Now hours later, I lie awake, listening to the even breathing across the room and beside me. I can’t tell whether my cousins are fast asleep or lost inside a similar maze of interior thoughts. I allow my hand to slide down my pelvis and rest over my underwear. A cut was made there thirty-three years ago, according to Fatema. It’s odd to not remember and to know in my heart that her words are true. This story both belongs to me and does not.
My body, as though finally being given a missing puzzle piece, adjusts and repositions itself under my hand. But it is not an easy fit. My stomach, which loved our dinner, now roils. I have a terrible headache. I’ve popped three pills, and I wait in the darkness for the throbbing around my eyes to subside.
I have always loved my community, my Dawoodi Bohra community. It’s the place I can return to, the place I belong, the one identity that is sure and strong. I’ve admired my family, and in particular, the women. But tonight I hate it. Hate them. I don’t want any part of it anymore. I want to go home, get out of this awful village. I want my mother. I want my dead father. I want the Edison three-bedroom that’s long been sold. I curl onto my side, press my temples.
I’ve defended my community. Like so many others, I’ve shrugged about the corrupt men who rule over the flock. I’ve tolerated them, and like so many of us, I haven’t opposed them because they haven’t before interfered with my life directly.
But now my community feels like nothing because, while the men might have made the rules, it is the women, women I’ve loved, who’ve enforced them.
This is why I have never had an orgasm. This is why.
In the dark I think, Did my mother know and not tell me? Did my father? How can I continue to love my maasi now? Can I ever forgive her?
I spring out of bed, grab my phone, and head out to the hallway, my stomach lurching with the sudden movement. The screen’s blue light sends a shard of pain through my skull. I check the time — it’s just past 1:00 a.m. — and call Murtuza.
“Honey?” His voice is groggy. Then there is alarm. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Is Zee with you?” I lean against the wall, and then crumple to the floor.
“Since I’ve been gone, have you let her out of your sight? Did you leave her with any relatives?”
“No, we had lunch over at my aunt’s, then we saw the Gate of India. Then we came home. We’ve been mostly at home since. What’s this about?”
“Please. Please don’t leave her with anyone while I am gone. Not Tasnim Maasi. Not any of your relatives, no one. Please, it’s very important. She’s seven. Murtuza. Seven!”
Fatema opens the door to our suite, shushes me, draws me in. Zainab switches on the light and I shield my eyes against the white glare.
“I’ll explain it all later. But for now, you have to promise me. You have to protect her at all times. Do you understand?”
“Of course I will. I’m her father. But tell me, what happened? What’s wrong?”
“Oh my god. She had that sleepover with Nafeesa. On your birthday.” I shoot a look at Zainab. “Did anything happen to her?”
Zainab shakes her head emphatically from across the room.
“Shari! Talk to me! What’s going on?” Murtuza shouts through the phone.
“They did it to me, Murti. They did it to me when I was seven.” I sob, and gasp, and my thoughts muddle. Fatema takes the phone from me, and, in a low voice, explains my distress to Murtuza. I rush to the bathroom and throw up into the toilet, just in time. Zainab comes in, turns on the light.
“No, turn it off!” It goes dark again. The nausea has stopped, thankfully. I rinse my mouth at the sink and Zainab hands me a towel. She guides me back to bed and holds me close. I rest my head on her shoulder and smell the sharp tang of her sweat. She rocks me like one of her babies, smoothing my hair.
“It’s over now, it happened a long time ago. It’s over,” Zainab coos.
“It’s not. It’s not over. My life, my sex life has been ruined by this!” I wail. She tells me to breathe. Holds me tighter. I stop crying, and slowly detach from her. I notice that Fatema is sitting beside me, her hand on my back.
“How are you?” She passes my phone to me. “I told him we’d look after you, but you should call him back. He’s worried.”
I nod and she dials for me. I move to the opposite side of the room, sit on a wingback chair. My head is still sore, but not like before.
“Shari? Are you all right? Should I come there?” Murtuza asks.
“No, it’s better you stay there. I’m kind of a mess and don’t want Zee to see me like this. Also, we have things to do tomorrow.”
“You sure you still want to? Maybe you need some time to sort all this out.”
“I think so. I don’t know. I’ll probably feel better in the morning.”
“Okay, I’m here, Shari.”
“Yes, I know. Murti. Remember what I said about Zee, okay?” He assures me he will, and then we say good night.
“How’s your headache?” Fatema asks.
“Better. Sorry to wake you up like this.” I cover my face to hide my embarrassment. I fear I am being overly dramatic.
“I wasn’t sleeping, anyway.” Fatema rubs her lower back.
“Me, neither,” Zainab says. “You know, it’s odd. Maybe I’m imagining it … but … I think I remember pieces now. At least those colouring books, the smell of the crayons … my mother smiling at me and telling me how … proud she was of me to be so brave and good. She … she told me I was the best one out of the three of us, that I did the best, made the least fuss. Like it was a contest. I remember wearing a pad that was very big and my mother told me I’d hardly bled because I’d been good … I remember the ice cream after.”
Her eyes are wide, wondering, the memories a revelation.
“Because you’d been good.” Fatema get up, shakes her head. “That bitch.”
I wait for her to come back, to sit beside us again.
“Why can’t I remember?”
“Some of the women in my activist group don’t remember, either, but have been told by a relative that it happened. It’s how the trauma works, apparently. It’s mysterious. Some of us remember each and every graphic detail. Others have pieces, like Zainab. Sometimes I think it is better not to remember. Every time I think about it, it’s here,” she says, touching her forehead, “right here.”
I nod, although I can’t agree. At least she’s got something to anchor her, even if it is something awful. Me? I am floating in an ocean of uncertainty.
“Shari, I am really sorry it came out this way. I wanted to tell you months ago, but when it seemed you didn’t remember I wasn’t sure …”
“No. I’m glad you told me. It’s better to know.” I think that’s true.
Exhausted, the three of us have run out of words. We turn off the lights but I stay awake for what feels like an eternity, listening to my cousins’ light snores.
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.