Kash looked out of the window, and wondered why people went to search for life on other planets when those on earth had their own problems. She did not want to take up engineering and add to India’s burden of unemployed engineers. The medical practice had evolved into a business proposition. Politicians were earlier in jail owing to patriotism, but now they were in because of nepotism. She did not want to be lawyer and lying when she was to tell the truth; and tell the truth when she was supposed to be lying. To her, all these professions seemed to intersect somewhere. She wanted to be a journalist that scandalized journalists for a change. But right now, the lazy person she was, literature suited her just fine as she would sit in front of her book and daydream. Her mother’s occasional shouts would awaken her from her reveries and ruminations. Being a mother was the toughest job; but being the mother made it the easiest. The mother was responsible for unity amongst her children, but sometimes she could create divides within individuals too. Though Fatima was her identical twin, Kash was an unclear carbon copy of Fatima.
After the death of Parvez, Nadia had remarried .Her children were expected to easily adjust to the new father as it was their father’s brother, their own blood. However, certain pointers proved that he was more than an uncle and step-father, as conspicuous secrets could not keep themselves from coming back, though they were sent away again and again. They seemed to smell Kash out like sniffer dogs and boomerang back somehow. The greatest news in the world was to find out who the biological father was. But to Kash, it was the greatest tragedy.
Her twin Fatima was unaware of skeletons shoved away in the cupboard. Higly motivated, Fatima held as her role model Fatima al-Fihri, the 9th century princess- the forerunner of Moroccan women in the sphere of education, the force behind constructing the college mosque complex called al-Qarawiyin. Today, the mosque is considered to be the largest in North Africa. Kash conjectured on the difference in time and space: a person well ahead of times and a Woman of Substance.
Kash, on the other hand, inherited an ambiguous inheritance of a father’s name that seemed to wrestle her down. Sometimes Life turned a terrible opponent, each time you woke up from derision, slapped you back right into position. Fatima viewed Life and any aspect of it in a positive light: “Let us do something for the country, for the state or at least for our community. There was a world to Muslim girls beyond the Hijab.” She had a very revolutionary commonsensical view about the Hijab. ” Wrong are the people who maintain that the Hijab restricts the freedom of women. Let us say that Allah has permitted Woman to look at the beauty of Men; Men are denied the rights to do so.” Fatima would often say: ”Let us set up an educational institution and educate girls on the real ideals of Islam and academics.” Terrorism was evolving into another religion based on false pretexts. As all the popular religions had their texts, Terrorism had pretext as its subtext. In an age where George Bush said:”Either you are with us; or you are with the terrorists”; there was a world beyond these two diametric superpowers in the current age-Neo-colonialism and Terrorism. Grandfather always exclaimed, “The problem of George Bush and the Terrorist was basically the same: Both of them assumed that the people around them were fools.” Reason was more of Excuse to them. The proposed University would herald women scholars that the society lacked. “If Fatima al-Fihri could do it way back in the 9th century, did it seem improbable now”, ruminated Kash. Unlike Tughlaq , Fatima al-Fihri actually implemented her futuristic ideals into practice.” The University of al-Qarawiyin features in the Guinness Book of World Records, recognized to be “the oldest continuously operating institution of higher learning in the world.”
Kash wondered how a feminist reading of the Quran would make a lot of difference. The contradictions had never been pointed out by male scholars-as consequence it had been viewed as a religion that advocated polygamy. The justification according to patriarchy, or rather excuse was that The Quran said: "And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice then only one." The significant fact was that they forgot that there were no orphans around; and in another part of the same chapter it said:"Ye will not be to deal equally between your wives, however much ye wish to do so." “So what does this amount to-a total contradiction”, Kash wondered. Fatima surely had her point. There was this indubitable need on educating the girls. The twins were adamant that the girls should utilize the Hijab, as a security, not a shell to hide in.
Kash pondered over the widespread misconception that Islam was essentially phallocentric. This was not true at all. The husband was definitely more important than the wife. However, the Mother was three places higher than the Father. Over plus was the fact that there was a one-to-many correspondence between a mother and her kids. Woman was made from the ribs of Man; but innumerable times after that he was created from her womb.For Nadia, her daughters were the two poles she clinged on to, to stand up in Life. Nadia was herself lost between two worlds but valiantly tried to move on in spite of circumstances . The death of Parvez had left a huge hole in her family that Hassan filled up like a missing jigsaw piece. Nonetheless, she was still was bound to and caught between two associations, two surnames. Though she loved one, he was not perfect. Though the other was perfect, she did not love him. She wished that she could merge these qualities into one. They say that –Marriages are made in heaven. Well, what about recycled marriages?
Hassan approached the girls with the air of two buds being grafted onto a new stem. However, he knew that the buds were his own. Therefore the liberties he took with them resulted in inaction though the intention was noble. He wanted to love them and tell them that he was more than their father’s brother. But he was scared that the truth would distance them further. He had a hint that Kash knew, for he could see it in her eyes. The love-hate relationship set up an atmosphere of Cold War in the house. Fatima was oblivious to all these and went ahead in life speeding towards her goal with the construction of the structure with (step) dad’s wealth.” Kash was caught in a whirlpool of identity…though she appeared to help Fatima she could not do it whole-heartedly. The twins visualized their dream materializing before them through the window, as the structure of the university rose before their eyes.
Nadia ensured that the ghosts of the past would not haunt her children’s future as she pondered over her missing diary. Nadia was very worried about Kash and her instability, as compared to Fatima who was quite focused. And the Diary stood significantly in the background. Diaries were autonomous entities by themselves. Kash wondered what it would be like if Diaries wrote autobiographies. Most of them were prisoners locked up away, brought into scene at the writer’s will. Sometimes they functioned as punching bags, or the writer’s spitting ground. At times, the Diary was not only mightier than the sword, but more powerful than the nuclear bomb. Others were destroyed at the funeral pyre with the Death of the Author in the ritual of Sati as they had no right to live. Some were like obedient housewives who performed their basic functions of being written all over, and did not ask any questions. Some were half-written, half-blank suffering from a major identity crisis. Others had a clandestine affair with other individuals secretly where they blurted out all secrets. Like the diary Kash had kept away. That day, Kashmira dreamt of a New-Historic reading of Fatima’s diary, and Fatima al-Fihri’s diary. One never knew whether Fatima al-Fihri ever kept a diary. And though Fatima never kept a diary; she was like an open book.
As five years passed, Fatima was happy to wind up her B.Arch to work around the clock towards her goal. She hoped that people would ‘invest’ in their girl children in an age of reification. Girls in families were a debt before marriage, and a liability later. Keeping this factor in mind, for a business-minded background, the family should have been happy when triplets were born. Nadia was told that her babies were polyzygotic triplets: a combination of fraternal and identical siblings. The doctor explained it to her:”For instance, a set of triplets may be composed of identical twins from one egg and a third sibling from a second egg.”As the girls crossed their twenties, Nadia wondered that if these identical twins-Kash and Fatima were so different in temperament, how different would the fraternal one be… had it survived? The delivery was like ”Buy one ,get two free.”But grandma was horrified, for giving birth to one girl child was bad enough…and three? The only relief was that one died soon after birth.
Fatima mused on how the Mother was generally conceived to be the one who gave birth to the babies. But she was also the one who killed the baby before it was born. For the baby is born in the mother’s womb itself. People were perturbed by the underlying war between Pakistan and India. “But we were at war with ourselves.” Fatima made it a point to have this quote by Mother Teresa carved on the wall:” “But I feel that the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion, because it is a war against the child - a direct killing of the innocent child - murder by the mother herself. And if we accept that a mother can kill her own child, how can we tell other people not to kill one another?” Fatima loved her mother for the person she was; Nadia always encouraged and stood by her children’s dreams. Fatima was annoyed at Kash’s tendency to revolt against anything Nadia proposed .She would advise Kash “We have begun dreaming just now, but our parents harbored dreams of us even before we were born.” Kashmira retorted:” I wish I were not Born in the first place.”
Like the formation of polyzygotic triplets, the partition of India took place in 15 August 1947. The fact that India and Pakistan were identical twins could not be denied even by the forerunners of the nation. Gandhiji said:”My whole soul rebels against the idea that Hinduism and Islam represent two antagonistic cultures and doctrines. To assent to such a doctrine is for me a denial of God.” Grandma could not digest such a partition way back then. Then why was she obstinate in her attempts to separate the twins? ”When these two get together, they instill all sorts of notorious ideas in the girls,” she would always complain. Her aim was to get them married off and separate them, in an act of simultaneous reconciliation and separation. Kash was reminded of the separation scene in the chapter “Madras Mail” in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” where Rahul and Estha were separated. Kash read out loud Nancy Segal’s book "Indivisible By Two" and translated it for her Grandmother to hear. "She believes twins never benefit from forced separation and says it should be handled on a case-by-case basis.” Grandmother, very conveniently, pretended not to hear. Sometimes handicap was also a blessing in disguise. For grandma, it was selective handicap, for she could hear whatever she wanted to hear. In such a circumstance, Grandma’s hearing- aid functioned more as a filter.
Kash came back from college that day. It was one of those unnerving days, when her friends, with sympathy verging on empathy, questioned her on how it was to live with a person who was not her ‘real’ father. Sometimes she wished that she could blurt out the truth that her father was still alive. However, she preferred not to cast aspersions on her mother’s character by doing so. One’s Religion and one’s Mother were very similar in this regard -whether we listened to them or not, we could not bear a single word against them. The crumbling feeling within her was inversely proportional to the structure that was growing outside. They had named the institution ‘Fatima’ after their role model Fatima al-Fihri. Kash was tired of their Friends’ taunts as to why the college was named after her own twin. Kash was tired of answering their queries. Fatima al-Fihri was so deeply intertwined in their lives that Kash had even begun dreaming about her every night. She wore a burkha, and a veil over her face. She simply refused to disclose her face. But yesterday, in a rare gesture, she had lifted her veil. To Kash’s surprise, she found her twin sister’s face inside. Now, Kash also began to sense that her friends’ pointers might have been actually true. Was the college being really built for Fatima? Was it because Kash lacked motivation and Fatima was the real force behind it? Kash looked at her own reflection in the mirror and felt jealous even of her mirror image.
As the final exams approached Nadia was very concerned about Fatima’s health. She experienced occasional bouts of fatigue. Nadia reprimanded Fatima on neglecting her heath, as she was torn between her studies and the institution work. That day Fatima came home really pale. Kash wondered what the problem was. She side-stepped the question and replied: ”Just shoulder pain.” She shut herself in her room for hours. Kash speculated whether something untoward had happened….or had she stumbled onto some secret.”No, not possible”, she thought. Later, as the family had supper together , Nadia looked at Fatima’s face filled with excruciating discomfort and said: ”You better come with me to the doctor after tomorrow’s test. Exams can wait. You need not hide anything from me.”
Kash returned home in the evening that day, and a found a dead, vacant look in her mother’s eyes. Nadia never had such an expression on her face. She seemed to move about mechanically as though her brain was benumbed. She stumbled a lot, dropped dishes clumsily. Kash watched her as she indulged in pre-prandial reading on the couch. What could possibly be the problem? Even while Hassan and Nadia had one of their major fights, Kash had never seen her like this. She was aware of the fact that Nadia and Fatima had gone out together that day. “All right”, she thought,” what would be the worst thing possible that could have happened…..that Fatima had read the diary, and confronted Mamma?” Little did she comprehend that if God willed ,things worse than that could happen.
“Mamma, what’s the problem”, she asked. Nadia opened her mouth to let out the words and choked as though the shock had drained all the charge in her away. Kash was alarmed herself. She did not realize her mother would break down to this extent. She embraced Kash as though she clinged on to dear life and said: ”Honey, you have to be very, very brave before you listen to this….The doctor seriously doubts that Fatima has cancer.”
Kash was stupefied at the news as though a speeding train had crushed her beyond repair. The news of cancer was like cancer itself: It ate up your whole being till nothing of life existed. Kash was now at war with two things that she had no resistance against-the Past and cancerous cells that were developing in somebody else’s body.
Fatima looked unusually euphoric that day. She had a rare aura about her always. She possessed the incorrigible tendency to infuse the ones around her with an optimism that was undying and an enthusiasm that was highly infectious.”Why are all of you wearing such long faces? Kash , don’t be such a Killjoy…Only fifteen more days for college to wind up and then I’m free. Free for life.” Kash cringed at these words. She wished it had been her, she who was wasting away in vain. Such was life. ”We- The Sisters -can now onwards be devoted to this joint endeavour. The Fihri sisters had devoted their energy to two different enterprises. While Fatima al-Fihri built the Al Qarawiyyin mosque, Mariam al-Fihri was responsible for the Al-Andalus mosque. This particular institution would be a symbol of unity and solidarity.
That night, for the first time, Hassan , Nadia and Kashmira sat as a Family and discussed Fatima. It was amazing how time, space and circumstances could alter relationships. They decided not to tell her immdedaitely, but were apprehensive about the process of medication. The news of cancer was like pregnancy: How long could you hide it? Fatima al-Fihri had lost most of her dear ones- husband, parents and brothers -when she decided to devote her life to a cause. Here the equation was just the opposite; everybody was going to be there, but the forerunner. Experience had not rendered even the doctor immune… …to the disease. He asserted in an apologetic tone that the disease was in an advanced state, and was perturbed at the age of the victim.
One could not comprehend when Fatima came to know of the disease, but it was evident that she came to know. ‘Oncology’ was inscribed all over the place. And unprecedented hair loss did not leave her hair standing on one end. She was inexplicably cool and worked tediously towards her goal though she knew that she did not have much time left. On one side, Fatima was investing for the future of others. On the other, Kash was not investing even in her own. Fatima took her predicament with maturity that was well beyond her years. Though her eyes not longer shone, it still managed to reflect. ”God loves me dearly and wants me on an urgent call –or- perhaps he feels that you are more suitable for the work”, she would assure Kash. She amazed Kash by quoting from Tennyson, ”Perhaps, I have drunk life to the lees”. Kashmira began assisting her more in her educational endeavours. She had even actually begun liking it. Fatima ascertained;”I herewith invest for my hereafter.” In spite of all the medication and trauma, she went about relentlessly with her work. This institution, Fatima hoped, would bring more fame to their state beating the prevailing state of infamy.
The last days of Fatima were heart-rending for the family. The fear of Death was by far worse than Death itself. Like a mother on the verge of death, who feared what would become of her offsprings after her time; Fatima was more concerned about the progress of the university than her own deteriorating health. She asked her doctor with implausible ease, ”How much time do I have left?” just as she would look into her watch during schooldays determinedly during the duration of examinations. The doctor later told Hassan and Nadia,” In the 37 years of my extensive experience, I have never come across such a patient.”
The historian Ibn Khaldoun had stated with regard to the Al Qarawiyin University: “By building this valorous monument, this pious woman gave to the sovereigns of the epoch a rich lesson in terms of devotion and fair charity.”
25 years later, as Kashmir(a) received the MacArthur award for her exceptional contribution to education, she concluded her speech at the award ceremony,” The University had been named after Fatima al-Fihri by its founder Fatima for her vision ahead of times. But we named the University after my sister, Fatima whose vision was larger than life.”