When I think of the three of them I tell myself at least Azhar Bhai could have lived in contentment. Being a man, he had more power, more control over the events. He could have steered himself, if not his mother and sister, out of it all.
But what went wrong?
He was handsome. He still is. Only his flamboyance is gone, replaced with sobriety. But I vividly remember he was quite a lady killer. Many of my cousins were crazy about him. He was a charmer. He had a hell of a time with girls. I couldn’t have known all about it but my elder brother and I were great friends and he used to tell me some stories.
Even if my brother hadn’t told me about Azhar Bhai’s extra-curricular activities, I would have known it anyway. My cousin sister, Farah, though elder to me but closer, had a crush on him. And everybody knew it. It was in the family.
There is something eerie in the air these days. Else, why would you come across so many strange news? Events which are bizarre. Which defy reason. Which evoke a whirlpool of thoughts, a phantasmagoria of feelings.
There is something oppressive. Absurd.
I remember when I read Kafka’s The Trial. Quite a few years back. I had heard it was great. And I knew a bit about Kafka’s standing in philosophical literature. But that was all.
I had this approach (and still have, to some extent) toward books: I read because I just loved to read, loved to know, and not because I was out to discover hidden meanings. Or truths, or philosophies, or some kind of enlightenment.
We have been reciting the Quran without knowing its meaning since our childhood. I don’t remember anybody ever encouraging me to read its Urdu translation. Whenever I said, “Mother, I am reading its translation,” she said “O.K. That’s fine. But read it in Arabic too,” with an implication that reading in Arabic is far more desirable (though you can’t understand a word) than reading the Tarjuma. As a growing child I found it a double task to read it both in Arabic and Urdu. Thus most of the time I ended up just reciting it in Arabic.
When I grew up I was told that reading the Urdu translation is useless unless you read it along with Tafseer. I don’t disagree with this observation. You can’t take the Divine book lightly. If you really want to understand it you’ve got to study it thoroughly, seriously. And it requires an immense effort as well as a genuine desire.
I had attended her wedding. A typical wedding it was. And Tabassum made a typical bride — beautiful, bejewelled, stony. I looked at her up close. Her eyes were closed. There was nothing on her face I could read.
‘Oh God!’ I felt helpless. I wanted so much to know what was going on inside her head, inside her heart. If only I could have a glimpse of the soul behind the glossy, inert mass of bridal red.
She was getting married. To a widower. Her brother-in-law! And her dead sister’s children, bewildered and silent, encircled their Choti khala, their new ammi.
Single, young women living independently was a Western social phenomenon that fascinated me most. In books it sounded like a fairy tale. And when I saw it in real life I was totally captivated.
I remember when I first entered Isabelle’s apartment, my hostess in Paris. I was breathless. “Two bedrooms, a living room and a kitchen — all to herself,” I marveled. Coming from a crowded house of 13 from the East, it took some time to register on my mind that Isabelle, a single soul, had got all that space to herself.
All those years, I never had a room of my own. As a kid I shared it with my elder brother and a sister. Later, being the eldest, he had the privilege of getting a separate room while us two sisters were left to fight it out.
Love is a mystery. Or so they say. But marriages in our society puzzle me more. Particularly the second marriage. Sure, second marriages are no enigma for men. It’s quite simple and easy for them. But why? And how could it be so smooth, so painless?
I wondered as I watched Bano Qudsia’s drama of ’83, Hikayatain, Shikayatain at my friend’s place. In a faraway, small, peaceful city of Azad Kashmir. My friend is married. And like most of the couples I’ve come across, they’re quite a mismatch. My friend and her husband have only three things in common — age, blood and temper. Both are 29, first cousins and temperamental.
So there I was — a house guest — watching the play late at night. My friend’s husband was in the other room with their four-year-old daughter (he is not interested in plays. He prefers to watch wrestling, cricket).
Sometimes I wonder why most of the suffering humans I come across happen to be women. Perhaps I look at the world with a tinted glass, with a feminist hue. Which makes women substantial, of flesh and blood, anchored in the centre of my visual span. While men, papery, ghost-like, float at the periphery.
Is my perception selective? Might be. But I don’t understand this process of selectivity. It is in my genes which make me perceive, make me feel so intensely about my own kind? Or is it in the environ — the women’s condition — which etch them on my mind?
I try hard. Yes, I do remember a few men whom I know closely. Who had suffered in life. Or are suffering. Of poverty, or disease, or circumstances. But their miseries I always ascribe either to fate or to their own failure. That’s not the case with women. Somehow I always find a man behind a suffering woman.