No place to hideby HUMRA QURAISHI July 10 2020, 5:15 pm Estimated Reading Time: 11 mins, 2 secs
Humra Quraishi writes this short story about a brother, who comes visiting his sister to break the silence between them.
I lay still, looking about vacantly. Mornings I hated, for that was the time I had to set out. Get out of my shell.
Although this had been my routine for the last several weeks, I hadn’t been able to grasp the mechanics of trying to earn a living till date; to fend for myself.
I had to get out to work whether I liked it or not, whether it suited my temperament or for that matter paralleled my background - I was raised in a nondescript town of Uttar Pradesh, amidst the traditional frills of a conservative family.
This morning there was no reasoning that seemed to work. I didn’t want to move out from the bed, which doubled up as a sofa during the day. I lay rather still, my eyes no longer shut.
Wide awake I could hear the distant bark of a dog, that distinct cry of an abandoned child - the sound of the municipality supplying water filling the overhead tanks lethargically.
The doorbell rang.
Not once but thrice. Each of the times, quite aggressively.
Throwing the faded dupatta over my crestfallen chest, running towards the front door and throwing it open, I was surprised to see my brother standing right there with a traveling bag next to him.
‘Ahmed! You… you’re here? Come... come in.’
‘I’ve been going around in the auto!’
Throwing a quick glance here and there to survey my room he said, ‘I Didn’t’ even know you moved here. I went to your old place and was told by one of the maids that you’d moved out to this new address. I’ve somehow reached here. Don’t know why you moved here!’
‘Ahmed all that later, first…’
‘But why have you shifted here? Why did you leave that place… Why here! Seems so run down and… ’
‘Why didn’t you tell me you’d be coming?’
‘I couldn’t… It was all too rushed and…’
‘Did you travel without reservation?’
‘I’m completely exhausted… the train journey and then this terrible auto ride… and now after seeing this room… it’s too much!’
‘You wouldn’t understand… I’m making some chai… you’ll feel better after chai and these cookies.’
I was deliberately trying to distract him. I opened a packet stuffed with atta biscuits and dipped them in the tea with Ahmed’s commentary shifting gear.
‘Where’s that huge lamp you’d bought in Srinagar? Wasn’t it there in your previous home?’
‘Couldn’t carry it and…’
‘And that walnut study table?’
‘Couldn’t cart it either.’
‘And those chairs?’
‘Those details will come later... I’ve got to get ready and get out.’
‘You forgotten us! For months you haven’t bothered to keep in touch… you don’t answer my calls or read my messages… I’ve been trying to call you but you don’t take my calls!’
‘You’re going on and on! These are all silly talks!’
‘Apa what’s the matter? You’re looking so tense and upset!’
‘You talking nonstop!’
‘Can’t I talk here or what!’
‘Later… this tap seems like it has retired for the day!’
‘What! No water! Why are you living in this filthy colony?’
‘Enough of your nonsense!’
’But why did you leave the old place? You were married to him for so long… for so many years! Twenty or more?’
‘My nerves couldn’t cope any longer. Can’t you understand? Stop asking me all this rubbish!’
‘But all those years you were there… with him in that marriage!’
‘There was no support from any of you, for me to fight that sadist. Not one bit of support, otherwise I would have left that useless fellow years ago. My life is ruined… finished!’
‘Apa, don’t drag all that old stuff into this! I’m staying with you now, I’m going to college here.’
My thoughts were hammering my nerves. Why didn’t my parents rescue me from those onslaughts? Why couldn’t they see and sense the sorrow I was going through in a terrible marriage? Why didn’t they take me back home?
I was not heading to my workplace but was walking towards the makeshift bed.
My brother’s constant chatter was intruding upon my privacy... It was bothering me.
I was sitting-up and watching Ahmed pacing, tidying the room and tossing around comments, ‘Silver fish in these books, cobwebs all over! No dusting done! Apa what’s the matter… you’re looking so sad and even this place is so neglected. Tell me what’s happening?’
‘No, nothing… Tell me which college are you planning to take admission in? Are you going to study commerce?’
‘I didn’t want to shift from home but out there things are hopeless and…’
‘Why… what is happening?’
‘How would you know what’s been happening! You haven’t bothered to call us or even tell us about this shift! It’s a big step to take but you didn’t bother to tell us!’
‘Ahmed, stop sounding so bitter! I’ve been through hell... all the shifting and moving out. Nothing is easy… I knew nobody would’ve helped so I had to do it on my own… Now tell me which college? Which course?’
‘I’m confused… about what to study!’
‘Not sure about anything. Not sure about whether I’ll be managing abba’s business.’
‘Can’t say but... ’
‘What’s wrong with running abba’s business?’
‘There was rioting last month… so many shops were looted, so many homes were destroyed. And Mirza’s new factory has also been burnt. Even Shah’s old restaurant has shut down… It’s ruined! But you wouldn’t know! You haven’t bothered to know what’s been happening to us!’
‘Did you tell me all this?’
‘Did you take my calls! Even amma and abba tried but you didn’t even take their calls.’
‘I was going through this shifting tension and been feeling so cut off… living in my own shell.’
‘We would have only helped you?’
‘All these years nobody has helped me!’
‘Now back home things are bad… really bad… so bad that…’
‘What do you mean so bad? Is our home okay?’
‘Nothing is okay… nothing at all! But we are alive. Still alive… What all can I tell you when you too are in such a condition… going through all this.’
‘Right now I have to move on, I’ve got to study and earn, otherwise our survival will get difficult.’
‘Don’t take commerce if you feel doing business will be risky. Take some other course.’
‘I’m confused… so confused. I don’t even know what to study and what else to do in life! It’s getting to be very frightening with so much of violence and crime spreading!’
‘What about taking up legal studies?’
‘So that I fight your divorce battle!’
‘What! No help is needed by me from you all… I was dying in that marriage but you people didn’t bother! No one got me out from that fellow’s clutches! Moved out all by myself… shifted all by herself… will fight the divorce battle also by myself!”
‘Didn’t know your marriage was so bad otherwise we would have been there…’
‘But amma knew about my terrible marriage. Yet she didn’t help me end the marriage. Now you’ve emerged like this and you’re taking me for granted, barging in as though this is your own this place!’
‘What! What! You don’t want me here in your house!’
‘Arre… I just couldn’t control myself… Been very tense with all this shifting and looking for a job.’
‘Did you tell me about all this… you should have!’
‘You wouldn’t have understood… you’re too young and…’
‘I’m going back… returning. I was anyway not too sure of coming here. I’m leaving now, as the Rajdhani is at...’
‘No, you aren’t going. Ahmed, you aren’t going from here. Ahmed, please, I’m sorry…’
Looking determined and clasping his bag too stubbornly, he was moving towards the front door even as I tried to pull him back. I was pulling the bag from his hands.
The bag fell, hitting the floor. Shattering sound of glass breaking came out from within its folds.
Apologies made very little difference. None of the words spoken by me made any sense. He was clutching on to the broken photo-frame, looking at me accusingly, as I also sat unmoved, too devastated.
Through the broken glass, the picture of our ancestral home in Jhansi was stirring my emotions. Images of my hometown flashed in front of me - rocky terrain, quaint mandis, winding roads, crumbling fort, huge dams. And, of course our ancestral home with creepers climbing up the crumbling boundary wall… my father spent most of his woken hours in the sprawling garden. Plants and trees would drag him out of his perpetual depression; no pills or potions could do that.
Although mangoes ripened, flowers bloomed and blossomed, birds chirped, the interiors and exteriors of our home lay neglected because of our declining and dwindling resources.
Bypassing these nostalgia-dripping memories, I was looking at my brother as he sat forlorn, holding the broken frame with glass edges jutting out.
‘Ahmed this glass will cut your hands! Ahmed are you hearing? Why are you making a fuss? We will take many more pictures of our home… so many pictures and we will hang them all over the walls!’
‘There’s no home!’
‘No home! Our home… our abba’s home. Our home!’
‘Ruined in the rioting and…’
‘What! You people didn’t tell me!’
‘Did you take my calls? I kept calling you for days and days!’
Clutching the broken frame closer to his chest, screaming, ‘Rioting! Danga! The policewallahs didn’t stop those goondas, those rioters… They let them kill and destroy… everything stands ruined!’