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The Box

Updated: Aug 25, 2023

Arslan Ather


The neighbour’s ducks owned the street. Generations of their pet ducks had laid claim to it. The mama duck that used to recognise me had probably died since I visited last, because the birds I saw that day were rather menacing. Menacing looks were something I had grown accustomed to, mostly from my family. I didn’t have to worry about facing them for too long though—Khala Jee was already at the gate, wrapped in her thick black shawl, waiting to greet me. I was still surprised she agreed to see me.


Khala Jee has lived in this house, on this street, across from her duck-owning neighbours for years. Her name evokes the memory of that street, how the mist of the morning clings to the grass, how it lifts around the house as you walk closer to the door. Her name also evokes memories of my own grandmother, Khala Jee’s sister. The sisters lived together towards the end of my grandmother’s life. They had relegated Khala Jee’s husband to the first floor. Old age finally knocked on my grandmother’s door, after which Khala Jee’s husband moved down, but he recently passed too. Cancer. It was probably a Sunday when the doctor diagnosed him, and by next Sunday, we had buried him. Then Khala Jee’s best friend, Saima Aunty, kind of moved in. The two friends would hop houses, up until Saima Aunty died too. A sudden heart attack.


Khala Jee and Saima Aunty were names that you would always say together. They met at the height of their youths, during college in Lahore. Saima Aunty was from Sialkot, and lived with her elderly uncle in the city, while Khala Jee lived with my grandparents. The story goes, that Saima Aunty had grown so sick of her uncle’s “old-man food” that the scent of Khala Jee’s parathay whisked her away. My grandmother would laugh about how she would pack lunch meant for her husband but send it to Saima Aunty instead. “There are enough dhaabay in the city for him to walk into,” she would remark.


“Oh Khala Jee, what have you made?” I asked, waltzing into the kitchen, gingerly lifting the pot’s lid, letting out the plumes of steam into the already misty air.


“You’ll never change, young man!” she said, laughingly, slapping my hand to let go of the lid.

“I’ve made all your favourites. You said you’ll be here for the entire day, but seeing how much I have cooked, I think I am owed a night stay. Your grandmother’s room is yours for the taking.” I laughed and hugged her.


We decided to start the day with her homemade saag. She plopped a fantastical heap of the greeny, leafy and hearty food and tops it with the fattest dollop of ghee I’ve seen. I opened my mouth to protest but she was quick to whirl her wooden ladle right into my mouth; there was never a question of a revolt in a Pakistani kitchen. It is often said in our homes, if the table is silent, the food is great and the people are hungry. You cannot beat saag made by experienced hands and I was famished. My silence, however, wasn’t just saag-induced. I ate each morsel of food in anticipation of the worst, because truth be told, I couldn’t handle the thought of Khala Jee’s rejection.


“We got used to this life of secrecy, or stolen moments, it was intimate. When all our hurdles finally left us, it was too good to be true”

It was back in June, and some twink from Islamabad, who most likely lives an incredibly privileged life and is the son of a high-ranking government bureaucrat, had the bright idea to suggest that everyone who is queer and an ally should put up a pride flag emoji on their profile. Harmless, I thought back then. It’s an emoji, plus there’s some deniability, it’s not like I’m posting photos of my tongue down my partner’s throat. June passed, and the emoji stayed up. It’s not like I didn’t use Twitter, I used it quite a bit, but it seemed so trivial to go into my profile, “edit profile”, and remove a measly emoji. Who the hell had that kind of time? Looking back, that journey was hardly ten seconds long, I should have just done it.


Twitter is built much like an arena; the expectation is that you will fight when the time comes; it could be something asinine as biryani with or without potatoes but it could also be something as life-defining as trans rights in the country. I believe it was a fight about the latter on that particular day. A faceless account fought on the wrong side of the debate; the denial of trans lives and trans rights, where I fought for it. Their arguments eventually ran out, so they went for the jugular: “Uff, just look at that rainbow flag, u fucking gay, hope u rot in hell! Go to America and find an ass to fuck. Dont bring ur dirtyness 2 pakistan.”


Being gay in Pakistan is a dangerous game, but one I keep playing nonetheless. Sitting on the other side of the screen, I committed the cardinal sin. Aggressively, I typed, “So what if I’m gay, I’m entitled to my thoughts, and my thought right now is that you’re oh so wrong”, and I pressed send. Once something is said on the internet, it cannot be unsaid.


I knew she had seen it; how couldn’t she have? Everyone else had seen it. Maybe that was part of my reason for coming over. Would she be yet another slamming door, rejected call, or seen-zoned WhatsApp message? When my mother found out I was visiting Khala Jee, she asked me not to stress out “her” aunt. A tweet, hardly 280 characters, removed me from the “our” of family. I expected at every turn on my way to her house, in the kitchen and on the way to that dining table, to be turned away, but we sat there, in silence.


I looked at her intently. Khala Jee and I ate together, but she sat there, hunched over her food. I could tell she was scrutinising herself, the sizes of the grains left inside, the spice levels, or how runny the entire thing was. She had always had a short haircut, and of late, she’d been dying her hair with mehndi, leaving it with a beautiful rust sheen. Her hair was suspended in straight strands, clearly a result of her brushing her hair hard with her iconic plastic brush. That brush had no handle, it had a strap that attached to her palm, and then she’d rub her palm over her head, making the brushing easier, but for her it meant a harsher brush. She loved the sensation. When we used to get ready for school, we’d beg our mother to brush our hair the way Khala Jee did it, and she’d wince at the sound of the bristles scrape against our scalps. She’d flick the brush away and proclaim how only Khala Jee can stomach such a harsh brush.


I kept thinking about addressing the elephant in the room. I didn’t even know if the elephant was in the room or in my heart, but I had to know what she thought about it. I eventually excused myself to go to the bathroom, I just needed to splash some water on my face. The bathroom required anyone to go through her room to enter it, so I began that process but was stopped in my tracks by a massive TV in the middle of her room.

“My my, Khala Jee! Look at your fancy new TV!” I said, as I walked through.


“Hah! Yes, Saima’s children bought it for me when they stayed over.”


“Oh, I didn’t know they visited you?” I asked from the washroom, as I splashed water on my face.


“It was their first time back since their mother passed away. Their own home is empty now, so they stayed with me.” She laughed about how they were trying to watch some movie on Netflix on her old TV, and how they couldn’t see all too well. As I walked towards her, she revealed that her old TV was still in the other room, the new one was too loud for her. I facepalmed! What will Saima Aunty’s kids think?


“Actually, Saima brought this TV when she came to live with me,” she smiled. “I miss her”, she whispered. I didn’t even hear it, but I could read her lips.


“Absolutely!” I said. “What a difficult year it's been for you, first my grandmother, then your husband, and then Saima Aunty.”


“The world really is cruel. She and I were given too little time together in the end,” she said, almost on the verge of tears.


“What do you mean, Khala Jee?”


Her shoulders dropped, her quivering lips broke into a smile, her face suddenly flushed with colour, her wrinkles more pronounced because of her smile, maybe even her relief. We put our foreheads together as she cupped my face in her hands. We were laughing, we were crying.


Night Music by Dua Abbas Rizvi

She held my hand as she took me towards one of the sofas in the house. In the middle sat a box. It was clearly an old possession of hers, the workmanship was impeccable, as was how ‘solid’ it looked. She wiped the edges with the edge of her dupatta but not a single speck of dust flew up. Khala Jee knew her way around the box. She curved her body in such a way so as to give herself the best shot of opening it herself. She finally lifted the lid and the smile that shone on her face was just so spectacular. The box was laden with photos, with opened envelopes and there were clothes too, neatly tucked away. It was no regular box; it was a living memorial. She picked up a photo from the top of the piles she had so carefully curated.


With the edge of her dupatta, she wiped it and held it in between her fingers. It was a photo of her and of Saima Aunty, young girls standing in front of a wall taken over by a thriving creeper plant. They stood arm in arm, leaning on one another, so incredibly happy. It said, at the back in Urdu, “Fareeda and Saima, National College of Arts, 1963”. She handed me another one, Khala Jee standing over Saima Aunty, both laughing as Khala Jee constructed a flower crown on Saima Aunty’s head.


She was shuffling through some envelopes. Her energy had shifted. She looked over her envelopes far more slowly than she looked through the photos. With each envelope she’d sit back down at the side, she’d fold more and more into herself. I kept busy by only looking at the photos, the envelopes probably had letters, and it seemed too much of an intrusion to see those.


“I was the first to get married. We both realised our true feelings as I left home. The village people thought I cried as much as I did because I was my father’s youngest child, but I cried because I knew I would never be happy. Saima cried too, I could hear it in between my sobs. I didn’t see her when I left my house, and a week later, I couldn’t bring myself to attend her wedding.”


I stretched my hand over the box. I felt her bones under her skin, her throbbing veins in which her life’s blood travelled.


“We both lived unhappy lives, but these letters became our life. Saima was lucky that she had children, she was able to build a life, she had a buffer between herself and her husband. I wasn’t so lucky.”


She laughed again at her life’s continued misfortune. She recounted how Saima’s husband died just as their fourth child was born. She opened a letter and read out how relieved Saima felt when that happened. Of course, she was worried, economically speaking, she did have a mountain to climb, but she asked in her letter for Khala Jee’s help.


“They were my children too, you know”.


She talked about how her husband moving to Qatar for an oil rig job was their big break, and how they lived their lives for those years looking over their shoulders always.


“We got used to this life of secrecy, or stolen moments, it was intimate. When all our hurdles finally left us, it was too good to be true. It was nice to have her, for myself, for once. And that’s all the time I got with her, that tiny moment of ‘once’. She died so suddenly; I couldn’t tell her one last time how much I loved her.”


“She knew.” I said, crying, my hand pointing to the box.


We walked out of her home, passed the then quiet ducks and silently drove to the graveyard. Khala Jee bought flower petals to shower on the grave, I bought a separate pack too. As we walked by, the yard’s keeper passed by to say their salaams, Khala Jee waved and smiled back. Saima Aunty’s grave had a tiny slab in front of it, covered in marble, before I could even ask why, I saw Khala Jee take a seat on it. We prayed our fatihas, and Khala Jee began talking, not to me, but to Saima Aunty. She talked about her day, and how she had told me about their last few days together. I looked on, grateful that they had each other at the end, but so bitterly angry that they had to spend even a moment apart. They suffered in silence. In these times, I suffered too, but in obnoxious abandon.



 



Arslan Athar is a writer based out of Lahore. He loves to explore identity, gender, and morality in his stories. He was a 2021 South Asia Speaks fellow, and got to work with Pakistani author, Fatima Bhutto, on his novel manuscript.











Dua Abbas Rizvi is a visual artist and writer from Lahore, Pakistan, and an alumna of the National College of Arts, Lahore (2010). Her work has been exhibited at home and abroad, notably as part of projects exploring faith, migration, and intercultural encounters, such as Stations of the Cross (New York), Out of Our Comfort Zone (Washington, D.C.), and Healing in Colour (Vancouver). It was also recently acquired by the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts and Religion in Washington, D.C. and shown at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, as part of a series of meditations on art.

Rizvi’s writings on art and culture, with a focus on South Asia and the arts of the Islamic world, have been regularly published in newspapers and journals of repute, including Dawn, Herald, The Friday Times, and The Aleph Review. She has also contributed essays to Encounters: The Art of Interfaith Dialogue (Brepols), the Encyclopedia of the Bible and its Reception (De Gruyter), Image Journal (for which she serves as an editorial advisor), and Selvedge Magazine. In 2022, she was awarded a South Asia Speaks Fellowship to develop her first book, a graphic memoir.

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