To the red dupatta color-bleeding in my washing machine By MahRukh

Artwork by Hafsa Nouman


your crimson dye leached out of the fibres & stained all my whites

i understand now why mor jaan did laundry the way she did


separated all the whites from the reds,

women have always been the white clothes, & the reds always the burdens of society – dyeing us time & time again with unwanted blotches of color


and piled the clothes on the marble farrsh of our home.

the partitions between the piles carefully sorted


i watched her do the laundry before

it was at the mercy of buttons & sockets –

when once it was at the arms of my mother.

washing the dirty laundry of our patriarchs is a heirloom passed from one womb to another – almost like generational rings.


she would spray her vinegar mix on to the clothes father had spilled chai over

she would silently dread the struggle of removing stubborn stains men cause – but isn’t that what women are good at?


back then, i would drag a plastic chair out & watch her roll her sleeves & dip her arm, pale because of the cold, into a big soapy tub.

the sun would shine on her forehead & she would turn into a wilted houseplant kept on a windowsill in hopes it might recover.


after scrubbing the reds,

she would pluck the whites from the pile & wash them with clean water, throwing in scoops of detergent powder.

the white laundry of our home – undershirts, napkins, our school socks, the uniforms, & fathers crocheted kufi caps – would stir in the tub, getting whiter with each rinse

if only women could rinse off their dirt like men can – if only the land between our legs wasn’t in fear of getting stained once & remaining that way forever. your vinegar mix can’t wash the stains off women, mor jaan.


she would look up while washing the whites & say

“we always separate the whites from the reds, dukhtaray,

because the reds – they bleed.

they bleed on the whites no matter what.

you can’t wash that out. neh.

it remains there.

you understand?”


her gaze resting on my eyes, waiting for a quick nod.

i would nod, eager to win her approval & prove to her that someday i will take this duty off her shoulders. someday i will sit & wash the stains off her back because nobody ever did.


in the end she would glimpse at her freshly washed red dupatta hanging on the makeshift clothesline, sending droplets of water crashing on the ground below – she would sigh, then, almost as if the dupatta was once white.


today, as i, a grown woman, stand by the machine holding a pink shirt – once white before the color-bleeding accident – thought about her.


about her sitting on the living room couch, a basket of our white clothes infront of her, still warm from the sunlight

the sun would soak up the water from our clothes like my grandfathers soaked up our freedom


they would smell of the sweet fabric conditioner she loved.

i thought about her folding them neatly, rolling up long socks the way she did, her pruney fingers delicately stroking the surface of my fathers kufi – all while talking on the landline, her neck tilted, the receiver forming lines on her face.

she would occasionally cup her hand over the speaker – a habit she had picked up when talking to people abroad, knowing her voice was being carried across the continents by tenuous fibres & not satellites.

at last, she would stack the folded clothes in the center of an old bedsheet & tie the ends of the sheet into a tight knot.

mor jaan never taught me how to tie a knot – she said some things have to die with her.


[today, i want to tell her my place in this world is that of a white shirt carelessly thrown in the laundry with a red dupatta. i want to tell her how the reds of this world bled on me before i could decide what color i wanted to be. i want to tell her how i was dyed until i turned crimson, too. i want to ask her what happens to the whites the reds bleed upon. i want to ask her why we can’t wash that out. i want to tell her yes, mor jaan, i finally understand what you meant about separating the whites from the reds, & this time the nod is sincere.


Bio: MahRukh is a poetess working on her debut poetry book & writes about being a woman in the subcontinent & the dilemmas attached with it. She writes about struggling with clinical depression & various mental health issues. Poetry is her way of freeing herself.


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