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Dark kohl-rimmed eyes peered out from beneath the elaborate red veil draped over her head. They held an interesting mix of nervousness with a touch of brazen curiosity as they moved about the dark stuffy room.
It was the monsoon season and moisture hung hot and heavy in the air. Dark grey clouds had eclipsed the sky, providing relief from the blazing intensity of the sun, but also suffocating people in their embrace. Parsa sat on top of an ancient rickety bed that groaned and creaked with every small move she made. The mattress was lumpy and almost as old as the bed itself if not more provided little in the way of comfort.
Dull noise filtered in from outside the room. The constant banging of pots, pans and giant black cauldrons, the clatter of plates and glasses specially borrowed for the occasion. The constant railing, ranting, chattering between everyone outside that held an undercurrent of urgency. The urgency for what she couldn’t tell, but it must be something important for all her family and neighborhood to have come together. She could also hear the boisterous shrieks and cheery -mischief laden laughter of children as they played outside. Her playmates, playing outside without her.
A scowl formed on her face-how could they begin without her? Jealousy born out of childlike innocence bubbled inside her as she imagined them running after each other, playing games she wasn’t included in. She wondered what game they were currently playing, were they playing pithoo garam? or baraf pani? or maybe they were just racing each other? She wanted to go outside and see, but couldn’t. Her mother had given her strict instructions, not to come out of the room.
Sitting in miserable silence and excruciating boredom, she brooded over how everyone else was having so much fun and she was made to sit here in this wretched room. But she didn’t dare step a foot outside the room. Not only would her mother be extremely displeased, she also didn’t want to get any dirt or wrinkles on her beautiful dress.
For a moment, her attention shifted from her despondent thoughts to what she had been dressed in just that morning. She had been dragged out of bed even before dawn had breached the dark sky and had been meticulously washed and scrubbed by her mother and sister and then dressed in the most beautiful red dress she had ever seen. Her hair had been combed straight and into a tight neat braid that pulled at her scalp, but her sister refused to let her loosen it. Her tiny wrists were adorned with red bangles that she couldn’t resist playing with – the cheery ‘ chan chan’ sound they made with every tilt and flick of her wrist. Her soft palms were decorated with intricate deep red patterns of flowers and paisleys, and other abstract designs surrounding a fiery sun right in the middle of her palms. Her fingertips looked as if she had just dipped them in scarlet ink, the henna coming on strong and deep onto her hands. Her mother and sister had laughed sharing mischievous complicit glances at each other as if sharing a private joke between them.
She smiled as she looked down at herself, the dress was a poor imitation of silk, cheap and shiny that crinkled with every move she made. It was adorned with gota– a golden triangular lace that outlined the hem and edges of her shirt and dupatta. It was the most beautiful and luxurious thing she had ever worn, and she was so proud of it – feeling like a princess in those old folklore tales her mother used to tell her as she drifted off into a deep slumber. She couldn’t wait to show it to Afreen, Saadia and all of the other friends.
Suddenly, the noise outside the increased. It seemed as if more people had arrived. Why were there so many people coming? Was there a dawaat (party) outside? If so, then why wasn’t she invited? Her stomach growled as the smell of freshly baked naan (bread) and the spicy roasted lamb wafted into the room, slipping through the small cracks in the old beaten down the door. She hadn’t eaten anything since the night before, her protests and demands for sustenance rebuked and ignored amidst the primping and propping.
Her back had started to ache, from sitting so long in one position, and she was tired; her body feeling lethargic. She scooted back onto the bed, taking care not to wrinkle the pristine condition of her dress, all the way to the furthest end that was nearest to the wall. Resting against her back and head against it, she breathed a sigh of relief, as her back and neck relaxed at the support. Her eyes drooped, and her head lolled to one side, and the room soon echoed with her small innocent snores.
A sharp gasp pierced through the heavy cloud of silence that had settled over the room. Wrenched out of the heady embrace of a restful slumber , with a ruthless jerk , her glazed gaze ran rampantly around the room, trying to make sense of the scene playing around her , they remained as confused as ever , however was it because of the sleep still riding her senses or her childhood naivety one couldn’t tell. At least ten people stood around the bed, everyone’s gaze focused intently on her. Some were people she knew like her uncles and aunts and some she didn’t. Blinking, she tried to focus her muddled gaze, shaking her head slightly to fight off the impending haze, she realized someone was asking her something.
The voice came from the other side of a glittering red veil that was drawn between the man and the edge of the bed – held on from either side by two of her uncle’s one paternal and the other maternal. Another sharp yank on her arm, meant to straighten her into a sitting position, finally managed to fully wake her. A small bony hand, clutched her arm, the deeply tanned and withered skin belying the troubled years bygone. Looking up she saw her aunt’s wrinkled and equally withered face intent on hers. Her dull age ridden eyes prodding her to do something. However, Parsa just stared back uncomprehending of the silent message being directed towards her. Impatience, now glittered in her aunt’s eyes, as she prompted her, “Say, yes Parsa.”. So she did- mechanically – three times.
She had always been afraid of Perveen Phuppo, her father’s eldest sister -the family matriarch after her grandmother passed away- she could be ruthless with her punishments for even the most infinitesimal slights, so naturally, she didn’t want to incur her wrath by dissenting. Everybody around the bed exploded with joy, and even Perveen’s eyed crinkled at the corners with a small smile- softening the harshness -but only for a while and it soon vanished as if had never existed. Letting go of Parsa’s hand she slipped off of the bed, and Parsa watched her slowly walk out of the room, not pausing to partake in the rejoicing going on all around her.
A plump woman with ruddy cheeks – probably from the heat, plopped down next to her in a flurry of bright pink. A faint scent of sweat permeating from her body, her eyes alight with an excitement and exuberance Parsa couldn’t understand nor guess at. ‘Look at you such a pretty little bride. My brother’s so lucky to find such a pretty little bride like you. May God protect you from the evil eye.’
She gushed, as she swirled a wad of money above her head, and handing it to a girl next to her and ushering her out of the room with certain instructions, before turning back to Parsa and delivering a wet kiss on her forehead. Parsa cringed at the slobbery kiss, but didn’t wipe it away, she was too busy looking around for her mother or any member of her family. She felt uncomfortable amongst these strangers. She wanted to get away from them but didn’t know how to, with all of these unknown women slowly huddling around the bed.
“Wah, Wah Jameela what a pretty bride you chose for your Jamal, she looks exactly like a small Pari (fairy).” Jameela gushed at the praise. However, Parsa was more interested in how to get out of the circle she was in the middle of, trying to wiggle away from Jameela, ‘Aree, where are you going?’ Jameela exclaimed cheerfully pulling her back. ‘Ammaa,” Parsa’s soft cry, not much of a reply as a desperate plea. The women around her laughed. “You’re ours now, forget your Amma. You’re married now .’ Jameela laughed, not unkindly – just ignorantly.
Confused, Parsa stilled in her efforts to get out. What were they saying? Her dark eyes widened in fear. As realization dawned on her and her innocence melted away. Craning her head, she tried looking for the familiar- comforting face of her mother, but she couldn’t find her anywhere in the herd of people surrounding her. Each face as foreign as the other. A desperate grief bubbled up inside her chest as hopeless cries tried to crawl up her throat, but for some strange reason, she knew she couldn’t let them out. So she swallowed. Once. Twice. Thrice. Until she was sure they wouldn’t come purging out like the acidic concoction brewing in her stomach. Betrayal hit her hard and fast, as she soon realized that her mother wasn’t going to come. Tears sprang unbidden into her beautiful dark eyes, but she didn’t let them fall.
Through the crowd she saw Perveen Phuppo, right outside the door, standing on the periphery of the crowd, her gaze intent on her. Parsa met her gaze, and with a startle realized something she had never realized before, her eyes were the same as hers. The only visible difference was the lack of luster in Perveen’s. Everything else blurred around Parsa, and as if she had developed a tunnel vision she only focused on that intense piercing stare. A stare she felt down to the depths of her soul. As if Perveen was trying to convey years’ worth of wisdom down to her as if passing on a heavy weight onto her.
Parsa didn’t know for how long they both stayed like that – locked in each other’s gaze, but Parveen was the first to break away, retreating back and blending in seamlessly into the wedding procession outside. That was the last time Parsa saw Perveen.
“Say, yes Amina.” Parsa, jerked the young girl’s hand once more, prompting her to speak. The young girl, festooned in red, compiled in hushed tones, mechanically, three times. Parsa looked down at her face, she had the same eyes.