From Weavers’ latest collection: Hero and Other Stories by Nadir Ali

Excerpt from Nooran Niari (translated by Moazzam Sheikh)

The old hag Nooran died at the age of ninety last Thursday. My elder brother announced we’d go to the funeral and Sister added, “How lucky of her to die on a blessed Thursday of the holy Ramadan.”

“She died childless. How much longer did she plan on living? Once you cross eighty you might as well drop dead,” I retorted.

“What’s the matter with you Noor? She was our mother’s friend. You were even named after her,” came the reply.

Come to think of it, what did I have against her? When I came of age, around the year 1946, my mother used to visit Nooran quite frequently. We were the goldsmiths, they the sand-sifters. My family had six shops in the Jeweler’s Bazaar. My mother’s folks were, on the other hand, ironsmiths from the city of Sialkot. The maternal side of my father’s family insisted on the match because of her good looks. My father was a romantic at heart and in order to prove just that he fathered eleven children. But the paternal side of his family never ceased branding my mother an outsider. Only Nooran, the sand-sifter, acted like a relative to her. My mother would mention her in every other conversation.

“Oye you, Sialkot lass! Your parents must have thought: be Lahore-bound / then never be found!” The old hag’s voice still rings in my ears. She was a storehouse of two-liners, proverbs and poetry, and the moment she spotted my mother, she’d holler, “Meher bibi, the goldsmiths don’t count you as their own! Nizam Din and family can’t know your worth! They don’t even consider us humans. They are the goldsmiths, we the sand-sifters, lowest of the lowly. If you are the moon and the sun, then why call us the unique ones.”

She had plain features and fair skin. And her eyes – big and wide, full of shine; half the time she’d let her eyes do the talking. She danced and laughed through her eyes. Newlywed, my mother was forced to listen to nonstop yarns about goldsmiths and ironsmiths. “C’mon, girl, don’t waste your time listening to your golden in-laws. I have already wasted half my life listening to such nonsense at the Jewelers’ Market.”

Two days’ absence was the limit, and Nooran, clad in her black burqa, would descend on our house; she’d never veil her face though and the moment she entered the portico she’d caste off the robe irrespective of the presence of men and women, since she considered everyone to be younger than her. Entering, she’d recite a couplet: “Bullah, let’s go to the goldsmiths, where they craft a thousand ornaments / witness a thousand unique faces, yet behold the unique One.”

As long as she stayed around, one felt caught in a tornado. The moment she left, there appeared sudden calm. “Oh god, when Nooran leaves, joy leaves with her,” my mother would say wistfully. I never liked her. Even when I was a baby, I’d wail upon seeing her. Once I could speak, I took up the habit of calling her “Nooran the bear.” My mother would try to humor me. Nooran too kept an orange or a candy with her for enticement. Yet, nothing worked. As I grew up, I added dracula’s heir to Nooran the bear. It’d make mother cry.

I am forced to ponder now what lay at the root of it all that bothered me so deeply. I remember the day when my maternal grandfather died. He didn’t enjoy much worth in my family’s eyes. However, it is only normal for a family to weep together when someone passes away. Strange, everyone at my house remained a mute spectator. My mother cried her heart out. An aunt or two would comfort my mother occasionally. My father, similarly disinterested, was not much help either when he came home. “Let me go and get the tickets for the three o’clock train,” and with those words he sneaked out.

Nooran clasped mother warmly when she arrived at the scene. She kissed her face. She took my mother inside the room. She even went to Sialkot with her. While my family returned right away, she stayed there for seven days. “She’s Meher’s own blood, don’t we know that?!” my aunts would taunt.

What was my mother’s relationship with her? Nothing except she loved looking after my mother. She could make Kashmiri tea in a flash and she could recite Bulleh Shah at will. Due to the tea and poetry combination, I made up the rhyme: “Bulleh Shah / Kashmiri cha.”

Ah yes, it was in fact Abdul Sattar, the tailor’s son, who’d planted the suspicion in my heart. “Oye Noor, have you noticed her husband? Cheema the sand-sifter looks her father’s age. He is impotent. Something’s fishy about Gulzar the wrestler. I think he’s been sleeping around with her.” “Gulzar, Nooran’s yaar,” I rhymed it up in my heart but could not share it with others. Finally, Sattar added a gem of a twist: “Nooran is a Mundaybaz.” “What the hell is that?” I asked, bewildered. “Just as men do with men. Women carry on with women.” He had more to say but I couldn’t understand a whit. A kind of suspicion took root in me.

1947 had arrived. The city’s name . . .

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