Pawning Dowry

31 May

My name is Ashish but I do not tell them that. It sounds too much like the thing you smoke, and so I call myself Ash. I am a Pakistani, but I do not tell them that either. They mostly think I am Indian. I am brown. So that is what they think. When they ask if I am from India, I nod and smile. It is not a good thing right now to tell white people that you are from Pakistan. And they cannot distinguish between a Paki or a West Bengali English accent, so when they ask, I begin to tell them the fictitious story of my life as an orphan, spent in Calcutta in the care of an uncle who repaired shoes in a little kiosk by the Ganges River Delta. I usually lose them by this point. White people here are not really interested in anything that does not directly affect or involve them. Somehow, though, they care more about Indians than they do about Pakistanis. So I lie.

My real country, Pakistan, means “Land of the Pure” in Urdu, Sindhi, and Persian. It is the sixth most populous country in the world. I am a Muslim. It is not good to be a Muslim right now, if you live among white, Christian people. People here like Hindus. Buddhists, too. So I lie. I went to Quad-i-Azam University in Islamabad and studied biological sciences with Doctor Samina Jalali. My father was a Pashtun and my mother was a Punjabi. Did you know we have glaciers? K2 and Nanga Parbat are in my country. These are mountains over 26,000 feet high. We have deserts, too. The Thar Desert is in the east, and the Tharparkar in the southern province of Sindh is the only fertile desert in the world.

I came to the United States in 2004 on a student visa. I obtained a SAIS Fellowship in Biology to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I came with my wife, Saira, and we lived for one year in Greenbelt, Maryland. During that time, Saira worked as a teacher’s assistant at a daycare center in one of the worst areas in the United States. We had one car, which I took to school, and Saira was left to walk two miles each way to work. She was robbed at gunpoint three times during that year. The third time, it was by a gang of young children in middle school. They beat her with the handle of the gun, and she became permanently deaf in her left ear. After that she begged me to pack and go home, but I had two more years left on the Fellowship and I refused to leave. We had many fights and each time she would turn her head to the side to hear better, and my heart hurt to see her do that, but still I refused to leave. I was a stubborn man. I took a job at nights as an orderly at Doctors’ Hospital, not very far from our apartment. With the extra money we were able to buy a small car for Saira to take to work. It was a 1972 orange Toyota Corolla. It had holes in the floor, from the rust, and Saira joked that it looked like a Fred Flintstone car. It was a standard transmission. I taught Saira how to drive it in one Saturday. She was a fast learner, and by mid-afternoon we were going down Cipriano Road at sixty-five miles per hour, Saira driving and screaming and laughing. We had rolled down the windows and her long hair was being whipped around her face and I called her Medusa. She joked that I was beginning to talk like the Americans. But I told her she was wrong, and that not many Americans know that Medusa is Greek Mythology. Not many Americans know that there were three of them, the Gorgon sisters. And Saira drove like a madwoman the little orange Flintstones car with holes in the floor, and screamed and laughed that she could now drive standard, like a man. Just then, I loved her with her hair like that. More than ever. She was happy. It was the only time I saw her happy here.

In the summer I had a premonition driving on my way to University. I was waiting at a red light on North Charles Street and everything stopped. People and cars and even the clouds stopped from moving. Then, a young, brown woman in a maroon silk Lehnga crossed in front of me. She turned and looked into my eyes through the glass, and transformed herself into a dove from the Panchatantra. Before she could fly away, a bullet ripped through her white chest and tore apart everything. All insides were on the outside suddenly, in an explosion of flesh and bone and feathers.

Saira was killed in a car accident that day. A man from Clinton, Maryland drove a big truck through a red light at an intersection in New Carrollton and hit the Flintstones car on the driver’s side. The man lived. He was not even hurt. Saira was coming back from work. The police said when they pulled her out, there was an indentation of the Toyota insignia from the steering wheel, into her side, where the ribs were broken.

I did not finish my studies at Johns Hopkins. In the following months I took Saira’s dowry, piece by piece, to a pawnshop on Riverdale Road not far from the apartment in which I now live, to pay the rent and buy food. I work during the day now at a dry cleaner owned by an Indian family. I work at the front counter with the sixteen-year-old son called Mehu who smokes many cigarettes in the back, and chews gum. He is a mute. On Friday and Saturday nights I work as a busboy at a restaurant called The Silver Quill in Hyattsville, Maryland. It is a bad restaurant.

I have never wanted to go back to Pakistan despite everything that has happened, and despite the fact that it is my home country.

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17 Responses to “Pawning Dowry”

  1. Anonymous 31/05/2007 at 10:09 AM #

    I like this. Pretty quintessential immigrant story. It’s too short, though. Something tells me you have more plans for this. I want to know a lot more about these two and it seems like there could be another 20 pages in between what happened, or afterwards. Also I noticed that you don’t use one single contraction in the entire piece.
    J

  2. Anonymous 31/05/2007 at 11:42 AM #

    this was so touching..u made me cry Alex.. Graci tanto 202

  3. slyboots2 31/05/2007 at 2:44 PM #

    Well done, old sport!

  4. Lx 31/05/2007 at 3:21 PM #

    J: of course you would notice THAT, you…English major!

    202, none of that allowed here.

    Sly, trying hard.

  5. Anonymous 31/05/2007 at 3:36 PM #

    The beginning of this story reminds me of The Life of Pi. Your a very good writer.

  6. adjunct whore 31/05/2007 at 4:52 PM #

    i think it is the perfect length, a perfect sudden fiction. unlike the quintessential immigrant experience, the beautiful woman who experienced happiness once through her sudden autonomy dies. (usually they suffer long lives) i like very much the complete absence of sentimentalism. very moving.

  7. adjunct whore 31/05/2007 at 4:53 PM #

    i forgot to compliment you on your poetic title–lovely.

  8. Lx 31/05/2007 at 4:57 PM #

    Thanks Adjunct Whore (somehow, i feel like i’ve always wanted to say that).

    Always hard to keep oneself in check about things one doesn’t want included.

    Sudden fiction. It’s one of my favourite genres. This one probably qualifies, at 1,032 words or so. There is another form of shorter, I think they’re called blasters. 500 words or less. Love that too.

  9. Rachel 01/06/2007 at 6:02 AM #

    Now that J points that out, I think that the lack of contractions gives this piece the subtle sense that the narrator’s use of English requires effort. It gives it authenticity [even on my days off I’m focused on contractions].

    Again you manage to bring something fresh and compelling to your readers.

  10. Kunstemæcker 01/06/2007 at 9:12 AM #

    Bloody Pakis always lie!

    Good story. I enjoyed reading it.

  11. Lx 01/06/2007 at 3:19 PM #

    Rachel, right.
    contractions suck.
    from what i’ve seen.
    (i’ve)

    K-man, defense mechanism.

  12. Janete 02/06/2007 at 2:27 PM #

    A lot has been said…So I will add a few more words…

    It is great, poignant and brilliant writing.

  13. Lx 02/06/2007 at 7:17 PM #

    thank you, Janete

  14. adjunct whore 03/06/2007 at 2:08 AM #

    ok now, i’m patiently waiting for another story…you wrote one, then took it down before i had time to read. just wanted you to know there is a reader waiting.

  15. Lx 03/06/2007 at 8:46 AM #

    adjunct, yea that happens here a lot. stuff appears, then gets taken down. thanks for reading.
    or, rather, waiting.

  16. femme d'espoir 03/06/2007 at 2:21 PM #

    me likes.

    femme

  17. Ismael 08/04/2009 at 2:03 PM #

    never noticed this one before

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