Islamic Fiction Contest Winner - 2010
By: Zainab Ahmad
She didn’t know her name or anything else about her. But did it even matter? Would her life mean more or would it mean less if I knew the real details? Rani asked herself. And in a tragedy like this was it even possible for a person to ever take stock of the losses that had happened? All Rani knew was that she had found the little charred hand in her own yard and when she had picked it up, trembling and shaking, it had felt like more than just a hand of one of the many, many, unfortunate souls killed every day in the terrible blasts; it felt like she had touched the hand of someone she had always known but had never met, like the hand of her own child, the one she never had.
The explosion had shaken the entire neighborhood at the busiest time of the day. Rani was glad that Raju had been away even though she had been worrying about him the whole time he was gone, a cold flutter of fear heaving in her stomach, making it unable for her to eat more than a few bites at a time. And then what she had been afraid of for so long, happened, right in front of their door in the tiny bustling Fareed bazaar. To Rani it seemed as if it all took a minute and no more. A minute and all those lives were ended, just as the universe may have started, with a big bang that seemed to echo in her ears forever.
Rani had taken the hand into her home with her. It had seemed the thing to do. She had hidden it in her green striped shawl, as if she were stealing a chicken from the Chohan Chicken centre on the far side of the bazaar, and hurried inside. Once she was inside she locked the door and went to the tiny windowless store room. There, after carefully closing the door, she unwrapped the hand from her shawl on top of the old silver trunk and looked at it carefully. Yes, it was the hand of a tiny girl, she was sure of that. The wrist was badly charred but the fingers looked pink and clean in spite of … of everything, she mused. The upper half of the wrist had faint henna marks on it and the tiny fingers were chubby and curled. Rani looked at the hand for a few minutes, as if it were a sacred priceless artifact and then, overcome by some emotion she couldn’t name, she wrapped the hand in a clean, white, embroidered hanky and ran to the fridge to put it inside.
She did not look at the hand for the rest of the day, but it did not leave her mind for even a single moment. Raju called from Jhelum and Rani was so glad to hear his voice. She felt that she could talk to him, tell him about the child she had found, the child they never had, the little girl they had always wanted. But she did not know how to start, what words to use. She knew that Raju had wanted a girl too, even though men usually wanted sons. She often laughed at her own thoughts, knowing that when twelve years had passed in waiting and wanting a child every single day, boy or girl did not matter in the least.
Rani passed the day in a daze, answering the phone, telling concerned callers that she was fine, though rather shaken, two windows had been cracked in the blast, but the dishes had amazingly all survived, of course she was not leaving the house till it was safe, the police had not come to her door, there was a huge mess outside and she had not cleaned up anything yet. She talked as if she were in a dream, her thoughts all about the little girl, wanting to shout out with tears and laughter at the end of each call, “I found her, I found our baby girl, she came at last, even though …”
Raju was supposed to come the next day, but he called at night to say he would have to stay for another day or so. Rani was disappointed because she at times she felt that she could explain to Raju, that he would understand about the little girl, feel the same mixture of strange joy and sadness that she was feeling. But she would just have to wait. If she had not found the hand she would have fretted about each extra day that Raju had to stay with his parents, terrified that they would be scheming, plotting, convincing him to marry again in the hope of having children. She knew Raju did not want to get a second wife and he often consoled her, promising to remain true to her. Yet recently Rani had noticed he had been distracted, absent, as if he looked at her, yet saw someone else.
Rani had always loved children and children had always loved her. Children would leave their mothers without as much as a backward glance when she beckoned them with open arms. They would forget to cry as long as they were with Rani, mesmerized by her talking, her finger plays, rhymes and songs. She was very popular when she visited her parents or Raju’s, for all the mothers knew they needed not bother about their children as long as Rani was around. They did not know that Rani was pierced by their comments even as she was placating her lonely heart with their children.
“Poor girl, may Allah give her a child of her own, how horrible to have an empty lap … barren … no purpose in life … poor Raju, putting up with her for so long.”
Rani always stepped up her games with the kids whenever she heard such comments, singing and clapping as if she had not heard anything and was above such comments. But inside, her heart heaved and ached with a pain which often made her gasp for breath.
But now the pain, the ache, the grasping of her womb for a child was suddenly soothed. She spent the day absentmindedly busy with her chores, pausing only a couple times before the fridge, to open it and peek inside at the small bundle of white cloth stained with red. All day as Rani cleaned her home, cooked daal-chawal and sewed, the little girl took birth and grew before her very eyes. Her name was Aliya, a name that Rani felt was fit for a queen. She had been born normally and opened her eyes immediately after birth, crying vigorously to announce her brief presence in this strange world. Her first outfit was a white home-sewn dress of soft washed cotton with pink roses, made with stitches of love. Aliya fed at her breast every two hours and Rani knew her milk was what kept her precious baby content. Even the tiny whimpering cries felt like music to her ears, for she knew how to comfort her little darling. Aliya smiled whenever she saw Rani and clung to her all the time, yet Rani never tired of the embrace, and she wore Aliya snug and close to her heart in a shawl tied as a sling when she did her daily work around the house. Aliya had sat and crawled and walked before Rani had time to enjoy that helpless babyhood enough, the sense of time racing past her, making each moment all the more precious, memorable. Aliya liked mashed bananas the most, but she also enjoyed the kheer pudding Rani cooked specially for her as well as the rice made in chicken broth.
By nightfall Aliya was as real a child as the one who had graced her womb for four months before leaving forever. Rani scarcely knew how the night had passed in dreaming, thinking, planning. She did not even notice that Raju had not called. Deep down she sensed that something had happened, that Raju was no part of this strange daughter that had graced her life and taken it over. But what she had was too precious to examine, for she feared that it might disappear.
She must have fallen into a deep sleep some time before dawn, when the call for the Fajr prayer echoed out from every corner of the sleepy city and seemed to fill the small home. Rani jerked awake and stumbled to the fridge, her mind half numb, and then as she stood before the open door it suddenly hit her. There wrapped in the white cloth was the hand of the little girl she had called Aliya, the baby she had given birth to in her soul, who had been destroyed by someone’s hatred. She was dead, torn to pieces.
Tears streamed down Rani’s face and the sudden realization of loss was so sharp that she fell to the kitchen floor. There was no one to comfort her, to tell her that the little soul was in heavenly bliss away from all grief, harm, pain, sorrow. The kitchen floor was her prayer mat that morning as she sobbed her heart out to Allah, feeling so close to Him yet so alone.
By late morning there was a tiny mound of dirt in the corner of the untidy yard, just by the lemon plant that was still strewn with debris from yesterday’s blast. There were some flower petals carefully arranged over the grave and it seemed to have been watered. Rani had cried her final tears as she carved the words “Aliya” with a shaking hand in the wet mud. Having cried her fill, she felt somehow stronger, as if she realized that death was not the end. Death was not only sorrow, but also a passing, the trusting of a soul to the care of God, her beloved Allah, with the hope to meet again. Death had some comfort for the believer.>
She was making herself a cup of tea when she heard the door being unlocked. Raju had come home. Rani did not rush to greet him, feeling as if everything was different now, yet not knowing why. She knew the minute she smelt the fragrance. Someone was with Raju, someone covered in a shiny red shawl, peeking out with large black eyes, eyes that reflected the innocence of childhood, smiling fearfully. Raju smiled weakly at Rani.
“This is … Aliya …um, she … she’s the new bride.”
Rani thought she had lost everything this morning. For a few moments she could only stare with empty eyes. Yet, after a while, the hint of a small, sad smile came to her lips as she repeated softly, “Aliya … Aliya.”