The second Spotlight of September 2021 is on Hasnain Haider and his first proper foray into fiction with the short story Shaazi. It tells the tale of a woman caught in the conniving, hypocritical machinations of a feudal household.
The trembling pillow rudely shakes Shaazi out of sleep, or whatever nightmare is playing on the dark screen of her closed eyes this morning. She is immediately assailed with a splitting headache and a dull pain in the pelvic area. Nights that the master chooses to visit are rough, especially when he takes that vile blue pill. The pillow stops trembling. With her eyes still closed, she hesitantly extends a leg towards the right side of the bed to see if he is still there. Gone, just as she had expected, probably in the very early hours of the morning to perform ablutions for the morning prayers. Her heart eases up a little.
She half-opens her eyes to take in her room. Rather spacious, well-furnished living quarters for a housemaid who has absolutely nowhere else to go. The queen-sized bed with its comfy mattress, the dresser by the bathroom door with the TV on top, the cupboard in the wall brimming with clothes; how many housemaids have a wardrobe to choose from every day? She shudders thinking where she would have been had her destitute father succeeded in selling her 13-year old self off to that toothless, motorbike-riding, father-of-eight wheat broker eleven years ago. The master’s last-minute intervention had saved her then. The munshi had come with some men and told her father that the master would not allow a daughter of his village to be sold off like a head of cattle. It was then that Shaazi had come into the Master’s house in the city. She had never known such love for any other person ever.
But then, in a few years’ time, these nocturnal visits had begun. At first, Shaazi could not figure out for the life of her what was happening to her, or why? Much later, Baalu told her that it was happening because she had blossomed into a beauty the likes of which no woman in Kot Adil Khan had ever birthed. Baalu would also teach her how the physical ordeal the master put her through could also be a warm, sensuous thing. Lately, Shaazi has had her own ideas about why the Master was smitten with her. She is convinced that he liked intelligent women who would talk back to everyone in the world but him.
And, Baalu! From this world of Old Man’s breath and Old Man’s lust, of loud snores and louder wheezing, of Old Man’s pillow-talk that the Old Man insists on having with me, Baalu will get me out, Shaazi tells herself.
Baalu has brothers in the Middle East who have promised to set him up in business very soon. Once Baalu is his own man, I will be his wife, and we will have kids and our own small house and a life of our own, Shaazi thinks.
But in this moment, a perplexity overwhelms her. Time and again, the Master has tried to explain to her that by some esoteric interpretation of scripture, by the principle of ‘proposition and consent,’ she and he are married. The idea is as strange to her as it is scary; nobody ever asked for her consent. And if she is married to the Old Man, how will she be able to marry Baalu?
The pillow is trembling again. She retrieves the vibrating cellphone from underneath it and looks at the flashing screen. It is seven minutes to nine and, by the number of missed calls in five minutes, the hag is dying for her breakfast in bed. Wonder if Sal is up and getting ready for her breakfast with the Master?
Begum Rehana Mir, or Dr. Rehana Jabeen, depending on the face that she chooses to wear on a particular day, is not happy. Four times she has called to wake up the Mir’s whore from her ‘beauty’ sleep; four times the slut has not answered. It is no surprise though. Why would that ingénue not put up airs when the Mir lavishes so much money on her? Dresses, makeup, shoes, jewellery; everything their daughter Sal gets for herself, she is made to get for her father’s whore as well. The only thing Shaazia Begum is now missing is her own personal car and driver. Poor Sal, if only she knew what a monster her father is.
The Begum clambers out of bed to go the bathroom. On entering the bathroom, the first thing she sees is her rotund form in the body-length mirror by the vanity. Sure, I am not the petite, plucky young doctor the Mir fell for so many years ago. But how could that rural ingrate forget what all I have given him? An urbane lifestyle, a graceful and reliable partner in the jungle that is polite society, a beautiful, intelligent daughter imbued with class and ambition, excelling in her studies. His daughters from his ugly, illiterate cousin-wife can’t even hope to compare.
And yet, he carries on with this village nymph, with her witch’s black hair and witch’s black eyes. Is he blind to the dumbness of her face, the crudeness that drips off of every pore of her being? Sigh.
I don’t really care anymore what goes on in that room in the basement. So long as he doesn’t interfere with my life, my projects, and the money keeps flowing, I don’t need him or his affections. It’s a big world out there with an open market for love, the Begum thinks as she allows herself a grin, the kind she generously gives to everybody not sharing a roof with her.
As she plops down on the toilet bowl, there is a faint knock on the bathroom door.
“Yes, Bibi ji,” Shaazi calls out, trying her best to keep her voice from quivering.
“Praise the Lord, if it isn’t the princess herself? Why do you forget, you harlot born of a harlot, that unlike you, who just sits around waiting for the Master to come fill her and her bed once a month, I have a life that is actually useful to the world, and I have a thousand important people waiting to meet with me today. And here you are, behaving as though you are God’s own mistress. Go on! Get lost! Tell the driver to get the car ready and have Baalu bring up my breakfast. I don’t want to see your face today. And make it the usual. Without the sugar! I have diabetes, you snake. Stop trying to poison me with sugar!”
Shaazi hurries off to the kitchen, not waiting for the Begum to finish venting her spleen—or her gut— for that matter.
The door cracks open and Saleha Mir, Sal to everyone but her father, makes out Shaazi’s silhouette against the light outside. Sal has not slept well last night, glued to her cellphone screen for many hours, tossing and turning, going over every word of the message exchanges that had kept her up. Even the faint light entering her room behind Shaazi is stinging her eyes.
“Are you up, Sal Bibi? The Master will be waiting for you at breakfast,” Shaazi asks, with a lingering urgency from her exchange with Sal’s mother.
“Is Baba leaving after breakfast?” Sal inquires of Shaazi’s dark form, and sees its crown nodding.
“And Mom? She will be away all day too, right?” Sal seeks reassurance for that which she already knows.
“Yes. Better get ready for breakfast,” Shaazi says as she begins to leave.
“It is today, Shaazi! You have to help me,” Sal calls out in no more than a croak to Shaazi’s departing form. The churning inside Shaazi’s stomach renews itself.
“Whatever you say, Sal Bibi,” Shaazi whispers with a mix of fear and excitement and leaves for the kitchen.
Sal closes her eyes and her thoughts return to the culprit of her sleepless night: Hashir. Good-looking, honest-eyed, potty-mouthed Hashir. Sal has always marveled at how he could lace an entire conversation with profanity without ever really being offensive to anyone. Self-deprecating, warm-hearted, intellectually impossible Hashir. Never had Sal known anyone with a greater penchant for complicating the simplest of things. Or maybe, Sal had never known anyone this intimately before.
Sal had met Hashir a year ago at a college jobs fair which she, as a junior-year student, was visiting in the hopes of securing a summer internship. Hashir was manning his bank’s booth, and that is where first introductions were made. Sal was immediately taken with Hashir’s natural command over the English language. He must have seen something in her too because she got the internship. During her two months at the bank, Hashir, a star among his colleagues, had floored her with his sardonic wit, his knowledge of world history, and his forceful opinions on all matters political and philosophical. But most importantly, he always had time to listen to her, to engage with her on anything she wished to talk about. Sal had never experienced such exclusive attention from anyone in her life, with the possible exception of Shaazi. And in no time, she was hooked—to the notion of Hashir she had formed in her head.
As time wore on, conversations between Hashir and herself turned more from the world outside to themselves: what they felt about each other, their hopes and dreams for a future together, and inevitably, their physical yearnings for each other. While Sal was an absolute novice in the carnal aspects of love, her knowledge limited entirely to what she had heard from Shaazi or a few college friends, whose freedom in mind and body inspired both envy and disgust within her, Hashir always knew what he was talking about. Soon, his texted words of passion, his honeyed voice of longing on the phone, had tremors running across Sal’s entire body. She felt a strange heat within her, so much so that she often woke up to the shock of a cold sweat and a pillow or a comforter shoved deep between her legs. Whenever she got a chance to meet him in person, when she stole away from college for a coffee or lunch date, she always felt sheepish around him for all the naughtiness they had shared over the phone. Still, every time that she came away from meeting with him, the pulsations shared between her heart and body told her that it would only be a matter of time before she found herself in his arms.
But time and familiarity have a way of disabusing one of one’s rosiest illusions. For all that he has come to mean to her, Hashir has one character trait that Sal just cannot come to terms with: an utter absence of ambition. For all his articulate talk, his quirky spirit and his novel ideas about life, he is too content with his corporate salary and white-collar obscurity. For Sal, a life is only well lived if you do something big with it and force yourself onto the pages of history, for better or for worse. What irks Sal is that Hashir knows this too, and still chooses not to see beyond the narrow confines of the self.
Sal has always been in awe of her sisters and her stepmother, who, despite having none of her education and cosmopolitan exposure, command respect, even reverence, among thousands of people in and around Kot Adil Khan. On her occasional visits to the Kot, she is always shown the courtesy due to her by her station of birth. Many fawn over her in their curiosity about the Mir’s daughter from the city-wife. Yet, the love and loyalty emanating from the masses for the Mir’s village-wife and daughters, Sal can never hope to have. Unless, by some miracle, her father discerns the spark inside of her and designates her his political heir in place of that stupid son-in-law of his; not an entirely improbable idea.
Whatever happens, Hashir needs to realize that by insisting on a life of self-sufficient anonymity, he is not only doing himself a disfavor, he is, without even knowing it perhaps, smothering my dreams for the future as well, Sal thinks as she breaks her reverie. Someday, she will need to have a serious talk with Hashir about this. But today is not that day. Today is a day for audacity, to take a leap of faith, maybe even mark a new beginning in life.
Better get ready for breakfast.
In the kitchen, Baalu can tell by the pallor of Shaazi’s face and her unusual reticence about her time with the Master last night that something is preying on her mind. He cheekily inquires if the Master was gentle with her, but is brusquely told to take the Begum’s breakfast up, to tell the driver to get the car ready for the Begum, to go to the market for groceries once the Master and the Begum have left.
He asks when he can be a guest in her boudoir, now that the Master is returning to Kot Adil Khan, but is only met with a dead stare and a morose: “I have to prepare for the Master’s breakfast with Sal, Baalu. Don’t test my nerves!”
He takes the breakfast tray Shaazi hands him and rushes up to the Begum’s room. Sal is to have breakfast with the Master. There is not a moment to lose.
The Begum is in the bathroom. Baalu is thankful that he doesn’t have to suffer whatever shade of crabby mood the harpy has woken up with this morning. He places the tray on the Begum’s bedside table, and rushes down the stairwell, exiting the house through a back door. He quickly raps on the door of the servant quarters, shouting at the driver to get up, and then settles down on the ground beneath an exhaust in the back alley of the compound, lighting a cigarette.
Baalu is none too happy when the Master drops in for his monthly stays; they basically mean he can go nowhere near Shaazi, or even be seen inside of the main house too much. But Baalu knows that all that he is in life at present, he owes to the Master’s munificence. The fiction that he has fed Shaazi about his rich brothers in the Middle East has just been to worm his way into her affections. Well, it’s not entirely fiction: he does have two brothers in the Middle East who are pretty well off, for themselves. But they’ve never sent Baalu a single dirham of their wealth or to their old mother who lives in her small dwelling in Kot Adil Khan. All that comes from the Mir. It’s because of the Mir’s famed generosity that he can afford to lavish expensive gifts on Shaazi, and maintain his own image as the premier heartthrob among the commoners of Kot Adil Khan. He always was the boy with the golden-brown hair and fair complexion, but complemented with an expensive Korean cellphone and a flashy golden wristwatch, his ring-bedecked fingers and a first-copy Ray-Bans, he is Adonis personified.
Baalu is also no fool. He likes Shaazi, but being her secret lover is a dangerous game that can go horribly wrong for them both. Just the thought sends a shudder down Baalu’s spine. Shaazi is the Mir’s. Period. “Barring a sudden, fatal heart attack that does the old man in, the only way Shaazi can be with me is if the Mir tires of her. Or, has her marry me and keeps us both here in the city-house, so he can carry on with her inconspicuously.” This second idea he has been wanting to plant in the Master’s head for some time now, but has no idea how. Shaazi is the only person capable of this inception, but how do I bring the subject up with her? It would break her heart, he muses. More importantly, she would certainly stop putting out for him.
Personally, Baalu has no qualms sharing Shaazi with the Master indefinitely. In many ways, it is the perfect arrangement. The Master would take care of all the economic aspects of such an arrangement, while he, Baalu, would have the freedom to pursue other fancies. And nothing has ever captivated his fancy so fully, so emphatically so as to form a sick obsession, as Sal. All his daydreaming is about Sal, or more specifically, what she would look like naked and the many acts of sexual congress that he would like to engage in with her. These thoughts are enough to arouse a most powerful desire within him, to have him frantically touch himself. In her actual presence, Baalu’s voice is a mere croak and he does not know where to place his gaze. He knows he looks like a total idiot when he looks everywhere but at her when she is talking to him, and this realization wounds him deeply. Why could he have not been born into wealth and respectability, been worthy of the likes of Sal? Why should he suffer the shame of having to turn his face away when she wears those western clothes and speaks her fancy English lest the desire dripping from his eyes be discerned, and punished?
Why should he have to content himself with hand-me-downs like Shaazi? Or wait, not even Shaazi. Shaazi is the Mir’s, remember? He thinks.
And so, sitting nine feet below the exhaust from Sal’s bathroom, Baalu waits for a day that will be in his favour. The exhaust abruptly emits a faint hissing sound.
A dirty smile erupts on Baalu’s face as he soundlessly mouths the words: “The sahibzadi is in the shower!”
He closes his eyes as he tries to picture her naked beneath the stream of water. How lucky is the water that is touching her delicate little body, washing the delicious black curls of her hair, caressing her caramel skin, Baalu fantasises, as his hand begins to grope the stiffness in his shalwar.
Seated at the head of the breakfast table, Mir Ghulam Qadir Khan leafs through the day’s paper, waiting for Saleha to come and join him, as the omelets, parathas and chickpea curry Shaazi has laid out get cold. As on every morning that he is to leave his city getaway for Kot Adil Khan, his mind is on the women of the house he will be leaving behind.
Shaazi, beautiful, uncomplaining, discreet Shaazi. Between the severe and aloof persona he has to don at the Kot and the minute-by-minute heartbreak that is his life here in this house, his only reason to smile: Shaazi, God bless her.
As for his wife Rehana; he has not spoken much to Rehana, the rather ordinary-looking but plucky young doctor that he, as a young minister of state, had fallen for twenty-four years ago, during the entire length of this stay. With Rehana, Ghulam Qadir Khan had hoped to fill the intellectual gaps in his life, to establish an enlightened and forward-looking household, far removed from the Kot’s rustic stagnation. He had been proud that his new wife was a bright young medical professional and was willing to do everything in his power to see her rise to the pinnacle of her career. Rehana, meanwhile, was equally determined to do everything in her power to squander her professional potential and transform herself entirely into the trophy wife of an old-money politician. Maybe it was to do with her humble beginnings; maybe she was already burned out by the time Ghulam Qadir Khan’s eye fell on her. But, very soon, she was no longer practicing medicine. Instead, she was all over the papers as the face of every manner of fashionable but meaningless social initiatives, in the company of all manner of privileged yet vacuous people. In time, Ghulam Qadir Khan had drifted apart from both the woman and the aspirations that he had associated with her. But whatever her shortcomings in worldly pursuits, Rehana had failed even more spectacularly as a mother. Ghulam Qadir Khan is convinced that had Shaazi not come to stay in this household, his daughter would have become a mental case owing to neglect and psychological abuse. He admits though, albeit grudgingly, that the disciplinarian in Rehana is the reason their daughter is such an exceptional student.
Saleha is the light of his life, the object of many of his hopes, the sum of all his fears. While Ghulam Qadir Khan has shifted all the worldly goals he had once ascribed to Rehana Begum on to Saleha, he is unsure of the path his daughter’s life will take. Acerbic, strong-willed, supremely intelligent and completely inscrutable in facial expression, she often leaves Ghulam Qadir Khan guessing as to her thoughts and intentions. Her intellectual capabilities come with an astonishingly strong streak of ambition that Ghulam Qadir Khan finds simultaneously impressive and unsettling. He wants Saleha to make a grand name in society, yet he fears that she may go about it in a manner unworthy of the Mir name. Or worse still, she may choose to go down the same path as her mother, but even more brazenly and unapologetically. Embarrassment caused by a marriage beneath one’s station gone sour, he could deal with. But the ignominy often brought on by one’s own blood is the hardest to live down.
As Ghulam Qadir Khan looks absentmindedly at the paper, he feels a light kiss on the crown of his head. Sal, freshly bathed, perfumed and majestically adorned in a simple off-white dress with a blood red shawl, has arrived for breakfast. Warm looks are exchanged between father and daughter as Sal takes a seat by her father’s left, and both begin to take their portions. There is no dearth of love between the two; it is conversation that does not flow as readily.
After a few moments, awkward for Ghulam Qadir Khan, flitting for Sal, and after having consumed a major portion of his breakfast, Ghulam Qadir Khan breaks the silence.
“I am leaving for Kot Adil Khan today, Saleha Bibi. Will be thinking of you every day that I am gone. Why don’t you and Shaazi come down some weekend?” he says in the elegant patrician drawl of his boarding school English.
Me? Or Shaazi? Who is it that you really will be missing? Yes! She tells me everything, Daddy, Sal thinks, restraining a smile.
“I will try my best, Baba. Senior year is tough. Also, I have to find a job for when I graduate. Unless you tell me right now I am going abroad next year for my Masters. That’ll save me a lot of hassle,” Sal says sweetly with a sly twinkle in her eye which she knows her father loves.
“Of course. Of course. Whatever you want,” Ghulam Qadir Khan manages to say before being overwhelmed briefly by the prospect of his daughter alone in the immoral, licentious setting of a Western university. Sal looks at him with barely concealed amusement. She has barely eaten anything so far; she just can’t.
“Saleha, you know I named you after my grandmother? A great woman who kept our family together through the turbulent times of partition!” Ghulam Qadir Khan finally adds wiping the perplexity off his face.
Yeah! I have only been told a million times. Sal thinks.
“Yes Baba. I know I have a big name to live up to,” she says out loud.
“A big name comes with responsibilities, my daughter. And also, with enemies. Our family name commands respect, even awe, among millions. It is always taken reverently by people because it is associated with centuries of honour and nobility…” Ghulam Qadir Khan trails off as Shaazi enters bearing tea.
He restrains himself from making eye contact with Shaazi in Sal’s presence.
I know all the noble and honorable things you’ve been up to with this sex-slave of yours, Daddy, and you presume to lecture me on shouldering the burden of centuries? Sal grimaces at this thought, an expression that succeeds in further perplexing Ghulam Qadir Khan. A blank-faced Shaazi sets the tea down on the tables and returns to the kitchen.
“I just want yours to be a name that the world will forever remember, Saleha Bibi. I just hope that I am not forced to do anything along the way that holds you back, or even ends up hurting you somehow,” Ghulam Qadir Khan says in a voice that is, at best, a loud whisper.
I am making a fool of myself. I could never hurt her. I would die before I can ever bring myself to hurt her, he is actually thinking to himself.
But a hint of unease can now be detected on Sal’s face. What does he mean ‘hurting me’?
At this most uncomfortable moment, Begum Rehana Mir appears at the dining room doorway.
“Sal, I am leaving. Will not be back before the evening. Please remind that floozy to send Baalu out for groceries,” she announces before heading out.
Sal barely manages half a nod. She knows from bitter experience not to engage her mother in conversation—who would, without a second thought, dump all of her hatred for the Mir on the Mir’s daughter. Ghulam Qadir Khan, thankful for the usually unwelcome sight of his wife, gets up from the table to prepare for his journey.
“Don’t forget your cellphone, as always; you don’t want to be returning halfway,” Sal says good-naturedly, airing her biggest fear for the day.
Ghulam Qadir Khan allows himself an affectionate smile. As he exits the dining room, Sal’s gaze remains transfixed on her half-drunk cup of tea for a moment. Then, shaking off the residue of the Mir’s ominous words, she reaches for her cellphone to check for messages. What she sees makes her heartbeat pound in her skull.
Just then, Shaazi sticks in her head from the kitchen door and asks “when?”
Sal responds with “As soon as…” and an eye motion that Shaazi understands to mean: the master leaves.
Shaazi, frozen in place, looks at Sal’s face, and finds every pore of it dripping with hateful disdain. For some odd reason, she is reminded of the little girl who couldn’t fall asleep until she, Shaazi, had held her hand
There’s a stubborn queasiness in his stomach that no amount of morning orange juice can alleviate. So, Hashir pulls into the drive-through of a café to see if a medium black would help. He is not sure at all about what he has set out of home to do this Saturday morning, but do it he must. There is no other way even though his mind and his body are taking turns rebelling against each other about it. For so many months, Sal has consumed every waking minute of his life, and he knows that if there is any such thing as love in this world, it is what he feels for Sal. After so many trials and errors with so many inadequate girls, Hashir believes he has finally found the one to place at the center of his universe.
As he drives out with his coffee into the light weekend traffic, Hashir contemplates the irony of why he himself, a bright young corporate hack, up and coming in the world, and expected to be brimming with self-assured ambition and bravado, is not at the centre of his own universe at the usually self-obsessed age of twenty-six. What stops Hashir’s world from revolving entirely around himself is that Hashir is all too aware of his personal pitfalls. Having been raised by a highly moralistic, convent-educated mother on notions of self-criticism and self-chastisement, he neither indulges self-congratulation when things go right nor gives himself intellectual quarter when they don’t.
Hashir knows that for all the smooth talk he is capable of, which makes people gravitate towards him like bees to honey, deep down inside he is just scared of people. He constantly fears everybody is out to take him for a ride, and so, minimizes social interactions to a bare minimum. He knows this asocial tendency will hurt him in the future. He also loathes himself for always seeking to avoid conflict, even when he has been grossly wronged. He just lets people get away with it, screaming at himself in private for being spineless. Hashir recognizes that he owes his rise in his career so far to quietly and unquestioningly following orders, putting his nerdy work ethic to use, and never speaking truth to power. This is a trait he particularly dislikes about himself: smiling dumbly and going along with whatever his so-called superiors do, or want done. He knows for sure that his is not an unexamined life, so to speak, and yet, he finds himself simply unable to live up to his thoughts and ideals. As things stand, Hashir seems himself at the edge of a precipice: a lifetime of daily compromise with an inferior world.
Hashir believes he has a fairly good idea why his life has hit an early cul-de-sac. The moment he graduated college, his father made it abundantly clear to him that he wasn’t willing to spend a dime more on him, and if Hashir was ever to fulfill his dream of studying abroad, he would need to either pay for himself, or find a fully funded scholarship. In those early months post-graduation, getting his first taste of depression, Hashir felt he was lucky when he landed a high-paying job. But, as his salary began coming in, he found himself increasingly burdened with domestic expenditure, as well as his father’s penchant for spending lavishly on religious causes. In families that pride themselves on proper filial etiquette through generations, sons refusing fathers is unheard of and striking out for an independent life unthinkable. So, Hashir uncomplainingly put up with it all, often fuming on the inside, silently digging himself into the grave of duty and responsibility, hanging on to a soul-sucking corporate job for dear life! And then, one fine day, into this dead-end existence entered Sal, and Hashir felt his world beginning to light up a bit.
Hashir knows he loves Sal, not because there is some great similarity in their personalities, but because she is everything that he is not, because she so seamlessly fills the void that he sees himself to be. Fearless, dauntless, opinionated Sal; able to hold a man’s gaze and have him blink, Sal! Having the most obdurate people shudder at her angry deadpan, Sal!
Hashir loves how Sal is always looking to punch above her weight, to challenge those who think they have authority over her every chance she gets. He knows much of her imperiousness stems from being old elite. When you don’t have bills to pay, or a household to run, or other economic imperatives to meet, you can afford to not care about what people think or say of you: a principle that applies in equal measure to the dirt poor and the filthy rich.
But he also knows that she is also in the process of rebelling against the patriarchal system of which she is a beneficiary. Nothing else explains her total lack of status-consciousness in choosing him to lavish her affections on, and to sneak about with him in a city where getting seen could have disastrous consequences. What Hashir knows beyond the shadow of all doubt though is, he is not in it for her father’s wealth and influence. He is in it because of the person: Sal, with an individuality so irrepressible, so indomitable, she would go through life like a bright star shooting across the night-sky, and he would personally be more than happy just to ride shotgun on that cosmic journey.
Someday soon, Hashir hopes to tell Sal the depth of emotion he has for her. But of late, they find themselves incapable of talking much about anything but carnal and sensual love. Once that uncontrollable curiosity is out of the way, Hashir hopes, maybe they’d be able to talk about what the future will look like for them. And today may just be a step into the future.
Hashir pulls up by the kerb on a street and texts: “The Eagle has landed!”
“Wait” is the response about a minute later. He returns to his coffee, the music playing in the car, and the nervousness in his belly. An abrupt car horn jolts him, as a silver sedan stops parallel to his car. The backseat window rolls down and a rather overly made-up plump woman whom he recognizes to be Sal’s mom flashes a toothy smile at him.
“Why hello, handsome! You know you’re blocking our exit with the boot of your car. Move up a bit because the man who will come out after me will not be half as nice!” she says with unsettling familiarity.
He turns around in his seat to see the gates of the house he is parked in front of closing. By the time he straightens up again, the sedan is gone. He inches his car forward a few feet. The coffee seems to have acted as steroids for the butterflies in his stomach. He keeps staring at Sal’s latest text: “Sit tight! I can see your car parked outside. It’s not going to be long before he leaves.”
After an endless fifteen minutes, the gates open again and a black SUV with tinted glasses rolls out and away. That’s Mir Ghulam Qadir Khan, Hashir tells himself, breathing a little easier. A minute later, a young man with henna-colored hair and moustache emerges on a motorbike and gives him an excessively unfriendly look passing by. Hashir feels himself getting impatient.
How long will this take? How many people will need to leave before…?
In that instant, he sees a tall black-haired girl in the rearview, with stunning facial features and modest, but not shabby, attire. He recognizes Shaazi from Sal’s descriptions of her. Shaazi, seeing that she has caught his attention, makes a beckoning gesture with her hand and retreats quickly behind the gate of the house. “Here goes nothing!” Hashir whispers to himself as he exits his car and follows Shaazi into the compound of Sal’s house.
Shaazi has been at the ironing table outside Sal’s room for well over forty-five minutes, slowly ironing a pile of laundry, and keeping a watchful eye on the door. Except for one loud giggle that Shaazi finds to be so uncharacteristic of Sal, she has no idea what is going on behind that closed door. Baalu is back from the market, and has been prowling around the house in the hopes of finding her alone. Twice she has had to shoo him away, reminding him how Sal does not like seeing him inside the house. She is also anxious about not knowing how long Hashir will stay, and how she will eventually get him out. She hopes the chores she has assigned Baalu in the kitchen would keep him busy for at least an hour or so.
Behind the closed door, Sal is yet to return from the welcome hug she gave Hashir. In the time since, she has experienced many new things: how her breasts titillate pressed up against a man’s body, how a man’s lips feel like on hers, how the skin of her neck tingles sending ripples of pleasure all over her body when kissed, how she feels as though she’s a cup ready to be filled. Disengaging from that first hug is something neither she, nor Hashir, is willing to do. So, they have crumpled to the carpet at that very spot where they hugged. In those forty-five minutes, Hashir has lustily kissed every single pore of her bare skin visible to him. Which is quite a lot since both of them are now down to their undergarments.
But Sal is only semi-lost in the euphoria of this first touch. For while her body is eager to drift down the river of ecstasy, gnawing thoughts at the back of her mind are keeping her uncomfortably grounded. The vague ‘hurt’ Ghulam Qadir Khan threatened at the breakfast table is still rankling with her. That, and the feeling what she is doing right now would make her father hate her so much, were he to find out. In kissing Hashir, she could kiss all her dreams for a future goodbye if Mir Ghulam Qadir Khan knew the dishonour she is bringing to his name. Who knows what he’d do? Take her out of college and keep her in house arrest? Bundle her off in the first arranged match he’d find? Kill her? And what about this boy and his loving ministrations? Is he the one she wants to create these memories with? Does he fit in with her worldview? Should he be her ‘first’ and then hold it over her head all her life? In giving herself over to him completely, would she be compromising her freedoms too? Did she really need one more man controlling her life? Wasn’t Mir Ghulam Qadir Khan quite enough?
At the agonizing crossroads between mind and body, a tug at the strap of her bra brings Sal a moment of clarity.
“What are you doing?” she whispers hoarsely, as though she has forgotten how to speak.
“What do you think I’m doing?” replies Hashir playfully, totally lost in the moment, unrestrained glee dripping off his face, as he once again attempts to unhook her bra.
“No.” Sal pulls back. “I can’t do this.”
Hashir continues smiling stupidly.
“Hey, whatever you were doing was just fine!” he says, trying to take Sal in his arms once again. But Sal gets up off the floor.
“No, we’ve got to stop. Please stop!” says Sal, her voice cracking a little.
A look of utter bewilderment clouds Hashir’s face. “Did I do something wrong?” he asks sincerely, his mind racing between all possibilities from bad breath to having said something that offended her.
“No. You were lovely. Let’s just put our clothes back on, and sit and talk for a little bit,” Sal says, not meeting his eye.
Hashir is visibly crestfallen.
“We talk all the time. Why did you come this far with me if we were only to sit and talk?” he asks bitterly, restraining himself from being outright nasty.
“I am not ready for this, Hashir. Whatever we shared right now was beautiful. Let’s just cherish that,” Sal says, barely containing her tears.
Hashir, however, now has tears streaming down his face, as he slowly gets up off the floor too.
“I’ve been yearning for your body for so long. And you leave me like this, aroused with no release. I will now get blue balls for a month. I will be in physical pain!” he weeps plaintively, clutching at the bulge in his underpants.
Waves of pity and cold contempt simultaneously engulf Sal, as well as a realisation: This pathetic individual can’t be the man for me!
Taking one more look at the unsightly form of the weeping, half-naked Hashir, face contorted, body shuddering, eyes pleading, she takes a step forward, unlocks the bedroom door, and calls out, “Shaazi!”
Shaazi enters Sal’s room to a rather horrifying scene. She had expected that whatever Sal and Hashir were planning to do would have been done by now, and they would be proper for her entry. But what she walks in on is Sal putting on a T-shirt and Hashir standing like an idiot in the middle of the room in his boxers.
She makes to leave as soon as she steps in but Sal, now commandingly, says: “Shaazi, stay!”
Then, addressing Hashir, she goes: “Shaazi is well-acquainted with the kind of thing you want. She will help you with your ‘release’. We will talk about whether ‘we’ are going anywhere after that. I can leave you two to it, if you want.”
Hearing Sal give her over so nonchalantly to a man for sex, Shaazi feels as though the roof would collapse on her head. Vomit rises up her trachea. She tries to open her mouth to protest, but fears she may hurl all over Sal’s pretty carpet.
Hashir, dumbstruck at the casual manner in which Sal has said what she did, and totally uncertain about her motives—is she testing him, is she genuinely okay with him having sex with another woman, does she want to watch— is petrified in place. He takes a look at Shaazi who is staring at him blankly. A beautiful girl, for an uncouth daughter of peasants; must be used to servicing her social superiors emotionlessly and readily, he tells himself, and takes one step towards Shaazi.
“Sal Bibi! No!” a pleading whisper escapes Shaazi’s lips, followed by a scream that she tries her best to stifle: “Baalu!!”
Baalu, who at that time is lurking in the hallway right outside looking for Shaazi and needs but an excuse to enter Sal’s room, barges in that very instant.
The scene inside is enough to make Baalu take immediate leave of his senses: Shaazi, trembling; Sal, baring her flawless legs; and that snooty looking city-boy he saw outside the gate just moments ago, standing naked in the center of the room. Rage, jealousy, fear, loyalty to the Mir, the need to protect the honour and dignity of Sal Bibi, shame at his own failure in not being able to prevent this interloper from entering the house, and many other confused emotions assail Baalu. Without a second thought, he lunges at Hashir, tackling him to the floor.
“Who are you, motherfucker? What are you doing inside my master’s house? How dare you look at Sal Bibi like this?” he yells between the frenetic slaps and punches that he throws at Hashir, looking up to Sal for approval after every blow he lands.
Unused to physical violence, Hashir is only trying to protect his face from the brute’s maniacal aggression. “Sal, please!” escapes his lips once when Baalu knees his crotch.
Sal is both petrified and thoroughly disgusted by the two men rolling around on her bedroom floor, making exceedingly unpleasant noises. After a moment, she collects herself and says to Shaazi, “What are you standing there for, you stupid hussy? You made this happen. Now do something!”
Shaazi, frozen in place, looks at Sal’s face, and finds every pore of it dripping with hateful disdain. For some odd reason, she is reminded of the little girl who couldn’t fall asleep until she, Shaazi, had held her hand; of all the times when that little girl wept and there was no one but her to console her; of all the times she had fed her with her own hand when the Begum couldn’t even be bothered. She looks at the city-boy who is weeping again, this time out of shock and pain. Then she looks at Baalu who by now is totally oblivious of even her presence in the room; he has eyes only for Sal. Quietly she turns the doorknob and is out the room, completely ignoring Sal’s commanding “Shaazi!”
In a matter of seconds, Shaazi is standing outside the gate of the Mir’s house. She takes a long look at the peaceful façade and marvels at how well it is concealing, has always concealed, the chaos inside. Tears well up in her eyes and she sets off in a random direction. Between the tumult in her mind, the mist in her eyes and the heaviness of her feet, she completely misses the Mir’s SUV returning towards the house and the quizzical look that the Mir gives her from the passenger seat.
It is like she has been struck deaf, dumb and blind. She does not know where she is going, where she ought to be going; she does not even know whether her spirit would break by the next crossroads, or whether she would able to carry herself far away from that house and everything that came with it, never to return. All she knows is, that in that moment, above all her faculties and senses, she is ready to repose her trust in her dragging feet.
Hasnain Haider is a reluctant bureaucrat and an enthusiastic daydreamer. He is a Fulbright Scholar in Public Policy, and has been an infrequent contributor of opinion pieces to various newspapers. He authored a paper, ‘Sectarian Conflict in the Middle East and the Rise of ISIS: An Analysis of Saudi and Iranian Roles & Influences’, carried in The Heinz Journal in May 2016. Shaazi is his first proper foray into fiction. He tweets @langahwhotweets.
About the featured artist: Rabia Dawood is a visual artist from Karachi, Pakistan. She graduated from Karachi School of Art (KSA) in 2007. She has also completed a diploma in calligraphy from NCA, Lahore in 2015 and was the member of KSA faculty (2008 -2018).
The artist has participated in numerous group exhibitions within Pakistan. She has also participated in many international shows and art fairs held in Italy, Dubai, Houston and Bahrain. Rabia lives and works in Karachi; her work emphasises human emotions and her inspiration is mostly from individuals who face consequences in daily life.