Embers, ashes

by Neeman Sobhan

eid01THIS happened in the late seventies, when she was still married and living in the US and had not moved to Dubai, where she now taught comparative literature at the American University. ‘Happened’ was probably a loose term. Nothing had really happened. Yet her life had changed. She had changed. And it was nothing that she could ever explain to anyone, least of all herself.
She restacked the old university papers from her student days – her notebooks, the yellow exam booklets stamped on the cover with the crest of the University of Maryland and sheaves of term papers tapped out on her Olivetti typewriter. She returned everything to the carton except one paper, titled ‘Tests of Fire: Coercion or Self-Sacrifice?’ At the end, the meticulous bibliography and the red-circled grade: an A-minus. She rose from her kneeling position on the carpeted floor of the spare room that functioned as a storage place and pushed the carton back inside the closet. Then, sliding some of her rarely used saris and woolens off their hangers, she kicked the closet door shut.
Her daughter Maya, with husband and kids in tow, was arriving tomorrow from Rome to spend a few days with her. She couldn’t sit around poking into the past.
DULLES airport was all sun-spangled glass reflecting a frosty blue sky on that brittle December morning when twenty-three-year-old Shireen gave her yawning husband Alam a hug and left Washington D.C. for a month. Many microwaved meals, a long transit at Heathrow, and hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and Denis de Rougement later, when the plane finally landed in Delhi, Shireen checked her watch and it was again an early morning hour.
eid02By now, Alam would be driving out to dinner at Vikram and Sharon’s new place in Potomac, Maryland. Grey-eyed Sharon in black with her Farrah Fawcett hair, spouting economic theory through cigarette smoke while serving coq au vin or beef stroganoff, bending her delicate neck, long-stemmed like her wine glass, leaning closer and closer to Alam.
Here it was half-past seven of another winter morning in another world. Shireen pushed her trolley out of the terminal and looked around. A different, almost underworld morning, with a smog-muffled sun guttering like a dying fire. The funeral pyre was lighted within… From where had that line flickered like a pilot flame into her mind?
She approached the turbaned taxi driver and in fluent Hindi gave him the name of her hotel in town. No more streets lined with piles of old snow and strip malls with Dart Drug and Safeway signs. The fat Ambassador taxi wheezed and coughed its way through the familiar sights and sounds of a sub-continental city. The colonial roundabouts full of flowers Shireen remembered from childhood gardens in Pakistan and Bangladesh, till recently East Pakistan. Early cyclists and pedestrians with woolen mufflers and monkey caps wrapped around their heads. The chug-chug of auto rickshaws and scooters. The cawing of crows.
Delhi was not new to Shireen. She and Alam stopped here regularly on their way to Dhaka for what, in Washington’s World Bank and IMF circles, was called the annual home-leave. She was flying to Bangladesh by herself this time because Alam had just returned from a field mission to Suriname and still had his report to finish. At least that was the excuse he gave. He did promise to join her directly in Dhaka a fortnight later, in time for her younger sister Zareen’s wedding.
The gul mohar and peepal trees reminded Shireen of how much she looked forward to being with her family in that old white bungalow in Dhaka, flanked by the two krishnachura trees that flamed into ember orange flowers every summer.
But before she dipped into her Dhaka existence, or thought back to her Maryland apartment kitchen where she had left half a dozen frozen curry meals for Alam, all she wanted for now was a hiatus of solitude. A neutral place.
Shireen leaned back on the taxi seat and observed the well-planned city – the gracious New Delhi superimposed over the many older Delhis of the past. She thought about the constructed symmetry of her own life: her protected early life culminating in an arranged marriage – a monument built over the palimpsest of unexplored paths and possibilities. An elegant world of conscious contentment. A world delineated by others.
Zareen had refused to follow in her elder sister’s footsteps. No one would dare arrange her marriage, she had declared.
‘Apu, how could you just fling yourself into marriage with someone you didn’t even know?’ This comment had annoyed Shireen when she was in the first flush of her newly married bliss. She had pointed out that she had gone out with Alam a few times before the wedding.
Zareen had laughed. ‘With a man pre-selected for you. And even if Dulabhai is dashing and fun, you only met him on family approved outings.’
After her sister’s engagement was announced, Shireen could have told her that Zareen hadn’t known Faisal for that much longer than she had known Alam. Of course, the clinching words would be that unlike her, Zareen’s marriage was her own decision not that of her family.
It had never occurred to Shireen in those days to question her elders. When her mother approved the ‘boy’ and his family and gave the signal, she the good daughter had jumped through the hoop. And she had been happy, she was convinced.
She had once ventured into the by-alleys of Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi, so similar to Old Dhaka. The chaotic world had left her baffled and breathless. Did people also have within them hidden cities and subterranean labyrinths that called out to be explored? Within the great subterranean retreat in chambers impervious to the light of day…
Did she harbour within herself shadowy areas that she hadn’t known to exist before? She peered into her own eyes in the rearview mirror from which dangled a Ganesh. The little white and pink god winked at her from his elephant’s head. He seemed to know that before was that innocent time which separated her hitherto sacrosanct six-year marriage from a certain moment a few weeks ago, of pure impulse. A jump into the void.
The taxi gasped to a halt at the hotel on Janpath where Alam and she always stayed. While unpacking in her room, she kept her mind distracted, since thoughts of him inevitably brought in their wake that other face she did not dare think about. Yet why was she suffering from guilt? Nothing had happened, really. She lay back on the taut bed and gazed at the ceiling.
Shireen woke an hour later, disoriented from the untimely nap. Rougement’s Love in the Western World had fallen off her chest to the floor and with it the carbon copy of the paper she had submitted to Steve. Shireen went downstairs for breakfast, and then stopped in the lobby to look at some brochures from the India Tourism Development Corporation.
She had just four days. Enough time to escape the present and make a pilgrimage to the past. With Alam she had been to Udaipur and Agra, but not to Jaipur. The dusty-rose city of the Rajasthan deserts agreed with the landscape of her mind. To be suspended for a few days on the clean, arid plane of mere existence, like the scrub and the rocks. No analysing, agonising, just being.
Early the next morning, the ITDC coach picked up Shireen and the other tourists. Mist floated like a giant mosquito net, and under it the city, like a sleeping spouse, lay unconscious of their departure. The countryside whizzed past like jerky scenes from an old, grainy black-and white film. A buffalo-pulled watermill. The man with a string cot on his head, rooted to the spot by the passing of their coach.
One of the two courses she had enjoyed this semester, her final year as a graduate student, was called Film and Narrative Tradition. It had taught her to use her eyes like a camera.
The other was the cultural anthropology course taught by the popular and attractive Professor Steve Middleton. The course had examined, among other things, rituals of self-inflicted violence in human culture. With his fascinating lectures weaving together the historical and the philosophical, Steve captivated his students. Middle-aged but still youthful, sophisticated and divorced, Steve acquired a following of female students openly mooning over him. Shireen felt embarrassed for these girls and in reaction, was especially distant with him.
Yet Steve had noticed her. Perhaps right from the start, when she had sparred with him in class. On her first term paper, graded A-minus he had remarked, ‘You have an ardent mind.’ When he handed back her second paper, again graded A-minus, she had confronted him on certain red-inked remarks of his in the margin, arguing passionately and eloquently till he sat back and grinning, scratched out the minus. By now, there was an awareness of each other beyond a subliminal level. Their classroom discussions started to extend to the corridor, then into his office.
At first, Shireen thought she interested him, apart from her academic astuteness, because of her cultural ‘otherness’, reinforced by the glamour of the sari, which she wore sometimes, mostly preferring the anonymity of jeans. Then the subtle shifts in their rapport had quickened, though nothing was explicitly said. A shared joke or look, a curt but deliciously possessive ‘Where were you yesterday?’ from him. Or coffee sipped in silence in his office in the late afternoon while voices called to each other out on the mall like gulls on a grassy ocean, half seen from the window. Whiffs of his pipe tobacco – from a special shop in Georgetown, he told her – caressed her as he sat reading out something.
At first, as she battled her growing attraction for Steve, she was extra-attentive to Alam. At least on the evenings he came home early and they stayed in. He was a gregarious party animal. A socially charming and attractive man, though, a bit vain about his looks – the golden complexion, etched eyebrows and thick-lashed eyes. On Saturdays when they ambled around Prince George’s Plaza Mall he lingered for ages in the men’s section of Hecht’s, while she went down to the bargain basement for household items. This irritated Alam, who was not happy with the casual way she dressed when they went out, nor with her traditional saris. ‘After hours, you are not a student. Buy yourself something glamorous for Vikram and Sharon’s party tomorrow. How about this slinky black top?’
She hated the word ‘slinky’ and did not relish spending every weekend going to dinners or some newly opened restaurant or disco in town with his best friend and colleague, Vikram, an Indian agronomist at IMF and his Canadian, World Bank economist wife, Sharon.
But she always tried to accommodate Alam’s wishes. Even more so now.
She believed that based on mutual respect and habitual affection, theirs was a good and comfortable marriage, even though they were childless – much to the disappointment of both sets of parents. She didn’t know what Alam thought about the two of them as a couple.
Midway through the semester, the serious students in Steve’s class chose their topics for the final term paper. Some were writing on the Japanese Samurai ritual suicide traditions of hara-kiri and jigai; some on puberty rites among Australian and African tribes; others were studying rites of passage among American Indians, or the pre-Columbian ball games played to the death; even the Hindu concept of sati and the western one of dueling for honour were taken up.
Shireen felt that she was left with no worthwhile topics. Then it came to her. The Rajput custom of jauhar. She loved Indian history and recalled reading about it in an old book. Col. James Todd’s Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan. It was the rite of mass immolation by which, when a fort was under siege and defeat imminent, Rajput queens and princesses chose to sacrifice their lives instead of allowing themselves to be captured and dishonoured by their invaders.
Steve knew about jauhar and loaned her some of his own books when she went to discuss the first draft of her paper with him in his office. Picking one volume he read out to her: ‘After the ritual, the menfolk smeared the ash of their loved ones on their foreheads and plunged fearlessly suicidal into battle knowing that liberty and honour had been kept inviolate.’
‘But at such a horrible price!’ Shireen cried out. I don’t know if I can write about this. Just imagine even children were not spared. If jauhar was a leap into death by a small group of fanatical women, I could understand. But some of them were mothers with babies! Women who may not have held the same conviction about honour or warfare as the men did.’
Steve interjected, ‘Apparently, these ladies did. Queen Padmini of Chittor dressed in her red and gold wedding finery and led the women.’
‘Suicide is about personal choice. How do we know that all the women came to the mass suicide voluntarily?’
‘Well, it’s the problematic of sati all over again. On a large scale. Coercion or self-sacrifice?’
‘But the children…it’s monstrous!’
Steve pressed the tobacco down into the pipe’s shiny bowl and pulled. ‘Shireen, concepts of pain, death, honour, and what is considered necessary suffering, differ from culture to culture. And that is what we are exploring. Try to see what the Rajputs saw in it. You are not being asked to condone or criticise, rather to dispassionately analyse this unrelenting code.’
Shireen was frowning. Steve burst into laughter.
‘Hey! You are only writing about jauhar, not being asked to commit it!’
‘But what if I were? Shireen said almost to herself. ‘What if, by some fluke, I had been born, not a Bengali Muslim in this century but a Hindu Rajput lady in that era? Could I have lived like those women, with the shadow of jauhar on my head?’
Steve put away his pipe and regarded her deeply. Something in his eyes made her look away.
‘Choose some other topic,’ he said coming from behind his desk to stand leaning against its front edge. ‘Listen, shall we just forget the paper for a minute?’ His voice was hesitant, low.
Shireen mumbled, ‘I should go,’ and started to get up. He bent to stop her, and in the process, they knocked down books, papers and her bag, and in the confusion found each other. The pretence of weeks was over in that first embrace.
Her own response shook her. The major emotion that Shireen felt afterwards was panic. As if she stood swaying over a roiling, sparking abyss. Should she throw herself into this blazing new element, embrace it? Or should she hold herself back, fight this invasive force threatening to swallow up her old self and familiar life?
Jump! Not jump!
It was difficult to face both Alam and Steve after that episode. She avoided meeting Steve alone, even after Alam left for Suriname and she was by herself in the apartment. During an unavoidable moment when she was rushing out at the end of his lecture, a classmate had slowed her down and Steve caught up with her in the corridor.
‘Come into the office? We need to talk,’ he said walking beside her.
She stopped, shook her head and said in a rush that he must understand her dilemma, that she was vulnerable to him but couldn’t handle the deceit of an extramarital relationship. She avoided the word ‘affair’ but he didn’t. He looked over her shoulder and shrugged. ‘I am not looking for an affair. You have my full commitment in this. The ball is in your court.’ And with that he walked away towards his office.
She did not follow him. Later she left a note in his mailbox begging for time. The semester break came not a moment too soon. Alam returned and Shireen stuffed her hastily finished paper into Steve’s mailbox and escaped without seeing him.
WHEN they reached Jaipur, the apricot sandstone houses and the crowded street markets shimmered in the afternoon sun. She decided to relax and do some shopping – a few of the famous enameled jewelry pieces for Zareen and herself – and leave tourism for the next day.
Over her hotel bed was a pichwai painting. It depicted beautiful, stylized women in diaphanous robes and veils, laughing and playing in a garden with no fear that their bodies could be reduced to ashes any time for the sake of grand concepts like honour, liberty, chastity.
In Udaipur not far off, Alam and she had once spent a romantic night at the Lake Palace Hotel. Alam was not overly fond of history and only at her insistence had they done an abbreviated and superficial tour of the ancient palace of Rajput kings, the Rawals, inside the fort of Chittor. Later, she read that this was where the first jauhar had taken place. She thought of its ‘heroines’ not as real women. The ‘valiant Padmini and Karnavati’ of history seemed inaccessible, with ramparts of legend around them. They were not wives, mothers, daughters, and beloveds but moths plunging into the flame. In procession the queens, their own wives and daughters to the number of several thousands.
The next day, she decided to go with the tour group to the fortified Amber Palace, some distance away. As the jolting bus left the old city behind, she imagined Steve and herself in animated discussion, as if sitting across his office desk in those days of innocence.
His declaiming voice: The collective need for self-preservation led people to build high-walled citadels and create elaborate codes of survival ethics. Today, in their place is the individual – a fortress in himself. Bulwarked in privacy and fortified by a personal morality, his life is no longer as dependent or contingent on others as before. He is free to live or die as he thinks fit.
She would counter: But does that make life easier today? Or was it easier for the individual to not have choices and be guided or blindly led by rules and rituals? Marry, procreate, live and die at the discretion of society?
Shireen wiped her face with her dupatta. Perhaps, when the time came, it was easier to follow others unquestioningly into jauhar’s flame than to face one’s private tests of fire. She felt feverish. Commitment to a way of conjugality, of unquestioning fidelity bequeathed her by generations of Bengali and Indian women: did these beg sacrifices, too? Her reflected face in the bus window was superimposed on the gritty landscape. Faces resembling hers, or like those of the women walking past the shanty shops of the city’s outskirts dressed in violent pinks, yellows, vermillion and other scorching hues had once committed, or been forced to commit their flesh to the flames. Sati and jauhar, though buried in time, reappeared in recent times as dowry deaths. The dowsing of financially unsatisfactory brides with kerosene, the obscenity of charred flesh. The torching of widow, wife and queen, alike. The deification and degradation of women, bound by tradition, superstition, myths. She was both revolted and riveted. But jauhar was not defunct historical trivia for her. It was part of her shared Indian heritage. She had to understand it at a personal and visceral level.
For Steve, the academic and theoretician, jauhar was an anthropological datum: it threw light on some remote branch of the human tribe unrelated to him. He could speak of his respect for pain, suffering, sacrifice and tests of fire, in the abstract. But when the time came, he would put the tangible – his pleasure, his desire for her, for another man’s wife – above the ideas of honour and codes of conduct that he so dazzlingly lectured on.
But could Shireen put her own pleasure before abstract issues of marriage, family and traditions that formed her tangible reality? Was the decision to change the course of her life, break old bonds and forge new ones, hers alone? Did Alam feel the same commitment to their traditional union? Or was it just she who had a duty to her husband, to her family, and to her in-laws, to preserve the continuity of values, to make sacrifices for the next generation?
But to whom would she pass down the accumulated wisdom and values in this life?
At the foot of the hill leading to the Amber Palace, Shireen and a German woman opted for the elephant ride up to the fortress.
‘Are you from these parts?’ she asked the mahout in Hindi.
He nodded. ‘This is the home of my forefathers. They’re all part of this dust, as I too, shall be. Only my Sundari shall outlive me. Right, my rani?’ He laughed, patting the animal.
‘Is that your elephant’s name? Sundari, the beauty!’
The ponderous animal swayed up the hill with the grace and serenity of a dancer, or a queen. Sundari and her driver seemed at peace, as if conjoined by fate.
Shireen joined the tour group in front of the palace. She had come with a lot of expectations, and a lot of film. But now, the surfeit of beauty around her, the swarming tourists and the voice of the guide made her feel as if some shutter had fallen over her vision. The views, the architectural splendour of the façade of filigreed balconies, carved marble panels and decorated ceilings offered no glimpses into a past of real lives.
The guide’s voice rebounded off the ancient walls, over-bright like the sunlight: ‘Notice the multiple effect of this lit candle in the inlaid mirror work on the walls of the Sheesh Mahal…and here, the famous Hawa Mahal, pavilion of breezes…’
As if in a trance, she moved along with the rest. Finally the group arrived, exhausted, at the women’s quarters, the Zenana Mahal. The guide suppressed a yawn. ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, to your left are the apartments for the many queens, concubines and handmaidens. It is almost windowless on the outside but has a spaciously laid out courtyard inside decorated with the Ram-Leela mural.’ He glanced at his watch. ‘You may go in if you wish. We will meet in twenty minutes.’
Nobody seemed interested except Shireen. On an impulse, she did what she felt she should have done earlier. She took off her shoes. Now she felt the rugged life of the stone courtyard seep into her as she walked into a warren of side rooms.
So far, the palace had been a beautiful mask. But where were the voices she had hoped to hear? She didn’t know the history of the women who had lived here. She didn’t know if they too, were self-sacrificing, inviolable creatures like the legendary ladies of Chittor. The tradition of jauhar may have pertained to these women as well, even though during the time of Rajah Maan Singh, who built the Amber Palace, jauhar was not invoked, since he had allied himself with the Mughal conquerors.
Shireen entered one of the cell-like rooms. It was resoundingly bare, sealed from all outside sounds, and it smelt of clean, hot sand. She let her camera hang. There were no inlaid bits of mirror on the blank walls here to reflect infinite faces. And yet, she could intuit, as if a mural lay before her, the gamut of ordinary human lives, more fragile than glass, more intricate than filigreed patterns.
Suddenly, something like a presence of women flooded the room and lapped at her being. A ringing as of anklet bells filled her ears. She steadied herself against the surprisingly cool wall. Unbidden, the passage came to Shireen, whole:
‘The funeral pyre was lighted within the great subterranean retreat in chambers impervious to the light of day and the defenders of Chittor beheld in procession the queens, their own wives and daughters to the number of several thousands.…They were conveyed to the cavern and the opening closed up on them, leaving them to find security from dishonour in the devouring element. . . .”
Through the roaring, she shut her eyes, breathing deeply. Slowly the world quieted. The cell was vacant, but Shireen did not feel alone. Someone had lived and breathed here. Everything was an illusion except that one woman. Shireen could smell her musk, almost touch her. A woman of her own age, neither queen nor heroine, neither brave nor cowardly, who had laughed, cried, loved, transgressed. She had known desire and sweetness and pain and guilt and doubt. Perhaps she had rebelled against determinedly zealous men and women, tried to escape, and faced with the imminence of sacrifice, had reared back in panic and terror, and dishonorably, screamed. Or drugged with opiates, she had taken the plunge of acceptance, submission.
Fighting nausea, she sat down on the floor to still the room from spinning. Something rose in her faintly like imagined moth wings. From the swirling depths she surfaced with a lucid thought, as if it were a pearl. Oh! God! Was it possible… after three years of trying…the unborn breath inside her?
She had not looked for signs and had attributed her last two missed periods to the recent turbulence of her life. Yet here it was. From the silence of departed lives, a pulse, a whisper, a confirmation of continuity. And hope.
Her in laws would be ecstatic, but would Alam be happy, too? In the last years, he had seemed restless in this marriage. She had once hinted this to her mother, who said, ‘It’s in your hands. Men need to be guided, and dwindling passion must be substituted with the conviction of parenthood.’ And her own feelings? Why was she not as thrilled as she had imagined she would be? Was it only because of Steve?
Steve. The aroma from his pipe, his sweet breath. Where did he fit into this?
She sat till the dizziness passed. When she emerged, the group was reassembling to go back to town. She got into the bus with the others. Tomorrow she’d be back to Delhi, then Dhaka. And after that, her new life.
SHE finished reading that old final term paper. Today, if she were the one grading it, she would have given it a B-minus. Tests of fire? Life was the real conflagration. The devouring element. Inescapable. Inexorable. Ablaze with meaningless choices, decisions to jump! Not jump! Crackling with the defiant pride of Rajputs. Inert like the smoke of regret, of paths not taken.
She got up to make herself an omelet for her solitary dinner.
Maya called from Rome. ‘Ma, I’m dashing to the supermarket. Last chance if you need something. Parmiggiano? Bresaola?’
‘Thanks, sweetie. Everything is available here.’
Her son-in-law Massimo’s voice came from the background, Limoncello?
No, it was Alam who had always liked Italian liqueurs and wines. She hesitated, then asked: ‘How’s your father? Still in that old house in Bethesda?’
‘No, they moved. Last time we visited, Sharon and Baba were in a lovely apartment in Chevy Chase.’
Later she thought she should have asked, And how’s Dad? But Maya wouldn’t be able to add anything about her stepfather that Shireen didn’t already know. Head of the Department of Anthropology. A new wife. Steve had told her himself, over lunch, a year ago when Shireen was in the US. She was attending the graduation of Zareen’s son from Brown. Zareen, newly widowed, and now alone like her after all, needed support and cheering during the ceremony. From Rhode Island Shireen had flown to Washington and met up with Steve.
Unlike her painful divorce from Alam two years after Maya’s birth, Shireen’s marriage to Steve had ended cordially, after ten intellectually stimulating years and no children.
She was on her own now. And happy, she was convinced. This life was her choice, her decision—whatever that meant. Twice, she had jumped to comply with conventions, first blindly at the pressure of her family, then with conviction to save her marriage. Two years later, but not too late, she had tried flinging herself into passion’s flames. She had survived it all. The embers, the ashes.
As she took her dinner plate to the sink, she remembered something else from that trip to Jaipur and the Amber fort.
At the portal of the palace, Shireen turned around for a last glimpse. The arches framed a sky, like a woman’s blue veil adrift over an implacable landscape. And there stood Sundari, her tiny wrinkled eyes like an inward smile, waiting patiently for her next burden and the next. •

This story is part of Neeman Sobhan’s collection of short fictions titled PIAZZA BANGLADESH published by Bengal Publication and launched at the Dhaka Hay Festival in November 2014. The book is available at all bookshops in Dhaka, including Aranya, Jatra, Bookworm, Boi Bichitra, etc.

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