- The Last Candle
Old age caught up with our Phuphijan unawares, just as sickness overtakes a luckless person without notice. I do not understand why some people, all of a sudden, begin to look old. Youth comes on like a sudden storm, but old age should arrive slowly and peacefully. Phuphijan did not grow old that way. When my family had migrated from there, Phuphijan was young, fair, and slightly plump; she had dark, thick, lustrous hair, and wore glass bangles on her wrists. Her pajamas were very tight at the ankles, and her clothing was brightly coloured. She changed her shoes before they got so old that the nails stuck out. Of course, the heels of new shoes always gave way in the first two or three days of wear. She tossed paan in her mouth continuously as she talked nonstop. She was in the first row of people to pick a quarrel. She always spoiled for a fight and found plenty of opportunities. She’d explode at the slightest excuse. She had a lively temperament, but her behavior could not be called improper. She was just outspoken and laughed abruptly.
I should mention that she was not my real Phuphijan. If I remember my mother’s words correctly, she was the daughter of my father’s cousin from either the mother’s or father’s or uncle’s or aunt’s side. All young children of our family addressed her as Phuphijan, and like me, they didn’t know how they were related to her. Still, among the extended family, everyone held her in awe and esteem. At the time of Partition, when we joined one of the caravans of hunted people migrating to the other side, everyone in the family asked her to join us. But she was profoundly afraid that once she left, the imambara would be locked up, and that was in fact true. She was responsible for the rituals of mourning during Muharram. Actually, our traditional imambara was part of her house. During the month of Muharram, mourning rituals were held there, followed by refreshments. Members of the family who had jobs far away always returned home at that time. For anyone who didn’t have a place to stay, there was always a room in Phuphijan’s house.
I had such a surfeit of uncles and aunts that on the first occasion I stayed with her, it had been difficult for me to decide whom to choose. If I chose one, the others were unhappy. I had begun praying to God to reduce the number of my uncles and aunts. They were not reduced, but they did get scattered around. So my prayer was partly granted. Nevertheless, the problem remained. When I was staying in one place, I had to be thinking about where I would go next. I couldn’t remember any address except Phuphijan’s. [End Page 233]
Well, I was just saying that Phuphijan had suddenly grown old. I was really shocked when I saw her: matted hair, face crisscrossed with wrinkles, two missing lower teeth. The white dupatta and bare wrists indicated widowhood. Before, she would wear colourful, crinkly dupattas, and multi-coloured glass bangles adorned her wrists. As elderly ladies no longer assembled in her house to talk and crack betel nuts, Phuphijan’s expenses for betel nuts and paan had come down considerably. Now, like her tongue, her nutcracker was less busy.
I said with a smile, “Phuphijan, you’ve changed so much! You no longer fight with anyone.”
Phuphijan didn’t say a word, which disturbed me. Shamim piped in, of course: “Who is there to fight with? Those women have left for Pakistan.”
Shamim was right. Now there were only refugees all around. A woman from Pindrawal used to live in the house opposite. Phuphijan neither fought nor laughed with her. Now, a Sardarni lived there. Phuphijan was always polite to her. The difficulty was that the Sardarni spoke chaste Punjabi, while Phuphijan clung to Urdu. For the sake of good neighbourliness, the Sardarni tried to talk in Urdu, and Phuphijan used one or two Punjabi words. But...