Aila watched as the last roll squeaked down the belt, tipping into the folds of purple and red tissue paper.
Her grandmother had just died. With the old woman went the entire family’s legacy. It was a national treasure with a multi-million dollar international market: the Agha Roll. Dadi (who claimed Aila’s father’s side of the family were direct descendants of the Mughals) oversaw the hand-crafting of each batch of meat by a baker who she had personally selected. She often joined the baker’s line, rolling the top-secret mixture in between loose, pale hands until a perfect spiral emerged onto the dusty white conveyor belt before her.
Each batch of pastry mix was carefully inspected, with nightly deliveries of a special ghee from a far-away village. Dadi boasted that the village was also the birthplace of Ustad Ahmad Lahori, the architect of the Taj Mahal (commissioned by the late emperor Shah Jahan to build his wife’s infamous tomb). “The cows there are unlike any other cow in this country,” Dadi would tell investors. Aila remembered the star-struck eyes of the Harrod’s representatives from London, who dished over millions of rupees to secure their interests as select distributors of the Roll.
Dadi refused to share the recipe with anyone, swearing it to her grave in order to protect the roll from her greedy investors and also from Aila’s mother, who Dadi considered to be a peasant tainting her monarch bloodlines. The recipe, she had decided, was far too perfect to survive her.
The roll was a culinary masterpiece: a viennoiserie stuffed with a spiral of seasoned meat made from lamb, mutton, and beef marinated in the finest saffron, dry fruits, and cardamom. Each roll cooled on a metal rack in the company factory until a buttery sheen formed on top of the deep golden crust. It was hand-wrapped by a master baker in lavender purple and bright red tissue paper, then carefully tucked into a cream-colored gift box. A golden sticker was affixed to the top of the box, spelling out “AGHA” in an Arabic-style lettering. The rolls were sold at select luxury department stores around the world.
“The Meal of the Mughals” billboards and television advertisements spread throughout the city like a golden curry bisque spilling onto a white dining table. “Eat Like a Shah” a woman’s voice said in a broken and mildly lascivious English accent, humming by the hour in-between internet playlists and the crackling radios of the cab drivers still hanging onto frequencies of generations past. “The Meat Mahal” were trios of actors dressed in large baggy purple pants, gold kurtas, and the distinctive red Agha beret, dancing at corners of luxury department stores while teasing passersby with aromas of saffron, lamb, and buttery ghee.
At almost $40.00, or 2,872 Rupee, the roll cost an average city dweller’s monthly salary. “It’s a meal fit for the kings,” Aila’s grandmother proclaimed at dinners. “If you want to eat like a king, you make the sacrifice.” Aila was not fond of Dadi, whose stubborn walk and insistent chatter drove a decades-old wedge between her mother and father for most of her younger years. Aila was happy her grandmother was dead. But the loss of the recipe was a problem, not just for her, but for the entire family.
“At least sell the last of them at hundred times the price,” her father shouted, pacing in the distant background with a mobile device glued to his ear. “Those rich Bombay families will snatch them up.” Vinny seemed unperturbed that his mother was dead. Wringing his hands, he pressed the side of his head deeper into his shoulder to keep the call firmly in place. His fingers were covered with gold: pinky gold rings, gold thumb rings, a gold wedding ring, and a single silver hoop that sat on top of his left thumb. He had no education and spent most of his life relying on his mother’s crafty baking. Except for his Romanesque-shaped nose, nothing about Vinny indicated he was of royal lineage.
Aila grabbed the last roll off of the belt and shoved it into her pocket. It was still hot and she could feel the butter soaking into her pants, imagining the formation of a large stain that would never come out, not even with the specialty brands of laundry detergents that her mother ordered from the Western shops like Target. She would share half of the roll with her sister Asma. It would be the last roll they would steal from the belt, ending their years-old tradition of selling rolls on the black market at their school. Another girl, Faiza, tried to sell bootleg versions of the roll for several months but the meat was sticky and unpalatable compared to their grandmother’s masterpiece pastry. Faiza quickly went out of business, and right in time before Asma lost her temper and beat the girl senselessly in a fight that led to her suspension from school for several weeks. Both sisters were less than average performers at school, on the verge of expulsion, but expectedly saved by the riches of their grandmother’s empire.
“Baba, does this mean we have to close the business?” Aila asked. Vinny slid the sweaty mobile phone away from his ear and pocketed it into his black leather pants. Her father never wore traditional clothes but insisted on donning what he believed to be the high fashion of the Americas and England. His sunken chest, a result of decades of chain-smoking Pall Malls, left his short sleeve shirt hanging from the tops of his shoulders like heavy drapes. Vinny stared at the small figure at the end of the production line.
“I’ll figure it out, your mother will figure it out,” Vinny reached into his pocket to pull out a pack of cigarettes. “I sure as hell can’t, can’t taste shit.” He coughed, fighting a wad of mucus stuck in-between his lungs and at the top of his throat. His hand waved over his tight jeans in search of the familiar protrusion of a Bic lighter.
“But she didn’t tell anyone,” Aila said. The grease of the roll was sinking into the side of her leg.
“Stubborn,” Vinny replied. Aila walked across the factory floor, shuffling her flip-flops past her father as she exited back into the courtyard. The factory was attached to the family’s giant mansion house, located at the edge of the city with a train station built just for their convenience.
Vinny hardly ever used the train, instead hiring a private driver to make his weekly rounds with investors and heirs who spent their lunches and drinks raving about Dadi’s marvelous Agha Roll. He hated the roll, a little less so than he hated his mother for cursing his family with it and the corporate fallout upon her death.
Only he and the private driver knew that he hated the roll.
“Mom’s happy,” Asma said, swinging her legs as she peered down at the city below. Aila was too afraid of heights and sat hunched in the corner of the dusty rooftop of their parents’ house. The loud hum of rickshaw horns, claps of horses carrying loads of perishing fruits, and the bustling of large trucks floated four stories below Asma’s feet.
“The wicked witch is dead,” Aila said, running her fingers through the dust and collecting tiny caverns of sand dunes in between the ridges.
“Remember when that old hag slapped mom across the face?”
“And when she forced mom to beg forgiveness for marrying dad?”
“She took the damn recipe with her though.”
“We’ll just make our own.”
The girls sat in silence as each one mustered up whatever she could of memories in the kitchen. Their grandmother oversaw every meat batch before it was rolled and spiraled into the pastry flake, sometimes shouting at the senior bakers to add more spices. “Cardamom,” Aila started. Asma nodded as she picked up a loose bit of the ledge and readied to throw it out onto the neighboring rooftop. “Cinnamon, black pepper, salt,” she added.
The girls continued: cumin, coriander, parsley, cilantro, and lime.
“Why did dad never stop her?” Aila interrupted.
Asma turned back to the city, watching the sun creep lower across the horizon, revealing a thick, dark smoke cloud that was looming over the city like a dormant virus.
Dadi prohibited anyone from entering her bedroom. Now that she was dead, Aila and Asma had free reign to rummage through the woman’s clothes, chests, trinkets, and drawers. The room was stuffy, with an overhead cast of curried masala and Chanel.
“This is gross,” Asma whispered as she climbed onto the unmade bed and sat on her knees to look through the rows of trinkets above the headboard. “What are we doing in here?”
“Clues, remember?” Aila pulled out a small bottle with white tape wrapped around it. She had scrawled “ER AIR” across the tape in Vinny’s knock-off Sharpie marker. A cloud of chemical-scented linens showered over Asma’s head as she shook her hair.
“Gross.” Aila jumped on the bed, the springs underneath her squeaking as if they were threatening to pierce through immediately from the tatty mattress lining. She danced, jumping from side to side and tapping on the coils like a Twister board until Asma pushed her. “Stop it, mom and dad are going to hear us.”
Aila climbed down onto the soiled grainy Persian carpet. It was dark under Dadi’s bed, almost as if she could crawl right into it and come out somewhere else. “I wonder what she hid down here, give me my phone,” Aila said. With a loud thud, the device landed next to her hip. “So much for being quiet, hypocrite.” She swiped her pudgy thumb across the screen, shining a flood of light under the metal bedframe. The light was escaping into the darkness. She moved the phone under the bed, pulling the rest of her body with it until her face was parallel with the frame.
“Anything?” Asma said, peering from the edge of the bed. Strands of her black hair hit Aila’s neck as her fingers curled around the cool metal of the frame.
“Move, your hair is on me.”
Asma sat up on the bed. “I can’t hear you, what did you say?” She watched as Asma body slipped inch by inch underneath the bed, until the soles of her sister’s feet were the only parts left sticking out over the dirtied carpet. The “ER AIR” bottle lay next to her, and an unusually large dark blotch ran down the side of her jeans.
“Hellllloooo, Earth to Aila, Earth to Aila, come back,” Asma bellowed out from over the bed. She watched as her sister’s toes slipped under and disappeared.
There was a single scream before the old woman’s stuffy quarters went radio silent.
“We can’t throw a child in the prison cell,” the Shah whispered loudly to his wife as he looked over the dirtied girl sprawled out on the marble floor. “They’ll think I’m a monster, I’m not a monster. You know I’m not a monster.” The unconscious girl was wearing strange clothing and her feet were exposed in a type of shoe he had never seen before.
“Let her go to one of the village slums at the edge of the city,” his wife said. Aila moaned as she rolled over, the cool marble floor temporarily freezing the dull aches radiating from the crown of her head. The faint chatter of the couple stung her mind like a wad of angry hornets. She could understand them but they weren’t speaking her tongue. They were speaking some version of it, close enough to follow. A migraine seized her thoughts.
The Shah stood up from his chair, looking over at her but keeping a distance in case she might be infested with the slum fleas or another illness. She’d appeared in the family courtyard, almost suddenly accordingly to the officers who stood guard near the entrance. They assumed she’d climbed the side of the garden walls, and taken a bad fall trying to scale down onto the royal grounds. The girl stretched out her arms, pushing herself up. The royal couple watched in mixed horror and fascination.
“Fuck,” Aila said. “That fucking hurt.”
The Shah listened, unfamiliar with the girl’s speech. Fuck? What kind of hurt was a fuck? He turned to his wife, who was glaring uncomfortably as if she could not take her eyes away from the unsightly creature.
Aila turned to the glaring royals. “Who the hell are you?” she said, pulling her knees into her chest. A sudden pain shot through her hip and forced her to kick her legs out. She watched as the Shah’s wife pawed at his hand—a large sculptured hand adorned with all sorts of shiny jewels. This was an expletive that the Shah was familiar with. He could feel a visceral warmth emanating from his chest, heat pouring into his temples like boiling water.
“Little miss, you were caught trespassing in the royal gardens and we should throw you in the prison for such aggressions,” the Shah shouted, his face contorting into a mixture of confusion and anger. Aila’s eyes widened as she leaned forward towards the royals.
“Trespassing? I was in my grandmother’s bedroom.”
She noticed that both the man and the woman were adorned in gold thread, and looked nothing like any city person she could remember seeing in the past month.
“Wait,” she said. “This isn’t Mumbai, is it?”
The Shah sat back in his chair, gripping the edges of its wooden arms and throwing his wife’s hand back into her lap. “Mumbai? What treason do you speak of?”
A group of guards rushed into the palace, dragging Asma behind them. “My Lord, there’s a second,” one of the men called out. They threw Asma next to her sister, her body hitting the marble floor as she squealed. Her hair looked frazzled and unbrushed.
“Put them in the guest room and lock the doors behind them,” the Shah said. His wife grasped at his hand. “The guest room! Just throw them in the prison!” she cried. The Shah shook his head and waved the guards to take the two girls away. Asma shrieked as they pulled her from the floor and threw her over the shoulders of a guard. Aila pushed back until she was forced up and marched out.
“They are too strange to be slum children,” he said, pushing himself out of the silk cushions and walking out towards his private quarters. “I am going to speak with the Hafiz.”
“I need to change my pants,” Aila said as she stared up at the gold-painted ceiling, lined with exquisite Arabic script and outlines of imaginary birds and flowers. “I’ve got ghee soaking into my leg.” Asma groaned, sprawling out on the large bed next to her sister.
“Did we fall from her bed, you think?” Asma said, her voice muffled in between the silk pillows and raging migraine.
“It was dark, I was trying to crawl in to see—wait, where’s my phone? Did they take the phone?” Aila reached down her pants and patted them up, sticking her fingers inside her back pockets.
“Phone? It’s probably smashed tech bits now,” Asma said. Her arms were still aching and it hurt to let a single ray of light in under the pillows. “Would it kill them to get me a glass of water? We’ve been stuck in here for hours.” Aila sat up in the bed and squinted at the heavy set wooden doors. She could make out footsteps shuffling outside, most likely the feet of guards on close watch outside. One of the guards had a clay bowl cupped in between his hands.
The door opened and a frail man with a thin long beard stepped inside. He was wearing a golden kurta. He was followed by the Shah and two guards, who closed the heavy set wooden doors behind them. “Good evening, ladies,” the man said as he walked towards their bed. “I hear you had a bit of a rough journey getting onto the royal grounds.” The man’s eyes softened as he exchanged glances with Aila.
“We were looking for our Dadi,” Asma started. The Hafiz paused, glancing with great interest.
“Your Dadi?” He turned, accepting the clay bowl from one of the guards and then whisking them all away. He studied the bowl’s contents then motioned for the Shah to join him.
The girls watched as the men conversed in whispers.