It was the night of Lailatul Qadr
It was the night of a thousand angels, a night of sins forgiven and a night of deeds untold. It was the night of Lailatul Qadr when she opened her eyes for the first time.
“That’s what we’ll name her,” said her mother.
The father smiled and announced his newborn daughter’s name to his wife, the hospital staff and into the ear of the child to be named,
As her parents devoted themselves to worship, for it was the night of a thousand prayers, Lailatul Qadr, or Laila as she would come to be known, spent the entire night in her tiny crib, sleeping, crying then sleeping again.
When Laila came into the fourth year of her life, she was told that when you make a mistake, you need to repent. But despite repentance, you are punished because you made that mistake. Punishment was the price for forgiveness.
When mother would slap her or father would not let her play with her toys, Laila knew she was paying a price for their forgiveness.
She also learnt another thing; children should not talk so much. They are told stories, they can read stories but telling stories was forbidden because telling stories means telling lies.
“But Mama I promise you it happened. Saima and Nida had two boys in their flat!” Laila protested, unable to understand why they wouldn’t believe her.
“That’s enough. They must be their cousins or some guests. You don’t know what you saw; anyway it’s none of our business. You’re never going upstairs to their flat again.”
Laila began to cry but Mama did not listen. Perhaps this was the penalty for trying to tell the truth.
The new neighbours were delightful. They had three daughters, Somaya, Hina and Hira. The girls became best friends in no time, Laila would go to their flat or they would come to hers. They also had a servant, Asif bhai, who was the funniest person Laila had ever met. He would tell the girls exaggerated stories and make funny faces to make them laugh. He would make them French fries and sneak in chocolates when the parents weren’t looking. Laila wondered how Asif bhai, who was almost her father’s age, could be so different from the other adults in her life.
A few days before Eidul Azha, Laila was at their apartment eating French fries when the girls were called downstairs to see the qurbani animals.
“I don’t want to go,” said Laila.
“Come on, Laila. Even your parents are downstairs, you haven’t even seen your goat!” said Hina.
After watching the qurbani (sacrifice)of their goat last year, Laila did not want to see the animals again this year. She knew they were going to die very soon but she didn’t entirely understand what they were being punished for.
“I don’t want to see them. I’ll stay here,” she replied and the girls ran off.
Laila stood up to take her plate to the kitchen but it slipped out of her hands and onto the floor, its pieces scattered everywhere. Asif bhai came running and bent down to pick them up.
“What have you done Laila?” he snapped.
Laila had never heard Asif bhai speak in that tone. His face was contorted with anger. She expected him to crack a joke, like he always did, to make her feel better. But he did not. He just looked straight into her face.
Then his tone softened and in almost a whisper he said:
“You’re such a pretty girl.”
He threw the pieces into the dustbin and grabbed Laila by the arm.
“Do you know what happens to kids who are bad?” he asked.
Laila knew the answer but did not want to say it.
“I want to go home. Mama, Baba are waiting for me.”
He dragged her into the kitchen and into the small storeroom.
“I don’t want to go in there! Let me go home!” Laila cried.
“If you scream, I’ll kill you. You live next door, remember that. I can kill you any time I want,” he said in a threatening voice.
For the next hour, Laila knew she was being punished but she didn’t know why.
“When kids lie, they are punished by God. You need to stop these stories Laila!” Her mother pulled her by the ear.
“Mama! It hurts!” Laila pleaded.
“You should’ve thought of this before. You never think of the consequences of your actions!”
“So you’re not God, why are you punishing me then. If God wants to punish kids he’ll do it Himself, I doubt He told you to do it for Him,” Laila retorted.
Mama squinted her eyes in sheer rage and flared her nostrils,
“Keep your mouth shut! Look at your age and look at your audacity! You’re barely 12-years-old, act your age! Don’t act smart.”
“I am telling you, Mama… Asif Bhai is not a good man. You have to stop Shaista aunty from hiring him.”
“You’re just a kid, you know nothing.”
“I used to be at Hina’s house all the time. He…. He stole.”
“What did he steal?”
“Ornaments and stuff… Mama he is not a good man.”
Still pulling her by the ear, Mama threw Laila on her bed and stormed out.
Laila had to make her understand, she couldn’t let that man work at her aunt’s house. Knowing what he was, knowing what he did, she couldn’t let the same thing happen to her cousins.
But she couldn’t tell Mama the truth. They would never believe her and even if they did, it would change everything. They would lock her up inside the house while that man roams freely; doing what he pleases, hurting more children.
So she told her parents that he was a thief. It was a lie, well not entirely. He did steal. He took so much from her, things she would never get back. In that tiny storeroom, he took something she didn’t even know she had. In that storeroom, he put an end to her childhood.
Laila pulled at her hair. She wanted him out of her head. She screamed and cried because he was always there in her mind, hurting her over and over again.
Laila watched as the smoke clouded her face and engulfed her senses. She stared at the thick smoke floating before eyes. It began to disappear into the air. And then it was gone, leaving behind nothing but a thin mist. Laila took another puff and watched the smoke again.
“Why do we do this?” she asked out loud.
She looked around the room and no one replied. Her friends were busy breathing in their own mists.
“If you think about it, I mean if you really think about it, it doesn’t really do anything. It doesn’t take me to another world, it doesn’t make me forget what I want to forget. It hardly lasts for a few minutes. It numbs my senses, but makes me feel more alive. It’s funny isn’t it? How you feel more alive with your head in a fog and your senses not fully functionally. That’s why everyone does it, I guess, we’re all breathing, moving, living beings but we yet we look for ways to feel more alive.”
“Stop talking Laila, you’re ruining it,” said a friend.
Laila closed her eyes and gave in.
It was always there. It was like a poison seeping into her body, intoxicating her soul, demonising her sleep. It was etched into the very last cell of her skin.
Would it ever come out?
Laila knew she was losing it. Her parents had told her that a family had asked for her hand in marriage. Laila had panicked and in her fright, she gave them a thousand excuses, of which they believed none. It had turned into the ugliest of fights.
Back in her room, Laila cried because she knew she was losing it and there was no one to help her. Telling people hadn’t helped either. In fact, it made it worse because nobody really understood. No one would actually understand what had happened and what she was feeling.
Would this poison ever come out?
On an impulse, Laila began to look for her prayer mat. She found it in a drawer, forgotten and abandoned for years. She couldn’t remember the last time she had prayed and asked God for anything.
Down on her knees, Laila prayed. She prayed for the poison to go away. She wanted it gone forever. She cried to God for His forgiveness. She knew He would forgive her; He was the only one who could. She told Him everything, He would believe her, and He was the only one who would.
Crying and begging God for forgiveness, Laila began to feel lighter. The poison was still there but it seemed further away with each prayer.
God would fix this; only He could help her now. He would understand and not question why she didn’t or couldn’t stop it; something the people in her life were incapable of understanding.
Laila prayed all night. For it was the night of a thousand prayers, of sins forgiven and deeds untold. It was the night she was named after.
It was the night of Lailatul Qadr.
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