Damyanti Biswas's short fiction has been commended at the Bath Flash Fiction Award and her novel-in-progress was long-listed for the Mslexia Novel Competition and Bath Novel Award. Her stories have appeared at Bluestem, Griffith Review (link), Lunch Ticket, among others, and anthologies in the USA, Malaysia and Singapore. When not reading or writing, you can find her taking care of her plants, pet fish, or baking up a storm. She blogs at www.damyantiwrites.com.
The Right Thing to Do
The corpse of Zahira lay on the only cot in the household.
The two widows sat by the cot, on a blanket on the floor, nursing steaming cups of tea against the November chill. In the hush that had descended on their small village on the outskirts of New Delhi, their lowered voices were the only sounds in the night.
“It is done, Iffat.” Aminah sipped her drink, her face half-covered by her shawl.
Iffat blubbered, her words indistinct.
“It is done,” Aminah said, “on the night of Eid-ul-zuha, when Allah wants us to sacrifice what is dear to us.”
“Zia and Zahira are our daughters,” Iffat protested. In the diffused yellow light of the streetlight filtering in through the windowpane, Iffat looked as if she would float away without the heft of her clothes to weigh her down.
“No longer our daughters the day they decided to marry kafir, Hindu thugs. You said so yourself.”
“Don’t you think…?” Iffat began, trailing off, unsure. It seemed unthinkable now, what Iffat had done. What they had done, together; neither could have pulled it off alone. Iffat could never have planned the sleep medicine, coaxed Zia and Zahira to eat the dinner laced with it. It hadn’t occurred to her that the girls would be so strong even in their drugged sleep. That she would have to hold their feet down as they kicked and struggled for breath. She had taken her daughter’s kicks on her chest, just like when she had done when Zahira was a baby. But now, Zahira had adult feet and they had bruised Iffat’s breasts.
“No,” Aminah narrowed her eyes, “Allah is happy with the respect we have shown Him. What else could we have done?”
“But I brought them up, Aminah!” Iffat raised her palms. “With these very… and now…”
She looked to Aminah for answers, the way she had done all these years. Aminah raised her left hand like a traffic policeman, in that gesture Iffat had learned to fear. Staring at Aminah’s fair skin, cavernous eyes, the gap between her top front teeth visible as she counted the beads of the holy tasbih, whispering the ninety-nine names of Allah, Iffat shivered. Aminah’s wide lips looked like worms bloated with too much blood.
Through the haze in her head, Iffat tried to remember those moments of rage like red-hot coals, that clawing of betrayal when Aminah first told her how the girls had run off with Hindu men. The sons-in-law, when Iffat talked to them last week, looked as if they had never held hands with the girls, let alone elope with them. She tried to tune into their voices, those simple boys, the way they’d pleaded with her, repeating the same words again and again as if reciting a prayer: “We’ll take care of Zia and Zahira, we’re friends, like brothers. They will live like sisters, chachi, you’ll see!”
Instead, Iffat heard Aminah’s voice ringing out in her courtyard, when Aminah had first moved into the house across from theirs. Nineteen years ago when people still called her Reema, not Iffat.
“As-Salaamu `Alaykum, khatoon, I’m your new neighbour, Aminah. My husband is the new village doctor and this is my daughter, Zia.” Aminah led a toddler by the hand.
Aminah’s kameez shone with embroidery—that couldn’t have come cheap; how did a village doctor’s wife afford such rich clothes for herself and her child?
“Wa `alaykum as-salam, Aminah. Don’t call me khatoon! I know I’m older, but let’s not be so formal. Call me Reema.” She also admired little Zia’s scarf, but praised her looks instead, “Your daughter is pretty.”
“Not prettier than yours.” Aminah turned to the baby in Reema’s arms. “Salaam, what is your name?”
“She hasn’t been named yet.”
Within a few months, the two children became fast friends. Reema named her own daughter Zahira, to go with Zia. In due course, Iffat learned that her new neighbour belonged to one of the oldest families in Lucknow and that her husband’s job had more to do with his passion for service than necessity.
The two women spoke for hours.
“I still miss her,” Aminah said one afternoon as Reema helped her set out pickles in the sun. “She died young, but still, she was my apa. She took care of me the way an older sister should, just like you.”
“What was her name?”
“Meaning virtue. What a beautiful name!”
“You remind me so much of her… May I call you Iffat?”
The name stuck, and the village that had not spoken much to Reema, took to her new name with the same enthusiasm with which they’d embraced Aminah. The villagers couldn’t believe their luck at having such an aristocratic family live amongst them, and worshipped Aminah’s husband for treating the poorer patients free of cost.
Both Iffat and Aminah lost their husbands within a year of each other. As a widow, Iffat finished her traditional Iddah of four months and ten days after her husband’s death, and then came out of mourning. But when Aminah’s husband died, she covered herself in the black drapes of hijab and buried herself in constant prayers within the confines of her room. She never gave up the Iddah, did not wear silk, perfume or jewellery.
Zia became as much Iffat’s daughter as Zahira, because Iffat took over the chores of both households, and Aminah paid for everything. Why had she lived on Aminah’s alms all these years when she could have earned her own keep and brought up her daughter on her own, Iffat now wondered? When she stepped out during Eid in one of the salwar suits she had stitched, people would tell her, “Iffat, you have no equal in stitching and embroidery.” But she only made clothes for herself, Zahira, Aminah and Zia. It embarrassed Iffat to sew for money. Her husband had owned a grocery store and she didn’t want to lower herself in the eyes of the villagers by setting up as a tailor. Much easier to take Aminah’s money, which she received without having to ask. Had she not taken it, she wouldn’t have given in to Aminah all the time. Would Allah ever forgive her cowardice? Iffat broke out into fresh sobs.
“La ʾilaha ʾillallah, Muḥammadur Rasulullah,” chanted Aminah.
The blanket covering Zahira’s body could not contain the stench of urine that had soaked her clothes in the last moments of her life. To distract herself from the smell, Iffat breathed in the ointment she had rubbed on her own breasts. But that made her think of why she had needed the medicine in the first place.
“Aminah, I hope you’re right.” Iffat’s face looked gaunt in the dim light.
“That Allah and His Prophet, Peace be upon Him, stood with us…”
“Have courage! This is not the time to break down. We know what to do.”
In the distance, a dog howled and soon a few others joined in until one of them cowed the others with a snarl. Silence returned.
“Your Zia was twenty-one Aminah, and she cried in her sleep as you dragged her from the bed, and my Zahira, she was just nineteen.”
“Let’s not talk about it.” Aminah put away her rosary and held Iffat’s hand instead. “The police sent them back here to make peace. They were both of age and could marry who they wanted, according to the law. But the villagers wouldn’t have spared them. Or us.”
“Why does something that was supposed to be right feel so wrong?” Iffat whimpered from within her shawl, her hair whiter than it had been a week ago, when she had first heard of her daughter eloping with a Hindu boy. She gripped Aminah’s hand for anchor.
“Had you taken the hijab and made Zahira take it too, Zia would have turned out better,” Aminah said. “It was her idea to marry those kafirs, with no property, no name to speak of. Common scumbag labourers!”
For the first time all night, and perhaps in years, Iffat flared, “Don’t say that! I wasn’t to blame for Zia. Besides, she was older than Zahira, not the other way round.” She snatched her hand away from Aminah’s clasp.
“Ah, sau choohe kha kar billi Haj ko chali.” Aminah leaned forward, grimacing her teeth. “Zia made eyes at a common dim-witted Hindu scum and dared run away and marry him like a cheap prostitute! Do you think she would have done that if you had set a good example for her, taken the hijab and made Zahira wear it too?”
“Why couldn’t you make Zia wear it yourself?”
“Hush! It won’t do for the neighbours to hear us! What’s done is done.” Aminah looked towards the bed. “Remember, we have to bury them.”
Iffat followed Aminah’s gaze and hid her face in her hands. Aminah looked away, towards the window. She had sat at this exact spot twice before, both times with her husband during Eid. He had insisted that they visit Iffat and her husband, and not the other way round, to show them that they were all equal in Allah’s eyes. Foolish man! She had had to take care of him, but no point thinking about that now. All that mattered was that he had left her enough money and a place to stay in comfort. During the day, anyone looking around their neighbourhood could see her house across the courtyard from where she sat on the floor. As she tried to make out the outlines of her large home, she thought she heard Zia call out.
“Did you hear that?” Aminah reached for Iffat’s hand.
“Never mind!” Aminah took their empty cups away. They could only be washed in the morning now since the tube well stood outside in the courtyard. Aminah never ventured into the courtyard alone after bedtime, and now she had as good a reason as any: The souls of Zia and Zahira might have become ifritis. In their sleep, they might have mistaken the attack for a nightmare as they died, but they could now waken anytime. If they did, they would know what their mothers had done to them, and vow revenge. Better stay inside with Iffat who, though stupid, belonged to the world of the living. Yes, she could count on Iffat, on the loyalty bought over the years.
Turning back, Aminah saw the other woman absorbed in prayer. Iffat raised her hands in front of her, murmuring, her face calm. She prostrated herself, then stood up, still whispering. It wasn’t the hour of prayer yet, but under the circumstances, Aminah joined in. They prayed, alternately standing, bending, sitting and prostrating themselves. Each moved to a different rhythm. Aminah squeezed her eyes shut and hurried through the words to catch up with Iffat. At the end of her prayer, Iffat swayed her covered head to the right and to the left as she muttered the words of peace and blessing. For as long as Aminah could remember, she had found prayers annoying. She jabbered the Arabic words because they helped her brazen her way through life, especially widowhood. Few Muslims dared speak against a chaste Muslimah. She intended to talk her way out of the coming day.
Iffat, the one weak link in Aminah’s entire plan, sat gawking at the bed.
“It is 4 am. We’ll hear the azan in an hour.”
“Let me do the talking. I’ll get Jamila Bi to ask her son to go and call the police. They’ll soon learn what we did and why. People will gather in our courtyard and we will have all the support we need.”
“Zahira sometimes sat up at this time and I had to sing her back to sleep. What if she wakes up now? Will she go back to sleep again?” Iffat sat clutching her legs, as if to prevent them from jerking up and hurrying to the bed.
“Shut up!” Aminah looked towards the window. “Don’t call trouble upon us! Once people turn up, all you have to do is keep your mouth shut.” Aminah went and sat down beside Iffat, put one arm around her shoulder. “I’ll tell them how we washed away our families’ dishonour with our daughters’ blood. Muslim law protects us. We punished our own children for haram, that which is forbidden by Allah, and His Prophet, Peace be upon Him.”
Iffat tucked her head between her knees and began to rock herself to and fro, her motion broken by sobs from time to time. Aminah sat beside her, staring at the chipped plaster on the opposite wall.
“The Quran says we should…” began Aminah, after what seemed like an eternity of Iffat’s sniffing and hiccups, but the azan interrupted her words.
“It’s so beautiful,” Iffat raised her head, “this azan. I have always thought it the most wonderful sound of our mornings. It seems to invite the sun to rise, the birds to sing. Our Imam has a voice full of emotion, masha’Allah.”
“His would have been the first voice to rise against us apa, which is why we’re going to his sister first. Jamila Bi will talk to him. They say he listens to his sister.” Aminah reached for Iffat’s shoulder.
“Don’t call me apa!” Iffat jerked away from Aminah’s touch.
“I’ve always thought of you as my elder sister.”
Iffat’s eyes regained some of their shine. “Zahira used to call Zia, Zia apa.”
“Forget about them for a minute… we need to talk about our plan.”
“Forget my daughters?” Iffat let her head sink into her hands. “Call me Reema from now on,” she said when she could speak again.
“Well, apa/ Iffat/ Reema… what difference does it make? We just need to stick together.”
Silence cloaked them again. The cold of a winter dawn bit down on their limbs.
“Boil us some hot water, let’s have some more tea.” When Iffat didn’t jump to her bidding, Aminah decided to forgive her: Iffat’s sheep brain could only take in so much, after all. Aminah dragged herself up, whispering, swearing and cursing under her breath at her joints that creaked and, for the first time in years, pumped up a kerosene stove. Iffat didn’t have many cups and no saucers at all. Aminah poured the tea in two mismatched cups.
“I think Zahira has woken up,” Iffat didn’t touch the tea and, instead, curled up further, “maybe Zia too.” Her small eyes dark and wild, she wailed, “Open the door!”
“Iffat!” Aminah burst out, and then softened her tone, “Apa, I’ll go to Jamila Bi’s place as soon as it is light. All you have to do is listen and nod.”
“They were both my daughters, Aminah.” Iffat’s thin lips took on a determined look. “You gave birth to Zia, but I brought her up. You never did a thing for her, she only went to your house to sleep.”
Aminah clanked her cup of tea down on the floor as she drew herself up to her full height, like a hooded snake ready to strike. By now, the first weak rays of the winter sun were trickling into the room through the window. “If it hadn’t been for me, you and your daughter would have lived on the streets. You helped bring up Zia, but I paid you for it.”
Iffat buried her head between her knees again.
“And I didn’t do this all alone.” Aminah pointed at the bed. “You held them down for me. You agreed it was the right thing to do, why this sudden weakness?” Saying this, Aminah pulled on the woollen socks and soft shoes she’d taken off the night before. She threw on her hijab, making sure it cloaked her well and checked for wrinkles and stains in the black cloth. This armour would protect her once the ruckus began. Wrapping her shawl tighter about herself against the chill, she stood ready to walk out.
“Wash your face, Iffat. The police will come here soon.”
Iffat stood up, silent, bloodshot eyes in an ashen face. “Earlier, we prayed before the azan. It is time for today’s first prayer now.”
“Remember, apa,” Aminah walked up to Iffat, “Just keep quiet, ok?” They had to swing into action at first light, not waste time on prayers. If Aminah didn’t do this right, Iffat would ruin the both of them.
“We could have persuaded them to divorce their husbands, or asked their husbands to convert. Those boys meant no harm.”
“When was the last time a Hindu became a Muslim and lived to die of old age? Besides, they made our daughters impure. We couldn’t allow the girls to live, to pollute the other Muslims in the village.”
“Zia’s husband is twenty-three, Aminah, Zahira’s twenty-one.” Iffat seemed about to burst into tears.
“We can’t go soft now.” Aminah opened the door, letting in the cold fog. “We need the village with us when the police come. They’ll take care of those two loafers if they walk in asking for their wives.”
“I am Reema, you hear me? Not Iffat.” The pale woman’s breath trailed white in the morning air. “I hope you get what you deserve, Aminah. In this life and at Qayamat!” Iffat slammed the door and sank to her knees, tears streaming down her face. She stopped crying a few minutes later and her face hardened. “I won’t listen to you, not this time,” she said aloud, wiped her eyes and stood up. She would prepare herself for prayer.
Aminah walked out into the cold. She wanted to look into Zia’s bedroom just to make sure that she’d left everything in its place, but, instead, she made herself fume and froth against Reema, warming up her body, gathering all the air in her lungs for that first, piercing wail when she declared her news. She would be a good Muslimah.
Some day, this would fade into distant memory. Then, she would teach Reema a lesson, send her to the same place she had sent her real apa, her parents’ precious Iffat, all those years ago.
Aminah quickened her pace and knocked on Jamila Bi’s door.