The mountains are not meant for me. At least, I think that’s what baba's expression signified. He looked coldly disapproving when I rushed in this morning, pigtails flying, face wildly red. My expression fixed itself in a minute, my delight soured. His downturned mouth seemed to say to me that the pleasure of nature's bounties belonged to higher entities than myself. That is why I checked myself immediately, unwilling to let him know how much pleasure I took in that arduous morning hike up the mountainside, even with that hefty matka of water balanced on my hip. If I had told him, he might have assigned the task to someone else simply to spare me the enjoyment.
He doesn't treat Ayaan the same way. It isn't that he loves my brother more than he loves me (I do not believe baba capable of that emotion at all), it is simply that Ayaan's existence makes more sense to him than mine. How useless a being I must seem to him, a mere woman with nothing to contribute to the future. My only usefulness to him lies in my playing nurse to my romping little brother. That he considers my duty, rather, my sole purpose in life. Thankfully, so it is one pleasure he will not try to deprive me of.
She was standing in a doorway atop a grand curving staircase, her hand clasped by a bride-groom she did not know very well, surrounded by strangers who were now family. It was a daunting aspect. Wolfish grinning faces accosted her from every angle. It was uncomfortable, but she was prepared for it. She was prepared to be welcomed as an object of fascination for the next few months until she became just another face in the household. She was prepared to be meek, submissive, and generally likeable until they actually began to like her for who she was. She was prepared to wholeheartedly take up her duties in the house even if that meant ironing other people's clothes until late into the night and cooking food for more people than just her husband. In short, she was quite prepared to do all it would take to fit in. How could she be faulted then, if despite all her resolutions they were determined to be unwelcoming?
"This is her jahaiz?" Those words remained unspoken but were heard nonetheless, in all their contempt by all who were gathered. They were uttered in the single derogatory glance cast by those hardened eyes on the gift before them.
They were all still parked in the doorway, the bride still carrying the weight of her magnificently embroidered dress, her mind numbed by the sheer weight of the jewels in her hair and on her neck. Ordinarily, this would be no strange occurrence. It was practice in many households to extort money from the groom by barring the doorway, relying on his desperation to be alone with his bride. But this was not about the groom’s money. This was about the single drop-like diamond that lay on its neat chain inside the small velvet box. This was about the gift the girl’s family had made to the mother-in-law. This small egg of diamond was considered insufficient. What was required was many ounces of gold, extravagantly glimmering and dangling. The bride had become an embarrassment to her in-laws even before she had set foot into their house.
“Send it back.” These words were spoken. The bride’s eyes widened and her heart
clenched. Then the moment passed, relief washed over her as she realized the words
referred not to her but to the diamonds. The relief that flooded her brain blinded her to the whisperings and the snarky looks as she was grudgingly accepted into the household. She felt exhausted.
I hate him. I never minded his behaviour for my own sake, honestly, I didn't. But when I see Zarmeen's eyes welling with tears at his dismissive attitude I feel a fire inside me. He does not even deign to speak to her! Only his curt finger instructs her to take the baby away. I can see her hastily wipe her own tears, cast one last glance at him and then rush from the room, baby in her arms. I really wish she wouldn't display such weakness. It's not that he secretly derives malicious pleasure from tormenting her like this (if it were so there may have been hope yet!). It is his utter lack of emotion. He is like a block of stone, nothing she will say or do will move him. He really and truly believes that our only worth is as maids to his son. I get up and silently follow Zarmeen out of the room. I must calm her and improve her mood, something I cannot expect mother to do. The pathetic creature! In any case, I refuse to let that man murder my spirit. Try as he might to make my world oppressively small, I will take pleasure in the little things and make every moment great.
She had been busy the whole day. Too busy to notice anything or anyone. Her fingers and her feet had been flying as she cooked and cleaned. When she finally sat down to the dinner table her cheeks were flushed red. She was pleased in the way only a beautifully busy day can give pleasure. It was only when her mind slowed down enough to pick up a fork and take a calm breath that she noticed the pregnant silence at the table. They were watching her, but when she looked up, they would look away. How odd. She looked down at her plate and then looked quickly up again, hoping to catch their eyes. But they merely exchanged glances and she could see small smirks around the corners of their mouth as they enjoyed her discomfiture. None of them ate much.
"Amma, you really should eat," Her husband addressed his mother. He was the only one wolfing down food.
His mother gave a lopsided smile, her eyes downcast, "This isn't really how I like it. You know my teeth can't stand such meat."
"Well, you should have told Zoya..." he began.
"Of course I did, I told her! I don't think she listens." His mother replied firmly.
Zoya felt her heart catch in her throat. No. No. She could not bear for him to be angry with her when he had only just stepped into the house! Her mouth opened and words tumbled out,
"No! I swear no one told me! Of course, if I had known I never would have spent the whole day cooking something no one would eat! I kept asking everyone, but nobody would say..."
Everyone at the table was silent as she trailed off. She felt she had spoken politely but it was obvious that they thought her attitude extremely defensive. Her mother-in-law's face spoke of triumph. Her husband looked stern. He gave his mother one look and her expression seemed to say,
'How can anyone talk to her when this is how she reacts?'
He pushed his chair up from the table and walked away, pausing only to look down at her with two heart-breaking words,
Her flushed cheeks had acquired an unnatural pallor. Her appetite was gone.
Her flushed cheeks had acquired an unnatural pallor. Her appetite was gone.
Zoya leaned on the parapet. A beautiful breeze was blowing. It had the effect of calming her tumultuous mind. At first, she had felt like running away. Running away from these people, who were determined to punish her simply because they could not recognize the worth of a diamond. If they wanted gaudy gold, she wished her parents had thrust it at them. Her husband's words to her echoed in her mind: 'I'm disappointed'. No, she was disappointed in him! How could he pretend to know anything of what went on in the house when he was away the entire day! And then, to not even give her the benefit of the doubt. His mistrust made her heart ache. That is why her first impulse had been to leave. She did not need to bother with these people.
But even as one part of her mind made a list of things she would take, the other part spoke: Where would she go? To her parents, old and in need of care themselves? Her parents, who could not get along with each other, let alone with society? And if she did run away, who would support her? She had no means to do this herself, never having earned any degrees. Her chest tightened. Her hands were tied. Neither nature nor society would allow her to endure if she left. The only course that lay open to her was to defy them. She would not allow their hostility to break her. She would build her life with little joys: a morning fresh with dewdrops, a pleasant evening walk, a day of honest toil. She would build her life on a bed of good memories to block out the evil ones.
I feel broken. I feel so angry! I feel helpless. How dare he raise his hand toward me? I blame mother. Her pathetic cowardice makes him brave. Brave enough to pretend he owns the world. My tears are ruining this paper. They are hot, angry tears. My heart is bursting with rage but I can do nothing. I stood up to him today, no longer able to bear his coldness in the face of Zarmeen's meekness. In my mind's eye, my pert answer opened his eyes and awakened his admiration for me. Unfortunately, it did not play out that way in real life. In real life, my bravado earned me a brutal slap. A slap that stings even as I write this, hours later. A slap that makes my cheek burn red in actuality and in shame.
My world is falling apart. Two days ago, I would have claimed I was the protector of my siblings: shielding Zarmeen and nurturing Ayaan, teaching them to be unlike our parents. But I feel my strength and resolve wavering. It seems my dear father has finally figured out exactly how to teach me my place. It began with beatings. The insult of his belt against my face, my back, my arms, made me hate him. The mental abasement of watching the bruises grow purple, day after day, made me despise myself. Now he seeks to destroy my little pleasures. My favorite meal (simple as it was) is no longer served at our table. The washing maid, my only friend, has mysteriously resigned. I find myself locked in a metaphorical tower. He does all this, not with the malicious pleasure of a cat dangling a mouse, but with the matter of fact practicality of a man breaking in a horse. Oh mother, I feel I finally understand how you have become the meek and mindless vegetable you are!
Zoya was finding it hard to keep her resolution. She had tried to treasure the little moments: a warm smile, a pleasant evening walk. Now, as she lay on this hard metal bed under a lazily revolving fan she felt mad with bitterness and anger. At least HE could have come. But there was no one here. Upon the birth of her baby daughter, a daughter who had been her strength and hope for the past nine months, she was all alone. She felt a change overwhelm her mind and heart like a wave. An anger unleashed itself within her. She wanted to throw things, to beat upon her own head, to scream. She felt vengeful, and embittered by the knowledge that her vengeance could only be petty. She had no power and the only punishment she could inflict was in flinging at others the small miseries of life.
Had they driven her mad? She wondered. Or had her madness only been unleashed? Had she always been thus, so that they were correct in their assessment and treatment of her? Or had their malicious behavior, like a thousand pricking pins, directed her into this vortex of mad thoughts? A timid knock sounded at the door. There was a mere, fleeting moment of hope but alas, it was only their crazy old neighbor come good naturedly to hold the baby, to give the mother a chance to catch her breath. Zoya gave a harsh laugh. Perhaps madness was virulent! In any case, she surrendered her baby without a moment's thought. She no longer cared.
I am a married woman now. I have been, these past four years! I stumbled across this diary some days ago. How faithfully I used to write in that life I've left behind! It seems only correct for me to update it to my current situation. Let me see, I have four children now, the youngest still a mere babe. My husband and I are trying to build ourselves a new house. It is our heart's desire and the one thing in which we truly have a deep understanding. On other things I fear, I cannot make him out. I am a woman of simple tastes but he loves showering me with presents. He buys me glimmering shawls, but when I dutifully fold them and put them away, he seems displeased. I wonder what it is that displeases him. He loves to travel and wants me to accompany him but I do not think it my place to do so. I try to tell him that there is no need for such extravagance, that the pennies he saves on my tickets can be used so much more worthily if we purchase tiles for the bathroom or to pay the construction workers their wages. He simply shakes his head and strokes mine. He seems bemused by me. And I must admit, he puzzles me a great deal too!
I think I begin to understand him. It was on a particularly starless night that he took me to the now complete rooftop of our new house. He took my hand in his and stared into my eyes and explained himself to me. Oh how I love him now that I understand him! I always thought he did not know the place of a woman but it seems it was I, who did not know a woman's worth!
Zoya had been in that house many years now, playing the role of the quiet and submissive maid. No unnecessary words escaped her mouth so that none could be misconstrued into defensiveness, rudeness or impertinence. The only time she became herself, when she truly came alive, was in those precious moments that she was alone with her two children. They were her pride and strength and for them she would have borne anything with a smile. On this day that we speak of, she had been cleaning an old metal cupboard that stood in one of the unused rooms. It held a quantity of odds and ends, as well as some very beautiful, sparkling shawls. As she pulled out the soft cloth, something tumbled into her lap. It was a very old and small leather diary.
'... My life is over. I shall never write again. I shall never feel again. I thought father had killed my heart, made it stone cold, but it is only now that I realize what it really feels like to have a dead heart. They told me about his accident in the morning today. They did not even let me see his body for it had been mangled terribly before lying at the morgue unidentified for several hours. Just like that, I will never see him again. Oh how I wish I had decked myself in jewels and shawls and traversed the world with him... but it is useless to regret.'
She realized she had been reading for several hours, thoroughly engrossed. She turned the page but there were no more words. She did not need to ask who the owner of the diary was; her father-in-law had died at the age of 45. Perhaps she should have felt sympathy now for the bitterness she had seen in her mother-in-law's face for the last sixteen years. Perhaps she should have, but she did not. She felt curiously emotionless other than a faint malicious pleasure at the beatings and an even fainter tinge of envy at the thought that at least her mother-in-law had truly loved her husband. Zoya could not even boast of that; every attempt at building an understanding with her husband had been thwarted by his own family, to the point that she no longer cared to try.
She had chosen the girl herself. Her son had had no say in the matter. Why was it then that the girl's very expression seemed to irritate her to the core? Zoya could not account for it, but the girl’s every smile and every meek demur seemed a manipulative attempt to snatch her son away from her. She could not, would not let this girl overwhelm her.
Fouzia had made up her mind. She could tell from the beginning that her mother-in-law was not an easy or friendly person but she had not bargained for the complete and utter dislike this woman, who only months ago had been wooing her, now displayed towards her. Every action done, every word spoken could and would be used against her. At first, she would retreat to her room in tears but as days turned into weeks, she pulled herself together. If only she could build a good understanding with her husband, all else would be bearable, she told herself.
It was far easier said than done. Fouzia could not fathom why a woman would want to sabotage her own son’s marriage! Did she not want her son to be happy? It seemed as though Zoya wanted to encourage her son to grow indifferent to his wife. Try as she might, Fouzia could not understand her motives. Try as she might, she could not break Zoya’s hold over her husband. Dutifulness, submissiveness, stubbornness, logic and even tears, all failed in a relationship that lacked trust. And trust between Fouzia and her husband was what Zoya seemed to strive every minute to wreck.
So today, as she stood blankly in the middle of her lavish room, all alone because her husband frequented it so less, she felt a bitter anger worm its way into her mouth. An urge to violently set all these people right overtook her. She paced up and down, her feet pressing into the carpet. It took a few moments but she managed to swallow the feelings that had invaded her, that did not belong to her nature and she told herself, like so many had before her:
"I won't let them break me. I won't."