The building had three floors. From top to bottom it was divided into many tiny rooms. The so-called courtyard was so small that if you looked at it from above, you would think that you were looking into a dark well.
Bujan guessed immediately that it was an allotment house. “So what if Hindu homes became allotment houses? Who gets wrapped up in worrying about that? They’re yours for the taking. But for some reason, the noble idea came into your head that that wasn’t good enough. Just find me someone who rents an allotment house! There’s only one – us!”
But when Bujan looked around the neighbourhood and saw that three or four immigrant families were stuffed together in each allotment house, she decided it was better to pay rent. Then her only complaint against the house was that in order to go to the bathroom, she had to go to the third floor.
Every morning when she walked back slowly down the stairs bringing her small empty water pot with her, she would complain, “Why has god punished the wretched by putting the toilets in the sky!” But she discovered so many good qualities to the building that this complaint was drowned out.
It was no small advantage that you could hear all five azans while at home and so know exactly when to pray. Then the butcher was very close by, and he was good – he would even set aside choice cuts and send them to the house.
But one day it so happened that a taxi stopped in front of the house, and a middle-aged woman with a bindi on her forehead and dressed in a Burma sari got out. She took the hand of a girl and came inside. “Madam, if you don’t mind, we would like to see the house,” she said.
Bujan replied curtly, “Madam, someone misinformed you. We’re not leaving this house.”
“No, madam, stay here for as long as you like. What right do we have to it now? I’ve only brought my daughter to see it. When the border opened, my cousin told me that he was going to watch a cricket match in Lahore – my Lahore – so I decided to come too. I wanted to see my house, and I wanted to bring my daughter to see it. I wanted to show her where I’d lived.”
Bujan inspected her from head to toe. Then she showed her all around the house.
“Madam, I can’t speak for what happened before us, but I’ve taken care of your house from the start. I have it whitewashed after each monsoon. If any plaster peels, I immediately call in the mason to get it fixed.”
The visitor looked carefully around the well-kept house and gave Bujan an appreciative glance. She went into one room, and, making sure her girl was paying attention, she said, “Dear, this is where you were born.” As she said this, her eyes welled with tears. She grabbed her daughter”s hand and, dabbing her eyes, she left the room.
“Madam, please sit down. Have some tea before leaving.”
“No, thank you. I wanted to see my house, and now I have. Take care.”
Then she left.
Bujan thought about this for days. Then she said, “Son, let”s find another house.”
I looked at her with surprise. “Why? What”s wrong with this house?”
“No one said anything about anything being wrong. I just want to leave.”
“Why are you questioning me? And from now on, I don”t want to stay in allotment properties.”
“Son, I”ve thought about this. Taking pleasure in the distress of others isn’t good.”
Bujan was insistent. Finally, I got tired of fighting and relented. After much effort, I found another house, and we said goodbye to allotment houses.
“What’s wrong with that godforsaken preacher? He doesn’t sleep, and he doesn’t let anyone else in the neighbourhood sleep either!”
Gradually, Bujan found out that the reason she had at first liked the house so much – that it was right next to a mosque – wasn’t so great after all. What surprised her was that it used to be that living next to a mosque was considered relaxing and the proximity gave people peace of mind. Why wasn’t it the case any longer? I had one idea. In those days, the mosque was more a place for praying than for sermons, and they didn’t have loudspeakers.
“Our great Maulvi Sajani did the azan from our mosque,” Bujan said, recalling the mosque next to Chiragh Haveli. Her voice almost cracked. “Even those who hated praying, when they heard his azan, they came running. And his voice was so loud! Even the neighbouring villages could hear his azan in the morning.”
“Bujan, he must have had a loudspeaker.”
“Oh, good riddance to loudspeakers! There was no place for these gaudy things in our mosque. Maulvi Sajani called it a tool of the devil. Once someone used it in front of him. He started to shake in anger. He said, ‘If you want this tool of the devil inside the mosque, then you can do the azan yourself!’”
But our neighbourhood witnessed the increased use of that tool of the devil. These days, tents were always going up. One day was someone’s wedding. The next day it was announced that circumcisions would be performed, and so many tents were set up that the alley was entirely blocked.
With the tents came loudspeakers that blasted film songs so loud that for her nightly prayers, Bujan had to close the windows and doors, and she struggled to keep her attention until the end. Fingering her rosary, she complained under her breath, beat her prayer rug and repeated how the wastrels had ruined her prayers.
Bujan was more than disgusted with the neighbourhood, and I too grew quickly tired of it. We both wanted to flee. Rents had increased, but I thought to myself that anything was better than staying.
We ended up paying more for the next house, but it was wonderful. The house was in an alley with a strange aspect to it. There was always molasses being boiled. It would be cleaned up, but each time the alley would be clean for barely a week or so before it would start up again.
Sometimes, there would be so much going that the alley was like a small pond. It smelled. One stench came from the molasses being boiled and another came from the heap of waste that was piling higher and higher. It could have been that the alley was on the city garbage route, but since we got there, we never saw a single truck.
Adding further beauty to the neighbourhood were the neighbour’s children, who early in the morning would come out from their house without any pants to speak of and sit in a line over the open sewer’s gutter and go to the bathroom. Then one boy got bored of the solidarity, or maybe he developed a taste for individuality, and so he left the “platoon” and came to use the bathroom in the gutter right in front of our door.
Bujan bit her tongue. The next day, she bit her tongue again. When it started happening every day, she couldn”t bite her tongue any more. One day when she saw the neighbour lady standing in her doorway, she started up a conversation. They talked about this and that, and then, after having delayed for quite a while, she spoke her mind.
But, even then, she didn’t speak directly about it. “Well, no one would do that on purpose,” she said. “After all, they’re kids. At that age, they hardly know what they’re doing.”
The neighbour woman wouldn’t give in either. Her tone said she was upset. She said, “Well, mother, my kids would hardly go pee and poop in the gutter, whether yours or mine. It must be someone else. After all, there are a lot of kids in the neighbourhood.”
Excerpted with permission from The Chronicle, Intizar Husain, translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck, Penguin Books.