Zahida Begum of Sohnipat, Haryana, Hindustan, remembered distinctly her name, even recognized faces as well as anyone could, but sometimes forgot that her husband was dead. Other times, she forgot she ever even had a husband. Last summer, when she began waking up before the sun and the muezzin-and certainly not to pray Fajr-one could not tell if, on any particular day, Zahida had woken up with the memory of a dead or alive husband, or whether there was any memory of him at all.
It was Zahida’s caretaker who was perhaps the most adept at identifying what the deceased husband’s status would be on a chosen day; nights of staying awake with the old lady and arguing in the early mornings over cups of chai had honed her skills to perfection. Still, it was not purely a guessing game-Zahida was quite generous with hints. On days the husband had been resurrected by Zahida, she would ask for breakfast to be served to two people instead of one. All went as normal on the mornings that the husband was understood to be laid to rest. But the worst mornings befell the four walls of Sarwar Road 305, Lahore, Pakistan, 56000, when Zahida remembered neither the life nor death of a husband, and instead thought of herself as an eligible, single woman. On these occasions, the breakfast was instructed to be served to the suitors who had come with the intent of asking Zahida’s hand in marriage and whom Zahida greatly wished to please.
Even though the old lady really tested her patience sometimes, especially when she woke up at 3 a.m. and asked for chai, the young caretaker tried not to complain. She liked her job; it was better than any other place she had worked before. There was plenty of free time for her to watch TV and talk on the phone when Zahida was knocked out on sleeping pills. Zahida’s daughter, who was the actual employer, was good to her for the most part. She was also allowed to sleep till late in the daytime following Zahida’s hard nights. It was a good situation, for the most part, and the caretaker was bent on making it work.
Zahida, however, was often irked by how little the young woman understood or cared about the differences in their respective positions in the household. A mere servant-girl telling Zahida she was wrong was too strong a blow to be endured by anyone of her stature. After all, her father had been a jailer, who knew how to put these chotay log in their place, and she was a jailer-ki-beti with enough experience to not be fooled by the likes of the young woman.
The caretaker had been with Zahida for four years when Zaheeda’s husband, Hassan first began to slip from her memory. It was she who had first noticed that forgetting the husband was becoming a frequent occurrence. When Zahida asked if the husband was fed breakfast the first few times, the caretaker thought she was alluding to the daughter’s husband, and answered in the affirmative. It was only when she asked the caretaker to leave the room for the night to give Zahida and her husband some privacy, that the caretaker realized what was going on.
Zahida was adamant that night that the caretaker could not sleep in the room. Besharam, she called her. Why wouldn’t she leave? Baffled, the caretaker had left to give Zahida enough time to fall asleep before she could sneak in again. After the two-hour mark, and endless games of Candy Crush, the caretaker decided it was safe to return. She found Zahida sitting on her bed, fire in her eyes. It seemed as if the husband had never come. Churail! Zahida hurled her TV remote at the caretaker and missed, and continued her verbal onslaught. It seemed that Zahida suspected the caretaker had something to do with the husband standing her up-for she was young, and Zahida an old lady. The caretaker had no choice but to sleep outside that night.
No one really knew what was wrong with Zahida. The closest diagnosis the doctors gave was some form of dementia, but emphasized that her symptoms still did not quite fit the usual description since Zahida remembered everything and everyone, just no longer knew where everything was in her timeline. All anyone knew was that, one random day, Zahida had woken up and stopped praying. Then, she had claimed that one of her sons-in-law was having an affair, but did not name any names. Her daughters were all on edge that week, in fear that Zahida would name their respective husbands. It was only when Zahida slapped her assumedly favorite daughter that the realization suddenly dawned upon everyone that Zahida could not have been in the right headspace to do such a thing.
It was soon after this incident that Zahida had begun waking up before the sun and the muezzin, but still unabashedly skipped her prayers. It was only a couple of days later when the husband was brought back to life.
Her daughters tried to get Zahida to pray again for they felt, practically, that it would bring some routine back to Zahida’s life, but, secretly, that Allah would fix everything. They would subtly remind her when the azaan went off, or make it a point to announce that they were going off to pray. But, Zahida took to nothing. If she was asked whether she had offered her prayers, she would simply answer in the affirmative, and no one really knew how to respond to that. Just like no one knew how to respond to her when she said that her husband was alive. No one had it in them to break the news of death every day, not even the caretaker.
Zahida had not always lived with her daughter and her family. It was a few years after Hasan’s death that she was left with no choice but to move in with her eldest daughter. The new town was starkly different from the one she was accustomed to, with its neatly laid out roads and beautifully painted houses. But, Zahida barely left the house, and the four walls of a room all began to look the same if you waited long enough.
Zahida was given her own private room with an ensuite bathroom. It comforted her to know she would still be able to retain her privacy. The caretaker was hired specifically for Zahida, and slept in the room with the old lady to assist with any bathroom trips during the night-her bad knees no longer allowed her to get up or walk by herself. It was the knees that had forced Zahida to sell her quaint house in Iqbal Town, and move to her daughter’s, all the way across the city, in the first place. The doctors declared that a knee transplant would be difficult to recover from, considering her weight and age. They let the family know they were sorry they could not do more, but that these were going to be the knees Zahida died with.
Everyone knew why the house was really sold: there was no money to pay for Zahida’s cataract operations, which could be avoided no longer. Despite the grandchildren’s clamoring anger and Zahida’s breaking heart, the house was sold. After all, her eyes were more important than her heart; they allowed her to see instead of feel, and the code of conduct for widows clearly stated that feeling was a task that Zahida could no longer have the privilege of worrying about.
Right after Zahida moved out, the buyers tore down the little house with the green gate to rebuild it. It came as no surprise to anyone that the house had simply refused to exist without Zahida. Many had left before; the husband, her daughters, the servants who came and went, but the lady of the house had always been there; preparing feasts, hosting guests, fighting with her husband, and watching TV. With her finally leaving, the house had no reason to stay, and it, too, disappeared, never to be found again.
In the years following her husband’s death, before she had to move in with her daughter, Zahida had gone on living as usual in her little house in Iqbal Town with, of course, the companionship of a domestic servant. It was during those years as a newly-widowed woman that she once again began to lament the absence of a son; if she had a son, she would be able to live with him. She would no longer have to make ends meet. No more trips to the grocery stores on rickshaws. A widow’s pension could only afford her so much at the end of the day.
The son would, as custom quite strictly dictated, take care of his mother in her old age. And a widowed mother? There was no question of what the code of conduct for sons said about a son’s responsibility in the matter. But, Allah had given her four daughters instead, and for any son-less exceptions such as this particular instance, custom was, of course, silent.
Naturally, the son-less Zahida had to default to her daughters: when the time came, the eldest daughter took up the responsibility, and cleared out a room for Zahida in her own home. The irony of the situation was not lost on Zahida for she could never have imagined living in one of her daughters’ houses, as a dependent on any one son-in-law-whom she did indeed love more than her daughters, for they were the sons she never had. But, to live in someone else’s house! A daughter’s! An unimaginable thought! And, suddenly, Zahida’s new reality.
The first few years at her daughter’s were plagued by inept eyes and failing knees, slips in the bathroom, and a burning longing for her home that could never be snuffed out. Zahida was comfortable in the roles she had to play in the house. She was an excellent widow, an even better grandmother, and an appraised mother and mother-in-law. She had to admit, however, that she missed being a homemaker-not wife, never wife, but, homemaker-which she saw as the highest position of authority one could hold.
It was true that Zahida, in her married days, exercised a great degree of independence in running her own household, which is also why the possibility of being demoted to a secondary matriarch in one of her daughters’ houses terrified her. Her husband had never interfered in matters of the house, and she in his, and the couple had both preferred it to be that way. In fact, the couple liked to stay out of each other’s way so much that they had separate bedrooms-the husband moved upstairs-as soon as the daughters were all married off.
Zahida’s marriage itself had only been as good as any arranged marriages can be or any marriage really. They shared the usual incompatibility and divergence of interests; she was a domestic at heart who enjoyed cooking, being around her family, and having her husband come straight home from work in the evening. Her husband, on the other hand, was more a socialite than he ever was a banker. He mostly shared his evening cup of tea with high society- top Lollywood movie stars and singers among the lot-while Zahida simply took her evening cup in the comfort of her lounge. His evening cups of tea became the bane of Zahida’s existence, and hers, the only sustenance. They both knew well that the elite school educated man was rather ill-suited for his simpleton wife from Krishanagar.
Although a loyal husband, Zahida’s husband enjoyed the company of females-in a strictly platonic way, of course-and that irritated Zahida who, although perfect in all other accounts, was an inherently suspicious partner. It was for this reason that she liked for her husband to come home right after work; any later and the two were certain to fight that night. This particular side of Zahida, however, was restricted to her husband and her four daughters. And, the help, of course.
The sole financer and benefactor of his wife and four daughters, Zahida’s husband was naturally responsible for making all decisions that members of society had collectively ordained as important. So, while he was the one who chose, rather arbitrarily, eligible suitors for his four daughters, Zahida was the sole and masterful architect of the trolley of chai items that the suitor’s family would be greeted with upon their arrival.
As it happened, the chai trolley played a rather significant role in the matchmaking business, even more so than the girl in question being married. It was a known fact that the suitor’s family had only a window of time where the girl serves tea to them to confer judgment about her character, and time permitting, about her suitability-to the boy, yes. But the family she would marry into must also be a good fit. That was equally important, if not more.
The art of putting together an appropriate chai trolley for such occasions was one that was perhaps dying with Zahida’s generation, she thought. Even her daughters did not care to learn. Zahida maintained that to create a successful chai trolley, one had to have the right balance between home-cooked items, to demonstrate domestic prowess of course, and store-bought bakery items, which signified a degree of affluence. The chai itself, the indubitable showstopper, must also be the right color; enough milk to indicate an ease with use of milk, but not so much that the other person concluded that the art of chai-making was being undermined.
A great connoisseur of chai herself-devouring her morning and evening cups as promptly as clockwork, Zahida took pride in the tea ranks of her household, and, so, did not concern herself with any feelings of insecurity on that front. But, ever since her eldest daughter’s engagement broke off, Zahida knew her tea alone would no longer suffice to overcome the abiding stain of a called-off engagement. It was fortune’s blessing, and her daughters’ luck, that Zahida had her unparalleled amiability to fall back on. The husband found the matches, but it was always Zahida who sealed the deal with her pure Hindustani behaviour, the kind one could not find easily anymore.
Zahida found praise quickly wherever she went. Acclaim for her hospitable nature reverberated from Krishanagar to Iqbal Town; not a single person who made her acquaintance could help but acknowledge her good-natured disposition.
She had never spoken to her husband before they married, but all of her husband’s friends and family raved about her to the young groom. She has authentic Hindustani tehzeeb, they said. Zahida’s father-in-law was especially taken by her, much to the dislike of her sisters-in-law.
“Jadoo” he would endearingly call her, “Now I understand why they call you Krishanabad.” And, the new bride could not help but smile at the sound of it.
Krishanabad roughly translated to ‘cultivator of Krishan’, and was used to say, in a more poetic yet complicated way, that, growing up, Zahida was the soul of Krishanagar, her hometown. Her mother despised the title, for she thought it brought too much attention to the young, beautiful girl, but Zahida wore it proudly, just as she wore her thick hair in a meticulously done braid that reached all the way down to her hips.
When, a few years after the Great Partition, her hometown was officially renamed Islampura, for reasons beyond Zahida’s comprehension, it was thought, at least in her household and especially in Zahida’s mind, that Zahida’s nickname alone kept the town’s essence alive.
Following the name change, there were some, like Zahida, for whom it was still the land of Krishna, the Hindu God, just as Hindustan was still the homeland for those, who like Zahida’s family, had migrated to the other side. Others did not seem to care what the town was called, but some cared too much, and were intent on calling it Islampura-the city of Islam- as a reminder to everyone that all the land on this side of the border had converted, willingly or not, to a new religion. Zahida’s uncle, who was a poet and an intellectual-which was just another way of saying unemployed-laughed uncontrollably when they announced the name change:
“They wanted to get rid of the Hindu-ness of the town, but little do they know that ‘pura’ is of Vedic origin too.”
He laughed and laughed, all the while penning some vulgar couplets about it that he would divulge to the shopkeepers at his evening strolls through the Bazaar. He let Zahida in on the ones most appropriate for young girls, and Zahida laughed with him-on the couplets, of course-even though she neither knew what pura was nor understood what Vedic meant.
Zahida only knew that the old man, who appeared on the corner of Bheem Road a year before the name change and had stayed there since, told the story of the name change better than anyone else; gesticulating with his arms stretched, he narrated the story of giant masses of people reciting the Kalamah and declaring their faith in one God and His prophet. Zahida had once seen him tell the story on her trip to the bazaar.
When he spoke of the weeping Hindu Gods who, betrayed by their own newly-converted lands, had to leave behind everything and migrate to the other side-the Hindu side-the storyteller attempted an exaggerated, thunderous wail that made the neighborhood kids laugh so much they let him have their daily allowance, a few coins in total. Zahida liked that the storyteller had no qualms accepting the children’s money, for storytelling was his bread and butter, and she liked that he acknowledged her with a slight nod of the head every time they crossed paths.
The story of the weeping Hindu Gods always took place in the temple that was rumored to have existed all the way down on Pando Street, but which no one had ever found any evidence for. According to the storyteller, the temple had collapsed under the burgeoning grief of the Gods, never to be found again.
One day, the storyteller died. No one had even noticed he was missing until, one day, in the children of the neighborhood had set out in search of him , their coins clunking against each other in their drenched muslin pockets, ready to be exchanged for stories.
The storyteller was eventually found dead in an alley, soaking and unbothered, not too far away from Zahida’s house. It was after his death that a lot of people found out that he had no family; stories about the storyteller’s origin were all anyone talked about for exactly one week. Some suggested he had been separated from his family during the partition, and had slept and eaten at a nearby shrine of a saint. Someone who referred to himself as the storyteller’s friend, whom no one had ever seen before the funeral, maintained that the storyteller was, in fact, from a very rich and reputable family of Lahore, but no one believed him. Even Zahida didn’t believe this when she heard it, for everyone knew that men who told stories on the streets could not be from reputable families.
The storyteller’s funeral was held at Baba Ground and was well-attended. The kids-his faithful audience-showed up. Zahida did not go, for young women were not allowed to frequent funerals. That, too, of strange, story-telling men. Her older brothers went. She wanted to know if the Hindu Gods had attended the funeral but was too embarrassed to ask them.
Soon, the town moved on; the kids were on to newer acts and antics-there was a magician who made a coin appear from their noses, and the town stopped caring about the origins of the storyteller. It was during those days that Zahida became certain there were some things she knew better than others, and this was definitely one of them: the shelf-life of the dead was shorter than any other item in this world, and would not last, even a single day, on her chai trolley. It expired immediately, and Zahida knew that if it was not thrown out, it would quickly begin to stink up the place.
Even decades after the Partition, when Zahida had gone from a young girl to a grandmother, she would often narrate the story of the weeping Gods to her grandchildren-without the wail, of course-who, fascinated, spent hot summer evenings on the streets of Krishanagar in search of the hidden temple. Zahida indulged them even though she knew the temple was never to be found again. And, every time Zahida told the story, she thought of the poor storyteller who had died quietly, under the pelting monsoon downpour of Lahore. Zahida was amenable to the idea of dying quietly, but feared the possibility of being remembered only fleetingly.
This was why every time someone in her life passed away-the first significant loss being that of her mother-Zahida always thought of the storyteller who was only mourned for one short week. It terrified her to think that mourning adequately, too, was an art that would eventually die with her. Throughout her life, Zahida mourned each loss with relentless grief. She was only fourteen when her mother passed away, but, even then, Zahida made sure her the memory of her death was an oil lamp that never went out. Especially in her old age, Zahida had had to mourn a significant amount as people around her passed onto the next life, and, truthfully, sometimes she got tired of it.
When her husband died, Zahida did not feel the magnitude of loss that people wanted her to feel. Still, she mourned in the manner that best suited a wife. Zahida made sure all rites of death were honored. She made certain that she was following all the widow laws of mourning. She cried at every mention of the husband, even if she did not want to. In fact, sometimes, she even wailed, if the occasion demanded it. She remained in the house to complete the required period of iddat. She wore dull colors, and no lipstick. She visited the graveyard every week, and fulfilled all the religious requirements for death anniversaries.
Now, in her husband-forgetting days, seventy years had passed since the Partition. Zahida remembered Sohnipat more than Krishanagar on some days and Krishanagar more than Sohnipat on others, and often reversed and un-reversed the Partition as per her whim. It was these places she would ask to be taken to in her phases of outburst. The daughters drove her around aimlessly, making excuse one after another, about why it was taking so long. They waited until the medicine kicked in and drove her back to Sarwar Road.
Zahida had little sense of time now; she would ask to eat breakfast at three in the morning, sleep through the day, and stay up all night talking to a growing list of dead visitors- many whose funerals Zahida had attended, many of whom she had appropriately mourned. Of course, she still retained her second-nature hospitality, and asked for an impressive breakfast to be served to her empty room of guests.
The caretaker indulged Zahida as much she possibly could, but everything spiraled out of control when, one day, in the middle of the night, Zahida flung the AC remote at the caretaker. The caretaker thought maybe Zahida needed to go to the bathroom, and quickly got up to put on the lights. When she turned around, she witnessed Zahida’s face rabid with anger. ‘Randi aurat’ were the first words Zahida spoke before the glass of water came straight at the caretaker, but only made it halfway through the room before it splattered on the carpet.
Zahida was arguing with someone that the caretaker obviously could not see; it seemed that the husband was alive on this particular day. It turned out that Zahida was angry at her husband because she, once again, suspected him of cheating on her with the caretaker. She maligned the caretaker’s character in words that rung in the mind of anyone who heard them.
Fights with the husband, and, consequently, attacks on the caretaker became a regular feat in the house. The caretaker was barred from entering the room when her suspicions flared up. The husband was screamed at; she spoke through gritted teeth, always directing her anger at the ceiling as if the husband still lived upstairs, and talked about all the women she had, in the course of their marriage, suspected of having an affair with her husband. Sometimes, to make headway in her fight, Zahida would even start hitting herself.
Zahida’s daughter tried to calm her down during her episodes, but nothing worked in her phases of rage-filled outbursts. If she was offered medicine, she would accuse the offered, no matter who it was, of trying to kill her. She took the pills and tossed them across the room. The caretaker was left with no choice but to dissolve the medicine in Zahida’s chai. Soon, Zahida picked up on that as well, and refused all food and drink. The family eventually realized there was nothing they could do but wait for her to tire herself out.
Naturally, the caretaker got tired of the everyday hassle, packed her bags, and left. Zahida’s daughter begged her to stay; she offered to double her salary, give her longer vacations, whatever she needed, but the caretaker could not be persuaded. . She knew Zahida’s situation would only get worse from here on. She expressed how selfish and sorry she felt, but that she could not retract her decision and that it was best for all parties involved that someone else be hired for Zahida.
Zahida remained unaffected by the change. As long as someone helped her to the bathroom, she was fine without having to worry about that dirty, husband-seducing tramp. When her daughters tried to talk to her about her unacceptable behavior, Zahida knew that they would never understand. And, so, she sat there-with or without the caretaker-hosting conversations with guests that had come exclusively to see her. To drink chai with her and to keep her company. Guests she hadn’t seen in quite a while and with whom Zahida had a lot of catching up to do. In fact, with that seductress gone, there were even lesser interruptions to Zahida’s daily life. She alone could be the center of attention in her room.
The daughters kept trying to tell her about some disease that made you think certain things that were not there; that Abbu was dead, and Sohnipat was in another country now. But, no matter what anyone said, there were still some things Zahida Begum of Sohnipat was certain she knew better than others, and this was one of them: the voices were real, the voices were real, the voices were real.
Zuneera Shah, born and raised in Lahore, is an aspiring writer currently based in Cambridge, MA. A fourth-year undergraduate, Zuneera studies Political Science and Gender Studies and hopes to work in development after graduating. Apart from fiction, Zuneera pens opinion pieces on sociopolitical issues. Zuneera is currently working on her first collection of short stories.