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.
Luckily, Hamida was saved from lynching. Someone suggested she be handed over to the police, to get a well-deserved punishment. Hamida’s petrified moans turned into hysterical wailing. She reminded the crowd about the sayings of God and his Prophets. She swore of her innocence. The crowd had turned deaf. Someone held her hand and roughly pulled her towards the police station. Hamida had glued her feet to the ground like an animal marked for sacrifice. This enraged the people further. Now 2-3 people tried to pull and push her from different directions. This jolted her firmly planted feet off the ground and she fell. She was dragged to the police station. Her skin was lacerated and bleeding; her shirt was torn in numerous places. She had spent all of her tears. With a dusty face, blood-spattered forehead, and dirt in her hair, she appeared to the police inspector on the verge of death at the hands of the crowd. He was an experienced cop, and had served at this station for 20 years. His long-standing connections with the ruling party had secured his position at this precinct. This was a sought-after station, especially with its close proximity to the Faisalabad industrial area. This geographic location made this station a gold mine. The Inspector was well acquainted with most of the neighborhood elite. He came forward and kissed Maulvi’s hand, as if this very act would erase all of his misdeeds and replace them with a clean slate.
“What is wrong Maulvi Sahib? Why did you trouble yourself? You could have called me instead.”
“Inspector, she has committed blasphemy. It was my religious duty to participate in this jihad. This road to the station was like that to heaven. She should get her rightful punishment.” It was worth watching Maulvi’s aplomb, his composure. He was oblivious of Hamida’s condition, crying, in torn clothing, her violent treatment evident. The demands of the Maulvi brought wrinkles to the inspector’s forehead. This situation was grave. He had thought it was an easy matter…adultery or perhaps theft. At least with those he could have made a profit through bribery. But here, the water was deep and the crocodiles had smelled blood.
“Nazeer, make a report and put her behind bars,” he called out to the sub-inspector.
Nazeer buried Hamida under numerous penal code violations and put her dead soul behind bars.
“The rest of you can leave now. Let the law take over from here,” the inspector repeated frequently-rehearsed words. Most of the people left. Some curious onlookers were driven away by Nazeer. The inspector requested Maulvi and some other individuals to stay behind.
“Maulvi Sahib, it is a grave allegation. She could have capital punishment!” The inspector eyed Maulvi closely.
“That will be the right punishment for her crime,” Maulvi insisted.
“You are the authority on religion. Find me a loophole to charge her with, and I will deal with her clan. Perhaps a monetary donation from them could be useful for mosque upgrade,” the inspector suggested. He was careful to word this dubious statement. “Once an official complaint is lodged, things will get too hot for both of us.”
Maulvi kept quiet. His silence encouraged the inspector to press on. “There must be a way out, Maulvi Sahib.”
“Well there can be a way out…if she recites Kalima,” said Maulvi decidedly.
“What do you mean?”
“Meaning Inspector, if this infidel recites Kalima and converts, asking God’s forgiveness, I am sure she will be forgiven.”
The inspector’s face lit up, and he took a deep sigh of relief.
“With your permission, I will not lodge an official complaint yet. Let me speak to her. When the police speak, people are willing to renounce their parents. This is only a matter of religion! I will discuss matters with her clan as well.”
“All right Inspector. Remember, if she recites Kalima, God will bless you as well.” Maulvi raised his hands in reverent prayer for the inspector, then left the station with his colleagues.
By evening, news had spread throughout the neighborhood, reaching even the city, and the whole province. There were conflicting rumors. The inspector told people the situation was not clear. Hamida was possibly caught stealing from the mosque. It was a very busy night for the station. The inspector was confident he would strike a favorable deal. Hamida was allowed to shower. Her wounds were dressed, but she returned her food tray untouched. Nazeer and two constables headed to the shanty town Hamida’s clan lived in, and fetched her father with a couple of relatives. The inspector laid out the case to them plainly. Hamida had committed a capital offense; she had uttered derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed. Numerous witnesses were willing to come forward. The offence carried a capital punishment, and no lawyer or politician could save her. A resolution was being offered – should she recite the Kalima and convert to Islam, she would only have to then ask for God’s forgiveness and pay a paltry fine of two hundred thousand rupees to the inspector. The inspector could then generously change the offense to a theft from mosque, merely a slap on the wrist.
The inspector spoke to Hamida as well. When his initial pleas fell on deaf ears, he began threatening her, even asking Nazeer to give her a little “physical interrogation”. Hamida would not budge. After the initial shock, her family went into over drive. Hamida’s parents, friend, and siblings all begged and pleaded with her to take the deal. Hamida’s only answer was a stony silence. She was ready to ask for forgiveness, but reciting Kalima was a deal breaker.
“Just recite it in the presence of everyone to save your life. Jesus knows your heart, he will forgive you,” her local church’s priest counseled her. He was a God-fearing man, friendly and gentle. She requested to meet him alone. The Maulvi allowed it…after all this meeting could result in her reciting Kalima. Hamida and her priest met in a separate, private room.
“Father, her situation is critical. I will no longer be in control of her fate after dawn. The press is already on the story. From tomorrow, politicians will start lining up to make big statements. You have only tonight to work with her,” the inspector warned the priest.
The priest put a cross around Hamida’s neck. He reiterated that it was permitted to lie to save her life. “You should recite Kalima just to assuage the public. Then, leave the town. People have short memories. Jesus is forgiving,” he advised.
Hamida listened intently to all he had to say, then asked only one question: “If you were in my shoes, what would you do?”
“My case is different,” he sputtered.
“So is mine, father. I will not recite Kalima. It is not recitation, it is living by Maulvi’s dictation.”
The priest could not understand her logic. Her parents could not stop crying. “She has lost her mind. She is in shock. If I could get a few more days…” the priest implored the inspector.
“Things are out of my hands now. Tomorrow morning this place will be swarming with reporters. They will launch their own investigation, and I will be accused of orchestrating a cover up,” snapped the inspector.
Hamida’s whole clan had assembled outside the station before dawn. Some slept on the floor, others just sat there with their backs to a tree. The inspector sent a message for Maulvi. When he came to the station door, Hamida’s father put his turban at his feet, the sign of ultimate submission. Maulvi simply jumped the turban and entered the station. He remained firm. “The only way out is if Hamida recites Kalima,” he shouted over his shoulder, challenging Hamida’s father.
“Maulvi, Hamida has lost her mind. She knows the punishment and is ready to ask for forgiveness but will not recite Kalima,” he begged.
“I knew it, I knew it!” Maulvi totally lost it. “We have already delayed justice for almost 24 hours. God forgive us. She really should be punished immediately.” Despite the inspector’s pleas, Maulvi left the station to meet the press, who were eager for news.
“This girl has been disrespectful to our Prophet in the presence of witnesses. She is not even willing to recant it. We will not tolerate disrespect to our religion. This is a Zionist plot. It is a preplanned chain of events starting with those Swedish cartoons.” The press was busy, captivated by his poison.
Hamida’s trial lasted only one week. With so many witnesses, prosecutors had an open and shut case. The appellate court refused to overturn her death sentence. Sweet confections were distributed the day Hamida was hanged. People celebrated and rejoiced at the justice done to an infidel.
“Jamil Sahib, you should tell your cleaner to recite Kalima, or else she will be burnt in hell,” Maulvi exclaimed.
Before Jamil could utter a response, the mop dropped from the woman’s hands. She put her palms together in front of her and bowed to Maulvi. “I will. I will recite Kalima. I will respect the Prophet as well. I will do anything you want, just let me live, please.”
Dr. Saeed A Naqvi Syed is a physician by profession. He has published three short story collections, Namabur, Doosra Rukh and Tuk Tuk Deedam, and has a fleeting interest in poetry. His translations in Urdu include works by Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Herta Müller and Peter Stamm, as well as Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom and Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
This piece originally appeared in English in the Annual of Urdu Studies, no. 27, and in Urdu in Saeed A Naqvi Syed’s collection Dūsrā Rukh (Karachi: Scheherzade, 2011).
Artwork: Mohsin Shafi