Waiting for Farzana, as the Snow Falls
Syed Badrul Ahsan
On a freezing night, as an old year prepared to yield place to a new one, I stood watching a dark, empty home on a familiar street in Quetta. It was familiar because it was one of those spots in my boyhood world where I had tried shaping poetry in my imagination. A goodly part of the poetry revolved around Nighat Farzana, whose empty, abandoned house I was now staring at twenty five years after I had last met her. It was December 1995. As the winds blew and cut across my face, winds I had once known so well, and the first signs of an oncoming snowfall made themselves evident, I remembered the girl I had once written poetry for. It was, as you might say, a journey back to the streets where songs and dreams had once forged themselves in the growing passion of the imagination.
On that night, in my early forties, that street was a deserted spot somewhere in time and space. It was a dream and yet there was something of the real about it. Back in the 1960s, as I wound my bicycle all through that street and across the neighbouring one where I lived, there was another dream that ceaselessly exercised the thoughts that welled up somewhere deep in my soul. I was into Charles Dickens. And Leo Tolstoy had begun to affect me in a way no other writer in future would be able to. Anthony Trollope's Barchester Towers injected into my life certain new dimensions even as the Urdu writer Razia Butt began to entice me to her portrayals of simple romance with her fiction. And, of course, William Shakespeare had just made an entry, through the extremely emotive and politically charged Julius Caesar. It was amid this panoply of literature, along with a dash of Urdu film music straddling both India and Pakistan, that I discovered one cold morning the raging beauty that was Nighat Farzana. She had long tresses that reached below her knees and large, surprise-laden eyes into which you could bore and spot a world of mellow silences. She was my age. She spoke Urdu. No, she did not compose poetry. If it was a question of verses, she did not need to try her hand there at all. I was ready and willing to do it for her, to write in praise of her eyes, her hair, her lips, indeed her everything. And I did, for seasons on end.
On that December night, aged close to forty two, I think I heard the giggle that once passed for laughter as she saw me follow her on her schoolbus on the way back home from class. It was always a difficult proposition making her laugh, but she could not resist the temptation of being amused every time I found my way to a fresh new demonstration of silliness. It was inanity, as I know now. But back then, it was the tale of a teenager fancying a beautiful, explosively charming teenager. What was it Barkis wished to convey to Peggotty through young David Copperfield? Ah, yes. Barkis is willing. That is what he said. In the end, of course, there was a fairy-tale like quality that came to Barkis' affections for Peggotty. They tied the nuptial bonds. Of course, no such links could ever be forged between Farzana and myself. All that mattered at that point in time, in that valley caved in by mountains that pierced the cold winter clouds to reach up to the sky, was that the lyre in my hand wished desperately to make music for Farzana. She walked like an angel, she looked into me as a saqi would plunge deep into the eyes of a sharabi. She would not talk except in monosyllables, and only on rare occasions.
On a snow-laden, declining afternoon in the winter of 1968, Farzana walked through the long white street, hands tucked inside the pockets of her long coat, her dupatta slipping off her beautiful hair in the rising wind. I asked her where she was headed. Surprised, she said in Urdu, 'To the shop.' We walked together, the wind knifing its way into our skins, the increasingly faint rays of the snow-covered sun creating a timeless landscape of poetic patterns on Farzana's glowing face. Her fair cheeks, her ears, her nose had all gone crimson, partly because of the cold, partly because of my being beside there, accompanying her to the shop. Shall I go away? I asked in some trepidation, and hoped she would say no. She didn't say no. A smile, quick as a sudden appearance of the moon from behind a long patch of rainclouds, lighted up the world. She looked at me. And precisely at that point, she nearly slipped on a stray piece of ice. As my hand reached out involuntarily and held hers, an unannounced spring seemed to break through the winter. It was a desolate street, save for Farzana's presence and my own. It began to look like a whole new world. Her work at the shop done, we walked back, to her door. She went in, I watching in delirious fascination. I have recalled the way she looked back, smiled and waved.
A quarter of a century and more later, Nighat Farzana had gone missing. A war, the inevitability of geography, a conflict of cultures had made us drift to different shores. The snow crept into my hair, slipped down my face and gave my skin that familiar old feeling of numbness as I remembered the woman who had first stirred poetry and song in me. On that freezing night, she was not there, not anywhere. And yet she was everywhere, in the howling wind, in the stubborn silence that punctuated the night. As midnight approached and with that a new year, the story of Farzana's widowhood meshed with my old infatuation for her. I saw her at that gate, in that deepening night. And I waved. And didn't stop until a string in the heart told me Farzana had turned into part of an epic tale long ago.
These days, as winter ravages the world I have built, piece by painful piece, in the spaces of the mind, I go looking for Nighat Farzana. In the rushing wind, I think I hear the old giggle as I pursue her in that old schoolbus through the ghostly old streets of a town now draped in the mists of memory. The wind plays violently in her hair.
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