From Weavers’ latest collection: Hero and Other Stories by Nadir Ali
Excerpt from Balwant Kaur (translated by Amna Ali)
. . . No nikah took place for him and Balwant. Truth was, Qooma’s clan was scared of the Sikhs. Two of the bride’s brothers were captains in the Indian army, both posted in Rangoon. A civil marriage eventually took place and Balwant Kaur became Bakhtawar Bibi. She even recited the kalima. She appeared taller than Qooma the six footer when she wore heels that added to her already tall frame, and was a year or two older than him. She addressed most males, besides her husband, affectionately as “sonny”. However, neither Qooma nor any other man in her life was worthy of her affection. And that is the story of Balwant Kaur’s life.
Kuldeep Singh’s folks were not hot-headed like some Randhawas, ready to pounce without even an exchange of words. They were Bombayites, softened by their privileged lives. How much one suffers in life cannot be measured by the number of years one has lived. Carefree years pass by in a flash while sorrowful ones stretch out without an end. An entire lifetime seemed to pass between 1946, the year of my marriage and 1947, when we left for Lahore. Some good years followed. By the time my first son was born, Balwanti had already borne three children, two sons and a daughter.
Times were what they were but we had managed to reach Lahore. My family did not come to Pakistan, however my in-laws treated me well. Balwant Kaur’s story, though similar to mine, now took a different turn. Her in-laws were demanding from the start. We joked about it at first. The crow is so right about how the Kakezai folks can squeeze the life out of you, she would say. But her laughter quickly dissipated and she went from being Bakhtawar, the lucky one, to Wakhtawar, the one with endless worries. No one even remembered that she was once named Balwant Kaur. Her entire family lived in India. As for Qooma, the hunter, it never occurred to him that women were more than objects to use and possess. Balwant was simply a prized hunt in his eyes. . .
Excerpt from Feeqa’s Death (translated by Moazzam Sheikh)
. . . The thing was that Feeqa had stolen a melon for me once from Hussaina’s field which was situated behind the shops. From that point on we were always on the prowl to steal melons at night. So Feeqa had reminded me, today, of a favor from the forgotten past by giving me the stolen melon . . . But there was another twist to it too . . . Feeqa had committed a murder which only Hussaina Mehr and I had witnessed.
Swai Ram’s shop was next to Mehr’s. At dawn, the thoroughfare was completely empty. It was time for the cart delivering ice blocks to show up. Hussaina Mehr unloaded fruit boxes inside to stack them up. He had had a quarrel with Sheeda the ice vendor the morning before which Feeqa and I had seen. I had taken our cows to the city park, where grazing was prohibited, and was headed back at the first hint of morning. At that time, Sheeda was unloading the ice blocks and piling them up on the platform of Swai Ram’s shop. Sheeda was on dope, had an ugly mug, and enjoyed cussing with his pig-like face. Mehr was a simple man and didn’t like messing with anyone. ‘Oh, Mehr, let me shove this little mango up your ass!’ This was enough to invite trouble. Mehr grabbed a piece of brick from the shop and hurled it at Sheeda. It hit him on the forehead. Feeqa and I rushed, pushing the two away from each other . . . ‘Let me go and unload the ice, and if I don’t return to shove a bamboo up your ass, Mehr, I ain’t my father’s son.’
‘Son, you don’t seem to be one anyway,’ Mehr dared him.
Early next morning, Mehr and Sheeda were grabbing each other. Feeqa stood in the midst disentangling them even before I arrived. Sheeda’s eyes were bloodshot and his temper was high. He was a habitual criminal and Mehr always tried to restrain him. Those were the partition days; besides, Sheeda had his eyes on Swai Ram. He even said to Feeqa a few times, ‘Shouldn’t we take off the bloody Hindu’s dhoti?’ On a few occasions, he didn’t pay for the soda bottles and had also demanded twice as much for the ice delivery the last time. Scared, Swai Ram dished out the money, but complained to Mehr. The friendship between Mehr and Swai Ram was deep and time-tested.
We used to listen to the news on Swai Ram’s radio, and the songs as well. Swai Ram would read the news aloud from Parbhat every day. Most people in the square were illiterates like Feeqa and Mehr. Swai Ram was an educated and political person. The faces of Mahatma Gandhi and the Muslim Frontier Gandhi had been painted on each side of the ‘Royal Soda Water Factory’ signboard ‘by Sarwar Painter.’ Most of us, including the painter, did not even know who the other Gandhi was.
While painting, Sarwar Painter gradually became a Muslim League leader, and while listening to the songs and reading the newspaper, I too became a neighborhood leader. See, how I have digressed . . . The digressing thread, however, has a connection not only with the murder Feeqa committed but his death as well.
Later I learned from Feeqa that Sheeda had cursed and challenged the moment he arrived. The whole thing got out of control and he started harassing Mehr. Mehr and Sheeda were exchanging blows; Feeqa too got embroiled in it though his intent actually was to pry them away from each other.
I arrived at the scene soon after and immediately attempted to disengage them. Suddenly, Sheeda’s hand reached for the cart. The ice-pick was in his grip, ‘Sheeda’s holding the ice-pick, Feeqa!’ I cried in alarm.
Mehr was an older man and heavy-set, but Feeqa was simply lightning made flesh. . .
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 . . .