Couplets by Ghalib – Michigan Quarterly Review
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Couplets by Ghalib

Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader Connor Greer introduces Anitha Ahmed’s short story “Couplets by Ghalib” from our Spring 2021 issue.You can purchase it here.

Anitha Ahmed’s “Couplets by Ghalib” makes demands. It places me, as a reader, in the role of its narrator, Rashid, as he recounts a memory. He tells of a time ten years prior when he met Faisal, the son of the wealthy principal of his school, and how he began to tutor him. Though it is a memory, I am with Rashid as he experiences Faisal’s “palace of a home,” “a three-story mansion with a winding marble staircase and a cupola decorated with Islamic mosaic. It even had an interior courtyard with beds of roses and jasmine, black steel benches, and a fountain” and I, like Rashid, do not belong in this place. We do not belong there when Faisal proves to be less than diligent as a tutee either. We do not belong in Faisal’s world of leisure, playing ping-pong in lieu of studying. We do not belong when Faisal’s sister, Hinna, begins to sneak downstairs to spend time with them, when she reads Couplets by Ghalib aloud: “With what haste you spend your life, oh Ghalib — / Or else you’d find in every corner—diamonds!” We do not belong there when she touches Rashid’s hand while teaching him calligraph–we know why the moment is charged. Yet it is difficult to resist imagining myself among this family. It is difficult not to feel a kind of relief for Rashid, a calm in the story’s exquisite prose, in the description of Faisal’s family life, a moment for Rashid to be free from precarity. It is intoxicating. Try to resist it. Try to resist feeling what Rashid feels as he meets Hinna, as he comes in contact with a slim and incomplete vision of this other version of life, and comes to believe, without ever quite saying it outright, that he could live it, too. I could tell you that I begin to grow suspicious of Rashid, that I begin to wonder what it means for me to share his perspective, whether I should accept what he thinks as what I think. I begin to wonder what, exactly, this desire is for and what it replicates. I believe the story asks me a question, by its end, by way of this pull and the feeling it conjures. The story offers no easy answers to it. In the face of the whole of structural oppression, of patriarchy and coercion and inequality and violence, in the face of the immensity of my smallness, gnat-like against the powers arrayed to maintain it, what am I willing to do, knowing it may change little? What am I willing to do beyond modulating the particulars of my life along the track on which I had already planned it, to the extent that a life can be planned? You may find yourself wondering this as well. You may find yourself struggling, painfully, to come up with a satisfying answer. You may find yourself devastated by the story’s end.

Couplets by Ghalib

A decade has passed since I met Hinna in Karachi, in August, 1972. I still have the book of poems she gave me, dog-eared, tea-stained, the pages damaged from moisture. After the war of 1971 took my father’s life and my home, after my birthplace of East Pakistan turned into Bangladesh, I spent several months living with an aunt in Calcutta. Because I was eager to leave India and restart my schooling, as soon as my mother could scrape together enough for a plane ticket, she sent me to West Pakistan, where we as Urdu-speaking Muslims were suddenly meant to belong.

I was staying at the Shiva Kunj hostel at the time, which was cheap and only two kilometers away from my college in the center of Karachi. I lived in a gritty room with a cement floor, a desk, and a metal-frame bed that was too small; my feet dangled off the edge. Night after night I lay awake for hours, listening to cars honking and hawkers calling and street vendors clanging metal spoons against their tandoors. When it was especially hot, the movie theater nearby opened its doors, and the soundtracks to the Punjabi pictures blared through my window too. Once the sounds of the street quieted, I could hear the squeaking and scrambling of mice running from one corner of the room to the other. Many nights, I gave up and studied in the dim light of my table lamp. At least if I fell asleep on my books, I was more likely to dream of solving equations than of those other loud memories—strangled screaming, shattering glass, the false sunrise of fire.

Faisal’s father was the college principal, a tall man with a long beard and no moustache, like an imam. He walked the halls of the college with his hands behind his back and his head dipped forward, wearing a crisp white sherwani to his knees and a crocheted skullcap. Whenever I passed him, I greeted him with the fullest salaam—“Assalamu alaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh!” In response, he only nodded curtly and raised a circle of wooden prayer beads in my direction.

Unlike his father, Faisal was friendly and lackadaisical; he never tucked in his shirt, and despite our being in the eleventh standard, he still shot discreet spitballs at our professors during class. When he sat near me in the lecture hall he didn’t take notes; instead I often saw him sketching—quite skillfully, I must admit—or writing verses in elaborate calligraphy, wasting the ink of his silver fountain pen. Though the professors were quick to dismiss other troublemakers from class, they didn’t dare reprimand Faisal for his inattention. His father’s status at the college protected him. When the first exam results were posted, he approached me. I had received the top rank, while Faisal’s name appeared close to the bottom of the list. “Areh Rashid,” he said, “do they make them smarter out east? My father will never let me hear the end of it.” Faisal chuckled, his mouth curling around his small nose. I noticed how white and straight his teeth were; my own were yellow and crowded my mouth. “Will you help me out? Teach me a few things? I need a fast friend like you to save my ass and get me into Karachi Engineering.”

I was flattered that he would ask for help from someone who wore tattered shoes and secondhand shirts from the Lunda bazaar. “Why not?”

Faisal invited me to his home after school the following day. He lived three kilometers away from the Shiva Kunj Hostel, in Clifton, a neighborhood far from the slums and close to the Arabian sea. His palace of a home, which I came to know over a series of visits, was a three-story mansion with a winding marble staircase and a cupola decorated with Islamic mosaic. It even had an interior courtyard with beds of roses and jasmine, black steel benches, and a fountain. On the walls throughout the house were striking frames of Arabic and Urdu calligraphy, some as tall as I, the verses arranged into elaborate shapes: a perfect circle, a teardrop, a nightingale. Remembering Faisal’s skillful doodles in class, I asked if they were his work. He chuckled and shook his head.

“I’m flattered,” he said, “but my sister’s the one.” That was the first time he mentioned his sister; I felt awash with admiration for her work.

We began by reviewing chemistry formulas on the long cherry-wood desk in Faisal’s room, but after an hour his face clouded over, no matter how many times I rephrased my explanations. “Let’s take a break, yaar,” he said, “I’m tired.” I was surprised, accustomed to studying for hours without so much interruption as a sip of water. Nevertheless, I followed Faisal to a room with a ping-pong table and record player. Faisal selected a track of Kishore Kumar, and we played game after game. A maid brought in a tray of chai, puffed puris, and chickpea masala, which I was shy to accept, but my mouth watered. I had a seventeen-year-old’s appetite, after all. Faisal, too, was so casual in his manner I soon forgot my shame; I watched him shovel one bite of puri into his mouth after the other, and I followed suit.

There had been moments of lightness in the months I’d lived in Calcutta, days I had spent with my sisters at the market or the public gardens, using whatever rupees our aunt gave us on fresh mango juice. I had watched my infant brother, born only months before my father’s death, eat his first morsel of rice and take his first steps. But we could never escape the weight of those final weeks in Dhaka, what we had lost and what we had faced. We couldn’t forget my father’s blank expression before he left our flat for the last time, in search of supplies the day the war ended, nor the barbaric shrieks and shots that resounded through the window during the riot that ensued. We couldn’t forget the dark and bloated bodies on the road, or my own mother’s choking sobs, screaming my father’s name as we searched. In Calcutta, these memories enveloped us with tension as tangible as the white cloth we had placed over our father, after we found him a few streets from our building, already smelling of rot. Now, as I slashed Faisal’s ping-pong paddle like a boy, I felt this shroud beginning to unravel.

* * *

Faisal and I made a habit of this: after an hour or two of reviewing the school day’s material, we spent another several hours on chai, ping-pong, and other diversions. When it wasn’t too hot, we played football in the courtyard, after which the maid brought us tall glasses of lemonade—there was a lemon tree in the garden—with sprigs of fresh mint. I had never before experienced such service or luxury.

For the first few visits, the maid was the only woman I saw in Faisal’s huge house. The ladies’ bedrooms, their musallah for prayer, their sitting rooms, were all separated with curtains, deep green and plush. I didn’t so much as hover at these entrances. Their windows were shielded by wooden shutters, carved with rows of stars and crescents too small for me to see into from the garden. My own family’s flat in Dhaka had been small, and for much of my childhood I had shared a room with my two sisters, while this house was as expansive and segregated as a mosque.

I met Hinna for the first time after my third or fourth visit. I had forgotten my chemistry textbook at Faisal’s house, and I returned later in the evening to retrieve it. Hinna opened the door for me, wearing a black abaya and hijab to her forehead. I was struck by her greenish eyes, her skin the color of ginger, her cheeks as round and pink as lychees. In her abaya, which had flowers embroidered around the neckline, she looked like a Moghul princess. My salaam came out as a garbled noise.

She laughed at me, covering her mouth. She was tall, her head level with my nose, and her voice was deep and harmonic. She must have been my sister’s age, fifteen or so. “You’re Faisal’s friend, aren’t you?” Her eyes met mine for a moment and then dropped to my feet.

“Yes. I’m Rashid.”

She introduced herself, and added, “From my room I can see you two in the courtyard.”

“Oh.” I flushed, remembering when I had taken off my shirt and kicked the football around in my banyan. Then I remembered her works of art displayed throughout the house. “Your calligraphy,” I said, “it’s beautiful.”

Hinna laughed some more and put her hands over her heart. “It’s a family tradition,” she said, “I’ve learned since I was little. Maybe I can teach you.” The offer surprised me, warmed me. Even though I had just intended to pick up my textbook and leave, at Hinna’s request, I decided to stay for another pot of chai. Faisal joined me in the parlor and Hinna soon appeared with a tray of tea and gulab jamun, freshly fried and dipped in sugar syrup. “I made these myself,” she said.

“Hinna is the best with these things,” Faisal added. Flecks flew out of his open mouth, full of the sticky treat.

Hinna sat across the parlor from us on a velvet armchair, watching me intently. Though my hands shook and my throat was painfully dry—this was my fourth cup of the day—I took a long sip from the porcelain mug. It was just as flavorful as it was aromatic; Hinna had ground cardamom, ginger, and even anise into the tea leaves. It was chai fit for a party. At my words of approval, Hinna smiled with every part of her face. “I am very pleased,” she said, dipping her head. Soon after, she withdrew from the room, leaving behind the faint scent of jasmine.

* * *

From then on, Hinna appeared and disappeared through the house like a gentle apparition. She replaced the maid in serving us tea and biscuits and chickpea masala. Sometimes she added a bowl of raisins; sometimes a few diamonds of cashew barfi, which she prepared herself. If I came to Faisal’s house over the weekend or in the late evening after school, it was Hinna who let me in; when I knocked, I looked forward to the sound of her hidden anklets and bangles ringing as she approached.

When Hinna’s father wasn’t home, she sat with us, working on her calligraphy or reading books of poetry as Faisal and I played ping-pong or football. I learned that she was in her last year of secondary school at Karachi Grammar’s branch for girls, where, unlike her brother, she was at the top of her class. In addition to art, she had a knack for poetry; often, when prompted, she recited a few verses. I had never cared much for poetry, finding it flowery and difficult to understand, but there was something simple and raw about Hinna’s delivery that compelled me. She would clench her fists, squeeze her eyes shut, and knit her brows, her voice full of emotion and inflection, as if the words were her own. Her favorite was a couplet by Ghalib:

Sarsari tum jahan se guzre Ghalib
Varna har ja jahan-e-deegar tha!

With what haste you spend your life, oh Ghalib—
Or else you’d find in every corner—diamonds!

At my request, she let me borrow a book of his, which she had already memorized. I read it at night, repeating the verses to the rhythm of the street noise when I couldn’t fall asleep.

Hinna learned my favorite foods and sweets and prepared them for me, but she was far from simpering; if the way I ate or stood or spoke amused her, she laughed freely and made fun. I began to tease her too. Like her brother, she was a bit clumsy. She would step on the hem of her abaya, or take a sip of tea and have a fit of coughs. Once, as she promised, she tried to show me the basics of calligraphy, letting me use her fountain pen. First, she explained her own movements, the angle of her wrist, the position of the pen in her fingers; she demonstrated how to make a crisp stroke that narrowed as it descended. My fingers were stiff and my letters came out blotchy. I tried again and again, filling a full page of her sketchbook with my smudges.

“Not like that,” she said, moving her hand absentmindedly towards mine, beginning to mold my fingers. Then she froze and jerked her hand back to her lap. Her face flushed pink, the color creeping from her cheeks to her forehead and disappearing beneath her headscarf. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I forgot—” I heard her swallow. I forgot you were a man, she would have finished. I didn’t ask her for a calligraphy lesson again.

Our friendship was just that—a friendship—and Faisal was almost always there whenever we spoke. But there was something furtive about her exchanges with me, something tinged with guilt or mischief. Whenever Faisal left us, to use the washroom for example, there was an electric silence between us, and we played a game of catching each other’s gaze and looking away. Whenever we saw her father’s chauffeured car from one of the windows, pulling onto the long driveway, Hinna would shuffle quickly out of the room, making some excuse. Hinna was unlike my sisters, who threw gossamer dupattas haphazardly over their heads before leaving the house, and often wore half-sleeved salwar kamiz. Unlike Hinna, who secured her hijab with pins, my sisters didn’t care if their shawls slipped down to their shoulders or blew off in the breeze. My sisters were rough with men they knew, cuffing them on the shoulders, pinching their arms; Hinna would not even touch my hand.

Like any boy I’d had small crushes before the war in Dhaka. There was the neighbor’s girl, Kulthum, whose braids I had tugged on our walk to school. There was Jinin, my sister’s friend, who always regarded me coolly and gave me her tilted chin to look at when she passed. But I was just a boy then; how I felt about Hinna was different. There was a depth to her. I was enamored by her immediately, but more than anything what I felt for Hinna was respect. When dialogue from the cinema came through my window in the night, those passionate declarations of love—love based on beauty, song and dance, love won by cracking slaps and punches—I shook my head. As if it were so simple.

You can read the rest of Anitha Ahmed’s “Couplets by Ghalib” from our Spring 2021 issue. You can purchase it here.

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