by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Jinn: a spirit capable of appearing in human and animal forms and influencing humankind for either good or evil.
A startling laugh, low as if muffled by a dupatta, an old net dupatta I imagine, makes me turn but there is no one there. The walls are the color of vanilla ice cream and the décor is simple and modern apart from a few objects like doilies with Baluchi embroidery, an heirloom paandaan, a tray from the copper bazaar. There are the usual consumer electronics and curtains in a thick, embossed fabric— good for darkening the room against the defeating heat. A whiff of chambeli oil hangs in the punishing late June air for a moment. I recall how the jinn are attracted to fragrances too sweet on the human olfactory scale. Like animals, the jinn have a different wavelength for sensory perception. That low laugh might have actually been much lower or higher for non-human ears, the scent not as sickly sweet. Both probably came from the realm of the jinn, though my rational mind would not allow that thought.
Rumor has it that the maid, a middle aged stocky woman, is either a jinn in human form or a medium for the jinn. She speaks only when spoken to but she speaks in two distinct timbres: one, an ordinary female voice, the other heavy like gravel, a wolf-like growl. It’s hard to predict how the next utterance will sound, whether it will come from the woman or the jinn she houses in her body. Her name is Ishrat, which means luxury. In Urdu Ishrat is a male name too. She is barely noticeable in my peripheral vision in her hand-me-down lawn suit in candy colors as she goes about her usual cooking and cleaning but then her eyes meet mine in the mirror she is dusting. I feel a chill when I glimpse her classic jinn face—eyebrows arching high over the most ancient eyes—eyes brimming with the intense heat of summer afternoons, quicksand eyes that one will descend into uncontrollably; nose—an alignment of broken things, forehead vertiginously high like the ceiling of old train stations.
I don’t want the jinn to detect my loss of composure. I reach for the tea tray she has placed next to my stack of books. The sound of china is comforting and when I go back to my reading, I tell myself never to look into those eyes again. Extracting myself won’t be easy the next time. I’m pulled by the weight of the long afternoon, its lull, and Urdu’s sonorous script, each looping “laam” and “noon” cradling me, but I cannot let myself fall asleep in Ishrat’s presence. The minute I close my eyes, I’m reminded of other jinns I’ve known in stories. There was one that possessed my aunt when she was six or seven— a docile and petit girl, she acquired superhuman strength for no apparent reason and became capable of knocking down several grown men at a time until she was exorcized. This was the India of my imagination and my grandmother’s memories where women who were careless about covering their hair when they were near aged trees were certain to attract the attention of the jinn. I recall long hair, coconut oil, the slow combing and the washing with scented amla, the advice to keep away from the sprawling Oak and Tamarind.
There were multi-story houses in these memories—monkeys climbing onto balconies and stealing food from the pantry or jewelry from the bedside tables of napping girls. Such stories belonged in different houses that the family lived in and different periods of their lives but for me they all take place in the house my imagination assembled—jinns on the upper floor, mangoes from the orchard ripening in the basement, my father and his cousin donning the Fez to please their grandfather in the courtyard, a young aunt, the shyest one, finding a snake in the kitchen and killing it with a stick. And always an open window, always a way for an old tree to be let in; a murmur, a songbird, a sparkling voice cutting through those dust-laden times.
I’ve never lived in a house with a courtyard or basement but even in a house with the requisite modern “global” influences represented by Japanese drawings, Renoir and Picasso prints, Islamic calligraphy calendars, the jinn were never too hard to imagine. A yellowed page from a book, a cat prowling at night, a sudden shadow leaping over a wall seen from the corner of my eye, and especially on long summer afternoons when street dogs pant and crows agitate the stillness, when there is a sweet whiff of rose syrup sherbet—I have no doubt I’m not alone.