Winner of the TMS@LLF 2015 Short Story Contest
Earlier this year, The Missing Slate held a short story competition for those attending the Lahore Literary Festival. We received many, many entries written by writers with a lot of talent. From these, we shortlisted two as winners, both of whom were from Lahore — Sahar Rehan and Yusra Amjad.
In this video, Sahar Rehan reads out her winning entry (published in the box below) ‘The Barren Lands’. The story, set in Pakistan’s Thar Desert, tells a story about a people’s morals as dry and arid as the place they live; about the insufferable cruelties inflicted on women and how the mistakes of men must always be borne by women. Coupled with rich detail and nuanced observations of life in the desert, ‘The Barren Lands’ captured our attention from the very first sentence and maintained it through the length of the piece.
The reading is followed by a short interview on the current publishing scene, the inspiration behind the story, the importance of carving out an individual’s place in society, and other topics of discussion.[box title=”‘The Barren Lands'” style=”default” box_color=”#000000″] By Sahar Rehan othing grows in the deserts of Thar, at least nothing that doesn’t require the price of blood, sweat and backbreaking toil. The days are hard for most but they are harder for Sakina, the manhoos, the perpetually barren; who drained her husband’s long life down to thirty five measly years without showing the courtesy of giving him children to make it worthwhile.
Sakina does not work in her family home. She works in the Big House as a kitchen maid because her father-in-law will not let her tend the goats and her mother-in-law won’t tolerate her manhoos shadow in the kitchen. The village has been suffering through a two year drought; fields have turned in to cracked mazes for ants and tempers are wearing thinner than the livestock that depend on the rain-grass for grazing. Some blame the Baray Saeen for ignoring their pleas for irrigation canals, most blame Sakina, the barren.
Rain clouds flitted over the village a month ago but gave nothing more than a few swift slaps of wind and a piss poor excuse of a dribble leaving the land more parched than it was before. The wells have turned brackish and are infested with lizards.
Sakina’s mother-in-law’s beady eyes have watched Sakina tear her lower lip raw since the storm clouds came and went. There is a new smell of secrets in Sakina’s musk that is picked up often by the old woman’s keen nose. Black clouds converge on the western horizon and the boom of distant thunder can be heard again when Sakina comes to her mother-in-law on hesitant feet, constantly palming her hands, as if to wash off unseen grime.
“Mother,” she croaks, “mother.”
“What is it?” Sakina’s mother-in-law snaps. “What calamity are you going to break on our heads now? Will it rain frogs,” she asks, flicking the tip of her darning needle at the sky, “or will the lightning burn our house down on our heads?”
“Mother,” her mouthings are barely audible whispers but she manages in a faint rush, “I am with child.”
The storm did not break, the winds did not intrude in the small hut; there was only an indiscriminate silence in which the darning needle stilled.
“Was it the Baray Saeen?” the old woman asked quietly.
“His son,” Sakina said sighing with relief. She had expected screaming abuse, a beating or two before being thrown out of the house. Not this calm enquiry in to the nature of her infidelity and her miraculous fertility.
“How far along are you?” the mother-in-law asked, her fingers resuming the diligent flow of the needle in cloth.
“Two months, I think,” Sakina spread the palms of her hands in uncertainty.
“I see,” the old woman nodded, “you’re father-in-law will be coming home soon. I’ll get the dinner started.”
The village slept in peace that night, the sound of thunder lulling it in to sweet dreams of sprouting grasses and wells full of fresh rainwater. In the darkest hour of the night the old couple dragged the body of Sakina to an unused well and dropped her in. The father-in-law looked at the sky hopefully once the deed was done, the mother-in-law stopped to spit in the lifeless face at the bottom of that steep shaft, revelling in the lizards darting forth to try morsels of Skina’s still warm flesh.
The village woke next day to watch the clouds disperse without a single rain drop.
Nothing grows in the deserts of Thar, at least nothing that doesn’t require the price of blood, sweat and backbreaking toil.[/box]