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.
“This is all your fault,” he said, feeling utterly exhausted.
“Things look,” she began, “different in the darkness.”
“You cannot see … your mind moves faster.”
“What’s got into your head?”
“But there’s an advantage,” she went on, “your eyes manage to get some rest.”
“You’ve gone crazy.”
“You’re in a great mood today,” he said. “Spoiling for a fight, aren’t you … with everybody?”
“Not with everybody,” she snapped, “just with you.” She used the more formal aap, not a familiar tum.
“I can tell you’ve come here straight from a brawl with Mahmud.”
“Mahmud is my husband.”
“What goes on between him and me is my personal business.”
“I’m not part of your personal business?”
“You are not part of my personal business.”
“You’ve got to be joking.”
“No, I am not.”
“Oh,” he said, suppressing his anger. “How I wish it were true.”
“But it is true. You have no part in anything that has to do with me.”
“Then do me a favor, will you? Tell everybody else that.”
“Because I’m pretty sick of trying to keep the peace between you and Mahmud all the time.”
“Well, you can blame yourself for it. After all, you created the mess.”
“I created the mess?”
“You fixed my marriage with Mahmud—didn’t you?”
“So I’m to blame for it—is that it?”
“At least you’re responsible for it.”
“So I’m to blame for it?” he repeated, genuinely shocked.
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”
It was staggering, completely unexpected. The otherwise clear, luminous region of the mind which might have registered the impact of what was happening—and so fast—suddenly went blank. He stopped thinking about everything, concentrating on the floor, now littered with spilled milk, tea and sugar. Then getting up so effortlessly to pick up the scattered cups and saucers a little while later, setting them back upon the tray and straightening the overturned table, the tragedy of the soiled carpet and the shattered teacup suddenly hit him in all its comic intensity. He could not believe that this woman—so fiercely independent now, unrestrained in her acts and words (come to think of it, when, in all those thirty years, had she ever looked any different?)—had always seemed to him something like an empty teacup—fragile, vulnerable, even dumb! And he thought he had known her for ages, the ages required to know somebody well! Ages—including childhood, when, unaware of the passage of time, one played with friends in far‑flung spaces nobody else knew existed, and played games so intimate that one even became familiar with the scent of the other’s skin. The time that left its indelible imprint on all the subsequent stages of one’s life, so that later even a casual walk through a spot vaguely resembling a place in childhood evoked warm memories of that rich time, of those places, names, voices, and sometimes, even an unfinished gesture, or a sudden gleam in someone’s eye. Every moment in childhood lasted a whole lifetime. He knew her from back then.
“I’m fed up.”
“Your foolish quarrels.”
“Who asked you to …”
“… stick your nose into my affairs?”
“But I had to.”
“Had to—how so?”
“How? Well … because … because I’m your … oh, well.…”
“Yes, yes, go on, because you’re my what?”
“Well, I mean a member of your family—or almost.”
“But there are other members in my family.”
“Then, I suppose, because I’m responsible for arranging a match for you.”
“Who asked you to?”
“Who? Well … dammit, your family—who else?”
“But I didn’t! Did I?”
“You … er‑r‑r, well, you … you knew about it all right.”
“The important thing is, did you ask me?”
“What difference …”
“… does that make—right?”
“So what do you want me to do now?” he said in a dead voice.
“You just keep out of my affairs, that’s all.” She again used the polite but formal aap.
Even her curt, aggressive manner was new to him. They both went back a lot of years, and he could swear she had never, absolutely never, talked to anyone like this, at least not on a personal level.
“Aap, aap …” he said, “cut it out. Stop this litany. Can’t you speak to me in plain language?”
“Aap … that’s the right word. Yes—aap.”
“Ah‑h‑h‑h!” he emitted a deep, tormented sound.
“All right, tum, if you insist,” she smiled. “Tum—all right.”
“These things you say, Bibi, they’re all so shocking.”
“Bibi, Bibi,” she exploded, “Bibi?”
“Am I a sheep, goat, or what? Don’t I have a name? Don’t I—”
“That’s better. Sarwat … that’s my name.”
“All my life you have never called me by my name, or acknowledged my existence, or considered me worth anything … anything at all.…”
“Anything at all?” his mouth hung open in mounting disbelief.
“You have gone on pronouncing my name—mechanically, that’s all. But you’ve constantly ignored …”
“Me!” she screamed. “Me!”
“I don’t understand.”
“You never gave it a thought, did you, that I, too, am a human being, like you, like everyone else. That I see, think, feel, and have an existence all my own. Just as you have, just as everybody else has.”
“But Sarwat, I have always …”
“Cared for me? Right? Have been around me—always? Oh yes. Have been familiar and close? Yes, that is also correct. But totally indifferent all the same. How terribly indifferent—have you ever thought about it?”
“Wrong. Absolutely wrong. It’s you who have been indifferent.”
“My misfortune, Naim, is that you know me from the time when I was a mere toddler who ran about barefoot in the alleyways with nothing on but short pants, while you pulled my hair. Oh, yes—you were very familiar with me, but equally unmindful of me. You’ve always been. And if I’ve been indifferent, blame it on that familiarity which drew a curtain between us, making me too shy for words.”
“That was your mistake.”
“Mistake? More like my helplessness.”
“I don’t understand. You draw the wrong conclusion from our childhood friendship.”
“So should I draw one from childhood enmity instead? Enmity means nothing. Enmity is foolishness. Friendship is what hurts. Look at me. Take me in—all of me. There, take a good look at me. You’ve never ever really looked at me. I am a woman, a person … has that never occurred to you?”
“I’ve never been unmindful of you.”
“Oh, yes. You have always been mindful of me, but in exactly the same manner as you have been mindful of this chair, or that table, or that date palm over there. But have you ever considered me for what I truly am?”
“I have always considered you as Sarwat. Jawed’s sister. A very dear person. A reasonable, decent girl …”
“Do you even know what ‘reasonable, decent girl’ means?” she said, throwing her hands up in the air indignantly. “Where we live, a ‘reasonable, decent girl’ is another name for a cow—a mere chattel, counting for nothing, always taken for granted, accepted, and ignored, yes always ignored.”
“Aren’t you over‑reacting … a bit? Think with a cool head …”
“After a lifetime of sheer torture, who can keep her head cool? One cannot even think. You men … you treat us so badly.”
“Oh, Sarwat,” he said, feeling utterly tired, “am I really to blame for it?”
“And why not?” she said. “Mahmud was your friend. It was you who fixed my marriage with him. Couldn’t you have asked at least?”
“Ask? But I did ask—your family.”
“Family—who are they? They’re just family.”
“What do you mean?”
“The family wasn’t important. You were.”
“For me. You mattered to me. They didn’t.”
“Sarwat …” now he was truly rattled. “I don’t understand what you mean.”
He got his answer all right; not from her words, but from her bold, silent eyes.
He leaned back in the chair and began looking around, embarrassed.
She got up and began pacing around the room. Then she said, “Naim, women can be incredibly patient and modest. You cannot even imagine how much. In fact, up until recently I wouldn’t have dared to look you in the face and talk to you. But now, after everything I have been through, I have no energy left for patience or modesty. I’m already thirty‑two years old, and I’ve seen life in most of its forms, however hidden or covered.”
“I’d thought of the world as being very large; its immensity, its problems would help me forget everything. What wouldn’t a woman do to keep her head high? She will deceive everyone, even herself, right up to the end. Don’t ever think that I’m blaming Mahmud for anything. My husband is a very nice person. He has never hurt me.…”
He sprang to his feet, but sat back down just as suddenly.
She continued, still pacing, “It’s been a full ten years since we got married but not once in all this time have I been able to talk with him openly. God knows I’ve tried. Every single day and every single night. Believe me, I have …”
“For God’s sake, shut up!”
“Every single night, in fact at every single instant, I’ve had this terrible feeling that somewhere along the line I’ve lost something—something that is essential for sincerity between two individuals. The loss has been gnawing away at my heart incessantly. Then, well, there comes a day when one begins to choke on one’s breath, when one feels, inexorably, how futile it all is. How terribly futile and pointless it all is.”
“Sarwat Begum,” he interjected, “you cannot turn it all around now, can you?”
“True. But I can at least put an end to that pain.”
“And just how do you propose to do that?”
“Naim,” she said, “something is suffocating me. There is some unfinished business.”
“How can I possibly help?”
“Set me free.”
“How?” he shouted. “How?”
Then, the sight of her silent eyes made bold by longing, and of her lamenting, despairing, but flagrant hands spread out in the air in eloquent entreaty immobilized him completely.
When it was past midnight, he awoke to the thought that love, too, came in a whole spectrum of shades. There was the love that robbed you. But no matter what sort it was, love was love; it had the power, at least, to distance a man from himself and carry him to something far greater.
In the early part of the night he had asked her just one question, “Do you always sleep naked?” “Shh …” she had merely hissed, as one does to stop a child from being too inquisitive in sacred places or at funerals. That “Shh …” turned out to be the only thing she uttered during the whole night. There are many kinds of women, he thought, feeling a bit surprised. Take this one: until this evening she had remained utterly sexless and unattractive. But then had turned out to be so spontaneous, so amazingly incandescent, so vibrant with life that she had carried him to the summit of unimaginable bliss in an instant. When love and a woman come together, a miracle is born. One gets to experience a segment of life through this miracle. Be it sublime or base, it is momentous all the same, because of its truly exquisite power to transform and exalt man—even to immortality. And he was discovering all this only now—he who had thought that he knew all there was to know about man from birth to death, who had a taste of all life’s highs and lows, its pain and comforts; he who had thought that nothing, absolutely nothing, could surprise him any more. He was truly astonished to see how that same moment which he had experienced innumerable times with other women since puberty—the moment which had sometimes left him ashamed, sometimes full of anxiety, and sometimes simply satiated—how that moment, when love and a woman’s perfect willingness blend, could suddenly both give man (in spite of its inherent poverty) the heady experience of power and introduce him to the heights of self‑absorption where he could melt and permeate the whole universe. When passion has run its course, and the blood has chilled, love is what remains behind—like the memory of a good time, a memory more enduring and pleasant than the time itself. Or like the fugitive scent of a rose: no matter how intangible, it is still more real than its bloom…
He was discovering all that tonight. But that blissful moment had flitted away. His conqueror’s body, now sated and calm, lay stretched out on the bed as he stared vacantly at the ceiling. His eyes had adjusted to the darkness in the room. A lot was going through his mind, but every now and then he threw a distracted glance at the woman who was staring at the wall, her back turned towards him. Her long, dark body, which she had not even bothered to cover, was tremulous; she was continuously bursting into a series of gentle but deep, muffled and unfamiliar laughs—or perhaps they were sobs. Several times he felt the urge to get up and find out whether she was laughing or crying, but in spite of his best efforts he could not lift himself up, or even move a finger. He just lay there: his body victorious and calm, his heart full of death.
And so, after thirty‑two years of pleasant and unpleasant experiences, she—who lay with her face to the wall—had finally learned that one didn’t suffer from one’s own fate or deeds in life, but from the chance of birth. Desires—fulfilled or unfulfilled—what did they give us? They only made us poorer. We had to suffer them equally. Once two hearts have lost their harmony, they drift apart. Nothing can bring them back together, not even the sacrifice of body. Perhaps she was crying after all.
The next morning he found himself sitting across from her at the breakfast table. He stared at her continuously until her mother came in to clear the table. He tried to say something several times, but could not manage the right words. Finally, he uttered, “Sarwat!”
But she quickly got up and said, “Let’s go.”
“Let’s go,” she repeated. “Get up.”
He said good-bye to her mother and followed her out of the house.
“There’s been a letter from Jawed,” she informed him. “He’s coming next week. This time he wants to take mother along. You know what that means? The house will be empty. Perhaps we’ll lock it up … or rent it out.… The sun is so cold this morning!”
“There, look! Those girls have taken a nasty fall from their bicycle. Why must two girls ride on one bicycle?”
“No, Naim, no!” she implored in a drained voice. “Please don’t say another word.”
He kept quiet, but went on staring at her.
“Shall we walk … or take the bus?”
“Whatever you like.”
“Let’s walk then. It isn’t all that far.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Futile! Stupid! Worthless!”
“No, it isn’t! Sarwat, listen to me … ”
“You men, how shabbily you treat us,” she said, feeling miserable. “Well, there’s my house.”
He started and stopped short. When he proceeded with her towards the front door, she turned quickly around and said in a resolute voice, “You can go now.”
“But Sarwat …”
“No, Naim,” she said, “you must go now.”
Inside she found Mahmud slouched on the sofa reading the newspaper.
She sat down in a chair, and leaned her head over the back of it, closing her eyes.
A little later, when she was fixing lunch with her husband seated close by, still buried in his newspaper, she smiled with some effort and asked, “What’s the matter—you haven’t gone to the office today?”
Abdullah Hussein is among the foremost fiction writers of Pakistan. He has published many collections of short stories and three novels. He writes in both Urdu and English. He received the Adamjee Award on his first novel, “Udaas Naslen”, which he later translated as “The Weary Generations”, published by UNESCO in its “Collection of Representative Works”. He is also author of an English novel “Emigré Journeys”. After living for over twenty years in London, he moved back to Pakistan some years ago.