She was the only one of my mother’s sisters who wasn’t married. All others were married and lived in their own homes, some in the city, some in other cities, and some in other countries. They were all ‘busy with their husbands and kids’. They had all grown angrier and fatter. It’s something that must happen after marriage, I guess. All women who get married became angry and fat to some extent.
They were still good for a lot of things, don’t get me wrong. They could all cook very well, for instance. That is also something that happens after marriage. You suddenly learn how to cook and host parties. They take you out shopping. They buy you gifts sometimes. But no matter how many good things they could still do for you after marriage, you always had to behave a certain way to be liked by them.
Most grown-ups behave as if they’ve never been kids. Or forgot what it was like, and didn’t want anyone else to remember either. I didn’t like that. Which is why I was glad there was still Iffat Khala.
Because she was not yet married and ‘grown up’, she used to do all kinds of silly things with us – play around, listen to our stories, tell us stories, keep our secrets, tell us some of her own.
She lived in my grandfather’s house with an uncle of mine who wasn’t married, and another one who was married and who lived there with his family. They called it the family house. It was called Shakeel Mansion because some man named Shakeel had intended for it to be a mansion. Like a real mansion for kings and queens.
But it no longer looked like one. It looked more like a haunted house. It was old and neglected. The paint peeled off the walls everywhere, and there were way more rooms than there were people. Only the rooms where people lived were painted from time to time. The others, never. My mother said it was because there were three people sharing the house that nobody wanted to ‘take responsibility for its upkeep’. I really don’t know what that means, but she keeps saying it over and over, especially when coming back from their house, while shaking her head slowly, sitting in the passenger seat of the rusty grey 89 Toyota Corolla, with my young brother often in her lap without a seat belt.
The roofs belonged to everyone. They had the best sun. There were two of them, separated by a flight of stairs. On the highest roof, only we children ever wanted to go, especially on Basant, the kite-flying festival. On the day, my unmarried Mamoon would fly kites and we would watch or hold the spool of sharp glassy flying string for him, a privilege for our age. He would only allow ‘serious’ children to do the job for him. I was serious and tall for my age, so he would often call me to do it, but I didn’t want to hold it. I wanted to go downstairs and play with my girl cousins. My brother wanted to hold it but he was too young, too short, and too fidgety. In short, he was not ‘serious’ enough. But he wanted it really bad, so he kept at it for many years until he finally got his chance.
It was on the roof below that the most beautiful golden threads of my childhood were woven. In the winter afternoons of carefree play sheltered by the presence of parents. Sometimes, when it was winters, we would come for a whole day, and spend the whole afternoon soaking up the winter sun, eating oranges from wicker baskets after carefully peeling away the white cobwebby skin that clung to the meaty orange, and playing hide and seek for hours on the dusty roof, dustier with the dust we kicked up running about for hours of tireless play.
The women had an oiling ritual. By turns, they would sit and spread their hair out while another would rub oil onto another’s head and massage. First one person would get massaged, then they would do it for someone else in turn. I had long hair which reached till my hips, and I kept it although I didn’t want to. My mother was proud of my hair length because it proved that she cared for it very well, and it was a matter of pride to have long thick braids at school.
In the drawing room at Shakeel Mansion, (that’s the room where the guests come, and where everyone behaves their best), in a shelf with glass windows, were framed pictures of my mother and her sisters sitting with their heads slightly tilted, and their braids draped over their shoulders, loose at the base unlike mine, and hanging like dark black ropes. I would often look very closely to see which one of them had the longest, but I could never tell, the difference was very faint.
As for me, I thought those poses were old-fashioned. Like the heroines of black and white movies who were always running and singing songs of love, looking sad and distraught . They were never lucky in love, and the trouble they took was never worth it in the end, I thought. Me, I dreamed of having short hair that reached till my shoulders and which would bounce all stylishly when I walked. It was called a bob cut, and it was the coolest thing in the world. I dreamed of posing in t-shirt and jeans like the heroines of the movies that we saw and the girls from all the Sweet Valley High romances, who were so much savvier in love.
I didn’t really like the oiling ritual. It was equal parts pleasure and pain, but the pleasure came before the pain, and nobody warned you enough about the pain, so when it came, you were trapped because you had already enjoyed the pleasure. In a way, it felt like cheating to me. It started out well, when my mother would slide the rubber band off my braid that was folded inward at its tip, and slowly undo the three tresses of hair that had been weaved together into a braid. They uncurled like lazy snakes unfurling from an embrace.
When the tresses were loose, she would start by putting some drops of oil right in the middle of my scalp. It felt cool, heavy, and wet. I had an itch to scratch where it trickled on my scalp. Then she would massage it with the palm of her hand, gently at first and worked her way slowly up to fierce strokes. When the combing began, it was downhill from there, with a lot of yanking and tears except the last couple of minutes of the tight pull while braiding. The massage lasted an hour, and I was drowsy and intoxicated but snippets from the women’s conversation would float into my consciousness. They were always talking about marriage, whose marriage was working, whose wasn’t, who was next in turn for getting married. I found the conversations really boring, so I would begin my own daydreams, which were always far, far away from home.
Iffat Khala wasn’t a part of these conversations because she wasn’t in the group of married people yet. Sometimes, when she would oil my hair, she would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I would fantasize, depending on the mood and my latest fad, about being a singer on television, a teacher, a writer and photojournalist travelling the world and working for National Geographic. I enjoyed those talks so much more. She was a lecturer in physics herself and taught at a private girls college. Sometimes, she would suddenly quiz me on Pythagorean Theorem and the theory of light, and I would pray for the conversation to end quickly, lest she find out about something I didn’t know and would tell my mother. But that never happened. I always had the feeling that she was on my side, and the others were not. They belonged to no one but themselves.
Just like that, without warning, my luck ran out. My mother got off the phone one day and told us that Iffat Khala was getting married. All three of us children felt a stab in the heart. Another one gone from our team. Another one lost to grown-up ness. Her husband-to-be was a lecturer in science, like herself, and he worked in Saudi Arabia, where Mecca was. So, she would go and live in Saudi Arabia. That was apparently a big deal, because everyone would ooh and aah at the mention of Saudi Arabia, and nod their heads, and say ‘mashallah’ over and over. I think it was cool because you got to be close to Mecca although far from family. Sometimes, there were other families who also went to live in Saudi Arabia, and then maybe you could meet them there as well instead of always meeting them in Pakistan. I don’t know.
A wedding in the family was a great excitement. Everyone was interested for different reasons. Mostly, we got new clothes, and if the wedding was on school days, you would get the evening off, and come back much later than a usual school night. There were two days, one was the function which the bride’s side paid for, the other was the day the groom’s side paid for. In my family, we didn’t do the days of dancing and singing that went before. We didn’t even like to talk about them. (‘They were such a waste.’) Also, it was fun to see the bride and her dress.
The bride was the star, and if she was someone close to you, you got to be in the tiny room backstage where she would come straight from the beauty parlour with some close friends and you could be with her in the exact moments before she got married. You saw her really close up, with all the make-up and jewellery on. The maulvi would come here and get the paper signed which was like a written ticket into the new world. There was a hush in the room, and while others would be chatting, the bride would mostly be quiet. Maybe it spoiled the make-up or hurt to talk with so much on your face.
Iffat Khala was quiet like most brides while we sat in the room. For some time, I was left alone with her while the other ladies had gone off to see the arrangements. There was a lot to see, such as the flower arrangements, the food, keeping an eye out for when the groom and his party came. Even my sister had scampered off somewhere.
I thought she would look up at me and chat like she always did, but for long after we were both alone, she didn’t even look up. I wondered if she even knew I was present. Her head was bowed low, and I thought her eyes were closed. I wondered if she had already ‘crossed over’. She was in full costume, after all, that might have had an effect. I felt a constriction in my chest, as if I needed to speak my heart out to her in this moment when we were alone, and I wanted to speak to the Iffat Khala I knew before she returned as a new version of herself, something like all the other married women I knew.
I mustered up courage, and nervously called her name. She raised her head very slowly, there was a dupatta draped on her head and a round piece of jewellery was dangling from her forehead. She broke into a smile when she saw it was me, perhaps she really didn’t know I had been there all this while. There was an explosion of joy in my heart.
‘Iffat Khala, will you go to Saudi Arabia for ever?’
‘No, sweetheart, I’ll visit every two or three years.’
I took that in.
‘Why? Will you miss me?’ she asked, tilting her head to one side.
‘Yes,’ I choked. ‘How will we keep in touch?’ I asked in despair. Grown-ups didn’t care very much about keeping in touch with kids, they mostly cared about keeping in touch with other grown-ups. The kids were just a side-product. Or so they always made you feel. To be honest, I didn’t really care about most grown-ups remembering me. Iffat Khala was different.
‘I’m sure we will find a way.’ She said it like she meant it, but I had a sense of foreboding.
‘I’m sure we will,’ I mumbled. Her eyes trailed off, and before long, the room was invaded again by beautiful women, all having much more important matters to talk about than me. I got lost amid the sea of women until I shuffled out and found people of my own size before losing myself in play.
The groom arrived amid cheer and dancing. The bride was escorted to the stage, and after some days, she flew off to Saudi Arabia with her husband. We called him Saleem Uncle.
My Urdu teacher says that the correct word for masculine form of khala is khaloo, but we never called our khaloos that. We called them uncle instead. I don’t know why.
It was two years before I finally heard about her. She was visiting for Eid, and would be staying, with her husband, in Shakeel Mansion. It was another rule of the grown-up world that when someone got married and went off to another country, when they visited, they didn’t visit like before. It had to be with a dinner, and they always brought back presents for the kids.
Mother and father had cooked up a feast and laid it out in our fanciest gear. We wore our best dresses. She looked beautiful and happy. I was sure there wouldn’t be a chance to be alone with her for a moment, and we would have to converse under the atmospheric pressure of social scrutiny. After dinner, she and Saleem Uncle gave us the gifts they had brought for us, a pack of dates and watches for all three kids. She called me close to her, and spoke to me about the watch, explaining why she chose a sleek strap for me, how to wind it, how to set an alarm, and quizzing me to make sure that I knew how to tell the time. I kept waiting for her to acknowledge through some look or gesture that she had made a promise to keep in touch with me alone, but she didn’t. Also, they didn’t have a baby yet, but that was bound to come, sooner or later. It always does.
I was wrong. Her story turned out much stranger than the others I knew. After some years, I heard she was back to live at Shakeel Mansion, without her husband. I asked my mother many questions, but all she said was that Iffat Khala was now living in Lahore, at Shakeel Mansion, and that her husband was in Pakistan, but in another town.
When we would go and visit, she wouldn’t come out and sit with everyone. She would stay in her room, and we would have to go inside and meet her there. She had grown a little fatter, and a little angrier. Little by little, her room expanded to absorb the functions of a house. Everything that mattered to her, she moved to her room. Her television, her sofa, and slowly, even her groceries. Everywhere there was space in her room – under a sofa, under the bed, there mushroomed plastic bags containing fruits, vegetables, and supplies that belonged in the shared kitchen of the house. She had slowly built a self-sufficient universe for herself inside this room. I checked many times to test if there was still that old frequency between us, but there was no sign of it. She had blanked out on that completely.
She had gotten back to working at the college where she once taught. One day, one of my other cousins, the daughter of my married uncle who lived in the same house, told us that she had woken up one morning, and seen Saleem Uncle come out of Iffat Khala’s room and walk out of the house quietly. He had stayed for two days, mostly in her room, even for meals, and then, had left quietly, without meeting the others, or sitting and chatting with them, like before. She smelled something fishy, so she told me to keep it a secret and not to tell any one. I decided to ask Iffat Khala myself when we visited next. After all, we had been friends once.
We were stepping into our teens now, and would often spend weekends at the family house without our parents. There was a room in the basement that we had all to ourselves. All manners of secret meetings, discussions about life, exchange of family secrets, and attempts to solve the big riddle of life took place here. The room had hosted consortiums on acing first dates, healed many from the pain of first break-ups, and trained young minds in recovery programs in the aftermath of lousy grades.
Iffat Khala remained in her room. She wouldn’t join us on the roof for our afternoon head massage sessions. Sometimes, I would hear my mother and my uncle’s wife talk about her, I would lean in to listen, grasp a bite of news, some information, but I got nothing that helped.
According to my cousins who lived in the house, she had taken on a new activity. She was on the phone every evening, talking to other aunts about everyone else’s marriage except her own. The phone landlines were in a common landing at mid-point between her room and that that of my other uncle who was married. My cousins said she would talk about other women, and say nasty things about them all. Like how one didn’t know how to cook, like how one didn’t know how to wear make-up.
She would also talk regularly to her brother, my uncle, in the States, who was married. They would always discuss his wife. After some years, it came to a point where he would call her almost every day, and they would talk for hours about every single thing his wife did wrong. Then, we found out one day that his wife had cancer. After two years, she passed away. When she passed away, Iffat Khala got back on the phone to try and get him married again. She used to call many different people, some friends of hers, some matchmaker women who did this as a profession, and went from house to house to carry news about marriage proposals and prospects. She found a girl, and she arranged for her to get married to my uncle, and then fly to the States to join him. When she reached, after some weeks, my uncle would call again daily, and tell her about everything that his new wife did wrong.
Whenever someone got married in the family, Iffat Khala would start the whole cycle anew, and tell everyone what was wrong with the woman. Sometimes, it was really small things that didn’t matter, like when she roasted chicken, it was underdone, or when she baked cakes, they were crumbly, or she didn’t know how to set the jelly, it was always wobbly. Sometimes, it was things which were, I imagine, much more important than getting your jelly right. Like when a woman couldn’t have a baby. She was really nasty then. She would go around telling everyone how that woman was a complete failure, and useless. Also, that her husband should get a new wife. She would say that mostly when the women were alone.
She had begun to scare me and my cousins. One day, many years after I had given up hope that there would ever be another intimate moment between us, I saw her lurking in the corridor outside her room while I stood in the opposite doorway at the base of the stairs leading to the roof. I had taken on the habit of only meeting her in her room, and was taken by surprise to meet her outside her ‘fort’.
Her face was fuller, with tighter, firm set lines, and her eyes looked angry all the time. She saw me look at her, and sensed my fear. With her right hand, she beckoned me to follow her. I was afraid. If there had been someone else around, I would probably have run away, but she had caught me at a moment when I was all alone. I followed her sheepishly. In the room which smelled of talcum powder, dust and mangoes, she fed me candies, then asked me to tell her about when my parents last fought. She said mean things about my mother, about my uncle’s wife who had died, and the new one who was (still) alive. I searched her eyes for some glimpse of the person I knew, but I only saw a woman who resembled a witch.
Finally, I blurted, ‘Where is Saleem Uncle, Iffat Khala?’
‘He is in Islamabad. He works there.’
‘Why doesn’t he live with you any more?’ I asked, feeling unusually brave.
‘He works there, I told you. He visits sometimes.’
I always found out about his visits through my cousins who lived there, but he never came to see us like he did before. It seemed that he slipped in and out of the shadows between day and night. It was like he had suddenly become a secret, and when he visited, he visited like a ghost. He was pretending to be invisible and everyone else was playing along too.
One day, my cousins called with a piece of gossip they had caught from an overheard conversation about Iffat Khala. They said that they had heard somebody say that her husband, Saleem Uncle, was living in Islamabad, that he had another wife, and three kids, and that he was head of the science department in a top university in the capital. One day, I saw his picture in the Sunday paper. He was addressing a conference, and the caption below stated his name too. I jumped to show the picture to my parents, but they acknowledged begrudgingly, signaling clearly that they didn’t want to indulge. The territory beyond questions, I knew that well.
I never paid a lot of attention in my Urdu class, because the teacher was always talking to herself as if no one was listening, which was kind of the case, when you thought about it. She only paused to yell out orders.
One day, I heard a word that had echoed like a refrain in all conversations I had heard about Iffat Khala on the rooftop these past years. That word was ‘baanjh’. It meant ‘barren’.
Naima Rashid’s first book is Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019), a translation of selected verses by Pakistani poet Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English. Her forthcoming works include her own fiction, poetry, and other works of literary translation.