Shahtaj House

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Chapter 7

The family talked till the wee hours of the night, and for the first time in a long time, I had stayed quiet the whole time, which would’ve been a feat for me, but after all that Waliya had said the previous morning, my self esteem broke a little. Honestly, I didn’t have it in me to make conversation last night. The fact that Azeem got on my nerves may have been a factor why I had chosen to stay quiet.

The next day, at breakfast, Azeem joined us. I presumed that he had been persuaded by our dear mother to spend the night. What an honour it must have been for him. Sadly for me, by the time I came down for breakfast, all the seats had been filled except the one beside dear old Azeem. I don’t know what it was about him, maybe it was his ominous smile others found charming, or the way his eyes lingered too long that made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Whatever it was, the new addition to our family was not welcomed by my subconscious.

He smiled an extremely creepy smile as I took the seat beside him. To my relief, Bareera took the seat on my left. “Did you sleep well, Azeem?” Amma asked after we were all settled and done with the initial greetings. “Yes, auntie. I did. The room was splendid!” He exclaimed, all too enthusiastically. Of course, he would think the room was splendid, he lived in a one bedroom apartment in the walled city. Even a normal house would have seemed grand to him, and this was a mansion! “Good, good.” Amma said, and just like that, everyone at the table went back to their usual conversation.

Dada Jaan and Baba jaan swapping papers, amma and auntie Maria gossiping, the presence of a guest did not deter their little hobby, just made it a little hushed. The boys talked about their own things. I felt Bareera elbow me, causing me to look at her, “How are you feeling?” I knew what she was talking about, so I nodded that I was fine.

“Are you going to apply for that thing?”

“What thing?”

“The USA exchange program, remember?”

“Huh?” I had no clue what she was talking about. “Don’t tell me you didn’t get the letter!”

“What letter? I haven’t really gone through my letters in a few days.” I saw her roll her eyes at me, the inside joke immediately came to mind, but I refrained from saying it out loud in front of the entire family. It would only result in me coming off as childish, which I didn’t want to deal with at the moment.

“You have to read it! Immediately!” She exclaimed, causing everyone at the table to look at her.

“Read what?” Ali asked. He was ever the nosey person, and right now, he had lived up to his reputation.

“Oh, it’s an application we received in the mail from our university. It’s about an exchange program for Pakistani students to study for a few months in the US.”

“That sounds quite promising,” to my surprise that was Baba jaan who spoke.

“Jamal,” amma looked at him in astonishment, “just last night you were enraged by the fact that Waliya had gone to Karachi in her twenties, and now you want to send Sarah to the US?! Millions of miles away?” It was no surprise that mother would always prefer Waliya over me, she had done it all our lives and I don’t think she’d stop anytime soon.

“Salma, that was a recreational trip. I don’t allow those. This, however, could he a life changing opportunity!” He turned to me, “did you apply already?”

I shook my head, “No, Baba jaan, I’m still thinking about it.”

“Thinking about it? You haven’t even opened the letter! You didn’t even know what I was talking about!”

“Sarah!” Baba jaan reprimanded, “this is no way. You’re applying, that’s final.”

“But-”

“Whether you go or not, is your decision, but you will apply. Understand?”

“Yes, Baba jaan.” I couldn’t help the smile that graced my lips. Baba jaan may have been strict, but he loved the fact that his daughters got higher education and exposure to the practical world, and going to the US for six months would do exactly that. Baba jaan, was crushed when Waliya decided to quit school and focus on getting married, maybe I could make up for it by applying. Whether I would go or not, I would decide later.

“Ali, what are your plans for the future?” Baba Jaan asked him. It was at that point that I felt a foreign feeling on my thigh that made me jump. To my horror, Azeem’s hand lay just above my knee. I gave him a polite smile and pushed his hand away, and moved my chair slightly near Bareera’s. “Are you okay?” She asked, looking at my flustered expression. I nodded.

A while had passed and the conversation continued, “I think you should join the army next year.” I heard Dada jaan say.

“Yes, Dada jan,” Ali said, “Rehan and I plan on it. In fact, we’ve given in our applications.”

The feeling on my thigh was back, but this time, the hand inched higher and higher. I tried pushing it off but the pervert held it tighter, after a forceful push, however, I managed to wrench myself free. My heart was racing like it had run a million marathons and I was mortified. More scared than mortified. This was my sister’s fiance and they were getting married in less than two weeks! How could he even do such a thing. I decided to rule it off as a mistake, but once is a mistake, twice and that with force, is most certainly not.

“Are you sure you’re fine?” I nodded. “You look scared. What’s the matter?” Not trusting myself to speak, I simply shook my head. Bareera eyed me skeptically, not believing me, but she let it go and continued her breakfast.

“That is wonderful!” I heard Baba jaan exclaim, “you know, your Dada jaan, great grandfather, and everyone before him were all soldiers! Our family has not only fought wars, but won them with pride! I wasn’t fortunate enough to be enrolled because of my heart condition.” He finished sadly.

“Oh, Baba jaan! Don’t be sad! Your son and nephew will make you proud!” Ali said with pride. ”Insha Allah!” Baba jaan said with the utmost love and pride.

I heard a clank beside me, followed by the devil himself speak, “Oh, I seemed to have dropped my fork.” I didn’t like Azeem before, I think I’ve made that clear, but now, after what he had done today, I felt afraid of him. If he could do something so bold in public, in the presence of my entire family, the monster was capable of anything. I wouldn’t put it past him.

“Oh, leave it, dear, Nasim will get you a new fork.” Amma said.

“No, no, it’s fine. No need,” he said and bent down to pick up his fork. That was when I felt a hand grab my ankle causing me to jump. “Sarah? Are you okay?” Amma asked, I nodded and stook up, I wasn’t taking any of this anymore. “Y-yes, I just, just...excuse me.” With that, I rushed to the kitchen, away from the horrific man in the dining room.

I stood by the counter, my hands firmly holding the edges causing my knuckles to turn white. I tried very hard to calm my breathing and my beating heart, but it was no use. I had never been felt so violated, so disgusted. What were his motives? Why would he even do such a thing? He was getting married in a week or so, for God’s sake! To a much more beautiful woman than I! By now, my forehead was drenched in sweat and I felt my body tremble.

“Do you need something, begum sahib?” Nasim asked which caused to jump slightly and turn around with fear placing my countenance. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

I waved a shaky hand, “It’s fine. I..I just need some water, please.”

“Of course,” she poured water into a glass and handed it to me. “Thank you, Nasim.” She smiled and carried on with her work, completely oblivious to the tumultuous feelings within me.

Just then, Bareera came rushing inside. “What happened? Why are you shaking? You look flushed!” She exclaimed which caused Nasim to look over at me. I liked it better when she had no idea what was happening. I hated that look of sympathy she was now giving me.

“Nothing, just-just go back out,” I stuttered. I couldn’t seem to get a complete sentence out without stuttering. “No, tell me!” She insisted as I looked over at Nasim who looked to be working but in the ten years I had known her, I knew that she had one ear turned to gather all the gossip she could. Understanding my hesitation, Bareera asked, “Nasim, could you leave us for a moment? I think auntie Salma is asking for more juice.” Nasim nodded and scurried out the kitchen. “Now, spill. What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost! You’re pale and flustered all at the same time.”

“Bareera, it’s nothing.” I contemplated telling her what had happened. I knew she would never judge me or think wrong of me. She was my best friend and my family. The question was, would I be comfortable sharing this with her? Amma had always taught us to involve other people when a person harassed you or touched you where they weren’t supposed to. She used to tell us that you should defile the man’s reputation by telling everyone what a scumbag he is, but what happens when it actually happens to you?

“Sarah, obviously something hap-” she was cut off as Haroon entered the kitchen and rushed to us, “Are you okay?” He said as he grabbed my hand. That was the first time he had ever done that and I’m sure it was pure instinct in order to comfort a person, with him having been raised in a different society, but the action caused me jump and recoil my hand immediately. “Oh, I’m sorry,” a look of hurt crossed his features, but he masked it well.

“I-it’s fine,” I mumbled.

“Are you alright? I saw how you exited, you didn’t look alright. Did something happen?” His concern was flattering, but all I needed at that point was to simply lie down, alone in my room, in silence. It was the one thing that had always given me comfort. Silence. You would think I’d hate it since I was an extremely loud person, but it held a form of comfort that no other thing could provide.

“I’m fine, I just.” Turning to Bareera, I said, “Can you please tell amma I don’t feel well and won’t be down for lunch or dinner? I need to lie down.”

“Of course!” With that, I made my upstairs to my room. The familiar aura enveloping me, giving me some sort of relief from the day’s events. The irony was, that the day hadn’t even started properly. I had faintly heard Haroon ask Bareera what was wrong but she dismissed him repeating what I had said in the kitchen.

~.~

I didn’t go down for lunch nor dinner, as I had told Bareera. I laid in bed, staring at the ceiling fan. I watched how it moved, every cycle, every sound of emitted. It was the only thing that kept me grounded. As for my brain, it was a muddled mess. I was confused, angry, hurt, mortified and ashamed. I couldn’t help but think that what had happened today was somehow my fault. Maybe I had provoked him, led him on in some way? I was brought out of my thoughts by a knock on my door.

“Yes?” I called out. “It’s me,” I heard Bareera’s muffled sound through the door. “Come in.” I heard the door shut and felt the bed beside me dip indicating that she had taken seat beside me. “How are you feeling?”

“Fine,” I replied, with no emotion.

“Are you going to tell me what happened?”

“I told you, nothing happened.”

“Come on, Sarah, you wouldn’t be like this if something didn’t happen. Talk to me.”

“It’s nothing, it’s just...what Waliya said finally took its toll on me, is all.” I could tell she didn’t believe me, but she dropped the matter nonetheless. I respected the fact that she gave me some space. “I brought you dinner.”

I turned around to look at her, “What time is it?”

“Around nine. Everyone is having dinner and I thought I’d get you some, too.” I couldn’t help the smile that spread across my face. “Thank you.”

“Always.” She pulled me into a hug. “Now, eat. I haven’t eaten either. I thought we’d have dinner together.” I pulled away and gave her a grateful smile.

Bareera and I had dinner that night in my room while she talked about random things, careful to avoid the day’s events. I knew she could tell something was wrong, but she decided to let it go for the time being. After she left, I decided to process what had happened. It was something unusual and inappropriate, yes, but it wasn’t the end of the world. I would simply need to avoid Azeem at all costs, so he would never get the chance to do it again. Avoiding him would be easier before the wedding, however, after, it might be a little difficult since he would be living under the same roof as all of us.

It was around eleven pm that I decided to take charge of my life. I filled the application for the exchange program, and would ask Bashir to post it tomorrow. I read the contract carefully and it stated that I would be required to spend six months at a university in the US depending upon my scores of my final year at university. I still had a month to go till my final exams. If I studied hard enough, I might be able to land in a good university.

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