"You can take one of these old pictures," she offers, "but only one, or they will notice."
"Do you want a picture of me?" I ask.
"My husband would hit me, if he saw it."
"He is my husband."
"And the presents I bring you? Do you keep them?"
"He takes most of them. He is my husband. I must. Some I keep, others I hide." she tells me, smiling.
"How long have you been married?"
"Since I was small."
"How small? How many years ago?"
"Maybe twelve years." she offers hesitatingly.
"Was it business, or a family marriage?"
"Not business," she insists, "he is my cousin."
"How old were you when you came to Lahore? To this house?"
"I was small. Maybe fourteen years before."
"How long have you done this work?"
"Maybe three years."
"How old are you Nasreen?"
"Oh, I don't know. Leave it!"
In a largely illiterate country such as Pakistan, it is common to run into people, maybe the majority, who do not know their own birth date, or even their exact age.
"I love you." I continue. "When I first met you I didn't know you were married. I wanted to marry you. I still do."
"What is this talk of marriage? Leave it!"
"But I love you. Your's isn't a proper marriage. What kind of husband can sit in one part of his house and be selling his own wife in another room?". I've never proposed to anyone's wife before, especially with them sitting in the next room, but under the circumstances why not try?
"My niyat (intension) with you in my heart is clean." I tell her. "Do you understand that?"
"Your niyat with me is clean." she repeats my words.
"I'm happy just to be with you, to see you, to try to talk. I don't care about the work you do, I care about you."
We lean back on the couch on which we are sitting. I put my arm around her slender shoulders and pull her toward me. She lays her head on my shoulder. Her hair is soft and fragrant in my nose.
"I'm unlucky." she whispers on my shoulder.
"Maybe sometimes, not all the time."
"No, I'm unlucky."
"Come with me. I'll take you out. We'll change your luck. I have enough for two."
I don't even know if I can believe myself. Sometimes I've barely had enough for myself.
"I don't like this work, Noor Mohammad. I am compelled." She looks at me sadly. "What can I do? I must."
I lift her face in my hands. Her luminous eyes are moist. I kiss her eyes, they taste of salt.
Oh, Nasreena! Do you know or guess how deeply I've dreamed you? You can't! I can't! What are you thinking? What are you feeling? What do you see when you gaze at yourself in the glass? You are you. I am me. We are what we are. It's not easy.
Is it my love for her that is causing me to want to save her? Is it just my concept of save? Can she be saved? Does she even want to be saved? Can she bend so much? Or should I accept where she is at? Should I try to change her? Can I? Who am I to try? Am I right? Do I think I am some saint? This is a staggering development. Is it just an excuse to play a new life play?
I'm not sure of anything anymore. I don't feel it's a game. All I know is Nasreena!
I want to get her to stop working, even if it means I can't have her. I want to help her get clean. Does she want to get clean? Is it just my concept, my love distorted dream? Is it for the benefit of my conscience? This does infringe on most of my past morals. But as I told her, in my heart, in my intention, I feel clean. Doesn't Islam reaffirm that intention is more important than the actual action?
Let Allah be the judge of true intentions.
It is difficult to change the patterns of our life. Even for me, brought up in a free society, at times it has been so difficult. And it hasn't been anything I have consciously tried to do, just natural progressions. But change is necessary for growth. And growth is necessary, isn't it?
Is it possible for her to conceive of such a thing? Maybe love is clouding my reason? Who am I to change her? Am I just another client? She is playing along with me. Can I judge what is right anymore? What is wrong? Who am I not to try to save her, though?
At times I despise this husband for the way he uses her and treats her. It kills me to see her act like it is all so perfectly normal and that is just the way it is. Is that my western side reacting? I want to plow into change and advance. At least take the chance. Maybe I haven't become as Asian as I think? She is so complacent as to where Allah has put her. It is something inherent in Islam. From earliest imprints Muslims learn to accept their fate. God knows better.
My Western upbringing played with me in another way. I'm not so complacent. Who is right? Is there a right? I just drive along as fast as I can go, my foot to the gas pedal. Insh'Allah, I can handle the curves. Can I find a break pedal?
I do see something soft in her when we are alone. Is it professional coyness? No, I think it is real. My love is real, isn't it? I feel something for her that is more than just external. Outside her movements flow and she is so sleek, like a fox. Smooth, easy, even slick. Yet she still maintains that certain demureness that makes all Pakistani women so feminine.
Yet, I still have so many unanswered questions. Do other men love her? Does she love another man? And what is it with this husband? Is he really her husband? Do other clients treat her so intimately, so kindly, so loving? Do they bring her presents? What do they tell her? Has she heard it all before? Does she have any special feeling for me, or does she think I am just some crazy?
Maybe I can win her if I am persistent. What would I do if I got her, anyway? What am I doing? I am hypnotized, in her spell. I feel so much for her. I love her spirit. I see something so pure in her, yet such a renegade. I love the renegade spirit in her, yet with it runs a corruptness that pains my heart and soul.
Do I want this because it is so different from anything I have ever been involved in before, or just because it is so damn impossible? That I do not know. Now it is irrelevant. A risky ridiculous rental romance. Impossible?
Most people would say so. My logic says so. But my heart is finding it difficult to hear the word impossible. I think of persistence. Persistence can push a blade of grass though a stone in the desert. Enough drops of water make a hole in a rock. The Grand Canyon? How many drops can I spare?
One morning I arrive at her house at 9 A.M. Nargus, the girl who had been with my English friend on my first visit, lets me in. I don't see Nasreen. Then I notice the back room door is closed. Can she be working this early? Why not? It is business hours. God, it can hurt, though I did know from the start that this is the way it was.
In a couple of minutes she comes out and crosses the yard to the bathroom, to wash. I know the trip too damn well. The john comes out and leave while she is still in the bathroom. He could be the man who sat next to me on the Flying Coach down from Peshawar, or someone from the tea house earlier this morning. An ordinary anybody. At least he isn't hanging out at the house like me. An ordinary in and out customer.
Finally she comes out of the bathroom and over to me, shyly smiling. She gives me hand to shake. My heart feels cold and closed. She seems embarrassed that I arrived while she was working. I can't believe how easily she melts my heart, how fast I open to her. Just to simply see her, just by a touch. All other impressions are swept away. My anger, jealousy and frustration disappear in my love, and in the heat of her smile. What right do I have to be jealous?
Later I'm sitting on a charpoy with Saira, a new girl. She's young and pretty, and wearing a very stylish Punjabi-cut turquoise satin shalwar kameez. A filmy transparent white dupatta is draped over her shoulders. She's very friendly toward me. We sit and share a cigarette and some juicy sweet gandari. I see Nasreen work twice in one hour.
I watch my watch. The five minutes it takes for her to get it over with seems an eternity. I look at Saira. She warmly smiles at me as she licks the sweet sugar cane juice from her fingers with her pink tongue. I consider. I want to pull some reaction from Nasreen. Maybe if I choose to be with Saira this time, it will draw some reaction from her? My body could, but my heart isn't cold enough for this method of attack.
It is her work. It isn't against me. It's against herself. How could I be so cold and uncaring as to punish her for it? I did know about it from the start, yet that didn't stop me from falling so deeply into her. But knowing that it is just work doesn't make it any less painful. This relationship is hard, but do I have any choice anymore? She's compelled to work, it's her caste. I am compelled to love her, it is my qismet. I can't forget her, can't get rid of her. Don't know how I would replace her?
Saira looks in my eyes and softly sings a snippet of an Urdu song to me. Her golden nose ring and earrings glitter and jangle in the warm sunlight. Her eyes are very dark with surma. Nasreen comes over occasionally, giving Saira the eye when she flirts too heavily with me. Is she jealous? I can only hope. She can't sit with me now, like Saira. Saira is just sitting, waiting for a customer. Nasreen has work to do around the house. Cleaning, washing, cooking, sweeping, negotiating. Basically she runs the establishment.
Nargus comes out of the back room and crosses the courtyard to the bathroom to wash. Saira hands me the fresh cigarette she has just lit,
"I'll be right back." she smiles.
She goes into the back room with a john, closing the curtain, and the door. She comes out in a few minutes and goes to the bathroom to wash. The john comes out of the back room and he leaves with his friend. Saira comes back to me and sits on the edge of the charpoy. I hand her back the cigarette, which I have been smoking, a few last puffs remaining.
"Fast work." I laugh. "Fast, fast, finish . . . Khuda hafez.
She smiles and picks a fleck of lint off my shirt.
"Where are they?" she asks Nargus.
"Fast, fast . . . Khuda hafez." I repeat. They laugh.
Nargus tells Saira how I keep coming, but only for Nasreen.
"That is the decent way." Saira says. "One man, one woman. This is right."
I give a sad laugh, knowing the one-sidedness of that for me. Saira leans close to me and whispers, her breath moist and warm in my ear,
"I was with my own boyfriend last night. We were watching Indian video's on the television. We didn't sleep all night." she shows me a hickey on her neck.
"Yeah, I noticed it." I say. We laugh.
A dola comes into the yard. The regular shifty junky type.
"Who brought you?" he questions me. "Which dola? Give me some money!"
"I don't need a dola. I'm my own personal dola." I tell him. "You give me some money!"
The girls chuckle.
At her house I spend much time sitting on the charpoy on the veranda, between the back rooms and the garden courtyard. It is very interesting to watch this unusual bordello go through it's daily routines. Also, I get to see Nasreen. Painfully, it is sometimes to see her work. At least they're quick ones. But they are always an eternity to me. At times it doesn't seem strange this is my girlfriend's house and her work. That I can sit here, while she's in the back room with some other man, and talk with her husband.
People here don't distinguish much between her profession and the entertainment field. Musicians, actors, dancing girls, and prostitutes are all dumaan. A low caste - the performing arts. Not exactly looked up to in Islam, though a necessary part of life. I suppose I've just fallen into caste - a rabab player and a prostitute/madam.
The joy of watching her brush out her pretty, luxurious brown hair. I'm stealing her in every glance with my eyes. Talking and hanging out with the working girls at her house, waiting for their tricks. Playing with the children. Occasionally talking with a john, a pimp, her husband, other family members. It has taken some time to become accepted as more than just a customer (am I?), though I have forced myself on them. I refuse to be treated as just another customer. I refuse not to be friendly with everyone in the house. Just as I refuse not to love her.
Saira and I are talking in the back room. Four johns enter. Nasreen comes in the room to run the show, followed by three other girls. Her hair is out, down and wavy. Her smile enticing, inviting.
"I'll take you." I joke with her.
"Please sit outside and wait, Noor Mohammada." she tells me.
She takes my cigarette from me as I pass. I brush her satin covered hip with my hand. I sit on the charpoy by the door. I mentally check off the girls as they come out of the room. Only two remaining. Then Nasreen comes out. It is still a relief to see the curtain close with her on this side. I do know both sides of it.
One girl goes out, followed by her john to the front room. The other girl is doing her work in the back room. These are the only two rooms used for business. The other girls and the next two johns sit on the veranda with me. Their friends finish quickly, as usual, and they all leave. The other two were only waiting. It all feels so normal. What am I doing here? Maybe I should try something easy, like climbing K2? It seems so foolish, so impossible. But, then, lovers aren't known for their sanity.
What can I say to her husband?
"Do you love her?"
What kind of western question is that?
"Will you sell her?" Ah, now that's more Eastern.
Will he sell her? As a friend in Peshawar pointed out, for him she is a money making machine.
I hate seeing her there. I want to take her out. Is she ready? Does she want it?
Am I ready? And then, when you pick a beautiful sweet rose and remove it from the bed of thorns it grew in, even if you put it in the most fantastic of vases, give it the purest of waters, doesn't it eventually wither and die? Is that where we're at? I can't believe she enjoys her thorns. But is it a question of her enjoying or not? Is this just what I believe?
I don't know what I believe anymore.
I don't know what she believes.
Are birds ever free of the chains of the skyways?
Later I'm in the back room again. Nargus is sleeping on the couch. Saira is on the charpoy just outside the door, curled up and asleep under a diaphanous black dupatta. Her golden bangles, double tiered earrings, and diamond nose stud are shining through in the golden warm afternoon sunlight. Another girl is asleep in the room with us, on a charpoy, a baby suckling at her breast. I'm sitting on the bed with Nasreen. She has just washed her hair and it is still slightly damp, dark, and wavy. She's wearing cream-colored shalwar kameez with a thin gold stripe glistening through the weave. The room is warm and sultry, though the looseness of my shalwar kameez permits me to stay fairly comfortable.
Comfortable? Here I am sitting with my prostitute girlfriend in a room full of whores. Whores? They're just people and my friends. This is just their profession. Their lot in life. Sometimes life can be so strange. This feels so peaceful and comfortable, so normal.
"Noor Mohammad, can I have one hundred rupees?" Nasreen asks me.
"Is it for you, or your husband?" I ask, a little too loudly.
"Shhh!" she puts her slender finger to her lips, frowning. "No. I need."
I take out my wallet and give her a hundred rupees. Then I notice how little money is remaining in my wallet.
"Ummm. I'm not sure I have enough to get back to Peshawar, now." I tell her.
"No problem." she says, and hands me back my hundred rupees.
"Will this help?" I hand her a fifty-rupee note.
"Thank you." she says as she slips it into her bra.
"Nasreen," I say. She looks at me. "do other people come as often as I do?"
"I'm glad." I sigh. She smiles at me.
"What if I stop coming?"
"Why do you talk like this? Have you found another girl you like?"
"No. But this is so very difficult for me. I love you too much. It is not the right way for me. For you. And besides, you don't love me anyway."
"I don't?" she asks and seductively smiles.
"Would you care if I didn't come back again?"
"Yes. I would be sad. You are my friend. I like you."
"Like and love are different."
"Love? What is love? How can somebody like me know what love is? How can you love somebody like me?
"I don't know. I keep asking myself that same question. I just do. You say you like me? Why?"
"I don't know, I just do."
"Why? Do you like my business?"
"Don't talk like that. Leave that talk. People come here, they pay. Then they go. Sometimes we give them tea, or water. Noor Mohammad, you stay all day. I give you lunch every time because I like you. You have to pay my husband. He is my husband. It is our family business. I am sorry for that. I am compelled. But I like you."
"I love you, my sweet friend."
I hold her soft delicate hands. She softly hums a Pashtu melody to me. I kiss her hands. We fall back on the bed and hold each other tightly. I stroke her moist hair. She fumbles with her bra, taking out a pack of Gold Leaf cigarettes. We laugh together.
"What else do you have hidden in there?" I laugh, playfully grabbing at her breast.
"Stop it, Noor Mohammada! We are not alone. They might wake up and see."
"So what?" I say as I light her cigarette for her.
"We are still in Pakistan. This isn't Amerika."
I take her hand and kiss it again, my lips lingering on her long slender fingertips.
"Oh, Nasreena," I sigh, "I love you so much. I am going crazy for you!"
"Leave it, my friend. We can only be together this way."
"But I can't leave it. I want you so bad."
"You have me - now."
"I want you always."
"That cannot be. We must accept how God wants it."
"I cannot." I say, frustrated. "We can change it."
"No. We must accept."
I hold her closer, my lips lightly brushing her soft face.
Why can't I be so complacent and accept fate, as her?
Why do I want her so?
How did I become so consumed?