Photo by GMB Akash©
Shabana stood by the dressing table, lost in her thoughts. She was trying to make sense of what had been happening, but it was of no use. Yet, she kept trying. Perhaps it was just a way to divert her mind from the madness that she had been hearing. She looked at herself in the mirror. She hadn’t even brushed her hair for a few days now. The kohl in her eyes was smudged. She picked up the comb and starting passing it through her hair, feeling nothing but numbness. She pulled a chair towards the table and sat on it, and continued combing her hair.
“What is going on? Yeh kesa hangama macha hua hai? Paaro, say something!”
Paaro was not her usual self, and looked worried. Shabana had been shouting Paaro’s name for a while now, but she didn’t even budge. Just stood there near the balcony. Desperate to know, Shabana ran towards Paaro and grabbed her arm. She then pulled Paaro and took her to her room.
“Paaro, by God, are you dead? Margyi hai kya? Why are you not listening to me?”
Paaro was trembling. Shabana picked up the glass from the table, and handed it to her.
Paaro looked at Shabana for a few moments and then started crying. Shabana placed her hand on Paaro’s shoulder, and said:
“Have some water, Paaro. Pehle paani pi ley, and then tell me what the matter is. Has that imbecile Ikram said something to you? Has that zaleel…what’s her name…Meena, yes, Meena, has she broken your stuff again?”
Once Paaro was done gulping down all the water in the glass, she turned to Shabana again and said “Sh-Shabbo…there’s…I…Abbas…Abbas was hurt. He…there were a few people…they had tried to kill him, but…but…he ran away… blood, I saw all that blood…I don’t know…I…”
It took a few moments for Shabana to understand.
“K-kya matlab, Paaro? What happened to Abbas?”
Paaro wiped tears off her cheeks with her palms, and said “Abbas is better now, resting in his room. But people…I don’t know…they…they have been fighting…each other. We had been safe, but…I…am not sure…I…Shabana…the fire…the blood…”
The riots had started a few days ago. No one was really sure what really started the madness. Blame was being placed on different groups, but not many cared about the loss of lives in the midst of it all. Some facts were clear enough, though. The violence had erupted in the older part of the city. Houses were torched, as were the places of worship, and it seemed that a beast had awoken to destroy all that came in its path.
Shabana lived in the older part of the city, in a neighborhood called Rung Bazaar. The Market of Colors. She was brought there as a child. She was told that she was abandoned by her parents. She had lived there since.
The leading lady of the establishment, popularly called Bari Amma, made sure that all the girls were taken care of.
It was the sight of Abbas’s white kameez, with big patches of blood that made the residents of the house realize the carnage had been going on. They could now feel the madness, and the fire, together.
Abbas later told the story of how close he was to death. He was on his way to the house when some people came in his path and asked where he was going, and about his religious beliefs. Before he could come up with an appropriate answer, someone recognized him and told the people that he was from Rung Bazaar. One of the people grabbed him from his shoulder, and tried to stab him, but missed. Abbas didn’t remember much beyond that, but he did hear police sirens, and saw the mob run away. He mustered enough courage to stand and ran towards the house.
Bari Amma was concerned, and seeing Abbas in that state had shocked her. The girls who had seen Abbas were shocked as well, and didn’t know how to react. Paaro, while telling Abbas’s story, also told Shabana that Bari-Amma was trying to make arrangements to go somewhere else, and return when the violence stops and things get back to normal.
Shabana had tied her hair, not as delicately as she usually did, packed all the necessary things, as instructed by Bari Amma, and was now sitting on her bed. Only a while ago she had all the thoughts, which, colliding with each other, had obliterated each other. Now there was nothing. But there was a thought, yes, there was. But it didn’t feel exhilarating, like all her previous thoughts. A soft, innocent voice was saying something.
Shabana…Shabana! Yes, you. Listen.
What is happening? Why is all that is happening, happening? Why are people asking the wrong questions, when the only question that should be asked is the one I just asked?
No, Shabana. Don’t look away. I know I’m right. Listen to me, carefully. You know it as well. This madness…this fire…this carnage…all this blood. Why?
Shabana closed her eyes.
Here was Shabana, the one who loved flowers, and the one who sang beautiful songs. The room was filled with an ethereal light, coming in from the windows. She saw herself sitting with all the other girls. There was Ghazala, and there was Neeti. Oh, and there was Paaro as well. Of course, why won’t she be there? Also, there were Meena, Sitara and Laali. She could also see Abbas: his mouth full of paan as always, lifting his hands in praise of Shabana. She saw herself smile, and then she heard her own voice. She was listening her own voice. Yes, she was singing something, and it sounded like a thumri. Which one, she couldn’t identify. Bari Amma was there too, moving her hands as if she was sculpting something that no one else could see. She always did that when she listened to music. Everything that Shabana was seeing looked usual, but there was this surreal feel to it. Shabana didn’t know why she was feeling that way. Was it a dream? She wasn’t sure. As she pondered upon this question, while also enjoying her own song, she saw something horrible. Abbas suddenly stood up. His clothes were soaked in blood, and then he started screaming.
When Shabana awoke she still had Abbas’s scream in her head. It echoed, and then it died. Shabana was covered with sweat. She had fallen asleep some time ago. She was contemplating her dream when someone knocked at the door. She stood up, opened it, and there was Neeti.
“Shabbo, we have to leave. Come quickly. Bari Amma wants us to leave this place quickly”, she said.
Shabana saw something in ^eeti’s eyes that she had never seen before: fear. Shabana wanted Neeti to stay for a while with her, but she didn’t say anything and saw her run away. Shabana had always made fun of Neeti’s thick arms. Neeti had a sharp tongue, and she always responded with these caustic jabs. But… but now all that seemed like from some different time altogether. Shabana went back into her room, and started picking up her things.
Shabana stood with other girls, all were wearing burqas. There were murmurs all around. Shabana was standing quiet though. There were too many thoughts in her head. Shabana, however, was told by Laali about where they were headed. Bari Amma had decided to take the girls to a nearby town where she said they’d be safe. Abbas was to come along too. Laali also informed Shabana that the house was not to be left on its own in the meantime. Bari Amma had arranged for the house to be taken care of while they were away.
Though Shabana felt fear and confusion, beneath it she nonetheless knew that Bari Amma would always protect the girls. Yet there was something that still bothered Shabana. She looked around, trying to remember and then she saw Neeti. She was making adjustments to her burqa, and she could see her long hair, as she tried to tie them. It was right at that moment when she remembered what she had forgotten%3Q her favorite comb. She gestured to Paaro that she will be back. Paaro wanted to ask for more details, but Shabana was too quick.
She entered the house, and was on her way to her room when she heard some voices. Those definitely belonged to the people which Bari Amma had hired to take care of the house while they were away.
Shabana climbed the stairwell as quickly as she could, opened the lock of her room and went inside. She saw the comb, lying on the floor. She must have dropped it when she was packing, and lost in her thoughts. She went out of the room and locked the door, and went down the stairway. She stopped midway, then. She could still hear the people talking. They were in a room on the ground floor, right next to the kitchen. She slowly approached the room, and stood right next to the door, which was ajar. Shabana began to eavesdrop.
“…Amma has given us the best of the lot, don’t you think?”
“Yes! I always loved that, what’s her name…oh, who cares. To be honest, I have always longed for her. Her big eyes. Uff!”
“Neeti? Yes, I know her. Hai toh haraman, lekin haseen bhi utni hi hai kambakht. Amma has taken good care of her! Acha khilaya pilaya;hai!”
“Yes, and they will be taken to the Nagar Chowk?”
“Yes! Javed has made sure of that. Insaan naheen shaitaan hai woh Javed!”
“Right, right! Who else are we going to have? That one with the huge breasts? I just saw her. Saali hai bhi makhan! Just like butter! Haye! Or what about the one with the lips of an angel?”
“How many again?”
“Four for now, Javed has told me. But he said that we he can have more, and it is only the beginning. Iss maara-maari ka faaida hua hai bhai. Hamari garmi kaheen aur nikalne waali hai. We’re in for a treat! It worked. Causing all this chaos has brought us what we couldn’t have for so long!”
Shabana stood there. She wanted to move, but she couldn’t. Part of herself began to register how Bari Amma had made a deal with… But… Bari Amma? Their Bari Amma? Shabana started running towards the main gate of the house. She had to warn the girls.
Bari-Amma was lying on the ground. Her head was bleeding. The tanga had most of the girls, along with Shabana. A few girls had initially decided to stay at the house, but then decided to come along. Almost all of them had seen Shabana come out of the house, pick a stone and hit Bari A}ma. Shabana told the whole story to the girls. Abbas, who was checking Bari Amma’s bleeding head, listened to Shabana. Most of them believed Shabana.
The tonga moved out of Rung Bazaar, and Shabana sat there still trying to gather what had happened. She began to cry, and tears rolled up on her cheek. Paaro, who sat right next to Shabana, looked at her, and nodded. Shabana, smiled, and placed her head on Paaro’s shoulder. In the midst of all this, Abbas’s voice was heard, instructing the tonga-wallah to stay away from the main road.
Syed Zeeshan Ahmed is a writer from Hyderabad, Pakistan. His interests lie in literature, music, old architecture, a love for history, and cinema. Old buildings, poetry, and the night sky, fascinate him, and so do people who always have stories to tell. He blogs at www.iamzeeshan.blogspot.com and tweets at @ImZeesh.