The Women's Quarter
and Other Stories from Pakistan
The Room with the Blue Light
It was a small room on the third floor, with a blue light that you could see from the street. It vaguely reminded you of one of those air-conditioned carriages that the railway people tag on to the trains in summer, giving them such poetical names as “Silver Paradise” or “Summer Dream”.
There were just the two of them in that room.
The rainy season was almost but not quite over and those who lived in the tiny flats and even tinier houses of the neighbourhood were at last beginning to be rid of the stench, perspiration and humidity of summer. Evenings had begun to get cool, but there were still insects which flew into the room, attracted by the light, a sure sign that it might rain some more.
“This is exactly how Najma used to part her hair,” the young man said, “nearly as far as the back of the head. She learnt it from a Bengali woman.”
Nasreen did not answer. She sat in front of the dresser in which she could see a faint blue reflection of her face. She was combing her hair as most women do before going to bed.
The man lay next to her, looking comfortable, face down on the divan. His silk shirt and khaki cotton trousers looked badly wrinkled.
He waited for her to say something, but when she didn’t, he began to talk again, “Sometimes Najmi would make a strand of hair curl up and dangle in front of her face. It would look lovely against her pink cheeks.”
Nasreen’s face showed momentary annoyance but she did not speak. She was thinking, what kind of a man was this who had nothing else in the world to talk about except his wife, and here he was with a woman whom he had paid for the evening. For the last two hours, he had talked about nothing but his wife, a woman who was no longer even alive. She now knew everything about his married life and its high points. He had been in love with Najma, his cousin, since he was a boy. Her father was not in favour of their marriage but his uncles were. Najma was tall and she liked to sing. When she smiled, a dimple appeared on her left cheek, and henna was her favourite perfume and she was superb at crocheting.
In the beginning, she was interested in learning about the woman out of natural feminine curiosity but then she had got bored and since her yawns and frequent stretching of her arms over her head had failed to change the conversation, she had decided to say nothing at all. Her hair was now done, and all her pins and clips were securely tucked away in one of the tiny drawers of her dresser. She noticed that he was watching her fingers.
A few minutes passed. Nothing was said.
It was a few days ago that he had seen Nasreen for the first time and he had noticed that she bore a strong resemblance to his dead wife. He had decided that he had to meet her. He had no money but had managed to raise enough to be able to pay her to spend two nights with him.
“My wife . . .” he had started talking again.
“So you really were very much in love with your wife,” Nasreen interrupted him because obviously he was not going to give up.
“Very much,” he said spontaneously. Her slightly sarcastic tone, he had failed to notice.
“But I don’t understand this,” she was feeling combative. “What kind of a love was it that it has disappeared three months after her death . . . .”
She did not finish. There was no need to because she knew that he had understood what she had said. He seemed lost for words for a few minutes; then he raised his clear bright eyes and she saw that there was no feeling of guilt or repentance in them. He looked at her face, then rose and sat cross-legged on the floor. His lips trembled but he did not say anything.
They sat there for some time in silence, then Nasreen got up, stretched herself and went out of the room.
She was away for a quarter of an hour. She had taken off her ornaments and was wearing a plain night-dress, which was really just a length of white cotton. She entered the room so quietly that he did not hear her. He was on the divan, lying face down. He must have been about twenty-five or so, but because of the dim blue light, his slight moustache and bright eyes, he appeared much younger. He was staring at an insect that had fallen flat on its back and was trying to straighten itself. Every time it came close, he would push it back with a matchstick.
He noticed Nasreen and was startled.
“Oh, it is you,” he said, pushing the insect away with the matchstick.
“Your wife’s death must have devastated you?” she asked, though she was surprised at her own question which she had not meant to ask.
“No,” he replied after a pause, “in the beginning, it did not really hit me. You see, I just could not believe that it had happened, but then it began to sink in and I fell ill. I was bedridden for a month and I remember my mother and Zohri, that is my little sister, standing over me and looking at me with great anxiety in their eyes. It was then that I decided to make an effort to live.”
She was touched by the feeling in his voice.
They did not speak for some time.
“You said,” Nasreen asked with a touch of coquettishness, “that I resembled your wife. What is it that I have in common with her?”
“First of all, it is your eyes,” he said, a faint smile appearing on his lips, though he still looked sad. “Black and deep, just like hers. Then there is your chin, finely chiselled as hers was, and the third thing....”
“You are just teasing me, aren’t you?”
“Your hair, your neck . . . .”
He was perking up and Nasreen felt uneasy.
After half an hour, they put out the light and lay down together. He went to sleep shortly after, though Nasreen lay awake for quite some time, looking at the sky through her window.
It was one of the last nights of the lunar month and the stars shone with a strange splendour through a clear sky. She had a feeling that the stars had come closer to earth. She had always looked at the stars. She was four when her mother died and her father took her on a long train journey. They had got down at a small railway station around midnight and she had felt terrified of the half-naked fakir with blood-shot eyes standing there. She remembered having screamed and clung to her father’s legs. They had had to walk because there was no means of getting to the village they were bound for. Her father had carried her all the way. That was when she had first looked up at the stars and then she was not afraid any more and she had gone to sleep against his shoulder. When she had woken up the next morning, she had found herself in the house of a strange woman. She had cried for many days but her father had not come back. He had just left her there.
© Khalid Hasan for English translation