MangoBaaz x Abu’s Jinns presents, the first chapter in our horror story collaboration: Rabia Apa’s Exorcism – Chapter 1: Our Ghostly Childhood.
Apa was never normal. I often wondered why ammi hid her face behind nano’s maroon shawl till the tears streaming down her flushed cheeks settled in the fabric. Ammi knew. Mamas always know, don’t they? She knew that her eldest daughter was like the broken gamla in our backyard – not of use but still sitting there in all its muddy glory.
We never talked about it.
We were a happy family, a closely-knit khandaan that celebrated Eid in Faisalabad and went to Murree during summer holidays and ate piping hot jalebis from the streets on the 14th of August. Baba would be away at the factory but on weekends when he’d come, we’d watch Tom and Jerry together and each time Tom almost captured Jerry, Baba would chuckle in delight.
I believe that I was the first one to find out about Bia apa because during summer nights we slept together on mattresses borrowed from phupho Najma. Bia apa was two years older than I was but she looked younger.
She wasn’t weak or anything – she was just drained. Of energy, emotions and, well, life.
My fondest memories with her are those at nano’s house – back in Shadman. We’d wake up at seven to fill the swimming pool with water. Nano’s house only had a good water supply in the morning and apa would stand neatly put duct tape to cover the holes. At noon, we’d tell Azeem, the house’s caretaker to bring us thande thande mangos in a bowl. And together, apa and I would sit in the warm water, flowing through our balloon-like shalwars, slurping mango puree.
Apa was ten back then and she wouldn’t miss a chance to irk Azeem. She’d run away with his motorbike helmet or spill ink on his clothes and sometimes, she’d even hide his Peshawari chappals. I knew that we weren’t allowed to play with the house help but apa said that Azeem was different. That Azeem was her dulha. I would often find apa smiling at him sheepishly, grinning from behind the walls and going beetroot red.
One day, nano overheard her saying something.
“Noor-ul-lain! Apni beti ko sambhalo! I have heard her speak ill from my very own guneghar ears!”
“Amma jaan!” I heard ammi yell at nano who was pulling apa Bia’s ears. “Chorain meri guriya ko!”
I didn’t know what had happened. I only knew that apa was weeping hysterically because nano had slapped her twice before ammi had come to her rescue. But, at night, apa told me:
“Kya Sijjal. Itna hi tou kaha tha that Azeem aur main nikkah main hain. That I will have Azeem’s babies. Now what is wrong in that, tum hi batao?”
I removed apa’s baalian and put Vaseline on her swollen ears. I nodded in approval. Azeem and apa.
A few months after that, Azeem got married and left the chokidari at nano’s house and apa started staying awake at night, writing and narrating heartbreak poetry that made little sense to me. Sometimes, apa wouldn’t remember writing anything and I believed her because she didn’t know Hindi and the verses were always in that language.
But on most nights, she’d write them in front of me, and speak fondly about Azeem’s tawacha, his mulaem jild and the fact that in the past life, both apa and Azeem were sheep owned by a shepherd in Amritsar. And then shortly after that, apa started classical dancing on the rooftop. I would see her sneak out of the room, but I never thought that her feet would be swirling across the ceiling, yearning for nano’s gate-keeper. Wou tou, Baba jaani found her one time after Fajar, eating grains left for the birds on the terrace and humming to herself.
“There’s something wrong with our daughter,” Baba would say when apa would be strolling in the garden. “She’s not Rabia anymore.”
“Rabia agar Rabia nahin tou phir koun hai,” ammi would exclaim in disbelief. “Khud tou ap ghar nahin hote, apko kya pata. Rabia is perfectly normal. Preteen age hai. Hum ache khaase parhe likhe hain. Stop doubting my tarbiyat and start giving her attention.”
A lot of what amma had said was true. Baba was hardly home and apa was growing. I knew because amma had brought her trainer bras from Roop Singhar and I also knew that big women wore bras. Apa said that it was because she was growing for Azeem and their child. At night, I would see her examining her chest and grinning to herself.
After that day, our house started smelling like zarda.
The windows remained closed but the air inside was awfully fresh. I felt like my face was out of a moving vehicle, flying across the Nathiagali mountains. Baba said that it was a sign of khushhali, but amma said that it was her new lavender air freshener.
“Meri baraat ayi hai,”, said apa, laughing sheepishly and sniffing her fingers.
The next day, apa ran away from home.
TO BE CONTINUED
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Cover image via Doodlbaaz/Instagram