My body, ji, isn’t my own. It’s a communal vessel for lust that finds expression in dark corners. I learnt that early in my life, na. I am like the spaces that belong to no one; a dirty thought never acknowledged.
This cage of bones and flesh that holds me prisoner . . . makes a mockery of me and my desires, destroys me daily. How can anyone be held responsible for the body they’re born with, ji? Who can help that?
Growing up, I’d watched men haggle with the older hijras, over the price of an hour of guilty pleasure. It’s the price of a life they squabble over, and it’s cheaper than an old chicken. Few hijras live past the age of forty. We trade our lives for a few rupees, ji, agree to bear the burden of desires, confidences and diseases that no one else will. Women are more trouble. More expensive too. Hijras are simpler; no questions asked, even if caught by the police—some of whom are regulars too.
Some prefer about anything else to a woman.
I watch the Nightingales every night. Once the streets are empty and everything is quiet and even the dogs stop barking, the silence is broken only by the sounds of occasional cars passing by, or a drunkard, yelling at a cat underfoot, the hijras known as Nightingales emerge from the few houses in the alley, a space that is only ours: the hijra chawl.
There are five of them, and their haunt is the crossing, where the narrow alleyways meet. Twinkling like fireflies in their sequined shirts and shiny synthetic silks, they laugh and chat as they wait for the regulars. They are prettier than the other hijras, whose job is to beg in the streets by day; they act as pimps for the better-looking ones. The beggar hijras look different. Their powdered faces look grey, and the exaggerated thick eyebrows and painted red lips only accentuate the hardness of their features. It is a poor disguise. as soon as one looks into their eyes, one knows.
They all said I was pretty too. I would be a Nightingale when it was time, not a pimp beggar. I could hardly wait. Nightingales are important. They bring in the big bucks, so everyone treats them well. They get the best bits of meat in the curry, and the best clothes.
The Nightingales stand together at the corner, talking, laughing, and at times a hearty guffaw would carry in on the night air and thrill me as I lay in the small room, listening.
They were happy, I thought. as a child, laughter is all you need as proof of happiness. as a child you don’t know there are so many different kinds of laughter—like different varieties kinds of birds. Some are flightless.
They share a bidi, and the ends glow in the darkness. Sometimes they share a bottle of homemade liqueur. and I long to try both. Even though I know it is Shaitan’s drink. Or maybe because I know it is.
Gulabo, the master, the guru of our community, found me as a newborn, wrapped in a filthy bloodied towel outside the door of daata’s dargah. She took pity on me, she says. She fed me and clothed me, yes? She looked after me, even when those who’d helped me abandoned me. They didn’t want me. They didn’t want the shame that comes attached to me, a hijra.
Gulabo took care of me. She was also the one who sold me the first time, when I was eight. I was nothing more than an investment, an object to barter for little conveniences: indemnity from the police and a discount at the grocer’s for an hour every night, maybe a few rupees sometimes from a street wretch, if times were hard. That is the only life I am entitled to. There is nothing more, nothing else.
Growing up, I found refuge from the neighbourhood boys in the dilapidated junk shop with the kabbadiya. I hid there because, by then, I already knew why the bigger boys chased me. No one followed me into the dark alley where the kabbadiya lived, usually passed out on his piles of outdated books, magazines and newspapers. There was always a lantern burning low, hanging on the wall inside the shop, the corrugated-iron shutter only half closed. Two gigantic piles of newspapers, so old they were stuck to the floor, held the runner of the shutter up. I squeezed in between those two columns of newspapers, panting, listening to my thudding heart, waiting for the dreaded whispered insults of the eldest boy with the cruel eyes. Often the boys didn’t follow. They were afraid of the kabbadiya. People said he was a jinn. Few people had seen him in years.
But the kabbadiya found me one night.
I’d gone to sleep looking at the colourful pictures in a tattered, yellowing magazine. It was the smell of his breath that awoke me. It was hot and sharp. I’d smelled it on men before, yes? It was Shaitan’s drink. I woke up with my hands reflexively covering my head to avoid the blows I knew would follow. But they didn’t. The kabbadiya pulled me out of the corner.
‘You’ve been here before, haven’t you?’
I nodded; I couldn’t get my tongue to detach from the roof of my mouth.
‘You leave the magazines lying around. You wouldn’t make a good thief. You know who I am?’
I nodded again. He was the junk-shop owner. The jinn.
His eyes were sharp, dark.
‘You don’t know.’ He gave a short laugh and said, ‘That’s new. I used to be the gossip for years. Whose shame has taken over mine, I wonder, that people no longer talk about me. Well, what does it matter? There’s plenty of that to go around.’
He sat down with a big laugh, on the single, broken chair in the corner. He looked at me.
‘a little hijra, eh?’
He looked down at his hands. He had the magazine I’d been ogling. I was ashamed. It was full of pictures of women. Beautiful women, ji.
He raised his eyes to me and asked, ‘Can you read?’ I shook my head.
‘are you mute?’
I shook my head. He laughed softly. ‘Come here. Sit. are you hungry?’
I didn’t respond. My legs were still shaking. My heart, curious and fearful, waited for the jinn to do something jinn- like. From a small half-broken wooden crate next to his chair, he took out a newspaper shaped into a cone and began to unfold it. It revealed two chapattis carefully nestling some vegetable curry. He gave half of his dinner to me.
‘Eat. I cooked it this morning. It’s fresh. Eat.’
He began to eat and, when he did, I did too. I still recall the smoky taste of the food, owing to the coal the curry had been cooked over. It is still one of the best meals I have ever had.
‘I wasn’t always a junk-shop owner, the kabbadiya, you know? I was the moulvi at the local mosque. People woke up to my call for prayers. They sent their children to me for education. I had respect. I had honour.’
He rubbed his hands together after he had finished eating and then slicked them back over his hair. He wasn’t a jinn. It was disappointing. It would’ve been nice to make friends with a jinn, yes? They supposedly granted wishes. He was lying about being a moulvi though. a moulvi was a man with respect. How could the kabbadiya be one? He was a drunkard. But maybe he really was a jinn, trying to trick me. He spoke in a soft, regretful tone. ‘I defended a Maraassi against a Muslim. They couldn’t let that go.’ He looked at me and asked, still sounding regretful, ‘What could I do? The Christian was right. I had to tell them he hadn’t stolen the man’s rooster. People kill over the most ridiculous things. A careless word. Or poultry.’
I tried not to laugh. I would have succeeded too if the kabbadiya hadn’t looked at me just at that moment, with his bushy grey brows and keen eyes. We both burst out laughing. I never found him drunk after that. Whenever he saw me,
he plunged into the hidden treasures of his junkyard to find books to read to me. Like a madman he tore at ancient half- unravelled jute bags, opening up bundles of paper so yellowed with age they came apart in his hands. Bits of yellow and grey paper flew in the air around us, like hundreds of moths. He read stories of prophets and wise men to me. He taught me to read the Holy Book.
I wish that he hadn’t, ji. It hurt me and confused me to learn about ideas of compassion and dignity. Everything around me was so different. after a few months I stopped going to him. I don’t know whether the stories he told me saved me or destroyed me.
Thinking beyond survival is its own burden, ji.
Excerpted from ‘This House of Clay and Water’ written by Faiqa Mansab, published by Penguin Random House India.
Set in Lahore, This House of Clay and Water explores the lives of two women. Nida, intelligent and lonely, has married into an affluent political family and is desperately searching for some meaning in her existence; and impulsive, lovely Sasha, from the ordinary middle class, whose longing for designer labels and upmarket places is so frantic that she willingly consorts with rich men who can provide them. Nida and Sasha meet at the famous Data Sahib dargah and connect–their need to understand why their worlds feel so alien and empty, bringing them together.
On her frequent visits to the dargah, Nida meets the gentle, flute-playing hijra, Bhanggi, who sits under a bargargh tree and yearns for acceptance and affection, but is invariably shunned. A friendship—fragile, tentative and tender–develops between the two, both exiles within their own lives; but it flies in the face of all convention and cannot be allowed.
About the Author:
Faiqa Mansab’s accomplished and dazzling debut novel explores the themes of love, betrayal and loss in the complex, changing world of today’s Pakistan.