Don’t hate me because I am beautiful
Azaan’s over. Everyone has gone back to their rooms. The street’s a mess. I smile as a jalebi floats in a puddle nearby. People rarely treat food with respect anymore. I take out a cigarette and begin to light it. Bloody cigarettes; they’ve started costing me more than my clients pay me to begin with! One of the girls, Razia, walks out the curtain-door and sits next to me.
My lighter isn’t working again! Damn it! God bless Razia for handing me hers.
We both stretch our legs over the stairs, lean back and take long drawls of our cigarettes. We barely ever talk. We just bond over the sunrise, a good smoke and some time off from work.
I look at my feet; chipped nail paint. I’ll probably scrape this off. I need to save up for a new paranda. Damn my life to hell! Ramazan really slows down the business.
When was the last time I observed a fast?
Was it five years ago? Or maybe ten?
This habit of smoking has really affected my memory. I scrape some plaque off my teeth and scrub my fingers against a brick nearby.
Razia is speaking.
“I think we need a new sink.”
“Baji, how long have you been here?”
“Does it get better?”
“It would; if they made good cigarettes”
“Baji, how did you come here?”
I love this story. It’s the kind of story I’ve told everyone. My friends can empathise with it; my employers acknowledge it; my housemates understand it; my juniors worship me for it, and my peers respect me because of it.
“I’m tired. We’ll talk another day.”
“Baji, I’ll braid your hair.”
I’m sold to that notion. I love being pampered. Without another thought, I undo my hair fling my locks in her face and begin to talk.
“I came here when I was five. My Amma dropped me off one day. We lived right there, outside Lahore, somewhere near the river. I think Islamabad. I was very posh, you know. No, no, I think it was Karachi. I don’t quite recall. Sigh! Let it go. Amma told me I was with new siblings. I was five, but I adjusted. The Baji before me was kind. She told me I was a beauty! Believe me, larki! I was fair as the moon! The wretched Lahore sun has burnt my beautiful face! Anyhow, you see my hair? They were like a fairy’s – so long and light! And my dance! Wah wah! People loved it. Do you know? A minister came to me once! He loved my dance so much that he sent pocket money for a year! That is how your Baji bought her home.”
I lovingly look at my dilapidated house. I just recently had it painted yellow and blue on the outside. What’s Lahore without a bit more color?
“Anyway, you see my hands? They were as supple as a baby’s bottom! Days and days of hard work ruined them. But they are still very beautiful, you see. I moisturise them with bleaching creams every day. I’ve worked hard, larki. I’ve seen people you haven’t; I’ve seen Lahore like you never will.”
Razia gazes down and draws circles in the mud.
“Baji, ever since I came here, I’ve always respected you.”
“Of course, you have!”
“I want to be like you one day.”
“Your hair isn’t as nice. Your hands aren’t as soft and your features aren’t as smooth as mine.”
“Baji, am I beautiful?”
“Obviously, but not as beautiful as me!”
“I think I need a walk.”
“Bring me some gutka.”
With Razia gone, I begin to think. My whole life, I’ve been flawless. I haven’t been accepted. I haven’t even been told I’m pretty. I’ve been ridiculed, I’ve been shamed. People have laughed at my dances; they’ve laughed at my way of life. Yet, I know, I am beautiful.
I’m beautiful because I respect myself. I have the sort of dignity you wouldn’t believe. I can shut you up and you’d laugh. But you’d know; you’d know better than to mess with Baji again.
A couple of young boys walk by. They look at me, whisper something and snigger. I know what they’re thinking, all too well. I throw a slipper at them and shout.
“Arey o launday! Don’t call me a khusra! I’m a Khawaja Sarraah.”
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