C H A P T E R S I X
send you the usual salutations. I'm fine, and I hope everything's
well with you too.
must be wondering at my foolishness: 'What a time that wretch chose for
writing a letter, what a time for him to send word that he's well, and
ask how I am!' I too realize how many years it's been that I haven't written,
nor have you. And now, in this unsuitable time, I've suddenly thought of
you, and am writing to you. Considering how disorganized the mails are,
I'm not even sure that this letter will reach you. But nevertheless I'm
writing. And after all, why? I'm about to tell you. First you should know
that I've transferred myself once more into a new department. Now I'm with
the Radio. One benefit of coming here is that I've pretty well escaped
from the boring business of files. Here we deal with people, not with files.
Compared to files, it's more difficult work, but never boring.
since coming here I've met a strange girl. The thought never entered my
head that I might run into her. A wheat-colored complexion, delicate features,
slender figure, medium height, an honest and sincere manner; I always see
her in a white cotton sari. She parts her hair in the middle and wears
it in a plain braid, but sometimes a lock comes loose and falls forward
over her face. Her behavior is always reserved. She's quiet and melancholy.
Yar, her simplicity and sadness together have ravished my heart. You don't
have to pause when you read those words. First hear the whole story.
time to time I have to go to the newsroom. That's where I encountered her.
Previously, I'd seen her in passing, around the office. I knew she was
an announcer. I'd heard her name too. But I still wasn't especially curious
about her. Simplicity at first says nothing to a man, then gradually sadness
becomes a spell. She used to quietly come, find out the news from Dhaka,
and go away. The news was usually disturbing, but not a trace of anxiety
was permitted to show in her face. It was my guess that she was inwardly
very worried by the news. One day I asked her, "Bibi, do you have some
relatives in Dhaka?"
my mother and sister are there."
you getting letters?"
last letter came two weeks ago. Since then I've written two letters. I've
sent a wire too, but no answer has come."
what will you learn from the news on the radio?"
least I can get an idea how things are in the city."
please come to my office. All the Dhaka newspapers come to my desk."
this, she began to come to my office. She came regularly every day, looked
through all the Dhaka newspapers, and went away.
are the rest of your family?" I asked one day.
in Karachi, some in Lahore, some in Islamabad."
no one here any longer."
the only one here?"
I'm alone in India."
Muslim girl who stayed alone in the whole of India, this seemed a strange
thing to me. I know whole families left, and some one person would stay
behind. But this person was usually an old man. These old men who stayed
on alone were not held back by the thought of their property, but by the
thought of their graves. There was no problem about property: people could
go to Pakistan and enter a claim, and by entering false claims they could
even get a larger property in return for a smaller one. But no one can
enter a claim for a grave. In Vyaspur that Hakim-ji from the big house,
you remember? -- his whole family went off to Pakistan. He stayed in his
same place, and continued to take sick people's pulses. I asked him, "Hakim-ji,
you didn't go to Pakistan?"
man! You ask for the reason? Have you seen our graveyard?"
go sometime and take a look. Each tree is leafier than the next. How could
my grave have such shade in Pakistan?"
inwardly. Yar, you Muslims are wonderful! You're always looking toward
the deserts of Arabia, but for your graves you prefer the shade of India.
Seeing the old people who had stayed behind here, I realized what great
power the grave has in Muslims' culture. But did the thought of graves
hold this girl as well? The idea bewildered me. One day I asked her, "Your
whole family have gone to Pakistan. You didn't go?"
I didn't go."
isn't necessary for everything to have a reason."
isn't necessary, but anyway?"
if I'd gone to Pakistan, it wouldn't have made any difference. I'd have
been alone in Pakistan too."
closely at her face.
town are you from?"
I was startled. "Why, you're that Sabirah?" This reaction of mine confused
her. But I didn't leave her in confusion long. I hastily asked, "You know
reply, she looked at me carefully from head to foot. Then she said slowly,
"I see, so you're that Surendar Sahib."
that she became absolutely silent. I too was silent, in confusion. Then
she went away. The next day she didn't come. The day after she didn't come
either, but now this girl had a new meaning for me. Now for me she wasn't
a radio announcer, but an evocation of a lost friend. I went and got hold
of her and abandoned formality. "Sabirah! Are you angry with me?"
matter what the circumstances, it's necessary to tread carefully around
someone else's emotional life."
made no reply to this, but the next day she came, and examined all the
old and new Dhaka newspapers with close attention. And from then on she
made a habit of coming at a regular time, going through the Dhaka newspapers,
chatting a little, drinking tea, and going away. Once or twice I mentioned
your name, but each time she either said nothing or changed the subject.
So I'm careful now and I don't mention your name. But I know that when
we meet, we aren't just two, for a third man is invisibly present with
us. Perhaps she meets me for that third man's sake. The Dhaka newspapers
are secondary now. One day I asked, "Sabirah, don't you have any plan to
get married, or anything?"
hesitated, then said with a wan smile, "Look, you've stepped out of bounds
all right," she said with the same wan smile, and fell silent.
this Sabirah of yours seems less like a girl than like a historical relic!
Yar, don't take it amiss, your history in India has progressed very awkwardly.
First your conquerors came -- so forcefully and tumultuously that their
horses' hooves made the earth quiver, and the clashing of their swords
echoed in the air. Then the political leaders appeared, and thundered out
their power. The great Mughal emperors -- Babur, Akbar, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb.
Then Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Maulana Muhammad Ali, Muhammad Ali Jinnah,
and all the others -- and after them, your Sabirah. A silent melancholy
girl, staying on alone in the whole of India. I don't know whether your
history is unique, or whether the histories of all cultures progress like
this. 'First the sword and spear -- and finally?'/1/
Didn't your "elder statesman" Iqbal have his gaze fixed on this final stage?
This stage too is a part of the destiny of the group. Yes, it was the day
of Id. I saw Sabirah coming out of the studio. I was a bit surprised to
see her on that day. "What, you? You didn't take the day off today?"
came the short reply.
please celebrate Id here, and give me a treat."
course, come in my office."
her office, she ordered tea and sent for cake. She was pouring the tea,
and I was wondering if any Muslim was actually on duty in an office on
the day of Id. Most office workers didn't even stay in the city for the
day. Even the day before, they slipped away from the office early and got
their train tickets and went straight to their own town. And girls? Girls
celebrated Id even more enthusiastically than men. Drinking tea, I gathered
my courage and asked, "Sabirah, you didn't go to Rupnagar?"
She looked at me with surprise. "Why should I?"
people have the custom of not spending Id away, but going home to celebrate
I've already told you my family situation. There are now none of us left
silent. Then, drinking tea, I asked casually, "Don't you even have any
distant relatives there?"
my distant relatives have all gone. Rupnagar is empty."
a strange thing," I murmured.
you have some more tea?" She interrupted me, and without waiting for my
answer began pouring tea into my cup. Drinking my tea, I threw in one more
question: "Since you came to Delhi, have you never been back to Rupnagar?"
strange. How long has it been?"
long time. In the early fifties my brother-in-law's letter came from Dhaka,
saying that he had a job and we should come. In those days I'd just been
offered a position by All-India Radio. I left for Delhi. My mother and
sister set out for Dhaka. They were the last batch that Rupnagar sent to
you decided to settle in India?"
you really have to ask?"
this answer, I should have kept quiet, but I ignored her politely sarcastic
tone and said, "What I mean is that if you had gone to Pakistan -- "
briefly, and she interrupted me in a sharp tone, "Then? Then what would
have happened?" And she gave me such a look that I didn't have the courage
to finish my sentence at all. You'll understand what I wanted to say.
how strange it is that the same town becomes for one of its inhabitants,
who has left the country, more meaningful than before, so that he dreams
about it; while for another inhabitant all its meaning disappears, so that
even though he's in the same country, he never feels any desire to see
the town again. How meaningful the journey to Pakistan made Rupnagar! And
how severely Sabirah was punished for staying in India, that for her Rupnagar
became meaningless. I think my fate is the same as Sabirah's. And sometimes
I feel that in my childhood I must have offended some holy man, and he
cursed me: 'Son, your native land will no longer let you see her.' So the
town of Vyaspur doesn't let me see her. When I go there, the town seems
to ask, 'Where is the other?' And when I can't find an answer, she closes
her door against me. That constant eagerness I used to have for the vacation
to come, so I could run to Vyaspur -- that eagerness is now utterly gone.
Last June I went there, after a long time. It was late in the month. The
rains hadn't started yet, and the afternoons were at their height. In the
middle of the afternoon I began to feel once again my old itch to wander,
and I set out. From one lane to another, from the second lane to a third.
Yar, every lane asked me, 'Where is the other?' I felt that I no longer
had any kinship with these lanes, as though all the lanes were angry with
me. I passed through Rimjhim's lane too. The doorway looked absolutely
desolate. Rimjhim's mother sat alone in the doorway, with her half-naked
body and withered youth, spinning. I left those lanes, and set out toward
our school. It was the vacation, the school was closed. I passed through
the empty verandahs and went toward the field. Suddenly my eye fell on
the mango tree by the chapel. I went and sat in its shade. Yar, how much
time we used to spend sitting in its shade, throwing bricks at the green
mangoes to make them fall! This time too the branches were full of green
mangoes. I had an overpowering desire to throw bricks at them and make
them fall. But yar, my hands were somehow paralyzed. They didn't move to
throw a brick. I sat in silence, watching the green leafy branches laden
with green mangoes. Then a green mango fell in front of me with a little
thump. What was this? At the time there was no wind blowing, and no flock
of parrots perched in the tree. Had our mango tree recognized me? I felt
melancholy, and stood up. If the lanes, birds, and trees don't recognize
you, you're sad, and if they do recognize you, you feel melancholy. You
go around looking for a neem tree (did you ever find one?) and here the
neem, tamarind, mango, pipal trees are all present in their places. But
when they see me, they turn into strangers. When one tree recognized me,
I felt melancholy.
dear friend, for me there's now nothing but melancholy. You must have earned
something since you've gone there. Staying here I haven't earned anything,
I've only wasted my life. Yar, the hair at my temples is absolutely white.
How is the hair at your temples? I'll tell you one thing more -- and this
is the saddest thing of all. Yesterday when I was drinking tea with Sabirah,
my eyes fell on the part in her hair. How elegantly straight a part she
had made. I saw that among the black hairs one hair was shining like silver.
So, my friend, time is passing. We're all in the power of time. So hurry
and come here. Come and see the city of Delhi, and the realm of beauty,
for both are waiting for you. Come and join them, before silver fills the
part in her hair, and your head becomes a drift of snow, and our lives
are merely a story. That's all,
before -- " he murmured, then read parts of the letter again and was plunged
to write a letter, he murmured, after a long time deep in thought. A letter
-- now, after so much time -- now, after so much time, it seemed improper
to write her a letter. It's astonishing -- since coming here I haven't
even written her a letter. Then she gradually slipped out of my mind altogether.
And look at her, she didn't lift a finger either. She kept silent, as though
she didn't exist, or as though I didn't exist. And now it's suddenly revealed
that she exists, and I do too. First she came to life in my memory. And
now a lost friend appears, and announces that she exists in her own right,
apart from my memory, with her own memories, in which I still live. He
paused. Do I live in her memory? -- really -- ? If not, then why is she
melancholy and why does she suffer? I live in her melancholy and suffering.
He thought all this as though it were some amazing occurrence. And suddenly
a wave rose inside him: I ought to go and see her; and from some deep layer
of his memory an image welled up. Lying in the middle of the road, a motionless
man with chains on his feet and his forehead covered with blood where it
had been struck by a brick. "Zakir! Is Majnun dead?" --"No, he's alive.
--"No, Majnun is dead." And she began to cry -- "Sabbo, he's just pretending."
--"No, Majnun is dead." She went on crying. --Yes! I ought to go, and announce
that I --
who is the letter from?" Ammi asked, coming into the room.
are coming even from India. It's only Dhaka where something's happened
so that no letters come," Ammi said sadly, and fell silent. Then,
after thinking a bit, she said, "Who's the letter from?"
Ammi was confused.
don't you remember Surendar, who was my friend?"
Surendar. Ai, what a time the poor man chose for writing."
he asked, thinking about something, "Do we no longer have any relatives
stared at him. "Son, after a quarter of a century it's occurred to you
to ask? Who would still be there? We had already come away. Batul was left
there, then she too went off to Dhaka with her daughter."
Sabirah -- ?"
mention Sabirah's name in my presence!" Ammi said angrily.
He watched Ammi's face.
turned out to be an extremely self-willed girl." Ammi elaborated: "First
of all, I want to know why, when the whole family came away from there,
she stayed behind. Why, if she had come here, some arrangement or other
would have been made for her! Her marriage would have been arranged somehow
within the family. There, she's unmarried and lives a lousy life. And since
she did stay there -- well, she could at least have paid a bit of attention
to the old mansion! Batul urged her so many times, and I wrote her too,
'Daughter, take ten days' leave for Muharram and have a look around: light
the lamp in the Imambara, and raise the standards,' but that wretched girl
didn't go at all, she didn't look in even once! Finally refugees came and
took over the place. Now she can whistle for it; but otherwise, she would
have been the sole owner of the house -- who would have gone from here
to claim a share?"
if we were to go there, where would we stay?"
you've lost your senses, why would we go there now? Who of our family is
Rupnagar itself," he said slowly and thoughtfully. Ammi, as though at a
loss for an answer, said not a word.
was completely silent, but then she thought of something. She said,
"Ai, last night I had a strange dream! It was as if we had gone
there. Everyone was there, I was saying to Batul, 'Sister, you went away
leaving the house absolutely open. Just imagine -- a whole house full of
furniture, and not a single room locked up.'" Ammi was silent, then muttered,
"I don't know what it means. I'll ask your father what kind of dream it
fell silent, deep in thought. He too, along with her, was lost in distant
reflections. After such a long time, mother and son sat together, floating
in the same wave of memory. Where did the wave carry them? Where were they
at that moment? They were wandering in their mansion in Rupnagar.
then Abba Jan arrived, coming in from somewhere. Seeing mother and son
lost to the world, he was somewhat surprised.
What is it, what's happened?"
Abba Jan," he said slowly, and fell silent.
he looked at his wife. "What is it?"
nothing at all, we were only somehow remembering old things." With a long
sigh she came back from her journey to Rupnagar. On her return, how strange
and unfamiliar the walls of this small rented house looked. For a little
while she was again lost. Then she suddenly spoke. "Well, listen now, where
is the key to the storeroom?"
hai, you've already forgotten! Was there not a storeroom in our mansion?"
the storeroom in the mansion." Abba Jan was silent, then said, "Zakir's
mother, twenty-five years have passed."
I'm asking about the key to the storeroom, not the number of years."
you asked about the key to the storeroom, I thought I ought to tell you
how much time has passed."
what does time have to do with it -- time always goes on passing, but if
the key to the storeroom's been lost, it's a disaster! All our old family
heirlooms are shut up in there. All the things from my dowry are in there.
And when Zakir, may God preserve him, was born, your father, to celebrate
the birth of a grandson, sent sweets around to all the relatives on silver
plates. Twelve of those plates are stored there too. And, yes, that shroud
you sent for from Holy Karbala is in the same trunk with your father's
prayer carpet from Madina the Radiant, and the tablet of healing earth
from Karbala, and your mother's chest and Quran-stand."
Zakir looked at her with surprise.
son, the shroud. When your grandfather came back from his pilgrimage to
Karbala, he brought with him two shrouds that had been specially prepared
there and had touched the Imam's tomb. He himself was buried in one. Are,
that's why for forty days a sweet smell like musk came from his grave."
days? You speak of forty days, but I know that whenever I went there to
read the Fatihah, I felt that a sweet smell was coming from his grave.
It was a remarkable kind of sweet smell." Abba Jan was silent, then sighed
and said, "God alone knows what condition all those graves are in."
did whatever I could. When we left for Vyaspur, I gathered all our family
heirlooms carefully in the storeroom and locked it up. And before we left
for Pakistan I told you again and again that I wanted to have just a final
look around Rupnagar, and pick up anything that we should take with us,
but you never listened to a word I said. Oh, if only I could have unlocked
the storeroom just once, and at least aired things out in the sun! So much
time has passed, I'm afraid the wretched termites will have been at them;
there were so many termites in that house."
to go before the termites nibble everything away, he thought to himself.
Then the question arose in his mind, as time passes why do termites get
at things? What relationship is there between time and termites? Is time
a termite, or is a termite time?
mother! You don't remember what was going on with the trains at the time.
I myself wanted to have a last look around Rupnagar before leaving. I would
have read the Fatihah one last time over my ancestors' graves." Abba Jan
paused, then said, "And at least I would have brought my shroud." After
a pause he addressed Zakir: "Son, there I had made all the arrangements
for my burial. The shroud was ready, and I'd chosen a place for my grave
too. My family would only have had to take the trouble of cutting a few
filbert branches/2/ and washing
me, then lifting me to their shoulders and lowering me into the grave.
But here, there's no arrangement. You'll have to arrange everything."
great power the grave has in Muslims' culture. A phrase from Surendar's
letter came to his mind.
this is just the anxiety that eats at my heart, how will our deaths be!"
Ammi said worriedly. "Our lives have passed somehow or other, but for death
a hundred arrangements have to be made."
death requires more arrangements than life, he thought to himself. Just
then there was a knock at the door.
He rose and went to the door.
at once left the room, but Abba Jan waited for Irfan to come in. As he
entered, Abba Jan threw out the question, "Well, young man, is there any
sir, there's no special news."
man, what kind of a journalist are you?" After a pause he said, "But it's
not your fault, that's the state the newspapers are in nowadays. Once they
used to publicize the news, now they conceal the news; in any case, may
God have mercy, things don't look good." As he spoke, he rose and went
I was waiting for you, it was very boring, the Shiraz was absolutely empty
Nobody was there?"
that white-haired man. Today he found me alone and pounced on me. He was
very boring." He paused, then said, "Yar, that man seems a very suspicious
character to me."
said something like this before."
today I'm convinced of it."
anybody who makes a show of national feeling, I've begun to have doubts
let's drop the subject, yar. I'll tell you some news."
today a letter came," he said confidentially.
India?" Irfan looked him over doubtfully from head to foot. "A letter from
India? In these times? --It was from some relative."
it was from my old friend Surendar."
letter from Surendar, in these times?" Irfan said ironically, "Zakir, sometimes
I have doubts even about you."
often had doubts about myself too. But anyway, for the present, read this
letter." He put the letter into Irfan's hands.
read it carefully from start to finish. He was reading the letter, and
Zakir was trying to understand his reaction from the expressions that passed
over his face. After finishing the letter, Irfan laughed. "Yar, I thought
that Sabirah was a figment of your nostalgic imagination. But she really
exists." He paused, then said, "Be that as it may, your love shows a wonderful
sense of timing! What a season the fruit of love has chosen to ripen in!"
ignored Irfan's words, and said, "Yar, I want to go there."
did you say? You want to go?"
yar! I want to go and see her one time, before -- " In the midst
of speaking, he stopped.
-- " Irfan sarcastically repeated the word. Then he said, "My dear friend,
a long time has passed."
a long time has passed, but still -- " As he spoke, he fell into thought.
peered into the room. "Are, son, what's making that noise outside?"
saying that war has broken out."/3/
War has broken out?" They both jumped up at once, and hastily went out.
it was evening, and in the lane there was darkness from one end to the
other. Light filtered out from the windows and air vents of many distant
houses. But near them in the lane a clamor was rising, 'Put out the lights!'
'Turn off the light!' -- and the lights in the houses were gradually going
off. Now, into the far distance, the darkness was complete. A group of
young volunteers, blowing whistles, swiftly entered the lane. Zakir advanced.
"What is it, brother?"
has broken out."
was an announcement on the radio." And the group, blowing their whistles,
swiftly turned off into another lane.
both stood for a little while in silence. Then, sitting down in his own
doorway, he said, "Yar, war has really broken out."
Irfan said, thinking about something else, and sat down beside him.
both sat there in the dusty doorway for a long time. In the dark lane,
two silent shadows.
a siren began to wail, and with it the sharp sounds of whistles from near
and far. The sounds of whistles, and the thup-thup of running footsteps.
we go inside?" he said slowly.
it any safer inside?" Irfan asked in a disagreeable voice.
sound of the siren gradually died out. The thup-thup of running footsteps,
the sounds of whistles, people's cries and calls, the angry instruction
'Turn off the light!' -- gradually all these sounds ceased, and silence
spread through the night. In that silence ears waited to hear some huge
noise. They waited for a long time, no huge noise, no explosion could be
I'm thinking that Sabirah -- "
you're thinking about Sabirah?"
the distance a low droning noise silenced them. They again strained their
they Indian planes?"
from India, like the love letter you received today."
yar, I was thinking something else."
now Sabirah will forget about Dhaka and seek out news from here."
Irfan whispered ominously, and they both strained their ears again. The
distant sound of an explosion, as though a bomb had fallen in some far-off
unknown town. And then unfathomable silence, a fearful quiet. The whole
city seemed to be motionless, holding its breath.
An echo from a poem by *Iqbal.
Water to wash a dead body is customarily heated with filbert leaves in
On December 3, 1971, war broke out with India; India had been vigorously
supporting the disaffected party in East Pakistan.