When I saw her for the first time, I thought she was the witch from Hansel and Gretel. Cruel, cruel fairy tales! Husna Bua had seemed right out of that particular one. Only robbed of her powers and her cloak, dressed instead in a shabby purple sari embroidered simply with white, with the ghoonghat half covering her head; transported from the primordial forest to the ancestral haveli of our extended family in Hussaingunj, a small village in Bihar.
But I hadn’t met her in Hussaingunj. We were spending our summer vacation at my grandparents’ place in Patna. I was about five years old, and a cousin had been telling me the story of Hansel and Gretel with many innovations of her own, which included the witch’s house being made out of herbal digestive tablets and pomegranate seeds, instead of candy and chocolate. Vividly trying to picture the witch in such settings, I’d seen a gaunt woman in a sari, with a long face and long teeth pointing outwards reaching her arms out to me, mumbling something I didn’t understand in the dim corridor of Nanna’s house. I screamed and fled to the haven of older people whose faces I recognised, who greeted my fright with much laughter and ridicule. As it turned out, the woman was Husna Bua, who loved children and wanted to play with them. Only Husna Bua, who had been kept by different parts of my mother’s family all her life.
What does it mean to be 'kept'? It's not easy to understand- not at first. I thought about it for a long time. And whenever I came to Husna Bua, I could never fit her into a worldview framed by the areas of study we undertake during our school or university years. Was there any history associated with Husna Bua, who did not know the date of her own birth? Did her frail body, thin as a rake, experience biology? When she pottered around the house, tending to the sprouts, making sure that the rice wasn’t burnt, in return for no more than her mere sustenance, was she a part of the labour force we studied in economics? Did Husna Bua have politics? Did any planes of her existence extend into Euclidean geometry? On the whole, naively, I thought it was unlikely. Only algebra, with its shadowy, unfixed identities and subtle complexity held a place for someone like Husna Bua...what a pity it was that algebra did not really need Husna Bua...to survive...
Of course the odds were against her. “She’s like a piece of human flotsam,” my cousin Rehan had said thoughtfully, when I had once mentioned to him Husna Bua’s lack of belonging to any conceivable world. “Do you think she’s ever had those things we take for granted? Parents, siblings, perhaps a lover?” I asked. Rehan looked at me with twinkling eyes. “Romantic ideals!” he’d laughed, “Quite the poet, aren’t you?” I shrugged, slightly embarrassed. “I doubt she was ever in that position...probably her husband ran off or something, left her alone to scrub and clean for her living,” he mused. “What makes you say that? Just because she isn’t conventionally beautiful!-” I felt hostile towards Rehan, my own skin bearing the vicissitudes of teenage years, years which he could never relate to. “Not that, silly,” he said, folding his legs beneath him, “It’s just that women like Husna Bua have no leverage against the world. If it kills them, it kills them. Mostly, they just learn how to survive.”
Husna Bua knew how to survive. She had survived in our family for many years now, shunted from one household to another, depending on whoever needed her the most. When my great-grandmother was alive, Husna Bua looked after her, settled her medicine cabinets, put up her mosquito net in the dengue season and when she died, Husna Bua wept with the curious, bewildered abandonment of a child. She was not affected by the change of seasons- torrents of monsoon rain in July, after the harshness of summer, did not induce fever or flu in her, nor did the biting winds of October, for that matter. Her cotton saris lasted for long periods of time. Her hands could withstand any extent of washing dishes with hard, unyielding soap and water without being in danger of losing their skin.
So the parts of our extended family that wanted most assistance in running their household took her in. After my great-grandmother’s death, she stayed with Nanna for a while. Then Husna Bua was whisked away by Nanna’s youngest sister, a sharp- tongued lady who was a visible socialite. With two daughters grown up and married, and a husband who was fairly unobtrusive, Nanna’s sister (whom we called Renu Nani) could have led an easygoing life. The fact that she did not was, of course, a personal choice.
Renu Nani enjoyed social glamour. It came in many forms- when her husband was in the government service, she was the debutante among the spouses of government servants. When that role ended, she became affiliated with the Moharram processions that took place in the city, and led sermons and gatherings of mourning and lamentation (called matam) with great gusto. Husna Bua became a fixed part of Renu Nani’s household, and was found moving about in Renu Nani’s angan during all such gatherings, the only aberrant in an order that was otherwise inclusive of social class; the carpet spread out on the floor for all attendees a seating arrangement symbolizing social equality and a community spirit that remained as long as everyone seated on the carpet was silent.
Rehan often visited us during those days. His exams were over, and his friends had all gone home. I remember him studying law at the time; I used to stare reverently at the thick books that I saw him carrying every now and then. It would hype him up to no end - he enjoyed my obvious awe and less obvious assumption that the material he had to read was canon for the highest degree of intellect. We’d hold long conversations on the fallacies of the justice system - although my role was that of a listener rather than any active contributor - over chai and sheermal, and I would feel proud to have Rehan as my cousin, as someone related to me.
Then he would vanish suddenly for a week or two, and we’d hear stories of parties up at college and easygoing revelry, things that I had difficulty associating Rehan with. I’d listen, sometimes with astonishment and sometimes with envy. Was it true? It seemed remote and unreal in the face of our lives, with the guava trees and the roosters in Renu Nani’s house, and the kyaari, a small patch of garden full of red roses so heavy that they seemed artificial. And especially in the face of what happened to Renu Nani’s daughter, Tabassum Kakka.
She didn’t deserve it. Nobody did. But that was how women landed up with abusive husbands. They came into your lives as easily as the day began, and were more difficult to dislodge from it than a bullet from human flesh. That was how it was with Tabassum Kakka. Like it wasn’t enough to be beaten up by him, she went to court hearings, haggled with lawyers to fight her case, faced allegations of stealing gold, being a neglectful mother, being badtameez as a wife and daughter-in-law. By the end of it all, Tabassum Kakka had lost her smile and half her weight. Her son, barely a year old, couldn’t distinguish between abuser and father. And the court had granted Tabassum Kakka’s husband permission to meet the boy once every few days following their separation.
I happened to visit Renu Nani on one of the days when he was there too. A tense silence reigned over Renu Nani’s house that day. Tabassum Kakka had withdrawn to one of the inner rooms in the house, her despair and grief a matter between her and the prayer mat she sat on. Outside, her husband walked about in the angan, the boy clasped to his chest. And Renu Nani told us in low tones of his constant refrain of them having separated him from his son. “As if my
daughter didn’t even exist! What that brute did to her!” Renu Nani’s thin nostrils flared, “I don’t know what I did wrong. Why is this happening to us?” And we listened, and shook our heads in sympathy, equally at a loss for answers.
It was at such times when I missed Rehan’s company. What would he have had to say about these incidents, I wondered? Tabassum Kakka was educated, had a job and a family that loved her. Didn’t these things qualify as leverage? And if they didn’t - where were we to look for hope? Who was to understand the pain of being trampled down this way?
Husna Bua’s language remained incomprehensible to us. She spoke a tongue that had too many teeth, all growing over one another and making a confused jumble out of the words. I couldn’t ask her about her story, and she didn’t need to tell it. Did she even think of her life as a story? Perhaps that was another one of the delusions that we who had this incessant habit of deriving meaning out of experiences had built up for ourselves. Husna Bua simply – lived. She befriended Tabassum Kakka’s son and played with him when Tabassum Kakka was out, struggling to make ends meet. The football that passed between their hands was a poem so eclectic that it was understood only by them. I just knew that it was beautiful enough to make the boy laugh, when he would laugh at barely anything else.
So when Husna Bua’s health began to fail, nobody understood it at first. They had all grown so used to the quiet tenacity of her life that it seemed inconceivable for her body to break down. And very inconvenient for everybody, of course. Visits to Renu Nani’s house began to hover around discussions of Husna Bua’s loss of bodily functions. “She keeps urinating everywhere,” Renu Nani lashed out as we sat before her. I squirmed uncomfortably, wishing I could vanish into thin air. “Who is supposed to clean it up?” Renu Nani demanded indignantly. The family
shouldn't have to, of course. These things were all obvious, they were part of a general understanding of how the world worked. My discomfort kept growing, a slow balloon filling up with helium, wanting to float away, to get away somehow. Was I the only one missing out on some manual on how society functioned? I wished desperately that Rehan were here, so that I might ask him - that he might know -
But of late I’d begun to imagine a different sort of Rehan than the cousin who talked about social injustice and systemic inequalities. Sometimes I remembered the way he would shrug his shoulders at things that didn’t seem the way they should be. “That’s how it is,” he would say. “I’m not going to trouble myself to think or care about it,” is what I would hear.
To our great relief, Husna Bua recovered - to some extent. She could walk about the house again. Her saris lay hung out to dry in the sun, and when she spoke, she jabbered faster than ever. The dishes kept piling up in the kitchen, and she kept washing them. Renu Nani’s social gatherings, dispersed during the days of Tabassum Kakka’s court hearings, returned with full fervour. Peace came back with the wailing and mourning devotees in Renu Nani’s house.
And then disaster struck. Husna Bua had a stroke. Stroke stroke stroke. Paralysis paralysis paralysis. Faalij, the doctor explained to Renu Nani dismissively. Nothing can be done. A small room was arranged for Husna Bua in the uppermost story of Renu Nani’s house, and she was carried to it. Already a corpse. When my mother had insisted that we pay a visit to her, I’d agreed only reluctantly, remembering how it had been the last time.
Nothing had prepared me for something like this. For the small yellow lightbulb that somehow made Husna Bua’s room even gloomier than the dark. For the thin, almost lifeless figure stretched out on the takht, lying on her side. My mother had raised the blouse of her sari on her back. “Bedsores,” she said quietly. My skin crawled. Flesh appeared, bare flesh, white and pink, as if the skin had been torn off Husna Bua’s back. “How many days has she been like this?” Ammi sounded angry. Almost three months, someone said from the shadows. I shut my eyes
and turned away, hating myself for not being able to see her, not being able to see this. (Tolstoy’s Levin, turning his back on the miserable suffering of his half- brother, Nikolai) I left the room as quickly as I could, wanting to forget the scene. The night felt less suffocating than what was inside, what had happened inside and seemed to be drawing even closer inside.
Ammi was more pragmatic. She sent a young man who worked in her clinic to bandage Husna Bua’s bedsores. He was a cheerful person, and assured my mother that Husna Bua would recover, given the right treatment. He’d even promised to give her physiotherapy sessions. And so Husna Bua recovered again, dragged back from a death that had seemed to kiss her with more passion than any lover ever would.
Even this kiss - denied.
The physiotherapy sessions did wonders for Husna Bua. She walked again. But she didn’t regain control over her excretions. Renu Nani’s house became tormenting. The minutiae of Husna Bua’s excreta littered over various parts of the house, who had cleaned it up and when, at what points Renu Nani had given up on her, were talked about at length. Renu Nani’s sharpness did not omit any details of her frustration. Send her back to her village if it’s too much for you, someone would suggest every now and then. Renu Nani would snort. “Who do we send her back to?” This was met by silence.
Then Renu Nani told my mother, one day, that they were looking for an ashram to which they could send Husna Bua. “She’s more than we can handle at this point,” Renu Nani said, by way of explanation. My mother hurriedly called up the physiotherapist. He listened to this in surprise. “She hasn’t recovered fully,” he told her, “moving her at this point will be fatal.” “Should I shift her to my place? You can continue the sessions here then,” Ammi suggested. He agreed to the idea, but told her that she should be tactful about the subject when she talked to Renu Nani. “I know,” Ammi replied tersely. Renu Nani had 'kept' Husna Bua all her life - she couldn’t afford to offend her by appearing the bigger person at this point.
The shift had to be quick. We began to prepare a spare room in our apartment for Husna Bua. Did it secretly, almost shamefully, as though we were guilty of some wrongdoing. And as a new bed was carried in and trunks full of old clothes were carried out, I began to wonder whether my cowardice would disappear with her arrival. Or would I remain as I was, too weak to look in the face of suffering and think of a way of ameliorating it? How would I look at her? And would I have the courage to look at myself with the same gaze afterwards?
We didn’t expect it to happen right then. The phone call, I mean. Tabassum Kakka crying over the phone, telling my mother that Husna Bua was dead. That familiar coldness that creeps over you when you hear of it. That iceberg that seems to develop between you and the world, still going on whirling like a dervish. And that - unmentionable - half - relief, of pain snuffed out. That inward shrinking that says, it is better this way. Not because you understood her suffering, but because you didn’t want to look at it, you didn’t want to see where it positioned you.
Husna Bua became dust.
I never told you what her name meant, did I? Husn. Husna. Beauty. The beautiful one. They buried her with the crooked teeth and the long arms which she kept stretching out to children, with the thin body that had known the rigors of unrewarded, unseen labor and agony, with stories matting up her white hair unknown to language and literature. Tabassum Kakka’s son was silent at the funeral. Renu Nani and her family wailed and mourned as she was carried out into the van hired to take her to the burial grounds. The crying continued for hours and hours, like another Moharram congregation being held, the final act of a stage play being put on in theaters. Who was to say how much of the grief was real? I quickly wiped away the wetness in my own eyes, remembering the way I remembered her. What a pity that she hadn’t been the witch I’d mistaken her for. What a pity that she didn’t burn the world to a ground for the torture it had put her through. What a pity...her husn. Her beauty.
Originally from Lucknow, Sara Batool is a student of English literature at the University of Delhi. She writes poetry and short fiction and likes to discover new modes of expression from time to time.
Cover Image - Dancing Woman by Rabindranath Tagore