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“Good and Useful” is the award-winning short story on which my novel is based

 

A name can mean so little.

My husband is called Aslam, which in Islam means “perfect.” I sometimes wonder what dreams his mother had when she held her newborn son in her arms and gave him such a beautiful name.  Surely she wanted more for him than to be a poor man living in the slums of Orangi Town.  But dreams blow away like sand across the desert.  Gentle sons grow into pious men, and unconditional acceptance of tradition perpetuates life as we know it in Karachi.

I am Salihah, which means “good and useful.” But I am not good, and I am not useful.  I cannot have children.  I am very lucky that my husband has not abandoned me because of this.  His other wife has given him three sons and a daughter.  The daughter is worthless, like me.  I do not know her, but he tells me this often.

Unlike most women in our neighborhood, I can write my name, and know the alphabet and some numbers. My husband can never know this, as this knowledge could make me dangerous. That’s what I have been told anyhow, so I keep this secret to myself.

I cook in a concrete stove behind our home, as it is much too hot inside, and the dirt floor stirs up dust. Aslam never goes out back where women’s work is done, and I fear that when he sees the crumbling stove he will be angry.  He comes to me only to eat and lie down, and I am alone most of the time in our one-room shanty.  He brings me enough food to cook for him, and a little for myself.  Sometimes I hide food so that on the days he does not come I have a bit to eat.

I cannot have children. Aslam says Allah is punishing me because I am bad and raise my eyes.  I wear my veil even when I am inside.  No one, Aslam tells me, would want to see my evil eyes.  But Aslam keeps me anyway, and for that I am told I should be grateful.  I remember once when I was a child, my mother told me I would grow up to be beautiful.  I think of this often and like to pretend that I am beautiful, no matter what Aslam says.

My only friend is Manaar. She has a concrete stove too, and I sometimes see her when I am out back cooking.  I think her husband is very much like mine, even though she has given him children.  Manaar can write a little too, and she once showed me how she could write her name in big, loopy letters.  Her husband beats her often.  I have seen her bruises, and she has two mangled fingers which were badly broken and never fixed.  Manaar is strong, and I can see in her eyes that she knows things.  I want to know things, but I am afraid to become dangerous.  Manaar’s children are mostly grown, and she will not be of use to her husband much longer.  I think she is scared, but she has never said so.  She is my best friend.

One day Aslam comes to me very angry. He tells me that Manaar is gone.  I am not sure what he means by “gone”, but he says she is never coming back.  He tells me that he has heard that I have spoken with Manaar and demands to know where she is.  I do not know, and he cannot beat it out of me, even though he tries.  Afterward, Aslam leaves and does not return.

Aslam has been gone for three days and I am very hungry. It is hot inside, so I walk with my eyes down out back by the concrete stove and look toward Manaar’s home.  I think of Manaar and wonder what happened to her and if she is safe.  I do not see her, but I see a little flicker of light by a rock near the stove.  I look closely, and see that it is a piece of paper.  I pick it up and rush quickly inside to inspect it.  There is an address on it, which I can read, written in big loopy letters.  For a moment I am confused, and then I recall that the last time I saw my best friend, she told me that Manaar means “guiding light.”

A name can mean so much.

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