By Abda Khan

A fast-paced literary thriller that exposes Britain’s darkest secret

By the time Razia reached home, she had very much forgotten about all the negative thoughts that had charged through her mind not long ago, and she smiled quietly to herself as she remembered Ahmed's soft touch and hypnotic voice. In a few days, a week at the most, she thought to herself, Ahmed's family would come over and seek the betrothal. Hopefully, her father would be agreeable, and even if her brother wasn’t keen, her father would have the final decision, and she was quietly confident that he would say yes. Then the sneaking around would all be over. She would marry the love of her life, and she would be in bliss. She was sure that she would be the happiest girl alive, for so very few women in these parts ever managed to marry for love. Mostly the girls in her village were given away in matrimony as part of arranged or forced marriages. Their opinion was never considered to be worthy or even relevant enough to be sought, let alone their consent ever obtained; they were simply told who they were to be married to, and when. It was all a matter of quiet acceptance to whatever fate had in store for them, for every single aspect of their lives was mapped out by the men; firstly, by their fathers and brothers, and then after their marriage, by their husbands and their fathers. Razia was grateful that the family that would be coming to seek her betrothal would be the family of the man that she loved fervently.

When Razia stepped into the courtyard, her mother, Nusrat, was sat on the peeri by the stove. When she wasn't at the brick kiln, her mother would usually be found here, sat on the near ground level handmade stool, preparing the food. However, today, she did not appear to be cooking. In fact, she had her face down in her chaddar. Her whole body was floppily drooped forwards. Her shoulders moved up and down rhythmically, and she looked as though she was crying, although if she was, she did so silently. Her asthmatic wheeze was the only audible sound, like a soft intermittent whistle.

As Razia walked closer, her mother sat up, and uncovered her face. She looked at Razia. Her eyes were puffy and tender-looking; something was terribly wrong, thought Razia. At first Razia thought it was because her mother wasn’t feeling well. But as she looked more concertedly into her mother’s eyes, she realised that the state that she had found her mother in wasn’t anything to do with her asthma. It was something else. Something awful. And then her mother began wailing; quietly, melodically. She was wailing, but in hushed tones, and the words were indistinct. It sounded as though she were singing the saddest lullaby in the world. Razia’s initial reaction was that someone had died. She rushed over to console her mother, but stopped dead in her tracks before she quite got there. It was as though a gargantuan thunderbolt had hit her straight out of a sunny, blue sky, and impaled her to the ground in that one spot. For just then, right at that second, Razia knew. She just knew. No one had died. But someone may as well have died. It would all amount to the same thing.

Amee, what’s wrong? What’s happened?’ Razia asked feebly, with trepidation oozing out of each word.

Razia’s mum looked straight at her daughter. She was silent; the wailing had now gone. The tears gushed down her hot cheeks; pain ridden, futile tears, that could save no one and nothing. Nusrat’s agonisingly wrinkled face depicted a lifetime of hardship. Each deep line in this honourable woman’s face was a testament to injustice and strife; the loss of three children in their infancy, the endurance of four miscarriages, the never-ending servitude towards her husband, and the toil of the brick kiln – each, and every one of these adversities was embedded into the grooves in her face, like permanent reminders that could not be etched away. For her, life had been so brutally hard. She knew it would always be hard. And she also knew that life would be equally hard for her daughter too. But the pain that lay in her face at this moment in time foretold the sorrow of a woeful story yet to come. For she realised that Razia’s life was about the become so much more difficult than Razia herself could ever know.

Amee! Speak to me!’ Razia implored her.

‘What is there to say? I have no words. Or at least, I do not have any words that will be of comfort to you now. I am powerless, my child. Powerless.’

The gate swung open, and before she could even twist around to see who it was, Razia was hit fiercely from behind. The sudden shock of the unexpected and powerful strike to the back of her head sent her spinning off her feet, and then she collapsed into a heap on to the dusty floor. She cradled the back of her head with one hand, as she squinted and doubled over with pain, and then looked up and saw that her brother, Javed, was towering above her. Her father, Karim, was stood a couple of feet behind him.

‘What’s the matter? What have I done? Why are you hitting me?’ Razia asked, now sobbing profusely.

‘What have you done?’ Javed howled. ‘Did you think I wouldn’t find out! Do you think I am so foolish that I wouldn’t figure it out?’

Razia felt an intense sense of panic ebb through her, causing her to feel dizzy with fear.

‘What do you mean?’ she asked, in vain.

‘I saw you, with that Ahmed boy!’ barked Javed. ‘How could you do this to us? How could you play with our izzat in this way, and in broad daylight! Do you have no regard for this family’s honour? We may be poor, and we may not have much, but the one thing we do have is our honour. I thought you knew better than this, but it turns out I was wrong. This is something you are going to have to learn. I’m going to teach you a lesson you will never forget!’

Javed pulled Razia by the arm. She screamed and cried out for her mother and father to help her, but neither of them stepped forward. Javed dragged her along the ground. Her clothes sucked up the dust from the ground as he pulled her into the smaller room, and once they were both in there, Javed locked the door on the inside.

Karim went and sat on the manji in the middle of the yard. The wood framed, hand woven bed had sat in the yard for years now; it was frayed around the edges, but still perfectly suitable for its general all-purpose sitting and sleeping requirements.

Razia’s screams escaped from the small room of torture, and hurt Nusrat’s ears. She placed her hands over her ears and closed her eyes, unable to listen to her daughter, for she could hear Razia begging her brother to stop, begging him for mercy.

‘Please, that is enough. Go in there and tell him to stop!’ Nusrat pleaded with her husband, as her tears escaped from her eyes in a wild gush. But Karim was unmoved by her pleas, and stared into space in front of him.

‘This is the way it has to be,’ Karim finally said. ‘This is the way it has always been. You know that. She cannot do what she has done, and then there be no consequences. He has been suspicious for some time about the two of them. I am ashamed that it turned out to be true. She was having a relationship with a man out of wedlock. How could she do this to us? Thank God Javed caught the problem in time. Imagine if someone else had seen them. I wouldn’t have been able to show my face for miles around. And Javed would most likely have killed her. Be grateful that it is just a beating. I’m sure after today she will not mess around with that boy again.’

Javed finally appeared from the room, after what had seemed like an eternity to Nusrat, and turned and locked the door from the outside, thus ensuring Razia’s incarceration until he decided how she would best further be dealt with.

‘Stop crying Amee,’ he said angrily, as he bent to sit on the manji next to his father, flipping the back of his light brown kurtha upwards behind him before he sat down. ‘She had it coming to her. To be honest with you, I’ve let her off lightly. I could easily have broken every bone in her body for what she’s done, but I didn’t. Forget that, families have killed their girls for much less.’

Karim and Nusrat both looked at him with differing expressions. In the end, Nusrat was somewhat relieved. Her daughter would be sore, and upset and miserable, but at least she was still alive. She knew full well it could have been much worse. She could console herself knowing that at least.

‘But the question is, how do we make sure this doesn’t happen again?’ asked Karim. He crossed his thin, dark fingers, rolled his thumbs around, and placed his crossed hands in his lap. ‘I mean, we are at the brick kiln all day. Either she stays with us there all day, in which case she is likely to bump into that boy, or someone stays at home with her, but then we won’t make our target of bricks, and the debt will spiral out of control This girl has put us in an impossible position.’

Karim’s thin frame slouched over, as he stared at the ground, and thought hard about what they should do for the best.

Javed gently placed his left hand on his father’s right shoulder. Karim turned to look at him.

‘Don’t worry father, I’ve sorted it.’ Javed assured Karim. Nusrat remained silent throughout the whole exchange between father and son; she listened to the conversation lightly with one ear, but her mind was more on trying to listen out for any sounds that may come from her daughter. But the small room was eerily silent, and Nusrat started to worry.

‘I don’t understand. How?’ Karim asked Javed.

‘I was speaking to Munshi when he came around the other day to sort the books. He said that Choudhry Sahib’s brother, Zaheer Sahib, has been posted to work in London, and they are looking to take a maid with them from Pakistan. They want to take someone who can work hard with household chores, cook all the desi food, and generally look after the needs of Madam. I suggested Razia, and he said that he would mention it to Choudhry. Anyway, he came back to me this morning and said that if we are agreeable then they will take Razia with them. She will live and stay with them at all times; they will provide her with sleeping arrangements, food and other necessities. He said they won’t pay her directly, but instead they will take whatever she would have earned and put it towards the debt we owe. It seems like the best solution to me.’

‘Best solution for who?’ piped up Nusrat. ‘What about me? What about the fact that I will miss her? She is my daughter, and you are thinking of sending her away to some foreign land, thousands of miles away. When will I see her again?’

Nusrat wiped her tears from her face with the corner of her pale green chaddar.

Amee! I can’t believe you are talking like this. Look at what she has done! She has left us with no choice! That boy is betrothed to marry his cousin, and she is having a secret relationship with him. If she stays here and carries on in the same way with him, our izzat will be in tatters for sure, and I am not going to stand around and let that happen!’ retorted Javed.

‘He is right, Nusrat. Let it be. It has been decided,’ added Karim.

Nusrat didn’t say another word. She just swallowed her tears in silence.

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