Fiction | Asma by Dur e Aziz Amna

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Dur e Aziz Amna received second prize in our Short Story Competition 2017. 

The year Asma moved in with us, we were living in a two-family house in Rawalpindi. The narrow screen door—battered at the bottom where our feet kicked it open every day— looked onto a gated street. All twenty-four houses on the street were clones of one another, their coarse grey walls gazing out at mirror images across the street. During the evening, as soon as the harsh sun of the Pakistani plains went down, kids from every house poured onto the street. We were all children of officers in the civil service, so the friendships were easy. Equal. My two brothers and I were allowed to go after five on most days, except when exam season came around. Then, we would bid goodbye to our friends for a week, emerging only once summer holidays started.

On the inside, the houses could not be more different. It was always a treat to walk into a neighbour’s home to see how differently they had arranged their lives within the same constraints of space and angles. “Oh, you guys put the bed by that wall!” Our house, compared to many others, was sparse, less ornate. Our parents had the room downstairs, with a bed that had been part of my mother’s dowry. The three children slept upstairs, our bodies curling up on two twin beds pushed together. No one ever wanted to be in the middle and sleep over the uncomfortable gap left between the two mattresses. I mostly managed to convince my brothers to do it; I was the oldest, and the only girl.

But I was growing up, nearing nine years of age, and my parents were worried about the live-in helper, Faiz, who cooked and cleaned the house. Faiz was a nice enough person, they said. They just didn’t want us, and me in particular, alone with him while they were at work. “You can’t trust anyone,” they would say to one another. And so, one day, we came back from school and saw a young girl, perhaps twelve years old, sitting on the second step of the staircase. My mother, Ammi, told us she was going to live with us from then onwards, and help out around the house.

Asma was small, with hair that stood out; it was aggressively curly and light brown. I had never seen anyone with brown hair and I thought she might have dyed her hair like one of those models in the Sunday newspaper. She was also silent. My brothers and I stared at her, sizing her up as a future playmate, and she stared back. While Faiz had slept in a detached room in the backyard, it was determined that Asma was too young. That night, and for the next eight years, she slept with us, on a thin mattress on the floor, next to our beds.

Over the next few days, we pieced together more information about Asma. She was from Kashmir, the northern province that our teachers at school had told us was a part of Pakistan but which India was trying to steal. Her father had brought her to our house so she could work, in exchange for Rs. 1000, or 20 dollars, a month; he would collect this money any time he could make the two-day trek down to Rawalpindi. She had arrived with two sets of clothes. My mother got her some new ones, and some of my hand-me-downs. I was a few years younger, but the clothes hung a little loose on her.

Soon, she was enrolled into the daily Quranic study classes all the children on the street went to. Every afternoon, around 3 pm, our sullen, unforgiving teacher would arrive on a 50cc motorbike, the sound of the engine audible from half a mile away, like the approach of a recurring nightmare. We would drop everything we were doing and rush to class, my brothers grabbing towels to cover their shorts-clad legs, while I twisted a scarf around my head to cover my hair. Qari Sahab, as he was called, didn’t think much of the children of the street; he said we didn’t pray enough, we showed too much skin, and we were generally a spoiled, insolent bunch.

He was charmed by Asma, though. From the start, he took a liking to her, and she was spared the scowls and occasional thwacks that were part and parcel of the class for the rest of us. She was quiet, obedient and a quick learner; very soon, she had progressed beyond many kids in the class. Qari Sahab praised her often, goading the other children to follow her example. One day, right before dismissing class, he turned to us and asked, “Don’t you all wish you were as beautiful as her? You look like her servants, not the other way round.” He chuckled to himself as he left, pleased with this insight. One of our friends, a ten-year-old boy we carpooled to school with, fumed. “How dare he? She’s the servant, not me!”

We returned home that day furious at our friend. “Servant” wasn’t a word we were allowed to use. Our parents introduced Asma as “a cousin” or “the girl” when we went out. As for Asma being pretty, we all knew that. Ammi had told us that the area Asma came from was known for its beautiful people, with their snowy skin, sharp cheekbones, and hazel eyes. “Everyone in Pakistan wants to look like a Kashmiri,” she laughed as she told us. Once, we went to a dinner party where the hostess would not stop praising Asma. She hugged her, held her hand, and kept asking her to eat more. As we stepped out of their house, Ammi turned to me.

“We’re never bringing Asma here again.”
“Why?” I asked, even though I was annoyed at the woman’s excessiveness too.
“She’ll get too many ideas about herself.”
“Ammi!”
Immediately, she caught herself.
“No, no, you’re right. It’s wrong to think like that.”

After the first few months of being wary of each other, Asma and the three of us quickly grew close. Our parents were strict and serious people, which encouraged a special bond between the children of the house. Every night at 8 pm, we sat together and greedily watched the hour of television we were allowed. On monthly trips to visit family out-of-town, the four
of us sat in the back of the four-wheel Suzuki jeep and talked the entire way there. On days that Ammi returned late from work, Asma and I grabbed both my brothers, gave them scrubby baths, and dressed them up in the cutest outfits we could find. Then we made them do homework while we stepped back and observed our handiwork.

During the day, we went to school and Asma stayed at home. She cleaned around the house, ironed our school uniforms, and did laundry. When we came back, she would ask us about our day at school, always curious about our friends and classes. One day, she told my parents she would like to learn how to read. My parents asked a neighbour to give her lessons in Urdu, and soon she was reading road signs and the newspaper. The next summer, she finished the lengthy novel I was assigned at school. Every night, after the television hour was done, the four of us would sit together upstairs, inhaling book after book. Daily, Ammi would order Asma to go to bed early, because she had to wake up before we did, but she never listened. The next day, Ammi would ask us what time she’d gone to bed, and the lie would slip seamlessly off our tongues. Asma often read all night.

Around this time, she and I started getting closer, the Gang of Four splintering by age. My brothers were still little kids, and besides, with both of us walking into puberty months apart, there was something else to be discussed: boys. We would ask each other who we thought was the cutest neighbour. I told her about the guy in my class who looked like Daniel Radcliffe. Once, my mother heard us talking and took me aside.
“Did Asma say she likes someone!?”
I laughed it off.
“It’s nothing, Ammi, she just thinks Umar the neighbour is cute.”
Ammi was not happy.
“First of all, this is no age for you to be thinking about boys,” she said, angrily staring at
me from behind her glasses. “If you want to make anything of yourself, you have to focus on
school.”
She was even angrier about Asma.
“You can’t encourage her to think about boys. You do know that she’s going to eventually go back to her family, right? They’re going to decide where and whom she marries. She can’t forget her place, Dure.”

After that, Ammi began asking Asma to stay inside the house, away from the neighbours. If
Asma knew that I had gossiped to my mother, she never let on.

As time passed, Asma and I developed a certain code. In a fight between my brothers and me, she always supported me. If my brothers were rude to her, I rushed to her defence. In the rare times that we left her behind for family dinners, I would slip her some cassettes and tell her she could listen to my music. “Thank you,” she would whisper, to make sure my parents didn’t hear. We were in cahoots, and perhaps that is why I got angry when I caught her watching television late at night on a weekend that my parents were away. I woke up and saw the empty mattress next to my bed. For five minutes, I waited, thinking she might be in the bathroom. When I got up and saw the dim fluorescent light blinking from downstairs, I rushed down, gave her a glare, grabbed the remote from her hands, and shut the TV off. I would keep her secrets, but not if she kept secrets from me. The next day, we didn’t say a word about it.

Once, we decided that, to encourage ourselves to drink eight glasses of water daily, we would compete with one another in a water-drinking contest. From breakfast till dinner, we drank as much water as we possibly could, to see who could run up the bigger tally. At dinnertime, I went to the kitchen to see Asma standing by the water cooler, one hand holding stitches on her side. I told her I had drunk 20 glasses of water all day.
“Thirty-two,” she shot back, grinning ear to ear.

Another time, I was sitting on my bed, reading for school, when I asked her to fetch a glass of water for me. This was specifically a demand we were forbidden from using. The only person in the house who could ask Asma for a glass of water was my father, and sometimes my mother. My brothers had tried pulling it off a couple of times, but a thorough talking-down from my father had given them the message. But that day, I was angry at her about a fight we’d had earlier, and my parents weren’t around, and I didn’t care.
“Asma! Get me water.”
She didn’t respond.
“Asma! I told you to get me a glass of water.”
Silence. She kept her head down, her shoulders hunched over a book. My mind got foggy.
“Asma, I’m going to ask you one more time!”
She didn’t even move her head. I ran over to her, grabbed her by the shoulders, and slapped her right across the face.
“Didn’t you hear me? Have you forgotten your place?!”
She finally looked up at me, her eyes still, mouth silent. She didn’t say a word, but got up, picked up her book, and left the room. I crumpled in a cloud of rage and shame.

She didn’t get me the water.

 

***

 

The stories we tell ourselves about our lives become our lives. The story I tell myself is that of a friendship between two girls. One of them was beautiful and intelligent. She saw in the other a life that could have been hers, but for circumstance. The other girl was given a privilege that she didn’t comprehend and a power no one should be allowed to have. I abused that power.

Our friendship didn’t end immediately, but over time. A few years later, I moved abroad to the US, first for an exchange year, and then for college. Asma went back to her family. She came to visit once while I was back home, but things had changed. The one thing we had in common, the only thing that had seemed to matter, was the shared experience of being children together. The last time I met her, I asked about her fiancé, a second cousin that her parents were soon marrying her off to. I didn’t ask if she still read all night.