It was a stormy night but we’d continued sitting, unmoving from the verandah of the ancestral kothi. Staring at the tall Neem trees, their branches swaying wildly amidst the unabated fury of the strong winds. Discussing the clan’s obsession with the healing powers to the Neem — what, with several my cousins even prefixing ‘Hakeem’ to their names, delving deep into the study of medical properties to the Neem bark, fruit, leaves and flowers. Running commentaries on the long list of virtues to the Neem: keeps at bay termites, diabetes, tooth decay, infections and disorders of all possible hues and forms.
A sudden commotion. One of the Neem trees fell. Perhaps, the thud wasn’t particularly harsh as it fell on the shrubs. More than the noise what hit was my maternal grandmother, Amnasahiba’s shriek. Before she could shriek any further another Neem tree fell. Surveying the fallen trees, along with that consoling herself and the rest of us, ‘Falling on their own! Not that we cut and chopped … never cut a tree! Shah Zeb had once done that … hell it was!’
Detailing those offshoots when her younger brother had chopped off a Neem tree growing in the courtyard, ‘He’d gone on and on that the tree was blocking sunlight. Angrily he took to cutting its lofty branches and by the time the axe hit the trunk, blood on the axe …yes, blood trickling down, with those maalis and chowkidars shrieking that Jinns lived on this tree!’
‘Did Jinns live on that Neem tree?’
‘Jinns did live on those branches but they didn’t take revenge. After all, Jinns not jallads! They understood my brother’s recklessness…but then to make up for that, we took to planting as many Neem trees as possible!’ She’d looked about at those trees with a strange sense of passion. ‘Never trouble a Neem, its loaded!’
That night when another Neem tree fell, efforts were put in full swing to fetch the ageing Hakeem Haider Hussain sahib from his haveli. Perhaps, to mourn the loss of the freshly fallen trees. A collective mourning!
A rickshaw was arranged to fetch him. After all, he was the oldest surviving member of the clan. He arrived armed with a torch and a lantern. Looking somewhat flustered, the first thing he did was to walk towards the three fallen trees. Not too sure whether he was muttering Fatiha prayers or condolences or both. And as that night progressed, we’d heard Jinn stories from him till about early morning.
He had come to spend only few hours at our ancestral kothi but nobody would let him go. And come morning, he looked impatient and tense as his wife had sent a neatly folded one page letter through an unemployed young man, Zeb, who lived in one of the outer rooms to their haveli. The couple possessed no car, no telephone and none of the other connecting gadgets. So this note was sent before she herself arrived in another of those rickshaws! Throwing about angry looks at him she burst out, ‘You left me back. Been waiting for you, whilst you relaxing here! Enough! Plants and trees and creepers all waiting for you!’
Whilst we smirked, he didn’t look amused. And decided to get back along with his wife. Even when we insisted that she and he stay back, they spoke of ‘their’ plants as though their very offspring.
But before stepping out, they asked if my sisters and I wanted to spend a couple of days in their haveli, ‘Come along …will cook lots of tarkaris growing in the backyard. There’ll be raunaq in our haveli …we childless but that doesn’t mean we dislike laughter!’
A sigh of relief as the rickshaw turned towards the haveli gates. Greens stood out. The couple walked around ‘their’ plants, shrubs, trees, saplings and creepers… watering them with a rubbery pipe which seemed more than crumbling, before announcing it was time for the much -needed tea break.
Pulling out a rickety table, rushing in and out of the kitchen, with cups brimming with chai and tray overstuffed with cookies…Dipping the cookies in the chai, we sat rather too attentive hearing them detail the significance to leaves, ‘These Jamun leaves controls blood sugar levels, Paan pattas great for digestion, Bel Pathar leaves heal intestines, guava leaves the best possible remedy for throaty problems!’
Before we could actually digest the long list of benefits to each of these plants, a small assembly gathered around. Withered looking mohalla-wallahs desperately in need of relief from pains, skin eruptions and boils… And as she and he were handing them leaves and flowers from a this or that plant, for a this or that ailment, their commentary had continued, ‘Nature’s bounty to settle everyday disorders in this disorderly system!’ Looking around, ‘these mohallas were once thriving but now only poverty thrives!’
That night as we slept on cots in their courtyard, a strange quiet descended. Only to be ruptured by shrieks coming from not too far. And as we woke up, much too bewildered, this couple gave us reassurances, ‘Zeb’s begum’s delivery time…nothing to worry…arrival of a new life requires some effort’, before walking towards the outer rooms to their haveli, where Zeb lived with his wife. In the next minute or so this couple were carrying with them a young woman with a hugely protruding stomach. Making her lie on a cot, they kept rubbing her hands and feet and also settling, rather re-settling the shalwar-kameez on her.
Seeing our curiosity, we were told to move inwards and sleep in the living room.
‘Why should we sleep inside?’
‘Because a baby is to arrive…you’ll see the baby only in the morning! Right now we’ll be busy taking out the baby.’
‘Why can’t we help you?
Before they could react to our ongoing queries that woman’s shrieks got fiercer. And with that several rushed inwards, from those outer rooms. Shooing them away, retaining only Zeb; instructing him to rush here and there in that garden stretch collecting Neem and guava leaves before setting them to boil. In between that bandobast, ample warnings thrown at us to get moving inwards. And though we did officially move inwards, but not really, as from the open bay window continued staring at the woman writhing in pain, as this couple tried to rub various concoctions on the bloated stomach, together with rubbing her feet and legs with what looked like some leafy paste. And as her shrieks intensified so did the rubbing- massaging tactics. But somehow in between it all, the couple sat back, looking all too exhausted. Only Zeb could be seen trying to help his wife deliver the baby.
Suddenly a huge gigantic shriek before a lull of sorts. Overtaken by a new-born’s wail!
With that we went about uncontrolled. Rushing out, towards the cot, where the couple were holding the newborn, whilst Zeb was patting and rubbing turmeric paste all over his wife’s abdomen and inner thighs. Yes, there were bloody stains spreading out but this young man was taking care of not just the mess but also of his wife’s subdued cries. Don’t know whether cries of relief from the exhausting labour pains or cries erupting out of sheer joy of seeing her newborn. Whatever be the case he was managing her quite well, gently patting her back, her hair …Till about the time an ageing woman came from the adjoining mohalla, with requests not just for Neem leaves and turmeric roots but also assistance in the delivery of her daughter, who lay writhing in pain and the midwife couldn’t be fetched.
Hakeem sahib and his wife explained their ‘complete exhaustion’ but then all of a sudden suggested Zeb’s name.
‘But he a man…how can he see my daughter in that state of utter nakedness?’
‘He will cover his eyes …but will help you to bring into this world a new life!’
That seemed to work.
From that day onwards, unemployed Zeb was more than employed!
As he became the town’s much sought-after delivery boy!
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