“The one thing I know is that Allah never forgives sodomy,” my godfather Zaki jaan pronounced. This was around ten o’clock, during a brief interlude in the pop musician Akbar Ramish’s performance – a gig that Maadar had arranged in honour of my sixteenth birthday.
The other men at the table, clothed in heavily starched dress shirts, smirked, clinking their glasses and praising Zaki jaan for his provocations. They took long, satisfied swigs of whiskey, paying no heed that Allah also forbade the drinking of alcohol.
“It’s immoral, impure, unpardonable and wretched,” he continued. “And if we let them get their way, then others will find the courage to continue down their path. We can’t let any one of our boys become a...” he paused and uttered in a hushed tone, “kuni.”
He slammed his fist on the table, as if to give his point more force, and the subsequent rattle of the plates echoed up into the sweltering air of that August night.
Baba, alerted to the sound that set off, looked over to where I stood, between the table that Zaki jaan and the men were seated at and the one where my best friends, Faiz – Zaki jaan’s son – and Maihan and others were. Baba’s gaze then travelled across the banquet hall of the Spinzar Hotel, over the glare of the floating candles and through the bouquets of hyacinth bulbs flourishing from the tables. He had evidently overspent for my birthday party. He drifted over.
“Certain indulgences are frowned upon by Islam, even if they are socially permissible now,” Zaki jaan continued.
“Zaki jaan,” came the deep, comforting voice of Baba, ‘how about we leave this subject for another time?’ He lay one hand on my godfather’s shoulder. “Let’s simply enjoy the night, hm? This is Kanishka’s night.”
A look of mutiny settled on Zaki jaan’s face, and then he looked at me. I shrank a little, trying to conceal how petrified I was. Could he see into my heart? Could he know that I, in fact, was a kuni?
But he said nothing. I smiled at Baba, who nodded and then turned his gaze around the room, settling on Maadar. She moved gracefully through the ballroom in her turquoise pullover dress and cream-coloured jacket, stopping frequently to treat each guest like a precious gift, thanking them for their presence and blessing the honour they had done us in sharing in my celebration.
Trailing at her feet was Benafsha, my eleven-year-old sister, dressed in sequins and tulle, her hair woven into elegant braids. Benafsha found the braids uncomfortable and would occasionally reach behind and tease her fingers through them in an attempt to loosen them, as though playing an instrument at the back of her head. I could tell from her uncertain expression that Benafsha felt uneasy being at the party, as if the braids in her hair strained her, and that she’d rather fade into the shadows.
When Maadar allowed her to drift, she hung close to the edges of the room, as if searching for an exit. And yet, despite it being my birthday – despite all of these 170 guests being there for me – felt the same. Did people know my secret?
Over the next two hours, I was drawn away from Maihan and Faiz as new guests emerged. My eyes repeatedly strayed towards the stage, entranced not so much by Akbar Ramish’s music but rather his wavy black hair and deep-set brown eyes. Just before midnight, Akbar Ramish curbed his music to present my Baba onstage.
Buttoning his suit jacket and adjusting his kipper tie, Baba stepped up and grabbed the microphone. He beamed with pride and happiness as shimmering lights and patterned shadows emanating from the disco ball that hung above the dance floor bounced off his face.
He spoke in words slightly cracked at their edges. “Thank you all for coming. Kanishka is my one and only son, and he is such a blessing to me and our family. I trust he’ll continue to make me proud and give me reason to keep my head up high. But no young man is complete without a wife. Let me tell you how funny he was at age seven. He always played with girls.”
I winced in anticipation of what was to follow.
“One day,” continued Baba, “Kanishka came up to me to say that he proposed marriage to a neighbour’s daughter who was seven years older than him. Kanishka said in my ear, ‘Baba, today I made a ring out of flowers and twigs, asked for Farzana’s hand, and put the ring on her finger and said, “You be my wife.”’ I asked him, ‘Do you realize Farzana’s age?’ And Kanishka asked, ‘Can you explain what difference it makes?’”
The room erupted in laughter. Baba resumed his speech after the room quietened. “But Farzana was not so agreeable to the young boy’s heartfelt proposal. Rather, she was amused and even teased Kanishka about it. Seeing how upset my poor boy was, I consoled him, saying, ‘Don’t worry, jaan, maybe you are better off marrying a woman younger than you. And perhaps – just to be on surer ground – you could wait until you’re a little older before you ask another woman to be your wife.’ So now we are here today, when Kanishka is almost a man, and he will soon start his journey into adulthood. Hopefully, the next time we convene, it will be for his engagement party!”
The crowd again roared its approval with thundering applause. I shuddered. Why would Baba shame me by resurrecting a story that I would have preferred to be forgotten and kept buried forever?
Baba clicked his fingers before I could dwell on it. People began to dance while Baba glided to me and wrapped an arm around my shoulders, beaming.
“There are lots of pretty girls here.” He turned his head and winked at me.
“I’m not thinking about girls,” I said.
“Because I have nothing to give them right now,” I said. “You should really start looking for your flower.”
My eyes swept across the crowd, past snub noses and narrow waists, instead falling on heavy stubble, chiselled jawlines, broad shoulders with bulging biceps and triceps. The sheer ruggedness of the girls’ strapping brothers and younger uncles swept my gaze toward them like ocean tides, and I the rudder in their currents. I stole glances, and when they gazed back I quickly looked away.
Baba whispered something in Maadar’s ears and I felt it had to do with me. I tried to ignore my parents and enjoy the celebration. My cousins and their parents were dancing and laughing. My gaze laser-beamed on Maihan’s closest family members as they sat at the front of the ballroom.
His mother, Shameem, haughty and sparkling in a zardozi-embroidered couture gown that softened her neckline, sat faithfully next to the austere Rahim jaan, Maihan’s father, and his bullish older brothers, Baryalai and Ezmarai. Baryalai was much stockier than Ezmarai, whose waif-like stature clearly hadn’t lessened the faith he had in himself, for his eyes stared confidently from a narrow face. Both brothers gleamed in mohair suits and Windsor-knotted ties.
Then there was Lamba, voluptuous Lamba. She was Maihan’s coquettish cousin. I watched as she strode across the room, her bare legs long and caramel-coloured under the lights. She swung her hips to the music, all to the cheers of a pocket of admirers, and flicked her lacquered tresses and then looked at me. I turned away quickly and crossed the room to some of the quieter pockets of guests who sat at their tables in quiet finery.
Excerpted with permission from The Carpet Weaver, Nemat Sadat, Penguin Viking.