Noorabad News. Part 2

Chapter 3.

On a quiet Monday morning, in the middle of January, an old man with coloured patches stitched in his loose clothes and unkempt long white hair disembarked from a train in the town of Noorabad. He had a ruddy complexion and his gait was sturdy. He didn’t look austere or ailing but he didn’t look well rested and fed either. He had the look of a faqir but his eyes were as sharp as cut glass. He had a satchel around his shoulders. He walked out of the station and came to the bus stand, looking around him as if searching for something. He finally spotted the sacred fig tree in a corner with outstretched branches like beckoning arms and he walked towards it. He placed his satchel down on the cool mud and lay down flat on his back, his hand shading his eyes and went to sleep.

‘Our town must be famous for its generosity. Beggars are travelling a long way to seek it,’ Majid Ali remarked observing the beggar from his place next to a wheeled newspaper stand that served brewed tea and snacks. He was holding a national newspaper in his left hand and a cup of steaming tea in his right hand. A wooden board on the top of the shop read ‘Karim News’ in bright red paint. It was the only shop on the single platform of the railway station for  refreshments, groceries and utilities, at the corner of Azadbaksh road leading to the centre of the town of Noorabad. It was a small settlement, that boasted of a white marble mosque with lapis lazuli stone work and Quranic inscriptions painted in gold caligraphy, a primary and secondary school, a college, a hospital, a library, small clinics and a variety of eateries and shops.

In the small lanes of its old inner city, lines of kaarigars specializing in handmade gold work zardozi and precious gemstone and beadwork sat in small shuttered shops in a rows across each other, working diligently for some assignment big city designers threw their way. They never saw the finished product which was put together in a workshop in Lahore or Islamabad but the meagre income thrown their way was enough for their simple survival. A few lanes down from the gold work kaarigars, there was another lane where tie and die workers rinsed yards of cloths in contrasting colours of ink blue and white, magenta and rust, parrot green and brick to their exact order specification. Another lane housed the wood work kaarigars and their dusty workshops. It was the noisiest lane. They sat carving motifs on small gift boxes, doors and tables for private and retail clients. The town had a sparse population of only a few thousand residents and most families knew each other well.

‘This poor beggar must have been misled. He should turn around and go back where he came from.’ Karim, the owner of the stand answered swatting flies from the pakoras he had fried ten minutes ago.

Majid grunted in agreement and then turned his attention to the newspaper in his hand. ‘It’s the same every day, isn’t it? No sign of any positive news. It’s all about killings, looting and corruption, it’s a bloody mess!’

‘We complain about the mess Majid bhai, but no one cleans the mess. The reporters will report what sells their papers and the public buys the papers to add spice to their dull lives and to feel they are better off than the unfortunate people who make these headlines.’ Karim remarked dryly.

Majid shrugged at this answer and resumed his reading. Karim liked to keep his freshly fried fare covered most of the time, but the aroma of an open tray of fried samosas helped in luring customers to his shop. He timed the cooking of his hot snacks well. He knew the timings of the buses that came to the bus stop and most of the time the drivers called him themselves to inform him if there were any delays. This way the drivers were guaranteed freshly brewed tea and snacks after a long drive.

Karim knew his business well and made a decent amount of money by selling tea, snacks and the latest newspapers and magazines. His samosas were crisp and fresh, but the tamarind chutney as an accompaniment for them was famous. It was a chutney he had perfected through trial and error, over many years, adding the right blend of spices and ripe tamarinds. It was meant to enhance the flavour of the samosas when dipped in generously. Some brave customers licked the chutney afterwards with their bare fingers not minding it’s sharp and spicy tanginess. Karim read two popular daily newspapers at the crack of dawn after his fajar prayers so he could converse in an informed manner on current affairs with customers who happened to stop by his stall.

Majid Abidi liked spending time with Karim, even though he was an eunuch, he never acknowledged him as a friend but he made it a point to come to his stand once every few days to get the daily newspaper and have tea. He also liked hanging out around the bus stand. It was his dream to leave the small town one day. Majid worked in the local hospital as a pharmacist. He had obtained a basic pharmacy qualification from the city which helped him secure his job from the money he had saved, and since he assisted the doctors and nurses on a daily basis when there was shortage of staff he had learnt much more than prescription of medicines. From administering injections to assisting in surgeries, Majid had made good progress. If his father hadn’t deserted his mother to live with his second wife in Lahore and spent most of his savings and pension on her, he would have had a chance to become a doctor.

The familiar sound of the colourful coach revving into the bus stand outside the railway station, raising a cloud of dust in its wake, disturbed the latent quiet that prevailed over the small town bus depot. The few pigeons that were trying to ravage the seeds strewn by Karim earlier flapped their wings with all their might to make a hasty getaway. Karim knew what it was like to be hungry and it was part of his morning routine to scatter bird feed across the grounds of the depot. The bus wheezed to a halt, the old engines protesting at the reckless and jerky parking. Passengers began to climb down the steps of the bus and noise like a firecracker exploded in the depot. ‘Hand me the red bag! No, the one to the right!’ A passenger shouted instructions to the driver’s assistant who had climbed up the roof of the bus where all the bags were stored for the journey. The assistant threw more bags down the roof of the bus.

Most passengers, including the driver, made their way to Karim’s refreshment stand. Karim sprung into the role of animated salesman. He had made it his job to know the regulars well enough to welcome them back home with specific queries, ‘Salam Rahim Sahab, what did the doctor say about your heart, everything well, inshallah?’ and accosted the new customers with cheerful greetings ‘Sir, would you like a warm cup of tea and some pakoras to take away the fatigue of your journey, I’ve made everything fresh this morning. Are you visiting someone in our town?’ Karim did not speak like a typical eunuch as he was the only one of his kind in the town. He hadn’t picked up the habits of other eunuchs who danced and begged for a living. Since the regulars knew Karim and grudgingly respected the way he had struggled to make an honest living for himself, only a few of them mocked him as was the custom with eunuchs. The newcomers, surprised at the respect with which the locals treated him, followed suit cautiously.

As Karim was now occupied with the business of his stall and having read his paper, Majid looked up curiously at the passengers making their way from the bus. Among the passengers to alight from the bus, a young man wearing a checked dark blue shirt and jeans stepped down holding a duffel bag. The young man made his way, like the rest of his fellow passengers, towards Karim’s stall. Midway, he noticed Majid standing near Karim’s stall. Their eyes met for a moment and then Majid looked away quickly. The young man stopped mid stride and then turned sideways to head off into the town rather than take the diverted route through the stall.

Soon Karim had tended to all his customers and most of them had some form of snack or tea in their hands. The passengers were engaging in conversations with each other. Karim, like always, had not missed the one customer who had not made his way to his stall and he knew the reason why. He came out of his stall to stand aside with and addressed Majid over the din of conversation.

‘Majid bhai, I think you scared away one of my regular customers.’

‘What do you mean?’ Majid asked frowning.

‘Junaid,’ Karim said jerking his head towards Junaid’s receding back.

‘He didn’t stop at my stall because you were here. Why do you avoid each other now? Weren’t you friends in school?

Majid smiled at Karim, ‘We were, until he learned the concept of status. He might not have wanted to mix with my bad blood as his mother used to say.’

Karim laughed, ‘Is that a viable concept for forming and dissolving relationships, bad blood? Look at me, I don’t know who’s blood runs in my veins, it may be the noblest blood and look where I am.’

Majid shrugged, ‘It might just be an opinion of a former nauch girl’s son, but I think you have noble blood in your veins, Karim.’

Karim felt sorry for the beggar. He realised he must be hungry. He walked forward and left some food, and some rupees in an empty tin container for him. The Fakir didn’t seem to notice.

As evening drew in, Karim shuttered down his main shop at the railway station and locked his wheeled stand. He was about to leave for his house passing the bus stand when he glanced at the beggar now awake and still seated in the same position under the peepal tree. Karim was surprised at his serene expression and the untouched food and money. He hadn’t eaten anything all day. He walked back to his shop, got some pakoras and jalebi left over from the morning and a bottle of water. He walked to the Fakir and wordlessly placed the food wrapped in the daily newspaper near his feet. The Fakir glanced at the water and waved his hand, shunning it. Karim felt anger rise up inside him at the beggar’s slight. 

‘I give you food and you act this way? I’m not trash to be insulted like this, you are the beggar, not me!’

The Fakir looked at him in surprise, ‘Have I asked for anything? Who is the beggar then?’

‘I have seen many frauds like you. You take money by tricks and fraud, you are a waste of my time.’

‘Be humble, bache, keep your head bowed down always. This mud you stand on, it’s nothing to you. Isn’t it so? You ignore it, yet you exist by the grace of this very earth. You exist by the grace of this air around you. Of the trees and mountains, and all this has no value in terms of the coins you throw at me that you feel so proud of. Be humble, it is there now and it can suddenly disappear. And what will you do if it is suddenly taken away from you?’

Ashamed, Karim bowed his head down, ‘I am sorry I yelled at you, baba, I apologize humbly. I do not offer this as a charity but as a humble offering.’ He turned around to leave when he heard the Fakir muttering to himself.

‘So arrogant and yet so kind, such turmoil inside you. So many storms flare inside you, and you put up such a brave front. No one knows your pain do they? No one knows the pain you carry inside you. The tears you cry at night.’

Karim turned around and said, ‘What?’

The Fakir waved his hand again distractedly, ‘No matter no matter, it is nothing.’

Karim knelt down next to him in agitation, ‘No, no, tell me baba, how do you know how I feel inside? I haven’t spoken to anyone about it, yet you seem to see deep inside me!’

The Fakir nodded wisely, his forehead lining with centuries of worries, ‘For years and years all of your life, in pain and silence.’

Karim nodded his head miserably, ‘Yes baba. Yes.’ Tears started streaking down his cheeks and wept for a long time in front of the Fakir. His whole life swam through his bleary eyes.

Karim was found on the steps of the local mosque one night, no one knew who had left him there but there is only one logical explanation, shame and guilt at being parents of a child who is neither male nor female or both. He often wondered if his parents felt any emotion at all when deciding to abandon a child only a few days old.

The Islamic cleric of the local mosque, Qazi Haq, found him early in the morning when he opened the mosque for the early morning call for prayer, he took him to his house straight away as his good deed of the year and put him in his wife’s lap. ‘This is Allah’s test for us,’ he told his wife. ‘We have been entrusted with the responsibility of protecting this unfortunate child, giving him a new life, and our kindness will be rewarded in the hereafter even if we look after this child for a few years. I will name him Karim, so he can grow up and return the same generosity to someone else in need of it.’ He knew this conversation as it was narrated to him many times by the maulvi to impress how grateful he should be to him.

His wife had four small children of her own at the time and did not take kindly to this hassle of raising another baby whom she considered untouchable. She couldn’t go against her strict husband’s wishes and had no choice but to do the bare minimum in feeding, washing and clothing the new born in morsels and rags from her own children’s leftovers. She ignored his crying most of the time until he was big enough to walk and eat himself. Once he was older, any attempt at his part to ingratiate himself with her would irritate her, when she couldn’t ignore him she would beat him with the stick she used to stoke her kitchen fire.

He became terrified of her beatings. He started spending more time in the mosque, near his benefactor Qazi Haq, than at the house and one day he asked the maulvi’s permission if he could sleep in the mosque instead. Qazi was saddened by this request as he knew what had prompted it but he agreed. He was aware of his wife’s attitude and how it was getting worse towards him with his growing age. He obtained religious education from the maulvi when he could and cleaned the mosque in his spare time.

Karim paused in his thoughts, his tears drying on his face by the wind, to see a stray plastic bag develop wings from a passing breeze and sway gracefully around the depot, it’s flimsy form inflated with air. It was pitiful to watch because Karim knew the plastic bag would eventually fall but he felt like cheering for it anyway. It was having it’s moment, it’s taste of ecstatic freedom, until it would be snatched up and thrown in the rubbish again. Karim wondered when he would have that fleeting moment, or would he ever have it?

He had received basic religious education from the mosque for free and afterwards tutors in the local primary school let him sit at the back of the class rooms on the floor in exchange for cleaning services around the school premises. Having thus taught himself some basic education, he started earning a living from a very young age. No one looked out for him and he was mostly ignored as an outcast but he knew everyone well. He made sure to observe them to learn whom to avoid.

Through odd jobs around the town over the years he saved enough money to invest in his shop which provided him a livelihood. He also managed to build himself a small hut out of wood and discarded corroborated iron sheets in a clearing in the forest. The area wasn’t too deep in the forest and a mile’s walk brought you to the graveyard and a few kilometres climb takes you to the stream that flows down from the waterfall. Local government officials threatened to tear the hut down many times as he had no legal right to the land it stood on but a little bribe always diverted their attention to another pressing matter.

The Fakir squinted his eyes, peering at him, as if he was partly blind and then nodded thoughtfully.

‘Yes,’ the Fakir said finally in a gravelly voice. ‘I expected you to be the one.’

‘The one?’ Karim asked curiously, rousing from his deep thoughts.

‘My companion,’ he told him as if it was an obvious fact.

‘Baba, I request you to go back to where you came from. This is no place for someone like you.’

He removed his woollen shawl and placed it near the Fakir’s feet. ‘Please take this, it’ll get cold at night.’ He longed to get to the seclusion of his woodland hut. It was getting dark. He stood up but remained glued to the spot waiting, sensing the Fakir had more to say.

‘Who can carry so much pain? Who can carry so much weight? Even the strongest tree needs to bend or it will break in half….find the way…find the right way to the truth…so what if he doesn’t recognise you as his own, so what if he doesn’t put his hand on your head and acknowledge you as belonging to him? There are other things that are far more important in life. There are other places that call to you that are far more necessary for you to travel to, there are other people you belong with and who will welcome you with open arms and you only have to go on a journey to seek them.’

Karim stood very still, in a state of uncertainty and suspense. He waited for the Fakir to say something else but the Fakir lay back down as if exhausted and closed his eyes. He waited for a few moments and then draped the shawl over the Fakir’s reclining body and walked away from him.

……………………..

Aisha had finished sweeping the floors and cleaning all the dishes in the kitchen. She had finally come to lay down on her bed. Her bones ached with the back breaking work she had to do all day long. Her mother in law was a tough taskmaster. She made sure Aisha never got a moment’s rest. If she was done with her chores for a gap of half an hour, she would be called to press her legs or massage oil in her hair. Aisha stared up at the ceiling. It was past midnight. She heard the door barge open and her husband approach noisily. She shut her eyes tight, trying to delay the impending horror.

She felt a rough nudge on her arm, ‘Get me dinner, woman.’ He growled.

She got up immediately without saying a word. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back.

‘Since you don’t use your tongue should I pull it out? Say yes, when I order you.’

‘Yes,’ she replied meekly.

He grinned letting her go. She scurried out, relaxing at escaping violence tonight. She quickly heated his dinner and made fresh flat bread for him. She rushed back to his room, hoping he would have gone to sleep but he was awake. Her heart sank. With her head bent down, she placed the tray in front of him on the table. He took a bite of his food and spat it out. His face turned red with anger.

‘Are you trying to poison me, whore?’ he yelled at her. ‘Why did you put so much chillies?’

Aisha knew this was just an excuse. It was chillies one day, salt the next and the flat bread wasn’t round enough the third. He approached her dangerously and she stepped back from him, stumbling and trying to steady herself. Her eyes darted, trying to find non-existent places to hide and escape from him. He pulled her hair first.

‘No matter how hard I try, you never learn, do you?’ he whispered furiously. ‘Today, I’ll teach you for good, bitch.’

He pushed her down and she fell on the floor. He kicked her repeatedly on her side, back and stomach. Aisha was so used to his beatings that she only whimpered, she didn’t yell or scream. She knew the louder she screamed the more passionately he would beat her. Finally exhausted, he walked away to the same food and started calmly eating it as if nothing had happened. She pulled her bleeding body up slowly, crawling to the bed and trying to stand. She gave up and collapsed on the floor again. Tears flowing freely now. She was surprised they still came. Her tears should have dried by now. Suddenly, a vision of her uncle, her mother’s brother wiping her tears sprang to her mind. She was a little girl and she had hurt her leg. He had consoled her, wiping her tears and offered her an ice cream. She focused on that act of kindness to fight against the pain crushing her frail bruised body. A faint glimmer of hope penetrated her dark world.

Chapter 4.

Iftikhar Mian had just stepped out of the arched doorway leading to the courtyard, smoothing his starched white kurta with his wet hands. The four carat sapphire ring on the ring finger of his right hand caught the sun and glowed brightly, spraying light like marbled dust across the floor. He picked up a comb and a small mirror from the mahogany chest of drawers on his way. A carved rosewood armchair and table were placed strategically in the centre of the courtyard for maximum exposure to the temperamental February sun. Now comfortably seated in his armchair, he held his mirror up and began grooming his greying moustache, humming an old Ghazal. On the small wood table in front of him was his daily morning newspaper.

He smiled at the many fallen legumes of the tamarind tree that was planted in his front garden, beyond the courtyard. He took immense pride in maintaining it, although it didn’t require that much upkeep. It’s evergreen leaves and three hundred year life span gave him a sense of permanence. The tree was a lot older than his ancestral home and had seen many of his ancestors come and go. It would still be here long after he was gone. It’s fruit enjoyed by his grandchildren and then their children. He decided to tell his wife to prepare her delicious chutney and they could enjoy with samosas from Shebu’s stall. Fatima begum had more than once told him to get rid of it as it was taking up too much space in their garden but like most things she complained about, he ignored with a good humoured smile.

A black cat, the one of many things associated with Iftikhar Mian that irked Fatima begum no end, sidled up to him and lay curled at his feet. Iftikhar Mian bent down to stroke the smooth fur on her head and back and she purred. He didn’t know from whence it came and where it went, but she was a moody creature. Unreliable and independent, she came and went as she pleased. She didn’t depend on the Mian household for her meals but if milk was given to her she would graciously accept it, sipping it delicately, as if doing him a favour. Iftikhar Mian was incredibly fond of her, he would occasionally talk to her and had come to rely on her as a confidante over the years.

There was a loud knock on the door. He sighed irritably. It was the only time he could spend in peace, undisturbed by any member of his household. He looked forward to his morning newspaper, his cup of tea and no conversation or interaction of any kind.

Iftikhar Main dragged himself to the gate and opened it with a deep frown. A jovial face of the postman looked up at him as soon as he swung the smaller door open.

‘Salam Mian Saheb! How are you this morning? To be honest I feel so happy when I receive a post in your name only because I get a chance to come and have a little chat with you otherwise we hardly talk!’

‘Gulu Mian, the pleasure is mine, but nowadays people have stopped writing to each other like they used to. It’s a dying art form.’

‘You are absolutely right! Sometimes I feel I should write people some fake letters myself to stoke the fire of communication. It is bad for my line of work if no one writes to each other.’

‘I am sure your profession is quite safe. Now tell me, what have you got for me?’

‘Here, it is from Gujrat city. Your family lives there, if I am not mistaken?’

Iftikhar Mian frowned. He did not have any close family as such and not people who would write to him anyway. His parents had died in a car crash fifteen years ago and his only sister passed away two years ago after an asthma attack. He stared blankly at the letter Gulu was holding out for him in his hand and reluctantly extended his hand to accept it.

‘Well, nice catching up with you Mian Saheb. I have more letters to deliver now.’

‘Would you like to have a cup of tea before you go?’ he offered, hoping Gulu would refuse.

‘I am on duty but next time.’

With that, Gulu buckled his satchel, efficiently like a soldier strapping in his armour, sat on his bicycle and peddled away down the street raising a small cloud of dust behind him.

Iftikhar Mian jerked back to avoid the flying dirt and wiped his white kurta with his hands self-consciously. He had just taken a bath and changed into clean clothes.

Iftikhar Mian walked back briskly to his seat, sighing with relief that the interruption was over. He put on his reading glasses and ripped the envelope open. He turned the page around to see who had signed it and saw the name Aisha in neat hand writing. He smiled. It was his only niece, his late sister’s daughter. He remembered how he used to sit with an eight-year old Aisha and make her practice her handwriting on lined writing books he had bought for her. He turned the letter over and began reading, the smile still on his face.

‘Salam, my dear mamu,

I hope my mamijan, my cousins Saba and Junaid bhai are well.’

Fatima begum opened the small kitchen window overlooking the courtyard and frowned at her husband of twenty-two years. ‘Mian Saheb, you really are the limit! The sun is on top of our heads and you are still lazing around!’. He was about to frown when he caught the aroma of brewing cardamom tea from the kitchen stove and smiled instead. ‘Begum, chai first, then I’m all yours.’

Iftikhar Mian resumed reading the letter.

‘I wish I could write and tell you the same about myself but I am far from well. As you know, my mother got me married to my father’s friend two years ago and you attended my wedding. You prayed for my happy married life. I wish your prayers had come true. I soon discovered that my in-laws had lied about my husband’s education, he didn’t have a bachelor’s degree. He was uneducated. He never completed his metric and dropped out after the 8th standard. My father-in-law wasn’t my father’s friend, in fact, he was my father’s lender. He loaned him a big sum of money that he had lost in a business venture.  I was compensation for this lost money. After marriage, I was treated as nothing more than a maid in my new home. I was made to work like a dog from morning to night doing all the household chores even when I had high fever. I never complained as my mother had taught me to be patient and be regular in my prayers and Allah would make my life better. Things became worse instead of getting better. My husband who worked in Sahiwal got fired from his job in the factory and he arrived home frustrated and angry. I discovered he took opium regularly and he would beat me without any provocation from my end. I lost the baby in my womb after one such beating. My mother in law intervened after this and told my husband to stop beating me for some time. I recovered and for a while I thought things may have improved. My husband got a job in a ladies readymade clothes shop. He began earning well. I was expecting again. One day, he got into a fight with the owner of the shop as he discovered my husband had been stealing money from the till regularly in small sums. My husband came home drunk after this and when I questioned him what had happened, he kicked me and beat me up so badly that I landed up in hospital. I stayed there for two months as I had fractures on my ribs and arm. I am tired of being patient. I want to get out of this hell. My mother is no more and I don’t have anyone to turn to except you. I want to leave my in-laws house but I have nowhere to go. If it isn’t too much trouble I want to come and stay with you. I promise I will not stay for long. I will try and find some employment and move out as soon as I have collected enough money. 

Your unfortunate niece,

Aisha.’

Iftikhar Mian’s outrage escalated to anger as he neared the end of the letter. He made up his mind that he will not leave his niece a minute in that hell hole. He would book a bus ticket for tomorrow morning and bring his niece back with him. His wife needed to be convinced though. He was aware she had an orthodox view of the world and a woman’s place in it and he knew the discussion would take quite a while. He would postpone it for the afternoon. He folded the letter neatly, put it back in it’s envelope and waited for his wife’s arrival with the tea. He traced the carving in the arm of his chair with his fingertip.

Fatima Begum sighed after her first morning interaction with her husband. She knew it was useless arguing with him before he had had his first cup of morning tea. She strained the tea leaves through the glistening copper strainer from her dowry and poured the steaming tea into two china mugs. She placed the mugs on a steel tray and walked out towards her husband. Wordlessly, the tea was handed over and accepted. Iftikhar mian acknowledged her effort with a smile and enthusiastically blew into the cup to cool the hot liquid before taking his first sip. He took in a deep breath afterwards and declared. ‘Begum, no one makes better chai than you!’ 

Fatima Begum ignored him and called out to Sakina, the maid, who was washing the dishes in one corner of the open courtyard where a small brick enclosure and a tap made for a multi-functional washing area. A small jasmine plant near the washing area was in full bloom and Sakina would often take her time polishing the mix of steel and copper dishes just to enjoy the fragrance and remain seated.

‘Get me a chair, Sakina, and hurry up with those dishes. You have been at them the whole morning’. Sakina reluctantly got up from her station and hurried to do her bidding and Iftikhar Mian’s brow furrowed.

‘Did you have anything to discuss with me, begum?’

‘Why, Mian sahib? I cannot sit and have my tea with you?’

‘No, no,’ Mian Saheb said hurriedly, ‘I would love nothing better than your company. I am seldom graced with it is all I am saying. You are so very busy at this hour of the day!’

‘And you have all the time in the world at this precise hour of the day?’

Mian Sahab was befuddled. He thought it best not to respond and await whatever misery lay ahead of him.

Sakina had fetched the chair by now and Fatima begum lowered herself into it. She took the mug of tea from the tray and handed the empty tray to Sakina. ‘Keep this in the kitchen and check whether Saba is getting ready or she will be late for her college.’ She turned her attention to her husband who was now looking at her with as much apprehension as a school child waiting for the principal to give him a scolding.

‘Mian Sahab, I wanted to have a serious word with you about your daughter.’

‘Saba? What has she done?’ Mian Saheb was confused. His daughter had never given them any cause for concern or troubled them in her eighteen years of life. She was a ray of sunshine which brought a smile to Iftikhar Mian’s face whenever she came in his presence.

‘Saba is of marriageable age now and it is our duty to find a suitable groom for her.’ Fatima begum said irritably.

Mian Saheb let out a laugh, relieved it wasn’t anything serious or anything at all about him.

‘So you find this idea of doing something responsible for a change funny, do you?’

‘Begum,’ Mian Saheb began in a conciliatory tone. ‘She has not completed her studies yet, she needs to at least finish her bachelor’s degree and then we can think about her marriage. You know she is in her final year.’

‘I know, but good proposals are not hanging from your precious tree like tamarinds. We need to spread the word and start looking. It will take some time to find the right boy from a good family as well. Once we do, we can get a small ceremony done like an engagement and wait for her studies to finish. Do you agree?’

‘Yes, of course, you are absolutely right.’ Mian Saheb said squirming a little, wishing he was whisked away to another quite place where he was left in peace to enjoy his tea.

‘So, it is settled. Please let Qazi sahib know about our intentions, he must come into contact with a lot of religious boys from our neighbourhood. Meanwhile, I will approach my sister Kulsoom in the city so she can talk to those ladies who arrange marriages, they might know eligible single boys.’

‘That is great, Begum. You seem to have the plan all mapped out! I must get going now. I promised to meet Hakeem sahib today. I will mention it to him, maybe he knows someone.’

‘That Hakeem? That odd recluse who lives alone with the potions he makes himself? I think he is half crazed. He doesn’t know a worthy soul except you. If you are going out, please head to the masjid to talk to Qazi first.’

‘Yes, of course!’ Mian Saheb smiled. He had found an exit at last from the grilling.

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