Noor of Bihar
“Babu jee, India is so enormous. Mumbai, Agra, Delhi and Bihar are unfathomable in size. Either you take one step or accomplish a hundred, it will take 10 years to traverse from one end of the country to another,” she assured me in her mellifluous Bihari tone.
As the fan overhead continued its eternal hymn, Nani (maternal grandmother) shouted in distaste,
“Huh, you have seen India, my foot! Woman of no worth,” she shouted out, as mother and I looked at each other, exchanging mental notes on how to manage Nani’s incorrigible distrust of domestic helpers.
Nani suffered from a cancerous tumour on her tongue.
It was that tool for mastication which used to constantly let her down in front of her son and grandchildren. She never could manage the skill to control it in the vein of seasoned politicians, hypocritical men of religion and other citizenry in the world of duplicity. Thus, even after having nurtured each one of her only son’s offspring in the shadow of utmost care and affection, the children grew apart from her as they became older and entered the age of youthful independence, citing her abuse as unwarranted and unacceptable.
Noor came to our household as Nani’s caretaker in the aftermath of uncle having gone to the US for immigration purposes. Uncle was due to arrive after two months and thus, that time period was divided among the two daughters in charge of taking care of Nani in their brother’s absence.
Dark-skinned, rotund countenance with prominent tobacco-tainted teeth, thick eye lashes covering deep-set eyes, a plump physique and long, thick tresses coupled with prominently cut lips, she did, indeed, portray a definite connection to the Bihari community of Karachi. However, it was her melodious tone of speech which caught one’s attention more than her physical appearance, with her lips jutting out in perfect unison to pronounce the words of the particular vernacular of the Bihari language which she conversed in.
The effect of that language’s addition in the household was now that four different languages were meddling with the airwaves in our house – Sindhi between father and us, Punjabi between Nani and mother, Urdu between me and my brother, and Noor’s Bihari with herself and all the domestic helpers.
Our house sounded like a language laboratory of a phenomenological analyst, where four different language speakers continued to interact with each other using speech and symbols, simultaneously borrowing words and playing with the interpretations and meanings of themselves and others.
Nani, of course, was the chief protagonist in the drama, as she primarily employed her language for swearing. She didn’t like Noor when she first met her, complaining that the woman reminded her of a ‘bandit queen’ in the bygone days of her father’s house in Pind Byaan, 10 years before the Partition.
On many occasions, I had tried to picture the woman dacoit in Nani’s native village; clad in loose lattha kameez (cotton shirt), manumitted from the bonds of servitude to man, in charge of her own destiny and not concerned with the petty laws of a patriarchal society, which would have always had her on the receiving end of misery’s leash, be it in marriage, inheritance, pursuit of vital dreams or materialisation of a desire for self-projection.
If only such goons could come to life in the rural areas and urban metropolises of the subcontinent again. Too oppressed is the daughter of Paradise in the constricting notions of culture, norms, traditions, pulpit and the mosque, mandir (temple) and the goddess, the state and the law in the lands of the delusional and the hate mongers.
In her own, Noor was eccentric in some respects, to say the least. Eating betel leaves with tobacco, she would sit cross-legged on the floor, keeping an intent eye on the window exposing the porch and the garden outside.
Nani, then, became a second consideration. Her memory was brilliant; she could use mnemonic methods to remember the names as well as the titles of her ancestors of the last five generations, which to herself was a feat having resulted from years of concerted ‘practice’.
Though she was a woman of untainted faith, she had a quaint flare for the supernatural too. Djinns abounded in the air for her throughout the day but especially so in the time between Maghrib and Isha, when the twilight fades in the hues of orange and red in the evening sky in Malir Cantt, our place of residence which was established in 1848 as one of the outposts of the British colonial administration in Sindh.
However, she prayed with regularity and was a conscientious observer of all her prayers, performing these without any laxity at all even though Nani, in her typically archaic manner, constantly branded her performances as a show of ‘head banging to the floor in heathen fashions and nothing much’.
One day, while she was reciting the Quran with a deeply reflective state of mind, evident from the many brows on her forehead and the moist wells of eyes too perceptible to be missed, I wondered about Marx’s conception of religion as an opium for people’s intellect, a progenitor of false consciousness for the have-nots and an institution of base exploitation in the superstructure of society.
But Marx should have thought about this – if it were, indeed, opium, it definitely still had immense impact in the life of this woman from Bihar, who was not only sure that God existed but also furnished valid reasons in her arguments for his presence. The most poignant among these plethora of varied reasons, some touching upon Aristotle’s metaphysics and others on Luther’s philosophic dictums of morality, went like this,
“If there were no avenues of recompense in the afterlife for the miseries of this world, what pitiful, indeed, was the human condition”.
Noor reminded me, with all the metaphysics, Nicomachean ethics and philosophy of morality, fused into one unsettling narrative,
“Babu jee, if there is no deliverance for the poor of the world, in the existence beyond, what a tragedy it will be! It should not be the fate of an absolute majority of the world’s populace to be exposed to myriad shades of poverty in these 60 odd years of life while a minuscule segment continue to live in absolute opulence.
No Babu jee! It would be so unjust, that a tiny fraction of humanity is afforded all the pleasures and felicities of the world, while the masses wonder about the prospects for the next meal. Such affluence for some and absolute penury for the others is not the way of the universe”.
I realised then that she had found a vent for her frustrations with the world to be let out. Maybe she was fatalistic in that regard too, but her ornate descriptions of the way things ought to be, affected one a lot.
Regarding the Partition and her native Bihar, her views were extraordinary as well. She said,
“We did not come to Pakistan at the onset of the great divide, Babu jee. My father, a postman in the British Raj, had said that we shall not leave this land of our ancestors under any circumstances. However, after his death, things started going downhill. My husband tried to make ends meet but it was very difficult. It became all the more difficult after the 70’s war, when the Biharis started being branded as having shallow loyalty to the state.
However, we stuck out through these years. Then, things changed after the Babri Mosque debacle. My eldest son, having just married in the month preceding the disaster, was killed in one of the outbursts of violence in Mumbai. His death changed everything; we lost everything in the ensuing mayhem.
Who was to blame? The mullah, the Brahmin, the state? Wherein did the culpability lie? We left in the year after that and came to Karachi”.
Her tone was filled with nostalgia and bitterness, and a hidden but gossamer sense of grief.
When mother asked her as to whether she found the situation here different, she tossed her head in negation.
“Baji, nothing was different here. In the 90’s, Karachi’s towns and environs became killing fields as the army operation against ‘miscreants’ continued in the city. Many of my family members were rounded up in connection with the ‘Jinnahpur’ controversy. They were put in jail without any evidence, were severely tortured by the white-clad officials of the ‘farishtas’. Two of the eight died in the cell. Sindhis were at war against the Muhajirs here, while the Pakhtun teethed in anger against the Baloch.
We had come to Pakistan expecting the situation to be different here. Nothing could have prepared us for the dystopia we witnessed here. Brother was after brother; there were moments of such depravity in those days that I still shudder when I come to think of it,” she answered.
Things, according to Noor, got from bad to worse. After the ethnic strife which had bouts of sectarian violence too now, came a brief hiatus and then came the militants. Brazen misinterpretation of religion coupled with a complete disregard for the human life meant that Noor and her family had to relocate to another part of the city.
“There was a blast near our katchra kundi (garbage dump) which made us move out from the Landhi area. Nine people were killed in it. It was so close to home, Baji that we decided we had to move out.
Baji, if you ask me, life everywhere has the same problems – a concern to satiate the fire of the stomach. The lot of the poor is the same across India and Pakistan and indeed everywhere. The politicians use us to shore up their vote banks, the hypocritical men of religion manipulate our devotion to a set of beliefs, use us as a fodder to swell their ranks. The tiller of the soil continues to search for the never-germinating seeds of material prosperity and the worker at the factory struggles to make ends meet as he opts for ‘overtime’ for that marginal increase in income. The domestic servants (I could not help noticing a minor hint of emphasis here through the amplification of voice), meanwhile, continue to bear abuses of their beliefs and persons,” she told us.
That was a harbinger of the spring to come and I should have paid heed at the time.
A week before departure, Nani gave Noor a bitter harangue for not waking up on time for her morning tasks. Consequently, her pay had to be cut, according to Nani’s judicial decree. Noor protested and in her protest, went so far as to say that Nani’s tongue was ‘unbearably caustic’. The remark rocketed Nani to a show of temper, which had been latent for a while and was difficult to propitiate for the time being.
The result was that her date for departure was hastened, and she accordingly had to leave three days before Nani was to fly out to her other daughter’s house in Quetta.
The events of that last day will forever stay etched in my mind.
As she was bringing the breakfast for Nani, the latter commented that after leaving, Noor would return to a ‘criminal’ way of life, in line with the recidivism characteristic of her ‘class’.
Whether it was the zephyr of ‘freedom at last’ that gripped her in that moment or the fact that her dues had already been cleared by mother before she left for work, whichever might have been the case, Noor answered back with such wit and self-awareness that even Marx would have been proud of her reply at the time, and maybe even forced to reconsider many of his pronouncements concerning the alleged docility of the ‘proletarians’.
“I will return, indeed, Nani to such a profligate company that you will forget the ‘sweet melody’ I was while I worked under your command. However, now with my tethered wings, I will hatch a plan along with the reprobates of my company, to loot your house in PECHS which remains without a guardian as your son is out of the country and you having to catch the plane soon,” she pronounced the rhapsody, in the tone of Solomon.
Nani was numb, while my heart rejoiced, and the edification was supreme!
I had always loved Nani to the utmost, but I despised the feudal in her. I had wished for that feudal to die a long time ago but its seeds kept on giving birth to more of the poison ivy enveloping her heart.
It had finally been dealt a blow and what a terrific tempest it caused.
Maybe, centuries of exploitation, base exploitation and a circular wheel of exploitation had been unexpected in that moment. There had been no false consciousness for sure; the poor always knew that they had been roughened up through the throes of decrees, they did see through the profiteering and the abuses, the preferential treatments and the divisions on the basis of ecclesiasticism, family, education and sentiments.
Maybe Noor had given the Azan of her own emancipation through those words; all the pain of having been forced to leave her homeland, witnessing a son’s death, having been made to acclimatise to a foreign territory, amongst alien people.
Her whole life and its various shortcomings seemed insignificant in front of that phrase. She was defiant to the mullah who divided people on the basis of tithe-giving, the patriarchs of her society who did not want to see a woman becoming conscious of her own dreams and aspirations, the very notion of inequality that this society reeked from, as dogs continued to gnaw at its moral fabric.
All the idols lay shattered in that brilliant morning of November. They had been smashed to smithereens and the human ego had triumphed.
In that one moment, Noor had become the perfect woman; no she accomplished more, she had become ‘aurat-e-momin’ (woman par excellence) rather than Iqbal’s ‘mard-e-momin’ (man par excellence), a ‘Superwoman’ in place of Nietzsche’s ‘Superman’.
She left soon after that, and when mother came back home after her work, Nani did not utter a word about the incident, while dutifully employed in fussing about the Quetta sojourn ahead.
Maybe the goons of her father’s time had come back, galloping on horses of brown and black, led by a daring woman of unflinching belief in her own being, striking fear in Nani’s heart, while the poison ivy lay tattered.
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