By Nadeem Aslam
When I was 12, I smuggled women’s magazines into my uncle’s house for my cousin. Her strict parents would not have allowed her to read them. She was 16 years old and I thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world. She wore a burqa, but it was from her that I first heard the words ‘dieting,’ ‘threading,’ and ‘menses.’
She and her best friend would give me money and send me out to the bazaars with the names of magazines written on a piece of paper. Pakeeza, Akhbar-e-Khawateen, Zaib-un-Nisa, Khawateen Digest… I hid the magazines under my kameez and walked into the house, and then my cousin and her friend did what the pages advised them to: they put lemon on their faces to make themselves fairer; learned by heart the calories in a chapatti or a serving of rice; and put eggs or yoghurt in their hair; and they showed to the seamstress the new styles from the magazines’ fashion pages.
All this was in the large provincial city of Faisalabad, where I went every summer during school holidays. The house was surrounded by a thick garden where I first saw a jeweled sunbird and smelled a frangipani blossom for the first time. I heard the drone of the blue carpenter bee which is known as a ‘bhanvara’ in poetry and film songs. And at the foot of a giant crepe-myrtle bush I buried a dead hoopoe I had found, having performed the Muslim funeral rites beforehand.
One day I returned with the magazines and told my cousin that her name had been scrawled all over the neighborhood in large letters—on walls, on gates, on tree trunks, on the floors of people’s front verandahs. Every other surface in the surrounding streets and lanes seemed to speak her name. She was instantly terrified. She shook visibly as she explained that a young man in the neighborhood had fallen madly in love with her:
“He saw my face as I lifted the front of my burqa near the house. And he follows my tonga when I go to school in the mornings. And waits at the gates when school finishes. Is the name everywhere?”
“You have to go out immediately and paint over them all.” She seemed close to tears now. “I can’t imagine what will happen if Father finds out.”
With a tin of white paint and brush she sent me out and I spent the afternoon hunting her name, climbing walls and trees. Some of the letters were taller than I was. It was arduous work and I was afraid for my cousin, but I remember being excited too. She had promised that as a reward she would lend me her most treasured possession—a collection of stories from her childhood. It was a thick scrapbook and in it she had pasted every story that a writer named Neel Kanval had ever published in the children’s supplement of a daily newspaper. A bachelor schoolteacher lived with his spinster sister—and an incalculable number of cats—in the house next to my uncle, and he gave my cousin the newspaper’s children’s supplement every week.
Neel Kanval. The Lotus of the Nile. The name evoked distant vistas, a sense of mystery and vague romance.
I returned, paint-spattered, and she washed my hands with turpentine and sent me off to bathe, and afterward she carefully handed me the coveted scrapbook. She had never allowed me to handle it before, saying I might damage it.
I spent the next few days reading the stories one by one, and occasionally she would send me out to check that her name hadn’t reappeared in the neighborhood, and occasionally she would ask me what I thought of the stories I was reading.
“They are beautiful.”
“Yes. They make me wish I could write.” There had been yet another power-cut and a candle was burning next to the stories. Its flame left a dark stain inside my eyes and on the page whenever I looked at it.
“Have you ever tried writing?” she asked.
It had never occurred to me.
“But I am only 12,” I said, airing my doubts.
“Neel Kanval was also only 12 when she wrote her first story.”
“How do you know?”
She leaned closer into the sphere of candlelight, and she held my eye for the longest moment before speaking. “Because I am Neel
She had had to invent a penname because her parents would have been shocked that she had “drawn attention to herself” by having her name printed in a newspaper. This immodesty would have caused a scandal within the family. Her father would have raised his voice at her, and her mother would have slapped her face, perhaps even beaten her. The conservative newspaper that her father read had a weekly children’s supplement too, but he tore it up as soon as it came into the house, wishing to spare his children the “unseemly ideas” expressed in the tales, cartoons, jokes, and poems. When in 1980 my mother took off her burqa, this man—my mother’s brother—had been enraged. My mother was a married woman, a mother of four, and her “morals” were no longer her brother’s responsibility, but he had still demanded an explanation.
“I am old now,” my mother had told him fearfully. “What’s the point of a burqa at my age?”
“What else do you plan to take off now that you are old?” he had thundered.
The summer ended, the summer during which ‘Neel Kanval’ told me I should write. I came back to Gujranwala where I lived and began writing stories, and by the end of the year my first story was published in the children’s supplement of the newspaper my Communist uncle read—the same one as the schoolteacher in Faisalabad.
The following summer when I returned to Faisalabad I learnt that my cousin’s best friend had got married to a man in Rawalpindi and had left Faisalabad. My cousin was bereft, missing her terribly, but she was growing up fast and now spent more and more of her time with the women in the family—only occasionally asking me how I was, what I was reading or writing. I was still a child and the days were passing with my small and large adventures, the whispers and yells of my miniature life. One day I went out to the bazaar to get the women’s magazines and lost the money. Another day some neighborhood boys and I broke a bough of the Persian lilac tree in the garden by swinging from it too hard. I tried smoking a cigarette. And my 14-year-old brother was almost caught doing a surreptitious adaab to a girl who lived across the street. And my 2-year-old cousin caused a room to erupt with laughter by telling an esteemed great-aunt, “I don’t like you!”
Two things happened the following summer.
A marriage was arranged for my cousin; she would go to live in Karachi.
And her best friend was divorced by her husband in Rawalpindi—and she came back to Faisalabad with a baby in her arms. It had been a difficult marriage from the outset, but she and her parents were grief stricken by the divorce.
I was 14 now, the author of more than a dozen published stories.
On my first day back in Faisalabad that summer, my cousin gestured to me to meet her in the backroom. There she quickly handed me a thick envelope and asked me to drop it off at the postbox located at the crossroads.
The address was of a women’s magazine.
“What is it?”
“It’s a new story by Neel Kanval.”
“But she used to write for children.”
“I have grown up now,” she replied. “Go and post it. Don’t let anyone see you.”
When the new month arrived I was sent out to buy the magazine but Neel Kanval’s story was not in it.
“Maybe next month,” I said.
She was somewhat preoccupied. Her future in-laws were coming for a visit in a few weeks, along with her future groom. He was in the Air Force and he had caught a glimpse of her at a wedding and had managed to talk to her at a later gathering, and had then begged his parents to arrange his marriage with her—and they in turn had begged my uncle and aunt until they relented. Her mother-in-law was a headmistress; and it was said (in hushed tones within this branch of my Faisalabad family) that she was known to wear a sari now and then.
I didn’t know she was in the room when I burst in next month with a copy of the magazine.
“Your story has been published!” I announced to my cousin, noticing too late the horror on her face, noticing too late the imposing woman who lay on the divan.
“Your story?” she said, sitting up and looking toward my cousin, who did not reply.
The woman extended her arm and I gave her the magazine—I hadn’t yet stopped being intimidated by the fact that she was a headmistress and from a city as important as Karachi—and she looked at the table of contents and frowned. “I don’t see your name anywhere, Khalida. Hand me my glasses, Nadeem.”
I gave them to her and then my cousin decided to get up and tell her which story was hers, explaining that she was Neel Kanval.
The woman read silently and we remained in the room for the duration, equally silent.
“How do you know all this?” she asked Khalida after she finished reading.
“It’s the story of a girl I know. My best friend—almost a sister to me. She was divorced by her husband and has a baby girl. Nothing was her fault—he turned out to be an appalling man.”
“So all this is true?” she indicated the story.
“Yes. I just changed her name.”
“It’s a great injustice.”
“And is she as wonderful as you say in the story?”
The graceful gray-haired lady gave a nod and seemed to think. I knew that the earrings she wore were copies of the ones a Muslim empress wore in a Chughtai painting; she had taken the picture to the goldsmith.
“Is it possible for me to visit your friend this evening?” she asked Khalida.
She smiled. “I have two sons. The second one needs a wife too.”
Decades have passed, and the two girls—who are two women now—have lived in the same house in Karachi since their joint wedding day.
On my last trip to Pakistan I went to see the house in Faisalabad, the one with the garden. A famous cricketer from the city had bought it and torn it down to erect a modern home for himself. This building was differently shaped and there was nothing but air where the old rooms were, where my cousin and I had spent the summer afternoons, the sun hanging directly above the house with its million tons of fire, and where I had taken my first steps toward becoming a writer. The garden was gone, the garden where you could almost sense the weather with your skin: the sound of trees in the midnight rain; the grapevine which produced grapes by the bucketful, the bunches as hot as glass in the sun; the foliage from which I gathered cold handfuls of dew every morning; the three-storey-high bougainvillea; the mighty rosewood tree… There is no trace of them or of those lost afternoons, except these words that I am writing, the words you have almost finished reading. Like the after-image of a flame in the eye.
Aslam is the author of The Blind Man’s Garden. This piece originally appeared in Vogue India and then Newsweek Pakistan.