A talented young Pakistani writer tells a tale of sisters, hope, and fate.
By Alizah Pervaiz Hashmi
The crescendo of voices rises as I linger near the doorway, noting how the first two feminine voices drown out the last, which is my father’s.
“Too many girls then, ladies?” The retort is authoritative yet benign. It is my uncle, Brigadier Shah Mansoor. Falak and mother have engaged in a loud and tedious defence of their choice of a boy as the next addition to the family. Generally, in any domestic argument, volume will succeed when logic won’t.
I observe Brigadier’s son, Zubair, eye a solitary kebab on a silver dish. While Mother, Falak, Qasim, Diya, Sumbul and I sit in descending order of our ages, thoroughly engaged in the façade we have mastered with guests; Siham delays her entrance. None of us have her ill-advised courage of to defy house rules.
As Brigadier lapses into stories of the time an enemy sniper barely missed his shoulder; I pointedly observe how Zubair has inched closer to the kebab across his sofa, despite the impediment of his damaged leg.
On occasion I feel sorry for Zubair and his leg which hangs limp and yet attached to him. But these are times when he is not violently reprimanding servants or cornering Siham in hallways or eyeing pieces of food that I intend to eat later.
This, decidedly, is not one of those times. I forego my mother’s fastidious set of rules a girl must adhere to, and leap across the chair next to Zubair’s sofa for the kebab. I revel in the small victory before I catch sight of my father’s clamped jaw. I wince in advance of his comments.
Then, suddenly, conversation stops as Siham walks in, her large green eyes avoiding father. To my mother and our flock of regularly visiting aunties, Siham has always been the prettiest of us, slender when Falak bulks like the chowkidar’s bull-terrier, fair when Diya and Qasim may well blend into a night sky.
But I know she has a spirit of fire, and a tongue of acid; the combo is typically rewarded with fiery chitrol.
Qasim and father fix a joint glare on her. We all notice the sudden tautness of the air, apprehension we have felt so many times that we almost effortlessly pretend it is the humidity.
The pretense we engage in daily has fascinated me ever since I could recall. It winds us all up like a giant clockwork, and when one falls loose we need to be tightened again. It does not matter whether some creak, like mother, or some glide out of position, like Siham. Everyone is kept austerely in place.
Everyone except my brother Qasim. He now seems to shoulder the responsibility of administering over the mechanism with father.
The clockwork houseware is a baffling thing, really, I think as finally Brigadier and his troop of intruders leaves. It is rusty, and yet not allowed anything above a ticking whisper.
I wonder why no one ever thinks of oiling it.
Ibrahim is our neighbour. He is a year older than I am, and likes to tell me that that is an insurmountable difference — it is why he is allowed to collect the milk when the milkman comes with his crates, or simply jump over the wooden fence that separates our houses when I have to crawl inelegantly under it.
Sometimes I also tell myself that. But I know better. Even when another year passes and I will be an inch taller and a trifle wiser, I will not be doing any of those things. That haplessness, I have learnt, is the sort of rent I pay for occupying this cramped up space labelled ‘female.’
Ibrahim and I jump — and crawl under — the fence and walk down the unpaved path that leads to the backdoor of his house. The door opens into the kitchen, drawing us with its hypnotic smells of tikka and naan.
Once inside the kitchen, I see Ibrahim’s older brother Ali enter, his brown eyes commiserating. Ali is, in the terms of my khala (who feels righteously obliged to ensure that no unmarried individual remain so, and hence also holds unofficial office as the district’s most notorious match-maker) the city’s most eligible bachelor. I dare not hazard a guess to what that means in specific terms (to my khala, at least). But Ali’s sighting has reminded me of the underlying reason for my visit, and I stuff my hands into my pocket, feeling the piece of paper.
The transmission of these letters has become a daily routine in the past 2 months — neatly folded messages that Siham has been handing over for careful delivery to Ali. The entire business looked rather absurd to me when Siham first set forth the proposition in hushed tones. He lives next door, I emphasized, you won’t need to walk that much to just talk to him instead, but my common sense was swiftly dismissed.
Since then 2 letters travel, to and fro, every day between our houses, safely encased in my pocket. It is imperative these deliveries are confidential. I don’t have anyone to tell anyway (although that doesn’t prevent me from using this, admittedly rascally, as blackmail. Survival, of course, in a herd of sisters often demands slightly underhand measures.) Ibrahim notices me fidgeting with something in my pocket, making sure that the letter is still there, but his lack of intellect and remarkably short concentration span inhibit him from further enquiry. I weave my way through the servants to Ali, thrust it into his hand, and he slides it into his pocket.
“What is that?”
It is his mother, emerging from nowhere into the kitchen. Mrs. Raza looks like the picture of Chengiz Khan in one of my history books, with her hulking form and perpetually violent expression. Her voice fits, too, hanging heavily over the raging mayhem of masala and gas stoves. No, I think, the comparison is a trifle unjust.
To Chengiz, that is.
“I forgot my phone, maan. Nothing important,” Ali replies blandly, almost too quickly.
I have the strangest feeling that when Ali immediately hoists me up on his shoulders to deliver me over the fence to my house, inconspicuously handing me the exchange letter as he does, his action is more of an escape than a friendship ritual. And then I have another strange thought.
What does Siham write in her letters anyway?
Once inside our room, I confirm receipt and delivery, though I doubt Siham is listening.
She swoons back into her rocking chair, smiling like the chowkidaar when someone slips an extra note to him.
Falak looks up from her needlework, her lips in tight line, hair askew from its bindings. “This isn’t wise, Siham.”
Siham is unmoved, and says dismissively, “To love and be wise exceeds man’s might.”
Falak chokes on something, whether it is a cough or laughter I do not know.
Exactly four more letters are exchanged before the clockwork simply falls apart.
I shouldn’t have gone in through the front door; I should have avoided having the letter in hand as father intercepted me. He shakes the letter free and glares at it with as much violence I think a man can muster without looking like something else entirely, like a charging rhinoceros, for example.
He leans close, and I think that maybe one can, after all, look more violent.
And then he looks at Siham, in the hallway, standing with a hand covering her mouth and I decide the rhinoceros is by far outdone.
I turn and run upstairs.
The shouting continues throughout the day. Eventually, it dies down, as I lie coiled into a ball on the bed with Diya and Sumbul.
It is a minute pause, like the interval of expectant quiet the sky assumes before rain. And just like that, a new sound begins to pound, hastily climbing in frequency, more portentous than the last. Footsteps outside the door.
I stiffen as Diya and Sumbul, like treacherous Mir Jafars, inch away from the bed, leaving Siraj ud Daulah alone and defenceless. That is, of course, if Siraj had fiery feminine black hair or was barely over 4 feet tall.
The knob turns with a soft click. I slide off the bed and unfold myself like a small toy soldier, with wiry legs and knobby knees that can barely help me stand up.
I find myself staring at the crusted folds of father’s kameez. When the first slap lands, there is the snap of the contact between hand and cheek, and to counteract the resulting numbness, I inhale a whiff of air to puff my cheek. The air is ripped out of me when another blow clouts me – an electric bolt of pain.
No, I think, steeling my head, I am not like the toy soldier. My head does not snap painlessly out of place only to be fixed into its socket again. And so when the third one comes, harder than the last two and I feel as though my knees will buckle, I straighten my back and keep standing. I am not like the toy soldier after all, to topple when the game is over.
I am not like the toy soldier, without a thought in my head or a tongue in my mouth.
“What is it, father?” I say, though the vacillating tenor of my voice betrays my bravery.
“How long have you known?” he asks, every word clipped and booming.
“Three months, almost. I gave the first letter in May.”
“You will not go to school from today. You will not leave this house. You will not see that boy again.”
Then the door snaps shut, and there is the turn of the lock from outside.
When the maid comes into my room, she disdainfully levels the feathery entrails of her jharoo at us, as if to dissuade our approach.
I think I have lapsed into some vague form of lunacy, as I have this absurd yearning for something to do – maybe even homework. When I tell mother she gives her head a resentful shake. “You were mad to let this happen. You were mad not to tell me, Maryam.”
So I brood away in the sultry confines of my room and pretend I am a princess awaiting rescue in a tower, sighing and ruminating. What dragons really live down there that frighten my prospective prince so?
The dragons arrive in their usual pomp and glory, and Brigadier’s voice booms up to me even in my confinement. There is some inevitable consensus reached at the end, which somehow is linked to honour and Zubair. It intrigues me immensely how they have combined the two words, when I would have found it perversely difficult to adjust them in the same sentence.
I feel an ominous ache gather in my chest, because there is another word I have overheard, spat about a few times in the conversation like an insult.
I don’t know why sleep is evasive this particular night. The lights are off and there is silence, punctured only by a low, sharp drone that sounds funnily like despairing sobs. In the days after, Siham does not show up. I sometimes consider if she has run away. I ask Mother, but she warns of jinns possessing us if we talk about her, cutting us short when we do, until eventually we give up trying.
Then one day, a lanky figure starts crawling up along the wall. It is only the irony that the awaited prince must arrive like a spider that keeps me from darting away.
I greet him. “Hello, Ali.”
His response is delayed. He gives his head a long, quivering shake and then reaches into the pocket of his jeans.
I erupt into frenzied action, shaking my head. “No more letters.” Ali’s hand stills, and an ashen look settles in his eyes. “Any more letters can be delivered in person, thank you.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
I tarry, standing my ground with feigned dignity. My disgruntled silence is wrongly interpreted as disinterest, and he turns to leave.
I blurt, “Did you come to see her?”
“She isn’t here anymore.”
“Then why did you come?” I ask, a knot of unshed tears welling up inside my throat.
“Rani told me she hadn’t seen you for about a fortnight,” he replies, “I thought I might owe you an apology.”
“Do you know where she’s gone?”
“I have an idea. The servants talk.” Then he asks with sudden urgency, “Do you have a cousin?”
I frown. “Yes,” I reply. “Zubair. Why do you ask?”
He closes his eyes. “If she comes back, will you tell her something for me? That I am very, very sorry?”
I nod as the teardrops come, silent at first, then in louder, uglier sobs. I reach for the letter in his hand and hold it in a fist.
“I know,” he says simply, and in that moment, I believe he does know. I think someplace, we all know – this feeling of unavoidable helplessness. It is, after all, part of the great clockwork, and cogs and pulleys do not have a will of their own, do they?
Only the operators do.
I don’t think I can hold Siham — in my mind — any longer. Because I’m not really trying, am I? I spend my days only sleeping. When I am not asleep, I stare at the ceiling, thinking of nothing at all. It helps the mind to doze off, ridding itself of the aching agitation of simply remembering.
That state of induced oblivion will forever evade me. Because I have a token of her, safely concealed in my cupboard — the letter from Ali that I insisted on taking that day after all. Every time I open the cupboard, it winks at me from the corner. Its presence makes me feel almost guilty, of simply acquiescing to Siham’s disappearance, of making no conscious effort for her recovery. What could I do really? In my heart, all blame is levelled against Zubair and his family. The fact that I have never really liked them has made the notion of their abducting — or imprisoning — her even more tenable.
Which is why, when Mother tells me it is time for our triannual dinner at their house, my stomach is in a mushy muddle of nervousness
It is raining when we reach Brigadier’s house. I retire to a secluded room with its door ajar, not wanting to put myself in the direct scrutiny of the elders in the guest room; dark, with perfect solitude. I recognize the silhouette of a large, wooden chair and a low bed. The fan turns slowly over my head.
I reckon the visit will be over in 1, 2 hours. Maybe food will be served. I decide I shall check after some time in the guest room. For now, I intend to doze off — lapse into the art of doing nothing that I have mastered lately.
I recline onto a bed, only to collide inelegantly with a form already on it. I scuttle away, and then discern, from the darkness, the inert, female form with eyes settled on my face. Eyes that I think would have been large and green, but now appear narrowed and mostly red.
“Siham?” I say, recognition overridden by astonishment. “Why are you here?”
She does not answer. As I rise with violated trust and humiliation, she says finally, “I do not want to see them.”
“Why did you leave me after getting me into trouble?”
She gives a sardonic laugh as I stand stiffly.
“Ali asked me to tell you he was sorry,” I add haughtily. “It wasn’t his fault.”
I don’t give her the letter though. That is because I don’t have it, not here with me.
“I have come to suspect,” she says then, with a disarming undertone of finality, “that everyone ends up apologizing for choices they think they made. But we don’t really make them, do we? We don’t know which set of consequences we’ll suffer, so aren’t all choices simply optimistic ones?”
Her voice echoes a little in the room as she continues, “You know what Baba said just before he gave me to them? He told me the day he’d first held me he’d known I would turn out rotten. Is the house purged now, Maryam?”
I turn and walk out. I don’t worry about her; she will learn to laugh again and smile again. We are made that way, soft linen that can be mended just as it can be torn, even though the stitches will be permanent and ugly.
I do not tell anyone about our conversation or about the letter from Ali.
Because it isn’t a letter at all. Ali didn’t tell me not to read it. After all, it was just an invitation to his wedding. I don’t know why I’ve hoarded it so long. That night, guiltlessly, I pull it out and burn it. No one inquires why my room smells of ashes in the morning.
I keep Siham’s parting words with me, turning them about in my head. I realise she is wrong. Not about there being more than one set of destined consequences. But of course we know which set of consequences we will be charged with. Every piece of machinery knows their place in the clockwork.
I go to school in Karachi, Pakistan and will be starting college in the fall of 2018. I love writing, animals and math, and loathe stupidity. I have a great sense of pride in my country and faith in its future.