When I first came to England in 1967, and made some white friends, I found out their life was relatively easy. For example, they knew when they were born. Many of my Asian friends didn’t have a clue about our real birthdays, but we did have one up on the goray, the whites. Unlike them, we had really flash birthdays, like: 3.4.56 or 5.5.55 or 4.4.55 or like mine 11.11.56.
This is just my British date of birth (dob). I got it in 1967. I was told, if I should ever forget it, then I would be taken away, eaten by the cannibals or some other calamity would befall me. I was offered a number of birthdays. I liked this one.
On one of my visits to Pakistan, I asked my grandmother, who was around 90 at the time, if she knew when I was born.
‘I remember it like it was yesterday,’ she replied. ‘It was a cold night. It was one of the coldest of winters anyone remembered. So cold, it even got through the two quilts under which we slept.
‘We didn’t have electricity, then.’ She stopped and looked at our idle pedestal fan – we were in one of the regular unscheduled load-shedding moments-power-cuts – and continued, ‘Not that these electricity machouds, these mother-fuckers, ever give us enough electricity, but in those days we didn’t have to worry about such things. Life was much simpler.’
‘So, bey, grandmother, I was born in winter then?’
She nodded a tired nod and said, ‘And do I remember it like it was yesterday. That year the monsoons had forgotten to come and we had had very little rain. But that night, it was like the monsoons had come to take revenge in the winter. The dust storms came first, you couldn’t put your face outside. It hurt so much, and then lightening ripped through the dark skies, and then thunder, so loud it shook the earth below your feet, and you felt it in your stomach. And then when the rain hit the thirsty ground, it let out its breath, a thick heavy earthy breath, which was even more intense than the scent of the raat-ni-rani, the princess of the night.
‘ Baba Gama, god bless his soul, was alive then. He had a cow, a brown cow. It was the most beautiful cow in the village. Nah, I would say it was the most beautiful cow in the world. It gave bucket fulls of milk at night and bucket fulls in the morning. And this cow was due to give birth. Baba Gama, may god grant him a place in heaven, sat with his cow, day and night and prayed for bachi, a female calf.
‘But this night was no ordinary night. Such is the will of the Almighty. And on this bitterly cold cold night, Auntie Pago, may the Almighty bless her soul and grant her a place in heaven. Auntie Pago was a brave woman, who died old, and single,’ grandmother stopped mid-sentence closed her eyes and went into a deep thoughtful silence, a silence filled with the songs of crickets. After a little while she opened her deep dark eyes and continued, ‘She was so tall and so beautiful that every young man was in love with her. And if any man said anything to her which he shouldn’t, her tongue wasted no time in thrashing him and if he did do much as touched her dupatta, her headscarf, without her permission, then god help them, she would hit them with what ever was in her hand, And there were many who walked away with a bleeding head. But she never did marry. They said, she was possessed by the devil for sometimes she would sit on the roof of her house, especially on Thursday nights, and sing. She always sang the same song, a Kafi by Shah Hussain, written, they say over five hundred years ago.’ And grandmother started singing,
Mae ni mein kinnu akhan
Dard vichoray tha hall ni.
‘But I can’t sing like she used to, for when she sang, the crickets stopped singing, and no dog barked and the wind came quietly and lifted her words, and each word took so long to finish that by the time it did your eyes filled with tears.
‘And no, she was not possessed by any demon She was possessed with love, but a love that could never be, for she was in love with Akmal Jan, and he had died in her arms when she was a little girl and he was a little boy. But she never did accept that childhood love can be left in childhood. He had died on a Thursday. And on a Thursday, many years later she found a dog in the jungle. Just born. All alone. She brought it home and raised it. It was a gul-terrier, and this breed of dog can be vicious and dangerous, but with the flick of her eyes, Auntie Pago could control her dog…’
‘What was the name of the dog?’ I asked.
‘She gave it no name, or perhaps she did, and it won’t come on my tongue. And when she sang, the dog would sit next to her, his head close to her feet. But on this winter’s night, because of the rain, all the little streams around here flooded and became like raging rivers. This night, her dog didn’t return home and she went out to look for it. She begged everyone in the village to help her. We told her to wait till the morning, but she was besides herself. Crying and crying. She went out to look for her dog on her own. The next morning her dog came to the village and barked and barked and ran towards where the big stream splits into two and then came back and did it again. Every one in the village followed the dog and he lead us to her body. It was stuck into between two rocks, her head still underwater.
‘And after she was buried, her dog sat by her grave. Every day. All day and all night. People left him food and water, but he never ate or drank. He sat there, crying and don’t ever let anyone tell you that creatures like this don’t cry, they do and their tears don’t lie. And as god is my witness, this poor creature, died sitting next to her grave.’
‘So was I born on the night of Pago’s death or that of the dogs’?’ I interrupted her. ‘Which ever one it was, do you remember the day?’
She was lying on her side, her tired eyes in her frail with face criss-crossed with wrinkles, looking at me. She rolled over onto her back and stared up into the sky. It was a night with bright raining moonlight under a sky splashed with stars.
‘Like it was yesterday,’ she sighed. ‘Yesterday. And we were so worried about Baba Gama’s cow as well, that night people took turns to go to his house and pray. It was a long night, a night that seamed to have no end. I waited and waited for the cow to give birth…’
Grandmother fell asleep without completing her sentence.
‘Come on bey,’ I implored trying to wake her up. ‘You can’t go to sleep now.’
Just then the pedestal fan burst into life. The electricity was back. Grandmother opened her eyes and said sleepily, ‘Oh yes, Baba Gama’s cow gave birth to a beautiful bachi. And the next day I got some bohli, the cows first milk, and it was the sweetest bohli I have ever eaten?’
‘Are you going to tell me when I was born?’
‘Why don’t you go ask the Lambardar, he keeps all the record of births and deaths.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me there is accurate record in this village.’
She didn’t reply. She was asleep again. TO BE CONTINUED.