BOOK EXCERPT

What would happen if the classic ‘Little Women’ were set in modern-day Pakistan?

A familiar story turned all new – but equally compelling.

The lessons began to bleed into evenings so Maria wouldn’t return home till dinner. I started going home with the rest of the class. He would drive her back afterwards, coasting through the city in twilight with an unbearable slowness. The moon and the sun both in the sky and Maria coming up the drive, mouth pale and skin bright.

When she finally confessed the lessons to their mother I saw a kind of relief flutter over her face, all those missing hours finally accounted for. Mehrunissa was too pragmatic to get mad about some lessons. She offered her congratulations instead, cryptic and even reluctant. I hope you get exactly what you want out of this, she said.

The rest of us watched our teacups.

There was something naked in Maria’s face that embarrassed us all, the coolness stripped from her. I could feel Ash twitching beside me, her feet jerking along with the songs on the radio as she scribbled into her notebook. The girls always brought their work to tea, books or drawings or sewing. They never wasted their afternoons and because I didn’t want to seem lazy in front of them, I started bringing my homework with me.

It usually fell by the wayside because it was always much easier to be caught up in whatever they were doing. I helped the younger girls with their maths sometimes – I was not especially good at it but I was two years ahead of Bina and more patient than her sisters. I even posed sometimes for Leila’s drawings. She used her sisters for all her models even for the men in them, but with me around that became unnecessary. I spent hours holding still while she watched me, her small face screwed up carefully.

This afternoon, it was just the five of us in the room. Our hands on the table, working typewriters or pens and pages, and Maria alone in it all, tuned up and buzzing.

The way love lit her from inside.

Finally the electricity of her that I had always sensed was on the surface. The boys, already warm to her, were struck all over again. My mistress, when she tread on the skies, on the tops of our heads. She could barely stand to be in the same room as him anymore, breaking into shivers when he walked past the corridor.

It made us love him more. We sensed something noble, some solid manhood in him that made him worthy of her devotion. The boys were now a pack of hungry eyes, stuck to Maria all the time, but I watched him. He moved with heavy feet now, walking through water, a spellbound man.

He kept an account of each encounter. Years later I would find his journal, an imperfect record of their love affair. A thin catalogue of her body, his weak words barely holding up the glory of her – he spoke of her as parts, never the whole. Thickly separated eyelashes, smudging the tops of her cheeks. Her lips parted in a groan, the soft sum of her thighs.

What they spoke about in those hours in between went unwritten. We are left to imagine this, the stuttering rides in his car, her long fingers trembling as she smoked his cigarettes, rolled the windows up and down. A foreign restlessness infected her bones. She moved like she was someone other than herself.

His accounts were also sparse on the subject of how things finally started up between them, what it was that broke the delicious tension – was it Maria who went to him or he who asked her in? Did they fall together in the growing dark, moving like creatures in one of Ayesha’s plays?

Sarvat Hasin
Sarvat Hasin

It was the talk of lovemaking that baffled me most.

Boys at school had circulated pictures for years now. I stared at the postcard-sized porn, like artefacts in a museum, the cold hard fact of how bodies collided. I understood the logistics of sex, why people wanted it, how it made them go out of their minds with lust, how people could stare at each other across crowded rooms, parties, classrooms, weddings – and thought of those postcard positions with something hazy and dark, wolf-like want. What seemed complicated was how they got there – what words went between the looks and the actions.

I imagined Maria’s long grey kurta, buttoned all the way down to the floor. How she must have taken each button apart with trembling fingers. How the canvas of her skin must have been unveiled slowly, how the hot room would have grown bright and moon-ish as the lights went up. Their industrial glow on her breasts, her pillowy stomach, the snag of hair below.

Maria in his office, the woman-teacher trembling like a girl.

We know she knew of his past, the rumours that circled him like crows over a corpse and how the truth of it must be buried there and still she chose him, chose this – the implication of that –

Her fingers catching his wrist, wrapping around the bone there like a snake. He would have touched her face to say no, once, maybe even twice, but she kissed him, something that used to exist only in the movies. There was no place in the dark office for what happened between them.

Outside, wind whipped through empty school corridors and whistled through the half-open windows. Maria left her clothes on cement floor, gave her freezing body into his hands. Fear turned her skin cold, statued it blue. The fluorescent lights above them, pale and flickering, the business-like briskness of his voice dissolving as he moved to turn them off – but she wanted to see everything.

The smear of her palms against the desk, her quivering spine as she put herself in his hands. It was the surrender that mattered more than anything. What giving her body must have meant, I could never understand that in a thousand years. It was never the same for men, and Maria, she was never like other women.

The lovemaking affected the girls too, even more powerfully than it did us at school. Unspoken, but the change seemed to switch through them all. They were a house lit up for feast days. They were a circle of birthday candles. In its early stages, the affair swung Maria away from her sisters; now, it wound them closer back together. As it happened to her, it happened to all of them. Now, when I went to the house, there was always slow jazz playing, the games and the work abandoned for more languid activities. Even Ash put away her typewriter to read more than she usually did, her head in Bina’s lap while the other girls stitched or drew.

For the first time in my history with the girls, I felt outside of what was happening to them, this invisible net of sisterhood. The slick happiness of their smiles and how they took more sugar in their tea, drank it thick and milky.

If he hurts you, I’ll kill him, I said.

We were outside the school, waiting for my car to come pick us up. Usually she would have refused my offer for a lift but it was expected to rain and anyway, she had been much gentler lately, less likely to stick to those rules.

I put my hands into my pockets as I said it and screwed my eyes up to the sky, with its blackening clouds clustered together.

Maria laughed. You’re very sweet Jimmy.


I mean it.


And I did. I don’t know what I could possibly have done to that man, older, squarer. I had not yet reached the years where I would try and build up my body. I only knew how I felt, and said it anyway.

Excerpted with permission from This Wide Night, Sarvat Hasin, Penguin Random House India.

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