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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Girl Like That

Tanaz Bhathena

Square Fish



The wails Masi let out were so heart-wrenching, you would think I was her only daughter lying dead before her instead of the parasite from her sister’s womb, as she had once called me. She should have been a professional funeral crier. Porus’s mother knelt in a pool of his dark blood and joined Masi in a cacophonic duet. Masa was more somber. He dabbed his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt, took deep breaths, and tried to compose himself. The officer in charge of the accident scene told Masa that our corpses would be kept in a local morgue till arrangements for the funerals were made.

His loud voice floated upward to where Porus and I now hovered, a few meters above the wreckage on the Al-Harameen Expressway in Jeddah—completely dead, yet not entirely gone.

We stared at the scene below: Porus’s smoking Nissan crumpled like a Pepsi can, the green-and-white squad cars, a flashing Red Crescent ambulance, the Saudi police in their long-sleeved khaki uniforms with black berets, our mourning families. The police had blocked off several kilometers of the highway shoulder and most of the right lane with bright orange construction cones. The area around the car was marked with yellow tape.

It had taken them an hour to remove our bodies from the Nissan, and even that had been fairly messy. There was blood everywhere. Blood that smelled like metal and gushed from our bodies like springs. Blood that had splattered across the windshield, and pooled on the floor of the car. A tire that had somehow come loose during the accident lay a few feet away, coated with the same dark, gleaming liquid.

“Aunt,” I heard Masi tell the police officer in English when he asked her how she was related to me. “Mother’s sister.”

Masi gare de phansi, I used to taunt her in Gujarati when alive. My aunt who would strangle me with a noose. Strangulation and suffocation were common ways of getting rid of unwanted children in India, the country where I was born. Quick and easy fixes for daughters who were supposed to be sons, for orphans like me who were foisted upon reluctant relatives. Once, on a vacation in Mumbai, I heard the Dog Lady tell Masi that there were rare occasions when very rich families paid their maids to do the job. Strong, limber women from slums like Char Chaali who used pillows or sometimes their own hands to snuff out the life of a newborn.

Masi’s hands were shaking now. A side effect of the pills my uncle made her take for her “sleeping problem,” as he liked to call it. With Masi, everything was a side effect. Tears, mood swings, the beatings she gave me over the years, the raging fits she sometimes threw when I did something that reminded her of my dead mother, or worse, my dead father.

A few feet away, Masa stood talking to another police officer—a short and potbellied man who was gesturing wildly in the air. We were not Saudis or Muslims, so I knew that neither Porus nor I would be buried here. Expatriates who died in the Kingdom were shipped back to their home countries for funeral rites. There were procedures to be followed, paperwork to be taken care of at the morgue and the Indian Consulate. Rites before the last rites.

But it was obvious to me, even from up here, that the potbellied officer wasn’t talking about paperwork. He pointed toward our bodies, shouting in a mix of English and Arabic. If I moved a little closer, like Porus had, I could probably hear everything he was saying. But I didn’t need to. From the context of the scenario it wasn’t that difficult to guess the reason for the police officer’s displeasure. Few infractions riled up the authorities in Saudi Arabia more than a girl voluntarily seeking out the company of a boy, especially one who wasn’t her brother or husband.

“I will miss my mother,” Porus told me softly.

I did not reply. I didn’t think I would miss anyone, really. Perhaps I would miss Masa for the times he had been remotely sane: the few instances when he spoke his mind in spite of Masi’s constant henpecking. But I tried to forget Masi as a matter of convenience. I wasn’t exactly Mother Teresa during the short span of my earthly existence, so there was no guarantee that I would spend my afterlife on a stretch of white heavenly sand. Why rack up more unpleasant memories if I ended up going to hell?

A police officer removed my school ID card from my ripped handbag. I saw him glance at my name and copy it down in his notebook: Zarin Wadia. Female. Age 16. Student. Car accident. If my English teacher, Khan Madam, was there, she would have added more: Bright student. Debating aficionado. Troublemaker. Disturbed.

The officer lifted an edge of the white shroud and compared my face to the photo on my ID. It was one of those few pictures where a photographer had managed to capture me smiling, a curl of black hair peeking out from behind my scarf, the hair partly veiling my left eye. Masa said the photo made me look like my mother during her teens. This was not a surprise. For as long as I could remember, people had told me I was my mother’s mirror image. A replica of dark curls, fair skin, and brown eyes, right down to the beauty mark on my upper lip.

I did not remember my mother that much. Sometimes I could recall the soft hum of a lullaby, the cool press of a glass bangle on my cheek, the smoky fragrance of sandalwood and loban from a fire temple. Memories that were few and far between, never more than flashes of sensation. I could often recall with more clarity the first day I grew aware of my mother’s absence. A hollow, nearly tangible silence in a warm room. Dust motes dancing in a stream of light from the window. November 28, 2002. The autumn of my fourth birthday. It was the week after my mother died—of cancer, they said, even though I knew it wasn’t.

It was also the day a neighbor escorted me from my mother’s quiet two-room flat in downtown Mumbai to the north of the city, to the one-room flat owned by my maternal aunt and uncle in Cama Parsi Colony. Masa liked the idea of having me around, since Masi couldn’t have kids. She, on the other hand, was furious.

“Watch the chalk!” she snapped the moment we entered the flat. “Khodai, look at what this girl has done.”

I looked down at where she was pointing—at the chalk designs she’d made on the tiles by the flat’s threshold. White fish with delicate scales and red eyes surrounding a banner that now said G … ckGood Luck, as I discovered later on. Good Luck with my shoe printed in its center, powdery pink creases blurring out most of the Good and the Luck.

“All these years I’ve lived my life in shame because of my sister,” she told Masa that night when she thought I was asleep. “At least marrying you took me away from that and shut up those horrible gossips at the Parsi Panchayat.”

I didn’t have much status in the world—bastard orphans usually did not—and everyone in Cama colony was quick to remind me about that, even after Masa adopted me and gave me a surname to fill in the blank left by my father.

“You don’t know how lucky you are, child,” said Masi’s neighbor, also known to the colony kids as the Dog Lady, a woman who always smelled of 4711 Original Eau de Cologne and Pomeranian sweat. “So many children in your state usually end up on the streets! Or worse.”

A month after I moved into Masa and Masi’s flat, my father’s lawyer managed to track me down. It was through the lawyer that Masi found out about my father’s will and bank account.

“How much is in the account?” The lawyer had repeated Masi’s question. “Around fifteen lakh rupees, madam. The girl’s guardians are in charge of this account till she turns twenty-one.”

“Thank goodness she’s here with us,” Masi told Masa when the lawyer left. “Who knows what would have happened to that money if she’d fallen into the wrong hands?”

Two years later, Masa accepted a new job—assistant plant manager for a meatpacking factory in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He said we needed a fresh start.

And, for a time, we had it. In Jeddah, with its shimmery coastline, giant roundabouts, and brightly lit malls. Where the air was hot and dense and somehow always smelled of the sea.

During our first week here, Masa had taken us to Balad, the city’s historic center, on a friend’s recommendation. “It will be like traveling back in time,” the friend had said. And it was. If the glittering lights and skyscrapers of the Red Sea coast were the city’s ornaments, then Balad was Jeddah’s ancient, beating heart, its narrow streets linked to the main shopping square like arteries. The smell of roasted coffee and salt lingered in the air like perfume: at the souk, where men chewed miswak and hawked everything from ropes of gold jewelry to leather sandals; between alleys of abandoned old Hijazi homes, where veiled women with hennaed fingernails peddled potato chips, candy, and toys. We returned home at night, carrying bits of the old city back with us in plastic bags filled with roasted almonds and Turkish delight, in the green-glass bottle of jasmine attar Masa had bought for Masi from a local perfumery. The next day, however, Masi had complained about the smell of the perfume giving her a headache and tossed the bottle into the trash. It was the sort of happy day that had never happened again.

Now, my life having ended, I watched the police officer continue to interrogate Masa, while Masi watched him from a few feet away, her face pinched with worry. The look on her face reminded me of that Syrian boy from the Red Sea Mall. The one with the curly black hair, the hooked nose, and the scar over his left eyebrow. He was the first guy I’d ever gone out with after he’d thrown me his number, scribbled on a crumpled bit of notebook paper, from behind one of those fake, overly tall palm trees inside the mall. He was also the first guy I’d skipped school for, even though I never really had a crush on him. We’d spent most of the date driving in his car, nervously looking around for the religious police. There had hardly been any conversation; his English was bad, my Arabic even worse. We’d kept smiling at each other, until even smiling became awkward. I still remembered the end of the date: the way he whipped his head around to make sure the coast was clear, the slight furrow in his forehead, the quick, nervous kiss on my cheek. I was fourteen at the time.

Next to me, Porus let out a sigh. He was getting depressed and heavy. I could feel myself being pulled down with him. I had a very bad feeling that if we floated back down, we would be shackled to the scene of the accident forever.

“Let it go, Porus,” I said. “We can’t return. We must move on.”

I took hold of his hand.

When I was nine, a high priest at the fire temple next to Cama colony in Mumbai made us write a description of what we thought happened after we died. Even though I knew that the exercise was pointless (no one in our summer theology class at the fire temple ever had the right answers to the priest’s questions), I found myself writing out two pages. It was a fun change from the endless finger snapping to ward off satanic spirits and the droning monotone of prayer that formed the background noise of most of my vacations to India.

I wrote of souls the way I imagined them, featherlight and invisible, floating upward through a layer of clouds that looked like flat white cotton, but felt cool, misty, and very wet. By the time the souls would get through the cloud covering, their earthly clothes would be soaked with moisture. Then they would pass through a sunny, heated zone that smelled like toast, and then another cold, wet layer. Hot and cold, cold and hot, until the air thinned and the sky darkened from light blue to navy to black.

I wrote of outer space. Stars everywhere in diamond pinpricks. Bright white fire crackling in the tails of the comets. Meteors falling in showers of red, orange, and blue. Colorful planets revolving around fiery suns. The souls would continue ascending through this vast, glittering space for a very long time until they reached utter darkness and their heads brushed against something that felt like a ceiling: a delicate, thinly veined membrane that tore easily with a poke of a finger. Beyond that membrane lay heaven or hell, depending on how the souls had behaved on earth.

The priest gathered our papers and skimmed through the descriptions. “Some of you have good imaginations,” he said. “But this isn’t what really happens.”

Zoroastrian death, he explained, was followed by a journey that began three days later, at the foot of a silvery bridge arching up into a brightness that blinded the eyes. The bridge, called the Chinvat, had to be crossed by every soul three days after death.

As I grew older, I liked to think of the bridge as the Walk of Fame or of Shame. Your fate lay in the Hallowed Brightness Up Above or the Dark Abyss Down Below. If you had sinned too much, the bridge would become blade thin and you’d fall into the Abyss, but without the eternal damnation that plagued so many monotheistic religions. For Zoroastrians, there was only a temporary hell, somewhat like the Jewish and Roman Catholic concepts of purgatory.

I thought the concept of the Chinvat itself was unique to Zoroastrians until I turned twelve, when Mishal Al-Abdulaziz, the meanest girl in Qala Academy, informed me about a similar bridge in Islam called As-Sirat, or the Bridge of Hell.

There were times over the years when I found the whole process of arguing with Mishal over this subject futile. After all, Mishal’s true knowledge of what happened after death extended to corpses in boxes and rectangular graves. Similarly, mine was limited to shrouded bodies being carried up a set of stairs by pallbearers—bodies that would end up as entrées in a meal for the vultures circling the Towers of Silence on Malabar Hill in Mumbai.

Emergency lights flashed below: a new van had arrived at the scene of our accident. Two men in white uniforms emerged with a stretcher, probably to carry our bodies to a morgue. Porus didn’t seem to notice. He continued staring at his mother—the only one who, apart from my uncle, seemed to be shedding real tears.

Copyright © 2018 by Tanaz Bhathena