by Shadab Zeest Hashmi
One autumn I’m suddenly taller than my mother. The euphoria of wearing her heels and blouses will, for an instant, distract me from the loss of inhabiting the innocence of a child’s body—the hundred scents and stains of tumbling on grass, the anthills and hot powdery breath of brick-walls climbed, the textures of twigs and nodes of branches and wet doll hair and rubber bands, kite paper and tamarind-candy wrappers, the cicada-like sound of pencil sharpeners, the popping of coca cola bottle caps, of cracking pine nuts in the long winter evenings— will blunt and vanish, one by one.
That the sensory life is dulled just as the cerebral life is intensified, is no accident; at school, boys and girls are separated for a special talk on how the changing body requires a set of rules, a sense of restraint. The talk is grave and ends with alarming details of the impending burden of academic work that will make or break us. As if the process of adapting to a new life in a new body were not hard enough, we are told that we are under scrutiny for following the prescribed path of success as well as for containing the challenges that gender poses.
The body is as unforgiving as the social norms it finds itself in the clutches of; it is more often a tempest than a temple. Growing pains, at least for girls, must be strictly private. How you decipher and piece together the physical, emotional and social puzzle of your life is entirely and urgently your own responsibility and never without open and free scrutiny and judgement. The present is a perpetual shore to an ocean of future anxiety; there is no turning back. Without sisters or close female company, I am alone now in this space of being a girl and I always will be as a woman.
I wish to throw a tantrum. It is highly inappropriate for a girl to throw a tantrum, so I want, at age fourteen, to cry in the voice of a seven-year old boy: a good student, a mini law-abiding citizen, who bawls with conviction, his sobs not inwardly tuned but coming with a perfect pitch and tempo, blasting like the sharp maneuvers of a well-formed argument or a fast car. His school uniform is immaculate, hair is neatly cut, not a wisp straying; his demeanor demands respect. He may cry with abandon; there is no impure suggestion, no question to cover this youthful beauty or vulnerability from a stranger’s gaze, no question of a veil; he is already beyond objectification, not yet a man. Being male, his grief is gold, not a sign of weakness but a bearing down of true burden. Tears fall on his leg, one perfectly polished shoe across his mother’s lap. His mother is an invisible cup, allowing his tears to fall with the unbridled energy of having been wronged and being totally in the right. There is no controversy, self-pity, no breathless justification. The crying itself is a perfectly natural and noble response. She holds her sunglasses in one hand and in the other, holds his hand. Hers is a wordless, reverent devotion, as if she is in the presence of the Dalai Lama or Pope. Little hero flails in slow motion now, hair blowing madly in the wind.
When the wind nudges the door ajar, I see a wolf locking eyes with me. It’s already too late. There is no room for negotiation in this red gaze. My time is up. The next scene will show a deep stain of annihilation on the kitchen floor. Besides this, I see in great detail, car accidents. Here, time slows down to the extent that I wish my time were up; glass shards in lungs, highway sounds exponentially louder, like the inside of a bell tower. Other moments, I find myself hiding, retching in the smoke-filled, putrid streets of bombed cities, afraid to cough or exhale, hearing clearly the footfall of military boots.
Fear, as much as grief, is to be kept tucked in, hidden from view.
I learn early to withhold tears in public. Crying attracts voyeurs or spectators who have pity, not sympathy. It lets off a spark of the soul’s deepest sorrow before the eyes of those who will lust after a defeated girl, their eyes aglow with victory, the door ajar. If I were a seven-year old dignified boy, no one would doubt the power of my grief; crying would be an act of protest, not weakness.
Home seems more and more a strange island in Peshawar; a protective space where Bhai has taught me to ride a bike, given me boxing lessons and put up colorful lights in the verandah for our impromptu stage shows and Nomi makes me laugh and shows me recorded episodes of Perfect Strangers. We do not observe purdah as is customary in Peshawar society. My mother dresses fairly modestly in public but does not cover with a chadar— not an act of rebellion, just confidence in her philosophy that there is no need to follow modesty as dictated by the prescribers of the white chadar. She walks fearlessly past gawking men when we go shopping in Kuchi bazaar or Saddar, the crowded parts of town. Her timbre remains soft and feminine whereas I am far less comfortable and develop a veneer for my true voice with a curt, authoritative tone to ward off male attention. I make my gait purposeful, my expression guarded.
As teenagers we are expected to socialize with whoever comes to our house. Some of these occasions are ideal situations for hiding in the bathroom. When you are locked in there with soaps, towels, a mirror and a window with a view of trees, you are soothed; it is rare to be forced out. I continue to find shelter in a secluded restroom even as a grown up. When I go to Vermont in 2000, the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers conference, I am away from my babies for the first time— Yaseen is two and Yousuf, five-months old. They are with my husband and mother, under excellent care, but I feel distressed, likely because I am a nursing mother and separation is almost traumatic. Between readings and workshops I must express milk in plastic bottles, dump them, fill them again, or the supply won’t last the ten days of the conference and will stall my ability to nurse; the baby’s vulnerability is my vulnerability, the body proves, once again, to be both powerful and vulnerable. Wandering the Bread Loaf campus, I find the most scenic and private bathroom, deep in the library, overlooking the tennis courts. Here, I cry my heart out.
It may be in the nature of demons to never go away, only grow as we grow, keeping up with our expanding faculties. They are, after all, masks of reality, its constants, the core of recurring nightmares. We brave more than we can bear to list. I find solace, as a young, sister-less girl, in stories of girls, my favorite being Louisa Alcott’s Little Women. Abi brings me the whole series, the set of four books, from a trip to London. The character I identify with the most is the passionate, strong-willed, even a bit clumsy and cranky Jo, who is an aspiring writer. Deeply sensitive to her family’s vulnerabilities, Jo puts up a rough, protective exterior. The most unforgettable moment of the story is when she sells her hair to a wig-maker to enable her mother to cover travel expenses as she takes a train journey to look after her injured father:
“My dear, where did you get it? Twenty-five dollars! Jo, I hope you haven’t done anything rash?”
“No, it’s mine honestly. I didn’t beg, borrow, or steal it. I earned it, and I don’t think you’ll blame me, for I only sold what was my own.”
As she spoke, Jo took off her bonnet, and a general outcry arose, for all her abundant hair was cut short. ”Your hair! Your beautiful hair!” “Oh, Jo, how could you? Your one beauty.”
“My dear girl, there was no need of this.” “She doesn’t look like my Jo any more, but I love her dearly for it!” (15.41-44)
Later that night, overcome by sadness and a sense of loss, the fierce, loving and resourceful Jo sobs and sobs into her pillow.