• 27 Jul - 02 Aug, 2019
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

God knows what her real name was. No one had ever called her by it. When she was a little snotty-nosed girl roaming about the alleys, people used to call her ‘Bafatan’s kid’. Then she was ‘Bashira’s daughter-in-law,’ and then ‘Bismillah’s mother’ and when Bismillah died in childbirth leaving Tiny an orphan, she become ‘Tiny’s Granny’ to her dying day.

There was no occupation which Tiny’s Granny had not tried at some stage of her life. From the time she was old enough to hold her own cup she had started working at odd jobs in people’s houses in return for her two meals a day and cast off clothes. Exactly what the word ‘odd jobs’ mean, only those know who have been kept at them at an age when they ought to have been laughing and playing with other children. Anything from the uninteresting duty of shaking the baby’s rattle to massaging the master’s head comes under the category of ‘odd jobs’. As she grew older she learnt to do a bit of cooking, and she spent some years of her life as a cook. But when her sight began to fail and she began to cook lizards in the lentils and knead flies into the bread, she had to retire. All she was fit for after that was gossiping and tale telling. But that also was a fairly paying trade. In every muhalla there is always some quarrel going on, and one who had the wit to carry information to the enemy camp can be sure of a hospitable reception. But it’s a game that doesn’t last. People began to call her tell-tale, and when she saw that there was no future there, she took up her last and most profitable profession: she became a polished and accomplished beggar.

At meal times Granny would dilate her nostrils to smell what was cooking, single out the smell she liked best and be off on its track until she reached the house it was coming from.

‘Lady, are you cooking arbi with the meat?’ she would ask with a disinterested air.

‘No, Granny. The arbi you get these days doesn’t get soft. I’m cooking potatoes with it.’

‘Potatoes! What a lovely smell! Bismillah’s father, God rest him, used to love meat and potatoes. Every day it was the same thing: “Let’s have meat and potatoes,” and now (she would heave a sigh), I don’t see meat and potatoes for months together.’ Then, suddenly getting anxious, ‘Lady, have you put any coriander leaf in the meat?’

‘No, Granny. All our coriander was ruined. The confounded water carrier’s dog got into the garden and rolled all over it.’

‘That’s a pity. A bit of coriander leaf with the meat and potatoes makes all the difference. ‘Hakimji’s got any amount in his garden?’

‘That’s no good to me, Granny. Yesterday his boy cut my Shabban Mian’s kite string and I told him that if he showed his face again he’d better look out for himself.’

‘Good heavens, I shan’t say it’s for you.’ And Grany would gather her burqa around her and be off with slippers clacking to Hakimji’s. She’d get into the garden on the plea of wanting to sit in the sun, and then edge towards the coriander bed. Then she’d pluck a leaf and crush it between her finger and thumb and savor the pleasant smell and, as soon as the Hakimji’s daughter-in-law turned her back, Granny would make a grab. And obviously, when she had provided the coriander leaf, she could hardly be refused a bite to eat.

Granny was famed throughout the muhalla for her sleight of hand. You couldn’t leave food and drink lying unwatched when Granny was around. She would pick up the children’s milk and drink it straight from the pan; two swallows and it would be gone. She’d put a little sugar in the palm of her hand and toss it straight into her mouth. Or press a lump of gur to her palate, and sit in the sun sucking it at her ease. She made good use of her waistband too. She would whip up an areca nut and tuck it in. Or stuff in a couple of chapattis, half in and half out, but with her thick kurta concealing them from view, and hobble away, groaning and grunting in her usual style. Everyone knew all about these things but no one had the courage to say anything, firstly because her old hands were as quick as lightning, and moreover when in a tight corner she had no objection to swallowing whole whatever was in her mouth; and secondly, because if anyone expressed the slightest suspicion of her she made such a fuss that they soon thought better of it. She would swear her innocence by all that was sacred, and threaten to take an oath on the Holy Quran. And who would disgrace himself in the next world by directly inviting her to swear a false oath on the Quran?

Granny was not only a tale bearer, thief, and cheat. She was also a first rate liar. And her biggest lie was her burqa which she always wore.

At one time it had had a veil, but when one by one the old men of the muhalla died off, or their eyesight failed, Granny said good bye to her veil. But you never saw her without the cap of her burqa, with its fashionably serrated pattern on her head, as though it were stuck to her skull, and though she might leave it open down the front (even when she was wearing a transparent kurta with no vest underneath) it would billow out behind her like a king’s robe. This burqa was not simply for keeping her head modestly covered. She put it to every possible and impossible use. It served her as bedclothes; bundled up, it became a pillow. On the rare occasions when she bathed, she used it as a towel. At the five times of prayer, it was her prayer mat. When the local dogs bared their teeth at her, it became a serviceable shield for her protection. As the dog leapt at her calves it would find the voluminous folds of Granny’s burqa hissing in its face. Granny was exceedingly fond of her burqa, and in her spare moments would sit and lament with the keenest regret over its advancing old age. To forestall further wear and tear, she would patch it with any scrap of cloth that came her way, and she trembled at the very thought of the day when it would be no more. Where would she get eight yards of white cloth to make another one? She would be lucky if she could get as much together for her shroud.

Granny had no permanent headquarters. Like a soldier, she was always on the march today in someone’s verandah, tomorrow in someone else’s back yard, the next, day in some abandoned room. Wherever she spied a suitable site she would pitch camp and, when they turned her out, would move on. With half her burqa laid out under her and the other half wrapped over her, she would lie down and take her ease.

But even more than she worried about her burqa, she worried about her only grand-daughter, Tiny. Like a broody old hen, she would always keep her safe under her sheltering wing, and never let her out of her sight. But a time came when Granny could no longer get about so easily, and when the people of the muhalla had got wise to her ways as soon as they heard the shuffle of her slippers approaching they sounded the alert and took up positions of defence; and then all Granny’s broad hints and suggestions would fall on deaf ears. So there was nothing that Granny could do except put Tiny to her ancestral trade, doing odd jobs in people’s houses. She thought about it for a long time, and then got her a job at the Deputy Sahib’s for her food, clothing, and one and a half rupees a month. She was never far away though, and stuck to Tiny like a shadow. The moment Tiny was out of sight she would kick up a hullabaloo.

But a pair of old hands cannot wipe out what is inscribed in a person’s fate. It was midday. The Deputy’s wife had gone off to her brother’s to discuss the possibility of marrying her son to his daughter. Granny was sitting at the edge of the garden taking a nap under the shade of a tree. The lord and master was taking his siesta in a room enclosed by water cooled screens. And Tiny, who was supposed to be pulling the rope of the ceiling fan, was dozing with the rope in her hand. The fan stopped moving, the lord and master woke up, his animality was aroused, and Tiny’s fate was sealed.

When Tiny’s Granny awoke from her nap, Tiny had disappeared. She searched the whole muhalla, but there was no sign of her anywhere. But when she returned tired out to her room at night, there was Tiny in a corner leaning up against the wall, staring about her with listless eyes like a wounded bird. Granny was almost too terrified to speak, but to conceal the weakness she felt she began swearing at Tiny. ‘You little whore, so this is where you’ve got to! And I’ve been all over the place looking for you until my poor old legs are all swollen. Just wait till I tell the master. I’ll get you thrashed within an inch of your life!’

But Tiny couldn’t conceal what had happened to her for long, and when Granny found out, she beat her head and shrieked. When the woman next door was told, she clutched her head in horror. If the Deputy’s son had done it, then perhaps something might have been said. But the Deputy himself… one of the leading men in the muhalla, grandfather to three grandchildren, a religious man who regularly said his five daily prayers and had only recently provided mats and water vessels to the local mosque – how could anyone raise a voice against him?

So Granny, who was used to being at the mercy of others, swallowed her sorrow, applied warm cloths to Tiny’s back, gave her sweets to comfort her, and bore her trouble as best she might. Tiny spent a day or two in bed, and then was up and about again. And in a few days she had forgotten all about it.

Not so the gentlewomen of the muhalla! They would send for her on the quiet and ask her all about it.

‘No, Granny will smack me,’ Tiny would try to get out of it.

‘Here take these bangles… Granny won’t know anything about it,’ the eager ladies would coax her.

‘What happened? How did it happen?’ they would ask for all details, and Tiny who was too young and innocent to understand entirely what it all meant, would tell them as well as she could and they would cover their faces and laugh delightedly.

Tiny might forget, but nature cannot. If you pluck a flower in the bud and make it bloom before it is ready, its petals fall and only the stump is left. Who knows how many innocent petals Tiny’s face had shed? It acquired a forward, brazen look, a look older than its years. Tiny did not grow from a child into a girl, but at one leap became a woman, and not a fully fashioned woman moulded by nature’s skilled and practiced hands, but one like a figure on whom some giant with feet two yards long had trodden – squat, fat, puffy, like a clay toy which the potter had knelt on before it had hardened.

to be continued...