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Updated: Jul 12

Alizah P. Hashmi

A nostalgic tale by Alizeh P. Hashmi from Volume 3 with artwork by Ifra Mahmood.

I was often reminded that Rubab was many years older and Rubab Apa to me, but she chafed at the suffix. It was not just the intimacy we had attained as friends, more Rubab’s doggedness in preserving her youth. She was not really that old—even though a virtual widow, as Nano had called her—and nothing about her, in speech or action, ever embodied the drabness that came with the apa branding.

Her sleeveless cholis and diaphanous saris had made her a sartorial eccentricity in her circles—an eccentricity many women secretly envied. I openly adored her.

Rubab’s husband—and my mamoon—had served in the army. I was eight years old when he had gone missing. I never had the tact or sentience to register what impact that had on Rubab, then married only two months, but I understood from the commentary that followed her that something was off about her mourning. Some would point out that she did not love her missing husband—an inference they made from her insufficient grieving.

Rubab lived in the house they had moved into as a couple. I revered her for the resistance she showed in the face of the family’s persuasion to give it up. Ultimately, they questioned her need to live in a furnished, double-storied house when she did not have a husband and could not have a family.

She was my icon—the resistant, powerful woman in a parochial backdrop.

I was from a conservative Punjabi family that had moved to Karachi decades ago, somehow leaving their heads and hearts trailing behind, caught in the vice of generations of Bahawalpur tradition. She had been married into our family—and not by choice. She always maintained that if she had got to know my Qamar mamoon—her husband—before her marriage, she would have opted out of it.

In my daily sojourns at her place, Rubab introduced me to chiffons and designer wear while Ami wore full-sleeved khaddar. She took me to the cinema and tittered when I covered my eyes during scenes that showed more than the locally permissible amount of male-female interaction. She insisted we dine out for all meals and cared little for the bills. To her credit, I could accuse her of splurging, never of parsimony. She uncomplainingly paid for everything I showed partiality towards—books, articles of clothing, DVDs.

So when I dropped in on my fifteenth birthday, I was taken aback. Instead of her usual smile, she met me with a sulk. Sprawled on a rocking chair, she was wearing an embroidered, golden sari, except that the drape was knotted into an unruly ball in her lap. One of her legs was thrown over the arm of the chair. That odd angle made her skin crease at her abdomen, visible because of the nearly backless choli that had become her insignia. It was as if she had stopped midway while dressing up.

Rubab called for tea in the shrill, distant voice she had reserved for servants, as she lit a cigarette.

The first puff of smoke came with a choking but delirious intake of breath that I was now accustomed to. I noticed a framed picture nested next to the ashtray, straight in her line of vision. It was a wedding portrait.

“Anniversary,” she explained, with a deliberate arch of her delicately shaped brows. “I was reminding Qamar that it is seven years today.”

She looked at it once, inhaling from the cigarette, and then, overcome with some intense loathing for the picture, flung it over her head as she exhaled. It clattered as it fell.

Artwork by Ifra Mahmood
Artwork by Ifra Mahmood

I knew Rubab and I now think this was her act of defiance. In dressing up like this she was deliberately provoking—who, I didn’t know. If she was sad, she didn’t look the part. She always looked as if she were playing a game.

A boy arrived with a tray. He lingered a little too long. His gaze wandered, I noticed, over her partially exposed belly. She turned her large, mascara-tinged eyes on him and he left immediately.

We were playing cards in the evening when we were joined by a visitor I had never seen before. Visitors were commonplace in Rubab’s house—there were daawats every week and aunties called on her without former notice. Rubab enjoyed the commotion—the pulsating, even if overbearing, rush of life, pretence, and envy that filled her sparsely populated house.

I heard his voice before I saw him. It was a very thick voice. “Rubi?”

Even I did not call Rubab by a name other than Rubab, knowing full well her aversion to nicknames.

He was tall and lean. Chiseled into his fine features was a conceit that made me defensive. His smile—a supercilious thing on his shaven face—was for Rubab alone. “Rubi,” he repeated.

“You’ve not learnt to knock,” Rubab said. In this our tempers were in perfect consonance. Our flippant heedlessness of the world around us—and men in particular—was the bridge that cemented our friendship. Rubab did not look at him until she had played her move.

“You haven’t learnt to keep time.” His response was colder—not indifferent, but reprimanding. I did not like it at all.

“Who is he?” I asked, very loudly, of Rubab. If he heard, which he did, he pretended he had not.

Rubab’s answer was demure. My heart flipped a little at its aberrance.

“Bakhtiar.” She looked at him before she spoke again. “He’s helping me.”

“How?” I ploughed rather gormlessly, aware but neglectful of her growing unease.

“I’m selling the estate.”

My heart did a somersault. I had more questions about this disclosure, but this was not the time. Instead, I turned on Bakhtiar. “Don’t you have an office where you can meet her?”

Bakhtiar only looked amused. But I fought and Rubab had to give way. “Why don’t you come another time, Bakhtiar?” She said finally.

Bakhtiar said nothing. He nodded and strode out, casting a dismissive glance my way. I snorted.

We ate in the middle of an incensed squabble. “Why are you selling out? You’ve spent so much on this place!”

“We decided I didn’t need it.” Rubab toyed with the cake she had now disembowelled with the fork in her plate.

“Who’s we?”


“And Nana, Nano—they will be confused with what you’re doing. Will you come live with us then?”

I had considered this and had decided quickly this was not a favourable outcome. Parachuting Rubab into the strict dullness of our house would be like deracinating her. It would not work. I valued the freedoms an isolated house afforded us—and so did she.

Rubab’s pretty face showed displeasure. “Bakhtiar is very considerate,” she countered. “He’s helped me organize my bank accounts—made investments.”

I dropped my cutlery in alarm. “You’ve never told me about him.”

Rubab made a show of adjusting her sari.

I crossed my arms. “I don’t like him.”

“You don’t have to. He’s just doing his job.”

Rubab had never disagreed like this—and never over men. We generally judged all of them from mediocre to below par. There was never a disagreement between us about anything, especially the other gender.

“I like this place. Tell him you don’t want to sell it anymore. You know what everyone will say if you do.”

“They’ll say I love Qamar,” she pointed out. She was seething even as her gestures remained unagitated. “I don’t love him, Maryam. I don’t. I don’t even know him.”

After a moment Rubab laughed, but it was not the vitalising gay sound people had come to associate with her. It was a sad chortle with none of the lilt of Rubab’s omnipresent joviality.


Determined to restore amicability, I suggested we could pirate a romance film that had come out lately but had been censored by the authorities. Rubab agreed gleefully—as I knew she would. People attributed her love of romantic pop culture to her lack of it in real life. For her part, she dismissed romance as a “pact of delusion”; an entertainment best enjoyed as a voyeur. Even if Nana and Nano lived in constant fear of it, she did not have a reputation for philandering.

About the time our movie ended, we were again intruded upon by Bakhtiar. He was holding a file and some stray pages, adamant in his demand of Rubab’s attention. I realized from the force of his words that this time he would not assent to my presence, inconspicuous as he may treat it to be.

“Rubi,” he started, and I gaped at the way she allowed—expected—him to hold her outstretched hand.

Bakhtiar’s eyes were on me. “Can we be alone?”

I refused to be discharged like this. “No,” I said. “You can be alone another time.”

I noticed how his grip on Rubab’s fingers tightened. Rubab made a small sound of pain.

I was unsure why Rubab, who scathingly called people out at the least pretext, was not retaliating. Something inside me sank, like a pebble in still water.

Rubab’s hand was on my shoulder, her body leaning almost limp against the back of the sofa. “Ask the driver to take you home, Maryam,” she smiled. I did not know what to think of the animated burning of her almond-shaped eyes as her heavy lashes fell over them. Did she need help? Protection?

She patted my shoulder again. I got up and left, walking out very slowly. I lingered near the door, watching as Bakhtiar recklessly threw his paperwork onto a chair and leaned over her, obscuring her from me. I slammed the door hard, eliciting a yelp from Rubab, before I went about seeking the driver.


At home, I drew Ami to a corner and told her everything. Predictably, I was prohibited from visiting Rubab. Nano, Nani, Ami, Abu, my younger Mamoon, all seemed to be swept into the storm that I had initiated. I was not allowed to be privy to any of it; I knew only that grave discussions, that were sometimes too loud, sometimes too hushed, were being held with urgency.

It fizzled out in a week. Mentions of Rubab were no longer treated as allusions to blasphemy. I asked Ami if I could go see her and was granted permission almost too easily.

“I’m not selling the estate,” she told me after we had made some excruciatingly generic conversation about the taste of tea.

“And Bakhtiar?”

“He’s not around anymore, obviously.”

“Is it because of me?” I asked, prickles of guilt coming to life inside me. Rubab did not look happy.

“No,” she shook her head and there was no trace of censure in the gesture. “It’s Qamar’s fault. It always is his fault.”

I was determined to make her abjure whatever connection she had formed with Bakhtiar. “It’s a good thing he’s gone,” I pontificated. “We can have this house to ourselves again.”

“I’m moving out,” Rubab said softly.

“To where?”

“To come and live with you.” She did not even feign enthusiasm. “Your grandparents are selling the estate.”

I was overcome with a cloud of confusion, the smoke of her cigarette suffused with my festering guilt at having done something horribly wrong. Everything about Rubab looked miserable. There was a sense of loss—of sheer irrelevance—in the way she smoked her cigarette, distastefully, seated in the house that she loved.

“Call me Rubi,” she said, then, out of nowhere.

“Okay.” I thought maybe the convolution of her name would be another act of non-compliance, something that would keep the Rubab I knew intact as she moved into my house.

It was not.

Rubab did not have a room, to begin with. She was bundled into mine, and I was surprised that she had brought very little of her wardrobe with her. She suddenly ceased to have a problem with recycling the same dress twice in a week. Her saris dwindled and were replaced with the shalwar kameez she had reviled before.

Her interest in me turned painfully avuncular. I protested, trying to pull her back into a routine awash with movies and shopping, but Rubi resisted. She did not want the lifejacket I was offering her, surrendering herself instead to the cold, unforgiving ocean of lethargy and cigarettes. Most people in the house were cordial to her, but she did not reciprocate.

We slept on the same bed, but she hardly slept at all. She shifted many times in the night, sometimes complaining of the heat and throwing her blanket off. Other times she would change into a sheer nighty she had retained and sit rocking herself on the bed. I watched her run her hands through her hair and over her body repeatedly, as if searching for some point of soreness.

One of these nights I must have unknowingly poked her shoulder, because she hissed as if stung, waking me up. “I’m sorry, Rubi,” I mumbled. She was gripping her shoulder, her body still. I sat up and forcibly pushed her collar over. There was an ugly spot of white, blue, and red there. To me, it looked as if it was filled with pus. “What is this?”

She said nothing.

“It looks infected,” I said firmly. “You have to show it to a doctor. Tomorrow.”

She did not look keen. “It will get better.”

“How did it happen?”

Rubi turned over, her face showing a passing surge of pain as her shoulder rubbed against the sheets. I noticed absurdly the sick beauty of her face—even like this, her skin oily from the night, her eyes ringed with dark circles, her lips pressed together. She was looking at me as if I knew, as if she would just state the obvious if she responded. I pushed a soft tendril of her hair that was streaking her face away from it, and I felt she would tell me anyway.

“Sleep, Maryam,” she said finally, yawning. “I don’t know how it happened.”

I was disappointed, but she had tugged the blanket over her face, leaving me to wallow in that disappointment if I so wanted. I chose to sleep.

In the days to come, she only smoked more and talked less. And then just like that, as if in reprisal to the wistfulness within her that I’d felt like a scorching heat and everyone else had chosen to ignore, she collapsed.

I was at school, but Nano told me she broke down coughing phlegm and then blood. They think she choked while they tried to help her.

The cause of her death was never determined.


Alizah P. Hashmi is an 18 year-old living in Karachi and is a college freshman. In the past, her short stories have been published in Five on the Fifth, RIC Journal, and the Young Adult Review Network. She’s a ‘…chai conoisseur and fan… big believer in and instigator of (sane) conspiracy theories.

Ifra Mahmood graduated from the prestigious National College of Arts Lahore, Pakistan, in 2016, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) with an emphasis on miniature painting. She has displayed her works at the Taseer Art Gallery in Lahore as well as the Richmond Art Center, California. Most recently, she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area with the hopes of further pursuing her passion for art and feels that this migration has played a significant role in her practice.

Bios for archival pieces are reprinted as they appeared in the print volume and may not reflect the updated activities of the author and artist.

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