Brick by Brick
By Radhika Iyengar, India (Published in Issue 26)
Saleem and Ahmed spiralled ecstatically around their eldest sister Sultana who sat cross-legged on the cold floor, disengaged from the world, chanting mathematic equations as though they were hypnotic spells. Her body moved rhythmically with each numeric whisper. Screaming and screeching, the brothers scrambled across the small room until they were silenced by the stone-turning glare of their mother, Gulbag Begum. “Be quiet, you two!” she reproached. “Are you not aware that your sister is studying?” The valiant brothers suddenly transformed into stick-evading puppies. Apologizing grievously to their mother and sister, they vanished into the hallway within minutes with their tails tucked between their legs.
Sultana raised her head from her book like a queen who was ceremoniously hailed into power. “You should have let them play,” she said disrupting the silence. “Even if they did succeed in distracting me, you know I would still be able to outdo any fool in my class.”
Charmed by her daughter’s intelligence and guroor – two inimitable streaks which could only be credited to her – a smile skirted the corners of Gulbag Begum’s mouth. “Of course,” she began, dusting microscopic specks from a colossal stack of second-hand books that sat on the table, “but one should never be faced with an event which may hold the ability to contest that.” She walked up to the window and her hands drew an invisible arc as she separated the curtains. With her back still facing Sultana, Gulbag Begum inclined her head slightly as she looked out of the window.
A solemn tone laced the dialogue that followed. “You know, even against your abba’s wishes, I have scraped rupees together to be able to afford your education, that too in a world where teaching a woman anything except how to hold a needle or a karchi is frowned upon. I notice a restless energy in you Sultana, one that is motivated by the want to rise above all and make something of yourself. Which is why I allow you to study, while your seven sisters cook, clean and cater to household demands. Your brothers are childish and far too young; Ahmed still hasn’t mastered the art of urinating without wetting his pants!” There was a hint of disappointment in her tone.
Gulbag Begum then drew in her breath and turned around. With measured, decisive steps, she progressed towards her daughter. She appeared as a head-covering archangel with knitted brows. “Here,” she said, retrieving a beige envelope from the folds of her burqa and holding it out to her daughter. It bore a string of neatly typed-out alphabets that read, ‘To Miss Sultana Ali Zafar’.
“It’s from Leeds University,” she said in response to her daughter’s bewildered expression. “It’s a scholarship invitation. They want you there...”
Madhur’s suitcase yawned open in protest. Among other things, it spewed out bundles of dhotis, a set of badly tailored pants, a framed photograph of his mother, and pickle jars embalmed with oil that had leaked onto the torn strips of an old South Indian sari, with which their mouths and bodies had been tied. Professors, scholars and students scurried past – halting abruptly for a moment and then politely stepping over the tributaries of sesame oil that drew abstract lines across the pale gravel. Madhur, whose enthusiasm of finally arriving at the prestigious Leeds University campus had seen a premature death, sighed hopelessly as he bent down to recover his belongings. He remembered his mother wagging her finger, admonishing her son’s sudden and thoughtless move to an alien country.
“Why are you going to the land of white people? We have enough of them here!” She had stated in a reprimanding tone, when he had ‘subtly’ broken the news of travelling overseas to pursue higher education.
“It’s a scholarship, amma,” Madhur had replied hesitantly, “It means you don’t have to work extra hours to afford my college fees. Not many of us get this opportunity!”
“Oh my! College? And what about marriage? Lord Venkat, do something!” She had wailed theatrically, taking Madhur by the ear and dragging his full-grown body to an amply lit shrine that housed the South Indian deity. “Look at him and repent!” She had demanded, thrusting her son’s head towards the statue. The incense sticks tickled Madhur’s nose, as he sat staring at the smiling face of Lord Venkat.
Like a goat assigned to its fate at a halal shop, Madhur had bleated, “But amma...”
“No, I won’t hear it!” She had said, cutting him off midway. She had then lit the incense sticks, closed her eyes and begun singing the ritualistic evening prayer. In her nasal voice (celebrated by several god-fearing houses down the road), he had begun enlisting her ‘requests’ to the god:
“I need a daughter-in-law, Lord Venkat. For decades, I have served you. I have never missed a prayer meeting. I have nursed my in-laws (god bless their souls), fed my husband and produced a male heir. Now, it is time for me to retire. I need someone to cook, wash clothes, do the dishes and clear out the cobwebs. I need a virgin, well-bred, Brahmin... daughter-in-law!”
“Looks like you have already settled down.”
Like a time machine that had been fixed, Madhur was transported back to the present.
He threw his head back to see three women draped in black clothing standing before him. They appeared as though they were members of the Ku Klux Klan, except that they floated in black and belonged to the feminine species. Staring down at him intently, the leader of the terror triplets (as Madhur had dubbed them), seemed to be smiling as she stood there, allowing her cheeks to squeeze through the crescent opening near the eyes.
“Excuse me?” Madhur asked, perplexed.
Before the leader could draw in a deep breath to repeat the statement, she was hushed by her sidekicks through subtle nudges from either side. “We shouldn’t be talking to strangers, Sultana,” whispered one of them, leaning in conspiratorially towards the leader.
“Especially when he is a man,” chimed in the wide-eyed other.
“Rubbish!” Sultana hissed. “What encourages you two to advocate such foolish thoughts especially when we are at Leeds University? More importantly, who on earth blessed you two with scholarships, when even god wasn’t kind enough to bless you with brains?”
Stunned by their leader’s dramatic ridicule, the women retired from speaking any further. They stood hunchbacked, suddenly stripped of the terrifying persona they had earlier presented. Sultana settled a crease on her burqa and then resumed staring at the bewildered South Indian boy, as though it was her birthright to make him uncomfortable.
“What subject?” she asked finally.
“Chemistry. PhD,” he replied, gingerly picking up a pickle jar and holding on to it tightly. It helped him muster up some courage. “You?”
“Madhur,” he said nervously extending his hand, while still squatting on the ground.
“Sultana.” No hand was extended in return. “Alright, then,” she said, clapping her hands. “Now that we have exchanged pleasantries... tea?”
The two women yelped, the clock chimed and a student late for his lecture stumbled over the bundle of dhotis. All Madhur could say was, “I prefer coffee.”
Sultana’s and Madhur’s friendship grew over the next few months. Often they would meet in the library to exchange their views on Marxism, or saunter through the sunlight flooded hallways, while Madhur fervently talked about Tagore’s literature and his progressive thoughts on women. They would walk on the damp grass across sprawling lawns, where butterflies flitted about like autumn leaves. It was on one such walk that Sultana confessed her impetuous desire to run barefoot and wild across the lawn.
“That would be completely unlike you, would it not?” Madhur asked, unable to conceal the smirk that appeared on his face at the very thought of having the decorous Sultana running about as an all-abandoned spirit.
“Madhur, there is a reason why I came to study in a country which is quite different from ours,” Sultana answered in a serious tone, halting him with a slight, almost inconspicuous touch. “The rules that work there don’t apply here. The person I was in Lahore should be left behind... there are many things I plan to change about myself.”
Madhur smiled and tentatively leaned forward, “Well then, you must start with the burqa.”
“Yes,” she agreed, lifting her burqa slightly to notice its soiled hem, “it would be a bit of a worry to scamper about in a frock... I’d rather wear pants!”
“I’d rather you did too. At least that way,” he said looking away embarrassed, “I would have the opportunity of seeing your face.”
Sultana remained quiet. Pocketing her hands in her burqa, she slowly resumed walking, looking down at the ground as she placed one foot ahead another. A smiled lurked behind her silence. She was finally moving forward.
A year before they completed their PhD studies, Madhur had mustered up the courage to ask Sultana for her hand in marriage. The proposal was a string of broken phrases: “I have been thinking... the two of us... marriage... we will work of course, once married... both of us would... I won’t come in your way...” Sultana had sat erect and listened patiently. When he had finished, she had not blinked, blushed or banished the suggestion of such an outlandish thought. All she had said was, “How and how soon?”
The proposal had not surprised her. Rather, she had expected it. She had expected it for some time, especially from the day when she had stripped off her burqa and appeared before him wearing pants and a shirt. Indeed, she had planned it all.
Sultana had known that that the moment she returned from England, she would be stifled with a deluge of cross-cousin rishtas offered by excited relatives she had never even met. Her mother was open-minded of course, but her father could be easily influenced by his large, ever-growing family of meddlesome aunts, uncles, cousins, half-cousins and three-quarter cousins. And marrying a cousin whose beard was no longer than his goat’s own and who believed that the only credentials his wife should have were: a) to be able to cook extraordinary mutton-korma, b) to read the Quran not less than two times a day, and c) to possess the demeanour of a fearful hamster when in company of men – was deemed unacceptable by her.
When she had met Madhur the first time, his dark South Indian looks were appealing, but what drew her to him even more was his naive, uncalculating nature. He had all the qualities she wanted in a man: a) he was a scientist who ferociously refuted the concept of god, b) he patiently listened to her whenever there was an argument, and c) he encouraged her to boycott the burqa and respected her even more when she wore the pants, literally and metaphorically. Hence, she realized that her marriage to such a man would be appropriate and comfortable.
Therefore, when Madhur had proposed, she had pushed away all doubts and thoughts about how her family would respond, and had accepted willingly.
Her family though, was the last thing Sultana would have to worry about. For miles away, a religious unrest was billowing dust. Muhammad Ali Jinnah had just voiced his demand for a separate, independent Muslim nation called Pakistan.
About the author: Radhika Iyengar currently works as a Features Writer for a creative arts lifestyle magazine called, Platform Magazine (http://www.platform-mag.com/). She has written across a spectrum of genres including film, theatre, literature, music and design, for both print and digital. Radhika has had the opportunity to interview writers such as Ruskin Bond and Musharraf Ali Farooqi, as well as Academy Award winning filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, BAFTA award winning filmmaker Asif Kapadia and several others. Her blog www.chaipatti.wordpress.com, nimbly trots between fiction and poetry, and occasionally features film and theatre reviews. In the past, she has been a member of a writers' group called, Wriyaz at the British Council, New Delhi, whose members included the Commonwealth Prize winner Rana Dasgupta and Samit Basu. Fictional characters, imaginary worlds and magical realities fascinate Radhika. She is currently based in New Delhi and is working on her debut novel.