Zahara under the tree

Who planted the ancient Banyan tree that languished in the middle of the housing pavilion’s barren courtyard? Where did pruny old Zahara bibi come from? Questions none of the residents asked because both had been there for as long as anyone could remember.

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Just as the sun rose and the rooster crowed each morning, Zahara’s contorted form hobbled across the courtyard to her makeshift stove under the tree. Her ossified bones cracked and complained at yet another day of hard labor in a long life of even harder labor as she pulled a pail of water from the well for the morning brew.

These young lazy wives with their fat good for nothing husbands and disobedient kids. All asleep. No one had any respect for the elderly, they just didn’t make them like they did in her youth, she thought as she stoked the fire.

As the smell of burning cow dung cakes wafted through half shut windows, the pavilion began to stir and awaken. Light burst into tiny dark rooms, piercing through tightly shut eyelids and the dreams that hid behind them.

They heard the old witch calling out, cussing them for letting the day go by, preaching the value of every passing moment.

“Get up you fools! The animals can’t tend to themselves, now can they?”

“Allah loves those who rise up to praise his glory just as the sun does– don’t you want the grace of Allah?”

She handed them hot tea in dented and discolored tin cups, and stuffed the sweaty crumpled Ruppee notes in her muslin money belt.

“Don’t you get any ideas, Ayesha, you pincher. Put that cup right back” she said, as Zahara’s eyes sought out Sanam Jaan’s face in the small cue next to her stove.

And there she was, holding on to the aerial roots of the Banyan, swaying in the morning breeze, honey almond eyes open to the world in hope and anticipation.

“Arms like sticks! You need to eat more”, Zahara bibi said as she skimmed cream from the milk pot and stirred it into Sanam’s cup.

Sanam smiled. “Shukriya Bibi Jaan”. A gracious thanks from a gracious child.

Zahara watched Sanam’s slender figure walk away towards the goat pen. She rushed a silent prayer to protect Sanam from the evil eye of others and blew it in her direction, hoping that the wind carried it all the way across the courtyard. God’s innocent children were the most susceptible to the sickness that lived within men’s hearts. A few minutes later, she prayed again because she could not be sure if she had forgotten. She did not trust her memory anymore and unrelenting routine smudged the lines between today and yesterday. 

Washing dishes by the well Zahara barely registered the girls teasing Sanam Jaan for being the only person the old hag favored. The tinkling sound of their laughter rang in her ears, her mind’s eye flooded with a vivid picture of a young woman in the barley field, with a pail of water on her head, saying something indistinguishable because she was too far away and it was too long ago, then laughing and looking away. 

A deep sigh. A whisper of want.

Come back daughter. My heart can no longer go on.

“Oye! Sanam Sanam Sanam”

The memory dissolved and Zahara bibi turned around at the sound of a deep resonant voice. Ali Reza strode quietly towards the girls, predatorily quiet, his body loose and relaxed after having a good laugh at a dirty joke with the other boys. He kept his face low, the char pools of his eyes hooded, a lurking smile, saved for that perfectly intimate moment just between the two of them in the midst of a buzzing crowd.

The girls chirped and giggled, even younger in their demeanor than their meager sixteen years. Sanam stood to the side, intent on plucking invisible strands of loose thread from the hem of her scarf.

“A pomegranate” he said, raising the polished red fruit to her face.

“To go with that scarf”

Not looking up, Sanam accepted the pomegranate and turned to leave.

“For my Sanam” she thought she heard him whisper as she walked away.

Zahara bibi looked on.

Son of a bandit, mischief maker, Satan’s worker. She would go and speak with the boy’s mother, she told herself as she scurried away in the blistering heat, a dust cloud at her dragging heels.

But she never did speak to Ali Reza’s mother. Instead Zahara bibi took it upon herself to nip this bud before it blossomed and ripened into rotting fruit. She brewed tea and plotted how best to warn Sanam against the evil nature of men.

“He gave Ghazal earrings” she blurted out as she poured Sanam’s tea one morning.

“Your Ali Reza Jaan tells all the girls how special they are. You are not the only one”

She was unprepared for the tears that flooded Sanam Jan’s eyes, no longer curious and open but veiled and unseeing of the good intentions behind Zahara bibi’s stern warning.

“I meant…don’t be fooled by boys. Their love is like the waxing and waning moon. Fleeting. Leaving you in darkness when it goes away.”

It didn’t seem to help.

Sanam turned and walked away, leaving Zahara bibi holding her tea and bread, calling out after her. Zahara knew that she had lied about Ali Reza. A necessary lie to protect Sanam jan at any cost.

That night, Zahara was grizzlier than usual. They sat next to her, the families that lived in the pavilion, chatting away, occasionally involving her in the conversation about when to start sowing the cotton plants for the season, whether to grow zucchinis or leave the eggplant vines that snaked around the compound. Little Ahmed ran off his with his sister’s plastic ball, her wails pushing their harried mother over the edge.

“I’ll leave you with Zahara bibi tonight! She eats children before the sun rises” she hissed at him as she yanked him to come crashing down in her scrawny lap.

Zahara did not care. She liked to be feared. She wished she could scare Ali Reza away. She waited for the Lord to show her a way, and finally it came in the way of Ghazal, the prettiest and most vane of girls in the pavilion. Much to Ghazal’s surprise, Zaraha offered to braid her long hair one morning. Zahara bibi had only ever had a mean word for Ghazal, scolding her for wearing clothes that showed off her vulgar breasts and suggestive buttocks, making eyes at the boys, laughing loudly so as to offend the angels, and talking back when she was clearly too young to know the ways of nature.

Ghazal sat on the ground, her head leveled with Zahara bibi’s knobby knees sticking out from the wobbly stool she sat on.

“You don’t use any coconut oil in your hair, do you? The luster of youth wears off, especially after you bear children”, Zahara bibi preached as she worked the tangles in Ghazal’s hair, ignoring her protests at the sharp tugs.

“Did I see you waving your braid at Ali Reza the other day?” she questioned, casually.

“Me?”

“No, your dead mother’s ghost”

“Why are you such an angry witch, Zahara bibi?”

Silence

“Why would I wave my braid and makes eyes at Ali Reza! He can’t put one foot in front of the other, so drunk on love”

“With?”

“I don’t know. Why do you care?”

Zahara’s tone shifted.

“I don’t. I was merely asking you about him because I wanted to send this bottle of ground turmeric to his mother and she said to give it to him. She’s making Biryani I think. My old bones can barely get me from my bed to this tree and back. Can you go over and give it to him?”

What are you up to old lady, Ghazal’s sharp skeptical eyes tried to look past Zahara bibi’s eyes and into her mind. Oh never mind, it was a chance to go and talk to the boys in the field. She nodded, whipped her snake of a braid to one side, grabbed the turmeric and headed over to the fields behind the pavilion.

Zahara waited for Ghazal to disappear around the corner, then walked faster than she had in thirty years, adrenalin masking all pain and mobilizing every part of her. She found Sanam in the goat pen.

“Sanam Jan “ and took a shallow breath

“Ah yes Sanam jan” and another shallow breath

“Here you are”

“Zahara bibi! Is everything ok?” Sanam moved forward, reaching out for a profusely sweating Zahara.

“Oh yes” and a deeper breath

“Why wouldn’t it be! I just need to you to go and see if the boys will be coming back for lunch so I can plan how much lentil to put on boil”

Strange, Sanam thought. Zahara bibi had never been this precise in how much food to prepare. The boys had always wondered if she purposefully made less to watch them suffer or because her heart had turned miserly because she had grown up hungry.

“Of course. Let me get you a glass of water and then I’ll go and ask”

“No! I’m fine. I’m in a rush. You must go now”

Zahara sat outside the goat pen, knotted hands shredding the blade of hay into littler and littler pieces. God willing, Sanam jan would see Ali Reza with Ghazal and know the truth of Ali Reza’s nature, the truth she had worked so hard to orchestrate and expose.

She waited for a long time.  Or perhaps it seemed long. She didn’t trust her sense of passage of time anymore, minutes could feel like hours and hours like minutes.

Sanam jan was walking towards her, much like her own daughter had done thousands of time, coming home from school, coming back from the fields, face still too far away to clearly see, slight figure frail against the arid brown backdrop. 

“Kiran jan?”

“Zahara bibi, it’s me. Sanam. Are you alright?”

“Sanam. Sanam Jan. Yes. Why wouldn’t I be alright? Did you find out?”, she said as she stepped into the present, offended at the interruption, longing to have seen her Kiran’s face a little closer.

Had Sanam’s kajol run just a little? Was the tip of her nose red? Zahara bibi furrowed her brow in concentration as she tried to spot signs of heart break in Sanam’s smooth olive face. She couldn’t be sure but she could hope and remain vigilant.

That night when the meal was done, and tired mothers carried their sleeping toddlers to their tiny cots in their little nooks, Zahara stayed behind, laying her prayer mat under the canopy of leaves. The air was dead, the Banyan stood still, an impregnable form against a veiled, brooding sky. A storm was coming and all of nature’s creatures held their breath in trepidation and awe. Zahara whispered late into the night, praying to her Lord, looking up towards Him.

Stooped in prayer, her head resting on the mat, the whispers grew softer, the pauses between the words longer. Images from the day shifted, making room for the barley fields of long ago, still shifting woefully in the summer heat. She loved to watch her Kiran come home, teetering and tottering on the narrow farmers path, now two heads taller than the long grass. She sat down and gently rubbed her mother’s coarse feet as she did every day, picking at the cracks and dead skin idly. Hesitantly, she brought up Abdullah, the man who had bought her shaved ice in the bazaar and stolen her heart. He was a good man, she said, and he loved her. They wanted to get married. He was older, had another wife, but he had promised her a better life. Zahara took her feet away from her daughter and turned away. She kept the door locked when Abdullah, that stray dog that had followed her Kiran home came to see her, she pretended not to hear those words now etched in her memory “I married your girl. She’s mine now”. She kept her back towards Kiran as she took her last steps out of their nest. The earth tilted, seasons shifted, Zahara lived from one prayer to the next, the Lord ever present with her. She heard about the birth of her granddaughter from the women who sat by the well, waiting for their turn. She continued to fill her pails.

Then the news came. A stove. A fire. A dead girl. A dead child. An accident they said.

Zahara bibi ran, walked, ran, stumbled, the earth to give way to lead her to Abdullah’s house. He turned away, the murderer. His mother, vulture, squawked

“Delicate flower, your Kiran, always complaining. No good in the fields or the house anyway”

Rage, rage, unleash the hate, chew her heart out and spit it in the fire, silence that mouth, that beating in her rib cage. Cut off his dick and parade him in the town, she clawed at his face, pulled his hair, kicked his shins.

“Throw her out where we threw out her whore daughter” the vulture said.

Two unmarked graves, bare and flowerless, one only a little longer than the other, hidden and disgraced under the tree outside their house, her Kiran’s prison.  Zahara stroked the gentle swell of dried earth that now cradled her child, dark brown spots forming on it as the tears fell.

She had named her daughter Kiran, a ray of sunshine. The tamed fire of a stove could not consume the brilliance of the sun. It just couldn’t. She would wake up and find the barley fields again.

It was dark now, still except for the waves of void that crashed against her suddenly old and tired body, quiet except for the sound of her reluctant breath. Was that a whisper she heard? Two voices, she could barely discern. And then a giggle.

Zahara could feel the jute prayer mat branded on her forehead as she rose. The air had begun to stir, carrying wisps of secrets – let’s elope, let’s get married and come back. Sanam jan and Ali Reza were on the other side of the Banyan’s sprawling trunk, partly revealed, partly veiled by its long dangling arms, wind wailing through its leaves. Rage, fear filled Zahara bibi’s limbs, turgid, ready to shield, protect, lash out.

Step out? Tell them to stop?

Cry out and wake up the pavilion?

Be a coward? Remain silent?

Thoughts fought, battling for the reins while Zahara bibi stood paralyzed listening to the young lovers plan their youthful escape.

Let this story be a happy one, she heard a small whisper, now getting louder, the calming ring of a wind chime among the shrill panic of the other voices.

Let me go.

The other voices grew louder, burying the whisper, now faint, now rising.

Let them be.

The lovers took a step towards the path that leads them far away.

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