Column | Beauty and the beasts

Everything is not as it seems, and helping someone always comes with its own terms

Updated - September 22, 2023 05:48 pm IST

Published - September 22, 2023 12:45 pm IST

Help in any form should empower a person to make their own decisions

Help in any form should empower a person to make their own decisions | Photo Credit: Illustration by Zainab Tambawalla

On a beautiful day in June, the sun was blazing down upon the valley, when suddenly the clouds decided it was time for a good gossip. They gathered and it rained elephants and giraffes, taking everyone by surprise.

I was sitting with Phuphee on her verandah watching the comedy of the changing weather. She was enjoying her two cigarettes with her eyes closed. Just before the rain stopped, I spotted Bashir near the gate.

Bashir was a local farmer, but Phuphee would often say he suffered from an affliction — of being terribly handsome. He was tall, built like a bull, but with facial features that God himself had taken the time to carve. He wore his jet black hair long and sometimes he could be seen running through the village, unnecessarily, the plumage fanning out behind him in a shameless display, stoking the flames of desire within both sexes.

He walked towards us, completely drenched. He looked like a movie star walking in slow motion through the rain. When he reached the verandah, Phuphee greeted him.

‘What can I do for you Bashir saab?’ she asked.

‘I am in terrible distress sister, as you can see,’ he said quite animatedly.

‘Yes, I can see that. You are drenched in distress,’ she replied, her words dripping with sarcasm.

‘Here,’ she said, pouring him a hot cup of noon chai (salt tea) from the samovar and handing him a plate of toshas (sweet flour rolls with dry fruits). Before touching the tea, he decimated the plate of toshas. ‘At least your appetite isn’t too badly affected,’ Phuphee said with a smile.

‘Yes, thank Allah,’ he replied.

He started telling Phuphee how two of his cows kept escaping during the night, even though he tied them up. They also refused to produce any milk. He was convinced that someone in the village had put a curse on them.

‘This is a very serious problem, Bashir. Let us go to your house and have a talk with them,’ she said.

So, all of us got up and went to see his cows. Phuphee asked us to wait outside the cowshed. After about 45 minutes, she came out looking very grim.

‘There is only one solution, Bashir, and it is not easy. The cows are cursed and you will have to slaughter them and bury their bodies far away,’ she said, sighing deeply.

Bashir looked shocked. ‘But there must be something you can do to help. You are a peer, my hope,’ he pleaded.

‘There is only one other solution, but it is so difficult that even a man of your strength will find it impossible’ she told him.

‘Please tell me, I will do it. These cows are part of my livelihood,’ he pleaded again.

‘Every night before you go to sleep, you must read a few verses of the Quran that I will write down for you, blow upon a rope, tie it around the cows, and then tie the other end around your right wrist,’ she explained.

He looked crestfallen.

‘I told you,’ she said, ‘it will be difficult.’

‘I will do it,’ he said, pushing his chest out. ‘How long will I have to do this for?’

‘Around a year, and then I will review the situation again.’

After she wrote down the verses, she whispered something in his ear. I watched his face drain of all blood and he sat down and wept with his head in his hands. Phuphee took her leave.

On our way back, I asked her about what had just happened.

‘Let’s sit,’ she said, pointing to a chinar tree. She lit two cigarettes and took out a small parcel from her pheran and handed it to me. She smoked while I opened it. There were two toshas in a cotton handkerchief.

‘I salvaged them before he could hog them, too,’ she winked.

‘His wife came to see me a few weeks ago. He is carrying on with another woman in the village, whom he goes to see during the night while his wife and three young children sleep. His wife asked me for help and I did,’ she said.

‘You put a curse on his cows?’ I asked, a little shocked.

She rolled her eyes at me, ‘I don’t put curses on cows! I am a peer, not a magician. I told her to milk the cows when he sleeps in the evening and then to let them loose. She suggested to him that maybe someone had put a curse on them.’

‘But what did you whisper in his ear?’ I asked, still none the wiser.

‘I told him the curse had been put by a woman with green eyes and a scar on her belly,’ she replied.

I looked at her and waited. She sighed, ‘Those toshas aren’t doing much for your brain today, are they? The woman he visits has green eyes and a scar on her belly. How do I know she has a scar? I delivered all her children. I know who she is.’

‘Why didn’t you tell her to leave him?’ I asked naively.

‘She did not ask for help with leaving him, she asked for help to keep him at home. When you help people, you have to do so on their terms. Help in any form should empower a person to make their own decisions. Otherwise it is not help, it is control and manipulation. Remember, my dear, helping someone often looks more like palliation than the cure,’ she said.

I nodded and asked no other questions because her wisdom was a lot like her cooking. It looked simple, but on closer study you realised it was a skill that would take a lifetime to master.

Saba Mahjoor, a Kashmiri living in England, spends her scant free time contemplating life’s vagaries.

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