Hibah Shabkhez

Drapes and Dust

She fell out of the frayed brown paper, a short square woman in a sari, clutching a man’s suitcase with the broken handle crushed into her fist so that appearances were almost saved. The bleakness of the room leapt out of the tinted daguerreotype, as did the homely strength of her, the pixyish triangle of her chin and her flat cheekbones and the hook of her nose, the fixed little smile grim with oft­ spoken resolve.

Upon the flip side of the yellowing card, my grandmother had written a single word in her firm round hand. I rolled my tongue around it, tested it. India. When we were children, and there were no led lights, no UPS, only candles and families united by hapless rage when WAPDA cut off our electricity yet again, we used to play Name-Place-Animal-Thing. And suddenly I was playing it again, my own twisted version of it that always annoyed my brothers so much. Instead of picking a Name and a Place and an Animal and a Thing, I would pick one and make it be all of them, a thinganimalplace name.

Thing: a piece of yellowing cardboard locked away in an old lady’s chest. Animal: a tigress at afternoon tea. Place: my grandmother’s homeland, our stranger-enemy-friend-neighbour. Or Name, India, like Katie-Scarlett’s sister-in-law, like the chopped-up woman from Nigel Kelly, lying on the page like salami slices beside the paragraph describing backlash after the first partition of Bengal. Or perhaps it was all of them at once.

It was in my Grandma’s desk drawer that I first found the crumbling envelope,  one summer’s  day when I crept upstairs to ferret around the old rooms, shrouded now in sackcloth drapes and dust. Under the sturdy wooden lid of this desk, the Hamunaptra of my childhood opened now at twenty-one with all the guilty thrill of a grave-robber, the brown envelope lay among the scattered memorabilia of an old woman’s life, a full century of hopes and dreams and good wishes. Thimbles, mini-reels of a thread, pressed flowers blackened now with age, a ribbon-bound collection of old Eid and birthday cards, crayon and pencil drawings labeled in proud childish scrawls . . .  and, inside the envelope, India.

Carefully I wiped the dust off her with the tip of my little finger and carried her down to my mother. It was summer then, and she was swaying slightly back and forth in time to the creaking of the fan as she sat cross-legged under it, peeling and slicing potatoes for lunch. I  touched her lightly on the shoulder and held out the photograph cupped  awkwardly in my right palm.  Mama dragged her fluttering hair off her face with the back of her wrist and frowned up at me. “Who’s that?” She asked. “Where did you find that photo?”

“Upstairs. In- in Grandma’s old desk. There’s just the one word at the back. India.” Name-Place-Name-Place-Name-Place, I thought, like a cartoon princess with a loves-me-loves-me-not daisy. Name-Place-Name-Place-Thing-Name.

My mother peeled a potato whole, spinning it along the edge of her knife like a blacksmith tempering the edge of a sword on his wheel, only faster. She sliced the misshapen yellow lump neatly into eighths and tossed them into the bowl in front of her. I squirmed. I should have been helping her. There was a knife lying pointedly idle on my side of the divan. But every time I tried to help I took off huge chunks of potato with the peel and I could never slice it evenly. The haft of the knife dug into my hand, making it ache, or it wriggled its way around and bit into my thumb, and the clucks of consternation and the wondering what was to become of me would begin … So I never touched potatoes without a direct order. Mama glared at me as she picked up another one, but she said nothing.

“India?” I asked again, speaking uncertainly into the silence. India’s picture had been locked away in a drawer in an old desk, not displayed proudly downstairs with a story that was gladly retold for each generation. Maybe there would be no answer, maybe the answer was not meant for me. I could see the stiffening in my mother’s frame, the slight reddening, and already I had begun to retreat.

“India?” She too spoke the name wonderingly, testingly, as I had done in the dust upstairs. “I didn’t know there was a photograph of her.”

Her. Name then. India NameNotPlace. Real name, nick-name? A name chosen for a beloved child out of homesick nostalgia in a far­ off land? A sobriquet bestowed perhaps as a joke, by sisters and friends? A taunt? But no -in my grandmother’s youth India was still to be loved, not insulted.

“She was – let me see – she was the wife of one of your grandmother’s cousins, but we children never had much to do with her. I must have met her only once or twice, at family weddings and at funerals or something.”

India. Not Khaala or Chaachi or Maami India but just – India. “Grandma’s – cousin, right?” I hazarded. “Were they close to each other?”

“Cousin’s wife.”

Cousin’s wife. Not blood then, not kin-bound to us. Nevertheless, Grandma had kept her photograph locked away in her private desk. By the time I came to know her, my grandmother’s legendary razor-blade ruthlessness had mellowed into a smiling wisdom that took no nonsense from anyone; but the woman in the picture was still well under forty. My grandmother had more friends than most people have kinsfolk, and they were all displayed proudly in her albums, with their names, dates, cities, and stories. All these years, India, the cousin’s wife, had lain locked away in the drawer of her private desk. Why?

“Her cousin’s wife. Was she, like, from Lahore?”

”No. From somewhere in South India.”

“South India? So her family moved to Lahore?”

Mama slid a row of potato cubes into the bowl under her palm, sucking in her cheeks to hide what looked suspiciously like a grin. I could not help flushing as I realised how flat my awkwardly devious attempt at dissimulating curiosity had fallen. My clumsiness seemed to have touched her, though, opened her up where more adroit questioning would have failed. She picked three small potatoes out together out of the bowl and set one of them to the knife’s edge.

“Raju Mamoo was Naani-Jaan’s brother’s eldest son. His mother died when he was a child, and his father married again. Raju Mamoo was never very close to his step-mother or half-sisters, only to his father.”

“And his father married him to India?”

“Of course not! He sent him abroad to live with a friend of his, with the understanding that he would be given a job there and marry his host’s daughter once he settled in.”

It was that ‘of course not!’ I wanted to delve into, but no askable question would frame itself there. So I held fast to the thread of the story and waited.

“They were engaged. Just like that?”

“It was a common enough arrangement at the time … and it wasn’t an engagement, exactly. It was all understood and agreed upon, but it was not fixed and it was certainly never announced. Which was just as well.”

“Why? What happened?” I blurted. “India?”

The knife went rather still against the potato for a few seconds, during which I looked just about anywhere except at my mother. In my imagination whirled the steamy-tragic story of a wonderfully complex triangle, with the young man sent forth to his unseen bride, the secluded maiden awaiting his coming, and- India …  the steel arrested in the act of baring yolkyellow potato-flesh had brought my reverie to a most discomfiting halt.

”No. There was another girl who lived nearby. Raju Mamoo followed her home, and he – sang.”

“He sang?”

A movie song … Dila thair ja, yaar ka nazara lain de. His host could not allow such an affront to his daughter’s honour, so he sent Raju Mamoo back home.”

“So where does India come into it?”

“India – she was either divorced then, or widowed; none of us ever knew – was on her way to her parents’ home in Karachi, where she had left her children. Instead- they turned up together at Uncle Raju’s home in Lahore. His father – well, he accepted the situation.

An elopement – and not with the maiden in the ivory tower, but with a divorced-widowed mother of small children! It would explain all the silences, and my mother’s carefully casual tone as she sort-of broke them a little to draw her daughter inside them too. Her voice held no trace of shock or righteous anger or condemnation; just a hint of derision for Raju Mamoo making such a cake of himself, and a warm sympathy for Raju Mamoo’s father, who had accepted with good grace what he could not prevent. As for India – this lightly shrugged disapproval must have damned India from the outset.

“She was dark, India,” My mother said inconsequentially, and I knew she was wondering the same thing as I, though neither of us would have voiced it for the world. “A Hindustani. Dark as burnt coal, and she had a scar on her left cheek that twitched when she spoke.”

The daguerreotype in my hand did not reveal these dread blemishes; but the stern, homely features were quite irreconcilable with the femme fatale character of her legend. In Uncle Raju’s boyhood pictures there were only traces of a slouching washed-out handsomeness, and he had grown into a stooping man with thick round glasses on his nose. Where was the dashing black sheep who serenaded demoiselles in the street? These two running across the fields into each other’s arms, these two walking hand in hand, these two twirling across a dance floor a la Disney – I shuddered. Each image of romance they turned into the most utterly bizarre mockery. And yet, some hint of that magic I could not separate from the satiny twirl of a crinoline there must have been between them, once upon a time.

“A Hindustani girl married into a family of Kashmiris – and married in such a way! Was she – was she – happy?”

“They say she never looked back, though she and Raju Maamoo were very poor, so poor that her children – she had some six or seven – barely seem to have gone to school.”

When Cinderella married, when Ariel found her Prince, they lived ever after in castles. They were heroines; they were beautiful and splendid and happy. India lived in a hovel and raised half a dozen children in poverty and illiteracy. And they said she was happy too. But didn’t she mind? Didn’t she care that her life was ruined and her children’s lives too?

“But what was her real name?” I said finally, as though the name would tell me everything I could not ask. “Her name can’t have been India.”

“Maybe it wasn’t her name, but that was what everyone called her – India. They say your grandmother gave her the name, and it stuck so that no one ever called her by the real one except to her face.”

“And you don’t remember her real name?”

“No.”

So her name would not find me the placeanimalthing. Thing then. A thing from her past that would give her a nameplaceanimal.

“She had six or seven children with Raju Maamoo – so what about the children from her first marriage, the ones she was going back to when she met him?”

“I don’t know. She never went back. Maybe she did write to them, call them: maybe she did not. There were no mobiles then, and no Skype. And they were poor.”

She spoke matter-of-factly, plainly, and that took me aback more than anything else. If a woman lived in a different city with a man, not their father, did that make it natural for her to simply let her children go? What kind of woman would abandon her children for a coup de foudre, for a grotesque mockery of happiness in a slum?

“Why did she send them to her parents in the first place?” I demanded. I flung the poisoned thought away from me, but it tarnished the halo I would fain to have drawn around her, this buried not-ancestress of mine – India, the unlikely romantic. Was that blazing strength no more than heartlessness? But then, what kind of evil seductress spends half a lifetime below the poverty line for her victim’s sake?

“She was in Kenya when her husband died – or left. That’s where she must have gotten her British nationality – ”

I jumped. “India was a British National? But then why didn’t she go to England? Her children could have studied there, and she could have worked – ”

“They say she always longed to go. She used to say that she could have gone there in state, without a visa, like Queen Elizabeth herself.” And upon my mother’s face flickered the shadow of my grandmother’s derisive-yet-admiring grin, so that for a moment there I was watching both of them look at India. “Your Grandma and her sisters – sometimes they used to call her “Malka Elizabeth” when they spoke of her.”

Across the potatoes, our eyes met, and suddenly we both burst out laughing. That pugnacious dignity under a crown, combined with that hook of a nose and the preposterous chin – Good Lord! And yet, there was a poignancy, a grandeur even, in the very absurdity of the picture which prevented us from laughing very much.

“Well, why didn’t she go?”

“Her husband remained adamant that he would not leave his father. When his father died, he became even more firmly attached to this land that held his father’s grave.”

“And India stayed with him.”

“Always.” My mother’s voice was reluctantly admiring and mocking all at once. “After Raju Mamoo died, she did go to England.”

“Did she? But she must have been ancient by then!”

“She went to England. Alone. She found work there, and sent the money home to her children until they had saved enough to build two mansions in the Walled City here in Lahore.”

“Two mansions? Then she did find her first children again!”

”No, the mansions both belong to Raju Mamoo’s children … They are still there, in Akbari Mandi. They stand out from the rest of the neighbourhood, because they are five storeys high. Although,” She added. “Maybe she did send money to her first children too. Nobody really knows.”

“Why not? You even know the name of the song Raju Maamoo sang for that girl in the street, but you don’t know anything about India’s children?”

Mama shrugged. “Well, they emigrated years ago, and even when they were here we never had much to do with them. Her sons got visas as skilled labour – ”

“As skilled labour?!”

“Yes – they never got much of an education … She had a daughter too, who was unmarried and illiterate, and they say India tried for years to get her a visa.”

“And she got it?” I asked eagerly.

”No. The daughter lived in Akbari Mandi until she died.” “And India lived in England.”

“She came back to visit her daughter, but yes, she lived in England.”

Mama took the basket of potatoes, all peeled and sliced, and went inside the kitchen. Through the kitchen door, I could see her washing the potatoes, the grime flowing away under the cool clear jet of water, revealing her delicate hand with the fingertips shriveled like Puramina’s prince. And I saw India doing the same thing, lifting the lid of the pan, then stirring the heady gravy inside it, flicking up a sliver to taste it, putting in the potatoes, one handful after the next.

In the flat hardness of those plain jutting cheekbones, those dark sallow features, I could not see the mother, or the wife – only the woman, and then not even her … Who was she, what was she like, this quasi-named woman from nowhere? Did she cook with my mother’s innate grace, or did she spill and splash and swear like me? Did she hack chunks out of potatoes when she peeled them?

In my notebook, in my own code, I wrote down her name. Then I wrote it in English: India. And then I wrote it in Urdu, as she must have written it if she learnt to write at all: انڈیا. I longed to write something of this lady, this not-quite-ancestress I had unearthed, a potential heroine for one of those forgotten historical women biopics. Downstairs in the family album where all my foremothers and forefathers lived, every picture had its history, its place in time; a steady passing of the lantern from one generation to the next from which she had been uprooted, set aside. We think back through our mothers if we are women. Downstairs there were dozens of foremothers for me to think back through, yet here lay India, timeless, unageing, dried and relaxed and mounted in a grotesque parody of a butterfly pinned to a wall.

What could I write about her when I scarcely knew what to think? England was El Dorado to her, but she gave it up … A woman who stuck by her man was supposed to be a heroine in our legends, but they had all laughed at India – perhaps she just wasn’t beautiful enough to be a heroine. And what about the children? The children from her first marriage, and Raju Mamoo’s children too, whom she suffered to grow up in poverty without an education when she could have taken them to England –

Didn’t she care? I stared at India, trying to see her truly, clearly – was this a devoted wife, a noble lady heroically faithful to her duty, or a wanton who had seduced a young boy, a callous mother with no care to her children? She had not cleaved to him out of weakness; if in her middle-age she could still go to England and send home enough money to build two mansions five storeys high. It was something else entirely. And I could not see it, I could not understand –

My Grandmother, so fierce on the subject of her own children’s’ education – had India’s neglect not revolted her? What had she seen in India, what sort of woman did she believe her to be? If she had liked and respected India, then her photograph should have been downstairs; if she had not, why had she kept it in her desk? Some strange memory was at work there – a half-guilty respect, a contempt, and frustration leavened by a dash of wonder, like my own?

“Why isn’t she in Grandma’s family albums instead of her desk?” Some questions ask themselves, just like that, and then you blush for them later in spite of yourself.

My mother came out drying her hands. “Well, she was never exactly family.”

She had ‘six or seven’ children with my grandmother’s cousin and she stayed with him despite abject poverty until he died. But to my mother who accounted second cousins twice removed close kin, India was never exactly family.

Then she saw my notebook, and that strained trying-not-to-yell-at-you frown creased trenches into her face again. “Writing that gibberish again? Do something constructive! If you must draw scratchy wriggles, practice your Chinese.”

“I am doing something constructive,” I said. “I am writing.”

“Then write it in decent English, so that it will at least improve your handwriting! This nonsensical twisted caricaturing is a pure waste of time.”

Just then aspersions upon my coded diary-writing that would one day unleash my saga of The Land of The Lost upon the world had no power to sting. Before me lay a greater mystery than my mother’s refusal to understand that an invented alphabet or a real one would make no difference to the words enclosed. I picked up the notebook and slipped India inside it.

My mother had already settled herself down on the divan with her tasbeeh, a pillow under her head, dupatta draped lightly over her hair, eyes half-shut. Before she could begin whispering the Durood I said quickly:

“Is India still alive? Or did she die in England?” She must, if she was still alive, be ancient – a hundred, at least, if not more. In a foreign land across the sea, upon which I might never set foot myself. And for all that googling and facebooking could do, I still needed her name, her other name, the name they had chosen not to remember her by.

“I don’t know,” Answered my mother. “I’ve never heard anything about her dying … but she must be dead now. No one has heard anything from her in years.”

We think back through our mothers … But, Virginia, what happens when we do not know how to name our mothers, how to find them?  What happens when we do not know if they count as our mothers at all?

Downstairs in the family album wrapt in its gold-thread-worked covers, I slid her boldly in beside a picture of my grandmother and her sisters. On the pieces of the brown envelope, I wrote the pieces of her story as I had found them, in Urdu and Punjabi- her mother­ tongue and mine – and slid it in too. For me she is murky linen excavated from the closet; but because I have done this, for my daughter and my granddaughter and her daughter after her, India, with all her mystery and ambivalence, will be a part of their history, one of their mothers-to-think-back-through.

***

Hibah Shabkhez is a writer of the half-yo literary tradition, an erratic language-learning enthusiast, a teacher of French as a foreign language and a happily eccentric blogger from Lahore, Pakistan. Her work has appeared online and in several literary magazines, including The Ravi and The Pen. Studying life, languages, and literature from a comparative perspective across linguistic and cultural boundaries holds a particular fascination for her.

 

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