It was an old settlement, yet darkness enveloped it. There were buildings spreading from the railway station to the hills as far as the eye could see, but essentially it seemed like a cobbled-up slum. There was a temple on the hilltop opposite the station. If one viewed the settlement from the courtyard of the temple, a minaret was visible.
This was the minaret of the local Jama Masjid, and it was shaped like a rocket. It felt as if this rocket would take off on its own towards space, never to return. There were two small bulbs at the mouth of the rocket. One red, one green. These would be used till some years ago to declare the timings for sehri and iftar.
A mosque had now been constructed in every alley of the settlement, and each mosque had four to five loudspeakers. So now the blessed sound of the azaan would reach every home. In fact, so many sounds would reach each home that sometimes the pious would fight with others in their family at the time for sahri or iftar about whether that sound of the azaan was from their mosque or not.
On the other hand, the electric supply would play hide and seek with the settlement. This can also be explained thus that the administration played hide and seek with the enclave. This is why the bulbs on top of the minaret continued to be of use. The bulbs were connected to a generator that a welfare organisation had donated to the Jama Masjid.
Twenty or twenty-five years ago, the population of the settlement was still quite low. In those years, an epidemic of hate broke out in the city next to the settlement.
During this time, the rakshasas that had run away from Lanka at the time of Lord Ram’s attack also descended as the wrath of the city. It is said that the rakshasas have been wandering around the subcontinent for years and whenever they descend on a city, it comes under the sway of blood and fire. Nobody knows who is behind this veil of blood and fire.
Under the attack of the rakshasas and the outbreak of hatred the city had turned into Lanka. Arson was all around, corpses were everywhere. Thousands of people succumbed to this epidemic of hate. The foreign journalists analysing this pandemic of hate were of the opinion that those people succumbed more to this outbreak whose honourable names included Arabic sounds.
Thus, once the epidemic of hate came to an end and the rakshasas headed towards a different city, those with Arabic names migrated away from the town, leaving their hearts behind. Most people from the city came and settled in this enclave. These people founded the Jama Masjid. Although this is also a fact that this settlement is only an hour’s commute away from the city, but the distance between the lives of those who live here and the city is that of a century.
Pardon me, I was saying that the enclave was old and the darkness was deep. There were buildings spreading from the railway station to the hills as far as the eye could see, but essentially it seemed like a cobbled-up slum. On the third story of a building in this slum was the home of Begum Sughra, the mother of Musarrat Jehan.
Musarrat Jehan had once gone to the temple on the hilltop opposite the railway station and stared at the settlement for long. She had felt as if the enclave was a refugee camp. Looking at the rocket-shaped minaret she had remembered that its shadow fell on her home every evening. Looking at the mammoth shadow she would often feel that the minaret was really a war missile under whose presence the whole settlement was safe.
Two expert linguists lived in the enclave. Their opinion differed from everyone else. They would say that if most people in a settlement had names constituted of Arabic sounds then it is safe from the epidemic of hate, but the chances for plague increase.
The majority of the people in the enclave were not familiar with these linguists and those who were did not take them seriously. The truth of the matter is that even both the linguists did not take each other’s linguistic opinions seriously, but, coincidentally, both agreed on the linguistic theory about the plague.
Pardon me, I was saying that the settlement was old and the darkness was deep. There were buildings spreading from the railway station to the hills as far as the eye could see, but essentially it seemed like a cobbled-up slum. On the third story of a building in this slum was the home of Begum Sughra, the mother of Musarrat Jehan.
Musarrat Jehan used to love someone and would meet him on the sly. Twice the boy had taken her to the famous beach of the city, where he had treated her to paani-puri.
There were many turns yet to come in this tale of love, but one day Musarrat, her lover, and her lover’s friend – all disappeared. After three days, under mysterious circumstances, their bodies were found covered in blood, miles away from the enclave. In fact, they were not found, but reported on TV. The mediawallahs were saying that these people had joined the enemies of the country.
Some people were saying that government officials had gauged that these people had caught the plague. It was therefore dangerous for them to have remained alive. There were as many accounts and interpretations as there were newspapers and channels.
Begum Sughra was incapacitated with grief. After a few days when the shock lessened, a few old men and members of political parties of the settlement began to visit her. They would ask Begum Sughra and her relatives many questions in confidence: Did Musarrat refer to the days of the epidemic of hate? Did she give the message of the dissolution of borders? Did she read those books that have the false stories of rise and fall inscribed in them?
With every envoy there would be one or two government officials or spies of the state machinery about whom no one was aware. In fact, one spy did not know about the other. Their faces would be lined with such deep lines of grief that the residents of the building would feel that they must be some relatives of Begum Sughra. Not only would these despondent-faced spies memorise Begum Sughra’s statements word by word, they would also draw a sketch of the expressions of everyone present in their minds.
Following Musarrat’s demise, the theory of the linguists gradually became common knowledge in the settlement. At the corners of the enclave, at tea stalls, colleges, mosques, shrines, and squares, people would include each other in this secret with whispered tones that if most people in a settlement have names constituted of Arabic sounds, then it is safe from the epidemic of hate, but the chances for plague increase.
After a year, Sughra Begum heard that among the people of the settlement and those who knew the settlement this story was commonly accepted that Musarrat had caught the plague and the cause of her mysterious death was also the plague.
Sughra Begum had accepted Musarrat’s mysterious death as Allah’s will, but this she could not accept at any cost that, post-mortem, Musarrat should be connected to such a disease that can be the cause of the destruction of the whole enclave.
She decided that she would go to court to discover the cause of Musarrat’s mysterious death. When she made an announcement about this, some people came forward to help. Most of them were from other places. The officials of the place where Musarrat’s corpse was discovered far away from the enclave tried their best to prevent these busybodies and Begum Sughra’s lawyer from the going to court or to entrap them in its intricacies.
Consequently, the case got stuck in the judicial morass.
Despite this, every now and then, Sughra Begum’s hopes would be raised that the judgment would come in her favour and that Musarrat’s soul would find some peace. But then this hope would turn into a desert of hopelessness, over which she would spread a mat and offer namaz night and day and pray to Allah for his help from the void to prove that Musarrat had not caught the plague. The desert was soulless. Begum Sughra’s prayers became ever longer. Her knees would cramp, and her toes would go numb. The prayer mat was now starting to smell of her tears.
I digressed again –
I was telling that the settlement was old and the darkness was deep. There were buildings spreading from the railway station to the hills as far as the eye could see, but essentially it seemed like a cobbled-up slum. On the third story of a building in this slum was the home of Begum Sughra, the mother of Musarrat Jehan. It was the last night of the Ramzan. Begum Sughra had spent the whole month reciting the Qur’an and in worship. Seeing the waxing crescent of the Eid moon, she turned towards her bed, and her eyes suddenly teared. A flood of Musarrat’s memories rose in her heart.
Every year after the sighting of the Eid moon, most girls from the building would gather on this very bed to get mehndi made on their hands from Musarrat. Musarrat would sit at the edge of the bed and by turn draw flowers and paisleys on each of their hands. The girls would secretly request Musarrat to inscribe an English letter amongst the flowers and paisleys.
Musarrat would demand to know details about their secret love in exchange for inscribing that letter, and the girls would coyly tell many details about their lovers.
Rounds of tea would begin and sweets would appear from the neighbours’ homes. It would be one merry gathering.
But since Musarrat’s mysterious death, once this news spread that she had died of plague, the building’s girls gradually stopped coming to their home. Silence reigned here now. As if everything had died with Musarrat’s mysterious death. Even the flowers on the curtains on the windows had wilted. The colour of the ceiling had faded. Plaster was peeling off the walls in many places. A hinge on a door had come loose. The house had become a grave in which Sughra Begum had been interred alive.
Sughra Begum sat next to the bed and sobbed copiously for long. She did not even remember that she had not turned on the tube light. Darkness had deepened inside the house. Despite the night of the first moon, every corner of the house was shrouded in a speechless calamity and a feeling of deprivation deepening the gaping dark.
If one looked from the courtyard of the temple on the hilltop opposite the railway station, then a strange halo of darkness appeared atop Begum Sughra’s building. It felt as if there was a black hole there, where all light was getting buried. Above the sharp rays of twilight in the sky, the crescent of the new moon was swimming in grief. People had not even gazed upon it to their heart’s content when it sank.
The crescent moon had not only seen the misfortune, despair, and deprivation spreading over Begum Sughra’s home. It had also seen such hellish darkness over many homes in many enclaves across the country, where the residents of these houses all carried this grief and clamour that why was this being said about their family members – who had disappeared or whose mangled corpses had turned up many miles away from their homes or those who were in the state’s custody – that they were affected by the plague?
Translated from “Taauun Ke Dixon Mein Eid”, published in 2014.
This series of articles on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on publishing is curated by Kanishka Gupta