Shireen got her rishta brace on her engagement day. It was the single most important marker of the happy occasion, a sigh of relief for her parents and a most sought-after transfer of ownership and responsibility to her husband to be. He was the majority stakeholder from here on out. Shireen was two months away from her twentieth birthday. She had her period comfortably for six years, had finished Karachi High School and could technically be called an incoming freshman at Brandeis University. Shireen had no plans to attend.
Shireen simply didn’t have the time. She had been claimed by Asim, the twenty-five year old son of a denim tycoon. Asim also had one foot in wind energy, a few fingers in Dubai real estate and a lifetime membership at Karachi’s underground gambling hubs. His father asked for Shireen’s hand in August and a week and two phone conversations later, they set their engagement date. It was to be in the first week of September. Four hundred people. Imported roses only. Shireen was the first of her friends to be engaged. Now she had purpose. Shireen’s chai-drinking fake career at her father’s candy company was over. She wasn’t going to be warming that swivel chair for much longer. Or sleeping in the sheets of her mother’s house. Or going to book club. She was to be a wife.
It was customary for the man to secure the rishta brace around his fiance’s wrist in the presence of their two families on the night of the engagement dinner. As the guests began to barge into Shireen’s formal drawing room, Asim’s mother crunched on tea samosas and yapped away to her best friend, lipo-Maham. Back in Asim’s mother’s day, the rishta brace was simple, there was no voice activation or diamond demands.
“We women, we girls back then…we were happy that someone wanted to marry us at all,” Asim’s mother spat out potato chunks, “we didn’t dare demand platinum or gold.”
“That was so long ago, Maham replied.
“And we kept it under 100 pounds. 115 max with pregnancies.”
What had started out as a single silver chain had evolved into an in-your-face declaration of wealth, stolen and otherwise, that hung low on the wrists of young Karachi girls. Anyone who saw Shireen’s rishta brace knew it was upper-tier. The rishta brace was a thick wide gold bangle, with a lattice of uncut diamonds on its upper surface and a built-in speaker lining its inner side. It had a microphone on one end, and a Zambian emerald fastening on the other. Shireen was ready to feel the heaviness on the race against her skin. It was a certificate like no other. Guests crouched around the bride and groom eagerly waiting for Asim to make it official. Asim looked nervous as he lifted Shireen’s hand and let it rest in his lap. He locked the two ends of the brace together, lifted up Shireen’s wrist and nodded to the room.
“Your first command, dulhe raja?” Shireen’s mother yelled across the sitting heads, winking at her future son-in-law.
“I prefer her just the way she is,” Asim said.
“No, no, beta you must,” Shireen’s mother insisted, “We need to make sure it works!”
It was a marker of disrespect and a blip on his masculinity for Asim to refuse the demonstration. This was his duty and his right.
“Jee aunty,” Asim replied. He lifted Shireen’s heavy wrist to his lips and whispered, “uhh 110 pounds?”
“Louder, louder,” the room roared back.
“102 pounds,” Asim commanded again, deep and long into the microphone.
A purple beam of light slashed upwards towards the crystal chandelier, splattering the room. The rishta brace started to cool down, contracted around Shireen’s wrist. As the brace gnawed into the skin of her arm, Shireen squealed with excitement. The purple beam faded down, and the brace’s speaker crackled on.
INPUT: COMMAND. COMMAND RECEIVED. 102. 102. READY.
Asim stared into his shoes as Shireen’s body began to shrink, her pale pink kameez drowning her new figure. Her arms narrow, collar bone hanging out and cheeks concave.
INPUT: COMMAND. COMMAND COMPLETE. 102.102. READY.
Shireen looked up, pleased with Asim’s successful working of the rishta brace. Asim’s family admired his work, proud of his natural inclination towards a position of strength and authority. Everyone congratulated Shireen on her transformation, her new beauty and her new life.
“MashaAllah,” they said, “May our children always find happiness together.”
As per his mother’s request, Asim took the rishta brace home after the engagement. He programmed the brace with a voice activated password only he knew and returned it to Shireen. The password was a precautionary measure, he told her over tempura maki rolls. Just in case. Of course Shireen smiled, she dropped her chopsticks, rubbed his hairy hands and promised him she would never take it off.
On a daily basis, Asim kept his commands simple. He set his demands.
COMMAND INPUT: COMMAND RECEIVED: 104 lbs – thin arms – no bicep muscle – no tricep muscle – no hips.
Six months later, during their wedding preparations, he got more creative. Shireen picked the fabrics and Asim picked her body.
Event 1: Formal four-course dinner. Beige chiffon with train, back no lower than 6 inches.
INPUT COMMAND: COMMAND RECEIVED: 102 lbs – define spine – flat chest – enlarge lips x1.5
Event 2: Wedding Reception. Brocade floor-length skirt, gold cutwork kurta
INPUT COMMAND: COMMAND RECEIVED: 98 – very narrow arms – define collarbones – define cheekbones – define ankles (on Shireen’s insistence, for full-length pictures)
Event 3: Family & Friends Brunch. Peach floor length organza dress. 4 layers of tulle.
INPUT COMMAND: COMMAND RECEIVED: 98 lbs — very narrow arms — define neck — flat chest — enlarge lips x2 — no hips — no curves
After their July monsoon wedding, Shireen moved from her parent’s sprawling Karachi Crest mansion to a six-bedroom apartment above her in-laws. The whole family ate dinner together every day at 8:45 pm, after which Asim and Shireen went upstairs. He smoked hashish to cut out the textile whir of his business day. Shireen gouged the Karachi Trend Columns Facebook page for a part-time job. In bed, they played with the rishta brace. Every day was a new opportunity for experimentation – of fucking D cups and a tiny waist, of steamrolling Shireen’s chest and giving her an ass, or leaving her as she is when no other combination of body parts and sizes was particularly satisfying. After sex, Shireen insisted on putting on a skimpy white t-shirt, got Asim to unlock the belt and whispered different breast sizes into the microphone. As her boobs bubbled, dilated and sagged, Shireen pranced in front of the TV and yelled GUESS WHO? She was always surprised by Asim’s accuracy.
“Is it Roma Aunty? She’s always had those big watermelons…uh no no, it’s Maham right? On her birthday?” Asim shot out answers.
“It was Roma Aunty!” Shireen screamed, her laughter scissored through the dim leather room. She gave another command. “What about these?”
“Kareema?” Asim asked.
Shireen shook her head.
“No, now I have it! It has to be Kareema right?”
Shireen shook her head again. A giant NO on her lips. Asim caught her onto his lap and took a bite of her nipple.
“You know I love you, right?” he said.
“And I love you back,” Shireen replied, yanking his chest hair through his shirt. She put her arms around his neck and spoke into the belt.
“Who am I now?” she asked.
“Reema… that was easy. Why does she always have them on display? It’s disgusting,” Asim said.
“They’re not always on display, I mean Ali picks them so it’s kind of…”
“No, she picks them, no one is modest anymore,” Asim broke her off.
“She picks, how do you know?” Shireen slid off her husband and fixed her shirt. She hadn’t noticed the wetness between her thighs.
“Ali lets her, he told me,” Asim replied.
“Really? I never thought wives could…”
“Shireen, can you higher the volume? I love this part,” Asim replied, throwing the remote onto her side of the bed.
Shireen couldn’t shake the thought. The idea that women may be allowed to choose their own shape had never occurred to her before. In that moment, she told herself that there was no reason for her not to like the way Asim liked her. His attention to detail was impeccable. He was thoughtful in his commands. He was right. And she was happy.
Shireen’s life with Asim was much busier than she had ever imagined. She had become the sole operator of his life. Shireen got the chicken off the bone for him, cut his nails and sent his golf shoes to the office on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. In the beginning of December, the shaadi season hit Karachi, and it was Shireen’s first time going as a wife, with a rishta brace snapped securely under her thick long sleeves. Shireen had only been married for six months; new brides had to be fifty-percent more dressed up and glamorous than the washed-ups and singles, preserving the aura of beauty and contentment that they clung onto to like an identity. Asim’s mother convinced him to let Shireen wear a cropped choli to his business partner’s wedding. Asim mumbled FUCK NO when Shireen first came out of the dressing room. He was the kind of guy who believed that his wife’s body was for his eyes only. He wanted complete monopoly on all viewing opportunities. But he had promised his mother, and he never said no to his mother. The choli cut off at the roof of Shireen’s belly button, the neck scalloped low across her chest, embellished with miniature tassels, screaming with south-sea pearls.
“Shireen, come here,” Asim said, putting on his cufflinks.
He examined Shireen, placing two fingers on her belly button and pushing them.
“If you’re going to wear this, you need some abs,” Asim laughed.
He spat the command through his teeth.
INPUT COMMAND: COMMAND RECEIVED: 106 – add slight boob curvature – define upper absx1.25
Asim required that Shireen’s abs be a subtle touch, not too pronounced like Shireen spent all of her time squatting in a gym, but more as to say she went to a ladies-only yoga class if she could spare an hour or so after her daughter-in-law duties. Asim wanted the abs to suggest that Shireen ate healthy, no rice or roti with dinner. And he wanted them to tell everyone that Shireen was born skinny and had the kind of body that would remain skinny forever.
At the wedding reception, the competition was fierce. The wives and fiancés gave each other flying kisses, fake smiles and shut-lip compliments on their slimmer waists, slender arms and brand-new noses. The men guzzled down Patron shots to a job well done – an ass well sculpted, and a boob suitably plumped. The confectionary wives were given marble abs to prove that they didn’t indulge in their husbands’ marshmallow fortunes. The pharmaceutical ones were created to be serious and intelligent with scrunched up faces and wiry arms. And the textile princesses carried garlic naan on their plates, pretending to nibble on them between Merlot breaks. Shireen fled the cocktail hour, suddenly too conscious of the vicious eyes on her naked stomach. She found herself in the back corner food tent.There were no women around. The unmarried girls didn’t have the gold brace shimmering on their arms, which meant they were up for grabs and could be claimed at any second. They didn’t eat or drink anything at all, their sallow bodies giddy with the thick promise of proposals in the air.
When they got home, Shireen ordered late-night Dominos and gave Asim a shoulder massage.
“I was proud of you today,” Asim said, his lips sprang up for a kiss. “Everyone said you looked so delicate today… and so, so happy,” Asim continued.
“Should I call back for some crushed red pepper?” Shireen asked.
“Lower your face,” Asim instructed, “just bring it here.” Then he whispered into Shireen’s chin,
“The brace password is 123456,” Asim said.
Asim held down the microphone on the rishta brace and talked into Shireen’s ear.
“Say it really slowly,” he nudged Shireen’s head into her wrist, “go on.”
“1…2…3…4…5…6,” Shireen tried not to laugh.
“Now you can pick, my love,” Asim kissed Shireen’s nose.
With the password no longer a secret, Shireen’s body became more of a discussion. Asim started to compromise when she said that she didn’t want to look sickly anymore. Two or three pounds could do me good, Shireen argued. Asim let her pick her sizes until he left for his summer golf tournament in Barcelona. Shireen tried to fight against it, but Asim didn’t want Shireen to have curves in his absence – curves attracted attention. Before he left for the airport, Asim recorded his command.
INPUT COMMAND: COMMAND RECEIVED: 130 – flat chest – fill out cheeks – fill out ankles – fill out arms.
“Will you at least change me back for my interview?” Shireen asked.
“What interview?” Asim replied, checking his suit pocket for his ticket and credit cards.
“My meeting with Niche magazine’s styling department,” Shireen said.
“Oh them, don’t worry Shir, I’ll make them hire you even if you’re fat,” Asim laughed.
“You will change me back,” Shireen said.
“Yeah, yeah I will,” Asim replied.
Niche magazine was Pakistan’s leading street style publication, that usually printed fashion guides, stalked local celebrities and specialized in wedding coverage. Asim and Shireen had both graced the cover with their own wedding pictures. Working for Niche was a popular career amongst Asim’s friends’ wives, especially the self-proclaimed fashionistas and designer brand junkies. It was also one of the few places that hired you without any semblance of a college degree. The magazine needed style editors to do research on spring trends and write up short blog posts to put on their website. Asim had made Shireen promise that she would only consider the job if it ended before 2 pm and was not too far away from their house. With Asim gone, Shireen felt suffocated in the body he ordered. She had never been this weight before, none of her clothes fit her and her mother-in-law constantly remarked on her full hips and chubby gut. The interview was three days after Asim’s return mid September. And Shireen couldn’t stand to look at herself anymore. Before Reema’s bridal shower, Shireen looked into her full-length mirror and slowly raised her wrist with a half-whisper.
INPUT COMMAND: COMMAND RECEIVED: 110 – slight chest curvature – no change cheeks – no change ankles – narrow arms.
She felt the icy fear of disobedience. But then she looked down and there were no belly rolls, no underarm fat, and no sticky thigh on thigh. She almost felt satisfied with the body underneath her neck. Shireen knew she would completely reverse the transformation before Asim’s arrival.
“Shireen, you’re glowing,” Reema greeted her at the door. She told her butler to hold back the glass of champagne and added, “Are you expecting?”
“No no,” Shireen replied, “You know how Asim is…he likes me healthy when he’s not around…” Shireen explained.
“He lets you have boobs too?” Reema asked, “That’s pretty generous.”
“I say a little nip and tuck here and there when he’s not around never hurt anyone,” Shireen said, clinking her glass with Reema’s and handing over an envelope.
“From me and Asim,” Shireen said.
“You shouldn’t have… really, please,” Reema said. She put it in her purse and gave Shireen a quick hug before moving onto the rest of her guests.
At home, Shireen wanted to change herself back but she was hosting a Custom-Clothing hi-tea for all her new wife-friends and wanted to wear an off-the shoulder sweater with high-waisted jeans and parade on showing off a tight butt and shoulder muscles. The hi-tea was two days after the bridal shower. Just two more days. Shireen had her Custom-Clothing hi-tea on the sunroom-terrace outside her upstairs living room. Having an outdoor event had recently become chic, complete with rustic furniture, drinks in mason jars and an over-the-top cheeseboard. Shireen called her fabric guy, hired six seamstresses, and set up four mani-pedi stations for quick nail touch-ups between measurements. At the event, the women chose different fabrics, cuts, finishes, lace appliques and embroidery to design their own kurta. Shireen hoped her little event would bring in some inspiration for her interview outfit. She wanted to look professional, without looking too serious. She used different leg, thigh, arm and bust sizes with chambray, gingham and dotted prints to determine the most flattering figure and cut. Shireen wrote down her body measurements once everyone left. She could see her double chin when the rishta brace contracted and her body reversed back to Asim’s command.
Asim smelled like whiskey when he got home from the airport. He was lying on the bed, poker on his iPad and gum in his munching mouth. His eyes looked small, his skin tanned and his body tense. He greeted Shireen when she entered the room.
“Take off my shoes, will you, Sher? I’m exhausted.”
Shireen got on her knees and pulled at the patent leather of his loafers.
“Stop!” Asim yelled and pulls his knees up. “You just fucked them up,” he added.
Then he flung his shoes off, dropped his iPad on the floor. He spoke very softly.
“When will your dumbass brain learn how to take shoes off?”
“Asim,” Shireen whimpered, holding back tears. “What’s happened?”
“You know my mom told me not to marry you,” Asim sucked on his e-cigarette. “She said you weren’t pretty, but I insisted on marrying you.”
“Asim, why are you being like this?” Shireen asked. She sat on the edge of the sofa lining their big four poster bed. Her nails threading their monogrammed bedding.
“You know what I said to my mother? I said it’s okay that she’s not beautiful, she’s from a good family, she’ll listen and fit in with our values.”
“I do fit in with our values.”
“No you don’t, you’re just a slut,” He laughed, “Was that fucking bridal shower worth it?”
It was on Asim’s layover from Dubai to Karachi when Reema’s fiancé WhatsApp-ed a picture of Shireen from the bridal shower. Asim received two more from his plastic supplier, Mohsin, and a group shot from his cousin, Kareem. He thanked the boys for their loyalty. Shireen didn’t look like what she was supposed to look like. Asim grabbed Shireen’s her wrist and tore off the rishta brace.
“Now get out,” he screamed.
Shireen slept on the couch in their study. Asim didn’t have dinner that night. The next morning he called her to the side of his bed. The rishta brace was on his bedside table.
“Put it on,” he ordered, “I’ve changed the password.”
Shireen did what she was told. Then Asim took a stinging malicious breath.
INPUT COMMAND: COMMAND RECEIVED: 250 – fill out neck – fill out ankles – enlarge stomach x 3 – enlarge face x 3
Shireen felt the growing cushion of fat under her armpits.
“You want a fat ugly wife? Do you? Please don’t do this, Asim!” Shireen bawled.
Asim left for work early that morning. In the afternoon, he sent his secretary home to deliver a message to Shireen. He entered the room and said, bhabi haath please. Shireen gave him her wrist. His moustache grazed the microphone and he mumbled the password into the belt. Shireen shrank to 150. This weight is suitable for the interview, Asim saab has said, the secretary told her. Shireen’s clothes were tight around her jelly stomach as she sat in the car. She was three minutes late for the interview.
Shireen texted Asim and told him she was not taking the job. He decided he didn’t want to play golf that afternoon and came home early. She had the Entourage on for him when he walked into their room. She was lying down on the edge of the bed, her interview clothes bunched up under her resting legs.
“You ready for tonight?” Asim asked. “It’s supposed to be a big birthday,” he said.
“I’ll be ready, my love,” Shireen replied.
“Pick something for me, Shireen,” Asim plopped on the bed, “any body part, anything.”
“I’ll pick my neck,” Shireen replied.
“Okay baby, what do you want?”
“Reduce x 1?” she asked. A little girl under his heaving presence.
“Reduce x 1.5,” Asim said.
Shireen put on her make-up and hair extensions. She smiled and fastened her rishta brace. She swayed her wrist in front of Asim’s yellow lips and felt it contract.
Tahoora Ismail is an aspiring Pakistani writer with a passion for period dramas, denim and chicken wings. When she’s not writing, she is trying to make Youtube videos and/or contemplating her next cup of coffee.
© 2021, Tahoora I. Palla