May 23, 2013

You know that the deity's love for the ironic has reached a whole new level when you choose a fairly uneventful Wednesday to pick up a book that's been languishing on your bookshelf for a while now, wipe the dust of it and sit down to it over breakfast intending to spend the rest of the week completing the kitaab. This book, which has been on your 'to-read' list for a while now is called 'Bihishti Zewar', literally translated as the 'Jewels of Paradise' is Barabara Daly Metcalf's translation (with commentary) of an iconic text written by Hanafi Muslim Scholar from the subcontinent by the name of Maulana Ashraf 'Ali Thanawi. Written with a view to 'perfecting women', this book can be found in its original Urdu in many houses across Pakistan (and, I imagine, in India as well). To many people, this tome is a definitive and complete description of how a good women 'ought' to behave in all domains: personal, familial and social. 

You have barely begun to make it through the first of the 10 books that make up this voluminous tome, and suffice it to say that you already look upon it with a kind of repulsed-fascination. Or maybe it's fascinated-repulsion. You can decide between the two as you 'tch-tch' your way through the book feeling a little sorry for all the women whose lives may have been defined by these strange set of (rather detailed) rules for what can or cannot (should or should not) be prescribed as desirable behavior for the good Muslim woman. Anyhow, you read through breakfast, then you put the book aside (a little thankfully) and head out for a full day of work.

Towards the end of the day you meet up with a newly-made firangi friend for coffee, and then head on over to his house for a small impromptu get-together with some of his other friends. You reach there, are handed a rather yummy drink and are in conversation with someone-or-the-other (you forget who, but it's really not important) when in walk's one of your friend's firgangi colleagues with two women in tow. Woman one is super-skinny with sallow skin and a perennially lighted cigarette drooping from the corner of her mouth, and a bottle of Corona in her hand. Woman two is nicer to look at, wearing a rather flashy blue top and follows closely behind One. Two is rather silent, but you assume its because one tends to talk a lot. And talk in the kind of abrasive, really painful half-American, half-Punjabi accent that makes you wince with every second word. You ask One what she does, and you are told that she used to be with the European High Commission (say what?) but is now doing nothing. You raise an eye-brow, control the internal grimace and then ask Two what she does. She looks at you blankly, and are told (by the American who brought her over) that she speaks no English. You are surprised, but you ask her the same question in Urdu, and you get a similar reply to One. Apparently this duo doesn't really do much to contribute to the formal economy.

As the evening fades into night, however, you realize that while they may not be active proponents of the formal economy, they are, however, squarely immersed in informal trade. As you talk to them (with the same kind of repulsed fascination you had reserved in the morning for the erstwhile Maulana) you realize that these creatures are, err, ladies of the night. The kind of women who will leave you with a nice fat bill in exchange for, err, services rendered. You also realize that this is the first time in your life you have ever sat across a table from this kind of species and this is a rather invaluable opportunity to have a conversation. And that's what you do. And before you know it you are told that One is responsible for management, sales and distribution while Two is the, err, sample merchandise. It seems that One spends considerable time and effort   haunting the diplomatic circles looking for lonely men who want to have a 'good time' and - for a price - can be relied upon to provide suitable entertainment. She lives, in E-11, a fairly comfortable neighborhood a stone's throw away from where you live and the 'girls' come from here, there and everywhere. One also, when she has free time, supplies other illegal substances, in particular she makes her own 'bhang'. Fascinating stuff.

A half hour of enlightening conversation later you make your excuses (work tomorrow and all that) and you head out of the house, shaking your head at the strangeness you just encountered, when you realize that what you had just met was probably Maulana Sahib's worst nightmare. The anti-thesis of the Bishti-Zevered women, these specimens were nothing remotely close to what Mr. Thanawi's imagined to be the feminine ideal. Who would have thought? To encounter the feminine ideal, and its anti-thesis, all on the same supposed-to-be-uneventful Wednesday. Ironic-much?

:)

3 comments:

riddleinninesyllables said...

interesting post. your expressions are very vivid. :-)

Anonymous said...

Kid you not, you are perfect writer to write Bishti-Zevered of the 21st century.

bano said...

i think you should write a book. short stories!