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Musharraf Ali Farooqi is an author and translator. His critically acclaimed translation of the Indo-Islamic epic, The Adventures of Amir Hamza, was published by the Modern Library in 2007. He has also translated the works of contemporary Urdu poet Afzal Ahmed Syed.
From the Hardcover edition.
AKBAR AHMAD was felled by a stroke one year before his retirement from the finance ministry and three days after being diagnosed with high cholesterol. He was fifty-nine years old. His wife and daughters blamed his untimely demise on excessive eating, his only acknowledged vice. The family remembered him in all other respects as a model of righteousness.
Akbar Ahmad acquitted himself in his posthumous affairs in the same methodical manner in which he had conducted his life. Ordained by the will, his death triggered visits by the lawyer, the accountant and the manager of the local bank. All matters of his estate were discharged before the forty days of ritual mourning were over, and for the first time, his widow, Mona, found herself in charge of finances.
While sorting a drawer of Akbar Ahmad’s effects, Mona discovered a photograph taken when he received a citation on the occasion of his twenty-fifth year in service. The portrait accurately captured Akbar Ahmad’s sombre persona. Mona had the picture enlarged and framed, then hung it in the living room where she often spent time. When she looked at the portrait, she felt Akbar Ahmad was still with her.
One day when she looked at the portrait, she considered how blessed she had been in life. She contemplated her good fortune in finding an upright man like Akbar Ahmad as her life partner and felt grateful for his bounteous legacy, which released her from all financial cares. Akbar Ahmad looked back at her, his face cast in an expression of long suffering. Mona’s eyes welled up with tears.
After Akbar Ahmad’s death, Mona became more conscious of her own health. She was fifty, and the doctor had warned her about the physical changes she must expect at her age. Her older daughter Tanya insisted that Mona start exercising, so Mona began going for walks in a nearby park every few days with her neighbour from across the street, Mrs. Baig. Often her back felt stiff when she woke up in the mornings, and her legs cramped if she sat in one place for too long. When she looked at Akbar Ahmad’s portrait, she was reminded of one of his favourite sayings: It’s all the toll and suffering of life!
Mona’s chief memories of thirty-one years of married life concerned caring for her husband, raising her two daughters and running a busy household. Akbar Ahmad’s steady rise through the ranks of the finance ministry forced him to spend more and more time at work; his weekends were taken up by visits either to his superiors
or from his colleagues in the ministry. Over the course of his career, Akbar Ahmad’s work engagements overtook his married life. During Akbar Ahmad’s last years, a month before the federal budget was announced, his whole office staff numbering six people moved into their house. Akbar Ahmad found it more convenient to work the extra hours from the comfort of his home. Mona and the cook, Habib, remained busy in the kitchen all day, making tea for the staff every few hours and cooking and serving food to them during lunch and dinner. Mona got respite only late at night when the staff left. Still, she had to wash and put away the dishes as Habib would leave soon after the dinner was served.
With Akbar Ahmad occupied by his work, Mona lavished all her attention and care on her first child, Tanya. Three years later their second daughter, Amber, was born, and Mona underwent a prolonged depression. Her older sister, Hina, who attended to her in those days, worried about Mona. She had had a similar episode once before, too, after their father’s death. Hina was greatly relieved to notice that despite her low spirits, Mona seemed ableto discharge her duties as a mother. However, Mona lost all desire to go outdoors and no longer asked Akbar Ahmad to take time out from work for an outing or a picnic as she had done after the birth of Tanya.
Soon afterwards Akbar Ahmad was posted for a year to Islamabad, a thousand kilometres away from Karachi. He decided that it would be best for Mona to stay behind in Karachi to look after the house and the children. Mona took stock of her circumstances and realized that she had to make an effort to cast off her depression and strike a balance between her needs and the needs of her family. When Akbar Ahmad returned, he apparently never felt anything had been amiss in the household routines. He found his shaving water ready in the morning as before, his office clothes on the bedside in the correct order with the socks on top, and the folded newspaper on the right side of the breakfast table.
Akbar Ahmad liked to have more than one freshly made dish at each meal, with a homemade dessert afterwards. His characteristic frugality lapsed only in the matter of food, so in time he told Mona that they could hire a cook. That was how Habib was hired–their first household help. Afterwards, it turned out that Habib had lied about his long experience. The only dishes he could make with any competence were rice and lentils. It took Mona several months before Habib was properly trained. But his job mostly remained limited to that of kitchen help. Mona was unable to entirely delegate the cooking part. The glimmer of delight in Akbar Ahmad’s eyes as she announced the menu she had prepared gave her a sense of fulfillment.
Mona’s daytime routine was hardly over when it was time for Akbar Ahmad to come home. Another set of routines would then start: bringing him a hot towel to wipe his face, making tea and pouring it for him after exactly three minutes of steeping, laying the dinner table, and placing three toothpicks and a small hand towel near his plate. When she left a task to Habib, something invariably went wrong, and Akbar Ahmad complained about it for days afterwards.
Mona followed the same household schedule with little variance until the day Akbar Ahmad died.
One of the first changes Mona felt was the sudden end to the daily duties she performed for Akbar Ahmad. After many months of feeling unsettled, she began enjoying her leisure. If she read a book, often she would become so engrossed in it that she forgot about her lunch. When Habib was away, she felt too lazy to prepare meals for herself. On those occasions, only if her daughters or sister dropped by did she make lunch or dinner. Some days she drank pot after pot of jasmine tea the whole afternoon, or ate only fruit. Such a lack of structure would have been unthinkable in Akbar Ahmad’s lifetime.
For the first time since her marriage, and at her sister Hina’s suggestion, Mona took up a hobby and began gardening. Mona’s reminiscences of her childhood home were inseparable from the memories of the courtyard flower beds tended by her mother. Her mother had taught Mona how to plant and care for saplings. Those memories remained with Mona even after more recent events of her married life were forgotten.
The garden was one place where Mona spent money freely and of her own accord.
Mona was shocked to find out how much money Akbar Ahmad had left behind. In her mind, she could not reconcile the amount with all those years of frugal existence and her losing battle against his arguments for balancing the income against an assortment of what he called “immediate necessities.” These turned out to be compulsory deductions for the savings accounts, insurance premiums, treasury bills, and stock exchange deposit accounts. It took Mona some time to become accustomed to the idea that she had ready access to that money and no longer had to consult her conscience or ask Akbar Ahmad’s permission to spend it.
Mona had the much needed repairs done to the cracking boundary wall of the house. The paved path that led through the garden into the rooms also needed fixing. Mona’s bedroom and bathroom, which were above the living and drawing rooms, needed some minor repairs to the roof, too. Akbar Ahmad had kept putting off these repairs. Finally, Mona also had a separate kitchen entrance made from the garden, so that the cook and the newly hired maidservant, Noori, could conveniently go in and out of the kitchen without disturbing her in the living room.
After paying the salaries of the household staff (a gardener was paid per visit), Mona was released from accounting for every small sum spent during the month. But even a year after Akbar Ahmad’s death, she could not spend money impulsively, but it happened more and more frequently that she bought something she liked–an ornamental bowl for the coffee table or new curtains for her bedroom.
One day, while shopping with her daughter Amber, Mona spent three thousand rupees on a small rosewood table with marquetry work. The furniture shop owner had told her it was the only one left and he could not guarantee that it would be there when she next visited. Amber, too, encouraged her to purchase it. After they returned home, as Amber helped her unwrap the table, Mona’s gaze unconsciously travelled up to the photograph. The expression on Akbar Ahmad’s face was one of shock and disbelief. Mona went out into the garden before his remonstrating looks became unbearable.
Akbar Ahmad still looked reproachfully at her when she was unable to account for an expenditure, but as time went on, his objections rang fainter and fainter.
THE MAN NEXT DOOR
A year after Akbar Ahmad’s death, Mona was well settled in her new life. She was enjoying gardening. With the gardener’s help, she had transformed the spacious lawn from a grassy desolation marked with a dozen or so potted evergreens into a luxurious stretch of rare flowers, creepers and shrubs. The morning glory slowly began to cover the walls of the summerhouse and Mona planted seasonal peonies and lilies.
The gardener dropped by one day in the evening on his way to the nursery to find out if Mona needed more marigolds for her landscaping. After he left, she sat down on the easy chair on the lawn by the summerhouse. The day had been particularly hot, though a few scattered showers in the afternoon had brought a little respite from the severe humidity, and by early evening a light, pleasant breeze had picked up. As Mona prepared to
go indoors she saw day labourers on her neighbour
Mrs. Baig’s balcony, which overlooked her lawn. They were carrying in furniture and luggage. It seemed a new tenant was moving into the upper storey of Mrs. Baig’s house. The elderly Mrs. Baig had been a family friend long before they became neighbours. Having lost her husband at the same age in her life as Mona recently had, Mrs. Baig understood Mona’s loneliness. For her part, Mona had become more appreciative of Mrs. Baig’s sense of purpose in the face of her solitude. Mrs. Baig had been a social worker since her university days, and remained quite active even now, though she was fifteen years older than Mona. The diminutive Mrs. Baig in her sari and flip-flops was a familiar sight when heckling and exhorting staff at the offices of local councillors and the utility services boards. Now that she was free from household routines, Mona sometimes accompanied her there. Mainly on account of Mrs. Baig’s efforts, utility services were not as frequently disrupted in their neighbourhood as in the rest of the city.
The modest upper portion of Mrs. Baig’s house had two small rooms, which she had recently decided to rent after her son and daughter-in-law moved out and into a bigger house.
The following day was again humid. After lunch, as Mona rose to turn up the fan, the bell rang. The gardener had come to drop off the marigolds. He was in a hurry and promised Mona he would come early the next morning to plant them. As she closed the gate behind him Mona noticed Mrs. Baig’s new tenant standing on the balcony and smoking a cigarette.
He was a stocky man. Although his face betrayed no certain age, she thought he was perhaps in his late fifties. He was dressed in a tunic and waistcoat. His moustaches were accentuated by his dyed jet-black hair, and looked comical. Mona wondered when she would see his wife. She thought the couple were probably by themselves, with children married or studying in some other city.
As Mona looked on, she saw the tenant look at her, smile, and nod meaningfully. In that unguarded moment Mona half-nodded in response. Then, realizing the brazenness of his gesture, her sense of dignity was deeply offended. Mona wondered what kind of a woman he might think she was. She was no longer even sure that she had not smiled back. If she hadn’t, at least she could have considered complaining to Mrs. Baig–although that had its own risks. Mrs. Baig had a loose tongue. The accusation alone would create a scandal, and if he denied everything it would start other rumours.
Later that evening, she remembered the new neighbour’s impertinent smile. The appearance and manner of the man was vulgar, and she was surprised at his temerity. If she had smiled back in her nervousness she would have only herself to blame if he read any encouragement in her response. She suddenly wondered if he could be a criminal. In her imagination the bold smile metamorphosed into a sinister sneer. Before going to bed, she locked all the door and windows and brought the phone close to her bed.
In the morning, she thought it was silly of her to worry. She realized that the cautious Mrs. Baig would not let a villain into her house as a tenant. She was almost able to forget the unpleasant incident.
A few days later, Mona found marigold plants lying outside the gate. The gardener had already planted those he’d bought for her earlier, so she could not understand why he had brought more.
“They’re for Mrs. Baig’s new tenant. I have to go there once I finish here,” the gardener told her, explaining that the man had stopped him in the street the day before, and asked him for the same kind of flower the neighbour had seen planted in the house opposite. There was a nice garden in Mrs. Baig’s house, but the balcony’s only plant was a drab money-plant vine. The next day, when Mona went out into the garden, she saw the marigolds potted along one wall of Mrs. Baig’s balcony. She realized she had become used to the sight of Mrs. Baig’s son and daughter-in-law on the balcony. It had not occurred to her that her whole garden was exposed now to a stranger’s view.
From the Hardcover edition.
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