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They all laughed and it seemed like all their issues melted away, and their laugher twined them to each other in sublime calm.
Husna gazed at the sunlight seeping behind million-year-old mountain ranges. A warm golden hue swathed the minarets of the Blue Mosque. The adhan, the call from muezzin, rose through the dusty evening air bringing the hustle-bustle of Mazar-i-Sharif’s streets and bazaars to a standstill.
And the day that had begun with a flurry of activity attained its zenith. The staff of the house buzzed around, putting finishing touches – in the preparation, for the evening ceremony. It was Takht-e-Khina, a traditional Henna night for her younger sister, Maryam who was to marry her fiancé, Ahmet, in a few days.
Husna walked over to Maryam. Maryam looked resplendent in the glittering green silk dress. Husna smoothened the fluid folds of the silk dress over Maryam’s waist before decking her in traditional Kuchi jewellery. The mirrors and rhinestones along the hem of Maryam’s trousers glimmered against the slanting rays of the setting sun.
As Husna pinned the scarf on her head, their eyes met in the mirror. Husna could see the shadows of doubt and worry lurking behind Maryam’s smile.
“Are you sure you want to go ahead with this marriage?” Husna sucked in a breath.
Maryam nodded and looked down. She pushed her feet in embellished leather shoes and walked towards the door. Suddenly Maryam stopped and swung around. “Don’t tell maader!”
Husna strolled to the window. The conversation she had with her sister last night, played in her mind. They were winding down on toshaks, thin mattresses, after their chores yesterday evening when Maryam broached the subject. Her distress was writ large on her face.
“Ahmet called this morning. He refused to allow me to pursue my studies,” Maryam said with her eyes cast downwards as she twisted the hem of her chador between her fingers.
“How can he? He promised maader that not only would you be allowed to finish your law graduation, but you would also be practising. Isn’t this your final year?” Husna was furious.
“Ahmet said, he cannot bear the disparaging remarks of his neighbours for having seen the bare face of his wife. He would honour the engagement only if I agreed to drop my studies. And if I don a burqa every time I ventured outside. He cannot suffer like Khaled,” Maryam’s voice caught, and she swallowed down a lump in her throat.
Husna had instantly understood. The taunts were not pointed towards Khaled, their eighteen-year-old brother, but her. Since the fallout of the ruling regime, she and her mother had stopped wearing a burqa. Husna was a trained medical practitioner working at the provincial hospital and earning a generous salary.
As she came back to the present, Husna shifted her gaze upwards towards the sky. Overhead, millions of stars lit up the Afghani sky like sparkling gemstones sewed on the chador of the night. Husna took a deep breath and crossed her arms to hug herself. There was a definite nip in the air, winter was drawing close.
Husna recalled how after an altercation with Khalid, she had decided to carry the blue burqa in her handbag to keep him at bay. She found her eighteen-year-old brother irksome as he interfered in her life repeatedly. Husna smiled as she remembered the bloody nose she gave him that day. The day when their argument about her practising medicine had escalated into a fistfight. Her brother had been careful to maintain his distance since then.
She shook her head, feeling frustrated and sad all at once. Young men like Ahmet and Khalid still wanted to tether themselves to the old ways. A handful of Afghani men had taken up the roles of gatekeepers for guarding communal honour and oppressing women in the name of namus and ghaeirat. Warlords had left lasting imprints of their strict rules in the minds of these men.
Husna looked down at the draped fabrics on the walls. The bold print of bright orange and pink medallion studded on the curtains shimmered against the amber glow of the lanterns and candles.
Meanwhile, an afghani song ‘Hena Beyarin bar Dastash gozarain’ (bring henna) reverberated across the courtyard. Ahmet and his mother walked up to Maryam, carrying a tray of henna decorated with flowers and candles.
A pang of anguished longing hit Husna, and tears seared at the corners of her eyes. She was older than Maryam, but she had long given up hopes of finding love and getting married. Her world was teeming with men who proved their manliness through strict and brutal control of women.
Finding an Afghan who would let her live on her terms was next to impossible. She couldn’t let go of her dreams and profession so easily – she treasured them far too much. Husna didn’t want to be handcuffed by customs and rituals. Her eyes turned dull and teary as she swallowed the truth of her existence, once again.
She was still fortunate, she had the power of choice, however dismal, the options, Husna thought. What about those women who were hanging in limbo in the hospital’s burns unit? She shuddered as she remembered the moans of pain ricocheting across the blue walls of the hospital rooms.
Scores of women writhed and wrestled with the third-degree burns that they had inflicted on their bodies. Pouring kerosene over their bodies and suicide remained the only choice those women had to escape domestic abuse and tyrannical husbands.
A knock on the door jolted Husna out of her reverie. It was Nadia, a sixteen-year-old girl from her mother’s shelter home. Husna’s mother was calling her downstairs. Nadia carried her one-month-old daughter in a sling around her shoulder. As Husna walked behind Nadia, she reflected on the circumstances that had led Nadia to the shelter home.
Hailing from Nuristan, nine-year-old Nadia had been sold to a seventy-year-old man to pay off her uncle’s debt. Nadia had endured all the torture meted out to her by her heroin addict husband and his family silently until one day.
That day, her husband chopped off her fingers for wearing nail polish. And a heavily-pregnant Nadia with blood splattered across her shalwar kameez waited for hours at the police station. Husna’s mother had stepped in when Nadia had refused to go back to her husband’s house.
Husna knew that although Nadia was contemplating filing for divorce, she missed the son she had left behind with her husband. If divorced, Nadia’s husband would retain custody of both her children. The yearning and longing choked Nadia’s voice when she spoke about her son. It was in sharp contrast to the fear that clouded her eyes as she remembered her husband.
Unknown to Husna’s mother, Nadia was also mulling over the possibility of going back, despite knowing that barbaric punishment awaited her at her husband’s home. In Nadia’s mind, it was a small price to pay for staying with her children.
Husna wove her way through the maze of running children to enter the bedecked patio. The aroma of Qabli pulao and mutton kabob roasting on the open wood stoves wafted into the air. And the tables sparkled with dishes full of candied figs, roasted almonds, baklava, and honey cakes.
Husna looked around. Maryam’s husband had left the premises. It was now an all-woman party. The unmarried girls were lining up to receive henna, hoping to improve their chances of marriage.
When one of the aunts pushed Husna into the queue, she surreptitiously slipped out. Husna met her mother’s eyes. A wry smile lit her mother’s face and an amused twinkle in her eyes.
Husna knew her mother understood. Her mother, a lawyer by education, ran a safe house for women in Mazar-i-Sharif. She regularly dealt with angry mobs of men and death threats. Few fanatic groups hailed her as a pariah for promoting divorce and sullying the fabric of Afghan culture. Her mother comprehended what it meant to be a victim. Having lost her father as well as her husband in bombardments, she lugged the legacy of war every moment.
Husna’s heart skipped a beat as she looked up in the direction of her mother. Her mother was deep in conversation with Ahmet’s mother. Husna could sense anger and angst in her mother’s eyes.
“Only we can save ourselves,” she had often heard her mother say. Mother would never let Maryam wed a man who neither honoured his word nor Maryam’s wishes. Her mother helped abused, subjugated, and raped victims every day. She, who witnessed the outcome of deep-rooted misogyny every moment, would never let her daughter sacrifice it all at the wedding altar.
The reverberating sounds of Dohol, a goatskin covered drum, filled the air. Some girls formed a circle and waved their scarves to the rhythmic beats. One of the cousins pulled Maryam and Husna into the group.
As the beat got faster, Maryam threw her head back and laughed. Her bridal laughter rang louder than the clinking of the beads and bangles. Husna saw it floating past Nadia, her mother, and Maryam’s mother-in-law. It must have been infectious because soon all of them broke into a merry laugh.
Soon, Nadia and her mother stepped into the circle. The women danced and spun, fluttering their hands around themselves like the doves that thronged the courtyards of the blue mosque. A wave of their bright boisterous laughter permeated the air as they swirled to match the rising tempo of the Dohol.
It was as if the lively laughter had unshackled them from their exhaustive existence and difficult decisions. As if all the issues regarding love, honour, hopes, dreams, and freedom had melted away, and their collective laughter had twined them to each other in sublime calm.
For the first time, she realized that togetherness and laughter were all the strengths they needed. Lost in the tempo, Husna laughed again, now with tears running down her cheeks. It was as if her spirit had taken wings to fly alongside the pearly white doves, and they were soaring high under the afghan blue sky.
This story was a part of our November 2020 short fiction contest Muse of the Month.
Picture credits: Still from Hindi movie Lipstick Under My Burkha
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A Radiologist by profession and a mother of two.
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