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Lamps Burn in Every House
28 March, 2005
“Lamps burn in every House,
if you but had Eyes to see.”
Najma came out of her hut to empty a pail of slops. This daily mockery of sanitation was a ritual, performed by the entire refugee colony with meticulous care. Eventually the putrid water flowed back to each doorway when the upper end of the big drain became clogged, but that did not really matter, in this dismal desolation of filth. Within the hut, sour odours of poverty reeked in every corner.
In the hut beside Najma’s a woman was having a baby. She had been having it since early morning, in a noisy frenzy of pain, as though it were her first, instead of her fourth. Being a neighbour, Najma had looked in to see if she could be of any help, but was disgusted by the sight of the emaciated body, writhing in spasms to eject a bundle of flesh and blood, which would become a wailing little mouth to feed from her shriveled breasts. The woman’s husband was hauling bricks in a factory five miles away. He had become indifferent to childbirth, but not to its causes.
Najma began preparing her husband’s evening meal: curried vegetables, lentils, and chappatis. Only rarely could they afford meat. Her husband drove a cycle-rickshaw in the city - Nazir, whose father had owned several rice fields in a village in the United Provinces, before the partition of India.
Across the road from the row of huts stood a small building. It was a grocer’s shop, above which was a modest flat, in which lived two men: a writer, and a professor of English Literature. The writer was an eccentric young man, who, to the mild amusement of his few friends, and the occasional irritation of the editors of newspapers to which he contributed salutary articles from time to time, drank. Quite a lot.
He and the Professor were sitting on a balcony, drinking rum. On the table, in a place of honour among glasses and bottles of soda, sat a typewriter. Tapping it affectionately, the writer said:
“A page of the most ordinary possible lies, not even well written! Criticism may be a bad thing, and ought to be discouraged, but, do you think I am doing it the right way? I intend to be devastating, and end up by sounding stupid. And for doing that I am paid! But how much? Fifty rupees for an 800 word article! Starvation wages for a propagandist! It really is enough to make one a communist!”
The professor sipped his drink and smiled.
“I cannot imagine you as a communist. For that matter I cannot imagine you as any kind of active politician. In fact, I can hardly imagine you at all! What are you? You now say you are not even a good journalist!”
The writer poured himself an angry drink.
“I sometimes really wonder what I am . . .”
“You are a sensitive young man, too lazy, or rather too clever, to work at a steady job; content to exist from day to day; happy when you have enough money for drinks, miserable when you do not. Have I summed you up correctly?”
“Missed every time! I agree that I am not a good journalist. How can a writer be one? But I would like to be a small fry politician. One, who when he is bought, will stay bought. I am on the market, but nobody appears to want me!”
The bottle was becoming empty and gloomy.
The Professor was a lean man in his fifties, who had taught economics in an Indian University (Eng. Lit. being a hobby) before Independence. Now, he coached backward adolescents to misunderstand the niceties of English prose and poetry, because their backward fathers owned mills and factories, and insisted on giving their sons an unnecessary education, instead of simply taking them into the family business. Such education, in the long run, did more harm than good, the Professor was in the habit of saying. Both he and the writer came from the same Indian city-now refugees, living in a Karachi- slum like Nazir and Najma.
Najma came out of her hut again, and seeing the writer and the Professor on the balcony, waved to them.
“Poor girl,” the writer said. “I would never have thought it of her, never. What do you think will happen when Nazir finds out, as sooner or later he is bound to ?”
“Maybe he knows and does not care,” the Professor said, draining his glass. “There is nothing left of honour here, you know. Nazir in Shampur three years ago was a very different man from Nazir in Karachi today. Anyway, I have not noticed the Chevrolet recently, so maybe the young man has gone away. Did you check up on the number of his car?”
“I decided not to bother. I pry enough as it is. Leave them alone. In poverty nothing is illicit. least of all adultery. But I refuse to be moral about all this. If anyone can open a door to happiness out of this hell, she deserves to escape, even for one slippery moment of imagined happiness. And talking about escape, one of us will have to go out and buy another bottle. In view of your rudeness this evening...”
Najma went back to her cooking. Sometimes, in the loneliness of the hut, the past would uncoil and strike at her viciously. Helplessly she would live through once again the days and nights of horror, before she escaped with Nazir from India. The people of Shampur had risen, as though in answer to an evil call, to loot, murder, and rape. On parched, rain-thirsty roads like strips of sandpaper, some of the Muslims had fled to safety in Pakistan. Columns of thousands reached Karachi, after trailing like wounded snakes through the Sind desert, to be greeted as untouchables, come to pollute a prosperous port, where the rich merchants and traders had always been smug, secure, solvent.
They found disgusting refuge, but there was no thought of going back. Here they had come, if not to live, then to die. They made dwellings for themselves on the fringes of the city-along the road to Malir, or towards Hawkes Bay and the sea, with the hills of Lasbela brown and mauve in the distance. Nazir and Najma, like many others, chose the slums of the city instead, and wherever there was a little empty space, they put up their huts-with old pieces of wood, bits of cloth and paper, and pieces of discarded tin. With much ingenuity (for many among them were expert craftsmen) they made their little homes, and the filth grew up around them. Some were lucky and found work. Others took to loafing, begging, and crime. By fair means or foul, these unhappy people scratched a living from the cruel city, with dirty nails.
One day a breath of fresh air brushed Najma’s life. A large car stopped outside her hut, because a sheep blocked the way. Najma had come out with a pail of slops. The young man at the wheel stared hard at her, flew his horn. Then, suddenly, he swung his head round again, and Najma was staring at him too. The moment of recognition flashed.
Yes, they had known each other in Shampur - that Shampur of long ago, that Shampur which had nursed their lost childhood. Zulfiqar’s father had owned most of the rice fields around the village and had lived in a large house, surrounded by a high wall. He was rich, he was eminent. The Viceroy, for reasons never made quite clear, had bestowed upon him the sonorous title of Khan Bahadur. Zulfiqar had gone to a college in Allahabad, at the time when Najma’s aunt had taken her away to well - off relatives in Lucknow, to be “finished”.
Zulfiqar and Najma had known each other at a distance in the village, for it was forbidden to come too close. But his eye beheld the flower and inhaled its fragrance and dreamt of its petals and colours. But in the city of Allahabad, Zulfiqar found more to divert his youthful fancy than the well-guarded flower of the village of Shampur. But he had always cherished the memory of Najma, the flower that had slipped his grasp, and she had remained, pressed, in the book of his heart.
And now here they were - she holding a pail of slops, he holding the steering - wheel of a glistening American car.
Najma hesitated to ask him in, so they stood and talked in the open, while a group of children overcame their fear, and solemnly examined the bright red Chevrolet.
Zulfiqar and Najma swam in each other’s eyes, and there revived between them all the old sweetness of the lost village, as they stood in the midst of reeking squalor. But even so the lotus rises, in all its pink and white purity, out of a stagnant pool.
“Yes, I am married. You may remember Nazir - his father was Bashir Sahib. They killed him. Yes, Nazir is working. The truth? He drives a cycle - rickshaw, but we are saving to buy a motor - cycle one. Then it will be better. And you?”
“I am not married. My father has a business. Soon we shall start a small textile mill in the Punjab. Oh, Najma! did he prepare you for this?”
Before he left she told him to visit her whenever he could, but in the mornings when Nazir would be away. She did not want Nazir to meet Zulfiqar, only because she did not want him to feel more sorely than he did how Fate had cheated him of being able to give her a decent life. Zulfiqar came again and again, and they would talk inside the hut which Najma now kept spotlessly clean, until Najma’s ‘affair’ with the young man in the red car became the main topic of conversation in the colony. Among other things, poverty kills kindness. Gossip is exchanged like currency, to buy entertainment. Tongues wagged and wagged, dripping malice.
Nazir, too, began to hear stories of an unfaithful wife in the colony, whose husband must be blind, but he could not guess who it was, and none dared tell him to his face that it was Najma!
But his interest was aroused, and though not suspicious, his mind was disturbed. In the meantime Najma began to feel the first stirrings of motherhood in her body. She became pensive and secretive. The only one in whom she confided was zulfiqar:
“Oh think what a surprise it will be for Nazir?”
“How is your book getting along?” The Professor asked, a month or so later.
The writer slowly drained his glass, with a hand that shook, and looked honestly at has friend, who was smiling.
“The book, as you so kindly call it, is dead. I buried it this morning. I wanted to write a love story, but the miasma from this colony, and the fumes from this glass, have gassed my talent. I am dead too, but as yet unburied.”
“If you admit defeat, then what is to become of an ageing man like me? Listen, my friend, in all of us there burns a lampof courage. You remember Kabir’s poem? It may burn low, but it must never be allowed to go out. In all of us, even in the rotten human beings of this colony, there burns the same flame, however flickering. And in an artist it burns with grater intensity than in others. If you kindle it with love and sympathy and hope, it will glow brighter and brighter, until it illuminates your soul. And my friend, do not for one moment think that the soul dies with the body. If I believe in anything, I believe that the flame which burns within us rises, after our bodies die, to feed the sun, the moon and the stars...”
“Well”, the writer gasped, “if you propose an evening of poetry, I had better go out and buy another bottle of rum before the shop closes!”
For Zulfiqar’s last visit Najma had prepared tea brewed in milk, and also halva and soft bread. Why his last visit? Their knowledge of each other had reached the limits of its self-under-stood, self-imposed completeness. The memory of their brief encounter would be sweet.
“well, this is the last time, Najma. Tomorrow I leave for Lahore. And what is to become of you, my unfortunate friend?”
“I shall soon bear Nazir’s child - the wealth of my future. Tonight I shall tell him of this wonderful thing, and also of your generous gift.”
“He is a very lucky man, Najma. I do not think I shall be so lucky to find a wife like you.”
She looked up after the car had gone, and saw the writer on the balcony. She smiled. He waved back, and then looked gloomily at his typewriter, which contained a sheet of uneasy thoughts. He studied what he had written. Gloom descended on him. He flicked imaginary bats from his ear. No, he decided, this cannot go on. So he crept away to the bar at the corner of the road, and found immediate comfort in alcohol.
When Nazir was returning home that evening he was certain that Najma had been unfaithful to him. A wagging tongue had plucked up courage and told him over a cup of tea. But he could not bring himself to believe that she had betrayed him. He loved her, and when you really love a person you will hesitate long to believe the worst. But suspicion and jealousy can do terrible things to the human heart.
Nazir stopped his rickshaw as he entered Colony Road, and saw the writer feeling his way out of the bar. Along the road lamps were being lit in all the huts, like little bright eyes peering out of the darkness. The warm odour of the tea-shop, and the pungent smells of meat frying outside the delhiwalla’s eating-house, mixed with the acrid stink of liquor which drifted out of the bar.
Nazir helped the writer into the rickshaw and slowly pedaled along the murky road until they reached the grocer’s shop In the hut opposite Najma had just lit a lamp. The writer thanked Nazir, and walked unsteadily up the stairs. The Professor was sitting on the balcony, reading the evening paper. He was already launched on a bottle of rum.
“Pundit Nehru has said that in no circumstances will he agree to a plebiscite in Kashmir,” said the Professor, folding the paper.
“My dear fellow, why did you tell me that? I have spent whatever money I had getting drunk this afternoon, in order to forget all about Kashmir and Pandit Nehru and refugees, and as soon as I come back you pick it all up and throw it in my face. And now I cannot go out and forget all over again!”
Suddenly, there were three sharp screams.
They rose in alarm. There was a final scream. The Professor leaned over the railing and shouted:
“What is the matter Nazir? What has happened?”
Nazir came out of the hut, sweeping the canvas flap aside. he walked up the stairs into the writer’s room and out on to the balcony. He sat down, his face pale, his eyes staring, his hands dark with blood.
“What has happened Nazir?” The writer gently asked.
Nazir managed to look up at them. “She is dead,” he said, “I killed her. She told me an old friend of hers named Zulfiqar had given her there thousand rupees to buy me a motorcycle rickshaw. And then she said that she was going to have a baby, and would name it Zulfiqar if it was a boy. And all the time she was smiling and asking me ‘Are you pleased?’ Oh my god! I could not bear it any longer. This whole colony has laughed at me for months. I cut her to pieces until she looked like my father did, that night in Shampur when the riots started.”
He sat huddled in the chair, staring vacantly from the Professor to the writer. The Professor went quickly downstairs. Nazir sat still, and the writer drank great gulps of rum. Presently a sub-inspector and two constables arrived form the police station at the corner. Nazir went away quietly. He could feel nothing. He was dead too.
The writer and the Professor stood on the balcony, watching the activity below.
Policemen were removing things from the hut. They brought out a large bundle which was put in an ambulance.
Groups stood talking in low tones in the cool evening air. The writer filled the Professor’s glass, and they stood drinking silently.
A police constable settled himself outside the hut to guard it against thieves in the night.
Another walked in and blew out the lamp.