Photo by kashishArtandGallery / shutterstock
For as long as I can remember, my mother had wanted to mother a son. She dressed me in blue every chance she got. Even before I was expected, she bought baby boy clothes off thelas around Tariq Road and Hyderi. She could have bought them for even cheaper from Saddar, she told me, but she could not travel alone to a market that far—especially not in a rickshaw on Karachi roads.
There aren’t that many pictures of me, but those that are are me dressed in plain, monochrome cotton kurta shalwars in weddings, flannel shirts beneath blue overalls on Eid, and most frequently, cheap knock-offs of Polo t-shirts with knee-length denims. In all of these, for some strange reason, I am wearing matte black framed sunglasses with the blackest lens coat—the kind where it’s impossible to locate the eye, but in which the capturer remains in simple focus. Strange because every single one of these photos is taken indoors. If one were to analyze my life solely through photos, one would think I never saw the sunlight and pretended I did.
Once, while we were at my nana’s house for Eid, I may have been six or seven, and may have been wearing one of those kurta shalwars, turquoise or teal, when amma’s eldest brother, Sohail mamu, entered the room and looked at me, then looked at amma, and said:
If you wanted a son so bad, you could have adopted one!
No one seems to remember he said that, especially now that he is long dead. Long may be an incorrect descriptor but it seemed amma had aged severely since then.
I never asked amma if she was hurt by her brother’s words, or if she, in fact, intended to laugh after he said it. I never forgot his words, even though I find it surprising that a six or seven year old could comprehend, let alone remember, such a comment. But then I think about other arbitrary moments in life, the ones that become markers for our childhoods, adolescence, high school. I think I have four to five such images or incidents that never leave me: amma squeezing the oranges in fruit chaat with her naked hands, the citrus melding with grime; baba pulling out his cigarette from his drawer, lighting it in the kitchen with a matchstick and locking himself in the bathroom to smoke it in its entirety; dadi calling me diwani when I once wailed horrifically after iftar because baba didn’t take me to the mosque with him. I ran after baba on the stairs, slipped, and fell upon my chin. I will always have the sutures to show for it.
I have many scars, though—from all that time playing outside in little, rocky streets in my Nazimabad neighborhood with gully boys. I was of them. The boys’ mothers frequently knocked our front door to complain to amma that I was leading their boys astray, roping them into dangerous stunts like one-wheeling on our bicycles.
Don’t mind, Shazia, but your daughter is now growing up. You should get her in control. This comment was their regular add on, like their meals were incomplete without the sprinkle of this hot sauce.
Others—and those were a minority group—seemed to enjoy the charade, often making a spectacle of me. Like whenever amma went to the neighborhood butcher or grocery store, the shopkeepers, who I grew up in front of, joked:
Shazia baji, aapki beti toh gunda hai. Your daughter is a hooligan, leader of the gully gang.
There was an old man who lived across from our house alone. Adults called him Babaji, we called him Allah baba. We often scared the younger kids saying things like, If you don’t give us the ball, we will call Allah baba to kidnap you.
The neighborhood adults respected him, he was like their Ali. He was the neighborhood mosque’s imam for a long time before older age got the better of his allegedly melodic voice, and retreated to the saf behind the new imam. Many lores surrounded him. No one knew how he got here, whether his wife had died or he never married, why no one visited him.
I may have been nine or ten when Allah baba summoned my parents. I never knew exactly what he said to them, or how they responded. But I knew something had changed. I was starting to show signs of girlhood, or at least all around me, everybody was beginning to see something that was not quite there yet, but was also not not there. I believe it was then that amma also realized I was not the boy she dreamt me to be. She began trying to keep me off the streets, nudged me to say aaungi instead of aaunga, stopped taking me to the barber for haircuts, and bought me girl clothes for eid and other festivities.
I felt I was being tortured—an enormous cruelty being enforced on me that no one else around me seemed to see. What was so wrong if I uttered a different cadence of a vowel, if I wore blue and gray instead of red and yellow, if I played with the boys outside after I had completed homework. I started throwing tantrums, not out of want, but out of necessity. I felt I had to protect myself, protect who I thought I was.
Though I could not say with certainty who I was. I was in an all-girls school far, far away from Nazimabad. I remember my dadi and most family members protested when baba decided to put me in this school. It is one-hour away from here, tum pagal ho? Are you mad? Dadi asked my father. But baba remained steadfast.
I loathed my school uniform—a muck-brown collared long shirt with off-white shalwar and an off-white scarf we were required to wear over our heads. At school, I was a completely different person: a girl. I announced my verbs in the correct gender, was excellent at liking Barbie and boys, gagged at the sound of a swear word. I was more girl than all girls and thought being perceived as a boy is a gross insult, something to be embarrassed about. I was careful not to let anyone know I had shoulder length hair.
It helped that my school van arrived earlier than most of my neighborhood friends’ because I was terrified of them seeing me like this. Though, because I returned from school later than them, they often encountered me walking back home. Those who saw me in my uniform, hair covered, for the first time expressed shock, while others mocked me, as if being a girl was an insult (and it was, back then, from them). Most friends, boys, I think, were confused and remained confused throughout the duration of our friendship. They didn’t know where to place me: was I one of their buddies? Was I an outsider, a threat? Worse of all, was I an object of want, a desire for fame, for popularity among the neighborhood? I don’t deny I did have that aura about me. I pulled spectators anywhere I went.
Like an amphibian, I had two separate, fully-functional organs for breathing, even though most of the time, I felt suffocated by both. My school was my land, Nazimabad my water. The thought that these two could ever mix, even by accident, terrified me. Parent-teacher meetings were the most difficult: I could not endure saying i instead of a at the end of my verbs in front of amma, so I mostly tried speaking English. Each utterance of the Urdu verb felt like a brief defeat. Too many, and one loses the war entirely. A war amma didn’t even know was happening within the hem of her kameez.
I may have been twelve or thirteen when I stopped playing outside entirely. Because I had been good at sports, I was selected for my school’s cricket team as a baller and captain. I started playing exclusively among the girls of my school, going to regional and national competitions throughout Pakistan, which amma and baba had always been very supportive of.
On one such trip to Lahore, I befriended Kanwal from eighth-grade, a grade above mine. Kanwal was five, six inches taller than me, broader, and had long hair she always kept in a french braid. She had olives for eyes, and cherries for cheeks. She lived in Orangi Town, another working-class neighborhood in Karachi. She never tried to hide her masculinity, she was who I would be if I wasn’t so fearful all the time.
When our coach took us to androon shehr to Badshahi masjid, Minar-e-Pakistan, and Anarkali bazaar, she must have fought with at least ten boys ogling at and catcalling us. She had zero inhibitions—she could punch three boys back-to-back on their faces without flinching. For me, she was the coolest person in our school.
We spent three nights together in our bunk beds, chuckling into the late hours of the night when everyone else was asleep. I don’t remember anything about the cricket competition we were there for, whether we won or lost, who was declared Woman of the Tournament. I do, however, remember Kanwal and I, out of breath, reenacting one of her many scenes of displaying full on rogue, gunda behavior. We took turns playing Kanwal and one of the scum boys on the streets of Lahore. I-as-Kanwal was everything I wanted to be. To be as unabashed, as cool, as boyish.
On our train ride back, I confided in Kanwal. My incorrect gender of verbs, the length of my hair, the colors lacking in my wardrobe. Nothing surprised her. So? What does that mean? she shrugged, sincerely. Asked me if I had heard the song, boys are best.
I still could not say exactly, but it must mean something. Otherwise, I will have spent my life fearing something meaningless.
Kanwal and I immediately became best friends. We could not dare stay apart. Every day at school, I eagerly awaited break time so I could run to Kanwal and hug her and buy aloo samosas and amrood chaat together. She was friendly with the amroodwala so he always gave us the fruit for five rupees off. After we were finished eating, we went to the football ground and practiced new tricks. In the three years we spent in school, she taught me how to do the scissor kick, scorpion kick, seal dribble, elastico, and the knuckleball free kick. Sometimes I purposefully attempted the tricks wrong so she laughed and said,
Ese nahi, buddhu. Not like that, idiot.
And then proceeded to show me once again.
Weekends were a nightmare. I often used amma’s mobile to call Kanwal on her landline and we talked about Dragon Ball-Z, Sonpari, and Tarak Mehta. In no time, both our families, extended and immediate, knew about each other, since we visited each other’s home all the time. I loved when my cousins and classmates talked about our friendship, expressed jealousy and envy for what we had—it made me feel like I had achieved something important.
So many times, in school and high school, classmates and friends asked us if we were a couple. I flinched the first few times, expressed disgust at their narrow-minded thinking that any touch meant sexual. I couldn’t say I was attracted to her in that way, I still cannot. Though I could be. Eventually, noticing how Kanwal was nonchalant to these comments, how she changed her answer every other day, depending on who was asking us: a pretty boy, a petty girl, I began playing along. Ever so changing my answer to yes, or no, or eat dirt.
Kanwal and I eventually lost touch—owing to college and careers and cities. Boys, too. Boys we never really loved or liked, but boys who reminded us of each other, who could be our new twins. It seemed that earlier this year, Kanwal had found a permanent twin. I saw the wedding pictures through one of our mutual friend’s Instagram. Kanwal was adorned in a thousand gold jewels, her hair braided and ornamented with baby breaths. A chiffon crimson dupatta with a broad gold border covered the back of her head. Long shirt the exact color of her dupatta with intricate gold flowers. A golden gharara falling long, covering even her toes. I couldn’t see if she was wearing heels or flats. Her lips vermillion. Cheeks shiny and pink. Her eyelids powdered with stardust. Eyes like glazed olives. I was surprised at how recognizable and not she looked at the same time. I cannot recall the groom at all. He could have been absent entirely from the picture, from the wedding, from her life.
The mutual friend had tagged Kanwal’s account, and it was not like I hadn’t known it existed. The algorithm insisted many times that I send my estranged best friend a follow request. But the attempt always seemed desperate to me and awkward, especially because so many things were left unspoken between us.
I was in New York now, pursuing my Master’s in Sports Management for it seemed like the only job I could do to make money. Often, while taking the A-train to campus, I would see two girls, young and old, holding hands, whispering into each other’s ears language that only they understood, and thought about Kanwal. I thought of reaching out to her, asking what the more sincere answer was about our coupling: yes or no. But what if she asked me back? What would I say? Did I know it then? Do I now?
I increase the volume of my airpods, and let the song play in my ear like a mantra, boys are best, maan lo.
Javeria Hasnain is a Pakistani poet and writer from Karachi. Her work has appeared/is forthcoming in Poet Lore, Isele, Pleiades, and GASHER, among others. She is an MFA Poetry student at The New School, NY.