The Eid holidays were numbered. Soon the mansion emptied as the family members returned to their city dwellings. After Khan sahib’s wife’s death a couple of years ago, the responsibility of running the affairs of the mansion had fallen on the strong shoulders of Lala. An old, faithful servant, he was considered a part of the family and referred to as Lala, elder brother, by the old and the young alike.

Lala had an emaciated face with skin wound around thinly like wrapping paper. His long nose seemed to be an afterthought, piercing the face and slicing it into two. He had an ugly columella dangling over his philtrum and was in the habit of rubbing his palm upwards against it with a loud snort, persistently trying to rectify the mistake of nature. People who knew him well could tell instantly from this gesture that he was either getting prepared to lie or make a false promise. And he made a lot of promises to everyone.

He would always promise to take Khan sahib’s grandchildren on a ride to the lost village of Kiyara, which was now well under water after the construction of the dam, to show them the remains of the great palace that Khan sahib’s family once owned. Now under the ill-conceived dam, the grandeur of the remains was highly exaggerated to keep the children excited about the impending trip, which never came about.

The children never asked him how they would be able to see the remains of the palace when it was under water. Fahad Khan would always smile at the oft-repeated story Lala narrated to his young nieces and nephews.

While his two elder brothers had settled in cities, Fahad had decided to embrace the rustic life. He abhorred seeing people come together in confined places for the fulfilment of vague personal ambitions. He called city dwellings mausoleums of the living dead. Fahad cherished the wide-open spaces of the village and loved to take in the fragrances of his orchards.

In the absence of his brothers, the attention he received from everyone in the village was addictive. In the hujras next to the village houses where the men would gather, village elders, as a matter of respect, would insist that Fahad occupy the charpoy-head instead of the charpoy-feet, despite his reluctant refusals. Elsewhere, he would be asked to mediate between dissenting parties.

However, most of his time would be spent standing in for his father at weddings and burials. There would be times when he would have to attend two to three weddings and the same number of burial prayers in a single day. Given the frequency of these rituals and the solemn nature of the people at both, he would sometimes reconfirm from his confidantes if the occasion required congratulations or a prayer.

Apart from these social occasions, there wasn’t much entertainment for a young man. It was only in winters that Fahad would put together a team of servants and leave for shikar in the surroundings of Charbagh. In the restrictive life of the village, therefore, there was something of interest for him when he spotted Saad Bibi on a swing.

The chinar not only guarded the mansion but also provided amusement to the household. On one of its branches was a swing that provided hours of pleasure to the Khan’s grandchildren during their visits. surprisingly, the branch supporting the swing had for years weathered the weight of these well-fed children. During the rest of the year, when Khan sahib was away, the maids enjoyed the hilarity it provided.

The merriment surrounding the swing made the chinar quiver with joy, but this went unnoticed. Believing that nobody was watching her at this time of the day, Saad Bibi had removed her veil to enjoy the swing. Within seconds, the tall girl had managed to take it to its full sweep. With her legs firmly perched on the wooden board, the swing was entirely subservient to the command of her lithe body.

On every trough, her auburn hair covered her face and flowed away from her as she reached a crest. She sliced the air like a scythe and found pleasure in the oscillation provided by the swing, its movement imitating life in so many ways. Fully immersed in her joy, she was oblivious to the fact that Khan sahib had entered the house and was slowly walking towards the mansion.

Fahad could not forget the horror on her face when she realised his presence. In her amazement, she fell awkwardly from the chinar and swiftly tried to hide behind it, making the episode even more hilarious. Khan sahib could not help smiling and Fahad laughed out loud from his vantage point in the main hall.

Fahad’s first interaction with Saad Bibi took place a couple of days after Eid. One of his nephews, Shuja, had decided to stay back for a few days. At dinner, there were three of them: him, his father and Shuja. Shuja was a few years younger than Fahad and enjoyed being pampered by the villagers. They were seated in the main hall, and Fahad was busy listening to Khan sahib, as he advised him on some land issues.

After dinner, Fahad asked for green tea, which was brought in by the same girl he had earlier seen fall from the swing. Lala had followed her to make sure everything went smoothly. She was modestly dressed and had her chador wrapped around her. With lowered eyes, she presented tea to all of them.

When she was serving Shuja, Fahad saw the leer in his look. Fahad was not bereft of these feelings given his own age, but the blatant hormonal nudging of this thirteen-year-old rascal made him wonder what lay ahead. He was sure Lala had seen the look, since he asked him, “Is your tea not sweet enough?” Shuja’s leer transformed into an embarrassed grin.

Unaware of the sensitivities of this class, Saad Bibi, while pouring tea into the cup meant for Fahad Khan, clumsily spilled some into the saucer. When she served Fahad, he politely asked her to clean the saucer first. She obediently took both the cup and the saucer and innocently poured it back from the saucer into the cup. As she offered it to Fahad again, everyone burst out laughing. Even Khan sahib’s sombre face relaxed and he smiled.

Saad Bibi’s jaw dropped, and her large hazel eyes shortly rested on Fahad’s face trying to find an answer. Finding none, she quickly left the room. Fahad carried her startled expression in his mind till he went to sleep.

Fahad’s room was next to his father’s. It was disconnected from the main hall, and one had to walk along a passageway to reach it. The next morning, when he entered the hall to ask for breakfast, he saw Saad Bibi in a combative mode. With her face flushed in anger, her thick eyebrows tightly knitted and the index finger of her right hand raised, she was clearly giving a piece of her mind to Shuja, who, on the other hand, was standing sheepishly, mumbling something.

“Saad Bibi, Shuja! What is going on here?”

“Nothing much, Khan,” Saad Bibi replied, covering her head with the chador that had fallen off her head during the altercation. “This boy was trying to become a man by targeting me for practice.”

“No, no, uncle,” Shuja whimpered. “She is like my sister. It is just a misunderstanding.”

“Shuja, before I beat the hell out of you, get out of this place as fast as you can,” snarled Fahad. “You are going back to Lahore today.”

The Whispering Chinar

Excerpted with permission from The Whispering Chinar, Ali Rohila, Vintage.