Three main things had changed in Yusuf Shaheer Malik since the last time he had knocked on the oak front door of Makan taintees, Gali number sola, Chinkral Mohalla.
One, that he had aged; nothing problematic, most people would remind him he was lucky to be able to age. Twenty-three was the best age a young man could ask for anyway. Barely on the threshold of adult life, barely beyond the doorstep of childhood, twenty-three was the perfect age to live.
Two, that he was not soaking wet this time and a rubber chappal was not waiting for his wet head inside the front door; another positive development because while it is nice for one to get soaked in classic Kashmiri rain, there is nothing even remotely pleasant in being thumped on your head repeatedly with a rubber chappal, especially if your hair is not dry and springy enough just then to cushion the blows.
Three, that in his hand this time, instead of the shivering, slippery hand of little Jaleelah who had forced him to sneak out of the house so they could go eat gol gappas in Chinkral bazar ten years ago, instead of her hand, in his was the metal handle of his expensive suitcase.
As Yusuf stood there outside the house, wondering whether he should ring the doorbell again, he felt a phantom fear in his gut of a chappal still waiting for him inside and he felt a phantom butterfly in his stomach at the thought of Jaleelah being in the same house as him once again.
He looked up at the old house, wondering which window was hers. Was it the one with the empty, dainty little birdcage hanging outside? Or the one in which somebody had pasted post-it notes haphazardly? There was the third, comparatively grimy window with colourless curtains across it that he was not ready to ascribe to her at all. After much debate, he decided her window was the one with the birdcage; it was the window best suited to the Jaleelah his brain had strung up on a pedestal all these years. The girl with the thick pigtails and large brown eyes and the laugh that sounded like a pair of maracas from some old Beatles record.
“Yusuf!” his eyes turned from the window with the birdcage to an obese man in a cotton shalwar kameez standing in the front door. It took Yusuf a second to recognize him.
“Chacha! Salam Aleikum!” he leaned forward to give his uncle a one-armed hug just as his uncle bent down to pull in his suitcase. The result was an awkward bumping of his uncle’s nearly bald head into his broad chest. Yusuf straightened quickly. “How are you?”
“I am fine.” His uncle said gruffly, pulled his suitcase into the house and stood aside so he could enter. “You?”
“I’m fine,” Yusuf entered the house and took off his shoes. “Where’s chachi?”
“In the kitchen.” His uncle was now dragging his suitcase further down the old entrance hall, towards the door behind which, if he remembered correctly, was the drawing room. “How’s your father?”
“Still the same.” Yusuf chuckled nervously. “His diabetes is getting worse.”
“Take care of him.” In a lower voice: “not like he deserves it, but.”
Pretending he hadn’t heard the rest of the sentence, he followed his uncle into the drawing room, a luxurious but bland lime green and golden affair that looked like it had been picked out of an ad for a furniture brand. Fluffing up a cushion, his uncle set it down on the divan and gestured to Yusuf to sit down.
“Your mother died, then?”
“Yes.” Yusuf nodded, “two years ago now.”
“Sad.” The older man observed.
A beat of silence.
“You’re studying journalism?”
“Yes.” Yusuf nodded again. “Couldn’t settle in the medical college.”
Yusuf looked at him to see if he was joking. He wasn’t.
Another beat of silence.
“In the kitchen, I told you a minute ago.”
“Ji, I forgot.”
His uncle sat down on the sofa opposite him with a gentle plop.
“How long are you going to stay?”
“Half a month, I think.” Yusuf replied, already thinking about cutting the stay short and returning to Islamabad by the next flight. “Not more than that.”
“Half a month is plenty.” His uncle wiped sweat off his chin(s). “Still writing?”
“Mainly poetry.” He answered, “a little bit of prose here and there but mainly poetry.”
“Don’t write while you are here.” The order was delivered brusquely.
“Don’t write in my house.”
“Ach-cha.” Yusuf stood up. “Can I see my room? I would really like to rest.”
“Up the stairs, second room on the right.”
Picking up his suitcase, Yusuf walked out of the room.
Ten years, then. He thought as he mounted the staircase. Ten years is what it takes for a guilty man to go crazy.
He left his room the next morning, having slept the entire yesterday in the large, rather empty bedroom that had been given to him. Sometime yesterday, he could remember waking up enough to groggily see the matronly frame of his uncle’s wife clattering about in his room and the result of this clattering about was a wardrobe fully equipped with every little thing he had had in his suitcase.
He walked out into the open space in the middle of the second floor that had been set up as the lounge of Makan Taintees and crossed over to the large windows, opening them one by one. Outside, the sky was already lighting up and a few birds could be heard twittering. Leaning over the banisters, he checked to see if anybody was moving downstairs. All was silent. He looked around, spotted the staircase and strode up, hoping it led to the terrace.
Sure enough, the battered door at its end opened onto the large rooftop terrace that more than made up for the absence of a lawn in the house (the strip of grass around the house that could have served as a meagre replacement was rendered unromantic and ugly by the large trapdoor that led into the cellar he had loved playing in as a child).
The low railings of the terrace were lined with potted plants that formed a second railing, cutting off any view of the street below so that all you saw was the sky and, if you peeked through the plants, the maze of the houses that made up Chinkral.
In a corner of the roof sat a large iron porch swing with two cushions haphazardly thrown upon it. A bundle of newspapers tied with a string sat on one end and a book, open and turned over as if to mark the page its reader had left off at, sat beside them.
The cushions were threadbare and scrunchy from use and barely provided any comfort to his back. The swing was cold and slightly wet from the morning dew. He picked up the book. It was Muneer Niazi’s, open at a piece of free verse.
“Jaagney ki dhund mein koi khawb gum ho gaya hei.”
I’ve lost a dream in the mist of awakening. Someone had scrawled a rough English translation in front of the Urdu verses.
He ran his fingers along the words, reading the poem in a murmur.
“Jaagney ki dhund mein koi chehra gum ho gaya hei.”
I’ve lost a face in the mist of awakening.
“Abb ye chehra phir kabhi dikhayi dey ga?” he paused, held the book closer to his face, narrowing his eyes to see the next line that had been partially erased by the finger that had traversed it countless times before him when reading it. “Dikhayi dey ga bhi ya nahi?” the lines after the second one had been left un-translated.
He turned to another page. The corner of this one had been folded, the poem had been highlighted, then underlined. The page would have been hanging out of the book if it hadn’t been taped firmly into place.
“Meri beyhisi ka eik Waqe’a” was the title. He had to squint to read the words:
Whoever the book belonged to had translated the poem and the translation was scrawled all around the Urdu text, giving it an odd frame of unreadable English alphabets. He tried to read the translation, then gave up and closed the book.
Leaning back into the seat of the swing, Yusuf closed his eyes and turned his face, pressing his cheek to the cold swing, letting its chill seep into his feverish cheek.
He had knocked on the door with wet, muddy hands and his mother had opened the door with fire in her eyes.
“Where in the world were you?” without waiting for an answer, she had thwacked his head with the rubber chappal in her hand and he had let out a yowl.
Behind him, Jaleelah had promptly started snickering. His mother had dragged him inside unceremoniously and chachi jaan had descended the staircase into the small entrance hall with a clothes hanger in one hand and the shirt she had just pulled off of it in the other.
“Idhar aao mein tumhein hansna sikhaun.” (Come here, You! Let me teach you how to laugh!) She had yelled and Jaleelah had set up a loud wail without skipping a beat.
“Taya abba! Abba! Ammi is hitting me!”
Before chachi jaan could cross the hall to lend some truth to her statement, the two men had followed her down the staircase and chacha, then less obese and very jovial, had grabbed the chappal from Yusuf’s mother’s hand while Yusuf’s father ran past chachi in a bid to pick Jaleelah up before she could be given a taste of the hanger.
“Don’t hit the children!” he had laughed into Jaleelah’s black hair, turning a shoulder to shield her when chachi had attempted to grab her by the scruff of her neck and yank her out of his arms. “Bachey hein! (They’re just kids!) They just wanted to play in the rain!”
“Play in the rain?!” Yusuf’s mother, having realized that the effort to get back the rubber chappal from chacha was futile, now turned her wrath upon the two men. “He knows Jaleelah has been in bed sick for a week!” she raised a hand to hit Yusuf and he, having learnt his lesson by now, took refuge behind chacha jaan’s wiry frame. “Arey, ghazab! He took the poor child out into the rain to play! And he is the older one! I expected better from him! Tell me why I shouldn’t hit him, hein, Malik Sahib?” (addressing Yusuf’s father) “He could’ve killed her!”
“Arey begum,” Malik Sahib had laughed. “It would take a rain the size of Hazrat Nuh’s storm to take down our baby girl, kyun?” and Jaleelah had wrapped her arms around him, burying her face into his neck.
Looking back, it looked like a scripted scene in a sweet but clichéd stage drama and when one pitted it against the events of the night succeeding it, it looked like a tragic epilogue to a story that had finished three pages ago.
He opened his eyes at the sound of the terrace door creaking open. A bare foot emerged, carefully set down upon the terrace, followed by its owner, clad in a black shalwar kameez, the cotton dupatta resting upon a head heavy with black curls that were dishevelled despite their owner’s attempt to tame them.
She was as dark as he remembered her, the olive of her skin still accentuated the flaming red of her cheeks that intensified when she became angry. Her eyes were large and dark behind her round reading glasses, the eyelashes and brows equal in thickness, her lips were full and scrunched up just then, her eyes bleary from sleep.
She hadn’t noticed him and he hadn’t felt like getting himself noticed just then, so he stayed on the swing, his eyes half open, looking at the girl from ten years ago as she walked over to the railing, roughly swept a plant aside and looked down into the street. Then she turned around, replaced the fern she had rudely disturbed and started walking over to the porch swing, stopping only when she saw his well-built frame sitting on it.
Her lips scrunched up a little bit more and her brows travelled to her forehead. He waited for her to say something and when she didn’t, he raised a hand to touch his forehead.
“Wa’Aleikum Salam. Please don’t sit on my spot again.” If anyone had asked him what the pigtailed child who had bitten into stale gol gappas with him in Chinkral Bazar ten years ago had grown up to become, he would have made every guess but the correct one.
“Sorry,” he stood up quickly, replacing the book still in his hands near the newspapers and wiped his hands unnecessarily on the seat of his pants. “I just needed some fresh air.”
No answer. She crossed over to the swing, picked up the book, gave him an annoyed glance. “You removed my mark.”
“Sorry, again.” He took the book from her hand swiftly, a little baffled by the formality in her tone, ran his fingers through the pages until he found the correct one. “I remember which page was open when I came.” He said, returning the book to her, this time open at the right page. “It’s a beautiful poem,”
She sat down on the swing, read the poem quickly. “Not my favourite.” She said with a shrug.
“Mine neither.” He assured her. “I liked the other one, the one you translated.”
“I’ve translated many.”
“Will you translate this one?”
He could glean from her expression just how unwelcome he was right then but he still didn’t want to leave.
“I can help you translate it, if you like.”
She looked up at him. “I don’t need your help.”
He nodded. Before he could find something else to say, she had gathered the newspapers and the book, and left the terrace.
To be continued ...