A Season of Premature Twilight by Fehmida Zakeer

March 17
Tomorrow is my last exam. Chemistry. It is one of my favourite subjects, the others being Physics and Biology. Shahina told me she could not answer some questions in the Physics paper. I attempted all the questions and I think I got them right. Does that mean I’m looking at a possible hundred percent in Physics? I think so.I haven’t told this to anyone, but I hope.


Yesterday when I went to the school to collect the railway ticket for my journey home, I met Usman Ustad. He told me, ‘Zeenat, I hope you did well in your exams. Your Baapa had big dreams for his girls.’


I reassured him, ‘I have done my best, Ustad.’


He shook his head and smiled, ‘In sha allah, you’ll do well.’


Ever since I passed my tenth exam with eighty percent marks, Usman Ustad repeatedly told me to put in my best. He even said that I could be one of the toppers.I knew he was just saying that to make me work hard. What chance do I have? Thousands of students all over the state – the brilliant and the not so brilliant – attending special coaching classes, sitting up at night with hot cocoa and snacks, preparing for the exams diligently in their attempt to secure a place in the top colleges of the country. Me, I just want to clear my high school with good marks – enough to earn me a scholarship to a local college. That is all I hope for while I sit with my books beneath a gap-toothed roof that creaks and groans in the wind.


If I spend too much time studying, the warden will arrive and tell me, ‘What are you going to be? The next collector of our district? Go and help in the kitchen like the other girls – the rules are the same for everyone.’ 


But, enough about all that.


This year the monsoon has been especially heavy. Showers through the night that continue into the day, curtaining the sun, greying out the landscape, a season of premature twilight and thunder-filled darkness, a moisture-filled cocoon of growth. The path to the door, covered by a green skin woven with the tapering leaves of creeping vines – a breeding ground for the insect world – remains undefined in spite of our footsteps. We covered the broken glass that still hangs in the windowpanes with cardboard, torn out from our notebooks, fearing an invasion of snakes and scorpions.


Then there is the roof, pyramid shaped, covered with ancient tiles, resting on a rotting wooden frame. A month ago, the rain finally found its way to our rooms, slipping past broken tiles, trickling in through the sagging ceiling. The trickle turned into a torrent and the management decided to shift the girls to the storerooms at the back. Some of the girls thought we would be moved to the boys building. It is newly built and has unoccupied rooms. But of course, that was wishful thinking. In our orphanage where boys and girls do not even share classrooms, there was no way the management was going to house us in the same building.


Forty girls packed inside two rooms. To the mosquitoes buzzing at night, our sleeping bodies might as well be one giant creature with several arms spread out over the floor. Not that it matters to them, they just want our blood.


March 18
My last day of school.


The dark interiors of the office annexe seem unusually drenched in a wash of white today. Our school has visitors. Four, no, five cars, black and long, are parked all around the building, like crows clustered around a carcass.


‘I wonder if the visitors will give the orphanage some petro-dollars to repair our building,’ Shahina said.


‘Let’s hope the girls’ hostel will have priority over the office building and the boys’ hostel. I don’t want to send my sister here if they don’t repair the building,’ I said.


After the exam, Shahina and I went around the school. Of course, we avoided meeting Altaf Ustad or any of his friends. They would only say something like, ‘Go home and get married. By next year this time, you will have babies in your arms.’


Thankfully, Altaf Ustad taught religious studies only to the boys. We had Usman Ustad. He often quoted the prophet’s words to underscore the importance of education, ‘Seek knowledge, even if you have to go to China.’


Someone from my class once asked him, ‘Why did the prophet mention China by name?’


‘Maybe because at the time of the prophet (may peace be upon him), when travelling was fraught with risks, crossing the deserts and going to China was a formidable journey. So the prophet was exhorting us to acquire learning at all costs, even if means undertaking a long and difficult journey.’


Once Altaf Ustad came as a substitute to our class. He remarked with his lips curled like a lizard’s tail, ‘I don’t know why the school has a higher secondary section for girls at all. After all what are you going to do with trigonometry and periodic tables,’ his eyes darted around the class, ‘but biology I can understand...’


Shahina saw the anger in my eyes and bade me with her eyes to look away. But I got up anyway and asked him about the prophet’s saying about going to China to seek knowledge, ‘Our prophet placed much importance in gaining knowledge.’


The salt and pepper hairs on his long beard quivering, Altaf Ustad brought his squat form towards my desk and told me, ‘My child, that hadith has no validity, it is a weak hadith. We cannot consider it authentic.’


‘How is the authenticity of hadith determined – if it does not serve to oppress...’


Altaf Ustad shouted, his eyes closed, ‘Enough. Think before you speak girl! This is what happens when we educate girls, their tongues become too long.’


Shahina pinched my arm and put a finger to her lips. I sat down with a frown. Later she said, ‘If you argue with him, we’ll get thrown out of this place. Remember he is a Board member.’


March 19
It’s been six years since Baapa went away leaving behind Umma and four daughters. The twins were just babies then. Umma put my sister and me in the orphanage inspite of opposition from our relatives.


‘They’ll find fault with whatever I decide anyway. At least this way, your education is taken care of,’ she explained to me on our journey to the orphanage that first time. I knew it also took away her worries about feeding two mouths. After all how much could she earn by selling vegetables. I wish I could help her somehow.


The rhythm of the train makes me sleepy as always. But the minute I close my eyes, a whisper echoes in my mind, why did all those visitors come to our classroom yesterday?


When I put this question to Shahina, she said, ‘Maybe the principal wanted to show them the condition of the classrooms or maybe he wanted to show them that their funds will be put to good use.’


I wanted to believe her, but I still had questions. ‘If that were the case, why did Altaf Ustad ask all of us to look up from our papers? Why did that tall man look at me and smile? Why did Altaf Ustad repeatedly look in my direction after talking to that man, his lips curled more than usual, his beady eyes darting all over me?’


March 25
My life is taking a turn I never expected.


Altaf Ustad and the principal came home today – with a marriage proposal. Remember those guests? It appears they were bride shopping. And I was the chosen one!


They took turns in telling us.


‘They’ll give money and jewellery.’


‘You don’t have to bear any expenses.’


Umma looked at me. Then she said, ‘Let me ask my relatives. I cannot take a decision immediately.’


Altaf Ustad said, ‘What is there to think about? This is a good alliance. Your daughter will live like a queen.’


‘These are people from the holy land, what is there to think about?’ the principal echoed.


March 30
Our relatives are excited. They say I should think about how this can change the lives of my family. Suddenly we seem to have so many well-wishers; I did not know I belonged to such a big clan.


April 5
Even though Umma is smiling, her brows are pinched. My sisters are also smiling. They are too young to realise what is happening.


The wedding is day after tomorrow. I’m not at all comfortable.


April 15
After the nikah, we drove straight to the resort by the backwaters, surrounded by swaying coconut trees, overlooking canoes bobbing in between silvery ripples. I spent the first night with my husband here.


The next night his cousin came into the room escorted by my husband. After some time my husband left. I thought he would return soon. I was wrong. The night after that, he brought his friend. Alone in a locked room during daytime, a different husband each night.


There is no escape route from this nest of rooms overlooking the postcard view.


April 22
They dropped me home last night. In the afternoon, I got a call from my ‘husband’. He said three words over phoneand nothing more. I’m free again. Just like that.


My mother fainted. We called the nurse aunty from next door.


April 24
Umma and I went to the orphanage to talk to the principal. He told Umma, ‘Your daughter is very headstrong, she must have done something to make them angry, otherwise why should this have happened?’


When I tried to tell him what happened, he said, ‘These people have given a big donation to the school and this in addition to the money and jewellery they gave you...’


Umma said, ‘They took back the jewellery...’


The principal said in a low voice, ‘So that is what this is all about, money. You want more money. Ungrateful people.’


I got up from my chair and asked Umma to do the same.


We are going to the child welfare committee tomorrow.


April 30
I’m famous. Television people and journalists arrive at my house every day. I wear a burkha now, the black garb a shield against the flurry of words swirling around me. Every day I learn more about myself from the newspapers and television.


 ’The girl has a history of telling lies.’


 ’Her mother sent her away to the orphanage to reform her.’


‘They demanded more money.’


May 2
The exam results came out today. Usman Ustad called early in the morning.


‘Zeenat, you have secured full marks in Physics and ninety-seven percent in Chemistry and Biology. This is a first for our school. We are so proud of you, you have topped the district.’


I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.


Ustad contined, ‘The principal wants to meet you.’


‘What does he want from me now, Ustad?’


He hesitated, ‘He doesn’t want bad press...’


‘He should have thought of that earlier, Ustad.’


‘My child, decide what’s best for you.’


May 3
The news is even bigger now.


‘Divorced high school student is district topper.’


There is a press conference at the collectorate. The district collector wants to felicitate me.


 May 4
There were many people at the conference – the collector, lawyers, television and newspaper journalists, the police, ordinary men and women.


There were many proclamations, ‘We will apprehend the orphanage management and the foreign nationals responsible for this terrible crime against this girl.’


‘We demand compensation for the girl.’


‘We cannot allow the exploitation of our girls by foreigners.’


The voices filled the air, indignant, angry. My ears shifted frequencies drowning out the cacophony. I heard the bark of dogs, the tuneful wail of a cuckoo, the raucous laughter of crows along with the whirr of fans and clicks of cameras.


Finally, it was all over. I walked home with Umma carrying a floral garland and a bouquet.



Fehmida Zakeer's stories have been published in various online journals and print anthologies. She won the Himal South-Asian short story competition 2013 and her story, Pot of Water was chosen by the National Library Board of Singapore for the 2013 edition of their annual READ! Singapore anthology. She was twice on the honourable mentions list of the Binnacle Ultra short competition and a story of hers was shortlisted in the Out of Print-DNA short story competition 2014. A collection of her flash fiction titled Canvas of Life and Other Stories is available on Amazon.