By Usama Khalidi |

A childhood friend Hariz and I met in our hometown after several decades spent  overseas in our respective lives, when he told me how he had met Marcia Grunwald, a 36-year-old Wisconsin woman with whom he was living until recently. Marcia was a scholar researching and writing a part of her PhD dissertation that had to do with “ecological psychology”.

Then 58, Hariz was in the process of getting a divorce from his wife, as their three grown children were starting to leave home.  Marcia and Hariz fell in love, sortof, and decided to live together and pursue their individual goals.  Marcia had had no experience of living in a poor country.  She had been in England and had joined a Muslim Sufi circle of about 10 people led by a charismatic leader, Askari, a professor of sociology who was big on crossing cultures, pursuing spiritual growth, and celebrating the diversity of human experience.  The soft face of Islam and the talk of loving kindness appealed to her.  Hariz happened to be visiting his professor guru the same time in Birmingham when he met Marcia at their Sufi circle sessions.  Hariz had known Askari as a much admired teacher in the Shi’a community of Hyderabad.   Hariz helped Marcia learn the history and the variety of Sufi practices, and their love of music and poetry. After an exciting stay of barely six months, she returned home and worked on her dissertation.  A few years passed during which she and Hariz exchanged letters about their lives and hopes of getting back together.  She got her doctorate, Hariz got his divorce and settled his family affairs in some kind of order.  Marcia took up Hariz on his invitation to come live in Hyderabad.

Marcia was a stereotypically tall and sturdy Midwestern woman, a picture of rude health with her freckled white skin. Descended from Scandinavian and German farmers —  horse breeders, actually,  she was neither beautiful nor ugly, but her big frame gave her a presence. Her shoulder-length hair, somewhat wavy and blondish, framed her totally honest, smiling face that put strangers at ease. 

     Hariz was a bit overweight but carried his extra adipose evenly, his Einstein-ish hair giving him just the look of an Urdu poet, which he was.  His somewhat small eyes fixed on you when listening to a long story.  He had spent many years building homes and commercial structures in Hyderabad, Iran and Dubai.  Two of his daughters had married and moved out.  A son was at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, on a scholarship, pursuing a graduate degree in sociology (which is a rarity among his generation of Indian Muslims, who invariably go to technical and professional schools.)  All the family members maintained close relationships with each other despite  physical distances and the divorce.  Hariz had published five books of poetry, made his place in the Urdu literary circles nationwide, wrote plays for TV and quietly worked on his sitar-playing when he found time at his small apartment.

         A few days after Marcia arrived, they decided to move out to the edge of town, near Osmania University with its sprawling campus.  On moving day, there was the usual excitement at their apartment building among the domestic workers who serviced well-to-do people who owned cars, had high incomes and could afford to have domestic help.  Hariz had talked to a couple of the service men to come and wash the apartment.  When Marcia learned of this, she said, “No, we can do it ourselves. Can’t we?”

         “It doesn’t cost much,” Hariz tried to tell her. “These are poor folks, who can use a little extra money to spend on their children.”  Marcia did not relent, and as Hariz watched, she got a sweep, a mop and a bucket of water, and went to work.  Hariz thought she left him no choice but to pick up the broom – something he could swear he had never done in his life. Doing it yourself in a way was robbing the poor folk of a chance to earn their living, he reasoned.

         One day Marcia, clad in her shorts and a t-shirt as usual, opened the door to a 12-year-old boy selling something.  She tried to speak with him but the boy’s mouth was open and his eyes were fixed on her large frame.  She said no, thank you, and closed the door.  Hariz noticed Marcia’s face turn red, stunned by something, her eyes showing some deep shock.  “Why does this boy hate me so,” she asked. 


         “This boy who came to the door.  He looked me up and down with such incredible hatred, I can’t believe it.  I didn’t even say anything.  I know they hate me, for just being white or something.”  Hariz could easily imagine this boy’s response to the sight of a big white woman in shorts and a carelessly worn blouse.  At home, the boy would have learned to treat his mother, his aunts and sisters with special care and great respect as carriers of family reputation in the neighborhood, in the larger family and among his friends.  Their bodies terra incognita, and their purpose in daily life to take care of all the males at home. His imagination fed on the holy and the unholy females of the national epic Mahabharata, he could only have seen a she-monster in the form of Marcia, a strange kind of woman, never seen before in flesh and bood, one  who had no sense of shame at exposing so much of herself, the way he probably saw it.  Not at all like his mother or his aunts.

         When getting out of their car at their building and going into their apartment, Hariz and Marcia would always notice the service staffs eying them with amusement.  Marcia would greet them with a broad smile and exchange a few  words.  Hariz would just ignore them and walk quickly by in a hurry to get to the elevator.  “Why can’t you be a little friendly with these men”?  she asked.  “What’s the harm in being pleasant”?

         Hariz was aware of the conventional wisdom that nothing good comes of mixing with people outside your class, but couldn’t explain it to Marcia.  One afternoon, as usual, Hariz scuttled to his door while Marcia stopped to talk to one of the men who greeted them.  The man followed her into the apartment, mumbling “dollar, dollar.”  Marcia turned sharply to him and said, “What’s it about?  Dollar?  Oh, get out of here!” She hollered, “Hariz!” Please tell this man I don’t have any dollars.  Ask him to leave.  I’d call police if he won’t leave.”

         Marcia sat down on a chair and wondered aloud: Why don’t they have any self-respect,  begging for money.  Free money.  For nothing.  Doubts were beginning to accumulate in her mind about whether she could be happy living in this environment of extreme distances between economic classes, education levels and behavior patterns.  She particularly hated the expressions of humility the lower classes seemed to put on their faces.  Looking at the beggars from the car at stoplights was bad enough when they drew your attention and asked for money.  But apparently working men wanting to squeeze some money out of you  for nothing was odd.

         Marcia and Hariz packed a picnic lunch one day when he decided to take her to the Maula Ali shrine nearby, built on top of a mountain, perhaps 1,000 feet high.  It was the best time of year weatherwise for an outing, when the sun was out and climbed up the steps to the shrine, they noticed a few boys and girls under 10 gathering something in the fields with patches of grass and weeds.  They stopped to talk and found out the kids were collecting little red bugs with velvety backs, called birbaboti.  The bugs were twice the size of junebugs but couldn’t fly. Marcia had never seen such bugs before.  What did they do with them?  Nothing, keep them for a while, and then forget about them, Hariz told her.

         The shrine had its holy grave inside a whitewashed little building.  In a corner, an urn held a slow-burning incense.  The keeper of the shrine brought a plate of sweetened gram for visitors to have some, a 100-rupee note in the plate suggested a donation. 

         The couple walked around the building and were captivated by the grand sweep of the view before them, the jumble of apartments buildings, roads with slow moving traffic, humanity going about its business of living, perhaps gazed at and blessed by the holy man from his eternal mountaintop perch.  

         The original holy man after whom the shrine was named lived at least 400 years ago in the time of the Bahmani kings of Golconda. He is said to have had a vision of receiving Hazrat Ali, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, at the mountaintop hut.  The place has since been the site of an annual fair with its ceremonial changing of the grave’s covering, offering pilgrims a day’s break from the worrisome problems of daily living.

         Encouraged by the pleasant trip, Hariz planned their visit to another Sufi shrine, Pahadi Sharief, about 10 miles from the northern edge of the city. This was the day of the shrine’s annual urs.   Hariz and Marcia parked the car and walked around in the bazaar that was crowded with families with the women wrapped in the burqas and the milling children in bright clothes.  They stopped at one stall to eat the mild chili peppers dipped in gram flour and deep-fried in a large pot set on burning coal and wood. As long as the chili peppers weren’t touched by the sellers’ fingers, hygiene was not something to worry about.

         The long and winding entryway to the steps leading to the top of the mountain was lined with holy beggars, mostly old men and women, some of whom wore headgears that identified them as holy faqirs, no ordinary beggars.  They burned incense and one of them swiped the alms-givers with peacock feathers bundled like a fat wand. This was a gesture of blessing.

         The small building on the top of the mountain was built like a mosque.  In its courtyard was the usual leafy molsari tree the size of a dogwood that gave ample shade on a hot day.  A low wall surrounded the courtyard, where some men perched themselves and others prayed or took in the panoramic, late-afternoon view of the surroundings.  A wall on the side held pieces of paper.  Hariz couldn’t help pick one, took a look at the writing and put it back quickly when he saw it was an appeal to the holy man to intercede on the writer’s behalf to have his wishes answered.  People were already eying Hariz and Marcia with less than friendly curiosity, although she was properly attired with her head covered in a scarf.  The secular and or the well-fed outsiders were not too hard to recognize for anyone.

         Suddenly, a man sitting on the low wall started speaking loudly, apparently to the holy man:  “It’s all in your hands now.  The case has gone to the court, you know justice is on our side, but who knows how the judge would decide.  All it takes is for Allah to make the judge do the right thing, and decide in our favor . . . Everybody knows how kind you are to the poor, like us . . .”  Everybody at least here at the shrine seemed to ignore him or pretend not to have heard of his miseries, or maybe they were just granting him his privacy by not looking at him. 

         Hariz and Marcia stood away from the distraught man by the wall and looked down on the hubbub and the gaiety of the children in the bazaar scene below them, which was in sharp contrast to the sadness enveloping the place.  Beyond the bazaar, too, the sight of hazy trees, the fading light of the day seemed filled with melancholy.  It was time to say a quiet prayer for people’s peace of mind, and retreat.

         On another trip into town, Hariz and Marcia were at a book-release ceremony, a frequent event bringing together the city’s literary friends and foes, when they met Mazher Zaman, whom he had known for many years and didn’t particularly like.  Zaman was a bit older than Hariz, and had a somewhat lower standing than that of my friend in the hierarchy of the Urdu world.  At age 65, Zaman was a widower, living well in an apartment building that he owned.  His other land holdings were in his native provincial town of Raichur, which had grown into a small-sized city like many like it across the country.  Zaman had made successful investments mainly on the money his late doctor-wife had earned, which allowed him much freedom to pursue his fiction and essay writing since his mandatory retirement at age 55 from his job in the government bureaucracy.

         Zaman was part of a Marxist circle of friends and activists led by a professor of philosophy at the university.  It may have been coincidental that many members of this circle were Mehdavies, a sect among Muslims who believe that Muhammed may have been the last prophet, a cardinal article of Islamic faith, but Allah had promised to send a Mehdi, a messiah, to lead the people to salvation, and one had indeed been so chosen.  It’s a different story that there have been several claimants to that title in history, including one in Sudan in the 19th century. But this circle of Marxists did not take the Mehdi mythology seriously. They were animated more by the ideals of equality and social justice and social change than anything else.  The group included many poets and writers.  The younger members were in tune with the international leftist movements over the years, and more recently with trends such as the Social Conference held in Brazil in 1992 and in Mumbai in 2005..  But Zaman was old school, unfamiliar with new consciousness of identity politics.  His one trip to the United States to meet with friends and relatives did not seem to have helped much to sensitize him much about gender politics, i.e., about women’s equality.   In any case, his excitement at meeting Marcia and Hariz was evident in his offers to help her get to know the culture and history of Hyderabad and anything else that interested her.  He invited them to have dinner and perhaps a little party at his place.  Marcia thanked him for his offers, and said it’d be nice to get together with him.  Hariz wasn’t sure, but he didn’t want to appear too possessive of Marcia. 

         In the following days, Zaman kept calling Hariz to set up a time for a dinner at his place.  He asked to speak with Marcia, and insisted on their having dinner and drinks with him. Hariz went along and set up a date.  Zaman called Hariz to confirm  the date, and said that he, Hariz, wouldn’t mind if he spent some time with Marcia, would he?   “No, no. Why would I mind. Fine with me.”  Just wanted to let him to know that he wanted to be friends with Marcia, Zaman told him.

         Zaman had his servant lay out a Hyderabadi- style dinner for them with biryani and tandoori naans and khoobani dessert. But first the drinks. Scotch. Marcia wasn’t much of a drinker, but she agreed to one shot, and sipped a little bit now and then.  Zaman had two glasses, and told Hariz to slip out, and come back after an hour or so.   Hariz sensed that Zaman was up to something, but he wasn’t sure how he could control the situation.  He excused himself and left, saying he’d be back shortly.  He walked along the busy street outside, looked into an electronic store for a set of speakers, watched the heavy traffic go by, and wondered how Marcia would handle the situation with Zaman.  Would he sleep with Zaman, as he seemed to think she would?  He just didn’t know what to think.  After an hour and 15 minutes, he went up to Zaman’s apartment building, and found Marcia waiting for him on the street.  She grabbed Hariz by the arm, and hissed, “I never wanna see this man again.  What kind of man is he?  He thought I’d sleep with him, that I’d get drunk and sleep with him.  God!  Miserable creep!  Lets go home.”

        “I wanted to marry Marcia,” Hariz told me.  “I thought she could get a job with one of the call centers, and we could be happy building our lives together.  But she just didn’t like the idea of making money for the Indian corporations, or being in that corporate world.  Perhaps she could have been teaching the call center  people about American life and ways.  I don’t know. She just didn’t like it here.  She decided to leave.”

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