The Chronicle toggles between two narrative strands that span over one hundred years of South Asian life, from the Rebellion of 1857 to the terror of Zia ul-Haq’s Pakistan. The main narrative consists of the story of Ikhlaq, the main character, living in post-Partition Pakistan with his wife, Zubaidah, and his mother, Bujan. The secondary narrative is contained in the family’s chronicle, a tattered historical document that Ikhlaq brings with him to Pakistan. In this chronicle, we learn about the lives of two generations of Ikhlaq’s ancestors in British colonial India: his great-grandfather Chiraq Ali Ghayat and his grandfather Mushtaq Ali. The sections dealing with the chronicle contain Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic myths and stories; these sections are also infused with the respective literary styles of these traditions. The scope of The Chronicle is, thus, immense. Husain’s style of admixture, both in style and content—from straightforward to richly historical, from secular to religious—means that this novel reads like “mythical” realism. The gap between the two narrative threads also produces a tension of relation, and the novel reads as a unique style of allegory. This allegorical reach gives the novel another dimension; it becomes applicable to anyone faced with displacement, dispossession from cultural legacies, and disenfranchisement from political orders.
Because of the novel’s use of the traditional Urdu chronicle genre, The Chronicle asks a question about textuality and history that Husain’s other works pose only implicitly. The Chronicle is, in this way, the most defining of his oeuvre. He addresses the question of whether the knowledge of history can serve as a means of producing community. In 1947, Husain was a young man and famously optimistic about the possibilities of Pakistan. But when his dreams of the advent of a pan-national Muslim brotherhood proved illusory, Husain was equally, infamously pessimistic about the chances for acts of solidarity that denied history, or were ignorant of it. The Chronicle presents multiple examples of what characters feel like when they have lost their communities and, with that, their ability to relate to others. In The Chronicle, Partition serves as a metaphor for being exiled within the nation-state. What is the effect of realizing that you live in a country whose values, politics, and history are inhospitable to you? Ikhlaq, whose name literally means “morality,” lives in a state beset by terror—from public executions taking place at the jail behind his house, to public spaces cordoned off and deserted by terror or decree, to his Marxist friend, Comrade, predicting a social apocalypse. This history is not dissimilar from the history of many people across the world today where rulers use the rhetoric of hate and the tactics of intimidation to rule through oppression and police control.
The following excerpt is from the family’s chronicle.
* * *
Listen, my friends, we are punished by the heavens, exiled by time. It is true, we were cast from heaven to earth the day that the stars plucked us from Jahanabad and threw us down in the wilds of Baran where the lights burned from a distance of twelve miles. That is where our ancestors established our home. Medicine was our profession. We could turn dirt into elixir. Patients with incurable diseases came from near and far, and they left miraculously healed. A longstanding tradition developed with the court. Whoever was the head of the family was appointed the king’s doctor and the heir of the manuscripts that our ancestor Hakim Ali Sher Rehan Qazveen had brought with him. In these pages were the secrets that could raise a dying person from the grave.
After Hakim Ali Sher Rehan, the most respected doctor in our family was my great-grandfather Hakim Gulistan Ali who was revered as a miracle worker in his time. Although he was a royal doctor, all of Jahanabad was indebted to him. Patients without anywhere else to go came from far and wide, and they left blessed with long life. The community prayed in his name. The princes and princesses of the palace hung on his every word. Listen, my friends, his fame grew so much that even the djinns took notice. What I am about to tell you is not something I fabricated in my own mind. I heard it from Amman Jani. One day I asked Amman Jani about this brilliant soul, and she said, “Son, it happened that one evening a stranger came into his doctor’s office and announced that someone was about to die. He begged your great-grandfather to save the man with his healing powers. Your great-grandfather was quite moved by the man’s pleas. So he got up and went out to the man’s sedan chair and got in. They had gone some distance when your great-grandfather noticed that it was deathly quiet all of a sudden. It was as still as the middle of the night. There was no one anywhere to be seen, just the roaring of lions and the trumpeting of elephants. Anxious, your grandfather stuck his head outside and asked, ‘Where on earth are you taking me? How much further is it?’ When the stranger turned around, what did your great-grandfather see but a satyr! He thought, ‘Who is this man? What are these animals?’ Just then, the sedan chair passed through a large gate. He got out. He entered a reception room. The ill man was lying beneath the covers of a canopy bed. When he turned back the sheet, your grandfather was speechless. The patient had the head of a peacock, the legs of a deer. He understood that this was not a natural-born creature. In fact, it was the prince of the djinns. Your great-grandfather confidently took his pulse, felt his forehead, and he told his caretakers that if they could obtain a lion’s claw, then perhaps the patient could be saved. If not, he would die that night. One large djinn immediately disappeared, then, in an instant, returned. He presented to your grandfather the lion’s claw. Your grandfather ground the claw into powder, then mixed it with honey, and fed it to the ill djinn. Instantly, the patient opened his eyes.
“Your great-grandfather’s family became worried at first when he didn’t come home. Then on the fourth day, he returned with great fanfare. With him came donkeys carrying clay pots stuffed to the rim with gold coins. The pots were emptied of the coins and put back on the donkeys, which were led away. So, son, he became an equal of the djinns. Whenever a djinn fell ill, he was sent for. He would treat the patient, prescribe medicine, and leave with gold and more gold, and with this, he amassed a great fortune. He built such a beautiful mansion, it was fit for kings and queens. It was a magnificent palace, Gulistan Mahal. But then everything was ruined by war.”
My friends, during the rebellion’s tumult, Abba Jani’s uncle Maulvi Mushtaq Ali was a great religious scholar and a pious man. He signed the fatwa declaring holy war against the foreign powers. When the tide turned in the fighting, the elites were punished. Abba Jani’s dear uncle was hung. My grandfather Hakim Gul Zabagh Ali took his family and left that tragic town in the middle of the night.
Grandfather and his entire family wandered homeless and in exile. They stopped in the vicinity of Baran. This dusty settlement was the answer they were looking for. That’s where they would make their home. Abba Jani used to say that in those days the town was desolate and wild. They were just a few Hindu households, and a scattering of Muslim houses, otherwise it was trees upon trees. But they were not good trees. It was jungle. They were no pretty bushes and no flowering trees. There were only wild jujubes here and there. There were mangos, but they were sour. Grafted mangoes can be delicious, but even they would not grow there. In the market, there was raw molasses but no refined sugar or candy to speak of. Everything was made with unprocessed brown sugar. For conveyances, there were no palanquins, no sedans, nothing elegant. Instead there were bullock carts. If ever a carriage came through town, all the women would rush to their front doors to watch it pass. There was only one elephant in town. It belonged to a Hindu moneylender. Whenever he took it out to bathe it in a pond, the kids in town were beside themselves with glee.
Grandfather saw all this, but he largely ignored it. Once he made up his mind, he stuck to it. He settled into his new country. His hands were magical. Patients would come with all sorts of problems and leave cured. The stories of his miraculous healing spread like a sweet smell wafting through the air. The appearance of the town began to change too. When Grandfather’s buggy came to town, it was as though a revolution had taken place. It was the first time that anyone there had ever seen something so fine. Everyone stared so hard their eyes almost fell out of their sockets. It is said that when a new vehicle comes to town, a town changes. So with Grandfather’s buggy, the fate of the town changed for the better.
Throughout Baran and the vicinity, the news spread that a doctor had come who could work miracles. Then this news reached the British District Collector’s wife. She was a very slender lady. She could get pregnant, but by the seventh month, she would suffer miscarriages. British doctors had prescribed everything, but for women such as her, what remedy was really possible? She called on Grandfather. For three months, he treated her with various concoctions. Then he advised her, “Ma’am, you may now go back with full confidence to your great husband, may peace be upon him. You can get pregnant again. Even if you should leap and prance like a deer, the baby will be safe. I promise you, the baby won’t be at any risk at all.”
And that is just what happened. She delivered a hale and hearty baby boy. The Collector’s wife was very happy. She asked Grandfather what his fees were. Grandfather said with complete politeness, “Congratulations on the birth of your son. Your humble servant only asks for your compassion.” He told her about the hard times his family had fallen upon. The Collector’s wife told her husband. The District Collector, peace be upon him, used the authority invested in him to pardon the family. Then the highest levels of the state confirmed the pardon. The compassion of the state had stolen his heart. Grandfather was so impressed with the praiseworthy ethics of the state that he wrote an encomium for the District Collector. Your Grandfather was given the title Haziq ul-mulk, the Healer of the Nation. In short, the days of grief ended, and the clouds of misfortune dispersed. Our family had gained the favor of the Crown. Good days followed. Grandfather was now well established in town, and he started building a mansion. When it was time to lay the capstone, Grandfather called for Abba Jani, and he said, “My time ended in Jahanabad. The future is yours. You can name the house.” And that is how it became Chirag Haveli.
After the mansion was built, Grandfather lost interest in things. He had finished his earthly story and went to sit amidst the glory of god. In his last days, he wept nostalgic tears for Gulistan Mahal. He bid goodbye to medicine. He turned his back on his profession. He prayed constantly, and a rosary was always at his fingertips. Now Abba Jani, I mean, Hakim Chirag Ali, was the head of our illustrious family, and what a man was he! A light shone from within him. The tales of his healing were endless. He had such skill that the most frail of patients would become full of vim and vigor in a week’s time. Doctors may like to scold and admonish, but they held no candle to Abba Jani.
Ibn Hatim narrates the life of Abdullah ‘Amr bin ‘Aas, and how he said that from the time that the world sprang out of nothingness, each century would begin in unrest. Meanwhile, that this ignoramus, Mushtaq Ali, dares speak proves that the beginning itself was wrong. Because if the beginning is like that, then what sort of end is there in store? Why search for examples in ancient history? Just look at the end of the last century. I saw the world for the first time just as the century was ending, and what mayhem did I see! Atheism, science—rumors of a new prophet—mayhem in the Punjab—a renaissance in Aligarh—the story of the times was full of tumult, and Islam was in danger.
Abba Jani sent my brother Ishtiaq Ali and your ignorant one to Aligarh for college with the thought that if foreigners ruled, then we should learn how to talk like them. He wanted to make sure that his sons had the skills to succeed in the world. The thought never crossed his mind that Ishtiaq would get caught up in the spirit of religious reforms. But in Aligarh, he spread his wings, and how high he flew! When he came back down to earth, he was a panegyrist for atheism and science. Amman Jani was reciting the miracle of the deer when he impudently cut her off, “The story is against the laws of nature.” Amman Jani stared back dumbstruck. She tried hard to keep news of this attitude from his father, but like in matters of love, the fervor of a reformist cannot be quelled. Walls have ears. The news spread like wildfire. The next day everyone was saying how Hakim Chirag Ali’s son was an atheist. Amman Jani informed her poor husband that their eldest son was an atheist and that the family would be disgraced as what people were saying made her cringe. Abba Jani built his resolve and immediately took Ishtiaq out of college. My brother protested bitterly, but Abba Jani put him in his place, saying, “Son, I’m not letting your atheism ruin us.”
Our elder uncle Najmulhuda did not care. He was deeply enmeshed in foreign ways. He had heard about his own son, but the news had gone in one ear and out the other. So what if Shamsulhuda had become a craven atheist at Aligarh? Our elder uncle’s son had been betrothed to Little Phuphi, our younger aunt. But when Abba Jani heard about the young man’s atheism, he was beset with worry about how his dear sister could be expected to take the hand of an atheist. In the end, Uncle was told very politely that theirs was a religious household, and having an atheist son-in-law was out of the question.
So Little Phuphi was married to the scion of an esteemed family from Lucknow, a man by the name of Qanbar Hasan, who has since passed away. He was extremely polite and religious. Thanks be to god that he was educated by Khanum. Khanum had trained him in the ways of society with the greatest of care because in her youth she had had a special relationship with his father, the Great Preacher Maulana Shabbar Hasan. Khanum taught the social niceties and the meaning of righteousness. Her daughters were very pretty. The first was Aftab, the second was Mehtab. When Qanbar Hasan first went to Khanum’s brothel, they were budding young women. They blossomed before his eyes. Their scent wafted everywhere. Moths might fly to the wick, but in this case they were turned away. Khanum would not let anyone close. She put on such airs. It was like her pee was the nectar of gods. Her house was special among all others. Let alone commoners, even noblemen had a hard time penetrating their inner circle. In his youth, Maulana Shabbar Hasan was allowed in because he was from an aristocratic scholarly family, but after tasting some of the pleasures, he experienced a change of heart and stopped going. He started attending religious events exclusively. Once he started down this path, there was no turning back. He was then known as the Great Preacher. But Khanum stuck to the old ways till the end. Our uncle Qanbar Hasan was very little when she took him under her wing. He learned about culture in the rarified air of that brothel. With the budding young women, he read the entire Koran. They learned how to appreciate poetry and music. It took just a handful of years to make them refined. They were no longer raw and untrained. They were polished, and they shined. The loved beauty, and their hearts were as pure and clean as mirrors, they sang the elegies of Karbala, they recited poetry, they never missed a beat or were out of tune, they never uttered a solecism. Whenever I hear the Karbala elegies recited today, a bitter tear comes to my eye. My friends, Karbala elegies have to be filled with real feeling to express their sadness, but if there is no art in the singing then what is the point of singing of Karbala at all? If you want to earn blessings, go preach instead.
So that is what my uncle was like. We had always called my younger aunt Little Aunt, but my uncle then forbad us to do so, on account of its rudeness. So we started calling her Phuphi Madame and him Phupha Sir. It goes without saying that there was a great emphasis placed upon the correct use of language in my uncle’s sophisticated family. Everyday expressions and idioms were considered beneath them. There is a famous story about Maulana Shabbar Hasan that he refused a marriage proposal for his daughter only because the man’s language was not refined enough for him. Before he accepted the man into the family, he had to take a test. The test went like this: Maulana Shabbar Hasan opened Masnavi Shehr-ul-bayan to a random page and asked the man to recite. After four couplets, he told him to stop. He was mangling the izafat’s rhythm—how was his daughter supposed to keep his company? Little Phuphi had to pass a poetry test too. A Mughal governess was sent from Lucknow. She asked Little Phuphi to recite from Masnavi Shehr-ul-bayan. Then her conversational style was checked, and her grammar was examined. Little Phuphi passed with flying colors. The disappointed Mughal governess was sent home.
Phupha Sir was a Twelver Shia. When Phuphi Madame joined the house, she too became Shia. When Muharram came, she would break all her bangles. She would not comb her hair or put on any makeup. She would wear black for ten days and sleep on the cot with her head at its foot. Many customs had found their way into our family through the intercession of our elder uncle Pir Mughisuddin, who had been known for being enlightened. Now Phupha Sir had brought Shi’ism into our family. Well, at least our family had been spared Shamsulhuda’s atheism! God saved us just in the nick of time! Later Shamsulhuda became a grand gentleman, moved to London, and married a white woman in accordance with Western customs. Then he had some mixed kids, half black and half white, a little Muslim, more or less Christian—a family of halves, all in all.<,p>
The point is that this saint of saints was born in an irreligious age, but, thanks be to god, he did not let anything sully his faith. He set out in his boat of good faith and did not get sucked in by atheism or science. So I thank this pure-hearted believer for how in this ignorant world and godless time he did not let anything shake his faith.
Science and atheism were one worry, but this sinner grew up within the earshot of a Hindu temple. How far away was Chirag Haveli from the temple? Maybe a furlong or a furlong and a half. I was fast friends with Pandit Ganga Dutt, the Forsaken One, since the time my first teeth came in and I knew how to cry. But what a jewel of a man he was. If he recited the Muslim profession of faith just once, he would have gone straight to heaven. O, God, such usurpers, oppressive tyrants, dishonest traitors, thieves, and highway robbers are in heaven, and just because they said the profession of faith. These people all claim their right to paradise. Our Pandit, the Forsaken One, had so many great qualities but since he wouldn’t recite the profession of faith, his case for heaven was doomed.
One day I said to him, “Pandit, just recite the profession of faith one time, then you can die.”
“What will happen if I do?”
“You’ll go straight to heaven.”
Pandit smiled, “Shri Mushtaq Ali, your religion’s method of getting to heaven is too easy. Recite the profession of faith once, and just like that you’re in heaven? For us, it’s much more difficult. Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula, and Sahadeva collapsed on the arduous road—in the end, there was only a dog to keep company with Yudhishthira all the way to heaven.”
I paused. “God is great. They were made great men, but they were defeated. And a dog got to heaven.”
“Human greed got the better of them. Sahadeva was proud of being so smart. Nakula was proud of being so beautiful. Bhima was proud of his strength. Arjuna was proud of his martial skills.”
“Yes, Draupadi had her fault too. She didn’t love the five brothers equally. She loved Arjuna more.”
Now it was my turn to smile. “Incredible, Pandit, incredible. These great beings were denied their place in heaven, and each for their own reason. All of the human race had their names crossed off, and instead a dog signed the deed for a house in heaven!”
Pandit spoke gravely, “Shri Mushtaq Ali, man and beast, man and woman, rich and poor, all are beloved by god. There is no big and no little in this world. There is no low birth and no high birth.”
I was rendered speechless. The good-natured, wise saint had made his point: in this tumultuous time where atheism raged and science had begun its onslaught, this humble fakir had kept his faith fully alive. This was all due to the blessings of his upbringing with Abba Jani and his beloved mother, and the gifts of his companionship with Pir Mughisuddin. Our Phupha Uncle was an answer to the prayers of all. The wretched received solace. The poor received money. Those without hope of being granted aid found their luck changed and went home with their prayers answered. One day a poor man came before this helper of the hopeless and spoke about how no one in his house had eaten for three days. His children had not eaten at all. He said either help me or give me poison so that I can end this. Phupha Uncle hesitated. Then he took sandalwood paste and drew a magical figure. He advised the man to place this under one leg at the head of his bed. The man did so. Every morning from then on, there was a silver coin with the image of the Queen of Victoria underneath his pillow along with a silver marble. And his worries were quickly a thing of the past.
The next anecdote involves two lovers who were reunited. God as my witness, this is something that I saw for myself. A heart-broken man came to my uncle in such a state that tears were flowing copiously from his eyes. Phupha Uncle asked, “What is the matter?” The man said, “Fate has been unkind.”
“But why are you crying?”
“I’m thinking about my beloved.”
“So what do you want?”
“To be with her again.”
First he made sure the man understood that all should beware of the devastating ways of love. Then, seeing that the man was helpless before love, he felt sympathy for him, and said, “Bring a small branch from a pomegranate tree.” The man found a branch and brought it. Phupha Uncle made a pen from the branch and wrote out a figure on a piece of paper. He gave the paper to the man saying that he must put it in the mouth of a frog, and place the frog by the side of a river. The man did so. After forty days, the man went and retrieved the paper. What happened? As soon as he spread out the paper, his lover appeared. His heart’s desires had been fulfilled.
The next anecdote is of the same nature, and it too is something I saw with my own eyes. A love-struck man came in a bad state before my uncle. He pleaded that a rival was blocking his way. He was losing his lover’s attention. She was drifting further and further away. Soon she would be lost for good. Phupha Uncle told the man to bring thirty-four leaves of the Indian mulberry tree. The man rushed off into the woods and came back with the leaves. Phupha Uncle used the thorn of an acacia tree to carve a figure into the leaves. He told the man to burn the leaves in an oven when the afternoon was at its hottest. He did so. Before a fortnight had passed, the rival had been disgraced. The lovers were reunited.
There are so many tales like this, it is impossible to count. But not one person who came for help left with their wishes unfulfilled. He had at his disposal all types of prescriptions, spells, and charms. I will write down a handful of his infinite number of remedies that I remember.
Charm to Find Treasure: Capture a black partridge and starve it for three days. On the fourth day, open its beak and place inside a bit of mercury. Then remove the mercury, mix it with cow’s milk, and boil it. Feed it to the partridge. When it deposits a dropping, mix the dropping with flour. Roll it into a ball and place it in the mouth. Even if the treasure is covered seven times over, you will be able to see it.
Charm to Find Treasure: Purchase a kadaknath chicken. A kadaknath chicken is completely black. Its meat is black too. Remove its fat and place it on the eyes. You will then be able to find the hidden treasure.
Charm to Find Treasure: At an auspicious moment, mix the milk and cream of a kai cow and spread it over the tongue of a kadaknath chicken. Then put the mixture into the eyes of someone who had been born breech birth. Whenever the goods are hidden, they will now become visible.
Method for Never Running out of Money: On a Saturday during the monsoons, go to the side of a pond and grab two mating frogs. In the mouth of the male, place a rupee coin and bury the frog on the east side of the pond. In the mouth of the female, place a 1/8 rupee coin and bury her on the west side of the pond. Do this while naked. After eight days, if the rupee coin has flown to the other side of the pond, then spend the rupee and keep the 1/8 rupee coin. If the 1/8 rupee coin has flown to the other side of the pond, then spend the 1/8 rupee coin and tie the rupee coin in a handkerchief and keep it. God willing, you will never run out of money.
Method to Know When You Will Die: The method to know when you will die is the following. Go into the forest at sunrise. Face the sun, close your eyes, and stand straight up. Think about how tall your shadow should be. Open your eyes, and look at your shadow. If it is as tall as you imagined, you will live out your days in peace. If it is one head short, you will die before your time.
The Signs of Tingly Body Parts: This is not about those beautiful people whose every inch of their body tingles. Setting them aside, from time to time every person experiences tingling in various body parts. To feel tingling in one body part may be good, it may be bad in another. If your nose tingles on the right side, you will become fast friends with important people, and you will become rich. If your upper lip tingles, you will be soon rewarded with your lover’s kiss. If your throat tingles, good food is in your future, as well as talent in music. If your right armpit tingles, you will lose your lover and experience loneliness. If your left armpit tingles, you will be reunited with lost friends, and good things lay in store. If your belly button tingles, illness will come your way. If your groin tingles, you will experience the loss of a friend.
The point being that Phupha Uncle was blessed with the power over djinns. His amulets worked miracles. His prescriptions were efficacious, and he was in control of all the elements—earth, water, wind, and fire. He was in control of djinns. And not just any old djinns. Our dear Phuphi Aunt said that Zafar Djinn’s great-grandson was one of the spirits under his control. One day I pressed my aunt on this matter, and she replied, “Son, every Ashura, your Phupha Uncle used to go to Saidani Bi Amman’s humble house to participate in the recitation of Karbala elegies. One year the following happened. As the recitation was going on, suddenly everyone saw that nearby a cobra was writhing on the ground, with its hood extended. Everyone became terrified. Your Phupha Uncle looked with anger at the snake, then scolded it, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ The snake immediately disappeared. Then, the people who were there, said that a big, burly man got up, his head bowed, his hands crossed in supplication. Your Phupha Uncle asked harshly, ‘Why have you come here?’ The man weakly said, ‘To get your blessings.’ Your uncle said, ‘Tell me your lineage.’ The man said, ‘I am the great-grandson of Zafar Djinn. I’m called Ibn al-Zafar. My family pledges itself to the love of Hussain.’ Hearing this, your uncle’s manner softened. He said, ‘Then why do you go around as a poisonous snake? Spit out your poison. Become human, and stay with us.’ Look and behold! The djinn took a human form and began to serve your uncle. His pupils sparkled like marble, but they never dialted. If your uncle asked him for any favor, the djinn would disappear and then after just a second would reappear with the favor done.”
These miracles were all part and parcel of Phupha Uncle’s life. But Abba Jani was not gifted in this way. He thought that Phupha Uncle’s acts of spiritual healing were against Islam and ranked among the forms of heresy, but that since Phupha Uncle was his elder, he held his tongue. In truth, Abba Jani was younger than Phuphi Aunt, and he considered her to be his mother because his beloved mother, this writer’s dear maternal grandmother, had departed from the world when he was a boy. Phuphi Aunt raised and educated him due to being considered the most mature. She was the one who gave orders in the house.
Praise be to god, Phuphi Aunt made absolutely the best fox nut gravy. And her korma was truly the food of gods. In the last forty years, I have not tasted such a delicious korma and I have not seen it. Neither are those capable of making the dish alive any longer, nor is that quality of saffron and the kewra available for purchase. That korma died at Chirag Haveli the day that Phuphi Aunt’s eyes closed for the last time. Now though we eat korma, we have to chew it painfully, then quickly wash it down with water.
Yes, Phuphi Madame’s coming from Lucknow brought to mealtime a new era of delight at Chirag Haveli. Her pineapple sweet saffron rice dish was priceless. Her six-colored egg curry was beyond compare. In one spoonful of the curry, there were six tastes and six colors. So now what do we eat? Bread and water. There is no meat to eat with our chapattis. When Mian Chapatti left, so too did his chapattis. And what chapattis were they! They were bigger than elephant ears and thinner than gold leaf. You could eat them in one fell swoop. Mian Chapatti was Abba Jani’s favorite cook, and Mian Chapatti loved Abba Jani. When Abba Jani died, Mian Chapatti cried more than anyone else. Ashen, he said, “Now that the master is gone, who will praise my pistachio gravy, who will extol the lightness of my chapattis?” He renounced the kitchen and was dead in six months.
It was a shame to see them go, but those days ended, and those pleasures of eating, too. There were so many great tastes to which we had to say goodbye. Now coming from the kitchen at Chirag Haveli there is no longer any pistachio fox nut gravy, or the sweet smells of kewra and saffron, or sultani cream lentils, or paratha with eighteen layers. There is no longer sweet saffron rice, or sweet and sour rice, no ruby khalyan, no six-colored egg curry, and no saffron vermicelli pudding. All of these gustatory delights receded into the past to stay there forever.
But much more than the pleasures of taste, for what aspect of those days has remained? Abba Jani’s influence was great. It was because of him that the British colonial authorities lavished upon this good-for-nothing the title of Khan Bahadur. For all the officials who have followed the tradition has been upheld that each Deputy Collector posted to the area holds this worthless one in high regard. Whenever a new Deputy Collector comes to the area, he bestows the majesty of his presence upon Chirag Haveli, and in accepting the feast in his honor, he adds to the dignity of the house. But your humble servant points out that the table is not the same as that of the time of Abba Jani: Phuphi Aunt and Phupha Sir have left the world and Mian Chapatti too makes his scrumptious bread in heaven. Nevertheless, each Deputy Collector comes and eats his fill, promises to return for another feast, and then takes his leave. The current Deputy Collector, may his star forever shine, comes to dine with us from time to time, and he asks for korma and biryani. Just think how happy he would have been to feast upon the cuisine of Abba Jani’s time!
Abba Jani took the most pleasure in wining and dining. He enjoyed hosting formal meals for important guests and his beloved friends where he could extend himself in lavish ways. But there were other examples of this. These formal occasions defined his life. One year Phuphi Madame and Phupha Sir came to stay during Muharram. Just for them, Abba Jani arranged a large commemorative ceremony. The next year he held another party on the same date, and it became a yearly tradition. While Abba Jani was not inclined to participate in the weeping and wailing, he secured the services of the late Som Dutt for this purpose. He came prepared with two handkerchiefs to the gathering. As soon as the tragic events were recited, his eyes would start gushing tears. When one handkerchief was soaked, he would take out the other. By the end of the ceremony, his two handkerchiefs were dripping wet.
Pandit Ganga Dutt was this great man’s only son. He was given just one piece of advice: “Son, be a chipmunk. That’s the key to good fortune.”
I kept wondering what the saying meant. One day, I built up the courage to ask him. “Pandit Uncle, what’s the secret to becoming a chipmunk?”
The wise man answered, “My dear boy, it comes from the time that our Shri Hanuman was building a bridge to cross the ocean to Lanka. Hanuman-ji was toiling at this labor when a chipmunk happened along and was perplexed by what was happening. When he asked, he learned that the bridge was being built upon Lord Ram’s wishes. The chipmunk thought that he too should help the Lord God. He picked up a pebble in his mouth and started helping the monkey army. Wherever the monkeys laid down a stone, the chipmunk lay down a pebble. The animal continued on this course for quite a while. Seeing the chipmunk, the monkeys laughed. Then one monkey picked the chipmunk up and tossed it to the side, saying, “Out of the way, you little runt, we’re busy working.” The chipmunk became to wail. Lord Ram saw this. He took up the chipmunk and placed it in his loving lap. He spoke to the monkeys, “Hey, monkeys! You’re doing all that is in your power, and the chipmunk is too. So don’t pretend you’re better!” Lord Ram stroked the chipmunk’s back very lovingly, and the Lord’s loving fingerprints remain to this day on the back of the chipmunk.”
The late Pandit Som Dutt told the best Ramayana stories. For him, it was as though the stories happened just the other day. He had memorized the Gulistan. He performed puja rites with the utmost of respect and humility. He smeared on such a large prayer mark on his forehead. He would don a long Muslim-style jacket for Eid. He would go everywhere Abba Jani did, he would pat my head with tender love, and he would give Eid gifts. And with the same careful formality, Abba Jani would attend events at his house during Holi and Diwali. Pandit Ganga Dutt was very careful. He did not dust Abba Jani’s distinguished face with red Holi powder or shower him with any other colors. Abba Jani thought it was nonsense and that these Hindu customs were heresy for Muslims. But friendship carries certain obligations, so until he died he attended religious holidays at his friend’s house. He allowed himself to take at least a little cardamom and anise. So he celebrated the friend’s holidays in this way. But whatever Pandit Som Dutt didn’t do to my father, he did to me. He covered my face with so much Holi powder that I looked like a monkey. Then Pandit Ganga Dutt used a syringe, and I was doused with orange-colored water. My father continued to chew his cardamom and anise mixture and said nothing. He never intervened. Those men were the height of tolerance and care!
These were the life and times of Abba Jani. He was born in Gulistan Mahal and he died in Chirag Haveli. He lived his life with restraint and forbearance. Once he found something of value, he adopted it into his life. He rose before dawn when the stars were still glimmering, exercised, bathed in cold water, and then prayed the dawn prayer. After fajr, he ate breakfast. His breakfast consisted of leftover bread spread with honey and broth. Then he went to his dispensary. Every season—winter, summer, the rainy season—his routine was always the same, and he always wore the same clothes. In summer, he wore coarse cotton pajama bottoms that scrunched at the ankles, a muslin kurta, and a long embroidered jacket. And that is exactly what he wore in the dead of winter, as well. But how healthy he was! Let alone catch a cold in winter, he never so much as sneezed! He kept all thirty-two teeth till his end, and his eyesight was as strong as it had ever been.
Abba Jani lived free of worry and heartache. In his old age, his one worry was who would take over the family. He wrung his hands, thinking about how he had sent his two sons to Aligarh and look what blessings had returned upon him! The one son had renounced Islam, and the other son had become a British civil servant! So while there was this one matter than hung over Abba Jani’s head, nevertheless, up till his end, Abba Jani seemed at peace. He died with no writhing, no fanfare at all. As soon as he lay down, his body jerked one time, and his eyes closed. We belong to God and to Him we shall return. Because this good-for-nothing was his eldest son, the responsibility of burying Abba Jani fell to me. When I stood in the open grave, I swear with god as my witness that a sweet scent wafted up from the gravesite, and when Abba Jani’s blessed corpse was passed into my hands it was as light as a flower. I was shocked, my god—he had been such a hefty man. He had been such a well-built man but in that moment he didn’t feel like a corpse but a stem of flowers!
When Abba Jani’s funeral procession left Chirag Haveli, with it went the sweetness of the house. It had been a refuge. The clinic was always full of the sick, and the reception room was bustling with guests. Now the clinic was dead. The reception room was empty. The comings and goings were no longer. Abba Jani had been the last of our family’s great doctors. After he died, there was no one to carry on the family’s benevolent legacy. Abba Jani took with him to the grave all the knowledge of this noble art. His grief scored my heart. But what was there to do? We cannot escape our personalities. Abba Jani did try to teach me in his way, but fate had not blessed him with this skill, or perhaps it was my fate to become enamored of foreign customs. Abba Jani’s good name did end up helping me. I was appointed the Deputy District Collector. But I was very bad at this job. I was always on the move. Hardly had I settled in one god-forsaken town when I would be transferred to another horrible place. I did like one town, but I suffered in another way there. God, please spare the traveller such sorrow! I had already experienced a hundred types of grief, but when I fell in love in that town, all the other hardships seemed trivial. My friends, it was a heartless city. The joys of love seemed a world away. When this coquette granted me one glance, my longing grew. After so many trials and tribulations, after suffering so much disgrace, at last the moment had come when we were to meet. But what happened? When I asked for her love, she became angry. She turned her back on me, and I never saw her again. All my days there were lost. I sat in a catatonic trance. I sank into despair.
Then I went home for the holidays. When Abba Jani saw me, he could not believe his eyes. He had seen all the ups and downs of the past. People had come to clinic who did not seem to be suffering from any illness, and yet they were the most sick. Abba Jani thought long and hard about how to cure me, and he decided to quickly find me a suitable bride. At the same time he made sure that I was transferred far away from the previous town. The prescription worked. New responsibilities preoccupied me. Out of sight is out of mind. When I left that town, the thought of its pleasures left as well. And yet whenever I think of those days, my heart quickens. When the storm had passed, I started paying more attention to my responsibilities as a government official. I started carrying out my duties with fervor. When up for promotion, I steadily rose in the ranks. Eventually I became Deputy Collector. I carried out the duties of this office so well and I provided such service to the British government that the powers that be rewarded me with the office of Honorary Magistrate, whose duties I am still performing. The majesty found in the compassion of the foreign government is directly tied to the splendor of the profession of my ancestors. How can you compare them? Today is today, yesterday has gone. As the color of the sky changes bit by bit, I find myself growing fearful of the future. May Chirag Haveli last forever, but a foreboding feeling lurks in my heart. Something betokens ill.
The Pakistani writer INTIZAR HUSAIN (1923-2016) wrote short stories, novels, novellas, poetry, and one travelogue. The Lahore publisher of Husain lists 43 works. Born in the town of Dibai in British colonial India, Husain graduated with a degree in Urdu literature from Meerut College in 1946. He left India for Pakistan upon Partition. Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2013, he has won multiple awards for his writing, including Pakistan’s Star of Excellence (Sitara-i-imtiaz) and a lifetime achievement award from the Lahore Literary Festival. In 2014, he was awarded the status of Officer as a member of the French government’s Order of Arts and Letters. Fleur Pellerin, the French Minister of Culture at the time, spoke of him as being a “Universal spirit concerned with ameliorating the dialogue of cultures in every possible way.” The same year Newsweek Pakistan recognized him as the most important living writer in Pakistan.Matt Reeck
Matt Reeck has published translations from the French, Hindi, Urdu, and Korean. The Chronicle, his translation from the Urdu of the Man Booker International finalist Intizar Husain, was published in Nov. 2019 by Penguin-India.