Fourteen years later, on a chilly December night, I was at home in Hamidpur. My family lived in our ancestral house on the outskirts of the village on the Hamidpur-Motihari road, surrounded on three sides by farmland.
There were three rooms, two bedrooms and a dalan, a drawing-cum-guest room. A private courtyard stood between the two bedrooms and the dalan. A restroom for women, janana, was next to the bedrooms. Another toilet, mardana, was outside the house and was used by the men.
I had just finished dinner and sat on a bamboo stool holding a steaming cup. There is no drink as delicious as ginger-flavoured tea with milk and jaggery, I thought as I sipped, and then asked Aunt Zarina, “Are you really going back to Sheohar tomorrow? Why don’t you come with us to Motihari?”
“Yes, my son, there is plenty of urgent work to do at Sheohar. But I promise to come to Motihari after the harvesting season. And this time I’ll stay longer and will also cook the promised mutton kabab for you.”
Aunt Zarina was smoking a hookah. She poked her left hand out from under the cotton-wool quilt wrapped around her and quickly pulled the edge of her light blue sari over her curly, salt-and-pepper hair. There were a few wrinkles on her face and forehead, making her look at least ten years older than her 47. The teakwood bed she was sitting on was fitted with wooden frames for the mosquito net. A lantern atop the enormous steel trunk next to the bed lit up the room.
On the floor, there was a firepot, borsi, in which small pieces of mango-wood burnt to keep the room warm. Abba was in the other room listening to the radio, to the night service of BBC London; I could hear the baritone of Shafi Naqvi Zamin analysing the political and economic consequences of the American invasion of Panama. Shafi Naqvi Zamin was one of my favourite announcers. Suddenly, the door opened, and Ammi walked into the room. She held a big aluminium tray in her hands, which she placed on the trunk.
“It is already 11 o’clock and Waseem has not returned yet,” Ammi muttered in an agitated voice. I turned to look at the tray and saw tiny triangular parathas soaked in ghee and a bowl of mutton curry with thick dark brown gravy.
“He is such a careless boy,” Ammi said as she began to fold the clothes lying on an unoccupied cot.
“Stop worrying Rahela. Waseem is not a kid. He is a 20-year-old man. He can take care of himself,” Aunt Zarina remarked evenly, returning to her hookah. Ammi said nothing. Aunt Zarina took a long puff, making a gurgling sound in the hookah base as the air passed through the water. A few puffs more and she bent over the hookah bowl. I anticipated that she was about to get out of the cosy comfort of the quilt to refill the hookah. I got up to help her.
Emptying the hookah bowl into the firepot, I replenished it with raw tobacco from a tin box. After that, I topped it up with the glowing embers from the firepot with a pair of rusting iron tongs. I placed the bowl back on the top of the metal pipe and handed over the hose pipe to my aunt.
“May you live long, my son,” Aunt Zarina said, placing her hand on my head before accepting the pipe of the hookah. The water bubbled rhythmically as she took a deep puff, smiling at me. The spicy fragrance of tobacco filled the room, and I inhaled deeply.
I yawned and was thinking of retiring to my room when there was a knock on the main door. “Must be Waseem,” I picked up the lantern and rushed out of the room.
“Assalam alaikum, bhaiya,” I greeted my brother with a big smile as soon as I pulled open the door. Waseem was standing on the threshold with a jute bag in his right hand. He was wearing a kurta and pyjama and a full-sleeved sweater. His beard stuck out a bit through the dark green muffler around his face.
“Walekum assalam, Aslam,” he responded warmly as a chill floated in the air. Handing the bag to me, he entered the house and then turned to shut the door. Waseem was tall, five feet ten inches. I too was almost five feet ten inches, even though six years younger. He was fair with black eyes. I was fairer with light brown eyes and typical Pashtun features.
“Why are you so late? Don’t you know it is unsafe to travel during the night?” Ammi scolded Waseem as soon as we entered the room.
“Ammi, what could I have done? I started early, but the jeep broke down, and it took almost . . .”
“Stop this interrogation, Rahela. Let the boy eat,” Aunt Zarina interrupted, bringing an end to the discussion. Ammiwrinkled her nose and burrows appeared on her forehead. She didn’t like the way Aunt Zarina interfered in her family life. But she chose not to show it.
Waseem spotted the tray and his face lit up. “Mutton! Aunt Zarina’s cooking?”
“Yes,” Ammi sounded irritated. She went out of the room.
Abba had switched off the radio by then. And Aunt Zarina had stopped smoking. She lay down in her bed covered by the quilt and was trying to sleep. There was silence all around except for the music of crickets and the occasional howling of jackals in the nearby fields. I picked up a tube of Boroline and rubbed the cream on my dry face.
Excerpted with permission from A Man From Motihari, Abdullah Khan, Penguin India.