I was here. I mean my body was at least, or whatever remained of this battered extra-terrestrial husk anyways; I mean, mentally I was somewhere else. Greener pastures, rolling hills, and smirking cows; I mean I was back home. I was here, and I was home. Home.
A four-lettered word that now, meant something entirely different. A four by four cell. The magic number four; Abbu’s four ‘o’clock news; Moray’s four gold bangles; the four little whiskers decorating my grandmother’s chin; Gul Bano’s four brocade saris, tucked away in some forgotten part of her dowry suitcase; the four little freckles imprinted on my wrist by the Great Maker himself. Four. My little Zakia turns four tomorrow. Expelled out of my swelling folds four years ago, unwanted and unloved. She latched onto my finger forcefully, as if to tell me that there’s no going back now. No going back at all. Only a bleak, pokey enclosure to look forward to forever; or whatever remained of our cursory existence anyways.
Named after her great grandmother, the Pashtun lady who was rumoured to have once poisoned ten men for plotting to murder her father over some land disputes, as men do; Zakia was every bit as fierce and as independent as her predecessor. I watched her as she slept peacefully, her chest rising and falling like the gentle ebb of the waves in the sea. I’ve only ever been to the sea once; when Abbu was visiting a distant relative in Karachi. The city itself; an odd amalgamation of stink and commotion; friendly wizened rickshaw drivers, women with hair swishing behind their back, low-slung jeans and the complete and utter lack of fabric on their heads. I was both fascinated and horrified at the same time. I still remember the first time I felt the water creep up to my feet; the sea washing out the sand between my toes as it yawned and stretched out to the endless blue horizon. Bluer than my eyes; blue like Zakia’s. Sheen, the Pashto word for blue. ‘Sheen‘ the Arabic letter ‘ش’.
I never had any formal education, since Moray thought I was better off rolling the dough into the shape of a flattened moon. Soft embers would often lick the edges of my creation; I’d often forget about it and the burnt ends would fall off. Moray was disappointed by my failure in this particular department, whereas Abbu couldn’t care less. Abbu would sit me down, his arms overflowing with books; his bespectacled gaze following each letter carefully, tracing out the foreign letters of a language unknown to himself and those before him. But he was intent on learning English. ‘Bachay, there’s just something about those tall white men, the way they carry themselves. Frightening yet impressive at the same time,’ he would say.
My father, Qismat Khan, was no ordinary man himself. Born in the cradle of a deep valley surrounded by jagged peaks, Qismat Khan’s cries pierced the winter skies in the year of 1959. Qismat, an ironic name for a man plagued by bad luck all his life. Labelled as a heretic for his odd, unfamiliar ways such as choosing to home-school Gul Bano and myself, trotting around clean-shaven in a land where manliness was defined by the length of one’s beard and selling feminine products for a living. My Moray rarely stepped out of the house in case she was recognized, and shamed by the neighbourhood ladies for not knocking some sense into her husband. She started to veil her face and only sauntered outside when the sky would darken.
I did miss Abbu. I missed his dear, wrinkled hands, the lines forming at the corner of eyes, crinkling up whenever he smiled. I missed his deep-bellied raucous laughter, his timed burps, and his broken glasses. His pompous mannerisms, his colonial love affair with the ‘tall-white men’, and his constant banter with Moray: to the point that she would get exasperated and not talk to him for days. I yearned to hear his booming laugh echo and bounce off these brick walls so that I could wrap Zakia, and myself, in its warmth.
Zakia will never know her grandfather. She will never know Moray or her Tror Gul Bano. Gul Bano, the apple of my parents’ eye, the sweetest little darling with curling hair and a dimpled smile; was married off to a local landlord whose only two passions in life were women and whiskey. Sadly, she bore the brunt of it, when he’d come home drunk, swaying side to side and smelling of sweat and musk. The night would often end in a verbal spat and Gul Bano’s body being subjected to almost any weapon within his reach (on good days it was his chappal and on bad days it was the hot iron rod). Gul Bano’s back started to resemble the map of our village, deep ridges etched into her back — a reminder of the price she pays to exist. The last time I saw Gul Bano, she was with a child. Her belly bursting like a ripened apricot, ruddy cheeks, and glistening skin. Her eyes, however, told a different story.
I shook myself free from the memories — as it does not do to dwell on the bygones — and got up to perform the ablution. The word of God was thankfully still fresh on my tongue. I let the dirty water trickle down my arms and legs, three times for each limb as God had desired it. That was the other magic number — Three. It had been three days since we ate any proper food. Our captors were generous enough to slip some bread under the little gap between the filthy floor and the steel railings. But their generosity only extended so far to keep us alive. My little bundle of joy and I, befriending ghosts and mice behind these impenetrable walls. I gave up on the idea of freedom long ago. Death was my freedom. Death was Zakia’s freedom too. Zakia was unperturbed about her surroundings, as this was the only life she had ever known and will know. I sneak a glance at her dear little body, so young and yet so frail as if a whisper itself would topple her over. Her drooping lashes and her heart-shaped face was all hers and hers only. The only thing that set us both apart was that she was many shades darker than I was. No one in my family or extended relatives possessed such golden brilliance, but I knew it was reminiscent of the man who had fathered her.
The thing is when you are shut out from the outside world; when you are stripped of your dignity, your self-respect, and every material shred clinging to your body — all you are left with are memories. Memories that you desperately try to swallow down, but they keep rising at the back of your throat like bile until you are forced to spit it out. The after-taste is always bad, always lingering until the next day. The process is exhaustive but it continues. Whatever it is, the memory of that night continually haunts me. The peals of laughter. The smell of mehndi on my feet. The soft beating of the drum; my mother glassy-eyed and sniffing; my father looking self-important and — Him. Everything blurred and faded into the background when he walked in. Not at all young and gangly, this was a shrivelled face with a permanent scowl etched onto it. A towering conifer among a sea of neem trees. I looked towards Abbu with some confusion and all I got was a pained expression. Gul Bano was weeping and painting my lips with her pinkie. I realized at once that I had been sold. They called it a ‘business transaction’ in English, I remembered from one of the many lectures with Abbu.
My prince charming was a balding man of seventy. He was not seventeen, as the tales Moray had regaled me with. He was not handsome, and most of all, he did not look happy. ‘Keep your eyes lowered, you common whore’ were the first words he blessed our union with. After that, all I remember was seeing red. I remember thinking shamefully, that The Great Maker had probably seen it all and Moray’s word echoed into my ears, ‘A dutiful wife is always yielding, always agreeable no matter what. That was the way of your grandmother and her grandmother, and that will be your way too.’ I never understood why Abbu sold me. Was it pressure from the village elders or was his business in trouble? How much was I promised for? How much was I worth? A few hundred rupees? Maybe a thousand? I will never know. Our staunch traditional laws prevent us from questioning. No matter how dear Gul Bano and I were to Abbu and Moray; no matter how dear any daughter of this stern valley is to her family, the day of her betrothal is the day when she dies. My marriage to Shahbaz Khan was the day I died.
I hear a groaning sound and turn immediately to my right, to see Zakia waking. “Moray? Moray are you there?”
“Yes, my dear, I am here.” I wipe the tears from the corners of her eyes, which are threatening to spill. I wash her face and wet her hair with the pail of water left here by Shahbaz Khan’s men while reciting incantations that I remember from Moray’s dusty old copy of Quran. Gul Bano and I used to giggle while rolling the unfamiliar Arabic words in our mouths; Abbu’s perplexity at the barrage of questioning which ensued after reading, and Moray’s disapproving looks. God, according to her, was a malevolent being that was to be respected out of fear, at all times. We were not allowed to go and play with our friends outside until each of us recited the entirety of the Ayat-ul-Kursi (The Throne Verse) and the four ‘Quls’ to her. Moray was all about tough love; girls should cover their bodies with a chador, girls shouldn’t be too loud, girls should be homely and feminine, etc. But we never held it against her. Underneath that rock-solid exterior was someone who only feared for her daughters’ futures amidst these harsh landscapes. Too bad, since one turned out to become a punching bag for her husband, and the other ended up behind bars — for birthing a daughter.
He made it clear since day one, that he wanted a boy. I was four months pregnant then, but it didn’t show. What did show, however, were the reddened wrists and the purple bruise forming near one of my eyelids. “My Lord,” this is how he liked me to address him, “This is not in my hands, only the Almighty can choose to bless my belly with whatever he likes — male or female.” It was one of those rare instances where I spoke up and ended up regretting it severely. I still remember his hands encircled around my neck, his breath heavy upon my face; “Know this and know now slut,” this was how he liked to address me. “If you bring me anything less than a boy, I will skin you alive and throw you to the dogs!” He flung me towards the wall and stomped out of the room. I remember silently weeping and falling into prayer, begging to The Great-Maker to grant me a son. The day I went into labour, felt like the day of Reckoning itself. Female anatomy was beyond me, and all I knew was that some village doctor was yanking a child out of my body. It felt sort of like the exorcisms you’d hear about. Removing the jinni from someone’s body. Zakia’s birth felt exactly like that. An exorcism.
I hated her at first sight. I felt like The Great-Maker was playing a practical joke on me. Maybe the angels in heaven were laughing too. I wanted to throw her into the flowing streams nearby and forget that she ever existed. I could tell Shahbaz Khan that the baby was stillborn. Yes, I could do that. No one would know except the maids who I’d pay in my wedding gold to keep mum about it, and the doctor herself. No one. Except that, when the baby opened her eyes and cooed at me, all my defences, all my fears melted away. Here was a being that I created. Her incompetent father was only a donor, but I housed her for nine-months in my belly. I felt her kicking in my stomach at the odd hours of the night. I was immensely proud of myself for doing such a good job, but I worried about her too. Zakia’s nose was exactly like mine, it would grow into a pointed hooked nose much like the maternal side of her family. Her hair was a mousey shade of brown, wispy curls springing from her small head. Her skin was like Shahbaz Khan’s — deep tan. The only thing that would ever distinguish her from me.
“Moray, I am hungry. Can’t we eat something besides stale bread and water today? I want daal!”
Interrupted from my reverie, I broke off a piece of old bread and handed it to her. “Eat up child, daal is only on Sundays, remember?” I was lying. I didn’t know if it was on Sundays, Wednesdays, or any days at all. The last time Shahbaz Khan felt nice enough to slip some leftovers was probably a month ago. Time is a luxury which those behind bars do not possess. Time is defined by hours here, in solitary confinement. How many hours had it been since we had been thrown into this dark room? Since Zakia was four months old. I tried counting on my fingers but failed. Abbu’s educational methods never extended all the way to mathematics, so I could only count the rupee notes. That too, only came in handy when buying sweets for Eid from the local grocery shop. In Zakia’s world, grocery shops are a thing of fables. I allowed myself some wishful thinking and wondered if we were to ever escape this hell-hole, how I would introduce Zakia to things she had never experienced or seen. First up, the gushing streams. The icy-cold glacial remains, flowing down from the highest peaks, snaking their way into the ditches and wells near the village. I would make her drink Coca-Cola, the nectar of the capitalist gods residing in the big city. I would show her chukars that frequent Zuleika’s courtyard; the smell of the damp earth after a heavy shower; the rose orchid after the spring equinox, and most of all — I would take her home and introduce her to Abbu and Moray.
But would they want me back at all? After I had brought shame to the family honour by falling in love, while on the run? Yes, love. The very emotion that sweeps us off our feet, lifts us into the clouds and leaves us suspended there. Coming down is the hardest part. Escaping with Zakia in tow was easy. Getting mauled by a village dog (probably one of Shahbaz Khan’s) was easy. Surviving by eating leaves and sipping water for nourishment, was easy. Sleeping in deep trenches and staying out of danger’s way was easy. Throwing Shahbaz Khan’s men off the scent was easy. Falling in love was not.
I never saw it coming. It was a short, but sweet affair. Love was unheard of in our village; the concept of love-based marriages was alien, deplorable. Moray was too shy to explain the idea of love to us, Abbu too distant. Zuleika was our only source of information on this taboo subject, because of all the dramas and Bollywood movies she watched on TV. Heroines fainting into the arms of their lovers, damsels in distress being rescued by handsome, chivalrous men, and the occasional, sinful peck on the lips. She explained all of this to Gul Bano, who in turn explained it to me. I was shocked at first, horrified at my tender age of twelve that such a thing could exist. “Moray, are you and Abbu lovers?” Moray looked at me with reddening cheeks and an angry gaze, “Who is filling your mind with such evil, unislamic ideas?” She twisted my arm until I was forced to blurt out the truth. “It was Zuleika! Zuleika told Gul Bano and she told me! She says she saw it on the TV.” Moray let go of my arm, “Don’t you dare ask me such despicable questions ever! Love!” she scoffed. “You are too young and too innocent to know such things, I will give Gul Sanga a good talking to and tell her to go and take care of her corrupted daughter. Love indeed! Huh!”
I heeded Moray’s advice all my life. I steered clear of it, married a seventy-year-old tyrant, got pregnant, gave birth, and ran away from home. Going by this logic, nothing should come hurtling my way then, right? Wrong. I had been wrong for most of my life, and I was wrong once again. He saw me by the stream, cupping my hands and quenching my thirst. At first, he made a sound as if to clear his throat. Quickly remembering my Moray, I jumped to drape my chador around my head and cover my face. I grabbed Zakia and stood at a great distance from him. “If you touch me or my child, I swear by Allah, I will scream.” Using Allah’s name as a defensive stance worked quite well most of the times — people would often be reminded of their sins at the very moment, and stop what they were/would be doing in order to avoid pissing off the Lord of the Worlds. Instead, this man just smiled at me. It was a nice smile, but I wasn’t used to nice things so I viewed him with suspicion. “Relax, lady, I am not going to harm you. I am just passing by your village to visit my folks. What are you doing here out in the open field, with no man by your side? Where is your husband?” I told him that for someone who is “just passing by” he asked a lot of questions. He laughed and I couldn’t help but notice that it was just like Abbu’s laugh — deep guffaws brimming with warmth. He looked no more than in his mid-twenties, dark brown hair, and grey eyes. He had this kindness about him that I had never witnessed while living with Shahbaz Khan. To think that there were other men besides my Abbu who were capable of being nice was disconcerting to me.
His name was Rasul Shah. He was the grocer’s nephew, the one we used to go to collect our Eid candy from. He took us under his wing and helped us flee the village. We escaped to his town, where we stayed with his sister and grandmother ‘Nazo’. He was a proper gentleman: always keeping us at an arm’s length out of respect for his chastity, and mine. Chastity was an ephemeral concept in my case. Here I was; a victim of marital rape, pregnant with my husband’s child, yet living with strange women related to a strange man I met off the road. I was too trusting, but this time for all the right reasons. I remembered those four months as the happiest ones of my life. I watched Zakia’s cheeks grow ruddy and her body become stronger on a fresh diet of milk and mushy fruits. My own skin took up on a surreal glow and my eyes started to twinkle again. His grandmother and sister became the family I never had — feeding me and telling me stories of their past. It was around that time that Rasul started making good money out of his trade and asked me to marry him once I got a Khula from Shahbaz Khan.
Khula. Divorce. Once again, a subject that was never spoken of within my own community, yet here Rasul Shah was asking me to proceed with one. It was like cutting off my own head and presenting it to Shahbaz Khan on a silver tray. “You will make a beautiful bride to my handsome grandson,” Nazo would often say. She adored Zakia to no end and I knew, that if I were to start my life all over again, it would be here under Rasul Shah’s care, with him by my side. Khula. The word kept ringing in my head, until one night, I decided to get it done with the help of a Qazi that Rasul Shah knew from the city. The Qazi verbally interviewed me from behind the curtain and wrote it all down on an official piece of paper. It looked so much like the nikkah nama I was forced to sign. Rasul Khan was to deliver the document to Shahbaz Khan’s men. I signed it and sent off my soon-to-be lawfully wedded husband with a smile, on a death march.
Nazo was the first one to wake me up screaming. Rasul’s sister came hurtling downstairs banging on my door. Fear crept into my heart as I opened the door with Zakia straddled on my lap. “He left us, my Rasul left us!” Nazo grabbed my face and yelled at me. “They killed him those dogs! They shot him! They shot my Rasul Shah, my beautiful boy!” Huge wracking sobs overtook my body and I felt my soul splitting into two. Zakia looked up at me with confusion etched on her little face. I wailed along with the other two women the entire night. And after the streaks of tears on my cheeks dried up, I made a decision. This was entirely my fault, I put my beloved into harm’s way, and therefore I would have to pay for it. I packed my bags in the dead of the night, and, before leaving, managed to get a glimpse of the faces I had come to love so much in all these months, and then set off. Zakia wrapped around my back, we ventured into the wolf’s den once again.
I don’t know what I expected. Definitely not for Shahabaz Khan to forgive me and take me into his loving arms once again. He would never accept Zakia either. I don’t remember much of the argument except that, it involved him kicking dust into my face and slapping Zakia hard. All I remember after that was this cold darkness. This abyss that I grew accustomed to, that Zakia grew up with. “You and your bastard child will spend the eternity in this room. That will teach you what happens to those who try to betray Shahbaz Khan!” His voice kept echoing long after he left, I heard it too often in my sleep.
I lay my head on the cold, stone floor and brought Zakia closed to me. The Almighty, The Lord of Worlds, The Great-Maker, or whatever names you called him by, was such an enigma. He gave me pain; he gave me hurt; he took my only comfort away. Yet in my arms, was breathing body that resembled me, spoke like me, laughed like me, and was mine in every manner. If death was next in our long list of adventures, I was prepared to accept it. Zakia’s concept of death was non-existent, it made the whole thing easier for us. If dying meant I could meet Rasul once again in the heavens above, Moray and Abbu soon to follow, and even make space for Gul Bano; then death was a family reunion that I could not wait for.