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 wrist...to know how he must have felt it on his...to smell it to see if his touch still lingered on it...to hold it to her cheek...to her eyes...to 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.

“Oh!”

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.

“Hmmm?”

“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.