By Rutaba Tanvir
Nazia Sajjad was a simple woman who led a simple life. A single child orphaned at the age of 11, she was shipped off to her khala’s house soon after her parent’s untimely death. It was her khala who taught her the virtues of a life spent in servitude. Always a quick learner, Nazia had kept those lessons very close to her heart. By the time she was old enough to marry her khala’s only son, she had learnt everything there was to know about homemaking and for years that remained her only purpose in life. She performed her duties with an air of gratitude and acquiescence. It didn’t matter if she liked doing them or not. She simply just had to do them. Or else what other purpose would she serve in the grand, cosmic scheme of things? You couldn’t blame her. No one had ever informed her that freeing oneself of other people’s burdens was an option in life too. So she carried on with the life she knew, unaware of the alternate truths that existed outside the boundaries of her 5 marla house on McLeod Road.
Until one day, she chanced upon a crevice that allowed her a peek inside these other possibilities, and she couldn’t help but take a look inside. Just to see what it felt like. The excursion didn’t make her upend her entire life, but it did feel good to step in the shoes of someone else, even if it was for a little while. It made her happy knowing there was a world outside the one she’d always known. That perhaps even she could opt for another life if she really wanted it. It was this realisation that she would think of the most when the lockdown happened. Locked up inside her home with nowhere to go, she would think of the hours she had spent at a place that allowed her to dream of all the other lives she might’ve lived, all the other truths she might’ve known, all the alternate streams of reality she might’ve swam in. If only her khala had given her lessons in something other than servitude.
What happened wasn’t intentional. She was merely returning home after visiting a neighbour at Ganga Ram Hospital when her rickshaw started making sudden lurches forwards and backwards before stopping altogether in the middle of Lawrence Road. Quickly, her driver managed to park the vehicle next to the pavement and examined it. After careful inspection he declared he needed to see a mechanic and swished to the other side of the road, leaving her standing on a footpath wondering what to do next.
She was about to hail another rickshaw when it occurred to her that she was standing feets away from the entrance to Bagh-e-Jinnah. She looked up and there it was. Black iron gates stood upright as people walked right through them. As she peered at the people inside strolling around, a long-forgotten, hazy memory buried somewhere deep inside her froze her to where she stood.
10 year old Nazia never had many wishes or big dreams to her credit. She lived with her parents in a fusty old quarter in a small town in district Chakwal. Their humble town was not one for modern urban planning. It barely had a school. So she never really espoused grand desires of going to college or becoming a pilot. The only thing she ever wanted was to see a park. They didn’t have any in her area, and she had been hooked crazy to the idea about going ever since she’d first heard about it from her best friend Rahma. Apparently, parks were a big hit in cities like Rawalpindi. Rahma knew this because she had just spent her entire Eid in Ayub Park with her cousins. It was stupendous. When Nazia’s insistence grew unbearable her parents finally agreed to take her there when they would visit her khala, who lived in the big, beautiful city of gardens, Lahore.
Her parents passed away before they could keep their promise, but Nazia eventually moved to the big city one way or another. The only thing that kept her from missing her parents was a little girl’s hope of seeing a park. The little girl didn’t know that things often have a way of turning worse before getting better.
It so happened that her khala detested the idea of young girls frolicking around public spaces. “It does not bode well for beautiful little girls like yourself to roam around parks, dear Nazu” she had said and that was that. When she got married and confided in her husband about her childish desire, he told her he’d take her one day. “Just don’t go there yourself. You don’t know the ways around here. I’ll take you when I have time,” he’d said. But he never could get the time, and slowly other things took precedence over her life, leaving little room for childhood fantasies and maudlin desires to grow. Eventually, she forgot all about it.
Until that day, when she found herself accidentally standing in front of a huge public garden, wondering if she should go in or head back home. She took a look at her watch. It was only 11.50 am. She didn’t need to go back for at least another hour. She looked up at the gate. Then again at the watch. Moments passed by as this went on. Then, with a sudden clarity in her head, Nazia Sajjad, the obedient homemaker who didn’t go anywhere without her husband’s permission, walked in the premises of the erstwhile Lawrence Gardens one fine Tuesday morning. She told herself it was going to be just for that one time. Deep down in her heart, even she knew she was lying.
It was a cool, breezy March morning. Perfect for someone to take an elaborate, dragged-out walk in the park, but surprisingly, not many people were around that day. Nazia shifted her gaze as she reclined on the neem tree behind her. Fixing her eyes on the lawn leading upto the library in front, she looked at all the various faces visible within her purview. Some were new; others had begun to seem familiar over the course of weeks.
There was that university student in the red headscarf who would always walk in at 12 pm sharp. Like most girls her age, she always walked as if on edge, never meeting anyone’s eyes like her life depended on it, and always walked straight to the library without taking in the view of the beautiful garden around her. Some day she would come to regret it, but it didn’t bother her at that moment. Then there were the druggies, who always sat at the furthermost corners of the garden, trying very hard to blend in with the foliage and yet remained instantly noticeable to everyone. The daily-wagers sat in their own spot, exchanging quotidian tales of a life overburdened by an unrelenting economy.
Some days if she was lucky, she would spot someone you wouldn’t usually expect to find at a public park on a weekday. Like the cultural anthropologist she saw two weeks ago. A middle-aged man with a very supercilious air about him, he rambled on and on about the park with his equally aloof walking partner. He seemed very upset at the fact that people wouldn’t call it Lawrence Gardens anymore. Nazia couldn’t understand most of their conversation, but picked up words like “historical revisionism” and “ethnographic research”. She gave up trying after a few minutes; they were far too otherworldly for her to care. The couples were her favourite. They sat with their hands held together, laughing and sharing inside jokes with one another, and were unfazed by the world around them. Some married, others not, most young and a few old – all of them gave Nazia a glimpse into a life that “could’ve been” hers too had her husband not worried too much about the hierarchy of power in relationships. Had he just loosened up a bit.
The thought of her husband made her uncomfortable. It had been over two months since she’d been coming here but she hadn’t told anyone at home. It had become a weekly ritual so secret, so close to her heart in fact, that the thought of anyone else sharing it agonized her. It astonished her how badly she needed to keep it all to herself. She wondered why that was. Looking around, she took in the full view of the garden once again. It was the perfect spring day: bright, beautiful, with rows of flower beds merging into one another resembling a kaleidoscope, with butterflies fluttering above them. In that moment, she knew why she didn’t want to let her family in on her secret. For the rest of the day she lived for her husband and her children but in the one hour that she got to spend under the shade of a neem tree, looking at all the people around her without having to answer to anyone, Nazia felt like her realest self. For the first time in her life she had something that was completely hers and hers alone and she didn’t want anyone else intruding.
“Maamaaah! Adil isn’t letting me watch my favourite cartoons!” “Maamaa, please come here SALMAN IS KICKING ME!” Nazia sighed in frustration. They were at it again. It had been two weeks since the lockdown was put in place. Initially, she was happy her family was safe at home with her. Two weeks in, all she wanted was a few minutes just to herself. All day her two boys fought with each other, while her husband lounged in the tv room. That’s what bothered her the most: he never got up to help around the house. Each day she would prepare breakfast, mop the floor, dust the wall, make lunch, do the dishes, help the children with their homeworks, then again make dinner and do the dishes, while he napped, critiqued the food like a Michelin star chef and listened to the news.
When she found some reprieve she let her mind saunter off to the park. It upset her that she couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Where would she begin to describe what the hours spent there meant to her? They would never understand, anway. No one could fathom how free, how lightweight she felt in those moments of solitude. When she was no one but herself. Neither wife, nor mother. Just a middle-aged woman basking in the sun as strangers walked by. No one in her house could understand because they never had to give up a part of themselves and replace it with a servile version of themselves. They could be all sorts of people within one mould and have no one ever question it.
After another week passed she began to wonder if this was what it felt like inside a pressure cooker. Her head throbbed with pain all day dealing with her increasingly relentless children, and her increasingly distant spouse. While her husband and her kids visibly grew more agitated as the days went by – it was nothing compared to what she felt. Something gnawed at her from the inside; it chipped away her soul bit by bit by bit. She didn’t know it was possible for her to be this sad, to feel this lonely. The lockdown hadn’t just put a stop to her weekly visits to the park. It had taken away the one thing that gave her some sense of agency in her life. She accosted herself for allowing herself to go to the park the morning her rickshaw broke down. If only she had just returned home, she would have carried on like nothing had changed.
“Maybe this is why they don’t let women out often. Once you know how it feels like to be your own person it’s hard reverting to a lifetime of depending on someone else,” she thought to herself while hanging clothes to dry. As she hung the last batch of clothes she heard a woman working her way around a radio on the rooftop adjacent to hers. A few seconds later, old Indian music started crackling aloud from the radio. “Well at least someone is having fun,” she quipped sarcastically. About to go downstairs, Nazia stopped for a second to listen to the music. It was an old Indian song from the 60’s that she liked. Listening to the song had a cathartic effect. She smiled. After a long time, Nazia had felt at ease.
Just then, a loud thud sounded somewhere from below the house, snapping her out of her reverie. Instinctively, she ran downstairs to find her firstborn on top of his brother. In their umpteenth attempt at killing each other, the two brothers had toppled over their mother’s prized vase in the drawing room. It had been the only thing she had brought with her from her old home as a child. It was the only physical link from her childhood. But her sons hadn’t even bothered looking up when she entered the room. They continued on with their rambunctiousness, not knowing that they had just broken their mother’s heart. Nazia didn’t know what to do. She thoughtlessly began to collect the broken pieces of the vase and then stopped halfway through. She sat in the corner motionless for a few minutes, and then looked up at her children. They were going at each other like wild animals. She turned to see her husband sitting across the drawing room, in the tv lounge, watching the news. How could he carry on like that while his kids went at each other like oxens? Why didn’t he get up and ask them to stop? Why wouldn’t he help her? Why was he so indifferent?
In that split second, with shards of the broken vase in her bare palms, it finally dawned upon her that even after all her years of silent service, neither her husband nor her children respected her. All this time she pretended to like being of service to her family, only for her to realise one unceremonious instant that it had all been in vain. A cold, numb indifference took root in her heart. She had had enough. With a clear sense of purpose, she got up and went to the kitchen. “Are you making chai? Please make a cup for me too!” her husband called out from the lounge when he saw her heading to the kitchen. Nazia didn’t respond. She lit the stove and made chai for herself. When it was done she poured it in the largest mug she could find and quietly made her way upstairs onto the roof.
Tilting her head in the direction of her neighbour’s wall, she checked if the music was still on. Surely enough, it was. Grabbing a stool, she nestled herself closest to the wall that separated her roof from her neighbour’s. “Good, this is good” Nazia thought aloud as Aaja Sanam Madhur Chandni Main Hum played at full volume in the background. She would listen to this song and the many songs that would come after this, and when her chai would finish and the songs would end she would continue sitting there in silence for hours on end. She would look at the sky and the kites above, she would look at the children playing with marbles down in her street, she would look at the sunset and when it would be night she’d look at the stars. She would not be at someone’s beck and call all the time anymore. Some hours she was going to be just herself. She would live other lives and sketch dreams and dip her toes in rivulets of fantastical longing, all the while sitting on her roof, as day would turn into dusk, dusk to night and night to dawn. She didn’t care about the time anymore. She had all the time in the world.
If her husband or sons needed her, they could look for her themselves.
Rutaba Tanvir is a Lahore based writer who likes to read books and watch endless movies in her spare time. An alumnus of Kinnaird College, she holds an undergraduate degree in Applied Psychology. Her writings have appeared in publications such as US – Magazine for the youth, The News, and The News on Sunday. She can be reached on Twitter at @rtnvir.