Leela’s Book › Extract

He had slept on the train to Bombay with the money and jewellery in his arms, as if it was a baby he was carrying. She slept beside him. They shared a bunk, Aisha on the inside, her face pressed against the wall, Humayun on the outside, shielding both her and the money from the world. He woke throughout the night: every time somebody passed by, each time the train came to a creaking stop at a country station. He clutched her tightly to him, and in the morning when they sat up to wash their faces and drink some tea, she was refreshed and happy. He smiled to see her like that. For his part, he felt anxieties alighting heavily on his shoulders – like vultures hopping down to tear at a piece of meat.

During the day, as the train moved slowly through the countryside, through a monotonous open country of scrub and electricity pylons and distant villages, with only the occasional tree or pump gurgling water in the corner of a field to relieve the monotony, she looked out and was transfixed by what she saw. ‘What is that?’ she would ask, pointing at a banana tree; or ‘Where are they going?’ as a family of small children made their way along a fence leading infinitely away into the middle of nowhere. ‘Why are we going to Bombay?’ she whispered to him at dusk. ‘Because that was the train which arrived,’ he explained, only now beginning to feel exhausted by this new inquisitive trait he was discovering in her. ‘It was our good luck.’ He had passed a terrible, uncomfortable night in Hazrat Nizamuddin station, sore from the blows the police had given him, cold from the sudden drop in temperature, sad about leaving his mother. He added, in a sarcastic voice, ‘Where would you rather go, to your village in Bihar?’ She shrank back a little, and said nothing more for several hours – until a woman in a green and pink polyester sari climbed aboard with a basket of water chestnuts. And then she asked, ‘Where does she get them from, Humayun?’ The landscape grew darker, and finally, at his side, to his relief, Aisha fell asleep.

The train reached Bombay very early the following morning. He had been expecting a huge crowd and a rush at the station; imagined himself holding on to Aisha as the millions of people of that city pushed against them. But the station was quiet, and they followed the old man in a white skull cap whom Humayun had deliberately sought out for guidance – he was elderly with a black bruise on his forehead and a dull silver and enamel ring on almost every finger – down the platform and up some steps, from where the old man pointed out across the station. ‘Take the C-train,’ he said. ‘Understand?’ And Humayun nodded; yes, the C-train. ‘Get off at the third stop,’ the old man went on, ‘Marine Lines. From there you walk east, past Vardhman Chowk, up Princess Street. The Jama Masjid is just there, next to Zaveri Bazaar.’ He gave precise instructions and Humayun listened and tried to memorise the names of the nearby streets and the market where the best mosque of Bombay stood.

The man shook his head at them as he left. ‘She is too young,’ he said, gesturing to Aisha, and repeating what he had said on the train. ‘There are many regulations in place nowadays.’ And Humayun nodded equivocally, recognising that this was a problem, but knowing full well that the bride was always sixteen or under, for everybody knew that this was the very best age to get a girl married; and, anyway, Muslim law worked regardless of Indian law. Some qazi would agree to marry them under Muslim law; and he clutched the bag of money and jewellery to his side, and tried to feel again the determination that had brought him this far from Delhi.

The C-train came, almost empty of passengers, and Humayun and Aisha stepped onto it tentatively and sat together. ‘The air smells of fish!’ she said, as they reached the second station. ‘It’s the sea,’ he said crossly, for he was concentrating on not getting down at the wrong stop. ‘The sea!’ she said; and, pointing through the bars of the window, asked, ‘Is that the sea, Humayun?’

‘Yes,’ he said, glancing out at the greyish mass of water, uncertain whether it was indeed the sea or a lake or a river.

At the third stop they followed the few other passengers out of the station, and down to the road by a narrow metal bridge. Princess Street was lined by tall yellow and white houses with ornate painted balconies. Aisha and Humayun walked up the road towards the mosque, which was somewhere in the distance. He was apprehensive; she, excited by the city. ‘Can we eat some fish for dinner, Humayun?’ she whispered, as a gust of air from the sea brought a tingling taste of salt and sea life to their lips. He squeezed her hand. He would feed her fish, he would feed her sweets, he would feed her the best of everything that Bombay had to offer. He forced himself to shout these claims to the huge and uncaring city; and the city looked back at him and laughed at his ambition.

They walked on in silence, his eye noticing a courtyard with its stone statues of ladies in clinging dresses, and the large green trees with huge overlapping leaves as big as his head, and the bodies lying sleeping all along the pavement – but his mind was always thinking only of the mosque that lay ahead.

Eventually the white minarets came into view on the left, and he found that he had been expecting something austere and grand, made of red sandstone, inlaid with white, like the Jama Masjid in Delhi – but Bombay’s central mosque struggled to rise above the tangle of shops and stalls at its base.

‘Let’s have some breakfast,’ he whispered to her, afraid again, and they crossed the road to a teashop and ordered omelettes and tea and sat opposite each other in a booth, smiling at each other as he tried not to worry about the future. The first thing to do was find a qazi who could marry them. He sat facing the road, watching passers-by: taking in their clothes, and the way they walked, and how they spoke to each other. Tentatively, he allowed himself to feel pleased by what he saw. When a religious man passed, he ran outside and stopped him and asked respectfully, ‘Please, what is the name of the qazi of the Jama Masjid?’ The man looked at him, at Humayun’s black eye and bruises, and said sternly, ‘You should speak to the manager; he will call a qazi for you. It’s the office on the right up the stairs past the library.’

When Humayun came back into the teashop, at first he couldn’t see Aisha and the wild fear tore at his heart. But she was sitting out of sight, shrunk back against the wall. He slipped into the booth beside her and held her close to him for a moment, not caring who saw them. ‘Never leave my sight again,’ he breathed.

‘But you went outside—’ she began, and he shushed her.

‘I know, it’s my fault.’ He stilled the sudden rush of anger inside himself, and said, ‘Are you ready? Let’s go.’

As he led her round to the mosque’s eastern gate, through a narrow covered passageway of humdrum shops, he couldn’t speak to her of the pang of longing he felt: for his mother, for his home, for Mrs Ahmed’s car even, for the place he grew up in. What had Aisha done to him, to make him turn his back on all of this, to throw caution away, to come to Bombay with her, a penniless, fatherless girl? What dark magic was it she had worked on him? He listed the current insecurities of their life: how they would eat, where they would sleep tonight, how they would find work. What was he doing uniting himself with a girl of this fate and reputation? ‘Stay behind me,’ he said to Aisha sharply, as they reached the gates, and she stopped gazing around her and cast her eyes downwards, submissively.

He sighed to himself for his cruelty; and taking his shoes off at the entrance, left her fumbling with her slippers, and walked over to the huge sunken stone tank over which the mosque had been constructed. When he reached the steps, he turned to watch her: such a tiny, diminutive figure, the headscarf pulled up over her hair, helpless and vulnerable in this huge hallowed place. The love returned in a rush – he felt it flood back again to fill the space only recently echoing with resentment.

‘Feel how cool the air is,’ he said to her as she approached. They went right down to the water and splashed their faces and ran their fingers through their hair, shivering at the cold.

They were sitting on the steps of rough grey stone, wondering at this murky pool where real fishes swam, when there was an angry shout, and a young man – his lip shaved in the manner of Humayun’s cousin – waved at them from the pathway: ‘No women allowed at this hour.’

‘But we have come to get married,’ Humayun answered, affronted.

‘Then,’ the man replied, after the briefest of pauses, ‘go and wait for the Nazir. He won’t arrive till ten.’ He pointed to a long white office building. ‘Go over there and wait.’

By the time the manager arrived, there was a large group of men also waiting – older, senior to Humayun, more pushy – and even though he had been there since the beginning, he was forced to wait, and wait, and wait. Everybody was irritable and sanctimonious; and nobody wanted him to take his turn. After some hours the man with the shaved lip came back into the room, and seeing him sitting there, said, ‘Hasn’t he seen you yet?’ He himself led Humayun into the manager’s room and presented him to the man behind the desk.

There were three other men in the office, all of them serious looking elders, and they listened as Humayun explained the situation, but it was the manager who spoke.

‘Where is the girl’s guardian?’

‘Her father is dead,’ said Humayun, which was the first lie.

Nobody knew where Aisha’s father was.

‘And her mother?’ said the manager.

‘She is too ill to travel from Delhi,’ Humayun said. ‘We are poor people. The expense of bringing her is too much.’

‘And why did you come from Delhi to get married?’

Again Humayun lied, explaining that he was here for work; he was a qualified driver, and the opportunities were better in a city like Bombay. But they did not believe him, for why would anybody leave their native place at the august and wonderful time of marriage, a time in one’s life when the whole community joins together in celebration? They asked him about his own family, and why his mother and uncles hadn’t arranged the marriage for them, and when his family planned to come from Bombay for the festivities. Eventually Humayun stumbled on his own lies, and they picked out the flaws in his story as easily as a woman sifting stones from daal. And so in the end he was forced to tell the truth: that his mother was against the union, that the girl had difficulties, that a match had been arranged for her in Bihar with an old uncle, that he and she loved each other, that they wanted to spend their lives together. After his speech the men tutted and hmmmed and spoke in low tones to each other. Eventually the manager said, ‘My son, you are a smart young man. You have a future. The best thing for you is to return to Delhi and speak to your mother, and the girl’s mother, and persuade them to let you get married openly, among your own people, with their blessing.’

‘My mother,’ he said, frantic now with the wait and the agony and the truth of everything they said, ‘is against the marriage.’

‘I will speak to the elder Mufti,’ the manager said at last. ‘Wait outside and I will come and let you know of his decision.’

So again Humayun waited. The next prayertime came, and they went downstairs to offer namaz with the rest of the congregation: Humayun anonymous in the main prayer hall with the thousands of other men, Aisha pushed up against the women in the discreet covered section. He returned alone to the manager’s office to wait, and at last, when it was approaching dusk, the manager came out to speak to him.

‘The elder Mufti counsels you to return to Delhi,’ he said, and added kindly, looking at the expression on Humayun’s face, ‘Take the advice of your elders, young man. Anything different will lead to trouble.’

How much he hated these religious men, Humayun thought. If only Aisha and he weren’t underage, he could have dispensed with maulvis and muftis and qazis, walked straight to a civil court and seen the wedding solemnised in Indian law; but the law said that the man must be twenty-one and the girl eighteen; and so it was by Muslim law that they would have to be married. Somewhere in this city of Bombay was a qazi who would marry them. But there was the night to get through first.

Following the recommendation of one of the shopkeepers, Humayun and Aisha looked for accommodation near the Mussafir Khana, at a hotel in a backstreet named after one of the holy places of Islam, where the man at the desk, his mouth smeared with paan, the clatter of cards being played in the room behind him, the smell of hooch lingering in the air, offered them a double room for eighty of their precious rupees. They ate downstairs, in one of the paupers’ restaurants where the roti were made with poor quality flour, and the meat dish was hot and edible and cheap. Humayun, who had walked past restaurants such as this every day of his life in Delhi
– they served the legions of beggars who queued up each evening, waiting for rich men to arrive with spare rupees – forced himself to finish everything on his plate. He forced himself not to cry.

That night, as Aisha and he lay together in their tiny room, she whispered to him through the dark. It was the question that neither of them had dared to address since coming here. ‘Will we ever go back to Delhi, Humayun?’

‘No,’ he said, and his heart was full of longing. ‘We will never go back to Delhi. This is where we live now.’ And as they lay in the dark, listening to the moaning of their neighbour, to the noise of somebody hacking mucus from their lungs, to the distant thrum of cars, to the imagined sound of waves breaking in the distance, he willed his heart to harden, not to break, but to harden, so that there would always be a tiny, resilient piece of himself that no adversity could ever destroy.

The next morning they waited outside the home of a qazi Humayun had been told about at the Mussafir Khana, standing on the dirty stairs where other residents had thrown cigarette butts and shiny supari packets and fruit peelings. But they had come too early; at ten o’clock in the morning the qazi was still asleep. When he eventually appeared, they discovered that he was exceedingly frail and hard of hearing. He took them into his office where he sat and coughed and explained to Humayun why it was impossible for him to risk solemnising their marriage. Supposing her family in Delhi put out a police case for kidnap; supposing his parents appeared in Bombay accusing the girl of theft – for to escape their clutches she must have stolen some money, no? He looked at her briefly, and then looked away. No, absolutely not, it was not a thing for a man of his age to risk – police cases were for younger qazis than himself – qazis such as the man opposite, who was known to be accommodating about such matters (and known to provide well for his family as a result). No, if they insisted on being married here and now without the girl’s parents and without their consent, they would have to provide proof of age; and if they had forgotten to bring her birth certificate or ration card or passport or school leaving certificate with them in their rush to leave Delhi – here he looked up and scrutinised Humayun’s bruised face with a shake of the head – then they would have to go to the J.J. Hospital, it was not far, and ask for an age-verification certificate, for the staff were able to ascertain such things with blood tests and X-rays. Again he gazed at tiny Aisha, and for a second time shook his head, and said, slowly and regretfully: ‘The girl is not looking fat and healthy.’ Humayun looked out of the grimy window as the qazi spoke. Aisha didn’t have any documents. She had barely gone to school. There was no such thing as a birth certificate in her family, given their upheavals and chaotic living conditions, and her absent father. He knew that it was the first thing he should have done for her, before finding her a job even. It was his fault they were in this difficult position. On the road below the window, men were building a flyover; there was a mess of swinging concrete structures and workmen in ill-fitting hats and sprouting metal where one day the cars would run through the air. When he looked round again, the qazi was still speaking. ‘From the bones they would come to know,’ he was saying, ‘and with the ossification certificate you go to the Qila Court and take an affidavit from a lawyer that the girl is of correct age and enters willingly into the union and nobody has forced her and she has come here happily. Then we will see about the legal contract for your marriage.’ And he got to his feet and said a polite salaam, and shuffled away to his room where his wife was waiting.

‘Will he call the police?’ Aisha whispered as they walked away downstairs. Humayun shushed her soothingly, although he didn’t feel soothed himself.

‘Nobody will call the police,’ he said. But that morning he had counted their stash of money with another jab of fear and tied it in a handkerchief and pinned it deep into the pocket of his trousers.

They crossed the road, stepping through the dust of the construction site, and entered the building where the flexible qazi was said to reside. This building, too, was dark, and there were small guesthouses on each floor with venerable Islamic names, soiled and overused. The qazi’s office was on the third floor, next to Ladoo Perfumers.

The office boy ushered them in and told them to wait on chairs beside a table with three newspapers neatly stacked upon it. The qazi would be back soon; he had gone out on urgent business. Humayun picked up a newspaper and let his eye run across the print as he turned the pages. A Muslim marriage took a matter of minutes, he knew; within seconds it could all be over. If this qazi married them, he would be united with this woman at his side for ever so that his ostracism was complete.

But though they waited all afternoon, the qazi did not return. When it was almost dusk, Humayun said to Aisha, ‘Let’s go downstairs for dinner.’ He needed food inside him, and so he took out some rupees and led Aisha downstairs to the Shalimar Hotel where they ate kebabs – that were nothing like those of Nizamuddin but which filled their stomachs and soothed his mind nonetheless.

That evening, when he took Aisha back to the qazi’s office, they sat as before and waited, and this time when the office boy went into an inner room, they heard a murmuring of voices, and when he came back it was to ask about the mehr, the marriage money due to Aisha in the event of a divorce. And so Humayun opened his precious cotton bag and took out his mother’s heavy gold pendant – and with this proof, the affair took no time at all.

A young man with a beard and a cap appeared – a very young man, barely a decade older than Humayun himself. He was wearing a white salwar kameez, and Humayun looked up at him and judged from his humourless expression that this was the qazi himself, and that he was going to marry them (but with a small addition to the optional fee); and moreover that he was going to marry them now, without recourse to ossification certificates or affidavits from the Qila Court; and thus, if there was anything Humayun wished to say, he had only this moment in which to act.

Humayun said nothing – and barely twenty minutes later, they were married. The qazi did not raise any problems of age or witnesses or consent; he called his own father, and his brother and his brother’s friend, and they acted as witnesses and wali. They crowded into the office, admiring the gold pendant, sneaking looks at Aisha, and then the qazi cleared his throat and told everyone to be quiet; and Humayun shut his eyes, and listened to the words the qazi spoke; and then he spoke in his turn. He heard Aisha give her consent to the marriage – and fear again entered his soul, enormous and unbiddable. She was now his wife.

The qazi wrote down their names in a register and wrote them out a certificate, and everybody appended their signatures, and Humayun handed over two hundred rupees as voluntary contribution in lieu of fee. And that was it. The four men left them in the room, and Humayun turned to Aisha. ‘We should go now,’ he said. But where would they go? She smiled at him; and the bitter thought entered his head that, for her, anything was better than sleeping with her mother in a graveyard.

‘You are tired, Humayun.’ She sounded calm, and he nodded.

Yes, that was it; it was only that he was tired.

The following morning, the first thing Aisha did as a wife was to pawn the Hindu pendant in a Marwari gold shop. There was a room available in the long line of wooden huts near the Masjid Bandar station, and the Hindu landlady wanted a deposit of a thousand rupees. The room was painted turquoise and it had a corrugated iron roof and wooden walls, with a drain in the corner for washing pots and bathing in. The Marwari trader, a red tilak on his forehead, sitting fat and content behind a glass-topped case full of other people’s jewellery, with his brother beside him as security, counted out the notes; he was giving them seventy-five per cent of the weight of the piece, at an annual interest of eighteen per cent. Aisha knew that it was a bad deal, and that they might well lose the pendant in the end, but she also knew that Humayun needed to eat well; he needed three changes of clothes; he couldn’t work as a coolie, which was what the landlady’s husband did, and what she had suggested. He needed work that was worthy of his upbringing and education.

Aisha’s standards were lower; and with her fine Muslim name and innocent face she at last found a job after three days’ searching, washing dishes every day for a family called Qureishi who lived two blocks down from the Shalimar Hotel. ‘I can make kofta and paratha,’ Aisha told the old lady who interviewed her; and remembering Humayun’s boast to Mrs Ahmed in Delhi, she added, ‘I can even make shami kebabs.’ The old lady laughed and pinched her chin and said, ‘Very well; but first you must show that you can clean my sharbat glasses without breaking them like the last girl did.’ But she implied that if Aisha proved herself trustworthy, the cousins next door might take her on, too.

Humayun, by contrast, did not take to Bombay. Every morning, as the light of day seeped slowly into their turquoise room and he began to see the outline of his wife lying beside him, he knew that very little time was left before he would have to get up and go out into the city to look for work. The thought made him feel nauseous.

He had enquired about becoming a taxi driver – the rates were good – but he was warned that newcomers who spoke no Marathi might have difficulties finding work. He asked a few people at the mosque and in the surrounding areas about working as a driver, letting them know that he was qualified and licensed; but he hated to beg, and although his wife smiled at him when he came home, though she cooked carefully for him on the stove that he had bought with his stash of money (now half the size it had been), though he knew that she was good and faithful, nevertheless each evening when he returned home to the blue-painted hut, reached from the road by a little slippery ladder, he felt the resilience draining from him. As he lay next to her at night, listening to the strange noises of the city, he wondered what djinn had possessed him to come here. He refused to sleep with her, fearing that the rapist had made her pregnant, and the separation that this put between them in their exile made him bitter. Even that human comfort was denied him.

She had saved a plant thrown out by a neighbour – a little, useless, climbing plant with translucent leaves, which she watered every evening with dishwater. Humayun watched it warily, in the evenings, as he lay on his back in their tiny room, waiting for his dinner. It had no smell, put out no flowers, it had no use at all that he could see; and yet she tended it faithfully, and it grew, as if marking their time in Bombay. He felt that the plant and he were in competition.

Aisha, feeling that he was lost, took him to the sea to revive him; but he stared out at the waves, wondering what the policemen in Delhi had been trying to teach him. It was now the holy month of Ramzan, and she tried to persuade him to go to the mosque, thinking that he would find some community there. But he refused. Then, one evening, when he got home, she told him that she had bled. Her monthly bleeding had come, taking that fear away, at least. It was a blessing. ‘Mubarak,’ he said, and smiled spontaneously for the first time in weeks.

That evening, in a spirit of thanksgiving, he went to the mosque for prayers. Muslims were pious during the month of fasting, and the crowd was huge in the Jama Masjid. As Humayun knelt before God, his forehead touching the mat in front of him, surrounded by his Muslim brothers, he prayed for Aisha, he prayed for his mother. Above all, he prayed for the return of that unthinking self-confidence, that unexamined contentedness, which was once the most secure and inviolable part of his being.