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Kartar Singh began singing loudly once again. He had been singing this song for such a long time. Hameeda had wearied of his Pankaj Malik-like voice, his well-groomed beard and, in fact, of all creation to such an extent that she feared she would soon make her needless irritation and weariness unmistakably apparent, and Comrade Kartar who was such a sweet person, would feel very hurt.
Kartar Singh had actually brought a gramophone along. A Malika Pukhraj record had cracked while they were at the camp. Anyway…
Hameeda wrapped the red-bordered anchal of her sari around her shoulders carefully and sat up straight, as though she was listening intently to Comrade Kartar Singh’s song. But some quite absurd, illogical and bizarre thoughts were vying for her attention at exactly the same time. Shakuntala had broken the “Awake to heartache, my heart, awake” record.
Uffo… bhai! The jolts of the bullock-cart were giving her a headache and there was still so much to do. An entire village had to be inoculated against cholera. The unpleasant odour of the vaccines emanating from the medicine box placed under Comrade Sabihuddin’s curly head assailed her senses, reminding her that life was indeed quite unbearable – like a worn-out, useless, unwanted record that played the same old, dull, quavering notes that had wearied of themselves by now, being trapped in the same old song.
Had this record, that had lain for ages at the bottom of the lowest shelf of the radiogram under the contemporary albums, been smashed to smithereens Hameeda would have danced with joy – there were so many things like this that she wanted should disappear from the face of the earth. What fun that would be!
She actually felt she had shattered the time-worn “I dreamt I dwell in marble halls” record by throwing it on the floor, and was deriving quite a lot of pleasure just picking up the shards. Dancing the foxtrot on the deep-red mosaic floor she had once thought that life was so romantic – all about shimmering rows of dancers against the folds of yellow curtains, and dreamy nights lit with dim lights.
The heart-stopping jazz would continue to play, the deep green ferns in flower-pots placed in dark corners would sway gently in the breeze, and the radiogram would always beguile her with new music for the polka and rumba. It wasn’t possible that the things she didn’t like would go on happening; that records would continue to wear out and break!
Comrade Kartar was still singing “Oh my beloved”. How unrefined some of these Punjabi words were! Tired of sitting in the same position, Hameeda leaned forward against the bamboo. Her red anchal was fluttering in the wind. She knew that the orange sari she was wearing suited her really well.
The boys all remarked that had her eyes been darker and her lips thinner, she would have been the perfect Asian beauty! How these boys valued women’s beauty. Every year, the girls in the university were bestowed titles, after much research, and when the titles were displayed on the notice board on New Year’s day, the girls would walk past them nonchalantly, without looking that way, as if they were not at all amused.
The wretches had put so much thought into inventing appropriate names for them – “Omar Khayyam’s Quatrain”, “Dehra Express”, “Ball of Fire”, “It’s Love I’m After”, “Chughtai’s Paintings”, “Blood Bank”.
The cart moved slowly along the bumpy road. “What is the time, Comrade?” At the back of the cart Manzoor yawned and asked Jitendra. “Four-thirty am. It isn’t more than an hour since we started.” Jitendra had spread his plaid jacket on the hay right behind the bullock-cart driver and was lying quietly, head resting on his elbow.
Perhaps Shakuntala had also fallen asleep, though she had been star-gazing for some time. She wouldn’t have tucked her legs under her so tightly had Comrade Kartar not occupied all the available space. She had been telling herself constantly that she shouldn’t fall asleep – not even a wink, it would be most inappropriate – but the breeze blowing over the dense orchards and rice fields was quite nippy and the stars had begun to fade.
He longed to become the same young man who had once enjoyed watching the moonbeams dance on the waters of the Jhelum as he stood on the banks with Amarjeet, singing Pankaj Malik songs. As the bullock-cart moved slowly ahead on the rough mud track in the dew-laden starlit night the entire company was feeling weighed down with the same sickening thought – they had lost their fiery enthusiasm for party work long back.
A gust of wind ruffled Sabihuddin and Jitendra’s hair but how could Kartar Singh take off his turban in the presence of the ladies? He took a deep breath and rested his head against the medicine box and began looking at the stars. Shakuntala had once said to him: “Comrade, you look quite dashing despite your beard! And if you join the Air Force you will be quite a killer!”
Uff – these girls!
“Comrade, have a smoke.” Sabihuddin threw his cigarette pack towards Manzoor. Jitendra and Manzoor bent over the match in order to light up, then went back to their respective streams of thought. Sabihuddin smoked only Abdullah and Craven-A, but Abdullah isn’t available any longer.
Sabihuddin was a man of bourgeois sensibility. His father was a taluqdar who had an enormous estate. He had such an illustrious and fine sounding name – Sabihuddin Ahmad, Makhdoomzadah Raja Sabihuddin Ahmad Khan. He owned two sleek cars, a Morris and a Deutsche Kinder-Wagen. But right after graduating from Medical College, instead of joining the Indian Medical Society he joined the party as one of its most dedicated workers.
Hameeda approved of such men, she found them ideal, but if Sabihuddin were to place one arm on the steering wheel of his Morris, bend low and say, “Hameeda, I like your black eyes, like them very much” she would very likely rebuff him quite stoutly.
Unhh! These idiots! Multicoloured soapsuds! Kartar Singh was quiet. The cigarette had alleviated some of Manzoor’s fatigue and gloom. It was quite chilly now. Jitendra threw his chequered jacket over his shoulders and tucked his legs under the hay.
Manzoor started coughing. “Comrade, you shouldn’t smoke so much!” said Shakuntala, concerned. Manzoor flicked the tobacco from his tongue in characteristic fashion and, tipping the cigarette ash, looked at the dark horizon beyond the millet fields. Girls!
Excerpted with permission from Beyond The Stars & Other Stories by Qurratulain Hyder, translated from the Urdu by Fatima Rizvi, Women Unlimited.
‘Beyond the Stars’: Stories Qurratulain Hyder wrote in her teens – Scroll.in