This story is by Batool Ali and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The gravel crunched beneath Anila’s toes as she walked to her school. It was a bright yet humid morning, the sun baking the earth with its penetrating gold light. Anila was excited to start tenth grade, she was also slightly nervous. She entered through the ochre steel gate that seemed to be screaming for a fresh coat of paint. Adjusting her dupatta on her head, she found herself in a sea of girls equally chirpy, waiting to enter the room marked “10” in big Urdu letters.
Anila was not the brightest student in class but she was certainly the most motivated. Her friend, Safia on the other hand, was always scoring straight A’s. Her teacher entered and they all stood up and said a loud “Assalamalaikum Miss”. The day went on with new lessons, Anila enjoying the feel of the class, her classmates, her new books after a long 2 month summer hiatus. She finally got done at 2pm and headed home, making her way across the fields of green that lined the village.
She was not prepared to be jolted back to the reality that was her life so soon. “You’re finally back? Now help your mother prepare lunch. These flatbreads wont cook themselves” screamed her irate father, his voice, loud and raspy made Anila’s heart skip a beat. He was not happy to be educating his youngest daughter. He would have preferred to have her married off by now or at least sent to the city to work. “You think all this school shool will help you in life? What’s the point?” She was used to his sarcasm, she let his stinging words flow over her like water. She had come to imagine she was an eel, the words sliding off her, not affecting her in the least. As long as he was willing to send her to school, it didn’t matter if she had to endure his angry tirades every day. All fathers were like that anyway. At least he didn’t smack her like Safia’s father.
Anila’s mother walked in, hearing the commotion. She was a tall, hefty woman who had birthed 3 boys and a girl. She was not intimidated by Anila’s father which was why Anila could go to school. Her mother may be tough and hot tempered but she stood by the daughter she had wanted all her life. “What’s the problem with you?” she demanded, not looking at either her husband or her daughter, almost addressing both by doing so. “Get to work Anila. Here is the flour.” Anila set about making round bread – two for each member of the family. She knew she would have all evening to study and look at her books properly. The chores had never bothered her, she was docile by nature and preferred to bury her head and books later when lunch was over and everyone seemed to be in a food induced comatose state, resting in the shade away from the angry rays of the sun.
Anila’s eldest brother was working in the city as a cook and her other two brothers were farm hands in the village. They had not been able to study past 9th grade – due to a combination of two things: a lack of motivation and the constant requests of their father to start earning money. Thus Anila felt even more proud of herself – she was the only one in the entire household who could boast of having studied up to this point. Lately though, her father’s taunts had increased in intensity and frequency. She had to be extra careful to avoid him and never answer back.
After a scrumptious lunch of Daal chawal (her mum’s speciality – lentils cooked to a soft perfect texture topped with a baghaar of crispy fried garlic and curry leaves – an economical and delicious meal) and pickles or achaar, just as she was about to open her much awaited books, there was a knock at the door. It was her father’s old friend, Riaz. Anila had never liked him. The way he looked at her made her cringe. As if sensing her discomfort, her mother stood in front of her, greeting him perfunctorily. Anila and her mother retreated to the only other room aside from the veranda in their small home. “Why is he here at this time?” Anila asked her mother softly but urgently. Uncharacteristically her mother’s stern, confident demeanor was gone. “Anila, there is something you should know”, she began gingerly. “Jee Amma?” Anila responded respectfully. “Your father has been looking for a good match for you. I know you want to study, he knows it too. But he has a cousin’s nephew in Karachi who is doing well. Once you go to the city, you can study in a better school. Wouldn’t you like that?”
Anila could hardly believe it. It was almost as if she had prepared to hear these very words since she was a little child. The only difference was that she was hearing it from her mother, not her father. Her mother, who had always stood by her, was now willing to marry her off to some man in the city she had never even laid eyes on. The strange thing was, Anila had predicted this fate. As hot tears threatened to roll down her acned cheeks, Anila rebuked herself privately for her silly fantasies. For assuming she could dare to dream. For thinking she would be allowed to become a teacher despite living with a father who scoffed at the idea of education. “No…no…please”, she pleaded. Her mother embraced her without a word. She felt safe in her mother’s soft, cushion like arms, pleasantly smelling of garlic, her soft cotton dupatta against Anila’s wet cheeks. “You just wait. He will be a fine city boy who will whisk you off and take you to the city of lights – didn’t you always want that?” Strangely there were tears in Anila’s mother’s eyes too as they parted.
He was tall and fair but his eyes were sinister in their redness. His red beard was shining ominously in the evening sun. Everyone fussed over him as he stepped into Anila’s modest dwelling. Her first thought on seeing him was that he looked almost as old as her father. Anila’s mother served them tea and then looked nervously at her daughter. She could read in her mother’s eyes the same concern – he was too old. He would take her to Karachi and all semblance of any education would disappear forever. Both women knew how men in their parts treated young wives from the village. I will not acquiesce, I will not marry this man. Her rouged cheeks, her bright green shalwar kameez, all seemed like such a farce. She had agreed because of her mother’s entreaties but now that her mother looked alarmed, Anila knew her future –it was so vivid in her mind. Cooking, cleaning, having children, being treated like a slave. The only way out of this mess was to kill herself. She would rather die than marry this man. She would rather put her parents through the pain of losing their only daughter than submit to a life with no semblance of happiness.
He stared at her from across the verandah where he was perched on a low cane stool. She could feel his piercing eyes, measuring her up. Unable to stand it any longer, she got up, shuffled into her chappals and went inside. She looked for the rat killing chemical her mother kept locked away on the highest shelf. Everyone was outside in the verandah. But she heard footsteps and quickly hid the little, round white balls she had procured. “Anila, come outside. What are you doing?” Her mother asked incredulously. “I will not do this Amma. I can’t marry this man – he is so old”. To her utter surprise, her mother put her finger to her lips and whispered “Don’t do anything stupid. I will figure something out”. The white poisonous balls still clutched tightly under her knuckles gave her hope. If her mother wouldn’t figure something out, at least she had those.
They found her body when they got up for morning prayers, the twilight a perfect backdrop for the horrific scene they beheld. White foam dripped from her mouth in a thin stream, her eyes wide open. One hand lay limp against the charpai and the other held a thin book of Urdu words. She had done it, she had escaped a terrifying fate chalked out for her, she had chosen to embrace death instead, a worthier companion.