Salma’s women dream of a better world and better lives. Caught up in their circumstances, this simple dream seems more and more distant. Read an excerpt from Women, Dreaming, translated into English by Meena Kandasamy:
Parveen runs as though her head is falling apart. Seeing Amma, Hasan and a few others chase her, she runs even faster. The panic of being captured makes her run without paying heed. She runs bounding across walls, past open grounds, she runs and runs…
Waking suddenly out of this nightmare, Parveen was very relieved that no one had caught her. Drenched in sweat, lazy and reluctant to get out of bed, she started thinking about the nature of her dream, what she could recollect of it, the dregs of an earlier life that tormented her now in the form of fantasy. She hated it. She pinched herself to make sure that she had really got away – and that made her overjoyed – then she once again raided her memories.
Meanwhile, downstairs… ‘Her mother has come to visit Rahim’s wife,’ Hasina heard the violent disdain in Iqbal’s voice. Absorbing her husband’s words, Hasina gathered her loose hair, tied it up in a bun and slowly made her way out of her bedroom. Because she could not see anyone in the living room, she shouted, ‘Parveen, Parveen,’ her voice loud enough to display her authority as mother-in-law.
Parveen shouted back, ‘Maami, here I come,’ as she rushed down the stairs. Hasina saw Subaida trailing behind her daughter. Responding to Subaida’s muted salaam with a loud and prolonged ‘wa ‘alay- kum al-salaam,’ Hasina sat down on the sofa.
When Subaida asks her how she is doing, her tone is reverential, its politeness exaggerated. Hasina’s cold response – ‘By the grace of Allah there is no dearth of wellness here’ – comes across as slightly menacing. Although Subaida is upset that Hasina hasn’t asked her to take a seat, she hesitantly stoops to perch on a corner of the sofa.
Parveen is annoyed and angered by her mother- in-law’s tone and manner, but she quickly pacifies herself, refusing to show any sign of being perturbed.
‘You took the stairs to be with your daughter without first paying your respects to me,’ Hasina remarked. Subaida, registering the reason for Hasina’s displeasure, attempts to placate her: ‘You were sleeping, that’s why I went to talk with Parveen. It has been two weeks since I saw my daughter, you see, so I was very eager…’
This makes Parveen even angrier, to watch her mother plead and try to make peace in such a cringing act of deference.
Perhaps because Hasina had just woken from a nap, her face appeared to be bloated. She had not parted her jet-black hair, merely tied it up into a loose knot, not a hint of grey visible. Parveen compared her mother’s veiled head; most of Amma’s hair had gone white although both women were of the same age.
‘Here, I have brought some snacks,’ Subaida extended a bag that she had brought with her towards Hasina, who rejected it casually.
‘Why? Who is there to eat them here?’
Parveen ground her teeth in anger – this was all too much to take.
‘So, what happened to your promise of buying a car for us? This Eid or the next one?’
Parveen caught the sarcasm in Hasina’s sudden barb. She looked towards her mother to see how she would react.
Parveen could not forget that this was the same Hasina who on the day of Parveen’s marriage to her son had said, ‘She is not your daughter – from this day, she will be my daughter, she will ease my pain of not having given birth to a girl.’ She wondered if her mother, too, was ruminating on something similar that Hasina had told them in the past…
‘It has been three months since the nikah. When are you going to make good on your promise? Your daughter doesn’t understand the first thing about how to conduct herself. She appears to be unfit for any sort of domestic work, as if she was a college-educated girl. Even after I’ve got a daughter-in-law, I’m the one stuck in the kitchen.’
Subaida regretted having come here. Parveen was meanwhile chastised by Hasina: ‘Why are you standing here like a tree – go and fetch some tea for the both of us.’
Parveen moved towards the kitchen. She was curious to know what excuse her mother was going to provide for the demand of a car – but she also knew that she did not have the strength to listen to her spineless words. They must not have promised a car. Why should they have sought an alliance like this? What was wrong with her? Why did they arrange this wedding? She understood nothing.
She filtered the tea into a tumbler. She carefully stirred only half a spoon of sugar in her mother-in- law’s cup, knowing that she had to keep an eye on her sugar intake.
Though Parveen had eagerly awaited her mother’s arrival, her foremost instinct now was that Amma should leave here immediately. She had wanted to share as many things with her as possible, but now she decided not to confide in her at all. She only wanted her mother to return home peacefully.
With shaking hands, she extended the cup of tea towards her mother-in-law, then served Amma, looking at her intently for some clue.
Hasina, taking a sip and grimacing, remarked: ‘Hmm, it’s too sweet. Why have you poured so much sugar into this? There’s nothing you can do properly. In three months, you have not even learnt how much sugar to add in your mother-in-law’s tea. Go, add some milk to my cup and bring it back.’
Her harsh tone made Parveen feel crushed. She worked out that her mother’s response about the car must have displeased Hasina. She could see from her mother-in-law’s face how embittered and angry she felt.
The house wore a dreadful silence.
Women, Dreaming is a beautiful and painful read, both heart-breaking and hopeful at once.