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The Lizard's Ghost

Andleeb Shadani


An eerie coming of age story that follows an unnamed narrator through the unknowns of desire and friendship.


I cried out as I touched the portrait of Grandpa. Amma came running to the room. I was beating the lizard with a broom.


“What happened?” She looked at the lizard’s corpse under the broom.


“The lizard fell over me when I touched Grandpa’s portrait!”


Amma had sent me to the guest room to wipe the dust from the portraits and clean the floor. Guests were coming in the evening—Abba’s friends—and whenever any guest came to the house, it was my duty to go and clean the guest room. Amma looked at me.


“Why did you kill the lizard?” She asked with a bleak sadness in her voice.

“It fell on me, it could have bitten me. Asma says if a lizard bites you will become an idol.”


“Your friend doesn’t know anything. Lizards are our family members. He could have been the ghost of your grandfather.” Amma came closer, surveying the room. The portraits were clean. The floor was not. She picked up the lizard by the tail and opened that little door leading out to the backyard. She dug a little grave under the pomegranate tree with her free hand and buried the lizard. She read some verses with her eyes closed. She looked at me. I was standing at the backyard door with the broom still in my hand.


“Don’t say anything to your father.”


I started walking back to the guest room. Amma stopped me and took the broom from my hand.

“Go and take a bath. Wash your left side first and then the right, and recite the first chapter of the Quran seven times. May God forgive you.”


*                             


I got ready in my white dress and went to the maktab. I was doing my graduation in Quranic studies. I had been studying at the maktab since I was a little child, and it was like another home for me. Abba was the rector of the maktab, which is why the teachers never misbehaved with me as they did with other students. They knew who my father was: a respected cleric. His ancestors came from Nishapur in Iran and were close friends of nawabs. I loved going to the maktab until that day, when that incident happened.


Up until then I had only one friend, Asma, who I’d known since childhood. Her father was Abba’s disciple, although probably the same age. But Uncle Nabi considered my father his mentor. When he was alive, Uncle Nabi was at our house every day, helping Abba with English translations of his work. He had been educated at Shia College and was a link for Abba to the modern world. They were inseparable. I had often seen Uncle and Abba locked in the guest room for days, working on translations of his new books. Asma and I would loiter around the courtyard until Abba opened the room, and ask us not to shout or he would make us a lizard on the wall.


We both were scared of my father. Asma’s father wasn’t scary. He would bring sweets for me. And once he brought me a doll on Eid. Some people at the maktab didn’t like him. He was given a position to teach English to the students and many teachers thought that there was no need for that, or any other facets of modern education. They believed the knowledge of English would bring immorality. The girls would soon read English novels, and watch English movies at Mayfair. Asma said in English movies, every two minutes there was a kiss, mouth to mouth. That’s why we weren’t allowed to watch English movies. I had never seen any man kissing a woman on the mouth. I always thought about how it would feel. I felt I would be out of breath, and would choke to death. I once tried to kiss my reflection in the mirror, but that was no fun.


Be Rang by Hadia Sameen (oil, coffee and henna on canvas; 2024)

I told Asma this and she couldn’t control her laughter. Then she told me about her experience. She had kissed a man on the mouth before. In Mehmoodabad, she had an elder cousin called Kazim Mirza. He was married. But before his marriage, he used to kiss Asma on the mouth. For every kiss, he used to give her two mangoes. She loved eating mangoes. But then after a time, she started loving those kisses. They were better than eating the mangoes. She said it felt like you had eaten a pulpy mango. I didn’t like eating mangoes. My favourite fruit was pomegranates; maybe because we always had an abundance of pomegranates in the house.


Grandpa used to love eating pomegranates. Amma said when she got married and came to the house, she always saw Grandpa eating pomegranates. Whenever she entered his room to ask whether he wanted water or tea, he would be peeling a pomegranate. He would pluck seed after seed and drop them nicely in a bowl. When she would ask him, he would look at her silently, unblinking. And then Amma would go back to her room. When she told this to Abba, he advised her not to ask him if he wanted to eat anything.


“He doesn’t eat anything except pomegranates. Someone told him that if you eat a pomegranate, your age will increase by as many years as the number of seeds in that fruit. Maybe he is too scared to die. He doesn’t want to face God. He knows he’ll have to atone for his sins.”


Amma said the morning he died he was peeling a pomegranate on his bed. And then he fell. When she ran to his room, a bowl’s worth of pomegranate seeds was scattered over his body.


I told Asma about my dislike for mangoes. She said whether you like it or not, when you get married, you would get kissed on the mouth. That’s what husbands do.


“Can’t they kiss somewhere else?” I said sadly.


“Where do you want your husband to kiss you?” she giggled.


“Anywhere but not on the mouth," I said.


“I know where you want to get kissed.” Asma looked at me with that wicked face and ran away. I ran after her. Abba wasn’t at home. Neither was her father.


*                                         


Uncle Nabi had died a decade ago, when we were little children. He died all of a sudden. There were many rumours. Some said he was my father’s lover. They used to make love under the guise of working on those translations. Some said Uncle Nabi had a secret agenda to westernize the religious schools. He had been to Cairo; the Egyptians must have sent him on a mission. I knew those teachers at the maktab; they didn’t like him. And they came up with this theory. Abba was devastated when these rumours spread. He stopped meeting Uncle Nabi. That was a difficult year.


And then before Muharram, Uncle Nabi died. Someone poisoned his tea. They said it was done on Abba’s watch. He wanted him to die, so that the rumour would stop. He also had to step down from the rector’s position, although two years later he gained the position back. Abba knew powerful people; his scholarship was world-renowned. So instead, the gossips blamed poor Asma’s mother. They said she was in a relationship with the shopkeeper Abdel Malek. They said she wanted to run away with him but her husband got to know and so she poisoned him. Asma was distraught. It was a lie. We all knew Aunty Sadiya would never do a thing like that. She was a pious woman. She never ran away with anyone. She lived in that house like an old lizard.


My relationship with Asma became strained. She didn’t believe that Abba was involved in any way in her father’s death. She knew he loved him, and would never do a thing like that. But one afternoon when she was at home, Amma asked her to go back home. She said people were gossiping about our families, so we should cease all relations. Asma and I saw each other at the maktab, but we would look at each other from our seats, like mourners at a funeral. Earlier we used to sit together. We were like one body, inseparable. We talked and giggled. She always told those lewd jokes, about husbands and wives. God, she was so funny. Our faces would become red and we would giggle with our hands on our mouths. The teachers would make us sit on different seats. But in the next class, we would sit again. They knew their limits; if they kicked us out or misbehaved, Abba might intervene. No one wanted to confront him.


But after that incident, we sat apart for six months. Everyone knew the reason, so they didn’t ask. I craved her company and her jokes. I created my own jokes, I wrote them down. I thought when we were back on talking terms, I would tell her those jokes. Asma would know that she wasn’t the only talented one. We would look at each other and then move our gazes to the old walls of the classroom.


*                                           


At home, I would sleep. Those afternoons were very long. A day like a year. I would come home, eat and go to sleep. In the darkness, I would have dreams, half-awake, half-asleep. A bearded man would be sitting in the guest room. I would watch him standing behind the door. He would look at me and smile. He would call me with two mangoes in his hand. I didn't want to eat mangoes, I wanted to run. I knew what he would do. But it felt I wasn’t a human, rather a doll made of wool. And he had my thread in his hand. He pulled me slowly towards himself. I entered the room. He would make me sit beside him and put the mangoes near the half-burnt candle. He pulled my scarf away from me and threw it on the bed. Then he put his hand on my ponytail. I felt his lips like a burning coal on my skin. He kissed my neck. And then my mouth. It wasn’t like eating mangoes. I have eaten mangoes before. It was a very uneasy feeling. And then I vomited over him. He laughed and then went out to wash his face. I thought he would come back and kiss me again. I was scared, but he didn’t. Then I felt he was calling my name. I went to the door and looked outside. I woke up. Amma was calling me.


“Have you died?” she said, knocking on the door.


That night the bearded man called me again to the room. I didn’t want to go. I knew what he wanted. But he pulled me with that thread. He was sitting naked on the sofa. The room was lit with white candles. There were portraits of naked women all over the walls. As I went closer, he took off my clothes. He didn’t kiss me but rather rolled over my body like a lizard. I didn’t like it. I wanted to jump from the bed and run, but I knew he had my thread in his hand. Then I felt like pissing. I woke up. There was something wet between my legs. I went and bathed very early in the morning. Then I came back and tried to sleep. I couldn’t sleep. I wanted to talk to Asma. She would decipher the dream for me. Sometimes it felt like the bearded man was Asma, only disguised as a man behind that beard. She was teasing me. One night I saw a veiled woman in that room instead of that man. She called me. She wanted to kiss me, with the veil on. I tried to take off her veil. I knew it was Asma. But when I snatched away the face covering, it was the bearded man.


*                                                                       


The winter ended. A new summer arrived. I heard that Asma was about to leave the maktab. She had enrolled at Shia College, where she was going to study literature. I also wanted to do that but Abba didn’t allow it. I knew if I didn’t speak her to now, I might never be able to again. That day after the classes were over, I ran after her. She was walking fast, like a thief. I called her name. I knew she heard me, but she didn’t stop. I called again. She almost ran. I ran faster and caught her hand. She looked at me, her eyes were filled with tears.


“What do you want?” she choked.


“I am sorry if I hurt you in any way,” I said, desperately.


"I thought your mother didn’t want you to talk to me.”


“I don’t care what my mother wants.”


We walked together to her home. Her mother opened the door. I greeted her. She didn’t say anything and went inside. I had never seen Aunty Sadiya talking. She was always at home reading her torn books. Asma didn’t like to talk about her mother. That was a touchy topic. She once told me that her mother hated her father. She was married against her wish. She loved someone else. But her father said that boy wasn’t suited for her, and made Aunty Sadiya marry his brother’s son. Aunty Sadiya found refuge in books. She wanted to forget about the man she loved. Asma said he committed suicide when he couldn’t get married to her mother. They were madly in love, but they were fools. One should never take one’s life. It’s of no use.


“He should have come to Lucknow and have an affair with my mother. Who could have stopped them? They would have met in secret and kissed. That’s what lovers want. That’s what those teachers want as the madarasa, to kiss us. Have you seen their eyes when they look at us? Their shaky hands when they caress their beards. That’s what they all want.”


We went to her room. She went to the kitchen and brought some rice and dal for us. We ate from same the plate. I wanted to kiss her. I missed her so much.


"I thought we would never get back to normal,” she said happily.



“I would have died without you,” I said. We ate and washed our hands. When we sat back on her bed, I told Asma about my dreams. She didn’t laugh. She asked me all the details.


“I think he is that lizard’s ghost,” she said.


“Which lizard?” I said with worry.


“The lizard you killed that day, in the guest room,” she said.


“But Amma said that lizard could have been Grandpa.”


“It’s the lizard’s ghost, you shouldn’t have killed him.”


“I thought it could bite me, I didn’t want to become an idol!”


“But still, you should have driven him away,” Asma said. “It’s my fault, I should have told you that story.”


My heart jumped in fear. “Whose story, Asma?”


“The story of Soraiya, my cousin in Mehmoodabad.” And then she told me about Soraiya, whose father accidentally killed a snake, which then used to come daily in his dreams and writhe over his body. He couldn’t sleep after that day. And then he had to get Soraiya married to a snake.


“What happened then?” I asked. “Will I have to get married to a lizard?"


“I hope not,” said Asma, biting her nail. “But I am worried about you. Maybe the next time he comes into your dreams, beat him with a broom again. Ghosts get scared of the things that killed them. Maybe then he will stop bothering you."


We talked till dusk. We haven’t talked for the whole summer. Asma looked worried that day. She didn’t make any jokes. Then she told me that her mother wanted her to get married. Kazim Mirza’s wife was delivering their second child, and due to excess bleeding, she died. Her mother wanted her to marry him.


“He had asked for my hand. Bastard, it had been just two seasons since his wife died. And he wants to get married again. I know, he wants to kiss me again. He isn’t done yet. I want to study, I don’t want to get married.”

Your friend doesn’t know anything. Lizards are our family members. He could have been the ghost of your grandfather.”

I assured her that Aunty Sadiya wouldn’t be able to pressure her. I would ask Abba to intervene. “No, don’t tell him anything. You know my mother doesn’t like him.” Asma said.

Dusk had fallen like a veil over the city. I put on my scarf and walked through the narrow streets unnoticed. When I knocked on the door, Abba opened it.


“Where have you been?” he said in that loud voice. I ran inside my room without speaking. Amma came to the room and locked the door. She smiled.


“Don’t go to the maktab tomorrow. Someone is coming to see you.”


The next evening, she dressed me in a nice purple outfit she had bought. I looked at my face in the mirror. I looked like a corpse waiting for a funeral. I didn’t want to get married. I had promised Asma I would stop her marriage. She would become hopeless if she would get to know I couldn’t stop my own. Amma peered at me.


“Are you nervous? Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”


I looked at her face. She looked like an old bride in that red gown.


“Amma, I don’t want to get married.” Her face became black. She thought I would say I have another lover. “Amma, I am too young to get married.”


She then said the obvious, when I was of your age, you were in my belly. I don’t want any child in my belly. Is it important that now when I am of that age, I should have a child in my belly? Tears rolled down my cheeks.

“Don’t worry, young girls are like this. They are scared of marriage. And when they get married, they are so happy. They think they should have gotten married when they were toddlers,” Amma said, adjusting my scarf. She didn’t look at me.


*                         


Haider’s mother came with his aunt in the evening. His father died when he was a child. Haider wasn’t there. The grooms weren’t allowed to see the bride in person. They could see a photograph.


I went to Asma’s house the next day. Her mother opened the door. She asked me to come some other day. There were guests in her house. When I went to her house again that evening, Aunty Sadiya invited me inside. She gave me sweets to eat. Asma had been married to Kazim Mirza and had gone to Mehmoodabad. I felt someone was trying to pull my heart out of my chest. I had never imagined a life without her. Who would decipher my dreams? Who would tell me those jokes? Who would wipe my tears? It felt like my mother had died. I cried all the way home, like the way brides cry when they leave their homes, like the way Asma must have cried at the time of her wedding. She would have looked for me in the crowd. She wouldn’t have found me anywhere in the house. I cried for two nights. Amma came to my room. She told me Haider’s family had agreed to the marriage.

                                                 

*


At the onset of summer, they dyed my hands with henna. I didn’t cry at the wedding. In the crowd, I saw a woman who smiled at me. It felt as if Asma was back. I sent a little girl to call that woman. She wasn’t Asma, but the neighbor’s wife. Haider’s mother took me to a bedroom. It was huge, like a hall. The walls were very old and cold to the touch. There was a big portrait of verses calligraphed a horse on the wall. I was tired. I wanted to sleep. The candle on the mantle was flickering in a breeze I couldn’t feel. It could go out any time. I moved from the bed. My wedding dress was heavy. I tried to close the windows. Then I heard a familiar voice.


“Don’t close them.” Haider said, shutting the door. He had a little henna-dyed beard. It felt as if he was the same man who came to my dreams. I couldn’t remember his face but the voice was the same one I had heard when that dream-man called me to that room. I looked at the candle, I said it would go out with the wind.


“No, it won’t go out. We never close the windows in this house. It becomes claustrophobic,” Haider replied. I went back to the bed. Asma had told me what happened on the wedding night. But nothing happened. He curled his body up in a corner and went to sleep. I sat on the edge of the bed, looking at the candle’s flame swaying with the wind. The next day the neighborhood women came to see me, Haider’s aunts and cousins. They looked at me as if I was a doll imported from Turkey. Haider came home around dusk. His cousins ran when they saw him. He came to the room and closed the door. He looked at the windows. I had closed them. I wanted to sleep in complete darkness. He didn’t say anything. He went and opened them. And then lit the candle. Then he looked at me. “Do you know how to dance?”


My face was blank. I couldn’t understand what he was asking. He came closer and asked me to take off my clothes. Then he made me stand in the middle of the room. He moved me around and looked at me carefully. Then he asked me to go to sleep. I thought he would kiss me on the mouth. But he didn’t. I didn’t like him.


I felt caged inside the house. Her mother sometimes came and talked to me. Haider taught literature at Shia College. It reminded me of Asma, and how she had wanted to study literature. I thought if Asma was around, she would have been very happy to meet him. That night when Haider came home I told him about Asma. He didn’t inquire much.


That week I went back home. I didn’t tell Amma anything about Haider. I said I was happy, and Amma was happy to have been right. The next day I went to Asma’s home. The door was locked. I asked the neighbours, but they didn’t know anything about Aunty Sadiya. I thought of Asma. How was she? I missed her. I knew she hated Kazim Mirza. I thought if we could meet we would talk about our husbands. I would tell her that she was wrong about marriage and most of the things she had said weren’t true. Not all husbands like to make love. Not all husbands kiss on the mouth. I was lucky. I was spared from the ordeal. I didn’t want to be kissed. I knew I would vomit. Sometimes when I was alone in my house, I would go and sleep in my bedroom. I would close the window and put out the candles. I would slide under the blanket and close my eyes. Even in that darkness I could see some light. Even after putting out the candle, it felt like someone lit them again. I tried to dream about that man. That lizard’s ghost. I don’t know why but it felt like I wanted to be kissed, I wanted to feel that burning coal on my lips. I tried hard to imagine him, but couldn’t dream. He had vanished after that vomiting incident.


I never saw him in my dreams. I never had dreams after that day. That night I moved my body over Haider’s and tried to kiss him. He said he was tired and moved his face to the other side. I couldn’t sleep. I thought he would never touch me, that like Aunty Sadiya he was also married against his will. The next night when he came back home, I had already gone to bed. When he closed the door, I closed my eyes. Then I felt his hand on my groin. He took off my clothes and tried to make love. But he couldn’t. We both lay there, pretending to be asleep. And then he said he was sorry. He said he had ruined my life. He said he wanted the job at the maktab and my father had told to him to marry me. “I couldn’t refuse”. I looked at him. I felt pity for him. I said it was okay. And there was no remorse.


*                                                                 


One day Haider brought one of his friends home. They were seated in our room. Haider asked me to cook something for them. When I came back, Haider wasn’t in the room. The man he had brought with him was seated on the bed, naked. He held my wrist. The tea cups fell on the floor.


“I know what you want,” he said. I felt my body had frozen. He pulled me over the bed and started kissing me all over the mouth. I didn’t want it. I asked him to move away. He didn’t. I cried “Haider, Haider!”.  But no one came. He then whispered: “Your husband knows everything, don’t worry.”


I crawled my hand over the bed. My hand reached the candlestick. I picked it up and hit over his head, twice, three times. I rolled away. There was some blood on his face. He looked at me. He tried to grab me again. I tried to burn him with the candle. But the moment the candle’s flame touched him, he became a lizard and crawled over the wall.



 

Andleeb Shadani is a writer based in Lucknow. His research work focuses on the history of cities, migration and cinema. His writings have appeared in EPW, RIC Journal and Muse India among others. His story Winter's Light was shortlisted for the Coppice Prize 2023. He can be reached at mshadani@gmail.com.



















Hadia Sameen graduated in 2023 from the Fine Arts department at the Punjab University College of Art and Design, Lahore. Her use of various mediums creates a powerful visual language that aims to speak to the essence of women’s empowerment. Her inspiration for using henna on canvas to create design originates from a desire to create a cultural connection in her work. She currently practices in Lahore.

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Abdullah Alvi
Abdullah Alvi
Jun 15

Incredible work, really impressive and rare nice to see on your platform 🙌🏻♥️

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