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THE TALLEST WOMAN

A short fiction story about a girl who grew too big for her village

Updated 22 Dec, 2019 09:37am

The Zeenat Haroon Rashid Writing Prize for Women, named after a founding member of the Women’s National Guard at the time of independence, aims to discover and promote English writing by Pakistani women and women of Pakistani descent. It announced its first winner this past week. Eos is proud to exclusively publish the winning entry this year

Illustrations by Humera Alvi
Illustrations by Humera Alvi

The moment Zainab stepped into her cotton pants, she knew it was not the seamstress but her own body that had betrayed her. It had only been a week since the seamstress had come over to measure the width of her hips, the curve of her waist, the distance from her belly — where she tied her pants — to below the ankle, and yet the pants were ending at her lower calves. Her heartbreak turned into a familiar fear when her mother said, “Oh Zainoo, I’ll bring the tape measure.”

The tape measure was enclosed in hard, red plastic. The stiff metallic tape with its decisive linear markings had to be stretched deftly and let go gently; if left too fast, it had the potential to hurt. It had punctured her mother’s index finger when Zainab was fourteen. That was the first time Zainab had stood beside the living room wall to be measured. Her mother made a tiny pencil mark where Zainab’s head stopped touching the wall and then measured the distance from the floor to the mark. The moments she realised Zainab was five feet five, she carelessly let go of the tape measure which closed itself on her finger. Blood oozed out, camouflaging in the tape measure.

Zainab’s mother was five feet tall. Her father, when alive and with shoes on, had been four inches taller than her. The tallest person Zainab and her mother knew about then was a distant uncle rumoured to be six feet tall. “How dare you embarrass me like this,” her mother had asked, cleaning the blood off the tape measure. “As if being a widow, and raising a daughter in this nosy town isn’t bad enough, now I have to deal with a miserably tall daughter? What kind of man will agree to marry a woman taller than himself?”

Zainab’s mother decided that letting her daughter grow any taller was a risk, so that night Zainab was made to sleep with a line of red bricks at the foot of her charpoy. If the girl couldn’t stretch, the girl wouldn’t grow, reasoned her mother. The teenager was afraid of ramming her foot into a cold brick while sleeping but she was also tired of standing out in school — her kinder classmates had nicknamed her Zaraffa Zainab, while meaner ones referred to her as Diyoni Zainab — so she decided to give the bricks a chance.

Over the next few months, Zainab’s mother kept thinking about how to stop her daughter from growing. A woman who worked beside her in the assembly line at the ketchup factory said that children gain height through exercise, so Zainab was banned from running during recess. Someone else mentioned that sugar encourages growth, so Zainab’s mother gave away their sugar ration to a young boy harvesting the maize fields behind their house. He was happy to take the sugar, claiming that his family hadn’t had any in months. Zainab and her mother lived at the edge of town. In fact, theirs was the last house on the last lane within town limits. Behind their house ran the canal, beyond which lay fields that grew wheat, barley and oranges in winter and sugarcane, rice and maize in the summers. Ever since Zainab could remember, the peasant farmers working these fields had been fighting with the military for land rights. There were often scuffles and kidnappings, lately even fires had been set to the crops, but Zainab and her mother had too many troubles of their own to worry about the peasant farmers.

One evening, on the way home from school, a homeless woman begging on the sidewalk grabbed Zainab’s hand. “O sweet, gentle Diyoni, give me three hairs from your head, they will turn to gold overnight and I will become rich,” pleaded the woman, whose face was red with a rash. Zainab knew the old woman was likely crazy or high on heroin or both and could create a scene. Attention was the last thing Zainab wanted. She quietly plucked three hairs from her head and handed them over. Zainab didn’t tell her mother about the homeless woman but, after dinner that night, she said she was afraid that she had grown taller. The measuring ritual began — Zainab against the wall, the pencil mark, the tape stretched out. Five feet nine inches.

Zainab asked her mother if she could throw out the worthless bricks. Her mother agreed and told Zainab that she had hidden some chocolate in the kitchen cabinet. She then sat down with Zainab’s school uniform and skillfully opened its edges, redoing them to add length, while Zainab stuffed her face with a Dairy Milk. The mother and daughter wordlessly prepared themselves for what lay ahead.


***


The day Zainab crossed the seven-foot mark, her mother laughed heartily. Zainab wasn’t sure if the laughter was cruel or if it was the sort of manic cackle that evolves into frenzied sobs. “Oh I’m not laughing at you, Zainoo. I’m laughing at how we once thought that if you crossed five and a half feet, you’d never be married and the world would end,” she said. “All that matters is that you’re safe and healthy. Bus, that’s all I care about. Don’t ever let anyone lay a hand on you Zainab, even after I’m gone.”

It was true, as the years passed and Zainab grew even taller, their concerns had changed. They had stopped worrying about marriage proposals approximately six inches ago, knowing full well that no sane man would ask for the hand of a giantess, a jinn ki bachi, a diyoni. Instead, now they worried for her health and safety. Her body had grown so fast that it couldn’t keep up with itself. Her breathing was ragged, the doctor said her lungs and the chest cavity they lay in weren’t a good match for each other. Her burly feet had grown in opposite directions which further weakened her shaky knees.

Zainab hadn’t been seen outside the last house on the last street of town for years, ever since a band of young men had assaulted her by the canal. First, the men had disallowed their sisters and female cousins from talking to Zainab at school; they had spread rumours about peasant farmers climbing the wall of the last house on the last lane of town, in the dead of the night, to satisfy themselves; they warned Zainab that if she continued showing off her vulgar body around town, “it wouldn’t end well for her”. Zainab wanted to finish her schooling in order to have a chance at life, so she had ignored their threats. Eventually, they had attacked Zainab on her way home from school, waiting for her by a lonely curve in the canal. They had tried to pin her down but, at six feet, Zainab had pushed back and made a run for it. The young men chased her, flinging stones, rocks, abuses, sticks, dirt, whatever they could find but Zainab kept running, stumbling, falling, and returning their slaps and kicks when they got too close. When she got home, Zainab’s eyes had a vaporous gray curtain drawn across them; the ringing in her ears was almost unbearable; and her mouth was torn from an angled rock that had hit her.

But Zainab hadn’t gone down without a fight. Zainab and her mother first went to the elected elder of the neighbourhood to complain about the young men who had attacked her — his son was one of them. But instead of placing a protective hand on Zainab’s head, he asked why the teenage girl found herself alone by the canal with five men? The duo then protested to the neighbourhood clergyman, Mullah Shakir. He looked Zainab straight in the eye, recited a Quranic verse about modesty, and then told her mother to keep a better eye on her jawaan daughter. Two of the assaulters had been from the village behind their house and so the peasant farmers, usually vocal about solidarity, were also called upon. They craned their necks to look up at Zainab and said it was impossible that young peasants could dare beat someone as terrifying as her. The local policeman offered to lodge a report. But then added that usually nothing comes out of complaints like this and, really, what was needed to prevent such instances in the future was for Zainab to stay away from the townspeople. And so, with no other options, Zainab locked herself in the last house on the last street of the town.

Out of sight, Zainab was only kept alive in the town’s memory by men sharing dirty jokes about scr***** large women, or mothers trying to coax their toddlers to sleep. “Sleep child, sleep, or Diyoni Zainab will come and eat you,” they’d say. Inside their house, Zainab and her mother fortified their charpoys and chairs with steel to withstand Zainab’s weight and created a dull routine for themselves. Her mother worked diligently at the factory, while Zainab spent the day taking care of the house. Their only visitors were Zainab’s aunt who came from Multan to stay for a night or two every year, and the local seamstress, Noor. Twice, the manager of the local amusement park came to visit. He had heard about Zainab’s height and offered to pay her ten thousand rupees a month to stand on an elevated corner of the park and take photos with tourists. Twice, he was turned away.

Zainab’s loneliness was curbed by Noor. The seamstress regaled Zainab with romantic and violent anecdotes from around town, gossip about her former classmates, updates on the peasant-military clashes, and magazines cutouts of models wearing the latest fashions. Every Eid, Noor tried to convince Zainab and her mother to visit the mela. Every Eid, she was denied. “Zainoo, you are so huge now, no one would dare look you in the eye much less hurt you,” wheedled Noor. “It’s too risky, it’s not an option for me,” said Zainab, and her mother agreed. “There are no options for me.”

It was Noor who, weary of being indoors with her friend, came up with the idea of piercing Zainab’s nose. “A nose ring would take away attention from your torn mouth,” she suggested and offered to pierce it herself. Zainab, not wanting to further disappoint her only friend ran to disinfect a thick, sharp needle over the stove. Ready for her transformation, she trustingly laid her head in Noor’s lap. But there was something rotten, either in the needle, or in the seamstress’ intentions, who handled it for a living, that caused the needle to slip and tear through Zainab’s left nostril and into her septum.

By the time Zainab’s mother got home, Noor had bandaged Zainab’s nose to dull the flow of blood, and fled. Her mother found Zainab sitting, with her head turned upward, on the veranda. “Just wait till I get my hands on her, I’ll beat her till she remembers her mother,” she muttered under her breath, as she rocked on her toes to inspect Zainab’s torn nose. It needed stitches.

“Noor’s the best tailor we know...” joked Zainab.

“Get your dupatta, Zainoo. We are going to the Emergency,” responded her mother.

They would walk to the hospital since Zainab’s legs would fit neither in a rickshaw nor in the back of a taxi. As her mother led the way, Zainab focused on avoiding any low-hanging signboards or loose pipes along the mish-mash of streets. Delirious with nervousness at being outside her house after years, she meekly followed her mother, holding her dupatta to hide her bloody nose. At every turn they took, on every street, everyone stared: wide-eyed children pointed at the Diyoni their mothers had warned them about, labourers put down their shovels to ogle at their local Jalut, shop owners left their counters unattended and ran outside for a better view, as motorists pressed on their brakes for a longer look at Zainab the Giantess. But Zainab realised that, even as they silently stared, every person moved away to create a distance between themselves and the jinn ki bachi walking before them. She recognised that they were afraid of coming too close.

At six feet, Zainab had inspired lust and loathing; at six and a half she was a freak that could either be brazenly displayed in the corner of an amusement park, or locked away in a tower; but now, at more than seven feet, Zainab terrified people. This realisation warmed Zainab, as if her years of invisibility had made her powerful.

Inside the narrow hall of the overcrowded public hospital, the swarm of sick people and their attendants parted like the Red Sea in front of her, creating a passage to the nurse manning the Emergency desk. The Nursing Sister took one look at Zainab’s torn nose, and not wanting to make her wait out of fear, pity, loathing or some other emotion that she could never articulate no matter how many times she later told the story, led her directly to a doctor on Emergency duty.

The doctor looked young and kind. Without gaping at Zainab as if she was a zoo animal, he offered her a seat and asked her how she hurt her nose. Zainab’s mother began to tell the story but the doctor gently cut her off. “I’m sure your young daughter has a lovely voice. I always prefer hearing directly from my patients,” he said, warmly smiling at Zainab, who was confused by how unafraid he was of her. “In fact, if you don’t mind, why don’t you sit outside while I stitch your daughter’s nose?” Zainab’s mother, anxious about getting her daughter home, led herself out. “Now Zainab, I’m not afraid of you like all the illiterate people out there. You may have gigantism but I know you’re no Jalut,” said the doctor as he shut the door behind her mother.

Zainab’s mother decided that letting her daughter grow any taller was a risk, so that night Zainab was made to sleep with a line of red bricks at the foot of her charpoy. If the girl couldn’t stretch, the girl wouldn’t grow, reasoned her mother.

“I’m going to treat you just as I treat any of my female patients.” And the doctor, who looked so young and so kind, did just that. He gently numbed and then stitched Zainab’s nose. And then, after applying a soothing balm over her face, he asked Zainab to undress so that she could repay him for his kindness. He said he was extremely curious to get to know her large, beautiful body.

Moments later, Zainab’s mother heard a crash from the closed room. Her eyes met those of a passing nurse and they both rushed to open the door. Inside the room, the doctor and his tools were sprawled across the floor. A shaking Zainab stood tall and silent. As a crowd gathered outside the room, a few people surreptitiously pulled out their cell phones to record the action. The seemingly young-and-kind doctor jumped up and yelled,

“You giant bitch, how dare you push a doctor? I stitched your nose and fixed your ugly face and this is how you repay me?”

With one of his shiny tools he lunged towards Zainab. For a moment she was too self-conscious to fight back, but then remembering what her mother said, she defended herself. Don’t ever let anyone lay a hand on you. With one hand she held the doctor away from her and with the other, she struck his face.

“You dirty man, you touched me first,” she said.

Zainab’s mother reached into the room, pulled her daughter out and led her home.

The doctor’s attack and Zainab’s defence had been captured on multiple cell phones. A nurse sent it to her sister who worked in Karachi as a make-up artist for a prime time newscaster, with the caption “Angry DIYONI — probable peasant activist leader?!?” A janitor sent it to a group of friends, one of whom was a tea boy in a newsroom in Lahore. The third video was made by a young student who had been forced to visit her dying great-aunt in the hospital. She posted the video on her twitter account with the caption: “Guinness-world-record holding GIANT Pakistani woman slaps harassy doctor in National Hospital. #MeToo.”

The newscaster’s office called the nurse in the middle of the night to ask if she could come to the studio tomorrow to tell their audience what she saw. The janitor got a call from an English-speaking editor asking for a retelling of the altercation he had witnessed. Much was lost in translation. The student got millions of retweets and gained thousands of followers overnight. The nine pm news bulletin began with the story about a giantess from a small town, known for its ongoing peasant movement against the military, who slapped a doctor because he had tried to rape her. The young doctor, realising that this was the third potential charge of sexual assault against him, calculated his remaining vacation days and booked a flight to Bangkok. He would return when the dust had settled.

Zainab, on painkillers that the kind Sister had hurriedly handed her as they were exiting the hospital, slept as she was becoming a national celebrity.


***


On Monday, the next morning, reporters in their DSNG vans surrounded the last house on the last street of town. The little street was blocked, the neighbours dying of curiosity. Zainab’s mother let five or six of the female journalists into the house, leaving their male colleagues outside. They came through the verandah and went into the living room, the bedroom, the kitchen. They photographed the steel-reinforced chairs and charpoy, Zainab’s shoes, the length of her pants, the wall on which Zainab’s height had been pencil marked through the years. Nothing was too personal for them. Eventually they made their way back to the veranda and asked how much food Zainab consumes in a day? It’s very expensive to feed pehlwans, does Miss Zainab eat as much as a wrestler? Does she weigh as much? What size shoe do you wear? Are you a leader for the peasant movement? By working for peasants, don’t you think you’re betraying your country’s soldiers? What do you think of the #MeToo movement? Will you be taking the doctor to court and, if so, will the peasants pay the fees? Who is backing you? An overwhelmed Zainab told them to come back next week for answers.

On Tuesday, Zainab received her first marriage proposal. It was brought by a woman who worked with Zainab’s mother in the factory, whose husband had asked why Zainab was found by the canal with five men, whose son had been part of Zainab’s first assault. The proposal did not come decorated with an apology for the attack. Instead it was accompanied with a box of sweet, round, sticky gulab jamun and a plan. Zainab and Bilal would apply for a UK tourist visa after the wedding and, once there, they would demand political asylum. What would they be seeking asylum from? Bilal’s mother proposed that Zainab could say that local boys endangered her life. “She can report that the villagers throw stones and rocks at her and taunt her because of her height,” suggested Zainab’s potential mother-in-law. Zainab, shocked, whispered to her mother to tell them to come back next week for an answer.

On Wednesday, a weary, sweaty white couple arrived with a translator. The foreigners had travelled from Germany via Islamabad, lugging cameras, tripods and documents that would enter Zainab into the Guinness Book of World Records. Was she interested? As Zainab served them mineral water and the gulab jamun from the day before, she asked if she could be awarded European citizenship for breaking a world record? The couple said she may gain fame and prestige and that may open other doors for her. Zainab and the couple discussed how European women, on average, are much taller than those in town. Mostly because she wanted to meet this couple again, Zainab asked them to come back next week for an answer.

On Thursday, peasant activists congregated in the courtyard. The mother and daughter sat on one of their steel-reinforced charpoys while the farmers sat at their feet. They wanted the ‘exalted Diyoni’ to be the face of their movement against the military. Zainab asked if they could promise her protection. “You and your widowed mother are like our daughters. We will protect you like we always have,” said an older activist while patting Zainab’s arm, because her head was out of reach. Zainab, confused, told them to come back next week for an answer.

Shortly after the activists left, three men in freshly starched kurtas, accompanied by the police superintendent knocked on the door. They came bearing biscuits still warm from the bakery oven, and sat on the charpoys, leaving the mother and daughter standing. The policeman introduced the three men as his ‘friends’. When the men finished the biscuits they had brought, they got up to leave. “Zainab beti, don’t worry, the police department is not angry about the fake rumours of you joining the peasants. And don’t fear anyone trying to hurt you — from now on, my friends here will be keeping one eye on you.” They weren’t told to come back next week, because everyone knew men from intelligence agencies never went far.

When they left, Zainab told her mother that, for the first time in a long time, she felt like she had choices. “Do you really think marrying Bilal or siding with the police is an option? Or do you think you can trust foreigners?” asked her mother, but before they could complete their conversation, there was a knock on the door. They were academics, social psychologists from Karachi University, interested in understanding Zainab’s relationship to her body. They wanted to host her at their university, to conduct structured and unstructured interviews with her over a period of months. Zainab, anxious to continue her conversation with her mother, told them she’d let them know next week.

“I’m not saying I will marry Bilal or spy for the agencies or let anyone study my brain. I’m just saying I can now choose how I want to live,” said Zainab, jumping back into the conversation.

“I don’t know, Zainoo. Maybe? Ask me next week,” said her mother.

On Friday, two sets of people arrived together but sat on opposite ends of the veranda. On the right sat Mullah Shakir and his right-hand man. Over the years the Mullah had gained fame for his piety and sexually abusing his students. On the left sat three women in dark cotton leggings and oversized kurtas with large dupattas — the unofficial field uniform for non-profit workers from Lahore or Multan. Zainab had seen them before, handing out pamphlets to increase awareness about nutrition, education and child sexual abuse. Both parties professed that they came for the same reason — to offer ‘support’ to Zainab. But neither the clergyman nor the non-profit ladies could express the shape or form of this ‘support’. The word, however, was thrown about several times as they drank tea, discussing the weather and the depleting water level of the canal.

Mullah Shakir got up first and, as Zainab led him to the door, he advised her to stay away from these West-influenced, non-profit ladies as they were known to corrupt innocent girls. Also, he asked if Zainab would like to start coming to the mosque to teach the Quran to younger children? Mullah Shakir would be happy to first teach her, he said as he exited. The non-profit ladies also held a hasty conversation with Zainab at the door. They warned Zainab to stay away from religious and political leaders as they’d just use her. Also, would she like to join them the next time they campaigned in the village? It’d be fun, they promised. Zainab, feeling rich with options, told both parties to come back next week for an answer.

On Saturday morning, a representative from the Prime Minister’s office knocked at their door. He refused all offers of tea or water, he even refused to take a seat. He said he didn’t have much time as he only had the one day to visit a new mother in a nearby town who had just given birth to quintuplets, and a young man in a third town who was growing tree bark on his arms and back instead of skin. He’d like to head home before sundown, what with all the violence between the peasants and the military in these parts. Would they like to come to Islamabad to receive a check of one million rupees, get their photos taken with the Prime Minister and be a part of the upcoming Independence Day ceremony? “Oh, and you’d have to sign an affidavit promising to never apply for political asylum. The recent increase in asylum applications are giving the PM’s office a bad rep,” he added. Zainab told him to come back next week for an answer.

As she shut the door behind the Prime Minister’s representative, Zainab’s head was reeling with the pleasant weight of possibility. She found a pencil and walked to the wall of shame that recorded every hateful burst of height she had put herself and her mother through. She began writing her options next to her growth spurts: Wife, European, Leader, Rich, Famous, Protected, Record breaker, Non-profit worker, Teacher. The dreaded wall appeared less ugly than before. Every few inches had earned her an opportunity. None of the options were perfect, but by next week she could choose how to spend the rest of her life.


Maham Javaid is a writer and journalist from Karachi. She is currently the 2019-2020 Finberg Fellow at Human Rights Watch in New York City. She tweets @JMaham

For more information on the ZHR Writing Prize for Women, please visit https://www.zhrwritingprize.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, December 22nd, 2019