Zahra Fatima Cheema
Curated for the website by Digital Guest Editor, Madeeha Maqbool.
Monday, 14th February 2022.
I have decided to take a page out of my sister’s book and every day, do one thing that scares me. Today, addressing that ‘fear’ is dressing up in my uniform (a white shalwar kameez, a fitted black blazer and my all-black Converses) and going to court without actually having a job or even a case, for that matter. For the past year and a half, I had been in London for my Masters in Law, so I was both scared and excited about what awaited me on the other side of the city. I decided to go through with it despite that very real voice inside my head telling me this was a crazy idea. Plus, I knew I would feel worse if I chickened out at the last minute. All night I wrestled with the idea of following through with my plan so I didn’t get much sleep. In an attempt to make myself feel better I imagined how content I would feel afterwards. Invigorated by this thought, I woke up earlier than I had to and was dressed and at the breakfast table at 8:20 AM, even before my parents!
Ever since I can remember, I have seen my parents have breakfast at the dining table. I, on the other hand, have always had issues with my body and food for that matter, so usually skipped breakfast. Recently, however, I’ve gotten it in my head that I need to take care of myself. I’ve also realized that no one else is going to do it for me, no matter how close they are to me. It can be both scary and depressing if you really think about it, but it’s all a part of growing up, I suppose. Point being: I’m now a breakfast person. I’ve made a habit of waking up early enough to have breakfast with my parents even if I have nowhere to go. Another realization: spend more time with your parents!
Currently, Ammi has been having a plain buttered toast while Abu and I usually have butter-jam toast for breakfast. I know what you’re thinking, butter-jam toast, really? But this isn’t your run of the mill butter-jam toast. First of all, my mom makes the jam herself, a family recipe handed down to her by ‘Bari Ammi’, my paternal grandmother. Even the nicest store-bought jam can’t compare to this. When my sister went to England for her Masters, she took a bottle with her. Secondly, it’s all about the bread. My go-to is multi-seed bread and the rest of my family eats whole-wheat bread.
Anyway, back to the story. So ordinarily High Court starts at 9 AM sharp. The naibkasid, dressed in a bright green sherwani, signals that the judge is about to walk in, either by stomping his foot or subtly positioning himself right outside the judges’ chamber. Depending on the din inside the room or how new you are to court, you might not notice the sound of his shoe against the floor or this subtle re-positioning. Someone always does though and everyone stands up out of respect for the judge. The ‘reader’ then begins calling out cases, “Saad Hafeez banaam Sarkar! (Saad Hafeez versus the State)” .
But nobody knew about the mission I was on (except my mom of course, the gatekeeper of most of my secrets), so Abu, Azeem (Abu’s driver) and I left the house around 9:15 AM. On our way, we made a few pit stops. First, we went to get my driver’s license renewed, but the place was so crowded that we decided to embark on this mission another day. Next, we stopped at Bhatti, the wood craftsman’s workshop near Walton, to check on some cane chairs Abu was getting polished. Last, we stopped at Oxford University Press. One of the perks of going to a bookstore with Abu is that there’s no such thing as ‘too many books’. So Abu’s books aside, I got a book about Urdu poetry, a few short stories and a book about Family Law in Pakistan.
At this point, it was after 10 AM. Not bad. I thought back to my criminal law days and remembered being in a particular courtroom till 2 PM. From what I remembered, most double-bench courts started at 12 PM. I could still make it, I reassured myself. We dropped off Abu at his office and Azeem unloaded Abu’s briefcase and files. Abu instructed Azeem about his duties for the day and we set off for High Court.
When we turned into Fane Road that day, there was something different in the air but I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was crowded, like always, but less so than usual. There was a steady flow of traffic rather than a jam. Other than that, it looked the way I remembered it. I saw lawyers accompanied by their juniors carrying brown file covers with their chamber’s name plastered on in bold Urdu or English letters. Old election posters hung from tangled electricity wires. Various chanay walas had occupied different parts of the road giving one excess choice when it came to buying chanay. It’s funny, when you’ve been away for a while; you come back thinking things may have changed drastically but they almost never do. Yet, life rarely comes to a standstill and things are constantly changing. Know what I mean?
Anyway, Azeem stopped the car to the side, right opposite the entrance to the High Court. Feeling uncomfortable at the thought of being perceived as ostentatious, I asked him to park somewhere more discreet. He drove ahead. Finally, I stepped out of the car with my mask on, the strap of my brown leather bag hanging on my shoulder and the Family Laws book tucked safely under my arm. I made my way towards the court entrance. A couple of lady constables asked me to place my bag in the baggage security scanner. That was new. Or maybe I hadn’t noticed because I had never before brought a bag with me.
From where I stood at the entrance, I noticed two things. First, a new building had been constructed at the far end of the court. Second, there seemed to be a crowd gathered near the new building. I decided to go to Alia Neelum’s courtroom, which was located at the back of the court—I had to go through a sea of uniformed lawyers. They were handing out cards and I realized elections were taking place, which is why things seemed different today.
“Asalam-alaikum, Madam.” One after the other, lawyers greeted me and handed me their respective cards. They read in bold Urdu letters, ‘Shahrukh Shahbaz Waraich’, ‘Sohail Shafique Choudhry’ and ‘Rana Asad Khan’. I took them all, feeling slightly important, all the while knowing I had no idea who these people were, just that I wouldn’t be voting for them. I zigged and zagged through the sea of black of white like someone who came here every day.
As the crowd thinned, I reached my destination and made my way up the poorly lit staircase (which I had always admired and wanted to take a picture of but the dim light made it impossible to do so) to the courtroom. Proud that I still remembered where the court was but also feeling suspicious about how empty the hallway seemed to be, I pushed open the door. To my surprise the room was empty! Embarrassed, I made my way down the staircase and decided to go to another one. I dove back into the crowd avoiding elbows left and right. I saw this lawyer, a woman standing with a few of the other election lawyers. To be more precise, I saw her shoes first, chunky white joggers with some indistinguishable multicolored design on them. I hoped she would let me by without handing me an election card. As if on cue, she stepped in front of me, slightly blocking my way and asked me to kindly oblige by taking a card and voting, her voice and body language full of authority.
Feeling slightly cornered, I accepted the card and disappeared into the crowd, her voice trailing after me. I then made my way to another courtroom. Now this particular courtroom belonged to Muhammad Qasim Khan and I distinctly remembered it because I had spent most of my criminal law days here. You go straight for a long time, then turn right and another right then left, past the Chief Justice block and this old willow tree in the courtyard, then another left and you’ve made it! Confusing, right? I got lost on my first day. But now I remembered it like I’d never left! When I got to the courtroom, however, it wasn’t at all the same court. They’d replaced it with another judge’s courtroom. I looked for a few other courts but all the ones I had previously known had been changed! What are the odds? Dispirited, I stood in a corner between the entrance/exit and the election crowd, confused about my next move. Lawyers passed me by occasionally, looking my way, probably wondering what I was doing just standing there. I switched between perusing through my book and looking through my phone in an attempt to look busy. At last, I decided to leave. Dejected, I made my way towards the exit.
It must have been around 11 AM when I stepped out of High Court. I didn’t want to go home just yet, so I decided to go to Lawrence Gardens. I spotted a lawyer stepping out of a rickshaw near High Court and hurried over. We exchanged greetings and I asked if he could take me to Lawrence Gardens.
“Laarence Gardens?” He confirmed, to which I answered in the affirmative. He threw open the rickshaw door and I climbed in.
“I continued to write, as if he wasn’t standing there. I guess he finally got the message because I heard him walk away. I was mildly surprised he’d asked if he could sit next to me as opposed to just sitting down”
Now I’ve sat in a rickshaw quite a few times, especially on my way to court. I’d been away for a while, so naturally I’d forgotten what it was like; I felt every bump in the road. I whipped out my phone and opened snapchat, ready to send a picture to a few friends and family, but then decided against it. Instead, I saved the picture and put my phone away. For now I wanted the day to be just mine. I looked around the rickshaw and saw that the mirror right in front of me was broken save a tiny piece; I could just make out my left eye. I gazed at the back of the rickshaw driver’s head wondering who he was. I peered out of the rickshaw openings on either side of me, feeling adventurous and independent. Snapping me out of my reverie, the rickshaw driver asked me which entrance I wanted to go to. Unsure, I said the main entrance, hoping that would suffice. Sure enough, we were on the Mall and I saw the familiar main entrance of Lawrence Gardens next to the white library building. He took a U-turn and stopped outside the gate.
“Kitna hogaya? (How much?)” I inquired. Our eyes locked in the mirror and he said, “jo chahain dey dain. (Give as much as you want).”
That was odd; a friend of mine later told me it was probably because I was in uniform. I insisted he tell me how much to which he said, “Sau dey dain (Give a hundred).” I handed him a hundred and fifty rupees, thanked him and hopped off.
I made my way inside, past the bright red jumping castle and went left. It was Monday morning, so of course it wasn’t crowded, but as I ventured deeper into the gardens I began to think perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to be here alone. But then I saw a girl sitting on a bench under the shade of a tree, a book in her lap. I saw a few more girls scattered around the park. A group of girlfriends walked past me laughing at something. Their presence reassured me and I felt momentarily safe. Plus I was in uniform, which had to count for something, right? I walked around the gardens looking for the perfect spot to sit down.
“Bhai!” Someone called out. Startled, I turned to my right and saw a group of boys huddled together. “Bhai, lighter hay? (Bro, got a lighter?)” One of them inquired. Confused, I shook my head and walked on. As I thought about what had just occurred I realized those boys had thought I was a man. I was wearing a facemask and I guess it could have been my hair? You see, I’ve recently chopped off my hair and now have a slightly grown out version of a pixie. Leave it to people in Pakistan to assume your gender based on the length of your hair.
I had absentmindedly ended up where I’d started. I sighed, thinking this day might have been a waste and decided to go straight. On the grass to my right were three benches lined up at a distance underneath the shade of trees. It seemed like the perfect spot, peaceful yet not too secluded. I stepped onto the grass and made my way towards the second bench. I retrieved my dark green moleskin notebook from my bag and began to write. I had originally bought this notebook during my Masters in late 2019 in Bristol, United Kingdom; I wanted to start drawing again but never did. In late 2021 however, I began to write in this notebook. From how my day was going to how I was feeling, from observations in London coffee shops to to-do lists. I realized that when I wrote something down, it helped me process my emotions. If I’d had a bad day, writing helped me put things in perspective. So this is what I was doing on a Monday morning on a bench in Lawrence Gardens, processing my emotions. As I began to write, I came to the conclusion that it was self-deprecating of me to think I had ‘failed’ today. I had woken up, got into my uniform and come to court. That’s pretty big! Perhaps the old me wouldn’t have done this. I’d also sat in a beautiful park on a nice sunny day, something I had sorely missed since I had come back from England. I guess you could say I’m all about small victories now.
As I scribbled away, almost instinctively I looked up to the left. I saw this bearded man in a blue jacket walking towards me. Please don’t come here, please don’t come here, I prayed. Sure enough, I heard a voice say, “Mai tumharay sath beth jaon? (Can I sit with you?)”
Almost immediately, I heard myself say “naheen (no).”
“Kisi test ki tiyari kar rae ho? (Are you preparing for a test?)”
“Wakeel ho? Kapray tou aisay pehnay hain (Are you a lawyer? You are dressed like one).”
I continued to write, as if he wasn’t standing there. I guess he finally got the message because I heard him walk away. I was mildly surprised he’d asked if he could sit next to me, as opposed to just sitting down.
I realized it was Valentine’s Day today. From where I sat I could see a couple settling down on the other side of the grass. A group of girls walked past me. This little girl, around twelve years old, cycled leisurely on the path, her parents in tow behind her. I saw this thin black and white dog limping some distance behind me. It went and sat down underneath a tree, slightly hidden by all the plants. I can’t explain it, but its presence made me feel safe. Like I could count on it to protect me, even though that was highly unlikely given how weak it was.
The slight breeze made the leaves dance and they fell like snowflakes. It was quite pleasant. Every now and then, a passerby, no doubt a man, would stare, curious about my presence. I ignored them and concentrated on writing in my journal. If I really think about it, apart from that ugly encounter, it had been a good day, an adventure. It was around 12:30 PM now. I rang up Azeem and asked if I could be picked up from Lawrence Gardens. “Lawrence Gardens?” He repeated, probably trying to figure out how I’d gotten there. I smiled, packed my bag and slowly made my way towards the exit.
Zahra Fatima Cheema is a lawyer by day and photographer 24/7. Zahra loves reading, listening to indie and deep house music, and sunflowers—she is always looking for beauty in the ordinary. Zahra writes about her own experiences as a woman in law and hopes to highlight the struggles faced by other such women. She also runs an Instagram account called flashbulb.eyes where she posts her work/photographs.