PARTITION: SIDRAH HAQUE
Sidrah Haque lives in her birth city of Lahore, Pakistan. She has completed a Masters in Public Administration and is currently a part of the Civil Service of Pakistan. She enjoys European cinema, writing, magical realism, and Latin American poetry. She hopes to pen a novel someday.
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She leaned delicately against the railing, the insides of her hands catching flakes of rust as they fisted the fat arms of the corroded bar.
She was gazing intently into the sky, scooping cold, fat raindrops with her tongue. She squeezed her eyes hard in wonder as she looked directly above, trying to see just where the tumbling dark clouds turned into flecks of rain. She gave up quickly when she was hit in the eyes.
Nadia Madiwala, a precocious child born into privilege. But privilege came with its drawbacks, for young women in the 1990s in the setting of urban Sindh. For her, it included being trapped inside the courtyard of the house, unable to traipse the wonderment of the noisy, colorful, hawker-laden street throbbing just outside the metal gate. It meant an hour a day spent reciting the Quran, with Moulvi sahib who, on most days, fell asleep to the iambic sing-song of Nadia's recitation. And privilege even meant decking up in jamavar and ghotta dresses, which scratched her legs, as she attempted to pose lady-like on special occasions for boring guests.
But Nadia had a "strong disposition", as it was fondly referred to within the family. With three brothers and two other sisters to contend with, some would say it was a mere survival technique. However, unlike her sisters, the pretend tea parties weren't adventurous enough for her spirits. And her brothers had their own boyish devices she could never seem to be a part of. Left on her own, the charmingly intelligent Nadia resorted to a world of imagination; one in which ladybirds crawling over leaves were on secret missions, where lizards were ancient relics of the dinosaur era and bats that hovered low during evening were miniature witches waiting to get tangled in your hair. This helped partially fill the gap left by a badly-needed playmate, however it was the lives of the non-Madiwala occupants of the house that essentially kept Nadia engaged.
There was Saleem, the cook who created quite a culinary eclipse with his savory-spicy dishes. Saleem was from a deep pocket of Punjab, a place where spicy Spinach, corn bread and goat's cheese were the staples of a regular meal. Saleem, with his special Biryani mix that no packet masala could contend with, and his perfectly-rounded chappatis was always seen decked in apron, armed with wooden spoon. He was an authority on the use of tangy imli and aloo-bukhara, putting in a perfect proportion in almost everything he made.
And just like his dishes, Saleem was sweet, mysterious and scandalous. He had married for love once, but was forced to divorce his wife after she raised objections over his impotence. His second marriage came about when it was discovered Saleem wasn't as impotent as he was meant to be. This changing of wives cost Saleem four months, and nearly his job with the Madiwalas. But eventually, his return was welcomed, however late, and the temporary replacement quickly shown the door.
Saleem brought mithai for the entire neighborhood, saving a special batch of Gulab Jamuns for his favorite Madiwala, Nadia. He quickly caved into her pleading and gave Nadia a rundown of the marriage. From the fireworks that almost burned out the eye of a younger cousin, to the coach bus he hired for the wedding guests. It was a sweet, satisfying fair, Nadia could tell from Saleem's countenance.
But it was all a little too much for the grumpy chowkidaar, Khalid, to take. Missing teeth, a lazy eye and a hunchback, all added to give an even grouchier air about him. Chai addict and beetle leaf lover, he was Nadia's least favorite help around the house. After all, it was Uncle Khalid that stood guard at the metal gate, ensuring she stayed in, and all the tempting, noisy spectacles of the road, stayed out.
And then there was the noisy, good-natured Juhie – who had raised the girls of the house. Initially hired as a nanny, the girls had now grown out of the need for one. But loyal Juhie stayed behind. She now played the role of maid; she kept the house clean, ventured occasionally into the kitchen to make her signature mango pickles, and kept the front and back gardens tidy.
Nadia, who adored Juhie, was shocked to discover that wasn't her real name. She had walked into a conversation in the kitchen one day that gave her world a slight tumble.
"- and I told maa ji that I just didn't want to remarry right now, but she doesn't listen, the old bird."
"Well I agree with her. After that no-good Saima left you, why should you suffer."
"You know… mother asked about you"
"As a potential bride… Obviously, I said Juhie wouldn't remarry"
"Have you.. have you heard from that bastard?"
"Khalid was telling me he married a Hyderabadi girl, and has a baby on the way."
"Irshad... don't you think it's time you lived your life as well?"
"I am living. And don't ever call me by that name again, lest Begum Sahiba hears."
Nadia slowly walked away after silence penetrated into the kitchen. She was confused, and angry. She knew she shouldn't have listened in onto Saleem and Juhie, but she couldn't help wondering what scars Juhie...or Irshad...was hiding from her past life. The disturbed child never quite gathered the courage to ask.
Eid that year was in the throe of monsoon. That morning, Nadia was unsure whether it was the scent of sweetened vermicelli or the pitter-pat of raindrops that awoke her. She spilled out of bed, imagining the vermicelli Saleem made that literally melted in the mouth. Just as she entered the kitchen, she walked in on a crackle of laughter. Juhie was in her usual high spirits. The cause of which seemed to be a boy of Nadia's height, who stood with his back to the kitchen entrance. Juhie glanced at Nadia and quickly motioned her over. The boy turned. Nadia met with the simple face of a wide-eyed, chocolate skinned boy with white teeth. He grinned widely.
"Come here, Nado! Meet Arsalan, my nephew! He's come to spend Eid with us!"
Nadia consumed this information slowly, evaluating the potential of a new playmate for the day. Before she could say much in return however, she heard her mother's voice ring through the hallway. Nadia quickly turned and sped: the consequences of being downstairs and not in the lavish fancy dress laid out on her bed, would be dire.
The day rolled over in a haze of relatives pouring in through the metal gate, guarded today by a mild-mannered Uncle Khalid. The men of the house had returned early morning after Eid prayers in the nearby mosque. The tables were groaning under the weight of mithai that arrived with every new batch of visitors. Eid was a particularly satisfying occasion for the children of the household: even Nadia couldn't resist putting up a smile in exchange for all the eidee she collected. Eidee, or gifts of money, were the highlight for the very young. Amounts both big and small, depending on the social status of the giver, were happily lapped up. The great thing about this day - in a society where money is commonly given as a gift on even the most minor of festivities - was that no amount was too big. The children kept their share away from the inquiring eyes of their parents, and would use it up in the weeks to come on an obnoxious amount of toffees, toys and firecrackers.
Nadia spent Eid day tagging alongside Arsalan, the chocolate-skinned boy, narrowly escaping the wrath of her mother, thanks to the bevy of callers. Arsalan was loud, made up adventures in the backyard, and taught Nadia in a remarkably short amount of time, the various weapons one could make from a lemon tree. Just before lunch time came around, Juhie called out to both the young children.
"Come here you two – Lunch is nearly ready"
"But we only just got started, Khala!"
"Enough... inside now."
As Nadia entered, Juhie removed a loose twig from her hair and straightened her lengha. Nadia didn't fight off the attempt, instead made her way to the pot Saleem was intently working upon.
"Wait", said Juhie, pulling her back. "I have something for you."
Nadia looked up to her, confused. Juhie smiled widely and deposited a fresh red currency note into the palm of her hand. The young child looked up again to Juhie's smile and returned it.
"Let's not tell your mother about this, hm?" Juhie's eyes betrayed worry lines.
Nadia nodded her head before heading towards the dining table.
Saleem had prepared quite a feast. Eid was an excuse to go all out. Steaming dishes of haleem, accompanied with slivers of ginger and green chillies led the main course, along with a warm pot of biryani colored the table. Decadent qeema naans rested alongside a vast array of salads. Koftas as big as Nadia's fist and fried pieces of chicken filled up the space. The Madiwala family had quickly filed into their seats, not wanting to miss a moment.
Through the course of the meal, light banter was exchanged, eidee figures secretly compared, and evening plans laid out.
However, at that fateful moment, Nadia turned to grab for the bowl of raita sitting snugly near the edge of the table. As she reached out, her gaze fell upon her elbow where rested a large grass-green locust, its antennas dancing wildly about.
Nadia let out a blood curling scream, shaking her arm, her plate crashing to the floor. The Madiwalas jumped from their chairs, father extremely angry at the commotion. But even after one of the boys had removed and stomped crunchily on the offending locust, Nadia's father had nowhere near restored his calm. He ordered his daughter to her room, spitting and shouting about the lack of decorum, and her unladylike behavior.
The scared girl grew even more scared. She quickly stumbled to her room, continually swiping at her elbow, where she could swear the creepy crawly was still resting.
Once in her room, Nadia let the full force of her tears be known to her pillow. She whimpered as the minutes passed, and could sense that someone had entered the room, and sat on her bed.
She turned to see. It was Arsalan – worry etched onto his face.
"Nado, are you alright? What happened?"
Arsalan inched closer, so he could hear over the hiccups of his friend. When Nadia had reached the part where her father went ballistic, Arsalan pursed his lips, reaching out for the young girl, patting her back.
"It's okay Nado, everything will be okay."
Suddenly Nadia's mother entered into the room. Her eyes fell onto the young boy, and then on his hand resting atop her daughter's back.
Without missing a beat, she hurled a shout at the boy, grabbed him by the arms, and dragged him outside the door. Nadia heard on in shock.
A commotion had begun just outside her room, with her mother yelling out accusations at the young boy. Suddenly, Nadia heard her father's voice bellow through the walls, and finally the low hum of Juhie's pleading.
Nadia hoped she was dreaming, and all the shouting and screaming wasn't really going on. She knew she had done something wrong, and this too, was somehow her fault. But when no one came into her room, she was relieved and overwhelmed with the day's emotion, barely fighting off sleep.
Nadia awoke to the florescent light of the back garden streaming into her room. In was night time. She had been asleep for many hours. She got out of bed, the dull pain of the evening's events coming back to her.
She slowly treaded to her door, listening. Sensing that the coast was clear, Nadia carefully made her way to the only source of life in the house – the kitchen. She carefully glanced into the entrance. Both Saleem and Juhie were silently fixing up a quick dinner, unusual since Juhie was rarely allowed into Saleem's domain.
Juhie looked up at Nadia, her eyes red.
"We've made dinner for you – I'll bring it to your room"
"Where is everybody?"
"Gone to meet relatives."
"Oh… can't I eat here with you?"
"No. I'll bring dinner to your room."
Juhie looked away, lost for words, heartbreak apparent from her frame.
Juhie gazed at Nadia, with what seemed like anger and indignation.
"Where he belongs. Now go upstairs, before I call up Begum sahiba."
Nadia was lost for words. It was as if her soul had been torn in two. She headed upstairs to her room, quickly reaching under her pillow. Taking that crisp red note that rested under it, she tore it up and threw it into the trash.