I started peeling off my skin and laying it carefully on the table in front of the mirror. Just like how you peel a fruit, I started doing the same to my face. Picking it up from right below my eyes to the ear on the other end of my face, I tore apart the skin and it came off so easily as if it was patiently waiting for this day from a long time. Then, I started from my left cheek and took a quick turn over my nose to reach the deformed forehead.
Red juices started coming out from my face. I looked like a battered pomegranate. My face appeared as if someone had chewed on the fruit aggressively and threw the remains on the ground after it became unbearable to gulp it down. I felt its juices all over my face.
My face, the fruit, looked like a human brain, which has been beaten again and again to take a shape, which is not natural but depicts a violent submission. It was mocking me, reflecting me, and daring me to wipe the juices off my face. I raised my hands to my face and started crushing it further with my hands, feeling its seeds fighting against the skin of my palm and fingers. I wanted it to be shapeless, formless, and unidentifiable. I wanted people to look at it and feel nothing because its shape would be unknown to them. It was my rebellion against nature’s cruelty to give us a living form that’s incompatible with our desires.
I laid the peeled-off skin on the table and stared at my new fresh face for a solid minute. I had seen this face somewhere. I had seen someone peeling off their skin in the broad daylight. I had witnessed it right before my eyes and all I could feel was jealousy, pure unadulterated jealousy.
Her name was Leylah. I remember her name because it was a big deal to her. It was Persian. She used to give references to songs, movies, and legends to me so that I can understand the depth of her name better. All I ever wanted to tell her was that her name was the least of my concerns and it was painful to hear her ramblings all day. One day, she came up to me and gave me a half-hour lecture on the meaning of my name. I couldn’t care less but it was her face that made me keep my mouth closed. She was a beautiful woman, too beautiful. Sometimes, I just wanted to touch her skin to see if it was real. She used to do it all day to my face but I couldn’t bring myself to do it to hers. I would ruin it; I knew it. I don’t know why but I knew it. It came to me naturally, an instinct to not act on my foolish desires.
She also never kept her hair long. Again, I couldn’t care less but it was weird. She always wished for long hair but the day her hair used to get longer by a mere inch, she used to cut it, with her own hands. Then, she would bawl her eyes out in front of me and wish for long hair again. I used to laugh and every day, whenever I remember her, I laugh.
She was one weird little woman but aren’t all of us – women, I mean— weird and sad.
Leylah was not too religious but she wasn’t godless like me either. She had a ridiculous obsession with tying holy threads around my wrist and neck, the same places one would chain a person. I loved the way she tied them around my wrists and neck, knowing that the second she goes away, I would tear them as if my skin was on fire. It didn’t burn my skin but I felt like puking my guts out every time I looked at those hideous colorful threads around my fragile pale wrists. It was anomalous. It didn’t belong there.
Today, I remembered her after a long time. I don’t forget things easily but I tend to refrain from making use of my brain’s capacity to remember every person I have met. It’s a torture and a waste of energy so; I wonder why I can still recall each minute detail about Leylah.
While I was reminiscing my time together with her, I was still standing in front of the mirror. I had no regard for time but the weird sensation in my knees, and the shooting pain in my spine forced me to cry out and fall on the wooden floor. I fell awkwardly and all I could do was painfully grasp my abdomen so that it overpowers the ache in my spine.
I could feel the rage in my spine wanting to come out. It was impatient and thrashing against everything it came in contact with. Some days, it felt as if it came out and lay in front of me on the floor but it was just inside me, brutally caged by the flesh. I couldn’t do anything except reach for the drawer and consume ‘two painkillers of the day’. That’s the golden rule. Never take more than two painkillers in a day – one would not be enough to ease the pain and more than two of them would not kill you, but will result in other damned reactions in the future.
Once you raise the pill to your mouth, its revolting smell will reach your nose and you will know that it’s going to taste bad. Then, a lump will automatically form in your throat making it impossible for the pill to go down. It will come up in your mouth and release its atrocious insides there, right where you can taste them, making no mistakes.
Now, you are met with two choices. First, you can let your mouth suffer and gulp down some water, one time, two times! – helping you to drag the medicine down your throat. You might choke but that will not be enough to kill you. Second, you can vomit the medicine out. That would be simple, right? Not for me. Since I have fallen ill like this, I have never vomited the pill out. Even if I did, I used to pick it up and complete the ritual. I hated looking at my family’s faces, full of annoyance and worry at my childish tantrums. It took me a while but I concluded that no one should be at the receiving end of those faces.
Leylah never did look at me like that. She used to look at the discarded pill instead, with so much anger and hatred as if that pill should have been easier to swallow down. It wasn’t my fault; I never thought it was my fault. I house several incapabilities but not self-blaming. She knew that and never consoled me about it.
Sometimes, Leylah used to cover her head, and sometimes, she didn’t. Whenever she wore the hijab, it had random prints on it. She was inclined to eccentric clothing. Not that it concerned me, it was her body and nobody should ever dare to speak in the matters of someone else’s body but I had my favorite though, the pomegranate print one, it was lovely. On some days, she would come rocking a bob. It was a treat to watch her giving no attention to her fellows calling her a pseudo-Muslim, whatever that means.
I am proud that I never gave any attention to those people, screaming about Hollywood’s obsession with removing the hijab of Muslim women but not accepting a woman, who does so by choice. I was angry too but after some time, it became entertaining because it all boiled down to what Leylah wanted to do and she was remarkable at it.
Leylah was not a bubbly-happy woman, she was an angry one. She was not a band-aid to society’s sadness but the one that wouldn’t think twice before punching you in your face. Even, her favorite album was Radikal. She made me listen to that album every day. I loved it too, it was refreshing. One day, she was lying down on the grass while humming to one of her favorite songs and her hair started swaying with wind or the music, I couldn’t decide. She had cut her hair unevenly and I could see that she hadn’t washed it that day. It looked so pleasing to the eye – her hair flowing with the wind that barely graced us in summers, her sun burnt skin giving a suitable backdrop to her hair, her eyelashes were not curled but straight and you could only see their beauty up close, and her adorable crooked nose, which I loved from the depths of my heart.
Leylah also had freckles like me, the only thing we both shared.
I still remember the day I told her that I was going back to the place I came from. I had to go back to see if the reason for which I left still existed. She was neither emotional nor ecstatic about it. As usual, she was angry. She wanted to travel with me and see for herself the place, where I was born. I hated it when people wanted me to accompany them like an ever-smiling tour guide so that they could get an authentic stamp on their visit to Kashmir. I had told Leylah that I would never take her to visit my place but her stubborn little heart thought that I would change my mind soon and that didn’t happen.
It’s not that I am possessive or patriotic about my homeland, I never was. I just detest the foreigner’s gaze. The gaze, devoid of any compassion, understanding, and love towards others, who are trying to live, resist and fight against all odds. It fills my heart with so much bitterness. This is exactly how violence robs you of friendship, love, and trust and, wherever I go, this theft follows me.
I have been an object to the foreigner’s gaze several times in my life. I know the feeling very well. The humiliation when you are treated like a centerpiece on a table. The foreigner’s gaze is also present in my family, friend circle, and so-called community. It didn’t take the people of my community two seconds to escape and run into the warmth of their houses when I was being treated like filth. They will accept you as long as you worship their God, stay loyal to their ridiculous idea of religion, hate the ones who dare assert their identity and lick the boots of men who have pledged to protect the veiled virgin women of the valley.
I didn’t want Leylah to look at me like that. I am much more than these baseless questions and colonizer’s assessment. Violence might rob us of friendship, love, and trust but it can never overpower our individuality, our non-conformist desires, and our everlasting curse on the occupier’s trickery. As I lay on the cold wooden floor, waiting for the painkiller to work, I admitted that my illness might go away but the resentment would not. It has grown roots inside of me.
I stood up and neared my bed. I heard my mother’s voice from downstairs. ‘Have your dinner’, a simple call from her but it frightened me.
I knew that now, I would have to forcefully stuff my mouth and stomach with food.
I pushed my feet against the floor and ran downstairs. I could have walked but I ran to show my mother that I am hungry, to show her that I am like the other normal children she has, and to make her believe that I am recovering but the taste of painkiller in my mouth stated otherwise.
I prepared myself and thought, I would divide the food into small pieces and then, evaluate my chances of whether I could completely eat it or not.
She filled one plate with rice and placed it on the dastarkhaan. After some time, she gave me her lovely warm smile and pushed the rice filled plate towards me.
While I was looking at my mother’s face, I realized that she was once again eating the cold leftover rice. I didn’t ask her about it because I knew what the answer would be. She would have either said that she didn’t want to waste food or she would have thrown the soaring market prices of rice towards me. I once told her that we can all divide it and eat it together but she said that it will make us ill. Exactly, my concern.
My father on the other hand usually stayed quiet but that day, he decided to open his mouth and, one thing I knew for sure is that whenever he opens his mouth, nothing good comes out.
‘Why do you cook so much if nobody eats it?’ he asked my mother in his arrogant voice. That’s the thing about my mother; she doesn’t pay attention to him, she never has. She ignored him like she usually did and urged me with her eyebrows to eat. My father zeroed his gaze on me and I knew in that exact moment that I would not be able to eat anything from that plate.
Whenever my father looks at me like that, I know he will leave nothing to amend or aid, it’s going to be a complete massacre, and why not. I mock the religion he treasures so much, I am indifferent to the God he worships so much, I hate the community he loves so much and I live according to my own set of values that he detests so much. I am a living contradiction of him.
I looked at him and his eyes scared me. I wanted to vomit but I couldn’t. I needed an outlet – tears, words, screams, vomit – anything. His eyes reminded me of the foreigner’s gaze, one that is in constant search of fresh bodies so that they can be carved up and sold in the market at the highest price.
I ignored his gaze and focused on the food in front of me. In that second, my throat clogged up and cold sweat started breaking out on my skin. My mother’s voice became distant as the moments passed and my father started eating his food normally.
I looked to my side and saw my sisters crying silently and looking at each other for help. Why does he have to open his mouth? Why can’t he eat and go to sleep? Why does he always look at me as if I am the ugliest thing in this house? Why do we have to eat together?
Then, everything started coming back. Like an avalanche, it completely overtook my being under a dark opaque blanket of overwhelming sickness.
I looked down and saw a bunch of moths crawling out of the rice on my plate. After some time, they started flying toward me and rested right inside my throat. I started choking but nobody looked at me. Nobody dared to.
I stood up and ran upstairs to the warmth of my solitude. I heard my mother and sisters calling me but I couldn’t reply. The insects had started multiplying in my mouth while their wings were absorbed in the pomegranate juice. I could taste their bodies on my tongue as they kept on taking birth there. I started chewing their bodies and they oozed with the fruit’s liquids.
After chewing each of them, I spat them out. I looked at the dead insects on the floor. Only I could make out that they were moths just a few minutes ago and not something unknown. I glanced at their bodies and the lump starts to make its unwelcomed appearance.
I ran into the bathroom and vomited freely. I clutched my head in my hands because it felt like my head was going to roll back and fall on the floor anytime then. I could feel my thick hair wrapping itself around my fingers, squeezing them until they turned white, and gave up their resistance to keep my head intact. This is how it feels every time. I patiently waited for my heartbeat to rise and then calm my body down gradually with it.
‘You need to know what works for you and have some faith in your body; it will try its best to survive’. That’s what Leylah used to say to me. It was something that I learnt from her amongst all the other things. I follow it and recite it like a prayer every day. It works.
As I came back from another episode of my breakdown, I sat down on my bed and started recalling more details about my time with her.
I don’t regret my decision to come back here but on some days, I am uncertain about the choices that I made or we make in our youthful craze.
With this thought, I close my eyes with thoughts of Leylah still humming in my mind and I dance away to her sweet tune.
SABAHAT ALI WANI is a writer, researcher and artist from Kashmir. Her writings about Kashmiri women have been published by International Literature and Arts Festival (USA), South Asian Today, and Empower Magazine. She is also a mixed-media storytelling artist who aims to create a space for bold and critical statements through her art experiments. Her artwork has appeared in Club Plum Literary Journal, About Place Journal (Black Earth Institute), Long Con magazine, Maaje Zevwe, Blue Marble Review and Variant Literature.