Huma had gone mad. Or so Mrs. Siddiqui feared. At dawn, while the household was still asleep, her daughter would get up and pray without stopping for four hours. When it was time to study, she would open her textbook on hygrophilous microorganisms and weep aloud with her head in her hands. When someone tried to speak to her, she would gaze away or smile through her tears without answering.
Lately, her behaviour had become even odder. When they sat down to lunch, she would start humming the bagpipe tunes that the St. Mary’s Parade Band played at the police lines every Sunday. Worse, sometimes, she brought a comb with oiled paper to the table and used that to pipe her tunes. Hashim’s attempts to take it away from her usually ended in hysterics.
When she was feeling particularly happy, Huma would venture into “Loch Maree” and “Mrs. John MacColl” but, usually, she played a skirling medley of “Lochaber No More,” “Leaving Barra,” “Deil in the Kitchen” and “The Taking of Beaumont Hamel.” At the end, Huma would cling to the houseboys and sob until they pried her loose and locked her in her room.
Her mother was at her wit’s end. After a particularly heart-rending performance of “God Save The King” which Huma had performed standing up over the roghan josh, Mrs. Siddiqui said to her husband: “Listen, Hashim, I don’t know how you feel. I could put up with the praying and the crying but this music will drive me mad. After all those music lessons we gave her, can’t she at least pick someone else like Sehgal or Munni Begum, or play a nice ghazal or a raga once in a while, instead of all this heehawing through the nose? And hugging that fat madrasi cook, that was too much. It’s high time that madam was married off. That’s what I think.”
She continued. “Whoever heard of an unmarried 28-year-old? People will think there’s something wrong with her.”
Spiritedly, Mr. Siddiqui countered that it was just nerves brought on by overwork. “Let’s not be hasty. Why don’t we wait till her viva is over? She’ll be fine. It’s all those labs, the experiments, you know, the microtomy. It can get stressful. You know, she was always sensitive. Remember the time she saw me squash that caterpillar in the kitchen sink? She was so upset for a week that she wouldn’t eat even when I tried to feed her.”
“You’ve always spoiled her. She’s almost thirty. Old. Not a baby anymore. It’s your fault she never got married. Who wants a girl with a doctorate in semi-argillaceous- and psammous-soil microphytes, whatever they are? All that studying. Scares people off. You take this lenient attitude with everyone. No wonder the criminals are running riot in this city.”
Mr. Siddiqui’s police training told him that he was outgunned and surrounded. He retreated to the tune of the reveille that Huma was now sounding through the comb.
During this exchange, Mr. Siddiqui’s mother had shuffled in. She opened her paan box on the takhat and passed her hand over her upper lip, stroking the growth lovingly. He noticed that her stoop was getting worse.
“Nonsense, Hashim. It’s not study or nerves, if you ask me.”
“Ammajan, what is it?”
“Simple. The girl’s possessed.”
“Possessed. Really, Ammajan,” Siddiqui protested. “It’s just a phase. It’ll pass.”
“It happened to Bablu Chacha, too. That was before your time. A djinni had taken over him. He was a wicked one. Hashim bete, remember what I told you when she was born. She had that mark on her forehead exactly where that old rascal, your Bablu Chacha, did. It’s his sins that she’s carrying.”
“Ammajan, that’s just a naevus. We had that checked. It’s common in a family. Sometimes skips a generation or two. There’s nothing unusual about it. I’ll take her to the doctor first. She probably needs some B12 injections. Too much reading and computers.”
“You mark my words, you with your mavis, naevus. Give her all the B12s and B52s you want. I’ve lived a lot longer than you have and have seen things you won’t believe, Mr. Policeman. If you ask me, I think it’s that Ashfaq woman. She always was the spiteful type. She was so envious when Huma topped the school while her daughters were playing the fool. Her cook told the driver that she sits in the evening on the takhat in her green room with her head covered and rocks back and forth and curses everyone for hours, the witch.”
“Ammajan, really, you shouldn’t listen to servants’ gossip. That’s all nonsense. It’s time to get past all this.”
“No lime. They took that too. Last time it was my betel nuts. Thieves. You’re right, dear, Hashim can’t catch them but I will.”
Under her breath, Mrs. Siddiqui asked, “Look, Hashim, can’t you ask Ammajan to shave once in a while?”
“What, how do you expect me to do that? Why me? Can’t you do it?”
“She’s your mother. I’ll start asking around. I’ll start with Razia’s marriage bureau first, and see what she says. I’ll take Ammajan to look for some nice fabric for shalwar kameezes for Huma, none of this pinafore and jeans business. Buy some Fair and Lovely to clear her complexion, too. The marriage market is tough. Hard for a 28-year-old girl. Anyway, Hashim, you take Huma to that doctor.”
Mr. Siddiqui wheeled the motorcycle out of the garage. Huma walked behind and, when the machine started, hopped on and rode pillion. They went past the Willingdon Club and the university in the old town towards the cantonment. As they weaved through chowk, Huma drew wolf whistles from the paanshop loafers. Oh, for God’s sakes, no. Huma was giggling and waving to these louts. She even hummed a few bars of “Highland Laddie.” Maybe the good lady was right. It was high time Huma was married off.
They pulled up in front of a yellow concrete wall with a barred gate. The sign read “Dr. Gupta’s Medical and Psycho Centre.” A chowkidaar, a powerfully built man now run to seed, stiffened to attention with his lathi at his side. He opened the gate. The motorcycle tore down the driveway of red gravel and drew up in the portico.
“Doctor sahib in?” boomed Mr. Siddiqui to the chowkidaar who had followed.
“Yes, sir, yes, sir, come in, doctor back in five minutes. Lady coming.” He had big ears and a slash for a mouth. “Arrey, Govind.”
The old servant ushered them into the waiting area. The chairs in the waiting area were big and uncomfortable. There was a smell of sandalwood from the incense burner. A row of flying wooden ducks soared in a “v” on the wall towards the transom.
A door opened and a woman in a sari and a tilak entered. They did their namastes. Huma was quiet as her father explained.
“It is good that you have come. My husband believes that it is important to include the family in the therapy. Maybe your good wife should also come. Yes, I agree, there is such a shortage of this kind of help in this city, in India also.”
To Huma, she said, “Haan, beti, what will you drink? Coca-Cola, tea, Pee Cola, Fanta?”
Huma said yes to everything. Mrs. Gupta went inside. They heard her order tea, Coca-Cola and namkeens. The doctor walked in twenty-five minutes later. The chowkidaar followed with the golf bag.
“Siddiqui Sahib, sorry, the Chief Surgeon wanted an extra hole or two. He was losing, you see. Ah, this is the young lady. Huma, what a pretty name. How are you?”
Huma giggled and said “gowf.”
“Did you like the Coca-Cola? Another one for Miss Huma?”
She nodded, giggling shyly.
“Let’s go into the office, Miss Huma and you, too, Siddiqui Sahib.”
The doctor began by asking her medical history. Huma spoke of her ovarian cysts and other ailments. The doctor was impressed. He made notes and looked at her once or twice, saying, “How interesting.” Mr. Siddiqui was relieved that she was lucid.
Next, he felt her pulse, ausculated the heart, took her blood pressure and tapped her knees. Her legs shot out with amazing speed and caught him on both shins.
“Nothing wrong with her reflexes,” he said, rubbing his shins, “but heart’s racing a bit. Any broken bones in the past?” A shake of the head.
“Good. How about breathing problems? Tight jaw?”
“Yes, she grinds her teeth but she’s stopped talking to us, really. Very distressing.”
“She’s probably just run down. BP’s high. Stress, probably. I’ll give her something for that. I’d like to run some tests on her. Not physical.”
Dr. Gupta showed Huma some inkblots on paper and asked for her reactions. She was slow to respond, shaking her head but then started shouting “butterflies” and making guttural noises. The doctor peered over his glasses at her while scribbling on the pad and nodded to Mr. Siddiqui.
“Not important what she’s saying, but she is talking. That’s a good sign.”
Huma looked slyly at both in turn, her eyes shining.
Next he said, “I will say a word and you respond loudly with another. Is that clear?”
“Word association. That I know,” said Mr. Siddiqui triumphantly.
Huma looked bored.
A reproving “Huma!” from Mr. Siddiqui earned him a lecture from the doctor.
“You know, this psycho centre operates on some principles. That means accepting that some things that the patient will say will shock you. I tell this to everyone. I must ask you, Siddiqui Sahib, to be as quiet as possible.“
“Sorry, Doctor. It’s just that nobody in the family uses language like that. Don’t know where she could have picked it up.”
“Ah,” he wrote down something.
“Is that significant?”
“It may be.”
Huma cried but signaled a little later to say that she was ready to continue.
“I’ve never heard those before,” admitted Mr. Siddiqui. “What do they mean? Are they medical terms?”
The doctor shook his head.
The exchange had animated Huma. She talked normally with the doctor until it was time to go. As soon as the doctor observed that she hadn’t hummed, she promptly launched into Paddy’s Leather Breeches. Her eyes glittered unhealthily.
“Doctor, we don’t know what to do, my wife and I,” Mr. Siddiqui admitted.
The doctor gave his diagnosis.
“It is clear that she has some nervous strain. She needs rest. Of course, there is deep-seated hostility towards parental authority figures. Her ego is in a state of dejection and there is some confusion about her sexuality. Her self-esteem needs to be built up. But first, we must get her physically well. The rest will follow.”
He wrote out a prescription for a course of vitamin injections and Waterbury’s Compound and explained some of his theories.
Going out, Huma said her goodbyes to the Guptas who came to see them out. The doctor called out.
“Chowkidaar, show sahib and memsahib the way to the dispensary. Goodbye, Miss Huma.”
Huma suddenly turned, with an arm on her hip, and said in a vampy tone to the chowkidaar, “Arrey, where have you been? I have been looking for you all my life. I want to marry you. Let’s do that soon. Bye bye, darling. Phir milenge.”
Scandalized, Mr. Siddiqui threw a deprecating grin at the doctor and quickened his step, dragging Huma along. The chowkidaar twirled his moustache and turned his head occasionally to watch Huma dreamily as he walked ahead.
However, when they reached the dispensary and Huma saw the compounder take out the hypodermic syringe, she fled into the street in tears with her father racing after her. When they returned, she trembled and shook in her father’s arms, her face averted, as the plunger went in. She seemed to become calm and sleepy after that. She seemed to have forgotten altogether about the chowkidaar. They went home.
Husband and wife conversed.
“I think you’re right, dear. Can’t we find a good boy for her quickly?”
“Why, what did the doctor say?”
“I didn’t understand most of it. Something about authority and dejection and sexual confusion. Apparently, parents create these problems by getting their children to compete with each other at school. Suddenly, one child is held up to be better than the others. This creates a sense of inferiority and a lack of contact with the real person which leads to the mental equilibrium shifting. That’s what he said, I think.”
“Arrey, didn’t you tell him that she’s an only child?”
“I tried but he seemed to go on and on about dysfunctional families. I think he even mentioned the India-Pakistan conflict in those terms.”
“Bloody fool. Crazies at that psycho centre. I just felt it in my bones. Don’t go there again.”
“Yes, dear, I won’t be going anywhere, except to Kheri in the hunting season to see Dhillon. Some problems.”
Her visit to the marriage bureau had gone better than expected. Razia had asked for all the details and had promised the description would be circulated soon (“such an intelligent girl, the mark is very faint, not a problem”). She drafted a notice:
Muslim girl, 28, DPhil candidate,
Send CV to:
Razia returned three weeks later with some CVs. A few were from young bucks who described themselves as deep-chested and boasted of their singing voice. There was a doctor from Rourkela and a dentist with a stammer. Another manufactured Rubik’s cubes in Bangalore. One candidate had turned down twelve job offers at various American and European universities to teach at home.
Some suitors came in person. Huma was well-behaved throughout. However, at the seventh sitting, she broke into the opening bars of “Barren Rocks Of Aden.” The boy seemed amused, but his family looked bewildered and left hastily. When Mrs. Siddiqui called the bureau, Razia was matter-of-fact. She advised her to take Huma out of town for a long rest at once. Otherwise people would talk. This way, people might forget. Mrs. Siddiqui felt frustrated. In the meantime, word must have spread because the offers dried up as Razia had predicted.
Meanwhile, the course of injections had not produced any improvements. It was clear that Huma would not be able to complete her studies. Her antics continued.
Nevertheless, Mrs. Siddiqui persevered. She set out the next day in the car with Ammajan and Huma for the shoe shop. At the store, the thin and nervous shoe seller looked agape as Ammajan doffed her burqa.
“Ammajan,” hissed Mrs. Siddiqui in a whisper, “when was the last time you shaved?”
“I used to do it daily when Salim was alive. Since he died, I have nobody left to shave for. Why do you ask?” said her mother-in-law.
Huma pulled the shawl over her head shyly like a bride, made sheep eyes at the salesman, and stuck out her tongue at him.
“Ram, Ram,” said the man, jumping away to shelve the shoe.
Mrs. Siddiqui made a quick decision. She pulled Huma to her feet and raced to find the car. Her social certitudes were deserting her. She felt like screaming.
“This is it,” she confided later to her friend Mrs. Pandey. “I think I’ll go mad before she does.”
“Don’t say such things, yaar. Not even as a joke. Arrey, this new baba, have you heard of him? Pulls vibhuti out of the air, cures all kinds. Jadoo mantar. Miracles. Religion, no bar. Treats everyone, yaar, Muslims, Sikhs, what have you, even Christians. I’m taking Suman there. Wish something for Suman, na. Fat, fat she has become. Going to the fridge every hour only. What can I do? Marriage next year. Why not Huma, haan?”
Mrs. Siddiqui thought about it and nodded and said she would do it. Better than all these psycho centre nutters.”
She took the police jeep to the river bank. The road was packed with pilgrims. She pursed her lips when she saw hippies swaying to some music.
“Chee, chee, look at their hair.”
“Ji, begum sahib, they are taking charas,” suggested the driver.
“And that girl is almost naked. Prinking in her brassiere. So dirty. Mlecch. Lahol bilaquwat. Chalo, driver, get us there quickly.”
The driver honked ferociously and the sea of the faithful and the curious parted before the chariot.
“God, how many people are here? So much religion, but why so much thievery then in this city? What can poor Hashim do by himself, I ask you?”
They parked in front of the fort where pilgrims told their beads, waited for alms or went for a dip in the river.
“There are millions of people here. Driver, where is he?”
“Inside the temple, begumsahib.”
“Kahaan hain swamiji?
A volunteer with a large bag and ribbons on his chest pointed at the fort.
“Chalo, Huma,” said Mrs. Siddiqui.
They passed a group of sadhus with topknots clad in nothing but ash from head to foot, their grey penises swinging with each stride. Huma turned and waved. One smiled and wiggled his trishul. Mrs. Siddiqui pulled Huma violently after her without saying a word.
They passed the banyan tree whose roots twined round the sculptures of gods and goddesses and went downstairs. The gallery was filled with incense and the sounds of chanting and the noise of metal on metal. They filed past the Hanuman devotees to the crowd in front of the basalt nag where the baba sat dressed simply on a yellow cotton sheet. He looked bald and frail and the sacred thread across his distended belly fluttered as he swayed from time to time.
“Near samadhi. The baba has fasted for thirty days now,” someone whispered.
Mrs. Siddiqui watched him rub some ash on a thin boy whose face twitched convulsively. After reciting some slokas, he signalled for the boy to be removed. The boy’s mother stepped forward, her eyes shining with hope. She gratefully folded her hands and tried to touch his feet but the attendant pointed to the bowl. She fumbled at a knot in the sari and dropped a stream of bills and coins into his bowl which the helper scooped away.
After a wait, it was their turn. The baba was plainly weary.
“Haan beti, do not worry. You will be well soon.”
He closed his eyes in prayer. He put one hand on Huma’s forehead as he told the beads with the other. Huma was calm. He whispered something to the attendant who took her aside and gave her two packets.
“Take this vibhuti and this kheer,” the attendant said to Mrs. Siddiqui. “Smear it all over the child who must lie naked on poornima under a full moon till dawn. She must think pure thoughts. Get her to eat the kheer. Three hundred rupees.” She gave the money.
“And some for the baba. More, for the temple, can’t you give any more?”
At nightfall, a screen was erected around the cot. The curious children who gathered were dispersed by a few slaps and shouts from the constables. Huma gagged on the taste of ashes in the kheer. She undressed and Mrs. Siddiqui applied the vibhuti. Huma lay on that hard bed through the cold night wondering if there were plants on the moon.
In the morning, they rushed her to the Bayley. Dr. Jeejeebhoy was furious as he put away the stethoscope.
“You should know better, Mrs. Siddiqui. Sadhus, really. No medicinal value. Pneumonia. Full blown. Give her these antiobiotics. No more lying naked under the full moon in winter, either with pure or impure thoughts. No more quackery, please. She’s your daughter, after all. What are you people thinking?”
Meenakshi, Huma’s friend, had another idea.
“Auntie,” she said, “Rohinton and Nilufer’s mother has the magic chapatti. So many people have been cured. I think we should take Huma. No, no, it won’t do any harm. Absolutely not. Who knows, it might actually help.” Reluctantly, Mrs. Siddiqui agreed.
At the house, the chapatti was brought out in a metal dish covered with a lace doily. Nilufer’s mother told Mrs. Siddiqui that she had to sip two tablespoons of the water in which the roti floated to be followed by six hail marys at night. The cure would take eight weeks. Huma was cooperative and went to her friend’s place every week but there wasn’t any improvement.
“Probably some other influence at work” hinted Nilufer’s mother. “Dear Huma, save her from evil. Such an intelligent girl. So sweet. God bless.”
Ammajan finally decided to call the maulvi. He arrived in the evening, a man of about forty, slender with a goatish countenance, dressed in a chikkun kurta and pajama. He had one grey eye, the other black. His beard was stained with attar. He kept his head down and listened to them with what Mrs. Siddiqui described as false modesty. She suspected him of vanity. She did not like the man, although she agreed to his proposal. She couldn’t see why she had to pay the odious man his five hundred rupees before the work had even started.
When the day arrived, the household was prepared. The servant fetched the ropes from the shed. The maulvi ordered Mr. Siddiqui and Mrs. Siddiqui to bind Huma to the chair in the store room. Huma screamed and fought back when they cornered her. Ammajan brought some glowing coal incense from the kitchen on a silver platter. The maulvi sahib only permitted Ammajan to stay.
Outside the door, they heard the muttered suras. The scent of the lobaan wafted into the corridor through the door slats but they did not dare peek in. The recitation went on for half an hour. Then the beatings and screaming started and a conversation began in weird voices.
“It was scary,” Ammajan told her son later. “When he stopped reading from the Koran, Huma started growling strangely in this deep voice. I said, ‘Wait, Mr. Broome’s aunt talks like that. Let me get Huma’s mother. She’ll know.’”
Mrs. Siddiqui entered the room. The maulvi sahib resumed the beatings with the sandals as Huma writhed and wept.
Then, a fine baritone issued from Huma’s lips telling the maulvi to stop hurting her.
“Who are you?” the maulvi asked.
“Dinnae get yersel' in a fankle, MacGregor. Ye sound like a right crabbit blether.”
“What is he saying?” asked the maulvi.
“Truly, this is the devil’s language,” said Ammajan, awed.
“Oh Iblees, get thee gone, ” said the maulvi, brandishing the holy book like a flail.
Mrs. Siddiqui raised her hand to silence them and asked. “Who are you?”
“It’s only Callum McCallum here, mum, born o’ the Clyde, but down from the highlands at yer service, Yer Grace.” He did a few bars of “Cock o’ the North.”
“Where are you from and what do you want, Callum McCallum?” she asked.
“Called me a treuchter, these Clydesiders, ’cause when I was a tiddler I shucked a few trout older than his mum, no disrespect meant. Grand food is parritch, grand food.”
“And just why are you tormenting my daughter? Have you no manners?”
“Oh, my love, she’s but a lassie yet, my love, she’s but a lassie yet. For there the bonny lassie lives, the lassie I love best. Let me sing something.”
Mrs. Siddiqui took a direct approach to her daughter’s guest who had finished “Piper of Drummond” and “High Road To Linton” and was halfway through “Teribus.” She drew a deep breath and let it out with a force that shook the curtains, Ammajan said.
“Shut your gob.”
The singing quailed to a stop.
“Let me do this,” said the maulvi quietly.
When the maulvi asked him to leave Huma, the voice replied cuttingly.
“Don’t be meir daft, man. Why should I? I like the wee woman. Ye cannae shift a chindit sae easily.”
The beatings started again and the voice said something concerning “spairges about the brunstane cootie, to scaud poor wretches.”
The guest began singing again.
“O, lay thy loof in mine, lass, in mine, lass, in mine, lass.”
Mrs. Siddiqui decided that enough was enough. She grabbed the sandal and started to drub Huma.
(rit.) “I’m her mother. Go back to your stinking Glasgow,” timing each word with a blow.
She continued (ff) “Leave my daughter alone,” increasing the ferocity of the beatings.
There was a pause before the guest spoke again.
(p) “Oh, but can I at least visit her from time to time? Please?”
(mf) “No, go now.”
(Plaintive, pp) “Oh, come on, ye cannae be so hard-hearted. I did say ‘please.’”
(cresc.) “No, leave now. Or I’ll come back to haunt you.”
After a few well-aimed hits, it was (pp, dim.) “Oh, och, leave off, ’nuff, ’nuff, I go, I go.”
Ammajan was shaking when she emerged with a tired, tousled Huma who was on the verge of collapse. The maulvi followed, running his fingers through his beard with his left hand while he held the Koran in the right. He uttered a few duas before leaving and blew over Huma several times. Mrs. Siddiqui was exhausted, and her husband took her to the living room where she sat on a maundha and drank tea. After applying some poultices to Huma, the ordeal was over, she figured.
It did not happen that way. Although Huma stopped her humming, she worsened. She tore at her hair and clothes in public. She frequently broke into fits of crying and was rarely allowed out of the room. Every fortnight, they took her to the Psycho Centre where Dr. Gupta administered electric shocks. These terrified her at first, but later she would limit herself to whimpering and huddling in the corner. Finally, Dr. Gupta said he could not do any more. He recommended that they commit her to the asylum in Agra.
He wrote to the asylum and eighteen days later the director came in person to meet Huma at home. He seemed a kindly man and Huma was quiet in his presence. He talked with Mrs. Siddiqui who had packed Huma’s suitcase. Huma got into the jeep with her father and the director without any trouble and waved to her mother who blew her duas as they drove away.