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Prose

Prose is verbal or written language that follows the natural flow of speech. It is the most common form of writing, used in both fiction and non-fiction. Prose comes from the Latin “prosa oratio,” meaning “straightforward.”

No more

The woman looking back at Raya was not the woman she knew. 

No, this woman was someone else entirely. She was weak and unworthy. She was tired. She was broken. As she stared into the mirror with her deep brown eyes with hints of bronze around the corner, all Raya could see was a defeated woman. With thin, gaudy arms dangling at her side, covering up a bony exterior covered up with skin so loose and rough and uneven legs with bendy knees, she could not recognize herself anymore. Her clothes were stained splashes of oil with the spices of the kitchen– haldi daag, like her mother would say. Sniffing herself from under her arms, all she could catch was the whiff of stinking sweat and the buttery fumes of ghee. 

Because at the end of the day, that’s what her life was narrowed down to, cooking. 

For most of her 20 years, Raya had cooked dinner for the family members. First in her own house, spending hours in the kitchen daily with her mother, rolling grape leaves on warm afternoons, or stuffing masala in the bitter gourds, or simmering pots of lentil soup when the air became crisp and the trees outside their home went empty. Now, she did the same at the house of her husband, but without any help. 

She stared deeper still, into the mirror, to find a familiar spark in her tired, sleep ridden eyes with dark circles going down until her nose. But all that managed to make an appearance were the blobs of bruises covering her breakable body. Colours ranging from light to dark, there were some still purplish-black and others that had already toned down to a greenish tint. Regardless of their colour, all of them hurt.

 

She was taught from a very young age to keep quiet about these things. “Har pati ka hak hota hai”-- every husband has the right, her mother used to say. 

So she kept quiet because she thought silence would save her. But in this moment, hiding in the bathroom of a 2 bedroom hut, at the mercy of a man drunk out his mind, she didn’t think that was true. 

 

Suddenly, there was a loud bang. The old wooden door, seeped with dirty rain water from the relentless monsoon, creaked under the pressure of the forceful push. With rusted hinges and splinted endings, the shield protecting Raya from another wave of pain wasn’t capable of withholding the force that was being applied to it. 

“Open the door.” he shouted from outside, his voice nothing less than a wolf howling on a full moon night. A shiver went down her spine, goosebumps covering every part of her skin. 

Raya had done this so many time now that it had become a part of her routine, like washing clothes in the morning or giving her mother-in-law her diabetes medecines. And yet, every single time, she lay whispering on the cold granite floor, begging god to make it stop. 

When it initially started happening, she sought comfort in the thought that he wouldn’t do it anymore. That somehow, she would make him love her so that he would just stop. They were newly married after all, there was so much time for them to get to know each other and for them to break this cycle of abuse their mothers had been subjected to. But she figured out soon enough that that would never happen. She had left an oppressive household for another one. 

When months of constant sharaab and hookah consumption had passed by, Raya had slowly learnt to accept her fate. She still tried to escape it– spending most of her time in the kitchen or in service of her mother-in-law, busying herself with cleaning every corner of the house in the evening and if time permitted, buying the daily rashaan from the kiranawala bhaiya. Alas, it was never enough. Night still fell every day, everyone in the house still went to sleep with their locked doors and closed windows- as if by not hearing it they ignore the fact that it happened daily, Raya still had to retreat to her four walls and learn to survive in the company of the man she feared the most. 

Tonight was like no other and like she would do any other night, Raya wiped her tears and tied her messy hair into a bun. She took a deep breath and as her trembling hands touched the cool rim of the metal handle, she chanted the name of god and stepped out to meet her predator. 

 

“What do you think you were doing inside? Trying to be smart with me?” he wrapped his rough, paper cut hands around her arm and pulled her out of the bathroom. 

“I was just washing my face. It’s very hot these days.” Raya replied, fidgeting with the dead skin coming off her finger tips and staring at the floor. 

“What, are the cooling conditions of the house not good enough for you mem saab?” he had that lisp and cruelty in his voice, the one he had whenever he lost money. 

“No, no. I didn’t say that. They are fine.” she amended her previous statement, mentally scolding herself for saying something that he would disapprove of. 

“Fine? Are they just fine?” he slowly twisted her arm with his steel grip, causing her entire hand to spasm up. 

“No, no I’m sorry. I- I’m sorry. They are perfect. I– Please. They are– perfect.” she quiety pleaded, tears clouding her view of the paan masala packet thrown on the ground. 

“That’s more like it,” he smiled, his eyes fluttering due to the intoxication but managed to continue, “I heard that you went to the mela today. Is that true?”

This is what he had been scared of, what she hoped he wouldn’t find out. This was her downfall. “I–I did. But I went with all the other ladies of the complex and I told saasu ma. I thought I could–” tears dropped down her cheeks as she lost any bit of courage she had gathered before walking out the bathroom. 

“You thought what? What? I didn’t bring you here to do the thinking. I brought you here to work, not to spend your time roaming around awaara. I don’t keep you clothed and fed to waste my money on stupid children rides and entertainment. Do you understand?” he now held both her arms, his nails digging inside the soft flesh of her form. 

As the blood trickled down her bare hands, she lost the resolve to reply and just gave herself in. 

“Maybe this will help you remember.” was all she remembered hearing before she felt a sharp sensation, combining pain and a sense of percussive force, just below her neck. When her skull met the granite of the ground, a pool of warmth collected below her head. Blood. 

Before her eyes could adjust to the sensation of the blunt force, Raya’s hair was grabbed by him and she in turn forced to stand up when her knees had already buckled on her. She took another blow to her abdomen, making her want to gag all that was inside of her, out. 

“Let this serve as a clear reminder of how you’re meant to act in my house.” he had a finality to his tone, making Raya think that the worst was over but she was nothing but wrong. 

It wasn’t until the shining metal rod was in front of her eyes, did she see it coming. 

It seemed as if hours had passed by the time Raya had scuttle-rappled to the bottom, though she knew the elapsed time was closer to 2 minutes. Her muscles were shuddering, spasming in agony as she tried to get back on her feet. She felt like she was digging herself out of a grave just as she took another kick to her face. Every fiber of her musculature was screaming for rest, yet she could not afford it. Clawing, wriggling, forcing herself to regain her composture, it wasn’t until then that Raya realised that this was all her fault. She didn’t know the precise moment the fear overcame her so completely, but once it had hit her with a force so strong she could see everything clearly now. She had surrendered herself to this endless cycle of torture. She was only as weak as she made herself to be. She may not have the power to stand up to her husband, but she could certainly harbour the will. 

As she heard the door shut behind her, Raya made up her mind. In the solitude of hell, she would forge a path out. 

 

“You just need a child, a beautiful boy. That will fix everything.” Varsha, Raya’s mother-in-law explained to her as both of them sat on the footsteps of their house, peeling fresh pees for dinner. The sun was high up in the sky, shining like Titan’s fury– right down on their faces, making it hard to full open their eyes. Beside the two women lay a spread of papad, achar and laal mirchi drying up under the heat. 

Varsha seemed somewhere far away, not quite in the moment as she was talking. Almost like she was relieving a memory herself. Although always appearing hard on the exterior, Raya recognized a softness in Varsha, who had lived as a widow for most of her adult life. 

Varsha saw the bruises and scars on Raya everyday but in vain, she wasn’t to do anything. Everyone had to go through it. 

“It is hard at first,” Varsha recalled, “but once you have baalaks, you will both have more responsibility. More to divert the mind.”

This was not the first time Raya was hearing this. Even before she came to this house as a new bride– clad in a bright red sari and gold jewellery, even before she learnt how children were made from a conversation she eavesdropped on in the street, even before she knew how to cook or clean, Raya had been informed about her duty to give birth, birth to a baby boy. The first time she heard it, she wasn’t supposed to. 

It was on a cold December night where her father had just come home, upset about something at work. Raya’s mother had fallen asleep on the floor after finishing her chores and when her dad saw that, he got even more upset. Raya was seven years old when she first saw her father beat her mother,  all the while shouting about how she had only disappointed him all his life, especially when she gave him a daughter. Every day since then Raya has been explained that her purpose in life was to get married and to birth a boy. Failure to fulfill this was a failure in life. 

“Are you listening to me?” her mother-in-law asked her now, “This is important.”

“Yes, ma. I understand.” a line she had mastered how to say, coming out effortlessly now. 

“A boy, that’s what we need. He will help us. Not a girl, we cannot afford more liability.” she straightened her back then, a groan of pain echoing from her mouth. 

“Not a girl,” Raya repeated, “Not a girl.” 

 

“The house should be clean. If I see even a speck of dirt, I will throw you out.”

“The daal has no salt, what nonsense is this?”’

“Do you not know how to dress? You look like a bai.”

Her husband’s voice took up the space around her, even when he was not here. Every now and then, her mind would flash a memory of the day he broke her hand, or the day he locked her in the room without food, or the way he would find any opportunity to take his anger out on her. 

She closed her eyelids shut, she wouldn’t think about him when he wasn’t around. Her breath came uneven, stuck somewhere in her throat– like a hard-knot, refusing to move. 

Resolving to keep herself busy at work, she picked up the newspaper from the doorstep, along with the packet of the ripe nimbu-mirchi and fresh genda phool for the mandir. The kitchen was out of adrak, she made a mental note of buying that in the evening. 

She skimmed through the paper, nothing unusual happening in the country. Her gaze caught on the second the page, filled with obituaries. Recognizing one of the faces, she squinted her eyes to read the cursive text. Sunil Sharma from a nearby neighbourhood had passed away some nights ago. 

How tragic, she thought to herself, he wasn’t even that old. 

After she finished reading the entire paper, she carefully folded it and put in the drawer full of rough paper she had, for the raddi wala bhaiya. 

Before getting back to making sabzi pulao and salaan for lunch, she chanted a prayer for Sunil Sharma. 

 

He had gotten tired earlier than usual than today, losing his strength after bashing her head only twice. The chaach for dinner tasted disgusting, he had said when he dragged her into the room and locked the door. She squeezed her eyes shut for another blow but he had taken a step back, staggering on his two feet. 

As her blurry vision slowly cleared, Raya could see the creases on his forehead and the sweat forming a line above his lips. “Are you okay?” she had the nerve to ask, forcing the words out of her mouth. 

“You– Shut up. I’m– I’m going to bed.” he responded, stumbling over his words. Rotating his head and then his shoulders, he took off his blue chequered shirt and black pants and then reaching his hand out to the side, switched the light off. 

“Don’t make any noises, my head is aching. Or I will kill you.” he said nonchalantly, covering his body with the maroon blanket kept on the edge of the bed. 

“I won’t.” she whispered back but she doubted he heard her. 

She too, proceeded to lay on the bed beside him, deciding to clean up her wounds early in the morning. She knew she wouldn’t get any sleep, so she started counting in her mind– an old habit her mother had taught her when she would awaken with nightmares as a child. 

 

Eyes still open and studying the cracked ceiling above her, Raya was broken out of her trance when she hit the number 100. Her husband had gotten restless beside her, coughing and groaning, mindlessly twisting from side to side. And then all of a sudden, his eyes flew open and his hand clasped his chest, right above his rib cage. He started trembling beside her, painfull moans spilling out from his mouth. 

“R– Raya, Raya…Listen– Listen to me. Are you– Are…Are you here?” he managed to spit out in between bouts of tremors. 

She would have helped him, responded, said something but after all, she had promised to not make a sound. All her adult life he had forced her to be silent and so she was. 

The man tried in vain. Eventually managing to sit up straight, he ended up falling to the ground. A few struggling breaths later, he finally gave up. 

Then, silence. 

Raya got out of bed and slipped on her shoes. She dawned herself in a polyester grey jacket over her orange kameez and a brown wool cap she had knit for herself last winter. As she picked up the packed bag she had hit under the bed frame, she took the name of god once again, to fill her up with courage. Looking over at the dead man laying on the ground, she whispered to him, “It ends with us. No more.”

When she tried to make her way out of the small window in the bedroom, a paper slipped and fell out of her bag. She didn’t look back to retrieve it. 

 

The next morning when the body would be found by Varsha, she would sob for her son. She would notice the paper lying beside him and pick it up. She would read the patient’s name as Raya Sharma, wife of Sunil Sharma. She would notice the sonogram attached. She would realise that her daughter-in-law was five months pregnant. And when she would read the sex of the child that had been determined a girl, she would carefully fold the paper and put it in the back of her sari. She would call the cremation house and ask them to collect her son and she would tell them that he had a bad heart and was taken by a heart attack. She would tell every wellwisher and passerby that her daughter-in-law had gone to work as a 24 hour maid for a family and that she was fine. 

But never would Varsha ever tell anybody that her daughter-in-law had the courage to do what she never could. Never would she ever tell anybody that Raya had realised that it was always going to be her or him and that after generations of wrong choices, she had made the right one. No, she would never admit that. 

Varsha would see Raya carefully planning it out, she had always known Raya was too smart to end up like her.  She would see her lie about going to a mela and travelling to obtain whatever it was that killed her son. She would see her waiting for days, patiently, to find the right time to execute it. She would see her mixing it in his chaach one day and preparing for her new life. Raya’s over eating made sense now, her unusual cravings for masala papad or lehsoon achar. She would see Raya making that choice for her. 

She would see and to herself, she would smile.

any given night

Noor didn’t think this would be a bad idea. 

She did not think it was bad when she was getting dressed to leave her house, did not think it was bad when she ignited the engine of her car and did not think it bad when she parked it ten minutes away and walked towards the metro station. But right now, staring at the neon lights of the HUDA City Centre, the sinking feeling of this being a bad idea is finally starting to surface. The air is thick and moist, and the clouds are grey. It looked like it was going to rain. Reluctantly, Noor stepped inside the station. 

 

At exactly 8:30 PM, four hours and sixteen minutes ago, this idea—if that’s what one could call it—occurred to her, right in the middle of her kitchen. The marble tiles cool against her feet, she stood there waiting for last night’s pizza in the microwave to heat up. 

“Hello? Are you listening to me?” a voice spoke from beyond the limitations of her house, booming over the broken speaker of her phone, diligently resting on the wood slab. “I’m trying to be helpful, you know. The least you can do is pay attention.” Noor did not have the heart to tell her sister that she was doing anything but paying attention to her, so she tried to pick up the conversation again, especially because she was the one who called her. “I’m sorry, Ki. I’m listening, I promise.” Satisfied, her sister continued to impart her advice on Noor’s one-week-old existential crisis. “Good. So, yeah. If you want to—what’s the word you used? Yes—feel something more, which by the way I’m still not sure what you mean, then you can go ahead and do something new. Something you haven’t done before.” The microwave beeped once, beeped twice, and beeped thrice before it came to a halt. “Like what?” Her sister thought for what seemed like a couple of hours before she suggested, “Painting? I don’t know.” That earned her an ear-piercing laugh. “You want me to paint? I murdered Ms Sharma’s paint set in the third grade,” she let out while trying to regain her composure, “That’s not a good idea.” She took the pizza out of the microwave and took a mouthful of it. Disgusting. “What do you want me to tell you, Noor? You can’t really go skydiving or bungee jumping in the middle of school,” her sister sounded tired, and far away. Like she was not fully in this conversation. And that hurt a little bit because Kiara was the one person Noor could share everything with, lay her heart down to and not care about being judged and these days she felt so far away. But then neither was Noor. “Yeah, I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s come over me. Just like, forget this. How’s college?” 

 

Now, Noor stands in front of the ticket booth at the metro station, thirty minutes away from her house, thirty minutes away from her life. She’s never used the metro before. She’s never left the house after 9 PM before. Yes, this was something new. The lady at the ticket counter seemed as disinterested as a person can sound to another person, and, as if completely by muscle memory, proceeded to do whatever it took to get Noor away from her and to anywhere else. She asked Noor if she had a metro card. She didn’t. She asked her if she wanted a one-way ticket or a departure-and-return double feature. The second one, Noor politely responded. She asked her if she was going to use cash or a card. Cash, put together hurriedly from piggy-bank savings and whatever change she could find lying around in the house. She asked her where she wanted to go. Anywhere is fine, Noor said, but not too far. The lady looked up at her briefly, as if concerned, but then went about printing the ticket and handing it to Noor. “The Metro will be here in five minutes, down the platform, on the right side.” And with that, she sent her away. 

 

The automated voice on the speakers inside the Metro informed Noor that the doors would close in ten seconds and that no one should be standing near them for their own safety. The announcement, Noor thought, was completely unnecessary. The metro was completely empty. For as far as her eyesight would take her, all the boxes inside the metro were quiet and hollow. Perhaps someone sat where she couldn’t see, but what she couldn’t see couldn’t hurt her. Since she was a little girl, Noor had been taught to always be alert, always know her surroundings, always be on her guard. ‘This town is unsafe.’ ‘Terrible things happen here to girls who act carelessly.’ And so, day and night, Noor would look over her shoulder, not wear earphones when she was walking, share her location with her friends—do everything to make sure she did not become a statistic. The irony of voluntarily walking herself to the most unsafe area in the city during the most unsafe hour was not lost on her. At all. It was right there, in the thumping of her heart in her ears, in the sweat accumulating on her forehead. 

 

Before she could register what was happening, someone came running inside the Metro, a couple of seconds before the doors were to close. Noor’s panic was about to hit the roof when she first looked at who had entered. She was breathless, clearly having sprinted all the way to catch the metro. A handbag hung from her side, at the verge of being ripped open from its seems because of the amount of things stuffed into it. She wore a long red dress, that had fringes at its end and buttons at its centre. Her hair was in a bun, strands of hair falling to her face and behind her neck. Her hair was the same brown colour as her leather army boots. But her most striking feature was the large, black, shaded tattoo covering her scrawny arms. It was so visible, clearly contrasting her Alabama-snow skin. It was hard to take your eyes off of it. 

 

About five minutes after the Metro started moving and the lady in front of her reverted back to her regular breathing pattern, Noor was still looking at her tattoo. She wasn’t sure if her mouth was open. 

“Well?” she raises her eyebrows towards Noor. 

“Well, what?” Noor immediately snaps back to her surroundings. 

“Well, you can ask me about it instead of just staring at it,” she laughs. For the first time, Noor notices the dimples that dawn her laughter. She likes the sound of this woman laughing. She wished she wouldn’t stop, but she didn’t have the courage to tell her that. 

“It’s a cool tattoo,’ Noor nods. Suddenly, she doesn’t know what to do with her her hands. Normally she would stuff them in her pockets, on the right side of which lies a small but sharp blade, ready for any time she needs to use it to protect herself. She wishes the cool metal was touching her hands now, giving them some purpose. 

“It’s a dragon. Like the girl with the dragon tattoo? I was obsessed with that film when I was young. Merch and everything,” she glances at the tattoo again and then back to Noor, “You have any?” A burst of abrupt laughter left Noor’s mouth then, almost like a snot. “I’m 16. I’m pretty sure my mother would have a stroke if I showed up at my house with tattoos.” A sense of sadness clouds the woman in front of her at the mention of a house. She keeps the bag in the seat behind her and sits next to it. “Who all do you have in your house?” she crosses her arms and then immediately adds, “If you don’t mind me asking, that is.” Noor didn’t mind, even though she felt like she should act like a grown-up here and not share her personal details with someone who could very well be a serial killer. But, she didn’t mind. After all, her family wasn’t all that interesting. “No, it’s okay,” she smiles at the woman, “Mom and Dad. Me and my elder sister, Kiara. And our grandmother. That’s it. How about you?” The sadness overtakes the woman once again, and Noor can’t help but feel she’s pressed a nerve best left untouched. But the moment is short-lived, she returns Noor’s smile and replies, “Mom and Dad, two brothers—both younger—and my aunt. At least, that’s what it was when I last checked. I haven’t gone home in a while.” The woman’s expression is a mixture of longing and anger, her eyes betraying the yearning but her forehead stoic in dissatisfaction. “Why?” Noor naturally wondered. The woman opened her mouth to reply, before abruptly closing it. Then she said, “Wait, didn’t you say you were 16? What are you doing here on your own? I mean, I fully support it. But still, for responsibility’s sake, where are your parents?” Noor sighs. She’s been asking herself the same questions all night. 

 

“My parents are not in the country. They’re usually away, I mean with their work and everything. Kiara’s in college. Grandma’s at home. And I was in the middle of a goddamn existential crisis. So, yeah, here I am.” The woman laughed then, pushing the hair back from her face and behind her ears. “Isn’t 16 a little too early for an existential crisis? I swear you kids are worrying about everything these days. I mean, I’m no one to say shit. Eight years elder than you and in the same position. So yeah. It’s real.” Noor felt an odd sort of comfort at the fact that someone elder than her was as lost and as confused as she is. Maybe she didn’t have to have everything figured out right now. “Lately I’ve just been feeling so…incomplete. Like there’s something more I should be doing but I’m not. Some sort of purpose I’m lacking. I mean, surely, I’m not here to struggle between homework and exams right?” She looked at the woman hopefully, as if she holds all the answers in the world in her mind. “Yeah definitely not, don’t let school fool you,” she waved her hands around as if to dismiss her doubts, “Everyone has, you know, a bigger reason. I don’t necessarily think you need to find it at 16 though. I hadn’t. That’s why I ran away.” Noor’s mouth dropped, to the floor, and flies walked in. “You ran away? From your house? How? Why?”

 

The woman folded her legs beneath each other and stretched out her arms. “There wasn’t a single reason. It was loads of things. I wanted to become a theatre artist, my parents wanted me to become a doctor. I was expected to marry a man, but I was definitely not into men, at all. I felt helpless and clueless and trapped. So I ran away.” She shrugged her shoulders as if it was the easiest thing in the world to run away from everything you’ve ever known. But isn’t it the very same thing Noor is trying to do, at this very moment? Irony, irony. “So like, did you achieve your purpose? Of running away?” Noor curiously questioned her, now leaning in front of her weight, her hands on her knees. The woman shrugged her shoulders again. “Of finding a purpose? Gosh, I don’t know. But of finding freedom? Hell yeah. I’m doing what I want now, on my own terms. I’m living the life I wanted.” The woman smiled now, the glint fully meeting her eyes. Noor imagined running away from here. Of taking a metro and never coming back. Of leaving behind her friends, her family, everything. Her breath hitched at the thought. “Do you regret it?”

“No, I don’t think so. I never had anyone to ever guide me about shit that happens. I didn’t have a single person who I could unburden my heart to. I was suffocating,” as if knowing exactly what Noor was thinking she added, “But I can tell you that it's actually pointless to expect yourself to understand the great ‘why?’ of the world at 16. This is not the time to wonder about the deep, real shit. It isn’t. It’s the time to play, laugh, cry, fight, show, make up, hug, dance, sing, live. It’s normal to have existential crises at 16, because yeah, everyone is constantly expecting you to figure out who you are and why you’re here. But like, screw them. 16 is yours, don’t let them take it away.” Involuntarily, Noor’s hand settled on top of her collarbone, as it often would. A reminder she was still here. She rolled over the woman’s words in her mouth, ‘16 is yours, don’t let them take it away.’ “But that’s easier said than done, right? I mean everyone is out here saying that you should do whatever you want. And that’s not true. There are limitations on everything—what you should wear, how you should speak, how you should look. It’s,” she lets out a breath she didn’t know she was holding, “so frustrating.” The woman looked carefully at Noor. She moved her hands towards where her claw clip was and slowly, pulled it out. As the thick canopy of auburn and brown hair fell to her side, she leaned her head back into the seat. 

 

“If I tell you that you remind me of myself, will that creep you out?” A rigorous nodding of Noor’s head earns her another laugh. “You know, everything needs some sort of order to survive. Trees, plants, humans. Without any sort of order, we’ll just cease to exist. And the way society creates order is by placing boundaries, rules, ‘what’s wrong and what’s right’, that sort of thing,” she enunciates using her hands and shaking her head. “But, just because it exists, doesn’t mean it needs to be followed.” For the first time in their over fifteen-minute journey, Noor sits down on a seat herself, directly opposite the woman. “So like, just break rules? Become unhinged? That’s it?” The woman immediately makes a tut-tut sound and moves her finger to indicate that Noor has gotten it wrong. “No, no. What I mean is, you have to understand for yourself, which rules are worth following,” she continues after seeing the creases flatten out on Noor’s forehead, “and being told what to do with your own body, is a rule definitely worth goddamn breaking.”

 

Her words stayed with Noor long after she could register the return of the automatic voice telling her the doors were opening, long after she realised the metro had stopped and a station had come, long after she noticed the woman getting off. “Hey!” Noor shouted behind her, “What’s your name?”

 

Noor heard an unmistakable, “Kiara” before the doors closed again.

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