Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Priya Rajaram, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

Chinar House

Noor Begum straightened her pheran1 looking at the sky outside that had dimmed to the shade of lavenders that dotted the valley. Ajaz baba would need to be given his kesar milk and the aam phirni2 had to be made. She spooned a pinch of saffron in a glass of hot milk making sure not a single fragile strand slipped from her shaky hands knotted with age. Letting the milk steep, she looked up at the chinars that gazed at her like haughty sentinels. Chinar House was named after these sprawling trees that completely camouflaged the house. Passersby could merely see clumps of leaves flecked with house lights that resembled fireflies. People have no other business but to look into the windows of the rich, peace be to Abbujaan who had thoughtfully planted these trees - thought Noor Begum to herself, reminded of the time when her father had nurtured the Kazis’ garden for four decades and showed her how to wield a sickle and plant a sapling, while she had looked on with a na├»ve unguarded wonder that only children were permitted to possess in this tumultuous land. Chinar House was a stately mansion over a hundred years old whose walls bore a somber air having witnessed the history of many eons. It was touted to be built by a famous architect of that time who had so intelligently designed it that the first rays of the sun into the house fell onto the prayer corner. Keeping with traditional Kashmiri architecture, the house faced south to let most of the warmth in and was made of stone that provided insulation in the harsh winters. The windows and pillars were framed with intricately carved walnut wood and the main window of the house that opened out to the lawn was shaped like a chinar leaf, its panes following the leaf’s meanderings. The house was a low-rise structure with just one floor above the ground and Noor Begum was thankful for that given her advancing age. The large lawn had a rose garden at its center with cabbage roses in every shade of pink one could imagine, like dazzling pink tourmalines encrusted in emerald grass. The rose garden was religiously entered by its proud owners in the Srinagar flower competition every year and had, more often than not, bagged the trophy.

Noor Begum was a heavy woman with kind, firm eyes and the distant sound of her stately tread through Chinar House was enough to shake the idling staff back to action. She had worn her matronly dignified facade for years now and no one knew how she had looked in her youth – whether she had been slender and sober or plump and impish – she herself seemed to have forgotten. Her friends, toothless and stricken spent their days waiting for their final call from Allah living in fear of the known and the unknown - the distress of poverty, the horror of terror attacks, the anxiety of illnesses. They lived because they didn’t die – they lived until the cold started gnawing away at their bones and loneliness wrenched their heart, after which it was but a steady downfall. It was a matter of utmost gratitude and pride for Noor Begum that she had turned seventy and yet the masters gave her a chance to serve them. And when had it ever been a job for her. Chinar House was her life. Her whole family’s in fact. Her Shohar had driven the Chinar House occupants in the grand red Plymouth until five years ago when he had breathed his last. She had spent every waking day at Chinar House for the last forty-nine years, barring only the two months leave taken over four installments – once when her son Wahid was born, twice when her Abbujaan and Shohar had passed away, and when her nosh3 had delivered Hurun. Noor Begum did not fall sick very often given her pahadi health, and even if she did, she cursed away the joint aches and pains with potent fumes conjured up by smoking whole red chillies. So what if young Mehrunnisa had been hired last year. Had she not been amongst the first bunch of women to receive the late Inaayat Khatoon who had come in as a new bride and then the oldest in the group that welcomed Tahira Begum? For all of Inaayat Khatoon’s pride and vanity, she was probably the only one who still remembered the intimidated look on the Khatoon’s face when she had first entered Chinar House. And then the children loved her. Earlier it had been Rahim baba who would not sleep without her stories and refuse to eat if not from her hand. Now it was little Ajaz baba. Had she not been the first one to hold them both in her arms? Her recipes had been used for most of the famed Wazwaan4 dishes in celebrations that had graced Chinar House till this day. The local Doctor never had to do much visits to the House, for at the slightest hint of someone’s sickness, Noor Begum would march into the room with the air of an experienced surgeon who had never once had a failed surgery. Those who took refuge under her were forced spoonfuls of basil, sonth5, pepper, and a variety of spices that together made up what she smelt of. When the children opened her carved wooden box, it would take them near golden yellow mustard fields, newly picked saffron, peaches of the valley and to sweet flowing glacier water all at once. And the sick would be as fit as one could be in a land so cold where there were times you couldn’t feel your own breath. No one needed to tell her a word of instruction, as she knew how exactly the house was and should be run. She made sure the gardeners planted the roses leaving exactly enough spacing so that they glittered distinctly in the light of the sun. Abbujaan had taught her that. She could tell the time to the nearest quarter of an hour by looking at the sun. She knew

just how to get the greasy Rogan Josh vessels to sparkle and didn’t let the maids get away unless they shone reflecting her ample face. Only Noor Begum could brew the Kahwa6 for the Khatoon precisely the way she liked with the slivers of almond not too chunky lest they got stuck in Khatoon’s delicate throat. The stately grandfather clock never saw the inside of a repair shop in half a century thanks to Noor Begum’s impeccable handling. As age advanced, afternoons became difficult and her eyelids swayed with slumber as soon as she finished her lunch. But not one to be daunted she fought the drowsiness like a half-wounded soldier at arms, pottering about the house reminding the staff what needed to be done and stuck her eye on a piece of crochet, even if five stitches were all she ended up with every afternoon. There was always some bit of polishing here and some bit of mending there in a large house like this. Her falcon like eyes ensured that everything was prim and precise, and Chinar House with its wood carvings regularly polished with felt gleamed like gold in the slant of the evening sun. She often thanked Allah for the three things in her life – Chinar House, little Ajaz baba and Hurun baba who had spurred her to be alive and embrace life even after all those she had loved with all her heart had passed on, and Wahid, whom she had borne in herself had left her without a goodbye even. “My last breath Inshallah will be at this house, working” she often muttered under her breath.

A rickety window in the kitchen batted away at its frame, spurring Noor Begum into the present. Mehr, she called out, her deep voice booming through the kitchen. For a few months now, Tahira Begum had ordered Mehr to take over most of Noor Begum’s chores. It was Mehr who now oversaw the laundry and got the carpets and curtains cleaned once a month. She took the milk in and handled the monthly shopping for grocery. These days she had also started taking food and drink to the family members to their rooms. Noor Begum was grateful that the food department still remained under her supervision. Her recipes were locked inside her memory and she was glad no one else could reproduce her Dum Aloo, Dagith Haakh or Nadru Yakhni7. There was no sign of Mehr yet and Noor Begum sighed knowing the girl had taken on too much in a short while. The house that rang with Ajaz baba’s laughter and house staff chatter in the day fell dead at night, as though the hungry evening wind that howled mindlessly through the cracks and crannies gobbled up all the sounds. She took the milk herself to Ajaz baba who was playing with a walnut wood man. After making sure the milk was fully drunk, she tottered back to the kitchen and dropped a few drops of oil on the creaky window’s hinges.

She set about chopping the mangoes for the aam phirni. The only fruits that grew in the valley were apples, peaches, pears, apricots and plums, while other fruits came from different parts of the country. Mangoes unseasonal and forgettable came and went in the

markets through the year, but Hapoos, the famed Alphonso came only once to Chinar House, sent without fail by Tahira Begum’s brother from Bombay in the month of May. It seemed to her as though the lightly wizened skin of the mangoes flushed with the scent of summer sang stories of their long travel from a warm place thousands of miles away and it astonished her that the dainty looking crate had made it that far. Ajaz baba of course had rights over most of this prized gift, while the rest went to Rahim Saheb and Tahira Begum. Although Noor Begum had never once tasted the fruit in all her years, its intoxicatingly sweet smell as she peeled it every time made her long summer days come alive. The smell broke all barriers and mocked at the different fragrances she’d have experienced through different seasons of the year gone by. Even the dignified smell of the kesar seemed nothing next to it. She had bought mangoes once from the market for her nosh when she was carrying Hurun, but one sniff of their smell and she could say they were nowhere close to the Hapoos. Inshallah she thought her Hurun baba will also get to taste it one day. She peeled the mangoes taking in as much of the smell as she could to permeate her mind and soul. Her conscience had stood steadfast all these years and prohibited her from asking for even a single fruit from the Kazis. Allah had given the gift of restraint to mankind and she believed it was everyone’s duty to only claim what was rightfully his. She finished peeling the fruit and began to dice its firm pulp into tiny pieces that would make a smooth phirni. She ground the soaked rice to a fine paste and cooked the mixture with saffron and chopped pieces of almonds and cashews. A heavenly smell wafted through Chinar House and this was Noor Begum’s reward for the day. As she took the large bowl of phirni to the dining room, she heard the jingling of silver kadas – and Mehr, who was laying out the table humming a merry tune, threw her a bright smile. Noor Begum looked at her slim waist gyrating with her bouncy walk, envying Mehr’s flippancy and lightheadedness, while she herself was always expected to be the keeper of discipline, pruner of waywardness, and a picture of poise at every stage of her life.

Noor Begum lit the Bukhari and waited for it to simmer and spread its warmth in the dining room. She heaped in the charcoals and watched their edges glow like the ruby eyes of the serpent in her Memsaab’s heavy gunus8. Mehr had flitted away after deftly arranging the dishes and Noor Begum looked at her heavy palms that now refused to obey the rude puffs of smoke from the chillies, giving in shamelessly to the slightest temptations of pain and discomfort.

The mango dessert was finished in no time and like every day Ajaz baba demanded for Noor Begum to put him to sleep. Puffed with pride, she started off an old Kashmiri folktale about two mountain ranges that fell in love. Ajaz baba looked at her with eyes wide open. He heard this tale every single night, and yet never seemed to tire of it. Her words wandered through dream and reality as her eyes heavy with sleep shook open every few

minutes and tried to make sense of her mixed-up words. As she gently released Ajaz baba from her hand on which his head lay, she watched brown ringlets of his hair flutter slightly with the warm air of the Bukhari9, and the slight swell in his tummy, knowing that the warm sugariness of the mangoes molded with rice and milk would lull him to a peaceful sleep.

She put on another robe over her pheran and set out for the outhouse holding her simmering kangri10 inside the robe by her thighs. Hurun asleep, her nosh sat knitting waiting for her. She put her feet up and told her nosh about the Hapoos that had arrived and the phirni she had made, and the eyes of her nosh grew as wide with wonder as hers.

Noor Begum woke up the next morning and sat down for her prayers. She sipped on her noon chai cupping it tightly so as not to lose any of its warmth and looked out to the majestic chinars. Like any other day, she opened the door at Chinar House and let in the first breath of fresh air. As she set to supervise the breakfast, Memsaab’s bell trilled and she wondered what could be the matter for her to call at this early hour. She went up the stairs as fast as her lead-heavy legs took her. Tahira Begum looked at her for a few seconds which indicated something was wrong, as she normally just spat out whatever she wanted to say.

She was to stop working, she was getting too old. No they didn’t need her nosh, Mehr could well manage. As Mehr would stay in, Noor Begum was to move a few blocks away to a home they had arranged for her. It was the first time Noor Begum realized the weight that words could carry. She wanted to ask who would tell the stories to Ajaz baba without which he wouldn’t sleep. Seeing her pause, Tahira begum offered that she shouldn’t hesitate to ask if she wanted something. Noor Begum overcame all fear of shame and the righteousness that had kept her sane all through the years. She asked for three Hapoos mangoes. The Memsaab kept a poker face but Noor Begum’s adroit eyes were able to sense her unease. She didn’t flinch though. That she could be crossing her limits didn’t seem to bother Noor Begum any more.

That evening the Kazis had their embassy friends over for dinner. When the guests remarked that the Chinar House Rogan Josh didn’t taste the same, Tahira Begum waved her hands and plainly said, ‘Oh we sent away our old Noor Begum. You know there were rumors floating about her absconding son Wahid that he has joined hands with some groups not on the right side of the law. And with Rahim’s business going global…’ she didn’t need to finish, the guests nodded in agreement.

That noon after lunch, Noor Begum cut and ripped open the taut skin of the fruit to expose a golden waist fold. The pulp was firm like a virgin’s rounded breasts. She took her first bite and had to steady herself against the wooden beam of the kitchen for a couple of minutes. The enchanting taste made her soul come alive in a way she had never known before and she wiped away the tears that smudged her eyes. Reels of her full life flashed before her eyes. She paused to take it all in, knowing very well that it was probably the last time she would taste the Hapoos. The siesta she took day was mesmerizing and the first she had ever taken.

It took Noor Begum and her nosh just a few hours to cart their sparse belongings to their new home. It was a stone house with a sloping roof that almost touched the ground. Ajaz baba kept tossing and turning that night as Tahira Begum read him a story from a new bedtime stories book. Hurun baba cried to sleep in the new surroundings. Noor Begum told him Ajaz baba’s favourite story of two mountains that fell in love. Even her nosh looked on with interest for it was the first time they were hearing a story from her.

Noor Begum awoke in the morning to a different ceiling. She looked out of the glass paned windows and saw the familiar chinars who faithfully kept Chinar House hidden from her view.

 

1 A long robe and the ubiquitous attire of Kashmir
2 A traditional Kashmiri dessert of cooked ground rice sweetened with mango pulp

3 Daughter-in-law in Kashmiri
4 A multi-course banquet in Kashmir that comprises thirty-six dishes
5Fennel seeds that form a main spice in Kashmiri cuisine

6 Traditional Kashmiri mild green tea infused with spices, saffron and almonds
7 Dagith Haakh is a staple Kashmiri dish made with mashed collard greens. Nadru Yakhni is fried lotus stem in curd gravy

8 A thick gold bangle with the head of a snake or a lion at its ends

9 A traditional cylindrical heater in the base of which wood, charcoal or any other fuel is burnt 10 An earthen pot with coals inside that is carried by Kashmiri people under their robe to keep themselves warm

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