Punjabi Christmas Story— part II of II

Piaro Masih Blackiya’s 15th Christmas Day

So by the afternoon of the day before Wada Din, the house looked as pretty as the city Sa’ai’s cakes. There were strings of colored paper flags crisscrossing the courtyard and all the rooms, with buntings and tinsel stars. The courtyard of the house was red with powdered bricks, their dust kept down by sprinkling water over them every day. Be-ji had bullied the Mussalies into making her a big wooden cross, decorated with the boughs and flowers we’d brought from the dak bangla. She hung it in the baithak, which was really done up. The steps led down to a dusty patch of ground, exactly the same size as the verandah. We cordoned it off with half-buried bricks at an angle, painted white, and spread the patch with red brick powder. At the entrance we made an arch of reeds, covering it with crepe paper, and on top of it was a big WELCOME sign in English.

The sight of all this hit you in the gut, low and hard.

And we were prosperous enough to hire the catering services of a barber. Apart from haircuts, manicures and arranging marriages, they are also hereditary caterers. By the evening, Be-ji, and the village barber’s wife and niece had finished making large para’at dishes of kheer rice pudding, semolina halwa and vermicelli savvayyan which would be dished out to guests and people less fortunate than us who came to wish Wada Din Mubarak. The packets of fruit and sweets wrapped up in colored tissue paper and tied with gold and silver gota ribbons were for selected neighbors and friends.

Be-ji was just starting the night before Wada Din dinner when Baba’s guests started arriving. They were all male, king, and booze would be served. Women hardly visited Be-ji, except for relatives, and as a decent, God-fearing Gujjarie, she wouldn’t just go out by herself to get our noses rubbed in the dust. Most of the time, we were too busy ensuring the honor of the family to take her out, except to her brother’s every few months.

We had hangovers next morning, but we all hugged and wished each other Wada Din Mubarak. Be-ji warmed up water for bucket baths, and after that gave us sour lassi buttermilk, which straightened out our heads. She kissed our foreheads, which gave me, and I suppose Ma’an too, that warm feeling inside of us which is something that makes my heart ache and my liver cool when I think about it now, king. Breakfast was roasted eggs the city folk call an amlaete or something, and parathas, which are rotis kneaded in ghee, rolled out, then folded in layers with ghee between each layer, and fried on a tawa griddle. We drank hot milk with honey. After breakfast Be-ji brought out the presents she had hidden from us.

Soft white Kashmiri pashminas. We thanked her and she went back to dress up for church, and Baba took us into the trunk room, lined with its enormous paetis. Each paeti could take up to five cotton filled quilts and mattresses.

Baba unlocked one of the paetis with a flourish.

“What is it, Baba-ji?” Ma’an and I said together.

“Shut up, pimps. It’s something I’ve kept for you for some time.”

He dug his hand beneath the quilts in the paeti and when he brought it out, Ma’an and me stopped breathing. Two brand new nine millimeter Stenguns. Baba looked at us and smiled.;

“You’re old enough to give up your hockey sticks now.”

And that we were. We were also ready for black trips across, like Zafar and Ashraf, Ashiq Blackia’s boys. But Baba was scared of Be-ji, and had put it off. Maybe now? In fact, kids are the best carriers. Stuff a couple of dozen Reiko watches in a bale of grass, and put it on the kid’s head. He walks across the border into India in broad daylight, scythe in hand, and no border guard asks questions. It’s obvious he’s just a grass cutter out to get feed for the family buffalo. He does the same on the way back, only this time he’s got cardamoms or saffron stuffed in the grass.

Baba shut the lid of the trunk.

“Come on. These are yours, but we’ll keep them in the trunk for now. Time to get dressed for church.”

Fifteen minutes later, we were all ready. Be-ji was wearing a brocade shalwar and kurta, with a design of big flowers, just like Malika Elizabeth. She had a white pashmina shawl embroidered with silver thread over her white mohair jersey. The shawl covered her head. She looked such a saint I wondered how she gave birth to a couple of vusaigs like us. I still do.

Baba was in his long vicuna achkan coat, white shalwar, and gold embroidered turban rest around which he had wound his starched, flaring white muslin turban. On his feet were black patent leather pumps. Ma’an and me were in brand new, gold embroidered curly toed khusa shoes, white shalwar trousers, bosky silk kurtas and identical green sweaters. The white blankets were thrown over one shoulder.;

Near the sukh chaen tree, the gray was hitched to the tonga, our two wheeled chariot, which would take us to church. Mansha and Boota held the reins in their brand new Christmas clothes. They had to be worn without the initial washing so everybody could see they were new. Both Mussalies smiled, touched their foreheads with their palms and said ‘Wada Din Mubarak’.

“Khair Mubarak,” we replied.

I noted that Be-ji had given them exactly the same white pashminas. They were our men and we looked after them like our own.

Baba gave them fifty rupees each and took the reins. The Mussalies would stay home to keep an eye on things. Besides, they were Muslim, and what would they do in church anyway, saint?

The horse trotted at a good clip, the tonga comfortable, with almost new springs. The barley, wheat and sugarcane crops in the fields around us had a light dusting of frost. The sunrays had started softening the frost, and it was like dew in the daytime. If it all stayed that way, we’d have a good crop in spring. And after the harvest we’d beat the t’tholak and dance the p’hangra.

Outside the church all the local Christians were gathered in their new clothes. They were little people, sweepers mostly, but also carpet weavers or brick kiln workers, when they were lucky. Otherwise they had to empty out people’s chamber pots – but we were all called Sa’ai Chuhras behind our back, anyway. Like Mansha and Boota, they hadn’t washed their coarse cotton clothes so’s not to lose the newness. A dozen beggars were squatting on the ground, begging for alms in the name of Yesu Masih. No self respecting Muslim would refer to Yesu Masih by any name other than Hazrat Issa, a prophet. Our worship in church made us heretical blasphemers, deserving death. But the beggars outside the churches were hereditary professionals, fakirs by caste, like Inayata Fakir.

There was one beggar who looked frightening.

A little creature, with a very small head, large ears, puffed up cheeks, drooling from the mouth with wild eyes. Behind him was another man with a beard, his brother or father. The little freak came towards me with his hand raised, shrieking like a demon. I prepared to defend myself but Baba gripped my shoulder hard.

“No, he’s trying to bless you. Give him some money. He’s one of Shah Daula’s chuwas.”

My hackles rose as the creature swatted my head with shrieks and shoved a kashkole bowl under my nose. I fished for some money, and put in ten rupees. The creature’s relative smiled, and raised blessings to my name.

“Blessings, O’ blessings in the name of the great saint Shah Daula of Gujrat, shagird disciple of Shah Massat the small headed one. May your line never lack offspring, and your wife always be fruitful.”

We passed by into the churchyard, many of the Sa’ais smiling at the blessing.

Padre Amrit Masih had a frown on his face when he met us.

“How cruel. In the name of the saint Shah Daula who lived three hundred years ago, good Muslims donate a child to his shrine believing that the mother will conceive again. The guardians of the shrine lock a steel cap on the child’s head. The child grows up a dithering idiot, a chuwa or rat of Shah Daula.”

“I’d heard of them, but never seen one, Padre Sahib,” I said. “Why do they do that?”

“So the Chuwa can shriek blessings, drool over people, and collect alms.”

“Do they earn much, Padre Sahib-ji?” Be-ji asked.

“More than a Police Deputy Superindent,” Padre Amrit Masih said.

I felt disgusted, and looked straight at Baba.

“Let’s free him, Baba-ji.”

Baba and the Padre shook their heads slowly.

“No, puttar,” Baba said sorrowfully. “We can do nothing about this practice. Two kicks up his ass, and the chuwa’s guardian would run off. Then what do we do with the chuwa? A crowd of Muslims would attack our dera, the church and the basti, and burn them to the ground. We’d be put in prison for kidnapping and hung on a fake murder or blasphemy charge. The Muslims will sort out this problem one day. But we don’t want to burn in their bonfire before that.”

There was still time before service, so we stood in the churchyard gossiping, embracing, and wishing each other Wada Din Mubarak. Some of the poor folk came up and touched Baba’s knees. He was their protector and hero. I felt funny, and sad, that somebody would have to do that.

Baba had a stack of loose, five rupee notes, and when he gave them to one of these little guys, I felt sort of strange. We were just five acre zimeendars who’d become a little better than others due to Baba’s black, but we were all the other Christians had to look up to. Some of the young guys were hoping for careers like Baba, and they came to pay their respects, hoping for patronage at some time in the future.

For Be-ji, church in itself was a big event. She was with the women folk she knew, who were making admiring sounds at all her fine clothes and jewellery.

Some of the enterprising Sa’ais had put up stalls outside the church. Part of the money would go to the church, and Padre Amrit Masih would be pleased.

Our church was simple, with no benches. The floor was of beaten earth. It used to be covered by rush mats, till after one of Baba’s big deals he bought durrie rugs for the church. The inside was all decorated for Christmas with wreaths and banners in Urdu and English. There were little clay fire pots burning coal placed within the aisles. Padre Amrit Masih gave a good sermon, and it was all about the birth of our Lord. Near the altar there was a guy with a t’holki drum and another with a harmonium, and we sang the Christmas songs to music. It was good.

Church being over, we went back home to receive people who’d come to pay their respects and exchange wishes with us. It was also the day they could ask Baba for all sorts of favors, and he had to grant them.

When we reached the dera, Baba again spread his fivers among the waiting tenants, and Be-ji supervised the distribution of the packets of fruit, sweets and nuts to our village friends.

Unlike us, the poor Sa’ais would get drunk on kikar desi with alum added to it for an extra kick. Others, even poorer, would just cook their bit of meat in the p’hang booti from which marijuana is made. At least for one day in the year, these guys would forget they were Sa’ai Chuhras.

In the evening, Wilayat came to tie up the Bank caper. I was reluctant, but Baba shrugged.

“Since he knows about it, we might as well take him along. It would be dangerous otherwise. And anyway, if he wants a name, let him try, though he won’t go far. He doesn’t have the star that brings God’s Grace.”

Punjabi Christmas Story— part I of II

Piaro Masih Blackiya’s 15th Christmas Eve;

Two weeks before the Wada Din, Jesus’ birthday, our simple brick house was spick and span. Ma’an and me were supposed to do two things – decorate the house and make special Christmas desi. Not from just gur and kikar bark.

No, Sahib-ji.

This desi that I still make on occasion beats the best wilayati, whether it’s Black Dog or some disgraceful angrezi animal of another color. Ma’an and me had put a big manji bed in the courtyard, in the corner that got the sun all day. We spread a cotton sheet on the ground and piled it with oranges.

“The knives?” Ma’an said.

“I’ll go and get them.”

I ran into the kitchen and came back with two knives.

In about half an hour, we had half filled the large, five-gallon clay matka with oranges in their skins sliced in half.

“Sugar, Ma’an,” I said, and he scooped up a cup and handed it to me, pure, mill made, white sugar.

“More,” and he continued handing it to me, till I had the right mixture – five seers of oranges to two and a half seers of sugar. Then I mixed whole spices – cloves, dried mint, coriander seeds, rose hips, cardamoms, cinnamon, pepper, and aniseed and added them for fragrance. To give it the added Wada Din kick, I poured in a few ounces of khas extract. Then we sealed the lid of the matka with freshly kneaded dough. We carried it carefully half an acre away from the house, where we had the compost heap and buried it securely, ready to gag by the end of it, but we made it!

A week before Wada Din Baba had brought in a load of the food specialties. Mostly expensive dry fruit, but a lot of fresh fruit and sweets and cakes. There were no dukhies in the baithak, and none were expected, but there would be important guests on the night before Wada Din. Other guests would drop in after the Wada Din church service. That was one day when Baba always attended Church.

It was the night before Wada Din. We were simple village folk, different from the city Christians who get a tree and spend a lot of money decorating it. We hung up crepe paper flags and tinsel decorations, made wreaths and crosses, got drunk, ate meat, and fought each other. Come morning, we’d work out the hangovers with sour lassi buttermilk. In those days, the government walas weren’t that bad, at least not during Wada Din celebrations. Those of us who weren’t blackias, just poor cultivators, or sharecroppers, weren’t stopped from burying a pa’anda pot or two, and if they got drunk and only fought among themselves and the injuries were just minor, the pulsias ignored it. But all that’s a long time back. Now there’s something dark, and dreary, and the whole land is being wasted by bigotry, with the joy in peoples’ veins just shriveling with fear.

It was late afternoon the day before Wada Din eve when I heard a bicycle tinkling its bell outside the dera wall. It was Padre Amrit Masih announcing his arrival.

I opened the door. The Padre was standing with a smile, bicycle propped up against the sukh chaen tree.

“Sala’am Aleikum, Padre Sahib,” I said.

“Sala’am, Piaro puttar,” he replied with his hand over my head.

I took his bicycle, as was proper, raised it over the threshold and took it into the courtyard.

Be-ji came out of the kitchen, head covered, rubbing her hands, a shy smile on her face.

“Welcome, Padre Sahib-ji,” she said.

“Sala’am, mother of Piaro,” and the Padre put his hand over her head. Ma’an was behind Be-ji, and received the same blessing. Baba was out in the fields, and Ma’an ran off to get him.

“Take the Padre Sahib to the baithak, Piaro,” Be-ji said. “I’ll send halva and tea, Padre Sahib.”

Haw hai, you don’t have to do that, I just ate something before coming,” the Padre said. He had the right manners.

“For the joy of our hearts,” Be-ji said.

We were just outside the door to the baithak when Baba got back, with Ma’an behind him. The Padre Sahib and Baba embraced, and Baba seated him in the center of the room, on the divan. I fluffed a bolster pillow behind him, and he looked pleased. Ma’an went out, probably to get the tea and halva as the Mussalies had left for the Padre’s home with the annual Christmas gifts of rice and grain. I sat down to listen.

“So what’s the talk, Padre Sahib?” Baba asked.

Padre Amrit Masih sighed.

“Some good, some bad. We’re going through hard times.”

“I heard of Choudhry Fazal Dad’s boy in T’hoke Sayyadan.”

So had I. It was Fazal Karim, the Sa’ai-hater from school, years ago.

“They say he actually did it. Isn’t that a little young?”

“Padre Sahib, kids who live in the country see stud animals at work.”

“Yes, that’s true. But to force a girl who only comes to clean the house and the latrines.”

“It’s been going on for centuries, Padre Sahib, and you know it. The untouchables may be touched for pleasure. For the rest of the time they may drown in their misery.”

Ma’an came in with a tray, covered by a cloth. He put it down on the table, and I got up to help him with the service.

“What formality! I’m just the village Padre.”

“A man of God who brings blessings to this humble dwelling – and put a few more nuts and raisins on Padre Sahib’s halva, Piaraya!”

“Yes, Baba-ji!”

The halva was as rich as a visiting Padre’s should be, with k’haeo all around the edges of the dish. I didn’t just pick out more nuts and raisins, I also scooped up extra k’haeo and poured it over the Padre’s plate.

He sighed with pleasure when he saw it.

“May you live long, Piaro,” and I was pleased to get his blessing. Baba smiled. The Padre put a spoonful of the halva in his mouth, chewed, and then gave a big smile.

“Excellent, and generous, as always.”

He was right.

We all enjoyed the first spoonfuls in silence, and then Ma’an served the tea

“I visited the girl’s family. The tragedy has shattered them, and they fear for their lives as well.”

“I went personally to see them,” Baba said quietly.

The Padre raised his eyebrows.

“Last night, at about two in the morning.”

So that’s where he’d gone. The sounds I’d heard hadn’t been a dream

“And?” Padre Amrit Masih heaped another spoonful of halva into his mouth. There was a ring of k’haeo around his lips.

“I swore them to silence. Gave them two thousand rupees and a revolver with fifty rounds.”

“But that’ll only get them killed as well!”

“No Padre Sahib, it’s only for self defense. Within the next four weeks, guides will come to take them away.”

“Where will they go?”

“Across, to India. There’s a Mission School in Jandiala Guru.”

“What’ll they do there?”

“Live as respectable untouchables. They’ll sweep floors and empty out shitpots without the fear of having their daughter raped, then murdered so she couldn’t be a witness.”

“Why did they commit such barbarism?”

Baba hesitated.

“The boys are old enough to hear this. She was violated every day by Fazal and his father. When she became pregnant, they wanted her to get rid of the baby. She refused, and they got rid of her. Strangled her, then hacked her to pieces with a toka, threw the bits of her body in a field, and ploughed it over. Then spread rumors that she’d run away from home to be a prostitute in Lyallpur.”

I felt like throwing up.

“Since the Munawwara Sultana murder in Gujrat, it’s becoming a habit,” the Padre commented. “I’m very pleased you’ve taken care of the affair, and discreetly. You must watch your step. There are many eyes on you, much jealousy. May the Grace of Lord Jesus Christ always protect you.”

“I walk in silence, and try not to belch too loudly.”

The Padre nodded his head.

“I heard in the Bishop Sahib’s office that the higher councils of the Ulema are lobbying for a strict blasphemy law. Then they won’t have to kill and become fugitives. Two witnesses against a Christian will get his neck stretched.”

“Fazal Karim’s disappeared, Baba-ji,” Ma’an said.

“Ma’an and I should have ripped his balls off at school, castrated him,” I said.

“Piaraya!” Baba’s voice was hard.

“Sorry, Padre Sahib-ji,” I said for blaspheming in a holy man’s presence.

“God has already forgiven you. Where d’you think Fazal is, Rehma?”

“Like every other fugitive, in the mountains of the Afghanistan frontier. He was getting quite religious. He’s in a Madrassa school, getting ready for a future jihad!”

“And the Maulvis accepted him after his heinous crime?”

“He demanded succor. By tradition, they have to grant it. He is obviously doing penance for his crime under the strict supervision of the Maulvis. He will obtain their forgiveness by diligence, and then join a Jihad. One day he will come back, and settle scores with us.”

And I’ll stuff his balls in his mouth, I said to myself.

Padre Amrit Masih talked a little while more, mainly about crops and the weather. When he was leaving, Baba said. “The Christmas gifts should have already been delivered.”

“I have no doubt. I shall keep a little and distribute the rest among the needy.”

The Padre left after saying a prayer and blessing the household.

 “Don’t be scared, go straight in through the gate, and ask for Issa Khan, the Chowkidar of the dak bangla. Tell him who you are, and ask if you can take a few flowers for Christmas. And – “ he added as we turned to go, “It’s still light, but take your kirpans and a hockey stick.” We weren’t old enough for firearms, and like a lot of Punjabis, carried hockey sticks – a great fighting weapon, and one the pulsias can’t nab you on!