At eight o’clock in the morning, Megna’s phone alarm chimed on her bedside table. She reached over, swiped her finger across the screen and checked the notifications on her phone. Megna, Allah bless u… I will be there in two hours. Remember to do ur prayers. Replying with an ok, ma, Megna tossed her phone back on the bedside table and reclined backwards. She hadn’t prayed since her mother sent her to a Sunday Islamic school when she was a teenager, but her mother liked to believe otherwise. She, like many religious mothers, felt that with time and many pressures and lots of praying away the devil in Megna, her daughter would become the modest pinnacle of Islamic virtue that Allah had always destined for her to become.
Megna got up and drowsily walked into the bathroom to get ready for the day.
In Islamic Sunday school, she learned the concept of sunnat. Before you get into heaven, the angel on the right side of your shoulder tallies the total number of the good deeds you’ve accumulated through your life and the angel on the left side of your shoulder tallies the total number of bad deeds you’ve accumulated through your life. The angels are called Kiraman Katibun. Sunnat is a special tally that the right shoulder Kiraman Katibun adds to your good deeds – a good deed that comes from mimicking actions of the Prophet (peace be upon him). She imagined the angels to look less like feathery mini people wearing white gowns and white wings and more like twin brothers that wore tacky matching sweaters. The left shouldered Kiraman Katibun, however, had frown wrinkles around his mouth because his job was more tiresome than the other angel’s job. Megna was prone to bad deeds.
Praying an extra prayer before Fajr, dying your beard orange, and owning a cat are all things that the prophet (peace be upon him) did, so if you do them too you get sunnat and are more likely to get into heaven. Megna was surprised she still remembered all that from Sunday school. What really made an impression on her was her instructor’s beard. She remembered that her huzur’s beard was so deeply dyed with henna that she thought the orange pigment would come off in her hands if she touched it. Megna wondered if he was still alive.
It was sunnat to enter the bathroom with your right foot whilst reciting a dua. At this point it was instinct; the set of toes on her right foot touched the cool bathroom tile as she turned towards the bathroom faucet. It was sunnat to wipe yourself with your left hand and there was a particular way to cleanse the body both with and without water, which was also sunnat. Megna’s bathroom ritual began with wudu, or ablution, even though Megna had no intention of praying that morning. It was a habit she couldn’t break. She would feel wrong if she didn’t do wudu when she first woke up in the morning. Her skin would crawl for the rest of the day – she’d itch at her neck and expect to find dirt wedged beneath her fingernails. Islam is a clean religion, fixated on hygiene.
Wash the right hand three times, the left hand three times, rinse the mouth three times, inhale water into the nose three times, wash the face three times, wash the lower arms to the elbows three times, head, ears, right foot, left foot, all while reciting the dua for wudu, although Megna didn’t do the last bit. Kiraman Katibun on her right shoulder tallied a good deed for wudu, but not for reciting a dua. Does that count as a bad deed? Not doing something that she knew she was supposed to do? She looked over at her left shoulder and saw the jaded tacky-sweatered twin angel shrug his own shoulders at her.
Megna flicked water from her hands, knowing that she should hurry. Her mother would be coming soon, and she needed to prepare her apartment.
Once finished with the cleansing ritual, Megna, gazed at her eyes for a full minute, wondering how exactly one eye could be so much bigger than the other. The right eye, more specifically, was at least ten times bigger and a tad more oblong than her left eye. It was not sunnat to be thinking these thoughts. In fact, the Prophet (peace be upon him) preached that one should appreciate what Allah gave us, so it probably counted as a bad deed. Kiraman Katibun on the left shoulder looked at Megna with objectively weary eyes and scribbled in his notepad.
When Megna was a little girl, her mother used to tell her how big and beautiful her eyes were. Her mom told her that she could always hear Megna’s feelings through her eyes. They gave everything away without Megna having to make any other facial expression. If Megna was happy, her eyes curved inward. If Megna was sad, her eyelids creased. If Megna was constipated, she took longer to blink.
Her mother, like many mothers, was intuitive about her daughter. She knew exactly when Megna began to lie about keeping her hijab on at school, and Megna still wondered how that could be. Was her mother following her? Did someone tell on Megna? Did Allah tell her mother? When she was in seventh grade, Megna’s mother confronted her daughter about her hijab at dinner. Megna was cutting tomatoes near the sink, where her mother was peeling potatoes.
“You took off your hijab today, Megna?” Her mother did not look away from the potatoes. In fact, she took extra care with them, making sure that the skins came off in one single spiral.
“No, I didn’t.” The young girl’s voice shook slightly.
“Don’t lie to me. I told you what Allah can do to liars.”
Megna’s eyes fixated on the cutting board, slicing the tomatoes clean. She sliced two tomatoes into eight slices. She wondered if her mother wanted her to dice them as well, but she knew better than to ask at that moment.
“Yes, ma, what?”
“Yes, ma, I took off my hijab at school today.”
“What happened to your modesty?”
“I don’t know.”
“You have to be better than the shaitan, Megna. The jinn whispers sinful things in your ear. Be stronger than him.”
“I’ll try, Ma.”
“Know that there will be consequences if I hear that you’ve taken your hijab off again.”
Young Megna was so scared, she recited a surah to calm her nerves.
Now Megna stood in front of her bathroom mirror wondering what her lopsided eyes were telling her. What do you want?
When Megna first got her period in the sixth grade, she refused to tell her mother. She felt that she had done something wrong. Women were not allowed to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, pray, or enter a mosque on their periods. So, the girl wanted to keep it a secret from the world because she did not want to be considered dirty or unholy a week out of every month. If Allah couldn’t accept her in this bleeding state, how could anyone else? She thought she was careful – she swiped pads and cleaned soiled sheets herself. Megna even made sure to walk like she wasn’t waddling.
But her mother knew. Her mother always knew. She grabbed Megna aside a week after her daughter first got her period and asked her directly:
“Are you bleeding?”
“This is good news. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was scared.”
“There’s no fear. Allah’s greatest gift to women is childbirth. Men can’t give babies, but you can. In that way, we are closer to Allah because he also creates.” Megna was intensely pleased and relieved after hearing those words. She felt powerful even. How was she closer to Allah than a man? Allah was genderless, but everyone referred to him as “He.” She pictured Him as a large man with an orange tinted beard that stretched as far as the sky. She didn’t remember much of her father, but she knew that her mother did nothing without his permission. Men were important, more important than Megna, but, finally, her womanhood meant something significant. She was like Allah. She wondered what happened to that pride, that elation. Somewhere along the way, it was replaced with fragility and aimlessness. The mirror reflected a little, feeble body.
In Islamic school, they taught her that the mountains would turn soft on the Day of Judgment. The sun would rise in the West and the jinn that whispered tempting sins in your ears would finally be visible for all to see. When she was young, Megna was terrified of jinns. Every time she closed her eyes she was convinced that a jinn would appear in front of her after she opened them. Every time she shivered, she was convinced that a jinn passed through her. If her friends at school tried to tempt her with things her mother did not approve of – saying curse words or looking at nudey photos – she was convinced that they were jinns. This fear eventually turned into fascination. She learned in Islamic school that all jinns were the same, that all jinns were shapeless creatures born out of Satan. Upon further research, she learned that jinns were far more complicated than that. Jinns could be good or bad and they were closer to humans than angels were – they had genders and free will. There are various types of jinn, but her favorites were:
- The Hinn. These are weak jinns and they often look like dogs.
- Jann. These are shape-shifters that live in the desert. They like humans.
- Marid. The wish-granting genies that live in bottles. They’re unruly and rebellious.
- Palis. This guy is a foot-licking vampire. He drains people’s blood by licking the soles of their feet.
- Shaitan. The one Megna was most familiar with because her mother called her a shaitan every time she acted out. These are directly related to demons. These were the ones she feared.
As Megna continued to stare at her body in the bathroom mirror, she thought she might resemble a jinn. She had distorted features like a jinn. In her mind, the shaitan was a short, stout creature with a soft, almost transparent complexion. She looked around the tiny space and wondered if there may be one in the bathroom right at that moment – a jinn looking at another jinn looking at herself.
The Kiraman Katibun on her right shoulder continued to sit and twiddle his fingers. If he had the ability to be less objective, he would look at her and say,
“Why don’t we get on with our fucking shower and get us some good deeds today, hm?”
But he could not access his emotion in the same way that humans or jinns can, so he simply looked at her with wide, bright, good eyes. Megna hopped in the shower and turned on the shower, feeling the water pelt against her face. She had to get out soon – she knew it, and she told herself over and over again, but the hot water flared goosebumps on her arms. Indifferent to the circumstances around her, she lost herself in the pleasure of the shower. The Kiraman Katibun looked up at her inquisitively. His look said, “Excessive, I’ve gotta write this one down, too.” Megna took her loofa and rubbed her left shoulder with it, drowning the angel. He merely wringed his tacky sweater and sat back down listlessly.
Megna’s mother made sure to constantly remind her daughter of what the Prophet (peace be upon him) says about how one should treat her mother. When she was fourteen, she once refused to cover her chest with an orna in front of her uncles. She was preparing tea in the kitchen when her mother came in and told her to put on her shawl in the presence of older men. Megna flashed a look of anger at her mother and said,
“No.” The left Kiraman Katibun stretched the cramp out of his hand. The right angel sat against her neck and looked up at the kitchen light.
“What did you say to your mother?”
“I said nothing.”
“Remember what the Muhammad sallallahu alayhi wasallam said in his Hadith: Your Heaven lies under the feet of your mother.”
Megna’s mother slowly moved towards her daughter who was bent over the kitchen stove, tending to the kettle. Megna’s breathing became shallow. The kettle made a soft whooshing sound, signaling that the whistle was soon to blow. Her mother stood right behind Megna and looked down at her shoulder. She continued:
“‘A man came to the Prophet and said, ‘O Messenger of God! Who among the people is the worthiest of my good companionship? The Prophet said: Your mother. The man said, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your mother. The man asked again, ‘Then who?’ The Prophet said: Then your father.’”
She grasped at Megna’s hair and clenched it in her hands, bringing her daughter’s head close to her face.
“Don’t dare disrespect me.”
The kettle whistled sharply and Megna tore away from her mother’s grip, running upstairs to retrieve her shawl before serving tea to her uncles. As she ran, she whispered to Allah, asking for his forgiveness and recited every surah she knew. Her heart beat fast. She could feel sweat beginning to pool in her palms. For the next three days, she could not look her mother in the eyes.
Megna got out of the shower and went straight to work, grabbing a large black garbage bag from the kitchen. The girl walked out of the kitchen and into the adjoining living room. In the center, there was a rug, and on top of that rug there stood a coffee table. A couch and TV were on opposite ends of the room. She had a bookshelf to the side, filled to the brim with books. Framed pictures decorated its first surface.
The Kiraman Katibun on her left shoulder gazed at the picture. Megna knew he was conflicted by it. On the one hand, the picture showed Megna at her happiest, truest self. She smiled genuinely. Her long black hair was pinned at the top of her head. Strands came out in awkward angles, showing off a night of dancing. Her arms were around a friend who looked red and relaxed. On the other hand, she was not dressed modestly, nor was she engaging in behaviors that Islam would uphold. The Kiraman Katibun tapped his pen to his chin, deciding finally that it was better to be safe than sorry. He scribbled in his notebook as Megna put the picture in the garbage bag.
The last photo of Megna’s was of her and her mother. Megna was four-years-old and she looked over a porch, pointing to her mother coming up towards the house. Her mother looked beautiful, her face shining. She had softer, tighter features. She wore a simple red and white sari. During Boishakhi, everyone wears red and white to celebrate the Bengali new year. It was one of the rarer moments she did not have a hijab on while outside of her home. Her hair was wavy, thick, and wild. When at home, she often had it wound in a bun, but it was free in the picture. Megna’s mother looked at her four-year-old daughter with pure adoration. Her arms were out, seconds away from scooping the young girl up. Megna loved the picture – it was her favorite. She, of course, kept that one on the shelf.
Next, Megna went to the kitchen and cleared their collection of beer bottle caps and empty wine bottles lining the top of their cabinets. The girl had to jump on the counter to reach the empty bottles, questioning the decision to keep them as decoration. The Quran advises against one’s consumption of anything that alters one’s state. This includes alcohol, cigarettes, other drugs, and gambling. Although Megna did her research once, and nowhere in the holy book does it strictly forbid alcohol. This is how she would argue it to her mother if her heavy consumption of wine and beer was ever exposed.
There was a knock on the door, causing the girl to jump.
“Assamulaikum, Ma.” Amina stood in a large black pea coat that she was undoing. Underneath, she wore a salwar kameez, a fancy sequined one. It was black and fell around her feet. The orna was delicately draped around her wrinkled neck. Her daughter wondered if the hijab was new. The scarf had a silky texture to it and was patterned with dark blue flowers. Megna felt that her mother made a deliberate effort to look good for her daughter, which was nice. The Kiraman Katibun scribbled down a good deed for Megna’s admiration for her mother.
“Walakumsalaam, Megna.” She reached for her daughter and hugged her tightly. Letting her go, she held Megna at a distance and looked at her. “Do you ever miss me? You don’t call anymore.”
“I don’t call anyone, Ma. I’ve told you.”
“Amee shobai? Am I just anyone? Glad you think so much of me.” Megna took her coat and carefully hung it in the closet.
“Have a seat, Ma. Do you want anything to eat or to drink? Chai?”
“Fix me up some chai, Megna. Oh, before I forget. I got you these.” The older woman brought out a brown package and gave it to Megna.
“Sandesh! Thanks, Ma. I’ve been craving these for a while.”
Megna brought out her tea set complete with a large decorated pot, dainty tea cups, and small matching plates to place below the dainty tea cups. It also came with larger plates for snacks. She took the sandesh from her mother and placed the small brown squares on these plates.
The kettle went off. Megna put three bags of black tea into three dainty tea cups. She set out milk and sugar and brought it all out one by one on the coffee table.
“Thank you, jaan. Now come sit next to your Ammu.” Megna made her way towards her mother and plopped down next to Amina’s right side. The older woman put her arm around her daughter and brought her cheek to the young girl’s head. The air was still and Megna felt a strange ambivalence. Her mother was warm and familiar, but she wanted to jolt up, away from Amina. There were times where Megna could not stand Amina’s touch, like she had sharp claws at the ends of her hands. She wasn’t a teenager anymore, why was she so immature? The left Kiraman Katibun felt similarly. He probably scribbled something like, “disrespecting mother’s affection.” Megna stretched away and grabbed the hot tea cup. After a few blows, she lifted it to her lips and scalded her tongue.
“Did you get the sandesh from Uncle Haleem?”
“Yes. He asks about you sometimes, you know. You should say hi next time you see him.”
“I’ll try.” They both sipped their tea and look around the room.
“How’s your life? Studying hard?”
“It’s good. Yes. How’s your health?”
“Same, same. Back aches, headaches, every kind of ache. Your ma’s getting old.”
They both listened to the sound of Megna’s apartment. People outside are loud, stumbling through their doors. A man laughs at a joke that his friend makes.
“Where is your bathroom again?”
“Straight down the hallway, past my room.” Megna’s mother got up and walked away. The girl sat by herself, thinking about what she was going to do after her mother left, until Amina called her name from her room.
Feeling a sinking sensation in her stomach, Megna walked towards her mother’s voice. Amina stood near the doorway, a large black garbage bag in her hand. She peered into it, scavenging through its contents. It clinked and clanked.
Right then, Megna felt she was about seven-years-old and her mother was scolding her for not cleaning up after herself. She shrunk to the size of a dust particle and looked up at Amina with wide, innocent eyes, regretting every bad decision that she has made up until this point because she didn’t want to be the reason to cause Amina pain. Now Megna wanted her mother to reach out and embrace her. Her mother picked up the picture of Megna and her friend. She waited for Amina to speak.
“There was no trashcan in your bathroom. I saw this and thought it was the trash.” The older woman’s face was hard to read. Her lips were thin, straight. The sequins on her salwar shined brightly. Megna didn’t say anything.
“Who’s in the photo with you?”
“A friend of mine.”
Megna stood small and still.
“Ma, are you mad?”
“What are you wearing in this picture?” Amina’s voice was level.
“A dress.” Megna’s voiced cracked. Her hand began to shake. She looked down at it and stretched her hand out flat against her thigh. The room around her dimmed. Everything was small except for her mother, who loomed higher and higher with each passing second. The bed, the wall, the posters, the closet, and Megna all shrunk before Amina.
“Oh, this one.” She pulls the dress out from the garbage bag. “It’s a good color on you.”
Megna thought about the time her mother made her put on her orna in front of her uncles. She felt Amina’s breath close to her neck, Amina’s clutch on Megna’s hair. Amina put the frames and dress back into the bag, pulling out two bottles of wine. The dim light in her room glinted off the green bottles.
She looks at them for two beats before putting the bottles back in the black garbage bag and walked back towards the living room.
“Come, tea’s getting cold.”
Once Amina was out of the room, Megna sat down on her floor. She, and everything around her, was still small. The Kiraman Katibun stared at her, awaiting action. She tried to control her anger and her thoughts, but she wanted to push them off her shoulders and stomp on them. She wanted to tie their tacky sweaters around their necks and watch them go red. They looked at her with eyes like children. She despised it. Had Allah planted a jinn in her room at that moment? Was he or she whispering those sinful thoughts in her head? Then maybe it wasn’t her fault and she shouldn’t feel guilty about wanting to damage the angels on her shoulders.
She spoke into her hands, just like she used to when she prayed as a child.
Allah, I’m struggling to find my relationship with you. I’m struggling to find my relationship with my mom. Myself. I blame me. Please make me better, if not for myself, then for my mother.
Megna brought her hands to her face and kissed them, just like she used to when she prayed as a child. The Kiraman Katibun on her right shoulder scribbled in his notepad.