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Short Story

‘My lame aunt’ by Razia Sajjad Zaheer: An Urdu short story in translation

Print edition : Jun 03, 2022 T+T-
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The sound of the band could be heard and the baraat was almost at the doorstep. The thirteen-year-old bride was crying her eyes out in a backroom. Domni s were bursting their vocal cords singing bridal songs. The clattering of the paan boxes and tinkling of ankle bells grated on the ears.

Suddenly everything stopped and a different noise was heard. People were electrified. The groom’s horse had bucked at a pothole, throwing the nineteen-year-old rider and breaking his spine. A few minutes had transformed the bridal songs into wails and screams. Everyone spoke at once—all except one who remained totally speechless. She could not decide whether she was awake or dreaming. This was the thirteen-year-old bride whom I met some sixty years later, as one who was called Langri Mumani, lame aunt.

After the event many people, including her parents, suggested that she get married. Without a doubt, she was still unmarried; even the nikah had not been performed. But she said no, never to be converted into yes.

I never saw her as a young woman, but in her old age she was breathtaking! Complexion like sandalwood, and if she ate more than one paan, her neck and face flushed red. Her petite form was always clothed in churidar-kurta, and a thick muslin dupatta, invariably white.

I was five or six years old. We had reached Nana’s house and the luggage was being unloaded, when an old lady with a walking stick came in through the back door, wrapped in a large markeen shawl with a cluster of keys. She held a black juzadaan containing books of nauhas and marsias.

Amma salaamed her respectfully and was warmly embraced. We children were then presented to her one by one. She hugged each one of us and when my turn came, she said to Amma, “Your daughter is pretty. May God give you a deputy collector as a son-in-law.” I tried to act shy, but I remember enjoying the feel of her fingers on my cheek. The large turquoise ring on the little finger of her right hand, set in silver, felt cool and good. “Come to my house,” she said, “I will make a doll for you.”

The next day, lured by the promised doll, I reached her house early. Across from the guava grove, adjacent to the Imambara was her two-room house fronted by a courtyard. In the garden beyond there were beds of mint, coriander, mustard, onion and garlic. On a stout little tree hung a swing, its hemp frayed in several places. There was a birdhouse for the pigeons and a water-basin for the chickens. The goat was tied to a tree, and Mian Mitthu’s cage sat on the very last step. Green chillies were being pecked at and strewn about by the parrot, with intermittent cries of “Langri Mumani, roti for Mitthu beta”, “Roti for Mitthu beta”.

A large divan was placed against the wall. At one end, neatly wrapped, lay the prayer-mat. The Quran covered in an ornate satin juzadaan was hanging on a nail. Mumani was teaching “ Alif be, pe ” to four or five girls. She smiled. “You are Rakkhan’s daughter? Don’t stand gaping at the door.” I entered with great hesitation. “Go play on the swings. I will make your doll as soon as I finish this lesson.”

“The rope is frayed, Mumani,” I said looking at the tufts of jute.

“It won’t break, it’s a sturdy swing.”

I sat, and Mumani spelt out the words, “ Alif Zabar Aa Be Zabar Baa.... You have no problem moving these jaws to eat, but can’t move them to read! Read Jeem Zabar Jaa, Jeem Zabar Ja.

A small hand-fan swung with her wrist. It was bordered with black piping and a bright green leaf edged with tinsel was embroidered in the centre. Sometimes its function of fanning would be diverted to a handle to land a thwack on a student’s back.

The girls gathered up their bags. Mumani stopped one of them. “Wait...you... Ammar’s daughter...” She limped inside and brought out a small portion of jaggery. She wrapped it in a piece of paper. “Tell your mother to return my paper. And tell me— has the boy’s fever gone down?”

“Not yet.”

“Then take the kaarha before the maghrib prayers.”

I sat on the divan. And Mumani with a jangle of keys and a clanking of a tin trunk brought out a small plate and a bundle of cloth. On the plate were some sweets. From the bundle emerged bits and pieces of cloth which were scattered over the divan. Mumani sat cross-legged, selecting cloth for the doll. “Your father eats off china plates. So I took out this saucer which Viqar brought from Delhi—specially for you! You want a doll this size?” She indicated the height with her fingers. I said yes. She said, “ Ya Mushkilkusha ” and began shaping the doll.

Her livelihood was sewing for the entire village. During Ramadan, however, she sewed only for widows and orphans free of charge. All her garments were hand-sewn. And she had never once bought thread—people collected thread from whatever material they cut, and saved it for her. She twisted the threads into what became the toughest spool, tougher than any reel of thread money could buy! Those were her sewing threads. One could count the different materials which people wore in the village from the threads in the garments Mumani had stitched.

I longed for her to give my doll a bit of shining green material. “Please. Mumani, may I?” I begged. “Don’t rummage through these pieces,” she scolded, “these are for pouches. There is a wedding in Allah Diya’s house. These will be useful. You will just ruin them.” I was annoyed. She refused to part with her precious pieces and here was my doll, clothed in garments sewn with seventy patches! But today... I understand! When she presented the juzadaan, pouches, and needle bags, what gratitude she would receive: a bonus in her barren life!

Her lameness is another story. She was twenty or twenty-one when it happened. It was the month of Moharrum. Her recitation of marsia and nauha was so good that people begged her to recite at their majlises. Once on her way to a majlis, her palki had to pass through a deserted area where lived her faithful admirer who, on being politely set aside, began to pursue her. That day, along with four friends, he accosted her palki in the mango grove. Lathis were brandished between the palki-bearers and the village toughs. During the skirmish one of them lifted his lathi and struck a bearer with all his might. Suddenly Mumani flashed out of the palki and allowed the lathi to land on her leg. The force of the blow shattered her bone and she fainted. When people rushed to the scene the miscreants ran away. The next day the young man’s corpse was found near the back wall of the Imambara. Poison. He had burnt both his hands, wrapped them in cloth and left a note for Mumani. With folded hands he asked her pardon and begged her not to confront him on judgement day.

Mumani never spoke about him. If ever the topic came up during conversation she said with a sigh, “He is in a better place. May God forgive him. I will never confront him on the day of judgement.” In those days, who could have mended a broken bone in a village? Mumani was lamed for life. But after this event no one dared to look at her.

Langri Mumani had a standing argument with the palki-bearers. She never walked anywhere, no matter how short the distance. As she entered the house the bearers shouted “Mumani, send two paisas. We have been carrying you for twenty years.” That really roused her temper. “Why? Why two paisas? For bringing me here from just the neem majlis? Carrying me for twenty years, indeed! I haven’t become twenty tons in twenty years!”

People enjoyed these altercations.

Mumani flared up whenever anyone dared to touch her goat. That goat was a virtual bull. She sauntered in wherever she pleased. People muttered, “Darned goat! Langri Mumani’s avenging angel! Drop dead. Now she has raked up the coriander patch. Run, Bhaiyya Chaddan. Chase her out!” By the time someone ran to shoo her off, half the vegetable patch was gone. But no one had the guts to pick up a stick because everyone was indebted to Mumani. If someone even touched the goat with a stick, she ran bleating to the little house. Mumani immediately stopped washing the lentils or hemming a chadar and consoled the offended beast. Why do you go to those mean households? Why don’t you sit at home? Will you eat? There… there, my girl!” Muttering, she went to the store and brought out a plateful of grain for the goat. Nibbling at the grain, the goat nodded as if she understood.

A particular incident is etched on my heart. Among my grandfather’s labourers was a community of faqirs. A girl from that basti was once seen with a farmer. The girl was attractive and several villagers, including the village bully, Sharfu Pehalwan, used to hang about her. The entire village was in awe of him, but the girl was strangely cold and never encouraged Sharfu. She continued meeting her lover in private. The farmer, in the usual manner of this class, went to seek his fortune in Calcutta, having promised the girl that he would return to marry her. But neither knew she was pregnant. Within a short while the girl’s condition became evident, and what a storm it created!

That morning the case was presented at our house, being the house of the zamindar. The word going around was, if not her nose, then certainly her braid would be cut off and she would be banished from the community. Sharfu was the leader of this faction. Men outside, ladies at the windows! Each voice louder than the other.

Only one individual was silent. Her silence had a strange effect on me. I tried to slip over to her side, hoping no one would notice a little girl chewing sugarcane. But Amma yelled, “Get on the other side!” I quickly hid behind the water pots.

Suddenly the palki-bearers called out, “Give a hand, help the passenger alight.”

Langri Mumani descended, wrapped in her thick casement shawl. The men moved back as she came in the front door. She glanced once at the trembling girl who had turned pale with fear. “God’s curse… you crazy girl… now reap!” she was heard muttering under her breath.

Then she sat at the foot of my grandmother’s bed, placed her cane by her side, and started a light-hearted conversation with the girl as if nothing was amiss! Bi Pathani, our aunt’s cook (who was currently engaged in finding a third husband, having lost one and divorced the other), came forward to relate the incident in detail. Langri Mumani cut short her enthusiastic prattle, saying, “I know… I know.”

Sharfu raised his voice : “Kajjan!”

Mumani turned to my aunt. “This is Sharfu’s voice. What brings him here?”

“It is Sharfu,” my aunt affirmed, and with due respect repeated the proposal he had made to slice off the girl’s braids, all the while nodding her own approval of this scheme.

Mumani silently drew a pouch from her pocket, placed some betel nut and tobacco on her palm, rubbed it with her forefinger, popped it into her mouth and nodded. “Humph.” Meticulously she replaced her pouch, reached for her walking stick, and started moving towards the main entrance.

Hidden behind the water pots, I gazed at her as did everyone else. With every step she took one could see the girl’s face lose colour. Mumani stood by the door. The powerful tenor of her voice boomed, “Sharfu!”

Sharfu, standing outside, bold and broad-chested, responded arrogantly: “Speak. What is your order?”

Mumani cleared her throat. “All right, Sharfu. Seeing that death is inevitable for all of us and that the only possession we will carry with us is faith, just ask yourself, by your faith, why have you become this poor wretch’s enemy? Because she did not give a damn for you? I know everything, and if I am lying, then say so in front of all these people. I entreat you in the name of Hazrat Abbas Alamdar—don’t let my grey hair curb your tongue. Am I lying?”

Utter silence. Mumani looked at each individual. No one spoke. Everyone understood, but no one wanted to intervene. Mumani turned back towards the courtyard, hurling her last words at Sharfu. “Look squarely at yourself, Sharfu. This wretch at least fell in love. But you… what can I call you? A spoon churned in every dish? Damn you, don’t you ever strut around again. Run, scum, and fetch my palki.” Not once did Sharfu raise his eyes. Quietly, he slunk away.

It was as if in a game of chess the knight had been routed. The entire game, pawns and all, were knocked out. Mumani turned to the girl, “Come with me, you accursed wretch.” She now moved towards the door followed by the girl. Hanging over her tattered kurta, through which her fair-skinned back was just visible, was a thick braid—safe, beautiful, and in one piece! Both sat in Mumani’s palki and disappeared.

Her daughter was born at Langri Mumani’s house. The entire neighbourhood came forward, bearing gifts. No one dared boycott an event at Mumani’s house. After a few months the girl’s lover returned from Calcutta. A proper nikah was performed, and Mumani sent sweet dates to everyone, including our family, although at that time we were five hundred miles away from our ancestral village.

When Mumani died I was seventeen or eighteen. For a long time I kept thinking of the void her absence would create in the village. The entire community had lost a friend, a helper—yes, a rare human being.

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced courtesy of Kali for Women, 2002.

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