Sometime before I turned twenty, I was saved twice from dying. Neither time was by my design or choice.
By the end of my first year at university, I had sunk into a state of functional despair. I went to my classes and did my work without knowing why. I was laughing with others and sharing notes and explaining theories and understanding diagrams, all the while being detached from my actions. It was a gentle sinking, so gradual that I wouldn’t even have called it sinking.
The first time I was saved was a sequence of small and big events. I had started going to afternoon seminars. Economics, philosophy, poetry. I thought, The answer can’t be that far from those things. I sat at the back and let the speaker’s words float over me in the semigloom of the auditorium. Sometimes I received knowledge and revelation but more often I was able to be still for some time and hush my own thoughts. The fourth seminar I went to was about wildlife preservation in the Indus River basin. The man in the front, a conservationist in a beige shalwar qameez, said “dolphin” and I doodled one in my notebook. I realized, as the man spoke, that I did not actively think about the flora and fauna that shared the world with me. I looked up at the same time as a slide appeared, showing astonishing numbers of these other living things. Then he changed the slide and now there were bar graphs and pie charts showing depletion. I had been wrong not to have worried. I drew a fin on the dolphin. A voice on my right whispered to me that the tail was wrong. The voice belonged to a girl. She shifted her cigarette to her other hand, took my pen, and drew a second tail over the first one. She said that dolphin tails were horizontal, not upright; they were mammals, not fish. She returned the pen. I said thank you. On the dais, the talk went on. I closed my notebook. After the seminar ended, I went outside, blinking in the sunlight.
That summer I went to the offices of Anjuman Taraqqee Aurat. Organization for Women’s Welfare, where I was to be an intern. The offices consisted of a few rooms on the ground floor of a building with a brown stone façade darkened by carbon. On my first day, a man in a flowered tie showed me to my table, at the end of which sat another man with thick glasses over his gaunt face. He only spoke to me twice—once when he came in and then again when he left. The first man gave me a stack of thin folders and told me to arrange them in alphabetical order. When I was done, I asked the man with the glasses what else I could do, but he seemed not to hear me. On my second day, the man with the tie said with a grin that I had done a good job with the folders. Then he put a new pile of folders on my table and said in a grave tone, “These are cases. They must be arranged by date.” On the third day, I was asked to go through some of the folders. I spent all day with the summaries of lives of women I didn’t know. At five o’clock, the man with the glasses mumbled salaam and left. An hour later, I closed the file on my table. In the narrow corridor, the man with the tie stepped out of his room and stood in front of me. He pressed me against the wall. I cried out with a sound, the kind a mute person might make. He covered my mouth with his hand and put another on my breast and my cry became hoarser and more bestial. The man stepped back—an adjustment of his position or a changing of his mind. I knew that I only had a moment, so I twisted my body away from his and stumbled toward the door and outside.
I didn’t go back there. Sounds distracted me from recollections of that day, so I lingered in rooms where people were talking or the radio was playing. And if a memory of the feeling of that man’s hand or of the stifling air in that corridor arose and I could not banish it, I would go to a different room or would begin to talk very loudly. But in the summer, the hostel and the university were quiet places. There were no seminars. If there was nobody to be with, I walked around the campus; sometimes I walked all morning and afternoon. One afternoon, I walked up to the sixth floor of my hostel building and back down. On my fourth time up, I stopped at a window on the fifth floor. There was no grill on the glass. Break the glass and jump, a voice in my head said. It would be all right. I turned away and went down the stairs and walked outside till a little after dark.
In the morning, I decided I had to try and find another place to stay busy. I was sure I had seen the office of a charity group for orphans somewhere nearby. I would go in and ask to be put to use, I thought. I went by foot, not wasting any time to eat or drink, only brushing my teeth and retying my hair and changing into clean clothes. The sun grew hotter above me; the rush of vehicles swelled and swelled. Then, at the end of a block, above a little gray door, I saw a sign that read dar-ul-yateem. Across the roundabout was a different sort of door. It was made of glass, and it shone in the heat. In italics, the lettering read william & malik advertisers. When the signal turned red, I crossed the road and went into the advertising agency.
“We don’t take interns,” the receptionist said when I told her what I was looking for. “But there’s always someone looking for an assistant.” She picked up her phone, asked for Imran, and then told me to wait. I sat on a rectangular leather sofa. It was a matte red and was cool to the touch. The lighting around me was bright and the walls were eggshell white, adorned with photographs: a group of friends with soda bottles, a girl with a jar of beauty cream, a man in a business suit with a bottle of cologne.
Imran was a man in his thirties. He didn’t sit down, only listened, when I repeated why I was there. He quickly nodded twice and asked me to follow him to his office. He kept the door open.
“Have you thought about modeling?” he asked.
“No. I have never considered it.”
“You’ve got the right face for print. The right body too. There’s a project for a client—can’t say who right now—I’m sure you’ll be a great fit.” He asked about the best way to reach me. I wrote down the phone number for my hostel’s common room.
He took me back to the receptionist and told her where I was to go. She did not speak to me or look at me; she only rose from her chair, like a satin ribbon straightening, and slid past me. I followed her down a corridor and when she stopped, I stopped. She knocked on a door and then turned around on her tall heels and walked away. The door opened and a voice told me to come in. A man was standing on a chair holding the neck of a large light. He said to me, “Wash your face,” with a jerk of his head toward a corner. There against a wall stood a small white sink, a rimless rectangle of mirror behind it. On a table next to the sink was a red plastic tray filled with lipsticks, compacts, little cases of blush. I flipped on a switch and three large bulbs burst into yellow. My face in the glass appeared dry; there was a little white flake of skin on my upper lip. I wet a finger with my spit and rubbed out the flake. I opened a case of blush and touched the pink-red powder to my cheeks with a brush I found in the tray. “Ready?” the man called out. “Ready,” I said. The man took photos of me. Turn your head left, now right, chin down…a little more…now stand up and put your hand on your hip, smile—not so much—that’s good. Half an hour later I was told I could go home. The agency would call me.
I only had to go through two days of making myself stay on campus, walking and laughing loudly with students I had never spoken to, before Imran called me. His people were very excited about the photos, he said. Would I be interested in being Local Pakistani Girl in a series of magazine ads for an American airline? It would be a two- or three-day job. There would be some money. Not a lot, but enough for a girl’s pocket money. I said yes.
I was driven to one of the beaches on the first day. In a small tent, I changed into a white qameez with yellow stripes running vertically, and white pants. The man with the camera told me to lie on a sheet, balanced on my elbows, my face turned toward the sun. I was given sunglasses, large, round, gray-black lenses in a thick white frame. My feet were kept bare. I spent day two walking and standing farther from the sea, on a footpath between the sand and the road. This time, the wardrobe man also gave me white sandals and a narrow yellow dupatta. At three o’clock, Imran said to the photographer, “These look good. We’re done.”
For the rest of the summer, I wore my usual clothes and volunteered at the university library. I spoke to my parents only twice. A month later, I called the agency. The receptionist said Mr. Imran was away.
My roommate moved out and I wondered whether she had gone to a different room or left the university or maybe even died. In her place came a new girl. I had hardly seen the old roommate; she had slept in her bed maybe a total of ten times in the period that we shared the space. Humera was different. She always needed something from me. Matches, or biscuits, or change, or aspirin. She studied late into the night. Some afternoons, I found her snoring gently, a book and a plate with used-up hash cigarettes on the floor by her bed.
The presence of Humera in my life was the second way I was saved. With her around, I thought less and less about going back to the fifth-floor window.
Humera went to meetings with a boy called Aziz. He wanted to run for president of the student union next term. He wanted to, but he wasn’t sure if he was going to, Humera told me, sitting cross-legged on her rumpled bed, her eyes big and confiding. He liked to be on the ground more, organizing protests and such, she added. Humera always tidied herself up before she went out. She washed her hair and I put drops in her eyes to make the redness go away. I did my job carefully, holding my breath as the tear-shape solution broke away from the tip of the dropper and fell onto her eyeball, running over the tiny red lines. Humera came back from a meeting once and said there was to be a citywide students strike. She kneeled on the floor next to my bed. All you have to do is distribute leaflets on campus, she said, putting her hands on my feet. Her hands were dry and warm. I told her I would go.
Two evenings before the strike, the news came that a student in Rawalpindi had been killed by the police in a confrontation during a march. He was a friend of Aziz’s, Humera told me, in our room in a low, sad voice. She wanted to give her condolences to Aziz. I went with her in a rickshaw to an apartment half an hour away from campus. Aziz sat on the floor, not crying. In a corner next to him was a pile of books and newspapers. I found his thin frame and dark eyes intimidating. I wondered what he would make of a photo of a girl wearing yellow, reposing on the beach.
The next day was the start of a new month. I checked the magazines and newspapers in a shop, but the airline ad still wasn’t there. On Monday, Humera told me to skip my classes. Students were walking out of the campus in groups. Humera and I joined them and walked six kilometers. At Nishat Chowrangi there was a bigger crowd and we became part of it. By four in the afternoon, there were hundreds more people. The police had arrived sometime after lunch and tried to disperse the gatherers every now and then, but they weren’t using anything stronger than words. The mood in the area was bright and optimistic and conveyed a sense of persistence through exhaustion. From somewhere in the distance, a section had begun singing. Not national songs, but a string of slogans put to a tune. At Asr, some from the groups stood and formed rows and prayed. I didn’t have a dupatta, so Humera tore hers in half and gave one of the pieces to me. We stood side by side and prayed. After maghrib, a gunshot rang out through the air, cutting across the voices and the singing. Two conflicting rumors flew: The police had fired at a student, or a student had attacked a policeman. Reacting as one body, the crowd stood up and became mobile. My arm was grabbed by Humera. We pushed through the unrested bodies until we reached the side of the road. And then Humera began to run and I had to do the same, attached to her. I wondered if today would be the day that I die. But Humera was pulling me into a different stream of the crowd, one that had quickly made a new formation and was moving with purpose and chanting loudly. I copied them and found that the act strengthened me. We walked down the main road. Nishat Chowrangi was far behind us now. Some of the marchers turned down a commercial road and Humera and I turned with them. The people became less cohesive here, splintering away to the footpaths on the sides. The chanting had now broken into shouts and loud, abrupt exchanges of news about what was happening elsewhere in the streets. I felt my arm suddenly freed; Humera was making her way to the right where some protestors were ascending a pair of steps and through an archway decorated with broken-glass mosaic and the words erum shopping plaza, curving above it in silver block letters. I tried to keep up with her. The corridor was dark, filled with the smell of new paint and plaster. The shops were new and not yet open; their window fronts were covered with large letter Xs. Suddenly, there came the sound of a window breaking, and a voice swore and laughed. A man appeared in front of me, but he didn’t seem to notice me. He raised his arm and hurled a rock at the window behind me as I screamed. I fell into a crouch and threw my arms over my head as glass shattered. Shards pierced my shirt and struck my back. The man was speaking but I didn’t hear him, I only half-rose and ran. Once again, I was stumbling toward the outside. Humera caught me and moaned. “You’re bleeding,” she said. She maneuvered me to the doorway of a shop—a carpet shop, I thought, as if from a distance—looking at the beige-and-red swath of thick material flowing gracefully to the floor in the window panel. Humera told me to sit and I sat. “We’ll be crushed,” I said calmly, observing my own lucidity and absence of pain. Above me, Humera was saying, “Stand over there,” and a pair of legs in jeans appeared between me and the street. Hands gripped my shoulder. Not Humera’s, I thought. A moment later a slicing, burning sensation cut through me and I passed out.
The airline ad came out a few days after the march. I saw it because Imran came in person to give me the magazine copies and the check. I saw the girl on the page, which was me, long and at leisure. Fly to Pakistan for the beautiful beaches were the words beneath the photo, in letters that cleverly resembled good handwriting. “It’s a great ad,” Imran said. “Unfortunately, they won’t be doing any more campaigns here. I’m sorry about that.” I thought he looked sincere. “It’s okay,” I said. “They wouldn’t have chosen me again anyway.” I pointed to the half-inch-long scar on my face. Imran leaned in to look at it. His breath smelled of cigarettes and ink. There was a whiter, thicker scar on my back where Humera had pulled out the piece of glass. Could I take Imran to my room and show it to him? I wondered. I was curious about what he would do. I would turn my back to him and lift up the edge of my shirt. He would lean in to look, breathing cigarettes and ink on the raised, thickened line. Or maybe he would cover his eyes and try to run out the door. But he was already turning as if to leave. The images in my head were disappearing. He was saying he really should be on his way, was there anything else that I needed?