This saga is of nineteen-year-old Saira Ashrafi who CAI donors sponsored towards software programming courses sometime in 2010. Daughter of a clerk earning less than US$200 per month, Saira contacted CAI for help continuing her education. When she did not submit 2nd year progress and exam reports, I wanted to know why. She remained elusive however and I spent quite some time tracking her down. When I did meet her in Mumbai recently, I was shocked to see not the teenager I had first met, but a woman matured way beyond her age, about eight weeks pregnant; and a widow. You may find the following narrative disturbing perhaps, my choice of words uncouth perchance. So be it, I make no apologies; Saira’s saga is fraction of what girls from illiterate homes in India endure; there are, to me, no better, alternate way of putting Saira’s anguish more aptly. The following frightfully frank conversation took place at Costa Coffee on Yari Road, Andheri W, Mumbai between 1 and 3 PM on Saturday February 18. The words are all Saira’s, presentation mine. All names have been altered.
After seeing her brand new husband’s body carried off from the hospital morgue for rituals and burial, Saira returns to her parent’s house and tries to sleep, but slumber is elusive. She caresses her belly and wonders about the growth of life taking hold within; will it be a boy or a girl and immediately, fervently, wishes for it to be neither. She wants to pray for it to abort, but has lost all faith in God, so she cries instead, something she has done a lot past couple of months….
Saira is third child to poor parents whose ancestry originates in Utter Pradesh; two sisters precede her. After fervent prayers to God and beseeching every saint known to her parents, Saira is rewarded with a brother, triggering intoxicating joy to her father and immense relief to mother, a plain, obedient women who deems questioning a husband’s actions, however irrational, deviant.
When Saira is old enough to realize brother takes precedence to all available resources in the family, she takes it in stride, when older sisters are yanked from school and married off, barely teens, she prays hard her future does not hold a similar fate, but when her father announces there is no money for Saira to continue studies after high school because he has to save for his son’s (enhanced) education, Saira rebels. This rebellion serves to harden her father’s convictions; educating a girl only makes it harder to marry them off.
A friend introduces Saira to CAI; we agree to fund tuition fees if Saira’s grades stay at current B average or better. Happily, diligently, she pursues a diploma in computer programming that will have her easily employed after three years. She returns home from school some eighteen months later to be told by an agitated mother to get ready and wear her finest; there is once-in-a-lifetime rishta, the (elderly, unmarried, live-in) sister of the boy is coming to officially ask for Saira’s hand in marriage. Everything is agreed and arranged, this is just a formality; they want it all done before Muharram begins. The boy’s side has not asked for anything in return, nothing, can you believe your luck? Aree, they are even gifting your father a brand new motorbike! Now be a good girl, hurry up and get ready fast-fast; they’ll be home by nine…
Saira’s protest is stifled by the iron fisted father and a teary, pleading mum. The months between rista, magni and nikkah are a blur of events where Saira feels detached from reality, surreal and utterly crushed and defeated; eyes and heart that do not stop weeping or hurting. The ‘boy’ Shadaab is an overweight manager of a wholesale food supply chain, chain-smoking, gurka chewing man twenty years her senior. Jilted by an earlier engagement due to his weighty issues the ex fiancée felt he was too slow is tackling, Shadaab promises Saira he would lose the weight, stop smoking and guzzling gudka; he does none to the day he dies.
To his credit, Shadaab, albeit in reprimanding mood most times, is an attentive and doting suitor, buying her gifts of stifling clothes and expensive candy Saira does not, cannot wear and has no appetite eating; her brother and sisters take on that task. As promised, father gets a swanky new Honda Hero motorbike. On wedding day, decked in oppressive feeling gharara, garlanded by flowers that seem to choke her, a worried Maulana has to ask her at least five times before Saira can croak acceptance for the nikkah recitation to begin.
On nuptial night, after Shadaab mauls her and promptly falls asleep, Saira, sensing a thunderstorm, opens her eyes but realizes it is only her husband snoring; she covers her ears and grids her teeth. When the racket does not lessen in about ten minutes, she gently prods the massive belly laying lopsided by her; Shadaab simply grunts, farts violently, changes sides and resumes snoring; Saira begins crying softly.
Tears of frustration, despair and self-pity wash over her as she sobs, stifling the sounds with a fist in her mouth least her husband of few hours will rise irate and lecture on proper wifely behavior yet again, an art he has remarkably, progressively improved since magni. It was not supposed to be like this, this hurried up affair; for Saira had dreams, very different dreams. Dreams she would graduate, become financially independent, fall in love, wed.
Within weeks of marriage, medical tests confirm her pregnancy and Saira recedes into deep melancholy; she has dreaded this exact situation, had insisted no pregnancy until after graduation. Shadaab had countered there is no need, he needs to be a dad soon-soon, he is not getting any younger. As a matter of fact, he wants as many kids as possible. No need for Saira to work, he earns enough and has saved up plenty. Shadaab rants at her despair, complains to his sister and her parents; they confront her with tongue-lashings and reprimands. Saira contemplates suicide.
The angel of death has different ideas however, Shadaab croaks instead, simply does not wake up one morning after a night of fierce arguments between them. A massive heart attack stop his heartbeats; the doctors blame overweight, overworked heart and smoking as reason, the sister in law openly cries murder and much to Saira’s distress, her parents, too, look at her with reproachful eyes.
Looking straight into my eyes, startling me silly, Saira asks if an abortion would be an option. I am so very despondent for this girl, beyond words, numb, unable to react for quite sometime. What can I say? I am not in a position, not qualified to judge or advise in this extreme, delicate situation. I do warn her, however, that Islam considers abortion a heinous sin. I offer to pay for professional counseling, continued support for her to complete education and monetary support for her baby. After some thought, Saira says she is too muddled up to make a concrete decision, wants time to weigh her options, discuss with parents if she has their support going forward.
I tried my best, will follow up when I visit India next May / June insha’Allah.