Sarah Zaidi wrote her first short story—entitled “My Cat”—when she was six years old. She was born in Pakistan, raised in Saudi Arabia, and educated in the United States and England. When she was younger, Sarah wanted to grow up and be a TV news anchor. Having recently graduated from college, she’s putting that dream aside for now to pursue a career in management consulting.
I was thirteen when Amma fell. Just like that. None of that Crash. Boom. Pow. Probably more of a Thud. And then… nothing. It was one of those sticky days where the sweat trickled down, causing your kameez to press against your back creating a heart-shaped stain. Maybe not heart-shaped. Perspiration rarely dribbles so romantically. More of a paisley design, perhaps. It was a lethargic summer day where the minutes merged, seconds synthesized… a perfect mango sucking day. Mangoes. Al-Manjoo. Aam. (Sorry, I don’t speak any more languages. To be honest, I don’t really know Arabic either, but I’ve learnt words here and there from the Qur’an, and from my second son, the contractor in Dubai.)
It really was a perfect day… until she fell. Munnoo was actually a munna back then (and not the jiggly waste of flesh and blood that he’s become). We could even fit on to the samecharpoy. It was a late July afternoon, and we had dozed off. But Munnoo had shuddered awake, startling me. A group of women in white had assembled around us while we were sleeping. “Shh…” I remember telling him. “Go back to sleep. They’re angels. We’re not allowed to stare.” And with that, we both turned the other way and went back to our summer siestas. Only later did I realize how right I was. Angels they were—malak al maut—the angels of death.
They were the Christian ladies from the dispensary across the road who had arrived in their knee-length dresses, frocks so short that Abba said he would cane my legs until they were nothing but pulpy oblivion if I ever wore them. They were summoned when Amma fell, but they arrived too late.
Can a perfectly functioning, reproducing-annually-without-fail, thirty-two-year-old barely-begum just die? Of nothing, absolutely nothing at all?
“Of course it wasn’t ‘nothing’,” Abba would say later. “It was a headache.”
A headache? Can one die of a headache? Allah knows best, but… oh, the mangoes.
In reality, when a girl’s mother dies, a part of her ends too. There remains no one who will fight for her. She must be strong; she is her own keeper.
After Pakistan was made, I — who was used to only bucketful of mangoes with hairy pits which got stuck in my teeth — was dismayed. Along with Kashmir and the Taj Mahal (which was built by a Muslim!), the British had given the Hindus the land better suited to growing mangoes.
Amma was eating a mango the day she died. Munnoo and I sat next to her, as she brought out a knife from the fourteen-piece set that Auntie Farah had brought her from London and cut the mangoes into eighths. Munnoo and I sucked on the mangoes and it looked like the peels were our teeth. Dull yellow teeth with black specks. Scary smiles.
The ayah said Amma had a scary smile when she fell. Those who saw her said Amma’s lips were curled into a haha-I-know-something-you-don’t-know smirk. Even years after the fall, the ayah would quiver and touch her earlobes whenever someone mentioned Amma.
“Arrey, she leered at me afterwards! Something wasn’t right. She didn’t have the peaceful look of death. And I swear on the Qur’an, her teeth turned yellow and had black spots, and her hair, it became white instantly, minutes after she died…”
My hair went white too, the year after Amma went thud. I was fourteen.
“Aiyaa! She’s an old maid!” they shrieked once I stepped into the palanquin. “What kind of bride has white hair!”
That was my first meeting with the in-laws. I didn’t see the future father of my sons, though, of course. We were strict, purdah-observing Muslims. All I knew about him was that he was thirty. I was barely fifteen. Fifteen times two equals thirty. I was always good at mathematics. Sister Mary was always proud that I was top of my class at the Bharatpur Girls’ School. She said I would go far; take the world by storm one day. Not many other Musalman girls made it to Class 8. I did. My husband was educated until Class 10. Just two years more than me, and he worked as a government officer. I always thought I could become a dentist like Fatima Jinnah. I wouldn’t want to pick out the mango hairs from people’s teeth, but I would like to perform more complicated procedures like root rivers or lakes or whatever it is that my American doctor son’s white wife did for me. Before the days of Colgate and Aquafresh, we were simple miswak— chewing stick — using types. Teeth consumed our thoughts.
Abba told us that the Prophet (May he rest in peace) had urged his people to maintain hygiene and take care of all their loaned body, but especially of their teeth. I also learned that to avoid confrontation with the in-laws about my hair color, all I had to do was form a concoction of henna and coffee and leave it in my hair for two hours each month. The smell of the paste on my head also appeared to repel the husband enough into staying away. That was helpful; I no longer had to sip the revolting potion the hakim gave me to avoid having a new addition to the family every nine months or so. That was an unexpected relief.
It’s more honorable for a Muslim woman to surrender herself to death, rather than be touched by an infidel. A man must have created this concept of honor. I, frankly, would rather just be alive.
I got married in 1942. My oldest son, the anesthesiologist in America, loves Bollywood films. His favorite is 1942: A Love Story with Manisha Koirala. I hope he realizes that I wasn’t her and his father wasn’t Anil Kapoor. There were no stolen kisses, no longing gazes, no fluttering yellow saris and dancing in the rain scenes between his father and me. Where would a girl confined to the women’s quarters even find such love? On the roof, in front of the neighbors? Things like that only happen in atrocious Punjabi films. In reality, when a girl’s mother dies, a part of her ends too. There remains no one who will fight for her. She must be strong; she is her own keeper. At the sight of the first blood, she is restricted to the zenana and is told by aunts that the time to put together a dowry has come. All dreams of dentistry are destroyed. It becomes instead a time to embroider bed covers and crochet curtain tie-backs. If I had known, I would have feigned sickness and hidden the monthly to buy myself some time. Would I have had an illicit roof-top affair with the boy next door? Probably not. But who knows? If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my life, it’s that people can surprise you.
After I began to live with the father of my sons, life became all about how circular mychapattis were rolled. Originally, mine looked like Australia. Even if I only went to Class 8, it doesn’t mean I don’t know what Australia looks like. Just because I don’t speak Englishfurr-furr like the rest of them doesn’t make me stupid.
I was unlike the other daughters-in-law who devoted hours making perfectly-shaped pieces of bread which were to be consumed by the men without remark about whether it was Australia or New Zealand that was more accurately represented. While they pined for some recognition of their geographical knowledge, I used the lid of a Quality Street chocolate box almost like a cookie-cutter. And so, my chapattis were the most circular of all. This meant, however, that teeth were forgotten. Multiplication tables were pushed away to the back of my mind. I was now in Pakistan, too, so mangoes went from being brought home in buckets, to being prodded, squeezed, and weighed kilo by kilo. Life was now measured. No time for useless ponderings.
Back when days weren’t calculated, computed, and quantified, Munnoo and I used to build houses out of matchboxes. My house always had large windows. His always included a swimming pool. He had heard about pools from Auntie Farah’s youngest daughter Safra. Her name is Arabic for “yellow” — I learnt that from the now-unemployed son from Dubai.
I needed fresh air and a view of the outside world; Munnoo needed to submerge himself. One day, Munnoo dropped all of the matchboxes and one of them slipped into a crack in the wall by the floor where some plaster had peeled off. We saved the miniature boxes, but the hole in the foundation seemed to grow.
The week after Amma’s chehlum, I found something on the floor, stuck between pieces of plaster. It was a glass vial. It had a bit of mango-colored liquid. I pressed it into my hand, not knowing what it was, but intuitively realizing that it was not something to be shared. It was to be a secret. I had never kept one before… I was too dutiful, too naïve, too trusting of others. I pressed so hard, the cover of the bottle imprinted itself into my sweaty palms. I was branded with the sign of a paisley.
Just over half a decade later, on the train from India, to guard our honor from the Sikhs, my brother-in-law gave me a tiny vessel of yellowish fluid. I was instructed to gulp the contents of the bottle should a non-Muslim enter our ladies’ cabin. It’s more honorable for a Muslim woman to surrender herself to death, rather than be touched by an infidel. A man must have created this concept of honor. I, frankly, would rather just be alive. To make my brother-in-law happy, though, I kept the bottle, just in case. I pressed it tightly in my hands until I felt an indent. I looked down and saw… a paisley. Amma.
Suicide is forbidden — haraam. Amma taught me how to pray. She was buried in the Muslim cemetery with due reverence. No posthumous casting aside for her. Paisleys are stylized mangoes. Mangoes. Paisleys. Fertility. Bleeding out babies. Bleeding out life. Yellow liquids. Yellow teeth. Black spots. White hair.
I’ve carried the twin vials side-by-side, for as long as I can remember. The broth of death. No one ever found out. After Benazir Bhutto was killed, the people of Pakistan demanded that she be cut open. Autopsy. Science. Truth. But “no,” said Zardari. “Leave my wife alone.”
After Amma fell, no one had demanded an autopsy either. Her supposedly bizarre countenance after death was attributed to the heat. No one knew about the bottle, of course. Women dropped all the time then, just like flies. But quite honestly, what a romantic way to die — just like Romeo and Juliet, or Socrates. So much more feminine than cancer or getting run over by a bus.
I’m old now. Yesterday, I realized it was time. After dinner, I walked to the almirah in my dressing room. Behind the dowry silks, behind the fading sepia prints of Amma, Munnoo, and I, wrapped in an old cotton summer dupatta were two bottles. Had I thought about putting it in my evil-eye giving, sister-in-law’s chai or my son’s crossbred American, probably-Jewish, wife? Of course. I had never, however, thought of using the stuff on myself. Never. But enough was enough. I had carried the bottle for long enough. The doctor said I was beginning to have heart problems. Of course, family secrets eat you up from the inside until you’re hollow. One morning after Fajr, the time when, I was told, the angels came out, I thought it was time to do it. The yellow liquid accidentally-on-purpose spilled from my hand to the floor in the shape of a heart. And this time, it really was a heart. And no drip, drip, drip… like I thought there would be. No sound at all. And no paisley or mango in sight.
The stain darkened into a shade of burgundy before being completely absorbed by the cement floor.