Bleak rays of sun peeked through her hands as she shielded herself from the scorching heat. She stood there, observing, looking around as the ringing of rickshaws and the usual bustle of vehicles flooded the streets below the balcony.
“Tomatoes! Tomatoes! Twenty rupees a kilo!” a man called out as he hauled vegetables in a cart across the street. The aroma of freshly made pakoras and samosas filled the air. Faint music could be heard from the small neighborhood shops that were lined up in the street below where Noor stood. This was just the typical bustle of the neighborhood. It was all that she had ever known. And even though it was the same scenery she had seen every day, the view still intrigued her every morning when she would —
“Don’t just stand there! Go hang the clothes over there!” Ammi scorned as she shoved countless damp shirts and pants in Noor’s hands. “I need your help and you’re just standing there in the sun, the dhoop,” she scolded, her voice almost expressing disgust. “As if you’re not already dark!” she rebuked with no hesitation. “Children never even help their parents these days! It’s as if they want their parents to die of a heart attack or another grave disease. Absolutely no care in the world!” she went on, as if she was delivering a monologue to a brick wall. As if Noor wasn’t there to listen to her rant. Ammi frantically went around the room in search of ridding it of the smallest speck of dust. Meanwhile, downstairs in the kitchen, Nifaqat was making rotis, carefully rolling out the dough while the khorma was being heated on the stove. The gulab jamun sweets were put out on a tray in preparation for the guests that would be coming in the evening. Everything was expected to be nothing short of perfection. God willing, everything was expected to go well.
“You should get ready. I’ll make the rest of the rotis,” Noor offered as she came downstairs. “You are the one they want to see,” she added with a grin accompanied by a twinkle in her eye.
“You don’t even know how to make them properly. If I let you make the rest they’ll look like ovals,” Nifaqat teased and playfully flicked flakes of flour on Noor’s face. Even when she worked in the kitchen for hours, Nifaqat looked beautiful, Noor thought with envy. Unlike Noor, Nifaqat inherited features from Ammi’s side of the family. She was fair-skinned with long and straight black hair. She was slender and had light brown eyes that almost made her look like an Arab. Her beauty caught everyone’s attention at weddings; all of the boys in the neighborhood looked out for her in the streets; aunties always pestered Ammi in hopes that Nifaqat would marry their sons.
Noor was another story, nonetheless. She looked nothing like Ammi or Nifaqat. When she was born, it was said that Ammi was horrified when she saw how dark her newborn child was. Ammi had assumed that since Nifaqat was light, Noor would turn out the same way. Seeing how dark her complexion was, Ammi and Baba decided to name her Noor in hopes that her skin would become lighter in the later years. After all, it was the notion of the time that a person’s name would determine the person they are. Even though her name meant “light” in Arabic, that was the least of her features. Although she had brown eyes like Nifaqat, they were overshadowed by her noticeably dark skin that puzzled anyone who saw her walking with Ammi and Nifaqat. Often, she would be mistaken as a villager from Southern India, or worse: a maid. Even at the age of 14, Noor was used to hearing the occasional remarks of aunties who overtly commented on her rather hyper-pigmented complexion. One aunty notoriously suggested that she scrub dried animal fat on herself every day. Another swore on the grave of her dead ancestor that using a mixture of ginger and turmeric paste every night before going to sleep would do the trick and rid her of her dark skin forever. Neither of the two remedies worked, however. After months of scrubbing animal fat, Noor finally told Ammi that she couldn’t stand the stench any longer. The spice paste only made Noor’s face sting. By then, Ammi grew weary of her lost efforts and only instructed Noor to stay out of the sun as much as possible. With the damage already apparent, the most she could do was prevent it from being worse. Despite Noor’s shortcomings, Ammi was grateful that she possessed at least one daughter that she could take pride in, one daughter to carry on the beauty of her ancestors. At least one daughter who would bring her a good son-in-law and unparalleled pride.
Although Noor could never be truly beautiful in Ammi’s eyes, Baba always took the time to remind her that she had more to offer to the world. Baba who was rather darker in complexion himself, though not as dark as Noor, still related to her strife. He always compensated for Ammi’s remarks by constantly praising Noor for her strengths. “You are intelligent, Noor jaan,” he would always remind her. “You have the ability to do what others can’t.” In Baba’s eyes, Noor was more than just being marriageable and responsible for bearing children. Her job in the world was to take advantage of her brilliance. Her job was to do what her talents would lead her to do. As much as she nodded her head in agreement every time Baba would utter those words, Noor could never really believe the words that Baba told her every day. It didn’t matter what Baba thought of her. He only said that because he was her father. She and Baba knew that the world didn’t see her the same way.
While Nifaqat got ready, Noor dusted the porch and dusted the room once more. Just then, Baba entered the room, having just come back from the government office where he worked.
“Noor jaan,” he called out loud when he saw her after coming through the door. In Urdu, the word jaan was a form of endearment. Noor felt special because she was the only one he always called Noor jaan. And it was always her name that he called first when he would come back from work every day. Noor instantly ran up to Baba and gave him a hug. He had a box of chocolates in his hand, for her of course, as always.
“You’re here now?” Ammi yelled coming down the stairs without saying salaam first. “They’ll be here any minute now!” she noted, filled with unnecessary stress and anxiety even though all the tasks had been done. Still, she took his briefcase and made him go upstairs to get ready, despite the fact that the guests would be arriving in two hours. She looked at the box of chocolates in his other hand and took them out of his hands as well. “How many times have I told you to not bring so many sweets in this house?! Chocolate makes her skin darker!” she cried with frustration. Baba said nothing as usual, and apologized. When this dilemma usually happened, Noor knew that Baba would end up sneaking it under her pillow after Ammi would fall asleep at night. “And you?” she looked at Noor, pointing her finger at her. “Did you clean everything like I asked?”
“Yes, Ammi,” Noor replied, with a hushed and docile voice that displayed respect. “Is there anything else that I should do?” She knew, of course, that there was always something Ammi had for her to do. She prepared herself for Ammi’s sarcasm.
“No, just go get ready,” Ammi said as she scanned the room one last time to make sure it was spotless. As Noor walked up the stairs, she heard Ammi’s voice again. “Your shalwar kameez has been ironed. It’s the pink one on your bed,” Ammi said.
Noor quietly made her way to the top of the roof. It was where she usually sat when she wanted to think without the intrusion of others. She often came here when she wanted to escape Ammi and the rest of the world, especially those who made her feel so little and unloved. It was windy tonight; it was nights like these that Noor found the most perfect and pleasing, the way the cool breeze caressed her face and the way loose strands of hair on her braid tried to run away with the wind. From the rooftop, Noor could see the rest of the hillside below and the roofs of the other buildings that stood over the streets. She could hear the sounds of the city while still being able to see the moon and the stars above, which watched her sit there in silence. There, she replayed what had happened in her mind, trying to grasp and make sense of it, as tears started to well up in her eyes and trickled down her cheeks like a running stream.
“That’s enough, kaafi hai,” Shabnam Aunty said politely and smiled. Nifaqat stopped pouring the chai in her cup and smiled back while putting it back on the center table, which was strewed with an assortment of tea, sweets, and pakoras. “Your daughter is very beautiful. Very sweet, I must add,” Shabnam Aunty said looking at Ammi. “Wouldn’t you say the same, Siraj?” Shabnam Aunty looked over at her husband, who sat next to her. He took a look at Nifaqat and nodded his head in agreement.
“She looks like a good girl,” he said nonchalantly, clearly distracted as he busily relished a samosa. Their son sat at the end of the couch, next to Siraj Uncle. He had a tall frame, with curly black hair and dark eyebrows. His name was Jameel. He had dark almond eyes that were covered by his glasses. He was someone Ammi would confidently describe as “sharp” and “smart”; a man that had a good career, good marks, and success paved in his path. Noor noticed Jameel occasionally taking a few glances at Nifaqat; he would instantly look away at the floor in fear of the parents noticing how struck he was by her beauty.
Ammi blushed as if Shabnam Aunty was complimenting her instead. “Yes, she is. She is a very good girl, indeed. Nifaqat is very good towards us, very khuloos and always listens to us. She always helps around the house and I have never had a problem with her,” Ammi made sure to note that as she looked at Nifaqat, especially with the way she emphasized the word never. Nifaqat sat back down on the sofa and kept her gaze to the floor out of shyness. It was typical to be talked about in third person in Indian culture, especially when parents talked about their children in front of other parents.
Noor suddenly found herself as the center of Shabnam Aunty’s attention. The way she looked at her, Noor knew what she was thinking, and prepared for the worst.
“So this is your other daughter?” Shabnam Aunty nosily inquired with an eyebrow raised, keeping her eyes on Noor, who sat at the end of the sofa next to Nifaqat. “She doesn’t exactly look like you,” she commented rather flatly as if Noor was thin air. Ammi, who was used to these types of comments, was rather taken aback this time.
“Well, she takes more from her father’s side, more from her dadiyaal, you see,” Ammi replied, with nervousness creeping in her voice. Noor kept her mouth shut as she had always done. She hated being talked about in third person as if she wasn’t there. Baba and Ammi had warned her not to talk back and only to speak when she was instructed to do so. “However, Nifaqat looks more like my relatives from Pakistan.” Ammi turned the conversation back to Nifaqat. She hoped to change the subject, and fast.
“So Jameel is doing medicine, I hear?” Baba spoke up, feeling the tension in the room.
“He is in medical school right now,” Siraj Uncle cut in this time with pride as he patted his son on his shoulder. Jameel smiled, kept his eyes on the floor, and followed the same directions.
“He will be done in a few months, actually. He actually hopes to go to America afterward, my son,” Shabnam Aunty added lovingly, glancing at her son.
“Well, that’s very wonderful. Surely he must be a good student,” Ammi added with full praise, her face in awe.
“Son, beta, you might as well look at her, now. What do you think? Do you like her?” Siraj Uncle finally asked humorously, addressing the elephant in the room as he gleefully reached for a pakora. Jameel only nodded and blushed more, keeping his eyes further glued to the floor. He looked up at Nifaqat and tried not to let his smile seep through the serious face he was trying so hard to maintain. Nifaqat looked away, feeling rather infatuated. It was evident the feelings were mutual. He was tall, light skinned, and a doctor in the making. And she was a beautiful girl, a girl that could be the perfect wife for him. And if Shabnam Aunty was right, if Jameel did go to America, Nifaqat would live a dream abroad. Ammi liked the idea better than ever. However, all this talk made Noor feel rather uncomfortable, being there in the room. She felt as though she didn’t belong. As if she wasn’t a person, but simply something as tedious as a rug, an inanimate object that couldn’t speak.
“Noor, go bring the gulab jamoon,” Ammi ordered, still conversing with Shabnam Aunty. As it became evident that the feelings were mutual and that both parties were in agreement, they began to discuss wedding details. There was talk of a ring, a wedding dress, and of course, a dowry. Noor brought back the tray of sweets and handed a bowl of dumplings first to Siraj Uncle, then Shabnam Aunty, Jameel, and then Baba, Ammi, and Nifaqat. There was then a moment of silence before Shabnam Aunty spoke again, this time rather coyly.
“I think that our families will match well,” Shabnam Aunty began. “And with a few conditions fulfilled we can create this union, not just between our two children,” she said with a smile, looking over at Nifaqat. “But it’s important that our family name remain untarnished,” she said. Noor began to sink into the sofa, expectant of what she was about to say. “We simply ask that if there is a possibility, everyone must make our family look well,” she kept going on. This time, her gaze on Noor was rather over. “For this reason I’d like to ask whether you have considered doing something about your daughter’s skin?” she asked Ammi with self-righteous concern. Jameel and Nifaqat stood still. Baba’s fists had started to clench. Siraj Uncle was frozen as he held a pakora in his hand.
“We have tried everything,” Ammi began timidly. “Perhaps there are still some measures we could try,” she said sheepishly, unable to come up with anything else to say.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand how this affects the union of our two families,” Baba interjected. “Quite frankly, I believe we are getting Nifaqat married to Jameel, not Noor,” he said with indignation. “I apologize for coming off as rude, Shabnam ji, but you can accept us and our daughter for who we are, or you can find yourself a rishta, a match, elsewhere.” He stood tall and firm with his eyes widened and his face looking somewhat grave. Ammi sat there in disbelief.
“Surely, we can do something about this,” Ammi began. But it was already too late. Shabnam Aunty’s face resembled a dark cherry. She said nothing and mumbled on her way out as her son and her husband followed her out the door. Nifaqat’s eyes widened, and tears were about to fill them.
“You are wasting away a good opportunity for Nifaqat,” she said to Ammi on her way out. Ammi’s eyes showed embarrassment and shock. Jameel and Siraj Uncle silently followed her out the door.
Baba remained where he stood until they left and had no remorse. Nifaqat ran up to her room and shut the door. Ammi stood outside the gates of their home as they left. She walked back inside and released her fury.
“You! You ruined her chances! Such a good family they were!” she screamed at Baba. He stood there with his face still.
“And you! How many times have I told you to scrub your face with animal fat! I try to help you and you only cause me grief! You just cost your sister a proposal! Who knows how many others they will tell about us?” Ammi’s face was seething with anger towards Noor and Baba — especially Noor.
“She is your daughter too! How can you stand to let others belittle her like that! I will not allow any of my daughters to marry into a family that has no values!” Baba cried. This was the first time he talked back. “The fact that you are willing to sacrifice your own daughter for such filth!” he yelled louder this time, pointing his finger at Ammi. “It shows how much of a mother you are!”
Ammi wouldn’t give it a rest, and certainly wouldn’t let this go. “A good mother?!” she started to pound her chest, quite dramatically on her part. “I have been nothing but a good mother to this family! I have tried, I have prayed that my daughters are able to marry into a good family so that we can die in peace! And you?” she said with disgust. “All you think about is what they want. You only spoil them to bits. Look at her!” she pointed to Noor.
“You have caused nothing but fitna, hardship!” she screamed at Noor. “It’s your fault! Look what you’ve done!”
In those moments, Noor was unable to move, unable to think. Ammi’s words hit her like a brick hitting a steel wall. Her words were felt, but they were thrown at her too often. She was only immune to them. It was these words that would cause her to express her misery when no one else was around. She would find a way to end her sadness and the burden she had put on her family somehow.
As Noor climbed back from the top of the roof, she made her way to the bathroom, stood there before the mirror, and saw her insecurities reflecting back at her. Her hair was wisped back from the wind outside, her eyes still puffy, and her skin showing a bit of pink from tears. How many times she had prayed, how many times she had pleaded to God to make her skin lighter, she thought to herself. How many times she had endured words of hate, feelings of neglect from Ammi and others who found every reason to ostracize her and make her feel as if she wasn’t deserving of love or acceptance simply because she wasn’t light enough.
Reluctantly, she dug into the cabinet beneath the sink and began to scrub a bar of animal fat on herself again, hoping to scrub until she could see the dirt on her skin wash away.