Dearest Pyari Amma,
As salaam alaikum. I hope this letter finds both you and Baba Jan in the best of health and spirits. Please let me begin by apologizing for not writing earlier. Pinku and Bablu have both been under the weather with recurring cold, cough and chest infection all winter. Thank God for the long winter break or they would have missed most of school the past month.
Besides being so busy with them, I…
As salaam alaikum again. I am sorry it took me two whole days to get back to writing this letter. There was a loud crash in the kitchen followed by some screaming and I was sure the new cook had done something to anger the old territorial dragon Ami and Abu are trying to replace. Luckily, it was just a frying pan which had fallen down and scared Bashiraan the cleaning woman who had screamed so loudly that the old man had told her off in his usual, extremely vocal fashion. Thank God I arrived in the nick of time to diffuse the tension. By the time Ami and Abu came back from the Club, all was peaceful. Just the way they like it.
Ooof! The dramas in this house never end. I often think of my childhood growing up in our house with only Baba jan, you and the four of us. What a perfect life it was. Of course I am extremely grateful for you to have picked such a good family for me to marry into. Just last week at Ami and Abu’s anniversary party for 100 people I realized how lucky I was to be part of this family. All the guests were so khaandani, the women wore huge, old jewellery and everyone praised my cooking. I met three women who had once been potential prospects for Salim. They are married now. But so thin, Amma Jan, I don’t know how they do it after children.
I tried to go on a popular diet a fancy nutritionist gave me but…
As salaam alaikum again. And my apologies again. I think I need to start dating my entries so when I eventually post this letter you will see how many days it took me to write it! Ami and Abu have been entertaining a lot. The new cook quit and the old dragon is in one of his moods. Since Salim’s new job at the bank requires him to be there early, I am up at Fajr and spend the next few hours preparing breakfast for the family. Salim likes the puris fresh so I have not been able to sit with the family and enjoy breakfast but I am extremely grateful that at least I am able to perform the Fajr prayer on time now. How I remember those mornings we used to wake up together and eat sehri during Ramzan. How wonderful those Karachi days were! Pindi is cold.
As salaam alaikum. I am so sorry. You must think me such a bad daughter. I just don’t know where all the hours go. At night, after putting the twins to bed, when my back is aching from all the housework, Salim either invites his friends over or sits with Ami and Abu in their room as it has that nice big heater. Of course, I have to accompany him. Ami complained yesterday that I was being un-social and Salim got upset with me. I don’t mean to be unfriendly. I’m just so tired by the end of the day. And sometimes I don’t know what to say. I am not complaining, please don’t get me wrong. I love my life.
As salaam alaikum. It has been one whole month since I last wrote. It was so wonderful to speak to you on New Year. I am so sorry we could not come to Karachi like we had planned. The twins’ grades in school were not that great and Ami and Abu decided two extra weeks of tuition here would do them good. Do you know that this month it’s been nine years since Salim and I got married? What a beautiful wedding it was, do you remember? My friends had practiced their dance for two months before the mehndi! It’s too bad that they were forbidden to perform. Is it true, tell me Amma Jan, it has been so many years, is it true that they were stopped because they were overshadowing the boys’ family? Who would have ever thought Aashoo, Nida and Saima could intimidate anyone!
But I have taken your advice Amma Jan. You told me once that intimidating women can never be happy until they find a way to appear less intimidating. I realize that initially, because of Baba Jan’s family, my in laws were intimidated by me, almost like they expected me to look down on them. But I am proud to say that over the past nine years I have shown them that there is absolutely nothing intimidating about me. In fact after the twins were born, I held onto my weight because I felt that with it, Ami and Abu and the entire family looked at me more kindly – almost, though not quite, out of pity. Not that there is anything to pity. I love my life. I am the barhi bahu and the responsibility of the entire house rests upon me.
Oh my dear Amma Jan, I wonder if I will ever get to mail this letter. It is always so nice to speak to you over the phone but the calls are somehow always so rushed and there is always someone hovering about here. I am sorry if I got off the phone abruptly yesterday. Salim had just come home from work and he doesn’t like me on the phone. Not that he has ever stopped me or anything. I have just learned, in the past nine years, to avoid doing the things that anger him. Not that it is a problem. Alhumdulillah, all is very well.
As salaam alaikum. Thank you for your phone call today. Yes, you are right. It is inexcusable that I have not written for so long. I am so sorry. Yes, you are right. It is not as if I have a job or a career or a life outside the house. Thank you for reminding me. I am home all day. Then why can’t I find time to write? You are right. There is no excuse.
I am sorry. But here I go again. The more I read these letters the more I realize how much I apologize – not just to you but to everyone in my life. And it is not without pattern. When I was young, I did it as a way of avoiding trouble. I figured if I took the blame, there would be no punishment, for me or for anyone else. I did so even when it wasn’t my fault, like that time someone scribbled on the Moghul miniature and I said it was I. I wonder now, why did I always have to take the blame? Do you know that I still do? In December when the twins’ report card came, I apologized to Salim. I was convinced my apology would be enough. When I was young, the sorry worked. Not anymore. That night Salim still broke my arm.
As salaam alaikum. It is becoming quite evident that I will not be mailing this letter. And yet I feel I must keep writing. There is so much I need to say. And who knows, in a moment of sheer passion, I might even mail it one day. If I do, I know that I will regret it. But at least then you will have seen a side of me that you do not know exists.
Last week Bablu got into an argument with a boy in school and the boy jabbed him in the arm with a pencil. The lead broke and had to be surgically removed. Livid, I went in to complain to the Principal. I came back, after one hour, convinced that everything was my fault. And yes, once more, I ended up apologizing.
Maybe everything is my fault. Do you remember that palmist you took me to when I was 16? The one who told you that I was born with the stars in a strange alignment? The one who told you I was unlucky for everyone around me and that you should be grateful that I was not born in India because with such a janam patri, nobody would ever marry me? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. But I will never forget his words. Maybe that is why I feel everything is my fault. Maybe that is why I settle for less.
After all, I let you marry me into a large family looking for a barhi bahu (translated: head maid) to run the house. You knew that Anees was interested in me. He lived independently and had a well-paying job. But you wed me to Salim, almost as if you too believed that I deserved less. And I let you.
Do you know that after nine years of marriage, Salim, the twins and I still live in one suite in a house that has three empty guestrooms? Do you know that after nine years, the beatings still have not stopped?
The first time he beat me was on our wedding night. I was a virgin. He was irritated at my lack of experience. But more importantly, he couldn’t come – something I have since become accustomed to. That night, however, the longer he went on, the more excruciating the pain became and when I finally broke down and begged him to stop he slammed his arm across my face, making my nose bleed… blood on the already bloodied sheets. There was so much blood that night that I didn’t know where it was coming from. I should have walked out of my marriage that day. I didn’t.
Instead, I apologized. And then I closed my eyes and prayed for the punishment to end.
As salaam alaikum. I am sorry for not writing for so long. I started this letter so long ago and seem to have misplaced the last few pages. There is much excitement in the house these days. Hasan has returned from the U.S. and proposed to Alia. Can you imagine – little Hasan! The wedding is next month. I hope that you will come. Two brothers will live in the same house with their two wives! I finally met Alia. She is charming and funny and I just know that we are going to be best friends.
The dholkis have started. Each one is followed by a full dinner. Abu had asked for the food to be catered but Ami insisted that all the food be cooked at home. I am doing all the cooking every day. In the evenings, I am so tired, putting on makeup is the last thing I want to do. But I don’t mind. With all the excitement, the exhaustion goes away!
As salaam alaikum dear Ammi Jan. Today was Alia’s mayoon ceremony. We all went with flowers and ubtun. Her family had decorated the house so beautifully. And she, even without any make up, looked radiant. But I have to say, she shocked everyone when she got up to dance with her friends! Can you imagine! The bride! Before the nikah! At her mayoon! In front of her future in-laws! I would have died of shame. Ami and Abu looked at me and I knew what they were thinking. Thank God, at least they had one shareef bahu!
I wish you had come. Salim says it is an insult for him that his in-laws are not here. I tried to explain that Baba Jan is not well. He says that you should have come without him. I apologized. But once again, it did not work. Thank God for cover-up. Nobody noticed my eye.
Today was the mehndi. The twins were tugging at my gharara. I was tired. I was sweaty from supervising the tent-wallahs. All I wanted was for the night to be over without any problems. Everything was going smoothly. The music was great, the girl’s side was dancing, the boy’s side was dancing. Then Ami told me to get up. I thought there was some work to be done so I jumped up, the twins still clinging to my crumpled gharara. But she wanted me to dance. I told her that busy with the wedding preparations, I had not attended any dance practices. I told her I had not danced in years. I begged her to let me sit down. I looked a mess. I couldn’t possibly get up in the middle of all these young, pretty, thin girls and make a fool of myself.
She said it looked bad that the elder bahu was not dancing and everybody would say I was not happy for the couple if I did not dance! I pleaded again. I would be out of place, I told her. Everyone was so much younger. I had to stay with the kids. She told me to stop using the kids as an excuse! She pointed out that three of the girls dancing were married with children. She said they were real women because they were able to be mothers and function socially. She said that they were real women because they were able to have children yet remain thin. She looked at me with so much disdain. Then she walked up to Alia, held her by the hand and pulled her up to dance!
I don’t understand. All these years I spent trying to be what everyone wanted me to be – were they in vain? Why am I still not good enough? For nine years I have done what they wanted me to do, become what they wanted me to become. I tried so hard. But somewhere along the way, I forgot to be thin. Somewhere along the way, I forgot to look pretty. I forgot to learn to dance. I forgot to learn to carry a conversation. How could I have? Who would have fed, cleaned and tended to Ami, Abu, Salim, Pinku and Bablu?
I still cannot stop thinking of Ami’s comments about ‘real women’. And I wonder, when did I become an ‘unreal woman’? What is a real woman? Someone who is unafraid and confident like Alia? Or someone who has spent her whole life serving others, like me?
I remember you telling me that women must learn to compromise. I remember you saying that women must learn to sacrifice. I always assumed that there must be something wrong with us. Do you know that even today when the twins misbehave, I feel it is my fault? Do you know that even today, when Salim complains about the electricity bill, I think I am to blame? And just last week, at one of the dholkis, when Salim’s aunt from Abottabad told me that the gas station near our house had overcharged her, I apologized.
Yes Amma, my days are full. But I feel empty. Do you remember how much I loved to read? Do you remember how much I wanted to study? You did not let me go to college. You said that nobody would marry an over-educated girl. I wonder now, what is over-educated?
Dearest Pyari Amma,
Last night Salim raped me again. How can this happen, you ask, if the kids sleep in the same room? Ami and Abu were out of town. He ran after me, grabbed me by the hair and threw me down on the floor of the guest bathroom. He kicked me in the stomach and said he was sick of me playing hard to get. I was fat. I was ugly. I was lucky he was still attracted to me.
I am able to write now because the twins are in school. And I am in bed. I had to be taken to the hospital this morning. Cuts and bruises. Thank God, no fractures. But stitches. Down there. He sent his munshi to pay the hospital bill and bring me home. I am so embarrassed. What must the old man think? In the car, there was this awkward silence. The anaesthesia had not worn off completely so I could barely speak. But when he dropped me off, I did. I told him I was sorry.
Dearest Pyari Amma,
I am sorry for not writing for so long.
Ayeda Hussain is a Pakistani writer based in Canada.