Image Credit: Hassaan Ahmed of apertureimages
In 2007 Gulshan, it was hard to be a seven year old. It was hard to wake up everyday in the thrall of acute curiosity, with a bounding, barely-contained energy to do something, at a time when everything was disallowed. Could I go down within the parameter of the apartment and play with everyone’s Eid animals? No, some of them had horns that could hurt me. Could I play the snake game on your phone? No. Could I go down to the store with the grill and buy that toffee? Absolutely not.
I loved the toffee; it came in a turquoise wrapper and could only be bought from the shop with the rusted grill one block away from the entrance to our apartments. It was imported and prohibitively expensive. Still, I had grown up eating it—its bitter-sweet, medium-rare, chocolate-y flavor had seeped into my bones and I could not go a day without it. The toffee transmogrified sapped cave-dwellers to free-spirited buccaneers that would ring door-bells and run away with impunity, that would extort gulab-jamuns from the widowed lady who lived alone and call it a conquest.
But was it really the toffee that transformed me? The shop which sold it was in a crook the light never got into, so it was always dark and dusky inside. It was out-of-bounds on most days, even before sunset. Maybe it was the exhilaration of doing something forbidden that made it so invigorating.
Maybe it was Uncle Maher—our sleek, tall, distant maternal uncle that was perpetually in and out of employment and biannually tried his luck in our city of opportunity, Karachi. It was obvious to many elders that these were just month long staycations for him at our home, where he squandered money and relieved himself of the emotional trauma that I knew living ten uninterrupted months with my nani could inflict. When he was here we lived in pleasant pandemonium –to the women who met him, he had a Waheed Murad-esque panache, he fell out with my dad often, and to me he was paladin. He would abet all sorts of precluded undertakings, test all boundaries of my civility. It was he, of course, that would buy me the toffee—a stash large enough to last till his next visit.
“What’s a good girl, anyway?” He asked me. I was straddling his neck, comfortable atop his shoulders, as we rounded a bend to head home from a public screening of a cricket match.
I struggled to speak with a full mouth. “Don’t disobey, don’t talk back, don’t go out after sunset, don’t play with the big boys.”
Uncle Maher gave his head a dismissive toss. “Too tired, this trope’s all done and dusted. I say be so bad you’re good.”
I internalized this mantra when I was with him. I became a victorious nuisance. He approved. But I was also constantly afraid he would leave and life would be normal again. “Why don’t you get a job here?” I prodded, pleaded.
“You think your old man is going to let me stay past next week, even if I did?”
“But did you?”
Uncle Maher sobered, something he hadn’t done often in the seven years he’d jostled into and out of my life. “I would if I tried, but what’s the point?” He paused, and I felt insulted and betrayed, because it was the sort of pause that I encountered often with others and one that suggested I was too young to hear a more comprehensive answer. It came with a sigh and a downcast glance.
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, Ali,” he re-assured, “you don’t see it. Ami has enough pension to feed the both of us, and I do make money now and then.” This was true. Uncle Maher loved to tell stories and occasionally he would get one published in a children’s magazine. When he did, he would call me, tell me of the admittedly small payment, and then proceed with the authority of an established raconteur and read out his story, until my mum would come and yank her cellphone out of my hand, yell into it that he wasn’t the one paying her phone bill, and hang up.
“This permanent job that they want me to get,” he continued, so aberrantly serious, as if he was entrusting me with a secret. “It’s not job security. It’s marital security. They’re going to tie me to that obnoxious cousin of your dad’s like they tie a cow to a pole.”
There was nothing to disagree with in this. I was seven but not stupid. Sauleha and my phuppo were two sides of coin that had a cacodemon carved into either side. The mother-daughter duo was a travelling, husband-hunting caravan that seemed to follow Uncle Maher everywhere, like he was the north to their compass. I knew, from the conversations Uncle commissioned me to overhear, that this union was supposed to be one that would gel my mother’s family to my father’s. It was not going to happen, but it was a nice and oft-repeated thought.
Sauleha had been trying to get into university for a while. She had dropped out of one, because she had found the course too boring, and had been rejected by all the colleges she applied to the second year. In her third year out of college, my father invited her to Karachi, where she joined a stitching club, in what her mother called her attempt to gather vocational experience and launch herself directly into the workforce, bypassing the college degree.
I treated both of them with nonchalance. Slowly, they had infringed on my room, and now I slept in a corner on a deflated mattress that had come with my mother’s dowry set. Their only interactions with me were (what I thought) unwarranted scoldings and the times they asked me to fetch things for them, not taking no for an answer. When I had had enough—as I often did—I went to my mother and she would splay her hands.
“Talk to your father.”
My father would listen and say nothing. Phuppo would walk in in the midst of it anyway, and lapse into a tirade about my growing insolence. This time, my father would listen and reprimand me.
It was a tight existence but I had struck a balance. I would languish in it in wait of Uncle Maher, who would come and disrupt the balance, evict everyone from where they had ensconced themselves and crown me the new queen. In these days, before my father returned from work, I was my own demon, because Uncle was the only juror. It wasn’t just that he was a man and so automatically filled into some prescribed role as “manager” of all of us—it was that my mother gravitated towards him, because he was her family, and Sauleha and phuppo were strangely obliged to please him.
After our somber conversation about him getting a job, I saw less and less of him. Maybe he had divulged too much. He stayed out longer nights and didn’t invite me to come with him. My dad said there was a girl involved, probably. My dad was right.
Uncle Maher told us over a dinner that he wasn’t big on celebrations, didn’t want a lavish wedding. The next day he introduced us to his wife.
She was frail and lovely, but we only saw her for half an hour. Uncle told us they had a train to catch and would visit soon.
I managed to whisper my proposition regarding them adopting me into his wife’s ear. “It will be fantastic,” I said. “Uncle and I are best friends already.”
If there was any devastation, I thought Sauleha got over it quickly. Within a month her stitching classes had gotten too tedious –indeed even their location had gotten shadier – and she was primed to quit. My dad insisted he didn’t understand why she wanted to leave so suddenly, and suggested some other openings, even the prospect of re-applying to university.
My mother and I understood too well. I made no attempt to veil my feelings of schadenfreude and when they left, I sought to reclaim my space from them, and my mother, my father.
Uncle Maher didn’t come, but he also didn’t stop calling me. The next year, I switched schools and he helped through that taxing transition, even through his ten, twenty minutes a day on the phone. He told me he and his wife had moved to the UK, where his father-in-law lived, and he was teaching fifth graders.
“I love reading them stories,” he told me. “Sometimes I tell them stories of Pakistan and of my talented niece, and they always say they want to meet you.”
He inflated my ego like pumping air into a tyre: I became sturdier and bouncier. My father only became more skeptical. I think he never really forgave Uncle for his ad lib marriage, through which he had somehow trashed his cousin, mocked her lack of fortune and education.
One day, I had failed a test and was confiding in Uncle on the phone, when he seemed to speak with a buoyant urgency so compelling that he was almost callous in the way he trifled what I had to say. “Yes, yes, but we’re having a baby.”
I had so many questions. Boy? Girl? British? When? I had only gotten through some of them when my dad’s hand closed around my fingers, which held my mother’s cellphone. I knew better than to resist. He cut the call.
“Maher should have better things to do,” he said out loud. “You certainly do.”
I can’t say I hadn’t seen it coming. My grades had been sliding down a steep slope, and like anything else that went wrong, my dad had immediately linked it to Uncle Maher. I was instructed to focus my time into excelling at school.
From that day on, although no explicit announcement of a change in policy was made, I was never left with a cellphone for long enough to make a call. If he made one, it was not passed on to me. Initially, I was too proud to go ask for an opportunity to speak to Uncle.
But soon I argued with my mother. “I want to know more about the baby,” I reasoned. “It’s only polite to ask!”
“If he really wanted to keep in touch, he would come visit, no?” My mother shut me down, with the absolute conviction that he would not come visit.
“It’s the money, of course,” my dad jibed later, “He was never one that would come back from new-found luxury.” I refused to believe this. I could not imagine an Uncle Maher that was a cossetted, nouveau-rich stranger.
But the truth of it remained, as time went on, that he didn’t come. His image in my head, as it grew vague and distant, also became more unflattering, now that it was only updated by the opinions of others, and not his presence. “Too shallow,” “fraud,” “playboy”—it seemed that soon the family had nothing positive to recollect of him. In his absence these brandings were issued increasingly liberally, and pervious as I was like all people paddling their way through the sticky waters of adolescence, I increasingly began to believe them.
Was it belief, or just superficial acquiescence, given that he hadn’t come in person to refute any of it? I wouldn’t know, because at that point, I cared less and less.
Until one day, he came. He jetted into our city and greeted me outside my school at home-time. He told me he had co-ordinated with my mother and wanted to surprise me. I was partly numbed, stunned, maybe a little annoyed too. But I was too excited—too validated—for any of this to matter.
“I can’t wait to show you Serena.”
In a bit of an anti-climax, I ended up seeing only endless albums of pictures of Serena, learning that she and her mother were still recuperating at their UK home. She was maroon and hairless. “A little bit like a tomato,” I told Uncle; he agreed.
“I hope she’s like you, though, when she grows up,” he said, turning into our street.
“So bad she’s good,” I completed, almost embarrassingly quickly.
Uncle wasn’t rebuffed from our home, but his welcome was devoid of the warmth, no matter how artificial, that was channeled into accommodating any other guests. He didn’t seem to mind, in fact he almost stubbornly maintained that he would stay the full two weeks he had planned to.
I was allowed lease for these two weeks—we went out to the cinema, ate unhealthy food from street vendors, even checked at the shop with the grill for the toffee again. They told us they had stopped importing it.
The absence of the toffee was in some ways illustrative of the dent in our rekindled relationship. The ill will that I had come to harbor towards him, the ominous feeling of abandonment and the rebuke of unrequited sincerity, started to chip away. But it still wasn’t the same –there was no puerile sense of emancipation when I was with him anymore. It was like the parts of us that needed to be put together to produce that had already been committed to other people, places, and things.
It appeared to the now nine year old me that the universe then sought to complete this reproduction of times gone by. There was a wedding in my paternal family and Sauleha, phuppo, and some others arrived without former notice. This was not unusual, many people came to Karachi’s more modern, more expensive fashion markets from our ancestral city to complete their wedding season wardrobes.
Two days in, I had been shuttled out of my bed, where I spent my time resenting their intrusion. Uncle Maher did not engage them at all and slept in the lounge to make space for the visiting wedding committee.
“Do you want to watch the movie at home?” He suggested in the morning, when I was tying up my hair for school.
“It’s just come out?” I seethed. “We were going to watch it at the cinema?”
The billboards had sported the new movie about blue aliens for weeks now. When I told him about it, Uncle Maher had had to dodge queues to get us tickets.
“We can pirate it,” he said, when I started to say something about how Phuppo’s need of the driver at the time of our movie was probably a contrived plan to thwart ours. “It’s called Avatar.” He titled his laptop screen towards me. “Trust me, we can watch it at night.”
“When?” I moped.
“After they’ve gone to bed?”
It was settled. My brooding spirits were a little bit raised.
That night I fell asleep and forgot to join Uncle. The next day he murmured a reminder to me at breakfast. I wrote it down in my homework diary, glanced at it twelve times that day –it was the only thought in my head when the lights turned off at ten.
To be absolutely certain, I stepped out at eleven. It was so dark that the only light was the halo around Uncle Maher’s laptop and I flitted towards it instinctively, like a moth. He smiled and turned on the torch of his phone.
We started the movie and he had to hush my commentary every few minutes. The stakes should we be caught were probably not that high, it was just a movie. But we were carrying it out with the secrecy of something truly dangerous, if discovered.
I was rolling a ping-pong ball between my hands, maybe to capture my agitative energies and keep them out of my voice box, when there was an audible creak from somewhere inside the apartment. We paused the movie and waited for the longer squeak of a door opening. Nothing happened, so we resumed watching. Then there was another sound, like the tap of a chappal. My ping-pong ball fell, followed by what sounded like a deafening clutter.
“Oof,” Uncle humphed, and I dived to retrieve it. It was under the sofa and I couldn’t quite reach it. The tip-tips of the chappals grew louder and I scurried behind the arm of the sofa, somewhat to hide myself, somewhat because the ball would be in closer reach from that angle.
For some time I only heard the blind scratching of my fingers on the carpet and Uncle’s soft, repeated, “Did you get it?” It was as if the chappals had stopped somewhere.
“Can you kick it a little?” I croaked, judging it was closer to his foot than my hand.
In response I only heard his breathing, surprisingly loud given the fan whizzing above, which had been drowning out even the sound of the movie when it had been playing.
The rest of my memory is too nebulous, too influenced by over-thinking, too fuzzy for a coherent recount. It is like the boiling water in a steel pot after you put a spoon of tea grains into it. Over time, it has changed color—gone from transparent to opaque, a repulsive brown, the concrete grains having settled at the bottom, unapproachable and out of sight.
The clearest thing I remember is the shooting pain in my neck when I finally moved it, stiff from where it remained immobile for many minutes, my head jutting under the sofa, like having been placed in a guillotine.
The laptop cluttered on to the floor, its light showing me Sauleha’s glittery, bead-studded chappals. My face was only inches away from Uncle’s brown bare feet as they shifted. There was some conversation—first soft, then awkward, then very loud. The chappals disappeared from the ground, as if she had lifted herself off it. The sofa rocked. I was scared and jerked out from under it. Then the laptop’s screen turned dull, and after a while it went blank.
There was a tussle. I saw some of it, dim and in silhouettes. I heard everything, the crass and the defensive. Sauleha was flung onto the floor and we made eye contact. It was only for a minute, because then she leapt onto her feet and seemed to embrace Uncle Maher, who was almost to the door of our apartment.
I thought a lot of things. Was he leaving? Why? What about the movie? Why’d he hiss at her, like I’d never seen him do?
Then there was screaming. Sauleha shouting at frequencies that would wake the neighbors, as it did. The lights came on, the house poured into the lounge en masse. Everything shape-shifted and I couldn’t make sense of it.
Before it did, I saw them against the pain of the sudden bright light, like a portrait in a museum. His hand was on the knob of the main door and Sauleha’s was mid-way in retreat from his neck.
As I watched, unbelieving and not fully understanding, the adjudication was done almost effortlessly. Most of it was Sauleha sobbing, her mother furious. The racket was so loud I heard nothing of what Uncle said. I don’t think it mattered in the end, what he said. My dad had his fingers locked around Uncle’s neck and the rest was a cheering, jeering noisepool. I wasn’t asked anything, wasn’t even paid attention to. I closed my eyes and stayed put, heard Uncle being beaten, heard him leave, heard the apologies and the consolation.
When it was all done, almost dawn, I was tired from the labor of trying to understand. I had a pounding headache that threatened to split my head into half. I understood next to nothing, but there was still this urge to do something. I picked his laptop up and closed it. Then I crawled onto my mattress and tried to expunge my memory, willing my mind to clear everything, like using a “cut” button on Microsoft word.
I said nothing. Not at the breakfast table the next day, not when everyone grilled my mother and excommunicated her family. Maybe it was because no one asked me. They had their own questions, obviously never asked when they should have been, asked only when the answers could not mean much.
Were there cameras? Who even had cameras in 2009, in Gulshan? Could you imagine what the neighbors thought? Who even cared, we all knew what he was like all along, didn’t we?
After that day, no one seemed to know where Uncle went. All I ever heard was exultant mention of his wife seeking divorce and keeping their child with her. Punishment well served, they said, and in the drug-ish haze of my pleated, self-fed deceit, I agreed.
Maybe to facilitate my willful attempts at erasure of the truth, or more likely because of the neighbors, we moved out. We got a house with enough space for me to have a separate room, a toy-room, and a reading-room. But no space was large enough for me to hide from a truth only I knew. My only refuge was denial. I lived under the burden of these elegiac memories that refused to go away, even as they morphed into a sort of black, undecipherable screen at the back of my mind over time.
Ten years on, after convincing myself that justice had been delivered and I had misread what I had seen and heard and felt, I realized that questions were never too late nor inane. On my nineteenth birthday I locked myself into my room and watched Avatar. I loved it. I paused at the point we had paused –at twenty minutes, ten seconds –and asked myself all the questions I had spent a decade rubbishing.
I didn’t have answers immediately, but eventually they came, in a deluge of guilt and clarity, like a pixel upgrade. I now knew what their words had meant. I cringe, but no longer deny, when I see, in retrospect, a young woman mount a man and tell him to quit resisting, that no one would find out. He rebuffs, is aggressive. Later he is accused and convicted of a crime he did not commit, and I let it happen.
I tell myself I was a coward for not shouting the truth into everyone’s faces. I can do it now, too, but I don’t. The hindrance is a strange conglomeration of insecurity and helplessness. Maybe no one will believe me. If they will, they will be passive, because really, what corrections can be made now? I don’t even speak of it to my friends in college, those that aren’t related to my family in any way. It’s the same feeling on pointlessness, of no remedial being good enough to earn me redemption. The truth is tricky, especially when it is dark and obscure. All too often we embrace a truth of convenience –our default response when in extremis. I want to be better, want to be brave. Maybe my confronting myself, and then writing this, is still a victory few achieve. At least that’s how I console myself.
For these years the only unanswered question has been, why did she do it? Jealousy, vengeance? All this time, I have never asked or answered this, because I don’t want to make a liar out of her. In doing so, though, I’ve made a liar out of myself.
But everything is still normal. In the nineteenth year of my life I travel to the UK in the summers for the first time. No one is uneasy, but I am, thinking –hoping, dreading—that every tall, black-haired man on the Oyster platform is my Uncle Maher.
The trip comes to an unceremonious end. On our last day in London, I wake up earlier than everybody else and decide, in some irrational state of mind, to take a walk down the street outside our hotel. I’ve never done anything so singularly disobedient since I was nine, so the feeling of apprehension at walking down a deserted path in a foreign country is at its strongest.
A coffee shop is just opening. I feel some cash in my pocket and decide I can have a last cup of coffee in London. Through the window I see a tall, black-haired man in an apron putting out tissue boxes on the tables. I’m pressing my face against the glass, willing him to notice me. I have no other thoughts. Ultimately, he looks at me and smiles. His hair has fringes of grey and his eyes have sunk into their sockets. I tell him I don’t have time for a cup of coffee, have to get back. He swipes something off the counter and hands it to me. “Care for a toffee, though?” He says. I pocket it at first, then open it and toss it into my mouth.
“Still a bad girl,” he chides, and his voice is the bawl of a man having lived a life without wife and daughter, for no fault of his own. And monstrously, paradoxically, even if it is for a moment, all I feel is a long-forgotten, puerile emancipation.
Alizah Hashmi is a 20 year old medical student based in Karachi, Pakistan. Her work has appeared previously online in Litbreak, YARN, the RIC Journal, Five on the Fifth, The News International (Pakistan), and Academia Magazine, and in print in The Aleph Review. She writes for The Nerve Center and Reclamation Magazine and was longlisted for the 2019 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Prize for Pakistani Women.