Yesterday I loved, today I suffer, tomorrow I die: but I still think fondly,
today and tomorrow of yesterday.
Sultanat was born in the lap of luxury and when she married Khizer Ali Khan, she moved into another world of unparalleled comfort. Khizer was the eldest son of the Nawab of Burwal. Her in-laws had ensured that their two sons lived in complete peace and harmony. With much thought and worldly wisdom, they had planned their mansion in such a manner that there were congenial spaces even in their togetherness. The Nawab and his Begum occupied the ground floor, Younus lived with his family on the first floor and Khizer; being the eldest, had the privilege of living on the second floor.
The view from the gigantic terrace garden on the second floor was breathtaking. The huge bay windows overlooked a wide expanse of water called the Bada Talaab. It was said to be the oldest man-made lake in the country. A legend also said that a Hindu king had constructed it in the ancient times and it was believed that it had cured him of a skin disease. Sultanat would be intrigued by all these stories. She was often seen conducting a durbar of sorts where everybody from the domestic staff to the elite gentry was welcome. Everybody had a story to tell and Sultanat would be perpetually seen deep in conversation with one or the other. Another passion of hers included watching the migratory birds that came in winter and made a bee line for the Upper Lake. The deep corridors and the marshes of the bada talaab would have varied guests ranging from little egrets to Ibis, from Black neck storks to Spoonbills and if one was lucky there were occasions when one could spot Comb duck’s swimming in circles and drawing intricate patterns on the placid surface of the lake. The cool morning air would send ripples on the surface of the water and it would appear as if hundreds of pearls had been flung on it. The fading rays of the sun would glow radiantly as they touched the shimmering waters, flirtatiously, as if unwilling to leave their side, at any point in time.
Sultanat would lie on a grand wrought iron chaise lounge that had belonged to Khizer’s grandparents and watch nature play her own games. There would be times when the moon would become a party to the sybaritic delights of twilight. There was never a dull moment in her life. At night, the road that strung like a necklace around the lake would come alive with lights. She could see newly-weds besotted with each other trying to exchange a quick touch or mothers breathing down their children’s necks and most of the times haranguing elders talking to teenagers who didn’t give a damn to what their parents said. She often missed her husband Khizer who worked in Doha, but had never felt an inclination to join him there. The rigmarole of establishing her identity there was too much for her. She was a Begum in Burwal, belonging to the elite family of the Nawab of Burwal and nothing in the world could make her wish for anything else in the world. Doha stifled her and there was nothing Khizer could do but to leave her back in Burwal. Most Families were shocked at the way Sultanat was indulged by the old Nawab. She would drive the ancient Willy at breakneck speed through the lanes and by-lanes of the old city without caring two hoots about the ‘hijab’. She would chat with the children coming from the Idgah or joke with the shy young girls who lived close to her house. The Nawab’s sister would often admonish him and coax him to talk to Khizer about his rebellious wife. But he would just smile and forget all that she had said, soon after she left.
Sultanat was on a crusade to improve the lot of the women in her community. She would teach them English, enlighten them about their rights and helped them to assert their presence in their houses. Even though this was a source of great discomfort to many men in the community, yet her efforts were, quite reluctantly, appreciated. She was a vociferous writer and her column appeared every Sunday in the Burwal Daily. The Nawab’s close friends would often joke and say that she was indeed a worthy successor to Imitiaz Ali Khan, the Afghan chief and the old Nawab’s great-great grandfather who had raised the state of Burwal.
Sultanat’s only regret in her married life was the inability to conceive. The sight of chubby young ones in the arms of their mothers often shook the veneer of calm confidence that she exhibited. She had at times, even gone in the middle of the night to pay respects to the great peer’s mazar at the Sakia island in the middle of the upper lake. She was determined to earn the blessings of the saint at any cost. Nothing could shake her belief that one day she would be blessed with a child of her own. Some of the confidence also emerged from the fact that Khizer loved her and had taken it all in his stride.
One cold November morning, she was jolted out of sleep. There was dense fog that hung on the lake as if barricading it from outsiders. The visibility was almost zero. Despite the cold, she took her ceremonial pot of tea and made herself comfortable on the terrace. The lake appeared to be submerged in clouds as if preparing to drift towards the skies. She had a feeling that by the time the sun came; the lake would have disappeared, leaving an empty crater behind. Of course nothing of the sort happened and as the day progressed she had completely forgotten about it. She was again reminded of the feeling of doom that had enveloped her in the morning, when a letter was delivered to her. It was from Khizer and as she opened it, rather pensively, Khizer’s face swam in front of her eyes.
The Nawab took the letter from her hand, when he saw her sit heavily on the sofa with a strange expression clouding her hazel eyes. To his horror he learnt that Khizer had married a girl in Doha and was returning shortly with her and their son; Huzefa. He could not believe his ears. Seeing his daughter-in-law’s ashen face made it even worse. He knew there was nothing he could do to comfort or console her.
After the disturbing revelation Sultanat withdrew into a shell of her own. She was no longer seen flying around the city in a blazing hurry or holding small talk with her female admirers. It was as if a bubbling stream had suddenly run dry! The old Nawab threatened to disinherit Khizer and cursed him, but there was nothing he could do to dissuade Khizer from shattering the sanctity of their home. He had taken a decision to marry Nafissa and he wanted all of them to respect it. He went to the extent of threatening his father with dire consequences if he did not accept Nafissa and Huzefa. There was nothing that the old Nawab could do but give in to his son’s demands.
Finally the day that had hung on their heads like the sword of Damocles arrived. The Nawab and his wife spent the morning sitting in their garden, surrounded by freshly blooming petunias, reading an array of newspapers as if that held the panacea to all their troubles. The Badi Begum, as Sultanat was lovingly called spent her day getting a guest room ready for Khizer’s new family. Even the Khansama was puzzled by her enthusiasm in personally supervising the array of delicacies he had planned. There were hara-bhara kebabs and murgh malai tikka’s for starters followed by the main course that comprised of Mutton Roganjosh, Dum Aloo, Matar Pulao, Chicken Burwali, Shahi Paneer and Kheema Parantha’s. Sultanat herself saw to it that the right amount of saffron and sugar was added to the Phirni and after it had blended into a smooth custard like consistency, she kept it in the refrigerator to set. The old Nawab would occasionally peep from his stylishly slim spectacles and wonder at the flurry of activities in the Kitchen. The Begum was too tired to deal with the intricacies of life and didn’t care about what happened around her so long as there was a semblance of normalcy in their house. She had to admit though she had least expected Sultanat to take any interest whatsoever in Khizer’s new wife and son, in any possible way. But knowing Sultanat, she was capable of springing surprises at the last moment!
As the massive orange ball of fire prepared to sink in the bada talaab, the honk of a car alerted the Nawab’s family. For a moment he felt as if they had all been waiting in the living room, since an eternity. When Khizer came in, they barely noticed him, but they did see that his new wife was a pretty young girl in her mid-twenties. Her hair was braided neatly under the dupatta that covered her head and for a brief instance it struck everybody how different she was from Sultanat. Sultanat also stood eyeing the stranger whose downcast eyes probably did not seem to register that she was the Badi Begum. The baby clung to his mother as if threatened by the presence of so many strange faces around him. He was, however, totally at ease with Khizer. It struck Sultanat that they had been living separate lives for more than a year and probably it was the need for a male heir that had led Khizer to do what he had done. But she would not ask. She did not need him to justify anything to her. He had done what he had to and she had to do what she had to.
The dinner was a somber affair and Nafissa made an effort to say something about the pains that had been taken for her comfort, which of course Sultanat pretended not to hear. But it was Huzefa who stole the evening. His toothless laughter and his fetish for crawling towards the crystal pieces in the drawing room had them in splits. He would rush towards the “don’t touch” zone the moment he felt no one was looking and would break into laughter as soon as he was caught. Sultanat did not care to see where Khizer would retire for the night. She politely wished everybody a good night and vanished into her quarters. It did feel strange to have her husband under the same roof but with another woman. But it no longer hurt her with an intensity and sharpness that she had felt earlier. As she was lulled into troubled sleep, the image of little Huzefa swept through her thoughts and she felt a silent tear trickle down her eyes onto the soft pillow.
The Nawab later in the night commented proudly to his wife that it was the blue blood in Sultanat’s veins that had made her rise to the occasion and not fall like a commoner. His wife silently nodded feeling the pangs that the “other woman” must have produced in Sultanat’s heart. They were proud of their daughter-in-law who had so gracefully accepted this complexity. But the Begum knew that Sultanat’s silence was more potent than her anger and she did not want to think what form it would take as days progressed.
Khizer tried his best to justify his reasons, but it all fell on deaf ears. Sultanat had shut him out of her life and there was nothing that he could do to try and placate her. He knew anger raged in her heart like a furious storm, but there was absolutely nothing he could do or say to quell it. She seemed to have accepted Nafissa and the child, but as far as he was concerned, she did not give him a second glance. She did not even utter a word when it was time for him to leave for Doha. Her cold eyes met his across the room and that was it. He left with a heavy heart and a dull throbbing ache that worsened by the time he reached the airport. He was filled with an uncontrollable desire to tell her that nothing had changed and take her in his arms and tell her all! But it was too late! She would never forgive him for the trespass.
December was the coldest month in Burwal. Sultanat did not watch the birds with as much enthusiasm as she watched Huzefa crawl on the cold floor of the terrace. She had to admit she liked him a lot. There was an affinity and bond that defied any biological connection. She did not hold anything against Nafissa either and there was a sort of distant familiarity in the way they reacted to each other.
That night Huzefa insisted on sleeping with her and Sultanat had magnanimously obliged, though the thought of him falling over terrified her. She laid some bolsters close to his side, so that he would not tumble down the bed while asleep. It was all so new to her, but he looked so beautiful sleeping next to her. She had been staring into his face for so long that she did not even realize when she fell asleep. It was much later in the night that she was woken up by frantic shouts and screams that emanated from the area around the lake. On looking out, she found that there was an exodus of people running helter-skelter as if a monster was preparing to attack them. To her horror Huzefa was also missing from the bed and all that remained of him was a small dent in the bed where he had slept. She quickly donned her track suit and went to check Nafissa’s room. She was also not there! All kinds of thoughts raced through her frenzied mind. Maybe Nafissa had left. “Good riddance,” someone whispered in her head, but she decided not to listen to that voice. She searched the entire house, but there was no sign of her. She took the neglected Willy out of the garage and maneuvered it out of the crowd that was beginning to converge at the lake, with an alarming urgency. She drove around old Burwal trying to locate Nafissa, but it was futile searching for her in the crowds that were dangerously ebbing from every nook and corner of the city.
“What’s happening?” she asked one of the men who was busy ushering his family members into a van.
“Don’t you know?” he said shocked, but not stopping for even a moment to talk to her.
“Know what?” Sultanat asked getting down the jeep.
He looked at her with a strange expression in his eyes as if trying to figure out where he had seen her. Then it seemed to come back to him as he quickly added, “Begum Sahiba, something has happened in that American Plant and everybody is getting out of the city. It seems 200 people are dead already!”
“What?” Sultanat shouted dumbfounded and asked, “Where are all these people headed?”
“Most of them will try to take the train to get out of Burwal,” he said beginning to start the van and added as an afterthought, “But I am taking my family to Indraprastha, the route that the train takes may not be safe either.”
She stared at the retreating vehicle, her mind making permutations and combinations of its own. Then proceeded to drive towards the railway station. To her relief, Nafissa was very much there, sitting on the platform waiting for the train to arrive.
“What on earth are you doing here?” Sultanat asked angrily, grabbing the infant from her arms and compelling her to get up from the bench. “I have been driving all over the city looking for you. Don’t you know there has been a toxic leak and people are dying all across the city!”
“I also want to die!” Nafissa snapped angrily.
Sultanat gave her a sharp stinging slap on her cheek and started pulling her from the platform. “You will die when Allah wills it, understand!” she said sharply as they jostled through the sea of people that resembled angry tides in a moonlit night.
Nafissa could do nothing to resist her as she resolutely pulled her towards the jeep that had been parked just outside the dingy station. The smell of sweat and vomit pervaded their nostrils, but they were too busy taking in the numbers that were increasing alarmingly at the station. Something terrifying appeared to have taken siege of the city.
“It is serious Nafissa,” Sultanat instructed her patiently. “You take care of Huzefa, while I get Abba and Ammi. Put some water in a handkerchief and hold it close to his nose. That’s what Khudabaksh told me. It will act as a barrier. We will need to get as far away from the city as possible.”
Nafissa took her sleeping child from her and silently sat in the back of the jeep. She watched Sultanat as she spoke to some men who had just come into the station. Nafissa felt ashamed sitting there unable to do anything as Sultanat tried to find solutions singlehandedly.
They drove in complete silence as they passed people walking in hordes, their belongings carelessly bundled and thrown into bullock carts. Little children tired and exhausted by the walking they had done in the middle of the night, wailed and wept. All hell appeared to have broken loose. On reaching home Sultanat woke the old Nawab and his Begum. Seeing the situation worsen in the proximity of the lake, they knew they had to get out of the city as soon as possible.
It was well into the wee hours of the morning, by the time they reached Indraprastha. Sultanat had developed a bad cough and the Nawab drove silently, as the remaining few kilometres appeared to be light years away. He looked again and again, with a worried expression in his eyes at Sultanat who was by then finding it difficult to breathe. As soon as they reached their Haveli, the family doctor was summoned and he informed them that Sultanat’s lungs had probably been exposed to the lethal gas while she had been searching for Nafissa and the chances of her survival were remote.
“I am not dying, am I?” she asked, as Nafissa caressed her forehead gently.
“Your husband married me, because there was no other way that I could have escaped from the situation that I was in,” Nafissa said softly. “Huzefa, is not his son,” continued Nafissa looking into Sultanat’s eyes. She saw distant warmth in them, but it appeared foggy and dim. There were so many things that Nafissa could have clarified, but it all sounded too lame at the moment when Sultanat was battling for life. She wanted to tell her that she had wanted to dissolve in that lethal night, so that the next day when she woke she would not be haunted by the image of the “other woman.” She would not need to see the accusation in her eyes! There would have been no explanations and nobody would have missed her presence. That long and endless night had refused to be her ally. But life has a way of undoing even the loftiest of plans and the grandest of motives. It is as if it takes pride in putting petty mortals in their rightful place.
Nafissa looked at Sultanat’s pale face as if seeing her for the first time. She was filled with admiration and love for the woman who had braved the horrors of the night and put her own life at stake for her, when they were not even remotely related. All that she had probably shared with her during the past month was mistrust and jealousy. Then why had she done what she had?
“I had nothing to lose!” Sultanat smiled, reading Nafissa’s mind.
Nafissa continued gently, her voice beginning to break and quiver, “I just hope it is not too late. Your husband always wanted to tell you, but you wouldn’t listen.”
“It’s always too late,” Sultanat murmured sadly, Khizer’s face swimming in her eyes along with a beautiful image of Huzefa: a child who could have been theirs.
“In life, it seems, it is always too late!”
© Jaspreet Mann. A Road in the Sky (2013). Astra Books. All Rights Reserved.