Society usually does not treats fortune tellers or psychics really well, especially when they are women. This story, smartly written in a humorous tone attempts at finding an answer. Another side note, not a thing would have changed if the word ‘Karachi’ was replaced by a ‘Delhi’ or a‘Mumbai’. It reminds us that irrespective of the political(ly) (created) tensions, the societies of the two conflicting countries are really not very different.
December 13th, 1986
The Pastor’s wife was due any day and Ali’s usual mischief – which invariably involved pelting the pastor’s window with pebbles until his wife threw the curtains open and threw cutlery at Ali’s rapidly retreating behind – had simmered down considerably. His mother had threatened to tie him to a chair and whack him with a belan, and Ali took his mother’s threats seriously. She always kept her word. When Ali had managed to secretly purchase tickets for the latest Bond film – one screening only, at Bambino, six pm sharp, only-for-adults-but-anyone-with-a-ticket-could-watch – his mother found out and tore up the tickets in front of him. She then put the shreds in his outstretched palm. The entire episode was a shame, really, considering how well thought and well executed Ali’s plan had been: He bought a bottle of coke for eight anas from Rashid Milk Corner every evening, gulped down the contents of the bottle in two minutes, then returned the glass bottle back to Rashid to get four anas back. The next day, he’d ask his mother for another eight anas. It took him twelve days to accumulate three rupees – that, added to the two rupees he had saved up from his measly pocket money, was enough for a ticket! But as Ali stepped out of his room wearing his shiny shoes, hair slicked back with Dippity-Do, a hint of cologne on his collar, he knew, as did the rest of the residents of 22 Mayfair, that his mother knew everything.
She knew that Nighat-from-the-third-floor had been getting it on with the headmaster of the YMCA school. She knew the right cure for Mrs Fernandes’ laryngitis – haldi doodh niharmoonh. And, she had arrived at 22 Mayfair three years ago knowing that only two reasons had prevented the 22 Mayfair Residential Committee from making a case for her eviction: the first being the fact that Niaz Begum – who was moving to the United States with her son, mashallah, alhamdulilah – was in urgent need of a responsible caretaker for her vacant apartment. The second, that Ali’s mother happened to be Niaz Begum’s niece, and the Residential Committee wouldn’t dare to question Begum’s bloodline without good reason. They tried, Ali’s mother knew, to stir up stories about how an unmarried woman with a young child would make people question 22 Mayfair’s spotless reputation. She also knew that Begum had told them, just as she was about to leave for the airport, that their new tenant was a widow. The day she moved into Begum’s ground floor apartment, young son in tow, the residents of 22 Mayfair had stood on their balconies and peeked through gauzy curtains, trying to catch a glimpse of their newest resident. They continued to watch her for several days, as if they had never seen a woman before, stealing casual glances through her partially opened front door or through a slit between carelessly shut drapes.
That morning, Ali’s mother knew, as she marched up the paan-stained staircase to the first floor – braid swishing behind her – that the pastor’s wife was going to go into labour that night. She could feel it in her bones. She rapped on the pastor’s door with her ring clad knuckles, steadying the sooji ka halwa in the crook of her left arm. For the expecting woman, of course. One must never go to one’s neighbour’s house empty handed. She thought back to the Christmas fruitcake she had thrown into the trash last year, and the box of halwa slipped just a little.
As the pastor opened the door – groggy-eyed, crusts of dried saliva around his mouth – she decided to deliver the news immediately.
‘But madam –’
‘No, no, don’t worry pastor!’ she cut him off, waving her arms about – she could, now that the box of halwa was in the hands of the flabbergasted pastor – ‘I will call Dr. Mehta myself. We will take her to Goolbai Maternity Home.’
She had woken up that morning with dread choking her, but that, of course, she did not tell the poor pastor, who had already begun to flap around like a flustered chicken. Instead, she did all she could in her capacity of a good neighbour and told the pastor, as she turned towards the staircase, to deposit his wife in Dr. Mehta’s care as soon as possible.
The pastor awoke his very pregnant wife and hastened to ring up the doctor, and Ali’s mother went back to her house satisfied that her job had been done. As she sat on the takht in her living room, waiting for her son to wake up so that she could take him to school, Nighat, on the floor right above, was flustered. She waddled towards her telephone – she had been the first in the building to get a personal phone installed – and rang up the convener of the 22 Mayfair Residential Committee.
‘I just overheard her, Riaz-ud-din sahib. She’s creating havoc again.’
‘Is she now?’
‘She’s riled up the poor pastor. He’s taking his wife to the maternity home. Who does she think she is?’
‘Call the others. We meet at lunch.’
The 22 Mayfair Residential Committee convened at five pm every Tuesday and was presided over by the wise and learned Professor Riaz-ud-din of Aligarh. He wasn’t really from Aligarh anymore, given that he had spent most of his life in Karachi. But because he never grew tired of narrating the story of his great migration and sacrifice in 1947 – and subsequently never stopped comparing Karachi with the great city of learning that he had come from – the name had stuck.
The Professor had ensured that the committee comprised of only wise-and-learned men such as himself. He had initially appointed Nazir Ahmed from the first floor as general secretary but once his questionable political allegiances became known, he had to be discharged. The vacant spot was then filled by the only woman to have ever been part of the committee in its short history. As general secretary, Nighat had the very-important responsibility of alerting the wise-and-learned members of the committee regarding the emergency meeting. As the men assembled in the Professor’s living room that afternoon, their convener seated himself on his haggard armchair – probably as old as himself, probably also from Aligarh – and addressed the gathering.
‘We are gathered here today, beneath the spectre of the Great General – heaven forbid he hear me,’ he paused to chortle at his joke. The Great General seemed to have heard him, for the chortle turned into a cough, and as he wheezed violently, slipping towards the edge of his chair, Rustom Dinshaw – the senile Parsi writer from the second floor who refused to sell his fifty-year-old car – whacked his choking friend’s back. He didn’t want a sudden death-due-to-asphyxiation to interrupt the proceedings.
‘Yes, yes, thank you Rustom. Back to business. We are here to discuss a matter of great importance.’
‘What matter of great importance, Riaz? Did the Parisian Bakery stop baking doughnuts?’ Rustom Dinshaw sneered, ‘Or did your stash of naughty magazines catch fire, you little babuchak?’
‘Careful now! We are in the presence of a lady and we have a matter of great importance to discuss,’ and as Professor roared, he sent showers of saliva upon the now hastily retreating writer.
When the room was finally silent, with all eyes on him, the Professor began.
‘It has come to my notice through a very reliable source,’ he gestured towards Nighat, quietly taking notes in the corner of the living room, her beige kameez blending into the furniture, ‘That the woman on the ground floor has been up to mischief again.’
As soon as his words escaped his mouth, the occupants of the room began waving their arms, shouting obscenities towards – but not at – each other, each worse than the one preceding it. For a fleeting moment, Nighat thought the old men in the room had suddenly, miraculously, regained the energetic virility of their youth, and that Ali’s mother really was a sorceress, as the members of the 22 Mayfair Residential Committee had proclaimed when she predicted – with great accuracy – the death of Rustom Dinshaw’s ailing wife. They had all seen it coming, and she had fought a long and hard battle with the disease-that-has-no-cure. But Ali’s mother said that she wouldn’t live a day beyond the 18th of February 1985. And that was the day she died.
Nighat, however, had altogether different reasons for despising her. Just six months ago, Ali’s mother had paid a visit to the Professor’s apartment and had asked him, very gently, to encourage young Nighat to engage in healthy pursuits – ‘The sort that would make her good parents proud’ – like reading Tolstoy or Chekhov, she suggested, and visiting the young headmaster of the YMCA school less frequently. But the Professor wouldn’t hear any of it; especially since Ali’s mother had suggested that Nighat read the Russians – the Russians! – despite knowing that the girl’s good parents were serving the country abroad and had left their adolescent daughter under the Professor’s watchful eye. The Professor dismissed Ali’s mother’s claims as ‘mischief’ designed to ‘divide and conquer’ the residents of 22 Mayfair – ‘Just like the British!’ But Nighat knew that the woman wasn’t wrong. She had, in fact, been sleeping with the headmaster of the YMCA school. Nighat was good at everything she did – her father had always said, ‘Whatever you do, do it well,’ – and so, she had covered her trail with perfection and it would have been impossible for anyone – anyone – to know that she went to the headmaster’s house between two pm and four pm thrice a week.
But somehow, for some God-forsaken reason, Ali’s mother knew. Of course she knew! She made no effort to hide her knowledge of Nighat’s exploits, either. In fact, she had the nerve – the nerve! – to knock on her door with a bowl of sheer khurma on Eid. ‘Nighat jaan,’ she had called her. Nighat almost spat as she thought about it, scratching the spot on her elbow where Ali’s mother had touched her.
She shifted attention back towards the old men in the room, who were now in a heated argument over Rustom Dinshaw’s car – the owner believed his car was a vintage heirloom and the Professor roared with laughter, his obscene belly bobbing as his body shook, sinking deeper into the chintz armchair. Nighat wondered how someone so frail could possibly have such a large stomach. She also realised, at that very moment, that she was a good three decades younger than the men in the room. ‘Nighat!’ the Professor interrupted her thoughts. ‘What is that woman’s name?’
‘Look up the allotment registration papers!’ quipped Rustom Dinshaw, determined to make the Professor sound like an idiot.
‘But she doesn’t own the house you fool. She just lives there with her rascal of a son and makes our lives miserable. Like those squatters in Kemari, polluting the environment with their shit.’
But what was her name, Nighat wondered. Nighat knew that Ali’s mother cooked pulao on Saturdays because she always gave a dish to Mrs. Ansari next door. She knew Ali studied at the YMCA school – third grade – and that is how his mother knew that Nighat had been getting it on with the headmaster. Nighat also knew that Ali’s mother probably wasn’t a bad woman, even though making her sound like one was convenient for Nighat, as well as for everyone else. She knew too that not much would change after the 22 Mayfair Residential Committee adjourned, and that the four old men would eventually trudge back to their dim apartments, remove their dentures and sink into their beds.
When Ali’s mother rushed up to the pastor’s apartment that evening, he shook his head and told her that his wife was perfectly fine. The Professor had told him to pay no heed to the stories Ali’s mother spun, and the pastor respected his elders. He shook his head as Ali’s mother wrung her hands and begged him to listen to her. He shook his head as she told him that she knew, and that she had known when she had woken up that morning.
When the pastor’s wife did go into labour that night, riots had consumed the city and hospitals were short on staff. And as she bled out onto the table in the empty maternity home, dread settled into the pit of Ali’s mother’s stomach and made its home there. As the pastor ran barefoot onto Elphinstone Street, shards of broken class scattered across the pavement digging into the calloused soles of his feet, he banged on doors that never opened. As he cried out for a doctor or a nurse or a midwife or anyone who’d listen and help, nobody heard him, and those who did thought he was a madman. As Nighat stood by her bedside, dialing every number she knew – sweat dripping from her neck onto the neckline of her kurta, wisps of damp hair sticking to her forehead – nobody answered because Karachi’s frail telephone grid had collapsed. As the Professor stood by his window and watched the fabric of his city unravelling into a thousand fibres, each fibre dripping with blood, he knew then, that the woman had known all along. And as bodies piled up in morgues, Ali’s mother locked her front door for the last time.
‘Let us go,’ she whispered.
‘Where mama?’ murmured her son.
She turned her face towards the burning city, and led the way.