top of page
NVA-grand_611804838.jpeg

AwaytheWaterDrains

by Radiyah Nouman,

Grand Prize Winner of the 

2023 Native Voices Award

Aasiya shivered. Water dripped from her arms and face as she stood ankle-deep on the edge of the river. Her mother’s bangles clinked a few feet away from where she stood.

            Ching, ching, ching. They sounded lovely, jingling away as her Ami Jan performed her ablution. Aasiya glanced to where her grandmother stood hunched over with the other women, washing her feet. They stood deeper in the water, where little girls weren’t allowed because of the strong waves.

            A crisp winter breeze started up again, being so cold that Aasiya was sure her nose would fall off. She clamped her hands on it. She couldn’t be without a nose. Meanwhile, the water glistened and gushed, unaffected.

            Dadi Ji, grandmother, called, “Aasiya puttar, if you’re done, come inside with me.”

            The 7-year-old turned and sloshed over to the green shore where her chappal had been haphazardly placed. She pulled down the lowers of her shalwar from where she had tucked them around her knees and hobbled over to the mud hut. Her grandmother was already feeding more wood to the sputtering flames. Aasiya knelt in front of it, letting the warmth seep in while keeping a close eye on her little sister Saima who babbled away in a corner of the room. Saima had gotten her grubby hands on Aasiya’s favourite toy one time. Never again.

            Dadi Ji spread out the prayer mats in the time that Ami Jan came inside. The three of them stood, adjusting their headscarves before beginning their Friday prayers. Aasiya’s headscarf was the best in her opinion. It was a light pink silk with blue flowers embroidered onto it. The cloth, a gift from her father. He bought one for each of the girls out of the extra pay he got when the farm earned a profit from the harvest last year. Aasiya’s older brother said it was due to ‘soil fertility.’ Older brother was eager to show off what he learned in school. Dadi Ji’s headscarf was a rich brown with rust-red flowers, while Ami Jan had pink flowers on lush green. Saima hadn’t yet been born.

            They ended prayers and set about making lunch. Aasiya crouched down, rolling her sleeves as her mother placed a metal dish on the ground. Aasiya punched and rolled the mixture of flour and water until it formed a nice dough. She played with it until her mother scolded her and made her take it outside where Dadi Ji had trapped a small fire in a circle of stones, a flat pan already heating on top of it.

            The two women, both young and old, separated the dough into 12 smaller pieces, and rolled each between the palms of their hands. Nice and thin. Dadi Ji slapped one onto the pan, using her fingers to flip it over once it was cooked through. Aasiya could only watch. Little girls weren’t allowed near fires.

            After roasting the rotis, the women spread out the few dishes on the worn-down carpet in the centre of the room. Ami Jan placed the curry in the middle, still in the karahi it cooked in.

            “Amma! Ruqqia! We’re home!” a familiar male voice called from outside.

            “Oh good! I was beginning to worry. Come quick, or the food will get cold. Hassan, take off your shoes. How many times do I have to tell you?!” Ami Jan went full mother hen on her husband and son as they returned from work and school.

            Aasiya ran to greet her Abu, who lifted her into his arms. She grinned at the grunt he released. She was getting bigger!

            Saima screamed her head off, demanding the attention, which Aasiya’s older brother duly supplied, screaming back at her. Dadi Ji calmly and expertly directed everyone back towards the food, simultaneously murmuring blessings on each of them.

            The Bajwas all sat down to eat, having the river’s music soothing their ears as it played its usual melodies.

            Aasiya heaved her bucket out of the river, balancing it on her shoulder as she sloshed her way out of the water. She had to go further in to fill the bucket up, since the edge of the river had dried up over the years. If only it would rain. She liked the rain.

            “Ami, here’s the water,” Aasiya said, turning to her mother, who sat on the bare floor, fanning herself with a handmade straw fan made by Hassan. Beads of sweat trickled down her forehead as the scorching July heat permeated every corner of the house.

            “Give me a glassful of it, beta. I really cannot stand this heat any longer.” Ami Jan’s lip trembled. “Oh God, why do

you punish me so?”

            Aasiya sighed, exhausted from her mother’s tantrums. Being 13 years old, even she wasn’t that moody. Aasiya trudged off to do the remaining chores. She grabbed the soap and laundry and made her way back to the glistening river.

            The rocks, once a part of the riverbed, were now exposed and smoothed from years of erosion. Aasiya vigorously scrubbed the clothes; good exercise to let out her teenage frustrations. As she washed and wrung them out in the river, she splashed water on herself. The sun blazed down, and she could almost feel her skin melting.

            “Aasiya! Get the food ready, your brother will be back soon.” Ami Jan called out from the doorway, stroking her round belly. “He’ll be starving, poor child.”

            The river calmly whispered its secrets to the indifferent ears as Aasiya stomped over to the mud hut, crushing the dry grass beneath her. She wanted to sit down and fan herself. Frustration rolled off her in waves as she chopped and cooked the thick slab of meat given them the other day by Abu’s employer.

            “Oi, chotti! Make yourself useful for once.” Aasiya harshly yanked Saima into the makeshift kitchen. “Knead this dough.”

            The little girl quickly sat to work at the sound of her sister’s annoyance. However, she got a scolding after playing

with the dough instead.

            By the time lunch was ready, Dadi Ji hobbled back from visiting the neighbours, chaddar wrapped around her frail figure. Further off, Hassan came down the dirt path. Aasiya had half a mind to throw him in the water, sending that smug face floating downstream.

            Hassan’s arrival meant her mother and grandmother’s attention would turn to him. They fussed over the beads of sweat on his forehead, offered him glasses of water, and stroked his hair. He basked in the glory. The two women asked him about his day, worrying over him working too hard.

            Meanwhile, Aasiya rushed to get the dishes in place, sweating profusely. The sickly sweet, onion-like stench emanating from her armpits. She would need to take a wash for sure.

 

After lunch was done, Saima and Aasiya were tasked with cleaning the dishes. Dadi Ji offered to help, but her age was taking a physical toll. She couldn’t exert herself for long and thus fell asleep on the charpoy in the shade of the jamun trees. Meanwhile, Ami Jan sewed a small baby-sized garment by hand. Hassan was no help, as usual.

            When the dishes were done, Aasiya, unable to bear the stench any longer, grabbed the bucket from the tiny bathroom and made her way to the river. It no longer had strong currents, or maybe she was just old enough to be able to face them now. She had to go quite far in to fill the bucket. The coolness of the water, a relief—like being saved by a cool prince from a fiery hellhole.

            Night settled in by the time Abu came home. He threw a stone in the water, blaming and cursing it for the lack of crop.

The river watched in silence.

 

******

            “… because, of course, she’s our daughter now. We worry for her reputation in the village. Besides, wearing a burqa is respectable in our religion,” Nasreen Khala squeezed out before resuming her consumption of the pakoras and tea.

            Ami Jan nodded, eye bags prominent as ever. Aasiya sat obediently in the room’s corner, empty tea tray in hand. Outside, she could hear her father and brother chatting with Abdul. He was going on about his newest job in the factory; his fifth in two months. He claimed it was temporary, as he was destined to be the owner of a massive farm. Abu and Hassan agreed.

            After the mother and son left, Aasiya cleared the dishes. Abu came inside with Hassan, the latter looking a little stony. She made herself scarce, predicting the conversation he would raise.

            “Abu…,” Hassan began.

            Her father sighed before saying, “Beta, I know what you’re going to say. We will find you a wife, I promise. But let us fulfil our responsibility with Aasiya first. She’s sixteen. If she doesn’t marry now, no one will want her, and she will be stuck in the house. Once she goes, we will find you someone too, I promise.”

            Hassan huffed but went quiet. Aasiya knew he was frustrated that Abdul, his classmate, would marry first. Again, he was more focused on finding himself a wife than wishing for his sister’s well-being in another house. In her house, as Ami Jan had drilled into her. Aasiya’s home was no longer with her parents, but with her future husband and mother-in-law.

            Aasiya stepped outside for air. It scared her how rapidly everything happened. She was to be a wife, which also made her feel a little giggly. A lot of her friends had gotten married or were engaged. They often told Aasiya that she wouldn’t understand their conversations since she was just a kid. Now, she was like them, finally an adult! Her mother told her she would find her Shehzadah or Prince Charming one day. Now her dreams were a reality.

            Lost in her daydreams, Aasiya made her way to the graves by the riverside. Wildflowers grew over the four of them; two adult-sized, two infant-sized. Her two brothers never got a name, dying in childbirth. Her grandmother peacefully lay beside them, next to grandfather. The river gurgled, trickling down the vast plains. Spring was in full bloom.

            Aasiya made her way over to the shallow water. The fish were long gone, and the river, a muddy, chemical-infused stream. Her hazy reflection sat in the rainbow circlets amidst the brown sediments. There she stood at the pinnacle of youth. A fresh round face, eyes darkened with kajal, a thick black braid. No wonder Abdul came running for her hand in marriage.

            “Aasiya, come inside! Where’s your chaddar?” Ami Jan yelled. She suddenly appeared, dragging her daughter towards the house, creating ripples in the water. “Be careful, you foolish girl. You’re not a child anymore. You can’t just step out without covering yourself.”

            “There’s no one around!” Aasiya huffed. “It’s not a big issue!”

            “Everyone be damned. You are not to step foot out of the house without a burqa or a chaddar at the very least,” she barked. “Did you not hear Nasreen Aapa? You must do as she and Abdul say, you hear me?”

            The ripples spread along the water, disturbing its surface as the two women argued. The water struggled against itself.

 

Obedience. That was Aasiya’s newest lesson for the next several weeks. Spring neared its end by the time they arranged her marriage date. It was earlier than expected, but her parents wanted her in her own place before summer.

            In the days leading up to it, her mother drilled all kinds of lessons into her. "Listen to your husband. Never raise your voice. Do the housework, help your mother-in-law. Don’t complain. Be the backbone of the family. Never waiver." Aasiya didn’t believe it was as big a deal as her mother made it out to be.

            When the day of the event came, it was chaos. Many khalas, the aunties, hovered over Aasiya, fretting over this and that. Women who had come for the ceremony cramped the tiny hut. The overwhelming mixture of scents in the air stung the eyes and made it difficult to breathe.

            The older women tutted over Aasiya’s clothes; each arranged to their own liking. They tugged at her hair, poked it with hairpins, and smeared bright red lipstick on her. The entire time, the chatter didn’t falter. Each giving her readable looks.

            Say goodbye to peace and quiet.

            Life will never be the same again, girlie.

            Best of luck. Childhood is over now.

            Time to become a woman.

            Aasiya fell into a daze as the heavy red dupatta was finally thrown over her. Nasreen Auntie patted her head and murmured in approval. Finally, after what felt like forever, the Maulvi Sahab was ushered in to lead the ceremony.

It felt like the world had paused. Suddenly, Aasiya felt scarily alone. All the women stared at her, waiting for her to say those two fateful words. Even her mother felt like a stranger. Instinctively, Aasiya tuned her ears to the soothing melody of the river.

            She couldn’t hear it.

            “Qabool hai.”

            No rush of the water.

            “Qabool hai.”

            No crash of the waves. Only the marital vows.

            “Qabool hai.”

            Makeup-caked women offered her toothy congratulations. Her mother wiped tears and put on a smile. Food was passed around and inhaled. The main motive of the guests, accomplished.

            Time passed in a whirl. Eventually, a thick chaddar was wrapped around Aasiya and she was led outside to where her family stood. Her family—her new husband and mother-in-law!

            Women, who practically raised her in the small neighbourhood, wailed and wiped tears. Some consoled her mother. Her father placed his hand on Aasiya’s head and uttered a blessing. Her brother watched over her protectively as she walked towards the rented car that would take her to her new home.

            Aasiya turned her head back on her old life, walking away from it. The water looked further and further away.

            The car started up.

            The flowers on the graves withered, and the river went silent.

 

*****

 

            “Amma! Amma! Tell him to stop pulling my hair!” Aimal shrieked, swatting at her little brother.

            Aasiya sighed. She pulled her youngest son away from her daughter before resuming her task. One last stitch added to her cloth before she held it up to see the outcome. It would have to do. The mistress of the tiny house they lived in paid Aasiya a small sum to stitch her clothes. It wasn’t much, but life situations called for the extra money.

            A yell from the children alerted her Abdul was back from work. She heaved herself off the floor and walked towards the door. On her way, she passed the window, glancing at the haggard figure looking back at her. She continued forward with a grimace.

            “What’s for lunch?” Abdul asked, throwing himself onto the rickety charpoy.

            “Lentils with bread. We’re out of flour, so there’s just enough dough to make one roti for you.” Aasiya rolled her eyes and waited for a reaction.

            “Just one?! What the hell am I supposed to do with one roti, woman? I slave all day just to come home and starve?”

            “Maybe if you didn’t keep quitting jobs and earned enough money, we wouldn’t be in this situation!” The same old argument again.

            It was times like these when Aasiya missed being a child. She thought an adult’s life was going to be fun and interesting. Stupidity really runs rampant in children. She used to dream of princes, lush green fields, riches beyond one’s imagination, and a future as crystal clear as the river water once was. Instead, she was stuck with a lazy husband, screaming children, strained beyond her capabilities, and feeling dried out as the river water had become.

            Such was life at twenty.

            Later the same day, she went to her brother’s house. He had officially inherited it from their parents, who lived with him along with his wife. Aasiya went there when she needed to get out of the house, angry and frustrated with her husband. It happened a little too often.

            Aasiya arrived, balancing little Fawad on her hip, while the other two children were managed with each hand. As she walked down the path, she thought of how lively the area used to be. Now there were just a few scattered huts and tents left. People forced to move to the main village or city due to poverty. Most of them earning came from agriculture, but farms were forced to shut down.

            Children ran around, some barefoot. Babies wailed from hunger, while mothers wearily shushed them. Elderly men stooped with the weight of bundles of branches, carrying them from the dying forest to their homes. It was a miserable sight. Everything looked bleak.

            Aasiya’s children ran into the house, Aimal taking Fawad and leaving Aasiya standing outside the doorstep. She looked out at the shallow trickle of water. Slowly, she made her way over to it. There was an overflow of graves several meters away from the water’s edge. The earth on them, barren despite the onset of spring. It took a while to find the five original graves. Aasiya went and stood by them, uttering a quick prayer for each. She paused at the fifth. Saima Bajwa. 11 years old.

            Cholera had reduced her sister’s body to a frail nothingness. There hadn’t been enough money to seek treatment. It still pained Aasiya to think of her little sister.

            She sat on the ground, looking out over all the grave headstones. The land was drained of life. Where there had been greenery, was now misery. The water that once the earth life was all gone.

            She sat feeling as drained as the earth, aging earlier than she should, feeling the strain of her inner turmoil. The water choked and struggled as Aasiya tried to breathe. What a sad sight to see. A land without sustenance, a woman without life. Watch as it trickles away.

            Watch. Away the water drains.

RADIYAH_edited.png

Radiyah Nouman, the grand prize winner for Kinsman Quarterly’s Native Voices Award, is a Pakistani student pursuing her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology at the Pak-Austria Fachhochschule Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology. She was also a finalist for the H.G. Wells Short Story Competition (UK), and for the Children’s Literary Festival: Young Author’s Award, Pakistan (2021). Nouman hopes to “inspire others to follow their interests and dreams, but most importantly, make a difference.” She believes that all “can make a change, and that power is beyond anything you could ever need.”

bottom of page