The first time I went to Pakistan I was fifteen, and my uncle’s wife was dying.
Ma informed me of this on the plane.
“Give her one week,” my mother said of her sister-in-law. “One week after we land and we will attend her funeral.”
But one week passed and then another, and Najma Aunty was still very much alive, frying pakoras and warming roti as she had been doing non-stop, it seemed, since the moment she welcomed us into her home. Her gravelly voice continued to float through the halls. Her eyes, black and kohl-rimmed, still shone like gems. Her skin neither darkened nor burned beneath the June sun, but remained a light golden shade. When I wondered how all this could be the case for someone so close to death, Ma clucked her tongue. “Allah is building her casket, and if you keep asking questions He will start building yours too.”
In truth, Najma Aunty was far from dying. At twenty-six, she was tall and, despite her fondness for coconut pastries, slim. Yet her excellent health couldn’t persuade Ma, who refused to believe that Allah would allow Najma Aunty to live the way she did, without consequence. She appeared exempt from the rules that applied to every other Pakistani woman. After the azan sounded, for instance, while Ma grabbed a prayer rug in earnest, Najma Aunty stayed in the living room, neglecting Islamic duty. She would nap on one of the many leather couches or squeeze henna paste onto her palms. Each time the petrol man came to refill the generator, while Ma draped a scarf over her head and across her chest out of modesty, Najma Aunty left her shoulder-length curls and sharp collarbones exposed.
Ma shared her disapproval of Najma Aunty only with me. In person, she was very polite because she had no choice. At the end of the day, despite her misgivings, she could not change the fact that Najma Aunty had married Faheem Mamu. Faheem Mamu, as I was taught to formally call him, was Ma’s only sibling. He was thirty-four—twelve years younger than Ma—but acted like a firstborn. He’d flown fighter jets as a pilot in Pakistan’s Air Force for many years, since he was a teenager, until a minor accident impaired his vision and he was told that he would be more useful behind a desk, filing paperwork about the country’s military expenses. Still, the stint had proven worthwhile. For his service, he was given a handsome salary, a two-story mansion in the upscale Defence Housing Authority, and Najma Aunty, whose father had been a private captain and Faheem Mamu’s former boss.
I’ve always wondered why Najma Aunty didn’t resist being wedded to Faheem Mamu. She certainly had the personality to object, and even to object successfully. That she accepted the proposal made me think that perhaps she had initially seen in him something attractive or endearing. I, for one, could see nothing. My uncle was broad-shouldered and overweight. He had tiny eyes, which were always squinting, a flat mustache, and a fading hairline. His laugh sounded like a shout, and though I had not seen him lay a hand on anyone, I could tell from the way he gripped his cup of chai and tore open envelopes that he was capable.
He boasted that he had “Am-re-kan” preferences. He preferred English to Urdu and, unlike most Pakistanis, including Ma and Baba, he ate with a fork and knife rather than with his fingers. He spoke repeatedly of the one instance in the Air Force when he’d sipped from an illegally acquired bottle of wine. He claimed that women who wore burqas did so to hide their pudgy stomachs and unibrows. Yet he also accused Ma of raising a gori randee—a white whore—if he noticed me rolling up the ends of my shalwar and wearing them like shorts, due to the heat. If he saw me with my Walkman, he yelled, “Hai Allah!” and asked what devilish songs Shaitan was whispering in my ear. I didn’t understand why he liked what he liked or disliked what he disliked. Neither, I think, did he.
Equally confusing was his relationship with Najma Aunty. By that age, I already assumed that all marriages were unhappy ones, that all husbands and wives resented each other. I had grown accustomed to loud shouting matches between Ma and Baba that ended, inevitably, with Baba leaving the apartment to spend the night at Punjab Pharmacy, which he owned and operated, and Ma threatening to bang her head against the wall. But arguments between Najma Aunty and Faheem Mamu were unlike any I had ever witnessed. There were fewer theatrics, and whatever drama existed, Najma Aunty refused to participate in. Whenever Faheem Mamu complained that the rice was too stiff or that he would die with no son to his name, Najma Aunty did not respond but quickly turned her back to him, as if he were a street beggar. Her eyes went blank, her limbs stiff. Once, she did not acknowledge Faheem Mamu even when he began repeating, “Can you hear me? Can you hear me?” Instead, she simply walked away, clearing the dishes from the dining table though food was still on them. Faheem Mamu then turned to me and Ma and said, “Did I marry a maasi? Look at the way she runs away from me, always to the kitchen!”
Though Faheem Mamu intended his words to insult, there was some truth to them: Najma Aunty had, in fact, taken Maasi’s place. Maasi—both a euphemism for maid and the name Faheem Mamu called his servant—was gone. She’d left Karachi for Lahore before Ma and I had arrived, to tend to her ill father. Rather than find a replacement, Najma Aunty had decided to use Maasi’s absence as an opportunity to begin cooking: a traditional chore she’d had the privilege to never perform. I viewed Ma as pathetic for spending all her time preparing meals and resented her for asking me to help. But observing how Najma Aunty carried dishes so gracefully, resting them on her long forearms, and how she recorded guests’ tea preferences in a small notepad that she carried in the pocket of her shalwar as if she were a waitress, I longed to do the same.
“So you want to be a good girl here,” Ma said in disgust. “Baba and I should never have left.”
I agreed. I began to think that I would not only have been a better daughter had my parents stayed in Pakistan, but a happier one. In Brooklyn, on Coney Island Avenue, where I was born and raised, my world was isolated and predictable. We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Because Ma and Baba were so frugal, we used folding chairs and tables. During the school year, I attended Coney Island Prep, and during the summer I worked for Baba at Punjab Pharmacy, scanning items at the cash register and transcribing prescription orders. At night, I slept atop a pile of blankets spread on the carpet.
I didn’t believe Ma when she said we were going to Pakistan. Until then, I had never been out of the country or, for that matter, Brooklyn. Ma swore that she took me to the Empire State Building when I was a toddler, that we had taken an escalator to the top floor and looked down at all of Manhattan, but if that was the case I couldn’t remember. I had once gone to the Prospect Park Zoo on a field trip to learn about the animal kingdom, and to Luna Park, also for a
field trip, to learn the history of the Ferris wheel. Twice a month I accompanied Ma to Raheela’s Beauty Parlor, where she got a facial and gossiped about whose son had been spotted at Bianky’s Hookah Bar and whose daughter had run away with a gora man. This was the extent of my travels.
Finally, though, Ma explained, she had both the resources and the occasion to return to her homeland: the pharmacy was doing well, and her cousin was getting married. The wedding was to take place in mid-August; we were to arrive in Karachi by mid-June. Baba would remain on Coney Island, tending to his expanding business, while Ma and I would live for two months with her brother and his wife.
What was I expecting? Certainly not a guest room to myself, as large as my family’s apartment, with a king-sized bed and bolster pillows for my neck. Certainly not a color television, on which I could watch Urdu soap operas at any moment. Certainly not a gated backyard, with towering eucalyptus trees and roaming cats. Such luxuries, however, I found waiting for me in abundance.
Defence, where Najma Aunty and Faheem Mamu lived, was in the heart of Karachi. It was supervised by the Pakistani military, which assigned each of its current and retired members a plot of land on which to build a mansion.
At one end of the housing development was Clifton Beach; its briny smell often wafted through the open windows, clinging to our shalwar khameez with such strength it was as if we had gone swimming in them. At the other end was Zamzama Park; across its twenty-six acres, designer clothes and shoe shops scattered to form the city’s highest concentration of wealth, and it was not uncommon to spot a Pakistani diplomat exiting one of them with an armful of shopping bags.
Ma pretended not to know about Zamzama. She arched her brows and said, “Is that right?” anytime Najma Aunty mentioned a trendy khameez design or earring shape sold at the shops. In reality, Ma had already prepared a long list of items to purchase for her cousin’s wedding and to bring back as gifts for her friends. Our first week in Pakistan, she woke me each day after dawn prayers to help her prepare a shopping routine, mapping out which stores we would visit and in what order. She insisted that we arrive at Zamzama by eight-thirty in the morning, though the park itself did not open until nine and Najma Aunty recommended that we not go until much later in the afternoon.
When we finally did enter the shops and began to search for the items on Ma’s list, it felt less like shopping and more like war. While Zamzama was similar to Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in cultural prestige, it was not above Pakistani convention: prices were negotiable. Ma would spend hours bartering with the clerks, shaming them with comparisons to their competitors or threatening to turn the entirety of Defence against them, until finally they relented and reduced the costs.
During these exchanges, I knew better than to intervene. Early on, Ma had warned me to keep my mouth shut tight. If I opened it, she said, the game would end. The number on the tag would not go down but up. The reason for this was my accent. Shopkeepers overcharged Americans, and I spoke Urdu like an American, pausing when I shouldn’t and stressing my syllables with too little emphasis. In this way, I could indirectly reveal Ma as the most suspect of Pakistanis: a Pakistani-Am-re-kan who had departed her homeland only to pretend, upon returning, that she had never left.
I managed to stay silent for four days. On the fifth, when we passed an advertisement for bangles in a jewelry shop, I grabbed Ma’s arm. “Look,” I said. The woman modeling the bangles resembled Najma Aunty, sharing her long nose and manly jaw. The likeness made me giddy. Every time Ma and I left the house, I hoped that Najma Aunty might join us, but she never asked to, and Ma never invited her. I wondered how she kept busy all day, alone in her mansion, and whether she missed our company. The advertisement seemed a sign from Allah that she did—or, at the very least, that she was thinking of us—and I began to smile to myself in joy. Yet Ma was not amused by my slip of tongue. She dragged me out of the shop and back to Defence.
“First they will ask for more rupees, then they will ask for my arm and leg,” she shrieked. “How can I return to Zamzama? What will I do with you?”
In the end, it was Ma herself who suggested the arrangement.
Three rules, Najma Aunty told me our first day together. There were three rules I must learn. To avoid tears, she explained, soak onions in water for ten minutes before chopping. To turn curries red, add a teaspoon of sugar when heating them. And, most importantly, to prevent hair from smelling, wear a shower cap. I thought Najma Aunty was joking with this last rule, but when I laughed she crouched close to the tiles, in front of one of the bottom cabinets, and motioned for me to do the same.
“My most prized possession,” she said, opening the cabinet door to reveal a giant box of clear, disposable shower caps. “Ask any maasi—it’s the difference between an amateur and a master. Without it, no woman can keep a kitchen.”
I came to view these caps as a sacred part of our routine. Every day at noon, after I heard the familiar hiss of the tea kettle and slap of Najma Aunty’s sandals on the tiles, I wandered from the living room, reached inside the cabinet for a plastic wrapper, and began working on whatever task Najma Aunty had left for me to complete: grinding spinach leaves in a blender, freezing minced garlic and ginger for future use, slicing tomatoes. It was what had been decided. Faheem Mamu would leave to his desk job, Ma to Zamzama, and I to the kitchen.
“You can cook like a maasi and I can shop like a queen,” Ma said in relief, after Najma Aunty agreed to look after me.
During the hundreds of hours I spent with Najma Aunty, I glimpsed parts of her that I guarded intensely, like secrets. With her curls pulled back and resting atop her head like a crown, her face appeared both more striking and fragile. Her jaw became sharper, her black eyes rounder. I discovered that she had a mole the size of a dime on the back of her neck and that little tufts of hair grew along the sides of her cheeks. Perhaps because of our proximity, I felt at times that I was not simply becoming more aware of Najma Aunty, but becoming like her. Increasingly, I noticed my head tilting sideways and my nostrils flaring—gestures she made when concentrating—and I thought my changing behavior meant that I was changing in other aspects, too: that my sand-colored skin was lightening, my broad nose narrowing, my crooked teeth straightening. So convinced was I of these transformations that whenever I caught sight of my reflection—in the microwave’s glass door, say, or the small mirror affixed to the fridge—I experienced such shame and shock that I had to close my eyes until the illusion returned.
In the middle of our cooking sessions, Najma Aunty would leave without warning. Though her departure occurred at a different time each day, it was always for the same duration—one hour—and always happened in the same manner. She would push a button on her wristwatch and, after a faint beep sounded, walk out of the kitchen, the shower cap still on her head. She never announced her departures or provided a reason for them. Once she was gone, I would sit very still on a stool in front of the counter, as if I had become a marble statue. I wondered if she was sneaking off to see the petrol man and I would begin to replay in my head any encounters they might have had: if her behavior changed in his presence, or his around hers, though I knew neither of these things to be true. I worried each time that she would never come back—that I had said or done something to drive her away—but she always did. When she returned, it was with such nonchalance that I thought I had become possessed and imagined her absence entirely. I could confirm that she had left only because of the strong jasmine smell that wafted through the kitchen upon her arrival, a smell that had not existed there before and that seemed to enter even the food.
By the end of our first week together, I could bear it no longer. I asked Najma Aunty where she went each time she set the alarm. We were making aloo tikki—dipping balls of mashed potatoes into ghee and dropping them onto the pan—and my body was beginning to stir in anticipation of her watch’s beep. She frowned, and I thought perhaps she was upset with me until she grabbed my hand, the first time anyone had ever done so beside Ma, and asked if I was afraid of heights.
She took me to the roof. I hadn’t known it to be accessible. There were rooms in the mansion that I’d been told not to go in, where I imagined Faheem Mamu stored secret military files, but I never considered the roof a place that one could reach. If I were more daring, I might have had found it on my own, but I was no such girl. I hadn’t before noticed the small door on the fourth floor that led to a spiraling metal stairwell, which led, in turn, to the massive expanse of concrete slab and smoggy Karachi air. On the roof, I felt that we were suspended in the middle of the sky. From where we stood, the horns of rickshaws sounded distant and the cries of street vendors muffled. The passing motorcycles appeared shrunken and cheap, like the plastic toy models that Baba sold at the pharmacy. I thought, So this is what Allah sees.
The room would have seemed entirely out of place for Defence—crude and inelegant—if not for the hammock swing set in the center: a massive fixture with heavy chains and velvet cushions and geometric shapes engraved in its wooden frame. Beneath the swing were tiny cigarette butts, scattered like the petals thrown at the feet of a bride on her wedding day.
“He doesn’t know,” Najma Aunty said when she saw me looking at them. “All this time and he doesn’t know. I don’t think he’d mind, but it’s best he not know some things.”
Until then, the only people I had seen smoke were the desi boys and gori girls lounging on the benches in Prospect Park, all of whom Ma called “smoking chimneys” and warned me not to touch with a ten-foot pole. What impressed me most about Najma Aunty was that she, unlike these kids, preferred to smoke unseen. That Najma Aunty was solitary in her vice made her seem like a martyr, and made me realize that she was not entirely as free to do what she liked as Ma had assumed. Or at least, she felt she was not. This moved me deeply.
I remember willing myself to memorize the motions that Najma Aunty performed—how she sucked her cheeks inward and held her breath, how her mouth curled to the side as she exhaled—so that when the time came for me to puff on her cigarette, I would know what to do. Still, I didn’t. I began to cough violently; it felt like Allah had stuffed all of hell inside me, like I was burning from the inside out.
Najma Aunty laughed, but rather than feel embarrassed, I felt proud that something I did could bring her such pleasure. Afterwards, she took me to the bathroom inside her bedroom—a grand room with a marble tub and full-body mirrors—and reached for a heart-shaped bottle of perfume on the counter. I noticed an open bottle of shaving cream beside it, and I became overwhelmed with despair, as I periodically would that summer, by the reminder that Najma Aunty and Faheem Mamu were married and, as married people did, they shared an intimate space. I might have voiced my sadness at that moment had Najma Aunty not started spraying my arms and neck with her perfume.
“To hide the smell,” she said.
That night, I did not shower, asking Allah instead to let the scent of jasmine and ash permanently seep into my skin.
In this way, I joined Najma Aunty in her roof ritual. Whenever she felt the urge, she would push the button on her watch, the beep would sound, and I would follow her. We sat side by side on the swing, so close that I could sometimes feel the warmth of her leg pressed against mine. When this happened, my cheeks would flush from embarrassment and I prayed that my body would not make any involuntary gestures or sounds.
Najma Aunty always kept her shower cap on. She always smoked half a pack, always the same Gold Leaf brand. As she smoked, she liked to kick off her sandals and slightly rock the swing by pushing her feet off the concrete. Some days, she liked to talk. I knew that it was such a day from how briskly she climbed up the stairwell to the roof, two steps at a time, as if a jinni was trapped inside of her and she needed to release it. I came to learn that Najma Aunty feared she would eventually bald because of the many long black hairs she found on her pillow each morning when she woke; that she drank lemon juice each night before bed to aid with digestion; and, most significantly, that she loved Bollywood.
Though Pakistan had its own film industry—called Lollywood and based in Lahore—it was not a booming one. Most Pakistani actors and actresses worked for Indian producers and starred in Indian films because there were more casting opportunities and fewer restrictions about dress code and physical conduct, which Pakistan’s Islamic law enforced. Najma Aunty knew every Bollywood actress and actor—I am not exaggerating. She knew biographical facts about them—where they had been born, where they had gone to primary school—and cinematic facts—how many films they had starred in, how many awards they had received. She knew personal facts, too—their favorite color, their favorite sweet. There were women like this in Coney Island as well, women who seemed to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge of entertainers, but Najma Aunty was unusual in the way she spoke of them. Her comments did not seem tinged with jealousy, unlike most aunties’ when evaluating women more attractive themselves, but were presented as truth.
“A smart face,” she said of both Shah Rukh Khan and Karisma Kapoor alike. Najma Aunty’s observations themselves were ordinary, almost obvious. On their own, her words could be said at the dinner table openly and with ease. But it was the conspiratorial tone she used—how she drew her lips in a smirk and bent her plastic-wrapped head in a whisper—that made our conversations feel somehow illicit and, in this way, thrilling.
I became more conscious of my body. Until then, I had been too embarrassed and frightened to confront my naked self in any way: I quickly grabbed a towel to cover myself after showering to avoid an accidental glimpse in the mirror. In the locker room at school I changed in the stall, away from the other girls and the full-length mirrors, preferring to avoid altogether their talk of widening hips. But that summer I became more eager to trace my own physical changes. I noticed each day the dark hair growing between my legs and the way my breasts were beginning to become plump and fill the bras that Ma had gotten for me before our trip. When I watched Urdu dramas, I focused less on what happened to the characters and more on the characters themselves, so that I might have remarks to offer to Najma Aunty and she might nod her head vigorously in agreement, as she sometimes did when I observed that this actress had tiny hands and a diamond-shaped face, or that actor had flappy ears and a broad chest.
Sometimes it happened that I had not seen the films that Najma Aunty spoke of. This was because the films were either too old or too new. At home, on Coney Island, I went to the Kent Triplex Cinema each Sunday to attend free screenings of Bollywood movies that had been released within the past five years. While I was acquainted with famous stars, I was not with films from before I was born, or with new releases. When such a film became the topic of conversation, I usually asked questions, prompting Najma Aunty to describe in detail everything she knew about it.
Once, Najma Aunty was talking at length about Nauker, a 1979 classic romantic film. Though I was unfamiliar with it, I vaguely remembered Ma discussing the storyline with her friends at the beauty parlor during one of her monthly visits. I repeated what I recalled from their conversation. Sanjeev Kumar was well suited to play the role of a wealthy widower, I told Najma Aunty. “But a woman like Jaya Bhaduri is too smart-looking to play a maasi.”
I neither believed nor disbelieved in what I said, since the opinion was not mine; but still, I felt proud of myself for commenting, and I thought Najma Aunty would feel proud, too. Instead her face contorted.
“A woman like maasi knows pain,” she said, “while a woman like Jaya knows luxury. Never forget the difference.”
I was embarrassed by my ignorance. I thought Najma Aunty was pointing out that I had not seen the movie because if I had, I would certainly be able to distinguish between both women. I felt that she responded not to my words but to something deep inside of me, something repulsive, that she had glimpsed.
“What kind of pain?” I asked. I expected her to detail the plot of the movie as she normally did when I had not watched something she was referencing. Instead, she raised a hand to her head. I feared that she was going to light the plastic on fire with her cigarette, but she only tucked an imaginary strand of hair behind the cap with her ring finger while balancing the cigarette between the knuckles of her middle and pointer fingers.
“Maasi knows pain,” she said again, staring at the cigarette.
I kept quiet. I understood, then, that Najma Aunty was not referring to the character but to her former servant, and this realization irritated me. I felt she had been too quick to judge. I had not meant the person, I wanted to say, but rather the social position.
“What are you waiting for?” Najma Aunty rose from the swing. But before I could answer, she turned her back to me in the way that she sometimes did to Faheem Mamu. “Do you want to eat soggy pakoras?”
If not for its distinctive rasp, I might have confused her voice for Ma’s.
That summer—the summer of 2007—time seemed to collapse and expand at once. Some days felt so full, they contained whole weeks; other days were merely buffers for the fuller ones.
Often there was load-shedding. The power would suddenly and inexplicably go out, and then the entire house would hum and buzz like a machine as the generator began to work. For a brief moment—anywhere from mere seconds to minutes—everything would be black.
“This was the way of life during Partition,” Ma said once. “Always we were in darkness. The Indian jets would fly above us and then shots would ring and then”—she smacked her palms against each other—“it was as if we’d gone blind.” By “us,” Ma meant Pakistanis in general, but because she spoke with such conviction and authority, you would not know that she wasn’t born in time to witness the war. She had taken to making statements like these—sentimental and grandiose, all concerning Pakistan’s history or traditions—though she did not have the knowledge to do so.
“This is the worst heat wave in over a century,” she repeated, as if this were a fact she had discovered through her own extensive research and she wanted to educate the rest of us. During one of our roof visits Najma Aunty told me that this wasn’t the case at all—Peshawar had claimed several deaths from extreme humidity in the mid-nineties—but I believed that Ma personally experienced the heat as if it were record-breaking and unusual. She began having heat flashes and slept each night in front of a 110-watt tower fan that she had purchased specifically from one of the shops on Zamzama. She complained that her head ached and that she felt dizzy. Around the house, she carried ice packs that she pressed to her forehead and strapped to her arms with adhesive tape. When she returned from shopping she promptly went to lie down, sometimes even eating in bed.
While Ma went to sleep early, I seemed to never shut my eyes. I was always staring out the window because of some commotion or another—motorcycle crashes, police sirens. At night, people frequently took to the streets to celebrate or dissent. They did so after-hours, Najma Aunty explained, because they would not be interrupted by the call to prayer and could, for the longest stretch of time, live as if they did not have to answer to Allah. Often the riots became so loud and raucous I might have assumed, had I been in another country, that drugs and alcohol were involved.
It was usually easy to determine the cause for the demonstrations. The night that Pakistan’s cricket team defeated Bangladesh’s, for instance, home-made firecrackers exploded like bombs until dawn, forming green and silver crescents in the sky to commemorate the country’s national colors and symbol. And the night after it was announced that shops in Zamzama would raise their prices by five-percent, there was a line of protestors stretching from Defence to the park itself, all of them shouting, “We will not be cheated!”
Only once did I have difficulty determining why so many people had gathered outside. I saw men clad in shalwar khameez, frowning and stroking their beards, and younger boys and even girls, loudly blaring music from cassette stereo boom boxes that they swung from their arms as they laughed and danced. General Pervez Musharraf had become Pakistan’s new president, Najma Aunty told me the next day. “And the people themselves don’t know how they feel.” From watching Pakistani news commentators on television, I learned that Musharraf read poetry in his spare time and was an avid listener of Junoon, a local rock band. He supported a revival of Lollywood.
“Bush’s bitch,” Faheem Mamu said angrily one day during dinner. “He wants to turn us all Am-re-kan, like the Shah did with Iran. Next thing you know we’ll have women flying fighter pilots.” Musharraf’s rise to power irritated Faheem Mamu as if he had been personally slighted. He became grumpier than usual, complaining to Najma Aunty that the naan tasted like a rock or his chai like piss. He retreated to his study most days to complain about Musharraf to his friends on the telephone, his shouts echoing through the walls. Even Ma, to whom he showed the most affection, was not spared his bitterness. When she asked him which pair of shalwar khameez she should wear to her cousin’s wedding, he jumbled the clothes into a ball. “You might as well go naked, that’s what our president would like.”
Privately, I thanked Allah for Musharraf. Almost immediately after he entered office, because of his relaxed policies on entertainment, theaters began opening and offering tickets sales to attract customers. Every Sunday, as I did back home at Coney Island, I started going with Najma Aunty to a small cinema. Often we were among the only ones in attendance. If Ma had not been so tired, she might have objected to these outings, but she simply clucked her tongue. That Najma Aunty and I could now speak on the roof of scenes we had seen in person together made our conversations livelier and more in-depth. During the movies, if an actress we both admired said something clever or made a certain expression, Najma Aunty would tap my shoulder and point to the screen, just as she did when we worked in the kitchen. Before sleeping, I replayed these moments on repeat in my head. Sometimes I dreamed that I was not sitting and watching but acting on screen with Karisma Kapoor or Priyanka Chopra, and sometimes the faces of these stars blurred and I found myself dancing on the roof beside Najma Aunty—our shower caps off, our hair stinging our eyes.
Somehow, amid all this, I became a woman. I spotted them one morning after the first month—dark, ugly splotches of crimson that lined the inside of my underwear. It felt like someone had grabbed in between my legs and punched again and again. I checked the windows to make sure they were still closed and that someone had not crept inside during the night to hurt me. The mix of dried and fresh blood made me smell like a carcass.
Of course, I wasn’t green. I’d taken health classes over the years, heard the boys at the mosque whisper about “war-zone pussies,” seen the girls excuse themselves from prayer because they were “unclean.” But because my body was so slow to change compared to those around me, I’d become convinced that I was exempt from the cycle. Ma seemed to support my theory. She lamented that Allah had given her a daughter instead of a son, and a cursed daughter at that, one who wouldn’t be able to have children—not even daughters—herself. Over the years, I wrote off my period in the same way that I’d written off a first kiss, a bed to sleep on, a best friend.
That day, seated on the toilet in that gilded bathroom, I couldn’t believe that every woman felt the same debilitating sensations. I thought myself exceptionally unlucky, alone in my agony.
When I went down to the kitchen to join Najma Aunty, I didn’t say anything. I worked in silence, chopping and slicing and sweeping the floors. I wanted her to notice that my behavior was off, to sense that my thighs and stomach were throbbing, so that she could soothe me or provide some antidote. But she continued to softly hum a song from a movie we’d recently watched, and I became furious at her insensitivity. As we walked up the stairwell to the roof, I could feel the blood oozing out of my body. I opened my mouth only when Najma Aunty started smoking and I felt I would vomit from the smell.
“A woman like maasi,” I cried. “Does she know this pain?”
Najma Aunty slapped me and I began to cry. I removed my stained shalwar and threw it at her feet.
“A girl becomes a woman when Allah makes her bleed once a month,” she said.
“I know this.” I crossed my arms. Najma Aunty’s eyes widened. I had never spoken to her—to anyone—like this. I felt possessed.
“You know that,” Najma Aunty said. “But do you know that when the blood comes, and a man puts his thingy inside you, your belly will grow big?”
I nodded, though I felt my throat dry at the mention of a man’s private parts.
“This happens to all women when the time is right, when they are married. To some women, it happens before, but is still nice. To other women, like Maasi, it happens before, and it’s not so nice, and she has to shrink her stomach by herself and that is a painful thing.”
“Shrink her stomach?”
“So that it gets flat like this,” Najma Aunty said, slapping her hands together. “So that the baby—”
“So that the baby is gone?”
Najma Aunty nodded, tilting her head. She seemed either impressed with my words or saddened by them—I couldn’t tell. “So that the baby is gone. Do you understand?”
I nodded. At the time, I thought I did. I seemed to acquire knowledge of all the ways in which a man could touch a woman all at once. I started thinking of every woman as one touched by a man. When I looked at Najma Aunty, I thought of Faheem Mamu. When I looked at Ma, I thought of Baba. When I looked at the women who sat in the cinema beside us, I thought of their faceless husbands. I carried the knowledge of Maasi’s pain as a badge of my own womanhood, an example from Najma Aunty of the woman I should not become. The realization that I had become privy to a universal secret filled me with such intense joy at moments that I began whispering to myself, again and again, “I am a woman. I am a woman.”
Two weeks before the wedding and my departure, Maasi returned. I hadn’t thought to ask if she was coming back—or, for that matter, when—and so I hadn’t thought to consider what might happen to my cooking routine with Najma Aunty once she did.
I wasn’t told in advance. I awoke one morning and saw a woman sitting on the stool in the kitchen, twirling a shower cap around her finger. She was fair, I immediately noticed, fairer than me or Ma or even Najma Aunty. Like all Pakistani women I knew, her eyes were large and long-lashed, but they were neither black like Najma Aunty’s nor brown like mine, and instead contained jade and golden flecks. She had a mole beneath her bottom lip, and her tongue kept flicking over it, as if she might wipe it away. If this woman had ever experienced pain, it didn’t show. I thought she was a celebrity, a rising Bollywood star I didn’t yet know whom Najma Aunty had invited to surprise me. But Najma Aunty introduced her to me as “Maasi,” and me to her as “Zainab’s daughter.” At this, Maasi smiled and laughed as if she already knew me. “Like your mother or no?”
Najma Aunty quickly became a stranger. Her voice became higher. She seemed more flustered, quicker to blush. Even when Faheem Mamu yelled at dinner about Musharraf, she smiled to herself as if she were in on a private joke. I was no longer needed in the kitchen, she told me after a few days, which meant I had no reason to join her on the roof. I kept hoping that Ma or Faheem Mamu would make a comment about the cooking—that the quality had severely decreased upon Maasi’s return—but neither did. Maasi herself was only ever kind to me, serving me extra food and ironing my clothes. I never thanked her either, and while I hoped my rudeness might provoke her it instead made her even sweeter.
How did I spend my newfound free time? I watched television, but the dramas began to seem dull and I thought that the actresses were boring and untalented. Whenever I heard Maasi and Najma Aunty exit the kitchen for the roof, I would wait ten minutes before going to the second floor. I would sit on the bottom step of the stairwell, trying to make out their words and what they spoke about. Often, I heard only laughter.
Once, I climbed all the way to the top of the stairwell because I couldn’t hear their voices. I didn’t mean to open the door, nor did I mean to interrupt them.
“The samosas are burning,” I shouted, running down the stairs. Later, when Najma Aunty called me to the kitchen, I said I had smelled smoke. I said I had wanted to warn her and Maasi before the fire alarm went off. I said I did not see anything, though she did not ask.
The day before the wedding, Ma refused to get out of bed.
“This will be my grave,” she said. She ordered biscuits and water from the kitchen every hour, which Maasi carried into the bedroom on a tray. Each time I grabbed the silverware from Maasi, I thought of her legs interlocked with Najma Aunty’s on the swing, the image imprinted in my head like a Bollywood still.
“If we were in Coney Island,” Ma moaned, “I could become tip-top, go to the pharmacy and get better. Here? Here I will die.”
After what felt like the tenth hour, Ma’s exhaustion was such that she was cursing everything: Zamzama, Defence, even Allah.
“Are you trying to feed me bricks?” she screamed when Maasi entered the room with more biscuits. Maasi remained mute—what else could she do? —so I responded for her.
“Look who is dying now,” I yelled at Ma. I wanted Najma Aunty to hear me from the kitchen. I wanted to show my loyalty. I wanted to punish Ma for causing a spectacle and making me bear witness, for making me leave my home in the first place just so she could go back to her old one.
“You are like an actress playing make-believe. What do you know? A woman like maasi,” I said, waving my hand in her direction. “She knows pain.”
Maasi’s removal was swift. It happened overnight. As I slept, I didn’t know whether I imagined or actually heard Faheem Mamu screaming.
“There is no room in this house for such a woman. I should stone her myself because Musharraf won’t.”
It was unclear whose sobbing filled the halls—Najma Aunty’s or Maasi’s, though I suspect both.
When I woke the day of our departure, the kitchen’s doors were closed. Ma gave me potato chips for breakfast. She spoke softly, which I remember finding unusual because I had never considered her capable of whispering.
“Najma Aunty cannot come with us to the airport, but she left this for you.”
Ma handed me the large container of plastic shower caps. I did not know what to appreciate more: Najma Aunty’s gift or the fact that Ma removed some clothes from the suitcase so that we could fit the container inside it.
“Don’t worry,” Ma said. “We’ll be back soon.”
But at that moment, the tears started falling because I knew that soon would never come. I wept for the glances I had stolen and the woman I had become, for all that I had been given and all that I had taken away.