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An Unsentimental Look at The Complexity of Human Relationships

The English translation of the short story 'Hari Bol' by Zakia Mashhadi by Aalim Akhtar, which won the 2021 Jawad Memorial Prize.

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The following is the English translation of the short story ‘Hari Bol’ by Zakia Mashhadi. Aalim Akhtar’s translation won the 2021 Jawad Memorial Prize. The jury commented on the story: “The story depicts life lived at a most basic level. It examines the complexity of human relationships with an unsentimental, even pitiless gaze. The language used is direct and the translation is very close to the original text, lucid and accessible.”

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Nāni’s house

Although she had become a nāni herself long ago and had come to her own nāni’s village after ages, nothing had changed there. And all that had changed indeed, if it had at all, remained invisible to the eye – felt only when uttered in words.

The train left her at the dreary station as usual. From there, she took a rickety bus that terminated at the end of the road. A roadless path after that, she still had to cover a distance of four or five kilometres on foot. Ram Sagan had come to pick her up in a rickshaw, a ‘tam-tam.’ As the village custom dictated, Ram Sagan was supposed to be her uncle, an old man with his old habits. Village folks would take that route on foot, and tam-tams rarely came into use. Bullock carts, too, were nearly non-existent.  

Both recognized each other. She held Chandhi-bua’s hand and got into the tam-tam with some effort.

Mālik was getting the harvest sifted,” informed Ram Sagan, as he wiped his face and climbed the tam-tam, “and just fell down like that, never fell ill though. If ever he caught a cough or cold, he made a tulsi kādhā for himself. That was it. People don’t really fall sick in the village. Everyone knows that if they fall ill, treatment is difficult. That’s why.” 

After some hesitation, he added, “Our young nephew got bitten by a snake. Took him to the centre. Took two hours. There was no one there. We took a bus to the district subdivision, but when the treatment finally started, it was too late.”

“And then?” Chandhi-bua asked mindlessly, although the answer was clear to everyone.

“What then? He passed away. Only son.”

Ram Sagan used to talk a lot but at the moment he was merely sharing his grief. Zarreen’s eyes welled up. She often thought of coming to the village once at least to meet her māmū. He was just a few years older than her. Whenever she would come here, her aunts and uncle would play with her as if they were her cousins. People were married off early in the village, and in some families, mothers and daughters gave birth alongside. Neither did anyone get surprised by it, nor was it a matter of ridicule. 

In spite of her grief for her uncle, some memories rekindled her heart. 

She had come to the village for a wedding as a child. The bride’s younger brother was getting circumcised too, but her mother was nowhere to be seen. When asked, it was revealed that the mother was in her sauri – the room where mothers who have recently given birth stayed. She had given birth to a son after all. Those who had come to attend the wedding gave gifts of five rupees or eleven rupees to the new mother, keeping it next to her pillow. The mirāsi women who had come to sing wedding songs also sang for the newly born child. The bride’s mother was red in the face – some shame, some pride and contentment. It was her second son after four daughters.

The tam-tam was moving at its own pace, bumping its way through.

“Be gentle, Ram Sagan. Bibi is old now, so are her bones,” said Chandhi-bua.

Aray, are mine any newer?” he replied as he flogged the horse and started with his tales that knew no end. 

“They promised that they would make a new road here in the last elections. If it had been made, you’d have seen autos running here. Young men are not bothered by this, they just walk to the bus station easily. But what about women or old people like me? Aray, my bones are old, yes, but they’re still strong! They withstand these bumps. Bullock carts no longer run now, and there are only a few tam-tams in the village. If not for them, you two would have walked this distance, you know.”

“What then? We wouldn’t have come otherwise. For what?” Chandhi-bua’s tongue was razor-sharp. “Impossible!” said Ram Sagan. “She was Mālik’s favourite but for the longest time she didn’t’ even come! Our Bibi got swept away by the city breeze. If I didn’t have a tam-tam, I would have brought a palanquin. There’s an old palanquin at Mālik’s house. I would have gathered some kahārs to carry that,” Ram Sagan went uninterrupted, and then in the same breath, asked about Zarreen’s son, “And why didn’t bhaiyya come?” 

Zakia Mashhadi. Photo: wordswithoutborders.org.

Bhaiyya’s bride has taken him far away! Clutched him tightly in her control, you know,” said Chandhi-bua, who was well known for being a loudmouth. It was no use for Zarreen to say anything now.

“Everyone’s alike, rich or poor”, mused Ram Sagan in a philosophical tone.

“Did your daughter-in-law also take your son away?” asked Chandhi-bua.

Zarreen couldn’t hold herself any longer, “Stay silent for once, can you!” she chided Chandhi-bua.

Nothing had changed. Her uncle’s house was exactly the same. Half baked, plastered with mud. She could see two cows under the shed ruminating mindlessly. In spite of the sameness, his absence made palpable the grief in the house that now seemed empty. Maybe it was only Zarreen who felt that emptiness. It was a joint family after all, with a lot of people. Young, old, children, middle-aged, and of course her māmu’s wife, the old mumāni. She was old, very old, in fact. Couldn’t hear, couldn’t understand anything, and curled up in her own bed, she would get rid of the flies on her own. This was the extent of her bodily ability. She recognized Zarreen by her name and blessed her in some muffled words that were incomprehensible to her. She called her late husband, “Aray, come meet your niece! Come, she is here.” 

An anxious Zarreen felt an itch in her throat.

Both her cousins were now middle-aged, not young but also not old. Their age had made them mute and rigid, their beards down their chests and pajamas above their ankles. They were strict on their families – lions within their respective households, but their hearts were clean, soft. Both of them cared for the family. 

They were grieving, but Zarreen’s arrival marked a happy occasion for them. A chicken was slaughtered, and they cooked pulāo for her. They couldn’t feast, of course. It was not enough for everyone, and Zarreen was served separately. Moreover, their ways were old, and they still sat on small stools in the mud-floored kitchen. Her grandfather didn’t get any richer than he already was. Instead, he steadily declined. He sent his sons to a local madrasa and then made them work in the fields and orchards. Keeping in mind her big family and their meagre income, Zarreen’s mother chose not to claim her share in her father’s property. She didn’t take anything even when her mother’s jewellery was distributed amongst her siblings. She was already given her fair share of gold when she got married. 

“Did they restore the electricity?” Zarreen asked while eating.

“They’re installing the wires nowadays. They placed the posts ages ago. Electricity is on its way, I guess,” replied her sister-in-law, who was fanning her. 

“Even in places where wires have been installed, have you seen any electricity there?” commented her nephew.

“Toilets were more important than electricity lines,” thought Zarreen. She had asked about toilets the moment she arrived.

“Most people still go to the fields to relieve themselves.”

“We have managed something for you, though. You can use that. Aye, take your aunt outside,” said her late uncle’s daughter-in-law.

Na-na, I’ll go later,” said Zarreen nervously, as if she had been asked to go to the guava orchard. The incident of that orchard was firmly imprinted on her psyche, a memory that she had received as an heirloom from her mother. 

The Guava Orchard

Zarreen’s dādi used to taunt her mother often about this –

Her mother had gotten married in 1940. At that time, except for the Chaudhari household, not a single-family had a proper toilet to themselves. And even that toilet which the Chaudharis had was beyond redemption. The rest of the people, poor or rich – and there weren’t many rich people in the village as such – went to the fields or relieved themselves next to the river amidst the reed bushes. And yes, of course, there was the baswādī for it too, the bamboo plantation. People would go there without a thought, and often women too under the shade of the starry night.

Her father’s bārāt had to spend a whole day and a night in the village before leaving. Zarreen’s mother’s family arranged for temporary toilets to be built in that very orchard. Shallow pits were dug out, tended with small platforms, and cans of water were placed next to them. Bamboo frames were placed in between these pits. Likewise, they also made temporary bathrooms too. Men would bathe next to the well while women bathed behind charpoys that acted as screens. If a woman wanted to be a bit more careful, she would ask a woman servant or a girl to stand on the other side of the charpoy. And if they wanted to rinse their hair, they would sit on a mound and wash them with sandalwood paste or gram flour. After that, they’d bathe with some clothes on behind the charpoy. The elaborate affair was too cumbersome, but all of this had become a part of their lives: it went smoothly, all its troubles unnoticed. 

There were many women from the groom’s sidehis mother, cousins, sisters, aunts. Everyone wore flamboyant gharārās, those long and wide trousers that flapped on either side as they walked. And, of course, the elaborate dupattās across their bodies, all of which were pretty much in shambles by the time they reached the bride’s house. 

When she came back, the groom’s mother gave the match-maker a piece of her mind.

“Oh, Bibi! In what godforsaken place did you set up my son for marriage? These peasants neither have a place to bathe nor a place to shit.” Then she turned to Zarreen’s mother, the fifteen-year-old bride, and said, “Do you people not get a bad stomach? And if it does happen sometime, do you go sit in the farms at odd hours? And that which happens while on the run to the field….” None could rein in her tongue. And of course, women start speaking a bit too much when they get older..(yes, she was too old to get older anyway).

Aalim Akhtar.

Zarreen’s mother, who was just a child at that time, turned red with shame. She couldn’t even correct her by saying that her family doesn’t go to the fields, they have their own orchard for it. Only women use that, and men use the baswādī or the fields. 

“Nek-Bakht!” said the groom’s father, “They are shaikhs. The girl is beautiful. She can read out the mīlād book. Her family owns lands and she will definitely get her share of it. Now tell me, with all your complaints about the toilets, how many times will you be coming back to this place?”

“Even the bride left her house in a bullock cart. And in bullock carts we were taken to her house too.”

“Alright, alright. Do not bring another girl from that place, but be quiet for now at least!”

“What if they invite us for another wedding? Wouldn’t we go then?”

There were still no separate toilets ( . . . while far away, men of power were busy planning to build a grand temple, or at least, were busy threatening to build one. They were the same men who used the common man’s shoulder to step onto their grand vehicles of power and prestige). There was no electricity, no water supply, a lot of schools, yes, but no functional health centres. It was true that people didn’t die of hunger now, the way Chandhi-bua’s family passed away, leaving the eleven-year-old girl to someone else’s care just for the sake of a meal a day. Now at least people had some rice and dāl to eat, some potatoes and roti. Some families had prospered too. They were those who had left the village for the cities. 

Now, no one sends their daughters to the city to work in other peoples’ homes, and old people are not called ‘hari‘ anymore – hopefully. 

Hari Bol

Zarreen’s mother told her about it. And her nāni told her mother about it. Who, in turn, received it from her own mother. If one were to trace these linkages of the mothers, they would arrive at the very beginning of creation. Every mother has a mother, and that mother also has a mother of her own . . . . it’s an endless inheritance, don’t even think about it!

But this incident is just three generations old, not more than that.

At that time, Zarreen’s nāni was a newly wedded wife and had arrived at her in-laws’ house for the first time. It was late into the night, and she was waiting for her husband to come to her. How was it possible to sleep before her husband had come back – her God in this world? But for the newlywed and her first night, a drowsiness kept coming back to her, and she couldn’t keep her eyes open. 

It was a full moon night with stars crashing in the sky. Owls cried, and leaves ruffled against each other. She was all alone – a girl of fifteen who, just a while ago, was surrounded by cousins, nephews, nieces, siblings, everyone. Barely a woman, Zarreen’s nānī was like that fragile tongue that was transfixed in a cage of thirty-two teeth. She hadn’t even seen her husband properly, except for that first night when no conversation happened. 

The sounds came in swirling from all directions amidst that mysterious, fantastic air. It felt like the furies themselves were dancing with their feet turned back. Those voices were tinged with pain, guilt, lamentation, and a fear of death that lurks behind our shoulders, smiling calmly. . . hari bol . . . hari bol . . . hari bol. 

She heard a muffled cry, too, as if those witches had taken someone’s neck under the frenzied moves of their legs, suffocating him, nearly killing him. 

That cry was from a man. 

The procession moved closer to her with all its pain, its fear, its waves of guilt and repentance. It was now right behind the house, next to the wall of her room in that very guava orchard. It then went toward the baswādī, toward the river which flowed next to it in all its majesty and arrogance without a care . . . mindless, thoughtless. 

When her husband crept inside her room as soon as it was dark (nānī had told Zarreen’s mother how, in those days, husbands would creep inside their wives’ quarters like thieves only when it was dark and, in the same fashion, left them as soon as it was daylight), the girl was nearly in tears. With much effort, she told him about the ill-spirits that reside around the house and that she had witnessed their procession moments ago. There was someone in their control, she said as she curled up next to her husband in terror. She had, after all, indeed heard the cries of an old man.

The next day her mother-in-law tried to placate her, “We are pure shaikhs and devotees of Shah Chand. We cannot have spirits even near us, beti. They must have been the poor kamiye taking an elderly to the river to call hari bol. They do that sometimes.” 

The bride removed her veil and asked her, “What is that? What does it mean to call hari bol?” She was still terrified of those voices.

“These are impoverished people. Sometimes they eat, mostly they starve. People say that they boil a kind of grass and eat it with salt. When someone becomes old and frail and asks for food and water, dependent on others even for his washing and cleaning, one day they serve him good food and let him eat his fill. Then they carry him on a charpoy to the river, uttering the words hari bol hari bol…”

“Even when they are alive!” the bride shrieked, forgetting all her eloquence and etiquettes. She was visibly sweating now. Her mother-in-law stood up at that moment and went to instruct the servants about the rice harvest. This was a hint enough for her that this topic should not be mentioned ever again and that she should never ask questions in such an ungraceful manner. 

What is there to be talked about if people take away a corpse, muttering hari bol hari bol . . . yes, if the person was breathing, then it was something, otherwise . . . God, this girl is stupid!

It doesn’t happen anymore, surely, thought Zarreen. But the very memory sent chills down her spine. Her māmu’s grave was still fresh. She could smell its earth. Her room, too, had been plastered with fresh mud. And it was all the same . . . the same earth, the same mud, from her room till his grave. Fields, farms, walls, the graveyard. Earth that ate up creation from the very first day…

The charpoy made of coarse fibre had been covered with a thick mattress and a soft pillow to make things easier for Zarreen. She was given a special room that had a rickety window frame, opening into the courtyard. Her eyes could see the green fields across, reaching straight up to the ancient banyan tree that had seen generations pass away. In a corner was a small three-legged wooden table, covered by a neatly textured yarn cloth made by her niece. An aluminium glass filled with water was placed on it for her, and a lamp was kept in the niche. She blew it off before going to bed. The bullock-cart had undone all her muscle joints it seemed. Even though the place was new to her and the bed rough and hard, she managed to sleep.

It was past midnight. The owls stationed on the thick neem tree in the courtyard were awake. It seemed as if an owl had just preyed on a creature smaller than itself. Zarreen woke up amidst this game as the prey and the predator cried and shrieked by turns. Once awake, she couldn’t go back to sleep. Zarreen stood up with difficulty on her arthritis-ridden knees. Now she had to go to the toilet too. If she delayed any longer, surely her shalwār would suffer a few drops on it. Why at all would they have an attached bathroom? There was a crude toilet built in one corner of the courtyard. There was a bamboo frame around it with a sackcloth for purdah. Inside was a pit that was tended to by a small platform to place one’s feet. They kept a drum of water nearby. Carried by the wind, dried neem leaves would float on it all night. There was no roof for the toilet. Whenever it would rain, people had to take an umbrella or a cloth to cover their heads. Everyone was fine with this arrangement. 

The coos of the owl made her feel as if it was sitting on the window next to her. Zarreen was now anxious. It is just an owl, she told herself. These thoughts that come to mind . . . they are the mind’s creation, what else. However, fear often wins over intelligence. When someone doesn’t visit a familiar place for years, it becomes strange to them even if it is as intimate as their nānī’s village. This place, moreover, had just witnessed death. She wanted to relieve herself quickly now. She stood up and thought, “I have to stay here for a couple of days. I have to ask Chandhi-bua to sleep next to me. The only problem with her is her night blindness. She cannot see properly as soon as it is dark.”

“Who is it?” asked Bua, who was sleeping on the earthen floor with a thin blanket over her. Her blanket curled up as she turned toward Zarreen in panic. 

“Go to sleep, it’s me,” said Zarreen as she came inside with quick steps. These were the first moon nights. It seemed as if someone had cut a part of the moon with a scissor and hung it in the dark sky. The neem tree, with its magnanimous size, seemed like a ghost. The cursed owl was right there, piercing its beak into innocent flesh, rolling its eyes against the world beyond him. The moonlight screened through the sharp leaves to make everything appear like a chessboard – shades of black and white made it look more fearsome than darkness itself. The earth turned hostile, and the periphery of the courtyard kept on increasing. To cross this path and sit on the makeshift toilet took so long that Zarreen couldn’t hold herself for long, and her trousers got a bit wet. She came back exasperated and changed herself. I will give it to Chandhi-bua tomorrow morning for a wash, she thought.

Chandhi-bua

Chandhi-bua had been managing Zarreen’s life for some time now. She stayed with her like her shadow. Zarreen was satisfied since she was fairly younger than her, maybe in her fifties. One cannot say anything about accidents, but if Zarreen attained a normal age, she would definitely be around her in old age. She had become her habit and would feel safe around Chandhi-bua. It was only because of her that Zarreen could get what she wanted, her choice of food, a geyser filled with hot water, towels and clothes for bathing. . . Zarreen’s faltering steps were guided by her care, and her body felt anew after Chandhi-bua’s massages. What if her trousers were stained now? Even here, she would rescue Zarreen’s reputation and say, “Our Bibi is not in the habit of going to such makeshift toilets! She couldn’t handle the jug in the water drum. Some of that spilled onto the shalwār. What to say of her, even I cannot use such toilets. If I didn’t suffer from night blindness, I would have helped bibi at night too!” She speaks too much, and that is what she would do tomorrow, thought Zarreen, all for my reputation. 

Maulvi sāhab had named her Sarah Khatoon based on the Quran. But leave aside Bibi and Khatoon, she didn’t even stay as Sarah for long. She was not more than six when she experienced night blindness. Soon she was subjected to ill-treatment by people around her and their taunts. 

“aye Chandhi, you should be careful!” 

“Who asked this Chandhi to do anything at night? She will ruin everything!”

“They had a girl and a night-blind at that. Poor parents.”

She was henceforth referred to as Chandhi or night-blind even though she could see perfectly well during the day. “You could call me Sarah during the day at least!” she protested once, which threw everyone into a fit. 

She was given to Zarreen when she was just eleven years old. In return, her parents were allowed to live on a small patch of land on which they built a ramshackle of their own. Previously evicted from where they lived, they came in contact with Zarreen’s nānā, who let them and their son work on his fields. She was the price of that tiny patch of land – a girl of just eleven years who spent her childhood years grinding spices, making rotis, threshing the harvest, and making cow dung cakes. Her night blindness didn’t stop her from working at night, even if that meant walking around the house and getting hit by something or the other all the time. 

The history of this particular buying-and-selling was fairly old. 

Chandhi-bua’s great-grandfather was a Hindu who had escaped from the Bengal famine along with his pregnant wife. He sold her off to a rich Muslim peasant in the village. The peasant tried to remind him that he was a Muslim, but he didn’t care. He couldn’t afford to think of religion at that time. All he wanted was survival, of his wife, their child, and his own self. If the peasant could keep her, all three would be saved, he said. All he took was a few coins and food. That despairing young man who looked like a famine-stricken skeleton never came back again. 

He must have died on his way. Those coins proved insufficient for him.

His pregnant wife was looked after. A boy was born. With time, both mother and son adopted the religion of their master. She became part of the peasant community, got married, and in the third generation, Sarah Khatoon was born. At age five, she was sent to Zarreen’s maternal family. At age eleven, she was given to Zarreen to take care of her newborns. 

When her children were old enough, Zarreen got her married, but she ran away and came back with just a pair of clothes and a tin box with her. 

“My heart doesn’t feel it! May God curse those thickheads. His mother conjured up tension between us every day, and when he would beat me, she wouldn’t say a thing and sat quietly with her gurgling Hookah. One day someone told her to not let her son beat me up. She said, ‘what shall I do here? It’s a matter between the couple. They should do it on their own. Besides, she is a bitch!'”

Zarreen chided her but to no avail.

“Whatever the matter was, why are you using such words?”

Zarreen tried to make her understand, but she didn’t move an inch. In the end, a divorce was settled. A suitable match was found again. She made a face but agreed to it. 

Lo and behold, within a year, there she was again at Zarreen’s door. The rickshaw stopped, and Chandhi-bua disembarked with dewy eyes. She had left everything behind her, even her tin box. She didn’t even ask for divorce this time.

“I don’t want to do a third nikāh at all. What will I do with the divorce papers?”

Her second husband waited for her for some time, but she didn’t go. Soon out of patience, he married again. On the other hand, Chandhi-bua forgot not only his name but the name of his village as well. However, that didn’t stop her from wearing bangles on each Eid along with a pink dupatta. Now she was firmly called Chandhi-bua. Zarreen didn’t like it, but she couldn’t do anything. Everyone had named her so, and she had accepted it too, wholeheartedly.

“If God made me a Chandhi, what can his creatures do anyway but call me so?”

Slowly everyone forgot Sarah Khatoon. She didn’t care at all. For her, her entire life revolved around Zarreen and her children. That was her universe. 

When Zarreen’s son went to Germany, Chandhi-bua was shattered. “An only son, and leaves my Bibi alone like this!” she said. She had been living with Zarreen like her own shadow ever since her husband passed away. 

It was only Chandhi-bua who had helped Zarreen to come to her late uncle’s village at that time. To expect anything from the children? It was useless. One was lost in his own world, the other would cover her ears at the mention of the village. Why would they want to, anyway? They didn’t care about their own maternal side, let alone Zarreen’s!

“What would you even do there, ammi? It’s the other end of the globe. The dead won’t come back if you visit their graves!” One couldn’t oppose the sheer rationality behind this statement.

Ammi, you wouldn’t be able to withstand the journey,” they said again and again.

“Let her go, bhaiyya. I am with her, she will go to the place where she is anchored after all,” said Chandhi-bua. 

“It is you who is anchored there, Chandhi-bua. Leave ammi here, and you proceed alone!”

Zarreen’s insistence and Chandhi-bua’s assistance helped them prevail over her children’s concerns. And did they really live there, anyway? Everything was happening on the phone. 

Only Chandhi-bua was there to accompany her to that hell-house. To leave two husbands for Zarreen, that was Chandhi-bua who had endured so much just to be with her. 

She slapped her with a jute fan when she came back for the second time, but eventually, even Zarreen accepted that Chandhi had been made only for her. 

When the sun was up in the morning, Chandhi-bua washed her stained shalwār and said precisely the same things that Zarreen had imagined the night before.

The German Daughter-in-Law

Zarreen’s daughter-in-law had ‘made in Germany’ stamped on her. Her son had gone to Germany after completing his Computer Engineering degree. He pursued his further studies there and started working alongside. At that time, Zarreen’s husband was alive and was giving some thought regarding his marriage. Zarreen had some names for him in mind as well. However, by then, he had started living with his instructor, who was some years his senior but was extremely beautiful. He did not have the courage to disclose this to his parents. Every time they would send a photo of a probable match to him, their son would make an appropriate excuse to get himself off the hook. After dilly-dallying for two years, the parents understood that something was up. Luckily (or unluckily perhaps) during the same time, the white girl agreed to marry him, and he was able to tell his parents about it. He told them to come and attend the wedding without much fuss. He will send them a return ticket too. Even if they don’t come, the wedding will proceed anyhow.

Husband and wife tried to placate themselves. It was difficult, but with much rationalization and courage, they agreed. Zarreen decked up in her wedding attire – gharārā, jhūmar, jhumkay – and set off to Germany with her husband. The girl’s family was fascinated by this look. For them, it was almost like a fancy-dress. The white girl – monkeyish according to Chandhi-bua – became an exquisite desi bride. She wore a gown in the Church, of course. The desi ‘get-up’ was reserved only for the nikāh.

Chandhi-bua’s heart was torn. The dreams she had for bhaiyya’s wedding – to go and visit potential matches, to get served by them, only to reject them later! Eventually, a girl would have been chosen. To prepare for the engagement, the sweetmeats, all the rituals, wrangling with the in-laws, pinpointing flaws in the bride’s gifts to showering her with joy and happiness . . . everything was now just a dream. 

When Zarreen left her behind to attend the wedding in Germany, Chandhi spent a whole week playing the dholak and singing wedding songs in full gusto. She invited the other house-helps for a small party of tea and biskoot, and the entire gathering spent their time cursing the firangis for siphoning away Bhaiyya from them.

He had brought the bride home once. Instead of teaching her his own language, he had adopted her language instead. English was something that they shared with each other. Zarreen managed with it, but the pleasures of gossiping with her, of dressing down her parents, brothers, and other family remained distant dreams for Chandhi-bua. She could do nothing but stare at her face. She declared her to be horse-faced and, with a sigh, said, “Bhaiyya’s matrimonial fate is suspended, neither did he get his own caste, nor his own food.” 

Anyway, the white bride came here and met all the relatives, went to see the Taj Mahal, suffered at the hands of the mosquitoes and ‘Delhi-Belly’ and deftly went back.

Fifteen years passed. They had two sons, and Zarreen could only see them in photos. She and her husband went to Germany again for the sake of their grandchildren. Just when she was getting used to the idea of her son’s marriage and his family, now that his sons had grown up to be teenagers, she received the news of his divorce. She had to bear the grief alone, her husband was no longer by her side. For some reason that Zarreen couldn’t fathom, her husband had changed his will during his last days. The house was in her name now. Most of the cash that they had was spent on his cancer treatment, for the Germany trips, and in buying expensive gifts for their children. But Zarreen was not left with nothing – she still had a satisfactory family pension to her name.

Bolo Bolo Hari Hari Aye Hari

That residential compound was known for housing retired people. There was a sizable pond in that area once upon a time that attracted those interested in hunting ducks. This is from a very old story, the time when elders were still young. Not these elders, but the elders of even these elders. Gradually, the pond started to shrink, and birds no longer came. It shrunk and shallowed out so much that it was no longer a pond but land. And that land was sold off cheap. 

“Who will even go there to live?” people asked. There was no water, but owls and jackals were still at large. If someone were to fall ill, there was no doctor, no treatment available. Those who were clever bought those plots of land, one after another. They got their boundaries made and left them for better times. 

Eventually, a few houses were built on these plots. They looked like palaces in front of the suffocating city flats – with lawns in front, porticos, spacious verandahs and then finally, the main structure. Built on sophisticated columns, those bungalows reminded one of the colonial era. Most of the people who occupied them were government servants. 

Within fifty years, taking its own sweet time, a change overcame the entire scene. People could see it from a distance, so much palpable it was to the naked eye, just like a young beating heart except that it was not alive but dead. Cursed and melancholic, the compound seemed less like a place of residence and more like a graveyard. People seldom had lights outside their bungalows in a place that was already dim and poorly lit. Not many lived there now. Most people had left, most houses were empty. Those who were still around were retired and old, ageing husbands and wives. Maybe a servant or two, no one else. 

These were families that were well-off. They gave a sound education to their children and married them into well-reputed families. These sons flew away, leaving their parents behind. If not abroad, they were now living in cities – Bombay, Madras, Bangalore – places where they had thick salaried jobs in the corporate sector. They went abroad for vacationing and once in a blue moon would come to see their parents back home. If parents were courageous enough, they would accept their children’s invitation and spend a month or two with them in the city.

People started calling this colony “Old age home.” The unkind and hard-hearted would say, “They leave their parents here to die. They wait it out, and when they receive the news, they come back for funeral prayers and a final goodbye.”

One day it struck someone that in its place – these spacious bungalows with just two or three people in each of them, mostly old and cranky, these huge plots that they no longer need – they could make apartment complexes of sixteen to twenty flats. Builders and contractors started negotiations. Some people sold their bungalows and shifted to a flat life. After all, these huge houses were no longer needed. They were unsafe and their upkeep was difficult and expensive. The tiny family of two and a servant used only two rooms or so, and the rest of the house was locked up, destined for ruin and dust. 

When Faiz died, Zarreen had the upper-story locked up. She couldn’t bear to look at it. It was haunted and lonely. Some even said that it would soon be occupied by ghosts. 

“It is better if you put it up for rent,” they said. 

“Maulvi sāhab can take care of the ghosts,” retorted Chandhi-bua. “But what if it gets haunted by the tenants themselves? No prayer or amulet would come into use then. Justice Ehsan Ahmed’s house was rented out by his sons. The tenants occupied it forcibly, and they wouldn’t go away. What else? Endless litigation from where they reside in Chennai.”

Bhaiyya phoned from Germany one day. 

“Why are you living in this haunted house, ammi? The builder is ready to pay a crore or more for it. Sell it off and get done with it. He will also give you a flat to live in comfortably. 

Zarreen fell silent for some time. She was shocked and taken aback. “How did the builder talk to you in Germany about the price? Is this what you have been up to?” she asked.

“I didn’t talk to the builder, elder sister did. You don’t know the financial drain I am stuck in here. I had a spacious house that my ex-wife took over. My bank balance is nil now because of the alimony. Do you know how much I have to pay for my sons’ education? Two lacs per month in Indian currency.”

“Come back home!” pleaded Zarreen.

“How can you be so cruel, ammi? Should I leave my kids behind here? Living here is the only way in which I could be near them.”

“It didn’t come to my mind, son. I asked you to come back without much thought. But were you not at all hesitant in calling your mother cruel?” something shattered inside her. “We bowed down to all your wishes and desires and lived our life according to what would benefit you. I cannot take this house to my grave. If selling it solves your financial problems, so be it. Arrange something else for me.”

Her son, who absolutely shirked away from coming to India, arrived in no time.

The builders were ready to give them two crores and fifteen lacs and a plush flat along with it. Without the flat, the entire price amounted to three crores. Brother and sister talked to each other. She could get one crore, and he could get two crores. He would then buy another flat from this money in Germany. That would make him feel secure. It would also make up for whatever he had lost in his divorce. And then, just because of ammi’s folly, who knows if someone were to occupy the house forcibly? Or if she is murdered along with Chandhi-bua in the dead of night? 

But they are getting three crores without the flat! Where would ammi live? 

“If I ask her to come with me to Germany, she would think I am crazy. And if she agrees, she wouldn’t leave Chandhi-bua behind. Where do I hang her now?” he thought.

“You will have to keep her,” he informed his sister. 

“Have you gone mad? This means Chandhi-bua will also be living with her. Even if we forcibly separate her from ammi, she will sneak back to her like that cat who, even if she is abandoned on the opposite bank of the Ganges in a sack, comes back to her master. You know how small my flat is in Bangalore. It’s two and a half rooms, including a partial drawing-room. My parents-in-law come to visit us often and stay back for as long as six months at a stretch. My kids are tired of this routine, and they need their space too, they’re growing up. You should send ammi to the village. Our nāni had given up her own share that is now part of our uncle’s property. Does ammi not have the right to spend her last days there? I know they are no longer the same as they were once upon a time, but they still have a big house, there are many rooms, fields. She will still get papa’s pension anyway. Expenses won’t be a problem for her, we too can contribute some amount. Just that they should keep her, I hope.”

“The fresh air of the village, open spaces, green fields, the river flowing by the side, I am sure all of this would add to ammi’s life”, he replied.

Ammi, we think you should go to the village. You have your roots there after all. We have asked them if they could keep you. They agreed for a small monthly amount.”

Zarreen couldn’t say anything. 

Chandhi-bua said, “Something will happen to our Bibi! She will die while being alive! I cannot even live there. Even I, who was sold off by her poor parents. It is impossible for me too. I am addicted to this life. This would add to ammi’s life. Aray! If not tomorrow, she will die today . . . but my love for her seems too much, shouldn’t people call it into question? Can I ever love her more than her own children? I don’t care. But I will not go to any village. It has not even been a year since māmu died, and we have seen what it is like over there.”

Her son needs money, yes, of course. At last, Zarreen broke her silence. “That German snake bit him, and now I am the one who has to deal with her poison. Would I take this house to my grave? I will be laid to rest in a ditch anyway. Be it the city or the village, it is all the same for me. Bua, if you want, you could live with a family here. You have borne enough for me, once when I was giving birth, and now this. I can suffer this travail on my own.” Chandhi-bua started crying and beating herself at Zarreen’s words. 

“Alright, let’s go then!”

All paperwork for sale was completed in no time. They arranged to transfer the money too. In a timid tone, her son suggested that his sister too should give up her claim on the property just like their mother. Zarreen’s daughter made it clear that she didn’t want to hear anything like that and would not shy away from pursuing her share legally. 

His own share was enough for him anyway. He decided to extend his leave from his office and drop off ammi himself at the village. In this way, he could visit her maternal family too. People would be happy to see him, and it would give some joy to her as well, to have him by her side, visiting her nāni’s village. 

He arranged for a spacious air-conditioned jeep. Under the starry sky, Chandhi-bua and Zarreen climbed in with their few belongings. Upon ammi’s insistence, her parrot’s cage too was kept in the jeep.

Zarreen glanced at her husband’s life work for one last time – that big, two-storied house that he made with so many dreams. She could see the fireflies in the bushes. On the other side of the road was the banyan tree, wound up in red threads of devotion and prayer, lamps smeared with sindoor lit near its trunk. Women would walk around it on the occasion of Vat Pūrnima, tying red threads around the trunk, praying for their husband’s long life. They would cut it down now and make an apartment in its place. Every floor will have four flats. Every building will have sixteen families living in it. 

Zarreen felt nauseous.

The owl firmly stationed in the tree gave out its last call of the night. Were the furies with their feet turned inwards hiding in the banyan finally coming out? An anxious Zarreen leaned on Chandhi-bua.

“Come, ammi. Bismillah” The jeep started.

“Hari bol . . . hari bol . . . hari bol . . .” where were these voices coming from? Her daughter had said, “May Allah be with you,” and her son set off in Allah’s name too. The driver, too, had uttered the prayer for a safe journey before igniting the engine. 

Someone was weeping quietly, someone with a suffocated throat.

The voices flared up again as if the furies were engulfing them from all around.

Hari bol . . . hari bol . . . hari bol . . .