The first time Mukhtar saw Sharda was from his rooftop, where he had gone to grab a kite that had landed there. It was only a glimpse. She lived in the house across the street, which was lower than theirs, and he had seen her through the open window of the bathroom where she was washing herself, pouring water on her body from a pitcher. This was a surprise. Where had this girl materialized from, because no girl lived in that house. The ones who used to had all been married off. The only female now left was Roop Kaur, with her flabby husband and their three boys.
Mukhtar picked up his kite and stole another look at the girl. She was beautiful. A shudder ran through him. The water drops on the golden down of her body were shimmering. Her complexion was light brown, but it had the glow of copper. The tiny droplets of water that sparkled on her skin were making her body melt, drop by drop, or that was how it appeared to him. He was watching her through one of the eyeholes in the low brick wall built on all four sides of the open roof. His eyes were glued to the body of this girl bathing herself. She was no more than sixteen and there were water drops on her small, round breasts, lovely to look at. But he did not feel aroused. Her hair was not golden but light brown. Perhaps her hair had refused to go golden. Her body was full and supple but no lascivious thoughts came to him. When she poured water over herself, he felt as if she had removed her foamy covering with one calm, smooth move. When she was done, she dried herself with a towel, put on her clothes unhurriedly and, placing both hands on the window sill, stood up. She blushed. Her eyes, Mukhtar felt, had taken a dip into a lake of shyness. She closed the window shut and, involuntarily, Mukhtar laughed.
Then she threw open the window and looked towards him angrily. Mukhtar spoke, “Please don't blame me but why were you bathing with the window open?” She said nothing, cast another angry look at him and shut the window. Four days later, Roop Kaur came to their house, accompanied by that girl. Mukhtar's mother and sister were excellent knitters. Many girls from the neighbourhood would come to them to learn how to knit and do crochet work. This girl was fond of learning how to crochet and that was why she had come. Mukhtar stepped out of his room into the courtyard, smiled and left. She drew herself together when she saw him. Mukhtar learnt that her name was Sharda and she was Roop Kaur's cousin, daughter of her uncle. She lived in the small town of Chichoki Malyaan with her poor relatives, but Roop Kaur had asked her to come live with her family. She had finished high school and she was said to be very intelligent. It had taken her no time to learn how to crochet.
Several days passed. By now Mukhtar knew that he had fallen in love with her. It had happened gradually, from the moment he had first seen her through that eyehole to this point where her thought never left his heart for a moment. It occurred to Mukhtar several times that falling in love was wrong because Sharda was a Hindu. How could a Muslim dare fall in love with a Hindu? But the fact was that he just could not bear the thought of not being in love with her. Sharda would sometimes talk to him but somewhat diffidently. The first thing that would come to her mind on seeing him would be the memory of the day he had seen her through that eyehole taking a bath naked. One day, when Mukhtar's mother and sister had gone to offer condolences at a family friend's home, Sharda walked in, carrying the small bag she always did. It was about ten in the morning and Mukhtar was stretched on a cot in the courtyard reading a newspaper. “Where is Behanji?” she asked, referring to his sister. Mukhtar's hands began to tremble. “She has gone out.” “And Mataji?” Sharda asked, which was what she called his mother. Mukhtar got down from the cot. “She…she has gone with her.” “All right then,” she said, looking worried. Joining her hands in a namaste, she was about to leave when Mukhtar said, “Sharda!” “Yes?” She looked like someone who had just received an electric shock. Mukhtar said, “Sit down. They will be back very soon.” “No, I am leaving,” she replied but kept standing.
Picking up his courage, Mukhtar pulled her towards him by the wrist and kissed her on the lips. It all happened so quickly that Sharda was taken by surprise. By now both of them were trembling. “Please forgive me,” was all that Mukhtar said. Sharda kept quiet but her copper complexion turned red and her lips began to quiver as if they were complaining about having been teased. Mukhtar made her sit on the cot and asked, “Why don't you speak, Sharda?” Under her dupatta, Sharda's heart was beating fast. She did not answer him. Mukhtar felt bothered by her silence. “Please say something, Sharda. If what I have done has offended you, as God is my witness, I'll apologize. I would never have had the courage but I don't know what came over me. The fact is that I am in love with you.” Sharda's lips moved as if they were trying to form the word 'love'. Mukhtar began to talk animatedly, “I don't know if you understand the meaning of love. I don't know much about it myself. All I know is that I love you. If you want, I can place my life in your hands. Sharda, why don't you speak?”
Sharda's eyes became dreamy. Mukhtar began to talk again, “I saw you that day through that eyehole. I saw you and that is a sight I will not forget till Judgment Day. Why are you so shy? My eyes never stole your beauty. They just beheld a splendid scene. If you can bring it back, I will kiss your feet.” And he kissed one of her feet.
She trembled. Then she rose from the cot and said, her voice quivering, “What are you doing? In our religion…” Mukhtar said excitedly, “Forget religion. All is right in the religion of love.” He wanted to kiss her again but she leapt aside and, still smiling, she ran out. Mukhtar wanted to run up to the roof and jump from there into the courtyard and start dancing. Some time later, Mukhtar's mother and sister returned and so did Sharda. Mukhtar slipped away, his eyes to the ground. He did not want his secret to get out. The next day, he walked up to the rooftop. She was standing by the window, combing her hair. “Sharda,” Mukhtar called out. She was startled. The comb fell from her hand, landing in the street. “You are so timid; look, your comb has fallen.” “Why don't you buy me a new one then; this one has fallen into the gutter,” Sharda said. “Now?” Mukhtar asked. “No, no, I was only joking.” “I was also joking. Could I have left you to buy a comb? Never.” Sharda smiled, “How am I going to do my hair?” Mukhtar slipped his finger through the eyehole from where he was watching her. “Use my fingers.”
Sharda laughed. Mukhtar felt that he could happily spend his entire life under the shade of that laughter. “Sharda, by God, you laughed and I am in ecstasy. I want to smash these curtains of clay that stand between us.” Sharda laughed again. Mukhtar said, “No one else should hear you laugh, nor even watch you when you do. Sharda, you must only laugh for me.” “You know how to talk,” Sharda said. “Then give me a reward, just a look of love from across there. I will save that look in my eyes and I'll keep it hidden.” He noticed someone's shadow behind her and he moved away. When he returned, she was not at the window.
They came close in the days that followed and whenever they got a chance they would talk the sweet nothings that lovers do. One day, Roop Kaur and her husband, Lala Kalu Mal, were out of the house. Mukhtar happened to be walking past when a pebble hit him. He looked up and saw Sharda. She motioned him to come up. They were completely alone and they talked intimately for a long time. Mukhtar said, “I apologize for what I did that day. And I want to do the same thing today, but this time I won't apologize.” Then he placed his lips on Sharda's quivering lips. “Say you are sorry,” Sharda said naughtily. “No, those are not your lips, they are mine. Am I wrong?” Sharda lowered her eyes, “Not only those lips, all of me is yours too.”
Mukhtar became grave. “Look, Sharda, we are standing on the top of a volcano. I assure you - and you should believe it - that no woman will ever come into my life except you. I swear that I will remain yours for the rest of my life. Do you also make the same promise?” Sharda raised her eyes. “My love is true.” Mukhtar threw his arms around her and squeezed her to his chest. “Live, but only for me, for my love. By God, Sharda, if you had not returned my love, I would have killed myself. I am so fortunate.”
Sharda rested her head on Mukhtar's shoulder. “You know how to talk; I cannot bring to my lips what is in my heart.” They were together for a long time, absorbed in one another. When Mukhtar left, his spirits were imbued with a new and delicious pleasure. He kept thinking all night and the next day he left for Calcutta, where his father ran a business. He returned after eight days. Sharda came for her crochet hour. They did not speak but he felt her eyes asking him, “Where have you been all these days? Never said a word to me and left for Calcutta? What happened to those claims of love? I am not going to speak to you.” There was much Muktar wanted to say to her but they could not find themselves alone. Two days passed. But their eyes talked whenever they ran into each other. On the third day, with Roop Kaur and her husband Lala Kalu Mal, again out of the house, Sharda called him.
She met him on the stairs and, when Mukhtar tried to embrace her, she wrested herself free and ran upstairs. She was annoyed. Mukhtar said to her, “Sweetheart, come sit with me. I have important things to talk to you, things which concern us both.” She sat next to him on a bed. “Don't try to talk yourself out of it. Why did you go to Calcutta without telling me? Really, I wept so much.” Mukhtar kissed her eyes. “That day when I went home, I kept thinking all night. After what took place that day, I had to think. In one leap, we covered such vast distances. You understand, Sharda.”
She lowered her eyes. “Yes.” “I went to Calcutta to talk to my father and you will be happy to know that I have his blessings.” Mukhtar's eyes lit up with joy. He took Sharda's hands in his and said, “A weight has lifted from my heart; I can marry you now.” “Marriage!” she said in a low voice. “Yes, marriage.” Sharda asked, “How can we marry?” Mukhtar smiled, “Where is the difficulty? You become a Muslim.” Sharda was startled, “Muslim!” Mukhtar replied calmly, “Yes, yes, what else can it be? I know your family will be up in arms, but I have made arrangements. We will go to Calcutta. My father will send for a cleric who will make you a Muslim and we will get married right away.” Sharda clenched her lips, as if they were sewn up. Mukhtar looked at her. “Why have you become quiet?” She said nothing. “Sharda, tell me what is it?” Mukhtar asked in a worried voice.
With great difficulty, Sharda replied, “You become a Hindu.” “I become a Hindu?” he asked in an astonished voice. Then he laughed. “How can I become a Hindu?” “And how can I become a Muslim?” she asked in a low voice. “Why can't you become a Muslim…I mean you love me. And then Islam is the best of religions. The Hindu religion is no religion. Hindus drink cow urine; they worship idols. I meant it is all right in its place, but it cannot compare with Islam. If you become a Muslim, everything will fall in place.” Sharda's copper face had gone white. “You won't become a Hindu?” Mukhtar laughed, “Are you mad!” Sharda's face had blanched. “You should leave. They will be coming about now.” She rose from the bed. Mukhtar couldn't understand. “But Sharda…” “No, no, please leave, go quickly or they will be here,” she said in a cold, uncaring voice. Mukhtar's throat had gone dry but with great difficulty he said, “We love each other, Sharda, why are you upset?” “Go, go away, our Hindu religion is very bad; you Muslims are the good ones.” There was hatred in her voice. She went into the other room and shut the door.
Mukhtar, his Islam tucked inside his chest, left the house.
*From Saadat Hasan Manto's Selected Stories reviewed below. Slightly abridged for publication.