Free to be me
by Suhani Garg
I silently snuck down the steps, cringing as I landed on a particularly squeaky one, hoping that my parents wouldn’t hear. I reached the bottom and quickly pulled on my shoes and coat before quietly exiting the house.
I breathed a sigh of relief. I had managed to escape the house without getting caught! If my parents knew I had gone out without a hijab, they would probably send me off to Afghanistan to live with my strict grandmother. That was the last thing I wanted. But, I shook my head and told myself, “Tonight is your night! You are going to go out and enjoy yourself without any worries. For just one night, you are going to be a regular teenager.”
Then, I unchained my cycle and rode to my best friend Zi’s house. She opened the door and immediately pulled me in, excitedly chatting about all the fun we were going to have. I nodded and smiled but my mind was elsewhere, worrying about what I would do if I was caught. But then I decided, if I was caught and sent back to Afghanistan, then it better be worth it and I was going to make this the best night of my life.
Zi was rummaging through her closet for a suitable outfit for me to go out in. All I had were neutral-coloured loose dresses as I was not allowed to wear anything else. She pulled out a shiny black shirt and a pair of jeans for me and as I put them on, I could almost hear my dad talking about how inappropriate these were and what I should be wearing instead,
But I put on the clothes and sat there with a smile as Zi curled my hair and applied makeup on me.
When she was finished, we got into her car and she drove us to a club. I asked her how we were going to get in as we were only 17, and she just winked and flashed me a pair of fake ids. We got in without a problem and as soon as I entered, I was shocked. There were so many people and the loud music and smell of sweat and alcohol pervading through the room added to the infectious atmosphere of freedom and fun.
Zi pulled me to the bar to get drinks for us. She was immediately swept away by a messy-haired boy as I sat there with both our drinks. I sat there for a while, simply observing everyone until Zi came over and pulled me onto the dance floor. We danced and drank for a couple of hours, having the time of our lives when suddenly, I heard my phone ringing.
I saw my father’s name on the screen and immediately I froze. How did her find out I was out of the house?! I declined the call and forcefully pulled Zi out of the club, despite her protests. As soon as I uttered the word “Dad”, Zi was instantly alert and in overdrive. She drove us back to her house as fast as she could.
I quickly changed back into my old clothes and removed my makeup. I couldn’t do anything about my hair or the smell of alcohol so I simply tied a stole around my head as makeshift hijab and sprayed some perfume. I thanked Zi before grabbing my cycle and riding home as fast as I dared.
I had just barely entered the house when I heard my father’s voice screaming at me to come into the living room. The moment I entered, I regretted my decision to go out. The look on my father’s face was fearsome. He was boiling with rage, pacing up and down the room in his nightgown. My mother was perched on one of the armchairs, looking extremely frail and delicate next to my father’s hulking figure.
“WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN?! HOW COULD YOU GO OUT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT LIKE THAT?! When I first got Mr. Shaan’s call I was shocked! And the clothes you were wearing, disgraceful! How could you do that? How could you bring shame to your family like that?!”, he asked me, seething with anger.
“I’m sorry! I’m so, so sorry Abba! I was just at Zi’s house, and I was wearing just these clothes, nothing else, I swear!”, Iplead with him.
“You’re lying! Mr. Shaan saw you in that disgusting club, wearing those horrible clothes that American teenagers wear. He told me they were black and tight! Tight! You cannot wear such clothes! No good Muslim girl would ever wear those kinds of clothes! You have greatly embarrassed us tonight.”
“I-i’m so sorry. I never meant to cause any harm. I’m sorry.”
“No, sorry doesn’t cut it. You have to bear the consequences of this kind of behaviour”. With that, he grabbed one of the cooled-down pokers sitting next to the fireplace.
I cringe knowing what’s coming next. He draws his hand back before thrusting the poker at me with such force that I double over in pain as it strikes my arm. He draws his hand back for another swing and I bring my hands up to shield my face, but the hit doesn’t come.
I see that my mother has grabbed his arm and is speaking to him in rapid Arabic, trying to reason with him. However, he simply flings her aside, causing her to hit her leg on the coffee table and fall onto the couch. He then hits me again, the blow landing on my stomach this time.
I can feel the sting of skin breaking and the wound beginning to bleed. I fall to the floor and curl up in a ball, my eyes filling with tears due to the pain. My father seems to think that’s enough as he puts the poker back in its place and walks over me to his room.
My mother gets up and comes over to me, examining the wounds before helping me to the kitchen, where the first aid kit is kept. She cleans and bandages the wounds in silence, before kissing me on the forehead and going back to her room. I sit there, head on my knees, sobbing. After a bit, I get up and wipe my tears with the back of my hand.
I decided then that I couldn’t continue living like this and rush to my room to pack a bag with a bunch of essentials, some clothes and a picture of my family. I grab the bag, haul it outside and with it on my shoulder, I slowly make my way to Zi’s house.
The second Zi opens the door and sees me with a bag, tears streaming down my face, she pulls me into a hug. She tells me that I can stay at her house for as long as I want to. I thank her and we go up to her room where she sets up an air mattress as a makeshift bed for me.
The next morning, I wake up and see that I have 10 missed calls and about a hundred messages from my father, demanding to know where I was. I switch off my phone and got ready for school. Halfway through the day, I am called to the principal’s office and told that my parents are looking for me.
“You need to go home immediately, “ they said.
I refuse and am sent to the guidance counsellor’s office.
As soon as I enter the room, I can tell that she is extremely confused by the situation. “Why don’t you want to go home, Amira?”, she asks, concerned.
“I don’t want to go home because I want to truly live, Mrs. Duvall. My whole life has been dictated by my parents and I have had absolutely zero say!”
The counsellor looked perturbed. This was all quite alien for her….
“I’ll be turning 18 very soon and then, a respectable suitor will be found for me. I will be forced to marry him and move to Afghanistan! All I wanted was one night out before that. But I wasn’t allowed to have even that and so I ran away,” I add, bowing my head.
I don’t hear a response and look up to find her shocked, a single tear rolling down her cheek.
“I am so sorry you have to have a life like that. But, they are your legal guardians until you are 18 and the school is legally required to tell them your whereabouts”, she apologizes, shaking her head.
I beg her, “Please, Mrs. Duvall. Just one week!”
She relents, “Fine. In five minutes, I will call to inform your parents about whether or not you’re in school. If you can get out of the school by then, I will not know where you are and so will not be able to tell your parents either”.
I smile softly, “Thank you so much. Just for one week, I promise.”
The days pass by with me going nowhere but Zi’s house and to school, with Zi covering for me at home and Mrs. Duvall at school. Four days later, I am suddenly called to the office in the middle of my lesson. As soon as I reach there, Mrs. Duvall tells me my father had a heart attack and I need to go home immediately.
I rush home as fast as I can to see an ambulance taking my father away, his body covered with a white sheet. I stand there, stunned, tears rolling down my cheeks until I hear a cry and my mother runs over to me, hugging me, sobs wracking her body. I hug her back and we cry together as the ambulance takes his body away. The next few days pass quickly with a flurry of visitors offering condolences as my mother and I stay in the house, unmoving, grieving.
The fourth day after the incident, my mother decides to finally get things in order. My father used to work in a small insurance firm and earned enough to support us but there weren’t enough savings to carry on for long after his death. My mother and I had a talk where we decided that instead of going back to Afghanistan, we would move to a smaller town where she could find a job to support us.
We spend the week saying goodbye to all our friends, selling half our possessions and finding a realtor to sell our house.
Exactly a week later, we are on the way to a town a couple of hours away from the city, in search of a new life. Though the road here was not easy, this is a new chapter in our lives, a huge change, hopefully for the better. I know that as long as I have my mother by my side, we can get through our grief and create a new life for ourselves, and I’m looking forward to it.
Suhani Garg is a 14 year old student from Bengaluru. She wrote this piece as part of Rashmi Bansal’s short story writing workshop.