(based on memories of my grandmother’s house in Lahore, where I grew up, and written for an undergraduate class on Magical Realism)
When Begum Taj Hafeez Ahmad moved into 59 Main Boulevard Gulberg in 1957, that neighborhood wasn’t called “Gulberg”. It was called “The Jail Road Farmhouse Scheme”, and the “farmhouse” Gulfishan was only the fourth brick-and-mortar structure in that prairie-wilderness where from the rooftop one could see all the way to Gaddafi Stadium before the day it was actually christened “Gaddafi Stadium”, when Colonel Qaddafi landed on Pakistani soil for the 1974 Islamic Summit Conference and dazzled all the women with his Italian charms. In fact, nothing existed on the Main Boulevard in 1957, not even the seedy “Shanghai” which looked more like a euphemisitic ‘massage parlor’ than a Chinese restaurant, with red plastic lanterns and peeling pink walls and reheated chicken corn soup that tasted like wet talcum powder; while the spot where the seminal Lahore McDonald’s emerged forty-two years later was a grazing commons for neighborhood cows who scarcely realized the irony of their position.
Sheikh Hafeez Ahmad had purchased the sprawling piece of desolation in 1948 at a rate of Rs.900 per kanal, and by some stroke of green-spirited clairvoyance he christened the 12-kanal plot Gulfishan before the architect even drew up the plans for the high-roofed chip-floored labyrinthine house that he was meant to share with his wife and four children for less than a year. That night, when the property deeds had been signed and Sheikh Hafeez retired to his bedroom in 24 Mayo Gardens after smoking his customary after-dinner cigar and kissing Maryam, Aleem and unborn Sabera and Baba goodnight, a pack of young tree-sprites arrived at the plot and flew about sprinkling the prairie-land with magic seeds until the first sparks of dawn illumined the sky and every particle of soil glowed with the knowledge of its destiny. By the time Begum Taj Hafeez Ahmed packed her bags and her babies for the last house-move she would make and rattled from Chittagong to Lahore, India to Pakistan in a VIP Saloon to populate the new house, Gulfishan had metamorphosed into the enchanted forest of its Persian name, with enormous ancient whispering Neem trees that looked like they’d been there forever and shifted positions overnight, while a lone Amaltas resplendent in unseasonal gold finery waited to receive them at the doorway in the middle of August.
Six months later, Sheikh Hafeez Ahmad, Deputy Superintendent of West Pakistan Railways, was visited by an important emissary as he sat one crispy morning on his father’s handcrafted wicker chair on the front verandah sipping a steaming cup of Earl Grey tea and watching his beloved sweet-peas proliferate in the garden. The emissary was called Azrael, and he had come to fulfill a primordial promise. It was 1958, the year that brought Pakistan’s first military dictator to power and the wife of his youngest son into this world, and Sheikh Hafeez continued to follow subsequent political, natal and marital events with great interest while they tearfully swept away the leaves off his marble grave in the Gulberg C-Block cemetery every Eid, and the prolific sweet-peas continued to perfume Gulfishan with the elusively spicy aroma that Baba was to associate for the rest of his life with the father he barely knew.
It must be said, though, that any middle-aged widow with four school-age children would have succumbed to the hallucinations of solitude in those vast 12-kanals of verdant wilderness, with only 5-foot high gardenia hedges to keep out the highway men and roving foxes lured by the seductive cackling of chickens and hearty mooing of water-buffaloes that carried for miles on moonlit zephyrs – not to mention the pair of tree-sprites that decided to return to the forest they had helped engender, settling down in the dense mulberry tree in the backyard.
Any widow, that is, except Begum Taj Hafeez Ahmad, who had shed the last blushes and sighs of virginal innocence by the time Sheikh Hafeez married her after his first wife, an Englishwoman, was taken by Azrael during Partition – for Begum Taj still carried in her heart the memory of a certain fair-skinned, passionate young Pathan, whose only fault in life had been to blushingly ask his wife Zohra to serve him fresh milk for breakfast, squeezed from the udders of the ancestral Pathan cow with her own, soft, nineteen-year old hands. If only he had known that Zohra’s parents found her so indispensable to their domestic comfort as to construe the milking episode as sufficient grounds for divorce, he would never have asked.
It was a story nobody knew, a story she tried to leave behind in her bedroom in Sami Manzil, Aligarh, locked in tin bridal trunks that smelt of lavender and unused feather-quilts, so that everybody assumed that she was just one of those stoic pious daughters of the Sir Syed revolution who devoted their lives to serving their husbands, brewing gajar ka halwa and raising responsible citizens. At what point along the road romantic Zohra was replaced by the forbidding “Begum Taj”, nobody remembered.
In 1958, when her second husband departed forever from the house he had spent his lifesavings to build, Begum Taj appointed herself unofficial guardian spirit of Gulfishan – of the yellow walls and white pillars, of the labyrinthine rooms, sheesham bed-sets, an ancestor of the modern refrigerator in the pantry, and the teak dining table where she presided thrice a day feeding her children soaked almonds to sharpen their memory, so they could go to university and be successful. Sometimes at odd hours of a moonless night she could be seen shuffling along the dark musty passageways mounted with antique bayonets, scimitars and ageless sepia-faces in rosewood frames, a copious figure in the white cotton-sari she wore till the day Azrael came to fetch her from a hospital bed.
Later, Begum Taj decided to permanently enthrone herself on a teak takht in the elongated living room with the white-paned windows and a swinging netted door that opened onto a brick patio and the back lawn with the pigeon-hutch and the mulberry tree where the jinn couple lived – and Baba didn’t remember ever seeing her move since then. Decades past, Baba’s children would observe her in the same position, wrapped in a tartan khais and murmuring hypnotically over a sandalwood rosary from Medina, and fearfully they’d sidle across and dash into the back lawn, vowing to themselves that no amount of chocolate éclairs or banana custard was worth being too fat too even walk, which they supposed was the fate that had befallen Daadi. The teak takht was the moment when Begum Taj disappeared and “Ammi Jaan” was born – but it was all the same to skinny-legged eight-year old Baba, who spent most of his time swinging from mango trees, bruising knees, dislocating bones and falling into dung heaps. That is, until, one sunny June afternoon, by an irrevocable slip of fate, he found himself in his late father’s study-converted-to-guest room with a mop and pail of water in his hands, for a letter postmarked “Aligarh” had been delivered that morning announcing that Khalil Mamoo was coming to stay with his wife and brood of daughters to console his venerable cousin in her fresh widowhood. Baba scrubbed, swept and dusted each room of the house for three consecutive days and nights because the new Ammi Jaan had declared a ban on napaak jamadaarnis, and since no self-respecting righteous adult could be expected to perform the entailed tasks, Baba was appointed unofficial sanitizer of Gulfishan. Maryam, sixteen, spent the long summer days cloistered in her bedroom preserving her complexion and memorizing the differences between rose-cut polki diamonds and white pokhraj sapphire in anticipation of her wedding day, while younger Bibi planned numerous escapes-to-the-outside-world which beckoned titillatingly on black-and-white television and English-hour on the radio, and eight years later when one of the stratagems actually worked she packed her paints and easel under her arm and fled to art school in Brooklyn, New York without looking back. Aleem joined the army, but only after a proper dandy 1960s adolescence of scented love-letters, spiffy black dancing shoes, Saturday night discos, confessions, heartbreaks, cruel mothers and red-lettered Senior Cambridge report cards. He slept in a 7 x 7 foot kitchen-converted-to-bedroom adjoining the elongated lounge that overlooked the back lawn and the mulberry tree so it was he who first discovered that Gulfishan was inhabited by more than the five beings who lived in the house, the khansaama Gullan and handful of Buas who lodged with their families in the luxurious servants’ quarters, and the assortment of hens, roosters, lovebirds, pigeons, two water buffaloes and one cow that populated the rest of the grounds. On one occasion a thunderous black cloud rolled into his yellow kitchen-bedroom from the vents of the exhaust fan and glowered above him for three whole hours before Mallo rudely burst in to demand why he hadn’t appeared at the teak dining table for supper. Aleem searched in anguish for the cloud in every room of the house, and was greatly encouraged by cousin Atti’s eyewitness report of three strange men floating on the brick patio at 3 o’ clock one afternoon, but nobody believed him till twenty years later when Baba’s wife Shehla awoke from an afternoon nap in her bedroom to find herself mysteriously sprayed with rainwater. The phenomenon repeated itself every day and when even Baba had tired of searching for rational, scientific explanations and Shehla resolved to befriend the unseen assailants, the tree-sprites changed their tactics and started spiriting away hundred-rupee notes from wallets instead, and after days of fruitless scouring Shehla would find the missing money tucked in the toe of a sock in the bottom drawer of the sheesham closet in the dressing room or neatly folded inside her green Optica spectacles-case.
When Shehla moved into 59 Main Gulberg in 1980, there was still no black wrought iron gate at the entrance and no boundary walls to keep out burglars, jinns and foxes except for the now 8-foot high gardenia hedge. The funereal Chinese restaurant, however, had materialized from Shanghai some while ago, and the Gulberg Kabana had already made a flashy initiation into the world of Banquet Halls. Gulfishan had an impressive number of neighbors, on the whole, even a twin by the name of “Gulistan” on its right, and scores of other “old” family homes that lent Main Gulberg its aristocratically shabby prestige. Soon after the wedding, though, Baba flew back to Houston to finish up his M.B.A., while Shehla stayed in Lahore to complete medical school. The main house with the chip-floored verandah and round white pillars was rented out to the Iranian Embassy and Shehla lived with Ammi Jaan in an adjacent annexee, nestled at the rear of the plot amid blossoming almond trees and starry-limbed sumbals. It is not known how Ammi Jaan accomplished the move, but presumably she was carried, enthroned on her takht and wrapped in multiple tartan blankets, by four of several Bua’s several sons who all grew up in the luxurious servants’ quarters, each equipped with two bedrooms, a kitchen, a courtyard and a lemon tree, but with a communal bathroom that nobody used since the day a certain vandal-chowkidaar grafittied the holey wooden door with the eerie silver words “Yahan Bhooth Hain”, which Minu and Bia happened upon fifteen years later while playing Red Indians with Ahmadyar the chowkidaar’s twelve children.
During the first few months of newly-wed life, a rosy-cheeked Shehla was dolled up daily in farshi ghararas and Hyderabadi chokers and placed on the takht by Ammi Jaan’s sacred side to be inspected by a troop of corpulent chooran-chewing women in white cotton-saris with white plaited hair, identical faces and rhyming duo-syllabic names the likes of Amma, Ammi, Ammoo, Mamma, Mammoo and so on that made Shehla secretly think to herself that she’d been married into a barmy 19th century nunnery. On one after-Jumaa Friday afternoon, as she explored her empty new house while Ammi Jaan snoozed on the teak takht, Shehla happened upon a hitherto unknown Alice-door leading down a narrow windy flight of stairs into the darkest pit of the earth where, as she creepingly discovered with a cautious beam of torchlight, some creatures in another age had stored enough sacks of rice, flour, sugar, salt and lentils to last a besieged fortress for a century. According to Ammi Jaan’s predictions, an India-Pakistan war recurred each decade, but one could really live quite comfortably watching the dogfights every night from the rooftop with cotton-wads in one’s ears as long as one’s stomach was decently replete. The customized war-trenches beneath the mango trees, however, had been abandoned long ago, when Maryam, Bibi and cousin Farida concluded one sticky September evening in 1965 that armies of marauding mosquitoes were definitely more unbearable than any amount of shelling and earsplitting aerial gunfire. The ensuing battles were spent in the basement of the annexee playing Ludo, skipping school and telling ghost-stories in the candlelight.
Fortunately, time disproved Ammi Jaan’s prognostications, and the day Israel came to fetch her from her room in Omar hospital was the day when Gulfishan lost it’s most vigilant guardian spirit and finally succumbed to the hallucinations of a solitary existence so that ten years later, when the lettering on her tombstone in the Gulberg C-Block cemetery hadn’t yet begun to fade, not a creature inhabited the sprawling verdant wilderness and the peeling yellow house with the musty drawing-room furniture, the swinging netted doors and ancient rifles framed on the walls of the long muffled corridors, except for the undying jinn couple in the mulberry tree in the back lawn and the enormous ancient whispering Neems that looked like they’d been there forever and shifted positions overnight.