A letter from a prostitute/एक तवायफ़ का खत (Krishn Chander)

Amrita Sher-Gil, 1936
To Pandit Nehru and Qaid-e-Azam Jinnah,

I trust that until now, neither of you would have received a letter from a prostitute. In fact, I have full confidence that neither of you would have ever set sight on me or any other woman of a similar persuasion until today. I know too the extent of impropriety that lies in my writing a letter to you, and that too an open letter. But what else can I do? The circumstances are such, and these past days--the demands these girls make are so pressing--that I cannot stay without composing this letter.

Why are Bela and Batool making me write this letter? Who are these two girls and why are their claims so insistent? Before I explain why, I would like to tell you a bit about myself.

Do not be concerned! I am not about to narrate to you the details of my despicable history. I will also not reveal when and how I came to be a prostitute. I do not come to you to elicit your false compassion, using the pretext of some aspiration to respectability. Recognising your compassionate heart, I do not wish to spin you some yarn about a failed romance as a justification. My intention in writing this letter is also not to acquaint you with the covert arts and ruses of courtesanship. I have no wish to explain myself. I merely wish to tell you a few of those aspects of my life that I believe will, going forward, have an effect on Bela and Batool's life.

Both of you must have visited Bombay several times; Jinnah sahib has of course seen much of it. But neither of you would have ever had any earthly reason to see our bazar, the bazar I live in, which is called Farris Road. Farris Road is located between Grant Road and Madanpura. On the other side of Grant Road lie the areas of Lamington Road, Opera House, Chowpatty, Marine Drive and the Fort, where the gentlefolk of Bombay live. On this side of Madanpura, the poor live in their settlements. Farris Road is in the middle of the two, so that both the rich and the poor can equally profit from it. Though, in truth, Farris Road is closer to Madanpura, because the distance between indigence and prostitution can never be too great.

It is not a pretty bazar by any means. Its buildings are not beautiful either. Night and day, it is filled with the sounds of trams rattling through the middle of it. All the world’s stray dogs, ruffians, creatures of cruelty, cripples, consumptives, reprobates, lechers, voyeurs, balding syphilitic and clap-ridden wastrels, cokeheads and pickpockets, lacking an eye or a limb, strut around it, their chests thrust out. Filthy hotels, mounds of rubbish piled high on dank and grimy pavements upon which lakhs of flies buzz constantly, misery-laden heaps of wood and coal, professional pimps and purveyors of wilted garlands, vendors of rotten pulpy books about the cinema, shopkeepers vending sex manuals and naked pictures, Chinese barbers, Islamic barbers, and strongmen who gird their loincloths tight as they mouth off a string of abuses—on Farris Road, could be found all the refuse of man’s social existence.

Obviously, you could never have visited this place. No respectable person ever strays in this direction, because all the decent people there are, live over on the other side of Grant Road; and those who are even more so, make their residence on Malabar Hill. I had once passed by Jinnah Sahib’s mansion there, and I paused to bow down in salaam. Batool was with me too—I can never quite express the reverence that that girl has for you (Jinnah sahib). If there is anyone that she loves in this world second to God and his Prophet, then it’s you. She has a picture of you that she wears in a locket, close to her heart. But not with any bad intentions, Batool is only eleven years old, she is only a little girl. Yet, already these people in Farris Road have hideous designs on her…I’ll tell you about them another time.

This is Farris Road, where I live. On its western end, at the corner of a dark alley from where the Chinese barber has his shop, is my shop. Others would not call what I have a shop of course, but you are men of wisdom, so why should I dissemble to you. So I will say that this is where my shop is, and that it is the place where I ply my trade, just as a grocer, vegetable vendor, fruit seller, hotel owner, mechanic, cinema owner, clothes store owner, or any other shopkeeper carries out his business. Just as he looks to the satisfied customer as well as his own profit in each transaction, so do I. My business is just like theirs; the sole difference is only that I do not deal in the black market. In all other respects, there is nothing that distinguishes these other vendors from me.

My shop is not well situated. Let alone the night, visitors can only stumble around it even in the day. The men that come here only depart this dark alley with their pockets emptied, drunk out of their senses, spewing the worst abuses in the world. The most trifling event can result in a knifing. Every two or three days, a murder is sure to take place. In other words, not a day passes without one's life being at risk.

And then I am not some high quality prostitute who can move to Pawanpul, or set up residence in Worli, in a nice house on the seashore. I am a prostitute of an extremely ordinary rank. Once I may well have seen all of Hindustan and drunk water from every one of its rivers and spent time with people from every rank and walk of life, but since the past ten years, I have just been here, in this city of Bombay, in this very shop on Farris Road.

Though, as I say, it is not a nice place. It smells, and there is slush and sludge everywhere, and mangy dogs rear up from up from every corner to bite the frightened customers. But nevertheless I make up to six thousand rupees a month.

My shop is a single storied house, with two rooms. I use the front room as my sitting room. In it, I sing and I dance, and I seduce the customers. The room at the back serves as the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom. At one end of the room, there is a water tap. On one side is an earthenware vessel. Opposite it, is a large bed, underneath which there is a smaller bed; underneath both are the trunks in which I keep my clothes. The outside room has an electric light, but the inner one is completely dark. The landlord has not had the walls of the house painted for years, and nor is he ever going to do so. Who has that amount of time to spare.

My entire night in spent in singing and dancing for the customers in the sitting room. In the daytime, I just lay my head on the bolster and fall off to sleep right there. The back room is occupied by Bela and Batool. Often, when the customers go into the back room to wash their faces, Bela and Batool stare at them with their wide-open eyes. The things their gazes speak of, this letter of mine says them too.

If these two had not been with me, this sinful woman would never have dared to be so presumptuous. I know the world will spit on me, shun me. It could very well be that you will never see this letter. But I am determined to write it anyhow, as Bela and Batool will it to be so.

Perhaps, your guess is that Bela and Batool are my daughters. No, it is not so. I have no daughters. I bought these two girls in the bazar, in the days when the Hindu-Muslim riots were at their height, and human blood was being let like water on Grant Road, Farris Road and Madanpura. Then, I bought Bela from a Muslim procurer for three hundred rupees. This Muslim procurer had brought her to Bombay from Delhi, to which she had been brought by another Muslim procurer from Rawalpindi.

Bela's parents had lived in a lane opposite Poonch House in the Raja Bazar in Rawalpindi. The family was middle class, the concern for respectability and simplicity was the tonic of their existence. Bela was her parents' only child. When Rawalpindi's Muslims started to cut down its Hindus with their swords, she was studying in grade four.

The date of the incident was the 12th of July. Bela returned home from school to see a huge mob swarming outside her and other Hindu homes. The mob was armed and it was setting fire to the houses, dragging the people, their children, their women, out of their homes and murdering them on the street. As they did so, they chanted the slogan of 'Allah-o-Akbar' all the while. Bela saw her father being done to the death before her eyes. And then she saw her mother breathe her last before her eyes. The savage Muslims had cut off her breasts and thrown them away. Those breasts with which a mother, any mother, a Hindu mother or a Muslim mother, a Christian mother or a Jewish mother, suckles her child and ushers in a new chapter of creation in the world of humans and the universe's multitudes. Those milk-laden breasts were hacked away to the sound of slogans of Allah-o-Akbar. Some had thought up such creative brutality. A cruel darkness had inked their souls with blackness. I have read the Quran and I know that what was done to Bella's parents in Rawalpindi was not Islam. It was not human. It was not even enmity. Nor was it revenge. It was a brutality, a callousness, a cowardice, and a satanism that burst darkly in the breast, which stains even the last glimmer of light.

Bela is now with me. Before me, she was with the bearded Muslim procurer, and before that she was with the Muslim procurer from Delhi. Bela was no more than twelve years old, when she studied in the fourth grade. If Bela had been at home, she would now be moving up to the fifth grade. Then, when she would be grown, her parents would arrange for her a marriage to a young man of modest means from a respectable family. She would make her own little world, with her husband, her little children, content in the small happinesses of her domestic life.

Today, this tender little bud has been subjected to an early autumn. Now Bela no longer looks as if she is twelve. Her years are young, but her life is very old. The fear in her eyes, the bitterness in her humanity, the blood of her despair, her thirst for death; if you could see it, Qaid-e-Azam Sahib, you may be able to understand. Perhaps you could divine what lies behind the bleakness of those eyes. You are a respectable man. You must have seen the innocent girls from respectable families. Hindu girls, Muslim girls. Perhaps you would see that innocence has no religion, that it is something that all humanity holds in trust. It is a bequest to the whole world. The man who destroys it can never be forgiven by any god of any religion.

Batool and Bela live together as sisters in my house. But they are not sisters. Batool is a Muslim girl. Bela was born in a Hindu household. Today both of them live together in a whore's house on Farris Road.

If Bela came from Rawalpindi, Batool came from Jalandhar. She is the daughter of a Pathan from a small village named Khem Karan. Batul's father had seven daughters --three were married, four were unwed. Batool's father was an ordinary small farmer in Khem Karan. A poor Pathan, but a proud Pathan; who had been settled in Khem Karan for centuries. Only three or four households were Pathans in the village of Jats.

Panditji, you may appreciate the patience and peace with which these Pathans lived, when you consider that despite the fact that they were Muslims, they were not given them permission to construct a mosque in the village. The Pathans read the namaaz in their homes without protest; for centuries, ever since Maharaja Ranjit Singh ascended the throne, the muezzin's call to prayer has never been heard in this village. Their hearts were suffused with spirituality and mysticism, but the worldly constraints were so immediate. Moreover, concerns for liberality and acceptance were so prevalent that they could not dare to utter a word.

Batool was the most beloved of her father's daughters. The youngest of the seven, she was the sweetest, the prettiest. Batool is so beautiful that her skin flushes if you even touch her. Panditji, you are yourself Kashmiri by origin, and being an artist, you know what such beauty can be. Today this loveliness lies in disarray in my piles of filth, so much so that finding a decent man who will appreciate it will prove difficult. All one ever sees is rotten, dissolute Marwaris, contractors sporting bushy moustaches, and black marketeers with lascivious stares.

Batool is completely illiterate. She had only heard the name of Jinnah sahib. Thinking Pakistan to be a fun spectacle, she had joined in the slogans for it; just as three-four year old children run about the house shouting 'Inquilab Zindabad'. She was only eleven years old after all.

Little, unlettered Batool. It's only been a few days since she has come to me. A Hindu procurer brought her to me. I bought her for five hundred rupees. This Hindu procurer had brought her from Ludhiana, from a Jat one. Where she was before this, I cannot say. Yes, the lady doctor has said many things to me, but if you were to hear them, you would perhaps go mad. Batool is half mad herself. The Jats killed her father with such mercilessness that the past six thousand years of Hindu culture was stripped of its skin, and human barbarity in its savage, naked form has been laid bare for all to see.

First, the Jats gouged out his eyes. Then they pissed into his mouth. Then they slit him from the throat down and disembowelled him. Then they forced themselves on his married daughters and sowed their own humiliation. Right in front of their father's corpse. Rehana, Guldarakshan, Marjana, Sausan, Begum... one by one, barbaric man defiled each one of the idols in his temple. The ones that gave him life, who sang him to sleep with a lullaby, the ones that had bowed their heads to him, in shame, in subjection, in chastity. With all these sisters, these daughters in law, these mothers, they engaged in fornication.

The Hindu religion lost its honour, it destroyed its tolerance, it erased its own greatness. Every mantra of the Rg Veda was silent today, every couplet in the Granth Sahab was ashamed, every verse of the Gita was wounded. Who is it that would dare speak to me of the artists of Ajanta? Narrate to me the texts of Aśoka's inscriptions? Sing praises to me of the idol makers of Ellora? In Batool's forlorn, tightly bitten lips, in her arms marked with the teeth of the feral beasts, and the instability of her leaden legs is the death of your Ajanta, the hearse of your Ellora, the funereal shroud of your culture. Come, come, let me show you the beauty that once was Batool; come let me show you the stinking corpse that Batool is now.

I realise that, overcome with emotion, I have said too much. Perhaps, I should not have said all this. Perhaps, it will cause you embarrassment. Perhaps, no one has ever uttered, or reported, such impertinent words to you before this. Perhaps, you yourself feel all this, but can do nothing. As far as I can see, both of you, Panditji and Jinnah sahib, you cannot do all of what needs to be done; in fact, it does not seem that you can do even a little bit. But even then, freedom has come, to India and to Pakistan both, and perhaps even a prostitute certainly has the right to ask her representatives: What now will come of Bela and Batool?

Bela and Batool are two girls, two communities, two cultures, two cultures, two mosques and temples. These days, Bela and Batool live with a prostitute, who runs her business in a shop close the Chinese barber's on Farris Road. Bela and Batool do not like this trade. I have purchased these two girls; if I want, I could get the work done by them too. But I think that I will not do that which Rawalpindi and Jalandhar have done to them. So far, I have been able to keep them away from the world of Farris Road. Even then, when my customers go to the back room to wash their hands and faces, Bela and Batool's gaze begin to speak to me. I cannot bring to you the heat of their gaze. I cannot also adequately convey their message to you. Why don't you read the ciphers in their gaze yourselves?

Panditji, what I want is that you make Batool your daughter. Jinnah Sahib, I wish for you to consider Bela your 'daughter of the auspicious stars'. Just for once, extricate them from the clutches of Farris Road, keep them in your homes. Pay heed to the laments of the lakhs of souls, that dirge that resounds all the way from Noakhali to Rawalpindi, from Bharatpur to Bombay. Is it only in the Government House that it cannot be heard? Will you attend to this voice?

Your sincere friend
A prostitute from Farris Road

Published by The Beacon

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

Abu Khan’s Goat/अबू खाँ की बकरी (Zakir Hussain)

You must have heard of the Himalaya mountains. There are no greater mountains than these anywhere in this world. They range over thousands of miles. The valleys of these ranges have many settlements. Almora is one such town. In this town lived a Bade Mian Abu Khan. He lived alone. He kept just one or two goats, that’s all. All day, he would roam around grazing them.

Abu Khan was poor, and very unfortunate. Each one of his goats would, at some point of time or the other, break free of the rope that tied it and run away at night. Mountain goats get restless if they are captive for long. These goats would run off to the mountains, where a  wolf lived. He would eat them up. But it was a strange thing: neither Abu Khan’s love nor the lure of the evening feed could stop those goats from running away, let alone the fear of the wolf. It could be that it is in mountain animals’ nature to love their freedom above all. They are never ready to put it on the stake. 

After many of his goats had run away like this, Abu Khan was very sad, and said, “I will not keep goats anymore. I just have a few days of life left in me, they will somehow pass by.” But loneliness is a terrible thing. When Abu Khan could no longer bear to live goat-less, he went out and bought one. 

Abu Khan thought that if he were to buy a young one, then she will become attached to him. And if she becomes used to the very finest of fodder and seed from the very beginning, she will have no reason to go to the mountains.

The goat Abu Khan bought was very beautiful. All white in colour, her hair was lovely and long. Her tiny white pointed horns looked as if someone had carved them from of a fine wood. Her eyes were exquisite. She would lick Abu Khan’s hand affectionately. Even a child could milk her. Abbu Khan was completely bowled over. He named her Chandni and spent all day talking to her. 

Thinking that goats perhaps get restless in his small yard, Abu Khan made new arrangements for Chandni. In front of his house was a little field that he owned. He fenced it on all sides with thorns. He would tie Chandni in the middle of it, giving her a very long rope so that she could move about it freely. 

Chandni lived like this at Abu Khan’s for a long time and Abu Khan came to believe that at long last, one goat had developed an affection for him. She wouldn’t run away.

But Abu Khan was deceived. The desire for freedom does not leave the heart so easily. Animals that live free in jungles and mountains cannot breathe easy surrounded by four walls of a house. They cannot find peace  even in a field surrounded with thorns. Each prison is the same after all.

One morning, when the sun was still low behind the mountains, Chandni’s gaze turned towards them. Her mouth, which was chewing cud, stopped moving and she said to herself in her heart, “Those mountain peaks are so beautiful. And there can be no comparison between the air up there and here. And this cursed eight-fold rope around my neck!”

That was it. Once this thought came to Chandni’s mind, she was never the same Chandni ever again. She no longer liked the fresh green grass, the water gave her no pleasure, nor could she find Abu Khan’s long stories enjoyable. Day by day, she became thinner. Her milk dried up. All the time, her face would be turned towards the mountains, and she would constantly pull at her chain, and bleat piteously in a voice laden with pain,  “Baaaa, baaaaa!”

One morning, after Abu Khan had milked her, Chandni turned to him and said in the language that goats speak, “Abu Khan Mian, were I to live with you here I will fall very ill. Let me go to the mountains.”

Abu Khan could understand the language of goats by now. He screamed, ” Ya Allah! Even this one says that she wishes to leave! This one too!”

Sinking sunk down onto grass right next to Chandni, he spoke to her in sorrowful tones. He asked her, “But why, my daughter Chandni? You too want to leave me?”

Chandni replied, “Yes, Abu Khan Mian, that is what I want.”

“Is it because you don’t get fodder, or is it that you don’t like the seeds?”

“No, no Mian, the seeds are not the reason for my discomfort,” Chandni replied.

“Is it then that the rope is too short? I will make it longer”

Chandni said, “And what use would that be?”

“Then what on earth is the matter? What is it that you want?”

Chandni replied, “Nothing at all. Just let me go to the mountains.

Abu Khan said, “Ill-fated creature! Don’t you know that there is a wolf there?”When he comes for you, what will you do?

Chandni replied, “Allah has given me two horns, I will use them.”

“Of course,” Abu Khan said sarcastically, “your horns will definitely work on a wolf!”

Saying this, Abu Khan took Chandni and locked her in a small room in the corner of his house, to save her from the wolf. But he forgot to close the window. As soon as he slid the bolt on the door from outside, Chandni sprang out of the window and ran away.

When Chandni reached the mountains, her joy knew no bounds. She felt as if the trees were standing by congratulating her on her return to them. The tall grass was embracing her. The flowers, in their delight, had burst  into peaks of laughter. It was as if the whole mountainside was overcome with happiness that its long-lost daughter had come back home.

Chandni pranced around all morning. As afternoon set in, she saw a trip of mountain goats, who called her happily to them. In fact, a few younger ones showed her great hospitality and respect. One of these was a young male, whom Chandni also liked, and the two roamed about together for quite some time. What they spoke of, no one can say. Perhaps the brook that ran beside them could say, because it would have heard them. But maybe not — carrying tales isn’t a good thing after all.

The trip left after a while. The young male goat went with them too. But Chandni was so filled with the yearning to be free that she couldn’t tolerate the idea of joining their flock, and set off on her own in another direction. 

It was soon evening. A cold wind started to blow. Soon Abu Khan’s house and the field enclosed by thorns down were hidden by the fog. Chandni stood still. From one side, Abu Khan’s voice came, “Come back, Chandni! Come back!”. From the other side, she heard the sounds of her mortal enemy, the wolf. 

Chandni did think of return, but then she remembered the stake, the rope, the enclosure of thorns, and she thought that death in the mountains was far better than that life. 

She heard a rustling behind her. Looking back, she saw two ears, standing up erect, and two eyes gleaming in the dark. The wolf had come. 

Chandni turned to face him, and he grinned, “ Oh ho, one of Abu Khan’s goats. He has really fed and fattened you up nicely!” Saying this, he ran his red tongue over his blackened chops. 

Chandni’s first thought was, “Why needlessly fight all night long; it will just be better for me to martyr myself right now.” 

But then the thought came to her, No. Bending her head with her horns pointing forward, she charged towards the wolf, because that it the way of the brave. She knew very well that goats can’t ever kill a wolf. All she wanted to do was to confront to the best of her ability. Defeat or victory is not in our control; it is Allah alone who holds them in His hands. 

Chandni aimed her horns and charged, but the effects of her assault can only be spoken to by the wolf. One by one, the stars disappeared from the sky. Chandni doubled the intensity of her attack. 

Morning drew near. A rooster crowed somewhere. The sound of the azaan came from the basti below. As the muezzin called “AllahoAkbar!” for the last time, Chandni fell lifeless to the ground. Her dress of white fur had turned scarlet.

There were birds sitting up in the tree watching what was going on below. The debate amongst them was as to who won. They all say that the wolf won. There is one old bird amongst them however, who says Chandni is the victor. 

The story in Devnagari can be found here