smiling, her face sheened with sweat, lips curving. Shameena turned and fled, heedless of her crashing footfalls. When she reached the banyan trees on the riverbank, she bent double, gulping thick air, arms hugged around her body. Finally, she righted herself. She nearly staggered to her favorite ancient banyan, complex roots and branches twisting over one another, forming handholds and small nooks, perfect perches for the slender girl.

It was to this place that she used to retreat. A larger branch thrust from the trunk of the tree, making a strong yet gentle V, a perfect seat. Shameena climbed nimbly to the V and sat with her back against the tree trunk, legs hanging down. The river breeze stroked her flushed face. Raising a hand to her cheek, she realized she was crying again. Hot tears splashed down. The taste of salt on her lips now mingled with the sweetness of the garden’s perfume. She imagined again that she was made of marble — untouched, never to be caressed by a human hand.

She shook her head to banish the torrent of images. The man’s glistening face, his lips parting. His hands plunging into Nadira’s long hair, twisting the locks in his fists, as he pulled her toward him …

“I just want to be free,” whispered Shameena, desperately. “I want to be left alone. I want to live among the palace roses, to paint them, to answer to no one. To be free. I want …”

Why did she feel as though the world were spinning too fast? Why did she feel so trapped and yet so … lonely?

Boom!

Shameena jolted, nearly falling from her branch. The sky erupted in green light. The boom came again. Again. Fireworks were bursting over Lucknow. Smoke drifted along the river. Shameena stood, balancing, one arm braced against the trunk. She looked back over the moonlit gardens, in whose shadows lovers lay locked in fervent embraces. She turned to the river. Green flowers of light bloomed in the darkness and faded.

Another celebration at the British Residency. At the brink of dawn, no less. Green sparks floated in the breeze. The world was striped in moonlight and shadow. Tiger stripes. The green sparks drifted close to her outstretched fingertips, then vanished, consumed.

Shameena shut her eyes tight. The afterimage burned — green sparks, doubled, against her eyes. The wind picked up. She felt it rake through her hair, her clothes. She curled into the banyan tree, and finally she slept.