The Mughal-Born/मुग़ल बच्चा (Ismat Chughtai)

Nasreen Mohammedi (1937–1990)
Amidst Fatehpur Sikri’s desolate ruins, Gori Dadi’s house was an old dried-up  wound that irked. This cramped little two-storied house, made of bricks of burnt  clay, looked like a smacked child in a sulk. One sensed that in its convulsions,  Time, grown exasperated by its obstinacy had spared it, had turned its havoc on  the regal state and splendour next to it. 

In her white spotless clothes, seated on the snowy-white sheet covering her takht,  Gori Dadi seemed to be a sepulchre made of marble. Masses of white hair, a pale,  bloodless skin soft as malmal, and light blue eyes filmed over with age, at first  glance, Gori Dadi was pure white. One’s eyes would be blinded by her gleaming  whiteness. It was as if a fine dust of moonbeams misted around her. 

She had been living for so long. People used to say that she was over a hundred  years old. What did those eyes, open so wide but so dulled and without light,  witness all these years? What were her thoughts, how did she live all this while?  She had been married to my mother’s paternal granduncle when she was twelve or  thirteen, but he had never even raised her bridal veil. She had spent a century of  virginity in these ruins. 

As much as Gori Bi was white, her bridegroom was pitch black. So dark that a  lamp would throw no light in his presence; even though Gori Bi was extinguished,  smoke still wafted from her lamp.  

Every evening after eating dinner, we children would snuggle into the quilts, our  laps full of dry fruits. The turning over the pages of days gone by would begin.  However many times we heard it, we could never get our fill of the curious tale of  Gori Bi and Kāle Mian, and it would have to be retold. That poor fool must have  taken leave of his senses not to have lifted the veil of such a fair bride! 

Every year, my mother would bear down on her maternal home with her forces  and their full encampment. For the children, the holiday was an Eid all day, the  days spent playing hide and seek in the mysterious ruins of Fatehpur Sikri. As  evening fell, the desolate, grey environs began to make one fearful. Shadows leapt  out from every direction; alarmed, hearts would start to thud.  

‘Kāle Mian is coming!’ we would call out to frighten each other, as stumbling over  ourselves, running pell-mell, we would rush back to crouch in the embrace of that  old two-storied clay-brick house. But there too, it seemed as if in every corner, the  ghost of Kāle Mian crouched hidden.  

Gori Bi’s parents had the good fortune to behold their beloved child, only after  several of their offspring had perished and supplications were made at Saleem  Chishti’s dargāh. The apple of her parents’ eyes, Gori Bi was a very stubborn child.  Every other thing would lead to her taking to her bed in petulance. She would be  on hunger strike, the food would not be touched, and would be conveyed to the  mosque as it was. If Gori Bi did not eat, how could her Amma and Baba have even  a morsel of it? 

It all started with a trifling thing. When Gori Bi was engaged to Kāle Mian, some  people taunted, ‘A fair bride for a black groom!’ 

But Mughal-born are not accustomed to such jest. The sixteen or seventeen year  old Kāle Mian burnt in anger, shrivelling at the slights. 

‘The bride will become dirty! Don’t you dare lay your black hands on her!’ 

‘Our girl has been cosseted all her life—if your shadow falls on her, you will  blacken her!’ 

‘What airs she has! You will be carrying her shoes after her all your life!’ 

When the British performed the last rites on the Mughal empire, no one suffered  more than Mughal-born did, because they were the most numerous amongst the  officers of the realm. As their lands and ranks were snatched from them, lakhs of households were ruined in a short while. Dumped back by circumstance into their  old dilapidated ancestral houses like useless old things, there they remained,  somewhat astounded that anyone had the temerity to pull the rug out from beneath  their feet.  

The Mughal-born could do little else but draw the tattered shawl of prestige and  self-esteem closer around themselves, and retreat further and further into  themselves. In any case, the Mughal-born are usually a little askew. The  distinguishing mark of a pure Mughal is always that a few screws in his brain have  either come loose or are screwed on too tight. The tumble from the heavens to the  earth upset the mental equilibrium, the values of life became confounded, and  emotions rather than reason came to guide action. 

Employment with the British was a curse, and manual labour was beneath them, so  the little that was left was lived off by selling it bit by bit. My father’s paternal  uncle had no money as inheritance, so he sold off the silver plating the legs of the  marriage bed his wife had brought as her dower. After the gold and silver  jewellery and then the crockery had been run through, it was the turn of gold and  silver brocade and trim to be snatched at and consumed. Sheets of silver that once  partitioned pāndāns into small compartments were hammered flat on grinding  stones and the pieces sold as well.  

The men of the household would lounge around all day testing the bed-ropes, and  then every evening, slip into their worn old sherwānis and take off to play a game  of chess. The women of the household sewed for a living on the sly. Or they would  teach the Quran to children of the neighbourhood, and receive a monetary tribute.  The pittance they got would keep the stove burning for a while longer. 

For Kāle Mian, his friends’ taunts and teasing was a canker in his soul. Yet, just as  the appointed time of death can never be postponed, a marriage scheduled by one’s  parents can never be averted. Thus, Kāle Mian, his head bowed in submission,  became a bridegroom. But just at the moment when the bridegroom steps the  women’s quarters under the shade of his sister’s dupatta to behold his bride’s face  for the first time, some thoughtless girl remarked, ‘Be careful! If you lay a hand on  the bride, she will turn black!’ 

The wounded Mughal-born, grievously stung, reared up like a cobra. Throwing off  his sister’s ānchal from his head, he turned around and walked straight out. 

Laughter sputtered out, and an air of mourning replaced it. Although the news of  this tragedy was laughed away in the men’s quarters, for the women, the fact that  the bride would be bade farewell to without the custom being performed was  nothing short of an apocalypse.  

‘I swear to God that I shall pulverise her arrogance to dust! She should learn that  it isn’t some nobody that she has come up against, I am a Mughal-born!’, Kāle  Mian fumed. 

That wedding night, Kāle Mian lay stretched across the bed like a rafter, the bride  cowered in a corner, wrapped up like a bale. How much space could a twelve year  old girl take up anyway?  

‘Raise your veil!’ Kāle Mian roared.  

The bride scrunched up into an even tighter bundle. 

‘I say, lift up that ghūnghat now!’ Kāle Mian said, raising himself up on one elbow. 

Her friends had told her, the bridegroom will fold his hands and beg you, clutch at  your feet, but do not let him lay a finger on your veil. The more a bride withholds  herself, the more she resists, the more immaculate she will be considered to be. 

‘Look here, you may be royalty in your own house. For me, you are no more than a  shoe that shods my foot. Raise that veil at once, I am no servant of your father to  be disobeyed!’ 

The bride stayed unmoving, as if struck by palsy. 

Kāle Mian sprung up like a cheetah. He picked up his shoes and tucking them into  his armpit, jumped through the window into the garden. Taking a train the next  morning, he huffed off to Jodhpur. 

The household was stunned into silence. One Ekka Bi who had accompanied the  bride had been awake all that night, her ears straining to catch the sound of the  bride’s moans. But when not a squeak emanated from the bridal chamber all night,  her hopes began to sink. ‘Hai, what a brazen girl this one is! The more virginal and  innocent a girl is, the louder the cacophony she should make.’ 

And then Ekka Bi also thought to herself, ‘Could there be some defect in Kāle  Mian himself?’ 

The thought made her want to jump into a well and be shot of the whole saga. 

When Ekka Bi peeped cautiously into the room, she was aghast. The bride sat  there untouched, and the bridegroom had vanished!  

Much unseemly controversy ensued. Swords were drawn. Haltingly, the bride  narrated what she had gone through. This led to greater muttering. The family  came to be divided into two camps, one that sided with Kāle Mian, the other of  Gori Bi’s supporters. 

‘He is after all the lord incarnate. To disobey his command is a sin,’ one party  averred. 

‘Has any bride ever raised her own veil?’, the second party reasoned.  

All efforts to get Kāle Mian to return and lift his bride’s veil were in vain. He  enlisted in the cavalry in Jodhpur. From there, he despatched money and clothing  for Gori Bi’s maintenance, but every time, Gori Bi’s mother would promptly fling it  at his mother’s face. 

Gori Bi bloomed from a bud into a flower. Every week, she would paint her hands  and feet with henna, drape herself in gold and silver-trimmed plaited dupattas, and  went on living. 

And then it was God’s will that Kāle Mian’s father lay on his deathbed. When the  news reached Kāle Mian, he was in such an unusual mood that he rushed home  immediately. His father shook off Death’s hand on his shoulder and sat up. He  summoned Kāle Mian and spoke with him about the finer intricacies of the  customary raising of the bridal veil. Kāle Mian sat through it all with his head  bowed. Yet the condition remained unchanged— even if were doomsday were to  be summoned by this, the bride would have to lift the veil with her own hands.  

‘Abba huzūr, I have made an oath by the Holy Ka’aba, baba. You may cut off my  head but I cannot break it.’ 

The swords of the Mughal-born had rusted years ago. The endless disputes and  litigations amongst them had long deprived them of all vigour and enterprise. Left  in its stead were foolish obstinacies, nursed fiercely in the breast. No-one therefore  asked Kāle Mian why he had sworn such an idiotic oath, one that blighted a life  that was otherwise orderly and peaceful.

And so it was that Gori Bi became a bride once more. The house of burnt clay once  again was scented with the perfume of flowers and ittar.  

Gori Bi’s mother explained, ‘My darling daughter, you are his legally wedded wife.  There is no shame in lifting your veil for him. You must satisfy his command—a  Mughal-born’s honour will be safeguarded. Your life will be enriched, the flowers  of happiness will rain into your lap. And you will fulfil the commands of Allah and  his Prophet.’ 

Gori Bi listened to her, her head lowered. These last seven years had seen a nascent  bud burgeon into a ravishing adolescence. It was a tempest of youth and beauty  that burst forth from her body. 

Woman was Kāle Mian’s greatest weakness. All his senses were concentrated on  just that one point. But his oath was like a hooked iron ball embedded in his throat.  His imagination had teased him for seven long years. He had snatched away scores  of veils in this period. Whoring, dallying with the boys, rearing quails, fancying  pigeons, there was no sport that Kāle Mian left unplayed; yet the thought of Gori  Bi’s lowered veil still dug its five fingers into his heart. After seven years of  worrying it, the blemish had turned into a wound.  

Although he believed that this time, his wish would be fulfilled. Gori Bi wasn’t so  bereft of wisdom that she would fritter away this last chance at life; all she had to  do was just use her two fingers to lightly brush away a corner of it. It wasn’t as if  she was being asked to move mountains! 

‘Raise your veil!’ Kāle Mian tried to say with tenderness, but Mughal  imperiousness gained ascendancy. 

Gori Begum sat silent, seething haughtily. 

‘This is the last command I shall give. Lift up your ghūnghat now, else you shall rot  out your days alone like this. If I leave this time, I shall never return.’ 

Gori Bi flushed a bright red in anger. If only a spark could have leapt from her  burning cheek to set that cursed veil on fire and reduced it to ashes!  

Kāle Mian stood in the centre of the room, swaying like a cowrie-backed snake.  Then, tucking his shoes under his arm, he climbed down into the garden.  

An age passed. The garden was long gone— at the rear end, firewood was piled up  in a store. Only two jāmun trees and an old banyan tree remained. The clusters of rose bushes and jasmine shrubs, the mulberry and the pomegranate trees, had all  deserted it many years ago. 

As long as her mother was alive, she was the one who took care of Gori Bi; when  she passed, this duty fell to Gori Bi herself. On every Friday, she would diligently  grind the henna and apply it on herself, and it was she who dyed, plaited, and  trimmed the dupattas that she still wore. And as long as her in-laws were living,  every festival saw her visit them to pay her respects. 

This time when Kāle Mian went, he had simply vanished. No one saw a sign of him  for decades. His parents wept their eyes out for him, but he, who knows the  wildernesses whose dust he churned? Once, there were reports of a sighting in a  monastery; on another occasion, he was seen lying on the steps of a temple.  

Silver dissolved into Gori Bi’s golden tresses, as Death’s broom continued clearing  up around her. The estates and homes nearby kept on being sold off for a pittance,  although some older families still held out. Butchers and itinerants settled down as  neighbours instead, as old palaces were levelled to lay the foundations of a new world. A grocery store, a dispensary and even a shabby general store sprung up  nearby, festooned with garlands of aluminium pots and packets of Lipton tea. A  handful of riches was slipping through palsied grips to be frittered away forever,  even as a few prudent fingers tried to secure them. Those who until yesterday had  sat on the foot of the bed and had bowed deep and low in salāms, now considered  it beneath them to even maintain an acquaintance.  

Gori Bi’s jewellery slowly made its way into Lalaji’s safe. The walls were  collapsing, the roofs were sagging. The few remaining Mughal-born, popping their  balls of opium, were tiring themselves out flying their kites into battles, rearing  their partridge and quail, and counting the feathers on their pigeons’ tails. The  word ‘Mirza’, once a signifier of eminence and awe, was being made a mockery of.  

Gori Bi was like that plodding ox tethered to the oil press; she rotated mindlessly  on the hook that yoked her to the carriage of life. Loneliness had pitched its tent in  her blue eyes. She became the subject of many fabulous tales. That the King of  Djinns was so enamoured of her that as soon as Kāle Mian reached out to touch  her veil, he would draw his sword and rise up between them. Or that each Friday,  after the isha’a namāz, as she read the wazifā, the courtyard would fill up with  cowrie-backed snakes. And then the golden-crested King of Snakes would arrive  mounted on a python, and sway its head to her recitation. The mere sound of a  footfall caused all the serpents to vanish all at once. 

When we heard these stories, our hearts would jump up into our throats and be  stuck there. We would wake up with a start in the middle of the night, hearing the  hiss of snakes, screaming hysterically. But all her life, what kinds of serpents did  Gori Bi nurse? How did she carry the burden of this lonely, unfulfilled life? Her  lips were never kissed by anyone. What answer did she give to the call of the flesh?  

If only this story could end here. But Fate had another trick to play. 

After a full forty years, Kāle Mian suddenly appeared on her doorstep. He was  afflicted with many incurable illnesses, his body was oozing and rotting in every  pore. The stench that emanated from him was unbearable. The only thing that was  alive was the unfulfilled desire in his eyes, on the strength of which life still lodged  in his breast. 

‘Tell Gori Bi to put me out of my misery.’ 

A bride one year short of sixty prepared herself to make her peace with her  estranged bridegroom. Making a henna paste, she adorned her hands and feet;  warming water, she cleansed her body, and infused her white tresses with scented  oil. Opening her trunk, she took out the worn and weeping bridal dress, and put it  on. 

Kāle Mian lay on his deathbed. But when Gori Bi, shyly, coyly, slowly, approached  the head of the sagging bed with its sticky pillows and its soiled, lumpy mattress on  which Kāle Mian lay, life coursed through his dead bones once again. Wrestling  with the Angel of Death, Kāle Mian commanded, 

‘Gori Bi, raise your veil!’ 

Gori Bi raised her hands, but before they could reach her veil, they fell to her sides. Kāle Mian had breathed his last. 

With great calm, Gori Bi sat down, squatting on her heels, took off her bridal  bangles and smashed them, and drew the white veil of widowhood across her  forehead.  

Translated by Ayesha Kidwai

Originally published on The Beacon

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