Infidel (Kafir, 1938)

Published : Oct 11, 2017 12:30 IST

Ismat Chughtai operated at the summit of writing and was a genius in the terrain of relationships and characterisation. "Kafir" (1938) was translated by Tahira Naqvi and included in a collection titled "Quit India! & Other Stories" (Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2017).

Ismat Chughtai operated at the summit of writing and was a genius in the terrain of relationships and characterisation. "Kafir" (1938) was translated by Tahira Naqvi and included in a collection titled "Quit India! & Other Stories" (Women Unlimited, New Delhi, 2017).

GET away from here, you with your scary Mahadev face! Someone could get a fever just by looking at your face at night, I said, glaring at Pushkar.

“And what about you, with your Mastan Shah and his scoundrels who arrive every Friday to offer you blessings, doesn’t he look like a thug? He terrifies me when I see him,” said Pushkar, waving his fingers in the air.

“You’re a kafir, Pushkar,” I said sanctimoniously. “You’ll go straight to hell, angels will brand your body with hot iron rods, they’ll torture you with whips of fire, you’ll get blood and pus to drink.”

“Eh, you dirty girl, what kind of disgusting talk is this! I’ll throw the pus and blood right back at your angel’s face. If I’m a kafir, you’re a kafirni—you told Babuji the other day that you’d marry me. So, you’ll get a good beating in hell, too.”

“Be quiet. I’m Muslim and you’re Hindu. My dear, all the Muslims will go to Paradise and I’ll go there as well. You’ll be the only one left behind, wait and see.”

“I’ll be left behind? Hunh! I’ll go to a better place than you. You’re a Musalmanti, you’ll be burning in narak.”

“You pig, you’re calling me Musalmanti? You’re a horrible boy, a kafir, an idiot.”

“Then you’re a horrible girl and a kafirni.”

I gave him a tight slap but he wouldn’t back down. Gave me two wallops and also twisted my wrist. I then dug my nails into his arm, tearing his skin. Chachi heard the ruckus, came running out and pulled us apart.

“Pushkar, just wait until Babuji gets home, you’ll get a good thrashing,” said Chachi, threatening him with a raised fist. He just sat astride the wall, making faces at me.

“I’m not going to marry this pig, Chachi,” I said, crying.

“And I’m not about to marry you, you blackie. Ma, she’s telling me I’ll be fed blood and pus. Ugh!” Pushkar made a retching sound.

“Hai Ram, you wicked boy, be quiet.”

“It’s true, Ma, she says all the Hindus will go to hell and she thinks she’s special, she’ll go to Paradise.”

“No, Chachi won’t go to hell, nor Bhaiya and Babuji, but this stupid boy will definitely go,” I said with conviction.

“If I go, I’ll pull you by the leg and drag you with me.”

“I’ll see how you do that! I’ll bite you so hard you’ll die.”

Chachi laughed till she was red in the face. “Arre, will you be hitting each other in narak as well? Munni, Pushkar will be able to leave narak only after you’ve killed him.”

“He’ll still go to narak, you’ll see Chachi, he’s very wicked.”

“Look, Ma, I’ll chuck this lump of dirt at her if she doesn’t stop.”

“What’s going on,” Babuji asked, folding his umbrella as he came in.

“Hindu-Muslim riots,” Chachi said, laughing. “Pushkar was hitting Munni.”

Pushkar, being the coward he was, ran off. Chachi lovingly took me in with her and gave me delicious daal-moth to eat. Chachi is Muslim, it’s only this Pushkar who’s a kafir.

Diwali came. Pushkar’s house glittered with oil lamps. I immediately made up with him, rolled wicks all day and ate puffed rice and crystallised sugar.

Chachi kept scolding me. “Oh Munni, you’re ruining all the wicks.” But I wasn’t about to listen.

In the evening Pushkar made an appearance, all dressed up. Foamy white dhoti, red malina kurta, hair oiled and combed, his forehead dotted with a red bindi. Chachi was also decked out in a Banarasi sari, her anklets jingling as she moved around with the oil lamps. Pushkar acted as though he was in charge of everything in the house, a full Hindu today, and treating me as if I was impure. The same Pushkar who often finished my half-eaten berry was handing me a kachori from a distance today. My heart smouldered.

“Pushkar, please put some sandalwood paste on me, too,” I said, after reminding him of favours I had done for him.

“No,” he said arrogantly. “You’re not a Hindu.”

“Pushkar, I’m a Hindu now. But don’t tell Amma.”

Perhaps he felt sorry for me, and proceeded to dab the sandalwood paste with much ceremony.

I made up for all this at Eid. After calling him a kafir, I fought with him. But when my hands and feet were red with henna, I waited eagerly for him to come. He arrived, I sat down, my hands placed nonchalantly in my lap.

“Ahha, Munni’s palms are so red. Let me see, Munni.”

I pushed his hand away roughly and said, “Don’t pester me, it’s our Eid, not yours, you don’t fast, my dear. Only after Muslims have fasted, can they celebrate Eid.”

“And when have you ever fasted?”

“Wah, I keep the short fast.”

“Hunh! That’s some fast. You eat mutton all day long. I can also keep a short fast like that.”

“Ah, but you’re a Hindu,” I said, using my trump card.

“So what difference does that make?” he said sheepishly.

“Tomorrow I’ll wear new clothes,” I said haughtily.

“I’ll also put on my new coat.”

“’Why, you’re Hindu, why would you wear a new coat? I won’t let you eat any sewaiyyan, either.”

“You stuffed yourself with puffed corn at our Diwali, made me put sandalwood paste on you, took the crystallised sugar from Babuji, and now you’re talking like this? You’re a real meanie!”

I immediately fought with Pushkar and forced him to leave.

But the moment I changed, dressed up in fancy clothes, all puffed up, I had to go to him to impress him. He instantly shed his resentment and actually began to sweet-talk me. But I kept telling him that he was a Hindu, he had no right to be happy on our Eid.

Dejected, he said, “All right, then I’ll become a Muslim. Don’t tell anyone.”

But he was so fickle that he became a kafir again at Holi. Put on such airs that despite my following him around and cajoling him, he flatly refused to let me play Holi.

“You’re a Musalmanti,” he said.

“All right, Pushkar, try coming to our Eid, I’ll give you a thrashing you’ll never forget,” I said, shaking my head.

“Then why don’t you become a Hindu?” said Panditji, turning his face away indifferently.

“Okay, give me the red gulal mixed with sprinkles.”

“But you just said the other day that any part of the body

touched by Holi colours will end up in hell. Why do you want the gulal now?”

“Because now I’ve become a Hindu,” I said, convinced.

“Ah, you faithless one, you become a Hindu each time and then go back to being a Muslim again. First promise me that this time you won’t become Muslim.”

“All right.”

“And promise you’ll marry me. Okay?”

I agreed to this last condition too. But Eid was just Eid. I became a true Muslim during Muharram, and called Pushkar a child of Yazid because he was a kafir and a future dweller of hell.

Pandits are such a naive caste and a Kashmiri Pandit, especially, is an angel. I could beat Pushkar up and he would make up with me in no time. He was so soft-hearted that the moment he saw a goat being slaughtered he would burst into tears.

“Arre, why does your father kill so many goats?’ he asked, his eyes wide in astonishment.

“Arre, stupid, this is for a heavenly reward,” I replied wisely, making fun of his crying.

“Heavenly reward? Slaughtering a goat is a virtuous act?”

“Yes, of course. When we go to Paradise, we’ll climb onto these goats and cross a bridge, the Pul Sirat. We’ll cross very quickly, Pushkar, and you’ll be left behind.”

“I’ll go across on my bicycle.”

I became angry. “Wah! Pul Sirat is finer than a hair and sharper than a sword’s blade. You’ll tumble below into hell and we, seated on the goats, will move across like this— tik, tik .”

“I’ll sit with you on your goat.”

“What do you think? I’ll push you down.”

“I’ll pull you down with me.”

“And how will you do that?” I asked, giving him a smack.

In a trice he threw me down, walloped me twice and made off in a flash.

My bangles broke, I was miserable, and I howled so loudly that Babuji took me to the bazaar that very minute and got me a new set of bangles.

Who knows how many Eids and Holis came and went. Our ideas altered with changing times. We had both come to believe that we understood the philosophy of religion perfectly. On Holi, Pushkar would come, drench me in colour, and rub lots of gulal on my face.

On Krishna’s birthday he gave me a small marble statuette of Krishna, at whose feet lay a tiny frame with Pushkar’s photo in it. The picture and the statuette remained on my table and often became the focus of my attention.

Pushkar went to Banaras and I left for Aligarh. Our vacations didn’t coincide and now we didn’t even meet on Holi or at Eid. God bless December, it provides entertainment for everyone. I was on the veranda reading something, when a cry of “Musalmanti!” alerted me to Pushkar’s presence. I welcomed him by calling him a kafir. He rubbed gulal on my face.

“Arre, Holi in December?” I said, pushing him away.

“Yes, I saved this gulal for you at Holi. Won’t you give me some sewaiyyan?”

“No, you’re a kafir.”

“And you a kafirni. Do you remember our childhood days of Holi?”

“Which ones?” I asked narrowing my eyes.

“Stop putting on airs. Didn’t you promise to marry me?”

“Stop, you ill-mannered fool.”

“Why are you pretending?”

We both burst out laughing.

“I hear Mussolini is treating you harshly.”

Pushkar always used to make fun of my dark (all right, black) complexion.

“You English mouse, watch out for yourself. I’ve heard they’re rewarding people with one anna for every mouse turned in.” I attacked his fair colouring.

At the mention of Hindu-Muslim riots I said to him, “You’d better run from here, you’re a Hindu. You don’t want to be assaulted with a knife.”

“You’re a butcher, I’m just a cowardly fellow. You’re the one who has consumed a hundred goats.”

“But, Pushkar, you’re not a goat, you’re a buffalo.”

He bit me so hard on my arm that I squealed in pain.

“If you hadn’t been so dark, I would definitely have married you.”

“Well, Pushkar, I’m not exactly black like a tava.”

“So you mean I should marry you, hunh?” he said, his eyes shining.

“Be quiet, kafir!”

“Do you know who the poets call a kafir?”

“That’s another kafir. You’re a mule, a Hindu!”

“Are Hindu and Muslim mules different from each other? And what are Jewish mules like?”

Laughing, we discussed the varieties of mules in relation to various religions.

Time passed. Pushkar rose to the position of deputy collector and was posted in our neighbouring district. On Sundays his car suffered from overuse. He reminded me several times of what we had said to each other when we celebrated Holi together as children. But I said it was an absurd idea and forbade him from even mentioning it.

“How long will you keep putting me off like this? I will talk to Ma today, regardless of whether a mutiny follows or not. You’re such a weakling.”

“Pushkar, we’ll be persecuted. Just remember, Abba will slit open your stomach.”

“Look, I’m not afraid of all this. How long will we continue to hope that the heavens will come to our aid?”

“Pushkar, please see how inappropriate this conversation is. There’s a chasm separating us. Religion.”

“To hell with this religion! Religion is for our good, we’re not there to sacrifice ourselves for it.”

“Look at the longstanding affection between Abbajaan and Chacha. Think about the respect they receive in this town. They will be disgraced by our marriage. The papers, which have no real subjects to write about, will drag our pictures, our romance, and our modern education through the dirt in such a way that it will become difficult to live. It’s not just a crime to marry outside the faith, it’s a catastrophe! In our society boys are allowed to marry a Hindu or Christian girl, or anyone they wish, but girls cannot. To this day it’s claimed with great pride that a Muslim girl can never marry a Christian boy. I don’t know to what extent this pride is justified.”

“But I’m ready to become a Muslim.”

“What difference does that make? I don’t accept your condition, because it won’t make any difference even if you become a Muslim. You will remain as stupid as you are now! Liking someone and one’s religion have no relationship with each other.”

“Then you become a Hindu.”

“Think carefully before you say this. If I announce that you’re trying to turn me into an apostate, all the butchers in our neighbourhood will hack you to pieces. And secondly, if I become a Hindu, the family’s honour will be dirt. Naak kat jayegi , even a rubber nose doesn’t stand a chance. We’re slaves. Pushkar, we can call nothing our own. We belong to society, it can do what it wants with us. We can’t do anything even if we want to.”

“All this is nonsense! I don’t care. Your brother brought in a white woman as a second wife, she’s Christian. I’ve seen her attending church regularly, your brother, too.”

“Pushkar, she’s a white woman. You’re a Pandit and I, according to you, am a Musalmanti. So draw your own conclusions.”

Pushkar started pacing restlessly.

“I’ll smash this society to pieces, do you hear? We’ll have a civil marriage today.”

“What’s the use of talking nonsense? You know how deeply unhappy Abba will be, and your family will excommunicate you.”

“Then tell me what we should do. Tell me honestly, you’re not planning to marry that stupid Hameed and saying all this just to fool me? Remember, I’ll have Khan Sahib beaten up, he’ll regret it always, and I’ll also make it impossible for him to live here. Look, if we continue to be frightened like this, we won’t have a chance to live our own lives.”

“You’re completely mad. Let me think, perhaps God will show us a way.”

“Well, God has done what He could. I’m telling you what we’ll do. Walk alongside the police station and make a right turn. From there we will find a straight road ahead...”

“... and Abba’s punishment waiting for us on our return.”

“Why return? We’ll go on a tour directly from there!”

“Then the news will spread that I eloped with you.”

“No, the news will be that I eloped with you . Come on, hurry up now. You might need some mehr, etc. I’ll do a registry.”

”I’ll give you the mehr, my salary is only slightly less than yours.”

“All right, get up then, give me the mehr.”

“But we’ll grant each other a divorce whenever we wish.”

“Not so! You’re always fighting, you’ll give me seven divorces in an instant! Hurry up now, change your sari.”

“And the rubber nose?”

“It’s all right, I’ll get you a large, aquiline one. This one is completely flat anyway.”

“I don’t think I’ll go with you.”

“Of course, you will,” he said, pulling me along.

In a short while we were walking on the wide road that turned right from the police station.

“We can still go back,” I whispered in Pushkar’s ear.

“Really?” he said seriously.

I moved my head, but God knows whether it was a yes or a no. Pushkar placed his hand on my neck and pulled me towards him.

“Kafir,” I said, digging my nails into his wrist.

“The one the poets talk about?”

I moved my head, but this time in assent.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan .


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