Kartik makes a decision the day his father strikes him: on workday evenings and weekends he’ll pretend he’s a tourist in his hometown. His real home—where he belongs—is a place, he imagines, where it’s safe for him to love men.
That Thursday after work he visits the Golconda Fort. He enlists the services of a tour guide, who takes him from the watchtower on the rampart to the courtroom in the heart of the fort. The tour guide tells Kartik about the fort’s many tricks. Alcoves for soldiers to hide in plain sight. Unseen vantage points from which to pour hot oil on intruders. Kartik likes the clap trick best. When the watchtower soldier clapped, the sound traveled all the way to the courtroom: two claps for an approaching friend, one clap for a foe.
A happy future is the sound of two claps, Kartik thinks.
On Friday he tells his parents he’s going to the Delhi office on a work trip and leaves home with a suitcase. At work he tells his colleagues he’s going to see the Taj Mahal for the long weekend. The office will be closed on Monday for Holi.
He takes an Uber to his hometown’s old district and checks into a hotel. His fourth-floor room has a balcony that overlooks the Charminar. He changes into a red kurta, straps his camera across his shoulder, and goes down to join the street traffic: scooterists, pedestrians, buffaloes, and peddlers of steel vessels, velvet pursers, and plastic roses. The air smells of jasmine and stagnant water. He crosses the Jama Masjid, whose stone courtyard is packed with Friday devotees. Men in kurtas lean towards one another, haloed in dusk’s violet glow, their murmurs a collective buzz. The women’s praying quarters, he guesses, are tucked away, out of sight.
He takes a right and enters the Bangle Bazaar. He pauses frequently to click a photograph. In a shop empty of customers, a man sitting behind the counter holds his attention. Camera to one eye, Kartik zooms in on him: his face in profile, illuminated by phone light, his skin the color of chai. A manicured stubble dots his angular jaw. There’s a slight shift in his posture, as if he knows he’s being watched. Not immediately, but at length, he lifts his head and looks. Kartik hones in on the man’s green eyes, framed by his thick lashes, punctuated by a mole on his temple. Click. Kartik lowers his camera and walks into the shop. He occupies the chair the green-eyed stranger points to.
What kind of bangles are you looking for? the man asks Kartik. Glass? Enamel? Metal?
He speaks a mixture of Urdu and Hindi, and his voice brings to mind the sound of a stone skimming the surface of water.
What do you recommend? Kartik asks, holding one hand up. He points to his wrist.
The man rubs his jaw. He knows it’s his most attractive feature. He knows Kartik finds him attractive. Kartik can tell, from the tilt of his neck, from the slow movement of his gaze.
Bidar, he replies. Silver, with an antique look.
A man shuffles out from behind a curtain that leads to the back of the shop. He has a small white beard and wizened coffee skin. He nods at Kartik, then says, adjusting his skullcap, I’m off to pray, Shahrukh.
The man’s departure seems to unknot Shahrukh. His shoulders relax under his brown kurta; his face opens like the door of a cage. My parents met at a Shahrukh Khan film, he volunteers. Ammi was selling tickets, and Abbu was buying.
He stands and opens the display rack. His hand darts with practiced ease. He extracts six bangles. They release six sonorous clinks as he places them on the glass counter.
Which one? Kartik asks him. You pick.
Shahrukh sits down and leans forward. Kartik smells the perfume on his neck. A scent full of smoke and wood. His left cheek is scarred somewhat; the tip of his tongue gleams against one side of his mouth. They hear the azaan. The singer’s voice is husky. Shahrukh points to the bangle third from the right.
You didn’t even look, Kartik protests.
I knew, Shahrukh tells him, when I pulled it off the shelf.
He places the bangle in an envelope like it’s a letter.
Kartik pays, takes the envelope, and asks Shahrukh out to dinner. He suggests Shadab. It’s nearby but not fancy, he acknowledges.
It’s unique, Shahrukh says. Two men going to Shadab on their first date? Janab. We’ll make history in the city’s oldest biriyani joint.
He reaches under the counter. An object flashes between his fingers. He slips it into his trouser pocket.
Shahrukh points to the Lakshmi temple abutting one of the Charminar’s minarets. He says, The first Nizam king propitiated the goddess. When she showed up, pleased with his devotion, he tricked her into staying.
How? Kartik asks. He knows the story, but he wants to hear it again.
Shahrukh replies, He tells the goddess he’s got an urgent errand to finish. Before leaving, he extracts from her a promise that she won’t leave until he returns. And he never returns. The goddess knows, of course. She finds the ruse clever and blesses the Nizams with wealth that sees them through the rise and fall of the Mughal and British empires.
They take a corner table at Shadab. On the opposite wall is a framed quote from the Quran, white Arabic letters sewn into a green cloth. The place is crowded with the men who were at Jama Masjid. They’re immersed in food and conversation. The air is thick with the scents of hot spices and cardamom. A qawwali plays on the speaker, the poet Ghalib’s words punctuated with rhythmic, forceful claps: Allow me, Imam, to drink in the mosque or show me to a corner where God isn’t there.
After the waiter serves them their food and takes their money, Shahrukh picks up the envelope from the table and extracts the bangle. He takes Kartik’s hand and slips the bangle down his wrist. Shahrukh’s teeth gleam in Shadab’s orange glow. It feels to Kartik like magic, affection expressed in the open.
Do you want to meet Samosa? Shahrukh asks.
I’d like to eat one, Kartik says.
Samosa is my dog, Shahrukh says and laughs.
They eat from the same steaming plate of biriyani with their hands. They imbibe sweet tea from the same hot steel cup they pass back and forth. It’s a place of communal eating. No one blinks an eye at them.
They lie next to each other on the hotel bed, fully clothed.
What are you doing in Hyderabad? Shahrukh asks.
I’m from Hyderabad, Kartik replies.
He recounts the incident: he in the kitchen, refilling his glass with water; a notification sounds from his phone, left on the dinner table unlocked; he’s out in a flash, the tap left running; his phone in his father’s hand; on the screen, the dating app: a private message and a picture attachment; his mother sees it next and grips her head; she cries; his father stands, returns his phone, and strikes him across the face before sitting down; he says, I’m giving you a year to get this hobby out of your system. After that, you’re getting married. Clear?
He called it a “hobby,” Kartik says. In a year, prospective brides will sit in my drawing hall with their parents and ask me what I studied, where I work, how much I earn. I play tourist to forget that future.
Shahrukh turns and places his foot on Kartik’s ankles. A wave of electricity shoots through Kartik’s body.
Will you take your kurta off for me? he asks.
Shahrukh yanks his kurta off and tosses it to the floor without breaking contact.
I have an enchanted bangle, Shahrukh tells him. Its magic is real.
He taps his trouser pocket.
Kartik runs his fingers through the hair on Shahrukh’s chest. He’s heard what Shahrukh has said, but what’s more magical than a beautiful man whom Kartik desires and who, like some miracle, desires him back?
This bangle, Shahrukh continues, is made of mirror. If you look into it and ask a question, it will give you the answer. If you ask a question about the future, you must do what the bangle shows. The djinn who controls the bangle’s magic doesn’t like being wrong.
Kartik laughs. He touches Shahrukh’s jaw. Let’s call it a night? he says.
Shahrukh mounts Kartik, and Kartik wraps his hands around Shahrukh’s warm back.
Kartik befriends Samosa the next day by feeding her ice cream. One spoonful at a time. She has large brown eyes, a thick white tail, and caramel fur that glows in the sunlight. They bring her to Kartik’s hotel. The manager, Su, doesn’t object. She knows Samosa. And she knows. Her eyes shine as she watches Shahrukh and Kartik as they wait for the elevator, their shoulders touching.
Kartik points to the GRE workbook Shahrukh holds.
I want to do my Masters in New York, Shahrukh says. Right now the book is a ruse. Abbu thinks I’m studying with Zaid, who, incidentally, thinks I’m on a Tinder date.
Kartik aches for that future: a room in Brooklyn with Shahrukh. Kartik’s parents moved in with him as soon as he started working. If he had objected, his family would have branded him an ungrateful wretch for not caring for his aging parents. The real problem, Kartik knows, is that he’s internalized their way of thinking.
Samosa naps on the balcony. Shahrukh sits on a chair next to her and spreads his legs. Kartik sits between his thighs. Shahrukh takes out the magic bangle. It reflects the Charminar behind them. They stick to safe questions.
Whom am I falling in love with? Kartik asks.
The reflected reality doesn’t fade. But soon Shahrukh’s face appears over it: first as an outline, then fully pronounced. It is a snapshot from last evening, when Kartik saw him through the lens of his camera.
Creep, Shahrukh teases. He asks the bangle the same question, and Kartik’s face from the restaurant appears.
The answers are broader than the question. Now they each know the point at which the other fell for him.
A fakir gave it to me at an Eid fair, Shahrukh says.
He had a crush on you, Kartik says with a grave nod.
Stop, Shahrukh says, laughing. I was eighteen. The fakir looked like he hadn’t seen a shower in some time, but his shawl smelled of new cotton. I bought him a plate of biriyani—he said he was hungry. He took out this bangle, looked into it, and murmured in a language I didn’t understand. He smiled after a moment. A bangle for the bangle seller’s boy, he said, holding it out. He told me it was magic. You’re the first person I’ve showed it to.
You met him again? Kartik asks.
Shahrukh’s answer confirms what he already knows.
They walk to Shadab for biriyani and chai, Samosa in tow.
What if your parents show up here? Shahrukh asks.
They won’t, says Kartik.
Shahrukh looks at the bangle. Do Kartik’s parents like Muslims? he asks.
Kartik apologizes for the bangle’s answer.
We can’t apologize for our parents, Shahrukh says, his smile sad.
Kartik wakes in the night, cold. Shahrukh is asleep with his hand wrapped around Samosa. The dog softly snores. Shahrukh’s black hair shivers in the breeze of the fan. The room is drenched in moonlight. Kartik gets up and puts on a T-shirt and pajamas. He notices the bangle on the bedside table. He picks it up and addresses the djinn.
I bet you are as powerful as Aladdin’s djinn. Who are you anyway? he asks.
After a moment, he puts down the bangle and climbs into bed, covering Shahrukh, Samosa, and himself with a blanket.
Who is he, the djinn? Shahrukh asks, his eyes still closed.
Not he, Kartik says. She. She lives in a minaret in the middle of a desert. The Thar, I’m guessing, from her outfit. A choli-lehenga. She plays a sarod and has a pet camel.
Shahrukh says, Our mullah said that if you use djinn magic to get what you want, a hundred different things will have to realign to make the new reality happen. You’ll lose a lot in the process. It’s the price you pay for defying fate.
His eyes open. His irises, emerald by day, are moss by moonlight.
Am I worth that price? Shahrukh asks. You don’t even know me.
I know I like you, Kartik replies. And you’re a man. That’s better than marrying a girl of my parents’ choosing. There’s a price to pay either way.
Under the blanket, Shahrukh places his foot on Kartik’s ankles.
On Monday they stand on the balcony and watch people on the street smear one another’s necks and faces with color and water. The sectarian difference, made particularly volatile under the current regime, vanishes. The only riot is that of colors staining the air pink, blue, and green. The only guns fired are water guns. The only shrieks are those that rise from throats drunk on bhang: milk steeped with cannabis, ginger, cardamom, and rose and served cold. Kartik and Shahrukh don’t partake in the festivities. They want to spend their last day together exclusively in each other’s company. Su has brought them a jug of bhang. They take turns drinking from it directly.
They sit with their backs to the balcony wall. Shahrukh holds the jug away from Samosa, who’s eager for a lick. Kartik tells Shahrukh a story. Two boys fell in love a long time ago, but they knew their elders wouldn’t let them get married, so they fled to the forest and hung themselves from the oldest tree. But the tree spirit, moved by their love, reincarnated them as plants. Tobacco and cannabis. Lovers bound forever in a wedlock of intoxication.
Shahrukh smiles and leans forward and claims the white liquor mustache on Kartik’s upper lip.
The next morning the light from Jama Masjid radiates a glow where dawn has colored the sky blue. Kartik books an Uber, and Shahrukh packs his bag. Samosa stands up, shakes herself, and stares at Kartik.
She knows, Shahrukh says, zipping the bag. He leaves it by the door.
They lie next to each other on the bed, their fingers laced. Samosa lies next to Kartik, her paw on his chest. When Kartik’s phone beeps, informing them the car is three minutes away, they sit up. Kartik kneels on the floor and slips Shahrukh’s sandals onto his feet. Shahrukh slips Kartik’s bangle down his wrist. It feels like a wedding.
They walk to the balcony. Shahrukh holds out the magic bangle.
Kartik poses the question that’s on both their minds.
They wait, and from the corner of his eye, Kartik sees the car cruising down the street. It stops in front of the hotel. Samosa woofs. The light from the mosque gleams on the face of the bangle. The sound of the future fills Kartik’s chest. A clap sounded twice.
From The Rainbow Issue of Fairy Tale Review, published by Wayne State University Press, 2023.