It was the time of day when the girls were free. They had heard Laji Sahib’s laughter and started to gather in the reception room. Khan Sahib began to explain to each one of them the benefits of saving and banking. “Look,” he said, “I don’t need to tell you how insecure man is, and women, as you already know, are even more so, especially ladies, like yourselves, who are given very little time to shine in their profession…”
“Ladies” and “profession” got every one laughing along with Laji. Meanwhile Khan Sahib continued with his speech: “For you especially it is essential to save and have a bank account. So that on rainy days … when even a man’s shadow abandons him … you do understand me, don’t you? When admirers, favor-seekers, those who lavish money on you and indulge your whims are gone, it is only money in the bank that you can depend on.…”
Some of the girls were still laughing holding their hands to their mouths. Khan Sahib must have stopped for a second when Gulbadan started up like she was applauding at a musha‘ira, “Well done Bhai-jan, well done! God be praised! You make good speeches!”
In imitation of a musha‘ira-poet, Khan Sahib cupped his hand and raised it to his forehead in salutation and then resumed with the same momentum.
Gulbadan wasn’t about to let him off the hook so easily. “He is absolutely shameless and sneaky,” she said. “He’s been hanging out at brothels all too frequently … must have been a sarangi-player sometime in the past.”
All of a sudden Laji Sahib’s laughter disappeared. She was glaring at Gulbadan.
In response Mazhar Ali Khan slapped himself on the cheeks and said, “Me? Heaven forbid, Bai, heaven forbid! The sarangi isn’t an easy instrument. Only the truly gifted can play it…”
What came out of Gulbadan’s mouth then was totally out of line. Looking at the other girls she said, “Well then, he must have been rounding up clients for brothels.”
All the girls were dumbstruck, aware that what Gulbadan had alleged was really rude. And Laji Sahib—she seemed to have suddenly turned pale. Mazhar Ali Khan’s fair complexion reddened. He cleared his throat, jerked his head, licked his lips, and then looking straight into Gulbadan’s eyes responded, “No, Bai-ji! Now I couldn’t be as worthless as all that, could I? The fact is, my elders, God bless them, whored around quite a bit in their time. So you could say my blood has retained something of their daring, something of their fearlessness.”
Gulbadan was mortified and became speechless. Laji Sahib extended her hand and patted Mazhar Ali Khan on the shoulder saying, “Young man, don’t think anything of it. The wretch—she’s crazy.”
Khan Sahib stayed on for a while longer and then left, but not before extracting a promise from Laji that she would think about opening an account in his bank.
After he was gone Laji Sahib said softly, “What a fine boy! The lord keep him happy!”
Mazhar Mian visited a few more times. Laji Sahib had sent a message to the owner of the “Kashmir Milk and Lassi Shop,” and he, along with the tinsmith who sold buckets and filters, had been the first to open accounts with Khan Sahib, followed in time by the Gujarati cigarette wholesaler.
When Mazhar Ali Khan came to thank Laji Sahib for all these accounts, he opened his briefcase the minute he sat down and took out a small flat box. It had Laji’s favorite sweetmeats, purchased from the finest shop in town. He placed the box on his hands and proffered it to Laji Sahib like an offering.
Laji asked, “For what?”
He replied, “A while back I had decided that I would offer Lila-ji sweets one day.”
“But why, young man? Because the tinsmith and the proprietor of ‘Kashmir Milk’ opened accounts?”
“No Lila-ji,” Khan Sahib said. “Those accounts are of no consequence. It isn’t that.”
“Then what?” Laji asked, “Why are you speaking in riddles, young man? What is it?”
“Look it’s like this,” Mazhar Mian put the box of sweets on the chair, walked over to Laji Sahib and sat down beside her on the sofa. “It’s like this, Madam, that I … That day when
Laji was gazing at Mazhar Ali Khan, in a daze. Khan Sahib hadn’t yet finished speaking when Laji repeated as if in her sleep, “Daiya-ri kahan ga’e …” Then she seemed to be asking, “Alahaiya bilaval? Maestro Samdu’s alahaiya?”
Mazhar Mian nodded, “Yes, the very same!”
Laji Sahib brushed her hands across her face and asked softly, “Who are you? How do you know me?”
“Me? I told you, I work at the bank, the bank on your street. … And, Madam, how do I know you? Well, Lila-ji, many people know you. Thousands, perhaps millions … Who else could have sung it? Who? Who can sing like Lila-ji Aseergarhvali? … Madam, I listen to your records every Sunday from morning till night. Aseergarh’s youthful, strapping forests resound in your music, and Lila-ji, peacocks and peahens perched on the turrets of the Aseergarh fort can be heard in your melodies. I have not heard those sounds personally … but an acquaintance, who has heard them many times described them to me. Lila-ji, Madam, God knows, I do not understand music all that well, but I can trace out each note of your kajris on paper and show it to you.”
Laji Sahib, her hands pressed tightly across her face, was listening to Mazhar Mian. When he said Lila-ji Aseergarhvali, she brushed her hands once over her face and repeated,
A desolate silence echoed throughout the flat. I was leaning against the wall listening to everything. It seemed as though the corpse of bygone days was lying straight ahead in the reception room.
Mazhar Ali Khan saw Laji Sahib’s tears. He stood up, taking hold of his briefcase.
Laji Sahib was sitting like a statue with her chin on her plump hennaed hands and her elbows resting on her thighs.
Swinging his briefcase from one hand to the other Khan Sahib gestured good-bye to Laji Sahib’s “statue” and walked toward the door.
“Wait!” Laji called out softly. Khan Sahib stopped. Laji said, “You will come again, won’t you?”
“Yes, Madam, I will. I’ll bring the records and the player too.”
“No! Please, don’t.”
“All right, I won’t.”
That day Mazhar Ali Khan crossed the threshold of the flat on his tiptoes, like someone who withdraws quietly after offering his condolences on the death of a loved one.
Asad Mohammad Khan is an eminent Urdu short story writer, and a winner of the Ahmed Nadeem Qasmi Noor-o-Nazm Award. His publications include ‘The Harvest of Anger and Other Stories’, published by OUP in English, and six books in Urdu.
Aquila Ismail, born in Bangladesh to an Urdu-speaking family, is an author and translator. Her debut novel, ‘Of Martyrs and Marigolds’, describes the creation of Bangladesh as witnessed by a young woman.
Muhammad Umar Memon is Professor Emeritus of Urdu literature and Islamic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a critic, short-story writer, and has translated and edited half a dozen anthologies of Urdu fictional writing.