Shafqat returned from office that day to find guests in the house. There were women in the sitting room. Shafqat’s wife Aisha was busy looking after the guests. When Shafqat entered the courtyard, his wife came out and began: “Aziz sahib’s wife and daughters have come.”
Aziz took off his hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead, “Aziz sahib who?”
Aisha replied in a soft voice, “Oh, your father’s friend.”
“Yes, yes, the very same.”
“But he was in Africa,” Aziz said with some wonder.
Aisha put a finger on his mouth. “Please speak softly. You just start shouting. They were in Africa, but do those who were in Africa never come back?”
“Look, you’ve started nitpicking now.”
“And you’ve started arguing,” Aisha cast a quick look into the room, “Aziz sahib is in Africa but his wife has come to marry off their daughter. She is looking for a good match.”
The voice of Mrs Aziz was heard from within, “Aisha, why have you stopped Shafqat there? Let him come…Come, Shafqat, my son, come…It’s been ages I saw you.”
“Coming, aunty.” Shafqat hung his hat on the peg of the hat stand, and entered the room, “Aadaab, aunty.”
Mrs Aziz rose to her feet to give him her blessings. She patted him on the head and sat down. Shafqat was about to sit down too when he noticed the two fair girls sitting on the sofa in front of him. One was younger, the other older. They resembled each other. Aziz sahib was a very handsome man. His good looks were reflected in the girls in very interesting ways. Their eyes – blue – resembled their mother’s; both wore their brown, long hair in two pigtails. The younger’s face had a brighter glow than the elder’s, who appeared far too serious. Their mother addressed them: “Girls, go on, pay your respects to your brother.”
The younger one rose and said, “Aadaab.” The elder one bowed her head and offered her salutations while remaining seated.
Shafqat responded appropriately. Then began the endless discussion about Aziz sahib and Africa. Nairobi, Tanganyika, Dar es Salaam, Karatina, and Uganda. Which place has good weather? Where is it bad? Where do you get good fruits? At the mention of fruits, the younger girl sprang into action: “One only gets such wretched fruit in India.”
“Not at all…One can find very nice fruit, provided it’s the season,” Shafqat tried to save the reputation of his India.
“Not true,” said the younger sister, screwing up her face. “Ammijaan, can the oranges you bought here yesterday compare to the cara cara navels from Africa?” The mother of the girls responded, “Shafqat, my son, she is right. The oranges here cannot compete with those African navels.”
Aisha asked the younger girl, “Talat, what are these cara cara navels? What a weird name!” Talat smiled, “Aapa, it’s a fruit like our oranges and sweet limes…I can’t tell you how delicious it is…Oh, the juice! Squeeze one fruit and a glass as tall as the one on the table here will get filled to the brim.
Shafqat looked at the glass and tried to estimate the size of the fruit, “One cara cara navel fills this big a glass!”
Talat declared very proudly: “Yes, exactly.”
Shafqat replied, “Then the fruit must be very big.”
Talat shook her head, “No, not at all…It’s neither big nor small…It’s just about the size of a big orange here. Its speciality is that it’s so full of juice… And mother, the pineapples there…Each slice is the size of a big roti…”
The pineapple conversation lasted for a while. Talat was very talkative. She was in love with Africa and she liked everything connected to it. The elder sister, whose name was Nighat, remained silent throughout. She did not participate in the conversation at all. Shafqat addressed her when he realised that she had been sitting quietly all this while: “Apparently you have no interest in these matters.”
Nighat opened her mouth: “No, that’s not the case…I have been listening with interest.”
“But you did not speak,” Shafqat replied.
Mrs Aziz responded, “Shafqat my son, such is her nature.”
Shafqat spoke out quite frankly: “Aunty, at this age, girls shouldn’t be so quiet. Seems like the cat’s got her tongue.” He addressed Nighat: “Madam, you will have to speak.”
Nighat’s lips broke into a shy smile, “I’m speaking now, bhaijaan!”
Shafqat smiled, “Are you interested in photographs?”
Nighat replied with lowered eyes, “Yes, I am.”
“Come, then I will show you some albums…They’re in the other room,” said Shafqat as he got up. “Come.”
Aisha pressed Shafqat’s hand. Shafqat looked back at his wife with quizzical eyes. She tried to signal something to Shafqat that he could not grasp. He was perplexed, and thought to himself, god knows what his wife meant by pressing his hand this way. He was still trying to figure it out when Talat got to her feet quickly: “Let’s go bhaijaan, I really like to look at the albums of others. I have a collection too.”
Shafqat went into the other room with Talat. Nighat remained quietly seated. Shafqat showed Talat the pictures. Talat kept talking as was her wont. Shafqat was distracted. He was wondering why Nighat was so quiet. Why didn’t she come with him to look at the pictures? When he asked her to come with him, why did Aisha press his hand like that? What had she meant to convey by that look?
The album came to an end. Talat picked it up and said to Shafqat, “Let me show them to Baji, she is very fond of collecting photographs.”
Shafqat wanted to ask, if she were so fond of them, then why didn’t she come with them to look at the pictures, but Talat had left the room with the album. Shafqat entered the sitting room to find Nighat looking at the album with great interest. Each photograph made her visibly happy.
Aisha was busy talking to the mother of the girls. Shafqat kept looking at Nighat from the corners of his eyes. Her face, which was earlier clouded by an unnecessary solemnity, was now cheerful. It seemed as though the pictures, perfect examples of art, had given her a reprieve. Her eyes shone. But when she came to the picture of a horse and a healthy woman, the light in her eyes dimmed. A moan rose from her breast but was quickly stifled.
Nighat turned towards Shafqat when she had gone over all the pictures and said very sweetly, “Thank you, Bhaijaan.”
Shafqat took the album from Nighat’s hands and put it on the mantelpiece. His brain went into a tizzy. He figured that there must be a great secret about this girl. It could be a romantic affair or some psychological trauma.
With the arrival of tea, Shafqat also addressed Nighat: “Please, come, make tea. This is the privilege of ladies.” Nighat remained silent but Talat got up in a trice, “Bhaijaan, I will do it.”
Nighat’s face was enveloped by a fog again. Shafqat became more intrigued. She had become uncomfortable under his unwitting staring. Shafqat regretted such an uncouth act on his part.
All sorts of topics of conversation continued to flow over tea. Talat participated in these most actively. At the mention of tennis, she proudly declared that she was the number one tennis player in Nairobi and had won 15-20 trophies and cups. Nighat continued to remain silent. Her silence was exceedingly gloomy. It was clear that she was aware of her continuing silence.
Shafqat also noted that Mrs Aziz was more caring towards Nighat. She got up herself to pass the cream rolls to Nighat with great affection. Gave her a napkin to wipe her face. Her love for Nighat showed through all their conversation. Even as she conversed she would lay a loving hand on Nighat’s head or gently press a kiss on it.
When it was time to say goodbye, Mrs Aziz rose to her feet, picked up her burqa, and hugged Aisha. She blessed Shafqat, and went over to Nighat, and said, “Come, darling, let’s go.”
Talat jumped up. Mrs Aziz held on to one of Nighat’s arms, and Talat held on to the other. Together, they helped her rise. Shafqat saw that part of the lower half of her body was paralysed. For a moment, his mind froze, his heart stopped. When he recovered, he felt a throbbing pain within himself.
With unsteady legs and the support of her mother and sister, Nighat was taking uncertain steps. She touched her forehead in respect and said aadaab to Shafqat and Aisha. A beautiful gesture.
To Shafqat it seemed as if the hand had punched his heart. The whole mystery had been unravelled. His instinctive thought was, “Why is nature so cruel? Such a beautiful girl – treated so cruelly, so ruthlessly. What was this innocent’s fault for which she had been punished so harshly?”
The Aziz women left. Aisha went outside to see them off. Shafqat went on philosophising. Then his friends arrived, and he was unable to talk to his wife about Nighat. He got so engrossed in playing cards with his friends that he forgot all about Nighat and her affliction. As night fell, Aisha sent the servant to call Shafqat for dinner. Shafqat felt guilty at having forgotten Nighat for the sake of a game. He mentioned this to Aisha too, who cut him short, “Have your dinner, we’ll speak at length later.”
The husband and the wife always slept together. They had never been parted since their wedding night. They were now nearly six years into their marriage, but did not have any children yet. Doctors were of the opinion that the fault lay with Aisha, but that it could be cured with an operation. But she was very scared of this. The couple led a life of great love and affection without any rancour whatsoever.
When they lay together as usual that night, Shafqat remembered Nighat.
He asked his wife with a sigh, “Aisha, what ails the poor girl?” Aisha also sighed and said with a concerned tone, “She was three when she got typhoid, which left parts of her lower body paralysed.”
Shafqat’s heart brimmed over with boundless sympathy for Nighat.
Holding Aisha close from the back, he said: “Aisha, why is god so cruel?”
Aisha made no response. Shafqat recollected the day’s events. “When I had told her to come look at the albums with me, you had pressed my hand because…”
“Yes, yes, of course. What else? But you kept at it.”
“By god, I didn’t know.”
“She is very conscious of the fact that she is disabled.”
“Now that you say this I feel as if someone has shot an arrow into my chest.”
“When she came, I swear, I felt terrible. The poor girl had to go to the bathroom – her mother and sister went with her, undid her pants and tied them up again.”
“She is so beautiful. You can’t tell at all that she is paralysed when she is sitting down.”
“She is very intelligent too.”
“Her mother said that Nighat has told her that she won’t marry but remain single.”
Shafqat was silent for some time. Then he spoke with great distress: “Then she feels that no one will agree to marry her.”
Aisha spoke as she continued to play with Shafqat’s chest hair, “Shafqat sahib, who will marry a paraplegic?”
“No, no, don’t say that Aisha.”
“Who will make such a grand sacrifice, Shafqat sahib?”
“She’s beautiful, from a well-to-do family, everything is fine, but…”
“I understand, but…”
“Men know no compassion…”
Shafqat turned on his side, “Don’t say that, Aisha.”
Aisha also turned on her side, and they were face to face, “Please find a man who will marry her.”
“I don’t know anyone, but…”
“She is the elder sister. Poor girl, she must feel so bad that they are arranging the wedding of the younger one.”
Aisha took a deep sigh, “Will she be thwarted this way all her life?”
“No,” said Shafqat and sat up.
“What do you mean?” Aisha asked.
“Do you have sympathy for her?”
“Swear on it?”
“Oh, what’s the need to swear on this! All humans must show sympathy for her.”
Shafqat said after a few moments’ silence, “Then I have decided.”
Aisha responded excitedly: “What?”
“I have always thought of you as a high-minded woman. Today, you have proved my impression right...I…May god keep me firm in my resolve…I have decided that I will marry Nighat…You will get all the rewards in heaven for it.”
Silence reigned for a while. Then, it seemed as if a bomb had exploded.
“Shafqat sahib, I will shoot you dead if you marry her.”
Shafqat felt as if he had been hit hard by a bullet, and being dead, he buried himself into his wife’s embrace.
Translated from the original Urdu story, ‘Goli’, published on July 23, 1950, by Maaz Bin Bilal.