Raani - Minaal Maan
Updated: Sep 11, 2020
She had been walking for hours now, or so it seemed to her as she made her way through the dark, silent streets of her neighborhood, the wretched neighborhood where she had spent the last sixteen years of her life. The pearlescent moon hung low in the sky, casting everything in a ghostly glow. She supposed it was ironic how it was shining so bright on the night she was leaving this part of the city, with its crumbling walls, faded paint, and empty, silent streets resembling a graveyard stretched on for miles in every direction. There were barely any light poles around, the only source of light being that luminescent disk in the sky, and her thin frame trembled beneath her worn shawl.
Her hands shook as she reached up to push damp hair out of her pale face, taking care not to drop the brown leather bag that was slung over one shoulder. The bag held her whole life now, she thought as she crossed the street to avoid a shallow pool of water that had gathered after the rain last night. Her fingers came away slightly wet and she let them fall to her side with a sigh. She had told herself that she would not cry anymore. At least not tonight.
She could still feel his hands on her. He would come into her room every night as her mother slept on in the next room and slide into bed next to her. She shivered as she remembered how he always put a hand on her mouth to silence her, told her it was a game and that she must not tell anyone because it was their secret. “Your mother can’t know,” he would say, and she would nod her head silently as his face split into a grin before her.
She had not known that it was wrong the first few times. It had hurt terribly but he had told her that it would get better. “You’ll like it the next time,” he had murmured and she had nodded. The next time had not been so bad, but the one after that had. He had hurt her and she had tried to scream. Anya could still remember the blood as it had flowed from her, how he had clamped his hand over her mouth and slapped her across the face in anger, telling her to be quiet. Things had changed after that night.
She had told her mother the very next morning how Adil, her stepfather, had started to creep into her room at night and would touch her in odd places. He had gotten her to believe that it was a game up till then. But games were not supposed to hurt you, were they? Besides, he had started acting differently towards her ever since that time. He would ask her to sit on his lap when nobody was looking and would squeeze her bottom as his other hand lingered all over her. She had hated all of it.
“I don’t like him anymore, mama.” Her voice was low, scared in case Adil was listening. Her left cheek was still sore.
“Why?” Her mother was mending a pair of old socks under the light of a candle. The electricity was out again.
“He hurts me.” She thought her mother would look up and ask her where he had hurt her, that she would notice the swelling on her face.
“Don’t be so stupid, Anya. He is your father.” Anya wanted to scream that Adil was not her father, that her father was probably dead now that her mother had left him and run away with a stranger.
“He makes me uncomfortable.” Her mother looked up then, her gaze as hard as steel. Anya knew she had noticed her face now, had taken in her cheek and had noted the bruise on her lip as well. But when she spoke her next words, her voice as cold as ice.
“He puts food on our table. Think of your little brother.”
Her little brother, Omer, had, in fact, been the reason she had tried and managed to survive five more years in that house, she thought to herself with a pang of sadness. There was nothing in this world that she would not do for him, and his warm brown eyes were still fresh in her memory. He had lost his leg in an accident a few years ago and what had followed were constant trips to the hospital and piles of medical bills that Adil had been taking care of. She knew that her mother, with her meager funds would have never been able to take care of it all on her own. So she had kept her mouth shut, silently enduring her stepfather night after night, hiding her face the next morning from her own self because she was disgusted by the person she saw in the mirror.
But it had all gotten too much now. Adil was getting older now which meant that he now had even more anger and desperation to dispel. She had also noticed some tension between him and her mother. He would come home late every night, only to burst into her room. She would scream into her pillow, sure that her mother could hear in the next room. Last night had been the worst and she shivered again recalling the pain and disgust she had felt. Her legs throbbed as she walked and her hand unconsciously drifted to her side where she knew she would find a bruise forming if she looked.
She repeated the words in her head as she walked towards the main part of the city, out of the neighborhood that she had grown so accustomed to, past the crumbling houses and across the dirt-streaked streets.
Never again would she let anyone treat her the way Adil had, the way her mother had. She would go far away, somewhere she alone was responsible for her choices and their outcomes, where she could not be hurt the way she had been for the past five years.
The music was a dull roar in her ears as she moved her body to the beat, the movements perfectly timed and a seductive smile plastered on her face like it always had been. She moved with a slow intensity that had the men growing restless in their chairs, itching to get closer to her, to touch her. One man was recording her on his phone in the second row and she winked at him, knowing the affect it would bring. Sure enough, he whistled, his eyes glued to her as she swayed her hips with a renewed vigor.
Raani knew the end of the song was approaching. This was the most important part, the part that brought her the most money. She let the music guide her as she quickened the sway of her hips, moved her hands slowly along her sides and then proceeded to spin while thrusting her pelvis outwards, a move that prompted wolf-whistles and loud clapping from the audience. She heard them, but the cheers sounded distorted to her, as if she were dancing underwater and they were far above her, as if she were miles away from them.
The next few minutes were always a blur to her; the wild burst of drunken applause and jeers as she finally stopped, the groping hands as she walked off the makeshift stage trying to avoid the people in the front rows, they were the most vicious. She was now making her way towards a woman a little way off the main stage, deep in conversation with a man who was thumbing through wads of cash in his wallet. She allowed herself to look him over before she got within earshot of them. He seemed to be in his mid-thirties and dressed in a crisp black shalwar kameez. He looked nice enough, she tried to tell herself as she saw him run a hand over his face in frustration. They were clearly arguing about something and she allowed herself to scoff. Razia Bibi always drove a hard bargain when it came to her.
“There she is.” She was right behind the man now and he turned around when she was pointed out. Razia Bibi was smiling like a Cheshire cat behind him. “This is Raani.”
The man looked her over approvingly and she could feel his gaze sliding over every part of her as he went as far as to lick his lips right in front of her. Some small part of her, a part that she had buried a long time ago, cringed at his gesture. But she blinked slowly, forcing herself to live in the present moment, the moment that would guarantee her a meal for at least the nextweek. She slowly bit her lip and smiled the soft smile that she had perfected over the years, and the man grinned.
“She will do perfectly,” he said, already forgetting that a minute ago he had been trying to drive the price down for the night. He handed a wad of cash over to Razia Bibi without another word and she counted it greedily before directing them towards the gate. They always charged extra for whole nights. She squared her shoulders slightly, knowing she was going out with a man she had never seen before and that she was bound to him for the night. Her heart beat faster as they neared a lone black car in the parking lot and he opened the passenger side door for her without a word, the grin still plastered on his face.
Warm sunlight filtered in through the white lace curtains and prompted her to open her eyes. She had gotten back around six in the morning and had immediately crawled into bed, not even bothering to take off the clothes from the night before. She ached all over and knew she would find all the makeup from the previous night smeared over her face if she reached up to touch it. Sighing, she sat up on the small cot that had been hers for years now, and rubbed her eyes slowly.
“Mama, it’s nearly three in the afternoon.” That voice; that sweet voice filled with the promise of hope, of laughter was enough to draw a small sad smile onto her lips. She threw her legs over the cot and drew the child to her. Her darling little girl. Alya had been born four years ago, courtesy of her third customer. The man had been a cruel, illiterate drunkard and had no room in his life for a child. So she had vowed to raise her alone, to give her all the love she possibly could, and to never force her to run away as her own mother had. She had promised herself that her daughter would never have to depend on anyone but her for all her needs and would never have to sell herself the way she did. No. Alya would have a good life, the one she had never had. She drew her close to her then, brushing her fingers through her hair before kissing her lightly on the head.
“Did you have breakfast?”
“I did, mama,” the child replied and Anya breathed a sigh of relief before pulling away and walking towards the small basin in the corner to wash off the mascara and liner from last night.
“Raani!” It took her a minute to realise that she was being called. It was still hard for her to respond to that name even though she knew that she was not Anya anymore, that Anya had died the day she had left her parents’ house all those years ago. She was Raani now, just another woman who sold her body almost every night in order to have a roof over her head. She could feel the tears welling up behind her eyelids as she splashed cold water on her face. She was doing the very thing that had driven her to run in the first place, except now she was doing it willingly in order to survive. Her mind began to reel with memories as she began to recall what had brought her to this life that she had grown to despise.
She had been walking for hours, it seemed, and the straps of her brown bag had started to dig into her shoulder as she walked onthrough the streets. The city was surprisingly silent as she moved through its many streets, rounded corners that were unfamiliar, and avoided the numerous puddles that had formed after yesterday’s rain. It was cold. Her hand trembled as she reached to pull her shawl tighter around herself and push thestray locks of hair out of her face. Her legs still throbbed.
Anya knew she would have to stop eventually, that she could not keep walking the whole night. But she could not stop just yet, she told herself as she reached an intersection. She had to get out of this part of the city, the part that tied her to her old life, a life of suppressed pain and desperation. Her mother’s stoic expression, when she had told her about what Adil had done, swam in front of her eyes. She blinked back tears and it was replaced by her little brother’s as he looked helplessly at her from his bed, his leg sticking out at an awkward angle in front of him.
She felt the ghost of a touch on her arm then and recalled that first night when Adil had crept into her room and told her that they were going to play a game. She struggled to push the bile back down her throat now. She had reached the main road and found herself smiling a little as she noticed the cars still moving past. She was closer now and she knew it, closer to life. Her steps quickened as she turned the final corner, away from the slums that had been her home for so long and towards the main part of the city. Anya knew that she eventually would need to stop a rickshaw because there was no way she could possibly walk all the way to the Walled City where her friend lived.
Myra had been her friend since she had started school up until when she had to leave, and then Myra had to move across the city with her mother, who had found a better place of employment. She had no idea what her friend’s mother now did,but Myra had promised her that she would help her. She still remembered the night she had reached out to Myra after about a year of not talking. She had been lying in bed and had dialed her number and spoken through a parched throat and clogged nose. It had been one of the longest nights of her life, and she couldrecollect the whispered promises and soothing words of her friend as she had comforted her after one of the worst experiences of her life. Myra had told her that she would take care of her, that she did not deserve to be treated that way inside her own house, and that there was a way out if she wanted to take it.
Anya smiled now, recalling how she had shaken her head and scoffed then, but was now halfway across the city, putting her fate in Myra’s hands. She was almost there now, she realizedand stopped at the side of a junction. She needed to catch a rickshaw here if she did not want to lose the feeling in her feet. A part of her screamed at her when a rickshaw-driver stopped and promised to take her to her destination for a reasonable price. Perhaps, Adil had made her wary of every man, or perhaps it was the thought of getting into a moving vehicle with a stranger that clawed at her. However, she forced her mind to rest as the rickshaw started, and they veered through the oncoming traffic towards her destination.
She had never stepped out of the four walls of her house except for school and later for hospital visits with her brother, so she was surprised at how easy it was to navigate the packed roads as she saw people heading off to different places, places she had no idea of. She had heard about the Walled City; that it was a collection of narrow roads and cramped shops, all struggling to survive while another kind of culture bloomed around it, a grander, newer-kind, and she was now looking forward to seeing it with her friend. She had also heard that the famous Badshahi Mosque and Lahore Fort were there, places she had only seen in faded pictures in school textbooks but wanted to see for realnow, perhaps once she had figured out a way to earn for herself.
The traffic had thickened by now, and the sun had reached its peak in the sky. She could hear street vendors from all directions, setting up shops for the day, and the sound of cars honking reached her ears as she peered out. The roads had gotten narrower, she figured they were getting closer to the inner city and felt a jolt of exhilaration go through her at the thought. She had no idea what Myra and her mother did and, in hindsight, she realized that she should have gotten more information from her. But then anything that they did had to be better than the life she had been leading back at home. Anything was better than being abused in her own bed and being forced to stay quiet about it.
She had no idea what “job” Myra's mother did. She had always assumed it was something that involved cleaning some rich person's house or office, maybe cooking, but never this. Anya had never dreamed that her friend and her mother would be working as prostitutes in Heera Mandi, the infamous pleasure district of Lahore. “The money is good these days,” Myra had said when Anya had glared incredulously at her friend, scared and angry at her for not telling her sooner. “My mother and I live comfortably and you can too.” She had then gestured behind her at the cluster of small apartments that seemed to be toppling over one another. The dome of the Badshahi mosque glittered in the distance, golden sunlight reflected off its surface and the surrounding red brick walls. At first, she had frantically shaken her head, too angry and miserable at the thought of leaving one prison where she had been abused by one person, to another one where she would be abused by many.
“You'll be able to control your life,” Myra had whispered. “And after a while you get used to it,” She had flinched at that. “You won’t feel a thing after a while.”
They had sat there on the front steps of Myra’s house for the next two hours, and she had watched as the streets grew busier and louder. People were emerging from the other houses, calling out to each other from their windows. An old woman had brought her cot out in front of her house and was busy peeling potatoes while a younger girl counted a wad of crisp banknotes for her. Her calculating brown eyes would dance over at her from time to time, mumble something and then turn back to her potatoes.
“That's Hina Bibi,” Myra had whispered. “She is Rina's naikah.” She gestured at the young girl. “She's had a good night.” Myra sounded almost bitter. “But you see? She earned three thousand from one private party and that too from some kids. You can make much more.”
Anya was considering her options in her head now. She could always go back now and tell her mother that she had gone for a morning stroll around the neighborhood. Her mother would not get up till noon anyway, and Adil would sleep through lunch. But she would have to borrow money from someone here to do that, she told herself. Another part of her reminded her that if she went back, things would only go back to the way they had been. Yet again, she felt a phantom touch at her side, and her mind flashed back to all those nights when Adil had pressed his hand there. The bruises had only gotten worse. She could not go back.
She could get another job, she thought to herself. One where she could both earn and be happy. But even as she thought about that possibility, she knew it was a lie. Before Myra had asked her to come to meet her, she had never even dared to think about running away. There was nothing she could do, no job she could take without completing her education. She could not work as a cleaning girl anywhere either because she would have no roof over her head, no food or clothes.
“How much does she take?” Anya asked at last, motioning towards the old woman who was now cutting the potatoes into thin slices.
“She takes half of what she earns,” Myra said. “But she won’t be managing us. My mother will, and she will understand your situation. She'll only take enough to cover the general expenses and a little more. She will also talk to the men for you.”
Anya could feel a shiver going up her spine at that word. Men. The only men she had known in her life were Adil, who was cruel, her father, who had been too old and now lived alone somewhere, and her brother, who was now crippled. Nevertheless, she knew most men here would be like Adil: full of desperation, anger, and loneliness. These three words were a dangerous combination. They made you into a dangerous person.
Yet, she had slowly come to conclude that there was no other way. She had already gotten used to being used. Her body felt foreign to her even now, and there were times when she was downright disgusted with it. She might as well make money out of it. She sat there for what felt like hours and watched as the people around her went about their business. Myra had gotten up at some point to get ready for a client. She vaguely remembered seeing her later, her face perfectly painted and her mother coming to adjust a fold in her silk shirt. A man had come after five minutes and they had gone inside for about ten minutes after which Myra had emerged, her face flushed while the man smiled broadly at her. Maybe this wouldn’t be too bad.
She blinked and was not surprised to find that her eyes were wet. Tears streamed down her cheeks in thin rivulets as she looked down at herself, at her worn shawl that had slipped from her shoulders at some point, at her bruised arms and trembling hands. She felt as if she was standing at the edge of an abyss: one more step and she would be plunged into nothingness. She thought about her room back at home, haunted with the memories of terror-filled nights, of her mother whom she might come to forgive one day for choosing to live with Adil, of Omer who would surely hate her, and she silently bade goodbye to them all.
Myra and her mother were talking in hushed voices behind her. She knew they had been whispering about her all day, and men had looked at her as they had passed the small apartment. A lone girl outside in this part meant something else, of course. She knew they wanted an answer now. Surely a girl who was sitting outside and not interacting with anyone would be bad for business.
Anya stood up slowly, feeling more than a dozen pairs of eyes on her. Her blood seemed to be frozen in her veins, and her heart hammered against her chest. She forced herself to speak past the lump in her throat, and when she spoke, her own voice seemed far away to her.
“When do I start?”
She wished she could tell her daughter that her father was a good man, that he loved her very much and would come for bothof them one day and take them far, far away from the cramped two-room apartment that they were living in. She wished that she could tell her that he had held her in his arms once, had kissed her forehead and whispered that she was so beautiful. But she knew that those were only the yearnings of a naïve little girl who longed for love. Raani could not even bear to think about him now without feeling her insides burn, her throat dry up, and a wave of revulsion course through her.
She had met him about six months after she had first arrived at the bazaar, a mere sixteen-year-old with nowhere else to go, her maidenhood already sold, and her name changed. Anya was no longer alive, she had died the day she had decided to stay in this place and had sealed her fate. Raani had been Myra’s mother’s idea, she had taken a look at her, and had clapped her hands together.
“You look like a princess! And soon you will look like a queen.” That had been it. She had endured many grueling hours of listening to her teach her how to seduce men, how to lure them in by quirking an eyebrow, looking mysterious but not too mysterious, pretty but not unapproachable, delicate, but not someone who would not be willing to try new and exciting things.
She had also started to perform at private events by then, thanks to Myra’s mother who now went by Razia Bibi at the bazaar. They had taught her the sultry, slow dances that all of the other women who earned well for themselves seemed to know, and she had gotten exceptionally good at them too. Myra’s mother had now reached her late thirties, and it seemed as if she wasliving through her daughter and Raani, as it was common knowledge that you could only keep earning for as long as you had a young body. After your youth was gone, you mostly just managed your daughter if you had one, or took on new girls under your wing and managed them. Having a daughter guaranteed an income as “the daughter of a courtesan would always be a courtesan.” It was the only thing she could be. Raani shivered as she thought about the fate of her own daughter. She was only ten now, but sooner or later she would be required to take her place because her mother was too old, too wrinkly, and too slow. However, she had vowed that her daughter would never have to go through what she had.
Alya’s father had been a tall middle-aged man with close-cropped ebony black hair that had needed a wash the first time she had laid eyes on him. With his black shalwar kameez and a blue ballpoint pen sticking out of his front pocket, he had looked just like any other customer, tired of his troubles and in need of an outlet for his frustration. He had chosen her, she remembered. She had been standing on the front steps with Myra, her hair perfectly done and her makeup in place, the anklets from last night jangling at her feet. He had been talking to Myra’s mother for five minutes before they had turned in their direction and his eyes had darkened as they landed on her. “That one.” His breath had reeked of alcohol even from a distance as he had slurred those words.
“Five hundred.” Razia Bibi’s voice seemed to fade away in the background as the two of them made their way inside; him with a bounce in his step and her with the practiced air of a factory worker going in for work. She could already feel herself drifting away from the present.
He had come by two more times that week and had asked for her yet again, his voice heavy with cheap liquor. Needless to say, she had eaten well that week and had been the object of envy for the girls across the street who had found out that he paid well. What they did not know, she recalled, was that he was the vilest creature she had ever come across. She still had the faintest traces of the scars on her arms and sides and could feel his fingers pressing into her skin there if she focused hard enough. However, to turn him away would have been similar to turning away a five-star meal in the market, which was really just some halwa and fried puris that she could now buy for herself along with some new clothes.
“Money comes at a price after all.” Myra’s mother had once said to her very early on as she had been getting her ready to perform at the estate of some wealthy aristocrat on the outskirts of the city. She had been right in more ways than one. The man had wanted nothing to do with her as soon as he learned about the child, he had insisted that it was not his even though every other encounter she had had with customers had been done so under the necessary precautions. It had only been he who had insisted he would pay extra if she agreed to just ‘take something later’.Needless to say, that “something” had not worked. She had been in a state of shock as she had found out about the baby. To raise a baby in this part of the city was far from anything she had visualized for herself, especially at the age of sixteen when she was in the process of saving up enough to perhaps one day be free of the life Myra and her mother had thrust upon her. Of course, that had been wishful thinking, but she could not help herself. A baby was a whole new variable to the equation, one that she had not been ready for.
The man had stopped coming to their part of the market as soon as he had heard about the baby, and after Myra’s mother had tracked him down in another neighborhood and asked him to come see her, he had vanished entirely, never to be seen again.
Anya had given birth a full nine months later in the very room where she and the man had had their first encounter, her shrieks,later combined with the baby’s, had brought the whole street to their door to enquire about the gender, whether the new baby would be a pimp or a courtesan.
The room was perfectly lit in hues of orange and pink as the last rays of the dying sun made their way in through the open lace curtains. The woman sitting at the small dressing table struggled to braid thin strands of hair into a plait at the back of her head, her mouth closed around a tube of lipstick that would later be swiped across her otherwise pale lips.
“The car’s here,” her mother’s voice brought her out of her thoughts, thoughts about what it would have been like if she had grown up in a different part of the city, where her body was actually her own and not simply a vessel for others to use as they saw fit. But then she supposed she was still better off than her mother had been. So far, she had never allowed herself to be used in that way. She was merely an object to be seen and gawked at.
“Almost done,” she replied, her voice barely above a whisper. Her mother had heard though, and she came forward, her steps perfectly timed and as she stood behind her, her gaze drifted to her mother’s face. It had not aged much in her opinion, but enough to put her out of business. The few lines around her eyes and the sagging skin of her chin were the only signs of age, but they were there all the same.
Her mother ran her fingers through her daughter’s hair, untangling the braid she had been working on. “Your hair is beautiful when it is open.”
Of course. How could she have forgotten? They preferred to have the hair blowing around the face as you danced. It somehow added to the sensuality of the affair. She rolled her eyes but said nothing because she knew the whole story. Her mother had told it to her countless times; how she had been forced to come here as a child, how this place was cruel but it paid, and lastly, how they would one day get out of here. It had been sixteen years of the same stories now and the two of them were still here, in the same cramped apartment with the same furniture and the same hopes and dreams for the future.
“How much are they paying?” she asked.
“Five thousand.” Even though her mother had tried to hide it, she noticed the slight change of pitch, the tremor of excitement,and the hint of a smile in her voice. They were making good money after all and were, therefore, closer to getting out of this place. She had stopped believing that a long time ago.
“Maybe we can get the roof fixed then,” Alya replied as her mother continued to brush her fingers through her hair. In the mirror, the sight looked almost normal. A mother brushing her daughter’s hair with the tenderness and devotion that was singular to her alone. The room seemed normal as well at a glance. Of course, the frayed plaster on the walls, the spot where the roof leaked, and the shawl that she used to cover herself on the ride were out of the mirror’s range of reflection.
“Yes, we can,” Raani answered, the hint of a smile crossing her features. “I’ll save the rest. We only have a few more debts and bills to pay and then…” Alya trailed off but she knew the words by heart now. Then we can get out of here and start a new life somewhere in the good part of the city.
She did not know whether it was sheer naivety or ignorance that kept her mother from accepting and voicing the truth, that there was no other place for people like them and that nobody would ever think twice before turning them away. Nobody would be willing to help them, and even if they did make it out of here, they would surely end up back again. Once you were in, you were in.
Her mother took the tube of lipstick and swiped it across her lips. “You look beautiful.”
Her ankles jingled as she got up from the chair and reached for the black shawl that rested a few meters away. Wrapping it loosely around herself, Alya turned towards Raani and, for her mother’s sake, let her lips curve upward into a smile. “I’ll see you in a bit.”
Minaal Maan is a young freelance writer who has just published her debut novel, “Our Tainted Souls’, available in paperback and ebook on Amazon.Minaal enjoys writing about strong female leads as well as the transgender community and is drawn to the contemporary fiction genre. Her Instagram handle is @minaalmaan