The Red Lanterns, Jharoka and Jhanjhar

I am free.

Free to squirm through the metal grills that encapsulate the sweaty windows.

Free to sit on the minaret of the old mosque in the rustic neighborhood of a town, strewn with relics from the sub-continent’s monarchs.

Free to watch the sunset from the Jharoka of the window in the tiny corner room of an ancestral house. A house with intricately patterned domes, delicate flowers embedded in the stone balconies, wooden door posts reminiscing the grand era of Nawabs[1] and Rajahs[2], and a prison to my movement.

I am free now.

Free to sit on the roof with the pigeons, free from the relentless gaze of the next door Maulvi [3] and Pehlwan [4] from across the street. I can stay there all night without my Dupatta and not worry about being intruded upon.

Free to dance in the rain in my muslin shalwar kamiz[5], oblivious to the contours of my female body.

I can be one with the monsoon breeze and the raindrops that drip gingerly from the Jharoka of my solitary imprisonment.

I can watch the sunset and witness the stars pop out in the night sky sprawled on my back and not care about whose gaze would pierce my unfettered joy.

On the contrary, I can stare and gaze at the street below all I want, for no one sees me anymore. I can look at the ornamental rickshaws skirt their way in the muddy street, dodging fruit carts and motorbikes and dupatta clad slender waist-ed Punjabi women balancing earthen matka(s)[6] on their head I can play the Sitar placed in the corner of my prison room without having to leave the edge of the roof wall I am ensconced upon right now. I am invisible. Could I be invincible now?

I am free to wander into the infamous quarters with red lanterns. I won’t have to peek through the frilly curtains in the flimsy wooden windows to see what happens when all but the lanterns are lit in those rooms of amorous embraces.

I am free to loiter the dark alleys leading me to the clinkering sounds of delicate Jhanjhar on slender soft feet of the nymphs that exist in the damned quarters. I can hear their giggles, their sobs, their lovemaking and their assaults. I no longer need to fear for my own skin, I don’t have the fear of being discovered and then harmed.

I can see so much but I cannot un-see it anymore. I can chance upon something that I would wish I had never seen for it destroys something in the remnant of my existence.

I have now seen the hairy, pot-bellied lovers of the delicate nymphs, drooling beasts who see nothing but the object of their desire. Not a woman, not a human. But I can no longer channel the cringe through the goosebumps on my arms. There is no body to quiver at the sight.

I have now seen the rats gnaw at the mangled bodies in the morgues of public hospitals. I feel the disgust at the grotesque sight but I can no longer puke and relieve myself of it. I have to simply bear with it.

I have seen the ants tear the blued flesh of corpses in graveyards. I cannot shudder with horror anymore.

I have seen the truckers mix dangerous chemicals in infant milk powders and smuggling them across borders in the middle of the night. I cannot scream or call them out.

I have seen young doctors operate on poor helpless laborers and take their organs out and sell them to masked men in dark corridors. I cannot even shed tears to lament my helplessness.

I see it all now. I do more than see. I inhabit now. I am one with the soul of the universe and yet I feel distinct.

I want to shriek and move the foundations of the mountains. I want to squeal with joy at the sound of the sea gull swooping down to grab its prey. I want to pen all that I felt, describe all the sensations that I was capable of feeling every second of existence. No more.

I had that body for seventy years. Forty out seventy of those years, I could have done better than to mope around with questions on my existence. [7] The helpless nights where I would squirm and shift begging for sleep to embrace me, I could have enjoyed the starry night. I could have enjoyed the feeling of a sinking heart on those days where I felt like a punching bag in the circumstances. I could have celebrated the adrenaline rush when I was rightfully angry at something and could smash things and threaten destruction to all in my path. I could rejoice at the huskiness of my voice in a throat infection, for I could gently talk to a child or someone who needed to hear reassurance in hushed tones. There were endless possibilities of using those arms and limbs, those nerves and skin, those eyes and lips, and yet I could not think beyond the imprisonment and limitation it posed on me. What I had then I cannot have now. What I have now I could not have had then. Why did I not just enjoy what I had?

Why did I not rejoice on the kaleidoscopic shadows of the red lantern neighborhood, why did I not see the diamonds in the raindrops of my window’s Jharoka, why didn’t I dance fearlessly in the rain, enamored by the music in my Jhanjhar?


[1] Nobles or local rulers in the Mughal Era
[2] Local Kings or Rulers in the Mughal Empire but with a non-Mughal lineage.
[3] Priest
[4] Wrestler
[5] An outfit commonly worn across Pakistan that comprises of a shirt usually knee length with loosely fitted trousers.
[6] A round hollow mud pot commonly used in Punjab to store water. It is also known as Ghara.
[7] Just in case no one gets it. This is simply an exercise in imagination. It is about a woman who dies in her house at the old age of seventy and has spent a life of restlessness for knowing more. The piece is the musing of her soul which is now free to wander the spaces she could not as a living human being. It is the first day of her freedom from her body and how her joy soon turns into the same restlessness she had when she was alive. The grass that seemed greener on the other side of existence is suddenly not that green and now she realizes that this might be eternity.

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