“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
“For once you have tasted flight you will walk the earth with your eyes turned skywards, for there you have been and there you will long to return.”
-Leonardo da Vinci
Each day while driving to work, I come across hordes of children begging on the streets; some as a profession, others for money, and the saddest ones, for food. Seeing these little souls scavenging for food in rubbish bins outside eateries is a harsh reminder of how much food is wasted across restaurants, hotels and even homes each day. In this dark depth of wastage, there are sporadic rays of hope where individuals or groups like The Robin Hood Army have started campaigns of collecting food from the ‘haves’ and delivering to the ‘have nots’. To streamline such a process, some intervention is required from regulatory bodies who would ensure that leftover food from big hotels and popular restaurants is channelized and delivered to the needy in a systematic manner.
In all my travels, I have come across wastage in some form or the other, but the most shocking eye opener was last month during my visit to Saudi Arabia for Umrah (a mini pilgrimage). Whilst visiting the Prophet Muhammad’s resting place in Medina and the Holy Kaaba in Mekkah, I noticed that there were many families/couples who seemed to have parked themselves at the Mosque seemingly financially incapable of paying for a hotel or a place to stay. Of course, this was a humbling experience seeing believers who are willing to leave the comfort of their homes and inconvenience themselves in the heat to follow the path of their belief. But at the same time, I did wonder what facilities the local government was providing to such pilgrims who were sleeping under the open sky, and probably had very little in their pockets.
On the other hand, the hotel we here we were staying was plush, comfortable and cool compared to the heat outside. Most of the guests staying in the hotel were from the Middle East which was apparent from their language, their coloring and their attires, while the rest were a smattering of guests from other Muslim countries. My first day in Medina, the holy resting place of Prophet Muhammad was a humbling, peaceful and calming experience, till the time I entered the breakfast room the morning after we arrived!
The breakfast spread was a gastronomical treat catering to people of all palates; hot and cold, sweet and spicy, heavy and light. Whilst heading to the serving counters, I had to pass by tables full of people; couples, families and generational families, and as I mentioned earlier, most of them Arabs. As I weaved through the tables, I noticed one very common occurrence which stunned me! Each table had plates and plates piled high with food which could possibility not be finished by the people on the table. As it was my first ever visit to that country, I did not think too much of it till we checked into the next hotel in the second leg of our journey. The bread and cupcakes were piled as high on plates in the second location as in the first! On the third day I couldn’t control my curiosity, and I summoned a nice Pakistani waiter to our table and questioned him about all that food. He enlightened me that most guests visiting the Holy land have a similar characteristic of filling their plates to the brim and leaving three fourths of that each time. He also informed me that the hotels have no policy of food collection and whatever is left over in plates, is put straight in the bin! I was shocked and saddened at the wastage as all the leftover food could be enough to feed an entire African village! Also the fact that this was happening in the holiest of lands was a greater setback for me as what good is all that praying if people nearby are sleeping hungry. I guess the richer the nation, the greater the gap in this understanding.
If I could, I would recommend to all the five star hotels in the area to have volunteers pick up the leftover buffet items, and place them in kiosks near the mosque. Without a doubt, there would be many weary, yet grateful travelers who could have their fill of the scrumptious food and give thanks to the rich owners of the establishments.
I came back home somewhat spiritually closer to the Maker, happy that I had gone and hopeful that my prayers would be answered. But each time I remember my journey, I cannot but help remembering the poor sleeping on the marble pavements in the open and the plates piled high with excessive food!
While doing some spring cleaning recently, I came across a carton which I had forgotten even existed! As I used a paper cutter to gently remove the rotting packing tape, my heart beat faster in anticipation of what long lost treasure would be revealed once I managed to open the box. The tape finally gave way and I opened the lid to a plethora of items I had forgotten even existed; letters and cards from friends and family, fading photographs I remember taking with my manual Canon camera, spools and spools of negatives, and video tapes which were unlabelled!
Seating myself comfortably, I began my journey in the past by opening a big plastic bag full of postcards which had been sent by friends and family from various locations around the world, the stamps still clinging on to the right-hand-side corner of the postcard. Stamps, which were once considered a precious commodity, now relegated to museums where the younger generation look at them in passing and wonder at their purpose! Majority of the postcards were from my maternal grandfather who was a prolific traveler and would send us a card from each location he visited; Japan, China, Argentina, Brazil, India dated 1978, 1980, 1981 and such. Reading his short notes and salutations made me miss him more though a lifetime has passed since he left us all.
Next I opened a box filled with greeting cards and letters sent by friends during the days when letter writing was the way to stay in touch with loved from out of town: Writing a letter and the much anticipated wait for its reply had a certain un-explainable joy associated to it, but that romance is lost forever under the weight of emails and fast spreading internet. I read some of the letters and aerograms, and traveled back in time to when I was a school girl and life was so much more simpler. Whilst sifting through the pile of letters and greeting cards, I realised that many of the letters were from friends who are still an integral part of my life; so 35 years on, I am very lucky to still be carrying with me the pure love and friendship of special and sincere friends. I also found a pile of letters written to me by my long gone mother which spoke volumes of her love and best wishes for me. With tears of gratitude, I gently folded away the treasures and packed them carefully, looking forward to another time in the future when I would dive deeper and longer in the past.
The last box contained pictures of a bunch of school girls in white uniforms and green sashes, all presumably taken by me during various school events. The colours were fading and some of the pictures were stuck together due to time and humidity, but the glimmer of innocence and hope could still be seen shining in the eyes of my friends. Life has taken us all in different directions, and each of us is carrying our own burden of the worlds worries, but for now, I let myself travel back to a time where we believed that all the world was good and that life would be perfect. The photographs moved on from the early 80’s to the 90’s with addition of new friends, new journeys and new chapters, and it was apparent that my love for the camera remained unchanged. I sifted through the picture collection of College and University days, and the fun times played before my eyes like a much loved movie. The birth of my children merited a large separate collection of photographs taken by me, and I reviewed all of them marveling at how fast time has flown as two of my children have left the nest and started the journey of discovering who they are. Sad at the loss of those simple and carefree days, yet grateful for having people from my past still as important in my present, I carefully packed the memories away in anticipation that I would revisit them soon and smile again.
Last week a friend invited a bunch of us to a ‘full moon’ cruise around the harbour in Karachi. The idea of being out in the open after sunset was a pleasing thought and armed with my camera, I headed for the pier. The small boat was full of people, music and food, and once all the guests arrived, it sailed off slowly into the moonlight. At the start the water seemed oily and dirty, with bottles, cans and plastic bags floating all around. But once we moved away from the port into the open sea, the air turned cool and fresh, the water clean and clear, and the surroundings serene and calm. The vastness of the ocean has the characteristic of making humankind feel very small and insignificant. The cacophony on board slowly dulled as people enjoyed the peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of city life.
The expanse of the water made me feel like a small drop in the ocean, and I understood what philosophers mean when they say that in the larger scheme of things, our individual issues and heartaches have no significance. All humans desire, want and love, but standing at the helm of the boat I understood that what my heart desired was limited to my own being; in this vast, empty space surrounding me, my individual self meant nothing. Once we exit from this world, all our wants and dreams get locked away in our hearts for all times to come and die with us. Many more after me will stand at the helm of a boat and view the same sunset on a full moon night, and each of them will carry their own version of sadness and loss in their hearts.
While the wind blew on my face, I tried to capture the surrounding beauty through the lens of my camera, and somewhere along the way, I also calmed some of the unrest in my heart through these pictures; moments which would remain for all times to come even after I have long gone.
She knew it was wrong, she knew it was unconventional, and she knew somewhere deep in her heart that it would never work out; but then love has the capacity to take away rational thinking and reasoning, and replace it with a hazy fog in the brain which incapacitates a person to think beyond their own self. Many years ago, Anna met a man who inundated the deep crevices of her heart with his warmth, love and passion. Despite recognizing the numerous hurdles present between herself and him, she gave her heart to him in complete abandon convinced that she had found her soul mate, and that the pieces of this complex jigsaw puzzle would eventually fall into place.
Anna belonged to a middle class conventional family who believed in following cultural and social norms and expectations. She completed her Bachelors from an all girls college and managed to convince her father to let her teach in a local school close to their house till her ‘fate’was decided. For readers not familiar with customs of the Indian sub-continent, it would do justice to the story to explain the preceding line in more detail! A girl born in a traditional Pakistani or Indian family has a pre-determined trajectory to follow: school (the simple basic type preferred), learning household chores (cooking being the front runner), and most importantly, learning the art of being accepting and compromising without question.
Anna was the eldest of a long line of sisters, and her paternal family had started the ‘marriage’ conversation as soon as she completed secondary school. Prospective families were scrutinized and boys interviewed; it is fair to say that Anna’s father was liberal and advanced by general standards, hence she was consulted on every potential proposal and her views given importance. Like all young and romantic minded girls, Anna was looking for a man who would win her heart at the first glance, hence, she delayed and dallied the ‘husband selection’ process as much as she could. But by the time she approached her final year of college, the pressure to succumb to a good proposal reached an un-manageable level and Anna got engaged to a young man from a good family.
The date for the wedding was decided and the preparations started in full throttle. With more than six months left to the wedding date, Anna continued her job at the school in the hope that her husband and new family would not object to her innocuous job. It was during those few months that a new male teacher joined their faculty, and Anna’s life changed forever. She was uncontrollably drawn to him and despite reminding herself constantly of her ‘engaged to be married’ status, she felt herself fall deeper and deeper in the vortex of love till there was no turning back. The intensity of the feeling grew beyond proportion when he expressed his love for her as well; though she knew that the hurdles in front of them were insurmountable, yet she followed her heart and threw all caution to the wind. The fog in her head blurred the reality on the ground, and their clandestine meetings and long phone calls became the focus of her day.
Her family noticed a change in her, and even her fiance commented on her lack of interest in their upcoming marriage. Days turned into weeks and Anna delayed taking any action till she found herself becoming an emotional wreck. Though she had been involved with the man for a short duration of time and he had not proposed marriage to her, his deep passion and her romantic belief that true love always wins gave her the courage to approach her parents and tell them she wanted to break off her engagement. Pandemonium broke out in the house and over the next few weeks, friends and family tried to convince her of her folly and the repercussions of a broken engagement in a conservative society. Despite all opposition and anger, Anna stood her ground till the upcoming marriage was called off. Winning this battle gave her confidence, though she could feel the disappointment in her parents eyes pierce her each time she crossed their path. She could also feel herself being marginalized by society who now viewed her with a different lens; a lens which saw a woman who was too bold and not the kind families would choose for their son. But the conviction that she had found her soul mate and his reciprocated love gave her confidence and she bore the brunt of the world’s disappointment while waiting for the tide to ebb.
As time passed, Anna waited for the man to propose marriage to her and send his family over; but weeks turned into months and though their meetings and phone calls continued, there was no assurance from his side. Naturally, love deepens when there is a physical dimension to a relationship, and though she happily gave herself up to him, she would feel her self respect and self dignity wane each time she met him. At every opportune moment, she bought up the topic of marriage where he reiterated that his parents would not approve of his marrying a girl ostracized by society due to her broken engagement. As time passed, Anna knew that she was setting herself up for pain, disappointment and eventual loneliness, but she brainwashed herself that he would see her devotion and one day convince his family.
At the home front, emotional distress was high as her father had not spoken more than a few words to her in the past months, and her mother was worried about the stigma of a broken engagement. People stopped inquiring about her availability for marriage as social circles had branded her as a ‘fast one’ who was ‘too bold’. The slow but eventual realization that he would never seal their relationship with the respectability of marriage slowly lifted the fog which had hazed her vision in the past. She started distancing herself from him and tried to build a new life which did not include him. Of course, this experience had wrecked her emotional frame of mind, self confidence, and belief in true love; but the paramount desire to regain self respect in her own eyes and the ability to view his actions as weakness made the pain of separation much easier to bear.
Today Anna is still teaching in the same school, though she has risen the ranks and become a department head and also the Head Mistress. The faculty in school has changed over the years and none of the old colleagues who had witnessed her downfall teach there anymore. Time has healed her relationship with her parents and they have resigned to having an unmarried daughter live with them forever. If you chance to visit the school and meet her, you would find her to be a strong, confident and self assured woman, but a closer analysis would show you graying in her hair, fine lines around her mouth and disillusionment in her eyes.
Ali elbowed his way through the sea of students all clamouring to read the notice board, apologizing as he moved forward. His level of nervousness was so high that his heart pounded in his chest and he could feel a loud buzzing in his ears. The University entrance exam result had come out after a delay of one week; a week where he felt his heart would stop with trepidation and fear of the unknown. Finally reaching closer to the notice board, he cursed his short height and tried to stand on his tip toes to read the paper with the list of names, pinned in the middle of the unnecessarily wide board.
Ali belonged to a middle class household and his father, Raza Khan, owned a shop of ladies fabric in a popular part of the city. Raza was a champion of higher education and he tried to provide all possible avenues to his three children to make up for the lack of opportunities when he was growing up. There were days Ali hated being the youngest of three siblings. The expectations were very high and the comparisons never ending; ‘try and emulate at your older sister’, ‘be successful like your eldest brother’; on and on it went till he deliberately started to slack back in school in order to irk his parents and older siblings. As the seriousness of his studies grew, his level of interest and focus declined by the same propensity. He started to keep company with boys who his father found extremely objectionable, and on bad days his father went into a blind rage of anger and thrashed Ali till his mother intervened. His older brother tried to reason with him and explain the importance of education in a middle class household like theirs, but he was beyond any comprehension. He barely scraped through his matriculation examination and was admitted in the local neighbourhood college only because their barometer for admitting students was not performance, but the ability to pay the private college fee.
The fabric shop was old and archaic in its appearance, but was located in a prime location; hence, the last two generations of the Khans family had earned their bread and butter and lived reasonably comfortable lives. Things had started to changed in the past few years since large plazas and shopping malls had started to mushroom all around, dwarfing the small shop. Buyers were attracted to the glitter, glamour and air conditioning of the new shopping plazas, and ladies preferred to buy dresses which were pre-stiched and ready to wear. This change in purchasing habits had affected small time businessmen like Raza Khan who spent all day under the whirring fan waiting for someone to walk in and make a purchase. Weeks turned into months and seasons changed, but the downfall in demand of loose fabric was becoming a reality Raza found difficult to accept.
The inevitable decline in the family income, no other means of sustenance and the burden of educating three children took a toll, and one hot afternoon Raza suffered a heart attack whist in the shop and collapsed. Ali’s older brother stepped forward and tried to manage the shop along with his studies but the burden of responsibility and exam pressure led to a big padlock being put on the front gate of the shop. During those trying days, the family failed to notice a perceptible change in Ali; he became quiet, withdrawn and anxious. Seeing his father incapacitated, his mother worried and anxious, and his siblings drowned in worry, he realized that he would have to step up and take charge of his life if he wanted things at home to improve. The lectures his father and brother would give him on the importance of higher education echoed in his head, and he put all his efforts in studying for his final examinations in order to get admission in the prestigious Engineering University.
As Ali craned his neck to read the admission list, he saw there was a long list of “A” names, many of them being the same as his, and he felt a surge of anger at his parents for choosing such a common and generic name for him. Finally, his eyes stopped scanning the sheet when he saw his full name in print, and saying a silent prayer, he strained to read the result next to his name. “Admitted”, it said . The accumulated stress of the last few weeks erupted like lava and flowed out of his body, leaving him feeling light, relieved and smiling from ear to ear like a small child with a new toy! He navigated his way out of the horde of students and stepped out of the musty building into the bright sunlight, confident that the future looked brighter than it did yesterday.
Growing up straddled between two cultures and two religions can be a tough nut to crack, and I went through my fair share of tribulations and adjustments in my younger days. What I remember the most was my paternal family’s perpetual desire to gravitate me towards the culture of the East, while the rebellious soul in me compassed towards the West like a flower desperate for the bright sun. There are many stories and flashbacks of my growing up years and I have penned down one which comes to mind.
I remember the day me and my best friend dashed towards the school gate as soon as the bell sounded. It was the last day of the school year and we were all celebrating by going to a Chinese restaurant for lunch; a rare treat for the girls under the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq which made over-cautious citizens like my paternal grandmother more nervous about allowing me any freedom. We urged the driver to drive fast and take us home, squeezed together on the back seat where we had carelessly thrown our overloaded school bags. I was most excited as my friend was coming home with me where we would get ready together for the much awaited end-of-the-school-year lunch.
Once in my room, I took out a pair of new jeans I had got from Milan that summer on one of the shopping sprees with my mother. It had been so much fun going to high streets and looking at the latest fashion and big stores. How I loved the life on the streets of Milan!! Sighing nostalgically, I started to dress up and once I was ready, I swirled in front of the mirror admiring my reflection in the new figure hugging outfit. Turning to my friend with a mischievous grin, I said “Just you wait and see my grandmothers expression when we go out”.
The past few years had seen an upsurge in the arguments taking place in my household which revolved around my unconventional preference of dressing and social life. The European blood in me rose to a challenge every time this topic came up, and each argument left me bitter and surer that I wanted to move to my second home which was Italy. As I was grew up and became a confident ‘young lady’, my father handed the reins of my upbringing to his mother not realizing that the generation gap between us was too much to bridge; hence not foreseeing the repercussions of this change in command. My grandmother belonged to era where a woman’s primary purpose in life was to get married, have a dozen children and spend the entire day with one arm stirring a spoon in the cooking pot, whilst clutching a wailing baby in the other! Her daughters, my aunts, had followed the expected path and their entire beings were focused on being good wives, gourmet cooks and obedient daughter in laws. Me being a byproduct of two opposite cultures had grown up absorbing a bit of both these polarities. The East was apparent in my preference for spicy food, fetish for colourful glass bangles, and love for loud and music filled weddings. But it was my fiercely independent mind, rebellion of cultural norms and dislike of shalwar suits which loudly reflected my penchant for the West! I had appealed to my father many times in the hope of getting some relaxation in the stringent rules, but found him to be at a loss of how to manage a rebellious teenager on the one hand, and a dominating mother on the other.
I gave one final look in the mirror before opening the door to the room and leading the way forward. Full of excitement, we skipped down the stairs looking like an antithesis of each other; friends of the soul yet so different in our physical outlook. My friend fulfilled all cultural and conventional norms attired in a yellow and white shalwar suit with a matching dupatta spread wide to cover her ample bosom. On the other hand, I was wearing a pair of fitted jeans with a red and white Snoopy tee-shirt which barely covered my rounded hips.
“Look how nice your friend is looking Sarah! Why don’t you wear the new shalwar suit I got stitched for you? Said my grandmother in a well controlled tone.
“Dadi, these are new trousers I got this summer and I want to show them off to my friends’, I replied, hoping that my grandmother would not create too much of a scene in front of my friend. As I opened the main door and headed for the car waiting near the entrance, I looked over my shoulder and trying to placate her, I said, “Dadi, I shall wear the new shalwar suit tomorrow, I promise”.
My shrewd grandmother was intelligent and smart enough to know when not to make an issue, and giving last minute instructions to the driver to drive carefully, she shut the main door and slowly hobbled back in. The last few years had taken a toll on her health with osteoporosis taking over her life and joint pains with painful knees becoming the primary focus of her days. It saddeded me to see how she was now an unrecognizable, mere shadow of her previous formidable self. Reaching the nearest sofa, she lowered herself in it and sighed with relief, mentally preparing herself for yet another discussion with my father when he came home in the evening.
This tug of war between grandmother and granddaughter had reached its zenith since I had started talking of going abroad to University in the next couple of years. She could not conceive such a situation, and reiterated at every possible occasion that I was fast approaching the average marriageable age of Pakistani girls and should incline myself in that direction. Though my father also was not a cheerleader when it came to the thought of sending me abroad to study in the West, he found himself not agreeing to the proposition of an early marriage. He tried to convince me to do my Undergraduate degree in Pakistan and then look towards the West for a Masters Programme: a time when he felt I would be older and more mature.
The lunch was a roaring success with 35 chatty teenagers talking non stop and nonsensically: I would like to remind everyone that in those times, going out with friends without adult supervision was a rare occurrence, so we were all excited beyond words. The day was full of sunshine, the future full of promise; we were happy our O’levels had ended, the summer vacations had started, and we were all together. Filling my bowl with yummy hot and sour soup, I absorbed the positive energy around me and putting my troubles on the back bench for the time being, I filled my mouth with the delicious treat!
The contractions in my lower abdomen became very sharp and I doubled over with pain. Yet again, I willed my seventh about-to-be-born child to be a boy this time; “Please God please”, I prayed fervently looking up at the whirring fan on the ceiling which was peeling in many places. At the end of the next jolt of pain, I felt the baby slide out onto the bloody sheet and enter this patriarchal world. The room filled with the sound of a wailing baby who seemed unhappy to be let out of a comforting and safe haven into this cold and alien world. The fear of it being another girl paralyzed me and I shut my eyes tightly, too afraid to look at the baby or ask about the gender. My mind wandered back to the last two times which had been the worst of the six deliveries; my husband had ignored me for weeks, while my mother in law had found every opportunity to berate me for failing to produce a male child for her only son.
Very early in my marriage I had understood that I would earn respect and a place in my husband’s heart only if I produced a son! But each subsequent pregnancy culminated in the birth of yet another girl, leading to an exponential increase in resentment and alienation. My husband ignored the girls, forgot their names and cursed the day he married me, while my mother in law threatened me with a second marriage for her beloved son. Why didn’t they understand that I was not to blame? How could he be oblivious to the fact that girls vied desperately for his attention? I could sense that our male dominated society had boxed me amongst the ‘unfortunates’ and looked at me with eyes filled with pity and tinged with derision.
My only ally was my mother who counselled me on various herbs and talisman’s which she willed would result in the procreation of a male child. Many visits were made to far off darbars to offer alms and prayers, and repeated visits made to doctors who claimed to have a cure for ‘son-less’ women; but post each birth, the doctors and holy men were quickly labelled as quacks and charlatans. On the birth of my fourth daughter, my mother prepared me for the inevitable outcome of the arrival a second wife and urged me to accept my fate if that were to happen. Luck was probably on my side as despite six daughters, my husband had not gone in search of another woman to share his marital bed. At least not yet!
I tried to shower extra love and affection on my innocent daughters in the hope of reducing their present pain at their fathers alienation, and their future pain of always being the less important person in all spheres of their lives. Even as a young girl I had understood that the birth of a boy was celebrated with fanfare, sweetmeats and gifts, while the birth of a girl was not announced in the hope that family and neighbors would soon forget this shameful occurrence! Whilst I was growing up in my parents house, the jarring difference in the way me and my brothers were treated would always remain imprinted in my personality; better schooling, extra treats, and new clothes and shoes! I was smart enough to know that the males in the house were to be given preferential treatment, but vulnerable enough to feel the pain of unfairness in my innocent heart. I felt sad knowing that patriarchal societies leeched on infanticide and infant mortality of young girls, and much as I may have tried, there was nothing I could have done in my limited influence and capacity.
The loud wailing of the baby jolted me back to the present, and I looked up to see the midwife holding the newborn who was all swaddled in a warm blanket. Looking around, I saw a room full of women: my anxious mother and concerned sisters, my ever judging mother in law, and a babble of curious neighbours. Tired and exhausted after a long delivery, not ready to deal with people and too afraid to know the inevitable, I closed my eyes, shut my ears and prayed for oblivion.
Traveling is a passion for me and photography a hobby: the result is different cultures steeped in a kaleidoscope of colours captured on camera. My recent exploration led me to a land of beauty, warmth, peace and culture: Sri Lanka. The intense greenery in this small island is a welcome sight, the food a gastronomic pleasure, and the shopping irresistible. This was my second visit to the country, but my first armed with my new Nikon. I happily clicked away, adamant to capture all the beauty and culture of the island, but more importantly, store joyous memories of time well spent with loved ones!
“Twenty years from now you will look back more regretfully upon the things you didn’t do than those you did. So set free the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor. Dream. Explore. Discover.” – American author and humorist Mark Twain
The wind blew with a gust making the black veil slip from Saira’s head; she grabbed it tightly and covered her face, trying to make herself as inconspicuous as possible. Finally she reached the preset meeting point and quickly turned the corner hoping no one from her family or neighbourhood had seen her leave. As promised, Adil was waiting for her under the tree with his motorcycling revving, ready to drive off as soon as she sat behind him. She heaved a sigh of relief sure that no one had seen her, and finally relaxed enough to start enjoying the illicit ride with this man she hardly knew.
Saira belonged to a poor family who had seen struggle, deprivation and hunger for as long as she could remember. She had gone to a local state owned school for her primary education but it ended as soon as she was old enough to earn and contribute to the meager earnings of the family. In all these years she had worked as a sweepress, a house maid, a baby sitter, and now a cook, slowly climbing up the hierarchy of domestic help and earning a reasonable salary. Though she enjoyed the freedom of being able to move around on her own and spend a bit of her money on small treats, there were days when she felt burdened by the weight of her parents expectations and the drudgery of a long and hard day. Like all girls of her age, she spent many hours daydreaming of meeting a handsome man and getting married to him.
Her daily walk to work required her to cross a mechanics shop where each day she craned her neck to look for the handsome and burly mechanic who was always shouting orders at his team. Once in a while their eyes met and though she quickly averted her eyes, it always made her blush and wanting more. After many weeks of trying to catch each others eyes, one day she found the young man standing on the road almost blocking her way. It took only a few encounters for Saira to lose her shyness and for the conversation to become more comfortable leading to an arrangement to meet alone. Though she knew that her family would not approve of her talking and meeting a strange man, but the drudgery of her days and the lack on any better prospect propelled her and she agreed to meet Adil and go on a drive with him.
She kept her face covered while Adil drove through the familiar streets of her neighbourhood, and only once they had entered unknown zones did she relax and let her veil down. They rode around town for hours holding on tightly to each other, till he stopped in a remote and vacant plot. Promising to never leave her and send his parents to her house to ask for her hand in marriage, he convinced her that their physical closeness was only a way of expressing his ardent love. One thing led to another, and Saira found herself caught in the physical love of two people, exciting and powerful,yet darkened by the shadows of social and cultural norms.
It took a few months for Saira to realize that she was pregnant; this realization was followed by disbelief, fear and shock. She tried to contact Adil to remind him of his ‘true love’ and his long overdue marriage proposal, but he was not to be found at his place of work nor was he responding to her desperate phone calls. The fear of being an unwed mother in a society who viewed this as a crime almost stopped her heart on many occasions, only to be revived back to reality by a study kick in her womb. Her womb became heavy and her stomach swelled more and more each day till the sinful reality became a loud scream for all to hear. Her parents beat her black and blue out of anger and shame, the neighbours shunned her and her younger sisters blamed her for their lack of future prospects.
The months passed and Saira stayed indoors away from prying eyes, till one cold, winter morning her water broke. The pain became unbearable and she screamed and screamed till she was hoarse, hoping her voice would carry far and reach her unfaithful lover. Though her heart ached at the thought that Adil had deserted her in such a condition, the impending arrival of her child gave her strength and she pushed and pushed till her little boy slid out onto a dirty sheet. The midwife quickly wrapped the baby in a blanket and handed him over to Saira’s mother who was watching from the corner of the room. Saira could see her mother take the baby and leave the small room; she wanted to call out for him but the sedative given to her by the midwife kicked in and she fell in a deep slumber.
She must have slept for long because when she woke up, night had fallen and a small light was burning in the corner of the room. She called out to her mother asking to see her son, eager to see the prospect of a better future in his tiny eyes. She wanted to hold him close and suckle him to her breast in the hope that the emptiness and shame in her life would now be filled by this child borne from her womb. She called and called for her baby but no one responded. And as she screamed louder for him, she knew that she would never, ever hold him close to her breast: that he had been taken far away from her to wipe clean the shame and dishonour brought upon her family, and that she would spend the rest of her life with a large gaping hole in her womb, her heart and her soul. As she imagined her baby lying in a crib far away with his little mouth puckered and wanting her breast, she felt a flash of physical pain in her empty womb,: her world collapsed around her and she began to howl and scream like a wounded animal till all her inside became empty and she could scream no more!