I have to rewind the film, because I’ve missed the last minute or so, focused on my thighs and trying to remember the lyrics to that Nancy Sinatra song.
I start from the beginning again. A few women speak forcefully against khatna and I nod along. A couple of women say that it’s a harmless ritual. They make me think of Zainab, and I pity them. There is just one lady who is vehement that the practice is positive for girls’ sexuality. Her voice reminds me of Maasi’s but of course I know that this woman, whose face is obscured by a cinematic smudge, is not my aunt. It’s not Maasi’s way to appear on a video like this.
I pause the film to get up to pee, and then again to make tea. I am sweating so I change into shorts, turn the air conditioning back on.
The credits roll and my heart races. I check the time. It’s almost 2:00 p.m. I wish I could call Laura back. But it’s not her I need to talk to: it’s my mother. I need to finally ask her about all of this. Mom will already be in bed, fast asleep. But I call anyway.
She picks up on the fourth ring, her voice groggy.
“I’m so sorry for waking you. But …” I don’t have an appropriate justification for shaking her out of her sleep. What am I doing?
She asks a half-dozen alarmed questions about our safety and in a calm and authoritative voice, the kind she needs when stressed, I reassure her that we are fine. “Can you go to your computer and turn on Skype?” I need to see her face. I wait two minutes, watching the clock, feeling childish for this drama. Then my computer rings, and she appears, hair tousled. She’s brought her laptop to her bed.
“Did you see that article I sent you a couple of days ago?”
“Oh, yes, I read it today.”
“I need to ask you about it.”
She is quiet as I tell her everything I have learned about khatna. I give her details about the conversations I’ve had with Fatema and Zainab. I offer to send her the film link and she nods her assent.
“Is it possible that it happened … to me, too?” I finally get the question out, this question that for the last few weeks has been in my periphery, but from which I’ve been turning away, turning away.
“Oh, this is why you’re upset.”
I nod, chide myself for making this a big deal.
“Don’t worry. We opposed it.” She tells me that the family tried to put pressure on her when we visited India when I was seven. I relax into her assurances, but only for a moment.
“Who? Who put pressure on you?”
“Tasnim, your maasi. You know she has always been so much more old-fashioned than me. And she is only six years older!”
“You are so different,” I agree, feeling a sliver of disloyalty to Maasi. I add, “But she’s also so spunky, you know? It’s hard to believe she believes in this stuff.”
“Well, it’s religion.” Mom shrugs.
“People think it’s symbolic, not anything that would do any real harm.”
“Yes, that’s what Zainab thinks.”
“I barely remember it happening to me, but the idea of it has always left a bad taste in my mouth … so when it came time to make that decision for you, I said no. We’d been living in Edison for three years already and we’d been exposed to different things, people, culture. Not only the Bohra culture anymore, although that was there, too. Ratna Aunty became my best friend. At the time it was a big deal to have a best friend who was Hindu!”
She’s fully awake now, back to her chatty self.
“So you said no. Then what?”
“Before we went to India, Tasnim called me saying she and my mother could make the arrangements for the three of you cousins. She thought it would be good if you did it together. I told Ratna, who was appalled, and her reaction got me thinking, really thinking about it. I remember her face when I explained it to her, saw how shocked she was, it was kind of like when you haven’t given something much thought and then you see it clearly through someone else’s eyes.”
“So did you call Maasi back?” Impatience buzzes under my skin. I need to get to the end of the story.
“No. I knew I had to explain in person. She wouldn’t understand, so I wanted to be delicate about it. You know, she was so bothered that I’d even cut my hair! I had that Dorothy Hamill cut back then and they didn’t like it. She’d ask me things like, ‘Are you doing your namaaz still,’ and I brushed her off, telling her it was impossible to have an office job and pray at work.” She rolls her eyes.
“So you told her in person?” “Yes, I told her and my mother together.” She flicks her wrist, indicating the completeness of her actions. “I said that your father and I didn’t want it. She argued with me and said, ‘Do you want her to turn out like Shaheen?’ I couldn’t believe it.”
“What did she mean by that?” Shaheen, the older cousin I admired as a child, would have been eighteen at the time when Mom and Maasi had argued. She’s married now, with two kids, and owns a thriving office-supply store in Detroit.
“She wore makeup and had a boyfriend. Somehow everyone in India heard the gossip! Her parents tried to rein her in, but she had a will of her own. Don’t tell anyone — it was a secret — but just before we came to India that year, she had to have an abortion. Tasnim doesn’t know that part of the story.”
“Really?” Of course, no one would have shared this with me — I was a child — but it’s strange to not have this information. What else don’t I know about the family? It’s like I’m peeling a boiled egg, only to find its yellow yolk soft and runny on the inside.
“Yes, it was the first time any of us had dealt with such a thing.”
I nod, imagining Shaheen having to cope with her private drama while relatives spread rumours about her.
“Tasnim tried to persuade me with her ideas about Western influences and the need to control girls and all sorts of things I knew were nonsense, but at the time, you know I felt intimi dated? She’s always been a bossy older sister and sometimes I wondered if we should have followed more traditions.”
I tense, hearing her contradict her earlier words. I gaze into her eyes. She hesitates. I remain quiet.
“I know it’s stupid, but later when you went through all those troubles in your twenties I wondered, Was she correct? But no. I never thought khatna was right.”
“So, you stood up to your sister and your mother that summer, right?” I still feel fuzzy about the story.
“When we left you to stay that summer, I made Tasnim promise to respect our wishes and she agreed to not allow our mom, your nani, to take you for it.”
“And you believe she did that?”
“Absolutely. She told me it was the parents’ decision, that it was only her duty as an older sister to give me her perspective, but she wouldn’t interfere beyond that.”
Her eyes shine brightly, lovingly, from across the ocean, and I sense her certainty. And I also know how much she loves her sister, loved her mother, how hard it must have been for her to disagree with them.
I exhale deeply and it’s as though I’ve been holding my breath for hours. I apologize again for the late call, and she waves it off. “It’s okay, you were worried. And it’s not like I have to go to work in the morning. I’m a retiree, remember?” She screws up her face, attempting to be goofy.
After we log off, I close Fatema’s message, send it to my deleted items mailbox. It’s all too much. The sadness of others is seeping into my skin. I’ve been perseverating on something that isn’t mine.
Releasing in Canada and the US this September, Seven is Farzana Doctor’s fourth and most ambitious novel to date. The novel sensitively addresses women’s relationships, sexuality, infidelity, intergenerational violence, religion and healing sexual trauma within the context of the insular Dawoodi Bohra (sub-sect of Shia Islam) community. Seven is also the first novel of its kind to address female genital cutting in the Bohra community.
Seven is “invaluable” (Booklist) and “an intimate, gutsy feminist novel” (Foreword Reviews) that bravely tackles a difficult issue, one that is too rarely considered but is close to Farzana’s heart as she actively campaigns against FGM in her own community. Twitter: @farzanadoctor
Gokul Prabhu is a graduate of Ashoka University, India, with a Postgraduate Diploma in English and creative writing. He works as an administrator and teaching assistant for the Writing and Communication facility at 9dot9 Education, and assists in academic planning for communication, writing and critical thinking courses across several higher-ed institutes in India. Prabhu’s creative and academic work fluctuates between themes of sexuality and silence, and he hopes to be a healthy mix of writer, educator and journalist in the future. He occasionally scribbles book reviews and interviews authors for Scroll.in, an award-winning Indian digital news publication.