C H A P T E R   S I X

        Yar Zakir!

        I first send you the usual salutations.  I'm fine, and I hope everything's well with you too.
        You 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.
        Yar, 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.
        From 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?"
        "Yes, my mother and sister are there."
        "Are you getting letters?"
        "The last letter came two weeks ago. Since then I've written two letters. I've sent a wire too, but no answer has come."
        "But what will you learn from the news on the radio?"
        "At least I can get an idea how things are in the city."
        "Then please come to my office. All the Dhaka newspapers come to my desk."
        After this, she began to come to my office. She came regularly every day, looked through all the Dhaka newspapers, and went away.
        "Where are the rest of your family?" I asked one day.
        "Some in Karachi, some in Lahore, some in Islamabad."
        "And here?"
        "There's no one here any longer."
        "You're the only one here?"
        "Yes, I'm alone in India."
        One 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?"
        "No, young man."
        "And the reason?"
        "Young man! You ask for the reason? Have you seen our graveyard?"
        "Just go sometime and take a look. Each tree is leafier than the next. How could my grave have such shade in Pakistan?"
        I laughed 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?"
        "No, I didn't go."
        "And the reason?"
        "It isn't necessary for everything to have a reason."
        "It isn't necessary, but anyway?"
        "Anyway, if I'd gone to Pakistan, it wouldn't have made any difference. I'd have been alone in Pakistan too."
        I looked closely at her face.
        "What town are you from?"
        "Rupnagar!" 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 Zakir?"
        In reply, she looked at me carefully from head to foot. Then she said slowly, "I see, so you're that Surendar Sahib."
        After 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?"
        "For what?"
        "No matter what the circumstances, it's necessary to tread carefully around someone else's emotional life."
        She 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?"
        "And the reason?"
        She hesitated, then said with a wan smile, "Look, you've stepped out of bounds now."
        "Sorry," I apologized.
        "It's all right," she said with the same wan smile, and fell silent.
        Zakir, 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?"
        "No," came the short reply.
        "Then please celebrate Id here, and give me a treat."
        "Of course, come in my office."
        Entering 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?"
        "Rupnagar?" She looked at me with surprise. "Why should I?"
        "You people have the custom of not spending Id away, but going home to celebrate Id."
        "Perhaps I've already told you my family situation. There are now none of us left in Rupnagar."
        I fell silent. Then, drinking tea, I asked casually, "Don't you even have any distant relatives there?"
        "Even my distant relatives have all gone. Rupnagar is empty."
        "What a strange thing," I murmured.
        "Won't 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?"
        "It's strange. How long has it been?"
        "A 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 Pakistan."
        "And you decided to settle in India?"
        "Do you really have to ask?"
        At 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 -- "
        I paused 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.
        Yar, 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.
        My 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,


        And before -- " he murmured, then read parts of the letter again and was plunged into thought.
        I ought 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 -- 
        "Son, who is the letter from?" Ammi asked, coming into the room.
        "From India."
        "Letters 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?"
        "From Surendar."
        "Surendar." Ammi was confused.
        "Ammi, don't you remember Surendar, who was my friend?"
        "Oh, Surendar.  Ai, what a time the poor man chose for writing."
        "Ammi," he asked, thinking about something, "Do we no longer have any relatives in Rupnagar?"
        She 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."
        "But Sabirah -- ?"
        "Don't mention Sabirah's name in my presence!" Ammi said angrily.
        "Why?" He watched Ammi's face.
        "She 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?"
        "Ammi, if we were to go there, where would we stay?"
        "Child, you've lost your senses, why would we go there now? Who of our family is still there?"
        "There's Rupnagar itself," he said slowly and thoughtfully. Ammi, as though at a loss for an answer, said not a word.
        Ammi 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 was."
        Ammi 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.
        Just then Abba Jan arrived, coming in from somewhere. Seeing mother and son lost to the world, he was somewhat surprised.
        "Zakir! What is it, what's happened?"
        "Nothing, Abba Jan," he said slowly, and fell silent.
        Then he looked at his wife. "What is it?"
        "It's 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?"
        "Storeroom? What storeroom?"
        "Ai hai, you've already forgotten! Was there not a storeroom in our mansion?"
        "Oh, the storeroom in the mansion." Abba Jan was silent, then said, "Zakir's mother, twenty-five years have passed."
        "Well, I'm asking about the key to the storeroom, not the number of years."
        "When you asked about the key to the storeroom, I thought I ought to tell you how much time has passed."
        "Oh, 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."
        "Shroud?" Zakir looked at her with surprise.
        "Yes, 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."
        "Forty 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."
        "I 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."
        I ought 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?
        "Zakir's 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."
        What great power the grave has in Muslims' culture. A phrase from Surendar's letter came to his mind.
        "Oh, 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."
        So death requires more arrangements than life, he thought to himself. Just then there was a knock at the door.
        "Who's there?"
        "It's me, Irfan."
        "Coming." He rose and went to the door.
        Ammi 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 news?"
        "No sir, there's no special news."
        "Young 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 inside.
        "Yar, I was waiting for you, it was very boring, the Shiraz was absolutely empty today."
        "Really? Nobody was there?"
        "Only 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."
        "You've said something like this before."
        "But today I'm convinced of it."
        "Yar, anybody who makes a show of national feeling, I've begun to have doubts about."
        "Oh, let's drop the subject, yar. I'll tell you some news."
        "Really? All right."
        "Yar, today a letter came," he said confidentially.
        "From where?"
        "From India."
        "From India?" Irfan looked him over doubtfully from head to foot. "A letter from India? In these times?  --It was from some relative."
        "No, it was from my old friend Surendar."
        "A letter from Surendar, in these times?" Irfan said ironically, "Zakir, sometimes I have doubts even about you."
        "I've often had doubts about myself too. But anyway, for the present, read this letter." He put the letter into Irfan's hands.
        Irfan 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!"
        He ignored Irfan's words, and said, "Yar, I want to go there."
        "What did you say? You want to go?"
        "Yes, yar!  I want to go and see her one time, before -- " In the midst of speaking, he stopped.
        "Before -- " Irfan sarcastically repeated the word. Then he said, "My dear friend, a long time has passed."
        "Yes, a long time has passed, but still -- " As he spoke, he fell into thought.
        Ammi peered into the room. "Are, son, what's making that noise outside?"
        "Noise? What noise?"
        "They're saying that war has broken out."/3/
        "What? War has broken out?" They both jumped up at once, and hastily went out.
        Now 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?"
        "War has broken out."
        "Who says so?"
        "There was an announcement on the radio." And the group, blowing their whistles, swiftly turned off into another lane.
        They both stood for a little while in silence. Then, sitting down in his own doorway, he said, "Yar, war has really broken out."
        "Yes," Irfan said, thinking about something else, and sat down beside him.
        They both sat there in the dusty doorway for a long time. In the dark lane, two silent shadows.
        Suddenly 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.
        "Shouldn't we go inside?" he said slowly.
        "Is it any safer inside?" Irfan asked in a disagreeable voice.
        The 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 heard.
        "Yar, I'm thinking that Sabirah -- "
        "So you're thinking about Sabirah?"
        "Yes, now."
        From the distance a low droning noise silenced them. They again strained their ears.
        "Are they Indian planes?"
        "Yes, from India, like the love letter you received today."
        "But yar, I was thinking something else."
        "That now Sabirah will forget about Dhaka and seek out news from here."
        "Listen," 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.


/1/ An echo from a poem by *Iqbal.

/2/ Water to wash a dead body is customarily heated with filbert leaves in it.

/3/ On December 3, 1971, war broke out with India; India had been vigorously supporting the disaffected party in East Pakistan.



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