(Translated from Urdu by Alison Shaw and Mohammad Talib. This short story is a part of the web-exclusive series that complements our latest print quarterly ‘Diaspora: Southasia Abroad’. See more fiction published by Himal Southasian.)
Chaudhuri Sahib loosened his tie for the fourth time and looked around at the guests who had started to come in. He checked his outfit: this was the first time in his life that he was wearing such expensive clothes and he was feeling a stranger to himself, but he held his head upright, proudly. He jerked his coat straight, brushed the imaginary dust from its sleeves and began thinking that, even if he were to give five pounds less to his wife for the weekly expenses, it would take twenty weeks to cover the cost of the suit alone, but he had also spent a lot of money on the shoes, shirt and tie. Oh God, so much money has been spent. Then he thought this is my investment: in this business, you may not get wealth or money, but you will have honour and respect; the family name will be illustrious. A light smile appeared on his lips and he went forward quickly to welcome Miss Simpson, who at that moment had come in the door. This Eid Milan party was going well, so he was for a moment surprised that the number of Pakistani guests was small, but then he remembered his own words, “What’s the point of giving an Eid Milan party for Muslims? They know about Eid and they celebrate it themselves. On such occasions we should be inviting people who don’t know anything about our religion. By organising such events, we can highlight the good aspects of our religion.”
A slight bend appeared in Chaudhuri Sahib’s tight neck. He remembered the moment when he had spoken these words to the members of his committee and they were very impressed. They unanimously agreed to entrust Chaudhuri Sahib with preparing the guest list. Chaudhuri Sahib chose the names with a great deal of thought and business acumen. Among the guests were local government officers, the local MP, social workers, community workers, the community relations officer and the editor and representatives of the local newspaper. By chance they turned out to be mostly women. Chaudhuri Sahib had met each one of them personally and given a verbal invitation as well as handed out written invitations. This was the first time that the local Muslim association had organised such an event, and most people thought that it would be good to meet with the local Muslim community and get a better understanding of its problems. Among the guests present, only the newspaper editor and the MP had send their apologies. All the rest had turned up.
Chaudhuri Sahib glanced around him in all directions. People were really enjoying doing justice to the samosas and the gulab jamuns, and at the same time the conversation was flowing energetically. In his position as leader of the association, Chaudhuri Sahib welcomed the guests and greeted them in the customary manner, and gave some time to everyone, paying attention to those who might be useful in time of need, and keeping this principle in mind when extending hospitality to the guests. All of a suddena curly-brown head appeared from among some of the guest. Shyness was discernible in her blue eyes – perhaps she didn’t know anyone there and this is why she was hesitating to come forward. Chauhduri Sahib approached swiftly, took her arm and moved to the table, where he handed her a cup of tea with the same deftness with which he used to sell goods to customers in his shop. He liked Victoria Wood a lot. Miss Wood used to work in the Community Relations Office. Chaudhri Sahib went to see her whenever he faced any problems. In fact, he searched for excuses to go and see her; if he had no pretext then he would take on the responsibility of solving other people’s problems. He was now thinking she will be impressed seeing me, and she herself is looking so beautiful.
Chaudhri Sahib, as usual, looked at her closely, her head covered with dense unruly curls that today were carefully arranged and tied with a ribbon. She was wearing a pink blouse of the latest fashion which buttoned at the back and which gave the impression, when you looked at her, of having been put on back-to-front. From the long V-neck he could see the white of her back. Whenever Miss Wood said “Mister Shoudry” in her sweet accent then Chaudhri Sahib’s heart would break open and be restless to fall at her feet. He desperately wanted to be able to call her “Vicky” like the other people in her office but he could never gather the courage, although his hope, like a crop in the field, was now ripening. Once he became community leader, he would be able to call her not only “Vicky” but “my dear Vicky” or perhaps “dearest Vicky” and in just a year or two his dream would be realised. In the party, while shaking hands and talking and laughing with people wearing new suits, he became absolutely certain that his plan would be successful. He assessed Miss Wood with a studied gaze. His glances were like scissors so sharp that they cut through several layers of clothes with great ease.
“Mister Chaudhri, nice party,” Miss Verma addressed him.
“Thank you Sheila,” Chaudhri Sahib smiled.
“Mister Chaudhri,” she said, coming nearer, “are you a traditional person, someone who doesn’t like women coming to gatherings where men are present?”
“Y – e – s,” Chaudhri Sahib replied distractedly, looking at Miss Wood who was talking to a young Englishman.
“What I mean is,” Miss Verma continued, “there are no Muslim women in your party. Do you keep your wife in purdah even in this country? Does Islam forbid men and women to meet one another?”
Chaudhri Sahib felt that this foolish woman was deliberately asking pointed questions to spread anti-Muslim propaganda – after all, she was a Hindu – but in his capacity as community worker he could not ignore her, so he patted her shoulder and walked beside her, saying “My dear, this isn’t the right occasion for discussing a religious matter. I see your plate is empty.”
Chaudhri Sahib quickly picked up a tray of sweets and began enthusiastically filling up her plate. Then, after reassuring himself that his friend Mr Hussain was not nearby enough to overhear his conversation with Miss Verma, wearing a smile of friendship he said, in a very affectionate tone, “I can’t speak on behalf of anyone else, but my wife is an equal partner in all my decisions.Today my son is not well, that’s why she couldn’t come.” He made a mental calculation of his son’s age, just in case he was asked. After pacifying Miss Verma and feeling jealous that Miss Wood was still talking to the young man, a tall girl drew his attention.
“Are you Mr Chow-dury?”
“Yes, yes of course”. He was startled, what was happening to him now? God knows what she was going to ask.
“I am the representative of your local newspaper and I want to ask you a few questions.”
The girl started talking so fast that Mr Chaudhri’s mind was racing at a hundred miles per hour in search of answers, and he gasped in exhaustion. The girl’s questions contained only a few words that he recognised, such as ‘racial attack’, ‘integration’, ‘and ‘ethnic minority’ and so on, which he had heard on television. For a few moments, Mr Chaudhri’s hands and feet trembled in nervousness. How do I get out of this? Whenever the girl paused for a breath, Mr Chaudhri would sometimes say, “Yes”, sometimes say, “you are right” and would sometimes say, “I hope so”. His fund of English words was very limited. As soon as he could halt the barrage of questions Mr Chaudhri leaped forward to pick up a plate. “Please have a samosa, they are very delicious,” and with the plate in his hand he moved on to the other guests. From time to time he glanced in the girl’s direction and when he saw that she was talking with Hussain Sahib, Chaudhri Sahib breathed a sigh of relief. Hussain Sahib was the general secretary of his association and would be able to make all the right responses in correct English.
When the party was over, Chaudhri Sahib sat in a pub with some of his friends to celebrate the success of the event. In the middle of one conversation in which someone mentioned their child’s illness, he suddenly remembered that his own son had been unwell for several days but he was unable to remember which of the three children this was and what the ailment was. Gradually, he recalled that when he was leaving for the party, his wife had asked him to phone the doctor – the wretched woman could not do this herself. He felt angry. As soon as he thought about his wife and children a sense of weariness came over him. He took some money out of his pocket, threw it on the counter and left the pub. He had been in such a good mood; now it was completely spoiled. Your wife and children – they always chase you.
As he was driving, he thought about the party and he smiled to himself, what a successful gathering. Everybody had offered him so much thanks and the members of the society had also showered praises on him. People will be so impressed when the newspaper carries pictures and an article about Chaudhri Sahib and other office bearers of the society. Automatically he held his head higher and a contented smile played on his lips. His planning had been so successful.
In Chaudhri Sahib’s life – apart from things like cornflakes and curry powder – nothing else had such importance. About two years ago, an important change had occurred when he saw a picture in an Urdu monthly magazine. The article next to the picture altered the course of his life. This picture was of a friend of his who had come to Britain some 20 or 22 years ago. They had worked in factories together for several years. Then this friend moved to Birmingham. Chaudhri Sahib had wondered about him from time to time, thinking, god knows where he is working now. It had given him great pleasure to think how surprised his friend would be to see him now, for Chaudhri Sahib owned a house and a car and was the proprietor of a grocery store. But if Chaudhri Sahib hadn’t read the article, he wouldn’t have recognised his old friend as the person in a suit, standing with an MP, whose photo was taken at the inauguration of the grand warehouse. As he kept reading the article, his astonishment increased and so did his concern. His friend had bought a small factory in Birmingham with the money he had saved while working in London, and it had gradually developed into one of the largest factories in the city. In addition, he owned many shops. His wealth had brought him respect, name and fame. This person now counted among the elite of the city, to the extent that local people spoke highly of him. Reading this article disturbed Chaudhri Sahib and he was unable to sleep for several nights. He began to feel ashamed of himself – standing in a shop and selling groceries is not the occupation for a respectable man. He began to be troubled by the idea that in spite of working so hard he had gained nothing. He thought that the only benefit he had gained from the shop was that his competence in English had improved a little. He was able to say very fluently the English names of all the goods for sale. He felt no embarrassment saying, as appropriate, ‘yes dear’ or ‘no dear’ to women customers, and if delinquent youths came into his shop he would drive them out with English swear words.
After reading the article about his friend, Chaudhri Sahib thought about it for several days. He then made some changes in the shop and completely renamed it. Now it was the Chaudhri Self Service Store. During this time he was regularly reading various newspapers and magazines in Urdu. He read reports of events within the Asian communities of different cities, looked at pictures and from reading statements by community leaders his own desire to serve his community was born. He could see that this service brings fameand confers honour. Slowly he became so possessed by this aspiration that everything he did was in pursuit of it. All of a sudden, he became very tender hearted. He empathised with the slightest pain – if someone’s child was ill and had to be admitted to hospital, if someone’s relative’s dead body had to be sent back home, if there was an immigration problem or a domestic dispute, Chaudhri Sahib would always be at the forefront in sorting out these matters. He spent all of his leisure time sorting out other people’s problems. And now those people had even formed an association. Chaudhri Sahib felt that he himself was the best and most important person in the association that he and his friends had founded. The moment he sat on the president’s chair he felt that his personality was instantly transformed – his responsibilities kept increasing, people came to him for advice about everything and sought help. Without questioning, Chaudhri Sahib gave his time and his attention to these matters. He undertook projects in the community relations office whenever Miss Victoria Wood’s voice could be heard stirring in his ears, and when she made him sit in front of her, his face lit up like Diwali lamps.
He had kept his old friend’s picture safe, and looked at it from time to time so that his passion and feeling would not go cold and his dream should not fade. But one thing bothered him. When he saw his friend’s fashionable wife standing beside him, he thought of his own wife, and an ocean of hatred began to boil in his heart. He had been married at such a young age to his paternal cousin that he completely forgot he was married when he came to England and became immersed in earning money. He greatly enjoyed going around with English girls and thought that if he met a straightforward, respectable girl he would marry her. The first time he returned home, laden with presents, his mother’s reminder that his marriage contract was signed and what was outstanding now was that the bride should join her husband made his passion go cold. Being the only son, he understood his responsibility to fulfil his parents’ expectations. He had to bring his wife to his parents’ house, but had no space in his heart to bring her to England. Fate, however, had something else in store for him. Within a year his father had died, leaving his mother on her own, but when Chaudhri Sahib said he wanted to bring her to England, she refused to come alone and arrived along with her daughter-in-law. Chaudhri Sahib had no emotional attachment to his wife, and no connection developed as a result of living together. But he put up with this young woman for the sake of his elderly mother. Then they had three children. When his mother died, he felt as if he was completely free, but how would he marry again now? His life carried on in its usual routine and continued in this way. He never forgave his wife and never lost an opportunity to torment her. He had become so busy since taking on responsibility for the community’s welfare and development that some days would go by when he did not even see his children, and gradually it reached the point when he had to think hard to remember their faces. In the previous few days he had been very busy thinking about the preparations for this party, going to the shops many times – if only his wife had been able to give him a helping hand. What a good day it had been. Today, he took a deep breath as he reached home, locked his car, entered his room, and his wife followed him in.
“What is it,” he said to her rudely.
“Phone the doctor, the little boy has a high fever, he has been lying unconscious since the morning, hasn’t even drunk any milk,” she said through her tears.
Chaudhri Sahib’s temper flared up, “The stupid woman can’t even phone for a doctor.” He threw his jacket on a chair; his wife went upstairs, wiping her tears, staggering. When the bell rang and Chaudhri Sahib opened the door for the doctor, there was the sound of something falling with a thump on the floor above, and of a child immediately starting to cry. The doctor anxiously asked, “Am I too late?”
“No, no, it’s the children crying.”
When he went upstairs with the doctor he saw his wife lying face-down on the floor, both children holding on to her.
“Oh my God!” the doctor took one glance and ran to her. Searching her pulse, he said, “There’s nothing to worry about. Your wife is only unconscious because of weakness.”
After examining the mother, the doctor looked at the child and said, “It is best if we admit them both to hospital, so that they can both be looked after properly. I am just calling for an ambulance.” Chaudhri Sahib wanted to say that it was not necessary to take his wife to hospital, but everything happened so quickly that he did not get a chance to think.
Chaudhri Sahib was summoned to the hospital and was in a foul mood. He had several things to do for the society and he had a pretext for visiting the community relations office. He cursed his wife from the depth of his heart. Arriving at the office of the doctor who had summoned him, Chaudhri Sahib lamented his extreme shortage of time. The doctor apologised, invited him to sit down and said “Mr Chaudhri, we are very sorry that you have had to interrupt your business to visit us but the matter is serious and there is such a problem with language that we can’t ask or tell Mrs Chaudhri anything.We’ve been compelled to trouble you.” There were some papers in his hand, “Today we have received the full report on your wife, we have taken an X-ray too, we are sorry to have to tell you that your wife has TB.” He paused. “The condition is at the second stage. Even so, there is no reason to worry. Modern medicines can control the condition.”
Chaudhri Sahib was astonished that the wretched doctor had summoned him for such a trivial matter. The doctor kept shuffling the papers on the table. Taking one sheet into his hand he read it carefully, and then, keeping it in front of him, said, “But in this matter, we need Mrs Chaudhri’s complete cooperation, because her health will depend on her emotional and mental wellbeing. It will be necessary to keep her happy and contented.”
On the other side, in the women’s ward, a social worker with the help of an Asian translator was trying to question Mrs Chaudhri, but she kept her chador wrapped rightly round her, hiding the injuries on her body and sobbing uncontrollably.
~ Safia Siddiqi is a writer, poet and translator. She has authored three collections of Urdu short stories: Pahli Nasal ka Gunah (The sin of the first generation) 1990, Urdu Markaz, London; Chand ki Talash (Searching for the moon) 1996, Sang-e-Mel Publications, Lahore; and Chotee see Baat (A small thing) 2001, Twyford, London.
~ Alison Shaw is a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oxford.
~ Mohammad Talib is a social anthropologist at the University of Oxford and is a Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic studies. His publications include a monograph, Writing Labour: Stone Quarry Workers in Delhi (2010), Delhi, Oxford University Press.