I Like the Texture of Things

The artwork by Kehkashan Khalid is a colorful texture of paint colors in reds, blues, purples, yellows and greens, a large bright blue with irregular edges covering almost the whole lower half.

Every time I pluck another hair from my arm or leg, I think of the hand that ran over it, the hand that runs over my skin, the hand that will run over it. I hope it is so smooth when that happens. Smooth like water that moves about your hand as you touch it. No texture, no color, no shape of my own. Except for the body of want that collides with it and takes it up in its own form.

I have been thinking about the texture of our skins since I was fourteen.                                                     


 “There are shards of glass embedded in the thread. It is the best thing for plucking out there. Hair doesn’t grow back for at least a month,” she said with pride. Everyone gasped. I wasn’t sure if in awe or concern.

“You never know when he wants service,” another remarked and we all giggled. Even I, who wasn’t supposed to understand what service meant. But I thought a lot about it afterwards and of her creamy, smooth, fair skin that was reddened after all that threading and plucking. It was flawless without a trace of any pores. All the girls in our family ran their hands over her arms and legs as if they were vicariously trying to feel what she must have felt to be touched and held, body to body, skin to skin. It must have been like those Bollywood songs with racy videos that we all secretly loved to watch. Especially those scenes when the couples were glued to one another like magnets.

Her husband, in contrast, was quite coarse. He had a large mustache, a big chin and eyebrows that looked like cockroaches. His skin was rough, thickened and tightened into wrinkles around the forehead like most thirty-year-old men in Punjab. There must be a strange friction between their skins, I thought. The shards of glass scratching against her skin would be replaced by his spiky mustache. A ritual and then a service. A delicate balance between two opposite energies. I remember thinking at fourteen that loving came at the price of glass-shreds and smoothening the rough edges.


Everyone is born with different textures, I used to think.

I could never tell which one was mine. I could only tell which one I wasn’t. Which one I couldn’t be. It was Mahnoor that I wasn’t.

It was the day she took off her shalwar as a joke in front of me when it solidified.

“W-why would you do that?”

Another girl who was washing her hands at the sink shrieked and ran out of the bathroom. I stood there dumb-struck.

 She was still holding the stitch in her stomach that she got from all the laughing.

“Mahnoor! You’ll get reported to the principal. Did you see the look on the girl’s face?” I scolded her, but she didn’t care.

Dude, I am just trying to show you that we are both the same from down there,” she said in a nonchalant tone, pulling up her shalwar. “It’s not like she or the principal haven’t seen one before.”

Although she said that we were both the same from down there, I wasn’t so sure if we were the same anywhere at all.

 She was casually fixing her hair in the mirror now, tying them up again in a tight ponytail that reached her shoulders down her back. I watched her as she watched herself.

There was a spark in her brown eyes that was always there.

Mahnoor left me dumbstruck just by her existence. She danced and sang in every school play. She would start addressing everyone in the class and give a speech anytime she wanted to just because she was bored. And people would listen because it was she who was speaking.

She wasn’t riddled with shame as I was. She could take off her shalwar as a joke, to prove to anyone she wasn’t different down there. She could do anything.

Mahnoor passed me one of her dazzling smiles from the mirror that nearly took my breath away. And I smiled back shyly. I could never completely take in how unabashedly she wore her hair down when she wanted to, instead of braiding them up tightly like me. And how good she looked that way.

“Did I tell you?” she exclaimed, turning around from the sink to me, “Ahsan has gone insane! My brother has confiscated my phone again or I’d have shown you the screenshots of his pathetic chats.”

Another day, another boy’s name. I was beginning to lose track of them. It was the same story each time. She would give a boy a tad bit of attention and they’d go out of hand. And somehow, her snooping older brother would always get a whiff of it and take away her phone. I couldn’t really blame the boys though. Who wouldn’t be obsessed by her?

I watched as she walked out ahead of me, wondering if anyone ever watched me that way. With awe, envy and longing.

Lately, I noticed how the blue tunic wrapped around her round body. Although Mahnoor hated the fact that she’d got fat around some parts. She told me she started to feel better when her mother reassured her, that’s actually what boys want. The sash tied neatly around her waist danced about as she walked with a skip in her step. It looked like it was waving at the on-lookers. Everything she wore started to have a life of its own. She was brimming with life in every inch of her body, inviting others to take a look but too elusive to ever be held down.

I didn’t know back then that one could always be held down. I didn’t know that it was only for so long that young girls could run wild and free.


What I didn’t always understand about texture was that texture is also about touch.

A touch defines the texture for itself. You know, how they say, Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

 Well, texture is in the hand that touches.

I was sitting with a miserable face on one of the benches near the front gate of our school, waiting for my parents to pick me up. Our school was a private one with a small building. No one knew about it. Nothing like those branded, famous ones like LGS and Aitchison that I heard details about only because Mahnoor was dating their boys. She started dating boys the summer before and didn’t stop after then. It was like she was trying to reach a new world-record.

Some of those rich school boys sounded cool. They read books that I read and liked to talk about different concepts and literature and poems. I would compare myself to those lonely artists who were appreciated after their time. I found refuge in thinking I would be known some day too. It would never be for how I looked but something more than that. The thought of being naked made me scared. The boys from those schools were nothing like the ones in our school that had new hair sprouting out from everywhere. Always only playing video games or watching wrestling.

Even they wouldn’t have liked me.

It didn’t matter if I was smarter than most people my age or had many poems written in diaries stacked away at the back of my drawer. No boy my age cared about that.

I ran my hands on my knees. We had started wearing shalwars in the uniform just two years ago in sixth grade. I missed it when it was just a skirt. I didn’t know that the time to have your knees out would go away so soon. But even if they allowed us, I might not wear one anymore. I was suddenly much more conscious of my growing body.

I could never share my bare body with anyone even if it was only two years ago that I had used to. So much had changed so soon.

I was horrified by how Mahnoor could do it so easily. The sight of her fair legs wouldn’t get out of my head. Primarily because they looked so different from mine. I didn’t even know what men did when they saw you bare. But I could bet that they’d love seeing her that way.

I pulled my shalwar up a little bit. It really was no use because I was wearing socks beneath. I gripped the cloth with my hands, imagining what it would be like to take it off right there. People would be horrified for sure.

Like a genie of desire pops out from the lamp when you rub it, the principal of our school appeared out of nowhere.

“Why are you still here?” he asked.

“I- my- my parents forgot to pick me up,” I said and instantly regretted my words. They made me sound even more miserable than I felt.

“Come to my office then. I’ll call them for you.”

The office was a lair that I’d never been to and had never been  invited to either. I only heard stories about it like a mythological land for the favourites that Mr. Jalaal picked up.


I always heard the school girls say that Mr. Jalaal looked young for his post. Up close, I could tell why. Sure, there were some visible silver strands in his quiff but they added to his foxy grace. I looked around at the overly air-conditioned, perfectly arranged, carpeted room. There was a bookshelf hung next to the wall where each book was sitting in a straight line. The only other time I came to his office, I remembered sniffing a distinct smell of an aftershave that reminded me of my father. The smell was so strong that it became a fragrant memory for me. When I thought of Mr. Jalaal that smell ran through my nostrils again.

No wonder Mahnoor loved to visit the office. She was one of his favourites. Mr. Jalaal was known to pick favourites from each year. He would often praise them at the end of the school speeches, always using the same sentence: “I found a hidden spark in her.” It was so repetitive that I could recite his speeches on cue. Yet I always had a secret longing to be one of them.

“You’re Mehmal, aren’t you? Mahnoor’s friend, Mehmal?” he suddenly spoke.

I couldn’t process the fact that he even knew my name. It was true that I topped each grade but he didn’t care who topped. He only cared about his favourites. I always thought about what makes them so special. I didn’t know exactly back then: it was a privilege I did not have and could only dream of.

Even though he only referred to me as Mahnoor’s friend, I was still moved by the fact that he knew my name. I turned to look at him from the leather sofa I sat on. He was comfortably lounging in his arm-chair with an unlit cigar in his hands. He looked so cool in that pose.

“Y-yes,” I responded.

He pursed his lips. I couldn’t detect much emotion from his tight-muscled, clean-shaven face. All of his features in his rectangular face were vaguely long and undefined. The only thing that stood out about him was his silvery hair. There was something so ethereal and inconceivable about it all. As if he wasn’t a human just like us all. He looked like a foreigner visiting Pakistan. And considering what I heard about his education, it seemed to me he did live most of his life abroad.

I stared at him intently, my hands clasped tightly in my lap, waiting for him to say my name again.

“I am not sure what to do with this girl,” he exclaimed in exasperation.

I was confused to hear the disapproval in his voice. He couldn’t be talking about Mahnoor. He always let her off the hook no matter what rule she broke. He even used to scold teachers for her.

“I feel ashamed to even call and rebuke her for what she did back there in the bathroom. But I hear that you were the one she flashed? How do you feel about that?”

My heart was thumping in uncertainty. Not only did he disapprove of what Mahnoor had done, he also wanted to know how it made me feel. That was a strange and unfamiliar honor. A significance no one else had placed on me before. I was hyper-aware of the drops of sweat traveling down my thighs. His eyes briefly lingered on my sweaty hands clasped in my lap. I felt as if he could see all my naked thoughts. I felt more and more uneasy in my limbs.

“It is a tender age, Mehmal,” he began surprisingly softly.

His sudden change of tone changed the entire texture of the room. I held my breath because I could almost feel the beginning of something foreign. Like the genie that popped out from the lamp to fulfill a wish I wasn’t even sure I had.

“You both are not children anymore. You are fully grown girls. Your words and actions matter. You seem wiser than her. That’s why I need your help.”

It is a poignant day for every child when an adult asks you for help. Because you know, deep down that it would be the last day you’d ever get to be a child.


This is the thing about women. We are like the texture of water. Any form the other has taken will be taken by you as well.

Textures are not innate. They could also appear different. It all depended on the hands that run through the surface.

Mahnoor never used to like silence. But now she seemed too absorbed in the thickest of books. She never even read books before. She was too human to waste her time in imagining of a life that she could just live.

But I would often see her alone in the library, peering over a thick volume on her own. She’d be just staring at them. Running her hands over the black ink as if she hoped that she could absorb it all by touch alone. I found her speaking of a longing I was all too familiar with. A longing to be someone she never was.

“I want to be like you. One of those girls who never speaks unless she has something smart to say,” she told me one day.

Mahnoor’s sash drooped next to her. The spark in her eyes had dimmed. She’d lost weight around her waist. She barely smiled anymore. It felt like the theater that played her show had closed all of a sudden. I would watch her the same way I did before, partially feeling responsible for the closure but not really understanding why.

A girl came towards us both like a messenger from the Heavens.

“The principal is calling you to his office.”

The sentence hung in the air uncomfortably. To acknowledge it was to accept the wedge that had come between us.

Until Mahnoor looked at me pointedly. There was a force in her small almond-shaped eyes that I’d never seen before. It was enough to make me stand up from my chair. The air was polluted by an emotion I was yet to feel. But her eyes seemed to declare what I already knew somewhere inside.

“You’re his new favourite now.”


“Well, I like the texture of things,” he replied in a thick Southern American accent to my question about body hair and discriminatory preferences. And I couldn’t help but laugh. It had been so many years now. I was no longer in the land where I met her. Miles away, she was living a life that had nothing to do with me. And yet our lives overlapped with one another in a way that this entanglement might never end.

And so, I still remembered Mahnoor like that. Like an essential texture to my memory. Her presence. Her absence. What she was. And what she had become.

What would Mahnoor say in this position?

I remembered when Mahnoor told me excitedly that in America girls with my skin texture were fetishized. When I told her I was going to the States for college and afraid I might get bullied for being a dark South Asian, she tried her best to reassure me.

“They’ll find you exotic. Brown beauty. You’ll be special. One of a kind,”

It was a rare phone call. I was surprised she even picked up after a long period of estrangement. A lot had changed. And we were both trying to escape.


There was a texture to that room. Overly air-conditioned, perfumed, neat. It was always so enticing to step into and impossible to leave. I was aware that day of the clean carpet below my dusty black shoes, how my legs itched after the first shave and the smooth pages that had my name over them in black ink. A published poem in the school magazine.

It was an unexpected turn of events to suddenly be looked on so favorably.

The diaries from the back of my drawers at home made their way to the principal’s office. As did many of my secret longings.

There was a texture to that brown leather sofa I sat on and to the sound of the soft yet icy voice that traveled through my ear-drum to my heart like magic and froze my body in place. The itches and bumps from the shaving started to feel like flames.

“You have a hidden spark within you that needs to be lit,” he’d said.

A feeling of foreboding crept over me then. It felt like a million shards of glass pierced through all at once.

The texture of my skin resembled marble. I was being marveled like a statue with no movement. The very life within me was being drunk by another entity. I was about to be consumed.

My texture was about to be changed forever.

“You are rare, Mehmal. Soft, delicate, tender. My office is open for you every hour. Show me every hidden part, your spirit, all your poems, all your stories, and I’ll show you how beautiful just in your bare, pure form.”


It was true. There was something delicate about our textures back then.

I haven’t stopped thinking about the texture of our skins ever since Mahnoor.

What would they be like if they were the texture of all that touched us? Would you still be as smooth, as fair as you ever were? Or like me, hyper-pigmented?

The photo shows Uswa Maryam looking into the camera, sitting at a table, the left side of her face resting on the palm of her left hand. She is dressed in a dark shirt, her hair resting on her shoulders.

Uswa Maryam is a 22-year-old fiction and creative non-fiction writer and law student at Punjab University. Her short story, The Table, has previously been published at Gabby and Min’s Literary Review. Her compilation of lyrical prose, Majaazi Khuda – An Antidote to Misandry, is available at Dastaan Publications. She’s the co-founder of Bethak, a creative community platform. You can find her on Instagram @wohiwaliuswa or check out her substack @uswamaryam.


Kehkashan is a Pakistani writer and artist. In 2019 she graduated with distinction from the MA Fine Art program at UAL, and her thesis work was awarded and acquired by the UAL collection. She simultaneously won the Salam Award and, since then, her stories have been published by Fantasy Magazine, Hachette India, and Neon Hemlock, among others. She works part time as a Revisions Editor at New Degree Press. She can currently be found in Jeddah, working on her first novel, spending time with her three young children, and searching for calm in the midst of chaos. You can see her in action at www.instagram.com/artworkbykehkashan

About the Art
Title: An Ode to Places

If you fly high enough the whole world looks like a map. Inspired by the bird’s eye view from airplanes, the artist used a Google Earth view of Karachi to create this nostalgic piece in textures and inks. As an expat, this is what going home feels like, even when home isn’t always the most perfect place. 

Scroll to Top