Nazia doesn't mind when her friends tease and call her a good beti, a dutiful daughter. Growing up in a working-class family in Karachi, Pakistan, Nazia knows that obedience is the least she can give to her mother, who has spent years saving and preparing for her dowry. But every daughter must grow up, and for fourteen-year-old Nazia that day arrives suddenly when her father gets into an accident at work, and her family finds themselves without money for rent or food.
Being the beti that she is, Nazia drops out of school to help her mother clean houses, all the while wondering when she managed to lose control of her life that had been full of friends and school. Working as a maid is a shameful obligation that could be detrimental to her future after all, no one wants a housekeeper for a daughter-in-law. As Nazia finds herself growing up much too quickly, the lessons of hardship that seem unbearable turn out to be a lot more liberating than she ever imagined.
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The musky scent of mustard oil intensified in the early-August heat. Nazia ran a hand across her tightly braided hair, then wiped the oil on the front of her rumpled kameeze. A yellowish-orange stain seeped into the cotton fabric of her shirt, and she regretted it immediately. Less than a week into the new school year, and already her starched white uniform was permanently stained. She grabbed a handful of sand from the side of the road and rubbed it in, hoping the earth would soak up at least some of the dense oil and save her from Amma's scolding.
She stood at the edge of the Gizri cloth bazaar, the afternoon sun pressing against her bare arms, face, and neck. Her house was in view just across the street, past the cricket pitch where a group of boys ran back and forth between the wickets, stirring up the dust. The bazaar was on the outskirts of Gizri colony, a working-class neighborhood in southern Karachi, and just a few kilometers from the Arabian Sea. Because the bazaar was two blocks long and adjacent to the Gizri School for Girls, it was nearly impossible to walk by day after day without getting drawn in by the enticing apparel.
Maleeha and Saira moved from stall to stall, tugging at silks and chiffons that fluttered from overhanging displays. Nazia shuffled along behind them and turned her gaze toward the main road that separated the bazaar from the cricket field. Beyond the steady rumble of cars, bicycles, buses, rickshaws, trucks, taxis, and the slower animal-drawn vehicles, the fielders scrambled forward to catch a high ball, their bare hands cupped together to ease the impact. She sighed when Maleeha called out to her. Why couldn't she be the batsman on the cricket pitch, poised for the bowler's next pitch, instead of looking at clothes she couldn't afford?
"This one." Maleeha unraveled a bolt of cloth and held a corner of the sheer material in the air. The gold brocade shimmered against the pink chiffon. "It's perfect for your jahez."
Nazia wrinkled her nose. "Amma could dress the entire school with the all the clothes she's made for my dowry. We don't need to add another." The strap of her backpack cut into her shoulder. She winced and shifted the weight to the other side. "Come on. I have to get home or Amma will be worried." She turned back toward the busy road and began walking.
"You're always so afraid of your mother," Saira complained.
"She's not afraid," Maleeha said. "She's just a good beti, a dutiful daughter."
Nazia lifted her chin higher and quickened her pace to escape their playful jabs. She'd known the two girls since Montessori; she knew their lives were no different from hers.
Maleeha dropped the cloth onto the cart and followed Nazia to the main road. The stall owner wrapped the material back into place.
"Once you get married, it won't matter anymore what color you like. Your mother decides now, and when you get married, your mother-in-law will take her place." Maleeha looked pointedly at Nazia but kept walking. "And you, Nazia, will agree to everything. Just like you always do."
Nazia looked at her friend sharply. "You know that'll never change. Our lives will always be in the hands of our mothers, whether we like it or not."
Saira hurried to keep pace with them, her schoolbag constantly falling off her thick shoulders. "My mother always says that you can eat whatever you like, but you have to wear what others choose."
Maleeha snorted. "You eat everything in sight."
Nazia remained silent, having heard the same words from her own mother time and again. She stopped at the edge of the street, squinting to avoid the flashy sunlight that bounced from car to car. She waited for an opening to cross. The street was teeming with Suzuki trucks, compact cars, and ornately decorated buses. An occasional tonga clattered by, the driver and his passenger perched atop the two-wheeled wooden cart pulled by a donkey daring enough to brave the traffic. The day's pollution had settled, and a haze hung over the city. Nazia pulled out a scarf from her backpackâ€‰ the dupatta that should have been on her headâ€‰ and pressed it against her face to keep from breathing in the exhaust fumes.
When she saw an opening, she clutched her backpack and dashed across the street, jumping over the median to the other side. "Come on!" She looked back to make sure her friends had made it, then headed down the street that ran alongside the cricket field.
A horn blasted loudly behind her, and she jerked to the right.
A truck rumbled past, the flatbed crammed with men, their bodies jostling as the truck sped over bumps and craters in the unpaved road. She spotted her father. What was he doing home at this time of day? He was half sitting, half lying down. It seemed as though the men were cradling his body. The truck sped on, leaving behind a cloud of dust.
She broke into a run, her bag bouncing against her back. Maleeha and Saira scrambled to keep up. The game of cricket stopped, and Nazia knew that the players were wondering if one of their fathers was on the truck.
By the time Nazia reached the house, Abbu was already inside. Maleeha and Saira came in behind her, panting heavily. Nazia moved behind the men gathered around her parents' mattress on the floor of the cramped room, where her father lay. She stepped in closer and wrinkled her nose at the stench of their sweat. Their clothes were covered with dirt, their thick hair matted. She cupped a hand over her nose and watched two men adjust the cushions around Abbu in an attempt to make him comfortable. But she knew, from the way her father clenched his teeth and kept his eyes squeezed shut, that comfort was far off.
His left arm was wrapped in a scrap of cloth, leaving his wrist hanging limp. A bandage covered his left leg from foot to mid thigh. The white gauze was smeared with dirt, and large patches of blood seeped through, glistening wet.
He must have gotten injured at work. Abbu was a construction worker at a building site just outside Karachi. He never came home before dark and often stayed overnight guarding the machinery whenever there was a strike or curfew. After losing his previous job a few weeks earlier, Abbu had moved around several times before settling with this one.
Isha and Mateen were on the floor beside Abbu clutching his soiled kurta. Their small hands were indifferent to the mud smeared all over his long shirt. Nazia wanted to push her way past the men to sit beside her younger brother and sister, but she felt too old to cry with everyone watching. Just then Amma bustled forward carrying a pitcher of water and a glass. She called Nazia to the front.
Amma's mouth was a firm line, but her eyes were round and watery. "Hold the tray so the men can drink." Before Nazia could reply, Amma shoved the tray into her hands and then knelt beside Abbu, speaking words in a whisper too soft to hear.
Nazia shuffled through the crowd with the tray, eyes cast downward, as each man turned away from her father and drank warm water from the glass. She could feel their gaze on the top of her head, and some men passed a hand over her hair, blessing her as if she were their daughter.
Later she heard the men explain to Amma that bricks from a new section had fallen from the building under construction. Abbu had been leaning against a high wall, believing the cement had hardened. The cement was tainted, though, and the shaky structure had given way, crumbling onto him. Pieces of concrete had fallen on his leg and some on his arm. It would be months before Abbu could work again.
Three weeks later Nazia was bent over her school desk, her stomach grumbling as she struggled to finish her assignment. She felt a sharp jab in her back and turned swiftly to glare at Maleeha. "Stop it!"
"Well, if you don't hurry up, we're going to eat our lunch without you." Maleeha nodded toward Saira, who was just turning in her paper to their teacher, Ms. Haroon.
"Go on, then," Nazia said. She gripped her pencil tighter. The assignment was based on last night's reading about Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, but Nazia had been so busy helping her mother that she had been too tired to do her homework. She pressed a fist against her stomach to quiet the gurgling.
Since Abbu's accident they had gotten by with money Amma had tucked away from her sewing. In the first week neighbors had brought bowls of curried daal, samosas, and boiled rice. Now the pantry was nearly bare but for the half-empty tin of flour and the square bucket that held brokenâ€‰ nearly crushedâ€‰ grains of rice. Even the daal consisted of yellow lentils watered down to stretch through the week.
Amma had counted on Bilal finding work, but Nazia's older brother had done what he always did when the family needed himâ€‰ he had disappeared. At sixteen, he'd completed his diploma last spring, and now he spent his days roaming the vast city with friends instead of going on to college. He often disappeared for days at a stretch, claiming to be looking for work. None of his excuses ever made sense, but somehow the teasing way he said it, and the gifts he brought home when he returned, made the stories irrelevant to Nazia. When Bilal bhai was home, she could be a little sister again. Only this time he hadn't come back.
Maleeha nudged her shoulder. "Just write anything! You're Ms. Haroon's favoriteâ€‰ you know she'd never fail you anyway."
The sharp click of heels echoed down the hall outside the classroom. "Uh-oh," Maleeha said, and slid back into her seat.
Ms. Haroon snapped her fingers. "Everyone in your seats quickly." She took her dupatta from behind her chair and draped the lengthy scarf over her shoulders.
By the time Madam Qureshi arrived, the room was silent but for the whir of the overhead fan. The class greeted the principal by belting out "Good afternoon, Madam Qureshi" in unison. She gave an almost imperceptible nod of her head before whispering something to Ms. Haroon.
Nazia stiffened as her teacher stared at her, all the while nodding solemnly. Was she in trouble? This wasn't the first time she hadn't done her homework. But the principal knew about her father's accident. Knew that there was little time after school to study. She had kept up as best she could, and unlike Bilal bhai, she found schoolwork came naturally to her. Except when she didn't do her homework.
Ms. Haroon called her name and motioned her forward. Maleeha's finger dug into her back, and her singsong voice taunted, "Nazia's in trouble."
"You are such a baby," Nazia muttered. She stood up, pushed in her chair, and strode to the front of the class, feeling all eyes upon her. It's nothing, she told herself. Just tell them you'll make up the assignments and take on extra work to keep up with the class. Since it was only a month into the school year, the assignments were still fairly light.
"Yes?" Nazia stood with her hands clasped behind her back, trying hard not to crack her fingers so the other students couldn't see how nervous she was.
"Your mother is here. She is withdrawing you for the day." Madam Qureshi peered at Nazia. "Is everything okay at home? Is your father better?"
From the corner of her eye Nazia saw the first row of students lean forward. Why was everyone so nosey about her father? A wall fell on him, she wanted to shout. "Abbu is still in bandages," she mumbled instead. "Not the same ones," she added. "Amma changes them every day." The principal and teacher stared at her. She felt her classmates staring, and all the eyes bored into her flesh. "We have to change them every day so his wounds don't get infected."
"Well," Madam Qureshi said with a sigh. "Gather your things.
Your mother is waiting."
Nazia turned to her teacher. "What about my assignment? I'm not finished."
Ms. Haroon smiled. "It's all right. I'll take what you have."
Nazia's throat constricted. "But I could take it home and bring it tomorrow." She was trying to keep the whine out of her voice.
"No, beta. There's no need for that. I'll take it as it is." Ms. Haroon rubbed the sweat off her face with the corner of her dupatta. Even with the fan, the room was unbearably hot.
Why had Amma come? She never came to the school, and now it meant that Nazia would fall even more behind. She could always get the next assignment later from Maleeha or Saira, but she had no idea when she'd find the time to finish it.
She went back to her desk and began shoving books inside her bag.
"Where are you going?" Maleeha whispered.
Nazia shrugged. "My mother's here. I have to go."
"Do you think something happened to your abbu?"
Nazia grabbed the unfinished assignment on her desk and shook her head. "No. He's much better now. He just can't work yet." She looked over at Saira and waved good-bye. "Maybe I'll see you later tonight. We can play cricket."
Maleeha wrinkled her nose. "I'm not playing cricket," she half yelled, half whispered.
Nazia hurried to catch up with Madam Qureshi, who was already clicking her way down the hall.
"Amma! Wait for us!" Nazia called as she jumped down from the bus that had brought them from the Gizri School for Girls to the Defence Market. The market was a sprawling cluster of upscale shops just on the outskirts of the Defence Housing Society, a section of residential homes for Karachi's elite.
Nazia was always awed by the transformation that occurred as they moved away from the narrow, trash-filled streets of the housing developments behind the Gizri commercial area toward the palatial mansions that lined the main thoroughfare when they entered the upper-class housing society.
The Defence commercial area sat at the base of Phase 5, the section known for its lavish homes and proximity to the Arabian Sea. The buses never went into the residential streets, so outsiders had to walk through the commercial market, where tailors, toy shops, bookstores, meat stalls, restaurants, and bakeries catered to the wealthy. Here the upper class bought their goods, rather than having to brave the inner city of Karachi.
Defence was, for all practical purposes, a self-contained city for the elite socialites to shop at the trendiest stores, eat at the best restaurants, and have their hair and makeup done at beauty salons owned by celebrities featured on Pakistan Television.
Nazia helped Isha and Mateen off the bus and herded them toward Amma, who was already far ahead, walking purposefully toward a thin woman standing in front of a meat shop.
Slabs of meat hung from metal hooks at the open-air shop.
Whole chickens, plucked and skinned, were strung from a bar and dangled upside down by a single limb. The butcher swatted lazily at the dense layer of flies, but it was a useless gesture. The flies rose up in flight, only to return and settle immediately on the slabs of warm meat.
"Amma, what are we doing here?" Amma refused to offer any information. All she'd said at school was that she had something important to do, and Nazia was to watch Isha and Mateen while she did it.
"This is your daughter?" The woman at the shop smiled at Amma. She wore jewelry that clinked and sparkled with her every movement, drawing attention from the crowd of men around the stall. Her dupatta was draped casually over her head and slipped back farther every time she moved. Her body seemed to dance in waves, even though her feet were planted firmly on the ground. Her clothes were worn, and her face had the weathered look of someone who spent day after day toiling under the sun.
Amma wiped her round face with the corner of her dupatta. Sweat dripped down her neck and plastered the front of her kameeze to her chest. "Yes. Nazia is fourteen. She'll be married at the end of the school year. Isha is ten and Mateen is four." Amma nudged Nazia forward. "Where are your manners? Say salaam to Shenaz!"
Nazia mumbled a greeting and turned back to Amma. "What are we doing here?"
"Your mother is here to find work," Shenaz said.
"But she is working. She sews clothes."
"It's not enough, beta." Shenaz looked at Nazia with soft eyes. "Your big brother has run away, and your father is taking his time recovering from his injury."
"He broke his leg." Who did this woman think she was, accusing Abbu like that? Injuries like his took time.
"It's been weeks, child. How do you expect to get married if there's no money to pay for your jahez? There is so much to manage far before the wedding day."
"It's not just your wedding, Nazia." Amma's voice was weary. "What about the rent? Neighbors bringing food is fine for a while. The sewing covers the small necessities, but we have to find a way to pay for the roof over our heads."
Nazia thought. There had to be another way. Then her eyes brightened. "I know! Why don't you ask Uncle Tariq? You know he will do anything to help us."
Amma pursed her lips and shook her head.
"But why not?" Nazia frowned.
"You know why. You will marry his son soon. We cannot humiliate ourselves in front of him before the wedding! He cannot know of our hardships."
"But why not? If they are willing to have me in their family, then taking care of us for a few months before should not matter."
"Even we have our pride, Nazia. We may not have much more than that, but at least we have our pride."
What good is pride if it just gets in the way? Nazia stared at Amma. Was there no other way? Were they really that poor? She had always believed that they were well off, that money would never be an issue. Whenever anyone in the neighborhood had troubles, Amma was among the first to share whatever they had in the house. "What kind of work?" she asked finally.
"I've set up some houses for your mother," Shenaz said as she began walking past the shops toward the hill, where the homes were larger than any Nazia had ever seen. "Come onâ€‰ we have to move faster. If your mother does well, then the memsahib will keep her. I've got three houses waiting for her."
Amma's breath came in short gasps as she tried to keep up with Shenaz. "You'll need to watch over Isha and Mateen while I do the houses."
"Houses?" Nazia's cheeks grew warm. "You mean clean houses? Like a masi?"
"Yes," Amma grunted.
Nazia stopped short and gaped at her mother, who had never worked outside her home a day in her life. "Does Abbu know?"
"Nahi, of course not." Amma's panting grew more labored as she continued her climb.
"You haven't told him?" Nazia balled up her fists, nails digging into her palms. How could Amma make such a hasty decision without even checking with Abbu? Didn't she know how protective he was of their family? Did she think he would not mind? What would he say when he learned that Amma was shaming their family name and sullying Abbu's honor? What would he do when he found out? And then another thought occurred to her: If Amma intended to keep this from Abbu, why did she bring the children along? Did she really think they would not speak of it to their father?
"You want me to watch Isha and Mateen? Why didn't you just leave them at home with Abbu? Did you have to pull me out of school?" She was falling behind because she had to babysit?
Amma didn't look back. "Abbu wasn't home."
Nazia grabbed Mateen and slung him onto her hip as she hurried to keep up. "Not home? Amma, he can't walk."
Amma stopped abruptly and turned to Nazia. "Your abbu can walk. He limps, yes. His injuries were bad. Gashes and bruises, but no broken bones. His leg has healed. He goes to the market for most of the day while you are away at school. He comes home and lies in bed just before you return." She glanced at Mateen and moved on. "Ask your brother. He knows."
Nazia sucked in her breath and tightened her grip on Mateen. Why was Amma always seeing the worst in Abbu? Before the injury Abbu was gone every day, toiling from dawn to late in the night. How could someone like that bear the torture of lying motionless in bed for weeks?
Nazia could picture her father attempting to regain his strength as soon as she left for school each morning: Abbu lying on the mattress to exercise his leg as he lifted, pulled, and stretched. She knew that as soon as he was able, Abbu would urge his limbs to carry his weight and go back to work.
Mateen put a chubby hand on her cheek, turning her face toward him. "It's true." He pouted. "Abbu goes out all day, and he doesn't even play with me."
Nazia moved his hand away. "He can't play with you all the time. He needs to get better. He can't do that lying around the house, can he?"
There were times when the gaps between Abbu's paying jobs were long, but somehow they always managed to get by, and Abbu always found work again. Nazia decided that Amma was being too hard on him. Even if Abbu could walk, he was still far from recovered. He needed more time to heal before he could go back to doing construction work. And if he did go out, wasn't that the best way to work his leg and speed up his recovery? They couldn't afford to take him to a physiotherapist. Walking the market was the next best thing.
"Abbu knows what he is doing, Amma. You need to trust that he will take care of us like he always does. And when Abbu finds out about this, you know he'll be angry with you."
"Leave your mother alone," Shenaz called out. "She knows what is best for all of you."
Nazia glared at the woman's back, her flimsy clothes shifting with every step. "I'm only coming along for today," she shouted. "Don't expect us all to tag along tomorrow."
Shenaz was about to say something when Amma stopped her. "Leave her be. She will find out the truth soon enough."
There's nothing to find out, Nazia wanted to say. Amma should have stayed home and waited until he was better before going behind his back to find work. What was she thinking? Amma could easily have picked up some more clothes to sew or sold one or two pieces of jewelry set aside for the wedding. No matter what Shenaz said, there was still plenty of time to buy more for the jahez when Abbu found work again.
Copyright © 2008 by Amjed Qamar
Reading Group Guide
The title Beneath My Mother's Feet comes from one of the many sayings of the Prophet Muhammad about mothers: "The gates of heaven lie beneath the mother's feet." Elsewhere, another narrator reports that "I asked the Prophet who has the greatest right over a man, and he said, 'His mother.'" Clearly, mothers hold a special place in a Muslim household. Ask students to write a one-page essay about their mothers or another significant female relative.
1) We learn early on that Nazia likes school and has the respect of her teacher Ms. Haroon. How is her school similar to your school? How is it different? Why is Nazia so devastated when her mother pulls her out of school to work? Discuss the part school plays in Nazia's hopes and dreams.
2) As the book opens, we meet Nazia's neighbors and friends, Maleeha and Saira. As Nazia's circumstances change, she again meets her friends who respond to her in very different ways. When Nazia encounters Saira in the market, how does Saira react and what are her reasons for her behavior? What happens when Nazia asks Maleeha for help? Who is the better friend and why?
3) Soon Nazia must grow up fast to help her family stay together. She longs for her older brother, Bilal, to return home so she can "be a little sister again." What does she lose as she gains more responsibility? What does she find out about herself and the members of her family as each responds to his or her changing circumstances?
4) When her husband is unable to work, Amma must make choices to enable her family to live. How did your perception of Amma change as the book progressed? Discuss the relationship between Amma and Nazia, as well as the relationship between Amma and Abbu. At the end, where does Amma's loyalty lie?
5) Amma's concern for her daughter's jahez is her way of ensuring her daughter's future happiness. How do Amma's perceptions of her daughter's destiny change over the course of the book? Why does she keep the dowry money secret until the very end, even though the family had been reduced to pleading for a place to live?
6) When Nazia becomes friends with Sherzad, she loses some of her innocence as he tells her of his mother and his life of hardship. Why does Nazia risk everything to help Sherzad escape? Do you think Sherzad succeeded in reaching his grandmother? How does Sherzad affect Nazia's understanding of her own mother and her decision to flee?
7) The dowry money will help Nazia, but perhaps the most important gift Amma gives her daughter is her blessing to leave. Why does Amma insist Nazia wait until the morning so that she can accompany her daughter? What does this have to do with "The gates of heaven lie beneath the mother's feet?"
Activities and Research
1) Most belief systems have specific guidelines on how to treat mothers. Research and record sayings about mothers in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. Compare and contrast the findings. If you like, expand your search to Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Shintoism.
2) Nazia's life changes dramatically when her father is injured. Chart her life expectations as the book opens (school, marriage at an early age, living in her uncle's house), then as she and her mother work as masis (continued work, no home of her own, unlikely to be married), and the life she chooses as the book closes (returning to school and all the possibilities that offers).
3) Stage a celebration for Nazia's return to school. Look up recipes and prepare chicken biryani, tikka (grilled spicy chicken), or gosht salan (meat curry) with raita (yogurt sauce) and roti (thin, unleavened bread). With the glossary as a reference, ask students to create signs that teach and illustrate the Urdu words for family members, thanks, clothing items, prayers, food, and greetings.
4) Learn about Pakistan. Ask students to research the history of Pakistan: how it was founded and its significant leaders in the present and recent past. Make a map of Pakistan and include Karachi. Given the clues in the book (near the Arabian Sea), where do you think the Defense district is? Note the border countries and the references in the book to people from those countries including Afghanistan and India.
About the Book
"Our lives will always be in the hands of our mothers, whether we like it or not."
Nazia doesn't mind when her friends tease and call her a good beti, a dutiful daughter. Growing up in a working-class family in Karachi, Pakistan, Nazia knows that obedience is the least she can give to her mother, who has spent years saving and preparing for her jahez, or dowry. Nazia's future seems assured as she is promised in marriage to her cousin. But fourteen-year-old Nazia must grow up fast when her father has an accident at work, and her family finds themselves without money for rent or food.
Nazia's mother withdraws her daughter from school to help her mind the children and clean houses. As Nazia's days are swallowed up in endless work, she sees her future slipping away. She is shamed that she and her mother are reduced to cleaning houses and knows this will impact her marriage prospects. Who would want a daughter-in-law who has been exposed to the harshness of the world?
Yet Nazia makes a new friend in Sherzad, a young boy who has been given in servitude to a cruel mistress. As more catastrophes fall upon her family the loss of her jahez, losing her home, her father's disappearance, and the end of her betrothal she finds her own way to freedom as she arranges his flight. Even though her uncle and cousin are again willing to accept her into their family, she now knows that she has choices. With the help and blessing of her mother, Nazia chooses a different path.
About the Author
Amjed Qamar graduated from Ohio State University with degrees in English and psychology. She currently resides in Ohio and works for the Dublin City School District. Amjed lived in Pakistan for several years and returns regularly. This is her first book.
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