BOOK EXCERPT

A painter struggles to adapt to a stifling marriage and a repressive regime in this Pakistani novel

‘The Empty Room’ by Sadia Abbas, is set in 1970s Karachi.

As soon as the car left Shehzad’s house, Tahira rolled down her window, breathing deeply of the breeze. She was slowly, unknowingly, training herself to forget his presence. For a few moments, the day before, she had even succeeded. At night, it helped that he seemed not to know she was there, even when he touched her.

She loved the drive from his house to hers. Federal B Area was not so far from North Nazimabad, but as you drove down wide avenues and turned in and out of narrow lanes you could glimpse the hills, little offshoots of the Kirthar range that separated Karachi from Baluchistan. The sight of the hills, the width of the avenues, the memory of walking to Haidery with her siblings and Andaleep, aroused a deep and familiar comfort. As a child, looking at those hills, she would think that if she only made up her mind she could scale them, and then she would walk from one province to another. And then up through Kabul to Samkarkand and Bokhara to follow the trail of the Mughal Kings. It was a strange and powerful thought. She was never sure why it moved her so, or why it came to her now.

Next to her, Shehzad drove the car with every appearance of indifference and nonchalance. He would never have admitted that he was increasingly baffled and unnerved by her.

He told himself that she was responding to her education. She was polite just as he had desired, but he had not known how elusive a reserve such politeness would create. She seemed to hedge and retreat and disappear, as if he were frightening! He, who was only concerned for her well-being, for her preservation and safety. Must not her fear and distance be signs of her insincerity? Revealing what had seemed to him, in his innocence, an artless eagerness to be instead a disturbing capacity to feign – timely evidence of her dangerous, ensnaring dishonesty.

He felt her next to him, neat as a perfectly folded napkin. Precise and absorbed and away. He felt she was breathing in her imminent, desperately desired freedom from him. He could see her profile out of the corner of his eye, the sweep of her eyelashes, the softness of her cheek, which he had never touched. He had woken a few nights ago and had wanted to touch the down on her cheek, had wished to see if it felt the way it looked, but had not known how. It had seemed too intimate a revelation.

They pulled up at the gate of her parents’ house. The vine framing it was covered with small jasmine blossoms, scattered like distant stars. It was cool enough this early in the morning for the scent to carry. The gate itself was stark, large, inset with a little door, modern, its lines spare, like the house itself. Tahira wondered if she would ever be able to approach it without a wrenching sense that it was hers. Was this what exile felt like?

“I’ll pick you up tomorrow after work. Make sure you make preparations for Europe. You’ll need some warm clothes and comfortable shoes to walk in.” Tahira couldn’t identify the edge in his voice, not knowing that he resented her distance.

“I don’t have any money.”

Wanting to punish her, he said, “Ask your parents for some.”

“Will you have dinner here?”

“No.” He pressed on the horn.

Latif, a small wiry man, a fringe of grey hair around a shiny pate that seemed permanently covered with little beads of sweat, appeared in the little door. “Should I open the gate?”

Shehzad shook his head.

“Goodbye,” said Tahira.

He drove away without replying.

“Tahira Bibi, are you alright?” Latif asked. He had known her since infancy, watched her as a precise little child, earnest, always drawing and reading, careful, polite – not at all like that dreadful mother of hers, who always wanted something, wanted more of everything. Basheeran and he had stayed because they had no children of their own and they had come to love Tahira and Waseem, and then the twins, when they were born. But Tahira remained Basheeran’s favourite, he knew. They had taken excited part in the preparations for her wedding. He had even danced at the Mehndi, pulled by Waseem and Seema into the dancing circle.

“Of course,” she said, thinking: I must get better at lying. He looked skeptical but said nothing.

“How are you and Basheeran?”

He did not say that Basheeran was, like everyone else in the house, praying to be shown a way out of “the calamity” as her marriage had been dubbed by Tahira’s siblings.

They all felt dimly that this was inauspicious, but weren’t quite sure if one could be inauspicious after the event, which made things complicated. For if this were the event, what was the rest of her life going to be? Latif found it all terribly confusing, so he just shook his head. Telling himself – as he had for weeks – that this was the way things were did not seem convincing to him or, more vociferously, to his wife and the children in the house.

Tahira stopped to pick some jasmine. She stared at the crown-of-thorns euphorbia next to the jasmine vine. The flowers, spherical and red, were scattered amongst the menacing thorns, like carefully crafted buttons of blood on branches that jutted out like cylindrical swords. Perhaps this will be my life, she thought, even the flowers will be bloody. She tried to berate herself for being melodramatic, but then was defiant, if she were to be subjected to the petty tyrannisings of her mother-in-law, the casual malice of Shehzad’s sisters, Shehzad’s own alternations of indifference and contempt, made witness to her parents’ weakness, she was, she decided with grim amusement, entitled to melodrama.

She went in through the kitchen door, reaching for a large, pale green, half-ripened guava, growing sturdy and dense, on the tree next to the kitchen. She asked Basheeran to cut it up and serve it with salt and red pepper. Basheeran looked at her carefully, searching her face. Tahira swung it violently away from her gaze and called out with, what she decided was heroic, bonhomie, wishing she could suppress the anger in her voice, “Where is everyone? I’m home!”

Waseem, Seema and Nilofer all ran into the kitchen, talking at the same time.

“Did you hear what President Yahya Khan has done now?”

“Do you want tea?”

“You look so beautiful in that sari!”

“Do you realise the cricket series is about to begin?”

Tahira was aware of their eyes searching her, to look for hurt or pain or change. “One at a time,” she said, forcing herself to laugh.

A few weeks ago they had been a happy family at noisy play. Now they were a family noisily playing at noisy play.

She was glad her mother did not seem to be around. She was not sure she could bear to see her just yet. She did not want to be reminded of her parents’ defeat, her own entrapment. She herded her brother and sisters into the large sunlit breezy verandah, with an old swinging takht, piled high with cushions and bolsters with covers embroidered by Nilofer, Seema and Tahira. There were pots of cactus and money plant vines strewn around the space. On one of the walls, hung two still lifes of a clay pot, ripe, coppery ber and large, green guavas, in the style of Cezanne, made by Tahira as homework for an art class. She remembered she had chosen the ber and pots for their colour and the guavas because she felt their density matched the mass, the sheer architectural presence of Cezanne’s fruit. Her mother had had them framed. In the bright familiarity of the verandah, her new home seemed like an improbable fairytale, set in a drear and cold land, seven seas away and populated with mythic witches and unimaginable dangers – and as real.

She decided to savour the moment, to pretend that Shehzad did not exist, that the past few weeks had not occurred, that that this was truly home.

Seema returned with a cup of tea and her guava, followed by Latif pushing a trolley laden with samosas, pakoras and halva. Tahira took a samosa and the guava, and then jumped up suddenly to go to her room, trying to keep her word to Andaleep and to herself – she would make preparations to paint.

Her old room was still covered with drawings and paintings. Many of her clothes and shoes still occupied the cupboard, and the single bed was covered with a pale gold silk quilt she had had made herself. On one side of the room was a meticulous arrangement of colours, pencils, charcoal, paper and a collection of objects which had made their way into her work: some clay pots, a stainless-steel glass, a large sea shell from the beach at Clifton, pearly-white with pale bronze and mustard striations and the faintest sheen of pink. There were stones with rose and aquamarine and cerulean hues and an occasional iridescent shimmer. There were drinking glasses, translucent salmon-pink with a threadlike gold band and a repeating pattern of horizontal turquoise-coloured diamonds around the rim – a gift to the family from an uncle who lived in the States. There were sandals with gold tassels and black and russet embroidery. Tahira looked at these and wondered: if her life were to be told in objects what witness would these bear? Were they gaudy and tasteless, did they betray a lamentable lack of consistency and austerity, could the artist be one with so undisciplined, so promiscuous an eye for colour?

Excerpted with permission from The Empty Room, Sadia Abbas, Zubaan.

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