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The fire within

Awais Khan | Updated on January 24, 2020 Published on January 24, 2020

False pretenses: “I didn’t sense danger then, not even an iota of it, or else I would have run for the hills”   -  istock.com

On that stormy July night, I was 23 years old as I hurried home. I couldn’t be happier. I had a man who loved me and wanted to marry me. Well, he wasn’t exactly husband material, being married to someone already. But he was allowed to take on another wife, and I was fine with it. He had already asked me, and I’d said yes without an ounce of hesitation. I wasn’t a prude. I’d had sex numerous times and was proud of it. All those furtive trips to the wheat fields, the generous smiles I bestowed upon those unsuspecting boys, they were all a means to an end. Why should I resort to pleasuring myself when I had men waiting to fulfil my every desire? And besides, I wanted to see how many sins I could hoard before the time for retribution came.

Needless to say, it came sooner than I had expected. Anticipating an eager welcome for myself, I was surprised to see the grim faces of my brothers when I entered the hut. I have to admit, I didn’t sense danger then, not even an iota of it, or else I would have run for the hills. Instead, I put on that smile of innocence I had perfected over the years, and enquired as to what was wrong.

“You are what’s wrong,” Aslam, the oldest, said. Or spat, considering the amount of spittle that came flying from his mouth.

“Either speak or spit, Aslam. Where are your manners?” My voice was calm. After all, what was there to fear?

“Jamal was here moments ago.” That was Rashid, the youngest of the three. He rose from the bamboo wicker chair and advanced toward me. “Do you know him, Baji?”

The first current of fear sliced through me, then. It was unlike anything I had ever felt. When my parents died, I had felt something akin to grief, the kind where your heart threatens to burst. But this, this was something alien, like a hot branding iron going through my skin, only its touch was glacial.

“Who is Jamal?” Lying was second nature to me. I’d fooled my brothers this long.

“So, you don’t know him?” Aslam asked me.

“No.”

“Then, why would he come looking for you, Baji?”

“That’s something you’ll need to ask him, Aslam.” I didn’t care too much for his tone, and I told him that much.

“My tone offends you?”

“As a matter of fact it does. Now do you want to eat or not?” Despite that unknown sensation of fear coursing through me, I stretched myself to my full height. My brothers aren’t very tall, so it seemed like I was looming over them. I hoped they’d be cowed into silence.

No such luck.

I ignored them and busied myself with the food. To think, I was still carrying that heavy pot. I dumped it on the table, and prised off the lid. The scent of basmati rice hit me then, washing away some of the fear.

“He said you have agreed to be his second wife.” That was Aslam again. “Second wife! How long have you been sleeping with him, huh? You would stoop this low?”

I pretended not to have heard. “If you believe all the nonsense you hear from people, you will be very sad boys, I assure you.”

“He was surprised we didn’t know,” Aslam continued. “He called us a poor excuse for brothers.”

If I had any doubts about Jamal actually being here, they were rudely dispelled. This was so like Jamal.

I leaned back from the pot and straightened myself. If I couldn’t be honest with them, then whom else?

I took a deep breath and turned around. “Look, there’s something —”

I never got the chance to complete my sentence. Well, that’s not entirely true. I remember completing the sentence, only the words got muddled as the melting skin filled my mouth.

At first, there was no pain, only irritation that Shabbir, my middle brother, had taken so long to make an appearance. Then I saw the bottle in his hand, a satisfied smirk on his face.

And then the realisation hit me, or should I say burned into me. The pain, oh the pain. That was all my mind was capable of registering at that time, the screams of my nerves, my vision blurring, my mouth going slack as my lips melted right off my face, trailing somewhere down my chin.

“Serves you right, whore!”

For what, I wanted to ask. But, of course, I was in no position to ask anything. I was melting alive. All I could do was stagger towards the door, half-blind, my mind reeling with pain. All I can remember is that I foolishly ran my hand over my damaged face. It came away with bits of flesh, my fingers singeing with the acid. Since then, I haven’t had any fingerprints on that hand.

Unbridled horror: “I remember completing the sentence, only the words got muddled as the melting skin filled my mouth”   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

Jamal told me I made it all the way to his house at the end of the street, but I think that I just collapsed somewhere in a ditch. In any case, it was Jamal who took me to the sad excuse of a hospital the village had.

The doctor didn’t even have the basic supplies to combat my burning skin. He just resorted to applying some ointments. Cursing him inwardly, I passed out.

And here I am now, sitting on a stool in front of the mirror, watching what had once been a passably beautiful face reduced to this mess. Well, if I sort of cover half of my face with the scarf, holding it in place with a bit of it in my mouth, I can pass for an unremarkable woman. I am blind in one eye now. After operating on my face, they managed to restore at least a certain smoothness to the skin. Make no mistake, I am not flattering myself. I’m just stating the facts.

I try to smile. All I can manage is an abnormal curve of my non-existent lips. I take off the scarf and cast it aside. One side of my head is bald. I lean forward, looking at myself closely, almost admiring every flaw I have been bestowed with.

“How many times have I told you not to mope in front of the mirror?”

Jamal stands in the doorway.

“Do I look like I am moping?” I shoot back, angry that he has seen me moping.

Jamal holds up his hands. “Don’t start on me, okay? I just don’t like to see you like this.”

I sigh. The funny thing is that, despite everything, Jamal still married me.

I see the way those rich society ladies cringe when they see me. They’re kind-hearted women, bored housewives out to do some good in the world. But I see that involuntary shudder, the averted gaze, and that makes me want to slap them. I didn’t ask to look like this, and I certainly didn’t ask for their help. I’ve tried to catch them off-guard with tricky questions, but they’re so meticulously coached that they don’t falter. I see them wrinkle their nose at the tea I serve them, the way they pretend to sip at it before setting the cup down. They sit on the edge of their seats, ready to make a run for it, as if I am a contagion that could catch them if they’re not careful.

“And what happened to your brothers?” They never fail to ask me.

What do you think, I want to shoot back. Jamal tries his best, but he has another family to feed. So, that’s where I come in, feeding my story to these ladies, making sure I cry at the correct times, holding up my scarf to my one working eye, leaving them to gape at the other obliterated one.

I once caught one of them taking a picture of me on her phone. She thought she was being discreet, but I could see the camera reflecting off her reading glasses. It almost made me laugh.

Jamal picks up my scarf from the ground, and covers my head with it. “Why do I always find this on the ground?”

“I must look a fright without it, so I’m not surprised you grab every opportunity to cover me with it.”

Jamal rolls his eyes. “Please —”

“Hideous old me saddled with the poor, handsome Jamal, the same one who had bargained for young succulent flesh and ended up with this ruined mess.”

I can tell that he wants to hit me. But the question is where. He is ever so careful not to touch any of the damaged flesh, bestowing all his kisses on the other side of my face. He thinks I don’t notice, but I notice everything. If there is one thing this mutilation has brought me, it’s perspective. That is how I deduced the true feelings of those repulsive society ladies. The old me would have lapped up all the attention.

Jamal’s face is red with repressed anger. I want to play with all that fire, but I don’t.

“Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” he manages to say from between tight lips. “I am sick of this pity party. I work all day to put food on the table, and what do I get in return?”

I want to remind him about who really puts food on the table, but I let it go. Another feather in my cap. I put a bright smile on my face, and turn toward him. “You’re right, of course. Don’t mind me, I was just being silly.”

That always brightens his mood.

After Jamal slithers off me that night, I run a hand over the damaged skin on my face. It never ceases to amaze me that I don’t sweat from that side. It used to creep me out, but now it just fascinates me. I think of my three brothers, and wonder if they ever think of what they’ve done. I lie to the society ladies when I tell them that they regret it.

Victims of honour: “I think of my three brothers, and wonder if they ever think of what they’ve done”   -  ISTOCK.COM

 

The truth is that they’re rather proud of it. In the end, they just got away scot-free. Nobody charged them for committing a crime for honour, and by the time I was lucid enough to talk, it was too late.

At first, the anger had festered in me for weeks as I battled the pain and disbelief. I wanted to carve out their faces with a knife and feed their eyes to the crows. I wanted to rip their chests open and look at their hearts of stone, for I was convinced that they didn’t — couldn’t — have human hearts. What kind of brothers could inflict such unimaginable pain on their own sister? But in the end, family is family. My father would have been proud of me for forgiving them.

A solitary tear escapes my good eye, and I rudely rub it away.

Just as I am nodding off, Jamal starts snoring. I give him a good kick in the shins. I giggle as he wakes up with a yelp. I bet his good old first wife would never have dared. That’s why she’s in the village and I’m in the city, sleeping by his side. There is no room in this world for the weak.

The society ladies have managed to get their hands on some kind of plastic surgeon. The fat one — Shabnam — enunciated the word plastic as if I were an idiot. “He fixes faces. He’s visiting from America and we have convinced him to take a look at you. He’s pulled off miracles, I tell you.”

Gone are the days when I believed in miracles.

There was a pause during which I realised that Shabnam was waiting for me to say thanks. The conceited pig, bless her. It’s a farce, an elaborate scheme devised to exploit the benevolence of these poor ladies, but I’m not too worried. These women are rich.

I smile as I shift myself away from Jamal, nestling my face deep into the pillow. Being damaged isn’t all that bad.

AWAIS KHAN

 

Awais Khan is a writer based in Lahore. His debut novel In The Company Of Strangers is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster in 2020

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Published on January 24, 2020
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