IT WAS ONLY YESTERDAY WHEN THE LAST GIRL, MARYAM, TOOK her turn with paracetamols and cheap alcohol. A few weeks earlier, Zainab had done the same, but Laila, who had followed Hafsa, had slit her wrists. When the police took us in for questioning, we said we were ready to cooperate. We even offered to share our photographs. After all, who better than us could explain what happened to the girls? We sit in the row of kiosks on the left side of the car park as you face the front of the shrine. The tasbihs and Ajrak scarves hanging on the frames of our windows provide a curtain from behind which we observed the events as they unfolded in the shrine compound.
Maryam’s tragedy occurred ten days before the Sufi festival of Urs, which, as you probably know, celebrates the union between the physical and spiritual. We’d decorated our kiosks with green flags, and the mausoleum was lit up with blue lights. It was in the evening at around seven o’clock, when we were in the middle of haggling with pilgrims over the price of prayer books and postcards, that we saw the two policemen striding through rows of cars towards the shrine. We quickly pulled down the kiosk shutters and followed the officers through the chanting devotees lighting clay lamps, the boys offering birdseed on plates, and the qawwals chanting under the mimosa tree. The shrine entrance was covered in a haze of smoke from the hundreds of diyas lit by pilgrims.
To tell you the truth, the trouble started with Hafsa. She was thirteen, the youngest of the girls living in the shrine backyard. She cut her wrists and then slipped into the canal, just behind the shrine. None of us reported her as missing; there was no reason why we should have. It was the people in the chowk behind Baba Safra Road who alerted the authorities. They said they’d found a half-drowned girl lying on the banks of the river. Later, the policemen told us when they’d dragged Hafsa over the low slope, and laid her on the ground, she’d smelt of sewage, and her eyes had the wild look of someone possessed. Her shivering, wasted body was covered in muck and slime, and the skin around her eyes and mouth had turned a dark grey. Her wet hair was tangled with bits of debris, and around her neck she had a tasbih. The policemen said when they checked her body more carefully, they found hidden in her underclothes a knotted plastic bag with an expired, crumpled entry ticket to a Meesha Shafi concert. The policemen made enquiries, but no one could tell them who the girl was, until Imran (from kiosk number 28), hearing about the incident at the chowk, volunteered that it was likely she was one of the homeless shrine girls. After they’d made sure the girl was still alive, the policemen put her on a stretcher and brought her to Baba Rehman for identification. The gossiping whispers from the bazaar made us realize that, thanks to Hafsa, our peaceful neighbourhood, the sacred site of the mausoleum of Pir Z, in Multan, City of Saints, had overnight become the site of a scandal.
This had happened around the middle of June, the start of the monsoon season, when the mosquitoes came in hordes, breeding by the dozens, in the stagnating pools of water in the potholes in the alleys and in the crevices of dilapidated buildings surrounding the shrine.
At that time, Erum Bibi was in charge of looking after the girls and living with them in the backyard. She told us she’d found Hafsa, the day she’d attempted suicide, sitting on the pavement by the shrine entrance. She was wearing her usual dirty white salawar kameez with the red hem, and stirring a mosquito-infested puddle with her bare hands. Erum Bibi told us she’d warned Hafsa, if she got dengue fever, there was no money for medication, so she’d die. And Hafsa had replied, ‘I don’t care, I’m already dead,’ and held up her arm covered in welts and bites. Erum Bibi shouted at her to stop being stupid, but Hafsa stuck her hand back into the murky pool and carried on sifting the sludge.
To help the police understand what had really happened between June and August, we’ve pooled together the photos we had taken individually on our mobile phones and tried to arrange them chronologically; a few are blurry, but all are nonetheless revealing. Photo #1 shows the shrine compound shortly before Hafsa’s suicide attempt. Aftab, from kiosk no. 27 had taken the snap. He sells tasbihs with beads made from sheesham, walnut and mulberry wood. The policemen discovered that the tasbih around Hafsa’s neck was one of these and asked who’d given it to her. We pointed out that it was possible for anyone who visited the shrine to have bought the beads and presented them to Hafsa. The police conceded this was true. Which put an end to this line of enquiry.
Photo #1 is evidence of the heavy rainfall we had that day. The green flag on the mausoleum minaret is limp, the windows of the mosque which are usually open are bolted and the carpets from the Pir’s dargah are hanging to dry on the branches of the old walnut tree. The lower-right corner of the image shows a silhouetted figure sitting on the steps near an empty flower pot filled with rainwater. Aftab confirmed to the policemen that the girl they had found was Maryam. He said he was sure it was her because Maryam never tied her hair and was always scratching her scalp. If you look more closely at the photograph, you’ll see that against the backdrop of the dense, grey clouds and the shadow of the mosque, Maryam is captured in the act of combing her hair.
But let us return to Hafsa. After she’d been rescued from the canal, she was carried on a stretcher by two paramedics and accompanied by two policemen to the shrine. As soon as we saw them, we immediately closed our kiosks, rushed to offer our help, and directed them to Baba Rehman’s office. Baba Rehman’s family have been the official caretakers of the shrine for the past many decades. Legend has it that Pir Z’s spirit visited Baba’s ancestor in his dreams and commanded him to dedicate himself and the future generations of his family to the service of the shrine. Since then, Baba’s family has lived on the compound in the two rooms behind the mosque. His office, which is the front room, has a wooden desk and two chairs. The other room has a double-size Master Molty Foam mattress, with a plastic cover, leaning against the wall. Near it, on a small shelf, is a pile of religious books, a skull cap, a folded prayer rug, a copy of the Quran and a mirror. On a washing line suspended from one end of the room to the other, are six starched and ironed white kanzus on hangers. Baba is in his mid-fifties, only ten years older than us, but because he’s thin and bent, you’d think he was more elderly. He has thick black hair, a long beard and wears a pair of round wire-rimmed reading glasses. You will never spot him without his white skull cap. When he saw us outside his window – a small crowd with policemen and a stretcher in the courtyard – Baba burst out trailing the green cloth used to cover Pir Z’s tomb. He let out a long wail, and at that very moment, when we raised our hands and looked up at the minaret, the limp flag and the sky covered in thick clouds, Hafsa hauled herself up on her elbows. She looked straight at us, gave an unearthly smile, and collapsed again on the stretcher.
The policemen asked Baba if he could identify her, and Baba let out a cry, ‘Allah, have mercy, she’s a daughter of the shrine.’ They asked Baba if he knew what had happened, and he replied, ‘Nothing’s in our hands; it’s all Allah’s will.’ The policemen said that that was all very well, but they needed proper answers. Meanwhile the paramedics kept pointing to Hafsa, saying the police should hurry up because it was obvious the girl was suffering. Baba became distraught. ‘Who am I?’ he said. ‘Who am I to understand what tortures a girl’s mind?’ He turned to us and asked what he ought to do. Moved by the difficulty of his situation, we offered to help get a truck to transport Hafsa to the nearest hospital and arrange auto-rickshaws for Baba and ourselves to follow her. At that time, there was no sign of the other shrine girls. We wondered where they were, as they were usually together, and concluded that they were keeping their distance because they were afraid of the police.
There are four shrine girls: Hafsa, aged thirteen, Laila, fifteen, Maryam, sixteen, and Zainab, seventeen. We can confirm their mothers must have been like them, destitute and homeless – why else would they have abandoned their babies at the shrine? But as we told the police, their fathers could’ve been anyone. Baba had put Erum Bibi in charge of looking after the girls.
It was while Hafsa was being hoisted into the back of the truck, that we spied the other three girls, crouching behind an abandoned fruit and vegetable cart. We saw that their faces registered the same shock we’d had when we’d seen a seemingly dead Hafsa in her dirty white salwar kameez, lying on the stretcher, her wet hair in clumps around her head. When the truck driver honked, we shouted at the crowd which had gathered from the chowk to move out of the way.
We followed the truck with Hafsa, the paramedics and policemen to a nearby public hospital. In the emergency room, we observed Hafsa on the stretcher watching with unnerving disinterest the efforts being made to save her life. She did not quail when Dr Arshad stuck a needle in her arm for a blood transfusion nor when he stitched up her wrist wounds. Dr Arshad asked Hafsa if she knew suicide was a cardinal sin in Islam. Hafsa did not reply but turned her head and looked at us. Dr Arshad said he couldn’t understand why she would do such a thing, and Hafsa replied, ‘I missed Meesha Shafi’s concert.’ We could not believe our ears – was this really because of Meesha Shafi? Baba threw up his hands crying for Allah’s mercy from the besharam Meesha Shafi. This justification from Hafsa, the only explanation we ever got from her, was a type of a suicide note because Hafsa, like the other girls, was illiterate.
The girls held a certain fascination for us. Even though their palms were rough and covered in calluses, they were thin as sticks, and their hair was matted with dust and sweat – they were like a flash of lightning in a dark monsoon sky. We’d seen them growing, running around the car park playing hide-and-seek, and we knew when they entered adolescence, because they stopped their childish games and began covering their heads with scarves. After that, only when their scarves slipped were we able to catch a glimpse of their sullen teenage faces. The expression in their dark, shining eyes was teasing and mistrusting at the same time.
On Baba’s orders, the girls sat at the shrine entrance, reciting poetry in praise of Pir Z and begging. Whatever they collected, they gave to Baba. We often discussed whether Baba had sired one, if not all, the girls. However, we never came to any conclusion, although we agreed that Zainab was the one most likely to be his, because she was as stubborn as him and when he’d learnt that Zainab was pregnant – she didn’t know with whose child – he had cried for hours before lashing out at all the girls with shrewish screams.
Although the girls were nothing to us, it pained us to see them sulking in the car park and calling out to strangers saying they were hungry, begging and pleading for a few rupees. Sometimes we’d offer to buy them ice creams or sweets but only if they came to our kiosks and talked to us. As they grew older, we even promised to buy them new dresses. However, the girls always kept their distance, although, even in their reserve, there was familiarity. Once when we saw Hafsa showing off a new pair of shoes, and Maryam distributing bright-coloured glass bangles to her friends, it crossed our minds that one of us must have been secretly generous. But the girls gave no indication who it might’ve been. And no matter what season it was, just before daybreak, when the azaan rang out from the mosque, the girls would appear on the steps, in the same rags except in the winter when they had thick shawls given to them by some or other well-wisher, draped around their thin bodies. It was impossible for us to tell what they really thought of us.
But they had one male in their circle, Yunnus, the maalangi. This young, mad dervish lived with them in the backyard. He could’ve been brother to any of the girls, but we have no way of knowing for sure. It was Baba’s policy to send away to an orphanage any young boys abandoned at the shrine steps, but because Yunnus was mentally disabled and incapable of harming anyone, let alone fending for himself, Baba relented when Erum Bibi pleaded she’d look after him. Yunnus is now probably in his early or late teens, and he has separate sleeping quarters, just outside the male public washroom, a few metres away from the girls. You’d recognize him if you saw him by the wild, unbalanced look in his eyes and his floppy, long hair. He always wears a brown kurta–pyjama tied too high at the waist, and the trousers flap around his ankles. During the day, he played with the girls and with grunts and half-words he’d tell us how they offered him sweets, showering them on him in such a hurry that he didn’t know who’d been the first to give. We were amazed to see that it was true; the girls trusted him even though he was an idiot, laughing at his silly antics and showing him their uneven yellow teeth. Because Yunnus did not own any shoes, his feet were always infested with jiggers, and when he’d come to sit with us, he’d listen to us banter, cheerfully removing them. When we’d tease him, he’d protest with rapid gestures and swear he didn’t know the girls’ secrets, and when we’d taunt him about which girl he was sleeping with, he’d cry and mumble, with tears rolling down his face, that they were his sisters.
Let’s return to the day they found Hafsa in the canal. The policeman who had searched Hafsa and found the ticket to Meesha Shafi’s ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ concert, pocketed the ticket. And it was only at the hospital, after Hafsa mentioned Meesha Shafi to Dr Arshad, that the policeman remembered he had it and gave it to Baba. After staring at it, Baba crumpled the ticket and threw it at us, swearing. ‘Who am I?’ he said. ‘What am I to do about this whore?’ This was the first time we had heard him swear. Photo #2 is the front of the ticket, and you can see why Baba was so upset by it. It has a picture of Meesha Shafi with a mocking smile, red painted lips, dark glasses and a big nose ring. Photo #3 is the back of the ticket.
After a week, Baba referred to the event as ‘Hafsa’s accident’, as though she’d cut herself in a minor fall. But then Erum Bibi let it slip that she’d found a stash of paracetamols and a bottle of liquor wrapped in a newspaper hidden under a pile of rags in the backyard. This led us to debate why Hafsa had opted for the razor, instead of pills and liquor, and why drowning herself in the canal had failed. We came to the conclusion that Hafsa had not really known what she was doing. However, Aftab, from kiosk no. 27, claimed he understood Hafsa best, and said it was obvious that she did it to embarrass us. When we questioned him further, he replied it was ‘self-evident’. That led us to discus whether it was obvious or not, and we concluded that it wasn’t, and there was no reason why it should be.
Hafsa was kept under observation for a week. The hospital records showed that the artery in her left wrist was split, but because she was right-handed, the gash in her right wrist was not as deep and the lower part of the artery was intact. Dr Arshad used dissolving sutures to stitch up both arteries. Each of her wrists had twelve stitches. We do not have photographs of her wrists.
The evening Hafsa returned from the hospital, we were standing under the awning of Imran’s kiosk discussing the IPL scores. We saw an auto-rickshaw drive up. Baba alighted, holding a newspaper over his head as an umbrella, followed by Hafsa. She was wearing her old white salwar kameez with the red hem, and her arms, which were both in slings, were raised above her head, as she tried to protect herself from the shower. Baba dragged her through the car park, up the steps and into the shrine.
The weather cleared in the coming days, and one morning when the sky was an intense deep blue and the sun was shining, we saw Hafsa and the other girls sitting on the steps at the entrance, just as they used to. A flower seller from the bazaar had brought them a basket of dead roses and the girls were plucking the petals and gathering them in small heaps to sell to pilgrims. We were relieved that things were back to normal.
Imran was not the only one who had a theory about Hafsa’s suicide attempt. His father looked at each one of us straight in the face and asked, ‘Who’s the mother? Who’s the father?’ even though he knew full well none of us could possibly know. Salim, from kiosk no. 29, who isn’t given to saying much, was convinced it was just because Hafsa had simply wanted to die. But Aftab kept insisting Hafsa was evil and cursed.
The week after Hafsa returned from hospital, we visited Baba with a box of his favourite sohan halwa. Baba took the mithai from Aftab, covered it with a newspaper and laid it to one side. Then he began swearing at the besharam Meesha Shafi, saying the whole tamasha was her fault. ‘Who am I?’ he said. ‘Am I to blame? It is Allah’s will.’ He gave each of us a dozen of his new business card, saying we should distribute them. The front had the image of Baba in a white kanzu and skull cap, holding a tasbih; the back read: For shrine donations contact Baba Rehman, Mobile: 031-911-786. Allah rewards those who give. Photos #4 and #5 are shots of the front and reverse of Baba’s card. Later, however, some of us remembered it differently. Imran recalled that Baba invited us to his office, passed around the halwa, and we had sat in silence wondering about the truth.
One incident stands out in our memory. It was when Salim told us he’d found, in the rubbish heap behind the shrine, rags soaked in blood which he said belonged to the girls. We mocked Salim for sniffing around the girls like a dog in heat and jeered at him for following the smell of fresh blood like a churail. Shortly after that, when we threatened to beat him if he didn’t show us, Yunnus took us to see some bricks drying in the sun which he 28 PERIOD MATTERS said the girls had made from the ash they’d collected from the clay lamps. He demonstrated, with jerking movements, how the girls wrapped each brick in a rag and used it to absorb the blood that dripped down their legs every month. Repulsed, we called Yunnus a pervert. But even as we joked, we’d never been more aware that the girls were no longer children, but young women. We noticed their budding breasts, the swagger of their hips and a new listlessness about them. And by and by, we came to realize that if one of them was on her cycle, all of the girls would disappear because they were forbidden from entering the shrine, begging at the steps, or eating free food from the langar. This was a relief, for the very idea of female blood was repugnant to us.
However, we all admitted that what really infuriated us was Meesha Shafi and the ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’ concert. According to Imran, pop concerts were immoral. Salim said Hafsa was a thief as it was obvious that she’d stolen Baba’s money to buy the ticket, while Aftab insisted, irrespective of the concert, that Hafsa was going to hell for attempting suicide. We interrogated Erum Bibi about the ticket. She clarified that although Hafsa had shown it to her, the girl had refused to tell her from where she’d got it and who’d promised to take her, only to be let down on the day of the concert. These questions left us at a dead end, as none of us wanted to ask Hafsa for answers.
If you look at the hospital records, you’ll see that Dr Arshad’s assessment of Hafsa’s mental health is quite detailed. He diagnosed her attempted suicide as ‘an act of aggression provoked by extreme poverty and the degradation of her life’. Dr Arshad’s reports were shared with us by Erum Bibi, who’d removed and returned the file from Baba’s office at our request. Photos #6, #7 and #8 are images of the relevant pages. Dr Arshad also warned Baba that any further such incidents could lead to negative publicity and closure of the shrine by the Multan City Council. This frightened Baba and led him to make some changes. After Hafsa returned from hospital, the girls no longer begged at the entrance steps, the roof of the backyard was repaired, and a lockable toilet and washing area with a tap with clean running water was allocated to the girls. However, the biggest difference we noticed was not in Baba, but in the girls’ attitude.
One Sunday evening, about a month after the incident, we heard loud music coming from the shrine compound. The track sounded suspiciously like Meesha Shafi’s ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’, so we rushed to check what was going on. Imagine our disgust and horror when we found the sounds emerging from a radio in Baba’s office, the door was wide open and the girls were dancing and belting out the lyrics, ‘Why are you so jealous?’ Hafsa was standing on Baba’s desk swinging her hips; Maryam was prancing around, her hair wild around her face; Zainab, with her swollen belly, was waving her hands in the air; and Laila was jumping up and down doing bhangra. Aftab called them besharam whores, Salim covered his ears and asked for Allah’s mercy, and Imran said the bitches belonged in hell. We could not believe our eyes, and when Hafsa jumped off the table and slammed the door in our faces, we knew then – there was no hope for them.
We asked Erum Bibi whether Baba was responsible for this new, foolish leniency, and she said Baba was ignorant and away visiting a neighbourhood mosque, and she no longer cared if he found out. ‘Haven’t I been young myself?’ she said. ‘Is this what life is about? Men with skull caps, long beards, paunches and roving eyes paying a few rupees to sleep with you?’ She confessed that the girls’ youth and beauty had begun to annoy her. ‘Now I’m just like one of those bloody pigeons circling the minaret – they eat, shit and die. No one cares.’ She also admitted after Hafsa’s suicide attempt that she’d threatened Baba with blackmail unless he agreed to the renovation in the backyard.
But of all the events that transpired, what surprised us the most was the qawwali mehfil. Baba came to our kiosks to invite us to the musical event, where he said the girls would also be present, saying it was to give thanks to Allah for Hafsa’s recovery. Our astonishment, however, soon changed to disapproval, as we concluded it was all just a further reflection of Baba’s hypocrisy. Nevertheless, we were keen to go.
On the afternoon of the mehfil, the tattered flag on the minaret was replaced, and Baba received a delivery of dried fruits, sohan halwa, and two dozen quarter-pint-size cartons of chocolate milk. Photo #9 shows the new flag on the minaret. That evening, we locked up our kiosks early and went to Baba’s office. For the occasion, Baba had put on a clean white kurta–pyjama, and a black velvet waistcoat.
We trailed after him to the mosque, up the stairs, bumping against each other as we passed through the narrow stairwell to the eighth floor. As we climbed higher, the light coming through the windows on the ground floor faded, and by the time we reached the sixth floor, it was pitch dark. We kept going, our fingers feeling the walls for support, until Baba opened a small wooden door and led us into a room. The setting sun filtered in through arched windows, and diyas burned bright. The musicians were already there, seated on a carpet in the middle of the room, and Baba asked us to make ourselves comfortable next to them.
As our eyes adjusted to the light, for the first few minutes, we saw sitting across from us shapeless, unidentifiable figures. Because they were all in black and their heads were covered in white scarves, we could not tell who was who, but we knew it was the girls. And as we kept looking, we were able to make out which of them was Hafsa. She was sitting at the end of the row, staring at her hands in her lap. Then suddenly, as though she could feel our eyes on her, she looked up and her scarf slipped from her head. She quickly pulled it over her head again and we noticed that her bandages were gone. To cover the scars on her wrists, she had wrapped tasbihs around them, and to stop the wooden beads from sliding, she’d stuck them to her skin with pieces of Elastoplast. You can find similar tasbihs in Aftab’s shop.
Baba told the musicians to begin, and accompanied by tablas and a harmonium, the men began singing a qawwali. We all joined in clapping to the beat, except for Hafsa, who sat without moving. Then Baba shouted out, ‘Oi, malaangi,’ and Yunnus came in dancing and smiling like the idiot he was. We nudged each other, grinning. Even though it’s difficult to say exactly how old Yunnus is, that evening he danced with the innocence of a twelveyear-old. Over the years, we’d watched him growing and expected he’d be dead by the time the girls were adolescents. But now they were young women, and he was still a child. We’ve known all along that Baba made Yunnus do things which no one should agree to, which explained his crazed look, his silly, lopsided grin, and his fear of Baba.
Yunnus began turning, his arms slightly raised in a smooth dervish whirl. The musicians began chanting and as the refrain became louder, Baba shouted for Yunnus to spin faster. It was at that point, when the mehfil reached its peak, that Hafsa stood up and made her way to Baba. Shocked, Baba raised his hand, and the musicians stopped. Pulling at the beads on her wrist, Hafsa asked if she could be excused. The sound of her exhausted voice sent a tremor through us. After a momentary pause, Baba replied that it was up to her. Hafsa tugged at the beads, the Elastoplast came unstuck snapping the thread, and the beads scattered on the floor. ‘Go then,’ Baba said, as Hafsa crossed over to the door. We did not hear her climbing the stairs, but we heard the sound of her feet running above us and about twenty seconds later, we heard the heavy, wet sound of her body falling and landing on the concrete ground. First, there was a long sigh, then there was a loud, sharp crash, like the sound of a coconut breaking open. We sat immobile, as though waiting for the strains of a mehfil from someplace else to fill the air, expectant that its tempo would pick up any moment with rapid tabla beats. Baba rushed to the door, and we followed him down the stairs, until we were pushed to the side by the screaming girls
We found Erum Bibi holding Hafsa with her hand under the girl’s neck, stroking her hair. Hafsa must have hit her head on the cement but there was no blood anywhere. She seemed to be peacefully asleep, and her white scarf fluttering in the wind added to this effect. Erum Bibi picked up Hafsa’s head and gently laid it on her lap. Baba raised his hands, Yunnus banged his fists on his chest, and the girls collapsed in a heap next to Hafsa. Photo #10 shows the spot marked X, where Hafsa’s body had landed near the cone-shaped monument where the diyas are lit on Thursday evenings. Photo #11 is of the beam in the ceiling in the men’s washroom and the rope Yunnus used. Photo #12, taken just before Maryam’s body was discovered, shows a flock of pigeons circling the minaret. Photo #13 shows the wall in the backyard where the poster, before we ripped it off, advertised Meesha Shafi’s concert, ‘Hot Mango Chutney Sauce’.
Farah Ahamed’s short stories and essays have been published in The White Review, Ploughshares, The Mechanics’ Institute Review, The Massachusetts Review amongst others.
You can read more of her work here: farahahamed.com