Another Gulmohar Tree
1. Puzzled Angels
2. Go, Before Your Life Turns Grey On You…
3. Figures in a Landscape
4. All But the Final Barriers of Bone
5. A Dreamer
When friends asked when and where they’d first met, he would recall:
‘A socialist seminar, in 1949, at some lecture theatre in Bloomsbury, I think. Bertrand Russell was speaking.’
‘No, Bertrand Russell’s talk was much later,’ she’d correct him. ‘We met at Senate House near Russell Square, and the year was 1950. Later, tea and biscuits were served. You were one of the main speakers, and I was merely a face in the crowd.’
Their meeting had taken place on an evening in early March. The hall was so cold that many people in the audience, relieved to find shelter from the rain, still had on their coats. Lydia was there with her friend Jack, who had served briefly in India just after the war. Usman was representing Pakistan, still a very young nation, to a group of other intellectuals from Ireland, Indonesia, India and Egypt who were discussing the situation in their countries. The lively debate on national liberation, as the student magazines later described it, was actually more of a tournament, and at times showed signs of turning into a fist-fight, with dissenting opinions about the moral rights and wrongs of the division of India and of Palestine.
Though Usman was the only Pakistani on the platform, and had been asked to speak about his country’s aspirations, he belonged to no group or faction. He was in national dress, a long black coat with a high cropped collar, fitted waist and slits on the side, worn over a white shirt, its cuffs emerging from under the sleeves of his coat, and voluminous white trousers. He had a tall black woolly hat on his head. His shoes, she noticed, were laced and western.
It was left to Usman to uphold the honour of his country against his Cambridge-educated Indian assailant Dr Pratap Dongre, a well-known representative of his country’s ruling Congress party, who thought that Pakistan was a conspiracy, hatched by a posse of fanatics.
Lydia responded viscerally to the passion with which the Pakistani speaker, articulating his country’s position, argued that new eras created new nations and ordinary people in such circumstances performed as both kings and as pawns on the chessboard of history. She was even more impressed with Usman’s quiet dignity. An ardent reader of Yeats, she understood, for the first time, the poet’s lines about the best and the worst, their intensity or lack of conviction. Some impulse made her decide to tell him how much she had learned from what he said.
Though her own father was a Georgian migrant, Lydia had never had a significant conversation with such a dark foreigner before. But something about his haunted cheekbones, and his bewildered eyes shadowed by stray locks of greying hair, intrigued her: she soon sensed, too, that he was far more timid than she was.
In turn, he, who had largely avoided contact with foreign women before, was drawn to the candid manner and clear, low-pitched voice of this forthcoming but shy young woman with dark hair, grey-green eyes and broad square shoulders, dressed sensibly in mannish navy blue. He noticed that she wore pearl studs in her pierced ears, and a pearl-encrusted gold brooch was pinned to her lapel.
‘I’m an illustrator and I also make maps,’ she told him (she would never have described herself as an artist) and found that, as she might have guessed, he was a journalist by trade.
‘I’m here in London on a year’s secondment to the foreign desk of the Daily Telegraph,’ he told her. His English, she’d noticed when he gave his speech, was syntactically adequate and quite rich in vocabulary, but his conversation was hesitant, halting. ‘I’ll be leaving at the end of May. And your name is….?’
‘Miss…Joshili?’ He stumbled.
‘You can call me Lydia,’ she said, holding out her hand with a smile that moved him.
‘Usman Ali Khan.’
He took her extended hand, but he didn’t ask her to call him by his first name, which was relatively easy to say. Later, she’d hear his colleagues refer to him as Usman Sahib in the common Pakistani way, which, he later explained to her, meant Mr Usman, and she took to calling him Mr Usman until the end of their days together. And she’d learn that the mess he’d made of her surname was deliberate: Joshili meant plucky in his language.
Getting to know each other was easy after that first encounter.
When they arranged a meeting at the British Museum to see the mummies three weeks after they first met, she suggested they visit the Victoria and Albert the following Saturday. The weather was milder, almost balmy; she took trouble to prepare a picnic hamper to carry to Kensington Palace Gardens later.
‘Tell me more about your life,’ she said, by the grassy banks of a lemon-coloured Serpentine.
‘And what would you like to know?’ he said, looking puzzled. ‘Everything,’ she said with a comic gesture.
She had enough questions, some of them naïve. She continued to pose them, and listened to his answers, at Kew Gardens, Windsor Castle and other places she took him to see on the Saturday and Sunday afternoons he had off, as spring drew closer and cherry blossom appeared on bare branches.
He was born in a village in the Punjab, and brought up by his maternal grandparents in Multan as his mother died when he was a child and his father refused to know him. He was educated in the vernaculars at home. His grandfather, a herbalist, was also a scholar of Persian and Arabic, and imparted something of his knowledge to the willing boy.
At twelve, when his grandfather died, he was sent away to Rawalpindi, to live with his father, who was finally obliged to accept him. He didn’t like his stepmother (who had, it emerged, been his father’s clandestine second wife before the death of Usman’s mother.) Nor did he share much sympathy with his younger siblings: there was always the feeling, in this house that should have been his own but seemed like a stranger’s, that he was an appendage and a burden.
His father sent him to work at his uncle’s bicycle shop when he was fourteen. His days of studying were over. But he had brought several of his grandfather’s books with him, which he read whenever he could, randomly acquainting himself with the great works of Urdu and Persian, immersing himself in the verses of Momin, Meer, Ghalib, the classic epic and romantic poems of Ferdausi, Jami, Nizami and Khusrau. He supplemented his income by helping the children of richer people with their studies. More often, he’d find himself instructing those with less than himself, adults among them, to read and write.
Usman was 18 when his father arranged for him to marry, within their extended family. His bride was older, the only living child of a well-to-do father; her brother had died, of some lingering ailment, in his teens. Usman’s father saw this as the perfect solution: he’d be rid of a dependent and an unworthy, inefficient employee who spent most of his time reading and couldn’t repair a wheel. He would also supply an older cousin with a son. Usman’s real job as Sheikh Sharif Din’s son-in-law was to provide him with an heir; in return for comfortable lodgings, good food and a respectable social position, he was expected to serve as the older man’s secretary and companion. Usman’s wife, Naimat Bibi, and he were never compatible--they could barely spend time together without him becoming aware of her disdain, and she of his indifference--but because he was young and entirely without experience of women, they became the parents of twin sons within fifteen months.
At 21, Usman said farewell to his family and set off to seek his own fortune. He had started to write poems in a very traditional mode and had submitted them to journals in Lahore. He had almost immediately succeeded in placing them. Tempted by his success, he left for the big city, where the ingenuity and persistence of youth enabled him to find work on an Urdu newspaper and to continue to write.
But leaving Rawalpindi meant, also, giving up the traditional verses he had been writing so blithely. From the start, he knew his subject, which was life as he knew it: not only the story of his own fairly difficult circumstances, on which he based the sentimental novel that was his first book, but those of the people he’d known, many of them unkind and mercenary, others simple, good folk who life had treated less fairly than their virtuous deeds and their faith in divine justice deserved.
For four years he had been posted to Delhi, where his gruff accent and provincial ways caused him to become the butt of literary jokes, but also to be cast as the naive story teller from the Punjab who had access to the folklore and indigenous wisdom (or folly) which were just becoming fashionable as literary subjects. And during those four years in the imperial capital he acquired many of its refinements of nuance and gesture, just as he’d learnt, in Lahore, to wear Western clothes with an air of unstudied elegance.
In Delhi, too, the ways of the foreign rulers deepened his dislike of them, which had begun when he’d first listened to shadowy accounts of the Jalianwala massacre. Certain activities of his had caused the authorities to threw him into jail for several months; he was never very keen to divulge these to Lydia, but she guessed, after reading some books on recent Indian history she found in the library, that he’d been a conscientious objector to the conscription of Indian youths from poor villages as soldiers for World War II. During his imprisonment he contracted tuberculosis, which was to weaken him for the rest of his life.
When he emerged from the prison sanatorium, he was jobless. He decided to try his luck again in Lahore. Even after a separation of several years, his friends there thought well of him, and imprisonment as an anti-colonial radical had given him a certain glamour. The extreme linguistic polish he’d acquired in Delhi, evident in the uninflected sentences he wrote, was highly effective in his journalism (some of which also required a translator’s skill). In the short stories, which he had realised were the real expression of his gift, his tone could, however, seem bald, and his quiet timbre shocking.
Some of this Lydia, who didn’t know a word of Urdu, pieced together from his modest accounts, although he did explain to her that his own desire to rid himself of the provincial inflexion he heard in the writings of his Punjabi contemporaries made him write in the manner his critics variously described as flat, laconic, lapidary.
Sometimes he’d recount the gist of stories he wrote to her, and those he still wanted to write. He’d tried to write about London: pinched, shabby and hag-ridden with post-war austerities though it was, it still remained a city where people would save on necessities to buy themselves a book, a ticket to the Proms, or a bunch of hyacinths.
But distance had only sharpened his vision of the land he’d left behind. In writing of his native place, he was reverting to the looser, rougher language of his youth, which was also more musical, and as a consequence using more dialogue to allow his characters to speak in their own voices.
He’d written, too, about the independence of his country, which mattered a lot to him, but, he said, he could only write about it with a light touch. Partition, he mused, he’d witnessed only vicariously, not having been at a site of catastrophe: he’d moved to Karachi in the mid-40s to distance himself from his family for ever. He continued, however, to send money to his wife and sons. In 1947, he’d seen some rich Sindhi Hindus leave for Bombay, and some wealthy Muslims from Bombay, the United Provinces and Hyderabad take their places. But what had touched him were the accounts of the ignorant and the simple who travelled enormous distances, sometimes on foot, to make their homes in a new land; some chased away from their native places, but many, too, who’d come in pursuit of their dreams. He’d written a little book about them, their fortitude and perseverance, without the darkness of his left-wing contemporaries’ accounts.
As to his own allegiances, there was no doubt: he’d never even thought that he wouldn’t make his life in the new Pakistan.
‘But now that you’re in London, haven’t you even considered staying on, at least a little longer than just the year allotted to you?’
‘And what would I do here?’ This was one of the many questions she put to him that evoked a puzzled or bemused response. ‘ I couldn’t,’ he answered, when she tentatively asked him if they could collaborate on a translation of some of his stories she thought she might send to an acquaintance who worked for a left-wing journal. (After all, Mulk Raj Anand and Ahmed Ali had been lauded by Bloomsbury, encouraged by Forster, and published here before the war. Usman could dictate English versions, she suggested, which she’d type and improve.) ‘I just couldn’t convey the voices in my head in English. And who’d want to know about my people here?’
His written English, a third language which he had only acquired in Delhi in his twenties, was clear and sharp but occasionally stilted. Once Lydia asked, over a cup of tea at Lyons, why he had never attempted to write fiction in it. He responded: ‘I can’t even write in Punjabi, my mother tongue! You don’t choose the language you write in, it chooses you.’
But the language of Lydia’s craft was, of course, the language of colour and images: green glades, water meadows, ducks, swans and sheep, the landscapes of Hampshire where she had spent much of her childhood, had opened her eyes to the world around her and made her want to paint. Often, though, she’d felt that her eyes, captivated by what they saw, kept her living in a continuous present tense which was devoid of longing for anything other than its own pleasures, but then, again, the wistful colours she used to paint her lakes, ponds and rivers, and the lonely smallness of the people inhabiting her scenes, carried within them a sense of something beyond the immediacy of what her vision framed.
Often, alone, she wondered whether written words came from a different place - of memory, perhaps - that didn’t depend on the eyes at all. She searched for the words to speak of these things to him, but she’d stutter and fall silent, or ask him about his stories instead. When it came to talking about writing, though, she sometimes felt that he would tell her his stories only because she asked, and because they were just about the only thing in creation that carried him away.
She, too, had started to write a little, but he didn’t take her aspirations very seriously. Once she said, ‘I’ve been working on a story about an English woman who falls in love with an Eyptian,’ disguising the fact that she was writing about the two of them, and he asked: ‘Working? For your friend’s paper, you mean? It must be quite hard for the couple, who are they, friends of yours?’
She started to talk about herself instead, and her stories entranced him, especially when they walked by the Thames or in the park as evening shadows deepened.
She started backwards, telling him about her war years, how she’d made maps for the Ministry of Information, then joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and had received a commendation for bravery. She told him about her comfortable childhood, spent between Chiswick and Hampshire, though she felt there was little to tell: her assimilated Georgian father had spent a lifetime trying to be English but retained, somewhere, a longing for lost rivers and routes; her mother was devoutly Catholic; she had four brothers and sisters; her comfortable though slightly stifling upbringing had always left her feeling out of step with the world and made her break away when the when the war began, to seek a new life for herself at the age of 19.
There was much that she elided, perhaps more than he did. During the war she’d married: Max Beecham was a fighter pilot with medals and an attendant arrogance which contrasted with his well-heeled blandness. They’d lasted two years on the wings of desires born of her virginal inexperience and his war-fuelled desperation. When she fell pregnant and decided to abort her child, she was crash-landed in a quagmire of misunderstanding and recrimination, particularly as she knew he’d been seeing a number of other women. As a cradle Catholic, she’d committed a mortal sin; and to add divorce to that? Unthinkable. An annulment, then? On what grounds? But her husband was an Anglican and her father, an agnostic born into the Orthodox sect. And luckily, she had married in a Registry office, promising, because of her mother’s pleas, to convert her husband to Catholicism and marry him in church with all the requisite rituals when things were more peaceful.
Her residual guilt too went, along with her married name, the way so many things were going in the aftermath of the war.
She told Usman she’d be 30 on the 9th of April. He remarked: ‘And a pretty young woman like you, not married?
‘My divorce will soon be coming through,’ she responded. She was unwilling, though, to admit that her father had helped her to rid herself of Max by paying him to stage an adulterous encounter (with a streetwalker rather than one of his paramours) and by promising that Lydia wouldn’t ask for alimony.
‘Is this where our paths separate, then, Mr Usman?’ In three days he would be leaving. ‘Or is there somewhere left for us to go?’
‘I’m eleven years older than you.’ He’d been quiet for a quarter of an hour, so long that she thought he’d taken her words literally, and she hadn’t tried to fill the silence with a question or a quip. ‘And even though I’ve been separated from my wife for longer than I ever lived with her, she and my sons are still my responsibility. I can’t offer you anything. I don’t feel I even have the right to speak to you of affection. But I’ll never forget what you’ve given me. I was alone, a stranger in a strange land, I felt like a ghost in the rain and the cloud and the cold… as if I didn’t have a presence or even a body, and you…you drew me out of myself, you brought a little…brightness into my life. You have my regard, my friendship, and my gratitude, for ever.’
She found herself wondering, as she had often done before, whether he translated his hesitant, measured phrases from his own language; they sounded as if he’d written them out before he said them. She smiled and put her hand on his, to conceal the expression on her face which exposed, she was sure, a feeling of rejection.
He must like her more than a little; he had spent so much time with her. But he hadn’t once pretended he wanted to stay on in England. He found the city damp and the architecture morose, and most of all he hated the leafless winter. He even complained that the wet green of London parks was monotonous, and summer days that ended long after the 6 o’clock sunsets he was used to were far too long after the ominous darkness of winter. She didn’t doubt that he saw his future in his own country, among his people, speaking his language.
She had never thought in negative ways about foreigners; after all, her father was one. But could she ever present Usman to her family - a man from so far away, so different from anything they knew or recognised - as her life’s companion?
And then there was the question of their different faiths. Although she still believed in a guiding principle which was, when she thought about it, benign, she certainly wouldn’t have considered religion a matter of any concern. But his religion evidently meant something to Usman: though he didn’t pray regularly, he often spoke of its humane aspects and its egalitarian values. He wouldn’t touch alcohol, preferred not even to enter a pub, and as for food, not only did he avoid every part of the pig, but would keep insisting that bread, biscuits, ice cream and various other things were tainted with its fat. As a consequence, he lived on fruit and cereals, except when they could eat Indian food.
She liked the cooking and the atmosphere at Veeraswamy’s, the fancy Indian restaurant on Swallow Street, where you could see patrician-seeming ladies in diaphanous saris, with their well-groomed husbands, entertaining English dignitaries. That restaurant was, most of the time, too expensive for the working people Usman and Lydia were. But Usman was a regular at two canteens that served Indian food for students and starving ex-pats. When they entered those places, dimly-lit, smoky basements with tin ashtrays on white-topped tables often sticky with the remains of the last diner’s meal, Lydia would be surprised by how intimate her shy-seeming companion was with his colleagues and compatriots of all ages, and how well they received him.
At first, when they saw her in his company, they made comments she couldn’t understand. Even more to her consternation, awkward silences followed the rounds of hugs and handshakes, and the tacit understanding was that Usman and his lady friend would sit at a table apart.
And then, gradually, in the weeks before Usman left for Karachi, one friend after another would approach their table, join them for a cup of tea, and offer or ask for cigarettes (both she and Usman were smokers). It became evident that she’d been accepted as a sympathetic presence, and, at least tentatively, as Usman’s companion.
Her own acquaintances were more casual. One said Usman looked like a gipsy, the other remarked how well he used his fork and knife considering, and yet another that he sounded like a Scotsman or a Russian. She knew that they all dismissed her friendship with him as her gesture of rebellion, her transient fancy, or, even more oddly, some cast him as a benign Othello to her Desdemona.
But no, not everyone. ‘Are you his mistress?’ her friend Jack, the one who worked for the left-wing journal, asked her. (He had met Usman at the performance of a new Terence Rattigan play for which he’d got free tickets for them. ) ‘I thought not,’ he said when she snorted and nearly choked. ‘You’re perfectly matched, the pair of you. Puzzled angels, visiting earth on holiday, lost until you finally find each other.’
On the evening before he left, Usman cried a little as they walked away from the restaurant he’d chosen for their farewell dinner - the fancy Indian one on Swallow Street - and she asked him to take her to his lodgings. He lived in a lane off the Marylebone Road. The spring night was just cool enough to be pleasant, so they walked all the way. And though they embraced and kissed each other’s cheeks and lips for what seemed like hours, he slept on the sofa. In the morning, she saw him off, dry-eyed, at Waterloo Station. It would have been too much to go to the port to watch him board his ship. They’d exchanged addresses at dawn over squares of buttered toast and cups of the tea he’d stewed with milk and sugar until it tasted like syrup, and said they keep in regular touch. That was the only promise.
In later years, she enjoyed telling her children the tale of how she took a ship to Karachi two years after he left England.
I was on the tube, she said, travelling to work on a February day, hanging on to a railing, inhaling the staleness of unaired winter coats, unwashed hair and egg-and-bacon breakfast breath, and I decided to cross the seas to visit your father. I had no future plans, no expectations. I just knew I had to see him.
(There was some truth in her story - she didn’t dare expect anything, and she had been imagining the voyage out as she travelled to work - but if she had wanted to, she could have been more meticulous about retracing the itinerary of her decision. Finding her interest in her work abating until she took only the odd commission to draw a picture to accompany a love story in a woman’s weekly, or even more often a sketch of a Christmas pudding or a knitting pattern. Reading the Marmaduke Pickthall translation of the Quran she’d bought, the life of Muhammed, and with even more interest, accounts of Muslim women’s lives: Nabia Abbott’s Aisha, Beloved of the Prophet, Margaret Smith’s tales of the mystic Rabia. Studying Urdu (or Hindoostawney, as her teacher called it) with retired, red-faced Major Macgregor who, when he left Hinjer as he lovingly remembered it, had lost most connections with the land in which he’d spent his youth, and longed to share the language he’d learnt so intimately. Saving carefully, and selling her grandmother’s brooch to make up the difference in passage.)
She was losing patience. Usman’s gracious but remote letters offered no promise of reunion, showed no sense of loss; but then he would evoke, among pithy accounts of the lonely, work-obsessed life he led in Karachi, some tender recollection. I wish I could see you again, he’d written in his most recent letter. That was enough (he was, after all, a writer) to reassure her that their time together hadn’t been a lonely man’s diversion or a whim, and certainly not motivated by lust, as he’d never touched her. But was it love he felt for her? Wasn’t the physical distance he’d maintained between them a sign that he had seen her only as a friend, a good listener, an adequate conversationalist - certainly not his life’s companion?
She would have become his lover if he had wanted her to; having given her virginity to a man she didn’t love, and that within the zone of marriage, she would have willingly made love with someone she cared for even if, in the end, it meant no more than a few nights’ passion. In the first few months after Usman left, she’d met some men while she waited for a sign from him - dined out, danced, accepted gifts, even toyed with the possibility of a kiss or two until, at the last minute, she’d quickly turned her face so that importunate lips would dampen her ear or her cheek.
Then he’d written to say his wife had ‘passed away, God rest her soul.’ Her own divorce had come through so quietly that she’d felt tempted to phone Max, now her ex-husband, and ask if she could take him out to celebrate. Instead, she’d phoned her father, who met her for lunch at his London club on Sackville Street. He didn’t say very much, but he gave her £50 in ten crisp notes in a white envelope. Then she met Jack. Go, Jack told her, and forced her to take £10 from him. Go before your life turns grey on you.
On the boat, during the fortnight that it took to sail to Karachi, she’d often wonder: how welcome would a pale foreigner be in a country which had only recently rid itself of the unwanted presence of her kind? And would she herself now seem, in his own country, too much of a stranger to Usman?
She arrived in Karachi on a Monday, to be met at the harbour by an acquaintance’s sister-in-law, a very kind woman called Claire, whose husband Richard happened to be working there for a large pharmaceutical concern. It was evening, the sky was reddish, and a smell of crayfish hung in the air, to be replaced by a smokier smell, like burning wood, as they drove past some very tall colonial buildings and what seemed to be Orientalised Gothic constructions into what Claire told her was the business centre of town.
Claire’s gabled two-storey house was on a tree-lined avenue that could have been in Europe, except that every third or fourth tree was a palm tree. Lydia had planned to stay at a hotel, wanting the freedom that choice would give her, though she knew her funds wouldn’t keep her there for long. She’d arranged to move to the Metropole, in the centre of town but still quite close to where Claire lived, after two nights with her friend. She hoped her stay at the hotel wouldn’t last longer than three or four nights.
On Wednesday morning, on the way from Elphinstone Street where the smart shops were next to the more picturesque and colourful Bohri Bazaar, she stopped off at the office where she knew Usman worked, and sent her friend’s chauffeur to drop off the note she’d written to him at dawn.
He was still at his desk at his lunch break, as usual drinking only a cup of over-boiled tea, with a couple of rusks to dip into it and a blood orange to follow. When the peon brought him an unstamped, unsealed envelope, addressed in familiar handwriting, he tried his best to remain calm, telling himself that Lydia must have sent the note with some friend visiting Karachi.
I’m at the Metropole, he read, in Room 340. If I don’t hear from you within two days, I’ll leave for Bombay. I’ve been offered a job there.
Her scrawl, then the sprawl of her signature.
When he’d read it, he felt the long night he’d lived in since he left her, of numb hopelessness, of anxious loneliness, slip away from him and turn, if not into day, then at least into tentative first light.
He reached the Metropole as soon as he could get a rickshaw that overcharged him to take him there. It was a relatively quiet hour of the afternoon. He summoned her down to the lobby where he stood waiting, holding a welcoming garland of jasmine and roses for which he’d overpaid the urchin who sold flowers on the pavement outside this office. She was dressed in a white linen shirt which looked like a man’s, with a very full turquoise skirt and a red belt. She looked taller and paler in this city, her bobbed brown hair fairer; she had lost some weight. I asked your mother to marry me on the spot! he told his children when they were growing up. (The truth was that he had proposed to her two days later, after taking her to the Clifton seafront, Gandhi Gardens, Frere Hall, and then to the sandy beaches miles away from town, all the sights that one foreigner in Karachi could take another foreigner to see; he was still unsure if she was only in the city en route to Bombay, or whether she had any intention, or reason, to remain in this city, which he now knew he wanted her to do. What he said was, Would you consider staying on here? And do what? she asked, quite rudely. Get a job as a nanny? No, he said. With me, as my wife.)
Though a slightly embarrassed Claire, along with her husband Richard, had agreed to accompany her to her wedding, she would have had no one to act as witness when they married two days later if Usman had not arranged for Chowdhry Nazir Ahmad, an elderly publisher, who’d become his close friend and benefactor, to stand in the role of her father. At the wedding, the kazi asked a certain Rokeya if she’d accept Usman as her husband. And Lydia, in perfectly comprehensible Urdu, said, I, Rokeya, accept. He couldn’t conceal his surprise: the new name, the ease with the words. He hadn’t asked her to convert. She’d quite simply taken the step herself, in London, and chosen a name she knew he loved.
It was only later he would tell her that she’d struck a note that was slightly false; no Muslim bride would have proclaimed her acceptance in quite so bold a manner.
She was bedazzled from the start.
On one side of the city was sand-bordered sea. On the other, where they lived, desert: dust, rock, hill, an occasional ditch lying in wait for rain to make it a pond.
Here in this landscape miniature pink and yellow flowers bloomed wild on bushes, concealing black berries of a jammy sour- sweetness. Cactus and thorn bush thrived, but bougainvillea found its natural habitat in this aridity, and jasmine, too, seemed to flower in wilderness, filling the evening air with its fragrance, somewhere between honey and clove.
And the gold-orange blossoms of the flame of the forest nestled like torches among bright, light-green leaves. Locals called the tree gulmohar, which, she worked out, meant ‘flower-coin.’ For a few weeks in early summer, it would flower so furiously that its branches, divested now of leaves, would seem from a distance as if they were on scarlet fire. She was surprised to find that, like herself and so many other inhabitants of her adopted city, the gulmohar, too, which appeared to be rooted in this soil, was a transplant; she read in a book about plants and flowers that it had originated in Madagascar.
And there were creatures running around that she would never have recognised. Slender lizards in the grass were familiar enough to the country girl she had been, but chameleons that changed colour - once she brought one into the house on a flowering branch - and the monster-reptile they called ‘go’ , which she supposed was a cousin of the iguana, made her flesh crawl.
The ponds were full of grumbling frogs, the gardens of chirring cicadas. And tiny birds she didn’t know would suddenly appear along with the kites and the crows and the sparrows, darting down to drink from some flower. ‘Hummingbird, brain fever bird, kingfisher, honeysuckle,’ Usman would intone, and she’d slap his arm and tell him not to tease her because she knew that the honeysuckle was a flower, not a bird.
Unfamiliar odours could overwhelm you on summer days, from open sewers of rainbow liquids flowing like sluggish canals, from rotten fish used as manure for the gardens of the rich and beds of sunflowers and roses, from fruit ripening in the May sunshine.
People sold fruit of many shapes and sizes on the dusty sides of the wide artery road that led to the centre of the city, melons and grapes of colours she’d never seen, hard green pears and huge chartreuse apples, mottled yellow bananas and bright oranges in unimaginable numbers, pine nuts in their swarthy shells spilling over the edges of baskets.
A grassy roundabout on the road to the centre of town was a riot of yellow and orange gerbera. Elsewhere, you could see half-naked children playing in ponds the colour of milky tea with lazy buffalos lolling around them - until the diligent authorities paved over the ponds and made space for an elegant new residential area.
Rations and privation coexisted with material luxury and profusion. A coloured fountain in a public square played music at certain times of the day. Cinemas showed the latest Hollywood and Pinewood films.
On elegant Elphinstone Street, the air-conditioned sari palace Sanaullah sold fabrics of unbelievable delicacy; next door, in stalls so narrow you could hardly fit a single person into them, friendly Chinese men measured your feet to make you shoes of the softest, finest leather. On Elphinstone Street, too, there were two enormous bookshops, where Rokeya would pick up the books she’d never had time to read during the years of her desultory education: Gibbons, Plato, Graves’ Greek Myths, Burton’s 1001 Nights; occasionally the latest lurid-covered Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer paperback evoked the slightest tinge of nostalgia but was soon handed on to a friend because the fantasies of its author seemed so irrelevant to the concerns of her own life.
Sugar, rice and flour were strictly rationed, and meat available only five days a week, but milk fresh from the cow’s udder was delivered in cans to your doorstep and fish and crustaceans of the most extravagant sorts were sold on stalls in the open market. Pereira’s bakery in the shadow of the Roman Catholic cathedral sold enticing Mediterranean-inspired breads, pastries and cakes which, Usman told her, were made by the descendants of bakers trained long ago by the Portuguese.
In a world that, she’d heard, was strictly divided between the very rich and the very poor, most of the people she met - professionals, government servants, teachers, journalists - were, in her book, lower-middle or middle-middle class. The former lived in apartments or even tenements near and beyond the centre of town; the latter - to which she and Usman, though somewhat marginally, belonged - made their homes in sprawling residential ‘societies’ in single storied houses with gardens of varying sizes, most of them built on government loans. These neighbourhoods - some modest, some more confidently displaying the financial assets of their residents - were, unlike the centre of the city and its older parts, signals and creations of a brave new capital, heedless of the past, free of traditional or colonial influence, built for their changed needs by its citizens according to their own blueprint.
While Usman was still working for the Government Publications Division, they had taken a loan to build their miniscule home - a four-room bungalow with a crescent-shaped garden with flower beds, a strip of grassy lawn and a gulmohar tree, and a sliver of backyard. The house was ready in eight months, while their friends complained that they’d had to wait up to three years. After having lived in a third floor apartment in the centre of town which had running water for only an hour or two a day and a squat lavatory, the space was luxurious. All around them, houses were being constructed, in sober greys embellished with darker greys, combinations of rich Mediterranean ochre with beige or cream, pale pink, white with green or coral.
Rokeya had had her walls painted a pink-tinged white and her house was full of windows. She had decided to dispense with traditional furniture. Influenced by the manner in which she’d seen Usman’s friends live, she had divans made from scraps of wood and covered those and some low wooden chests with white cotton, bright swatches of cloth and pieces of rugs, or straw matting bought from the local markets, to serve as seats. Screens woven of straw also served as curtains and to divide rooms in two when her children were born.
Usman and she slept on the floor on thin mattresses, covering themselves with patchwork quilts only in the six weeks of so-called winter.
In contrast to those she’d met in London, Usman’s friends accepted her easily, addressing her as sister-in-law with affectionate regard as soon they saw her spontaneous interest in their lives, her keen willingness to play a part in the life of their city, her hospitality. Shopkeepers and shoppers in the Nursery, a few minutes’ walk away from the lane they lived in, soon became used to the friendly foreign woman with brown arms and legs who, in her flimsy cotton shifts, shopped alone and filled her baskets with the oddest assortment of goods which she loaded on her bicycle.
But soon Rokeya, as she now preferred to be known to all, changed her foreign clothes for local apparel, as she found it easier to ride her bike to the shops dressed in loose trousers and a cotton tunic, her dopatta wrapped around her forehead and knotted at the nape of her neck to keep her hair from flying in her eyes, one end grazing a shoulder, the other streaming in the air behind her as she rode around the lanes.
Usman changed jobs. Uncomfortable in a government post where he had begun to feel that some of his colleagues were being restricted in their freedom of expression and others were introducing cultural agendas he found reactionary, he resigned when Chowdhry Saheb, his publisher, and supporter, offered him a post as Editor-in-Chief of a new Urdu journal of culture, Kal, Aaj aur Kal. (Which meant, his wife wrote in amusement to her friend Jack, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. )
Socially conscious, interested in politics and radical in several of his sympathies, Usman had nevertheless decided, as he reached middle age, to abstain from any overtly political activity; but neither would he collude with or uphold what he thought of as the power lobby, once he saw a new strain of corruption becoming at first insidious and then endemic.
His severe style and the unpretentious integrity of his vision had earned him the respect of other writers; Faiz, himself, had praised him more than once in print. A critic had compared his prose to brooklets of clear water running over stony ground. But Usman hadn’t reached the common reader with his recent fiction. Even his admirers made too much of the obscurity in which he wrote, somehow perpetuating the image of him as a recluse in a cave, or a rural storyteller who was out of touch with current trends.
And now Shah Bilal, another writer from a Punjabi background, had taken to reworking Usman’s material in a far more sensational vein, melodramatic and condemnatory. Seven or eight years younger than Usman, he was earning the kind of acclaim to which the older writer had never aspired. In the thirties, he had sent a sheaf of stories to Usman, who was working in Lahore and had just published his first book; Bilal was 19 then, and had incipient talent. Usman had endorsed the story for publication. For some years, Bilal had claimed Usman as his mentor; he spoke of a close tie between them that didn‘t exist, as they had never once met. But when Bilal won a prestigious prize and accepted a post as cultural advisor to the government, his self-acknowledged debt to Usman was forgotten. Bilal’s prose was distinguished by a loose lyricism which displayed his origins as a songwriter for films; in public, he declaimed his work with rhetorical flourishes and interspersed stories of his own rural background. (He claimed to be a poor farmer’s son; he was actually the grandson of a landowner, and had attended university in Lahore.)
Usman felt, somehow, short-changed or cheated when he read yet another essay praising Bilal for just the sort of writings he had been publishing for nearly two decades, and saw himself compared, to his own disadvantage, with the more flamboyant younger writer. The worst moment was when, on a brief visit to Lahore, he was invited to read at a function he was told was arranged in his honour by a literary acquaintance, and kept waiting an hour and a half for Bilal to arrive and find that he had been relegated to second best. Bilal, at this first meeting of theirs, was gracious and full of compliments, and announced that, in the far-off days of his youth, he’d taken courage and direction from his respected older friend Usman’s writings. No mention of Usman’s advice and help, or of the fact that they had never met. And Usman could hardly mention that he was only 26 and hardly an established writer when he’d helped the young unknown to market and publish his stories.
In exile from the domain of his own fiction, Usman now turned from writing stories of social realism to retelling traditional tales with a bitter tinge of political allusion. In one, a farmer’s daughter is sold as a bride to a crocodile. She invites her family, one by one, to the crocodile kingdom in the depths of the river. They succumb to its wealth and riches and decide to stay on. Finally only one is left on land, a youngest son. He goes to visit his sister and her crocodile in-laws in the country beneath the water where he finds his parents and siblings in residence. They have eaten crocodile bread, and they, too, and are gradually being transformed into crocodiles.
His former editors couldn’t understand the change in his style, but when he published ‘The Prince of Crocodile Country’ in the country’s most popular children’s magazine his young readers loved it and he continued to mine a similar vein, though few of his later stories were ever as harsh, and some indulged themselves in a tear or two.
As he grew older, he found that the only effective means of alleviating his sense of existential guilt was to help the deprived, in modest and even surreptitious ways. Rokeya, generous by nature, was aware of her husband’s acts of kindness, and she, too, became adept at saving to give away whatever she could.
In the evenings, Usman would come home to find his wife, in her crushed shalwar-kameez with her dopatta abandoned on some chair or peg, busy with a dozen chores - Ramzi on her hip, Saadi holding a finger, Rabia, the oldest, holding on to her mother’s skirt and attempting to help. By that time Mai Rasulan, the woman who worked in the house all day as cook and nanny, would have gone home and Rokeya would be putting the finishing touches to the dinners she’d serve herself, of lentils, bread and two vegetables cooked with small portions of chicken or mutton, with salads of slivered carrots and chopped tomatoes on the side. (Both she and Usman disliked raw onions). Rokeya would also have made sweets with her own hands, or the salads Usman loved: chickpeas with tomatoes and tamarind, and segments of guava, banana, and orange steeped in lemon juice, sprinkling them with sugar, salt, and black pepper, decorating them with sprigs of fresh mint.
During the day, Rokeya worked in a primary school, where she had originally taught art before being promoted to teaching English grammar and composition as well. Though the British Council had tried to place her in one of the more expensive and well-paying schools that were popular with the children of diplomats, she had preferred to teach in a more modest local school. She had encountered some slight hostility at first, but in the end a mixed group of like-minded women, among them one who was the Italian wife of a Pakistani and another the daughter of a Pakistani father and an English mother, had succeeded in establishing their credentials as teachers in their liberal but righteous neighbourhood, and overcoming prejudice. And the fact that the English taught there was likely to be of a high standard encouraged neighbours to send their children to them for their primary schooling. Karachi people might be cultural nationalists but they were also realists to the bone; they thought that if their children were to have a western education, they should also be well versed in the medium of its instruction.
At times, when Usman went to a function at the Press Club or some other official and male-dominated occasion at which they both knew she’d feel out of place, she’d go with friends to see a rehearsed reading by amateurs at the offices of the British Council, or a theatrical production by a visiting company of professional Shakespeareans from the English provinces. On such evenings, dressed in western clothes she’d have had her neighbour and friend Tabinda run up from patterns in imported women’s magazines, with her hair, now long, pulled back and knotted up, she’d be introduced to the expatriate English community as Mrs Usman Ali, the wife of a respected local man of letters who’d once worked on the foreign desk of the Telegraph.
Her own pictures, too, had found their subject. She had begun modestly, while the children slept, drawing figures of locals in wax crayon on old pieces of fabric. Tabinda, who ran a small dressmaking business from her house which was expanding into one of the most successful concerns in the neighbourhood, saw Rokeya’s work and immediately asked if she could display some of it at her boutique, at which she sold a number of handicrafts.
In Tabinda she had found the companion who made her feel entirely at home in the world she had chosen to inhabit. She was fascinated with her friend’s expertise in the art of the needle: she learned words like zardoz, karchob, salma sitara for the gold embroidery and sequin work that the bespectacled Tabinda could keep her fingers occupied with as she talked. Tabinda also taught her to make herbal remedies to shampoo her hair with, and powders and pastes of sandalwood and gram flour to cleanse her skin; to fry savoury fritters and make the halwas of carrot and pumpkin Usman and the little ones found so delicious. In exchange, Rokeya would teach her friend to bake cakes rich with cocoa, cheese twists, shortbread and lemon curd tarts, following recipes cut out from English magazines; Tabinda loved these. They gossiped in a mixture of languages, Rokeya using an English word when she couldn’t find the right one in Urdu, Tabinda who understood English but couldn’t speak it supplying her with its translation.
With Tabinda, Rokeya also bought the bric-a-brac which she used to decorate her house. Blue and white tiles from Thatta, brass pots and ceramic jars, hangings woven of colours dull and bright that she draped over a bed or the back of a chair, camel skin lampshades, low stools of wood and rope or of the softest leather, little rugs she used in place of carpets.
Another neighbour was chic, short-haired, chain-smoking Jani Kazim, a rich widow who was the managing editor of Endeavour, a glossy but progressive English-language magazine that she had established with her own funds and ran from the glass-enclosed portico of her villa on top of the hill. You couldn’t imagine two women more different from each other than shy, traditional Tabinda and convent-educated, English speaking Jani, but they were friends.
Jani saw Rokeya’s thick chalky drawings of children against dark backgrounds on display at Tabinda’s boutique, and wondered who the naïve artist was who’d done them. Tabinda explained that the artist was Rokeya, the respected intellectual Usman Ali’s English wife. Jani immediately asked Rokeya to illustrate stories, articles and features for the magazine.
Rokeya had noticed that magazine illustrations here tended to copy the example of western comic-strips and commercial art; children, particularly, appeared like little western youngsters with dark wigs on. Working with inks, coloured pencils and crayons to avoid the mess and waste of paint, using strokes or blocks of colour to contrast with black-and-white and empty spaces, she developed a vernacular idiom of her own, based equally on the modern figurative painting she saw at the exhibitions Usman took her to, and the lively, beautiful countenances of the children she observed around her. An early effort, ‘Children and Gulmohar Trees’, a composition in vibrant green, reds and oranges and a clever use of white spaces, which depicted four local children playing ball in a garden by an artificial pond, became particularly popular as a motif on napkins, table cloths and wall hangings.
At first, she went around with a sketchpad, following the rules of her training which decreed that every picture should be copied from life. But then she realised that her earnest demeanour alienated her models and caused her to be seen as an eccentric or a curiosity - the observer observed. Photographs? Far worse, Usman warned her: the children of the street might be amused, and chase her without malice, but many adults would feel their privacy invaded. She learnt how right he was when she tried to snap a beggar dressed in white flowing robes with several strings of brightly coloured beads around his neck and long, oiled locks sitting on his shoulders like little snakes, and was cursed and chased by a stick. She took to recording details in words instead, or using the camera of her mind.
At home, she’d draw furiously from her notes, scribbled or mental. Her own three children would serve as models, as they had done in that best-known work of hers, and were a constant inspiration, too; as she chronicled them growing, her colours and forms acquired movement and a disarming, almost garish vitality. Usman wouldn’t sit for her as himself, but when she asked him to substitute for a fruit vendor or watchman she wanted to fit into a local scene, he’d sportingly crouch or kneel until she had captured a required pose.
Abstract art, geometric forms and compositions that exalted colour, were hugely fashionable here, but Rokeya had little time for a trend she considered derivative. But for a time, she also tried to paint pictures of fishing boats in their harbours and buffalos in their ponds, gilt outlines against a black backdrop, adapting the style of a popular Bengali folk artist to the scenery around her. But though she knew they’d probably sell quite well, she soon discarded them as unsatisfactory: her interest was in capturing, in a few swift strokes and echoes of colour, the relationship between figures and the landscapes they inhabited.
Jani liked Rokeya’s pictures, the low prices she charged and her self-deprecating attitude to her work. Locals, when they discovered Rokeya Usman Ali was a Londoner, found it hard to believe a foreigner could survey the local scene with so intimate and affectionate an eye. But from time to time Jani would say, ‘Lydia dear’ - she was one of the few friends who refused to call her Rokeya - ‘Lydia dear, must you make your little ones quite so dark?’
Rokeya offered her illustrations to Usman for his magazine, but in spite of her efforts to create an idiom that was fresh and local, he gently ignored her submissions, preferring to employ a male artist whose sketches Rokeya thought were drab and pretentious.
A drink-sodden writer who was producing a multi-part serial for Endeavour had failed to deliver the current month’s installment. Rokeya, who had already done the illustration for it, decided, when Jani asked her to translate one of Usman’s stories to fill the empty pages, to write a story of her own. ‘A Day at the Seaside’ was inspired by that illustration: two remote outlines, walking by a single sapphire stroke of sea, with a semicircle of red sun floating above.
Rokeya’s story was about a young woman who, bored and lonely during one of her husband’s many absences, agrees to spend some hours at the beach with one of his friends. Bedazzled by sun and sand, she lets him kiss her, but then, at sunset, she asks to be taken home. What happens in the hours between is left to the reader’s imagination.
She was pleased with it; she thought she’d learnt Usman’s lesson well. Her prose was simple to the the point of bareness. Descriptions were brief and tactile: hot sand, salty sea, cloud-streaked sky, a May day on Karachi’s beach.
Jani , guessing it wasn’t Usman’s, said: ‘A bit like imitation Somerset Maugham. It has some promise, but it shouldn’t end so abruptly; and why don’t the characters have names?’
When Rokeya suggested Parveen for the woman and Captain Mansur for the man, Jani remarked with eyebrows raised: ‘Oh, I assumed they were both English.’
That night, as they sat in the verandah sipping cardamom-scented green tea after dinner, Rokeya showed Usman the story and relayed Jani’s comments to him, presenting it as the work of a novice without telling him who’d written it.
‘Mediocre.’ He frowned. ‘Very amateurish. Even for a woman’s magazine. Second-grade Somerset Maugham, your Jani is right. Why these writers don’t give their characters names is beyond me, when they name the beach with such parochial precision. But I like your picture of the figures by the sea.’
Rokeya felt that he’d guessed who the writer was. The story remained unpublished.
She also asked Usman, after Jani suggested it to her, that they work together on a translation of one of his stories for Endeavour. Since he hadn’t written anything original for a while, she thought the labour of changing his story from one language to another might revive his interest in his work, which had suffered from his readers’ neglect and then from his resulting indifference. (He trusted his English even less than in his London days; her spoken Urdu, though fluent, was ungrammatical, and she didn’t read the language very well.)
To her surprise, he agreed.
They spent many hours together over several evenings, returning to the rapt companionship of their early years, arguing about choices of words, paragraphs and tenses. And then, one evening, the final draft of their work was done so well it satisfied even Usman’s severe standard.
The end of their joint project had left her wanting something more, as if there was a waiting canvas that needed to be filled with form and colour. For many years, she realised now, she’d occupied herself with her husband’s comforts, supplemented his earnings with her own, consulted him about her decisions, enjoyed his presence beside her in bed awake or asleep, depended on his involvement in every aspect of her life, felt rejected when he came home and, burying himself in some tome of Ghalib, Tolstoy or Dostoievsky, seemed to ignore her need for company, or responded to her easy flow of anecdotes about children and work with an abruptness that sometimes bordered on cruelty. But she had forgotten to ask him anything about himself.
As usual, she had taken her sketch pad outdoors in the late afternoon, as the children played in the garden, spraying each other with water from a green rubber pipe. Shadows were deepening on the grass. But her usual ideas were playing her false; the children, the flowers, a kite flying very close to the sky. Weeks ago, she’d planned a series of new gouaches called ‘Houses’, a view of the neighbourhood seen from the top of the hill where their house was; a composition of contrasts, architectural forms and floral colour. But the years of working with pencils, to fulfil a commission to deadline, had diminished her confidence in the medium she wanted to work in.
She had come to the end of something, she thought. Somehow, over the ten years of her life in Karachi, she’d become so busy with the demands of her own full day, the need to practice economies, the children’s demands and wants, the hectic serenity she’d found, that she’d ceased to see the man who had given her his empty and inhabited spaces to transform into her own, been her harbour, her oasis, her magic carpet to a longed-for land. She’d talked on and on because she felt that by regaling him with the trivia of her day she was keeping him close to her, and she had taken his usual complacency for contentment. But she’d lost the gift of those words that had bound him to her over distances of latitude and longitude.
She remembered how, one day, she’d been sketching in the garden and, suddenly thirsty, had gone to fetch a full glass of cooled water she thought she’d left on the veranda. She’d found it half empty and thought that one of the children must have sipped from it. But when she raised it to her lips, the water was slightly brackish to the taste. Had someone changed the glass? Or was it yesterday she’d left it there, and somehow missed a day?
And what Usman missed most was the way she’d spontaneously drawn a bird catcher’s net of tales around him, which, in turn, had served to enmesh his own stories, still flapping their wings. Now, when he came home and saw her immersed in practicalities, or when she recounted her day’s preoccupations and chores, he envied the cheerful pleasure she took in everything, even in complaining; envied the affection her friends and the care her children demanded from her; envied the attention she paid to her pictures. (He’d only once seen her cry, and that was when her father’s annual birthday card arrived on the 1st of May, three weeks late for her birthday.)
And he was just one more strand in the weave of her tranquillity, not its weaver as he once would unquestioningly have thought he was. There was something he resented in this contentment. Everything so casual, everything so intense. Lydia, he reflected, seemed to have left him; he wasn’t sure how well he knew this bustling, practical Rokeya who had taken her place.
He was 52 now. His twin sons by his first wife were estranged from him. His own literary career was still going slowly. In a climate where, after nationalism’s first surge had subsided and literature could be considered a pastime rather than an ideological manifesto, he was frequently compared by westernised critics to Flaubert and to Zola, while other, younger writers emulated Kafka and Camus. Denying western influence, insisting that his writing descended from local rather than imported traditions, he was placed in a category of his own as a regionalist or a man of letters who wrote for a select audience composed almost exclusively of other writers.
His first novel, published before Partition - about a youth who travels from rural Punjab to Delhi and Lahore, falls in love with a rich and lovely Hindu girl who is involved in the Freedom Movement, and eventually breaks his heart - had been rediscovered some years before by a new generation hungry for adventure and romance. It was available in a bright-covered new edition, the fourth in as many years, and continued to sell in impressive numbers to housewives and the young. It was a work he dismissed as immature and sentimental; its language made him feel as if he’d spilt pomegranate juice over the novel’s pages and they were still sticky with it. He hadn’t particularly wanted to see back in print. But Chowdhry Saheb had insisted that this new edition of an old hit might attract a new generation of readers to his more recent work: his two volumes of mature short stories had not, however, sold well, his new novel was incomplete, his job at the magazine not taxing but often tedious.
Once he asked Rokeya: ‘Can’t you stop dabbling and concentrate on one thing? Your gouaches? Do you really want to keep on wasting your talent on illustrations for women’s magazines? Can’t you gather enough of your paintings for a show? Surely the British Council will do it if those snobs at the Arts Council won’t have you? What do you really want to do?’
She looked puzzled.
‘Do? Nothing, really, but it’s all so much fun.’
For her, and for their children, he felt an aching tenderness that filled him when he was away from them for even a few hours. When he was with them, though, he was at best inexpressive and at worst irascible.
Rokeya seemed even keener than he that they should have a secure grounding in Urdu and a strong sense of cultural identity, and prevailed on him to help them to master the national language.
Often, he’d come home to find her telling them children’s tales he’d written, but she read by rote or retold from memory, and she constantly remoulded the grammar and syntax into her own eccentric idiom. He would take over from her, reading or telling the stories himself, and then asking the children to read out passages aloud, or to take dictation.
But he knew that unlike her, he made it all seem too much like homework, and often found himself impatient with the two boys, the older of whom, Saadi, at nearly seven, had particular difficulties with the Urdu script, and held his brother Ramzi back too. (Nine-year-old Rabia, on the other hand, had mastered Urdu and was learning to read the Quran at Tabinda’s knee). Saadi would constantly refer to masculine objects in the feminine and vice versa; a book and a chair would become masculine, water and yoghurt feminine. He would misspell Arabic words that used letters such as ‘ain’ and ‘suad’ which, in Urdu, had lost their original sound values and, like his mother, he would ask why they needed to be there at all. Usman soon stopped supervising their lessons, wondering, not without anxiety, whether one, or both, of his sons would want one day to explore their English roots, and leave the country of their birth for their mother’s native land.
One day, Ramzi came home in a state of distress because a group of older boys had called his brother a Current, a derogatory word for a local Christian, because of Saadi’s hesitant Urdu and the pale skin and reddish hair he had inherited from his English grandmother. ‘If Saadi’s a Current, I must be one too,’ he wept. Usman was unable to console him.
It was a handicap, Usman taunted Rokeya, that their children had a mother who spoke her children’s native language with little respect for grammar or syntax, mangling verbs and cases and always unable to grasp the intricacies of gender.
‘Well,’ she retorted, ‘at least I chatter away, and read signs and headlines; more than you can say for Jani. Or Rasulan, who can’t utter a phrase without a mistake. And it wasn’t I who chose to send them to an English-medium school.’
(All of this was true: like many other bourgeois Karachi ladies of their acquaintance, Jani was as proud of her lack of fluency in Urdu as she was of her idiomatic English, and would hardly speak it at all; Rasulan’s language was Sindhi, in which she had sung lullabies to the children since each of them was born. And Usman himself had sent Saadi and Ramzi to the English-medium Jennings, a school on the other end of town where the standard of Urdu taught was given no importance; from there, when they were old enough, they would transfer to the prestigious and expensive Grammar School at the other end of town. Rabia still studied at the local PECHS girls’ school, a short walk away from their house. Neither parent was keen for the children to study at St Patrick’s, the Roman Catholic school for boys, though sending them there would have cost them less.)
He had ceased to care as much as he once had about the political situation, and more then once had found himself in grudging agreement with some supporter of the Ayub Khan regime. But in the work of writing, which often rose like a glass barrier between him and everything he loved, he was aware of an overriding search for perfection; every phrase was an almost impossible challenge, and writing an entire story the most onerous of responsibilities.
He was, in middle age, beset with the old feeling of being left behind in every part of life and in his relationships most of all. Contenders were being selected for a prestigious literary prize, and he knew that Jani, who had the ear of one of the judges, would be speaking for him, but how could he ever hope to win? Even in the rank of regional writers to which, for all his years in big cities, he was invariably delegated, he stood behind Shah Bilal in acclaim and appeal. Chowdhry, avuncular as he was, took him for granted. Rokeya, until she became a mother, had placed him above all else; now he came second to their children, to whom she showed an almost feral devotion, reading to them, playing with them, teaching them to draw, working only while they were at school to spend every available hour with them. And though he recognised his children’s affection for him, the way they clung to his knees when he came home or the tranquillity in their eyes when he kissed them in their beds or held their little fingers as he prayed over them when they fell ill, he couldn’t pretend for an atom of an instant that he could lay claim to the need they had for her.
Yes, he stood in second (if not third) place, in every walk of life. Except when someone depended on him, or something was wanted from him. Advice, editorial or professional, to a fledgling writer. A word in the right ear, to get a young journalist a job. Even the redoubtable Chowdhry Saheb, to whom he owed so much, called him ‘Son’ and depended on him more than on his own children, but had laden him with administrative responsibilities at the magazine that were increasing by the month - commissioning, chasing and editing copy, and, worse still, juggling and stretching financial resources. His job punctured his imagination and his urge to write.
Companionship and inspiration, not dependency and duty, were what he had wanted. He should be grateful, he knew, for all that God and his own efforts had given him. Then what was it he missed? And why, when, had the old yearnings that had driven him turned from desire into discontent?
Imperceptibly he had let himself become, again, the taciturn, guarded man of many years ago. But there was a difference. He was more silent, more guarded, than he’d ever been in that London he and Lydia had made their own, light years ago when he’d met her and learnt to love her. Even when he spoke to himself, it was of distant matters.
He decided that the story Rokeya had worked on so carefully to translate into English as simple and lucid as his own Urdu was too good for Endeavour. Without telling her, he submitted it for publication in a government-sponsored anthology edited by a leading, and arrogant, litterateur who told him how good he thought it was, and asked for more such translations, saying that the publishers would be proud to produce a collection of his fictions.
Rokeya’s expressive face immediately revealed how disappointed she was in him for making the choice without consulting her. He tried to lessen her dismay by telling her that she’d get sole credit for the translation, as most of the work on it had been hers. But when, after a period of silence, she suggested that they work together on others to make up a volume, or offered to turn his fairytales into a book in English, he tactfully dissuaded her.
One night, he’d refused to go with her to a performance of Richard II, for which she’d acquired two tickets. ‘Spare me your English kings, Plantaganets or Tudors,’ he’d muttered, a little spitefully. She went without him, asking anglophile Jani to take his place.
She’d come back at midnight. He was alone; the children, when he went to pick them up from Tabinda’s house, had fallen asleep in her daughter’s room, and she insisted he shouldn’t awaken them. He was still up, correcting proofs, and looked through the open window when he heard the growl of a car in the lane to see her alight from a grey Opel.
‘Richard,’ she responded when he asked her who’ d brought her home.
‘And where was Claire ?’ Uncharacteristically, he’d remembered the name of one of her friends.
‘She’s gone home to Suffolk for two months,’ she said. ‘This season never suits her.’
A few weeks later, he talked to her in bed, for the first time since they’d collaborated on the translation, about a story he was writing.
‘It’s about a woman who, bored and lonely during one of her husband’s absences, agrees to spend a day at the seaside with a male acquaintance. They become lovers for a day. As the story ends, the woman, ashamed, is wondering whether to tell her husband about the mistake she’s made. The woman is Austrian, the wife of a much older diplomat and herself a painter, her lover’s a weedy Englishman in a white suit, with gin and tobacco on his breath. I’m not going to specify the husband’s nationality. The setting is Alexandria, the time the present.’
‘Wherever did you get such an idea from? People we know? Has Jani been gossiping? Not…Richard and Claire, surely?’
Usman wondered whether she was being disingenuous or deliberately obtuse in refusing to bite the bait he’d cast.
‘You tell me,’ he snapped.
She blanched. ‘You didn’t…Oh, Mr Usman, of all the ideas!’
Then, uncontrollably, he was laughing at her outraged innocence.
‘My dearest, it’s only my elaboration of that story you wrote some months ago. I found it in my drawer the other day and thought it had potential. So I stole your plot.’
Now he understood how she was, in her ineffable manner, wise: in refusing to see what was intended to strew bitterness in her field of vision, in avoiding paths where others spread frustration. While he’d worried over writer’s block and unwritten masterpieces, unattained goals and ungiven rewards, money never earned and fame’s elusiveness, she had in some odd way returned to the longings of the childhood she’d never had, and even when he’d withheld his love from her this woman, who had orphaned and dispossessed herself for him, continued to believe in him as if he were a beloved, negligent parent. That carefree, sometimes insensitive manner in which she continued to conduct her day, her pretence that he was the sole provider while she regularly and significantly supplemented his income, her seeming unconcern for that chronic exhaustion of his which bordered on despair - all this was her gift to him, the gift of valuing what she could have dismissed as the transience of their shared existence, the gift of faith she had in the life they had made for each other.
It was nearly dawn. He had risen early, as he’d often done in the early days of his marriage when he’d wanted to write before he left for work. Strolling on the veranda with a cigarette between his fingers and looking at the brightening sky, he found himself remembering how, all those years ago, they’d spent their wedding night together, neither of them inexperienced but both guileless and, in some odd way, untouched and virginal - and how then, and for years after, that bare discovery of each other, the erasure between their bodies of all but the final barriers of bone, had seen them through, made poverty appear to be austerity, need anticipation, disappointment mere lack of opportunity.
He stepped, barefoot, onto the dewy grass, heading towards the gulmohar tree, which dominated the narrow garden; it wouldn’t be in flower for a while, though tight new buds were appearing on its branches. Suddenly the empty garden was alive with the music and the memories of another day: Saadi sitting cross legged on the rug beneath the tree, managing to read, with a measure of success, an entire page of his Urdu primer with his little brother standing over his shoulder and prompting him; Rabia perched on a branch above eating the tender petals of its blossom, which she said tasted like tamarind; Rokeya in the veranda, wiping her forehead with a paint-smeared hand as she swiftly filled her blank canvas with leafless branches laden with scarlet flowers like little flames, calling out to him when she heard the door swing shut behind him and his footsteps in the hall: ‘Are you home, Mr Usman?’
This was his life; flowers would blossom while he barely noticed, just as the tight little buds of the gulmohar tree unfurled into gold and scarlet flames on their branches, and their colours hung beyond his reach because the field of his vision was too restricted to contain them.
The sight of a flower teaches the eye to revel in every colour. For years Usman had struggled with this verse of Ghalib’s. He had even started work on an essay about the mystic ghazal by the great poet which culminated in the couplet. Eyes were the greatest deceivers, he had commented; they showed you colours you couldn’t aspire to, dreams that filled you with boundless longing. Longing led to loss, loss to lament and mourning. The very poem he was discussing was full of clouds and rains and tears of separation; pain, it said, must break its boundaries to become its own palliative.
Was it necessary, then, to weep before you recognised joy? And he, who had never wept after his mother died, who had left no trace of a footstep on the road away from his past, had he remained blind to all the colours around him, and if so, for how long? But then he remembered how once a tear or two had trickled down his cheek, and how she, the woman he had learned to love without knowing how to tell her, had taken his tears as the token she’d been waiting for, the sign that he didn’t want to leave her.
He didn’t write the story about the lovers by the sea; he’d never really intended to. Instead, he spent three days writing a long, tender story about his wife’s friend Tabinda - how, just a few years ago, Tabinda’s journalist husband Umar had been arrested for inciting dissidence in his writings and spent forty days in jail before brave Tabinda succeeded in bailing him out. It became the centrepiece of the collection of seven stories, one for each day of the week, that he wrote in a little over seven months, often staying up all night over several cups of tea and entire packs of cigarettes. Most of the stories were sour-sweet vignettes of married life. He dedicated the book to his wife.
That dedication to her is one of the pieces Rokeya Javashvili-Usman Ali and her son Saadi will include in a volume of her husband’s favourite stories they co-edit after his death in 1984.
In this fragment of memory only a few hundred words long, Usman relives the day he received one of the country’s most prestigious literary awards, consisting of a medal and a great deal of cash.
‘…Or we could take a holiday,’ he says to his English wife, who is painting the finishing touches to an arrangement of green, red and yellow swirls which she says is her impression of their three children at play in their garden, spraying each other with a water hose.
‘To the hills? When the children’s holidays start? Murree? Or Swat, perhaps? You could write, the children could learn to ride ponies, I could draw children playing against the backdrop of trees and lakes and hills, maybe even take my paints and do a watercolour, figures in a landscape…’
‘I was thinking of Topkapi, the pyramids, the Vatican, the Alhambra….and we could go back to London, if you like…’
Usman realises that his wife has been away from her homeland for ten years; with all the expenses of daily living, they’ve never been able to afford the fare.
‘But my dearest Mr Usman,’ she says. ‘What a dreamer you are! First we have to build an annexe to the house, which seems to be getting smaller every day. The children are growing and we need at least two more rooms. Then Mai Rasulan’s daughter is getting married, surely we should be giving her something, after all the years she’s cooked for us and cared for the children - we’re the only family she has, after all. And by the way, that path between our garden and the neighbours’ wall is being used as a lavatory - yes, a lavatory! - by their watchman’s children. Rasulan’s nephew Shabbir who works for a contractor came to see me, and he says he can build a wall for us too and bring that strip of ground, that doesn’t really belong to anyone, into our garden. I want a low brick wall we can whitewash, no barbed wire or bits of glass. We could plant another gulmohar tree to mark the boundary. You could write in its shade. Tell me, how on earth can we go wandering abroad when there’s so much to be done right here? Actually, I was thinking…’
‘What were you thinking, dear?’
‘Would you mind terribly if we just stayed home this summer? We could always wait and visit the hills next year…’