Humra Quraishi writes another stunning story, set in Lucknow where despite being in groups and communities, in crowded places, women look for escape from loneliness.
Come summer my mother would pull out several of her faded saris and then sit stitching them to the sagging behinds of the curtains. Along with those layered curtains hugging the doors and windows, khus-chiks would be hung along the sun-facing verandah and a big-sized water cooler fixed, rather re-fixed, protruding out from the bay window.
With that bandobast to beat the summer onslaught, our stepping out during the hot summer afternoons was near forbidden. Her efforts were not successful enough to halt our moves… reckless and restless, my siblings and I would sneak out. Till, of course, amidst much commotion we were brought back and made to sit inside.
The monotony of one particular afternoon was more than unsettling by the persistent knock on the front door. Throwing a dupatta over her hennaed hair, my mother rushed towards the verandah , certain of an impending emergency, for in a city like Lucknow, who would dare come un-announced, disturbing afternoon siesta?
A strange looking man with a stranger looking bag, was standing there. Unmoving, muttering, ‘Akhtaria ke bagh ke! Uske bagh ke... yeh daikhiyai!’ Almost simultaneously moving the bag close to where my mother stood, before opening it rather too dramatically. Falling on the floor, complicated structured ginger roots, bloated lemons, frightfully long cucumbers and much too elongated beans. His fingers running along sensuously on that spread, as he went about repeating, ‘Akhtaria ke bagh ke hain… uske bagh ke. All this grown in that garden!’
‘Garden… which garden?’
‘Special… different garden. Growing all these. A kilo for a rupee!’
‘You selling a kilo of all these kheeraas, adraks... all these for just a rupee!
‘Jeehan, jeehan… Begum sahiba.’
‘These are not ordinary ones! Priceless!’
‘But… you making no money!’
‘There are many more reasons, far beyond money.’ He’d continued muttering, clearing the bag of the last lemon stuck in one corner, ‘Pay later… I’m coming again and again. By then you’ll see the difference these make in your baawarchi-khaana… tonight there’ll be a different taste to the food.’
And as we rushed towards the kitchen with that bagful, baawarchi Anees looked more than agitated, screaming, ‘Why is that mad man here!’
‘That man with that bag. You all are accepting whatever he is donating! Saw with my own two eyes!’
‘Donating! Paying him when he comes again… he’ll keep coming.’
‘He’s so dangerous! He is a very big kidnapper!’ he continued, throwing up his arms before going to one end of the kitchen. Then emerging before sunset, muttering an announcement of sorts, ‘I’m cooking without that adrak and all the faltu rubbish that the mad fellow has thrown at us… I’m telling you all that he is too dangerous… goes about kidnapping!’
‘What’s this kidnapping rubbish… what nonsense are you screaming?’
‘Ask anyone… people say this creature had fallen in love with some big singer of Avadh but she didn’t even bother to look at him… he’s going haywire, buying some big land in her name, dragging so many there to that land or garden or whatever the hell!’
‘Start cooking… can’t hear this rubbish.’
‘Telling you he’d even dragged my mother beyond the Sadar Bazaar. No one saw her after that day, though my mohalla people tell me they can hear her laughter coming through those heaps of whatever he grows, before donating here and there.’
‘Your mother! Kidnapped by this man!’
‘One day she was seen with him and then she’s not to be seen after that… we searched all over. But couldn’t find her… nowhere.’
‘Maybe she went on her own.’
‘What! My mother running away with this mad man! You people boiling my head! Can’t cook with any of this fellow’s stuff… Want to run away from this place, leave this useless naukri!’
‘Throw everything in the pressure cooker. Start cooking!’
‘Wouldn’t touch a thing of this fellow…’
‘Getting blood pressure!’ said my mother and went about counter screaming, before heading towards the front lawns, pulling out weeds as though she was pulling out hair from the cook’s bald skull!
Taking a break, with the gate creaking, before opening wide, in that full-fledged way, Begum Bakhtawar and Bahaar Bano stood there. Their breasts heaving, chiffon dupattas slipping, cleavages writ large, words more than hitting. After all, the duo more than known for carrying bags-full of gossip, from one bungalow to the next.
That evening it was the turn of our bungalow!
‘You known that freshly widowed Roohi Rahi desperate to remarry… telling everyone she’s finding it so difficult to be all alone!’
‘Remarrying! But didn’t her purana shauhar, that nawab treat her so terribly?’
‘But he left her that big kothi… she can do what she wants!’
‘We are also lonely but don’t go grabbing! This Roohi’s eyes always staring here and there…. grabbing!’
‘Grabbing attention if nothing else!’
‘You know what she’s looking for… so desperate!’
‘What’s wrong if she remarries?’
‘She’s fifty or sixty or… ’
‘But looks bed-able.’
‘What… She’s wanting all that!’
‘This addiction not good for the poor heart. Can’t go pumping!’
‘Shameless woman telling strangers how lonely it gets for her… can’t cope and all that!’
‘What… describing her lonely evenings to men!’
‘Before she runs away with some fellow its our duty to show her the right path... pull her away!’
‘We go straight to her house… no wasting time.’
‘Suppose she shoos us out!’
‘Before that we will shoo out all those men from her sight. Let her keep sitting lonely like we all sit! We also dying with loneliness but not running after men! Got to stop her… now!’
The duo went on and on, till my mother decided to accompany them to Roohi's house.
But before leaving, she pulled out the one last weed from the side of the stretch; making certain it ought to be pulled out than be left rooted all alone and lonely, left by itself! In between it all, she’s whispering to us, ‘Getting back for dinner, going with these two, make sure Anees starts cooking.’
An upheaval in the kitchen.
The cook was squatting at one end, throwing around ginger and lemons as though he’d taken a short course in lemon pelting! Seeing this revolt taking place in the kitchen, my sisters tried settling the situation and ordering me to get going, ‘Run to Roohi’s… tell amma not to get those two women. Knowing we’ve this crazy cook, amma shouldn't throw about dinner invites. Nothing to eat, just these leftovers… this little tarkari and that daal.’
Throwing a dupatta on my chest I rushed towards the outer lane. Crossing the Mall Avenue and those upcoming malls, reaching the turn towards Jopling Road, where Roohi's bungalow, Husn Mahal, stood.
Constructed decades back, it couldn't keep pace with the high-rise structures hastily erected by the new architects of the day. No, not really collapsing, but decaying at their own pace. Slowly but not too steadily. As though apprehensive of another one of those looming structures coming up, almost overnight.
Entering her bungalow, seeing and sensing the vacancy spread around, I ran around the interiors and then outwards, with the same urgency as I'd come in. Strange! No, not a soul around. No sign of Roohi. Nor any of the two women or my mother, who ought to have been there.
Nearing the outer boundary wall, there was the caretaker’s family sitting rather cosily around a chullah. Telling me, that Roohi left home all too suddenly two days back. Also, the three women guests departed twenty minutes ago from the gates, after seeing the vacancy around. More than hinting I too should depart almost immediately.
Walking back, as briskly as those rundown slippers could carry my feet, I wanted to reach home as soon as I could. It was getting dark and I was feeling somewhat nervous as the street lights were dimming before fluctuating… Turning towards the intersection, trying to upgrade the walk to running but before that all too suddenly halting, there and then, looking straight ahead in some sort of disbelief. Standing not too far, was the same strange looking man who’d come to our home that afternoon.
Before I could move backwards or forward, he walked briskly towards me, held me tight, his arms around me. Gazing towards my face, ‘Nah, no trace of hurt. No sign of loneliness in your eyes… not yet. Come to me after you’ve gone through enough pain… that pain will drag you towards me… towards my trees, creepers, shrubs… towards my garden, ny healing garden!’
I continued standing there, staring at him, as he went on holding me tight. Then all too suddenly releasing me from that clasp, holding my hand ever so firmly, taking me ahead, further and still further along a kuttcha road and then towards a wider pucca road leading to a sprawling garden.
I wanted to tell him that one of my slippers had fallen off my foot but before I could even utter a word, stood out hazy and the not-so-hazy glimpses of several human forms. Standing out, walking around those trees and creepers and shrubs.
Holding sway the rustling of leaves, that hovering fragrance of flowers and fruit, those frenzied cries of parrots and peacocks… Beckoning. Distracting. Sensual. Spreading out. Intensifying. Overtaking those subtle movements of those hovering around, with his voice penetrating through, ‘That’s Roohi… See, she’s there, standing there… now moving towards that waterfall and those fig trees.’ Yes, that was Roohi’s frame looming large; intact enough to stand out. She looked attractive, as she stood amidst those trees, with other human forms around her.
Her eyes throbbing with rebellion or want.
Suddenly she looked towards him, as though desperate for immediate attention if nothing else, but he was busy offloading the finer details to this garden and the seekers, ‘Many more coming here… loneliness drags them all the way here. Nothing but loneliness. But you get going from here… you too young, no traces of painful loneliness in your eyes. Go back with these… come back later.’ With those words he kept plucking lemons and fruit from those shrubs and trees growing in great abundance.
I had continued standing right there, staring at him, in one of those ongoing ways till about dawn, when vague memories of home came in the way, dragging me back, towards my home.
My mother and Begum Bakhtawar and Bahaar Bano and the rest of the neighborhood women came rushing towards me. Running their fingers on my limbs, as though indulging in one of those frenzied frisking sessions, conducted in the name of security of the socio-political mafia holding sway.
‘Was searching for Roohi but…’
‘We also couldn’t find her… went all over the place but she’s nowhere! She’s run away… must have found some useless man!’
‘But I saw her… ’
‘Stop your nonsense! Nobody seen her for full two days… She’s disappeared, gone, run–away! And you silly girl going searching for her! Entire night gone… ruined. So much tension. Waiting and waiting for you… for your safe return. Enough nonsense… Kambakht throw yourself on that takht. Enough tamasha!’
My eyes rebelling. No, not closing. A peculiar urge overtaking. Restless and anxious, all too awake! With those lemons and figs clutched in my hands, awake I sit. That man's words hitting.
Go through the futility of relationships, before you come running towards these shrubs and creepers and trees, growing beyond the outskirts of Lucknow's Sadar Bazaar. In that healer garden.
Taking care of loneliness, if of nothing else…