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My Sisters Made of Light

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My Sisters Made of Light

  My Sisters Made of Light

  Press 53

  PO Box 30314

  Winston-Salem, NC 27130

  First Edition

  Copyright © 2010 by Jacqueline St. Joan

  A Robin Miura Novel Selection

  All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole

  or in part in any form except in the case of brief quotations embodied in

  critical articles or reviews. For permission, contact author at [email protected], or at the address above.

  Cover design by Sonya Unrein

  An earlier version of Chapter 13, “Islamabad, 1996” was published as a

  novel-in-progress excerpt entitled “Meena” in F Magazine, Issue 8, 2009.

  Library of Congress Control Number: 2010936842

  This book is a complete work of fiction. All names, characters, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblances to actual events or persons, living or dead, are coincidental.

  ISBN 978-1-935708-13-1 (Kindle Edition)

  This book is dedicated to Samantha, Elizabeth, and Nico

  —and all our children made of light.


  Chapter 1 Adaila Prison, 1996

  Chapter 2 Adaila Prison, 1996

  Chapter 3 Malakwal, 1958

  Chapter 4 Adaila Prison, 1996

  Chapter 5 Adaila Prison, 1996

  Chapter 6 Lahore, 1996

  Chapter 7 Clifton, 1985

  Chapter 8 Adaila Prison, 1996

  Chapter 9 Lahore, 1996

  Chapter 10 Adaila Prison, 1996

  Chapter 11 Adaila Prison, 1996

  Chapter 12 Adaila Prison, 1996

  Chapter 13 Islamabad, 1996

  Chapter 14 Nankana Sahib, 1996

  About The Author

  About The Cover Designer


  Adaila Prison, 1996

  Prison is freedom. Outside? That is prison to me.” Meena drew the newborn close inside her shawl. “Here my daughter and I are safe.”

  Ujala was dreaming about Meena again. She could hear a voice calling, whispering, coaxing her to open her eyes.

  “Ujala,” it sang. “Uji.”

  It was a woman’s voice. Perhaps her mother was leaning next to her ear and would soon touch her arm, kiss her hairline. Or was she only dreaming of a voice? Ujala willed her mind to stay put, waiting for the speaker to reveal herself.

  “Your friends in high places must feel sorry for you,” the voice said, and Ujala awakened to a shadow looming. “To my office,” demanded Rahima Mai, the Women’s Prison supervisor. Ujala heard the turnkey unlock her cell and saw the back of a wrapped figure moving away, far down the corridor.

  “Yes, Madam,” she replied, rising from her string bed. Her shoulder blades were wooden planks ramming the soft tissues of her neck. But Ujala was pleased, excited by this abrupt shift in the prison’s endless routines. Jabril Kazzaz must have

  pulled some strings, she thought, hurrying behind Rahima Mai. As Ujala padded forward, she glimpsed a bare foot wiggling its toes through the bars of a cell they passed. Next, the muffle of someone clearing her throat. Then, a scraping noise.

  “Silence!” Rahima Mai shouted, and the clatter ceased. Ujala faced the vestibule door while Rahima Mai tightened her mouth and fingered the pocket of her polyester uniform. She found the key and slotted it into the lock. “Straight away,” she said, poking a finger between Ujala’s shoulder blades, “and keep moving.”

  To Ujala walking was a joy—to be able to move her legs and hips again was like floating. She had been in Adaila Prison for six weeks, and for four of them she had been confined to solitary.

  A month earlier Rahima Mai had announced Ujala’s reassignment to a solitary cell. “Your fame has created a security risk in the open detention area,” she had insisted, tapping the end of her pencil against the desk blotter. Her voice softened and she backtracked. “Of course, solitary rooming is not a punishment, but merely”—she searched for the right word—“an administrative precaution for your protection.”

  Ujala had wanted to argue. Those women are no risk to me, nor am I a risk to them. But, she thought, there is no point disagreeing with a bureaucrat who has made up her mind.

  “Stop there!” said Rahima Mai, and Ujala halted in front of another closed door. Its cardboard sign read Women’s Administration. Official Clearance Required. Rahima Mai placed her index finger on the intercom button and leaned her considerable weight onto it. “Rahima Mai and Resident Number 482,” she announced to the box. She twisted her face toward the ceiling camera, and a barrage of squawk and static emitted an indiscernible reply. A bolt withdrew from its chamber, and the door clanked open.

  “Push it!” Rahima Mai ordered, and Ujala pressed her open palms against the sticky, metal grate. She could smell Rahima Mai’s armpits as she passed ahead of her. Ujala stepped over the concrete threshold and looked around.

  On the wall behind a large gunmetal desk, someone had tacked up the usual framed photo of clear-eyed President Jinnah in his lambswool cap. On either side of the photo were hand-printed posters: A Clean Mind in a Clean Body: Cleanse with Prayer and Water. The desktop held a telephone, an adding machine, and a Royal typewriter, along with remnants of carbon paper. An adjacent table was covered with thousands of index cards. Attached to one wall was a row of hooks on which shawls, broom handles, and plastic shopping bags dangled. A green filing cabinet with a long face stood in the corner. Its bottom drawer jutted out.

  Ujala heard the swivel chair groan as Rahima Mai settled into it.

  “My office,” Rahima Mai said with a sigh. Somewhere between those two words and her sigh, Rahima Mai had inhaled and exhaled into a personal tone, the first human interaction Ujala could count for the week.

  Ujala thought that Rahima Mai was not a bad-looking woman. The prison supervisor looked solid under the polyester prison garb: a worn blue shalwar kameez—the loose pajama-style pants and overshirt worn throughout Pakistan—and matching dupatta—the veil that covered her head and breasts. Rahima Mai’s cheeks dominated her long face, and the lines around her mouth suggested sadness or, perhaps, resignation. The circles beneath her eyes darkened under the overhead tube lights.

  “We will be spending a lot of time together now,” said Rahima Mai. “I have my orders. We can no longer keep you in confinement, nor can we put you back into the general population.” She curled her mouth and looked into Ujala’s eyes. “So! You will be spending your days right here—with me.”

  “Yes, Madam,” Ujala said, looking down. She tried to disguise her thrill at release from solitary. The supervisor continued describing her plan.

  “Yes, this may work out quite well. We are educated people, you and I,” she said, thereby elevating her social class to Ujala’s. “Just imagine how expensive it is to operate this reformatory.” Rahima Mai never used words like prison, or guard, or inmate. Instead, it was reformatory, or staff aide, or resident. “Just think of the costs of staff and repairmen, food, waste removal, uniforms. The list is endless.” She gestured toward the adding machine tape that was spilling onto the floor. “With so little help from the central office, how can we afford medicines, school supplies, and sewing materials for the girls?”

  “Yes, Madam,” said Ujala. She wondered where Rahima Mai’s thoughts were taking them.

  Suddenly there were two raps on the door and a sergeant-guard entered. The guards wore short dupattas as a safety precaution. Years before, a guard had been found hanging on a clothesline pole from her own dupatta. The guard handed Rahima Mai a folded paper, they nodded to one another, and the guard reversed direction in military fashion and left the office.

“So,” Rahima Mai said, “if we can’t afford the basics, how can we afford the office assistance we need?” She looked as though she expected Ujala to reply. “Hmmmm?”

  “I don’t know how you could,” Ujala agreed. She dared not let Rahima Mai know how she craved the work assignment for fear it would become a pleasure to be confiscated.

  “So that is where you come in. If you can read, you can file. If you can add and subtract, you can do bookkeeping. If you can write, you can answer the phone and take messages.”

  “Yes, Madam,” Ujala replied, curtseying, facing the floor.

  From Sundays through Thursdays, Ujala worked like a good servant, with reverence and thrift. In her cell on Fridays she wrote letters and, for part of the day, met visitors. She dreaded Saturday’s fruitless hours. Within weeks she had organized the files and bookkeeping into an efficient system. Sometimes she wanted to go further than the assignments she was given. She would have liked to tackle budget reports and problems that Rahima Mai seemed unable to manage. But she did not. She stayed at her station. She was a small, low-flying shadow that Rahima Mai began to believe was her own. When Rahima Mai was tired, Ujala would pour her a cup of tea. If her neck ached, Ujala would massage it.

  One day Rahima Mai reached beneath her desk and pulled out a pile of folded clothes. With one hand flat on top and one hand underneath, she pushed the stack toward Ujala.

  “My mending,” she said and laughed out loud for the first time. She was in a generous mood. “Carry your own cup tomorrow, and you may have tea as well,” she said, blowing on the steaming surface. They sat in plastic chairs with a low table between them. “This is how my husband and I used to make the transition from work to home. With a nice cup.”

  This was the first time Rahima Mai had mentioned her husband. Ujala passed the plastic sugar bowl across the table and folded her hands in her lap. As usual, she was silent, but her heart was quickening, as if it were anticipating something. What is it? she asked herself. Suddenly Rahima Mai reached for her and her fingers squeezed Ujala’s chin, lifting it, forcing her to look directly into the supervisor’s face.

  “Explain this to me,” she said. Her voice had dropped into a lower tone. She cleared her throat. “I was reviewing your file the other day.” She let go Ujala’s chin.

  Again Ujala’s heart began to race.

  “A long way from Clifton to Adaila, my dear, isn’t it?” Ujala could not read Rahima Mai’s attitude. Was it contempt? Curiosity? Cruelty? Ujala remained silent as Rahima Mai continued. “The file explained your arrest and the complaint against you, but it did not tell me what I really want to know.” Then Ujala heard a flat bitterness enter Rahima Mai’s voice as she posed her question: “How did a thirty-two-year-old, unmarried, upper-class girl like you end up in Adaila Prison anyway?”

  It was a question Ujala had asked herself often, a question that caused her usual sharp focus to fade, her memories to blur into the people, places, and years of her past. She could never recall a coherent version of events—only moments. The day her mother died and she became the family’s new mother. The day Yusuf left forever. Bilqis on fire. Khanum on the train. Taslima in a pool of blood. Chanda dancing. The women she had rescued, or failed to rescue, over the years—the ones who helped Ujala discover who she was. Or was that discovery of herself, as her father would say, simply the hand of God pushing her out into the traffic? She was uncertain, but no longer demurring.

  “I don’t know exactly how I ended up h—”

  “Yes, you do,” Rahima Mai interrupted, then waited for Ujala’s response. “We all know how we ended up here.”

  Ujala squirmed.

  “The way one thing leads to another, it is difficult to know where anything begins,” said Ujala.

  “Then begin in the middle. It doesn’t matter. We both know where the story ends up, don’t we?” Now Rahima Mai was both taunting her and making a request, but she was patient. She was used to getting her way inside these prison walls. And, thought Rahima Mai, here is an interesting girl for a change, somebody new, somebody to talk to. There was no question Ujala would tell her what she wanted to know. So she waited.

  Suddenly, Ujala’s dark eyes widened. She inhaled and faced Rahima Mai.

  “You are right,” she said. For the first time, Ujala matched Rahima Mai’s gaze. “It is a long way from Clifton to here. The story ends in Adaila Prison, but it starts in the famous suburb of Karachi. It begins in Clifton.

  “Karachi was a city filled with concrete and constant motion. Traffic was heavy and dominated life at all hours. The presence of the Arabian Sea did little to slow people down; it was another commodity, a vehicle, a field. There were always industrial odors hanging in the air to overpower the scent of orange blossoms that smothered the courtyards of Clifton. In Clifton our courtyard was filled with bougainvillea and jasmine, and the air always was sweet. Our childhood was like that, too—my brother, my sisters, and I—we lived wrapped in the shawl of our parents’ love.

  “Until eleven years ago—when our mother died, when the shawl dropped open and the family scattered.” Ujala hesitated, recalling the changes in her life that the death of Ammi had meant. “Ammi’s soul flew to heaven, to be with her parents—they were killed on the Lahori train during the Partition. She lost her entire family. She was the only one to survive.”

  Ujala continued, “My younger sister, Faisah—she entered law school in Lahore. Once Ammi was gone and we were grown, my father wanted the simple life of an observant Sikh. He took the twins, Meena and Amir, with him to Nankana Sahib, the birthplace of his root guru.”

  Rahima Mai’s brow lifted.

  “Yes. My father is a Sikh,” said Ujala, matter-of-factly. “My oldest sister’s life changed the least. By then Reshma was married. She remained in Karachi with her sons and her husband—Reshma is quite a scholar in her own right. My father wanted me to go with him and the children to Punjab, of course, but I had a different idea. And I needed his permission.”

  * * *

  “I have been asked to be a traveling teacher-trainer,” I told Abbu one night. We were on the upstairs verandah, reading the newspaper together, the way he and Ammi had often done. “With the Women’s Aid Society,” I said, nonchalantly.

  He rattled the newspaper down into his lap with force.

  “Traveling? Alone? Women do not travel alone in Pakistan.” He sounded stern—not at all like himself. I continued speaking as if what I was asking was nothing unusual.

  “Perhaps I can make a contribution to the education of women, Abbu. I will live with groups of women teachers in each place. And I will visit you often. I promise.” I smoothed the front of my kameez and looked into his eyes. “Please say yes.”

  He looked as if I had slapped his face.

  “You are begging?” he asked, sounding disgusted.

  “It is my life.”

  I watched the skin on his face drop into the hollow between his cheekbones, and I waited. I knew it was best to wait. In a matter of seconds he had let his fear shrivel up and blow away. I had seen him do it many times. Suddenly his eyes lit up.

  “Yes,” he said with certainty. “Of course. Your mother prepared that path for you.”

  My mother was one of the founders of the organization I eventually worked for—WASP, the Women’s Aid Society of Pakistan. At that age—I was only nineteen—I felt unprepared to teach. I had no training in how to run a school. I’d done only a little informal teaching with a friend. But later I learned a great deal about teaching women and girls. We worked on basic Urdu—both reading and writing. Eventually we added computer training, micro-credit projects, and even legal assistance. It was a productive, creative time. Many families opened their doors and took me in. I became Baji Ujala—everyone’s older sister—wherever I went. But it was when I discovered a truly godforsaken place—the desert of interior Sindh— that I began to feel deep inside of me the forces that eventually led me here to Adaila Prison.

  How slowly life moved
in the heat of Sindh! Even at daybreak, milk buffaloes sought out the thin shade of a kikar tree. The boys with their sticks poked the beasts’ hides to get them up. It was still early in the day, and the worst was yet to come. By midmorning smoke was the only thing moving in the sky. By midday brick particles stung our lungs. By evening the place smelled like it was on fire.

  The kilns’ smokestacks were as plentiful as minarets. During the merciless dry season, the children worked from dawn to dusk, scooping the mud with ungloved hands, then patting the dampened clay into identical steel molds, each one labeled with the landlord’s logo. During the winter months, when school was open, we helped those same small hands with their tiny fingernails trace letters and numerals—hands without even a pocket to protect them.

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