By Zuneera Shah - Photography by Roshan A.

The photo is of a blurry motorcycle on a road in the nighttime, two blurry trees on the left of the bike and behind them a tall building. From a boundary wall on the bike's left a bright light shines.

When Zeba returned from the hospital, she announced to the living room that Zahida was no more. She dropped to the floor in the doorway and cried, “I’ve been orphaned! I’ve been orphaned!”

As Zeba’s spectators rushed to her side, her lament became chant-like. Orphan, orphan, orphan. The husband, their two children, the cook, the housemaid, Zahida’s caretaker, an uncle deafened by age and who did not need to hear what he recognized in his bones already, the final departure of a sibling. These were Zeba’s witnesses in that first hour of grief.

They watched in silence as her sorrow stretched over the house. Reluctant to step inside Zeba’s sadness—for it was foremostly her sadness, then her sister’s, then the two brothers’ and so on, for sadness had to be segmented then distributed then possessed—her spectators kept the first watch. It was only when Zeba finally looked up that the witnesses, sensing in this gesture an invitation, rushed towards her.

And just how they made room for Zeba’s giant, wet sob by making small their own feelings. Zeba’s daughter produced small whimpers that no one registered among her mother’s great cry. The caretaker turned away on occasion to wipe her swollen eyes, convinced that she could conceal the red hue in them. The children did not mourn their grandmother in those early moments, only their mother’s grief.

They all sat on the floor then, Zeba and her witnesses, and lightly beat their chests. Some thumped their thighs. There was a music to their sorrow but never any words. If there were words, Zeba did not hear them. In the background, the TV hummed on and Zeba caught flashes of the mass sit-in protests being covered all over the news. On her way home from the hospital, she had been forced to drive around these agitated crowds of men—they were always men. Her car wound through narrow streets away from the center. It took her twice as long to reach home, but some part of Zeba was grateful for the intermission this granted her. Her rebukes filled the car. Anger ballooned and grief retreated.

The bearded men are out to play dharna-dharna again!
The bearded men want another head on a stick! What is new in the world!
Oh, they can have mine this time but not before I take one of theirs!
May God and his loved ones wreck these lynchers, these haters of the Ahlebait!

Zeba felt uncomfortable now, sitting on the floor. Her joints had stiffened. Her face had chafed from repeatedly wiping away tears with her dupatta. Sweat had pooled in the middle of her thighs and under her breasts. She confirmed the whiff of an odor. Her scalp also reeked of dampness. In the short second that she took to identify this discomfort, Zeba forgot about her dead mother. The next second, she remembered all over again and mourned afresh. How does one get used to a dead mother? She felt it was an absurd state of being, both this business of being dead as well as having a dead mother. She ruffled her hair first, which she had carefully tucked in place this morning then pulled out palmfuls. She slapped her cheeks until the curves of her fingers appeared as red outlines on her face. “The mother is gone! She is gone!” No hands hurried to stop her, no embraces were offered, not even a consoling touch; for all knew that this newborn grief could not yet be cradled.

This was what Zeba had concealed from everyone: when Zahida flatlined, Zeba was not with her mother. She was outside, asking her younger sister on the phone if she was going to take over for her at the hospital. And now Zahida’s soul had left without witness and it was Zeba’s fault entirely. Convinced that she could not divulge this information, Zeba adjusted her stiffening knees on the marble and again wailed.

In between sobs, she made a mental note that her purse had skidded a short distance across the floor, its mouth overflowing with hospital bills that had to be paid off before her mother could come home. In the purse’s inner pocket were Zahida’s last relics of wealth: a chain of pure gold that hung to her stomach, a diamond nose stud, a ring only Zahida knew was fake, and a pair of small golden baalis—she had worn these jewels till the very end. Zeba had to remove them from her mother’s cold flesh. She would have to remember the purse before heading upstairs.

While the orphan’s lament commanded her lips, her mind was plagued by the logistics of all that needed to be done before the funeral tomorrow. She considered different menus. The food had to be modest with just the right hint of lavish. There must be rice! There must be an abundance of piping hot tea! “Must the living stop eating? Would you have them starved and join the dead? Guests must be served tea! It is our way!” Zahida’s voice rang stern in her ears. Over a decade ago, Zeba had rebuked the mechanics of eating and drinking at her father’s funeral, the tea having made the rounds even as his body lay in the center, but Zahida had stood firm in her ways even then. Now Zeba would have to bow to tradition, to Zahida and her ways.

“Tea! Hot!” Zeba made inaudible sounds.

But the to-do list kept multiplying: a grave plot had to be selected and bought, the tents, the kafan, the caterers, the casket. The bills! She fretted whether a full house would congregate at such short notice especially given the shut down in the city, and whether there would be enough maatam pulsating in the room when they raised Zahida to the shoulder and carried her away.

The entrance door stood ajar. The day was coming to a close. The night sky had graduated to its darkest as Zahida’s first mourners remained huddled on the floor. Then Zeba went silent. She wiped her face with her dupatta before draping it over her shoulder and stood up. The purse! She bent over to pick it up and placed it in the crease of her elbow.

“Taqi,” she said to her husband, “call the caterers. Tell Qadri and his men that if they accidentally send the wedding tents like they did at Sukaina Maasi’s funeral I’m getting all my majalis catered by someone else this Muharram. Is this a joke to them!” Then Zeba added as an afterthought, “She must be sent off…properly.” She took in the living room one final time, mapping what needed to be cleaned and dusted and polished, and what furniture rearranged before Zahida’s farewell visit. She plucked the hospital bills from the purse and nodded towards Taqi as she laid them on the side table. He at once understood. “She will be here at dawn,” Zeba announced and turned towards the stairs. She made for the bedroom where she unclasped her bra and snaked it through her armhole with one hand and, with the other, drew the covers over her. At last, Zeba slept.

Zahida was scheduled to arrive at Fajar so she could be readied for the burial at Asar time. And if it weren’t for the milkman, Zeba might have slept through it all.

It was not their milkman, no. Zeba’s family, much to her mother’s disapproval, had switched to those palm-sized cartons years ago that could sit on the shelves forever, convinced by TV pundits and modernity alike that the box was the way forward. But science was always renovating and fresh milk was in fashion again. While the rich-rich bought cows and hired more staff to milk the cows on dubiously acquired land, the borderline affluent of Zeba’s neighborhood had to settle for the milkmen, who arrived each morning with two steel vessels of milk balanced on either side of their motorcycles.

Zeba refused to welcome the milkman back into their lives. She remembered well Zahida’s milk-panic days from her childhood: her mother screaming from the living room for Iqbal Chacha to attend to the milkman, the tightness Zeba felt in her adolescent body as Zahida dipped her bare finger in scalding milk to flick off the layer of cream forming over it. Hauling milk pots to and from the house, the ordeals of boiling and bottling, the pressures of using up every drop before it went bad—it was too much, too much, to add to her overflowing mental registry, even if Zeba had the cook and the housemaid to rely on for help.

Zeba had feared that once fresh milk entered the house, she would want to perform her domestic diligence just as her mother always had, to go as far as to churn out by-products like yogurt, ghee, and butter, even as Zeba knew how to make none of them. And who could say for certain that the cartons wouldn’t make a comeback? All this back and forth, Zeba decided, was not worth the minimal pleasure of knowing that her milk consumption was with the times. Ten years ago, it was different; making informed, trendy choices had the allure of shifting her middle-class trajectory, but her ailing mother and her own troubling knees had made clear that decay was an inevitable process and one that could hardly be influenced by milk choices.

It was the neighbor’s milkman that woke Zeba up on the only day Zahida would arrive at her door lifeless, bolted away in the back of an ambulance van. Her neighbor’s milkman always arrived at first light as if in some competition with the sun and rang the doorbell with a looseness seldom seen in a street that was still asleep. The siren-like doorbell roared through Zeba’s room, jolting her awake day after day. Taqi, too, slept through it marvelously. She declared every day before dosing off again that she had had it with the milkman and would settle the bell situation once and for all.

But when he rang the doorbell on the morning of Zahida’s funeral—once, then twice, and in total five times—Zeba opened her eyes with the fifth ringing. It took a few seconds for her dead mother to come back to her. Bile rose. The heart contracted into a small thing.

Still, Zeba attempted some movement. She put one leg after the other and sat sideways on the bed. Her instinct led her to the terrace where she looked at the milkman, whom she had never actually seen before. Settled on his haunches, he doled out milk into a small metal pot for the neighbors as Zeba watched from above. He looked young, almost the build of her son. As he straightened, his line of sight met Zeba’s, who froze when he took a cupped palm to the forehead and mouthed the words, “Ya Ali madad” before resting the hand on his heart. Zeba twisted to confirm what he was looking at—the black fabric and the metal hand towering over her roof. She quickly opened her mouth to say something to him, but he had already turned his back towards her.

The ambulance was unreachable. Zeba marched around the terrace with her phone pointed in the sky trying to catch phone signals. She called the hospital lines but to no avail. Below, white tents cascaded over the porch and the garden. Soon there would be cars lining the street and passersby would look at the tents and cars and wonder, “Wedding or funeral?” before skating along their day. The men would huddle in groups outside the gate in their crisp shalwar kamiz while the women sat indoors. In some corner, there will be instinctual laughter which will be quickly hushed—it is inappropriate at these things to laugh. Who will cry? And how much? It is bad to be late to these things and yet here Zahida herself was nowhere to be found.

It took Zeba two hours of incessant calling to find out that the ambulance had left as scheduled. Had they not reached yet? the speaker asked on the other side. Zeba was sitting on the stoop when the ambulance finally pulled in four hours later. The city was still clogged, the young driver confirmed. The protesters were setting up camp on the roads, even setting up checkpoints in places. Some protesters, Zeba thought. Thugs, that’s what they were, who like most men she had known wanted things and people to be their way. Her shoulders tightened at the thought. She had driven through the sea of men last night. They had pounded on her doors because they could. They were always so angry.

As the men unloaded Zahida from the ambulance, the driver said, “They only let us go through because I kept the siren on. They thought it was a living patient we had. All night they are burning cars. There was so much smoke.”

Living. Zeba felt annoyed by his use of the word. It was funny how it was used only when confronted with death. She had never thought of her mother as living. Zeba imagined Zahida sitting up in that ambulance, screaming expletives at the protesters as the vehicle moved through the crowds. Disco molvis, she would have called them, spitting on the floor. She would have laughed with her young companions in the ambulance, “Every era has its oppressors, these ugly men are just like Yazid and his followers.”

“Protesting again?” Zeba asked. “Weren’t their demands met by the government just last week? What’s all the fuss now?” She wanted to see where the ambulance men’s sympathies lay on the matter. Did they, like most people, dwell in the camp where such events were deemed unfortunate in private, yet always trumped by the inertia of “What can one do in this country”? What could one possibly do to transport a dead body through this mess except want to make it out alive? The protestors were going to get their way regardless and there would of course be a lynching—they all knew this much by now— so wasn’t it better if the city could just skip the theatre?

There had been an incident, one of the ambulance men was saying now. Something about some holy verses, a fight, eventually bullets fired. “They are blaming one of those families —” he peeked at the alam swaying gently on Zeba’s rooftop and quickly added, “The protesters are just trying to stir up trouble, they must have staged it.”

Zeba smiled at this kindness. “How many?” she wanted to ask, the words reaching her tongue out of old instinct, a responsibility to always keep count of the slain. It was always the same story anyway. The protestors would carry on until ten other bodies were offered as recompense for supposed crimes one could commit and be indicted for in make-shift public courts. Zeba and her family would keep their heads down for a few days and go about their lives. She snuffed the question before it escaped her mouth. This was no day to open herself to such violence, to ask about other bodies. There was already one waiting for her.

How long had Zahida been cooped up in the back of the ambulance? Zeba decided it was better not to know—her mother was here now.


Zeba wiped her mother’s arms—first with warm water, then Neem leaves, water again, and then with camphor. Zeba and three other women sat around Zahida’s naked body under the open sky in a makeshift enclosure to perform the ghusal. Zeba could not recall ever seeing her mother’s bare body. It was the reason the caretaker was hired in the first place so she could help Zahida to the bathroom, change her clothes, things Zahida refused to let Zeba help her with. Zahida’s body was soft in some places with bones jutting out in others. Zeba knew that her mother’s body had blued and weakened during the last spells of her bed-ridden life but had no other point of reference with which to determine whether it was her final days that had contorted her so.

Zeba was terrified of what would happen if she was given a moment alone with her mother: she might never let the body leave. And why should Zahida have to leave? There was a garden in the house, however small. If earth was the only condition, they could put Zahida in there. Zeba felt the urge to lace her fingers through her mother’s hand but restrained herself. She knew the body in front of her was now sacred, ritualized, and no longer hers to hold. When the time came to wrap Zahida in a shroud of white, Zeba quietly stepped away and let the other women clothe Zahida instead. She did not think she should seize in death the closeness that she was not allowed when her mother was living. She touched her mother’s feet and left while the women finished up. The thought came to her: Another pogrom could arrive any time, and now there would be one less person to worry about when they finally come for us.

She went to the kitchen to see lunch preparations. The chicken korma steamed in a giant cauldron and the aroma of hot oil competed with the pot of bloomed cumin rice next to it. The tea had been poured into steel drums and stacks of Styrofoam cups placed next to them. She scooped up fingerfuls of rice from the pot and chewed hurriedly, then gulped water from a cup, crushed it in her palm, and tossed it across the countertop. She could hear her younger sister’s unrestrained bawling from outside. “Why did you have to leave me Ammi? Who will I turn to now?” Zeba had forgotten to call her sister and brothers last night. The siblings had not exchanged any words yet, only spoken to each other with their eyes as they tended separately to those who came to offer condolences. Out on the porch Zeba joined the female mourners reading the Quran and picked up a sipara, far from her sister. Soon her brothers would rise from the men’s section and bring out the body, and Zeba did not want to be near her sister’s moaning when it happened. The sight of a forty-seven-year-old woman uncontrollably crying was distasteful. If their mother could have seen them, she would have been the first to object. All that screaming! Where was all this fussing about while their mother was alive?

Zeba couldn’t focus on the lines in the sipara as her sister’s voice rang in her ears, “Why did death not come for me instead?” She dared not look up as tears blurred her vision and dampened the pages.

At the wake, Zeba grew restless. She watched her nephew Mehdi closely. Mounted on his brand-new blue BMX, gripping the handlebars still covered in plastic, he watched his grandmother in the casket, fixating on the frayed edges of white cotton poking out of her nostrils. Every time an adult shifted to block his view, Mehdi squeezed his red bulb horn and shocked them into submission. They instantly stepped aside. Zeba fumed internally at her howling sister for not minding her honking child. The other grandchildren – including Zeba’s two teenagers – scuttled inside the house, refusing to be challenged by the dead body, but the eight-year-old persisted. He honked and honked until Zeba finally moved towards the child, grabbed him by the shoulders and said, “Nothing to see here, beta. This is a part of life. One day, this will be me, this will be your mother. Go on inside, join your cousins.”

Mehdi looked at Zeba, then at his grandmother. He considered her body again, how alien she seemed in this moment, how ugly, and let out a cry. The adults were moved by the child’s affliction, unaware that Mehdi’s concern, like many of them, was the mortality of the living. The dead were simply that, dead. In this case, he was plagued by thoughts of his mother’s death and not his own, for he was too young to entertain death as an outcome for himself, even though his own death would come sooner than Zeba would have expected, his body bombed to bits—wrong place (the house of God), wrong time (Jummah prayer, the best of prayers). They would not bury Mehdi with the blue BMX even though Zeba’s sister would insist. Zeba would argue in favor of the bike as well. “What does it matter?” But the sisters would lose out in the end. It just wasn’t done. Someone might dig up the grave for the bike. Is that what they wanted? Their younger brother would chide their womanly sentiments. At Mehdi’s funeral Zeba would hold her sister, who, this time, would say nothing, and later refuse to loosen her grip on the rungs of Mehdi’s casket, stalling the funeral for hours. In the end, Zeba would grab her sister’s hand and follow the handful of men walking to the graveyard to bury the child. And it would be Zeba who, digging her nails into the ground and throwing the last fistful of earth over Mehdi’s child-sized grave, would say to everyone, “Enough.”

But Mehdi, at Zahida’s funeral alive and bawling and basking in this special attention as he towered over his grandmother’s body, kept imagining his mother’s face in the casket and sobbed with even greater force. Over the years, after Mehdi was long gone, the archive of family stories would glorify how he had mourned his grandmother sitting on his shiny BMX, clutching the handlebars with such force as if his small grief could have knocked him off any second. Some would even go as far as to say that it was a sign all along, that the young boy was meant to unite with his grandmother in boyhood, that something was divine about the way he broke down that day, that his small bicycle, small body, small tears—all steadfast against the bigness of death—were meant to say something.

Despite the unrest in the city, Zahida had pulled in a large crowd. When it was time, someone began to recite the poetry of God and his Beloveds. Zeba’s sister clung to the casket. The six pallbearers awaited their cue with their gazes to the floor as the women bellowed verses of love and death and mercy, speaking over Zahida’s body about the grave’s trials and how she must face them alone. An older woman began reciting from the Quran and the chorus calmed. Zeba nodded and set the last rites in motion. They tucked Zahida’s face under the cloth and knotted the cloth around as the pallbearers came forward to take their positions. The women made room for the pallbearers, prying off Zeba’s sister from the casket’s leg. As they raised the casket and marched towards the graveyard, prayer melded into scream; grief became worship. Zeba registered nothing in the moment except that there were many warm bodies pressed to hers and that none of them would ever again be Zahida’s.

The scene transformed once the dead had been removed from company. Guests were slow to leave, lingering for the odd snack or meal, as if waiting for the memory of the body to be aired out of their kurtas and dupattas. Soon the men returned from the graveyard. Zeba was glad that women did not have to accompany the body. Finally, she thought, something for the men to do. All the crying had wrung her out while her two brothers, even after lowering their mother in the grave and leaving her there, appeared as if they could sit down for a cup of tea and go as far as to even enjoy it. Zeba’s legs hurt and she felt the soft tug of sleep. She considered taking a short, discreet nap but knew it was too risky. All her efforts, all those years of playing caretaker and doctor and mother and daughter to Zahida while her siblings were tucked away in their homes would go to waste if she was found. And so she settled instead for some solitude on the stairs.

Zeba half hoped to faint and collapse as people often did at these things; someone might carry her off to bed and force her to lay down. Would it have been so terrible if she had kept on sleeping in the morning—ignoring that bell, rolling onto the other side, pulling her covers to the folds of her neck, and dozing off into a sweet oblivion?

Guilt swished around inside her even as Zeba knew she could not have possibly missed the funeral. But it was freeing to imagine for a second that Zeba could have the milkman’s boldness as he vaulted through the crack of dawn every day, bending the streets to his schedule; or the audacity of those protestors who powered off entire cities for days only because they could. That Zeba too could practice some self-involved emotion that came so easily to men who simply said, “I had to.” She spun around in this daydream. She could start by disabling the neighbor’s doorbell, cutting off a wire somewhere. “I just had to,” Zeba could say to them and mean it.

A voice called her in the distance. “Zeba!”

“Coming,” she yelled back and sat on the stairs a moment longer. She thought briefly of those protesters speckled across the city and whom she admired in this moment for their profound ability to sit and sit and sit. She wondered if they too longed for rest in the face of duty, if what they truly yearned for as they sent the city up in smoke and watched it come undone around them was not someone’s head on a spike after all but a good night’s sleep, where the night fell softly and called them homewards.

The photo shows Zuneera Shah smiling into the camera, her curly hair falling over her shoulders, a green tree lit up with bright sunlight behind her.

Zuneera Shah is a writer from Lahore with fiction and non-fiction in The Drift Mag, Jaggery Lit, Orca Literary, Times Literary Supplement, The Aleph Review, and others. 

Roshan A. is a freelance photographer and writer.

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