This stretch on the motorway from Lahore to Pindi is surrounded by hills of red mud. The cliff faces are curved and squat, folded up on themselves like cream that has frozen. In the front of the bus a child is screaming from her mother’s arms. One unbroken minute and then her voice disintegrates into short bursts, like a dog yelping. I hate children and how much they want things; I want to seal myself off from them, away from their greed and desires, their needs, their nakedness. I have a picture of my mother as a child – a square, chubby face, just like mine, a worn, sleeveless dress similar to a dress I wear in my own childhood pictures. In my photos it is light pink, carefully ironed. In her blurry, scallop-edged black and white photo, taken on a dirt path outside their house in Lahore, it is a smudged grey, and marked with shadowed creases.

She is solemn in the photo, and has this look on her face, as if she is asking for something that the whole world detains her from, which everybody she knows wilfully, repeatedly refuses to let her have. She wants a dress, a doll, a book, like the one the fat pink girl next door has, her own book is not as nice, it is frayed at the edges, it has no colourful pictures, the people drawn inside it have lopsided and ugly faces. Her face and the faces of all the children I know have followed me onto the bus. They crowd into me, along with the squealing of the child at the front, until I want to smash my head on the floor like a coconut.

I had a child of my own briefly. This morning, I told her that I was going to the grocery store, but took a taxi to the Daewoo station instead. When she first came to live with me in my apartment a few months ago she was quiet and would not look at me when I said hello. I tried to cheer her up, awkward because I could see that my attempts were poor and, besides, self-serving. I wanted her to laugh at my antics so I would feel comfortable. I finally put away the dishcloth I was flicking at Bhai, her father, who had brought her to me. I pretended that I was folding my unease up with the dishcloth, putting it away into the drawer. Over the next few days she smiled at me a few times. But have you ever seen a rabbit, even a pet rabbit that has been raised with people its whole life, relaxed in the presence of a human being? There is always something within the rabbit charting the presence of the large being that dominates its space, the shadow that falls across its tiny life.

The girl arrived while I was emptying out my life; I was about to leave. I had rid myself of my furniture the week before she arrived. A couple from downstairs haggled until I let them take most of it at half the price I needed. I arranged the rest in the lobby outside my apartment, for the trash collector. So now the girl sat on the bits of cardboard I used as floor mats to eat or to watch the TV that had survived in the corner.

In fact, I wasn’t sure she should be watching TV at all. On the morning show, an anxious woman was made-over with bleach and pale foundation. Then the audience was solicited for marriage proposals. None came, and she sat quietly on the stage, slowly becoming blurry at the edges. Another channel showed a bunch of squalling mullahs in Islamabad, debating laws to protect the men of the country, defenceless against feminism and women’s rights groups.

I vetoed TV, yanking out the cable from the connection in the wall where it was wedged with scads of electrical tape. As a concession, I gave her my own bed-sheet to sleep under.

Bhai was confused when he walked that day into the bare entryway of my small apartment – a week ago, there had been plants, hangings, a cat barreling through the corridors. When he saw the empty living room and my collection of dinnerware and cutlery lined up on an upturned cardboard box – two cups, one flat and one deep dinner plate, a knife, fork and spoon tied up with a rubber band, and a chipped bowl – his face fell and became formless while he thought. But in the end he left her with me after all, because his own grief took precedence over the care of a small child and because he was used to the women in his life doing his emotional work for him. He was not really my brother, only a second cousin, but we had been close when we were young. We did not keep in touch through our respective marriages but now his wife was gone and he was in my apartment with their daughter. Mujhe samajh nahi araha, he said, and he really did look very confused. What can I do?

The girl did not seem surprised by my empty home; the only time she betrayed apprehension was when she went to the bathroom and couldn’t find soap to wash her hands.

Soap, she came and said to me, holding her hands slightly curled and away from her body.

No soap, I told her. Wash them thrice and scrub them well.

There was a man at work who walked by my desk daily. His head, small for his dumpling-shaped body, emerged grinning out of a collared polo shirt on a razor-scraped neck. His chinos, ironed flat, gave him solidity. He would try to trap my gaze as he walked by. I kept my head down but if I looked up for an instant and he was successful, he would come over to my desk and stand there, one arm extended over the glass partition that separated my portion of the desk from the woman opposite, so that both of us could feel his flesh in our space, and see the dampening fabric under his arm, and the pale pink bumps at the base of every dark hair sprouting from his knuckles. He reminded me of my husband, but only in the way he insisted on taking up space, not only at my desk but also in my mind, because he was never satisfied until he had thoroughly disturbed whatever chain of thought I had minusculely, painstakingly charted out over the course of the day. I thought he might have become aware somehow of the downsizing that was going on in my house, the wonderful still space that was opening up in my brain, excised of dinner and chairs and curtains and mattresses and lamps and books and friends from high school and chats with the neighbours and phone calls to ask after the health of aunts twice removed, that he felt it, and was coming over to try and claim a spot in it, take it over somehow with his fat boots, stick the sharp pole of a flag in it, and make himself comfortable.

I got rid of the curtains throughout my flat and could not change in front of the open windows because anybody could look in and see me naked. Even though I was on the third storey there were other buildings crowded up to mine. Eyes followed me around in my own apartment. Crouching in a corner away from the windows, trying to huddle into my underwear without letting my bare limbs stick out, I experienced my only pang of regret. But I saw, while going through the suitcase that my brother had brought with the girl, that she had a blanket in there, worn and yellow, with lopsided bunnies printed along one side. I nailed the blanket across the window in my bedroom and felt a bit more comfortable again.

The girl was so calm. As a child, any break in routine, even to go to the hospital where my mother was having a hysterectomy, excited me. Just to wrap my toothbrush in a scrap of tissue paper, to put this in my overnight bag, made me disordered, nervous, a little nauseous. The hard metal cot with a frayed blanket that I slept on in my mother’s hospital room, the kidney-shaped steel basin under her bed, the yellow pee that pooled into a bulging, squishy plastic bag, the pipe that disappeared under the covers (the covers, starched and bleached but retaining the shadows of old stains), the way my mother forgot who I was and, scattered under anaesthesia, called me amma, amma, how, while she was thus scattered, the doctor came in and said they had decided they might as well clean it all out while they were at it so they had got the ovaries too, how I did not know what ‘ovaries’ was, but my mother looked at me like I should – even now these are the things I think about when I have to leave my home.

Meanwhile, that vibrating shine in the child’s eyes went from wary-scared to wary-wanting and she began to size me up to see if I had anything maternal in me. Her school ended before I was back from work, so she came in the school bus to my apartment, where she was alone for some five hours, buzzing around in the bare flat like a fly caught in a jar. When I got home we had dinner – Prince Biscuits, Maggie Noodles, other things that came out of packets. She nibbled on her food without depleting it: her plate always seemed as full after she was done as it was before, even though her mouth moved slowly throughout the meal. In fact, she was always putting things that were not food in her mouth and nibbling on them, the neck of her t-shirt pulled up and chewed ragged and damp, her knuckles grazed pink by her teeth and shiny with spit, bits of paper reduced to pellets and deposited in the corners of the empty rooms when I wasn’t looking.

I had always hated the flat a little bit, even before I began to carve away its insides. It was difficult to find a place to rent after I left my husband – no one wanted to rent to a woman living alone. This flat was in a high apartment building with cloth shops on the ground floor, a squalling quagmire of shopkeepers and women, and a half floor on top of that, full of warehouses and tailors’ shops where men sat hunched over sewing machines all day and moved from machine to embroidery rack to the small sweating cooler of water in the corner on their knees. I couldn’t escape the thought that it was these men, in their sodden, sweaty warren, who made the silk tops and narrow pants that I wore to my work parties. It made the clothes that made me sexually acceptable, which signalled that I was trying to be attractive and therefore should be tolerated, even harder to wear.

Soon, as if testing my resolve to let her stay in my flat, the girl got sick. Her nose began to run, her eyes started watering and she became unable to swallow any food past the infection in her throat. There was no medicine or comforting food in the house, so I went out to buy Panadol, Calpol, and a packet of dried Knorr soup to make up with hot water. When I came back, the girl was asleep, curled up on her cardboard under the bed-sheet that she used as a cover.

I remembered when my husband fell sick, a year ago. He was unnecessarily stoic. He would pretend to prevent me from waiting on him, then give in to the pressure I felt forced to apply, falling back and letting me bring him green tea with honey in it, medicines, soup. Once, when I brought him his tea, he caught my wrist. I love you, he said, and didn’t let go until I said it back.

Over the last three years, his newspaper articles, published in the online blogs of various newspapers, had gotten angrier and angrier. He spent his days ranting about the Land Cruisers with illegally tinted windows and government plates that nudged him off the road, the people with contacts who cut ahead of him in line at the driver licence office, the editors who were happy enough with his written articles but sneered at his accent. Injustice drove him to scornful helplessness and anger. Meanwhile, I learned to sit in bed without worrying about my stomach rounding out my t-shirt in bulges and my thighs splaying out to the side, but, three years later, I still sucked in my stomach when he ran his hand over it. If he felt a fold he would pinch it. Sometimes he would bring his hand up, forefinger and thumb held apart, and we would both look at the inch or so of air he held.

At night I lay on my bed without bedding. My skin was brown with a wash of yellow underneath and dark wrinkles at the elbows, knees, knuckles, the spot where thighs round out into buttocks. I stroked dark, wrinkled skin, the follicles on my arm, a fold at the side of my waist. I accepted everything. These were lessons I could teach the girl if I stayed. She coughed in the living room on the piece of cardboard with my bedding. The cough sounded harsh, lonely, like it wanted me to walk over and soothe it. I remained on my bed, drawing small circles over and over again with my finger among the hairs on my arm.

Because – who the hell was interested in explaining society? I just wanted to leave one final time. My first attempt at leaving I had made it to the end of my husband’s drive. I stopped the car and then, to keep up appearances, drove to the grocery store. Next, I made it to my mother’s house, but pretended I was just visiting and came back home.

I wrote job applications, concealing the papers between the pages of Dawn, as my husband worked in the room next door. His hands, index and middle finger darkened at the tips by cigarettes, clattered over the keyboard of a fat, clunky laptop. His hands were the exact milky brown of a walnut, the knuckles prominent, almost swollen, whitened callouses at the wrist where they rested against the desk. His sleeves were pushed up and his hair, curling because it was unwashed and greasy, fell in his face. His chin was round and firm, a little paunchy where it met the neck, and his stubble was uneven, for he was a careless, impatient shaver. He was tall, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, and he hunched, and the effect was of a studious vulture perched at the low desk. Every now and then he yelled out a sentence at me, waiting for me to affirm it or give an alternative before he continued. You’ve got that fancy education, he said. Nothing is good if it’s not written in good English.

How did it happen that my fancy education had never led to a job that could sustain a human being? I pulled out an ATM receipt from my handbag and checked the balance, wondering how many days of Maggie and daal the money would get me. The desire to be alone rearranged the world. The animal comfort of a warm body was also stifling.

Then it happened. Feeling guilty that I had waited for a job, I packed a bag and left. My mother called, my mother-in-law called, even, once, my father, his voice stretched and itching to order me home. We are not the type of family to force you, he said. But is this really the best idea? You cannot live on your own.

I huddled for weeks in an ugly old apartment without trying to make it pleasant. The previous tenants had removed everything they could when they left – there were holes in the ceiling where the fans should have been, and all the light bulb sockets were empty. The mosquito netting on the windows was torn and curling and I was, ridiculously, afraid that I would get dengue and not have money to pay for the doctor.

The first day on my new job I saw my husband’s car outside my office in a bungalow in Model Town, waiting silently as I climbed into the company minivan that would drop me home. The minivan driver told me that he liked my tights: they are very form-fitting, he explained. This was preferable to getting into my husband’s Cultus.

I got fans for the ceiling, and bulbs for every light socket. Dark grills enclosed the stairs that wound up to my apartment through the guts of the building, but inside my home I painted all the walls a bright white. I never talked to any of the men in the building and so the women started acknowledging my presence. I bought a cat so that, despite the smell of pee in the little balcony, my apartment thrummed with movement and life. My husband sent me ten Milkpak cartons full of my things. Madams books, was printed across one. Madams clothes.

Yet, the TV droned on, and I needed to do something, and I couldn’t explain what or how. Somehow, I felt, there must be a deeper leaving.

The day I went to buy the child medicines, I walked to the store around the corner from the cloth market. The road was broken and bumpy and small stones kept getting into my sandals. I stopped to insert a finger in the space between my sandal and the sole of my foot to poke out a pebble and someone bumped into my shoulder. I clutched my purse.

But the man ran past me and grabbed a woman in front of me instead. She yelled, her voice muffled by her black abaya, but the man had her around the waist. He lifted her up and carried her off, disappearing into the crowd. She kept yelling. Her legs in bright pink pants leaped and bucked out of her abaya. He carried her all the way down the crowded street. The bystanders stood about like dumb chickens. Somebody pointed out the direction he had gone to a policeman. But no one knew anything! I could hear her yelling, but of course she wasn’t there. Everybody started moving again. I had not seen her face, it was covered, but I had heard her voice. And I had seen her be lifted like a sack of dead potatoes. I had seen her legs twisting out. I had seen her pink pants. I could not have done anything. And some of these people were looking in at the windows of my apartment! The next day I called the girl from work who had told me about the group. I asked how I could make the payment for my place in it.

What would the group be? Nobody was clear. You went up to Pindi and from there they took you in a minibus to Murree and then beyond. I had seen a picture of the bus on the girl’s phone – she was thinking about leaving too. (At that time, there were murmurs about it everywhere women got together). It was a white Suzuki dabba with a small black sun printed across the door, which was open. Three women stood outside the bus, arms crossed. They looked like people I might know from school or college, or someone I may have worked with at some point. One of them wore sepia-tinted Raybans. Another wore rust-colored shalwar kameez of an unfashionable cut. Both looked solemn. But inside the bus the shadowy figures of two seated women laughed with their heads thrown back. The driver had one arm dangling out of the window, holding a cigarette, and short hair. It could have been a woman or a man.

Where did this driver take you? Nobody outside of the group knew. It was frightening and mysterious. They said nobody knew where it was so no one could come knocking, demanding return. That there were no men and plenty of room. And that, for those whose anger demanded, there were actions to be taken. Slowly, my anger was beginning to demand.

I bought flowers for the child, a big, luxuriant bunch. What could an eight or nine-year-old want with a bunch of flowers? But I took every opportunity, now, to buy them. They reminded me that although I was dismembering the apartment I had fought so hard for, things were still better than they were before. The days when I couldn’t even buy flowers for a friend who was sick were behind me. Now I could spend 500, a 1000, even two thousand rupees – my rupees, earned while the man put his arm across my desk – without thinking about it. How meagre it was, to worry about the cost of flowers to cheer up a sick friend. And I wanted those days to be behind her, me, but I could not forget that, the feeling of being too worried to buy flowers.

The flowers were all white lilies, imported, out of a refrigerator in the shop and still cool to the touch. The petals were fleshy and damp and the inside of each flower was dusted with bright yellow dust, the color of an egg yolk.

The girl had acclimatized so quickly to the cardboard mats in my apartment. Surely, she would acclimatize again to whatever came next. She was sleeping, her cough better but her temperature high. I found some Panadol and put it by her hand which cuddled her face. Then I put the lilies next to her feet and left the room.

I went to the Daewoo station and bought a ticket to Pindi. I remembered the two women laughing in the bus, the rust-colored clothes and serious face of the woman standing outside it. I imagined the girl waking up in my apartment. I texted the number I had been given (no name) to let them know that I was coming. I had no way to imagine my arrival at the group, so instead I imagined the child waiting for me and then, when I didn’t return, waiting for her father who did not want her. I imagined her gathering up the flowers into her lap. She began to nibble on them, her black rabbit eyes reflecting back the emptiness of the dark rooms.

About Anum Asi

Anum Asi is a fiction writer based in Karachi. Her work has appeared in Headland Journal and been supported by the LUMS Young Writers' Workshop and VONA/Voices.

Anum Asi is a fiction writer based in Karachi. Her work has appeared in Headland Journal and been supported by the LUMS Young Writers' Workshop and VONA/Voices.

Leave a Comment