The Letter

by Manal S. Khan

The Royal Indian Navy mutiny started at Mumbai harbor on 18 February 1946 and ended on 23 February 1946. The revolt spread throughout British India, from Kolkata to Karachi, and involved over 10,000 sailors across more than 60 ships and 20 land bases. It started in protest against meagre living conditions and food, but has since been recognized as a revolt against the British Raj and imperial rule.

+ + +

She heard the metal gate open as she pulled the last of the laundry from the jute rope. “Abu’s back,” she thought as she smoothed and folded the white cotton shirt and then laid it on top of the folded clothes sitting in the wide, shallow wicker basket. “I wonder why he’s late?” Her father was the unit officer in Saddar Town, so he often worked late during the end of the month, “alphabetizing papers,” as he laughingly called it. But he usually sent a messenger home to let them know not to for him and have their dinner.

It had been a warm day, perfect for drying clothes, sunny and not humid. The sun was beginning its descent, moving the day to evening. In a half hour it would be time for the Maghrib prayer. She looked in the direction of the ocean, seeing the deep blue of the Persian Sea in her head, enjoying the cool, light breeze that picked up speed as the sun went down.  She loved the colors of Karachi’s sunsets. Soon the sky will be a rainbow of red, ochres, and oranges before the darkness will finally begin with the azan. Her dupatta fluttered as she bent to pick up the basket and she went inside, eager to greet her father. She entered the house through the kitchen door and was greeted by the scent of cardamoms, cloves, and black tea. Her mother was making them chai.

“All done ami,” she said.

“Thank-you beta,” replied her mother. “You can leave it near the stairs and I’ll put it away.”

“Its fine ami, I can do it. I would love some chai though.”

Her mother smiled as she laid three steaming cups of tea and a cool glass of water onto a tray, picked it up, and followed her daughter into the living room.

Her father was putting his shoes in the narrow cupboard at the foot of the stairs as they walked in. Her mother walked to him as he closed the door, while Meera went to put the basket near the stairs, ready to take up.

He turned to her mother with a shukria took the water from the tray saying “Forgive me, I made you wait.” “Don’t worry,” replied his wife. “I kept the food warm and Rehana bibi laid the table before she left. Relax and have your tea first and then we’ll eat dinner.” He finished the entire glass and laid it back on the tray. He always liked to have a drink of water as soon as he entered the home, joking that it was a cleansing ritual to rid himself of the day’s worries.

Meera went to her father. “Hello abu,” she said as he rested his hand on his head. “Hello beta,” he answered and walked towards the living room. She noticed he wasn’t paying attention to her, and instead of asking about her day, he went to sit.  It felt odd.

Her mother laid the tray on the side table next to where her husband was sitting, picked up a steaming cup and gave him a cup with a soft greeting and smile. Then she picked up the remaining cups and sat down in the chair on the other side of the table while holding once out for her daughter. Meera went to her with a smile and a shukria as she took the cup.

“I have to go up and finish my reading for tomorrow,” she told her parents. “I’ll put the laundry away after that, okay ami.” Her mother nodded in response.

“Have you eaten dinner,” asked her father.

“Yes, ami made me eat alone,” she said with a smile. “She wants to eat with you instead of me.” Her father smiled at his wife at that statement.

Just as Meera turned towards the stairs, her father stopped her with a “Beta?”

“Yes abu?” She replied.

“Farha Asghari is in your classes isn’t she?”

Yes, my English and science classes.”

“Are you close to her?”

Meera looked at him for a minute, surprised at his curiosity about a classmate, and then replied, “Well, we’re friends but I don’t think we’re close. I mean, we’re part of a study group and we help each other with schoolwork. She’s very good at biology and I’m better at chemistry, so we help each in those subjects. She lives on Leela’s street – their fathers are friends remember – so I know her through Leela as well. But I don’t know her like I know Leela . . . does that make sense.”

“Yes it does. What is she like?”

Meera sat down next to her mother, and thought for a minute. “She’s very sweet, a very quiet person. The only time she really talks is in class about the lessons, especially in biology and English.” Her parents laughed at this observation.

“Not like my little doll who shares every fact she learns,” her mother chuckled as she ran her hand down her daughter’s head.

Meera gave her mother a disgruntled look and continued, “I do like the things she says. One time in English class, someone said that maybe partition was good, but she got angry and said no, why. She said that Leela and Meera are friends, are you going to separate them? The men on the navy were Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsees, and they fought together. You’re going to separate them? My Zafar bhai’s best friend is a Hindu from Calcutta whose been writing to my father since my brother died! How are we not friends? If we all can live together now, we can live together later. All everyone wants is justice and equality.”  

Vha,” he breathed, impressed. “Did anyone say anything?”

Meera laughed as she said “We were too surprised abu! I know I was. Farha doesn’t talk a lot, and here she was scolding all of us! I also think that nobody wanted to argue about Leela and me or about her brother and that Bengali man. We were all so quiet I think you could hear Mrs. Gangly breath. And then she started talking about The Tempest.”

Her father looked at her thoughtfully. “What did you think of her opinion?”

She looked him, a troubled expression replacing the playfulness. “I agree with her. I mean, this is my home and I don’t want to be separated from Leela or anyone else. Everyone has differences, but we are only stronger if we are together. But, I don’t know. There is so much fighting going on, and I hear some of the Muslims complaining about lost work opportunities because of the Hindus. I even heard someone say that you lost your promotion last year because you weren’t a Hindu.”

Her parents were stunned when she said that. “You knew?” he asked.

“Of course I knew abu. You taught me to pay attention to what I read and hear remember. But still, I don’t want to separate.”

A heavy silence settled on her parents. They both looked troubled thinking about the recent events of the navy rebellion, the talk of partition and, the unknown future cataclysm.

Meera broke the silence. “Farha’s been ill abu. She hasn’t come to college for three days.”

He looked up at that, “Really? What happened?”

“She has malaria. Leela said that Farha’s still weak and that her parents are very worried. I’m also very worried and want to go, but aunty won’t let anyone visit.”

He looked troubled at that news, surprised and a little ashamed that he didn’t know about the illness of a neighbor’s child. “Poor thing,” he said sadly.

Meera and her mother exchanged questioning glances. “Why do you ask?” her mother asked him.

“Someone mentioned the Asghari’s,” was the cryptic reply, gently closing off further inquiries.

“Anything else abu?”

“No thank you. Go, finish your homework and then come down for namaz.”

She nodded, got up with her tea, and walked to the stairs to go up to her room. She wondered about her father’s questions. He rarely conversed unless it a topic of interest or there were reasons behind the inquiry. She knew her mother would note her father’s behavior and question him privately. She had reached the top of the stairs when she heard her mother’s voice, and did something she’d never done before: she stopped and eavesdropped. She didn’t know why, except that Farha’s name had come up and it worried her.

+ + +

“How was your day?” she heard her mother ask.

“Same,” was her father’s reply. She heard him take a sip of tea and then there was silence.

After some minutes he spoke again. “Her brother was on The Hindustan?”

“Yes,” replied her mother. “Now they’ve lost both boys. The big one in Burma, and now this one. Hai Allah,” her mother sighed. “Give us strength,” and fell quiet. Meera knew why. Her elder brother had died in Germany three years ago. It was because of him she enrolled in medical school – he had wanted to be a doctor for as long as she could remember. He had been a medic in the army, insisting that it was even more important to heal in a world where death was all anyone thought about. She was still so very angry at losing him. Death was still all around them; everyone knew someone who had died or someone who was still in mourning for the death. No one had been spared.

Meera listened for a few more minutes, but not hearing anything, continued slowly on to her room.

+ + +

He sat quietly thinking about the letter he had received at work this morning. He was proud of his position and job at the post office; as a unit officer in charge of Saddar Town he had responsibility and respect, and was able to provide a home for his family. And most importantly, he was able to send his daughter to DJ Science College to prepare for a life as a doctor. He didn’t want to lose this job, but this morning’s message could jeopardize that.

Dear Mr. Shaikh, 

We are looking for Lieutenant Subash Bose from HMRIN Hindustan. We understand that he has been in contact with a young lady in your district, Farha Asghari. If you hear of any news of this gentleman or lady, please let us know. I need not tell you that this is in the strictest confidence.

Robert Powell,

Postmaster General

He was loathed to share any information with the English about his neighbors or the young naval men who had revolted against their lack of food and horrible living conditions and been shabbily abandoned by the Indian leaders. But why was Farha in correspondence with this Bose? In fact, she was Muslim and he sounded like a Hindu from Bengal. What was going on? He had spent the last two hours walking along McLeod Street wondering how to handle this dilemma before he came home and questioned Meera. His daughter had an instinct for people and a lively curiosity about the world that amazed him. He had hoped she might shed some light into this mystery. When she mentioned the Hindu Bengali he wondered if that was the connection. Should he inquire into it? He thought of Meera, and the question settled itself. If his daughter was in trouble, then he would appreciate any help she received. He would go to the Asgharis tomorrow after work and talk to the major, he decided.

His wife was looking at him as he slowly sipped his tea, gazing into the distance. For all his reticence, her quiet husband shared everything with her. The fact that he had brought up Farha Asghari and gave no explanation for it meant it had to do with his government job at the post office. She could think of no other reason for the government to be interested in them except for their connection to The Hindustan. The rebellion was only four months old, but its political repercussions were astronomical, and had hurt nearly everyone connected to Karachi, the military and even India itself.

She broke the silence, “I heard Farha was still sick, so I was going to go to their house tomorrow with some food.”

“That’s good,” he smiled at her. “I’ll stop there after work on my way home. I should ask after them. Shall we eat now?”

+ + +

He woke up to the sound of pounding on the door. He fumbled for his spectacles and pushed himself off the bed, angry, annoyed, and worried at this noise. The sun wasn’t even up, he thought wrathfully. He passed his wife, who was now sitting up, and went out the room and down the stairs and through the front door to the gate.

“Who’s there,” he called out.

“It’s Avi, uncle.”

“Avi!” He unlocked the lock, slid the bolt, and pulled open the door. Avi Bijlani, Leela’s sixteen-year-old younger brother was standing in front of him looking bewildered.

“Uncle!” he gasped, “Baba told me to tell you about Farha.”

“Farha Asghari? Why, what happened to Farha?”

“Uncle, she died.”

“Died?”

“Yes uncle. The doctor is at their house right now. He sent his nurse to our house to make sure someone was with aunty and Major sahib. They said that she was having difficulty breathing and after a while just stopped. Baba said to tell you that they need the women for the ghusal and that you, aunty, and Meera would come and help.”

He was dumbstruck at this news. Was this an ill-omen? The poor child. And her poor parents, now all alone. 

“Uncle,” Avi ventured.

“Huh. Okay beta, thank you. You go home now. We’ll come over.”

“No uncle, I have to come with you otherwise baba will think I didn’t do this properly and get angry with me.”

“Okay Avi, you come in. Aunty will give you something to drink.”

Avi came in through the gate and they both walked up the small walkway to the front door. It was open and they could see Meera and her mother standing on the stairs looking toward them as they walked in.

Abu,” Meera whispered. “Is Farha gone?”

Her mother gathered her into her arms. “Shhh,” she said. “We have to be strong right now. We need to go help aunty and uncle okay. Suniyee,” she said as she looked at her husband, reverting to the formal ‘listen’. “Give Avi a glass of water and come upstairs. I’ll get our clothes ready and we will leave in five minutes. Avi beta, get water from uncle and sit in the living room and wait for us we’ll be down soon.” And with that she turned Meera around and guided her up the stairs. “Come soon,” she called out to her husband.

He nodded and looked at them as they walked upstairs. Then he looked at Avi and with a sigh and switched on the light-switch next to the front door. The sharp light flooded the dark room, blinding them both for an instant. They walked to the kitchen where he poured Avi a glass of water, directed him to the sofa, and then turned towards the stairs.

+ + +

They walked towards the Asghari’s house in the moonlight. It was quiet; even the buzzing mosquitos had gone to sleep. As they got closer they saw two lights twinkling from the house, one upstairs and one downstairs. Avi’s father, Bijlani sahib, and Major Asghari were sitting on the veranda, the major so much looking older than his sixty years. The women walked into the house to help Ameena baji, Farha’s mother, with the ghusl al mayyah, the ritual for washing and preparing the body for burial. Only women were allowed to touch a woman’s body, and Meera imagined that Ameena aunty would need help. Avi’s mother and sister, Dina and Leela, were also inside, helping to make sure that everything was ready.

+ + +

The concluding verse to the Salat al-Janazah was still echoing in his ears when he noticed a young man leaning against a tree next to the front gate. He was tall and darker-skinned than most of the men gathered in the courtyard and looked as if he were waiting quietly for the funeral prayer to end. It was a mournful united gathering of white cotton, yet the stranger seemed purposefully apart from everyone. He would not have considered bothering a stranger at this sad place if it hadn’t been for the letter from the postmaster general. He walked towards him. The man watched his approach with a careful expression, a look he remembered seeing on his own son during the brief month he had been granted a leave of absence from the second war. He felt a pang of grief when he thought of how that look was learned by these young men. “As-Salamu Alaykum,” he said as he stopped next to him.

Walaikum Assalam,” was the response.

“This is a sad time isn’t it? Poor people, to lose all their children.”

“Yes,” said the man. “It is too cruel.”

“We’ve never met. Are you a relative?”

The man was quiet. “Not really. I’ve know them for some years. I served with their oldest son in Burma.”

“Burma? In the army?”

Again, he was quiet for a second, and replied, “No, the navy.”

“Ah yes, both boys were in the navy.”

“Yes.”

“Did you know the younger one?”

Another small silence. “Yes.”

He sighed and stood there quietly for some minutes. Then he made a decision. He didn’t know if this man was Bose; his reply to the Muslim greeting was pronounced perfectly, but most Indians in the cosmopolitan ports knew the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian greetings of their countrymen. But if he was Bose, then he had served on The Hindustan with Zia, the younger brother, and claimed he knew Zafar, the older one. He was here, so he was probably known to the Asghari’s. He decided to err in favor of his countrymen. What if this man had been his son? “It is wrong what is happening to our navy sons,” he told the man. “The English won’t let anything go. Even now I hear that they are looking for a boy from The Hindustan.” He looked at the young man before continuing. “You look like you could be his countryman.”

The man’s eyes narrowed at those words, and he slowly nodded.

“Well,” said Meera’s father. “It is in God’s hands. Insha’Allah there will be mercy for these boys and they will be allowed to go home.”

Insha’Allah,” was the quiet reply.

The men around them started to move towards the house, and they looked ahead to see Major Asghari slowly walking out, leaning against Leela’s father. The major was bent over with grief. He had lost his eyesight years ago and now they seemed to lack even the tears that would help comfort an old heart.

The stranger suddenly straightened and walked purposefully towards the old man, oblivious to the people in his way. “Uncle!” he called out in his deep, clear voice, putting his hands out as he reached him.

The major stilled for an instant, and turned his head towards the voice. “Beta!” he called as he stretched out his arms, his hands looking for him. The man gently took them, and linked his right arm through the major’s left arm, using his body to support the older one.

“You came!” said the major.

“Yes uncle, I’m here.”

“Bless you, bless you. Beta, it’s all on you now. You must carry her coffin all the way and lay her down. Don’t let her go. You have to take the place for all three of us.”

“Yes uncle, I will,” he said softly. “I promise she will be laid to rest properly.” And with that he looked at Bijlani sahib silently asked him to take over. When he had carefully pulled his arm from the major’s, and leaned him into the other man, he walked to the coffin resting inside the house, perpendicular to the door, ready for its final journey. He did not look at her face, but bent down, preparing to lift her, and waited. Five other men followed him, including Meera’s father. They bent down, and as one, they lifted the young woman and started to walk forward towards the grave site. The remaining men, including the dead woman’s father, slowly followed them, forming the funeral procession.

+ + +

They were home just before Maghrib, having helped the Bijlani’s to clear the Asghari’s house, making the day’s final pot of tea, and leaving them to their grief in the silent house. Meera went up to her room, leaving her parents to settle in the living room.

“I think he’s Bengali,” she heard her mother as she reached the top of the stairs, but she didn’t want to hear the response. Farha was gone and she hoped that her secrets were gone with her.

+ + +

“Who?” her father asked.

“That man you were talking to at the gate, the one who held Major Asghari.”

“Him? How do you know?”

“Ameena baji said that he was an old friend of her son’s, and I thought he looked Bengali. Remember Meera had mentioned that Hindu boy from Calcutta who wrote to them? I just thought it might be him.”

He looked at his wife as she sat there with her head resting on her fist and wondered how to answer without lying. “Really? Did she say anything more?”

“No, the poor thing was trying not to cry.” Meera’s mother was troubled about the mystery surrounding this stranger. No one seemed to know his name or where he came from. The fact that both her husband and Farha’s mother were not forthcoming about him only reinforced her worry. Even Meera had glanced his way several times. Yet She was mostly sure about two things: that he was connected to The Hindustan, and that he was the Hindu friend that Meera had mentioned yesterday. But since most of the boys on the ship had been arrested for treason, his presence at the funeral was highly suspicious and potentially dangerous. And an unknown Hindu participating in a Muslim funeral during these contentious times was dangerous. The Bijlani’s and the other Hindu families were a part of this neighborhood and were considered family, but he was a stranger who had participated in an Islamic rite. She sighed at the unfairness of it all, that a fellow countryman could not even pay his respects without hiding his identity.

After a short a short silence, she spoke again. “Dina told me that Farha was engaged.”

That captured his attention. “She was? It was not known was it?”

“No. The proposal came a month ago, but because of Zia they wanted to wait a year before formally announcing the news.”

He sighed at the news. A death always took multiple lives, not just the one. He felt for the lost life Farha could have had, but he also felt for her parents and the extended family they would now never have.

“I’m going up to Meera and then I’ll go to bed,” she said

“Okay. I’ll come up soon.”

He watched his wife go up, once again awed by her perceptiveness and humbled by the compassion and tact she showed towards the sad family and the mystery surrounding them.

His thoughts turned to the young stranger, hoping that he hadn’t made a mistake, that his hints had helped the man and not put any of them in more danger. He wondered if Farha had written to him for her father. Major Asghari had occasionally spoken last night, reminiscing about his children. Farha, he had said, was a big reader, bigger even than he had been at that age. These modern girls, he had proudly sighed. “My Farha would read to me every day, and she’d write my letters for me too, in English, Gujrati, Urdu, and even Parsi.” He fell silent, his body stooped over the cane as he leaned forward, further into it. “My little girl,” the old major whispered.

He thought of the gentle way the stranger had lifted the girl and laid her in her grave, a desolate look on his serious face. He had been treated like a son by Farha’s father, but what had he felt like to her? After the major had recited the final dua, the young man had gone to the older one, took his hands, kissed them, and said “I have to go now uncle.”

The old man sighed and said, “I understand beta. Will you come again?”

“I don’t know, but I will try. Please tell aunty that she was right, the handkerchief was useful.”

The major smiled at that cryptic joke and reached up to put his hand on the younger one’s head. “Our blessings my son. Our home is yours, always remember.”

The stranger smiled a pained, bitter smile at that. “I will uncle. Goodbye,” and walked away.

+ + +

Meera sat on her bed thinking of the letter she had accidently read three months ago. It had been a bizarre moment; the very graceful and collected Farha had been running in the university hallway and bumped into her, scattering their papers and books. She kept apologizing as she hastily gathered whatever she could find and ran off before Meera could check her belongings. It was only after she had gotten home and started to organize her work that Meera noticed a bunch of papers that didn’t belong to her. One was a letter written in English, dated February 10th, eight days before the mutiny. She hadn’t meant to pry into another’s private correspondence, and had she known what it would be she would never have read it. But she did read it, and what she read left a heavy weight on her heart. She didn’t have Leela’s photographic memory, but she never forgot the small passage written towards the end of the short letter.

Please thank Madam Gangly for the books. I don’t know what they will decide, but I do know that we can’t live on these meagre rations any longer. We need to do something.

I want you to know that I have made my decision: next time I am on leave I will visit uncle and aunty and talk to them. I only pray that they will be understanding.

That letter had answered so many questions she hadn’t known she had. Like the inordinate amount of books that Mrs. Gangly lent Farha, the disproportionately large number of teacher-student meetings they had, the political views Farha voiced during class debates, and the rumors about Mrs. Gangly being a distant relative of Aruna Ali, the National Congress member who had been one of the few Indian leaders who had supported the Royal Indian Navy’s mutiny. She hadn’t understood the implication of that story until she read Farha’s letter.

She also thought she knew who the letter-writer was: the Calcutta boy from the navy. Early in the school year she had asked Farha how she remembered the multiple meanings of so many English words, and was told the story about the Bengali naval officer who wrote to her parents. He had been her oldest brother’s friend in the navy; they had been stationed in Burma, and after her brother’s death during the war, the friend had sent his condolences to her parents. They ended up corresponding regularly in English because even though he could speak Urdu, he could not read or write the language. Her father had lost his sight and since her mother didn’t know English, Farha read the letters to them and transcribed her parent’s spoken replies. That was why, she had said, her English vocabulary was so good.

When Meera had seen the stranger standing under the tree during the funeral prayer, she knew in her heart that he was the writer. What had he wanted to talk to Farha’s parents about? Even thinking the question broke her heart. What did it matter now that everything in their world was broken?    

She thought of Farha’s beautiful face as she had washed her during the ghusal, readying her for her final rest. It didn’t seem possible that such a strong and courageous spirit had resided in this tiny, delicate body. She felt fiercely proud of her and wanted desperately to protect her, her elderly parents who had lost all their children, and the man who had been a friend to this small ill-fated family.

+ + +

Her mother came into her room to wish her good night.

“Meera,” she began and the stopped, unsure of what to say.

“Yes ami?”

“Did you know that man?”

“Which man?”

“The man standing next to the gate, the one abu spoke to. You kept looking at him as if you knew him.”

Meera looked at her for a long time, and before her mother could say anything more said, “I’m sorry ami, but I don’t remember doing that. What man?”

Her mother looked at her and then came and held her tightly as tears fell from her eyes.

 

The Letter

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