“My stories are only for your ears,” said Aftab, sitting on a comfortable bar stool with a back and arm rest, at the counter.
“Yes sir, I know. And I am the only admirer you have. You know that, na,” smiled the bartender. “So which one is it today? By the way, aren’t you two large pegs away from the story time yet? I mean, we are a couple hours away from our closing time. Don’t you like to have the whole bar to yourself usually during the ritual?” Bartender gave a naughty smile; and winked at his regular and most faithful customer. After twenty years, they were more like best friends now.
“I am feeling a little romantic today and love stories take time. Love takes time, saaki.” Aftab said wistfully. His finger waltzed around his glass of whiskey as he stared at its translucent brownish-golden hue, the mellow golden bar lighting playing tricks with it.
Aftab’s tweed pantsuit hung loosely over his hunched shoulders. He had melted over the years and looked lankier than before. And, where he stood on the timeline of his life, his hairline had started receding and facial lines had deepened. His saaki was not a delight to behold, either. With his beer-belly occasionally peeping through the white shirt—whenever his tie decided to take a swing, buttons ready to pop; the suspenders that secured his black pants in place; his sagging skin and dwindling grey hair, he cut a grim figure. However, it took a couple of minutes for his puerile nature to manifest during his conversations.
“But don’t you tell love stories in April?” the bartender winked again and managed to stifle a laugh.
“Give me a chance, my saaki. Trust me. I will not disappoint you.” Then pointing at his favourite whiskey, Aftab added, “You just keep them coming.” He rested his right arm on the black-marble bar counter. The seductive, soft bar lighting complemented the gazal that resonated across the hall, striking a mellifluous analogy between a man’s insobriety and his beloved’s eyes. The crowd had trickled down to the last two drunks—one sat at the counter; and the other at the far end of the bar, who kept slumping back into the couch, every time he struggled to find a footing.
“Don’t mind me clearing the counter and wiping a few glasses, I am all ears,” said the solitary listener.
“Okay. But this time listen with your heart,” Aftab simpered as he began. “Once upon a time there was a small village in northern Punjab. It was a serene, lush green village on the fringes of the Shivalik hills. And, it was famous for three things: a senior secondary school, a big lotus pond, on the way to the school, and a girl named Kakna aka Chitti Kabutri who walked her way to school with the other students, along the lotus pond.” Aftab paused for a swig.
“Chitti Kabutri—white female pigeon, really! So, at least something of my Bar’s name is in it.” The bartender lifted his hands in front of him and imitated unveiling a name board, “The Pigeon Hole Bar.” He cooed, “My old little bar is famous. Even in Punjab! Am I in the story as well?” He jutted out his lower lip and batted his eyelids like a little girl, at his storyteller.
“Will you stop your shenanigans and just listen?” The bartender put his finger on his lips guarded by his thin moustaches, and shushed himself.
“There was a shy, sweet-tempered boy named Sajan. He lived near the school; and some less than a kilometre away from his abode, his love, Kakna, resided. She attracted a lot of attention from the village boys. The girls envied her and the boys swooned over the most beautiful girl in the village. The villagers lovingly called her Chitti Kabutri.”
“But, why Chitti Kabutri?”
Aftab tilted his head upwards, closed his eyes and gave a delicate nod. When he opened his rheumy eyes, he said: “In white she looked like a pari—her innocent beauty could put the farishtas in jannat to shame. The white muslin duppatta that she wore three times a week, as school uniform, flapped gently in the wind like wings behind her as she sauntered along the lotus pond. The rosy tint on her cheeks brought an inadvertent smile on gloom; pure reflection of her soul in her sparkly eyes; the lips that when parted made the flowers bloom. For Sajan, Kakna was his dream girl, his dainty rose petal.” He looked at his saaki and sighed: a sigh that longed for someone’s look, just one more time.
“Sajan was a year senior to Kakna. He first noticed her when they happened to bump into each other in the school playground: he was in tenth. She had helped him gather the leaves of his biology practical file. But only Sajan knew how their little accident had scattered his life permanently. No matter, how hard he tried after that, he could just not tag it back together—at least not in the order he wanted.”
“Hey! File and life: same letters, right!” the bartender interrupted, smiling widely.
“Hmm…very smart! So, ahh … as they both sat there, that day—he with his one knee on the ground and she side-saddled, in order to reach out—collecting the pages, their eyes met and Sajan started palpitating. He just couldn’t control his heartbeat. He heard his heart in his ears and his tongue became heavy as lead. Beads of sweat formed on his upper lips; and, he felt, he would faint. When she stood up and extended her arm to hand over the pages, he froze, looking straight into her eyes; and, then and there, he knew, he needed a life with her.” Saying this, he gave out a hearty laugh, as if finding amusement in teenage infatuations, but tears that had started forming in his eyes told a completely different tale. His listener knew it was one of his tactics to hide his pain.
“Since that day, Sajan dreamt of being alone with her on the stairs that led to the lotus pond. He imagined the moon light pecking the water; and, the water shimmering with the glow of its touch. The moon hung just over the trees soaking in the excitement at the union of the two bodies, whose souls were already entwined—she in her red Phulkari dupatta and yellow sharara suit standing very close to him, face to face. With closed eyes he saw how their fingers brushed, then, one by one, the interlocking, letting their palms meet. She placed her left hand gently over his right shoulder, taking a dip in his light brown eyes. He felt her lips so close that their breaths mingled. But just a second before he was about to kiss her, she lowered her head and placed it over her left hand. He gently caressed her silky-smooth, jasmine scented, brown hair that cascaded down to her waist. They stood there a very long time, slowly becoming one—fiber by fiber; cell by cell.” The bartender coughed and Aftab was jolted out of his trance.
“So, did it happen? I mean in reality.”
“He had come very close to proposing her, at times, but could never talk to her—even after he left for college. No, never that close.” Aftab looked pensive first and then gave out a silly smile. “You know at the school’s annual function Kakna performed giddha. She was in her last year of school. And, he bunked college to watch her perform. Hahaha. I tell you, that boy’s heart got stuck in the pleats of her ghagra that day. Standing behind the cheering crowd, where he had to struggle for a glimpse of her, he felt she was dancing only for him. For him everything else blurred as Kakna came into focus. Silly boy!”
“But, why did he not even try? I mean sent a love letter or something.”
“Because before he could, she eloped with a taxi driver, Nawaz, from the neighbouring village. It was too late! And the first morning, after she eloped, the whole village was thrumming with, ‘Chitti Kabutri flew away, she flew away at night . . . she is out of the pigeon hole at last’.”
“So, a Hindu girl loved a Muslim boy. And our poor hero didn’t even catch a whiff of it. A complete foo..l..l.” He looked at Aftab’s red eyes are corrected himself, “Aaaah…I mean, novice!”
“He lost his first chance at love,” said Aftab.
“And maybe his last,” his saaki added.
“No, not his last.”
“So, he found someone else?”
“No one had touched him the way she did. How could there be someone else?”
“But they never touched…” The bartender stopped midway when he saw Aftab looking at him with his aching, bloodshot eyes.
“You know saaki the intoxication in her eyes was thousand times more than all your bottles here.” Aftab pointed his finger at the array of the most expensive liquor bottles behind the counter. The bartender shrugged, scrunched his face and moving his hand on his heart said, “It hurts. But, if you say so, I, for once, agree.”
Aftab looked offended for a while and then said, “Chitti Kabutri was back into her pigeon hole after a year. She was rather brought back. Her brothers tracked her down somewhere in Kathmandu. They threw Nawaz under a truck on a Highway, though.”
“Oh, I see. But, why did they not kill Kakna?”
“She was pregnant. The men in the family had decided that they would not kill the baby, if he was a boy.” Aftab tapped his index finger on the counter and continued, “And if it was a girl, they would kill the baby first, in front of the mother, and then the mother. Kakna’s death was certain, anyway,” he gulped down whatever was left in his glass and asked for a refill. “Girls bring nothing but shame and embarrassment, they said.”
“Then, what happened?”
“A month later, in the last week of May, there was a knock at Sajan’s door, an hour before the twilight at dawn. When he opened the door, she, exhausted and frantic, stood at his doorsteps with her baby girl in arms. She said she had delivered the girl an hour after midnight and had somehow managed to escape. ‘They are after me,’ she said. ‘Please take care of my baby. For me, please’. And before he could do or say something, she handed him her baby and ran out of the courtyard into the darkness. He handed the baby to his mother—who had woken up, alarmed by the untimely knock—and ran after her. But he had lost her in the moonless night. And then he heard …a gunshot… ripping the night’s shroud.” Aftab was slurring his words now.
“The next morning the whole village was again abuzz with the news of Kakna’s death—‘They shot her and are looking for the baby’; ‘The mad girl might have killed her own baby’; ‘They hunt her down, finally’—and what not! All these crazy rumours floating like dark, ominous clouds. Sajan was devastated… and frightened. He knew he had to save the baby… for…for… Kakna. She had come, running back to him, after all. She trusted him with her most precious thing on earth. Sajan knew she knew he loved her! The way she looked at him with expectant faith in her eyes: she knew he loved her more than anyone else—not even Nawaz loved her more than Sajan did. They never talked….or touched, but Kakna knew, he loved her and that was it!” Aftab took his time playing with the last three words, he uttered. They lingered in the air long after they managed to escape from its source.
“The next night, Sajan packed all his belongings and left the village with his mother and the baby. It wasn’t safe anymore. If they come looking, he figured, they will kill the baby; and maybe even him and his mother.”
“Where did he go?”
Aftab’s mobile phone rang. It was from Fiza. She was coming to pick him up, she said. He kept the phone down and continued. However, the conversation had derailed by now and Aftab, as if talking to the emptiness in the room, continued passionately in his inebriated, garbled words:
“She was his second chance at love, at life…a second chance, he didn’t want. That little girl deserved a mother and a father like…ahhh…”
“Nawaz.” Aftab’s saaki said.
“Yes, Nawaz! And this time he didn’t lose…his second chance. He grasped it, real tight.” Aftab had closed his fist so tight as if he held something precious that someone was trying to prise out of his fingers. “He didn’t let anything loose his grip on that love. Not even his mother, who pestered him to get married and have his own children. You know that baby girl looked just like Sajan’s Kakna, his…Chitti Kabutri.” He stood up, abruptly, and said, “Bring me a dervish’s conical hat and a full skirt; I want to do the whirling.” He tried to go round in a circle; and almost fell before his saaki held him, “Be careful, my self-proclaimed sufi!” Aftab laughed. He kissed his friend’s hands and recited his favourite lines from a sufi poet:
What religion, What country,
What first, What second chance,
You just play the music of love right;
and see everything to the rhythm dance.
“aaah…I have to take a leak. Fiza would be here anytime now.” Aftab staggered his way across the hall.
A few seconds after Aftab left, Fiza pushed her way in, through the heavy Arabic-design door of the bar. She looked pretty in her yellow shirt and blue tattered jeans. She wore pumps and carried a sling bag. Fiddling with her mobile phone, she walked straight to the bar counter. She kept her keys on the counter and looked around, removing her bag, crossing its broad string over her head.
“Look who is here to pick up her old man, Masha’Allah!”
“Salaam Rahim uncle.”
“Salaam, Fiza Jaan. If you are wondering where your old man is, let me tell you, he is in the restroom.”
Fiza smiled and nodded. She sat on the bar stool her abba had vacated.
“Your abba was telling a story on second chances today.”
“Oh! I see.”
He leaned forward on the counter and whispered, “Dear, I have never discussed this with you before, but I think this antique piece of yours wants to get married. Please, give him a second chance and marry him off to someone as nice as you. Then I will not have to listen to his boring stories.”
“I have tried uncle, but he will not marry. Did he never tell you, he was never married to my mother? He adopted me when I was five, before shifting to Dubai. He is not my biological father.”
“No. I..I..aah…I thought he was a widower.” After pondering for a while, he added, “Now that I think of it, he never talks about his wife.”
“He never had one! You know, how I know.” Fiza took a deep breath and said, “Guess, I would be revealing a lot but here it goes. A few days before my granny’s death in Mumbai, while I was alone at home with her, she got really upset over something. I don’t exactly remember what but she was very angry that day. Rather she had never been that loving towards me as abba has been, so I didn’t mind. I knew her nature…Can I have some water, uncle?”
Rahim handed over a glass of water; and, she took a sip:
“I was only five, but I understood. I was a sensitive kid, I guess. She told me how my father died; and how my mother died the day I was born; and, how abba wouldn’t marry anyone because of me. I cried my eyes out that day. But after her death, abba changed his religion, my name and left the country. To get away from bad memories, to be safe … all for me! He never says it, but I know. You know what he tells me, I am his second chance at love, at life.” Fiza looked at her abba’s saaki with sparkly, moist eyes.
Aftab came out of the restroom, slowly inching his way towards them, trying to walk straight. He smiled at Fiza and spoke, “You know saaki it is my Fiza’s birthday today. She is twenty-seven.”
The bartender congratulated the cheerful duo, while, absentmindedly, wiping the counter. After twenty years of his friendship, he could tell, Aftab had been crying in the restroom. Or could he?
Saaki: cupbearer/a bartender
Chitti Kabutri: A white female pigeon
Giddha: popular folk dance of women in Punjab
Phulkari duppatta: phulkari is folk embroidery of Punjab; duppatta: a long scarf
Sharara suit: an important attire of Indian culture; worn by women
Masha’Allah: an Arabic phrase that is used to express contentment, joy, praise or thankfulness for an event or person that was just mentioned.
Connect with Penmancy:
Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!