It is quiet here, in this lane, at this hour. I have spent the morning with her parents: Muhammad Amin Ansari and Nusrat Bibi, dignified even under the weight of an unbearable calamity. Ansari has large, grey eyes. Behind the spectacles, they seem to be brimming over with sorrow. Perhaps it is just a reflection, for otherwise he is composed, speaking softly, alert to the arrival of guests and relatives, members of the media, neighbours just checking up with a family suddenly catapulted into the middle of a story of colossal loss.
His wife appears to be considerably younger than him. She is in her room, veiled, a blanket crumpled and turned aside, the bed unmade, as if she was not expecting to get up and to start the day, as if she did not want to relinquish the space she shared with her youngest child, her youngest daughter, a child of striking beauty, her grey eyes clear and expectant, like the summer sky just before the rain.
I am not sure how to justify my presence amidst such profound emotions, the outrage held back, dammed behind walls of what could be, at times, brimming anger, or withering resignation or just the state of shock that numbs one, paralysing the heart in order to bear the anguish of what has happened. The house is clean and orderly; a well-used washing machine squats in a corner, an ironing board in another. In the space where Ansari receives largely male visitors, a young child’s school uniform hangs from one of the shelves that house religious books. It is her uniform, possibly washed in that machine, clearly ironed on that board, lovingly cared for by a diligent mother who wished the best for her children, the eldest a son, followed by three girls, all beautiful, all capable, all striving to better their lives.
Zainab was the youngest, born after an agonising delivery that almost cost her mother’s life. “She was a gift, an angel gifted to us,” Nusrat Bibi whispers, her eyes dry, face still, hands clutching at some invisible thing: a ghost, a memory, a fragment, a fragrance. She is remarkable in her poise, her eloquence, her ability to endure the scrutiny of strangers who come and go through the door like seasonal birds. There is no need for her to allow the invasion of her privacy at a time of such searing pain but she does not flinch at the constant invasion, the limp, sometimes hurried expression of sympathy, the often hollow words that are offered by persons such as myself, unable to hold her gaze for long, ashamed of my own impotence.
This is an excerpt from the Herald's February 2018 cover story. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.