Bareerah Y. Ghani is a Canadian-Pakistani writer, currently pursuing an MFA in fiction from George Mason University. Her work has appeared in The Defunkt Magazine, Second Chance Lit., and others. You can follow her on Twitter @Bareera_yg where she usually whines about first drafts, and the stress of having an ever-growing TBR list.
Colored within lines
I thought: Yuck. Brown is ugly.
Scritch, scratch, scritch, scratch. I scraped the light-blue colored pencil across the white space; my attempt at fixing the damage done. I thought a sky in the background would brighten the page that was otherwise being dragged into a dull despair by the brown smeared inside the black outlines of a house.
But it didn’t work. Brown was still ugly. I couldn’t change it, even if I wanted to. So I abandoned it altogether and went on a hunt for a fresh new image; my hunt for redemption. Like a maniac, I flipped through the pages of my coloring book.
A snowman caught my eye for a moment, but almost instantly I turned the page to a flower vase. On another, there was a tea-set with a hefty-looking kettle, dainty cups with floral designs. I kept flipping, relishing momentarily in the soft rustle of turning pages when suddenly, I heard a loud clunk downstairs, followed by a clanking of what seemed like dishes. Then a buzz of voices trickled upstairs, sailing, bobbing in the air around me with an urgency. I fidgeted in my red chair. Uff. It’s a fish market downstairs! I threw my hands in the air.
After much concentration, as was possible by a seven-year-old, I tuned out the noise and finally settled on the flower vase. I picked up the light-pink colored pencil, tilted my head to the right. My nose almost touched the page as I pressed the lead onto paper. Scritch, scratch. Scritch, scratch. The white flowers turned pink. Scritch, scratch. The pink darkened, a little.
I moved my head away from the page and smiled. The flowers looked flushed, like ammi’s cheeks sometimes. Beautiful. I was about to choose a different color for the ones left empty when snap! Thick fingers in my face; slightly red, nails cut so deep they were buried inside the fingertips.
I looked up, and found myself staring into the large, frog-like eyes of a man peering from behind his black-rimmed glasses.
The stranger knelt down. He inched closer; I clasped the table edges with my fingers. We were face to face with only the tiny red table standing between us, protecting me. I shifted in my chair. My eyes quickly scanned the room, searching for my nanny. But the lounge was empty. The house was suddenly silent. The ruckus downstairs, dead.
My heart began pounding in my throat; I tightened my grip on the table. The man gave me a creepy smile, lips stretched in slow motion, his eyes didn’t blink. Mine fell to the page, trying to find comfort in its array of white and pink.
“It’s me Alizeh beti,” the stranger said, lingering in front of me.
Play statue, he’s not real, he’s not real.
Then the weight of his hand pressed on my head and my shoulders shot up, closing in on my neck as if afraid he was a lion who’d go straight for the jugular. I gripped the table edges tightly and tightly and tightly. My fingertips lost all color, my knuckles turned pale. Shut up and have breakfast, or I’m calling the man to take you away! Ammi’s threat surfaced in my head. Dread somersaulted deeper and deeper into my insides.
Why did she call him? I’m not a bad girl anymore.
I wanted to tell him I’d been good all throughout last month. I had stopped pestering my mother for chocolates. I had stopped crying and screaming in the morning, refusing to be sent to school with the nanny. I had stopped asking my mother to feed me breakfast with her hands. I had stopped asking about my father. I wanted to confess everything, but no words came out. I could only clutch the table tighter, feeling the strands of hope slip out. But then everything halted – the pounding in my throat, the fear churning. I’d caught a familiar movement.
Ammi will tell the man to go away. I folded my arms, lifting my chin to meet his gaze finally, a smirk waiting in the shadows of my lips, waiting, waiting, waiting. And then it was gone.
Ammi had finally made it up the stairs, a few inches away but completely frozen. Not in shock, or horror. She stood with a calm smile on her face, as the strange man slowly caressed my cheek. I had to hold back a grimace. My nose prickled and before I knew it, fat teardrops were sprouting from my eyes, dripping to my cheeks, soaking into his fingers. Blurry vision, but I still caught sight of his smile waning.
“Farida! Why is she crying?” he flipped around, almost shrieking at ammi.
Her face turned into the sun right before its sets, going paler and paler. There was a quiver in her shoulder like a mirage glinting in the windshield. But then she shook her head and as if a switch had been flicked, her calm smile reappeared. But she took too long. It was too late.
The man had already turned, lunged right ahead. He grabbed me from across the table, pulling me into what felt like quicksand; one slight move, and the pressure would tighten and tighten until I was there no more. Play statue, play statue, I kept telling myself. My hands hung limply by my side; my upper body stretched out front.
Ammi walked toward me, knelt down.
“What’s wrong, Alizeh?” she asked. “This is your baba. Aren’t you happy he’s home now?”
Baba? But I don’t have a baba.
She had told me so herself, a year ago.
I’d come home from school, leapt up in her arms, and excitedly asked when my baba would come to pick me up from school.
Her face had fallen, skin turned ashen like I’d punched her in the gut, knocked the wind out of her. “Who told you that your baba will pick you up?”
“No one. Haniya’s baba picks her up every day,” I said thinking about my friend’s father appearing every afternoon in the swarm of mothers, grandmothers and nannies, like a genie in a bottle.
Color flushed through her cheeks the way ink slowly soaks into paper. I traced the wrinkles that appeared on her forehead, waiting for her to answer my question. But her hands had fallen to her side, her breathing slowed like her body was shutting down.
“You don’t have a baba,” she said, a faraway look swimming in her eyes, glistening in the blue light from the TV, growing shinier and shinier by the minute. She then shoved me out of her lap and turned the TV volume up.
After that day, I vowed to never ask about my father again, holding on to the resolution, clasping it firmly between my teeth every time my tongue itched with questions.
But then there I was, being awkwardly embraced on a Friday afternoon by a strange man who ammi claimed was my father. Nothing made sense.
Through tear-filled eyes, still locked in the man’s suffocating embrace, I stared at ammi but all she did was smile, nod and repeat, as if she herself was coming to terms with it.
This is your baba. This is your baba. This is your baba.
I lifted my arms, slid them beneath my father’s, finally returning his embrace. I thought: Maybe everyone’s baba appears out of thin air. Like a genie in a bottle.
When he pulled back, his eyes were on my coloring book where the flowers lay, half colored pink, the rest devoid of life. He moved the pink pencil away from the page, placed a light blue in my hand.
“You haven’t got the color right,” he said, giving me a tight-lipped smile.
I remember Karachi as the city brimming with chai-dhabas at every corner, gutkha-stained buildings, and truck art graffiti splattered on the walls spared from making claims, ‘Jiye Altaf Bhai’ (Long live brother Altaf). I like to think it is those eccentric colors on the city walls that inspired me to splash a variety in my coloring books - the one true treasure I possessed growing up.
I spent my childhood glued to the tiny red chair, fingers immersed in a sea of color pencils, scritch-scratching my lonely afternoons away.
One Saturday, ammi woke me up early, excitedly rushing to my room.
“Oh Alizeh! Wake up. It’s here!” she squealed. “Look!”
I rubbed my groggy eyes, blinking to adjust to the brightness. Ammi hovered over my head, beaming. The sun fell upon her in slanted rays that looked like they were seeping into her, filling her with all warmth and radiance. Her skin was golden, shimmering. In her hand, she swayed a large black box. I was still blinking, adjusting when it hit me. No way!
I jumped out of the bed, squealing. Ammi was holding the latest coloring box, the one I’d been eyeing in the toy store the previous weekend. She giggled, and pulled on my hand, rushing me outside toward my table.
“Go on. Open it right now!” she said, placing the box in front of me. I hurriedly grabbed a coloring book, flipping the pages in excitement, searching for an image that matched our happiness.
Finally! I sighed. There it was. The cheery snowman with the crooked nose, scarf flailing to the right, a wide smile on his face.
My fingers rushed to my gift. I unfastened the Velcro that held it together, and the colors stumbled out, vibrant, light, all shades gazing up at me. Pencils lodged at the top right, a section of watercolors at the bottom, and an array of sharp, oily crayons on the left.
I picked out a creamy white crayon, my heart beating was fast. I was afraid to move; afraid I’d break something. Ammi sat cross-legged on the floor beside me. I brought the crayon, swiping it gently through the snowman’s belly. I swirled it around on his face.
“The snowman looks beautiful, just like you,” she remarked, smiling.
In the evening, she took me to the park. We strolled around for hours. I trotted beside her, my fingers intermingled with hers, both of our hair fluttering in the breeze. Every now and then, she twirled me around, giggled with me as my skirt ballooned up. On our way back home, she bought me cotton candy in the car and when my little sticky fingers landed on her neck, she didn’t shove them away. Nuzzled in the car, basking in the pinkish-orange glow of the sunset, we were so happy.
A month later, everything changed. Baba had come home.
It was on a Monday afternoon, two days after baba had arrived, when I first realized the change. I walked in through the front door, flung my schoolbag onto the sofa in the lounge downstairs. My nanny let out her usual exasperated sighs, but I ignored her and rushed to the dining room, loudly swinging its door open. I’d barely stepped inside when baba’s voice came roaring, slapping me in the face, “Alizeh!”
He was sitting at the head of the table, newspaper in hand, his saccadic gaze changes like a bird. Then his eyes landed on the school shoes I was still wearing inside. It was a habit I’d been adamant on keeping, despite my nanny’s pleading every day.
“Take them off,” he glared at me. “I don’t want to see you bringing in dirty shoes again.”
My head hung low, my tongue seething with anger. I bit into it as I turned around, my teeth digging in deeper and deeper when my nanny shot me a smug look outside. I held her gaze, even from the distance, as I added my shoes to the rack near the front door. On my way back, I took my revenge. I scrunched up my face, stuck my tongue out to her and sprinted toward the dining room before she could catch me. I win, I win, I chanted in my head.
But there was no winning for me that day. I plopped into the chair and found myself face to face with another tragedy: my peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches gone, replaced by gross thinly cut cucumber and tomato slices, the red and green juices blending, making a disgusting concoction in my plate.
This was too much. I wanted to scream. I wanted to release a constant, shrill note from deep within my gut that would make everyone’s ears bleed. But baba was sitting right there, watching me from the corner of his eyes. I silently stared at the red and green, hoping that if I waited long enough, he’d leave, and I’d get what I wanted. But he didn’t move.
“Why aren’t you eating this?” he asked a while later, his voice croaky and hoarse. His eyes bore down on me. Fear throbbed in my throat.
I held my breath, and the urge to gag, as I brought a cucumber slice to my lips. I gulped them all, with trembling fingers, one after another. Then I moved to the tomatoes, rushing through the motions, shoving each piece in my mouth, feeling the sting of its sticky juice as it dripped down my chin.
After lunch, I retreated to the much-needed comfort of my red table. I settled comfortably in the chair, scratching my chin at the spot still pricking from the tomatoes. The page was opened to a tea-set. The kettle with the happy eyes had one of its arms around its teacup babies, who had long, beautiful eye lashes.
The colored pencils waited on me. My fingers fumbled in the box, finally pulling out a dull, ashen grey. I smeared it in the white spaces of the kettle spout until baba’s voice rang in my ear: you haven’t got the color right.
I dropped it instantly, switched to a soft purple instead. I scraped the lilac in the kettle’s base. But suddenly, my ears twitched. I halted, frowning at the fat kettle only three-fourth filled.
I scanned the empty lounge. Golden wisps of an eerie silence floated in the space, growing, and growing, coming towards me. I gripped the metallic leg of the table, feeling the cold steel ground me. But a moment later, the shiny, silver legs were quivering. A tremor in the marble tiles underneath my feet. Thunder roared so loud, as if moving its angry body through the house. Tremors trickled through the marble tiles; terror oozed from all around me.
I raced to the window at the other end of the lounge, eager to witness the brewing storm. The room was darkening by the second.
This is odd, I thought, straining my neck to peer up at a calm, glowing sky. White cotton dabs across the clear slate of light blue. So very odd. I glanced back inside, where the light was still slowly vanishing. I clutched the panes as a rumble reached my ears again, a vibration under my feet like the floors were unsteady, the house about to break. I ran to the living room hoping its window would reveal to me the dark skies, and muddied clouds I was picturing in my mind’s eye.
The living room’s window opened up to an off-white wall blocking my view of the street outside. Below the wall was our garden; a vibrant block of green. I crouched down, and stretched my neck up, my eyeballs touching the eyelids. Far from the green, right above the off-white, there was a small patch of light blue. My heart leaped. My mind though, was fuzzy. How can this be? I’m sure my eyes are mistaken.
I bent down further, convinced it was all a mistake. Just then, I heard it again. This time a faint hollow sound like a giant thumping his foot outside, against the walls of our house. What’s really happening?
I made a run for my parents’ bedroom. But I never made it there.
I had wanted to see clusters of puffed up grey clouds, dragging their weight across a dead sky, thin cracks of lightning splitting them in half. But as I’d inched closer to my parents’ bedroom door, the roar of the thunder became deafening. It turned from a hollow growl to an ear-splitting sound leaking through the crack under the door. I clasped my hands tightly on my ears.
Baba brought a storm with him.
The next afternoon, ammi had her usual shopping spree on the schedule, and I was to tag along because her friend, Ruksana Aunty was also bringing her son Hasan, who was around my age.
Around three o’clock, ammi asked me to get changed, handing me a new frock; a white sleeveless dress that left my stick-like legs exposed. I walked out of the bathroom, twirled around for her. She smiled as she fastened the beady buttons at the front and then asked me to wait near the entrance for her.
When she came downstairs, I was stunned. It was the first time I had seen her in a jet-black abaya. The dark garment hung so loosely on her form, concealing every curve within, that when she stepped right in front of the pedestal fan in the lounge, the dress had ballooned up making her look weightless. I pictured her floating up to the ceiling at any moment and thought: She could be a funny-looking batwoman.
We were all ready to head out to the bazaar. Just then, baba walked in through the main door. He didn’t say salaam even though he had been asking me to say it every time I entered the house. He had an ugly scowl on his face as he kicked off his shoes, his eyes trained on me.
“Farida why is she not covered up?” he growled at ammi, a slight revulsion flickering in his gaze. I hung my head, heating rising to my cheeks, despite the fan whirling loudly nearby, on full blast.
“Why are you even taking her out in so much sun? Just look at her! Look at her skin,” baba said, irritated.
I frowned at my hands; a sourness gathered at the back of my throat.
“Get away, you’ll get darker and darker,” my nanny shrieked in my ear.
A random afternoon, I was perched in front of the lounge window, soaking in the blazing sun. She’d rushed to grab me away, ammi was racing upstairs. Her feet thudding loudly, her face dark red.
“Don't say that about my child!” she had yelled, shoving my nanny away.
I lifted my head, turning to ammi, her cheeks popping out of the black scarf tied tightly around her head. Her forehead creased. I thought: This is the moment. She’ll yell at baba now. I kept thinking, now, now, now, but the silence simply stretched on.
Ten minutes later, we were finally outside. I was wearing the same white frock. Only now, it was paired with pink tights and a black scarf. My face lathered with thick layers of SPF 100. When ammi had been spreading the creamy liquid, massaging it deeply into my baby skin, I had taken a peek at myself in the mirror, face half like a ghost’s. I realized then, for the first time, how I truly looked.
I realized: Yuck. Brown is ugly.
It is true that the bazaars in Karachi are a world of their own. The one we ended up at was a special cramped up space, overflowing with sweaty odors mixed with the tangy smell of samosas wafting from the nearby roadside stalls. Every nook and corner were hogged by a vendor with a new trick up his sleeve. From shiny, colorful bangles being sold to services on offer for all kinds of embroidery needs. It was chaotic and noisy. And extremely frightening for a seven-year-old.
My fingers were latched onto ammi’s at all times as she threaded her way through the crowd, expertly dodging the oncoming hasty shopper. Hasan trotted right beside me, holding onto his mother’s flailing dupatta. He wore blue shorts, his hair was ruffled up, unmade. I made a mental note: Only girls aren’t allowed to show their hair and legs.
But then I gazed up at Ruksana Aunty with her shoulder-length hair flipping about as she looked here and there. Suddenly, I felt like muddied water was gushing through my brain. I rubbed my eyes, scratched my cheeks in confusion. The humidity clung to my body, my face with its layers of sunblock was becoming stickier by the second. I tugged at the knot below my chin. Threads sprouting from my headscarf prickled my skin. I wanted to rip it off.
Our troupe finally halted at ammi’s most beloved clothing shop. Her regularity as their customer was such that when we made our way in the air-conditioned space, Aslam bhai - the middle-aged shop owner - yelled out orders for the ladies to be served with warm chai, and for Hasan and I to be given orange juice boxes.
Rolls and rolls of cloth - colorful, shiny, patterned - were unfurled in front of ammi. I took a seat beside her, mesmerized by the shades, the swirling designs, the glittering fabrics. I didn’t notice someone was beside me, standing close. Getting closer, and closer until I felt it; a calloused touch, a graze over my finger.
I spun around, meeting Aslam bhai’s eye. He was on the seat next to me, his mouth curled in a furtive smile, his lips barely visible underneath the bushy silver-grey moustache. His watery eyes had a strange look in them. I jerked my hand away, and with the other I was reaching to my left, to tug at ammi’s abaya, when suddenly he grabbed my knee. He was grinning like the Cheshire cat, his eerie eyes digging deep into mine as if searching for something to tear, to snatch, to sink his yellowed teeth into.
“I want you to have these chocolates—" His grip tightened as four Dairy Milk packets magically appeared in his other palm. He extended them toward me, inches away, his yellow dirty nails clutching my legs tighter and tighter. Just then Hasan leapt from nearby, grabbing two bars. Aslam bhai let go, flipped his head to scowl at him. I grabbed the opportunity and began tugging rigorously at ammi’s abaya.
“What now, Alizeh?” She snapped, turning around. “What do you want?”
Her eyes fell on Aslam bhai, then on the chocolates in his hand. He gave her a different smile, a sweet gentle one.
“Baaji, I was just offering these to Alizeh beti.”
“Oh thank you bhai. But really-- there’s no need.”
“Oh I insist! You’re our most valued customer. Alizeh is just like my own daughter.”
There it was again, the disturbing twinkle in his eye. His toothy grin became wider and wider.
“Ammi, I want to go home please,” I cried.
She pursed her lips. “In a while. Just take the chocolates. Thank the man. And stay quiet.”
“Alizeh, I said we’re going to be here for a while. Let me shop in peace. Look at Hasan! Look how quietly he’s playing. Why don’t you ever do as you’re told?”
At this point, Aslam bhai interjected with the chocolates again, shoving them in my face now. As I wrapped my fingers around the packet, he extended his other hand, inviting me to shake it. I stared at it, almost expecting it to have stained from the pink in my tights. I turned to ammi, expecting her to politely refuse the invitation.
“Stop being rude!” she said, nudging my shoulder. “Go on. Thank him. Shake his hand. Have I taught you nothing?”
I don’t like him. I wanted to shout and stomp my feet. But I knew that would land me locked in the dark bathroom, the moment we were home. And so silently, I placed my hand in his sweaty palms. He clasped his fingers onto it, pressing them tightly as if trying to glue our skins together. And when he noticed ammi had turned back to the other man in charge, he slid his hands up my wrist, grazing it as he eyed me slyly, licked his lips, parting them once again into a wide smirk that exposed large, wolf-like yellowed teeth. I jerked my hand away and ran outside the shop. Ammi turned around, yelled at me to come back inside, but a second later, she was distracted by another colorful cloth unfurling in front of her.
For the rest of the hour and a half, I refused to give in to her demands, ignoring her even when she turned around, shot daggers at me through the plastic sheets at the entrance. I held my ground outside, in the increasing heat and humidity, scratching my scalp and chin every now and then, glaring at the shop owner, gritting my teeth. My eyes burnt as if on fire. I wondered: why doesn’t ammi love me anymore?
I found my answer the next day.
I woke up to the sound of ammi frantically barging in my room.
“Oh Alizeh! Wake up. It’s here!” she cried. “Look at my dress, it just came from the tailor. Look!”
I squinted up at her. She was practically jumping with joy, a sparkle in her eyes as she gazed at the dress, the pride on her face as if she was witnessing perfection.
It was a momentous day-- ammi was hosting her first kitty party. The event was to mark her debut into the world of socialites, with her chin held up high, now that baba was finally home.
“Oh isn’t it –just lovely.” She sighed a happy sigh, still smiling at the dress. I wondered if she even knew I was there.
“What will I wear?” I asked her softly, terrified of somehow bursting her happy bubble.
She waved her hand, without looking away from the dress. “Oh we’ll find you something.”
Minutes later, I came out of the bathroom, expecting her to be standing in front of my cupboard, hands perched on its oak door. Instead, I was met with a kurta hung lopsided on the thin black handle. There was a note attached to it that said: Wear this.
Five o’clock came quickly that day, like the women who started pouring in through the front door in multicolored swarms, their bangles and jhumkas jingling, giggles erupting through the hallway to the lounge and finally settling in the living room.
Ammi had handed me the little tasks beforehand, instructing me to do just as I was told – show an aunty the way to the powder room, get someone a glass of water. And so, I spent most of the evening running about on my tiny feet, amidst the crowd churning new gossip and laughter echoing through our house louder and louder by the second. Right before the entrée was to be served, I bumped into Ruksana aunty outside the dining room.
“Aray Alizeh! Haven’t seen you all night!” Her eyes wide and bright. “Where have you been hiding?”
“Oh,” I smiled. “I’ve just been helping ammi out.”
There was a sudden shift in her expression. “Did your ammi make you wear this color?” Her eyes narrowed on me and then quickly darted around as if she was afraid of someone seeing us together.
I looked down at the kurta hanging loosely on my body. It was a summer color; a burnt orange with a tinge of red blended into the fabric, the colors forming irregular waves. I gazed at it a minute too long, checking for stains. When I looked up, Ruksana aunty had disappeared. I caught sight of her flailing dupatta, in the distance and hurried forward in the direction, curious to know what just happened.
She turned into the living room, I rushed in right after her. She pulled ammi out of a crowd and took her to a corner.
“Farida, why have you made Alizeh wear that kurta?” she asked abruptly, clutching ammi by the arm.
Ammi gave her a puzzled, almost hurt look as if she had an abuse hurled at her.
“The color you picked out-- it’s all wrong. It’s making her look darker!”
Ammi’s eyes widened; her forehead creased. “I don’t know what do with her—” she sighed. “Her baba has also mentioned it a few times. Do you know any home remedies?”
“Yeah, yeah—I’ll give you a few recipes my mother used on all of us—Look,” she pointed to her own forearms, pinching the skin. “All white and clean now.”
She gave ammi a reassuring smile that proved useless in bringing any change in the creases on her forehead. I zoned out before I could hear what ammi said.
I walked away, feeling like muddied water was gushing through my brain again. My eyes began to sting, as if a fire was being kindled somewhere at the back of my head. I raced up the stairs to my tiny red table, grabbing the edges furiously as I crashed into the chair.
My fingers fumbled at first, then I started flipping the pages with angry little slapping motions. Finally, I thought, gritting my teeth. There was the happy-looking snowman, creamy white.
My fingers dived into the coloring box as if they knew they were on a mission. Out came the right color. Its sharpened tip dug deeper and deeper into the fat milky stomach of the snowman, violently leaving its stains even outside the bold outlines.
I sighed as I moved up from the page. My eyes still stung, but I was happy. My snowman was ready. Its antlers and nose brown, its body a shade darker. The color of dark chocolate. The color of chestnuts. The color of coffee beans.
I looked at the image and smiled. There, now the snowman is ugly too. Just like me.
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