new internationalist
issue 194 - April 1989


Heavy Shadow
Rani went into hospital to have a baby; she emerged
feeling she had been punished by God. Maria del Nevo
recalls an unhappy stay with friends in Pakistan.

I was at Rani's house when she was admitted into hospital with labour pains. It was the third time I had stayed at the house and formality had been slung aside so that I was sprawled across a bed, Rani's in-laws surrounding me, watching the gore of an American video which they had hired in my honour. On the wall above the television was a large silver plate with the typical inscription engraved across the middle: 'Allah Ho Akbar (God is great). It was a more comforting focal point than the horrors on the screen.

The room was still filled with sounds of gunfire and obscenities when Shamim walked in. She stood looking pale and tired. Someone eventually turned the television down and Shamim told us that Rani's child, a girl, was dead. Silence followed the news. Her mother-in-law was sitting cross-legged on a chair, a chadar draped carelessly around her head; she didn't stop chewing her pan. Her three daughters, all huddled together, made meaningful eye contact while their father did not take his eyes off the action on the television. Rani's husband was away working in the Middle East.

As suddenly as silence had fallen, noise returned. The mother-in-law launched into a long, expressive speech, earnestly swaying her head from side to side, waggling her finger for further emphasis and curling up her top lip to expose the pan-stained teeth. Everyone in the room listened without interrupting and I too was enthralled, though her rapid Punjabi was beyond me.

Two days passed by and we continued to sit in the room watching endless horrors on the television, not even moving to eat as Shamim always served us right where we were. Rani stayed in hospital because she couldn't stop bleeding. No-one went to visit her and although I thought this strange I didn't feel my questioning would be appreciated. Even once she was home I had no chance to offer any words of comfort because the family put her in a separate room and I was warned not to enter or even pass the door.

Several hours after Rani's return there was a knocking on the adjoining wall. The family rose from their seats, Shamim took my hand, and we all went up the stairs to the roof. There we stayed for some 20 minutes. I asked Shamim what was going on. Rani needed to go to the bathroom,' I was told, 'and she would have to pass us to get there. But she has a heavy shadow now, and the family are scared that it might pass over their faces. For if it touches them then bad luck will come their way. She cannot work as no-one could eat the food if her hands had prepared it. Nor can she wash the dishes. Rani has been punished by God - and that makes herself and her shadow unclean.'

Later, when I had thought on Shamim's words I questioned her further. 'Throughout her pregnancy Rani kept saying that she wished the child to be a boy. She said that if she had a girl then her life would be ruined. The family even suspected that she tried black magic to make this wish come true, so obsessed was she to have a boy. But the child was a girl and she was dead. That is God's punishment on her because she tried to determine the sex of her child.' I asked Shamim if she believed Rani was involved in black magic. 'No, not really. She only used to talk about the sex of her child because she is always frightened her husband won't come back to her one day. She thinks if she gives him all boys then he is tied to her and she will gain more respect from him and his family. But she wouldn't go so far as to interfere with nature.

So Rani stayed in isolation and not once did I even hear her. Whenever she had to leave that room we would all traipse up onto the roof until we were safe from her shadow. I delayed my departure for some time because I couldn't make up my mind whether to go and see her. The family's behaviour and superstitions made me angry. Rani had no comfort, no love, no husband by her side, and was led to believe that her shadow carried God's punishment. Yet I was the family's guest and I didn't wish to offend them by blatantly acting against their wishes.

When I eventually got up to leave I happened to pass Rani's open door for the first time. In the corner of my eye I saw a figure lying on a bed but I didn't stop to look. I said a fond, but rather strained, farewell to the family and walked from the house along the narrow lane to the main road. Suddenly I wanted to rush back to the house and go to the room where the figure lay and take her in my arms. But it was too late. I had stayed on the side of the majority and, anyway, Rani had already seen me pass by with my bags and heard me leave the house.

Maria del Nevo is a former NI co-operative member who has been working in Lahore for two years with the Church of Pakistan.

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New Internationalist issue 194 magazine cover This article is from the April 1989 issue of New Internationalist.
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