Habib Mohana: The Saint of The Cradle

Habib Mohana was born in 1969 in Daraban Kalan, a town in the district of Dera Imsail Khan, Pakistan. He writes fiction in English, Urdu and Saraiki, his mother tongue. His Urdu short stories have been widely published in the leading literary journals of Pakistan. He has published four books: one in Urdu and three in Saraiki. His Saraiki novel forms part of the  MA Saraiki syllabus at Zikria University Multan. In 2010 and 2014 the Pakistan Academy of Letters awarded his Saraiki books the Khawaja Ghulam Farid Award. Adhori Neend, a collection of short stories in Urdu, won the Abaseen award from the Government of KPK.

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I asked Habib to speak about the challenge of writing in so many different languages. Here is his response:

‘Of the stories I have written in English, five have appeared in Canada, three in India and now two  in the UK. To write in your mother tongueIt is the easiest thing in the world is . In Saraiki I can write effortlessly. I feel at home. I can swim, float, frolic and do summersaults.  I know words for all the things I’m writing about. I can write in it with my eyes closed. Writing in Urdu is harder than writing in Saraiki but easier than writing in English. Urdu and Saraiki are closely related and Urdu is also a medium of instruction in Pakistan along with English. Writing in English is hugely challenging and I face numerous stumbling blocks. Sometimes I am stuck on tiny things. I stumble on pebbles. Sometimes I make mistakes that even a six-year- old English/American child would not make. However,  I try to overcome this by reading English literature and watching and listening to programs in English. I edit, re-edit, re-re-edit, rephrase, and read my stories 30/40 times then I show them to my teacher and mentor Abid Shah Sahib who writes poetry in English. Then I shoot them off to the literary magazines. I receive a deluge of rejections but am very stubborn.  I don’t let myself be distracted. Some magazines do listen to my pleas and they publish my stories. The pleasure I get after finishing a story in English is so deep and immense that I remain drunk with this pleasure for over a month. I don’t know any other craft except crafting stories. I am condemned to write stories. I don’t write for the world, I write for myself. Who the  bees make  honey for?

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The Saint of The Cradle : A Short Story by Habib Mohana

Sixty six year old Shammi and Gullu, her sixty nine years old husband lived in a village named Kot Essa. They were childless and in their adobe house silence reigned supreme. Their house had all the basic necessities and they seemed content with their life. Gullu helped Shammi in daily chores. In the morning they went to the wilderness to cut and collect fuel wood. They loaded sticks on their rusty donkey and sold it in the bazar and bought provisions.

Daily in the afternoon the old couple would squat down in front of their street door and gaze at the playing, shouting, scampering kids. Every Thursday, Shammi distributed dried date fruits or roasted grams among the children of the neighbourhood.

Shammi’s husband had no relatives in the village and she herself had come from a village miles away on the other side of the river Indus. Her relatives visited her when she was young but over the last thirty years none of her relations had ever come to her house.

Sexagenarian Shammi wore the men’s colours though her clothes were cut like women’s and she wore men’s shoes. Like two devoted friends the husband and wife always stayed together. They went to the village bazar and the scrubland together, even Shammi accompanied her husband to the mosque, though she did not say her prayer there. She would sit and wait at the place where the men left their shoes while Gullu said his prayers. They ate meals together and smoked hookah together. Though they remained always together but seldom were they heard talking to each other and when they did talk they did it in soft undertones.

Most women of the village contended that Shammi was a sorceress and gave her a wide berth. Only a few crones dropped in for a chat. In their adobe house there was a mud room that stood always locked and no villager had ever seen it open let alone to have entered it. Different people said different things about this room: some believed the old couple had stashed away their wealth in it, some said that they had buried a deep secret in it, while others maintained that the old woman had imprisoned djinns in it and she talked to them in the middle of night and sent them on errands.

The villagers said that Gullu was a normal man before he entered into marriage with Shammi. He went to the community centre regularly, told his friends all sorts of jokes and danced in the marriage parties but after tying the knot with Shammi his life became confined to his better half and his house. Gullu’s former friends argued that Shammi had cast a spell on him—had turned him into her slave. The women folk alleged that Shammi was a sorceress. People had seen her buying dolls, rattles and tops in the village fair and on Eid festivals. They said that she recited mantras over the toys and sent them on evil missions.

One cold morning Gullu did not wake from his sleep. After the death of her spouse Shammi lived alone in her house. But her loneliness did not last long, within a year she joined her husband in heaven. Her death created no ripples in the village life, only a few fellows bothered to attend her funeral.

The village chief locked the street door of Shammi’s house. Nobody in the village dared break into it or steal anything from it. Shammi had been dead for half a year when Waheed, her distant nephew came from the city not to pray over his aunt’s grave but to sell her house. Nobody in the village had the guts to buy the dead lady’s property that had a legendary room where it was believed that she kept djinns. For a week Waheed stayed in the village and tried to cajole the villagers into buying her house but to no avail.

Driven partly by curiosity and partly by avarice to find gold or silver, Waheed unlocked the notorious room. As he threw open the creaking door, he was confounded. The room looked like a shop dealing in toys and decorative articles. From the main wooden girder hung a wooden cradle over which dangled tassels, dolls and rattles. On the narrow mud platform by the wall were ranged clay whistles, paper bugles, wooden babywalkers and miniature clay kitchen sets. In the niches in the mud walls nestled coloured terracotta toy animals: horses, camels, goats and cows. Then he opened a huge wooden box, it was stuffed with baby clothes, baby shoes, baby socks and bibs. Some unused baby clothes were threadbare, some had yellowed with age, while others were new.

The business-minded Waheed would not give up. He invited men and women to see the newly-unlocked room for themselves but the villagers dared not enter the old woman’s house. In the end three men plucked up the courage and followed him into his aunt’s mysterious room. He told them, ‘my aunt was not a witch. She was a loving mother of an unborn baby. All her life she had been hoping for a baby. All her life she kept preparing clothes and collecting toys for her coming child. But Allah did not bless her with a child. You people had misunderstood her, on the contrary she was a kind-hearted lady who loved kids.

When the three men had their guided tour, they told other men. Waheed gave the new men a guided tour and then women and children crowded into Shammi’s room, which was crammed with toys. They were mesmerized by the collection of baby clothes and playthings. ‘What a woman! All her life she kept yearning for a baby. She never lost her hope,’ one woman said, tears rolling down her cheek.

‘She was a saint,’ an old man said.

‘How wrong we had been!’ the village mullah mourned.

The women caressed the baby clothes and toys and tassels. They cried and groaned and whispered.

Waheed was relieved that at long last the villagers’ unfounded fears had been banished and he again offered his aunt’s house for sale but still no one came forward to buy it.

‘It is a shrine, it would be a sacrilege to buy this house’, the village chief proclaimed.

Disappointed Shammi’s nephew left for the city.

A few days later, in the evening an aged woman plodded into Shammi’s house. She lighted a mud lamp under the cradle that hung from the roof and invoked Shammi’s spirit to plead God on her behalf to grant her daughter-in-law a baby son. Next day another woman smouldered incense sticks under the cradle and begged Shammi’s spirit to intercede with Allah on her behalf to provide his young son a pretty bride. On third day an old man visited the cradle room, distributed dried dates among the kids, placed a few copper coins under the cradle and invoked Shammi’s spirit to request God to cure him of gout.

Within a week, Shammi’s house had become a shrine.  The devotees called her Jholey Wali Pirni, the saint of the cradle. In a couple of months, the fame of the cradle room spread to the surrounding villages. They came in droves. They prayed under the cradle, smouldered joss sticks around it, and requested the spirit of the Shammi to intercede God on their behalf to concede their wishes. People with all sorts of wishes and yearnings gravitated to her house but especially the childless couples thronged it and they reported that after paying a visit to the cradle room their wishes were granted—they had their first babies, especially male babies.

A rich devotee constructed two new rooms in the house for the pilgrims of the faraway areas. Another man brought a wrought iron cauldron for cooking meals. One villager, every morning, would fill the earthen vats and pots with water for the visitors. The visitors adorned the cradle with small mirrors, colourful flags, cowry shells, rabbit tails, peacock feathers and draped the walls of the cradle room in embroidered fabrics.

The visitors of the distant places would come on camels, horses and donkeys. They slaughtered a sheep or a goat, cooked it, ate the meal and stayed the night in the house. Out of devotion the faithful would sweep the house, sprinkle water over the beaten earth floor and repair its adobe walls with mud. Some visitors also brought drummers and pipers with them and they danced dhamal—devotional dance—in the courtyard of the house.

One day a grizzled beggar who was passing through Kot Essa, happened to peep into the newly-declared shrine. He wore many layers of rosaries around his scruffy neck and his hair was long and matted. He liked the environment and made the place his home. He sat down near the empty cradle in the mysterious room. Whenever the visitors entered the shrine the beggar would stamp his staff on the floor, give the rosaries a vigorous shake and chant ‘Haq, Haq, Haq.’ Now the pilgrims also dropped some coins in his lap.

When the news of Shammi’s sainthood reached her nephew, he made a beeline for Kot Essa to claim his share from the income of the shrine. Upon reaching the village the first thing he did was to smoke out the beggar and took his place under the cradle. Since he was a true blood relative of Shammi, the visitors offered him more money than they used to offer to the old beggar. Waheed ran a small grocery shop in the city; he sold his business and made Kot Essa his permanent home.

Ten years had passed since Waheed had come to Kot Essa and his business was booming. He now owned a small agriculture farm, a herd of goats and a chestnut Arabian horse. He had grown fatter and his dark brown colour had become lighter. The shrine-goers had constructed him a brick platform under the cradle. From sunrise to sunset he would lay sprawled on the cushioned platform and the visitors would shove money under his cushion.

Some villagers reported that he leered at the women and girls, others said that he fondled female visitors but majority of the devotees would not believe such things. One day the villagers caught Waheed in an objectionable position with a married woman on the cushioned platform right under the cradle that was suspended from the roof. The angry mob thrashed him, they blackened his face with soot and drove him out of the village. For a few days the devotees remained shocked and no one stepped inside the Shammi’s house.

‘It’s a sign of the doomsday!’ the mullah remarked.

‘The sinner was not a true nephew of Shammi or he would not have committed such a filthy thing in such a sacred place,’ the village chief observed.

A week later the village men collected in Shammi’s house, they washed the place where the sinful act had taken place. The mullah chanted holy verses and blew over the cradle and the brick platform. The villagers sprinkled jasmine and rose perfumes over the cradle and platform. Then the village chief declared the shrine open and the pilgrims started pouring into it.

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