“Abbu! Don’t hit her Abbu! Usko maro nako… Abbuuu!”
Thwack. That disgusting sound was all I could hear. Besides the sound of a coconut being scraped.
She didn’t cry. She kept looking at the ceiling, or maybe at the slow whirling fan. She had been sitting there all by herself, minding her own business. And suddenly Abbu came in and started whacking her.
I glared at his back with all the defiance I could drum up. Eventually he will be done with her and my turn would come. And it did.
“What are you staring at, potte? Kya ghoor raha hai?”
I looked at the floor, resolutely.
That always worked. He went to the kitchen.
“Khaane ko kya hai? I am hungry!”
My mother continued to scrape the coconut. I didn’t hear her reply.
He left the house, munching something. I heard the bike whine a couple of times and start. It was time for the night prayers at the masjid. That meant he would be back in around thirty minutes.
I went over to Nur, and clutched her hand like I always do when we had emotions to share. She was still looking at the ceiling. I wished she would look at me so that I could see her eyes and understand a bit of the pain she felt. And perhaps take a little of it away. I waited. She let go of my hand. She didn’t take her eyes away from the ceiling or the slowly whirling fan. I couldn’t say which.
I went back to my corner and started reading loudly. Perhaps I wanted to drown out the sound of the coconut scraping or the sound of an arriving bike. I stopped after half an hour or so.
There was no sign of the bike yet. The scraping had stopped though.
“Dinner is ready,” Amma said.
I went to the kitchen and tried to see her face but it was turned towards the stove.
I picked a couple of plates for myself and Nur, and served us both. Funny, there was no dish which had coconut.
Nur didn’t eat by herself that night. I don’t know if she ate at all.
Once Abbu was home, I pretended to read some more, sitting in my corner hoping that I was invisible. After he finished his meal, Amma laid out the mat for me and Nur. I immediately lay down and closed my eyes. I don’t know when I fell asleep, but I heard a lot of “Nur” in Abbu’s and Amma’s hushed conversation. I could hear Amma’s weeping but then she did that every other night.
The events of the evening were a distant memory when I woke up.
It was mid-summer, and the sun reached its peak way earlier than it should. The rays, slanted as they were, would stream through the trees and the window bars, setting my eyelids aflame and forcing me to open them.
I opened my eyes every morning to the sight of a silhouette of a tiny head with frazzled hair. The smiling face was a dark shape, and the shade that protected my eyes from the blaze of the sun. The rays, stubborn and harsh, streamed through the hair, forming a glow around the head. Like Jesus in the paintings at the convent school where I studied. Nur was my Jesus in the morning.
After waking up, I sat next to her for a few minutes. Abbu had long left home, and Amma was busy in the kitchen. This was always the best time of the day for me. Every morning I had enjoyed her innocent giggles and played a little game of hands and fists, and it was the same today.
I left her giggling heartily and got ready for school, ignoring the knot in my throat and the tug within my heart. I was almost out of the house when Amma called out.
“Say extra salaams to Nur before you go.”
I stopped dead on my tracks.
“She is going. Talk to her.”
“We are sending her for the cure. She will stay away. Talk to her before you go.”
“What are you saying, Amma?”
“Just talk to her, pagal!” She started crying.
I couldn’t understand anything.
Amma wiped her tears with the pallu of her sari and kneeled down in front of me. She straightened my collar, took off the top button and put it on again, and tidied the insert of my uniform shirt. She tousled my hair, combed them with her fingers, her voice breaking as she spoke.
“Your Abbu and I have decided to try to cure Nur one last time of the problem she has. Abbu went to the dargah last week and finalized everything with the committee people and the Maulavi. We have to give Nur one more chance, no, son? You want her to be alright, no, son?
“She will go there, stay for a few days, and then we can have our Nur back. Running, talking, fun Nur.
She sobbed. She swallowed. She continued.
“I know you love her, son, but she has to get cured. Otherwise what will she grow up into? Who will marry her? How will she live on? I am sorry, son…
She hugged me and she was bawling into my shoulders.
“I am sorry… am sorry, my children, I am sorry.”
I hugged her back. I was fighting to hold back my own tears.
“If she has to go, can I at least come with all of you to the dargah? Please?”
She wiped her face, sniffed and said she will speak to Abbu.
I kept my bag down and waited. I hid my eyes from Nur. I didn’t want her to see my eyes wet, even though I knew it wouldn’t make any difference to her. I wanted to be her strong brother. Brothers are supposed to take care of their sisters. Brothers never cry.
She was looking at me with beseeching eyes. Maybe she was telling me to ask Abbu and Amma not to send her anywhere. Or she simply wanted to play. I couldn’t tell.
I went and sat next to her and clutched her hand. I pressed it again and again. I tried to play the game we played earlier that day, but it felt pointless.
Abbu returned around afternoon and was surprised to see me home. I thought he would get angry, but he didn’t. He seemed to know why I was at home, sitting with Nur, still in my uniform and with the schoolbag still in my hand.
He asked if I wanted to have lunch. I didn’t have any appetite, and neither did they. Abbu took Amma first to the bus-stop and came back for us. Nur sat in between me and Abbu, still giggling, somewhat excited at an unexpected bike ride. What did she know?
Abbu dropped us at the spot where Amma was waiting. Nur was getting increasingly excited and was laughing, calling out to strangers. We weren’t a strange sight, though, having made the trip to the dargah almost every second week. I hated the bus ride, but I liked the dargah, as long as it wasn’t crowded. It was cool in the courtyard where the graves of the Shaikh and his family were, and we could sit there for some time, enough for the motion sickness from the bus ride to wear off.
But this time it was different.
It was hot, the bus was crowded. Nur didn’t make it any easier by laughing and yelling at everyone who came within her eyesight. Some people played with her, but most others avoided looking at us.
When the bus started moving, I could feel the nausea creep up. I tried to think of pleasant things, like the seaside, the park near the school, or Jambika tree outside our house. I really didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself.
We reached the dargah. The Maulavi was there, and he didn’t seem happy to see me. He had a couple of sharp words with Abbu in Tamil. I could make out only Abbu’s reply: “He is her brother, how can we keep him away?”
The Maulavi accompanied us to the dargah office where Nur, Amma and I sat on a bench for quite some time. Nur had dozed off in the bus and seemed quite drowsy, much to Amma’s relief. The waiting didn’t help with the mood, though. Amma was distant, always looking away. I knew better than to ask her for water, no matter how thirsty or puky I felt.
Abbu and the Maulavi came out of the office.
“Okay, say your goodbyes now”
“That’s it?” Amma asked. “That’s all? We don’t get to see where she is going to stay? We don’t get to see her off?”
Abbu hesitated, but the Maulavi said, “Sister, I think it is best not to….”
Amma wasn’t having any of it.
“She is my daughter. I demand to see where she is going to stay!”
The Maulavi and Abbu looked at each other. Abbu shrugged.
“Okay,” said the Maulavi. “If you wish. But remember, you… you must not create a scene.” He pointed at me. “And neither should this boy make a mess.”
The four of us followed the Maulavi, Nur clinging to Amma, barely able to walk.
We reached a thatched building which was more like a shed. The kind where the municipal school kids studied.
I peeked inside, but got a sharp rap on the back of my head.
“You stay here!” the Maulavi said.
He gestured to my father to take Nur inside. Nur went happily, oblivious to Amma’s wails. I didn’t say a thing. I was afraid I would throw up.
Abbu came out, his eyes red and moist. He was indeed crying. The Maulavi wasn’t with him and I decided to say goodbye to Nur one last time. I ran inside the shed before my parents could react.
My eyes took a second to adjust to the darkness inside, but once they did, I spotted Nur.
I threw up.
I haven’t seen anyone rebuke Abbu the way the Maulavi did. It was half in Tamil, with a lot of Arabic intonations thrown in, but I couldn’t understand a word. Abbu, normally the loudest voice in the community, was meekly nodding his head, apologizing, looking at me, looking at Amma, looking at his feet. Amma was still crying, her hands pressed on my shoulders. My shirt was wet and stinking of the vomit.
I thought Abbu and Amma would take me to task, but the trip home was peaceful. For the first time in my life, Abbu put his arms around me and let me rest my head against his shoulder as I sat between him and Amma.
I don’t remember how the rest of the day went.
The next morning, there was no Jesus in the window. The knot in the throat felt thicker than it had ever been. The tug in my heart became more like a hole.
Midsummer became late summer. Abbu and Amma would visit Nur, but they never took me, no matter how much I begged or how many tantrums I threw. Sometimes, I would get a solid hiding from Abbu. I missed my Nur. I missed my darling sister Nur, and I want to see her, hold her, play with her. I don’t care if she is getting cured or not, and I don’t think they were curing her in that shed in those chains and locks, I pleaded. Nothing worked. It was as if they had stones where their hearts should be or they just didn’t want to listen to me talk about her. I just couldn’t understand.
The earth tilted in its axis and the sun no longer streamed through the window into my eyes. Waking up should have been less of a chore, but it took an effort from both Abbu and Amma to send me to school. My shoelaces remained untied whenever they got undone. My uniform was always crumpled, and my hair was never combed.
My marks became poor, I got into fights with other kids and the headmistress kept threatening to send me home with a transfer certificate. The Maulavi complained that I wasn’t paying any respect to him, and wasn’t making any attempt to learn the Holy Quran. He said I was doing it deliberately and asked Abbu to put me in the after-school madrasa so that he could straighten me up.
I protested in every way I could.
But I still didn’t get to see Nur.
The days went by listlessly.
Then one day I got sent home early from school. There had been some incident in the dargah area and the school manager and headmistress had to leave town right away, so they shut the school.
All the other kids happily ran off to play, but I made my way slowly towards home, dragging my feet, shoelaces undone, shirt untucked. When I reached home, the door was shut. The neighbor Paati was waiting for me outside her courtyard.
“Are you okay, son?”
I looked up. “I’m ok, why?”
“No, nothing. Come in, have some thosai and coffee I made for you…”
“Your parents have gone to get Nur.”
“Really! What are you saying? Paati, is she coming home today?!”
“Come in, will you?”
I had never been happier to eat the tasteless thosai and watery sambar that Paati made. This was great, I thought. Nur would be coming home!
I couldn’t wait for my parents to come back. I kept asking Paati if they said when they would come, but Paati shook her head. “I don’t know, boy. Don’t ask me. They shouldn’t have taken her there. But anyway am glad they are getting her back.”
The evening turned to night. No sign of Nur, or of Abbu or Amma.
“Paati, can you call the dargah office?”
“I don’t have a phone, son. Why don’t you sit inside? Mosquitoes will bite.”
I didn’t care. I wanted to be out in the courtyard so that I could see the bike turning into the street.
Dinner time came and went. I was pacing up and down. I even made Paati nervous. Her husband was supposed to have come long back, but he hadn’t either. She wanted to watch her TV programs but she never did that before thaatha was home. She asked if I would like some thayir saadam. I wasn’t hungry. Neither was she.
Midnight. No sign of Nur. No sign of Abbu and Amma. No sign of thaatha.
The familiar knot in my throat was back, and manifested in nausea. I was going to throw up the thosai and sambar any minute. Paati sat with me on the steps of her door and massaged my back.
It must have been two in the morning. I first heard the sound of the bike, and then an autorickshaw. Yes! We jumped up.
Abbu came first on the bike. Maulavi was with him. They didn’t acknowledge me or my dancing up and down with joy.
The auto came to stop outside our house.
Amma got out first. She rushed into the house. Without Nur.
The other person in the auto was thaatha. He came toward me, patted me, and said “go and see your mother”, and went inside his house. I thought he was crying but I couldn’t make out. Why would he be crying? But where was Nur?
I ran inside the house. Amma was lying down in the hall.
“What happened? Where is Nur?”
“Ask your dad…” She was sobbing, her head down. By this time, Paati had followed me inside the house. She sat down near Amma and took her head on her lap. And then both started bawling.
“WHERE IS NUR?” I demanded, with all the authority I could muster.
Abbu came and took me outside.
“Bete, I don’t know how to tell this to you…. Maaf karo mujhe bete… there was a fire at the dargah. She… has gone to Allah with the Shaikh’s ble….”
I threw up.
Weeks passed. The rains came and went. The clouds, which diffused the blaze of the sun, lingered on, perhaps to ease the pain of loss.
I wondered if I was expected to forget Nur. I asked Abbu and Amma if they would ever forget her. They said no, and I believed them, because it didn’t take much more than that to move them to tears. I felt some kind of reassurance when they cried. I’d thought I could never forgive them, but then they also grieved for her. They too, loved her, and despite the beatings he gave her, Abbu said he had loved her more than he loved himself. He said he beat her only to drive the shaitaan away, and after he beat her, he went to the masjid and cried for forgiveness.
I asked them why they sent her to the dargah. Was it the Maulavi who asked them? They didn’t really answer but Amma would end up crying and start blaming Abbu for it.
I started to get up before dawn every morning so that the sun’s rays wouldn’t hit me directly and remind me how much I was missing Nur. There would be no Jesus in the window any more, and that was that. Maybe I could shut her memory out altogether. Amma said in time I would have only happy memories of Nur.
I wasn’t sure. How could a boy forget that his beloved sister died in a fire in a thatched shed? And she couldn’t even run away from it, because she was shackled with a metal chain? And how could her parents forget that?
Despite all that I tried, Nur, the Jesus at the window, the Jesus in the morning, would always be with me.
My mother stopped talking to me for a while after I said that. She complained to Abbu that I had started speaking like a grown person.
I had dozed on the way to the dargah and woke to the sight of distant family members waving at us even before we alighted from the bus. The men hugged Abbu by turn and the women surrounded my mother. There were kids too, but they were sticking to their parents.
I hadn’t expected the larger family to turn up on this visit. Everyone was there – Abbu’s and Amma’s siblings, a couple of great-uncles and aunts. But I didn’t know what the happiness was on account of.
Then the collective attention turned on me. Someone handed me a bar of chocolate.
“Congratulations, young man!” one of my great uncles said.
I was puzzled. I thought we were coming to pray for Nur, I murmured.
“Oh yes, yes, you should pray for Nur. We should all do. She is with Allah, subhan wa ta’aalah, a true farishta she is…”
I was still puzzled.
“Oh, you haven’t been told!” He laughed. Everyone around laughed.
I looked at Abbu, but he looked away.
“Arre, you are going to be a big brother now….”
I threw up. Again.
Fiction. For more information on the Erwadi fire, read this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erwadi_fire_incident
The story contains some words in the Dakhni and Tamil languages.