This reclusive twilight brings with it February winds that howl, choked full of untethered emotions. I bear them as best as I can…these wintery, slate-grey skies. This numbing cold makes me want to shield the ones I love. The ones who huddle behind my lonely fogged windows or sit next to a roaring fire warming their cold, aching bones…they reminisce about the happy days gone by.
More than anything else, this solitude makes me long for her sunny warmth that illuminates my heart. Some people have that effect. She is one of them.
My bright star, my bumbling Bee, my Bhavya.
Noorie, who rests close by, celebrated in death, as she never was in life, sings hauntingly sad ghazal's these days.
What ails her, I wonder.
Every year as the north winds make my foundations shiver, her melodious, heart-wrenching voice full of grief makes these months unbearable.
I stand as I have stood for many decades, concrete and firm. One of the six daughters of the family that inhabits me now calls me Anwar. Fittingly, I suppose.
The family that occupied my echoing interiors before the partition of this country had a child. My namesake. He played in my greens until the very end.
Those were terrible times.
I eavesdropped in horror at the unspeakable atrocities that were talked about. The big living room, home to many a discussion. Some even effected within my walls. I am witness to rivers of tears and walls of pain and anguish that I have absorbed through the years as people have come and gone leaving behind only empty rooms to an onlooker, but, to me they are crammed full of reminiscences, some good and some unspeakable.
I am the Haveli with the hundred doors.
In the years that I have weathered the living in this old colony of Naugraha, witnessing old Delhi’s lanes grow narrower, the outcroppings and illegal constructions almost choking the lanes where once horse carriages rode confident in their self-possession.
It all seems lost in the grains of time.
We were nine Havelis, once.
Slowly the families moved away, leaving nothing but memories of a bygone era fresh in the blows that we have withstood…blows of ignominy and changing dynamics of the times. My counterparts slowly grew silent, their voices reduced to mere whispers and musings about their families. I was saved from this sad fate by the good fortune of geography. The only reason I survived, one would say.
The family that thrives here now is a large one and I have always felt it is the large ones, which are the most interesting.
Arun, the father/head of the Sharma family, came as a boy full of spirit and grit. Happy as a child should be. His father’s heavy handedness and his own dreams crushed under the passage of time made Arun the man he is today, passive and resigned.
His wife, the devout Uma, who walks with a limp due to a past illness, is full of gumption and an emotional strength that I would be hard-pressed to recollect seeing in some men, who have crossed my threshold.
The children came in quick succession. Aruna, the eldest daughter, then Bhavya and finally, Charu.
I had thought they had given up but Uma always wanted a son and despite Arun’s misgiving, they tried one last time.
The success of bearing a male child, the heir, had lasted on Uma’s face for many years. Not that she loved her daughters any less, but it is just one of those things I have come to understand as I silently watch this spectacle before me. Women crave to give their families a male child. At least the women whom I have known….
And so Dheeraj, the son after three daughters, became the heir apparent, set to inherit the saree shop that his father had inherited from his father-in-law. The settlement for marrying Arun’s mother.
Now some would say, ‘So much trouble for a saree shop,’ but you see therein lay the complication or in Dheeraj’s case, the obstacle.
For a few years, everything seemed right after Dheeraj’s birth. The children grew up happy and a strong bond was forged within my walls as time ebbed and flowed. And then came the announcement…after four children, Uma was pregnant again.
Oh! What a vicious fight it was between Aruna and Uma. The children huddled together scared, expecting the worst. Their fears were unfounded, of course. Uma managed to convince Arun, once again.
God’s gift, she said.
Arun only saw it as another mouth to feed.
It was too late to withdraw from that decision as life threw another challenge their way. I heard Uma contemplating an abortion the day they found out it was not one child, but three. It was Arun this time who mollified his panicked wife.
And, so the already big family became enormous with the advent of the three angels, as they are lovingly called by their indulgent family.
Etti came first; a second later, it was Fanny, and then came Gina.
Tonight, my heart beats hard, as if there is a weight on it. She always has that effect on me. Time slows down with her around…her voice breaks as she talks to me. Hear her story, for she longs for someone to know her, hear her voice. Noorie’s voice.
A soft breeze that haunts, reminds me of the days that I have lived and loved. Some over too soon and some days that stretch to eternity…days that bind instead of releasing.
I wait, as I have waited for eons, ever hopeful, for the ripped part of my soul to find me…to complete me.
Where is he...my love? The only one who understands…who loves me despite…myself? Why has he not joined me this morning as I ready for my riyaaz? My still heart beats like nervous fingers on a tanpura.
The sun shines on the decaying walls that surround me, built to bind me, to constrict, to tie me down in death as they tried to do when I lived. And, I take pleasure in the knowledge that they remain unaware, unknowing of my flight in spirit, similar to the one I took in life. Beautiful portraits parade before my eyes as I recall the days of grandeur, the mehfils and mushairas in the Haveli next door, an excuse to meet.
The excitement of the weekly invitation, the breathless rush to finish the ghazal before the night sky tuned indigo. His tread as it whispered on the marbled floor and his dark eyes as they scorched my skin when he gazed at my bejewelled form… raise goose bumps on my inanimate form even now, as they did then.
Oh! Those nights…a hundred flickering candles imitating our stuttering breath even as the velvety bedspread enveloped our sensitised, glistening skin in its warmth.
Would I have done the same had I known that my life would end here, I sometimes ask myself. I remember Ammi asking if all this intrigue and hiding was worth the pain it eventually would and did cost and I remember saying…
‘Anything for love.’
My eyes take in the blackened walls of this old and dead house in which I rest, yet my mind remembers the glory of its yesteryears when the Haveli and this domed mansion complemented each other.
Chaand and Chaand Raat, we were once called.
What has now become my mausoleum was once a haven that my love built for me. The ones who objected and were blinded by the sparkle of our love desecrated the beautiful black-onyx stone that made my house unique. They thought dulling the exterior would hide the love that lived inside.
How wrong they were!
The Haveli and I are spared the ravages of time, the Haveli passing through time thriving in that passage and I, standing still. Frozen. All I can do is roam the walls of my cavernous resting place, this all-consuming loneliness relieved every morning with his advent.
Unseen, I endeavour to remind him of our love through the music he loved so much. As he rises to leave, I want to push at this veil of time and show myself, to stop him, ask him to stay for a moment more.
Alas! I cannot for I am Noorie.
A famed tawaif, the courtesan with a voice of gold. To the world but a simple girl with a heart that sings when I behold the one that I love. For him, I had agreed to sully the name of my family, to go down in history as a prostitute and yet I could not conquer myself or was it that he could not look beyond his own distrust?
What does it matter now? I tell myself.
If this is our destiny, to be so close and yet so far then I shall accept it with grace as I have done everything else that I had to endure.
As I feel the first rays of the early morning sun filter through me, I clear my throat waiting for him to enter the inner sanctum of the chamber. No one comes here except him. I have not allowed anyone else to cross these walls until now.
And, so I wait for us to be joined, never to be separated again…ever. This time with a promise, to forgive, to accept his flaws, as I had not been able to then.
Where is he?
As Noorie awaits her mate, I await the arrival of my bright star, my Bhavya. The most loyal and courageous person of this family, she has the heart of a lion.
But, every coin has two sides, one that shines and the other that remains shadowed.
Is that why my foundations shiver, as if to warn me of testing times to come? Does my stone heart tremble with hope for her well-being or a foreboding of a difficult future…an advent of trouble?
This is Bhavya’s story.