"Longings from Behind and Beyond the Walls" by Rukhsana Ayyub
“Why do you stay in the prison when the door is open?”
In the Beginning
My mother grew up in a house with big walls around it. Walls designed to prevent outsiders from looking in, but also intimidating any insider from even imagining or dreaming of life outside the walls. Walls so high that the boys in the neighborhood had nicknamed the house, “The Red Fort.” They said it reminded them of the Red Fort the Mughal kings had built to keep out their enemies.
Grandpa had the high walls built around the house to protect the honor of the women of the house. Grandpa was a very quiet and religious man. There were some vague rumors about his previous marriages that had not worked out. But at age 55 after retiring from the British army, he married my Nano, who was in her twenties, and decided to settle down and raise a family in his father’s hometown of Jhelum situated at the banks of the river by the same name. Jhelum was a small town in pre-partition northern India that would later become part of Pakistan. Grandpa built some extensions to the house, which he shared with his two brothers and their wives and children. He was very clear that he wanted an orderly and simple life with no room for scandal or acting out by anyone.
Nano tried to comply by producing a child for him each year. The first girl born was accepted as Allah’s will. But the second girl brought on fears of having a wife cursed with bad luck so that when my mother was born, Nano felt she had no choice but to reject her. After all, it was safer to side with the husband and express annoyance at having yet another baby girl then to risk being thrown out of the home by her husband for showing any affection for the unwanted girl child.
In Grandpa’s family girls left their father’s home either on a doli, the wedding carriage that takes her to her husband’s house, or on a death bed. Both those occasions are marked by excessive wailing and crying by the women of the house. My mother did not have to wait for either one of those occasions for at just a few hours old, her aunt Khala ji carried her out of the house. Grandpa’s disappointment was not limited to my newborn mother; her two older sisters were also removed from home and sent off to live with their maternal grandmother for the next few years.
Khala had lost many children either during childbirth or soon after because of her active tuberculosis. She was happy to take a baby home with her.
Khala’s house was joined to the side wall of Grandpa’s house. And there my mother thrived under the loving care of her aunt, with frequent but well-timed visits to see her mother when Grandpa was out of the house.
By the time my mother was about four years old, across the wall Nano had dutifully produced two boys for my grandfather. While celebrating the birth of his second son it suddenly dawned on Grandpa that the daughter he had rejected some years ago as bad luck had been the harbinger of the male heirs in the family. He asked Nano to let my mother return to the house. Just as quietly as she had left her home she was brought back.
My Mom says she still remembers the day she returned home. Nano had cried out, “How could I have turned away from such a pretty girl?” All her life Mom struggled in trying to find an answer to this question, but on that day, all she could say was that Khala ji called her “Pretty Princess.”
Grandpa put his hand on my mother’s head and prayed that her reentry into the house would continue to bring good luck to the family. However, he could only go so for in his acceptance of her, for he then gave her the name “Khurshid,” which is a boy’s name. Nano said it was no big deal for she and the other women would call her Khurshida, the female version of the name. Mom said she tried on all three names and wondered which one she liked best – Khurshid, Khurshida or Princess. Khala ji encouraged my Mom to thank her father for giving her the good name. Then she took my Mom to show her the whole house with her siblings and tens of cousins. Mom said she was so shocked that the walls that had looked so tall from the outside when she had made brief visits to the house now seemed even higher when she knew she was there to stay.
Life Behind the Walls
The house had a big inner courtyard with rooms around it on all four sides. The rooms on the first floor were the mardan khana (rooms for men) and out of bounds for women. The rooms were dark and very sparsely furnished; the men spent most of their time there, meeting or greeting friends. Older boys slept in these rooms at night; however, married men went upstairs to the rooms of their wives at night, if they wanted to.
In one corner of the courtyard was a narrow staircase going up to the second floor. The staircase was almost hidden and unless one knew it was there, it could be hard to find. The steps were narrow and uneven, making the climb up to the second floor difficult if not impossible. A rope was strung around the length of the stairs to serve as a handrail.
The second floor had its own open courtyard in the center with rooms on all four sides for women and children. This courtyard was bright and sunny, unlike the one on the men’s floor, which was dark and enclosed. There was a small square opening about three feet by three feet in the center of the courtyard so that sunlight could reach the first floor. This opening had a fence around it. Small children could be seen peering down from it to the dark lower level. Older girls and women had strict orders to stay away from the fence for fear that a man from the first floor might look up and spot them. At one corner of the fence a basket hung on a metal chain for the transfer of food or supplies between the two floors. When Grandpa wanted something, he would shake the chain and it would make a clanging sound alerting Nano. The basket would then be lowered or raised to make the transfer of whatever was needed.
There was a hand pump for water on one side of the second-floor courtyard. It was the sole supplier of water for all the inhabitants of the house. The children bathed, played and lived by the pump. When the boys got older they would then move downstairs to the mardan khana. The girls stayed on the second-floor with their mothers.
There was also a third floor to the house that consisted only of a flat rooftop with walls all around it and a latrine in one corner. This floor had many functions. The first one, of course was to reach the latrine at a time when no one else was using it, something that was not easily accomplished in a house with three brothers and their wives and dozens of children.
Lines and lines of ropes on this floor were for hanging the daily wash of tons of clothes to dry. This floor was the best spot to go if one wanted to be alone. It also was the preferred space where children who were punished were sent to sit in the hot sun to repent. Since Grandpa’s house was the highest in the neighborhood it was also the floor from which one could peek into neighbors’ homes.
But the most important use for this top floor was for sleeping in the open air during hot summer nights when the downstairs rooms would become just unbearably hot and suffocating. On one side of the wall there were piles of light wooden cots that were pulled apart and spread out at night, then covered with white cotton sheets for sleeping. To reach this top floor old and young, men, women and children all had to climb a bamboo ladder that connected the women’s floor with the rooftop floor. Young mothers with babies at their hips could easily climb this ladder, as could children who since a young age had figured out how to climb this steep ladder. Many had suffered all kinds of bruises and falls while running down the ladder in the middle of the night due to sudden monsoon rain showers.
My Mom says she loved climbing up this ladder to the top floor of the house. There she would stand on top of wooden cots piled on the side on the wall so she could lean over the wall and peer into Khala ji’s house. She always found Khala busy cleaning or scrubbing one thing or another. On seeing my Mom, Khala would always look up and wave to her and call out, “Lucky one, blessed one, light of my house, go away, go and brighten your mother’s home now.”
Nano did not like to see my Mom up on top of the ladder so she would always call her to come down. It was not a girl’s place to be climbing ladders or cots or to be found peering into other homes. Stories of girls who had been poisoned, drowned in the River Jhelum or at the very least be married off in a hurry for far lesser offenses were common gossip.
Since Grandpa had shown so much kindness to my Mom in letting her come back, she felt it was only fair that she now proved to him her goodness and worth. Mom says she was very happy to be home although she could never get along with her older sisters, who were always following Nano in helping her do the chores in the house. But she loved her younger brothers. She was their baji or older sister. She played with them, took care of them and was happy being around them. She loved all of them so much and they loved her back.
Nano liked that Mom was being so helpful. Grandpa never had to hear any complaints about her for she was so well-behaved and never got into any trouble.
The only time Grandpa ever heard her voice was early in the mornings after the morning prayers. My Mom says she would sit cross-legged in the courtyard with her head covered in a scarf and recite the Holy Quran out loud. She had a beautiful, loud and melodious voice and could recite the Arabic verses from a very young age. Upon hearing her voice soar in the early morning Grandpa would call out, “Praise be to Allah,” and Nano’s eyes would fill up with tears. Mom says she never felt shy reading the Quran even though she was not a very bold person. If her voice ever grew softer Grandpa would call out to her from his room on the ground floor and ask her to recite louder and she would immediately obey.
The women in the house would frown and exchange concerned looks, wondering if it was really a good idea to encourage a girl to raise her voice that high. Nano tried to remind herself that it was only while she read the Quran that my Mom raised her voice and that otherwise she was a quiet child and not prone to loudness.
My mother’s days were spent quietly, taking care of her brothers and helping any aunt who had a little baby. When she turned seven years old she was placed in an all-girls school that her two older sisters already attended.
Going to school was a big event each day. First, all the girls had to wrap themselves in white chadors (oversized shawls about two and a half yards long). Even though my Mom and her sisters were below the age required by our religion to cover up. Grandpa insisted that they show modesty and remain covered. They then had to wait for their horse carriage called a tonga that had white sheets all around it for further privacy. When the tonga would arrive the tonga wallah would give a loud cry, a signal for the girls to come rushing down the stairs from the second floor all wrapped up. They would then run across the men’s courtyard anxiously making sure their chadors were staying on their heads and not slipping off by mistake. Then they would make a dash towards the end of the courtyard, push open the huge and heavy front door to the house, climb into the tonga and disappear behind the tonga’s white sheets.
My Mom’s uncle would stand in the doorway shouting, “Hurry up, hurry up.” No one wanted to risk their names being brought to Grandpa’s notice and facing his wrath for taking longer to board the tonga. Years later after Grandpa and Nano had died, if Mom and I had to visit the house, Mom could not enter at a walking pace. She would grab my arm and run into or out of the house as if waiting to hear her uncle scream in the background, “Hurry up, hurry up.”
Other than going to school there was no reason ever for Mom or her sisters to leave the house. Everything that was needed – food, clothes or school supplies – was shopped for and brought home by Grandpa or the other men. Once a year the shoe maker would send his wife with bags full of shoes of all sizes for all the women and children to try on and purchase without ever leaving their home.
There was an endless stream of vendors that passed by selling their wares on the streets beyond the huge walls of Nano’s house. Each one had his unique cry and selling style. Some vendors sold spicy chickpeas, sweet cotton candy or roasted peanuts; others who passed by offered to sharpen knives on the knife-sharpening machine they carried on their shoulders. There were some vendors who walked with a monkey or snakes in their bags and could be called in to put on a little show for a few pennies.
Depending upon the moods and needs of the occupants of the second floor, small children were sent down to run after a vendor and bring him to the ground-floor courtyard where he would squat on the floor with head bent down making sure not to look up as Nano or one of the other women would lean over the fence and conduct the sale. This could only happen in the mornings when Grandpa was out of the house conducting some business for Grandpa did not like the women of his house talking to any street vendor even from the distance of one floor. If he was home no one ever dared to call a street vendor in. Grandpa’s brothers were not so strict and in his absence, they would allow the women to call the vendors, particularly the one with the monkey.
The madari as he was called could make the monkey dance to the playing of a drum. All the women and girls would peer down from the courtyard fence of the second floor as they watched in amazement all the tricks the monkey could do. At the end of the show they would throw pennies down on the floor and laugh as they saw the monkey scurry around and collect the change for his master. The madari would sing songs in praise of the generosity of the women of the house, whom he addressed as the ranis and maha ranis. He would praise the high walls of the house, which were a sure sign of the wealth and security these women enjoyed while he and his poor monkey had to wander the earth looking for food.
None of the vendors were ever allowed to go to the women’s quarters on the second floor. However, Mom recalled that occasionally beggar women were allowed upstairs. Women begging on the streets all covered up in burkas (a flowing large white cover for the whole body, with a mesh covering in front of the eyes to look through) was a common thing. Most of these beggar women had one or two young children tagging along with them, one on their hip and another one walking beside them. Their older children, by the time they were five or six years old, were either working in homes as hired help or out begging on their own. Those younger than five would be clinging on to their mothers as they walked the streets begging. Female children were mostly clothed even though in filthy, torn clothes, while male children would invariably be found walking naked beside their mother. If one of the men downstairs felt pity for them, they would send the beggar women upstairs to Nano, where they were given some leftover food or old clothing but only after telling their stories of the calamities that had struck them and sent them begging on the streets. Sometimes if the weather was cold Nano would take pity on the children and ask my Mom to sew pajamas for the naked babies. Mom says she would pull out the sewing machine and within minutes sew the pajamas from some leftover shawls or sheets of fabric. The pajamas had a big hole cut out in the crotch areas for children who were not yet toilet trained.
Long after the beggar women and their children were gone, the women of the house would keep reminding each other of bits and pieces of the stories they had heard and of all the horrors that existed outside their walls. They would utter deep sighs and thank Allah for being safe and secure in their homes.
Other relatives who lived close by but did not have households as strict as Grandpa’s would come visit with their women and children on special occasions like the religious holidays or for sharing news of the birth, death or wedding of a family member. So there really was no reason for Nano or her daughters to leave the house. Nano had spent her life accepting Grandpa’s orders as inscriptions on stones that had to be obeyed and followed.
Trips to the River
On some hot summer days when the heat would be simply unbearable, Nano would complain and cry out to Grandpa upon hearing about her sister’s day-long trips to the river. On rare occasions, Grandpa would give in. Then Nano had to wait for nightfall for only then was she allowed out with her daughters. Night-time ensured that the riverbanks would be relatively quiet. All the women and girls would wrap themselves in chadors or burqas and walk out of the house to the Jhelum river only three blocks away.
Along the riverbanks, one could see people lying down or sleeping on wooden cots, trying to escape the heat. Nano and her group stayed away from these crowded spots; they needed to find a quiet secluded place for themselves. Their favorite spot was the mosque at the edge of the river, with its steps going down into the water. At night after all the practicing namazis had left, the steps would be empty. Nano would bring everyone there and still covered up they would sit and soak their feet and legs in the water.
Nano would loosen the strap of her burqa under her chin. The girls could loosen the chadors wrapped around their shoulders and feel the cool air coming off the water. They could spot a few boats out in the river with fisherman and their lanterns on the boats. The old bridge across the river was lit with very few lights but one could still see its outline clearly against the night sky. The bridge was built by Nano’s grandfather. For good luck, he had laid bricks of pure gold in the foundation of the bridge. She was just a child then and her grandfather had taken her to walk on the bridge as it was being built. But that was then; now she could only watch it from a distance. If they were lucky, a train would go by on the bridge, with its rhythmic sounds and bright lights offering an amazing sight. How fast the train moved, how free the people in the train seemed!
The river water flowed fast against their feet. None of them knew how to swim or had ever dared to enter the water. Mom says she loved the speed of the water even though it used to scare her. She was always careful as she sat down on the steps for she was so afraid of slipping and being carried away by the current. For that was what had happened to two older cousins. That night, Nano and the women had quietly sat on the steps, shocked, literally biting their hands for fear of letting out a cry. Fear that Grandpa would be angry with them for raising their voices to a point that strangers could hear them. Fortunately, a lone, late-night fisherman had seen the two girls quietly bobbing up and down in the water and he had pulled them out.
Word had still reached Grandpa about the outrageous incident of the girls of his family being touched by a common fisherman. The fact that it was done while the poor fisherman was pulling them out of the water did not calm Grandpa. “Should have left them to drown,” was his answer as he grounded Nano and her girls for a year of no river visits.
My Mom would tell me the story of her cousins almost drowning on our yearly visits to Nano’s house in the summers. By then things had changed a lot. Mom and I would go to the river not at night but during the day with my father and brother. Mom would be walking in thin cotton pants and shirt, with a loose chiffon scarf around her neck. Dad would encourage her to step into the water as they walked along the river shore. My brother and I would be running ahead of them, my brother in shorts and tee shirt and me in a little frock that mother had sewn in a design from English magazines that Dad would bring home from his overseas flying trips. Sometimes I would get loud and scream and insist on taking the frock off so that I could go into the water only in my underwear. Mom would become very quiet and then she would tell me the story of her and her cousins’ visit to the river all wrapped up in the quiet of the night.
I used to find it so hard to believe the story and would ask my mother again and again, “Really Ma, really, you never even uttered a cry on seeing your cousins drift away in the river? And how come your cousins never screamed for help as they were floating away?” I would then try to imagine how I would react if I saw someone drowning in the river. My brother and I would make different sounds as we ran along the riverbanks pretending to see girls drowning. Mom would blush and shiver and Dad would laugh. Then he would begin a long monologue about how ridiculously old-fashioned Nano’s whole family was.