Written by Anubha Yadav
Zafar met Salman the Goat every time he visited his grandfather’s house in Pampore from Batmaloo, Srinagar, and soon the two were inseparable. Zafar was nine when he crossed Chandhara village with Salman the Goat on his shoulders. The boy was re-named after that. It is true the village is not the largest in Pampore district of Srinagar, but the goat was an Eid goat: well-fed, stout, reared for two years for the special day. The event added some excitement to the Eid festivities. “Qureshi Sahib ka bakra gum!” shouted excited youngsters as they searched for the missing goat. Zafar was finally found in an adjacent village, Konibal, and the goat was immediately seized for Eid celebrations. On Eid, his grandfather, a scholar, doctor of spirits, changed Zafar’s name to Bismil. Perhaps it was jest, perhaps Eid revelry. He used the words ‘Raqs-e-Bismil’, to dance with wounds of love, to describe the boy’s morning marathon with his beloved goat. And somehow the title stuck. They returned to Batmaloo after Eid. Zafar answered to Bismil now.
Bismil’s father did part time plumbing for Srinagar Municipal Corporation. He had dreamt of becoming a pucca, permanent government employee his whole life. So when Bismil joined the Public Health and Engineering department, Srinagar, as a pucca chaprasee, a peon to a bureaucrat, almost Eid-like celebrations followed from Batmaloo to Pampore.
Bismil was aware that a Government of India Chaprasee is much more than a chaprasee after five years of permanent service. In ten years, Bismil had acquired the erect back, slight paunch and kingly walk of Sahib. Sahib knew the sheer advantage of ignoring the malignant and fussing over the benign in Srinagar’s public affairs. Thus, Sahib ignored Bismil beyond the walls of his stately room. Outside Sahib’s room, in corridors, gardens, his own house and other unmentionable parlors Bismil was a solution, like those ‘all in one solutions’ on sale in the market, claiming to remove all stains, including blood, as any solution must.
Every evening, Bismil set up office in a borrowed space: a small-square cubicle of an assistant engineer. A bare light bulb lit the centre of his head. Bismil was helped by a network of water-works employees who knew the value of his work. Khuda-na-khasta, god forbid, if they ever needed his services Bismil would offer heavy discounts. Bismil also got a takhallus, pen name: Gum Sahib, lost-Sir, an improvised business name, the prefix of gum-shuda.
In the recent past, some complaints about his affairs had reached the top. Bismil fell at Sahib’s feet and held his ankles in a firm grip till Sahib agreed to stop the transfer. Bismil didn’t have to join the Library and Research, kaala paani, punishment posting of Srinagar Municipal Corporation. The problem had risen because of the skeptics who thought Bismil had a deal with some brigadiers, and so was making the Indian Army rich with the money of Kashmiris. There were many stories doing the rounds. A few believed Bismil had special contacts in the Hizbul Mujaheeddin. The adventurous ones hissed the name of Lashkar-e-Taiba. The bored stopped at JKLF. Bismil never corroborated any one story, nor did he deny any connection. He knew mystery was good for business. He was a businessman.
Bismil traced the missing in Kashmir. He pursued them till the person was found dead or alive or somewhere in the middle: an unmarked grave, a secret detention centre, a training camp. You had to seek Bismil’s assistance and the person would crystallize. In case the person was found alive, Bismil took a reward in addition to the decided search rate. The money had to be divided amidst a long trail of khabris, contacts. After every one was paid Bismil was left with Rs. 10,000 per missing person, which was enough to keep him satisfied.
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Just after office hours, the Government’s help line number changed to Bismil’s business number. It was a safe way. Who would track the helpline number of the water-works department? The only irritants were some overflowing tank or broken pipe complaints that trickled-in at times. Bismil knew how to dam these twilight complainants. Most often, he simply disconnected the line saying the office had closed at 4:30 (in summer) and 4:00 sharp (in winter).
As time passed, Bismil’s conversations also became guarded. The Kashmiris, who lived in Kashmir since long used words like search operation, crackdown, surrender, Mujaheeddin, infiltrator, AK-56, landmine, encounter quite naturally. They slipped out with flair, as natural as Kashmiri. But Bismil knew better, he chose his words carefully. Before Sahib he only used ji Huzoor, yes Sir and amidst his office colleagues if the discussion reached an encounter or some attack he answered in couplets of Habba Khatoon.
Bismil’s business terminology also evolved gradually. Earlier he dropped words such as Ponda police, Papa-1, Papa-2 to compensate for the little experience he had in the enterprise. Now he took details in monosyllables like an insurance agent: the place from where the person vanished or was taken, the religion as it affected his search route, the name, a recent photo, birth marks (in case bodies were mutilated or decapitated or decomposed), if the family remembered the clothes: a taweez or some-such-thing.
He met Nazia while waiting for clients. Nazia wasn’t the first girl who came to seek help. Nazia was the only one who had an unearthly effect on Bismil. She was a little plump, like a well-fed toddler. Small curls covered her forehead and face despite the grip of the head scarf. Nazia’s shoulders, nape and upper back were always a bit bent, facing downwards, as if an extra force of gravity was at work on them. Seventeen-year old Nazia came looking for her elder brother Azhar, who had vanished from a public exhuming a month back. Nazia stopped on the last few steps of the stairway, in front of the cubicle. “Gum Sahib?” she asked the guard. She was wearing a brown pheran, a yoke shaped embroidery of white roses covered her chest. An ill-matched grey scarf covered her head. She pulled her headscarf all the way down to her brows every few minutes.
Nazia never smiled. Even when she smiled she never really smiled. Bismil was intrigued by her despair. He wanted to make her laugh. He wanted to buy her new pherans with bright flowers. He wanted to have her children, children with pink chubby cheeks and curly hair. She came thrice after that evening to check if there was news. Every time she visited, her sadness acted as a catalyst to his love. Bismil wanted to trace Nazia’s brother before he approached her parents to ask for her hand.
Finally, after three weeks, Bismil received information on Nazia’s brother, Azhar. He wore a new elegantly cut Kashmiri jacket over his cream kurta-pyjama with black-lace shoes that day. Bismil knew Nazia would cry and thus he also sprayed some rose itra. As expected, she did cry, but she did not rest her head on Bismil’s shoulder. Bismil was impressed. Even in distress the girl did not lose her grip on reality. Her righteousness made him sure of his love. He opened the side drawer and gave her three pink paper napkins (flicked from Sahib’s kebab parties). He handed them to her casually, not as a special gesture, almost like he did it for everyone. Later he made another exception; he walked her to the Batmaloo bus station, walking at an arm’s length from her all the way till the bus depot. He took the longer route, a good kilometer extra, in that time he gently asked about her family in Pulwama. Her father was a kangri-maker in Jumpora mohalla. Nazia had a younger brother Mazhar, who was fourteen. In the middle of the walk, Bismil stopped at a restaurant, Evergreen sweets, and bought her a cola. She took the bottle without any fuss or argument. By the time they reached the bus station, he had asked the necessary questions. They parted with a plain greeting. Bismil waited till the bus left. He glanced at her one last time, her head lying lifelessly on the bus window. And then he turned to walk back to his office. As he walked back he sang Habba Khatoon- Mye ha kaer chey kit Che Kamiu Sonei Myani.
He took the same bus to Pulwama the next morning.
Bismil married Nazia in a quiet nikah ceremony after a few weeks. The marriage was eventful in a familial way. They had four children in the first four years, two boys, Azhar and Sohail, and two girls, Furkan and Bismah. He called her Naz, and at times, he tried to show his love much like Sahib showed it to Memsahib. He had witnessed how Sahib slapped Memsahib on her buttocks when she walked away, this quick slap on her posterior. Memsahib laughed as she looked at Sahib over her shoulder. Sometimes Sahib kissed her on the lips when she least expected it, and Memsahib kissed him back. One morning, Bismil tried the first encouraged by Naz’s chirpy mood, Naz turned and scowled: “What?” He shook his head and let it go.
Just like Sahib, Bismil decided to send his eldest son Azhar to Blue Hall School. Bismil applied in March, when admissions open in most schools in Srinagar. He told Azhar to be ready for hard work. He told Nazia about the history of the big school- where gora sahibs, English men taught, and people like Omar Abdullah had studied. Nazia heard his proud claims for a while, and then disagreed in this indifferent way. “All schools are the same,” she said, sitting on the jute cot, bouncing rice in the air, throwing small white rice-like stones on the ground at regular intervals. Bismil laughed. He sat on his haunches, supporting his body by holding onto Nazia’s knees as he explained his theory excitedly-“It is about contacts Nazu… entering good life early! Azu will have an edge later if he studies with these chhota Sahibs now.” March passed and Bismil did not get a response from the school. Azhar wasn’t called for an interview.
Sahib was leaving office when he reached to make his request. Bismil held the door for him as he spoke. “Sahib, Azhar didn’t get admission. Please talk to Blue Hall, please Sahib.” Sahib walked out of the door without a word. Just when Bismil thought he wouldn’t get an answer, Sahib asked: “Azhar’s your son, Bismil?” Bismil, hurrying after Sahib, affirmed that Azhar was his son. “Go to New Batmaloo Government School and take my name,” Sahib turned to look at him. “Keep the room locked, some water-tenders are lying inside.” Bismil’s shoulders drooped. He knew Sahib played golf with the principal of Blue Hall School every Saturday. Indeed at times, he had accompanied Sahib for those sessions as his caddie. Bismil changed tactic and promptly put his request before Memsahib. Memsahib laughed when she heard the name of the school, but promised to talk to Sahib.
Azhar was not called for an interview till late April. Every time Bismil mentioned the problem to Sahib and Memsahib they coaxed Bismil to send Azhar to the government school in Batmaloo. But Bismil was adamant. It had to be Blue Hall. Finally he found a tout who promised to talk to the management. They want two lakhs, the tout got back almost immediately. “Ze! Two!” Bismil repeated as he stood before the tout.
Almost immediately, he raised his fee to fifty thousand rupees. Colleagues in water-works advised him not to, “Fifty thousand is too high for one missing person!” Bismil informed them of the difficulties. The dubious similarities between all the operatives in the Valley: the army was killing like the Mujaheddin, who were behaving like the Taiba, who in turn were like the cross-border infiltrators. “All of them are becoming the same,” he lamented. “The army doesn’t care about who wears the olive uniforms,” Bismil announced. “Short of state honour to every dead man caught in an encounter they do everything to confuse.” “If you live in Kashmir you better be prepared for anything,” said Basharat. Basharat said this often. He said it like it was a lesson. The men nodded solemnly like only men in Kashmir do. They were hovering over a samovar, small white tea cups were kept before them. Their hands returned inside their black pherans after every sip. They looked like fluffy, old vultures.
“You should think of your community. Charge less from Muslims,” advised Basharat. Basharat had lost his young son recently. Everyone knew he had succumbed to tuberculosis. Everyone also knew he had committed suicide. Bismil noticed Mr. Dhar, he was sitting with them today. Mr. Dhar was the engineer whose cubicle Bismil used for business. He was also a Hindu, a Pandit. Bismil gulped his tea, straightened his back like Sahib and spoke without raising his voice, “The rate will remain the same for everyone. If you don’t like it, don’t come.” “If you live in Kashmir, you have to be prepared for anything,” repeated Basharat.
A young man visited Bismil just a few days after the price hike. He had come from Surankote. Bismil knew it took at least five hours from Surankote to Batmaloo. The boy was tall, with slender shoulders, like the many shepherd boys of Kashmir. He said it took him a month to find Gum Sahib. And then he smiled: “They say only you can find my brother. People say you are the best.” Bismil ignored most of this chatter. He took out his small notebook and started noting the details.
“The place from where he vanished?”
“Srinagar. Farid never came back home from his visit to Srinagar. He was alone, had gone to buy Ammi’s medicines.”
Bismil wrote the parts he needed.
Religion: Muslim. Bismil wrote without asking. He reached the column for the name. “Farid, he is called Farid.” Then, like always, Bismil extended his hand without looking up. When the photograph didn’t land on his palm, he looked at the boy.
“Photo?” Bismil asked with raised brows. The boy fumbled inside a yellow file and put one on his palm. Bismil clipped it on the page. Just as it slid in, Bismil saw the face of the lost boy. Farid looked just like his brother. Bismil’s eyes travelled to the face sitting before him to confirm. The young boy smiled.
“I am Farhad. Twins. Same-same.”
Bismil proceeded with just a nod of his head. “Any birth marks?” Bismil asked.
“No,” answered Farhad.
Bismil stared at the photograph. The resemblance between the two brothers was complete. “This photo is from the day he cleared his engineering,” said Farhad. The remark reminded Bismil of his son.
“You have the money?” asked Bismil. Farhad took a newspaper out from his trouser pocket and counted slowly. Bismil counted with him. The thousand rupee notes seemed unused, crisp.
“Fifty,” said Bismil, “it is fifty, the rate.”
“But they said thirty.”
Bismil tucked the pencil back in the spine of the notebook and closed it.
“Fifty.” He repeated. “It is fifty now.”
Bismil knew it would begin. The pleading. It always did. And so Bismil began the chant inside his head. Earlier he used to sing Habba Khatoon songs, but now he simply chanted the names of his children. Azhar, Furkan, Bismah, Sohail. Azhar, Furkan, Bismah, Sohail. Azhar, Furkan, Bismah, Sohail. Azhar, Furkan, Bismah, Sohail.
Soon Farhad started crying. Bismil kept repeating the names in his head. The marching monotone calmed him, reminded him of his responsibilities, his needs, his plans for Azhar. But somehow after an extended oration in his head, suddenly, the names stopped working. He could hear Farhad! Desperate to not yield, Bismil panicked and shifted to Habba Khatoon. It worked. But the slight delay cost him. He had to hear Farhad for almost a minute. “Please Gum Sahib. Farid was just 23.” Fortunately that is all he caught before Mye ha kaer chey kit laced a protective loop in his head.
Farhad relented after trying for an hour or so. He would get the difference of twenty thousand a day later. Bismil heard the song in his head recede. Silence came. He waited for a few minutes, gathered his composure, stared at his notebook and then with quiet determination he wrote Twenty thousand pending. Start search after money comes. He underlined it for effect. He knew Farhad was watching.
Bismil did the math. He already had eighty thousand in his savings. If the boy returned he would earn at least twenty thousand after paying all the middle-men. Perhaps two more missing persons would come in the next few days. Bismil had asked for a week’s time for arranging the first installment of one lakh.
Farhad called after a few days. He said he was still arranging the money. “Will you please start the search Gum Sahib?” asked Farhad. Bismil didn’t answer, but he realized the money might never come. Also, every passing day meant he might have to return the advance too. And so, he called Farhad and informed him about the special Eid discount: “Thirty five for you. Can you arrange five more?” Farhad thanked him and reported with another bundle of crisp crimson-red five thousand rupee notes. Bismil took them and scratched the old pending account of twenty thousand.
“So, will you start the search now Gum Sahib?”
That night, before going home he passed the details to his contact. The next afternoon he paid the first installment of one lakh to the school tout. He also bought Azhar’s school uniform. In the evening, he came home early with hareesa, kebabs and tandoori roti. He told them the good news. “Azu is going to Blue Hall!” he announced loudly. “See this, the school uniform!” Bismil narrated the details as Naz served the hareesa and kebabs in over-sized stone bowls. Naz and the kids didn’t understand why he was so excited about the whole affair but heard him anyway. Soon food overpowered their senses and they stopped listening to Bismil.
The call came. Bismil was asked to come to the Mandi graveyard. Missing people were often found there. He took a bus to Poonch, expecting to return by midnight. The routine was set. It would take him five hours to get there. Then it would take another hour in the graveyard, where his contacts would be waiting. The Jhelum River vanished and re-appeared alongside the Srinagar roadways bus. The bright green forms of the poplar trees stood by the river: a green apparition, a soldier’s uniform? Bismil had visited graveyards in almost all the districts the bus crossed: Rawalpora, Pulwama, Shopian. Bismil de-boarded at the stop marked by the State Bank of India. The graveyard was a short walk from there.
Twenty bodies were lying to the left of the entrance. Three horizontal rows of seven holes each were dug: twenty-one holes in total. The bodies lay face-up next to each other. A few army men were standing near the graves with an old man, the caretaker of the graveyard. Bismil knew some of them in the group. Both sides recognized each other but looked away. One of them was taking photos with a mobile phone. Bismil knew the reason for the clicks. Work became easier. It also made the pay-off chain much shorter if one had the pictures. “Making an album are you?” someone teased.
Bismil crossed them. The old man stopped digging the graves and came towards him. The army men didn’t object. They knew. The bodies that had to go inside could wait. The body to be identified couldn’t. After a short walk behind the caretaker, Bismil stood beside an unmarked grave. It was not a fresh grave, at least two weeks old decided Bismil. He could tell by the amount of grass and the color of the mud. The caretaker had marked the spot with a small mound of golden boune, Chinar leaves for convenience. Two young men joined him. The three of them picked shovels and started digging. Dark brown mud fell on the sides with every dig. Now and then, some of it landed on Bismil’s shoes. The stench increased steadily. In ten years, Bismil had smelt it all. The only time he showed any displeasure now was when no stench came. It meant bad news. It meant all his effort had been futile. The body had been exhumed by someone else or it was a false grave. A dark brown form emerged as they dug deeper. It was different from the porous liveliness of the mud that covered it.
Mandi bodies were rarely in coffins. Bismil lifted his hand. “Wait.” He stopped the men from lifting the body out of the grave. He sat on his haunches at the edge of the grave and peered inside. There was no need to take out the photograph from his notebook to confirm. It was a sunny day in Mandi.
Bismil took the three men to a side, away from the grave. “We need a body without a head,” he whispered reluctantly. “Allah, but we never do that,” cried the caretaker. This time it’s different, explained Bismil. Eventually, the old man agreed and led him to another grave. He cursed as he raised his shovel and hit the earth with force. “I will stand alone before Allah on judgment day,” he muttered every time the shovel hit the earth.
Bismil informed Farhad the same evening, and asked him to come to Mandi the next morning. The whole night he tutored himself into believing that the headless-body was indeed Farid’s.
Farhad reached early. He was already waiting, standing next to the caretaker at the graveyard. Bismil took Farhad to a corner and read from the notebook– “Was he not wearing black trousers?” inquired Bismil. Farhad looked puzzled. “Perhaps,” he answered. Before he could say anything more Bismil added, “You don’t remember do you? It is important- was it black or blue? What was he wearing?” “Black, yes, black, he often wore black like me,” confirmed Farhad. “Good,” Bismil nodded, “Perhaps his shirt was changed. The trousers are still black.” The old man stood on the side and waited. Bismil interviewed Farhad for some more time. Then he held Farhad’s slender shoulders and asked him to be strong. Bismil informed him about the decapitation of his brother’s head. The twin sat on the grass and cried. After a short while, Farhad remembered the logistical detail. “How do you know then, Gum Sahib? Are you sure it’s him?” he asked. Bismil was waiting for the question. He repeated everything as planned. “The height matched, the black trousers match, Mandi is close to Surankote so the body would have come here, and the contact seems sure.” Bismil gestured the caretaker. The caretaker started digging again, the last bit of mud left over the body yesterday. Bismil stood by the grave as Farhad sat on his haunches. The caretaker lifted the body out of the grave this time.
Bismil attended the funeral at Surankote. He had to be sure. Farhad’s father kissed Bismil’s hand repeatedly, “Allah will bless you. You have put an end to our travails. Because of you my son has found a proper home.” Bismil heard all of it with stoic silence and slipped out when the coffin was being lowered into earth with the last prayers.
Azhar was going to school on the promise that the rest of the money would be delivered in a week. Bismil dressed Azhar for school himself. He instructed Nazia not to pack rice for him in his lunch box. Instead he got different kinds of breads and jams from Karan Nagar so that Azhar could eat what Sahib’s children ate during recess.
Bismil was sitting in his cubicle, waiting for business when he saw Farhad again in his office, near the stairway. Bismil was sure the lie had been discovered. The real Farid had come home alive, or the real dead body with a face was found in some mortuary. The boy stopped on the last step and looked around. Bismil waited. The guard shouted, “Bismil, here’s business for you!” Bismil stared at the boy who stood near the stairway. The boy walked towards his cubicle and asked, “Gum Sahib?” Bismil forgot to answer as he stared at the tall frame, the shepherd shoulders, the same nose, the same forehead and the black trousers.
The boy stood before him with no sign of recognition. Bismil convinced himself he was mistaken.
“My brother, my brother is missing, Gum Sahib.” Bismil nodded his head this time and pointed towards the chair. The boy pulled it and sat right opposite Bismil.
“Where was he seen last?” asked Bismil.
“Srinagar, he was in Srinagar.”
Bismil didn’t write, instead he asked another question, “So what is your name?”
“Sanjay!” repeated Bismil, agitated. “So you are a Pandit this time!”
“Why?” asked the boy. “They say you help everyone who has the money.”
The boy’s confidence made Bismil doubtful. He opened his notebook and asked for the photograph. But he sprang up from his chair as soon as the photograph landed on his palm. “You think you can scare me like this and get your money back? Stand up.” He gestured with his finger. “Get out of here, you!” he shouted. “Remember, you put your brother in a grave. I was there. Now you can’t come back. Go! Dig his grave yourself again if you like!”
Bismil threw the photograph on the table. The boy picked it up. “Gum Sahib,” he tried one last time.
“Burn in hell!” Bismil screamed. “Allah’s wrath fall on you!” By now, the young boy was running down the corridor with the yellow file.
Bismil’s anger settled, and he felt human after a few hours. He ran all the events in his head again. Undoubtedly, it was a clever ploy to get the money back.
The tout called for the next installment of a lakh. Bismil requested for a few days more. Next evening Bismil was restless as he waited for business. The phone rang. He pounced on it. It was Nazia, asking if they should wait for him for dinner. Irritated, he shouted, “You have to ask every small thing, is it, Naz?” He ate a few walnuts from his drawer with a cup of tea as he waited. When no client arrived till almost half past eleven, he went home. Nazia was awake.
“Is something wrong?” she asked, as soon as he entered. Bismil didn’t answer.
“Why else do you look like a goat going for halal?” she remarked casually. Bismil ran towards her and slapped her. Nazia turned away from him and cried, this smothered whimpering like soft winter rain. Bismil shut his eyes in defiance, angry with Naz, with the school, with the tout, with Sahib, with the world, Farhad, Farid and that other boy. Every time he tried to sleep, he saw this flying shovel falling on the ground, goats walking out of a grave, not one, or two, but many. He would wake up to the real night, to his heart’s thumping, to Naz’s insistent soft whimpering.
The next day Bismil visited Blue Hall to meet the tout. “Business is slow.” The tout nodded sympathetically. Not knowing what else to say Bismil, stared at the school building. “A week more!” said the tout. Bismil nodded. After the tout left, Bismil waited outside the school gate for Azhar. He wanted to see Azu exit in the Blue Hall school uniform with the other kids.
Azhar walked out with Sahib’s children. The sight made Bismil forget all his worries. Bismil rushed to hug him. Sahib’s children smiled and waved at Azhar. Delighted, Bismil forgot Azhar was no more a toddler; he carried him on his shoulders till they reached his motor bike. “Do you understand the teachers, Azu?” He asked as they rode. Yes, answered Azhar. Just as the evening azaan was called in the Valley, he dropped Azhar home and returned to his cubicle, hoping a client would come tonight.
After an hour, Bismil heard footsteps. Eager to begin, Bismil opened the drawer and took out his notebook. He pulled his jacket over his slight paunch and shifted his chair towards the table. He told himself to be firm on the new rate. Almost immediately, he wavered and decided to meet the client first. He peeped out of his cubicle and saw a forehead emerge.
The same boy walked towards him again.
Bismil dashed out of the cubicle. The boy inquired, “Gum Sahib, are you Gum Sahib?”
Bismil didn’t stop. “I have four children,” he shouted, as he tore into the dark corridor. “Leave me alone. Leave me!” He ran ’till he slipped and fell over something.
After an hour, the night guard found Bismil in the corridor. His forehead had this crimson-redness of dry blood. Bismil was incoherent, writhing in pain, muttering about goats, dreams, a shovel, Azhar and the red sky. The guard urged him to stand. Bismil moaned as they walked towards the exit.
Just on the last few stairs the guard stopped. The same boy was still waiting near the stairway.
“What do you want?” grunted the guard.
“I’m here to see Gum Sahib. It’s about my brother.”
The guard inspected Bismil and decided against introducing him to the boy tonight; it would be bad for business. “Come tomorrow,” he ordered. Bismil continued to mutter about goats, dreams, Blue Hall, a shovel, Azhar and the red sky. “Sahib, you are tired,” said the guard. “Nothing a little rest and good food can’t cure. Go home to your children.” The guard left him near his motorbike and locked the gate for the night.
The boy exited the building. He hummed in Kashmiri. Some would recognize it as Habba Khatoon.
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