Shishir (Winter) 2019, Short Stories - Ilma Qureshi



The Madwoman

By Ilma Qureshi


Once again, there was a commotion in the house. Once again, she was nowhere to be found. Everyone searched for her in a frantic frenzy. Balcony, backyard, bedrooms-each room was torn down but there was no trace of her. The banyan tree stood in the middle of the courtyard-witnessing the play unravel yet again. Sometimes she would vanish in the middle of the day, sometimes in the dark of the night. They gathered in the courtyard, and Bauji, the head of the family, gave orders to his faithful servants, Riaz and Shaukat, to search the entire area. He asked the women to go back to the house and to not worry about it.


‘But abbu , she usually just goes to the back of the house or sits under the tree. She never left the house’, tears ran down Rabia’s face as her mind tried to envision the possibilities of what might have happened to her- Was she alright? What if something happened to her? What if she had an accident? Would she have eaten? Did she have money?

‘We will find her’, he said with a firm tone and went into the house to make some calls.


Riaz and Shaukat were sent to the neighbourhood. They dashed to the police station, the bus stops and the mosques in the area, asking questions, prodding the locals, describing her, but no one seemed to have seen her. Terrified of facing Bauji, they even checked the mango orchids and cotton fields nearby.


It was partly to search exhaustively, and partly to delay facing Bauji’s wrath. It was the middle of June, the sun poured down ruthlessly and the whole area was ablaze with heat. Lined with sweat, their cotton kameezs’ stuck to their bodies like band-aids. They sat under a peepal tree and smoked some cigarettes before heading back to the house.


Bauji was pacing back and forth in the courtyard as they entered. The seasons did not matter to him-he wore a finely embroidered waistcoat over his off-white kameez shalwar and always wore cuff-links. Sometimes, he even wore a traditional cap. His eyes seemed to wonder, ‘where is she?’, but the thought did not make its way to his expression, which remained implacable. Only the crease between his eyebrows belied his tension.


‘Bauji, we looked everywhere. We went to the neighbourhood, police station, mosque, bus station, but she is nowhere to be found’.


‘We even went to the fields’, Riaz added to boast the thoroughness of their search.


‘I have called the Police Commissioner and they are doing their best to find her. We will know something by tomorrow’, Bauji added quietly.


Only Rabia, who was peering from her window and listening to the conversation, noticed that instead of saying ’finding’, Bauji merely said ‘will know something’. Maybe his surety was wearing off as the hours passed. Rabia’s mother had not left the prayer mat since morning. She wept and wept, directing all her energies, all her prayers solely to God.


‘A forty-five year old woman, tall, dark brown eyes, is lost. She is mentally unstable. Her identification mark is a black mole on the left cheek. If anyone finds her, please contact at this number 061-9347448’.


Mustafa read the poster at the train station as he waited to get a rickshaw.


‘Bhai, how much will you charge for going to Bahauddin’s mazar ?’


‘Three hundred rupees’, the rickshaw owner replied.


‘That is too much. I have been there many times. I know that it does not cost that much’, Mustafa attempted to haggle.


‘Sir jee, have you looked at oil prices? It is hard to even afford a single meal. There is so much traffic at this hour. It takes a half hour to get there. Ask the others if you do not believe me’.

‘Okay, okay. Let’s settle it at two hundred and fifty, okay’.


‘Okay sir jee, sit’


As they rode through the streets, Mustafa noticed how much the city had changed since he was last there. The roads had widened two-fold. There were more fly-over's in the city than parks. The number of rickshaws seemed to have decreased and there were almost no donkey-driven tangas anymore. Animals seemed to have been completely banished from the city. The cows no longer plodded drunkenly by the road, stray dogs no longer chased food scraps and horses and donkey driven carts seemed to have been erased from the city’s canvass.


Perhaps the finesse of the new roads could not be compromised. Or perhaps even in a small city like Multan, machines finally rendered the animals obsolete. Upon asking the whereabouts of these creatures who once lived alongside humans, the driver informed him that the tanga-wallas were asked to leave the main city and so most of them had ended up first inhabiting the area around the railway station.


However, the government then decided that it should be made illegal for them to park near the train station as well. Thus, now they can no longer be found anywhere in the city. As far as cows were concerned, since there were too many bhanas in the city, people were banned from keeping cows. The dogs were simply killed. There wasn't’t much discussion when it came to dogs. They were either shot or poisoned to death.


‘Sir jee, you did not hear the news? In Karachi they killed seven hundred dogs. They hid poison tablets in chicken. You should see the photo. It was like a butcher shop, with only dogs on a road rather than goats on a wood plank’, he chuckled.


‘As if controlling humans were not enough, the government has begun dictating the fates of animals too. No wonder they are nowhere to be seen’, Mustafa thought to himself.


They reached Bahauddin Zakariya’s tomb. The tall, majestic building stood fearlessly in heat, offering a protection to passers-by. The sun reflected on the blue tiles, making small silver stars flicker in and out, collapse into each other and vanish. The brown brick floor, however, was cooler than he imagined. Just as he was about to enter, he remembered his father’s instructions and retreated.


‘Get some oil to put into diyas , some itar to put on the chader , and get some petals for the tomb. And please ask the guardian there if he could give you a chader from the tomb for me’.


He cast a cursory glance at the long line of shops and finally found one which seemed like it would have oil and itar.


As he entered the shop, he saw that the shopkeeper was busy talking to another customer.


The shopkeeper was standing beside a dark, wooden shelf. Glass bottles were neatly stacked on the shelf separating them. The air was thick with mist in all directions.



‘Walaikumassalam . Yes, what do you want?’


‘I am looking for some oil and petals.’


‘What kind do you want?’


‘Any would work. I want it for going to the mazar.’


‘Chotayy ’, he shouted at the top of his lungs. A twelve or thirteen year old came in almost running. His hair was oiled and neatly parted. The surma in his eyes complemented his khaki coloured kameez shalwar, which dangled on his skinny physique like giant clothes on a hanger.


‘Bring one bottle of itar and one of oil for the brother. Bring the good ones’.


How many bottles do you need?, the shopkeeper realized that he hadn't’t asked the quantity.


‘Not many, one of each would do. Actually my father said I should take them’, Mustafa unnecessarily muttered the purpose behind him wanting it.


‘Chotay just bring one bottle of each, he shouted again to chota who had already scuttled out of the shop into what seemed like a small backyard turned warehouse.


‘Yes of course. If one goes to a tomb, they must do it respectfully’, the shopkeeper responded to his earlier rambling, either to be polite or to make sure to get his business.

He walked through the mud-colored steps deep in thought. The bag in his hand dangled. Pigeons huddled on the ground, chewing small grains off the ground. With each step he took, they darted off into the sky. As if his footsteps were a cue for them to move. It all seemed wonderfully synchronized- like a chorister’s raised arm signaling the choir to give out a high note.


He had a theory regarding it. Every day around asar , birds acquired a distinct flair.They dashed through the sky in long strokes with such style and ease that they appeared half- drunk.Were they not in a hurry to go home? Or perhaps they enjoyed the journey just as much as the destination, unlike most humans.


He often wondered, too, why pigeons often flocked outside tombs. He had almost never visited a tomb where no bird paid its respects. Close to the entrance, he took off his shoes and gave them to the collector to be put outside. He was given a small yellow coupon with 237 written on it. Near the shoe-stacks, a qawwal sat singing heart-rending qawwalis. The thick sweat shining on his forehead and brows did not stop the Qawwal from singing it with full force, with pain and passion.


Chaāp tilak sab chhīnī re mosenaināmilāike


Bātagamkehdīnī re mosenaināmilāike




Matvālīkarlīnī re mosenaināmilāike


You've taken away my looks, my identity, by just a glance.


You've said the unsaid, just by a glance.


By making me drink the love of devotion.


You've intoxicated me by just a glance.


He felt a bit uneasy walking barefoot as he wasn't’t sure how clean the floor was. He noticed some paan spots on the floor and some diyas lit in some corners. He kept walking until he could see the grave. He offered his prayers in silence, his eyes tightly shut, his hands bent in a perfect shape of a bowl. He slowly traced the wooden railing, hoping to receive some barakah .


As he walked out, he saw a woman huddled down in a corner, her head hanging on her lap. She seemed like an amorphous heap of clothes dumped in a corner. He opened his wallet to take out and put down some coins for her but unable to find a bowl, he put them on the ground.


She looked up. Her eyes were empty. Even the surma failed to fill the hollowness etched in her eyes.She looked at him blankly, as if staring into space. Her hair resembled a ball of rough, knotted threads strewn together. Mud stuck to her feet like it was part of her skin.


She took the coins and threw them back at him.


‘I don’t need your charity. Keep them with yourself’, she retorted, growling with disbelief and anger.


He was shocked. Never had a beggar ever thrown money back. ‘Perhaps I mistook her for a beggar, but she seems…’


Before the thought finished, partly in order to remedy the situation and partly out of curiosity, Mustafa asked ‘Amma ji , are you alright? Do you need anything?’


‘Perhaps she needs more money, or something specific for her family’, he thought to himself.


‘What I need, no one can give it to me. No one’, she answered.


He was shocked by her voice. It had thunder, conviction... a strange depth.


‘Please let me know. Perhaps I will be able to help’. He attempted again.


‘I am not looking for means. I am looking for the cause of all means . She replied in a flat tone.


I don’t understand. He stammered.


She remained quiet and stared at him for a moment and then lowered her head. She was tired. Defeated. She had given up trying. No one could understand what she sought. Or her pain.


‘But one searches only for things they do not have’, he added softly, when comprehension finally descended on him.


She looked up, as if seeing him for the first time.


‘ My father says God is closer to us than our jugular vein. Why are you looking for him here and there?’


‘You are the one looking for Him here and there’,she snapped.


‘I am not looking for Him, amma. I know where He is. I am only here to pay respects to Him through people who perhaps knew Him better than I did’.


‘You come here to pay respects to Him who you say is present everywhere? She retorted with a wry laugh.


‘No doubt He is present everywhere. I do not have the capability to see Him. Moses was unable to see Him, who am I?,he calmly responded.


‘And they who are inside the tombs, they see Him and will show Him to you? She questioned with a fire.


‘No, I only pray to God that the love for God that they had, that I may also find that. That His gaze falls on me too’. Mustafa was shocked at his own ability to maintain composure in the face of this unexpected and intimate interrogation.Was this his voice? He was not sure. He felt his voice coming from a far, deep corner of his self. Something in her demanded something inside him of that he could not understand.


Something far greater than what most people demanded. His days went by fine thinking and talking about mundane affairs of everyday life- what he needed to do, where he needed to be. Why was she bent on pulling him out of that?


‘Then pray to God. Why pray to them? She asked matter-of-factly. As if the truth burned like the sun, so luminous that she could not imagine that anyone could not see it.


‘Whatever I ask, I only ask of God, Amma. These people obeyed God their entire lives- they are perhaps closer to Him. But I am a mere worldly person. Even my grandest, most extravagant prayers are for small, petty things’.


She merely smiled and looked down.


He never understood her smile. He merely stood there, looking both lost and struck, as if he had inadvertently touched something that had set his skin on fire, as if his fingers had caressed something that ultimately lied somewhere beyond sensation.


Ilma Qureshi is a doctoral student focusing on Persian Poetry at University of Virginia. She writes in Persian, Urdu and English. By traversing through various linguistic landscapes she hopes to unearth the myriad layers and textures of beauty. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Tafheem and Tareekh-e-Adab Urdu.


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