12 December, 2011Issue 17.5Creative Writing

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The Letter

Sabyn Javeri

The Letter

It was a big occasion, for it wasn’t every day that the Postmaster made a trip to their tiny village at the very edge of Pakistan’s border with India. Shining in his khaki uniform, bicycle bell ringing, dust rising, he rode through the brown earth and emerged into the green fields, stopping in front of Ramu’s little hut. He rang his bicycle bell to signal his arrival, as if anyone could have missed such a sight. Children gathered around Dakia, touching his shiny bicycle, fingering the crisp starched cloth of his uniform, noticing his made-in-China wristwatch. One small child sitting on his father’s shoulders dared to grasp the black handle of Dakia’s glasses and that is when he spoke. ‘Enough,’ he said, and flung the child’s hand away as though it were a fly hovering too close to his face. Hearing the noise Ramu hurried out of his shack, bumping his bald head on the low door that was protected by a tar curtain. His wife poked her head out behind him but he shoved it back in with the palm of his hand. ‘Have some shame girl,’ he hissed as the shameless girl ran to the window and took in an eyeful of the grand old Postmaster, going as far as to raise the corner of her veil for a better view.

As he dismounted his bicycle, she let out a gasp, nearly swallowing the edge of her veil that she had been chewing. The tall brown clad man looked up and it was at that moment their eyes met. A white colourless butterfly hovering over the window paused to take in the scene.

But the moment did not last long, for Ramu cleared his throat loudly. Then, in a squeaky shrill voice that had never really matured despite his 43 years of age, he said, ‘Is everything all right, Postmaster Dakia Saheb?’

Now it was the Postmaster’s turn to clear his throat. He pulled back his shoulders and straightened his back. Next he adjusted the black frame of his glasses with the self conscious importance of a man who is aware of being watched by an audience. ‘Taar,’ he said pulling out a thin slip of paper that had Urgent written on it. ‘A taar!’ echoed Ramu, his wife, his mother and all the children that had gathered around the Postmaster in a circle.

‘Yes, yes a taar,’ the Postmaster scowled. ‘What were you expecting, a love letter?’

He held it out for Ramu to inspect then tapped his feet as Ramu slowly reached out to touch the fluttering paper. ‘Tut, tut,’ Dakia muttered as he turned it right side up in Ramu’s wrinkled hands. Damn illiterates, he thought to himself, drumming his fingers on his arms. He was in a hurry to get back to the office. Not that he had any pressing postal commitments. Most people here could not read or write, and to get letters written by a Postman then to pay for them to be read by the receiver was considered an unnecessary expense. No, it wasn’t letters that needed attending, he thought as he wiped the sweat off his forehead, but something far more important. He wanted as quickly as possible to get back to his afternoon nap in the cool shade of the post office. He thought of his lovely pedestal fan and the FM radio he could be listening to right now, and frowned. Ramu’s letter had arrived two weeks ago and had been lying in his office along with the other to be delivered on his monthly round. If it wasn’t for the fact that it said Urgent, he would have let it lie for another month or two till the weather cooled down. Riding miles to Ramu Kakas village in this heat was no joke. And the ingratitude of these savages, he thought, he’d been here a good five minutes already and yet no one had even offered him a drink of water.

He coughed loudly, but Ramu was too busy turning the telegram over and over in his hands to notice that the Postmaster was dying of thirst. ‘Ahem!’ he said more loudly then he intended. A few children screamed and hid behind the trees while Ramu looked up with his hands pressed together and his eyes pleading like that of a man about to be hanged. ‘I suppose you will expect me to read it to you,’ Dakia said.

Ramu nodded till the Postmaster snatched the paper from his hand. He tore the thing open and then as Ramu watched the strip fall to the ground, he said, ‘Ya Allah, is there no custom to ask a weary messenger to sit down in your village!’ Ramu looked up miserably and pressing his hands together shook his head.

‘Respectful Postmaster Sahib,’ he said, ‘there is no place worthy of your behind in my hut. In fact, in my whole village there is no seat grand enough for you to position your esteemed backside on.’ By now the Postmaster had had enough. He wanted to get on with it, but he knew that custom dictated such proclamations of humility be declared for at least another five minutes before the guest accepted a stool or a string cot to sit upon. Tea would follow after another five, ten minutes of self-berating, and if the guest was esteemed enough, lunch after a further few modest declarations. Dakia would have liked to have cut through all this and ask straight for a stool to sit on and a cold glass of water to quench his thirst, but what could he do? Tradition was tradition, and a man like him had to preserve the dignity of his profession. So he waited till Ramu sunk to his knees in gratitude. It was then that he patted his shoulder and told him to get up. Humbly the Postmaster declared that he would sit down with them.

He was about to read it when he was startled by the clinking of glass bangles against a delicate dark wrist. When he looked up he saw Ramu’s wife standing next to him, an earthen glass of water held out expectantly in her young hands. She chewed the egde of her veil and bowed her head like a shy bride. Dakia’s heart skipped a beat.

Ramu, squatting by the Postmaster’s feet, hissed at his wife to leave. When she took no notice and stood there swinging from side to side like a child, he slapped his forehead and shouted at her to go inside. ‘Shameless hussy,’ he said as she ran off. Shaking his head he said, ‘What can I say, Dakia Sahib? Such a hassle marrying a young one. But what to do? My first wife left me with five kids and nobody to look after them. It is hard nowadays to find a mature woman who is unmarried. Even the widows here come with a troop of children, and how is a poor farmer like me to feed extra mouths let alone his own? So I settled for this chit of a girl. Small in age, small in brain! Arre Saheb, how was I to know my children would have to look after her instead! All day she chews my mother’s brain to be let out to play when she should be kneading the dough and sweeping the floor.’ He put his head in his hands and rocked back and forth on his heels. ‘Useless bread breaker, I tell you Saheb. G, good for nothing.’

Dakia watched the slender figure of the girl as she stood by the window, her veil not quiet covering the tight curve of her breasts. He for one could think of at least one good thing about a bride that young. He was still watching her when he realised Ramu was coughing away. ‘Ahem! Ahem!’ he went like an engine that refused to start. Tearing himself away from her just as she raised her arms to hang something on a nail, her tight fitted blouse revealing a slim waist and full hips. Dakia regretfully forced his eyes back to the paper in his hand.

‘My God,’ he said. ‘Oh my God,’ His forehead creased and his eyebrows rose up until they disappeared completely under his boat-shaped cap.

Ramu clutched his heart and said, ‘What is it, Dakia Saheb. Is it my brother? Is he dead?’

Dakia looked closely at Ramu then back at the letter. He looked up again then back down.

‘Please just tell us!’ the villagers said.

After a while he said, ‘They are building an army barrack here. Work will start immediately.’

‘What? Here on my fields?’

‘Here on your fields.’

‘But where will we go? Me and my five children and that wretched wife of mine and my poor old mother. Tell me, Saheb, where will I take them?


‘What are you saying Saheb?’ Will they build it on our chests? Look around you, Saheb, this is my father’s and grandfather’s land. My brother and I have tilled it for three generations. How can we leave our land? My brother who has gone to the city will be devastated.’

‘Well it says here your brother sold the land himself and personally collected the money for you and your children.’

‘What? How can that be! How can he sell my land without me?’

‘Maybe because you…’

‘Yes, yes, Dakia Saheb, what about me?’

‘I’m sorry to say this, I’m very very sorry to say this but…’

‘But what?’

‘But you are dead.’

Ramu gasped, the villagers sighed and his wife let out a giggle.

‘What are you saying, Saheb?’ Ramu said, grasping his head in his hands. ‘Then who is this sitting before you, my ghost?’

‘I’m not saying this, Ramu; the letter is. According to their records you have been declared dead by your brother and that is why the entire compensation for the land that belonged to your widow and children has been given to him.’

‘What are you saying, Saheb? What widow? I am alive and well. Why would my brother say I am dead? Please read it again.’

‘Ramu Kaka, money makes people do strange things.’

‘Are you implying that my brother sold me?’

‘What I’m saying, Ramu,’ the Postmaster said as he took a last swig of water and got up to leave, ‘is that you are a dead man.’

It has been three months since the Postmaster’s visit. As expected Ramu’s brother, Rahim, has disappeared with the money and no one can tell if the earth ate him or the sky swallowed him. Ramu has been to Lahore to put in his court claim of being alive but the session’s court tells him that it will be many years before his case can be heard.

‘And what if I really pass away during the wait?’ Ramu asked his lawyer. Pocketing the money he had taken from Ramu to process his application, he assured him that in such a case they will fight the claim that Ramu was indeed once alive.

Work has begun on his land. Bulldozers have raked his field and where there once stood a lush crop of mustard flowers there are now khaki army barracks. His young wife is often seen going inside with a water pitcher, the glow on her face afterwards shining through the mesh veil. Ramu has stopped trying to stop her. As it is nobody seems to listen much to him nowadays. The children tease him, the soldiers laugh at him, some call him a ghost, others plain unlucky.

Sometimes when he sits outside his hut shouting at people that he is not dead and someone actually stops to listen, he is so surprised that he stops talking. At such times he massages his old and weathered limbs, and wonders why it is that he is still living.

“The Letter” was chosen winner of the first Oxonian Review Short Story Competition by Marti Leimbach.