The Yellow Rose by Razia Sajjad Zaheer, Translated from Urdu by Raza Naeem
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Yes, this is the same picture, the one which had hung in our dining room for god knows how long, the same one, a huge heavy picture that covered almost half the wall, the same frame, this wide golden frame woven with an embroidered lattice. Incidentally, its polish had worn out everywhere. There was the same meeting of dark and red in the background, as if the dark of night was advancing over the drowning golden red of the sun; the dusky green tablecloth in front, whose sheen revealed it to be of plush or velvet; a large round cut glass flower vase, part of which glittered in the light coming through the window; a bunch of big colourful roses in the vase, and next to it, a yellow rose placed on the tablecloth. Perhaps the painter had made it yellow because its fate was to wither away, to be the first to leave its companions, separated from all the other flowers. How had it fallen!? Why was it alone? It appeared to be so weak and helpless. It seemed as if all the other roses were looking at it with longing but could not do anything to help it, they could not  pick it up and it could join them in the bunch.

 

I had been seeing this picture since I was very young. Beneath it was the fireplace and between the two, a stone mantelpiece, a thin marble slab on which there were photographs of many relatives. In the winter, the crackling fire of the wood would scatter sparks, and our late Abba would sometimes sit there and recite the verses of Mir Anees for us. When the flames would leap high, their glow would fall on that yellow rose, when the lights were out, the yellow rose could be seen in the darkness, and when the first ray of the sun fell in from the skylight at the crack of dawn, for a brief moment, the rose seemed to come alive.

 

This was the busiest room in the house, full of hustle and bustle. The whole family would gather here for an occasion, there would be parties, poetry recitals, jokes would be narrated. Sometimes when the adults were not around we kids would have pillow fights and play dark room after closing the windows and putting out the lights. At these moments, sometimes, my eyes would suddenly fall on that rose and I would stop short while playing. How did it get separated from the others? How much better it would have been had it too been in the vase full of roses of all colours. Why was it not put back? Maybe it was put in but fell out. How did it slip out?

 

I remember that one day I had quietly tried to touch the yellow rose. I had climbed on to a chair that I put it on a small table which I moved into place and touched the rose by extending my hand, but it just felt a bit cold, that’s it. It was not as attractive when viewed in proximity as it was from afar, appearing just to be a rough yellow stain.

 

Then one day while having breakfast, I asked Ammi, ‘Ammi, who made this painting?’ My mother was taciturn in her response, silent!

 

Abba glanced at her, then turned to me and said, ‘Beti, it was made by your maamu.’

 

‘Who, Baqir Maamu?’

 

‘No – you have not seen that particular Maamu of yours, he painted, he was very sick, he gifted it to your ammi, he was her paternal cousin.’

 

‘But Abba, I do not like this painting,’ I said.

 

Ammi looked at me, startled. ‘Why jaan beti, why don’t you like it?’

 

‘Ammi, why has Maamu thrown this yellow rose down from the bunch? Why didn’t he place it there, in the vase? Abba how did it get separated from the other roses?’

 

Abba stood up, turned to look at the painting once, then at Ammi; she sat silently with her head bowed. Then he caressed me and left for college.

 

I kept looking at the painting , while eating my porridge, sitting on the chair.

 

The background of twilight, the darkness advancing over light, the green plush tablecloth like shiny silky grass grown over a fresh grave, the glittering cut glass flower vase, the bunch of colourful roses – and apart from the others, farthest of all, separate from the others, withering – that one yellow rose!

 

Then time dripped by, drop by drop – and ceased where I got a telegram that Ammi had passed away. She had been ill only for a few days and had written asking me not to come. How will you travel with two young children? When I get better, I’ll come myself. So I arrived when the whole  building had turned to ruin with the falling of a column. The household had become smaller by just one person, but she had taken the entire cheer of the home with her.

 

As per her wishes, my abba gave the key to her room to me. ‘Take this beti, probably everything is marked with what should be done with it, so it won’t be too much trouble for you. Your mother arranged everything when she was not yet too ill; she probably knew that she would not survive.’

 

When I going to Ammi’s room through the dining room, I saw that the painting was not there. The spot above the fireplace was empty, although there was a slight line of dust and cobweb marking where the painting had been, making a sort of frame. My heart leapt in anxiety – I could not remember a time when that painting had not been there. I rushed back to Abba in the corridor. ‘Abba – why did you have that painting of roses removed from the fireplace?’

 

‘Beti, it was removed by your Ammi herself, she had it placed in her room.’

 

I opened Ammi’s room.

 

No obligation is harder on the spirit than to receive things owned by a dear departed. Sometimes one feels an affection for the things, that they once belonged to him or her; sometimes hatred, that if they could not be faithful to him or her, how could they ever be faithful to anybody else. One by one a storm of memories was arising – when it was bought, where, with how much keenness, with what fondness it was brought home to be shown to everyone with relish – this was given by so and so, on the birthday, on the new year, on Eid, on the wedding anniversary – everything had a tag – to be given to whom, when, why, directions even for the mattress, silk blanket and dolai on the bed.

 

The aroma of incense filled the entire room, creating a mysterious, spiritual atmosphere, and also some suffocation, which disturbed me.

 

When I retraced my steps to the door to close it after viewing all the furniture, my elbow collided with the wall – it was kept on the floor against the wall near the door. It had appeared so huge when hung on the wall, but it appeared even larger now, placed on the floor; there was a thin almond-coloured paper wrapped around it, tied with a string.

 

At once, I wanted to see it. For years while eating with Ammi, it was there, hung in front, whenever I came home from my in-laws, above the fireplace, often Ammi had embraced me beneath it when I arrived, had said Khuda Hafiz caressing me when I was leaving. It was as if that painting was a part of Ammi’s existence. I could not feel that I had come to Ammi’s home without seeing it.

 

I untied the string and removed the paper. In a corner of the golden frame where the polish was greatly worn was a tiny scrap of paper, folded, stuck between the frame and one end of the painting – my heart began to beat – what if Ammi had willed this painting too to be given to someone, it wasn’t unlike her generosity to gift it away! But nobody else could have it except me. I would not let anyone give it away! Afraid, I took out the folded scrap, my name was written on it!

 

I unfolded the scrap with trembling hands and trickling tears, the words appeared misty from behind the curtain of tears. She had written:
Zarina beti – you once asked me how this yellow rose got separated from the bunch. You were too young at that time, how could I make you understand. There are many things a man can never bring to his tongue, not even say to his own children. But now, time will make you understand how someone separates himself from his dear ones with complete helplessness and weakness. No flower wants to leave the bunch, but it has to leave. I hold this painting dearer than all my things, so this is for you. I will not have any home now, but may God preserve your home. Put it over the fireplace in your dining room and love it always.

 

Your Ammi

 

Yes, so this is the same painting, the background of twilight, the darkness advancing over light, the green plush tablecloth like the shiny silk grass grown over a fresh grave, the glittering cut-glass flower vase, the bunch of colourful roses – and set apart from the others, farthest away, separate from all, withering – that one yellow rose! 

 

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Published in Urdu as ‘Zard Gulaab’ in Zard Gulaab, Seema Publications, 1981

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Translator’s Note: Razia Sajjad Zaheer (1917-1979) was one of Urdu’s most accomplished but least celebrated and acknowledged women writers. In a field boasting of the likes of her predecessors like Rashid Jahan and contemporaries like Ismat Chughtai, she held her own in her own lifetime. However unlike Jahan and Chughtai, following her passing away, her voluminous oeuvre of work consisting of six novels, numerous collections of short stories and more than forty translations (including those from Bertolt Brecht and Chingiz Aitmatov) await critical appraisal as well as translation into English. 2017-2018 marks her birth centenary year, and this translation from the Urdu is presented here in the hope that it will spur renewed interest in her life and work.

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Razia Sajjad Zaheer was a novelist, short-story writer and translator born in Ajmer in 1917. She won the Nehru Award in 1966. She contributed short stories to eminent journals like Phool, Tehzib-e-Nisvaan and Ismat from childhood on. Her other works include the Urdu novels Allah Megh De, reissue 2011; Sar-e-Shaam, 1953; Kaante, 1954 and Suman, 1963; the short-story collections Zard Gulaab, 1981 and Allah De Banda Le, 1984 and the children’s books Nehru ka Bhateeja, 1954 and Sultan Zainul Abidin Budshah,1973. She passed away in 1979.

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Raza Naeem is a Pakistani social scientist, book critic and an award-winning translator and dramatic reader based in Lahore. He is currently the president of the Progressive Writers Association in Lahore. His most recent publication is an introduction to the reissued edition of Abdullah Hussein’s classic Partition novel The Weary Generations, HarperCollins India, 2016. He is also translating Hussein's novel Qaid into English. He can be reached at razanaeem@hotmail.com.