Note: The following short story, my very first, was originally submitted (unsuccessfully) to a Times of India story competition in February 2020…
The view from the window of my second-floor apartment was cheerful. The sun was about to set. The streets, drenched by rain earlier in the day, were now returning to life and glistened like a beautiful woman climbing out of a pool on a sunny afternoon. The fragrance of petrichor still lingered in the air. A few childhood friends and I were celebrating our accidental reunion, and I was very excited about the evening. It has been a long time–twenty years, in fact–since we were all in one place together. We had all grown up right here in the city in the 70s and 80s–we were living in Andheri at the time. Went to the same high school but ended up going to different universities and settling down in different parts of the world. Only Ali and I remained in Mumbai.
I couldn’t have asked for a better evening. We reminisced, over a bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich that Feroze had brought, about old times, parents and siblings, teachers we used to love and hate, old girlfriends, favourite movies and songs, bulging waists and receding hairlines–all the things that come up when best friends meet after a long time. The dinner, delivered by a nearby Afghani dhaba, was a success. After dinner, we settled down in my living room, sipping Rémy Martin–Feroze had this great idea of adding ice cubes to it–which was fantastic. He knew his liquor. A couple of us sat down on the floor on throw pillows and the others reclined on sofas. My laptop in the next room was gently playing some old favourites on Saavn.
At one point—as we were discussing our marriages and divorces–Ali suddenly said, “That could be a good segue for this…can I tell you all a story, a real one? It involves one of my new patients.” Ali is a well-respected surgeon in the city, recognized for his bedside manner and surgical skills.
Curious, we all agreed.
Ali took a deep breath and began, “I met Murthuza about three weeks ago in my clinic. He had been suffering from stomach pain for some time. Other than that one issue, he seemed to be in good health otherwise…I suspected appendicitis and told him to admit himself in one of my consulting hospitals.
“Then I told him how the likely surgery could affect his day-to-day activities, as it was the obvious option. He said he was a free-lance writer and worked from his house in Bandra, that too only when he wanted. It was a great scenario for recovery after an appendectomy.
“I operated on him a few days later and the surgery was quite routine. The day after the surgery, I went to check on him as part of my rounds. I found him dozing when I entered the room, so I sat down and waited for him to wake up—he was my last visit for the day. All was quiet. His breathing was soft and regular, and there were no signs of discomfort. As I was feeling glad he was able to rest, he suddenly spoke up. He must have sensed my presence, as his eyes were still closed.”
Ali went on, “Concerned, I was about to ask him if he felt any pain when he interrupted me and said he was feeling fine and thanked me for coming by. Then, after a brief pause, he asked me if he could ask me for a personal favour.
“When I said yes, he said he had been thinking about participating in a writing competition, which involved a short paragraph of text sent by the organizers, a prompt if you will. The catch was that the passage had to be used in the story as-is, with no alteration.”
“Murthuza then went on to tell me he had no idea what to make of the passage and wanted my thoughts on it. His passage went like this–wait, I jotted it down when we were talking…”
Ali then reached into his briefcase leaning against the wall on the floor next to him, fished out a piece of paper from it, and started to read. He had a calm, reassuring voice, like a doctor’s ought to be.
“In the eighteenth century, a genie gave a certain Sultan a magic ring which, when rubbed, would force a woman’s private parts to speak, and confess all their indiscretions. In the end, the Sultan’s misuse of the ring led the genie to take it back. Two hundred years later, in Mumbai – just the other day, in fact – the same genie gave the ring to a good woman named xxxx, and told her that it worked just as well on men.”
Ali stopped and looked up.
I had never heard a stranger story in my life before and was dumbfounded. From their expressions, I saw that the others were too.
After a few seconds, we all blurted out almost simultaneously, “What did you tell him?”
Ali smiled, “What could I say? I was just as stunned as you all seem to be. I told him I will think about it and let him know. I am not quite sure what to tell him… it is one of the strangest plots I have ever read. Any ideas?”
The room fell silent as we contemplated. Ranjan got up, walked to the bar, and, as he refreshed his drink, said, “I think your Murthuza could make it a funny story. First, he should make the woman’s character a lesbian. She could then use the ring to embarrass the men in her life. I think that would be hilarious.” Lesbians and lesbian porn always fascinated Ranjan.
Basu nodded, “That might work!”
My mind was swirling with a myriad thoughts. Being a lawyer, my first thought was to make the woman a prosecutor. She could use the ring to get confessions from the accused in rape trials…but like truth serum, that would legally non-binding…I also couldn’t figure out how to twist the storyline to make the passage appear unaltered in any modern story related prosecutors and rapists…I quickly dismissed thought and said nothing as nothing else came to mind.
Feroze was mum too.
Ali pondered for a few seconds and said, “Actually, Ranjan, what you suggested is very close to what the genie, his name was Cucufa, warned the Sultan to watch out for in the original book from which the plot originated. You see, after I left the hospital that day, I was so curious that I went to the library and borrowed a copy. The book is titled ‘Les Bijoux Indiscrets’ or ‘The Indiscreet Jewels.’ It was written by a French writer named Diderot in the early 1700s. The book was meant to be a criticism of the day’s French society.” He then added, “And, by the way, the word ‘jewels’ in the book’s title, refers to a person’s private parts.”
We all listened intently, as he continued, “In the book, after explaining to Sultan Mangogul how to use the ring, the genie warns him, ‘…Faites un bon usage de votre secret, et songez qu’il est descuriosités mal placées,’ meaning ‘Make a good use of your secret, and remember that there are ill-placed curiosities.’” Ali was always good at languages.
Ali continued to address Ranjan, “Of course, as it turns out, the Sultan being the Sultan, can’t help himself and does something stupid toward the end and is forced to part with the ring. And you are suggesting that the woman in Murthuza’s story should give in to the same kind of ‘ill-placed curiosities.’ If she did, she might have fun for a while, but she will lose the ring, that is, if Murthuza sticks to the spirit of the passage.”
Basu sniggered. Ali loved puns.
Ali added, “As you can imagine, magical gifts always come with catches.”
Ranjan seemed to disagree, “Right, rings within rings and all that, but seriously, why should it matter if she loses it in the end? The story might still be fun to read, no? After all, you just read the original book that was published three hundred years ago, even though the Sultan lost the ring in it?”
Ali was silent as he toyed with his glass.
Ranjan continued, “As for the possibilities I mentioned earlier, let’s say, for instance, that the lesbian woman’s target is on his way to work one day. And there is this pretty young thing sitting in the seat across from him on the bus and the ring goes to work…Just imagine what his jewels might think and say? I know what mine might…maybe they will start singing out loudly to the tune of that old song from Padosan we just heard, where Kishore Kumar sings for Sunil Dutt from behind the curtain? You know that khidki-wali song–I think that whole scenario would be very funny.”
Basu quickly nodded in agreement and added, “She could also embarrass guys at New Year’s parties in front of families and friends—”
Ouch, I winced at that.
“I know, I know, I too can think of hundreds of situations like that,” Ali said interrupting Basu, “but to what end? What follows the embarrassments? Broken marriages and divorces? Your lesbian woman in the story gains nothing from all that. I think Murthuza’s story would be a dead end…”
With that the room fell silent again. Divorce is a raw subject for most of us in the room. Only Feroze was still married. As the lull continued, my own thoughts raced back to the pain and turbulence of my own divorce. Some of the trauma still lingered.
After a few minutes, Ali resumed, “The purpose of Murthuza’s competition, prima facie, may be to explore women’s reactions when they find out all about their men, but,” he added, “the real purpose may be deeper. Like Diderot was critiquing the French society, the organizers of the competition may be aiming to expose the sexual hypocrisy in our male-dominated society by empowering a woman.”
Basu interjected, “Do we know for sure that Diderot was critiquing his society?”
Ali said, “You are right, we can’t readily know that, but several literary reviews that I found on the net seemed to think so.”
“Be that as it may,” Ali continued after a short pause, “I am willing to bet a thousand to one that in real life, women’s reactions would be shock and disgust when they find out their men’s inner thoughts and where they are coming from.”
There he goes again…
Ali continued, “As for the competition, l think that the judges have an uphill task waiting for them when they see the entries. I would give anything to see how women writers will interpret the passage and use it…”
“Care to elaborate on that?” I asked.
He continued, “What I mean to say is that men’s secrets and by extension their confessions are not going to be terribly complicated. Most of the time, they are all about conquests and the constant search for ways to relieve the relentless pressure building in their bodies. It is all purely physical and nothing to do with love. In other words, men can make love without loving.”
Feroze, who had been quiet until now, suddenly chimed in, “I am not so sure, Ali, that that simple-mindedness is the sole province of men or their jewels. You read the book, what did the women’s jewels reveal? Did you think those revelations were always lofty and never just physical?” He added, “Come to think of it, how can we be sure that their jewels were honest in the first place?”
Feroze was always the inquisitive sort. No wonder he is in academia…he is a professor of engineering at some university in the States, I never can remember which one.
We all looked at Ali.
He gazed at Feroze for a few seconds before he spoke, “Good question! I thought about it too… Let me see, in the book, the Sultan used the ring about thirty times, sometimes on a single target and sometimes on a group.
“The confessions, or even harangues sometimes, made by their jewels varied a lot in terms of the number and type of men their owners had slept with or wished to… from kings all the way down to serfs. The coital experiences ran the gamut from pure ecstasy to absolute disgust. Some of the accounts were quite quite explicit, even pornographic. I can tell you one thing though–very few of the jewels were monogamous. Their society must have been very, very liberal, way more liberal than ours.”
Feroze added, “If their revelations were true, that is…”
Ali said, “Ah, yes, about that. Let me first remind you that we are talking about a work of fiction from three hundred years ago, written by a male, who lived in a liberal society. And his story was set in a mythical kingdom in the middle of Africa.
“We will never be able to figure out what was true or what was not, whether it was honest satire or mischievous prurience or both. But at one point in the book, that question did come up, and the consensus was that the jewels were telling the truth since they had nothing to lose by speaking up and nothing to gain by lying.”
Feroze smiled, “So you are saying that those women in the book and by extension French women of that day were neither angels nor morally superior to us mortal males?”
Ali contemplated that for a few seconds and said, “Based on the book, you might say that.”
“So, what are you going to tell your patient?” Feroze asked. We were all curious.
Ali said, “I am not very sure. But your questions today have crystallized a few things for me…
“First, I might remind him that ‘Men’s jewels are simple-minded, don’t expect the ring to magically make them sing out Paradise Lost or Paradise Regained. Even if it did, remember that their paradise is not likely to be the same one that Milton had in mind.’
“Second, I might suggest that he keep Tirana Burke and the whole Me Too movement in mind as he puts together his story…I hope that will make him dig deeper into himself and, by extension, us men…
Lastly, I will wish him luck…I am glad I am not writing that story…I think that integrating the passage into the story is going to be a real bitch.
No one said anything. The subject was proving to be way heavier that at first glance. Plus, it was well past midnight by then and we were feeling the effects of all that scotch and cognac. We agreed to get together the following week once more before people left town. We hugged and parted company.
I cleaned up the place a little and went to bed. As I walked to the bedroom, I found myself looking wistfully at the wedding ring I still wore.
That night I dreamt I was Sultan Mangogul.