It was a dull morning in February 1965, with clouds hovering in the sky over Barakhamba Road and very little light coming from the open window, but a cool breeze was blowing and upsetting the papers on Joe Nash's table. Suddenly, Joe heard a scream and ran towards the Newsroom, getting out of breath in the process. Only 20-year-old Shima Sharma (not her real name) was inside as she was the morning duty sub-editor in the English newspaper. Her clothes had caught fire. Joe took off his long coat and threw it around the girl, forcing her to the ground and beating out the flames with his hands. Shima stood up slowly, a pathetic sight with huge gaps in her clothing. Her neck was red and Joe was sure there were burns on other parts of her body too. He was more concerned about her than his own injured hands. "What happened?" asked Joe. "I was switching on the heater when there was sparking and the next thing I knew was that my clothes were on fire," she replied.
Joe thought that the best thing was to take the girl home in the office car. Shima's mother was horrified on seeing her coming back in such a state. "I'll take her to the doctor," said Mrs Sharma. "He's just around the corner." Joe thought that was the signal for him to leave. Joe Nash (not his real name) was an Anglo-Indian Chief Sub-Editor, a bachelor who lived in Rajpur Road. This was the third time he had saved Shima's life. The first one was when she slipped during an office Christmas Day picnic at the Taj Mahal. They had caught the train at New Delhi station and got down at Agra Cantt. The party of six headed to the monument through Shahjahan Garden (the erstwhile Macdonald Park). There were three girls and three men, including Joe.
The Taj is a glorious sight on a moonlit night, almost like a part of heaven. But on a winter morning it had a rosy hue, which was no less exciting. "How, beautiful!" remarked Shima. As she said so, a hurrying photographer bumped against her and she lost her balance. Joe caught hold of her hand but she went over the narrow marble balustrade near the eastern minaret. With all his might he tried to pull her back but lost his balance too. The other two sub-editors leapt forward and caught him by the waist. Joe found the weight on his hands too much while Shima kept crying, "Save me, save me!" He thought that both of them would fall to their death 50 ft below. But just then the two other girls, Reena and Rachel, held his legs while the young men, Gopal and Robin, tugged at Joe with all their might and he in turn managed to pull up Shima to safety. "My God, I nearly died!" exclaimed an exhausted Shima. Joe replayed the scene in his mind as he sat at his desk after returning from Shima's house.
The second time, he remembered, was when Shima fell into the river while dancing on the Yamuna pontoon bridge during another outing and Joe once again saved her. Two days after the office fire incident Shima's father called him up with the request that he should make it convenient to visit his place on the coming Sunday evening. When Joe went there he found Shima and her parents anxiously waiting for him. "Come, come," said Mr Sharma. "We want you to go through a symbolic wedding with Shima as you have saved her life thrice. But because of religion, caste and 12 years' age difference, the real union of you two is not possible and, in any case, we have already chosen a husband for her. But you have the first right. After the ceremony we have planned you will have to set Shima free from her obligation. This is known as Sigeh or temporary "nikah" in the Middle East but we in India have our own version, which has been practised on rare occasions, like even marriage to a tree.
A pandit was called and he asked him to put on a dhoti-kurta, kept ready by the Sharmas. Joe went to the bathroom and put them on rather awkwardly. When he returned he found Shima dressed up as a Hindu bride waiting for him. The pandit said, "You can take your bride of the evening to another room but mind this does not confer conjugal rights on you." He then tied a part of Joe's dhoti to Shima's embroidered saree, keeping the knot loose deliberately. Joe bolted the door of the side room, lifted up Shima's ghoonghat and kissed her. As they walked back into the drawing room, Joe noticed that Shima's parents were eyeing them curiously. "Was it done as I had said," enquired the Pandit.
They both nodded. "Now (he said to Joe) that you have been symbolically wedded, swear that you would forego your right to cohabitation with Shima. Also, will you come again to her aid whenever the need arises?" Joe nodded his head in agreement. The Pandit threw a few drops of water on him and Shima and untied the knot to signify separation. Joe stayed on for dinner but did not relish it and left soon after.
That night Joe couldn't sleep a wink. He got up every now and then to drink water from the goblet kept on the little table near his bed. The lover's lament for the long wait that kept him awake was well expressed in a song that came to his mind: "Jagte rahenge aur kitne raat hum?" Intoxicated with his thoughts he sat down on his bed and wrote:
"Nude feet in slippers
Caught in a pose
And you slim
As the night when
She unknots her bun,
Pulling out the long
Pin of the day
To rest on the
Mantelpiece of the hours,
Pregnant with moments ~
A foetus of sighs."
He read the poem again and again and got a thrill out of it. For him it would always be Shima. The thought gave him some consolation and then sleep overcame him.
His lady-love did get married to a Brahmin engineer and Joe remained a bachelor till his death in 1998. But some years earlier, due to a curious circumstance, he had to donate his sperm to Shima (thanks to visiting a US specialist) so that she could conceive as her diabetic husband had been rendered sterile. A strange story no doubt but Joe Nash swore it was true. If Shima is alive she must be a grandmother now and the poem (which one saw) may still be with her.