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The Tiger Ladies: A Memoir of Kashmirby Sudha Koul
Om! Shri Ganeshaye Namah!
With that invocation made right at the beginning we make sure
that everything shall turn out well.
Time unravels like a dog"s tail, then it curls right back into a circle,
and you start all over again. As we live out our lives, we gaze at the heavens
and stumble on the nearest rock, and then we pull ourselves up, dust off the
sand, and look around us. We think we have taken stock, we know our
parameters, our landscape, and then our eyes go skyward again. If we were
to look back we would see a disappearing line of predecessors whose
lifetimes we have unknowingly mimicked. We look up eagerly at our gods
instead and we live in hope.
My grandmother, Dhanna, has a mouth that smells like babies, all
milky, toothless, and harmless, except when she smokes her hookah. She
of the crisply washed cotton dress dried on the grass in the sun; her clothes
smell of the herbs of spring and summer, and of the earth; she makes
buttermilk drinks all day. Dhanna sits there at her kitchen window, one knee
on the seasoned sill, the other knee balancing a round metal pot in which
she whips up buttermilk flavored with salt and dried mint powder. I watch her
make white and green foam as she churns the wooden whisk between her
cracked dry palms.
The mint is from her grandfather"s well. The leaves are plucked,
then washed and dried on the wood-shingled rooftop. When the mint is so dry
that it crumbles to the touch it is powdered by a small round stone mortar in
an oval pestle, both of which have blackened with use and time.
"The well water is so pure that it makes the leaves fragrant," says
my mother"s mother, Dhanna. "You must have mint buttermilk drinks in
summer. It cools everything," she says, although she drinks glasses of her
concoction even in winter because she thinks women must always have
buttermilk or yogurt. But in summer she churns the sweet elixir all day, and
offers it to everyone who walks in her wooden door, bending a little as they
enter her well-worn portal.
Sometimes my grandmother fries brook trout in a small pan on a
hissing kerosene stove. The stove is set on a reed mat in her cold, dark
kitchen, and all the windows are shut. When she cooks fish she opens the
wooden windows only if she must. Like so many others in our valley of
Kashmir, she does not want a stranger"s glance falling on her fish.
She tells me, "Of all things fish are the most susceptible to the
No one must know, so the wooden windowpanes of her kitchen
keep the smell inside. The kitchen looks like a dungeon. Instead of turning on
the electric light I open up all the windows and let the sunlight pour in,
revealing corners and bits of dust under the furniture. She allows me to do
anything I want to and all is forgiven. I am the firstborn of her first surviving
child. Let me explain.
Dhanna, of the fierce temper, and my grandfather Babuji of the
ready laugh and reflective nature, both dream of the children they will have.
She is young, unlettered, and outspoken. Her office-going husband is quiet, a
complete householder, but he also practices his own austerities and rituals.
She is dainty and light and from the city, and he is heavy and dark and from
the village, and they have found each other in their marriage. Everything
exists around their union. He is entranced by everything she does. They say,
behind his back, that he indulges her. And does she have a temper, they say.
Together my grandparents pray for children. She runs her palm
over her full belly many times but then somehow the children are lost, either
inside her or after she lets them go. Then the husband and wife wait, year
after year, and pray for the children they will keep.
One night Dhanna has a dream and she is told what she has to
do to keep her children. So she goes to the village of her ancestors. She
finds a well at least nine-men deep and it is near her mother"s house. Once a
month she goes to the well at midnight, unties the two tightly woven braids of
hair that start just above the nape of her neck. With her fingers she pries
open the strands until her hair, crimped by weeklong braiding, falls loosely
about her shoulders. Then she takes a bath.
She draws the water herself, lowering the well post with the
bucket dangling at the end into the cold silent well. Then, slowly she pulls
out the water, and in the dark she can hear the reassuring licks of the water
in the bucket as it comes to rest on the grass beside her. This she does for
one year, bathing through the seasons, gritting her teeth as the Himalayan
winter approaches, glad that her ritual is a monthly and not a daily one. If she
had to do it every day she would.
She says, "When you have to do something, you do it." No one
may see her, or she will have to start all over again.
After twelve baths at a forgotten well hidden by wild mint bushes,
my mother"s mother comes home to her husband. Then she conceives again.
By autumn her belly has grown full and taut. She likes to sit under the fruit
trees, and her lips are purple from the large black cherries she eats all day.
They all say she will give birth to someone special; all she wants to eat is
fruit. When it comes to children everyone looks for signs and portents.
Dhanna had fourteen children. She lost eleven of them before she
found the way to keep them. That is when she had my mother, then my aunt
followed a couple of years later, and a few years later she had my uncle. He
was dressed as a girl and nursed under cover to fool the evil eye. As a child
my uncle always had some black soot from the kitchen stoves rubbed on his
forehead, like so many other children, girls and boys, to make him
undesirable to fate. There was some discussion about naming him after a
demon to achieve the same purpose, but in the end my grandparents decided
to be up front about it and opted for calling him "longevity" instead.
My uncle eventually grew out of his mother"s arms, and out of the
girls" clothes, and became a deceptively fierce-looking man with a large
mustache. My grandmother could not fool his destiny anymore. In spite of all
her efforts he is, like all of us, tempting to his fate and she claims him.
Grandmother resigns herself to her daughter-in-law, but never really forgives
her for taking her son into a world that excludes her and where she cannot
Now I see her sucking at her hookah, puffing up the smoke
through the water in the hookah-belly, her still-young eyes in an old face. She
laughs at me, she prefers to treat me as if I am still a small child, she is
unwilling to let go of the child. She throws the apron of her ankle-length
pheran on my feet to make sure I am warm.
Her skin is ivory, dry and crinkled like parchment, reddish near the
cheeks, as if someone has just dabbed colored powder under her lively eyes.
She wears several large and heavy gold hoops in each of her ears, all through
the same hole. The holes are stretched by the time I become a girl, and the
only reason that her earlobes are not torn is that the hoops are also held up
by a ribbon that goes over her head and takes some of the weight off her
ears. Even so, the hole in her earlobe is stretched and large. I can catch
glimpses of the nape of her neck through the hole in her earlobe as she
makes quick movements and gesticulates. Her animation is also a cause for
consternation among the other women because it is entrancing and you have
to look at her. The men don"t seem to mind. When her husband died they
said she was a beautiful woman.
I stare at her and her colors and take in her textures and her
smells. I know that I will not have them forever. She stares at me with
contentment in her eyes. I am a hybrid, daughter of her daughter, two men
are in the picture by the time I arrive, but her smile informs me that ultimately
I am from her loins.
When I was born Dhanna brought all kinds of things for my mother
to eat. For me she brought things to wear. My swaddling clothes are from
her, an old pashmina shawl of natural color, almost threadbare but layered
like phyllo, impossibly light, so warm and soft, and delicious to smell.
In our valley of Kashmir, which sits like an infant in the lap of the
Himalayas, one of the first things you do when a newborn arrives is to make
sure the baby is warm. You take the oldest shawl in the family, one that has
worn fine with use, and fold it many times over until you have a small
cloudlike blanket for the infant. The snow line encircles us and we are always
making sure that we are warmed by wool and by firewood.
The men usually arrange for the procurement and purchase of
firewood in the autumn when winter begins to nip at our heels. It is a short
and brisk transaction. The wood is bought, chopped, and arranged in
crisscross fashion in backyards, ready to provide the beneficence of heat for
our rooms and cooking stoves when winter arrives. Wood from the hatab tree
is at a premium because its density provides the most intense heat; walnut
wood is highly prized as well, and nothing catches fire like the pine, but there
comes a time in the winter when any wood is better than none at all. Not
everyone can afford a wood-burning stove at home, but all carry their own
kangri, a small handy portable firepot around which a basket with handles is
woven in red and green wicker. If we are to survive the winter, we must carry
the indispensable kangri everywhere. It warms our beds and dries small
articles of clothing in winter; we warm milk in it in the metal khos we drink
tea from; we burn incense in it at weddings, roast chestnuts or small pieces
of meat in it; we light our hookah tobacco with its coals. In winter when we sit
on a chair, very often our feet are resting on a kangri. When we sit on the
carpet, our legs folded against our chest with our feet away from the body,
the kangri is kept under our knees in the space between our feet and thighs,
like a central heating system.
Wool, on the other hand, is a lifetime"s preoccupation. Women
and men collect pashmina and wool fabrics, they have woolen clothes
stitched, they have woolens knitted, or they knit themselves. Kashmiri
women used to weave their own wool fabrics, no one else knew the arcane
technique that produced the inimitable weave. Now they have it done
because no one seems to have the patience anymore. We too have a family
spindle put away in the attic, covered with cobwebs. It may not hold any
magic for the women in my family, but I have read a story about a dormant
female and a kissing prince at my Irish convent school and stay away from it.
Dhanna is a collector of pashmina; she has great yards, medium-
size shawls, and small pieces of the reassuring fabric. She sprinkles her
collection with dried bitter flowers and medicinal herbs and wraps them in fine
muslin. Then she wraps the muslin-covered bundle in hand-embroidered
cotton or silk tablecloths and ties up the corners so that no air or silverfish
can find their way into her hoard. As she gathers up the packages to put
them into a large steel trunk, and locks up with a padlock, she repeats a
litany I have heard to the point of not listening.
"Pashmina has always meant security for the women of Kashmir.
In the old days women got saris of pashmina in their trousseaux, but they
only wore everyday wool at home. If they fell upon bad days they cut a shawl
out of a length of pashmina and sold it to the shawl peddler for cash. Never
forget, these shawls are equal to gold." She says this with a sigh, softly,
matter-of-factly, just as my mother will eventually.
My grandmother smoothes out the wrinkles in the fabric with a
gentle reverence that is shared by all Kashmiris. We don"t brag about it
much, but we know that we have enslaved Europe and conquered Scotland
with this silky wool made from the winter fleece of the goats found only in the
upper reaches of our mountains. We have spun wisps of the elusive down,
slowly, lovingly, and we would never have accepted the machine-made
incarnation they named after our valley. In Kashmir the real thing is what we
are after. If the women wear gold it is so pure that it turns soft like butter
when they stand in front of the kitchen fires.
My grandmother"s shawl peddler, like all our tradespeople, is a
Muslim. We Hindus are all Brahmins and are commonly called pandits,
denoting our tradition of being the learned caste. There are no other Hindu
castes in the valley. Many explanations have been put forward for this
unprecedented situation, so unlike the rest of India, where there are always
several castes in each Hindu community. The most common explanation is
that most of the Brahmins were administrators and did not have to convert to
Islam or did not want to convert. Some pandits did convert and their
descendants carry their Brahmin names today, even though they are Muslim.
Hindus form a minuscule minority in the valley, but I remember
that it did not worry us a bit, we did not think that Muslims and Hindus were
natural enemies. In Kashmir, we were more preoccupied with the fact that we
were all Kashmiri and we lived in the most beautiful place on earth.
Like other visitors to the house, the shawl peddler takes off his
shoes before he enters the kitchen hall and sits on the floor with the ladies of
the house. It is always too cold to keep the floors bare, so we pad the floor
with a cushioning reed waguv, over which embroidered, pressed-wool namdeh
or layered gabbeh are piled on for warmth, and, if you can afford them,
carpets top off all the padding.
The shawl dealer is given a cup and saucer set aside especially
for Muslims; one never knows what kinds of meats they eat at home. Hindus
do not usually eat food touched by Muslims, so the question of sharing
dishes does not arise. In any case my grandmother does not touch porcelain
or china, even ours; she drinks her tea out of her goblet-shaped brass khos.
In her scheme of things glass and metal are not forbidden and terra-cotta is
"Not to be touched," she says, pointing to the bone china dishes
in the china closet out in the dining room, dishes required for her husband"s
She is reluctant to say why because she cannot bring herself to
say the sacrilegious words "crushed cows" bones." It is a rumor brought to us
centuries ago from China and the mountains have trapped it, like so many
other things, in the valley.
The shawl man is content not to drink tea from a Hindu cup; he
does not know what has crossed their lips. Hindus habitually garnish their
food with asafetida, which he, like many others, believes comes from pigs"
feet. He can hardly bring himself to use those words. Nothing is said, no
misgivings explained, these mutual misunderstandings are completely
acceptable and completely in place.
All this religious stuff is irrelevant in light of the real business at
hand. The peddler is privy to the innermost secrets of the household,
because girls, pashmina, gold, silver, shawls, puberty, and marriage are all
wrapped up in the same tender package, opened up only to the innermost
members of a family circle. He carries his own bundles of exquisites,
wrapped many times over, on his bicycle rack, as he pedals through the
narrow lanes of the old city and through the wide streets of the new city
where we now live. When he sits down, with some ceremony, to display what
he has brought them, all the women of the house surround him.
The shawl wallah takes embroidery orders based on his prized
silk samplers that are over a hundred years old. His village has grown the fat
white cocoons of the silkworm on mulberry leaves since the days of the
Chinese traders. No one remembers the silk traders anymore, but we
continue to grow silk, weave it, walk on it, and wear it, and it lasts forever.
His family has sent its silk carpets around the world for generations, but he
loves the shawl trade. It suits him, he is part of every step of the
interpretation and execution of the designs he owns, and his collection of
samplers is his claim to fame. Besides, carpets take months to weave and
the young weavers follow a song pattern that is sung for them out of a
tattered book, day in and day out, by an old master sitting on the side. The
shawl peddler is too fond of company, frequent compliments; he is restless
and energetic and too much his own person to follow patterns composed in
their entirety centuries ago.
With a quick flick of his wrist the shawl peddler opens up a
sampler. The white silk of the samplers has turned ivory, and the
embroidered flowers look as though they have been printed; time has pressed
the threads into the fabric. Anyway, we know the pieces are at least a
hundred years old, passed from father to son, because the needlework is too
painstaking to be made by contemporary human hands. Luminescent silk
threads embroidered on the jaded cloth glow like uncut rubies, emeralds,
pearls, and diamonds in antique jewelry. The samplers are embroidered with
myriad flowers representing an infinite number of possibilities, and they are
the birthplace of generations of shawls. The same motifs are chosen, as in
life, and arranged and rearranged again and again to create entirely new
The women take in the palette that has been presented to them
on the sampler. They are soon engrossed in mixing and matching, choosing
and designing. I, a small observer, sitting on the broad ledge of the window
where the light is excellent, copy the shapes of the flowers and the leaves on
white letter paper that I will later fill in at school, which is where I keep all my
art materials. The paper and pencil accompany me almost everywhere I go.
It is an afternoon of beauty and art. The women know that the
shawl maker is listening intently and will faithfully execute their
masterpieces. When the finished shawls come back the women delight in
one another"s work and bemoan their own choice or their luck in the
embroidery apprentice who falls to their lot.
The shawl maker is a dandy. He wears kohl in his eyes, and his hair under
his curly, lamb fetus–fur hat is copper red from henna dye. He always seems
to have saliva in his mouth, and though it looks as if he"s holding it back by
cupping his lower lip, it"s just his enthusiasm for his wares. He has puzzles
and nonsense rhymes, with which he entertains himself and us children while
the women look at his shawls.
"I have a daughter who is smarter than my sons," he says to me
one day. "Izmat is her name and she is as old as you. I will bring her the next
time I come by."
The shawl man has named his daughter with the word meaning
honor and she must have been born, like me, in a year of tumult. It is a good
name, we live among each other by honor, we do not have dependable,
government-controlled credit agencies or welfare systems. He keeps his word
and brings Izmat a month or so later, and as he had said she is my age. She
looks like a prefect little lady with a round face and soft brown eyes. Her hair
is parted in the middle and braided in two plaits which come down on either
side of the front of her little tweed pheran. I don"t know it then, but she will
part her hair in the middle for the rest of her life, changing only from braids to
a clip with a single pony tail when she grows up. Izmat joins us in her father"s
For one game he gently pounds our lower jaw up against the
upper jaw with his closed fist while we repeat a nonsense rhyme. The object
is to catch our tongue between our teeth.
"Ten teeth chattering, ten tongues running. Ten tuck tuck tucks,"
the shawl man says as we fall into the game and repeat the rhyme while
trying to save our tongues.
The women laugh when we pronounce words in the rhyme the way
he does, like a Muslim, although the words are exactly the same for Hindus.
He loves to make us all laugh with sales talk in English employed in the past
for British memsahibs, "Antique piece. Moghul princess. Paisley motif.
English rose. Very fine. Uncommon piece. Lovely."
He sits with us and sips his tea, but his ear is cocked toward the
women. Whenever a question arises about his shawls he shouts back an
answer at the women, and looks at them from the corner of his eye to gauge
the body language of purchase.
Sometimes he forgets himself and something comes over his
eyes and he puts his hand behind his head and pushes his hat forward at a
rakish angle. It is a momentary lapse and he immediately rectifies the slip by
making as if he has to scratch his head and places his unborn lamb"s–fur hat
squarely on his head again.
It is a family gathering and he is part of it, it is a time for tea and
gossip. Frequent visits to a home with a young girl can mean only one thing,
trousseau preparation, and he, an intrinsic part of it, relishes the secrecy and
In a universe of joint and extended families something is always
about to happen. Young women and men are always coming of age and
shifting the kaleidoscope into acceptable or difficult configurations. It is all
grist for his mill. If it goes smoothly then there is a marriage and money for
him, and if not it is whispered, discreet gossip, which is his stock in trade as
well, a little bonus thrown in only for his long-standing clientele.
Usually, though, one cousin comes of age, then another, then
another, and pashmina is required for all of them and their spouses, or the
master of the house may suddenly feel like a brand-new pashmina shawl-
blanket. The shawl peddler is a busy man and causes great consternation by
not showing up on a promised day. If he is late, even by hours, we don"t
mind. We have a different take on punctuality, and often say "The more
delayed you are, the better you arrive." Time always adds value. When he
does show up he spends a good part of the morning or the afternoon with us.
After a few hours of selection and chatter, the shawl session ends, and the
shawl man carefully folds up and puts away his silk archives and then his
More often than not one of us ends up requesting a paisley
pattern. We consider the paisley, dancing among other designs like a self-
assured languid beauty, the symbol of timeless perfection. There is hardly a
woman in Kashmir who does not have something with the familiar paisley
embroidered on it. We call it an "almond" because that is what we grow while
the people from the hot plains of India call it a "little mango" because that is
We don"t know much about mangoes and we hardly ever see any
except for a brief period in the summer when a few survive our icy mountain
passes and arrive at our fruit markets. Like lemons, bananas, and oranges,
mangoes are very exotic to us and we have to import them. Our fruits are
apples, peaches, cherries, apricots, plums, pears, melons, almonds,
walnuts, and grapes. Even the flowers in Kashmir are different: we have
narcissus, lotus, tulips, wild roses, hyacinths, peonies, irises, lilies. Our
trees are Himalayan, and of course we cannot say it often enough, in all of
India only we have the chinar. The other most requested embroidery from the
sampler is the leaf of the chinar tree.
The chinar was bequeathed to us by the Mughal emperors, who
imported it from Persia. The "on fire tree" which is how the chinar looks in the
fall, is more than a tree. It is a historical legacy protected by law and you
may not cut it down even if it grows in your own backyard. We treat it as if it
is a benevolent old lady, we sleep the sweetest sleep in its shade, and some
women are given its Kashmiri name, which is booyne. The chinar leaves take
us from season to season, going from pale green buds in spring to large
leaves in summer"s full green, to flame red, retreating into brown and then
into nothingness. When the chinar leaves are done in the fall we gather them
from the ground to burn them for our winter coals. Our autumn air is redolent
with the smoke from piles of burning chinar leaves and twigs, the very scent
of home as I remember it, decades later. The winter in Kashmir takes up
almost half the year.
Winter is eventually done, but the air, remembering the durable
season, is still clear and cold. Then the ice gives way to snow, and the snow
gives way here and there to brown earth and wisps of new green grass.
Slowly and surely the sun starts gaining the upper hand. Spring is not quite
here in full bloom, but the narcissus appears, eyes closed, and then
suddenly opens up one day laden with fragrance. We cut a couple of the
flowers and place them in a vase inside the house and live on its fragrance
until spring bursts upon us fully a few weeks later. Our flowers are in our soil,
and in the few houses that still have mud-thatched roofs our soil sends up
wild relatives of these floral natives.
Once spring comes, the narcissus is no longer queen and
disappears silently in obeisance to apple, almond, cherry, and peach
blossoms. We almost run out of our houses with picnic baskets and children
and mothers-in-law and new brides, and kangris and samovars, and find our
way to the orchards by boat and bus and horse-driven carriage. It is a
madness of perfumed air, outdoor Kashmiris, and the promise of fruits and
flowers in our lanes and countryside.
The shawl maker has all these symbols of our life firmly
catalogued in fine stitches on his cherished samplers. Occasionally, lost
among Kashmiri motifs, one finds a very English-looking rose, no doubt
requested by a homesick memsahib, and now immortalized in the frieze.
In spite of the shawl peddler"s protestations, no one does that
kind of fine work anymore. The old masters are too old and the young would
rather make money quickly. But the shawl seller swears that the samplers
are the standard to which he adheres.
"This is why you open your doors to me when I knock. Otherwise
every other person in Kashmir is a shawl maker," he says, looking us right in
He tries hard, of course, but times have changed. In the past
artists were said to have gone blind bringing the Mughal Gardens in silk to a
half-blind Sikh emperor who could not travel to Kashmir. When the carpets
were unraveled before him the emperor took off his shoes so that he could
walk in the gardens of Kashmir. His bejeweled ladies wept as they wore the
embroidered shawls they were presented because they had no idea that
such beautiful flowers or such gossamer wool existed in this world.
No one was going blind with universal adult suffrage in full force
now, but still the standard was good to have. You could not stray too far from
it. There were great-grandmothers in many houses who remembered how
things were done.
When the shawls are delivered and carefully opened it is difficult
to imagine that it is the coarse knotted hands of men with gray and white
stubble that have embroidered such sophisticated patterns. The stitches are
hardly visible to the naked eye, and so meticulous that there is no right side,
they nestle in the pashmina and are lost in it. Only the art remains to allure
us. Like the emperor and his women, the women of my home dance in their
flower garden, exulting in the execution of their patterns and arrangements.
The masters are all older men. Nimbler apprentice hands fill in
routine edges and borders, all repetitive work. This is the groundwork for their
mastering the art. They serve their teachers many years with this humility
before they themselves turn gray and proficient. Then a new crop of
apprentices brings the teachers tea, or fills their chillum with tobacco, and
topping the tobacco with tiny chinar coals, lights their hookah. This is the
natural order of things, but it is well known that one never knows what to
expect of a new crop.
Occasionally a genius emerges among the apprentices and the
shawl man proudly shows off his prodigy, then warily watches him flourish
and then sourly and quietly acknowledges that the fellow has gone off with
someone else, forgetting that it was he who taught him everything.
If a shawl maker has a shop, the workshop is in an alcove above
the showroom. We cannot see the workers, but we can hear the rumble of
the hookah, we can also smell the incense they burn to counter the smell of
tobacco smoke. We can hear the sewing machine upstairs and soft laughter
or conversation among the apprentices. It is a man"s world up there, and all
the men are busy working on the most subtle embroidery possible. The
proprietor descends the narrow staircase coming down from the alcove and
takes his place behind the wooden counter to discuss business with us.
Nothing is ever ready on time, and it is understood that we have to make a
few fruitless visits to the shop before the work is completed and handed to
us. As an apology he offers us hot green tea laced with crushed cardamon,
cinnamon, and almonds, but we politely refuse. Neither will he ever give us
anything on time, nor will we stop going to his shop. It is part of the whole
Our shawl maker, whose family has had most of our family
business for generations, also has a shop deep in the entrails of Srinagar.
We visit the old city very infrequently; we are too used to the wide streets
and modern transportation of suburban life. We enter the labyrinth of the old
city only when we visit our relatives, who still live in intricately carved and
delicately bricked ancestral homes, or when we attend weddings or family
functions. On these occasions we go in a small one-horse tanga for most of
the way, perhaps walking the last hundred yards or so of cobbled mazelike
narrow lanes on foot. If the celebrations go on late into the night and we
cannot find a tanga to come back in we just walk home, singing loudly at the
midnight moon, with a chaperone or a servant in tow. Invariably we are joined
in our walk and our serenade by stray dogs, of which there is never a
shortage in the streets of Srinagar.
The houses in the old city, Muslim and Hindu houses, are
sometimes so close together that the owners can pass things to each other
from the windows. Everyone knows everyone and their business, and the
housewives share domestic woes and gossip, talking loudly across windows.
Women take a careful look down into the street before throwing
out the boiling-hot starch water they have to drain out every day from the
cooked rice. If her neighbor is doing the same, it is impossible that the two
women will go back to their chores before bringing each other up to date on
their domestic goings-on. Of one thing one can be sure, it will not be good
news. We never announce good news because we are obsessed with the evil
eye, which according to many has reduced entire mountains to dust.
Whenever anyone asks us how we are doing we look as though we are
recovering from something, no one wants to look prosperous or well. We are
not comfortable with prosperity and well-being, having seen it at close
quarters only for a short while. Having given us the most beautiful place in the
world to live in God has evened the score by alternately subjecting us to
serfdom and embattlement with the forces of nature on a regular basis. Our
history has been under the joint custody of oppressive rulers and an earthly
trinity of earthquakes, famine, and floods. Both are etched into our genes and
we never forget, even at the best of times.
No wonder, then, that parents want to do the best they can to
ensure that their child is warm and never in need of cash. This is why the
shawl man and the jeweler are so critical to wedding preparations. When the
house is in the grip of marriage fever, our favorite catharsis, the shawl man
also becomes a victim of the malady. After the girl of the house gets married
he follows her to her new address. If he already knows the people there, he is
also the most reliable informant about the goings on at her in-laws" home.
Sometimes he carries camouflaged messages back and forth. And, when
lives move ahead and scenes shift, it is to the same shawl man that a young
woman might sell the first half of her pashmina sari. She never forgets what
my grandmother also wants me to remember always, that pashmina is
currency. If the bad times continue she will sell the other half as well. If so
instructed, he will not tell her parents about these transactions.
"What sort of bad times?" I ask Dhanna.
High above my grandmother"s head pictures of our gods and
goddesses hang in the ceiling cornice. Mostly the pictures are of our favorite,
the Mother-Goddess known by her many names: Durga, Ragnya, Sharika,
Bhawani. She sits sidesaddle or astride a demure tiger, her several arms
hold everything vital to a good life. She Who Fears Nothing dismounts only to
destroy evil wherever it hides its ugly self. In one of the pictures hanging
above our heads in Dhanna"s kitchen hall She, bloody sword in hand, has her
feet planted firmly atop the Demon Bull, while her tiger playfully gambols with
the severed Demon Head. She is our Mother and she is the embodiment of
Positive Energy. I look up at the pictures, and wonder. We have grown up
with Tiger Ladies all around us, even our men are in mortal terror of them, and
make pilgrimages and pray to them constantly. Our goddess is invincible,
and we take that for granted. I cannot imagine what a woman could suffer
without her parents and siblings knowing about it.
"Well, she had no income, she was shy and could not ask her
husband or her in-laws for money if she needed it for something. She hardly
knows them," answers my grandmother.
My eyes scroll down from the Tiger Ladies to her. I ask her,
hoping for a fresh detail, but I know the answer. I know from looking around
me that things have changed for the better for daughters-in-law, but not
completely, and there are some stubborn pockets of resistance in my family
For the in-laws the bride is a new thing, an unknown entity,
someone who will eventually, with luck and perseverance, be accorded her
place in their scheme of things. For now she is much younger than the other
women, smells too much of bridal finery and perfumed oils. Who knows what
she knows or what she can do? She is an outsider who shares the son"s
bed, she is suspect, and soon provides proof of her nocturnal antics in the
shape of an oval belly. The belly will become her passport to the family. The
fact is that even producing an offspring who is a blood relative of her in-laws
does not guarantee that she will become a real member of the pack.
The misery of daughters-in-law is a theme we are all familiar with.
Our folk songs, folktales, and mythology are full of the laments of young girls
torn from their parents and hurled into new unforgiving households.
Sometimes the girl"s wet nurse or chaperone, whom we call milk-mother,
goes to look her up, as her own parents are not supposed to set foot in the in-
laws" house. If the girl is too homesick or she has to return to her parents"
house for a ritual, or because of an illness, the milk-mother will bring her
back for a brief visit. If the girl is a really young child bride, not yet partner in
her young husband"s bed, the milk-mother will bring her back more often,
carrying her on her shoulders, completely covered with a shawl so that her
gold jewelry does not attract attention. When the little girl reaches her
parents she is relieved of her burdensome ornaments and goes out to play
with her siblings and cousins. But she belongs to another house now.
We sing the songs of these unhappy brides even at weddings,
and narrate heartrending tales that bring tears even to the eyes of the driest
of mothers-in-law, because they have been brides themselves. Even our Sufi
mystics and poetesses are not free from this tribulation. One story we know
particularly well because the mystic is a woman from our ancestral family.
Generations later her prophecies are alarmingly potent and we are
scrupulously observant of her special days. I know what my grandmother
means when she says "Sometimes new brides have to face tough-times at
the hands of their in-laws."
"Or," says my grandmother, watching me carefully, "if a woman
was ill, or anyone else was ill, and they could not cure the illness with herbs
and poultices, and had no choice but to buy medicines. People did not have
big jobs in those days. They had rice and greens, and yoghurt if they were
lucky, but not much money. If one was lucky one person in the family had a
job and he supported everyone, things were cheap then, living was simple.
Everyone lived under the same roof, in a joint family. We were clothed in
In an era where virtually all the employment came from a feudal
colonial government, she means we belonged to a painfully respectable
middle class who had to wear clean, starched-white clothes to their British
Indian offices. Wearing colorful clothes to work indicated flamboyance in the
face of capricious authority, a dangerous idea. People considered themselves
extremely fortunate to have even the smallest office job in the remotest
branch of the government. The upper class barely lived comfortably, and the
rich you could count on one hand. Now, it is after independence, and most
people are still poor, but we natives are employed from top to bottom, in
every kind of job, everywhere.
I am at an age where I cannot bear the truth. These stories about
sick women and apathetic in-laws depress me and my grandmother can see
it in my eyes. She flips over the trout to crisp it on the other side. Normally
she cuts the trout into appropriate pieces, but for me she has chosen a small
fish and is frying it in its entirety, a special treat. She sees my face and
becomes a comedian for my sake.
"Women are really clever," she says. "They know what to do. They
roasted eggs in their kangris under their clothes."
Women are inseparable from their kangris, they carry the
perpetual fire between their breasts, next to their womb, and between their
loins. They cannot afford to let the fire die, and they keep an eye on it all the
time. At weddings and special occasions married girls are given kangris by
their parents. It is yet another essential item in a daughter"s survival kit. But
these gift kangris are more festive than everyday ones and even have colored
silver paper slipped in between the wicker and the terra-cotta pot as the
basket is woven. The latticed silver paper shimmers as the pot is carried by
hand. A beautifully filigreed stoker made of sterling silver is tied to the back of
the basket and this final touch completes the gift. The functionality of the
stoker is limited; it will soften and bend if used seriously, so it is soon
replaced with an iron one. The silver, inexorably, like other insurance policies,
joins the pashmina and the bitter flowers in a secret treasure chest.
"Eggs in their kangris?" I ask, quite delighted by the thought of
women egg bandits. I decide that I shall roast eggs in my kangri very soon.
My grandmother is happy to see that she has made me smile.
She continues, refueled. "The women stole into the chicken coop, picked up
an egg or two, and placed it under the hot ash in their kangris. Then, carrying
it under their pheran with one hand, they would go out into the garden, or the
backyard, or the riverbank, or their own room. Then they might fish out the
egg with the stoker and have a nice little snack, without bothering the kitchen
or, best of all, without anyone knowing. No one looked after the women; they
were supposed to look after everyone and, of course, no one ever asked if
they were hungry." She smiles conspiratorially at me, another woman in the
The egg women are radical compared to Dhanna. My grandmother
does not eat eggs or fowl, because they are unclean. She will not allow either
to be cooked in her kitchen; she looks indignant even when fowl is cooked
outside in the hall. There is no question of her touching fowl herself, and
when it is brought into the house she walks around looking self-righteous all
the while. She doesn"t like the idea and she doesn"t like the smell. On the
other hand, lamb and fish have direct access to the kitchen and are
sometimes cooked even for religious occasions. Garlic, shallots, and onions,
sensual bulbs all, and openly bloody tomatoes, are also outcasts from her
kitchen, just like fowl. If a bulb does not send up flowers she has no use for
it. It all seems so logical.
Then she remembers something. "One day my aunt nearly died of
fright. She was a sour old woman who could curdle a lot of milk. She terrified
her new daughter-in-law silly with her sarcasm and anger."
I am given facial expressions and body language to illustrate the
"The young woman sat next to auntie on the carpet, head bowed
down, firepot under her bent knees under her pheran, as it should be, and all
was quiet. Suddenly a bomb exploded. The old woman ran out of the room
screaming, and fell out of the balcony. Thank God it was only the first floor.
When all was quiet they found the young one with ash all over her face and
egg and eggshell splattered everywhere. The egg in her firepot had exploded
and risen with all its volcanic ash up her shirt collar and into her nose and
hair. She looked so much like a wandering ascetic that everyone was a bit
wary of her after that."
We have a special regard for people who have ash smeared all
over their face and body.
"Now all the young women wear saris," says my grandmother.
She is somewhat contemptuous of non-Kashmiri imported couture. She is
proud of her pheran, a voluminous ankle-length caftan with huge sleeves worn
over a long cotton shell, the traditional dress of Kashmiri women and men.
The sleeves are so wide that in the winter the arms stay inside the wool
pheran, coming out only when absolutely required to do so.
The pheran can cover a lot of things. The last refuge of cold and
tired grandchildren, it is loose enough to hold one adult and one child, and
the neck is deep enough for the child"s head to pop out from under the
grandparent"s chin, like a baby kangaroo. Of course, there is always a place
for a kangri as well.
My grandmother gives me a second helping of my favorite meal of
crisply fried trout, untouchably hot, garnished with salt and red pepper, and
mixed with cold, sweet leftover rice. I eat heavenly morsels of the
juxtaposition of the hot and the cold. As I eat, my grandmother watches me
intensely. She involuntarily copies my facial motions of mastication: one
person is eating but two are being fed.
Years later my daughter will ask for an encore of the same fish
rice combination. I will not say anything, but feel overjoyed when I see four
generations of women with the same taste buds in one single dish.
After lunch my grandmother and I sit outside in the sun, which is
so wonderful and bright that we have to shade our eyes with our hands. I
squint at Dhanna and ponder the fact that the only friend a woman has in her
married state is her yardage of pashmina cloth. My grandmother interrupts
my thoughts to say, "Fathers also gave their daughters wedding ear
ornaments to make sure they had extra gold in case they needed it." Only
married pandit women wear solid gold earrings, symbols of married status
called dejahor, which hang all the way down to their nipples.
"When women needed money, or when their daughters got
married, they would cut off one dejahor, sell it, and make two of the other
one. The size was the same, but it was hollow inside and no one would know
that they had troubles. You always have to have two, one for each ear." She
tells me again and again to make sure I know that balance is critical.
I lean forward and lift the heavy gold pendants she is wearing, and
now they look like mini-banks to me. She has not had to replace hers with
hollow ones because she did not need the money like so many others. In her
house it was her husband"s solid gold medal for his master"s degree in
economics from Lahore University that was melted down for the ornaments.
The fact that he stood first was enough—they knew it and everyone else
knew it—and besides, who was going to wear such a large medal anyway?
Now, the gold sovereign with beautiful Queen Victoria is a different story. She
has several of those, and she has strung them in gold necklaces she has
designed for her children.
Her wedding ornaments have ornaments of their own, a gold
toothpick, a miniature spoon-shaped ear cleanser, and other little utensils; it
is a twenty-four-karat gold Swiss knife of sorts. Over the years her collection
of little gold gadgets has been attached piece by piece like charms to her
breast-length wedding earrings. After meals she uses the toothpick casually;
its constant presence on her breast has immunized her to its value.
Dhanna knows very little of what is going on beyond her
immediate neighborhood. For her, Lahore University is still where everyone
goes to study, where her husband was given the heavy round gold medal.
She knows that something called Pakistan has happened, but grand old
Lahore has nothing to do with it. She comes to know about Pakistan when
her daughter is pregnant with me, and nightmarish stories related by fleeing
families from our outlying villages bring everything to a standstill in Kashmir.
It is 1947. Outside the valley in India, nothing stays in place as churning lines
of humanity run hither and yon in a hellish frenzy, trying to find their way.
India has just been sliced in two, and both parts are quivering like newly
slaughtered flesh. Parts of the country are being apportioned as if at a
sacrificial ritual, presided over by the high priests of our national
dismemberment, the departing British government. At the height of the
madness, to precipitate its acquisition of Kashmir, Pakistan sends Afghan
hill tribes called Kabailis to invade Kashmir. The tribesmen"s appetites are
whetted by truckloads of carpets, brassware, and luxury goods borrowed
from wealthy homes, topped by a beautiful prostitute, borrowed from her
usual chores, and sometimes a fresh corpse borrowed from the morgue.
They are told that all this had been easily looted from Kashmir, and that the
brassware is pure gold, and that this is what they will find once they reach
Kashmir. These tribesmen are intrepid warriors but not connoisseurs of the
fine life. The trucks look good enough to them and soon they are on their
way, hungry, pouring into the valley, guns on their shoulders, ready for the kill.
As the Kabailis come down into the valley they see a Kashmiri
shepherd and ask him directions to Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, where
we live. One look at their guns and knives tells him they do not belong in the
valley and he sends them in the opposite direction. When they discover what
he has done, they return, track him down, and crucify him with nails driven
through his hands and heart and head at the very crossroads where he
In our part of the world, land disputes abound, and petty thievery,
but our thieves are so petty that they are objects of humorous folklore.
Murder or serious robbery is almost unheard of, and this unspeakable act
and the shepherd"s martyrdom are never forgotten. My grandmother, the
midnight bather, is beside herself with anxiety for her first grandchild, yet to
"Who are these people? What did we do to them, why have they
come?" She is told that Pakistan has sent the raiders to Kashmir. The
raiders have come hunting infidels and treasures and beautiful women. The
women of Kashmir are beautiful, the songs from Persia to China have said for
centuries, but it is soon apparent that neither religion nor beauty is what the
men are after. If you come in their way, whatever your beliefs or looks, they
dispatch you with the same fierceness with which they tore the British army
to shreds a century ago, reducing entire battalions to just a shattered man or
The Kabailis are approaching us fast and are only about three
hours away in the foothills of the mountains. People flee in the opposite
direction, taking just a few possessions. My family also runs, to a Muslim
friend"s house where we are quickly hidden in the women"s quarters.
We all live on food given us by our Muslim friends; no one asks
who cooked it. As we wait for the outcome of the attack, we can hardly
breathe because the hordes have left behind sickening acts of cruelty. Even
our hosts are not safe if they harbor us, but to them the choice is simple and
made immediately. They sit protectively in their outer rooms. They are one of
the few families with a telephone, but phones are out of commission so they
sit glued to the radio for news of the fighting. Then the raiders attack the
power station and we are surrounded by an awful silence. I am in my
mother"s belly, and she is also hiding in the dark, waiting for deliverance with
the rest of my family.
Help arrives in time in planeloads of the Indian army. The Kabailis are sent
back without any carpets, infidels, or beautiful women, but they do manage
to extricate an odd gold tooth or two pulled out of the mouths of some
hapless Irish nuns they attack at a rural outpost of the order. The Mother
Superior and her nuns had tried to smile at the tribesmen, hoping to stir
some humanity in their cartridge belt–decorated chests. By the time the
tribesmen"s stop at the convent was over, one nun lay dead, savagely
murdered in cold blood. But they managed to save the girls at the convent
school, it was said.
We went home in a few days when the worst was over, after the intruders had
been rounded up and sent back. A couple of the Kabailis had managed to
reach Srinagar, though, and we watched with terror and relief as one, twice
the height and width of his captors, was marched down our main road on the
way to the police station.
Now the word "Pakistan" is initiated into my grandmother"s
vocabulary. Even so, the geography and the history of our world are too
ancient to be changed in our hearts so quickly. It will take decades for us to
redo our inner maps. Now Lahore is the heart of Pakistan, but for those who
knew her when everyone was an Indian there is no other city. My
grandmother thinks her husband will always buy her shoes from Lahore"s
Anarkali Bazaar, the only place in the world where the suede is soft enough
for her feet.
The assault has made us aware that to outsiders we are not
Kashmiris but Hindus. There is no question of Kashmiris betraying other
Kashmiris to some wild mountain people just because we are Hindus and
they are Muslims. Our language and culture has bound us Kashmiris so
strongly together that all other people, regardless of religion, are strangers to
us. If someone does not understand our language, our stories, our songs,
and our food, they are foreigners to us. This rule of the valley applies to our
royal family as well. Our rulers are from a different culture and do not speak
The monarchs of Kashmir have almost always been foreigners
who have treated native Kashmiris, Hindus, and Muslims like serfs. In fact,
the words "work" and "exploitation" are jokingly, but very often, used
interchangeably. The Muslim rulers of Kashmir were succeeded by the
Sikhs, who were followed by a Hindu dynasty of the Dogras, a warrior caste
from Jammu, a kingdom just outside the valley, where the great hot plains of
north India begin.
Kashmir was a thank-you present given to our Dogra rulers by the
British in the nineteenth century. Ever reluctant to forgo territorial gains the
British stationed a Resident in our state of Jammu and Kashmir to keep a
close eye on matters. Now, in 1947, the British are beating a hasty retreat,
but we do not achieve independence like the rest of India because our
Maharajah is dragging his feet all over his hillside palace. The ruler of
Kashmir does not want to exchange his mountain kingdom for a republic.
For all of us there is ultimately a time of reckoning, and we are
usually hauled to it by our own actions. The tribesmen close in on the valley
and our king has to make a move. As we Kashmiris wait tremulously for him
to take charge he takes off for the airport and requisitions an aircraft that flies
him to his ancestral capital, Jammu. Eventually he will go to his favorite
playground, Bombay, never to return. The Maharajah"s abdication leaves us
to our own devices. Now everything is in the hands of a Kashmiri Muslim
political leader. We call Sheikh Abdullah the "The Tiger of Kashmir." The
Tiger does not really care for Pakistan and joins free India.
We now have an indigenous head of government for the first time
in centuries. But Sheikh Abdullah is more than just that, he is a folk hero
who has delivered his valley from the tribesmen of Pakistan by calling in the
Indian army. In a few short tumultuous days we have nonviolently replaced
our monarchy with a democracy, we have our own popular leader, and we are
now part of the Republic of India.
We do not want to become a gift again. A Kashmiri pandit,
Jawahar Lal Nehru is the Prime Minister of India. Nehru and the Kashmiri
leaders agree that the accession will eventually be formalized by a people"s
poll. We are no longer the oppressed, now we are a democracy and we must
be consulted. We were hardly aware that while we Kashmiris were awaiting
rescue and running to help one another, India was torn apart at the chest.
Murdered Hindus and Muslims, torn limbs and souls, and burning houses lie
scattered all over. Though we are surrounded by religious strife our shared life
in the valley keeps us Kashmiris together. We revel in one another"s
mysteries and legends and resort to them when required, which is frequently.
One of the legends that we hold in common is that of the repeated
resurrection of Kashmir from the annihilations it has suffered through its
"Once in ancient times there were only eleven families left in
Kashmir. Now look, everyone is home!" our elders tell us, when we despair
about any impossible situation.
This tells us that once you have faced the impossible, only the
It is a reassuring myth, and we seem to need to hear it.
My family returns home after the confusion and terror of the raid,
as we call it. They open up the windows and air the house, dust and clean
the furniture, light the kitchen fires and settle back into their routines.
Everyone is unsteady after the brief exodus, and probably as a result of the
dislocation my mother gives birth to me a few weeks earlier than expected.
Dhanna is taken unawares by my mother"s sudden onset of labor.
If she knew I would suddenly appear that particular day she would have done
everything to hasten or delay labor. She loves me the minute I am born, but
horoscopes have already been consulted and for a while during my mother"s
labor, it looks as if I might appear at an hour considered inauspicious for my
The astrologer says, "If the child is born before midnight it will
never live with you."
This pronouncement is taken to mean that birth at an inauspicious
hour will cause harm to either the child or the family. Something has to be
done and the astrologer suggests adoption. My grandmother says she will
adopt me and give me her name because it is different from my mother"s
married name. She is suggesting a common remedy in a superstitious valley,
using nominal jugglery to trick fate. We firmly believe that forging the identity
of the newborn, who does not come with a name tag, can work wonders.
My mother"s mother can only offer her thoughts on the subject, in
a whisper to my other grandmother. After all, like my mother I belong to my
My father"s family does not believe in all this nonsense but puts
up with Dhanna because they are all a bit in awe of her. My father is still a
student and neither of my parents is yet twenty years old, so in any case my
mother and I shall be staying with my paternal grandparents.
Fortunately, though, the labor is delayed and I am born at the right
time, late, and safely past the perilous hour. The joy of a safe delivery after a
dark and frightening time provides anecdotes for years afterward.
New births, new configurations, and new preoccupations ensure that the
tribesmen are put away in the recesses of our minds. The valley picks up
where it left off. Relieved of the feudal trappings of our monarchy, we resume
our lives in our new world with some significant changes. Muslims come into
prominence everywhere, rapidly gaining control of jobs in proportion to their
vast numbers in Kashmir. Hindus continue as before and Grandpa Babuji, a
Hindu, is the Home Secretary. Most Kashmiris being Muslim, Islamic
precepts and traditions flourish along with Hinduism. This does not change
anything between us Hindus and Muslims, we have always known and
respected each other"s beliefs. Kashmiri Hindus have had trouble only from
outsiders, never from other Kashmiris.
Both religious communities have happily made amendments to
their own taboos and our lives are harmoniously mingled. We quietly pass
each other coveted dishes, forbidden in traditional interaction, over the
backyard fence. We attend each other"s weddings with pleasure and
enjoyment. On the night that henna is applied to the groom or the bride, we
stay up all night singing songs, sipping green tea with crushed cardamom,
cinnamon, and almonds. If we are lucky, the tea will also be flavored with
saffron; one sip and we imbibe the souls of a thousand crocus flowers. On
these nights, in our gardens, under red and yellow and green awnings
designed in Mughal times our songs and love stories are the same.
We sing the songs of a beautiful village girl in a field of purple
flowers. She is gathering crocus for saffron, singing her poems of yearning
and love. Habba Khotoon is oblivious to a prince passing by on his way to a
hunting trip; he is the namesake of a certain Joseph of an earlier time, and
like him enticing in his beauty. Yusuf Shah Chak has stopped in his tracks
and cannot bear to go home without Habba Khotoon, but she is already
married to a village boy. Her lips are on fire from her songs and her saffron
and he is consumed. For the first time someone is captivated by Habba
Khotoon"s poems and cannot live without them. She is easily persuaded and
leaves the village to become the adored poet-queen of King Yusuf. But time
never moves forward in a straight line; it lives in cycles and what begins must
end. Royal duties separate the lovers, and Habba Khotoon"s agonized
messages for Yusuf, tall and dazzling like a blossoming tree, reverberate in
our gatherings three hundred years later. She lives forever as a pioneer of love
poetry in Kashmir, and Yusuf lives with her as the object of her desire.
Our love is more cautious, and even though we Hindus and
Muslims share a passion for our Kashmiri lives, we are careful not to tread on
each other"s toes. Although we attend each other"s weddings intermarriage is
inconceivable, and you can count such events on the tips of the fingers of
one hand, if you care to. Mostly we just ignore such violations of our taboos,
even though in our chronicled past our kings and queens married in and out
of their religion when it was politically expedient. Now our mutual acceptance
of our established customs makes a good fence and we are exemplary
In any event, the valley cradles us in her beauty and love songs,
and does not leave us with much time or desire to hate anything. Visitors to
the valley call us lazy, and the Western-educated among us call themselves
the Lotus-Eaters, but we live in heaven. Kashmiris pray to long-gone Sufi
mystics, madwomen and madmen who are our poets and prophets. Our
Sufism is a combination of the esoteric elements of Hinduism and Islam, and
gives the highest priority to what-is-not-of-this-world. With us reason is not
everything, and insanity demands instant veneration. We stand timorously at
attention should a mad person enter our home. We make way for them, for
they are the last symbols of our Sufi past. Our literature is the legacy of
these prolific men and women of "flashing eyes and floating hair."
We listen carefully to what the men and women of the world of
nonreason say. We try to divine meanings out of lunatic acts like throwing
flowers at passers-by or spitting at a host, or standing in the courtyard
warning of unseemly or wonderful things. Powerful men and women gratefully
take little "prescriptions" written by a "doctor" in tatters, with mucous dripping
from his nose into his mouth and matted beard. We cherish this mimicry of
pen and paper, and gratefully receive crumpled scribbles from our wild-eyed
visitors. We hold these talismans dear to our hearts and well-being. Stories
of miracles and prophecy are circulated with equal conviction among
housewives, physicists, boatmen, and professors of English. A fine chaos of
reason prevails; it is all a part of our nature and in the very water we drink.
The folly of not acknowledging seers and mystics is known only
too well to us. In particular it is the women mystics who rule our minds and
hearts, calling us like sirens with their mystical songs and lamentations.
These poetesses are part of our long literary tradition, and of our folklore and
mythology. We repeatedly hear stories about them, but it is the singing of
their verses in our homes that binds us to our mystics.
We are steeped in complete faith because every day we see the
verses of our saints come true.
"It had started off badly." The women tell us the story of one of our
oracular women. "He could never shut the bedroom door completely, in case
his mother called for water or God knows what."
We know the story in detail by now. When the man and woman
are alone, he makes sure the room is darkened, the windows shut, the
curtains drawn, doors bolted, as if he is aware of an interloper, as if he is
ashamed of being a married man. All possible entrances are secured except
the one leading to his mother"s bedroom. In silence he makes love to his
wife, one hand on her mouth, and he consumes her with hunger. But he is
like a man under siege, a man pursued. In the night he looks at her and is
possessed by her luminescence and her hair and
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