They were married there in Paris, just the two of them with Khalajaan and witnesses gathered from the local mosque. It was not the wedding he remembered her having talked about as a girl; she’d wanted a grand reception at the Metropole and large golden-yellow tents. She’d wanted white silk tablecloths and rose petals down the middle of the aisle. I want a palanquin, she’d insisted, even when Maria had pointed out they had no male relatives to lift it.
There’s Papa and Jimmy, Leila said. That’s only two.
I’m sure you’ll all be married by then, she’d sniffed.
Your husbands can help.
And there she was in the small clerk’s office, dropping her head with the anachronistic coyness of brides. At dinner, Khalajaan told them to be good to each other and asked no questions about anything: not the rush, not the secrecy, not the dumb fact of it here in a city that did not belong to them. Her hands folded on the tabletop, the glow of her rings in the candlelight. She looked at them with an indulgence he hadn’t expected, a flash of warmth in her smile like butter in a pan. She was fond of Leila, he knew. She was the only one of the girls who had followed, in some way, in her image.
Marriage is hard, she said, and she pointed at the space between them with her fork. You will have to work hard. You will have to compromise.
She had never been in his room before. He realized then, as she stood by the windowsill with her hips angled against it, that they had never really been alone together. Only in parks and restaurants, never in the deafening silence of a hotel room. She shifted in the window till she was the whole room, all he could see. He sat down, held on to his bed.
Did you mean what you said about loving me? she asked.
Her question small, and nearly swallowed up in the space between them.
They came together as lonely travellers will do. The ugliness of his proposal was buried under the language of their bodies. This time when he reached out to hold her there was a sureness to it that seemed separate from the wreckage of his nerves. He felt disconnected from his body, as if he is watching them from a great distance: the two of them in the empty room. Her body shivered, his hands shook.
Leila curved into him, fit a hand along his waist. The boldness of her touch pushed him back into the room. Here it was cold and she was near enough for his mouth to catch her breath if he opened it.
She seemed to fold inwards as she undressed, her shoulders narrowing together and the slow dissolution of her nakedness giving him a chance to come up for air. Brides wore red so she bought a dress that Khalajaan disapproved of, even though it went past her knees. She wore someone else’s earrings, gold-flecked. They were glossy with hairspray and stuck to his fingers when he lifted them from her ears. She smiled at him with her eyes closed.
After she said, I didn’t want you to think I’m one of those women.
One of which women?
She rolled her eyes. Jimmy, don’t pretend. Alright, he said. He held her. Alright.
The walls of his room were blue and he was happy to have her, he was.
The next week they went to London. He settled Khalajaan in a nearby hotel, and took Leila back to his flat. Everything about the city and his flat looked different through her eyes. The blackened windowpanes, the bookshelves gathering dust, early evening light filtered through the curtains in streams of dirty gold. He put his coat up and sat, said Well here we are, in what seemed a very British way.
The stack of mail by the door was caked in mud from where he stomped in. He unstuck the envelopes from the mat and peeled them apart while Leila undid the laces of her shoes and rubbed her feet through the soles of her stockings. She sat cross-legged on his sofa, small and strange, as if she had stolen in through the window and made her home here. He thought maybe he would try and make a fire later. It was not very cold, but he liked the idea of her cracking her knuckles by the fireplace he had never used much.
There were bills in his hands, a few pieces of mail from the office, some letters from Karachi.
He was ripping open the latest envelope with his teeth when the phone rang. It was the kind of deadening sound that he recognized. His heart was in his throat before he even picked it up.
Excerpted from ‘This Wide Night’ written by Sarvat Hasin, published by Penguin.
This Wide Night authored by Sarvat Hasin is a haunting debut novel that tells of an eccentric Pakistani family and the lonely outsider who wants in. The book is published by Penguin.
The novel reintroduces a classic story, retelling Little Women from the point of view of its chief male character, in the context of Pakistan.
The Maliks live a life of relative freedom in 1970s’ Karachi. Four beautiful sisters—Maria, Ayesha, Leila and Bina—are warily watched over by an unconventional mother. Captain Malik is usually away and so the women forge the rules of their own universe, taking in a few men: Amir, the professor who falls in love with Maria, and Jamal or Jimmy, the neighbour who narrates this tale. The curious young man is drawn in by all four sisters, particularly rebellious Ayesha. But slowly, it becomes clear he will never completely penetrate their circle, just as they will never completely move with the tide that swirls so potently around them.
In the quietly seething world of This Wide Night, Little Women meets The Virgin Suicides in Pakistan. Moving from Karachi to London and finally to the rain-drenched island of Manora, here is a compelling new novel from the subcontinent—and a powerful debut to watch.
About the Author:
Sarvat Hasin was born in London and grew up in Karachi. This is her first novel.