Excerpt from “Those Children”, a novel by Shahbano Bilgrami

those children

Amma and Baba had met several years before they were grudgingly allowed to marry. (Or at least that is what we had been told.) In 1978, Baba traveled with a group of friends from the coastal city of Karachi northwards by train and by bus to Swat where the moustachioed Imran, a fellow student, had his family home in Mingora. Imran, like Baba, was completing his B.Com that year and planned to return to Swat to manage the Pine Cone Inn, a ramshackle guesthouse that his father owned in nearby Kalam. Presenting it as a reconnoitering expedition, a ‘case study’ for his fellow classmates to solve, Imran persuaded his father to allow the six of them to spend a few weeks at the Inn and use their recently acquired knowledge of business models to turn it into a profitable enterprise.


Excerpted from Those Children by Shahbano Bilgrami (HarperCollins India 2017). Reprinted with permission.

Predictably, none of that happened. As soon as they reached Kalam and settled into the Pine Cone, a dusty sky-blue eight-passenger minivan groaned its way up from Miandam, halted at the Mountain View, and spewed out a botany professor, six female students, and a skinny-legged chaperone in churidaar pyjama universally known as ‘Baji’. The Mountain View was across the Swat River and clearly visible from the upper windows of the Pine Cone. The day the minivan disgorged its passengers, Baba was on the roof of his friend’s hotel, the flares of his bell-bottoms flapping in the cool mountain breeze as he smoked a hand-rolled cigarette and tried to imagine what life after graduation meant – a scholarship to the US, perhaps, which was what he wanted, or settling in, as was Imran, to the humdrum of local small-time business. There was a commotion down below as the girls disembarked and immediately ran this way and that oohing-and-aahing at the contrast of jagged mountain and azure sky, the icy blue whiteness of the swiftly-flowing river, the clusters of frail huts leaning against each other for support against the gusty wind. Baji shrieked in protest, her arms akimbo like shafts of sugar cane as she called out to them in vain. Amused, Baba watched from above and across the river while the girls scattered like a bunch of brightly-coloured marbles, his now forgotten cigarette smoldering beneath a Bata loafer.

All of a sudden, one of the girls, a petite long-haired beauty (clearly our heroine), turned to look up and caught Baba staring. With a disdainful toss of the head, she motioned for the others to follow and ran into the hotel. Within seconds, they had all vanished. Baba looked around and was embarrassed to find that, like himself, the valley’s entire male population was perched, poised, or angled sniper-style to witness these six young women entranced by Swat’s natural beauty.

The remaining tale is, like most love stories, uninteresting. They met, perhaps, by accident at one of the shops that lined the one narrow road that led through the tiny village upwards into the mountains, haggling over the same dark shawl, or fighting over the last handful of dry fruits. They might have bumped into each other in a shadowy corner of the deeply fragrant forest that lay behind the Pine Cone, Amma busy over a rare plant while Baba admired her bent figure, the graceful curve of her neck, exposed by the upsweep of her thick black hair. Who is to say that there might not have been a downpour, the exchange of wet clothing for sheets, and a provocative dance around a fire Bollywood-style? Whatever the details, there must have been sulks and quarrels and tender moments, too, promises made and broken, then made again beneath a pendulous alpine moon and, eventually, the crowning moment—a kiss.

The end. Or the beginning. For me, it was usually the end. The limits of my imagination could go no further into the grown-up world of intimacy that belonged to my parents before I was born. The ‘Swat Affair’ was, by far, the most romantic of the stories I had invented to explain my existence and that of my brother and sisters, embellished with ever greater detail over the years as my imagination, always outstripping my years, dictated. After all, Baba and Amma meeting, marrying, and moving to America was all to forward one cause: procreation. In other words, us. ‘Jab main pehda hui’, or my birth, was a seminal event in my seven-year-old life. That, and the death of our mother.

But the ‘Swat Affair’ was only one of many possibilities. Another of my favourites involved Baba as a young, placard-wielding student protester, Amma his revolutionary side-kick. His curly disheveled hair rising Afro-like above the crowd, I saw him in a wide-collared snug-fitting polyester shirt in psychedelic contrast to sensible beige trousers, while Amma, in pastel pink mini-kurta and bell-bottomed shalwar, carried a notebook and pencil, recording injustices against the student community for an underground newspaper. What they were protesting against or for was not immediately clear to me—changes in educational policy, solidarity with left-wingers—but it usually involved them in a crowd, sometimes at the forefront being lathi-ed or behind a podium addressing a rapt audience. Somewhere along the way, in between a peaceful rally and a hunger strike, an accidental touch in the semi-darkness of the newspaper’s inner office could have ignited other, more passionate feelings…

‘Their pure love a perfect example of the union of the personal and the political,’ Fatima interrupted, waving her arms theatrically. ‘Ferzana, have you been borrowing Durdana Phupo’s Mills & Boons? You know Baba told you not to read them.’ (I had this habit of reading books that were expressly forbidden. I found them irresistible.)

I frowned in mid-sentence. ‘I’m telling a serious story. What do baboons have to do with it?’

‘Never mind.’

‘Come to think of it, Fatima,’ Raza said, ‘it’s not so far-fetched. I’m sure Amma would’ve approved this version, Chhoti. It’s one that does justice to her dad.’ Our Nana was a prominent left-wing radical, the editor of a controversial newspaper published in the 1950s who had been jailed repeatedly for publishing anti-government material. Sadly, it was all we knew about him.

‘Thank you,’ I beamed, turning to Jamila who was still waiting for the next instalment. ‘There is,’ I hesitated, somewhat dampened by Fatima’s negativity, ‘another version that I rather liked.’

Jamila nodded in encouragement.

Those Children, Shahbano Bilgrami (HarperCollins India, January 2017)
Those Children, Shahbano Bilgrami (HarperCollins India, January 2017)

It was Chaand Raat. A sliver of shiny moon gleamed from behind the heavy clouds above Karachi and its stormy sea coast. Amma’s brothers smuggled her out of the house and into their rusty 1968 Toyota Corolla to drive through the market, try on bangles, and see the lights, which flickered tremulously on wires that swung jauntily in the breeze. Crowds roamed the streets of Saddar, mostly men, some burka-clad women, a few young girls dressed in the fashion of the times, churidars or bell-bottoms and short kurtas, presenting slender wrists to shopkeepers whose tables gleamed with bangles in an array of extraordinary colours. Amma tried on several before choosing a set of light pink ones, her thin wrists effortlessly passing through the hooped glass, her arms iridescent with silver dust. An hour passed in making small purchases (a mehndi cone, new suits for each of them), time enough to take in the noise and the lights, and observe the eager acquisitiveness of shoppers, their self-indulgence hard-won after a month of fasting. To celebrate further, they left the glowing market behind in their reconstituted car, painstakingly put together out of miscellaneous spare parts, and crossed the main road, taking a right at the large roundabout where the cinema was located.

As they settled into the dusty maroon seats of the Novelty and sipped green Pakola through paper straws, Salaar suddenly let out a whoop of excitement, jumped to his feet, and began waving his arms. Amma watched as arms were raised in greeting from the opposite end of the theatre, followed by hoots and howls, and the eventual appearance, seconds later, of a breathless young man in partially wet clothing.

‘I see you got caught in the downpour earlier this evening!’ Salaar exclaimed, embracing his friend and then turning to Alamdar and Amma apologetically, he continued, ‘Wait, let me introduce you. This is the friend I was talking about – the one who helped me with the car when it broke down. Aftab, meet my brother Alamdar and my sister, Najma.’

Baba nodded at Alamdar and ignored Amma until he was comfortably settled in the seat next to her. Then, it all happened at once: the lights dimming, followed by the magnified image of uniformed schoolgirls singing the national anthem to a hooting crowd, the heraldic trumpet of a Hollywood opening, and the flash of a wrist, a simple girlish wrist in the half-light of the projector’s beam, the blinding shimmer of bangles. When next he turned to look, it was not her wrist, but Amma herself who stared back at him, her kohled eyes shining in the darkness like a cat’s. They sat side by side as images flickered on screen and characters’ lives unfolded beneath the scrutiny and pressure of the lense, voices rose and fell in orchestrated despair, an entire community’s troubles neatly resolved at the end of a customary two-hour delay. Once the film was over and the appropriate catharsis reached, everyone filed slowly out of the theatre. Amma and her brothers drove away in their rusty blue Corolla. Baba stood for a long time on the pavement in front of the theatre, puffing on a cigarette, its smoke rising, snake-like, into the darkness.

‘A filmi beginning,’ said Fatima sarcastically.

‘I thought it was rather good.’

‘Ferzana, you know how you can find out how they met once and for all?’ Raza called from the bed by the window.

‘How?’ I asked.

‘Go. Ask. Baba. Ha. Ha.’

I could tell by his voice that he was being patronizing.

It was obvious to the others that that was the easiest way to put a stop to my conjecturing, but I was scared to ask. After the incident at the dining table, Baba had changed. I overheard Dada talking to Dadi and our uncles about a suspected ‘break down’. Like a car, only worse, was how Raza later explained it to me. Apparently, it was not uncommon for human beings to stop functioning. It was a little like a wind-up doll that loses its animation once its internal springs work out their tautness. No, it wasn’t death, Raza hastily reassured me, just a break down of the system that makes us happy and productive (which was close enough to death in my mind). Whatever it was, it was worrying, and I had spent the last few days making up stories in order to avoid the inevitable meeting with him. This human wreck, I felt, was my fault, but I knew I wasn’t up to the task of putting him back together even though, as my father, I wanted him whole.

My strategy, as a consequence, was to avoid him. After a few days of some strenuous engineering on my part, involving tiptoeing, wall-hugging, and (in one instance), a cloak of invisibility, I realized it simply did not matter. Even when Baba was there, eyes half-closed, sitting at the breakfast table, his tousled head slumped over one hand, the other hand around his cup of chai, his face betrayed an absence. There was no life in him. The moment I realized this, and it was a specific moment, I panicked.

It didn’t help that around the same time Amma was officially banned from household conversation. My fault, again. My unchecked habit of asking questions brought me eventually (as it always did) to Baba’s armchair, once a bloated American specimen, now a battered cane placed squarely in the sun. Baba had recently taken to sitting outdoors for hours on end, even in the sweltering heat, and could be seen from the courtyard-facing windows of all four units, a pathetic figure in his white kurta-pyjama. I studied him for a few seconds, imagining his expressionless face and limp body a child’s scattered puzzle that had to be put back together again.

‘Baba,’ I began tentatively, resting my chin on the cool skin of his forearm, ‘I was just wondering…’

‘Wonder,’ Baba spoke softly, ‘don’t forget to wonder.’

I stopped in mid-sentence. A little confused but on the whole encouraged by this gentle interruption, I blurted out:

‘Baba, where did you and Amma meet for the first time? Well, the others…’ I continued, alarmed as I noticed his face alter, ‘the others said I should ask you.’

I could hear a lone crow cawing from somewhere above my head, beyond the concrete roofs of C44 and farther still, into the bluish haze that haloed Karachi.

Baba didn’t respond at once. He didn’t have to. His face passed through a series of conflicting moods, settling back eventually into the unnerving blankness of recent days.

I waited patiently, hoping I would be rewarded by confirmation of one of my imagined scenarios. Swat, a political rally, on the set of a film (neither were actors, but who knew?), a railway station in the hills… A muffled sound brought me out of my reverie. By the time I realized that Baba was speaking to me, Dada had already come up from behind, pulled me far enough away and, stooping over me so that I couldn’t see my father, warned sternly, ‘Ferzana, do not speak of her in front of him—or at all.’

It was only later, while I stared at myself in the rusty mirror above our bathroom sink, that I remembered Baba’s one-word answer.

It turned out, for all my imagining, that our parents met in a library. A library of all places!

Shahbano Bilgrami is the author of Those Children (HarperCollins, 2017) and the Man Asian Literary Prize-longlisted Without Dreams (HarperCollins, 2007).