In this excerpt from her new novel The Writing on My Forehead, author Nafisa Haji describes an incident in the protagonist’s youth that lays bare the priorities set down by tradition, where the threat of serious injury is not abhorred for injury’s sake, but for prospects of a future marriage.
I close my eyes and imagine the touch of my mother’s hand on my forehead, smoothing away the residue of childhood nightmares. Her finger moves across my forehead, tracing letters and words of prayer that I never understood, never wanted to understand, her mouth whispering in nearly silent accompaniment. Now, waking from the nightmare that has become routine—bathed in sweat, breathing hard, resigned to the sleeplessness that will follow—I remember her soothing touch and appreciate it with an intensity that I never felt when she was alive.
I shake my head to dispel the longing. The world has changed around us, and, because of all that has happened, I know it is my time to give comfort and not to receive it—not that I have yet proven equal to the task. Shoving myself out of bed, I make the quiet, nightly journey to the room across the hall. I pause in the doorway of my sister’s childhood room. Her daughter, Sakina, is asleep—a little lump, rising and falling slightly with each even breath, curled up in the corner of Ameena’s old bed, apparently at ease with the night and its quiet in a way I have not been for a very long time.
I approach the bed and stare down at Sakina for a moment. Her face is hidden, turned away from mine. Her arms are wrapped tightly around a little doll that used to be Ameena’s. I wrap my arms around myself and marvel at how easily she has staked her claim. On Ameena’s room. On Ameena’s toys. I remember battles fought with my sister in trying to do the same. Battles and skirmishes which always ended with a story from our mother. But that was long ago—in the days when I was young enough to want whatever Ameena had. In the days before I began to roll my eyes at our mother’s stories. As I turn to leave the room, my eyes fall on a jewelry box on the dresser. And the memory of one of those battles is so clear that I can feel Ameena’s arms around me, now, as her daughter sleeps in the room where the skirmish took place.
Ameena’s grip around me was so tight that I had to struggle to free one hand. But I did, reaching up immediately to grab a clump of hair and pull for all I was worth. She shrieked, but not as loudly as the howling I had commenced upon losing hold of Ameena’s jewelry box which she had found me playing with in her room. Her hair was her Achilles heel, long and straight, easy to grab and hold onto. Also a target, perhaps, because I was jealous of it. My own, my mother kept boyishly short—because I was a wild creature, she said, and it was too much trouble for her to try and keep it tame.
“Let go, Saira! Ow!” Ameena tried to regain control of my wayward hand, but it was no use. In any case, we both heard the angry stomp of our referee in the hallway, coming to break up the fight.
“Bas! Junglee girls—I will not have this wild-beast behavior in my house!” Mummy had pulled us apart already. “What has gotten into you, Ameena? To fight like a shameless creature?” Mummy didn’t ask me the same question. Because she had long ago decided that I was just that—a besharam creature, brazen by nature. Unlike Ameena, who could be chided in this way because she was not.
“Saira was in my room without my permission! She took my jewelry box—” Ameena retrieved the item from the floor where it had fallen during our dispute.
“I was just playing with it!”
“You have your own, Saira.”
“She broke it!”
“Not on purpose!”
“She broke it and now she wants to break mine!”
“The ballerina came off of mine.” I was crying. The ballerina had been important. “There’s no dancing now.”
“Oof-ho! Junglee girl. Always breaking things, jumping here and there like a monkey.”
“I wanted her to dance faster. I didn’t mean to break it.”
“That’s what being junglee is. Doing things without thinking, without meaning to, breaking things because you’re not careful.”
I didn’t think that was fair. Though it was true that nothing of mine seemed to last as long as Ameena’s. But it wasn’t fair that Ameena would get away with her half of the fight. “Ameena hit me. She grabbed the box out of my hand and hit me. And then pushed me and grabbed me and hurt my arms.”
“Ameena!” The shock in my mother’s voice was enough to make Ameena lower her head in shame. Mummy nodded, satisfied with Ameena’s show of remorse. Genuine remorse. Not the kind I trotted out on occasion. Then Mummy turned back to me. “And you, Saira, you didn’t pull her hair? I saw when I came in the room, both of you rolling around on the floor, pushing and hitting. Haven’t I told you what happened to my cousin Laila? When she and her brother were fighting, pushing and pulling each other, over a pencil? Her brother poked her in the eye with that cursed pencil. Not because he meant to, Saira. Junglee boy, he always was. Poor Laila!” Mummy shuddered. “She lost her eye. No one would marry her when she grew up. And her brother had to take care of his poor, unfortunate, unmarried sister for the rest of his life. Even now, she lives with him, instead of having a husband and a home and children of her own. You see? You see what happens when children fight like animals?”
Ameena lowered her head, again, in shame. I felt my own eyes widen in gruesome fascination. “So—she had no eye, Mummy? Was there a hole? Did she have to wear a patch? Like a pirate? What about a glass eye? Why didn’t she get a glass eye? Sammy Davis Jr. has a glass eye! And Colombo. Daddy told me. That’s why they look like this,” I scrunched and squinted one eye in an attempt to show her. “This wouldn’t be so bad. See? See, Mummy?”
My mother shook her head in disgust. She looked at Ameena, who shook her head, too. They laughed.
“Shameless creature! What will I do with you? Is there nothing you are afraid of?”
I didn’t laugh with them. Not then.
Now, I smile as I take a seat on the floor across from the bed where Sakina is sleeping, the first genuine smile I have managed in weeks, though the muscles required to achieve the expression have been well-exercised by the failed attempts at strained, cheerful assurance that I offer her by day. I get the joke now. The one my mother and sister had laughed at. That I had missed the point, the moral of the story: that fighting with your sibling can lead to serious injury, including the loss of important body parts, and, worse, marital eligibility—the last a primary theme in most of Mummy’s stories.
Nafisa Haji is author of “The Writing on My Forehead,” published by HarperCollins. She is an American of Indo-Pakistani descent. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she now lives in Northern California with her husband and son. She is currently working on her second novel.