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Biography
Soniah Kamal was born in Pakistan and raised in England and Saudi Arabia. She came to the U.S. for her undergraduate degree and earned a B.A. in Philosophy with Honors from St. John's College, Annapolis, MD. Soniah’s undergraduate thesis, an analysis of individual against society as seen in love and arranged marriages, was the recipient of the Susan B Irene Award. Soniah has written a weekly satire column (2002-2004) for the national newspaper THE DAILY TIMES in Pakistan, as well as creative non-fiction pieces for other well known publications such as THE FRIDAY TIMES. Her essay on her father’s political imprisonment during the 1999 coup in Pakistan is included in the anthology VOICES OF RESISTANCE: MUSLIM WOMEN ON WAR, FAITH AND SEXUALITY, published by Seal Press, U.S. Soniah's short stories have been published in the US, Canada, Pakistan, and India as well as in collections published by Penguin India, Harper Collins India and, in the US, by The Feminist Press. Soniah currently lives in the US.

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DARNING BLUE SKY

- by Soniah Kamal

I want to get married but Ma won’t let me. She has other plans. Nothing lofty, mind you—a B.A. in Economics from any woman’s college in Lahore, and then bank employment. It’s my brother Ma’s really interested in, and not because he’s a boy or anything like that, but because he looks just like our father, who’s now in heaven.  Papa was in the army. He died in a train crash when I was eight years old, and Nayyur was in-utero.  You’d think a wife would collapse into labor pains over widowhood, but not Ma. She took to humming, and devouring TV dramas, and warning people against marriage.

  All our relatives were interested in getting Ma remarried immediately. Nani was the worst. She’d hunch over her cup of steaming tea, munching on diabetic rusks, and wailing, “What will become of these kids? What will become of you?” She was most displeased when Ma refused to marry Papa’s youngest brother; I was angry too. Papa was never coming back, and custom dictated that a brother of Papa’s marry Ma and take care of us, and Uncle had been Papa’s favorite sibling- Ma should have married him just for that.

  After dashing the proposals Nani forwarded, Ma took her life in her own hands. Papa had never let her work, that is, she’d never had her own income, her own income was what she told Ma she wanted to do. After Papa’s demise, Ma began approaching rich women in the bazaars, on the streets, sitting in their cars—as long as they were elaborately dressed, she’d approach them anywhere. I used to love it: watching Ma say “Excuse me” only to be told “Go away.  Stop begging. Get a job,” to which Ma would say, “That’s what I want, a job, will you give me one?”   Ma’s large hand would dip into her cloth bag and emerge with hand embroidered swatches; I’d watch the women become enthralled.

  Sewing was the vocation Ma would practice for the rest of her life. We acquired our army house at a low cost, and they gave us a stipend, and relatives were charitable in turn, and all this combined with Ma’s income meant we never went without.

  Consequently, when Ma worked as much as she did, I knew it was for the love of it.  She would sit at the dining table with patterns, spools, a measuring tape scattered around the black sewing machine, she’d sit there with the TV on, tracing designs onto material, her chalk marks as steady as the lows and woes of the heroines in the dramas she devoured, the heroines battling mean mothers-in-law and meaner sisters-in-law and weak-willed husbands. When Ma licked wet the end of a thread, and, winking, fed it into the needle head, it was as if she was darning a patch of blue sky into the darkness of those heroines. By the time she was done each evening, there arose sugar spun paisleys, flowers and stripes, the contours of neckline, wristband, and hem. Bewitching fabrics is what I would have liked to do too, but Ma wanted me to better myself.

  “A bank,” she would always say rapping me on the head with her scissors, “the type with glass doors, marble floors, and central cooling.”

  Ma would see such banks in the dramas, the girls sitting at desks ordering peons to bring them tea, the good ones, the ones she always pointed out, not giving their male colleagues the time of day.

  “See ,” she would say, “how actress Attiya rebuffs the lout’s attention, and just look at the way she carries her purse.”  Or, “See how actress Soni makes sure she is never alone in a room with any man, and how smart she looks in those short kurtis—you want me to make you one?”  

  Of course, after she caught me, she stopped making such offers. Instead she began muttering, “Even in real life these actresses do not give louts the time of day, and my daughter, my daughter is worse than an actress.”

  Ma caught me kissing Hamid, a neighbor. His little brother and Nayyur were in the same Qur’an class a block away.  After class, Hamid would bring Nayyur home, which happened to coincide with Ma running errands.  At first, I used to cautiously open the front door, let Nayyur slip in, and then shut it very quickly, but soon I’d be holding it ready and open before they’d even arrive. I was fifteen and Hamid was twenty-five.  I really loved him, and I know he loved me because he never failed to tell me so. When Ma caught us, she whacked his head with her shoe, and I think he bit his tongue which was why he was not declaring his love and good intentions for us, also Ma was hitting me, crying, and shouting all at the same time, and was not letting anyone get a word in.  When she finally stopped, Hamid and his brother were long gone, and Nayyur was standing by the door, looking from Ma to me, as if scared it might be his turn next.

  “Slut,” Ma called me as she cuddled Nayyur.  “Is this what I’m working day and night for? So you can open your legs to louts?”

  From then on I had to accompany Ma everywhere while Nayyur was dropped off at a cousin’s home. Some of the women Ma sewed for were nice enough, but some were not. They would relentlessly try to pick fault with Ma’s work, and when they couldn’t find fault, they’d look down at us from the armchair they were sprawled on, and grumble and complain about how Ma was ripping them off.  Ma told me they were unhappy.

  “No matter how rich they are, they are poor for being married.  You are still a child—you do not know, and may you never know.”

  I remember two things distinctly—that despite a profusion of empty chairs, Ma and I were expected to sit at their feet, and because of that vantage view, that not all wealthy women wear clean shoes, or clean toe nails as diligently as Ma makes us clean ours. One time I settled on the edge of a footstool, and before Ma could reprimand me the woman walked in.  Ma apologized for me, and I vowed to myself to never embarrass Ma like that again, not that Ma believed me. 

  “Foolish girl,” she whispered as we returned to the mini bus, our backs turned to the male passengers ogling us. “I cannot leave you at home!  I cannot take you out!  Had you died with your father it would have been best for us all.”

  The thing is, I’m used to Ma saying all sorts of things to me, but I can’t stand it when she drags Papa in. I carry a picture of my father in my purse as well as my brother. Not Ma’s, because I can conjure her face, disappointed and dissatisfied with me, even in the dark. I received two excellent proposals while I was in college, both from classmates’ brothers.

  “Why?”  Ma said. “Are they unaware you have no interest in marriage?”

  “Ma,” Nayyur had said looking up from the wristwatch he was reassembling. “You’re the disinterested party.”

  Ma was happiest the day I did get a job at a bank even nicer than the ones shown on TV. Putting aside all work, she stitched a new outfit for my first day. The employees were a mixed bunch, some like me arriving to work in rickshaws, while others were chauffer driven and spoke English putterputterputter, but we all got along because daily the manager reminded us he would not put up with any nonsense.

  It was not long before office romances burgeoned.  Zahid had a car, he lived close to me, he offered to drop me home daily, I accepted. Ma threatened to kill herself, I did not take her seriously, she did not kill herself. When I told her Zahid and I were getting married, she pressed her foot hard on the sewing machine’s pedal, and yet again threatened suicide.  Since Nayyur was in England for higher studies (Ma had been saving with this purpose in mind), she began to say things his presence usually curtailed.

  “Sex!” Ma spat it out as if it were a thread caught in her mouth. “I detest it. You will too. Do not make this mistake. Do not.”

  Ma pretended to be happy at my wedding because of the guests, but she embroidered my outfits dingily, and whenever a guest joked about my future children, she looked as if she’d lost a child.

  After my wedding night, she talked to me as if indeed she had.

                                                                                 ***

  Today I fell down and came home to get one of Ma’s special mustard oil massages. She shrieked when I hobbled in.

  “Meray Allah, did he force you?”

  “Ma,” I said. “You have to stop watching these stupid dramas.”

  Over the phone that morning, she’d been complaining of pains in her knees, and yet even with her stiff gait she managed to make it to the mantle before I even entered the TV room.  I stared at her. It was as if I’d found an old outfit balled up in the back of a wardrobe.  She hadn’t limped like this since—I squinted—since Papa was alive.

  Whenever Papa used to be at home, Ma walked as if aided by an invisible stick. Whenever he was around, she was always over spicing or under salting the evening meal. By bedtime she was sure to have burned a finger or bitten her lip. Then Papa would click his tongue, and bring out the tissue box we’d converted into a first aid kit.

  I believe I began to dislike Ma when I saw she was the only woman who seemed pleased when her husband returned to duty, and when Papa died, I had to cry extra because she didn’t cry at all. Papa had loved us so much—it wasn’t fair.

  Ma limps to the top shelf of the TV stand, and takes down the Holy Quran wrapped in silk.

  “Swear on the Qu’ran,” she holds it out to me, her hands a try under its heft, “that he did not force you.”

  “Ma!” I glare at her.

  “Why aren’t you swearing?”

   “Ma, I fell down, my leg is hurt, that’s why I’m walking this way.”

  “That’s what I used to say.”

  “Ma!” I slap my forehead.

  “You are lying!”

  I switch the TV on.

  “I will not watch you suffer,” Ma says, “and do nothing.”

  I turn the volume up.

  “We will hire a lawyer like in that one drama. Don’t you worry, I’ve been saving for this day too.”

  I turn the volume up.

  “Sex!” She screams, she’s spitting, her eyeballs are huge behind her spectacles. “Sex! Sex!”  Up, up, up, but I can hear Ma’s next sentence clearly: To save you from what I could not save myself.

                                                                                 ***

  It was very late at night, but I had to tell Ma I had a stomach ache, and could I not go to school the next day.  She was bent over, her dupatta wrapped tightly round her face, Papa holding the ends as if they were reins. I saw his bare buttocks, I must have made a sound, he turned, I turned, behind me their door banged shut.

  In the morning, Ma was scrubbing her pajamas, the blue soap suds unable to mask the water turning a brown red. She saw me in the mirror, blinked through tears, and banged the door shut on me too.

                                                                                  ***

  I watch Ma in the kitchen preparing mustard oil for my leg. This is the woman who did not fear approaching strangers, and yet there were things she feared I could not even fathom. I ask if Nayyur told her what the corn dog he’d mentioned eating in his last letter was.

  While Ma massages my calf, she says, “You’ve always thought I loved your brother best, but I just wanted to see what a man with the same face would be like if I brought him up.”

  “Ma, all men—”

  She shakes her head to quiet me, and shuts her eyes.  One drama ends, another begins.  Ma makes us tea—dark with a drop of milk.  She’s sitting next to me now, her dentures out, her droopy mouth a drawn bag with a loose string.  She looks like someone who has never caught her child kissing, or whacked a philanderer on the head with her shoe, or been forced into experimental intercourse.

  After a moment I put my arm around Ma—we both stiffen, it seems so unnatural, but then slowly her head lowers onto my shoulder.  Ma smells of an old cloth bag crammed with crisp, new swatches—cotton, georgette, chiffon, velvet, silk, we continue watching the drama on TV.

                                                                                 ***

  I remember sitting in Papa’s lap.  I had eaten my last toffees and wanted more.

 “Huma beta,” he said, “if you stop crying, I’ll get you all the toffees you want tomorrow.”

  I didn’t stop crying, but the very next day he got me a bagful anyway, and then he kissed me on my forehead, and went to catch his train. 

  It was the last time I saw him before he died.

                                                                                 ***

  Ma switches the TV off.  “Huma,” she whispers, “Huma beta, are you asleep?”  

  At some point her arm has made it round me, and it is my head resting on her shoulder, and I keep still and do not answer.  And then she kisses me on my forehead, on exactly the same spot Papa had.