Red

Published: June 26, 2014
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She smacked and then pursed her lips to allow the red lipstick to spread evenly, making them look fuller. She beamed with pride at her own reflection. PHOTO: AFP

This piece is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

The air smelled of rich extravagance as her heart pounded in her chest and banged away like a hammer. Her eyes, heavy with kajal, glanced sideways as the butler came towards her to escort her upstairs.

She smiled, stood up, hoping nobody would notice her trembling fingers, and walked upstairs. Unconsciously, her fingers rose to her lips and she started biting her finger nails to calm her nerves. The butler was moving ahead of her and she had to take long strides to keep up with him, while her lips trembled with a quiet prayer.

During her short time in the waiting area, she examined the people around her. They were important – oh yes, they were – that much was apparent. The men sauntered along wearing expensive suits, drowned heavily in rich cologne, with their fingers tightly clasped around their brief cases and documents. The women wore gorgeous silk saris with their long hair properly straightened, neatly manicured fingernails, all the while communicating in fluent, unbroken English. The younger ones wore short dresses or tight jeans, their hands grasping the arms of their boyfriends.

She was suddenly reminded of her own chewed fingernails and her wavy spilt-ended hair, which she had desperately tried to smooth out with gel to make herself look presentable. She wore a bright red lipstick, borrowed from a friend, and a mini dress, which – according to the other girls – made her look ‘modren’.

She found her walk too clumsy, her hair too curly, her eyebrows too disproportional and her fingers too pudgy. When she looked around, she was reminded that her place was in one tiny bedroom apartment and no matter how hard she tried, she was no match for the pampered ‘burger’ princesses who came from the ‘other side of the bridge’.

She was just Aliya. Ordinary Aliya.

“Here is the room and these are the keys. He will arrive shortly.”

The butler gave a soft nod and backed away while Aliya opened the wooden carved door of the hotel room to let herself in, relieved that she would have sometime alone to soothe her nerves and make herself comfortable. She never believed she would be in such a setting. Her four-inch-high red heels clattered on the wooden flooring as she searched for the light switch to make things visible. Her hand reached the switch and the bright lights blinded her for a second. Her eyes moved around and she gasped, taking in the magnanimity of her surroundings.

Aliya’s eyes widened, in shock, as she took in the luxury of the suite before her; it had two rooms and a fully equipped kitchen with a well-stocked mini refrigerator as well as a spacious living room with comfortable mahogany sofas and two flat screen TVs. She made her way to the bedroom and sat down on the king-sized bed. She took off her heels and massaged her tortured feet. She took long, deep breaths trying her best to stave off the panic that threatened to engulf her.

Suddenly, she heard the door click and the sound of a key moving in the lock.

In that second, her heart stopped beating.

Her bibi sahiba had given her precise instructions to lie down on the bed and explicitly showed Aliya the seductive position she was supposed to be in when the customer arrived. But as she sat there, she was paralysed with fear and frantic with panic in her heart.

When the customer stepped inside, Aliya immediately looked down, unable to lift her eye lids.

The scent of heavy perfume filled her nostrils, making her want to vomit, and the glimpse of the black polished shoes in front of her brought about a terrifying reality; there was no way out now.

“What’s your name?”

His ungentle voice barked in to her ears as he stood only a few steps away from where she sat.

She answered,

“Aliya”

The sound of her name reverberated back into her own ears and soothed her to a minimal extent. Her voice was surprisingly confident and steady, not stammering like it usually did when she was exceedingly nervous. She did not know whether to cross her legs or stand up or to smile at him.

It was her first time.

He was fast. Within seconds, he made his place beside her and Aliya bit her lower lip as he sidled his finger under her chin, caressing her face. Aliya felt her cheeks blush violently – she felt humiliation seep through every vessel in her body and lifted her face to look him in the eye.

She regretted her decision as soon as looked up and suddenly found herself wishing she had kept her eyes shut.

He wore a dirty yellow smile, giving her a clear view of his untrimmed nose hair and decaying teeth. Tiny patches of white hair at the side of his bald head indicated that he was over 65 years old. Aliya felt her heart slide up to her throat as she tried to slowly inch away from the man who was running his pudgy forefinger over her raw, red lips, smudging the red lipstick down to her cheeks as Aliya sat there helplessly. He unhooked her red bra, caressing her body and tugging on her nipples.

Huge sagging breast, white thinning chest hair and dark circles under his eyes – hard, cold, hostile, cruel eyes.

One hour of pain, humiliation, pinches, heavy male laughter and smudged red lipstick.

It was important that she pleased him and she carried on with her work.

Eleven

She stood by the kitchen counter. It was her turn to do the dishes today. She looked outside the window and blew a flying kiss to her mother who was on her way to the factory. Ma waved back and Aliya had a clear view of the feeble hands that were already tired from all the sewing at the factory.

Aliya’s huge, almond-shaped eyes looked at the clock hung over her head on the patchy, paint deprived wall and vowed to do her homework soon today, so she could go meet her friend at the park in the evening. She had to ensure that she worked hard to keep her grades up so that she could retain the merit-based scholarship she was on at school. Being a top student, Aliya felt blessed to have a place of refuge where she felt she could become any one that she wanted to be.

She was humming away while she did the dishes when she heard the click and the door opened.

She stopped humming.

Her entire body trembled at the click and she looked up, her hands soaked from cleaning the dishes. Her entire body stiffened – she could feel the hot water running between her fingers.

He placed a set of sturdy hands on her waist from behind – his breath reeked of alcohol.

Not again. Not again. Not again. Please God. Not again.

His tongue stroked her neck and his teeth came down hard on her ear, biting on it.

“Come with me. Now!” he whispered into her ear, pulling on strands of her hair hard and taking her hand into his own.

Hopelessly, she followed him in to the bedroom as he locked the door behind him and shoved her onto the bed like a ragged cloth. He stripped her as she resisted, crying softly, pleading. He shushed her, calling her his ‘little rani’; it was his only way of showing love, that he cared for her, he told her time and time again.

As she lay down, she closed her eyes. She was confused. If this was love he was showing she wanted no part of it.

“No abba, stop please, I have to do the dishes,” Aliya pleaded.

Abba shushed her and carried on with his business.

It was over. The hour was up.

Got over too soon, wasn’t expecting that, Aliya thought as she saw him walking into the bathroom.

She pulled the sheets up, covering her bare breasts, and started looking for her clothes. She made sure everything was in its place and no one would ever get a hint of what had happened behind these closed doors, other than the butler that is; he was already paid to escort her upstairs and to keep quiet.

“You were good, better than the others. Perhaps, because of how young you are, the others that bibi sent me are in their early twenties and they are not as good as you are. How old are you?” the customer asked Aliya.

“18,” she replied softly, as she put on her leggings and hooked her red bra.

“You are a beautiful girl. Who wouldn’t want to be with you?”

Yeah right, she thought bitterly as put on the last piece of her clothing.

Fourteen

Aliya examined her long, red painted, fingernails in the mirror and smiled as her mother’s delicate hands parted her hair into three strands and braided them carefully. She felt her mother’s rough finger tips, felt a pang in her heart and shrugged it away thinking anyone’s hands would be as rough sewing buttons and cutting thick towels in a factory all day long. She smacked and then pursed her lips to allow the red lipstick to spread evenly, making them look fuller.

She beamed with pride at her own reflection.

It was her birthday.

She looked up and saw her mother smiling back and as she did, Aliya had a full view of the dark circles under the woman’s eyes and the wrinkles on her face that had started to inch from her the side of lips all the way across her face. The face, that had once been attractive and vibrant, had now become pale, battered and bruised thanks to her father’s ‘outbursts’.

Sometimes, she wondered if her mother knew what took place in her absence and in the darkness of the night. She wished with all her heart that she would never know. Aliya would hate for that smile to falter.

Today, Aliya had been invited by the most popular group of her school to celebrate her birthday with them. It was her dream come true and she had squealed with joy when the boy, she had been crushing on for the past three years, had asked her to be part of the celebrations. He had called her to the park in front of her school where they would all meet, pick her up and head to a restaurant. Any restaurant of your choice, he had said and she couldn’t contain her excitement. They promised to drop her back at the park at 6pm sharp.

Her mother had said no. Her father would be infuriated if he found out Aliya had been out in a mixed gathering. Girls in their family did not go out like that, they were respectable and they did not celebrate their birthdays. She pleaded and begged and cried and then Ma said yes.

Aliya had never been out with friends – perhaps, because she never had any. Whenever someone spoke to her, she felt they could see through her, they could see the nail marks stretched across her belly, the punch and bite marks on her thighs. She felt humiliated more than ever.

But today was going to be the most perfect day and she was not going to let her father, her dilapidated apartment or her poverty affect her chances of having just a few, light hearted moments of being a teenager. What was so wrong in that?

It was time to go.

Aliya hurriedly waved to her mother, blew her a kiss, inspected herself one last time in the mirror, made a few last minute adjustments and left to catch the rickshaw.

It was 3:30pm when she reached the park. They will be here at 4pm, as they had promised, which gave Aliya enough time to make herself look presentable. She made herself comfortable on the bench beside the swings, careful not to spoil her new shalwar kameez. She had spent an extra-long time ironing it and did not want to ruin it.

She hummed. It was a beautiful day and there were small puffs of white clouds in the blue sky – the rays of sunlight on her skin felt lovely. The wind brushed a few strands of hair onto her cheek, making it itch and Aliya groaned as she tried desperately to keep her hair in place. She wanted to look perfect and it seemed nature would not let her have that.

4.15pm

Aliya bit her lips as her eyes darted towards the high iron gate of the park. The kids on the swings squealed with delight.

It is okay. Delays happen.

5pm

Silence.

The wind blew and Aliya hugged her body to prevent it from shaking with cold. She felt disoriented and her throat felt parched. Her eyes darted towards the gate, looking for any sign of their arrival. The chowkidaar at the gate gave her a toothless smile and she lowered her dupatta to cover the part that his eyes were focussing on.

6pm

It was time to go. She picked herself up, her fingers moved over her cheek to wipe away the mascara covered tear. Her legs felt like jelly and her head felt heavy. She ignored the chowkidaar who bid her farewell and made way to the rickshaw stand.

“It was amazing! Beautiful!  The best birthday ever. They took me to a Chinese restaurant and then got me a birthday cake.”

Aliya smiled at Ma who looked happy to see her daughter’s excitement.

Acting was tiring her out and she already felt fatigued.

She was a stupid girl. She should have known. Girls and boys living in the posh, luxurious clean areas of Defence and Clifton did not waste their time on girls living on the ‘other side of the bridge’

Humiliation – it was part of her life. She felt like she would never escape it.

He sent smile number 6785 in her direction and she wondered if he had a mental disorder. She smiled back but her shoulders bore witness of the times he had come down too hard on her.

And as he shoved the thick envelope down into her hand, he made a call to the butler to escort this “pretty guest” to where ever she wanted to go.

Aliya rushed downstairs, clutching the envelope like a little infant, frightened to let anything happen to it. She took a rickshaw to the brothel and made her way to the living room, where the dances were taking place. She was immediately grabbed by the other girls and bombarded with excited whispers and hushed questions, all demanding to know how her first experience had been. Her head throbbed with pain but she smiled.

Oh, he was handsome, rich, young, and gentle with her in bed. The best sexual experience ever! She gushed and blushed with exaggeration as bibi sahiba gave her a knowing smile, aware of the young one’s obvious lies.

Fifteen

Her mother looked sweet, lying on the bed. Her eyes closed and her hair tied up in a bun. Aliya sat paralysed and her eyes could not leave sight of the beautiful face.

What a beautiful, gorgeous woman.

Aliya could feel the numbness spread over her entire body. She felt like her throat was filled with sawdust – parched – thirsty, but she could not build up enough strength to ask for a glass of water. All she cared about was the woman lying in front of her and how utterly stunning she looked. She could not take her eyes off her.

She could hear the sobbing and suddenly anger engulfed her entire body like fire. All she wanted was to shred and rip apart the woman who was sobbing violently beside her.

She looked up to see the fan moving slowly in circles.

Everything felt like it belonged in the past, like it was not where it was supposed to be. Everything felt out of place. She felt the heat starting to overwhelm her, suffocate her and she longed desperately for a few drops of water on her tongue.

So thirsty. So thirsty. So thirsty.

She could taste the saltiness of her tears on her dry lips.

Exhaustion made her bones hurt and even breathing took effort. Her legs felt wobbly so she hugged her knees close to her chest to keep them in place.

She could see the sagging dark circles under her mother’s eyes and the white that had started to spread at the roots of her hair.

Why would she not open her eyes? Aliya tried her level best to block the wailing, the sobbing, the gossiping, and the hands on her shoulder telling her to keep faith. This was becoming to exhausting. The dim silhouettes of men started to surround her mother.

It was time to lift her mother’s corpse.

And finally Aliya wailed.

Oh no, Aliya was not going to pass the opportunity to make herself superior in front of other girls, she was not going to give the jealous ones a chance to gloat about the fact that Aliya had, in fact, spent a miserable night with a man twice the age of her father. She was going to make them jealous, oh yes.

Bibi smiled as she saw the blatant lies Aliya told and gently gestured for her to sit beside her, telling her how proud she was of the youngest girl in the brothel. Then she went straight to business and asked for the green notes.

Aliya blinked.

Oh, she had completely forgotten! 80% of whatever a girl earns goes to bibi sahiba and the rest goes in to their own pockets. Bibi had, after all, gone through the pains to arrange the expensive deals. Without her, this business would not have flourished and easy money would not have been possible. She was their mother hen.

The envelope felt lanky and thin after bibi emptied her share but the money was enough to buy what she wanted. What would it be this time? She had red dresses, red lingerie and red accessories. Her eyes sparkled when she found her answer.

Seventeen

Kholo! Open it! Open the door. Abba, don’t do this! Do not do this! Abbbaaa!”

Her screams echoed through the room and her palms were sore from all the banging on the wooden door. Aliya knew he was on the other side of the door but she knew it was useless calling for help. Abba had his alcohol to occupy him.

She turned around to see Abba’s two beloved friends coming closer towards her as their fingers worked to unzip their pants. There was no use in screaming, there was no one to hear her cries. They tossed her around between them, their hands moving all over her naked body, and all the while Aliya shut her eyes tightly.

“Open your mouth and breathe in through the nose, okay?” uncle instructed her.

And so it began.

If it was sex they all desired, then she was not going to give it to them for free, Aliya had decided from that day onwards.

“Oh let me look at that!” Aliya exclaimed.

She clutched the lipstick and applied a thick coat on her full lips letting the rich, red colour slide on her lips like butter. The colour engulfed her with beauty, passion, drive and fire.

Now she would not have to share the red lipstick of her fellow brothel roommates. Sharing it always disgusted her. She purchased the red stick and confidently walked out of the shop.

As she applied another coat of thick red on her lips a sudden feeling of lightheadedness and nausea took over her entire body.

You see, sex with an older man has its implications – especially a man who has sex only with prostitutes from almost every brothel in the country. He was rich and could afford to do so.

Thus, the red on Aliya’s lips represented the same red rash she was starting to get in between her thighs. This was the first sign of HIV, AIDS.

Javeria Khalid Petiwala

Javeria Khalid Petiwala

A student based in Karachi, an ardent debater, and a Master Chef fan, she loves writing and travelling.

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.