The administrative authorities finally decided to respond to political pressure and hold trials. In a summary trial, Naim was sentenced with retrospective effect to imprisonment for addressing an “illegal” meeting to a term exactly equal to the period he had already served in confinement and released at the end of the one-day proceeding. Trials like these were held in the cases of a score of other prominent men across the country. The rest of the hundreds who had been put in gaol were left there for long periods of time.
Additionally, in Naim’s case, they confiscated the ten acres of land granted to him for war services, although they had no power to take away the medal for distinguished conduct with which he had been decorated. On the day of his release from prison he was received back in Roshan Pur by followers from other villages as well as his own, slogans were chanted in his honour and he was buried under garlands of marigold thrown round his neck, and he gave thought to nothing else in the euphoria of freedom.
At night he lay in bed beside Azra and took her in his arms, clasping her with the whole of his body from head to foot as tightly as he could, inhaling her smell, listening to the beating of her heart and feeling the softness of her firm breasts. Azra too held him tight, wrapping her arms and legs around him, wishing desperately for this occasion to renew the passion that had slipped from her grasp.
For a long time there was just the breathing of the two bodies, warm and willing but still and unmoving. Then Naim’s grip relaxed. He rolled away from her and lay on his back, staring at the ceiling.
After a while, he said, “The food. It’s because of the food in there. It was like poison.”
“I know,” Azra said, raising herself on an elbow and putting a hand softly on his stomach, caressing his wasted body. “It doesn’t matter. I’ll tell munshi to shoot some partridges. A few days of proper food...”
“I am sorry, Azra,” Naim said.
“No, don’t be. You’ll be all right before you know it.’
“I am sorry,” he repeated softly.
That night’s failure brought back to him the extent of his loss, including the prime land of which he had been so proud, although he had at times been ashamed of it too. At times he had thought he had been far from brave in the war, that he had been afraid, the fear had filled his body and soul, he had not stood up and fought in the face of mortal danger, never fulfilled the norms of what people called “courage” and the army “gallantry”.
Still, with the passing of time he had come to feel that the losses he had suffered were deserving of a reward. That night, looking, with a certain regret, at the unblemished flesh of his wife, to whom the passing years had done no harm, the seeds of real self- doubt began to stir in the depths of his mind. He regained his strength in time but not his vitality of spirit. He became morose and began to fear his wife and everything connected with her.
He never resumed the duties he had previously discharged in the village or on Roshan Agha’s lands. The promised return of their ancestral lands had not materialised. Naim now concentrated on cultivating his six acres, which were barely sufficient to feed the four mouths of his family and their cattle. He spoke less and less. Despite much effort, Azra remained unable to revive his soul.
Eventually, she withdrew once again to Delhi, only occasionally visiting Naim in Roshan Pur. It took Naim a long time to come out of his shell, sparked once again by an incident in the uneasy relationship between himself and Azra.
It was the time when political awareness was beginning to awaken a sense of separate identity among the Muslims of India. A grand gathering had been arranged in Delhi to try and bring together all the Muslim parties in the country. For this purpose Sir Aga Khan, who lived in France, was invited, as an international symbol of Indian Muslimhood, to preside over the meeting. Naim and Azra wanted – Azra more than Naim – to go and take part in this significant national event.
They still slept together, in the same room but in separate beds laid alongside one another with a yard’s space between them. Once in a while they made love – as they did on this, the night before they were to go to Delhi. Afterwards they lay in bed and talked in brief sentences, marked by long silences in between.
“Don’t you think it was a good thing to invite the Aga Khan to preside over the meeting?” Azra asked.
“I don’t know,” Naim said. “We’ll see.’
“He is famous.’
“Well, he is very rich.’
“But look at his life, so eventful. And so glamorous. I am excited. The day after is the New Year, we can go to Waheed’s New Year’s Eve party.”
“I don’t want to go to any party. Only with you to the conference,” Naim said.
Azra was quiet for a few minutes. When she spoke it was with a deep sadness in her voice. “Naim?”
“I wish things could have turned out differently.’
Naim knew what she meant, yet still he asked, if only to say something, “What do you mean?’
“Oh, so much. I wish you hadn’t gone to prison, for one thing.’
It took Naim a few minutes to completely absorb what she meant. Very slowly, the entire climate of his feelings changed. He turned his head slightly to look at her. What he saw surprised him. He looked at her face, the swollen lips, the thrust of the chin, the pointedly raised breasts, round white thighs, and all he saw was a coarse sensuality, naked and without shame. He wondered how it was that he had been in love with this woman for so long.
He got off the bed and went to stand by the fireplace. He was shaking. Resting his elbows on the mantelshelf, he took his head in his hands, trying to calm himself. After a while, he returned to his own bed. Azra lay with her back to him, her eyes wide open, trying to dream about the past and wondering how and where it had gone. It took most of the night to douse the flames of bitter sadness inside her and for her to sleep for a few hours full of dread.
In the morning, the distance between them increased, she spoke calmly to Naim, telling him she was going to Roshan Mahal on her own. Naim was relieved. He felt the distance between them stretching to a new limit, although he knew that there still remained some grains of love – that insoluble residue of a union between him and Azra that would not come to an end in this one night. Before he had slept that night, however, he had decided that, one way or another, he would have to get out of this hole into which his spirit had dived.
Excerpted with permission from The Weary Generations, Abdullah Hussein, translated from the Urdu by the author, HarperCollins India.