Before Crossing the Street

Before crossing the street, he put his hands in his pockets. He looked both ways. He saw he had one foot in front and one behind, so he stepped together. I should cross the street now, he thought. The traffic was quite far away in both directions. He stepped forward. He took one hand out of his pocket, as was his habit. He always kept one hand in his pocket. Or both hands in both pockets. He could feel his hand hanging by his hip and thought about how his mother had always laughed at this behaviour of his when he was very small.

In one second, he’d thought a great deal, and walked a second or third step, when he was pushed back by a car speeding by from the right. His other hand went back into his pocket. He was in no hurry. The ebb and flow of the traffic didn’t worry him. But maybe he was in a hurry. It was his habit to become calm and forget everything at some moments, and at others to remember everything and grow agitated. He often felt weighed down by the burden of all his accumulated tasks still to do. He turned his head again: to the right and to the left. Traffic had suddenly started moving in both directions, back and forth on the street. He stood still and thought. Coming and going meant different things depending on the direction. The meaning of coming to this side of the road or going to that side could change. Now both his hands were out of his pockets. This is what happened when he wasn’t paying attention. His hands would come out of his pockets and swing an arc with the back and forth movement of his steps and this would accompany the rhythm of the swinging of his hands. And then he would grow absentminded. His mother often said, “Pay attention when you’re walking!” Now he had reached middle age but was still absentminded.

He had been standing by the side of the road for a long time. His urge to cross the street began to propel him forward again. He put both his hands in his pockets. He took a step forward. He took one of his hands from one of his pockets again. And took another step. Then he heard a sudden rumbling from the left and stepping back, he thought about how this always happened to him. Innumerable unexpected catastrophes kept occurring. He wanted to step forward, but to make forward progress, he always had to move quite far back. So far back that many people disappeared from view. He smiled. He looked all around him. The street was empty in both directions. He again screwed up his resolve. He placed his feet together. He put both his hands in his pockets, then took one back out. Then, in just a hop, he was on the other side. On the other side, he thought. But he had grown absentminded again. He was actually on the same side. Both his hands were out of his pockets. And one foot was before the other. Streams of traffic were again driving to and fro before him.

And he was thinking. Was it driving to, or fro, or actually moving in place, like him. His hand had gone back into his pocket. Again his feet were side by side in preparation for crossing the street. And his left hand was ready to swing by his side.

Bios

Azra Abbas

Azra Abbas was born in 1948 in Karachi. She is one of Pakistan’s foremost women poets writing in Urdu, and has published five volumes of poetry and three works of prose: a novel, a collection of short stories, and a memoir. She taught Urdu literature at Jinnah Government College for nineteen years, and at Government Commerce College in Karachi for eight. Abbas is known for her unique and unconventional style, often focusing on the mundane and commonplace experiences of life, which were not considered a proper subject for poetry when she began publishing.

Daisy Rockwell

Daisy Rockwell is a painter, writer, and translator living in New England. Her translations of Hindi classics such as Upendranath Ashk’s Falling Walls and Bhisham Sahni’s Tamas have been published by Penguin India, and her translations of numerous works of poetry and short fiction from Hindi and Urdu have appeared in The Brooklyn Rail/InTranslation, Out of Print, and Scroll.in.

Copyright (c) Azra Abbas, 2001. English translation copyright (c) Daisy Rockwell, 2017.