A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 14)
Babi pedaled up the street, Laila on the back, her arms wrapped around his belly. As they passed the blue Benz, Laila caught a fleeting glimpse of the man in the backseat: thin, white-haired, dressed in a dark brown suit, with a white handkerchief triangle in the breast pocket. The only other thing she had time to notice was that the car had Herat license plates.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, except at the turns, where Babi braked cautiously and said, "Hold on, Laila. Slowing down. Slowing down. There."
IN CLASS THAT DAY, Laila found it hard to pay attention, between Tariq’s absence and her parents’ fight. So when the teacher called on her to name the capitals of Romania and Cuba, Laila was caught off guard.
The teacher’s name was Shanzai, but, behind her back, the students called her Khala Rangmaal, Auntie Painter, referring to the motion she favored when she slapped students – palm, then back of the hand, back and forth, like a painter working a brush. Khala Rangmaal was a sharp-faced young woman with heavy eyebrows. On the first day of school, she had proudly told the class that she was the daughter of a poor peasant from Khost. She stood straight, and wore her jet-black hair pulled tightly back and tied in a bun so that, when Khala Rangmaal turned around, Laila could see the dark bristles on her neck. Khala Rangmaal did not wear makeup or jewelry. She did not cover and forbade the female students from doing it. She said women and men were equal in every way and there was no reason women should cover if men didn’t.
She said that the Soviet Union was the best nation in the world, along with Afghanistan. It was kind to its workers, and its people were all equal. Everyone in the Soviet Union was happy and friendly, unlike America, where crime made people afraid to leave their homes. And everyone in Afghanistan would be happy too, she said, once the antiprogressives, the backward bandits, were defeated.
"That’s why our Soviet comrades came here in 1979. To lend their neighbor a hand. To help us defeat these brutes who want our country to be a backward, primitive nation. And you must lend your own hand, children. You must report anyone who might know about these rebels. It’s your duty. You must listen, then report. Even if it’s your parents, your uncles or aunts. Because none of them loves you as much as your country does. Your country comes first, remember! I will be proud of you, and so will your country."
On the wall behind Khala Rangmaal’s desk was a map of the Soviet Union, a map of Afghanistan, and a framed photo of the latest communist president, Najibullah, who, Babi said, had once been the head of the dreaded KHAD, the Afghan secret police. There were other photos too, mainly of young Soviet soldiers shaking hands with peasants, planting apple saplings, building homes, always smiling genially.
"Well," Khala Rangmaal said now, "have I disturbed your daydreaming, Inqilabi Girl?"
This was her nickname for Laila, Revolutionary Girl, because she’d been born the night of the April coup of 1978 – except Khala Rangmaal became angry if anyone in her class used the word coup. What had happened, she insisted, was an inqilab, a revolution, an uprising of the working people against inequality. Jihad was another forbidden word. According to her, there wasn’t even a war out there in the provinces, just skirmishes against troublemakers stirred by people she called foreign provocateurs. And certainly no one, no one, dared repeat in her presence the rising rumors that, after eight years of fighting, the Soviets were losing this war. Particularly now that the American president, Reagan, had started shipping the Mujahideen Stinger Missiles to down the Soviet helicopters, now that Muslims from all over the world were joining the cause: Egyptians, Pakistanis, even wealthy Saudis, who left their millions behind and came to Afghanistan to fight the jihad.
"Bucharest. Havana," Laila managed.
"And are those countries our friends or not?"
"They are, moalim sahib. They are friendly countries."
Khala Rangmaal gave a curt nod.
WHEN SCHOOL LET OUT, Mammy again didn’t show up like she was supposed to. Laila ended up walking home with two of her classmates, Giti and Hasina.
Giti was a tightly wound, bony little girl who wore her hair in twin ponytails held by elastic bands. She was always scowling, and walking with her books pressed to her chest, like a shield. Hasina was twelve, three years older than Laila and Giti, but had failed third grade once and fourth grade twice. What she lacked in smarts Hasina made up for in mischief and a mouth that, Giti said, ran like a sewing machine. It was Hasina who had come up with the Khala Rangmaal nickname.
Today, Hasina was dispensing advice on how to fend off unattractive suitors. "Foolproof method, guaranteed to work. I give you my word."
"This is stupid. I’m too young to have a suitor!"
"You’re not too young."
"Well, no one’s come to ask for my hand."
"That’s because you have a beard, my dear."
Giti’s hand shot up to her chin, and she looked with alarm to Laila, who smiled pityingly – Giti was the most humorless person Laila had ever met – and shook her head with reassurance.
"Anyway, you want to know what to do or not, ladies?"
"Go ahead," Laila said.
"Beans. No less than four cans. On the evening the toothless lizard comes to ask for your hand. But the timing, ladies, the timing is everything. You have to suppress the fireworks ’til it’s time to serve him his tea."
"I’ll remember that," Laila said.
"So will he."
Laila could have said then that she didn’t need this advice because Babi had no intention of giving her away anytime soon. Though Babi worked at Silo, Kabul’s gigantic bread factory, where he labored amid the heat and the humming machinery stoking the massive ovens and mill grains all day, he was a university-educated man. He’d been a high school teacher before the communists fired him – this was shortly after the coup of 1978, about a year and a half before the Soviets had invaded. Babi had made it clear to Laila from a young age that the most important thing in his life, after her safety, was her schooling.
I know you’re still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now, he said. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.
But Laila didn’t tell Hasina that Babi had said these things, or how glad she was to have a father like him, or how proud she was of his regard for her, or how determined she was to pursue her education just as he had his. For the last two years, Laila had received the awal numra certificate, given yearly to the top-ranked student in each grade. She said nothing of these things to Hasina, though, whose own father was an ill-tempered taxi driver who in two or three years would almost certainly give her away. Hasina had told Laila, in one of her infrequent serious moments, that it had already been decided that she would marry a first cousin who was twenty years older than her and owned an auto shop in Lahore. I’ve seen him twice, Hasina had said. Both times he ate with his mouth open.
"Beans, girls," Hasina said. "You remember that. Unless, of course" – here she flashed an impish grin and nudged Laila with an elbow – "it’s your young handsome, one legged prince who comes knocking. Then . . ."
Laila slapped the elbow away. She would have taken offense if anyone else had said that about Tariq. But she knew that Hasina wasn’t malicious. She mocked – it was what she did – and her mocking spared no one, least of all herself.
"You shouldn’t talk that way about people!" Giti said.
"What people is that?"
"People who’ve been injured because of war," Giti said earnestly, oblivious to Hasina’s toying.
"I think Mullah Giti here has a crush on Tariq. I knew it! Ha! But he’s already spoken for, don’t you know? Isn’t he, Laila?"
"I do not have a crush. On anyone!"
They broke off from Laila, and, still arguing this way, turned in to their street.
Laila walked alone the last three blocks. When she was on her street, she noticed that the blue Benz was still parked there, outside Rasheed and Mariam’s house. The elderly man in the brown suit was standing by the hood now, leaning on a cane, looking up at the house.
That was when a voice behind Laila said, "Hey. Yellow Hair. Look here."
Laila turned around and was greeted by the barrel of a gun.
The gun was red, the trigger guard bright green. Behind the gun loomed Khadim’s grinning face. Khadim was eleven, like Tariq. He was thick, tall, and had a severe underbite. His father was a butcher in Deh-Mazang, and, from time to time, Khadim was known to fling bits of calf intestine at passersby. Sometimes, if Tariq wasn’t nearby, Khadim shadowed Laila in the schoolyard at recess, leering, making little whining noises. One time, he’d tapped her on the shoulder and said, You’re so very pretty, Yellow Hair. I want to marry you.
Now he waved the gun. "Don’t worry," he said. "This won’t show. Not on your hair."
"Don’t you do it! I’m warning you."
"What are you going to do?" he said. "Sic your cripple on me? ‘Oh, Tariq jan. Oh, won’t you come home and save me from the badmash!’ "
Laila began to backpedal, but Khadim was already pumping the trigger. One after another, thin jets of warm water struck Laila’s hair, then her palm when she raised it to shield her face.
Now the other boys came out of their hiding, laughing, cackling.
An insult Laila had heard on the street rose to her lips.
She didn’t really understand it – couldn’t quite picture the logistics of it – but the words packed a fierce potency, and she unleashed them now.
"Your mother eats c**k!"
"At least she’s not a loony like yours," Khadim shot back, unruffled. "At least my father’s not a sissy! And, by the way, why don’t you smell your hands?"
The other boys took up the chant. "Smell your hands! Smell your hands!"
Laila did, but she knew even before she did, what he’d meant about it not showing in her hair. She let out a high-pitched yelp. At this, the boys hooted even harder.
Laila turned around and, howling, ran home.
SHE DREW WATER from the well, and, in the bathroom, filled a basin, tore off her clothes. She soaped her hair, frantically digging fingers into her scalp, whimpering with disgust. She rinsed with a bowl and soaped her hair again. Several times, she thought she might throw up. She kept mewling and shivering, as she rubbed and rubbed the soapy washcloth against her face and neck until they reddened.
This would have never happened if Tariq had been with her, she thought as she put on a clean shirt and fresh trousers. Khadim wouldn’t have dared. Of course, it wouldn’t have happened if Mammy had shown up like she was supposed to either. Sometimes Laila wondered why Mammy had even bothered having her. People, she believed now, shouldn’t be allowed to have new children if they’d already given away all their love to their old ones. It wasn’t fair. A fit of anger claimed her. Laila went to her room, collapsed on her bed.
When the worst of it had passed, she went across the hallway to Mammy’s door and knocked. When she was younger, Laila used to sit for hours outside this door. She would tap on it and whisper Mammy’s name over and over, like a magic chant meant to break a spell: Mammy, Mammy, Mammy, Mammy . . . But Mammy never opened the door. She didn’t open it now. Laila turned the knob and walked in.