Noori Kee Sarai

A Short Story by Satish Pandya*

It is a two hundred year old story from the heart of Avadh. Under the suzerainty of Azim Akhtar, a wealthy agriculturist, Malihabad, a small village, not very far from Lucknow, was an area of brightness. Surrounded by countless areas of darkness, it is famous for its luscious mangoes, called Dassehri. Having inherited an orchard of nearly 4000 mango trees, Azim Akhtar tended them with care round-the-clock during mango season, by camping himself among the trees, along with a number of watchmen.

Being the richest orchard-lord, and leading a dignified life, he was reverentially addressed as NawabSahib, and not by his name. An innate benevolent, he treated all households of Malihabad as a part of his extended family. In the entire region, no one could match his status or stature. Although a highly contented person and a proud father of three daughters from his two wives, he always yearned for a male heir. It was in this pursuit that he solemnized his third marriage, while he was in early forties.

Soon enough, his desire was fulfilled and he was blessed with a son. Not only his family but the entire village celebrated his birth with fanfare. Christened as Jawed Akhtar, the baby instantly became Chhottey Nawaband his father’s status was elevated to that of Baddey Nawab Sahib. Born after years of longing and praying, and being the only son, Jawed received excessive love and affection which made him le enfant terrible. Leading the life of absolute comfort, he started indulging in profligacy and promiscuity pretty early in life. His biggest asset, however, was his high IQ which saw him gloriously through his academics.    

Spoiled by nannies, his transition from childhood to adolescence was rather fast. His sparkling wit and charming countenance endeared him not only to girls who had just reached puberty but also the ladies in purdah. Soon, he became a playboy extraordinaire, infamously known for his exploits. But, everyone appreciated his fad for fitness. He spent quite a few hours every morning, doing sit-ups and pull-ups in his personal akhara which got transformed into a gym with the passage of time. It was here that he bulked up his muscles and chiseled his raw physique while a wrestler wrestled with him to give his body that extra touch of agility.

He was still a callow youth in early twenties, yet Baddey Nawab Sahib started searching a bride for him. He wanted an accomplished daughter-in-law from a compatible family. After a lot of scouting, he zeroed in on the family of Mansoor Ali, an affluent Nawab of Mirpur, a thriving state near Banaras, the oldest living and thriving city of the world. Mansoor Ali belonged to one of those coveted families which prided in educating their daughters, as well as their sons. Years ahead of time he professed that gender discrimination was a crime, and only education could empower both men and women. That is why he sent his only daughter, Ghazala, to the same convent school where her two siblings had studied.  

Azim Akhtar sent an emissary to Mansoor Ali conveying his desire of calling on him for reasons to be told in person. An unsolicited request for a meeting from Malihabad’s Nawab whom he had never met was, no doubt, baffling but Mansoor Ali entertained the emissary and told him, “I shall feel honored to welcome Azim AkhtarSahib; he can come whenever he likes”. It was the best news for Azim Akhtar. After about a week, he arrived in Mirpur in style, along with a retinue of attendants carrying gifts, including baskets full of choicest Dassehri mangoes for his family.

Known for his candour and hospitality, Mansoor Ali extended him a hearty welcome exuding warmth and grace. After a long exchange of pleasantries laced with jest and humour, it was a swift transition from formality to informality, and then on to bonhomie. Eager to announce the purpose of his visit, Azim Akhtar didn’t observe the protocol and told Mansoor Ali that the purpose of his visit was to seek Ghazala’s hand for his only son, Jawed. The proposal, no doubt, pleased Mansoor Ali. But still he was skeptical as to why a Nawab from a distant place, should come all the way for negotiating a marriage proposal without any reference whatsoever.

For carrying forward the negotiations, Mansoor Ali decided to visit Malihabad, along with his two sons, to meet Jawed, his prospective son-in-law. Being a daughter’s father, Mansoor Ali, was no doubt eager to formalize the alliance at the earliest. Still it took a week for him to go to Malihabad. As decided, his sons also accompanied him. Immediately on arrival, they were accorded a right royal welcome by the local residents as well as pradhans of all nearby villages. It resembled the ceremonial ‘Guard of Honour’ presented to visiting Heads of State. After all, Mansoor Ali was no less than the Head of Mirpur State.

It was a finely orchestrated reception meticulously supervised by the three Begumswhose charm and affability, nay their very presence, hypnotised Mansoor Ali. How he wished he should have brought his Begum also to witness all this! Immediately thereafter, Azim Akhtar’s Begums made a formal announcement that they had approved the girl by looking at the charming photograph of Ghazala which was brought by Azim Akhtar when he had visited Mirpur.  

Mansoor Ali was, no doubt, overwhelmed with joy, and so were his two sons. Flush with happiness, they wanted to discuss the nitty-gritty and other sensitive matters before putting a formal seal of approval for marriage. “No sensitive matters, no demands, no expectations; your approval will be final. Nikah, too, will be at your convenience”, announced Azim Akhtar’s Begums.    

There was an outburst of mubarak ho (congratulations). The matrimonial alliance was sealed.  

Within a month, Ghazala was married off to Jawed, with all the trappings of a regal wedding. Gifted with both glamour and pizzazz, Ghazala was received with open arms in a bubbling matrimonial house comprising her three mothers-in-law, three unmarried sisters-in-law and half-a-dozen maids, skivvies and servitors. Her dignified behaviour made her the pampered bride-of-the-house. Sweet, loving, beautiful, she was like a sunbeam in the house. A wonderful manager and a housekeeper, she was also a tender and gentle lady. Before long, she developed a powerful bond with everyone. And very soon, she became an agent of change in the family.

With such a talented daughter-in-law and a grown up son, Azim Akhtar decided to involve them in the family business of inter-state export of mangoes. For him, the hour of much deserved retirement had arrived.  Loaded suddenly with the task of managing a complex family business, Jawed couldn’t find time to indulge in the luxury of body building and wrestling in the akhara. But Munney Mian, his favourite masseur, pampered his body and kept his muscles supple through a regular regimen of morning massage.

One fine mid-day, while on his way to Lucknow, Jawed was surprised to see quite a few big gleaming horse driven buggies parked alongside the dusty highway. But what amused him was the sight of kochwans (buggy drivers) relaxing in shade, and engaged in frivolous banter. Resplendent in red-and-white liveries and sporting high-domed turbans, these kochwans were merrily inhaling marijuana from hand-held clay chillums. At times, they competed as to who could inhale and hold the smoke for how long. Of and on, they convulsed with laughter while one of them mimicked the shenanigans of his master.  

But, what were so many bigwigs doing at such a nondescript place? To satisfy his curiosity, Jawed got down from his carriage and was surprised to see an ordinary eatery where quite a few diners were savouring some delicious dishes in the open. The aroma of these dishes was so tempting that Jawed also decided to savour them, and stepped in the eatery with somewhat unsure steps. While he was looking for a table, a feisty girl, called Noori, approached him, and with remarkably feminine grace, chaperoned him to a table which had just been vacated by a diner.

In fact, it was Noori who was running the eatery. Daughter of Indian father, Noor Mohammad, a well-off trader and exporter of Indian spices, and Persian mother Gulnar, an acknowledged chef of Persian delicacies, Noori was trained by her parents for preparing popular Persian broths, instead of the ubiquitous kababs available all over. For assisting her in running the eatery professionally, her father had appointed Suleiman, his confidante and also a seasoned cook gifted with extraordinary gastronomic skills.

Located strategically on the highway connecting Malihabad with Lucknow, the eatery, soon, became a favourite place for weary travellers to unwind, and a hotspot for nouveau rich for relishing these dishes as well as feasting on Noori’s sex appeal.  Jawed, too, was attracted by her exceptional beauty. Her hypnotizing glance would make an all-time winner in matters of heart, a loser so soon, he had never anticipated. In fact, Noori’s persuasive tone and inviting looks numbed his mental faculties. He was overtaken by his flirtatious heart which took him down the memory lane of his unbridled libidinous youth.

Being a spoilt brat, he started wondering as to why a seductive beauty, fit to adorn a Nawab’s harem, was getting wasted in a roadside eatery, that too, in his own stomping ground. Forgetting about his family’s reputation, he instantly decided to seek her companionship. He, therefore, came to the eatery every day; savoured either of the two broths, paid the bill, and left with élan. He didn’t make any special effort to seek her exclusive attention though he very much wanted to. However, while leaving, he wished Noori a good day, a courtesy which no other diner had shown her ever.

But he forgot, rather foolishly, that his continued absence from home during lunch would soon be noticed. However, being insouciant, he couldn’t care less. Jawed’s suave demeanour and dignified disposition soon earned Noori’s respect for him, and she started paying special attention to her new guest. Suleiman, too, was impressed by Jawed’s mild manners, but the oddity of an aristocrat visiting a roadside eatery with religious regularly didn’t convince either of them.  

That is why she always remembered her mother’s warning: Badey Logon Se Jab Milna, Hamesha Fasla Rakhna; Ki Darya Jab Samander Say Mila, Darya Nahin Rahta (always maintain distance when you meet those who are affluent; a river ceases to be a river and loses its very identity when it meets an ocean).

And, she did maintain a respectable distance. But, it didn’t take long for her to give undivided attention to Jawed his indulgent suavity. Gradually, they started engaging themselves in spicy chitchat, and with the passage of each day, their conversation got prolonged, and both started enjoying each other’s company.

Overwhelmed by his unceasing adulation, she started having grandiose vision of Jawed as her knight in shining armour, without bothering to know who he was. Jawed had also started dreaming of making her his consort. But, lacking courage, he took months to profess his love for Noori. 

Notwithstanding their initial dithering, their courtship continued for a good six months. One day, after finishing lunch, Jawed took the next step forward. He asked her coolly if she would agree to be his spouse. But, remembering her mother’s warning, Noori, though ecstatic, maintained a discreet silence. Of course, she gave him a seductive glance which was, for sure, an indication of her subtle approval.

Jawed didn’t think even once that his proposal was tantamount to cheating Noori as well as Ghazala. Fully aware of the repercussions of bigamous luxury, he knew it would be extremely difficult to make Noori his consort. But, overtaken by his obsession, he went ahead.

He decided to first raise Noori’s stature so that he didn’t become an object of ridicule among his friends. And the best way was to pull her out of the nondescript eatery and make her the owner of an upscale sarai, the precursor of hotels and motels. Immediately, thereafter, he contacted his architect-friend, Asif, and asked him to design and oversee the construction of a sarai comparable to 16th century inns which were patronized by rich traders.

All this while, Ghazala had been observing Jawed’s patently questionable activities. The needle of suspicion always pointed uncomfortably to the ‘other woman’ who seemed to have entered his life. But she had no evidence to pin him down. It was a sheer chance that one forenoon, Ghazala went to his room while he was getting ready to go and meet his heartthrob. Seeing Ghazala’s smiling face juxtaposed beside him in the king size wall mirror, he was befuddled.

Feigning innocence, Ghazala looked straight into his eyes and asked, “I have a hunch there is some other woman in your life who is trying to usurp you from me. Tell me honestly if I am right.”  

“You are right; there is a woman whom I have started liking”, he said audaciously”.  

“And, who is she”?  

“A beautiful girl called, Noori. She runs a roadside eatery”.

“What did you say…..a girl running a roadside eatery! Couldn’t you find anyone better? Don’t you think it would be a shameful assault on your dignity when people know and talk loose about your illicit affair with a lowly woman”, Ghazala retorted disdainfully.

Taking her bile out further, she asked, “Don’t you know these passionate alliances are nothing but lascivious.  Many a family’s reputation built over generations have been ruined by such relations. Would you risk that for that wretched woman”?

“Women like Noori are adept in trapping the rich and fleecing them with professional finesse. And, when the truth dawns upon these idiots it is far too late”, she told contemptuously.

Ironically, Ghazala’s wrath was targeted all along against Noori without knowing that Jawed was the real culprit, guilty of trapping an innocent girl. It was patently an act of felony on his part.  

Despite Ghazala’s prickly reprimand, his aristocratic ego could not be ignited; he was neither

ashamed nor repentant. But Ghazala was not the one to let him go off the hook so easily. She told him blatantly, “If you are honest in your relationship with Noori, then have the guts to announce it publicly.  Don’t meet her surreptitiously. Let the entire family know about it, and let all of us rejoice by performing your second marriage with élan. If you don’t do this, you are either a coward or a cheat or both.”

For once, Ghazala’s assertion instilled fear in Jawed of being ostracised by his family and losing his reputation amongst his peers. The fright of public disgrace and private affliction stirred his soul. Overpowered by his guilt, he did not go to meet Noori that day, the day next and many more days.

The unusually long absence of Jawed, who never missed a day without spending hours with Noori, triggered once again the flashback of her mother’s warning, although she was not ready to impeach him so soon. But she remained perpetually restless and listless.

Unable to accept that her fantasy was a mere delusion of grandeur she told her mother about her blossoming love affair with an aristocrat whose name was Jawed; who he was, and what was his station in life etc., she had no idea. Noori’s confession about her affair with a stranger enraged Gulnar who warned her not to be involved in any such misadventure in future. 

But, Noori’s doting father, Noor Mohammad became furious. He took his bile out on Suleiman for failing to protect Noori from crooks frequenting the eatery. Apologizing profusely for his lapse, Suleiman assured this wouldn’t happen again.

However, being the family’s confidante, he thought it was his duty to find out Jawed’s antecedents. Like a seasoned detective, he started following him, and soon found out that Jawed was not a rif-raf but the heir of the celebrated Nawab of Malihabad, a fact about which Jawed had deliberately kept Noori in the dark.  

And, look at the travesty of human mind; the alacrity with which the status of a person changes his image is amazing! “Good God, he is a Nawab”, exclaimed Gulnar in disbelief. Gulnar, too, started conjuring up the vision of Noori as a Nawab’s spouse. The withered Noori, too, bloomed all of a sudden. She became euphoric. But, like Suleiman, Gulnar, too, wondered why Jawed had kept his identity a secret. That is why, before proceeding further, she wanted to find out the truth behind Jawed’s passion for Noori. Was it Recreation, Flirtation, Obsession, Infatuation, or just a Pastime?  She, therefore, told Noori to put Jawed on the Cross for a litmus test, whenever he comes.

It was nearly two weeks that Jawed had not gone to meet Noori. He started behaving erratically. Soon, his deviant behaviour became disquieting for the entire family. Fearing that the beans may not be spilled and Jawed was vilified before his parents, Ghazala thought of playing a friendly anchor.  So, one day, she told Jawed playfully, “Hey, how come, you haven’t gone to meet Noori for so long? It is cruel on your part to desert a dear friend like her. Come on, be a sport, go and meet her. And, yes, don’t forget to tell her about me, and also give my love to her”.

Ghazala’s every word was like lullaby to Jawed’s ears. His depression evaporated in thin air. There was no trepidation anymore. Instead, his face glowed, there was a glint in his eyes, and an unusual spring in his gait as he rushed to his dressing room. And, when he came out, he looked like a bridegroom. He was on cloud nine.   

All this while, Ghazala was wondering as to how any husband can be so imprudent as to exult at his promiscuity right before his wife?  She started losing confidence in herself. Dismayed and emotionally battered, she felt like crying. For once, she felt jealous of Noori.

When Jawed reached the eatery, nearly all diners had already left. Seeing him after ‘ages’, Noori was overwhelmed with excitement. With an amorous smile, she held her hand, and escorted him to the same table where their love had blossomed. As per her meticulously chalked out plan, she asked Suleiman to bring Jawed’s favourite dish. Strangely enough, despite Noori’s titillating advances, Jawed could not pick up the courage to look into her eyes. But the moment a bowl full of piping hot Persian Kebabs was served, there was a sudden rush of adrenalin in Jawed’s veins. He sprang to life and went into flashback mode. He was, once again, the same old love bird. But Noori was in no mood to reciprocate. The only thought on her mind was to perform the litmus test on him.

After profusely showering encomiums, and a mischievous giggle later, she coyly asked him if he remembered his proposal for making her his spouse. “Of course, I remember. How can I forget? But, if you promise to pardon me without any malice, let me confide in you that I am already married and that is going to be the biggest stumbling block for our wedding”, was Jawed’s hesitant reply.

But, Noori responded nonchalantly, “It is too trivial a matter for you to lose your night’s sleep. After all, it is not uncommon for Nawabs to have more than one wife”.     

“I am aware of that. But, anyone going for a second marriage needs his first wife’s equivocal consent. And, suppose my wife refuses to do so”, replied Jawed sheepishly.

“Don’t you worry for that? I am persuasive enough to make her agree for our alliance”, Noori replied confidently.

For Jawed, it was the time of reckoning. It was the question of his macho pride. He was no more in a dilemma.  He made up his mid to narrate his tale of love to his parents. Fortunately, his dream sarai had also been completed by then. Elated and overjoyed, he came and told his parents without a second thought that he was in love with a beautiful girl called Noori who was soon going to be the proud owner of an imposing upscale sarai which is majestic enough to give her a status compatible with that of ours”.

To check the veracity of Jawed’s narrative, Baddey Nawab Sahib wanted to see the sarai for himself before coming to any conclusion. Happy to hear his father’s decision, he suggested why not other family members also accompany him. Everyone agreed except Ghazala; she refused point blank. Neither Jawed’s entreaties nor her mothers-in-law’s pleadings could change her stand.  Empathising with the turmoil she was going through, Baddey Nawab Sahib asked everyone not to force her.          

In the meanwhile, Jawed requested Asif to bring Noori and her parents also to see the sarai. With Noori ki Sarai embossed in bold silver letters on the forehead of a massive gate with floral design on black granite slabs, it was indeed a magnificent edifice. Simmering in daylight as well as moonlit nights, it had a magical effect.

The mild afternoon sun and the tranquilizing ambience provided a perfect setting for the first-ever meeting of the two families. Taking advantage of the jovial environment, Gulnar talked about the proposed nikah between Noori and Jawed. “Let’s see. It depends upon Ghazala’s decision which will be final” was the polite response of Jawed’s mother.     

Next morning, what happened to Jawed made him uneasy. He was made to stand in dock like a criminal, while Baddey Nawab Sahib read out the charges leveled against him by Ghazala. He also announced that judgement would be delivered by Ghazala, and that will be final. After listening to the charges, Jawed hung his head in shame, and with remorse writ large on his face, accepted his villainy. Betraying Ghazala by shattering her trust was an indefensible crime, yet he begged her pardon by apologizing profusely. With a voice choked with emotions, and tears flowing out of his swollen eyes, he went on pleading for mercy.

But Ghazal didn’t even look at him, so brutally battered was her self esteem. When he could no longer suffer her apathy, he kneeled down, and started beating his chest, all the while cursing himself, as to why did he defraud her? Palpitating and perspiring, he started sobbing convulsively. Even then he couldn’t beseech her indulgence.  

By now, his face had become a deadly pale, lips bloodless, and the eyes flush with ceaseless weeping. Unable to withstand the dishonor, he became delirious and suffered nervous breakdown. Soon thereafter, he collapsed and fell down, grievously hurting his face. Fearing something untoward may not happen, everyone rushed towards him. Unable to restrain herself, Ghazala also dashed. And the moment she saw Jawed lying on the floor like a cadaver, she got woefully shocked.

It was a grueling moment for her. Overpowered with grief, she lifted him and placed his head on her lap to alleviate his pain. So comforting was her touch that the listless Jawed started showing signs of recovery. Overwhelmed to find himself in Ghazala’s lap, his guilt overpowered him again, and he once again started crying and pleading for mercy.  

Unable to see him wreathing in agony, Ghazala showed rare sagacity by letting bygones be bygones. She forgave him. He took a deep sigh of relief, and looked apologetically towards her to express his gratitude. He knew he would never be able to pay her debt, but his face betrayed tranquility.                   

The entire family was full of admiration for Ghazala’s prudence and capaciousness of her heart. Everyone was relieved after an unusually exhausting day. They immediately informed Noori’s family about Ghazala pardoning Jawed. Soon, all of them, including Noori, came running to thank her for her magnanimity.

But what amazed everyone was Noori’s bold confession made by falling on Ghazala’s feet. Baying wildly, she admitted that she was equally guilty as Jawed. Instead of asking him to refrain from indulging in bigamy, she started dreaming of becoming a Nawab’s daughter-in-law, and that is how their sordid affair bloomed.  Moved by her honesty, Ghazala lifted her up, wiped off her tears, and embraced her. But, the repentant Noori was so ashamed that she couldn’t pick up the courage to look up. Empathising with her, the chivalrous Ghazala whispered something in her ears; what, no one could hear. Noori was no more tizzy; she smiled feebly, while Ghazala gave her an affable smile.

Their enigmatic smiles triggered a chain of confident smiles between everyone. Within no time, the entire atmosphere became lively. Baddey Nawab Sahib decided to go in for a modest, yet a decent marriage, without any pomp and show. But, what delighted everyone most was Ghazala’s love and affection for Noori and her insistence that venue of marriage should be Noori ki Sarai

Once the euphoria subsided, Baddey Nawab Sahib startled everyone by declaring Ghazala as Baddi Bahu Begum of Malihabad in recognition of her outstanding poise, compassion and magnanimity.

Soon, Noori ki Sarai became the iconic monument of love, and the entire nameless and nondescript region became famous as Noori ki Sarai.   


*Satish Pandya is a veteran writer and has written hundreds of scripts for the Television during his active writing days. He has also published an anthology of short stories ‘Enlightened Souls’, an assortment of soul-searching stories of passion and compassion.

Disclaimer: This story is a work of fiction and the views expressed in it are the personal opinion of the author and do not reflect the views of which does not assume any responsibility for the same.



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