“Too bright”, she said, “Bohoot tez!”
“But ammi, they help save money!” he said trying to explain energy efficiency to an octogenarian. Deciding not to argue further, Mariam Bi opted to live in the dark. She was almost blind anyway. Her eyes afflicted with a strange hereditary ailment looked as if the brown of her irises had cracked like some delicate crystal and the muddy white of the sclera had seeped into them.
Her room was on the second floor, you reached it by climbing a narrow set of wooden stairs and holding on to a rope tied between two eye bolts which served as makeshift banister. She had been a fixture in that room for almost as long as anybody could remember. And when her legs gave out, it had been almost impossible for her to climb down the stairs to the house or for anybody to carry her down. So she had been relegated to her own corner, her very own space. It was a small room and the four poster bed, on which hung the old patched mosquito nets, filled almost half of it. Apart from a Godrej almirah in one corner it consisted of the only other occupant of the room sitting on a stool next to Mariam Bi’s bed. In a huge rusty birdcage, pecking at her scruffy feathers, was Noor Jahan, the ring necked parakeet.
Noor Jahan had belonged to Aaliya, Mariam Bi’s daughter. But when she and her family moved to Masqat, the parakeet had been gifted to Mariam Bi. And very soon both the old mother and the old pet had been pushed to the back of the mind to make room for more pressing concerns. Noor Jahan used to hang on a small hook in the window on the wall opposite to Mariam Bi’s bed. The window opened to the rooftops of hundreds of houses, a kaleidoscope of thousands of lives, to an azure sky and to the minaret and the dome of the old mosque on the horizon.
Mariam Bi had lost her husband to tuberculosis even before her first born had been married off. But it was the death of her son and daughter in law in a bus mishap that made her realize that she had lived on for too long and the world could go on living without her. That she was not needed anymore. And like a guest who has overstayed his welcome she shrank into herself. Not just socially but she could be seen to be physically shrinking into herself. Her flesh seemed to shrivel up. Her skin hung in folds all over her body. She shuffled around everywhere with a hump on her back, her wrinkled hands twitching and fumbling with this and that, her dark snot covered handkerchief with embroidered edges twisting in her emaciated fingers. She had herself hung Noor Jahan in the window and when it became almost too difficult for her to walk around any longer; she quietly made room for her beside her bed.
Slowly over time the bed was surrounded by stuff she’d require. A small earthen pot on a tripod, a transistor radio, dog eared copies of Hindi and Urdu women’s magazines with well decked girls wearing dark lipsticks on their glossy covers, a white plastic lunch box with Winnie the Pooh on the lid which was filled with her meds and tubes of Moov and glass sheeshi of Amrutanjan balm next to a stainless steel bowl holding her dentures, a transparent polythene bag carrying a diary in which were scribbled all the telephone numbers and addresses of numerous relations, a Hijri calendar- supplied to her every year by her brother in law who managed a wheeler book store on the railway station- along with a stub of a pencil tucked in its folds which she used to religiously cross out the date every morning, another plastic bag holding a copy of the holy Quran and a set of amber rosary. Her real treasures she kept securely locked up in the almirah. The hand woven prayer mat which had been in the family for ages, the Kashmiri shawl they had brought in Gulmarg, the gold plated kurta buttons which had belonged to her husband, a bottle of attar and the aab-e-zam zam in a white plastic bottle wrapped around in a green velvet cloth waiting for its ceremonial destiny.
Every evening when Aziz came back from the bank where he worked as a cashier he used to come up to her room and sit with her for a while. Throughout the day, his wife, Mehbooba, or one of his kids would get her trays of food and tea. And the remaining endless hours she spent all alone, talking to Noor Jahan, telling her stories of her father’s house, her numerous cousins, her various crushes and escapades, her wedding and her children. Slowly in her loneliness and the enclosed spaces of her room, she opened up an imaginary world for herself. Over the time she started inviting over imaginary friends. Rubina, Ruksana, Safia, Zehera. Her one time friends and companions, hair braiders and secret bearers came alive once more and paid punctual visits to Mariam Bi where they had loud conversations and raucous laughter rang out making Noor Jahan flutter in her cage.
Aziz getting worried at this strange behavior consulted their family doctor on whether his grandmother was losing her mind. The doctor assured them that she was in as good a condition physically as she could hope to be and the only thing anybody could do for her now was to make her as comfortable as possible. So they carried on with Aziz looking on with a worried frown and Mehbooba forbidding her kids from entering their great grandmother’s room anymore, scared of them being possessed by whatever was afflicting her.
All this while Mariam Bi’s gatherings grew more and more extravagant and fabulous. Fearing the neighbors’ questions about the loud noises coming from the upstairs window and on his wife’s persistence Aziz had to shut the window in her room. But oblivious to everything Mariam Bi was lost in her own world. Even to the extent of visiting her phantom friends and family and attending their make believe weddings and funerals, their akikas and misaks.
One cold November morning, waking up and finding the house unnaturally quite Aziz ran up to Mariam Bi’s room. Squinting in the dark he walked to the windows and threw the shutters open. The sun was just peeping over the eastern sky and the euphonious sounds of the azaan could be heard creeping over the rooftops through the misty morning air. Mariam Bi lay on her bed with her eyes closed. Her sagging lips, limp and drooping with a hint of drool dripping down the corner of her mouth strangely made her look as if she was smiling mischievously at some juicy piece of gossip someone had just whispered in her ears. Aziz somehow knew that she was dead but all the same he was surprised at how cold her skin felt.
As he walked down to the house to wake up his wife and tell her the news, Noor Jahan pushing open the door of her unlatched cage fluttered to the window sill. Then with a definitive squawk for her late mistress, she flew out of the room and stretching her tired wings soared off over the wide open world as if to cover as much of it as she could before it was too late.
(-- Anupam Shukla was shortlisted in the Open Space writing contest 2010.)