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In the depth of winter whenever I snuggle into my quilt, its shadow on the wall seems to sway like an elephant. My mind begins a mad race into the dark crevasses of the past; memories come flooding in.
Begging your pardon, I am not about to relate a romantic incident surrounding my own quilt—I do not believe there is much romance associated with it. The blanket, though considerably less comfortable, is preferable because it does not cast such terrifying shadows, quivering on the wall!
This happened when I was a small girl. All day long I fought tooth and nail with my brothers and their friends. Sometimes I wondered why the hell I was so quarrelsome. At my age my older sisters had been busy collecting admirers; all I could think of was fisticuffs with every known and unknown girl or boy I ran into!
For this reason my mother decided to deposit me with an ‘adopted’ sister of hers when she left for Agra. She was well aware that there was no one in that sister’s house, not even a pet animal, with whom I could engage in my favorite occupation! I guess my punishment was well deserved. So Mother left me with Begum Jan, the same Begum Jan whose quilt is imprinted on my memory like a blacksmith’s brand.
This was the lady who had been married off to Nawab Sahib for a very good reason, courtesy her poor but loving parents. Although much past his prime, Nawab Sahib was noblesse oblige. No one had ever seen a dancing girl or prostitute in his home. He had the distinction of not only performing the Haj himself, but of being the patron of several poor people who had undertaken the pilgrimage through his good offices.
Nawab Sahib had a strange hobby. People are known to have irksome interests like breeding pigeons and arranging cockfights. Nawab Sahib kept himself aloof from these disgusting sports; all he liked to do was keep an open house for students; young, fair and slim-waisted boys, whose expenses were borne entirely by him. After marrying Begum Jan, he deposited her in the house with all his other possessions and promptly forgot about her! The young, delicate Begum began to wilt with loneliness.
Who knows when Begum Jan started living? Did her life begin when she made the mistake of being born, or when she entered the house as the Nawab’s new bride, climbed the elaborate four-poster bed and started counting her days? Or did it begin from the time she realized that the household revolved around the boy-students, and that all the delicacies produced in the kitchen were meant solely for their palates? From the chinks in the drawing-room doors, Begum Jan glimpsed their slim waists, fair ankles and gossamer shirts and felt she had been raked over coals!
Perhaps it all started when she gave up on magic, necromancy, seances and whatnot. You cannot draw blood from a stone. Not an inch did the Nawab budge. Broken-hearted, Begum Jan turned towards education. Not much to be gained here either! Romantic novels and sentimental poetry proved even more depressing. Sleepless nights became a daily routine. Begun Jan slowly let go and consequently, became a picture of melancholy and despair.
She felt like stuffing all her fine clothes into the stove. One dresses up to impress people. Now, neither did the Nawab Sahib find a spare moment from his preoccupation with the gossamer shirts, nor did he allow her to venture outside the home. Her relatives, however, made it a habit to pay her frequent visits which often lasted for months, while she remained prisoner of the house.
Seeing these relatives on a roman holiday made her blood boil. They happily indulged themselves with the goodies produced in the kitchen and licked the clarified butter off their greedy fingers. In her household they equipped themselves for their winter needs. But, despite renewing the cotton filling in her quilt each year, Begum Jan continued to shiver, night after night. Each time she turned over, the quilt assumed ferocious shapes which appeared like shadowy monsters on the wall. She lay in terror; not one of the shadows carried any promise of life. What the hell was life worth anyway? Why live? But Begum Jan was destined to live, and once she started living, did she ever!
Rabbo came to her rescue just as she was starting to go under. Suddenly her emaciated body began to fill out. Her cheeks became rosy; beauty, as it were, glowed through every pore! It was a special oil massage that brought about the change in Begum Jan. Begging your pardon, you will not find the recipe for this oil in the most exclusive or expensive magazine!
When I saw Begum Jan she was in her early forties. She sat reclining on the couch, a figure of dignity and grandeur. Rabbo sat against her back, massaging her waist. A purple shawl was thrown over her legs. The very picture of royalty, a real Maharani! How I loved her looks. I wanted to sit by her side for hours, adoring her like a humble devotee. Her complexion was fair, without a trace of ruddiness. Her black hair was always drenched in oil. I had never seen her parting crooked, nor a single hair out of place. Her eyes were black, and carefully plucked eyebrows stretched over them like a couple of perfect bows! Her eyes were slightly taut, eyelids heavy and eyelashes thick. The most amazing and attractive part of her face were her lips. Usually dyed in lipstick, her upper lip had a distinct line of down. Her temples were covered with long hair. Sometimes her face became transformed before my adoring gaze, as if it were the face of young boy.
Her skin was fair and moist, and looked like it had been stretched over her frame and tightly stitched up. Whenever she exposed her ankles for a massage, I stole a glance at their rounded smoothness. She was tall, and appeared taller because of the ample flesh on her person. Her hands were large and moist, her waist smooth. Rabbo used to sit by her side and scratch her back for hours together—it was almost as if getting scratched was for her the fulfillment of life’s essential need. In a way, more important than the basic necessities required for staying alive.
Rabbo had no other household duties. Perched on the four-poster bed, she was always massaging Begum Jan’s head, feet or some other part of her anatomy. Someone other than Begum Jan receiving such a quantity of human touching, what would the consequences be? Speaking for myself, I can say that if someone touched me continuously like this, I would certainly rot.
As if this daily massage ritual were not enough, on the days she bathed this ritual extended to two hours! Scented oils and unguents were massaged into her shining skin; imagining the friction caused by this prolonged rubbing made me slightly sick. The braziers were lit behind closed doors and then the procedure started. Usually Rabbo was the only one allowed inside the sanctum. Other servants, muttering their disapproval, handed over various necessities at the closed door.
The fact of the matter was that Begum Jan was afflicted with a perpetual itch. Numerous oils and lotions had been tried, but the itch was there to stay. Hakims and doctors stated: It is nothing, the skin is clear. But if the disease is located beneath the skin, it’s a different matter. These doctors are mad! Rabbo used to say with a meaningful smile while gazing dreamily at Begum Jan. “May your enemies be afflicted with skin disease! It is your hot blood that causes all the trouble!”
Rabbo! She was as black as Begum Jan was white, like burnt iron ore! Her face was lightly marked with smallpox, her body solidly packed; small dextrous hands, a tight little paunch and full lips slightly swollen, which were always moist. Those puffy hands were as quick as lightning, now at her waist, now her lips, now kneading her thighs and dashing towards her ankles. Whenever I sat down with Begum Jan, my eyes were riveted to those roving hands.
Winter or summer, Begum Jan always wore kurtas of Hyderabadi jalli karga. I recall her dark skirts and billowing white kurtas. With the fan gently rotating on the ceiling, Begum always covered herself with a soft wrap. She was fond of winter. I too liked the winter season at her house. She moved very little. Reclining on the carpet, she spent her days having her back massaged, chewing on dry fruit. Other household servants were envious of Rabbo. The witch! She ate, sat, and even slept with Begum Jan! Rabbo and Begum Jan—the topic inevitably cropped up in every gathering. Whenever anyone mentioned their names, the group burst into loud guffaws. Who knows what jokes were made at their expense? But one thing was certain—the poor lady never met a single soul. All her time was taken up with the treatment of her unfortunate itch.
I have already said I was very young at the time and quite enamoured of Begum Jan. She, too, was fond of me. When mother decided to go to Agra she had to leave me with somebody. She knew that, left alone, I would fight continuously with my brothers, or wander around aimlessly. I was happy to be left with Begum Jan for one week, and Begum Jan was equally pleased to have me. After all, she was Ammi’s adopted sister!
The question arose of where I was to sleep. The obvious place was Begum Jan’s room; accordingly, a small bed was placed alongside the huge four-poster. Until ten or eleven that night we played Chance and talked; then I went to bed. When I fell asleep Rabbo was scratching her back. “Filthy wench”, I muttered before turning over. At night I awoke with a start. It was pitch dark. Begum Jan’s quilt was shaking vigorously, as if an elephant was struggling beneath it.
“Begum Jan”, my voice was barely audible. The elephant subsided.
“What is it? Go to sleep”. Begum Jan’s voice seemed to come from afar.
“I’m scared”. I sounded like a petrified mouse.
“Go to sleep. Nothing to be afraid of. Recite the Ayat-ul-Kursi”.
“Okay!” I quickly began the Ayat. But each time I reached Yalamu Mabain I got stuck. This was strange. I knew the entire Ayat!
“May I come to you, Begum Jan?”
“No child, go to sleep”. The voice was curt. Then I heard whispers. Oh God! Who was this other person? Now I was terrified.
“Begum Jan, is there a thief here?”
“Go to sleep, child; there is no thief”. This was Rabbo’s voice. I sank into my quilt and tried to sleep.
In the morning I could not even remember the sinister scene that had been enacted at night. I have always been the superstitious one in my family. Night fears, sleep-talking, sleep-walking were regular occurrences during my childhood. People often said that I seemed to be haunted by evil spirits. Consequently I blotted out the incident from memory as easily as I dealt with all my imaginary fears. Besides, the quilt seemed such an innocent part of the bed.
The next night when I woke up, a quarrel between Begum Jan and Rabbo was being settled on the bed itself. I could not make out what conclusion was reached, but I heard Rabbo sobbing. Then there were sounds of a cat lapping in the saucer. To hell with it, I thought and went off to sleep!
Today Rabbo has gone off to visit her son. He was a quarrelsome lad. Begum Jan had done a lot to help him settle down in life; she had bought him a shop, arranged a job in the village, but to no avail. She even managed to have him stay with Nawab Sahib. Here he was treated well, a new wardrobe was ordered for him, but ungrateful wretch that he was, he ran away for no good reason and never returned, not even to see Rabbo. She therefore had to arrange to meet him at a relative’s house. Begum Jan would never have allowed it, but poor Rabbo was helpless and had to go.
All day Begum Jan was restless. Her joints hurt like hell, but she could not bear anyone’s touch. Not a morsel did she eat; all day long she moped in bed.
“Shall I scratch you, Begum Jan?” I asked eagerly while dealing out the deck of cards. Begum Jan looked at me carefully.
“Really, shall I?” I put the cards aside and began scratching, while Begum Jan lay quietly, giving in to my ministrations. Rabbo was due back the next day, but she never turned up. Begum Jan became irritable. She drank so much tea that her head started throbbing.
Once again I started on her back. What a smooth slab of a back! I scratched her softly, happy to be of some assistance;
“Scratch harder, open the straps”, Begum Jan spoke. “There, below the shoulder. Ooh, wonderful!” She sighed as if with immense relief.
“This way”, Begum Jan indicated, although she could very well scratch that part herself. But she preferred my touch. How proud I was!
“Here, oh, oh, how you tickle”, she laughed. I was talking and scratching at the same time.
“Tomorrow I will send you to the market. What do you want? A sleeping-walking doll?”
“Not a doll, Begum Jan! Do you think I am a child? You know I am…”
“Yes… an old crow. Is that what you are?” She laughed.
“Okay then, buy a babua. Dress it up yourself, I’ll give you as many bits and pieces as you want. Okay?” She turned over.
“Okay”, I answered.
“Here”. She was guiding my hand wherever she felt the itch. With my mind on the babua, I was scratching mechanically, unthinkingly. She continued talking. “Listen, you don’t have enough clothes. Tomorrow I will ask the tailor to make you a new frock. Your mother has left some material with me”.
“I don’t want that cheap red material. It looks tacky”. I was talking nonsense while my hand roved the entire territory. I did not realize it but by now Begum Jan was flat on her back! Oh God! I quickly withdrew my hand.
“Silly girl, don’t you see where you’re scratching? You have dislocated my ribs”. Begum Jan was smiling mischievously. I was red with embarrassment.
“Come, lie down with me”. She laid me at her side with my head on her arm. “How thin you are… and, let’s see, your ribs”, she started counting.
“No”, I protested weakly.
“I won’t eat you up! What a tight sweater”, she said. “Not even a warm vest?” I began to get very restless.
“How many ribs?” The topic was changed.
“Nine on one side, ten on the other”. I thought of my school hygiene. Very confused thinking.
“Let’s see”, she moved my hand. “One, two, three…”
I wanted to run away from her, but she held me closer. I struggled to get away. Begum Jan started laughing.
To this day whenever I think of what she looked like at that moment, I get nervous. Her eyelids became heavy, her upper lip darkened and, despite the cold, her nose and eyes were covered with tiny beads of perspiration. Her hands were stiff and cold, but soft as if the skin had been peeled. She had thrown off her shawl and in the karga kurta, her body shone like a ball of dough. Her heavy gold kurta buttons were open, swinging to one side.
The dusk had plunged her room into a claustrophobic blackness, and I felt gripped by an unknown terror. Begum Jan’s deep dark eyes focused on me! I started crying. She was clutching me like a clay doll. I started feeling nauseated against her warm body. She seemed possessed. What could I do? I was neither able to cry nor scream! In a while she became limp. Her face turned pale and frightening, she started taking deep breaths. I figured she was about to die, so I ran outside.
Thank God Rabbo came back at night. I was scared enough to pull the sheet over my head, but sleep evaded me as usual. I lay awake for hours.
How I wished Ammi would return. Begum Jan had become such a terrifying entity that I spent my days in the company of household servants. I was too scared to step into her bedroom. What could I have said to anyone? That I was afraid of Begum Jan? Begum Jan, who loved me so dearly?
Today there was another tiff between Begum Jan and Rabbo. I was dead scared of their quarrels, because they signalled the beginning of my misfortunes! Begum Jan immediately thought about me. What was I doing wandering around in the cold? I would surely die of pneumonia!
“Child, you will have my head shaven in public. If something happens to you, how will I face your mother?” Begum Jan admonished me as she washed up in the water basin. The tea tray was lying on the table.
“Pour some tea and give me a cup”. She dried her hands and face.
“Let me get out of these clothes”.
While she changed, I drank tea. During her body massage, she kept summoning me for small errands. I carried things to her with utmost reluctance, always looking the other way. At the slightest opportunity I ran back to my perch, drinking my tea, my back turned to Begum Jan.
“Ammi!” My heart cried in anguish. “How could you punish me so severely for fighting with my brothers?” Mother disliked my mixing with the boys, as if they were man-eaters who would swallow her beloved daughter in one gulp! After all who were these ferocious males? None other than my own brothers and their puny little friends. Mother believed in a strict prison sentence for females; life behind seven padlocks! Begum Jan’s “patronage”, however, proved more terrifying than the fear of the world’s worst goondas! If I had had the courage I would have run out on to the street. But helpless as I was, I continued to sit in that very spot with my heart in my mouth.
After an elaborate ritual of dressing up and scenting her body with warm attars and perfumes, Begum Jan turned her arduous heat on me.
“I want to go home!” I said in response to all her suggestions. More tears.
“Come to me”, she waxed. “I will take you shopping”.
But I had only one answer. All the toys and sweets in the world kept piling up against my one and only refrain, “I want to go home!”
“Your brothers will beat you up, you witch!” She smacked me affectionately.
“Sure, let them”, I said to myself annoyed and exasperated.
“Raw mangoes are sour, Begum Jan”, malicious little Rabbo expressed her views.
Then Begum Jan had her famous fit. The gold necklace she was about to place around my neck, was broken to bits. Gossamer net scarf was shredded mercilessly. Hair, which were never out of place, were tousled with loud exclamations of “Oh! Oh! Oh!” She started shouting and convulsing. I ran outside. After much ado and ministration, Begum Jan regained consciousness. When I tiptoed into the bedroom Rabbo, propped against her body, was kneading her limbs.
“Take off your shoes, she whispered”. Mouse-like I crept into my quilt.
Later that night, Begum Jan’s quilt was, once again, swinging like an elephant. “Allah”, I was barely able to squeak. The elephant-in-the quilt jumped and then sat down. I did not say a word. Once again, the elephant started convulsing. Now I was really confused. I decided, no matter what, tonight I would flip the switch on the bedside lamp. The elephant started fluttering once again, as if about to squat. Smack, gush, slobber—someone was enjoying a feast. Suddenly I understood what was going on!
Begum Jan had not eaten a thing all day and Rabbo, the witch, was a known glutton. They were polishing off some goodies under the quilt, for sure. Flaring my nostrils, I huffed and puffed hoping for a whiff of the feast. But the air was laden with attar, henna, sandalwood; hot fragrances, no food.
Once again the quilt started billowing. I tried to lie still, but it was now assuming such weird shapes that I could not contain myself. It seemed as if a frog was growing inside it and would suddenly spring on me.
“Ammi!” I spoke with courage, but no one heard me. The quilt, meanwhile, had entered my brain and started growing. Quietly creeping to the other side of the bed I swung my legs over and sat up . In the dark I groped for the switch. The elephant somersaulted beneath the quilt and dug in. During the somersault, its corner was lifted one foot above the bed.
Allah! I dove headlong into my sheets!!
What I saw when the quilt was lifted, I will never tell anyone, not even if they give me a lakh of rupees.