I was ten when I first learned how lonely it is to be a woman.
The sun was low on the green Sharjah hilltop, where my aunts Masi and Kaki, two female cousins, and I were picking marigolds. For every yellow marigold, an orange one — to have even-looking garlands for the pooja tomorrow.
The marigolds were planted in the shape of “SMILE, YOU’RE IN SHARJAH.” We didn’t want to knock off any letters, so I had to be methodical. It was a cool day that smelled like wet grass. People walked out of the fruit and vegetable market, holding heavy bags that must have left indentations on their fingers. Date sellers set up their carts in a row outside the market. Their calls mingled with the chirping of white birds that visited us every November. It was almost serene, punctuated by the periodic honks from cars at the interchange; a trouble spot where three roads merged and no one remembered to give way.
Kaki yelled at me from across the letter R. Pick two and move to the next letter! I was startled to realize I had stopped too long to look around. Kaki was the most careful person I knew. She warned me not to stand under a neem tree at night or I would be haunted by ghosts who lived in it, and never to eat more than two rotlis at lunch, so I wouldn’t ruin my future.
Masi handed me a blue plastic bag and I dropped my six flowers in, asking if that was enough, but she didn’t answer. She wasn’t paying attention. I followed her gaze to see the flashing red lights at the bottom of the hill. The shurta had arrived. A lead ball formed in my throat. A big officer got out of the car. He had a stern face.
You’re not allowed to pick these flowers. Masi walked down to talk to him. Masi was the bravest of all my aunts. She was also the kindest. She saved chocolates for me on a separate shelf in her fridge and answered my questions, no matter how many I asked. After a few minutes of conversation, the officer looked up, his eyes softer. He asked us to pick sparingly and leave soon. Masi looked relieved. We have enough now and we’re just leaving.
Once he drove away, we settled on a thin bed sheet which we spread over damp grass. Kaki pulled out a bag of seeds and gave me and my cousins a fistful each to feed the birds. They would flutter away when we scattered the seeds, and float back down to pick at them. Flutter and back. Flutter and back.
The sun was nearly gone now, replaced by the golden glow of tall street lamps. I folded my legs and sat in front of Masi so she could re-braid my hair. The aunts were in the middle of a conversation — I hung onto every word. These were no ordinary conversations. They contained instructive and entertaining stories — mystery, scandal, good women and bad ones. Masi ran her fingers through my hair to gently untangle clumps.
Do you think Kalpana will come to the pooja tomorrow?
No, I don’t think she’ll show her face in public. I would be mortified.
I heard she knew about it for a whole year.
How did it not come out, then?
I know everyone blames the husband for the affair, but I’m telling you, with these things… You can’t clap with one hand. She was barely in the marriage, always roaming for “work.”
I remember her almost boasting that she doesn’t cook twice a day.
And you’ve seen them together, right? It looks like he has all the power. But the truth is: He didn’t move a finger without her permission. To me, it looks fishy. Who’s to say she wasn’t having an affair of her own?
Good women cook twice a day and never roam for work. Masi made me a loose braid, and smoothed and tucked the strays to the side. When she was done, she held up a marigold from the bag and stuck into a fold of my braid. You have the nicest hair, don’t ever cut it.
One of my cousins whispered to me to go to the other side of the hill where the aunts wouldn’t see us. An excellent scheme. Our favorite thing to do was to roll down this hill. One of the cousins would take turns standing guard at the bottom so we didn’t roll into incoming traffic. Now, we were too old to be rolling, so secrecy was paramount.
But isn’t the grass too wet? They’ll be able to tell from our clothes.
Okay, we won’t roll, we’ll just run down!
We managed not to get caught for a few blissful minutes, but soon we heard Kaki call out for us. We had to stop by the gold souq after going to her house. One of my cousins hurried to help pack and I followed, tidying and offering to carry the blue plastic bag. Good women cleaned up after themselves.
We walked back to my aunt’s house in Rolla, where the smell of hot sunflower oil wafted into the building corridor. We were greeted with clangs of steel ladles and the shouts of yet more aunts directing each other in the kitchen. The bag of marigolds was emptied on the dining table, and my cousins and I gathered around. Masi handed me a needle with a white thread through it and showed me how to gently pierce the middle of the green bud, so the flowers wouldn’t fall off the garlands. Be careful with the needle, baby. I moved slowly, but Masi was making garlands at an astonishing pace, all while barely looking down and talking to Kaki.
Veena’s daughter is coming tomorrow.
Doesn’t she live in the US? She’s back?
No, just visiting. I ran into them the other day at Happy Home. She didn’t say more than two words to me. That’s what happens when they live in another country.
Tut, tut. None of our people are there either. All alone. Why did Veena send her daughter so far away?
She got a job in the US.
There are jobs here too — and our people. Who knows what she’s doing all by herself? Running wild.
I imagined a woman with red lipstick curled on the floor of a dark room in a sad city. Good women don’t live by themselves in faraway places. Just then, out of the kitchen came a plate of fresh sweets. Kaki didn’t touch a single one. I reached for two and she scoffed, so I quietly put one back down. It was time to leave. As Kaki, Masi, my two cousins and I headed to the elevator, Masi held my hand, and I looked down to see she had slipped me two sweets. She winked.
Masi drove and my cousins and I piled into the tiny Toyota Sunny. I had to sit on Kaki’s lap, half-squatting and hovering so that Kaki wouldn’t complain about her legs hurting in front of everyone and ask me how much I weigh. It was a short ride, but after thirty seconds of stiff legs, I had to distract myself. I spotted my friend Akriti’s balcony from among many little boxes as we drove by her blue and white building. There was always a large orange cloth line drying, visible through the steel net. It was called the Sharjah Electricity Building, so for many years I thought that’s where the whole city’s electricity came from.
I decided to count how many floors there were on the rounded Sharjah Cinema (SNTTA) building, and how many palm trees we passed. Too many. We were moving too fast — And too slow; my legs were numb at this point.
At the Sharjah Gold Souq parking lot, I stepped out and shook my legs, laughing painfully at the pins and needles. My cousins gave me knowing smiles. The ferris wheel at Al Jazeera was aglow, slowly turning. The multi-colored lights called out from across the water. They reminded me of fireworks on the corniche, for which I stood on the steel railing to get a few inches closer to the sky. Kaki howled at me to hurry. They had already crossed the road. Good women don’t dawdle.
Oud scents from perfume shops and the smell of popcorn from the cafeteria met us at the souq door. Dad worked at the souq and it smelled exactly like all his shirts. On the ledge of the indoor circular fountain, kids put one foot in front of another. Look at my balancing trick! Adults in sarees, abayas, and jeans responded with calls to be careful, while lounging on the stone seating.
We walked to our family shop, which was tucked between a money exchange and a gemstone store. I asked Masi why the shop was named Al Marijah. In the first language I ever learned, Gujarati, it meant “go die.” Masi laughed when I explained this. It’s named after the Sharjah street we live on, and in Arabic, it means “beauty.” She smiled and tucked a strand behind my ear.
Inside the shop, it was as if sunshine had turned solid. I could see every pore on my skin. My favorite part was a wooden door that only opened from behind the counter. I loved watching the look of surprise on customers’ faces when it was opened for me — a girl. The sales executives all stood up when the aunts walked in, but they didn’t seem to notice. They were in the middle of another conversation:
Did L Jewellers close?
Didn’t you hear? They went bankrupt. Folded up the business and moved back to India.
I had no clue. When was this?
A few months ago.
It was inevitable. You saw how Megha lived. Spent money like water.
I wondered how they could afford to live in that duplex apartment. Lavishly furnished too.
Oh, god. Every time I called her she would make it a point to mention how hard it was to run a household with TWO floors.
Maybe if she sells all her branded clothes and purses, they could afford to move back to Sharjah.
If you ask me, if she wanted to spend all her money, it should have been on her daughter. Dressed like a beggar. Selfish woman.
Good women don’t spend money on themselves, only on others. Masi and Kaki walked all the way into the shop to the last display case. The jewelry in the front is for the Arabs, not for us. I disliked it all equally. Gold shined too much. They spent what felt like hours asking to see and try different earrings and bracelets. That one, under it. No, the one on the left. Bored, I asked my dad for money from the cash counter. For a dirham, the man at the cafeteria always gave me a big bag full of fresh popcorn instead of a small box. That cafeteria isn’t there anymore. It caught fire. Now you can tell where it was by the black halo it left on the roof. I handed the cafeteria man a dirham and he loaded a single plastic bag to the brim with popcorn, which we all shared.
Inhaling the popcorn, my cousins and I watched some boys bravely walk against the escalator steps in the center of the souq. We admired them from afar but knew better than to try it. Kaki said it was the easiest way to crack open your skull. Instead, we ran up the souq’s many stone staircases to play hide and seek. It smelled of must and metal. Since I knew the first floor well, I chose the best hiding spots — behind the bronze statues spilling out of the antiques store, behind hanging Persian rugs, and a little nook near the stone stairwell. I used to steal moments and come upstairs to watch the dust dance in the early evening light through the carved stone windows and lean on stone railings, pretend I’m in an airplane, and move people downstairs with my fingertips.
Before we had time for a fourth round of hide and seek, Kaki came to call us back. Masi seemed to be in a great mood. She gave me her bag to hold and showed me the earrings she bought. On the drive home, she asked me to come early to Kaki’s place the next day to help with a colorful rangoli in the corridor. Good women were always eager to help.
When I arrived the next day, Masi was wiping the tiles clean. Fetch the sand we dyed the day before. We filled a large plastic bag full of sand from the rough parking lot behind our building. We sieved it twice to remove the rocks and bits, and then sorted it into piles. Each pile was then dyed a different color. Masi drew the outline on the tiles with a pencil and asked me and my cousins to fill it out while she and the other aunts finished the never-ending task of cooking.
I had to be careful and go slow, so I didn’t make a mess. Sand rangolis are impossible to do over and when you wipe them clean, all the sand colors mix so they can’t be used again. Our favorite color – mine and my cousins’ – was blue, so we decided to make it an all-blue rangoli with different shades. We slowly filled colors in, one pinch of sand at a time. In half an hour, we ran out of blue sand. I was walking to the kitchen to ask Masi if we could get some more and dye it ourselves and if it would dry in time, when I heard the aunts talking from outside. I heard Masi say my name.
You should have seen her top yesterday — sleeveless! She’s not young anymore. Running wild around the gold souq. She’s given too much freedom if you ask me. She’s going to end up in trouble if her mother doesn’t check her.
My stomach dropped to my feet. I knew Kaki said things about me, but Masi? My Masi. I looked up at the garlands dangling above the front door to see the marigolds drooping. I looked down to see the gash in my heart bleeding onto the apartment tiles. I was ten when I learned how lonely it is to be a woman. I learned something else I will never forget: Good women do not crush little girls’ hearts.
Note from the Prize Jury:
“Bhoomika Ghaghada’s “Too Much Freedom” captivates from the first line. It starts off in a Sharjah of marigolds, a landscape spruced for tourists, before soon becoming a searingly personal story about a girl who becomes disillusioned with her women role models.
Hypocrisy and love are neatly interlaced into the characters of the older women, whom the young protagonist looks up to. The marigolds and the gold, as symbols of desire and beauty, are effective foils to the gossip she hears around her. The preparation for a pooja, an offering/sacrifice, also reflects on the sacrifices that women are supposed to make in this society.
In the end, the narrator circles back to what she has learned about the “loneliness” of women, with a change in how she views those around her.”
The Barjeel Mudun Prize is an international competition inviting writers to showcase, in fiction, a city in the Arab world they know intimately. The competition aims to produce short stories and narratives that reflect the urban spirit of cities, neighborhoods, and structures in the region.
Bhoomika Ghaghada is a writer and independent researcher, born and raised in the UAE. She explores how media, urban spaces, and gender function in the Gulf, focusing on structural inequalities and its everyday manifestations. Her writing has appeared in Jadaliyya, Postscript Magazine, and Unootha Mag. Her work takes on many mediums, including community building as co-founder of @gulfcreativecollective, for which she was awarded the Warehouse421 Homebound Residency 2021. She has an MA in Media Studies from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn.