By Saeed A Naqvi Syed
Translated from the Urdu by the author
Sometimes, the human figure teases you. Take a good look, and you might lose your piety. Hamida was like that. Marked with liberal curves in all the right places. Her long braid danced on her back balancing the spring in her step. A small golden stud in her nose blinked red then green, as it caught different rays of light. It was all there, with the only thing lacking being an unglamorous fate. It had been eight years since Hamida began cleaning toilets at people’s homes. At 13, her mother put her to work for some of her own clients, making sure there were no mischievous young boys to distract her. Maulvi was the perfect client. Not only did he have no sons, he was also the respected Imam of the local mosque. With his wife and teenage daughter, Maulvi was living with dignity and devout faith in a small suburb of Faisalabad. Always adorned in traditional Islamic attire, the long beard completed the façade. Maulvi was the unsung king of this neighborhood. A humble abode measuring one thousand yards was made up of two bed rooms, a veranda, and a courtyard. The kitchen and bathroom stood between the veranda and courtyard. This was their world. The three-member family did not need much…after all, even a palace cannot be enough for those who spread their needs too far. Contentment was the name of the game here. His wife was a real housewife, converting this brick house in a living breathing home.
“Hamida, have you cleaned the bathroom?” Aisha called out.
Aisha herself was thirteen now. She was usually in school at this hour, but today was Friday, the holy day, and school was closed. Hamida liked Aisha a lot. Aisha treated her like a human. Maulvi and his wife would not let Hamida touch anything. As toilet cleaner, coupled with being a Christian, Hamida’s touch rendered everything dirty. Should she erroneously come in contact with anything, it was vigorously rinsed through running water to ensure its “cleanliness.”
“Yes, Aisha bibi, I have cleaned it. You can use it now,” Hamida smiled at her.
Saeeda, Maulvi’s wife, was scared of Hamida’s smile. That smile resembled a blossoming flower, demanding attention from whomever it was bestowed upon. If it was up to Saeeda, Maulvi would never see Hamida smiling. Why do these toilet cleaners have to be so attractive, she constantly grumbled to herself. A good cleaner should be unshapely, dark in color, with poor features, she declared steadfastly.
“Hamida, make sure the floor in the sitting room is mopped today. It is Friday and people will come to see Maulvi Sahib after Friday prayers,” she instructed Hamida. Saeeda came to her husband, who was hiding behind a newspaper.
“Hamida has cleaned the bathroom. When Aisha comes out, take a shower or you will be late for the prayers,” Saeeda commanded as she entered the room.
“Yes, I should do that.” Maulvi slowly lowered the newspaper. As long as Hamida worked in the house, the newspaper would always be installed in front of his face…it provided a great cover for his roving eyes.
“Saeeda, can you please cut this passage of the Qur’an and put it in a safe place? These stupid people print them in the newspaper, not realizing it might be thrown on the floor, or touched by untouchables. People just do not think!” Maulvi suddenly got angry.
“Hamida, see you left that corner?” he motioned. He had to start somewhere, he reminded himself.
“OK,” Hamida softly replied. She kept her eyes lowered and redid the corner she had just mopped. She was never sure of the signals she received from Maulvi. He was the man of high esteem, deference, and religious zeal. He was well known for his values. But something kept gnawing at Hamida. How could she ignore her sixth sense? For some reason she was always afraid of Maulvi. She could not remember ever looking at him directly. Some eyes can make you feel stark naked. Maulvi’s eyes were definitely in this category.
“It is high time you recite Kalima and accept Islam as the true religion. Allah will reward you in the afterlife,” Maulvi preached. He began to lower his newspaper, ready to begin a lengthy sermon.
“It is OK the way it is, Maulvi Sahib.” Hamida sighed. She had diverted this query many times before. It always made her uneasy.
“It is not OK at all. If you keep following Christ it will only lead you to Hell on the day of judgement. Why did you need to convert God’s messenger into his son?” Maulvi constantly reminded her that according to Islam, Jesus was God’s messenger amongst numerous other messengers, but not his son. “Are not you afraid your body will burn in hell?” He looked at her body as if he was eyeing it for the last time before being burnt.
“Maulvi Sahib, it is OK. Things are working OK,” Hamida protested slightly.
“I do not see it working out. Once you recite Kalima and become a Muslim, I will marry you to a decent man. How long will you keep mopping?’
“Maulvi Sahib,” Hamida stopped short. She felt a warm flush spread across her face. She could feel Maulvi’s probing eyes burning her in different places. She spread her dupatta across her chest. She was trying her best to finish as soon as possible and get out of there.
“Just recite Kalima once. I have high hopes for you. Maybe not a bachelor, but we can still find you a good match as a second wife.” Maulvi was an expert archer. And Hamida was an unsuspecting target, walking in front of the arrow herself.
To Hamida’s relief, Saeeda entered the room with scissors. Maulvi’s newspaper went back up. The mopping was almost done, and soon Hamida picked up her bucket and left the room.
“Stay in your chair for few minutes. Walking on a wet floor often leaves marks behind,” Saeeda chastised. Maulvi was not sure what she really meant.
“Hamida, make sure you empty my waste basket as well,” Aisha called after Hamida.
Hamida grabbed a fresh garbage can liner and went to Aisha’s room.
“What happened…got scolded by dad?” Aisha asked.
“No, he was saying recite the Kalima,” Hamida responded.
“Recite the Kalima?” Aisha repeated, puzzled.
“Yes, meaning convert to Islam. Aisha bibi, you know I am a Christian.”
“OK, so recite the Kalima. What difference does it make? All Muslims will go to heaven.” Aisha was always naïve.
“No bibi, our holy father says the same thing. All Christians will go to heaven. If I say the Kalima, then I will not be a Christian any more.”
“OK, then don’t recite the Kalima but stop being so scared,” Aisha said, exasperated. In Aisha’s age old wisdom everything was black or white.
“I get scared when I read the newspapers about Christians in trouble. My mother says all religions are good – Muslims are good as well. Is it necessary that all Christians convert to Islam?” Hamida was wise beyond her age.
“All right, empty my trash and leave. I need to finish my homework”.
Maulvi donned a clean suit after his shower, and left for the mosque. He was early. There were only a few faithful men gathered so far. He shook hands with everyone, asked about their families. He knew the regulars personally. Maulvi was a staunch Muslim, unbending, uncompromising. He had born the hard lashes of a police baton many a time, defending his cause. He wore the marks proudly. His sermons were delivered in a very articulate, decisive voice, and were usually well received. By prayer time, the mosque was full. He directed the faithful to stand shoulder to shoulder in a straight line. Today his sermon was about blasphemy. Recently a Swedish newspaper had published provocative and controversial cartoons, depicting the Prophet Mohammed in objectionable forms. This has infuriated Maulvi along with other Muslims. He covered this topic today. His fervor, sensationalism, and passion put fire in people’s hearts. The simple, God-fearing worshipers cried at the unjust degradation and attack upon their belief. Maulvi played with their sentiments like a kid plays ball: hold it, let it drop, toss it in the air.
When most people left, Maulvi left for home on foot. He followed the straight carpeted road for a furlong. He passed the second right, and his house was fourth from the corner in the third lane. He barely turned onto the straight road, when he saw Hamida. Maulvi’s own road suddenly developed many curves. Hamida having finished her work at Shafique’s house was headed to her shanty neighborhood. She clutched some newspapers in her hand.
“Since when did you start reading,” Maulvi demanded.
“Maulvi, these pages were being thrown out. I picked them up so I can give them to your wife tomorrow. I know these are sacred writings, so she can put them in the attic,” Hamida stammered, startled at Maulvi’s closeness.
“Dirty scoundrel!” Maulvo roared. “You touched the papers with sacred verses printed on them! You desecrated them!” Maulvi snatched the newspaper from Hamida’s hands.
“You ruined our sacred verses!” Maulvi’s voice was seizing up with anger. Some of the men returning from prayers stopped and came closer. A man took the newspaper from Maulvi’s hands.
“God damn you, Christian! Why do you have these? Were you going to burn them?”
A small crowd had gathered. Hamida stood motionless, like a deer caught in the headlights. The color had drained from her face, and she felt as though she was drowning in this commotion. Nobody has hit me yet, she consoled herself, but it was only a question of time. Maulvi’s sermon was running hot in people’s blood. The fury could erupt at any moment, destroying Hamida in the lava.
“Let her go, people. She is saying she picked them from trash to save the passages from desecration,” a clean-shaven man reasoned.
“Who are you? How are you related to her? How do you know what she wanted to do with them? Does she work with you?” Questions were thrown out, in all directions, drowning out the man until he backed away from the circle. Logic and justice were all but non-existent in the throes of extremism.
“I have often heard her laughing at our Prophets” declared Shahzada, a repair man at a bicycle shop on the corner. Shahzada often taunted Hamida, calling out to her, “Come sit on my seat, girl! Try my bicycle ride!” Hamida always ignored him. Now, he thought, was the time to send her a message. Perhaps it would make her more receptive to his advances, and ease his path?
“She laughs at our Prophets and you do nothing!” Maulvi exclaimed, now in tears. “These are indications of doomsday.” His pleading desperation really ignited the crowd. This was religious fervor at its worst. Logic, sympathy, and compassion were little more than coal added to a rapidly growing fire.