The Chronicle

Intizar Husain

Artwork by Ifada Nisa

Not every type of land suits everyone. At times land can be selfish—it doesn’t want anyone around, it’s happy in its desolation. But usually land wants to live in harmony with people, and so the land graciously welcomes people with open arms. Only if harmony isn’t established does the land retract. Yet this is getting ahead of myself. In those days, when did I ever think about that? I never thought about what the land might want. I could never have imagined that land would love and hate. I thought that love and hate were just for people. Land can’t hate people. People can love land, and sometimes this breaks them—land is like a woman, like a woman but more intense.

But in those days I never thought like this. I thought about the lottery plot as being at the end or in the middle of the street, as being close to the main road or far from it. What the land felt, if it was happy or not, this was the way that Bujan thought. 

“Now, dear,” she spoke to Zubaidah, “you can’t just walk into a new home without any ceremony. No angels will ever come, then.”

“So, Bujan, we’ll order some sweets and perform an offering.”

“My dear, you want to do just one offering and that’s it? What will our friends, what will the neighbors, say?”


“So? Hold a party to celebrate the Prophet’s birth and gather some neighborhood ladies. Pray a little, have some kids around, some old folks. Fill the house with the sounds of laughter and happiness. This is how you bring happiness to a house.”

Then Bujan started to tell more anecdotes about Chirag Haveli—on what occasions there would be happy get-togethers, and what planning went into them. After so long, finally Bujan was talking freely. In the new house, all her inhibitions fell away. Coming there had really got her talking. Maybe the fact that it was her home had given her new courage. She kept talking about Chirag Haveli for many nights in a row. It was all she could talk about.

“Mian Jan would say that when Chirag Haveli was built, tasty donuts were served on silver platters. To each and every member of the extended family, a silver platter was sent holding two donuts, and a drum was beaten at the threshold of the women’s quarters. For forty days, the drum was beaten. A jamdani waistcoat and pants were given to the drummer as a token of appreciation.”

“Bujan, when was Chirag Haveli built?”

“Son, I have no idea. It was before I was born. It was in the time of Lakar Dada. Thanks be to God, the crows of the parapets had been seen flying in and out for five generations. Son, you are the fifth generation.”

“Bujan, why do you mention crows?”

“Son, crows live a long time. In a hundred years, one feather will turn white. May God grant you such a long life. The man who lived in the snake room too was older than a hundred.”

“To live so long—that’s amazing.”

“Well, son, in those days it wasn’t that strange to live so long. Your great-grandmother could tell stories of the rebellion like it was yesterday. She witnessed World War II and then she died. God as my witness, she lived a hundred years, and then said goodbye to this fickle world. She had her teeth till the end. Just once she complained that they were giving her fits, and she wished she could still eat corn.”

So we heard just about every single story about Chirag Haveli. The first night she cut her stories short to pray. We went to sleep to wake in the early morning. At least, I woke up at first light. Being in a new house felt odd. The sky looked bright. The rising sun felt fresh and new. I walked through the whole house, I walked up and down the stairs, trying to figure out where the sun shone inside, and on which part of the rook the rays of sunlight hit first. It’s important to know this about a house. I continued to do so until the sun’s last bit of light. Setting foot in a new house brings a new understanding of the sun, the stars, the sky, the wind, and the rain. You have to understand the relation of sunlight and shade. You have to see what quality the sunlight has, and how shadows wax and wane.

It wasn’t just the first day, but every day in the coming days and weeks I rose at the break of dawn. As soon as my eyes opened, I felt ready for the day.

Zubaidah wanted to name the house. Many names were suggested, and many were rejected. I said that the house’s name shouldn’t have anything to do with us. Finally, we came upon a very straightforward name—Ashiyana Abode. And so every morning I acted like a bird flitting around its nest. I woke up early shuddering from the chill. Then I went up to the roof to watch the sun rise and the light spread. Those mornings felt so new and full of light, and the horizon seemed so verdant. It felt like the world was reborn, or that someone new was born in me, or it felt like I was a newlywed. After getting married, you feel a new aroma, a new warmth in all the rooms of a house, and the same is true after you move into a new house. At the very least, that was what I was feeling, as though I was newly attached to a patch of earth, and to the beauty of the land. There was a new affection for the house. After so long, I felt close to the land again, and that God had blessed me. The sadness and the worry that I had had when I took my first step inside the house were now entirely gone.

Finally I understood why people were fleeing the alleys for the new neighborhoods. I had thought they were doing so just to show off their new wealth. I had found out why they were tired of alleys. People had fled the open sky and the expanses of the desert for the city, they made the first alleys there, they built their houses there, one on top of the other, they built their houses up and up, story after story, thinking they had saved themselves from the merciless sky and the open wastes. But after hiding from the land and the sky, they grew weary of the tight alleyways and the tall houses. It’s so hard. The one doesn’t let you breathe, but the other doesn’t either. People are scared of the open land and the endless sky. But they grow tired of the claustrophobia of alley after alley and house after house. After having left behind the fear of the open land, we’re growing weary of tight quarters. We’ve fled for the new neighborhoods, and we’re busy building spacious homes. Perhaps it was the feeling of claustrophobia, or the feeling of homelessness associated with having to rent from which I wanted freedom, or maybe it was just the pressure of my mother and wife, but, in any event, I built a house, and I did so in one of these neighborhoods that were still new and sparsely populated. I was content. My mother and wife were pleased to think that they had a house, they had property. They were overjoyed. They were so full of life while they celebrated the Prophet’s birthday, distributing donuts and other food. So many preparations had been necessary, and there was such hustle and bustle. The kids raised such a ruckus that I took refuge in bed. I had no idea till what time the party lasted.


“Bujan, there’s going to be a hanging in our backyard today.”

“Zubaidah, don’t talk such nonsense first thing in the morning.”

I heard this while still half-asleep in bed. I couldn’t figure out what they were saying. Hangings? What hangings? I looked outside. The sun was already shining brightly. I got up. Since moving into our house, I was always up before sunrise, but that day I slept late, having gone to bed late.

I washed and then went to the breakfast table where Zubaidah was arranging the plates. “Ikhlaq, you heard, right?” she said. “There’s going to be hangings in our backyard today.”

I stopped short. I looked hard at Zubaidah, “Hangings? What hangings?”

“Just like they always are.”

“You’re serious?”

“I don’t speak without thinking. The whole neighborhood’s in a frenzy. They’re supposed to be getting the platform ready now.”

Just then our neighbor Naseeban Bua came in. “Mrs. Zubaidah, please take a look at the hanging platform,” she said, in a voice full of entreaty.

“Naseeban Bua, they’re not building the platform in our house.”

“God forbid! No, I meant they’re building the platform right against your backyard wall. I’m saying you should please go take a look.”

When Naseeban Bua said this, Zubaidah understood that they would be able to see everything from their house—all you would have to do was go to the back of the house and look over the wall. Realizing this, Zubaidah left immediately and went with Naseeban Bua to go see. 

When she came back, her eyes were glassy. “Naseeban Bua was right. It’s right in our backyard. Just look over the wall, and it’s right there. Go check for yourself.”

But my reaction was just the opposite. My coldness matched her excitement. Because I had read in the newspaper the day before that three public hangings were scheduled, you would imagine that the news would startle me. And it hadn’t. What had, though, was the news that the hangings would take place so close to my house. When I had read the news in the paper, I hadn’t paid any attention to where it was to take place. The paper had specified that the hangings were going to take place on the road in front of the jail. From this, I should have figured that it was going to be right next to my house. Every day I used the same road that ran along the jail’s back wall. But I never realized that the road also ran along the back of my house, and from our backyard wall you could clearly see the jail’s back wall in its entirety. Even if I had recalled this, I still couldn’t have been expected to deduce that the platform would be constructed immediately opposite us. Anyway, the paper was full of all sorts of news—murder, kidnapping, bomb blasts—and I always had the sense that these events were taking place far away. I would never have been able to fathom that the day’s most sensationalist news were to take place right in the middle of our backyard.

In any event, the whole thing put me in a bad mood, and despite Zubaidah’s excitement, I wouldn’t agree to go look. In fact, each time that she prodded me to go see, my disgust only grew.

“Just go look at what has become of your wall.”

“No, you look here. You’re making me late, and I’m never late.” I got up from the table and started throwing things together to get ready for work.

But my upset was caused by something in addition to the titillating event about to take place. Wherever I have lived, I have always kept my distance from the activities and interests of my neighbors. If any little thing happened in the neighborhood, there was sure to be someone to make it into a big deal. Whether it was something good or bad, in either case, the rumor mill would ramp up, and all sorts of things would start to be said. It was just the same in that neighborhood, and I hadn’t started to participate in that sort of pastime there either. I stayed as far away as possible from these goings-on.

When I got to work, everyone was talking about it. No one was getting anything done because they were talking about the hangings. All the clerks and office help looked like they were anxiously waiting for work to be over so that they could fly off to see the proceedings. Others were making up half-baked excuses so that they could slip out of work early. And others were arguing that it should be a half-day.

“What are we celebrating?”

“It’s so we can go see the hangings. If we get there after they’re hung, then what’s the point in that?”

It rankled them to have to stay at work. When work was done, they flew out of the office. It was like the entire office took off in one direction.

I had to take a different route home. The jail road was already so packed that even a scooter couldn’t get through. It was a flood of traffic. Even though there were enough traffic police, they weren’t in control of anything. There was the noise of the traffic, and then there was the noise of the drivers whistling at one another. It was a storm of noise. Finally I got home after taking a horribly roundabout way. But even in our alley there was standing traffic. When I got home, I saw that Zubaidah was on the verge of fainting.

“Zubaidah, the hangings are for the criminals—what happened to you?”

“People won’t leave me alone.”


“They want to get to the roof to see the hangings.”

“No, no one’s going up there.”

“I kept telling them, but they were so mean, and some of them threatened me, and so I gave in. They just wouldn’t listen. They’re on the roof.”

I went up and scolded them. They came down and left the house.

“There’s so many kids sitting on the wall. They don’t listen to me. Go take care of them too.”

Then I took care of the people who were coming in a steady torrent; it made me wonder just out of which corners, which cubbyholes, they had crawled. There was no end to it. A little while later when another person came to the door, I had to tell him point blank, “No, sir, this is a house, not a performance hall.”

Again someone rang the bell and began banging on the door. I went and opened the door. It was a stranger. “Yes?” I said with hesitation.

“If you would please consider doing us the favor of letting us go to your roof . . . ”

I impatiently cut him off, “You should know that this is a house. We’re upstanding people. What do you people take this house for?”

“Look, please, I see you’ve taken things all wrong. The truth is that we’ve come from a long way.”

“From a long way away? How far?”


“For this?”

“Yes, I thought that it would be good to get away, and to see a hanging. When I got here, I saw there were so many people. There isn’t even enough space to stand up. I thought I would ask you if it might be possible to go to your roof. If not, my trip from Faisalabad is worthless. You can’t imagine all the important things I left off to come here.”

“No, sir,” I said and closed the door. But as soon as I closed the door, the doorbell sounded. I couldn’t believe it. Furious, I opened the door as though I was going to leap upon whoever was there. But it was my old friend. I was surprised. “Comrade, you too?”

“Yes, me too, I thought, well, a show’s a show.”

I asked him to come in, telling him that I hadn’t allowed anyone up on the roof, and I hadn’t given permission to anyone to sit on the wall.

“What asshole does that to a man’s nest?” 

Comrade had taken to calling our house a “nest.”

“But then how are you going to see the hanging?”

“Comrade, I saw the show coming here. People are coming in droves to see the hangings. I saw the show of the people coming here to see the show. Comrade, everyone and their brother is on their way here.”

“Comrade, all these assholes are your ‘masses,’ whose praises you can’t stop singing.”

Comrade chose not to reply to that. He said, “You never believed me, but now you can see how many people will come to see someone get a thrashing.”

“Such wonderful people.”

“They’re your fellow townsmen. They say that when Nadir Shah was massacring Delhi, when the news reached here, one fine soul said to another, ‘Let’s go. Let’s go to Delhi and see some massacring!’”

Zubaidah, still full of nerves, came into the room.

“Did you happen to leave the gate open?”


“But there are people on the roof again. Don’t let those idiots up there. And the wall’s covered with kids. It’s going to fall down for sure today.”

I got up, but Comrade stopped me. “Sit down, Comrade.”

“It’s not that. Someone has to see to them.”

“Right now nothing can be done about them.”

“Why not?”

“It’s a throng. When it’s a throng, there’s nothing you bourgeois types can do.”

I gave Comrade a sly glance.

“Yes, yes, yes, I know what you want to say,” he said before I could tease him. “If today it’s a bad crowd, tomorrow it’ll be a good one . . . ” 

I smiled despite myself. “For all your big ideas, you people don’t really have answers.”           

Then the bell rang again. I went out to the gate. It was an old woman holding the hand of a small boy.

“How can I help you, grandmother?”

“Son, I don’t have any interest in what’s going on, but this is my grandson, and he’s insisting on seeing the hangings. Is there a way for him to see?’

The old lady said it with such yearning that my heart melted. “Go, grandmother, go see the spectacle, let your grandson see it too.”

The old lady thanked me profusely, then, still holding her grandson’s hand, led him around to the backyard wall. And so what Naseeban Bua had said that morning had proven true. Now what was the need for anyone to ask for my permission? She came in like she was one of the family and took a hold of Zubaidah, “Begam Sahib, they’re just about to hang them. This isn’t the time for housework.” Zubaidah had already been hurrying, but Naseeban Bua’s words acted like a whip. Quickly she readied a tray for tea and put it in front of us, “Drink your tea. I’ll be back after the hangings.” After she left, I felt relieved not to have to deal with the subject anymore.

“Comrade, let’s talk about something else. The hangings are one thing, but let’s stick to our business.”

He didn’t seem to have noticed what I had said, and he started talking.

Suddenly he couldn’t stay quiet. It had been a long time since he had wanted to talk like that. There was once a time when we met every day and talked and talked. The four of us would meet all the time. But now all of us friends—Farooq, Zahoor, Mumtaz, and me—were, according to Comrade, bourgeois, conservative, regressive, and who knows what else. Comrade had done party work in the past, but now there was neither a party nor work. He was trapped with us. He would talk, and he would give us lectures about how talking and reading were worthless. Action was needed. Before we met him, we had thought Zahoor a revolutionary: he was always quoting Marx and had labeled us opportunists. But after we met Comrade, Zahoor seemed like one of us. “Really, Comrade, you can’t say that about Zahoor. He really believes in your ideology.” “What’s the good of beliefs? The real thing’s action. Action. Let him talk all he wants about Marxism. Action’s what’s needed.”

This is how he talked, evaluating each of us friends. When the group broke up, he made himself scarce. Well, he would be seen around a couple times a month. And the others were gone completely, scattered in the wind. Some were abroad. Some stayed in the country and became lost in the grind of the workaday world.

“Comrade, you must have heard something about Mumtaz?” I asked.

“He’s here.”

“Really? He came back? He’s strange. He came back but didn’t tell me.”

“He’s leading the high life now.”


“Yes, and I finally figured him out. He wouldn’t lend me anything. When I told him how cheap he’d become, he said, ‘Actually, right now I’m not in a position to help you. After I open up the store, we can talk.’ I said to myself, ‘Comrade, you can’t follow the rules and expect to get ahead here.’ So one day I tried to get a reaction out of him, ‘The old wise men knew how to make something out of nothing. Can’t you just give me something out of your tithe?’ But he never breaks any rules anymore. He really rubs me the wrong way. Let fools be fools!”

He was talking when Zubaidah returned.

“Is it over?”

“It’s over.”

Comrade forgot what he had been saying and looked at Zubaidah. “All three?”

“All three. They’re still hanging there.”

“Alright, let’s go. They’re dead now.”

Suddenly, as though a movie had just ended, the noise of traffic picked up. The people on the roof started to leave, as did the kids on the backyard wall. The old woman leading her grandson by the finger came by, saying, “Yes, those unfortunate young men are no longer in this world.” And, full of regret, she left too.

“OK, I’ll go then,” Comrade said, then fell silent.


“The show’s over, it’s time to move on. See you next time.”

The afternoon was over, and evening was drawing near. The noise of the traffic outside lessened. No one was on the roof, and no kids lingered on the wall. Zubaidah turned again toward the backyard, but Bujan stopped her, “Zubaidah, it’s the witching hour. Don’t go over there right now.”

“Don’t worry, Bujan. It’s all over.”

I didn’t know how to react to the news.

“Go look for yourself,” she said. “Everyone’s gone. You can see everything from our wall.”

“What’s the point?” I said, disturbed, and left the room.

In the next room, I saw Bujan sitting on her prayer rug praying. She had spread the hem of her scarf across the floor.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I thought that I might get up and try to organize the pages of Mian Jan’s chronicle. I hadn’t touched it for days. I went and got it, then sat down. I kept turning over the pages, but my mind was not into it. I put it to the side, telling myself that I would get to it later.

I got up from the chair and went to the window. I glanced outside and through the verandah I saw Bujan standing in the courtyard. I was surprised to see her there at that hour, and when I looked closer, I saw that she was reading something. After she finished, when she came inside, I asked her, “Bujan, what were you reading?”

“Son, I was protecting us. May God save and protect this house.”

Now I thought I was ready to fall asleep. I went and lay down, and yet I still couldn’t sleep. Just when I was about to drift off, a voice would wake me. I got up and went out to the verandah to look over the backyard wall. The voice was coming from there. Up till then, I hadn’t looked carefully in that direction. In the middle of the jail’s reinforced wall, there was a lookout tower, and in there was a night watchman holding a lantern in one hand and a billy club in the other. He would raise the lantern above his shoulders, then bang the club against the floor, saying, “Beware. Stay back.”

His voice had a curious effect on me. My heart skipped a beat. I was frightened.

I went inside and lay down, but then Zubaidah turned to me, “Ikhlaq, you can’t sleep?”

“No.” Then after a minute, I said her name, “Zubaidah.”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Zubaidah, we’ve built a house, but . . . ”

She turned so she could see me better, “But?”

“But I was thinking,” I said haltingly, “this house is directly behind the jail.”

Zubaidah stared at me, “You had a dream?”

“A dream? No, I was just thinking.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying. It’s very late. Go to sleep.”

I closed my eyes and tried to fall asleep. Zubaidah turned over, and soon she began to snore.

translated from the Urdu by Matt Reeck