By Abdullah Hussein
Translated from the Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon
Artwork: “Lighthouse in the Forest” by Toshio Ebine
More?” The woman asked.
“Just one more cup.”
“Stop it,” he said, feeling very irritated. “You know I don’t drink much tea.”
“No, I don’t.”
“You don’t what?”
“I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
“Anything about you.”
“What!” He was stunned.
But he had known her for such a long time. In fact, he knew all her family—even her husband—so well that they considered him as one of their own … and from so far back … he could hardly remember exactly when. Perhaps since the time when her older brother and he went to school together. One day they had fought over something and were both punished by the teacher: one had to do extra writing drills after school, the other to water the school plants. Later they returned home, school‑bags dangling from their necks, one walking behind the other, seemingly unaware of each other’s presence. The next day they made up and became friends again. They were second‑graders then.
Or perhaps from earlier still: the day the strangers had just arrived in the house next door. He had spent practically the whole day glued to their doorway watching them move in: men, women and children scurrying in and out of the house, hauling in baggage, slamming doors and windows, and the clouds of dust swirling up from all their activity. He was so taken up with it that he had gone back home only once to grab a quick lunch, and then dashed back to his place in the doorway to resume his watching. The children’s mother once asked him where he lived, but he did not bother to reply. A while later, when she invited him in, he didn’t stir from his place or utter a word. The woman gave up and went inside. The next few days he contented himself merely with looking at the children from a distance, as if trying to get used to their being around … God knows from how far back!
“But you do,” he said, emphatically. “You know me very well!”
“No, I don’t.”
This was the very first time she had talked with such headstrong defiance, such chilling certainty. He was absolutely stunned. He blinked his eyes a few times in utter disbelief and then just stared at her, as if he were trying to figure out who she really was.
Evening had crept into the room in the meantime, filling it with darkness. Neither stirred to turn on the lights. The china glimmered before them in the faint, soft twilight.
She was sitting bent over the china, twirling a spoon in the empty teacup with one hand, the other lying curled up in her lap. Her head, with its thick, dark hair, was directly in front of him. There was not even a trace of mascara on her eyes and she was wearing no lipstick.
The thought that this could be happening after he had known this woman all these years pinched his heart with a sadness he could not understand.
“I am Naim,” he said.
“Oh?” She lifted her face, full of mocking scorn.
“And you are Sarwat.”
He was stung by the cold indifference of her tone. A nameless, impotent rage began to curl its way up through his body and into his brain. The room was getting dark fast. Lights from a passing car shot in through the window, flashed on their faces, and disappeared.
“Get up and turn on the light!” he commanded.
“Do it!” he persisted.
“Darkness is better.”
So unlike her! If he had half expected that she would act this way, he would not have let her temper get out of hand. As he was getting up to turn on the lights himself, his knee bumped the tea table and knocked it over. Suddenly his anger vanished. Something had calmed his nerves: perhaps it was the sight of the mess on the floor, or the sense of total independence emanating from her face as she sat quietly holding the spoon, or perhaps it was just the noise of the china as it went crashing down in the darkness.