Azma Dar is currently working on her debut novel aswell as a play based on a true story set in WW2, Noor, for which she received an Arts Council grant in 2006. Her first play Chaos, the story of a Muslim family, set in the aftermath of 9/11, was read as one of ten pieces in Kali Theatre’s Shorts Programme in 2003. It was produced by Kali in 2005, opening in Birmingham Rep and going on national tour, before opening at Southwark Playhouse in London. Paper Thin, a play about bogus “passport” marriages, was produced by Kali and Watermans in 2006, and also toured nationally. Azma’s latest play, Closing Time, a collaboration with Conflict Zone Theatre, was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in August 2007. This is the opening chapter of Azma Dar’s novel The Secret Arts, which very recently won the prize for fiction at the New Writing Ventures Award 2007…
The groom was in the garden, eating French toast and tomato omelette. Colonel Anwar Ahmed Ali pushed the eggs to one side and pulled his silk paisley dressing gown tighter around him as a chill breeze swept over the lush Murree hills. Something twisted nervously in his stomach. He wouldn’t be able to eat until after tomorrow, when it was over. He lifted his tea- for all his military training and precise table manners, at home he drank his tea in a bowl, Kashmiri style, much to the amusement of his friends. He wiped his grey moustache gently with a napkin and called his housekeeper, a tiny old woman with thick crusty surma in her eyes, and richly dyed black hair.
“You haven’t touched it, Saabji,” she said, putting the things into a tray.
“I can’t, Gago.”
“Really, Saabji, you must. How otherwise will you ride the white horse?”
“Don’t be silly, Gago. There will be no horse, no band baaja, bright lights and other such nonsense. I’m not going to make a fool of myself. I know what they are saying in the town- not dulha raja- prince bridegroom, but dulha dada- the grandfather groom! I can’t imagine what the poor girl has to listen to.”
Gago looked inside the teapot and poured some into an empty glass. She sat down on the grass.
“It’s wet,” said the Colonel.
“My dress is thick, and so is my skin,” said Gago. “You shouldn’t worry about the girl- I mean Memsahib. She is very happy. Looking forward to becoming queen of this palace.” She gestured hugely with her arms at the mansion behind her. It was a white austere building wearing trails of bright pink bouganvillea as though they were strands from an unwanted wig.
“Take the egg, too, Gago,” said the Colonel, offering her the plate.
“No, no, sir, poor stomachs cannot digest wealthy foods,” she said. Although after thirty years in his service she was accustomed to his kindness, she never relaxed totally before him or took what she perceived as liberties.
“Just eat it Gago, I know you want to.”
“I’ll eat it later. May God reward you, Saabji, and give you the child you have been yearning for.”
Anwar winced. He wished it wasn’t so obvious that although the girl would undoubtedly be treated as mistress of the “palace”, her primary function was to produce an heir to it. He didn’t care if his name died out with him, but there was his mother, over eighty and counting breaths, yet still croaking orders he couldn’t refuse from her room upstairs.
In Room 007 of the Happy Suraj Guest House, Pervez pushed a sweaty, heaving girl off him.
“You are getting too over,” he said, rolling over to the edge of the bed and pulling the frosty polyester chenille blanket over him. It was patterned with purple leopard spots and smelt of old mothballs and stale water.
“But I thought you wanted me to….” she began.
“Yes, but even I have my limits. Hurry up and go. The old man will be back soon. Take the money on the table.” She picked up the notes sullenly and stuffed them down the front of her kameez.
“What about my bus ticket?”
He tossed her a twenty rupee with a look that warned her not to ask for more. She made an attempt to end the meeting on a slight note of tenderness, even it were only fake, and ruffled his hair.
“When again, baby?” she said.
“I’ll let Kaaloo know,” he said. “You never know he might have new stock in by then.” She went to the bathroom and he lay there, looking at the wires running breathlessly around the top of walls, connecting to the tube light, the fan, the television. Sometimes he thought about tidying the place up, making it a classy joint like the Pearl Continental in Burban, but he could never compete and his customers never complained. Room 007. He adored the appropriateness of it. He tried to use this room when he could.
She came out, her pale face washed and looking wasted in the cold light, and wrapped herself in a patterned dark blue shawl. Pervez stood up, tying a knot in his salwar.
“Help me make the bed before you go,” he said, but the girl picked up her handbag and left. He grunted and folded the blanket as best as he could, and crossed the moist carpet into the bathroom, thinking that maybe he should get the leak from the room upstairs checked out. You could get the odd asthmatic whinger who complained about the damp. The bathroom now, that was a beauty. Floor to ceiling tiles, hot water in the mornings, a basin, a proper shower, and a chair-toilet. It was a piece of sculpture- light pink to match everything else, and one of only three in the hotel, which had a total of thirty rooms, and probably one of only ten in the whole of Murree. Of course the seat was broken and bandaged with sellotape, and the flush didn’t work- you had to throw a bucketful of water down, but that didn’t matter, there was plenty of water. This was definitely the VIP suite.
He washed his face and combed his hair. The mirror had a crack running down the middle and distorted his handsome face, but he didn’t mind that. A touch of ugliness would ensure he didn’t become mesmerised by his own beauty and give himself the evil eye.
The door to the bedroom opened and he heard the businessman come and fling his case on the bed. He dried his face and went out.
“Sorry to disturb you, sir,” he said. “I was just going- I put some clean towels for you. Did you have a comfortable night?”
“It was alright. I’m not impressed by your electrics,” said Mr Shah.
“Was there a problem?”
“I turned the television on and the lights went out.”
“That’s the system, sir. The fuse box gets overloaded. You can only use one thing at a time. It’s the authentic hilltop experience. It’s why you come here.” He smiled and pulled the curtain dramatically to expose the fabulous view of pine forests staggering up the hills, woven through with winding roads.
“Hmm. There was no hot water, either, at six o’clock this morning,” said Mr Shah, taking off his shoes and massaging his toes.
“Hot water hours are from eight till ten thirty. In case of emergency, you should ring the bell for Sharfoo.”
“I did ring the bloody bell. In the end I had to go out on to the balcony and yell. The fool was asleep.”
“That’s the only disadvantage of having this top floor room- fantastic scenery but sometimes it takes time to wake up the staff. They sleep on the ground level.”
“There was no one at reception either.”
Pervez soothed Mr Shah, promising to discipline his negligent staff, and left him lying on the bed under the stiff blanket, trying to take an afternoon nap.
Rabia entered the courtyard with the full force of her being. She was angry, her dark wind blown robes storming up the dust as she charged buffalo like into the tranquility of Baba’s lunch hour. The small furtive eyes in the bullish face flashed at him accusingly.
“What shit did you sell to me, you son of a bitch? I fed it to Kaka last night but he was awake again at seven. It’s the second time this month…”
“Calm down. Sit,” said Raja Saeed Munir Shah, known to most as Baba. His wife had died from tuberculosis twenty years ago and his daughters had married and moved away, one to Karachi, another to Dubai. He’d refused their offer of one of them taking him with her- his people were here, his health was good, and he like cooking for himself.
Baba pushed one small woven cane stool towards Rabia and sat down on another, beside the small knee high cooker, which was attached to a large gas cylinder. Taking a handful of shiny white dough, he shaped it into a ball, flattened it, then slapped it onto a round wooden board to roll it into a chapatti.
“What’s the problem?”
“Kaka’s asking too many questions,” said Rabia, taking out a paan from within the folds of her burkha and putting the whole thing into her mouth. Red juice began to trickle from the corners of her lips as she chewed it vigorously.
“Do you think he knows something?” said Baba.
“Don’t be ridiculous! He was only asking where I was going- but still- imagine it! For the last fifty years no one in my house has dared to raise their voice before me. Now my own husband is asking me how I spend my afternoons. Your magic is wearing off, Raja. Or maybe your heart is lost. I’ve heard you’ve been refusing people.”
He span the roti on the tawa with a cloth.
“I’m an old man. My time is coming.”
“You think you’ll get forgiveness for holding back a few potions here and there? After years of causing chaos in people’s lives? And you can’t escape it now. The sorcery is in your soul.”
Baba threw the roti onto the naked flame. When it became filled with hot air and puffed up like a mushroom cloud, he tossed it ino the basket.
“Have some. I’ve made daal.”
Rabia stood up.
“I’ll be back tomorrow. You better have something to give me.”
“Higher, higher!” yelled Gago to the man with on the ladder who was attempting to adorn the outside of the Colonel’s mansion with an endless string of fairy lights. “The house needs to look crowned with glory on this joyous day. Come on, only eight hours to go.”
“Why are you bothering with all this?” asked the Colonel, looking up from his book, which he was reading at the garden table. His friend Kamar sat with him, sipping tea. “I’ve told you a thousand times I don’t want a fuss.”
“Madam’s orders. The town must know the family is celebrating. Do they flash? I told you I wanted a disco effect.” Gago waved a fist at the lights man.
Anwar, unable to bear the vision of entering his solemn new union before a backdrop of pulsating neon, disappeared inside the house, only to emerge seconds later from his bedroom window, brandishing a shimmering sherwani jacket.
“What the hell is this?”
“Golden suit, saab,” said Gago, without removing her eyes from the coil of paper bunting she was busy trying to loop over a rose bush.
“I refuse absolutely to wear this. I’m wearing the black suit I have- English style, and that’s it. Understood?”
“Saabji, you’ll break Madam’s heart. Kamar saab, tell him he should appear in his full glory,” said Gago.
“She’s right,” laughed Kamar. “The gold has a far greater sense of occasion.”
The Colonel retreated into the room, slamming the window shut.
On the top floor, from her bed by the window, Begum Shezada heard this exchange between her son and the maid, and cackled quietly, rubbing her gnarled, jewel encrusted hands together. The room was one of the smaller ones in the house, chosen by the Begum to ensure there wasn’t even the remotest chance of her feeling insignificant. The walls were painted in shiny cream gloss and there were intricately carved panels of sheesham wood at the windows and around the door. There was a full length mirror opposite the bed, covered in a veil of dust, and cobwebs fluttered in the corners. Although Gago and her henchmen kept the rest of the house spotless, Begum only allowed the room to be dusted on the very few occasions she went out onto the balcony. She would rather live with settled dust then endure clouds of it moving around her as it was swept away.
Beside the bed was a folded wheelchair, and a marble topped table, upon which stood a mirrored box containing her medicines and insulin injections, a jug of water, and a radio cassette player, currently tuned into BBC World Service.
She wouldn’t insist on the gold outfit. It had taken her twenty years to convince him again, and now she had only hours left. She knew how much he would take. Even a nudge too far could prove fatal at this point- because it was happening at last.
Saika had always planned on getting married in white instead of the tradtional red favoured by brides in India and Pakistan, but when the time came, the lehnga she fell in love with was the colour of the ripest tomatoes. As her cousin and the woman from Muree’s one beauty parlour arranged her hair in a snaky sculpture of spirals and embedded it with rosebuds, Saika looked in the mirror and thought the dress made her look somehow overcooked. Well, she was overcooked, overdone, aged, mouldy, or whatever it was a girl became once she passed the upper marriage age limit of about twenty seven. At thirty one, Saika had had not only both legs but almost all the top half of her body dangling in the grave of lifelong spinsterhood, when she was saved spectacularly by the proposal from the Colonel.
It was her uncle Tanvir’s wife Rabia, also a second cousin of the Begum, who’d acted as the go-between and brought the message. The Colonel, wanted the honour of making her, Saika, daughter of Ibrahim and Zubeida, his wife. There was no need for the fifty five year old “boy” to come along and be questioned about his education, work prospects, lineage, bad habits and general intentions towards her. All this was well known- the Colonel had a reputation for being honest and generous, if a little emotionally “reserved”, and was respected and indeed loved by almost everyone that lived in the town. Saika’s parents were without speech for at least ten minutes. When he finally recovered, after drinking four glasses of water and three spoons of Gaviscon (a very super and international indigestion remedy that had recently become available at the local store), Saika’s father said to his sister in law, “Please repeat, Rabia, and this time speak clearly. I don’t think I understood you properly.”
“You heard, Ibrahim. Colonel saab will marry Saika. The Begum wants a direct wedding, with no hassle of a long engagement. Which day shall I tell them?”
“But they are like the great oaks and we are not even like small honey bees. How can such a match be made? And our girl- well she isn’t the freshest little flower is she?”
“If you must know the decision was Colonel saab’s own,” Rabia said reluctantly.
“He’s seen her photo?” asked Ibrahim.
“Well yes, and he’s seen her around town, gallavanting as this generation does.”
“Now, Rabia, my girls are never ones for gallavanting unnecessarily, and as far as that goes you yourself….”
“Alright don’t start. The point is that Colonel saab wanted, for some reason, an old girl, and as we know, Saika is one of the oldest around. It seems that her unreasonable obsession with education has paid off.”
When Saika had announced her intention to finish a degree, Rabia had voiced the fiercest opposition in the family. For Ibrahim, who disliked her and loved his daughter, this was the only encouragement needed to side with Saika.
“So, tell me,” said Rabia, removing a plastic straw from a glass bottle of Sprite and taking a swig. “Eh, Tabu, make some tea. When do you want to set the wedding date?”
“It’s an unbelievably generous offer, but Zubeida and I need to discuss it with Saika first,” said Ibrahim, surprising even himself. He already knew he would do everything in his power to make Zubeida and Saika see the benefits of accepting, but he would never grovel like a grateful donkey at Rabia’s feet.
Rabia crashed the Sprite bottle on the table.
“Are you crazy? Who in their right mind needs to discuss something like this? That’s why she’s still not married- you and that half wit wife of yours let her get her own way in everything. Who wants an educated old hag?”
“You mind your tongue, missus- and why she’s not married I’ll tell you! You’re the hag around here, putting black curses on her chances, drying up her good luck!”
“You dare to say that!” At this point Rabia grabbed Ibrahim’s wrists and began waving them up and down in fury. Fearful that she would flatten him within seconds, Saika and Zubeida pulled her off and sat her down.
“Where’s that tea?” panted Rabia, wiping her face with her dupatta.
“Tabu, hurry up!” Saika called to her sister, who’d been enjoying the scene from the door. She turned to her aunt. “You can tell them to come in the second week of next month. They can decide the exact date.” Rabia grunted, and Saika’s parents fell on her, weeping with relief.