Amongst the dream-like memories there is also one of an evening in which my Bua has my younger brother in her arms and I am walking alongside them. At a short distance from the house, I see a dirty bundle of clothes lying on the road and I give it a kick. The bundle groans loudly, and my Bua exclaims, “Hai! What are you doing?! You don’t kick a human child, do you?” She sits down besides it and starts speaking to it. In response, the bundle of rags unjumbles. At first, two pairs of arms and legs, burning hot, appear, and soon we are on our way home, a dirty young girl tottering along with us.
The girl was quite a bit older than me, but I went about the house preening – she was my “discovery”, the one I had found and brought home.
Her fever came down with medicines the very next day and my mother herself stood by and supervised as one of the women servants gave her a bath with water, soap, and besan. The grime and dirt were rubbed off of her with potshards. With a kurta from one person, a paijama from another, a pink orhni draped on her, that pitch-black girl was soon transformed into a comely one with large eyes and golden skin the colour of wheat.
Just a few days of a regular diet brought out her beauty even more, and within a month, this twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl was always to be found teasing and flirting with the other servants. We named her Nargis. I was very happy and pleased with her and kept her by my side always.
One day, Nargis accompanied me to the part of the house where the cousins who were living with us for their studies, resided. I don’t know what exactly happened, but soon little pebbles started flying around, and peals of laughter bubbled in the air. I felt compelled to go report to my mother that Nargis was throwing stones. The next I knew, Nargis was given a few slaps and ordered never to even think of making her way to that side of the house ever again. And shortly after, she was sent off to my nānī’s home for education and training.
It was one year later that she returned. In her colourful gharara, shining with gold trim and embroidery, and the red dupatta she wore around her shoulders, she was now a married woman. A dim-witted young man was by her side, and he was at once engaged by our family, and sent off to Aligarh to serve Rafi sahab.
Once I said to Nargis, “Your husband is calling you.” My words were greeted with a loud snort and a gob of spit. She detested him.
And though she stayed with us and grew more beautiful by the day, she never gave that husband of hers a second look. The truth was that she had eyes only for one manservant of ours, handsome in his beplumed turban. Eventually, one night, Nargis disappeared altogether.
It was only three years later that she returned. We all surrounded her, delighted to see her. She now swore by Our Father and Jesus Christ and wore a skirt. The Christian missionaries had inducted her into Jesus’s flock of sheep and had taught her to say, “Oh Heavenly Father, let your will be fulfilled on earth as it is in heaven, and give us our daily bread.”
We brothers and sisters pleaded with her, “Nargis come back to us!” And to our delight, she agreed. However, now her manner was quite brazen. After a year or so of revelry, she decamped with the magnificently turbaned manservant. The next year this esteemed employee was sighted in the mela at Dewa, dressed in saffron robes, now a self-declared pir, but Nargis never returned. And we never got any further news of her.
For everyone else, Nargis soon became long-forgotten, but her memory has always remained in my heart. Today when I am concerned with the education, reform, and improvement in the lives of the girls in the Women’s Service Home, I think of Nargis again. If only we had afforded her some ease and facilities, her ruined life could have been repaired.
One day, my mother told me that I was to go to visit an aunt, whose husband was a senior lawyer in the city.
She had visited us a short while ago and had said that she wanted her daughters to meet me. Since her elder daughter was ill, they couldn’t visit us, so I must go to them, she said.
To be invited as a guest was a matter of great pride and fulfilment for me. I got ready quickly and sat in the palanquin. I was escorted by one uncle and Ramzan Baba carrying his big staff. Arriving in such pomp made me stand up tall as I alighted at my destination.
My aunt received me outside in the veranda. She hugged me affectionately repeatedly, expressed her delight that I had come, and then took me inside saying, “Let me take you to Habiba’s room. She is bedridden with a boil on her leg and cannot walk.”
Habiba was with her two younger sisters, two or three daughters of maidservants and perhaps also a couple of girls who were her relatives. I was invited with great informality to sit on her bed and conversation began. Confidences about themselves, information about their neighbours, stories about their villages, romantic sagas of passion, tales of spectres and demons, black magic, gossip about debauched men... oh lord, how much information these girls had! That was the day that I came to understand what a simpleton I was in comparison.
Ghost stories were forbidden in my home, and I had never even seen philtres and potions. The information that a ḍāyan bewitches men into states of utter foolishness, that certain female ghosts speak through their noses and have their feet on backwards, made my hair stand on end. Habiba was just one year older than me, yet she had seen all these things with her own eyes!
But when the girls started talking about how the Munshi has kept his second wife in his house, I couldn’t restrain myself any longer.
What was odd or scandalous in this – where else was he supposed to keep her? Outside? My foolish questions elicited peals of laughter. But I couldn’t bring myself to believe in the truth of what they said – no man could really have two wives.
Habiba’s insistence was that every man had a randi (prostitute). Her father also had one. She doesn’t come to the house, but we go to hers. But what was a ranḍi like? My question once again induced hysterical laughter.
“What’s she like? You don’t know? You are such an innocent fool!’’
A fool I certainly was, because when I returned home with this treasure trove of new knowledge, I reported it all to my mother, and even repeated a few of the observations the girls had made. My mother was exceedingly displeased. It was perhaps because of this that I wasn’t ever allowed to visit them again, although I was always eager to meet those girls of a thousand tales.
Excerpted with permission from Dust of the Caravan, Anis Kidwai, translated from the Urdu by Ayesha Kidwai.