Sometimes she thought she was just a moment old
Sometimes she thought she was a hundred years old
At others, that
she was beyond age
Or she was yet to be born
She had been imprisoned in this room for as far back as she could remember, hoping, that one day somebody would come
and deliver her from the darkness of this womb. But why should anybody deliver her from this womb? She would have to work
out a way by herself. It wouldn’t be worth it if death brought her the deliverance!
She would open the door noiselessly and look beyond. Outside, right in front of the door, the same heavy-set, ferocious
dog which had been there for all times, would be eyeing her savagely, panting, his tongue hanging out. She would try and pet
the dog. It would bark more ferociously and take a step forward. She would turn back on her heels, hastily shutting the door.
The dog’s barking would tell her mother that she had again tried to do something under the sly. She would come with
her daughters, pet the dog, enter the room and without a word, start beating her blue. Before they left, her sisters would
dump yards of tangled wool in front of her and the mother would yell that there would be no food until she had sorted out
the wool. The tears would dry within her eyes. She would start untangling the wool, all the time looking at the blue sky through
Her mother and her sisters were not her real mother and sisters.
Her own mother had died giving birth to her and the father had died after a year. She had never thought about her real
father and mother. Her imagination was so confined. This room, in which she had come of age, was her entire universe. The
woman whose smile had once lit up her childhood had been her mother and the man who had once patted her head had been her
father. Then one day, the smiles and the loving hand that had patted her head withdrew into the shadows, vaporizing in the
persons of the stepmother, the sisters and the savage dog.
Once or twice she had tried escaping through the window in the room, but somehow the savage dog would always find out.
The moment she stepped over the sill it would be standing there, below the window, panting breathlessly, tongue hanging out
his mouth, his ferocious eyes bloated in warning. Dejected beyond hope, she would go back inside the room, put her head between
her knees and start crying. Every now and then a pebble would land at her feet through the window. She would wipe her eyes
with the corner of her grimy veil, stifle her emotions, pick up the pebble at her feet and place it among the rising pile
of like stones in the corner of the room.
‘No,’ she would think, ‘I will not go to the window.’
But then, even against her better judgment, she would take cover of the wall and peep out of the window, at the wild-looking
young man shrouded in a red shawl standing under the green tree, across the road, smiling, staring unblinkingly towards the
This madman in the red shawl was such an enigma. Bald head, eyes like slits, a wisp of a beard, short and stocky. He
looked like a huge gold mohur flower under the green tree. The swanky, up-market neighbourhood boys sporting flowing hair,
hipster jeans and coca cola bottles would tease him, call out names, even throw stones at him, but the madman just smiled
back. The boys would finally give up and go home. Sometimes when he was very upset, like a wounded lion he would let out a
roar, loud enough to rock the earth and the sky. Then, the naughty boys would take to their heels, leaving behind their coca
cola bottles. And the madman, chanting an ear-shattering mantra would gather around him, all the half-naked children with
protruding tummies, take out sweets from the bag hanging at his waist and begin distributing them.
Moving her parched tongue over dry peeling lips, the girl would ponder, ‘He is himself infested with wounds. How
can he be of help to me?’
This madman had always been there…a part of the realities of her life. All she knew about him was that he was mad
and that he distributed sweets after the boys had stoned him. His voice was extremely melodious. His roar equaled that of
a hundred lions. And when darkness surrounded her, a tiny pebble landed at her feet.
She stifled the raging storm in her breast. ‘No, no, I will not go to the window. He will call me to him. If I
step down from the window, the savage dog will tear me to pieces. But then, why doesn’t he jump in through the window
himself? He doesn’t know what I am going through. No, he is not interested in me. Or maybe he wants me to be the first
to show courage. But even if I do manage to reach him, what difference will it make? He is a madman, a beggar. How is
he going to get me clothes like my mother’s and my sisters’? I don’t like candy. But then who is he and
why does he keep staring at the window?’
She could never have found out anything, even if she had wanted to. She could never tell him anything even if she had
wanted to, because her mother and sisters were not her real mother or sisters. They were her stepmother and stepsisters and
the savage dog guarded all the routes leading out from here. She was scared to death of the dog. Whenever she tried to eat
something secretly, it would appear out of the blue. When she tried wearing her sister’s stolen clothes, the silhouette
of the dog would overshadow her desires. It would be standing there, panting, its tongue hanging out, guarding every escape
route, watching her with savage, chilling eyes.
Her mother and sisters were always dressed in pretty clothes. There were always visitors in the house. Each night they
would go off to a party. She was not allowed to meet anybody. She had to polish and spruce up the whole house before the guests
came. Her mother and her sisters would be busy dressing up. When the house rang to the sound of the guests’ laughter,
she would be shut in the kitchen, washing the dishes. Late at night when they all went home, she would return, tired to the
bone, to her room. Sitting all by herself she would begin to untangle the wool. At such times, in spite of everything, she
would sometimes wait for the pebble to come and fall at her feet.
This had been her fate since the beginning of life.
Then one night when her mother and sisters had gone off to a party and she busied herself counting the pebbles, her semi-dark
room suddenly burst into light. Startled, she looked towards the window. The light was blinding. Outside, she could hear the
sound of a car engine. No, it could not be him. Her knees knocking, her heart beating wildly, she went to the window. She
looked out from behind the corner. A magnificent car was parked outside. Wearing a dark suit and adjusting the knot of his
tie, a handsome man came to her window.
‘Is it you?’ he whispered.
‘You have come, after all. You have come. I have waited for you since the beginning of life.’
Closing her eyes, she rested her head against the wall. Then suddenly, wildly, she began to look around. The dog was
‘Is that you?’
‘Yes.’ The word slipped off her tongue.
‘Good.’ He jumped over the window and came in.
‘No. No. Go away from here. I have a stepmother.’
‘Relax. It doesn’t matter. She will not come here. Here, wear this and show it to me.’
The young man took out a beautiful shoe from his pocket. It was studded with diamonds.
‘Put it on.’ The man’s tone was overbearing. Entranced by the magic of the voice, she put on the shoe.
‘It fits perfectly. It is yours.’
‘Yes, yours. Last night you left it behind when you ran away from the Prince’s banquet.’
‘Yes. Don’t you remember, a fairy had brought you to our Prince’s palace and you had promised that…?’
‘But that was a dream.’
‘Doesn’t matter if it was a dream. I am not here to take excuses. Come on, the Prince is waiting for
you impatiently. Let’s go.’
Her heart leapt uncontrollably. After a thousand years, the day of freedom had arrived. And what a splendid way to freedom…at
the hands of the Prince. If her mother and sisters found out, they would go green with jealousy. Still, an unknown fear voiced
‘No ifs and buts. The Prince is going to deliver you from this hellhole. Then you will live forever in his magnificent
The young man drew a picture of paradise before her eyes.
‘Now, let’s go.’
She eyed her dirty, grimy clothes and the young man understood.
‘Don’t worry about this. There are clothes
in the car sent by the Prince.’
‘But that dog…’ she looked out of the window.
The young man jumped out of the window, laughing, and pointed at his feet. The savage dog was busy lapping at a feast
of dog-food like a pet lamb.
‘Come on,’ ordered the young man.
And she let herself out of the window in the hope of Paradise. The young man held the door of the limousine open for
her. As she was about to step into the car a voice spoke into her ears: Don’t go.
Startled, she looked around. The madman in the red shawl stood very close, under the green tree. Distraught, she motioned
to the madman to go away. He smiled.
‘He cannot hear anything. He does not know anything.’
Then she looked at the young man. He stood still, holding open the door of the car, his eyes motionless. Once again she
lifted her foot towards the footboard.
‘Don’t go,’ the madman repeated.
‘I am going to the Prince’s Paradise.’
‘You will not be able to return.’
‘How does that concern you? He is very handsome, he is a Prince.’
‘Then listen to me. You must return before time stands still and the dying moment takes birth.’
‘I’ll wait for you,’ he said.
She laughed even louder and went to sit in the car.
‘Madman,’ she muttered.
‘What madman?’ asked her escort.
‘You don’t know him.’
She looked out the rear window
of the car. Under the dim light of her room, the madman was a gold mohur flower on the green tree.
The palace was filled
with people. They were people of all races, all colours. The fair-faced Prince with blue eyes welcomed her gallantly. He introduced
her to the guests. Her feet were not on solid ground. She was in Paradise. Gradually she stopped hearing the voice that had
said: ‘You must return before the dying moment takes birth.’ She kept glancing at her wristwatch again and again.
In frustration, the Prince flung away her watch. At that instant, the voice was lost.
‘Thank you,’ she said, breaking into a peel of laughter.
She dined in gold plates and drank from diamond-studded glasses. For the first time in her life, she had a full meal.
She grew so intoxicated with the meal that when the Prince took her hand for a dance she could barely get up.
At every turn of the dance, the Prince would draw her to himself and she would be flying on cloud nine. Green with jealousy,
all the other princesses cursed her with each breath as they watched her.
In one round, drawing her close on the waves of the music, the Prince carried her to his chamber. Totally spent out,
both fell on the feather bed. The Prince waved his hand towards the gold laden platters, ‘All these are yours.’
From under half-closed lids, she saw the spread.
‘Now you will want nothing.’
‘You are mine.’
Then something happened to the Prince and he tugged at her neckline. Startled, she looked at him. One by one the pearly
teeth of the Prince began to drop away. She woke up, shaken. The dress sent by the Prince was made of cotton wool. The Prince
tore at the cotton wool like a maddened man. She shrunk within his embrace. Just then, the bedroom clock struck: Time has
stopped. Time has stopped. Come back, return. Run. Run. Come back before the next moment takes life.
Fighting to free herself, she looked at the Prince. His wig of artificial hair had fallen aside. His blue eyes had smashed
into smithereens. His teeth had all dropped away. Only blood-soaked canines remained in his mouth.
She freed herself from his clutch in a frenetic movement.
‘How will you get out of here?’ Laughing uncontrollably, the Prince rolled on the bed and the clock
struck out louder.
Shrouding her naked body with her hands, she ran towards the door. The door opened by itself. There, wearing diamond-studded
shoes, their arms outstretched towards her, stood her stepmother and sisters. She ran towards the other door.
Second, third, fourth…beyond every door stood her stepmother and sisters, their hands stretched out to take her
captive. And like a woman maddened, she ran blindly in circles around the Paradise. Juxtaposed with the strokes of the clock,
the Prince’s guffaws chased her around.
Her head clasped in her hands, she ran ….and she ran…..
Translated from Urdu by Nyla Daud