Excerpted from Bina Shah’s then-upcoming novel ‘Before She Sleeps’ (Delphinium Books 2018), a feminist dystopian text dealing with a society in the near future that has decimated its female population through a mix of gender selection, selective sex abortion, and warfare. A longer excerpt appeared in The Aleph Review Vol. 1 (2017).
My mother was religious. She believed in God, and she taught me to fear Him, though I did not love Him the way I love my mother. My mother did not have good hair, like mine. My hair is long and thick, it hangs down past my waist. My mother’s hair was short and fragile, breaking away in strands around her head that she found on her pillow every morning.
“Let me oil your hair for you,” I would tell her on days that we were at peace, not war, days when we were friends, as much as a fourteen year-old and her mother can be friends. “Come, Ma. Sit down here. The oil is warm, just the way you like it.”
“Na, na, Rupa,” my mother replied. “My hair is weak. I haven’t time. I have a hundred things to do.”
But I would still insist, and then it was my fingers that would massage her scalp while she closed her eyes and luxuriated in the unexpected pleasure.
“Ma, can I have a nosepin like yours?” I said quickly, hoping my hands in her hair could coax her into agreement. I had always admired my mother’s nosepin, the sparkling diamond that twinkled from the side of her nose. It seemed to me the ultimate sign of being grownup and of being beautiful.
“No, and don’t ask me again,” said my mother, dashing my hopes. “You’re not old enough yet.”
I pursed my lips in disappointment, but with her back to me, she couldn’t see my pout. I tried another tack. “Ma, you were right about the oil. You said it would make my hair strong and look, it has. It will do the same for you.”
“My time for looking beautiful has gone. It’s your turn now.”
And somehow her praise was a good substitute for a nosepin, for the time being. And somehow those words that slipped out of her in that unguarded moment were a prayer that God heard directly and made happen, because I became beautiful the day after she said those words. You won’t believe me, but it’s true. That night, I went to bed an ugly, scrawny, gawky thing and in the morning when I woke up and the early sunlight warmed me, it turned my skin from dark gravel into smooth butter. My breasts blossomed and my hips widened, my legs lengthened, and my waist thinned. My hair settled from frizzy spider’s web to moth’s silken wings. My eyes grew large and liquid and my bulbous lips and big nose shrank to fit my face perfectly, which had become a burnished opal overnight.
I was beautiful and my mother had made it happen. She had spoken her words in some special combination, made some bargain with God when I was asleep at night, I don’t know what she did. But it worked, and when I came down to breakfast that morning both my father and brother Zee stared at me as if I were a stranger sitting in the chair, while my mother smiled and said nothing. But her eyes met mine and said everything.
At first, I was enchanted by my own loveliness, and spent many hours locked in the bathroom and staring in the mirror, lifting my hair up off my neck to see the curve of my spine, holding my breasts high and enjoying the weight of them in my hands. I would shift my thighs and point my toes and admire the way the lines of my body moved up in one direction, towards parts of me that were equally beautiful but mysterious, harder to see in a mirror.
Now, when my mother called me to sit in front of her with the oil and the comb, I rushed to bring them to her, and crouched at her feet, holding the oil in my hands and smiling at myself as the thousands of tiny feet marched all over my scalp and the odour of mustard seed offended my nostrils. I would do anything to keep my hair shining and thick like this, so that when I held it my fist could not close completely around it.
“Now can I get a nosepin?”
“Rupa, stop bothering me. You’re pretty enough. You don’t need a nosepin.”
Again, my mother’s compliments were like honey, but that kind of beauty has its price; it took away my peace. And beauty without peace is torture, a curse that befalls an entire family. And in my family, I can’t tell who was more cursed, me or my brother Zee. Poor Zee!
Bina Shah is a writer of English fiction and a journalist living in Karachi, Pakistan. She is the author of five novels and two collections of short stories. She is a regular columnist for The New York Times, Dawn, The Huffington Post and Al Jazeera, and has written for The Independent and The Guardian. Her fiction and non-fiction essays have been published in Granta, Wasafiri, The Istanbul Review, Bengal Lights, Cha and Critical Muslim.
Note on the Artwork: Kamal Hayat is a Lahore-based, self-taught painter. He first exhibited his work in 2006 at the Nomad Gallery. Since then he's showcased his work several times in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.