4thWrite Prize 2022: Sairish by Ruksana Abdul-Majid

Behba does not see him at first.

True, there is little light inside the baithak, the windows still shuttered at that time of the morning. Left alone she likes to set the room to rights by half-light. To straighten the furniture, to shake out and re-seat the cushions, and smooth the wrinkles from the crocheted lace antimacassars draped over the headrests and armrests through touch alone. Drawing a rag over every flat surface, she flicks it at arm’s length to dislodge the collected dust motes. Then, still in the shadows, she stoops to sweep the nariyal jharu across the embossed floor tiles, confident the bound bundle of dried coconut leaf fronds—tensile and pliant, tapering to a point at its centre—will catch any dust or debris her eyes might miss. Always the last thing she does, unbolt and clip back the painted wooden shutters to flood the room with daylight. Little shafts of imprisoned sun set free: soft, powdery morning rays pouring through the external barrier of window bars and silver mesh of mosquito netting to brush the faded blue of the walls, settle on the dark lacquer of the furniture, film over the glass of the display case.

Once, when she had smilingly confessed to labouring in the near-dark like this, her mother chided her.

They scarcely pay us enough to live and here you are, ruining your eyes for free!

Amma had paused in shaping peray for roti to press the open palm of her flour-dusted hand first to her own temple, then jabbed it like an accusation at Behba.


It was not the first time her mother had called her crazy. Nor likely to be the last. And though Behba was not crazy, she knew this to be a kind of dismayed but fondly resigned talk which, like the accompanying long sigh, was always shadowed by a soft, bewildered look in her mother’s eyes. Amma’s thoughts,

awash day and night with the worry of what was to be done with such a girl, so easily distracted, so given over to strange notions?

That morning, the first thing Behba did on entering the baithak was take up the vase of wilting marigolds shedding petals across the low glass-topped table at the centre of the room. Sad-looking display, last vestige of the walima. Ten days ago every square inch of the haveli had been decked out with flowers; garlands threaded thickly with the lopped heads of yellow marigold and white jasmine, the floors strewn with blood-red rose petals left to lie where they fell, crushed underfoot by the wedding guests trailing in and out during the festivities. By the time the nuptials were over, the floral adornments had begun to fade and fall apart. Mouldering blooms dropped randomly from those left strung along the walls and balusters, across the arched doorways. Loose withered petals collected in great drifts and were blown into every corner and crevice, yet for days Didi had forbidden her the use of the broom—You’ll sweep away the blessings brought into this house, she insisted. And so Behba was made to crawl about each morning scooping up with her bare hands what she could of the disintegrated flowers.

Marigolds. Today their bitter, drowsy scent invoked in her a violent disgust. Trying hard not to breathe in through her nose, she left the baithak gripping the vase with both hands, one hand steadying it at the base, the other choking it around its fluted neck, intent on carrying it from the room without further disturbing the browning clustered petals of the once golden blooms. Near falling from their short stems, to lose even a few would mean bending to sweep the floor. And she had decided she would not be taking the trouble—who would even notice? Moments ago she finished washing down the inner courtyard, a task she was consigned to do daily, one performed under the watchful eyes of her mother and the waking household, and that had been enough, quite enough.

Her blood was due. It was always the same for her, every month. Knots of intense, wringing pain arriving out of nowhere—like razor blades twisting deep inside her. She would, of course, go about her work as usual. Though she she

couldn’t help but feel all the while like some poor, suffering creature snared by and despising the metal jaws of the trap that tears its flesh.

Earlier, as she washed the courtyard clean, she’d taken the edge of her chadar and balled it up tight inside her mouth, teeth clamped down hard to stifle an immovable pain emanating from her sex; a pain that seemed to want to split her in half lengthways. She was balanced on her haunches, one hand tipping water from the steel lota onto the stone flags, the other creating immense open curves as she swept it aside with long, even strokes of the jharu. Sweat prickled her skin, dampened the folds of her hitched shalwar. She could smell her own heat, feel the pulsing of the hard muscles in her thin, reedy arms, hear the thrumming of her own heartbeat inside her ears. Pain or no, she still took pride in this, her strength, and the satisfying efficiency of her movements; the way the perfect wet gleam spread in her wake across the floor as she methodically passed over it, one side to the other, working backwards along the length of the courtyard.

Pictures passed through her mind as she silently laboured: herself, viewed from above, a hunkered figure crossing and re-crossing the courtyard…her mother’s worried face floating in front of her…wet feet inside plastic chappals meeting stone stairs with loud thwacks…a washed sheet rippling on a line, lifted by—

But no, don’t think of that…Some stains will never wash clean.

The memory flickered, then darkened as Behba veered from it. Willing herself to hold nothing in her mind, she turned instead to the gentle sounds of morning, let them carry her through the task at hand: the sigh of broom fronds brushing stone, the water sloshing and her measured sweeping—suuush, suuush, suuush— rhythmic as ocean waves. At least, she imagined it was. How would she even know? She’d never been near an ocean.


So no. There would be no more sweeping for her today.

Stepping out of the baithak she thought back to the morning the youngest

Khwaja had burst into the kitchen demanding something to ease his new wife’s pain. Behba was by the countertop shelling peas into a shallow steel pan while her mother, sitting on her feet over by the water tank, was scouring the pots and pans used to cook the previous night’s supper with wire wool lathered with pink soda-soap and handfuls of gritty sand. They were alarmed, unable to imagine what illness—Allah forbid!—could have befallen the household’s new bride. But Choti-bahu, the youngest and newest addition to Khwaja-sahib’s line of daughters-in-law, had sent her husband to the kitchen with a demand for something neither Behba or her mother knew where to find. A Hot-Water-Bottle.

It was Didi who saved them from his rising temper. The noise summoned her from the veranda. Lifting herself from her prayer mat mid-dhikr, her ninety-nine bead tasbih still looped around wrist and forearm, she huffed into the kitchen and sent her son on his way. Scowling and inconvenienced, she instructed Behba to warm a clay brick taken from the hearth-edge over the burner of the kerosene stove, to wrap it in a rag and carry it into Choti-bahu’s room. There, Didi ministered to the young woman’s complaints as best she could, lifting and lowering the hot compress across her slender abdomen. And though she secretly raised her eyebrows at Behba when Choti-bahu had carefully pointed out in her stilted Potwari how, in England, in her father’s house she and her four sisters each had their own Hot-Water-Bottles, Didi spoke in her usual soft, unhurried tone, gently allaying her daughter-in-law with the final wisdom that Allah-tallah burdened womankind with this pain for good reason, that there was blessing to be found in the bearing of it.

It is pain, Didi assured them, that washes all your sins clean.

Why was she smiling when she said this? Quiet in her corner, Behba sensed the deliberateness of Didi’s speech. Hard-faced with self-satisfaction, she was offering as an edifying salve something Behba had only ever known as inescapable and uncompromising. Pain washes all your sins clean—what did this even mean? Likely a veiled admonishment; a mild corrective intended for Choti-bahu. For clearly Didi was finding her daughter-in-law’s conduct

unseemly, but could not reveal to the girl what she really thought: that it was not proper for a young woman to make such a show of this pain. That a woman’s pain should be garbed always in silence.

Choti-bahu rolled her eyes. Torquing her body away from her mother-in-law she muttered something incomprehensible but obviously derisive in Angrezi.

If she had glanced at Behba right then she might have recognised something like a conspiratorial fellow-feeling. But Behba’s own incredulity about Didi’s cant was so immensely quiet, buried inside a smile that was barely there—just the tiniest upward curl of one corner of her mouth, there and gone before it could be noticed.

Besides, Choti-bahu was never going to look her way. Behba remembered how in all the talk of this coveted Vilayati rishta, her recommendations had only ever attested to her diminutiveness. What tiny, delicate hands and feet she had, as soft and fine-boned as a child’s, Behba heard tell. How her waist could be cinched in the circle of two hands held thumb-to-thumb, forefinger-to-forefinger. Ji haan, a rare beauty this one!

Only after the wedding did they learn of a smallness, a paucity, in her nature, too. Given to sudden, inexplicable fits of sullenness, she scandalously refuses to leave her room to greet Didi’s guests, visitors seeking only to pay salaam to the new bride. Glassily polite in her limited dealings with the nokar, with Behba and Amma, and with the indigents who call at the haveli pleading for alms. But it is as she has been directed to be, you can tell, not as she is. No amount of tutoring can conceal the contempt there, behind the gilded eyes that brush past Behba, dismissing her as unimportant, a nothing. Or worse, whenever she is called on to serve Choti-bahu—bring her a glass of water, a piyāla of chai—the way the girl fussily uses the edge of her dupatta to wipe clean the vessel’s lip before lifting it to her mouth, as though it has been sullied by Behba’s touch.

Behba knows her hands are not unclean. No, not unclean, but long roughened by her work—the relentless washing and wiping and scouring and sweeping, all trace of her labours undone by each day’s end. When outside, by habit she hides

them, wraps them under the folds of her chadar. What, though, was to be done indoors? Every time Choti-Bahu behaves so, Behba can see how they must look, her hands. Her brittle, striated and split nails, her calloused palms, the skin there tough as cured hide. Glimpsing herself through the eyes of another she shrinks inwardly, wishes she could slip from view entirely. It gathers, a sensation tight and low and heavy across her gut: shame.

Bay adab, Amma calls Choti-bahu when they are out of earshot.

Still, as unmannerly as she was, she was a ticket, a fact that could not be denied. Naturally Didi later sent Khwaja-sahib on the drive into Pindi to source and purchase a Hot-Water-Bottle for the girl, accustomed as she was to her Vilayati ways.

And so it fell to Behba, charged when called with the additional duty of expanding the flat, rubber bottle with hot, steaming water, capping it and carrying it in to Choti-Bahu, who simpered weakly at her, still pretty though ruffled with sleep. Oblivious to the scandal she was causing, she spent those mornings curled up with the comforting heat laid across her stomach, convalescing as her besotted young husband—a man never before witnessed so much as pouring out a glass of water for his own consumption—ferried hot chai and plates of fresh-baked baqar khani pastry wings into the room for her himself.


No such ceremony for Behba.

Before first light they leave their plain, unrendered brick ghar inside the warren of such dwellings on the outermost edge of the katchi abadi beyond the

G. T. Road. Arif-bhai, her brother, escorts Behba and their mother; he trails steps behind them, his gait encumbered by his polio-twisted leg. Three figures edging along the raw shoulder of the highway, they start and draw closer together every time a Jingle truck roars by, brazen in the waking dark.

At the haveli, she begins her working day drawing water from the indoor well to fill the endless plastic buckets and steel pails it takes to do their work.

She helps Amma as directed—in the kitchen washing the stacked dishes awaiting them, or with the household laundry—her hands soaking, soaping, scrubbing, rinsing, wringing. She hefts the weight of the baskets piled with dripping wet garments on her skinny hip, hauling them one by one up the narrow stone staircase leading to the roof, where she pegs out the clothes and household linens to dry in the sun. She wipes the dust from the internal window shutters and every standing pedestal fan, then sweeps and washes down the inner courtyard. It is as her mother sips chai and trades gossip with Didi in the kitchen that Behba turns her attention to the baithak, the parlour room away from the main household, with its own separate entrance at the side of the property where, throughout the day ahead, Khwaja-sahib’s train of visitors will call and be seated.


At the outer doorway Behba stood by the edge of the high stone stoop and stretched an arm to toss the rank, decaying contents of the vase into the nala. Running parallel to the side of the haveli, the open drain followed a course down the narrow gali shared with four other ancestral townhouses. The nala slurry, floating with green-tinged scum and rife with hovering mosquitoes, sluggishly conveyed the household waste, mixed with the waste of their neighbours, beyond the property line to empty out into a subterranean network of rudimentary runnels. Occasionally these would backup and overspill, forcing the residents of the ward to circumnavigate sudden spurts and rivulets of free- flowing sewage escaping fissures in the alleys and walkways. Behba was used to the stench, but as she watched the discarded mess of flowers turn on the surface of the filthy water, it held her eye longer than it should have. She wondered if it were perhaps an omen.

From time to time such feelings came over her. Fleeting instances in the flow of her day, when the opaque surface of the world seemed to stir and shift, the air and light growing suddenly weighty; denser, granular. At these moments any mundane phenomena—the waste of dead flowers, a spray of water falling in

sunlight, a cup of split lentils cascading percussively into a steel tray—might become the bearer of secrets; some message meant just for her, Behba believed, augury of a thing yet lying in wait, concealed.

For a minute she let herself stand motionless on the stoop to track the flowers’ slow pirouette away from her, until she felt herself being observed. Jolted, as if roused from an uneasy dream, she looked up. From its station on the far side of the gali the neighbour’s cosseted bearded goat, caught chewing on a frayed length of electric-blue polyester twine, stared back at her, its contempt for her and her human presentiments writ large in its unblinking cold yellow eyes.

Behba retreated, thrusting her tongue out at the goat as she went. She paused at the courtyard tap to rinse out the vase. Leaving it upturned to dry in the sun, she hurried once more to the shadow-filled baithak, where he now was, leaning against the wall in the familiar, easy manner she had long ago learned to recognise as the insouciance of unspoken ownership.


Her eyes adjust and the darkness falls away and he comes into view. There, rising as though from nothing, a smooth silhouette banded by strips light breaking through the shuttered windows, his face drowned in the shadow of an old brimmed hat.

Aiy! Behba caught her breath, let out a little cry of shock.

Visitors called at the haveli every day. Purveyors and tenants, those seeking rent deferrals or loans or simply an audience with Khwaja-sahib. None, though, arrived so early as this. Right then she could not dwell on this, because her mind filled with the confusion of a single thought: he is soaked through. Sodden. The wet from his long hair seeping into his kurta, large dark patches spreading like wings across the shoulders. Water dripping from the ends of his sleeves, pooling around his feet. Ajeeb baat! The rainy mausam was months away. Yet here he was, looking as if caught in a squall of driving rain so fierce, he had been forced to take shelter inside the baithak.

Ordinarily, she is never left alone with men. Rare mornings she might encounter the elder Khwaja as she completes her chores inside the baithak. Fat ledger tucked under his armpit, he raps his knuckles impatiently along the door jamb, asks how long she will be. The only time he ever addresses her, and he never, never sets a foot across the threshold of the room when she is there alone. Ji, ji, such an honourable man! Privately, Behba knows better. If she has to clean as he waits for her to finish, she can feel the scorch of his eyes peering stonily at her labouring body. He works his mouth as if he has a bad taste in it, the pretence of his irritation at the delay she is causing him masking a seamy, festering energy. And when she is done he won’t move aside to grant her room to exit, so she makes herself small, passes by holding herself rigid and as far away from him as possible.

The stranger stared at her, gazing right into her face. She waited for him to avert his eyes, to announce the purpose of his presence inside the baithak, to bid her to alert the family. After a while, without saying a word he lifted his hat with exaggerated deliberation and, as Behba looked on, shook his from side-to-side head with force, sending a spray of fat droplets of water from his swinging hair. A smile cracked across his bared face.

He was younger than she had first assumed. His tawny eyes large, deep-set, shining with mirth. A dark mole crested the high curve of his right cheekbone.

Ah…you have work to do? Kohi baat nahi, I will set myself here, out of your way.

With this he dropped deftly to his heels right where he was standing, sitting on his feet briefly before rocking back to stretch his legs out in front of him. The fact of his wet garments did not seem to be troubling him at all. Resting the crown of his damp head against the wall, he locked his fingers behind his neck.

She had never seen a man of his class sit on the floor before. There was something else, too: the distance he was leaving her. Space granted her as her right. And the way he was looking at her! A quality of receptiveness in him, a buoyant watchfulness she had not encountered in other people.

Turning away from him she took up a cushion and smoothed its cover. She hummed a little. Without seeing him she knew he would still be smiling.

He asked ask her name.

Behba. Said quietly, shyly, over her shoulder.

Be…Bha? Chee! He expelled a short, sharp gust of breath through clamped teeth.

That’s what they call you. But not your real name, hai na? That’s a sound a child makes.

He was teasing, but not mistaken. She was known to most by a moniker gifted her by Arif-bhai in his infancy. Newly widowed, their mother had gone door-to-door seeking work as a dhobhan with Behba straddling her hip, Arif— before the polio—toddling behind her. His placatory calls to his baby sister, irritable as her first teeth came in, had resounded through every gali, at every doorway they visited.

Say, Behba, you are treated well here?

She thought about this but said nothing—not a whisper. She knew how things were. Keep your head down, do your work, don’t draw attention to yourself. Mohsin ko nuqsaan mat karo. Her mother’s warning, loud inside her head: do not bite the hand that feeds you.

The carriage clock atop the display cabinet tick-ticked and from beyond the shutters came the sudden clatter of the milk cart loaded with emptied zinc canisters, the sound advancing then receding as it passed through the gali. A hush fell over the room once more and it felt leaden, exposing.

The stranger gave a kind of grunt. She turned to face him again and saw a change had come over his face, his smiling eyes turned scornful, mouth twisted with bitterness. Behba clenched her body tightly, readying herself to be rebuked by him. But his anger was not for her.

Dekho. He spread his arms to signal the room around them, hands supinate as if surrendering something to her.

These barey barey log, he spat out, offended. They think their names will

stand forever. But they are not better than you, not better than me. The worms will have them, me, all of us in the end—

He did not stop there, erupting in a siege of opinion about the Khwajas and their ilk that left her feeling slightly ashamed, though more than anything uneasy that some member of the household might by chance overhear. She thought to ask him to lower his voice, but at that very moment he seemed to lose track of his restive train of thought. He tailed off mid-sentence and—to Behba’s great relief—stopped talking.

Now that he was quiet she saw he bore the look of some order of sickness. In the low light his skin gave off a queer pallor; his eyes were febrile, unfocused and roaming. The indignation of moments ago was gone, cleared away, supplanted by a tableau of raw feeling darting unchecked across his face; the wavering shadows of some private misery. Unexpectedly, a comfortless vision came to Behba: the stranger, face buried inside his hands, sobbing.

She dipped her head, letting her chadar slip forwards a little to hide her face. She did not want him to see that she had perceived such a thing about him. But he was no longer looking at her. Chin jutting, his demeanour once more defiant, he was staring off into space, not taking in her, or the four walls around them, his attention fixed on some distant horizon visible to him alone.

An age, it seemed, passed like this. When at last he came out of his reverie and found her watching him, he laughed.

A sad, lonely little laugh.

He shook his head as though to clear it.

Chalo—come now, he said. Tell me your name. Your real name. I promise you, I will write it in the sand at the riverbank…What is it the poet says? “Make the wind my enemy”.

Now what kind of talk was this? To think of it! She began to feel he was laughing at her, that he had been laughing at her all along.

Yet in the quiet of the dim room, amid the long shadows of the dark furniture stretching across the floor and up the walls, his light-filled eyes searched her

face: not invasive, not sly or mocking, but waiting. Waiting on her.

It was more than a simple request, what he asked of her. It was as if he had sought her out from a crowd of people, enjoined that she share with him what she held. A thing aglow, fragile and shimmering—a naked flame, she imagines— dipping and bowing, sheltered inside her cupped palms.

Bars of sunlight slanting across faded blue walls. Restless hands casting shapes in the air. Eyes filled with their own light. A voice, clean and cool, like ice- water poured from a steel jug on a sweltering day, lifting her from the heat, from her own body. The details that would one day become memory. Undiminished by the passage of time, by her own ageing. To be lived and relived, felt like something she has known and not a thing turned to when what was really there was too ugly to admit. She can choose to let this in; like balmy light released through an un-shuttered window, it will shrink the shadows, make them flee.

Flushed, Behba hesitated. Her eyes slid to the floor she had not swept and, trembling, she told him.

Sairish, he repeated after her. Sairish.


One evening on their way home Behba makes her mother pause so she can buy jalebis from the cart on the corner. As they wait their turn the vendor openly leers at her, his eyes sliding greedily down her body even as he is ribboning coils of batter into the hot, sputtering oil. Behba doesn’t care; eyes bright with hunger, she watches the bobbing sweets cook and crisp and turn golden. But through the vendor’s gaze her mother finally notices the uncommon gol-matol about her daughter’s face. The new ripe fullness in her figure, discernible regardless of her chadar.

Amma says nothing. Snatches the paper corner of syrupy jalebis from the vendor when he proffers them to Behba, shoves the girl on her shoulder with a terse, Chal. Move.

At home, confirming how firm and fat Behba’s belly has grown under her ribs, without uttering a single word of reproach she strikes her hard, knocking the child to the floor. She paces and rages, paces and rages.

Amma…What has happened?

When she realises the girl does not know what any of this means, she too crumples to the ground. Drawing Behba to her chest, she cradles her and rocks back and forth intoning—shh, mari bachi, shh, my child—soothing her as if she were still a baby, and a mother’s arms were all that were needed to set right what had been wronged.


The rumours take flight. The neighbours’ censorious eyes trail Behba and her mother through the gali. When it can no longer be hidden they retreat, feigning illness.

Behba’s body blooms in darkness.

It is weeks later when Didi pays a visit. Picking her way imperiously around potholes, she covers her mouth and nose with a handkerchief as she skirts banks of stinking garbage. Amma blames and beseeches, rails as if she has lost her wits. Didi, tight-mouthed and hostile, cannot look at them. She stares first at the packed dirt floor, then the rust-wrecked corrugated tin roof. When finally she does speak it is only to insist that the gossips’ flapping tongues might be stilled once and for all.

They’ll believe what we’ll make it easy for them to believe, she telłs them. It is not too late. What is lost can be regained. As long as you can hold your silence.

Hearing this, Behba becomes aware of a muddying of the air in the ill-lit room. In the places untouched by the weak light snaking through the small, empty square aperture that serves as a window, the darkness deepens, sharpens.

Hold your silence.

Fixed in her mind is Didi’s silence about the youngest Khwaja’s imminent departure for Vilayat—she says nothing of him. Her silence about the day when,

inflamed and spurned one too many times by Choti-Bahu in the sating of his newly-discovered husbandly privileges, her son has slunk off to the roof, ready to stew in the funk of his curtailed desire. There he finds Behba, alone, hanging washed linens. Her thin girl’s body screened by sheets billowing in the breeze. She does not see his shadow parting from the jaali wall, or how he steals close to her. From out of nowhere comes the rough grip on her arm, the hand clamped over her mouth to stop her from crying out.

Afterward, she stayed on the roof for a long time. Pawing at the flaking whitewash, she peered down at the courtyard through the gaps in the fretwork of the jaali border, thinking that perhaps the thing for her to do would be to remove her chappals and clamber up and over, to let herself fall, to drop down, down, down. It is this same thought that kept returning to her through the wretched days that followed, when she arrived at the haveli to work alongside her mother, and everything she touched had seemed unclean, and she couldn’t scrub away the unseen bruises flowering under her skin, or wash away the hurt, the soreness, that came from being so ill-used between her legs.


The hakim Didi sends to them plies Behba with a rancid smelling, bitter brew.

Under its sway she becomes subdued, sinks into her self. Her legs are pulled apart, her body opened.

Ya Allah! What pain.

At some point she hears Amma calling her name, but then the sound fades and Behba is gone, adrift on waves of something immense and flaming and inevitable.

She lies so for days. Feverish, delirious, still bleeding. Her mother is certain she will die, but as evening falls on the fifth day she sits up and weakly asks for water.


Didi journeys to another ward to find it. The rickety tanga ride pummels her

every joint, but this tanga-wallah is known to her, discreet enough to be sent to the shed gates of every kamaila they visit to make the enquiries on her behalf. A quiet word and oiling of the palm of a mazdoor toting quartered carcasses from the slaughterhouse’s loading area to the waiting trucks and minutes later it sits at her feet, a blood-smeared cloth sack holding a rasoli the size of a small cantaloupe: a benign tumorous growth cleaved by the qasai from the belly of a buffalo, or a cow, or perhaps a sheep.

To be placed inside a stoppered jar and displayed on the stoop outside the haveli, the tumour will be a testament to Behba’s innocence. Look here, they will tell the neighbours, there is nothing to hide.

As the tanga carried her away from the butchery district, Didi watched the conference of flies busying themselves around the sack and thought back over what she had brought about. Done easily enough. And it could have been a truly messy business. So an act of grace, was it not, saving the girl from the far grimmer, for sure, the ruinous fate she would otherwise have met? Of course, people would still talk. There was no shortage of the idle and the long-tongued about the mohalla. Some might well remain unconvinced that this is what was cut out of the girl. Well, no matter. For such girls, what difference did it make what people would say or think?

Still, fourteen—no kind of age. Long ago now for her, but memory in its unsparing way called forth the young bride she’d once been, carried across the threshold of the haveli and privately stripped of the gold publicly gifted her by her in-laws and set to work. It brought back to her the lone framed photograph housed so reverently inside the display case she was made to dust off each day as she cleaned the baithak under the merciless and unrelenting supervision of her mother-in-law. An old image, even then—the youth pictured frozen in grainy monochrome, eyes colourless, blank, unsmiling in front of the camera. Her husband’s youngest brother, she learned. Long dead, though the gossips still whispered about him. Charming, so they told her, but errant, at odds with the family. Full of improper ideas and disposed to poetic rages, he was known to

take of the bootleg sharaab which in those days was hawked out of the back rooms of certain dukaans. Liquored up, he’d strayed one night far beyond the town’s outer limits, winding up on a loamy verge by the edge of the newly built dam. He was found days later, swollen and floating, gazing at the sky with empty eye sockets, his eyeballs pecked clean away by roosting swamphens.

In the past, tribulation had surely crossed their threshold, had borne with it the threat of badnaami, as it did again now. There had to have been the work of repair, the salvage of auqaat, of name and standing.

Nothing changed, Didi thought. And really, why should it? What trials befell a family could be weathered, as they had been before.

The thought of the girl will keep coming back to her—an interruption, a lost moment, a tiny little doubt sharp as a splinter in the passage of the days and nights to come. But right then she pushes all consideration of Behba aside, turns instead to her own shining son, safe now, oceans away.


They never return to the haveli. By summer’s end Behba and her mother and Arif-bhai are treading the gali’s of a distant town, stepping away from what happened.

The mausam changed, as it always does.

In the rains that came the roof scuppers overflowed, the weight of water falling from the heavens bringing down gutters and downspouts, toppling water storage tanks, displacing TV aerials and electricity cables. The nala swelled and the gali flooded with sewage. The malodorous effluence rose and rose until it breached the stone stoop, lapping darkly under the bolted doors. The Khwajas’ frantic nocturnal attempts to stem the sinister flow—throwing down old rags and taking turns to drive the water back with the flat edge of a floor wiper— were finally abandoned when the power cut out. By morning there was a foot- deep pool of tainted water stagnating inside the entrance, obstructing their passage to the latrine and the stairwell leading to the roof on one side, to the

baithak on the other. But, Allah ka shukar, they’d been spared the worst of it. For they heard tell how in other wards whole houses were reduced to rubble overnight. How live chickens and bicycles and the abandoned stalls of street vendors—kasam se, even somebodies grandma—were carried away by the deluge. When the water subsided it left behind a grimy tide mark visible along the outer walls of the haveli and every other house that shared the gali, but the only things that could not be found were the jalebi cart from the corner, the neighbour’s sulphurous goat, and the tumour displayed inside the stoppered jar.

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