Punal had not stopped suckling, even after his third birthday.
Every woman that came to their house would put her forefinger on her nose and exclaim, ‘he is three years old and you still breastfeed him.’
‘I have tried my hardest but he would not let go. He sticks to me like a leech,’ Punal’s mother Zenab would explain.
Many a time Zenab had tried to wean Punal. It was eighteen months ago, she made thin paste from bitter roots and liberally smeared her nipples with it. When her son insisted on suckling, she lifted her floral shirt and asked him to go ahead. The first suck produced a burning sensation in his mouth. He was bawling and scampering in the courtyard like a puppy hit with a brickbat on the head. Then he threw himself on the ground and started rolling in the dust. Afterwards the little terror scooped up dust from the ground and fired dust bombs into his mother’s face.
Zenab buckled under the pressure; she washed up the bitter stuff from her breasts and let her son have his way. The pantless boy was ravenously feeding, his breath was whistling in the snot-clogged nostrils, his one hand was cupping her breast while with the other he was scratching at his private parts. With immense sense of contentment and security his male organ swelled and stood erect, ready to fire.
Her husband worked as a bricklayer in a city down in the south. Punal was born when his father had gone for four months. Zenab waited for his return so anxiously, she would often picture herself showing her spouse her great achievement: a bonny male child after two daughters. His letters and money came but then suddenly they stopped.
Some villagers said that her husband had met a bloody end in a suicide bomb blast, while others maintained that he had tied the knot with a rich widow in the city but only Zenab knew the true nature of his long absence and eagerly waited for him day in day out. In an adobe house she lived with her two daughters and her son. Her elder, nine year old daughter worked in a Khan’s house who gave her a miserable salary while the second one would help her mother with the chores.
Zenab herself earned with the sweat of her brow the much-needed penny from weaving mats from date palm fronds, embroidering shirts and shawls for the rich and selling chicken eggs. For this purpose she kept a good flock of hens at her home. She was running her house on a shoestring budget.
Punal would not give her mother a break. When she went to fetch water from the stream, he would insist on going with her. Her companions carried two pitchers while she carried one because she had to tote her son on her hip. When the village wheat ripened Zenab joined the villagers to harvest it. Her son stuck to her like glue, he would toddle over the stubble as she cut the swaying wheat. When the wheat had been thrashed and bagged, she planned to take a shower. For this purpose she borrowed a bar of fragrant red soap from her neighbour. They did not have a bathroom in their house, so she stood a charpoy on its side in one corner of the house, draped it with a blanket, stripped off, sat down on a low wooden stool and started scrubbing her wasted body.
She was only thirty.
She had been married for twelve years now, she thought of her husband wistfully. She sneaked a peek at her nude figure and sighed, ‘O miserable me! How I have changed since he went to the prison. Once I was full-breasted and nice-looking.’
Then she cupped her shrinking breasts in her palms that were hard and cracked from harvesting wheat. She lifted the nipples upwards, they were bruised and flaky. Tears swelled in her eyes.
‘God make my husband think I am still attractive when one day he returns!’ she prayed in her heart.
The moment she put on fresh clothes, she determined not to allow her ravenous little goblin a drop of her breast milk. She offered Punal bread soaked in sweetened goat milk but he would not touch it. Morosely he sat in the dust, sniveling and protesting against the unwarranted milk strike her mother was on.
‘The little devil would be ok in a couple of days, don’t give in,’ her friends counseled Zenab. In the evening she whipped up halva for him but it was not half as good as the scrummy milk from his mummy’s breast.
At night the family had all gone to bed. Punal lay curled up on string bed, his back turned to his mother, big tears flooding down his dusty cheeks,. She would wrap her reedy arm around him and he would angrily jerk her away. Repeatedly she tried to placate him but the little one was adamant, she sang him his favourite lullaby but to no avail. He was bursting with rage and sorrow and self-pity. He could not understand her mother’s callousness, in his world mother had no other function than feeding milk. In his dictionary mother meant milk, a non-nursing mother was useless, nobody, pipsqueak.
For a long time he rolled in his bed then tiredness and lethargy seeped through his body and he fell asleep. But soon his sleep was shattered by a sweet memory. In sleep he was smacking his lips, he woke up at the sucking noise his mouth produced. He sat up. Hissing, he pawed his mother and harried her for a feed of milk. She gently pushed him away but he would not take no for an answer. He kept whining and whimpering. Sleep deserted him, his empty tummy rumbled, and acidity pinched his stomach walls. The loopy lady clawed him down and patted him to induce sleep. Zenab drifted back to sleep. For a while he was quiet but then rolled off the bed, squatted down on the beaten earth floor by the charpoy. In sleep she fumbled for him but he was missing, she woke up. She tried to take him up, but his body went into a rigid mode. After some wrestling she hauled him up onto bed but he would not turn off the rigidity mode. Zenab’s skull was bursting with the pressure of sleep and as soon as she put her head on the pillow, a monumental sleep invaded her.
Her son sat up, his eyes were on the prowl.
Zenab lay snoring—the guard was off duty—the dim light of mud lamp revealed the contours of her body. He, greedily, stared at the swelled busts, she oozed mouthwatering fragrance of milk, slowly he inched towards his prostrate, deep asleep mother. Slowly he lifted the flowery front panel of her shirt and his mouth locked over the milk source. He suckled rapaciously. Zenab slept soundly, she dreamt that she was nursing her son and the pressure inside her breast was easing off, the pain was turning to pleasure. She was loving it.
In the morning involuntarily her hand strayed to her bosom. It was not hard and it did not hurt. ‘My milk is drying up. I think it would dry up in a week’s time,’ she assured herself.
Instinctively Punal would wake up at night and suckle while his mother slept blissfully. On the fourth night she caught the milk thief white-mouthed. The comatose mother gave him two crisp slaps in the scruff of his neck. In the morning she told the story to her friends and neighbours, some were shocked and some giggled at Punal’s ingenuity.
His mother’s milk boycott had been going on for sixteen hours. Punal was starving and begged her for a drop of milk. She poured him sweetened goat milk into a feeder. He heaved the plastic container at his mother and the milk splashed her clothes. He threw a wobbly. She pointed to the goat that was feeding her red kid and licking its bottom, ‘go to the goat and suckle. One udder is for the kid and the second is for you.’
The little one had not suckled for two days and Zenab’s engorged bosom was at the brink of bursting with the weight of milk. Her bust was feverish and hard, she felt as if she was wearing two round rocks underneath her brassiere. Her breasts ached badly. When she walked or worked, milk would leak from them and the bosom of her shirt got wet and upon drying up it became stiff like a starched fabric. She reeked of fetid milk.
She confided into her friend, ‘lie down on this charpoy, not like this…yes, like this…boobs down.’
Zenab lay down on the bouncy thinly-woven string bed. Her friend pressed on her shoulder and lukewarm squirts of milk shot from her breasts. With each pressing, the milk spurted out, and Zenab sprang back to her original position with a squeaky creak. She had a tingling sensation in her chest, faint moans of relaxation escaped her. Her friend kept pressing till all the milk had been pumped out, beneath the charpoy the ground glistened wet with the milk spray. Zenab wished to be lying a little longer with her friend pressing her shoulders and her breasts shooting milk spray.
‘My milk is not drying up.’ after two days Zenab complained to her neighbour.
‘Cut down on the intake of bread,’ her neighbour lectured standing over the dwarf mud wall. The lactating lady reduced her food ration but to no avail.
‘The position is the same,’ the next day Zenab grumbled.
The neighbour suggested, ‘ok, buy cabbage and try its leaves on your breast, it would help suppress the milk.’
Zenab bought cabbage and wrapped her breasts in the cabbage leaves but it could not halt her mammary glands from manufacturing the lactose-rich liquid.
Disappointed, she let her son suckle.
Now Punal’s mouth was armed with tiny incisors. While feeding, sometimes, he would pincer the meaty milk tap with his newly grown teeth. His mother would yell from pain and land a resounding slap on his skinny fundament, ‘don’t bite! You are not a pup, you are a human baby.’
He would pause for a while then gently resume feeding and then he would forget about the tinkling sensation the slap had produced. He would involuntarily clamp his newly-sprouted incisors on the milk-yielding meaty lolly and his mother’s hand would connect to his derriere. He loved the feel of the rubbery flesh between his pointy teeth. Sometimes, while suckling, he would head-butt her and she would smack him, ‘you are a cow calf? Cow calves head-butt their mothers. Or you think I am a cow?’
Once his mother offered him a tender piece of meat, and he tossed it into his mouth. It was nice and tasty and it melted in his mouth, then he had the feeling as if he was chewing his mother’s teat, he felt as if the piece of meat was squealing and squeaking under his teeth. He spat the meat out.
Five years had gone passed and Zenab’s husband had not returned.
Punal was nudging six; Zenab’s mammary glands had long ceased to produce milk. But even now at night Punal would snuggle against his mother, sneak his head under her shirt and clamp his lips on her wilted breast. Without the support of milk, now they sagged like small deflated balloons. He would keep sucking at the empty little leather bags until sleep entered his head. She wished she could produce a few drops for him.
One crisp late morning Zenab’s husband returned. He was lame in one leg and had grown dark and skinny. He slumped down on a creaky charpoy; Punal fixed the stranger with a steady suspicious stare. His mother offered the newcomer a drink of water, after gulping down the water he approached to hug Punal. The boy screamed with terror, scrambled to her mother and burrowed his dusty shaggy head into her faded baggy frock. Her husband’s arrival had filled Zenab with energy and exhilaration. She had a spring in her step. While she was doing her chores, sunny smiles kept sprouting from her chapped lips. She could not take her gaze off her man and she chattered like a little girl. The long-separated couple tete-a-teted and it irritated their son. To add insult to injury, lying sprawled out on the charpoy, the newcomer was bossing his mother around.
Zenab chased down the fattest rooster, handed it over to her husband who pulled out a knife from his pocket and slit its throat. The headless chicken flopped around the courtyard, scattering feathers and spraying blood everywhere it went.
She cooked the chicken nice and tasty and the entire family sat down on a date-palm mat in the January sun to feast on the succulent meat. Everyone was enjoying the lunch except Punal. He was having hard time pushing the food down his uncooperative gullet.
A little before evening Zenab took a long shower and slipped into her best preserved scarlet georgette dress. Then she put makeup on and wore a few trinkets. The little boy could not figure out wherever those sparkling, nice-smelling things lay during all that time. He wanted to touch and smell them but his mother scooped up the remaining trinkets and containers of low-priced cosmetics and whacked them into a beauty box which was tucked into a dark dour trunk. Her lips scarlet with lipstick, crystal bangles jingling on her bony wrists she sailed out of the room. She gave her husband a romantic smile, it baffled her son, he kept a wary eye on his mother. He tailed her wherever she went.
The night had fallen, the presence of the stranger irritated Punal and he felt an ugly knob in his belly. The stranger’s presence had filled the room with a nauseating stench. Every single item of the room had taken up an ugly, scary look.
‘Why he is not going to his own house?’ the distrustful boy murmured into his mother’ ear.
‘This is his house,’ came a muffled answer.
His sisters were snoring but Punal kept battling against the advancing tide of sleep in an effort to guard his mother against the stranger who sat glued to his place. At last sleep sneaked upon the boy. He had hardly slept for a few minutes when he was woken up by hissing, smacking sounds. First he felt that the noise came from his sucking at his mother’s saggy breast. Drowsily he groped for his mother but she was missing. His dozy hand wandered off to the adjoining charpoy. He sat up, he found the couple in a compromising position.
Punal went berserk, he grabbed his open-toed shoe and started lashing at the couple indiscriminately. His father had rolled off to the adjoining bed but his mother lay still before him, bearing the full brunt of her son’s seething rage. Soon the fit of anger gave way to sorrow and self-pity and the boy erupted into bawling. He let himself fall down by the charpoy. His mother winched him up onto the bed. Tightly she held him to her bosom but she spewed nauseating stenches. She kissed him on a cheek but he felt as though a wet bullfrog was kissing him. Punal lay stiff and sobbed quietly. In the end she resorted to the most powerful weapon in her arsenal: she pushed her pendulous breast into his mouth, he felt as if a dead gecko was nuzzling against his lips.
In the morning the boy had been weaned.
Habib Mohana is assistant professor of English at government degree college No 3, D. I. Khan. In 2010 and 2014 the Pakistan Academy of Letters awarded his Saraiki books the Khawaja Ghulam Farid Award. His Urdu book of short stories with the title Adhori Neend won the Abaseen award from the Government of KPK.
He is looking for a publisher for his novel The Village Café.