At the gate of her bungalow, Razia stood under the mango tree. In the early summer, its fruit was no good: small and yellow-green, with fibrous meat. The mangoes fell, rotted, and attracted swarms of gnats, which flew into Razia’s house and died in her lamps.
Her youngest child, Shahryar, ran up to her and clutched the hem of her salwar kamiz. When Razia uncurled his small fingers from the fabric, he began to pout and whimper. “Not now, beta. Amma will be back soon.” Gently, she pushed him back down the path and through the doorway. “Jasmeen!” she said. “Come take your brother! Stay inside while I’m gone!”
“Ah, Amma,” Jasmeen called back lazily from the verandah. Razia shook her head. Such a beautiful woman, praise God, and with a presence, too. But she spent all day lounging in the garden, napping or chatting with her sister, Tahmina, reading novels and sipping chai. She was already nineteen-years-old, but she acted as if she had no understanding of how much Razia had to settle for her. Even now, it was Tahmina who came to take her brother, her broad nose gleaming, the muscles in her neck bulging like a man’s. At least she, who was only fifteen, did well in school and stood a chance yet of being accepted to university.
“Tahmina!” she said. “Hosh me raho! Stay aware! Allah hafiz!” She closed the door behind her, turned the lock, and left.
The house Razia lived in stood on top of a hill, two miles from the center of Karachi. After the war of 1971 had taken Razia’s husband and her home in Dhaka, the government had allowed her family to live here: a two-story bungalow with mosaic tiles, stone archways, and a wrought-iron gate. It had running hot water and a full kitchen, a raised verandah, and a balcony. What a guise of luxury! No wonder Jasmeen acted the way she did. Soon it would all be taken away. The government intended to destroy the property and turn it into a microwave tower; beyond the house, other buildings were already being demolished. On her way to the street, Razia passed those felled manors, putting her hands over her ears to muffle the sound of the sledgehammers. Some of the construction workers eyed her as she passed and some cat-called. She crossed her arms and glared at them, praying her daughters would stay inside as she told them to.
From the main road Razia took an auto-rickshaw down Victoria Street, passing Palace Hotel and the movie theater. The road was wide and hazy; small automobiles passed, raising dirt. Before the war, her husband had made enough to hire a full-time chauffeur who had driven Razia all over Dhaka in his black car. Now, the only income Razia received was her husband’s posthumous pension and whatever meager savings her eldest son, Rashid, sent back from America. Altogether it was a fraction of the wealth she’d once had.
The driver passed Clifton, a neighborhood of seaside mansions, and dropped Razia at the mouth of the Old City. “Sorry sahiba, the street is too narrow,” he said. “I can’t go any further.”
She paid him and exited, wringing the Moulana’s crumpled address in her hands. Even after three years of living in Karachi, finding the right house in this part of the city was difficult. The streets were narrow and divergent, often unmarked. She made her way through bazaars, avoiding the storekeepers throwing pails of water into the path. She could have asked any passerby to take her to the Moulana’s doorstep, but Razia didn’t want the news of her jawaan daughter to spread. Instead, she asked an old woman for the next street, and another for the next, and in this way, she picked her way through huts and carts until she reached the white face of the Moulana’s house. An overgrown rosebush crowded into the doorway, and a woman wearing a black chadar opened the door to invite her in; it was the Moulana’s wife.
“Come in,” she said, and Razia obliged, following her into a room with a green Persian carpet, the design faded in places from, Razia assumed, hours of supplication and prostration. She sat against the wall on a low cushion, beside which a few roses were scattered, still on their stalks. Razia put her finger to one of the flowers, tracing the woody stem, pressing a thorn. The Moulana’s wife had disappeared into the kitchen and now brought back a tray with ginger chai and sweets. Next to the teapot was a small tin in which Razia could see coins glinting.
The Moulana’s wife flipped the front of her chadar over her head so it hung around her neck like a cape. “My husband follows strict parda,” she said, “He does not see women. But I can relay a message.”
Razia frowned. She would have preferred to address the Moulana directly—what did he have to fear from a covered widow like herself, far past her youth? Her husband, a secular man, would have shaken his head at her coming here. Whatever came of faith except conflict? he would say. Still, Razia thought, if only he’d had more faith. If only he had prayed more.
“Sister,” said the Moulana’s wife. She sat beside Razia on the sofa and touched her shoulder. Her hair was thin and flat, her face sunken but kind. “Tell me. The Moulana is a busy man.” She pointed to the window, where a very old woman had arrived and now waited to be received. She was leaning on the wall with both hands clutching the top of her cane, her white hair in a braid thinner than Razia’s pinky finger.
“Ji, excuse me,” Razia said, and began. “Look, sahiba. My eldest girl is almost twenty years old, and she has no appropriate suitors. I am new in this city, you see, my husband was killed in the war of 1971 and we had to flee here from Dhaka. So now I am all alone, and I don’t know which families are decent. And sahiba, I have no money for a dowry, either. I have a four-year-old boy to feed. I have another daughter who is still in school, praise God—maybe she will even go to college—”
The Moulana’s wife put up a hand, offered an understanding nod and stood. “The Moulana will pray for you,” she said, then paused, eyeing Razia expectantly.
“Oh,” she mumbled, and pulled out a few rupees and coins from her handbag, dropping them into the tin on the chai cart. The Moulana’s wife looked pleased as she shuffled into the hidden quarters where her husband sat in prayer.
Across the room, Razia noticed a transistor radio: a wooden box with silver dials. A decade ago, her husband had brought home the same model. Razia recalled tuning the radio to the Bollywood channel, singing with her daughters to Noor Jahan: Zindagi kay safar, me akele they hum…
When civil war came to Dhaka, Razia no longer had the stomach for music or singing. At all hours—even when the shelling and shrieking from the streets quieted, even when her husband and children managed to fall asleep—she would kneel with her ear to the speaker, tuning the radio a degree here or there, praying for news, any news. But how poorly the news reflected reality! How poorly it prepared her to search for her husband, to stumble past the smoking bungalows, to stumble over corpses. Muhammad! She flipped each body supine, but discovered only bloated faces she didn’t recognize. One had no nose, only a triangle of congealed blood above his mouth. Muhammad!
“Ah!” She felt a sharp pain and jerked her hand to her eye. A thorn had lodged into her finger pad. She pulled it out and watched the skin redden.
“My sister! Are you alright?” The Moulana’s wife stood in front of her again.
“Yes, sahiba,” she said, putting her thumb on the cut. “Excuse me.”
The Moulana’s wife smiled. “Your daughter will marry a fine man, God willing.” She passed Razia a slip with a hand-written duah. “Read this every morning, have faith, and be patient. It will not take long!”
“God willing,” Razia repeated. She rose to leave, and the very old woman who was waiting by the rosebush hobbled in behind her.
The following morning, Razia woke Jasmeen before dawn and taught her the verses. She kept count with her husband’s old tasbih; by the time the first light filtered through the window, they had recited the prayer three hundred times. It was Friday, and Razia wanted to take advantage of the holy day. She left Shahryar in Tahmina’s care and brought Jasmeen to the tomb of a famous Sufi; there, it was said, her prayers had a better chance of being answered. But Jasmeen swung her full hips as she walked, twirling her scarf in her hands no matter how Razia admonished her to keep it on her head. When they meandered through the bazaar, the young vendors called after her, offering gifts; when she passed through the construction plots, the workers hooted at her, too. For the rest of the weekend, Razia kept Jasmeen in the house.
On Sunday, Razia paid visits to the few good families she knew. There was Dr. Shah’s son, who had also fled with his family from Dhaka, and was now in medical school himself; there was the young lawyer, Mohsin, whose grandfather had been friends with her own father before the war. Though their families received Razia with sweets and well-wishes, they turned down her proposal. Why would they choose her daughter, beautiful as she was, when there were other daughters of doctors, other young ladies earning professional degrees? Ladies with money, with living fathers?
When Razia returned she found two construction workers blocking the gate of her home. They wore dirty banyans and khakis stained with whitewash; they swore and smoked cigarettes. Their crew had begun to demolish some of the neighboring houses, and seeing them so close to her own doorway made Razia feel tight-chested.
“Ey!” she said.
They faced her. The taller one flung his cigarette onto the black dirt where it smoldered. Razia tried not to appear unsettled by his smile. Beyond them stood the mango tree, and she wished she could hold a fruit in her fist, ready to throw.
“Sahiba ji,” the tall one said. “What do you want, sahiba?” There was mocking light in his eyes. He crossed his arms.
“I need to get through. This is my house. Step away!” She stood with her legs wide. The men towered above her, but she turned her chin up and glared.
They exchanged glances, smirking. The shorter one chuckled, releasing a cloud of smoke. “Hear that? Her house, eh?”
“Think she’ll keep the rocks when we’re done?”
“Probably wants them in a jute sack, to sell at the market.”
“Hah! If she’s lucky she’ll make a rupee or two.”
“There’s another way she can make a rupee or two.” He looked her up and down, tipping his head over hers. “Maybe three, eh? I hear they’re hiring on Napier Road.”
“Chup!” Razia exclaimed. She put her hands on her hip and stood her ground. “Shut up! Let me pass!”
Their faces gleamed with grease. The taller one curled his muscled shoulders up to his ears. “Actually,” he said. “She looks like a respectable lady. Maybe she’d be better to have for a mother-in-law, no? Two of us, two of them? And they’re pretty too. Praise God.”
“Praise God!” repeated the shorter one. “Hard to find a pretty girl these days! Especially the tall one. Such long-long hair. Oof! Why don’t you have us in for a chai, sahiba? I’ll save you the rocks.”
“Bah!” Razia said again, louder. She heard her voice echo. “Kutti ki awlaad! Stay away from my house! I have no daughters for your lot!”
The men looked at each other and laughed. “Areh baap! Sons of bitches! Hear that?”
As they chuckled, Razia thought about sliding past them towards the gate; but they could easily follow her in. “Kutti ki awlaad.” She raised her fists.
“Leave her alone!”
It was Jasmeen’s voice. She stood between the iron grating, her long hair wild to her waist, her eyes almost green in the sunlight. She was brandishing Razia’s meat knife with both hands. Her salwar kamiz was translucent, and Razia could see the outline of her brassiere, heaving up and down with her quick breaths. Oh Jasmeen! Razia couldn’t make a sound. Jasmeen would have been better off letting her mother save herself. “Let her through!” Jasmeen shouted.
The construction workers fixed their gaze on Razia’s daughter and started whistling. “Put the knife down, sweetheart,” said the shorter one. “Let me buy you a Pashmina shawl. No dowry required, eh?”
“Thuk!” Jasmeen spat at his feet. “What a common gift from such an ugly man.” She lifted the meat knife higher, her sleeves falling to her elbows, revealing her slim forearms.
He stopped laughing but licked his lower lip. “Teek-hai,” he said, still smiling. “Put that away, we’re leaving.” He drew a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, nodded at his partner, and blew smoke into Razia’s face. The taller one rammed her with his shoulder as he walked away.
Razia followed Jasmeen through the gate and into the house. Once in the foyer, she couldn’t stop shaking. Tahmina rushed to her side, rubbing her shoulders and guiding her to the bedroom where she lay down. Her daughters massaged her feet.
“Bastards,” Razia said, “they need to be beaten with shoes.”
Shahryar ran into the room in his underwear, wailing. His scrawny shoulders bulged with the force of his crying. “Amma!” he said, “I’m hungry!”
“Sh!” Razia jerked up, putting her hand over her son’s mouth. She pulled her feet out of her daughters’ grasp. Jasmeen’s high cheeks shimmered, her eyes glowed, and her hair fell full and black and thick. She had inherited Razia’s fair skin, Razia’s pouting, inquisitive mouth. Razia wanted to rip the sheet from the bed and wrap it around her, covering her daughter from head to toe.
“What do you do all day on the verandah?” she said. “Lounging like a cat, like no one is looking! And such badmaash all around! Why can’t you keep your hair in a braid?”
“What else can I do, Amma?” said Jasmeen. “You don’t let me go anywhere, anyway. And it’s not so dangerous.” She shrugged her shoulders. “Men like to shout but they are harmless.”
“Have you gone completely insane? Harmless?” She shook her head, feeling her throat tighten. “Fully grown and you can’t even feed your brother. When I was your age I was feeding you!”
Jasmeen exchanged a glance with Tahmina. “Amma, calm down,” she said, “I made lentils and rice, but he didn’t want any.”
“I want beef!” shouted Shahryar, breaking out of his mother’s hold.
“Beef! He wants beef. Where in the world will I get money for meat? Are you going to find it?” She jammed her finger into her boy’s chest, and he squirmed away into Tahmina’s arms.
“Let us work, then!” Tahmina said. “I’ve had enough of school. I can learn to cut hair at the lady’s salon, and Jasmeen can work at one of the hotels on Victoria Street—”
“No!” Razia said. Her face was wet and her nose ran. “You won’t work such common jobs like bad women. Shame on you!”
Tahmina hung her head. Jasmeen put her hands on her hips with an amused look on her face that angered Razia even further. “Harmless, eh? Do you remember what happened to your father?”
“Go change your clothes! You look like a hooker.”
Jasmeen’s face darkened. She knit her brow, a new coolness in her gaze. She opened her mouth as if to say something, but instead snatched Shahryar’s hand and left the room. Tahmina followed her out, closing the door.
After a few minutes, Razia rose from bed. She stepped onto the balcony, which overlooked the veranda to the left, and to the right the branches of the mango tree spilling around the corner of the house. Beyond, down the hill, the construction had stopped for the day and it was quiet. Where there had once been a row of houses were now piles of rubble: stones, bits of scalloping, and dismembered beams.
On her balcony, Razia caught a whiff of smoke and her breathing quickened. She started panting. No matter she had been allowed to live in this house, this rich-person’s bungalow, for years without paying a single paisa of rent. No matter she was far from the slum, no matter she had a Western toilet, no matter there were fruit trees in the yard making sweet-sour fragrance. Soon, it would all be taken away. She closed her eyes and saw her husband, smiling as he pulled a sheet off the new transistor radio. If he were still alive, perhaps he would have sent both her daughters to college. By now, perhaps, they would have all been in America, where such problems of marriage and honor were muted, and far less was at stake.
Razia thought she might recite the Moulana’s prayer but felt a different chant bubbling on her tongue. “Ya Allah!” she said. “Almighty taker, for what you take you must provide!” Was it blasphemous to demand from God in this way? It was not blasphemous to demand what you deserve, she decided. “I am the one who deserves to demand.”
The sky reddened with the setting sun behind her. From a hidden perch, a koyal bird screeched. And already on the veranda, Jasmeen thwacked a broom around, her hair loose, singing. “Zindagi kay safar, me akele they hum!”
The next day, tired of the flies at her doorstep, Razia cut all the low-hanging mangoes from the tree before her house. She did so with violent swings of her meat knife, staring intermittently at the gate. In the afternoon, she saw the construction workers again on the other side of the iron; she smelled their cigarettes and heard their snide laughter.
“Madame, ji! Madame!” they called.
“Get out of here!” Razia said. This time, she chucked some of the raw, hard fruit in their direction, which they easily dodged, laughing harder.
“Areh, sahiba,” said the taller one. “Can’t a couple of boys have fun?” They turned their backs to the gates, continuing to smoke. Razia made loud grunts, slashing the hard bark so the metal rang, leaving thick divots in the wood. If the workers had stayed long enough, she might have felled the whole tree in her anger, but in a little while they left.
A day passed, and then another, bringing similar encounters with the construction workers. But as crudely as they may have shouted, they never attempted to scale the gate or the fence surrounding the house. When Razia swept the veranda after the late noon prayer, she didn’t find the construction workers peeking from the lemon and fig trees there, which had boughs close to the ground. Razia didn’t leave the house much anyway; she prepared jars of spicy pickle from the mangoes and kept a close eye on Jasmeen, who she continued to awaken every morning before dawn to recite the Moulana’s prayer over and over. Then, she would order her to beat the carpets and scrub the clothes and wash the floors until the skin under her eyes sagged with fatigue.
Another Friday arrived and the construction was put to a halt for the weekend, as was Razia’s vigilance. But when, for the first time in days, she left for the market, Razia found an official notice attached to the gate: in a month, her family would have to vacate the house. One month! And then where?
At the market, she bought only a pound of red lentils and a sack of rice, taking whatever money she had left to the telephone booth by the mosque on Muhammad Ali Jinnah Road. Beggars hung in a column along the carved marble walls of the mosque, holding out their cupped hands, imploring aggressively. As Razia put her coins into the slot beneath the telephone, she watched the beggars through the dusty glass of the booth. There was a girl Tahmina’s age with an eyelid that sagged, exposing the full reddish bottom of her eye. In one arm the girl held a wailing baby.
When Razia had returned to her Dhaka flat after finding her husband, ten-year-old Tahmina had been holding Shahryar at the doorway, waiting. When she saw her mother, the color had left her face, and she pressed Shahryar’s sobs into her flat chest. Razia’s legs shook and where her thighs met, the muscles were cramping, burning with spasm. Amma? Tahmina, knowing something, started to cry. Then Jasmeen and Rashid appeared, and her four children were assembled before her in a staggered, trembling huddle. What news could she bare to deliver?
She had found their father lying dead a few streets away, blood clotting the bullet hole in his chest. As she wept over him in the mud, ignoring the strangled screams echoing in the distance, she had been suddenly overcome by the smell of sweat and urine. Then, her back hit the ground. A man, forehead split with a wide gash, pinning her by the neck. Snarled, reached between her legs, ripped the cotton fabric of her pyjama. Muhammad! she tried to scream, but her throat had closed.
“Hello? Amma?” Her eldest son’s voice came through the line and Razia straightened, taking a few deep breaths. From the mosque’s minarets, the call to prayer began to resound. “Amma?” Rashid said again. “Has someone died?” He was studying on scholarship in a place in America called Iowa, and earned a meager stipend at a lab. She hadn’t spoken to him in months; three minutes on the phone would cost her almost 100 rupees.
“Rashid, beta.” Razia told him about the notice.
“So why are you calling?” His voice sounded raspy through the static. “You should be putting your extra money away to rent a flat.”
“My son,” she said, “I don’t know what to do. Jasmeen is getting older every day. It’s dangerous to leave her unmarried. And Shahryar is growing so fast, and Tahmina is sick of studying—”
“You have been through much worse. Can’t Tahmina do some work? Tutor after school? It will help her with her studies, you’ll see. Here so many ladies work. I’ll find a second job and send more soon. Don’t worry, Amma. It will be okay. There are five of us, aren’t there? You’re not alone. Start looking for a flat. Simpler is better. Make sure Shahryar starts school next year. I’ll sponsor you all to America, one by one.”
“All right,” she said. What else could she say? She hung up and put the phone back in its cradle, feeling ashamed. She rolled the Moulana’s prayer over her tongue.
Having used all her change, Razia had to walk home along the main road. The midafternoon sun pierced a bed of clouds above her and sweat trickled from her armpits down her side, making her worn kamiz cling to her skin. The soles of her chapals had detached from the rest of the shoe and caught the dust in clumps, making it difficult for her to walk. Dark and scrawny men in threadbare shorts drove rikshaws past her, peddling the wealthy from one quarter of the city to the other. Razia had never felt so equal to these drivers, who perhaps struggled to eat even plain lentils for dinner. The bag of rice Razia carried was heavy and dug into her fingers, stretching her arm uncomfortably at the elbow. She thought about the beggar girl with a baby, wishing she had spared a rupee or two.
When Razia returned to her house, the gate beneath the mango tree was wide open—as was the door to the house. “Ya Allah!” she exclaimed, dropping the rice. “Jasmeen!” How stupid she was! How could she have let down her guard! She grabbed a large stone from the yard and ran through the door.
“Jasmeen! Tahmina!” Razia brandished the stone in her fist. How little! How little it took to ruin a woman! A man’s laughter echoed from the veranda behind the house. “Jasmeen!” she yelled, pushing past the stairwell, her heart racing as she approached the back door.
Tahmina blocked her in the foyer. She was carrying Razia’s finest silver tray, holding tea and cake rusks. Her face was freshly washed, and she wore a pink dupatta. She smelled of rosewater. “Amma! What are you doing? We have a visitor!”
“What are you doing with that?” Tahmina pointed with her chin towards Razia’s raised hand. Slowly, Razia dropped her arm by her side but didn’t release the rock. “A visitor, Amma,” Tahmina said again, “an important guest!” She gave her mother a kiss on the cheek and led her to the veranda.
Jasmeen was sitting across from a gray-haired man holding Shahryar in his lap. When Razia entered, he stood, allowing the boy to dash back into the house. The man was wearing a clean white sherwani. He had a hardened face, but there was dignity in his slouch; he bowed his head. “Razia,” he said, “if you can remember, I was a dear friend of your husband in Dhaka. I have come to tell you about my son, who is now a young man. A good man.”
Razia said nothing at first, examining him. He had kind, deep-set eyes, sagging cheeks, a silver beard, and Razia was surprised to find something familiar in his features. He folded his hands, which shook slightly, over his heart. “I’ve startled you,” he said, looking both amused and endeared.
“No,” she said, “please sit again. Welcome.” She relaxed her fist and let the stone fall, then smoothed her dupatta around her head, flushing. “Jasmeen, please pour our guest some chai.”
Languidly, Jasmeen reached for the teapot. Her thick plait caught the evening light and shone.