I walked bare feet across the small patch of garden attached to my ground floor studio apartment, feeling the cool compressed clay soothe my tired feet. These days my heels cracked much more than before. I’d love to blame it on the weather, but to be honest, I do think I work too much. Forty-nine is, after all, not really one’s youth, and my job enforced me to remain on my feet all day in the sweltering kitchen.
I bless my fortune that I am not on the road like so many acquaintances of mine, or working for someone else like many relatives. At least I am my own boss, queen of my own kingdom. When I picked up my ladle and spoon I felt it was my orb and scepter. The small, hot kitchen would convert into a master-chef show kitchen and I would spin one creation after another.
I was never one given to fantasizing, but I must say, it makes the task so much more bearable. After all, how else could one ever cook with any delight in a five by eight kitchen with a thermostat showing forty four degrees Celsius?
Well, to be very honest, I didn’t choose this profession, it somehow chose me. Or rather, I fell into it. Um, not even fell, I was submerged and swallowed by it! I had been quite complacent at being just a housewife. I use the word “just” not to belittle the job, believe me, it’s an arduous task, but merely because half the people I mentioned being a housewife to said to me that I do nothing. So, as I was saying, I was quite pleased looking after my house, entertaining a few guests now and then, cooking and managing a small train of servants.
But, as the popular saying states all good things must come to an end, and alas so they did for me, a lot earlier than for most. My husband enjoyed his stocks and as is usual with all those who like to risk things and always try for the last kill, my husband did the same in the last stock exchange landslide, and thus here I am cooking to run the house.
You may still wonder why I have to work. Oh, I cannot explain to you how many times I myself have thought about that. Why me? With my aching elbows, knees and back, why do I have to stand in that furnace day after day, chopping, cutting, dicing, stirring, folding, rolling? Why? Because, he kind of just gave up on life after that. Not that he was a vegetable, oh God forbid, no. He just didn’t take any interest in earning any money, that is all. Whatever business we had was sold off to pay the stockbrokers. He was getting threats. And well, his life is definitely more important than money? Isn’t it?
So, with no money to pay them, we slowly lost our servants, one by one. Good riddance to be honest, feeding the servants is such as issue. Only one old cleaning maid remained, she was too old to actually find new employment so she had to stay, not that she had any attachment to me or my house. And then of course, it meant the utility bills had to be controlled, so the air conditioners were permanently turned off. Going to the market had become difficult, inflation, his pickiness about food, and a lack of financial fluidity were hurdles that just couldn’t be overcome. Having a man home all day with nothing to do is a punishment worthy of hell-dwellers.
Being a woman, and obviously the stronger of the two, I had to take matters into my own hands. We sold our bungalow in Defence and moved into a small apartment on Shahrah-e-Faisal. As finances dwindled, I tried my hand at many things. I gave tuitions to primary school children, and soon found that I had no patience or fondness for children, so that didn’t work out too well and the children left themselves. Then, I tried to design clothes, and, forget fun, it is probably one of the most tedious and boring professions on earth, especially if one lacks finances like me, or has rather simple tastes where I can copy but not create. Finally I started a small catering business. Initially I made lunch boxes for neighbors, but as people started liking my simple cooking, I finally began experimenting with newer, more elaborate recipes. Business started flourishing, and all would be well, save for the memories of my husband’s aunt who though dead since nine years was still an alive and kicking memory haunting both of us, the unforgettable Chhoti Phupho (Little Aunt).
My first introduction to Chhoti Phupho was unfortunately at my wedding, after my nikkah (Muslim marriage contract), too late to run away from the clutches of this dutiful Muslim woman whose first act was to pull up my dupatta (veil) over my head to my eyes on the bridal stage, instructing me loudly that the hair of a dutiful Muslimah shouldn’t be showing at any time. Settled next to me for a photograph at the wedding, which according to her was haraam (Prohibited by Islam), she explained to me how I must be an obedient wife, always be in wudu (ablution) and how I must not do any dirty deed with my husband. To date I don’t understand what classifies as a “dirty deed” between a husband and his wife! One can understand that only a woman like her can be born at the onset of World War I.
Soon after my wedding, my mother –in-law passed away and the funeral arrangements were left up to me. I, even with my inexperience as a teenager, had done a fabulous job. I had moved out most of the furniture and laid white sheets to cover the burgundy carpet. I had left a few chairs and a large floral three-seater sofa covered in a white sheet in the corner for the elders. The only thing colourful in the room were the several hundred-beaded tasbihs(rosaries) in the centre kept for the ease of the women who would find it easier to keep track of the number of times they had repeated the incantation. My mother-in-law had not been a popular woman and very few people attended the funeral, and naturally no one could find any fault with it except darling Chhoti Phupho. She thought since a daughter-in-law can’t feel the same love that a daughter does, I had made a half-hearted attempt. So, Chhoti Phupho who had come to condole for a few hours, ended up living with us for twenty-two years till she passed away, reminding me daily how much I wished for my actual mother-in-law to be alive rather than the pseudo one who was probably ten-fold nastier than the original!
In the days which followed, Chhoti Phupho couldn’t find me doing anything right. Farhan, my husband, and I had not formulated any kind of relationship as such that I could complain to him about his aunt. On the contrary, he found it easier to instruct me to look after his aunt and make her feel at home rather than me being able to confide in him. Coming from a less financially secure family, my parents made it clear that this was the house I would die in, so in actuality they told me to keep my problems to myself.
My days usually began with Chhoti Phupho’s words “Kis manhoos ka chehra dekh lya subah subah. Ab dubara wuzu karna parhe ga!” (What an unlucky person’s face I have seen this morning, now I’ll have to purify myself again).
Me being unlucky didn’t stop her from devouring every single bit of paratha (fried bread) made by yours truly. I actually should have put some jamal gotta (laxative for horses) while rolling out her paratha. It was rather sad that what goes around just doesn’t come around in real life. Chhoti Phupho really should’ve shitted herself to death rather than going that peacefully.
Seeing the lady of the house treated the way I was obviously meant the servants thought of her as the boss and not me. So daily whatever she decided was cooked. And since I was the poor relative, the cutting, chopping, dicing, mixing and stirring all fell on my shoulders.
Dinner at night meant Farhan ate with Chhoti Phupho and I served since I had to be the dutiful and obedient Muslim wife who could not eat before her husband was satiated. I don’t know what Islam Chhoti Phuphi followed but it was clear to me that any intimacy between Farhan and myself was quelled before it even began. Which meant that I had to remain in loose, unflattering clothes, else Chhoti Phupho claimed I wore figure hugging clothes because the devil had entered my body and I had given in to my nafs (desires) and I would burn in the lowest level of hell for indecent exposure, and even if the jamadar (sweeper) raised his eyes to look at me I would be paying for it because I had enticed him. So, any color besides black, white, beige and grey was outlawed by Chhoti Phupho who had taken my wardrobe into her own hands and anything remotely floral or feminine never thus entered my closet. Who would explain to her that I had not reached that level of sexual exposure to understand what male enticement was?
Dressed in non-descript clothes with an asexual cut, impressionable me stood in the kitchen day in and day out with Chhoti Phupho sitting at the small table giving me instructions about her recipe for success based on her own warped ideals.
“Beta (child), remember, you should always eat the remains from your husband’s plate and don’t let them go to waste, it is very sinful.” This aided in lowering my already low self-esteem.
“The first rule of a happy marriage is always wake up before your husband does and sleep after he sleeps.” This one obviously killed all the intimacy which could have been achieved.
“During the dirty act, keep your clothes on. If you take your clothes off, the devil will be in your mind.” Hence my distaste for my own body and an increasing disinterest on Farhan’s part.
And of course, the show stopper, “After the dirty act, you must change your bed sheet, purify yourself and ask for forgiveness for feeling anything bad.” Eventually Farhan preferred no sex and a good night’s sleep rather than all my shenanigans after the “dirty act” so thus, we existed like siblings rather than husband and wife.
I was too unexposed to the ways of the world and my parents too disinterested in my life for me to actually feel that Chhoti Phupho was misguiding me. Whoever came to visit us seemed to revere her and it was many years later that I actually realized it was fear of her ill-temper rather than esteem of her wisdom that caused people to break eye-contact with her.
My only connection to the outside world on most days was a thirty-four inch box Sony television kept in our family room. We only had one television channel PTV which aired a few drama serials and was primarily a medium for news. Chhoti Phupho did not like me watching television as it was haraam and the female newscasters on television were behouda (lewd) because their hair was exposed due to the dupatta not being properly worn. I couldn’t understand why it was not haraam for her to watch drama serials day in and day out and a half hour of news was banned for me. I never had the guts to question it. I had paid dearly for questioning her authority once.
It had been such a tiring roza (fast) during Ramadan and since I was menstruating and was exempt from fasting, I had wanted to sleep in the following day and let the cook make sehri (meal before fasting) for Farhan. Chhoti Phupho had made it clear her permission had to be sought even if I needed to go and urinate so I asked her silently with my head down if I could sleep in the following morning. She did not reply. When Farhan came home, freshened and sat at the dinner table, she began.
“Beta Farhan, Urooj is very tired today. She said you have been keeping her awake at night and she can not do housework during the day. Even though I help as much as I can all day, I think it’s not enough. I don’t want to be a burden on anyone and you know how much I love and care for you. I don’t want to aggravate her lest she gets angry with me and asks me to leave. I think we should let her sleep late tomorrow. You don’t worry, even though my legs hurt when I stand too much, I will make your sehri for you. After all, bahu (daughter-in-law) needs her beauty sleep. “
I was aghast. I couldn’t understand how she could lie this blatantly. This apparent God-fearing woman who had given me so many lectures on my akhirat (judgement after resurrection) and had erected large images of raging hell-fires, now sat and spoke with such a soft, innocent expression on her face the world’s most blatant, tongue-sore-spouting lie! Miserable me didn’t even know how to defend myself. Chhoti Phupo’s smirk is ingrained in my memory amidst a background of Farhan abusing me calling me “halkat”, “had-haram” (idle) and “banj” (sterile). The last abuse hurt me the most. We had now been married for five years and I had still not conceived. Sexual intercourse was limited to once a month, and I was only twenty-three, maybe not enough for creating a new life. Calling me sterile was a slap on everything feminine about me.
After that point I had retreated into a greater shell and never once did I then question Chhoti Phupho’s judgment. Maybe that was a mistake. Her hold on me became greater and greater till it had infused every aspect of my being. Eating a fruit I liked meant I had let my nafs take control of me. Laughing meant I had the devil in me. Taking too long a shower meant I was thinking about sexual intercourse in the bathroom. And I paid dearly for this “behoudgi”. Initially I had to scrub floors as penance, but when that was not enough humiliation and her enjoyment seemed to have diminished in it, she had taken to slapping me, and of course tired out with that she had used Farhan’s belt on a few occasions too. Yes, I do wonder why I just didn’t use arsenic. I wish I had known about it earlier. This is what happens when a girl is not educated enough and married off before she can even decipher between right and wrong, tolerable and intolerable, human and inhuman. So I took it all with a pinch of salt.
I did get pregnant in May 1988 after being married for nine years, but I lost the baby in three month due to extreme physical duress. Of course, Chhoti Phupho told Farhan that my uterus was unfit to hold a baby for long. I was too exhausted due to her penance and to fight for the truth was too much of a struggle. I did not conceive again. Whatever happens, happens for the best. I have learnt that now. Maybe it was for the best that I didn’t have a baby. It wasn’t the most pleasant household to bring a child into anyway. Besides, Farhan seemed more interested in President Zia ul Haq’s plane crash rather than my miscarriage.
Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into years. Things remained the same with Farhan becoming pickier and nastier as he aged and me becoming quieter and more hateful of anything religious. Twenty one years after moving in with us, in Chhoti Phupho’s eighty sixth year, she finally fell ill. Bereft of the strength to apply her penance or to raise her voice, Chhoti Phupho’s reign of terror dwindled. She gradually weakened and died in July 2001 in her sleep. She was never bedridden and never in a state of dependency. I felt agonized that she died this peacefully. No, I am not charitable and I actually am unconcerned about her punishment after death. I would have liked to see some payback and I didn’t and I felt robbed of my vengeance.
The house was again bathed in white. But this time it was a white of silent joy. Chhoti Phupho, once the Colossus of Rhodes in the house now lay in a humble seamless cotton sheet, a white gauze strip holding her jaw shut as it was tied around her chin with a crude bow on top of her head. Cotton was stuffed into her large blue-veined nostrils to stop the fluid dripping out. Her body covered in white except for the head drawing all one’s attention toward it. Only four ladies attended her funeral. I don’t know why Farhan was taken aback by the lack of attendance.
After the funeral it took a few days for the suffocating compressed air of evil to gradually diminish. I took a long bath after days but I took no pleasure in it. The guilt which had consumed my being would take years to exorcise. My habit of rising early was now too deeply ingrained in me to change, so even after Chhoti Phupho passed away, I maintained my sleep habits. Not only that, the kitchen was the only place I understood and felt I belonged in so I continued to chop, slice, dice and mix.
Television was a stolen good for me. Our cable provider, selected by Chhoti Phupho for his range of Indian soap channels, offered over one hundred channels. I finally started watching some television daily, but only news since the guilt and fear of watching anything else was too great.
Struggling with the bile of touching anything remotely linked with the abhorrent woman, I eventually managed to start sorting through Chhoti Phupho’s things. Daily I took out her belongings bit-by-bit and either sent the items to other relatives, or gave them away to the servants. From her closet I found all my wedding dowry clothes, the reds and pinks and greens which she had confiscated; boxes of glass bangles which I had been so fond of wearing once; make up, rotted and smelling now, which I had been banned from using when Farhan had commented positively on a lipstick shade I had used. My life which she had stolen from me sat amassed in her large closets like trophies of an ill-won war.
One evening, after clearing most of her things, I chanced upon a small pouch of stained white satin with blue and gold lace stitched around the edges. I took it with me to the family room, turned on the television to CNN, muted the volume and settled down.
I slowly opened the knot of the pouch to a few yellowed black and white photographs and what seemed like letters. A young Chhoti Phupho was the star in all the photographs. No dupatta on her head here. No concept of behudgi or nafs or jahannum (hell) in these pictures. She wore sleeveless gowns, fitted tops with bell bottoms, and what seemed to be bright glittery clothes. In every picture she was surrounded by groups of good looking young men dressed in suits. I felt an iron hammer pounding at my chest. I gingerly picked up the paper squares and unfolded them. This one was written in a scrawling hand dated March, 1934
Gulabi, you have won my heart, just say yes once and I will make you a star and you will be the rage of our Indian film industry. Can you see yourself as the heroine opposite Motilal? Come meet me at the new Gogo Club. Your fan for life, Anand.
I picked up the next one dated September, 1936
Gulabi, you will get a chance, but you have to accept the producer’s request. One night shouldn’t make such a difference to you. Pretend it’s me and all will be well. Much love, Anand.
I picked up the next letter with shivering hands, this one dated January, 1938
Gulabi, stop writing to me. You are not star material. Yes I know you tried but all the producers are looking for something more than what you are offering. Besides, they all claim that you have unsightly thighs. If you want to make something of yourself, for heaven’s sake lose some weight. Don’t write to me again, I’m very busy directing my new film. Anand Biswajeet.
Stunned, saddened and disgusted at Anand’s behavior and finally understanding Chhoti Phupho’s wrath at the world, I replaced the story of her life back in the stained satin pouch. Farhan walked in pale and drained and immediately reached for the television remote and increased the volume.
“And the North Tower has begun collapsing, it is 10:28 am and the South Tower of the World Trade Centre has already collapsed. The debris is thick and the area had been evacuated…” boomed CNN.
Caught in the turmoil inside my mind and heart and the chaos in the world outside I sat stunned as I gazed at the television. With the collapse of the twin towers, I saw my old world collapsing, crumbling, shattering. Just as Talibans never realized what they had destroyed, I knew Chhoti Phupho never once realized what she had actually destroyed. Both had stolen another’s peace for vengeance. Both had fought a false war in the name of religion. Both had started something it would take generations to fix.
In the 2005 stock market crash, Farhan lost everything. The house, the cars, the business, everything was sold in order to pay the stockbrokers. Stockbrokers are a relentless lot in Karachi with connections to many gangs and political parties. One such broker started threatening Farhan with morbid pictures of death and devastation, so much so that Farhan suffered from severe depression and sweaty anxiety attacks. In the years to follow, as Pakistan slowly crumbled in the face of increasing bomb blasts, kidnapping, target killings and political unrest, the society of Karachi fought against extremism and various cultural biases. Begum Nawazish became an icon for transvestites and homosexuals, young female VJ’s became a voice for the confident sexual woman, new rock-bands became the representation of the youth wanting a change. Me, it was a time for a new me also. It took me years to forgive myself and eradicate the guilt of enjoying a single piece of fruit or buying an inexpensive floral suit without thinking of my nafs and jahannum. Things were also definitely better financially after we sold our house in 2007 and moved to our current Shahrah-e-Faisal apartment, right in time to escape the mob’s wrath on the houses in Defence following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination later in the same year. I found a small dars (religious discussion) group near my apartment with a soft-spoken, always smiling lecturer who showed me a different Islam than that of Chhoti Phupho - an Islam of mercy, kindness, patience, charity and quietness; and an Islam of love, forgiveness, equality and respect. No one pulled my sleeve down my wrists, or my shalwar (trouser)to the floor. No one made me feel that applying lipstick for my husband was indecent. I started feeling a love for my religion rather than fear and anger. I wanted to pray my namaz (prayers) with greater fervor and pray my sunnats, nafls and witr (necessary and optional prayers) rather than just praying my fard (obligatory prayers). For the first time I felt delight at being a Muslim rather than feeling the oppression of being one.
On the love front, well, there was no love. A relationship never allowed to develop in infancy, can never thrive even if it receives all the nurturing, sunlight and fertilizer to boost its growth later. So we exist, Farhan and I, in the same house. I work, he sleeps; I cut vegetables and fruits, he complains it isn’t small enough; I stir, he tells me how to do it right; I garnish, he tells me it isn’t neat enough; I earn, he says I don’t do much. You might wonder why I just don’t put arsenic into his food. Believe me, I thought of it many times, but I didn’t want to end up taking care of a man who might need adult diapers! And then, there’s also the problem of being punished in the hereafter.
So I cook and feed him and the world. The world pays me well, and I can put up with the heat for them. Him, well, I’m used to having him around, and maybe for that bit of his company in the evening when we settle to watch television, or for that short half-an-hour evening walk in the park, or even when he looks over his cup of tea and explains some story he had read in the newspaper, I am happy to work for him as well.
At the end of the day, I finally sit at the edge of my bed which I share with him. While removing my stockings I run my fingers over my blue veins, swollen and broken protruding through my pale grainy skin. The end of the stocking is stained with blood, seeping slowly from the frayed skin on my heels. Alas, I did work too hard, I wonder if he ever will notice.