by Soniah Kamal
The breast is a gigantic wad of fat. Getting rid of both of them will mean getting rid of at least fourteen pounds. Getting rid of one, seven. Seven pounds of shapeless fat sliced off painlessly, while I lie on a table surrounded by people who care for me, who have been paid to care for me.
I’m the first person in my family to have my breast cut off. Unless I go through with this, I won’t live. At least not live well.
“You deserve it,” Aji keeps saying. “You brought it on yourself.”
I don’t like Aji. She’d have brought it on herself too if she’d had the guts. The tribunal cuts off a man’s tongue for blasphemy and his right hand for a first robbery. It believes a chumped penis is a fitting punishment for adultery. Usually I agree with the tribunal. However it does not seem sane at all to me that feeding someone else’s baby should merit my breast being butchered.
Is it my fault that my newborn daughter was wrenched away from me? I barely saw her face. Her gumless mouth was already sucking at something in the air. Perhaps she was preparing for the moment her little mouth would suckle at my breast, sip at the milk already beginning to seep down my tunic; I imagined so.
It was wrong of me to have imagined it.
“That’s when your transgression began,” Aji said. I should have looked at my newborn daughter – no, merely, simply girl – and said, “Take her, bury her.”
I had always thought I could.
I have been midwife at many a birth. I have seen the pleasure when a boy is announced, and I have seen the disappointment and pain, although they try to hide it, when a mother hands over the baby girl and says, as the custom goes, “Take her, bury her.”
I thought I was going to have a son. My tummy hung low and was nutshell hard. I craved smoked tamarind – another sign of a boy in the offing. Can imagination play havoc with the taste buds as well? Can shying away from imagining the worst make it less intolerable?
I have held newborn girls in my arms and passed them to the burial committee with no more thought than what I would have for dinner that night. I did not flinch, my heart beat steadily and yet, last, when they took the baby away, my heart began to beat with bewildering wildness and followed them, insisting that it be buried with the child I had carried for nine months and three and a half weeks.
Aji did tell me that my little one was asleep when they laid her down. That she continued to sleep even when the first shovel of grit fell on her face sandwiched between those tiny fists of hers. I like to think that my little girl was defiant. Bold in her un-crying silence. Calmly ignoring the tribunal that was suffocating her to death.
My husband is not speaking to me. He is speaking to the tribunal, though. Telling them that he does not want to remain married to me once I become breast-less. Aji says that the tribunal is trying to convince him that once my breast is chopped off, I will have paid my dues to society. I will have suffered the punishment for breaking the law without any need for extra punishment from him. Aji says that my husband is trying to argue with the logic that one is rendered innocent after suffering punishment.
“She’s not innocent by any standards,” Aji said he shouted. “Not with a lopsided chest proclaiming otherwise to the world.”
I am not surprised that the tribunal is displeased with him. They argue about what he will do for a wife if they allow him to let go of me. You see, there are no women left in the Reserve. The last one, a Declared Beauty, was doled out to an unanticipated widower. His wife fell into the river. They said that he wasn’t able to save her. If you ask me, I think he not only watched her drown, but pushed her in too, in order to get the Declared Beauty. When I decided to report my suspicion to the tribunal, Aji ordered me to hush.
“Try not to be too clever,” she said. “You know what they do with accusers who are proved wrong. You want your tongue spliced in two?”
“No.” But neither did I want my left breast cut off. I wish now that I had accused that man of murdering his wife and risked my tongue being spliced. Now, I’ve got a few hours left as a whole-chested woman.
As soon as my daughter’s face was shown to me, I grabbed hold of Aji’s hand.
“Check if there’s boy,” I begged her. “Check if a boy has been born anywhere, even in the next zone.”
For the birth of a boy would be able to save my baby girl.
“I’ve checked.” Aji whipped her hand out of mine. “It’s your fault. It’s all your fault.”
Indeed it was my fault that my baby was going to be put to death. Zore had offered well before my delivery.
“Let me,” he’d said, “impregnate my wife so there’s a Life Giver should…”
“There will be no should.”
“Should,” he continued, “a daughter be born to you.”
Only a boy would jabber out of my womb. My mind was made up. My tummy hung low and was nutshell hard. I was craving smoked tamarind. How could I possibly have known I would give birth to a girl?
How could I not have prepared in case of one?
I killed my daughter because I did not take the precaution of having someone else give birth to a son. She would have had a partner then and thus an assigned purpose in life. We don’t keep girls otherwise. Those in the Reserve are the product of fraternal-twin births. The tribunal believes that the female part should not be killed for it could very well hamper the male part. I wish I hadn’t laughed at all the men. I wish I’d recognized their alliance for what it was. Now my little girl has been buried alive and my left breast is being cut off.
I had just wanted to be suckled, to know what it would feel like to be suckled. To have a gumless rind pull at the hunger in my heart, feed at the nourishment my body was making. I had tasted the salt in my own milk. I wanted a baby to taste it too, and so I tried to feed the first baby I came across in the afternoon when most were blinded by sunlight.
Aji caught me with the baby at my breast.
“Don’t tell them, Aji.”
But already I could see her running hard in the direction of the tribunal. She’s a good citizen — Aji, my mother. I should be proud of her for keeping our rules and laws. In due time, I will either learn to be like her or pretend to be; for otherwise, they will put me to death.
In due time, I might prefer death.
Soniah Kamal was born in Pakistan and raised in England and Saudi Arabia. She has a B.A. in Philosophy with Honors from St. John’s College Annapolis, MD and is the recipient of the Susan B. Irene Award. Her short stories and essays, published in the U.S., Canada, Pakistan and India, are taught at college level and her work has received nods in national newspapers such as Dawn, The Hindu, The Daily Star, The Daily Times and The Tribune. Soniah guest edited Sugar Mule‘s South Asian issue.
Artwork by Amra Khan.