The Inside City

By Anita Mir

A boy discovers not a secret garden, but a secret city as India hurtles towards Partition.

Awais has just helped his niece, Manu, Maryam’s daughter, solve a crucial puzzle. Manu’s husband is about to arrive at Awais’ house, in search of her

The phone hadn’t stopped ringing. It rang while she was here but since she left it hadn’t stopped. He has a heavy hand, I’ll say that for him, Awais said.

He reckons, maybe, that someone will break and pick it up but there’s no-one here, save me, thought Awais. I could pull out the wire but I like the idea of him knowing it’s ringing and wondering why no-one’s picking it up. Tricks like that can ruin the best of minds. And his is far from good.

They’d left after wishing him happy birthday and handing him the presents he didn’t want. There they lay on the table, still wrapped.

‘Ring, you bastard. Till your finger drops off.’

Forty-five. Such a definite age.

Stuck? Is he stuck? I could rip that thread on which he hangs or blow him down, so small he is. Why do spiders make me think of caves and caves of revelation? What did I tell her? Where did I begin? With Maryam’s birth? With mine? I guess it doesn’t matter now.

It stopped. That meant he was on his way. Fifteen minutes. Maybe less. What will I say? Whatever it is, I won’t face him as if I’m holed up in this room too frightened to leave. I’m here to watch the spider.

He reached up to open the door slightly and the pain in his arm seared through. It was electric. His knees caved in. How can I keep on forgetting how much it hurts? And then he heard it; feint at first, then louder. He had to get to the window. He couldn’t move. Each time it took longer. And then, then, the pain crumbled. Slowly, it disappeared.

He was there now. This time, with his left, he unlatched the bolt. He sucked in the cold winter breeze; there must be snow in the mountains, he thought. He knew what the sound was before he looked. Dressed all in white the dhol player played a steady beat; yellow tassels hung from his dhol.

When the dhol beats fast, it signals ecstasy. Or madness. A dhol’s a herald. But this one - of what?

The last of the rains had fallen over a month ago. And though the wind had rustled since, with the whispered premonition of change, the sky had remained dry – till early morning today. And now the air was fresher than it was before. He saw people trying to pocket in the aura it held, as if to keep it for a dry season. The streets had broken up under the load of this one day of rain and he knew he’d hear people lament, as they always did, that though they had God, the West had efficient drainage. All around he looked and the mud seeped everywhere. And children emerged from their homes, brought first by the smell of the rain and the desire to touch it as you touch skin that’s smooth and yours to hold. As the dhol beat, more and more children rushed from their homes and stood dispersed, like people waiting to be herded into nationhood.

And then the first mud ball flew. And everyone took a side. There were no screams though, because that, the children knew, would bring the descent of their mothers and their wrath and an end to this, the shortest best of days.

The dhol player continued to play. Awais was enrapt. It wasn’t music. It belonged to the point where sublimity melted, having rid itself of the weight of perfected beauty. It was just sound. He said the words out loud so that they too could live a brief moment. Just sound. But the sound was a memory, not a memory that belonged to him but of something that was passed on to him for safe-keeping.

The dhol player turned a corner and disappeared.

He left the window open; not too far. His shoulder and arm might stiffen in the cold.

He’d gone. The spider had gone. He’d watched for an hour and nothing. He’d turned away for ten minutes and there it was: his web. One tribe, one web? Like birds or… It looked like all the others he’d seen. But maybe there was ingenuity in what the spider had made and he couldn’t tell.

Awais heard a car swerve onto their road. He had to get back to his chair before... Azeem raced into the house shouting, ‘Mamun, Mamun.’ He had the audacity to call him ‘uncle’ still. Awais inched back, his arm blazing. He heard Azeem stride up the stairs then stop. He’d never been upto this part of the house before so didn’t know where to go. Awais pulled himself forward. The chair was just a few steps away now. He smiled, then his wounded arm hit the chair’s side. Arrows of pain seared across his face. The door pushed open an inch. He heard Azeem hesitate.

Awais had learnt to hear the different forms silence could take and on a scale of one to a hundred he was ninety percent certain what this meant. Azeem’s silence meant he was unsure and was measuring the options he could take. Finally, he knocked on the door and when Awais didn’t answer he called again, ‘Mamun?’ He stepped inside.

Awais was back in his chair. He held his body straight. The pain began to loosen its hold. Though this had been one of the hardest days of his life he was now glad Noor had forced him to dress in his birthday clothes: the trousers and shirt cracked with newness. He still couldn’t get used to the shine of this material, though. In what should be uninterrupted black, there were milky ways.

The pictures flew before him. He saw what Manu had told him. And what she’d left unsaid. He thought it had died – this facility to hate; that he’d cut it out from the spleen – like a disease that had spread, been caught and discarded. I’ll breathe slowly, he said, like I was taught, once, long ago.

Why didn’t she…? He’d taught her resilience…or maybe… She should have…Still. She’d said it now. It was done.

Awais hadn’t spoken and he hadn’t stood up. He watched Azeem blink rapidly; even he’d understand that something was wrong. What he couldn’t know was what and why.

‘Mamun,’ he said.

Awais looked up then. Azeem was neither tall nor short. He had thick-set shoulders and a belly he tried to keep in shape by great short waves of abstinence. Awais had seen his naked ankles once, or was it twice? His legs were thin and bare, with a burn mark on the left. Did it rise up or fall low? Perched ontop of his square shoulders, with hardly a neck in view, was his small small head. He had large round childlike eyes, as if he were constantly surprised. It was not the surprise of curiosity, though. The world had no wonder for him. This, Awais had always known, even if he’d held the thought in check. Azeem’s eyes looked cloudy behind the glasses he wore.

He looked at Awais helplessly. Even with one good arm, thought Awais, I could wring his neck. One click and… I could kill him and feel nothing.

‘Manu,’Azeem began, licking his lips as if they were lined with sugar which would guide him home, ‘She didn’t say anything?’

‘About?’ asked Awais.

A bird fluttered against the window shutter as if it wanted to crash through and know what inside living was like. Azeem shivered, startled, then stiffened. He looked at Awais as if to ascertain whether his moment of weakness had been spotted or not. His eyes dropped. Despite the pain in his arm which had again flared up, despite it all, Awais smiled.

‘About going somewhere,’ Azeem asked.

‘No,’ said Awais, ‘at least, I don’t think…’ And before Awais could finish, Azeem jumped in.

‘Did she stay a while?’ he asked.

‘Same as always.’

Azeem took this in, then said, ‘But she comes to see you on Saturdays. And today’s Wednesday.’

Awais hadn’t thought of this. His eyelids felt heavy and tired. Then he heard the sound of quiet laughter, like that of a child trying to be good. He turned to look. The red tissue paper in which one of his presents was wrapped was crackling.

‘Today’s my birthday,’ Awais said and turned his head to point to the table of presents. He should close the window he thought; it was getting cold.

‘Oh,’ said Azeem, ‘Happy birthday.’ He stared at the presents as if they offered another puzzle he couldn’t fix. Awais saw a question shade his face. And from somewhere deep inside, came Awais’s old man’s voice; his new find, which had already saved him from so much strife.

‘Why so many questions, Azeem?’

Again, Awais saw Azeem’s politician’s mind was weighing things. Awais had never thought him clever but now, as if hit by a shaft, he saw in what Azeem’s cleverness lay. That’s it! My God, that’s it! He doesn’t weigh ideas or words. He weighs people.

Awais saw Azeem hesitate. He’s wondering, thought Awais, whether he should speak or wait. Awais would have advocated waiting but then that was something that was in his line. Azeem had no-one to ask. And so, for once, perhaps, the first time in his adult life, he had to decide for himself. Looking tired he said, ‘She’s gone.’

But Awais was not tired. And he’d had time to think. He said, ‘Who?’

‘Manu,’ said Azeem. ‘She’s left.’ His fingers reached under the hem of his coat and rubbed the inside. A lucky stone or some words of God? He was still standing. Awais hadn’t asked him to sit.

‘What do you mean “gone”?’ Awais asked. His body sank.

‘Our son…?’

‘Yes,’ Awais said, ‘she had Nasir with her.’ He lowered his head so Azeem couldn’t see his eyes. ‘She’s alright?’ he asked.

‘Yes, yes, she’s fine. At least….She hasn’t come back yet.’

Azeem looked at an empty chair and then at Awais’s feet. Awais was wearing shoes, not slippers. Azeem asked, surprised, ‘You were going out?’

‘No,’ said Awais. He hadn’t wanted to meet Azeem half-dressed. I can smell my lies, he thought. Can he?

‘Manu,’Azeem said, ‘she…

/‘But she left here,’ Awais began and saw the widening of Azeem’s eyes. Information was gold. ‘She left a long time ago,’ he finished.

‘How long ago, Mamun? Do you remember?’

Awais saw Azeem watching him. He released his shoulders, brushed back his hair and lowered his hand.

‘How long? An hour. Maybe two. I fell asleep.’

Azeem nodded his understanding.

‘But, she said,’ Awais said.

‘Yes?’ said Azeem.

‘No. Nothing.’

‘Mamun, please, think.’

Although Azeem’s was not a face he knew well, it was one that was easy to read. It was just beginning to dawn on Azeem what Manu’s leaving might mean. He saw what so few men are given to see, thought Awais: the consequences of their actions. And in that minute, that one brief minute when he was touched by humanity’s sword, Awais pitied him. And then he remembered. Would it be too much? he wondered. Would he know? Perhaps.

‘Did she say where she was going?’ Azeem asked. ‘To a friend’s?’

‘No,’ Awais said. ‘No. Po…’

Azeem pounced on the word. ‘Poona!’ he said ‘She’s gone to Poona? To her aunts?’

‘No,’ Awais said quickly, ‘She didn’t say.’

And suddenly Azeem’s face was drawn. And Awais could see nothing in it. Had the revelation, then, been part of his art, a way to lure him in? He looked again but again, drew blank. He was playing with me, Awais thought. Some game - but what?

‘I have to go,’ Azeem said.

‘You’re sure?’ Awais said - the words of courtesy rubbing a hole.

‘Yes,’ Azeem said. He came forward, smelling of the strong perfume he wore. It had a woman’s dead flower smell. He bent his head. Awais raised his hand. It hovered above Azeem’s small head, like an iron sheet drawn to cover everything, even light. His palm touched Azeem’s hair, wispy thin, like the hair that shields a corn of cob. Azeem straightened and smiled. Awais had always hated Azeem’s smile; it shambled, like an old man trying to get into a suit. Azeem reached the door.

‘Leave it open,’ Awais said. ‘I like the breeze.’ Azeem turned around sharply. What did he hear in my voice? thought Awais.

‘She’s safe, you think?’ Azeem asked.

‘Ye…’ Awais replied. He couldn’t look at him now. He leaned back and Azeem closed the door. Bastard. ‘I’ll have to get up now,’ Awais grumbled.

Can that ass feel nothing? No desire for truth? No desire to hide his face?

He’s gone now. I’ve done it, he thought. It’s as if I’ve taken a hammer to his head and split it open. And everywhere there’s blood. It’s thin but it runs, how it runs. If he starts out for Poona, he’ll... And if he doesn’t find her now, he’ll never find her.

Where did I learn that? It felt so easy but…Oh God. My arm. When will it stop? Slowly, he eased his head and shoulders back. His head fell to the left. He knew this because when he awoke it was that side that hurt. She was in a box. He could hear her scream. Azeem held the key and was smiling that smile again.

He knew he wouldn’t sleep anymore that night.

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