Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

S H O R T   S T O R Y
b y   a n j a n a   b a s u   ~   c a l c u t t a ,   i n d i a

THE AGENCY was in a quandary that April morning -- not an unusual thing by any means. Summer disguised as spring was exploding all around the building in outbursts of koels and prickly heat.

A flight of flies hovered protectively around an oozing tube on the table. From time to time one was swatted and flicked into an ashtray. No client was present on this impressive occasion, a factor which made it possible for the agency to let its hair down and await ideas.

"What on earth have they made?" the Chairman exploded irritably. "The only thing it attracts is flies."

"It's supposed to drench you with irresistible magnetism," the Copy Chief retorted. "At least, that's what the copy I tried to write says."

"Yes, and what is the layout going to show? The hero with a halo of flies around his head?"

"I haven't given you the good news yet," the Account Supervisor interjected. "They want Suleiman Khan to model for it."

Even the flies dropped when they heard that. The tube on the table quietly oozed its contents back inside.

All the eyes around the table met and skewered.

Suleiman Khan was the last of the great lady-killers. Women who hadn't met him claimed he oozed charm from every pore. Women who had, never spoke again.

His origins were enwrapped in mystery. In a much-publicized interview, Suleiman's father had confessed that he had discovered his son in the depths of an ancient carpet in Baluchistan. Since he was a poor Ruler without an heir, he had adopted the baby and Suleiman had grown up with a gold charm around his neck.

His fatal charm had first manifested itself at five months, when his nurse was discovered dead at the foot of his cot. She had the look of one subjected to an intense revelation, familiar to watchers of the X Files. No one connected it with the baby happily sucking his toes until the next maidservant was found dead, this time sprawled across the baby, with the same look of stifled ecstasy on her face. And the one after her, who expired changing Suleiman's diaper.

The Ruler's wife, the Begum, who had never felt anything resembling love for a carpet-found child, decided that something had to be done about the matter. She sent for six faith healers from Baluchistan and ordered them to ritually exorcise the baby. The faith healers pronounced their spells over several bottles of water, which were then force fed to Suleiman. The only tangible result was that the number of diapers washed increased for the next couple of weeks and two other maids died.

The Begum went to her husband and begged him to do something about his unnatural son. The Ruler's observation was that it was a pity that more men did not share Suleiman's natural ability, but he realized that his Begum would be in distressing domestic circumstances if all the maids in the neighbouring village dropped dead, He was also aware that, remote as the possibility might be, if his Begum changed Suleiman's nappies, she too might die.

His solution was simple in its brilliance -- he suggested that all the women attending on Suleiman wear a veil. Thus hidden from the baby's seductive gaze there was a chance that the female population of the area might be saved.

Whether Suleiman was confused to find a line of black veils parading before his eyes is not recorded, but it was recorded that no more of his nurses died as a result of his fatal charm. He grew up to believe that all women wore veils in his house. He knew the women outside his house did not because he could see them walking down the river through the latticed marble screens.

In his autobiography he wrote, "I became fascinated by the duplicity of women at a very early age. I could not understand why they veiled their true selves from me. The Begum my mother would never explain the matter and the contrasts between the black shrouds that I saw and the sweat streaked bodies that carried water from the river was obscene."

When his father told him about the birds and the bees one afternoon over a friendly game of cricket, Suleiman began to understand that there might be new dimensions to women's deceit. He had no recollections of his dead nurses and when his father unguardedly asked him what it was he had done to them, he was revolted.

"They said it was sex," Suleiman wrote. "I won't argue that babies are born with a sense of sex, but what it was about me at five months I do not know or remember."

In the hope that his life might be more normal outside the veiled confines of the palace, the Ruler sent his carpet child away to Eton. There on the playing fields Suleiman discovered cricket. In the classrooms he also learned about Lord Byron and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, but whatever it was that he learned, he kept to himself. Some of it spilled out in his autobiography, of course.

"I discovered that I was faster and deadlier than all known fatalities except perhaps AIDS and those mythical women of Indian literature who killed with their kisses. I had not kissed, but I had definitely killed." After one cricket match, five debutantes were found dead on the playing fields, smiling inanely and fixedly to the last.

The newspapers speculated on an epidemic: the average was five debutantes per cricket match, with a few stray parking meter girls and barmaids. Suleiman secretly scratched a tally on the back of the gold medallion that he wore -- in the end there was a hole in the medallion.

The Ruler heard the news of the deaths on the BBC, along with his son's cricketing prowess. He realised that the spell was still active.

"This is what comes," his Begum told him angrily, "of picking sons out of carpets."

"You will not marry, my son," the Ruler wrote when Suleiman packed his cricket bags for Oxford. "Unless you choose a girl willing to stay veiled for the rest of her life."

The problem was aggravated by the fact that Suleiman was over six foot four inches tall, acquiline and intelligent, with a smile that curved like a scimitar. The women were over him like a rash. He discovered, by a process of trial and error that it was only the ones he was inclined towards that died.

"I discovered cynicism was the best refuge for the romantic. Women were visions in bubbles -- they burst in my arms. The ones I was forced to love any other man would have been glad to hate. The Barbara Cartland Society nominated me for The Most Mocking Hero of the Decade. They placed my photograph on a red velvet cushion in a glass case. Women wore the glass away with their lips. A few tried to wear my skin away. They survived and I toasted their survival with champagne out of their slippers. One died after that from sheer excitement."

For a time it was contemplated that he be signed on for the James Bond films but Saltzman and Broccoli calculated that the cost of replacing and burying leading ladies might exceed the cost of the film. Suleiman was introduced on TV as The Man Who Has Bowled More Maidens Than Overs. His matches at Lords were thronged with journalists, policemen, ambulances and debutantes. One woman streaked across the field and kissed him in mid-over. She died instantly.

Suleiman, when pressed for a comment, said curtly, "She was a good kisser."

When he came to India, he was abused in the press.

"Perhaps we should send our women to Kashmir," one journalist observed at a dinner given for Suleiman.

"I don't want your women," Suleiman retorted. "You think I go in for necrophilia?

It was then that the Agency heard of him or, rather, heard of him on a personal footing. Joy Joy Ray, their top model, lost her fickle heart to him.

"This is a disaster!" the Chairman exclaimed when the Copy Chief came to tell him the news. "They mustn't be allowed to meet."

"He might not fall for her," the Copy Chief suggested tentatively.

"Would you like to bet?" the Chairman asked. "I don't want you to let her out of your sight for an instant."

For the Copy Chief it was a greater ordeal than might be imagined, for Joy Joy had made several attempts to seduce him. The attempts went beyond what might be described as tentative. He took Joy Joy to the beach, to the river, chased her around a few trees to keep her happy and tried desperately to tantalise while remaining essentially hard to get. Joy Joy sulked, ran around the trees with a few obligatory shrieks and wrote love letters with her long nails on banyan leaves.

"But you mustn't think that I'm writing these letters to you," she told the Copy Chief threateningly. "These are all for Suleiman." As long as the letters were on leaves, they couldn't be posted. The Copy Chief carefully collected the leaves after Joy Joy had finished with them and dropped them into the river.

Joy Joy thought he was jealous -- he encouraged the notion. But somehow or other a picture of Joy Joy thrust itself on Suleiman's eyes. The brown velvet cushioned eyes enticed him to lie down. The hair ran wild over the cricket pitches of his mind.

"I came here to play cricket," he told his manager, shoving the picture aside. The day he scored a century, the Copy Chief gave up the task of babysitting Joy Joy and fell asleep. Joy Joy insinuated herself into a chiffon sari and into Eden Gardens.

"I saw her from a distance," Suleiman wrote. "She was not more beautiful than any woman I had ever seen, but she was more of a vision than the rest of the bubbles. Did I hate her? At that moment I wanted to save her life."

Between innings, Suleiman did not go to the pavilion. Instead, he disappeared into the Gents' loo. "True love finds many malodorous haunts," he reported. "It was one of the last refuges of the romantic." When he emerged, he curtly ordered his manager to have Joy Joy removed from the grounds.

"She's going to put me off my game. If you want me to win this inning, get rid of her."

The manager was nothing if not prompt. Joy Joy was unceremoniously dumped into a gunny bag to the clicking of photographs and escorted out of the grounds.

"Would you like to say anything " a gossip columnist asked Joy Joy as she emerged squealing from the bag.

"Yes!" Joy Joy screamed. "I would like to say that Suleiman and I are just good enemies."

For a week journalists camped outside Suleiman's hotel hoping to catch him and discover the truth of the episode. "This Hindu-Muslim business," was Suleiman's reply, "is a riot."

"I realised at this point," he recorded in his autobiography, "that my father was right. I had to marry a girl forever enshrouded in a veil or a girl I could never love. I flew home and after my mother had sacrificed a black cock in a chalk circle in one of her unfailing attempts to exorcise me, we called a family council. So I married the marble statue that stood outside in the courtyard. She was as tall as I was and time had removed her Grecian nose, but I kissed her and she did not change."

England had spoiled Suleiman for veils forever.

The news of the marriage, though not of the bride, appeared in tabloids all over the world. Joy Joy read it, went black in the face and attempted to swallow her earrings. It was fortunate that they were plastic buttons the size of pinheads.

"If the client," said the Chairman in the Conference Room addressing the still circle of flies over the tube that had contracted from sheer fright, "insists of Suleiman, we will tell him..."

"We can't put Joy Joy through that again," the Copy Chief interrupted. "Besides which, his marriage hasn't defused him. I read that the Greek oil millionaire's wife died after waving at him."

"Besides, Joy Joy wants to kill him," the Account Supervisor pointed out. "She's put out a contract on him. Dumb brunettes sting worse than dead bees."

"If the client insists, we'll sell him the concept of Suleiman with a rubber dummy that looks like Joy Joy," the Chairman intoned with great patience, born of a hundred conflicts in the Boardroom. "And you will write copy about a kiss that can move a mannequin."

"You mean a fragrance that can move a mannequin!" the Copy Chief exclaimed.

"Or the smell of life! You've got it! That's the biggest of big ideas ever! And the flies slowly buzzed applause around the tube, which once again began to ooze.

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