Release by Rakhshanda Jalil
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The stench was overwhelming. Hasan Ahmed had barely stepped into the room when the rancid smell of stale urine assailed his senses, causing him to draw a quick, sharp breath. His long, aristocratic nose twitched and a shiver coursed through his lean, expensively clad body. His shoulders moved, almost imperceptibly, under the moss-green-and-beige Harris Tweed. His hand tightened around the pipe in his jacket pocket, the long fingers clenching the smooth polished wooden bowl, his thumb closing over the well-worn hollow of its stem as though over a talisman. Long years of service in the elite diplomatic corps, however, came to his rescue. He checked the involuntary wave of distaste that rose, implacably, like an unwelcome thought, clenched his teeth against the rising nausea, and strode towards the inert figure on the bed.

 

A nurse sat in a straight-backed chair at the foot of the bed, facing the patient. She looked up from her knitting and gazed at him entirely without curiosity as he entered the room.

 

There she lay, his Azra. Was it her? Hasan peered at the person lying in the high hospital bed and swallowed another wave of revulsion. The room had a stale, foetid air. The window was shut, its pale blue curtains drawn. A single fluorescent tube light lit the room, its light bouncing off the brown plastic emulsion on the walls, a simple wooden cross their only adornment. The smell was unmistakable now. He identified it as a mixture of heavy-duty floor disinfectant and stale urine. The toe of his hand-made Italian leather wingtip Oxfords nudged something that let out a faint rattle. He looked down. A stainless steel bedpan nestled against his brown calf-leather shod feet. The lid had slid off to reveal a plastic bag; a pale amber liquid sloshed inside the plastic bag. He stepped back hurriedly. It was better to look at the person in the bed.

 

She had a shock of nearly white hair. Someone had plaited it into two untidy school-girlish plaits. They lay coiled in a wispy half-circle on either shoulder. A blue hospital gown covered her thin, narrow shoulders, its neck gaping to reveal the hollows of her neck and the yellow, wrinkled skin of her collarbones. The rest of her body was hidden from view, covered as it was in a light blue blanket trimmed with a white under-sheet folded neatly at her chest. Save for a gentle rise and fall of the sunken, caved-in rib cage, she showed no sign of life. Her eyes were closed, the lids drawn, her mouth loose and slightly agape. Her hands lay inert beside her body. A blood pressure monitor was clipped to one forefinger. An IV drip snaked out from a cannula inserted on the back of the other hand. A food pipe wound down from a second upturned bottle on the IV pole and disappeared inside her nostrils. A screen mounted above her head flashed her blood pressure reading. Another plastic tube emerged from beneath the blue blanket, ran a short distance along the side of the bed and emptied into a plastic bag attached to the bedrail.

 

Was it Azra? He couldn’t tell. She looked so old and frail, so corpse-like in her stillness, he couldn’t be certain.

 

Slightly unnerved by the clacking needles that went about their business of knit and purl, and the blank, unwavering, incurious gaze of the nurse, Hasan asked, ‘How is she?’

 

‘Okay,’ the nurse answered without dropping a stitch or averting her gaze.

 

He stood a trifle uncertainly beside the bed. The nurse occupied the only chair in the room. A sofa-cum-bed was placed near the far wall. He shifted uneasily, unwilling to touch anything, shrinking back from the urine bag as though from a live bomb that could go off without provocation, scattering its deadly shrapnel without discrimination or intent. He hadn’t come here to sit, or chat. Why had he come? he asked himself. Wasn’t this completely out of character?

 

Hospitals, no matter how modern or expensive, gave him the creeps. Blessed with unfailing good health, he had never had cause to stay in one during the seventy spry years of his existence. A fractured arm, a sprained ankle or an occasional visit to the dentist were all he had known by way of medical emergencies. A couple of executive health check-ups had been quick, painless, almost sterile experiences managed efficiently and swiftly by his insurance company in health-care ‘facilities’ that did not even remotely resemble a hospital. What had impressed him more than the speed and effortless ease of the routine examinations was the complete absence of smells. He hated smelly places and was, in fact, extremely sensitive to smells; sickly, cloying ones annoyed and offended him in particular.

 

The smell of incense was one particularly awful olfactory memory. Hasan associated it with clamour, death, disarray. He hated going to funerals, partly because he hated the incense they usually burnt in a house of mourning. He would leave express instructions in his will, he thought as he tried to distract himself from the bulging urine bag clipped to the bed. No incense for him, he decided, no elaborate funeral either. Not for him the clicking beads of rosaries, the hum of prayers, the white sheets, the throng of long-forgotten relatives, the coming and going. The smell of sickness annoyed him too. He hated being around sick people. He most certainly never visited them while they were in their hospital beds. So what am I doing here, he asked himself as he cast one more furtive glance at the woman on the bed.

 

The nurse spoke up suddenly, volunteering information in a chatty, informal sort of way that he would ordinarily have frowned upon: ‘She has been like this for months now.’ And, after a pause, when he showed no signs of picking up the thread of the conversation she dangled in front of him, she added, ‘No change. No hope, the doctors say.’

 

Hasan didn’t like being spoken to unless he sought or expected answers. He merely gazed at her down the length of his patrician nose and gave no indication that he had heard her, not by the twitch of the brow or the blink of an eye. It was a trick he had learnt in the early years of his diplomatic career. He could silence gossipy peers and garrulous subordinates with his blank, immobile face bereft of any expression whatsoever. Over the years, he had honed ‘the look’ to perfection. It had become one of the most formidable tools in his arsenal. He used it to devastate, quell, silence, intimidate, or at the very least keep unwanted would-be conversationalists at bay.

 

His ‘look’, however, had not the slightest effect on the nurse. She kept up her knitting which, he noticed, she hadn’t stopped or slackened for even a minute since he had entered the room. She offered another comment: ‘No one ever comes to visit her, you know.’

 

The sentence dropped like a stone in a pool of still water.

 

Hasan found his eyes being drawn, as though by a magnet, to the tube that emerged from the tightly tucked blanket, ran a short distance along the metal railing of the bed and emptied its contents into the plastic bag. His eyes sought, no matter how much he schooled himself to look the other way, the passage of rolling liquid in the thin plastic sheath and its steady trickle, drop by amber drop, into the urine bag. His eyes strained to read the white lettering on the thin plastic sheath. The pale yellow contents of the bag made him retch. Once again, he swallowed the nausea that rose deep within him.

 

The nurse was saying ‘She has children, you know, two sons and a daughter but they never come … not since the first week. Now they have given me this mobile,’ and pointing with a sharp jerk of her head to a cell phone that lay on the table beside the bed. ‘They call me to check on her. Sometimes they call her doctor too. Mostly they call me.’ Self-importance laced her tone. ‘I know everything about her condition.’

 

He, Hasan Ahmed, retired ambassador, former representative to the United Nations, a man of unimpeachable good standing and impeccable good taste, was not going to have this conversation with a nurse. That too, a private one, he noted. This garrulous creature with her clacking needles and unremarkable white frock, was not wearing a hospital uniform. She had her hair pulled back, wore no white cap, nor white bib and white stockings. Her unstockinged feet were, he noticed in astonishment, thrust into some sort of high-heeled sandals, their painted red toes peeping out incongruously in an atrocious display of bad taste. Clearly, she was a private nurse hired by the patient’s family to serve as an attendant. She made do with a white frock, but was no trained nurse, he could tell. Not that it mattered whose service she was in. He, Hasan Ahmad, IFS, was not talking to some unknown person paid to sit beside his Azra.

 

His Azra used to wear a twinkling diamond on her small, pert nose. He forced himself to look once again at the woman on the bed. He craned, standing on tiptoe at an awkward angle, holding his jacket with one hand to stop it from grazing the bed and its occupant, to see the other side of the woman’s face. The food pipe slanted across one cheek, coiling around the nostril as it went into the nose. No twinkling diamond adorned her nostril. The nose was small and, yes, oddly pert in that shrunken, gaunt face. He looked away.

 

His Azra used to have the liveliest, brownest eyes he had ever seen. The smoky black surma she applied made them look browner and livelier. The woman in the bed had her eyes closed. She hadn’t applied surma for a very long time; dark rings surrounded her eyes, rings as dark as a raccoon’s. The skin on her eyelids – which were still, unmarked by the slightest quiver – was creased and dry like old parchment.

 

His Azra had a high forehead; her hair parted in the middle and sweeping back in two dark wings, in a style made fashionable by Waheeda Rehman, the film actress. The woman on the bed had a high forehead too. Her hair had been parted in the middle; it winged away in two wide sweeps of grey on either side, showing her temples.

 

Suddenly, he could take it no more. He turned on his heel and left the room.

 

The nurse sat in her chair, knitting.

 

*

 

They had been young once, and very much in love. The memory of those long-gone days rose unbidden.

 

Hasan and Azra had known each other all their lives. Barely two years apart, they were first cousins who had been betrothed to each other virtually from birth. Azra’s mother, Nasho Phuphi was Hasan’s aunt, his father’s younger and favourite sister. The matter had been decided hours after Azra was born. ‘The girl is ours,’ Haroon Mamu, Hasan’s father, had declared. Their fates were sealed. Hasan and Azra would get married.

 

They had played together, fought together. Hasan had taught her to cheat at marbles, climb trees, cut kites, ride the bicycle, throw a punch, stick a leg out to trip the unwary, in short, everything that other children their age did. They lived in separate homes but in the same neighbourhood. Unselfconscious of the differences of gender that would, in later years, place them on different trajectories, they had played house-house and cooked hand culiya – rough and ready gruels of rice, dal and vegetables cooked in tiny earthen pots. Two bricks and a fistful of dry twigs had been their cooking stove, a chipped enamel plate and a bunch of mismatched spoons their only kitchenware.

 

A maulvi sahib had been hired to teach them to read from the Holy Quran. Despite the two-year difference, Azra had galloped ahead, finishing her first reading of all thirty chapters of the Holy Book long before him. New clothes had been made for the special occasion and the extended family invited for an elaborate meal. Hasan had been chided – by the maulvi sahib, his mother, aunt and just about every relative – for being a slow pony. For good measure, he was also chided for still not having memorised the four qul, the four sacred verses that form the cornerstone of a Muslim’s faith.

 

With time, Hasan had been enrolled at the best English-medium missionary school in Lucknow. And Azra, despite shrill opposition from her mother, had been sent to the Karamat Husain Girls’ School, a rather progressive new school for girls from Muslim families, an Urdu-medium school that offered both deeni and duniyavi taleem, a bold combination of religious instruction and secular learning. While he walked to school accompanied by a family retainer, she travelled in a covered doli, a small palanquin-like contraption slung on stout poles carried by two men. But once back from their respective schools, Hasan and Azra were inseparable.

 

They had always been close, tied to each other by an unknown bond. With time, however, the nature of their bond became clear – first to him and, in due course, to her. Hasan was just shy of thirteen when he overheard his mother exchange sharp words with Nasho Phuphi. Their banter, always somewhat pointed, had an extra edge as they lolled about on the takhat, fanning themselves with hand-held fans. Their jokes, always forced, were out to draw blood today as both outdid each other in venom. Egged on by a gaggle of female relatives, the two were out to score points. Dressed in virtually identical clothes – chintz ghararas in muted prints, white tunics that ended way above the knees of their baggy ghararas, and crinkled cotton dupattas that hung askew from their henna-dyed hair – they held diametrically opposite views on virtually everything under the sun. For Nasho Phuphi, a bachpan ki mangni, childhood engagement, signified a match fixed in heaven; but for Hasan’s mother it spelt nothing short of disaster.

 

At thirteen, Hasan had been old enough to sift through the vitriol and grasp the bone of contention; he heard them thrusting and parrying like seasoned duellists, and understood what he had long suspected: his mother and aunt hated each other. But the reason why his mother hit out – always, and with unrelenting hatred – was, he suddenly realised, because he was engaged to be married to Azra. His mother hated the very thought of bringing home her sister-in-law’s daughter, claiming to be against the practice of marrying within the family. But her helplessness in the face of her husband’s wishes didn’t stop her from taking digs at Nasho Phuphi. Nor did Nasho Phuphi ever think of not hitting back. They got on each other’s nerves at the slightest pretext, neither giving in, nor calling a temporary ceasefire. Hasan stood beside the curtain made of khus fibres, soaking in the full implications of these charges and counter-charges, oblivious to the smell of wet earth that arose from the water-drenched khus.

 

That snatch of a conversation, overheard on a hot summer afternoon, changed everything for Hasan. He became protective, caring, concerned about Azra – but no longer in a brotherly sort of way. He was going to marry Azra when he grew up. It had been decided. His mother and aunt could fight as much as they liked; but word had been given: his father’s solemn word to his Nasho Phuphi.

 

A few years later, Azra too understood. He didn’t know when or how. He just knew. He saw the change in her and knew that she knew. There was no time to ask. He had turned fifteen and was now expected to go away to a boarding school in the foothills. He went away, secure in the knowledge that she knew. By the time he came back for his first winter vacation, she had stopped calling him ‘Hasan Bhai’. For the two weeks when he was home, she didn’t call him anything at all. In fact, she hardly spoke to him. Moreover, she was suddenly unrecognisable. Gone were the gangly, bare legs and cotton frocks; she wore churidar pajamas and long-sleeved tops with a dupatta looped around her neck like a scarf. Gone too were the tomboyish ways. She didn’t climb trees, nor did she run around chasing falling kites, at least not while he was around. Her nose had been pierced in his absence. In it, she wore a twig from the neem tree that grew in her courtyard – it was meant to heal her newly-pierced nose and keep the hole from closing. Hasan’s father, her Haroon Mamu, had promised her a diamond nose pin but that would be later, when she was older, maybe when she finished high school, he heard her tell someone.

 

It was better when he came home during the long summer vacations. The two of them chatted with the effortless ease of their childhood, though she didn’t call him Hasan Bhai anymore like she used to. They trooped in and out of each other’s homes, drank phalsa sherbet, and watched reruns of Johnnie Walker films from balcony seats at the Novelty theatre with the extended family in tow, but they no longer fell on each other, laughing and holding their sides like they used to. Nor would he go running up the stairs to the rooftop, pulling her along by the hand, to show her something amusing in the street below. And when they went to the mango grove owned by Haroon Mamu in the outskirts of the city, they still took long rides on the makeshift swing that dangled from the branches of an old tree, but never together. The physical closeness of childhood was gone, forever. They would jump back self-consciously if their hands touched, while passing a dish along the dining table or picking a fallen book. Her brown eyes would occasionally flash mischievously, then look away. She had taken to wearing surma in her eyes, he noticed one day. It made her eyes look lively and very, very brown – a liquid brown, if there was such a thing.

 

When school re-opened and it was time for him to go back, they parted like good friends, agreeing to write to each other. And they did write long, chatty letters brimming with wit and humour, and scintillating pen portraits of those around them. Azra’s letters, written in chaste Urdu, were the high point of Hasan’s schooldays. They brought news of his family and friends back home. They also brought them closer, closer than all the years they had spent growing up as cousins and neighbours. They were friends now, though the promise of something else glimmered in the not-too-distant future, limning their lives, adding something extra, something that their friends lacked. It was this unexplained ‘extra’, this indefinable something that set them apart from their peers and, at the same time, brought them close to each other, drew them by the promise of a life they would spend together.

 

The childhood engagement was a seal. Young though they were, they knew its solemnity and sanctity.

 

*

 

Hasan’s reverie was broken by the insistent ring of the telephone. His brother Munne was on the line. ‘Did you go to the hospital, Hasan Bhai? Have you seen Azra Apa?’

 

Munne was the youngest in the family, younger even than Azra by several years. He lived in Washington, D.C., but kept himself remarkably well informed about various members of the once-large family and kept in touch with the few close relatives they had left. It was he who had told Hasan about Azra, given him the name of the hospital and the room number. It was Munne, oddly enough, who kept in touch with distant members of the family, some of whom he hadn’t met since his infancy. Being the youngest, he seemed the least tainted by the past. Living overseas, he seemed more connected, somehow, more engaged in keeping alive the notion of a family. The bile and the venom, the squabbles and intrigues, the loss and heartbreaks had eddied and swirled way over his head, leaving him untouched, his innocence intact, his belief in family ties unbroken.

 

Hasan, on the other hand, had moved on. He had neither the time nor the inclination to stay abreast of family news. His job had taken him all over the world. Living in new cities, meeting new people, learning new languages, sampling new cuisines, and understanding new cultures was far more interesting than getting drawn into petty family intrigues and politics. He had come to this decision long ago and relentlessly pursued his own interests. And, lately, since his retirement, his golf handicap had become of overriding concern to him. He played golf four times a week, spending the better part of the day at the golf club. The remaining three days were spent at the Centre for Foreign Affairs, where he was part of the think tank on foreign policy and defence issues. His days were full and well spent. He was fit and busy. The golf kept him lean and wiry; the centre kept him in the company of like-minded people, one among equals.

 

Hasan had deliberately distanced himself from his past. He had kept nothing of his old family home in his apartment – no sepia-tinted photographs, no paintings or heirlooms, no antiques or knick-knacks – nothing, in fact, that reminded him of what once was. But Munne’s phone call had shattered his calm. That was yesterday.

 

Munne had been very insistent. He had some terrible news; he had to share it at all costs. ‘Hasan Bhai, hear me out,’ he had said. ‘Azra Apa is very ill. She is in a coma, and is barely holding out. The end can come any time. You must go to her. Please, for god’s sake, go before it is too late. Go to her, please, Hasan Bhai,’ he had almost pleaded when the line had begun to crackle with Hasan’s stoic silence.

 

And Hasan, who had ceased worrying over anything whatsoever, had spent a sleepless night. He had tossed and turned, remembering a lot of things he hadn’t cared to remember for a very long time.

 

Makhdum Mohiuddin had been one of Azra’s favourite poets. In a letter, one of the last she had sent him before everything had ended, she had written these lines from Makhdum:

Your thought kept coming and going
Like my breath, all night long

 

And he had answered, drawing upon his meagre knowledge of Urdu poetry, sending her these lines by Sahir Ludhainvi whom he had heard at one of the mushairas at Lucknow University:

Come, let us weave our dreams for tomorrow

Or else, this night from these hard times

Shall sting us, and for the rest of our lives

We shall never again be able to weave another beautiful dream

 

Love had blossomed early between them, when both had been very young, perhaps too young to know that a thing of such beauty and fragility cannot last forever. For, a flower, no matter how sturdy the branch it grows on or how deep the roots of the tree that bears it, can have only one of two fates: bear fruit, or fall off the branch. No flower can expect to linger forever. So it is with young love; it must either find union or wither away.

 

Once old enough to know better, Hasan and Azra had expected to find union. In fact, they had almost taken it as a matter of course. Their destinies had been written, their fate sealed, their lives belonged to each other. That was why they had sailed through their teenage years, hurrying into adulthood, rushing headlong towards the future. The years at school had passed in a happy blur of long letters and longer vacations. Almost effortlessly, Hasan had moved from the school in the foothills first, to the Christian College for his intermediate, and then the venerable Lucknow University. Trailing two years behind him, Azra had taken the inter exam, being among a half-dozen Muslim girls who had continued their studies, most of her friends having either dropped off or chosen to take the school-leaving exam as private candidates. Bursting with pride, her Haroon Mamu had bought the twinkling diamond nose pin that he had promised years ago.

 

At sixteen, Azra had already stepped across that mysterious barrier that turns a girl into a woman. Her skin glowed, her eyes shone, her teeth gleamed. She was ready to be married. Her mother fretted at the needless delay while her aunt, Hasan’s mother, looked on with ill-concealed rancour. How bitterly she mocked Azra’s penchant for collecting fresh bela flowers from the creeper that grew in Hasan’s home. Azra would come every day to pluck a handful of the white, fragrant blossoms, just before the courtyard was sprinkled with water and the family gathered to drink sherbet and complain about the heat. Sitting with the flowers in her lap, she would thread some into tiny garlands that she would then loop around the mouths of the clay pots kept in the cool of the verandah and filled with drinking water. Some she would wear as buttons on her white muslin kurta and the rest in her ears, studded in her earlobes like ornaments. Long summer evenings and the scent of bela flowers fused interchangeably in Hasan’s memory. Their scent was everywhere. It wafted in the breeze that rustled the creeper laden with white blossoms. The cool water, served in gleaming silver katoras, smelt faintly of bela flowers. And Azra, cutting betel nuts for the paan dan or folding paan for the tray being sent to the men’s drawing room, floated in a cloud of sweet innocence.

 

And now, he had come back from seeing her at death’s door. He changed his clothes and washed his hands, again and again, but nothing could get rid of the smell that clung to him. In his mind’s eye, he saw the tube snaking out of Azra’s bed and emptying its contents into a bulging plastic bag. He gagged at the memory of the rank, foetid smell in her room. The smell was coming back to haunt him, the smell of incense, clamour, death and disarray. The clicking beads of rosaries, the hum of prayers, the white sheets, the throngs of long-forgotten relatives, the coming and going, the shouting … how hard he had run and how far in order to leave his past behind! Ya Allah, was he never going to be free of it?

 

*

 

The smell was overwhelming. It made him draw a quick, sharp breath. His fingers clenched around the leaf-covered packet that he held in one hand as he strode into the room.

 

The nurse sat in the straight-backed chair at the foot of the bed, facing the patient. She glanced up from her knitting and gazed at him entirely without curiosity for a second as he entered the room.

 

There she lay, his Azra.

 

‘She’s the same,’ the nurse volunteered the information without being asked.

 

This time Hasan nodded once, a barely perceptible shake of his head.

 

He unwrapped the leaf-covered packet and drew out a handful of fresh bela flowers. Their delicate fragrance filled the room, drowning all other smells.

 

‘Flowers are not allowed near the patient,’ the nurse spoke up in alarm, as though fearful of their tremulous beauty.

 

Hasan ignored this interruption and proceeded to place the flowers in a small mound near Azra’s pillow. Having arranged the flowers in a neat pyramid and tossed the leaf wrapping in the bedpan that doubled up as a waste bin, he turned to eye the nurse with a basilisk look. ‘Please leave us. I am going to sit with her for some time,’ he spoke in a tone that brooked no arguments. That tone had brought many junior diplomats on their feet and scurrying out of the door in a flash. It had much the same effect on the nurse. She shot out of her chair, gathered her knitting from her lap and left the room.

 

Hasan walked around the bed and occupied the chair vacated by the nurse. He pulled it close to the head of the bed, so close that the IV drip brushed past his elbow. He could see the small, pert nose from here. One nostril, the one facing him, had a mole-sized hole. It was empty – neither a twig from a neem tree, nor a twinkling diamond.

 

How his mother had erupted into a volcano of fury when his father had bought the diamond nose pin! ‘It is diamonds today; tomorrow you will gift away all your property to them!’ she had raged. ‘As though you have no other family! What of your other children? And what of your younger son? What will be left for him if you squander it all away on them?’

 

His father had tried to reason. ‘It is only a bauble, a nose pin, for heaven’s sake … Just a trinket I promised the little girl. Who said anything about gifting away property? And what do you mean by “them”? Who else am I giving away things to?’

 

But his mother had been unstoppable. The diamond pin had been like a red rag to a bull. That evening, when Azra came to Hasan’s house, flashing the diamond nose pin, Hasan’s mother had pounced upon her with the ferocity of a roused tigress. As Azra walked towards the bela creeper, intent upon gathering the white blossoms in the fold of her dupatta, Hasan’s mother had gripped Azra by the elbow and turned her around. From a distance, Hasan had seen the surma-lined twinkling brown eyes go round with fear and surprise. He had seen Azra’s lips contort into a grimace of pain as his mother’s fingers dug into Azra’s arms. He had heard his mother’s voice, laced with venom, as she had hissed, ‘All this won’t do in my house. This is a respectable household, not a nautch girl’s kotha. Go there if you are so fond of wearing flowers.’

 

And Azra, her eyes now filled with tears, had fled.

 

And Hasan? What had he done? Nothing. He had waited. In a few days, Azra would forget her hurt. She would come around. She always did; after all, who could take his mother seriously? And Azra did, eventually, get over her hurt. A week later, she was back at the bela creeper, gathering flowers, tying sweet-smelling little garlands around the clay pots of drinking water, leaving fragrant mounds near the big gao takhiyas, the long sausage-shaped pillows that lined one end of the takhat. But she stopped wearing bela flowers in her ears that summer.

 

The summer fused and merged with many other summers. As he sat beside Azra’s bed, Hasan sifted through many memories, memories he had turned his back upon. Now they pushed and shoved, jostling to come to the surface in a half-crazed scramble, piling one on top of the other, tumbling out as though in a brilliant kaleidoscope. The slightest shake of his head, and the pile would change shape, fresh patterns would form, new colours emerge from broken shards he had kept stored inside his head. He looked at the tiny pyramid of flowers beside Azra’s pillow and was transported to another life, one he had lived and known, yet allowed to slip away.

 

They used to sleep on the rooftops, out in the open under the stars. That was the only bearable way to pass the hot summer nights before the rains came. It used to be quite pleasant, actually. The roof would be sprinkled with cold water from the well by the bhishti, who came by just before it was time to make the beds. The bhishti – employed round the clock by the family to draw water, fill the pots, water the gardens and do various odd jobs around the house – carried the water in a goat skin slung around his back. He kept the open end puckered up in his hand, and sprinkled the water through his fingers in great, flashing arcs of flying droplets.

 

After the roof had been watered so as to soak in the heat of the day and press down loose dirt, someone would pull out the wooden cots woven with cord twining that had been stacked under an awning to protect them from the sun. Another servant, usually a young girl, would bring up the thin rolls of cotton-stuffed mattresses, place them on the beds, and cover them with plain white sheets. White pillows with a profusion of embroidered flowers and buttery yellow made-in-Mau sheets, just in case the dew caused a chill to creep into one’s bones in the early hours before dawn, completed each set of bedding. The beds would be placed in a row – on one side of the roof for the men, and a short distance away for the women and young children, the younger ones would sleep two to a bed. People would begin trooping up to the roof well past dinner, after they had finished tweaking the ears of the radio, or reading, or playing cards, or eating paan. Done with the day’s chores, drained by the oppressive heat of the day, one sought the rooftop with single-minded intensity. A place of unmatched enchantment, it could lull you to the sweetest, soundest sleep. Covered in the gossamer blanket of moonlight, comforted by the sight of the stars hanging low enough in the skies to be touched, one slept the sleep of the innocent. Lately, someone had taken to slipping a few sprigs of bela flowers under Hasan’s pillow. When and how Azra managed it was a mystery. She lived several doors away and now that she was grown up, Hasan’s mother had begun keeping a sharp eye on her entering and leaving the house.

 

The year Azra turned sixteen was also the one in which Hasan began his second year at the university. He had another year to go before he got his BA degree. And after that, he could either study law like his father or better still, sit for one of the competitive examinations. He could join the MA course and stay at the hostel and study like many of his friends from school had done. Either way, he had a long haul ahead. He had many years of toil to get through if he wished to do anything substantial in his life. Till then, the moonlit summer nights were his closest brush with happiness. The scent of flowers, fresh and pristine white in the balmy night air, wafted from his pillow, filling his senses with the promise held out by the future. He was content to bide his time, content that Azra was his, and would always be by his side.

 

Meanwhile, his mother was not content. Far from it. Azra was a thorn that was stuck in her side by an unkind, unthinking fate. She did not want that beautiful, delicate creature taking over her home. Her husband and son were already besotted with her. What would they do once she began living with them? And the creature’s mother? She was already insufferable; would she not make her life miserable once her daughter became the queen of the household? And so Hasan’s mother found every excuse to delay her son’s impending wedding. Azra’s mother, restive at the thought of holding on to her engaged but unmarried daughter, began to press for an immediate and early ceremony: How long could she keep an unmarried daughter at home? She had to think of her younger daughters too. Who would marry them if Azra was still sitting at home?

 

And so the battle of wits continued. Hasan’s mother tried every trick in the book to stall her son’s wedding and thwart her sister-in-law. Reluctant to get drawn into the women’s domain, Hasan’s father stayed away from the battleground. Two more years passed. Two more summers spent on starlit summer-drenched rooftops, sleeping with a sprig of bela flowers under his profusely embroidered pillow. And with every passing year, Azra grew lovelier. At eighteen, she was poised, warm and intelligent. Well-read, well-mannered, well-bred, and, as her letters revealed, loving too, she was everything Hasan wanted in a mate. Passionate in her desire to embrace the future, she would couch her longing in Makhdum’s verses:

Your thoughts came and went
Like my breath, all night long

 

Like the flower that has bloomed on the branch, their love couldn’t last forever. It had to either find union or wither away.

 

*

 

Hasan overcame his dread of hospitals and put both his elbows on the bed. He leaned in and peered at Azra’s face. She had been so fair once, with a peaches-and-cream complexion, the fine, golden hair on her smooth, rounded cheeks reminded him of the velvety down on a fresh, juicy peach. But the Azra who lay on the hospital bed looked like a dried old kernel: with the sap long gone and the life sucked out, she was left shrivelled and shrunken. With her skin almost corklike in its dryness, her high forehead marked by long furrows, and her cheeks loose and flaccid, she was as withered and brown as the bela flowers that carpeted the ground near the creeper and which were swept away by the sweeper woman when she scoured the courtyard with her long-handled broom. The lushness leached from the milky petals, they would look wrinkled and wilted, the freshness soiled. The fragrance having long since fled, the flowers would have a cloying, sickly smell. Like the smell of death.

 

Of its own volition, Hasan’s hand reached out and held Azra’s hand, the one with the cannula inserted in its back. The pliant, lithe arms that had lent such grace to her willowy body were stick-like and brittle, their skin mottled and wizened. Careful not to dislodge the needle kept in place by a strip of white sticking plaster, he held her hand between both of his own. Her hand was thin and claw-like, the fingers calloused and bony, the nails long and yellowing. ‘What good is that wretched nurse?’ he asked aloud in sheer vexation. The least she could do was look after her patient instead of knitting all day long. She could trim Azra’s nails, tie the hair away from her face and throw the urine bag instead of leaving it in the bedpan.

 

As he sat there holding Azra’s inert, lifeless hand, the smell of death rose up and assailed his senses. Once again, nausea rose deep from his gut. Once again, he clenched his teeth to stop from gagging. But this time he allowed the memories to perform their macabre dance in front of him. This time there was no looking away. He had run long and hard; he could run no more. Sitting beside Azra’s bed as she hung between life and death, he allowed himself to remember that day when everything had begun to unravel, the day the future stopped beckoning him and he turned his back on his past.

 

He must have been twenty years old. In his first year of MA, he had gone to Kashmir on an educational tour. The class of thirty was intent on having fun, cramming each day with sightseeing, boat rides and horse riding. Back from an overnight trip to Pahalgam, he was greeted by a telegram: ‘Father Ill Stop Come Immediately’. It had been sent two days before. Hasan rushed back home, taking the bus till Pathankot and then the Punjab Mail to Lucknow. He made it just in time for the soyam, the ceremony that marks the third day of mourning.

 

His father was dead. He had been buried three days ago; not knowing how long it might take for Hasan to get back, it had been decided that it was best not to wait. And so, Hasan found himself walking into a house of mourning. The men’s sitting room was packed with friends, neighbours and colleagues from the court. Groups of young lawyers, his father’s juniors, stood around. Spilling all the way from the front verandah to the road outside was a gaggle of his father’s clients, many of them from the small mofussil towns and villages outside Lucknow. Strangers came up to him with words of condolence, little realising that he was numb with shock; he had rushed home expecting his father to be ill, not dead and buried.

 

Like a sleepwalker, Hasan walked through the milling crowd to the relative quiet of the women’s section. It was equally crowded but quieter. Every stick of furniture had been pushed against the walls. White sheets were spread out all over the verandah and the courtyard. Groups of women sat cross-legged on the floor, either quietly talking among themselves in hushed whispers or telling the beads of the rosary or reading from the Quran Sharif. Several old biddies, toothless and bent, sat murmuring prayers. He searched for his mother in that sea of women. The scent of incense from countless incense sticks swamped his senses. They must have been burning it for the past three days; the air was thick with it. It was also filled with a strange buzzing sound; it came, he realised after several perplexing moments, from the old women who were rocking slightly as they murmured verses from the Holy Quran, verses that they knew by heart, and which were meant to bring peace to the bereaved family, for death was bar-haq – that which lives must die.

 

Suddenly a woman got up, looked at him, and let out a piercing cry. It was his mother. He barely recognised her in her white dupatta. He rushed towards her as she half-swooned, half-fell. A young girl, who had been sitting somewhere close by, shot to her feet and tried to hold his mother, to keep her from falling. It was Azra. But Hasan’s mother shook off her hands, saying loudly and clearly, ‘Keep your hands off me. Are you not content?’

 

As Hasan picked his way across the white sheets as though walking across a minefield, dodging groups of women sitting on the floor in tight, impenetrable clusters, he saw a strange tableau unfold itself. A third figure rose from its sitting position and joined his mother and Azra; it was his Nasho Phuphi. ‘Is this any way to talk? What has she done?’ Azra’s mother shot back, glaring and spluttering.

 

Hasan felt a hush descend upon the verandah and the large courtyard beyond. The women stopped whatever they were doing: the rosaries stopped clicking, the bodies stopped rocking, the prayer books stayed unread, and the verses stopped mid-chant. Everyone swivelled their heads around. No one wanted to miss any part of the drama that was about to play itself before their eyes. The certainty of intemperance hung in the air, heavy as the scent of incense, and just as cloying.

 

‘What has she done?’ Hasan’s mother screamed, quite beside herself by now with a blind, incoherent rage. Beating her chest with both her clenched fists, she cried, ‘She has killed my husband. She has made me a widow. She is the serpent I have been keeping in my home, feeding her since the accursed day she was born. She has stung him and he is gone…’ Hasan’s mother would have gone on, but someone from the crowd said, ‘Control yourself, Hasan’s mother. Meet your son. He has just walked in.’ At this, Nasho Phuphi moved towards Hasan, as though to embrace him. But Hasan’s mother knocked down her outstretched hands and tried to push her away. Nasho Phuphi, taken aback by the vehemence of the shove, tripped on her gharara and fell on a group of women squatting nearby. Commotion broke out among the mourners, rippling in ever-rising waves as the women who had been sitting on the outer fringes surged to get a closer look.

 

‘Stay away from my son, you witch! You have eaten up his father; now you want to swallow him too?’ Hasan’s mother screeched. Meanwhile, Nasho Phuphi had picked herself from the floor. She launched herself at Hasan’s mother, her arms flailing, her fingers clawing the air, ‘How dare you? You are a witch! You never gave a day’s joy to my poor dead brother! My poor Haroon Bhai, how he suffered because of you … you mean-spirited ugly old hag, you dried-up stick insect, you piece of…’ The torrent of abuses would have flown endlessly had Azra not inserted herself between the two women.

 

It was then that Hasan saw her properly for the first time since he had entered the courtyard and found himself drowning in a sea of women, their heads covered in white dupattas making them almost indistinguishable. Azra was ashen-faced, looking nearly as white as the dupatta that covered her head. She began pulling her mother away, holding her wildly flailing arms in both her hands, shushing her, begging her to be quiet, turning her away from Hasan’s mother and the fury the two women generated. Someone got up from the floor and helped Azra guide her mother across the courtyard to the small door that opened into the back alley. Azra took her mother through the door and out, turning back once to look at him, just one quick glance thrown over her shoulder as she half-pulled half-carried her mother out of sight.

 

The crowd was tittering openly now. The women were talking among themselves, not bothering to lower their voices. Some were even laughing. Some men had come in too, drawn by the raised voices and the commotion. Word was spreading. And Hasan, who had been standing rooted to the spot while the ugly little melodrama played itself out, turned away and made his way back through the knots of women sitting on the floor.

 

Behind him, he heard his mother wail. ‘My son, my son … They will kill him too, like they killed his father. They are witches, I tell you. They know black magic. Someone, please, save my son …’

 

Hasan sought the sanctuary of his room and shut himself out of the madness. Such hatred, such soul-destroying animosity, such anger that even death could not douse. He shook his head in disbelief. His father, who had somehow kept this mutual abhorrence from spiralling out of control, was gone. Who could take his place?

 

When he emerged from his room several hours later, someone told him how his father had been feeling out of sorts for some time, complaining of a weight pressing against his chest. Azra had been with him all the time, tending to him, feeding him the few spoonfuls that he was able to digest, massaging his neck and shoulders, fanning him. And when he had keeled over suddenly, in the middle of the night, it was Azra who had run around like a possessed creature, trying to get help. By the time the doctor arrived, it was too late. Hasan’s father had had a heart attack; he was gone before he could be taken to the hospital.

 

It was then that Hasan’s mother had first openly raged and ranted at Azra, accusing her of being a witch. And later, as the body was being taken away for the ritual bathing before the burial, she had lost control again. The man who had compelled her to adopt a semblance of civility towards Nasho Phuphi and her daughter was gone. Nothing could stop Hasan’s mother from venting her long-held, almost visceral hatred for the mother–daughter duo. Several relatives tried to intervene, clicking their tongues and saying such intemperate language was not appropriate for a house of bereavement. After all, the body was not yet cold. But Hasan’s mother could not be subdued.

 

While all this was going on, Azra had had a telegram sent to Kashmir. Knowing that Hasan wouldn’t be able to make it in time for the burial and not wishing to cause him distress while he was so far away from home, she had instructed that the telegram should only mention illness, not death.

 

Hasan heard about this and scooted back to his room. He knew he should make an effort and sit with the other male relatives in the men’s sitting room. As the older son, he was expected to be there. In his heart, he also knew that he should sit with his mother for some time, and that he should meet Nasho Phuphi, who had lost a brother she loved. He should see Azra and try and remove the look of dumb terror he had seen on her face. He knew he should make an effort and go out. But he didn’t. He stayed locked in his room. He met his mother face to face only once, when she barged into his room late into the night and declared that he could marry Azra whenever he wished, but he must do so over her dead body, for, as long as she was alive, that witch could not set foot in her house.

 

The next day too, Hasan stayed in his room, not doing anything, just sitting in a chair and looking out of the window. Occasionally, someone would knock on his door, or a servant would bring him tea or a glass of water but, by and large, he met no one. He didn’t stir out of the house.

 

On the third day since his return, an old crone of an aunt, a great-grand aunt, actually, hobbled into his room and told him that Nasho Phuphi had broken her daughter’s engagement and vowed to get her married to someone else. In fact, she would have Azra married the day the family finished the forty-day mourning period. On the forty-first day from the day Haroon Bhai died, her daughter’s bridal procession would leave her house. And she, Nasho Phuphi had been announcing to all and sundry, would find a far better match for Azra than Hasan.

 

Hasan heard these words and slunk further into his shell. He thought briefly of the surma-lined eyes that had looked at him as Azra left with her mother in ignominious haste. He thought briefly of going to Azra’s house and begging Nasho Phuphi to not do anything foolish. He thought also of going to his mother and telling her sternly to stop talking of witches and black magic. He thought of seeking out Azra and wiping away that hunted look of terror from her face. But he did nothing of the sort. For several days, he continued to skulk in his room, coming out briefly to forage for food. And then one morning, without telling anyone anything, he shifted into the hostel. He had been meaning to move into the men’s residence at the university in his final year of MA, but now seemed as good a time as any to move out of his house.

 

After that, he kept moving – running, in fact – so far and so fast that he never stopped to look back. Till now. Now, when he found himself sitting beside Azra’s bed. He hadn’t seen her for years, fifty to be precise. She had been eighteen then, and he twenty.

 

Exactly on the day after his father’s chaliswan, the fortieth day that marks the end of mourning, Azra was married. Hasan stayed away, naturally. She moved to another city. Her husband worked for a bank and they moved from one city to another. Not that Hasan kept track. No, he was resolute. Having seen the ugliness of warring families, he wanted nothing more to do with them. He himself never married. In fact, he cut all ties with home and hearth as he sat for the entrance examination of the combined civil services. Once selected for the foreign service, he packed his bags and moved wherever the job took him, always on the go, always one step ahead of the future. And, in all the years since, he had never paused, never looked back.

 

Not till now. Not till he had heard of Azra. Now, sitting beside her, he was consumed by the past which he had tried so hard to forget. If only he had stood up to his mother. If only he had gone to meet Nasho Phuphi, mollified her and told her he would marry her daughter, no matter what his mother might say. If only he had been a man.

 

A tear slipped down Hasan Ahmed’s face. It fell on Azra’s hand as it lay clasped between his palms. The single, large tear drop fell with a splash, flattening out as it met her parched skin, its wetness spreading like a warm spill over the cool dryness of her inert hand.

 

Hasan thought he felt a slight flicker in the fingers that had been lying still and lifeless between his warm hands. He looked up and saw her eyelids flutter. Was she trying to open her eyes? Could she see him? Could she hear him? Could she smell the bela flowers heaped so close beside her?

 

Her chest heaved, once, as though she had sighed. After that, there was no movement, not even a flicker.

 

In the distance, somewhere down the corridor, perhaps near the nurse’s station, Hasan could hear an alarm go off. The blood pressure monitor above Azra’s bed was on the blink. It showed no reading; instead, a red light flashed on and off.

 

Azra had found her release.

 

*


This story first appeared in the collection Release and Other Stories, HarperCollins, 2011. It is reproduced with permission.

*

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, Harper Collins, 2015. She runs an organization called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularization of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture. Her debut collection of fiction, Release & Other Stories, was published by Harper Collins 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. Her translated work from Urdu to English has appeared in Out of Print. She writes regularly for major newspapers such as Hindustan Times, Indian Express, The Hindu as well as magazines such as Outlook, Scroll, The Wire.