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Vempalle Shariff

Vempalle Shariff: ‘A Point of Nails’

Translated by Atreya Sarma U

(Translated from the original Telugu story 'Gollu')

Hubby Sultan had returned from office just a while ago. Laying his dinner on the table, Basiroon retired into the bedroom to sleep.

As soon as she saw Safir, the one and a half year old little one, who lay on the cot on his side, she was reminded of his nails and peeped over to survey them. They were like the claws of a tiger cub.

The mother had been, for long, thinking of clipping them but couldn't find an opportune time. Whoever picked him in their arms, he would readily and invariably paw and scratch them. Everyone clamoured that they be clipped.

Left to himself, Safir never tore at any one. But if he was picked against his wishes, he wouldn't keep quiet. If somebody kissed him against his liking, he would instantly rebel. Through his nails he protected his freedom and space. The child's spirit of freedom could not, however, be digested by the elders for the reason that they had no such freedom themselves.

"His nails should be cut," they insisted. If they wished to pinch him, bite him or pick him against his wishes, he should allow them to do so, they felt. Even if they wanted to roughly kiss him, he should give in and shouldn't resist a bit. When a little brat had that much of gall, how much should they the grownups have! This was their line of thinking. So they began to pester Safir's mother to pare his nails.

But it wasn't that easy to do. Basiroon realised it too soon. Lulling him into distraction with sweet words, she tried to hold him to her and bite away the nails with her teeth. But he allowed none of it though he would grab every enticement that was offered. As far as his nails were concerned, he kept everyone at an arm's distance.

"Though he is a tiny tot, there is a lot in him to learn from," thought Basiroon. Could anyone attempt to pluck a claw or even a piece of hair of a wakeful tiger? Wise to this knowledge, she decided to pare his nails only when he was asleep.

Armed with a nail-clipper, she gently climbed onto the cot and sat down. She began clipping the child's nails one after the other, taking care not to disturb him.

In the meantime, having finished his dinner, Sultan joined them and stretched himself on the cot, just beside. He had the book 'Stories of Amaravati' in his hand. Immediately after dinner, he would pick up a book from the shelf, sprawl on the bed and read until sleep overtook him. Since it was a set routine, she didn't even turn her head toward him. She was absorbed in clipping the lad's nails.

And Sultan was lost in reading his book. Seeing a title "Sultan, the florist" in the contents list, he patted himself: "Wow! Here is a story after my name!" Opening it, he began reading the story. After a while, he put it aside and went into deliberation.

"What's this? How come Nabi Sab, the devout Muslim he is, asks his wife to sport a bottu (forehead mark applied by Hindu women)? When it is a story about flowers, why has the writer strayed onto bottu? And having talked of bottu, why has he ended the story with the phrase 'The bottu has got rubbed out'? Is it just for the sake of the ending that the writer has brought in the metaphor of bottu?"

As Sultan racked his brain with this knot in the story, Basiroon remained unconcerned with his reading, and all of a sudden she burst into a guffaw, not even conscious that the lad could be shaken out of his sleep. Unable to grasp why she had laughed aloud, Sultan became cross, for the train of his thoughts had gone awry. "This wench is always like this, laughing unnecessarily, and talking unnecessarily. She herself doesn't know why she laughs and whys she talks," he grumbled to himself. "Though she is already three years into marriage, she hasn't outgrown her childishness."

And crabbily, he looked at her, as if to demand "Why have you laughed out?"

"As I was trimming the little one's nails, my childhood days came to my mind," said she, innocently.

"What happened in your childhood? What was there in it that provoked you to laugh out? Even if there was something, did you have to giggle so loud and disturb me in my intense thoughts?" He looked at her, grumblingly.

"This man is always like this. He never heeds anything that I utter. Whatever I speak, he looks down on me, slightingly. He never thinks, 'All said and done, she is my wife and is telling something. She has a mind too.' He has never cared to hear me. He is so headstrong, presuming he alone knows everything. Is he not a male creature, after all, with that male chauvinism?" she mumbled to herself.

Suppressing her resentment within, she decided to speak out what she wanted to. Whether he would hear or not, she would explain the background of her laughter.

"When I was a child, I also had nails as long as this, you know. I used to tear the Jabbir fellow with them. You know how he looks - fat as a pig. How could I stop him with his beastly personality? So I made use of my sharp and long nails and lacerated him like a demon wherever I could lay my hands on. He would cry out, 'Oh, ouch! Ah, yow!' but I wouldn't give up. Unable to bear my gashing, he would challenge: 'Hey, hussy! If you have guts, come on without nails, and let's see what happens.' Being young, he had a hot temper, but was I anything less wild? He used to attack me, for nothing. He wanted to control me and expected that I should be submissive to him. Who was I? I was a tigress! The moment I charged with my claws, pronto he took to his heels." Basiroon guffawed.

"There appears to be something here that would be of use to me," pondered Sultan.

"And then what happened?" he wanted to egg her on, but didn't do so because of his ego. Till now he had been grumpy with her blabbering ways. Forgetting it, if he prompted her so soon, he was afraid, he would get belittled. So putting on airs of inattentiveness and in a tone of demonstrative negligence, he mouthed, "Why at all had both of you to fight like that, tell me a bit clearly."

Basiroon was gladdened for he had never heard her through, albeit carelessly, even once. So she resumed, heartily:

"Father used to bring bananas regularly every night. Mother gave us our shares. The skinflint that I was, I wouldn't gorge on them at one go. Putting them aside, I would nibble them in convenient instalments. Whereas Jabbir would not only clean up his share but also demand my share. He sniffed out the place where I kept away my share and clandestinely gobbled it up too. When I looked up for my portion the next morning, I found only skins in their place. I got furious. It was just not over the bananas, his highhandedness extended everywhere. We had our separate tea glasses, but he wantonly had his tea from my glass. He was obstinate in using my glass. Scuffles ensued at these wrangles. You know what happened then? When I was deep in my sleep one night, he silently came up with a nail-cutter and cut off my nails. My plight was like that of a defanged snake or a dehorned ram. When I got up in the morning and involuntarily scratched my head, the itch didn't ease. So I scanned my fingers... and was aghast to find that the nails had been neatly clipped down to their base. It left me sobbing. Just like me then, now this little one when he wakes up in the morning - how much hurt he would be to find his fingers without nails...!" The pain was evident in her voice, as she leant and kissed the boy on his forehead.

Sultan pitied her for her sensitive heart. He was curious about the aftermath of the removal of Basiroon's nails.

"So, didn't you do anything to Jabbir?"

She was in no mood to think about Sultan's feelings since her entire focus was on the child. That was why he had asked her boldly.

"Why not? Would my rebelliousness go off with the snipped off nails? In a fury, I picked up a long pounder. But where was the fellow? He had already scampered out and didn't dare to step back in. 'Leave it dear, you can grow the damned nails again,' said mom. But did I grow them for any style? I grew them to keep him at bay. Both father and mother sat down and quietened me saying that indignation of that sort wasn't good on the part of a girl. It was how the Jabbir cuss managed to survive by not daring into my sight that day," said Basiroon.

Sultan clapped his hands eagerly. "Here I stumble upon a plot," said he exultantly.

She couldn't understand.

"I've got a plot to weave a story around. There's a storyline in what you have said, you know. Stories don't hang separately anywhere. They lie in our chats and in our lives. If we pick them out and write, they become a smashing hit," gushed Sultan.

"Is it so? Is there a story in what I said? Just tell me how," asked Basiroon.

"Where there is a girl, there is domination... domination by younger brother or elder brother, domination by father or husband. Man, wherever he is, wants to keep the woman under his thumb. If she wants to resist him, she needs some weapon like the nails. Man wants to grab even that weapon with which she can be aggressively self-defending. He snaps that weapon and makes her submit to his will - just like how your younger brother Jabbir had done... Shall I elaborate it explicitly? Suppose a girl is doing a job, earning a few thousand rupees, and living - without begging the man for her needs. 'Damn it, my woman is slipping out of my hands,' so he works himself up and burns with rage. He demands that she quit the job at once because it has emboldened her to raise her head in self-respect. So he deals a blow to her job. Does it follow that the rebelliousness in the woman should come to an end with that blow? No, never. She should pick up some other weapon and rise up! Like how you seized a pounder against Jabbir. Then only a woman can rise in stature in the society and live on a par with man. If a story is written, taking a hint from what you have recounted, it becomes a knockout." Sultan perorated in a bout of emotion.

Basiroon was surprised.

"Knowing well so many things, why does he still behave in a different way at home? When it comes to writing he behaves in one way, and when it comes to deeds, he is exactly the opposite. I should better teach him a lesson," she mused... and snapped, "But I will decide the ending to this story."

"Fine..., do it."

"I'd like to grow my nails long once again. That would end your story!" said she.

With that he was dazed.

Whenever he had dominated her, wherever he had dominated her, the various ways he had dominated her - the entire reel of his overbearing spun before him and his head reeled.

Forthwith, he turned his eyes to her fingernails and gazed at them.

There were no nails... only, the fingers looked like nails!



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Vempalle Shariff: ‘A Point of Nails’

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