The Jawad Memorial Prize for Urdu-English translation was initiated weeks after the birth centenary of the Urdu writer Ali Jawad Zaidi. While Zaidi wrote primarily in Urdu, much of his work was scholarly and he worked tirelessly towards documenting specific genres within Urdu literature as well as making it accessible to English readers.
So far, the prize has not been confined to any genre. In its first year, it was offered for translations of a single short story. In the second year, it was offered for literary essays and “khakas” – pen portraits which are a popular and distinct literary genre in Urdu writing. It has been a neglected genre with translators tending to focus on novels and short fiction rather than non-fiction.
Fatima Rizvi was one of the runners-up of the translation prize in its inaugural year and is the sole winner of the prize in 2019. Her translation of Javed Siddiqui’s khaka “Hajiani”, from his collection, Raushandaan, offers a portrait of fierce loyalty and love in the form of a woman employed in a household that unexpectedly finds itself sinking into poverty.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw my house after almost half a century.
That once sprawling mansion had now been divided into three sections. One section housed a school and in another stood a tall, residential tower. The courtyard, where once grew dozens of trees laden with fruit, was now a jungle of overgrown grass and in it there was room only for loneliness and sorrow.
As I peered at the overgrown grass through the chinks in the ramshackle gate, many memories came back to me just like a dream in a wakeful slumber.
There was a time when this desolate mansion was bustling with activity.
An elderly gentleman sat guard at the gate on an ottoman. I cannot recollect his name - perhaps it was Aziz Khan or Ishaq Khan - he was called Baṛē Miāñ. By the side of the gate was an outhouse-like structure. A family of support staff lived in it. The helper’s name was either Barkat or Karamat. His wife was quite fat and bad looking and there was a daughter who resembled the mother. Barring the difference in height you couldn’t tell one from another.
Merely looking at the girl made me angry. The good for nothing was always scratching her head with both her hands and addressed her father as “bāp”. Every time she opened her mouth wide and shouted “bāāp”, I felt like strangulating her. The wretched girl could have said “abbō”, “abbā” or “bābā”, but no, she made it a point to say “bāp”.
Her father, whether he was Barkat or Karamat, was a bit of a jack of all trades. He was always doing something or other in the mansion. Now he would be repairing the thatched roof of the kitchen; now he could be seen driving a nail into a chair; or he had climbed up the Neem tree to suspend a rope swing for the children from a bough, and at other times he could be seen drawing water from the well to moisten the little kitchen garden. I don’t recall having seen him perform a particular labour or any similar kinds of labour. Perhaps these were his labours.
His fat wife would sweep the courtyard and collect the dried leaves in a heap and every night, she would light a bonfire of these so that the mosquitoes stayed at bay. At the farthest end of the courtyard was a building resembling a bārādari, which housed several rooms on the upper and lower levels. These rooms always remained cool because a large neem tree had spread its branches to make a shade over them and a mango tree shielded the windows from the scorching heat of the sun. They were always occupied by in-house guests.
I wonder how many people came by and lived in them. I remember a Pīr Sāheb very well because he played the flute with immense skill and the most amazing thing was that he didn’t blow into the instrument with his mouth, but with his nostrils. The window of my room overlooked the bārādari. Sometimes, when the music from his flute wafted into my room in the wee hours of the morning, I lay on my bed, noiselessly listening to it.
The big room adjoining mine belonged to Dādi. There was also a drawing-room in the house; one of its doors opened onto the road outside. Chotē Chacha had set up his clinic in here. He was a doctor of homoeopathy medicine.
The lengthy row of thatched rooms, along which grew guava, fig, lime, orange and loquat trees, housed the kitchen, the store-room and another large room in which lived Hajiyāni. This entire quarter was watched over by her. Nobody, except Dādi was permitted to trespass on it – to the extent that even Dādi’s beloved hens kept away. If, by any chance, a hen or a rooster dared to disregard its beat and strayed towards the kitchen, Hajiyāni aimed at it so perfectly with her tongs or the narrow tube with which she blew air into the fire to keep it burning that that was the end of the trespass. All the other hens and roosters cackled loudly, flapped their wings and scuttled away immediately.
Only Moti Begum had permission to sit by the side of Hajiyāni, on a low, country-made rope stool, with her eyes closed, while she prayed for the residents of the mansion.
Moti was my cat. She was a white cat – white as snow. One would very likely not see her if she were sitting on the white sheet spread out on the taḳht. I still remember her beautiful eyes – large, dark green eyes that shone brightly; in their centre an almond coloured pupil.
Hajiyāni was a petite, wrinkled and dark-skinned woman, with salt and pepper hair. She had very small eyes that shone brightly. In her small nose she wore a rudimentary silver nose-pin that looked like a dark mole from a distance. Her ears were pierced all along the margins and in them she wore small silver ear-rings in which swung red, green and white beads which weighed so heavily that the upper portion of her ears had doubled up completely. I am quite certain that since she first wore them, these ear-rings had never been taken off, neither had they been cleaned.
She wore two silver bangles on each wrist, which, despite being washed all the time, had turned black. The veins of her hands had begun to stand out and her nails were hardly visible. She wore thick, coarse, leather pumps on her feet, the hind portion of which always remained pressed under her heels. She wore a straight-cut chuṛidār pyjama – the lower portion which was meant to be gathered at the ankle, was always of another fabric, of another colour. Her lose kurta was only a little longer than a kurti. Her head remained covered with a three yards long dupatta, mostly of a thick fabric which was edged with a coloured border so that it could double up as a coverlet.
Hajiyāni’s status in the mansion was very similar to that of a Resident of an estate during the days of the British Raj. Ostensibly, the Raja, Maharaja or Nawab ruled the estate, but in reality, it was the Resident Bahādur who was in control. Although she was no more than support staff, she had come to the mansion as a child, grown up in it, and it was here that her marriage had been solemnised. However, she never went to her husband’s house after she got married. Contrarily, her husband had been given a small room to live in the mansion. Hajiyāni’s son Juma was born in this house, but poor Hajiyāni had been widowed in her youth.
She was very fond of fish and her simpleton of a husband would bring home a basket-full of fish every week from the river and the entire household would enjoy it. One day he went out hunting in the hot summer. When he returned he had been afflicted by loo, the searing hot summer winds. By evening the unfortunate man had died.
Juma’s paternal grandfather took him away and brought him up. Hajiyāni was young. Despite much persuasion she refused to remarry. But yes, she married off her son with a great deal of fanfare. It is said that during her entire life, the only time she stayed away from the mansion were the four days of her son’s marriage. Juma got employment as caretaker in the central, personal orchard of the Nawab Saheb. He had also been provided with a residential quarter. He took great pains to implore her, and also got several people to try and convince her to move in with him, but Hajiyāni didn’t spend a single night at his place. She was the favourite of Dādi or Baṛi Begum. If anyone had the courage to back answer Dādi or even scold her, it was Hajiyāni.
Everyone in the family addressed her as Hajiyāni, but Hajiyāni hadn’t performed the holy pilgrimage of Haj. The story goes that she did go to Bombay but began to feel giddy when she set eyes on the choppy waters of the sea. She fell ill and in fact, she fell so ill that the ship sailed to Jeddah with the pilgrims, but she had to be hospitalised. However, when she returned home along with the first batch of pilgrims who had performed Haj, she came to be known as Hajiyāni. Although the poor woman never claimed to have performed the pilgrimage, the title Hajiyāni remained with her till the end – rather it became tantamount to her name.
As far as I can recall, there were only three people in the mansion that had once been peopled to capacity – my Dādi, Hajiyāni, whom I called Maiyā, and I. This was the period after the abolition of the zamindari system. Money and grain had ceased to come in from the villages and whatever had been stashed away to serve well on a rainy day was getting transferred into the pockets of governmental officials and into the coffers of the lawyers, because of the lawsuits filed against the government. The matter was sub-judice in the Higher Court.
Baṛē Miāñ, who sat guard at the gate, had passed on. Barkat had moved to some village with his wife and daughter. Niralē Miāñ, who played the flute, now stayed at the Peshkār Sāheb’s place – Chotē Chacha now held his dispensary in a shop at the Chowk. It seemed as though not only people but even the sounds of voices had taken leave of this house. The three of us hardly spoke to each other – and what could we talk about? The silences that surrounded us perpetually were reminiscent of the hot summer afternoons.
But one’s own house is, after all, one’s own, whether it is bustling with activity or quiet and lonesome. This is why Dādi and I could never leave it and go anywhere else. My pet cat Moti had nowhere to go either. She too stayed with us. But why was Hajiyāni still with us? This is quite an interesting story.
It is said that Dādi, or Baṛi Begum had paid off the support staff to dispense with their services. After all, only two or three of them had remained. Apart from Gujariya the sweeper-woman and Masita the water-carrier, all of them left in abject sorrow, wiping their tears and calling upon the Almighty’s blessings.
Hajiyāni’s small, bright eyes shone while she silently chewed on the pān in her mouth. When all had left, Baṛi Begum took in a deep breath and turned her attention to Hajiyāni, but before she could utter a word, Hajiyāni leapt up from where she sat and stood in front of Dādi, settled her dupatta on her head and placing her hand on her waist, stood there, slightly bent, and spoke in a voice about two decibels louder than usual: “Are you settling my accounts too?”
Baṛi Begum looked at Hajiyāni with eyes that were quite worn out and spoke very softly: “You know everything Hajiyāni – now only Allah can provide sustenance and we have no hope of help from anyone. I can starve, but I cannot see those who provide me with all kinds of support go hungry.”
Baṛi Begum extended a worn-out, red, velvet pouch which contained some left over silver coins towards Hajiyāni: “Take out whatever you want from this and forgive me my shortcomings.”
Hajiyāni shook her head vigorously and pat came her reply in the same high pitched voice: “I will not leave like this Bībī. If you want to dispense with my services you’ll have to clear all my previous accounts.”
Baṛi Begum looked at her with astonishment: “What do you mean?”
“I was seven when I came to this house. It is five and fifty years since I have been offering my services to you. Evaluate my financial records. Nasiban, who works in Malika Begum’s house, who cannot cook a single meal to save her soul, who takes seven rupees every month. Am I worse off than her too? Despite discounting whatever you have given in the marriage ceremonies, my services amount to no less than several thousand rupees. Do you understand...? How can you show me a few silver coins...?”
Had it been other times or had she been another domestic help, she would perhaps have been shown the door in a most unceremonious way. However, for one, Hajiyāni was Baṛi Begum’s preferred – rather, she was her favourite. Besides, what she was saying was quite true. Baṛi Begum bent her head low. She found Hajiyāni’s antagonism quite endearing. Her eyes welled up with tears. She drew a deep breath and remarked:
“This is not the time to express anger Hajiyāni – go and live with your son and daughter-in-law. They won’t mind feeding you two roṭis. If our times change, I’ll send for you once again.”
Hajiyāni responded quite spiritedly.
“Oh! But who are you to make arrangements for my roṭi...Allah has promised each one of us our sustenance. Whether I live with Juma or in this house, I will get my share of food. Think about yourself.”
Baṛi Begum kept looking at Hajiyāni for a long time. Then she picked up her pān-dān and went into her room.
Hajiyāni turned her head in the direction of the room and made a loud rejoinder: “Rest assured. I will not leave so easily. I’m a true blue kahāri – true blue – I have eaten your salt so I will repay its obligation.” She put down the pouch full of money and walked towards the kitchen.
Nobody ever asked Hajiyāni to leave after this. She lived with us like one of our close relatives. Despite knowing that she would get nothing in return, she continued to offer her services as she had done before. In fact, her work had increased many folds after the other servants had left.
After offering her Fajr prayers, she swept the whole house, watered the plants, prepared the tea and, laying it out on a tray, placed it on low wooden taḳhts that stood in the veranda. Since the dining table for twelve and the black chairs that went with it had been sold, these taḳhts served as our dining table. When there was money, we ate thick round biscuits with a bar of white butter costing two and a half annas for breakfast; otherwise the leftover roṭis of the previous night were dipped in salt and chilly water and fried in a bit of oil to serve as parāthas. It was such a pleasure to have these parāthas made from leftover roṭis with tea. No breakfast has ever been as enjoyable.
All the jewels and the silverware had already been sold. Every other piece of household furniture and paraphernalia that was superfluous had been sent off to a scrap dealer in Puranaganj. Only a choker remained with Dādi – or, probably, she had held on to it. It was a beautiful gold choker – seven or eight one-inch pieces had been strung together – the singular thing about it was that it could be worn from either side. On one side was gold and on the other, green mīna work. Dādi probably wanted to present it to my wife when I married.
But hunger is a more pressing need than holding onto a prospective wedding gift!
That is why, sometimes when Hajiyāni went up to Dādi for money before going to the market, she would take out the clippers meant to cut areca nut, from the pān-dān. She would go into the dark room where some trunks still remained, and take out a box from one of them – and then, from it, she would take out the choker and gaze at it for a long time before cutting off a piece with the clippers and placing it in Hajiyāni’s hand.
Bit by bit the choker was sold and, over time, the house too was drained of all its furniture. Tall almirahs fitted with German glass; tea sets and dinner sets imprinted with photographs of George V and Queen Mary; handmade glass tumblers decorated with gold borders; beds with ivory legs; brass and copper vessels, and who knows what else. The mansion was huge and once it was emptied of its furniture it began to look even larger. For the first time I realised that a house that is bare can be quite appalling, even if it is one’s own.
It came to pass that the hens and the fruit on the trees too had to be sold. The fruit vendor Sahib Jan came by and purchased lemon at a rate of three rupees a hundred fruit. Oranges, loquats and figs weren’t too many, but we got a very good price for twenty kilograms of raw papaya. Hajiyāni negotiated the deals. Dādi strolled in the veranda holding her prayer beads in her hand or rested against a pillar of an archway and silently watched the belongings she had collected so fondly as they were taken away, never to be returned. And there came a time when nothing remained in this mansion comprising twenty-two rooms and sprawling over five thousand yards, which could be sold to purchase two hundred and fifty grams of wheat flour.
It wasn’t that anyone would refuse if he were asked – around us, all the houses belonged to our relatives and, by the grace of Allah, all were comfortably off. But this was the hand of Baṛi Begum that was never extended to receive, even from her own children. So how could she plead with her relatives? That night, I ate some half-ripe guavas and fell asleep. All night, a hungry and restless Moti rolled at Dādi’s feet, who strolled with her prayer beads in her hand from one end of the veranda to the other.
The following morning when I awoke, Dādi was still pacing up and down the veranda in a state of grave concern. I learnt that Hajiyāni was missing.
The wicket gate was open, we searched the whole house, we called out loudly, even searched the toilet and the bathroom but there was no trace of her. Several times I went up to the gate and looked out. I even removed the tin lid that covered the buttress of the well and peered in. As the day went by, Dādi’s worry transformed into annoyance:
“Oh! May Allah ruin the shameful woman. Why couldn’t she tell me she was going? I wonder where the godforsaken wretch has gone and got herself killed! Beta, just go and check – she must be sitting somewhere and chatting away to glory.”
I too hadn’t liked her going away. Not because she had gone away without informing us but because had she been at home, she would surely have prepared something for us for breakfast.
I looked for her in all the houses in the vicinity but there was no trace of Hajiyāni. Dādi was pacing up and down the veranda and every now and again she seemed to question herself: “Where could she go…? I wonder where she has gone! The poor woman cannot even see clearly; she cannot walk a pace without hurting herself. She must have been run down by a tonga or a push cart...Would her tongue have worn out if the worthless woman had informed me before leaving?”
That afternoon, when the sun shone overhead and the soothing shadow of the neem tree had shrunk to its shortest, and the hot wind blew through the leaves of the mango tree, somebody drew on the “chain of justice”.
This ‘chain of justice’ was a long rope, one end of which was tethered to the gate while at the other end was a bell, like the one strung in the neck-ropes of cattle. This bell hung from the lemon tree. The veranda was situated quite a distance away from the gate. So, it often happened that the sound of knocking at the gate didn’t carry through to the veranda. And we didn’t have electricity to install an electric bell. My intelligence had led to the construction of this apparatus as a remedy.
The bell rang loudly several times and Moti leapt with her meow, meow – I knew instantaneously that Maiyā had arrived. I opened the gate to find Hajiyāni standing there, drenched in sweat, holding two big bags in her hands. She put down the bags on the low taḳhts and, still panting, wiped the sweat off her brow. Dādi had come out of her room by then. She saw Hajiyāni and flew into a rage: “Where had you gone? I thought you had committed suicide. Would you have sprouted blisters in your mouth if you had told us before going?”
Pat came her reply: “Don’t shout! I had gone to see Juma.”
“May Allah bring ruin on you! Would I have stopped you if you had informed me? It is so late in the day and this poor boy has been so worried looking for you, running house to house. And this mother, stricken with love for her child has gone visiting her son!’
“Had I told you, you would never have let me go. I know you well enough...”
Dādi didn’t understand. She countered angrily: “Why wouldn’t I have let you go? Have I ever restricted your movements?”
Hajiyāni made a sour face and picking up the bags exclaimed: “Oh come on. Stop it, now. I have a lot to do. I’m off to work...”
As Hajiyāni made her way to the kitchen, bags in hand, Dādi stopped her: “What have you got in those bags?”
“Food, and some mutton too…It’s so hot. If I don’t cook it right away, it’ll rot.”
“I see...May Allah bring ruin upon you! Everything has become so expensive – the whole market is on fire! Mutton costs two and a half rupees a kilo and that too...with bone.”
Dādi placed her hands on her hips and stood in the way of Hajiyāni: “You had gone to Juma to get money from him . . . .”
Hajiyāni dumped the bags onto the floor: “Look here, Bībī, if you are feeling like venting your anger, do it by all means. Yes. I had gone to him. Why wouldn’t I? He is my son. I carried the wretched mongrel in my womb for nine months.”
Dādi was nonplussed. She didn’t know what to say. For a long time she kept looking into Hajiyāni’s eyes, then spoke: “Did you tell him that this house...?”
“Have you taken leave of your senses? Have I been stricken by Allah that I would narrate my woes to him? I told him I needed money and he gave me some. That is all.”
“You haven’t done the right thing Hajiyāni. You shouldn’t have gone to Juma.”
Hajiyāni shook her tanned, wrinkled hand vigorously in front of Dādi and exclaimed: “Keep your peacock feathers to yourself. Think rationally, my dear woman! Think rationally. This innocent boy has been hungry since yesterday. How long will he survive on raw fruit? If he falls ill, we won’t know what to do.”
Baṛi Begum opened her mouth. Her eyes looked as though she was about to burst into a tirade but she only articulated: “But Hajiyāni...”
Lifting the bags, Hajiyāni exclaimed: “Your ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ can go to blazes…I’m off...If you want to eat, you can. If not...then don’t.”
She strode purposefully towards the kitchen.
Moti kept sniffing at one of the bags and meowing loudly. Hajiyāni looked at her and shouted, “I’ve brought something for you too – you ill-begotten creature...Why are you meowing yourself hoarse?”
After offering her Zuhr prayer, when Dādi looked up, Hajiyāni stood there, in front of her. As always, in her hands, she held the spouted water container and basin: “Lunch is served. Wash your hands. I have fed Master.”
For a while it seemed as though Baṛi Begum had turned to stone. She didn’t budge an inch. “Come along, why don’t you get up? Hurry up, now. You won’t like the curry if it turns cold.”
And then, as the daughter-in-law of Madār-ul-Mohām, Sardār Deodhi, Afsar zāt-e ḳhās, Hāfiz Ahmad Ali, Khān Bahādur, and the widow of Tehsildār Ashraf Ali Khān, Sāheb Bahādur, broke a roṭi after going hungry for four consecutive meals, she suddenly stopped. She looked at Hajiyāni who stood close by and said:
“Sit Hajiyāni...Eat...You haven’t eaten anything either...!”
“Now, now, just listen to that! If I sit down to eat, who will bring you the piping hot phulkās? Allah! A curse upon my forgetfulness! I have forgotten to bring the chutney. I’ll just get it.”
Hajiyāni hurried into the kitchen, dragging her pumps behind her...Baṛi Begum lifted her head and looked up at the sky and said softly to herself: “How will I repay the obligation of this salt, Maulā?”
Then she lowered her head and put a morsel of food in her mouth.