The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
Fiction

Comfort

This happened eight years ago to the day.

My friend Bisheshar Nath’s wedding party was staying in the upscale marriage hall opposite Hindu Sabha College. There were around three hundred fifty guests who, after listening to the performances of famous prostitutes from Amritsar and Lahore, were sound asleep on the floor or in cots in the sprawling building’s many rooms.

I was still drunk from the whiskey that I’d shared with Bisheshar Nath and our closest friends in a private room. When the big clock in the wedding hall struck four, I woke up. Something seemed stuck in my eyelashes. I thought I must be dreaming.

With one eye still closed, I cast a glance with my other eye down the length of the room. Everyone was sleeping, some on their bellies, some on their backs, some in the fetal position. When we returned to the hall after drinking, Asghar Ali had insisted that he had to sleep with a bolster. When I opened my other eye, I saw that the pillow lay not far away but Asghar Ali wasn’t there.

I thought that he must have stayed up all night as usual, and that he must now be sleeping in Ram Bagh in the dirty bed of some whore.

Whether Indian or English, liquor was a very fast train that took Asghar Ali directly toward women. Drinking pulls 99% of men toward what they think is beautiful, but for Asghar, who was a very good photographer and painter (he knew everything about color and composition), drinking always drew him into the most despicable situations.

My dream dissolved, and I started thinking more clearly about Asghar Ali, a real person, for sure. I could see the sunken spot on the bolster where he’d rested his sumptuous hair.

I still couldn’t understand why liquor made Asghar so dumb. I shouldn’t say “dumb” because it actually made him frighteningly alert. He would set off for the darkest alley where his drunken steps would lead him to any species of prostitute. Then in the morning he would rise from her soiled sheets and go to his studio where he painted portraits of beautiful women of all sorts. But by then, the lustful gleam in his eyes had disappeared entirely.

Please believe me—when he was drunk, his desires took control. For a while, he wouldn’t be able to stop himself. Usually a man can drink six to eight shots. But even just a couple drops of liquor would push him deep into the ocean of lust.

You can mix whiskey with soda or water, but not women. Drink to drown sorrow. But leave women out of it. Drink to raise a ruckus. But leave women out of it.

That night Ashgar had made a scene of himself. But because there is a lot of loud revelry at weddings, no one noticed. Finally he raised a glass of whiskey and left the room saying, “I’m a very high-class person. I need a high-class place to drink.”

I thought he’d left to search out a VIP brothel in Ram Bagh. But a second later the door opened and he came in carrying a wooden ladder. He set it against the wall, climbed to its top rung and sat down there to drink right next to the ceiling.

It took a lot of doing on the part of Bisheshar and me to get him down and convince him that such pranks were funny only when there’s no one around. The wedding hall was packed with guests, and he needed to be quiet. I don’t know how this got through his thick skull because for the rest of the night he sat in a corner and nursed his whiskey.

Recalling all this, I got up and went out to the balcony. Hindu Sabha College stood with its red bricks covered in morning’s darkness. Overhead a handful of stars twinkled in the murky sky.

March’s cool breeze blew gently. I thought of going up to the roof and lying down on its marble floor. Feeling the chill would do me good, I thought.

When I got to the stairs at the balcony’s end, I heard someone coming down. A couple moments later Asghar appeared and, without saying a word to me, passed right by. It was dark. I thought perhaps he didn’t see me. So I started to climb the stairs.

My habit is to count stairs as I climb. I had counted 24 when I glanced up to see a woman standing on the last stair. I was startled. I’d almost collided with her.

“I’m so sorry, I … Oh, it’s you!” I said.

It was Sharda. She was our neighbor Harnam Kaur’s eldest daughter who had lost her husband only a year after getting married. Before I could say anything else, she asked me very sharply, “Who was that who just went down?”

“Who?”

“That man who just went down. Do you know him?”

“I do.”

“Who is he?”

“Asghar.”

“Asghar!” It was as though she bit the name in two, and I guessed what must have happened. “Was he rude to you?”

“Rude?!” Her entire body pulsed with anger. “What did he take me for?” Then tears welled in her eyes. Her voice caught in her throat, and she covered her face with her hands and began sobbing.

I found myself in an odd predicament. I thought that if anyone heard her crying, they would come up and it would become a complete mess. Sharda had four brothers, and they were all in the wedding hall. At any moment, two of them were looking for some excuse to start a fight. Asghar Ali was in trouble.

I started to tell her, “Look, don’t cry. Someone will hear.”

She dropped her hands from her face and yelled, “Let them! I want them to hear! That man, he thought I was a … a prostitute? Me? Me!”

Then her voice caught in her throat again.

“I think we should let this go right here and now,” I said.

“Why?”

“It’ll give someone a bad name.”

“Who? Him or me?”

“Him, but what’s the point of dirtying ours?” Then I took out my handkerchief. “Here. Dry your tears.”

She threw the handkerchief down and sat on the landing. I picked up the handkerchief and put it in my pocket.

“Sharda, dear, Asghar is my friend. Whatever he did, I apologize.”

“Why are you apologizing?”

“Because I want this to be over. But if you want, I’ll bring him back and make him beg forgiveness.”

She turned away in hatred. “No, don’t bring him here. He humiliated me …” Again her voice caught in her throat. She bent over, struggling to control her hurt feelings.

I was frazzled. A healthy young woman was crying right in front of me, and I couldn’t get her to stop. One time I’d been driving Asghar’s car when I honked the horn to warn a dog from my path. But, just my rotten luck, I hit the horn in such a way that it wouldn’t stop. I tried a thousand times, but it kept up its insidious sound. People were staring, but I couldn’t do anything.

Thank god there was no one around. Still my helpless feeling was worse than before. A woman was crying in front of me, and her feelings had been badly hurt.

If it had been any other woman, I would have said a few words then left. But Sharda was our neighbor’s girl, and I’d known her since childhood.

She was a good girl. She wasn’t as pretty as her three younger sisters but she was very smart. She was very good at crocheting and sewing. But she was shy. When after exactly eleven and a half months of marriage, her husband died in a train accident, we all felt very sorry for her.

Her husband’s death was one thing, but it was clear that this blow, which she’d just experienced at the hands of one of my dissolute friends, was also very traumatic.

I tried one last time to get her to quiet down. I sat next to her. “Sharda, crying like this won’t solve anything. Come on, go downstairs. Whatever happened, just forget it. That idiot was drunk. He’s not usually like that. When he drinks, it’s like he’s another person.”

Sharda continued crying.

I knew what Asghar must have done because men are all the same—horny. But nevertheless I wanted to hear from Sharda’s own mouth how he’d harassed her. So I said, continuing to show my sympathy, “I don’t know what exactly he did, but I get the gist … But why did you come up here, anyway?”

Sharda spoke in a quavering voice, “I was sleeping in a room down below. Two women started talking about me … ” She couldn’t go on.

“About what?”

Sharda collapsed on the floor and started sobbing. I patted her gently on her broad shoulders. “Quiet now, Sharda. Quiet now.”

She was crying, and she hiccupped through her sobs, “They were saying. They were saying, ‘Why did they let that widow come?’”

When she said “widow,” she took up her tear-stained scarf, put a corner in her mouth and wrung it, “Hearing this, I started crying and so went upstairs. And, and …”

This made me feel very sorry for her. Women can be so mean, especially old ones. Whether the wound is new or old, they love to dig into it. I took her hand in mine and squeezed it lovingly, “You should never let things like that affect you.”

She began to weep like a child, “I came up here, I thought I should forget it, then I went to sleep. Then your friend came, and he pulled off my scarf, and then he unbuttoned my kurta and … ”

Her kurta’s buttons were undone.

“Let it go, Sharda. Forget it.” I took out my handkerchief and started drying her tears.

The corner of her scarf was still between her teeth, and she stuffed even more in. I pulled it out. She grabbed this wet corner and wrapped her fingers in it, then said with great pain, “Your friend laid his hands on me because he knew I was a widow. No one’s going to stand up for a widow.”

“No, no, Sharda, no.” I laid her head on my shoulder. “Forget it. Be quiet now.” I wanted to sing a lullaby to put her to sleep.

I dried her eyes, but more tears began to well. She’d put the corner of her scarf back in her mouth, and so I removed it. I wiped away her tears. Then, very gently, I kissed her eyes.

“Now that’s enough.”

Sharda put her head on my chest. I gently patted her cheeks. “That’s it, that’s it, that’s it.”

A little while later, I went down. In the cool breeze of March’s last days, Sharda was fiddling with her scarf and had forgotten what Asghar had done up on the roof. She was feeling relaxed. The pain in her chest was gone, and in its place was a light sense of ease.

Contributors

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.

Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto (1912–1955) is a giant of South Asian fiction. His Urdu stories, vignettes, anecdotal prose, and satire place him squarely at the center of the Urdu canon. His continued cultural relevance can be attested to new dramatic works centered on his life and writing: the 2018 film Manto by the famous Indian actress, activist, and director Nandita Das, and the 2019 staging of Manto’s work by Motley, the Mumbai theater troupe of the famous Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah.

Aftab Ahmad

Aftab Ahmad earned his PhD in Urdu literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Having served as the Director of the American Institute of Urdu Studies Program in Lucknow for five years, he began teaching as an Urdu lecturer at UC-Berkeley in 2006. “Reflections on Growing up Muslim in India,” his essay about being a religious minority in India, was recently published serially in Fire, an Urdu-language newspaper in Lucknow.

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

All Issues