By Tahseen Béa
In the ancient city of Lavapuri are many ruins of old houses, mansions, schools, gardens, mosques, courts, and temples. Places once inhabited by people and touched by life became extinct with time. Not always replaced by new constructions, these places lived on—in a dilapidated and ruinous state—as if there were still a possibility of life in them—as if they were reaching out to be rescued from within the confines of antiquity, hoping to be part of living history.
Such places had beauty of their own as incomplete architectural pieces, as reminders of a different time, of vanished lives, neglected histories, and unexplored mysteries. Passersby largely ignored them, subliminally dismissing them as nothing beyond a collection of debris. If by chance some were to glance at these edifices, they would regard them as blemishes in an otherwise comely landscape.
For Bibi Nur one of these ruins is home. She lives under the shadows of lichen-covered columns and broken-down walls porous against the wind and rain. This exposed dwelling keeps her needs to a minimum, a few chickens that coo and pick dust a few yards away, a handpump for water that makes rusted metal sounds when she works on it. She has a charpoy, a bed made of jute, a cotton sheet, a pillow, and an old blanket. She has a few utensils and a small traditional brazier or angithi on which she cooks.
Bibi Nur has a child, a boy of five named Bilal. He lives with her, she lives for him. She goes through her days making sure he has enough food and a bed to sleep in. In the mornings she and her son walk to the bus stop to board a bus. She first drops her boy at a primary school then goes on to work as a maid and a cook for a family of three. When her work is done, she picks up her son from school and returns to her home in the ruins.
It is six in the evening and Bibi Nur has just lit the fire in the angithi with the intention of making chapattis. She makes a few when a passing cloud interrupts with sudden showers. She stores the chapattis in a cane basket, covers the flour with a towel, and runs for shelter on the side of the ruins where there is still a roof. Her son runs with her, and they both squat on the ground that feels warm to their bodies. It rains briskly for a few minutes, extinguishing the fire. As she waits for the rain to stop, she hears the muezzin announcing the evening prayers. She takes her prayer mat from under her pillow and spreads it on the sparsely growing grass. She drapes her long dupatta over her head and says her prayers while her son Bilal sits under the dripping roof, gazing at the sky. She finishes her prayers and sits on the mat for a few more moments, thanking God for her day, her meals, her son, and her life. She then gets up and shakes the mat, making sure there is no dirt on it.
“Come. I’ll make you more chapattis,” she says to the boy.
“Okay, Ma.” He gets up and sits close to his mother.
She tries to re-ignite the angithi, but the damp coals will not catch fire. Every time she tries, it ends up creating more smoke.
“Maybe you should wait for a while and try again,” the boy says to his mother with a smile.
“Yes.” She smiles back.
She replaces the damp coal with some dry pieces that she takes from a jute sack under the charpoy.
“This should work,” she comments, as she places the coal in the angithi with a chimta, a fork-like tool. She observes the coal burning on one side. She leans over and blows until it gets red hot. Gradually all the coals catch fire and Bibi Nur places a metal pan on the angithi. She then resumes making chapattis and stores them in the basket.
After finishing their meals, Bibi Nur carries the pile of utensils to the handpump. Bilal works at the pump and Bibi Nur washes the dishes. Soon they are done and she brings the dishes back and stores them near the angithi for next time.
The lingering summer dusk changes into night and Bibi Nur prepares her bed. She drags the charpoy from a corner and brings it under the sky. She spreads a cotton sheet over a thin mattress and places a pillow and an old blanket on both sides of the bed.
“Come. Are you sleepy?”
“Yes, Ma. I am tired.”
The boy climbs onto the charpoy, and she covers him with the blanket. She sits next to him and rubs his back until he drifts off. She sits on the charpoy praying on her tasbeeh, tiny wooden beads slipping through her fingers on a long wiry string. She looks up at the moon and smiles, knowing it has been a peaceful day. She is grateful for yet another day that has kept her and her son safe in a world that can be too vast, and unfriendly.
Her home has no thresholds, no doors, no windows, no walls, no roof. The ruinous site does not offer complete shelter. Everything is at stake: her femininity, his innocence, their integrity. Their lives are open, passable, permeable.
She knows she is her own boundary, her own threshold—that she must be vigilant to protect herself and her boy from assault from the outside world: a world that perhaps views them as outsiders, wanderers, those who do not belong. Bibi Nur is aware of the world she is surrounded by, and yet she trusts that life will sustain her and her son.
Gazing at the moon, she too drifts into sleep with the faint smell of smoke and damp grass. She is part of a world that is absent to many and will perhaps remain absent. Some worlds are made of absences. Some worlds are invisible. Some worlds are silent and unknown. Some mysteries must remain hidden. Sometimes there is danger in visibility. Some souls grow in the shadows of ruined places.
Tahseen Béa is a scholar and a creative writer. Béa has published a monograph entitled Memory of Touch: For Love of the Other by Global Academic Publishing. Selections of her creative non-fiction and poetry were published in the journal International Studies in Philosophy (SUNY Binghamton). One of her scholarly essays was published in the volume Negotiating Sexual Idioms: Image, Text, Performance (Rodopi). Béa has authored a book entitled Engaging Body and Soul: Cultivating Feminine Wisdom. She completed this book as a Visiting Scholar at Columbia University. Béa has a PhD in American Modernism and Feminist Theory. Her author website is tahseenbea.com