Growing up, my father taught me two things.
Don’t talk to strangers. And never try to turn the clock back.
Yet, the precarious situation that I find myself in, demands that I do both. Or at least one of them.
I stop the turban-clad man on the high street and ask “Where am I?”
He is taken aback. I’m sure he doesn’t get asked this question every twilight by a proper white girl in her teens, strolling past a temple.
He communicates through incoherent speech, head nods, and movement of his forearms. I catch ‘Mysore’, ‘mem sahib’, ‘danger’ and ‘go home’.
There’s a hush followed by the trotting. A palanquin is being carried by mustachioed men in vests and dhoti. It is escorted by the soldiers on horseback.
Perfect! In the middle of the summer, I seem to have landed at the India Comic Con. I pinch myself to make sure I am not dreaming. My hand comes into contact with the very same timepiece around my neck that I had dropped in Father’s study. Its unpolished brass cover pops open. I glimpse at the series of painful analog dials in the passing parade of firelit torches. And fail to glean much from it.
Somehow, I have landed myself in a place that’s far from home.
I try to find a way to wind the clock back. But my clammy hands just manage to smear sweat on it. By the time I look up, a gruff voice on the horseback commands,
“Miss, the princess wants to meet you. She has graciously offered a private audience with you for tomorrow morning.”
I am too shocked to say anything.
“You can stay at the guests’ chambers tonight,” the unsmiling horseman decides.
Well, that settles it. Now that I have meddled with the clock and spoken to the strangers, I might as well stay. Father being away with his students, probably won’t miss me.
My father has always been a collector of antiques. The only place that is well stocked in our home is the basement where he keeps his collection. My mother would often grumble it was rather an unusual hobby for a man of limited means. Yet, he continued to collect, study and make notes about them at all odd hours of the night when he wasn’t grading the physics papers of his students. No wonder my mother left him for an English teacher. At least, he wrote her poems.
I grew up with the least human attention given to me and thrived in it. Over the years I had convinced my father to let me go through his collection and notes. Of course, strictly in his presence. And made my notes on them.
What they say about an apple not falling far from the tree is true. As a proud misanthropist (I had diagnosed myself in a rapid burst of brilliance upon the onset of puberty) I was baffled by my obsession with my roots. Maybe I took my mother’s bedtime stories about my ancestor being an Indian princess who fell in love with a white man on a hunting trip, too seriously. I started collecting the tiaras and bracelets of erstwhile royalty. Not the real ones but the googled ones; in a folder on my laptop.
I rue the day I secretly ordered a genetic ancestry kit. It was on my 18th birthday. I was startled to know I had Welsh, Swedish, Polish, and Indian blood running through my veins. I was filled with equal measures of fascination and horror. Who was this royal? Was she bedecked with shiny jewels, draped in exquisite silks and muslins while she played a perfect queen in the courtroom beside her king, or was she a warrior who jumped down from the ramparts of a fort on a loyal horse with a sword in her raised arm? The suspense stewed in my brain.
I had everything planned out. I would take up Anthropology after high school and take many spirited adventures across the globe. Then I would visit India for my final thesis to get my Ph.D.
What I was not prepared for was to get dumped over a text message on a stormy night by the only boy I had dated long enough to be qualified as a boyfriend.
Of course, what followed was beyond my control. I broke open Father’s basement museum even as he was away on an educational tour. Rummaged through his notes looking for an antique that would cast an evil spell on boyfriends who broke off by messaging. And dropped that darn clock gathering dust on his rickety study desk.
And as you know by now, I quickly leaned over to pick it up.
I spend the better part of the night trying to figure out why my clock showed the present date. It is obvious I have travelled back in time. After agonising a great deal, tossing and turning in the imposing four-poster bed, I slip into sleep, totally knackered. After what seems like a minute, I wake up. With my throat parched. I lurch out of the bed to get a drink of water. The gossamer curtains shimmer at the crack of the dawn. The culprit clock falls again and a cone of light springs up from it projecting a blue-pink sphere with latitudes and longitudes on it. I remember leaning over such a cone to pick up the clock - only the sphere was blue-yellow then. I close the cover and drop it again. A cone with a blue-black sphere. I repeat. A cone with a blue-crimson sphere! I gasp as the realisation hits me like a ton of bricks. I am not travelling back and forth in time. The goddamn clock is dragging me across different universes!
The opulence of the golden gilded palace strikes me in the early hours of the morning. I part the curtains to a breath-taking view. The yellow grounds with blue lawns.
A couple of female attendants walk into the airy chamber bearing fruits and snacks I had never seen before. I take just a couple of bites. The unfamiliar flavours and textures are too much for me to ingest. The attendants are respectful and offer to draw a bath for me. I refuse. Mercifully they converse in a smattering of language familiar to me. I just want to get the audience with the princess done with and left to my devices to figure out how to go back to my blue-green sphere.
I am taken through the aquamarine-hued arches of the palace that has domes of deep pink marbles. The chamber of the princess has a rich carving of yellow wood on its exterior and grey granite interiors with fine inlay details. The princess stands in the middle of it in her regal splendour- in finest silks and sparkling jewellery -just as I had imagined! She addresses me in a voice filled with grace,
“O traveller, where are you from?”
“I am from an Island on er… The Atlantic Ocean, princess.”
The princess looks astonished.
“Is that so! you are too young to have the stomach for such a gruelling voyage and clearly, you are not a nun!” she says tilting her head upwards and studying me more intently. Her headband looks familiar.
“Huh?” I gape.
“Anyway. Let me come to the point. What caught my attention as I was returning from the temple last evening was your er…interesting garment. I have never laid my eyes on anything like that before, not even the merchandise we get through the steamers of East India Company have such magnificent garments!” she says in her lilting voice.
Splendid. not only have I landed in a parallel universe. But a universe that is behind by at least 200 years!
I clear my throat.
“Well, your highness. This lovely garment is called jeans. It is durable and easy to maintain.”
The princess’s eyes gleam.
“It must be. If it has survived the voyage and still looks elegant. It would be perfect for my hunting trips. Where can I get it from?”
Now, this is a question that needs to be carefully answered; If Emily of this universe were to boast of royal ancestry.
“If you would allow me, princess, maybe I could take you to that place,” I say fiddling with the nagging clock around my neck. And looking for a place to drop it, again.