The basant party is the first event Khalida attends as a wife. As a mistress, daytime invitations were seldom extended to her. She dimly recalls childhood basants in Lahore: rooftops and rainbow-coloured kites, and, if she really concentrates, the faint memory of her mother’s cardamom-scented breath on her shredded fingers, always raw and bloody by the end of the day from the glass-coated kite string. She runs a finger down the noble ridge of Shahid’s profile, imagining this is the first piece in the bright tapestry of the rest of their lives.
‘Are the kites ready, Sadia?’ he murmurs, half asleep. Khalida pulls her hand away as though she has been burned. In all those backseats and borrowed bedrooms, he never once called her by his ex-wife’s name. In their marital bed, he has begun slipping with alarming regularity.
She cannot bring herself to rouse him, so she scours the Facebook page dedicated to the event. A familiar dread settles densely in her belly as she scrolls over pictures of fanciful kites created by other wives in other years. Suddenly all that education and all those long hours in the office feel like a waste. Where do kites even come from? The paraphernalia of childhood grew strange to her after her mother’s death, and if indeed she ever knew, she certainly does not now.
Downstairs, the driver eyes her warily over his newspaper. He takes a long drag of his cigarette and tells her if he weren’t so busy, he’d take her to Itwar bazaar. Taking this for the challenge it is, she sets forth into the fog with grand plans and general directions.
The expressways prove broad and alarming as ever, apportioning the city of her birth into bafflingly inaccessible segments. She is soon caught in a seemingly endless cycle of U-turns. The fog buoys her along until she loses sight of the Margallas. It occurs to her that she possesses a false confidence from having lived all her life in a city where the blue constancy of the hills makes it impossible to get lost: a conviction that, no matter what, she will somehow, ultimately, find her way.
Somewhere along the backstreets of Rawalpindi she secures her kites, a pot of paste and a stack of colourful crepe. She also ends up with a kilo of kinnos, a flimsy bubble gun and several packets of tissues purchased at extortionate rates in exchange for unsound directions.
It is after two by the time she finds her way back. Shahid and his mother are just finishing their breakfasts. They’re not interested in her small and shrivelled oranges, thank you.
‘Didn’t make it to the parlour, did we, darling?’ her husband asks, raising an eyebrow.
She fluffs her windblown hair facetiously. His mother turns around just in time to catch the final flounce. ‘Khalida, it seems, has not yet adapted to the routes of her new life,’ she says.
Khalida flees, the chlorine-burn behind her eyes threatening an indignity she will not allow herself. The handles of the carrier bags tangle around her wrists. She stumbles slightly, clattering into the picture frames that line the stairwell. She thought she had exorcised Sadia from the family gallery, but there she is lurking behind a bride. In her periwinkle lengha, she looks every bit the ice queen Shahid claims she was: room enough in the frozen chambers of her heart only for their child. It feels like a benediction that the boy isn’t pictured. Even from a photograph, his gaze slithers into her and scrambles her insides.
Her mother-in-law’s silvery laughter filters through from the dining room. Khalida loses her grip on the parcels, ripping one of the kites. The lead brick that is her diaphragm seizes, and the simple act of allowing air into her lungs is suddenly impossible. She rests her head on her knees trying to turn off her mind. Uncooperative as ever, it takes her back to a rainy afternoon spent crafting tissue blooms with her sister. It was while her mother was still in the hospital, so she couldn’t have been more than six. How difficult can it be?
As with so many aspects of childhood, she finds the details are now foreign to her. The paste dissolves the crepe, and she’s soon left with sodden, sticky clumps quite unlike the delicate blossoms she’s no longer certain she remembers. She abandons the project and goes inside to dress. The white chikankari suit from her bari will set off mother’s Kashmiri shawl perfectly. Shahid doesn’t even notice the kites when he sees her. He filches a flower from the vase on the sideboard and tucks it behind her ear. His mother scrubs furiously at the crossword with an eraser.
At the party, Shahid leaps out to open her door for her—something he hasn’t done since their wedding. Khalida smiles to herself despite the ruined kites. The fog has cleared, and it is a gorgeous February day. She’s out with Shahid—her husband—for all the world to see. Music and laughter surround them. The smell of wonderful things to eat fills the air. She skips a little, not noticing her shawl has caught in the car door. It tears with a great rending sound and flutters into a puddle.
‘It’s all right,’ says Shahid, noting her stricken expression. ‘The jorah is perfect without it.’
But it isn’t. The other women are as bright as their kites in their designer silks. They stalk the roof in stilettos, their crepe masterworks setting off their manicured nails. With her sticky, paper-speckled hands, Khalida wonders if she’s cut out for wifedom. She was a magnificent mistress: accommodating, discreet, hopelessly in love. How could she not be with the inevitability of their parting implicit in every instant? It occurs to her that was perhaps what made their love profound.
When they set their unsightly kites aloft, the wind quickly shreds them to confetti. Her laughter is hollow thunder in the rain of scraps. She tries to be merry and bright and married and right and when she blinks, she is back in the car.
A short while later, Shahid returns from a business trip with an elaborately embossed box. She opens it to find a pair of towering sandals with a cuff like a manacle around the ankle. The next time she is invited out, she straps them on and leaves early enough to stop at the salon. On impulse, she takes a U-turn past the Women’s Day march just gathering steam behind the press club. Last year, she and her colleagues revelled in the acerbity of their placards, but today she’s already late. She makes another U-turn and continues on, wondering at what point you become the person you’ve spent almost forever pretending to be.
Lunch is a perfectly formed pastiche of Pinterest posts, YouTube tutorials and Instagrammable angles. Khalida makes the mistake of ordering a steak and eating it, each bite more impossible to swallow. She never does recollect the details of the afternoon, only the distinct impression that it was like being trapped in a room full of honeybees with sweetened stingers.
She doesn’t remember driving home. When she gets there, she is startled to find her nails are blue. She scrubs the offending hue away hoping Shahid won’t notice the crust of sedition around the cuticles. Later, when she tells him about her day, he gives her now-pink nails a cursory glance and says, ‘I certainly hope you didn’t tip.’ With trembling hands, she repaints them for a third time, forgetting she’s due downstairs to prepare her father-in-law’s snack. Not long after the wedding, he found her making a batch of anything pakoras after yet another dinner party at which she’d been too nervous to eat. He watched dubiously as she stirred green chillies, tomatoes and cheese into the batter but pronounced the resulting fritters delicious. The small validation that came of his daily desire to taste them again is quickly growing tedious.
‘Exquisite,’ he pronounces, gesturing for her to offer the plate around. She curls her fingers like claws around the bone china to hide her ruined nails. He beams at her, and his approval is as irksome, itchy and heavy as the shawl that maybe she never really liked anyway, as the pakoras that maybe always were this impossibly greasy and dense. Still, they’re her pakoras—born of her childhood lonesomeness. Shahid’s father can’t know that anything pakoras were invented after her mother died and her sister moved away and her father was hiding his own illness. He wasn’t there the first time she mixed whatever she could find into batter and braved the fryer. She feels like a thing held together by a fine layer of paste, the pieces straining to hold together in the wind. She wakes up on the sofa, the guests milling about her.
‘…had this issue when I was expecting,’ she hears her mother-in-law murmuring.
‘…heard she just got up and left at lunch today…’
‘…low blood pressure, maybe. Best you get her checked…’
Khalida pushes through the blur of concern. Shahid didn’t marry her for the reason they imagine. Shahid barely touches her now that morality allows it. She imagines another impossibility, nubile in her illicitness. She imagines they’ve given her a disease: something unmentionable that will slowly sap her of her strength. Sometimes she wakes up in the morning to find the sheets are soaked.
‘Well, what do you expect?’ says her sister. ‘The whole time you two were playing Sassi Pannu, he had a wife.’ Khalida feels as though she’s fallen from a great height: all the air exiting her body in an instant. Her sister’s sigh is audible even over the children’s shrieking. ‘Go to the doctor if you’re worried,’ she says.
Khalida can’t quite bring herself to admit that it seemed only logical to surrender her personal bank account for the shared one into which Shahid deposits a sizeable monthly sum and into which the family accountant regularly pokes his sizeable proboscis, so she simply hangs up without saying goodbye.
Ramzan arrives with blistering tedium: the long, listless days an endless parade of sunset samosas and socialising. Shortly before Eid, Khalida finally receives her last paycheque. She makes an appointment with the city’s most renowned gynaecologist, who eyes her disapprovingly and tells her the holy month is an auspicious time for conception. Dismissed unexamined, she finds herself in her mother-in-law’s favourite market where she blindly fills a basket. Her mother-in-law regards the sugared cereal as though it confirms all her worst suspicions and remarks, ‘If you wanted something, you should’ve told the cook. There’s no need for you to be out buying sauda.’
From then on, whenever she wants to go out, she’s sent with the driver. Though the backseat of the Mercedes is admittedly far more comfortable than her second-hand Suzuki, she finds it impossible to breathe behind the tinted windows.
She calls her sister to apologise, but they can’t hear each other over the children. She goes to see her father, who is older than she remembers from the week before. He is eating dry toast with marmite, and she resents more than ever the anything pakoras on bone china.
‘There’s something I have to tell you,’ he says.
But he doesn’t have to tell her. She sees it in the slump of his shoulders, the dark smudges beneath his eyes: it’s back. With a sigh, he tells her she should go back to work, and because she can’t bear to burden him more, she doesn’t tell him she quit because being asked to quit would’ve been infinitely worse.
Outside, she finds the driver has deserted her. She walks home through an andhi, the sharp spatter of rain making the dust delicious. She gorges herself on the cool air, filling her lungs for the first time in months. Autumn is the most melancholy season, but how beautiful it is to watch things die.
She returns home with the storm inside her and broaches the subject of a job. Shahid tickles her into shrieks of laughter, asking what she wants: a bag, a shawl, a shopping spree? Perfume, new shoes, a car? He goes on listing objects that have never borne any relation to who she is until she wriggles out of his grasp to remind him that when he first sought her out, it was for her legal skills.
‘I thought you realised there were certain sacrifices we would both have to make for this relationship,’ he says.
The ground sways beneath her. It occurs to her that the entire branch attended their wedding not because she was popular but because Shahid is the CEO. It occurs to her that she will never work again unless it is because someone is doing him a favour. Shahid flicks on the television and tells her she can spend more time getting to know her stepson if she’s so bored.
The boy has been turning up with unsettling frequency now that Sadia’s gone back to work. He is a sickly, spindly child who regards Khalida with warranted mistrust. Small creatures always sense it when adults are out of tune with innocence. She imagines what children want is freedom, just like everybody else. She lets him gorge himself on ice cream and watch cartoons until his eyes cross. She takes him to the garden where they dig up the flowerbeds with glee that borders on maniacal. He looks up at the loquat tree, almost smiling, and she nods.
‘With children,’ the doctor reassures her, ‘wounds often bleed a lot even when they’re superficial.’
Gynaecology is next to paediatrics. She hands the boy her phone to play with, trying to ignore how well the battered child bolsters her credibility. They both return home with Band-Aids. The child’s receives inevitable attention, but Khalida imagines hers will go unnoticed. It does not occur to her until it is much too late that the phone number associated with the address she wrote down is the landline. A computerised voice delivers her test results to the entire extended family. Clear—but is she really?
She is forbidden from interacting with the boy, so she slips him fantastical fictions when his nanny isn’t looking. She confines her own wanderings to the internet, learning how to apply a smoky eye, how to bake, how to differentiate between designer and fake. Her mother-in-law hosts a tea, and she dresses carefully, applying a subtle smoky eye. She spends the morning recreating Bruce Bogtrotter’s chocolate cake, returning to her room with just enough time to swap her khusas for the manacles. It’s only aunties in a drawing room, but she figures it’s best to be overdressed.
It’s only aunties in a drawing room, but she has chocolate on her kameez, and, on theirs, bougainvillea erupt from birdcages in patterns that would make the Mad Hatter dizzy. Her mother-in-law’s fury burns bright, obscuring the details of the occasion. Only the boy eats cake.
Shahid sighs and hands her three months’ allowance, telling her to see she has something to wear. She asks the driver to take her to Centaurus, where the great glass shell provides some protection from his scrutiny. She buys the most expensive looking cheap things she can find and spends the rest on box sets: The Chronicles of Narnia, The Faraway Tree and His Dark Materials.
In Al-Fatah, she spies a scrap of lace peeking out beneath the scarves. The hijab-wearing counter girl’s sly wink feels like hope, and she buys it, although by now she’s lost so much weight, she’ll barely fill it out.
Cold and clammy in its itchy embrace, she disrobes for Shahid by candlelight. He is appalled that she’s bought such a thing in public and doesn’t speak to her for weeks. Before long, she’s too busy to notice.
This time, the sickness comes in a great rush for her father. His daughters settled and his wife gone, he sees no reason to hold on. The days they spend in the hospital are interminable, the excruciating boredom of it all reducing them to the sum of their very worst faults. If there is beauty to it, none of them can see it. Too soon, it is over. Her taveez heavy around her wrist, Khalida feels her decisions calcifying around her, fencing her in along the path they’ve designated.
A colourful envelope peeking out of the morning mail suggests a temporary reprieve from the sinking impossibility of her existence. Khalida throws herself into preparations for basant. When no one’s watching, the boy helps her with her kite: a golden phoenix with elaborate plumage. The tail alone weighs almost a pound. She spends an entire month’s allowance on an angharka by a famous designer. The delicious tinkling of the little bells adorning the scores of candy-coloured ties makes it seem worth the price. When Shahid hears her coming, he longs for Sadia’s stony silence. Addressing her brightly polished toenails, he tells her he has to work.
Longing leaks like acid down her sinuses. She waits until he leaves and sets off in her old Suzuki. The seats reek of body odour and bhengan now, but she puts down the windows, and the exhaust fumes smell like freedom. At the stoplight across from the park, the discordant sound of instruments being tuned drowns out the radio. She dimly remembers the invitation on Facebook, shared by one of the few colleagues who still tags her in such things. She watches as people she might’ve been run and whoop, laughing as their kites collide. At the gate, she finds herself turning into the parking lot. She drives around half-looking for parking, and, of course, there is none. With a brisk nod, she continues on. When she gets to the U-turn, she finds it has been co-opted as a parking lot. Abandoning her Suzuki at the intersection, she dashes across the street, ripping the heavy tail from her kite and setting it skyward.
When she hasn’t returned by sundown, the boy begins to fuss. He kicks and screams and throws his books until a search party is sent out. Although they scour the park from end to end, all they ever find is a cast-off kite tail and a crumpled angharka, its many ties undone.
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