Naseem

from ‘Midnight’s children’ by Salman Rushdie

The young, newly-qualified Doctor Aadam Aziz stood facing the springtime lake, sniffing the whiffs of change…

Doctor Aziz was a tall man. Pressed flat against a wall of his family home, he measured twenty-five bricks (a brick for each year of his life), or just over six foot two. A strong man also. His beard was thick and red… His hair, however, was rather darker…  Doctor Aziz’s nose – comparable only to the trunk of the elephant-headed god Ganesh – established incontrovertibly his right to be a patriarch…

‘Ohe! Doctor Sahib! Ghani the landowner’s daughter is sick.’

The message, delivered curtly, shouted unceremoniously across the surface of the lake…

‘I’m coming just now! Just let me bring my things!’…

Aadam is rushing indoors…; he is pulling out, from under his bed, a second-hand leather case which his mother called his ‘doctori-attache’, and as he swings it and himself upwards and runs from the room, the word HELDELBERG is briefly visible, burned into the leather on the bottom of the bag. A landowner’s daughter is a good news indeed to a doctor with a career to make, even if she is ill. No: because she is ill…

…Ghani the landowner snaps his braces with his thumbs.

‘A big chance, yes indeed! They are saying good things about you in town. Good medical training. Good … good enough … family. And now our own lady doctor is sick so you get your opportunity… So: my daughter Naseem is not well. You will treat her excellently.”…

A woman with the biceps of a wrestler was staring at him, beckoning him to follow her into the room…. Two more women, also built like professional wrestlers, stood stiffly in the light, each holding one corner of an enormous white bedsheet, their arms raised high above their heads so that the sheet hung between them like a curtain. Mr Ghani welled up out of the murk surrounding the sunlit sheet and permitted the nonplussed Aadam to stare stupidly at the peculiar tableau for perhaps half a minute, at the end of which, and before a word had been spoken, the Doctor made a discovery.

In the very centre of the sheet, a hole had been cut, a crude circle about seven inches in diameter…

Ghani said, ‘All right, come on, you will examine my Naseem right now. Pronto.’…

‘Doctor Sahib, my daughter is a decent girl, it goes without saying. She does not flaunt her body under the noses of strange men. You will understand that you cannot be permitted to see her, no, not in any circumstances; accordingly I have required her to be positioned behind that sheet. She stands there, like a good girl.’…

A frantic note had crept into Doctor Aziz’s voice. ‘Ghani Sahib, tell me how I am to examine her without looking at her?’ Ghani smiled.

‘You will kindly specify which portion of my daughter it is necessary to inspect. I will then issue her with my instruction to place the required segment against the hole which you see there. And so, in this fashion the ting may be achieved.’

‘But what, in any event, does the lady complain of?’…

‘The poor child! She has a terrible, a too dreadful stomach-ache.’

‘In that case,’ Doctor Aziz said with some restrain, ‘will she show me her stomach, please.’…

In those years, you see, the landowner’s daughter Naseem Ghani contracted a quite extraordinary number of minor illnesses, and each time a shikara-wallah was despatched to summon the toll young Doctor Sahib with the big nose who was making such a reputation for himself in the valley. Aadam Aziz’s visits to the bedroom with the shaft of sunlight and the three lady wrestlers became weekly events; and on each occasion he was vouchsafed a glimpse, through the mutilated sheet, of a different seven-inch circle of the young woman’s body. He initial stomach-ache was succeeded by a very slightly twisted right ankle, an ingrowing toenail on the big toe of the left foot, a tiny cut on the lower left calf… There was the matter of her stiff right knee, which the Doctor was obliged to manipulate through the hole in the sheet… and after a time the illnesses leapt upwards, avoiding certain unmentionable zones, and began to proliferate around her upper body…  And … Naseem never repeated an illness. ‘Which only shows,’ Ghani told him, ‘that you are a good doctor. When you cure, the is cured for good. But alas!’ – he struck his forehead – ‘She pines for her late mother, poor baby, and her body suffers. She is a too loving child.’

So gradually Doctor Aziz cam to have a picture of Naseem in his mind, a badly-fitting collage of her severally-inspected parts. This phantasm of a partitioned woman began to haunt him, and not only in his dreams…

By 1918, Aadam Aziz had come to live for his regular trips across the lake. And now his eagerness became even more intense, because it became clear that, after three years, the landowner and his daughter had become willing to lower certain barriers. Now, for the first time, Ghani said, ‘A lump in the right chest. Is it worrying, Doctor? Look. Look well.’ And there, framed in the hole, was a perfectly-formed and lyrically lovely… ‘I must touch it,’ Aziz said, fighting with his voice. Ghani slapped him on the back. ‘Touch, touch!’ he cried. ‘The hands of the healer! The curing touch, eh, Doctor? And Aziz reached out a hand…  ‘Forgive me for asking; but is it the lady’s time of the month?’… Little secret smiles appearing on the faces of the lady wrestlers.  Ghani, nodding affably: ‘Yes. Don’t be so embarrassed, old chap. We are family and doctor now.’ And Aziz, ‘Then don’t worry. The lumps will go when the time ends.’… And the next time, ‘A pulled muscle in the back of her thigh, Doctor Sahib. Such pain!” And there, in the sheet, weakening the eyes of Aadam Aziz, hung a superbly rounded and impossible buttock… And now Aziz: ‘Is it permitted that…’ Whereupon a word from Ghani an obedient reply from behind the sheet; a drawstring pulled; and pajamas fall from the celestial rump, which swells wondrously through the hole. Aadam Aziz forces himself into a medical frame of mind … reaches out … and feels. And swears to himself, in amazement, that he sees the bottom reddening in a shy, but compliant blush…

Aadam began to hope with an illicit desperation for Naseem Ghani to develop a migraine or graze her unseen chin, so they could look each other in the face…

On the day the World War ended, Naseem developed the longed-for headache… He hardly dared to look at what was framed in the hole in the sheet. Maybe she was hideous; perhaps that explained all this performance … he looked. And saw a soft face that was not at all ugly, a cushioned setting for her glittering, gemstone eyes, which were brown with flecks of gold: tiger’s-eyes. Doctor Aziz’s fall was complete. And Naseem burst out, ‘But Doctor, my God, what a nose!’ Ghani, angrily, ‘Daughter, mind your…’ But patient and doctor were laughing together, and Aziz was saying, ‘Yes, yes, it is a remarkable specimen.’…

In March, when the lake thawed, a marriage took placed in a large marquee in the grounds of Ghani the landowner’s house. The wedding contract assured Aadam Aziz of a respectable sum of money, which would help buy a house in Agra, and the dowry included, at Doctor Aziz’s especial request, a certain mutilated bedsheet… That night my grandfather placed the perforated sheet beneath his bride and himself and in the morning it was adorned by three drops of blood, which formed a small triangle…

 From Wikipedia

Naseem – now Naseem Aziz – had a sharp headache; it was the first time she’d ever repeated an illness, but life outside her quiet valley had come as something of a shock for her. There was a jug of fresh lime water by her bed, emptying rapidly. Aziz stood by the window, inhaling the city…

He turns from the window… To see Naseem weeping into a pillow. She has been weeping ever since he asked her, on their second night, to move a little. ‘Move where?’ she asked. ‘Move how?’ He became awkward and said, ‘Only move, I mean, like a woman…’ She shrieked in horror. ‘My God, what have I married? I know you Europe-returned men. You find terrible women and then you try to make us girls be like them! Listen, Doctor Sahib, husband or no husband, I am not any … bad word woman.’ … and it set the tone for their marriage, which rapidly developed into a place of frequent and devastating warfare, under whose depredations the young girl behind the sheet and the gauche young Doctor turned rapidly into different, stranger beings… ‘What now, wife?’ Aziz asks. Naseem buries her face in the pillow. ‘What else?’ she says in muffled tone. ‘You, or what? You want me to walk naked in front of strange men.’ (He has told her to come out of purdah.)

He says, ‘Your shirt covers you from neck to wrist to knee. Our loose-pajamas hide you down to and including your ankles. What we have left are your feet and face. Wife, are your face and feet obscene? But she wails, ‘They will see more than that! They will see my deep-deep shame!’…

Aziz, finding his temper slipping from him, drags all his wife’s purdah-veils from her suitcase, flings them into a wastepaper basket made of tin with a painting of Guru Nanak on the side, and sets fire to them. Flames leap up, taking him by surprise, licking at curtains.  Aadam rushes to the door and yells for help as cheap curtains begin to blaze … and bearers guests washerwomen stream into the room and flap at the burning fabric with dusters towels and other people’s laundry. Buckets are brought; the fire goes out; and Naseem cowers on the bed as about thirty-five Sikhs, Hundus and untouchables throng in the smoke-filled room.  Finally they leave, and Naseem unleashes two sentences before clamping her lips obstinately shut.

‘You are a mad man. I want more lime water.’…

‘The smoke will take time to go; I will take a walk. Are you coming?’

Lips clamped; eyes squeezed; single violent No from the head; … His parting shot: ‘Forget about being a good Kashmiri girl. Start thinking about being a modern Indian woman.’…

 

Aadam Aziz, fifty-two years old, his hair turned white by the years and other afflictions, had begun whistling as he passed that maidan… He arrived home, and although his eyes retained a glimmer of contentment, the whistling stopped; because waiting for him in the courtyard filled malevolent geese were the disapproving features of Naseem Aziz, whom he had made the mistake of loving in fragments, and who has now unified and transmuted into the formidable figure she would always remain, and who was always known by the curious title of Reverend Mother.

She had become a prematurely old, wide woman, with two enormous moles like witch’s nipples on her face; and she lived within an invisible fortress of her own making, an iron-clad citadel of traditions and certainties. Earlier that your Aadam Aziz had commissioned life-size blow-up photographs of his family to hang on the living-room wall; the three girls and two boys had posed dutifully enough, but Reverend Mother had rebelled when her turn cam. Eventually, the photographer had tried to catch her unawares, but she seized his camera and broke it over his skull. Fortunately, he lived…

It was perhaps the obligation of facial nudity, coupled with Aziz’s constant requests for her to move beneath him, that had driven her to the barricades; and the domestic rules she established were a system of self-defence so impregnable that Aziz, after many fruitless attempts, had more or less given up trying to storm her many ravelins and bastions, leaving her, like a large smug spider, to rule her chosen domain….

And at the dinner-table, imperiously, she continued to rule. No food was set upon the table, no plates were laid. Curry and crockery were marshalled upon a low side-able by her right hand, and Aziz and the children ate what she dished out. …

In 1932, ten years earlier, he had taken control of his children’s education. Reverend Mother was dismayed; but it was a father’s traditional role, so she could not object… She made only one educational stipulation: religious instruction…. And then the day arrived when Aziz threw out the religious tutor… Naseem Aziz saw her husband leading the stragglebearded wretch to the door in the garden wall; gasped; then cried out as her husband’s foot was applied to the divine’s flashy parts. Unleashing thunderbolts, Reverend Mother sailed into battle.

‘Man without dignity!’ she cursed her husband…

And Aziz, ‘Do you know what that man was teaching your children?… He was teaching them to hate, wife. He tells them to have Hindus and Buddhists and Jains and Sikhs and who knows what other vegetarians. Will you have hateful children, woman?’

‘Will you have godless ones?’ Reverend Mother envisages the legions of the Archangel Gabriel descending at night to carry her heathen brood to Hell…. ‘I swear no food will come from my kitchen to your lips! No, not one chapatti, until you bring the maulvi sahib back and kiss his, whatsitsname, feet!’

The war of starvation which began that day very nearly became a duel to the death. True to her word, Reverend Mother did not hand her husband, at mealtimes, so much as an empty plate. Doctor Aziz took immediate reprisals, by refusing to feed himself when he was out. Day by day the five children watched their father disappearing, while their mother grimly guarded the dishes of food.

‘Will you be able to vanish completely?’ Emerald asked with interest, adding solicitously, ‘Don’t do it unless you know how to come back again.’…

The Rani of Cooch Naheen sent emissaries to plead with Reverend Mother. ‘India isn’t full enough of starving people?’ the emissaries asked Naseem, and she unleashed a basilisk glare which was already becoming a legend… Their voices turned to stone; their hearts froze…

But the truth was that Naseem Aziz was very anxious; because while Aziz’s death by starvation would be a clear demonstration of the superiority of her idea of the world over his, she was unwilling to be widowed for a mere principle; yet she could see no way out of the situation which did not involve her in backing down and losing face; and having learned to bare her face, she was most reluctant to lose any of it.

‘Fall ill, why don’t you?’ – Alia, the wise child, found the solution. Reverend Mother beat a tactical retreat, announced a pain, a killing pain absolutely, whatsitsname, and took to her bed. In her absence Alia extended the olive branch to her father, in the shape of a bowl of chicken soup…

That was ten years earlier; but still, in 1942, the old men at the paan-shop are stirred by the sight of the whistling doctor into giggling memories of the time when his wife had nearly made him do a disappearing trick, even though he didn’t know how to come back. Late into the evening they nudge each other with, ‘Do you remember when – ‘ and ‘Dried up like a skeleton on a washing-line!…’ and ‘- I tell you, baba, that woman could do terrible things.’…

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