Published July 17, 2019

The first time I saw Rukshana was at her sixteenth birthday party in 1979, a joint party with her best friend Shaheen. The party was held in the Hall of Westlands Primary School. We weren’t invited but our friend , Ankuli  was and he took along a gang of ten people. I walked into the dimly lit school hall and saw people dancing. This was my first adult party with dancing, dim lights, alcohol and no adult supervision; every teenager’s dream.
Rukshana looked so gorgeous in a white sundress. Her shoulder length black hair fell in big curls around her face. She had little make-up on –just red lipstick and black kohl around her big brown eyes. Her bare arms and legs were golden brown. She was dancing and laughing, the star of the night. Shaheen also wore white and looked cute but nothing like Rukshana. It wasn’t just her looks; Rukshana was just so full of life and happy. She reminded me of a young Marilyn Monroe. But her sexuality had an innocence, a naturalness about it, like a young lioness.
“Hello, Rukshana. I just wanted to wish you a Happy Birthday,” I said approaching her near the stage.
“Oh, thank you, “she said turning to kiss me on the cheek. She smelled delicious; a smell of ripe peaches and flowers.
“I am Shaza; we came with Ankuli who knows the D.J.”
“Oh, you know Ankuli?” she asked.
“Yes, my mum is friends with his sister,” she seemed puzzled but I didn’t explain further.
Ankuli worked in his family’s garage by day but at night he was a DJ. He knew everyone who was anyone and got invited to all the hottest parties. He often invited my sister Tazmin and I along and people were intrigued to see us with him. He had a changing stream of girlfriends, who definitely weren’t saari chokri “nice girls”  and super sexy. My mother knew nothing about this, to her he was just Zaitun’s little brother. He treated us like sisters, kept a sharp eye on us and always had us home by midnight.
“That’s great. The more people the better; this is the best night of my life, “she said throwing her head back and smiling. There were boys all around her, trying to talk to her and impress her. She smiled and listened to all of them but juggled them all not choosing one or dancing more than a little while with any of them. I couldn’t blame the boys, if I was a male I would have been hovering around her.
Around eleven o’clock my parents showed up. We had told them where the party was and they said they were out for a drive and just came by. I didn’t believe that for a minute. When my friends saw my parents a major panic broke out. Leena went up to Mum and begged her,“Aunty, Aunty, please don’t tell my dad you saw me at a party. They think I am at my cousin’s house watching movies. They hate my boyfriend. If they know I came to a party with him, they’ll kill me. I’ll never be allowed to go anywhere…”
“Leena you are only sixteen, you shouldn’t be lying to your father. He just wants you to concentrate on school. You are far too young to have a steady boyfriend. “
But after much more pleading Mum agreed to stay quiet. Most of my friends in Nairobi sneaked around and covered up for each other to go to movies and parties. Indian parents were obsessed with their daughters’ reputations and wanted them to study all the time and stay away from boys. The sons could do whatever they wanted to as long as they did well in school and didn’t get anyone pregnant.
But we girls were much more rebellious than our mothers had been. We were influenced by American movies and romance novels and were curious about the opposite sex. Hormones trumped caution and we somehow did meet boys, often crossing religious lines. The Hindu, Sikh and Muslim Indians went to the same schools and we all ended up at the same parties and dances. So there was a strong unstated code to keep quiet and not tell your parents whom you saw at dances and parties in case word got out.
I got tired of hearing my friends’ tedious stories about the boys they were in love with. They all seemed the same…Tom Selleck and John Travolta wannabees with designer jeans, sunglasses, too much cologne and thin moustaches. They wore designer shirts with too many buttons left open at the top and heavy often fake gold chains.
Many years later in 1992, I was staying at a beach hotel in Mombasa with my parents. I had been married a few months ago and my husband was in England while I spent some time with Mum and Dad. He was joining me later.
Mum and Dad had started talking to a young woman in the hotel’s coffee lounge. They knew her from the town jamaat khana in Nairobi which she attended every day. It was Rukshana. She was now a travel agent and was at the beach on a short holiday. My parents were totally charmed by her. “Such a lively girl, she is so nice, you must talk to her Shaza.”
She was ten years older but still as beautiful at twenty eight. Now she wore much more makeup and her eyes were harder. That innocence she had had seemed to have disappeared.
She and I became friendly. She told me she had a married Hindu lover she had been with for two years, a Vinod Patel. I heard a lot about how the guy loved her so much and all the presents he bought her. He had even taken on her on short holidays to Dubai. He had had a “love marriage” with an Ismaili woman who became a Hindu after she married him.
“But how can you do that to another Ismaili woman? She gave up so much to marry him, she even changed her religion. Don’t you feel guilty…?” I told her.
“I don’t care. He really loves me and he looks after her anyway. They have a big house; she has everything…Servants, a driver, whatever she wants.”
“He has two children with her. Think about them.”
“No, I don’t. His wife has become so fat and boring. She should have looked after herself, her looks, and her figure. You know what these rich guys are like.”
She was right about the rich Indian guys in Kenya. The older generation was notorious for having women on the side and even long term mistresses, who were like second wives. It seemed that the younger guys who had chosen their own wives, in so called “love marriages” were doing the same thing now. I gave up lecturing her as I realized it wasn’t really any of my business. Rukshana had travelled a lot and was easy to talk to.
We had a birthday cake for Mum’s birthday on March 26th and Rukshana  had a slice of the strawberry cream cake. When I went back to Nairobi, she phoned me  one evening to go to a jazz club. Actually that was Nairobi’s only jazz club. Rukshana was wearing a black mini dress and high heels, the dress plunged daringly revealing perfect golden brown breasts. It seemed a bit too daring for Nairobi.
When we walked into the club the heavy Kikuyu manager himself came over. He bantered with Rukshana, giving her an enthusiastic bear hug.
“Ah, so this is your friend, so nice to meet you, “he said when Rukshana introduced us. He leered at me holding onto my hand too long, I felt uncomfortable. He gave us a table near the stage. They sent us complimentary fruit juices and seltzers all evening. She knew all the waiters and joked around with everyone.
“I come here a lot, “she said. I thought she must like jazz a lot. There was an African singer who was wonderful and I was enjoying myself. Then I noticed my old friend Leena was with a big group of friends nearby. We went over to say hello and I introduced Rukshana but they all knew her already. Rukshana suggested we all go dancing to Carnivore one night but Leena was very non-committal which surprised me as she was such a party animal.
A couple of days later I met Leena for cappuccinos and pastries at Sarit Center.
“How do you know Rukshana”, she asked me at once. I was a bit surprised. Usually we would spend the first half hour discussing her latest cloned boyfriend.
“Oh, we just met in Mombasa. She’s a lot of fun. Do you remember we went to her party ten years ago? Why didn’t you want to come out with her? Don’t you like her?”
“Shaza, I guess you don’t know. You’ve been away a long time.”
“Know what? Tell me?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.”
“Well, I know she’s a rukhroo. She goes out with a lot of men.”
No, no she’s worse than a rukhroo.”
“Now, you’ve made me curious. Tell me!”
She hesitated and then said, “Well, I guess you should know. Rukshana is a call girl. That’s how she supports herself.”
“What! No way! She’s a travel agent…she goes to the mosque every day. You know how people in this town like to bad mouth girls. It can’t be true.”
But I realized it was true. It explained a lot. The expensive clothes and jewelry she wore. The way the African manager knew her so well. Even what she herself had hinted at. So her clients could just phone her and she would go over and have sex with them, she had to sleep with white men, black men and Indian men. The idea was mind boggling, this was like something from a movie.
“You know I can’t really blame her,” Leena continued. “Her father died when she was seventeen, and she felt she had to support her family. Her mother can’t work as she is sick. And once you start doing this you can’t stop as your name is mud. No Indian guy will ever marry Rukshana now. Even if he agrees, the family will check her out and stop him. Twice Indian guys broke things off with her when the families found out about her.
“But how does she find these men?”
“She has goes to the Hilton and New Stanley to pick up rich tourists. People have seen her. A couple of  older Indian guys are her regular customers as well. They don’t care who knows.” Leena explained. “My reputation is already bad enough. I can’t go out with her anywhere. You should be careful as well, “Leena finished as she sipped her cappuccino.
“Me. I am a married woman. I am so respectable.”
“So what. Your husband is not here. You know how poisonous people are. They will say you are in the same business. This is Nairobi, Shaza, not the States or England. You are not abroad anymore. We have to live by the rules here. Why do you think I don’t like it here? We might have a jazz club but we are still stuck with all these bloody narrow-minded Indians who do nothing but gossip all day long,” she finished bitterly.
Now, I remembered a conversation we had once had about sex. At the time I had laughed but now I realized that she was hinting it was her profession. I was shocked. I went home and ended up telling Mummy everything over a cup of tea.We sat for a long time at the veranda table. My dog Monty was running around chasing birds on the green lawn but not catching any. Leon was dozing at my feet hoping to get a biscuit.
Mum was not surprised, maybe she had heard the rumors. In Kenya prostitution is very common. When we were children I remember driving past the main Post Office in the city and seeing all the African women lingering outside. They wore high heels and very short dresses, some seemed quite young.
“Raat ji raani.” Queens of the night, Dad would comment as we drove by. We knew who they were. They were accepted as we knew how desperate women could be in such a poor country. But this was different. She was Ismaili, one of us. Rukshana didn’t fit the stereotype of a call girl either. She loved her mother and was very devout.
“I wondered how she afforded such nice clothes and that car. Travel agents don’t make that much money.”
“But Mummy she had no choice, her father died. She had to look after her family”
“You always have a choice. You know our Community has a welfare scheme. They would have helped her. How could her mother let her do this? How could she? And Rukshana she has ruined her own life…”
“Think of Ameena. She was also poor but she got a scholarship to MIT University. People say it is the best University in the whole world for learning about computers and things like that. Now she is a Computer expert and makes so much money in that soft micro place, wherever it is.”
“You mean Microsoft Mummy.”
“Same thing.”
I thought of Ameena with her big coke bottle glasses, frizzy hair and gangly skinny body. Her nose was always buried in a book.
“Ameena was never beautiful. Rukshana told me even the headmaster at the Aga Khan Academy made a pass at her. No one encouraged her to study. And not everyone is as clever as Ameena.”
“That headmaster was terrible. Thank God he left. Beauty can be very dangerous. That’s why I always told you girls, just study, being good looking is not enough.”
I knew people who got welfare from the Community and they had to live simply in small, poky, flats. Even though the welfare was supposed to be anonymous, word got out or people guessed. I couldn’t imagine Rukshana with all her pride wanting to live like that.
“Maybe her mother doesn’t know. She might not tell her.”
“She comes home late at night. All those fancy clothes and jewelry. Her mother lives with her. If she doesn’t know, she must be totally blind. She knows.”
“You can talk to her at jamaat khana but you can’t go anywhere with her. People will start talking about you as well,” Mum added.
I knew Mum was right. Besides I was so shocked I didn’t want to be her friend anymore. We both agreed not to tell Dad. He might tell his friends and then there would be even more gossip. I wondered if I should ask Rukshana about it and then thought it would be better to let her have her dignity.
So when she phoned a couple of times, I was always too busy to go out. I bumped into her at the mosque a week later and she knew that I knew. I was friendly but it wasn’t the same. She looked at me sadly and walked away.
The next time I visited Kenya, in 1996 five year later, my parents told me that Farhad had taken a mistress. Farhad was an Indian guy I had grown up with who was just three years older than me. He was handsome, rich and charming so all the girls had a crush on him. But at the same time, parents trusted him as he was always respectful and polite to them.
On Kushiali twice a year in July and December we had celebrations for the Imam’s birthday and his coronation as Imam. There were feasts of biriani, mithai, ice cream and tea. We dressed up in our best clothes, a new dress or a sari. There was traditional dancing as well. We danced the Gujarati garbas and rasras that were part of our long ago Indian heritage.
Daandia we played in pairs. Two lines of people with sticks stood about four feet apart. You hit the person opposite you lightly with your daandia and then swirled around to the other line, changing places with your partner. All this was done to the rhythm of a band playing Indian filmi songs and later popular hits. It was like square dancing with sticks. in a disco.
Dad would get a phone call about two weeks before Kushiali asking for a donation of two thousand daandias. He had the sticks cut the right length, packed them and had them delivered to the Hall. People walked off with their daandias and some got lost or broken. So they always needed new ones every six months.
Everyone young and old played daandia. Children played in their own group so they wouldn’t get hurt or slow the adults down. But as the night wore a lot of the older people left. Even the strictest parents usually let their daughters stay to play daandia. If a guy liked you he’d bring a friend and play next to you. This was a way to have some fun with boys without causing a scandal since it was all done within the context of the dance, which was supervised and in public.
A gang of young energetic guys who were volunteers worked hard all weekend to keep things running. They served food, ran the security made tea and even mopped floors… Their motto was, “Work no Words.” At midnight, they would join the daandia playing with energy and gusto, whooping and jumping high in the air. It was dangerous playing near them as they hit the daandias so hard, the wooden sticks often broke. I loved to watch them. They looked like Russian Cossack dancers and their energy was infectious.
At about two or three in the morning when we finally decided to go home, we needed a ride.
“Can you give us a lift Farhad?”
“Sure, I have the van, I can drop you off.” We always asked him as we knew he wouldn’t try any funny stuff. He didn’t make passes at girls even at three in the morning. He didn’t have to; he had enough girls throwing themselves at him.
So many girls felt the same way that he borrowed his father’s white van and dropped off seven or eight girls in turn. We lived further away in Westlands so we were the last ones. He had to wait until the gate was opened by our askari and then drove us in. Whitie and Monty would run alongside the van until it stopped, barking at the strange vehicle. No one ever got out of the car. The sight of all the dogs jumping around scared everyone.
Eventually Farhad married an Uzbek girl, Gulnar he met while studying business in Paris. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s Collapse, the Ismailis who were suppressed under Communism could come out and worship openly. They were about two hundred thousand Uzbek Ismailis who were could finally join the mainstream Ismaili Community. They worshipped differently than we did. Their language, culture and customs were all very different from the Indian, Pakistani and East African Ismailis. But they were Ismailis like us, our spiritual brothers and sisters. We learned to appreciate their ways and they learned ours.
Farhad’s wife had won a scholarship to Paris to study social work at the Sorbonne. She spoke fluent Russian, Uzbek, French and English. She turned down Farhad’s first requests for a date saying she was too busy studying to have time for boys. Eventually he won her over. After she had finished her Master’s degree two years later, they got married. The wedding was a traditional Uzbek ceremony in Dushanbe. Farhad’s family flew there for the wedding.
She was beautiful with wavy, brown hair down to her waist that she wore in a plait and soft hazel eyes. She was tall, the same height as Farhad. Gulnar was nice enough if a little reserved. She got involved with volunteering for the Dr Barnados Orphanage and even learned some Gujarati and Swahili. She lived with her in -laws and was the perfect wife.
“You should find your sons a girl from Uzbekistan, Gulnar is such a good girl,” her mother in law told everyone.
Even the Nairobi girls admitted Farhad had made a good choice. They had four children and seemed very happy. And now he had a mistress! Him, of all people. I had another shock coming…the mistress was my old friend Rukshana.
Farhad had bought Rukshana a cozy town house in Parklands and given her the money to open her very own travel agency. The gossips said she had stopped seeing anyone else and devoted herself to Farhad. She cooked his favorite dishes and kept the whisky he liked, (Gulnar would not allow alcohol in the house). Rukshana took classes in massage therapy so she could give him long massages. The town house was quiet and peaceful with no children around. Farhad told his wife he was off to play squash and took to spending most evenings there, finally leaving at ten to go home. Sometimes he took long lunch breaks and popped into see her. Rukshana was always there waiting, wearing a red silk caftan and not much else.

It was strange that the rich Indian men would go through so much trouble to find chaste women to marry but once they had children they would find mistresses. Was it because their wives were mothers? They could no longer see them as sexual beings.? Or they were selfish and fooling around just because they could. A group of six or seven rich Ismaili men went on annual trips to London and Liverpool to see foootball matches. While there they hit the bars and had casual sex with whoever they could find or pay for. Farhad was one of the group but either his wife didn’t know what went on on these “boys’ trips” or she turned a blind eye to it. But he had never fooled around in Nairobi or at least not as far as the gossips knew.
“I know that I shouldn’t be doing this. But between work and home, life gets so stressful. It’s not as if my family lacks anything. I am a very good father. I am taking them all to Euro Disney this summer in Paris. You know how much that costs? But the kids really wanted to go so I said okay.” Farhad told his cousin. “Don’t tell anyone about Rukshana okay.”
His cousin told his wife that night. She told her hairdresser in confidence while getting her highlights done. The hairdresser told my cousin Jenny who was so angry she immediately met her two trusted confidantes. They promised to keep it secret and rushed home to tell their husbands. So in three days the whole town knew about the affair, including my parents.
Despite the summer vacation in Paris, Farhad’s wife Gulnar was very unhappy and the gossips wondered whether she would leave him and go back to her parents in Dushanbe, taking the children with her.  Women of an older generation in arranged marriages put up with such things but not young, educated women. To make it worse, he was so indiscreet about his affair. If she had been from a different religion, at least Gulnar wouldn’t have to risk seeing her all the time and could have ignored it.  Some of the rich Indian men had  a Somali or Ethiopian mistress tucked away in Eastleigh; even that ould have been better than having Rukshana flaunted in her face. No  one would blame Gulnar for leaving…
Jenny was close friends with Farhad’s wife, they did charity work together. “That friend of your is totally shameless. She is breaking up a good marriage and Gulnar is such a saint. Rukshana should have stuck to her casual customers and her African men,” she said angrily to me. “This is just terrible.”
“You can’t blame Rukshana. It’s a job for her, she has to make a living. What about Farhad? He’s the one who is married. He could have said no! His wife is so beautiful, he is much more to blame.”
“Oh you know how weak men are. She must have thrown herself at him, she must know so many tricks. These women do all kinds of things in bed that no decent woman would even think about. How can a wife compete with a sex professional?”
I kept quiet but I knew she had a point. Rukshana was a force of nature. Very few men could have resisted her. If I were a man, I would have wanted to sleep with her. I wondered who had made the first move.
“Gulnar is so upset. She doesn’t say much but she has lost so much weight. Who knows how this will end? Farhad is a bad example to all our husbands. They think if he can get away with it maybe they can too. They will all start getting mistresses,” Jenny fumed.
A couple of days later, I ran into Rukshana herself power walking on the track at the Agakhan Sports Club, a cricket ground in Nairobi. She always exercised and dieted faithfully. She was stylish in an expensive green designer track suit and Nike sneakers, her hair tied back in a ponytail. I said hello and I walked with her. We chatted and caught up on our news. She told me about her new travel agency. Of course the one thing we didn’t discuss was her arrangement with Farhad. It was too bad we couldn’t speak more frankly, I mused. I could have asked her about some of those  sex tricks she knew, after all a wife needed all the weapons she could get to keep her husband from straying. Even a decent husband like mine must be faced with temptation sometimes…
“Let’s have tea,” I told her. “Come home.” But she hadn’t forgiven me for the way I  stopped socializing with her five years ago.
“I am very busy these days. I have to go now,” and she strode off. That was the last time I saw her. She reminded me of a modern Anna Karenina, proud and defiant to the last.
Eventually, after three years, Rukshana’s affair with Farhad ended. He must have become bored with her. His wife stopped taking long trips to see her parents in Dushanbe and they patched up their marriage. They went for marriage counseling which was a new thing in Kenya. Then came a long trip to Thailand, Singapore and Bali without the children. Gulnar came back glowing and pregnant. To give him credit, Farhad never had another affair. Or if he did, no one ever knew about it.
Rukshana hung on to her travel agency and was able to make a good living from it. She hired two other travel agents and specialized in high end Kenyan travel. She lived a quiet life building up her business and going to the gym. She stopped seeing men entirely. Instead she went to the mosque every morning at four to meditate.
A couple of years later, Dad had some news for me. “You know your friend, Rukshana?”
“Yes, what happened to her?”
“She is engaged to a man from guy from Afghanistan called Reza Ali. He is very devout and he met Rukshana at the mosque. I am so glad that she found somebody. She will be very happy with him, he is a decent guy” Dad said on the phone.
Later on Leena filled in the gaps of the story in a long phone call. “Shaza, his family had been killed by the Russians when they invaded Afghanistan. Reza Ali had been studying at Moscow University and escaped the carnage. He came to Kenya to make a fresh start and got a job as a civil engineer with Bechtel. He is very devout and leaves straight after the prayers not talking to people much.”
“But how did he meet Rukshana?”
“At the mosque one morning after the dawn prayers. They were drawn to each other and started talking over tea. After three weeks, that was it, he visited her mother with a formal proposal. Her mother was so happy she accepted the proposal immediately rather than pretending to think it over as people usually do. Now, they are always together.”
“What is he like? Some Afghanis are very handsome.”
“Oh he is. Reza Ali is tall well built and handsome with the fair skin and green eyes all the Afghanis have. He has perfect features and looks like Amir Khan, the movie star. She lucked out Shaza; they make such a good couple.”
“And nobody has told him about her?”
“About what?”
“You know about what!”
“You know, for once, the gossips are being quiet and no one has told Reza Ali about Rukshana’s past. Anyway, he is an Afghani, not one of them so they don’t care about him,” Leena added.
“She wants to move to Europe, make a fresh start so they are immigrating to England. He is leaving in a few weeks to find them an apartment. Bechtel is even transferring him to their London office. Rukshana is selling her travel agency and her town house. It’s smart of her to leave, in Nairobi poeple will always remember what she was, there she can start again.”
“I am so happy for her Leena,” I said.
One night, a month before she was supposed to move to England, Rukshana’s  flat was invaded by an armed gang. The ring leader took all the money and jewellery she had. They kept asking her for more money and didn’t believe she didn’t have any more and suddenly started stabbing her. In the end Rukshana and her mother were left bleeding on the carpet and the goondahs left. The ayah was tied up and gagged in the kitchen.
After the gang had left, the neighbors rushed Rukshana and her mother to the nearby Agakhan Hospital. Her mother was already dead. Rukshana was in the operating theater for eight hours as surgeons stitched up the wounds and stemmed her bleeding. But she died a few hours later never having regained consciousness.
The case was so gruesome, even for Kenya.  that it was on the front page of the “Daily Nation.” Reza Ali came back to Kenya for the funeral.
“I went to the funeral, Shaza. Most of the town went. I never saw anyone as sad as Reza Ali, when I saw him at Rukshana’s and her mother’s burials. He wore a white salwaar khameez and he threw in some white roses before they filled in the grave and he stood there as they shoveled spades full of earth over the coffin. He didn’t cry but he looked heartbroken, ” Dad told me.
“Where is he now, Dad?
“He flew back to London two days later. No one has heard from him again, he just disappeared. He lost his family to the Russians and now he lost the wife he was hoping to have,” Dad said sadly.   Rukshana and her mother are buried side by side in the peaceful, Ismaili kabrastaan where her father was buried. Like Anna Karenina she was doomed from the start.