Mumeera surati's special mention piece
The following short story is an English translation of ‘Tosha Daan’ by Muneera Surati. The original story was published in the Urdu magazine, Amad, in 2014. The jury of the Jawad prize for 2020 took special note of this translation, which has been done by the author herself.
Muneera Surati has been a clinical psychologist attached to various government hospitals, private clinics, deaddiction centres and NGOs. She has also worked as a relationship and marriage counsellor and therapist. She has published research papers apart from writing Urdu short stories, plays, essays and scripts for television. She translated the Hindi novel ‘Jhoota Sach’ by Yash Pal into Urdu. She is currently working on a novel in Urdu and another novel in English.
Although her face showed no vivid sign of a sleepless night, Husna seemed restless and impatient. Leaning from her bedroom window, staring intensely at the horizon, she hoped the intenseness of her waiting would abruptly turn the grey hazy morning into a bright shining day.
With every passing moment, the usual hustle bustle of early morning emerged gradually down on the street and the sunlight started to spread. Husna twisted her body restlessly, moved from the window, came into the room, picked up her veil and left the apartment.
The day was yet to bloom.
On her way on the descending ladder, she put on her veil and swiftly moved toward the road leading to the market. The fresh air, filled with the melodious music of chirping birds, was enhanced by sweet fragrance of the jasmine flowers from the corner park where people were laughing in the laughter club. Husna lifted her veil and took a deep breath to swallow these life-fulfilling moments.
The market was just a few steps away.
As she entered the market, she noticed that it was still waking up, some shopkeepers were sipping tea, some were sprinkling water in front of their shops and some were taking vegetable delivery from the trucks. Husna worriedly glimpsed at her wristwatch and thought, how would she finish her work on time? Suddenly one auto-rikshaw passed by and in a glimpse, she saw two freshly cut and skinned goats inside. The rikshaw fled with speed; Husna hurriedly followed.
By the time she reached the butcher shop her breath was scattered but her face was glowing with the pleasure of satisfaction. While she was trying to control her breath, the butcher picked up a skinned goat and mercilessly pierced its neck into an iron hook hanging from the roof, a sudden scream escaped Husna’s lips, the butcher turned his head to look at her and smiled with indifference.
The skin color of the hanging goats was slightly blue and they were covered by a kind of thin cold smoke, Husna felt a twitch on her skin; she quickly moved her eyes and saw pieces of finely cut meat meticulously spread on a wooden platform. Her eyes were fixed on them.
Fine ribs buried in the frame of chest, long straight bones, the fish-shaped bulge of red meat of the thigh, its attractive curves and cuts, the sour sweet smell of freshness emitting from them and dissolving into the air. Husna spontaneously placed her fingers on them; the warm meat throbbed. Husna instantly withdrew her hand but the warm touch kept throbbing on her fingers; slowly she tightly closed her fist.
“It is absolutely fresh sister” the butcher said with a smile. Husna felt embarrassed.
While carrying the bag of fresh warm meat on her shoulder Husna passed through the market again but this time her walk was composed. She walked around the market, carefully looking at the vegetables displayed on the stands and stopped at one shop. While selecting the vegetables with the brightest color, freshest smell and nicest shapes, she remembered her aunt who used to say that people choose vegetables according to their own looks. A suppressed shy smile appeared on her lips. “What if I share this memory with this vegetable vendor”? she thought.
After completing the shopping, she reached home and found her daughter Amenah getting ready for school. Husna gave her a passing look, threw her veil to one side and entered the kitchen. Amenah who was seriously observing her mother murmured, “Today is that day”. A few moments later she asked, “Ammi my lunch box…?”
Husna, placing the meat in a tray, replied, “Eat in the canteen today bitto, Ammi has lots of work. Did you eat breakfast?”
Amenah lifted her school bag silently and left the room.
Husna immediately shut the door, threw away her scarf, accelerated the ceiling fan and sat down to marinate the slices of meat.
As she touched them, the same throbbing sensation ran through her fingers. She picked one slice and brought it close to her nose, the aroma of its freshness, mingled with the strong sour smell of blood ran through her nose, she felt the same mild blue color smoke was engulfing her body. She instantly returned the slice into the tray and sat still for a few moments.
After keeping the marinated meat in the refrigerator, she started peeling the vegetables. Their fresh bright colors, perfect shapes and earthy smell were so attractive for her that many times she was unable to put the knife through them. Peeling off their skin with utmost care and finesse, she remembered a random incident which made her quite famous among her neighbors, for her refined skills.
The story of her fame began with a friendly bet between her and her best friend Bilquees. On that night, while preparing a welcome feast for her husband Ahmad, who was arriving from Dubai after a year, Bilquees was feeling very irritated at her lack of skill at making thin delicate samosa rolls as they were loved by Ahmad. An amused Husna, who happened to be there at that moment, made fun of her. Bilquees in turn challenged her, Husna accepted the challenge and not only won the bet but also won Ahmad’s heart.
Then onwards whenever Ahmad would ask for samosas, Husna would eagerly prepare them and would forget that now Bilquees had also developed the same skill. The amusing part was that Ahmad remained unaware that these soft delicious samosas were prepared by Husna, he would tirelessly shower Bilquees with kisses of praise, and she would always remember to share the details of his passion with Husna.
Husna finished peeling and began to cut the vegetables in perfectly equal size and shape. She was unaware why she loved oblong or oval shapes and bitter sour smells. She only knew that she found them immensely interesting, slightly mysterious and pleasurably painful. They offered her a strange sense of immense satisfaction.
Husna did not discover this source of pleasure on her own; it arrived in her life as naturally as a pleasant gust of wind enters the center of burning heat of an afternoon.
Before starting the cooking, she thought of separating a portion of meat for kebabs; she glimpsed her watch, it was almost afternoon and there was a lot to be done. She hurriedly minced the meat, and wanted to ready the coal stove when the phone rang. She had lost the whereabouts of her phone and by the time she located it in the shopping bag, it stopped. The missed call was from Shehnaz. Husna pondered for a moment, then kept the phone aside and got engaged with the coal stove.
Amenah returned from school and Husna realized that she had not arranged any lunch. Immediately, she took out bread from the refrigerator and said, “Bitto you get fresh, I will make you a sandwich.”
Amenah looked at her for a moment and said in an annoyed tone. “I am going to Badi Ammi.”
Amenah, student of seventh grade was much pampered by her grandmother who lived in the neighborhood.
Amenah entered grandmother’s house, kept her bag aside and threw herself on the nearby bed. Grandmother noticed her and hurriedly came close to her.
“What happened Amenah? Is Ammi not at home?”
“Did she scold you.”
“She does not have time today to scold me.”
“Oh!! …. Today is the day?”
“Yes Badi Ammi, and now the day is coming very often.”
A few silent moments passed between them.
“What really happens to Ammi?” Amenah asked.
“Nothing happens to her bitto, she is just very passionate about cooking.”
“Of course not, Badi Ammi, something does happen to her; she disappears into some strange world.”
A few frowns were added to her grandmother’s forehead; she remained silent for a few long minutes before she spoke in a very soft tone.
“After the young death of your father, your Ammi felt very lonely bitto, she had to keep herself engaged in some… in some hobby, so she….” Grandmother controlled her tears.
“But what kind of hobby is this?” asked Amenah.
“Don’t you see how famous she is for her excellent cooking?” Grandmother said softly.
“I don’t want her to be famous Badi Ammi.”
Amenah’s eyes became tearful; Badi Ammi gently hugged her.
The miracle of Husna’s fingers was not limited to the dining table; it reached its optimum level at the dressing table. She had mastered the art of refreshing the bodies of women covered with the sad, grey melancholic dust of separation from their beloveds by applying creams, perfumed oils and sandalwood powder, glowing them with mud packs, perfumes, henna and essence of organic herbs and adorning them with the ornaments of passion, hope and love.
As soon Husna finished with vegetables, she sat down to knead the flour and became engrossed. She kept pressing the ready dough between her palms, enjoying its melted soft pleasant touch travelling through her veins.
By the time the cooking was done, it was late evening; Husna thought of calling Shehnaz and dialed her number.
“Hello Shehnaz, did you call”?
“Yes Husna, I wanted to say that if you need any help I can come, you must be tired.”
“I never get tired, you tell me; are you done with preparations?”
“Yes dear, after seven days’ application of your formulas, I am looking ten years younger,” she giggled.
“What time will brother Saleem arrive?”
“He is coming by the same flight as usual; he will be home by 9 or 9.30 pm.”
“I got the new dress from tailor master, and embellished the scarf.”
“But we had decided that you will wear sari.”
“Husna, sari is very troublesome, one cannot do anything but sit.”
“What else do you need to do Shehnaz, just sit or rather, lie down?” Husna giggled, feeling embarrassed. “Did you apply henna?”
“O no Husna, I cannot sit for hours, skip henna this time.”
“Henna is a must; don’t you remember how much brother Saleem adores the smell of henna? Call Razia from pinky parlor, she will finish the job in no time.”
“Ok, how can I refuse you?”
“What about the blouse?”
“The same which you chose, Rajasthani choli.”
“Good, all right I am busy.” Husna disconnected the phone.
The most interesting fact was that all the recipes and formulas of sensual beautification which descended on Husna as if through a revelation, had no effect on herself. She was oblivious to the idea of personal beautification. Though her natural beauty may not have dazzled anyone, her stark innocence melted hearts. Specifically, her large attractive eyes would listen more and speak less.
Husna glanced carefully at all the dishes and entered the bathroom.
Amenah came back by sunset, changed her uniform and immediately went to bed. Husna approached her, “Food is ready bitto, eat.”
“I ate with Badi Ammi,” said Amenah and covered her face with the quilt.
Husna tied her wet hair into a loose braid, picked up a bud of jasmine from the pot and while she was trying to put it on her braid, she saw a glimpse of her image in the wall mirror, paused, looked at the bud on her palm, smelled it, picked up a few more buds, kept them aside, and promptly sat down to arrange the tiffin carrier.
She placed each dish in separate tiffin boxes, following a specific order. In the top box she kept the jasmine buds, second was sweet and sour tomato pickle, then bitter gourd and minced meat, sweet custard, cheese spinach and green peas, another sweet dish, shami kebabs, meat cooked with onions, bread, and in the end, she decided to keep green fresh salad.
She evaluated the order of the dishes to her satisfaction, then left the room to call Raju, an errand boy from neighborhood.
After sending Raju with the tiffin carrier, Husna stood at the door for a few moments, then paced the room aimlessly and hummed a tune, stopped abruptly and stared at her shadow on the wall. She tried to grab her shadow in her hands and burst into an embarrassed laughter.
After a while she dialed Shehnaz’s number.
“Did the tosha- dan reach?”
“Did he come?”
“How is he?”
Shehnaz giggled and couldn’t talk.
“Ok, let’s talk tomorrow.”
Husna disconnected the phone, glanced at the sleeping Amenah and moved towards the kitchen. The moment she entered the kitchen, her feet froze. The kitchen seemed deserted, the stoves were dead cold, the pots were staring at her with their mouths wide open, the wild fragrance of recipes had already turned stale. Suddenly a dead silence engulfed her entire world.
Husna’s eyes moved towards the coal stove, a slow, grey smoke was rising from its ash-colored mouth. She moved towards it, sat down and slowly started twisting and turning the coals until they caught fire. Husna fixed her eyes on them for a long time then she collected the cold ash from the bottom of the stove and started sprinkling it on the burning coals.