RAMADAN IN THE PUNJAB

It was the Muslim period of fasting called Ramadan at that time which lasted for a lunar month and ended with the celebration of Id al Fitr. Believers are forbidden to let food or water pass their lips between the hours of sunrise and sunset. It was known locally as Rosa and was observed by the majority in this rural district so the Oil Company changed the working hours for the duration of the fast, and everyone worked from 0530AM until midday.

This was now in the hot season and one didn’t stay out in the sun under any circumstances. At night, even with the ceiling punkah rotating above him, the heat was oppressive, so he would take his charpoy out on to the drive and sleep under the canopy of stars always in the sky. There was often a light dawn breeze with hints of cool moisture in the air that lasted for upwards of an hour. It was a relief, sandwiched between the full, thunderous force of the sun’s searing heat of yesterday and today. It’s arrival in the horizon always drove him back to the shelter of his bungalow; but during Rosa it was still dark when he awoke in the garden for an early day’s work.

It was on one such night that his sleep was disturbed by the sound of an eerie howling which caused him to start up with his heart palpitating. The din, like screeching zombies, was all around him and he was completely disorientated. With Riff barking hysterically nearby his mind struggled to find some touchstone of familiar reality in the darkness. There was a crashing noise through the surrounding undergrowth and, without diminishment of the supernatural howls, it grew louder; he was aware of the passage of a series of monster-like dark shadows driving across the garden like a herd of demons in full rout. Riff took off behind them, his frantic barking sounding distinct and isolated amidst the shrieks of the devil horde that had just swept by.

B’s in-comprehending mind became aware of his pumping heart and then he felt the scalp of his head in actual movement. His hand went up and came away covered with ants. He rushed towards the bungalow and, as soon as he reached the bathroom, was able to see in the mirror that his hair was all but hidden under a crawling mass of ants. One incomprehensible event, followed in rapid succession by a second one can be enough to cause a person to doubt the sanity of the world, or their own sanity. He chose not to think, but rather to act. He filled the basin with water and plunged his head in, again and again, scooping his hands and scratching with his fingers at his hair. After some time the mirror showed him with dripping hair and the ants washed out by the water, emptied and replenished in the basin. It was then that he understood; picking up a torch and returning outside to his bed, he shone the light on to the pillow with a towel over it, and there the ants were swarming, and a trail of them from across the ground and up the wooden legs of the charpoy to where his head had lain on the towel-covered pillow. They were after the oil he used to rub into his scalp at the time of the very hot weather, as he believed that this stopped it falling out. The night’s sleep was ruined; Riff had disappeared into the now silent night. Using the towel and with the aid of the light from the torch he brushed off the ants from the bed and dragged it into the bungalow. There was nothing he could do in the dark to look for Riff, so he settled down in a chair with a book and read as the hours ticked away.

Before leaving for work B asked his servant, Bagah Khan to put Riff’s disappearance into the servants’ grapevine but it was in a note from Edna Ward that he first received news of Riff. In the clumsy hand of someone not used to, nor happy with, the written word. ‘Dear Mr Mason,’ it began. She always called him Bill, but for some people there is always the need for the utmost rectitude and formality when they venture into a correspondence. ‘Poor Riff was found by Abdul (Harry’s driver) in my yard this morning. he was unconscious, but breathing. I sent him in Harry’s car to the vet in Rawalpindi. I hope you don’t mind I did this, ¬†yours ever Edna Ward.’

What a sweet woman, was B’s first reaction. He called round; Edna was shy about his thanks, but practical about what still needed to be done. She gave him food and drink and then left him alone with Harry. Harry Ward the Oil Company’s American Drilling Superintendent who ran everything except the administration and ran it on a tight rein, but at home his Pennsylvanian Dutch wife ruled. They were a childless couple and Edna’s good works sometimes infringed on Harry’s territory; but it was always a no contest.

Harry was whimsically indignant and secretly proud that Edna had commandeered his car and driver for Riff. Wally came in and was told the story. As Edna returned with more food and drink. ‘Riff owes his life to Edna,’ he said at once. ‘I know that,’ said B, ‘but don’t know how to thank her properly.’ ‘Oh fie, you two,’ said a flustered Edna; ‘of course I had to do it for poor Riff.’ ¬†‘Didn’t ask me for the car,’ chipped in Harry,’ developing the theme. ‘You don’t mind, do you Harry?’ was all she said. ‘Well, of course you didn’t, did you Harry?’ Oh sure, oh sure. Not that I had any choice,’ But careful not to take the joshing too far.’ You’re the best hearted woman in Khaur,’ from Wally. That was more than Edna could take and she left them with a few more ‘fies.’ They laughed and glanced at one another in conspiratorial recognition of a mutually understood joke.

Later, as they chatted Edna came in with the news from Rawalpindi. The Wards had one of the only three direct outside telephone lines in the settlement. The vet said that Riff would live. He had been severely savaged by what B now knew to have been a pack of marauding hyenas. The vet had stitched him up and given him anti-rabies and anti-tetanus shots, now it was a question of time, perhaps in two weeks time he would be well.

‘You know Ollie’s been called back to Switzerland,’ said Wally when Edna had left again. ‘He left me the key of his bungalow and said I could sleep there while he’s away.’ It was well known that Oliver de Coulon, the Schlumberger engineer under contract to the company was the only person at Khaur whose bungalow had air-conditioning installed. This was news indeed. ‘You can get your charpoy and join me there if you want to Billy boy’ If he wanted to? (BLOG – AIR CONDITIONED RESPITE)

1949