Yousafzai’s children weren’t children at all

Published: October 29, 2017

A few notes had exchanged hands, and then there she was, covered in a red veil, presented before her soon-to-be husband like an offering. PHOTO: AFP

Yousafzai village was a land of men. It was a land of agriculture and multiple wives. Presently, however, it was a land of marriage.

Children around the village were waiting for the vehicle to arrive which was carrying the groom. Some lurked around corners, others behind shops, underneath sheds. Ah, when would the car arrive? When would they chase it? When would the groom throw the children the sweets they were denied by the main shopkeeper? It was, after all, Rashid sahib’s wedding, the only man in town who could afford more than five of the red crispy notes of hundred rupees all at once.

Arham hit the ground with his stray wooden stick once, then twice. The children made a song out of it. Snap, tack, tap. Gone, snap, sentenced, tack.

The sun shone relentlessly and Arham couldn’t stop sweating. He stared guiltily at the mud on his pants. Amma had made them exclusively for today’s ceremony. He will get a beating from her once he gets home.

He flipped his stick around, making batting motions with it. The ragged street of Yousafzai was his batting pitch and he was the cricketer.

Somewhere in the distance, a car honked. And then chaos arose.

The villagers dropped their activities and jumped up. It was an eager dash for the main road, with people tripping over one another, their contaminated hands reaching out for the sweets.

And then the car whizzed out on to the road with mighty speed. Rashid sahib lounged on the front seat. It was his throne. He sat in all his glory, his moustache set in an arrogant smirk.

“Throw the sweets out to them, driver. Clear the road,” he growled. “And next time, make sure these fleas don’t block my route.”

Arham stretched on his toes to steal a glance. As he pushed his way into the crowd, the sweet that his brother-in-law threw, hit him square in the face and his wooden stick fell to the ground.

At quarter past 12 in the morning, Zarish sat poking at the blazing logs in her shabby cabin, her red dress looked like it was bleeding in the light of the fire. It was a murky kind of cold outside, the kind that wasn’t sweaters and socks, but the kind that was dreary blankets and jailed rooms.

Zarish was not a happy person. She was not thinking about the summer that was coming. She was thinking of the cold that persisted now, and the cold that had crept inside her. Maybe it would stay forever. Maybe it came with the sahib.

She thought of lying down.

But she knew sleep wouldn’t come. It might never come now. She wasn’t destined to sleep. She was destined to serve, to reminisce, to tolerate, and to repent.

She thought of how her dowry stank of reluctance and ill will, how she was far and away from the unconscious population of the world, how she was desperate and yearning for the pleasures of childhood and oblivion.

Three years and a lot less of pain earlier, she would have been drifting into a dream with no tensions, no care in the world. Little did she know that time and fate would throw her down, right after lifting her up. And now that she felt the sorrow, the anger clawing at her insides, she would lean down and weep out the emptiness, calling for more, for companionship, for happiness, and for the little angel she was soon going to lose. Zarish yearned for Arham. For strength. For pampering. For pastimes. For support.

She wandered along the corridors, disgusted by the red and floral gold streams on her wedding dress. Marriage was an obtrusion. It was a deity that blocked the only road that led her to success. She stopped in front of a room, and her hand crept towards the doorknob. She willed her fingers to turn it, but it was like they were detached. She was sure he was inside and she had come to say goodbye to the one little treasure she had falsely hoped to cherish forever.

The night the nikkah happened, Zarish resigned herself to it. She couldn’t sleep anywhere other than her brother’s room, and couldn’t find any other way to fall asleep than to dissolve in bedtime stories. For once, she wished to sleep, for the day to end, for it all to end.

“Maybe tomorrow”, she whispered. “Maybe tomorrow Arham will come.”

And on that night, she knelt again, begging Him for one more chance, one more memory. Sometimes she would cry, other times she would not. But every time the call was the same.

It was ironic how two parts of the same womb could be so far away.

At exactly the same time that night, far away, a little boy wished for something entirely opposite. He called to Him to take it all away. All of it. His desperate pleasures. His pastimes. His parents. Why would it interest him at all when nobody could share it?

He longed for his sister, for the sweet and blissful oblivion of their childhood, when there was no suitor, no rivalry, only long games of hide and seek and stories of jinn baba. He was a child after all. Although with little childhood left, but a child nevertheless.

He apologised and apologised again for the sweets he should not have wished for.

“I don’t want his sweets, khuda (God). I want my sister. No more sweets for me, khuda. Only my sister.”

Every time he closed his eyes to sleep, Arham would have flashbacks of last Friday evening when Zarish was promised in marriage to the wealthiest and most feared man of the Yousafzai clan. It was done to restore long lost terms which had been replaced with rivalry in the months between.

She had been so quiet, so resigned. Was she even herself? Was she the same Zarish who screamed her head off when Arham scared her around corners with the origami dinosaur that he had spent a fortnight on? His sister was beautiful even without the makeup and the red dress.

But the sahib was not.

Arham and Zarish both thought that Rashid was dreadful. But what the little soul did not understand was why she refused to accept it, why her eyes were so puffed out. A ‘swelling’ they called it. Rashid sahib had wished the swelling upon her. Arham knew it.

He got a flashback to the time when Zarish had showed him the dress.

“How do I look, veer?”

Arham blinked.

“Like amma. You look like amma.

What an unexpected analogy, Zarish thought. Her amma was the one person she never wanted to become, the one future she had never deserved. And Arham knew.

Despite his mother’s austere warning, he still hid in the laundry basket. He ducked under the covers and pressed his nostrils together to alleviate himself from the stench of unwashed, blackened clothes. They looked for him outside. But he hid. His little brain whizzed with ideas. The basket was his hideout after stealing sweets.

But this time it wasn’t about stealing sweets; it was about stealing his sister.

Outside, they were celebrating.

“We are indebted, sahib. Ah, what benevolent, benevolent blessings have you bestowed upon us! Taking our mismatched Zarish for your perfect self, sahib, who would have known?”

Abdullah Yousafzai would do anything for honour and money.

“I bequeath my only daughter to you, sahib. She is yours.”

The family smiled. They were superficial, materialistic smiles. They were smiles that ached for gold and coins and notes. They were smiles that sentenced Zarish to her fate.

An offer of five thousand, fifteen thousand, thirty, and sold!

And there he stayed, hidden in the laundry basket, unbeknownst to the fact that she was gone. His sister was gone and he was powerless.

Thus, Zarish and Arham’s game of hide and seek came to an end.

A few notes had exchanged hands, and then there she was, covered in a red veil, presented before her soon-to-be husband like an offering. His grunt of approval was the signal for the crowd and an innocent Zarish was gifted to the royal Rashid sahib, along with a hoot of happiness and a comment about her beauty from the crowd. All the while, a scared Arham watched and wondered from the shadows.

They were right. Yousafzai’s children weren’t children at all.

Moomal Ahmed

Moomal Ahmed

The author is an A level student. She wastes time, studies, watches TV shows, and writes, in that order.

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