By Rabia Ahmed
October 8, 2017
Being in the army is like being caught in a revolving door. You see that settled life you so desperately want on the other side of the glass, just within your reach, but before you can join in, you’re on the move again.
So there we were, posted to yet another place, to a pleasant city but a gloomy cantonment.
I paid no heed to the eerie stories that our cook Abdul told me about the street we lived on. There were banyan trees lining the street, reminiscent of bearded men leaning on their sticks. I was sure the sight was preying on his mind. One evening, however, Abdul came bursting into the dining room and insisted that we follow him to the kitchen.
My husband being male and unable to multitask tried to get Abdul to wait until the korma had been dealt with, but Abdul was insistent.
We saw nothing out of the ordinary in the kitchen until the rolling pin began moving around the counter all by itself. It rolled to the right, then to the left and then to the right again. Just when I thought we may have an earthquake on our hands, the rolling pin lifted into the air and fell back to the counter with a thump of wood on marble.
My husband, a veteran of several border skirmishes and a Siachen incident, was rooted to the spot. I had lost my voice, and Abdul stood frozen beside me.
And that is how it began. The next day, the laundry was spread all over the floor from the clothing line. The day after, my daughter’s bed was turned right around as she slept. Aniya was just three at the time, so no, she didn’t move it herself.
After this, my wardrobe burst into flames that extinguished and then re-ignited several times. When the flames subsided, my wardrobe stood unscathed as before.
Abdul voiced what we were all thinking, that the house was haunted. He suggested I call in an ‘Aamil’, a man who prays at the djinns until they leave.
I was afraid Abdul would leave if I didn’t do anything, so I was left with no choice. Tahir sahib, the Aamil, came to the house that same evening. He was a pleasant, middle-aged man who entered at a slant, as if walking against a high wind, because he declared he felt ‘some resistance’ to his presence. Guilty of reservations regarding his presence, I offered him Rooh Afza, something of a tradition in my family in times of crisis. Thus fortified, he proceeded to poke around the room whispering in such strongly sibilant undertones that I looked with renewed respect at the bottle of Mashroob e Mashriq on the table.
I trailed the increasingly agitated Aamil around the house. The reason for his agitation was not the djinns; it was Aniya who persisted in shooting him dirty looks as she clung to my shoulder. There are times when she reminds me strongly of my father.
At the end of an hour, Tariq sahib looked so unnerved that I straightened my face, because I knew it was skewed into an irritated expression, thanked him, and gave him some money.
Grateful at putting a distance between himself and the disapproving child in my arms, he tried to make friends with her.
“Seeet seeet, baby!” He hissed, bringing his face close to my daughter. It was an unwise move.
Aniya made a sound like an outraged engine, raised her arms on either side of her head, and screamed,
Please let me explain why she did this. My husband’s aged great aunt had a maid, the unfortunate original of that name. Whenever anything went wrong, her employer would yell for her in just that tone of voice. That foible became a family thing, like our Rooh Afza. Long after Durdana died, as a child, my husband was taught to yell ‘Durdana’ instead of a profanity when he was upset. Sadly, Aniya learnt that trick from her father. At the time Tariq sahib had the misfortune to encounter her, Aniya fell into it occasionally, but whenever a delicate moment was at hand, such as once at the crucial point at a Nikah, she screamed that word at the top of her lungs. The poor man, not being privy to this information, recoiled.
“I think I should leave now,” Tahir sahib declared unsteadily and groped his way out of the room.
Any hopes that the exorcism had succeeded were proved wrong. But by then, we were busy preparing for my mother’s visit.
My mother is one of those people who cannot arrive for a weekend without bringing along all their possessions. I cleared a small trunk for her special blankets, “because it may become colder and your blankets are probably not unpacked yet, Maliha”. Then, I located, emptied, cleaned and placed a small cabinet by her bed for her herbal medicines “because those”, with a dirty look at the Ativans and Glucophages on her side table, “I’m stuck with, but these,” with a beatific glance at the Hajmolas and Sualins, “are holistic.”
I made space in the kitchen for her vinegars, honeys and Earl Grey teas, because “I really can’t see how you can have those dreadful teabags, sweetie, but then you were always such a hearty person,” and in the fridge for her particular dishes because “you’re a good cook beta, but you know my stomach.”
By the time I had done all this and arranged a dozen sweaters, seven novels, three pens and two note books, eight pairs of shoes, four saris, eleven shawls, and three and a half pairs of socks that she had sent in advance, she was with us. And along with her came an additional three suitcases, her maid, and an errand boy.
For the past several days, Abdul had gone around in a red betel haze of anticipation, because he knew that with my mother, came her Paan Daan. Now, with a paan tucked into his cheek and before I could stop him, he gave her a succinct if somewhat incoherent summary of the recent events.
Amma was appalled, particularly when Abdul informed her that Tahir sahib had been unable to get the djinns to leave.
“Didn’t he recite some Surahs around the house?” She whispered, horrified.
I made my mother some Rooh Afza, and coldly asked Abdul to clean the red dribble from his chin.
Amma repeated her question. I sighed.
“Those djinns were not affected by our prayers Amma because they don’t believe in them.”
“And how do you know this?” Amma demanded.
“They told me. Because they are Hindu, they said, not Muslim.”
“They told you that?” My mother stared at me. “You’ve been talking to them!”
“Maliha…djinns are always affected by the Holy Quran, always. There is no such thing as Hindu djinns.”
And suddenly, I remembered the time I was 12 or 13 and had a terrible stomach ache. The memory was so sharp in my mind that I clutched my stomach right there in my own kitchen. We were at my grandmother’s and I’d just eaten the largest ice lolly that my nani had made me. I even recalled that she called it an ‘Ice Kacang’ that she said meant ‘crushed ice’ in Malaysia. This is always why I associate Malaysia with the cold, even until today.
Maybe I ate too fast and froze myself into a cramp, because then I felt as though an invisible string attached to my belly button had been pulled inwards very sharply.
I doubled over with an ‘Ohhh!’ and my grandmother bent over me crying,
“What is it, Mallo? Are you all right?”
She tried to lead me to the couch but I fell to the floor, groaning and clutching my stomach. Nani flapped around, looking for help. I felt her tugging at my arm and placing cushions under whichever part of me she could lift, and heard her shouting for my grandfather who came running into the room, blowing through his moustache as he did during a crisis.
Nani snapped at him to give her the Holy Quran. He handed it to her alertly. Nani later told her friends that she read the first bit of Surah Nisa, the chapter of the Holy Quran titled ‘Women,’ and blew all over me at intervals. She never explained why she chose that particular chapter; it may have been because I was a girl or perhaps because that’s where the page fell open. Either way, I recovered. Nani claimed it was because of her recitation that the djinns causing my pain went away. She and her friends nodded sagely over the incident over cups of tea, and undoubtedly they told their friends about it and they all nodded over the story in succession.
I studied Surah Nisa many years later. It’s a beautiful chapter of the Holy Quran which tells you with inherent compassion and justice how one must treat women and orphans, and how to divide an inheritance amongst heirs. I still don’t understand, even if there was a djinn possessing me, as to why it would leave upon hearing this chapter.
It was certainly not because my grandmother’s recitation was so good. My grandfather used to say, never in front of his wife,
“Allah (SWT) Un Ko Sehhat Day, Aur Un Ki Awaz May Thori See Sheerini Bhi Day.”
(May God grant her health and some sweetness to her voice.)
Getting back to reality, my mother went on claiming that there was no such thing as Hindu djinns.
“There are many humans who are not Muslim, and many who aren’t affected by prayer either,” I said
“Praying around djinns always works!” Amma declared angrily. “They listen, and they leave!”
“If they don’t believe in our prayers, they won’t,” I said. “There are people, and it seems djinns, who pray differently, or not at all. Everyone’s not floored by religion, Amma. It’s not voodoo, it’s meant to be understood before it can be effective.”
As much as I loved my Nani and my mother, I’d wanted to say this for years. I did not wish to stand over my daughter one day forcing her to finish her oatmeal, failing to which I might recite the Quranic condemnation of adultery into her outraged ears.
My mother glared at me.
“We must leave this house immediately,” she said in her firmest voice.
“We will not leave this house, because the djinns are not bothering us now,” I said equally firmly. “And I don’t see why they should leave, either. We’re pulling along.”
Amma mouthed my words to herself in disbelief. “Djinns don’t not bother, Maliha. You can’t pull along with them either. Besides this is your house.”
“They were here first, Amma. We arrived afterwards, it was we that took over. Besides, we now have a pact with them.”
Amma stared as I told her that the djinns had agreed to live upstairs and we downstairs.
“So now, we don’t bother them, and they don’t bother us.”
“Maybe they aren’t there anymore!” I heard the quaver in her voice, so it was with reluctance that I shook my head.
“They’re there,” I said, thinking I’d better get it over with. “We share the entrance. I meet them at the door, sometimes.”
My mother’s eyes widened.
“And when you ‘meet you at the door’, what do you say to each other, Maliha?” she said with awful sarcasm. “Hello, hello!”
I shook my head. “Actually, they say Assalam Alaikum.”
She gave a crack of laughter. “And I suppose you say Wa-Alaikum Assalam jinn Ji!”
“No,” I replied, “I say Shanti, in response.” I raised my voice to drown out her angry hiss. “And we have it, Amma; we have both Salam and Shanti in this house now.”
“I can’t believe you’re saying this, Maliha! I…I just don’t understand you!” I saw tears in her eyes, and my anger disappeared.
“No I don’t believe you do, Amma, but perhaps it is not your fault.”
Suddenly, I felt very tired. I put my arm around her shoulder.
“It is, after all, the peace that passeth understanding, and we have yet to experience it in this country, haven’t we?”
I took her into the other room, made her a cup of tea, and allowed her to make me a Paan. There is something about those two things that sets everything right.