by Shazia Javed
This time I have chosen the wedding dress myself. Last time I had no say in the matter. Even my make-up is minimal, just the way I like it. Last time, the lady from the Indian salon had pasted my face with so many layers of concealer and foundation that it almost felt like a mask. It is ten minutes to one and I must get going now otherwise I will be late. With a final look in the mirror, I put on some lip-gloss, tie my thick, long hair in a bun, and hide them in a cherry red hijab. Yesterday I went to Fatima’s house and she coloured my hair amber, not all of them, just some highlights. It adds a nice bit of drama to my hair; the amber streaks in contrast with the natural black. I thought Tariq may like it; when he sees it. After we are married he can play with my hair and run his fingers through their curls. I hope he likes them curly for I can never manage to tame them into straight lines.
When I told Ammi that I want to marry Tariq, she panicked. Her grip loosened on the hot iron that she was running across Abbu’s kurta pyjama, clothes he wears for evening prayers at the mosque and her hand reached out to cover her mouth in a bid to suppress her shock. But she reached out for my hand and pressed it in that soft warm sort of a way that said she understood. Then, almost as quickly, she dropped my hand. Her eyes focused on some point beyond my shoulder, as if there, she could see both the past and the future. “He will not agree Faiza, your Abbu will never allow this. If he wanted to, he would have the first time round.” Her words were the plea of a dejected mother.
I was seventeen when the entire khandaan – including those who had been left behind in Pakistan – first started match-hunting for me. All my Aunts – khalas, phuppos and chaachis- recruited themselves for the task. Parents of cousins, distant relatives, and village men from Multan, aged anywhere between twenty-four to thirty-five years of age, proposed marriage to Jameel Sahab’s daughter. But Abbu waited till I had finished my education. I was studying to be a medical lab technician although truly I wanted to be a doctor or a nurse. I had to choose my profession carefully – one that did not necessitate night shifts or long hours, and befitted Abbu’s notion of a “modest woman” – so that he would allow it for me and – maybe, just maybe – make him proud of me, and make-up for what I had done wrong when I was eight.
This is how my life is clearly marked – pre and post-eight – an age that defined the rest of my life; when the only window which I had into Abbu’s world closed on me. Even in those days, it was not easy to catch a moment with Abbu. He kept his auto-workshop open long hours on weekdays and half-day on Saturdays. At other times, he was actively involved in community affairs. The congregation needed a proper wazu-khana for ablution at the mosque; multiple faucets had to be installed at waist-level and sinks lowered to the ground so that the namazis could wash their feet. The community wanted its own private school for their children where, in addition to worldly knowledge, girls and boys would learn God’s verses in separate classrooms. Abbu was always at the forefront of these projects. He was busy creating community consensus and was leading the drive to raise funds.
Even on Sundays, our house was filled with visitors for the weekly Halaqa. For two hours before the afternoon prayers began, the devout preached the rules of moral living in this world in order for us to gain the right of entry to a life in paradise. I remember sitting in the women’s section as close to the curtain, as I could get, which was hooked up every week in a makeshift arrangement to divide the living room into two separate spaces. From there I listened to Abbu whenever, on the other side, he read out from a book and explained its nuances. I was not able to understand much, many words of Urdu mixed with his native Punjabi were lost on me, but I sat there every week, eagerly listening to the sound of Abbu’s commanding voice and taking pride in the stature which the community bestowed on him.
My favourite day of the week, however, was Saturday. Every Saturday I spent the day with Abbu at his workshop which is the busiest in this part of the town. I would happily spend my weekly holiday watching him fix cars, manage accounts and deal with the customers until the afternoon when he would close shop and drop me home on his way to the mosque. I would often put my arms around his neck, swinging my weight onto his back, as he knelt down to check the level of engine oil or traced an ominous noise. This had been our little rendezvous since I was three and I looked forward to this time just like other children in my class looked forward to picnics, TV-time or a day at the rides.
My fall from paradise took place on one such Saturday morning that was filled with both, sun and warmth, a rare combination, in this part of Canada. I was wearing my bell-sleeved yellow dress which had little butterflies drawn with a golden thread below its waistline up to the hem. Ammi had teamed it with pale white cotton trouser with flared legs, and I secured my hijab with my favourite flower brooch – the one that had more colours than even a rainbow can boast of. I remember it clearly because I never wore that dress or the brooch again.
That morning, I hurriedly swallowed my breakfast of hot parathas, put on my shoes and stationed myself by the door, in time to join Abbu as he was leaving for work. Once at the workshop, Abbu got busy and after hovering around him for a couple of hours, I sat down at the couch that was kept inside the office for customers who may have to wait long. The dissection between the office and the garage had been created by a wall which had big glass windows mounted on it. By occasionally shifting my weight to my knees and digging my elbows onto the shoulder of the sofa, my chin propped up onto the palms of my hands – I could see Abbu through the windows on the adjacent side. Saturdays could be really busy, and with one of the two staff Abbu employed being absent, Abbu was struggling to keep up.
It was then that, that man came and sat down on the couch with me. He was thin, his clothes crumpled and unlike Abbu and his more regular customers he had neither a beard nor a moustache. I had just seen Abbu check his green Mazda and direct him inside after consulting his watch. By watching Abbu at work, week after week, I knew a thing or two about cars. I figured that man had come for a small job, like an oil change, and was willing to stay and wait till Abbu finished work on another car and got working on his.
He started by asking me my name, what school I went to, how old I was and what were the names of my friends. He shared a chewing gum he took out of his pocket, which at first, I refused but then took. He complimented my dress and my brooch. And then he said he wanted to count the number of butterflies on my dress, and he slid closer. The heaviness in his breath, its stench and the hotness of his thighs rubbing against mine made me uncomfortable. He bent his head closer to my legs and started tracing each butterfly with his finger. Then slowly, his other hand slithered between my legs and a strong feeling of queasiness took over me. I wanted to push him away and run out to Abbu. But before I could get myself to move, Abbu stormed inside the office swearing and yelling at that man to get out of there.
Within the next ten minutes, Abbu had sent the man away with his car untended to, told the remaining customers to return another day, given rest of the day off to his assistant and turned the “Open” sign around. When he came back to me, his face was still red with anger and the only thing he said to me was to go and sit in the truck.
When Abbu dropped me home he did not come inside. He just pulled his machine hunk into the driveway and rang the doorbell. When Ammi opened the door all he said was, “take care of your daughter.” Sensing that something had gone terribly wrong and knowing better than to ask Abbu for more information, Ammi helped me get out of the car for I was too stupefied to move on my own. And then Abbu got back in his truck and drove away.
Once inside, I tried giving Ammi an account of what had happened. But I could not stop crying and my words kept getting lost in hiccups. Ammi brought a glass of water, holding it out for me to drink from it. She then took me in her lap where she held me for long till I stopped crying and fell asleep.
I don’t know what Abbu told Ammi, but when I woke up a couple of hours later, Abbu had come, had lunch and gone out again.
“Is Abbu mad at me?” I asked Ammi.
“No Faiza. He just wants to protect you,” Ammi said reassuringly while making me a cup of hot chocolate.
But the immensity of the consequences that would follow was not clear to me until a few Saturdays after. “Good that you are ready, Faiza. Today I will take you to Khaala’s house so you can play with your cousins,” Ammi said cajolingly when the following Saturday I dressed and came downstairs to eat breakfast.
“But today is Saturday. Today I go with Abbu, Ammi!” I protested. “Not today,” Ammi said with a finality to her voice.
The following Saturday Ammi took me grocery shopping with her and on the next one she said she needed me to help her with the backyard. Until finally, one Saturday, I threw a fit and said I didn’t want to do anything with her and that I wanted to go with Abbu.
“He will not take you, Faiza. You cannot go with him to the shop anymore. You are a big girl now,” Ammi said looking me straight in the eye.
“But I want to go. I want to go with Abbu, Ammi. I want to go.” I pleaded and cried, stomping up to my room feeling helpless. I needed something to take out my frustration on and the yellow dress was perfect. I attacked it with the scissor on my craft table and when its fabric showed resilience, I held the scissor in a fist poking and stabbing furiously at the dress and ripping out the golden thread off each butterfly.
At that age, I did not quite understand what I had experienced that Saturday at the shop. I just knew that I had failed Abbu; done something so wrong that he did not want me near him and since I wasn’t allowed in the workshop there was no way for me to spend time with him anymore. Since that day, I have spent each day of my life trying to please Abbu and regain my lost space in his life. I never ate another gum, brushed my teeth every morning and night, offered my daily prayers regularly, finished homework on time and did whatever else it was that I understood to be expected from a “good girl”. I also stopped talking to strangers – of any age – and did not make new friends – not even at school. All in the hope that next time when we sat across at the dinner table, Abbu would tell me how proud he was of me and that he would take me with him to the work-shop. But Abbu never said anything. In fact, gradually the silence between us heightened to the point where even the requisite communication between us on tuition fees, progress reports and parental authorization was routed through Ammi.
When I grew a little older and understood what that experience truly was, I wanted to let Abbu know that I had learnt how to take care of myself; that I knew how to create boundaries and he could take me back into his world. So, all through my tween years and teen age, when my classmates were out for movie-nights, I read books on how a pious woman should conduct herself – the books which Abbu brought back from his annual holy excursions with the jamaat. When my classmates experimented with fashion, I dressed in loose shirts, long skirts and tunics to hide my curves. When other girls were sneaking out and meeting boys I stayed home and helped Ammi with household chores. My classmates were finding ways to be cool and I epitomised virtue. On graduation, I said no to Tariq for the prom night.
Tariq and I had been in the same grade, going to the same school, since as far back as I can remember. Though we never actually hung-out or dated, still a sense of familiarity had formed between us. He was easy in his manner and unlike other boys who were aggressive in pursuit of their passions and demanding in their relationships, Tariq kept me company in my solitude. Many times, as I sat alone in the class- room, when other students went out during the lunch break, Tariq would quietly sit beside me, reading from his book. In his presence, I did not feel as if I had to behave in a particular way, or do certain things and not the other. The time that Tariq proposed marriage to me was the only time I even wished for Abbu to say yes to something I wanted for myself. On finding the right opportunity, Ammi was to plead on my behalf. This was no easy task for by then, Abbu was spending even less time at home.
Since the extension of the mosque was complete, the men – and Abbu, had stopped coming home for Sunday halaqa. All their events and council meetings now took place at the mosque. Women – because they were needed at home to tend to noisy children who ran around, cried, or asked for food – were left at home so that the men could carry their Godly affairs uninterrupted. For our benefit, one woman – the wife of the imam – read to us from the books lined up on the bookshelf in our house. Also, though the community’s private school had been long up and running it was only upto primary level. Abbu was therefore busy trying to raise funds and arrange logistics for this school to go up to the secondary level. Many children were graduating from the primary classes and had no where but the public schools to go to- where – he was concerned – no attention was paid to their religious values and the children were open to the influence of western society and its twisted morality.
I heard from outside the closed door as Abbu enumerated the flaws of a potential match with Tariq to Ammi. “Tariq’s parents never attend the weekly halaqas in the community. His father is rarely ever seen at the mosque and his mother does not even cover her hair – her dupatta is always shamelessly crossed around her neck rather than being draped around her head,” Abbu was almost shouting. In his words, “Tariq was not worthy because his faith had been corrupted,” and of course, he had to protect mine.
“Do you, Faiza Ahmed, daughter of Jameel Ahmed, agree to be wedded to Shehzaad Jamaal for a mehar of Eight Thousand Canadian?” asked the sheikh. My badi-phuppo, Abbu’s eldest sister, had tipped other aunts in convincing Abbu. My marriage had been fixed with her son – my cousin. “Say yes, beta,” Ammi prodded. At that moment everyone in the room must have been looking at me, but it were Abbu’s eyes I felt on me as I said yes through my half-veil. It was the only time, perhaps, when Abbu had crossed over to my side of the curtain in a gathering. He was accompanied by the sheikh and two uncles who acted as witnesses. The sheikh then asked me if I agreed to the match again and I said yes again. The sheikh repeated his question for the third and final time, and I said yes for the final time.
“Mubrak ho! The girl has given her consent to the marriage,” the four men proceeded to the other the side of the room and announced joyfully. After which they asked the groom for his consent.
Four years of marriage and one child later I came to know that Shehzad had not wanted to marry me either. I saw him cozying up to another woman – a white girl – at a strip mall at the other side of the city, where I had taken our daughter for a dentist’s appointment. He made no effort to deny the affair but rather he accepted it so bluntly that I felt like I was the “other woman” who had been in his bed all this time. She was the one he had wanted to make his wife. I was a compromise; a detested memorabilia from the battle he had lost with his mother who, in order to persuade her son against marrying a gori, had deployed all her emotionally manipulative tactics. But he said he wanted no more of it from then on and would file for a divorce.
Other than the fervent efforts of the family to diffuse things, our divorce was a smooth affair. Shehzad did not put up a fight for the custody of our daughter and wanted nothing more than visitation rights. He was content with taking Naila out to the rides or for treats every Saturday. I was back in Abbu’s house and all the aunts – khalas, phuppos and chaachis – were match-hunting again. This time around the proposals they brought were different. The proposals were not for their own sons but from divorced men in the community or those who were still unmarried at forty. There were bachelors and young men proposing too – those that were here as illegal immigrants and wanted a legal status or the ones who were desperate to leave Pakistan and needed a sponsor in Canada. Each time a proposal was discussed in the house I was reminded that I was now an “used woman”.
That is why, on the day of Eid, when the extended family gathered in Abbu’s house, I chose to go upstairs to my room after the cursory exchange of greetings. I was filling up some online applications for part-time jobs when Naila, who had been playing downstairs with her cousins, came to me to get her hair fixed. It had come loose from the ponytail. I was still tying her hair with the band when she blurted, “Mommy it is your fault.” Involuntarily, my eyes shifted to the mirror where I saw her face and there I tried to read the meaning of her words. “What is my fault, Naila?” I asked cautiously not wanting her to sense my agitation. “Ouch, mommy you are hurting me,” she screamed and I realized that I was tugging at her band. I let go of her band, her hair still not fastened, and repeated my question to her. But Naila, having spotted her plastic bead necklaces lying on the dresser, had already lost that thought and was busy untangling the pink necklace from the green one.
“What is my fault, Naila?” I shouted at her, pulling her close to me by her arm.
“That my Abbu is living with a gori,” she let out the words between sobs.
“Who said that, Naila? Who did you hear?” I persisted with my questions but Naila was crying and it was impossible to get another word from her.
I was sure that she had heard these words from someone. I knew these were not her words. Did she even know the meaning of the word “gori”? I also knew that nothing provides more fodder to gossip than a divorced woman or an unmarried woman in her thirties. I know because even at the halaqas, once the books had been closed and chai served, what else had there been for the women to do but pass judgements on other people’s relationships or their appearances?
I was unable to contain the urge to find out exactly who Naila had heard. Coming from her little mouth these words had touched a raw nerve inside of me. The bitterness which I had first felt on discovering that Shehzad had been moonlighting with his girlfriend for four long years while my gravest sin had been to take an occasional peek at Tariq’s Facebook; the bitterness I felt when I realised that all the time while I was feeding, burping and changing diapers, Shehzad was at the park or mall smelling someone’s sweet perfume; that same bitterness took over me and I made my way downstairs.
The immediate silence that fell upon the room was the proof- if I needed any – that I had been the subject of their conversation. “Who said it is my fault, huh?” I barged into the room. That, Badi-phuppo, who now held the distinction of being my ex-mother-in-law, was sitting on the couch wiping her tears was no surprise to me. It was Abbu’s presence in the room, an implication of his complicity, which I had not expected.
Everyone else in the room ceased to matter as I turned directly to Abbu and asked, “Abbu, do you think it was my fault?” But the moment the words left my mouth, I began to feel like that eight-year-old who, on that spiteful Saturday, sat trembling in Abbu’s truck on the way home, waiting for him to say something, to comfort me, and in that moment my question took on a new meaning. I knew then, that I had waited for his answer all this time and that my happiness, my peace, my self-esteem had all depended on it.
“Do you think it was my fault, Abbu?” I asked him again, almost in a whisper, my voice weighed down by the tears I was holding back. For a brief moment, Abbu met my eyes and I was hopeful. But then, almost abruptly, he glanced sideways, making me aware of the presence of others in the room. And the very next moment, Abbu had turned around and left the room.
As I stood there watching Abbu walk out of the room – through the eyes of that little girl who I had once been – he looked different. The man who had played and laughed with me, the man who I learnt things from by observing him, the man who had picked me up when I fell about jumping, was not this man. That man was just a memory. And as Abbu went out the front door, making his escape from the house, I knew what I had so far only suspected – he was not the hero I revered all my life and if he was, he deserved none of it.
That evening, when I logged onto Facebook, I replied to Tariq’s private messages, the ones he had sent after my divorce and clicked “like” on his profile picture.*
In another two hours, I will be Mrs. Tariq Junaid, and Abbu won’t know until it is done. I can’t wait to see his face when he comes to know; when all our extended family and the community will know and when they all talk; when the gossip mills start churning the story of Jameel Sahab’s daughter’s “elopement”. On the day of Eid I realized that I have lived the life of a circus clown, who is trained to obey the ring-master, only so the audience can get a good laugh at her expense. But today, by defying Abbu, I will finally gain freedom from his authority – from his approval and disapproval. After a long time, I feel good about myself.
I am midway down the stairs when I hear Abbu’s truck pull in the driveway. My heart skips a beat and Ammi turns pale. It is 1:00 PM and Abbu should be at the mosque offering his prayer. Then what is he doing here?
“Go upstairs, Faiza. Go to your room or he will see you like this!” Ammi begs.
But I don’t move. Instead I further spread the trail of my bridal lehenga on the steps.
“It is alright Ammi, let him come. I am ready for him.” I tell Ammi in a steady voice as I straighten my shoulders and pull up my chin.
I can see the fear in Ammi’s eyes. Even though I had told her that I didn’t care about what Abbu wanted anymore, she he had , one more time, tried persuading Abbu to let me marry Tariq – her plea meeting with the same silence that was Abbu’s answer to me.
And now, before Abbu can step inside, Ammi goes out to meet him, in the hope that he will not come in. But I want him to come in the house. I want him to see me dressed as a bride, and I want to tell him myself that I am going to marry Tariq. I want to confront him and hurl all my pain at him. “You are a hypocrite Abbu. You are selfish and a coward and I hate you,” the words I would say to him run through my mind when Ammi comes running through the door with Abbu slowly following behind her.
“Faiza, your Abbu has agreed to the match. He went to meet Tariq’s father. You now have your Abbu’s permission, Faiza!” Ammi sheds tears of joy.
My world turns up-side down. I look at Abbu. He is smiling at me. After a few moments of being paralysed by shock and not knowing how to react, I take a few steps back on the stairs. And then I know just what to do. With trembling hands I dig into my purse from my cell phone and call Tariq.
“I cannot marry you. Please don’t wait for me,” I speak firmly.
“What? You can’t be doing this, Faiza. Is this about your Abbu again? Come on! I can’t believe that you are letting him decide for you. You promised that this time you will not do what he wants!” Tariq is screaming into the phone.
“Yes, and I am keeping that promise,” I climb back up the stairs, turning briefly to look at Abbu. The smile he was wearing a while ago has been wiped from his face.
Shazia Javed is a community-artist, writer, and award-winning filmmaker living in Mississauga. Her by-lines have appeared in The Edmonton Journal, Belief.net, New Canadian Media, The Pioneer and Tehelka.com among other publications. Her filmography includes documentaries Namrata, 3 Seconds Divorce and experimental short, ‘Can you hear me?’ Defiance is her first literary short.