Monday, September 19, 2011


Zuljinnah bolted.  Moments before, Asghar, who had  felt he was about to faint with the monstrous heat and  suffocating press of the crowd  at the Ashura procession had let go of the horse’s reins to gulp a glass of sherbet proffered from one of the many sabeels that lined the procession route when the richly caparisoned steed took off at a blinding gallop.

 Until that instant the morning’s mourning had gone off without a hitch, beginning as it did each year in the congested and poor mohajir locality of Burns Road before culminating some five miles away at the Tariq Road qabaristan. Asghar had jockeyed hard all year to be given the honor of leading Zuljinnah. His generous and hard earned gifts to Imam Rizvi had helped. The family’s house shared a wall with Imam Rizvi’s and from the window of his second floor bedroom he sometimes spied on Zubeida, the Imam’s 15 year old daughter; on the tiny square green postage stamp of her front lawn as she fanned out her long wet hair to dry in the sun. He had thrilled at the thought that for once, the roles would be reversed, that Zubeida would be watching him from the sidelines along with her family as he led the Moharram procession.

That thrill evaporated as fast as drop of water on burning asphalt as he saw Zuljinnah’s  bright  trappings recede into a blur. All around him was a swirling chaos of shouts, screams and insults “abbe ullu ke patthey yeh tu ne ky kiya!” and  “ after him you chootiya!” A rickshaw was hastily flagged down and the next thing Asghar knew he was giving a dizzying, zigzagging chase to the runaway steed, as they darted  into sabzi galis and bartan galis and stolen auto parts alleys, leaving a colorful clattering wake in their path. Asghar was grateful for the small mercy of the velociferous wind that although scalding by itself, felt cool on his sweat drenched frame. All along the rickshawallah was blaring Runa Laila’s hit number  ‘mera babu chail chabila main to nachun gi’  Asghar thought for a bizarre, surreal moment that the rickshaw itself was like a motorized version of Zuljinnah. Gold gota was plastered around all its edges and red and gold tassels and garlands hung everywhere so much so that visibility of the road appeared to be an afterthought.

Oddly enough Zuljinnah appeared to be heading towards the Tariq Road qabaristan. Most strange, Asghar thought to himself, after all its not like he has been this way before. Every year a new horse was selected for the symbolic honor of being Imam Husain’s steed at the fateful battle of Karbala. Zuljinnah was the emblem of bravery and loyalty fighting at his master’s side until he drew his last, martyred breath.

Tariq Road qabaristan was one of the older Shia  graveyards of the city. On one side there was a low stone wall on which were plastered various advertisements mostly aimed at the ills and afflictions of the impotent male organ coupled with slogans of political parties in the shade of tall, stately babool and pipal trees. Here was where the patriarchs of the older and more prosperous Shia sayyad families came to their final resting place. Marble headstones and green flags abounded. Incense burned. Rose petals lay scattered about. On the other side of the cemetery, in the burning sun the landscape wilted into naked cement slabs and in many cases, simple mounds of earth. There were no well tended plants, only ubiquitous brambles of kikar, upon which the inevitably unanswered prayer flags of orphaned plastic fluttered morosely.

It was here that Zuljinnah finally arrived, neighing and stamping his feet upon a rare patch of bare ground as if he was hazrat Houwa searching frantically for water. Asghar jumped out of the rickshaw, ignoring the rickshawallah’s angry demands  for his fare and ran to the horse’s side. Zuljinnah had flung his heavy garland upon the ground and had sat down upon it unmoving. A crowd had gathered, as was to be expected in such an unusual circumstance. Someone offered to fetch Khajoor Baba, a fakir who lived at the far end of the qabaristan under a date palm tree. Before Asghar could accept or refuse, the Baba in question was to be seen ambling along toward the commotion. Every few moments he would utter ”Haq!” in a  very loud voice and thump his staff upon the ground sending clouds of dust into the air. Asghar thought he had seen him once or twice before, at the urs of Abdullah Shah ghazi perhaps.

Certainly Khajoor Baba was an unmistakable presence. His beard and hair were dyed a flaming red with henna and a colorful mala of beads hung about his neck along with a garland of dried dates or khajoor from he no doubt derived his name. In the breadth of an instant Asghar was given a barrage of contradictory information about Khajoor Baba. He was, variously, a charlatan, a great holy man, an outright thief, a diviner of water,  a diviner of the future,  an instrument of Satan, he could read your hand , do not let him touch your hand,  he could grant you a child, he was a swallower of children. The chatter grew silent, however, as the malang approached. He caressed the white star between Zuljinnah’s eyes and the horse bowed his head. A murmur rippled through the crowd as Khajoor baba’s staff pointed downwards in front of the horse as if pulled by an invisible gravity. “Kulhari lao!” he commanded, fetch the pickaxe. “There is a holy relic buried here!”

Sunday, September 18, 2011

An All Consuming Love

 East Pakistan, 1970

“Left right! Left right! Pajama dheela topi tight!  Agey husband peechay wife"'
The last line of this ditty invariably leads both goose-stepping siblings to collapse in heaps of giggles on the grass. Deep in the Dacca cantonment their garden is full of banana trees with glistening elephant ear leaves and fat yellow fingers of fruit plush in the drip of recent rain. Ayah mashes up  the bananas  and puts salt, pepper and sugar in them. The soft disks sweat until they are swimming in their own spiced up juice.  Banana chaat is  yet another one of Ayah's delicious creations. There is nothing, however, that she can do to milk to make it palatable to Nubia’s six year old tongue.

"Every morning she throws the milk down the sink when I'm not looking! Begum Sahiba I strained this milk with muslin twice and she didn’t' drink! Ayyo! My bones are too old for this. Look at Anmol Baba. Every day he drinks down two glasses of milk. Gut gut gut. Drinks it down. See how fair he is? You will be as black as coal if you don't drink milk and then no one will marry you!"

Fortunately  Nubia is rescued from Ayah's lamenting tirade by Froggy's yell "You coming?"  She grabs  her school bag and runs into the back seat of the honking Volkswagen. She loves school, " Its not just any school, "  she points out proudly to Ayah, Ammi, Abba, Anmol, any one who will listen "its the Farm View Intemational school" As if 'International' made it unquestionably superior to any and all other educational enterprises.

In actuality Mrs. Chaudhri's Farm View International School was one of those rare entities that lived up to every letter in its rather idyllic sounding name. Surrounded by acres of paddy fields and palm and banana groves, it was alma mater to some three hundred and fifty students from twenty three countries. The day began with a thrilling slide off a huge jungle gym followed by a mad race to class. Lessons were transformed into exciting games under the creative vision of Mrs. Chaudhri who had herself  hated school as a child and determined that  someday she would create a school that was the very antithesis of  her awful experience of learning by rote whilst being confined hour after hour in a musty classroom. As a result every lesson involved some type of song, dance or play and  unless it was raining all classes were outside. To Nubia it was all so enthralling that she hated the weekends and longed for school every day. Her world would have been near perfect except for Froggy.

Froggy’s real name was Farooq but of course no one called him that. He had long ago transmogrified into Froggy, thanks to his his huge bulging eyes encased in thick coke bottle spectacles. Froggy was the bane of Nubia’s existence. Not only only did he consistently beat her to first place in class, he had an endless supply of foreign chocolates and candies which he noisily, drippily consumed in front of her without so much as parting with a single sliver in spite of her long and tearful pleas.  The dimpled and lovely class mistress, Mrs. Alvi, had gently upbraided Froggy on several occasions, urging him to be generous with his bounty to no avail. Nubia’s misery continued unabated. She collected, yes collected Froggy’s disdainfully discarded wrappers; painfully pressing them in her scrapbook, ignoring the humiliation that this constituted. She was determined to have mementoes of “abroad” no matter how small.

Her tormenter was strangely silent  today. They had been in the car for several minutes and the neat bungalows of the cantonment had given way to the sun dappled gold-green blur of the paddy fields as they drove towards Farm View; an almost silence interrupted only by throat clearing sounds made by the Foxy as the driver changed gears. Nubia was puzzled. Normally by this time Froggy would have pulled out a whole cornucopia of candies. “Whats the matter Froggy?”, she poked , “run out of chocolate?” though she knew this could not possibly happen. “Na” said Froggy glumly, staring out the window. “then what??” she asked, getting impatient. “We’re leaving!” Froggy finally burst out in a flood of tears. “What?” she cried, taken completely by surprise. “Leaving? When?” “On Friday” “Friday?” Nubia could not believe her ears. “thats only three days away” “I know “ said Froggy sinking back into  a gloomy silence. The rest of the way Nubia’s mind was racing faster than the car; on the one hand her daily torture would now be over; on the other hand she was now bereft of even the beloved candy wrappers, her only connection to the wonderful, magical world of “abroad”. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Finally she said “Where will you go?” “To my mummy’s house in Copenhagen” Froggy sniffed as  Nubia gave him a blank stare. Normally he would have gloated at her ignorance. Today he just said wearily “Its the capital of Denmark” Denmark. Of course. To add insult to her injuries Froggy was also half Danish. She tried to picture what Copenhagen was like but could could only come up with a vague picture of a gilded opera house in Vienna from a postcard that Ammi had once shown her. The vision did not last long as they had arrived at the noisy traffic jam that formed twice a day at the gates of Farm View. It was time to race to the jungle gym slide and then to class.

The  dimpled Miss Alvi handed them little envelopes to give to their parents at the end of the day.  Nubia took hers without a thought. They were always being handed envelopes containing monthly report cards, school excursions, parent teacher meetings and sundry notifications. The constant missives were all part  of Mrs. Chaudhri’s credo of “active communication” as she called it. She got home and handed the sealed envelope to her mother impatiently, anxious to know if she had finally bested Farooq Hamid in the monthly rankings even though such a victory if indeed there was one, would be hollow now. Ammi read the contents and frowned. Nubia looked at her in alarm. Surely it was not a bad report? She had been slipping in her sums lately, but overall Nubia was a precocious child, a fact keenly noticed by her teachers who had rapidly advanced her in the space of six months to “Stage 4 Kindergarten” in Farm View’s  finely calibrated grading system. 

Shehrbano Ansari folded up the envelope and set it on her dressing table, then motioned Nubia to come and sit on her lap. Nubia admired the noble profile of her mother in the three way mirror. The  long aquiline nose, the perfect Cupid’s bow her lips made, how they seemed to be defined even when she did not wear lipstick.  All along the dressing table were wooden arms that held glass bangles arranged by color. Yellows, oranges, reds, maroons, pinks, mauve and purples were on the left side while on the right were an array of lime greens, emerald greens, turquoise, peacock blue, sky blue, and finally indigo. Nubia loved to run her fingers on the bottom of the hanging bangles and listen to the soft tinkling they made. Her mother only wore the bangles when she  got dressed up in a sari to go to parties, otherwise she wore fresh coils of motia flowers  from the garden on her wrists everyday, each night placing the discarded flower bracelets in a bowl of water at her bedside so that they permeated the entire room with their sweet heady fragrance.

“I am sorry to tell you this Noobi but your school will be closing early this term” “No! It can’t be true!” Nubia was in shock. This second blow was too much. She picked up the offending  letter and gave it to her mother to read aloud.  Her parents names were hand written in  Mrs Chaudhri’s elegant cursive  above the typed note. It read, “ Dear Maj. and Mrs Ansari,  It  is with deep regret that  I am ending the school year  at Farm View early.  December 2nd  will be the last day of school. My decision as you all know is taken in the light of the increasing risks to the children and the staff by the worsening security situation. I look forward to reopening Farm View once things improve. Let us pray that this is sooner rather than later.  Yours Sincerely,  Mrs. Amina Chaudhri, Principal, Farm View International School, Dacca ”

“Risks? What risks? Nubia  demanded to  know, angry, distraught and strangely excited all at once. “ Really Noobi” said Ammi wearily, “ Must you know” Before Nubia could work herself into  a temper tantrum her mother abruptly gave in and blurted “ Its the Mukti Bahini.  They call themselves freedom fighters. They want East Pakistan to be a separate country.” “But why? Everyone’s so happy here!” Nubia desperately tried to  rack her brains for any signs of discontent around her and could find none. Who could possibly be unhappy? “Its not so simple as that beti,”Ammi tried futilely to explain.  “ But what about us?  I don’t want to leave. Can’t we be in the new country too?” I am afraid not sweetheart, the new country is just for Bengalis. They want to call it Bangladesh. “Oh”Nubia looked at her mother, confounded. She had never thought herself as non-Bengali. In fact she had never thought herself as anything at all except a rather clever girl who longed for unattainable chocolates and a glamorous life visiting “abroad” someday.

“Anyway,” Ammi tried to cheer her up, “ We don’t know for sure that this will happen. it could also be that they just  have kutti for a while and they will talk and make up and be friends again, just like you and Froggy” “ Froggy is not my friend!” Nubia retorted angrily. “ I just have to share rides with him to school and besides he’s going to Denmark” “And we will be leaving too, Noobi, no matter what happens. Abba’s two years are almost up. We will be posted out of here soon” But this inevitable circumstance now seemed like a minor detail. Nubia was beyond consolation. The rest of her day went by in a daze of tears. 

By the time Abba arrived in the evening the sun was already departing,  leaving a  long red rimmed eyelid of horizon in its wake. Nubia had been waiting for what seemed like an eternity, walking on the upturned triangles of the brick edged flowerbeds until the arches of her feet ached.  Her father gently took Nubia’s hand in his. “Come on betay, lets go for a walk. Nubia loved that he called her betay, son,  rather than beti, it was part of their special secret bond and it made her feel important. She knew her father confided things with her that were beyond her years  and she knew somehow not to tell these things and especially not that he chain smoked cigarettes on their daily walks as he had told Ammi that he had quit for the umpteenth time. 

They strode quickly in the fast dwindling twilight, trying to shake off the clouds of mosquitos that whined and buzzed above their heads. Abba said nothing but he didn’t need to. His grip on Nubia’s hand was firm and reassuring. Eventually the yellow flickering street lamps came on one by one, each acquiring its own following of light crazed insects. “ See betay, thats progress for you” said Abba in a voice not without irony “ In the old days  the insects used to die in the living flame; it was sacred  to die  like that; it was the symbol of junoon “ “what’s junoon” Nubia interrupted “ Junoon is a very special love, a love that doesn’t care what happens, you could say its An All Consuming Love” “Ah” She said, suddenly longing in her heart for An All Consuming Love”  “ Now with the invention of the light bulb they all live “ Her father stubbed out his cigarette on the lamp post and unfolded the wrapper of a paan, placing the stuffed leaf triangle that would serve as breath camouflage  in the side of his mouth.  “But thats terrible!” she said, “ I wish we never had lightbulbs, then we would have had a lot less mosquitos!”“True” gurgled Abba in a paan filled laugh “Lets go see what Mir Hasan’s made for dinner.”

The pungent aromas of Mir Hasan’s cooking wafted invitingly from the kitchen. “Can I go and see Mir Hasan make the phulkas?” Nubia pleaded, Ammi frowned but gave in, afraid to provoke another outburst. Watching Mir Hasan make phulkas was a fascinating spectacle. He had a little mountain of dough balls and with what seemed like incredible speed would flatten them into perfect circles with his rolling pin, then slapslapslap they flew from one hand to the other then quick-as-a-flash on the round skillet. Already rolling the next one, Mir Hasan paused for a split second, flipped the phulka, then catapulted it onto the open flame where the phulka puffed up like the cheeks of a shehnai player or  a crazed bullfrog in courtship, puffed up in a pride about to be devoured. She ran back to the dinner table as soon as enough of the puffin breads were done, pulling them open with the still hot steam singeing her fingers as she wrapped them into morsels  dripping with gravy from the Hilsa that Kanchon had caught just that morning.

All  through dinner Mir Hasan kept shuttling in through the kitchen door to deposit freshly puffed phulkas on their plates until Ammi motioned him to stop. Every time the door opened Nubia had a brief glimpse of Ayah and Kanchon hunched over a large aluminum platter eating little balls of rice and Hilsa. She had never seen them eat Hilsa with phulkas or any other type of bread and was wondering about this when it dawned on her. 

“So what are we?” Nubia’s question sounded unnaturally loud, a clattering spoon of a question. Ammi and Abba looked up from their plates at each other then at her with  expressions of dismay. “ We’re Pakistanis, of course ” Abba firmly replied. “ No, no I mean what are we? ” Nubia persisted “ if we’re not Bengalis,” she added, making herself  irrevocably clear. There was  a long uncomfortable silence at the table. “ We are Mohajirs. “ Ammi said finally. Mohajirs. This was a new term for Nubia. “ Mohajirs are people who came to Pakistan from India  after Partition” “1947” Nubia said triumphantly “ I knew that” “ Yes, your Abba’s family came over in 1947 and I came later in 1960” “ Later, why later?” Nubia prodded, trying to digest all this new information. “ “thats a lot later” She tried to subtract 1947 from 1960 in her head.  Ammi looked at her as if she might say something but thought better of it. “ Yes Noobi, I just  went to Karachi to attend a wedding and met your Abba over there and and fell in love and that was it.  I left India to marry your father.” “ How romantic,” Nubia mused, “is that junoonAn All Consuming Love?” “  Yes beti, an ALL consuming love” Ammi replied, her voice trailing from resignation to a rueful silence.

“ Lets go for a picnic “ Abba’s voice came booming into her reverie. Really janum, do you think thats wise?” “ Perfectly wise. Nothing is going to happen on Eid and its just round the corner. A little trip down the Sunderbans is going to do us a world of good”“ The Sunderbans!” Nubia exclaimed, trembling with excitement, the jungle.  Abba had done it again. Resurrected her day. She went to bed filled with dreams about Tarzan; the object of his All Consuming Love; flying gracefully at his side from limb to limb with a chorus of adoring chimpanzees swinging close behind them.

The Sunderbans was far wider than she had imagined, its  vast water  a muddy potato brown under a translucent veneer  of blue edged with impenetrable jungle on both banks. Every so often they would pass  khoro kishti,   long flat  bottomed boats  carrying straw from  the Sundarbans to Dacca  propelled by both sail and oar. The wiry boatmen sang rhythmically as they steered their craft up and down the river. “Awain varsha e leeray, awain doopa e leeray, O kul val velir nouko par nai ray”...” No matter if the rain comes, no matter if the storm comes, take my boat across, O Guide.

Its Baqr Eid and the jawans on the ship  were clamoring for a sacrifice. Major Ansari did  did not want to shoot a deer. “Its not the same as slaughtering a goat” he protested,  “ Sir, Sir,”  the soldiers crowded around him, humbling themselves until he finally agreed.  They cut the ship’s engine and waited. Eventually a mother and calf  came to drink water on the bank.  Her father aimed for the doe but shot the calf instead. It bawled piteously, staining the riverbank red with its blood. Nubia watched the whole thing with a transfixed gaze, unable to look yet even more unable to tear her eyes away.

Two soldiers rowed ashore for what seemed like an eternity to fetch the murdered deer back to their vessel. They had just disembarked and were about to truss the calf when out of nowhere a huge Bengal tiger appeared. No one moved for a split second.  Then, like skinned bananas jumping back into their shells the jawans began screaming in sheer terror as they jumped  back into the boat frantically pushing it  out into the water as the tiger dragged the dead calf back into the dense veil of the mangroves.

Nubia’s world had been altered forever.  Her beloved Abba had killed actually killed an innocent animal because he had been expected to. He was not brutal but he had done something brutal. She could never look at her father the same way as before, with the unadulterated adulation of innocence.

School was closed. She  spent her days listening in numbed indifference to the rumors of  killing, burning and looting flying from the mouths of Ayah, Kanchon, Mir Hasan and Bagh Ali.  Months passed, the situation got steadily worse and there was still no sign of Abba’s posting. “Whats going on janum?” said an anxious Ammi over breakfast three months later. “ When are we getting out of here?” “ I have arranged for you and the children to get on the next military transport to Karachi” Abba replied “ It leaves day after tomorrow” “ What do you mean?” Shehrbano cried wildly “ What about you? What about your posting?” “ They have canceled my posting”  said Abba, his voice like stone. “ Its war. I cannot leave my men, it would be desertion” 

Her mother begged and pleaded but there was no getting around Abba’s grim determination. So Shehrbano spent the next forty eight hours shouting out panicked instructions to Mir Hasan, Bagh Ali,  Kanchon and  Ayah to pack-this-leave-that  hurry hurry hurry until the next thing they knew they were on a rattling C-130 military transport plane to Karachi. Nubia never saw Froggy or Farm View again. Sometime in December 1971 the Pakistani army surrendered to the Mukti Bahini and the Indian Armed  Forces. East Pakistan was no more. 

The 14th Division of Dacca along with its commander Major Akbar Ansari were taken prisoner of war. It would be three years before Nubia would see her father again. By that time the chasm between her parents had grown so huge that it was hard to find the  broken threads of An All Consuming Love anywhere in their hearts.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


 Nubia was not her real name of course, it was the name she had given herself unknowingly, at the age of two when her tongue stumbled while trying to say her pious given name, Rabia. Her father,  who secretly penned romantic fantasies late at night while his wife of many banal years slept blissfully unawares, loved the exotic glow of the word.  It summoned up North Africa and his youth as an army doctor, trysts with pretty nurses  met in dusty tent hospitals  at the edges of the battlefields of the Second World War.  Nubia. The name radiated power, sensuality and a kind of virgin fierceness and so, much to Ammi’s disapproval, Nubia she stayed, fiery yet subdued, watching the world with intense pools of dense, deep black that relentlessly deflected  any attempts to penetrate their singular opacity.

Nubia saw everything and gave away nothing. Absolutely nothing. Overtly the rhythms of her world had not changed.  Like the oxen yoked to the millstone at the farming end of the grounds, she went round and round the circle of days  but inside her black eyes the bees of dissent were buzzing ‘my eyes are my only weapons’ she thought, ‘my only weapons. Without them  my dream-tongue is useless’ and so she perfected the art of quiet observation, of listening intently with a careless air so no one would ever know the many dissident words she harbored in her heart, flocks of restive swallows impatiently biding their time until the freedoms of the migrant nights when they found a refuge from unsaid domains to the relative safety of ink and paper.

The other unintentional lesson was learned shortly after bitterness had shocked  her taste buds and jolted awake her senses. The electricity had gone out again, as it did regularly  but this time instead of huddling around  odorous kerosene lanterns Abba had made them stand at one end of the immense corridor  while at the other end, cloaked in the sheath of darkness he made glowing spirals and curlicues with the tip of his lighted cigarette. It was as if the dancing patterns were burning themselves forever into her eyes. Invisibility is power, she thought at that moment and so to the art of observation she added the secret and masterful ally of concealment, of blending in so perfectly, so chameleon like, no one would ever notice her watching.

Two years later; after the eastern arm of the country had been amputated  to make another nation, and the forced separation from her father hovered like a cloud over her being, when she took long walks on Karachi Beach trailing  way behind Ammi and Anmol to be alone,  she was reminded of that earlier  night by the luminous poetry of the phosphorescent waves that crashed like millions of stars at her humbled feet. Close her eyes and she could still see the dancing cigarette buds.  Indelible lesson. The invisible veil is far more powerful armor than the visible barrier that invites to be breached.

She has taken to inventing the names of  all things mentioned in her dreamtongue even though no one has ever seen any of her nightly oeuvre, but its more than mere secrecy, its because she feels that underneath the skin of names there are other names, buried under the slow sediment of time, so  many skins, so many names, each more unvarnished, more primal, more real.

The phosphorescent waves crashed over and over again until she no longer cupped her palms in the night sea water to greet them.. Her seventh year came and went. No one noticed. Ammi drank endless bottles  of codeine cough syrup to soothe  the goblins in her throat  while she waited for Abba to return from officer’s prison camp on the other side of the border of the country that was paradoxically both homeland and enemy. She and Anmol did not dwell upon the contradictions. The were immersed in the vast playground given to them. Old Karachi.

 At seven Nubia was tall for her age, skinny and all legs. Sent to fetch yet another bottle of cough syrup she raced lightning fast to Nixon’s Chemist’s  with the older, asthmatic Anmol puffing protectively behind her.

Nixon’s Chemist’s was a venerable institution ensconced  in the suave and sweetly decadent Metropolis hotel, the domain of the ponderous and precise Nawrozeji and his alter ego Nixon. No one knew why he had chosen to name his shop after the disgraced American president, and no one cared. They did care about the delicious apple toffees and other sticky delights of the child and adult variety that Nixon’s offered in colorful profusion.

Coveted cough syrup in hand they ran back around the corner and up the steps of the Castle. This was the name they had given to the colonial era  fortress like sandstone building that the British had built for the entertainment of their officers, the Services Club where they occupied an entire south wing pending  Abba’s  return from POW officer’s camp.

Codeine delivered to the waiting Ammi, Anmol and Nubia collected their edible and readable  rewards and ascended to their real home. Adjacent to the stone lattices  of the south wing towered the ancient banyan that was the beating heart of Old Karachi.

Days spent in the green embrace of the banyan treehouse, in the crumbly haze of rusks and mango squash, and amid those aerial roots her dream-tongue took flight. She would sleep with pencil and paper tucked away in her pillow and awake in the middle of the night, sneaking out the front door to the dimly street lit banyan where she feverishly wrote  a spate of words that would come flooding in  like a raging torrent, then just as suddenly stop and like a medium possessed by a tormented spirit she would fall back exhausted into a fitful  sleep. Only in the cold green light of early morning waking with birdsong while others slept  did she see her words and know they were everything she could not possibly say out loud.

But I am getting ahead of my story  I and she and her you see we are all mixed up all confused between our many selves at many times. So I have to go back to that time to that painful time of the amputation.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Feast Of Purple Plums

 Mali shook the jamun tree and  down they came in a soft indigo rain. Falling  by the hundreds, the soft heavy plum showers strained the already stained old bed sheet which was trotted out each year just for this purpose. At the end of all the shaking a slightly bruised bundle of joy was lugged into the kitchen where Khansama  waited with several buckets of ice. Under Bagh Ali’s watchful eye, the jamun chilled.

 Nubia and Anmol hovered around  the kitchen drooling after  jamun and generally glued to the  buzz of activity surrounding the dinner party for General  Zardosi.  At 5 pm Abba’s olive green jeep arrived in a dusty rumbling storm cloud. He jumped out sweaty and impatient,  going immediately to bathe for dinner. Dilkusha  brought in the freshly caught titar and batair to the outside servant’s entrance where Naziran  sat on the kitchen steps. She held the partridges and quails upside down with one hand and with the other plucked their plumage off  making whirling feather dervishes as they watched, spellbound.

It was well past six o clock when the searing afternoon  heat of summer  began  to abate. Not so the glowing coals of Khansama’s tandoor. As the shadows lengthened in the sleepy provincial town of Sialkot, the morning’s catch  marinated in yogurt and spices all day began to hiss over the hot coals.

A military jeep escort preceded  the General’s white Chevy Impala  with  its  four star pennants of green, black and red. General Zardosi was a portly stout man with one glass eye. His wife, considerably stouter than him, was as round as the General was tall. Their son Adnan  at fourteen was fat, churlish and clearly spoiled out of hand.  The party began  grandly enough,  Ammi resplendent in a  banana yellow chiffon  sari, crescent moons strung with fresh mogra flowers blooming in her ears, put on a record of Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass on the Grundig. The guests were in a dancing mood but were rudely interrupted mid-step  as the electricity made its customary unannounced departure.

 The otherwise omnipotent General Zardosi could do nothing about this but he managed to glower at Abba  as if it was his fault all the same. To avoid being suffocated inside the party had to hurriedly shift  to the front lawn. Abba’s ever unflappable batman Bagh Ali soothed the suddenly panic stricken Ammi  “Begum Sahib do not worry  no one will even feel the lack of electricity”  As always Bagh Ali was right;  a quick study of the art of entertaining he would take this talent far; to the highest office in the land; but I digress. In a sleepy little town deep in the  lush plains of the Punjab, a dinner party is about to begin.

The long dinner table  gleamed white  and glowed  with  candelabra  in the deepening twilight. The General had  rapidly polished off most of Abba’s Black Label and was now visibly drunk as the the titar arrived, fragrant and smoky from the tandoor. Abba, who was increasingly uncomfortable  tried to make small talk, praising the catch. “ Very succulent titar”  “ Really” mused Zardosi in a voice slightly blurred but still  full of a quiet menace palpable to everyone at the table  “ I prefer tilyar ”  He  paused to take another swig of whiskey, then proclaimed loudly to  whoever had not caught on. “ You know, the migrant bird,  a little tough but makes an excellent appetizer”  The venom in his voice was cold, clear and unmistakable.  There it was. A thinly veiled insult delivered  to my father’s face in a casual elliptical manner at a dinner  party by his new commanding officer  and chief guest.  An awkward silence reigned as the main course was cleared away.

Finally it was time for the jamun.  Chilled for several hours before being salted and shaken the purple cherry plums were served on silver chalices normally reserved for ice cream. Nubia bit into the sweet, sour, succulent flesh of the jamun and  a jewel toned rush of joy flooded  her tongue until her teeth met the soft, bitter kernel and spit it out. Until her new clothes were irrevocably purpled  and sated yet protesting, she was put to an early bed.

The deep boundless cavern of  her childhood sleep snapped  like raw thread. Suddenly straddled by a huge and heavy staleness, Nubia awoke to find  the corpulent Adnan on top of her, one hand stuffing a handkerchief in her mouth and the other holding her down while he stabbed his bulbous penis like some great  root vegetable  at her hairless prepubescent vagina. Suddenly semen spurted out like  clotted milk on her exposed belly, thick and cold. The molester was gone as quick as he came, wiping the trail with a sweaty handkerchief .  Terrified and unable to move, she stared up into the high ceilings with their dark ominous beams. All the while  the clink, clink, clink of water dripped in the metal bucket behind the bathroom door.

Naziran, shaking her  not the jamun tree. “Babyji, babyji, wake up! Sleeping so late! All the water will be gone and then you wont be able to bathe at all! She is jostled out of bed and into the bucket bath. No time today for her favorite early morning ritual; the vigorous massage with warm mustard oil, Naziran’s practiced hands kneading and rubbing every part of her growing body with fine attention to detail. It was a sad irony, missing her daily oil rub, for in the rush of soapy water and gurgling taps about to run out, Naziran missed what she would not have otherwise, the almost erased  marks and smell of semen.

The day fills up with its usual clutter. They are standing on the front porch, Naziran picking the crumbs of breakfast from her frock as she gets her ready for her play date with Bano. Bagh Ali comes up and pinches Naziran’s behind. She complains half seriously to a non-present “Begum Saaab!”

Bagh Ali, “Ali’s Tiger” belies his name completely. The soul  of gentleness, he has been around ever since she can remember, assigned to be her father’s orderly when Abba was still a young lieutenant  in the army, long before she or Anmol were born. Bagh Ali’s expansive, lined face is filled with enormous  beautiful teeth, white as young jasmine. He and Naziran banter carelessly, trading insults and jokes until Ammi’s sharp tongue summons him into the house, and Naziran holds her hand for the short walk over to Bano’s house.

Over at Bano’s they begin playing their favorite game, Doll’s Wedding. The game is always the same. Doll’s mother brings her the long awaited news that she is to be married and Doll’s friends help her get ready for her wedding, singing songs, laughing and teasing while dressing Doll in her wedding finery. For a few moments it seems as if the thread of her life will just pick up where it broke loose but halfway through the game, just as Doll is about to get into her pretend palanquin and leave for her groom’s house, she grabs Doll and smashes her button eyed rag head  into the wall, spilling  soft cotton brains everywhere.

Adnan never came to “visit” her again. In his place came the nightmares that now populated her scattered sleep. Dreams of monsters following her along the outside walls of the house, as she turns the corner there are three doors; of net, of glass, of wood. She finally manages to close the latch on the last door as the monster reaches and attacks, twisted claws scraping the wood like chalk screeching on blackboard.

She has begun to sleepwalk at night sometimes. Once Abba woke up to get a glass of water and found her feverishly wandering the house, strange half formed utterances he could not make out issuing from her lips. Or did he? The edges of dream and memory are beginning to get blurred. The waters of disparate worlds  are starting to seep into each other and make a prism through which she can see into realms she never knew existed. The assault that blotted her childhood also gave Nubia her  magic power,  her greatest gift, her dreamtongue.