Cassim is dead

a short story 

The body lay in a heap on the floor. Policemen swarmed all about the room. Rasheeda sat, body slightly bowed, poker-faced, her thin silvery hair twisted into a small knot at the back of her head. Whose body? Cassim´s? No, Cassim was smaller. The Baas´s. He wouldn´t come down. She had asked him to, repeatedly but he had ignored her. Gradually she recollected the past few hours…

It had been a nightmare: every time she lay down the sound would begin.
"What´s that noise?" she complained.

"Why, it´s only the Baas! " Wakila replied. "You remember, Mummy got him down to repair the roof?"

"But we have no money to pay him. I told him to go. When did you come here? Where has your Mummy gone?"

"To market, to market, to buy a fat pig!"

"Don´t say that word, even for a joke!" She looked at her granddaughter warningly. Wakila lay unconcerned on the bed. She looked different somehow… her hair!

"Why have you cut your hair? And so short?"

"It´s so hot Umama. And it looks nice, honestly. Even Mummy said so."

"Your mother doesn´t know anything. She´s a foolish woman. Who will marry you now, looking like a Maata kutti!"

Wakila laughed. "Umama, lots of girls cut their hair this way. It´s the style. Besides when I get married, my husband won´t drag me by the hair, that´s for sure!"

"I will tell him to pinch you hard. Such a bad girl you are, a very bad girl!"

"What´s wrong with short hair? Why is it bad?"

"Why? Because you must think and understand why. That´s why."

Wakila irritated her needlessly with her endless questions: why should I get married? Why can´t I study first? Why do you have to pray so much for Appa when he´ll go to Heaven anyway. She couldn´t understand that even a million prayers were too few for him. Cassim had been so good to her. She poked her round bangled hand under her pillow and groped for her prayer beads, the ones Cassim had bought for her fifteen years ago on their last trip to Mecca. Now she was eighty-two; when she had married him she had been only twelve. And he, twenty? Yes, thereabouts. She could still picture him, as he had been when they first met. Those memories were fresh. How she had to work all day for her stepmother and yet, her stepmother had grudged Rasheeda the little food she had eaten. And begun, ever since Rasheeda reached puberty, to search for a husband for her.

How terrified she had been of marrying a man she had never seen before. She had tried to run away. But the house was too full of relatives and she the centre of attraction.

"Let´s have children later," Cassim had said on their wedding night, seeing her cowed by fear. From then onwards she knew her troubles were over. Cassim had been very kind. As soon as he could afford it, he had taken her to a new house, away from her stepmother. She had had little cause to disagree with him and had readily agreed to everything he suggested ever after. That was the way to live. Not like this girl who refused to marry even at eighteen. She turned towards her granddaughter and pointed at the jug of water. Wakila jumped up and fetched a glass. Her grandmother smiled her thanks.

Goody, thought Wakila, she´s forgotten. "Do you ever dream of Appa, Umama," she asked innocently.

"Yes, he said to tell you to get married soon and obey your husband and pray for him," her Granny retorted. Wakila grinned. She often played this game with her Granny, a test-your-memory game and found that her Granny´s memory was very sharp after an argument. It was funny that at other times she couldn´t remember anything…

As if on cue her Granny asked yet again, "Who is that breaking and breaking our house?" Even as Wakila explained, Rasheeda sat up on the bed and lowered her delicate feet to the ground. Then very slowly she wriggled them into leather slippers and stood up. Although the floor whirled slightly, she managed to shuffle to the door. Wakila protested.

"Why, Umama! Come and rest. You know that it´s bad for you to get up so often!"

The old woman ignored her. Disobedient girl. She and the Baas both irritated her, the Baas more so for he had the temerity to ignore her. She leaned against the doorway, ha worn-out hands gripping the frame tightly. Panting slighth she called out loudly to the mason who was leaning agains: the top rung of the ladder, absorbed in his work, "Come down, that´s enough now. I told you I have no money."

The Baas was a swarthy, bearded young man, wearing) dirty pair of shorts and a torn tee shirt. Now he wiped the perspiration off his forehead on his sleeve. He had been warned by the lady that her mother might be difficult and called out,

"Only a little more now, Madam." He didn´t stop his work. He didn´t even look down. How could he be so cheeky!

"No, no! Stop now. Even if you work the whole day, I won´t give you any money. I haven´t got money I tell you.

Wakila held her Granny gently by the shoulders. Her Granny was so small it was easy. She seemed to have shrunk in the past four months since her grandfather had died.

"Umama, we have a lot of money," she began.

"Keep quiet!" the old woman shushed, "Do you want him to hear you? That money is for our food and drink." She turned to the Baas again. "Stop at once," she comanded vainly.

Haniya heard her mother shouting and bustled into the room. "What are you doing out of bed, Umma?"

Her mother scowled at her, then boomed in her low voice, "Who brought this fellow into our house?"

"I did," her daughter unhappily explained for the fifth time that morning. "The ceiling is falling apart and Nawaz sent us money for the house repairs. If you don´t let him do his work, the roof will fall on our heads."

"It won´t fall. Why should it fall? All these years it didn´t fall?"

"That´s a miracle, Alhamdhulillah!" Haniya retorted. It wasn´t easy to be patient when there was so much work to be done. "Wappa should have repaired it long ago." She turned to her daughter. "Look after her Wakila. I have to put the beef to boil."

Rasheeda sat down carefully on a chair near the doorway between the rooms and sighed. Wakila heard her and ran to her with the newspaper.

"There´s a nice article on women, Umama," she said and pointed at the article. Rasheeda read out aloud, ´Women fight for human rights.´ It didn´t interest Rasheeda. She was of the opinion that such women asked for trouble.

"What rights? If they look after their husbands nicely their husbands will listen to them," she commented. She turned to the headlines. ´Eighty-six Tigers killed.´ "How is that? Were they poisoned?" But although she tried to focus on Wakila´s explanation about terrorists, she felt her attention wander. It was not important. Death was the only reality and it had taken Cassim. And since Cassim had died… when had he died? Yesterday or was it the day before? Since he had died she was alone. When would she join him? But it was a sin to even think of it..

"You´re not listening, Umama."

"Yes, darling I´m very tired." She put down the paper, dark thoughts pursuing her. Where was she? Yes. She had to be very careful. Careful of rogues, careful with money. There were no men in the house. Haniya´s husband had died when Wakila was a baby. Cassim had looked after them all. Nawaz, her only son, lived in America, or was it Australia? Well, somewhere anyway and couldn´t return because of a visa problem.

"Come and lie down now Umama," Wakila was saying. "If you are tired you must sleep." She was seated on Cassim´s bed looking at some photographs.

"Look, here is a photo of Hafsa´s baby."

But the noise continued to nag. Didn´t the fellow understand? Or was he a madman that they couldn´t get rid of? She decided to talk gently to him.

"Don´t, please, don´t break my ceiling. Come down I tell you." The Baas mumbled back a monosyllable but didn´t stop banging. Rasheeda was really angry now. Why wasn´t he obeying her? She had commanded a battalion of servants when her children were small. Wasn´t she still mistress of the house? A feeling of hopelessness shook her. How could she be mistress when the master was no more, the dear, dear master? But even as she mourned Cassim´s loss Rasheeda grew panic-stricken. This man would never leave. He might demand money, jewellery. I must be equal to the situation, she thought, and take Cassim´s place from now on. She stepped determinedly into the room, her small frame stooped slightly.

Then she shook the ladder hard saying, "You don´t understand. I don´t have money to pay you. Come down at once!"

All of a sudden, he tumbled down. She had killed him. She had actually killed a man. She had heard the policeman quite clearly, "The Baas has died." No, it was Cassim. If Cassim was alive, none of this would have happened.

Though she sat, poker-faced, her heart suffocated with grief and fear. "Cassim is dead!" it moaned softly, "Cassim is dead!

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Himal Southasian