Monday, 16 September 2013




Lahore is chilled and smoggy this morning; the morning traffic, anxious and edgy.


All at once, traffic lights at the intersection blink and go dead. The brakes of a police van squeal as it halts at the middle of the crossroads with a massive jerk. Round-tummied sentries tumble out and scurry all over the intersection square, shouting at motor-cyclists, bikers, rickshaw drivers, motorists and a painted school bus to move back and clear the center…more …more and more. Passengers roll the window screens down and demand to be given an explanation. Their demands, as always, go unheard.


In the dewy school-bus windows, curious eyes behind quashed noses, watch the scurry.


The traffic stoppage has started to work its mischief. Beggars percolate through the trail of whirring engines. Salaam, the beggar boy who’s been staring at the school bus thoughtfully, works some arithmetic in his head; the simple equation he knows. Switched off traffic lights plus abundant police is equal to a traffic stoppage plus extra collection of money. And extra money is reciprocal to a big meal at the Daira.


A big meal! Salaam slurps. A smile dissolves in his artificially-frowning features. The shadow-man whose job is to shadow the beggars working at this square all day, passes him a glare. Salaam is not allowed to smile during begging time. He must save all the smiles for the evening gathering at the Daira where he's sometimes made to dance and entertain older beggars.


Riders are grumbling fiercely now. If it’s a minister for whom they’ve stopped the traffic, it’ll take 15 minutes. If it’s the CM, the Chief Minister, it’ll be no less than 30.


And then a rumor seeps down the squirmy band of vehicles - fast as a bullet:


It’s the Prime Minister. The PM.


Two greedy little ears devour the rumor. Salam has no inkling of what distinguishes a minister from a CM or a CM from a PM. However, his mental math is at work again. The word Prime Minister equals an even longer stoppage and that means even more money and even more money means an even bigger meal.


He hides behind the big graying tree, takes out the water-filled syringe from his pocket and presses its piston close to his eyes. Water tears spread around his eye bags and skid down his dirt-stained cheeks.


Work begins. Window after window, he whines the new story his trainer at the Daira has taught him. As for a veteran stage actor, the world hazes out as he plays the role of a heartsick orphan who needs to collect twenty two hundred rupees for the burial of his mother who has died last night. Coins and petti currency notes rain out from big hands into Salaam’s small ones. He keeps stuffing them in his pocket.


Tears dry up and he has to rush to the tree to wet his eyes again. He sees that a row of beggars and pedestrians holding small national flags has lined up along the edges of the square.


Suddenly, a tall man thrusts a flag in his hands and says: “You’ll get a hundred rupees for standing there and shouting “zinda-baad”


The words ‘A hundred rupees’ have no appeal for Salaam. He can collect the amount in ten minutes by bringing that extra woeful look to his face and, anyway, the money would go into Ustaad’s kitty in the evening. But holding a flag and shouting zinda-baad sounds like fun... like precious minutes of a mid-morning break in schools. Staring at the school bus once again, he accepts the flag from the tall man and joins the unkempt cheer-leaders. He flutters the flag this way and that, now smiling freely because shadow man is nowhere close.


To employ utmost vigilance, a policeman with eagle-like mustaches is feeling the bodies of the cheerers holding little green-and-white flags. He pulls it out if he feels anything suspicious; cigarette packs, cheap wallets. Nothing serious has been found so far.


It’s Salaam’s turn. The man with eagle-like mustaches pats Salam’s body. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. He feels his secret pocket. A frown appears on his face.  He draws out the object that has spawned the frown and holds it up for his senior official to see.


It’s a syringe filled with light brown liquid.


“Grab him!” the official shouts.


Curious eyes behind quashed noses in the dewy school-bus windows, spread out with horror.


“A terrorist boy!” the teacher in the bus whispers.


And Salaam is hauled towards the gigantic police van.


Monday, 25 March 2013

Lahore: Garnished with a Green Sprig

Lahore: A Green Sprig for Garnish

As gently as features of a picture develop on photo-paper dipped in developing solution, domes and minarets shapen on the skyline. The city shakens itself free of the gray winter blanket. Bit by bit, fuzzy abstractness densifies into crystalline distinctness. Colors deepen out of the memory of the city. Lahore is suddenly the child that knows all its poems by heart.

Spring takes off in my city.

Air dances up and down the streets. Idle boys yell as a street batsman hits a ball and it goes flying to the sky. The hero glances at the female audience watching from the roof top. His eyes meet his favorite girl's and a promise is made.

In a nearby park, perched at the extreme point on an eagled-out branch of the magnolia tree, the grasshopper ogles its stiff-lipped lover with a fatal, bulgy-eyed wanting. The air is loaded with love and every being in the garden is planning when and where to plant the perfect kiss. The gardener frowns as he bends on the bed of petunias and peers at an early bud - the only one that has opened. No less thrilled than an expectant father, he searches the newborn for a sign that would affirm that the seed was genuine. A smile dawns on his lips. (Yes! It's plum with flecks of lilac! It's mine!)

In a posh mansion, a garden party reaches its crescendo. They are giving birthday bumps to the effeminate dress designer. "Ooh! Aah!" the designer bawls and everyone goes crazy with laughter..

Right outside, on the grassy patch along the road, a scavenger boy takes a break from his trash hunt. Lying crosslegged, eyes half-closed, he dreams of bulky trash baskets.

There's a big brouhaha outside the shopping mall. Yet another designer has launched her latest lawn-print collection. Uncouth housewives and sophisticated socialites all jostle for position near the sales counter. The combative ambience, the voluptuous want, and the cut-throat desperation...only cowards will return home empty handed. A seemingly composed shopper who's been watching the melee with distaste, mumbles 'Crazy Lahori Women' and bulldozes her way through the humid crush to the flowered and birded heaven on fabric.

Eyes fixed on the kiteless sky in the hospital window somewhere in the city, a kite-loving Lahorite breathes his last.

In a school close-by, teachers teach little children how to make unfliable, legal kites. The illegal ones, the ones that flew, can be painted in the drawing class, they say. The air sighs as the sweeper sweeps away the animated effigies; sad, cartoonish relic of a historic beauty.

On the Canal Road, a moron poet kneels down at the edge of the canal and searches the inverted under-water world. Behind him, poplars rustle as the breeze brushes past. In the dappled shade of the trees, coins of light dance and play. The poet bites his finger to stop his heart from bursting of ecstasy. A moan is heard through the rustle. He looks around and sees some chopped trees piled nearby.

"Don't cry!" he says to the chopped up trunks and looks around. On the clearing, where these trees stood till last week, a bill board has been raised.

'Keep Lahore Clean and Green'.

The poet reads aloud and laughs. he laughs till he falls on his back and rolls from side to side. Thousands of marigolds flocked along the side-walk raise their heads and listen.

A just-migrated, hungry villager walking past wonders what a marigold flower tastes like.

The echo of the moron's laugh rings out far and wide. Sleeping deep down in the soil, summer stretches its legs, readying itself to rise and rule.

So, as long as it lasts, dear all, enjoy Lahore garnished with a green sprig.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Long Story

Air blowing was cruelly chilly; snow fresh and soft. Two uniformed men sat on their haunches staring at a spot in the snow that was no different than any spot in the white abyss.

Time went on and on. It went on long enough to make this story the longest ever. The men sat staring. The story became longer than imagined by the man who'd culled it .

Finally, one of them spoke.

"Why are we guarding a line that's not even really there?"

                                                            NO END

Friday, 18 January 2013

Lahore: Tastes Best When Served Cold

Lahore: Tastes Best When Served Cold

A gray cloud over my city with more liquor than it can contain in its belly; like a drunkard, gags all over.

The first shower sweeps up the streets. A woman whips her washing off the rope. A homebound walker folds his shoulders in and quickens. In dewy school-bus windows, curious eyes behind quashed noses, watch the scurry.

In the bush, a starved kitten mews for its mother.

In coffee houses, showy teens damn the weather; vain college girls parade their frilly woollies; smug entrepreneurs waffle on about the dollar( ruppee? that old thing?); self-conscious juniors in office-suits with coffee mugs in their listening hands, do their best; chairbound fat women devour the great buffet and snicker about aging bimbos in a Kitty tea; the bimbos, easing their time-honored itch of showing off fancy furs, chat like its nobody's business; juicy waiters glide up and down the crammed aisles, carrying garnished trays and clouds of steam around; lovers nestle in dark corners, eyeing the non-lovers distastefully.

Out in the smog, in a parked car, a yawny chauffeur snuggles behind the wheel, and dreams an impossible dream.

Fog thickens and abstracts the kaleidoscopic bazaars. Liberty fuzzes. Shoppers become misty outlines of themselves and shops sit on silent haunches, waiting to be found. On the pavement, the roar of an unseen flame and cloudy puffs of alive steam charm the walkers into veering off course. An opportunist has set up a noodle stall that sells steaming noodles in paper cups. The warming smoothness, the ease of the slurp and the cossetting taste: handy cheap pleasure for all. The outer layer of the noodle crowd keeps shedding away and rebuilding around the old samosa stall where they huddle around the great frying wok and warm their hands on the fire. A hawker with a hot-box slung around his neck evolves from the mist and calls: "Garam aandaa-a-a-y!"

On the walk, the begger curles up under a flimsy blanket, one scraggy hand poking out to cup the rain of coins.

Lahore Sun will soon be back from its short hibernation. Three consecutive days it rises and shines on the shivering city and the fragile winter will frizzle away. But till then, ladies and gentlemen, I offer you Lahore: tastes best when served cold.


Saturday, 12 January 2013




On a crisp morning early this December, in the veranda of a house in Gulberg where an international conference was going on, I met a young girl from India. It was the tea break and everyone was mingling and chatting. Sunlight sifting through the immense peepul trees was eerily balmy, the air fresh and scented. As I poured myself a steaming cup of tea, a sari-clad girl smiled at me from across the coffee dispenser. She introduced herself as Eesha, an architect from Gujarat, India. Coins of light danced on our faces as we chatted lightly.

“I am not coming.” Eesha said when we were at the topic of the much-awaited Gujarat tour planned for the last day of the conference. 

“Why not?”  

“My visa status says: ‘Lahore Only’,” she sang in her sweet voice and the rest of our conversation revolved around the futility of the prevailing visa policy between the two countries. 

The irony of it all is that Eesha lives in Gujarat, India. 

“I was thrilled to know that there’s a place in Pakistan with the same name as the state I live in. I thought that this chance I was getting to go on a tourism spree around my home-state’s namesake was a godsend. But when I read my visa detail…” 

The devil has a reputation of being in the detail. Quite justified. I could imagine what a damper her visa description must have been after all the research she said she had done on the origin of the word Gujarat and the enigma behind the name similarity.  

For the next two days we met intermittently. As I knew her more, she was modest and forthcoming. Mostly we talked about random womanly interests specially because we were bent at keeping it light as focusing on the minutiae of the well-researched papers was anyhow quite strenuous; but the subject would swing inevitably to the dreaded topic: The Aftermath of the Partition. 

The week went by. The conference ended. Eesha and other guests of the conference departed. I, normally a comfortable person, was going through a bout of odd discomfort. I tried listening to the sound of the prickly voice that lives in my head and whose only job seems to give me a guilt trip when I'm least expecting it. It turned out that the insignificant case of Eesha’s visa constraint had brought back an old and sad memory.  

It had brought back Sardaaran. 

Sardaaran was a tall and scrawny old woman with an exceptionally brisk walk who used to roam in the streets of Old Muslim Town, Lahore in the nineteen-nineties. Those days, we had a house in that vicinity so bumping into Sardaaran was quite a possibility. Clad in tattered rags, her hair spread around her head in matted ropes, she would emerge from the end of the street and walk towards you at an alarming speed… as if she had a score to settle. But then, she would walk past and vanish down the street, oblivious to the telltale signs of fear she had spawned. 

Totaly indifferent to people and vehicles on the road, she would sit on the roadside green, scratching her head, whispering to herself.  Sometimes she would do civilly incorrect actions like gathering her shalwar high up on her thighs to reveal most of her long bony legs; sometimes even taking off an indispensible piece of clothing. It was years later that I learned that she hadn’t started this game. Civilization had been incorrect to her first. More so than its prevailing indifference to her plight. 

One chilly winter evening as I was enjoying a snuggle on my favorite seat beside the fireplace, the doorbell rang. Unwantingly, I went to answer it. I was shocked to see Sardaaran at the gate. 

“Give me coals. Give me coals!” she said abruptly.

"Coals?" I asked, not quite getting what she meant.

"Coals are good. Coals keep me warm. I will go; first give me coals," she muttered feverishly, her gaze fixed to the ground below. 

My three-year old son who had followed me to the gate, tugged at my sleeve, warning me to stay away in his own sweet way. Passing him a reassuring smile and asking Sardaaran to wait for my return, I strode back, my boy’s hand gripped firmly in mine. When I returned, I was holding a small bag with a used sweater and shawl inside. With a smile, I offered her the garments. 

“I want coals. Coals are good,” she said, not even glancing at the woollies that I had pulled out of the bag for for her to see what she was getting. 

“I don’t have coals, Sardaaran. No one uses coals any more. We have gas stoves now.” 

“I want coals to keep me warm,” she said as if she hadn’t heard me and walked off muttering, “Where will I get coals to keep me warm?” 

I was rather angry at her for being ungrateful. 

Sardaaran died that winter. One morning she was found frozen to death outside a tea stall on  the nearby Wahdat Road.

She was soon forgotten.  

Years later, Sardaaran’s story was revealed to me by a household helper named Gaami.   

Sardaaran was one of the numerous daughters of a local Sikh merchandiser who migrated to India when sectarian riots broke loose in Lahore in 1947. Apparently, round then, Sardaaran was in love with a young boy of a sound Muslim family, also her father’s acquaintance. The boy had vowed that he would have no problem talking his parents into allowing them to marry. Young, naive and deeply in love, Sardaaran had  promised him that she would stay back in Lahore if and when exodus of Sikhs would become inevitable. Every one around knew it was coming up; that their destiny had been decided by some strangers with high-sounding family names in far-off hotel conference rooms.

The day came sooner than they had expected 

With incidents of looting and killing Hindu and Sikh families more common and intense, Sardaaran's family had to make an emergency exit from Lahore. Sardaran broke the news of her intentions to her shocked parents at the last hour. The boy was there too to give them his word that Sardaaran would be well looked after and safe. Reluctantly, they left without Sardaaran. The boy took her to his widowed uncle who had already agreed on giving her temporary lodging in his house in Model Town.

In the beginning things looked good. Sardaraan and her fiancĂ© would plan the upcoming wedding and he would often take her to meet his parents. They to were happy to have her for lunch or dinner. But sunny days ended soon. The boy lost interest in her and eventually married his cousin. Sardaaran had no option left but to serve as a house-maid in the old uncle’s house, the only place under the sun upon which she had any claim left, however fragile. 

It was rumored that the old uncle’s fatherly feelings towards Sardaaran were later thwarted by his ‘basic instincts’ and he made her his sex partner; under duress or by her consent, nobody could ever tell. Eventually, people began to notice that Sardaaran was going a little fuzzy in the head. As her illness progressed, she became more disoriented and forgetful. She would go grocery shoppping or trash dispensing and forget her way back. For hours she would roam on the roads of Model Town, asking people to escort her back. First there was one lustful man who took advantage of weak mental faculties. Then there was another. Then another. And another. Her custodians now took her as a source of disgrace for the RESPECTABLE family. As a result, the doors of the house were closed on her. 

Begum Shaheen Mirza, a kindhearted woman of the neighborhood who had helped numerous displaced persons to reunite with their families, tried to dig out the whereabouts of Sardaaran’s family from the archives of partition records. But there was no sign of them on the face of the earth. So, like many homeless people who live on the roads and become hidden in plain sight, Sardaaran also became a part of the milieu of Lahore. Unimportant, insignificant but permanently there.  

Occasionally, a kindhearted person would make an attempt to rehabilitate Sardaaran. But it was too late. Sardaaran was beyond help. Life on the road was her only truth. It was the only life she now knew.

Gaami, the cleaning lady who told me Sardaaran’s story, stated an interesting fact about her. She said Sardaaran was very fond tea. Roaming on the roads, she would stop at teashops and stare at people consuming the hot drink. Teastall owners would take pity on her and give her a cupful -  with an occasional bun or biscuit -  and she would slurp it down with unshaking fervor; with ultimate focus; as if all bounties of the universe had shrunken and become a cup of tea; as if time had shrunken and become a moment; as if humanity had shrunken and become a demented old woman and was devoring its last food supply.  

I find it ironical that she died outside the tea stall. Like a fated lover dying outside the home of his lost love. Tea, perhaps, was Sardaaran's last link with tangible world; the only remnant of the person Sardaaran once was.
Saradaran isn’t the only person destroyed by politicians' whims. Just in that particular incident, the politically glorious attempt of designing a new homeland for humans of a specific description, millions died, millions were humiliated and millions lost any connection whatsoever with the lives they knew. It's as if they had slept one night and woke up to an alien world. The tragic aftermath of the trans-exodus had left the world pondering: Was what happened a necessary muddle the people had to pass through to reach a state of social balance? or Was what happened so ugly that no social height could ever justify the horrors it had climbed through? Deep down in their hearts, everyone knew and knows the answer. No amount of glorification can cover up the volley of terror that went loose on both sides of the border when the ill-imagined exchange of populations took place.

Eesha's constraint, a mere trifling compared to the attrocities mechanized by The Partition, just reminds me that sixty-six years past, we still live under the pink cloud of the Bloody Partitiont.


Friday, 4 January 2013

The Woman with a Nose-pin

The Woman with a Nose-Pin

‘There!’ Aziza Bano tugged at the coolies’s sleeve and made a dash for the only vacant bench in the room.

Anyone who knew Aziza Bano would be shocked to see her charging across the public waiting-room like twenty dogs were after her.  Usually, she was calm and composed. 

Why can’t I run when my legs can? she thought, too exasperated to care about anything but procuring a sitting place to live the two hours wait through.

And why the hell did it matter that people on the railway station would judge her? Why, why, why was civilization so absolutely and pitilessly ridiculous?’

She was dog tired and crestfallen; and, on top of everything, famishing, with not a morsel in her stomach. Had she been a child, she would’ve put up an act of the wildest kind, like lying on her back and kicking her limbs in the air.

Oh! it was a round-the-clock acting job being ‘The Graceful Middle-ager’.

It had been a crazy morning. The first bad break, a burnt omelet; the second, a stand-all-the-way bus ride to the station and, on top of all that, the ticket seller munching a betel leaf, telling her; 

'Your train's two hours late.'

this damper on the wasted hurry set off a volley of expletives, waiting to break lose. She had something to say to everyone and everything in the world; from The Government to the beggar who saw her across the lobby to the cross-over bridge. 

"Scoundrels! Rogues!" she swore beneath her breath.

When, jostling her way through humid collars and over-ironed sleeves on the bridge, she had looked down at the platforms, she had seen that the crowd was crazy big on  Platform number 4.

And when she was looking for a place to sit, no one had moved an inch to make space for her on the wooden pews on the platform . Once, lowering herself down in an attempt to clench a few inches on the corner of a bench on which a fat woman lay snoring – her mouth open to the four elements – a fat leg had budged her off.

At the tea-stall where they sold milk-tea and soggy, cherry-jam dotted biscuits placed in dim glass boxes to which the railway station flies clung like parting lovers, she had been elbowed and nudged till she was hungry no more.

So this empty bench in the waiting room was nothing less than a little piece of heaven. 

She shoved two little girls out of her way as she approximated near it.

Dhump!  the coolie threw her suitcase on the bench.

Aziza Bano looked back at the little girls who, to recover from the shock of being pushed  by a mad old woman, were holding each others hands tightly and patting each other.

Civility gets you nowhere on a place as mean as this station, sweethearts. Look, I have this bench and you don't, she thought.

The old coolie with big scraggy hands, who, until now, had put up with her hunt for a sitting space rather patiently, was slow burning her now with his questioning eyes. She opened her bulgy handbag to pay him.

“Quick please!” he urged as she rummaged through the contents to fish for some change.

Again, she wanted to swear but, for the sake of convention, just mumbled, “In the name of God, please wait!”

Money safely tucked up his sleeve, the coolie vanished in thin air. She put her handbag in the empty space in the middle of the seat. Between suitcase, handbag and Aziza Bano, the bench was fully taken. The planks of the bench felt a bit taut but the thought that she had brought a cushion, hoping it would see her through the painful ride, comforted her.  

For some time she sat still, just sniffing now and then to understand the smell of the room.

Phenyl and rank floor swabs!?

Then she unzipped the bag and took the cushion out. The cushion behind her back and her fake shatoosh shawl spread out on her legs like a blanket, she gave her an air of old proprietorship which anyone would think twice before challenging.

Looking around, she saw that there was only one window in the room looking over the platform; and no adornments except for a desolate-looking rubber plant in a cracked earthen pot, its only two leaves hanging limp, threatening to fall any moment. For furniture, there was a couch and a bench – her bench – and a few wooden chairs, rickety and depressed, placed as and where passengers who had last sat on them, had left them.

Across from her, on the squeaky couch, three men sat grumbling against the government with lukewarm contempt that usually springs from prolonged familiarity; like nitpicking wives. She noticed that one of the men – one in a crumpled blue shirt – eyed her somewhat accusingly as if she too was one of the subjects of their nagging.

To her right, along the wall, a well-built man sleeping on a cheap foam mattress spread on the floor, opened his eyes and raised his head to have a look at her.  Unimpressed, he lay back and resumed his snoring, as though there never was that moment of wakefulness in between.

Who wants his attention anyhow! a whisper reached her ears and, with it, a familiar whiff. She half-closed her eyes and sniffed. Yes, it was the starchy smell that came from her hostel matron and school principal who wore stiffened cotton saris. It was a smell that had sneaked into her childhood  baggage and reached her present.

The man in the crumpled shirt glanced at her again and she felt being bridled in; as if her arms were tentacles that shrank on sensing male attention. Closeness to strange men had this effect on her.

She pulled the neckline of her lose kamees up to cover her lapels and re-adjusted the drapes of her pale-blue mulmul dupatta across her chest.

She wasn’t unaware that she looked drab and unseemly in her old and limp khaddi-cotton shalwar kamees, a balding middle parting and long and lifeless hair tied in a tight plait. Rather, she had a  prickly sense of being one of the stodgy hundreds.

‘Stylishness is an advertisement of depravity,’ the whisperer spoke again., 'And simplicity an equal of a 'Not Available’ board . If it hadn’t been for your plain looks, men would ogle you as they ogle women who make their availability felt and understood. You ought to be clean like moon's reflection on new snow, not shiny like a dog’s nose that’s filthy inside.’

The approval filled Aziza Bano's heart with pride. She wanted to look at the whisperer but feared that her vanity might harm the miraculous touch with her past. So she envisioned in her mind, an unmade-up virtuous woman clad in a starched, cover-all, white cotton sari, the kind working women of her childhood used to wear. Oh how she had marveled at them as a child; the clean, principled lot of them; untarnished, inside and out; a bubble of purity in a sea of filth. .

Thinking of filth put a damper on Aziza Bano's pride. She remembered that her handbag needed a thorough clean-up.
'Don't fret, Bano;  you meant to tidy up the handbag all along but there simply wasn't any time,' the whisperer reassured her. 'Listen; what better use of two purposeless hours here in an already sullied room. Do it now.'

So she unzipped the bag and began rummaging through the miscellany, all set to weed out all things unwanted. But she just shuffled and shuffled.

The fact that it was quite normal for her to lose the urge of doing cleaning chores was presently locked behind a tightly shut iron in her head.

There were things in the hodgepodge that hadn’t been used for years: a frayed leather wallet with Tahir’s baby-picture in the picture slot, an empty lipstick case, the kind that comes with a mirror on the inside, a bunch of keys that had lost their identity but not the mystic solemnity one confers upon old keys, an old telephone diary with hundreds of phone numbers that needed to be copied somewhere, a vintage cigarette lighter (a souvenir of good old days), reading glasses with real-metal rims and her husband’s wrist watch that had stopped at four a.m. on a Wednesday years ago.

Suddenly, all she wanted was to hold the watch in her hands… to feel it on her know how he must have felt it on smell it to see if his touch still lingered on hold it to her her her chest... Oh how she really really wanted to.

 Ah-h-h if it wasn’t so crowded here!  If there weren’t men all  around me! Looking.

So she just clasped the watch in her fist so tight its metal dug into her flesh, leaving behind a ladder of hollow shapes.

No! She couldn’t just throw these old things away as if they didn't mean anything! For now, she would put them aside in a zipped side-pocket.

Less for the sake of order.

More for saving them from being mishandled.

An elderly woman carrying a bakery bag full of used clothes and other articles in the circle of her arm, entered the waiting room. She walked like a funny old penguin who, on each step, shifts its total weight from one leg to the other. But then all penguins do that – old or young, funny or serious. Aziza Bano saw her and looked away quickly, pretending not to have seen her at all. 

But the woman’s gaze was fixed on Aziza Bano as she zeroed in on her.

Silly old cow! She thinks I'm a weakling, a pushover; and she can snatch the bench away from me. Can't she see all the vacant chairs!

Quickly, Aziza Bano put her handbag back on the empty middle space. 

"Is someone sitting here?" The old woman asked Aziza Bano, pointing at her suitcase.

“Er-r-r yes; she just went to the toilet.” Aziza Bano lied.


Not much affected by the denial, the woman headed to the wall, threw her bag on a roll of bedding placed along it. Then, slowly, with her hand on the wall for support, lowered her bulky body down on the cushiony roll. For some time she wriggled this way and that to reach a comfortable position, then became still. Aziza Bano pretended not to see or know.

The man snoring on the mattress, stirred again. He raised his head a little to look at the old woman who had just arrived and, as before, put his head down and resumed his snoring.

Despisable man! A typical sample of an all-time creep! the whisperer said.

Bees hummed in Aziza Bano’s head. She had to wrench her attention back to her handbag-cleaning to ward the vexation off .

There were a few things that she had recently thrown in for handing over for repairs: a bracelet whose chains had muddled up to form a complex lump, a cell phone skeleton and a TV remote-control with a sunken power button.

And there were a few things of daily use: a money pouch, ball pens, a chit-pad, an inhaler, a small container of hand lotion(picked from a hotel bathroom), a check-book with inch-long frayed edges, a half-used leaf of aspirin, an extra hair-catch.          

There’s not a thing that is absolutely useless; I wouldn’t survive a day without the aspirin, the remote works fine accept for the power button and the bracelet will be good as new if untangled. I’d be stupid if I threw them.

She began separating them into the two main pockets of the bag.

“Ish-sh-sh!” she grimaced.

A cocktail of crumbs from half-eaten packets of biscuits, fried peanuts and potato crisps had found its way to all corner of the bag, even the money in the pouch. It reminded her of the disgust in the sleepy bus conductor's eyes when she had wiped the debris off the fifty-rupee note before handing it to him.

 Best would be to tip the bag over, get rid of the crumbs and set up the things all over again.  

Her eyes searched the room for a waste-bin of some kind.

The planter could do, she thought. It was the article closest to a waste-bin with its thick topping of cigarette stubs.

“Chaai wala; chaai wala!”

A tea-boy selling tea in chipped cups placed on a discolored plastic tray, had entered the room. His cups were small and half-filled; the tea in them just about enough to soak a biscuit. 

“Chaai! chaai!” he chanted.

His calls reminded Aziza Bano how hungry she was. She looked around, waiting for someone else to make the first purchase. The sleeping man was sound asleep and the fat old woman was reading Jasoosi Digest, a crime-fiction tabloid that came with cover-pages showing half-naked juicy women's pictures. First, a burden lifted off Aziza Bano's heart. because she had been worrying that the old woman might be sulking at not getting a share of the bench. Clearly, she wasn't. But Aziza Bano was shocked to see what she was reading.

Who reads such awful literature at this age?

“Chai madam?” the tea-boy pestered her again and again as if he had seen a potential tea drinker in her.

'How much for a cup?' she asked.

'Ten only, madam jee.' he said with a grin.

Bloody rip offs! she murmured.
And she almost died of chagrin when she noticed that the nail of the tea-boy’s little finger was long, filed and painted red. The bees began humming in her head again.

“No!” she said aloud.

But the boy smile grew expectant as he stared at her hands digging at unseen things in her handbag; as if he taking her to be kind enough to give him a tip without making a purchase.    

Stubborn idiot! Aziza Bano thought. Or is he thinking of robbing me?    

Oh how silly of me to even think of tipping the bag over and putting my valuables on display here in the middle of knee-crawling thugs. They’ll strip me bare in one second. Quickly, she zipped the bag shut and looked up defiantly.

'No tea for me,' she said loud and clear.

At last, the tea boy moved on, smiling even more amusedly.

The window, now, revealed the morning flurry at its fullest. There was a long queue outside the toilets. More shops had opened and thicker throngs built up around them. More passengers were heading to the waiting-room too. There were four men on the couch now and the chairs too were almost all gone. Probably, a train was about to arrive.

Can’t be mine though; it isn’t time yet.

And she unzipped her handbag again and buried her head in it, trying her best to look withdrawn.

In the jumble were some papers, many of which were surely useless. Their condition ranged from new-n-crisp to pitifully tattered. She shook one of the latter kind free of the tangle around it and crushed it into a ball. But just when she was aiming at tossing it toward the planter, the letter-head flashed before her eyes.

Shamas Dyers.

No. This one's a must-keep. It’s the receipt of the fabric I’ve given to the dyer to dip yellow.

She remembered what a pain it had been to convey her vivid perception of a beautiful yellow to the stodgy idiot. It had taken her one good hour and still he wasn't sure! ushsh! She remembered in the end she had told him to get hold of a sursoon flowers and use that as a color sample.

Wah! What beautiful colors she had in her thoughts but  they never became real in her real life.  

The dyer was another goon with the morals of a weasel on speed. He would eat up her fabric had he the slightest clue she had lost the receipt. So she ironed the paper out on her lap, folded it carefully and inserted it into a slot in her wallet.

Papers, she concluded, could not be disposed of unless a thorough scrutiny was done. And there were so many in there that she needed days to go through them.

“Lost something?” a voice asked.

She looked up. Something shone. Through the dazzle, she saw that a dusky young woman was smiling at her from the other end of the bench where a few moments ago her black suitcase had been. The bag now stood on the floor beside Aziza Bano’s legs. The dazzle, Aziza Bano deduced, had come from the tiny rhine-stone studded on one side of this woman’s nose. She saw that the woman was holding a thermos – one of those Made-in-China pieces that flocked the flee markets of Lahore. It had a pattern of blue ribs and red stars – probably a version of the U.S. flag. She also saw that the woman’s heart-shaped face was spangled with little droplets of water and that her eyelashes were slick after the wash they had just had. 

“Lost something?” the woman with a nose-pin asked again.

Aziza Bano shook her head.

“Will you p-please…” Aziza Bano faltered, thinking of an excuse she could give to the cheeky woman for vacating the bench.
“Will I... ?” the woman asked.

“Nothing!” Aziza Bano said, giving up.

From the corner of her eyes, Aziza Bano saw that the fat old woman had put the thriller down in her lap and had a bun and a black mug in her hands. She was gorging the dry morsels down her throat with big gulps of hot tea and making smacking noises that went straight to Aziza Bano's temple.

As for the man on the mattress, he was finally fully awake. He lay on his side, rubbing his eyes and watching the young woman with an air of thrill.

So the lecher has found what he was looking for! Aziza Bano fumed inside. 

He yawned and stretched and propped up on his right elbow, balancing his jaw on the back of his fisted hand. She saw the woman slant her eyes toward him and smile. 

Uh, uh! So she was one of them!

Aziza Bano quite knew the species. They were everywhere. In markets, flirting with shopkeepers to get discounts; on the roads, walking with a vulgar swing of the hips to attract male attention; in cars; in buses, patting their eyes at ogling strangers; and their eyes! and the way they rolled them in delicious semi-circles along their upper eyelids or fixed them at downward angles to look coy and demure. Bitches. Titillating vamps. They had even spread out into the media and the politics. The bunch of woman sympathizers, who, through their feminist ideas, politicized their own or other women's traumatic relationships with men; just to attract the interest of a multitude of them. 

Aziza Bano was sure that if a bomb was to explode on the platform, this woman wouldn't stop her show of wanton femininity. 

Unable to hold his excitement, the man popped up in a cross-legged sitting posture in the middle of his mattress..

The woman with a nose-pin laughed…at nothing…nothing at all.

Totally vexed by sheer lewdness of this trifling, Aziza Bano opened the handbag for the third time and shuffled through the things madly, this time ruining whatever order she had brought about in the hodgepodge.

Why why why do they do it in public? Isn’t it enough that we have to put up with uncouth ways of commoners…I mean, the way the old woman is making those nasty sounds and the continuity with which those men are chat-chat-chatting like idle wives…loathsome... but sufferable still…but these two are simply impossible… look he has his hand on his crotch now; and she’s flashing her diamond at him…I can’t believe she’s – she’s biting the corner of her lower lip...signals...more signals...the fanning of the flame of desire...the dance of persuasion…as if they’re alone…as if we are all a bunch of idiots and won’t notice. Why don’t they move to one corner and do what they want to do?

Like dogs!
And just then, that tiny moment arrived when the braces reining her in, loosened. Oh how she dreaded this freedom! This wandering astray!

There were pictures in her head.

Of them together.

Of the details.

Moving pictures.

She had to stop herself for fear that the pictures would become too wild – too vivid.

When it was over, she felt sullied; her standards of correctness violated. Soon enough, shame would transform into anger pointed at the pair playing the game of lust.

She tugged at the seam of her neckline, allowing the clammy air trapped around her bosom to be refreshed a bit.

Phewww!!! She exhaled a gust of hot air. She was hot; very very hot; so hot that she would have peeled her clothes off and thrown them in the face of this woman if she hadn’t been a Dignified God-fearing woman and her world a Dignified God-controlled world.

There was a shrinking tingle in the skin under her hair…a blaze on her face and an unyielding tautness in her shoulders and neck. And it didn’t end there. In her bosom, anger swelled till her breathing was reduced to short gasps. Oh, how she despised public demonstration of lust!

The young woman addressed her once again.

“Would you like some tea?” She asked, holding the flask up.

“Err-r-r no thanks,” Aziza Bano answered, rotating her neck but not enough to make eye-contact with her.

“Come on. Have some,” the woman insisted.

Aziza Bano looked at her face, still avoiding her eyes.

“I just got it from the shop outside. It’s hot,” the woman tempted.

“Okay!” Aziza Bano said, hating herself for not having the nerve to say no.

The woman bent down to take out mugs from a basket perched on the floor and laid them out. As she did so, her dupatta slipped off from one of her shoulders and the neckline of her purple kamees draped down to betray a generous glimpse of her body. Aziza Bano looked. She saw that the woman’s breasts were small and wiry with a broad gap between them.

Aziza Bano looked away. She had mad hornets in her head. She had ants eating at her fingertips from inside and butterflies in her stomach; and a loud buzz that rowed up and down her blood stream. It  lulled the octopus that lived in her, leaving her body to go free.

Aziza Bano looked back where the whisperer had stood. There was no one there. Then she looked at the woman  with a nose-pin again. This time there were no pictures in her head; just a heavenly vastness and a choice to go free. 

This time there was no stopping herself. Yes; there were times in Aziza Bano’s life when her dreams became limitless.

Like a bird soaring in an endlessly open sky.

With no ends.

There were no domains.

So there was no stopping.

How could she stop? You can stop a thought but you can’t stop a feeling. You can not order your skin to stay warm if you're stranded out in a snow-storm! Can you? You can not command your nose not to smell once you have stepped into a shop of Arabian musk! No! No! 

It’s there; really really there.

For you to experience.

The woman felt Aziza Bano’s gaze on her and looked up. Aziza Bano looked on in oblivion.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“Uh-uh!” Aziza Bano whispered, slowly stepping out of the wild dream.

The woman was pouring steaming hot tea in the three mugs she had laid down on the floor. Her cleavage and the contours of her ribs and spine against the thin fabric of her kamis, were still on display. The man was still rubbing his overnight stubble and staring at her with a leer on his cracked-up sleepy lips.

It had gone on for too long. Aziza Bano felt as though she was trapped in a slow-motioned movie scene.

The octopus wriggled. The hornets shook their glassy wings and flew away. Her scalp shrank as a fresh surge of annoyance welled up in her. She felt like killing herself for not having the guts, like some senior women she knew had, of stopping the woman from her lewd toying-around.

Finally, the woman with a nose-pin held a cup of tea out to her which she took with a smile that quickly died at the corner of her lips.

“Um-um,” she mumbled a thank you.

The woman picked up a plastic bag from the basket and fished out a bun from it. And then the most incredible thing happened.

Much to Aziza Bano’s amazement, the woman with a nose-pin carried the bun and a filled mug over to the man sitting cross-legged on the mattress. He accepted the bun and tea with a grin and the woman returned. She gave the third cup and a bun to the man in the crumpled blue shirt. And then she poured herself some tea in the lid of the flask and sat back to enjoy her scanty drink.

“They’re all running late,” the woman said.


“They're running late. Ours was to leave at 9:30 last night. We’ve been here since. Yours?” The woman asked, taking an unsure but sizeable gulp from her tea.

“It leaves at 10:30,” Aziza Bano answered, sparing the details to show that she had no inclination of going on with the dialogue. She wasn't fully recovered from the shock of being exposed to the most brazen brand of coquetry.  Fear none…make quick moves…share food with fawning strangers.

“Is that the right time?” the woman asked.

“What?” Aziza Bano scowled crankily.

“Is 10:30 the right time?”

“No; new time,” Aziza Bano answered, once again, short and crisp.

“It’s better to keep inquiring… and go home and come back if it's a long wait...I mean if you could help it. We thought of going back to the hotel last night but…” the woman said, wincing as she spoke. Then she picked the bag in which a last bun was left and held it out to Aziza Bano.

All of a sudden, Aziza Bano was tired of hating her. And in that weak moment, curiosity killed the  indifference.

“You don’t live in Lahore?” she asked the woman, accepting the bun.

“No. We’re from Karachi. We came to fight an inheritance claim. We’d rented a room in a hotel near the court,” the woman answered.

“We?” Aziza Bano questioned, looking around. She had thought the woman was alone.

“Yes; there are four of us. Haha!” the woman laughed as she explained. “Not sitting together after our trip to the toilet. Seats got taken, you see.”

Seats got taken? Aziza Bano repeated in her heart. Had they been sitting on this bench before I came?

Images raced through her mind…the man on the mattress waiting for someone... the man in the blue shirt eyeing her worriedly...the old woman ambling directly towards the bench…the woman with a nose-pin removing her suitcase from the broken end of the bench and sitting there. 

“Seems you’ve had a pretty rough night,” Aziza Bano said quickly to shirk the upsetting thoughts that were racing in her head. Although she had half construed what had happened, she still didn't feel like making room  in her life for civilities for women of this sort.

“We’d bought a mattress to use as an extra bed in the hotel,” the woman said, looking in the direction of the man on the mattress. “It came in handy; we slept on it one by one.”

Color slowly drained out from Aziza Bano’s flushed face. But no one in the room was interested enough to notice.

There was a hum in the air now – like a distant thunder of clouds.

“They’re repairing the toilet next to this room so we used the one at the end of the platform,” she heard the woman saying. “It’s a long walk from here. We were all fine but it was rather painful for my…” she stopped and the expression on her face changed. She looked like she was trying to focus; perhaps she was trying to make out what the rumble seeping upward from the floor beneath their feet, was. 
Kukuuu!! A siren hooted and the window shook with the tremor of an approaching train.

The scene in the window transformed completely. Commotion had broken loose on Platform 4. Queues melted and crowds thinned. Coolies carrying baggage in their hands and on their heads, sprinted this way and that. People scurried about in the fear of being left behind. Baggage, flasks, food-carriers, rolled-beddings were being piled up riskily close to the rail-track. Children were being called back from their small exploits around the station and huddled in knots beside these heaps. In next to no time, the sprawling throng condensed into a rope of standing human bodies along the tracks.

The wheels of the train screeched and squealed. The brakes grunted and fell with a clang; and the train jerked into a halt.

The waiting room had emptied except for the two frightened little girls and Aziza Bano. There had been a sudden hubbub, a lunge at the luggage and it had all been over.

Aziza Bano lay down on the bench with her cushion under her head,  free now that there were no men in the room now. For a long time she kept thinking about the woman with a nose-pin and her fellow passengers.; the man in a crumpled blue shirt, the man on the mattress, the elderly  woman.; about how they were related. Was the man on the mattress her brother? Husband? father? Was the woman reading the digest her mother? Mother-in-law? Grandmother? She realized there wasn’t enough evidence from which she could make out the relationships.

She recollected glimpses of their departure from the room: the man on the mattress leaping up and rolling his mattress; the woman with a nose-pin carrying four black mugs to empty the tea left in them in the planter; the man in the crumpled blue shirt lending his hand to the elderly woman to stand up; their backs as they left the room; not really together, neither properly separated.

She also remembered the  young woman's small handbag - trim and weightless - dangling beside her hip as she walked away. . 

Her bellied handbag was hanging in the bend of her elbow on one side of the bench, the straps biting into her flesh as they bore down with the bulk of it.

Once again Aziza Bano had lost the urge to clean it up.

Thursday, 27 December 2012


(adapted from a true incident)


One, two, three, four, f… twelve and then she herself – the thirteenth.             

At the head of the squirming file is Distrustful Old Man. The overseer gives him a thin pile of red currency notes which he counts thrice. Distrustful Man does this on every pay day. He does this even though, like everyone else, he knows Overseer Jabbar doesn't cheat the payees in counts. His schemes for stripping the workers of their money are indiscernible; or, in any case, not easy to catch; and not in the slightest by means of a simple count with saliva-lubricated fingers.          


Let this be quick!          


Distrustful Man steps sideways to leave. Stops. Takes a step back. But Jabbar's icy glare makes him start off.            

Eleven to go!

This one’s bound to be quick. It is the turn of  Heroin Addict who will grab his money with a shivering hand and stride off toward the powder-boy who lingers in the shadow of the bairi tree. The powder boy’s kamis pocket is sagging with the weight of the white powder wrapped in small conical pouches made of hand-torn pieces of newspaper.  

Heroin Addict paces toward the boy, fast, as though he suspects that the pouches will all be sold out before he completes his twelve strides. 

Once again, she counts the heads aligned ahead of her.   


Tenth from her, luckily, is another quick riddance; yellow-eyed Disease Junkie whose latest contact, an overseas germ with a a difficult name, has left him looking like a deflated balloon, hollow inside a crumpled bag of limp hide. From the pay desk, Disease Junkie diectly goes to pay off his outstanding credit at the pharmacy (not to speak of the mounting credit at the quack doctors’ clinic) before he returns to his tent, bent beat up his wife black-and-blue if she comes up with one of her intrinsically erratic demands.   

All of a sudden, Jabbar stands up. Her heart lurches. But it’s only to let the errand boy wipe the table top above which hundreds of slothful flees are hovering, collecting their share from the continent of dried tea and other remains of the meals Jabbar’s been eating through the day.

She turns her gaze towards the basti, the sprawling stretch of tents and huts, listening, trying to make out what goes on out there. But there are no sounds other than shouts of street lads playing a game of Pithoo Garam on the clearing near the swamp. Their high-spirited calls clash with the hazy gloom of the twilight that has cloaked the tents.   

What if one of the children shooed away by their mothers – they are highly intolerant of rowdiness and annoyance at this time of the day – enters her deserted tent? What if…?   

A deadly chill spreads in her limbs like ink dissolves in water. She curls her toes to stop her feet from gelling. 

And she jolts her mind back to the proceedings at the pay desk.  

Ten is gone. Money in being counted to pay the person nine heads up the line from her!          

It is Blind Woman’s Son who never looks up to let his gaze meet the overseer’s eyes. He accepts the money offered him rather bleakly; not yet looking at the money-lender who is standing a mere four, five feet away. Holding the money in his hand, Blind Woman’s Son walks straight towards the money-lender, gives him the pad of eleven red notes – still not looking up(or around) – folds the two purple one (enough to buy 21 cigarettes; three a day for the next seven days)and deposits them deep into his shalwar pocket, and, with his gaze still raking the ground, walks away.            

One, two, three…eight! She counts the heads again to be sure. Yes, there are eight left. Eight like eight corners of a coffin. The image of a small coffin emerges. 

The vision culls other images. Dark gaping holes. And sounds. Shrill and lamenting! Unbearably shrill and lamenting! She flinches.  

Bang! A shutter falls! Veiling the images; throttling the wails.  

Acrid smoke from fire made from kerosene oil on damp firewood is stinging her eyes now. So... basti women have already started lighting fires in their hearths to cook their evening meals. It’s earlier than their usual cooking time. Ah! It’s pay day.  They are impatient to cook and eat. They’ll all eat well today. Fools!!

A queer thought pops up in her head. 

Will I eat tonight?  

It is Wise Man facing Jabbar now. Wise Man is a bearded fellow who has no family. Just pigeons.  Oh, how she reveres his saintly judgment! His acumen which makes him see danger much before it becomes large enough to crush you to a numb pulp! Perhaps he knows that a laborer’ shoulders are not strong enough to carry the weight of a family. Perhaps that is why he has no family. Just pigeons. Pigeons are fine; low maintenance, non-complaining, less emotionally adhering, and self-caring. 

Wise Man's gone. That was quick.  

In spite of what happened when she went to tend to her sick baby during the tea break, she feels lucky there have been no holdups at the pay desk 

Thank you God!

God? Are you there?

Some delay, however, is inevitable. The next disbursement can take long; very long. It’s the turn of the payee who is seventh from her.        

Dark-eyed Female, her blatantly protruding breasts half visible owing to the fact that many buttons on her kurta front are missing, bangs Jabbar’s desk with her fist. He will now open another ledger and show her a muddle of numbers and words scribbled on an oil-stained page; and they will argue – a most friendly argument of course – over some money that was once lent (no one knows by whom). She will mock a frown and he will simper evilly. She will roll her eyes and he will tell her to add and subtract certain numbers to and from other numbers. She will bend down a bit too low to look into the ledger; his eyes will make the most of this opportunity to closely graze through the dark treasure behind the clammy fabric of her kurta. He’ll whisper. She’ll whisper. Only when he will thrust in her hand, a clump of currency notes that will seem a bit too thick as compared to ones the rest of them are getting, will it all end.         

Turning her head towards the huts, she waits for it to be over. 

A mushroom of smoke has haloed the basti from above. And there is a stench on the breeze now. Every day, at this time, a shitty reek rises from the swamp and sits on the basti, pressing all other odors down. Is it that or...? She sniffs to know.  

Back at the desk, the dark-eyed Female has moved from the head of the queue; not to leave though; only to stand behind Jabbar’s chair. And he has an ugly leer on his cigarette-stained lips now.        

Everyone takes a step forward. She too takes a step forward and bends her head sideways to count the workers ahead of her in the pay queue.          

One, two, three… six! Six like six sides of the coffin. Six little planks of wood. Why? Why do coffins have to be so dreadfully small? Oh, so dreadfully small and stiffling!

Time should move faster. Can time move faster? Oh please time move faster!!

It is the turn of Pubescent Boy who has cultivated a limp moustache to prove that he is qualified to stand in the row of adult workers and hence be paid full wages not half like other under-aged boys who get paid on Thursdays. He usually chews at a twig or hums a Punjabi song or takes a comb out from his pocket and starts combing his oiled hair to hide his nervousness till Jabbar brings a money-bearing hand forward. Then he grabs the money, quickly, denying Jabbar the loose moment in which he could change his mind and tell him that he should come back on Thursday. Pubescent Boy, she quite knows, is the kind who fight their fights to the end. What if a row begins? What if? What if? It all depends on one man. Jabbar.          

But dark-eyed Female has had the usual effect on him. He is flying high . He pays the boy without any argument.       

Next is her next-door neighbor, Dutiful Father. He is a gaunt man, ghastly with ever eating lesser than what he burns under the blazing sun through the day. He puts his sweating hands on the grimy table-top, rests his weight on it and waits. Jabbar will now tell him off for not doing enough work. Dutiful Father will explain that he's been unwell but now he's fine.                                                   

She can fortell every conversation at the pay-desk because these are all characters of a world that she  knows through and through. It's a world in which the builder is more moved by the slightest rise in cement rate than the fall of a worker from the tenth storey; in which the overseer does more free husbandry than the village bull and is as uncaring of the outcome. She can even see the future of dusky Female standing behind Jabbar’s chair; crystal clear: from pampered to pregnant to dumped. How similar she appears to what she herself had looked like a year ago! Hair-line a frame of two reddish-gold strands of hair bleached with hydrogen-per-oxide; eye-brows shaven into two thin bows; lips and gums dyed a deep red with maswaak .

A smile rises to her lips; a bitter, cheated smile.       

Dutiful Father leaves. Every one moves one step ahead; so does she. Leaning her head sideways, she starts the head count again. One, two, th-th… She stops. The world swa-a-a-ys; her vision wavers; her feet go heavy as if cupfuls of liquid iron have been injected into them; her temples throb. 

The world is about to topple over.      

‘You’ve waited so long; you can wait still more! You can! If I can, you can too!’ someone inside her yells to someone else inside her. She wrenches the tumbling world backward to fit it back into its old casing.

Just four payees are left now. Four, like four stumps of the manji on which they lay the dead body once they know  about the death; four like four wheels of the NGO van that takes unclaimed dead-bodies to unknown, far-off grave yards.      

She looks toward the huts again.  

Dusk is slowly eating up all shapes and forms, reducing the basti to a stark silhouette streched out against a gray brooding sky. Other than a shrill call now and then, there are no sounds coming from that side now.  

Why is the basti so still?? Why? It is not normal.  

And her next thought is to run back to her tent and pick up her baby in her arms; to hold it to her chest; to her lips; press its cold cheek against hers.   

She realizes that she isn’t numb; that deep down she has been thinking about the baby sleeping in a sling in her tent, throughout. Throughout reliving the instants that passed between her running over to her tent during the tea-break to see her sick baby and running back. Throughout feeling the stiffness of her baby’s cold body on her fingers. Throughout feeling that great need to cry out. And throughout telling herself not to. Asking herself over and over: What is bigger? The cry inside you or your want of snatching away this chance of redemption from Jabbar? You have tolerated his indifference. But can you tolerate his compassion? Can you?


So, the stronger half of her mind had drawn up a course of action for the weaker half.

‘Go numb and hold on to the numbness,’ the strong voice had ordered.  

Money. You'll need money? Some at least? Where would that come from? The meek voice had asked.   

 It’s pay day. Jabbar owes you three days’s wages…900 rupees… and if you complete today’s dehaari…300 rupees…  you will have enough for… the strong voice had said. 

And she had run back to the building site. She had begun hauling stacks of bricks – wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow – with a new, a much more passionate vigor. After all, only an hour and a half was left.        

Blind Woman’s Second Son shifts his weight from his right leg to left and right again, gearing up to receive his six day’s wages; wages that the money lender will not snatch away; wages that will light a fire in the blind woman’s cold hearth and keep feeding the fire for the next six days.      

He runs away with the money. 

He’s gone. 

Three left.        




All of a sudden her body craves giving up. Her ear-canals cringe against the hammers pounding on her ears. Her breasts pulsate with a raw anguish. She lets go. Stony body, loosens. Taut limbs liquefy.      

From somewhere deep inside her, a shriek tears toward her throat.     

‘Cash finished!’ Jabbar calls, scratching his bald head; yawning and stretching his thick limbs far and wide, he pushes his chair back to get up.       

A small whimper is heard above the buzz of compliant grouses against scarcity of pay-money. A nameless sigh. The three men in front of her as well as numerous others in the row behind her disperse quickly.        

She hasn’t moved. She looks the other way now, toward the road where buses that take people to strange destinations, stop. Where to are all these people always going? How come she doesn’t have anywhere to go? She often thinks of boarding one of the green, tattooed buses and asking the man dangling out of the door like a loose attachment of the lorry, to take her somewhere; to some other place; she doesn’t know its name yet; she’ll ask someone about it; there ought to be one out there for her. 

 An echo surfaces the sea of thuds roaring around her. A word. Is it her name? Is someone calling her? She looks towards the huts and sees the wife of Dutiful Father running towards her, beating the air about her mad with two hysterically-flinging arms. On the other side, a cloud of dust rises; a bus emerges from it and decelerates as it approaches the bus-stop.      

Suddenly, she runs.