(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.)
“Darling, we ought to get married as soon as possible,” Jenny said in a timid voice, sitting on a chair and waggling her shoes.
“Why,” Ahmed suddenly paused from slitting open a blue envelope.
“Because I’m going to be a mother,” Jenny said, as she stood up and unzipped her dress to take it off.
His hand on the half-opened aerogramme, Ahmed stood startled by what Jenny had said. Jenny opened the wardrobe, hung her dress on a hanger and then turned round as she closed the door. “What’s the matter, darling? Why have you suddenly gone quiet?” She put her arms round Ahmed’s neck, “Aren’t you happy?”
“I… of course I’m happy” – he tried to smile – “but, sweetheart, we hadn’t planned this yet.” He enclosed Jenny in his arms, “I am very happy”. His voice was devoid of emotion.
While Jenny was in the kitchen, Ahmed gathered his thoughts, opened the letter and started to read. The letter was from his mother and in it she sought to envelop him in words of love. In forceful language, she made plain her final wish, which Ahmed had already ostentatiously promised to fulfil. She had written: My son, my last wish is that I should see your wedding garland. I have seen a lot of very nice girls, but you must like them too – son, try to come as soon as possible – it’s so long since I’ve seen you – get married while you are here and take your wife back with you.
Ahmed’s mind was in turmoil. He was aghast at what Jenny had just told him. And this letter from his Mum had also arrived today! For a few moments he hadn’t the strength to think or understand. “Ahmed”, Jenny called from the kitchen.
“Yes darling,” he stood up, putting the letter slowly into the pocket of his shirt. Jenny couldn’t read his mother’s letter, but, to be sure, he didn’t feel it appropriate to leave the blue envelope on the table – it would be safer in his pocket, he reassured himself.
Jenny, brushing her hair, turned round and looked. Ahmed was looking intently again at the blue envelope.
“Who is the letter from?” she asked.
“What is it that has made you so worried?”
“She’s very ill,” Ahmed said spontaneously. “The doctors have given up hope.” Ahmed was astonished that he had just said something that he’d had absolutely no intention of saying. Then he considered his conscience: no doubt some unseen force had made him utter those sentences.
“I am sorry.” She came and sat down near Ahmed. “Don’t worry darling, she will be fine. The doctors there just say things like that, you told me yourself, didn’t you?” Her fingers were playing with Ahmed’s hair.
“I am thinking I might go and see her one last time,” Ahmed said.
“Darling, we should go home now,” Mrs Brown said as she clasped to her chest a little black-eyed baby wrapped in a white shawl. Her face was glowing with pleasure. Today she too had become a mother. The existence of this little baby had spread warmth into every vein and fibre of her body. Her heart was overflowing with the emotion of motherhood. She was agitated by her extreme happiness – after confronting such hopelessness she had obtained this child. She had been completely despairing. But Mr Brown had always comforted her – and then the day came when a telephone call filled her despairing heart with unexpected hope. She had felt great pity for the baby’s mother but what could she have done? The girl’s boyfriend was not prepared to keep the baby, especially the child of a ‘Paki’. She guessed the mixture of Asian blood was only an excuse – after all, how could a girl working in a factory take on the responsibility of raising a child on her own? We didn’t put any pressure on her and we can give the child more comfort and love. She calmed her conscience.
“Darling, we should go home now,” Ahmed said to his beautiful new bride, taking her bangle-laden hands in his own. “It is a whole month since the wedding, we should think of going back,” he was thinking to himself. How much his circumstances had changed in these past five or six months! He remembered that somehow he had persuaded Jenny to empty the flat and move into a single room because Ahmed had promised to buy a house when he returned – Jenny trusted him in everything. Thinking of this produced some small twinges of conscience but gradually these disappeared because he had taken this step for the sake of his mother’s happiness. He thought how intelligently he had done everything, and stored his things in the house of a friend whom Jenny did not know.
“Now I need to settle in a different area.”
This was a very happy day for Mr and Mrs Brown, because this was the day when their child would receive his Baptism. They had also arranged a party for the occasion. The little baby with moth-like eyes was the centre of everybody’s attention. When an elderly lady who was touching the baby’s little hands said he is just like his mother, brown-eyed Mrs Brown smiled with self-confidence. She bent over and kissed the baby’s forehead and said the baby’s name – “Philip Edward Brown”. Then it was time for the photographs. The photographer put the mother and father together – with the baby in her lap, at the moment the pose was ready for the picture to be taken, Mrs Brown looked at her husband. She noticed that Mr Brown was also smiling, happiness evident on his face. Today is one of the most memorable days of my life, she thought, glowing and full of happiness. She felt the closeness of the sleeping baby in her lap. She felt enlivened by this feeling of love. Tears came into her eyes, but she was smiling.
Today was the day when Ahmed’s widowed mother received a very happy message. In the early morning, Ahmed had informed her of the birth of his son. All day she had been distributing heaps of laddoos in benevolence to the poor. There was a commotion all day. There was a constant stream of well-wishers. Today she herself was feeling very light-hearted. Today her life-long hard work had been rewarded. She held her head up proudly. How could people say anything bad about her son? “Oh God, make me well regarded by others,” she prayed. She prayed that her son would be shown the righteous path: whatever the world had done to her, she was confident about her son. “My son has turned out to be so capable, to be such a good son.” Today she felt the warmth of happiness in her aged bones. This is her first grandson, the firstborn child or her only son, the custodian of her family line. Although the day’s events had exhausted her, in the peace of the evening she offered a prayer in gratitude. When she bowed before God, tears flowed from her eyes, but she continued to smile.
~ 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.