Short story - Lihaaf [the quilt]


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Short story - Lihaaf [the quilt]

  1. 1. SHORT STORY In the last issue of MANUSHI , while reviewing Deepa Lihaaf [The Quilt] Mehta’s Fire, we Ismat Chughtai briefly described the Translated from Urdu by M. Asaduddin controversy I generated by Ismat n winter when I put a quilt He, however, had a strange Chugtai’s story Lihaaf over myself its shadows on hobby. Some people are crazy the wall seem to sway like an enough to cultivate interests like written in 1941. In this elephant. That sets my mind breeding pigeons and watching racing into the labyrinth of times cockfights. Nawab Saheb had issue we present an past. Memories come crowding in. contempt for such disgusting English translation of Sorry. I’m not going to regale sports. He kept an open house for you with any romantic tale students—young, fair and Lihaaf along with an about my own quilt. It’s hardly a slender-waisted boys whose extract from her subject for romance. It seems to expenses were borne by him. me that the blanket, though Having married Begum Jaan he autobiography (see less comfortable, does not cast tucked her away in the house with p.29) which shows shadows as terrifying as the quilt, his other possessions and dancing on the wall. promptly forgot her. The frail, how Ismat Apa I was then a small girl and beautiful Begum wasted away in fought all day with my brothers anguished loneliness. handled, in her own and their friends. Often I One did not know when inimitable style, the wondered why the hell I was so B e g u m J a a n ’s l i f e b e g a n — aggressive. At my age my other whether it was when she heat generated by her sisters were busy drawing committed the mistake of being story. Not given to admirers while I fought with any born or when she came to the boy or girl I ran into! N a w a b ’s h o u s e a s h i s b r i d e , playing martyr, she This was why when my mother climbed the four-poster bed and won the day by sheer went to Agra she left me with an started counting her days. Or was adopted sister of hers for about a it when she watched through the guts and a charming week. She knew well that there drawing room door the increasing sense of humour—all was no one in that house, not number of firm-calved, supple- even a mouse, with which I could waisted boys and delicacies of which contributed get into a fight. It was severe begin to come for them from the punishment for me! So Amma left kitchen! Begum Jaan would have as much as her bold me with Begum Jaan, the same glimpses of them in their writing to making her lady whose quilt is etched in my perfumed, flimsy shirts and feel memory like the scar left by a as though she was being raked a famous and blacksmith’s brand. Her poor over burning embers! immensely popular parents agreed to marry her off to Or did it start when she gave the Nawab who was of ‘ripe up on amulets, talismans, black literary heroine very years’ because he was very magic and other ways of retaining early on in life. virtuous. No one had ever seen a the love of her straying husband? nautch girl or prostitute in his She arranged for night long — Editor house. He had performed Haj and reading of the scripture but in helped several others to do it. vain. One cannot draw blood from36 MANUSHI
  2. 2. a stone. The Nawab didn’t budge fascinated by her looks and felt her look stately and magnificent. an inch. Begum Jaan was heart- like sitting by her for hours, just Her hands were large and smooth, broken and turned to books. But adoring her. Her complexion was her waist exquisitely formed. she didn’t get relief. Romantic marble white without a speck of Rabbu used to massage her back novels and sentimental verse ruddiness. Her hair was black and f o r h o u r s t o g e t h e r. I t w a s a s depressed her even more. She always bathed in oil. I had never though getting the massage was began to pass sleepless nights seen the parting of her hair one of the basic necessities of yearning for a love that had crooked, nor a single hair out of life. Rather—more important than never been. place. Her eyes were black and life’s necessities. She felt like throwing all her the elegantly-plucked eyebrows Rabbu had no other clothes into the oven. One seemed like two bows spreading household duties. Perched on the dresses up to impress people. over the demure eyes. Her eyelids couch she was always massaging Now, the Nawab didn’t have a were heavy and eyelashes dense. some part of her body or the other. moment to spare. He was too However, the most fascinating At times I could hardly bear it— busy chasing the gossamer shirts, part of her face were her the sight of Rabbu massaging or nor did he allow her to go out. lips—usually dyed in lipstick rubbing at all hours. Speaking for Relatives, however, would come and with a mere trace of down myself, if anyone were to touch for visits and would stay for on her upper lip. Long hair my body so often I would months while she remained a covered her temples. Sometimes certainly rot to death. prisoner in the house. These her face seemed to change shape Even this daily massaging was relatives, free-loaders all, made under my gaze and looked not enough. On the days she took her blood boil. They helped as though it were the face of a a bath, she would massage the themselves to rich food and got young boy... Begum’s body with a variety of warm stuff made for themselves Her skin was also white and oils and pastes for two hours. And while she stiffened with cold smooth and seemed as though she would massage with such despite the new cotton in her someone had stitched it tightly vigour that even imagining it quilt. As she tossed and turned, o v e r h e r b o d y. W h e n s h e made me sick. The doors would her quilt made newer shapes on stretched her legs for the massage be closed, the braziers would be the wall but none of them held I stole a glance at their sheen, lit and then the session began. promise of life for her. Then why enraptured. She was very tall and Usually Rabbu was the only must one live? ...such a life as the ample flesh on her body made person allowed to remain inside Begum Jaan was destined to live. on such occasions. Other maids But then she started living and handed over the necessary things lived her life to the full. at the d o o r, muttering It was Rabbu who rescued her disapproval. from the fall. In fact—Begum Jaan was Soon her thin body began to afflicted with a persistent itch. fill out. Her cheeks began to glow Despite using all the oils and and she blossomed in beauty. It balms the itch remained was a special oil massage that stubbornly there. Doctors and brought life back to the half-dead hakims pronounced that nothing Begum Jaan. Sorry, you won’t find was wrong, the skin was the recipe for this oil even in the unblemished. It could be an most exclusive magazines. infection under the skin. “These When I first saw Begum Jaan d o c t o r s a r e c r a z y. . . T h e r e ’s she was around forty. She looked nothing wrong with you. It’s just a picture of grandeur, reclining on the heat of the body,” Rabbu the couch. Rabbu sat against her would say, smiling while she gazed back, massaging her waist. A at Begum Jaan dreamily. purple shawl covered her feet as Rabbu! She was as dark as s h e s a t i n r e g a l s p l e n d o u r, a Begum Jaan was fair, as purple as veritable Maharani. I was the other one was white. She ANOOP KAMATHNo. 110 37
  3. 3. seemed to glow like heated iron. After all she was Amma’s adopted ayat by heart. Her face was scarred by small- sister! Now the question was— “May I come to you, Begum pox. She was short, stocky and where would I sleep? In Begum Jaan?” had a small paunch. Her hands Jaan’s room, naturally. A small bed “No, child... Get back to sleep.” were small but agile, her large, was placed alongside hers. Till ten Her tone was rather abrupt. Then swollen lips were always wet. A or eleven at night we chatted and I heard two people whispering. Oh strange, sickening stench exuded played “Chance.” Then I went to God, who was this other person? from her body. And her tiny, puffy bed. Rabbu was still rubbing her I was really afraid. hands moved dexterously over back as I fell asleep. “Ugly woman!” “Begum Jaan... I think there’s Begum Jaan’s body—now at her I thought. I woke up at night and a thief in the room.” waist, now at her hips, then was scared. It was pitch dark and “Go to sleep, child... There’s sliding down her thighs and Begum Jaan’s quilt was shaking no thief,” this was Rabbu’s voice. dashing to her ankles. Whenever vigorously as though an elephant I drew the quilt over my face and I sat by Begum Jaan my eyes was struggling inside. fell asleep. would remain glued to those “Begum Jaan...,” I could barely By morning I had totally roving hands. form the words out of fear. The forgotten the terrifying scene All through the year Begum elephant stopped shaking and the enacted at night. I have always been Jaan would wear Hyderbadi jaali quilt came down. superstitious—night fears, sleep- karga kurtas, white and billowing, “What’s it? Get back to sleep.” walking and sleep-talking were daily and brightly coloured pyjamas. Begum Jaan’s voice seemed to occurrences in my childhood. And even if it was warm and the come from somewhere. Everyone used to say that I was fan was on, she would cover “I’m scared,” I whimpered. possessed by evil spirits. So the herself with a light shawl. She “Get back to sleep. What’s incident slipped from my memory. loved winter. I, too, liked to be at there to be scared of? Recite the The quilt looked perfectly innocent her house in that season. She Ayatul kursi.”* in the morning. rarely moved out. Lying on the “All right...” I began to recite But the following night I woke carpet she would munch dry fruits the prayer but each time I reached up again and heard Begum Jaan and as Rabbu rubbed her back. The ya lamu ma bain... I forgot the Rabbu arguing in a subdued tone. I other maids were jealous of lines though I knew the entire could not hear what they were Rabbu. The witch! She ate, sat and saying and what was the upshot of even slept with Begum Jaan! the tiff but I heard Rabbu crying. Rabbu and Begum Jaan were the Then came the slurping sound of a subject of their gossip during cat licking a plate... I was scared and leisure hours. Someone would got back to sleep. mention their name and the whole The next day Rabbu went to see group would burst into loud her son, an irascible young man. guffaws. What juicy stories they Begum Jaan had done a lot to help made up about them! Begum Jaan him out—bought him a shop, got was oblivious to all this, cut off him a job in the village. But nothing as she was from the world outside. really pleased him. He stayed with Her existence was centred on Nawab Saheb for some time, who herself and her itch. got him new clothes and other I have already mentioned that I gifts; but he ran away for no good was very young at that time and was reason and never came back, even in love with Begum Jaan. She, too, to see Rabbu... was fond of me. When Amma Rabbu had gone to a relative’s decided to go to Agra, she left me house to see him. Begum Jaan was with Begum Jaan for a week. She reluctant to let her go but realised knew that left alone in the house I that Rabbu was helpless. So she would fight with my brothers or didn’t prevent her from going. roam around. The arrangement pleased both Begum Jaan and me. * Verse from the Quran read to ward off evil. ANOOP KAMATH38 MANUSHI
  4. 4. ANOOP KAMATH All through the day Begum Jaan was out of her element. Her body ached at every joint, but she couldn’t bear anyone’s touch. She didn’t eat anything and kept moping in the bed the whole day. “Shall I rub your back, Begum Jaan...?” I asked zestfully as I shuffled the deck of cards. She began to peer at me. “Shall I, really?” I put away the cards and began to rub her back while Begum Jaan lay there quietly. Rabbu was due to return the next day... but she didn’t. Begum Jaan grew more and more irritable. She drank cup after cup of tea and her head began to ache. I again began rubbing her back which was smooth as the top of a table. I rubbed gently “Here,” She would take my “Nine on one side, ten on the and was happy to be of some hand and place it where it itched other,” I blurted out my school use to her. and I, lost in the thought of the hygiene, rather incoherently. “A little harder... open the babua, kept on scratching her “Take away your hand... Let’s straps,” Begum Jaan said. listlessly while she talked. see... one, two, three...” “Here... a little below the “Listen... you need some more I wanted to run away, but she shoulder... that’s right... Ah! what frocks. I’ll send for the tailor held me tightly. I tried to wriggle pleasure...” She expressed her tomorrow and ask him to make out and Begum Jaan began to satisfaction between sensuous new ones for you. Your mother l a u g h l o u d l y. To t h i s d a y b r e a t h s . “ A l i t t l e f u r t h e r. . . , ” has left some dress material.” whenever I am reminded of her Begum Jaan instructed though her “I don’t want that red face at that moment I feel jittery. hands could easily reach that material... It looks so cheap,” I Her eyelids had drooped, her spot. But she wanted me to stroke was chattering, oblivious of upper lip showed a black shadow it. How proud I felt! “Here... oh, where my hands travelled. Begum and tiny beads of sweat sparkled oh, you’re tickling me... Ah!” She Jaan lay still... Oh God! I jerked on her lips and nose despite the smiled. I chatted away as I my hand away. cold. Her hands were cold like ice continued to massage her. “Hey girl, watch where your but clammy as though the skin “I’ll send you to the market hands are... You hurt my ribs.” had been stripped off. She had put tomorrow... What do you want? Begum Jaan smiled mischievously. away the shawl and in the fine ...A doll that sleeps or wakes up I was embarrassed. karga kurta her body shone like as you want?” “Come here and lie down beside a ball of dough. The heavy gold “No, Begum Jaan... I don’t me...” She made me lie down with buttons of the kurta were open want dolls... Do you think I’m still my head on her arm “How skinny and swinging to one side. a child?” you are... your ribs are coming out.” It was evening and the room “So you’re an old woman She began counting my ribs. was getting enveloped in then,” she laughed. “If not a doll I tried to protest. darkness. A strange fright I’ll get you a babua*... Dress it “Come on, I’m not going to eat overwhelmed me. Begum Jaan’s up yourself. I’ll give you a lot of you up. How tight this sweater is! deep-set eyes focused on me and rags. Okay?” And you don’t have a warm vest I felt like crying. She was pressing “Okay,” I answered. on.” I felt very uncomfortable. me as though I were a clay doll “How many ribs does one and the odour of her warm body * A Male Doll. have?” She changed the topic. made me almost throw up. But sheNo. 110 39
  5. 5. was like one possessed. I could much more severe than I deserved “Take off your shoes,” Rabbu neither scream nor cry. for fighting with my brothers. said while stroking Begum Jaan’s After some time she stopped Amma always disliked my playing ribs. Mouse-like, I snuggled into and lay back exhausted. She was with boys. Now tell me, are they my quilt. breathing heavily and her face man-eaters that they would eat up There was a peculiar noise looked pale and dull. I thought her darling? And who are the again. In the dark Begum Jaan’s she was going to die and rushed boys? My own brothers and their quilt was once again swaying like out of the room... puny, little friends! She was a an elephant. “Allah! Ah!...” I Thank God Rabbu returned believer in strict segregation for moaned in a feeble voice. The that night. Scared, I went to bed women. And Begum Jaan here was elephant inside the quilt heaved rather early and pulled the quilt more terrifying than all the loafers up and then sat down. I was mute. over me. But sleep evaded me of the world. Left to myself, I The elephant started to sway for hours. would have run out to the street— again. I was scared stiff. However, Amma was taking so long to even further away! But I was I had resolved to switch on the return from Agra! I had got so helpless and had to stay there light that night, come what may. terrified of Begum Jaan that I much against my wish. The elephant started fluttering spent the whole day in the Begum Jaan had decked once again and it seemed as company of maids. I felt too herself up elaborately and though it was trying to squat. nervous to step into her room. perfumed herself with the warm There was sound of someone What could I have said to anyone? scent of attars. Then she began smacking her lips, as though That I was afraid of Begum Jaan? to shower me with affection. “I savouring a tasty pickle. Now I Begum Jaan who was so attached want to go home,” was my answer understood! Begum Jaan had not to me? to all her suggestions. Then I eaten anything the whole day. That day Rabbu and Begum started crying. And Rabbu, the witch, was a Jaan had a tiff again. This did not “There, there... come near me... notorious glutton. She must be augur well for me because Begum I’ll take you to the market today. polishing off some goodies. Jaan’s thoughts were immediately Okay?” Flaring my nostrils I scented the directed towards me. She realised But I kept up the refrain of air. There was only the smell of that I was wandering outdoors in going home. All the toys and attar, sandalwood and henna, the cold and might die of sweets of the world had no nothing else. pneumonia! “Child, do you want interest for me. Once again the quilt started to put me to shame in public? If “Your brothers will bash you swinging. I tried to lie down still something should happen to you, up, you witch,” She tapped me but the quilt began to assume it’ll be a disaster.” She made me affectionately on my cheek. such grotesque shapes that I was sit beside her as she washed “Let them.” thoroughly shaken. It seemed as her face and hands in the water “Raw mangoes are sour to though a large frog was inflating basin. Tea was set on a tripod next taste, Begum Jaan,” hissed itself noisily and was about to to her. Rabbu, burning with jealousy. leap on me. “Make tea, please... and give me Then Begum Jaan had a fit. The “Aa... Ammi...” I whimpered a cup,” she said as she wiped her gold necklace she had offered me courageously. No one paid any face with a towel. “I’ll change in the moments ago flew into pieces. heed. The quilt crept into my meanwhile.” The muslin net dupatta was torn brain and began to grow larger. I took tea while she dressed. to shreds. And her hair-parting I stretched my leg nervously to During her body massage she sent which was never crooked was a the other side of the bed to for me repeatedly. I went in, keeping tangled mess. grope for the switch and turned my face turned away and ran out “Oh! Oh! Oh!” She screamed it on. The elephant somersaulted after doing the errand. When she between spasms. I ran out. inside the quilt which deflated changed her dress I began to feel Begum Jaan regained her senses immediately. During the somer- jittery. Turning my face away from after much fuss and ministrations. sault the corner of the quilt rose her I sipped my tea. When I peered into the room on by almost a foot... My heart yearned in anguish tiptoe, I saw Rabbu rubbing her Good God! I gasped and for Amma. This punishment was body, nestling against her waist. plunged into my bed.40 MANUSHI
  6. 6. On Account of Continuing Demand— Yet another printing of In Search of Answers Indian Women’s Voices from Manushi Editors: Madhu Kishwar and Ruth Vanita Third Edition: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi, 1996 This book provides a selection of the most bold and eloquent reports that appeared in Manushi during its early years. The causes of women’s oppression are analysed in a historical perspective, with the political, social and economic dimensions skilfully related. The book has an all-India perspective, with studies based on different regions, castes, classes, and communities. 260 pages Hardbound Price: Rs 280 (India) All other countries: US$ 20 Available from Manushi. Send payment by cheque, draft or MO in the name of Manushi Trust C-174, Lajpat Nagar-1, New Delhi-110024 Special 10% Discount for Manushi SubscribersNo. 110 41