Moulana-Sahab had taught us to pee sitting down on our forefeet. He said Allah will have our balls chopped off if we pee standing up. The day we got this lesson, we stopped playing with our pee trails. We no longer made big ‘W’s on walls. Inside our pockets, we kept a small piece of red brick so that the last drop of our pee was absorbed in it. Moulana-sahab taught me how to do it perfectly, everyday. He didn’t use the red brick I had in my pocket, but instead used his thumb. This is a secret lesson – he’d say, and forbade me to share that with anyone. I didn’t even tell Faizan, lest Allah be pleased with him more than me.
I didn’t sit the way we were taught to. Back in the days, and before we got lessons from Moulana-sahab; I saw Zeba, Rukhsar, Amina, Puja and other girls in our basti squat to pee. I found that posture more comfortable. Whenever I had an extra glass of water, I peed endlessly and resting my body upon my forefeet for longer stretches used to become unbearable. The shame that followed, restricted me to do my business publicly or in broad daylight. I lost all my pee-buddies one after another, but in the playground we still played together. Once when I and Faizan were flying kites, he pointed at a new girl who had recently joined our basti; he picked up on every newcomer. If he found them smart then he’d make friends with them, otherwise worse would follow. We approached.
‘Wanna fly Kite with us?’ He asked.
‘No, I’m playing kitchen-kitchen,’ replied the girl.
‘Can you let us play with you?’—was my stock reply. I even wanted to add that I pee like her but before I could open my mouth, Faizan giggled and burst into laughter.
‘You wanna be her sister or what, playing with vessels and stove?’
‘I was just trying to help you.’ It was a lie. The tiny vessels and pitchers were placed beautifully inside a cardboard box and all her fingers were covered in dust. I gazed intently, such that my imagination dwarfed me inside the cardboard-kitchen where I was engrossed in household chores. Afterwards, I didn’t yield to Faizan’s pestering request to play chor-police. I played kitchen-kitchen instead, keeping my eyes on Faizan all the time.
‘Faizan is not a good boy, he stinks and his gums bleed like monsters. Stay away from him for your safety,’ I told her. I didn’t want her to befriend Faizan and I hated the idea of him playing kitchen-kitchen with her. When we were done playing, she left with the cardboard box, and I rejoined Faizan. We flew kite until dusk.
‘Assalamwalekum Salma baji,’ Faizan mocked. It was the first time that he called me Salma instead of Salman. Our kite was high up and Nizam’s kite was approaching fast. I held the latai while Faizan took control of the thread. He was sweating, shouting and cussing all the kites up in the sky. I loved a mad and frustrated Faizan more than any other. We lost our only kite and he blamed it on me. Dawn drove in and we returned home.
I stole coins from Ammi’s purse at night. After returning from school the next day I bought a kite and went to Faizan’s. He wasn’t home, so I sat outside and waited. An hour passed, and I went to check the ground. There he was, having a good time with boys older than himself, some were smoking cigarettes and some slapped khaini on their palms. I felt dwarfed in front of them. They were checking out girls and bhabhis who were filling their water vessels from the community-well. Faizan didn’t notice me until I yelled his name.
‘See what I’ve got for you.’ He took that bitterly and gestured with his hands – go away. Back then, I often found him evasive. Although he was two years older, the way he pushed himself to act beyond his age would end up making him seem more childish.
I kept away, till all of them left, one after another, leaving Faizan alone.
‘Let’s go fly kites.’
‘No,’ he said, without even looking at me. I followed him to his home. He hadn’t even noticed me, and only saw me when he turned to close the door at his home. I was let down, and since I had nothing else to do that day, I went for a stroll.
Summers came and went; in the intervening years, Faizan and I interacted even lesser. Until one day, I was returning from work, when I bumped into Faizan. He didn’t spend too much time on catching up, or even asking how I was doing. He wanted a favor – money, the heavy stone of most people’s helplessness. A lot about him had changed, except for the brooding eyes, that seemed to hold the secret of my exile.
‘Just two thousand rupees and I’ll be content. Mother is sick.’
‘You don’t have to lie to me Faizan. I know the brothel girls are being more generous to you lately. In any case, I don’t have that much money with me right now. But more than that? Please stop wasting your life like this. Your cheeks have hollowed, what have you done to yourself?’
‘I’ll be a good man after a week, pakka. Please give me some money.’
‘Money? Wait! Tell me, are you okay? And no, no money. First, go and eat something. Just look at yourself; bones and skins.’
‘What are you, my mother?’
I wanted to slap him and hug him at the same time. Instead I calmed, and gave him a hundred rupee note.
Since I was young, every Eid I waited not for my dress but for Zeba’s. My sister’s clothes would always excite me more. When her dress became old and no one was around, I would try them on. We didn’t have a large mirror. I had to place it on the floor against the wall to check myself from a distance. When Zeba got married, she left with all her dresses. A few years later, when I started working, the first thing I bought was two sets of salwar-kameez, one for me and one for Zeba. It was difficult to hide it in my small flat. I told Ammi that this was for Zeba too, in case she needed an extra dress for her stay. With that I was saved.
Fridays were special for me, a day to be myself –Salma.
It was on one of those Fridays, that my life turned upside down. To my cursed luck, that day I even had my face made up. The lipstick, kajal, mascara – the blue one, my favorite – were all applied perfectly. I could proudly say, I was a perfectionist in that area. When I was checking myself in the mirror, I sensed I was being watched. I felt naked, the type when a goat is skinned by a butcher. I felt skinned and hung through an S-shaped rod in a butcher shop. Through the window-gap I saw the eyes that held the secret of my exile. Right at that moment I could have robbed a bank and given him all the money he wanted. If only that would erase what he just saw. I sat on the edge of my bed to calm down. I was numb and had even forgotten to bolt the door. It was unusually early for my father to come. When he entered I froze, my dupatta flew down from the left shoulder. He gazed at my chest, perhaps wanting to see which fruit was hidden under my kameez. There was none, I never liked taking those make-believe games to their extremes. I sucked my lips and tasted the red lipstick. That was the last day in my home.
The slight changes that had been dawning upon me since my earliest days didn’t evade Abbu’s sharp gaze. There were times when he would observe me intensely, and I’d feel like a land being hit by a hoe. I didn’t exactly remember the day he stopped talking to me. But it was then that he gave me his last verdict— ‘Chinal’
Now, after all those years, when I reflect back on those days, the only thing that bothers me is why my reasons were always misconstrued. I’m now a twenty eight years old being, and every night a new question burps in my head. Like undigested food, the questions remain stuck until I puke them out. I wonder if my balls had been on either side of my chest and if I had one of those syndromes where scrotum enlarged; I’d have been content with whatever would follow. A handful of semi-inflated, saggy skin, grown out of my chest would have been considered breasts by many. But I doubt if I’d be able to arouse Faizan like girls with ample breasts did. Would he love me for that?
I wanted to give myself a fresh start in the ‘City of joy’, and arrived in a hope for a little of that joy for me too. The first thing I did was use a double ‘a’ in my name—Salmaan. I liked that slight stretch after ‘m’. For a fractional second, it sounds the ‘Salma’ and then ends up at ‘-an’.
If only English would let me add a couple of more ‘a’s; people would have to stretch it a bit longer and end up calling me Salma instead of Salman, perhaps to save time. But there is nothing like Salma from outside. She hides under my denims, leather jacket and comes out only on Fridays. But an extra ‘a’ helped little, as later on I realized a dash between the last two letters of my name. A dash, like a river in rage, withSalmaan on one side and Salma on the other. I’m sailing in between, assuming a shipwreck.
The beginning was affected by my lack of knowledge in worldly affairs. I was blessed to have a job in a beauty parlor, as a makeup artist. I’m really good in that field. I felt at home with others of my like. We always had a great time, except on Sundays when they went out to party and I keep myself busy by running door to door, delivering my service. Whatever time I had after work, I spent with one of the mehendi-artists we had in our parlor, learning a handful of techniques from him. After a few months, I had learnt a new skill. There is a thing about rich people, tell them they are beautiful, that you can make that beauty eternal and they will empty their pockets out for you.
Within a few years, I emptied out many generous pockets to loan a one room apartment nearby. It was peaceful to know it was all mine. Not fancy at all, it had enough windows to drive out my miseries and stress. From one of the windows, I could easily see the glimmering dawn arrive from the horizon. I even had access to the rooftop from where I flew kites.
I called home the day I shifted there; they immediately doubted the source of my income. I invited them over too. They didn’t say no, but didn’t say yes either. Things moved.
I got a call from Faizan one day, after seven long years. He wanted to see me. The mere thought of him flooded my brain with happiness.
I bought a dress, an expensive perfume and visited a small Mazaar located close by. I offered a chaadar. It was Friday. While returning home I bought halwa for Faizan and a roll of holy thread to tie around his wrist.
I recognized him from a distance. He looked heavier that he did earlier, but also, much better.
‘Kaisey ho?’ How are you? I asked from behind. He looked stunned.
‘Hey, how are you?’ Not looking into my eyes, his gaze wandered around the tea shop for a place to sit.
‘Let’s go home.’ Two dogs barked in the distance, muffling my voice. The dogs ceased barking just as I had raised my voice to repeat what I said. Eyes turned to me…
‘I’ve someone here with me.’ He said, motioning the girl behind him towards us. She had been standing there waiting. After introductions, Faizan fidgeted. He didn’t say much, and just wanted me to see her, know her name. Less than two minutes later, he asked her to sit on the chair around the corner. She gave a brief smile, nodded at me, and walked towards the chair.
‘We got married yesterday. It wasn’t as beautiful a wedding as we had both planned. A few signatures, a hasteful niqaah and we were done. We couldn’t even hold a proper ceremony. She is a Hindu, you see. They have been creating problems throughout, and now they are hunting us! I don’t know where to go Salman. I want to… ask you for one last favor. I am close to finding work, I know I am. Please, could you arrange a place for us to stay? For a week or two, I will repay this in kind, I promise.’
Through the course of their stay in my apartment, I hardly spent any night under the same roof. I always had excuses to stay out. I spent the days working overtime and at 5:20 PM, I would board the Coalfield Express from Howrah to Dhanbad. Many nights, I wandered about the platforms only to board the same train to return in the morning. I was fined too because that’s what they do when you have nowhere to go, you have to pay for it too.
I was almost asleep when they approached me. The thunderous clap and bitter sweet voice seemed violent at first. When I opened my eyes, her nose was just a few inches away from mine. I could see the withering foundation of cheap quality. The rosy lipstick, applied imperfectly failed to conceal the black lips underneath. Her breath carried the smell of cheap pan-masala. Teeth were all black due to excess consumption of tobacco. But overall, she smelt of Rajnigandha. She was dressed in a red sari and when she turned her head I saw a safety pin mindfully placed on her shoulder strap to size down her bra. On her left shoulder, another safety-pin of a bigger size was pinned to affix the pallu.
‘Babu kuch de, give us something, son.’ I gave her a fifty-rupee note and slept again. They blessed me every night. And I loved the way they touched my hair.
Faizan got a job soon enough and earned enough to take care of his little family. Shruti was really sweet and loved him dearly. I loved the way she called me Dabang in jest. Surprisingly, I didn’t have much to talk with Faizan, but with Shruti I was on great terms. Her family wasn’t mad at her anymore, apparently.
One night, Faizan brought a small jar of mango pickle and we tasted it, at least in the beginning, before we picked at it one by one until it halved. The day after next, I saw a Prega-news strip in the bathroom; it was positive.
Rashida and her group arrived late. They didn’t ask for money from me now. And Rashida never missed touching my hair. Sometimes, we would converse late into the night. It was one of those nights, when I ended up telling her the story of my exile. As I wrapped it up, she closed in towards me with her hand stretched. The handkerchief she held had a Sun embroidered on it. I broke down.
After taking an early leave from work, I went to the market, bought a kite, a black marker and headed home. Home hardly had any trace of me. or my touch. Shruti and Faizan had ingrained to the very foundation. Even the air smelt of them. I saw them everywhere.
I had a trunk by the bed, where I kept a lehenga. I had bought that sometime before the fateful call from Faizan, so I never had the time to try that on myself. I picked it up, looked at it for a few seconds and gifted it to Shruti, asking her to change.
I wrote on the kite:
I once wanted to rob a bank for you but wasn’t courageous enough. Below this kite, you’ll find the legal documents of this apartment. It’s yours now. Don’t worry about the installments either, I’ll pay them off too. A gift from me, to your child.
I wrapped the kite with the other papers and sealed it with duct tape; Faizan in block letters on the cover. I left without seeing Shruti.
Zakir Aatish Khan is a short story writer, based in Raniganj, West Bengal, India. He is a graduate in Political science and has also learnt Creative Writing at the British Council. He writes for his Instagram handle – Bookboozer.