Even after Independence, Brahmpur remained as tense as before, and it was only by the end of November that the situation eased a bit. Potliwallan Galli and Misri Mandi had worn a deserted look compared to their usual bustle – half the occupants had fled from the threat of bloodshed – and workers from the nearby leather factories started to occupy most of the shanties. The well-off colonies were left with splintered families; only the Jamshed family had gone across as a whole, alongwith their relatives in Lucknow. So had the Mirzas, calling off their daughter Nazneen’s promised betrothal to Firoz on the way.
By December, Baitar House was echoing in its emptiness. Only Firoz remained there, with Abbajaan and a handful of servants – Imtiaz was still abroad, in the last year of his medical school; Abida Chachi had moved into quarters across the city, claiming she was leaving the zenana behind forever; the rest had left for Pakistan.
Zafar Chacha was gone, and so were his other uncles and aunts who practically lived at the house, and so were his cousins young and old – Aijaz Bhai, the kite fanatic Iqbal, bookish Zoya, little Tariq and Farahnoor, his favourite; they had all scattered across the border, still raw and bleeding in its newness. Firoz had received no news from them yet; it made him sick to the heart.
Firoz had seriously pondered leaving with them, hang his education and the Bar. Yet he knew it was out of the question, especially after he’d heard Abbajaan explain to his uncle with a deep certainty that he and the Nawabzadas had a duty to Baitar to stay.
In the following months, Firoz had trouble falling asleep. It was as if there was a palpable difference in the noises of sleep-breathing and dreaming in the house, and no amount of reading could dim the ringing silence. He began to leave his bed at night and roam the corridors he had grown up in, past rooms that were now unoccupied and locked; a stranger in his own house. One night he had left the house, carefully climbing over the gate to avoid its rusty creak, and he had nearly lost his way back like a hapless robber, since the front-facing rooms and corridors no longer needed to be lit.
That night, after getting out of bed, he let himself into the guest bedroom. Maan was fast asleep, his limbs askew, Firoz saw as he perched on the edge of the four poster bed. Now that the nights were chilly, they did not require servants to fan them. Crickets chirruped away unseen in the dark, a faraway dog howled, and the lamp outside the door threw sputtering shadows on to the wall. How does anyone sleep in such a din, thought Firoz, forgetting for a moment that this was the music that lulled him each night.
Maan had come by that evening with a big box of his mother’s special halwa, with nuts and raisins sprinkled on top. He had come home from Benaras earlier that week to see his sister Veena and her family, who had finally reached Brahmpur from Lahore. Maan said they were tired and his brother-in-law had terrible injuries on his arms, but they were safe and whole, resting at their house for the time being. His little nephew was only six but he was scarily bright, said Maan, and Veena was expecting Firoz to come meet her soon. Firoz set aside some of the halwa for Abbajaan; he had stopped coming out of his study to eat his meals.
He shook Maan’s leg to wake him, who grunted and rolled over, letting out a snore. Firoz grabbed his shin, dragging the lihaaf off, and he woke with a shout.
“It’s me, it’s me,” Firoz shushed him, and let Maan clumsily pull him into bed. “I can’t sleep.”
“Mmh,” said Maan, voice scratchy with sleep. “And how can I rest my head on a pillow while yours is sleepless and banging against a wall.”
“Yet another butchered couplet,” said Firoz with a laugh. Of late, Maan had picked up the habit of quoting ghazals at every suitable opportunity; the first to capture his fancy was Dagh, then Mir, and now it was Ghalib. He complained that no one appreciated it in Benaras. “Anyone would think you were trying to court me.”
“I’m only trying to cheer you up, Firoz,” replied Maan with a smile, mouth soft as it moved against the skin of Firoz’s temple. “In every way I know.”
Firoz breathed in the faint scent of roses. His mother had used dried petals while storing Baitar House’s linen, and the fragrance had clung to the trunks and cupboards and cloth long after she was gone. Maan’s khadi kurta was scratchy under his hand, and Firoz pulled the quilt over them both.
“It’s just so empty,” he said. “Abida Chachi screamed at them to think again, but they didn’t, they just left. How will they make another home like this in Lahore? Or Karachi?” He felt Maan’s fingers card through his hair, tangling in the locks; then a twinge of pain as Maan tugged. “I know that it is they who left, and yet I think Imti and I and Abbajaan have lost...”
Maan hmmd, and Firoz’s hand buzzed with the vibration against Maan’s chest. He tucked his face closer against Maan’s neck, where it was warm and familiar.
He could sense Maan’s indecision over replying. Partition had treated his family in a completely opposite manner; Firoz knew it wasn’t easy for him to understand. For once he could not share his burden with Imtiaz, who had been forbidden from returning home by their father, believing him to be safer in England for the time being. Zainab was nearby in Lucknow, but she was married, and so just as far away as Imtiaz. Firoz did not even try to approach Abbajaan, locked away in his private grief.
Maan was often away in Benaras, reluctantly minding the family cloth business now that his father had dedicated his time to politics. When in Brahmpur, he spent the night at Baitar house as often as he could, joking that he was a substitute till Imtiaz came home. Sometimes he drowsed or read as Firoz revised for his law exams; mostly they stayed up playing chaupar or chess, sharing a bottle of whiskey that Maan had smuggled into the house.
“I don’t feel so alone when you’re here,” said Firoz, and Maan hugged him closer still in reply.
After a while he looked up and saw that Maan was dozing again. His mouth had fallen open in sleep, and without another thought, Firoz reached up to kiss it.
Maan twitched awake again, and his brow furrowed as he focussed. Firoz found he couldn’t breathe.
“Oh, forgive me –” Firoz started to say, his words too loud for the scant space between them. Maan’s frown vanished, and he opened his eyes wide. He leaned forward and kissed Firoz back firmly, rolling on top of him. Firoz's pulse pounded, radiating out from where Maan’s fingers had found his wrist and closed around it.
“No, maybe not – we shouldn’t – ”
Maan drew back and looked directly into Firoz’s eyes for a long moment. “Fi-roz,” he said sternly, “this is no time for piety!” capturing Abida Chachi’s ringing tones so perfectly that Firoz, shocked for a moment, burst out laughing.
Above him, Maan was laughing too, his weight on top of Firoz halfway between a comfort and a tingle of anticipation. Firoz knew he would find his way around in the dark through sense memory, and so would Maan. Between one thing and another, he did not realise when he finally fell into a deep, satisfied sleep.