For all the women and the men supporting them; for all those who get up every morning and despite all odds make it through the day surviving, shining, rising. For the friends and families of Sara, Mahsa, Noor, Qurat Ul Ain and of the countless nameless others like them: your grit is everything.
When it’s been tormenting Day after day. With no respite And I just don’t have it in me to fight To battle on When I’m war-weary When there is no end in sight And all I want to do Is sit in a dark room And let its coolness shroud me Until I can feel the hair Stand on my skin. There Is suddenly more to the day Than the heaviness in my heart And the endlessness of the grey That has been flowing, gripping choking me Keeping me doubled on my knees There’s more beyond that malevolent mein Images, memories driving me insane
Now there is also something On the outside of me A little chill A little photo on the window sill Both pull at me in different ways One makes icicles To sear through The magma that has congealed Inside of me The other makes my blood flow warm Streaming, coursing through my veins Reminding me that I am home My spirit and my fortitude Still cloak my shoulders Strong and true I sit up straight As they reverberate Through every atom of my being And they chant An age old song Of others like me Who’ve fought on Their hearts fused forever With the loved ones they’ve lost And I know That I’m not wielding my sword alone
Raza Murad was what is universally known as a “confirmed bachelor”. In the South Asian context however, this is a misnomer since no man is ever over the hill and there is always a good, respectable bahu* to be had. Raza Murad however, had tended to go with the universal meaning of the term and had kept swarms of eager aunties at bay, armed as they were with proposals for their daughters and with time, for themselves too. Raza Murad was in fact, in a whimsical twist of fate, a doppleganger of Waheed Murad, the quintessential chocolate hero of the 60s and 70s Pakistani cinema. Despite an abundance of ingredients for leaving a long line of bruised and broken hearts in his wake, 60 year old Raza had only ever been in two relationships. The first had been with a man. There had been no physicality there (except for one time in the beginning of the companionship). They had lived together for ten years and then his partner had succumbed to congestive heart disease.
The second relationship had started when he was forty five, and had culminated in a six year marriage. There were no children – he couldn’t have them. She had left him when she had got the opportunity to immigrate to Canada. He had stayed behind not so much because he had opted to, but because she had.
For the last decade or so, Raza Murad had been living alone and tending to his little farm in Bedian, a mostly agricultural area about 30 kms from the Lahore city centre. His farming enterprise which had started out as a hobby, was now a lucrative little business, financing the upkeep of his home and his pet indulgence: rare editions of books by Urdu writers; his trio of first editions of the works of Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Ismat Chughtai and Ibn-e-Insha were his pride and joy. With time, a modest little library had sprung up around these three mighty pillars. The fourth prop was built somewhat bashfully but prolifically from his own attempts at satire and romance. In the spirit of a true literary purist, he tried to keep the two genres largely separate but there were many instances where before he was quite aware, they had coupled to form a sometimes absurd and sometimes comical tapestry of odes and comeback-odes. It was a cathartic endeavour for the generally low key Raza Murad.
Most of Raza Murad’s farm produce made its way to the Sabzi Mandi*. He had also set up a stall at the Good Market that was held in Defence every Saturday. Here he sold avocados, litchi and jaman which were bought fast and furiously by the ladies who strolled in their dozens through the market to sight-see and socialise.
Raza Murad met Haniya when she and her children had moved into his rental property in Model town about a year ago. He was instantly taken in by the woman with the big brown eyes and the quiet manner. She even had a flick of grey hair, exquisite in its placement: gently traversing the distance from her widow’s peak to behind her left ear, and in its singularity: the one and only shot of grey in her otherwise dark brown hair. He knew it was a beautiful foible of nature but in its perfection, it could have been wrought by the deft machinations of a hairdresser given to the classic whimsy of old world charm.
Over the next few months, he had visited Haniya on some repair related pretexts a few times. These were undertaken to more fully understand what he felt rather than in any subtle rituals of courtship. After a decade of being alone, he wanted to make sure this sudden, unexpected urge for her company was not in fact some late-aged infatuation. It wasn’t, he had realized. That was when in a fit of organic creativity, he had decided to carry a carton full of the fruit and the vegetables of his labour to Model town every Tuesday. Haniya had been surprised that he did home deliveries, to which he had mumbled something about fickle shelf life and customer satisfaction. The weekly fruit and vegetable deliveries had over the last few months morphed into Tuesday afternoons of easy conversations, gentle laughter and the doing away of burdensome labels like bhai* and behen*.
The bell rang just as Haniya had washed and put away the lunch dishes. She adjusted her dupatta, took a quick almost furtive peek at herself in the little mirror near the entrance and went to open the gate.
“I’ve brought you lychees today. They’re delicious. You and the children will enjoy them” said a smiling Raza as Haniya opened the gate for him. Her eyes danced as she smiled in happy acknowledgment, more from the pleasure of seeing him rather than the anticipation of lychees for dessert that night. Still with the happy tingle in her spine, she suddenly asked him to drive his cultus into the house. Now his eyes were dancing too. While he got back into the car to drive into Haniya’s home, she looked away for a minute, to calm herself. What is wrong with you? You have two grown up children! she chided herself, willing the sobriety of the reminder to discipline her wildly beating heart. But in the next instant, she was grinning widely again. She chuckled at the rebelliousness of her own emotions, feeling like an adolescent with a secret crush. Hers had been Sean Connery … and Waheed Murad. She lifted the corner of her dupatta to her mouth to hide the laughter that was now bubbling in her throat.
Raza glanced at Haniya as she looked away, lightly covering her face with her dupatta. He wondered if she was in fact already regretting her knee jerk invitation for him to drive into the house. He sat in the car and looked away for a few seconds to give her time to compose herself, to make up her mind.
“Are you going to keep sitting there or are you going to come out ji*? If you do come out, I can make us some tea”.
While Haniya and Raza sipped on hot tea, sitting on the steps of the little veranda outside with a carton between them bursting with yellows, greens and reds, Laiba watched from inside. She felt an odd sensation in the pit of her stomach as she saw her mother …. flirting with a man. She has a right to live her own life, a part of her reasoned quietly. But the part of her that looked on with a premonition of doom and even mild disgust gathered in strength and moral outrage. By the time Raza departed thirty minutes later leaving behind a medley of fresh produce and a little song in Haniya’s heart, Laiba was seething with righteous anger. That evening she refused to come out for dinner and the next morning she had left the house before Haniya had woken up.
“Amma, we need to talk” said Ali quietly when mother and son were sitting in the lounge after dinner the next day. Haniya looked at her son with a steady gaze. Her daughter’s complete boycott of her since the previous evening had prepared her for the talk, the reminder of respectability.
“That man who comes to deliver vegetables ….”
“Raza Murad is his name” Haniya interjected gently while still looking directly at Ali.
“Yes, him. What’s going on Amma?”
“Nothing is going on beta*. He delivers vegetables and we have a conversation”
“And that’s all?” asked Ali, his face now blotchy with indignation as well as the embarrassment of having this conversation with his mother.
So like his father he looks …the thought whispered through Haniya’s mind even as she focused on her own composure.
“That’s all beta”.
That’s all Haniya said to herself too. That is all.
“Is that all?” Raza asked Haniya when she called him a few days later to ask him not to come for the next fortnight; she and her family were going out of town.
“Yes … that’s all“, she said by way of ending the conversation.
“Ok, let me know when you are back …”
“Yes … I’ll call you … we’ll get in touch when we are back”. She ended the call, feeling morally upright, while the cloak of respectability tightened around her, squeezing her, reducing her so she could keep fitting into the blessed box.
Respectable but boxed in. Wanton but free. Respectable … wanton … respectable … shameless … free … shameless —
She breathed in deeply to still the suffocating thoughts that were ricocheting through her head; to dislodge the tension that had built up like a wall in her chest. She then blinked twice, three times while looking straight into the heart of the glimmering horizon.
That evening Haniya sat on the steps of her veranda looking at the jasmine that was growing in the far corner of the little garden. It was resplendent with sweet smelling flowers. They were her favourite flowers – always abundant and always redolent. Faizan used to like their fragrance too and would often bring in a handful when the shrub was abloom in their old home. Raat ki rani for my raat ki Raani he used to say to her, the mixture of humour and intimacy making her redden and laugh. She would put them in a bowl full of water and gradually their delicate fragrance would fill the whole room. She smiled at the memory that had, like the scent of the night blooming jasmine, gently assailed her.
She and Faizan had planted a shrub in their old house twenty years ago and it had grown and settled in their garden spreading its sweet bouquet around their home for over fifteen years. Throughout the hot months, it had sprung into a throng of flowers, like a snow mirage in the corner of their summer-baked garden. One summer, a year or so after Faizan had passed away, it had just stopped flowering and by winter it had withered away. She had refused to plant anything there, mourning in equal measure, her dead garden companion and her deceased husband. The empty space in the corner of the garden became an oddly cathartic reminder of the emptiness in her heart.
When she had moved into her new home a year ago, she had in the throes of new beginnings and old memories, planted a jasmine sapling in the garden. It had over the last year, grown and flourished, and was now riotous in its first efflorescence.
Haniya looked at the blooming, burgeoning shrub for a while; its vitality was almost palpable in the deepening shadows of dusk. She went towards the plant and plucked a handful of the flowers. She breathed in their sweet scent, full of freshness and newness. She inhaled deeply and then buried her face in their velvety softness. She stayed that way for a minute, maybe two and then looked up, smiling. The shapes and textures of her feelings, that for so long had been put away like wedding joras* their time and place having come and gone once and for all, now gathered again bright and beautiful in her heart. She reached for them in the sweet fragrance of the jasmine, as she brought her flower-strewn palms up to her face again. She felt her heart swell with a cresting, suffusing joy as it released its own sweet petrichor.
She loved her children but she knew she could be more than a mother and a grandmother, and so much more than this shadow of herself that she had become.
There in the gathering dusk, amid the jasmine blossoms, she felt the warm effusion of all that she had yet to give, and also the soft, malleable space in her heart where she could yet receive. She would be like the jasmine: redolent in its garden bed, fragrant in a bowl of water and tender in the warmth of the hands. Just like the vital little flowers bloomed again and again, cradled in the arms of nature and the universe, so could she. So would she.
Haniya looked at the pin prick of blood on her index finger, lingering on its vital redness just a moment longer than usual. It was Tuesday today. She blinked, her mouth curving into a faint smile, and then wiped her finger with a rag strewn with little speckles of rust-red.
Haniya sewed initially because she had the skill and she liked the meditative quality of the needle going in and out of the fabric. With time and the fickle nature of circumstances, that labour of love had morphed into an exertion underscored by urgency and need. There was a little money that came in from a couple of modest investments that her husband had made, and a small monthly stipend that her brother sent her. These meagre streams of income Haniya augmented with the little windfalls that she received for her delicate needlework.
After her husband had died six years ago, she had taken on the role of the provider and the “man” of the house. That last title was foisted upon her when she had scared off two thieves, adolescents really, who had come to burgle her home; of what, she still sometimes wondered as she mentally scanned the modest contents of their two bedroom townhouse rental.
She put the shirt down with its spray of jasmine that was slowly coming to life under her deft handiwork. She took a sip of her tea – her fifth cup since the morning and it was only noon now. Her mind wandered as the still hot liquid warmed up her cache of memories. Faizan had loved his tea too. She would make two steaming cups when he came in through the door at 6 o’ clock in the evening. Husband and wife would then sit in each other’s company, communicating almost solely through harmonious sips of the hot beverage. Faizan had been a man of few words, and he was especially grateful for the acknowledgment and understanding of this quiet reticence by his wife. For him, the highest form of language was one of the heart and of harmony of action. His evening cup of tea in the quiet company of Haniya was probably one of his dearest forms of togetherness. On weekends the couple would demolish almost a quarter bag of tea leaves, taking turns to cook a potful, its four-cup contents disappearing in under half an hour each time.
Haniya sighed wistfully. She missed him. She missed being held close. She missed the vital warmth at night, on the right side of their bed … her bed now. She missed having a companion.
Haniya had been a voluble, chirpy young woman when she had got married at 21. Under the calming, quiet influence of her husband, coupled with the fact that they had their first child five years later, she had gradually spoken less and less. Over the years, she had slowly replaced her outer chatter with the quietude of inner serenity. Now, sometimes days went by and she hardly said a word out loud until both her children came back home from university. Both, Ali and Laiba had fitted into and then emulated their parents’ reserve. And so, the years had plodded on largely to the hazy sounds of life from outside of their quiet bubble of existence.
Haniya picked up her empty cup and went to the kitchen. It was almost 1 o’ clock. She needed to start preparing lunch. Laiba would be home at 3. Ali had just started working at a bank and usually came home after 7.
“Amma, I’m never getting married” said Laiba as they both sat at the little dining table over plates of two day old daal* and sabzi*, their protracted spice-infused marination made up for with fresh, hot roti from the tandoor* downstairs. Haniya looked at her second born with a little smile.
It was a game they played occasionally to call to heel any depressing thoughts that at various times, tended to meander through the purple-grey spaces in the minds of the two women. Before either drifted into inner worlds with clouded skies, shutting out the late afternoon sunshine falling on her face, the other would pull her right back.
Her mother’s morning musings were still etched in her face and Laiba, reading them, had dropped a conversational grenade to shatter any bruise-coloured doors closing out the brightness of the day. She was happy and an essential part of the fruition of that sentiment for her, was seeing her mother’s gentle smile.
“And why is that?” asked Haniya, her own smile widening at her daughter’s bright-eyed playfulness.
“Because I’m going to miss these vintage daal and sabzi lunches amma – straight up manna from heaven they are!”
Haniya laughed at the affectionate sarcasm thrown at her by her feisty daughter while Laiba grinned back with dancing eyes.
It was Tuesday today. Vegetable delivery day. Vegetables and conversation day. Vegetables, conversation and a bit of a happy flurry of the heart day. Haniya smiled. Even the dispiriting act of putting three-day old curry back into the fridge for another meal, didn’t dampen the pleasure of her Tuesday afternoons. She looked outside the kitchen window at a world that was shimmering in the late afternoon sunlight. She felt a happy little surge in her own heart as she glanced at herself in the glass door of the kitchen cabinet. Seeing the smile spreading to the corners of her brown eyes, she instinctively lowered her gaze, collecting herself. Those crows feet were only ever supposed to crinkle in pleasure for her children … and later, for her grandchildren, she chided herself. She sighed, feeling the tentacles of exasperation and helplessness slowly coil around her solar plexus.
Why? she asked herself in the next instant, reaching for her heart, fortifying herself against the censorial voices of tradition and expectations. Why did happiness for her have to always be a borrowed emotion – borrowed from her children and even from her unborn grandchildren? Borrowed for a brief while and then returned; always given back; never made her own. Why did she have to become a hollow shell of herself because she was widowed, permanently denouncing the vital, pulsing, feeling part of her? Why couldn’t she allow herself to be happy for herself; for something that was specifically, wholly, stirringly hers?
Because you’re a middle aged widow with grown up children, berated the part of her that was used to being loud, commanding and keeping her respectable.
This emotional tug of war had of late often and passionately hurtled and leaped within her, with sometimes one and sometimes the other side coming out stronger. Haniya now willed herself, as she had learnt to do over the last few months, to focus only on the feeling of warmth that had been sweeping her up in its flow. Thinking beyond the visceral emotion, invariably woke up a whole slew of confusing, disapproving thoughts that would then mock and scold her until there was no pleasure left anymore in her Tuesday afternoons. Her afternoons that were filled with all shades of greens, reds and yellows as she bought a whole week’s worth of vegetables from Raza bhai. Raza – the bhai* had been largely dispensed with six months into these Tuesday afternoon exchanges, only ever surfacing if one of the children was within earshot of their conversation. These improvisations were made intuitively, unthinkingly.
Haniya Faizan was a respectable, middle class woman and following social norms was a part of her DNA which had also faithfully served her self preservation instinct. She was not a woman who went against the flow of convention. Despite her vivid imagination which often took her away on cathartic flights of fancy, she had for all practical purposes, fitted herself into the box of widowhood that was resoundingly set at her door when her husband had passed away. She had then dutifully also folded up her sexuality and put it safely away in the box to let it molder in the blessed throes of time and aloneness.
Haniya was still youngish however – 48 – and so despite society’s asexual prescription for her for having survived her husband, there was always a motley brigade of men that roamed around the box, hoping for Haniya to make a fissure just big enough for them to strut in. For most of these hopefuls, the end of their particular widow-exploit was yet murky in their minds; so much of that depended on the woman. If she relented, they could bestow her with male companionship, diligently cloaked from the world, and their wives. If she didn’t, well some would leave it at that, while a not entirely insignificant number of others would put in focused efforts to torment her in big and small ways. The patriarchy, on such occasions, is said to be a mysterious beast, sweeping up entire communities of men and women in its ravenous wake. So far however, and especially after the encounter with the fresh-faced thieves, Haniya had been spared proposals of both, the decent and indecent varieties.
But there were changes afoot; little dalliances from the norm that were making their way into Haniya’s heart and she was feeling their, as yet unformed textures, with a mixture of anxiety and anticipation.
I laugh unabashedly, from the belly out Someone has said something absurd They all watch me in derision and doubt This woman who shouldn’t be seen or heard She speaks! What social license does she bear? She’s no debutante, she’s no political heir Yet she comes to these exclusive soirées And instead of blurring, fading away Into the background, this upstart lets down her hair
I walk out gaily, dressed like a queen I bump into my neighbour, the virulent Sameen Her face already garbed in a smug smile She says “Where to Maha? So dressed to kill?” I laugh loudly, her smile falters a bit “Just to the market, to get some things A shirt from Sapphire, two thootis* of kheer* A tub of it’s-none-of-your-business-my-dear Is there something you would like me to bring?
I’ve been alone these twenty five years But I’ve never been lonely, I decided that early I surmounted my doubts conquered my fears It wasn’t easy, it took a few years It took some lonesomeness, some vanishing acts From folks I called friends and even family who cracked Under the pressure of seeing me break out Of the box built for me by the socially devout But I dug in my heels, I wasn’t going back
Now there are friends and well wishers anew In all that chaff, I found these gems too They give me hope, they let me be me It’s been food for my soul, this honesty I know who I am and who I want to be And it’s not a reflection of what society Has plotted and planned for someone that swerves Through fate or design, outside its bell curve I’m contented, eccentric and oh so happy!
* Jawab-e-Shikwa: “Shikwa” (Complaint in Urdu) and “Jawab-e-Shikwa” (Response to Complaint) are poems written by the poet Mohammad Iqbal. They are known for their lyrical beauty and depth of thought
* Thooti: a small clay saucer in which some Pakistani and Indian desserts are sold in order to keep them cool and fresh
I’m alone … but I’m not really alone In all the ways that don’t matter That shouldn’t matter, I’m never alone In all the ways that I need someone In all the ways of being human I’m alone. There is no one.
It wasn’t always like this, this lonesomeness It came on slowly as time went by As I transitioned, nay devolved Dislodged from the blessed marital fold From a wife to a wretched divorcee From a daughter to a social deportee
I couldn’t be the woman he’d conceptualised His wife to be. Already fantasizing He was in heaven itself, spoilt for choice By the virgins lined up in waiting For him to pick one or four to be his own I got picked first, then I got disowned.
I’ve been alone these twenty five years Fading ever more into the background As time trudges on with heavy treads My aura fades, my voice has no sound I tried to talk louder at first to be heard But the booming voices of the world Were louder still, my voice was drowned
Now I sit alone marking time For when the cosmos sees fit to smile In a new welcome; in a final decline I see people but they see me not They saw me only when I came out Of the box, against the tide of tradition Then there was outrage, there was derision
I don’t go out anymore nor do I Try to be bigger than the box fitted for me I sit in it quietly, patiently Lonely oh so lonely … but not really In all the ways that shouldn’t matter Im not alone. They all watch me In all the ways that would make my heart sing I’m alone, waiting for the final curtain.
Why? She asks me why do I Not get to do the things that he Does so freely, so independently Cavorting with opportunities Expanding his experience of the world That we both live in; why just he?
Why? She asks me why am I Held back by you and the others The elders of the family The uncles and the brothers For my own good I’m told Walled in like Rapunzel, from the world?
Why? She asks me why can’t I Go out on my own. Why can’t I Even stay alone at home? Why have I been singled out Among my siblings as the burdensome one The ill-fated sister among the men?
Why? She asks me have you built These rules to limit my existence Holding me back, making me doubt Myself, my being, my purpose in life Strangling my dreams to always stand Centuries behind a boy or a man?
Why? She asks me why are you Complicit in this chauvinistic ruse? Why did you learn to become small To deliberately set yourself up for a fall? You were better than everyone A hero …. No a heroine!
You my mother, the architect Of dreams, of hopes and even homes Why did you let it all go? Why are you expecting me to do The same, be a wraith of myself A fragile decoration on the shelf
Until I become someone’s wife Until you can pass on the keys of my life To someone else … to some man else Why? She asks me as the tears well In eyes that see the truth of the world That see the expanse of her wretched road
That is why they killed them all off The babies, the girls born centuries ago There was divine justice in that Saving them from a world that sat In Judgement, in anger, in self pride Over girls that survived the infanticide
Tell me mother, why was I Born a woman into this life? Why was I born into this home My dignity defaced, my wings shorn? Why do I feel like to get a fair try At life, another life, I first must die?
The peacock was now an intermittent visitor to the garden at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui, just as Sumaira’s cheerfulness had become more and more an occasional companion. She couldn’t help drawing a comparison between the bird seeking out her garden and her wellbeing seeking out the door. She was not a woman who wavered in the face of unexplained apprehensions but lately she had begun to feel the chills of superstition in her heart. This house… its walls… everything reeked of secrets and forebodings lately. When she felt especially dispirited, she would get into the car and drive around the city, seeking out quiet green glades where she would stop and breathe in. Her own beautiful garden awaited in magnificent repose and yet she sought serenity elsewhere. The irony didn’t escape her and yet, the ghosts of something …someone now pursued her there, making her anxious and guarded.
Sumaira however dug her heels in. She was the queen of her new home now and the occasional rush of doomful thoughts was not going to deter her from living the life of her dreams. She had in fact, managed to organise a grand reception at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui and had invited all her friends and relatives from Lahore. The haveli had, unsparingly and graciously housed twenty five of her guests. The rest were put up at the Sultan Grand Hotel. For three days the guests enjoyed the largesse of the house and its hostess. Zahid made it back on the last day; he had been away in Lahore to attend to Kulsoom who had refused any sustenance for the last three days. She had looked at her husband of fifteen years almost questioningly when he had come into her room – was there a celebration at their home she had asked gazing at him with clear, bright eyes. He had mumbled something unintelligible and then cajoled her to eat something. She had acquiesced quietly. He was used to Kulsoom’s strange connection with the universe; with her uncanny instinct to pick up on people and their vibes in ways that appeared confounding and bizarre. He had stayed on that night and the next day in Lahore to ensure Kulsoom had abandoned any ideas of fasting indefinitely, and had returned to Shiekupura the day after.
Sumaira was sitting in the veranda while a cool crisp breeze blew around her. It was the tail end of February and the morning still came upon the world with a fortifying vigour. She closed her eyes and let the wind sweep her up on its bracing wings. She suddenly felt an odd discomfiture and opened her eyes. There in the garden, right in front of her was the peacock. She hadn’t seen it in a couple of months and now it stood there almost like it was watching her. She shivered slightly feeling again, the hairs stand on the back of her neck. The peacock suddenly fanned out its tail, turned around and began to walk with graceful, rhythmic steps. It was dancing. Even as it unfurled its lustiness onto the world, Sumaira felt something squeezed inside her as a sense of foreboding joined hands with the tightness in her chest. She swallowed hard and looked away from the scene of exaggerated, excessive beauty and perfection. It was like nature was enjoying a farcical interlude in her garden.
“Guria, chai”(1), came the papery voice from the doorway. The old retainer had watched Sumaira looking at the mesmeric scene in front of her with a long thoughtful look of her own. She had muttered a little prayer and had then made her presence known.
“It has been many years since I last saw a peacock coming to the garden so frequently”, she said as she rolled out the trolley with its solitary cup of tea.
“It was when Zohaib baba left us. He was only 8 years old you know. The amalthas* was blooming just like this and the peacock had danced then too. Tauba Tauba! Allah khair karay”(2)
Sumaira stared at the old woman uncomprehendingly at first and then with a sudden burst of rage that was visceral and raw. Her hammering heart had found the vent it so desperately needed to not come right out of her chest and spill onto the floor. She launched at the old woman – for voicing the kind of calamitous, hideous thoughts that were already lancing at her insides, for always seeming to know more than she would ever know.
“Don’t talk rubbish!”
“Keep your sordid superstitions to yourself”
She felt her breath coming in ragged gasps as she turned around, away from the shadowy face of the old retainer.
“Now leave me alone!”
An hour later, Sumaira still sat outside. Why had she felt like the old woman had jabbed her finger right into her ventricle? Like they had both seen her world ending and the ancient one had been the one to announce it? She had tried to calm herself, to grasp at logic and reality; both qualities had become like feeble wraiths in the face of all the foreboding phantasms conjured up by the two creatures, the feathered and the weathered. The gusting February wind seemed to have further given the phantoms temerity and substance, and had carried them to every corner of the garden.
Sumaira breathed in deeply. With each measured breath, she felt her perspective gradually shift from the occult to the real, from the spirit world to the spring-laden one around her. Where the peacock was just a bird that found solace in her garden much as she did, and where nature’s extravagances were pleasurable blessings rather than premonitions of doom.
Sumaira looked behind her at the darkened doorway. She was now washed over with a sense of remorse that was almost comforting in its safe, earthy feel. She sat for a while longer, bolstering her confidence in the rational, sensible, phantom-free universe around her. She then got up to look for Khala*, intending to repair the damage done by momentarily frayed nerves.
The old woman had seen her fair share of ups and downs and had over the decades, negotiated through the myriad tempers of the ladies of the house (the begums and their offsprings included). She chuckled and grinned toothlessly at Sumaira when she was proffered an apology, “Koi baat nahin guria. Kabhi khushi, kabhi gham”.(3)
Sumaira came away not entirely sure of the old woman’s state of mind but glad that the state of their hearts was again restored.
The next few months passed in quiet harmony as Zahid remained mostly in Sheikhupura with only a fortnightly visit to Lahore.
It was going to be their anniversary soon Sumaira thought – May 16th. She marveled at the briskness with which a year had passed; a whole year since she had become Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui and the … the Lady of Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui. She still couldn’t see herself as the Matriarch because there were older things and beings in the haveli* that somehow impaired her absolute dominion of the great house: She still felt hesitant when she walked into certain rooms in the house, and was assailed more than a few times by a strange uncertainty in the almost vapory presence of the feeble old retainer. The latter seemed to be almost on standby, to be waiting for something … someone.
Sumaira had begun to counter the assaults of the uninvited, unfriendly thoughts inside her head with strident changes of scene that she wrought on the outside. She had redone the master bedroom very soon after she had come to the house. That was followed by the lounge and the dining room and recently, the room which had always made her shudder with foreboding: the space that had been Kulsoom’s sanctuary where she was said to escape for hours at a time to get far from the madding crowd. That crowd, Sumaira mused, would have included not only people but the freakish cacophony of Kulsoom’s own thoughts too. Sumaira had seen the look on Peeno Khala’s face as she had the ancient teak furniture removed piece by piece. The deep lines on the old retainer’s brow and around her mouth were shadowed with omens and premononitions of a gloom that were almost palpable. Sumaira ignored them, as she did the unsettled feeling in the pit of her own stomach.
On the eve of their anniversary, Zahid was called away to Lahore again. Kulsoom had been hospitalised after a series of seizures. They were in the process of doing some tests but they thought that she had suffered a stroke.
When Sumaira got the news, she felt like a veil had been lifted from her eyes, her heart. It had been a camouflage of her own making which she had doggedly pulled around her face, refusing to see what the universe was telling her. The peacock, the constant unsettled feeling, the premonitions of doom – they had all meant something! Kulsoom was … she was going to die. That was what the haveli had been telling her as it held her in its almost sentient embrace this past year. It was telling her to wait, to be patient; it was telling her that she would finally get what she had worked for, what she truly deserved.
She suddenly felt a strange elation and a magnanimity of spirit that made her breathless. She would go to Lahore. She would stand by her husband’s side even as he stood by the side of his dying ex-wife. She would show him and the world that she had a heart so big that she had graciously, lovingly fitted everyone into it including “the other woman”. The woman who had made constant demands on her husband’s heart and mind. The woman who until now, had always wrung from her a strange mixture of animosity and misgiving.
Yes, she would go to Lahore. She would go to the hospital and look down at the depleting woman, and she would forgive Kulsoom for all her transgressions into her marriage and into her life. She got into the car and started on her journey.
“It was so untimely. So strange….”
“May Allah bless her with Jannat al Firdaus*”
“May her soul rest in peace”
“Allah knows best….”
Zahid Siddiqui sat in the great drawing room at Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui surrounded by friends and family pouring forth their condolences. It was now a month after the burial and the house was flooded with well wishers.
“I have arranged for fresh flowers for the grave. Come, have something to eat”, said Kulsoom as she led Zahid and the guests into the dining room that shimmered in the late afternoon sunlight.
(1) “Little one, tea is served”. In Urdu “Guria” literally means a doll and is sometimes used as a term of endearment for a young girl.
* Amaltas: The Indian Laburnum tree
(2) “May God keep us from harm”
* Khala: “Aunt”/ mother’s sister in Urdu.
(3) “Don’t worry little one. Life is sometimes joyous and sometimes sorrowful”
Sumaira came out into the veranda to the shrill scream of a peacock. The bird sat resplendent and angry in the garden looking at the house as if at a particularly baneful beast. She was gripped in a flux of emotions as she caught her breath at the iridescence of its plumage in the morning sun, while also feeling a rush of anxiety that raised the hairs on the back of her neck. She stood for a while looking at the bird which quieted down almost instantly upon seeing her. After a few minutes, it flew up into the branches of the Indian laburnum tree; it’s blue green hues cavorting with the yellow of the flowers that seemed to bedeck its entire body. It was one of those rare, serendipitous displays of nature that arouse awe and melancholia. The early morning, newly-wed euphoria slowly drained from her body as Sumaira looked at the bird and the tree a last time before turning back into the house.
She blinked brightly trying to catch at the disappearing threads of quiet joy she had woken up with. But something had tramped along that path in the last fifteen minutes and she now felt strangely deflated and watchful. How had a peacock, that beautiful creature created so much disquiet in her heart she wondered irritably. For that was the only vision that had intercepted the flow of good cheer that had of late become her regular day time companion; that made her smile a lot and even skip like a giddy school girl when she was alone. Everything was so perfect! Yes, everything WAS so perfect repeated a quiet voice in her head, relegating in an instant, all that defined her wonderful life right now, into the past.
“Khala! Chai le aain(1)”, she said louder than she had intended to. Loud enough to drown out the ominous thoughts whirling around in her head; loud enough also for the great old retainer to have heard her the first time round.
She came into the lounge shuffling behind a tea trolley which carried a single cup of tea. All tasks that were beyond the enterprise of wheels that also doubled as support for her frail frame, had long ago become obsolete calls to duty for Peeno khala. Still, she persevered in her service to the haveli* and its occupants with the same tenacity of spirit as when she had first come to the haveli as a seventeen year old widow. That was almost sixty years ago. She was now as much a part of the house as it was a part of her. Sumaira often wondered if in fact the bricks and mortar of the haveli were somehow entwined with the sinew and soul of its ancient caretaker.
Sumaira had married the love of her life. It had been a tortuous path – one wrought with moral dilemmas and all-consuming desires. He had been married; he loved his wife – his ex-wife now – but he loved Sumaira too. He had wanted to make her his second wife. It had taken five long years of persuasion and infinite wiles and guiles to make him see sense. He could only have one – she had passed the ultimatum with strategic precision of opportunity and dexterity. And six months ago. she had finally been ensconced as Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui in Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui*, the ancestral family haveli in the heart of Sheikhupura. Her nemesis, Zahid’s ex-wife Kulsoom, had since been settled into an apartment in Lahore.
Despite the euphoria of knights in charcoal grey shalwar kameez sweeping her off her feet, and other such romantic dreams come true, Sumaira sometimes felt a pang of conscience, a momentary qualm. She had broken a home to build her own; the detritus washing back to her in waves as she regularly heard driblets of disturbing news about Kulsoom. The tight knit community of the city she now called home, ensured that she was made aware, one way or another. Kulsoom was not doing well and Zahid was often called to Lahore to attend to her ailments, which were seeming more and more psychological than physical. Sumaira tried to be magnanimous, to not feel overpowering resentment at this monopoly of her husband by his ex-wife. She was still basking in the newness of her beautiful home and the privileges of being Mrs. Zahid Siddiqui, and so she was able to display appropriate concern and compassion everytime Zahid bade her farewell for a Kulsoom-related trip to Lahore.
Kulsoom had always been sensitive, a “seer” some claimed. She was an ethereal child, mostly in a world of her own, stepping out only occasionally for festivals and funerals. She and Zahid had had one son who had died when he was eight years old. Kulsoom had never quite recovered from that incident and had withdrawn into a shell of her own making where only Zahid and a handful of other people were allowed access.
For Sumaira, the spookiness that surrounded Kulsoom had over time somehow made her less human, less prone to feeling any great tragedy or joy. And so, she had persevered in her enterprise of taking the Zahid Siddiqui marital crown for herself. Kulsoom with her faraway looks and her spaced out existence would get over it, she always told herself. But sometimes – once in a while, another voice from the deepest recesses of her being would rise up stridently to provoke and condemn.
Today was one of those days.
(1): “Aunty, bring the tea”
* Haveli: Mansion, in Urdu
* Sakoonat-e-Siddiqui: The Siddiqui Abode, in Urdu
A little disclaimer: This particular piece is not a critique of the ideology of marriage itself, but the warped manner in which it is used to keep young women in check. To prevent them from breaking through the heavily-manned barriers created for them by society.
I’m going to tell you a little story Of a girl who loved too much, Lived too much, hoped too much. They said, she was too much! She was a queen, a young one But she had that zest for life That is so rare and beautiful That is also so ominous and direful
The story goes that she was born In the wrong place at the wrong time Nothing seemed to feel right in fact. She was told to be someone that She wasn’t. She was taught, against her will To be the clone of a fantasy That had persisted for centuries
And so the queen crumbled Atom by atom, bit by bit, little by little She fell apart like a young sapling That has been buffeted and knocked about By righteous winds whipped up By those who were afraid of her Of our queen getting out of the box That they had so faithfully built for her
She finally broke into a million pieces And she plummeted She had once known how to fly like an eagle To soar up to the top of the world. But that memory was gone; pounded out And so she fell Hitting the ground six feet deep And that is where she now sleeps.
Do you remember when you felt the blood Gushing through your body You felt it etch into your being All the kindness, courage and love That you thought you could ever feel And your heart sang!
Do you remember how your breath Caught in your throat. The sheer shock Of those emotions rocking you inside You felt so overwhelmed that your tear ducts Felt the strain. You blinked your wet eyes And your heart sang!
You looked straight ahead The wave kept rising in your chest You felt like you were everything That you were meant to be. Your atoms ricocheted With those around you. Nature played A little bit of handball as she caught Your atoms in her hands and passed her own to you And your heart sang!
Do you remember feeling like this was The perfect moment in your time In your space, in your place And everything had come together that day to remind you That your heart was aligned with all That defined you as the happiest version of yourself And oh your heart, it sang!
You don’t remember - not really. Neither do I. I mean I remember the warmth in my being, the love flowing out In waves, in rivers. A oneness with the essence of the world But beyond that, I can’t remember; I can’t evoke the feeling Something has gone awry, something has been lost Along the way But I still see its ghost flitting Vaguely passing before my eyes when I am still But my heart, it doesn’t sing.