By Qamar Sabzwari
Translated by Munir Fayyaz
“Give me a matchbox…
“Look here too. God forbid…
“You have to wait forever when you’re buying some petty article…”
The short heighted Itrat mumbled standing outside the grocery shop while wrapping up her shawl that was already at its place again around her. She was out of breath and her body outstretched her dress.
Suddenly she jumped up. A spiked object had hit her buttock forcefully that hedged at her back to an obscene limit.
Outraged, she turned back to find Rasheedan standing there, showing her teeth and holding a hair pin in her hand.
“You scoundrel! What time is it for buying a matchbox? Your husband isn’t home and kids have also gone to school after having breakfast. What fire are you lighting now?” Rasheedan tried to whisper in a vulgar way with her palm across her lips.
In the meanwhile the kid in the shop turned towards Tarto (nickname of Itrat), “What do you want auntie?”
“Just a matchbox, what else? Have i come to buy whole of your store.” Itrat said while giving him a one rupee coin.
The kid handed her the matchbox hastily and turned towards other customers.
“What do you want to buy?” Itrat asked Rasheedan turning towards her.
“No, nothing. What should I want to buy? I was going to Shahida’s home and caught your sight standing here so stopped here. What are up to?” Rasheedan asked Tarto the same question.
“I was going to Shahida’s house too but I saw that short haired girl from the back street… the one who got married last month… who comes out very decorated…” Rasheedan wasn’t getting her. “The whore who passes through the street holding the hand of her lover.” Itrat said in an irritated way.
“O yes, yes. The one with small oranges…” Rasheedan replied identifying the hallmark of the girl.
“Yes, the same…I saw her going somewhere hurriedly so I followed her to see what the issue was but the young legs hop a lot. She went too far ahead when I reached here and I didn’t think it good to return instantly from the halfway so thought of buying a matchbox for an excuse of coming till here.” Both gossiped while going to Shahida’s home.
“What else? I heard you rushed to Shehdo’s home yesterday on hearing about your man’s phone call. What does he say?” Itrat initiated another talk.
“What does he have to say? The same routine and advice; ‘take care of kids’ studies, visit my sister, her in-laws would say there is no one in her family to look after her’. Now how would I ask after that bitch? She’s getting fatter day by day by eating around the clock, visits here and there for picnic every other day with her husband, goes for shopping every now and then…” Rasheedan replied longingly showing perhaps her frustration.
“Forget it!” Itrat didn’t want to hurt her more.
“You ask me of my husband, tell me about yourself. Do you get some peace or still remain awake after taking down strips of tranquilizers?” Rasheedan avenged upon her.
Tarto looked towards her with a complaining eye, “You really asking me or just mocking me? It’s been hardly a week since his departure; I’ll catch sleep and peace steadily. Don’t you remember your times, when your man showed up on holidays from army, how you went in air, wore matching shoes with dress and how whole of the street jingled with your bangles.” She said looking at her bare forearms, “you never let henna got off your hands nor your dandasa (walnut tree peel used for whitening teeth that leaves lasting brownish mark on mouth) faded away.” Rasheedan was listening closely to Itrat but both were conscious of the passers-by. “And you weren’t able to talk even in our company at Shahida’s house when he used to leave after a month. You sat dumbfound for nearly two weeks or so like a recently widowed woman. Yours is still in the country, mine is far away in abroad.” Itrat heaved a deep, cold sigh, “Now he’d return if it was fortunate of me, and who knows if he had the same old warmth. He’s about to turn fifty. Don’t know if he’d take care of me or of his own corpse…” She spoke without any break as she was looking for some listener to outpour her frustration.
“Forget it dear! How can we mock each other who are embodiments of self mockery?” Rasheedan tried to divert the talk.
“Look there! someone is getting out of Shehdo’s home. Seems very masculine! See he took the turn of street on the other side on catching our sight. The rascal didn’t show his face.” Both of them paced quickly toward Shahida’s door. Both had the same idea in their hearts; it would be fun talking today, they had caught Shehdo red-handed today.
Itrat formally knocked at Shahida’s door lightly and both of them entered her home.
Shahida was the youngest of her three friends Itrat, Rasheedan and Nargis and was the last one to enter their company. She was nearly 36. Her husband had died two years ago and she lived with her mother-in-law, two sons and a mentally retarded sister-in-law. She had a daughter too whom she had married when her husband was still alive. Her elder son, almost 20, worked in a workshop at a nominal salary. Her younger son was a student at 8th grade. Her mother-in-law had turned almost blind after two operations and lived in a room built on the roof of her house. On entering Shahida’s house they found Nargis sitting there. They were emotionally taken back at her presence as the chances of an expected scandal died down in Nargis’ presence.
“Who was that? You should’ve told him about us, you nasty creature. He ran away stealthily.” Itrat couldn’t hold herself back and said to Shahida with a wink.
“Whatever, but he was quite masculine; tall, muscular, broad-shouldered. He could break anyone’s ribs by squeezing in his arms.” Rasheedan interrupted Itrat.
“You whores, it was the meter-reader, your mothers’ chap! He came to read the electricity meter, not to install her personal connection.” Nargis, instead of Shahida, replied with a laugh and all of them started laughing.
Itrat switched to a serious tone amid her laughing and said, “Shehdo, we are laughing but you have all at hand. Why don’t you dare? Will you spend rest of your life like this sewing others clothes? You’re still young, just 35 or 36.”
“And appear of 25 or 26.” Rasheedan added pointing to her breast.
“We are bound to live so. Neither are we young nor attractive anymore, moreover, have the tag of husbands on us,” Itrat continued, “our duty is to guard our husbands, children and families. And when our husbands return after living their lives out of their will or after fulfilling their duties, they’ll own everything again and we’ll be nowhere.”
“This quarrelling creature speaks the whole truth, though.” Rasheedan again interrupted pointing towards Itrat, “this is a mere guard, whether of children and homes, or like Nargiso of being attached to their name, and we are given food, dress and shelter by our husbands as compensation.”
“We are spending our lives like widows despite being married, or more like being married at intervals of two to four years and then being widows again. But your husband is no more alive, why have you chained yourself?” Itrat resumed her talk
Shehdo interrupted Tarto angrily, “You whore! How dare you call my kids chains? And who are they that you’re guarding?” On seeing Tarto panicking she took to a softer note, “but sister, you’re somehow right. Umer and Kashif take sides with their grandmother and Umer even criticizes every action of me as he might’ve become my husband after his father’s death. He looks scornfully at me if someone visits me or if I’m in street for some work. I fear he’d beat me. I sometimes think they’ll make me live with their mad aunt after both of them get married and after the mother of Aslam passes away too.” Then she added shaking her head, “Forget it sister! To whom should I entrust this innocent Kashif? And I’ve given Aslam my word to take care of her mad sister till death. And we’ve witnessed the results of 2nd marriage in the case of this Nargiso. How much her husband cared about her when she eloped with him from the house of her first husband in the village! He handled all the litigation very happily but now he doesn’t even talk to her at the stretches of six months. The rascal doesn’t even care about her food and dress anymore nor of her coming or going anywhere.”
The expressions of Nargis started changing and she unmindfully uttered, “He’s found a new one now. He’d be pampering that whore now; why’d he take care of me? I was doped in his love. This bastard was my husband’s servant. I got trapped into his sweet talk. It’s true that I was keen to get freedom from my husband’s atrocities. Now he says he won’t divorce me. I bear his name so I am the guard of his honor for the rest of my life.” Her eyes were dry yet she wiped them as they’d be wet. Then she got up and went to the water-cooler pcking up the glass and said, “I’m called Nargiso and I’m keeping a very good guard of his name; he leaves for there and someone else comes in here.” Itrat said pricking her butt as she Nargis passed by her, “You still have your stores full of merchandise to be sold, whore! We can’t even do this.”
Rasheedan who has been sitting silent for a while staring at the hand of sewing machine moving in and out uttered in a longing voice:
“What strange lives we have! The thing about the excess of which the average women normally complaint of their husbands or make their husbands cater to them; we crave for that despite being married. Shehdo, you’ve been a widow for two years but we’ve been waiting for so long that we don’t even remember it right. You might’ve grown patient towards it but think about us. None is there to care for us. We live like widows on Eids, rainy days, winters and all other celebrations. And when nothing happens or we become patient, we start feeling like the being in wedlock.” Nargiso put the glass of water in her lap removing it from her lips and started pressing it with her hands. Itrat’s eyes stuck to the moving lips of Rasheedan and the cloth of the trousers being sewn crumbled in the hands of Shahida.
Rasheedan continued, “I sometimes start hating you and even myself. We’re not like other women. We get lost into mean thoughts even by looking at the guys of our sons’ ages. Sometimes we get breathless and lost into thoughts while looking at the moving hand of the sewing machine, inserting thread into the needle head, making flour dough, closing a drawer, even ladling our broth in pot while cooking and sometimes we turn ice-cold to the extent that we even forget that we are women. I sometimes want to spit on myself when I realize that we get happy on hearing about some woman getting divorced or beaten or caught in an affair just because we’re jealous of every woman. We can’t endure any other woman’s happiness, any other woman’s bathing.” Tears were now clearly visible in Nargiso’s eyes.
Shahida abruptly got up and said pricking Rasheedan’s shoulder, “You rogue, go and become a teacher in some school. Stop this nonsense. I make tea for you and you give some stitches to these trousers.”
Itrat gradually started sleeping again. She turned paler and her belly also be swelled due to tranquilizers. Another changed occurred to her that when she saw children from the neighborhood playing in the street, she called them in her home and watched television with them lying in her bed. She sometimes kissed and caressed some kid having him in her lap for quite some time and played with him or made him sleep in her bed. Nirgiso’s sister-in-law had come to her home for staying for some days so she started her meetings at Shehdo’s home. Shehdo refused her a couple of times as she was afraid of her son’s severe adverse reaction: “He’ll make it a hell for me; and this boy of yours is quite young, he’ll tell his friends and whole of the neighborhood will come to know.” But then she consented to Nargiso’s pressing requests saying, “You can come once a week at least two hours after my son’s departure for the workshop and one hour before the arrival of Itrat and Rasheedan. You may use my drawing room and ask him to come from the outer door and leave from there. You may open the inner door after he leaves.”
Shahida made a small hole for electric plug in the window of her drawing room. She remained stuck to the window till Nargis was inside and then took shower before cooking lunch.
There hadn’t been any news in the neighborhood for last two or three months; neither any gossip nor chasing anyone till shop and buying a matchbox. The secret on Nargiso’s meetings was still between her and Shahida. Perhaps for the reason that both of them were benefitting from it in their own ways. Rasheedan’s husband was coming the next month on holidays. She daily informed others of some new preparation of her and the rest got tired of it. Itrat sometimes suspected her husband for marrying in Saudia but now she had stopped worrying about it. She knew that he’d return to her leaving everything because his age demanded so.
One day Nargiso was walking to Shahida’s home for her clandestine date. It was still some time to go so she was pacing lazily looking here and there and took the turn of her street. She saw some people standing outside Shahida’s home. The women from adjoining homes were also entering her house. She saw Itrat and Rasheedan arriving too with fearing steps. The three of them simultaneously approached the door. Instead of saying something, they entered the door after seeing each other in the eyes. A cot was lying in the courtyard and Shahida’s corpse was lying on it wrapped in white. Her throat was mercilessly cut. Her aged mother-in-law was sitting half lying by the wall in a corner and her younger son whom someone had just brought from school was sitting scared on ground by her feet. An elderly woman whispered to Nargiso, “Shahida’s elder son butchered her. He was going to his workshop but forgot his wallet at home and came back. He found her sitting with someone in her drawing room. She has stabbed all over her body. Her hands turned all flesh. Perhaps she was trying to shield herself.”
Nargiso returned to call her family. The meter reader’s card was lying on the floor by the door of the drawing room which showed the record of four readings during that month.