In the washroom at the Eden Gardens Stadium clubhouse, a woman stood in front of a full-length mirror, languidly taking off her black burqa, alas, only to adjust it. But I had ample time to observe her.
Realising I was watching her, she smiled and, in an accented English typical of South Africans, asked, “Do you live here?” I nodded and added, “Your husband is doing very well out there in the field.” With an expression oozing serenity typical of those who believe in fatalism, she responded, “God is doing it.”
The man out in the field was Hashim Amla, dourly batting to deny India victory on the last day of the second Test match. And the woman in the washroom? Amla’s wife, Sumaiyah, who over the five days of cricket at Eden had been sitting in the glass-encased clubhouse box, covered from head to toe in a black burqa, often exchanging comments with the other visiting wives and partners of South African cricketers. Most viewers thought the image was stark—a solitary woman in the burqa amidst women wearing spaghetti straps and strapless sundresses.
As Amla expertly defended and stroked the ball around, stoking the anxiety of the crowds keen on India’s victory, many in our box turned to look at the figure clothed in the impenetrable veil, wondering what her emotions were. Once when Amla tripped on the field, gawking eyes turned to her to gauge her reaction. The figure in the burqa remained still.
Her marriage to Amla was an arranged one. Sumaiyah resigned as a schoolteacher to see to her new responsibilities.
And now there she was before me, in the washroom, without her face covered. Sumaiyah was extraordinarily friendly. She said her own knowledge of cricket was nothing more than rudimentary, largely because her own family consists of three sisters, and, understandably, never produced a cricketer. Sumaiyah, who’s the eldest of the three, remarked, “Sometimes I do lament that we don’t have a brother.” Not because it’s considered important in some cultures to have a son, but because “I think it would have been nice to have a brother. Women should be emotionally independent, strong and of course, God-loving.”
Her marriage to Amla was an arranged one, though the two met a few times and agreed a life together would work well for them. She decided to resign from her schoolteacher job following her betrothal, to attend to the many responsibilities at her new home.
Sumaiyah had been to India before, with her family. On this tour, she found the people of Nagpur exuding warmth, and those in Calcutta a bit “aloof”, though she added her impression could be skewed, as she didn’t have a chance to meet people outside the cricket fraternity here. “I like to meet people and understand the culture of the places I visit. Unless you go out on the streets and talk to the common man this is not possible,” she said, inviting me and my husband to visit her and Amla in South Africa.
Our conversation was punctuated by a loud roar of the crowd. Could it be that Amla had fallen? She said it didn’t matter: “Some days are good, other days are not so good. If we have faith in God He will take care of everything.” As she lowered the veil to step out, I too turned to the exit. Her voice wafted across, “Please remember us in your prayers.”
I sent her an e-mail requesting for a formal interview on Islam, and the stress Muslims were under. She said these were subjects too sensitive for her to speak on, and quoted this verse from the Quran, chapter 112: “Say, God is one/He is the absolute/He was not beget/Nor was He begotten/And there is none that is equal to Him.” Then these words: ‘Take care, God bless, Sumaiyah’.