- 17 Aug - 23 Aug, 2019
- 03 Aug - 09 Aug, 2019
When a rag is all dirty and greasy, no one minds too much if someone wipes his nose on it. The boys would pinch her playfully in the open street, and give her sweets to eat. Tiny’s eyes began to dance with an evil light. And now Granny no longer stuffed her with sweets; she beat her black and blue instead. But you can’t shake the dust off a greasy cloth. Tiny was like a rubber ball; hit it and it comes bouncing back at you.
Within a few years Tiny’s promiscuity had made her the pest of the whole muhalla. It was rumoured that the Deputy Sahib and his son had quarrelled over her… then that Rajva the palanquin-bearer had given the mullah a thorough thrashing… then that she had taken up regularly with the nephew of Siddiq the wrestler. Every day Tiny came near to losing her nose, and there was fighting and brawling in the alleys.
The place became too hot to hold her. There was nowhere she could safely set foot any more. Thanks to Tiny’s youthful charms and Siddiq’s nephew’s youthful strength, life in the muhalla became intolerable.
They say that in places like Delhi and Bombay there is as abundant demand for their kind of commodity. Perhaps the two of them migrated there. The day Tiny ran away, Granny had not the slightest suspicion of what was afoot. For several days the little wretch had been unusually quiet. She hadn’t sworn at Granny, but had spent a lot of time sitting quietly on her own, staring into space.
‘Come and get your dinner, Tiny,’ Granny would say.
‘I’m not hungry, Granny.’
‘I don’t feel sleepy, Granny.’
That night she began to massage Granny’s feet for her. ‘Granny… Granny, just hear me recite the Subhanakallahumma and see if I have got it right.’ Granny heard it; Tiny had it off pat.
‘All right, dear. Off you go now. It’s time you were asleep.’ And Granny turned over and tried to sleep.
A little later she could hear Tiny moving about in the yard.
‘What the devil is she up to now?’ she muttered. ‘What has she brought home now? Little whore. She’s get to use even the back yard now!’ but when she peered down into the yard, Granny was filled with awe. Tiny was saying her isha prayer, and in the morning she was gone.
People who return to this place from journeying far afield sometimes bring news of her. One says that a great lord had made her his mistress and that she is living in fine style like a lady, with a carriage and any amount of gold. Another says she has been seen in the diamond market… others say they have seen in Faras Road or in Sona Gachi.
But Granny’s story is that Tiny had had a sudden attack of cholera and was dead before anyone knew it.
After her period of mourning for Tiny, Granny’s mind started to wander. People passing her in the street would tease her and make jokes at her expense.
‘Granny, why don’t you get married?’ my sister would say.
Granny would get annoyed. ‘Whom to? Your husband?’
‘Why not marry the mullah? I tell you he’s crazy about you. By God he is!’
Then the swearing would begin, and Granny’s swearing was so novel and colourful that people could only stare aghast.
‘That pimp! Just see what happens if I get hold of him! If I don’t pull his beard out, you can call me what you like.’ But whenever she met the mullah at the corner of the street, then, believe it or not, she would go all shy.
Apart from the urchins of the muhalla, Granny’s lifelong memories were the monkeys ‘the confounded, blasted monkeys’. They had been settled in the muhalla for generations and knew all about everyone who lived there. They knew that men were dangerous and children mischievous, but that only women were afraid of them. But then Granny too had spent all her life among them. She’d got hold of some child’s catapult to frighten them with, and when she wound her burqa around her head like a great turban and pounced upon them with her catapult at the ready, the monkeys really did panic for a moment before returning to their usual attitude of indifference towards her.
Day in and day out, Granny and the monkeys used to fight over her bits and pieces of stale food. Whenever there was a wedding in the muhalla, or a funeral feast, or the celebrations that make the fortieth day after childbirth, Granny would be there, gathering up the scraps left over as though she were under contract to do so. Where free food was being distributed, she would contrive to come up for her share four times over. This way she would pile up a regular stack of food, and then she would gaze at it regretfully, wishing that God had arranged her stomach like the camel’s so that she could tuck away four days’ supply. Why had He provided her with a machine for eating so defective that if she had more than two meals’ supply at any one time, it simply couldn’t cope with it? So, what she used to do was to spread out the food to dry on bits of sacking and then put them in a pitcher. When she felt hungry she would take some out and crumble it up, add a dash of water and a pinch of chillies ad salt, and there was a tasty mash all ready to eat. But during the summer and during the rains this recipe had often given her severe diarrhea. So when her bits of food got stale and began to smell she would, with the greatest reluctance sell them to people for whatever price she could get to feed to their dogs and goats. The trouble was that generally the stomachs of the dogs and the goats proved less brazen than Granny’s and people would not take her dainties as a gift, let alone buy them. And yet these bits and pieces were dearer to Granny than life itself; she put up with countless kicks and curses to get them and dry them in the sun even though this meant waging holy war against the whole monkey race. She would no sooner spread them out than the news would, as though by wireless, reach the monkey tribes, and band upon band of them would come and take up their positions on the wall or frisk about on the tiles raising a din. They would pull out the straws from the thatch and chatter and scold the passers-by. Granny would take the field against them. Swathing her burqa around her head and taking her catapult in her hand, she would take her stand. The battle would rage all day, Granny scaring the monkeys off again and again. Ad when evening came she would gather up what was left after their depradations, and cursing them from the bottom of her heart, creep exhausted into her little room to sleep.
The monkeys must have acquired a personal grudge against Granny. How else can you explain the fact that they turned their backs on everything else the world had to offer and concentrated all their attacks on Granny’s scraps of food? And how else can you explain the fact that a big rascally, red-back monkey ran off with her pillow, which she loved more than her life? Once Tiny had gone, this pillow was the only thing left in the world that was near and dear to her. She fussed and worried over it as much as she did over her burqa. She was forever repairing its seams with stout stitches. Time and again she would sit herself down in some secluded corner and start playing with it as if it were a doll. She had none but the pillow now to tell all her troubles to and so lighten her burden. And the greater the love she felt for her pillow, the stouter the stitches she would put into it to strengthen its seams.
And now see what trick fate played on her. She was sitting leaning against the parapet with her burqa wrapped around her, picking the lice out of her waistband, when suddenly a monkey flopped down, whipped up her pillow, and was off. You would have thought that someone had plucked Granny’s heart out of her breast. She wept and screamed and carried on so much that the whole muhalla came flocking.
You know what monkeys are like. They wait until no one is looking and then run off with a glass or katora, go and sit on the parapet, and taking it in both hands start rubbing it against the wall. The person it belongs to stands there looking up and making coaxing noises, and holding out bread, or an onion; but the monkey takes his time, and when he had had his bellyful of fun, throws the thing down and goes his own way. Granny poured out the whole contents of a pitcher, but the bastard monkey had set his heart on the pillow, and that was that. She did all she could to coax him, but his heart would not melt and he proceeded with the greatest enjoyment to peel the manifold coverings off the pillow as though he were peeling the successive skins off an onion – those same coverings over which Granny had pored with her weak and watering eyes, trying to hold them together with stitching. As every fresh cover came off, Granny’s hysterical wailing grew louder. And now the last covering was off, and the monkey began bit by bit to throw down the contents not cotton wadding but Shabban’s quilted jacket, Bannu the water carrier’s waistcloth, Hasina’s bodice the baggy trousers belonging to little Munni’s doll, Rahmat’s little dupatta and Khairati’s knickers, Khairan’s little boy’s pistol, Munshiji’s muffler, the sleeve (with cuff) of Ibrahim’s shirt, a piece of Siddiq’s loin cloth, Amina’s collyrium bottle and Bafatan’s kajal box, Sakina’s box of tinsel clippings, the big bead of Mullan’s rosary and Baqir Mian’s prayer board, Bismillah’s dried navel string, the knob of turmeric in its satchet from Tiny’s first birthday, some lucky grass, and silver ring and Bashir Khan’s gilt medal conferred on him by the government for having returned safe and sound from the war.
But it was not Granny’s own trinkets that interested the onlookers. What they had their eyes on was her precious stock of stolen goods which Granny had got together by years of raiding.
‘Thief! Swindler! Old hag! Turn the old devil out! Hand her over to the police! Search her bedding; you might find a lot more stuff in it! In short, they came straight out with anything they felt like saying.
Granny’s shrieking suddenly stopped. Her tears dried up, her head drooped, and she stood there, stunned and speechless. She passed that night sitting on her haunches, her hands grasping her knees, rocking backwards and forwards, her body shaken by dry sobbing, lamenting and calling now the names of her mother and father, now her husband, now her daughter Bismillah, and her granddaughter Tiny.
Every now and then, just for a moment, she would doze, then wake with a cry, as though ants were stinging an old sore.
to be continued...