That night she became Riffat Bai and everything changed
“Kokhla chapha kay jumairaat ayi hay… jaira picchay murr kay wekkhay odhi shaamat aai hay… kokhla chapha kay jumairaat ayi hay… jaira picchay mur…” their chanting went on and on.
(I have hidden the dupatta behind you on Thursday and if you turn your head around, you’ll be in trouble)
She dragged herself from the pile in the corner. Steadying herself against the wall, she looked around for her cane. It was in the other corner of the room. She sat back down, sliding against the wall. The paint crackled as she moved, falling down the feeble wall. Holding herself against the wall, she wobbled towards her cane. The noise outside was deafening now. Huffing and puffing, she stood straight up and struck her cane on the floor three times. All noise died instantly.
“Kamini maaoun ki aulaadein… mar jaain sab kay sab,” she rasped harshly.
(Children of rascal mothers… I hope they all die)
The house remained drowned in absolute silence. She stood in the middle of her dingy room, listening closely. Making sure they made no further sound, Riffat slowly walked back to her bed.
They looked at one another, inquiring with their eyes whether it was safe to get back to their game. Every time they heard that cane, it was time to lower their voices, and if God forbid, she ever emerged from that room, they knew it was time to find any nook or corner that they could find. Out of all eight children, Naghmana was the oldest. She tried to keep the children out of Riffat’s way but they were too young and carefree to always listen to her. “The old witch has an ugly temper. Probably just as much ugly as her face,” Naghmana thought at times. She had used that cane on Naghmana just once; it had left a scar. It was just a little scar on her arm but it had worried her mother.
“If she tries to hit, why don’t you duck? Buddhi teray se tez hay kia? (Is that old woman faster than you?)”
Naghmana tried to explain it was not that big of a deal, that it didn’t hurt her. Her mother, however, was more concerned about the mark it had left.
“Larki zaat hay… nishaan paray achay nai hotay!”
(You’re a woman… scars are not considered good/respectable)
Naghmana was irritated. Why was her mother not scolding the budhiya (old woman)? Why was she getting an earful? It was because they had no choice. Her mother had no other place to leave Naghmana when she went to work, just like all mothers in the neighbourhood. But Naghmana despised the woman. She hated the sound of her raspy unpleasant voice, her gaunt face and hollow eyes. She hated the sound of her cane on the floor, of her crackling knuckles when she brandished the cane aiming at Naghmana. Maybe she will die soon. She was awfully old anyways. The old clock struck midnight, shaking Naghmana out of her hateful reverie. She got up to fix Riffat Bai’s dinner.
Knocking on the door three times, she opened it quietly. Naghmana walked with silent steps to put food on the table. She glanced around the room. Riffat Bai lay on the bed, a smelly pile of clothes and bones. Naghmana looked at her briefly. The room reeked of smoke, food crumbs and old age. She felt bile rising in her throat due to the pungent odour of the room. She felt sick and hurried to leave the room when she heard Riffat grunt at her from her bed. Dreading the view, Naghmana turned around, keeping her eyes averted.
“Aay larki… khaana idher palang pe rakh,” Riffat Bai snapped at her.
(Hey you… put the food here on the bed)
Looking downwards, Naghmana moved to the table and picked up the plate. Her heart thumping in her chest, she edged closer to Riffat Bai’s bed. Maintaining some distance, she placed the food plate on the sheets gingerly. She could feel Riffat Bai’s gaze fixed on her. Naghmana jumped as Riffat Bai suddenly lunged and grabbed her arm with surprising force and agility.
“Meri taraf dekhti kyun nai tu? Hain?” she inquired of Naghmana who stood close to her quivering with fear.
(Why don’t you look at me, huh?)
Her voice felt lost in her throat as Riffat Bai held her arm tightly, examining her terrified face closely. Terrified but beautiful, yes. Naghmana hung her head, still avoiding eye contact with her but Riffat Bai could see the corners of her eyes, her thick, long eye lashes, her ivory cheeks flushed with fear. She let go off her suddenly.
“Maa pe gayi hay tu, sab rang roop wesa hay. Baap toh namuraad pata nai kon tha, magar tu Salma ki chaap hay bilkul, haq hawww teri badqismati.”
(You have taken on your mother, your complexion and features are just like her. I don’t know who your wretched father was, but you’re Salma’s replica, unlucky for you.)
Confused, Naghmana looked at her. What met her eyes was not a pleasant sight. Riffat Bai had stopped looking at her now; she was focused on her food. Shuddering a little, Naghmana left the room quickly.
Later that night, while she waited for her mother, Naghmana thought about Riffat Bai’s words. She knew being likened to her mother was a compliment but what did she mean by “teri badqismati” (my bad luck)? Was being beautiful a misfortune? Or was she simply jealous because she herself was a hideous woman? That must be it.
“Jalti hay mujhse buddhiya (old woman is jealous of me)”, she thought to herself, admiring her reflection in the mirror on the wall.
But this was nothing new for Naghmana. Women had always been envious of her looks. She knew that all the girls in her neighbourhood hated her. She wasn’t bothered. None of them were pretty enough to befriend her anyway. She studied her beautiful face in the mirror. Ever since she could remember, she had attracted prolonged glances from people which made her uncomfortable.
“Magar jab wo dekhta hay na… (but when he looks at me…)” she stood by the mirror for quite some time, thinking of his lingering gaze.
It exhilarated her; the way he looked at her. He came to meet with his mother about matters of money from time to time. That was all Naghmana knew about his discrete visits. She only served him tea when he came. Furtive glances and knowing smiles was all that it was. For the moment, after all, what else would a naive 15-year-old girl make of this situation? He admired her and she knew it.
Riffat Bai looked out the window. It was an unusually dark night.
“Bilkul usi raat ki tarha… (just like that night…)” she recalled. Shuddering, she looked away.
The stupid girl had not even bothered to switch on the light. Shrouded in darkness, her room looked spooky even to her, and God knew she wasn’t easily spooked. Not anymore. Riffat Bai had seen enough monsters that now the monstrosity of the human race failed to surprise her. The dark made her feel claustrophobic though. She groped around for her cane. Finding it, she struck on the floor three times but nobody answered.
“Naam kiya hay tera, phuljarrii? Aye larkiiiiii, batti jala day kamray ki, namuraad!” her voice bounced off the empty house loudly.
(What was your name, firecracker? Oy girl, turn on the room lights, you wretched girl!
She suddenly remembered that everyone must have left. Salma must have taken everyone home. Nobody was there anymore in the dark house with her. Dejected, she laid back down on the bed, feeling the darkness crushing her from all sides. She finally fell asleep for what felt like a lifetime. She was awakened from her slumber when it was noon outside. It was her old tiny bladder that woke her.
Cursing everyone she had ever met, Riffat Bai fought the urge. She focused instead on the dream she had last night. She only remembered bits and pieces. But one thing she did remember was that girl’s face. Her beautiful face, her mortified eyes and her screams as she ran through the wilderness. Why was she dreaming about her? She inquired from herself but her persistent bladder was nagging her too much to think straight, and when she couldn’t distract it anymore, she got up to relieve herself.
“Riffat Bai humaari maa ki jagah hay Naggi! Uskay sath badtameezi ki tou taangein torr dungi! Kuch nai sunna uskay baray mein meinay!” her mother had gotten angry when Naghmana recounted last night’s events to her.
(Riffat Bai is like our mother Naggi! If you misbehave with her I shall break your legs. I don’t want to listen to anything about her!)
“Amma kasam le lo, meinay kuch nai kaha Bai ko. Usse tou bohat darr lagta mujhay. Aisi badsoorat aurat aaj tak nai dekhi!” she said hatefully.
(Mother I swear, I have not said anything to Bai. I am frightened of her. Never seen a woman uglier than her!)
Her mother smacked her on the head whilst sweeping the floor.
“Pagli tujhay kiya pata wo kitni khoobsurat thi… bigaar dia kuch halaat ne kuch waqt ne (silly girl, you have no idea how beautiful she used to be… ruined by circumstances a bit and by time a bit),” Salma thought to herself.
Somebody knocked at the door. Naghmana went to answer it. And there he stood. All dash and dapper in black jeans and white shirt. His eyes sparkled to see her. She smiled coyly and invited him in. Her mother seemed worried to see him.
“Abhi tou ek hafta rehta hay, zaada jaldi nai agaye?”
(There is still a week left, haven’t you come early?)
Before he could say anything, Salma sent Naghmana to make tea. She put the kettle on and hurried back to her room to rummage through her mother’s makeup supplies. She stood applying kohl when her mother inquired about the tea from the other room.
“Bas le kar aai!” she ran back to the kitchen.
(Just bringing it)
Checking her reflection in the window glass, she walked inside carrying the tea cups. She took her sweet time in serving him the tea. Salma noticed the exchange that was underway and pursed her lips disapprovingly. She sent Naghmana away but he stopped her.
“Ab tou bari hogayi hay Naggi. Isko baroun ki baatoun mein shaamil kiya karo, Salma,” he said while looking at Naghmana, imploring her to stay with his eyes.
(Naggi is all grown up now. You should involve her in such grownups’ conversations now, Salma)
Salma nodded at Naghmana to stay. Beaming, she sat down next to her mother, glowing under the warmth of his gaze.
When he was leaving, Salma walked him to the door. Making sure Naghmana was not within earshot, she said sternly,
“Naggi abhi bari nahi hui, bachi hi hay, ye tu yaad rakh, Jawad!”
(Naggi has not grown up as yet, she is still a child, remember this, Jawad!)
Smirking, he looked at her,
“Aur tu yaad rakh ke main agar chahun tou abhi se teri bachi ko bhi teray waalay kaam pe laga doon, aur uski maa ki zubaan khench loon agar ziaada bolay meray aagay tou,” he threatened her in hushed tones, leaving Salma rooted to the spot.
(And you remember that if I want I can get your daughter into the same line of work as yours, and I can rip out her mother’s tongue if she talks too much.)
Naghmana didn’t understand why her mother was sending her to live with Riffat Bai. All she had heard was that there was trouble at mother’s work and some people needed to stay at their house for a few days. So her mother had sent her to live with Riffat Bai. Ugly, old and revolting Riffat Bai!
After Jawad’s threat that day, Salma thought to take preventive measures. Knowing that he had no knowledge of Riffat Bai’s place, she decided to hide Naghmana there for a few days. She couldn’t tell her daughter anything about it because then she would have to explain the nature of her work to her which she could never bring herself to do. Ever since she had held Naghmana in her arms on the day of her birth, she had dreaded this day. The day her daughter will become a woman in people’s eyes. The day men would eye her like voracious predators eyed their succulent prey.
She had planned to make enough money to move to a new neighbourhood, start a new life, perhaps even change their identities if need be. However, time was a cruel master. It had gone by too quickly, robbing Salma of her own youth and bestowing it upon Naghmana. It had passed by too quickly for her to save for the both of them. She had gotten trapped in the vicious cycle of lust, greed and poverty.
She knew Naghmana didn’t like Riffat Bai but she was too young to see beyond appearances. She was in the prime of her youth so she was bewitched with what glittered and was blind to the atrocities of time and circumstance that befall such women. Riffat Bai had been a great beauty too once upon a time. Slowly, the age hunched her graceful back, paralysed her tender feet, and deformed her slender legs that used to spellbind spectators when they danced.
Her face had charmed dozens of men, attracted suitors even, but she belonged to no one. Such was her craft that she could belong to no one. While she mesmerised with her beauty, it also begot jealousy and it was some besotted client who disfigured her porcelain features with acid. That is how she ended up becoming Riffat Bai.
“Riffat Bai ki khidmat karna Naggi. Main koi shikayat na sunoun, jesay kahein tu karna wesay, e mera bacha,” Salma advised her daughter.
(Take care of Riffat Bai and tend to her Naggi. I better not hear any complaints, do whatever she asks of you, my child)
Naghmana waited outside as her mother talked to Riffat Bai. She was irritated at her mother’s decision.
“Ab Jawad ayengay tou main ghar pe nahi milu.Yahan is buddhi kay darbay mein beth kay sarrna parega!” (When Jawad comes at home, I won’t be there. Instead I’ll be sulking in this old woman’s house!) Naghmana thought to herself.
She heard her mother thank Riffat Bai while she grunted loudly in response. Salma hugged Naghmana and told her to not antagonise Riffat Bai, no matter what. Naghmana nodded curtly. It was dusk already. Salma left for work, feeling a bit relieved that Riffat Bai had agreed to watch Naghmana for some time. She already left her there at night, what she feared was that Jawad or his goons may come for Naghmana during the day at their house which they were quite familiar with. Salma left feeling lighter and Naghmana waited for her mother to go. She did some dishes, cleaned the house and put food in Riffat Bai’s room. She sat outside listening to her chew the morsels, grimacing at the revolting sounds she made.
After making sure that the old hag was asleep, Naghmana took out the phone she had nicked from Riffat Bai’s bedroom. Excited, she dialled his number. He sounded ecstatic to hear from her. He had slipped her the number weeks ago but she had not been able to muster the courage to speak to him. He urged her to tell him her whereabouts. Naghmana hesitated for some time but his sweet words got the better of her. She told him to come quickly before the other children arrived. She put on some makeup and braided her hair and then she waited and waited, until she heard a soft knock on the door. Her heart thudding loudly, she opened the door.
She struggled to free herself but his grip was too strong. One hand on her mouth, he dragged her outside but she held on to the door handle. Only muffled sounds could be heard as he managed to keep her mouth tightly shut. Whispering obscenities to her under his breath, he tried to pull her away from the door that she was holding on to. She kept fighting as he tried to subdue her. Furious, he started hitting her. In doing so, he loosened the grip on her mouth and she screamed for help.
He tried to quiet her with a harsh slap across her cheek. She kept kicking him with whatever force she could muster. After all, he was a grown man, while she was a slender girl of 15. While kicking aimlessly, she hit his eye. It was a square blow that left him breathless. Taking advantage, she tried to run away but he caught her and this time, she saw murder in his eyes. He snatched a handful of her hair dragged her towards the bathroom. Keeping his grip firm, he looked around for it. Finally, he found the bottle.
“Ab batata hun tujhay, main tujhay dhanda karnay kay qaabil bhi nai chorunga. Main tujh…” she screamed and suddenly Riffat Bai realised she wasn’t dreaming.
(Now I will teach you, I will not leave you in any position to even do business. I will…)
The girl on the floor was not her. It was not her disfigurer who stood there holding the bottle of acid. It was 25 years later yet nothing had changed. This time, Riffat Bai could change the way it ended. He still hadn’t noticed that she stood behind him. As he fumbled to open the bottle, she struck him on the back of his head with her cane with full force. He fell down, the bottle slipping from his hands and spilling on him. He screamed in agony. Startled with what had happened, Naghmana scurried away from him and ran to Riffat Bai. Riffat Bai had fallen. She couldn’t maintain her balance without the cane and fell on the floor before Naghmana could catch her. Blood spilled where she hit her head on the uneven floor.
“Riffat Bai!!” screamed Naghmana and tried to get up to run and get help, but Riffat Bai held her hand and stopped her.
In her last moments, once more she gazed upon her face, unable to form any words. In Naghmana’s battered face she saw her own. A young Riffat smiled back at her, whole and beautiful. Her face unblemished, her soul untarnished. Naghmana saw her trying to say something. She bent down and out her ear to Riffat Bai’s lips,
“Aye larki, tu kabhi Riffat Bai na bannna!”
(Listen girl…don’t ever become Riffat Bai!)
Riffat Bai, the old and disfigured prostitute breathed her last that day. She died saving the life and innocence of a young girl. But will anyone know her? Will they sing songs about her? Will they absolve her of her sins due to her sacrifice? Most probably not. People would avert their eyes and go about their daily lives. When she served as a prostitute, they came to her. But now that she has died, how many shall attend her funeral? Or perhaps there wouldn’t even be a funeral. Why would they? She was a prostitute after all.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.