This is the seventh in an eight-part series on Urdu fiction by contemporary Indian writers. Rakhshanda Jalil is the curator and translator for this series.
Part I: In 'The Crocodile', Gulzar tells a story of smoke and fire
Part II: In 'Those Without Graves', Joginder Paul blurs the lines between the living and dead
Part III: In 'The Rape of an Abandoned House', Deepak Budki lays bare the hunger of scavengers
Part IV: 'I Have Done My Bhartiya-karan', Kanhaiyalal Kapoor asks what it takes to become Indian
Part V: In 'Run From These Slave Traders', Ramanand Sagar writes of women without a country
Part VI: In 'Daani, The Generous One', Krishan Chandar writes of shared hunger — and hope — amid homelessness
MAHINDAR NATH: An active member of the Bombay branch of the Progressive Writers’ Association, he was both a writer and an actor in the Bombay film industry. He is best known for his essay-like short stories, such as Jahan Mahain Rehta Hoon (‘The Place Where I Live’) and others written in the epistolary style. He worked closely with Rajindar Singh Bedi, Ismat Chughtai, Sardar Jafri, Vishwamitra Adil, Sahir Ludhianvi, among others in furthering the progressive cause. He was also the younger brother of Krishan Chandar, the extremely popular writer and an icon of the Progressive Writers’ Movement (PWM).
A Cup of Tea | Mahindar Nath
Kamini is my wife. We have been living together for close to 12 years. You will be surprised to read that Kamini and I have never fought in these 12 years; although this a fairly long period and we ought to have fought during this time, and it would not have been surprising had we come to the brink of a divorce in these years. But my wife is an extraordinary woman; such women are hard to find. I had met Kamini for the first time 12 years ago during a lovely afternoon – on an afternoon when the sun was directly overhead and it had brought the two of us so close that we had to become one, forever more.
If you were to see my wife, you would definitely find her personable. When I saw her for the first time, I thought she was extremely attractive and beautiful. And I had said to myself that I would never find such a girl in any corner of the world. Her blue eyes, which have become pale now but still look blue to me, had tugged at my heart with their beauty. When I had looked at her from head to toe, I was struck by her marvellous good looks. A tremor ran through me. I had never seen such a supple and splendid body.
It’s possible that you may not like the words I have used for my wife, and perhaps I should not use such words. But I want to say that my wife is also my beloved and there’s nothing inappropriate in saying such things about one’s beloved. And as far as my wife’s nature is concerned, it is indeed without compare. Because of her looks and temperament I became so close to her that I could never step away from her.
The first time we met on a blazing hot afternoon, Kamini looked at me in such a way as though she was willing to surrender everything to me.
One should not display such trust in another human being without the slightest hesitation – especially after one meeting.
But it was precisely this gesture of hers that I found the most endearing. And it was this that also made me her slave forever. Perhaps this is what love is all about. It is pointless to talk of the love that Kamini had for me or has for me, or the love that I have for her or will have for her. What is amply clear, however, is the beautiful outcome of that love. Shortly after that first meeting, the two of us began to live together. We acknowledged each other as husband and wife.
There is no doubt that at first I was attracted by her good looks and only later by her temperament. It was after 10 years that I began to realise her looks and temperament were no doubt pleasing, and that it was carnal desire that made me fall in love with her beauty and temperament.
I have always been a headstrong and impulsive sort of person; I do exactly as I please. I don’t like anyone to have a say in my life, though I love to have opinions on other people’s lives. I don’t like to listen to other people’s preaching, yet I love to preach to others. This subject was so important that ideally I ought to have consulted my parents and if I was unable to do so, I ought to have, at the very least, informed them or consulted my elder brother.
It was essential that I speak to the elders whose shoulders have always carried the burden of religion and courtesy, and who are forever ready to teach manners to young people. But I cared for no one.
I thought that I love Kamini and she loves me, so why was it necessary to tell anyone? Poor Kamini was such a fine person that she never asked me anything about my parents. I thought that my wife is so progressive, why should I be regressive? (It was only later I found out that Kamini’s parents had died a long time ago, and she was all alone in the world.) Anyhow, the two of us had such trust in each other that we were unwilling to let a third person interfere.
When we began to stay together, we gave that act of living together the name of marriage. Yes, after all what else is marriage? It is true that we did not go to a pandit. Nor did we opt for a court marriage. I said to myself: Marriage is the union of two hearts, and we trust each other implicitly. What else can we possibly need?
During this time, Kamini neither said or did anything to give me an indication that she wanted to legalise our union. It’s possible that she may have wanted this in her heart, but she never said anything to me, nor did she ever complain about our state of affairs.
llustration © Sharath Ravishankar for Firstpost
I am extremely happy with my wife, though from a legal standpoint she is not my wife. She is my beloved; you could call her my lover. In fact, the one reason that I adore her is that every morning, she makes a cup of hot tea for me. When I am struggling to open my eyes in the morning and slowly drinking that tea while lying down or occasionally sitting propped up in bed, I forget all the other good things in life. Only the taste of tea rests on my tongue.
Almost every morning for the past 12 years Kamini has given me tea she has made with her own hands.
Every morning — regardless of whether the sky is blue or covered with grey clouds, whether it is raining or waiting for a storm — she gets up, lights the stove, places a cup of tea in my hands and goes back to sleep.
Many revolutions have taken place in the past 12 years. India was partitioned. Three children were born to us — three very beautiful and adorable children, of whom I am extremely proud. I don’t know if my children are proud of me or what you might say if you were to see them. Kamini is not very well educated, but she will be able to understand what you might say. It’s another matter that she may not respond to what you say.
Our everyday life went on smoothly. After all, what does an ordinary person seek? A good wife, three children, a three-room apartment, a husband who earns, to be able to watch a movie every month, the husband and wife living a happy and healthy life – what else is needed in life, if not all of these?
We never fought with each other. But after the first few years, whenever my mother visited us, there would be some unpleasantness. My mother is a bit old-fashioned. As a mark of protest, she did not come to my house for the first two years. Then she decided to swallow her anger. A mother’s love overcame anger over the son’s wilfulness, and she eventually came over to see her daughter-in-law, though she never regarded Kamini as a ‘real’ daughter-in-law – a subject that she raised often.
Finally, one day she said to me, ‘Son, there’s still time. Marry her.’
‘Ma, you say the strangest of things. We have been living together for 12 years now. We have three children whom you meet all the time... and yet you ask us to get married...’
‘This is hardly a marriage. There was no wedding procession, nor was a pandit called, there were no wedding drums, nor did you walk around the sacred fire; in fact, nothing happened. How can you call this a marriage? There’s still time; get married. You are the father of three children.’
I would look at Kamini and she would look at me and smile. The burden on my heart would lift somewhat. How understanding she was and how much she trusted me! Sometimes my mother would speak for Kamini's future and say: ‘Where will Kamini go if you decide to leave her? Who will support her? She can’t go to a court and seek relief. What proof does she have that you have actually married her?’
‘Ma, we live in the same house. We have spent the last 12 years under the same roof. With the grace of God we have three children. What other proof do we need?’
‘Children can be born to a concubine,’ she retorted in annoyance.
‘What are you saying? Am I that sort of man? Do you think I will fall so low that I will leave Kamini?’
‘You are not low, but you can fall,’ she would reply, to take her argument further.
On such occasions, Kamini would step in to stop her. ‘Ma ji! I have full faith in him.’
‘You should never have so much trust in a man... The two of you should get married. Wait and see how much you will enjoy life.’ She would look at Kamini and try to beguile her, even at this stage of her life.
And so, small storms were brewed and there would be some unpleasantness for a few days, but then Amma would go back to her own home and we would forget all about it. Actually, only a handful of relatives knew about this and very few people had praised my wilfulness. I had torn to shreds all the rituals and customs associated with marriage. I had given greater stress to the goodness of human beings. Had my wife not been so sensible, a full-fledged war would have broken out between us. However, as ill luck would have it, a cousin of mine had recently been transferred here. Unfortunately, he was a lawyer by profession. But when his legal practice did not pick up in the city, he decided to fight my wife’s case. My cousin and I had gone to the same school, same college and even stayed in the same hostel. What could I say to him? And even if I had said anything, would he have listened to me?
One day, he said to Kamini: ‘If your husband were to suddenly depart from this world, you can never be the legal owner of his property. Nor can your children have any legal rights over their father’s property.’
I overheard this and instantly intervened, ‘There will be an heir only if there’s something to inherit!’
‘All right, even if there’s no property, what about the furniture and other things kept inside this three-room apartment? Who will inherit all this?’
‘She is not your wife.’
‘Whose wife is she then?’ Cut to the chase, I asked.
‘I am speaking purely from a legal point of view, my dear.’
‘Your legalities mean nothing to me. Is your practice not working? Why must you go about talking legalese around us?’ I asked angrily.
‘You can ask any other lawyer if you don’t believe me.’
‘I shall will it to them before I die.’
‘And if you were to have a sudden heart failure? It has become quite common nowadays.’
‘So what? All this is theirs,’ I said to reassure Kamini.
‘And what about your office fund?’ He raised yet another question.
‘My wife will get it.’
‘My office people don’t know that I have not married Kamini legally.’
‘But what if they were to find out?’ He stretched the ‘what-if’ in the same manner as a winning player tossing his trump card on the table.
‘What if I were to go to them and inform them? Or your brother?’
‘I don’t expect this from you... And my brother is not so petty either.’
‘What can you do if he were to go? Do you wish to ruin your children’s future?’
‘My children have no future prospects at present. In any case, I do believe that every child has his or her own future.’
‘Don’t preach communism. Try to understand what I am saying with a calm mind. Think about it...’
This gentleman would pick a quarrel with me and go away, but he would leave a toxic environment behind, whose effects would be felt far and near. My wife told her friend Kamla all about this. She was horrified. She used to respect me a great deal up until now. As soon as she heard this, she changed colours. She began to view me as a thief and a rascal.
One day she said to my wife: ‘Dear God, you two have still not got married? You have been living together for years. And then you two have produced children as well. These children... they are ... illegitimate children.’ The abusive word that had entered her heart finally came to her lips.
Kamini was enraged when she heard this. She scolded her friend: ‘Watch out! If you say such a thing ever again I will pull your tongue out!’
‘You can pull my tongue out, but I am not scared of saying what is true.’ And with these words she went back to her room.
The news spread like wildfire in our neighbourhood. People turned their gaze away from us. I began to feel as though Ram and Sita had returned to Ayodhya after 12 years, and the city’s washermen had lost all trust in Sita; as though the shadows of Ravan were getting darker; as though Kamini and I had committed the gravest sin. Because our own hearts were untainted, we paid no heed to the whispering around us. Unfortunately, my parents came to visit us at that time. Such a conference was held by the washermen of our neighbourhood that I was left speechless. All of them said such terrifying things about the future of our children that I had to pretend to agree. Kamini, in fact, made no attempt to agree with them. I knew Kamini had complete faith in me.
llustration © Sharath Ravishankar for Firstpost
By now things had reached a fearsome limit. My parents pressured me till I agreed to have a legal marriage. That is, a marriage presided over by a pandit.
It seemed strange that I was getting married to my wife — after 12 years of living together, during which we had become parents of three children!
My mother said, ‘I will call for a band and distribute sweets. I will invite all the women of the neighbourhood and ask them to sing wedding songs.’
‘I will not tolerate this nonsense, Ma.'
‘And your nonsense will continue? Forget the rules of your house. What will you lose? You will leave this poor woman when you feel like it. I will not let that happen.’
With great difficulty I agreed to get married. I will get married, but there will be no band nor will any sweets be distributed. Only five or six relatives will be called. A pandit will come. My mother will dress my wife like a bride and bring her home. And then I will ‘see’ my bride’s face.
Kamini did not say anything when the quarrels went on. The day of the wedding dawned. A mandap was erected in a banquet hall. Dressed like a bride, Kamini arrived in front of the seven or eight wedding guests. To me, Kamini looked very pretty that day. She was dressed in a red sari and on her arms, she was wearing the red bangles my mother had bought for her. Her eyes brimmed with modesty; she seemed bashful and shy with her head covered and her body hidden. A vermillion mark on her forehead and her body laden with new jewellery, she came and sat down beside me. I felt the urge to laugh out loud, but I stayed quiet. Her face was gleaming. Her cheeks were aglow with shyness. She had never appeared so young and innocent to me. She looked like she was still a virgin and that I would have to produce three more children.
We were duly married. My mother turned my wife into her daughter-in-law in front of a pandit, and brought her home. The women from the neighbourhood also came. In fact, there was quite a spectacle. My parents left us the day after the wedding.
It was the morning of the third day after the wedding. I had not woken up entirely. I was partly awake as I lay waiting for my cup of tea. I rubbed my eyes as I looked towards my bride. She was lying fast asleep. I turned to look towards the kitchen. The stove had not been lit yet. I got up from my bed. It seemed as though she has sleeping soundly for the first time in 12 years. To test my rights as a husband, I pulled the sheet off my newly-wedded wife and said, ‘Get me my tea. What is this? Why are you still sleeping?’
Kamini pulled the sheet back over her body and said, ‘I have been making tea for you for the past 12 years. For 12 years I have been your beloved; now I am your wife. Make tea for me now.’
She wrapped the sheet firmly around her body, turned over and went back to sleep. I was left staring at the white sheet.
Dr Rakhshanda Jalil is a writer, critic and literary historian. Her recent works include: Liking Progress, Loving Change: A Literary History of the Progressive Writers Movement in Urdu (OUP, 2014); a biography of Urdu feminist writer Dr Rashid Jahan, A Rebel and her Cause (Women Unlimited, 2014); a translation of The Sea Lies Ahead, Intizar Husain's seminal novel on Karachi (Harper Collins, 2015) and Krishan Chandar's partition novel Ghaddar (Westland, 2017); an edited volume of critical writings on Ismat called An Uncivil Woman (Oxford University Press, 2017); and in the past year a literary biography of the Urdu poet Shahryar for Harper Collins; The Great War: Indian Writings on the First World War (Bloomsbury); Preeto & Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu (Niyogi), and most recently, Kaifiyat, a translation of Kaifi Azmi’s poems for Penguin Random House. She runs an organisation called Hindustani Awaaz, devoted to the popularisation of Hindi-Urdu literature and culture.