intizar husain

You are the Sun, Olivia Fraser, 2015, stone pigment, gold leaf and gum arabic on handmade Sanganer wasli, one of nine panels, each 14x14’’. For biographical information on the artist go to Editor’s Note.

 

‘I don’t know what to make of this! Whenever I have a dream, I see dead people – nothing but dead people! God knows which graves they crawl out of! Take my latest one; at first, I could barely sleep. I tossed and turned till late into the night. Sleep just wouldn’t come! I must have drifted off at the time of the fajir prayer. And what do I see ... Ahmadi Bua! I had all but forgotten her. People are dead and gone and sleeping under mounds of earth ... how many can one remember? So there I was, perplexed, wondering where Ahmadi Bua cropped up from, and looking so young too! How handsome she looked sitting there, holding the betel-nut chopper in her hand, and the paandan open in front of her. Katr-katr-katr ... she chopped the betel nut into tiny pieces. I started asking her ... Ai Ahmadi Bua.... I had barely opened my mouth when another lady showed up. I couldn’t recognise her. Suddenly, there was a swarm of ladies – dressed from head to toe in white – when abruptly my eyes opened and I woke up.’

 

Badi Boo fell silent. Then she mumbled softly, ‘God alone knows why I only ever see dead people in my dreams. Not that they ever do me any harm. What can they take from me? If anything, they always give me something. Last Thursday, what do I see ... Mamman Phupha has come. He’s giving me something. And I am saying: Mamman Phupha, what will I do with so much? He is saying: take it; the children will eat. And, suddenly, I wake up.’

 

This was no solitary occurrence. Badi Boo invariably narrated some dream or the other every day. It never ceased to surprise us that she could have so many dreams and always saw only dead people in them. She herself was surprised by the easy familiarity the dead seemed to have with her. So many ancestors, close and distant, would come to her in her dreams and they always gave her something. We came to know everything about our dead ancestors through her dreams – how they were related to us, when they had died and where they were buried. There were some who had crossed the seas and died in strange lands. God knows what magic spell Badi Boo brewed that the dead from distant lands invariably showed up in her dreams. ‘And what do I see ... my aunt-in-law’s husband has come. He’s the one who had gone away and joined the firangi’s army in Rangoon. I had always seen my aunt-in-law living all alone, though the money orders came regularly every month. Then we heard he died there. So, naturally, I was puzzled ... how did he come here all the way from Rangoon? And he’s saying to me: “So, bahu, are you well? See, what I’ve got for you from Rangoon” ... and just as he is about to take something out of a bundle, my eyes open and I am awake.’

 

It was invariably like this. She would wake up at the very moment when someone was about to give her something. Even so, the dead had given her so much in her dreams that, in her waking moments, had the living given her even a fraction of all that she got from them, she would have been blessed with immense riches. But she considered herself sufficiently blessed that all the dead who came to her in her dreams always wanted to give her something. She looked so pleased after every dream.

 

Once, she had a dream that left her a little perturbed, ‘Arre, last night I had such a peculiar dream that I woke up with goose bumps! There is a house ... not this one ... some other ... I don’t know whose. It is a very strange house with a room large enough to hold a village common. In the middle of the room, someone is lying on a bed, sleeping perhaps, covered from head to toe with a sheet. I am saying to myself: Ya Allah, who can it be, asleep like this? I go to the next room and see Nanhi Bua coming towards me. She’s saying: “Come, Asghari, come with me. I have come to take you.” So saying, she clutches my hand and starts walking rapidly. I nearly die of fright, but I manage to loosen her grip on my hand and cry: “Leave my hand. I don’t want to go with you.” I’m scared. I free my hand and run. There is utter darkness ahead of me. And then, I wake up.’

 

For a while, Badi Boo looked lost in thought, then she said in a worried tone, ‘Allah alone knows the meaning hidden in this dream. I simply entrusted it to the care of Imam Zaman1. I always do that, you know, hand all my worrying dreams to the care of Imam Zaman.’ She paused, then spoke as though she had been thinking a lot about it. ‘Now there is no one left to transcribe my dreams. Bade Abba, may Allah grant him Paradise, was so good at transcribing dreams that whatever he told you always came true. Look at me, remembering dreams from so long ago! Once, I had dreamt that someone had dropped a banana in my lap, a long banana with a green skin. And I was wondering who could have dropped it in my lap. The next day I narrated the dream to Bade Abba. He told me not to talk about it to anyone else. God willing, you are going to give birth to a son, he said. It was the month of Ramzan and I was expecting a baby. It was my eighth month. The next month Murtaza was born.’

 

Badi Boo had an incredible memory. She remembered all her dreams, old and new. When she didn’t have a new dream to tell, she would open her casket of old dreams and tell us several dreams at one go. But these were invariably other people’s dreams. Sometimes it would be Bade Abba’s dream, or else Phuphi Amma’s or Majhli Khala’s. ‘Arre, the Hindu-Muslim riots broke out much later. Bade Abba had seen it all in his dreams before it started – at a time when no one could have imagined that there would be such devastation and havoc. How worried Bade Abba had been the day he had his dream! He had said to me: “What a strange dream! There is a long thorn lying right across our inner courtyard,” and I asked in a worried tone, “Who could have flung it here?” He was quiet for a minute, then he said, “It is an inauspicious dream. May God have mercy on all of us!”’

 

And so she carried on – sometimes narrating her own dreams, sometimes retelling the dreams of our long-dead ancestors. Every day, it would be a new dream. Once, she had the most incredible dream. ‘It is as though there is a railway station. Coolies are rushing about, shouting. Trains are steaming in and out. There is much scurrying about among the passengers. Someone is balancing a bedroll on his head, someone else is getting a coolie to carry his trunks when, suddenly, the train chugs in. The passengers rush to get on. In all that pushing and pulling and shoving and jostling, I somehow manage to get into a compartment. And what do I see ... Saiyadani Bi is sitting right there, at a window seat. I am amazed to see her there because she has been dead for so long that her bones must have turned to dust in her grave. What is she doing here? And sitting close beside her is that slut to beat all sluts – Billo! And look at her – staring at me with those saucer-like eyes of hers! What a brazen hussy! The number of homes she broke and the fights she caused between so many husbands and wives! Had she lived some more, God alone knows how many divorces she would have caused. Saiyadani Bi makes a gesture towards me and I am about sit down on an empty seat near her when suddenly the Ticket Babu materialises out of thin air, demanding to see my ticket. I say: Here it is. He looks at my ticket and says: Amma, there is no seat reserved for you here. I say: Son, make me a reservation if there isn’t one. There is an empty seat over here; I will take that. He says: But this seat is reserved for someone else. I say: Do you expect me to stand all the way? He says: Amma-ji, there are no more vacant seats on this train. You will have to get off. I grumble: Ai, hai, what will I do if I get off? He answers: There is another train coming soon after this one; it has lots of place. You will find a seat. How I plead and weep and moan, but that wretched man will hear none of it. He makes me get off the train. The train chugs out of the station in front of my eyes. It is bursting at the seams. Every face that I can see belongs to a dead person I had once known. I am amazed. Suddenly there is a loud whistle – it pierces my eardrums and the train ... the train has disappeared!’

 

Badi Boo fell silent. Then she mumbled, half to herself, ‘God alone knows the meaning hidden behind this dream.’ Then, after a long introspection, she said, as though she had stumbled upon its meaning, ‘I think there is a sign here, a sign from the Other World, saying: Asghari, your time has come. You must stay ready now. But what readiness do I need? I have been sitting here, ready for so long.’

 

From then on, it was as though the dream had caught Badi Boo in its spell. She would find excuses to dwell upon it time and again. ‘I know that my time has come. Any day now, the summons will come. The signal has already been given; it is only a matter of the summons reaching me. How I long for the day when they will finally reach me! I am ready and waiting for it.’

 

‘No, no, Badi Boo, you are not going anywhere. You have a long life ahead of you.’
‘Ai, hai, haven’t I lived enough! Do you want me to be around to lug the sacks of misdeeds on the Day of Judgement?’ And once again, she would plunge into inconsolable grief. ‘Abba Miyan went away. Then Amma passed away. Bade Bhaiya, too, went to sleep under mounds of earth. Everyone has gone. I am the only shameless one left behind to mourn them. No, no, I won’t wait any more. May the Caller call me as soon as He pleases!’

 

Badi Boo lived in desperate wait of her next dream. She was convinced that, any day now, she would have another dream in which the second train that the rail babu had spoken of would come – chuk-chuk-chuk. She would mumble, ‘Why is it taking so long? I am sitting here, all packed and ready to go. I will go the minute the train shows up.’ But strangely enough, where once she invariably had some dream or the other every night, now she had simply stopped dreaming. She grew steadily more anxious.

 

Sometimes she would begin to blame herself, ‘It is my fault; I should have held my ground and wedged myself right next to Saiyadani Bi. What could the ticket babu have done? He could hardly have lifted me bodily and thrown me out on the platform! And look at that Saiyadani Bi – she was loath to make the slightest protest on my behalf! She didn’t say a word, simply looked on with those big eyes of hers. Had she held my hand and made me sit down, perhaps it would have bolstered my courage, and I would have given that rail babu such a tongue-lashing that he would have remembered it all his life. But who can one blame? I am the one at fault. I let the moment slip.’

 

‘It was a good thing you did, Badi Boo. You are the only elder we have; what would we do with you gone?’

 

‘May you live a thousand years, my precious ones! May you know every happiness! But the old must go; how long can they tarry? I am only waiting for the train; I will leave as soon as it comes.’

 

The train had become so much a part of Badi Boo’s every waking moment that she talked of nothing else. Soon, she fell ill. She had been ill before, but this time it seemed as though she had chosen to fall sick with the express intention of dying. She declared that, this time, she would not remain alive for very long, so we might as well not bother with doctors or medicines. Call Murtaza; that was her only plea. ‘How can I go without seeing his face one last time? After all, he is the one who has to lower me into the grave.’

 

We had known for some time now that Badi Boo had implacably resolved to die. By now, most of us believed that her end was near and we really ought to inform Murtaza Mamu. A letter was duly dispatched, conveying in Badi Boo’s inimitable style the hopelessness of the situation and the urgent need for Murtaza Mamu to show up at his dying mother’s bedside. ‘Come quickly, my dearest one, before my eyes close forever. My dying wish is to see my precious son’s face one last time before I leave this earth. My eyes are glued to the door. My spirit may leave this body, but my eyes won’t close till you come.’

 

After this, Badi Boo’s gaze never left the door. The train that she had once awaited so anxiously now faded into the background. She began a restless vigil for her son. One anxious wait had replaced another. ‘God knows when he will come! How I had dreaded this moment! How I had pleaded with him not to go across the seven seas! How will you come when your mother is on her deathbed, I had said. Get yourself transferred here. There is no knowing when I will die. I can be called at any moment. How will you reach in time?’

 

Anyhow, Murtaza Mamu reached well in time, even though by Badi Boo’s reckoning he was far too late in coming. If anything, Murtaza Mamu was actually too early. The sight of her son and grandson gave Badi Boo a fresh lease of life. She sat up as though she had never been ill for a moment!

 

Murtaza Mamu had brought his son, Artaza, with him. Masha Allah, how big he had grown! He had been a slip of a lad, kicking the dust in the alleys, when he had lived here. He used to be inseparable from his catapult. Badi Boo used to admonish him for taking potshots at the poor, harmless little birds. ‘May the Lord save you from the moment of ill omen! Birds, too, are of all kinds; some can even bring you ill luck. It’s not good to harm them.’ But Artaza never paid heed. His ears and eyes were slaves to his catapult. But now he had grown up, and, Masha Allah, grown up to be a tall, strapping young man. He had also sobered down considerably. Now all his energies were focused on his studies. He had completed his BA and started his MA. Badi Boo looked at him, cracked her knuckles over her own head to take upon herself all his misfortunes and said to her son, ‘Murtaza, may Satan turn a deaf ear to what I am about to say, but it is time now to get Artaza married. Look for a suitable girl for him.’

‘Married?’ Murtaza Mamu asked, as though without a care in the world. ‘Let him finish his studies.’

 

‘His studies have become endless like the devil’s intestines! What will happen if all the nice girls slip out of our hands by the time he finishes his studies?’

 

‘What can we do? Allah is the One who does everything.’

 

‘Of course He does, but we too must think about it. And, son, think of me. My one last wish is to see the sehra tied around my grandson’s forehead before I close my eyes forever.’

 

We were delighted to hear this because Badi Boo, without any prompting from anyone, had decided to make an appropriate extension to her life span.

 

Badi Boo didn’t care what a BA or MA meant; she was proud that the father had given sufficient importance to the son’s religious education. It pleased her no end to see that Artaza was well versed in matters of religious law and practice and was punctual with his namaaz. Perhaps he had become more punctilious since coming here. He would unfailingly go to the mosque to offer the fajir prayer. That morning too, he had woken up before the muezzin’s call – unlike his other friends who were still asleep – and set off for the mosque. That was the day the father and son were supposed to return home. Murtaza Mamu’s leave was coming to an end and Badi Boo too, by the Grace of God, was getting better. In fact, she had stopped all her medicines saying, ‘These wretched, gall-bitter, modern-day medicines refuse to go down my throat any more. I am all right now. Enough of these modern whimsies! How long do you people intend to rock me in a cradle like a newborn baby?’ And so she had risen from her sickbed and started moving about. Soon enough, she was chattering away like she used to. For so many days now, she hadn’t even had a dream. She barely had time to remember her old dreams. The dead had visited her in the guise of her dreams. So, now, they too had vanished. You can say the dead had departed from the world of her imagination. A new life tempted her. The sehra on her grandson’s forehead swam delightfully before her eyes. She had already started looking for a suitable bride. She ran through a list of almost all the marriageable girls, both from within the family and outside. She analysed the looks and character of each one in minute detail. She would say that she would get such a lovely bride for her Artaza that no one could match her – not even if they set out with a magical lamp to look for another such damsel!

 

Soon, the day of departure dawned. That day Artaza had woken up before the muezzin’s call and rushed towards the mosque. Badi Boo, too, had woken up at the crack of dawn. She had once again started saying her fajir prayers at the prescribed time.

 

Badi Boo was still seated on her prayer mat when she heard a commotion in the neighbourhood; she mumbled, ‘May the good Lord keep us safe from misfortune, what is this noise?’

 

But the misfortune had already struck. The congregation had barely gathered in the mosque when a couple of Kalashnikov-toting masked men barged in and sprayed the devout with bullets. Some of those who had bowed their heads in supplication never raised their head again.

 

People heard the gunshots and raced towards the mosque. Some neighbours brought Artaza home. He was drenched in blood. A doctor was sent for, but Artaza’s time had come. He died before the doctor could reach him.

 

Badi Boo beat her chest inconsolably. She cursed herself for asking her son to bring Artaza along. Then she cursed the terrorists. May they die a terrible death! The monsters had no reverence even for the House of God! The scoundrels, what sort of Musalmans were they that they couldn’t even let the boy complete his namaaz? And she burst into loud sobs and began to cry like a baby.

 

In the middle of her tears, she suddenly remembered her dream about the train and sat stock-still. ‘Oh my God! At that time, I couldn’t understand what the rail babu was trying to say. He was saying, Maa-ji, this seat is not meant for you; it is reserved for someone else. And at that very moment someone came and sat down in the reserved seat. It was a boy. But I was so engrossed in my own troubles that I didn’t pay any heed. How was I to know who it was! I should have seen who it was who had sat down in my place.’

 

Badi Boo once again started beating her chest and howling with grief. ‘Hai, I was left behind; he went away.’

 

*

 

1Imam Zaman is believed by Shia Muslims to be the twelfth and final imam who will be the ultimate saviour of humankind.

 

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Published in Urdu as ‘Reserved Seat’ in the collection Sheherzad ke Naam, Sang-e-Meel Publications, Lahore, 2002.

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Intizar Husain, who migrated to Lahore in 1947 when he was in his early twenties, was one of the leading literary figures in Pakistan. He wrote novels, short stories, poetry and nonfiction in Urdu, as also literary columns for the newspapers, Dawn and Daily Express. His novel, Basti was translated into English by Francis Pritchett and shortlisted for the 2013 Man Booker Prize. Other works accessible in English include the collections of his short stories, Leaves and Other Stories, translated by Alok Bhalla and Vishwamitter Adil, Indus, 1993; The Seventh Door, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998; and most recently, The Death of Sheherzad, translated by Rakhshanda Jalil, HarperCollins, 2014. His numerous other works include Jataka Tales and the novel, Aagay Sumandar Hai, 1995, translated by Rakhshanda Jalil as The Sea Lies Ahead, HarperCollins, 2015, that contrasts the spiralling urban violence of contemporary Karachi with a vision of the lost Islamic realm of al-Andalus in modern Spain. He received many awards in his lifetime, among the most prestigious being the Sitara-i-Imtiaz from the President of Pakistan. He received a lifetime achievement award at the 2013 Lahore Literary Festival. Intizar Husain died in 2016.

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Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. She has published over 15 books and written over 50 academic papers and essays. Her book on the lesser-known monuments of Delhi, Invisible City, continues to be a bestseller. Her recent works include Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu, Oxford University Press, 2014; a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan, A Rebel and her Cause, Women Unlimited, 2014; a translation of 15 short stories by Intizar Husain entitled The Death of Sheherzad, HarperCollins, 2014; and The Sea Lies Ahead, a translation of Intizar Husain's seminal novel on Karachi, HarperCollins, 2015. She runs an organization called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture. Her debut collection of fiction, Release & Other Stories, was published by HarperCollins in 2011, and received critical acclaim. She was awarded the Kaifi Azmi Award for her contribution to Urdu and her translation, The Sea Lies Ahead won the KLF Peace Prize awarded by the Karachi Literature Festival and the German Embassy. Recently, she received the first Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-Hindi Translation. She writes regularly for major newspapers such as Hindustan Times, Indian Express, The Hindu as well as magazines such as Outlook, Scroll, The Wire.

 

 

 

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