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.

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