The wedding date had been fixed. Aapi and Jeeju would arrive the next day.
Dilshad wanted the girls of both houses to be present during the mehendi ceremony.
This was all the opening Najma needed.
Always up for a get-together, she suggested having a sleepover. They could do mani-pedis, facials, sing songs, and basically call it a bachelorette cum bridal shower party for Zoya.
Her list and excitement kept growing.
Asad had not been too enthusiastic about this idea.
What about his sleepover?
But looking at Zoya's obvious excitement he relented. He instinctively understood what it meant to her to share his siblings. And then Najma had never asked for such an extravagance before. The two families were closer than ever before. The occasion was right; this would be the perfect thing to do.
On cue, Rashid invited the men for dinner, getting them out of the girls' way.
By the evening, not only were all the girls bringing the house down, but due to the professional manicurists and facialists that had descended on the Khan household, the place was a veritable zoo.
Dilshad offered a silent prayer of relief and thanks. Asad would probably have a heart attack if he were to see the state of the house. Thank god he wasn't underfoot today. The cheerful sounds of loud music, laughter and chatter, and the smells of nail paint, lotions and face packs, made her a content mother of the groom. She had prayed for this for so many years. Allah had given her all that, and so much more. She would offer a chaadar at the dargah tomorrow and feed the poor.
As Asad drove home that night, he fingered the ring his father had given him. It was a simple tarnished silver band. On the inside it was engraved with an inscription in Urdu, "My grace, my love."
With damp eyes, Rashid had told him that his Ammi had given it to him on their first wedding anniversary. They had recently found out that they were to be parents in the coming year.
"Later, I never thought myself worthy of it, but I always kept it close," he spoke through a sigh.
"Now it belongs where it should." He had placed a hand on his son's head, and then pulled him in for a tight embrace.
It didn't make up for all the lost time, but it came close.
When they broke apart, he had held Asad by his shoulders, eyes shining with pride, and then become serious.
"I need to talk to you. Can we meet tomorrow?"
Asad sensed the urgency of his father's appeal, and nodded.
Rashid grinned, "I love how I don't have to spell it out, and you just know."
He had chuckled heartily at that. "Now that's really funny," Asad said. "Ammi always says that I need things spelt out!"
He had cherished that moment when he saw his father throw his head back and laugh.
Arm around his shoulder, Rashid said, "she always was the smart one."
By the time Asad got home, the beauty parlor assistants had thankfully left.
But the mirth and giggles had become even louder.
He smiled fondly as he walked through the door, and stopped dead in his tracks.
The living room was in shambles.
Everything was an assault on the senses. Cushions were strewn about, and girly clutter was everywhere. The girls were in their nightclothes, skins glowing, hair up in some bizarre twisty things, some eyes were covered with cucumber slices, and braceletted hands were fluttering here and there with flashes and flourishes of glossy color. The perfume was overpowering. And despite that, he could tell, there was a cake in the oven.
The noise these women could make!
Was Ammi also in here somewhere? He counted the heads and peered at the faces.
There was a dholak-type thing and someone was whaling away on it.
That someone looked up, flashed her dimple, and winked at him.
Of course, only Zoya could be making the loudest noise.
She reached her hand out to him and made him sit down next to her on the floor.
Nikhat and Nuzzhat raised their eyebrows at her easy familiarity, but all the others seemed fine with it.
They still had some getting used to a mellow and smitten bhaijaan after all.
"Mr. Khan, we are having such fun. You have to join us!" Zoya gushed.
"I'm sorry Ms. Farooqui, I don't think I can handle whatever it is that you're doing here. I don't mind the cucumber slices, but the nails and hair thing I refuse to do."
Nikhat and Nuzzhat's eyebrows arched even higher in amazement. Who was this man, and what had he done to their bhaijaan?
"Done!" Zoya pushed him to lean back against the sofa and promptly slapped two cucumber slices on his eyes. He loosely stretched his arms on the sofa.
"Doesn't it feel so refreshing?"
He nodded obediently.
His sisters and mother giggled at the taming of Asad Ahmed Khan.
Dilshad's breath caught as she saw the ring on his extended hand. She smiled through suddenly prickling eyes.
Najma surreptitiously took a picture of Bhaijaan and sent it to all of them as well as Rashid, Ayaan and Omar.
"The Mukka's beauty routine," she texted, "facial n curlers comin up."
Several phones pinged and the girls checked their messages. Asad had to remove the slices to see why after a moment of utter silence, there was such a shrill hoot of laughter. But he was happy to see Nikhat having fun. Everyone had worried about her welfare in the wake of the post-Imran fiasco.
Najma then sent the other picture she had taken a few days ago: bhai and Zoya asleep on the couch with their heads resting against each other.
"In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lions sleep tonite," she had added.
Again Asad removed a slice to see why suddenly five women were going "awww."
He saw Zoya blushing furiously, and raised his eyebrow quizzically. She shook her head.
The doorbell rang.
Before Asad could get up, Najma had run to open the door. Wow, he'd never seen her move that fast before.
"We thought we'd join the party," said Omar with Ayaan right behind him.
"How could we let you girls gang up on bechare bhaijaan?"
"Oh really? Liars!" asked Zoya. "OK fine, the fun was just about to begin. Come join us."
And she beat up a racket on the dholak.
"Phuphi, I had gone to a friend's wedding and her family sang these fun gaalis. I think I remember some, so I'll sing them for you."
Omar snorted and she threw a cushion at him.
"Oh god, as though the shayaris weren't enough, now the dulhan is going to sing gaalis against her in-laws sitting in their own house. These people are saints to put up with you."
Everyone else laughed too.
"Only Zoya," and he shook his head mournfully.
Asad glared at him. He didn't want Zoya to remember that she didn't have immediate family around right now.
In a flash, Omar understood Asad's concern.
He straightened up quickly, and announced, "OK, OK, don't nobody mess with us, we are the ladki walas."
"Me too," and Humaira plunked herself down by Zoya's other side.
Dilshad plucked the dholak from Zoya, "tum gao, I'll play this."
Ayaan too grabbed a couple of cucumber slices for his own eyes and rested next to Asad.
He waved his arm imperially, "gaaliyaan, pesh ki jaayen."
"Saas bahu ki hui ladai ..." started Zoya.
She would sing a line, and Omar and Humaira would repeat after her. Humaira beat a spoon in rhythm on the dholak. But the words were so funny and delightfully disrespectful to the groom's side, that Nuzzhat and Najma felt left out of the fun. Soon they had switched sides and were belting away about the bahu's revenge against her saas.
Only Nikhat remained loyal to her bhaijaan. He invited her to sit by his other side, and held her by the shoulder.
"Ladd le saasu, ladd le, tera beta mere haath mein," Zoya finished with a flourish, making eyes at Jahanpanah who had removed the slices by now.
He threw his head back and laughed even more at the gusto she sang with. Looking at Dilshad he removed his arms from around Ayaan and Nikhat, and held his ears apologetically for being hen-pecked in the future.
She was also laughing, and taking balaayen with her swirling hands, she blessed both of them.
Zoya started on the next one and Ayaan groaned.
But the girls were having too much fun. "Zoya bhabhi, sing more," Nikhat urged.
"OK, this one is just for the groom's sisters," she teased.
"Jo meri nanad pyaar karegi uska byaah kara doongi ..." they sang along wondering what horrible insult would come next.
"... Mayake ko tarsa doongi," Zoya stuck her tongue out and waved her thumb at them in a taunt. Omar had beamed. She laughed as Najma tried to punch her shoulder.
Asad leaped in to hold her hand.
Najma recalled Zoya's recent injuries, and covered her mouth in horror, "I'm sorry, so sorry, Zoya."
"Wow Zo, you insulted her, and also got her to apologize. Not bad. I think you'll be a great ringmaster in your sasural."
"Whoosh!" Ayaan mimed the cracking sound and flick of a whip.
"Girls," Omar waggled his eyebrows at them, "your bhaijaan is already JKG."
Zoya hit him upside the head.
"Joru ka ghulam!" yelled Zoya and Omar.
Asad was unaffected by their pronouncement. He was back to reclining against the sofa with fresh cucumber slices on his eyes and a half-smile on his face. The tables would soon be turned on Omar.
And his joru? He was already imagining how he'd get even later. The cucumber routine gave him the perfect excuse to close his eyes, relive old moments ... and fantasize about creating new ones.
Like how he had brushed her hair because he's seen her wince when she tried to secure it with a clip. He didn't know combing a woman's hair could be so sensual, and such a tactile experience.
She had wanted a low ponytail. He had given it his best.
"By the time Amna's old enough, you'll be an expert," she'd said softly.
He had moved the uncentered pony to the side of her head, over her shoulder, and bent to kiss the fading bruises on her back.
He lifted a slice now to look at her, and smiled. Her hair was up in fat curlers at the crown. He remembered how earlier, it had felt between his fingers. As his finger got caught in a tangle, she had hissed and he had liked that sound. He'd grabbed a handful of her hair to tilt her head back, and bent to kiss her.
She had made other sounds before he was done with her. He loved those throaty moans and purrs.
He grabbed a cushion to place in his lap.
Omar leaned in to whisper to Zoya, "you'll sing these songs for Najma's wedding too, right?"
"Koi shak? By then, I'll have learned even more," she announced smugly.
"Lekin koi accha ladka to miley meri Tamatar ke liye." He glared at her and she giggled.
She looked meaningfully at Nikhat and Nuzzhat, and elbowed Omar.
"Omar, what about your cousins? What are they doing?"
Omar immediately got her drift. As love gurus par excellence, they were joined at the hip after all.
"Feroze just became an Assistant Professor at SUNY and Faiz is interning somewhere in DC."
"Phuphi, I think the Ansari brothers will be perfect for my nanads."
"Dekhiye, bhaijaan," spoke a quiet Nikhat, "how far away your begum plans to send us. Aise Mayake ko tarasaengi hum behennon ko."
"Exactly Ms. Farooqui, it's not necessary that half of Bhopal ends up in America. I want my sisters in the same pin code as us."
Zoya flashed her eyes at him. "Oh really Mr. Khan? I didn't know you wanted to settle in the US!" And she winked at Najma.
"And now Raabert, your turn."
"What? I'm going to the US now? Omar has a sister?"
Humaira smacked his knee with the spoon. He howled in pain.
"Jo mera devar pyaar karega ..." she sassed.
He listened inspite of himself.
"... agar ladega ... Moongfali bikva doongi."
Everyone roared, especially Humaira.
Asad put him in a headlock and messed up his hair. "That's OK, you'll meet so many girls that way!"
"Specially outside a girls' college!" added Omar.
"In New York!" chortled Zoya.
"Bhai, aapka dil dariya and dash samundar hai, par meri dash mein bamboo kyun kar rahen hain?" he said, lazily ogling a glowing Humaira.
Ayaan stood up.
"OK, enough with your girly nonsense!"
He wheezed suddenly, as his sisters whaled on him. Bringing out Asad's guitar he started strumming on it. The girls loved the change and begged Asad to play something for them.
Asad felt flattered and shy, but finally complied. He sang the song that they all knew and loved. As the siblings, and even Dilshad and Humaira sang, "Zindagi ki yahi reet hai," Zoya's eyes misted. She had probably already fallen in love with him when he had played that song the first time. She had been shocked then that Akdu Ahmed Khan had a gentler non-Jahanpanah side.
And the second time around? She blinked. The second time, Tanveer had brought him his guitar and gathered the family in a circle of warmth and togetherness. And Zoya had felt so forlorn. The perpetual outsider. The hanger-on.
Omar put his arm around her, and hugged her lightly.
"I'm so happy for you, you know that right?" he asked softly.
She nodded, her brimming eyes colliding with and locking with Asad's. He tilted his head ever so slightly to invite her to join him as he handed the guitar to Ayaan. She slid over next to him and they reveled in the slightest brush against each other's shoulders, arms and thighs. This would have to do for tonight.
Ayaan was singing something now.
Asad's eyes were drawn to her pink toenails. He bowed his head and whispered, "why have you left the little ones unpainted?"
"I was saving them for you," came her cheeky reply.
"Really?" he whipped his head around in surprise and delight.
"You'd trust me to do a good job?"
"The best. And you need all the practice for when the girls want their Abbu to paint their nails."
He fell in love all over again.
Song in Title:
Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani (2013) "Badtameez Dil"
Past midnight, the girls still whispered and giggled furiously.
The boys hadn't wanted to leave, so Dilshad had invited them to set up camp in Asad's room.
Asad was not a happy camper.
This just messed up his plans to text Zoya and get her to come to his room on some excuse.
Damn, it was going to be a long night.
But Ayaan and Omar had plans too.
"Let's go scare the girls."
He didn't even know whose genius idea it was. At least earlier, it used to only be Ayaan, but now with Omar thrown into the mix, he was seriously outnumbered. And Omar gave back better than Ayaan who still had some lihaaz for his bhaijaan.
These invading Americans had done some major dash mein bamboo.
He nearly clutched his forehead in despair.
But on second thought ... hmm, let's see where this goes.
They grabbed the sheets off Asad's bed. He groaned and clenched his fists, but said nothing.
All for a good cause.
He was instructed to find a flashlight while the other two planned their caper.
They snuck out of the window stepping over his settee. May be that settee needs to go, he thought, hands on his waist.
A French door? More glass. Zoya would never let him hear the end of how he had a fetish for plate glass. What had she called his room? A fish bowl.
He shook his head to go supervise Omar and Ayaan.
As he stepped outside, he saw what they were up to.
Sitting on Omar's shoulders and maneuvering awkwardly under the draped sheet, Ayaan peered out with the torch lit eerily under his chin. It was the freakiest thing he'd ever seen and he prepared to hear piercing screams and shrieks.
But no amount of mental preparation could really do it.
He was nearly knocked backwards by the uproar.
The girls came spilling into the hall from her room.
Except for Zoya.
He grabbed her kicking and screaming, as she was about to blind Ayaan with her pepper spray.
Ayaan jumped and Omar fell on his butt.
The lights went on, and the girls moved in for the kill.
Asad meanwhile carried Zoya behind the door and kissed her hungrily. They could hear the ruckus as they came up for air.
She gave him a quick peck and ran towards the all the fun they were having without her.
He sighed in frustration and ran his hand through his hair. Cold shower, here I come.
He grinned at the pun.
Zoya Farooqui was making him seriously mental.
He walked back into the living room.
And saw the elaborate mating dances.
Omar had Najma's phone in his hand and was holding it out of reach and she was all over him trying unsuccessfully to grab it back. Ayaan was doing the same with Humaira. Only it was her hair clip.
Asad scrubbed his brow. Damn, are men hard-wired to be so obvious?
The cold shower would have to wait. He had to first babysit Gropey and Humpy here. He knew exactly what had brought them over this evening. They were now mooching for tea and cake, just to keep the girls longer in the living room.
Once again he'd have to be the bad cop. He grabbed the two by their collars and dragged them to his room saying, "goodnight girls" over his shoulder.
"Go to bed, it's a long day tomorrow."
"Oh, just so Zoya begum can have her beauty sleep?" sassed Omar.
"So that I can have my beauty sleep!" He glared at Omar who had the grace to look embarrassed.
Damn that Zo telling her Mr. Khan everything!
Asad tossed them tshirts and sweats and decided to sleep on the settee while he let them have the bed.
He woke up with a start. Some noise had disturbed him. He looked over to the bed, and noticed it empty.
"Uhhh!" he groaned and went to investigate. Idiot! Why hadn't he thought of taking their phones?
He hated playing the headmaster to their horny teenager act. Especially when he was itching to do the same.
The living room was dark but he could hear whispers. He turned on the light and Ayaan popped up from behind the kitchen island.
"Ayaan, kamre mein chalo."
Ayaan ran his hand through his hair and complied.
But very reluctantly. Asad too went with him not wanting to embarrass Humaira. But then he remembered Omar, and smacked his head.
"Backyard," said a dejected Ayaan as he stretched out on the bed.
He pinched the bridge of his nose. Oh god, this was embarrassing. He better not find them in a compromising position. He made thumping noises as he marched over. They were on the bench with Omar holding Najma by his side.
He cleared his throat and folded his arms across his chest. Najma gasped and hid behind Omar.
He wasn't mad, just annoyed, that in playing the love police, he wasn't getting as lucky.
"Omar, 2 minutes." And he walked inside.
"Mr. Khan," he heard her whisper as she slipped her hand in his in the semi-darkened room. He took her in his arms and breathed in her fragrance.
"Why are you being such a a sarru Tayyab Ali?"
"What? Who?" He was nuzzling her neck.
"Apne gaana nahin suna, Tayyab Ali pyaar ka dushman haye! haye! haye!'?"
"Oh really? I am being pyaar ka dushman? What about when I wanted a hug and a kiss, and Mrs. Tayyab Ali skipped away because she didn't want to miss any fun with the seven dwarves."
"Six. Mixing Bollywood and fairytales?"
"Whatever," he scoffed and trailed kisses down her throat.
"That would make me Snow White and you my Prince Charming," she went up on her toes to lick his lips, and he spasmed.
"Think about it. With them out of the way?"
She arched her eyebrow and tilted her head to the side, "just saying ..." And she wrapped her arms around his neck.
His eyes gleamed.
Disengaging, but still holding her hand, he stepped outside and bumped into Omar.
"Take 15 minutes. But keep it PG 13."
Zoya dragged Asad away from the door, "twenty," she told Omar.
He went to his room to rouse Ayaan out of bed with the same instructions. As Ayaan dashed away to re-liaise and find a private spot, Asad saw Zoya getting herself a glass of water. Grabbing the glass out of her hand he carried her to his room and shut the door after him.
There he showed her that he was more Jahanpanah Charming than Tayyab Ali.
They all slept till late in the morning, and Dilshad had to finally chide them for wasting half the day. She huffed and puffed at them to get ready for the functions later in the day.
But Zoya had been up for hours, freshly showered and radiant; all toes painted.
They had stolen precious time in the early morning.
In the guest room, where all the wedding supplies were being stored.
He had been extremely careful to not leave marks any place where her skin would be exposed from her lehenga and choli tonight. But everywhere else, he told her through velvety kisses and flashing teeth, was fair game.
His territory to mark and taste and suck and bite.
She had surrendered eagerly but hadn't been as careful. There was no way he was going to be able to wear a collarless kurta tonight. He had asked to be marked by her after all. "Just following directions" she'd told him smugly before pushing him on his freshly-scratched back.
At the raucous breakfast table where Dilshad was being regaled about the adventures of the night, Zoya was serenely quiet, only looking up to see Asad look at her.
He was wearing a full-sleeved shirt and trying to hold the collar close together; she smiled knowingly.
Song in Title:
Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) "Tayyab Ali"
Razia felt at peace.
Finally things felt settled. Humaira was happy and that was what really mattered. She has seen the changes in the relationship between her and Ayaan and was pleased enough to even let her daughter spend the night in that house. It was a good thing that Siddiqui Saheb was out of town or he would never allow such a thing.
Settling down with the accounts, she looked up in annoyance when the servant came to tell her that someone wished to meet her.
She rose in barely masked displeasure and walked into the hall.
Tanveer! That skank.
"Tumhari yahan aane ki himmat kaise hui?" she rasped.
"I'll keep it simple and short. I want Rs. 1 Crore."
Razia scoffed. "Really? Get lost and never show your face around here." She turned to go.
"Razia bi, I wouldn't be so smug," murmured Tanveer as she arranged herself on the sofa comfortably.
"And why not?" She sighed irritably.
"I have something that could make life very difficult for you."
Razia sighed and took a seat. "OK, let's hear it."
"Can I get some tea?"
Razia fumed. "Get to the point Tanveer," she gnashed her teeth.
"I have something that could unite your husband with his long-lost daughter and really upset your apple cart."
"And I can just as easily prove that it is fake. Don't try to fool me Tanveer. Your games won't work with me."
"Don't be so sure, Bi. Not only do I have concrete proof, but I'm willing to use it. I am a desperate woman and don't make me flatten your house of cards."
"What is it?"
Tanu preened. "The evidence is so fool-proof that if I wanted to, I could pose as that long-lost daughter myself. Imagine that. Me, in this house, under your nose as your step daughter." She laughed.
"Are you crazy?" Shouted an enraged Razia. "There are things like DNA tests!"
"And there are doctors and nurses who can be paid to alter reports," Tanveer countered, admiring her fingernails.
"I don't believe you!"
Tanu rose. "Believe it. You have till tomorrow, 5pm, to give me that money. If not, then you will be welcoming me at your dinner table as your newly-minted step daughter."
"And as a favor, here is a preview of my plans." She stood up and left a sheet of paper on the table. "I'm sure your husband will recognize his own handwriting and sappy sentiments from years ago."
She pouted. "Kya bi, you weren't good enough for him?"
Razia growled and lunged at her, but Tanu dodged her and walked away.
At the door, she turned with a parting salvo, "and Bi, don't bother to have me killed. I have a safety trigger. If my source doesn't hear from me every 4 hours, then not only will a package be sent to your husband, but also to the leading news sources in the city."
His father was running late and Asad kept glancing at his watch. He wanted to be home where all the action was. He had left very reluctantly.
The boys were still camped out at Khan Villa. He never knew that he would actually enjoy so much noise and laughter. It was a treat to watch Ammi laugh and Najma glow. Nikhat too seemed to be coming out of her shell and smiling a lot more.
He took a deep cleansing breath, recalling the sensual haze of the moment when she branded yet another kurta of his. This time with pale pink nail polish.
Feet in his lap she had guided him how to glide the brush along the grain of the nail. It had taken him about five to six tries to not make his hand shake and apply deft, firm strokes. She had even demonstrated it for him on his fingernail. She had then quickly brushed the wet paint off his nail with her thumb and then sucked his finger, eyes hotly locking with his.
That had distracted them from the nail painting for some time. But in the end, he found that the best way to do it was to sit on the floor with her foot propped on his knee. He had kissed her instep and then blown on her toe to dry the polish.
And heard her quick intake of breath.
Capping the bottle shut he had kissed his way up to make her toes curl.
"Sir, a Mr. Rashid to see you."
As Asad invited his father to have a seat at the sofa he noticed that he was tense.
"Abbu ... everything OK?"
Rashid nodded and took a seat. But he slid to the edge of the seat and placed his elbows on his knees pensively.
"Asad, what I have to say is hard to say and hear. But we both have to do this. Please hear me out."
Asad too sat down, now really worried.
"This is about what happened all those years ago."
Asad flinched. Rashid saw it and got up to stand next to him. He placed his hand on his shoulder and continued.
"Just listen." He brushed his face and folded his arms tensely.
Rashid took a deep steadying breath as he prepared to unburden himself to his son, a son whose angry condemnation all these years that had seared his soul.
"It was Najma's birthday and my boss' wife called me to run an important errand." He went on to tell him everything that followed that fateful day which changed everyone's lives forever.
How he had been trapped in an endless cycle of blackmail and threats ever since, because his bosses wanted him to do their dirty work, but didn't trust anyone else enough to do it for them.
Asad still didn't understand why he would do it. He tried to keep an open mind but couldn't get past that one thing.
Rashid looked at his son. He knew exactly what was swirling in his head.
In anguish he said, "they said they'd kill Najma. She had fallen asleep in the car and that woman held her folded dupatta over her face."
Asad's face blanched. He should have known only something so drastic would force a father to do something this terrible. He wasn't even a father yet, and had already fallen in love with the image of the kids Zoya had created in his heart. He bled for a father's dilemma.
He rose to put his hand on Rashid's shoulder and Rashid buried his face in his hands. "I kept thinking of Dilshad, and what would happen if she saw her baby's lifeless corpse in my arms. And on her birthday."
He pulled his hands away in disgust. "I did it. I did what they wanted me to do."
"I set fire to the factory and have lived in hell ever since," he said in a dead whisper.
"That fire died, but it lives to this day in my nightmares. That fire destroyed everything... Everything innocent, pure ... was gone. All that remained ... was---" he choked bitterly in a monotone.
"They took pictures, Asad. And since then, they have used it to shut me up."
He looked at Asad who was still trying to comprehend the enormity of it all.
This would be the hardest part. "I later found out that there was a dead body in the remains."
He added bitterly, "my god! How that woman gloated that they had me under their thumb because now I was also a murderer!"
He wiped his brow and paced the floor. "I threatened to go to the police and surrender myself. But then they played the dirtiest trick of all."
He walked to the plate glass window and looked out bleakly. "They threatened to kill my family."
"But Abbu, it was just a threat. Why didn't you go to the police?"
Asad's breath caught.
"As I entered the police station, a peon from our office came running to tell me that there had been an accident and Dilshad ..."
Asad suddenly remembered as if it was yesterday. He had heard talk about having to leave the city and going away somewhere far. He had been very upset because that meant he would never see Ayaan again. He kept begging to see him once, to not go, to be told where they were going ... but his mother had been too busy to pacify him. They had packed their stuff in a taxi and were going to the train, or the bus station, he couldn't remember that part.
And their car had been hit on the side Ammi was sitting.
"... luckily she wasn't hurt too badly and you both sustained only minor injuries. Shukar hai khuda ha."
"When I went to pay the hospital bills, the nurse told me it had been paid up. And she handed me a note from my benefactor."
Through a raw throat, he croaked, "Asad, I still remember what it said: Abhi to sirf hospital mein hain biwi bacche. Agli mulakat murdaghar mein hogi'."
Later Rashid told him how he had been slowly gathering evidence of his own against them for many years. How even now he had been late because he knew that Razia kept him under watch so he had changed a number of taxis and autorickshaws to make it here undetected. Miserably, he told his son how he had posted surveillance on their house to keep them safe all these years, "but I stayed away, apna saya bhi tum logon pe nahin padne de sakta tha."
"Abbu, I'll help in whatever way I can. Stay here and use my office and staff to do whatever needs to be done. You can come here as often and whenever. But right now I have to leave for the airport. Zoya's Aapi and Jeeju are coming."
Rashid understood. But he cautioned him, "put extra security on the house and the family. This is going to get very ugly before it gets better."
Asad recognized them since he had talked with them over Skype a couple of times since the formal announcement of their wedding. The engagement and mehendi would be tonight. The Sangeet part Zoya had already taken care of with her gaalis session, he smiled to himself.
In the car, after catching up, he asked aapi the one question he was dying to know the answer to. How did Zoya get her scar?
Aapi's face fell.
"Asad, how do you ... ?"
"Zoya told me. But she didn't tell me how she got it. Please Aapi, I need to know."
Aapi's eyes filled and she gazed out of the window; after a long silence she spoke in a monotone.
"Usse khud pata nahin hai. We never told her." Her breath heaved, "she was still a baby. There was a fire which killed her mother and she was the only witness ..."
Zeenat was wracked with dry sobs, "my poor baby, it hurt her so much. So many nights we stayed up with her because of her nightmares and the screams. Oh god, the screams!"
Asad's eyes blurred. He couldn't imagine the raw pain that Zoya must have felt. Whenever he got hurt in the slighest Ammi had always been there to kiss it away.
His throat choked and he pulled over. Anwar was holding Zeenat's hand and crying too. "She was just a baby," he kept saying. "A mere child. Who would do something like that?"
Asad got out of the car to give them privacy and catch his breath. So much grief and loss. How could she still laugh and be the kind of person she was?
He remembered her words from a few days ago, "I had just found out about Abbu and then your engagement ... I thought that if I asked Allah for anything He would take it away from me like always."
His own words to her about her Ammi's death, said in blazing white hot anger, rose up to haunt him, to choke him.
And, yet another memory creeped up, unbidden.
That time she had kept bugging him to reconcile with his father and he had yelled at her the same tired and bitter words: aapko rishton ki ehmiyat nahin hai. Head bowed, she had whispered roughly, "you are so lucky to at least have a father to hate."
Asad hid his face in his hands and wept for Zoya.
Song in Title:
Gambler (1971) "Dil Aaj Shayar Hai"
Something was off. Ever since Asad had returned from the airport, there was a somberness about him that she couldn't quite put her finger on. He had been on the phone most of the time, holed up in his room.
The house was a zoo. Aapi and Jeeju had been settled in Najma's room. Najma would be sleeping with her tonight.
And in her room, the girls were tripping over each trying to get to the mirror and make up and jewelry.
Zoya stood still in the center of the hurricane to take stock.
She texted Omar. "I need a moment with Mr. Khan."
Seven minutes later, he texted back, "all clear."
She stepped out of her window and went around the house to the window in his room and looked in. He was sitting on the bed miles away in thought. Ayaan and Omar's clothes were still strewn on the bed.
This was just wrong. Jahanpanah not clearing the mess?
She crept in, and before he could look up, climbed up in his lap and hugged him. After a second, she felt his arms go around her tightly as he buried his face in the crook of her neck.
"Shh, just let me hold you."
She held him.
She had to get to the bottom of this. He was keeping something from her.
The mehendi function was a colorful blur.
The girls, gorgeously dressed, were excitedly fluttering about, laughing, teasing and chattering. They oohed and aahed at the mehendi designs, chose and unchose different ones a thousand times, and peeked over Zoya's shoulder to monitor the progress of her application, suggesting where to hide Bhaijaan's name on her palm.
Zoya, in a beautiful, heavily embroidered pale pink and green lehenga choli, kept looking out for Asad to come by her side, rub shoulders with her, look at her with promises of love, and be teased away by his sisters.
But he remained distant never looking at her even once.
Even with Omar and Ayaan he remained silent and preoccupied.
He looked more and more shell-shocked as the night wore on.
Fear clutched Zoya's heart. Something was very wrong.
She sat with her arms out, hands splayed helplessly, crucified by the heavy dress and jewelry, the oppressively perfumed air, the frothy silks, brocades and chiffons, and the clammy grittiness of the henna.
What was really the point of all this? Why won't you even look at me?
Ayaan announced to the guests that the couple's family had prepared a dance for the occasion. Everyone gasped and clapped with delight. The center of the room was cleared and the dancers took their places.
Any other time Zoya would have loved this, and may even have jumped in to join them.
But right now her eyes were still seeking out Asad's restlessly.
Ayaan, Omar and the girls danced to "Mehendi Laga Ke Rakhna." She didn't even know when they had decided to do this or had time to practice for it.
A roaring success, everyone demanded an encore.
Asad watched the performance sightlessly, with a wooden face, arms crossed at his chest.
After the dance, Zoya caught Omar's eye and signaled him over. He came and knelt by her side.
"Hey Zo, change your mind? Wanna run away again?" He teased. She elbowed him and looked at him seriously.
He alerted to her pensiveness.
She bent to whisper softly, "Check on Mr. Khan."
Omar looked at him and back at her. He saw the genuine worry in her face. Patting her arm, he walked over to Asad.
"Asad, Zoya is wondering about you."
Asad ducked his head and looked away.
"What is it, man? You aren't having doubts about this, are you?" Omar knew that wasn't the case at all. He had seen the way the man looked at Zoya.
He put his hand on his shoulder, but Asad shrugged it off and went to his room.
Now even Omar was worried. He looked at Zoya, who was nearly in tears. He went and sat by her side in silence. "Don't worry, I'll talk to him, I promise," he soothed.
She bent her head to hide her tears from everyone. Aapi lifted her chin, in tears herself. "My baby, getting married" she cooed with love.
Zoya smiled bravely.
She couldn't take her eyes off his name glistening wetly on her hand.
She looked at her feet being adorned with the fragrant and cool henna and saw her toenails. Her heart twisted.
Razia paced in fury. Her sources had told her about Rashid's escapade today. Where had he gone and why all this run around? So he knew that he was under surveillance, but what was so important that he needed to duck away like this?
She better tighten the leash.
She massaged her chest. Tanveer's threats were giving her heartburn on top of that.
That witch! She must have stolen the letters from that girl. Damn her for staying on longer and ruining her plans.
And she couldn't even have her taken care of now. Her hands were tied.
She reluctantly opened her cupboard and removed some old jewelry from the safe. She'd have to use some of these to not arouse suspicion about the high rupee amount withdrawn from the bank tomorrow.
Ridiculous nonsense to be so trapped by that wh*re.
Ayaan came to get him from his room joking that his hone wali bhabhi was waiting for him to find his name on her hand.
"Bhaijaan, aap fikar mat kariye. Aap jald hi dhoond lenge. If not, then I'll try to trick Humaira into telling me."
"Chaliye." He clapped his hand on Asad's shoulder and half-dragged him to the living room.
"Here's the shy groom everyone," he announced. Najma skipped up and latched her arm through his and pushed him down to sit by Zoya.
Zoya had her eyes lowered. She was terrified of seeing rejection in his eyes. Her heart hammered hard and erratically.
Aapi made her hold out her palms for Asad as he was made to sit by her on the settee.
He looked up at her from under his lashes. Her eyelids were reddening and he could see her biting her lip on the inside to prevent it from quivering. His heart wrenched.
He held her hands in his, willing her to look up at him.
She pinned her gaze at the the crusted henna whorls. She was painfully aware that he wasn't caressing the back of her hands like he usually did, and nearly sobbed aloud.
The girls were eagerly discussing how if he couldn't find his name he'd have to give her a gift of her choice.
"Zoya, make sure that you ask for something like the moon and stars. It has to be the most outrageous or difficult thing."
Ayaan was pumping up Asad, "c'mon bhaijaan, you can't lose. Hamari izzat ka sawal hai. Look carefully."
Omar was quiet. He was really worried. A part of him felt like punching Asad. But the other part knew that there was something deeper at play.
Everyone gathered around them enveloping them in chatter of love and hope.
Asad couldn't concentrate. He didn't want to. Emotions were churning through him and he felt her withdraw slightly. Her fingertips curled on themselves as if mortified. He couldn't bear to hurt her, but he couldn't bring himself to not hurt her either. He dropped her hands.
"I can't find it."
The girls cheered. Ayaan groaned and clutched his head.
"Bhaijaan, aap bhi na! You just wanted her to win. Not fair."
Najma nudged Zoya. "Great job Zoya. Now ask for something that will make bhaijaan really scramble."
Zoya shook her bent head. She couldn't speak.
"Aw, she's shy," said Aapi. "Baad mein maang lena, theek hai?" And she kissed her forehead.
"Haan, baad mein, akele mein," Najma joked and the girls giggled and Ayaan guffawed.
Najma bent close to her ear, "hai na, Zoya?" She hummed, "... sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in a baby carriage."
Zoya huddled and caved into herself wanting to clench her fists to her mouth but unable to do so.
The festivities continued to swirl around them. But they were locked in their twin worlds of misery and despair.
As the celebrations wound down, Dilshad came over, "chalo Zoya tumhari mehendi utaar ke uska rang dekhte hain."
Everyone began to tease them about how dark or light the color would be, and how Dilshad wanted to be the first one to find out.
Zoya rose obediently. Najma and Aapi helped her to the bathroom sink in her room. She listleesly removed the henna while they chatted over her head talking about the dance, clothes, food, music and the wedding tomorrow. Aapi was teasing Najma about Omar. She brought a towel to wipe her hands and both put their heads together to check for the darkness.
"Wow! It's so dark, Zoya. Looks like Ammi loves you more than me."
Zoya excused herself to use the restroom and they left.
Five minutes later she sank to the floor in front of the sink and sobbed quietly with her fists to her mouth unaware of the coppery aftertaste.
She had started her period.
Song in Title:
Hum Kissi Se Kum Nahin (1977) "Kya Hua Tera Vaada"
He paced in his room.
Asad couldn't get her downcast eyes and nearly quivering lips out of his mind. How many times would he keep hurting her? But wasn't it better to hurt her a little now, than a lot more, later?
He flashbacked to the first time he had seen at the dargah and sat down heavily on the bed.
His chest felt tight. He couldn't breathe.
The tortured words and tears of both his father, and her Aapi, kept playing in his mind on an endless loop.
"... I set the fire ..."
" her mother died in a fire ... screaming ..."
The words and scenes overlapped creating a fiery crescendo of torment. Together they painted a grim picture ...
Sometime between the drive home after his breakdown, and turning into the driveway, Asad's mind had made a terrifying but uncanny and startling connection.
Were the two incidents from both his and her past ...? Even thinking about it turned his blood to ice.
Were their lives inexorably linked by blood, lies and fire?
He paced again, unable to sit still.
Could his father be responsible for that scar on her arm? Finally, he had put words to his worst fear.
How could one do that to a baby? His mind flashed to an image of a baby Najma. What if someone had done something like that to their Tamatar?
His mind kept reliving the screams he heard when Zoya had her nightmares. She must have felt so much pain. He squeezed his eyes shut in agony.
Before entering the house, he had quietly asked Anwar. "When did this happen?"
"Do you remember which month or the date?"
"I want to look into it to see if we can find out more about what happened."
"I think it was October. But I'll check with Zeenat."
Once home, he had called the investigator and given him whatever details he could about the location and time, and told him to rush the results. Money was no bar, this was to be done at a war footing. "Drop everything else. I'll pay for your time. I need results, fast."
Next he called the Police Commissioner to urge him to expedite the forensic investigation of the remains found in the factory. If the lab was still backlogged, he would pay to get it done privately. He would even fly in the best forensic anthropologist if the need arose.
The reports had started trickling in within the next few hours.
And it all added up; his instincts had been right.
How could they get married now? What if Zoya found out later that his father may have allegedly murdered her mother and scarred her for life? She would hate him and they would be trapped in a marriage of endless pain and mistrust.
In his heart, Asad knew that his father was no killer. But what if he was framed and made to accidentally kill someone by his bosses?
So far the only ray of hope was that the remains hadn't been identified as male or female.
May be there was no link.
But what if there was?
Somehow, in his gut, Asad was sure that there was.
He looked out of the arched window into the heart of darkness.
He shouldn't have trusted that happiness; it wasn't his due. He was to be forever robbed of it"his lot was to not just stand at the edge of light and peer in.
No, his destiny was to turn his back on the light and live in his own shadow.
But what of Zoya?
Asad needed to get away from the oppressiveness of his room.
It was dark in the house. Everyone was exhausted and had turned in soon after the guests left.
He walked outside to sit on the bench.
And saw her there.
Of course. No wonder his lovesick feet had led him here.
She still hadn't changed out of her dress. Her shoulders were hunched, and he could tell she was crying softly.
He wanted to hug her to him, crushing her in his arms. Asad swore under his breath and turned to walk away.
His heart splintered at those words.
Arms rigidly folded across his chest, he pressed his fist to his mouth.
A cloud of fragrant henna wafted up behind him.
She tugged his hand, turned it over, and put something in it. The warm curved metal burned him. His fist closed around it, the stone biting into his flesh.
"Zoya," he choked.
Her simple acceptance of his silent decision destroyed him.
"Umm ... Mr. Khan?" She pressed her fingers to her trembling lips.
She still wanted to say something to him? He saw her grip her hands painfully.
She didn't know if she should tell him, or even if she would have the courage to say the words without crumbling.
She didn't want his pity, but nor did she want him to feel guilt or shame.
Zoya twisted her bare fingers, already missing the snug warmth of the ring ... and his love.
"I ... I started ... umm ..." she gulped, took a huge shuddering breath and blurted in a rush, "Don't worry please, I'm not pregnant."
She ran to get to the door leading to the house.
Unable to bear it anymore, in a few swift steps he was by her side.
Asad shook her by her shoulders. "Why don't you hate me for hurting you every time? Why are you still thinking about me when I've given you more tears than smiles?"
She slid to the ground on her knees, trying to swallow her sobs by pressing her fists to her mouth.
He couldn't. No, he wouldn't do it. They would go through it together if she let him. He gathered her in his arms and rocked her to him.
"I'm so sorry that I keep hurting you."
She clung to him but rained soft, ineffectual punches on his chest. Asad tried to laugh at that, and her punches grew stronger.
"Zoya," he grabbed her fist in his. The ring bit into her knuckles.
Still sobbing, she hid her face in the crook of her arm.
"Did I do something?" She asked through sobs.
Zoya cried harder. "You don't want to marry me?"
He hugged her hard, hating himself more.
"I want to marry you. Only you. I love you so much. But there's something that we have to talk about first."
While a part of her was glad to hear that things were okay between them and that he was finally about to tell her what it was that was bothering him, another part of her dreaded the words to come. It could be only something momentous for him to be so affected by it.
"What?" She whispered fearfully.
"Your truth, my truth. Our truth!"
She wiped her tears, got up, and moved away waiting for him to continue. What was he going to say? What truth? Fear coursed down her spine. Zoya let him lead her back to the bench. Asad didn't sit by her side as she had hoped he would.
He paced before her.
"Abbu came to the office today."
She knew about this part. He had already told her last night that Abbu wanted to speak with him.
"He told me about the factory and what happened all those years ago. Do you remember they found skeletal remains there?"
"And then when I went to pick up Aapi and Jeeju, I asked them how you got your scar."
Zoya flinched but remained silent.
She had herself asked them this but they said they didn't know. She was sure that's what they told Asad.
"She told me that you were in a fire that killed your mother," He choked out, wanting to hold her but not daring to look at her.
Zoya was confused.
"But I thought they didn't know about Ammi or how I got my scar."
She couldn't accept that they had lied to her all these years. But this information was distracting her from the bigger shock that she had just received.
Ammi had died in a fire? The dreams? And she got the scar in the same fire?
Asad stole a look at her. It hadn't hit her as yet. She was still processing the information in a delayed reaction. And he hadn't even told her the worst of it as yet.
"Zoya, you know that Abbu set fire to that factory, right? They made him do it." He swiped his hand across his mouth in agitation, "but, what we didn't know then, was that they were threatening to kill Najma. That's why he did it."
Zoya scrunched up her face in confusion. Why was he talking about Abbu and Najma in the middle of this?
Still distracted, she said, "I told you, it had to be something big like that. It must have been horrible for him."
Only she could have this much faith. Even he hadn't believed his father earlier.
He held her shoulders and then knelt before her, holding her hands.
"I had it checked out. The fire in the factory was around the same time your mother died in a fire."
She looked at him blankly.
"Zoya ... Abbu may have burned the factory that ... your mother died in." He started to weep in her hands, "and my father may have given you that scar."
"How can you want to marry me after this? I may be the son of your mother's murderer!"
She jerked and went numb, staring sightlessly into the night.
Song in Title:
Dil Chahta Hai (2001): "Tanhayee"
The glinting shards and snatches of broken images, dreams, thoughts, words and feelings strafed her.
She remembered that moment when they walked in on his Abbu in the factory, trying to re-bury the ...
... that was Ammi? ...
A silent scream ripped through her, leaving her gasping for breath.
... all my life ... yearning for you ... not knowing where you were buried ... you were there ... right in front of me ... like some discarded ... shattered ... limp doll ... paved over like common trash ...
I was there ... the searing heat ... left like trash ... no one to hold me ...
... the numbing cold ... he was there ... unburying her ... his bloodied fingertips ... crying out her name ... reviving her ... holding her ... brushing the dirt from her face ... carrying her ... tears running down his face ... wiping her tears ...
She saw his head in her lap. She felt his hot tears in her hands and snatched her hands away.
His heart cracked.
Asad reeled from her withdrawal. He knew it. She hated him. He had gambled; and lost. He raised his leaden head. That night, all those years ago, may have inadvertently forged their bond in tears and terror; it would be deliberately hacked on the eve of what would have been the happiest day of their lives.
She wiped her hands by her side, then ran them through his hair. Zoya bent to kiss the top of his head.
He looked up in shock, "Zoya?"
She was crying too.
She wiped his tears. "Asad, just hold me, please."
He surged up to sit next to her and wrapped her in his arms gratefully. Healing in each other's arms they sat huddled together, silently, for a long time.
He pulled her into his lap, raining kisses on her head, "what are you made of? How can you get past this?"
She looked up at him, and held his face in her hands. "Did you kill my mother?"
He knew what she meant and opened his mouth to argue with her. She hushed him with a finger on his lips.
"But your scar!" His hand stroked her arm to feel and remind her of the uneven bumps under her sleeve.
"It must have hurt so much!" He began to weep for her.
"Shh, it's a part of me and I don't even think about it anymore. I don't remember the pain."
She held his face, "but the pain this evening was more real. I thought it was over between us."
He squeezed his eyes shut and she sucked his tears.
"I never knew her. She died so long ago. All I have of her are the nightmares and the scar. I have her earrings, an old saree, a music box and some letters which are gone now."
She stroked his cheek and kissed his chest. "You make those nightmares go away and make me feel beautiful despite my scar."
She kissed the side of his neck, "who held on to my lost earring? You."
She kissed him on the other side, "I wore that saree when I tried to seduce you, but failed miserably."
He smiled at the memory and lifted her face to brush her lips with his.
"You didn't fail, I was already smitten, just not ready to admit it," he whispered.
"How many times did you save me? Who took care of me when we found out about my Abbu?"
She pulled his face down and kissed his eyes and cheeks.
"And if all you say is true, can't you see, we're even!"
She held up his palm to show him his scar before kissing it.
"Zoya, you are so incredibly crazy," he moaned through his tears, and kissed her tenderly.
"How can you make such beautiful and magical sense of this horror?"
He continued to kiss her hands, head, stopping to peck the tip of her nose.
"Because you are here, in my arms, crying for me and loving me. I've already lost her. Why would I turn away from the best thing that happened to me?"
Setting her down on the bench, he slid down on his knees again and took her hand in his.
"Will you marry me even if this is true?"
She nodded eagerly, and he slipped the ring on and kissed her finger.
She urged him up and kissed him greedily wanting to make up for so many lost hours and a lifetime's worth of heartache.
They sat there immersed in one another for heaven knows how long, kissing away each other's tears.
She sighed, "Asad?"
"Hmm," he brushed his lips on her temple and noticed that her eyes were moist again.
"It was killing me to think that you would hate me for being my father's son."
She placed her hand on his mouth. "I could never hate you. You are my rock, my dua."
He kissed her desperately, a man past drowning.
"And I don't hate your Abbu either. I've wanted my Abbu for so long, will you share yours with me?"
Asad nodded in awe. What was this woman made of? How could she not hate him, he wondered.
"If it was between his child and my mother," she was wracked with sobs again, "thank god, Najma is safe. Who does something like that? Oh god, I hope I don't ever resent her. Could I resent her? I love her so much."
She rambled, but really was just begging to be reassured.
His heart caved in.
He held her, his own throat tight with tears, "never! If you don't hate my father who was an adult, then how could you resent a baby? But if I was in your place I may not have felt the same. You are something else."
She burrowed in his chest and continued to sob. He soothed her by stroking her back and arms.
Finally, she sat up and wiped her tears and his. She played with the collar of his kurta. Her hands fluttered restlessly.
"What is it, baby?"
"I started my period today." And she burst into tears all over again.
He felt her pain of loss, more so because she had faced it alone, without him by her side. They had become attached to the idea of babies. Asad held her tight tucking her head in the crook of his neck, cradling her.
"So what? We'll keep trying. It's a good thing you're not pregnant, we can have more fun trying."
"But tomorrow's our wedding night!"
"Well it's a good thing that we didn't wait then right? Imagine if we hadn't already made love, how miserable we'd be!"
She smiled at that too. "We can still try ..., " she whispered hopefully.
"Won't it hurt?"
"I don't think so ..."
He laughed grabbing her to his heart again, but quickly sobered.
"When did you find out?"
"After I removed the mehendi." Her throat tightened again. His own eyes moistened.
"I wish I was there to hold you and tell you how much I love you." He cupped her face in his hands and kissed her eyes and cheeks.
"I'm sorry to ruin the ceremony and hurt you so much. I was slowly dying inside thinking I had already lost you," he kissed her palms and fingertips, and breathed in the fragrance of her mehendi nuzzling her palm.
"How can I make it up to you?"
"Kiss me, love me forever."
"I will. All night. All my life."
He lifted her in his arms.
"Why are you so heavy all of a sudden?"
She punched his shoulder and kissed his cheek, "it's this ridiculous lehenga that probably weighs twenty-twenty five pounds."
He walked toward the door. "How many kgs is that?"
He waited while she bolted it from the inside.
"Umm, I don't know, about ten I guess?"
They talked in hushed tones.
He carried her to his room.
"So when you are pregnant with Zaid, is this how much you'll weigh?"
"May be. May be more."
Asad laughed softly and bent his head to nudge her nose with his.
"What if we have twins? I want twins!" She whispered happily.
He gulped audibly and she laughed softly, giving him a fierce hug after securing his bedroom door from the inside.
"Why are you so worried? You won't have to carry them!"
He set her down and kissed her.
"I would." His hand curved over her flat stomach. "In a heartbeat."
"I know," she held his face in her hands, "but," and she slid one hand down to stroke his taut stomach, "that'd be hell on my six packs that I've drooled over forever."
He threw his head back to roar with laughter.
But she covered his mouth with her hand, "Mr. Khan! Shh!" and his chest rumbled from suppressing it.
"I feel grubby. I want a shower," she said a little later.
"Unnhh!" he protested now kissing her ear and neck.
She pulled him by his hand.
"C'mon Jahanpanah, take your mallika to the hamam and shower her with some ishq and aashiqui."
"You've been watching that show on TV, right?"
He tugged at her dupatta and she helped him unpin it letting it slide to the floor.
"Umm hmm," she started to unbutton his kurta.
"Basic research to understand the life and times of the original jahanpanah!"
His laughter rumbled through her hand on his chest.
"But," and she placed her hands on her hips huffily, "I better be the only mallika in the harem, or the Jahanpanah won't have a seventh pack left."
He doubled over with silent laughter.
"And besides, you owe me."
He straightened up and sobered in a flash, "I know, I'm so sorry for earlier."
"No! You couldn't find your name in my mehendi, remember?"
"Your permanent initial on my palm doesn't count?"
"OK, OK, mallika sahiba, lead the way."
She raised both her arms like a child. "No, Jahanpanah, carry me," she ordered.
He chuckled and scooped her in his arms to gently set her down on the edge of the tub.
He turned on the faucets in the shower cubicle to adjust the temperature. By the time he was satisfied, she had undressed. He helped her in and undressed to join her. Soaping each other erotically was soon abandoned. With the jets spraying against them, he backed her against the wall, hitched her up and mounted her, as she wrapped her legs around him.
"Look at me," he ordered.
They gazed into each other's eyes until they couldn't anymore, surrendering and crashing into a powerful keening climax.
He buried his face in her neck as she arched it against the wall, trapped between the slick tile and his thundering heart.
Song in Title:
Unpadh (1962) "Aapki Nazaron Ne Samjha"
Tanu was a content woman. Her gamble had paid off. But she couldn't resist one more pay out. It was too tempting not to attempt it.
Yesterday she had waited outside his office in a burqa. When he got out of the car, she saw that he was accompanied by some minion deferentially holding his phone and papers while updating him on today's meetings.
She walked up to them.
"Maaf kijiyega?" She lifted her veil which still partially covered her face from the nose down.
"Mujhe aapse zaroori baat karni hai."
"I'm sorry," he pointed to the person with him. "Please take an appointment." And he started to walk away.
"It's very private."
He pivoted on his heel.
"How dare you? I do not entertain women like you!" He stalked off.
"Not even when it is about your daughter?" He halted and asked his assistant to go on ahead without him.
"What do you mean?" He barked through clenched teeth.
"I mean, I have some information about your long-lost daughter."
Gaffoor Siddiqui felt the ground shift under him. His face softened for a second.
"What do you know about it?" He wasn't going to pretend that he didn't know what she was talking about. A guilty part of him always yearned to know what had happened to the daughter he had abandoned and neglected years ago for fear of upsetting the gilded apple cart.
"Can we speak more privately?"
An hour later they were seated in the deserted coffee shop of a 3 star hotel. Here he would be anonymous and the meeting still private.
"Yes, please tell me what you know," he inquired right after their drinks had been served.
She removed a bundle of letters and photographs from her bag and passed them on to him. He removed the frayed rubberband and looked at them. His hands stilled and he pressed a hand on his mouth.
"Where did you get these?" Tears fell down his face. "I wrote these so long ago ..."
"They were my mother's. She died a long time ago and this is all I have left of her. Her relatives brought me up and I have been searching for my father for years."
"Oh my god, you are my daughter?"
He looked at her in amazement. "For so long I wondered what happened to you. You must hate me for what I did." He couldn't believe how emotional he felt. He never knew that this would affect him so. He groped for her hand. "Beta please forgive me even though I am not worthy of it. I have wronged you." He was in tears.
"Let me make it up to you. Come home with me and live as my daughter so that I can make up for all my sins."
Tanu feigned tears and sniffled miserably. "I am sorry Abbu, that is not possible. You see, those relatives I talked about were not the best people. He was abusive and I finally had to run away from home to protect my honor." She cried bitterly.
"It was terrible. But sadly I couldn't save myself from this cruel world which thinks of single, young and familyless girls as meat to claw." She sobbed.
"Main apke pyar ke layak nahin hun Abbu."
"No, beta, don't say that."
"No, it's true, you see ... I am pregnant. They ... raped me."
He reeled in horror, revulsion, pity and guilt.
"I don't want to bring any dishonor to you Abbu. I am just glad to be able to call you Abbu and have you call me beta." She cried some more.
He felt terrible and yet oddly relieved. He would not have to confront his wife who would be furious. That made him feel even more guilty.
"I would have never come to you Abbu. But I need your help, now that my pregnancy is progressing."
"Don't worry about it beta. I will take care of everything." He fumbled with his phone and punched in some numbers. "I will have papers drawn up so that you can move into one of our flats in a project that was just completed. It's all yours and I will create an expense account for you."
"Thank you for the house Abbu. At least I will be able to live with dignity. But I don't think the expense account is such a good idea." She wiped her tears and spoke softly. "People at your office may begin to suspect something and I don't want your honor and reputation to be called into question because of me. It would kill me."
She sniffed again waiting for him to take the bait.
"OK, I see what you mean. You are a good person." He thought a bit. "Here's what we'll do. I will give you a lump sum of Rs. 1 Crore and that will keep everyone quiet."
"Ji Abbu. Jaisi aapki marzi."
"Theek hai beta. Come to my office tomorrow at around 4 pm and I'll have the house papers and keys, as well as the money ready for you."
He looked at her with regret. "I wish I could have done more."
"No Abbu, this is more than enough." She bowed her hear and lowered her gaze demurely.
"Can I keep these?" He asked about the packet of letters and photographs. She thought about it. They had already served her purpose, she didn't need them any more.
"Waise to yeh Ammi ki aakhri nishani theh ..." She let the sentence trail, hoping to milk him for some more.
He took off his heavily embossed emerald ring, and placed it in her hand. "This is for my grandchild, who I will never know. Allah Hafiz beta. Apna dhyaan rakhna." And he left with the bundle clutched tightly in his hands.
She gripped her hands in delight and silently exulted over her easy victory. Now she was set, she already had her ransom from Razia. May be she could try one more gamble, but she'd give it some more thought.
Leaning against the door frame, Asad had watched her hurry to her room in his borrowed tshirt and sweats with the bundle of her clothes tucked under her arm. With one backward glance and a flash of her smile, she ducked in. He had suggested that she leave them there; after all she would be moving in tomorrow anyways.
But she had said no. What if someone saw it in his room?
He had sighed and turned around to get ready to sleep for a couple of hours before everyone woke up.
Languidly he had stretched out on the bed and turned to his left. He had put his hand out to stroke the empty side; from tomorrow he would always turn to see her by his side.
Smiling, he got up to offer a prayer of gratitude.
At the breakfast table Asad waited restlessly for her to appear. Everyone was bustling about. Jeeju and he were the only ones seated. The women were rushing about in the kitchen, or from the kitchen to the table. They were chattering about what still needed to be done.
But no Zoya. Where was she? He was embarrassed to ask anyone. His fingers itched to text her, but before he could, Aapi put a hand on his shoulder.
"Aur intezar nahin hota?" she teased.
"Zoya won't come." His heart plummeted.
"Is everything OK?" he half rose in panic.
She laughed and patted his back. "Haan dulhe miyan, sab theek hai." She poured some juice for him and handed the glass to him, "you can't see her till before the wedding." She pinched his cheek playfully.
He felt deflated. Relief and disappointment warred in him.
Jeeju looked at him in amuse*ment. "Last few hours of bachelorhood, my friend. Enjoy, relax, and then forever hold your tongue."
Aapi swatted his shoulder and everyone laughed.
But Anwar was just getting warmed up. "I see a lot of Dhoni worship, empty pizza boxes, half-burned cakes, loud action movies and ... pyaari shayari in your future."
He choked up.
Aapi rested her hand on his shoulder and wiped her own tears.
"Anwar, don't you dare make me cry today. I am saving that for tomorrow."
Asad raised his coffee cup in silent salute to his future brother-in-law already looking forward to a lot more besides that. He felt emotional himself. Thank god she had Aapi and Jeeju's fiercely protective love growing up. No wonder she had grown to be so strong and beautiful. He felt tears prickle his eyes as they locked with Jeeju's. Anwar nodded slightly, knowing that he wouldn't have to tell Asad to take care of their baby. He already was doing such a fine job of it.
They heard the rumble of motorcycle engines and Asad's heart lifted. The twins were here! Najma ran to get the door and he smiled.
The door to Zoya's room opened partially. He could see her shadowy outline behind the frosted glass. She was jumping up and down in agitation.
"Aapi, not fair! I am hungry and bored and everyone else is having fun!"
Aah, if only he could march into her room, slam the door shut, scoop her into his arms and breathe in her scent.
Just a few hours more, he consoled himself.
Omar and Ayaan spilled into the room dumping their helmets wherever they landed. Zeenat squealed and Dilshad laughed.
Zoya harrumphed in frustration and slammed her door.
"Tum dono aate ho, to lagta hai ki zindagi aa gayee," gushed Dilshad.
Omar was hugging Jeeju and Aapi kissed him on his forehead.
Dilshad brought Ayaan forward. She was straightening his shirt and fixing his hair and he was resisting the clean up. "Zeenat, Anwar, kal acche se nahin mila payee thi, yeh mera chhota beta, Ayaan. Looks like he slept in these clothes but we still love him."
"Raabert?" Anwar asked and Ayaan's eyes twinkled.
"Ji, aur aap Mona Darling ke Hitler bhai hain shayad?" Anwar roared with laughter.
"Bhai, humnein to suna tha ki Hitler aapke bhai hain!"
Ayaan loved him already. "Theh, par ab nahin hain. Ab inke par kaat diye gaye hain and he's cuddlier than Winnie the Pooh."
Asad turned beet-red and lunged to grab Ayaan who easily dodged him, having played this game a hundred times before. He went in search of food. Najma was already heaping their plates. He parked himself at the table.
"Wash you hands at least," she scolded him.
He wiped them on the side of his clothes and held them up to her for inspection. "Pass?"
She blew her breath out and rolled her eyes, "fail, but here you go."
Zoya's door opened again, "AAAPIII!"
"Ya allah, yeh ladki," lamented Aapi.
She looked apologetically at Dilshad. "Mujhe maaf kariyega Aapa, par yeh toofan ab aapke hawale karti hoon."
Both Dilshad and Asad smiled at the truth of the statement craving to be the permanent recipients of Typhoon Zoya.
Anwar interceded, "Zeenat, khabardaar jo mere cheetah ko toofan kaha toh. She is much bigger than a toofan, she is a firestorm." He bit his tongue in anguish, just realizing what he had said. Aapi's eyes filled and Asad's blood ran cold.
Anwar covered his face in shame.
Dilshad looked at them fearfully. "Zeenat...?"
Asad was the first to recover. He put his arm around their shoulders and herded them away from the others. "Aap fikar mat kariye Jeeju. Main apke toofani cheete ka poora dhyaan rakhunga aur zyada garajne ya barasne nahin doonga," he soothed.
Anwar breathed a sigh of relief and grabbed Asad by his waist gratefully. "Koshish aachi rahegi beta, but I can guarantee 100% failure. Been there, done that."
They all laughed.
But typhoon Zoya was still bubbling and boiling, frothing and fuming. She hated the solitary confinement. Everyone was outside having fun without her. They were all laughing and yucking it up, and here she was under room arrest.
She opened the door again and yelled, "OMAR!!!"
Omar chuckled, grabbed his plate out of Najma's hand, winked at her and went to entertain the queen bee.
"Coming, Mallika-e-Hind," he groused.
Asad blushed remembering her words from last night. He ducked his head when he saw Jeeju look at him quizzically.
Anwar had never seen a grown man blush this much. Aah, to be young and in love.
Ayaan loaded on more food, tucked napkins and soda cans under his arm, and followed Omar. Dilshad shook her head as she saw him drop napkins and spoons in his wake. Najma grabbed her own plate and ran in after them. The door closed behind them.
It was Asad's turn to feel left out now. They were all seated in the living room having coffee and tea.
Aapi patted his knee in commiseration. "Mere saath bhi aisa hota tha. These two would live in a bubble in which I was never invited. There were jokes that I never got, and they talked in some kind of coded language where I was sure that they were making fun of me."
Dilshad rushed to reassure him, "don't worry, the girls will be here soon, and Zoya can have them and then the boys can join you."
He didn't have the heart to tell her that the boys would rather be with the girls, himself included.
Anwar smiled smugly. "Yeah, there was a code language and I will make sure to pass it on to your kids, because summers they will be spending in New York."
No way! said Asad to himself, not without their parents, they won't.
Anwar looked at him knowingly. "I know," he said softly. "It was really hard for us to say yes to her coming and living here on her own. Thank god, she found wonderful people like you."
I wasn't wonderful to her initially, he thought with a pang. You don't know how badly I treated her, he wanted to say and beg for forgiveness.
I put her in harm's way ...
I hit her for shielding my mother ...
I may have gladly left her in jail for protecting my sister ...
If anyone treated my daughter that way ... I would kill him.
Asad ducked his head, heavy with remorse.
Thank you Ammi and Tamatar for looking after her, because I kept driving her away.
Today was such an emotional roller coaster ride, thought Asad. His blood ran cold again as he thought of seeing her for the first time, dressed as someone else's bride.
He had very nearly let her go away from him.
Asad excused himself and went to his room. He wanted to offer prayers once again in gratitude and humility.
As he kneeled with the handkerchief tied on his head, the words from the sufi Qawwali at the Dargah that day echoed in his ears. They were the words from when he had first seen her. When he had fallen irrevocably in love and asked for something even without knowing it.
"Meri minnat pe karam tera agar ho jaaye,
Toh yahin poori meri Eid ki mannat hogi"
Ammi had asked him about the wedding preparations and if he wanted something special added today. Asad had only asked for the troupe from the Dargah to sing that Qawwali at the occasion.
He was blessed, the gloom had parted to make way for love and hope. He did have his heart's desire. He couldn't have asked for more.
Song in Title:
Fiza (2000), "Aaja Mahiya"
After lunch, the girls had shooed the men out of Asad's room to supervise the decoration of the room for the wedding night.
Zoya was at the parlor with Aapi. She had gone very reluctantly. She didn't want to miss any fun that everyone seemed to be having without her. It was all so unfair that she couldn't enjoy the fun at her own wedding.
Then, she also missed her jahanpanah. But somehow, by tacit understanding, they had refrained from texting or talking to each other today.
More to savor each other after the ceremony.
The girls were giggling and blushing, and cracking jokes in whispers, so the workers wouldn't hear them. Ayaan and Omar trooped in through the window and sat on the sill.
"So girls, what's up?" quizzed Ayaan impishly.
"Ayaan!" squealed Humaira happily, "what are you guys doing here? You should be keeping Asad bhaijaan company."
"Asad doesn't want our company. He sent us to supervise you all so that you don't over do the girly stuff," lorded Omar.
Asad had said nothing of the sort, but Ayaan nodded his head in agreement. He walked over to grab the guitar from its stand.
"We'll go, if you want?" Omar asked sweetly, his head tilted to the side.
Ayaan was not happy with this. He frowned and was about to thump Omar's back for even bringing it up, but was saved the hassle.
"No!" Najma shouted, and then blushed, "it's OK, you can stay and help."
"Ohhh really?" teased Nuzzhat. "Fat lot they'll help! They'll only get in the way."
"That's OK, Nuzzhat," Humaira butted in, "we'll be fine. May be the guys can ..." she looked around the room. Bhaijaan's room was too neat and tidy. Not a smudge or speck of dirt anywhere. What work could she assign these two?
"I know," chimed in Ayaan, "I'll play music while you girls finish up."
"Great!" smiled Humaira.
"And Omar can help Najma make the bed with these sheets that badi Ammi gave us," came Nikhat to the rescue.
Omar looked at Nikhat gratefully. He would have suggested the same if she hadn't mentioned it. "Just for that, Nikhat," he whispered in her ear, "I will leave you in peace and won't bug you about my awesome cousin."
She laughed and said an exaggerated, "thank you, Allah miyan!"
Everyone laughed at how easily Zoya's pet phrase had become a staple at the Khan house.
"And remember, Omar," said Nikhat playfully, "this is a test." Najma blushed.
Asad kept looking at his watch surreptitiously. Damn, still so much time left. He was also worried about Zoya. He wouldn't be completely at ease till she was back home safe. Tanveer was still out there and he didn't trust her vindictiveness. He had had extra security placed around the house at his father's behest and also sent a bodyguard with Zoya and Aapi.
Some gut instinct had told him to continue having her followed. Till she left the city, he would not relax his guard. As if on cue, his phone rang.
"Mr. Khan, I have already emailed you a detailed report, but I wanted to touch base since this case is at a highest priority right now."
"Miss Tanveer has been quite active since she left your house. And the factory that you asked me to look into? Owned by an S. Siddiqui. It was hard to pull out the name because it was buried behind dummy corporations. I will be sending you more details as I get them. I also wanted to congratulate you on your wedding today."
Asad thanked him and went to retrieve his laptop so that he could look at the report to see what Rakesh meant about Tanveer's activities.
His room was a beehive of song, dance and laughter. Omar was teaching Najma some dance step, his arm around her waist, looking into her starry eyes.
Ayaan was playing the guitar, his foot propped on the settee and Humaira was looking up at him adoringly.
The workers were nearly done with the strings and garlands of white flowers around the bed. Asad blushed just looking at it. He turned his face away in embarrassment.
Damn, his sisters were here.
Ayaan pounced on him. "Bhaijaan," he hollered.
Omar and Najma jumped apart.
"See how much work we've done for you. Aap toh aaj ke baad humein bhool jayenge, but you have to treat us to a lavish party afterwards."
Nuzzhat rolled her eyes. "Ayaan Bhaijaan, the Waleema will be the party."
"No! That'll be all boring, grown ups, Indian clothes, Indian food. We want to go to a club and go dancing all night long."
The girls squealed and shouted with delight. "Yes, yes, please bhaijaan," pleaded Najma the loudest.
But Nikhat was the first one to sober them up, "Tai Abbu and Mumani would never let us do that."
Humaira nodded glumly.
"Besides," Omar piped up with a devilish gleam in his eye, "Asad and Zo may not want to stay the night up with us."
Asad's face flamed. He grabbed his laptop and fled from the room after mumbling, "shut the hell up, Omar."
Raucous laughter followed.
The siblings were in complete awe of Omar. After Zoya, he was the only one who could stand up toe to toe to the Mukka. And if they wanted to go to a club, Omar would be the guy to wrangle a way in for them. They crowded around him begging him to think up a plan.
He stretched out on the settee like a maharaja.
"Hmm, I will need some adrak chai and mirchi pakoras to jumpstart my brain."
Najma smiled. She moved to go to the kitchen but Omar held her wrist. "Ooh," cooed Nuzzhat and Humaira. Ayaan kicked Omar's foot with his own. "What the hell, man?"
"What?" Omar asked innocently, "can't I be romantic with the girl I'm going to marry?"
The room erupted in claps, cheers and squeals.
Asad heard the noise outside and smiled. He looked at Anwar, "it's time to talk to Omar's parents."
Anwar nodded eagerly. He had caught the sparks between the two. Zeenat had been ecstatic that her trickery had nudged not one, but two kids into matrimony. She already had plans for Nikhat.
"Main Zeenat ko bolun Hana se baat karne ko?" Anwar offered. "She will be very happy."
"Who?" asked Asad in jest, "Aapi or Omar's mom?"
Anwar laughed, pleased to see Asad lighten up with him, "Zeenat even more than Hana, I'm sure."
Dilshad pressed a hand to her chest, "please Anwar, one child at a time."
Asad had opened the report by now and was frowning.
Why had Tanveer gone to the Siddiqui house a few days ago? He also saw an address to a prestigious office complex listed as one of her later visits. If he wasn't mistaken, the Siddiquis had their head office in that building. He remembered that the name on the factory was also a Siddiqui. He couldn't understand how Tanveer was connected to all this.
This was not good.
The report had included a photograph of a woman in a burqa talking to Gafoor Siddiqui. It also indicated that the two had then met later at a coffee shop. Another couple of photographs and a recording were attached with the document.
The skin on the back of his neck prickled. What was her new con?
He called the bodyguard to ask about where they were. "We're on our way," the man answered, "and, so far so good." He breathed easier.
Next, he called the investigator. "Those photos in the restaurant? Get me enlargements of the papers they are looking at."
He paused to listen as Rakesh told him that Tanu had just left the same office complex with a rolling bag.
He disconnected the phone and went back to watching the brief video. Although the conversation couldn't be heard, he could see the clear sequence of events. It had to be blackmail. She had done it before.
He began to pace, his brain processing details a mile a minute.
"Kyun bhai, itni bekaraari? She'll be back soon." Anwar teased.
Dilshad's phone buzzed. She looked at the screen, "Asad, Zoya aa rahi hai. Go to your room now."
Thank god! He sighed in frustration and longing, but got up to obey Ammi.
In his room the teasing and chatter was still afoot. He still avoided looking at the bed but watched them all from the door. They didn't know that he was there. Only Nikhat knew and she smiled as Asad put a finger to his lips.
The girls were trying to convince the boys that they had just eaten lunch. How could they want pakoras right now?
"Because we feel like it. We are manly men with big appetites, who can eat whatever, whenever," explained Ayaan.
Ayaan was also trying his best to rattle Omar about Najma, but the latter was unshakeable. "Bhai ko yeh love story ke barey main pata chalega, toh Omar ka kachoomar bana denge."
"Asad already knows." Omar countered, admiring his fingernails. "Or at least he guesses." Najma had gone pale with anxiety.
"And he's going to be too distracted anyways," Omar assured Najma.
"Then it's OK," Ayaan kidded, "the wedding cards will say Tamatar weds Jhoomar'."
The girls laughed and Najma threw a cushion at Ayaan.
Asad had one ear trained to the main door. He heard her come in and everyone exclaim in the living room. He breathed a sigh of relief and gently closed the door.
"Nahin, bhaijaan," gushed Nuzzhat, " it'll be like they do with celebrity couples, like Brangelina, they will be Tamatomi'!"
"Sounds like an Italian dish," scoffed Ayaan.
"So that's fine," spoke up a serious Nikhat with a deadpan face. Everyone looked at her. "Italian food uses a lot of Tamatar!" Asad smiled.
Everyone loved it, mostly Omar. "And Omi likes tamatar, specially in Italian food," he said, sealing the deal. Nuzzhat nudged and elbowed a tomato-red Najma.
"And besides, you guys are trying too hard," grinned Omar. He had seen Asad in the doorway. "I've heard much worse. Your nicknames for me are too tame. My friends in school used to say Omar with a bon-"
"OMAR!" bellowed Asad. He was squeezing his temples in despair. Omar shot up from the settee and chuckled unashamedly.
Asad looked at him, trying his best to threaten him into silence with his narrowed eyes. But Omar was Omar. He shrugged and settled back down.
"Girls go to Zoya's room, she's back."
"Bhaijaan, I hope you didn't sneak a peek." Nikhat teased.
"No," he said shyly.
"Aw, you should have," said Nuzzhat.
"Dekh lenge, dekh lenge," Ayaan bantered boldly. "Why else have we worked so hard to decorate this room for the newlyweds? Ek doosre ko dekhne ke liye hi!"
The girls giggled, took a last look around the room and began to leave. The workers had already left, having completed their work unsupervised with the six of them underfoot.
The only thing these kids had done was heap a pile of rose petals in the middle of the bed in a giant heart shape.
And this was after the longest argument of whether a heart was too cheesy.
Why not just petals randomly strewn on the whole surface? Not as obvious.
But this was the bridal bed and everything about it was meant to be obvious right?
"So should we make a giant square in the middle of the bed? Ayaan had mocked.
"Perfect image for Asad," announced Omar.
"Hah, good luck getting all the sides perfect," kidded Najma. "And till it isn't perfect, Bhaijaan won't do anything else."
They had doubled over with laughter at that. Nikhat had covered her eyes in embarrassment but grinned nevertheless.
And then there was a period when Ayaan had showered Humaira with the petals and then he and Nuzzhat had engaged in a petal fight. The heart shape was decided upon due to necessity. All clumped together they didn't look as wilted as they did randomly strewn about.
And besides, Zoya would love the over the topness of the heart.
"By the way, you guys did absolutely nothing," Nuzzhat glared at Ayaan as the girls filed out under Asad's watchful glare.
"And wow, you did so much!" He retorted throwing up his arms in the air.
He tried to follow them out but Asad slapped him upside his head.
"Bhai," he rubbed his head.
Asad turned around to yell at Omar for his corrupting influence. But Omar had already sneaked out of the window and was slouching just outside, one hand in his pocket. He looked Asad dead in the eye, made a lazy peace sign with his free hand, and strutted off.
Asad couldn't help laughing aloud. All of a sudden he had a vision of Najma's toddler sons: miniature goons with baseball caps turned around, tiny high tops, and butt cracks peeking through saggy baggy pants.
Song in Title:
Duplicate (1998), "Mere Mehboob, Mere Sanam"
Topic started by dixeij
Last replied by -jass-