Book: The Pakistani Bride
Finally, Zaitoon saw them get up from the charpoy for a parting embrace. Qasim, conspicuous as a mountain-man anywhere in Lahore, looked curiously unlike one when facing the stranger. At least so Zaitoon thought as she hurried in to warm his tea. He would be coming up any minute and she would soon find out who the visitor had been. Twenty minutes went by, and she leaned over the balcony to see what was delaying him.
The stranger had gone. Nikka was talking to Qasim and Qasim, looking at the pavement, kept trying to force the toe of his shoe into it. They seemed to be arguing, and Qasim looked hard and cold as he did only in rare moments of obstinacy. Zaitoon had seldom seen the two friends in such solemn disagreement. She grew uneasy.
Then a strange thing happened. Nikka beckoned towards the house and Miriam, with only a chaddar over her head instead of the burkha, came out and sat down with the men, out on the busy pavement. This was without precedent. Miriam sat stooped, shading her face from Qasim with her chaddar as she listened to Nikka. Zaitoon saw the chaddar slip off her hair and lie unheeded on her shoulders. She appeared agitated and glanced frequently at Qasim. Then turning to him, she addressed him as boldly as she might a woman in the privacy of her own rooms.
Qasim, not lifting his studied gaze from the pavement, spoke but little. Miriam, her agitation mounting, talked faster, gesticulating, and pushing back strands of gray hair that fell forward into her eyes. People passing by looked at her inquisitively.
Miriam brushed her cheeks with her fingers and Zaitoon guessed she was weeping. Should she go down? She desperately wanted to discover what this was all about, but a young girl added to the scene might attract too much curiosity. She fidgeted, but stayed upstairs, waiting.
It was almost six years since Nikka's release from prison. As he listened to his wife expostulate with Qasim, he showed a weariness, a reluctance to impose his will as forcefully as of old.
Miriam blew her nose into her shawl. She wiped the damp left on her fingers on the strings of the charpoy. She had no control over the tears that slipped down her face.
"Sister, I gave him my word," Qasim spoke gently.
"Your word! Your word! What has your word to do with the child's life? What? Tell me!"
Qasim did not reply.
Miriam glanced up and noticed Zaitoon's intent face at the balustrade.
"Brother Qasim," she coaxed, "how can a girl, brought up in Lahore, educated -- how can she be happy in the mountains? Tribal ways are different, you don't know how changed you are�" And as rancor settled on Qasim's compressed lips, she continued in a rising passion, "They are savages. Brutish, uncouth, and ignorant! She will be miserable among them. Don't you see?"
Qasim stiffened. A beggar, his limbs grotesquely awry, manipulated his platform to Qasim's feet. He grimaced defiantly. "Paisa," he demanded in a hoarse inhuman whisper. "Babooji from the hills, paisa." Attuned to the whims of alms-givers, he sensed the futility of his plea and wheeled himself away before he was kicked.
Qasim tried to control his fury. "Sister, you forget I am from those hills. It's my people you're talking of."
"But you've been with us so long, you're changed. Why, most of them are bandits, they don't know how to treat women! I tell you, she'll be a slave, you watch, and she'll have no one to turn to. No one!"
Qasim flushed. He glared at Nikka while directing his icy remarks at Miriam.
"How dare you," he said. "You've never been there! You don't understand a thing. I have given my word! I know Zaitoon will be happy. The matter should end."
"I know she won't! Oh dear, how I love her. She's like my daughter...I've reared her..."
"But she is my daughter!" Qasim cut in with biting finality.
Miriam flashed into hysteria. "Is it because that Pathan offered you five hundred rupees -- some measly maize and a few goats? Is that why you are selling her like a greedy merchant? I will give you that, and more," she said with contempt. "Nikka will! How much more do you want? We will buy her!"
Qasim now looked at her directly, his face white with anger, his eyes malevolent.
Miriam felt the chill impact of his fury and an anguished stab of futility broke her voice. She continued in a crazed whisper. "Why not marry her to my husband here? Yes, I'll welcome her, look after her. We have no children and she'll be my daughter. She'll bear Nikka daughters and sons." Nikka vainly tried to cut in. "Look!" she said, "I have gray hair. I'm getting old. She will comfort our old age."
The men were struck silent.
"Miriam, Miriam, you don't know what you are saying! You are overwrought," Nikka soothed her.
Qasim was in an angry sweat, ashamed and touched.
"Sister Miriam, it is not for the goats and maize, please believe me. It is my word -- the word of a Kohistani!"
Nikka was dazed by the trend the conversation had taken. "It's the suddenness of the news that is upsetting us so much. I'm sure it's not as bad as we imagine. After all, Zaitoon is Qasim's daughter, and he will do his best by her...look, bibi, why don't you ask the girl yourself...see what she has to say? That is, if Bhai Qasim agrees...?"
Qasim remained silent. Heedless of the impatient honk of a truck, a horse-cart rumbled by. The warning jangle of tonga bells, shrill cries of tea-stall urchins taking orders, all the clamor of the dense place, combined to spin a cocoon of privacy around the charpoy.