As evening fell, the rooms of Samanzaar, our rambling kothi in Aligarh, would turn dark and oppressive. Filling our mugs with tea or milk, as age dictated, we girls would float out of doors, walk gently through the lawn or climb up to the still steaming roof to watch the sunset. We would sit out the long twilight of the North Indian summer till we’d hear the evening azaan. At the time of the maghrib prayer, we would cover our heads and go inside. It was that simple, and that definite: the shifting of zones, our movement from exterior to tube-lit interior.

Trying to linger was a bad idea; so many things became taboo when the world passed from day into night. Don’t run on the grass, it’s sleeping. Don’t stand under the trees, there are djinns around, waiting for young girls to pass by. Even the swarms of mosquitoes that rose from the hedges and hovered over our heads conspired to move us indoors, where we belonged, and where we stayed until daylight.

As is the way of such arrangements, it seemed entirely natural to us to live in this manner. By ‘we’ I mean the assortment of my cousins, particularly my sisters, all a few years older than me, passing through the rites of adolescence together. In our photographs from that era there is something of the dated charm of a Little Women collection – in the mix of the beauty and accomplishment of my sisters, and my own futile rages and weepy penitence at what I barely comprehended. We were aware that there was a city outside our walls at night; sometimes its debris would shake off on us, in the stories of our brothers who spent their nights on water tanks and railway stations, out with friends, leaping over walls into hostels and serenading local belles. Through Pakistani TV shows and Georgette Heyer novels, we were aware of other cities and of women whose lives took them out into the night. We knew all this. We also knew that it wasn’t for us. In our small-town lives, the idea of being out after dark, and that too for pleasure, was pure fiction: It was a feat of imagination, it simply did not exist. An American friend of my father’s who was staying at our house once asked me innocently what we girls did for fun, did we go out? ‘Go out!’ I spluttered at her in incoherent disbelief. ‘Why would I do that?’

All of which makes it sound like a time of regretful deprivation, but that would be misleading. In our heads, we were thoroughly modern young ladies. There were exceptions to the rules we lived by, of course. Carefully planned visits to friends’ homes, parties for freshers and farewells, monitored and coordinated with pick-ups and drop-offs, all concluding by 8 pm at the latest. And the more notable movie nights with my aunt, who only watched the late-night shows at Surjit or Nandan, the poshest of our local cinemas, and then drove home with the music blasting in her car. Usually we’d be accompanied by a token male chaperone – a kid brother or a hapless subordinate from my aunt’s hospital – who would grit his teeth through the entire escapade, but would be strategically powerless to actually intervene. We would race in her powder blue Fiat through the deserted streets, squealing with pleasure at the astonished faces of the occasional bicyclist or pedestrian we’d cross, singing our hearts out on the streets that we briefly owned. Such tiny subversions were the milestones of our lives, guided by the principle that having fun was something a bit raffish, not entirely ladylike. It was a strictly rationed commodity, to be doled out and policed, sometimes stolen, but certainly not to be indulged in every day.

All these rules were broken when the numaish came to town.

An annual event, the Aligarh numaish, or ‘exhibition’ as it was formally called, would kick off on or around 26 January. A few days before, preparations would begin on the numaish ground, the vast dusty maidan that used to be the outer limit of the city. It would grow quietly but quickly, building itself up from innocuous material like raggedy tents and frail looking bamboo pipes, the whole thing rather shabby in the light of the day. Until quite suddenly one evening, the ground would be transformed into a blaze of light, and there it would be, the numaish, glowing like a giant spaceship at the edge of town, sucking people into its sprawling perimeter. If you stood at its periphery, the waves of voices and loudspeaker announcements would wash over you and the very earth would shake with the thump of music and the revving of generators and rides. Proudly topping the whole thing would be an electrically lit tiranga, a tricolour, marking the iconic Jhanda Hotel, one of the oldest eateries at the numaish. It is hard to describe the impact of this buzzing entity on our impressionable, (mostly) innocent hearts and minds. When I once saw it after a break of a few years, I got back into the car and wept from sheer terror. It took me a long time to work out what had caused my blind panic – not the dark as everyone assumed, but all that light, all those people in the middle of the dark, where they had no business being.

Officially, the numaish was an agricultural exhibition – a space of tractors and hybrid seed displays. However, it wasn’t this bureaucratic undertaking that made the numaish the most important thing that happened all year in Aligarh, or the unmistakable highlight of our admittedly scanty social calendar. If truth be told, this part of the ‘exhibition’ was merely a stopover on our way to the real action, at most a handy location to park our cars. What we came for, what people who had even moved out of town came back for, was the maze-like set of hotels and shops, selling anything from toys to household goods to costume jewellery to personalised key chains to Bareilly surma. There was the area that housed a blazing set of rides, a ‘maut ka kuan’, a circus and a nautanki. There was the notorious and aptly named Hai-hui Ki Gully, with its raunchy dance shows behind discreet tent flaps. And there was a giant wheel called Charrakh Choon that lived up to its name by falling down with monotonous regularity. Into this blaze of noise and mud, and microphones blaring out advertisements and announcements for lost children, and masses and masses of people, we would plunge happily, pulsing around like electrons charged with the energy of the space, giddy with just being out in the cold night air, just being out, together, in the night.

Excerpted from Taran N. Khan's essay Little Women, Fewer Men, which appears in the anthology Day's End Stories: Life After Sundown in Small-Town India (Tranquebar Press, 2014) edited by Subuhi Jiwani.