Featured Image: Waseem Iqbal
This short story was long-listed for the 2019 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Pakistani Women.
. . .
The cancer had metastasized. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen this coming. Nothing Nano did was purposeless. This time she was almost too overt. She was coming over to stay — maybe for a week, for a day, maybe forever.
Since the outward radiation of our family had begun it had never stopped. Slowly but determinedly, they had moved out of the ancestral city of Bahawalpur and moved to different parts of the country, north and south. My parents had traveled the farthest, to Karachi, shunted away from approach — or so we thought.
I feared this invasion for only one reason. Nano was outspoken with a penchant for taking the most unpopular stances possible. She argued because calm acquiescence, or universal agreement, made her uncomfortable. Nano was driven by the compulsion to opine on everything that was exclusively not her business. She used outrageous language simply because she wished to shock. This may seem like a plethora of reasons but it was really only one. I feared Nano because she was like me. I regarded this persona my intellectual property and like Nano, I was territorial.
When Nano came, she was not at all what I had prepared myself for. She chose to move into the small room with the old mattress, showing none of her usual desire to upend everyone else’s routine. She rarely came out of her room to hush us or ask us to turn the TV down because she was working and did not want to be bothered. In fact, whenever I ventured into her room, she seemed to be doing nothing at all.
Even as Nano tried to make her presence as inconspicuous as possible, her inactivity only accentuated my awareness of her presence. She spoke little, and softly. Soon it became unbearable — her concrete but atypically inconsequential existence in the room next to mine.
I decided to bring her some tea, an honor I rarely conferred on anyone. It spilled onto the saucer and stained the sides of the cup and I let it stay as is, knowing that she would be irked and demand another cup served with the etiquette expected off someone my age.
I wasn’t trying to anger her. Not with bad intentions, really. I was only trying to provoke something from her — anything that would indicate she was still Nano and was only having a bad week.
She took the tea noiselessly. Her eyebrows curved like a hook and her mouth stretched open; I was smug and ready to engage her in an argument. But then her face deflated and she turned her attention back to her phone. When I said that it was good etiquette to say thank you, she turned up the volume of a WhatsApp video she had been watching.
The rebuke was too much. I exited her room immediately but in the following days proceeded to initiate a complex investigation into what had brought about her change in behavior.
I was in the last year of school and had to work on college applications. This was my justification for my 16-hour-a-day use of my laptop. But I always had supplementary tabs open, researching Bahawalpur and Satellite Town, making polite but calculated conversation with relatives on Facebook I had added long ago because we had one or two mutual friends but had never cared to indulge much.
I realized, soon, that I didn’t know much about Nano. The intersection of our lives had always been shallow and motive-orientated. She came over to babysit when my parents went out of town, at other times I met her when Ami and Abu fought and Ami decided to pack up and head back to her maternal home.
These latter protests were staged about three times a year and were short and quickly resolved. They never lasted more than three days, and we were not really stakeholders. All three of us siblings were just baggage that Ami towed along — with some leverage value, if anything. One of the reasons Ami’s walkouts never sustained beyond 72 hours was that Nano was never complicit in, or supportive of, them. She unwaveringly told Ami that she had a new home now and Nano would not be a catalyst in dismantling it. Indeed there were many times Abu and Nano had implicitly paired up in bringing Ami back from her maternal to marital home. Nano always defended her actions, when discovered, saying that they had been borne of good intentions.
“You only leave a marriage when you die,” she used to tell us with conviction. “You don’t undo an establishment Allah makes.”
Obviously, this was a time in my life when I was entirely marriage-averse and my headspace was fogged with ambition — the distant image of an independent young woman hiking a path up to her dreams, not tethered with the weight of a husband — so none of this registered. We quarreled often but inconclusively.
At times like these I was often confronted with a conundrum I was otherwise not allowed to broach anywhere at any time.
Nano did not have a husband.
He hadn’t died; he had simply never existed, not in the seventeen years of my life. Ami said she had never seen her father.
The information I gathered from various family sources was vague and disjointed. I knew already that Nano had raised her four younger brothers as four additional children. They were still, in conversation, more bhai than mamoo to my mother. In spirit, however, they were only acquaintances. They had long ago disseminated like pollen to different parts of Punjab, Pakistan, and elsewhere — one to Canada, and I had never seen them except in Facebook photo albums. Ami complained of their estrangement but Nano maintained that we should not mistake their success for apathy. Interestingly, all four of them had now returned to Nano’s two-room, rental house in Bahawalpur. It was paradoxically this reunion that was being correlated to Nano’s most recent condition in far-off fringes of the family.
When all other attempts at discomfiting Nano had failed — I made the decision of waddling into the murky terra incognita of her marital life. Probably because I was primed to make the intrusion, the opening presented itself immediately.
“You are the worst mom on the planet,” five-year-old Subhan was telling Ami from across the dinner table, after his jelly beans had been confiscated and replaced with a plate of palak. “As soon as I am as old as Api I will move out and live on my own.”
I eyed him squarely. We often bonded over private incrimination of the ways of the house and our desire to break free, but we always agreed — explicitly — that these were private conversations.
It was too meaty an opportunity for even a sapped Nano to miss. “Where is Api going?”
“She told me she was going to get herself an apartment after she graduates and be her own boss there.”
“Api is going to live with her husband in whatever place he can afford,” Nano decreed, in a way that implied that she wasn’t angry because she did not consider my opinion worth much, “House, apartment, jhuggi.”
I recognized this transient opportunity, as fleeting as when a fish in the fishing game we played as kids had its mouth open for a second or two and we had to shove the fishing hook in. “Why didn’t you stay in your husband’s house?” I shoved it in.
Nano’s mouth, poised like a pouting fish’s O, remained open as her spoon stilled in the air. From the side of my eye I saw Ami’s fixated glare, a heat I didn’t feel because of the small bouts of adrenaline that were running through me, triggered and aggravated by Nano’s slow, uncoordinated motions. She put her spoon down, so clumsily it clanked against the plate.
I had struck too hard. She pulled her mouth close, the creases on the sides tensing and then relaxing. She left her food and went away to her room.
My own food felt tasteless after. I left without clearing the dishes, despite Ami’s protests.
. . .
Nano did not make a public appearance until three days later. But I kept sleuthing, taking unnecessarily long routes across the house only to scout past her door. Once or twice I lingered and heard Nano speaking softly but angrily on the phone.
When Nano started moving through the house again, we skirted around, away from each other. I thought, in the beginning, it was just me and my fear of the scolding (possibly beating) that I had gone out of my way to earn. Eventually though, as she refused to pass me roti on the table or failed to reprimand me for skipping my chores, I almost felt that she was afraid of me too. I had made Nano afraid of me.
My investigations were brought to a halt with my admissions results. I wasn’t keen on recording ‘acceptance reaction videos’ but that didn’t mean I wasn’t expecting any acceptances. A lot of misplaced confidence crashed into a void and I cried, from 4.00 am when the decisions were released, to 6.00 am when it was time to get ready for school.
My grief was superimposed with a lot of thoughts that were like a yarn ball I refused to detangle. What were my college options now? I had none. Were there any schools still accepting applications? What could a wasted year do to my chances, my life? Where would the independent woman who lived alone go now? Could I ever be her?
When I came home, my face was still red, but no one noticed. In the afternoon, I was visited by Nano in my room.
Like Nano, she minced no words, made no small talk. “Why are you crying?”
Another me would have said “nothing” and rudely escorted her out. The down-trodden, hopeless me, spilled everything, my thoughts, insecurities, sorrow, triggered by the fact that someone had asked.
Nano offered no gesture of comfort, but she listened attentively. She then said of course there were colleges still accepting applications in Pakistan; she would WhatsApp me a list.
“But what about my freedom?” I sobbed. “Everything will be the same if I stay here.”
“It is better here,” she chided. I fought. I said it was suffocating and monotonous here. She said at least it was safe and reliable. I told her fate had cut me down before a husband would have.
“I left my husband,” she interrupted the climax of my argument, “and it brought me no freedom.”
I was stunned, more so every minute that followed, as she told me in calm, measured terms, how she had demanded a divorce after her husband had expressed his displeasure over a female first-born, against the will and advice of her family. She told me she felt she was being a hero for them when they needed her. She dropped out of college and started teaching, which she did until her retirement earlier this year.
“We lived in a two-bedroom house with one bathroom,” she said, “it was so small, but then I thought at least it was mine and I was free.”
I knew Nano still lived in that house, now all alone. I knew that the house, a government provision that came with her job, would go now.
“I called my brothers, one by one, asking them if they could now keep me, or lend me enough to buy a place.”
Effortlessly I recalled what everyone else in the family had said.
“You know what the older three said?” She pointed to her phone. “Aapa, you must get married. At 60, they asked me to get married. They said a husband would protect me.”
“And what about the youngest?”
“He told me to apportion my belongings between my four brothers, and then get married, so my husband does not try to infringe on them as his own.”
Her sole act of bravery had not changed anything, had not even been the small step on the long road to changing it, because here she was again, looking for a man to survive.
“They say they have the best intentions, of course,” she stood up to leave, “For them, this is only natural.”
Nano left two months later and married a widower. I refused to call him Nana. I told her this culture of compromise was a cancer and I wouldn’t let any of its stray emboli seed themselves in me, anywhere. I continued to believe that my subjugation, that my dependence on father, brother, husband, was not natural, that when I was coerced to stay away from parties or not go out alone with the best intentions, it was subjugation, not protection. I thought all this even as I went to medical school locally, like generations of my family’s women had done, knowing — and somewhat accepting — that I would not be able to practice.
Maybe part-time, I promise myself. I’d be able to manage that with my children and my husband, I think.