Three Coffins

A short story by Wajida Tabassum, translated by Akshaj Awasthi

Bade Chacha left the cell-like chamber abutting the drawing room, closely followed by Genda Khala who was holding onto his kurta. She looked bewildered and afraid.

‘What will I do now, huzoor? I won’t be able to hide this secret forever!’

Chacha Miyan looked at her with his eyes blazing. ‘You aren’t a respectable woman in any case. You act as if your name will be tarnished because of something like this.’

The kurta’s hem fell out of Genda Khala’s hands. She sat down right there, at the doors of the room. ‘Won’t my name be tarnished?’

Chacha Miyan smiled. ‘What honour do housemaids and servants have anyway, Genda Begum? You’re giving too much importance to yourself for no reason.’

Genda Khala was incensed. ‘If I have a child, I’ll openly acknowledge that it is Nawab Haider’s.’

‘Oh, is that so?’ Chacha Miyan replied, his anger stoked. ‘How are you so sure you will have a child? And even so, will that be a new thing for the people of the deorhi, the women’s quarters? Who will even believe you? There are dozens of bastards found in so many good houses. Why will anyone choose my name instead of anyone else’s?’

‘The child will name you its father just by the way it will look — how will you convince the world then?’

‘Even if it doesn’t cause troubles for you, it will still be a thorn in your child’s path. The worst will happen on jumme raat, in front of everyone. I’ll watch as my child waves his fist at the sky and asks Khuda for vengeance against the person who did this to him. He will make sure you come to no good either.’

Chacha Miyan stopped and stared for a moment. Then he left, stomping his feet.

During the midday meal Chacha Miyan was silent, almost as if he had returned from the funeral of his best friend.

Badi Mumani teased him. ‘Why is janaab’s face so serious today?’

‘Mine? No, why?’ Nawab Haider replied in bewilderment. ‘What’s wrong? Look, I am laughing.’

‘Are you laughing or crying instead? What is the matter, tell us at least?’

Chacha Miyan gestured with his hand. ‘Why don’t you all believe me? Nothing has happened, my head is hurting, that’s all.’ After that, he washed his hands, while his favourite shami kababs lay forgotten on the table and slowly dried.

Everyone looked at each other in surprise. What could have appeared more strange to the people of the deorhi that Chacha Miyan seemed to be so sad all of a sudden?

Chacha Miyan was the life of the deorhi. He was the lord of the house, but he talked in such a nonchalant manner to everyone that it wasn’t even apparent that he was a nawab. He was always laughing and making other people laugh; girls, boys, married ones, unmarried ones, servants, maids — no one was safe from his humour. He must have been fifty or fifty-five, maybe even more, but he used to make people laugh in a way that could put young boys to shame.

Adjoining the great hall of the deorhi was a small room that was set aside for namaz. At the time of maghrib, when the whole house gathered to pray, Chacha Miyan would come there too. There were always times when a few of the girls were absent, and this was enough to set him off.

‘Where is Zehra? What happened to Noor Bibi? Why is Salima Bibi not feeling well?’ On top of that, he wouldn’t even spare his own daughters. ‘Why didn’t Nadira Begum come to pray today? I didn’t see Sabira anywhere.’

The young women would hide their faces in shame, wrapping themselves in their dupattas. Chacha Miyan would smile and leave, but while leaving he would add a few more lines to his earlier lecture.

Zehra Begum would be ticked off. ‘Tauba! It looks like Chacha Miyan has gone completely mad.’

If Rafiq Miyan, Salim Miyan and Chote Jani weren’t anywhere to be seen at the morning namaz, it would be doomsday for their wives. ‘Who knows why these boys didn’t come for the morning namaz? Zehra Begum, the fault of your husband missing his prayer will fall on your account. Shakira Begum, you’re making Salim Miyan a sinner too?’ While adjusting his dopalli topi on his head, he would add. ‘Oh Miyan, have some fear of god at least!’

Shakira Begum would tightly fasten a chadar on her head. Zehra Begum would turn red with embarrassment. And when Chacha Miyan left, Shakira Begum would heave her face out of the chadar and say ‘Tauba, Allah, Bhai Jaan is so cruel. He doesn’t spare anyone, his words felt like they were slashing at me. He doesn’t respect people even if they are right in front of him!’

The maids, servants and girls of the house would run around with little to no modesty — that is to say, they were of a bad character. Chacha Miyan would leap at the opportunity, and usually asked innocently, ‘Ramzani Bua, feed me your ‘sweets’ otherwise I will…’ and trail off.

They would look pale, and say ‘Miyan, I beg you. Here, take this money.’

And they would take notes of money out of their dirty, trampled purses and throw them on the ground. Chacha Miyan would smile, pick up the money and return it to them.

If he went into the kitchens he wouldn’t leave for hours, and the difference between servant and master would disappear. The jokes wouldn’t stop even then. A few days later, talk had spread like wildfire how Chacha Miyan had even forgotten to ask for Genda Khala’s ‘sweets’ after seeing her fair shins and back. The fact also was, did he even have enough time to ask for something of the sort? Genda Khala’s glowing complexion was so famous that even the water she washed her face with was reputed to turn golden after having touched her skin. She was named Genda, or Marigold, for precisely this reason, because she was as golden as the flower. The fine golden hair on her shins would captivate her admirers whenever she raised her shalwar to make sure it didn’t get drenched when taking water from the tap. They said that they wished Genda would keep filling water from the tap for the rest of eternity.

And through wagging tongues, people also got to hear of other things. This included how Chacha Miyan would apparently go to the room beside the kitchens to ask Genda Khala for her ‘sweets’ fairly regularly.

‘The child will take your name.’

‘If your future isn’t ruined, your child’s will be for sure.’

Nawab Haider was startled and looked around to see whose voice he heard. But there was no one there. It was his own mind that was creating impressions of Genda Khala’s voice. ‘La Haula Walakuata.’ There is no might apart from Allah’s, the Quran said. ‘These young girls lie and tell such tall tales. That girl from before — it seems almost like yesterday that Chand Bibi carried her around in her arms. Just because the children have started calling her Genda Khala, Aunt Genda, does this mean that she’s become respectable?’ He tried to calm himself down, but he couldn’t suppress the fear taking root in his heart.

In the times of Bade Hazrat the entirety of the deorhi was full of old servants, maids and other attendants; as full as the flowing Ganga. Whoever wanted to take a bath in it could do so, and they would come out as pure as they had been when they entered. No one could hide their secrets from the others, and at the same time everyone assumed that no one knew about what they were doing in private.

Even so, there were a few days every year that Bi Amma had to go into the servants’ quarters. The midwife would arrive, they would hear loud screams and the mewls of a new-born baby. Then Bi Amma would come and sit, satisfied, and start delivering her lecture in a very self-important tone. ‘These bastards, they do their business and move on after burying the matter. They have no need to think of what has passed, and what is to come. Someone should ask them: are your wives dead that you go to these maids to warm their beds?’ Then her tone would change. ‘But the whole blame is on these whores. They make these men follow them around, and then create problems when the moment of truth arrives.’

And this was how things were, always. If there was any commotion or talk, it would die down soon. Even if you toss a pebble into water, how long do the ripples last for, in any case? There’s the splash of the pebble falling, followed by bubbles, and by the time it reaches the bottom, the surface is as silent as if nothing had even happened.

These were the customs of Bi Amma and Bade Hazrat’s times. But now not only the more senior attendants, but even the maidservants had become bolder and started crying out about their honour. Nawab Haider had become rather afraid of the way Genda had become set upon her path to defame and wish ill upon him. More than the possibility of his name being tarnished, he was worried about what his daughters would think if this news reached them. That too, in such a time when there weren’t any marriage offers for them on the table either.

Even in such a big world, there wasn’t a single suitor whose attention had been drawn by Nadira Begum, thereby making her parents’ burden lighter. Three clever, marriageable girls and such a bad state of suitors! Chote Maamu would lecture while gesticulating his hands. ‘Aji Janaab, don’t keep the girls sitting at home, otherwise how will your dignity stay safe? And then there will be a day when something so bad happens that you will be able to do nothing apart from staring in astonishment. But I say, you should get a good lesson. If one of the girls ends up running away with someone, then you’ll finally wake up. You’ll understand the great ‘joys’ of keeping your girls sitting at home. Oh Miyan, they may be quiet, but their eyes talk. Nadira Begum and Sabira Begum have started straying from the right path. Yes, but you know what is best. It’ll be your own wrist that shatters, your own neck that’ll have a noose around it. How does it affect me?’

Shah Jahan Begum would listen quietly and take a deep breath.

‘Do you think we’re planning on keeping them here forever? Let any sweeper or crow turn and glance at them even once, I’ll sort them out.’

Chote Maamu would shout in his frustration. ‘Don’t let go of the marriage offers that easily then, Aapa Jaan! You get annoyed easily. A thousand must have come. When the begum of the mahalsara, the noblewomen’s quarters, had brought an offer of marriage for her son, didn’t you complain that her boy talks through his nose? Rather than putting the family honour at stake, it would have been much better to marry that boy. No matter, why should I bother so much? The entire family will lose face. Your Nawab Haider doesn’t have time to spare apart from what he spends on his jokes and asking for other women’s ‘sweets’.

His Aapa Jaan would stare at his face blankly like a fool.

‘I’m asking you, aren’t you worried at all? Two of our girls are ready for marriage, and at least a thousand marriage offers have come for them. But you never pay attention. Do you plan to keep them at home for the rest of eternity? Get your daughters married after picking out the white hairs on their head. My entire life is agony. Oh Allah, what will happen now to my daughters?’  Shah Jahan Begum would keep on muttering under her breath while peeling vegetables.

‘Oh Begum, all you talk about the entire day is marriage. How old are our daughters anyway? Sabira still looks like a little doll.’

‘Why would they not look like little dolls to you? We were thirteen years old when our parents married us, here the girls are passing twenty.’

‘Begum, that was a different time, and this is another. Girls aren’t married off that early these days, their delicate shoulders aren’t ready to bear the burden of marriage yet.’

‘You saying these things is precisely what makes me angry. Weren’t we also married early? Did our shoulders buckle under the weight? We were delicate too. It’s been thirty or so years since I came to this house. Tell me, did I ever give you, or my mother-in-law and father-in-law a reason to complain?’

‘La Haula Walakuata. When did I ever say you were a disobedient wife or daughter-in-law? All I want to say is, what’s the hurry?’

Shah Jahan Begum became angry.

‘The same talk of hurry again. Is this really being done in a hurry? Look at how old they are, and then look at the condition of our estate. Our income is falling by the day. Meanwhile, the girls are growing faster than weeds. Just the other day, Samdo’s mother had come to visit and was saying, Bi, how long will you keep the girls sitting at home? This is the age they should be married, if they get married when they are older, their faces will have wrinkles on them. What could I have said in reply? I just sat quietly. You’ve seen how our older boy behaves. If you pass away, no one will even look at this house again. The rest, you know best. I’m a woman, what can I possibly do without your will?’ Shah Jahan Begum closed her pandaan loudly, and soon after, started muttering under her breath again.

‘It’s not like we have received a thousand marriage offers, there are only three. Nawab Jafar Mirza’s younger son, who didn’t even pass his tenth grade. His marriage offer has come for Nadira. And the older son of Choti Aapa, they are asking Sabira’s hand for his. I say, just agree to both offers, what’s the harm in it? Suitors that we know well from before always look like this, but when they move on to someone else’s house, that’s when we will truly realise their worth. And that dull boy, Rabia’s son, I don’t like him. You don’t even ask around at all.’

Nawab Sahab tucked his snuff box into the pocket of his coat and got up.

‘What you’re saying is right after all. I’ll think about it.’

Nawab Haider was born into ancestral money. The reader will know what a lie is, and what isn’t. But it was said that that even the chamber pots used to carry the discarded placenta upon his birth were made of gold and silver. They had such huge lands and estates that their income went well into the lakhs and crores. This was the same fortune that had sustained them from the days of their ancestors until now. But just like bad days, good days don’t stay around forever. The days of eternal spring ended, and autumn arrived in such a way that not a single dry leaf stayed behind in its wake. Now, Nawab Haider’s grandeur was just a façade, for in truth, their wealth had gone down the drain. But their pomp and nawabi lifestyle were unchanged. If he had been a bachelor, he might even have passed away quietly without a whimper. But he was the father of three daughters and two sons, husband to a wife, all of this apart from his other worldly affairs.

Two of his daughters were ready to be married, and the youngest daughter, Humaira wasn’t too far off either. But she often had to be overlooked in favour of Nadira Begum and Sabira Begum. His eldest son was a vagabond, and people used to say he was following in the footsteps of his grandfather. The younger son, on the other hand, was only six or seven years old.

Shah Jahan Begum had come into the deorhi as the nawab’s wife and as a daughter-in-law. The first twenty years of their marriage were blissful, but for the past few years she had seen the deorhi fall into decline, and that too under her watch. She had to deal with all the good and bad happenings that occurred. Shah Jahan Begum felt that the nawab was very neglectful towards his daughters, but the truth was something else entirely. Nawab Haider drowned in worry for precisely the same reason, day-and-night. He masked his worries behind the curtain of his made-up wit and humor. In order to escape from his troubles, he tried to laugh it off all the time. He would make obscene jokes with the older attendants, servants and relatives of his. Otherwise, there was no explaining why a fifty-five-year-old nawab became a jovial man despite being the opposite in his youth. Over time, he had been reduced to a womanizer. Nawab Haider could not air his concerns in front of Shah Jahan Begum, and the curtain of humor he put over his problems was so thick that nothing ever peeked out from behind.

Today’s conversation, however, had increased his worries significantly. He thought, Begum says that I don’t ask around for our daughters, but who here doesn’t know about Jafar’s younger son? He has a thousand bad qualities, but even then, the Begum thinks I should say yes. And then that older son of Begum’s younger sister. Abominable.

 Nawab Haider spat on the wall.

He has such a disgusting face that if you see it in the morning, you won’t eat for the rest of the day.

It was such a bad situation with the suitors, and with the family estates. The girls were truly shooting up like weeds. Nawab Haider held his head in his hands. He remembered the days of his grandfather, who used to state that having a young daughter at home was the same as having a corpse in a coffin, which he had said with reference to Nawab Haider’s aunt, Kalsoom Begum. This means that he had two coffins waiting in his own house, and then a third after those. Khuda! How will I bury them? Nawab Haider shut his eyes in distress and rested his head on a pillow.

‘Ji, did you like the boys that were called?’ Shah Jahan Begum asked Nawab Haider, smiling. But he didn’t smile in return. Like a weary traveler, he rested against the bolster and sat up. ‘I had to call them because you insisted, otherwise I knew those wretched boys well enough already.’

‘Haye, does that mean you didn’t like even one out of the two? At least you could have approved of Jafar Miyan’s son, Nadira would have been taken off our hands in that case. She’s turning twenty-three soon.’

‘Nadira would have been taken off our hands?’ Nawab Haider grew irritated. ‘Is she some sort of burden on us that she needs to be taken off our hands? Have you even looked properly at that irresponsible boy, since you’ve decided to use such words? And that son of your younger sister, who you spared no expense in praising — he’s come here a thousand times, what is there to see about him? An immoral boy. He has lovers everywhere, Inayat Beg saw him leaving the kotha of Nanhi Jaan just yesterday. Who knows where your wits have disappeared off to?’

Shah Jahan Begum started cursing herself with this revelation.

They say young daughters come of age when their own neighbourhood says so. They barely grow up before everyone near and far starts hounding them with questions.

‘Aye bi, the girl is now of age. How long will you keep her sitting and waiting?’

‘You didn’t give your girl away? It’s not like she was just born yesterday.’

Even if your own daughters start looking as old as the mountains themselves, the youngest girls from other families always seem older than your own. Some people say it quietly out of concern, and others make a ruckus about it, as if they’ve done a great favour of reminding a destitute mother that she needs to get her daughter married.

There was an old attendant in the deorhi from Hyderabad. She was very pretentious and interfered in matters for no reason. ‘Ayyo Pasha! Master Sahab was laughing yesterday and asking why the girls were kept sitting at home for so long.’ She spoke in Dakhni, the way Hyderabadis often do.

Shah Jahan Begum’s face fell. You could see the blood freezing in her veins. The very next day, the Master Sahab who taught the girls the sitar was dismissed from his job, and the sitar itself was smashed into pieces. Then Shah Jahan Begum remembered what her brother had said. You’ll finally understand the great joys of keeping your girls sitting at home when they run off with a boy and bring disgrace to you.

When Nadira Begum finally went astray, everyone was left stunned. You couldn’t have told just by looking at her demure gaze and downturned eyes. All of a sudden, she said to Sabira Begum. ‘What will you take from your groom-to-be when you do your mehndi ceremony? Don’t let them off cheap at the very least, ask for a watch or a fountain. Otherwise he may even surprise you by giving a hen as a gift and run off.’

Sabira Begum did not even think of calling out to her mother and father.

Nawab Haider and Shah Jahan Begum waited, as if holding their breaths. Nadira Begum was sitting and staring at the skies as if waiting for someone to summon her. But this was a few days ago. Now, when she had heard that both of the marriage proposals had been rejected, she became solemn, and acted very dejected. There seemed to be such a sadness upon her that it cut at her mother’s heart.

One day, with great dedication, she covered her head with her pallu, neatly parted her hair and then slowly walked to the drawing room, witn tiny footsteps. Nawab Haider was talking to his Begum about the marriage proposals. Upon seeing Nadira approach, they stopped talking.

‘Abba Huzoor!’ she said in a trembling voice.

‘What happened beti?’ Nawab Haider Sahab put his hand on her head very lovingly.

‘Ji, I came to say this.’ She paused for a moment, and then spoke clearly. ‘I was going to say that you shouldn’t worry about my wedding, and that it would be better if instead you thought about Sabira’s wedding. Because my age…’ She pushed her pallu off her head, and pulled out a lock of hair from her ear to show Nawab Sahab. ‘Look at how many white strands there are in this.’

Nawab Haider, who was also known as Chacha Miyan in the deorhi, had become very solemn over the past few days. He used to be humorous, and a lecher besides. He had changed so much that you had to remind yourself that this was the same nawab’s face, just creased with great worry. He had completely stopped going to the servant’s quarters, but word still reached him that Genda continued to curse his name, gesturing with her hands.

‘The things that you’ve done to me, Allah won’t spare your own daughters either.’

No matter how crafty and playful Genda looked, she wasn’t truly like that. On the other hand, she used to dream of becoming Jameel Miyan’s bride, a man who would bring a great procession to marry her, and then enshrine her at home like a queen. Jameel Miyan was a distant nephew of Badi Begum’s, and he had seen Genda filling water once, as she ran around and swayed to get all the pots full. She had hitched up her shalwar until her knees, and as the water splashed about in the buckets, it also fell on her golden shins. Glistening, golden droplets of water would roll off onto her feet. Then the water from the bucket would splash again, and the display would continue.

Jameel Miyan liked all of this so much that he wanted her shins to remain bare like this forever. Very boldly, he asked Genda Khala one day. ‘Genda, will you become my bride?’ Genda Khala blushed. But just a few days later, she found out that Jameel Miyan had a habit of saying this to all the girls from the servants’ quarters. Her eyes filled with tears. Golden teardrops glistened on her cheeks. Then, it was just a coincidence that she had no choice but to give her ‘sweets’ to Bade Chacha. But the desire to become a bride dressed in red never left her mind.

There was a lot of hustle and bustle in the kitchens those days. When Genda Khala made a face while eating her food, then someone always said something. This was very common in the deorhi. Brides would be ‘married’ without any pomp and ceremony in the dark of the night, and would give birth to children too. But Genda Khala looked wounded. Momin Ali would twirl his hands and sway while singing.

                              Sayyian ne dil le gaye laal batue mein

                           My beloved took away my heart in a red purse

There would be showers of laughter all around. If Genda Khala had the power, she would have scratched Momin Ali’s face. What would have been the big deal if someone did take her heart away in a small red purse? But unfortunately, her heart was safe. It was her honour and her desire to become a bride that had been taken away with the purse. When Khala glared at Momin Ali in anger, he would put a finger on his nose and playfully shout.

                          Oyi maan, mere ko maut ghuro, main to mar jaaon mare dar ke

                       Mother, death looks at me in the face, I think I’ll die of fear

Momin Ali was the heart and soul of the servant quarters. No one would speak ill of him, and no one was afraid of his kind. When Genda Khala finally started shouting curses at him, then he would sing under his breath.

                           Oyi kya mera ee rang chamakta voh bhi aadhi raat mein

                        Oh, look at the colours of my moods at midnight

Momin Ali’s moods might have changed colours at midnight, but Genda Khala’s tears would certainly shine at night like stars in the sky.

Bade Chacha started remaining absent from the morning congregations for namaz. Even then, Salim Miyan or Chote Jani could not gather the courage to say, ‘Chacha Miyan, it is still summer, and certainly the water isn’t that cold at this time of the year? Why are you insisting on missing your prayers?’

Even if an entire platoon of the girls were absent from the maghrib namaz, Chacha Miyan would not ask something along the lines of ‘Where did Zehra go? Why didn’t Noor bibi come to do her namaz today? My Quran Sharif is in the alcove, please bring it to me Nadira bibi.’

Shakira Begum would sleep soundly with her doors closed until nine o’clock. Zehra Begum lay in the maternity room of the house, for there was still a long while until her forty days of isolation after her delivery ended. Even if she weren’t in the maternity room, Bade Chacha would not have said anything to her. Nadira Begum had allayed her parents’ worries by showing them that lock of white hair. But Sabira Begum and Humaira Begum used to pace around in worry all day and this frightened Shah Jahan Begum. Nadira had become such a serious person that she even rebuked Sabira and Humaira.

One day, when Humaira returned from school, Nawab Sahab was sitting in the drawing room. When he heard her footsteps, he looked up to see Humaira and froze in surprise.

Until now, he had thought of Humaira as a little doll-like girl. But today, his perception of her changed immediately. She went indoors while humming a song and swaying, carrying her textbooks. Then, Nawab Haider finally said to his begum. ‘Begum, when did Humaira grow up to be so tall?’

Shah Jahan Begum became annoyed. ‘You love her, but she’s a climbing vine. This is the age when she has to play and eat well. Why do you want to jinx her good health?’

‘Begum.’ Nawab Haider began, with a tone of resignation. ‘Dada Abba used to say that keeping a girl ready for marriage waiting at home and not burying a corpse are almost the same thing.’

The Begum stared at Nawab Haider’s face in astonishment.

‘I used to think there were only two coffins in my house. But today, I found out that there are actually three corpses I need to bury. Three, Begum, Three! There were only two till today, but now this third one…’

‘What has happened to you? What coffins, whose corpses? What nonsense are you blabbering on about?’

‘You didn’t understand what I said? Oh, Begum. Humaira’s is the third coffin. Begum, Nadira, Sabira, Humaira — they aren’t our daughters, they are three corpses!’ With that, he started laughing loudly. ‘Look, the third corpse is walking around.’ Begum raised her head in fear, and saw that Humaira was approaching, swaying while walking.

She held onto her head with her hands in desperation.

No one knew what sort of school Sabira Begum went to. Every second day there were parties, gatherings. It was common for her to return home late at night. The condition of the deorhi was an open secret, known by everyone. But it was Sabira Begum’s habit to wear the best possible saris to school. Chote Maamu would try and explain to his older sister, appearing to be in great agony. ‘Look, Aapa Jaan, don’t loosen their reins so much. If someone throws a rock in your path, you won’t be able to turn the horses around in time.’

Genda Khala’s belly was as large as a six-anna pot from the market. But not a single person dared to ask her, ‘Aye bi, whose child is it?’ A thousand people came and went in such a large deorhi. The gardener, the paan seller, scoundrels, gentlemen. There was nothing stopping them from coming and going. Who would have even thought of asking around or investigating?

But all of Bade Chacha’s joy and happiness had vanished. Were the curses Genda Khala had heaped upon his daughters something to be easily forgotten? Nadira Begum was becoming old. Sabira Begum seemed to be be fading away and crumbling. Humaira kept on pacing around in worry, ready to fall off the branch like a ripe mango. What if something untoward happened? He kept on thinking about how this was all a consequence of Genda’s misery earlier. Just a single breath of curses from her had shaken the very foundations of the house.

Genda Khala had still not stopped cursing them. The same commotion happened in the servants’ quarters, and the same uproar reigned. Momin Ali still danced and sang.

                             Motor ki poon poon bari ji, sayian mein sun ku dari ji

                          Oh my beloved, I was scared when I heard the motor’s sound.

Zehra Begum was in the maternity room, and her husband was having a lot of trouble with food. Sabira Begum showed signs of great obedience. She, who had never even peeked inside the kitchens, now spent all her spare time after school there in the company of Genda Khala.

If Shah Jahan Begum found out that her princess was learning how to cook from Genda Khala, she would have turned the entire house upside down. Bi Mughalani, the housekeeper, was still alive, and she taught the other girls of the deorhi how to cook. But no matter how things were, Genda Khala was a pure soul, and she had never learnt how to say no. Even if it were a matter of granting a request for ‘sweets’. You could call it her cunning, craftiness or simple innocence, but it was simply never her habit to say no to any job.

Zehra Begum was in the maternity room. Chote Jani had a habit of getting a head massage everyday. So Sabira would take a bowl of hair oil everyday, and their massage would last for hours, behind closed doors. Chote Jani was very happy during those days. He would sit beside Zehra Begum for a few minutes, shower the baby with affection to his heart’s content, and then suddenly would tap his head and say. ‘Oh! Because of your time in this maternity room, my head massages are in a terrible state.’ Zehra Begum would complain on behalf of her nasal-voiced husband and Sabira Begum would become angry. ‘Zehra Aapa! Why do you treat me like such an outsider? Am I not good enough to give massages now?’

They say Genda Khala was a really good masseuse, especially when giving head massages to Nawab Haider. One day, she gave such a good head massage to Nawab Haider that in his happiness, he had kissed her golden lips in front of everyone else. Everyone was embarrassed, and Genda Khala blazed up in anger like a flaming coal. But it was not easy to criticize Bade Chacha Miyan for something like this occurring. After all, he was a humorous man, a jester. Ultimately, it was Genda Khala who taught Sabira how to give head massages. And cooking too. The truth was, Genda Khala had never learnt how to say no to anything.

The day Genda Khala’s son was born, Chote Maamu went to talk to Shah Jahan Begum, unbuttoning and buttoning his coat with restlessness.

‘Aapa Jaan! Now tell me. Where do I hide my face? There is a huge clamour in the deorhi, and soon it will spread to the entire extended family. What sort of days are we seeing! It would be good if these girls had died as soon as they were born.’

‘Have you gone mad or what? Even the wretched maids and servants have honour. If they give birth to bastards, if they run off with some man, so what? Why do we bother ourselves with it?’

Chote Maamu started hitting his head with his palm. ‘Oh, Aapa Jaan, I’m not talking about maids and servants. Your own Sabira has tarnished the name of the whole family. Our faces have been blackened for seven generations to come!’

Shah Jahan Begum froze in her seat. ‘What did Sabira do?’

In a frenzy, Chote Maamu opened the buttons of his jacket, and then closed them quickly.

‘Aapa Jaan, what do I say? It’s as good as drowning myself in a well.’

Away from all the commotion and far away in the servants quarters, Genda Khala was laughing away. The pains of childbirth hadn’t entirely gone away, but she was singing.

                              Sayyian ne dil le gaye laal batue mein

                           My beloved took away my heart in a red purse 

Sabira Begum’s beloved had truly taken her heart away in a red purse today. No matter how much of a wastrel Sabira Begum was, she was still Shah Jahan Begum’s daughter. Before the commotion spread in the family, she jumped into a well and saved herself from the taunts and curses of the world.

They say that Shah Jahan Begum didn’t celebrate the day Sabira Begum was born as much as she celebrated the day of the girl’s death. The people of the deorhi already had a stiff upper lip, and there was no conversation about this. But for those who listened, word reached that Shah Jahan Begum had sweets distributed secretly, for true joy lay in the death of such a daughter.

Chote Jani shed a lot of tears while hiding his face in his pillow from everyone else. Even in such a big house, it was ultimately only Nawab Haider whose eyes became moist at the death of his daughter. Why did he cry? He had no answer to this question. Genda’s young son always clung to her chest. Onlookers and visitors saw him on Genda’s chest, but no one ever dared to say, ‘Oh Genda Khala! Your son’s face looks just like Bade Chacha Miyan’s.’ But Chacha Miyan saw his own image in the eyes of Genda’s son. He thought that Genda had finally taken her revenge. What difference did it make in the end? The father wasn’t defamed, but the daughter certainly was. And that too, defamed in such a way that she left the world once and for all, the poor one.

Sabira might have taken her life and gone, but she left behind many thorns for Humaira. Nadira Begum wasn’t even in consideration now, and all their worrying was reserved for her youngest sister. But the stain that Sabira had left behind could not be washed away easily. Nawab Haider had become like a mad dog, and Shah Jahan Begum would always pray for the safety of her husband. In these conditions, when Dr. Zaheer’s marriage offer arrived, no one thought of saying no. After all, what would be the reason for doing so? He was a rich, affluent man and good looking. He was also old. But even after accepting the offer, Nawab Haider still appeared very lost, like a madman. His lips trembled as if he wanted to say something, but wasn’t able to. The groom’s family had asked for so much as dowry, and this was more than enough to break Nawab Sahab’s spirit.

Shah Jahan Begum had even protested in a soft voice. But they had already given their word.

The dhol played, there were fireworks, and out of Nawab Haider’s children, Humaira was the first girl to become a bride. The baraat came and left too. They sat and mingled with the guests too. They chatted too, but Nawab Haider seemed so extinguished as if he were preparing for a funeral rather than his daughter’s wedding.

The other day when Humaira came back to visit, the rest of the girls surrounded her. The old crones of the family reached too. No one uttered a word, but their staring eyes noticed that there had been a big betrayal. The golden powder embellishing her cheeks was still undisturbed and the missi blackening her teeth had not faded at all. The flowers in her hair had wilted for sure, but didn’t appear to be crushed or trampled in any way.

Shah Jahan Begum started beating her head, mourning openly in front of Nawab Haider. ‘Haye, I didn’t see any of my girls happy. She returned just the way she was sent, my poor daughter. The powder on her cheeks is untouched. The missi looks like it was just put on her teeth. Why didn’t you find out earlier? My dearest daughter. I’ll ask her.’

Nawab Haider cut her off while she was speaking. ‘I knew about this already.’

‘You knew about this already?’ Shah Jahan Begum suddenly forgot how to cry and started screaming. ‘You knew already, and you still pushed your own daughter into this?’

Nawab Haider responded in resignation. ‘Begum, if a corpse rots, it stinks for sure. Humaira was a corpse, and she was about to rot too. Today, after doing my duty, I have finally been relieved of my responsibility. Today, I have finally lifted the third coffin. Now I am very satisfied.’ He grabbed his head with his hands.

Humaira was sitting silently in the other room.  The other girls, unaware of the tragedy, kept on bothering her. Away from all the commotion in the servants’ quarters, Momin Ali was dancing while swinging his hips and swaying his hands. And Genda Khala was doubled over from laughing.

                              Sayyian mora bhola, na jane mori batiyan

                            Nainan mori band par jagoon saari ratiya

                            Aa ke more ghunghat ko khola hi nahin

                            Gore gore gallon ko chooma hi nahin

                            Sayyian mora bhola…


My beloved is so innocent, he doesn’t know what I say

                              My eyes are closed, but I stay awake the whole night

                              He never even took off my veil

                              He never even kissed my fair cheeks

                              My beloved is so innocent…

Note: The translated passage is for academic purposes only and has no commercial application.

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