A young Muslim woman from England makes a shocking discovery when she visits her Hindu husband’s ancestral home
I – The Ancestors
Shaista lay on her bed, idly fiddling with the long, black tress that spilled over her shoulder. The humidity had made it curly and unmanageable and the weight of it made her neck ache. She wished Arjun would let her cut it, but no, it was her crowning glory, the diadem of her femininity, she must let it grow.
Let it grow, as she must let the child grow; grow and change and develop a life independent of what gave birth to it. Her hand slid from her hair to her belly, where the first curves of pregnancy were beginning to show.
Arjun stirred beside her, one eye held half-open by the weight of his face on the pillow. The visit had left him exhausted and he had collapsed onto the palang as soon as they had retuned hotel. She had joined him, lying in a fitful half-slumber for a couple of hours on the wood-framed rope bed, the rough fibres prickling her hyper-sensitive skin even through two layers of linen.
True sleep, however, would not come. Her mind was full of memories, some bright and fresh, others emerging ponderous from long years of dusty confinement. All of them, though, went off like fireworks against the black night of her closed eyelids.
The tuk-tuk, she remembered, negotiating the narrow winding road up the town, sheer cliffs rising on one side and a five hundred foot tumble into the churning river on the other; Arjun fretting and sweating next to her; the bright white walls of the house his father’s father’s father had built; Arjun’s grandmother, his Daadi, bowed with age, her otherwise kindly eyes narrowed to see just who was this half-Pakistani, half-Gori witch who was stealing away the flower of their youth.
“At least she’s pretty, in an obvious sort of way.’Daadi had said as they took tea in the shaded courtyard of what had once been the women’s quarters. Shaista had given the old hag her brightest and most demure smile. ‘But can she speak? Can she read?’
‘Jee, mah Hindi or Urdu bolte hun.’ Yes, I speak Hindi and Urdu Shaista had said, the words clumsy on her unaccustomed tongue. The old woman had harrumphed and spent the rest of the afternoon talking over Shaista in the high Urdu of the north. She quizzed Arjun on his recently completed studies, his career plans and the minute details of the health of every family member.
From time to time, when it was necessary to talk to the girl, she would descend into more prosaic Hindi or into a strange English, peppered with subcontinental phrases and delivered with an acting school over-enunciation.
‘So your family is from Alibad originally, hanh?’ Alibad was regional capital, so at least she earned some points for being from the right region. It had been the icebreaker in her very first conversation with Arjun: ‘Oh, your family comes from the same city of a million people that mine does, surely they know each other!’
‘I spent some time in Alibad, before the…’ The old woman had paused, ‘before Independence.’
‘My grandfather was there, his family owned land.’
‘Before he left to follow that drunk Jinnah to his holy land?’
‘Before he left for Pakistan, yes.’
The old woman had shaken her head. ‘I thought you said she came from a good family, Arjun. Not from the children of donkeys.’
‘Daadi, please, be nice!’ And Shaista felt a flash of pride that he had stood up for her.
‘No good comes from this kind of thing.’ Daadi had said, looking Shaista up and down and leaving no doubt as to what thing of thing she was referring to. They had left soon afterwards; it was a long drive home after all. Arjun had saved his tears for the car.
‘She’s such a stubborn old witch, why can’t she be happy for me?’
‘That’s no way to speak of your grandmother’ Shaista had chided. ‘She loves you very much, but how can she possibly understand what your life is like?’ He had smiled, he was so lucky to have found such an understanding woman.
She had been saving tears, too, So as he slept, she let them fall in a silent flood down her cheeks: Why was she such a stubborn old witch, why couldn’t she just be happy for us? Why couldn’t any of them, why were they so attached to their pasts and their tribes and their dividing lines?
It would not have been a problem her grandmother faced, covered head to foot as an aristocratic Muslim lady should be, living a cloistered life; neither attracting nor attracted. She would never have had to blush into her blouse as his slim, toned frame crossed the room with the catlike grace and arrogance of an aristocrat or bite the inside of his lip as the music of his pin-sharp and yet somehow lyrical Anglo-English accent rolled over her.
Ammu Daadi would have never have had to see the flash of his smile or look into his eyes and know that she was lost, that nothing short of knowing this man was possible if she were to call this existence Life. She would have been safe, in her little bubble, safe from the filth and confusion of Experience.
The derision had come from all sides, her friends, cosmopolitan, urbane young women, most of them lawyers like her, had been amazed that she had fallen for a freshie; her father, well, he had a lot to say and not a leg to stand on; her mother hid a quiet disappointment. From the wider community, she discovered the answer to the age-old question that terrorises every sub-continental: Log kya kahen ge? What will people say?
What they will say, she learned, is some awful bigoted shit. Bigoted shit made all the more galling considering how much they complained about how the white people treated them. Arjun, she knew, was facing the same at his end. His family, separated from their Hinduism by three secular generations, had found its liberalism sorely tested and those, like his grandmother, who had never entirely given in to modernity, were suddenly finding their voices.
II – Fair and Lovely
Shaista lifted herself out of the bed, moving slowly so as not to wake Arjun, the rope creaking and straining as she swung her legs onto the floor. It was past midnight and the hotel, a colonial style villa, was completely still. She was thirsty. On bare feet she padded to the fridge, finding it outside to the courtyard. Crickets were chirping and moonlight spilled thick and bright over every surface. A faint smell of woodsmoke and the sound of voices attracted her to an outbuilding. There, by the light of a wood fire, she could see the squat, rounded silhouette of the night-watchman and next to it the long thin shape of his rifle. The watchman was talking to someone inside the building, his coarse Hindi gurgling out around a mouthful of betel nut.
As Shaista approached, a wiry old man, his lunghi hitched up around his thighs, emerged from the outbuilding. The man squatted on his heels by the fire, tending it with the help of a long, charred branch. The two men began exchanging dirty stories. Shaista hovered just outside the circle of light, struggling to follow the filthy exchange. Her Urdu – or Hindi, they were the same language, barring politics – was passable. She understood more than she spoke, but there were certainly gaps in her education.
She and Arjun made love in English. He found it exotic, perhaps imagining her as the white girl that her genetics had, allowed her to pass for. She, well, she had no choice. Some things had evidently been too heavy to make the journey from India to England; the vocabulary of politics was one that of sex was another.
She waited for the watchman to finish his sordid tale, grateful that she received only the barest sketch of what he had done to his previous employer’s maid in the pool house, and then stepped into the light.
‘Chai?’ She asked, as the two men turned and, seeing her a guest, immediately dropped the spread-eagled looseness of men at their ease and sat straighter, as if to attention.
‘Yes memsaib.’ The night watchman said in English, and she cringed at the word, a colonial hangover. She was wearing jeans over a kameez tunic. In the darkness, had he seen only her pale skin and assumed her a gori indulging in a little of the local culture?
The older man shuffled inside and emerged with the makings of tea whilst the watchman, in his very limited English, tried to make conversation.
‘You like India very much?’
‘First time visit?’
‘We love English.’ He said. ‘Very much turn Indian lunghi wearer into civilised man.’ He kicked a leg in the direction of the older man, squatting in his loin-wrap by the fire.
‘I’m not English.’ She said and immediately regretted it. ‘Not just English.’
‘No? But you are very fair and lovely. So what are you?’
What indeed? How do I even begin to explain? She thought. My mother, the hippie, repelled by the porcine masculinity of her own people and the inexplicability of their God.; she went looking for Nirvana and ended up finding her rebellion in a quiet, scarf-wearing Sufism even more repressed and regimented than the middle England she had left behind.
Or her father, born in Alibad, raised in Pakistan, educated in England and always, throughout Shaista’s childhood, jetting off to Brazil in pursuit of a consignment of rare hardwood or to Uganda chase up missing stock. A man who prided himself on being from everywhere – because everywhere was God’s creation – and yet who could not quite bring himself to forget what will people say.
Or her father’s father, atheist and political firebrand, Congress socialist turned Muslim League nationalist who uprooted the family business, had an almighty ruckus with the extended family, and emigrated to the promised land to become an embittered old patriarch, steeping himself in the couplets of Iqbal and mourning into his scotch.
So many twists and turns, so much more complicated than Kipling’s ‘ne’er the twain shall meet.’ They met, they mingled, they had children and grandchildren. Whatever deserved to survive, survived, everything else could not help but burn on the pyre of history.
The rattle of the teacup under her nose made her realise that she had drifted off. The man in the loincloth was holding a cup of tea under her nose
‘My mother was English.’
The watchman jumped excitedly in his chair, ending seismic flows of fat rippling in all directions. ‘Dekho! Dekho!’ He said to his companion. ‘See! See! I told you she was a gori.’
Shaista shook her head. When she had been a kid, there had been no doubt what she was, the cries of ‘Paki’ and ‘half-breed’ that followed her home made sure of that. But to these men, she was white, and even as part of her felt sickened by it, there was a certain relief, not to have to explain yourself, not to need to list of class and caste and creed, but simply to be. A gori, no more complicated than that, the normative state of being against which all others were measured.
‘He was born in Alibad,
‘Local boy, very good! When did he move to England?’
‘He left when he was a baby, he didn’t go to England.’
The man stilled for a moment, his countenance grave. ‘Where did he go?’
Weighing her words carefully, she answered: ‘He went north.’
The man nodded sadly, and when he spoke again it was as if he had shut part of himself off from her. ‘A lot of people went north in those days.’
They sat in silence, sipping their tea. A lot of people went north, a lot of people went south, and a lot of people didn’t make it to the end of their journey.
III – Interdependence
The rest of the trip passed in a blur of family visits. There were uncles in town to visit and cousins in the country to whom respects must be paid. They returned to Arjun’s ancestral home only once more, for an overnight visit just before they were due to fly to Mumbai for the long haul home. They dined with Arjun’s immediate family in chilly formality and the next day, when her husband was called away to inspect some newly installed irrigation works, an exhausted and fuming Shaista was left alone with Daadi.
She found Shaista taking breakfast in the garden and hobbled up, her ghastly, crone-like face grinning with the pleasure of inflicting discomfort on another.
‘Ah. This is where you are hiding.’
‘I wasn’t hiding.’
Daadi smiled, or at least showed her teeth. ‘Of course not, mere bachi.’ My girl. She reached out to pinch Shaista on the cheek ‘Why would one as lovely as you hide?’ Shaista pulled away, her cheek stinging. ‘So pale and pretty, no wonder my boy had his head turned.’
She sat herself down at the table, choosing the chair immediately opposite Shaista. ‘Still, that runs in the family. Those Ramachandra boys all have a weakness for the ladies. His grandfather was the same.’ Daadi said, with something like a lecherous fondness in her voice.
‘Have you come here to tell me that he’s going to cheat on me, just because your husband did on you?’
‘Mere lal.’ My lovely ‘In my time, our husbands did not cheat. They just did not promise us fidelity, nor did we expect it. A woman was grateful if her man kept a roof over her head, jewels about her neck and didn’t bring home anything unpleasant from the bazaar. You modern women are unhappy because you expect too much.’
‘You old women are unhappy because you settled for too little!’ Shaista spat back. Revered matriarch or no, she would not be talked down to by this paindu hick from the old country.
But the old woman just laughed. ‘So you do have some spirit in you! You Muslim girls are proud, Arjun needs that, he’s been so coddled by his mother, he needs to be challenged.’
Daadi sat back, watching her, seeming suddenly tiny, frail and sad. ‘You are with child?’
Shaista was shocked, instinctively she covered her belly. ‘How did you know, even Arjun doesn’t know.’
‘A woman knows.’ The sadness grew like a shadow, seeming to overwhelm the older woman. ‘When you have lived as long as I have, you learn to recognise life.’ The bright sunlight and the fragrant garden seemed to fade to grey, the birdsong became distant, like the hint of a thing half-remembered.
‘What will your child be, Shaista?’ Daadi asked.
‘That is up to him or her to decide.’
A burst, a peal of laughter. ‘Oh, mere lal, you are so young. Come, let me show you something.’ Daadi pulled herself upright and began tottering towards the house. She held one arm out, not quite asking for assistance, but nevertheless there should a solicitous and well brought up daughter-in-law offer it. Shaista helped the old woman make here slow and wending way back inside the house. Daadi took her through the modernised wing, back into depths of the building where wooden planks burst like ribs from the crumbling white plaster. She stopped only to take an oil lamp from a niche and light it before leading Shaista through a low doorway of gnarled planking to a room that smelled of rose oil and old, old wood, Daadi took Shaista to a large wardrobe, apparently cast in iron and ornate with a mix of faux-classical and faux-Indian frippery.
For the monsoon, Daadi answered in reply to her unvocalised question, and for safety. You never knew when you might need to flee the city, fire, plague, or… troubles, and you never knew who might visit your home while you were gone.
The old woman provided the keys and Shaista the strength to get the massive door open. Inside were an array of beautiful saris, the hand-stitched gold-work marking them out as antiques – high-quality ones at that. Even a half-white, London-raised mongrel knew that no living stitchsmith retained these skills. In stacks below the saris were wooden jewellery and cigar boxes.
Daadi rooted through them until she found the one she was after. She opened it to a faint waft of cigar tobacco, still spicy and rich after all these decades. Inside were stacks of letters and black and white photographs. Daadi selected one and handed it to Shaista.
By the faint, greasy light of the lamp, Shaista could make out four figures standing in front of a wall covered in flowering vines. Three were male and one female. All were young, in their teens and early twenties. She recognised one of them at once, it was Arjun’s grandfather. The other two men seemed familiar in a vague way that she could not place. She turned to the girl, who was wearing trousers, a beret and a fierce expression that called back through the years.
‘Its you. What are you wearing?’
‘Indian Youth League uniform. I was a socialist. We were all socialists. We were going to make people free.’
‘Who are these other two men?’
‘We were neighbours, in Alibad. There were five families in our colony. One Sikh, two Muslim and three Hindu. There were, oh, fifteen, twenty of us kids, but the four of us, we were close. The other children, they were slow, but we loved reading and art. We would act the Ramayana in the courtyard while the adults slept in the afternoon.’ The old woman seemed to stand straighter, taller, her years melting away and the resemblance to the old photograph growing stronger.
‘You can have no idea what it was like. We had hope! We were about to do something nobody had ever done before.’ She gripped Shaista’s wrist. ‘We believed the lie, your people’s lie, that we could be better than humans.’ White people, she meant, the tone of humiliated frustration left no doubt.
‘For ten thousand years we lived. We fought wars and built temples, Harappans came and went, Guptas came and went, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, the Muslims came and went, but Hind was still Hind.’
‘We were one thing, then we became another. We were backward and we became modern. The blood was the price we paid, to become civilised, like the white people – it was the ‘40s, it was what everyone was doing, destroying old worlds and making new ones, whatever the cost.’
There was a frantic look in her eyes, her hair, long-since turned bright white, sprayed out around her. ‘But we are not Hind anymore.’ She blinked, shook her head, pressed her palms to her eyes as if coming to. ‘Mere jaan, I’ve scared you.’
‘No.’ Shaista said, choking back emotions she could not even put a name to. ‘I want to hear, I want to know. Tell me about those boys.’
‘Those two boys. They are Khurram and Abbas-Ali.’
‘Khurram became a soldier. He died fighting the Japanese in Malaya. He was a sweet boy, but so eager to fight. He said there was Pathan in him, on his mother’s side.’
‘Abbas Ali is the one on the left, the handsome one.’ Something in the old woman’s voice pricked Shaista’s attention. ‘He was the cleverest boy in school. He could quote Iqbal and Marx, he was, what do you Muslims call it, hafiz, he had memorised the Qur’an. And most of the Baghavad-Gita, too. A committed atheist, mind you, but something in him couldn’t stop searching.’
‘You were close?’
‘I was fifteen, he was eighteen. He was handsome and clever.’ She shrugged.
‘You didn’t tell me what happened to him.’
‘He married his third cousin and went away.’
‘To Pakistan?’ Shaista protested, watching Daadi wince at the word. But he was an atheist, a socialist!’
‘Something changed him.’
‘What changed him? What?’
She lowered her head. ‘He loved a woman. She loved him back, but she would not break caste for him because of what it would do to her father.’ Daadi made a noise, it was not quite a sob. ‘So he abandoned his universal socialism and decided to look to his own kind.’
‘And then Partition happened, and how could there be a road back from that for anyone? Neighbours killed neighbours. It was like -‘ she faltered, grasping for words in several different languages at once ‘ – like a black hole. We were friends and neighbours, then the hole. And then we had new friends and new neighbours.’
‘And who has time to dwell on past loves and old secrets when remembering means going back through all that to the time before?’
‘So you see,’ Daadi smiled up at her, ‘nothing good can come of free mixing. We should not try to cross old lines or to draw new ones.’
Shaista gently put her arm around Daadi A realisation was beginning to dawn, floating dimly into her consciousness like an iceberg in the mist.. ‘And what happened to the woman?’
‘Why, she married one of her own, and he gave her four children and they gave her five grandchildren.’
Daadi raised her hand to Shaista’s cheek, before resting it on her belly. ‘And one of those grandchildren might yet give her another reason for joy in her the twilight of her days.’
Takeoff was delayed by two hours. Shaista took the opportunity to check her emails for the first time since they landed. Almost five hundred. She began, with a determined resignation, to go through them. Arjun sat beside her, plugged in to some cheap looking thriller on the little screen in front of him, looking beautiful.
She had not shared the revelation that his family and hers were closer than either of them had known – how did you even begin that conversation? She kept her thoughts on the matter between herself and the bump, now distinctly visible beneath her loose top.
What will you be? She asked it, echoing Daadi’s question. She prayed it would be a boy, who could write his own destiny, not a girl to be written over by others, to have her womb turned into speakers corner for every madman to pontificate at, over and in.
What will you be? Not Muslim, not Hindu, not Christian. not white or brown, English or Pakistani or Indian. Something new. Her eye was drawn to the corner of her smartphone screen where the day’s news was scrolling by, a horror show.
Just as well, we will need something new for the hell that is coming.
Arjun turned to look at her. ‘What’s the matter, babe?’ He asked in that drawling, rolling accent that made her pulse race despite herself.
He noticed her arm on her belly. ‘You’re not worried about getting fat are you? Yaar, you are the most beautiful woman in the world, you don’t need to worry about that.’
A whirr and a loud clunk indicated that IA 503 to London Heathrow was getting ready to taxi. ‘No.’ Shaista said, lowering her head and smiled to herself. ‘I’m not worried about getting fat.’
As the plane began to roll faster and faster up the runway, she said a prayer. A Sura from the Qur’an taught to her by her mother as a talisman for travellers.
What will you be? The best, I hope, of all of us. You will need it, for the hell that is coming