I wrapped the pad in a paper cone and checked the back of my frock. It was stained. I was trapped. I peeped through a crack in the door.

The cook was scrubbing the floor, Ammaji was combing her hair, a boy was lining up hurricane lamps, getting them ready for the night. Soon, the ducks would come home, followed by all sorts of people treating our courtyard as a shortcut.

“Do we have no privacy?” Papa would scold his mother.

Ammaji, in turn, would have her own axe to grind. “Why do you mind if a widow gets some company? You are never here!”

It would end in Papa changing out of his lungi and charging out of the house.

Papa was a bad son. He had joined the Army. He had spawned a daughter. He wouldn’t remarry.

I felt a pang of longing for Ma, I missed her so much! I wanted her back, if only to rescue me. I felt so lonely; in that bathroom, in that house, in that family. I would have cried but I needed to think. The yard had to be crossed before it turned into an adda. Before the mosquitoes ate me alive.

It was a large house, the largest in the village. At least, on our side of it. The Hindus kept their gentry away, so we didn’t know how they lived; we only got to see their riff-raff. And that’s how Ammaji, mother to a Major, no less, now shared a wall with the village drunk. Who had a thing for Sonu Nigam, listening to him for hours on end, taking a break only for azaans .

Hugging our house on the other side was the village madrasa. Which led to many a complication. Influenced by Ammaji’s kaffir neighbour, some kids had taken to a Prabhudeva song, and almost gotten away with it, because la-la, ilaha , same-same. The mullahs were murderous when they found out. Ammaji had to intervene. People listened to her.

She was telling someone now, “Love may be blind, apa , but lust has some rather sharp eyes!”

I felt faint. I had been stuck in there through three pop songs, the ripe Bengal heat seeping into my head. I needed air. I opened the door a crack.

A woman was sitting at Ammaji’s feet, assembling a paan. Ammaji was stuffing her broken hair into a bottle.

“Why, bibi,” the woman said, “I don’t see your son!”

Ammaji sighed. “What’s there to hide from you? He is a big man now. This house is too small for him.”

I sometimes wondered why Ammaji didn’t live with us; I loved the stories she told.

“And then the djinn whooshed into the jug!”

“And then the moon split in two!”

I had once asked Ma, “Why does Ammaji live alone?” Ma had said it was Ammaji’s way of punishing Papa.

Grown-ups were so strange.

I was almost a grown-up too. I was the first from my class to menstruate. A Carefree didi had come to school to teach us the meaning of that word. The boys, upset at being left out, had tried to penetrate the classroom. The headmistress had chased after them, screaming, “This period is not for you!” And then she had laughed and laughed and laughed.

Ammaji said I was impure. She tried to teach me a prayer.

Nawaytu an aghtasilu ...”

“Ammaji, what does that mean?”

“Just learn it and say it.”

“Can I say it in English?”


“Allah does not know English?”

Ammaji had found another reason to curse Ma. “Gone and left this wretched thing to me!”

The music stopped. It was time for the azaan .

The gossip died down, the visitors left. Lanterns were lit, the back door locked. Ammaji wobbled to her feet for her arthritic namaz. I shut the door and wept.

I mattered to no one, no one at all. I was gone, and no one cared!

I hated that place, I hated it, I hated it! Where everything smelled of bacteria. Where fish were big but people small. Where they halved the land like a silly moon from a silly woman’s fantasy. Hindu, Muslim, they were all the same! A little girl in a stained frock would still need to hide, it didn’t matter who she was!


I stopped crying. There was someone at the door.

“Princess,” Ammaji whispered. “They are gone. You can come out now.”

I nodded in the dark and wiped my face.

Sahana Ahmed ’s novel Combat Skirts was published by Juggernaut in January this year