Qasim Khan, together with his brother, Zahid Khan lived in their ancestral home in Peshawar. Their children had grown up together, with of course the virtues of restraint and inhibition instilled from the very beginning into every girl child. As providence had it, there were only two girls born in Mishal’s generation – so far that is, given the erratic procreativity that often times flourished in joint family systems, with sometimes mothers and daughters falling simultaneously pregnant. As things were at the time, Qasim Khan and Zahid Khan each, had two sons and a daughter. In their homestead, girls were promised off to eleigible boys and men as closely related to their immediate family, and as early as possible. And so, three years ago, Mishal was betrothed to her cousin, Dawood, the older of Zahid Khan’s two sons.
Mishal’s Nikah* ceremony in all its quiet austerity had taken place when she had just turned thirteen. Even at that tender age, she was aware and sensitive to the implications of being “handed over” to her uncle’s family; of now being Zahid Khan’s wellspring of honour, modesty and one of two future perpetuators of his genomic lineage. She had carried that burden with the eqaniamity borne of nurture and naïveté, until that day when the protective walls of her home had come tumbling down around her: It was six months after her nikah to Dawood while she was back home for the Eid holidays. It was also the scorching peak of summer when the whole household would be cloaked in post-lunch torpor, dead to the world until the cooler evening breezes stirred the stillness. She had gone to the kitchen to look for a snack when he had come upon her. She was still surrounded by the langurous afterglow of her recent siesta when Dawood had jumped on her. He had thrown her to the ground and groped, prodded and choked her with such ferocity that she was left battered and utterly bewildered. He had only let go because he had heard the landline ring and knew that someone was going to rise to answer it.
Mishal lay there on the tiled floor, reeling from what had just happened. Her young mind, unable to recognise the atrocity and the ugliness of the episode in its immediate aftermath, was in a flux of confusion and anger. She got to her feet and fixed her shirt, tentatively touching her arm where a weal was already forming. She felt her bruised throat and catching sight of her reflection in the glass door of the cabinet, saw also a rip in the neckline of her kameez. She stared at the image. The searing heat of embarrassment and shame now beginning to fill her every pore. She felt like she was choking again but this time it was her own guilt and distress that had her in their stranglehold. Barely able to breathe, she picked her dupatta up off the floor and made her way back to the bedroom. Her mother was just waking up. Kulsoom took one look at her daughter, got up and locked the bedroom door. She sat her distraught, sobbing daughter down and managed to extricate the gist of what had happened to her. Kulsoom held her daughter close for a little while; held her one last time at the threshold of her childhood. Then she took her across once and for all, into her own encumbered, wary and confined world, just as Kusloom’s mother had done with her. She had hoped that her only daughter would thrive in the joys of childhood just a little longer; that her spontaneous laughter carried as it was on the tide of light hearted innocence, would ring in the house for a few more years. But she also knew that women’s hopes were like fragile petals, to drop off or be plucked at the will of God or the whims of the men in their lives. What was done was done. She held her daughter by her shoulders and looking straight into her eyes she told her that this episode was to remain unspoken of, forever closed, forgotten.
Mishal sat in her bedroom that she shared with her mother and her six year old brother. Over the last three years, a lot had changed. She had almost overnight matured into not only a woman but had over the years developed an abhorrence for her husband-to-be and an acute dislike for the other men of the household, including her father. She thought back to the day that Dawood had accosted her … assaulted her. She had been told to forget, to wash her mind clean of the event. Her mother in fact, had never mentioned it again. Ever. Hiding behind the ego and cowardice of patriarchy as its accomplice numero uno! Mishal thought with resentment. She imagined countless scenarios where Dawood would just vanish from her life. Sometimes these daydreams were soothing, calming; at others it was not enough to imagine – she had to reassure herself in a raw, racking, visceral way that she was in charge of her life. So she had acted out, mostly in school; she wouldn’t study if she didn’t want to; she would eat only a teaspoonful for the whole day if she so desired; she wouldn’t wash her hair for a fortnight if the whim overtook her. With time and her insatiable need to feel in control of her life, she had expanded the limits of her rebellion: she had even tried to run away from school. She hadn’t meant to, seriously … but she had to try it. Of course, Mother Gertrude had had one of her long sermon-like talks with her. She did say that she wouldn’t mention the ‘misadventure’ to her father … Mishal had almost wished that her principal had told her father, only so she could see some emotion, any emotion on his cold, stone-like face.
Something else was stirring at the back of Mishal’s thoughts today. She got up and walked over to her wardrobe, reaching into the far depths of its uppermost shelf. That’s where she had stowed it away, her red paisley dupatta. In the days after Dawood had attacked her in the kitchen, she had gone out of her way to avoid any contact with him, mealtimes being the necessary exception. Despite that and because he could, she thought bitterly, he had tormented and agonised her, intimidated and bullied her in all the big and little ways that are meant to break the spirit. One day a few months after the episode, he had again cornered her, but this time, had the good sense not to touch her. Her whole demeanour was that of a she wolf ready to gouge out her assialant’s eyes. He had laughed at her and then incensed by the look of loathing and fear on her face, he had said something chilling to her: that he’d gone after her because of the way she was dressed, provocatively; without her hijab and with only that fancy red paisley dupatta around her. She was asking for it, he’d added. She had growled at him because she had only her raw emotion to show. There was no biting retaliation, no barbs, no words that she could hurl at him. She only felt her wounded spirit bleed again making her snarl, and then sob with relief after he had gone. She remembered how long and hard she had looked at her paisley dupatta: questioningly, accusingly, sadly, confusedly, angrily, tearfully, and finally with defeat. She had put it away and never worn it again. But it had over time in some inexplicable way, become her banner of hope, of freedom, of daring to be more than she was ever permitted to be. And so she took it out every once in a while, looked at the beautiful red and yellow paisley pattern on its coral background, felt its softness and then fortified, she’d put it away. In its corner – resplendent, hidden, secret.
The news arrived in the household in little driblets, almost like the patriarchal universe was delivering it gently, even faultily, one shattering little fact at a time. They first heard that Zahid Khan and Dawood had been in an accident on their way back from Islamabad. After an hour of frantic calling and finding out, they learnt that they were admitted to a hospital in Hassan Abdal*; but that they were alright. There was a general release of tension at this last bit of news. Mishal’s father had left for Hasan Abdal as soon as he’d confirmed their whereabouts.
It was around 4 O’ clock in the evening when they received the call from Qasim Khan. His brother and his nephew had both died on the spot. He was bringing their bodies back home.
Kulsoom broke this final piece of news first to her daughter and then to her sister in law. The children would find out in their own way soon enough.
Mishal heard the news silently, looking at her mother with clear, calm eyes. She watched her minister to her sister-in-law who had just lost two of the men in her family in one go. She turned away, feeling her own flood of emotions so tumultuous and thick that her head spun and all she could hear was the roar of an endless, open ocean in her ears … the mad, frantic, powerful, unbound, pounding of her own heart. Her breath was almost ragged as she went to her bedroom. She opened her cupboard and retrieved the red paisley dupatta. She then removed the innocuous, white hijab and slowly, gently almost reverently draped the veil about her, lightly covering her head. She sat on her bed and looked out of the window, calm, serene and with the large, steady flame of hope already melting the corrosive, numbing chill around her heart.
* Dupatta: A shawl traditionally worn by women in the Indian subcontinent.
* Nikah: The Nikah ceremony is the Muslim marriage ceremony. In the Islamic tradition, the marriage contract is signed during the Nikah and it is during this event that the bride and groom say, “I do.”
* Hasan Abdal: A city in the Punjab Province of Pakistan, located 40 km northwest of the country's capital city, Islamabad.
Read Part One here: https://theroamingdesi.org/2021/05/28/paisley-dupatta-part-one/