God knows what got into her head. She abruptly broke her stride and slipped into Shandar Cloth Store. Then she opened the door of the show window and, deftly, removing the lovely mannequin, stood herself in the plastic dummy’s place and assumed its pose.
It was evening. The street was packed with people, but they were so preoccupied as they went their way that none of them noticed what she had just done.
Why did she do it? She probably didn’t know herself. True, she was something of a daredevil in her childhood. But now she was a grown young woman, a college student, smart, sophisticated, urbane. Even the most audaciously bold boys at the college got cold feet walking with her. What she’d just done, well, it just happened. It was entirely unpremeditated.
Standing in the show window she felt a strange sense of comfort wash over her. She was now, after all, a part of this bustling marketplace. She could also look closely at the place, the whole of it, standing in just one spot, without having to move. Walking as one of the crowd or while shopping, she never felt herself a part of the life around her – the buoyant, strident life, full of vigour and excitement.
Her tense body gradually became unstrung, and an unbidden smile came to her lips.
She quite liked it – standing with one foot slightly forward, the hem of her sari going over her head and then dropping down to wrap itself around the joint of her right elbow. She looked positively ravishing. She could stand in her new posture forever, she thought, overcome by a sudden impulse, although her knees had already begun to ache from the pressure.
She was just considering easing up on her heels a bit when her eyes caught sight of a peasant who suddenly cut through the crowd on the sidewalk and came over to the show window and began gawking at her with eyes at once full of lust and wonder. His eyes seemed to say – Incredible! These craftsmen can be so skilful! How they make statues that look like real people!
It was good the glass panel stood between them, otherwise the country bumpkin would certainly have ventured to touch her. The peasant perhaps wanted to linger on for a bit, but the scouring glances of the passers-by forced him to move on.
As soon as he had moved away, she relaxed her feet a little. Even shook them a bit. But now her lips began to feel dry. “Just a little while longer,” she told her lips under her breath, “and then I’ll take you to a restaurant and treat you to a glass of ice water, followed by a steaming cup of some finely brewed tea.” Her thirst let up a bit and she slipped back into her former pose.
She certainly had no wish to exhibit herself like this to the pedestrians. Perhaps the thought had never even entered her mind. Rather, it pleased her to think that she was now a full participant in the teeming life around her. It was a strange feeling. She had never experienced it before.
“Oh god!” – the expression came from the lips of two college girls – “how lifelike!”
Their voices, travelling along the glass panels and filtering through the holes in the steel strips holding the frame, came upon her softly, as if from a great distance.
The two girls stared at her with admiration as they exchanged a few words among themselves, while she looked at them with tenderness. She was happy, incredibly happy. No one had looked at her with such appreciation before, at least not in her presence. Like a kind and caring queen receiving the adulation of her subjects, she sustained her regal pose until the girls had once again melted into the crowd and disappeared from view.
“Let’s see who comes next?” she thought to herself.
Her feet had again started to protest. This time around, though, she sent them a warning, a rather stern one: scoundrels, stay put! Can’t you wait even a little while? She wouldn’t care a hoot about their protest, she decided.
She was still congratulating herself on her firm resolve when she caught sight of a cop who had just separated from the crowd and after taking a pinch of chewing tobacco from a box was rubbing it with his thumb. The moment he saw her, his hand stopped dead, his mouth fell open, and his eyes widened. She stared at the cop sweetly. The cop’s eyelashes began to flap frantically; he rubbed the tobacco hastily and stuffing it between his lower lip and teeth practically stuck his eyes against the glass of the show window.
She was overcome by a powerful urge to laugh, but managed to stop herself with the greatest difficulty. Suddenly her feet began to itch uncontrollably. There was even a slight, involuntary tremble. But the cop thought it was a mere illusion, or the effect of the tobacco.
The cop stared at her for a long time. He would withdraw a little, then come back and inspect her closely.This went on for so long that she began to tire. Is the idiot going to leave at all, she wondered? She was feeling uncomfortable. She knew she couldn’t go on standing in that pose. All the same, she also knew that she was safe inside the show window. Where would she find such a sanctuary outside?
Thank god the cop finally decided to leave, and she drew a breath of relief, loosened her hands and feet, straightened up her tense back, indeed even massaged it a bit. Night was approaching and the crowd had thinned down to a few swift-footed pedestrians.
Soon it will grow dark, she thought.
She’d better get out of here while there was still some light.The fabric store must be emptying out. Somebody might see her getting out of the show window. She’d have to be very careful...and fast.And yet there was such comfort inside the show window! How she wallowed in that pleasure! Another ten minutes? Why not...
She was still mulling over this when she spotted her girlfriend Sheyama on the sidewalk. Right away she sprang into her former pose and held her breath. Sheyama threw an inattentive look in her direction and because her thoughts were elsewhere, the danger, luckily, was averted. The thought that some of her acquaintances might spot her here had not occurred to her until Sheyama came along.
This was precisely the time when her older brother returned from work, she recalled with horror. He’s already suffering from a heart ailment. What if he saw the family’s “honour” exposed so shamelessly out on the street? Wouldn’t he drop dead?
Two boys appeared in her field of vision. They were returning from school, their satchels glued to their backs. They looked with zesty curiosity and pasted their faces—eyes and all – at against the glass. “Hey, she’s real,” the voice of one of the boys entered her ear faintly. Once again she wanted to laugh.
“Idiot, it’s plastic,” the other boy said. “Whoever uses a live model?”
“But she looks so real. Seems she’d open her mouth and start speaking any second.”
“That’s because of the evening. In proper light, you’d see.”
“Hi!” the boy said as he winked at her mischievously.
The other one broke into a gale of laughter. Then he too waved at her and said “Bye!” and the two walked out of her field of vision.
As soon as they were gone, she suddenly began to laugh, but just as suddenly, became very nervous.
A young man was looking at her with perplexed eyes from across the glass. When their eyes met, he smiled. She smiled back, if only to hide her trepidation. She quickly grabbed the plastic dummy, and tried to install it, pretending to be one of the store clerks.
The youth’s eyes were still riveted on her.
Arranging the sari around the mannequin she looked at the youth from the corner of her eye to see who he was looking at. His eyes lingered briefly at the plastic figure, then bounced off it and came to rest on her.
She backed up, supremely confident, opened the door to the show window and walked out.
None of the store attendants saw her leave, or if they did, she was so agile and so fast that they could hardly figure out what had happened.The doorman didn’t notice, as he was busy talking to one of the sales clerks.
Confidently she strode away, briskly but lightly, happy and satisfied. As though she’d just unloaded the entire pestering weight of her body and soul. After she had walked away some distance, she turned around and looked back. The youth was still staring at her, perhaps with wonder.
She quickly turned down another street.
“The Pose”, by Anwer Khan. Excerpted with permission from The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Muhammad Umar Memon, Aleph Book Company.