01 January 1970

Book Excerpt: Attar

This story is from the forthcoming book 'Mistress of Phoolpur' from Speaking Tiger.

Attar. Getty Images

“The attarfarosh was an old man with a long white beard. He came from somewhere where there were mountains as well as the sea. There was deodar, beyar, shegul, ban pipal, kanur and banj trees around him and he carried an essence of all these with him.”

It was a narrow lane. The houses stood close to each other. The windows and terraces faced the narrow lane. The women hung out from their balconies and windows and talked to each other. So, if any one walked below in the lane a canopy of gossiping voices covered them from above. Sometimes they would look up and smile. If it was a person from the neighbourhood they could make out whose voice it was by just listening to the voices. If it were a stranger they paused and looked up in curiosity, then smiled and walked away.

Without actually eavesdropping it became a common knowledge that Shakur’s wife had cooked a lamb shorba for supper and Mohsin’s mother had made seviayan for dessert. That ten-year-old Ghafoor had hurt his head and fractured his arm as he accidentally fell off the edge of the terrace while flying a kite and Kirpa had had mumps and he was still delirious. It also became common knowledge that Fareeya’s husband had gone to Dubai and Subuhi was soon to get married to a boy from a distant town from where he had bought the attar, the one time that he had come to see her. 

Aaban was a tall bearded man. Young and handsome. And such a faraway look in his eyes. As if he is lost somewhere else, Tai amma would exclaim.

Nusrat, Subuhi’s mother would make a face and grimace, she is jealous of my banno’s good luck at having bagged such a handsome groom. 

Subuhi on the other felt a ripple of a shiver go through her when she first heard Tai amma say it. She recalled the hooded smouldering look Aaban had directed towards her.
Aaban was a distant cousin. Or maybe friend of a cousin. The relationship was so convoluted that it became difficult to trace it backwards. One needed to draw in the dirt, with a stick, the family tree. And then the lines connecting one from the other crisscrossed so much that it became well-nigh impossible to unravel. 

And Aaban appeared so remote, his eyes so distant. He talked so little and on prodding replied in monosyllables. Subuhi’s heart plunged down heavily at this man who did not look at her, at all. Except for that one searing unfathomable glance.

And it was not as if Subuhi was not nice looking. She was not beautiful. But in her wheatish complexion there was such a glow that her face shone. Her eyes were so wide spaced and the pupils with its hazel flicks made her look like a startled deer. 

The young men of the neighbourhood turned twice to look at her. 

Yes, all the young men. As she went to the madrasa, or sometimes to the darzee to get a dress embroidered. Although she draped the burqa but her face was mostly unveiled. It was her neighbourhood and everyone was an uncle brother aunt. They were all family. And the houses were so connected in their courtyards and in their terraces that sometimes you need not go out at all to go to someone else’s house. You just moved from courtyard to courtyard. Each had a narrow wooden door opening into the next. It was a warren hole of people living like this, so much into each other that their lives intermingled and intertwined. Their sons and daughters married into each other’s and this had happened since generations and thus it was mostly very difficult to trace one single relationship with others. 

But all this did not mean that everything was always sweet and lovable. A river that was flowing beneath was not always a sweet river. It was sometimes a putrid river and it was sometimes a dark turgid one. Sometimes such a fresh smell came from the soils and sometimes the river gave off fumes that were so dark and evil and that one shuddered even from the memory of it. 

There were rooms in the houses that were locked and dark and full of something unexplainable and no one went there. There was some devil darkness which ate up all the air inside and elder women admonished children not to go there and if the child went in that direction they would clutch a handful of fiery red chilies and hold them over the open fire. 

The fiery tangy fumes will drive away the evil air. 

And everyone in the house would start coughing. 

Why ever did they have these rooms then? No one knew. No one opened them. 

The oldest person, the hundred-year-old bibi was the only one who knew. And she wouldn’t say. If anyone asked she put her palms on her ears and swayed in a trance mumbling an aayat of the Koran in a whisper which no one understood. Sometimes when she was lucid, she would say in a clear loud voice,

Those were terrible times. All the dead bodies stuffed and burnt alive in the rooms. And the rooms are full of death and burnt bodies and bones and jinn. Don’t open the door or they will come out and devour us. 

After pronouncing it in bone chilling tone she would start swaying and moaning and in next instant in a voice barely audible start crying.

No one gives me anything to eat. I am starving starving. Are beta, give me some meetha, aye Ladki bring me something. Sweet rice, firni, sheer khurma, shirmal, bakarkhani. She would count them on her fingers like a child reciting table

She would cry like a child even though she had eaten just an hour before. 

Bibi had a voracious appetite. Although she looked wizened, dehydrated, desiccated almost. 

And bibi had all the stories. Even more than the thousand tales of Sheherzad. Each more fascinating than the previous one, full of some magic and mystery, studded with handsome young princes and beautiful nubile begums, of imperious nawabs and cruel powerful sultans, of deadly secrets buried since seven generations within the walls of these neighbourhood. The cobwebs in her minds never cleared though. 

Subuhi often sat with her. She would pick up a crochet and weave white foams of lace. As she wove, she looked up to the sky and her soul soared upwards. It was not a clear patch. The blue rectangle was crisscrossed with electric wires and the branches of peepal tree from where leaves fell all the time in the courtyard. like a slow musical, as if somebody played the dilruba and the notes spun and pirouetted and floated ever so slowly.

One had to sweep the courtyard all day long. Subuhi hummed in low tones and swept the floor as if she was dancing in a trance. The birds chirped on the branches and swooped down on the flowers giving her company. The walls were plastered white and they gave a sense of light and newness. So different from the dark interiors of solid stone and wood darkened with age.

Subuhi thought of Aaban every minute, every hour. Why are his eyes hooded? What is he hiding? 

She associated him with the attar that he had bought. So dark, mysterious and sinful. The fragrance wove a spell which was silk and satin. It was laced with smoke and tinged with night. It had fibres of passion, threads of hunger. And it made one dizzy. Dizzy with anticipation, dizzy with desire. It made her heavy and languorous. As if her whole body became viscous. That she could flow out heavily somewhere. And that she needed that somewhere to be here and now.

It was as if darkness silken and smooth coursed inside her. And because she could not put a finger to it she became restless. The power of the river raging within her was scary. It hovered inside her like an eagle soaring high, high, higher and then swooping down in a flash like a scimitar slashing her innards.

She could no longer find solace in sitting beside Bibi, crocheting lace, or sitting with Ammi in the kitchen and cook huge legs of mutton and bageri. It was only when she was grinding the cinnamon and the cloves with green cardamom that she was assailed with the same sensation that the attar gave her. 

She had a box of attar. It was a sandalwood box with marble inlays. It held small vials of attar. When the attarwala came she was the first one to run and see what new fragrances he had bought this time.

The attarfarosh was an old man with a long white beard. He came from somewhere where there were mountains as well as the sea. There was deodar, beyar, shegul, ban pipal, kanur and banj trees around him and he carried an essence of all these with him. The smell of saffron, pine nuts, blueberries, walnuts and figs wound themselves into his attar. And also, the salty smell of foam, of seaweeds and shells, of the roar and thunder of the waves and the fishes and the salt of the sea.

As he opened the tiny vials one by one you were transported to a place where the air was pure and cold. Where the air smelled sweet and innocent.  Where the flowers and rhododendrons bloomed on your skin.

This was the rose, and this was the peach, this was the attar firdaus and this, he would open with a dramatic flair, is al haramain, the jannat- e- firdaus, this the musk and the amber and the rose, the oak moss, the Persian lilac, the Persian shefayat and, he would pause, his voice would lower to a theatrical whisper, is the white opium, afiyoon kaafuri.

Sometimes he would sell nothing. Sometimes Subuhi’s abba would relent and she would pick up a few. 

Slowly over the years the atardani, the box of perfumes became full. Tiny sparkling vials of attar lying in small velvet beds. Their green, cobalt blue, blood red liquid shimmered like fireflies through the transparent glass, the stars twinkling in the particles of emeralds and rubies 

Subuhi knew smell. She really knew it. Knew it’s every nuance, every particle, every element, every trace. She knew what went into it and how it affected people. She knew the power of smell. Its every twist and twirl, its fairy light and silky darkness was visible to her, she could whisper to the scent the same way that she talked to the trees and the flowers. she could touch the scent and put it inside her, she could taste it in her mouth. But Alban’s smell? No, she could not put her finger to it. It was nothing that she had ever known.

In the night she would open the vials one by one and put them close to her nose. Each one was different. Each one was special. But none was ever close to Aaban’s.

Aaban’s attar was from a nether world. In the dead of the night she would dab it on her wrists, the underside of it, behind her ears, the pulse on her elbows and wait. The fragrance spread like fumes till it touched every pore, every inch of skin, every nook and crevice of her body. After enveloping her all over it entered the orifices. Her nose first. And it hit her. It went in sliding through the skin and entered her and then exploded so hard that she gasped. It threw her and tore into her, created a hot lava inside her. A red-hot sensation coursed inside to be immediately replaced by a cold blue chill. And as the colors flashed, each represented a different element of fragrance. Wild and hot and dark and sensuous and naughty and frisky. She let the sensations tire themselves out. And once they were done, the fragrance entered her ears. 

She then listened to the birds crying out in the dark, the elephants rumble, the tribal spirit drums beating hypnotically in a full moon night, the waves roaring and the whales singing, the air shrieking a banshee wail in the dead afternoon sun, the trees murmuring in the tropical forests, wet and slippery, the broth bubbling on the open fire and the Sufis playing out their naats in a medieval trance. 

And as if that was not enough they entered her eyes and all she saw was the whirling dervishes in Sama. 

She herself went into a trance, spinning out of control. 

And then they entered her mouth and her mouth was filled with an aphrodisiac so strong yet so tender, light as a shimmering mulmul and yet heavy like flowing honey.

And finally, they entered her garden. The little well, her corn and wheat, her greenery and core. She writhed. In pleasure and also in pain. An excruciating pain, an exhilarating peak. she was spinning spinning spinning. and the night was the dark velvet, the silken shroud, the gossamer threads, the cobwebs, the night sky lit with a million stars. her body pulsed. a wave broke, one after other. The cinnamon smoked, the amber burnt, the fire glowed. Her body arched and in the last moment of ecstasy she spun out of control. 

As she lay exhausted, slick with sweat and heaving heavily sleep came to her. A deep dreamless sleep. And only when dawn broke she saw herself opening the door of the room which had been locked since a hundred years. She entered it and was immediately absorbed in it. Her body broke bit by bit as it was sucked in towards the centre. It was Aaban who beckoned her.it was a sensuous space. erotic, wild and mysterious. Bibi was right. It was the abode of Devil, an amorous Satan.


Nusrat is surprised. There is something different about this girl today. She can’t put her finger to it. There is a small thorn buried in her heart that irritates her whole day. 

She goes to Bibi.

Bibi, I do not feel alright. 

Bibi sways and says nothing.

Bibi it is about Subuhi

Bibi still sways and says nothing. 

Nusrat sits for a while. Her brows furrowed. Then sighing she gets up. It’s no use telling Subuhi’s abba about it. Men do not understand these things. Women have something in their heart that beats to a different drum. They can hear music where there is none, they find water in barren parched land, they find food in times of drought, they can see day in the darkest of the nights, they nurture serenity in turbulent times, they give succour in times of pain and they sense the universe in all its complexities and layers. They are thus blessed and cursed both at the same time.

The days slowly inexplicably roll on to each other till there is a continuous sheet of days spent exactly in the same manner as the previous one. Everything is as it should be. The food is cooked, the house tidied up, the clothes washed, the courtyard swept.

And yet this river of passing days, which appears so serene on the surface, hides something. And for the first time Nusrat does not know what. She does not know whom to turn to. 

If only Bibi was lucid. Bibi knew everything. Bibi could make a tabeej and everything would be alright. Nusrat reads the fateha and hopes that the black seed in her heart does not grow into a terrifying heart wrenching tree. Instead she hopes it is only a shadow that will melt away. She gets the aayat ul kursi inscribed on a paper and folded into a tabeej. 

I enter into the protection and security of God.

But she does not know who should wear this tabeej. She keeps it on the alcove in Subuhi’s room. 

Subuhi knows that if she uses the attar every night, it will finish. A panic assails her. 

Aaban has pulled her into a dark world where desire and sensations shroud her.

And as the night falls her body blooms. Aaban beckons her with his hooded eyes. 

Oh, Aaban so it was this that you hide, Subuhi calls out to him. 

While she is sweeping the courtyard next day, bibi calls out to her.

Ai ladki come here. 

Her voice is clear and strong. 
Startled Subuhi stops sweeping the courtyard.

Bibi has such a knowing look on her face. She clasps Subuhi’s hand in hers. The smell of cinnamon wafts up. 

I was like you. The attar has dark secrets. I too had one. But see the room is locked. 

Subuhi’s breath is held like a bird trapped. 

Bibi takes out a key.

Take it. It is yours. 

The key is a brass key. A single key. 

Ai ladki get me something to eat. Something sweet. 

The shutter is down again on Bibi’s face. She sways maniacally. 

In the night when everyone is asleep, Subuhi tiptoes to the end of the gallery and turns the lock. It has not been opened since goat years yet the key slides smoothly in the lock and the door opens. 

Aaban arrives the next day, unannounced, unheralded. 

He brings with him a box. A box full of attar.  Subuhi looks at him and smiles surreptiously.

Her body moves in a certain way, the hips more rounded as she walks, the neck stretched at an angle, her hands held in a manner as if she is about to dance, her breasts expand and strain and her face flushes like a ripe fruit, the skin pink and shining and about to burst. 

She is not afraid anymore. She looks at Aaban. He looks at her with hooded eyes, something smouldering in them.

She is not afraid anymore. 

This somewhere is here. Like the room, she had thought held sickness and morbidity. But it was just a room. Bibi’s room. With all her finery and jewellery, her huge trunks of satin shalwars and shararas, her velvet bedspread, her anklets and bangles. All of her treasures when she would have been young. 

The room was enveloped in a silken darkness that whispered and sang, there was something trance like in the dark. It pulsated with a smell so heavy and erotic, rang with the sweet melody of the anklets, and a call full of yearning, so sharp and intense and vibrating with such longing, such a sensuous drunken tone, heavy and velvet like honey   

Maine laakhon ke bol sahe, sitamgar, tere liye 

The room was then an abode of sensual longings, of trembling aching limbs, of unsatiated yearnings, of that forbidden apple and the snake, of sweat and heat, a touch of the lover’s lips, of that intoxicating feeling of a mad crazy love. A blue flame shivered and touched the skin, arousing it, making it fluid and wanting to break all boundaries. The arms fell away in languorous lethargy, the eye lids fell heavy, a trance took over, the body swooned, a secret desire of some one’s touch bloomed like fire, that one would break into a million pieces with that touch. Only this touch, only this desire. 

Aaban’s body flew in a trembling rhythm with hers. They swayed with the same breath, trembling, pausing, trembling. Was this real or just a lie? a mere deception or some magic? Oh! Can anyone’s body be like this? strong and tender at the same time? What is this fragrance, Is it even a fragrance? This heart of mine spinning crazily out of control? Is it my heart? this heaving panting rail? whose is it? whistling nonstop, this sea breaking its waves on my shores, this breeze that caresses my whole body, this dream, and for Aaban to be in this dream, his burning eyes searing my soul? His clean skin, his clear neck, his slender strong fingers, his pink ear lobes, the male scent of his body, the strength of his embrace? Is this real or a dreamscape?

So, this room is the secret room of desire. Aaban is here, his attar is here. Everything hidden from the world yet everything now lies exposed for her. So, this was the secret of this room. 

She looks at Aaban, not shyly, not with coy hesitation but with the new knowledge that she has, the taste of her desire.

Take me away, soon, far from here. 

She whispers to no one as she hurries past Aaban
All lovers have ruined themselves in love. Yet those who have not tasted the forbidden fruit what have they achieved in this world.