Short Story in Translation

“Do you suppose it’s the east wind?”: An Urdu short story in translation

Print edition : May 21, 2021

Altaf Fatima (1927-2018), the author of this short story, was born in Lucknow. During the partition, she migrated to Lahore, where she earned an M.A and B.Ed from the University of Punjab. She is counted as a leading figure among women Urdu writers and has published several collections of short stories and novels. Her second novel was translated into English as “The One Who Did Not Ask” (Oxford: Heinemann, 1993).

Altaf Fathima’s “Do you suppose it is the east wind?'” is excerpted from “The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told”, selected and translated by Muhammad Umar Memon (Aleph Book Company, 2017).

Muhammad Umar Memon (1939-2018), the translator, was professor emeritus of Urdu literature and Islamic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A critic, short story writer and translator, he also edited the “Annual of Urdu Studies” (1993-2014).

The bond between Hindus and Muslims is a special zone of literature, and unique to the subcontinent. Urdu fiction in particular carries its complexities and unmistakable pathos.

The enormous weight of three hundred and sixty-five days once again slips from my hand and plops down into the dark cavern of the past. The windows in this desolate room are wide open. How improbably strange the sky, draped in a sheet of dense grey clouds, looks behind the luxuriant green trees. It seems someone has filled space itself with a sweet melancholy beauty. A cool breeze has finally started to blow, after much heat and sun.

Could it be the east wind?

Papers and books lie in a disorderly pile before me on the desk. I suddenly stop writing, screw the cap back on the fountain pen and clip it to my collar—not because the weather is absolutely delightful and the grapevine maddeningly beautiful and one simply cannot write a book on dairy farming in a setting so entirely out of this world. One cannot discuss the significance of the chemical components of milk any more than one can expound on the proper proportion of corn husk and mustard oilcake in the cattle feed. All right, not another word about cows or water buffaloes.

My problem is that I’m very absent-minded. I search for my pen everywhere, while it’s clipped to my collar all along. I look at faces I have seen so often and wonder who they might be—I have never seen them before. And my memory is so bad I can hardly remember who has hurt me and who I have decided to hold a grudge against. Worst of all, the day I’m supposed to take care of some enormously important matter, I seem to end up spending in some atrociously silly task. Well, that’s what it’s come to with me. My one abiding fear is that the landscapes of my memory might become a yawning wasteland—derelict, empty, pallid. That I may lose my grip on familiar things and no longer recognise them at all. That’s why I have pushed aside the sheets of paper and clipped my pen back on just so that I may lean back and squint into the far horizon and not let my eyes waver—trekking back along the past’s interminable highways, that time may twist around and look back. It just might.

What! It really has! There, look, the past is calling me. The scene before my eyes is beginning to dissolve, a long-lost horizon is forming in space. This gigantic gate, here—it’s the same gate whose wrought-iron bars we would hug tightly, and swing from for hours on end. Tickets would be improvised and sold; the guard would wave the green flag, and the passengers, planting their feet on the bottom railing and grabbing onto the grillwork, would enjoy the train ride, as the others energetically swung the gate out into the street. Directly across the street from the gate the ironsmith’s furnace would be ablaze, the clank-clank of red-hot iron being beaten into shape resounding through the air. And inside the gate, small and large gardens opened to view hedges of nirbisi and delicate trellises draped with rose vines. We would make believe that our train was chugging along beside jungle and farmland. To bring the train into a station, we would stick the thumb under the chin, run the index finger along the ridge of the nose all the way to the forehead, and cry with all the power our lungs could muster: Koo-ooo! It felt as if the train were actually entering the station.

The entire summer vacation was thus spent swinging from the gate and playing wild games filled with violence inside the summer house. There would be bloody skirmishes between robbers and cops, the robbers would be finally caught, they would repent, and right away set up stands where they would sell guavas and mulberries. Clay flowerpots would be broken, the shards then rubbed smooth into ser and half-ser weights and all kinds of coins. And suddenly, one day, the vacation would end and school would start the next day. But on that next day I would pretend I didn’t know, and would manage to stay in bed until nine o’clock. The school bus would come and leave without me. But this couldn’t go on. The very next day I would be violently shaken awake at four in the morning. Every time the school reopened, a fresh calamity awaited us. This time, though, it came in the form of a new teacher; a portly woman draped in a borderless sari and wearing eyeglasses. She put a Hindi primer in the hands of each of the Muslim students, and ordered them to learn it on their own. When I saw the primer I was offended. We were in the fifth class, weren’t we? Then why were we being forced to learn it? We had already been through a similar primer once before. All the pictures were exactly the same. Anyway, she informed us that Hindi was compulsory in the fifth class. I carefully put my primer away in my satchel, and it stayed right there. Two days later when she showed up, I easily rattled off the lesson: alif for anaar, be for bakri, he for hookah, and daal for dhol. Crazy! Idiot! She was beside herself with anger, and ordered me to learn it all over again.

What misery! But who could I ask for help? The rest of the girls were much older than me, and spent free class periods crocheting lace or knitting red and green woollen sweaters. I, who still played with marbles and broken glass bangles, felt shy in their presence. So I took the primer back and thought the teacher was crazy herself. There were pictures of hubble-bubble and she-goat all right. Bright and clear. Anybody could see that. Yet she must get angry. When she yelled at me over and over again, I had to ask Mother for help: the teacher doesn’t teach but keeps telling me to learn from somebody at home.

“Go ask Robby Dutt. He’ll teach you,” Mother suggested.

So I begged the boy whose father—whom we used to call Maharaj—lived in the quarters outside in the compound.

Robby Dutt—his big eyes smeared with a thick layer of kajal, wearing a gigantic black tika in the middle of his forehead to ward off the evil eye, and a gold amulet strung on a black thread around his neck—rolled his eyes and spelled out his terms:

“You won’t pull my braid, right?”

“Right.”

“Let me swing on the swing?”

“Yes.”

“Push the swing twenty times for me?”

“Yes.”

“And give me gos-roti to eat?”

At this point I faltered. If I gave him meat to eat as he wished, Mother’s displeasure was sure to follow. She had expressly warned me, “Don’t you ever give him meat—understand?”

“All right, don’t,” he said. “I won’t teach you.”

“I will, I will. Okay, I’ll give you meat.”

And when His Majesty came in to teach, he would straightaway crouch all of himself under a cot or a settee. I’d pull him out of there somehow, and then, in a voice calculated to overwhelm me, he would command: “Read! Chhota ‘a’! Bara ‘uu’! ‘Ee’!” All those pages with pictures on them—he had made me learn in no time at all.

Then one day he taught me: “Mohan accha larka hain. Bhor bha’e jagta hain aur ashnaan karta hain (Mohan is a good boy. He gets up early in the morning and takes a bath).” I couldn’t believe that such familiar words could possibly come out of such a strange alphabet.

“You miserable ass! You aren’t teaching me properly.”

Parhaa’e to rahe hain. Aur kya tumra sar parhaa’en? (But I am! What else, did you think I was doing?)”

“Liar! Fraud! English sounds come out of English letters. And here you are teaching me Urdu in Hindi!”

“Go to hell! I’m done teaching you!”

He would throw in the towel and flee, because the matter was beyond him. He himself couldn’t figure out how Hindi letters managed to emit Urdu sounds.

It took me a long time to make my peace with the idea that the letters of this weird and totally unfamiliar alphabet produced exactly the same sounds as the Urdu script I was familiar with.

Now the writing drill got under way. “And what’s this—the silly squiggly thing stuck to it?” I’d ask, pointing at the maatra for the vowel “o”.

This would throw him off once again. “Yeh eme hi hai. Tum is se mat bolo. Apna kaam karo (It’s just there. Don’t meddle with it. Do your work).”

In short, he wasn’t counting on explaining the vowel marks, and explain them he did not.

But something like anxiety nagged at my heart. Sheer deception, this! It didn’t make sense that you read in the strange-looking Hindi script exactly what you read in the Urdu script. Surely it was a plot to confound the reader. Out of sheer stubbornness I took it to heart that there was no point in slaving over this. Robby Dutt, too, seemed to have become fed up with my daily bickering and nagging. So I put the Hindi qaa’ida to one side. There was another reason too: I was soon going to attend a school where there was no such nonsense. And so that was the end of his teachership and my discipleship.

He was now scarcely seen all day long. He’d go to school, and when he returned would dart out to wander around. Or else he would stay at home and talk like hoary old men. He had no siblings and all his close kin were back in his hometown.

Yep, Robby Dutt, you were really something. Even now I can see you vividly against the background. The truth is, you’re never far from view. Whenever the rains come—and with them the thought that back at the old house dark rain clouds would be pouring down in a torrent, letting rivers of water gush noisily along the eaves, and people would be celebrating Saluno, the festival of Raksha Bandhan—how can I not remember you? When the ties of teacher and taught broke off between us, you quickly forged another bond. You stood behind the door and kept repeating in your muted voice: “Tum kesi behni ho, tum hamre raakhi bhi nahin baandhat ho! (What kind of sister are you? You don’t even tie a raakhi on my wrist!)” And yet again: “Auron ki behnen to bhaiya logan ke raakhiyaan baandhat hain (Other sisters tie raakhis on their brothers).”

The whole day long you kept showing up behind the door, hurling taunt after taunt at me for not tying a raakhi, until Mother finally relented. She sent for a few raakhis from the bazaar and gave them to me. Next time when you sneaked behind the door, I grabbed your hand and tied the whole lot on your wrist. Seeing not one, not even two, but three separate raakhis on your wrist, you became overjoyed and sprinted off, reappearing only in the evening, clad in a sparkling white dhoti and lacework kurta, a Gandhi cap on your head, holding a brass tray, with rice, andarsas, bananas and coins amounting to about half a rupee. Then, extending your hand from behind the door, you set the tray down and said, “This is your dacchana.”

Oh, you really were something. When did I have the mind to, when was I eager to tie raakhis? But every year, well before Saluno, you’d keep reminding me, “Raakhi mangaali hamri? (So, have you sent for my raakhi?)”

Deep inside, how much you valued being made my brother. When Bibi came from Shimla for the first time after her marriage, you lugged her bedroll inside the house yourself, practically doubling over under the weight. When told that you didn’t have to, that Jabbal could have just as easily carried it in, you replied quietly, “Why Jabbal? After all, didn’t Aapa’s groom tease Aapa, saying what kind of brother you’ve got—he can’t even carry your bedroll for you!”

And that wasn’t all. You were pretty strange. You would fight over the swing, and when I gave it a push, you would say in your quivering voice, “Not so fast! Easy! I’m scared!”

“Why are you scared? I’m not.”

You would say quietly, “Tum gos-roti khaati ho, ham daal-roti haate hain (Because you eat meat and bread and I eat daal and bread).”

And if anyone ever asked you whether you were Hindu or Muslim, you replied with great equanimity, “Me? My clan and caste are the same as Begum Sahib’s. Why, I’m Begum Sahib’s son.”

This was, though, you were a Brahmin, and a Brahmin of the most elevated rank; indeed, so elevated that your doctor grandfather had no qualms about giving his daughter’s hand in marriage to a confirmed idler such as your father.

Anyway, whenever a little free time came your way, you would quickly make wuzu, unroll Mother’s prayer mat on the settee, and start performing one ruku after another, dropping your forehead in sijdah after sijdah, mumbling a prayer under your breath and quickly passing your open hands over your face. And if anyone laughed, you felt hugely offended.

If a Hindu reproached your mother, the Maharajan, saying that you always hung out with Muslims and mimicked their ways, she would just laugh off the matter good-naturedly, saying, “Just as well. Let him live as a Muslim. This way at least he might live. My two other boys both died.”

Well, the high point of the story came when a craze to hold milaads swept through the entire neighbourhood. We did it, too, and that did it. Nobody could reason with you. You fought with the Maharajan and kept insisting on holding a milaad, too, and she, a simple woman, consented. She prepared the floor, spread cotton rugs and sparkling white sheets borrowed from our house; she sent for flower bouquets; she burnt incense sticks; and she begged Pathani Bua to come and perform the milaad, because “my lallah wouldn’t have it any other way.”

And guess who turned out to be the MC of the event? You, of course. Who else? You doled out paans to everyone gathered there, then daubed them with attar, sprinkling rosewater from the dispense every five minutes, worrying to death that you might have missed a detail that was part of the milaad ceremony at your Begum Sahib’s.

On winter nights, when everyone tucked themselves quite early under heavy cotton quilts and sometimes listened to stories, you too would burrow into somebody’s quilt and linger there.

And then it seemed the earth grew both weary of its weight and impatient with familiar faces and voices. It was like somebody had violently threshed the grain in a winnowing fan. One flew and landed here, another somewhere else. But grain and seed, no matter where they land, invariably set up fresh worlds for themselves, sending their slender roots, like leeches, deep into the earth. They cling to it, and in time tear open the earth’s bosom and pop out.

Well, Robby Dutt, it’s like this: I ended up here. You must be still there, grown into an honourable man, responsible and wise. Once again the rainy season has arrived. It must be pouring back where you are. Farmers, wearing folded gunnysack shells for raincoats, must be busy digging ditches and taking care of the fields. Flocks of herons and parrots must be zooming back and forth overhead. Brahmin women must still saunter out during Saluno carrying raakhis for their brothers, draped in snappy red and green saris, bindis on foreheads, feet stained with henna, black and green bangles strung up the length of their flashing white, plump arms.

Your arms must be covered with raakhis, and you must still offer dacchanas—but openly, not from behind the door.

So what? What do I care? I wasn’t exactly dying to tie a raakhi, you practically forced me to. Then again, the time for those insignificant little nothings is well past now. Mankind now thinks only of big things, of things that matter, and despises everything that is small or looks diminished. And to tell you the truth, you or I or anyone who thinks about the past does wrong. Why must life stay fixed at one place? Life’s ship must pitch and rock forever on the restless waves of time. What if we had gotten stuck on the beach?

On life’s ocean one ship sails east, another west. Favourable winds push them on, and fate determines their destinations.

The ships of your life and mine also sailed to shores destined for us. And yet, why does this desire suddenly overwhelm me—to fly off quietly to where you are, sitting grand and dignified, to sneak up behind you and whack you and ask, “Wanna have me tie a raakhi? And tell me, which tray of dacchana is for me?”

Why are all these long-lost memories returning to me, like an old pain suddenly come back to life? It’s because after much smouldering heat and burning sun, a cool breeze has finally started to blow.

Do you suppose it’s the east wind?

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Excerpted from The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told

Reproduced by permission of Aleph Book Company (2017)

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor