SM Ashraf was born in Uttar Pradesh, India in 1957. He grew up with easy access to literature in Urdu, Persian, Sanskrit, and Arabic and influenced by Sufi ideals of love and community and a concern for the economically disandvantaged. He has become an an award-winning Urdu novelist and short story writer. His novels have been translated into English, Hindi and other Indian languages. In 2008, he was appointed as a member of the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL). He is also the recipient of the Sahitya Academy Award, the Aalmi Farogh-e-Urdu Adab Award by Majlis-e-Farogh-e-Urdu Qatar, the UP Urdu Academy Collective Services Award among others.
SM Ashraf’s short story “Awaiting the Zephyr” is translated by Daisy Rockwell for this issue.
Awaiting the Zephyr
As the doctor entered the settlement, he noticed a series of wide front stoops lining both sides of the street, all leading towards a building made of thin, old-fashioned, whitewashed bricks. These tall stoops were piled high with all manner of goods such that the observer might guess their price without even asking. The hale and hearty merchants seated alert before their shops selling the goods represented a variety of hues and ethnicities. The sequence of shops did not end when it reached the white brick building, but rather continued on for some distance in another direction, with similar stoops arranged with a variety of wares. Strapping men wandered about along the roadside beating upon bowls clutched in their hands as they sprinkled the ground with water from the leather sacks that hung from their shoulders. Shoppers, attired in clothing of all different colours, tribes and groups, walked about from shop to shop. The street was filled with a wide variety of voices—sweet, soft, harsh, sputtering, gloomy, joyful.
The walls of the white brick building were not of unscaleable height. Doors were cut into the walls here and there, as well as windows and latticed ventilation grates, through which the ceaseless tumult of the bazaar could easily be heard. If one stood below and listened to the voices within, one had a sense that those voices had bodies, bodies adorned with long, silky-white beards and flowing tresses that fell in waves to below the ears. On hearing those voices, one felt the sort of peace one might on discovering a cool jug of fragrant water from which to drink to one’s fill after undertaking a journey on foot for miles in a scorching summer breeze. This serene building with low walls was surrounded on all sides by pillars, turrets, minarets and gates that gave one the impression of a palace. But try as one might, it would really be quite difficult to ascertain if the bazaar surrounded this white building or if the bazaar was an exterior portion of the white building, or if the two were undivided portions of the same becolumned and minarated edifice. All three of these were connected and continuous, like the original tracings on an old map. Occasionally sharp voices from within the palace-like building poured out briefly, even drowning out the uproar emanating from the white building and the chattering clamor of the bazaar. At times this occurred over protracted interludes. Then suddenly it would also happen that the voices in the bazaar would rise to the level of loud whispers, and many voices would join together and reverberate, and the white building’s ethereal intonations would mingle with the cries from the bazaar and drown out all the voices in the palace.
The doctor adjusted his sacred thread, felt for the stethoscope around his neck and tightly clutching his bag, entered a rectangular room that was situated right at the center of the settlement and its buildings. He hesitated for a moment as he slowly acclimatized to the silent, mournful atmosphere of the room. Perhaps he was also a bit frightened on observing the immense beauty of his surroundings. In the middle of the room lay a large, lovely round-legged bed, with a black headboard worked in intricate designs. The bed was laid with rich and splendid linens and quilts, and upon these linens lay a woman. She was tall and extremely beautiful. Her hair was golden as that of women of the Turkish race, and gave no hint as to her age. Her brow was clear and her nose delicate and regal. Her eyes were half-opened and kohl-lined. Her cheeks were pink, despite her illness. Her rosy lips too were half-parted, revealing pearl-white teeth that glittered like stars with the rise and fall of her breathing. Her smooth neck was traced with fine blue veins, and the feminine attributes below her neck were high and conical. Her fair wrists rested beside full hips. The doctor stared hard at her hands and feet and had a strange sensation that their fullness betrayed a habituation to labour. But care had also been taken to keep them clean and soft. The invalid’s breathing was irregular; for several moments her body would appear still, and then suddenly, with a jerk, the uneven breathing would begin again.
A tall man, whose head and hair were covered with a pointed cap, stood by the side of the bed. A magnificent but uneven beard adorned his elderly pink and white complexion, and dignity and elegance shone from his eyes. By his demeanor and attire he seemed by turns an emperor or a dervish. The doctor stood on the other side of the bed, his head lowered before the man with respect.
The doctor continued to gaze at the invalid for some time. The man stared fixedly at her with worried eyes. All of a sudden, the doctor felt as though this large room was surrounded by many other curtained-off rooms, and that from behind these curtains the jangling of bangles, mournful whispers and suppressed sighs could be discerned. From some rooms came the cries of newborn babies kicking up a fuss. Whenever the sound of these voices grew louder, lines of displeasure formed on the brow of the tall man. The doctor felt that the audible whispers from behind the curtains were nearly comprehensible, though not connected to any one language.
After a brief pause the doctor felt he needed to know about the relationship between the gentleman and the lady in order to understand more about her.
‘How is she…related to you?’
‘She is much beloved by me.’
‘By beloved, I mean I have the greatest respect and love for her.’
‘But what is her connection to you?’
‘I am indeed her Earthly Lord.’
The doctor stared at him with wide-open eyes. A speaker of standard Hindi, he was unable to understand the man’s ornate Urdu. Then he cleared his throat and said, ‘As a doctor, I should know what illness the patient suffers from. In order to know about the illness it is also necessary to ask your relation to her as well. The connection you are telling me I am unable to understand.’
The tall man smiled with pain.
‘Please inquire and I will enlighten you with all it is I know to the best of my capabilities.’
From the doctor’s facial expression, one had the impression that despite his imperfect understanding of the flowery phrasing, he realized that this gentleman knew quite a bit, or perhaps everything, about the patient.
‘How long has she been in this condition?’
‘It has been many moons.’
There was a long silence, which was exaggerated by the whispers in that same comprehensible but unfamiliar tongue from the next rooms.
The tall man read on the doctor’s face discomfort, and this time he began to share a few details.
‘Belovèd—I mean the patient—has not touched victuals to her mouth in a quite some time. Household remedies have been brought to her lips, but have not reached her stomach. The invalid never speaks of her ailment. Sometimes her skin turns red with fever. If you lay your hands upon her, in just a short while her body grows damp and cold as ice and feels as though all traces of life are coming to an end. The anomalism of her respiration is our greatest cause for concern.’
‘The what of her respiration?’ asked the doctor.
‘The anomalism, that is to say, the irregularity, of her respiration.’
The doctor took a deep breath and asked hesitantly, ‘May I place my stethoscope on the patient and check?’
‘Certainly. The patient has never observed purdah.’
The patient’s breathing was relatively normal at that time. The doctor pulled her ornate dupatta to one side and placing his stethoscope on her chest, listened attentively. His eyes opened wide with astonishment. He quickly removed the device and tried to listen to the faint voices bubbling up from every corner of the room. Yet there was no other sound in the room save her breathing. He reapplied the device. He again evinced surprise. For a long time he listened, stethoscope to her chest, eyes closed. As long as the instrument remained in place, the invalid’s face was wreathed in contentment. The doctor again removed the stethoscope and spoke in an agitated tone.
‘The patient’s heart is in very good condition. There’s no sign of any kind of illness.’
The tall man’s face betrayed no sign of surprise.
‘Are you not surprised by this?’
The reply was succinct. The doctor had not expected this answer but he controlled himself, and emphasizing each and every word, he explained, ‘What I am going to tell you will astonish you very much when you hear it. There are waves of music coming from the patient’s heart; I have heard them several times.’
The tall man smiled with faint dignity and softly nodded in agreement.
The doctor was stunned at the tall man’s composure, but he continued on with his train of thought.
‘The tune that springs from her heart—it contains the burbling of a brook. And the mellifluous rustling of the breeze, and the chirping of birds.’
The tall man raised a hand to stop him. The doctor felt as though he had become lost in nostalgic thoughts. Then he spoke:
‘No doubt you detected in the tune the vibration of the first blow to the war drum in the field of battle. And when two bodies in love first meet and experience one another through the lips—that soft sound of delight must also have been present. You must have heard the echo of the ecstatic cry of the Sufi clad in sandalwood-hued robes as well. And the growl of the emperor in his court, when he has handed down his judgment in a case of blood money. The calls of songbirds heralding the arrival of spring in the desert—that too—and the sound of the first droplets of the monsoon as they fall upon barren lands. And the harp, the sitar, and the tabla.’ He fell silent.
‘Yes. Those sorts of sounds—but it’s hard to put into words,’ said the doctor.
Suddenly a young boy popped in from a room next door, and asked in casual Hindi, ‘They’re asking inside about what sickness the doctor says for the lady.’
As soon as she heard this voice, the patient’s colouring changed and her breathing became irregular all at once. A haze of loathing pervaded the countenance of the tall man.
‘Go inside. Go inside. Watch it! Don’t you set foot in here without permission!’
The young boy looked at him with surprise and went back inside.
The doctor ran his fingers through the patient’s golden hair to the roots in a combing motion, and rested his palm on her cranium.
‘Her fever is increasing,’ he muttered. His hand was damp from the perspiration on her forehead as he reached toward her eyes. He pushed up her eyelid slowly with his thumb. The whites of her eyes sparkled. He felt the heat from her cheek with the back of his hand, and mumbled softly, ‘Now her body is cooling down.’
The tall man’s eyes flickered with anxiety; then he said in a low voice:
‘The source of the disease is respiration.’
The doctor looked at him and thought a bit, then focused on the rise and fall of the patient’s bosom and began to test her uneven breathing. Next he stood up straight and said with great confidence, ‘The patient’s entire body is full of life. The only problem is her breathing, but that problem is very grave. There’s no cure for weak lungs.’
‘Have you incontrovertible evidence that both lungs are ultimately inefficacious?’
When the doctor looked at him in confusion, he rephrased the question in simple language.
The doctor put on his stethoscope and examined the lungs for the first time. He listened for a long time. Then he remarked, ‘It’s very odd. The lungs are completely fine but she’s not breathing all the way in.’
‘What is the correlation between consistent respiration and the vigour of the various other parts of the body?’ the tall man asked.
‘There’s a strong correlation. When fresh air combines with the blood via the lungs then life is created. That life mingles with the blood and gives strength to every part of the body. If we don’t get enough air, then blood…red blood very soon turns blue and illness spreads to every part of the body.’
‘If you hypothesize that the lungs are functioning properly then why is there a paucity of fresh air in the body?’
‘The reason why there’s not enough air going into the body is that there’s no fresh air in this room,’ the doctor replied confidently.
‘All the rest of the doors are open in the rooms that open into this room, and there are numerous windows to the outside in those rooms,’ the tall man elaborated.
‘But it seems to me that no fresh air is coming in through any windows.’
Suddenly one of the doors to an adjacent room opened and a little girl in a frock entered.
‘Mama is asking did the lady’s fever go down or not?’
The patient’s body shuddered for a moment and then her breathing became laboured again.
‘Get out of here! I don’t want to see you!’ exclaimed the tall man, gnashing his teeth. ‘Scoundrel!’ he hissed in an enraged whisper.
‘Why are you angry? Mama sent me inside to find out what was happening. What did I do wrong?’ the girl protested, wrinkling her nose.
The words, accent and voice of this girl seemed to render the tall man mad with rage. The doctor managed to calm him down with much difficulty. He motioned to the girl to leave room.
Then the doctor explained, ‘I have only one medicine with me. Every doctor has only one type of medicine for this type of patient. That medicine can expand the finer veins in weak lungs so that they fill with fresh air, but…’
‘But what?’ the tall man asked impatiently.
‘But this medicine only works when the patient has proper access to fresh air. Only then can air make its way into the expanded veins of the lungs. If there isn’t even any fresh air, there’s no way to expand the veins.’
‘Then?’ the tall man asked worriedly.
‘Then there’s no remedy.’ The doctor’s tone was disconsolate. After a short silence, he asked, ‘Can the patient’s room not be changed?’
‘No, this is Belovèd’s special room. She’s spent her whole life here. Many buildings and many rooms have sprung up all around over the years, but this room is for no one but Belovèd.’
‘But can’t you give the patient some other room besides this one? And how did she stay alive for so long without fresh air?’
‘The problem of a lack of fresh air is relatively recent. On all four sides of the invalid’s room are rooms occupied by family members. They all have windows, ventilation slats, and doors, but the people living there don’t open them.’
‘Do those people have no need to leave their rooms to visit other people?’
‘No. Instead, they have forged paths inside the walls for their own ease and comfort.’
‘Well, then I can’t imagine how the patient has survived until now. It’s quite difficult to stay alive shut up in stale air day and night.’
‘Well, actually, there is one room in this house with a door that opens to the outdoors when evening falls, and a puff of air enters at that time. Perhaps this is how she sustains her existence. And then of course, Belovèd is made of very stern stuff.’ The tall, handsome man gazed lovingly at the woman lying on the bed as he spoke.
The doctor thought a while, then spoke:
‘This is the first time I’ve seen a patient of this type. Can you tell me if she has any other relatives? Sometimes we inherit an illness from our forebears.’
‘Belovèd has several sisters. One sister is quite elderly. She resides outside this country. She is hearty as a young man, and is regarded with deference and veneration even outside her own country.’
‘There’s one sister who’s a bit older than she; she also lives outside this country, and she’s very cheerful and contented in her own country. All pleasures and comforts have been written in her fate. And there’s one sister in this country as well. She is quite comfortable too. That sister’s in-laws wished for Belovèd to follow in her footsteps, but Belovèd’s family would not have it.
‘Is there something wrong with the footsteps of the sister?’ asked the doctor, hanging his stethoscope around his neck.
‘No, no, there’s nothing wrong; but if Belovèd had walked down such a path she’d surely have lost herself.’
Suddenly the tall man remembered something. He remarked animatedly, ‘There’s an elderly woman among Belovèd’s elders. That woman’s household members show her much respect but they never allow her to leave the house. I’ve heard that strong old lady has grown weak from imprisonment. Her relations greet her respectfully, but no one will sit by her for long.’
All at once the voice of someone demanding dal and rice came from behind the curtain. It was a sweet, feminine voice. After a short while, that same voice began to recount the tale of Ram, Sita, Lanka, and Hanuman.
The doctor glanced in surprise at the tall man as though he couldn’t believe his ears, but the tall man’s sober gaze reassured him.
The doctor looked back at the patient. Her condition remained unchanged.
‘You were saying that as evening falls, a fresh breeze comes through the window of the room next door?’
‘Yes! Though the breeze arrives in the evening, its fresh air gladdens the heart like the morning breezes of the Zephyr. Has evening already fallen?’ he suddenly asked with agitation.
‘No, there’s still a bit of time left. Do you have no sense of the passage of time?’
The tall man remained silent. There was something about that question that rendered him even more anxious.
The doctor stared at him questioningly. He turned a needle-sharp gaze on the tall man, and finally he replied in a deep and helpless voice, ‘No.’
‘That is very surprising.’
The doctor could think of nothing else to say. But he continued to stare at the tall man, who could not withstand his gaze. Very softly he spoke:
‘For many days now, I have felt as though all times of day were sunset.’
‘Are you closed up inside the walls of the house at all times as well?’ the doctor asked searchingly.
This time the man responded with grim silence, which frightened the doctor.
The man guessed at the doctor’s reaction. He spoke in a cheerful tone:
‘Many things are mysterious, and it could be that even if I were to pull the curtain away from the secret, you would still be unable to understand.’
The two of them were silent for a while. Then the doctor took the lead.
‘All I want to know is, when a fresh breeze enters the room, what sort of change comes to the patient’s condition?’
‘Why don’t you see for yourself when evening falls?’
‘There’s still some time until then.’
The two of them again fell silent. The doctor felt as though no one else was especially interested in the woman’s life besides the tall man. He hadn’t seen the women asking after the patient’s health, but he could certainly tell that they were only taking an interest in her health in the manner that people ask one another about changes in the weather. What he couldn’t understand was what importance this awe-inspiring man held in this community. What connection did he have to the other inhabitants of the building and what is the connection between the man and the sprawling settlement outside. All sorts of questions came to his mind, but due to the seriousness of the man’s tone and the apparent delicacy of the situation, he didn’t feel like asking too many of them.
He tried a roundabout question, and asked, ‘Whose locality is this outside?’
‘Have you come here for the first time?’
‘Yes, I’d only seen it from a distance. I like the way it looks. The height of these buildings, their strength and age, attract the eye from a distance. Today I saw the bazaar from up close as well: the colourful wares, assorted types of clothing, the many ethnicities of the people, and then the cries of all the sadhus and holy men. I didn’t have a chance to see much. But when I saw the old-style bricks of the outside building, I felt a great sense of peace, that such simplicity could exist in this community as well.’
‘Come, let me show you something of the community. When sunset draws near, please do tell me. Then we’ll come back to the patient.’
He opened the high dark teak doors, and the two of them left the room. They encountered many types of people in the corridor, but no one addressed them. The doctor felt that even though no one addressed them, everyone viewed the imposing, handsome, and well-dressed man with veneration and love. This section of the corridor was across from a wide stairway. The two of them walked up the stairs, and kept climbing higher and higher, passing the rooftop terraces of countless buildings, until they reached the highest rooftop of all. This rooftop was bounded by crested battlements. The man grabbed his hand and led him to stand by the edge of these. The entire settlement was sprawled out below them. The yellow rays of the sun still fell upon the roof, but below, far below, darkness had already fallen in the bazaars.
The doctor had the sensation that even though darkness had fallen, the bazaars below still bustled with activity. This made him realize that the exuberant activity came not from sunlight but from the community itself. The tall, strong building atop which they stood was surrounded by bazaars on all sides and the brick building that adjoined it; these were all cloaked in a silken darkness from which he could still hear the hubbub of voices.
‘To whom does all this belong?’ he asked as he gazed below at the settlement.
‘These buildings, these pillars, these balconies, these battlements, these bazaars and clamorous voices, all belong to me, and emanate from me alone,’ the man replied earnestly.
Some shadowy figures clad in white appeared below, in the simple brick building; their facial features were indistinct due to the smudged darkness.
‘And who are those people?’ asked the doctor impetuously.
The man gazed down at the figures respectfully and said after a pause:
‘That building and those white-clad persons causing the commotion are all part of this settlement as well. All the individuals in the bazaar are also part of the community. All the inhabitants of this building are a part of it too, and all have become fragmented due to the illness of the patient.
‘What do you mean?’ The doctor’s eyes widened.
‘All their lives are deeply connected to this woman. On a conscious level none of them even realize how critical she was to their existence, but since she’s fallen ill, since she’s grown weak, everyone is finding their lives diminished in some way or other.’
‘Your words are like riddles,’ the doctor said in a hushed tone. Now he felt fearful, though he was beginning to understand a bit more. As the last ray of sun disappeared into darkness, he stood by the battlements of the broad roof of that illustrious building towering above the sprawling settlement below, and found himself awe-struck. But now he could no longer hold back his questions.
‘But who is the patient? You haven’t yet told me that yet. You’ve not yet told me anything about your connection to her,’ the doctor finally found the courage to ask the question on his mind, up there in the open air of the roof.
The man continued to peer below the battlements. Suddenly he spoke:
‘You were able to understand nothing yourself?’ His questioning eyes were filled with sadness.
Then it was that the doctor felt as though a sort of curtain had been pulled aside. He recalled that when he had listened to the beating of the patient’s heart, he’d also heard some voices that he’d often heard before and found pleasing.
He looked carefully at the tall, handsome man, then stood with his head bowed.
‘Evening has fallen. Come, let’s go downstairs and take a look at the patient.’
The two of them rushed quickly down the stairs. The moment they entered the door, they could feel the fresh gusts of air blowing in from the next room. The patient was sitting up on the bed, leaning against the bolster with dignity; her face had turned a rosy pink. When she saw the doctor enter, she stood on no formalities, but when her eyes rested on the tall man, they filled with gratitude.
‘How are you?’ the tall man asked softly in tones of marvellous love as he drew near.
She smiled with difficulty, and gazed with her big round eyes at the man as she spoke respectfully:
‘I always get well at this time.’
‘The Doctor Sahib says that your vital signs are for the most part healthy. You just have a shortage of fresh air to breathe in.’
The patient sat silently, her head down.
‘But why do you get so upset?’ she asked after a while.
‘You know that the business of living in this settlement was established because of me. If, God forbid, you were to perish, then everything would slowly turn to straw and scatter to the four winds.’
‘But,’ the doctor stopped him to ask, ‘can it not be that the window in the next room remains always open and fresh air always blows in?’
‘In the next rooms there are other inhabitants, among them some young men. In all the rooms on all sides there is only one room where the inhabitant has opened the window. When he returns in the evening he opens this door. Only then can the breeze enter. He runs around all day earning his daily bread. He is only able to come home at evening’s fall.’
‘Can’t the rest of the people open the windows of their dwellings as well as their doors on this side?’ the doctor asked.
‘Perhaps they no longer have any interest in this woman now.’
‘Then why is this young man interested?’
‘Because he wants to see her alive.’
‘Why is that?’
‘Because he loves his ancestors.’
‘I do not understand what you mean,’ said the doctor hopelessly.
‘I had mentioned before that even if I tried to explain, you wouldn’t necessarily comprehend,’ the man replied in a morose tone.
‘Then is there nothing I can do?’ asked the doctor as though laying down his weapons in surrender.
‘You are a doctor. You’d be best able to tell us what you can do.’
‘I can only give medicine for strengthening the lungs, but the true medicine for such a condition is fresh air.’ The doctor spoke firmly but respectfully. After staying in this environment for so long, he was finally able to speak clearly and precisely. Then he spoke again, ‘Tell all the young men inhabitants of this building to open all their outward facing windows as well as the doors that open into this room.’
‘But if they won’t, then…then…what will happen?’ asked the patient impulsively.
‘Then…’ said the doctor, emphasizing each and every word, ‘…then he will be finished.’ He motioned toward the tall, handsome man.
No one was there to witness the glances exchanged between the lovely sad patient and the tall handsome man, for the doctor, shielding his gaze from both, had quietly picked up his bag and snuck outside.
Acknowledgement: “Awaiting the Zephyr” by SM Ashraf, translated by Daisy Rockwell was first published in Preeto and Other Stories: The Male Gaze in Urdu, ed. Rakshananda Jalil (Thornbird, September 2018)
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