November 12, 2012
A Matter of Detail
by Maniza Naqvi
It is past the hour that Abbas usually rings the doorbell and she has been waiting for him, she is sure for a good two hours.
Not like him to miss a lesson without calling ahead. Not like him at all. It must be an unusually busy evening at the clinic. She keeps repeating this to her blurred image reflected on the black lacquered case of the console piano which stands against the baby blue of the freshly painted wall of the drawing room.
Noticing the color she recalls her specifications. “No, I do not care what Robbialac calls the paint, make sure it’s baby blue, Razzak, like the way it always was!” And her husband had made sure it was just that, and that the bedroom was the exact bottle green like the large glass vats sold in batli bazaar that she is so fond of and out of which she made many a lamp pedestal for the rooms in 43-G.
Now Hajrabai frets “What are we to do?” She has lit the candles and if Abbas should ring the bell now they will have to practice in this dim light. She has been of half a mind to take such liberties as to think that she will still go on with the lesson should he ring the bell now. What would have been the point of leaving 43-G and having come here, if she is going to do that? She quarrels with herself. She covers her head with the palloo of her cotton sari. She runs a finger along the edge of its border and examines the block print of grey and pink tiny geometrical designs. She smoothens with her other hand her white hair gathered in a tight bun at the nape of her neck.
She has waited since the Zohr azaan, now Asr has come and gone and Maghrib is not far off either. No this will not do. She will not answer the doorbell. No point at all, if she does answer, no point at all, it would all amount to just having had made a fuss. To not rest, a terrible thing, but she knows herself and she knows that she will make this concession for him. He is an exception, a brilliant dear boy and such good company .Surely there can be exceptions? Well maybe not but she has never minded the rules. If she had, she would not be here today, now would she? Well, not entirely correct, she reminds herself, she is back here, in this apartment because after all, after all that has come and gone she is minding the rules.
But still, she will answer the door, of course she will. What is this upholding of tradition now after all that has gone? If her father could have but known this. If only her brother could see her now. She will tell this to her father when she visits Mewan Shah next. He would have laughed now if he was here to see her in her contradictions. But he hadn’t laughed then, had he? When she had contradicted him, with what he considered to have been her unforgivable transgression? Never saw her face again. Refused to have anything to do with her. Holding such a grudge against the one who he loved so much. Now she is the one holding grudges against those who love her most. She knows she is doing this. Somehow the pain of it, feels sweet. She is bewildered at this. She chuckles to herself. Daughters stay, sons leave. She shakes her head in rebuke of herself at her own contortion of facts. Meir would have stayed. It was easy for her to have done it. Everyone who could leave has. If it’s not one thing it’s another. And her father would have said it was all the same to him, she had left too. She eloped and was banished from home. She had run off one day from college with Razzak in 1953. She was eighteen and he was no more than that. He used to come to their house to learn the piano from her. He didn’t learn a thing but promptly upon setting eyes on her fell in love with Hajrabai thereby causing havoc in her family and his own and rupturing the business relationship that existed for nearly a century. Hajra’s father had offered these piano lessons when the thin and stuttering son of his partner had mentioned his interest in playing the instrument one day. “Why my daughter Hajra is an excellent teacher, why don’t you learn from her!” And that had been that. After the first three lessons which had never gone beyond finding the placement of C on the ivories, they had found many places to meet.
Hajrabai has turned off the fan because of the lit candles and now the room has become oppressive, the evening light coming in from the open doors of the balcony has diminished and the sea breeze has not yet started up. Soon, though not yet. She has dusted a pat of Cuticura talcum powder on the back of her neck to battle the prickly heat that always bothers her in this season. She fans herself with a rolled copy of the Star, one of the eveningers brought in by Razzak earlier in the afternoon when he stopped by after Juma prayers to bring her the vegetables, the fruit and the fish.
The dhobi has left an hour ago bringing with him ironed and starched linen and her cotton saris, blouses and petticoats. She has carefully noted in her ruled copy book the number of items he has taken and checked those he has returned against last week’s entries. All is in order.
She puts a hand on her knees and lifts herself up with a wince. She too has spread out considerably over the years. Not the slight chit of a girl she used to be. Not that Razzak is any better, quite fat. A really fatty himself now. She chuckles again. How times have changed. He used to be all skin and bones, really single pasli. Yes, girls leave too. Girls get married; they go away to universities; they get jobs; and then they come back only in Decembers whenever it’s convenient for them. The girls have all left save for Sara. All leaving for university. It’s good that Sara was never interested in an education beyond the bare minimum of a bachelors degree. And Kulsoom of course left with her husband.
She goes out to the balcony, through the wooden slatted teak doors, to the noise of the traffic on Lawrence Road and the evening air made heavy with diesel and petrol fumes from the buses, rickshaws, trucks, motorcycles and countless cars. She rubs her eyes as they begin to fill up with tears. The few plants that she has, they are withering in the heat, she has forgotten yet again to water them all. A rubbery palm, a leafy fern and several potted chambeli that continue to yield fragrant white blossoms at dawn, It was different at 43-G where she had a daily morning routine with Zareenabai. She pushes with the front of her slippered feet those few dead leaves and blossoms, departed from the branches, lying scattered on the pink and yellow tiles of the mosaic
floor. She pushes them towards the edge of the balcony and watches their slow spiral descent two floors below to the garden which is bursting with green, thanks to the monsoon rains which came on time this year beginning in late July. She looks out across over the haze of evening, dust and soot at the darkening treetops in Gandhi Garden where kites are circling in spiraling descents coming in to nest for the night.
The chattering of birds can be heard above the noise of the traffic. The congress of birds triggers
memory of Beach Luxury. She remembered how Razzak and she had picked a table close to the railing near the water’s edge. Across the water, morning mist was rising off the dark and dense mangroves which were alive with the chatter of birds and the flapping of wings. They could see dust colored kites skulking on branches and beginning to rise circling upwards and white sea gulls flew low or perched in mangrove branches. Hundreds of tiny grey sparrows and black and white swallows flew close by, dipping into the water with their beaks and wings. White herons glided on to branches and a few pelicans or white cranes dipped their elegant long necks while standing on one foot on the waters
Between History and Fiction periods, in dappled sunshine, she had managed to meet Razzak for tea at the Beach Luxury hotel. She had skipped her morning classesat St. Joseph’s to be there that morning. It was mid-morning around ten, the lawns of the waterfront hotel were nearly empty save for the gardeners tending the flowers and grass and sweepers washing the pathways. A waiter hurried past them through the gardenup to a room with a tray laden with tea, toasts, marmalade and eggs as they walked towards the outdoor cafe. She was studying English literature at St. Joseph’s; she was in her third year at college.
A year later Razzak and Hajra had eloped. There had been a scandal of course. Hajra’s father had disowned her, Razzak’s father, him. Hajra’s father had died of a stroke shortly afterwards. But in Razzak’s family, after a brief opposition, his father had reconciled to Hajra being of the Book. This had been 1953. Sara was born in 1954. Then, Razzak had married again in 1956, to a cousin, Zareena, to whom he was betrothed from birth, whose family wealth made it highly advisable to follow through with the marriage. After all, in addition to being an obligation and a matter of honor, business was beginning to lag given that the partnership with Hajra’s father had been dissolved. It was only in 1968 when Meir decided to leave Karachi that the relationship was reestablished. Meir thought it best to rekindle the connection with his brother-in- law. After all, who better to manage the family business while he was away than his own brother in law?
Such a long time ago all this was.When her brother left he sold all his business holdings to Razzak. Razzak bought out half the business and left the other half in Hajrabai’s name. Every month Razzak brings her, her share of twenty-five percent and wires to her brother at a London account twenty-five percent of the earnings. Razzak keeps it all clear and worked out in a ledger, a copy book much like her own for the dhobi. He insists on going through the accounts with her every month. What was bought what was sold, how much, when. And what is left. Whether there is a profit or a loss. To her he has never reported a loss. To Zareenabai it is almost always a loss that he talks about.
Hajrabai never interferes in these matters. He is not only her husband but he is also locked in a business partnership with her family that spans almost 150 years when her great grandfather borrowed money from his great grandfather to begin trading in cotton. That was the year 1862.
“Trouble in America always helped Karachi,” Razzak was fond of pointing out. “Certainly it helped us!” And it was true. It was true now and it was true then. The civil war in America had done wonders for Hajrabai and Razzak’s forefathers and they could only have hoped that such luck would continue. War had always benefited the city. In 1838, the British, afraid of the Russian empires expansion to the Arabian Sea, occupied Karachi and it served as the landing port for their troops for the First Afghan War. In 1843, they annexed Sindh and shifted the capital of the province from Hyderabad to Karachi. Then the British made Sindh a district of the Bombay Presidency and Karachi was made the district headquarters. Troops were stationed in Karachi. And business men from all over the country arrived in Karachi to cater to the needs of the army, an opportunity not to be missed. Karachi started to become a vibrant town, particularly the part where the confluence of military barracks and commercial activities became known as Saddar, the Presidency. Then came the American civil war, in 1861. And with the trouble in America there was a huge demand for cotton from Sindh. A boom in the cotton trade as Sindhi cotton replaced American cotton as raw material for the British textile industry. Karachi flourished and became a city of commerce; a beautifully planned town complete with parks, libraries, places of worship from mosques to churches to Parsi and Hindu temples and synagogues. It was a town with piped water and public transportation and a municipal government that collected taxes and kept things running. Municipal sweepers with jhardoos swept the streets in the early mornings and night watchmen walked the neighborhood streets at night calling out to each other Jagte raho, keep awake, as gas lamps lit the main thoroughfares.
The Karachi Chamber of Commerce was established and Haji Rohiwalla was of course a member of it. The Chamber of Commerce played an important role in the economic development of the city. The port was improved and steps were taken to develop and market Sindh’s agricultural produce to Great Britain. Shipping enterprises thrived, there was the Indus Steam Flotilla and the Orient Inland Steam Navigation Company which transported Haji Yunis Rohiwalla’s purchases of cotton and wheat down the Indus and across Karachi bay to Karachi port. As a result of all these developments a number of British companies opened their offices and warehouses in Karachi and its population increased. By 1868, Karachi city was the largest exporter of wheat and cotton in India. Karachi also received a boost with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, which made it the nearest port in India to the United Kingdom. By 1872, Haji Yunis Rohiwalla’s business earnings had increased fivefold in twelve years.
When Ibrahimbai, Hajra’s grandfather walked into Razzak’s grandfather’s shop Haji Mohammad
Yunis Rohiwalla was already established in Saddar on Elphinstone street in a two story building of sandstone bricks, arched facades and stained glass windows. Outside the shop Ibrahimbai stopped to drink from the water fountain built into the wall; an inscription on it read, “Quench your thirst here, and remember the thirst of Hussein.”
Haji Rohiwalla was the main supplier of white cotton muslin to the British Military garrisons stationed in Karachi cantonment. War was on in the North in Afghanistan. Hajrabai’s great grandfather had moved from Calcutta to Karachi to take advantage of the business boom taking place because of the civil war that had broken out in America.
Ibrahimbai wrote back to relatives in Bombay and Calcutta of the wide streets lined with palm trees and sandstone buildings interspersed with parks which were sprinkled with water to keep down the dust by waterboys, with water filled mashks, leather pouches. The daily chirtkoas, water sprinkling also created a cooler temperature. He wrote of the wonderful clean sea air, how healthy it was and how beautiful the clear sunlight was against the sandstone facades. His asthma, he wrote had almost disappeared. Much like the letters that Meir sent Hajra a century later from Jerusalem.
The hottest news in the business communities in Bombay, Madras and Calcutta revolved around the happy tidings that supplies to the mills in Lancastshire were dwindling and the British Empire was increasing its production of cotton in the Punjab….all of it making its way to England through the Karachi port. Business people were moving to Karachi from Bombay and elsewhere in India. Besides, Karachi was the capital now of Sindhi which had recently become a district of the Bombay Presidency. And business would flourish with the completion of the railways which linked Karachi to the Punjab, northern India and Sindh. On these railways,wheat and cotton production started flowing through Karachi. Oil extraction was moving forward in Sui and this too, thanks to the railway line, was exported from Karachi port.
Instead of making a loan to him Haji Rohiwalla had proposed a business partnership to Hajra’s grandfather. Ibrahimbhai had connections in shipping and cotton in Calcutta and Bombay which would be backed by the financial and real estate clout of Haji Rohiwalla with his numerous godowns in Kharadar and Lea market for purchasing cotton wholesale and for its storage. The partnership had made them both wealthy men. Owners of property with godowns groaning with cotton waiting to be shipped to mills in England. The businesses had been passed down to their progeny. Who for the most part, prospered.
In those days, before she got married, Hajra was studying at St. Joseph’s college which was located in the heart of Saddar. She would ride in a horse drawn carriage, a Victoria, hired by her father to take her every day to college and back. Burns Road, Preedy street, Victoria and Elphinstones in Saddar were the hub of social activities.
It was easy to skip classes and slip out to meet at cafes or art galleries. Once on the pretext of needing to buy cloth for an outfit she had walked from her college to Bohri bazaar. She had met Razzak outside the shop and he and she had walked around in the bazaar, as vendors called out to them hawking their wares, of falsa juice, roasted corn, milky tea, paan and cigarettes. It was a bold step to take, to walk together, but they did, though with much trepidation of being seen by relatives. The pedestrian crowd was enough to keep them unseen and Saddar was alive with the sounds of the clanging of tram bells, the tanga-wallahs and street vendors shouting out to pedestrians, the clippity clop of the horse drawn tanga and Victoria carriages; the church bells at noon mingling with the sound of the azaans from the mosques. Sunlight changed color on the facades of the buildings turning them from ochre, to rose to purple in the course of morning, to noon, to early afternoon.
And in this manner whenever they could Razzak and Hajra continued to rendezvous at all the venues available to them, the art exhibits for Sadequain at the State Bank and Jamini Roy at the Fyzee Gallery. There was India Coffee House at the corner of Elphi and Preedy Street, and Zelin Café, Café Grande on Victoria. They would often meet at Thomas and Thomas, the small and much frequented bookstore on Preedy Street. And at Café George, and Frederiks Café at the corner of Victoria, places frequented by the city’s journalists, writers, actors and unemployed intellectuals. She had gone to the Palm Hotel on Elphinstone street with her father to see the visiting Shakespeare Company perform plays by Sheridan and Moliere and let Razzak know beforehand that they were going. Of course he was there and met them in the foyer and was able to sit with the family to see “The School for Scandal.” Once they had lunched at the very elegant and very crowded Le Gourmet restaurant in Palace Hotel.
“Where could Abbas be?” she says to the traffic. She is bored.
She is used to a flurry of activities, one after another. This is the way it is at 43-G, people coming and going, never a moment of solitude or silence. Though today, Zareenabai came by in the morning, then Razzak and right after him the dhobi. She waits impatiently for Abbas to arrive.
She looks as far as she can see to her left the way he should be coming. She looks to the right just out of habit. As a girl, she would have been looking this way, from the balcony, in search of her father, who would ride home on the tram from his shop. And this way, a mile down from here is where she would have been at this time on a Friday evening in days gone by. At Magain Shalome. That is all gone now. But her father is long gone too, the tram is long gone and that world has all but slipped away. She knows, from the few days already spent here at Lawrence road, that no matter what, with all her airing of the rooms and all her practicing of rituals, she cannot bring them back. It would have been possible at 43-G, but there, she has been let down.
“Yes, I have! I have been let down!” She says in an annoyed defiant tone to herself, as though a voice somewhere might have been raised in contradiction. There is no one here but herself. But she needs to remind herself, lest she leave right away back for 43-G, right this minute, walking the short distance from Lawrence Road to Patel Park. The evening’s advent always puts her into a panic. Hajrabai comes in from the balcony. She knows that Abbas’s clinic is not so far away, at most a mile down the road in Soldier Bazaar. She wonders if she should call him there, she has his number, but for that she will have to go across the hall to next door or a flight down. And they, her neighbors, both, Raymond and Suleiman will mind, they certainly will, given the hour, now past sunset, it would be unacceptable. Wrong.
She has refused to have a mobile phone or a land line. Her husband had been furious at her obstinacy “Have you completely lost charge of your mind, woman! Are you so bent on removing us from your lives!” But she had ignored him and persisted. And to Zareenabai she had said trying to seem indifferent: “If you want to talk to me, then you will have to come over to me yourself.” Finally, after much argument Razzak and Zareenabai had seen the wisdom of this. It had been Hajrabai’s way to make sure that the breach she had chosen to find would not widen further and that she would see everyone, every day. It was also an excuse for returning to 43-G every day. And so they had stopped insisting that she have a phone, or email or a mobile. Remaining unconnected in that way assured her of their physical presence every day.
Zareenabai came by early this morning. She had brought with her their much worn out copy of Divan e Hafiz. She had told Hajrabai only yesterday that there was some boy in New York, the nephew of a friend of hers, a boy named Zain. Zareenabai had thought that he might be a good match for Amina. She was trying to arrange for them to meet.
Hajrabai wasn’t so sure that this was going to work but she didn’t say anything to discourage Zareenabai. She wanted to see whether or not this boy Zain in New York was worth pursuing for Amina. Hajrabai and Zareenabai always consulted Hafez on important matters which required decisions. The poet’s heartbroken soul had been prayed for and his verses consulted on Sara’s first marriage and second marriage and both times the verses spoke of tears and spilt wine. On the third they spoke of gardens and intoxication, letters arriving and sweet breezes. And sure enough Sara was never happier, never more radiant and content as she was now.
Hafez had been consulted on matters of business, whether one deal was too risky or profitable for Razzak to enter. Hafez had been consulted for Kulsoom, three times they had consulted Hafez and each time the verse had been vague, neither promising intoxication nor annihilation. Kulsoom, Hajrabai had sighed with dejection was doomed to boredom and Zareenabai too had sighed though with relief, she saw this ambiguity in verse as Kulsoom being blessed with stability. Hafez had been consulted after Shireen’s marriage as well and the results had been a resounding sound of laughter and joy. Resham and Amina’s choices of universities were according to the verses to bring them much taverns and songs. Much wine to be spilt there as well. And Zareenabai had consulted the fal decades ago when making the decision to join Razzak and Hajrabai in their marriage. The verse was all she needed to know, “How beautiful is Shiraz’s unparalleled state; God save it from harm and the hands of fate.”
The rest of the verse was about gardens filled with fragrance, moist morning dew, gurgling rivers, laughter and heavenly spirits.
This morning Zareenabai had also brought with her candles and a canister of imported olive oil as a gesture of participation in Hajra’s life. “Hajrabai, I want you to use these candles this evening. You must forgive me Hajrabai, you must come home. Come let’s take all your things, pack up and go home. I was wrong, we can do everything. We will do everything. I am younger then you, it is your place to forgive me. You must spit out this anger. Such a small thing, such a small thing I said and you are making it so big.”
Hajrabai felt a lump of sweet grief rising in her throat, her eyes moistened but she had ignored Zareena’s entreaties and changed the subject “So what about this boy Zain?” It was always easy to distract Zareenabai. “Tell me about him.”
“Not much to tell you,” said Zareenabai, immediately distracted, “Except that he and Amina know each other in New York. They are about the same age and they are in the same profession. So I’m thinking why not? What’s the harm in a little match-making?”
“Shall we take out a fal?”
“Yes!” said Zareena immediately sitting up, “Should I?”
“Of course you should, do it right away!”
Zareena said the Fatiha three times and shut her eyes tight as she formed the question in her mind. Zareena had shut her eyes tight and prayed and then opened the book of poetry.
She traced her fingers down a number of verses and counted down the verses according to the formula and then stopped at one. She read the verse out loud, “I said O fate, when will you awake? The sun is up, it is now dawn-break. Said fate, you have made many a mistake, Yet keep hope and faith within your breast.”
“Oh what does it mean?” Hajrabai asked, “Does it mean that this is auspicious, that there is hope, that this time there is hope?”
“I think that’s what it means, I think that’s what it means. It seems straightforward enough,” replied Zareenabai. “What else could it mean?”
Hajrabai replied, “It talks of dawn a new beginning, of having faith of keeping an openmind. It talks of hope. It must mean that there is hope in this possibility!”
“Yes, that’s what I’m thinking,” agreed Zareenabai, ““Let’s think about this some more.”
Zareenabai had forgotten to take the divan with her this morning. Now Hajrabai sat flipping through its pages.
“Oh where is that boy!”
Hajrabai put the book down and started to walk back and forth in the darkening room. She fingered the black lacquer of the piano and the white crocheted runner upon which she has lit the candles in the menorah. “It could also mean we should leave well enough alone,” she said out loud recalling the Hafez verse read earlier that morning by Zareenabai.
Hajrabai had lit extra candles to make sure she’s got the family covered. Sara, Razzak,Zareenabai, Resham, Amina, Shireen, Kulsum, Meir and herself. And one for zachor (to remember) and another for shamor (to observe).
She considers the flames and the steady black spirals of smoke rising towards the ceiling. A gust of breeze comes in and the flames sway and waver, burn larger and then steady themselves. No, she has decided now she would not be able to let Abbas in, nor answer the door should the bell ring.
Was she lonely? She asked herself now. In a way she always has been since her father disowned her. Was that true? She wondered. No, never before quite like this. She felt an uncontrollable anxiety and a sense of helplessness. This candle light, this silence conjures up too much. It’s true what they say, you can never go back. Razzak visits every day. Just now he was here. Came right after the Juma prayers and complained as usual about the stairs, the two flights he said would be the death of him. Hajrabai, what don’t I do to reclaim you! Which whims which nakhras of yours don’t I take up?” She had patted his chest and leaned her head against him and he had stroked her hair and taking her into his arms kissed her mouth tenderly smoothing her brow with his wide moist palm. “Are we going to have to organize another wedding, will you make me bring a barath, have a rukhsati and take you home with me? Is that what this is? You want the whole barath and rukhsati because the first time around we just ran off?”
Hajrabai had laughed and her husband had continued, “Because that’s exactly what we’ll have to do when they all arrive here, and you know they’re coming.” Razzak referred to Amina and Resham who were to arrive soon. Hajrabai had laughed. “Tell them to stay where they are, they cannot bear my nakhras, I’ve already been told that by Sara,” she replied.
Razzak had come laden with the groceries and the monthly share from the business earnings. Business he always tells her is picking up. She kept most but gave him two thousand rupees for the caretaker at Mewan Shah. Every month she does this, for the upkeep of the graves. “Tell him Razzak that he should wash the gravestones more regularly,there is too much bird shit. Make sure he does that. I will go there next week. I want the graves sparkling at Roshashana.”
Later when they are done with lunch, he washes his hands in the tiny ceramic basin of the sink in the dining room. She is seated at the small round dining table, spooning sugar into his Ovaltine stirring it vigorously making the spoon clink loudly against the thick stout glass. She is listening to him talk to her about the apartment in Kharadar. Someone had offered a considerable sum for it. It was falling apart. She knows that. She has told him to get rid of it. Empty for years, room for pigeons and rats. Would she want to sell it?
“What do you think?” she had asked. “I think it’s a good deal” he had said. “Sell before we have the headache of a squatter in there or worse still before the Government appropriates it. There is much noise nowadays of the KMC taking over historical buildings. There is much talk about establishing a cultural zone in the old city. Let’s sell now.” She had agreed. And then Razzak said something under his breath chuckling, “What’s that? She asked, “I didn’t hear what you said. What are you giggling about Razzak?”
“Oh nothing, nothing baba,” Razzak had replied sipping from the glass she handed to him, “I was just saying let’s sell it before you get any more bright ideas for moving! Who knows you may want to move to Kharadar next!”
“Razzak, you know this is important to me!”
“Why can’t you do all this at home?”
“You are the mistress of the house. You are the head of this family. Now don’t make a face about that, you know you are! You can do whatever you like! I don’t understand what has gotten into you after all these years!”
“Razzak, I will not listen to your nagging me about this now. Let me be. For fifty years I have observed your moharrams, your eids, your rozas, your faqas, your kundas, your barsis of this imam and that, have I ever said that I want to observe my rozas, my rituals,my traditions? Have I ever said that the girls should learn or know? No don’t even answer that. I am not asking you to answer. When I brought it up, Sara and Zareenabai’s reaction was enough for me to know that my ways were not acceptable.”
“You know very well Hajrabai that you’ve taken a small slight and made it into a big situation, you haven’t even given them a chance to make up to you! You brought this up in front of the most foolish in our household and took their first thoughtless reaction as their last.”
Hajrabai put her hand up as if to end the conversation, “Case closed, end of discussion.
All that I am saying is that I just want to begin to wrap it all up. I want a little part of myself for myself. Is that too much to ask for?”
“Yes it is Hajra, it is too much to ask for. There is no yourself, or myself. We are. You are my wife and you belong with me and our children. We are all part of one family. How can you separate yourself from us? You’re suddenly getting religion! It is too much to ask for! If you really wanted to observe your traditions you should have put your foot down, after all you are older, you would have your sway, what does Zareena or Sara have to do with it? And don’t I earn enough for you, that you now have to start teaching the piano again!”
“No, you don’t make enough! Stop being difficult Razzak! I do not want to discuss this.”
“Too much sugar in the milk again Hajra,what do you want to do? Give me diabetes!”
“You didn’t have any problems drinking the whole glass down before the sugar occurred to you now did you! Speaking of money how much do you think we will get for the apartment in Kharadar?”
“Okay, baba, the girls will deal with you. I will not speak to you about this anymore.You are going crazy in your old age!”
“Don’t you call me old!”
“Who do you think is calling you old? Your buddha is calling you his buddhi. Only someone who is there with you!”
“Okay baba. So, you have decided? Do you want to sell?”
“Yes, of course I want to sell. The girls don’t want it, yes let’s sell. How much do you think we will get for that tiny godforsaken place?”
Razzak smiled at her and said. “Just watch. What you are calling tiny and godforsaken is now historical. That’s how old we are, we are historical, and everything we throw away is an antique!”
He pulled out his mobile phone and thumbed in the numbers. After a pause he spoke into the phone “Yaqub bhai ------ yes, Razzak here, how are you? ---------Alhamdolillah ----------Yes, I saw you at the Juma but I didn’t get a chance to come up and say hello. You had left by the time I was done.------- Yes, yes! Too many things to ask of God, I got caught up. Too much to give thanks for, you know! -----------Alhamdolillah. Can’t complain, can’t complain. Anyway, Yaqub bhai, listen, about the flat in Kharadar, you were inquiring about it the other day.------------ I have a very big party on the other line, they are waiting for my answer, I’ve put them on hold, or fat a fat aap ka number ghumaya. I wanted to speak to you first. Aisey hai key, Here is how it is, they are in a hurry, and have offered two crore. They are really pestering me, they have been calling me almost on the hour. It seems like they want to settle right away. But I thought I would ask you. Do you want it? I thought I would get your permission to sell before I said yes. --------------- No, no time you have no time to think------tell me now, yes or no? You know the location. -------- Ideal, no place like it. It’s very near your godown.--------- What?------------ Yes, yes, I mean your museum. Bhai, you have to forgive people my age. We only remember what these buildings used to be. -------------What? No question of loss. ----------- I simply can’t look after it. I don’t need it. It’s a headache for me. ------------Baba you can ask your architect later, what is that girl’s name?--------------- Yes, Rehana. Very good girl. ---------------Yes, my wife likes her very much!---------- Yes, the boy comes for piano lessons regularly. -------------- Yes my wife has taken a real shine to him.--------------- How is Rehana’s research coming along? She asked my wife a lot of questions about Karachi in the fifties. ---------------Yes, I was listening. Took my wife and I back to the good old days. Smart girl, she’ll go far. ------------- Yes, Sara tells us that the godown is completely transformed-------------Yes, we will visit. You must come over as well. ------------Very good work, very good work. These things must be preserved. ----------- Listen Yaqub bhai. I can’t keep these people waiting.Let me know now. You weren’t disappointed with the godown were you?---------No?---------- Yes?------------ Good.------- Yes, without a doubt, without a doubt, beautiful tiles, wonderful tiles…all over that part of Karachi. Thanks to Nusarwanji, his factory you know. ------------ Yes, all gone, all gone now. Very sad. Everyone wants synthetic now, everyone wants wall to wall carpeting.---------------Yes, that was very wise of Sara to connect you up to me. I’m glad you bought the place, otherwise it would have been turned into a shopping mall.” Razzak catches his wife shuddering “So done, it is yours. ------- Mubarik. I’ll send over the paperwork right away. I’ll have them processed and ready for signature for you by this evening. Khudahafiz.”
He shut off the cellphone and winked at Hajrabai “Two crore! I’ll email Meir this evening.” He thumbed in another number. “Atif beta,” he said to his secretary, “Send the driver to me at Lawrence road right away to collect a few documents which he has to take to the Kacheri, the courts, right away for notarizing. Tell the driver to pick up the papers from me and go straight to Major Surjani sahib at the Sindh secretariat. I’m calling Surjani right now, he’ll be waiting to notarize. Thank you! Khudahafiz, beta right away.” Razzak had called another number.
”Major sahib ko lagana, Razzak Rohiwalla here!” He asks the secretary to connect him, He waits “Surjani bhai? Recognize me? --------------Yes, fine, alhamdolillah, how are you?------- Children?------ Alhamdolilah.-------- Good----------- good.----------- Mashallah, mashallah. --------------Going to Sussex University, smart girl. Very good. -----------Mashallah, mashallah. ------------ Thank god. Let me know if there is a service I can do in that regard. Any help at all, don’t hesitate. Did you get the golf clubs?------------ Very good--------------.No, what borrow-shorro? Keep them, please keep them. I’ll borrow them from you when I need them. ------------One small thing Surjani bhai, it’s like this, my driver is on his way to you, within the hour barring any traffic jam. Coming with a small headache, Surjani bhai, please take care of it, papers need to be notarized-------------------- no there are no supporting documents at the moment, just need to notarize, It’s an apartment of mine in Kharadar, now in the family for a century if not more, god knows who would ever have had the papers. ---------------Exactly, exactly. Just like the godown in Lea Market. Family people like us, when did we ever think of documents? We are old world people, Surjani sahib. ---------------- Exactly.--------------- Exactly. Very different times. But thank god you are there. ----------------Yes, selling it off, total headache. Total loss. But better to be in loss then with a migraine. ------------Thank you sir, for doing the needful. Thank you and let me know if there is any service for you that I may be worthy of.” Razzak turned off the cellphone and smiled at his wife. Done, we have a deal. Now let me know should I wire the money to London or do you want to trade land for land here or send to Resham for investing?”
In all this Hajrabai had watched her husband with admiration.
“Oh yes before I forget,” he said, “There is a group going again for their ziyarats. Karim bhai told me today. They’ll go to Mashad, Kerbela, Najaf, Palestine. He asked me if you wanted to send anything for Meir like last time. He can pick it up from them in Jerusalem.”
Yes, she will cook Meir’s favorite kheer with lots of khoya. Razzak will have it canned. She will go buy Sohni Halva, chili chips and dalmot; and those tiny too-spicy samosas from Nimko in Bohri bazaar that Meir loves so much. She won’t buy K-2 cigarettes, that he likes so much. She won’t encourage that habit. Well, maybe just two packets. And also supari. And oh yes a bottle of Rooh Afza. Surely that won’t be too large a package? Karim bhai will understand. She’ll put the package together for Karim bhai who will take it to Jerusalem and give it to Meir with the letters. Oh and she must get at least six kurtas from the shop of Ghulam Mohmammad in Saddar which Meir was always partial to. And photographs, she must remember to send Meir the photos of all the girls.
She knows she’s made a mistake with this outburst two months ago that she wanted to move back to Lawrence road. She misses the house so. She misses Zareenabai, she misses everything. But she is angry and very hurt. Now that she’s taken this step, her stubbornness and pride seem to have made it impossible to reverse her decision. None of the girls understand this move of hers.
Hajrabai goes back to 43-G often, almost every day to its breezy, open rooms, her lamps with their bases made from giant glass lab bottles and beaten brass matkas, the Sindhi jhulas and takhats and all her ajraks framed alongside Sadequains and Jamini Roys. She misses the gleaming clean tiled floors, and sparkling pots and pans. Zareenabai has done a marvelous job in keeping up the house and supervising the servants. But Razzak insists that Hajrabai move back there, she refuses to listen to him on this matter. No she needs her privacy. She decided two years ago, just before Seder in 2002, that, enough was enough, she wanted to have her own way and life. She had kept up the pretenses long enough. Thanked Razzak for all his love and understanding and asked for more.
Hajrabai has told Sara about her background. There was, as Hajrabai expected, histrionics. Typical Sara. After that morning of histrionics, Sara had come around. If there was one Thing, Hajrabai could say for her daughter, it was this, she was the most realistic of the lot, and perhaps, the only one that had heeded her advice to them all. Of all of them Sara rolled with the punches. And poor Zareenabai, how she wishes that she could take back what she had said. Razzak has pointed this out to Hajrabai, that, she has punished Zareena long enough, it was a grave mistake for Zareena to have objected the way she did, but she hadn’t meant any harm and would have never wanted this outcome.
Hajrabai remembered that day when Sara had come rushing upstairs across the black and white tiles tottering on her stiletto heels, bumped into the brass pot of the gigantic rubber plant and plopped herself on the jhula next to the takhat where Zareenabai and Hajrabai had sat under the whirring ceiling fan, having just said goodbye to several ladies who had been invited over for coffee by Zareenabai. Razia was clearing the coffee table of cups and left over savories and cakes. “Oohh what a day I’ve had!” declared Sara as she reached forward to pick up a piece of marzipan pastry and pop it into her mouth “That is delicious, I mustn’t though, a thousand calories, right there! Razia, please get me a cup of tea! Oh what a day, I’m exhausted.”
“Already?” said Hajrabai, “It’s barely noon.”
“Bartima, you have no idea, Sara said her hand clasped to her bosom, as she tossed her copper tinted hair. “The blow dry this morning took ages. I thought I would go play golf, drop the kids to school, go to the beauty parlor and then go to my factory. But the blow dry took forever, there were at least two power cuts and the generator at the parlor took ages to kick in! I told the girl doing my hair that I was really losing my patience, but she completely ignored me!”
“What is it that she’s done to your hair,” Hajrabai asked.
“I think it looks beautiful, darling.” Zareenabai said soothingly coming to Sara’s defense,much to Hajrabai’s annoyance “It goes well with your skin tone! Very coppery!”
“Why don’t you like it?” Sara asked, “Bartima,I think it suits me a lot. I think it makes me look young.”
“You are young!”
“Sara really, you are far too frivolous!”Hajrabai said disapprovingly.
“Okay, anyway, let’s change the subject. What were you two talking about?” Sara asked.
“Chotima and I were talking about the possibility of my visiting Jerusalem.”
“Jerusalem? Are you going on the ziyarats with Karim uncle?”
“No. I wanted to go on my own, straight to Jerusalem. ”
“Why do you want to do that? Besides it’ll be impossible to get visas to Israel. Bartima,you know that!” Sara protested.
“I want to visit Meir and his children.”
“Who?” Sara had asked, looking from Hajrabai to Zareenabai who looked very anxious.
“I want to visit my brother.”
Sara had sat there facing her, her head tipped slightly to one side, her heavily kohled eyes narrowing. “I beg your pardon? You never told us you had a brother. I thought you were an only child. That’s what you always told us.”
“Meir is my brother, who moved to Israel in 1968.”
Sara’s voice was raised in alarm. “I don’t understand. Now you tell me you have a brother who is in Israel. It makes no sense at all. I thought only Jews could move to Israel, not Pakistanis.”
“He is a Jew.”
“Your brother is Jewish? How can that be? I mean you were Parsi and you had converted to Islam when you and Abba married. So your brother converted to Judaism?”
Hajrabai had explained. “No, Sara my family was part of the B’nai Israel community in Karachi.”
Sara had stood up and walked quickly to the doors to shut them. Now she paced from the doors to the balustrade, back and forth wringing her hands, pausing to look out over the balcony as if she were afraid that someone below in the lawn could hear them. Hajrabai was talking to her, explaining how she and Razzak had met, how they had eloped, how Hajrabai’s father had disowned her, how her brother had left Karachi in 1968. How she had kept in touch with Meir. How Razzak managed her brother’s property and sent him his share every month.
Sara had listened while constantly shaking her head in disbelief. Panicked, she said “But everyone knows that you were Parsi. That is what we were told. That’s what you told us.
That’s what everyone knows. You and Abba met at your house, when you were eighteen, you were supposed to teach him the piano. The two of you eloped and your Abba disowned you. That’s why we never met any of your family, your relatives because they never wanted to have anything to do with us and besides they immigrated to Canada. You told us that. That’s what you said. You never told us that you were a Jew, no one has ever said you were a Jew!”
Zareenabai tried to calm her down, “Sara, times have changed so much that one just let things be, there was no need to discuss anything. We all knew and that was enough, we didn’t see the point of telling anyone especially you.”
Hajrabai said, “Everyone then, knew my background. If they didn’t say anything it was out of respect for me and my family and respect for your father. Amongst us here in Karachi, us old Karachites, there was a strong sense of community and caring, there was ravadari. We held together the best we could when the world around us started to fall apart at the seams and change so rapidly. The whole world had gone crazy, the country was slowly going crazy, if everyone thought that I was Parsi then fine, why change their thinking? Why make an issue out of something that was my own private business. Those who knew well they didn’t need to discuss it, there was nothing to discuss and they didn’t see any reason to take it outside our homes and our circles.
Karachi was a place where people went to jamaat khanas, and temples, and churches, and synagogues and imam barhas. There were fire temples and grave yards where bodies were left out in the open for the vultures and at Mahangopir, a festival of crocodiles! This was all part of the way of this city. There were processions every Moharram with zanjeer ka matam and colorful floats with blood flowing down the streets. No one thought anything of it. We were all equally strange, equally queer. There were annual festivals at Bhit shah and arizas at netty jetty and at nauroz, and huge darshans and deedars when the Aga Khan arrived and when the Syedna arrived and Christmas mass and Christmas and New Years’ balls at restaurants and hotels. All of us here were the same because of our differences. But really we were just shades apart. Just shades apart. It was for outsiders to see that. Why most people who visited Karachi couldn’t tell us apart at all. Bohris, Parsis, Khojas, Memons, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Ismailis. We were just shades apart. And our last names sounded the same, named after our trades and not our religious beliefs!! These names were and are on our schools, and hospitals and universities and our orphanages and on everything humane and good in this city. The first mayor of this city was Parsi and do you know that there was a Jew, an elected member on his city council for the Karachi Municipal Corporation. And this was all right. This was the way it should have remained. And no one from the outside looking at all this could tell one from the other. And that was fine. That was all so fine.”
“No, it was never fine! Your Abba disowned you! Don’t make it all sound so good. It was never fine! And even if it was not so crazy then it’s not fine now. And everyone can tell the difference now. And we should not discuss it further. No one else must ever find out now!” Sara had declared. “Do you understand, Bartima?”
“Everyone else who is concerned will and must find out.”
“Don’t you know what that will mean?” Sara wept.
“What will it mean? What did it mean to anyone that I was supposedly Parsi? Shireen is married to a Hindu. And God only knows who Resham and Amina will marry. And Sara your marriages have never been up for questioning!”
Sara was frightened “This is different! Don’t you know how people will react! Bartima don’t you see the madness all around us! The bombs going off in imam barthas and mosques? It’s hard enough for me to be a Shi’a! Just driving here I saw the truck full of police stationed outside the Mehfil, right around the corner, I mean for godsakes, a Jew! That will surely kill us all.”
Bartima had nodded but had been firm, “Sara this is not about you. I’m not saying that we should put a billboard outside the house or give interviews to newspapers, but certainly I want your sisters to know as soon as possible!”
Sara had cried and wailed. She had pleaded and insisted that Riaz not be told. Hajrabai had agreed. “Did Chotima always know?” Sara had asked.
“Of course I knew.”
“She has always known. Don’t be ridiculous Sara!”
Hajrabai recalled how Sara had wept and wailed. “It was hard enough being a half sister. It was hard enough being the only one who was your daughter. Everyone else was Chotima’s daughter!”
“Sara!” Zareenabai had cried “No one treated you differently!”
“That’s not the point, I always knew, I always felt it!”
Zareenabai had started to cry, “That’s not true Sara, and you know it. I have loved you more than all the others”
“No, that’s not true!”
“Not true at all, Resham was always my favorite!” Hajrabai said drily. Hajrabai could not abide Sara’s penchant for theatrics. But Sara was beyond humor and only sobbed louder.
She became more and more distraught and by the time she was calmed down by Zareenabai she had extracted all the promises from Hajrabai and Zareenabai that her husband Riaz was not to be told and that her sisters would not be told immediately either.
“But now that you do know, we will start celebrating Yom Kippur, Roshashana, Purim,and Passover,” Hajrabai said firmly.
There was, with this announcement, an immediate cessation of weeping and consoling between
Sara and Zareenabai. Now both looked at Hajrabai as though confused. Hajrabai had been surprised by the aloof tone she detected in Zareenabai’s voice when Zareenabai had asked “What do you mean we will start celebrating. Who will start celebrating--,Where?”
“Here in our house, we will observe my customs. I have long missed them and I want to make sure that we have these traditions.”
“But Hajrabai, we are Shi’a and these are not our traditions.”
That was all that Zareenabai had said. No more. Sara had said nothing, she had sat there wide-eyed staring at her mother.
Hajrabai had stood up. “Very well, then I will go where my traditions can be practiced.”
Hajrabai had left for the apartment at Lawrence Road the next day. She had never lived alone her entire life. She had moved to 43-G after her marriage. She was just eighteen then. But she never
could have imagined that she would miss it all so much, that she would miss the companionship
of Zareenabai. Fifty years of being wives and married together to the same man. She missed hearing Zareenabai’s voice in the rooms around her, she missed the conversations and the small daily irritations. She missed her position acknowledged every day by an army of people who referred to her as Bartima. She was Bartima to the entire household and to everyone who visited there.
She was Bartima to all of the children all of them, Sara, Amina, Kulsoom, Resham and Shireen all of them called her Bartima. Zareenabai was called Chotima by them. It seems that it made no difference to the girls or to Zareenabai or her, who gave birth to which child. It seemed just a technicality for the purposes of application forms for universities, Green Cards and certificates. Sara is hers and the rest are Zareenabai’s. Hard to believe that Resham is not hers, not of her own womb. It matters not, this technicality, for even more then Sara, Resham is her. In her voice, in her temperament, she is Hajrabai. The girls have all turned out alright. Hajrabai was opposed to the girls going to America for their universities. But it seems everything has turned out alright. Well Shireen has married a Hindu, but he is a professor in New York and the girl seems happy enough. Getting fatter every day, like Razzak and herself. A sure sign of love. She worries about Resham and Amina. Both thin as mosquitos. Amina is a lawyer and Resham is following her father’s footsteps in business. But no eligible man in sight.
Hajrabai sends Resham a portion of her share every year for making investments on the stock market. Kulsoom is the farthest away from them as far as she can tell. Razzak should have never married her into a Lahori family. “So different from our way of living, our getting ups and sitting downs,” Hajrabai had protested in way of counsel when the pros and cons of the proposal were being evaluated by him. But that too has turned out alright. Thanks to her special prayers. Kulsoom is there as well near her sisters and her husband Faraz seems to be civilized enough. Amina has informed her of her plans for December. The other three don’t plan to come till the summer. Hajrabai has decided that she’ll move back temporarily to 43 –G sometime after Roshashana and Yom Kippur. She’ll be there in December when Amina arrives and then she will stay on through Moharram. There’s much coming and going then and she likes the hullagulla and tamasha. And then Sara will be there every day as well. Hajrabai will return to this apartment on Lawrence Road just a few weeks before Purim and of course she will be at Lawrence Road for Passover.
This schedule will be fine, yes, she’ll have Razzak make sure that the apartment is freshly painted before she comes back, this time she’ll go a shade bluer in the drawing room and have Sara send all the pots and pans for Kali to Bohri bazaar. She’ll have Jeevan come to Lawrence Road and wash all the floors give them a thorough cleaning before Passover. Yes, Sara will take care of the Kali and she will make sure she has hand-ground wheat from the chakki for the matzah and the dried fruit and supplies she needs to make the special dishes. Only from a particular shop in Empress Market. They know her. She’ll go herself. Yes, she’ll go and stay at 43-G for a good three months. The two storied house, 43-G, as everyone has taken to referring to it, sits solidly within a small grassy compound and is hidden from the road and from the park by tall and thick almond and mango trees. Bougainvillea bushes spill over the boundary walls blossoming in white and magenta flowers. The Park in front of the house was used as a parade ground during the Raj and was referred to as Patel Park. The family still refers to it as that but the city has renamed it Nishtar Park. On one end of the Park is the Mehfil e Khorasan, the imam barha an easy stone’s throw away from the house and convenient for Razzak’s prayers and for all the majlises during moharram. Majlises held in the Park in the evenings and afternoons during Moharram can be listened to easily seated on the floor or the cane furniture and the jhula on the verandah upstairs.
Here the girls had grown up, playing in the garden, climbing trees, sleeping at night on the verandah upstairs or the rooftop or in the sehan during the summers, where she or Zareenabai would tell them stories. Hajrabai would recount the times of her life and describe all the interesting people she had known or heard about, spinning tales of their lives. Such as Atiya Fayzee. A lady who was a legend in Karachi, whom Hajrabai had heard much of but never actually met. “What a great lady she was! Marrying that Samuel Fyzee Rahamin and migrating with him from India to Pakistan in 1947 when many like her and particularly like him were leaving. But not everyone had a personal invitation like they did from Jinnah. Atiya must have been about seventy years old at that time.
And she thought herself a girl. And all of you at your age think you are ancient! She was a singer, a dancer, an author. A great intellectual. She was fearless and youthful. Always young. What a presence she was. Can you imagine she went to London on scholarship in 1906. I remember her, I saw her at my father’s shop. She came in, her head covered, you know, she wore the bohri burqa, her face exposed under her bonnet very much like.this hijab that girls wear today….as usual a dozen beaded long necklaces around her neck. I remember my father asked my brother to accompany her out to her waiting Chevrolet and she had raised her arm up in protest “Do not come out with me….otherwise there will be a scandal!” she had said.
What a delightful person! To have thought so much of herself at her great age! She presided over intellectual evenings each Thursday, for artists and writers and painters at the Burns club….I wonder what they talked about? I never did attend. I suppose they talked about the possibilities. Those were great days you know. Karachi was the center of excitement, so beautiful, so culturally alive. Can you imagine Atiya had left India, to come here! We used to idolize her here in Karachi, all us young girls back then. But she was not unusual in choosing to come to Pakistan. So had many, who need not have.
There was promise here in Karachi, of something new and vibrant and creative. I think it may have been that way for many people who went to Israel in the early days with the Kibbutz. --------- There was so much promise. ------Don’t make a face Resham! What do you think, the mohajirs didn’t displace anybody? -------I remember Atiya when she came to a flower show at Gandhi Garden, such a marvelous woman. It was a sad time too! So many people left Karachi, so many friends you know, so much family. This was heaven, not a place to leave, but people did you know, leave, out of fear of what was to come. They should have stayed. It would have all passed over. It would have all been better, if everyone had stayed.--------- I know, I know, Razzak, but let me talk, what is the harm of my wishing it were so. You know people coming from India at that time of partition were enthralled with Karachi. It was so much more vibrant and beautiful than Delhi for example. Girls, be like Atiya Fyzee------- be scandalous. Be the kind of woman that people talk about, that wins the hearts of great men and women. Someone who seduces poets and priests. Someone to whom great men are drawn. Be a scandal. That is what I wish for you! Find yourselves a Samuel Fyzee Rahamin of your own, a Shibli and Iqbal of your own, write, act, turn a painter into an artist, found galleries, be great and be scandalous. Nothing good comes from being a prude!”
Hajrabai thought back to that evening and now chuckled to herself, three years on only Sara seemed to have heeded her advice. For all the wrong reasons. On the phone the other day Resham had cried and said that her favorite memory of home was waking up early at dawn and looking down from her bedroom window onto the lawn and watching Zareenabai and Hajrabai in their morning routines as the dew rose up in mist evaporating off of the grass in early morning’s light. Zareenabai sitting reading the Qur’an and Hajrabai pacing around the lawn checking on the plants and blossoms. Resham had threatened to never return to 43-G if Hajrabai did not come back home immediately.
“Well you haven’t been home in two years yourself! So that’s not much of a threat is it?” Hajrabai had laughed.
Hajrabai thinks about all the talk about her having moved out, there’s been enough,what they really should talk about is that she wants the girls to move back in. Why not? They don’t seem to be doing anything other than making money over there. And if that’s all it is, then they can do that right here at home. As far as she can tell they are doing nothing interesting, it’s all work, work, work, from day break to night. Dull.
Hajrabai had said “Ah what dull prudes all of you have turned out to be. You too Shireen, even though you have married against my wishes. In that you did well. That is a plus, but what have you done after that? Be like Atiya Fyzee. We sent you all abroad hoping that you would make great scandals but instead we have a lawyer, an investment banker and a real estate agent.”
And here a mile as the crow flies at Lawrence roadletters still continue to arrive, addressed to Hajra Ibrahimbhai, though sporadically, most of the senders like herself are now too old perhaps to make the effort to write. Many are already gone. Before, the envelopes came more frequently bearing stamps from Turkey, England, US, India, once even Yugoslavia posted by people traveling there and sent with them by Meir and friends to be posted on to Karachi. Impossible to receive mail directly under the circumstances of the last fifty years. Inside are letters from relatives and friends from Karachi now in Beer Sheba, Israel. They used to inquire about her, tell her how homesick they were for Karachi, they complained about the weather and the way they were treated in Israel. It was not so long ago that she decided that she would not go or follow. No that was not for her. There, they did not even accept them as one of their own. B’nai Israel is not a Tribe they claimed. No! Why should she go there and be with the goras who consider everyone except themselves kalas. Serves them right! They thought they had divisions here! Now they are finding out for themselves. And no way to return, no way to come back. Why should she go there, better to stay right here, where she knows who she is and keeps to herself. Rejection from one’s own? To have someone tell her that she isn’t? Those who one embraces? No! Never! Let them call her a Jew and reject her here. There they tell her she isn’t! There she does not matter at all.
But here is what matters to her. Her husband, her daughters. 43-G. This home, this balcony, the proximity to all that once was. The graves are still here.
She remembers how good it all used to be. Taking the tram to Magain Shalome which was a mile down the road at the corner of Lawrence Road and Barnes Road. Taking the tram to her father’s shop on Preedy street. Now there is hardly anyone left to remember, everything is gone. That’s what happens when everyone leaves, when 2500 become just 250 and then maybe only 50. Then masjids are demolished for shopping malls. Hardly anyone left to mourn this. There is Solomon Dawood, downstairs, and Raymond Abraham across the hall. Rachel is in the hospital at the Aga Khan. Not long for this world.
But the fal could have been about her! She was not thinking about Amina in that moment.
Hard to think that Zareenabai was thinking about Amina as well. Hajrabai remembered that at that moment she was thinking about how good it would have been to be at 43-G. Surely Zareenabai was thinking the same thing too. So what did the verse mean, if this were so. What was it now: “I said O fate, when will you awake? The sun is up, it is now dawn-break. Said, you have made many a mistake, Yet keep hope and faith within your breast.”
Hajrabai went to bed that night with this nagging question on her mind, she awoke in the night thinking she heard the night watchman calling, jagte raho. It frightened her the way it always had, and she wished she were at 43-G.
It was not until the DAWN was delivered on Sunday that Hajrabai learned of the shooting by unknown assailants of Dr. Syed Abbas Zaidi. He had never regained consciousness after being shot in the face point blank and had died on Saturday night. The paper reported that Abbas had been killed execution style just like the 80 other Shi’a doctors in Karachi before him. “He should have left, he should have left the country!” she cried out to the walls.
From the Novel, A Matter of Detail, published in 2008.
More writings by Maniza Naqvi
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