Prologue to: A Lantern in the Wind
A Novel in Progress
by Ameena Gafoor
Abdul Kadir was awakened by a strangled scream. It was his own voice.
Zainab, a light sleeper, enquired, “Array, wat happin Baap? You drream ar wat?” but Kadir would only whisper, “Ya Allah, Ya Rabbil Aalamin”.
First cock was crowing.
Freeing himself from the bleached flour-bag coversheet that barely reached up to his neck, Kadir sat on the edge of the black metal-frame bed and wiped a lather of sweat from around his neck.
Thin-framed and nimble as ever, Zainab groped on the mahogany dressing table for the “speak-easy” oil lamp. Lifting its tiny scalloped-rimmed shade from the brass burner, she put a lit match to the cotton wick dangling in the kerosene-filled base. She replaced the clear-glass shade wordlessly. A small flame flickered and danced, creating grotesque shadows on the whitewashed walls.
Kadir, broad shouldered and all of six foot two inches, moved towards the eastern window of the bedroom. Pushing open its two crevice-filled, weather-beaten silverballi halves held together by a short rusting hook and corresponding eye, he stood there, the palms of his hands pressed upon the windowsill, pondering on his still vivid dream that refused to evanesce when sleep ended. The cool northeastern breeze rushed in to soothe his furrowed brow.
Not a single star could be detected in the pitch black of the eastern sky, no fireflies dancing under the calabash tree, only the haunting perfumes of jessamine and raat ki rani wafting in the breeze and the whining of a hungry mongrel somewhere in the night.
Stepping back from the window Kadir gasped at a ghastly image in the dressing table’s mirror staring back at him, two tiny sparks like incandescent coals glowing in a pale face.
A Jones pedal sewing machine with a small bench-seat where Zainab stitched boys’ and gents’ shirts, as well as a quaking-grass basket holding laundered clothes and bed linens, stood along one wall of the bedroom.
A Qur’an and tasbee rested beside the miniature lamp while an overhead shelf held two more Qur’ans, a Hadith, a Taleem Islam, two piles of Islamic instructional books in Urdu, a glass tumbler half full of uncooked rice in which stood three half-burnt sticks of agarbatti, a writing tablet of onion skin leaves, a fountain pen and a bottle of blue Quink ink. In addition to Urdu, Arabic, Hindi, Bhojpouri and the Creolese of the British Guianese Indian peasantry, the Mussafir was fluent in several tribal languages of North India including Pharsi which came to him naturally from his Afghan father. Elahi and his wife had crossed over into Nathan (North India) when Kadir was just four years old and his sister, Najiran, a little over six.
Tiptoeing out to the front gallery converted into a bedroom where his two sons, Haniff and Haleem lay sleeping on khattyas, Kadir satisfied himself of nothing unusual and returned to the open window. His mind ran to his two daughters, Khoreisin and Hafizan, both married and living in villages along the East Coast, and then to his eldest daughter, Salma. He pictured the day when he had clutched her small pink hand in his as they were herded off the ship and into the immigration depot, Zainab cradling their newborn infant son close to her breast. He had never mentioned how much he missed Salma since her marriage at thirteen years of age to Nuradeen, an immigrant tailor from Enmore, and more so, since the couple had returned to India with their two small daughters three years ago.
Basti is home for Salma, her birthplace, Kadir mused. But where did he belong? Afghanistan where he was born? The village of Maha Dawal in Uttar Pradesh where he grew up and where his brothers, Bri Mantullah and Al Haq, were born?. . . or B.G. where Zainab had given birth?. . . And where did Haniff belong, his navel string buried in the wide ocean?
Thoughts of Basti always brought on a gripe in his belly and a sour taste in his mouth. Rather pleased with himself at how he had deterred Haniff from going to India with his sister, Kadir indulged in his reflections: here, he owned property and back-dam beds– his very own— after only four years of leaving estate bondage, free from the clutches of zamindars, those self-serving middlemen of the rich, landowning taluqdars in Basti … here his sons would not have to cut canes and toil in the fields . . . It would be Salma’s birthday on Friday and he would remember to read a special Chapter of the Qur’an –the Ar-Rahman, as usual—to ask for Allah’s special blessings . . .
And now he was a lad again, about twelve years old; his mother had died in childbirth after delivering a healthy boy child, his hands already calloused from lifting and packing paddy bags onto the bullock carts with Bri Mantullah along the Basti public road. Their asthmatic father, bent over the old pedal machine, tackled the trickle of tailoring jobs with a quiet desperation . . . their damp slate-roofed abode lay along a strip of muddy dam, remnants of wooden planks formed a path to their door. Najiran, a widow at sixteen, mended and kept their clothes clean, shaped the dung of bullocks into cakes for fuel, milled their rice and cooked their favourite rice-flour pancakes, chapaties, lentil stew, aloo curry and ginger chutney.
A vivid picture of the day when Najiran’s husband fell off the bullock cart in the turning and was crushed under its heavy iron wheels came before him and with that he was jolted back to the present.
Kadir’s thoughts now raced to his back-dam beds: he would have to set out earlier than usual to see if they were flooded from last night’s thunderous rain and lightning, if the grassy track leading to the beds would now be transformed into a mile of small slushy lakes. He hoped his bateau had not broken the frayed rope from its mooring in front of the Arya Samaj temple and was now adrift in the mossy middle-walk trench. He must remember to buy a new length of rope from AB’s textile and haberdashery store on Saturday — payday and his off day from the back-dam — when he and Zainab would walk to the Success estate with the shirts she had stitched by the light of the “speak-easy” lamp and offer them for sale.
And suddenly the dream was floating graphically in his mind. He shivered as the images surfaced . . . his neighbours’ two sons, dressed in pink satin suits, with tall tadjah-like headdresses in elaborate gold and pink beads, sitting side by side under a tent decorated with mountains of red hibiscus, blue bougainvilleas and black oleander flowers, about to be married to two fat women whose painted faces are grotesque masks . . . a chanting pandit amid brass lotahs, smoking incense sticks and small fires. Through holes on the top of the tent huge dead rats are falling and on a ledge somewhere above are two hyenas gazing fiendishly and laughing hideously beside an over large red parrot with a horrendous beak squawking at the wedding guests . . . Kadir turns to look at his wife sitting next to him under the tent; her gums are all black with maggots wriggling in the spaces between her rotted teeth. All of a sudden, there is a rush and everyone pushes through the neighbour’s narrow gate . . . Kadir finds himself thrashing about in a rising river, separated from the rest of the party; he aims for the one rickety bridge in the distance, its railings barely visible above the surging water… After an exhausting struggle he is finally tossed upon the bridge and discovers to his horror his neighbours’ two sons lying in a bushy ravine beyond, crushed under what looks like a monstrous threshing machine, blood spurting from their bulging eyes and mangled nostrils, the hyenas poised atop the monster and laughing above the din of the roaring water. The two brothers are flailing and screaming through gaping spaces where their mouths should be and he, too, screams with all his might, calling “Jainaaab! Jainaaaaab! brrringam ROPE . . . ROPE”, but his voice has no sound, no one else is in this vast ocean, least of all Zainab, only the grinning hyenas with their bone-chilling laughter.
At four o’clock Kadir descended the short flight of stairs, plucked a twig of black sage for his toothbrush and proceeded to perform his morning ablutions in the outdoor bathroom of whitewashed board and rusting zinc roof. His unpainted cottage stood at the far end of Main Road, a stone’s throw from where silver arrowheads of cane tops wave in the fields and laden punts of canes float in the wide trench to the nearby estate for grinding.
He had acquired this cottage for a hundred dollars and two sovereigns that Zainab had knotted away for more years than she cared to remember. In the backyard were a pond for his ducks, a sea grape tree, a spreading Turpentine mango tree, a bearing avocado tree and a breadfruit tree. A large square rusty-red water tank that collected rain water for drinking and cooking rested on four greenheart blocks near the back steps. A massive tamarind tree overhung the trench in front of the cottage, the oleander and frangipani in perpetual bloom at the courida wattle fence.
Continued next week….
The full length of this Prologue appears in THE ARTS JOURNAL Volume 4 Numbers 1 & 2 (2008).
To contact the Editor of The Arts Forum Column, Ameena Gafoor: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or Telephone: 592 227 6825.