Aab-e-Hayaat by Nighat Gandhi

She leans against the parapet on the roof.


'What if I end up dead like her? What if I fall and die for sure? But there’s a chance I'll end up on some hospital bed, my mind sharp as nails, my body numb as a sponge.'


She pulls back.


Boys on other rooftops are straining skywards, clutching spools of kite string and shouting. The desperate flutter of kites and boyish voices sink into her with the late afternoon torpor as she makes her way down the stairs.


She has repeatedly imagined drifting to a quiet death, floating away without demanding too much care or attention, without lingering. A gentle death. Without violence. Not the kind of death her neighbour fell to. She remembers the wailing women bathing her neighbour's corpse. The woman had plummeted down; the loose bricks of the parapet gave way when she went up to collect the laundry. They used to chat on the landing in the hot evenings while their children played downstairs. She would speak of her husband’s absence, and about his occasional weekend visits, which would turn her into a busy woman. Flustered, brow furrowed, she would bury herself in her kitchen. She would stuff his tiffin with his favourite dishes, and he would carry the loaded tiffin box back on the train to the small town he worked in.


When he was gone, she would once more appear on the landing. 'He hardly speaks with me,' she would say wistfully, addressing her but facing the still, unstirring air. 'And even less with the boys.'


The day she fell from the roof, neither her husband nor her sons were with her to ease her frenzied breathing before her body became still.


On the flight to the city of her in-laws, she looks across the aisle at her husband and her daughter.


'Do I know them? I’m supposed to know them intimately, but I'm not sure I do.'


This unsettling thought leads to other frightening thoughts: I don't belong to them. There's no relationship, no ownership without belonging. We are just balls of energy. How can you expect a ball of energy to own another ball of energy? How can one possess or be possessed by that which is substanceless? Formless? Undefined?


At night in her in-laws' flat, she can’t sleep. She enters the dark living room and throws open the windows. The scene is set for a play just about to begin. Two men with their backs to her are sitting on the railway tracks across the street. What or who are they waiting for? Another man passes by on a bicycle. After he is gone, the street resumes its desolate look. Except for the two men sitting on the tracks and she, watching them, there are no other witnesses to this silent play in which she is both actor and spectator. The street has changed into its nightly garb – no longer the bustling, noisy thoroughfare, it wears a smoky, haunted look. Eerie street lights hover over the two men. The newly sprouted leaves on the Ashok trees gleam bronze-gold. An hour, may be two passes, and she sits watching them.


The latch on the gate clinks. The street lights have gone out. A deep blue dawn is about to break. The newspaper delivery man arrives. He is quick – in and out in an instant. She hears the latch clink again as he leaves. Astride his motorbike, he's hurrying on to the next building. If only she could muster as much of a sense of purpose, if her life could be as packed with things to do from dawn to dusk so that she had no time to sit and stare at strange men sitting on railway tracks.


Back to what she’s got into the habit of calling her house over the years, where she is even less sure of her relationship to her surroundings. A vast emptiness seldom leaves her.


'I suppose I’m depressed. I’m not supposed to be depressed. Life's not that bad. Things aren’t that bad. Food. Shelter. Money. Don't I have it all?'


Life isn't that bad – she repeats, but repetition doesn't lead to conviction. She repeats the list of affirmations she has copied from a self-help website to prop up her fast-fading sense of self. She comes out of the shower and standing in front of the mirror, repeats each affirmation ten times: Life is good. I am good. Every day, in every way, I'm getting better and better. But, why, why should she repeat what doesn't feel is true? Because that’s how things begin to feel better eventually, say the self-help gurus. Fake it till you make it. Life's not a bed of roses for anybody. Every cup is either half full or half empty. The optimist tries to focus on the cup's fullness, the pessimist on its emptiness.


'Well, I'm no optimist, I suppose.'


But on some days she is. She manages, after repeating the list of affirmations, to see her cup as half-full. She thanks the Sustainer for her privileges: house, husband, child, maid. But on other days, when she's totally honest with herself, her cup gapes at her totally empty.


‘I’m waiting for you to go to college so I can leave this prison,’ she says to her daughter.


‘But, mamma, why do you call your home a prison? So many women are living much worse lives. Why makes you feel imprisoned? I don’t understand why you can’t be happy here? You are free to do whatever you like. Write, read, travel. So why talk of leaving?’


She replies, shielding herself from the familiar accusation of ingratitude. ‘Free? Free? But I don't feel free. Have you lived inside my head for twenty years?’


‘What do you want to do? Where will you go?’


‘I don't know. I'm tired of how good my life is.’


‘You think you'll find freedom somewhere else? Away from your family?’


How can she forget the family? How can she forget what serving time in the family means? Who knows such security better than her? How can she forget stability, protection, sameness? Was it the fear of abandonment in her daughter's heart: what’s wrong with your life? I don’t understand why you can’t be happy here.


On a cool, blue morning in October, when she has expressly asked the maid not to come before seven, she's the only one to hear the maid’s bell. She lies corpse-like under the quilt, hugging her pillow, pretending, waiting fruitlessly for someone else to let Binu in, even though she knows nobody will. The slow whir of the fan above her almost drowns the faint singing of a bird outside. Beyond the window, beyond the white kurta-clad body of her husband, she glimpses the reckless swaying of the gangly, weak-trunked papaya tree. The room is bathed in blue light filtering in through the blue curtains they bought together in the days when she was a good wife.


'What time is it?' asks her husband's sleep-muffled voice.


'It must be seven because I told Binu to come at seven,' she replies irritably, sitting up and feeling for her slippers.


She unlocks the kitchen door and lets Binu in and returns to her side of the bed. But Binu wants to know what she is to cook for lunch, what is she to do with the beans in the fridge? Will yesterday's bhindi be enough for today’s lunch?


Will yesterday’s bhindi be enough for today’s lunch? Does she have to answer such questions so early in the morning? Can't anybody else answer them for her? Can’t Binu make such decisions on her own after working so many years in this house?


Her daughter sleeps through the morning because there's no school due to a nationwide protest by Catholic schools over the killing and raping of nuns in Orissa. Just a moment longer, she thinks, if she could prolong this morning, stretch it out like a sheath that's not allowed to snap back, she could merge the blue shadows in the room and the floating thoughts in her head into an exquisite poem. She could stubbornly decide to stay in bed. But her daily anxieties are already on the march. Binu needs to be watched or she'll waste time in the kitchen, start flirting with the cleaner. The cleaner will be here soon. He has to be told he didn’t do a proper job of mopping behind the toilet bowl. There are hairs lying on the floor. And the sink in the guest bathroom hasn’t been scrubbed. She'll be the only one in the house to fret over hairs on the bathroom floor and un-scrubbed sinks.


She hears her husband in the shower. Why does he take these hurried showers? Why is he always hurrying to work?


'The water pump is on. Turn it off in an hour or so,' he instructs her as comes out of the bathroom.


'Ok,' she mutters. It’s not a death sentence, just instructions about the water pump, she muses, turning away from him to snuff out the rage that's foaming at her edges.

He senses her displeasure, the loss of her morning peace. Isn't he doing his share for the family? He's a good husband, a good provider. He can’t help it if she doesn’t want to see the maid or the cleaner in the morning or check on the water pump.


‘I'm worried because there wasn’t enough water up in the tank upstairs,’ he continues to violate her morning solitude.


Water! Water is an urgent matter. Where would we be without water? She tries to disregard the infringement of space, imagines the room's walls caving in on her, sees herself wafting out, leaving behind her body, hugging the papaya tree. But her body falls back limply against the bed and her heart files away the theft of yet another morning in the heart's ledger.


It's not his fault. But whose fault is it?


He continues, 'There was no power yesterday, so the pump didn’t run. But now there’ll be enough water if the pump runs today.' Of course, there will be enough water if the pump runs today, if the power doesn’t go off. If she does what is expected of her, there’ll be enough water for everybody in the house. She recalls the Phil Collins song, It’s another day in paradise playing in the cyber café in that mountain retreat she managed to escape to for a week last year.


Self-deprecation is a hard-to-kill habit, and like a daily dose she swallows its poison. Her repetition of affirmations today are not effective as an antidote to the poison of self-hatred coursing through her veins:


You’re a privileged woman. You're a fortunate woman. You mourn the loss of a mere morning? You know the struggles of other women. You know what time Binu has to wake up to be at your house at six or seven? There are no silent mornings for her.


But does Binu want silent mornings?


Do you know what the life of those nuns in Orissa was like, the ones who ran the orphanage? The ones who got raped and killed?




If only you could be more grateful for all you have.


Yes, if only I could be more grateful.


Fake it till you make it.


I've tried. You must believe me. I've tried for twenty years.


She’s lying on the cool marble of the living room floor. There’s a fleeting stillness to the graying afternoon with Binu finally gone and her daughter out. She’s entreating God: 'I feel alone though I know You're with me. Why?’

The answer she senses is wordless and voiceless and comes from somewhere within her and beyond her – You are not alone. You are your own teacher.

I? My teacher? I’m just a bitter woman, full of self-pity. Weak-willed. My sorrows are burrowing into my soul. I keep praying for a quiet death because I can't manage a damn thing. How can I be a teacher to myself? I want to surrender at the feet of some greater being and Her nazr-e-karam must save me.


She hears the key turn in the front door. Her daughter has returned from her friend's place.


‘Are you ok? Why are you lying on the floor, Mamma? Can I sit with you? I want to talk to you. I just thought of something I want to tell you and you alone. Can I do kuchu-kuchu in your hair?’


‘What do you want to tell me?’


‘I want to tell you how a true friendship is like a crescent moon,’ her daughter starts running her fingers through her hair in slow circles. She begins to feel drowsy from the kuchu-kuchu as her daughter's fingers trace and soothe the pounding headache just under her scalp.


‘How is a true friendship like a crescent moon?’ she asks dreamily.


‘Well, there’s only a sliver of the crescent that’s visible, and rest of the moon lies hidden. What the world can see is just that crescent. What we truly feel, lies hidden like the unseen moon. We can only sense it in our hearts.’


‘And you think your friendship with your new friend is a crescent moon friendship?’


Her daughter bends down to kiss her forehead.


Her phone rings and she leaves the room. It's probably the crescent moon friend calling. She drifts deeper into her dreaminess. A friend in the States had emailed her a link to an online meditation site. Midas Jump was about raising your self-esteem by meeting your ideal twin self. She was about to delete the link, since the long-haired man giving the instructions looked like one of those New Age gurus she was tired of watching on YouTube. But for some reason, she decided to give him a hearing.


She closes her eyes now and remembers his words. ‘Imagine yourself as you would like your ideal self to be. What would you have been like if you had a different upbringing? If you made different choices in life?’ Right! Let's imagine: What would I have been like if I had made different choices? If I’d had a different upbringing?

She sees a radiant, confident, imposing, intelligent, sensitive, artistic, creative, articulate woman, sitting in a wide open, fresh-scented garden surrounded by vast, spacious, healing light. Light is radiating out from her, and her radiant aura is brighter than all the other lights around her. She’s smiling reassuringly as she approaches the bruised, battered, struggling woman who has just entered her enchanting garden: ‘Where have you been? You certainly took a very long time coming. But now that you are here, put up your feet and relax. Give up all your anxieties to me. You don’t need to go back to that other life, that prison of fears and self-doubt. We don’t judge people here based on how they lived their lives. We judge them by how fulfilled they want to become here. You can live here as long as you like. Or if you do have to leave, you can come back whenever you wish. Choose a quiet spot in the garden where you want to live and call it your own. The water here is sweet and cool and fresh from the springs. We call it aab-e-hayaat, the water of life, and it flows all year round, so drink without fear. And there’s all the fruit you want to eat. Eat your fill. And there's wine you love. And you can get a massage. I know your back hurts and a massage would be good for you. And there’s a hot, fragrant tub waiting for you to soak in. And from this garden, pick as many blossoms as you like and add them to make your bath fragrant. And the birds are waiting to sing for you. And there's a library full of books. You can read, you can write, you can daydream. There will be no interruptions. None. I promise. Your mornings will be just the way you want them. And there's lots of music too. There’s a loft you can sleep in. And you can see the crescent moon rising from your window.'


She trudges up to this twin self, a figure of towering grace and healing gentleness, and bows, resting her head at her feet, and tears of tiredness pour out. But she is encircled by a pair of strong, caring arms. She is raised to meet the mesmerising gaze of her twin self, she lets herself collapse in those embracing arms. She thinks of crescent moon friendships as she rests her head on the shoulders of this strong, gentle woman. Her crescent moon has risen on the night of her union with herself, on the night of celebration of the most primordial of marriages, of the self with the self.


She imagines bringing all the violated and wounded ones to this garden where they'd be eased into remembering who they are. Where they'd be welcomed, held, healed, loved and bathed in the light of their own crescent moons.              


Aab-e-Hayaat translates to Water of Life.



Nighat M Gandhi is a writer and professional mental health counsellor. She spent her formative years in Dhaka and Karachi. After college in the USA, she married and moved to Allahabad, where she raised two daughters, and became a member of Stree Mukti Sangathan, a feminist women's group.

She contributes to the Literature page of the Bangladeshi newspaper, The Daily Star. Her publications include a collection of short stories, Ghalib at Dusk, Tranquebar, 2009, What I am Today, I Won't Remain Tomorrow: Conversations with Survivors of Abuse, Yoda Press, 2010 and Alternative Realities: Love in the Lives of Muslim Women, Tranquebar, 2013. Her fiction, as well as work she has translated from Urdu have appeared in Out of Print.