The mud clung to her sandals as she ran through the rain, the dirty water splashing her cotton shalwar and staining it brown. But Ayesha carried on. Nothing mattered when it came to Insaaniyat – the charity where she worked – and today was supposed to be a big day. Her friend Saira had called her saying a very rich man was coming to the office today, which could translate into a very big cheque.

“If word is to be believed, his cheque could change a lot of things here at Insaaniyat. It could pay our salaries for life, that’s for sure.”

The overcrowded city of Multan had done its best to delay her, but Ayesha was persistent. Had been since childhood, when she would force her father to drive her all the way to Lahore for swimming tournaments, to compete with the rich kids from the elite schools. Maybe if she had become a champion, their financial situation would have been better today, but sadly that was not to be.

Her family only had one car left now, so Ayesha either had to brave public transport or dish out money on one of those ride-hailing apps. Today was supposed to be dry outside, but the moment she had boarded the bus, rain began to patter on the windows. She couldn’t help but laugh at nature’s injustice. Street hawkers had rushed to cover their goods with plastic sheets, particularly the men selling chickpeas roasted in sand and salt – they couldn’t afford to let the sand get wet. The rain fell down in icy sheets, turning the concrete buildings a dark grey colour, making Multan look even duller than usual. Maybe it was her mood, but it was as if the rain had leeched all the cheer from the city. She had endured the entire ride through the traffic-choked city, inhaling the noxious fumes and scolding herself for not taking an Uber. They had managed to retain the family house in Cantt – one of Multan’s poshest addresses – but it was quite a trek to get to the less savoury parts of town, and that’s exactly where the charity was headquartered.

Her stained shalwar was impossible to salvage at this point, but she adjusted her sopping-wet dupatta over her chest, ran her fingers through her wet hair, patting down any stray strands, and smiled as she entered the gates of her workplace, brushing her shoes against the mats placed on the brick ­oor. No matter how you feel inside, there must always be a smile on your face at work. She’d learned that from her father, who’d tried to do his best throughout his tumultuous career. And so far, his advice had worked. Her fellow workers and her boss loved her, as did the people who visited Insaaniyat

Saira was popular for her hyperbole, but that didn’t mean that she spoke falsehoods. She only embellished the truth a bit. If she said it was a rich man, it was going to be a rich man. Charities in Pakistan were always in dire need of money, not because nobody donated – it was a Muslim’s duty to give, after all – but because there was so much to do. And this organisation, committed to eradicating domestic violence, had its plate well and truly full.

“When a country has a population of over two hundred million, is it any surprise that nothing is ever enough?” her boss, Shugufta Raheem, always said. “All we can do is our best and trust the government to do the rest.”

As if that will ever happen, Ayesha thought, looking at the whitewashed building ahead, some of the paint already peeling. Shugufta kept the place clean, but Ayesha knew that she wouldn’t waste any precious money on vanity projects, not when there was so much else to do.

Her father had frowned when he first visited the offices of the charity. “Girls in our family do not work, beta,” he had murmured, surveying the place with distaste. “What will people say – that Safdar Khan Khakwani is now incapable of looking after his daughter?”

“They will say that our daughter is learning to be financially independent,” her mother had quipped, steering her husband away from the offices and towards the courtyard, where they could sit beneath the shade of a towering shisham tree. So many trees had been chopped down in Multan in recent years, such specimens had become a rarity.

“I can still provide for the family, Begum,” Safdar Khan had said, puffing up his chest, an indignant expression on his face. “Never let it be said that a Multani man cannot look after his family.”

“Nobody is saying that, Safdar Sahab, but we need to let the girl breathe, don’t we? God knows this city is claustrophobic enough.”

“Ah, you’re right there.” At that, Safdar Khan had visibly deflated, and thus Ayesha had been the first in the family to be given permission to work, much to the dismay of those family members who, over the years, had uttered scathing remarks about an unmarried Multani girl working in an office – without a headscarf, no less. Ayesha had ignored them, as had her parents. Multan was changing, and if these people were going to remain stuck in the past, then so be it. 

Excerpted with permission from Someone Like Her, Awais Khan, Simon and Schuster India.