"I tried to drown my sorrows, but the bastards learned how to swim, and now I am overwhelmed by this decent and good feeling"
Begum chewed her last betel nut paan and stared at her feet.
She scavenged little inches for detail- her corroded metal toe rings that must be removed, strings of silver anklets that snaked around her ankles, the faded mehendi twirls and a bruised toe nail.
The afternoon sun was atrocious. Begum lid her face behind the heavy shawl and suddenly plops of pollen and noise molded into dark threads. Shadows played their game, dreams roped in too. She could see her daughter’s corpse soaring like an eagle, it grew multiple heads and then there were fangs. Her daughter growled and smashed lamp posts, scratched trees and then she suddenly turned catatonic and landed in Begum’s lap. She hugged her as hard as she could but nothing happened.
Begum was left with a dead eagle. She threw her shawl away and spilt into a hysterical shriek that echoed through the building. Three women darted towards Begum from the apartment’s gate and clapped over her face.
“Begum. Oh Begum! What is wrong with you these days? Today is the second time you are screaming like this” Kasturi yelled, pulling Begum towards her. She was the in-charge of house maids in J Block Apartment and Begum’s consistent screaming was tainting her image. Kasturi liked to be a coveted dictator and she threw Begum’s shawl away.
“Eh! Begum, listen to me. I know you are going through a hard time and your daughter died but you have to work right? Or else leave” Kasturi made herself louder. By now some pot bellied men burped around Kasturi and slyly hissed about Begum’s strange behavior. One of them stared at Kasturi’s tight sleeved blouse and other men joined him in series of smirking, winking agreements.
Begum quietly got up from the porch and started walking out of the apartment compound. As she passed under the mango tree, the cold Delhi waves suddenly started seizing her again. She started missing the comfort of the porch and warm wriggles in her cozy feet. She knotted her hands inside her shawl and walked towards the road feeling a strange numbness swelling inside her head.
Begum got back to her one room accommodation offered behind the apartment and the moment she walked in, she could smell her daughter everywhere. She could still sense her in the room. She could see her crawling to the door and giggling with the after-meal drool, her fragrant forehead and the tinkling of her toy keys.
“Why did this happen to me?” Begum would consistently torture herself with the question. After Begum had found out about her husband’s madness for a young, bitchy woman from the slums, Roohi's death was the final blow to her sanity. She had traveled with her husband to his parent’s rickety house on the outskirts of the city. She carried Roohi with her and thought of it as a long awaited family picnic. Mahmood, her husband, looked a bit too overjoyed and Begum knew the reason behind his happiness. She knew that every night when she and Roohi slipped into snores, he sneaked through the back door.
She would hear his auto grunting and then smoldering black laces would fume up the windows. Begum would feel her body burn but she would swallow her words for Roohi’s sake. If Begum looked agitated, her mother-in-law would start questioning her and if by any chance, Begum even hinted on Mahmood’s infidelity, the entire blame would collapse on her. Mahmood’s mother believed her son to be the most perfect man in Delhi and she would blather about his broad chest, his sonorous baritone and his love for his family. If Begum dared to scrape Mahmood’s glamour, his mother would charge all the faults on her. She would tell her that she was not a good wife and couldn’t do much to hold her man in grip and that according to Mahmood’s mother, was a woman’s valuable skill. Begum didn’t have it and she hated herself for being so sober.
But she was living this marriage only for Roohi and she planned to leave Mahmood as soon as Roohi would turn five but that day never came. The same night, a huge waterline broke near the railway track and a flood ravaged the entire slum and the areas around it. Water slewed in like an untamed monster and rode over Mahmood’s house, crashing its tinned ceiling and gnawing the wobbly walls. Begum clasped Roohi to herself and tried escaping through the tiny window but suddenly her foot slipped and she landed into the streaming muck. She heard Roohi screaming and suddenly felt her skidding off her back. She started splashing her hands in the rushing slush, searching for Roohi. Layers of filth coated her knees, dead rats scurried through her fingers and she saw more women crying, howling around their tinned houses. She screamed through her lungs and fainted over a huge marble slab.
Two days later when water slowly dried and municipal authorities came in for help, Roohi’s dead body was found under debris of coagulated scum and endless pools of plastic bags. Roohi’s dead body had severely rotten along with another infant and they looked like slimy half-human worms. Their fingers had melted and most of their skin had turned into a gooey paste. She cradled her daughter to Mahmood, who sat smoking inside his auto and the moment he saw Begum, he almost fell on her feet.
But Roohi’s death didn’t change anything in Mahmood and he still visited his lover in, now, desolate slums where flood’s stench had stitched deep into its plastic curtains and livid, grubby faces hung over the hinged doors. A strange stale taste permeated everywhere and it refused to leave. Mahmood, in a way, was now freer to do whatever he wanted and that pinched Begum more. He had no children to mend his ways for, no baby food or schooling expenses to be saved and he could squander his daily auto earnings on alcohol, chicken kebabs and his feisty mistress.
But Begum was swirling deeper into depression, she had no one to engage in an extra marital affair with and absolutely no one to talk her out of her situation. Other women from and around J Block came in to offer their condolescences but after a while, Begum started despising their sympathy. Every time somebody asked her about the tragedy, she would have to reel the entire story repeatedly and she grew weary of it. Her memories were bloating into horrid images. These ghastly images usually revolved around Roohi’s corpse but they would often morph into different creatures and riot through her dreams. The image of Roohi as a dead eagle came sporadically to her and it often lingered for a long time. It would glide over the utensils, the congested lanes of the local market and then it would evaporate along with her after noon tea and she would be left to fight on her own. I have no one to talk to and that is why I am going mad, she would tell herself. She would compel herself to involve in extra work with Kasturi or make small talks with apartment ladies. Kasturi only added to her woes.
“I know about Mahmood’s ding-ding with that young girl” Kasturi squeaked under her breath as she handed over the broom to Begum. Begum didn’t know how to react to Kasturi, she just nodded along. She snatched the broom and walked away from Kasturi but Kasturi was persistent.
“Listen, try getting pregnant again and maybe this will bring your man back”
“Think about it. After all I am a woman too, I have faced the same dramas. Our lives are no different”
And Kasturi briskly walked away to the next house for washing utensils. Her sari’s pallu flagged behind her as she disappeared behind a netted door. Begum stood confused but felt struck with a sudden surprise. Maybe she is right, she thought. Begum curled her thick hair back and sniffed the heavy spicy fragrance floating in from the houses. She gave the floor a final sweep and headed home for some arrangements.
Begum mopped her room’s floor twice. First with plain water and then scrubbed it with a special soap powder. She sprayed perfume in the room and spread the curtain over the two small windows. She opened her Godrej wardrobe and it shook with her excitement.
She took out her wedding make up kit, a small purse stuffed with some lipsticks and face powder bought from a small shop in Chandani Chowk. She peeped into the mirror and lined her eyes dark with kohl, puffed little powder on her face and painted her lips gleaming red. She saw her younger, older self for few fleeting seconds and she wanted to grab its radiance. She could feel the spark in her eyes again and she wanted to be carried away with it. It felt like a solution to her miseries. But then she felt her coarse hands, her flabby arms and something in her eyes that looked so damp.
Suddenly, someone started drumming on the door and she knew that it was a thirsty Mahmood. She delicately opened the door, carefully balancing a veil over her head. Mahmood had a distinct tinge in his sweat and she could feel its headiness plunge through her nostrils. Today, it bit into her skin and reminded of her happier days.
She rehearsed her coy, newly wedded bride antics. She recalled her old persuasions, her old charms. She imagined a beginning to something that had died between them.
Mahmood looked like a distraught teenager. His face glowed with beads of sweat and his beard was gingerly trimmed around his chin. Begum suddenly realized how handsome he is, he always was but she had forgotten all about it. Mahmood also continued to stare at Begum but more with confusion than with nostalgia and guilt.
“Why all this decoration inside the room? Is someone coming?” Mahmood simpered, still a little struck with the special arrangements.
Begum paraded out of the kitchen with a cool glass of chaach and rubbed his head with her dupatta.
“Have some of this and relax. These arrangements are for us” Begum spoke lusciously, bringing Mahmood closer to herself. She saw an uncanny grin on Mahmood’s face, like he thought this was some sort of a game. He slurped his drink and slowly lay down on the tiny mattress. He removed his watch and a fad of notes, cigarette packs and money from his pocket. Begum and Mahmood sat in a deafening silence.
“What are you thinking?” Begum staccatoed, munching her words slowly.
She suddenly started feeling doubtful of her moves and same old fears took precedence again. She saw a soaring eagle again and heard her mother- in- law’s belief in Begum’s failure as a wife. She felt herself sinking but Mahmood bought her down.
“I am thinking that you are such a beautiful wife and I have been ignoring you for so long”.
Mahmood’s words had sunlit warmth in them.
She started crying, her powdered cheeks streaked with lines of dripping kohl.
“Don’t cry Begum, don’t cry. This is not your fault” Mahmood took Begum in his arms and she wondered what fault he referred to. The fault of Roohi dieing in a flood when Begum was actually expecting the entire family to be together and for few days, Mahmood would be only hers? The fault of his infidelity? His lies? Or her resilience?
Mahmood suddenly felt human to her and she hated him for hiding his feelings all the time. Why could he never say these things ever before?
This Mahmood, in this dark cold room was suddenly admitting some things that he never would. He would always swelter in some other brash world where it was justified for him to exploit Begum and take her strength for granted. Even when Roohi died, Mahmood stayed only for few days and then soon after Begum resumed her cleaning work in the apartment, he also hibernated in his world of lies.
“I want happiness”
Begum cast her words as if they were magical spells and they would change everything instantly. Mahmood drooped over her face and kissed her after ages, feeling her familiar taste in his mouth. She tasted of cardamoms and betel fragrance, her neck was stiff and he slid his hand over her belly.
“This is the way to your happiness” and he rubbed her belly again, slowly bending to kiss it.
Mahmood lurched over Begum and felt himself against her rough feet and her pallid fingers. He ran his fingers through her thick hair and for few seconds, he erased everything in his mind. The auto bills to pay or the sahibs to meet, the raucous policemen, his young mistress’ eyes. He felt her unbuttoning his shirt and her feet inching to slide down his pants. He unzipped and slowly motioned into her.
“What do you mean by “my” happiness?”
“Is this, not your happiness” Begum interrupted in between but Mahmood didn’t reply. She felt his face digging into her breasts, kneading her thighs and moving deeper. She screamed into his arms and clawed his buttocks.
“Today this is happening after ages, I want it. You want it too, I know it” he shouted in her ears as he grew violent. His veins around his neck stretched and she felt him trembling.
Soon, they both ended and Begum felt extremely drained. She got up from the bed and wrapped herself in her dupatta. Her breasts sagged and her fingers were numb. She felt weak. Mahmood lay on his back still touching himself and purring, in what Begum thought was relief.
She drank a glassful of water and asked Mahmood, the same question again.
“Will this be not your happiness, too?” she rubbed her belly and stuck into his arms.
Mahmood scrounged for his matchbox and wore his underwear. He looked at Begum with an empty expression that hid remorse and embarrassment at the same time. He refused to reply and stroked her belly with his lips, glanced over Roohi’s picture stuck on the wardrobe and changed into his clothes. He soon left the house without saying anything more and Begum felt the entire world shatter into rippling images.
This time black wolves were racing through flooded swamps and one of them was holding Roohi’s corpse. They all ran towards Begum and the entire pack attacked her womb with jagged fangs and ripped trickling semen out of its walls, licked away the amniotic sac and threw her dead body along with Roohi in a pit outside a building that reminded Begum of J Block Apartment.