I laugh unabashedly, from the belly out Someone has said something absurd They all watch me in derision and doubt This woman who shouldn’t be seen or heard She speaks! What social license does she bear? She’s no debutante, she’s no political heir Yet she comes to these exclusive soirées And instead of blurring, fading away Into the background, this upstart lets down her hair
I walk out gaily, dressed like a queen I bump into my neighbour, the virulent Sameen Her face already garbed in a smug smile She says “Where to Maha? So dressed to kill?” I laugh loudly, her smile falters a bit “Just to the market, to get some things A shirt from Sapphire, two thootis* of kheer* A tub of it’s-none-of-your-business-my-dear Is there something you would like me to bring?
I’ve been alone these twenty five years But I’ve never been lonely, I decided that early I surmounted my doubts conquered my fears It wasn’t easy, it took a few years It took some lonesomeness, some vanishing acts From folks I called friends and even family who cracked Under the pressure of seeing me break out Of the box built for me by the socially devout But I dug in my heels, I wasn’t going back
Now there are friends and well wishers anew In all that chaff, I found these gems too They give me hope, they let me be me It’s been food for my soul, this honesty I know who I am and who I want to be And it’s not a reflection of what society Has plotted and planned for someone that swerves Through fate or design, outside its bell curve I’m contented, eccentric and oh so happy!
* Jawab-e-Shikwa: “Shikwa” (Complaint in Urdu) and “Jawab-e-Shikwa” (Response to Complaint) are poems written by the poet Mohammad Iqbal. They are known for their lyrical beauty and depth of thought
* Thooti: a small clay saucer in which some Pakistani and Indian desserts are sold in order to keep them cool and fresh
Nighat pumped the accelerator and the clutch in frustration. The traffic on Murree road at this time was absolutely crazy. The end-of-school rush was upon everyone and it was mostly the hapless parents or their designated drivers who were on the road at this time. The only other people who dared to brave the snaking snags of congestion were responding to some emergency which only the Murree road route could resolve or, like herself, had been struck by temporary insanity. Her mother had even told her not to venture out at 1.30 in the afternoon, but she was on the adrenaline high of new clothes.
Nighat lived in Rawalpindi but much preferred availing herself of a handful of essential services from its twin city, included among which was her Darzi*. And so, when her tailor had called to say that her latest batch of shalwar kameezes* was ready, she just had to get to him, despite the snarly perils of the mid afternoon journey on Murree road. Her enthusiasm was now as wilted and droopy as was her hair in the August humidity. She touched the inky black mop on her head, patting it gingerly. She really needed to fix the airconditioner in her car – the fault-finding thought clipped up to her smugly as so many others had over the last thirty minutes – like censorial mother superiors.
An hour and a half later, she was at the Abpara market in sector G-6 in Islamabad, ensconced in the cool interior of Alamdar Tailor shop – Specialist in Alteration of Ladies and Gents. The proprietor, a portly man in his 60s was observant, agile and practical like most of his fellow dressmakers tended to be. When you’re a women’s outfitter in an Islamic Republic, you either need to be overtly homosexual or a man who is very obviously living a fairy tale perfect family life – in either case and for all to see, not having any need for minor titillations obtained at the expense of his female customer base. Master Alamdar was a happy hybrid of the two avatars. He wore pristinely stitched, bright coloured kurtas accentuated with antimony filled eyes, and his person surrounded by the heady bouquet of Ajmal Black Rose (unisex) attar. He also had a picture of his children (when they were all four of them, under eight years old), sitting on a shelf right behind him and in plain sight of all his customers. That same picture had been prominently displayed for at least the last twenty years, for the visual reassurance of all who sought his services. And so, both Master sahib and his motely brigade of begums happily played along with the ageless, faithful family harmony that emanated from his place of business.
Nighat however always liked to go just a little further in all her interactions with the opposite gender. At sixty one years old she was still a teenager at heart, abetted in equal measure by her own excitable nature as by the ironhandedness of her mother, the inimitable matriarch of their home. She now smiled coyly at Master Alamdar who smiled genially back while they both sipped on ice cold fantas. Nighat’s clothes were ready but after her hair raising, brake and accelerator fury of the last two hours on the road, she was inclined to sit back a little and enjoy a cold drink in the attar-redolent company of her tailor.
Master Alamdar was also an expert at deciphering which of his clients he could be extra chatty with and Nighat baji* was one of them. The two would wax eloquent on everything from the state of the weather to the weight lost or gained by Nighat. He had a talent for gauging and dressing the yo-yoing proportions of many of his lady customers. Tailors in Islamic republics are trained to observe from afar and can get a lady’s measurements pitch perfect from a handful of wary, discreet glances at her dupatta clad body.
Nighat was a burly woman, built more for the wrestling ring than for the more delicate shenhanigns of the catwalk. But her heart was bound in ribbons of old world romance that fluttered around her ample stature at all times. She was fond of imagining herself as a damsel in distress or a damsel in copious demand or a damsel on the fashion ramp; always a damsel of dainty things. This delicate demeanour exuding from her big frame was oddly endearing and so she had had a couple of brushes with real life romance too. Both times, the men had been retired army captains with twirly moustaches and receding hairlines that were assiduously cloaked in the inkiness of Bigen BB1, Blue-black hair dye. Both times too, she had been in her 40s and had considered herself “too young and impressionable” to have furthered the love interests: Those two opportunities to settle down had come and gone, and she had wisely put down her failure to romantically launch into either, as a late blooming on her part. Now in her 60s she felt readier than ever to become someone’s doting better half and a stay-at-home wife.
Nighat came from a family of modest businessmen and redoubtable matriarchs. Once in a while however, the one-off daughter with delicate sensibilities who was in constant need of protection, was born into the family. And so it was, that after four generations of formidable women, Nighat had come along as that dubious exception; the providential balancer of the Amazonian equation of their household
For all her social guilelessness, Nighat was a good teacher and had risen slowly but steadily in the academic ranks of her school system. She had started out as a Social Studies teacher twenty years ago. At sixty one, she had officially retired a year ago and was currently on an extendable three year contract as the vice principal of one of the flagship branches of the school in Rawalpindi. In her current senior capacity, she also conducted Teacher Training sessions for new entrants into the teaching system of the franchise. This meant frequent travel in and around the smaller cities and towns in Punjab and KPK*. She relished these week long trips away from home, even though she was accompanied most times by her eternal chaperon, her mother. She didn’t mind having her along: Her days were busy at work and the evenings were devoted to relishing rich pulaos* and mutton karahis* from the bazaar and watching movies from the limited repertoire of the guest house television cable service. She always found some park or walking area in town where she went for her early morning constitutional: a 45 minute ramble. Her mother was usually fast asleep at that time and she enjoyed the solitude and serenity of her sunrise circuit around the track in the city she was visiting.
* Shalwar Kameez: The traditional dress of women and men in the Punjab region of northwestern India and in Pakistan. The outfit comprises a pair of trousers (shalwar) and a tunic (kameez) that is usually paired with a scarf (dupatta).
* Darzi: Urdu for Tailor/ dress maker
* Attar: A fragrant essential oil, typically made from rose petals.
* Baji: In Urdu, term of respect used for older sister or an older woman.
* KPK: Abbreviation for Khyber Pukhtun Khwa - the northwestern province of Pakistan.
* Pulao: pilaf or pulao is a dish originating from the East, consisting of rice flavoured with spices and cooked in stock, to which meat, poultry, or fish may be added.
* Karahi:A Karahi is a tomato, ginger and garlic heavy curry cooked with various types of meat.
‘There you are! I’ve been looking all morning for you!’, said a chirpy Rizwan when he finally saw Sana.
Sana grinned back, still cloaked in her haze of joy. She had been assigned to the locker area in the basement for the day since the regular staff had called in sick.
‘We’re going out for lunch. There’s a lot to talk about’, said Rizwan, gently ushering her towards the main door. Rizwan was a Premier Relationship Manager at the bank and came from a long line of illustrious financiers. He had been with the bank for five years now and had risen steadily through the ranks aided in no small part by his strategic connections, but also by an innate ability to inspire trust. The combination had helped him build one of the biggest consumer deposit portfolios in the bank. He had seen Sana on her first day at work two years ago and had pursued her with the same genial tenacity as he did his customers. She had responded to his attentions and two years on, they were finally ready to make their love public … by now, the whole bank knew; their families were next.
‘My mother wants to come over to your place’, Rizwan said once they were sitting at their favourite restaurant in Gulberg.
Sana had prepared for this moment. Her mother had prepared for this moment. She would talk to her mother about Rizwan and they would do the needful to get through the inevitable background checks and first time visits. Zulaikha believed that their past although behind them, was a part of their lives that would have to be brought up at some point when forging new relationships. Good people were a rare commodity, but they existed. And those were the ones that deserved the truth even if it was nothing more than information about a past (and a profession) that did not define their lives in any way anymore.
Sana was of a different point of view. She had been eight years old when Zulaikha had decamped from her old life and come to Lahore to start anew. Old enough to remember but young enough to not have had any real part in the world that was once her mother’s. She was determined to take her mother’s secret … her secret, with her to the grave. People were judgmental and unforgiving. There was a very small window of virtue and acceptability that was allowed to people of their dubious circumstances and she was not going to forego the opportunity with needless pangs of conscience, to leap through to the other side. There was no need to share distasteful nuggets of history with a community that they were trying to become a part of. She had told her mother as much.
Sana came home that evening with a spring in her step. She waited impatiently for her mother to finish off at work and come upstairs. Today was inventory day at Rose Beauty Salon so her mother wouldn’t get upstairs until after 10 O’clock. Sana had a quick shower and went out onto the balcony. It was just past seven and there were three cars parked downstairs. The drivers’ sitting area was empty. So the ladies had driven themselves, she mused leaning against the balcony railing. Probably working women; business women maybe with boutiques or bakeries of their own. Women of leisure and enterprise. Her mind wandered into the fantasy world that she now created with such dexterity for the protagonists that sat in and around her mother’s salon.
Zulaikha came upstairs at past 10 O’ clock. It had been a tiring day but she felt a sense of contentment. She had been able to acquire a laser hair removal unit from another salon that was divesting its business (its female proprietor had probably fallen on hard times, or she was moving out of the country to join a son or a daughter who had finally found a foothold in their overseas Land ofOpportunity). She herself had thought about leaving the country many times during her fledgling, struggling years in Lahore. Thankfully however, the opportunity had never arisen and now, wiser and more aware, she realized that she was far better off in her paradoxical homeland than she would ever be in America or Europe where petrol station attendant and fast food restaurant jobs were the disappointing finales to many off-shore dreams.
Sana was waiting for her. Zulaikha smiled at her daughter’s barely contained excitement; at her slightly flushed cheeks and her bright eyes. She was a beautiful girl by any standards she thought for the thousandth time, immediately staving off the evil eye by taking a little kohl from under her eye and dabbing it ever so lightly behind Sana’s ear. Sana hugged her mother and sat her down.
‘Amma*, there’s someone … there’s someone who wants to meet you’, she said taking her mother’s hands in hers and looking at her. She let her hot cheeks and shy smile convey the delicate gist of her story.
Zulaikha realized that this was the secret Sana had been toying with at quiet moments during their meals and probably during her recent late nights when she’d wake up to catch her sitting up in bed, with a far away look in her eyes.
‘Who is it baita*?’ Zulaikha asked simply, letting her daughter take the lead in her confession of the heart.
‘He works with me at the bank. He’s senior to me. Comes from a family of bankers’.
‘His mother wants to come and see you … and me’, Sana added self consciously.
Zulaikha looked into her daughter’s shining eyes. Her own heart was beating like a drum as she kissed her daughter on her cheeks. It was happening finally. The family curse was splintering, losing its multi-generational stranglehold. Her daughter was going to become someone’s wife; she would take a respectable last name; she would hold her head up high. Her children will have a family name they will proudly carry forward. Sana would be the antithesis of everything that she had ever been.
Zulaikha hugged her daughter close, waves of joy, relief and pride washing over her. She swallowed hard; she was not a woman given to tears or drama. She had gone through the ebb and flow of her own life with a composure that had also become the salient hallmark of her establishment. Just as parlour skirmishes died a quick and unremarkable death at Rose Beauty Salon, special moments of joy and accomplishment also treaded with light footsteps in the lives of the two women.
There was a rush of activity in the apartment the following Saturday. Rizwan and his mother were coming for tea. Sana looked at herself in the mirror. She was resplendent in a powder blue linen jora* with light blue embroidery around the neckline and the sleeves. She had braided her long hair and brought the braid to the front over her right shoulder. She applied a pale pink lipstick and smiled at her reflection, as much in appreciation of the visage looking back at her, as to calm herself. This was it. It had to go well.
Zulaikha wore a white embroidered cotton shirt with a plain white shalwar and a rose pink dupatta. She looked in the mirror, steeling herself; she automatically reached for her talcum powder. She laughed quietly, reminding herself that today was an occasion to wrap herself up in the sophisticated cloak of Dior rather than in the comforting blanket of gently blooming roses. She spritzed herself behind her ears, on her neck and on her wrists with the heady perfume, took one last look at herself in the mirror and walked out towards an evening that would be momentous, uplifting and transforming for her daughter. She was going to make sure it went well.
‘Anila baji… i didn’t know … I didn’t know …
‘Sana is your daughter … my god!
Zulaikha looked at the woman standing at her door, bewildered and silent after her initial shocked utterance. Anila Talib looked back at the woman she had met almost fourteen years ago at the salon she frequented at the time. It was the same Zulaikha; the one who used to do her manicures and pedicures; the dancing girl from Faisalabad.
Najma, the proprietor of the salon had told her in hushed tones about her newest recruit. The woman had escaped the brothel where she worked and had somehow found her way to Lahore. She was accompanied by her daughter, even then, a lovely young child. Najma had taken her in, trained her and kept her terrible secret safe, for the most part.
‘Are you going to stand there blocking the way or can I come in?’ Anila Talib said smiling gently at the stunned woman in front of her.
‘Please come in …’, Zulaikha managed to whisper hoarsely. Her head was still reeling and she couldn’t fully grasp at any of the myriad emotions that were crashing in titanic waves upon her: shock, shame, tears … shame, shame, more shame! She stood in the grip of this cacophony of emotions, unconsciously holding the end of her dupatta, wringing it like she would squeeze these last ten minutes from her memory – bleach it clean, scrub it raw, never to remember.
Anila Talib looked at the distraught woman. Even in the bizarre, emotionally charged atmosphere, she couldn’t help thinking how little the woman had changed. She still had her youthful figure and that beautiful, translucent skin.
‘Sit down Zulaikha, we need to talk’, Anila Talib finally said.
Zulaikha sat down mechanically still holding the now clammy, crumpled edges of her dupatta.
She looked at her daughter who was standing in a corner of the room, unmoving, statue-like. She wondered briefly if Sana had fainted … but she wouldn’t be standing if she had … had she maybe lost her mind, become mad with the shock …
‘Sana, come and sit down’, she called to her daughter. Sana didn’t move.
‘Rizwan, this is … this is Zulaikha … Zulaikha aunty. I’ve known her since Najma’s time. She was training at —-
‘___ So this is the …. the woman from Faisalabad’, cut in Rizwan icily. He had been standing at the door, rooted as it were, between the precious moment of a few minutes ago and the unholy disaster that was unfolding now. He had known that Sana was from Faisalabad and he had also known that her mother owned a salon. The rest of the sordid puzzle fell into place after he saw his mother’s reaction.
Anila Talib looked at her son. His face was as flushed as his brow was thunderous. He was looking at his mother with an expression that made her cold, that kicked awake monsters from her own battered store of memories. That was her husband’s look just before he devolved into a beast. She watched her son silently, a sickening realisation dawning on her: he was a man now and he was at his very core, his father’s son.
Rizwan turned around and left.
The two women sat next to each other; each floundering in her own bog of pain and tragedy. It was like a curtain had been lifted from the screen of their lives. The dull, dim, ugly edges that had always encircled them, now appearing stark and naked. There were no pretences, no veneers, no pardah* on the sins of their society against them. They sat there face to face with their most painful truths. For a while, the modest apartment was transformed into a temple, a mosque of divine revelations and silent, brutal confessions.
Both women wept; one for the patriarchal bondage and brutality that was thrust upon her, and the other for the patriarchal security and virtue that had forsaken her.
Even as time stood still for the three women in the room, outside it had marched purposefully into the duskiness of late evening. Anila Talib finally turned towards Zulaikha and hugged her once more before she left their Sanctum of Dire Truths, Zulaikha knew, never to return.
Zulaikha also knew that this was the start of a completely new chapter in her life; in her daughter’s life. Sana had beheld the truth and felt its soul-singeing fury. Zulaikha too had felt its caustic burn; but this time she had also felt the pain recede.
She had gradually become aware of a strange sensation. It came upon her quietly, gently, embracing her whole being. She felt free. She felt a lightness of spirit she had never before experienced. She felt strong and invincible. Her eyes shone with a new light as she sat up and took a deep breath, filling her lungs with air.
Even If this was a temporary fortification of her spirit, it would do. If every once in a while, when life became formidable, and she could call on this surity, this serenity, it would do.
Zulaikha got up and walked towards her daughter. She turned her around gently and held her close for a long while. When she felt the convulsing sobs ebb into the stoic beating of her daughter’s heart, she looked into her eyes and kissed her on her forehead.
‘It will be alright my darling. One day at a time. You and I … we will learn to love ourselves, our brave history and all. You will look in the mirror and see yourself, and not a reflection of what the world wants you to be. We’ve survived so far, and by God, we will continue to do so – on our terms now. We will live, love and laugh. We will have our share of joy. I promise you that’.
‘One day at a time my dearest. We will be alright’.
* Amma: Mother in Urdu
* Baita: Child in Urdu
* Jora: Dress/ ensemble in Urdu
* Pardah: A religious and social practice of female seclusion prevalent among some Muslim communities. Veil/ covering.
A babble of raised voices filtered upstairs from the salon on the ground floor. Sana looked up from the video she was watching on her phone and wondered if it was another begum of leisure who was throwing a royal fit. How she hated this raucous upheaval of the sanctity of her home! Why couldn’t they just live respectably in a non commercial area that was devoid of beauty parlors, tandoors* and paan walas*. It was one of the reasons why she hadn’t invited any of her friends over from work yet. Most of them didn’t even know that her mother owned a salon on the fringes of phase 5 in DHA*. She and her mother lived above the salon in a two bedroom unit. Aside of the little oasis in their immediate surroundings, their apartment overlooked vast expanses of undeveloped land in the otherwise lush and burgeoning Defence Housing society of Lahore.
Sana sighed and walked out onto the balcony. It was only 5 O’ clock in the evening which meant another three hours of salon frenzy, a myriad cars parked downstairs, watched over by as motley a crowd of drivers. She sometimes stood in the creeper latticed shadows of the terrace and spun entire character sketches in her head about each of the men who sat waiting for their lady employers to emerge from the secret sanctums within, blow-dried, beautified and seasonally bedecked: The wedding season metamorphoses were quite spectacular, transforming many plain-jane bibi-jis* into princesses.
During her tale-weaving meditations, Sana would focus on one of the men gathered below – on his facial hair, his clothes and the way in which he huddled or draped himself on a chair in the Driver’s sitting area outside. From the shrinking violet to the wily watchful types to the portly, loud and laughing types, she’d seen them all and then zoomed into their lives with the telescope of her lively imagination. Today she focused on a vocal one with a twirled mustache and slickly oiled hair: he seemed like the kind who was happily married in a village somewhere in the interior of Punjab but who also had a local lady love; maybe the maid from across the street … He would steal ripely blooming roses for her from his bibiji’s garden and douse himself in ittar on his evenings off when he would go to meet her. Date nights, desi* style.
At a quarter to nine, Zulaikha walked into the lounge upstairs. She went straight to the bathroom to wash her face and perform her ablutions for the one prayer a day she religiously performed. She sat at her dressing table and looked at her reflection for a moment. She then took the powder puff of her rose talcum powder and dabbed it on her neck and her feet and finally on her hands. She rubbed it in gently, inhaling its sweet fragrance like she had done for the last 30 years. She then spread out her janamaz*. Fifteen years on, there were only a few vestiges that reminded Zulaikha of her past; the Rose talcum powder was one of those. It had been a panacea for most ills of the body, the mind and the heart: A burn or a rash or a gash; a bad day or a headache or nausea were all dispelled with the healing softness and the soothing bouquet of her Yardley’s rose scented talcum powder.
Her Isha* prayers done, she went into the kitchen to see what there was for dinner. It was Sunday so Sana had been off from work. Her daughter worked in a bank as a Customer Service Officer. Every time Zulaikha thought of her daughter sitting at her desk in the cool and respectable environs of the Muslim Commercial Bank, she felt a little surge of pride in her heart and a tug of emotion in her throat. Sana had broken through the generations of tradition that had dogged the footsteps of the women in their family. For as long as she could remember, theirs had been a long and uninterrupted lineage of dancing girls. Zulaikha would be the last of that insidious matriarchal line; and Sana would be the first of the virtuous and respectable patriarchy.
There was two day old biryani* in the fridge and some chicken karahi* that they had had for lunch that afternoon. She took out both containers and set them on the counter. They would serve themselves and heat their food in the microwave. After all these years of living with the amenities of modern city life, Zulaikha still marvelled at the technology that surrounded them. She now watched from a safe distance as the display on the microwave efficiently counted down the minutes while its shallow bowels generated enough heat to turn her insides to ash if she stood too close. Like so much in life, the electronic conveniences had also come into their home with their fair share of facts and fiction.
‘Sana! Come and serve yourself’, Zulaikha called out to her daughter.
Sana meandered in from her room, surrounded by the stupor of an uneventful day and an especially protracted afternoon siesta. She served herself some biryani with a generous serving of yogurt on the side. The watered down raita that usually came with the spiced up rice did nothing to pacify her screaming taste buds. She had not inherited her spicy food genes from her mother (or even her father probably) and the biryani made her sniffle and snort as the spice turned on her internal fire-fighting waterworks; unless she added on some cooling yogurt to the gastronomic fray.
Mother and daughter sat in silence while eating their food. Zulaikha was ticking off a mental list of salon supplies she would need to get the next day. Every month, she restocked her inventory from her two main suppliers. They had both been kind to her when she had started her own beauty parlour ten years ago; on many occasions, marking more than their due time on their accounts receivable. She had in turn, remained their loyal customer as her business had grown along with the size of her orders. Mrs. Anwar was the third customer this month who had asked her about laser hair removal. Zulaikha wondered how much of an investment would be needed to add that service on to her beauty parlour repertoire …
Sana looked at her plate, carefully spooning a dollop of cold Nestle yogurt onto her biryani before putting the mixture into her mouth. She enjoyed the burst of coolness on her tongue and palate before the chillies began their now sluggish assault. She had always had a quirky palate and happily mixed textures and flavours that gave even her mother occasion to pause. The biryani and yogurt mixture was definitely not her most outlandish combination of food. She thought of Rizwan. He loved his biryani; the spicier the better. She smiled to herself, instinctively gathering up the corners of mouth in the next instant. Rizwan was her secret. For now.
Zulaikha looked at her daughter who was deep in conversation with herself. She recognised that ethereal, far away look that came over her lovely face then. Her daughter had a secret. Zulaikha smiled to herself; she’s know soon enough. She shared a tender and close bond with her only child. She thought back to how their lives had changed over the last fifteen years. Zulaikha had got a job at a local salon and had shown a natural talent for catalyzing aesthetic transformations, conjuring up all shades of loveliness on plain, sometimes marred canvases. Sana had got into a good school and from there she had gone to university. Both mother and daughter had thrived in their new environment. They were a million miles away from their room in Qaisery Gate in Faisalabad.
That night Sana got a text message from Rizwan. He had finally spoken to his mother about her. That was all he said but it made her nauseous in a strange way: a combination of excitement and anxiety was turning her stomach which had already been grumbling in petulant protest at the earlier biryani onslaught. She sat up and had an antacid with a full glass of water. Then she picked up her phone again to read the message.
He had told his mother that he was interested in her. That was all. That was everything! That would mark the absolute, final end of the old, and the beginning of something new, dignified and permanent. No one would be able to take that away from her.
She re-read the message a few times, trying to bring her frenzied, racing mind back to the moment; back from its leaping somersaults into the sacred, secret visions of her future. Her nausea quelled, she leaned against the headboard of her bed, smiling at her screen as it lit up her face in the quiet of an otherwise uneventful Sunday night.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.
* Paan-wala: Paan is a preparation combining betel leaf with areca nut widely consumed throughout Southeast Asia/ the Indian subcontinent. Paan-wala is one who sells paan.
* DHA: Defence Housing Authority, a planned housing scheme in a number of cities in Pakistan
* Bibi-ji: Respectful term of address for the lady of the house usually used by the domestic staff of the house across the Indian sub continent.
* Desi: Urdu/ Hindi meaning local/ of South East Asian origin.
* Janamaz: Muslim prayer mat
* Isha: The fifth and last prayer of the day in Islam
* Biryani: A mixed rice dish originating among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. It is made with Indian spices, rice, and meat, and sometimes eggs or vegetables also such as potatoes and brinjal.
* Chicken karahi: a spicy chicken dish of the Indian subcontinent. It is usually made in a heavy, cast iron pan called the karahi and hence the name.
Over the course of the last year, it had become a weekly tradition for Zubaida and Sikander to meet for lunch at a little restaurant near the Malik Art Studio. There were a handful of safe, soul-restoring places around the city that Zubaida frequented as much for their therapeutic vibes as for their practical purposes. One of them was Yousuf’s Cafe. Right from the start, it had evoked remembrances of another time, another life. Over time, her memories associated with the place had distilled to a few heart-warming images: her brother Yousuf’s 10 year old face smiling at her; Zubaida reading him stories of Jinns* and courageous raja’s*; his eyes lighting up when she got him the occasional treat of Sohan Halwa*. He had morphed into more than the ugly culmination of her life in Hasilpur. In the strangest happenstance, she had found her brother again in the little cafe with his name.
It was Wednesday and Zubaida sat at Yousuf’s Cafe with her first steaming cup of tea. She was waiting for Sikander who always arrived at least 30 minutes later than the appointed hour. It was a foible that had grated on her hyper-organised approach to life but which she had with time, and a softening of her heart, managed to compartmentalise as a minor personality flaw. She had realized that if she reasoned things out in her head, covering the entire gamut of its strengths and its weaknesses, she was able to approach it with much greater tranquility and acceptance. And so it had been with Sikander’s tardiness. She always planned little things to tick off her To Do list while she waited for him to appear. Today she pulled out her phone and looked at the word that had become one of her revitalising life mantras and with time, also an integral part of her calligraphic renderings: Al-Hakam– one of the 99 names of Allah in Arabic meaning “The Impartial Judge”.
This was going to be her second collection in three years that was dedicated to this divine quality. Most of the previous collection had been acquired by a single private collector who had also been inimitably discreet about his identity. She had always wondered who it was that had felt the same resonance with the concept of supreme justice.
Sikander walked in at exactly 2.10pm, forty minutes late, smiling and completely oblivious of the time transgression. In her rationalising enterprise on this particular flaw, she had also concluded, among other things, that this was an idiosyncrasy that was almost communal in Lahore. It was completely normal to arrive two hours late for social functions and at least half an hour late for work-related obligations. She smiled at him and put away her phone, having decided on the colour scheme for her Al-Hakam exhibition. They had their usual lunch of Pulao* and Aloo tamatar*, a specialty at Yousaf’s. The conversation was easy and varied, nurtured by time, familiarity and their fondness for each other. Their Wednesday gastronomic adventures usually ended in uncharacteristically speedy farewells as both headed to their respective homes for their food-induced siestas.
Later that evening, Zubaida sat at a pristine canvas repeating the word “Al-Hakam” in a low, melodious murmur. She was as immersed in the powerful essence of the word as she was in the image it now evoked in her mind. Zubaida had decided on sepia tones for this series, with abstract backgrounds in the 3 main colours of turquoise, gold and maroon. She would in her subtle style, vary the sepia shades and the undulations of her Khat* across each painting. She got to work on her first canvas.
She finally looked up from her work at past 9pm. She had been absorbed in sketch work for the last three hours. She heated up some daal and a mixed vegetable curry that she’d cooked the previous day. She had already had two chapatis* delivered from the tandoor* downstairs. After dinner, she took out her diary to write down her tasks and reminders for the next day. This urban life hack had with time, also become one of her practical meditations that she performed with unremitting regularity. The smallest task was recorded meticulously so that every evening she had a page full of practical, sovereign affirmations for the next day. The planning of her day, the writing it all down reminded her, more than anything else, that she was in control of her life, of her movements … of her body.
Tomorrow she was planning on visiting the Singer electronics store and buying her first ever washing machine. Sikander had convinced her of its paramount importance in everyday life. Sunday had usually been laundry day for her, an unconscious vestige of her life in the village when the whole family’s clothes would be washed in a big tin tub and the courtyard would be overspread by colourful lines of billowing shalwars, kameezes and dupattas. She now had a plastic bucket at home which had been sufficient for her week’s washing.
Zubaida grinned at Sikander. Some things still delighted her like they would a child. She was pleased and proud of her newest purchase, and awed, as she was off and on at the bounties of her life as a mistress of her own kismet. Her face was transformed at those moments when her guard fell and her dark brown eyes shone, reflecting her inner light. It was one of those precious moments that Sikander was witnessing and he smiled, feeling a now familiar, gentle wrench of his heart. Washing machine buying day was as good as any to propose to her.
After dinner and in the privacy of his bedroom, Sikander mulled again on the events of the afternoon. He had known Zubaida long enough to expect the unexpected. And that was exactly what had happened. He had come right out simply and directly, and asked her to marry him. He’d made a statement, almost a demand of her to marry him he thought cringing a little in retrospect. He had not hoped for her to say yes; he’d expected her to say yes. The swagger of patriarchy ran deep he thought ruefully and smiled despite himself.
She had looked at him calmly, almost tenderly and then just said no. Sikander had built up this moment so much in his mind that he had not taken a rejection into account at all. But when he was faced with it, the honesty of their relationship transformed it from an irreparable lancing of the ego to just another truth between them, another matter of fact. There was a silence that followed, not awkward, not brimming with heightened emotion; just a calming quiet where the last few pieces of their particular puzzle floated into place. Theirs was not going to be a traditional union, but she was still his chosen one.
Zubaida brought her brand new washing machine, together with a myriad of strange emotions back home with her. She had predicted that something of this sort may happen – they both liked each other. She had also imagined more than a few times, of how she would go about handling a proposal from her one soul mate: a rejection couched in profuse apologies, long winded explanations, shouldering the blame for not being normal enough to embrace healthy conventions, and the ultimate risk of losing his friendship. None of that had transpired. It was a simple, undramatic moment of truth where their special relationship did all the talking that was necessary. No words were exchanged yet a whole new understanding was reached. Their relationship was not going to be boxed under already existing labels. It had sprouted its own unique wings and it would fly with its own momentum in its own way.
She had never felt surer or more confident of her soul kinship with Sikander as she did post the afternoon’s events. She knew that he understood her reasons for not taking the traditional route. Still, they were her reasons not his. He had respected and accepted them nevertheless.
Their equation had survived the greatest disavowal of convention; and embedded in there was the most sublime justice. She smiled gently with a little word on her lips: “Al-Hakam”.
* Jinn: Supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.
* Raja: Prince in Urdu/ Hindi.
* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.
* Pulao: A one pot rice dish made by cooking fragrant basmati rice with aromatic spices, herbs & sometimes stock.
* Aloo tamatar: Potatoes with spicy tomato gravy.
* Khat: Letter or alphabet in Urdu.
* Chapati: Also known as roti, is unleavened flatbread originating from the Indian subcontinent.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking.
Zubaida looked at herself in the mirror as she always did before heading out of her one room apartment; straight into the eyes of her reflection. She passed on her daily affirmation to herself: that she was her own be all and end all. No matter how wonderful life sometimes got, no matter how much of the drug of complacency it tried to suffuse her with, she would remain alert. This recall was a vital part of the start of every day for Zubaida; and the subliminal messaging to herself as she looked directly into the windows of her own soul, was to her the most effective way of keeping herself vigilant and grounded. She had been on her own for the last thirteen years and she had survived, indeed thrived in the general ebb and flow of life.
Zubaida lived in Shadman in Lahore and was a professional calligrapher. She specialised in oils on canvas. Her shaded, monochromatic depictions of Quranic verses had not only earned her a name in the city’s Islamic Modern Art community but had with time, become a reliable and consistent source of income. Ten years ago, she had gradually begun to supplement her Urdu tuition earnings with sales of one or two canvases every month. Over the last five years, her art sales had become her primary source of income.
Zubaida stepped out of her apartment locking it behind her. She walked towards the stairwell and per habit, looked again at the door ensuring the padlock was securely in place. She always made absolutely sure that her home was safe.
She got into a taxi and headed for Malik Art Studio in Model Town. The gallery and the curator of its masterpieces such as they were, had both been kind to Zubaida. She had in turn, responded with her own sense of loyalty, declining offers to exhibit at some of the other local studios that speciliazed in Islamic art. Her latest calligraphy series was going on display soon. She had learnt with time and experience, that masterminding the entire exhibition process from start to finish tended to lead to fewer last minute fires to put out. Today, she was going to see how her ten pieces of work would be displayed in the upcoming Eid exhibition.
She spent two hours in the voluble company of Malik sahib, deciding on the frames and the placement of each canvas.
‘Sikander was here yesterday. He has already promised to buy two of your pieces’, Iqbal Malik said, his eyes glinting with the combined thrill of giving Zubaida news of Sikander and the prospect of a tidy profit.
Sikander Ilyas was the scion of the Ilyas Ceramics and Tile Manufacturing, a keen appreciator of art and in Zubadia’s case, of the artist too. He had met the serious young woman two years ago during one of her exhibitions and was almost immediately taken in by her no nonsense demeanour that was also simultaneously rooted in a quaint naïveté. The combination had quite swept Sikander off his feet. He hadn’t said anything of the rumblings of his heart to Zubaida. Not so much because romance seemed like a superfluous sentiment around the sedate woman, but because he himself had been grappling with his feelings. He was expected to marry someone from his class; someone eligible and beautiful; a society damsel.
Zubaida was the antithesis of all that. She had grown up in rural Punjab and at the tender age of seventeen had undergone a brutal sentencing by the local community for a social transgression committed by her uncle: the girl had survived a Jirga*-ordained revenge rape. In the eyes of the world, she was a stigmatized woman; tainted and unmarriagable. In his eyes, while she was tainted, he had been trying to work around the unmarriagble aspect of it. He had decided that time was the best moderator of troublesome peeves and had decided to go with the flow.
Two years on, he was more in love than ever before and the walls of culture and tradition that had kept him privileged and safe, had been slowly eroded by floods of patriarchal contrariness and social defiance. Sometimes, he wondered at the change that he’d undergone as a person and especially as a man in his community. His heightened sensitivity to the pervasive chauvinism that flourished so brazenly in his Islamic republic had given him his fair share of sleepless nights. The not so infrequent introspective moments that also now crept upon him, left him appalled and ashamed. Time had in fact been a ruthless arbiter, opening his eyes to a world that he and the rest of the male fraternity of his homeland had helped to build, brick by twisted brick.
In a world that was seeming increasingly at odds with reality, Zubaida appeared more and more like the only lucid woman around. And so, Sikander was now quite decidedly ready to ask Zubaida to marry him.
Even so, while his internal ideology had changed, he was still a consummate part of the social and patriarchal structures that had always defined him; that he called his roots. No matter how he envisioned it, it was going to be a challenge seeing this undertaking of the heart through …
But damned be the world! Well … he’d handle his parents and they’d handle the rest of the world.
Zubaida had at first been wary of Sikander’s interest in her. In the thirteen years since her life had been turned upside down and which she had since built back one vital milestone at a time, one thing had become resonantly clear: she would maintain her independence no matter what; and a husband did not feature in any conventional, orthodox way in that ultimate life stratagem. Despite her overtly disinterested bearing however, there had been a motley assortment of hopefuls who had vied for her attention. She had held on as practically to her Unavailable status as she had been factual about her past.
All her suitors were made aware of her particular “standing” in society immediately upon their disclosure of their besotted hearts. Some had retreated mumbling sympathetic apologies, less out of shame for the toxicity of the patriarchy that had perpetrated the tragedy and more for how her irrevocably stigmatised situation would affect their own social standing. Others had shown surprising strength of character, whether fleeting or more deep-rooted, whether spurred on by pure adrenalin or by something less chemical and more ideological, and repeated their desire to partner with her in the sacred (and hopefully abiding!) contract of the Nikah*. She had seen off the disillusioned devotees with a gracious farewell and the tenacious lot, with a polite refusal. It had never been hard to do. Her heart had remained utterly unaffected and composed; until Sikander had come along. With time, the man had got under her skin. He had changed in ways she could understand and respect; in ways that gave her hope and warmed her.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
* Revenge Rape: Or Honour Revenge is a sentencing usually inflicted on an innocent woman by a council of elders in rural communities, as retribution for a crime committed by usually a male member of her family.
* Nikah: In the Islamic tradition, the marriage contract is signed during the Nikah ceremony and it is during this event that the bride and groom say, “I do.”
This is a tribute of determination, hope and new beginnings not only for the Pakistani women, but for all the heroic women around the world who are speaking out and standing up for themselves against all manner of cruel and brutal patriarchy. It is also a testimonial and a resounding voice of support for those brave sisters of ours who are living from day to day, facing their detractors with courage and resilience in the hope of a better tomorrow.
I have grown in its shadow; I have felt its hot breath As it slithers around me; dogging my every step. I hear it jeer in the brightness of day On streets and in parks and in quiet cafes. I see it brazenly growl at my sisters too As it strides along its pernicious route. It thunders and lashes and speaks in strange tongues My head is reeling; there’s no air in my lungs! From quiet dark murmurs it’s upsurged to discord The brutal Patriarchy - our master and lord!
I’ve decided I won’t heed its vanquishing rail I’ve resolved I will fight it tooth and nail. And so I have become one of the “pariah” few Who is resoundingly calling for something new. I make my case; then await the backlash For sticks and stones; a bruise and a gash. There are more like myself who are throwing back the knives, We’re banding together to take back our lives. One more voice, one more person, one more protest We’re the Women of _____ ; and we’re up to this test.
From the farthest reaches of our blessed land We will raise our voices, our spirits, our hands; Let’s tell them, That’s it! That’s enough! No more! We won’t be your chattels, your “Islamic honour”. We won’t hide away so you can roam free With your hormones and lust; your uncontrollable needs. We won’t be degraded, threatened and shamed While you play out your age old tribal games. We, your wives, your sisters and your daughters Will be shepherded no more like lambs to the slaughter.
We are the tender, formidable half of our world We are the guides, the teachers and the nurturers We birth generations to carry precious legacies Of peace and love; progress and humanity. For too long have those reins been usurped by the men We are taking them back on every continent. We will be your equals in every way Step down from those pedestals; come out of your caves. Hold our hands as your partners as together we walk We have risen; we are strong; we are the Dome of the Rock*.
* Dome of the Rock: A holy site in Jerusalem which hosts the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, a seventh-century structure believed to be where the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
It was at lunch during the Taxila trip that someone brought up Malala’s latest Vogue interview in which she had, among other things, voiced her opinion on the tradition of marriage. The group was split right down the middle with their sentiments on the Pakistani activist’s preferences on relationships. Arslan and Tabassum were in opposite camps. The whole difference of opinion would have been laughed off such as it tends to be, for the most part, in a voluntary social gathering of adult men and women. However, Malala had always been Tabassum’s one sore point; her Achilles’ heel. And today it transformed the charming middle aged woman into a raving harridan. Arsalan watched her in horrified awe as she let slip a few unsavoury adjectives; and once Tabassum’s boiling blood had become tepid, she retreated into silence. Except this time, it was stony and cold with no passionate, lovesick undercurrents.
After lunch, the party prepared to go the local handicrafts store in the city. Najma was walking with Arsalan, both were in deep conversation about something. Tabassum was following behind with two of her Club companions who were also her freinds. They were talking of the Peshawari Pulao* they had just had for lunch and wondering why their own endeavors didn’t offer up the same flavour. Tabassum was only half listening as she looked at the duo in front of her. She had never really liked Najma with her western ideals and her constant criticism of the bureaucracy of the country. And now, she was trying to be extra pally with Arsalan. She glowered in their direction for a little while and then judiciously turned her head away, brushing the scene out of her line of sight and out of mind.
Later that evening Tabassum sat in her lounge listening to one of her many Ghazal CDs. She was busy fixing and then uploading her photos of the day to her social media pages when she read another piece of irritating news about an upcoming event – the Aurat March*. The platform that, in her morally outraged opinion, gave licence to shameless, foul mouthed women to march on the streets of their Islamic republic and wave placards with the most obscene things written on them. Apparently there was another march organised for the approaching weekend. She immediately copied the news and condemned it roundly on her FB page. Then she put her phone away for the usual 40 minutes or so to wait for her online brigade to acknowledge and like her post. Her husband was already in bed – he rose early and went to bed early in line with the wisdom of their elders. She couldn’t quite emulate that sagacity but she felt a great vicarious satisfaction in her husband following this tradition. She made herself a cup of tea and sat down to enjoy the myriad blessings of the night in her home: The solitude, the lilting strains of music and a hot brew amid a flurry of online activity. This was bliss.
She smiled and picked up her phone, looking at her 40 minute old post. Forty likes she thought with inadvertent satisfaction and 12 comments too. The naysayers she responded to with her usual rough-around-the-edges politeness and the ones that rhetorically agreed with her, were rewarded with hugs and kisses. Then she saw Najma’s comment endorsing the upcoming Aurat March. All the anger and bitterness of the day came crashing down on her again, ruining her calm and stillness. Tabassum lashed out with the uninhibited abandon of a shrew on an her annual venge quest. That night she surprised her followers, her friends and even herself.
By the next morning, random trickles of conscience and good sense had begun to make her cringe inwardly. Because despite her own eccentricities and her innate biases that are so often bestowed in good faith by parents and elders, she was at heart, well meaning. Outwardly, however, she continued to be appropriately offended by the very concept of the scandalous Aurat March and by anyone who supported it.
There was a lot of online and broadcast activity around Malala’s interview and the upcoming Aurat march this morning. It was turning into one of those rare days of introspection and barebones moral reckoning for Tabassum. And so, despite herself, as she sat with her second cup of tea of the morning and her phone, she looked again at the picture of Malala; at her young, hopeful face; at her red shalwar kameez and her blue chiffon dupatta that was made to flutter breezily, joyfully around her. She looked at her gently smiling face and the eyes that were looking down almost in contentment; in gratefulness; in having nothing more to prove to the world. A judging world she thought, and then looked up slowly, hesitantly to face the spectre of truth in front of her … a censorial world of which she was a part too. A voluble part. She had only very rarely and inadvertently, gone into the depths of her feelings for this Pakistani woman. Because every time she did, there was an uncomfortable flurry of emotions that was at complete odds with those she outwardly advocated. The sensations that assailed her were of having missed out; of having been short-changed by life, by her choices and even by the choices of her parents. Those realisations, the few times she had allowed them to sink in, were troubling and unnerving. So she had battled them with a belligerence and a passion that wiped out any disquieting traces of envy and desire. And that is why she hated Malala so much; for showing Tabassum up, to her innermost, truth-telling self, as duplicitous and two-faced.
She resented her for embodying all the facets of a modern Pakistani woman and for being able to live a life of her own choosing. For questioning sage, old traditions; for enduring; for shining on even after everything that was done to break her spirit. She was the public and secret aspiration of every Pakistani girl and woman, and because what she projected was contrary to everything they had been taught was morally and patriotically right and true, she was also disliked with the same passion. That was another truth of why so many like her felt bitter towards the girl. In the end, it was nothing more than latent, simmering resentment at being deprived of so many opportunities to be the best versions of ourselves. Tabassum swallowed hard, took a sip of her now tepid tea and looked into the distance. At a world that not only she but so many other women like her could see but chose not to acknowledge. Close, yet so far away; attainable and yet, so out of reach. If only she had the strength, the heart ….
Tabassum shook her head trying to dispel the empty feeling of despair that was overtaking her in the aftermath of her introspection. She pulled herself together. What she needed, she decided, was a clean break from social media and the news in general. She was losing her peace of mind and her usually charming, laid back aura. She would give FB a break, and with it to all the agitation and the moral pricks and jabs that it launched so open handedly and so often. With that she put away her phone, closed her eyes and leaned her head back against the sofa, while Nayyara Noor filled the quiet space of the room and her mind with her hypnotic rendition of Faiz’s poetry:
VERSE: Ae Jazba e dil gar main chahoon Har cheez muqabil aa jae Manzil Kay liye do gaam chaloon Aur samnay manzil aa jae
TRANSLATION: O Valiant heart, if I so desire, All my dreams and aspirations can be within my grasp. I need only take two steps towards my destination And it will reach out to me the rest of the way.
* Peshawari Pulao: A rice-based recipe that originated in the north of Pakistan but is popular across the country as a dish prepared for special occasions.
* Aurat March: An annually-held social/political demonstration, organized in various cities of Pakistan to commemorate International Women’s Day.
Dedicated to all the Malalas* of the world – to the ones who have already risen like phoenixes and the ones that are getting there. May you be ever bigger than the boxes you are put in. May you dream, grow and glow.
Tabassum sat in her lounge, painting her nails while the lilting strains of Nayyara Noor’s* soulful voice filled the little room. She hummed along, looking up every now and then when she heard a particularly profound couplet in the ghazal*, moving her head in the ways of the ultimate connoisseur of philosophy and verse. She was a woman of leisure with fond delusions of being an inimitable role model in the bogs of spinning spousal moral compasses and the vast deserts of poor taste and form. In her mind, 53 year old Tabassum was a wife and a home maker beyond reproach.
She held out her hands to let her nails dry while she glided almost stuporously on the melodious air that filled the room. There was a languid dreaminess in her heavy lidded eyes, and the lustiness of the moment on her parted lips. She unselfconsciously embodied the drama of her surroundings no matter what the source or how inapt her ensuing expression was. Besides being the consummate mistress of the house, she was also the queen of her very own social realm. Her subjects were the surprisingly sizeable group of friends who had bested the tests of time and her eccentricity; and her old and new hangers-on who loved the animation and melodrama she brought into their online lives; Tabassum also held regular, spirited court on FaceBook.
She picked up her phone after the enterprise on her nails was done and glanced through her FB timeline. She spied a post that agitated her as few other things did. It was the picture of a resplendent Malala* on the cover of Vogue magazine. Somehow the very sight of the girl angered her. Overtly, she didn’t have to explain why – there were enough people in her virtuous homeland who shared the same irritation and disdain for this little upstart. For that’s what she was. She had nothing to show for herself except, well… a bullet in the head, and the whole world was raving about her. Not only that. She had made her escape from the country and was now living like a queen somewhere. Free, independent and influential. God! How she hated her – this western agent! She had often wondered if in fact the whole being-shot-in-the-head incidence was a charade engineered by the malevolent powers out to destroy her beloved country.
She frowned and looked at the image again because despite herself, she was also a self styled doyen of fashion. She enlarged the photo so that she could examine every visible and invisible fibre and pore in the photo. Having completed her scrutiny, she left her usual scathing remark online, about unconventional women and their dubious claims to fame. After 45 minutes she checked to see if her dutiful coterie of online followers had seen and indeed liked her comment. There were lots of ways she passed the message between the lines and the pixels if one of her brigade had been remiss in acknowledging and appreciating the gems of wisdom and virtue that she liberally dispersed in the social media ether.
She then diligently put down her own likes and comments on the photos, rants and jokes of the other movers and shakers in her online orbit. And with that done, she rose to deal with the real world concerns of maids, clothes, coffee mornings and exciting excursions of both, the shopping and sight seeing varieties. Today, she was getting ready for the latter. Tabassum was also a member of the Twin City Society of Art and Culture, and today they were going to Taxila – a city of archeological significance, its origins dating back to 1000 BCE with ruins from the Mauryan, Indo-Greek and Kushan empires. But all that learning was an irrelevant consequence of these trips for Tabassum who had neither the inclination nor the interest in broken down places that were not hiding some post modern secret, like a cafe or a mall within their distressed facades. No, she was going on this trip for the pure pleasure of social camaraderie and the tremendous photo opportunities it would provide. Early on in her excursions with the group, she had realized with puzzlement and amusement that a lot of people were really quite genuinely stir crazy for battered old history. She had also learnt that ancient digs like the ones in Taxila were the perfect backdrop for her online stream of interesting and crowd-drawing photos. She had chosen her outfit a week ago – a silk hand painted russet kameez with a green silk dupatta and cream cotton pants. She would wear her silver Multani jhumkay* and her regular collection of 8 rings – 6 for her fingers and 2 for her toes. She had her maid take the usual photos of her, thus garbed and bejewelled before she left for the excursion meeting point in Saddar, Rawalpindi.
Arsalan was there. The Adonis of their group that every female quite literally adored, an infatuation they joked about openly. Most of the ladies were to all intents and purposes, happily married and had joined the club to see the sights that tourists and historians would allegedly pay an arm and a leg for (this was part of the club slogan in fact), and also because there are 24 hours in a day and one can only sleep so much and shop so much. This education in history and culture was an endeavour that many of their husbands looked on with approval and even some relief: while they were thus occupied, there was far less of an outward leak in the family finances.
The Club president and chief event organiser, Saqib Dogar, was a Professor of Archeology at the Quaid-e-Azam university in Islamabad. He had set up the club expecting his students and others of a similar academic bent to join in its adventuring wake. instead, he had had the pleasure of welcoming many of the ladies that lunched, and a few that had traipsed all over the world and had traditionally left the local sight seeing to the natives. Now, it was the cool thing to do: the partaking of the bourgeois flavours of their richly blessed motherland. Saqib Dogar was a gentleman, a widower of many years and therefore, quite completely clueless with regard to the fairer sex. Somewhat flummoxed initially, he had decided that he’d treat his lady members like he would his students. That was familiar terrain and he felt reasonably equipped, and in charge. The professorial attitude of their bespectacled Chair of the club towards them suited the ladies perfectly. In a country where inter-gender interactions between strangers and acquaintances were awkward at best, this teacher-student arrangement was familiar and comfortable for both parties. And so, the club had blossomed and burgeoned as its numbers grew and in a fanciful twist of fate, it now had over a 100 members, 86 of which were women. Arsalan was then, coveted not only as the overehmlingly scarce gender member of the club, but also because he embodied the fantasies of many subcontinental women – tall, fair and green eyed, with a full head of hair. To this perfection he also brought a friendly disposition and a proficiency in both, his spoken Urdu and English. He was the inadvertent star of the group as the women flirted with him good humoredly but unabashedly.
Tabassum was the exception. She didn’t flirt. She smouldered, much like kindling that refuses to light does – mulishly and petulantly. With dogged guilefulness and an air of mystery, she wielded her rapturous spells such as they were. This quiet but laborious onslaught ensured that she was not able to focus on anything that was said about the historic site they were visiting, but it was also the time where there were no crass, crude, overt shenanigans from the other women. They were all too busy taking photographs of the place and listening to Saqib sahib drone on. She had, during these deafening silences full of unspoken messages, seen Arsalan glance at her a few times. At these times, she had smiled the smile of one sharing a covetous secret. Arsalan had always smiled back and for her, that was enough. While she imagined this special exchange to be private and confidential, the mute drama was as palpable as it must have been in the silent movies of the 1920s. No one could say that they heard any incriminating declarations of the heart, but everyone could see that their Greta Garbo* was hopelessly in love with their John Gilbert*. Everyone also had the good sense to not say anything in the larger interest of preserving the general geniality of the group.
What they didn’t realize was that this focused effort at vying for the attention of the most sought after member of their group had very little to do with any real romantic interest. No, Tabassum was the epitome of the honourable housewife. It was her naive way of proclaiming her reign, her queenliness. If Arsalan began to regard her as a special friend, it automatically enhanced her image and with it, her social clout. Nothing gave her more satisfaction than to raise an opinion, ludicrous and inane as it might be, and to have the people she knew accept it and even imbibe it, make it their own. And then quote it to an ever expanding wave of newly informed, morally uplifted swathe of humanity.
Arsalan for his part, wisely behaved as if he had no clue of this particular fan fever and went about his cheerful way acquainting himself with the history and culture of the country – his book on Tourism in 21st Century Pakistan was finally, well and truly underway.
* Title inspiration from Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poem with the same name and sung most famously, by Nayyara Noor. A Pakistani writer, he is best known for his progressive writings which were as popular in pre-Partition India as he was appreciated across the world for his ghazals and verse.
* Ae Jazba-e-Dil Gar Main Chahoon: First line of the verse translating to: “O Valiant Heart, if I so desire, all my dreams and aspirations can be within my reach.”
* Nayyara Noor: A Pakistani singer considered one of South Asia's popular film songs playback singer and stage performer.
* Jhumka: A style of earring worn by women of the Indian Subcontinent.
* Malala: Malala Yousafzai, often referred to mononymously as Malala, is a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate.
* Greta Garbo and John Gilbert: Both stars of the silent movie era before transitioning to sound films.
It had been decided. Zubaida would be given to the fallen girl’s family as retribution for the crime. An eye for an eye. Rab Nawaz had no family of his own so his brother, his next of kin, would deliver on the blood loyalty. For Haq Nawaz, there was no land to give away, no jewellery; only a part of his honour – in this case, his daughter. He had been forced to perform a cold blooded calculation and had chosen Zubaida, his second daughter. The daughter with no prospects right now would pay the penance for the “family crime”. A burqa-clad Zubaida was brought before the tribunal and told the verdict. She could not protest nor could she lay claim to any innocence. In the eyes of the community, she was now as complicit in the crime as Rab Nawaz was. After sworn statements issued by both parties in the presence of the elders, confirming the fairness and completenss of the arbitration and decree, the assembly disbursed. A woman from the complainant’s family took Zubaida away.
The tribunal had been merciful; they had not insisted on a witness-led consummation of the sentence and nor had they demanded that Zubaida show her face at the council gathering.
Zubaida was locked up in a little room at the far end of the house she was brought to. She sat on the floor with her arms around her knees, rocking back and forth in the primitive rhythm of self consolation and comfort. Her thoughts were mercifully foggy, indistinct as she sat with her eyes closed. In the haze of her delirium and her innocence, she was waiting for the ultimate end; for someone to kill her in cold blood. For that was what the jirga had said justice looked like: an eye for an eye. She keened hoarsely, unaware of her low, anguished moans. She sat there through the night rocking and waiting, gripped in a relentless pall of dread. At dawn she finally slumped to the floor in an exhausted sleep.
She was woken up by the woman who had been at the tribunal. She had come in with some water and a dry roti. Zubaida looked at the roti* her mouth quivering, as a whole new flood of emotions overpowered her weary, drained body. For her just the sight of the meagre sustenance was a gesture of mercy, kindness and humanity; the smallest sign of hope where there had up to now, been only the wasteland of pain and imminent death. The icy grip around her heart loosened as she felt the tears roll down her face. Her heart burst. She looked at the woman, her body now racked with sobs that she couldn’t control; She cried in relief; she cried in despair; she cried in the great grief that was now hers to endure. She cried for everything that she had left behind. She cried until there were no more tears left to shed; until all her memories had left her; until she could close her eyes again and sleep.
Muhammad Adil, the runaway girl’s brother had come back from the city two days after the meeting of the tribunal. The family had been waiting for their first born to deliver on the justice ordained by the jirga*; to inflict a purging, a punishment that would duteously avenge their sullied honour. The girl would be stripped of her virtue and her modesty. Muhammad Adil would perform the “honour revenge”. After that she would be sent back to her family. They had no use nor any place for tainted women in their home. Let her own family grapple with the consequences of a fallen daughter.
For Muhammad Adil’s family, their own daughter was now dead. She had died the day she had broken through the protective, respectable safeguards of their home, and eloped. And so, Zubaida was raped by Muhammad Adil and two other men in the family over three days, in line with the mourning period for the dead. They were a God-fearing family and would do only what was necessary to reclaim their honour as was ordained by their sacred, long standing beliefs: One fallen daughter avenged by violating the innocent body and spirit of another. An eye for an eye. The entire act of retribution was intertwined with faith and justice as they took turns punishing their “perpetrator”. For that was what Zubaida now was; in their eyes and in the eyes of all their ancestral, patriarchal and time-honoured laws and traditions. After justice was exacted, she was put on a bus for her hometown in Hasilpur.
Zubaida sat in the bus, a serene, calm woman. She had been dragged to hell and she had found her way back to the land of the living. Through her nightmare, she had found a supernormal source of strength and a determination that had saved her and sustained her, and that now shone like an aura around her. She had survived; she would endure.
It was a bittersweet homecoming of the middle child of their family. Haq Nawaz was glad that she was alive but couldn’t in all the wisdom bequeathed to him by his forefathers, find solace in Zubaida being back home. That never happened in these tragedies; the girl necessarily sacrificed herself – one way or another. And here she was, alive and even happy. No, it was not happiness … it was more, an unnerving, chilling resolve in her face. He was afraid of his own daughter and the few times that they did speak, he couldn’t bring himself to look at her. Zubaida’s mother, with her fount of affection borne of always protecting, giving and sacrificing for her children, was less ambivalent. She held her daughter close to her for many moments. Zubaida had come back and that was God’s will. But she was also acutely aware of the will of the men around her. And their single mindedness many times superseded the tenets of faith. They would not let her daughter live in peace. They would not let the family be in peace.
Zubaida sat outside on the manji* with her parents and her sister. She was looking into their faces reaching within herself for some emotion, some joy or relief. She found none. Her parents now seemed old, wretched and diminished by life and the choices they had made. She felt nothing at being reunited with them or her sister.
Yousuf came home a few hours later. Instinctively and unabashedly he hugged his sister. She held him gently and then smiled at her beloved brother. It was the only time she had felt a vestigial wave of warmth wash over her since she’d arrived.
Yousuf gazed at his beloved sister with affection and even a little awe. She looked thoughtfully back at the face that she’d loved so dearly for the past ten years. This boy, her little brother, was the scion of their homestead. He was destined to perpetuate the family name and with it, all the norms, the cruelty and the tragedy that came with being a man in their community. He could so easily be another Rab Nawaz or Mohammad Adil …
A mass of contradictory emotions rose in her chest and then settled into nothingness. She looked away from those eyes full of inquiry and concern, unable to respond in the language of the soul. There was nothing left there anymore either.
Despite old world traditions and the sinewy tribal pillars of revenge and retribution, the world had grown smaller even for the feudal communities, who sometimes successfully as in Zubaida’s case, and other times falteringly and failingly, lived according to the exacting traditions of their forefathers. And so, in Zubaida’s case too, the story could not be secretly and utterly relegated to the annuls of tribal lore, as it meandered its way to the press and then to social media. There was a flurry of outrage and offers of assistance that ricocheted in the ether, not very much of which spilled out into the real world. Help in fact, came from an unexpected quarter: the Mukhtar Mai Women’s Welfare Organisation (MMWWO). Mukhtaran Mai*, that shadowy figure who was only ever talked of in hushed tones, had now inadvertently become Zubaida’s larger than life superhero.
Six months after her ordeal, Zubaida was whisked away one last time from her parents’ home. This time however, she chose to leave. She’d been offered shelter at the MMWWO and in the wake of her matriculation exam, the opportunity to pursue a vocation of her choice in Lahore. The universe was finally responding in ways that she could understand and take advantage of.
She looked at the enrolment form that she had been filling, her pen poised over the signature line, and finally signed it “Zubaida Bibi”. Like her new mentor, she too was discarding burdensome last names. In a world which had done away with all the familial bonds of love, protection and nurturing that last names were meant to embody, it now seemed a superfluous and deceptive affectation.
She was glad to be in the real world. Buffeted as it was with trials and tribulations, it would also give her the chance to be the mistress of her own fate. She had lost her innocence but also with it, her deluded visions of a world that was never going to be kind to her. It would be real however, and she would get her own stab at levelling out the odds that were thrown at her.
And for now, that was sufficient.
* Roti: a round flatbread native to the Indian subcontinent, usually made from stoneground whole wheat flour.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.
* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.
* Mukhtaran Mai: a Pakistani human rights activist. In June 2002, Māī was the victim of a gang-rape sanctioned by a tribal council of the local Mastoi Baloch clan, as a form of 'honour revenge'.
Zubaida looked into the little mirror that hung on a nail on the otherwise bare wall of the room. She took a bit of kohl on her little finger and applied it on her lower eyelids. She thought for a moment of putting a bit of rouge on her lips but decided against it. Her mother would have her take it off anyway. It was 6 O’ clock in the morning of a special day today. She and twenty five other girls from her school who had only last week sat for the last paper of their matriculation exam, were going on a trip. It was the traditional annual outing for the graduating class to a local historical or cultural site. Zubaida’s class was going to Uch Sharif, a holy city that had been a regional metropolitan centre in the 12th and 17th centuries. It was renowned even in the present day for its centuries old historic shrines dedicated to Muslim mystics. Zubaida had been to Uch Sharif once before when she was five years old. The family – Zubaida, her parents and her seven year old sister, Arifa – had gone there to plead for the divine intervention of the Sufi saints for the blessing of a male child in the family. That was twelve years ago; she remembered little of the experience except that her mother had cried a lot and her father had not said a word until they got back home the next day. Uch Shrif was a four hour bus drive away from their home in Hasilpur*.
Ten year old Yousaf was waiting for his older sister when she emerged from their two room hut. It was a little more than a hut now after a concrete roof had been laid and a door fixed at the entrance. Their house had been a fond and arduous labor of love for the last fifteen years now, belied less and less by the outer facade and more and more by the state inside: The mud floor had caved in at various places creating hazardous little potholes across the 20 foot space; the two jute charpais* needed to be restrung; the rest of the furniture sparse and meagre as it was, was also holding together only with Arifa and their mother’s constant deft machinations.
Yousaf slept outside in the courtyard with his father on the cotton manji* that also served as the seating arrangement for the family during meals and when visitors came over. At night, the two rooms of the house exclusively became the women’s quarters as was the norm when space was limited and children were growing up. Despite the distance between the sisters and the brother that was assiduously nurtured as they grew into adolescence, Yousaf had maintained a close and affectionate bond with Zubaida. He was still young enough to consider his sisters as more than just temporary family appendages that would be permanently severed in a few years. She was his unlikely but larger than life role model. Zubaida would read him stories about jinns*, flying castles and brave princes. He would listen enraptured and agog as she read out each tale with the expressive artistry of a professional story teller.
Yousuf himself couldn’t read no matter how hard he tried. The alphabets jumbled up in front of him sending him into a panic. He’d got beatings in class for his inability to tackle his Alif, bai, pai*. When he was eight, his father had pulled him out of school. As long as he could write his name, there really was no more need of an education. He would have his hands full dealing with life as a man of the house in a few years. Better to start educating him on that front than on the leadership qualities of Baba-e-Qaum* or the rousing poetry of Allama Iqbal*. Arifa too had not fared too well academically and was also taken out of school when she was twelve. She was now nineteen and engaged to be married to Zahoor Sipra. She was a good looking girl and the proposals had come in thickly over the last few years. Haq Nawaz was shrewd when it came to long term unions; whether it was letting out a part of his two acre land to share croppers or deciding on lucrative matches for his daughters. He had waited until Ghulam Sipra had sent a proposal for Arifa for his second son. Ghulam Sipra was a wealthy man with fifteen acres of land and cattle. The union would change their fortunes considerably. In time, he would buy a clerical position for Yousuf at one of the smaller Union council government offices in the district.
Arifa’s wedding was set for March of next year, just three months away. The little family nest egg was going to be wholly used for the occasion and its multitudinous expenses. A suitable match would be found for Zubaida too, sourced through the auspicious new prosperity and connections of by then, her well-married sister. Indeed, Arifa’s betrothal was a calculated all-out move from whence the blessed, bountiful turn in their fortunes would follow.
Zubaida emerged from the inner sanctums of their home and spied Yousuf awake and waiting for her to come out. She smiled at him and through force of habit, went to fix his hair and straighten out his bedraggled night shirt that was four sizes too big for him – a hand-me-down from their father. He looked at her with shining eyes speaking volumes in that one completely happy expression. Theirs was a language of the soul, spoken through the eyes and gentle smiles. That is how they shared their most profound thoughts such as they were in their little world – through expressions of wondrous excitement, great joy or boundless sorrow, transcending the constraints and inhibitions of words. She felt her little brother’s excitement for her; his innocent awe at the prospect of her big adventure. She grinned at him as she put on her green cotton dupatta and placed a bottle of water and some food for the journey into her school bag. She had 50 rupees with her that she’d collected over the last two occasions of Eid. She would bring back something for him from Uch Sharif; a little momento and some sohan halwa* which he loved.
Yousuf walked with her to the meeting point where the bus was supposed to pick up the girls from their neighbourhood and watched her embark on her exciting voyage to that magical place he had heard so much about. Uch Sharif was where the saints had called to him to be born as the son of Haq Nawaz … and he also believed, as the brother of Zubaida. Although he never said that last part out loud. Something in the way his sisters were connected to him and the family, the protected, guarded, almost secret way in which they existed, prevented him from saying things that related them to the saints. Those saints were powerful, free and revered by everyone, even the richest man in Hasilpur.
That evening a tired but happy Zubaida came home to tragedy and chaos. Rab Nawaz, her father’s brother, had run off with a girl from Rasulabad. It was not a matter that would be solved with any due diligence by the light-handed law enforcement. In such cases the local tribal council of the community rallied to serve justice in the age old ways of their forefathers. The laws of the state were soft and morally deficient, and had allowed too many brutes to escape unscathed. A Jirga* of the elders was convening in the morning to review the case and decide on the outcome.
A sullen, raw moon rose upon Haq Nawaz’s home that night, staring coldly into the little courtyard and through the curtains, into the rooms. It was not going to be a night of serenity or sleep.
* Hasilpur: A city of 500,000 people situated between the Sutlej River and the Indian border, about a 100 km east of the district of Bahawalpur.
* Charpai or Manji: A traditional woven bed used across South Asia.
* Jinn: supernatural creatures in early pre-Islamic Arabian and later Islamic mythology and theology.
* Alif, bai, pai: the ABCs of the Urdu language.
* Baba-e-Qaum: the title “Father of the Nation” given to Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the first Governor General of Pakistan.
* Allama Iqbal: South Asian Muslim writer, philosopher, and politician, whose poetry and vision of a cultural and political ideal for the Muslims of British-ruled India animated the impulse for the creation of Pakistan.
* Eid: Muslim religious festivals celebrated twice a year.
* Sohan Halwa: A traditional dense, sweet confection that has been popular in South Asia since the Mughal era.
* Jirga or Panchayat: a traditional assembly of tribal leaders/ elders who make decisions affecting their communities according to their patriarchal, ancestral belief systems.