by Julieta Vitullo
With the dining room now closed, Nabil joined the last guests at their table while they dipped cold spoonfuls of rice in the leftover curries. They were a red-headed young man in a tie-dye shirt, and two blondes who looked like sisters. An odd lamp sat on the shelf above their table. Earlier that night, the young man had asked Nabil if there was a story behind it. Nabil had said to wait until closing. Now, the few sounds that remained from the East Village roar faded into the vibrations of a sitar coming from the dining room stereo. It was time.
“There’s a story in an old book from the East India Company about an Englishman who came ashore on the port of Madras looking for help,” Nabil began and set out four bottles of beer. “On me,” he said, as the guests leaned in closer. “An old man in a turban stood on a side street off the bustling market. The Englishman approached him and asked if he was a dubash, a speaker of two languages who could guide him through the city. The old man shook his head and the Englishman noticed that he was carrying a lamp under his arm. ‘Are you a genie?’ he asked. The old man didn’t reply but stared at the foreigner with eyes deeper than the sea. ‘Grant me a wish, genie,’ the Englishman insisted, ‘Take me wherever I can find an interpreter to speak to the Indians.’ The old man breathed deeply, holding the lamp firmly. He lifted it high in a gesture of questionable authenticity. He bowed and asked the Englishman to rub the lamp, close his eyes and set his intention.”
Nabil paused. The guests looked at each other. The young man in the tie-dye wondered why the Englishman thought a genie could be found in India. Weren’t genies from Arabia? And didn’t the genies come out of the lamp instead of holding it? He said nothing. The younger of the sisters wondered how setting intentions related to this. She had set intentions during yoga but never knew why. She also kept quiet. The older sister asked Nabil to continue.
“The next time the Englishman opened his eyes, he was standing in front of a river instead of in the bustling street market. It was dark. He could see torches approaching and hear chanting and drumming. Later that day the old man with the turban told his friends at the tavern that he had sent an Englishman to America to face the Natives. ‘He was looking for someone to help him talk to the Indians,’ he said, ‘So I sent him to Sacagawea.’ This caused the old man’s friends to laugh.”
Nabil took a sip and concluded, “That’s why colonizers were warned against the dubash.”
The guests hesitated. Nabil stood and picked up the lamp. “Now you try,” he said, handing it over. The younger woman broke the awkward silence with a tense laugh as the young man took the lamp, rubbed it and closed his eyes briefly, imitating the Englishman. Everyone chortled. The guests rushed their beers and promised Nabil to return for more curry and stories.
They stepped outside. The night was cool and black. When they smelled the river and heard the chanting of Indians, they knew. The drums were announcing war.
Julieta Vitullo is a bilingual writer, playwright and dramaturge born and raised in Argentina. She has an MA in English and a PhD in Spanish from Rutgers. She is the protagonist and co-script writer of the award-winning documentary La forma exacta de las islas. She authored a book about the Malvinas/Falklands War, and many articles on Latin American literature. Her creative writing has recently appeared in Into the Void, The Normal School and The Fabulist, and was nominated to a Pushcart Prize. She’s an alumna of the 2020 Tin House Summer Workshop. Five of her plays have been presented in Seattle. www.julietavitullo.com