A dry loo blew over Maryam’s desolate courtyard, plucking a handful of pink bougainvillea hanging lazily over the wall of the verandah. She heard the soft clink of the bangles she had left out to dry, but the loo vanished as quickly as it had come, and for several moments, the buzzing of her grandmother’s table fan was the only sound that accompanied the hotness of the May afternoon. Maryam went back to her book, the English one. The words on the page were painstakingly difficult to read, but she tried hard to mouth them correctly. Hopes of a future when she could breezily read English, were not rare in her heart, and she was comfortably lost when her thoughts were interrupted again.
Maryam turned to face a man, probably in his late forties, with a yellow leather bag in his hand.
‘It’s me Mamu,’ she clarified.
‘Wallah! Sometimes it is almost impossible to tell you two apart.’
Her Mamu seated himself down on the chatai in front of her, crossing his legs with a moan, the first sign of his ageing, Maryam felt. On most days, one would believe him when he said he was thirty-five, as he often did. There was hardly any grey in his hair, and he wore crisp, straight pants with ironed yellowed white shirts. He looked like the gentleman he was, at least he was closest to one Maryam had ever known.
‘Ahh! Reading English again?’
‘At this speed, you will surpass me I swear to God! Ask me what news I have?’ He did not wait for an answer, and continued. ‘Shabana’s older daughter is engaged. About time if you ask me. The girl has been sitting at home for three years… and doing what tell me?’
‘Aye, doing the work of men, as women in this house are doing.’
Her grandmother’s voice was muffled by the paan in her mouth, and Maryam wondered if she would risk ruining its flavour for another one of her soliloquies. The paan must have been exceptionally sweet, for she turned in her charpoy to face her table fan and went back to sleep. Maryam looked at her Uncle to see if he had a reaction, but from his expression, she gathered him to be disdainful, or maybe, indifferent. He sat there for what seemed like a long time, possibly searching for an excuse to leave, as Maryam thought, with the little self-esteem he had intact. When he finally left, the excuse was only slightly convincing, but Maryam had always known that her Uncle was not as intelligent as he wanted everyone to believe. Her mother often told her that he had been smarter, though never as smart as her, but time and poverty had done their work. She turned back to her book as another dry loo took over the verandah, rocking another bunch of pink bougainvillea to death.
Evening settled lazily in her small town. There were occasions when Maryam wondered if time even bothered to pass by them, or it did simply because it was made to by God. She woke up from her slumber, her head heavy with the reading and the heat. Folding the chatai, she went outside to her grandmother, who was sitting on a corner of the takht.
‘Where is Mamu?’ Maryam asked as she filled a lota from a bucket, cupping her hands under its snout and sprinkling the water it gathered all over the verandah.
‘Aye, why don’t you stop worrying about your precious Mamu? He is not made of glass, is he?’
‘I will when you stop with your hourly taunts. It gets too much sometimes, Nani.’
‘Aye, what else can I do? I will be dead before he listens. Who has ever listened to their old mothers… sons be damned… my feet can almost touch my grave now… soon…’
‘O-B-S-E-S-S-I-O-N…’ Maryam mouthed. That’s what her grandmother felt for death. Maryam had adopted this technique a while ago; learning difficult English words through the things she saw and heard around her, and since then, she had been able to memorise even extremely hard words with ease. She sprinkled the last drops of water across the verandah, filled the lota again, and climbed the stairs to her Uncle’s room.
‘Aye, that old man cannot even do a chidkao now… how difficult is throwing water on the floor… sons be damned one day I will be dead…’
The climb to her Uncle’s room was hardly a climb, a couple of steps haphazardly carved into the stone. The room itself was a work of haste and cheap labour, built up by gluing bricks together along the edge of the roof. If she searched for it, Maryam could still see the demarcation where the terrace boundary had been stretched to raise a wall. She had spent many fond days in the room as a child, when her Mumani lived there as a new bride, and even when she had left the house as a new bride. She remembered her red heels and red purse that she played with. Those were the only things she was left with, after her Mamu sold every piece of gold and silver from her trousseau to buy books. Maryam still remembered the clink of those heels and the flash of that purse, as her Mumani threw slurs at Mamu, and stormed out of the house, never to be seen again.
‘Oh Maryam, what would I do without you? It is so hot, a chidkao is necessary it seems. Do you know the science behind this routine?’
Maryam knew he wouldn’t wait for an answer.
‘I will tell you. It’s evaporation. The water absorbs the heat of the ground and evaporates, cooling the cemented floor. Much like the perspiration of our bodies. You have studied this in school?’
‘I will see if I can give you a book on this. Must be on one of the taaqs. Hahaha, what a use of taaq! We used to light oil lamps in them when I was your age, but who uses lamps these days.’ He said.
Maryam knew he would fall quiet now, as he always did after talking about his youth. Her mother said that it must remind him of his glory days, when he was the most intelligent man in all of town, if you did not count the women. Now he was just any man, even worse, he was a man living on a woman’s, his sister’s, money. She felt sorry for him at times, but her grandmother always told her she shouldn’t.
Maryam glanced over the wall to see if her mother had come back from work. It was almost time, and she always wanted to see Maryam first when she entered the house. Maryam placed the lota on top of the cement water tank and leaned over the terrace boundary, painted blue for some reason. Her Uncle’s room was plastered in naked cement and the rest of the house—the room downstairs, the kitchen, and the latrine—was simply brick and mortar. Her mother had promised she would get their room, shared by all the women, plastered this year, but Maryam doubted if she would be able to save the money. Looking back at that moment now, she would realise that God had answered her question then; a muezzin broke into the azaan and a pair of black eyes greeted Maryam from the door downstairs.
The moon rose in all its glory by the time the family settled for dinner. It was a humble spread for the intricately embroidered dastarkhan on which it had been laid out—sabzi, chapatis, and curry with hardly any chunks of meat. Mehr was humming a tune under her breath as she served her daughter a piece of meat, the biggest in the pot, and spread ghee on her chapatis.
‘If only you would tell me the hiding place of that ghee bhinno… these old bones need some care too,’ Mehr only smiled at her brother’s jest, but knew her mother would be prepared with a reply. After all these years, the exchanges had become synonymous with dinner time. By now, she had lost count of the number of times she had made her mother promise to stop with the casual nitpicking and insults, of the countless explanations she had presented to save her brother, urging her mother that it was after all, not his fault.
‘Aye, so do bones that grind all day at the office and school, and I see only two people here who do that… no, no just sabzi and adhi roti for me… what does this old body need food for… rotting in the grave? Bas, bas…’
The family ate quietly after that, except for Mehr’s interrogation of Maryam’s day at school, to which her brother added uninvited snippets here and there. She had grown to love him somehow over the years, as the resentment in her gave way to pity and acceptance. On many nights, as they all sat down for dinner, her thoughts would travel to their dinner time as children, when their father was alive and their mother’s taunts were reserved for her. Then, she would eat ghee-less, dry chapatis as the one she was eating now, with the smallest piece of meat, while everything of worth went over to her brother. Sometimes she wondered if her mother’s sneers, now for her brother, were a way of apologising, or if the apology was heartfelt. But she never bothered asking her. That is what peace does to you, it enters quietly from the backdoor and leaves no room for complaints. And if anything, Mehr knew that she was at last, peaceful.
The electricity went out as usual after dinner, and the women of the house sat outside on the takht in the verandah, hoping for a breeze that wouldn’t come. Mehr and Maryam took turns with the pankha, a device of intricate craftsmanship. In the early days after her divorce, any object that was once in the set of her wedding belongings, would bring back memories of her marriage. A marriage, if one could call it that. For Mehr, it had been nights and days, one after the other. Nights of alcohol reeked beatings and rape, and days of cleaning the previous night’s mess.
It had been a long time now, since the day she picked up her newborn daughter as her husband slept reeking of liquor and piss, stole money from his wallet, took a rickshaw to the railway station and got on a train to Firozabad. It wasn’t a calm sail.
As she directed the pankha towards her mother, she remembered the protest that had ensued at home that day. She and her father had called her husband almost intuitively, within minutes. Mehr had gone into the kitchen, clambering, and tied the bottle of rat poison lying below behind the gas cylinder, to her dupatta. Her eyes blazed when she threatened to gulp it down her throat, and her daughter’s. She would do that before she ever set foot in that man’s house again.
Her husband came with a tin box filled with some of her things, drunk out of his senses. He stood outside the house, while she stood inside, with her baby in one arm and the bottle of rat poison in another, its mouth inches away from her daughter’s lips.
He only said one word, thrice, ‘talaaq, talaaq, talaaq’ and left.
That night still flashed in her nightmares, what mother would have come so close to killing her daughter. She did not know what it had been—bottled frustration, a moment of weakness, or madness, but she knew she would never be able to do it now, not in a million years, not until she was alive.
Maryam was sitting in front of her and smiled warmly, almost as if she was aware of everything that was going on inside her mother’s mind. Maryam leaned in to place her head on Mehr’s lap, holding on to her pale dupatta. Mehr caressed her daughter’s hair for a long time, as the moon shifted its place in the sky, humming the lullaby that she had sung to her as a child.
‘She looks so much like you.’
Her mother’s words made Mehr smile again, as she looked down upon her daughter’s face, peaceful in sleep. She had heard this all the time over the years, and as Maryam grew older, even she could see the uncanny resemblance, the shabbahat that people often talked about. She was Mehr, the moon, and Maryam was her aks, a reflection of her light, they say. As they had said for her as a girl, Mehr, the moon, the light of the bangle town. Mehr, with the grace, the softness, and the beauty of her namesake.
But Mehr was sure she had lost the beauty somewhere. In all these years, of escaping violence to fall into poverty, of days spent collecting, saving, and calculating every paisa, of lonely nights without a man’s warm arms around her; somewhere she had lost her beauty. But where would she go, who could she talk to. She had vowed never to say a word, when her father had died leaving behind a divorced daughter and a son too proud to work for sheeshgars, and her mother had asked her how she would bring up a child without a husband.
“Ek gareeb zindagi ek zaleel zindagi se behtar hai,” she answered. A life of destitution is better than a life of humiliation.
Never had the question arisen again, and never had anyone asked Mehr how she felt. She would tell them though, if they ever asked, that she had been right.
She shielded her daughter’s eyes from the dim light of the verandah bulb and said, “Isse mera aks hi mile naseeb nahi,” I wish she has only my face, not my fate.
2. The practice of washing the outdoors with water intended to cool down a place
3. An element of hyperlocal architecture, a taaq is an arched shelf that was previously used to light earthen lamps
4. Urdu for table mat
5. Endearment for sister
6. A hand fan
7. Glass workers or makers; while the term is occupational, it is often used to indicate Muslims belonging to a lower casteSobia Abdin identifies as a Muslim woman. This identity has been defined by her experiences of growing up in a patriarchal and Islamophobic society. While together her identity and experiences often find a voice in her writing, she also consciously makes an effort to ensure that her stories are informed by a universal feeling of humanness. Her writings, which include poetry, fiction, and non-fiction, have appeared in The Lookout Journal, Literary Yard, Hans India, Indian Cultural Forum, Muse India, Woman’s Era, and in an anthology published by Impish Lass Publishing House.