Returning from one of our expeditions, we took a shortcut through the forbidden territory, Shah di Tallian – a dark eerie graveyard overshadowed by huge trees and dense thorny overgrowth. Lying atop a fresh grave, I found a tiny dead baby. It was like a miniature doll – its skin moist, shiny and translucent. I could see the organs within. I bent forward and stared closely before calling to my cousin, ‘Farooq!”
Farooq looked back and almost lost his balance as he gasped and recoiled. For a few minutes, we both stared at it, transfixed and wide-eyed. I would have picked up the lifeless infant had he not pulled me away. Grabbing my arm, his fingers wrapped themselves around my wrist like the tendrils of a creeper, his face white as a sheet. ‘Let’s go, Salmi! Let’s go!’ he whispered, breathing deeply.
‘You’re hurting me,’ I protested. He relaxed his grip a little.
I secretly recited the Ayatul-Kursi, the prayer of protection, in my head, with some trepidation, not wanting to let Farooq know I was scared.
Noting my twitching lips he enquired, ‘What are you muttering?’
‘Say it out loud.’
‘Why, don’t you know it?’ I snapped and then began reciting loudly.
Realizing the significance of our find, he tightened his grip on my arm and hissed, ‘Don’t say a word to anyone, Salmi! Promise me…promise.’
‘I promise,’ I said, irritated, jerking my arm free.
‘Word of honour? We’ll be in dead trouble if…’
‘Why? It’s only a baby. We didn’t put it there!’
‘We’re not supposed to be here at all. We’re sure to get a good beating if Abba Jaan finds out.’
Carefully sidestepping graves, avoiding stinging nettles and anthills, crushing fallen leaves underfoot, we rushed out of the graveyard at a run. Neither of us said another word as we dashed across busy Murree Road and turned into the gali between Qamar Bakery and the free government clinic where we had our BCG jabs; past the large yellow colonial houses; beneath overhanging balconies dripping water from hanging bougainvillea, fragrant Raat ki Rani and Chambaili; past the butcher’s shop exhibiting a gruesome selection of blood-drenched black goat heads, eyes wide open, staring straight at us. A live goat, its hind leg tethered to a lamp post, was munching on fodder standing in its own urine, oblivious of its impending fate. Overstepping the urine trailing across the gali, I moved furtively to get on the other side of Farooq, in case the goat butted us.
As we neared home I dreaded going past hawkish Mirza Sahib’s grocery shop. He had shouted so fiercely at my cousin Rosy the other day – for picking at the fresh tamarind – that she had wet herself. I breathed a sigh of relief on seeing him busy weighing rice on his pan balance. As always, he was dressed in a crisp white kurta shalwar, far too well dressed for a grocer, his thick mop of silver hair kept under control by his maroon fez. The usual group of cronies who gradually gathered in his shop during the day, like vultures around a corpse, sat puffing the tall hookah while putting the world to rights.
Farooq and I tried to slip past without being noticed. But Mirza Sahib looked up from over the Gandhi glasses perched on his nose. Knotting his thick white brows he said curtly, ‘Salaam Alaykum,’ to remind us of our manners.
‘Salaam Alaykum,’ I blurted quickly.
Unperturbed by Mirza Sahib’s terse greeting, Farooq gave him a sideways glance and continued walking. I admired his sangfroid. Thankfully, Mirza Sahib became distracted just then by a boy demanding his change or we would certainly have had to listen to a sermon on the blessings of saying salaam, and a lot more no doubt.
Having forgotten the reason for our haste, I lingered at fat Bashir’s sweet shop, breathing in the intoxicating aromas while Farooq walked ahead. Bashir sat like a Buddha, seated behind a huge cauldron in which he was frying jalebi. Perspiration made his bald patch shine and the pockmarks on his Mongolian features more prominent. His grubby vest and black and white chequered dhoti were wet with sweat despite the revolving fan that kept the flies away from the tall pyramids of sweetmeats – ladoo, burfi, gulabjaman – on stainless steel platters.
As Bashir squeezed the grubby piping bag, streaks of batter oozed out like earthworms emerging from the ground after rain. With surprising dexterity, he twisted the worms into figures of eight as they fell into the boiling oil, whereupon they immediately turned dark orange. Bashir then transferred his perfect creations into a cauldron of hot sugar syrup. Wiping the sweat from his brow with the greasy towel flung over his shoulder, he carefully scooped out the jalebis and placed them in a wire basket to drain before arranging them on a steel platter.
Mesmerised, I watched, licking my lips, a safe distance from the huge cauldron of milk that had been simmering since dawn and which by now had turned almost pink, with a thick layer of cream on top. Intermittently, Bashir served the men sitting on colourful jute mooras, skilfully pouring the milk back and forth from one steel glass to another, raising them higher and higher until the milk turned frothy. Noticing me from the corner of his eye, he nodded his head to indicate I could take a jalebi.
Farooq was waiting impatiently for me at our front door. I offered him a piece of jalebi with a forced smile. He shook his head in refusal. Before entering, he looked straight at me to remind me of my promise. I nodded as I licked my fingers.
Rosy was waiting for us in the courtyard. She seemed to sense my unease and asked, ‘Where were you? I was looking for you. You always sneak off without me.’
‘Your pretty dress would have got dirty and you’d have whined like a baby,’ I taunted. The word ‘baby’ suddenly reminded me of why we had raced home and I shuddered.
‘He didn’t want you to come with us either,’ I said glancing up at Farooq. ‘You can never keep up and you are such a…’ I stopped as Rosy’s mother, my aunt Wazir Khala, walked past, carrying a vegetable-laden tray.
Rosy and I were the same age but she being the long-anticipated daughter after three sons, was indulged by her parents. She resented the fact that her brother Farooq and I preferred each other’s company to hers. But now, unable to keep my secret to myself a moment longer, I told her everything. ‘There was a dead baby lying on top of a grave in the graveyard!’ I whispered.
‘You went to the graveyard?’ Rosy’s dark eyes widened. She seized my shoulder and moved closer to hear the details. ‘Ammi will kill you if she finds out.’
‘She won’t ‘cause she isn’t going to find out, is she?’
‘What did you do?’
‘Nothing! Farooq wouldn’t let me pick it up. He made me rush home. Don’t…don’t tell anyone!’ I said, making unwavering eye contact. ‘Farooq will kill me if you do.’
But Rosy was never good at keeping secrets. She blabbed it all to her mother, who immediately summoned the two of us.
Wazir Khala, my mother’s eldest sister, sat cross-legged on the prayer chowki. She was preparing vegetables for the evening meal. With thin lips pursed and thick eyebrows knotted, she squinted in deep concentration as she continued chopping okra with pernickety attention, ensuring she cut out the wormy bits. Ammi sat beside her, her feet dangling above her discarded slippers. Ammi’s complexion was flushed, her nose red and her tiny eyes swollen, clouded by recent tears. In her hand she clutched the blue aerogramme that had arrived from India a couple of days ago, causing such turmoil in our household.
They were talking in hushed tones but stopped as we approached. I heard Wazir Khala whisper harami. I knew this to be a bad word though I did not know precisely what it meant. From the stern look on their faces, I sensed serious trouble. Ammi opened her mouth to say something but before she could utter a word, Wazir Khala raised her hand with a moue of distaste, signalling Ammi to stop and said firmly, ‘Jugnu, let me handle this.’
Ammi drew in a sharp breath between gritted teeth, pinching her thin lips and frowning as she reached for the fan lying on the chowki and began fanning herself with unnecessary vigour.
‘Did you see anyone at the graveyard? Anyone at all?’ Wazir Khala demanded, looking first at Farooq and then at me. I shook my head from side to side, silent, unable to speak.
‘Farooq you know this is serious. Tell me the truth.’
‘No, we were only there a few minutes,’ he said, turning to face her.
‘How many times have I told you not to roam in unearthly places? And with your hair open like this, some Djinn will possess you.’ Ammi couldn’t restrain herself from clouting me.
Wazir Khala pulled me away. Although she was fierce, she seldom hit us. Ammi frequently lashed out at us. ‘Jugnu, I said let me handle it,’ Wazir Khala now said irritably.
I stood immobile, staring at my trembling hands. She looked at us intently, silently, for what seemed like an eternity. A tall cone of mosquitoes spiralled above her head in the dusk, dispersing and regrouping with each turn of the lazily revolving fan. Sweat trickled from the folds of waxy skin on her neck and meandered down between her ample breasts, causing her diaphanous pink cotton shirt to turn almost purple and cling to her breasts, making them uncomfortably prominent. She seldom wore a bra at home.
She picked up her dupatta and wiped the sweat with the sluggishness that seems to infect everyone in that sweltering heat, and flung it across her chest, suddenly aware of my gaze. Her eyes magnified behind her thick glasses, her bony hand holding the knife had prominent blue veins visible under the pale insipid skin. The evening shadows across her face made her even more intimidating.
Massi, the maid, who had been cleaning the floor with an old towel, moving from side to side on her haunches, added phenyl to the water in the bucket, scattering droplets around as she dipped the towel in and out. Teeth clenched, her knuckles turned pale and her glass bangles jangled as she wrung it tight. She looked up, her kajal smudged around her big eyes and deep arched furrows on her forehead in the shape of her eyebrows. Pushing back wisps of hair with a crooked finger, she said, ‘Ah, let them be. No harm will come to them in the graveyard. My husband, Allahrakha, is always there… Besides, these two are as sharp as razors. Who would mess with them?’
‘Massi, she is only seven and her guru here…’ Ammi paused and glared at Farooq. ‘How old are you, Farooq?’ Without waiting for a reply, she snapped, ‘Nine!’ Turning her attention to Massi again she said, ‘And besides, your old man is always fast asleep. What would he know?’
‘Now, how would you know that?’ responded Massi in her tangy native dialect, widening her big eyes and flashing her paan-stained teeth in a cynical smile. Turning back to her task she said, ‘Clip her wings whilst you can. No one wants a girl they cannot control!’
Wazir Khala put down the knife and slowly took off her glasses. Her eyes now appeared sunken and smaller. She wiped her hands with her dupatta. Gently massaging the puffy dark half-moons under her eyes with the back of her clenched fist, she suddenly grabbed me by the arm and pulled me close. Without shifting her gaze and clenching her stained uneven teeth, the right canine of which was missing, she warned us in a low husky voice, as if telling us a deep dark secret, ‘You know the tall, dark gipsy women on Murree Road with the long flared skirts, thick bangles and bead necklaces? The ones pretending to sell fruit…’ She paused. ‘They will snatch you both, hide you under their skirts and sell you to horrible, horrible men, who will maim you and force you to beg.’ She spoke slowly, emphasizing each word, staring at us from between her almost shut eyelids.
The exaggerated tone did not rob her words of authority. Transfixed by her intense gaze, I averted my own. Terror caused my heart to beat so loudly I thought it would jump right out of my chest. It set up a throbbing in my temples and found reflection deep down in my stomach. Twisting my fingers I chewed my lips, tasting the salty blood in my mouth. I squirmed in anticipation of what was to come. I berated myself for telling Rosy.
‘Stop fidgeting!’ shouted Ammi, her eyes flashing.
‘You are not to go there again, understand?’ Wazir Khala commanded as she tugged at my arm sharply.
‘Yes, yes,’ I warbled, nodding my head like a rag doll. One more tug and I would have collapsed.
Shifting her ferocious gaze she looked at Farooq questioningly. ‘Farooq!’ she boomed.
‘Yeees?’ he replied daringly in an insolent, belligerent tone.
She half raised her hand to strike him but changed her mind in mid-action. Her wrinkled upper lip twitched as she tried to suppress her anger. He flinched and ducked in anticipation. ‘There will be consequences if I ever hear you’ve been there again,’ she said, waving a stained, bony finger.
Realising the seriousness of the situation, even Farooq was silent. We waited patiently for a sign of dismissal. Resting her hand on her knee, Wazir Khala rose laboriously, stretching to ease her aching back, and then hobbled towards the kitchen with unhurried steps, complaining about her aching knees. Handing the tray to Massi she said, ‘You must know whose it could be.’
‘Naa, no one I know,’ Massi replied.
Wazir Khala shouted instructions over her shoulder to wash properly around the bin and to clean the chicken coop. ‘And Massi, remember to tell the dhobi my bedcover – the yellow and black floral one – is missing from my laundry,’ she said before finally disappearing behind a door.
‘I will deal with you later,’ Ammi warned me as she searched for her slippers with her feet and then rushed downstairs.
As soon as they were out of sight I took a deep breath, for my aunt epitomised the pernicious stepmother of my storybooks and I was terrified of her. My relief was short-lived, however, for I knew I was in for it in other quarters.
Farooq stared at me judicially and pulled my ear, twisting it mercilessly. ‘I told you not to tell!’ he whispered through clenched teeth.
Flinching in pain I hissed in indignation. My ear tingling, I looked at him with unconcealed anger. ‘What’s the big deal? Why couldn’t I take it? I don’t have a doll. No one else wanted it.’
‘It wasn’t a doll. It was a dead baby, you idiot!’ he yelled.
‘Yes, but it was just lying there. No one wanted it.’
Farooq shook his head in despair, hissing through his teeth. I lowered my eyes sulkily so he would not see the tears welling in them, and ran out of the room, my mouth trembling uncontrollably. I made a mental note never to trust Rosy with a secret again, ever.
I could hear Wazir Khala talking to Salahuddin Khalo in hushed tones in the kitchen. Soon Salahuddin Khalo appeared, grabbed Farooq by the arm, almost dragging him along and slammed the door behind them. From the balcony I watched Salahuddin Khalo, Farooq and Abbu hurrying down the gali towards the main road which led to the graveyard. Farooq turned and looked up. I quickly hid behind a pillar.
Rosy was watching from behind the door, guilt written all over her face. Annoyed at her treachery, I poked out my tongue at her and crooked my little finger, indicating the end of our friendship. ‘Kutti!’ I muttered under my breath as I pushed past. ‘That’s why we don’t take you with us, tattle-tale!’
Her eyes followed me to the door. I knew she hadn’t meant to be malicious; she had just been feeling dejected at being left behind as usual and blurted it out to Wazir Khala, just as I had blurted it out to her. In my heart, I forgave her.
From left to right
Salmi, Baji, Ammi with Nunni in her lap, Shano, Abbu with Ather.