God's Little Joke: A Story of the Polygamous City


FARKHANDA was peeking out through the outside curtain one morning as I passed, and she called me in. She ought not to have been peeking out, but I forgot that fact. For when I saw her there, suddenly a wave of memory swept over me, and a flood of homesickness and love struck me all unprepared. One sees sometimes, in an Indian city, a face exactly like some dear face at home. A man has collected tickets for years at the Lucknow station, who looks most pleasantly like a favorite aunt of mine. As Farkhanda salaamed to me that morning, a college friendship came back sweet and invigorating: the love of a girl adored by a whole campus-full of women; one who had danced and dived and bowled, played golf and tennis and hockey, better than any of us. And about the time we got our degrees, we learned, to our amazement, that during those mysterious summers which none of us ever shared with her, for the straightening of her crooked spine, she used to lie bound in an iron cast in a New York hospital, and all her athletic strength was the result of her long struggle against disease. And when we understood why she loved moving, singing, even breathing, her gameness became to us almost religion.

And here was Farkhanda standing before me as Betsey used to stand, expressing more vitality motionless than most women express in action.

‘I saw you passing,’she said. ’I wanted to talk to you.'

‘That was nice of you,’ I answered.

‘Where you going?’

‘To school.'

‘Oh, you have a school? Where is it? Let me see your books.’

‘Can you read?’ I asked, showing her a Hindustani book of hygiene for girls.

She began at the first page.

‘I know my letters. What’s that word? Teach me.’

‘This is too hard,’ I explained. ‘You need a primer.’

‘Well, I’ll get one.’ She dispatched a servant to the bazaar for the book. ‘Can you read English as well as Hindustani?’ she asked.

‘Even better,’ I answered, truthfully.

‘I can’t read anything but the Koran,’ she sighed.

‘You’re new here, are n’t you?’

‘My father-in-law has just been transferred to the treasury department office here. Let me see your hat.’

I took off my heavy sun hat gladly, and she examined it with care inside and out, and tested the sharpness of the hatpins.

‘What do you wash your hair with? Why don’t you braid it? How do you fasten it on? Why don’t you put oil in it? Where did you get your English shoes? Why do you wear stockings such hot weather? Why do you wear such a lot of clothes?’

She was investigating my underskirt. She herself had on three white garments — a piece of white lawn tied around her for a skirt, a long white kurta, which fell nearly to her knees, and a sheer veil, whose point hung to the floor behind her.

‘What sort of soap do you use? What’s your caste? Where’s your father? How many children have you?’

These preliminaries I had heard many times before, but never had they been asked in so thorough and competent a way, and never had I answered them with more relish. By the time the primer came, I had sufficiently accounted for my extraordinary self; so she opened the book at the beginning, and went on spelling out page after page, until I stopped her.

‘That’s a very long lesson for one day,’ I said. ‘We’ll stop here.’

‘Stop? Why?’ she demanded. ‘I want to read it all to-day.’

‘I must go.’ I insisted. ‘I’ve got work to do.’

‘Work! You!’she exclaimed. ‘Have n’t you servants? What sort of work have you to do?’

‘I’m busy all day,’ I answered emphatically, ‘at the hospital, or the school, or at home.’

‘But what do you do?' she questioned in surprise. ‘I never can think of anything to do.’ She looked helplessly around the high walls of the courtyard. ‘There is nothing to do here. You stay to dinner, and we’ll read the book through.’

I left in a little while, explaining that I could not possibly spend every morning with her.

‘Never mind,’ she said; ‘I’ll come to the hospital to-morrow. I want to see the doctor.’

‘Yes?’ I said.

I knew from her face what she was going to say, and she said it.

‘I have no children.’

‘ You ’re a child yourself,’ I answered. ‘Don’t be in such a hurry.’

’I’m fifteen,’ she answered soberly. ‘I’ve been married four years.’

Then, as I said good-bye to her goodnatured old mother-in-law, I felt that I had lacked courtesy in letting the girl absorb all my attention. Always afterward, however, when I left that house I felt the same way.

The next morning Farkhanda and her mother-in-law, in the stiffest and proudest of silks and the stiffest and proudest of manners, waited for me at the bougainvillea vine, their outer veils scarcely undone. They looked around over the assembled women and babies with a most aristocratic indifference, which they maintained until I took them to the verandah off which the compounding room opens. At the halfdoor, where a dozen women were waiting for their prescriptions to be filled, we paused to look inside. All around the room were rows of large labeled bottles, such as one sees in drug stores at home, and drawers, and cupboards. Two girls, in the blue cotton uniforms of Indian nurses, wearing white caps instead of veils, were measuring and mixing medicines.

When Farkhanda saw the compounders, her face grew eager in spite of herself.

’What’s in those bottles? Who are these girls? Why are they dressed that way? May they give any medicine they like? Why don’t they taste it?’

Her mother-in-law accounted for the girls with one word, and that was the oldest word of Moslem contempt for Christians. I explained that the doctor saw each patient, wrote a ‘letter’ saying what each needed, and that the girls carried out her written orders.

‘Does she write in Hindustani?’ she asked.

‘English,’ I answered.

‘Can the girls read English? Where did they learn? I will learn English.’

She wanted to go inside and investigate each bottle, but I persuaded her to see the rest of the buildings with her mother-in-law. In the wards where I took them, she fired at me an explosion of questions that no one before had thought to ask. In the kitchen she inquired into every detail of marketing and cooking. When we looked in through the glass doors of the operating room, she was overcome with wonder.

‘What are all those things in glass cases?’ she cried. ‘I did n’t know there were so many things! I will learn doctari.'

The mother-in-law, who was proud enough of the girl’s cleverness, laughed heartily at this absurd idea.

‘No, but I will learn it,’ insisted Farkhanda. ‘You teach me.’

I explained humbly that I did n’t know doctari.

‘It takes years and years to learn it,'

I assured her.

‘But you’ve been to school,’ she insisted, surprised at my stupidity.

‘But one has to go to college to learn doctari.’

‘But you’ve been there, too,’ she replied.

‘Then to other colleges — years and years — like men; and then to learn to make medicine you must go to other colleges.’

‘Oh,’ she cried in surprise, ‘ I did n’t know there were so many colleges. I thought you knew everything.’

I am a modest person. I explained that there were a few subjects that I had not completely mastered. And then, for the pleasure of seeing her amazement, I told her something I have enjoyed telling many women.

‘I went to college only four years,’ I

said. ‘But some women go twice as long as that. And they used to say where I went, that if one took all the courses, — studied all the subjects, you know, — it would take a hundred and twenty-eight years to do it all.’

I had to repeat this to her, and when she understood it, she cried piously, ‘God in Heaven! What do they study all that time?’

I had heard that question until I could almost sing the answer.

‘The sun and the moon and the stars and the light,’ I began, ‘and rivers and mountains and all the earth. And blood and medicines and livers and lungs, and counting and measuring and making books, and Greek and Arabic and Persian and tongues; and some study music all their lives, and some paint pictures all their lives, and die before they have finished—’

‘God in Heaven!’ repeated the girl. ‘Are n’t they married?’

‘Oh, men, I mean,’ I explained. ‘Men — and some women.’

‘Men and women!’ she exclaimed. ‘Did you study with men?’

‘Yes, I did,’ I said. ‘We can. Yes, unveiled. Barefaced.’

Farkhanda was thoroughly shocked.

‘Weren’t you ashamed?’ she cried.

‘I was not,’ I assured her. ‘It is our custom. Men don’t mind us being about. They don’t pay much attention to us. And if they do, it does n’t hurt us. They are not that kind of men.’

‘But what kind are they?’ the girl gasped. ‘Angels?’

‘ Well, not exactly,’ I answered. I am afraid I never explained this point satisfactorily. ‘They are just — Americans, decent men to work with.’

The mother-in-law was listening to me with a wise smile.

Farkhanda said, ‘I could study, too, if I were there. I could learn everything. I could study a thousand years. But’ — with a sigh — ‘I’m married! ’

I took them over to the bungalow, to show them through it, and, excusing myself for a moment, left them sitting in the drawing-room. When I returned, they were opening the drawers of the dining-room sideboard and examining the silverware.

‘I wanted to see what was in this thing,’ the girl told me, without the least embarrassment. ‘What sort of spoons are these?’

They were forks. Then she proceeded to explore each room and closet of our house.

After that morning Farkhanda became what we reluctantly call a ‘hospital haunter.’ She managed some way to need treatment three or four days a week, and the other days she came for amusement. I suppose her hospital experience was to her what a year in Europe is to an American girl. It amused the doctor, who loved her for Betsey’s sake, to see that the hospital girls, who generally maintain a deplorable attitude of superiority to uneducated women, received her as one of themselves. I got to know her well. Her mother she did not remember, she told me, but of the great maulvie, her father, she told me many proud stories.

‘He had so many followers,’ she declared, ‘that we had no place to store the gifts they brought him, so he fed butter to his shining ponies, which he rode in nezabazi. Do you know that game, Miss Sahib, where men riding furiously down a race-course pick up from the ground on their long spears a little stake?’ Her eyes shone when she recalled that. ‘How I loved being taken to those games! And the crowds! My father always won. But when I was seven, he would n’t let me go any more. Said I was too big to be out. And he had a little burqua made for me. How I hated that veil! And every day I’d get punished by my grandmother for going out without it. “ Why can’t you stay in the house,” she’d say, “ like a decent child ? Do women go outside?” Everyday I’d get punished. But after my brother was born, I never ran away again. That was the highest day. I shall never forget it. I used to look at him by the hour, and hold him. I was never lonely then. He was the loveliest baby! I taught him all his games and his tricks. Little moon, he was. And when he got bumped, it was to me he came crying. I nearly died after I was married, and I could never see him again.’

‘Why could n’t you?’ I asked.

‘Oh, my father died after all my wedding clothes were ready, and mv stepmother wanted to break my engagement. “Why should this girl get out of the family?” her people said. But my grandmother was furious and would not allow them to carry out their plans. So that quarrel was a wall unto heaven, and my stepmother took the baby and went to her people away up north. He was three then. And I was married, and then my grandmother died. So now I have no home to go to visit. But when my brother is grown, I will go to see him. When fathers are gone, what have women but brothers?’

Husbands, of course, do not count. Farkhanda’s did not. I saw him once when he was home during the vacation of a school in Amritsar. He was a loose-jointed, languid, untidy sort of a schoolboy, about sixteen. One could not imagine a girl so unsentimental as Farkhanda taking very much interest in him. Fortunately he was seldom at home. This left her free — perhaps too free — to spend much of her time in the hospital, where she made the best of her opportunities. She had always a book in her hand, and she stood about the verandah, ‘ripening her lessons,’ as she said, and getting new ones all the time, in spite of our objections. She waylaid me every time I passed with, ‘What’s that word?’ or ‘What does this mean?’ She stood with the women who waited at the half-door of the compounding room, and pushed her book in front of the compounder every time a patient turned away satisfied. Undaunted she crept in, between the turns of the impatient women, to the table where the doctor sat in the dispensary, with, ‘Tell me how to say this ’ — and the doctor never could resist her, until one day, when this eager young reader walked calmly into the operating-room when she was removing a cataract.

She spent many hot afternoons, contrary to our most cherished rules, in the big room where the nurses were supposed to be resting. I came in suddenly upon them one day at three o’clock, when they were having a very hilarious rehearsal, in extreme negligée, of the play they intended giving.

‘Farkhanda,’ I began very soberly, ‘what are you doing here?’

‘Miss Sahib,’ she answered humbly, ‘I’m learning my lessons. Let me stay. I want to play with these girls. I’ve nothing to do at home. It’s lonely.’

‘Your father-in-law would be very angry if he knew you were away all day,’ I continued.

‘ But he won’t know it,’ she reasoned, ‘I’ll get home first. My mother-in-law does n’t mind.’

All the nurses began pleading for her. They were to have a ‘drama,’ the story of Joseph, and a little ‘drami,’ the Prodigal Son — and Farkhanda of course must be the Pharaoh, the king. Would n’t I just let her come afternoons till they had the play ready?

They were such nice girls, after all, that I had to agree. They gave their play by starlight, in the courtyard, to an audience of bewildered convalescents and a few Moslem friends who could get permission to come by night to see it.. It was a most extraordinary performance. Moses himself would not have known the story. The doctor and I sat together, enjoying it as much as any — not the play, but the shining eyes of the audience, and Farkhanda’s radiant abandonment of herself to the joy of the occasion. The stars that shone down on us have seen many an Indian king in their day. But I doubt if they ever saw a king more elated, more amusing, or more lovable than Pharaoh was that night.

When Farkhanda’s servant, some time after that, asked me to go to see her, I suddenly remembered that the girl had not been in the hospital for some days.

When I entered her home, I knew it was out of tune.

‘I have n’t seen you for a long time,’ I ventured to say.

‘No!’ she answered scornfully. ‘I’m not allowed to go out now. She’s made a fuss about my going out — my husband’s brother’s wife.’ She looked venomously at a woman carrying a baby down the stairs. ‘Lord! how I hate her! I’ll get even.’

I suggested that this attitude was hardly worthy of a woman who wished to learn doctari; and besides, it was unbecoming.

‘Unbecoming!’ she cried. ‘How? She’s always saying I’m plain and sallow, and she pities my husband because he’s childless. Just because she has two little beasts of her own!’

I had seldom heard an Indian woman speak with so little reverence of children.

‘Do you think she’s pretty?’

‘Indeed I don’t,’ I said honestly. ‘I’d much rather look at you.’

The other woman was round and pink and stupid. Farkhanda’s thin face was all one bright ivory color except for her carmine lips; and her dark eyes and even the shadows and sweet curves around them seemed to glow as she looked straight at me, eagerly, unafraid.

‘One sees something more than face, looking at you.’

Her mind jumped with characteristic energy to this idea. What did I mean?

I told her of faces made beautiful by character; of what Ruskin said of the things which mar beauty. And for some reason I told her of the grit and victory of our Betsey. The story roused her to protest.

‘Oh I’m not like that,’ she cried. ‘Not at all. You don’t see nice things when you look at my face. There’s none for you to see. What can I do? I won’t stand this.’

I wanted to make her happy again.

‘Your brother-in-law will go away soon. Then you’ll be allowed to go to the hospital as before; and I’ll come often.’

And as we were talking, standing by the inner curtain, her brother-in-law pushed the curtain aside and came in. Farkhanda had little time to pull her veil down over her face, but most women in such circumstances would have managed it. In our city an elder brother must not look on the face of a younger brother’s wife. This elder brother did it, and enjoyed it. His face lighted up as if he had bent over a flame. Any man’s would, looking at her. In a moment he was gone.

‘Farkhanda,’ I whispered, ‘be careful!’

‘Oh, trust me for that,’ she laughed flippantly. ‘Don’t bother about me,’ she added. ‘It does n’t matter.’

The next week, the brother-in-law returned, a day earlier than his family had planned, to his work on the northern frontier. Farkhanda went with him. When I told the doctor this, she said with a great deal of energy, ‘ Of course!’


One summer, a long time afterward, it happened that the doctor could find no women of sufficient experience and discretion to take charge of the Katur dispensary. So for two months I went out Tuesdays and Fridays on the train, with a young Indian girl who could manage simple cases. We slept in the walled dispensary courtyard at night, began clinic at six in the morning, and went home by the noon train. We used to get to the dispensary about eight, and always prepared for bed at once. And then, because every fifteen miles the vocabulary, inflections, and idioms of the language of our women change, I used to listen for hours to the yarns that the women who crept down from adjoining high roofs would spin for us, filling up a note-book in the dark with sentences hard to read in the morning. I remember distinctly that a gentle old Hindu woman was telling me about the amazing things that happen the day a snake a hundred years old turns into a beautiful youth, and I was thinking how fortunate it is that most snakes die young, when some one rattled the outside chain of the door, and my discreet teachers disappeared over the wall.

‘A woman’s here,’ the watchman called sleepily.

I opened the door a little crack.

‘Oh, let me in! Let me hide!’ some one begged, pushing against the door. ‘Miss Sahib, you know me, Let me in. I shall be killed.’

I had no desire to become involved in a neighborhood quarrel in Katur, with a young girl and an old watchman on my hands. But the woman’s distress I could not withstand. She pushed in, and locked the door after her. In the starlight I could see from her full silk skirt and shameless veils that she was a dancer.

She looked quickly around her. At one end of the courtyard were three living-rooms and a verandah; at the other, three dispensary rooms. She made toward the open living-rooms. ‘I’ll hide there,’ she whispered.

I was asking for some explanation. I could see she was trembling.

‘Don’t you know me?’ she answered. ‘I’m Farkhanda.’

She was inside the room now, and as I turned up the lantern, she shut the door, and then the barred window which opened into the street. When the light fell on her face, as she turned to me, I remembered the girl who was like Betsey. The fire had gone out of her face. I saw only ashes there. I opened the door into the court, turned out the lantern, and sat down by her. She was rocking back and forth on the door, her face hidden in her knees.

‘What’s the matter?’ I asked. ‘Where did you come from, here?’

She said nothing, but sat rocking and groaning. After a while she cried, ‘O God! O God! That man was my brother!’

I remembered then that she had a brother, and that she had left our city suddenly.

‘You came back to your brother?’ I asked. And then because I could not think of Betsey and this girl’s costume at once, I said the worst thing possible. ‘Farkhanda, why are you wearing those clothes?’

‘Ask God,’ she moaned. ‘I don’t know. Why am I wearing these clothes! Why am I wearing these clothes!’

We sat still a long while, until she had groaned ‘O Miss Sahib!’ two or three times.

‘Tell me what’s the matter,’ I urged. ‘Did n’t he receive you?’

‘Oh, he received me,’ she echoed. ‘How he received me! Why did n’t he kill me first? I don’t want to hide. I want to die.’

I sat there for hours, it seems, helplessly watching her suffer. Some time before dawn I knew the story she told in choking bits.

’I saw you on the train,’ she said. ‘But I would n’t let you see me. I was ashamed. I dance now — I came to dance at a wedding — my father was Sheik Alim Shah!’

To help her on, I said, ‘But you knew your brother was here, did n’t you?’

‘No, I did n’t know. I should have known he would find me out some time. I saw in the crowd over there a man more handsome than them all, as proud as a conqueror. He sat there looking so disgusted — looking disgusted at me. I would n’t have it. And so — Oh, Lord, I can’t tell you— I’ve learned horrible things. I sang at him — I — made him come up where I stood — close to me, looking at me — and singing. We were in the centre of hundreds of men — in a garden. And then the man who asked me to come cried out to us, laughing. He shouted — he said, “Aziz Shah, kiss your sister.”

‘My heart died just then. But he went on singing. Then that man cried, “Men, see Sheik Alim Shah’s children! Are n’t they loving?”

‘And when he heard our father’s name in jest, my brother turned around angrily toward the man. But he sneered, “You did n’t know you had a sister? I’m making you know! ”

‘The world was silent. My brother stood looking at me — looking. Stillness. He asked, “Is this true?”

‘I said yes. I forgot my shame. I stretched out my hand to him. Somebody laughed. The way he looked at me was worse than all curses. Then he rushed away, stumbling—’

She sat moaning, and crying, ‘My brother! my brother! I heard them laughing, recalling things about my father. I cursed my way through them. I did n’t know where to go. I said, “My brother will return and kill me if I stay, and they will all say he does well to. And if I go out into the street, thieves will kill me for the fortune of jewelry I wear.” I came to you.’

‘But Farkhanda,’ I cried, ‘why did that unspeakable man do it?’

‘Oh, once in Lahore I was with a judge. I heard cases. Both sides came to me with gifts — and I listened. And as I decided, the verdict was given. I got much money — I am rich — rich. But I have no brother!

‘ When my brother went away, I was standing there dying, and that man called out, “You remember that watered garden of mine you gave to my cousin ? I swore I would have revenge for that, and the Most High has filled my cup to overflowing — in wonderful ways, in ways beyond prayer. You have forgotten the garden? You ’ll remember me!”’

Once she said, ‘You’ll hear terrible stories about me now. True ones, too. I tell you I loved that city when I first saw it. Crowds and people and much to do. I knew it all. I learned it. I saw all the palaces of its kings, and their gardens and tombs, as men go to see them. I ruled the city. After a while there was nothing new to do. Last week, one night, I looked out over the miles and miles of roofs, and I knew there was not a man in one of those houses of whom I could not make a fool. And not a woman who did not pray against me. I was tired of it all.’

After a long pause she cried, ‘How well God arranges his little jokes! That fate should bring me here! That I should have danced before my brother! I hated it all. That’s why I came here when that man asked me. I wanted something new to do. But now I know. There is nothing new but pain.’

She was right about pain.

At dawn I brought her some strong tea, and she trembled as she drank it.

‘I’m going home by the early train,’she announced. ‘My party won’t go till noon. I’m not afraid now. I want a thick veil.’

It was too early for the shops to be opened, and we searched through the dispensary without finding anything that would serve as a veil.

‘I can’t go unveiled,’ she moaned.

‘ I must have a thick veil to wear in his city — to hide me.’

She was looking out toward my cot in the courtyard. I brought her my two sheets. One she tied around her waist, in place of her billowy silk skirt. The other one had coarse lace set in across the top, in which were crocheted the cryptic words, ‘God is love.’ A nurse had given it to me at Christmas. This Farkhanda draped over her head, and pulled down over her face. ‘ God is love’ hung down behind about her knees. She started to go out.

‘You’d better wait here a while,’ I said. ‘It’s early yet, and you had better not get to the station too early. There might be trouble.’

‘That’s true,’ she agreed wearily, sitting down.

The assistant and I had our tea near her on the verandah, and set about dusting the bottles and the cupboards. I was wrapping cotton round little sticks, making swabs for throats and eyes, when our sweeper-woman came in for her morning duties. She was talking eagerly to another woman, and paused outside the verandah so that the necessity of salaaming to me would not interrupt her.

‘Yes, and his face is all black,’ she was saying excitedly, ‘and his throat — and his eyes bulge out — open — oh—’

‘Whose eyes bulge out?’ I asked, thinking that they were bringing a patient.

‘Salaam, Miss Sahib,’ she cried.

‘Ah, the young maulvie’s. He hanged himself last night. You should see the way his eyes — ’

From Farkhanda there came a little stricken moan.

‘Keep still,’ I commanded the woman, feeling suddenly very tired.

There was a most awful silence. Farkhanda’s shriek broke it.

‘It is my brother! ’ she cried, rising, stretching her arms straight up above her.

‘No, it is n’t,’ I said to her helplessly; ‘it is n’t your brother.’

‘It was Maulvie Alim Shah,’ said the woman importantly. ‘You never heard anything like it. They say he did it for shame. Last night, they say, at the wedding —’

Farkhanda’s outburst of death-wailing I shall never forget. Till noon that day it kept chills running up and down my back, so that I thought I was getting fever. She stumbled out through the courtyard, seeing nothing, her arms stretched up toward heaven.

‘Where are you going?’ I cried to her. ‘Sit down. You don’t know where you’re going.’

‘I go to see my brother,’ she wailed. ‘I’ve always wanted to see him.’

She would not come back. I sent the dumfounded sweeper-woman after her to show her the way to the house.

‘They’ll never receive her,’ I said. ‘Bring her back if they turn her out.’

The clinic had scarcely opened when she came back at the head of a dusty crowd of small boys, curious loafers, and a few low-caste women. The men who lingered around our courtyard door after she had come in, I dispersed with militant efficiency, hating all men on the face of the earth just then. If that man had to die, I was thinking angrily, why could n’t he die for his own sins, or for the sins of the men about him? Had not Farkhanda already her weight of shame?

The sweeper-woman was telling me, weeping, what had happened at the house where the man lay dead.

‘There was a great crowd around the door. She wanted to go in. But his father-in-law on the threshold cursed her away. And as she stood there weeping, when some one called to him from inside, he threw at her the rope they had cut from his neck. “Take that! It’s yours,”he said to her. And she picked it up and kissed it. She’s brought it with her.’

We went and sat down in the dust where she was rocking back and forth. The women were weeping, even my protégée, and I sat awkwardly dumb and tearless. Farkhanda had begun wailing out that terrible death-song — that instinctive expression of the sorrows of the women of the East; a variation, according to the occasion, of words they know too well. They sing it to the air they call ‘ the stricken air,’ which may be the oldest in the world.

‘ Did light shine on the earth? My sun is stiff and cold.
O wailing walls, be still. O earth, contain my grief.
Hope came with morning light. There is no morning light.
Do young men hate their life? My brother hated life.
Do strong men die of shame? My brother died of shame.
Do princes hang in ropes? My prince hung in a rope.’

As she sobbed the words on and on, the three girls she had brought from Lahore with her came in and sat down with her. Through the morning they sat there, ‘pulling out their sorrow from their soul as a wire is drawn through a too small hole in iron,’ while the crowd of women around eyed them, some condemningly, some awe-stricken, some sighing. Once a few, led by a simple-hearted woman, sat down with them, only to be scolded away when a friend of the newly widowed woman came in. There she sat, undone, the maulvie’s daughter who danced; and there was God’s hand, punishing her of course according to her sins. It was uncomfortable to think about, — suppose it was our turn, now, — but it was a good story. There had been nothing like it, — suicides were rare, — and this was more than suicide.

I doubt whether Farkhanda heard or saw anything that went on around her that morning. We took her with us on the noon train, but when we got to our city she refused to stay with us. She insisted on changing into the Lahore train.

‘I’ll come and see you some time,’ she said. Then she added, ‘He ought not to be buried there. He should be buried by my father.’

In our city we make thrilling stories out of no material at all, and so of course the tales of Farkhanda’s wickedness, after being revised on every roof by starlight, and enlarged in every darkened room at noon, were tales to be remembered. Gradually, however, our neighbors’ business absorbed our attention completely, and we forgot about Farkhanda.


One evening, two or three months ago, when the winter rains were driving through the verandahs, I came into our great cellar of a drawing-room and found the doctor sitting in front of the glowing fire, with her feet dangerously far into the fireplace.

‘Tired?’ I asked as I sat down beside her. I noticed that her arms were lying limply along the chair-arms.

‘I’ve had a day of it,’ she answered. ‘You never know what’s coming next. I’ve had to resort to discipline.’

‘How terrible!’ I exclaimed.

‘That new watchman, — he’s an able financier. He’s been admitting a perfect stream of visitors into the hospital all afternoon, for a small fee. There’s a holy woman in the left ward upstairs. She’s so desperately holy that she’s turned the hospital into a mosque.’

‘What did she come for?’ I asked. ‘Who is she?’

‘She’s got half a dozen well-developed diseases,’ the doctor went on. ‘We cleaned out an awful green sore on her knee day before yesterday. She has tuberculosis — nose and throat. She’s starved, really, from fasting. We’d hardly got her into bed and our backs turned, till she crawled out and lay on the cement floor — imagine! on a day like this. And she insisted on lying there, till I threatened to put her out. She got out five times in the night to say her prayers. Wish I were as zealous about mine, I must say. We had such a time getting her to eat. She suffers terribly.’

The next morning, in the hospital, I suddenly remembered the saint, and being as much interested in holiness as other women, I went up to the little bare room which her presence hallowed. I found a very old woman, tucked under a coarse brown blanket, lying on the iron cot. A white veil was pulled tightly across her forehead just above her eyes. Her thin lips were muttering something continually. Her servant, who had salaamed to me condescendingly, saw me watching with surprise the labored moving of the muscles of her throat.

‘She always breathes that way,’ she volunteered, ‘just in her throat. For ten years she has not taken a full breath. She strives only to know the will of God.’

‘But why?’ I asked, ignominiously.

‘Her vow.’ Then, bethinking herself, she grew friendly. ‘The peace of heaven descend upon you!’ she began. ‘God give you seven sons’ —a rather inconsistent prayer, I thought. ‘Do you happen to be the head of this hospital? My mistress’s rank is but little appreciated in this place. Could you not give your slaves orders to let her lie on the floor? She is not used to beds. Truly the floor does her no harm. Saints don’t mind cold and hardness. So much medicine and care is not what she wants. Can’t you see? Night and day she waits upon God. She seeks Him in prayer.’

‘I see what you mean,’ I assured her.

‘ But I am not the head here. Our ways are new to you, and you have misunderstood. Have you not read that lying on cement floors in hospitals in the winter annoys the Most High greatly? It’s as bad as eating the unclean beast. In hospitals He desires neither prayers nor fasts, but only obedience to the doctor. And his wrath rests on the stubborn so that their recovery is delayed. You look around, and you’ll see.’

The woman was listening with the simplicity of a small child.

Suddenly I noticed that the saint had opened her eyes and was keenly watching me. They were piercing eyes, trying to look through me, with anything but childlike simplicity. I hurriedly improvised chapter and verse. She closed her eyes and continued praying. I was ashamed of my nonsense.

The servant, greatly reassured by my wisdom, gave a sigh of relief.

‘Every fifteen breaths, the name of God. That name of God’s ninety-nine names whose turn it is. Day and night, every fifteen breaths, for eleven years. And besides the fast of Ramazan, a forty-days’ fast every year.’

The saint silenced the servant by a weak gesture.

‘Mother, may the Lord give you strength and healing in this place!’

And because she seemed very ill, I left her, naturally wanting to know her story.

It was the mother of the ‘Gift of God’ who enlightened me, a few hours later.

‘Miss Sahib,’ she began, her face shining with the delight of those who startle, ‘do you know who that is, upstairs — that holy woman?’

‘She’s from Rassiwali, or some place, I hear,’ I said.

‘She’s Farkhanda!' announced my informant importantly. ‘Don’t you remember, that conjuri whose brother hung himself?’

She brought the story all back to me. ‘She’s as good as she was bad,’ she said. ‘She’s better. They go for miles to see her. I never went, but my aunts did. They say her shrine is like a big cage, all made of openwork brick, and away out alone in a cemetery, where her father is buried. A maulvie from Lahore built it for her when she was in Mecca. And when she came back, the maulvie went out with her, and a big crowd, and they put her in and locked the door, and took the key away. And when you looked in, there was nothing to see but her — and the rope.’

I suppose that I have never gone up those stairs as quickly as I went up that day. In the hallowed room I found a nurse dressing the sore, and when I exclaimed over the thinness of the uncovered leg, the nurse raised the kurta and showed me the protruding ribs of the emaciated body, and the joints which seemed too large. How could I believe that this skeleton, this withered death’s head, was really little Miss Betsey? This was what the years in Lahore, the years in the shrine, had left of the girl who would study a thousand years; of our giggling, glowing, jubilant Pharaoh; of the victim of God’s little joke.

I stood looking at her, not daring to speak, not knowing what to say. Her eyes were still closed and her lips moving when I crept away. In the courtyard below I cross-questioned every woman who volunteered any information about the shrine, and wonderful tales I heard from them. And I only partly believed, what I afterward verified : that so many worshipers went to pray at her shrine that now mail trains stop at the little station near it, where formerly only locals stopped.

To this day I can’t understand why I never heard before of Farkhanda’s sanctification. I told the mother of the ‘Gift of God’ that it was because she was so much more eager to tell bad news than good.

But she answered, laughing, ‘Oh, you always think you know all about this city. But you don’t. I could tell you a few things now. You never see anything but these hospital walls.’

For days Farkhanda lay just as I left her that morning. But the doctor has had a sad amount of experience in the diseases of people who starve, not from choice but from necessity, and the skill and care which she poured out on Farkhanda slowly worked a most gratifying change in her condition. I never saw the doctor more pleased with her success. Certainly she had never before had a patient who unconsciously overturned so thoroughly that oriental way of managing which it pleases us to call hospital routine. The saint’s presence turned our orthodox missionary institution into a mosque for women. We had no patients left, but she had many fervent worshipers. The first month she was with us, there was a record attendance of village women in the dispensary, who came in groups from many places miles away, carrying their babies with them to receive her blessing.

When she got strong enough to say her early afternoon prayers in the sun on the verandah, the clinic would suddenly empty with a rush in her direction when she appeared. Instead of women clamoring for immediate attention in the clinic, we had to insist upon their coming in for their turns.

She was with us ten weeks, and though she often talked with the doctor, during all that time, when I saw her often, she never spoke to me except in benedictions, until a day or two before she left us. She felt, I suppose, that I would try to dissuade her from spending the rest of her life in the shrine, as she proposed doing. One afternoon, with my arms full of disinfected blankets, I passed through the verandah where by some chance she sat alone. Smiling up at me as if I were a dear and naughty child, she motioned me to sit down beside her.

‘Let’s talk a while,’ she said. ‘It’s sweet to make words together.’

I had never felt more honored in my life.

‘You’ve missed making words?’ I asked.

‘Have I missed it! God knows whether or not I have.’

The light of so great an earnestness shone in her eyes as she answered me, that I knew that, though her face was worn with battles, her spirit was still unsubdued. She had become again, very slightly, like the girl Farkhanda.

‘You don’t suppose, because I did n’t talk to you, that I don’t remember how good you were to me that night,’ she began.

‘I knew you had your vow. I’m sorry I never knew where you were. I would have gone to see you.’

‘ You would have asked me to come away,’ she said, ‘would n’t you?’

‘Indeed I would have,’ I answered.

‘I had plenty who tried that,’ she said.

‘Who?’ I asked, wondering.

‘Oh, people used to come at first — many. One still comes — one man from Lahore —’

Of all things that she might have been proud of, she was proud of that. How pitiable are we women!

‘He comes in fall — and he comes in spring — at the April full moon. You know that night—when I can hear the music of the Hindu Saturnalia? He used to bring men with picks, at first, to tear down my wall.’

After a silence I said, ‘Farkhanda, did it never occur to you that any one might have torn that shrine of yours brick from brick, and no one could have heard you, to help. He might have done that.’

‘He might not have,’ she exclaimed. ‘He did n’t dare.’

‘Well, I’m glad you were n’t afraid, anyway,’ I continued.

‘Afraid!’ she exclaimed. ‘I’ve been consumed with fear.’

She stretched out an arm to show me how thin it still was.

‘Unless it had been God’s will that I should live, I would have died every day that first winter.’

‘But why?’ I asked.

’Churails,' she replied. ‘Ghosts of women who die pregnant. A man died of fear when he met one in that mango grove, once when I was a little girl. I had forgotten it. But when the darkness fell that first night, I remembered, suddenly. I had no charm. Some people get a hair from one of them — their hairs are all living, like snakes. Their long teeth hang out. Their feet are on backward, heels first. If you get a hair, and sew it into a little slit above your knee, they can’t hurt you. One looked in at me that night, green eyes in the dark. I ran around the shrine, feeling for the door, screaming for some one to let me out. But away off in the town, every one was asleep. — Every night I resolved to get out in the morning. After bodies are buried, jackals come howling about. Fridays, when spirits go back to their homes, I waited for morning. I put my rope to the east at sunset, so I’d know where to look for the sun — I waited for some one to call to.’

‘But you never called,’ I reminded her.

‘ In the morning I’d hear them laughing as they passed. “Can a conjuri give up her way of living?” one asked, those first days. And the other answered, “Can a woman stop breathing?” So then I stopped breathing. I had my rope to kiss. I would not leave. Anyway, I used to remember what you said when I asked you why the evil eye could not fall upon babies in the hospital. You said that if you did n’t fear churails and evil eyes, they could n’t touch you. You said if anyone laughed at them, they ran away. You told me that you walked at twilight once through a wide dark desert place,—’ she used such a lovely Panjabi word to make one see the dark and the solitude and the distance, — ‘and you saw a little way off an evil spirit. And when you were not afraid, but walked right up to it, it turned into a man carrying a bundle of grass on his head.’

‘I did n’t say that,’ I expostulated.

‘Yes, you did. I remembered. I used to try to laugh. But it sounded like crying. I could never deceive them.’

‘Farkhanda!’ I cried. ‘That was a straying donkey, or a cow, or goat, that looked in on you.’

She interrupted me, entirely unconvinced.

‘Oh, well, anyway, I’m not so afraid now. I’ve got over that. And I had my dogs.’

‘Dogs?’ I questioned, knowing that Moslems consider dogs unclean.

‘Two conjuris brought a little childdog out to me by night, when they came out to pray — they were so sorry for my loneliness. They thought I was too proud to take a gift from them, so very quietly they put her in at the little hole through which I sweep my shrine out. I called out after them, “Sisters, the Lord show you kindness!” I cried the night the puppy came — all night.’

‘ You must often have cried, I should think,’ I said.

‘No, I did n’t. I never cried except that night when I touched her. She was so warm and soft and little. I had n’t touched anything living for three years then.’

‘ I’m glad you had her for company.’

‘I did n’t. She got too big to crawl in and out of the hole. Once she got stuck, and cried like a child. Then I put the water-jar in front of the hole, so she could never get in again.'

‘ Why did n’t you keep her inside with you?’ I asked.

‘She had no mate in there,’ she answered.

When I began begging her not to go back, she said rather sharply, ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. You make me want my rope to kiss. If I did n’t go back, I’d be in Lahore again in a week.’

Mighty convenient thing, a locked shrine, I thought. Every one ought to have one.

‘And besides,’ she continued, ‘a Hindu fakir sat under the banyan tree by the pond for eleven years, not far from my shrine. He had torn out his tongue, and every two minutes he roared like a bull. He had great fame. I must have greater — for my brother. Ten years have I sat there untarnishing my father’s shining name. This winter, when I got ill, the bitterness of death was in my heart, lest I might die too soon. I sent word to my brother’s widow’s family, that I would make a journey to the hospital. I sent word to the man who gave me my rope. He came with servants, — he was proud to come, — and had my shrine opened, and his servants carried me to the train. It was an honor for him. Next week he comes to take me back.’

She was speaking with complacency, with satisfaction, with something that seemed like anticipation. There was no use in my arguing, absolutely none.

‘Farkhanda,’ I said, —and I felt like crying, — ‘I’m sure I’ll never wake up again in my warm bed at night and listen to the tempests of rain roaring through our trees, without thinking miserably of you out there alone on the cold stones. Don’t go back to fasting.’

‘Now for that,’ she answered, ‘may the Lord reward you! When I can’t sleep in my shrine, I shall pray for you. The Lord be her thick veil, the Lord be her thick veil, God shield her from all men’s eyes, I shall pray. Twelve years at least I must pray there. Twelve years will be enough — and as much after as God wishes. I tell you, I am very glad to be living to go back, child.’

At the time it seemed natural that she should call me ‘child.’ But later, when the doctor and I reckoned up the years, I remembered that she was thirty-four. I was ten years older.