Tell me a Story

“Tell me a story, Fatima.”

  “No, Nani, you always fall asleep. Today, you tell me a story. Tell me about your wedding again. I want to hear about your gharara, and about Nana.”

   Shameem Bano sighed. Revisiting the past was, at times, painful. Some days, she would lay her husband’s framed photograph on its back to let it rest from the burden of carrying all her would-have-beens and could-have-beens. A break from the longing that welled her heart and found focus in that black and white photograph of him, in his army uniform, smiling at her from the past.

    Fatima was a stubborn little thing. She insisted on sleeping with her in her bed, instead of on the other bed across the room. She gouged the walls, making a mess of paint and crusty, grey plaster on the bed and the floor. The stories were to keep her occupied, but her little girl voice was a lullaby, and it was hard for the grandmother to stay awake through the winding tales. At times, Fatima would prise open her Nani’s eyes with her fingers and breathe with her mouth over Shameem Bano’s nose to wake her up, but she never seemed to stay awake for very long.

  “I am awake. I am listening.” But her eyes would close once more and Fatima would again be left alone and awake. Now though, the kid had come up with a foolproof method of keeping her Nani awake.

   “Start with the dress. Describe your gharara to me. I wish you had pictures.”

   “All our pictures were left behind with everything else in our home in Delhi. Also, back then it wasn’t like these days. Your father takes pictures of everything. Click, click, click, everywhere.” A pause. A huff of breath. Even the recollection of her son-in-law’s picture taking presence was annoying. “We only took pictures on special occasions. We dressed up and posed for our photographs.”

   “I know. I know. Tell me about the gharara. What did you look like? Did you wear glasses on your wedding? Tell me, Nani. Begin.”

The Wedding

It rained on and off all morning. A great show of thunder and lightning. I took it as a good omen. I love storms. Only three weeks had passed since the Partition of India, resulting in the birth of Pakistan on the 14th of August 1947 and the Independence of India on the 15th. Delhi was under curfew; even my Nana whose home was within walking distance wasn’t able to attend the wedding, and only those who were staying in my father’s home attended the nikah. My six siblings, including my elder sister and her dentist husband who had flown in from Lahore, and my parents were there from my side of the family.

   My father was a sahib, a brown Englishman, who drank whisky and smoked cigars. He was a barrister who read law at Lincoln’s Inn, while my mother, is who she is, illiterate by choice – she was up on the roof of her father’s house flying kites with the boys when my father first saw her. Her father was his teacher, a professor of English at my father’s university in Delhi. And she – his shame- the child who refused to attend school or be tutored. Perhaps, my father thought that he could tame my mother. He was wrong. They were like oil and water, unable to blend together, and every so often, my mother would take us six kids, and move back into her father’s home. A few days would go by and then my father would come retrieve her.

  From your Nana’s side, his parents and all of his siblings – except for the eldest – had travelled by train from their home in Hyderabad Deccan to attend the wedding in my parents’ home in Delhi. Your Nana’s mother was my father’s sister. Your Nana and I were first cousins. His mother, my paternal aunt, was a warm and generous person but your Nana and his father had a difficult relationship. His father had remarried and the children never forgave the father for hurting their mother.

   We both came from parents who were unhappily married but we knew we would be different. We loved each other and that is what made us different. You are too young to know this but love makes you strong. It gives you wings so that you can fly.

  I wasn’t a timid bride. I was happy. I was confident. I was flying.

  And behind me trailed the train of my farshi gharara, sweeping over the emerald green tiles of my father’s home. The silver grape clusters embroidered on my wedding dress glittered in the light. I felt beautiful. I had a long, thin face and your Nana said that this big nose of mine, was the prettiest nose in the world. I usually wore my waist length hair in a braid but on that day, your Nana’s younger sister, Arjumand, had arranged it in a bun. My gharara was the softest shade of pink. I had it made in Bombay. It was the only thing I wanted for my wedding. I had told both my mother and his mother that I didn’t want anything else. They were scandalized – the whole family was flabbergasted – getting married without a trousseau, no proper wedding celebrations, and hardly anyone invited. Your Nana told everyone that he and I were the only people needed at the wedding.

    The British had just left India. My brother, Zaheer, my cousins, and I had been part of the Quit India Movement. We were Muslim Leaguers but my father was a Congressman. Congress was the dominant political party in India led by Gandhi while Muslim League was formed to represent the Muslim minority. The Muslim League led by Jinnah advocated for a separate Muslim nation. My father didn’t approve of Pakistan and he didn’t agree with Jinnah’s politics. He saw no reason to divide India into two separate Muslim and Hindu majority countries, but even he did not foresee the violence that resulted from Partition. Everyday in the papers we read of the madness that had spread the land, growing, spreading like wildfire. Poor people walking miles, caravans of refugees ambushed along the way: murdered, robbed, and worse. The Purana Qila was crammed with refugees in makeshift tents with scarce provisions and no choice but to move on. It is always those who have barely enough to begin with, who lose the most. We felt safe in our home. The fires were burning elsewhere. Our British neighbour wasn’t leaving and neither were we. In the arrogance, borne of our privilege, we had forgotten that it doesn’t take long for the wind to change direction.

   Your Nana insisted on a September wedding because he wanted to take me to Kashmir for our honeymoon and September was the best time to visit that area. Nana was an officer in the British Indian Army and had served in the North African Campaign. He signed up after high school. World War II ended in September 1945, but it was a man who returned home to us after so many years of warfare; the boy lay buried in the battlefields of Egypt, Tunisia, and Iraq. He had set his heart on our wedding in September 1947, and did want to wait another year till next September. His younger sister wasn’t going to attend the wedding because she had to write the Senior Cambridge exams but she came at the last minute with her father. He picked her up from school after the final paper and they boarded the train from Hyderabad Deccan to Delhi. Your Nana, his mother, and his two younger brothers had arrived earlier.

    The storm cleared by early evening in time for the nikah ceremony and the brown pods hanging from the tamarind tree in our garden danced in the light breeze, dripping crystal raindrops as they sashayed. The world looked washed and clean as the sun sparkled, back in its place in the sky. I looked out my bedroom window, at our prize-winning garden, the bougainvillea, and the pink oleander bushes drying off after the rain. I didn’t realize then that it would be the last time I would enjoy the view of the garden of my childhood home. Had I known, I might have lingered longer by the window. I might have kept some of the blooms as a keepsake, or perhaps not; a few dried petals and a handful of soil particles could not capture the years of living in that home. Perhaps, it was better that we did not know what was to come. The misery to befall us in the future could not cast its shadow over our present.

    After the nikah, we had a feast: murghi ka korma, malai kofte, hyderabadi biryani, bhigari baigan, sheermal, and kheer served in earthenware bowls. We embarked on our marriage by spending the first night in my room in my father’s house.

    We honeymooned on a houseboat on Daal Lake. The light, the colours, the height of the mountains reflected in the depths of the lake, and each other’s company; each day was a gift. The two weeks passed in a blur. On the way back to Delhi from Kashmir, we stopped in Lahore to meet my elder sister, Khurshid Bano. She lived with her in-laws. It was in their home on Multan Road that we discovered that during those two weeks, our whole world had collapsed.

   Your Nana’s elder brother, had flown from Hyderabad Deccan to Delhi to pick up his family in a cousin’s plane, but they arrived too late. Their parents and the three younger children were already on board a train. A train that was stopped, boarded, and plundered just outside of Delhi. His parents were killed. His younger sister, Arjumand, was missing. My father found the two younger brothers in a hospital in Delhi but they were never the same again.

Your Nana was never the same again either. He always carried the guilt of their deaths on him. He blamed himself for insisting on getting married when we did. Everyone had told him to wait, to let things settle down, but he did not listen. We had our honeymoon in Srinagar in September but we paid in blood for it. I told him over and over that it wasn’t his fault, that fate cannot be erased and rewritten, but he always carried this grief in his heart.

Bewildered at finding our family members from Delhi in my sister’s home in Lahore, shocked at the wounds on his younger brothers’ bodies, and then mad with grief and rage on hearing the news of his parents and his missing sister, your Nana charged towards the door with blood on his mind; I threw myself on him, holding his trembling body close.

      “Stay tonight. You can leave in the morning.”

       The next morning, I had our bags packed by the front door. We went to Hyderabad Deccan to look for his sister.  Arjumand Bano- the sixteen-year-old beauty. Allah hadn’t held back anything with her. She was gentle and kind, brilliant in her studies, sang beautifully and played the sitar; she was blessed with everything but luck.

      Our British neighbour saved my parents, my four younger siblings, and my maternal grandfather who lived three houses down the street from our home. When the crowds came crying for blood, he hid them in his home and then smuggled them in his car to a hotel from where he transported them by twos and fours to the airport. My father put the little boys- your Nana’s brothers – on the first two seats that were available.

     They left India as refugees; leaving their home, their possessions, their place in the world, many relatives, and the fingers of those two little boys. Fingers cut during the massacre on the train. Fingers left behind along with their parent’s bodies.

     Fires catch, spread, soar and winds change direction.

Why don’t you die?

  Fatima chewed on the pan. She moved the betel leaf around her mouth, tasting the fresh, partly rusty, partly tart taste, first on the left side and then the right side of her mouth. Her Nani was making a pan for herself; she unfolded the betel leaf, dipped the silver applicator into the small compartment containing catechu, spread the brown viscous fluid on the inside of the leaf, and then dipped the applicator into the adjacent compartment of her intricately patterned paandan containing slaked lime, and spread a white layer over the brown of the catechu. She removed the silver tops of the other tiny compartments and sprinkled betel nut, aniseed, and tobacco onto the leaf before carefully folding and placing it in her mouth. Fatima replaced all the silver covers on the many compartments of the paandan and then removed the top shelf, revealing a larger, single compartment underneath, in which her Nani kept the fresh betel leaves, wrapped in damp muslin and tucked into her Nana’s tobacco pouch.

  Fatima loved her Nani’s paandan, and loved watching her grandmother’s ritualistic making of the paan. They were sitting cross-legged on Shameem Bano’s bed. This was where the two of them took their afternoon nap; first lunch, then paan, then the stories, and sleep.

   It was just the two of them in the large, rambling bungalow with its red gabled roof and wrap-around verandas with bay windows thrusting out from each room, but within the comfort of the home they never felt alone. The house itself was a presence, you could walk from room to room, taking in the view from the different windows, sit on the benches, run your fingers along the woodwork as you contemplated the garden with its weeping willows, lime and pomegranate trees and the red of the geraniums scattered about, or spy on the mountains through the latticework of leaves of the night-blooming jasmine. Shameem Bano had a routine, which kept her busy with housework and prayers, while Fatima wandered around the home, exploring the many rooms, the long passageways, climbing out the windows to wander up and down the hills behind the home.

    The house had two kitchens linked by a corridor with multiple storerooms and at the other end, were the servants’ quarters. But the servants did not live there. The couple that worked in the home, cleaning and helping out in the kitchen, preferred to live in the garage. The servants’ quarters were damp, dark, and depressing – a sharp contrast to the airy, well-lit rooms of the rest of the house.

     Done chewing her paan, Fatima looked at her Nani. Shameem Bano always wore glasses. She had multiple pairs, some for reading, and others for distance. The lenses of her glasses were so thick they magnified her large eyes, giving her a goldfish-like appearance; but when she removed the spectacles, and massaged the indentations on the bridge of her nose with her fingers, her eyes were the most delicate shade of brown. Her lashes were long but uncurling and framed her eyes like the tassels on the Persian rug spread in the drawing room.

      “Nani, why don’t you die?”

      Shameem Bano looked at Fatima.

      “Do you want me to die?”  She looked surprised, a little amused, but not angry.

      “Yes. When you die, you will go to Heaven because you are so good. You will be happy.”

       Shameem Bano smiled. This child said the strangest things.

       “You are right but I have to wait for my time. I have come close to death a few times, but Allah had different plans for me.”

       “I will pray for you. Allah listens to me.” Fatima scratched her head, tilting her face sideways. “What do you mean you came close to death a few times? When? Also, when you do die, can you leave me this house?”

Love and Lactation

 Your Nana’s elder brother, Hamid Baig, worked for the Hyderabad State Police and he and his wife lived in the family home. Your Nana and I moved in with them. Nana had himself assigned to the Hyderabad State Army. The two brothers used all available resources to search for their little sister, but how do you find that one-grain of sand in a desert?