Half-asleep, Meharunnissa looked at the clock. It was 11.30 p.m. and she was worried that her husband was not home yet. She wondered what he was doing so late into the night. The shop would have closed at nine. What was he doing afterwards? She went to the bathroom, then came back and lay down on the bed. She was still very tired.

This was the third abortion. For the procedure, she and her mother had secretly visited the family doctor in town and to make sure that no one caught wind of it, she’d spent the next few days in her mother’s house. She could not tell her mother-in-law that she was bleeding and healing and unable to cook and clean in this post-operative state.

Even when she’d spend a single day in bed, recovering from a cold or a virus of some kind, Subaida would throw dirty glances at her. She did not like to see her daughter-in-law idling away. Wracked with all this guilt, Mehar could only eat very little. How could she afford the luxury of eating in bed having terminated a pregnancy without anyone’s knowledge?

If Subaida came to know about the abortion, she would scold her mercilessly. How could she know that her son disliked using condoms? Or was this even something that could be revealed to her? Mehar hadn’t confided in her own mother, after all.

When Mehar had first realised her menstrual cycle was delayed, and told Hasan, he’d said, “Let’s keep the child. It’s a sin to abort in Islam.”

She had wept bitterly. “I cannot manage. I already have these two. And you don’t even let me use birth control.”

“Don’t you know that it is not permissible to use contraception in Islam? If you do so without my knowledge because your mother is putting ideas into your head, you will only receive a talaq from me.” With that single threat, he’d silenced her.

The next day she had gone to her mother in tears. Her mother reached for every possible slur she could summon to curse Hasan for using her daughter’s unblemished body so pitilessly, but she kept her arrows to herself.

“Who in this day and age does not use contraception? Do these laws apply only to him?” she said, blowing her nose. “If you sleep with him again, I’m going to give you a beating.”

After Hasan’s admonishment over the first abortion, Mehar never again breathed a word to him if her periods were delayed.

First, she would simply ask her mother-in-law, “I’d like to go to my mother’s house for a week, may I go?” Subaida never objected to it. “Why only for a week, go for ten days, even, and enjoy yourself. It’s only the next street – it’s not as if you have to take the trouble of going there by car.” So she would wave the green flag.

After that there would be no need for Mehar even to ask her husband – she would merely inform Hasan that she was going and she would leave. The next day, in order to not rouse anyone’s suspicion, she would say to her husband and mother- in-law that little Sajida had a fever, and that she had to take her to the doctor. She would then leave for the procedure, her mother accompanying her.

Her mother’s lament would promptly begin in the car, and take at least ten days to subside.

The image of Shahul swinging from the noose came to her in a nightmare, and Subaida awoke startled and anxious. “Allah, why are you ruining my mind,” she muttered and reclined against the wall. Her sari, which hung on the clothesline, fluttered under the ceiling fan.

She did not want to think about those memories, yet she could not avoid how they crept into the corners of her subconscious.

Before her marriage, she had heard the whispers and laughs, the comments about how effeminate Shahul’s gait was. But since the day she’d been born, her marriage to him had been fixed. When the time came, Subaida’s mother had her reservations: “Our son-in-law’s behaviour and mannerisms do not seem right...” She was afraid to discuss the subject at length with her husband.

“Why?” he would say, “You don’t want to give your daughter in marriage to my sister’s son?”

Her mother remained silent. “Oh no, it’s nothing like that...”

“We have only one daughter, and my sister has only one son. There’s a lot of property between the two of us. This will be a perfect fit.” He would say this with so much pride that it would quell Subaida’s mother’s fears. Subaida was not yet at an age where she understood the mysteries of matrimony.

She was married when she was fourteen and went to live with Shahul and his mother – that is, her paternal aunt – who were very kind to her.

Shahul would bring Subaida something to eat every day. He would also buy her earrings, bangles and other little trinkets from the bazaar. She liked him a lot. Her mother who lived one street away would visit her daily. “Did anything special happen?” her mother would ask her, and she would reply, bemused, “No, not really.”

One day, after her mother and her aunt had been whispering among themselves, her mother finally asked her, kulichiya, have you bathed? Subaida did not understand. She blinked and said, “Yes.”

“No, not that bath, what an idiot!”

Subaida pondered deeply over the significance of this exchange. She intended to ask Shahul about bathing that evening, but fell asleep before he came home.

In the middle of the night, she was woken by a rustling noise. She had hung her sequinned sari on the clothesline as her mother had always advised her to. She’d intended to air it for an evening before folding it and putting it away in her cupboard for future use. Now she watched Shahul remove the delicate fabric and take it in his arms.

Curious, she observed him take her blouse in his hands next, and enter into the nearby room. She could not contain her surprise. She was simultaneously dazed and confused. Subaida summoned up the courage to get out of bed. She took soft steps and stood outside the door of that room; it had been bolted from the inside, so she looked through the keyhole.

To her surprise, Shahul was wearing her sari and blouse. He was standing in front of a small mirror, looking at himself with immense warmth and affection! Subaida felt her head reel. Gripped by fear for her husband’s sanity, she quickly went back to bed and lay there with her eyes open. A little while later, she felt him enter the room and lie down next to her. He slept as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

The next morning, when she decided to observe him closely, he seemed to appear as normal...

Meanwhile, her mother and aunt had grown tired of asking her about the “bathing”. Presented with an opportunity when her aunt was not around, she asked her neighbour Kanisha about it.

Kanisha could not hold back her surprise. “Oh, you idiot! You are fourteen years old and you still don’t know!”

But she had not understood – despite the many, many times her aunt and her mother had brought up the subject. Now she wondered how Kanisha could have grasped the meaning of this mysterious word the very first time she mentioned it. She asked her with wide-eyed wonder: “What are you saying? Do you really know what kulichiya is?”

“Why? Has your husband not said anything to you? Why do you ask me, instead of asking him?”

Kanisha said all this in jest, but when she heard a door open and the approaching footsteps of Subaida’s aunt, she scampered off.

“Who is that? Is it that Kanisha? If one is not around, it’s enough for such people to invent stories. They’ll lose no time in ruining a family,” saying so, Subaida’s aunt asked her to fetch a pitcher of water. Subaida wondered how much her mother-in-law had heard, and if perhaps she had rat ears.

Three days later, Shahul had hung himself.

Subaida’s innocent question had been enough to cause the whole village to talk about him, leading to Shahul taking his own life.

Women, Dreaming

Excerpted with permission from Women, Dreaming, Salma, translated from the Tamil by Meena Kanadasamy, Penguin Books.