3 years

Freedom Issue 2018: Fiction

Azaan

Unni R is a Malayalam short story and screenplay writer
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A short story

‘Allah’—the little word,
Uttered with such flowing tenderness and belief
By Lord Nabi pleading with the Father of three worlds
with a heart surging with intense love to pardon the sins
of the subjects,
even the sword raised to kill the Guru
Slipped from the hands of the assassin!

—From the poem Allah by Vallathol Narayana Menon

‘IWANT TO KISS the hairy hands of the Head of our department,’ said Deepa.

‘I want to tell John from English that I love him,’ said Jyothi.

‘I want to watch a film with Ashraf,’ said Shameena.

Even after the three of them had expressed their wishes, Rasiya remained silent.

‘Why are you keeping mum?’ Jyothi asked her.

‘Nothing,’ Rasiya nodded in answer.

‘Don’t mess up things. Classes last only for a month now. We should fulfil whatever wish we have before that,’ Deepa was getting angry.

Even after hearing that, Rasiya remained there, silently looking out from the class.

‘Come on, Rasiya, open your mouth and say something,’ Shameena turned Rasiya’s face and told her: ‘Once we are out, nothing of this sort can happen. That’s why we are asking you... please tell us if you have any.’

Rasiya adjusted her headscarf that was slipping from her head, and looked at all of them with a smile on her face. Her friends waited anxiously.

‘I have a wish... but I don’t know if it could be fulfilled…’

‘Come on, dear, you want to hug our Principal? Or you want to have a drink? Or else, you want to sleep with someone?’ Shameena asked her, ‘Just tell us what you want... aren’t we here with you? Come on, speak up!’

Rasiya kept silent for a while and then said with her usual smile, ‘I want to make a Vanku call.’[1]

Suddenly, an uninvited silence descended amidst the four of them. Shameena at once admonished her. ‘Are you mad? Let no one hear that!’

Rasiya still continued with that same smile and asked: ‘But you said you are with me?’

‘My dear, I am with you,’ Shameena continued, slightly scared, ‘but not for things like this.’

‘Is it such a big issue?’ Jyothi expressed her doubt.

‘Look here, this business with religion, God and all are highly inflammatory. Leave that, dearie, and pick another one,’ Deepa said.

Rasiya didn’t say anything.

‘Hey, you think again and come up with something thrilling,’ Shameena put her hands around Rasiya’s shoulders and said: ‘For the time being, leave this.’

Rasiya didn’t utter a word.

When they were returning from college, Jyothi said: ‘Do you really want to call Vanku? Do you really wish to?’

Rasiya nodded.

It was when she was five years old that Rasiya went to Thiruvananthapuram for the first time with her Vappa and Umma. At the zoo, from the moment she saw the first animal in the first cage, she started crying. Even when her Umma and Vappa assured her that it won’t do anything, she didn’t stop crying. Rasiya asked her Vappa to open the cage. Vappa said if he opened it, the animal would hurt them. Rasiya was not ready to listen to him, and went on crying. Umma and Vappa came out of the zoo with Rasiya. Vappa took a vow that he won’t go anywhere with such a rascal. It was a Friday. Vappa went to Jumma mosque to offer prayers. Rasiya and Umma sat on the steps of a closed shop in Connemara market situated opposite the mosque. Rasiya was still crying. It was all of a sudden that the Vanku call from the Jumma approached her. Rasiya gazed at the sweetness of the Vanku, and stopped crying. Looking at that voice looming over the sunlight at noon, she fell asleep. While returning to Kottayam, the music of the Vanku call rested close to her ears like an ornament invisible to others.

‘IT SEEMS THAT boy—Asharaf Master’s son—likes you very much,’ Umma said, standing at the veranda, while she was stepping into the house.

Umma was like that; time, place or situation—nothing mattered to her if she felt like saying something.

Rasiya, tilting her head sideways to check whether the neighbours heard it, queried: ‘Which one? That fair, muscular boy? And what reply did you give, Umma?’

‘I told him after finishing your studies you are going for IAS coaching, and so you are not marrying now. Then they said they’ll send you for coaching after marriage. Then I said no need for that coaching.’

Rasiya told Umma, laughing: ‘Great! But don’t let Vappa know of this!’

After dinner, when they were chatting, Rasiya told Umma: ‘Listen, today Deepa and Shameena asked me what my greatest wish was.’

‘What did you say?’ ‘I told them my wish.’

‘I am asking, what it is?’

When Rasiya brought her lips close Umma’s ear, she turned her head away saying, ‘You are tickling me.’

‘As if you are a little girl to get tickled!’

‘Hey, tell me what is wrong with me? I was married off at 18. Otherwise I would have smartly roamed around alone like you.’

‘Agreed! People even ask if you are my younger sister! Is that enough for you?’

‘Why do you say ‘enough’? Isn’t that the truth? You suckled my breasts till you were three-and-a-half! Yet, if my breasts are not sagging, it is not a small thing!’

‘That is thanks to Balaswagandhadhi oil and also Vappa…’

‘You’re crossing the limits!’

Their laughter suddenly filled the house.

‘Now tell me.’

‘Yes,’ Rasiya looked around and lowered her voice a bit: ‘ I said I want to make a Vanku call.’

Astounded, Umma stood there for a minute, looking at Rasiya. Saying nothing, she left the room. If Umma doesn’t like something, she never says ‘no’ or ‘don’t’. In such instances, silence is her answer.

It was all of a sudden that the Vanku call from the Jumma approached her. Rasiya gazed at the sweetness of the Vanku, and stopped crying

That night, Umma didn’t talk to Rasiya. When everyone was asleep, Rasiya asked the Creator: ‘Is what I wish something wrong?’

The cloud that covered the moon dispersed. A small ray of light entered Rasiya’s room through the window.

DEEPA CAME RUNNING to the place where they all gathered after lunch. Panting, she took hold of Rasiya’s shoulders and said: ‘I kissed!’

No one believed it at first. Deepa, bringing her lips close to Shameena, asked: ‘Look! Can’t you see the vapour rising from my cheek?’

‘True. There is a Manipravala [2] smell’, Shameena said.

Even before she finished describing with metaphors and all how she went to the Malayalam Department library, took the Keralapanineeyam [3] book from the hands of Varma sir, then leapt like a kingfisher to peck at the sweat from its hairy surface and flew away, the whole group had rushed to the window of the Malayalam Department.

‘Dumbfound!’ said Jyothi.

‘As you touched pani (hand) from now on, you’ll be called Panini [4],’ Rasiya said, looking at Deepa.

Jyothi decided to tell John of the English Department that afternoon itself that she loves him. Even before she went near John, she was panting slightly. Maybe because of that, John, after surveying Jyothi, said: ‘Listen, girl! I am in love with your classmate Krishnakumar, so…’

At first Jyothi, taken aback, didn’t know what to say. Then, gathering strength from somewhere, she feebly told him: ‘That is okay. But I like you.’

With a slight whimper, John told Jyothi: ‘Don’t say like that! Consider me as a brother.’

In front of that sentence of John’s, Jyothi’s impatience raised its voice: ‘Impossible! I already have too many brothers at home!’

John looked at Jyothi helplessly. Jyothi, pretending that she considered that small failure insignificant, and biting her lips that were about to whimper, took a few steps, and then even her legs didn’t know where they were running so fast.

For some days, a tiny sadness floated around Jyothi like a breeze. She came out of that after she went to a movie with Shameena. Shameena sat near Ashraf, and his friend sat near Jyothi. A few minutes after darkness fell in the theatre, Ashraf’s friend whispered to Jyothi: ‘I feel cold. Shall I hug you?’

Before the tiny little time that it takes for the tongue to rise and shout ‘Bastard, how dare you!?’ and all, a palm, tender as cotton, held Jyothi closely. Just before the lights came on during interval, it loosened. After the interval, it rejoined. Never did it seek a kiss or sneak its way to her breasts or anything like that. When they were returning after the show, Ashraf’s friend gave Jyothi a nice smile.

‘Hey, my dress is all crumpled,’ on the way back Shameena asked bashfully, ‘Will people suspect anything?’

It was not that question which Jyothi answered. ‘Maybe he really felt cold and that’s why he did that...?’

BECAUSE THE SURGE OF time was faster than what they all imagined, the calendar repeatedly reminded them that there were only a few days left. The friends felt sad that there was no decision in Rasiya’s case. In a week, the college would be closed.

‘Look, Rasiya,’ Jyothi said, ‘tell us another wish. Leave this one.’

‘Say any wild thing you wish, we are with you!’ Shameena touched Rasiya’s head; ‘God Promise!’

Rasiya remained silent for some time and said: ‘But for that, I have no other wish.’

‘She’s mad!’ Deepa got angry. ‘When we all say playful things, here she comes with something damn serious! Now let us stop this game here!’

‘That’s better!’ Shameena agreed. ‘There’s a limit to everything! We don’t want any revolution crossing that!’

‘Shamee, I didn’t want to make any revolution! You asked for my wish, and I said it. I’ve been carrying it since my childhood.’

‘At your age now, you can have ever so many other wishes. Why don’t you say any of that? Why insist on the impossible?’

‘Why are you getting angry with her?’ Jyothi asked Deepa.

Saying, ‘I never said anything to anyone,’ Deepa took her bag and began to walk away. ‘Shamee, if you are coming, let us go. I am leaving.’

Before she left with Deepa, Shameena told Rasiya: ‘Look dear, try and become a devout, law-abiding woman.’

In the darkness of the green, that voice, clarified by the lapping waves of centuries, touched the pinnacle of the sky and the roots that rose up to the depths

Jyothi didn’t understand what Shameena said. Both of them sat in the class for some time, and while walking to the bus stand, Jyothi asked: ‘Were you serious?’ Rasiya nodded.

‘Do you want to call Vanku tomorrow?’

‘No,’ Rasiya said.

‘Then?’

‘Next Friday, for the Jumma.’

Though she didn’t know what Jumma was, Jyothi understood she meant Friday.

‘That day, we will go together,’ Jyothi said.

‘Where?’

‘Some 10-15 kilometres from here, there is a small forest. There’ll be no one there. You have no problem going there, isn’t it?’

‘No problem at all,’ Rasiya said, holding Jyothi’s hands with love.

On Thursday night, as she lay down to sleep, Rasiya recalled the music of the Vanku she heard that day from Palayam mosque. She had never heard such a sweet Vanku after that. Later, it was in the timepiece that Vappa brought from the Gulf that she heard that heart-kissing call. She also felt that as a rare moment when one felt music was an invitation to God.

The next morning, Rasiya stood in front of the college with the prayer mat of her grandmother, and water in a jar with a lid to take vulu [5]. After some time, Jyothi arrived accompanied by a boy of their age.

‘He is Ashraf’s friend,’ Jyothi said with a laugh, ‘Didn’t I tell you that day?’

Rasiya nodded.

‘There is no bus to that place. Autorickshaws also don’t go there. You better go with him.’

Rasiya didn’t answer.

‘Afraid?’ Jyothi asked.

Without answering, Rasiya smiled at her and climbed on to his bike.

They walked between the trees that had grown and spread branches into the dark. Like the smell that still hung over small plants from the life of a skin of a snake that has just crawled away, it was a novel experience for Rasiya. The vines that plunged from the branches, as if to touch the ground, brushed the necks of both in the breeze like long fingers. Some of the branches aimed at their eyes.

‘There’s a hornet’s nest.’

‘I haven’t seen a hornet,’ Rasiya said.

‘When it comes to sting, don’t wait and watch, just run!’

Rasiya laughed.

It was after noticing a bike parked outside the forest that the two young men who were on their way to the toddy shop stopped midway and entered the forest. Brushing aside the leaves and branches while they walked, they heard the voices of a boy and girl walking ahead of them and beyond the screen of trees. They hastened after those voices. When they turned around a tree’s trunk, they saw the two of them. They looked at each other.

‘It’s a tiny little girl,’ one of them said.

‘The boy too is tiny,’ the other one replied.

Nodding his head, he asked: ‘Shouldn’t we call the others too?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then don’t waste time.’

He ran outside the forest.

Like uttering a bunch of words, one of the trees shed some leaves.

Rasiya asked him the time. He told her the time.

‘West is this side?’ pointing at a direction, she asked.

‘Yes.’

Along with the one who went out of the forest, two more men came. Stamping the plants and slashing with the machete the branches that obstructed their path, they rushed in. All of a sudden, silencing the wind, the leaves and their legs, a female voice calling Vanku, ‘Allahu Akbar...’ resounded. In the darkness of the green, that voice, clarified by the lapping waves of centuries, touched the pinnacle of the sky and the roots that rose up to the depths.

When they returned, Rasiya didn’t find those standing in the dark of the forest strangers. She looked at them and smiled. They didn’t smile.

Rasiya went to the college with him, and they went to the toddy shop.

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[1] Vanku is the Malayalam word for ‘A Muezzin’s call to prayer’

[2] Manipravalam was a literary style used in medieval liturgical texts in South India which used an admixture of Proto Tamil- Malayalam language and Sanskrit. ‘Mani- pravalam’ literally means ruby-coral, where ‘mani’ means ruby in Tamil while ‘pravalam’ means coral in Sanskrit. Malayalam is referred to as a ruby and Sanskrit as coral. This was prevalent in Vaishnavite religious literature in Tamil Nadu and literary works in Kerala. Much of the love poetry of a genre called ‘sandesa kavya’ (message poems) was written in it.

[3] Keralapanineeyam is a treatise on Malayalam grammar and rhetoric, written by AR Raja Raja Varma, grammarian, litterateur and one of the pioneers of Malayalam Language studies. The book was first published in 1896 and earned its author the sobriquet, Kerala Panini, after the Sanskrit grammarian Panini. It is considered to be an epoch-making work on the growth and structure of Malayalam.

[4] Panini (6th–4th century BCE) was a Sanskrit philologist, grammarian, and a revered scholar of Hinduism . He is considered the father of Indian linguistics.

[5] Vulu is the Islamic procedure for washing up before offering prayers. It involves washing the hands, mouth, nostrils, arms, head and feet with water and is an important part of ritual purity in Islam.

(This story, originally written in Malayalam as Vanku (The Islamic Call to Prayer), or ‘Azaan’ in Urdu, is translated by CS Venkiteswaran)

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