Read time: 19 mins

The Khwaja Sira’s Curse

by Salmah Ahmed
26 April 2023

Translated from English to Urdu by Anwar Shahid Khan and Taimoor Shahid

 

‘The Green-Clad Woman dug her heels into the sides of her steed and swung her sword in an arc. With a trained assassin’s precision, the cold point pierced the soldier’s brown chest. “Traitor!” she roared and administered the lethal blow, the intonation of her voice neither male nor female, a genderless God. No one knew her name; no one knew from whence she came every day, riding a horse and wielding a sword with skill. No one has seen her face. She was shrouded in a green robe that covered her from head to toe. And she had the strength of ten men. 

Men and women, roiled and roused by her passionate speeches and fervour for freedom from colonial rule, joined her in droves at the Delhi Gate, fighting the British at the Kashmiri Gate during the Ghadar of 1857. One day she was wounded and fell from her horse. She was caught by the British army. She was never to be seen again. But from that moment in history, she was known as a proud troublemaker and rebel. She shone bright like a million meteors crashing through the sky, and she made a dent. 

Do you understand, Rani? We must never stop fighting for our freedom and dignity.’

This was Ustaad Gulaab’s favourite story. Gulaab was head honcho of Gulaab Mahal, a red brick, two-storey house in the proximity of both a Masjid and a brothel in Nazimabad, Karachi. The juxtaposition between the two worlds was embraced by Gulaab’s family of transgender people. Gulaab claimed she was a descendent of the mysterious green-clad rebel who was a Khwaja Sira, or how else would she have the strength of ten men and disappear and reappear like a magician every day? She also believed that one day a member of her family would change the attitude of those inhospitable to them, and shine like a million meteors.

Rani lay curled in her cot, her arms wrapped around her red soft toy. The shadows of a humid afternoon played on the walls. They presented their matinee of glittering conical mirrors and grainy curtains sashaying along the stained, yellow wall. Ustaad Gulaab had washed excrement with buckets of water mixed with Dettol and detergent, but the stains clung like lizards with their webbed feet. A reminder of the trouble that sometimes lurked outside their walls.

Rani was learning poetry. She was fond of it. It was the balm that caressed her fevered nerves. She wondered how Ghalib, or any other affluent poet with a lucrative royal commission, demonstrated the scars of her soul with such honest clarity.

Hum Wahan Hain Jahan Se Hum Ko Bhi

Kuch Hamari Khabar Nahin Aati

We are at a place from whence

No news reaches us about us.

The soft toy had rough red fur all over its stocky form, with black, beady eyes, black horns and a black snout. It was not the prettiest thing she owned. Her male cousin had flung it at her not as a gift but as an insult. ‘A devil for a devil, hijray.’ He had taunted her with a vicious curl of his lip as he kicked her repeatedly, aiming for her kidneys. She had been punished that day for provoking him into a fight and made to go hungry to bed.

The toy was precious to her for many reasons. It was a lone reminder of her ancestral home with the jasmine plant in the courtyard that attracted snakes. And it reminded her of her cousin. Did she look like the devil? Would she be defined as such in a world that worshipped God-like men and controlled childbearing women? Was she worthless? To say she lived on the periphery of society wasn’t true; a section of that society had stripped her of respectability and individuality, but it still interacted with her on its own terms. Society had splashed her in X-rated paint; it met her in seedy slots of thick, dark night, in the cloak of anonymity where it could unmask its perversions sans moral reservation.

She wished she could boast of Lord Ram’s boon, awarded to her community for waiting for him at the gates of Ayodhya, of conferring sure blessings, but she wielded no such supernatural ability. She was a ragdoll, easily ripped and sewn back together, or a Lego castle, easily destroyed and built up again. It was a good marketing gimmick to propagate the myth of their words being a portent to unimaginable good or bad luck.

A coughing fit clawed at her, dragging her down into Dante’s centre of Hell where Satan grinned at her, and she gasped for air. She wheezed, snatching whiffs of oxygen into her withering airways. The Covid virus, like many former yeast infections, was a professional hazard. Khwaja Siras face discrimination in most employment sectors and often make a living with what they have been trained to: sex work, begging and wedding performances.

This situation turned on its head when in January 2020 the Government Sahibs created debt collector jobs specifically for the Khwaja Sira community to recover outstanding gas and water bills owed to SNGPL (Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited). Rani didn’t know whose brainchild this was, but she agreed it was ingenious. The Government Sahibs knew people feared and shied away from them, uncomfortable to be in the presence of their exuberance and glamour. If they could persuade people into giving them alms, they could surely pressure them into paying outstanding debt.

That chilly morning, when there was smog streaking Karachi’s dilapidated buildings that stood chock-a-block with glass-paned, twenty-storey towers, clinging around the edges of a pink horizon, Gulaab Ustaad, head honcho of Gulaab Mahal, House of Khwaja Siras, rounded up her folks. She stood in the centre of the clay brick courtyard, her gold hoop earring dancing as she worked herself up to a passion. ‘Now, be good girls, and impress the Sahibs. We’re gaining lost ground. We’re this close. We shall reclaim some of our past glory. Before colonial rule, our community commanded powerful official positions during the Mughal empire from the 15th to the 19th centuries as tax collectors until the British colonists slapped the Buggery Act on us in 1864, shunning us from the mainstream, and their local, brown-skinned disciples have continued in their stead as it suits their petty, narrow-minded agendas…’ Gulaab paused for breath, collapsing on her charpai. ‘My health doesn’t permit me to do physical labour such as this, but you mustn’t let me down.’

With these instructions, Rani was on her way. She had worn a new, bright yellow shalwar kameez, with a gold-laced magenta dupatta. She had donned her favourite caramel highlighted wig which fell in curls down her shoulders. She couldn’t help marvelling that she looked almost beautiful, for besides the dress-up, hope was shining through her like the blinding sun. The SNGPL Sahib, Badar Abro, sat in a mustard yellow office, chewing betel leaves, thick glasses blurring his beady eyes, his diminutive form reclining in a large leather chair. Occasionally, he snapped his fingers to spit into a silver bowl his oily-haired peon held up for him.

Rani took a list of defaulters and their addresses from Badar Abro. Her job was to march up to their houses, pester them until they coughed up a percentage of the money or promised they would pay the full amount. She found the job specification a piece of cake. She was used to this.

The registered owner of the first house on her list was a certain Mrs. Tabriz Aziz. The three-storey house reminded Rani of her ancestral home, with sprawling balconies, elliptical arches, money plant twisting around columns and stained-glass windows. She had spent a neglected childhood in it before puberty outed her and she was banished from it. She was surprised to find the gate open. She walked in to find a beautiful front garden with all manner of grand pots and plants. Amidst the panorama of flowering splendour, verdant vibrancy and the glow of dazzling sunlight emerged the most handsome yet grubby man she had ever seen. Her breath stilled for a few minutes, and she was lost in a trance until she saw the man gesture his hands and yell at her. She was used to being turned away with ample malediction, but it stung more from a man whom she found so attractive at first sight. She turned away towards the gate until a hand touched her shoulder.

The young man stood in front of her; she looked at the soil he had deposited on her shoulder. He was still gesturing with his dirty hands, and she tried to focus on his words over the roar of her heartbeat. ‘Look, I know it’s bad luck to evoke the wrath or distress of a Hijra, so please don’t curse me. Take this money; this is all I have. I am a poor gardener; I don’t have more. I left the gate open by mistake, and if my masters find out I let you in, they will throw me out of this job; now please go!’

Rani straightened herself to her full height of five feet, ten inches and gave him an acidic look, although it proved difficult. ‘I am not a beggar. My name is Rani.’ She flashed her newly acquired ID badge in his face. ‘I am here in an official capacity on behalf of SNGPL. Your masters haven’t paid their gas bill, and, judging by this grand house, they don’t seem to be short of money. They owe a total of forty-three thousand, five hundred and twenty-one rupees. Excuse me; I must speak to them in person.’

The young gardener was stunned into silence and retreated, as Rani stormed up to the engraved teak doors that had a splattering of Quranic verses inscribed on them in golden paint. The door was opened by a maid who tried the same tactic as the gardener but was met by the same haughty irreverence and reference to their dues. The maid scampered back into the dark marbled foyer and fetched the lady of the house, a buxom woman whom Rani figured was Mrs. Tabriz Aziz. Her nose was turned up and her eyes shot daggers. ‘Kya masla hai? There have been no weddings or children born in this house recently. Chalo, take this and leave.’ She stretched her arm, keeping her body as far away as possible and waved chubby, fair fingers clutching a few hundred rupees at Rani.

‘Madam, I am not a beggar.’ Rani repeated with stern pride, holding up her badge and the outstanding bill. ‘I am from SNGPL and you owe forty thousand rupees to them. You need to pay up now.’

At this, the woman sprang into a volley of imprecations. Her expression stayed immobile, testimony to a good Botox job, but her skin turned the shade of red and deepened to aubergine. The woman recited Quranic verses, invoking the help of Allah in warding off evil from her house.

Rani was temporarily stupefied. She wasn’t used to confrontation from rich women who were usually embarrassed to interact with Khwaja Siras. When she caught a break in the chain of abuse, she clapped her hands in her signature style, bringing the base of her palms together, and issued a counter-attack replete with profanity. She finished with a caution. ‘You better pay up, or more of my kind will show up at your door to harangue you out of this corrupt paradise you’ve created for yourself.’

On the way out, Rani heard the woman yell a warning about reporting her to the police if she showed up again. Rani wasn’t fazed as she walked out of the tall wrought-iron gates. She knew the Government was behind her and would cover her back. When she was out of the house, she heard someone call her name. Her heart did a backflip as she saw the handsome gardener run up to her. ‘That was very brave of you; Rani, right?’

Rani nodded, smiling, suddenly shy under his benevolent gaze.

‘I am Fahad Khan. I am originally from up north, Kalam; I came to the city six months ago for work. My cousin recommended this job. Where are you from?’

‘Here, Karachi.’ Rani was embarrassed to admit that her ancestral house, though not as grand, was just a few streets away from this posh neighbourhood. Her father would probably be away on a business-cum-pleasure trip, and her mother would be gulping down depression pills, trying to sleepwalk the day with minimum pain. Her five siblings would be busy and satisfied in their lucrative professions and binary sexuality. No one would notice her absence, her memory forgotten like a nightmare.

They started meeting, normally under the shade of jutting rocks bordering a long stretch of Clifton Beach. Rani bared her soul to him. Hidden desires and sorrows made their way out of her like a feverish river crashing down to meet an Edenic lake. Fahad laughed at her jokes and couldn’t comprehend the poetry she made up for him.

He rubbed her hand with tremulous fingers. ‘You are my first real friend in Karachi. I had someone like you back home; his name was Bala; he was also…different.’ A spark of jealousy zapped her heart at the careless comparison. Fahad was surprised to learn her family was rich. ‘Why did they disown you?’

‘They wanted me to pretend manhood. They wanted me to eventually get married and ruin an innocent woman’s life. They wanted me to commit the sin of deception and hypocrisy to maintain their false honour.’

Three months later, the Covid virus had picked up speed and was on a rampage. The government announced a lockdown. The Khwaja Siras employed in credit control jobs were dismissed with a last paltry paycheque. Gulaab Ustaad counted their individual white envelopes stuffed with cash and discovered a cumulative lakh rupee. ‘This won’t see us through an indefinite period of lockdown. Our food, utilities and medical costs are more than this. Dolly has been diagnosed with lung cancer; what will we do about her treatment? We must go back to our normal professional activities.’

The Khwaja Siras flocked the streets, begging at signals once again until they were beaten back by batons held by policemen patrolling the streets. ‘Hai! What are we to do? How will we earn our livelihood?’ Gulaab clapped her hands at the policeman with enough ire and wrath to make the two moustachioed men flinch.

‘Government orders.’ The policemen shouted back from a distance. ‘We’ll have to lock you up in jail if you don’t obey.’

Wedding gatherings were banned, and the only income avenue open for Gulaab Ustaad and her Khwaja Siras was sex work. Many men were willing to sneak into Gulaab Mahal, despite official warnings for social distancing. Dildar, a truck driver, twirled his moustaches as he sipped a Sandal sherbet fifteen-year-old Kajal presented to him, dressed in a silver and purple shalwar kameez, and batting her fake lashes at him. ‘There is no such thing as Covid Shovid, bhai; all this is a foreign conspiracy to crush our economy, as if it needed any more help.’

Gulaab Ustaad didn’t have the luxury to choose her clientele and had no means of testing them for the virus before letting them in. However, she made sure Dolly was kept locked up in a room far away from the visiting men. Gulaab was wary of the competition from the neighbouring brothel, but her rates were much lower and her market niche. ‘Why do some men prefer Khwaja Siras to women for sex?’ Kajal bit into her pillow as Dildar grunted over her. ‘Best of both worlds’, he gasped, ejaculating inside her, sure his seed had drained into a dark, barren pit. ‘Also, social service; how else would your lot survive?’ Kajal was furious.

Two weeks into lockdown, Fahad came to visit Rani at Gulaab Mahal. Rani hated the fact that Gulaab Ustaad charged him the usual rate to spend time with her. Rani liked being with Fahad. That day, she noticed he had a severe cough, but he was anxious to forget about it and bury himself in Rani’s warmth. Rani didn’t complain, but she made sure he had some cough medicine before he left her bed. A few days later, Rani was running a high fever, and a few other Khwaja Siras had caught the virus. Gulaab Ustaad took them to the biggest hospital in the city. The hospital staff kicked them out, telling them they didn’t have any spare beds. ‘What will we do? Tell us what to do?’ Gulaab pleaded with the stern receptionist and uniformed guards who were pushing them out of the hospital premises.

‘Pray for a miracle. That is supposed to be your unique selling point; you say there’s power in your prayers, right?’ The nurse retorted and turned her head away to answer the ringing phone.

Three Khwaja Siras died of Covid within two months. Dolly couldn’t survive either, even though she was on chemotherapy. Rani battled the virus, spitting and sputtering but stubbornly clinging on to life. She wanted to see Fahad one last time before she died. She knew there was a purpose to her life. Ustaad Gulaab had repeatedly told her so. She was meant to fight and create ripples in the established order.

She developed a brain fog and delirium. Kajal spoon-fed her lentil soup and bread, the only food they could afford. Eventually, her fever broke in a sweat. She limped to the door to call for Gulaab Ustaad, whom she hadn’t seen in days. Kajal rushed to her side to deliver the bad news. Gulaab Ustaad had passed away. She had been run over by a speeding truck on her way to the grocery store. Rani collapsed on the floor and sat on the clay tiles for an eternity, shedding silent tears. Khwaja Siras flocked around her, embracing her. ‘You’re the oldest and most educated amongst us.’ Ruby told her. ‘You must become our Ustaad now. Our house should be called Rani Nagar.’ Everyone agreed and cheered for Rani to become their next Ustaad.

‘Where did you bury Gulaab Ustaad?’ But she knew the answer. A nondescript graveyard nearby with rubbish lining its boundary. She remembered when Gulaab had turned up like a blessing at her family’s front door, laying claim to her, and her family had happily given her up. She wondered if her father had called Gulaab to take her away. ‘You are amongst your own now. Your tribe will never abandon or hurt you. We have your back.’ Gulaab Ustaad had told her. Rani felt accepted for who she was which had been an impossibility in her thirteen-year-old life.

Rani delayed her visit to her mentor’s grave, and as soon as she had enough strength in her body, she dressed up in a black shalwar kameez, wrapped a Sindhi Ajrak shawl around her neck, and travelled to the SNGPL offices. Finding no security on the premises, Rani walked into the building undeterred. Badar Abro was about to dig into his chicken biryani when he looked up to see Rani standing over him, like the angel of death.

‘Who let you in? Out, out; you know the lockdown rules.’ Badar stammered, jabbing at his desk bell with his greasy index finger. The reduced staff in offices due to Covid restrictions had caused greater lethargy, slacking and incompetence amongst his staff members, who took long lunch breaks and disappeared for hours on end.

‘I want my job back, Abro Sahib.’ Rani stood her ground, looking him squarely in the eye. ‘I need a stamped, signed letter from you making my credit controller role permanent. You know I was good at it. I recovered all your outstanding debt within the few months you employed me. I recovered a million rupees for you without so much as a thanks, forget a commission.’

‘Commission? Thanks?’ Badar threw his head back and laughed. ‘You know your job was an experiment; come on! It was never supposed to be permanent.’

‘Well, that is up to you to change.’

‘No, it isn’t, and even if it was, why would I hire your lot when there are thousands of unemployed, educated men in the city?’

‘Because we are a part of your city too; we are amongst you; we belong to this land. See this Ajrak?’ Rani clutched the maroon and blue block-printed shawl in her fist and held it up over his desk. ‘This belongs to my father. My original birth name was Mohammad Rana Soomro. I am Sindhi, just like you, but my misfortune rests in my biology. The biology that I cannot control and is no fault of my own. You say Inshallah at the drop of a hat, submitting everything to Allah’s will, but you discard His will when it comes to us? You discriminate against us based on this body that Allah has given us. How will you justify this transgression on the Day of Judgment? Why are the only three professions open to us that of prostitution, dancing at weddings and beggary?’

‘If you belong to an affluent Sindhi family, your family should have made sure you got surgery done to transform you into a real woman or a real man.’

‘Real?’ The roar that emanated from Rani caused Badar to cower in his seat.

A rage unlike Rani had ever known took hold of her. Her derangement was part grief and part desperation. A volcano of burning, pernicious words gushed out of her mouth. She bent her torso forward and placed her palms on his desk.

‘Look at me. Am I not real enough for you? Am I an apparition? You pathetic, ignorant man! A medical or surgical procedure cannot “cure” me of my Khwaja Sira identity as if they’re germs to be wiped by a dab of Dettol, just like a vaccination cannot cure Covid; it can only mitigate its effects. My identity is writ in my blood, my DNA; how much will you prick and prod me into your perfect model of a man or a woman, and even if you try, I will still not turn into a perfect Her or Him. I will still be an aberration to your lot. I will still be an anomaly to you. But Allah created me just how I am.

Woe upon you and your city where we are stripped of our dignity and are hounded into corners and crevices like rodents. You will now bear the curse of our kind. The same natural resources that you attempt to harness in your arrogance will rise against you. You and your western overlords have treated the climate like you’ve treated the Khwaja Siras. You’ve used and abused us on your own terms and relegated us to an afterthought for eons. Now, you shall bear the consequences of your actions.’

Beyond the haze of anger blazing in her eyes, she caught a glimpse of terror in Badar Abro’s face, and it gave her some satisfaction. She turned on her heel and walked out of the building to find the sky turning dark and winds picking up speed. She cursed her luck for the umpteenth time. She had resorted to the only weapons in her harmless repertoire, wordplay and scaremongering. Her lean figure battled fierce winds as she headed back home through partially empty streets. On the opposite side of the street, she saw Fahad in an open-air street restaurant. Fahad was sitting on the bench next to a woman clad in a burqa holding a baby in her arms. The woman turned around, eating her chicken burger, a smile playing on her pretty young face. Fahad placed an arm around her shoulders. She blushed and pushed his arm away. He took the baby boy from her and kissed him, the pride of paternal love shining in his face. Rani felt something salient crack within her.

She dragged her feet down the littered street to her sole sanctuary, Gulaab Mahal, which had transformed into Rani Nagar. Kiran greeted her with a barrage of questions at the door, but she remained mute. She walked into her room and closed the door. Winds lashed against the windows and walls of the old house and the reporters on TV transformed into frantic purveyors of doom. A category-five tropical cyclone, named Cyclone Sena, had been detected in the Arabian Sea, and Karachi was on its annihilative path. Rains and winds of 150 kilometres per hour struck the city with incessant ferocity. Five fishing boats were swallowed up in the Gwadar Port. Machar colony, Lath Basti and Mubarak village, hosting a million slum dwellers along the coastline, were submerged and destroyed. The diminishing mangrove forest along the coastline provided poor defence. Billboards were ripped apart and flung in the powerful winds, smashing into glass panes of high-rise buildings. Electricity wires were dislodged and submerged in the flooded roads. Electrocution became one of the many causes of death resulting from the cyclone. Three hundred people lost their lives, and two hundred were injured. The mosque and the brothel on either side of Rani Nagar suffered severe structural damage. Rani Nagar remained untouched.

On the third day of the cyclonic rampage, Badar Abro banged on the half-broken front door of Rani Nagar and requested an audience with Rani. Rani received him in the courtyard, seated on Gulaab Ustaad’s former charpai. Badar Abro’s sparse hair was askew, his eyes swollen, his forehead dripping with sweat and his shirt creased.  ‘My house has been flooded, and the roof caved in. Despite my instruction, my teenage son took his motorbike out and suffered an accident. He is in hospital with a broken ribcage. I know you are behind all this.’ Badar collapsed on the chair placed for him in front of Rani. He joined his hands in a gesture of servility and prayer. ‘Please, I beg you; lift your curse.’

‘Abro Sahib, please calm down.’ Rani paused to take a dainty sip from her tea. ‘I didn’t take you for the superstitious sort; I may have got carried away that day in your office and essayed a diatribe, but surely you don’t believe I have the demonic power to conjure up a category-five cyclone?’

Badar Abro was stupefied into silence and looked around him at the group of Khwaja Siras surrounding him with bemused expressions.

Rani continued in a matter-of-fact tone. ‘But, if you want to atone for your past misdeeds, who am I to stop you?’

Badar leapt forward. ‘Yes, see here.’ He presented her with a stamped and signed official job offer letter. ‘Just as you wanted. I give you your job back. We can set up remote access for you through a cell phone and a laptop during lockdown. You can do admin work for us. We will give you proper training.’

Rani shook her head. Rain still whipped the outer walls, and puddles formed in the courtyard from the leaking roof.

‘You can’t imagine how difficult it was for me to reach you in this storm. Please don’t send me back without a favourable response.’

Rani placed her cup down. ‘I need you to offer the same job to all my sisters here.’

‘But…I will need the approval of my seniors for this.’

Rani raised herself and turned towards her room. ‘It was nice meeting you. Please close the door behind you on your way out.’

‘Fine, fine. All of you get your jobs back.’

Special thanks to Good Thinkers Pakistan for editing this piece

About the Author

Salmah Ahmed

Salmah Ahmed is an accountant living in London. She oscillates between her two great loves—her mischievous daughter and creative writing. She’s taken a fiction writing course from Faber Academy and is working on her first novel. Her work has been published in TMYS June 2022 Review, a print anthology by the literary magazine Tell Me […]

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