ASLAM, ORWELL AND A PORNSTAR
My wife, Jessie Lane, has been voted the most desirable woman of the planet by askmen.com. Playboy magazine calls her the prettiest pornstar of all time. For me, she is the kindest soul I have ever met. Of course, she is beautiful too, in fact, too beautiful to be real.
Jessie is sobbing and talking to me. I can recognise her mellow voice with a divine lilt. I can sense that she is leaning over me; my skin can feel the warmth of her uneven breath. As her hand touches mine, I have a strong urge to jump out of bed, hug her, kiss her, and tell her not to worry about me. But, I can’t move my limbs. I can’t open my eyes. My lips feel as if they have been sewn together. Everything around me is cold and dark.
I am lying comatose in a New York Hospital, tied to a life support system. Once, I overheard the doctors telling Jessie that they didn’t know when I’d wake up. In fact, they were not sure of reviving me. I am filled with dread when I think of being stuck in this situation forever. Better to die! I think. But then Jessie tells me, in a choked voice, that I’ll be alright in a couple of days. And I believe her. I have more faith in Jessie’s reassuring words than the doctors’ medical wisdom.
‘Please move aside!’ A female voice with a slight Spanish accent says and Jessie frees my hand. She is Margarita Arellanes Cervantes, my nurse, my caregiver. I suddenly experience a stinging sensation in my veins as if hydrochloric acid has been added to my intravenous fluid. A few seconds later, my thoughts become fuzzy.
Then,multi-hued images from the past begin to inundate my memories: A bullock cart comes into the view. It is trudging along a mud road negotiating the potholes of different shapes and sizes. A dark and stout fellow sits on the driving seat, prodding the oxen between their hind legs with a stick. Just behind him is a tall,well-built young man with reddish white skin, deep brown eyes and a pencil moustache. In the canopied part of the bullock cart is an elderly woman in a blue sari, holding a beautiful and hugely pregnant young woman who is crying with pain.
The man with the pencil moustache is Abba, my father, the pregnant woman my mother, Ammi, and the lady holding Ammi is my aunt, my father’s elder sister.
Is it a dream? Am I hallucinating? Or are these some old memories? How can I have memories of an event which happened before I was born?
‘But, there are inherited memories. We also borrow memories. The memories can be fake too—something you have never seen or experienced but in course of time you start believing that you have.’ I had read these lines in a book. But, right now, I neither remember the title of the book or the name of the author.
I was born In Motihari, in the same house in Mescourt Area where Eric Arthur Blair aka George Orwell had seen the light of the day exactly seventy years prior to my birth. On the rainy night of 25th June, 1975, Abba, Ammi, Aunt Zarina, and her husband, Mushtaque Khan, had been returning from a neighbouring village after attending a funeral. Ammi started wailing as soon as the bullock cart reached the Mescourt area of Motihari. Maybe, jerks caused by the pot holed roads had triggered early labour. She was in her eighth month of pregnancy.
Abba didn’t know what to do as our village Hamidpur was still more than 7 miles away. He looked around hoping for help.
On one side of the road was a long stretch of bamboo groves, on the other side were four or five dilapidated bungalows, all of them deserted, their walls covered with every kind of wild growth and creepers.There was no soul in the sight as dark cloud shrouded the sky. But then he saw a woman in a black sari in front of one of the dilapidated bungalows. Telling the bullock cart driver to stop, Abba jumped from the cart, grabbed the hurricane lamp hanging from bamboo side rail and walked to the lady. Wheat complexioned with freckled skin, she had sharp facial features.
Bringing the hurricane lamp close to the lady, Abba asked her was what she was doing in that old bungalow.
‘I live here,’ she said matter of factly.
‘I have heard that this place is haunted,’ Abba said as he looked around surveying the place.
The lady laughed and that made Abba feel uneasy.
‘Besides me there is no ghost here,’ she said. Now, her voice was cold. ‘I am a widow from the nearby village. I have no child. I have no place to live. So, I live here. Once, I used to be the most famous midwife of my village but now, nobody calls a widow like me to facilitate a birth. It is considered a bad omen.’
Abba heard only the word midwife. He asked for help and she agreed instantly. But what she said next made Abba feel there was something wrong with her. ‘Your son was destined to born here, in this bungalow,’ she said in a whispering voice, ‘bring your wife inside the house.’
Abba didn’t have any other option but to let the strange feeling pass. He and Aunt Zarina helped Ammi get down from the cart and walk to the bungalow. Ammi shivered as she stepped in. Cobwebs hung overhead. The walls were green with moss. The floor was strewn with bidi ends. There was a far corner of the room which seemed relatively clean and they walked over there. The woman stood at some distance with a half-smile on her face. Abba felt a chill whenever he came near her, as if she were a block of ice. My aunt rolled out a straw mat for Ammi to sit on and Abba placed the hurricane lamp near them.
Outside the house, Uncle Mushtaque tried to start a fire with the dried leaves to boil water.
As time of confinement drew near, Abba and Uncle Mushtaque stood outside the bungalow. Inside the room the lady did not come near Ammi, but from a distance, she guided Aunt Zarina. Ask your brother for his personal knife. Tell your husband to burn dry leaves outside and boil some water. Massage this or that part of your sister-in-law’s tummy. Ask your sister-in-law to push the baby. Aunt Zarina kept following her instructions in a mechanical sort of way as if she was under a spell. The way the lady talked was peculiar or even bizarre. Her sound was like a scratchy LP record being played on a gramophone.
At the time of confinement, Abba and Uncle Mushtaque stood outside the bungalow. Inside the room the lady did not come near Ammi, but from a distance, she guided Aunt Zarina. Ask your brother for his personal knife. Tell your husband to burn dry leaves outside and boil some water. Massage this or that part of your sister-in-law’s tummy. Say your sister-in-law to push the baby. Aunt Zarina kept following her instructions in a mechanical sort of way as if she was under a spell. The way the lady talked was peculiar or even bizarre, observed she. Her sound reverberated as a scratchy LP record was being played on a gramophone in a big room.
Half an hour later, I was born, the umbilical cord was cut, Aunt Zarina held me with a glee on her face. Ammi was almost senseless, or rather calm, resting with her eyes closed, in postpartum fatigue. Aunt Zarina then panicked as she realised I was not crying.
The mysterious old lady panicked too. ‘What happened to Gorakh Nath? Why he is not crying? Slap him on his back.’ This time the lady’s voice was louder and colder.
Aunt Zarina felt the room had suddenly become an ice-box
‘Gorakh! Son Gorakh!’ the lady screamed.
Aunt patted me frantically and I cried in a sharp voice. Pulling me near her chest, Aunt heaved a sigh of relief. Lifting her face to thank the lady and also to ask her why she was calling me with a Hindu name like ‘Gorakh Nath’, she found the lady had disappeared. The window was partially unhinged and shook as a whiff of wind entered the room. Frightened, my aunt shrieked. Abba and Uncle Mushtaque rushed inside. They searched every nook and corner of the bungalow but there was no sign of the lady.
‘Seems to be something wrong about that lady, brother. Better to be out of this house as soon as possible. She might be a Djinn or a ghost,’ Uncle Mustaque said.
Abba could see the dread on Uncle Mushtaque’s face. Though fear pinched his courage too, Abba tried to put a brave face. ‘Even if she was some kind of spirit, she did not mean to harm us.’ Abba said.
Back to my village, my aunt and Ammi didn’t want to take chance, so, they called the Imam of my village mosque to ward off the evil effect on me.
Reciting holy verses, the clergy blew on my body and assured Ammi that everything was fine. ‘Hamsheera,’ the Imam said, ‘she must be a help send by Allah.’
On the sixth day, Ammi and I were bathed with all the folk rituals, and a feast of goat was organized. The entire village was invited. The drumbeaters in their colourful turbans had been in the courtyard of my house since morning.
That day I got my name: Aslam Sher Khan. I was named after a hockey player who had been a part of India’s world cup winning team a few months prior to my birth. Being a hockey enthuiast it was Abba’s tribute to the Indian team. Abba decided. Ammi approved it.
Years later, I would hear the story of my birth from Aunt Zarina, again and again, and would always suspect that my aunt had been exaggerating the things to make the story sound interesting. Specially, when she told that the old lady had an icy voice, a voice from another world, I simply didn’t believe her. Little did I know that the mysterious lady in black had come to help Ammi with her own agenda. And her invisible presence would always lurk around me.