Once upon a time, some twenty-three years ago, in a place called Bombay (then), in a squalor camp outside the city called Govendhi, in a tiny shack consisting of a single room made of corrugated tin sheets for walls and roof, a frail girl child was born to a middle aged couple; let us call them Soogra and Aslam Hussein; this was their seventh child. Soogra struggled through labor with the help of a local dai, grunting in pain while silently cursing Aslam for making this happen again while he sat outside the hovel, smoking beedi after beedi, cursing his luck and trying to contain the other six kids, all boys, all rowdy and adventurous, from meandering off into the narrow alleys of the shantytown, least one of them fell into the many stinking open sewers or worse, get stolen into slavery of begging.
When the wry dai emerged from the hovel to inform Aslam of the birth and asked him to go purchase some necessary herbal medication and some strong thick barley soup for his weak wife, Aslam scowled at her. What did she think he was made of, rupees? The list of medication was lengthy and in whose care was he supposed to leave the six little rascals? So he begged a neighbor friend for the money and sent him off for the chores.
The baby was named Ameera the next day, after an actress from a Pakistani drama serial that Aslam had an open crush on, much to the consternation of Soogra, who detested watching such dramas. Not only was the glamour and attire the actresses wore unattainable for her, even if only to interest her husband’s meandering eyes, she barely had time to visit the loo trying to cope with her litter of kids. More importantly, being a very devout Muslima, Soogra considered the watching of such serials as haraam. Indeed, did not Maulaana Sadiq Hassan decree it recently so on WIN TV? So she quietly tolerated her husband’s admirations of Ameera on TV with indulgence and forbearance. When Aslam informed her of his decision to name the infant Ameera, she flipped and there was a shouting match that she predictably lost, as the name was officially registered the next day. Soogra never called the child Ameera however; she stuck to her choice of Zainab. So the perplexed child responded to both names, depending on who was calling her.
Ameera, or Zainab, had to constantly battle through her infancy, childhood and teenage years. She was born weak, being the seventh; Soogra kindly teased her that the preceding six greedy boys had used up all her nutrients; there was not much left for her daughter. But Ameera took that jest seriously and fought back. Since Aslam was a lowly plumber earning just enough to get by and pay the hefty interest on long-term loans he had taken over the years to sustain an untenable brood, resources at home were scarce and it was survival of the fittest. Even though Soogra shielded her only daughter from the onslaught of her son’s selfish assaults on available resources, Ameera had to battle for her share.
Ameera shook off chronic infancy ailments, outdid others in elementary school, even though she had only one school uniform that she washed and ironed every Sunday, even though she had to wear her brother’s faded shoes at the expense of unkind and cutting mirth from classmates, even though she had to do her homework assignments with the aid of a lantern every night, even though she had to beg or borrow from the library pricey books Aslam could not provide, even though, being a girl, cooking and cleaning rested on her shoulders by default, even though both her parents frowned upon her going to high school and were adamant against her going to college at age sixteen, insisting on an early marriage as soon as an inexpensive suitor was miraculously found.
When Ameera rebelled at that command, there was much disquiet in the house, with daily conflicts and recriminations. It was impossible for the nine of them, now all grown up, to live together in one room. Things got a little better when the two eldest sons married and left home to begin their own families, but seven adults in one bedroom hovel was torture, especially for Ameera, who had her own special teenage girl issues to deal with.
With excellent grades from high school, Ameera was instantly offered admission to a premiere college in the city; if she could afford it. When she was told the amount, at the amazement of the college counselor, Ameera burst out laughing. Mirth that eventually turned into hot tears of frustration and despair. She would not ask her parents, of course. She tried her eldest brother, now working in Dubai, earning a respectable income; he laughed her off and told Ameera to see reason and get married. She did, Ameera almost did. She decided to throw in the towel, get married, hoping the husband she found was an educated and understanding man who would let her continue her education after marriage.
Strangely, all risteys that came along stalled and retreated as soon as Ammera’s education background was disclosed; the prospective suitors bolted. Everybody at home was unanimous in reprimand: we told you so. At wits end, Ameera, through a colleague, came to know about Comfort Aid International and applied for a grant. CAI arranged a scholarship / loan package for Ameera to complete her college and this is how Ameera won her wars.
Ameera is now a qualified dentist and works at a reputable hospital in Mumbai. She has repaid the loans taken from CAI. She met her future husband during internship and is now married, planning to start a family soon. Insha’Allah.
The events in this Blog are fact, of course, but the settings and environment is my imagination. All names are fictitious.