‘The Cost to Understanding’ by Irfanullah Farooqi (India)

Short story selected for the 2011 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

“Faheem! Wake up. It’s almost eleven.”

Faheem rubbed his eyes for a while. Life started a few hours ago. He kept lying in the cot for he was a little embarrassed. His aunt sat on the bed lying close to the cot. She was cutting vegetables for lunch. He waited for her to look at him so that he could once again rub his eyes signaling lack of sleep. That would have justified his lying asleep till late. Looking at his aunt was an agenda initially but in no time he was engrossed in the frame. It was an unholy alliance between the index finger and the knife before which the vegetable surrendered. He was struck by the image; one that showed the indifference of the collaborators and the silence of the audience. Everything appeared too mechanical and for a while his aunt, playing the pivotal role, ceased to be a human. As the frame grew more and more monotonous Faheem forced himself to look away.

“Are you not well?” His aunt finally looked at him.

“No,” he was a little late in his response. “I am fine.”

“Did you sleep well?”

“Kind of.” After a pause he asked, “This morning too there was no power, right?”

“There was, but for a short while I believe. Perhaps for forty-five minutes sometime around early morning.” The reply did not have an ounce of uneasiness.

“But you said the load-shedding is from 6pm to 6am and then from 10am to 3pm. How come there is no power even during the rest of the day.” Faheem was irritated.

“What can be said? I wish I had a reply to that.” She was still cutting vegetables with the same amount of indifference.

“How can people live like this? It is a denial of basic rights. No power for the entire day. How can one survive in this weather without power?”

“Good question.” She continued beheading what she held. After a while she looked up and said, “But I have never posed this question to myself. What is the point after all? Knowingly or unknowingly, we just live on.”

“I don’t think you can do away with it so casually.”

Faheem’s aunt was silent. She was back to her work. The knife’s blade still as sharp as ever and the wholes getting sliced one after the other.

Faheem forced himself out of the cot. It was close to noon and the sun was unbearable. The living room was almost a furnace. The house was in the middle of a huge plot which was a little away from the rest of the settlements. The closest building was a small mosque built by the local Muslims. Faheem’s aunt’s house was partially constructed and was not furnished properly. There were two small rooms and a space that was time and again referred to as “kitchen.” Technically it was a passage but since there was a table and a gas stove lying there with a bunch of utensils, Faheem did not question the authenticity of the family members’ claim. Throughout the day the walls and the roof expressed their insignificance before the sun. Both the rooms were equally hot during the day, however, the one adjacent to the kitchen would at times outdo the other. Feeding oneself was about pushing human capabilities in relation to heat-coping. The family members questioned their hunger a couple of times before finally meeting the need. Because of the heat, food was cooked once during the day and for dinner it was only a matter of warming. In fact quite often, thanks to the in-house mercury levels, it would not be cold enough to raise any objection.

***

It was Faheem’s fourth day in the house. He had come from New Delhi to spend some time with his aunt. After spending a week in Lucknow with his maternal grandmother now he was in this small village situated in the eastern part of Uttar Pradesh. Initially his plan was to stay for two days and then return to New Delhi but on his aunt’s insistence he extended his stay to five days.

In Lucknow he had an extremely comfortable stay. With all the men of the family settled abroad, his grandmother’s house had every possible facility in place and, more importantly, operational. He was treated royally during his week-long stay and not even for a minute did he find the arrangements lacking. On his way to his aunt’s place he had a fairly idealized image of the Indian village: green, open, fresh, and calm. It was his first visit to a village and he was fairly excited about the whole trip. But within the first few minutes of arrival he had started doubting his decision. Compared to Lucknow the place lacked in all the essentials. There were ceiling fans and a desert cooler but they were good for nothing because there was no power. The power supply hours were such that the ceiling fan could not be switched on. The roof would be extremely hot and, if switched on, it would only worsen the in-house temperature. The desert cooler’s water pump could not operate because of low voltage. However, he did not have any other option but to spend the planned span, one characterised by days that refused to pass and nights that appeared darker and unending.

“Where are you? What are you thinking? Something wrong?” Faheem’s aunt did not bother to go one by one.

Faheem was lost pondering over a lot of things. Even after resuming the sense of space and time he remained lost for a while. He looked at his aunt. She seemed annoyed. He knew that he missed out on a lot of things. He tried hard to recollect but it was of no use.

“I am ok. I am sorry. I have this habit of occasionally getting lost into my own world. Naturally, by the time I am back, bits of the world have moved on and bits are waiting. It is embarrassing. My apologies. Did you ask me something?” Faheem’s words still lacked coherence.

“Are you in our world at the moment?”

“Please. You are embarrassing me.”

“Good to ascertain the basics. Anyways, would you want to eat something?”

“No. I guess I will wait for another hour and a half or so. This weather doesn’t permit two meals in two hours.”

“I hope you are not being considerate. Everything is ready. It won’t take more than five minutes.” Before finishing she had got down from the bed.

“No. I swear I don’t feel like eating right now. I am not hungry at all. In any case this weather alerts us every time we think of feeding ourselves.”

“I understand it is hot but you cannot stop eating because of that. It has been more than twelve hours since you ate.” She was now searching for slippers which had got underneath the bed. “And be mindful of swearing. It is not appropriate to swear for every second thing.” She had found the other slipper.

“I seriously need to check this habit of mine. I am working on it.” Faheem tried to sound convincing. By now his aunt was standing in the kitchen washing the utensils. He dragged a chair close to the cot and said, “Honestly I am not inclined to eat. Please be at ease. I will have lunch in about an hour maybe.”

“Something to drink maybe. Lemonade?” She was sorting the washed utensils.

“Not required aunt. You please sit and relax.” Faheem was now seated on the chair.

“Recommend something else if you intend to well wish. Throughout the day I am relaxing only.” The woman in her spoke at last.

Faheem was speechless for he could not comprehend the essence of his aunt’s words. His aunt was busy transferring some powder from a small packet to a jar. Not even remotely did she seem concerned about his response. Her indifference turned out all the more taxing. He would have felt better had she exhibited even a vague impression of expecting a set of words from him in a certain order. The sheer absence of interest from her end was suffocating.

***

Faheem’s aunt had only recently moved into this house. She was his father’s elder sister who earlier used to stay in Barielly, a reasonably big city in central part of Uttar Pradesh. For more than two decades she lived in the city. Faheem’s uncle died in an accident that took place minutes after he had performed his prayer. Thanks to his last act, his death did not catch as much attention of his relatives as much as his allegiance to faith. At the burial, Faheem found it astounding that none talked about the loss to the family because of the death of the guardian. From all the corners it was all about his loyalty to his religion, his commitment to things made obligatory for him by God and his steadfast character. Throughout Faheem found the gathering as one waiting for some kind of a felicitation ceremony and not burial of a person who left without any notice. Though Faheem was surrounded by dozens of his relatives who were relentlessly pushing his uncle’s case for martyrdom and not a natural death, his mind was more agreeably engaged with the family of the deceased: his aunt, two sons and a daughter. Faheem’s cousins were unwearyingly listening to their elder relatives, their suggestions around patience and hope, their word of caution regarding disbelief and hopelessness. Once in a while they would say “certainly” to voice their sincere loyalty and attest their attentiveness. The daughter must have been somewhere inside one of the inner-most rooms surrounded by unbearable sympathy and insufferable consolation.

His aunt was the principle focus of everyone who had come to enlighten the family on the inevitable, and the role of loss in human life. She was a respectable woman of the locality, revered by every single family. There were sermons from all over and she was quiet beneath a sheath of her own thought. She was in the company of a few questions in the name of what she understood now as life. She proved too strong for the occasion. She did not shed a drop of tear and remained silent throughout. Maybe after several weeks, in some corner of the house she did shed a few drops on none but her strength. The tragedy introduced her to the cost of being strong.

***

“Don’t you miss Barielly?” Faheem was a little abrupt. He immediately sensed the oddness of his query but it was a little late. Attempting at diluting the abruptness of his question he said, “I mean it is so different here. Having lived in a lively city for more than two decades don’t you find it difficult here? It is a forgotten territory. This area does not even vaguely figure in plans and policies. One is not inclined to engage with the idea of tomorrow here.”

“It was difficult in the beginning. To some measure it still is. But after the death of your uncle Barielly ceased to be the city I lived in. It had become strange. This is my own house. Your uncle supervised its construction. He wanted to leave Barielly and shift to a house owned by him, breathe amidst his own people. It was however his mistake to undermine the most important aspect of life, its treachery.” Her tone was milder as she proceeded. “It was meant for us but it is lived by me alone, not as a widow but a wife.” She paused for a while realizing she should not have expressed to that extent. Her regret could be sensed as she shuttled between the rack and the kitchen table.

Faheem was unsure of his role. Was he to wait or to speak? For a while he remained silent and then said, “I know that…”

“And most importantly Zubair’s school is not very far.” His aunt cut him short since she got a fairly reasonable point to defend her move. “His mother and father in-law stay in Azamgarh which is not even ten miles from here. In Barielly there was nothing left except sympathy. It would not have been wise to stay there just for that.”

“Hmm… where is Zubair? He was supposed to return this morning.”

“Perhaps they postponed their plan. It is risky to travel with the child in this weather. I guess they will set out after sunset when it is a little better.”

“Did he call?”

“No. He calls after 8 pm. It is cheaper then.”

“Oh come on aunt. It takes less than a minute to inform about your plans.”

“I don’t know. He is excessively attentive to these things.”

“Let me call him. His mathematics will spare him while receiving the call.”

“Why bother. His in-laws are unusually nice and caring. They might have insisted on them staying a little longer.” She was still inside the kitchen which could not hold the attention of any creature for more than a while.

Faheem did not have an answer to that. Zubair was the younger son. He taught science and mathematics in one of the government schools of the district. He was married and had a year-old son. His in-laws stayed in the district. He left with his family the day Faheem arrived. He was supposed to return the very next day but the return kept getting postponed. For the past two days it was just the two of them in the house. Perhaps Faheem’s arrival was an opportunity for Zubair to spend some time in the middle of basic facilities such as power, running water, cable television and so forth. His aunt had a soft corner for Zubair because he gave up government accommodation in the district to stay with her. Besides, his daily up-down of more than twenty miles was too significant to be overlooked.

“Lunch is ready. Let’s get over with it… Should I cut mangoes for you?”

“Leave it. I will have them later. Might skip dinner tonight and have mangoes.”

His aunt spread the table cloth on the bed and started bringing the food items. Faheem washed his hands at the hand pump installed in the open and sat on the bed. He was sweating incessantly. For the first two days he cribbed a lot about the weather but after that his hostility toned down. Sweat did not irritate him anymore. In fact, by now it had become a part of his being. During the peak hours of the day he would lie in the cot and read. Occasionally he would crib about the power department’s insensitivity towards the area and the people’s unacceptable levels of tolerance.

***

In the evening a chair and a cot were taken out in the open. It was still quite warm outside but bearable. Faheem was sitting on the chair. A book was lying on the stool kept a little away from him. His aunt was peeling the mangoes. In her presence Faheem felt different. His dark side would vanish and he would feel unusually soft and vulnerable. Her presence substantially conditioned his overall self.

“Come to Delhi and stay with us for some time. We have been requesting you for some time.”

“Can’t promise. I am way too involved here.”

“But this place does not offer you even the basics,” Faheem’s tone had a degree of assertion. “In your age you cannot afford to do everything on your own. It’s been more than five and a half decades of hard work. You deserve a break. Praise be to Lord that you are in good health but that is no reason to turn insensitive to the demands of old age. During the past four days that I spent here I lived the roughest definition of life. Given my age I can’t complain but your case is different.”

“You have come of an age. You remind me of your father, upfront and sharp. I get your premise but it is good to be away and on your own. It often liberates oneself from…”

“Aunt, a month or two is all we request. Peak seasons can be spent in Delhi and then you can come here. I don’t understand…”

“Yes, you don’t my dear. And I am not disappointed in you because it is difficult to. Once you have understood, life does not belong to you. You can’t go your way for there is more to your world than just you. The day my well wishers will understand me, their well wishing will be my well-wishing.”

She went inside the room to place the sliced mangoes in the fridge which had some promise left inside due to the 3-6 power supply. The evening progressed quietly. In another twelve hours or so Faheem was to leave the place. He was to go back to Delhi, the place where so many things were waiting for his return. It seemed to him that Delhi must have been on a halt in his absence. But that feeling did not last long. The return journey did not excite him as much as it should have. There was a certain kind of numbness that had crept in. He was gradually becoming non-responsive to the whole thing.

“It’s Rafia. She wants to talk to you.” Faheem was once again caught lost by his aunt. She handed over the phone and again went inside the room which did not have anything inside except darkness and substantial remains of the day’s heat.

“Hello,” Faheem uttered the word as if he spoke to a stranger.

“Hello Faheem,” Rafia sounded a little worried. “How have you been?”

“Very well,” Faheem was back in the world. “You tell me. I was expecting to see you this time.”

“I know. I was supposed to stay with mother for a month but Arshiya’s father is not keeping well. And it is also a little unwise to travel in this heat with Ammar. He is not even a year old and is perpetually unwell these days. The heat here is unbearable. I am sure it is no better there…” She stopped for a while and instructed her three year old daughter Arshiya. Faheem could anticipate the lined-up component of the telephonic conversation. In a moment Rafia proved Faheem right by asking, “So how has been your stay so far? It’s your fourth day, right?”

“It has been good. It was of course extremely difficult in the beginning but now it is ok. Initially aunt’s indifference irritated me but now it kind of inspires me. Still, more than the heat it is her tolerance that is unbearable.”

“That is true. Her patience is violent at times,” she got a little alerted by her words for her mother. “Anyways, I wanted to ask you something.”

“Tell me.”

“Does your train pass Allahabad?”

“Yes, it does. Why do you ask?”

“Actually I have a request to make. Mother stitched few summer clothes for Ammar and Ayesha. If you could carry them along I will ask my brother-in-law to collect them from the station. He is coming here next week.”

“Sure. You did not have to call for that,” Faheem’s tone was sincere.

“I had to speak to mother anyways. Throughout the day these kids keep me occupied. Only in the evening do I get to breathe. Besides, mobile call is much cheaper in the evening,” she paused for a while and said, “and I had to speak to you. It has been ages since I heard your voice. You people are so busy in studies and work.”

“I know I have been asocial,” Faheem’s words preceded his thought. Clueless about an apt continuation he said, “Now onwards I will be more pleasing.”

“I hope so. It will be lovely to hear from you once in a while,” her pitch signaled the conversation nearing the end. “Alright then, greet everyone in Delhi. Come to Bhopal at some point.”

“I will,” Faheem’s words attended to both the requests. “Should I call aunt?”

“No no. It’s ok. I will hang up now. Take care.”

The call ended before Faheem could reply. He found the ending a little abrupt. His aunt was still inside the room. By now he had stopped inquiring into what kept her inside the room for hours. For any normal person those cubicles were repulsive in the truest sense of the word. For Faheem they existed only in the absence of options and nothing else. As soon as there was an option, those rooms ceased to exist for him.

***

Rafia was the only daughter of his aunt. She was in Bhopal with her husband and two children. She spent a few months at her parents’ place when both Arshiya and Ammar were born. Ammar was around two months old when his grandfather passed away. Rafia spent over a month with her mother and then left for Bhopal. While leaving, her husband had assured his mother-in-law of more frequent visits by her daughter. But in the first year itself the word could not be kept. Faheem was forced to ponder over the inevitability of helplessness. More than anything else he saw human existence predicated on helplessness. Perhaps the human fraternity is required to understand the core of helplessness, its indispensability in relation to everyday life.

“So does your train pass Allahabad,” his aunt’s voice came from inside.

“Yes it passes Allahabad. You can give me the packet in the morning. I will hand it over to her brother-in-law.”

“Why morning? I will put it on your bag right away. At this age memory is the last thing I can bank on.”

“I will remind you. Don’t worry,” Faheem tried hard to sound a little responsible. “Why don’t you come out? It is pleasant here for a change.”

“After weeks of dead evenings. Will be there in a moment.”

Faheem sank in the chair and stretched. His aunt came out but immediately went inside to get another chair. For some reason, she preferred sitting on a chair in front of Faheem. She sat at a distance from him and kept her mobile on the pillow lying on the cot. Faheem did not know what to say. He urged her to come out but now he was out of words.

Faheem’s struggle to find words got shortened when his aunt said, “Zubair called a while ago. His brother-in-law arrived this morning which is why he postponed his plans. He said he will return tomorrow morning before your departure.”

Faheem did not exactly know how to react. “He should not take the trouble of setting out early morning just to meet me. I have met him and then he will be in Delhi next month.” Faheem’s words were rooted more in disinterestedness than concern.

“I can’t ask him not to come. In case he comes, you will get to meet him. If he doesn’t, there is not an issue either.”

Faheem was surprised by the pace at which his aunt switched from one state to another. She would sound very concerned and in no time she would be absolutely indifferent. She would justify some of the most unacceptable acts and then the next moment turn utterly indifferent to the most humane engagements and endeavours. It was the swiftness of her movement – between extremes – that stunned Faheem. What constituted her essence, love or apathy, or none?

“To tell you the truth aunty, I came here thinking I would succeed in taking you along to Delhi.”

“I could guess that almost as soon as you informed me about your plans,” she said with a mild smile on her face. “But I am glad you said that,” her tone was assuring, “and indeed it was very nice of you to have thought of that.”

“Please forgive me for repeating but you cannot go on like this. There is just no one here to help you and I don’t know how different it is when your son is around with his family.”

“I will not object to your words because I know you and your family genuinely care for me. God knows I have always been conscious of that. Your father’s love and respect for me is unmatched and your mother has exhibited unusual kindness to me.”

“So…” Faheem wanted her to continue but she was silent. “Don’t you think it is humane on our part to think of you, feel a genuine concern for you, strive for making things better for you?”

“Certainly it is. It is just that…”

“No need to, aunt. I will impose it on myself that I understand your point,” Faheem looked towards the sky which seemed nearer for a moment. He looked at his aunt who was now removing hair lying on the pillow. “I did not mean to insist. It is our respect and care for you that at times urges us to exceed,” his tone was apologetic.

She was cleaning the white pillow for the past few minutes. However, as soon as Faheem finished she got her hands off the pillow and sat quietly. Though she had stopped cleaning it she was still looking at it. For a while Faheem remained silent but after that he could not control himself. Finding his own share of space shrinking before the pillow he said, “I hope I did not say anything I was not supposed to.”

“Not at all Faheem. In fact you made me revisit my own premise and now I believe I am more informed about it. I know people respect me. To tell you the truth there is nothing novel about it for I was treated in a special way right from my childhood days. During childhood I did not care much but later I could not meaningfully engage with the respect and high-opinion bestowed on me from all corners of family and beyond. It was primarily because I never did anything to gain that respect. It was never an end for me, not even once. And yet I was respected and I, but obvious, could never respond to that feeling.”

Faheem was listening like a child. During the past four days their conversation had not reached this level of intensity.

“So I was respected by everyone around and I went ahead without responding. But later I realized that I did respond to the feeling of others. Yes, I did not say anything, I did not do anything for them in order to return the favor. But I did respond. As the feeling of others towards me started taking roots, I began to live a different life. This change was of course gradual but phenomenal. And one day I found my life completely devoid of the personal. I was living as per the general image of mine, one doing the rounds among relatives. That moment posed few options and I chose the easier ones. So here I am once again respected and revered by everyone who knows me.”

Faheem was not sure if he was required to intervene. In any case he was too engrossed to articulate. The pillow was lying in front of him. It was still not clean of strands. The pinching appearance of a strand on the white pillow complemented his aunt’s words. What a pity to be white, he felt for the pillow. Instantly he looked at her. She was looking at the main entrance of the house.

“It is so distant from life here,” she was still looking at the door, “makes it easier to live.” The mildness in her tone implied she would not go any further holding the hands of words. After a brief pause, she said, “For someone like me it is good to be away, in the absence of references. That way my demanding attitude towards life finds no takers. Amidst people life becomes an endeavour in itself, extremely conscious of its being. But here life is on its own, in fact not even aware of its passage. It is in the absence of something that we develop a meaningful relationship with it. For me the reality of absence is more compelling than the one of presence.”

Faheem wanted to say something but his aunt had already gone inside to arrange for dinner. He had a range of options to reflect on. As darkness began its journey from one end to another, the sky had started displaying its charm. Faheem was still struggling with what his aunt had said. It was much easier to respect her than to understand. He looked at a table kept in the corner. There was a small windmill kept there. A mild blow of warm air was felt and the windmill rotated clock-wise.

Illustration by Alan Van Every

About the Author:

Irfanullah Farooqi is 29 years old and is currently doing his doctoral research in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, India. He has taught at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi as a guest faculty and has also lectured in JNU. Apart from teaching he has done a lot of development related work in the course of his association with Action Aid, Pravah and UNICEF India. As a worshipper of literature, alongside many others, Irfan finds inspiration in the verses of Rumi, Mir, Ghalib, Faiz, Rilke, and Baudelaire and in the prose of Dostoevsky, Maugham, Hesse, Mahfouz and Gordimer. He is currently working on a novel that deals with love and faith.

Related posts:

Leave a Reply