A short while after Khizzr had told me Zuljabeenah’s story, I stopped in the market for naan and noticed the upstairs windows to Haldee Raam’s shop had the shutters drawn. He was outside with a bundle by his feet, clicking locks closed on the metal pull down doors to his store. To my surprise his eyes lit up when he saw me, and picking up his bundle he came bustling over to the car.
“Behen, I have a favor to ask of you! It’s my daughter, she’s run off, came down early morning still dark saying something about her grandmothers having told her something in her dreams a few nights before, and then she flew out the door and into a rickshaw, gone before I could say a word. She’s gone to Baseerah, I’m sure of it!” The words came tumbling out of his mouth, “Please, you have a car, will you drive me there? It will be much faster than the bus, I must get there jhat phat!”
He had already opened the door and put his bundle in the back while I was thinking, saying, “Thank you Behen! May The Maker shower you with blessings, thank you!”
“So Haldee Raamji, what are you going to do in Baseerah?” I asked as I drove, curious about his plans.
“Areh, baabreh, at first I was furious with Zuljabeenah! I felt shamed she ran off, you know, what face would I show the world? What kind of father lets his daughter go chasing after a man, hai hai! I paced all morning, I thought I’ll go to Baseerah and drag her back, teach her a lesson! After all, I’m her father, izzat ki baat he naah? Then as I walked to and fro to and fro, I thought what if something happens to her? Baseerah is a big place; she’s never been far, hai what will become of her if some badmaash tricks her? Do you know, there are no beggars in Baseerah? No Beggars! Do you know what it means when there are no beggars visible behen? It means the hunger is beyond the belly, not a matter of andaa rotee, but a hunger that gnaws from inside people, they become predators hiding, hiding in open sight! My daughter amongst wolves!! I wept at the thought of her broken, defiled, hurt somewhere, then I said to myself, Haldee Raam this is your own fault. Buss, then I stopped walking around and realized what permission, what hammer? That boy and my daughter, clearly they loved each other, he bothered to ask my blessing, showed his respect, what else was necessary? But no, I had to close the door in his face and now look where we are . . .”
He trailed off and watched passing cars, cars we passed as we drove on in silence for a while.
Then he turned and said, “No behen, I’m not going to Baseerah to bring her back. When she left she mentioned her grandmothers, her Nani and Dadi, both long gone from this world, bless their souls. At first I thought she was doing buk buk, but I remembered how she had sometimes woken and come to me with a message from my mother, her Dadi . . . when I was choosing a location for my shop, at first I was planning on a place in another market, in Khaddarpaddar, the price was good and so was the location, then she told me Dadima had shown her rats and cockroaches swarming, cracks and holes there, but a winged horse had climbed into a different building, where the store I have now is, and everything had sparkled . . . she told me, “Aba, that place is not good, don’t move there” . . . as it turned out, this store became available and it cost more, but I listened to her and it was as she said, my shop has done well where it is, and the other one, that market was in the area hit by that monsoon we had and buss, you’ve seen it? Nothing but a chor and choowa baazar now!
So I wondered what had she dreamed? Must have been urgent for her to leave in such a hurry. Then I remembered I had dreamed also, of my mother draping a dupatta over a bride in green; my late wife, bless her soul, was putting wedding bangles on the bride’s wrists, and I said to myself, Haldee Raam, part with your pride and go to Baseerah, find your beloved daughter, see that she’s come to no harm, and give her and that boy, Rizzaq, your blessing; should she not find him, after all it’s been nearly two years since he went on his way, then give her sympathy and comfort, buss.”
He turned his gaze back out the window. I drove on, passing brightly painted trucks filled with fish through sand and scrub where hills of salt drying in the sun sparkled, toward Baseerah, the city on the seashore. Once it was a smattering of fishing villages that were scattered on the coast, in between beaches where we’d go to swim. The fishermen would come to the beach and sell crabs and fish to sojourners, prepared to cook for some, or to squat and chat with others. There’d be camels too; covered in neon colored cloth, and we’d ride between their humps when they weren’t racing on the sand, their handlers astride, stick in hand rope in the other, turbans flying behind them. Then Baseerah had been developed.
A city with big hotels and apartment buildings, glittering towers filled with offices and shops from all around the world. A global city where meetings and conferences were held around cuisine reflecting flavors from all nations. Most of the fishing villages were consumed by Baseerah and her airport. I hadn’t been there before but had heard about this building, Al-Zubair, that powered the whole place with solar energy for free, rich poor and in between, nobody went without electric in Baseerah. It was rumored that Al-Zubair held enough electricity to power the airplanes that came and went from Baseerah’s airport. Apparently Zuljabeenah’s beloved, Rizzaq, was the son of the man who had commissioned it.
“You know we used to come to the beach, me and Bahar Begum, and Zuljabeenah. She learned to swim in these waters, used to go out in her shalwar kurta and splish and splash and float, singing the whole time. She’d bring seaweeds; they grew near those rocky outcroppings in the pools, and fling them on her mother, Bahar Begum. How she’d squeal, ai ai slimy, and run on the sand flinging the fronds from her hair with Zuljabeenah chasing her with more, more Ama she’d call, I’ve got more sea hair for you, it’ll turn you into a mermaid then we can swim together. Eventually Bahar also went out into the water and began swimming, I’d hear them singing and giggling, they swore that dolphins and turtles were swimming with them, such joyous days.
I’d forgotten but the truth is Bahar’s father never liked me, only grudgingly gave us his blessing to marry, always looked down his nose at me, peering over his spectacles. I swore I wouldn’t be like the old man, and now look, when the time came and that boy asked my permission what did I tell him? Areh Haldee Raam, what has become of you?” He shook his head, then continued, “Chalo, enough about me behen, now tell me, I’m guessing no husband children job otherwise you wouldn’t be driving me all the way to Baseerah, so what is it you do?”
“It’s true, Haldee Raamji, no spouse no children either. I lived with my parents until they passed on and left me this car and their little flat, where I make my home by myself. My father was a mechanic and he taught me how to fix cars. For a while I worked in the shop where he worked, and the owner liked having a woman mechanic, it brought many customers so he paid me well. But I became restless working on axles, oil changes, radiators, cracked heads, ball bearings, spark plugs, aligning wheels from morning till night, and decided to ride the buses around the country for a while. When I returned to Kuchkhaas I knew what I wanted to do . . . what do I do? Haldee Raamji, I listen. I listen to the stories people have to tell. I have a sidewalk mat on the corner of Khayaal Gallee and Sapna Sarak, with a big ear sign that says “Aur Sunaao” and a few stools where people come by and sit and share whatever they feel like. Next to me is the dentist with his chair and big smiling mouth sign, sometimes he has lots to tell and I listen to him. He gives me dental work as payment. On the other side are the barber and the shoe shiner; we exchange services also. Some people give me five rupees, some give me blessings, others call me crazy wasting my time bewakoof, sometimes I receive a basket of mangoes or a crate of cherries, the young children call me Sapno ki Raani and sing the song from the film when they see me, tell me what happened at school that day while they skip and play hopscotch.”
He bobbed his head side to side, “Chalo, kuch log bolte he, some more than others, some to the exclusion of anything other than hearing the sound of their own voice! This one man I knew, buk buk all the time, mostly bukwaas, he himself full of information facts detail answers to everything and anything, koi purwaa naheen about who he talks to as long as he could talk! Walking talking newspaper reporter rolled into encyclopedia, all in one . . . . useful but also in need of update, you know the encyclopedia’s get old, new facts new research next thing you know, the binding holds pages full with nothing to them, empty. This man he talked my ear off constantly until one day he was regaling me about the finer details regarding the manufacture of clothes pins, I walked away and he didn’t even notice, when I came back he was still talking! I thought hai, Haldee Raam, what a lot of time you’ve wasted listening to this fellow who doesn’t even notice when you’re not there! After all conversation is a two way street hai naan? Involving consideration . . . some people sit and look like they’re listening but in one ear out the other it goes, meaningless occupation can be hazardous to health for both parties. Me, I don’t read books, don’t know letters but Zuljabeenah, she can read, gave tuition to the market children who were interested in learning. Here I am talking away, so you like it, the listening business, it pays well? ”
“No question about like not like Haldee Raamji, it is what it is. Stories find me, some come caaw caaw, coo coo, moo moo, some I want to tell shoo shoo, others come rumbling bump bump bump, some buzz like flies to swat away. For a while I wondered about this. What do they want? To be told? I’m no storyteller, so how come these stories come sniffing around? I’ve always loved stories, so I thought as a storylover I’m drawing tales since I’m wagging my tail at them, then one day I was outside the bookstore and realized the last book I had read, I already knew the story, had heard it told, spoken from lips alive with sound.
Haan, I thought then this is part of it, I enjoy listening to a story being told more than reading it in a book, long story short; while I was swimming one afternoon I heard a butterfly flying, have you heard the sound Haldee Raamji? How to describe it?! Dainty tissue paper wings moving air, yet underwater I heard them and I realized, the stories come to be heard because I listen, so we are a match, lucky me when it’s a two way street. The stories I love most have feet, move themselves from here to there, alive and fresh but there are those that limp along; still that song wants to be heard too.
When I need rest from listening, I turn the sign and stools upside down and roll up the mat, though somedays a young woman sits in my place, she enjoys it also so this arrangement works well for us. I think it pays very well, I get to listen, tales are told, buss, a simple love match.”
Haldee Raam laughed, “Love match is a good jori, good union. Do you have a favorite?”
“You know, there is this one story . . . . a middle aged woman, Rehana, once sat down and what a kahaani she had, uff! She used to do bridal mehendi, went house to house with her henna cones and applied intricate designs to hands and feet, arms and legs. One day she saw something that upset her. She had been at a house where a little girl was being boisterous and the mother had dragged her away by her ear. When they returned the girls face was puffy, ear was crimson, and she was completely subdued. Rehana told me it looked like a light had gone out. She began noticing this kind of thing in the homes she worked in and it was very disturbing to her, watching the lights dimming. She wondered whether they would rekindle or continue to dim until phut, out, and then they’d become women like their mothers, doing the same over and over again. She didn’t know what she could do, wondered should she even do, but bubbling inside her was anger brewing, and one day she thought, If only these children had a different place to be!!
That thought flickered and she began putting away a portion of her earnings with a shelter in mind, but while she was saving and her anger cooled she had a new thought. Rehana, she asked herself, how are these children even going to come to this different place haan? They’re children, their mummys and daddys aren’t going to bring them by the ear! She continued saving even though this idea was growing cold, and one night she sat up in bed and said, Rehana! There are children whose mummys do want a different place for them! And she thought of the little girls of eight and nine and six and eleven who were married at these tender ages, and she said to herself, Yes, it is for them I will provide a shelter, for their mothers and sisters and grandmothers to have a place to bring them when they do want to do something different and feel helpless! Those other little girls, their light dims, but dim light is light.
Anyway, she succeeded at providing a sanctuary for child brides, and she taught them what she knew, the application of henna as well as the growing of henna plants and creating the powder, paste, and cones. She doesn’t go house to house anymore, but the young women do, and are independent in more ways than financial. Some have married, some have used their earnings to learn reading and writing and have gone on to work other jobs, many go back to their families and share what they’ve learned with the women, slowly speaking out from within with a voice their mothers and grandmothers didn’t know how to use. So those dimming lights illuminated a spark inside Rehana and she turned it into something wider that served children who were being savagely abused. When she told me this tale, she said she’s always grateful she witnessed what she did even though it was sad and ugly to her. She gave me permission to share her story too. Most people sit and tell their stories simply wanting someone to listen, but Rehana was different, she wanted more than to tell the story, she wanted it to move as well.”
Haldee Raam grunted. “Areh dekho, how time has flown, there is Baseerah!”
It was true; we’d been on the road all day without pause. The naan I had picked up earlier we had shared and seeing the bright lights sparkling I suddenly felt hungry. I suggested we stop and eat, but Haldee Raam would have none of that, he wanted to go straightaway to find Zuljabeenah, and he was certain she’d be found at Al-Zubair. The building was easy enough to find, it was blinding, visible even as we approached from miles away. The city itself seemed organized along the lines of a grid, with mainly tall structures that all provided parking in their lower levels. Big signs hung above the roads, left here for Tinkle Towel Plaza, right there for Sadaabahar Baagh, and so on, making it easy to navigate. Unlike Kuchkhaas, the city we lived in, here the roads were broad; cars drove in neat lines, no honking blaring noises, no rickshaaws either, though there were buses. Vehicles stopped at red traffic lights, drove when the lights turned green in an orderly fashion. The general rowdiness that prevailed on the streets of Kuchkhaas was absent here, beggars and hawkers were not apparent either.
We parked and walked to Al-Zubair, where we discovered that Zuljabeenah was not there. Had she not arrived yet? We didn’t know. Haldee Raam was distraught. He began pacing up and down, rubbing his shiny pate. It wasn’t long before a young man came over and began talking with me and I was informed that if we had come to see the holy man who’d been sitting here for two years, well he was gone, one day he was there the next he wasn’t. I also learned that whatever cuisine we desired, my new nephew would guide us to all the best places, Egyptian, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Cuban, Cajun, Norwegian, all we had to do was name it and he would take us to THE best of the best. Haldee Raam refused to budge from Al-Zubair, after all what if Zuljabeenah had not yet come and came while we were gone, then what? No no he would stay put, as for food, some hot tea and spicy fish and crab, village style, was that on the menu, he asked the young man. Village style?! Our new nephew declared village style and us old news, and set of to tell another group of people, apparently his Sister Brother Granny, how the holy man was gone . . . .
So I left Haldee Raam to Al-Zubair and went off in search of village style spicy fish, crab, and hot tea. I thought I’d have to go far but as I walked away, an old man and I bumped into each other. I had been walking with my gaze turned skyward, following the brilliant light that projected for miles and. Not a star was visible in the heavens above. Then bump. I apologized at the same time as the old man. Turns out, he had been walking with his sight fixed on Haldee Raam. Then bump. This is how we met Uzair, who very kindly led me to where village style spicy fish, crab, and cooked garam tea were available. I was surprised when he asked whether my companion was called Haldee Raam. In a city of this size, how did he know this? He told me of his relationship with Rizzaq, and how he himself had realized that perhaps the hammer would fall or perhaps someone would come looking for Rizzaq in the young mans absence, so he’d extended his visit with his daughter and her family, much to their delight, and walked around Al-Zubair daily on behalf of his young friend.
“Simple powers of deduction. Not much to it, one plus one? Some say two, I say three!” he grinned and chuckled as we talked and sipped our tea.
We ate and returned to Haldee Raam with a tiffin and thermos for him. He was sitting on a bench looking forlorn, but he perked up after meeting Uzair and by the time he tucked into his village style dinner, his eyes were as bright as his pate.
“But what about my daughter? Has she come and gone, or not yet arrived? Behen, I will stay here and wait, you go back and see if she’s returned home, after all if she got here before us she would have found no Rizzaq, and where else would she go but back home naah?”
“Well, perhaps, but after an all day journey it could be that she spends the night and returns tomorrow, that is if this is even where she was headed. I’m tired, Haldee Raamji, I’m not driving anymore until after I’ve slept.”
Haldee Raam nodded, “Haa, this is true. Let’s get rooms at a hotel and discuss tomorrow.”
Uzair offered us a room at his daughter’s house, but he didn’t insist when we declined and directed us to an affordable room that a widow of his acquaintance rented out to travellers by word of mouth, where we settled in for the night.