She was irritated very much. She unlatched the door. I had hardly stepped in then she showered a volley of reproof on me. The girls, who were greatly delighted on my coming home wanted to rush at me. They were, however, checked of discretion to remain aloof, at this unseemly welcome of me.
“It was far better to have stayed in that far- flung station, where you could at least return home well on time, in the evening.” The girls giggled, but she writhed in rage. I deferred to offer the oft repeated excuse to clear my position.
When I was posted at Murree, she was overjoyed. She was reminded of the charming honeymoon days, we had come to spend here. That memory transformed here in an ecstatic mood even now— dark clouds descending on earth, salubrious miled breeze touching her body gently, she slipping voluntarily on the drenched pathway, getting mildly hurt, fomenting the injured limbs with the soothing warmth of the hair-dresser and even keeping our bedding cosytoo with the same apparatus. Hot water was rationed to only one bucket, so both used the bathroom together; otherwise, one risked the peril to bathe with ice-cold water. Hand in hand we strolled on the Mall. She could recall vividly the people rambling to and fro, she enjoying the sight out of the Lintott’s or seated on the steps of the post office– for long hours.
Nevertheless, now was she bored to the core, stooping spirit seeping down to cells of her being. I well knew the reason, but what could I do? The full swing of the season had long drawn to its close, but the visitors had not ceased to pour in. Touring officials crowded the office and the house was congested with the near- and- dear ones. Everyone tumed up expecting us to manage lodging and boarding. Besides, they craved our company on outings and picnics. In such situation, despite my best intentions, I failed to return home punctually.
And here was this poor creature that would dutifully rise early, arrange, the disarranged bedding, dust and sweep, provide hot water for baths. “She cooked and served meals. Breakfasts must be rich and evening teas offered with samosas and other dainties. In addition to the routine ch
ores, she had, sometimes, to wash the babies of the guests staying with us- and of course, looked after her own kids as well. The heaps of utensils– crockery etc. she had to wipe and wash. When evening approached, lengthening shadows slid down the dense trees to merge into night, and she was called upon to set beds. Patiently she waited for the guests to return from their merry–making trips then only she was able to steal a rare moment to stretch her taut body to rest: So her boredom and peevishness were not hard to comprehend.
Her anxiety grew as chilly winds began to blow. When she learned icy cold would lower the temperature frigidity, she was perturbed all the more.
“Have you noticed these quilts with these crevices all cover? Cover yourself with them and you remain uncovered. December is arriving fast on its heels. Does something about these, Sir do something!”
Those were the days ready-made quilts were not in vogue; at least in Murree this stuff was not available. Service was extinct to pluck out cotton by unravelling, carding and refilling it back, sewing and stitching the quilt over again. Our stock of quilts hardly sufficed for the guests or us. Pindi was too far to replenish our scanty store.
“Sir, make some provision of firewood, dry fuel, or else how biting chill will be wended off the kids? Just take notice of our neighbour, he has got an iron grating made only for Rs.1200/- It is fitted with a pipe, spouted out of the ventilator which emits smoke from the room. I implore you have one made of the type. In the icy cold nights room will hardly be heated unless we kindle firewood,’
She was absolutely correct, but where to find the big sum of twelve hundred rupees from? On account of frequent numerous guests our pecuniary situation had been imbalanced irretrievably. Therefore, I paid no heed when she thus admonished. Each night began with similar pondering, and consequently I failed even to derive rapture from her supple being. She, too, would not rest her head on the cosy pillow of my arms, nor comb with her soft fingers the hair on my chest. We just talked but all aimlessly. Then sleep overtook her, and I lay for long hours exhausting, as if it were, my body, smelling sweet fragrance emanating from her self. Then I lost the sense of time and drowsed. On outbreak of dawn. All the nocturnal conversation and deliberation would slip off my mind. It would yet be dusk when I was aroused, with the mellow warble of sparrow. The bird I noticed here was of rare species not to be found in plains – a bit longish of built, alluring of shade, blackish head wearing a crown of plume, neck adorned with a feathery braid, and ogling coquettish eyes. The moment I opened my eyes in bed, I found the bird always with its two younglings hopping almost in my side.
It ran across my mind- the puny souls must be hungry as the nights have gone so lengthy. Getting up, I would repair to the kitchen, make them some feed and place it in the room. The kitchen had two doors, one each opening in the room and outwards to the courtyard. My wife admired the designer for this on all times, because very conveniently she could keep an eye on the children while working in the kitchen. The sparrow had made its nest in the ceiling at the confection of the two kitchen walls having the doors. In plains I never saw a nest of this type. The sparrow carried kneaded clay in the small beak, arranged all particles neatly adhered into a form of solid home, alongside the roof and walls.
The day would hardly dawn, thaubia still engulfed in the sweet sleep, folding her daughter in her warm embrace, when the bird and its two chirping younglings would descend on the head of my bed. I would then open my eyes with a smile, looking upon these harbingers of morning as my true benefactors. It was because of these, that since my lodging in this house, I had always offered my morning prayer at the appointed time, and had not once missed my morning walk. With these two punctual factors-morning prayer and walk, I would reside in Murree until the time my physical elements frittered away!
Then the time set in leaves started changing their shades: crimson, scarlet, pallid, variegated hues overtaking them- and these colours snapped off the branches, to be trampled underfeet or to loaf about along with the wandering chilly blasts.
Although autumn had overtaken Murree, yet this change was pleasing for Thaubia. She could now accompany me on walk, loiter about shopping on The Mall leisurely. I could share time with her, as my engagements had been limited. Our life normalized and much of wearisome and boredom we shook off the selves. However, as ill luck would have it, our two daughters fell ill, one after the other…This unpleasant occurrence coincided with the first snowfall. The process of pouring icecles was quite new to the children, I felt immensely amused with the view as well and Thaubia too was beside herself. She raced on snow with the girls, giggled with them, and as they slipped and were carried away along, laughed heartily, slide and skid herself also, shrieked and made lot of fun. Laughter filled her eyes with water, her whole being reflecting merriment from the pores. Her body swirled and by rubbing her red nose, she turned it still redder. To me Murree transformed into beauty personified by the addition of myThaubia’s comeliness to it. But woe-be-tide the chilly winds! Both our daughters fell ill, one after the other.
With a view to forestalling another fit of rage to Thaubia, I purchased an iron grating, stored dry firewood and had the quilts mended from Pindi. Still, however, the room would not be heated the night through. The girls who slept separately since their early years. Would perforce creep into our bed, clinging side by side, and we dared not turn over from the fear of exposing our bare bodies to the ice cold frozen bedding. Then, snow had also fallen many feet deep. Leaves had long departed from branches and lay huned under ice. The whole scene presented a milky whitened look as far as the eye could see. The sloped roofs of houses courtyards, cobbles and shrubs, leafless boughs and bushes all wore an appearance of chiseled marble work. This disagreeable situation worried my heart about the sparrow and its younglings, which awoke my punctually with their sweet singing each morning, albeit all their fair weather friends, which flew dashing in the air, had migrated from this benumbed surrounding.
The girls were confined to the house, Thaubia busy thrusting wood bits into the “hearth”, kindling fire with blow, pipe, exhorting the kids to sit by the fireside. There was a chimney to drain out smoke, still the room would be filled with it, and the doors had to be flung open at times to make its way out through them. The smoke emitted but in the meanwhile icy gusts of wind burst in. Overagain the grating had to be heated and the room warmed up. This exhausting exercise of Thaubia continued as routine.
Amidst this busy schedule, dawned the black morning which still haunts me. In its consequence, I had to depart from Murree. Had I not done so, I would still be jolted out of my slumber, startled and choked, having the off repeated nightmare-Murree wrapped in its white shroud, Thaubia sleeping with the daughters, clasping them in her arms. This was the dream, which I had incessantly for many nights following the black morn. On every occasion I arose shocked and choked. In order to escape this paranoia I had to depart from Murree.
On that black morn, as was my wont, I got up very early. The sparrow and its two younglings, having taken the feed, had retired to their nest. I was perturbed because Thaubia was still asleep that late, though the girls were already out of bed, rubbing and reddening their puny noses. Then, all at once Thaubia turned her side and mumbled.
“My body is racking—-“
In anxiety I felt her body, it was feverous, I said.
“You are running temperature.”
She stood up, put her dress in order, rubbed the nose with her scarf whining, and spoke thus:
“It is low, may God, that our children recover.”
I finished my breakfast and started to go to the office. She came running behind. I stopped and enquired if it was all right.
She said. “The ventilator, over the kitchen door that opens into the courtyard, has a pane missing. It is not there since our arrival in this house. It mattered not much before, but now cold wind finds its way through it almost freezing the room the whole night. Manage to get apaneglass fitted there. I noticed her face lost its luster as she uttered these words.
“Why not, do not worry, the glass will certainly be fixed today” So I answered, faintly touching her cheek with my finger.
The following morning was one when I could not get up to offer my morning prayer. When I awoke, as if with a spasmodic jolt, light had crept into every nook and corner of the room. In frantic haste I jumped out of my bed. Thaubia was fast asleep holding the children in the fold of her arms. The sparrow an its two younglings were missing. I shuddered.
“Oh my God, let no misfortune befall!” I murmured and ran towards the kitchen. It was absolutely quiet in the nest. Suddenly my eyes ran on to the ventilator, with its glass-pane lately fixed. Outside it had gathered crystal flakes of snow. My heart began beatinghorrendusly. I opened the door and walked out. Murree lay enwrapped in the double-plaid shawl. My eyes slipped over to the flat of a white mount, close by the kitchen threshold. I knelt down and squatted. With my finger I scraped the heap. Snow fell apart to reveal that Murreewore not the plaided shawl, it was wrapped in a white shroud- and with it lay the sparrow sprawling its wings, buried underneath were the two younglings, having breathed their last.
My head whirled. The same finger, which had touched the hot face of Thaubia this morning, and had just unearthed from below the snow three lifeless bodies, seemed piercing through my chest-down, deep down. I rushed back into the room. Thaubia was still fast asleep holding the children in the fold of her arms. I shook her in a fretted fit, tears gushed out of my eyes and my throat choked with sobbing.
[Translated from the Urdu, by Prof.Shaukat Wasti]
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