After we buried my mother I thought to myself “ Nothing worse can happen to me….!” And three months later my nineteen year old son died and grief steeped into every cell of my body.
However this is not what this story is about.
After the five hundred pieces of instructions and advice, I finally waved goodbye to my mother at the Karachi train station.
I was going to make the thousand-mile train ride to Lahore by myself, well not really by myself but with 300 other passengers and of course my male cousin by marriage in the next compartment. My family had already split so we were not first-class passengers, and as my brother H used to remark we are now part of the Proletariat aspiring to become a part of the bourgeoise.
I was thrilled to be traveling alone and unfettered by my cautious mother or my disapproving father of anything that was out of the lines of etiquette.
I looked forward to hanging out of the door as the train went along a curve and sticking my head out of the window all the way into Lahore, breathing in the green heat of summer.
The women in my compartment had come with several tiffin’s filled with aromatic home cooked food, and were accompanied by oodles of children. As the train left Karachi and entered the stretch of the Sindh desert, we closed the windows to keep out the fine sand that made us dust covered nomads in one sweep of the hot gust from the sand dunes.
The aroma of freshly cooked meat(korma) spiced in classic Pakistani cuisine assailed my nostrils, next the parathas came out of the tiffin of the woman in the seat next to me with children of what seemed every age around her. She invited me to join her to eat. The usual warning from my mother came in : Do not eat other people’s food she had said.
I thought of the boring sandwiches in my bag and the expensive dining car offerings and decided to accept the paratha she offered. after all what could go wrong in a paratha cooked over a hot tawa that killed all the germs.
I thanked her and offered her my sandwich, she smiled and declined, I would have too.
I was going to my grandfather’s Haveli in Lahore for the summer, where he and my youngest Aunt lived. My grandmother had already passed away.
I thought of the jaunts to the village, the wonderful hikes to see the tube well with its gushing water that always invited one to jump in front of it and get soaked with the cool fresh water, but modesty demanded abstinence from such wanton acts in front of the villagers.
My grandfather’s driver and my Aunt were waiting at the train station, her face was somber…. I felt odd, something had happened.
I said good bye to my male cousin and chaperone for the 1000-mile train ride and accompanied my Aunt to my grandfather’s brick Haveli. It reminded me of the house of Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. It was a large single story brick mansion with very high ceilings and windows near the roof called “roshan daan” that were kept half open to let out the hot air.
The gardens were three levels, at one time had been seven but the lack of gardening care had merged some of the levels.
The car stopped at the Portico which hung with a profusion of Jasmine and the blown glass windows of the guest room stood open to let out the heat. the outside ( non-mahram) visitors’ room was unoccupied I noticed by the fact that it was being aired out.
Here is where the weirdness began which always reminds me of Mr. Rochester’s mansion.
There was a wall that divided the Portico, and it got even more mysterious as we went in because the huge living room with the fireplace had a regular door and a mystery door, leading to the “Galli kamra” and we had been instructed in no uncertain terms that we were not to enter that room.
After the living room were bedrooms and the weirdness disappeared and then reappeared in the dining room with another entrance to the “galli karma” which was out of bounds.
As a preteen and I had finished all of Enid Blyton’s series. i was older now and was inclined to solve this mystery on this visit as my mother was absent, my Aunt was distracted and my Grandfather looked upon me benignly and treated me like a responsible adult.
Every afternoon when the people in the house as well as servants took a nap and the lull of the hot Lahore afternoon would seep into the atmosphere, I would sit down and write a letter to my closest school friend which became a running diary. She called me recently and told me she remembers my letters from Lahore.
I never was a nap person. One afternoon I decided I needed to enter the Galli Kamra.
Why was it strictly out of bounds I could not fathom?
The door creaked as I cracked it open to enter it, the dust smotes danced in the stream of light coming from over the half wall, which did not reach the ceiling. someone was talking on the other side of the wall and no it was not ghosts. I looked at the dust covered floor made of Moroccan or Pakistani Multani tiles . They peeked out in full glamor from under the dust. Few large paintings leaned against the wall and the cobwebs hit my face and I sneezed.
The maid servant came running to the door, she was like an older sister in command and we had to obey her.
“what are you doing here?” She said, her forehead creased with annoyance.
I lost my nerve and stammered, “I just wanted to see….” I spoke.
She opened the door for me to exit the Galli karma I looked back and sensed her body language emanating extreme disapproval, and she shut the door behind me.
I sat down at my desk to write a letter but I could not write about the Galli Kamra, it was alive with memories, I could feel the laughter in the hall but incomplete, a young girl with white skin, brown hair in a white frock running down the tiles……… no! no! no ! My imagination was in full gear I thought, dispensing that vision, I had read too many mystery books.
I never wrote about the Galli Kamra but I did very casually ask my Grandfather one day as to why was there a wall in the Portico.
Here is what he said “ When we arrived in Lahore, we had lost all our lands and houses in Bharat ( Hindu India) so we were asked to file a claim, which we did…” he paused.
“They allotted this house to us which had belonged to an Englishman who had returned to England after partition. But when we came to move in, squatters were living in it. So, the Government which had too much on its shoulders divided the house and gave half to the squatters and half to us. They also gave us 500 acres of (arid ) land in lieu of our farms in the Punjab.” He fell silent. Arid is my addition from information gleaned from the women in the family.
It was my mother who had told me that my Grandfather lived very simply with a small suitcase and three sets of clothes in his wardrobe and refused to add to his belongings. This was the man who owned some of the most fertile land in undivided Punjab and dressed like an aristocrat in his days when he was the Surgeon General of undivided India. Since coming to Pakistan, He poured all his efforts and salary from his academic position at the medical school into the arid land to transform it into farmland which he eventually did.
The Lahore rituals kicked in. We usually got up after the post lunch nap, showered and dressed for the 4 pm tea which was an inviolable tradition. Sometimes we went visiting friends of my Aunt.
Today after tea she said “come on, we are going to visit some relatives” . My grandfather looked up questioningly and she replied to his unasked question . “ Shamim Apa is sick and Khalaji is here from Karachi”. He nodded.
My Aunt appraised my clothes critically for appropriateness I guess and we got into the car.
Here my memory is a bit hazy as I had never been to this house before and I could not remember who “Shamim Apa ” was but I knew Khalaji who had provided us sanctuary in the family storm. I was always game being the extrovert and a history buff, and loved to meet new people.
There was a heaviness as my Aunt (SK) alighted from the car and asked the driver to park elsewhere.
We literally walked into their house unannounced and as far as I remember without anyone admitting us into the door.
We walked along a corridor; it was asr. A cool breeze caressed my face, I could feel peace entering the house.
We stopped at an open door, I could see that all the doors and windows of the room were wide open, and there was a woman lying on the bed, her dark hair sprung from a widow’s peak spread over the white pillow. Khalaji was by her side, and I felt she was angry and sad at the same time.
“You stay here’ said my Aunt Sk indicating the corridor outside the bedroom.
I could feel the smell of sorrow and something else inside, I could feel that the young woman was struggling……..perhaps to hold onto life.
SK was as strong and regal a presence as Khalaji but the woman on the bed was equally strong.
“Promise me…..” she said holding Khalajis hand and it was neither a plea nor a request, it was a command.
There was some discussion among the three with raised voices and her husband’s name came up and at that moment the servant approached me. “ Bibi come with me to the drawing room”
I demurred but she was adamant.
I looked into the room, and they had stopped arguing, and were silent, grief filled the room along with peace the kind that comes upon the wings of angels on the order of the Divine to comfort someone.
Khalaji looked up and saw me, her hazel eyes were brimming with tears, her dear oldest child was dying and bequeathing her three girls to her……….and she was helpless, she was drowning in sorrow, grief and anger.
I saw my Aunt cross over to Khalaji on her side of the bed where she stood, The young woman in the bed seemed to melt into the white sheets, her black hair cascading on the pillow, her mother and her cousin stood by her as she extracted the promise of taking care of her three girls from her mother and closed her eyes.
“Bibi, come,” said the servant. I wanted to stay but the etiquette of the time and culture demanded that I not enter the chamber of grief and peace as I felt them both simultaneously.
The armies of Allah laden with love and mercy were on their way and some had arrived and were hovering over the bed of the young girl.
I turned to accompany the servant to the drawing room where she had brought tea and biscuits for me. “tea and biscuits” the panacea of all ills.
After what seemed hours, my Aunt came and got me and said “ Come on, where have you been” she said as if I had been galivanting around by myself. “we are leaving”
“What happened ?” I asked?
“Shamim Apa is dying……….” She answered in a curt manner and said in a voice that brooked no further conversation.
I looked back as we passed the room the soft curtains were billowing in the unusual breeze of late afternoon , it was Asr in Lahore, I saw mother and daughter together in this definitive moment of intimacy which was laden with grief and something else.
I felt that the angels arriving with the Mercy of Allah and entering upon the room to lay the hand of the Divine on the hearts of the two mothers. Both were losing their children, One to cancer as I found out later and one was going to be separated from her children by death.
I realize now that this was my first introduction to grief and not being aware that more was to come……..