Disclaimer: This story is entirely untrue and has originated from a foreign land called ‘My Imagination’.
“Say it one more time – small in-tuh-stine.”
The entire class, of a mere 14 students, repeated “Small Intestine” for the fifth time in a futile attempt to get the pronunciation correct. Aisha Noor nodded her head at everything the visiting teacher said, excited to learn about the world which exists outside her small hometown from this exotic creature that had landed up at her school. Her home, Turtuk, was a small town in the Nubra Valley of Ladakh – beautifully lush and green, remote and unchanged for as long as anyone who had lived there could remember, despite the steady stream of tourists which had recently appeared. All her life, Aisha had lived here with her parents and 14 siblings, and in all her years of attending the Turtuk Farool school she had never interacted with someone from anywhere outside the borders of her slowly developing village, other than to give directions to a lost tourist.
“Is it lunch time already?”
Aisha snapped out of her reverie and answered her teacher in the affirmative. With a smile and wave of the hand, the teacher, who all the students addressed as ‘Ma’am ji’, ushered the sixth grade out of their tiny classroom and into the corridors where the rest of the school was already bustling about in anticipation of their midday meal. She watched as her teacher ate the rice and daal with her fingers and not a spoon, just as the students did, staring in disbelief when the teacher washed her own plate and drank water from the trickling fountain that emptied onto the ground and leaked all day long.
Aisha barely knew anything about her teacher at all, but she found herself unable to stay away from this girl, barely older than herself, so foreign in her mannerism yet so similar at heart. She found herself laughing as her teacher taught the girls in the playground a new game, and chuckled as the teacher stumbled through the paces of their traditional games.
During lunch they shared their dreams for the coming years, and later during class they shared small smiles and knowing glances every now and then. They walked together from school and as they parted ways, Aisha turned the corner and found in herself a new urgency to learn, to know, to dream. Her thoughts wandered into the nooks and crannies of the world that were yet to be discovered by her as she reached her small home, which seemed to already be bursting at the seams with siblings fighting as they trickled in from school. Dazed, she walked past them and towards her parents’ room, indifferent to their taunts today. She wanted to tell her parents of her new found ambition, wishing that she could convince them that sending her to school beyond the sixth grade was worth it. She focused her mind on the matter at hand, her idea and its execution, but slowed down as she heard a heated discussion from inside the dark room that belonged to her mother and father. She leaned in to hear their voices echoing off the walls, speaking in their mother tongue, Urdu sentences being exchanged with an alien firmness.
“We mustn’t encourage her. She was never to be educated at all. It is because of your doting nature that we sent her to the middle school in the first place! What will she do when she comes to the time of marriage? Tell her family-to-be that she is more educated than her husband? That she wants to work? Sacrilege! If she is educated, she will work and never have the time to raise a family. This is why one mustn’t educate a girl – the consequences will be ugly if we don’t restrict her now, Jamila!”
Aisha heard her poor mother argue with this point of view – no one knew better than Jamila what a burden it was bearing 15 children, and then devoting her life to taking care of them. Her daughter didn’t deserve the same fate as her.
“There will be no more arguments! Aisha will not go to school after her year in the sixth is finished! Jamila, I do not like to argue with you. You know how hard it will be marrying off an educated, working girl. Heed my advice, for the sake of our daughter. This matter shall not be further discussed.”
Aisha stood outside – too stunned to speak, too shocked to think. Her dreams came shattering down to her feet, and unknown to her a tear trickled down the dry and cracked skin on her cheek. She walked away from the door, out of the gate and into the streets of her village. Little girls and boys were washing their clothes in the stream that trickled on the left of the paved path. The icy wind slapped her face with a familiar ferocity, but the burning sun made the land warmer than the wind could make it cold. In an instant, Aisha heard her teacher’s voice in her mind, asking the class for an answer.
“Don’t be afraid – you might be wrong, and that’s alright, but don’t be afraid.”
The words rang in her ears as she sat on the hay by the road.
“Don’t be afraid”…
With a jerk, Aisha threw her body up and off the hay. She could decide her fate, she would decide her fate. Maybe she’d be shunned, maybe not. Maybe she’d have to fight her family for it, maybe not. Maybe not now, but she would decide, and all she had to remember was that whether she was right or wrong, she needn’t be afraid. Her small hands worked fast to tear the apricots off their branches and throw them into a plastic bag. Now all she had to do was wait for tomorrow to arrive.
Aisha saw her teacher make her way to the school, struggling up the steep slope, bent under the weight of her backpack as the blonde tips of her hair caught the morning sunlight. This was the moment. She quickly made her way over to her teacher, someone who had taught her something more valuable than any school ever could, even if she attended all fourteen years. Her teacher greeted her with a sunny smile and began to say something, but Aisha stopped her short by placing the bag of apricots in her hands. The teacher looked at it in surprise, then smiled and leaned forward for a hug uttering words of thanks.
“Thank you, Aisha. It means so much to me.”
Aisha shook her head as her eyes welled up. Holding her teachers hand and repeatedly shaking her head, she looked up and said,
“No. Thank you.”