Kaun hai? Kaun haiiii? Who’s there? Who’s thereeee?
It is too late for Amanpoor, half of the village is already leaking drools and snores. The dogs are barking at a distant place, their sound thin through the air. The banging and thrusting continue. Yasmeen enquires loudly, an undercurrent of fear lacing her voice. Sweat beads circled around her neck and the folds of her skin, forming little dunes at her temple.
The banging gets louder, sending a terror shock through her body. Aftaab had warned her against any such visits. He is not home and ‘Kanhaiya’, their newborn, is fast asleep. Kanhaiya got his name from his now favorite aunt and also, neighbor, Supriya. Supriya found it apt for him because of his fondness for butter froths on the top layer of his milk-bottle. It never occurred to aunt Supriya or Yasmeen or Aftaab, that there might be a religious association of the name. Supriya’s and Yasmeen’s in-laws had been living together under the jostling walls of their house since they all knew living. Their lives grew intricately intertwined, like that of a cucumber and money plant at each of their walls.
The welcomed encroachment of each climber is still hard to determine. Yasmeen was happy with the name. Of course, she never wanted Supriya to be bereft of the little joys of motherhood which she could have provided for, unlike God.
Yasmeen, with her strong motherly instincts, tucks Kanhaiya tightly in his wrappings and puts some clothes over him, leaving a small gap for him to breathe. Convinced with the temporary arrangement, she moves forward with faltering steps, arranging her dupatta on to her head instinctively. She tries to peep through the crevices of the old, weary door which had a small ‘786’ written on it. It never occurred to them while writing that this little sign could be a cauldron of bubbling hatred in the times to come. She is peeping, that a sudden jolt breaks the creaking door open. A mob of around ten stood in front of her, their eyes inebriated with aversion, faces painted red with hatred and teeth gnashing desperately for flesh. Yasmeen froze and let out a desperate, retired sigh, “Ya Allah.”
A year ago. Yasmeen was frantically waiting, rubbing her moistened palms against each other for Yumna, her sister, who’ll tell her about Aftaab. Plastic chairs were being dragged, children were running around with the left-over snacks, marking the guests’ departure. Undisturbed by the chatter between Fahad and Aliya about gulab jamuns, Yasmeen looks out from the rustic bars of the window. Her smooth, coal-black hair illuminates her skin, occasionally slipping from their designated place revealing a mole behind her ears. Yumna runs back to Yasmeen and spurts out every little information she could gather about Aftaab.
“What does he do?” Yasmeen enquired.
“He leases out vehicles.” Yumna replied.
“Is he good? What is he like? Is he ill-disposed?”
“He seems to be a fine person. He is pleasant in his manners Yasmeen, unlike Abba. I think he will support you in your further studies too.”
“Oh, that’s all I have been wanting, you see. I want to escape this life, Yumna. If he lets me study, it will all be good.”
Saying this she fell back on her pillow, exhilaration hit her, and after such an assurance from Yumna; Yasmeen embarked on a journey of weaving her home in her head with the ardour and precision of birds. She knitted every fibre of her new life, with threads and twigs of warm promises. She furnished a room with a little corner for her books and a fountain of euphoria gurgled inside her heart.
Eventually, the day arrived and the nikah took place amidst a bustling and packed aangan of complaining relatives and wailing babies. Rukhsati, was executed in the shadow of Quran, a distant cousin held it above Yasmeen’s head. Yumna dried her eyes, crying at the departure of her beloved sister. Yasmeen, who was experiencing a mixed feeling, reciprocated Yumna with a few tears of her own, flowing down her cheek. She sat in the car and was mostly silent during her first meeting with Aftaab, preferring to look outside the stuffy car. Mohammad Rafi’s song played in the background, a favourite of Usmaan chacha who was regally occupying the front seat. Usmaan chacha was Aftaab’s uncle, and the sole guardian of Aftaab,after his parents passed away, one due to dengue and the other due to cholera. Usmaan chacha now and then adjusted the volume according to his mood. His presence seemed to make Aftaab hesitant and all he did was hold Yasmeen’s hands silently, receiving a surprisingly tender response from her, who pressed his hands softly. An understanding was established and warm, silent glances affirmed their will for what would be a blissful life.
It was a humid day. After steering clear off Kanhaiya’s erratic mood and finally laying him down to sleep, Yasmeen settled herself suitably on the cot in the aangan under twinkling stars, armed with a kerosene lamp to study for her upcoming exams. Aftaab had eaten his food, and to his content and slept peacefully beside Kanhaiya.
She was mid-sentence in an interesting Manto chapter – “itna musalman hoon ki hindu-muslim riot me mara ja sakun”, I am enough of a Muslim to be murdered in Hindu-Muslim riots, when there was a knock at the door. Yasmeen asks through the door.
“Kaun hai?” Who’s there?
“Bhabhi, please ask Aftaab to come out. It’s me, Devandra this side.”
“Oh okay, I am sending him. Hold on.”
Yasmeen unlatched the door and asked him to come in and take a seat. She moved back and woke Aftaab, who woke up at once hearing her voice. Being aware about the matter, he got up, and took his shirt that was hanging on one of the four pillars in their verandah. At the sight of Aftaab, Devendra started speaking.
“Maaf karna Aftaab Mi’an. The matter was such, and I had to come to you at this hour.”
“That’s okay, Bhaiya. What’s the matter?”
“I need your vehicle to transport the carcass of a cow from Shantipoor. We had fixed a person from there itself but he ditched us at the last moment. I have to bring it here, and then the people from the factory will come to collect it.”
“Okay. I would have been more than happy to help you, but the mini-truck’s driver is on leave.”
“Oh ho, couldn’t you do this small favour? Can you help me by driving to the place yourself? My elder son, Balua, will accompany you to make sure everything is smooth and hassle-free.”
“Bhaiya, Yasmeen is alone and she will have to handle Kanhaiya all by herself, it gets difficult.”
“Bhabhi, wouldn’t you bestow your dewar this little favour, and convince him to go?” Devendra looked at Yasmeen expectantly.
She said, “You go Aftaab, if it gets too late, I’ll call Supriya bhabhi.”
Finally, the matter was agreed upon. It was decided that Aftaab would leave home early next morning after namaz. He left the house and Yasmeen went off to sleep.
It was a hot day, and shirts sweltered with sweat; little sweat drops just like the artificial dew drops stuck on plastic flowers, sat on him below his white skull cap. Balua was giving away tiny information nuggets at every speed bump and juncture. Aftaab listened patiently, sporadically getting lost into thoughts of Yasmeen and Kanhaiya. He asked Balua a few questions, to pass time.
“What do you do in your free time?”
“I try studying. I had to leave school because the headmaster didn’t want me to pollute the school.”
Aftaab couldn’t think of enough words to construct a sentence and drove silently for about a kilometer. Tension seemed to hang in the suffocating air inside the truck. He then mustered enough courage to enquire about the business that was taking them to Shantipoor.
“Whose cow is it?”
“Oh it’s one of the farmer’s, you must be knowing him, Sunil.”
“Which Sunil, the one who lives at the outskirts or the one in the lane beside the maidaan?”
“The one living beside the maidaan.”
“Oh, okay. Have they constructed roads up till his backyard?”
“Yes, half of it has been done, and the rest has been levelled up by the villagers using red soil.”
“I see, I hope this mini-truck is able to reach the place without getting the tyre stuck before.”
“Yes! Yes! It’s quite levelled.”
They both paused as if satisfied with the words that had been exchanged so far, melting away the awkwardness left behind by the previous conversation. At the outskirts of Shantipoor, a group of men wearing saffron bandanas and dark glasses were sitting at a line dhaba, laughing and harassing a dog cowering under the table. They were luring him by showing a kulhad that was half-filled with water and poured in left-over chai; and throwing stones at him when he did not respond. Balua and Aftaab were hungry and running short of water, but the scene at the sole line-dhaba on the way prevented them from stopping or getting down. Aftaab was aiming to vanish by employing mechanical assistance, by accelerator just like smoke which dissolves in air leaving no trace.
At fifteen past two, they reached the door of Sushil’s place the tyres crackling from the grit which were loosened from the road made this summer. Monsoon tends to hit hard at such soft undertakings by the government. The backyard door was an iron gate painted in orange, the colour flushed by rain and sun giving the gate a rusty look. Three men came out, barefooted, with the carcass at the signal of the horn. One of them was wearing a saffron vest with a few holes on the right side of his naval and the remaining two were donning a white one. Their feet trudged in mud up to the knee, and had acquired a coffee color after being dried in the course of their work. They assisted Balua in loading the carcass in the mini-truck. Aftaab didn’t get down almost as if he had resolved to not waste even a minute. He wanted to wrap things up as soon as possible and return. He made a call to Yasmeen.
“Walekumassalaam! You reached?”
“Yes, I reached. I will get back soon. We will leave in an hour or so. I will be home by night. How is Kanhaiya?”
“He’s fine, ate well and is now sleeping in the lap of his favorite, Supriya Bhabhi.”
“Oh you called her? Ask her to stay with you till I come.”
“Yes! Yes! Don’t worry. Come back soon. I don’t think I will have to disturb her, you’ll be home soon. Kanhaiya and I are waiting.”
The call dropped, and it was after an hour that they left for Amanpoor. The sun was still sharp in and scathing, and Aftaab was happy about reaching well before darkness fell. The trees sprinting backwards on either side of the road, calmed Aftaab and gave him a feeling of swiftness. The hot air knocking and entering the windows was acting as a coolant when passing through their sweaty bodies. Having found some respite from the piercing heat, Balua drifted off to sleep. Aftaab drove, enjoying his last paan and thinking about the dinner with Yasmeen. It was a long day and he hadn’t carried anything from home due to the immediacy of the plan. He was planning to get down by the line dhaba and grab something to eat, but Balua was deep asleep. Aftaab was suddenly reminded of the intimidating glare of the group at the dhaba on the way.
He brushed off the disturbing picture from his mind as a convocation of eagles caught his eyes in the sky. It was clear blue with scattered clouds, almost like the smoke rising from incense sticks in the side mirror of the truck, where Aftaab caught sight of the same group of men with black glasses and saffron bandanas speeding up towards him.
A rush of anxiety seized him and he didn’t know how to respond. In panic, he reflexively speeded up and in no time things got complicated and charged up, for nothing. The saffron-clad group felt they, had been challenged by a man in a skull cap. While, the man in the skull cap was panicking. In his mind, he was racing for his life, for his wife and son waiting for him back home. Two men overtook the truck from the left side, almost cornering his mini-truck.
Aftaab hurriedly looked away. As they went past, hooting and blowing horns incessantly, Balua woke up from the clamour and Aftaab felt relieved. He was thankful about having someone to share this horror with. Balua was befuddled with the sudden and noisy chaos, and took a moment to clear his mind. In the meantime, Aftaab pushed on the accelerator to run away from the uninvited trouble. They chased him with their advanced vehicles, those that have advertisements boasting about having a high pick up blaring on TV. A man in white skull cap can never overtake a man in a saffron bandana. Aftaab had unknowingly trampled on this rule. After about a kilometre, two policemen were waiting at the next post for Aftaab. They waved and Aftaab halted the truck with a sudden blow.
What’s in the back? The one with a thick moustache asked. Sir, it’s the carcass of a cow.
They pulled Aftaab and Balua out. One policeman seized Aftaab from the neck and the other towered over Balua pushing him to the ground. Balua and Aftaab looked at each other in terror, finding strength in the lines of each other’s temple and consolation in each other’s eyes. The men in the saffron bandanas arrived.
The men entered the house and pushing Yasmeen to the corner, locked the main gate behind. The chaos made the hen and chickens run helter-skelter for safety. A bleeding Balua was being dragged by some men in the group. The men went inside the house as if looking for something beyond Yasmeen to tamper with. On entering the kitchen, they see food kept on a crooked slab, its gravy seasoned with fresh coriander leaves. The kitchen was shadowy with thin rays of light streaming in through the square blocks made of kuccha bricks and mud, facing the verandah. A few of the blocks were stuffed with clothes and old papers. The men open the discoloured refrigerator’s top and threw away the bottles as if angry about not getting what they were looking for. The floor was powdered with aata, the gravy making a small pool of oil. As Yasmeen tried to enter the kitchen, a man held her by her hair from behind as if to uproot it from the scalp.
The men, having found nothing, went back to Yasmeen. They tear away a piece of her kameez to stuff in her mouth. They wanted to avoid the screaming. They tore her clothes starting from the head; dupatta, kameez, shalwar…until nothing, not a thread is left on her. Yasmeen stops her stifling groan, it would wake Kanhaiya, and her heart sank. Her body turned cold slowly, with each jolt, her soul melted away, leaving behind lumps of flesh, stitched together by wrath. Satiated with their anger and heat, they left after giving a final blow to Balua. Dying was a better alternative that night. The blood that ran down from Yasmeen’s lower body made estuaries in the aata spread across the kitchen floor while Balua’s blood absorbed in the mud. The hen sat quietly in a corner, hiding her chicks under her wings. Two battered bodies lie under the sprawling night sky.
A sweet smell pervaded the aangan, exactly the way Yasmeen used to like it. It arose from the incense sticks placed at the top of the two bodies that lay parallel to each other. Clean white sheets with blots of blood are wrapped immaculately. Women sat in a circle, reciting the Quran. The men have planted themselves on the cot near the entrance, a few of them reading and the rest of them speculating.
Kanhaiya is playing in the arms of Supriya. Who says God doesn’t answer? At last, God had answered, just with some little amendments.
Dupatta- a piece of clothing used by women in a three piece dress i.e. Kameez (shirt/kurta) and Shalwar (lower) and Dupatta (stole)
Kulhad- earthen cups used for serving chai (tea).
Gulab Jamun- a variety of sweet
Nikah- Muslim marriage agreement
Rukhsati- wedding tradition of bride and groom leaving with elders for groom’s place
Maidaan- open field
Dhaba- roadside restaurants / tea shop
Aata- wheat flour
Paan- betel leaves
A TBR Creative Writing Workshop Piece
Saman Rizvi is a student of English Literature, currently pursuing her Masters from Center for English Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. The distressful contemporary issues that trouble her, make their way into her writings. She hails from Gaya, Bihar and also writes Ghazals in Urdu. She has participated and has won various poetry competitions. Her fiction and poetry have been published in Literary Yard and Erothanatos.