Zeenath Jahan

Farzana arrived early at the Beauty Salon. Taking a job there after her exams, she hoped to earn enough for admission to medical college. After dusting and tidying up she settled down to read the papers. The results were out, she nervously scrolled down the list. An ecstatic smile lit up her face when she saw her name, dimming at the thought of her mother's reaction. Years in the city had not changed Zohra's views, she still believed marriage was a girl's only destiny.

The others began to arrive for work and customers came and went in a perfumed whirl. Farzana chattered excitedly, her infectious happiness making everyone smile. Finally it was closing time. Wearing the chaddor until only her dancing eyes were visible, Farzana hurried home. Home was the quarters behind the house where Zohra worked as Cook.

Humming a happy tune while entering the little room, a rasping voice startled her,

"Is this the sluttish behaviour you've learned in the city?"

Her father's half-brother, Wasseem was sitting in the shadows, the scar on his cheek gleaming evilly in the twilight. She had always hated him. Shuddering, she pulled the chaddor close and greeting him stiffly, she muttered,

"I'll go find Mother."

Zohra was scouring dishes in the kitchen and taking the dish-cloth, Farzana offered to help. Then, not looking at Zohra,

"The results are out. I passed."

"Hmmm, your uncle has come to fix the wedding date."

"Mother, I don't want to get married! I want to be a doctor."

"It is not for you to decide," growled Zohra. "You were betrothed when you were born. Girls younger than you are already married!"

"But Mother, Jawad is retarded!"

"Don't be silly! Wasseem's shop in the village brings in good money. Jawad is his only son and you will want for nothing."

"But Mother....." Her voice trailed, Zohra's expression was adamant.

Throwing down the dish-cloth Farzana ran off in search of the Mistress. Years ago she had forced Zohra to send Farzana to school. Now, if anyone could convince Zohra to allow her to join college, she could.

The Mistress put down her book when Farzana entered,

"What is it child?"

Bursting into tears Farzana told her.

"I'll speak to Zohra, don't worry." She smiled comfortingly, "Go wash your face and cheer up."

For weeks the controversy raged. The Mistress cajoled and threatened; Farzana wept and pleaded; while Zohra gave in her notice each time pressure built. Finally she lapsed into a surly silence. Farzana took admission in college. Zohra ignored it. Believing she had given in, Farzana was happy. Life was good!

Zohra went home on leave. Returning, she seemed almost cheerful and Farzana heaved a sigh of relief. Soon after, awakened by sounds in the room Farzana sat up in bed calling out,

"Who is there? Mother?"

A strong hand was clamped on her mouth, while a shadowy figure gagged and bound her. Biting and kicking, they carried her to a pick-up waiting in the street. Farzana let out a muffled gasp when, by the light of a dying moon, she saw Zohra helping Wasseem. A wild, questioning look in her drowning eyes, she stared at Zohra's stony face.

The gruelling journey to the village in the fastness of the mountains seemed to last forever. The day was dying and it was biting cold when they arrived. Farzana shivered. Cracking coarse jokes the villagers helped Zohra with her recalcitrant daughter. Farzana, her face streaked with dust and helpless tears, benumbed and exhausted, was locked in a tiny hovel. She lost track of time while struggling to free the biting cords. Zohra entered with a pair of bridal-red clothes worked in tinsel. Undoing the thongs she said gruffly,

"Wear these."

Farzana recoiled. Crying in disbelief with dawning understanding,

"You can't do this to me! You are my mother!"

"I am doing what is best for you!"

"But Mother, I don't want to marry Jawad, I want to be a doctor!"

"Enough of this nonsense! You will do as you are told!"

"I will not! I will refuse!" Her jutting jaw belied her sinking heart.

"Shameless girl! Would you dishonour your dead father?"

Eyes blazing, Zohra spewed a torrent of curses and abuse on the helpless girl.

For a moment Farzana cowered before her mother's towering rage. Then flinging the clothes away, she screamed hysterically,

"I won't marry Jawad! I won't! I won't! I won't!" Spurting, gushing, burning tears carving channels in her cheeks.

Women, entering in answer to Zohra's call, held Farzana; while Zohra poured a vile-tasting liquid down her gagging throat. Her body began to go numb. Sitting her up in the bed, they threw a red veil over her. Looking like a coy bride, Farzana sat there, with her back to the wall.

Two men entered to ask the mandatory question of her acceptance of the marriage. As in a dream, she felt Zohra push her head in an accepting nod. No one saw her struggling motionlessly all through; no one heard her soundless screams,

"No! No! No!"

The formalities over, everyone left. Alone, she watched the murky moonlight from the high window, trace shadows in the dark. Mind racing, limbs motionless, her soul a deep nothingness, she listened to the drums, the singing and laughter. They were celebrating her wedding.

The festivities finally ended and the village slept. The deathly silence torn now and then by the distant keening of jackals.

The door opened stealthily. A man entered. Frozen, she watched. The touch of his hand convulsed her. She struggled to fight loose, but he was strong. He ran his hand over her body, grasping her breast, while the other muffled her screams. She struggled, but he was strong. Ripping the clothes off her body he mounted her, his knees forcing her legs apart. She resisted, but he was strong. Panting, thrusting, entering her flailing, twisting, thrashing body, he lanced her helplessly to the bed.

Later, much later, he was still. Crawling from under him, covering her nakedness with her arms, she crouched in a corner; dry, hacking, tearless sobs tearing out of her parched mouth.

Grunting at a scratching at the door, he got up and unlocked it. Grinning vacuously, lantern in hand, Jawad stood in the door-way. The scar across the man's face gleamed evilly in the lamp-light. Farzana stared, motionless with horror. With a howl of rage and loathing, half animal, half human, she leapt at him. Pushing Jawad in, he left; locking the door behind him. Jawad shuffled around, dribbling spittle glistening in the light.

Snatching the lantern Farzana flung it at the door. Greedy flames engulfed it; leaping, swirling, lustily licking the rafters.

Rushing to put out the fire, the villagers were too late. The flames were already reaching out to the uncaring heavens, while a woman screeched with laughter.

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