Syed Karhani

To Fly Among The Stars

Omaira was born to Mariyam and Aafaaq, who lived in such a small village in Uttar Pradesh that its existence was not acknowledged by any map of the world.

Both Mariyam and Aafaaq were Sunni Muslims, who were born and raised within the confines of that village. Their imagination and ideas were trained to never wander beyond the bounds of what was taught to them by the elders.

‘Allah?’ the Maulvi would ask them, and they would say, ‘ek!’

Allah is the only one God.

‘Kalma?’ the Maulvi would ask again, and they would say, ‘La Ilaha Il Allah, Muhammad ar Rasool Allah!’

What are the pure words? There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.

Mariyam and Aafaaq were very educated by the standards of that village. Which means that they knew Urdu, and partial Arabic, and they knew the Quran by memory, and they knew the Hadiths.

Aafaaq had attended classes at the local madrasa and Mariyam had obtained education at home. After growing up, Aafaaq became an Urdu teacher in the madrasa and Mariyam became Aafaaq’s wife.

Their wedding was fixed by their families while they were still in their teens. Aafaaq was three years elder to Mariyam, and they married young. She was seventeen and he was twenty.

A year later, they had a daughter, who came out looking red as a carrot, and so they named her Omaira, which in Arabic means red.

Omaira was different from other kids and other adults of her village. Right from childhood, she looked up at the sky, filled with wonder, and asked questions.

She wanted to know where does the sun go at night and why does the moon keep changing in size. She wanted to know why the sky was blue at day and black at night. She was curious about the stars and the nature of things that her eyes captured when she looked up.

Her mother told her that Allah created the earth and the heavens and everything in between. She told her that the sun and the moon swam in orbits decided for them by Allah. And that the sun is lit with a flame and the moon reflects the light of the sun like a silver mirror.

Mariyam told Omaira that the Quran spoke the truth, and it said that icy comets had brought water to earth and water had brought life. And so that life does not diminish, Allah was kind to gather the clouds and send soft rain for His people from time to time.

Omaira loved it when her mother told her these Quranic interpretations. It would only ignite more thoughts, more questions in her mind, but she loved it. Her interest in the vast beyond was appreciated by her parents, but only till the time she was little.

As Omaira grew up, her questions became seriously scientific. Mariyam tried to answer them in the light of the Quran but Omaira was not always satisfied with the answers. And once in winter, she committed blasphemy – she said something that went against the law of Quran.

Her parents were enraged. They locked her in a room for one full day and asked her to do nothing but read the word of God. Her parents were scared of God, yes, but they were more scared of society. What would people say, they thought, if they would come to know that Omaira’s views go against conventions?

Omaira was upset with the way her parents had responded. That day forward she knew that she would not be understood by the people around her.

A few months later, when Omaira turned sixteen, her parents gave her another news that had her frightened to the bones. Casually during dinner, Aafaaq announced that he had seen a boy for her and he had liked him, and had fixed her marriage with him.

Omaira had remained silently upset for days. She could see her entire life before her, where, just like her mother, the only identity that she would have was that of a wife. She had had high fever and headaches for a week, just by thinking of all this.

She could not let this happen to herself. She had to find a way out. She frantically paced around the room thinking of a solution to her problem, and then her eyes fell upon Khayaal, an Urdu magazine, aptly titled ‘idea’, that Aafaaq used to read. The magazine had the picture of a rocket printed on it, and that is when Omaira’s mind ran at forty thousand kilometres per hour – I will build a rocket and escape!

But there was a challenge before her. The house she lived in was not big enough to hide a rocket. So, she asked Mariyam one day that whether the man she was going to marry had a big house or not? Mariyam became happy as she thought that Omaira is showing interest in the idea of marriage and she told her that the man had one of the biggest houses in the village.

Omaira got married to Usman at the beginning of summer. The nikah ceremony was performed amid food and family. Guests were invited from their village and adjoining villages. And merely two days after marriage she was pulled in by the world of household chores.

‘Boil water for me!’ someone would say.

‘Wash my clothes!’ someone else would say.

Right from cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner, to washing clothes, to cleaning the house, everything was her responsibility. And then she had her duties towards her husband, where she had to submit before his sexual demands, irrespective of whether she wanted to or not.

Omaira intensely disliked this monotonous life of mundane routines. She dreamt of the stars in the sky, she wanted to dabble in celestial streams. She compared this life to being bound by heavy chains. She expressed her unhappiness before her mother a few times, but she snubbed, saying she should focus on Namaaz and Quran.

Omaira knew that the rocket was her only escape. She started working on her project right after another bout of fever and headaches. One night while everyone was asleep, she went in to the kitchen and collected whatever she found useful to build the rocket and took it to the buffalo barn.

Still weak from her illness, she toiled all night putting together the things she had towards the realisation of her dream. And before Fajr, the morning prayers, with quivering hands, she hid her creation in the barn, cleaned all evidence, changed clothes and slid in to her bed.

She had continued this practice for almost thirty days, from the time the moon looked like her distal nail plate to the time it looked like her lunula, when her husband noticed that her hands were bruised and the skin on her palm, that should have been soft, was rough.

He inquired about the state of her hands, but she did not tell him the truth. She told him that it was because the new detergent was caustic.

In another thirty days she lost weight and coughed at small intervals through the day and night. Her skin colour had also darkened. Her husband asked about her condition and she said that it was because she was spending too much time in the sun, drying the wheat.

‘Take care of yourself.’ he said, and she thought he cared for her, but then he said, ‘I don’t want my wife looking like a sickly goat.’ and she understood that she was wrong.

Despite her declining health, she kept working on her project. Each night, after everyone was asleep, she would go to the barn and start. Wood, vegetables, straw, iron, plastic, and whatever she could find, she would use it to strengthen her machine.

On some nights she would become overwhelmed with excitement and sit in the centre of the barn, looking at the roof, imagining her escape. With tears flowing down her dry cheeks, and a smile stretched on her parched lips, she would imagine herself heading towards the moon.

It was on one such night that she was closing shop before the rooster sings, when her mother-in-law spotted her. She saw a silhouette near the barn and screamed, ‘Thief! Thief!’ waking everyone up.

Omaira got scared and ran towards the house, but by that time her husband and the husband’s brother and their father had come out with lanterns in their hands.

‘What are you doing here?’ her husband asked, moving the lantern up and down, examining her dirty clothes.

Omaira had no answer. Out of fear, she started crying.

‘What were you doing in the middle of the night in the barn?!’ her husband screamed.

‘I was keeping water for the buffaloes.’ she mumbled.

‘Oh no, you weren’t.’ Omaira’s husband’s brother’s wife said. ‘I filled the water tank in the barn last night.’

‘Then what were you doing?’ her mother-in-law asked with suspicion.

‘You have a lover, don’t you?’ her husband said in a low voice filled with anger.

Omaira shook her head in denial, crying over her knuckles.

‘Answer me!’ he screamed.

‘No!’ Omaira cried.

‘Then where do you go every night?’ he asked.

Omaira looked at him in horror.

‘Why are you surprised? You thought you would leave the bed every night and I wouldn’t come to know?’ he gave an angry smile.

‘Allah! Allah! Allah!’ her mother-in-law shrieked. ‘What is this happening?’

‘Daughter, tell us, is Usman right?’ her father-in-law queried.

‘No.’ Omaira managed a reply between sobs.

‘This witch!’ her mother-in-law said, and slapped on her back for as long as she could and as hard as she could.

The bitterness in Omaira’s life reached culminating peaks after that incident. No one in the house would talk to her, and because her in-laws had shared her ‘acts of indecency’ with her family, so even Mariyam and Aafaaq refused to talk to her.

She was collapsing inwards on herself with each passing breath. The only sight that gave her solace was the silent night sky, visible from a small window in her room.

She had made a mental image of it, so she could look at it whenever she closed her eyes. Like when her mother-in-law would start taunting her for not bearing a child even after two years of marriage or when Usman would climb on her at night to punishingly penetrate her.

For more than six months Omaira did not go back to the barn. Her only companion amid the loneliness, and the torture, was her image of the night sky. The constellations dangling above her, the one odd shooting star, and other marvellous entities that flickered and glowed.

The extended separation from her dream was too much for her, so one night she snuck out of the room, determined to complete the project. Her eyes brightened when she opened the door to the barn, the buffaloes moved out of her way in respect, and she came face to face with her means of escape – the rocket she was building.

She was out of breath that night but she knew that she was very close to completing the project, so she kept on going. By the time it was morning, she was shivering because of cold and coughing so intensely that she had to spit blood. But her rocket was finally ready.

That morning, when she went to bed, she felt relaxed in a long time. She woke up after a small sleep, and served breakfast to everyone, she then cleaned the house, and washed clothes. She had a smile on her face that day, and a look that said, ‘I have freed myself from the chains.’

At twilight, she took a bath, changed clothes and organised all her belongings. Then she served dinner to everyone and post dinner, when everyone went to bed, she said ‘no’ to Usman’s advances for lovemaking. That night Usman did not force himself upon her.

A thick fog had enveloped the village, and cold wave swept across. It was a moonless night and when the lanterns were turned off, it was pitch dark. No one came to know when Omaira left but they found out in the morning.

Usman woke up with the noise his mother was making. His other family members were huddled outside the barn. He went there and saw that at the centre of the barn, the buffaloes had formed an impenetrable ring, and between the ring fell sunlight that came in from a large hole in the roof that had not existed before.

The fog had lifted and the sun shined bright in a clear sky. ‘Omaira! Omaira!’ Usman called, but she was not there to answer him. ‘Omaira! Omaira!’ they all called out to her, but she had left them far behind, to fly among the stars.

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