From Sab Afsānay Meray (All My Stories) by Hajra Masroor
Translated from the Urdu by Jaideep Pandey
Wrapped in a black silk burqa, with the niqab pulled over her head, she stood at the train ticket window, somewhat surprised. It was 11:30 at night. Only fifteen minutes remained until the train’s arrival. But the ticket window was still shut. She was exhausted from looking at the window which showed no signs of opening. She looked around herself. Hundreds of people were sleeping like corpses on the floor and on the benches, as if none of them really had to travel.
She slowly turned to the porter who was carrying her small briefcase and her bedding on his head.
“Quli, hasn’t the ticket window opened yet?
“This train is always late,” the porter sank his dim, sole eye deep into her beautiful face, while his other rotten eye’s sunken eyelid started fluttering at its own uselessness.
“So where should I sit?” It was as if she was asking herself. She glanced once more at all the poor people scattered around her.
“Sit right here!”
“Here?” She felt as if her silk burqa, her beautiful face, and her delicate baggage had no effect on the porter.
Her heart sank at the thought, and she silently looked towards the half-dark, blackish road, over which a dirty light crawled, emitted from the musty kerosene lamps of the few horse-drawn carriages that were noisily plying the road. Her thoughts immediately ran towards her current situation. What am I at this point? In the eyes of the onlookers, I am definitely a rich, progressive girl from a prosperous family. But really, I am just a capable but troubled girl from a destroyed family. Exactly like the dimmed lamps of the carriages.
“I am putting down your luggage right here then,” the porter said.
“No, I won’t sit here,” she said rather angrily, staring into the darkness again. The grating noise of boots came from the road, and then a quivering shadow appeared. Under the station lights, she saw that a decent-looking young man, in a heavy overcoat, was walking towards her. She thought that maybe the sahib was coming to buy a ticket. She inadvertently smiled. Tightening the knot of his tie, the young man threw a fleeting glance at her, and walked towards the back of the ticket window.
The girl’s half-smile disappeared as she quickly pinched her lips. Must be some rich, spoiled guy! Why would he come here to buy a ticket for the third-class compartment?
“I will put the luggage down then and leave?” the porter said, irritated with the girl’s silence.
“Shut up! I would never, ever sit here,” she said, raising her voice.
Suddenly, that same young man came out from behind the ticket window.
“Quli, why don’t you take her to the women’s inter-class waiting room?” the young man said.
“That waiting room is too far! Who will come all this way again to buy my ticket when the window opens?” The girl was still addressing the porter.
“Do you want a ticket for the second class or inter-class?” It was as if the young man, too, was asking the porter.
For a moment, she was dumbstruck. Her shapely body shuddered as though it had caught a current.
“Quli, let’s go!” she said in a commanding voice, ignoring the man’s question.
She strode up ahead and the porter followed. Her high-heeled sandals were making a strange noise against the floor. The young man remained rooted to the same spot and looked on with interest as her body swayed on top of her high-heeled sandals.
The girl drew a deep breath after entering the waiting room. The porter arranged the luggage on one side.
“My payment, memsahab?” the porter said, impressed by her leather purse.
“You won’t get it right now,” she said, standing in front of the dressing mirror, wiping off her sweat in the bone-chilling cold of January.
“Why?” The porter’s face fell.
“You’ll take it all at once, alright? You have to load my luggage onto the train too. And listen, as soon as the ticket window opens, tell me, alright? You will get more money.”
The porter left, wrapping his turban around his coconut shaped head. And the girl, instead of sitting down, started pacing up and down the room. On the bench in front of her, a body, wrapped in a blanket, shivered.
How strange! she exclaimed to herself. These damned men always appear at the wrong moment! He even did the whole “second class or inter-class” bit. How is he to know that these things are all I have in the world? This briefcase and bedding are relics of better times. The leather purse was a gift from a friend, and this burqa I took from my aunt the last time I saw her, because if other women saw me in a dirty, ragged burqa, they would just take up all the space.
It was only in the afternoon today that she received a letter about her paternal uncle’s illness. Mother had thought that it would be nice if someone from the family would visit him. Otherwise, they would say that after the death of their brother, they took such good care of their sister-in-law, nieces and nephews and didn’t think twice before sending money out of gratitude; but it was they who weren’t good companions in bad times. That was enough for her, and she got ready to go. Who knew how long her mother had been saving three rupees, which she gave to her and said, “Take Aqeel, your brother, along with you. He is a child, but he is a boy, after all!” This very behavior of hers burns me like poison. What does she think girls are? Am I a piece of candy that someone would eat me up, and only out of fear of Aqeel, throw me back up?
“But Salma and Razia are also girls. Look at how easily and with what fun they travel alone!” To this her mother said, “They are the daughters of a high and mighty family.”
“Does that mean they should travel with a coterie of servants? Besides, we are poor, and travel is expensive even for one. So what in the world is the use of this tiny protector of mine?” She had to argue with her mother for hours. Only then could she finally get rid of little Aqeel.
She was startled by the sound of coughing. The pile of blankets unraveled, and a wrinkled old face with hair white like the wings of a heron appeared in front of her. From her loose frock, to her swept-up hair and hat on a trunk, she looked like an old Christian woman.
The girl cast a harsh critical gaze on that shriveled and dried-up old body, and then started mourning its boring company. If only, instead of this old crone who lay as still as a pond, there were a young woman as restless as the sea, who would look at her glowing face in that silky burqa with jealousy!
The old woman looked at the girl who started fumbling for something under her pillow. “Where are you going, my child?” she asked her while yawning, revealing her terrifying toothless mouth, which looked like a deep, dark cave.
“Agra,” the girl lied. She was embarrassed to say the name of her virtually unknown destination. Not only did it sound strange, it was also meaningless.
The old woman pulled out and lit a long cigarette from her cigarette case, and, putting the blanket on her legs, started drawing long drags off it. The room filled with stifling, endless smoke, which the girl choked on.
Quietly and completely still, she looked at the old woman, in whose dried-up fingers, the cigarette was spewing a copious amount of smoke. At that moment, she looked exactly like the risen dead, who had been handed a cigarette by their tormentor.
“My worries have reached their limits,” the cartoon-like woman mumbled, and looked at her as though she wanted to deposit her worries onto the girl who was continuously tapping the table with her finger, feeling irritated.
“Girls today have become very selfish,” she continued, again addressing the girl.
“Old women have been saying this since forever,” the girl said in a biting tone.
The old woman suddenly flicked away the cigarette butt and started fiddling with her hair. She looked extremely restless. She lit another.
“My daughter— I educated her—”
“That was your duty,” the girl interrupted.
“I chose the best possible husband for her.” She sunk her neck into her chest for emphasis.
“It is possible that in her eyes, he was the worst choice,” the girl shot back. She spoke as though she were the daughter’s biggest advocate. She tried hard to ignore the woman’s stories, because they were built on mere allegations.
Irritated, the old woman drew drag after drag from her cigarette. She seemed very angry at the girl’s quick wit. At this point, she only wanted to ease her heavy heart by emphasizing her daughter’s selfishness. If she could have had her way, she would have thrown out this young woman sitting across from her. Oblivious to her anger, the girl, in turn, was thinking, the only solution for the constant bellyaching of old people is by way of science: either all the old people turn young, or all the youth into the old.
The porter returned to the room and informed the girl that the ticket window had opened. She went out with him, looking around nervously to make sure the young man didn't see her buying a third-class ticket. What would he think? But he was nowhere to be found. Relieved, the girl bought her ticket.
The screeching train ran onto the platform. As the girl followed the porter out of the waiting room, she immediately noticed the same young man flamboyantly smoking a cigarette, peering at her.
Now what? She thought and started walking away very quickly. She came upon the women’s compartment where the loud chatter of women and the jingling of their jewelry could be heard, like prisoners accustomed to their cells, clanging their handcuffs and chains. On top of that, the men were yelling after the women. One yelled: “Munnī kī ammāñ! Make sure the luggage isn’t lost!” Another man, in this apocalyptic moment, was screaming his guts out: “Be careful! Don’t you dare lift that veil!”
The girl’s porter was figuring out how to navigate the crowd of men hanging around the compartment door, when another army of men and women charged at the compartment from behind them, and the poor girl got trapped in the middle. A woman in the crowd stretched out her arm from inside her burqa, her wrists handcuffed in silver bangles, and seeing that the girl was frozen in the path, shoved her with all her might. The girl stumbled but caught hold of herself, and for a moment wanted to shred that woman’s embroidered burqa into pieces and run away—or perhaps push her under the train. But she looked straight ahead and found the same young man was still standing there, smiling.
“Hey, you quli, why did you bring me here?” she yelled out forcefully, somehow managing to get out of the crowd with him. She started pacing the platform again. In front of her eyes, several hundred dirty and ragged burqas fluttered around like balloons. If only she too was wearing such a burqa! Then nobody would have smiled at her sarcastically. Her heart throbbed as she once again read through the labels on the compartment doors for no particular reason.
“First... Second... Inter... Women’s interclass—” She stopped abruptly and read them all over again. The compartment suddenly felt like a shade tree offering shelter from the tempestuous rain. Without a second thought, she opened the door and entered the compartment, while the porter stood outside in complete shock.
“Bring in the luggage,” she said with a charming smile. The porter complied while staring at her with his one good eye, as if trying to peer into the innermost part of her. The girl had him figured out. She opened her purse and extended a glittering 50 paisa coin towards him. The porter’s face, which had sunk completely on account of his disgust, lit up again. The worker wanted his wage. What did he care about any of these other affairs? He rubbed the coin between his fingers, delighted that the wage for carrying such light luggage could actually be a full 50 paisa.
The porter hopped off the train as it whistled, and her dark red lips curled into a satisfied smile. She stood quietly with her back against the door, and saw that the young man, with his hands stuffed in his overcoat pockets, was still looking very sweetly at her.
The train moved, and the young man ran up ahead to another compartment. The shops, stalls and porters on the station flew past her. For a long while, she continued to stare at the station lights, which were now glowing like fireflies in the dark night. Finally, her vision dimmed in the pitch-black night until she could no longer see anything. She now turned her attention to the compartment. She saw two women sitting, wrapped in colorful blankets, with huge boxes and giant bundles of clothes spread around them, leaving no room for anyone else to sit. Next to them sat an emaciated woman, breastfeeding her child. Close to her sat another child, perhaps two or three years old, whining and grumbling. He was completely shriveled, the skin peeling off his hands and feet, as if he were born straight into old age.
A strange despondency hung around the compartment. Tired, the girl sat down on one of the empty seats. The train stopped at a small station, and the girl’s heart started beating very fast. What if someone checks my ticket? She felt squeamish. A few minutes later, the train started moving again, and the girl thought to herself, What is even the point of this gilding if it can be scraped off so easily? There are both rich and poor in the world. Why should I be so affected by a man in an expensive overcoat?
The morning light had started creeping into the sky, and the subdued stars were now shimmering. The train stopped at yet another station. The girl thrust her head out of the door and read the station’s name. Her intended destination was near.
The sleeping women all awoke. They were yawning and talking amongst themselves in a language from another province. None of them took notice of the girl, as though they didn’t consider her black burqa to have any real value against their own dark faces. The girl dragged her luggage towards the door because her station was next. The train stopped, and she quickly pushed her holdall onto the platform, and then jumped off the train with her briefcase. It was a small station and the train would only stop there for two minutes.
As the departing train whistled, she paused to cast a farewell gaze at the young man. She thought he would surely get off at another station, and was very happy with herself for having successfully hidden her penury from him. But she was dumbstruck when she saw him standing only a short distance from her, bidding farewell to a man inside the train. Startled, the girl immediately called out for a porter. An old man came towards her, rubbing his eyes, and after taking her luggage, they started walking.
What a strange coincidence, she thought, that he too had to get off at this station. She almost ran to cross through the station gate before him, so that she could hide her third-class ticket. But when she reached the gate, she saw that he was already there, and he had seen her. The girl couldn’t bring herself to reveal her ticket, which felt like it weighed a hundred pounds. She hesitated for a moment, but in the end had to accept her defeat. Exhausted, she exited the station, and at that moment, it felt as though she had crossed an entire sea without getting so much as a drop of water on her clothes but had slipped right at the shore, becoming completely drenched. She could no longer see the young man anywhere. Perhaps she no longer held any stature in his eyes. The realization pained her chest. She sat on a rickshaw and cried.
She was welcomed with enthusiasm at her uncle’s house, only because she had travelled all by herself to inquire after his health. But she appeared rather cold in front of the warm enthusiasm of her uncle’s family. After much insistence, she gulped down a cup of tea as if it were a cup of medicine, and then went out onto the balcony to soak in the sun. Her cousin followed her there. She was an ignorant and stupid girl, whose blunders were proudly presented as innocence by her family.
“Sister! What a nice burqa you were wearing!” She had enthusiastically brought her own burqa from downstairs with her.
The girl didn’t respond, and in the sunlight glared at the burqa with raging eyes, and then anxiously began pacing back and forth on the long, wide balcony. Upon hearing praise of the burqa, she was reminded of all the incidents from her journey, which she desperately wanted to erase from her mind.
Her cousin stood there wearing the burqa.
“It looks so good! I will also get one made exactly like this!” She would always say she wanted to get a similar one for herself whenever she saw a nice dress, but was rarely able to do so.
Walking around, the girl peered into the neighboring house to distract herself from her thoughts. She saw—
In a courtyard plastered with cow dung, on a bamboo cot, someone lay asleep, wearing a loincloth and soaking in the sun. A pack of beedies and a matchbox sat on the bed near the man’s head. Under a covering made out of hay, an older woman was rolling out thick, coarse millet rotis.
The man turned on his side, which caused the girl’s heart to pound violently in her chest.
It was the man from the station! Suddenly, their eyes met, but he quickly turned away. The expensive overcoat hung on a hook under the hay roof.
“Bitto, who lives in this house?” the girl asked her cousin, who was wearing the burqa and still admiring herself in it.
“A widow and her son. He studies in the city. Poor thing—she is a very simple woman. She tailors all of our clothes. But to tell you the truth, she charges very little.”
Standing in the bright sun, the girl stared at her burqa.
Jaideep Pandey is a graduate student with the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is interested in networks of translations and Islamicate modernities across Urdu, Hindi, Persian and Arabic, as well as questions of cosmopolitanism, world literatures, and gender as they crisscross these geographies. Before starting graduate school, he studied and taught in English and Gender Studies departments in Delhi, India.