The Tribune - Spectrum

, February 17, 2002

Looking at childhood without rose-tinted glasses

THE other day when I was tidying up the library, I chanced upon some old issues of Asmat. I glanced at one of the titles, and my mind raced back in time. The write-up was by Hijab Ismail, and the title was ‘Childhood’.

Miss Hijab Ismail (rather, when she was still Miss Hijab Ismail) was the queen of newspapers. It was a romantic name that evoked novelty, grace and a glimpse of melancholic beauty. Her writings like ‘Oh God!’, ‘An Unending Procession of Words’, ‘The Casement’, ‘Feeble Figure’, ‘Naval Coat’, ‘Candle-like Fingers’, ‘Doctor Ghaar’, ‘Old Buffalo’, ‘Chuhiya zu Naash’ were beyond ordinary ken and made one feel stupid.

To come to the point — the essay mentioned above was on her happy childhood. I could not help a faint smile. Childhood! Everyone you meet is singing paeans to childhood. It is usually described as ‘ carefree days filled with joy’, ‘days of fun and frolic’, and so on. When I see others talking zestfully about the interesting stories their childhood, about how they were pampered, etc, I join the bandwagon as well and twist the realities a bit to regale them: ‘We played like this!’, ‘Ammijan took me in her arms with such affection!’, ‘Such toys we used to have as gifts from our parents!’, and so on. Tell me, what else can I do? Shall I tell everyone that I thank God for sheer survival? That I’m glad childhood was temporary, and that it’s over and done with? If it were not so, then life would have been unbearable for those of us who didn’t have an Uncle Ghaar, a Captain Harley or who never had qahwa to drink or bundles of chocolate to eat. As for us, as long as childhood lasted, we were like a juggler’s monkeys. Come dawn and Aapa would install herself with a lota and a packet of tooth powder to get the morning ablutions done for the whole horde. 


Lifting the veil You told her a hundred times that you’d washed your face just the day before, still she would give you a sharp reprimand and say, ‘Then don’t eat food today; you ate just yesterday!’ Now who could counter her and her philosophy? While brushing our teeth her fingers often missed the target and entered our nostrils. Sometimes her fingers would descend on our cheek and smear the skin with the grainy powder. With the five fingers of the other hand, she would hold our neck in a firm grip — the way one does to an over-charging cart driver, ready to give him a shove. In the general cacophony, no one could hear anything. Just think about it — if your complexion had remained a little dark what could be the problem? We weren’t going to view a groom — as Aapa would say when she had to make us wear untidy clothes and we protested. Every day we had to subject ourselves to rigorous soap-rubbing. If we protested, we were told, ‘If you cry, I’ll rub the soap into your eyes!’ As though she was not doing that already!

Even if your eyes burned, you didn’t have the right to cry. Having crossed all these hurdles, if one asked for food, one was greeted with jibes. ‘Shame! Don’t you have any patience? Come morning and she begins cribbing for roti. Even the birds wouldn’t have pecked at anything yet. If you get so hungry then tie some rotis to your stomach when you go to sleep at night.’ Now tell me, why were we made to wash our face then? Do birds wash their faces? One washes one’s face before sitting down to one’s meal. Fed up with getting her face washed every day, one day Shaukat Aapa had said, ‘I’m not going to wash my face today as I won’t be eating anything.’ They make fun of her even today.

Then began the breakfast. Aapa’s breakfast consisted of the leftover kota and rotis from the previous night. She warned the kota and sprinkled ghee and water on the rotis. We were given only tea. Aapa didn’t drink tea as it dehydrated her. If she forgot to mix sugar in the tea, there would be another hassle. When I asked for sugar she would snap, ‘Damn! How much can I do with just a pair of hands? I can hardly breathe. Dying for sugar, ant that she is.’ Well, that was it. When after complaining feebly for a while, I would drink the tea without sugar, and she would exclaim: ‘Oh God, how greedy can you be! Couldn’t you wait a minute? Drank it just like that! Such greed — that, too, in a girl — that you didn’t feel the difference!’

Being a girl seems to have been my undoing!

Breakfast over, I would barely have taken two, three rounds of the house when someone would cry out — ‘Master Saheb is here.’ My spirits would immediately flag. I wouldn’t have a clue what to do. I cold never find the book even after a thorough search. The inkwell would have turned over on the table on its own. I would have forgotten to wipe the slate clean. Baaji surely had stood with her full weight on the pen, breaking it to pieces. From one corner of the house to the other. I would keep looking for one thing or another. Eventually they would be taken care of and then, sitting on the ciabuara, Master Saheb would begin my instruction, which was seen as a solution to the problem of female education.

One book stuck to us like a curse. Abba’s frequent transfers meant that we couldn’t have a permanent teacher. As and when we went to a new place I had to start with the Muhanmat Ismail Reader all over again. Looking at the shape and colour of the book, I could recognise it as my own though I remained largely a stranger to its contents. I didn’t know what the method of instruction was; the teacher would cling tenaciously to it for months together, but the light of knowledge would still elude us.

My feckless mind would wander far away from the book. I would look around and feel pity for myself. Naseema, having finished scrubbing the utensils, could be seen playing Kabaddi and my gaze would irresistibly turn towards her antics. Mungia, having finished with the cow-dung cakes, would be eating jamuns right before me. Even Dhalu and Balka — mere puppies — would run around in total freedom while I had to chant sentences like ‘Go to the bridge’, ‘He is her brother-in-law’, ‘Ganga is bigger than Yamuna’, and so on. My condition was really pitiable.

When Master Saheb was satisfied that I had had enough of a dressing down and my arms and thighs had enough blue blobs (as I was a member of the female species, Master Saheb wouldn’t hit me but only gave me sweet pinches. Further, he would threaten to kill me if I told the elders about it. When Aapa saw the blue marks while bathing me, she would add one more mark to them saying: ‘Why on earth do you go to places where you fall and bruise your body?’), then came the turn for dictation. The problem here was the ink. I did not know what scientific method was applied to prepare ink I could never master its exact thickness. So when I dipped the pen in the inkwell and drew it up, congealed ink would dangle from its nib; at other times I would shake the pen hard, but the ink would just refuse to come.

What a relief it was when the class was over! Satchel under the arm, fingers drenched in smelly ink, I returned dispiritedly, dragging the slate along. If someone showed the slightest sympathy, I would break into tears. After all this, when I asked for food, I would get the reply, ‘Eat me, oh yes!, The food would be rotten — either too hot or too cold. If I asked for a piece of meat, I would be told, ‘Tear out a piece from my body.’ If I said, ‘Give me egg as you’ve given to Chunnu’, pat would come the reply, ‘Yes, I’ve brought the egg cage, so I have to dole out eggs — as though my father is ...’ Poor Aapa would be left with a meatless bone. Those who served food usually had the worst fare. Curry would often run short, and they would have to get a few eggs fried to make do.

At noon, we would be made to lie down in a row. The khus matting and the punkah would fight off the heat and curfew would be imposed upon us.


As we came out of the khus room, Chunnu and Shamim would run to play games, but, being a girl, I would play with dolls. They say playing with dolls teaches one good conduct. My aversion to dolls was infinite. How could one play with them? They were just lumps of rags in the shape of children and stood nowhere in comparison with the English dolls, which did not get spoilt even if you washed them. Our dolls, on the other hand, turned into dead mice in two days.

The game usually consisted of the marriage of dolls. I had many dolls, but only one filthy gudda. By turns, he would become the divine lover of all the dolls. If I asked the elders to get me some more guddas, they, for some psychological reasons, would instruct me to play with dolls and say that there was no need for guddas.

Hardly would the session with the Master Saheb be over when Maulvi Saheb would arrive, unnerving me. I would feel like lying down and resting, but no. I would be given a jerk and made to stand up. Eventually I would grab the first book of the Arabic Reader and proceed towards the study. If I stopped to drink water on the way, Chunnu would also stop, insisting that he must go with me. Even if I drained several glasses, he would continue to stand and wait for me there, and not go on by himself despite my chiding.


Aapa’s status in the house was comparable to that of Mussolini or Hitler. Form time to time, she would issue commands regarding the improvement of our morals. As I finished the first sipara, or chapter, she got worried about my welfare and ordered that I should be taught recitation of the Quran, which would ensure a smooth passage through this world and the world hereafter. Heaven’s windows would open up to me. However, this sinner was not destined to learn recitation. Either a cacophony of voices came out of my throat or it seemed as though someone was tightening a noose around my neck, and it got tighter as it reached the letter ‘qaf’ while I tried to resolve mystical issues. Chunnu would smile at my pitiable fate. Shamim, smiling derisively, would follow each gesture of mine so that he could mimic it later before others and drive me to tears. Meanwhile, if any wedding party or some exciting pageant passed by, we would involuntarily exclaim, ‘Maulvi Saheb, there’s a wedding party.’ Immediately Maulvi Sahebhands would descend on our cheeks in a torrent of slaps, and we would start sobbing. Ostensibly, Maulvi Saheb only shook me by the shoulders, but he very deftly joined his thumb and forefinger and pinched me so severely that it would make me writhe in pain.

Maulvi Saheb had warned us, the infidels, that we must chant ‘la hawla vala’ as soon as we heard the beat of drums, because, on the day of Judgement, Dajjal would arrive to the accompaniment of drums. Music lovers would be drawn by his music and led to hell by him. A hush would descend on us as we contemplated the virtues to be cultivated for the hereafter.

The lesson being over, we would run to the kitchen to see Aapa frying something. But she wouldn’t allow us so much as a peep. ‘Get lost, or I’ll hit you with the ladle. If you touch the lagni, I’ll pour the boiling oil on your hand; and if you ask for atta once more, I’ll put a live ember on your palm.’


There was no place where we could play. ‘Don’t play on the bed, it’ll sag! ‘Don’t jump on the boards, the noise will burst the eardrums!’ There was no space on the chabutara; we weren’t allowed to play in the courtyard, which contained Aapa’s fancy flowerbeds. Inside the house we stumbled on the stone slab, the lota toppled over; sometimes we stepped on the brass plate or our feet got entangled in children’s cribs. If not these, then the bamboo pole leaning at the corner would choose to slide down on our head and the soap case would leap from its place, dangle by the drain precariously before finally landing on the sleeping dog. That would invite a torrent of curses from the elders: ‘What a miserable life! O God, take these children away or send death to me. Do such children exist anywhere in the world? If they did, then why should anyone live?’ After such relentless chiding, we would be made to sit down quietly. ‘If you move, I’ll break your bones.’

At night we would be sent to bed with the pious wish — ‘Off to hell.’ Well, before going there we would laugh our heads off. The laughter simply wouldn’t stop. ‘If you even breathe now I’ll stifle you to death,’ came the last threat. Now when sleep finally came, in the place of sweet dreams we would dream of bulls, dogs, monkeys or owls coming in droves... The one-anna coins were littered everywhere. We gathered them up happily. But the moment we woke up and opened our eyes, we would find our fists still clenched with no coins inside. We burst into tears, ‘No peace even at night. Hush! If you don’t shut up, I’ll hand you to the dog.’ Then came morning, and there would be Aapa with the tooth powder and us standing before her.


For me, it’s now a soft brush and a scented paste. No teacher is ever allowed to come except for the music teacher, and even he is sometimes shown the door if I feel lazy. The fact is, we aren’t children anymore without a care in the world! Carefree life, innocence, simple talk, sound sleep. Alas! if only childhood could... once more... oh, well —

Lifting the veil. Selected writings of Ismat Chughtai, Penguin India pages 261, Rs 250.