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Lotus Ladies Lost in London by Sultana Raza

Threadneedle Street. That’s what had started it all. Sitara was delighted to find a small piece of Victorian London intact in this ultra-modern town, with crowds of indifferent young people glued to their smart phones, or ipods, wearing plastic looking coats, lost in their own worlds. Having read English Lit, Sitara was glad to discover that some of the hidden layers of history had somehow resisted the onslaught of glass and steel. She’d made the mistake of asking her friend and neighbour Yasmine if her sister Ruby had mentioned Threadneedle Street when she’d visited London about 20 years ago. In her long-winded manner Yasmine had sent at least twenty messages through Wattsapp, at all times of day and night. If one had to convert Professor Calculus from Tintin to a modern female Indian, then Yasmine would be a good candidate, except that she was a professor of English Lit, just like her sister Ruby had been.

 

Sitara was trying to kill too many birds on one trip, trying to fit in several exhibitions, talks and events, while writing an article on Quaint London, so she had very little time to go on wild goose chases. But somehow, this idea wouldn’t let go of her. Though her bed at the hotel was comfy enough, she’d been scared stiff by a huge, black spider in her bathroom. According to some Native American lore, the appearance of spiders was supposed to be good for creativity, but Sitara was freaked out by it. She’d felt very silly calling the reception, but the Polish receptionist had been very nice and apologetic about it, and had dealt with the spider efficiently enough. Sitara’s sleep was disturbed, as she kept having these half-baked nightmares of chasing down a person waving ghostly papers down some dark alley. But she’d wake up before she could see the person’s face, or catch up with them.

 

                                                                                                    ***

 

‘See if you can find Ruby’s lost pages in London. The publisher won’t publish her book unless we find the ending.’ Yasmine’s vague Wattsapp message woke Sitara up at 5:38 am.

 

‘What book?’ Sitara finally replied at ten, after breakfast.

 

‘The Lotus Ladies of Shalimar Bagh2. Fans want more of Ruby’s books, but her British publisher won’t budge till we find the end of this story. Can you help?’ Yasmine replied promptly. Though Sitara wanted to know the end of that long and intriguing fantastical play in verse herself, she couldn’t possibly go on this useless mission now. Even Yasmine had to know how big and confusing London was.

 

‘Where would I start?’ Sitara pinged back almost sarcastically.

 

‘Can’t you ask our cousin Dara? They live somewhere near Gatwick airport, and might have the lost papers.’

 

‘Sorry, I don’t know them. I’ve never met them. Can’t you ask them yourself?’ Sitara hoped that even Yasmine would manage to do that. Sitara had her hands full, trying to take photos of out of the way spots in London from unusual angles to illustrate her article on Quaint London. Besides, Sitara had a very tight deadline to edit and finish her article, as she spent most of her time traipsing around the metropolis, while trying not to become distracted by exhibitions, not to mention shopping etc.

 

***

 

Sitara was caught in a fine conundrum. Should see she go for the Lebanese, the sushi, or the Mexican? One of the pleasures of visiting London. Though Chinese restaurants rubbed shoulders too closely, and almost shouted out hello to her with their assorted scents, there were plenty of other choices nearby. Since Sitara had already eaten at an authentic little Indian resto Sunny India, that afternoon, she wanted to try something different in the evening. The smell of disappointment still hung around her shoulders. Though she hadn’t identified herself, as she should have, a surreptitious look at their staff room leading to their kitchen area had yielded nothing of interest to her. But, she’d overheard an argument in Urdu, that could have provided some interesting leads.

 

In fact, many people were surprised when Sitara told them she was Indian, as her skin wasn’t as dark brown as most of her countrywomen’s. She was taller than the average Indian girl, and here hazel eyes were unusual amongst people from her sub-continent. Just her long, thick hair could have belonged to an Indian, except for the natural reddish streaks in her dark brown hair. If Sitara didn’t mention that she was from India, most people placed her somewhere in the Mediterranean countries.

 

Unlike Ruby, who’d had a delicate beauty that she’d never really appreciated herself. With a fine, straight nose, and dark, expressive eyes, Ruby’s charm could win over anyone at any age. For she knew how to talk and joke with people from any walks of life, from kids to older folk. Since Ruby’s hair had been naturally straight and shiny, she’d never needed to look after it. With a clear, finely etched profile, Ruby’s face had looked like it had been borrowed from a Mughal painting. She’d been naturally slim, unlike Sitara who’d been struggling to keep her weight down for many years now, though she was a lot younger than Ruby.

 

Yasmine, like her older sister Ruby was also slim, and petite, and her dark eyes shone with her intelligence. If only she weren’t so absent-minded. Had Yasmine even realized how much time Sitara had wasted trekking to Sunny India?

 

The staff in Sunny India had seemed nice enough, and possibly they had been cousins of her friends, goodness knew how many times removed, but Sitara hadn’t let on to who she was. In any case, the young guy in charge of the restaurant probably wouldn’t have cared to hook up with some long lost ‘sort of cousin’ from India. Second generation kids born to Indian parents tended to be more British than the British. But during the argument, the delivery guy had complained that the owner’s cousin Arif was a lot friendlier than him. And Arif’s restaurant, Flavours of India was more successful than smelly Sunny India, because they treated everyone so well, from their clients, to the staff to old delivery guys. With that the older delivery man had stormed out of there.

 

Sunny India hadn’t turned out to be a complete dud, after all. If this Arif was a cousin of the present owner, then maybe he was Ruby’s cousin too. On a whim, Sitara sent a message to Yasmine, asking her about any cousins called ‘Arif’ who might own a restaurant called Flavours of India. Sitara could console herself that she had done her best to do some sleuthing whilst in London.

 

Now, tired and slightly cold, she sat down on the stone bench of the almost deserted Trafalgar Square. Her shoulders and feet thanked her for setting down heavy shopping bags stuffed with reading materials, Spider-man note-books, and ball-point pens she’d found on sale. Also, magnesium chloride oil that she couldn’t get easily in India, Nivea products for her Aunt, different kinds of bead bags, and various sorts of gluten-free goodies. A few pigeons made their way half-heartedly towards her. But she didn’t have any convenient crumbs to give them. Soon, some fat blue-bottle flies helped her to get up and walk towards the tube very fast. Would she have the courage to jot down quick notes for her article on Quaint London this evening, before she forgot those special details that would make her article stand out from the crowd?

 

***

 

In the morning Sitara had received more Wattsapp messages from Yasmine. Photos of letters Ruby had sent to four of her school friends back home. Sitara was lucky enough to find the same Ladybird Café where Ruby had had tea so many years ago. But of course, except for free ladybird post-cards, that café had yielded nothing. She was always surprised how fighting through crowds on the London tube made her feel tired so quickly. In the end, she headed straight back to her hotel located in a little side street between Marylebone and Bloomsbury, far away from any tube station. Though Carrington’s was an expensive three star hotel chain, she had been lucky to get what looked like half a room between the basement and the ground floor for quite a reasonable price during the Easter holidays. She loved the elegant Greek décor, the real cherry wood furniture, the cool marble floors, and the faint lavender perfume that lingered on every floor. Yet, she wished they didn’t have these huge close-ups of the insectoid world in the Reception Area. Presumably, it was an exhibition by a contemporary artist, yet they gave Sitara the shivers whenever she had to pass through there.

 

But the creep-crawlies and London’s noise and bright lights soon faded away, as Sitara settled into recording all she’d seen that day in her rough notes for her Quaint London article. She was proud her sane side had managed to win the argument with her naughty side who’d just wanted to watch mindless programs on telly, instead of taking these tedious notes, half of which she might never use. But who knew, if she ever wrote a short story set in eighteenth century London, then these details would come in very handy. It was a long-term investment that required a lot of will-power in the present.

 

***

 

Sitara didn’t know what noise woken up, but now that she was up, she couldn’t quite go back to sleep. Something was bugging her at the back of her mind. Most probably hers was the wildest goose chase anyone had ever undertaken in London. Though to be fair, she’d done what she was supposed to do, so officially the wild goose chase was over now. After all, her neighbour Yasmine had never come to this capital, and could not have known how huge it was, and neither could she have realised the impossibility of finding any needles in this gigantic haystack. How on earth was Sitara supposed to find the few poems that her friend and mentor Ruby had left behind in this sleepless metropolis?

 

Since a few germs were niggling at the back of her mind, she went through all the photos sent by Yasmine through Wattsapp. Though the photos were somewhat shiny and overexposed, they were clear enough. It broke Sitara’s heart to look at Ruby’s smiling face, called away so early in the prime of her life. So, she decided to harden her resolve to look for clues gleaned through these photos taken about 20 years ago by an enthusiastic Ruby in a less crowded, and presumably less polluted London.

 

***

 

 

As Sitara wandered around disconsolately around Keats’s house, she had to resist the urge to touch anything. She would have given anything to be there with Ruby, her unofficial mentor, who’d introduced her to the writings of the Romantics in the first place. In fact, whenever she came to England, not a day went by when she didn’t think of Ruby. As Sitara ventured down to the kitchen on the steep and narrow staircase, she heard the guide telling the small crowd of visitors how the arrangements in the kitchen were changed periodically every semester, so that visitors had something new to see every time they came there. It was beyond silly to think that papers left behind 20 years ago would somehow survive in a small corner of the little house, so sacred to the Romantics. The lovely gardens reflected Keats’s Ode to Melancholy, which suited Sitara’s mood quite well.

 

Sitara felt a bit self-conscious, as she got the inspiration to dash off a poem about people passing away too early due to illness, before they’d been able to fulfil their life’s potential. She wasn’t quite sure if she was writing about Keats, or about Ruby, but let the words tumble pell-mell onto the pages of a tiny note-book that she’d bought at the Museum shop. A man wearing a big hat, was playing a beautifully sad tune on his guitar under the very same tree where supposedly Keats had first written Ode to a Nightingale. But she couldn’t really enjoy his music due to some irritating wasps who appeared to have developed a sudden fondness for her perfume.

 

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising, but Ruby’s friends and family were amazed at how well her poetry books were doing. Her slant rhymes and internal rhymes only added to the layers with which her short poems were imbued. Now that Ruby’s poetry books were becoming known internationally, quite a few publishers had contacted the family to know if they had any more of Ruby’s manuscripts. Hence the hunt for the missing pages, lost in London about 20 years ago. Would Ruby have ever come to read from her books at Keats’s House if she’d lived to see the success of her books? Since nothing could numb the pain of losing Ruby, Sitara abandon her plans off walking in Hampstead Heath, and helped by the sudden downpour of rain, fled to the capacious British Museum.

 

***

 

The waiter stared at her curiously. Then he gave her a smile of recognition. And nodded his head. Apparently very few people had intolerances to cumin, and asked for their dishes to be prepared without it. Even if Sitara came to The Kanya Kumari, the South Indian restaurant, after about a year or so, somehow they recognised her because of her unusual request to have onion dosa3 without cumin. Sitara could never resist popping in there to have a dosa whenever she came to the British Museum. The free talks were as fascinating as always, though the elderly guide had been disinclined to answer questions by non-Europeans. It was all done very smoothly. The racism was very subtle, but it was there, if one was non-European. People from Eastern Europe had fared slightly better than Asians. At least the younger guides hadn’t displayed this sort of under the radar racism.

 

Though Sitara knew Ruby had had her photo taken in front of the impressive façade of the British Museum, soon Sitara became lost in the Greco-Roman wings, the Egyptian, and Assyrian sculptures, and even tried to squeeze in the Indian section in the remaining time. Of course, no faded hand-written sheaves were to be seen anywhere. The photos on Wattsapp didn’t yield up any more clues either. Weighed down by even more books hastily bought at the British Museum shops, Sitara was one of the last people to be ushered out of there by the patient guards.

 

***

 

‘Oh, sorry, I forgot. Ruby also went to visit our cousins in Wembley. I think their son is called Arif. You know, the guy you asked me to check out. They might know something as well. Couldn’t you possibly go there and check there too?’ It had been typical of Yasmine to send this message at 4:14 am. Luckily, Sitara had muted Yasmine on Wattsapp, so she hadn’t been woken by it. For once, Yasmine had sent her the correct address.

 

It was a long ride to Flavours of India in Wembley. To Sitara’s surprise, an Indian restaurant still existed at the same address. Was this restaurant still run by Dara’s cousin, Arif? At least that’s where Yasmine had told her to go in her haphazard message about Ruby’s London trip more than twenty years ago. The familiar aromas took her home instantly.

 

It was a pity Ruby’s other cousins who had taken her around London had had to go back to Pakistan in a hurry because of a family emergency. Otherwise they might have helped to find the precious pages.

 

As Sitara divulged her story to smiley Arif Junior, his manner changed instantly. Arif Junior insisted on taking Sitara upstairs to meet his parents, where he brought up tea and pakoras for her. The floral wall-paper and pink and green décor may have been a bit outdated, but was soothing for Sitara’s nerves. Polite and pleasant, Arif’s mum started crying, remembering Ruby. What a sad end! She’d passed away so young. After a simple, but delicious lunch, Sitara broached the sensitive subject of lost papers. But they didn’t know anything about them.

 

But then Arif Junior, who’d disappeared for half an hour, came back with a bunch of papers. Apparently, Ruby had drawn little stories for the kids, which she’d been wont to do back in India as well, as Sitara remembered fondly.

 

What was that? A faint bell started ringing in Sitara’s memory. The rainbow pouring out of the unicorn’s horn, which sort of protected the house with the decorative door, and the match-stick figures standing in blooming garden. Sitara couldn’t help crying. They were Ruby’s drawings all right. She was surprised and grateful that Arif Junior had conserved them for so long.

 

Luckily, Arif Junior suggested she take their photos. Some of them were recto verso, with the illustrations, and words on either side. As Sitara turned over the unicorn drawing, she saw it had been done on the back-side of a receipt. Windhaven Souvenirs. Apparently Ruby had bought goods worth 27.98 pounds there. Sitara wondered what they’d been. Ruby had mainly brought back loads of books from London for kids and colleagues alike, before the advent of the Internet. Sitara soon forwarded her pics to Yasmine. Arif Junior’s parents politely asked Sitara if she wanted to stay with them.

 

Even though that would have been easy for her purse, somehow, Sitara didn’t want her freedom to be curbed in their cramped apartment. She couldn’t possibly stay up late, typing away, for she did most of her writing till late at night. Also, she didn’t want to get up early, just to be polite. Then she’d be expected to help with small household tasks, and she was here for two work-related projects, not to mention the one Yasmine had landed her with. And of course, she wouldn’t be able to browse in second-hand book-shops till closing time because she’d have to get to their place by eight at the latest, if she was to stay in their good books. Besides, they’d never really understand why she was visiting London. Was writing articles a real job?

 

Thanking them just as politely, Sitara mumbled something about how it would be easier for her work if she stayed near the centre. Luckily, they didn’t insist, but couldn’t provide any further clues as to Ruby’s trajectory in London either, as she’d gone on a whirlwind tour of literary London with other cousins, who’d gone back to Pakistan, and lived there now.

 

***

 

At Sitara’s request, Yasmine sent a list of places Ruby had mentioned in her letters. But most of them were useless, as nothing could have stayed hidden in museums. When Sitara asked Yasmine for more specific details, she started sending transcriptions of Ruby’s letters.

 

In between her photo shoot of Quaint London for an Indian magazine, the real reason for her trip, Sitara tried to work on this mystery.

 

While one part of Sitara was delighted to be exploring the area around Cleopatra’s Needle, before sunset, she knew that it was hopeless. She’d never find any lost pages of poems after 20 years in that open area. She tried to get her photo taken in the very same spot that Ruby had had hers taken two nearly two decades ago. And looked in the crevices between the slats of the highly stylized benches. The sleuth in Sitara had to resist the urge to see if anything had been taped under the benches. Any stardust left in Ruby’s wake in that spot had been absorbed by the millions of tourists who’d worn the dark stone steps thin since then.

 

Munching on her slice of tuna and onion pizza at the Old Punter docked near Cleopatra’s Needle, Sitara saw an ad float past, painted on the side of a tourist boat. ‘We’ll check all your lists. Try Us! Stainley Realtors.’

 

A list! That’s what she should have done. So, sipping her pine-apple juice, Sitara started making a list of all the shops/restaurants Ruby had mentioned in her letters: Restaurant Kinara, Puppet House Shop, Milano Fine Quills and Pens, Herbie’s Deli, 5-7 bookshops, Windhaven Souvenirs, Millie’s Accessories, Stationary Stationery, etc.

 

Sitara gave a little start. Didn’t she have proof that Ruby had visited Windhaven Souvenirs in the form of that receipt too?

***

 

The next day, after visiting the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery, Sitara rushed to China Town to locate Windhaven Souvenirs. The address was real all right, but that shop had long been replaced by a Korean take-away. Disappointed, Sitara found herself sitting on a bench in Leicester Square, sipping orange juice. A couple of boisterous teenage boys were fooling around. Sitara tried to concentrate on her list, but their voice kept disrupting her thoughts. Apparently, the tallish, thin American one with the long dark blond curls had missed his flight to Macedonia. Sitara couldn’t help thinking that Ruby had missed her flight for life. His stocky British friend with close-cropped dark hair was trying to persuade him to stay longer in London. If only Ruby and Yasmine were here with Sitara now! They’d be fooling around like these teenagers.

 

There was a garbled conversation about sponsors of the gangly American kid’s trip getting angry over the delay, and how the English kid’s mum would sort them out and his tickets as well. But the American kid was adamant about exploring some sort of caves, his blue eyes shining with anticipation. His English friend was teasing him about his fear of creepy-crawlies he’d meet in the caves, his brown eyes alight with mischief. But the American kid would have to be at least as brave as Hectorius. Sitara couldn’t help smiling when the words lost Trojan treasures floated between them. Were the sponsors of the American kid as madcap as he was? Unless he was into gaming. Because of a gangly cousin in his late teens, she knew some gamers went all over the world competing in championships. Presumably, some contests were for kids in their mid-teens as well.

 

Suddenly, her ears pricked up when she heard Herbie’s Deli. That’s where the two teens were headed to. She hadn’t realized it was so nearby. She was following them before she knew it. Ruby had written that the mini samosas at Herbie’s Deli were as good as the ones at the famous Bolta Tota Café1 in their hometown. Sitara’s tummy rumbled. Great memories of having snacks at that famous Café with Ruby, Yasmine, and other friends came rushing back.

 

***

 

‘Tell your masters I’ll come there only when I want to! And stop following me!’ the skinny American kid turned, and shouted at the startled Sitara. Before she could respond, they’d loped away. Why did the American kid think someone, perhaps his sponsors had sent her to spy on him? She wasn’t exactly a stalker, so she was puzzled as to why they’d run away from her. Better stay away from any hyper-active kids with an over-the-top imagination. She dodged into a nearby second-hand book-shop.

 

Seeing that art-books were downstairs, she tripped down the steep stairs. There were mainly picture books for kids. But tantalizingly older books on architecture lined the staircase going down. Sitara went gingerly down the creaking wooden staircase, with its shabby, faded red carpet to the lower floor. The musky smell of humidity and books got stronger as she crept down, clutching the shaky wooden handrail. Soon she spotted the photography books at the back. A door was ajar, with even more colourful books stacked inside. She peered in. No one was about. Was that a portrait of Julia Margaret Cameron on the cover of that hardcover book? As Sitara reached out for it, she caught sight of another interesting book. And another.

 

Her arms filled with them, she made her way upstairs on another set of spiralling metallic staircase, no less quaint than the one she’d come down on. Was this shop somehow related to Dickens’s Old Curiosity Shop? Even the customers were in costume. Sitara quickly snapped some shots. Wait a minute! Was this a movie set? She put her hoard down on top of another pile of books on a low cabinet against the yellowed wall with peeling wall-paper. A young man wearing a long, brown, old-fashioned coat with a top hat was nervously perusing some books in a box labelled: Book-bins. This lot. 4d. They were incredibly cheap!

 

Sitara saw at once, he wanted to speak to the girl with the flawless complexion, but he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Was she the lead actress, and he just an extra? Sitara couldn’t remember what her name was, but the costume designer could easily win an award for the elegant lines of her grey gown, made of very fine velvet. Were her eyes grey, or blue? The young man seemed to be studying her cuffs made of delicate cream lace intently, as he kept his dark expressive eyes averted from the beautiful, yet serious young actress with the shiny, smooth dark hair demurely braided, and half-hidden under her large hat. Sitara didn’t want to be rude, so she avoided staring at the actress. But the tall star made a gesture, motioning Sitara to cover her head, which she did with her dark green scarf, tucking her hair inside her long green coat.

 

As Sitara reached out to take some very old editions of John Clare’s and Keats’s poems, the stately actress signalled her to go behind another shelf. A tall, slightly bent older man came bustling down the aisle, carrying sheaves of papers, checking a list. The girl gestured to Sitara to look at the floor. Sitara picked up a fallen envelope. She’d give it back just before she was thrown off the film set, as she didn’t want to draw any attention to herself. What if she had to describe a film set, or the film-making process in one of her stories? This was a golden opportunity for her to study it first-hand, without appearing to do so.

 

Peering out from behind the nearly boarded up windows, Sitara marvelled at how they’d transformed the street outside. Strange that it was drizzling now, when it had been so sunny that day. Horse carriages. Real waste on the street. Great costume design. The extras were busy rehearsing, walking along hurriedly, selling chestnuts, newspapers, flowers, or raking up muck from the filthy street. But the cameras were well hidden. Suddenly the main door burst open. The delicate flowery perfume of the actress did a lot to off-set the smell of the horse manure coming from the street, and the book-shop’s dank, musty odour.

 

A short, broad-shouldered, bow-legged man with longish, unruly red hair burst in, carrying two big boxes of books. He almost slammed into Sitara, who had to step aside quickly. Glaring, he looked down, and spotted her black trousers under her long, dark green coat.

 

‘Off you go! Down, down, down! Down those stairs! Don’t know where you lot come from! It must’ve been that new lad who left the door open! Yet again! Will give ’im a hiding, I shall!’ and putting the boxes down with a thud, he shooed Sitara down the stairs. Shepherding her out of the door she’d come through, he banged it shut behind her. Sitara was astounded at his rudeness. He’d given her no time to explain anything.

 

***

 

Oh no! The envelope! As Sitara exited the first book-shop, she noticed the clear skies. Strange! Had the film crew created the soft rain? It must have been a big budget film. As she wandered in the adjacent lane, she noticed that the entrance to another lane had been blocked. Perhaps the film set was behind the temporary wall. However, when Sitara walked to the other side where the exit to the walled up lane should have been, there was just a row of narrow houses, sporting all kinds of small businesses on the ground floor. Sitara was too tired to go round the entire block yet again, as she’d have loved to watch the shooting of the film. If she’d have been allowed to, that is. Brits rarely realized that their country and culture was ‘exotic’ for Asians.

 

Too bad she couldn’t find the film set outside in the maze of little streets around the book-shop. St. Martin’s Lane was a sort of paradise for anyone interested in second-hand books, but the area around it could be confusing for tourists.

 

 

***

 

Looking for a place to stow away the envelope (picked up in the old book-shop), safely in her over-crowded handbag, she saw it wasn’t sealed. Curious, she pulled out a thick, sheet of paper which had been cream-coloured at one time. Written in calligraphy, in faded dark blue ink, flecked by gold, she read the following invitation: ‘Mister Blake begs the pleasure of the compagnie of all goode gentle-folke at Fountain Court off the Strand on the 2nd day of July, 1826 for an Exhibition and Reading of his Poemes, The Angel’s Delight etc.’ On the reverse side was the poem in question, with the faded gold lettering still intact. Sitara wondered how she could give it back, when she couldn’t find the film set, nor remember the name of that actress.

 

***

 

Feeling like she’d barely slept, Sitara forced herself to get up, to be able slide into the breakfast room just before 10am. She hadn’t been able to resist watching Kevin Costner’s Dragonfly late last night. Then, she’d had a restless night, full of strange dreams where she was chasing dragonflies who turned into fireflies, who somehow became angels and flew away, just out of her reach. Did one of them have Ruby’s face?

 

Hurrying to the Leicester Square tube station, Sitara suddenly stopped dead in the middle of the lane, with angry tourists bumping into her. She squinted hard. Was that Fountain Court Books squashed between two other second-hand book-shops? What a strange coincidence! Sure enough, Blake’s books abounded. Bargain books in the basement. Would this basement lead to the film set too? No such luck. Shuddering at the giant spider hanging from the ceiling, she avoided touching its dangly legs, as she moved along sideways. Photography books were upstairs. Though tired, she climbed the creaky stairs up three floors. Lots of red tape warned customers not to approach the shelves, but to ask for assistance to take the books. What nonsense! A poster of Blake’s Ghost of a Flea made her shudder. As she scanned the shelves, a bright green parrot caught her eye. It couldn’t be! A jute bag with the words Bolta Tota and a parrot in faded green were still visible on it. As Sitara made to jump over the red tape, a bristling young salesman appeared.

 

‘Stay where you are Ma’am! You’re not allowed to cross the tape here!’ he almost pulled her away.

 

‘Why not?’

 

‘You might accidently step on a stag beetle, or a two-spot ladybird, or a lobster moth for starters!’

 

‘What? Is this an insectarium or something? I absolutely need to get that jute bag in the upper left hand corner of the blue shelf.’

 

‘Why?’

 

‘Because it belonged to my mentor. That’s why!’

 

‘Huh? But it’s been there for ages, for as long as I can remember it. How do you know it’s your mentor’s bag?’

 

‘Look, I know the address of the Bolta Tota Café, and even what’s inside that bag! So step aside while I get it!’

 

‘Impossible! There’a a family of Zygiella x-notata, spiders living in there, and behind it is a nest of Rosemary Beetles, while in the corner you have a cluster of Elephant Hawk Moths. I can’t possibly disturb all of them on a whim!’ he sounded very indignant.

 

***

 

It took Sitara more than half an hour to explain why it was necessary for her to get the Bolta Tota jute bag. Finally, she had to threaten to call pest control before Jeff, who turned out to be the owner of the shop, agreed to her demand. Then it took him another half an hour to slowly remove the creepy-crawlies from the bag without killing them. Shuddering, she asked him to empty its contents on a table. Jeff complied happily enough.

 

Inside the bag were two books for kids, three books on literary theory, biographies of Keats and George Elliott, and most importantly, a slim, lined note-book. Sitara recognized Ruby’s elegant, and legible handwriting at once.

 

Finally, there were the last twenty-two handwritten pages of Ruby’s long poem, The Lotus Women of Shalimar Bagh. Through her tears, Sitara quickly checked that the word ‘Lotus’ appeared on almost every page. Jeff couldn’t understand why Sitara was sobbing uncontrollably, hugging the dusty old bag, as if it were her sister. It was as if a piece of herself had been restored to her, even though it was Ruby’s story. Yet now, it belonged to them all.

 

Looking a bit ashamed, Jeff brought her a glass of water. He even called her a taxi, as Sitara was in no state to take the tube to her hotel. Sitara decided not to tell Yasmine by phone, in case she’d have a nervous break-down. Better give it to her in person. The Lotus Women of Shalimar Bagh would get their tale told at last.

 

***

Epilogue

 

After she had slept a little, Sitara tried to look up the actress who’d tried to help her on that film set, but the more she tried to remember, the more quickly her face started to fade away.

And that young actor who’d been standing close by, blushing with embarrassment. He’d seemed to be familiar too, but, it proved to be difficult to find him on the Internet.

 

(As Sitara was hurrying past Tate Britain, her steps slowed down, and she did a double-take. Graceful, Stately, Unattainable. It was a new exhibition by the Pre-Raphaelites about the numerous beautiful women they’d painted. Etched on a small icon, staring back at Sitara, was the face of that young man in the book-shop. He was supposed to be one of the artists. Was it really him? She checked her photos of the Old Curiosity Shop, but they were too blurred to make anything out clearly. Sitara was too much in a rush on her last day in London to go inside to view the exhibition. But she resolved to find out if any of these painters had descendants who’d become actors. Of course, perhaps they hadn’t kept the same name. Or if they were making a film on these artists, and had found an actor who resembled this one very closely.

 

However, try as she might, she couldn’t find any info about the actor who resembled the artist  on the Internet. She hadn’t dreamt the whole thing, had she? She fumbled about in her hand-bag to fish out Blake’s invitation card. But didn’t find it anywhere. Sitara couldn’t believe how careless she’d been. Could it have fetched a good price as an authentic document at an auction? Not that Sitara would have ever parted with it. But now, it seemed to have vanished into thin air, of its own accord).

 

The End

 

Extra Notes:

-Bolta Tota Café1 = means ‘Speaking Parrot Café’ in Hindi

- Shalimar Bagh2 = The lovely Shalimar Bagh in Srinagar, Kashmir has ponds, waterways, and fountains, and is near the famous Dal Lake and Nishat Bagh. It was built by Empress Noor Jahan.

-dosa3 = a South Indian dish.

Of Indian origin, Sultana Raza’s poems have appeared in numerous journals, including Columbia Journal, The New Verse News, London Grip, Classical Poetry Society, Spillwords, Poetry24, Dissident Voice, and The Peacock Journal. Her fiction has received an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train Review, and has been published in Coldnoon Journal, Szirine, Apertura, Entropy, and Ensemble (in French). She has read her fiction/poems in India, Switzerland, France, Luxembourg, England, Ireland, the US, and at CoNZealand.