She: A Short Story - Rania Nasir
She looked into the mirror. She couldn’t see herself. She saw the faces of heartbreak, manipulation, and betrayal sneering at her. Her reflection became nebulized by the images of devotion and domination, but they weren’t looking at her. They weren’t looking anywhere. They had nowhere to look. They had nowhere to go.
She lifted her fragile fingers to stroke the wrinkles on her face. The same face that she had adorned countless times to present herself as ‘the perfect hostess’ even if the siege within her didn’t make her as perfect in reality. Once upon a time, her complexion was creamier than cream itself, her skin tighter than the shackles she put on herself. Perhaps if God hadn’t made her so beautiful, would she have been a luckier person? But she was a lucky person. Wasn’t living in a mansion lucky? Wasn’t hosting lavish parties in five-star hotels lucky? Wasn’t traveling in a private jet lucky? She was just a thankless woman.
She stared into her eyes. They seemed perfectly hollow. People could see the color of her eyes, their shape, and of course, her perfectly winged eyeliner, but not the emptiness of her eyes. After all, it was plausible to omit the expression of her eyes when she was laden in solitaires, shahtoosh, and holding a Saint Laurent. Seriously, who cared about the rest?
‘Forgive and forget! Let it go!’ advise her insightful children. If they could ever fathom that choices never existed for people like their mother, that sometimes hard work can only create futility. When people latch on to every morsel of your existence, you cannot let your existence go. All those hopes attached to every compromise she made vanished in vain, so it was best to forget them. But how could she forget, how could she forgive till she did not let herself go?
Slowly, she gazed deeper into the jeering faces that had never appeared before her. Or perhaps she never wanted to see them. But she couldn’t hold them back any longer. Not anymore now. The mirror before her eyes became a projector screen, displaying everything she wished she hadn’t overseen earlier. It was her entire life, the life she never knew she had lived.
The first image that rolled in front of her was the first time she fully experienced betrayal, the kind of casual deception which turned her life around. An eight-year-old whom she immediately recognized as herself was encircled by a massive swarm of children, waving a skin-colored bat in the humid Karachi air. While half the multitude was chanting 'Hooray!' at a six, their teammate had just scored for them, the rest of the children were arguing about counting it as a four. Suddenly, there was pin-drop silence when the dusty iron gate rattled, and Abba Miyan had come back from the factory. It was only eleven in the morning, and he had only left an hour ago, promising to bring a brand new kitchen set from Light House in the evening for his two youngest daughters, who had to give up their share of toys just like every other time to their brothers’ children. But there was no kitchen set in Abba Miyan’s hands. His hands were trembling, his ironed sherwani collar unbuttoned. He didn’t stop to kiss any of the kids, didn’t respond to any of their salaams, and took slow, unsteady steps toward the main entrance in the angnai into his bedroom.
The expressions of exhaustion on the children's faces that had transformed into affectionate smiles quickly turned blank. Wiping their glistening faces of perspiration, their faces became rosier, and they looked at each other to decide a course of action. Then the eldest amongst them, Muhammad Ashfaq, clapped his hands, slowly maturing from boyhood to manhood to resume the game. Soon everyone forgot the recent entry and became occupied with scoring runs and wickets.
Three hours passed. It was 3 o’clock when finally everybody was tagged ‘baraf’ in baraf paani and was too worn out from all the running to play another game. She and her younger sister also went inside their room to wash their faces and change out of their drenched shalwar kameez into a fresher pair. Then they ran toward the dining room where they were expecting Abba Miyan and Amma already eating lunch and deep in conversation as Abba Miyan had come home early. They would ask him to take them to Light House to choose a kitchen set themselves and maybe a few more toys.
When the two girls entered the dining room, they found the dastarkhwaan ready with two dishes of daal chawal and some chapatis. But their parents weren’t there. At first, the two girls looked astonishingly at each other and then dashed out into the hall to find Abba Miyan and Amma in their room, which had a curtain in front of a usually open door. Today, the door was locked, and the curtain was shut.
They could hear Abba Miyan sobbing, something they had neither seen nor could they ever imagine. ‘Mein ab kya karun. Meri abhi do betiyan kuwari hain aur Muhammad Aziz aur Usman kahan se kamaye gain ge?’ What am I supposed to? I have two unmarried daughters, and how will Muhammad Aziz and Usman earn?
‘Allah madad kare ga. Muhammad Ibrahim aur Muhammad Yousuf esa kese kar sakte hain?’ Allah will help us. How can Muhammad Ibrahim and Muhammad Yousuf do that? What had her two eldest brothers done? Muhammad Yousuf, Bhai Jan was her favorite brother. He loved everybody except their father.
Within a few days, she would start realizing what had her beloved Bhai Jan done to her. Abba Miyan had stopped going to the factory because a new factory was built in the backyard where the children played pittu. The two young girls would be put in a madrassa at the end of the month and would not go to school anymore. Her two eldest brothers had moved out of their portions into new bungalows. Everybody would eat chatni and roti except on Sunday afternoons when Amma would finally cook a salan. Soon it would occur to her that Barey Bhai and Bhai Jan had gained full control of the factory to recompense the extra finances Abba Miyan had spent on Api and Idrees Bhai’s wedding six months ago. So now they were poor.
Next, the mirror projected the events of her wedding day. Was it a good day or a bad day? Or rather a transformative day, but what kind of transformation?
A seventeen-year-old girl sat in front of her. She was clad in a red gharara, fidgeting with her hennaed hands weighed down with gold and silver rings. Her face was not visible because of her ghoonghat. Abba Miyan, who had aged over the years with a salt and pepper beard and a growing hump in his back, held her hand and walked her in a 1958 Mercedez. ‘Haye Allah! Is this a dream!’ she thought ecstatically.
‘Beta ab mar kar hi wapis nikalna,’ Abba Miyan mumbled slowly in her right ear. She felt a pang of melancholy, one that would visit her many years later too. All the excitement of the brand new Mercedez started evaporating like the coolness of the AC on the car windows. She narrowed her teary eyes inside the ghoonghat to make sense of her surroundings in the car. As nobody had given her a handkerchief to wipe her eyes, she carefully cleaned her eyes to prevent the kajal from smearing all over her face. Although she did feel a new presence next to her, she couldn't utter a word to her husband. In fact, she was only sure that the person seated beside her was her husband from the turban on his head, which was all she could see. She was Mrs.Ahmed now, but what did Mr. Ahmed look like?
Almost at 4 o’clock, Mr. Ahmed’s eldest sister-in-law, Bari Bhabhi took the bride to her bedroom which smelled strongly of ittar. Bari Bhabhi held her gharara to help her sit on the bed Abba Miyan had bought from the money raised by selling his SITE plot and quietly walked outside so the groom could finally enter the room. She heard footsteps approaching her. ‘Assalamalaikum,’ said Mr. Ahmed.
‘Walaikumsalam’ said Mrs. Ahmed as per the instructions received by Api. Suddenly, the world seemed very different as the ghoonghat finally unveiled the new life that lay ahead. A world full of people, so many people that sometimes she couldn’t find herself. Sometimes she looked around to find someone she could talk to, somebody who wasn’t at least twenty years older than her or kept staring at her jet black curls spiraling down to her slender waist. To be seen and heard as the fifth and youngest bahu, she had to stop listening to herself and start hearing everybody else.
Every Sunday afternoon, she would prepare a dastarkhan for over fifty people. When it was finally time for Ahmed’s five sisters to go home, her mother-in-law would ensure that she handed each of them a tray of the extra servings especially prepared for them. These Sunday luncheons would continue for another thirty years. By that time all her sisters-in-law would be dead and she would become a grandmother.
A year had passed since her wedding, and still, there was no khushkhabri. And another year passed without a khushkhabri till one morning, her mother-in-law instructed her to visit a gynecologist with Bari Bhabhi. It was the first time she had entered such an immaculate clinic without any pan stains or filthy odor in the waiting area. When Dr. Abida Khanzada assured Bari Bhabhi and her that everything was perfectly functional inside her and there was nothing to worry about, she called Abba Miyan and Amma instantly from the telephone in the living room as soon as she reached home. This visit may have decided the fate of their daughter's marriage and her future years as a woman.
A few months later, her test reports confirmed that she was six weeks pregnant. Abba Miyan and Amma's prayers were finally answered, and the constant tanas from the women around her had ceased for a month until the khushkhabri turned into one of her worst nightmares. One night while serving dinner, she felt a terrible contraction in her stomach. She couldn't approach Ahmed, who was seated at the far end of the room, intently listening to Barey Bhai with his eyes looking at the cutlery rather than Barey Bhai's eyes. The Biryani dish in her hand broke into shambles as she wailed in agony.
Dr. Abida Khanzada was immediately called over to the mansion as her mother-in-law, and Bari Bhabhi settled her on her bed while the men waited outside in the TV lounge. The pregnancy had resulted in a miscarriage, and at one point, even she started to believe that it was all her fault.
Finally, two more years later, her eldest daughter, Sahar, was born. Finally, she was no longer considered an infertile woman. Perhaps the day Sahar entered this world, Api had commenced the meticulous planning of wrecking the lifetime collection of her sister's sacrifices.
The mirror now projected the events of the last thirty years. The years which were meant to be fruitful, faithful, and favorable, but they turned out to be neither of these. It wasn’t her mistake; it was nobody’s mistake because sometimes life wants us to make a mistake.
From the time Sahar had turned ten, Api had developed an unusually close bond with her sister. Every morning after she had sent her three children to school, she would narrate the details of each happening of the previous day to Api. Sometimes she would invite her family to the mansion at dinners hosted by Ahmed every month or two. Api’s three daughters clung to all of these opportunities that could possibly present to grow acquaintances with their aunts’ in-laws.
When Sahar turned sixteen, her parents accepted Api’s proposal for her elder son’s hand in marriage. The engagement was a grand affair, with the exchange of diamonds on both sides. Everything seemed perfect, but it was an ideal delusion far from the unrelenting truth.
Soon after the marriage, everything turned upside down. Although her daughter lived in a haveli, nothing in that haveli belonged to her because of no reason but to never let her feel content. Years went by in failed attempts to maintain Sahar's image as a married woman in society even though her marriage was a car without wheels. Ahmed had provided his daughter with every possible material luxury except the luxury of writing his daughter's fate himself.
Therefore, when Sahar had finally taken the painstaking decision to raise her three children after twenty-five years single-handedly, her mother's marriage had turned upside down. A few months later, Ahmed survived a horrific car accident that completely altered the course of his personality. He associated every problem faced by Sahar with her mother and his wife because Api was her sister. Gradually, he distanced himself from relationships to business, and either obsessively watched the news or read the Quran. His wife was nobody who sat next to him, slept next to him, and yet all compromises she made for a blissful old age were pouring down in a hollow vase.
She looked into the mirror. She saw a responsible wife, a mother, a grandmother, and even a great-grandmother. She could remember everything except her name. Had all these roles obscured her original name? Who was SHE?
Rania Nasir is a Karachi based freelance writer and is currently pursuing a Bachelor’s degree from the Institute of Business Administration. She can be found on instagram @itsrania123