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V. The Story of Imtiazan

The scene of her earliest memories was a small room with spotless floor-cloth, the windows whereof looked out upon the foliage of "ber" and tamarind. During the day a black-bearded man would recline upon the cushions, idly fondling her and calling her "Piyari" ( dearest); and at night a pretty young woman would place her in a brightly-painted "jhula" (swinging-cot) and sing her to sleep. Then the scene changes. He of the black beard is away, and the form of the beloved lies stark beneath a white sheet while mysterious women folk go to and fro within the house. A kindly-faced old man, who in earlier days had helped her build little dust-heaps beneath the trees, takes her from the warm cot and hands her over to a woman of stern face and rasping tongue, with whom she dwells disconsolate until one fateful day she finds herself alone in a market-place, weeping the passionate tears of the waif and orphan. But deliverance is at hand.

The sight of the weeping child touches a chord in the heart of Gowhar Jan, the famous dancing girl of Lahore. She takes the orphan home, christens her Imtiazan, and does her best to blunt the evil memories of her desertion.

Gowhar Jan did her duty by the child according to her lights. She engaged the best "Gawayyas" to teach her music, the best "Kath-thaks" to teach her dancing, the best "Ustads" to teach her elocution and deportment, and the best of Munshis to ground her in Urdu and Persian belles lettres; so that when Imtiazan reached her fifteenth year her accomplishments were noised abroad in the bazaar. Beautiful too she was, with the fair complexion of the border-races, slightly aquiline nose, large dark eyes and raven hair, the latter unadorned and drawn simply back in accordance with the custom of her mother's people which forbids the unmarried girl to part her hair or deck it with flowers. Her Indo-Punjabi dress, the loose many-folded trousers, the white bodice and the silver-bordered scarf of rose pink--but added to her charm. Yet was Gowhar Jan troubled at heart, for the girl was in her eyes too modest, too retiring, and cared not at all whether her songs and dances found favour with the rich landholders, Sikh Sardars and the sons of Babu millionaires, who crowded to Gowhar Jan's house. "Alas," sighed Gowhar Jan, "she will never be like Chanda Malika, gay, witty and famous for generations; her education has been wasted, and her name will die!" But Imtiazan only pouted and answered; "I care not to throw good saffron before asses!"

Then Fate cast the die. Her Munshi one day brought to the house a Musulman, dressed in the modern attire of young India, who had acquired such skill in playing the "Sitar", that he was able straightway and without mistake to accompany Imtiazan's most difficult songs. Thereafter he came often to the house and gradually played himself into the affection of the young girl, who after some hesitation consented to marry him and elope with him to a distant city. Thus Imtiazan left the house of her girlhood and fled with her husband to Bombay. Money they had not, where-fore Imtiazan, not without a pang, sold her necklace of gold beads and bravely started house-keeping in the one small room they chose as their home, while he went forth to seek employment worthy of his degree at the Calcutta University and of his Rohilla ancestry But alas! work came not to his hands: and as the money slowly dwindled, he grew morose and irritable and often made her weep silently as she sat stitching the embroidery designed to provide the daily meal. She knew full well that vain pride baulked his employment; and after many a struggle she prevailed upon him to become a letter-writer. "An undergraduate, who has read Herbert Spencer, Comte and Voltaire," said he, "cannot demean himself to letter-writing for the public," to which she justly replied that an education which prevents a man earning his daily bread must be worthless.

So in due course he installed himself with an ill grace upon the footpath of Bhendi Bazaar with portfolio and inkhorn, writing letters for uneducated Musulmans, petitions for candidates and English accounts for butlers. And the more he wrote the more convinced he became that he was sacrificing himself for a woman who could not realize the measure of his fall. Thus for a time matters remained--little Imtiazan wearing her delicate fingers out at home, he plying his pen in the street, until one day a dancing-girl from Lucknow called him to her house to write an important missive on her behalf. This chance acquaintance ripened into a friendship that boded no good for Imtiazan: for within a month, amid specious statements of lucrative employment and fair promises of future well-being, he bade her prepare to leave the small room and accompany him to a larger house, fronting a main thoroughfare, which, said he, would henceforth be their home. The sight of the unscreened windows of her new home struck a chill into Imtiazan's heart; and when the door opened and she was met by three elderly Muhammadans who saluted her as their "Bai-Saheb," fear took possession of her soul. The thin red cases hanging on the wall told her that the men were musicians; and in response to the mute appeal in her eyes her husband bade her with almost brutal candour prepare to adopt her old profession of dancing and singing in order to save him from the hateful duties of a public letter-writer.

For two days Imtiazan tended by the musicians and their wives was a prey to the blackest despair, and then deeming it useless to protest, she set herself courageously to do her husband's bidding and to dance as she had danced in the house of Gowhar Jan. But she little knew the true depths of her husband's selfishness. "Money comes not fast enough" was his perpetual cry and he urged her, at first gently but with ever-increasing vehemence, to sink still lower. The memory of the past and who knows what higher instinct helped her to withstand his sordid demands for many days; but at length, realizing that this was kismet and tired of the perpetual upbraiding, she consented to do his bidding. So for three weary years the waters closed over Imtiazan. One day she awoke to find that her husband had crowned his villainy by decamping with her valuables and all her savings. She followed and found him, and, pressing into his hand a little extra money that he had in his hurry overlooked, she bade him a bitter farewell for ever. She rested a day or two to get herself properly divorced from him, and then returned alone to the hated life in Bombay.

There Fortune smiled upon her and wealth poured into her lap. Two years later by dint of careful inquiry she discovered that the stern-faced woman who had abandoned her in the Lahore market was her uncle's wife, now widowed and in poverty; and to her she of her bounty gave a pension. For Imtiazan, though she never forgot, could always forgive and had never lost the sense of her duty to relations. She also provided for the old man who had helped her when a child to build the dust-castles beneath the trees of her old home; and then, while still young and with enough money left to keep herself in comparative affluence, she turned her back for ever upon the profession which she loathed and devoted the rest of her life to the careful rearing of an orphan girl, whom the desire for a child of her own and the memories of her own youth urged her to adopt. When she died, the child who had grown up and under her guidance had married a respectable merchant, mourned for her as one mourns for those who have lovingly shielded our infancy and youth; and many of the neighbours were sincerely grieved that Imtiazan had departed for ever.

Such is the life-history of Imtiazan, one of the most famous dancing-girls Bombay has ever known--a history that lacks not pathos. After her final renunciation of the profession of singing and dancing she might have remarried and in fact received more than one offer from men who were attracted by her kindliness of heart and by her beauty. But she declined them all with the words "Marriage is not my kismet," which is but the Indian equivalent of "My faith hath departed and my heart is broken." Surely the earth lies very lightly upon Imtiazan.