[published in the Winter 2017 edition of “Tiferet Journal”] It’s 2 am on a cool November night in 1970. I’m on a train about 125 miles northeast of Delhi. Every few minutes the train stops at a small station.
I am 20, a student at the University of Delhi. The young Indian man with me looks like Rudolph Valentino and sings like Nat King Cole. He is endlessly charming, a man who recites Persian poetry and always wears a white shirt, tie and a business suit. I am on my way to meet his family.
The train stops for only two or three minutes at the tiny station. Mohsin and I stand ready at the door of the bogie, our bags at our feet. He jumps out and reaches up for me. My sari’s folds wrap around my legs, but he steadies me. We stand on the pavement.
The air smells of molasses. Around us stretch fields of tall sugar cane. This is harvest time. The cane is being boiled into gur, the hard brown sugar candy of northern India. It simmers for hours in huge vats, perfuming the fields and villages.
The train station has only one bare light bulb and no beggars. A few men in loose clothes squat near the tracks. They know Mohsin on sight. His ancestors have been their landlords for centuries. They raise their hands to their faces in the salaam gesture and stare at me.
The women of his family, the local nobility, have always been veiled. I am an outsider, a gori, a white girl. Like the memsahibs, the brazen Englishwomen, I wear no veil.
Mohsin calls out and hurries forward. “Bawa! Here!”
A tall, bearded Muslim man strides towards us and bows to me.
“Madame, hello.” His accent is strongly British. He seems delighted.
He seizes a bag.
Mohsin pulls it from his hand. “Father, let me.”
Bawa glances at him and bends towards me. “My dear. My English is quite poor. We live humbly here.”
A man runs up to take the bags, and Mohsin hands them away.
Bawa continues his speech. “I have known Britishers all my life. My grandfather was given the title of Khan Bahadur eighty years ago….”
His presence overwhelms me. He wears a sherwani , the tight, high-collared tunic coat of Indian Muslim men. It looks a bit like Lincoln’s frock coat. His beard is white, his skin is dark brown, he wears a small round cap, and his hands are huge and rough.
He beckons to a cycle rickshaw, and the young man salutes. “Huzoor!”
With a courtly gesture, Bawa hands me up into the rickshaw and gestures for Mohsin to sit next to me. Mohsin obeys, saying nothing. The man balances our bags behind us, climbs onto the bicycle seat and sets off.
The rickshaw-wallah, the rickshaw driver, looks about 16 and can’t weigh more than 110 pounds. He’s thin, small, strong and dark. It’s that strength that you often see in India—elfin women who carry big bowls of cement on their heads and a toddler on their hips at construction sites or small men in tattered loincloths who swing heavy picks and carry hundreds of pounds of broken rock for twelve hours in the 100 degrees of sun.
Bawa walks next to the rickshaw along the dirt road. The cane fields stretch out into the darkness. We hear the chirp-chirp of a generator, and there is a floodlight far across the field where syrup boils in a refinery. The whole night smells of molasses.
“The cane is being harvested.” He sweeps his arm around at the dark fields.
I answer something, and he laughs. “Ah, your English! Forgive me, I will make many mistakes.” He chuckles to himself and watches me with approving eyes.
He looks again at the fields. The land is his and Mohsin’s.
We pass a dark farm worker who raises his hand to his forehead.
“A-salaam-alei-kum!” Peace be with you.
Father and son answer as one. “Wa-lei-kum-a-salaam!” And with you be peace.
I don’t know yet that their family owned this area for more than 600 years. I don’t understand how the salaam, the dense cane fields and the centuries bind them in blood and duty. They have known each other’s faces from birth to death, as did their grandparents and great-grandparents.
Thirty years later, on the day Mohsin finally dies—a swollen, demented alcoholic alone in his empty mansion— the families of these workers will pour out of their houses as the coffin passes. With no announcement, they will walk behind his shrouded body as it is quietly carried to a grave in another town.
The rickshaw lurches and bumps on the rutted narrow village street. Big padlocks hang on the wooden shutters of the little shops. Red coals glow in braziers here and there, and watchmen squat nearby, smoking the little hand-rolled cigarettes called bidis. One tugs his dark shawl tight and watches us pass. Another nods politely to Bawa and raises his hand to his forehead.
Usually in India the men openly, aggressively, stare at a white girl, but Bawa is both the imam and the local lord, the zamindar. No matter how peculiar a sight I am, no one dares look at me for long.
The rickshaw lurches on uneven bricks and turns into a tiny alleyway. I can reach out and touch both the walls on both sides. We stop. The rickshaw-wallah says nothing but jumps down to hold the cycle steady.
“Do you see the gate?” Mohsin whispers. He does not offer a hand for me to get down.
I look up. The alley is dark and narrow, and there’s a single light. Above us looms a huge dark shape, an ornate archway two stories high with little balconies on both sides of the heavy double doors.
“The ancestral home”—Bawa gestures grandly—“built by my family, of sufficient height that an elephant could pass beneath.” He bows slightly and offers me his hand. I step down and tuck my shawl close.
Two men servants step up, lifting their palms to their foreheads. “Ji, huzoor.” Yes, sir. Bawa nods towards the luggage as Mohsin jumps out of the rickshaw.
“Follow me,” says Bawa. He takes a lantern from one of the servants and steps through one of the huge doors. We enter a courtyard so large that several full-sized trees grow inside. A water buffalo and a cart stand to one side. At the other end, beyond brick steps, are scalloped arches over dark rooms.
We cross this courtyard. A man standing by a small door salaams. “Huzoor!”
Bawa nods at him and gestures to me. “Come through here, my dear.”
I step through a small room through another door into another courtyard. I can’t see much in the darkness. Mohsin points towards the end but says nothing.
A brazier glows on a verandah beneath ornate arches. A young woman comes toward us, pulling her shawl over her head and smiling.
“A-salaam-alei-kum. Peace be with you.” She holds out her hand. Her voice is low. “My English…bad.”
I take her hand. She laughs and says something in Urdu to Bawa.
He nods. “My daughter Malahut. Mohsin’s sister. She says you look exhausted. Her English is quite weak, I fear.”
In Hindi, I say, “I can speak a little Hindi.” She chuckles.
“Very good. Very good indeed.” Bawa smiles. “Off to your room now. Malahut will care for you.”
I glance at Mohsin but he stays silent. I don’t know yet that Mohsin will never speak to me in front of his father. Etiquette requires that everyone direct all attention, all conversation only to Bawa. If Malahut’s child falls and is bleeding, Malahut will not pick her up in front of Bawa unless he tells her to do so.
The three of them know the rules, and I do not. But I don’t really notice, since it’s 2 am and I’m in an old stone house in the Indian countryside.
“Come.” Malahut holds a lantern. Mohsin says nothing, and I follow her through a small door. As we climb the worn stone steps to the second story, she holds the folds of her long skirts out of the way. Whatever she’s wearing, it’s not a sari like mine.
We turn at a landing and step though a small door into another courtyard high above the large lower one. To one side, at the back of a little verandah, wooden doors are closed and she pushes these open. There are two beds and some small carved wooden tables and chairs.
I smile. “Very good. I like it,” I say in Hindi.
She laughs and gestures at the light switch. “No electricity. Maybe tomorrow.” She opens another door that reveals a small room.
“Dressing room.” She lifts the lantern as she goes down a narrow flight of steps. Around the walls are shelves with big trunks, and there is a little antique vanity with what looks like a covered picture on it.
She laughs as she lifts the cloth. It is a mirror. This is a girl who laughs easily.
Back in the bedroom she sets the lantern on a small round table and pushes open a double door in another wall. A huge white wooden commode stands there, as gallant and courtly as a 300-pound Victorian gentleman.
“Toilet,” she says, and I grin like an idiot.
In Indian villages, it’s common to squat over a gutter or trough to shit. Then a sweeper in rags who is squatting nearby rinses the spot with buckets of water or scoops the feces up with sticks or leaves. It’s the hereditary work of sweepers, who are so low that people call them “outcastes,” lower India’s lowest caste. But Gandhi-ji called them “Harijans,” which means “Child of God.”
In this rambling old house, no one has to scoop my shit off the floor. The massive commode feels more luxurious than a silk nightgown.
Deep in sleep, I hear a wavering nasal chant, the azaan, the Muslim call to prayer. It’s not on a loudspeaker; it’s a real man standing in a minaret nearby singing the prayer. The chilly air smells of molasses. I lift my head. Malahut’s bed is empty. I hear water splashing.
I push the wool quilts aside, sit up, throw a shawl over my shoulders and stand in the doorway. On the little verandah, she’s pouring water from an ornate pitcher over her forearms and feet and washing her face.
She finishes washing, wraps her long scarf so that her hair is tucked away and stands on a small, beautifully carved, wooden platform in a corner of the room. Murmuring, she lifts her hands to her ears, folds her hands in front, bows and kneels. She bends forward, touches her forehead to the ground and sits back.
I don’t know yet that the correct time for fajr prayers is just at first light, when the whiteness touches the full width of the eastern sky.
It doesn’t matter to her that I am watching. In the west praying in front of someone seems strange, almost rude. After all, the Christian apostle Matthew says prayer should be private. “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”
In India praying in front of others is as normal as buying milk. I love it. It’s one reason India’s homes feel so different. Indians are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Christian and Buddhist. Around any corner in any home, there might be a shrine or a prayer rug.
Worship here throbs to extraordinary rhythms. Hindus dance their gods’ stories to the tabla’s dha-dhin-dhin-dha beats, and Sikhs sing their gurbani hymns. Christians beat huge drums as they carry their saints in procession. In this house, Muslims sing praise to God in low, passionate qawwalis. I might open any door and find a woman sitting with her Quran or singing a prayer as she works.
The alien rhythms surprise me. But it turns out that I still hear God singing. My heart recognizes every drumbeat, every dancer’s glance as worship. It’s a warm, common thing, like thinking you’ve tramped for days through wild places to get away and then, far from anything you know, your mother calls you home.
As the sky brightens, I see the walls of this little courtyard and above that, the balustrades of rooftop verandahs. It’s an old house, a jumble of high walls that hide dozens of courtyards. In each courtyard, scalloped Moghul arches rise above dark rooms, but I know nothing yet about how the family actually lives.
The walls are whitewashed and, like every other Indian building, streaked with mildew. On a wall above me something moves. A mother monkey with a baby clinging to her bends down to stare at me. I smile. In Delhi, the monkeys in the woods near the university make trouble, hooting, teasing and snatching lunch bags if they can.
To one side is a door that leads to other rooms and steep stone stairs. A girl’s face peeks out, but she says nothing.
Malahut turns her head to the right, whispers something, turns to the left, whispers again, breathes deeply, stands and grins at me. She’s wearing the clothes she slept in, a loose, cotton, floor-length divided skirt and kurta. She tugs the long scarf off her hair and pulls it over her shoulders and chest.
I smile and she gestures at the girl by the door, who lifts her right hand to her forehead in salaam and runs off. We can hear the pump in the courtyard below.
One servant girl brings carries the china teapot and another carries a tray with napkins and fine china teacups. The girls look about 14. The stairs are steep and irregular, and they carry the trays better than the old women working in the kitchen.
It’s cool and the steam from the tea smells lovely. Indian tea is strong black tea sweetened with cane sugar and diluted with hot rich milk from the water buffalo. The Hindi word for tea is chai but real Indian chai often has no spice.
She laughs again. “You speak Hindi?”
I nod and say, in Hindi, “I’m studying Hindi at the university. I love the Hindi language.”
She roars with laughter and repeats what I said, enunciating every syllable. She’s not quite mocking me, but obviously I have said something funny. In Hindi she says, “But you sound like a priest! Like a Hindu pundit!”
I nod. “They’re teaching us pure Hindi, shudh Hindi. My teacher is a Benarasi Brahmin.”
She shakes her head. “What did you call the university? Vishvavideeyalay?” She chuckles. “You know ‘book’? ‘Kitaab’?”
“Did they tell you ‘kitaab’ is Urdu, not Hindi? It is from Persian. It’s not from Sanskrit. In Hindi it should be ‘pustak.’ If they are teaching pure Hindi, they should not teach ‘kitaab.’ ”
I nod again.
“And they taught you to say ‘jabaan’ for ‘language’ instead of ‘zabaan.’ This is wrong. Your teacher cannot say the ‘z’ sound….In Hindi there is no ‘z’ sound. But ‘zabaan‘ is an Urdu word, so now you must learn to say it correctly.”
I lean forward and say it again, using Urdu pronunciation. “Urdu is a very good language.”
She beams at me, stands and beckons to the servant. “Did you get the hot water ready?”
The girls bend to pick up two steaming buckets. They carry the water through the bedroom and down the steps into the small dressing room. I follow.
Malahut gestures towards the bathing platform. “You know how?”
I nod and she leaves, pulling the door shut.
It’s a traditional Indian bath. I squat naked on a little wooden bathing platform and pour hot water over myself with a scoop. I love this ritual. I lather with soap and splash it all off. Sweet-smelling soapy water runs off my body, off the bathing platform into little channels along the wall and cascades out a hole. I hear it spatter on the street below. I work shampoo into my hair and then pour cups of hot water to rinse it out.
I stand, dry off with a rough towel, step into my underwear, tie my sari petticoat tight and fasten the tight little choli blouse that leaves my midriff bare. I step away from the wet floor and pick up one of the good cotton saris I wear at the university in Delhi.
Cotton saris are in fashion, and most of the university girls wear them. We sleep, run and ride our bikes in them; it is not an especially genteel garment. This one’s trendy because of its traditional folk pattern. I carefully measure out the length of the pallu, the decorated shawl end, so that there’s enough to drape across my chest and over my shoulder. I settle on a fashionable length, make the pleats and tuck them in. I comb my hair, put on some bangles and find my chappals, my flip-flops.
Malahut looks me up and down. “You wear a sari in Delhi?”
She fingers the cloth. “But this is very nice. You put it on like an Indian girl.” Her glance is impish. “Mohsin likes it?”
I laugh. “He does, yes.”
I hold the folds of my sari carefully as we go down the steep stone stairs and step out into a large courtyard.
I stop, stunned. The large courtyard is sun and patterned shadow. Victorian curlicues fence a little garden, and a dozen traditional Mughal arches edge the pattern of brick and tile. On the left, smoke drifts out an archway. The air smells of onions, chilies and wood smoke. On the right, under scalloped arches, long lace curtains hide verandahs and dark rooms.
Mohsin steps forward and smiles at me but says nothing. Bawa strides past him and bows to me.
“Slept well?” he asks in English.
“I did, yes.” I switch to Hindi. “Dhanyavad. Thank you. Malahut has been very kind.”
He nods. “Of course. It is her duty to do so.” He frowns. “But you have used the Hindi word. Here we say, ‘Shukriya.’ Like this….” He bows over his hand again. “Shukriya.”
I repeat it and bow.
He chuckles, steps back and looks at me. “You are wearing a sari. Is this what you wear at the university?”
“You wear it well. Do you like India?”
“I do. I love it here.”
“Very good, very good.” He falls silent. Malahut says something to him. Mohsin shakes his head and says something else I do not understand.
“My dear….” Bawa thinks a moment. “In this house we cannot wear a sari. Do you see what Malahut is wearing?” Malahut watches my face and holds out a fold of her long divided skirt. “This is a court garment, a ghararah. It is what our women wear. Malahut will give you her clothing.”
I look at Mohsin. “But…”
He frowns and shakes his head at me.
“Go now.” Bawa starts to walk away. “We will eat breakfast once you have changed.”
Upstairs, I follow Malahut into the little dressing room. She opens one of the big chests and pulls out folded silk clothes.
“But I don’t understand,” I say. “This sari is wrapped correctly.”
“No, no!” She shakes her head. “It is very good. You look beautiful. But…” She reaches out, lifts the pallu a little and touches my bare midriff. “Not in a Muslim house. We do not show this. Not in our family.” She bends to unfold the silk. “Here. A ghararah is very good, very beautiful. Mohsin will like this.” She lifts the edge of her own tunic. “Do you see? Underneath is the ghararah, and the kurta is over that.” She adjusts her long scarf. “And the dupatta is over this part.” She pats her chest. “OK?” She holds up a ghararah of gold-colored silk damask. “This one is mine, from my mother. Let me put in the drawstring.” The tunic is dark green silk with darker green embroidery.
“Can’t I wear one like yours? A cotton one?”
She chuckles. “No, mine is for sleeping.” She finds a long plastic bodkin and threads a woven drawstring through the waistband. “Now can you get dressed?”
I nod. Even at the university, Indian girls never undress in front of each other. After she pulls the door closed, I take off my sari and petticoat, step into the ghararah and tie it below my waist. It’s long, drapey culottes, several yards of bias-cut silk that float around my legs and feet. The silk of the tunic smells of mothballs and a tingly, spicy scent that I do not know. I take the dupatta in my hand and go out.
“Here.” I hand it to her. “You show me how.”
She holds it up and points to her chest. “You never show this….”
“Right,” I say. “Just like in a sari. So no one can see the shape.”
She grins and carefully drapes the long scarf over my shoulders and breasts.
“And my head?” I ask.
“No.” She sits back and looks at me. “It shows respect but you are not married. This is OK. This looks beautiful.”
We are sitting beneath high scalloped arches shading a verandah that leads to shadowy, cool inner rooms. As we drink tea, Mohsin’s father talks to Mohsin, his cousin and son-in-law about managing the mango orchards. Mohsin’s other sister, Atiya, has come from another town with her three children. The sisters drink tea and feed tidbits of toast and egg to whatever baby is in their laps. Mohsin’s mother chats with her sister, a fine-boned woman with a long face and high cheekbones.
Magenta bougainvillea blossoms hang from a high wall nearby. The pump in the middle of the courtyard squeaks as a man in shabby clothing pumps water for two white oxen. Inside an ornate wrought iron fence, an old woman is watering fruit trees and plants. Behind the fenced garden, wood smoke curls from beneath the arches of the kitchen. The air smells of roasting goat meat. The kitchen servants chat and laugh as they work.
Mohsin’s mother laughs in a low voice and gestures at me.
“I can’t talk to you,” she says in Urdu. “I don’t know English.”
The men laugh.
Mohsin bends over his mother’s shoulder and murmurs in a voice low enough that his father can’t hear him. “Ammi, just keep correcting her. They’ve taught her Hindi, but she can understand you.”
She frowns a little and gestures towards the ghararah I am wearing. “Do you like this? This is the clothing of our family.”
“I do! Of course I do,” I say. “It’s beautiful.” They all laugh.
Malahut stands up, holding someone’s baby. “She likes everything. Who can understand it?” She laughs and hands the baby to another woman.
Someone coughs in the far corner of the courtyard, and we look up. A woman in a black burqa is standing by the small door from outside.
The movement is so subtle that I don’t realize what is happening. Bawa finishes his sentence and stands. Without glancing at the woman by the door, he moves back under a different archway, and Mohsin and his cousins follow him. The servant at the pump turns to face the kitchen, so his back is toward us.
Ammi rearranges her dupatta so that it is more formally draped, and Malahut jumps up to ask what snacks are being made in the kitchen. As the men slip away, the veiled woman lifts the niqab, the front chiffon flap that hangs over her face.
She beams at us. “Peace be with you.”
Ammi nods. “And with you be peace.”
The woman sits on one of the rope beds near our chairs, unfastens the black cape of the burqa and lifts it off.
Ammi leans towards me. “She is Fatima. She has never married. Her brother went to the university with Mohsin.”
Fatima nods towards me and speaks in Urdu. “This is the foreigner?”
“It’s her first day. She’s just getting used to things,” Malahut says.
“She’s very white.”
Malahut laughs. “She’s American.”
The woman peers at me. “She’s wearing one of your ghararahs?”
“We’re about the same size,” Malahut says.
“But she’s tall—tall like a queen.”
“She can understand some Hindi. You could speak to her.”
Fatima is dark and plump, and she wears a lime-green satin tunic, the drapey loose trousers called selwar, and a filmy lime-green dupatta that she carefully arranges to cover her chest and shoulders.
She frowns a little as she turns toward me and speaks in Urdu. I cannot make out what she has said.
Malahut interrupts her. “Say it slowly! And use good pronunciation!”
The woman struggles to speak slowly. “Do you have sisters?”
I nod. “Yes, ji. I have two, and a brother.”
“Are they married?”
I search my mind for how to say “three years ago” in Hindi and say it as best I can.
She grins at the others. “She talks like a Hindu priest!”
A woman carrying a tray with a teapot and china cups stands next to Ammi, who gestures to indicate that she can serve the tea.
The guest carefully holds her teacup. “Do you have a car in America?”
From the corner of the courtyard by the door, a man coughs. Bawa has come back in with a woman wearing a burqa.
Fatima sets her cup down, pulls her scarf up over her head, turns away so that her back is turned to Bawa and then pulls the end of her dupatta out like a screen, so that her face is completely blocked from view.
Bawa ignores us. He calls to a servant to bring two chairs and sits in a back corner behind us. The woman with him lifts her niqab so he can see her face. She looks young. I hear her crying.
Bawa asks questions and she nods and bends forward, sobbing.
Malahut is watching my face. “She is a newly married girl,” she says. “Her husband… her husband beats her. She has come to Bawa for help.”
“What will she do? Can she go back to her parents? Can she get a divorce?”
Malahut smiles at my worried tone. “Bawa is the imam. It is forbidden to beat a woman in Islam. He will talk to the man. The man cannot do this. Divorce is possible, but we don’t like it.”
Ammi says something in Urdu that I do not understand. Malahut agrees and turns back to me.
“My mother says she knew this was a bad marriage. He will not do it again. Bawa is like a judge in this village. He will talk to him and he will give him punishment.”
I glance at Fatima, who is still sitting with her back turned, holding her scarf out. She is sipping her tea with one hand.
Malahut follows my glance. “Fatima is not our close relation so Bawa cannot see her face. She does not come in front of Bawa without a veil. He came inside, but even then he does not see her face.”
“But what about the young girl? She has lifted her veil. That means she is a family member?”
“Of course she has lifted her veil, but she is not a family member. For this, family does not matter. Bawa is the imam—like a priest, like a judge to her. Like a father. It is allowed. And she is frightened. He thinks she will cry less in here with us.”
In here with us. In here.
Malahut gestures at the whole courtyard. “This is the ladies’ part. Ladies only.”
“But there are men here—Your cousins and Mohsin were here. Bawa ate breakfast with us. There was that man with the oxen. I don’t understand.”
Malahut laughs and says something in Urdu to the other women, who all nod and smile.
“We show our faces to family. In here, in the zenana, we are with family.” She gestures to Fatima. “But she is not our relation. Bawa cannot see her.”
“The zenana?” I think of my vocabulary lessons. This is a new word. I have heard of harems, but the images in my mind are of eunuchs and slave girls. “And where are the men?”
“Outside is the murdana. For men. If I go outside, I put on my burqa. Men come inside, but only family men. Not everybody.”
I’m in the women’s quarters? I glance at the other women. These rooms feel like a family room. There’s no sense of seduction or availability to the men.
It’s a family place, a haven. The gentle older women feel like the church ladies I knew at home.
Stunned, I realize again that after two years of college study, I know nothing. I glance at Bawa, who has stood and is walking towards the door with the young woman. She fastens her cloak, wipes her eyes, pulls the black veil over her face and steps through the small door into the outer courtyard.
I sit in wonder. Morning sun gleams on the bright walls, green vines and magenta flowers. Flies buzz. The water buffalo bellows. In the kitchen a woman laughs. A child shouts as he runs by, dragging something on a string. To me it feels like home. These inner rooms feel safe.
[Part II of this piece is “Singing Hope,” and it tells the end of the story.]
–by Jean Gendreau
copyright © 2016 by Jean E Gendreau