About the book
Haseena and Other Stories is a compilation of Mushtaq’s five short story collections published between 1990 and 2012. The stories explore the lives of women in contemporary India, and in particular the experiences of Muslim women – championing their agency while interrogating relentless patriarchal control.
Why the Selection Panel chose it
A significant presence in Kannada literature, Banu Mushtaq reveals the varied realities of contemporary women with rare talent and art. Deepa Bhasthi’s rich translation captures the original’s nuances of voice, context and experience, bringing this important work into English for new readers in India and internationally.
Mehrun had barely pushed the half-closed door, putting a foot inside, when her father, who was lying on the divan-cot in the drawing room, and her eldest brother, who was discussing something with him in a low voice, stopped talking and looked at her. Just as her niece Rabia came running from inside and announced, ‘Mehrun Puppu has come, Mehrun aunty has come,’ Amaan, her second-eldest brother, Rabia’s father, came out of his room, foam from the soap he had applied to shave on his chin, the brush still in his hand, and stood in the drawing room looking at her as if he couldn’t believe his eyes. Her eldest Athige, who was teaching the children the Quran in a sing-song voice came out to the drawing room to stare at her, unmindful of the seragu, the free end of her saree slipping from her head. Her mother, holding the tasbih prayer beads in her thin hands, stood shell-shocked, as if asking her, ‘Is it true? Is this true?’ Her younger sisters, Rehana and Sabiha, peeped from behind the drawing room door, not caring that the chapattis they were making in the kitchen were getting charred on the tawa. Thankfully, her younger brother Atif was not at home.
The whole house momentarily stood still. It felt unfamiliar to her. The mother who had kept her in her belly for nine months and raised her did not say ‘There you are. Come in, my dear,’ and her father, who used to delight in the little girl who jumped on his wide chest, didn’t have even a small smile of welcome, and neither her eldest brother, who proudly called her ‘my pari, my angel,’ nor Amaan, who had insisted that she must be sent to college, greeted her. Their wives stared at her as if she was from another planet.
Mehrun’s heart fell. It was only when the nine-month-old baby girl in her arms let out a sharp scream that everyone came out of their stupor. Her eldest brother asked her, ‘Where is Inayat?’
She lowered her head as if she had committed a crime and replied, ‘He is not in town.’
‘Then who did you come with?’
‘I came alone.’
‘Alone?’ A chorus rose around her as she stayed standing at the threshold.
‘Farook, take her inside.’ Once her eldest brother’s instruction was issued, Mehrun walked in, her footsteps heavy and unsteady. The room was a courtroom. Her baby began to scream, and, without removing her burkha, she pushed the niqab up, sat on her father’s bed at an angle, and put her breast to the baby’s mouth. She hadn’t washed her face. Her stomach began to burn as the baby drank. She hadn’t eaten since the previous night. Except for her mother, no other women could be present at this meeting.
‘Meher, did you inform anyone at home before coming?’
‘Why? Why didn’t you tell them before leaving? It seems like you have made up your mind to bring us dishonour.’
‘Who should I have informed? Who is there? It’s been a week since he last came home – he didn’t even tell me where he was going. I wrote to you all, but you didn’t reply, didn’t care if I ended up dead or alive.’
‘You wrote that your husband has gone off with some nurse. And you want us to believe that?’
‘If you didn’t believe me, then you should have come and enquired. There are people who have seen them together.’
‘And what should we do after we come and see him? Say we catch hold of him and ask him about it, and says, yes, it is true – what can we do then? Should we submit a petition to the mosque? He will say, I have made a mistake, I will make her a Muslim and do nikah with her. Then she will be a savathi to you. And say we scold him some more. What can we do if he says, I don’t want this woman called Mehrun, I will give her talaq?’
By now, Mehrun was weeping uncontrollably. Moving her baby to the other breast and continuing to feed her, she pulled her seragu from under her burkha and wiped her eyes and nose. A momentary stillness.
‘That means, you are all not in a position to do anything, right?’ No one spoke. She continued. ‘I fell at your feet, saying that I didn’t want to get married. Did you listen? I said, I will wear a burkha and go to college. I begged you not to make me stop studying. None of you listened to me. My classmates aren’t even married, and yet I have become an old woman. I have the burden of five children on me. Their father is roaming around, and I don’t have a life. When a man is doing such a haram thing, are you all not able to ask him why he is doing this?’
‘Enough Meher, enough.’ Her mother shut her eyes and shook her head.
‘Yes, Amma. I have also had enough. At first people started whispering, and then those who saw them together at the theatre and going into hotels came and told me directly. And then he became bold enough to start going to her house. And after everyone scolded him, he went to Bangalore, spent thousands of rupees, and got her transferred. Now he has been living with her for the last eight days. For how many more days can I tolerate this? How will I survive?’
‘Have patience, my daughter. You should try to bring him back on the right path with love.’
‘Amma, don’t I have something called a heart? Don’t I have feelings? I cannot respect him as my husband when he has gone off like this. My body fills with disgust when I see him. So loving him is a very distant idea. It is not about him giving me talaq – I will get it from him. I will not go back to that house.’
‘Meher, what are you saying? This is too much. He is a man, and he has stamped on some slush, but he will wash it off where there is water and then come back inside. There is no stain that will stick to him.’
Before she could reply, Amaan cut in. ‘Look how she behaving in front of us. She must have talked like this in front of him too. And that is why he must have got angry and left.’ He paused and softened his tone: ‘If the daughters-in-law of this house learn these kinds of things, that will be just great, won’t it?’ Mehrun’s sadness morphed quickly to anger and then disappointment.
‘You argue very well, Anna. May god keep you well. It is true: I am the bad person. I have learnt what my bad nature is. I did not go out without a burkha. He told me to discard the it, and wear my saree below my navel and strut around holding hands with him. But you covered me in a burkha and brought me up such that I would not even let my saree seragu slip from my head, didn’t you. I feel naked if I remove it, now. You filled me with the fear of Allah. I did not agree to do what he asked me to, and so he took up with someone who dances to his tunes. And now you are all afraid that I’ll become a burden to you if he leaves me – that is why you are telling me to bear with it. But that is not possible now. Rather than burn in that living hell, I will take my children and work as a coolie somewhere. I will not be a burden on you all – not a burden at all.’
‘Is the fruit a burden on the creeper, Meher? Don’t talk nonsense,’ her mother protested.
‘Amma, take her inside and give her something to eat,’ her eldest brother said gravely. ‘We will leave for Chikmagalur in ten minutes. If there is a bus, we will take the bus. If not, we will get a taxi. We cannot dance to her tunes.’
‘I will not drink a drop of water in your house. And I will not go to Chikmagalur either. If you take me there by force, I promise you I will set myself on fire.’
‘This is too much, Meher. Those who want to die don’t walk around talking about it. But if you had any concern for this family’s honour then you would have done that instead of coming here. The house that your dholi goes to should be the house from which your dhola comes out. That is the life of a decent woman. You have a daughter studying in high school; you have two younger sisters who are of marriageable age. One wrong step and you will come in the way of their future. You say that we must listen to your childish words, and go and fight with your husband, but we also have wives and children. So go inside and eat something.’ He turned briefly to his brother, and then back to face her. ‘Amaan, run and get a taxi. And you, Meher, if your children or the neighbours ask, tell them you took the baby to the hospital, or something. What time did you leave to come here?’
She did not speak.
‘It is now nine thirty,’ Amaan said. ‘She came at nine o’clock. The journey is three hours long. She must have left at six o’clock in the morning. If we leave right this instant, we can get there by twelve thirty.’
Mehrun did not stir from where she sat. Her mother and her younger sisters took turns begging her to eat, but she did not put a crumb of food or a drop of water in her mouth. When the taxi came, she did not talk to anyone. Stepping outside, the baby held tightly against her chest and her older brothers beside her, she said goodbye to none of them. Only as she walked down the last few steps did she look back to take in the house in which she was born and raised. Her eyes filled with tears. Her father held his chest, coughing. Her mother was sobbing, turning to her daughter, then to her husband, making him lie down, fanning him, sprinkling water on him, and saying to herself, ‘Oh god, if I have earned any bit of punya, any virtue, any merit in my entire life, let my daughter’s life be sorted.’
Amaan opened the car door, indicating to Meher with his eyes that she should sit inside as he grumbled under his breathe. She used to boast, sometimes, about her pride in her elder brothers. When she was angry with her husband Inayat, she would say, ‘My brothers are standing like sher-e-babbar, and if you keep acting like this, one day they will chop you up and throw away the pieces, hushar!’ But this pride had been completely erased. Her brothers’ words rang in her ears: ‘If you had the sense to uphold our family honour, you would have set yourself on fire and died. You should not have come here.’
She didn’t turn to look at her home as she got into the car – neither at her mother, who she would have seen peeping through a window, nor at her sisters peeking from behind a curtain, not to look for her sisters-in-law, who were probably busy inside with their chores anyway. But tears cascaded down her eyes from under her veil. She sat biting her lips and swallowing her little sobs.
The car was running fast. No one spoke. Amaan was sitting in the front seat, next to the driver from the mohalla. Could one discuss family secrets in front of him? Their journey continued in silence. She had been a dice in Inayat’s games of love and lust for sixteen years. And after sixteen years, he had then insulted her womanhood. ‘You lie there like a corpse. What happiness did I get from you?’ he had taunted her. ‘What have I not given you – to wear, to eat? Who is going to stop me? I am with a woman who makes me happy.’
She didn’t notice the trees or the sights or the road. It was only when the car came to an abrupt stop and she looked out disinterestedly that she saw the house they said was hers. A young girl with a withered look on her face came running to the car from the front door, saying, ‘Ammi! Finally you are back. I was so worried.’ She picked up the baby from her mother’s arms, held her to her chest and ran back inside.
Mehrun took slow steps into the house. It felt empty. The other children had gone to school, and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Salma, who suffered her mother’s pain alongside her, was the eldest at home that day. Salma had sent her siblings off to their studies, anxiously waiting for her mother to return. Seeing her uncles with her mother, she had let out a sigh of relief. She was excited to see her uncles. They will drag that other woman by her hair and chase her away, she thought. She ran about like a deer, bringing her uncles snacks, boiling the tea.
Mehrun was lying down in her room. Salma walked in, wiped the tears from her mother’s face, fed her some mouthfuls of food, and was coming back out with the plate of leftovers when she heard a familiar voice?
She ran back to the bedroom. ‘Ammi, Ammi. Abba has come.’ Mehrun pretended not to hear her and sank further into the blanket she had covered herself with. The nerves in her head were throbbing as Salma walked out to the living room. Her uncles had gone back outside, and Salma could hear the men talking. There was conversation, laughter, salaams.
‘Arey, Bhaiyya! What time did you come?’ Inayat was asking.
‘We came just now. How are you?’
‘Oh, I am fine, thanks to god. And all your duas, your blessings.’
Amaan’s voice: ‘Where have you been, Inayat Bhai?’
‘Just here. Some work, doing this and that – you know how it is. After all, we cannot just sit at home after waking up. Salma,’ he called. ‘Salma, where is Ammi? See who has come. Tell Ammi to come out.’
There was no sound from inside the house. ‘Wonder where she is,’ Inayar said. ‘She must be inside with the baby. Let me call her. Hold on.’ He came in and saw Salma, and asked her in a low voice, ‘When did these people come? Where is your Ammi?’ A thread of suspicion began to unspool in his heart.
‘Uncles came just now. Ammi is still sleeping,’ Salma answered cleverly.
A sigh of relief escaped Inayat.
‘She has not woken up yet? What has happened to her?’ He came to the door of the bedroom. The sight of Mehrun curled up and sleeping disgusted him. Her only claim to importance was that she was the mother of his children. Though he wanted to, his legs did not carry him inside.
She imagined how he must be standing at the door. His clothes, the stench of cigarettes, the smell of his sweat, his aging body, his large eyes. The man who had left his mark on her every nerve was a stranger to her. She stayed with the blanket wrapped tightly around her, hearing his voice.
‘Salma, come here. Tell her to stop with all this drama. That, if she has called her brothers here to advise me, she will be tying a noose around her own neck. In one single breathe – one, two, three times – I’ll say it and finish this off, tell her. And that after her talaq I will also see how she is able to get her younger sisters and her daughters married off. Tell her this – that she is ruining the family honour in front of guests. Tell her, your mother. Let her greet her brothers – ask her whether she wants chicken or mutton, because it is almost noon now, and so tell her to start cooking lunch soon.’ Salma was not even there, but he spat out everything he had to say, imagining she was.
Inayat and brothers-in-law talked as if nothing was wrong. They talked about coffee prices, about the elections in Kashmir, about the investigation of the murder of an elderly couple in the neighbourhood, about the Muslim girl from the mohalla who had married a Hindu boy in a civil ceremony, about this thing, about that. The conversation continued as the pressure cooker whistle went off, and the blender whirred, and the strong smell of masala wafted in, and the chicken was brought in, and the food was ready because Mehrun had made it, and Salma ran around serving them all lunch. Mehrun came out from the kitchen only once, only briefly.
A heavy meal later, their mouths full of tambula, Mehrun’s brothers got ready to leave. Before they went, Amaan came and stood near the kitchen door. ‘Use a little bit of smartness and manage all this’, he said. ‘I will come and visit next week. He will behave like this for a few days and then come back by himself. You must be responsible. What problems some women have to face – husbands who are drunkards, mothers-in-law who beat them. Thank god you are in a good situation. He is a bit irresponsible, that is all. It is you who must balance all that.’ Her brothers left, and as soon as the sound of the car disappeared, Inayat flew out the house too.
Salma turned to look at her mother. Her uncles had neither consoled nor helped her. She began to pulsate with her mother’s grief. Her eyes had welled up when her father walked out. The house was veiled under a cloud of gloom, and when her siblings returned from school they were not able to lift it. Each had their own chores to do, each their own burden.
As evening started to lose its light, lamps were lit around the house. But the lamp in Mehrun’s heart had been extinguished a long time ago. Who should she live for? What was the point? The walls, the roof, the plates, bowls, stove, bed, vessels, the rose plant in the front yard – none of these were able to answer her questions. She didn’t register the pair of dull eyes that hovered around her, standing guard. Salma wanted to be buried in her books; she was supposed to be preparing for her looming SSLC exams. But a great anxiety that could not be named kept her mother constantly in her line of sight.
In the quietness of the night, Mehrun stared into the darkness. It was as black as her life. The children were asleep – only Salma was still up, studying in the drawing room, her eyes trained on her mother’s room.
Mehrun’s sleep had vanished. She wondered: had her battles in her family house been any easier? Her wedding to Inayat had been a month before her second-year BCom exams. She had cried, begged to be allowed to sit them, but everyone had been deaf to her pleas. A week or so after the wedding, she had hesitantly talked to her husband about it. He had laughed, called her ‘love’, ‘darling’, ‘my heart’. ‘If you are not here,’ he had said, ‘won’t I stop breathing?’ Mehrun had believed that, if she was not with him, maybe he might. She was happy. She had followed his every wish, and she had been the lamp that lit up his heart.
Only when her parents-in-law had passed away a year ago did Mehrun finally get her husband all to herself. Her sisters-in-law had gone to their husbands’ houses; her brothers-in-law had gone their own ways. This old dream, of having a house of her own, had been fulfilled. But now that it had, her face had become wrinkled, and the veins on her hands stood out, and there was a thin shadow under her eyes, her heels had cracked, and dirt had settled permanently under her chipped, uneven nails, and her hair had thinned – and she had noticed none of this. And maybe Inayat would not have noticed either, if it weren’t for his appendicitis operation, and that nurse, working too much for too little pay at a private hospital, with a thousand dreams in her eyes, who maybe walked or maybe float on air – one couldn’t tell – with her glowing skin and honey-coloured eyes that drew one in like a whirlpool, who was sliding down her thirties, and was ready to do anything, anything at all, to secure her future and satisfy her dreams.
Inayat hadn’t addressed the nurse as ‘sister’. From the first day of all those days he spent in the hospital, he had called her by her name instead.
And then he had insulted the womb that had given him his many children – had criticised Mehrun for her loose stomach, and her sagging breasts that had satiated their children’s hunger. He made her soul feel naked, too. One day, he had said, ‘You are like my mother,’ and with those words had pushed her alive into hell. In the few months since he had uttered these words, every morsel of food she ate in that house felt like a sin. The feeling of being a stranger in her house nagged at her, and the fire of insults ground her down, and so she had sought the help of her maternal family.
The night was getting darker, and the agitation in Mehrun’s heart was hardening. She had never felt this lonely. She had no desires. She sat up on the bed. There was no one to ask her anything. There was no one to tease her, hug, kiss her. That person belonged to someone else now. There seemed no end to life. And even the loud noise from behind her didn’t stir her. She knew that a framed photograph had fallen and the glass had shattered, and the frame had broken into pieces, and the photograph had fallen out, but a kind of anxiety had set up home in her and she had no desire to sort out the mess. She slowly got out of the bed. She stared at her baby for a long time, and then walked out of the room. Her little children were sleeping peacefully.
When she walked quietly into the drawing room, she saw that Salma, who had been sat in there studying, had succumbed to sleep, her head resting on the table. She stood there, next to her sleeping daughter, and began to shake. She had thought that all her feelings were dead, but the surge sweeping through her as she looked at Salma made her want to collapse. She restrained an overwhelming desire to touch her daughter and said to her, in her heart, ‘You must be a mother to these children, my dear.’
Her feet slowly began to take her forward. She opened the door and stepped into the front yard. The few plants she had nurtured looked like they were weeping. They seemed to nod in agreement with the decision she had taken. She came back inside, locked the door behind her, went to the kitchen, picked up the can of kerosene and went around the house, unable to decide where she should be when she poured it on herself. She stopped to look at her sleeping children once again before coming back into the drawing room.
She didn’t look at Salma.
She walked quickly to the kitchen, picked up the matchbox and, holding it tightly in her right hand, quietly opened the latch of the front door and stepped into the yard again. She stared into the darkness and made sure she thought of how she had nobody, and no one wanted her, as she poured the kerosene on herself. She was in the grip of a force beyond her control. She looked around her, and no sounds reached her, and she could feel no touch, no memories were left in her, no relationships could pierce her. She was beyond her consciousness.
But everything was happening inside the house, where the baby’s shrieks of hunger woke Salma with a start, and made her rush to hold the baby to her chest, and call out ‘Ammi, Ammi,’ crossing the room to where her siblings were sleeping and then around the house looking for her mother, before spotting the open door and running out into the yard, and, even in that blurry darkness, seeing her mother’s form and smelling the kerosene on her. Without thinking, she rushed forwards, with the baby in her hands, and hugged her mother tightly. Her mother, the matchbox in her hand, looked at the girl hugging her dispassionately as if she expecting someone else. Salma put the baby on the ground and cried, ‘Ammi! Ammi! Don’t leave us and go!’ She held her mother’s legs.
Salma was sobbing, and the little baby was crying on the ground. Mehrun looked at them, and she fought to be free of the strange force that had enveloped her, and the matchbox fell from her hand. Salma was still clutching her mother’s legs. ‘Ammi,’ she was saying. ‘Just because you have lost one person, you will throw all of us at that woman’s mercy? You are ready to die for Abba, but is it not possible for you to live for our sakes? How can you make us all orphans, Ammi? We want you.’ But more than her words, it was Salma’s touch that affected her.
She picked up the sobbing baby and hugged Salma to her chest, and, feeling as if she was being comforted, touched and understood by a friend, Mehrun’s eyes became heavy, and all she could say was ‘Forgive me, my darling.’ And the darkness of the night was thawing.