One of my cherished memories from Pakistan is the scary story-tellings at night. “Jinnon ki kahaniyan.” Friends, relatives, family, – we’d be sitting together and chilling out, and suddenly someone would start telling a scary story. That would remind the other person of another scary story, and they just kept pouring out. Eventually, everyone was so terrified out of their wits that they didn’t even want to go pee by themselves. And each of these scary stories bore the mark of undeniable authenticity because ‘my uncle’ or ‘my mother-in-law’ or ‘my Qur’an teacher’ told me.
My mother reassured me that jinns lived in remote, desolate areas. And then she reminisced about the jinn who pestered her father, my maternal grandfather, a hakim (a doctor of Unani medicine). This jinn was mischievous, and had a tendency to pour out big sacks of cardamom and clove in long, neat lines. But that’s another story.
We were always being warned not to wear perfume at night or the jinns “stick to you” or fall in love with you. “When I grew up,” my Urdu teacher Mrs. Wasti said with a chuckle, “I discovered who those jinns were.” Also, don’t walk under a tree with your hair loose at night: jinns will definitely attach themselves to you. Years later, I met a Bosnian woman in London: her son’s eye was damaged by jinns, she claimed, because he urinated under a tree where this jinn happened to reside.
There was the tale of the maulvi saheb who used to teach in a madrassah. and one day, he asked his student to bring him a glass of water — and the student stretched out his hand — aaaaaaaaall the waaaay to the kitchen. So it turns out he was a jinn.
Abbu told us a story like that once. But this was not a jinn story. It was a ghost story.
Abbu was the eldest boy of his brothers and sisters. His father was a high-ranking civil servant, a gold medallist in Engineering in the days when Muslim boys did not get gold medals very often. He was a lover of literature and culture.
Then, suddenly, my grandfather took a second wife. She was a beautiful and smart woman. From my dad’s stories, I gathered that the elder wife (my grandmother) died soon after that.
My father still hates polygamy. It’s not that he’s a feminist or anything like that. Not by a long shot. He just hated the way his mother ached when another woman came along and took her place. He doesn’t want to see another woman hurt like that.
His mother died. It was probably a home abortion gone terribly wrong, because she did not want to bear any more children for her bigamist husband.
Later, one thing led to another, and abbu ended up in a domestic quarrel, and his father told him to get out of the house.
Abbu loved his father. He adores him to this day. I think some people who never quite attain to their parents – because of soured relations – always love them like children, and cannot transcend that aspiration. They struggle through their parents’ injustices, still trying, like children, to make mummy or daddy love them best.
So abbu left the big house in Mayo Gardens where my grandfather’s large family lived. He spent some nights in the park called Lawrence Garden (or Bagh-e-Jinnah, as it was renamed). “There were snakes this long in Lawrence Gardens in those days,” he’d brag. I don’t know how he eventually got off the streets and back in business, but I know there are sad tales of abandonment in there.
Abbu put himself through medical school. Every summer, Pakistani students go on vacation because the summer is just too hot to do anything. And this was before the days of air-conditioning. So every summer, when abbu could not stay at the Nishtar Medical College hostel anymore, he left to seek shelter. He’d try to crash at a relation’s house, or a friend’s. Sometimes people were kind; other times, they were not.
One summer, with no options, abbu’s only choice was to stay at an abandoned house that belonged to a relation. Abbu tells some tales, so I never quite know for sure. He claims that the house was built on a cemetery. Every night, he says, spirits or jinns appeared to disturb him, and terrified him out of his wits. I will never know whether they were actually jinns or anything other than his fears and loneliness. All I know is that my big abbu, who terrifies a lot of people, does not enjoy being alone at home.
One night, he said, he was sitting, terrified, in the house. Suddenly, he saw his mother. His dead mother.
Only, she was a torso. Head to waist.
She looked at him, and she smiled upon him. It was as if she was saying, “Don’t worry; I’ll take care of you.”
From that day on, there were no more hauntings.
Was it really a ghost? We shall never know. But my abbu, the skeptic, who doesn’t buy superstition, was convinced that his mother had come to drive away the spirits from her son. And it strengthened his heart. That’s all we need to know.