Excerpt: Sita Under the Crescent Moon by Annie Ali Khan
In Sita Under the Crescent Moon, Annie Ali Khan travels with women pilgrims to Sufi shrines across Pakistan to see how they worship Sita. In this particularly powerful excerpt, the author ponders on the pain of womanhoodUpdated: Aug 03, 2019 09:12 IST
Past midnight, the doors of the dargah were closed. In the final hour, the sanctum was packed with men and women offering prayers while members of the inner-circle of the caretakers of the shrine cleaned the room.
Outside, in the courtyard, Zahida and the circle of women stayed up all night, walking down to the market, where they bought roth, leavened bread baked on hot coals under a layer of earth, food from a grave which they ate with bottles of Pepsi.
As people began falling asleep, more and more people kept pouring in, then the stream turned to a trickle. As the night wore on, bodies got closer, jostled, bristled. Here and there muffled arguments arose, then silence. I went to lie down. Where I lay watching the stars and the moon, through the branches, carved with the silhouettes of peacocks, to the sounds of murmurs.
In the far corner of the courtyard, a man began to sing in a voice as mournful as the call of the peacock above in the branches. In the ancient tree in the courtyard, a parrot screeched from time to time. A slender mountain goat traipsed around stepping over bodies lying next to each other, together but separate.
It was the closest I ever got to a sense of belonging to a moment, in a moment, before it was gone.
During the night, freezing, I dreamt of serpents slithering over the open-air courtyard. Snakes with bodies as cold as the floor I slept on.
Earlier in the night, while I sat in the inner sanctum, a woman entered the room and sat by the door. Her clothes were muddied beyond any recognition of colour, tattered in places, underneath which, mud covered skin showed. Her hair was a wild tangle of dust and strands that stuck out like scaly serpents. Her young face was streaked and smeared with the stuff of something present but unnameable, like madness, around the stark white orbs of her eyes. She had been sitting there barely a few moments when a stench of something rotting began rising in the air. A stench rising like a disagreement, as the woman next to her began to scream a bloody scream. One of the men of the custodian’s family walked over, with open disgust, a silent thunder, an arrow of lightning on his face. He began to drag the woman with the dusty hair, lifting her by her arm to outside the inner-sanctum, a trail of dark blood leaking after her, towards the inner-sanctum, on the pristine marble. A man brought a rag and quickly wiped it all away, so upsetting, unnerving, unavoidable, undeniable, so foul, off the pristine floor. Angry whispers rose in the chambers of the inner sanctum, then died down. This was not the blood of a martyr or a saint. This was dirty blood that came from the womb of a woman.
Around 4 a.m., a faqir named Iqbal came to wake us. I followed him around and up the side of the mountain where the families of the custodian lived, in about thirty squat, single-storey houses dotting the hillside, closed off by a metal gate where a woman sat washing children’s clothing next to plastic drums. Water was brought from a spring somewhere, it was scarce around the area. It was still pitch dark and I was glad to have a flashlight handy. There were not many toilets around and the entire hillside on the way over had been covered in shit and piss, the stench unbearable. Inside wooden stalls, the women took turns. As a woman from the custodian’s family opened the door for me, she asked me not to bathe in the water. I assured her I was not going to use up the water. Inside the stall, I realized I had gotten my period.
The memory of the night before came rushing back, and with it, another memory of long ago when I had first had my period. My parents had enrolled me at a madrassa. The school had a system of teaching children to learn the Quran orally. Every day, I was made to memorize a line from a surat in the Quran, by a female teacher hired to live in a quarter in the madrassa, and the next day I had to remember the line as I learned a new line, revising from the top of the surat. It was painstakingly slow, but I was able to memorize three lines. One day, I woke up on bloodied bedsheets. I thought I knew what to do but I was still feeling faint from seeing this blood come from my body.
At the madrassa, after my lesson, as the rest of the girls in class went to offer Zohar prayers, I stayed behind. When the teacher asked me why I was not praying, I said I was not clean. She flew into a rage, her face turning beet red, as she screamed at me in front of the class for touching the sacred text with unclean fingers. I never told anyone about what happened for shame. But, I never went back to the seminary again, the mere mention of going there making me fall ill.
Suppressed, the memory came flooding back now.
After a quick cup of tea, I headed out to Lahoot. After a ride in the kekra, I arrived at the foot of a steep mountain with small steel ladders cut into its surface. I met a woman leaning against the rock near the bottom. She used to go up all the time, she said. But since her children grew up, she had lost the will. I would probably run into her family up there, she said.
It was a rough climb. The steel ladders cut into the soles of my feet through the sneakers and socks. A man climbing up offered to carry my backpack all the way. I was grateful. Others offered hands pulling me up, as I called Ya Ali for help, surprising myself. Once at the top, I was a little dismayed to find another climb, a few hundred feet up to the mouth of a narrow cave. But some of the people had said that sculpture of a serpent lay inside, and I was hoping to find the Sati. I hesitated.
Before me was a throng of about fifty men gathered around the ladder, not a single woman nearby. I asked for room and the crowd parted. I began to climb quickly so as not to lose my nerve. ‘Look at her go. She is a snake,’ someone called out. At the top, without looking behind me I made to climb into the cave. I heard chants from inside. I had had a fear of closed spaces growing up, and the prospect of getting trapped in a cave where about a hundred people were chanting as they made their pilgrimage, the walls echoing with vibrations, did not seem safe.
As I looked into the mouth of the cave, I saw the look of terror on the face of a person trying to climbing back outside. Behind me, a woman hefted two infant children up. My climb had given her strength, she said. I followed her into the cave. Climbing down via a thick rope I stepped onto slippery ground and found myself in a cavernous orifice of palatial dimensions. There were stones and sculptures all around, but no serpent in sight. And there was another narrow climb up.
As I tried to make my way, a man offered me his hand. I immediately regretted taking his hand, as he pressed his palm against mine. I slipped. He told me to wait down by the entrance and offered to take a photo of the sculpture. I waited inside the cave, seated on a rock, looking at the people trying to find their way around in the moist darkness. I wondered what they were looking for in these womb-like environs. The water of the cave was said to restore eyesight.
The man came back with my camera and showed me the photos. At the summit of the last climb, inside the belly of a ledge, was a flash-lit image of a Quran. There was no serpent. I climbed back outside, followed by the man. His name was Faizan. He lived in Shah Faisal Colony in Karachi, and owned a rickshaw. I thanked him and said goodbye. But he followed me all the way to the road. I gave him a fake phone number and told him to go away. He nodded and did not return.
Later that morning, as I was riding down the mountain at the back of the kekra, I glimpsed Zahida walking down the mountain with her family, making her way to Lahoot. Her exuberant smile under the shining sun—a beautiful ray caught my heart.
As soon as we boarded the bus, a fight broke out. Qurban was boarding passengers in reverse order, seating men in the ‘ladies section’. A girl came and sat down on the front seat. She placed a small cloth bag on the seat next to her. Qurban opened his mouth but she cut him off. ‘I am leaving my bag here. I will be right back,’ she said, and climbed back off the bus. Qurban threw her bag to the floor and seated two men with a woman in the front. A few minutes later, the girl was back. She saw there were people on her seat. Spotting her bag on the floor, she snatched it up and sat on a seat across the aisle by the door.
Qurban, busy seating other passengers, now returned. He began to scream at her, then stopped. She was dressed in a tattered shalwar kamiz. Her knotted hair had a rusty pallor and was covered in dust. She had muddy stains on her face and her eyes, wildly staring about, were smeared with sooty tears. She was not covered in a shawl nor wearing a burqa. She did not even have a dupatta on her.
‘Who is with you?’ Qurban demanded from her. ‘No one,’ she said looking away, out the window, holding the sack in her lap close now. ‘Move to the back, I am seating men in front,’ Qurban said.
She turned to him and released a volley of cusswords in a fury that seemed to shake the bus full of people, calling him a pimp. A group of passengers were now gathered at the door. The family who had paid Qurban extra to be seated up front was now standing in the aisle.
A woman in a chaadar who was standing with them screamed at the girl. ‘This seat belongs to us. You are polluting the seat. Saali rundi!’ After calling the girl a dirty whore, she moved closer, towering over her. Her lip curled in a jeer to reveal cruel tobacco-stained teeth.
Qurban pulled the girl up by the forearm. She screamed and swore at him, then sat back down on the seat. The chaadar-clad woman looked as if she would hit the girl. ‘Get off our seat, you filthy woman. Noorani Baba will teach you a lesson.’
‘Whore,’ the girl said, getting up and spitting in the direction of the women. Qurban raised his palm, his face full of fury, the other women looking on with wide staring eyes.
I could not let her be slapped. I jumped in front of her and almost caught a slap from Qurban. The women screamed at me. ‘You don’t know anything. Don’t protect her. She dirtied the dargah yesterday!’
Now I recalled the girl who had bled on the floor of the shrine and had been dragged away. This was her. If the people whispering about her at the dargah were to be believed, she was raving mad, abandoned there by her husband some said. Others said her family had left her there.
I imagined this girl trying to escape back into the city to resume her life. Maybe she wanted to go back to see her children or her former home. I would not allow them near her. ‘That was yesterday. She is on the bus now. You cannot hit a woman,’ I said to Qurban.
But the woman in the chaadar wanted none of it. ‘She has abandoned her children, this filthy woman,’ she said, trying to make a stronger case against this woman. ‘Get her off our seat.’
An elderly man moved forward and pulled the girl off the seat and next to him. She looked at him sternly. He placed his palm on her head. She sat stiffly, his one arm around her, the other one stroking her head.
‘Oye, who are you to her,’ said a man seated midway with his wife, seeing the old man’s arm on her shoulder.
‘Oye I am a faqir, I am a mureed of Noorani Baba. You do not know what you say, son,’ the man replied.
The girl suddenly stood up, shaking off the old man’s embrace, and ran off the bus with her bag. The bus rode away, with an angry collection of passengers who wanted to see her set right.
The girl in tattered clothes, with no dupatta, holes in her kamiz, and armed with nothing more than her madness that did little to protect her, left behind in the dust cloud rising in the wake of the bus.
The elderly man turned to look at the passengers in the back. ‘It’s okay. She is not going anywhere. Her place is right here. She is not right in the mind,’ he said. ‘She tries to get on a bus back from time to time to go home. But her family has abandoned her,’ he said. ‘She has nowhere to go.’
I look out the window to see where the mad girl was going, but she was already gone.
I had learnt, that night, this morning, being somewhere, wanting to be somewhere was not that simple, when being there, wanting to be there, to want, was simply not allowed.
Taken away—like those bodies that had borne the brunt of the blast.
Seven days after I left Shah Noorani’s shrine, a bomb went off in the dhamaal area, killing over fifty-four people reportedly, many of whom could have been saved had there been adequate arrangements for first-aid and ambulances. While I had been there, there were stories of this or that person falling while climbing or trying to climb those brooding peaks and hurting themselves, with nowhere to go, in a place with no arrangements, because this was a place with no arrangements for people with no arrangements. Those places with arrangements were other places for other people.
These were people who had nowhere to go, who had come here, to nowhere, to die in a bomb blast in a dhamaal, to die, disembodied during dhamaal, to be carried away like slaughtered cattle loaded in the back of a lorry to which two little girls had been hanging on for dear life as they made their way to a backwater province of a backwater country of a backwater mountain — backwater people with backwater lives — nowhere, dead, gone, forgotten. These people with nothing, turned into nothing, no one, none, zero.
Many thanks to Manan Ahmed Asif who gave HT these pictures.