She knew the rise and fall of his breath by heart, so by the time he opened his mouth to speak, in between his animal panting, she could lip sync what he was about to say. “You chop the dhania too coarsely. It’s like whole trees floating in the saalan.”
She still hadn’t grown used to the weight of his body on hers. It was never a thing that felt familiar or loveable, something she was ‘one with’, something that could have been ‘an extension of herself.’ It hadn’t grown to feel like what the college romances said it would. His touch still felt like an invasion, a plunder. The best she could do was tolerate, eyes closed, teeth clenched through his hot, fevered motions that moved to another beat, a beat which needed no other to complete its movements, its ascent and its climax. Once at crest, he withdrew like a spent beast, fed for the day. (On days he didn’t look at the girls on the computer screen, he was hungrier.)
She had no life beyond the prison of her days in the house, there was no way of knowing if this was the way it was for everyone, and whether the romances she had read from cover to cover hidden in the hardbound Chemistry books opened in her lap were lying, or spoke of other worlds.
She often wondered if it was the same with Safiya and Bhai Jan. There was no way of knowing. They had dinner together every day (‘Good families always eat together’), but she sat through it like a statue. No one spoke to share anything, they put up silence as a wall to hide behind. They were five at a small table, so close they could fit in the girth of an embrace. Yet there was a fortress erected where every elbow rested on the table, a wall of defense behind which they all took refuge.
In the beginning, the joylessness felt like a coat, like a removable skin she could peel off and be someone else, but now, one year on, it had seeped through her pores. She could no longer access or call forth the sprightly girl she had been, not even when she went to visit her Ammi. By now, she knew that they didn’t really want to know how she was doing. When her father asked her how she was, he never looked up. He wasn’t brave enough to face the clues in her eyes.
She had made peace with the part of her she had lost, had her closure, stopped looking backwards, inwards, and around. Surrendered.
The only time she was free was in the late evening, on days when it was her duty to go to the rooftop. Before, she and Safiya took turns with all the chores, ‘like good daughters-in-law did’. One day, it was she who would go up to the roof to collect dried clothes they had spread out in the morning, and clamped into place with fluorescent clips they bought in bulk along with towels every six months at Shah Almi. (‘Women of the house bond over feminine chores. It is natural for women to be among other women.’) The day she had the rooftop duty, Safiya would clean up after dinner and do the dishes. The next day, they would switch roles.
But now, they both had health duties for Ammi Jan during the day (‘There is no difference between a mother and a mother-in-law’), so Bhai Jan had decided to hire kitchen help, relieving Safiya and me of the work and freeing us up to better attend to Ammi Jan during the day. Bhai Jan was the elder brother; he always decided, and no one questioned or disagreed.
The rooftop was the only place where she felt completely free. There were no eyes watching, no minds wondering where she was, no one walking straight into her room as if the walls were invisible. Below the stairs, she never felt safe. Closing the door aroused even more suspicion. (‘What WERE you doing locked in there for so long? Come sit in the lounge, where everyone is.’)
Beyond that last step was another dimension. As soon as she stepped on to the roof, she spread out her arms, felt the wind’s caress linger like a lover’s kiss on her tired soul, felt her drooped spirit flutter as if touched with life once more. She closed her eyes to let it sink in.
At first, the shuffle of feet startled her; she wasn’t used to intruders up here. It was Safiya. They had never been on the rooftop together. One was always down while the other was up.
In the world below the stairs, they met like strangers. The way their days were designed, they were always together but never close. They were joined in duty, on a mission, with only a common goal to finish in sight. Neither ventured beyond. In the world below the stairs, everyone wore masks and armors.
Safiya looked at her and her face broke into a smile. It was like looking at another person. She wondered if she had ever looked at anyone properly down below. Something broke in the air between them, and flew up, freed from its trappings.
Safiya was holding a basket too. She approached, walking on a pair of newer, lighter feet. She placed it on the charpoy next to where the clothes fluttered gently like ghost limbs in the evening breeze.
Instead of walking towards the lines, she walked towards the other woman. She placed one hand gently on her shoulder, the other on her bare arm, just below where the sleeves were rolled. As she lifted her face to meet Safiya’s eyes, it felt like a touch she thought belonged only to other worlds.
Naima Rashid is a writer and translator. Her first book, Defiance of the Rose (Oxford University Press, 2019) was a translation of selected verses by Pakistani poet Perveen Shakir from Urdu into English. Her writings have appeared in Asymptote, The Scores, Poetry at Sangam, Wild Court, and other places. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Competition 2019. She is a collaborator with the translation collective, Shadow Heroes.