This memorable short story by Urdu writer Ismat Chugtai was translated into English for the first time by RUTH VANITA from its
Hindustani version. It was published in Issue No 19 of Manushi in 1983
We hope to share more such material of enduring interest from
all this happened over the merest trifle. Misfortunes cannot be foreseen. What
an unlucky hour it was when I set
foot in that train, and stirred
up a nest of hornets round my ears! This
is how it happened. Last November, I was travelling from Jodhpur to Bombay.
Everybody advised me: “Look, don’t go. You’ll regret it.” But when an ant’s
wings sprout, it flies straight to its destruction.
long journey and an extra jerky train. Sleep seemed far away, sand flew in
through the window. To top it all, solitude. The whole bogey lay empty, like a
graveyard filled with row upon row of graves. My heart began to sink. I was fed
up of scanning the newspaper. I picked up another. The same news items. Oh God,
if I were in a graveyard, at least the
corpses might emerge from their graves.
Oh God, if only someone would come. Oh God, oh God... I began to pray. All of a
sudden, the train stopped, and it was as though an army of locusts had invaded
the train. There were more infants and bundles than there were people. The
children, as though they had come from famine stricken villages, fell to
nourishing themselves the moment they entered the train. The suckling infants
set about it in a businesslike manner while the others moved around, whining
and whimpering. As for the bundles, they were tied in such a fashion as to take up the maximum possible space, and refused to stay
put anywhere. As you caught hold of one, another fell on your head. I continued
to sit on a separate berth at such an angle that if a bundle were to fall on
me, my spine would be spared. I value my spine above all the other parts of my
body. They say that if your spine breaks, you become a mere lump of flesh.
are you going?” enquired my fellow traveller in an anxious tone, even though
she was as yet barely free of her
bundles. I hurriedly informed her, and then drew her attention to a heavy
bundle which seemed to contain utensils,
and was threatening to descend on us at the slightest provocation. The touch of
a hand sent the utensils clattering in a manner
calculated to strike dread into the boldest heart.
are you coming from ?” I told her, with a little less alacrity.
you going to your maika?’* When one is
not married, one’s maika is the whole world, and yet is
nowhere at all. The question of maika and sasural* does not
arise. Yet her question threw me
off balance, and for a moment I wondered in which province there was a
danger of my
going to your husband?”
I began to wish for a change of subject. Why be
pitied for nothing at all ?
then you must be going to your in-laws,
isn’t it ?” What philosophical answers these questions require !
going to Bombay. I—I’m not married”, I said, with some trepidation, even though
at college I had won first
prize for speaking against marriage at a debate, and even now—in
any case, now—well, anyway, that’s what I said to her. She gave such a start
that the infant was deprived of milk, and instantly began to shriek like a goat
being slaughtered. To divert her attention, I tried directing it towards the child, but she just shoved the
milk into the child’s nose, while she gazed at me with a compassion and kind
condescension that cannot be reduced into words. In fact, she looked so
affectionate that I was afraid she might gather me into her arms and burst into
tears. To cheer her up, I bought some roasted gram, but she remained sunk in
sorrow. She told me one or two methods of catching a good husband, which, surprisingly, later turned
out to be particularly worthless.
prayers were indeed being answered with a vengeance. Or perhaps the heavenly
scribe erred and recorded my submission twice over, for here came another troop
of beings. With them came also sticks of sugarcane which had been measured and
cut so large as not to fit into any corner
of the compartment. They also had
rolls of bedding and trunks which
refused to stay either on the berths or
under them. These ladies created
chaos as soon as they arrived. They mercilessly dragged around the trunks and
bedding, while the obstinate bundles aforesaid, which had been awaiting this
opportunity, promptly fell on the
women and children, who then fell on one another.
are you going?” She too seemed deeply concerned.
are you coming from?” she next asked., though she was not yet settled, and her
burka was strangling her. I told her.
you going to your maika or your sasural?” If only I knew ! There
was no time to think, so I said, “Sasural”
in a low tone so as
not to be overheard by my other
does your husband do?” Well, I thought, he must he doing something. Why should he
roam around, doing nothing? If only he
had told me what he does! Well, in any case, he couldn’t be unemployed. Just
then, she suggested: “In the railways, perhaps..?”
he is”, I hastened to assure her. A railway man will be fine, I thought. One
can get free tickets and explore every part of India. I like their uniforms
too. Those caps and whistles, green and red flags - how fortunate that I met
this nice woman, otherwise I would never have dreamt of a guard or a clerk or...
job does he do in the railways ?”
naturally, he’d do a good job, what else
?” I hadn’t quite realised that it is easy enough to be the wife of a guard but
the details might prove a bit too much for me.
but what does he do? There are a thousand and one jobs in the railways.”
I was taken aback, and my eye fell on a coolie weighed down by a large bundle,
a bedroll, half a dozen mud pots and two pitchers.
husband is a coolie?” She too fell prey to a fit of astonishment. I was anxious
that we hold this heart to heart conversation in low tones, lest my first
friend overhear us. Her infant was still
happily drinking milk. But once I have made a statement, I always stick
to it. In any case, there was little enough to stick to on the present
even if he is a coolie, what difference does it make to you?” I said, feeling
h-husband, a coolie?”
what?” I felt like retorting, “What makes you so jealous ? You’re welcome to
marry a coolie too. Marry ten coolies if you like, who’s stopping you - especially
if you think coolies are so cheap!” But I restrained myself and pulled a long
did you get married to a coolie?” she asked, and began to wonder how coolies
get married. I wanted to invent something, but when I thought of it, the story
of a coolie’s marriage seemed very drab, so I said : “Once there was a coolie“
listened with attention. “He lived” I wanted her to say “Hmm” or nod her head.
“Then it so happened that one day—” God, if I only knew. I couldn’t even recall
any story, at that moment. “He was carrying some luggage...” I wanted her to
ask “Whose?” and she did.
very beautiful girl’s. Then that girl—that girl fell in love with him.’’
was the girl?”
my, I never thought of that. Anyway, it hardly matters. There must have been
some girl or other. Some beautiful girl.
did she fall in love with a coolie ?”
fell in love with him because—because—well, how should I know, there must have
been some reason. Perhaps he smiled at her...” Just then, a particularly
dreadful looking railway employee looked at me and smiled, causing me fervently
to hope that I would not actually have to fall in love. After all, I was to
appear for an interview. One hears that falling in love reduces one to a
terrible condition. And who wants to go around falling in love in unknown
territory? Also, I had to stay in Jasimbhai’s house, and if there is anything
he dreads next to cholera, it is love. Fortunately, the issue was soon
what are you talking; about? Which girl? Who fell in love? I’m asking you
how you got married...”
is not married, poor thing.” My earlier acquaintance had at last overhead us.
That is why I kept saying, talk softly, softly—but now I have lost even that
that time I wasn’t married...” I hoped to convince her.
You mean you got married sitting in the train?” Godr if only that were possible! If only
rich, well-placed husbands were on sale instead of hot tea, I would definitely
buy one for the journey even if later —later I’d see. And I decided that I
would definitely search for a plausible kind of husband. What does one lose? It
would work fine. At least, one would not have to cook up fresh lies for each
passenger. As soon as someone asks, in a flash you produce your husband!
dear, where can you get good boys these days?” she said, despairing of my
future “They demand a car, or a horse carriage. That’s the only way to get an
grew sorrowful. Why can’t these boys earn, after all? How many good boys there
used to be in earlier times. Like so many carrots and radishes. But now there
is not one to bless yourself with. This war has only made things worse.
Earlier, at least there were boys enough—earning ones or good-for-nothing ones.
Now every man jack of them is rushing off to the war.
“Why don’t you
get married then?”
you please”, I answered, like an innocent girl whose parents first arrange her
marriage and then ask for her opinion, just to show how liberal they are.
will you marry, if you don’t marry now?”
mean, right now ? I think it would perhaps be better if we wait till we reach
you have decided, why delay the auspicious moment?”
What are you talking about, girl?” She got really upset.
asking why you don’t get married”, put in the other.
don’t you get married then?” I was getting exasperated so I chose to ignore the
presence of her child who was still blissfully sucking away.
it seems there’s something wrong with your head.” She shifted the angle at which
she was holding the child, so as to make
it clear that he was not merely sleeping in her arms.
you mean you are married”, I remarked nonchalantly. “When did you get yourself
parents got me married. Why would I have got myself married?”
you are against marriage? You are right, absolutely right. My parents also went
and got married—savages that they were.”
She quieted down after this, and took some sweet pancakes out of her basket to
when you answer a prayer, is this the way you go about it ? Your poor creatures
have not a moment’s peace. This poor handmaiden of yours was lonely. When she
desired company, did you have to start sending such quantities of passengers,
and even greater quantities of luggage? Not that I have any right to interfere
with your arrangements, but all that I have to say, oh merciful provider, is
that you might take into account the tolerance level of your creatures when you
are heaping burdens upon them.
began to feel quite concerned lest my prayer for a husband also be granted
after this fashion, and husbands descend upon me, one after another. That would
be the end of me. It will be a wonder if I am able to sew buttons on the shirt
of one, and serve him cups of tea. How can I possibly endure so many of them,
indolent as I am? They say that if you have second thoughts about a letter
after you have posted it, you can get it back from the post office by paying a
small bribe. If only there was such a system with regard to prayers too! But I
had already sent up the prayer, and it was now being answered to my cost. My new
fellow traveller appeared to be sophisticated, and more soft-spoken than was
strictly necessary. She seemed to be suffering from some delicate, poetical
sickness and also to be in the habit of speaking softly. All in all, I was
quite pleased with her.
you going to Hyderabad?” she asked. I was afraid to say no lest she take
offence. However, I very politely told her I was going to Bombay.
must have come from Ahmedabad?” She seemed adept at filling old bottles with
new medicine and cajoling one into drinking it. But she looked so downcast that
I could not bring myself to hurt her. So I told her.
I’m going for an interview.”
uncle’s brother-in-law’s aunt lives in Bombay. You must meet her.” I promised
faithfully, wondering how I would find the time to go searching for her uncle’s
your parents live there?”
my” Before I could complete the sentence, she interposed: “Oh, I see, your husband lives there.” Here we were again — what a long detour to come back to the same old terminus
—a husband. A man. Indian men may go around cutting off noses, handing out
divorces, they may be difficult to secure as husbands, and when they are
secured, may turn out to be good-for-nothing whoremongers and gamblers. Yet
here are the women all dying for them. Every woman obsessed either with
her own or with someone else’s husband.
The unmarried ones singing songs about a husband, and the married ones crazy
about the beloved. The beloved, of course, continues to suck their blood. Such
is the situation when the beloved is cruel. If he were to show a little
kindness, heaven knows what would happen. I began to think that even the
cruelties of husbands may have some advantages.
do you live, in Bombay? How many children do you have ?” Here was I, sunk in
thought, there was she, proceeding from the husband to the number of children.
I remarked, counting the dogs on the platform. “How come there are always more
dogs than passengers on platforms?”
Why, what’s so surprising about that? If you don’t believe me, get off the
train and count them for yourself.”
how can I break my journey? Of course, if I ever pay a visit to my uncle’s
brother-in-law’s aunt—but— sister, one could never tell by looking at your face...”
what can one tell by looking at a face?” I replied, in a philosophical tone.
When I feel disgusted with the world, and everything begins to appear dead and
dull, I start waxing philosophical.
many years have you been married?” she asked, after a pause.
years, three months and...”
eight children? Look, sister, I thought OK, maybe it is possible you have
eight, but...” She seemed on the verge of tears. I felt sorry for her. But I
decided that no matter what happened, I would not be browbeaten any further,
otherwise, after the children, she would go on to impose grandchildren too on
me. And those other ladies who were so well acquainted with my life history
yet fallen asleep. We would get involved in another unnecessary exchange
of views. Those eight children were already weighing heavy on my spirit.
yes, I am telling you there are eight.”
god, are they all alive? But sister, how were they born?”
do you expect? The same way all children are born, of course.”
mean, in four years...”
I see. That’s what you want to know. Well, sometimes two were born together,
sometimes three and...”
What?” She gaped at me, and I felt quite offended that she should be so
surprised. After all, it was my personal affair, was it not? What difference
did it make to her whether someone gave birth to one child or to ten? Of
course, what I had been dreading all along was bound to happen. My earlier acquaintances
began to show an interest.
you heard this, sister? She has had them sometimes two at a time, and sometimes
three -- children, I mean...” One of them heard only the word “children”,
panicked, and hastily began to count her
the matter?” enquired the other. When the matter was fully explained, all three
of them took offence.
now she said she was not married and now she’s started producing two or
three children at a time”, one of them rebuked me.
makes you think I am not married? Heaven preserve me ! You must be the
unmarried one.” The situation began to
deteriorate rapidly. A ticket checker passed by. At least, I have no idea what
he was. Every railway employee looks like a ticket checker to me. I leant
across to ask him the time. After telling me, he smiled, and off he went, still
said you were travelling alone? And now who
is this ?”
is my daughter’s son.” Before they could establish some more romantic
relationship, I took the decision
son?” they shrieked in unison.
why have these people determined to
take such violent objection to every
simple family relationship of mine?
“What does the girl say? That’s your daughter’s son?”
“So what is it to you?”
“Sister, surely he had
grey hair”, put in another.
“Must have greyed because of a bad cold”, I muttered, and then leant as
far out of the window as I could. I was not desirous of committing suicide, and
was unpractised in alighting from a moving train. A harsh world and a distant
That which is decreed
to happen must inevitably happen. When my luggage was being weighed and
charged, the clerk asked: “Your name? Your husband’s name?”
I muttered through clenched teeth.
“Chokhe ? What an
outlandish name.” He nudged the other clerk.
Needless to say, when he drew up a receipt that
converted me into Mrs Chokhe, I gave him one across the face with mybag which
contained a heavy book. And all this just for a husband.
from Urdu by Ruth Vanita