SHORT STORY | RAAT KI RANI* – Part Two

(I)

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*.

(II)

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.

(III)

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.

Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/06/25/raat-ki-rani/

* Raat ki Raani: The night blooming jasmine. Literally the term means “queen of the night”.

* Bahu: Bride/ daughter in law in Urdu.


* Sabzi Mandi: Wholesale vegetable market

* Bhai: Brother in Urdu

* Behen: Sister in Urdu

* Ji: A general term of respectful acknowledgment

* Beta: Son in Urdu

* Jora: Dress/ outfit

SHORT STORY | RAAT KI RANI* – Part One

(I)

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.

(II)

“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.

(III)

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.

Read Part Two here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2022/07/04/raat-ki-raani-part-2/

* Raat ki raani: the night-blooming jasmine

* Daal: A Pakistani/ Indian dish made of dried, split pulses that do not require soaking before cooking.

* Sabzi: vegetables in Urdu


* Bhai: Brother in Urdu.

* Tandoor: also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking, mostly flat breads.