Memory of Light is a tender romance of two young courtesans in Nawabi-era Lucknow. The entire novel unfolds through the narrator, Nafis Bai’s memory of events, lending it her unique voice, which stays with the reader.
Intrigued? Read an excerpt from the book below:
Late at night before the big occasion, I tried the outfit on her; the fabrics I had chosen kissed her skin, her skin not washed-out white like the English ladies’ but kanak kamini, warm as wheat, as gold.
‘Like lightning flashing in the summer sky,’ I said, as I tied the silver drawstring with its pearl pendants, gleaming through the pale blue swirl of the peshwaz and dangling below its hem.
While I dressed her she undressed me, discarding the purple I had selected for myself.
‘Purple doesn’t suit you,’ she said. ‘Parrot-green blossoms on you. Wear this green one with—let’s see.’ She threw her red orhni over me. ‘There—it’s like a flame on you.’
Until then purple had been my favourite colour. I’ve never worn it with pleasure since.
The night sparkled and so did all of us, lit by the sheen of youth. Even I felt beautiful when her eyes touched me. The whole town seemed to be there, troops of merchants with tributes for the English, foreigners with heavily powdered hair, and every dancer worth the name. Bands were playing foreign instruments, organs bellowed and fireworks fizzed above. A group of hijras performed and then Ratan. I looked up from a dark corner where I was adjusting Chapla’s shoes with their long curling toes, to see Sharad framed in a lighted doorway, chest half-visible through lacy white embroidery—a flowering tree covered with leaves and buds. His hair was abundant in those days, long curls almost out of control, and his eyes were on Ratan.
Mir Insha was in his element—flitting from group to group, alight with laughter. ‘Even the buds are proffering their glasses,’ he whispered to me, as champagne bubbled up in crystal for a fat European lady and her young daughter. ‘Look, flowers and bunches, all are imbibing.’ I giggled; the lady’s dress, billowing stiffly round her, did make her look a bit like a bunch of large showy flowers, the kind that the white people favour.
Then he whispered to Chapla:
Chaar naachaar hu’a jaana hi Landan apna
Le ga’i chheen ke dil ek firangan apna
No choice, I have to go to London now
A foreign woman has snatched away my heart
At this, both of us burst out laughing and Ammi threw us a reproachful glance.
He brought it all to life again in his poem—glasses, bottles, free-flowing liquor, lights in the trees, delicacies laid out on tables. He ignored Azizan resplendent in magenta and gold, and devoted his attention to Chapla, doing justice to my handiwork:
With a silken drawstring flowing like water,
Satin trousers blooming like foliage,
A light blue silk peshwaz like a cloud,
Its skirt edged with silver like a moonflower,
A veil of moon and stars like a moonlit night,
Anklets tinkling like drops of rain,
Chapla Bai stood up to dance.
Seeing her, Khutan gazelles forget to leap
Nature made her replete with beauty
From her face the Pleiades borrow radiance
The envy of fairies, she’s called ‘Lightning’
Light’s world turns dark when she departs . . .
Who can praise the breasts of that infidel idol?
Oh lord, their curves and that rising youth—
Half-blossomed lotuses, two fine founts,
They shine like round swelling whirlpools
Or like chakva and chakvi sitting on two shores,
The string of pearls between is Jamuna . . .
That ring-watch blooming with delicacy
I’d sacrifice to it hundreds of sounding organs . . .
Her plait like the shade of a kadamb tree . . .
What an eye he had for detail—the verse I liked best described how her red heels made the white beads on her pearlescent white silk shoes reddish like ratti, those poisonous seeds used to weigh gold, or like red champa flowers with their creamy insides:
Those two arms boughs of the tree of Paradise—
Obtain from them what your heart desires
Her forearms male and female skinks
The sight of them drives men and women wild . . .
Those red heels make the pearls on her shoes
Look like red ratti seeds or champa flowers
. . . Today’s the fourth day of the month of June
This happy day shines with special beauty
To know what happens next, check out Memory of Light.