Ayaan had shown Zoya's text to Humaira. She laughed. It had been ages since he'd heard her laugh. It had taken him all night and half the morning to make her understand that she was not her mother's daughter. She was, in fact, one of them, a Khan in spirit. He struggled to explain to her why he too was scared of what lay ahead of them.
He gripped her hand.
"Humaira, I hope I never ever ... look we will have fights. But I'm scared that I might say something mean and hurtful to you about your mother. I hope that never happens but ... that's pretty much the reason why it took me this long to come get you."
He looked away and tried to disengage his hand from hers. She held on. Silently she urged him to look at her. When he did eventually, she smiled at him through her tears.
"Ayaan, you are thinking of our future together and are more worried about hurting me instead of hating me for what my mother did? I don't think you could ever say something like that. But if you do, I hope our love will be strong enough for me to hit you with something hard and get past it."
He started laughing. She joined in. Great! They would be fine; everything would be alright.
"I want to kiss you so bad," he whispered. She blushed. "But your Khala has been watching us for the past two hours from that window."
She giggled and bowed her head. "I know. It's almost time for round 3 of send a grandchild to call Humaira inside."
She got up and gave him her hand. He looked up at her and then at the window. "Come Ayaan, let me introduce Khala to the man I'm going to marry."
She led him up the steps. "Humaira, leave my hand. She's going to have a heart attack."
"Nah! She's strong as an ox. And she should be thankful. I'm giving her masala to last the next few years of family functions." She rose on her toes and pecked him on the cheek.
Pulling her to him he smirked, "then let's really give her a show!"
A glass smashed to the floor in the kitchen.
The doctor was getting on her nerves. All this nonsense about informing the police because her wound was knife-inflicted and other rot. She glared at him, but it had no effect. She didn't realize that the pain made any expression on her face look like a grimace.
He was lecturing her about her age, taking better care of her health ... blah, blah, blah. Stop patronizing me, you pompous fool!
Shut up old man and get on with your work, she silently begged. He had ordered a battery of tests. He yakked about tetanus shots. Swear to god, if she had a gun she would have gladly popped him by now.
But she sat demurely. The nurse dressed her wound. The doctor asked the same questions all over again. When did this happen? Why didn't you come sooner? What medications have you been taking?
"Doctor saheb," she couldn't take it anyore. "Why are you asking me this again?"
"Mrs. Siddiqui, I am worried that your wound not healing by now could mean infection or some other problem."
"Does your family have a history of Diabetes?"
Her blood ran cold. "Yes, my father had it. One of my brothers has it too."
"Just what I suspected. I'm going to order extra tests to confirm." He turned away, this patient already forgotten. These women. Took no care of themselves and then were surprised at such diagnoses.
Razia sat and stewed. Perfect, she thought. Just bloody perfect. Yahi baki reh gaya tha!
"Zoya!!!" He was horrified.
"Please delete that!" He hollered.
"Are you crazy?" He paced.
He couldn't believe it. The woman had actually recorded their ... his performance ... and presumably everything else after.
How and when had she even done that? And now she was hounding him to watch along with her. He pressed his fingers to the bridge of his nose. She was whooping and hooting and he turned fire-engine red thinking of what she must be looking at.
She came up to him and wrapped her arms around his neck. "Asad? If it bothers you so much, I'll delete it. But you have to watch it with me at least once, please?"
He lowered his hand and looked at those pouty lips. And sighed. "No. And if you bug me, I'm going on a s*x strike."
She gasped. "But Asad, it's so hot, you have to see it" she whined rubbing herself against him. Just watching the video made her want him so bad.
"OK, don't watch it. But can I still keep it, please?"
He glared at her. His nostrils flared and she knew exactly where he stood on the issue. Damn this prude of a man!
"At least it'll keep me warm when you're on your high horse not having s*x with me," she muttered under her breath as she detached herself from his rigid and unyielding frame.
He tried to reason with her. "What if Ayaan or the girls got into your iPad and saw it? Can you even imagine how embarrassing it would be? And if Omar found it, we'll be on youtube!"
"My iPad is password protected," she snapped.
Damn woman should have been a lawyer. Had backchat for everything. He should have known that the exquisite purity of logic never worked on her.
"Oh brilliant! And how easy is it to crack a person's password!"
It was her turn to shoot daggers at him.
He sighed. She clutched the offending gadget to her chest. That damned iPad of hers! Total aafat! He had playfully dubbed it her jigar ka tukda once. She had loved the moniker and stroking his cheek had said, "and jahanpanah, you're my shahi tukda!"
Now she thrust it into his hand, saying sweetly through gritted teeth, "be my guest."
Wait. What were they talking about? He looked at her thunderous expression and shook his head. Oh the blasted selfie video madam had clocked him with.
"Fine!" and he sat at the couch, ready to try. He cracked his knuckles; she rolled her eyes.
He could guess her password. Easy. It wouldn't be her name.
Allah Miyan? Nope.
He typed in the date of their wedding smugly. No.
Asad Ahmed Khan. No.
MS Dhoni. Thank god!
Akdu Ahmed Khan. No.
Wait. Mahendra Singh Dhoni. No. Yes!
Jahanpanah six packs. No.
Jahanpanah Bond. Nahin.
Shahi Tukda. Should have known.
Zoya loves Asad. No.
Zoya heart Asad. No.
Zoya <3 Asad. Really? Now he was just getting desperate.
Asad loves Zoya. Nope.
Asad heart Zoya. No.
Zoya Asad forever. Nah.
Asad Zoya forever. No.
Mr. and Mrs. Khan. No.
Mr. and Mrs. Jahanpanah. No.
This was getting worse and worse. Not only wasn't he cracking the code, but he was finding out, much to his alarm, that her password had nothing to do with him. He tamped his disappointment and gritted his teeth.
Salman Khan. No. Thank god.
OK, this was becoming ridiculous. He looked at her under his lashes. She looked victorious, but more wistful and even disappointed. She wanted him to know the password.
And then he knew the password.
His heart melted.
Zaid Amna Nilofer. He was in.
They looked at one another across the room. "Come here." He called her softly holding out his hand. She smiled tremulously and snuggled into his lap.
"Do you even know how crazy you are?"
She shook her head no.
"Do you know how much I love you?"
She nodded her head yes.
"Umm ... is it really that s*xy?"
He roared with laughter when he saw her eager head shake and flashing dimple.
Tanveer was having a bad day. For many days in a row now. Grasping at one more pay out had made her careless. The encounter with Razia had scared her more than she had let on to the old witch. One misstep, and she could have been rotting in a shiny suitcase somewhere. Her mind couldn't let go of that macabre image. She had seen enough crime shows to know what happened to such corpses. The leaking gases bloated the body if the maggots didn't get to it first. In a small sealed environment, the distended body exploded into human soup. She gagged and rushed to retch and throw up. She'd been doing this for a few days too.
Damn! How was it that sitting on such a big pile of money in the middle of the poshest address in town and she was still alone, puking her guts out and scared for her life? May be it was time to slink away to Kanpur. She had to think of the baby too. It had very nearly been killed even before being born.
Imran? No. He was useless now. More a liability now that Asad had tied them up in legal loopholes for the next two generations.
Asad? She shuddered. Now that was a fine piece of meat she'd let get away. Damn that Zoya Farooqui! But at least she had taken some revenge on that Miss New York. Who was now Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan! Sh*t!
She had tried to hover and sneak around the Khan Villa. But had been thwarted by the extra security. So Asad was being extra careful. Hmmph!
Tanveer fumed. She rubbed her chest in anger and frustration. This pregnancy was beyond annoying. For the first time in her life she could feel the burn from acidity. She felt tired, cranky and her feet were growing. Her face had filled out as had her body. More time and she'd be waddling unattractively. What new game or bakra could she find to amuse herself?
Omar was getting the sh*t beaten out of him. And he was loving it. He had snuck into Najma's room that night and scared the living daylights out of her. She had nearly shrieked out loud but he clamped his hand on her mouth. He had tried to nuzzle her, but she pushed him violently on the bed and pummeled him for scaring her to death.
She had to.
If she didn't beat him up, then she would have melted in his arms, and both god and she knew what would have happened next. He captured her wrists in his hands and pulled her on top of him.
She wouldn't meet his gaze.
"Omar, please leave me," she protested feebly, trying to struggle out of his arms.
"One kiss," he pleaded.
"No! Are you mad?"
"Mad about you."
Oh god! He always knew what to say to get her to soften into a gooey molten mess. One more intent gaze or hot whisper and she would be putty. He knew it too. He rolled her over and planted a chaste kiss on her forehead. "I'll wait," and he reluctantly dragged himself off. She felt a pang of loss. He gave her his hand to pull her up. When he let her hand go she resented the lost contact. She wanted him to hold her hand in his, longer, even kiss it. But he removed himself behind the invisible wall she had erected between them to give her space and more time.
For days now they had been playing this game. She felt shy to let him kiss her and if she resisted then he backed off.
He would smile down at her or wink at her roguishly, silently reminding her that they would be married soon. At the dinner table he would raise an eyebrow if their hands brushed against each other.
But today there was a brooding intensity about him that scared her. His playfulness had evaporated. He wasn't looking at her. He had shoved his hands in his pockets and wasn't his usual bantering or teasing self.
"Omar? Is everything OK?" she asked tentatively. He didn't answer immediately.
"Yes," he whispered softly. "I just wanted to see you and couldn't help myself. I'm sorry for scaring you." He turned to the window about to let himself out the same way he came in.
She pulled his sleeve. "Omar?"
He stilled but wouldn't look at her.
"You're scaring me more now." She said, heart beating painfully.
He sighed deeply. "I'm sorry Najma. I shouldn't have come. It was just a crazy impulse. Good night."
She felt the crazy bubble and bloom in her.
"Omar, kiss me."
He pulled his arm away from her grasp and hunched his shoulders. "No! Stop it! You don't have to do this."
"Please," her voice brimmed with tears and his heart wrenched. He grabbed her face in his hands. "Please Najma, you're hurting me. I don't want you to do anything you're not comfortable with just because you think I want it."
She kickboxed that invisible wall down. And blindly pressed her lips to his. How could she tell him that she wanted to kiss him just as bad? It was just that she was embarrassed and terrified that she'd be bad at it. What if he felt nothing? Even now, if he pushed her away, she would die.
His arms came around her to gently hold her against him. He rubbed his thumb over her lips to give her the distance and time to back away. And then he whispered against her lips. "Najma? Are you sure?"
A tear trickled down and he felt it on his cheek. He licked it away and felt her cling to him.
"Yes," he felt her lips curl under his thumb. She kissed his thumb and he shuddered. He lowered his thumb to stroke her chin and Najma boldly licked his lips. "God!" he swore and swooped to really feel her lips with his. For so long he'd waited. He nearly lifted her off her feet as he crushed her to him sucking her lips and thrusting his tongue in to feel her mouth on his. Neither knew when he backed her into the real wall behind her.
When they broke free, he looked into her flushed face and whispered. "Oh god, that was so worth the wait!"
Her heart soared, her twinkling eyes lifted to meet his. "Really?"
She went in for seconds.
Song in Title:
Sarfarosh (1999): "Hoshwalon Ko Khabar Kya Bekhudi Kya Cheez Hai"
"Oh god!" he groaned, red-hot lust pulsing to harden him. Barely a few minutes in, and the sight of her going down on him nearly undid him. The iPad was flung aside and she was hauled into his arms. Their lips frantically sought each other's, tongues jousted, heated bodies rocked and limbs knotted.
Later, stroking her arm, he breathed roughly, "what's the point of the video if we'll never get through watching the whole thing?"
"We can keep working on it." He watched her dimple undulate and widen, mesmerized.
"... taking long breaks in between, perfecting our technique," she continued.
"Focus!" She held his head by his ears, stroking them with her thumbs. He grinned down wickedly and leaned in to suck and whisper in her ear, "sorry Mrs. Khan, did I hear you say, f*ckus'!"
"As"ad!" she cried out in mock fury and horror. And then she laughed contentedly. Jahanpanah was becoming incorrigible. Seedha-saadha "voh ... actually ... main" brahmachari had now been Zoyafied.
And then she really laughed. A deep belly laugh. Asad frowned.
"What? What did your remember?" he demanded, tickling her. Nuzzling her.
"Remember what I said to you when you ran me over the second time we met?"
"I didn't run you over, you were walking in the middle of the street!" He huffed, then grinned, "how can I forget? No one had ever said such a thing to me!"
And shaking his head, he repeated her words, " aap shakal se hi lecherous lagte hain!' How could you have said that?"
"I was kinda right though, wasn't I? Who knew you'd turn out to be so lecherous!" she giggled as she escaped from under him.
"Zoya! Come back here," he ordered as he rolled over on his back on the floor. Because once again, they had only made it half-way to the bed before tearing into each other.
"And you are 100% responsible for making me lecherous!" he accused, arms under his head now.
"Kya karti." She returned, snuggling up next to him and covering them up with a pilfered bedcover. "So many years of a tight-assed jahanpanah had to be undone after all."
She bit his bicep. "A crash course in lechery was exactly what the doctor ordered!"
His eyebrows waggled and lips curled into a sinful grin.
"What?" she demanded warily. These days jahanpanah had become unpredictable. Or rather, too predictable.
"When we come back today I'll be the doctor and you can be the nurse."
"Oh really? How s*exist of you. I'll be the doctor and you can be the ward boy."
"Done! As long as I can take your temperature!" And he bit down on her neck. It took her a second longer to get his drift since she was distracted by the afterplay.
He crushed her to him and buried his face in her neck, "I want! I can't get enough of you, Dr. Zoya!"
"And why will I let a ward boy check my temperature when there will be other hot docs around?"
"Because I am also jahanpanah and can order their hands and other body parts chopped off," he snapped.
"Mr. Khan, you are becoming more and more outrageous and lecherous din par din!" She sputtered, but the ward boy silenced her.
This was their last day with the Palace on Wheels fantasy tour. And they were back in Agra with the group. He had wanted to break away and go back to their hotel before they caught a flight back home. But she had begged to see the Taj one last time.
"Zoya, it's hot, and I've had too many historical monuments to last me a lifetime." How could she still be so enthusiastic about more sightseeing? And supposedly, he was the architect.
"OK, we won't do the fort or Fatehpur Sikri, but c'mon we have to go see the Taj one last time."
He had crossed his arms and planted his feet wide, scowling and unmoving.
"Mr. Khan," she batted her eyelashes at him and stuck out her lower lip, "we have to erase the last bad memory we have of the Taj."
Oh god! Why did he even bother disagreeing with her! He always gave in anyways, like one love-sick puppy trotting behind his master's cute butt.
"Mrs. Khan!" he thundered as they walked down the cobbled path to the Taj, "you're manipulative and think you can make me do anything with those eyes and lips!" He felt her elbow stab his side. "What?" he growled and looked down at her, "I'm here, aren't I? Even though it's baking hot. Let me at least grumble in peace."
Hand on his arm, she looked up into his face. Pushing her sunglasses on her head she pointed to something with her chin.
He looked in that direction and came to a halt. He smiled. And he shook his head. Mashallah! Of course, trust this woman's instincts to always be right!
There, just a few yards from them was evidence of heightened police presence. Behind the command post was a large banner proclaiming in Hindi and English: The Security of Women in our City is our Top Priority. Eve-teasers will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law! Where were these clowns that night?
A women's group had put up a Wall of Shame. It already had enlarged photos of the three men who had attacked them that night. And some others had been tacked on.
And then he noticed what he had missed due to his grumpiness: other city government public service announcements and signs posted along the street up to the monument. There was even some fresh hand-scrawled graffiti: Taj is a monument to love not lust. Meri sandal bhi s*exy, mera thappad bhi s*exy, No is not just a word. It's a statement.
Posters hung by non-profits such as Freeze the Tease fluttered in the muggy breeze. There was even a poster by Safecity.in that encouraged the public to report incidents to help map unsafe areas in cities all across the country.
Asad turned around, reaching out to hold his superhero's hand. But she was busy with her iPad taking pictures of a newly awakened public conscience.
"Here, let me," he took the iPad from her and posed her in front of one of the banners. Done, he looked down at the photo. She looked exhilarated, sporting a cheeky smile and the deepest dimple.
His phone rang. Prasad.
Asad looked around for Zoya. Buying souvenirs. Keeping an eye on her and tucking her iPad under his arm, he took the call. Prasad sounded frantic and mortified. "Sorry to disturb you sir," he stuttered nervously. "But there's a slight problem."
"Are Ammi and Najma OK?" Asad panicked.
"No sir! I mean yes sir, they are fine. Nothing bad has happened. But sir, Omar sir called and was asking about the same tickets you booked."
"What! Prasad I told you not to tell anyone."
"But sir, I didn't! And I tried my best to dissuade him. But I think Rashid sir intervened."
He listened to the details and then laughed heartily. Great minds do think alike he thought.
After hanging up he grabbed Zoya's arm. "Hurry up and finish."
"But why? We still have to go inside."
"One hour. Then we have to talk ... and there's a certain video to catch up on too."
Humaira had talked to her father to let him know that she would be staying on longer at Khala's. Ayaan wasn't happy about that decision but he had reluctantly come to accept it. She could have moved in with them at their new place, but it would raise more questions. And he didn't want to push the issue right now. He would follow Abbu's lead. If he chose to expose Mumani's deeds then Ayaan would add his voice to their crusade. But for now, it was best to lay low. It was good enough for him that he had managed to convince Humaira to give their love a chance.
Now he bowed his covered head in gratitude at the Dargah. He missed her terribly. But he was thrilled that Abbu had moved them out of that house. And soon, Humaira would be permanently out of that dungeon of evil guarded by hooded vipers.
He joined the others in the courtyard.
"Coffee, ladies?" Omar asked the girls.
"Yes!" they chorused.
"No," grumbled Ayaan. "Let's do something else. Movie?"
"Which one?" asked Nikhat. She knew bhaijaan was missing Humaira. So were they.
"Aurangzeb, ya Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani?" The guys would have preferred Aurangzeb, but the girls ruled them over.
"But raat ka show, parents will do choon-choon and badd-badd," pouted Nuzzhat.
"We can ask them to join us," teased Nikhat.
"NO!" said Najma and Omar. Najma blushed. Once upon a time, Ayaan would have said no too; except in Humaira's absence, it really didn't matter who went. Or didn't.
Omar had to take over the planning since Raabert was being a cantankerous and useless Majnu. "OK, here's what we'll do. Ayaan, get the tickets. I'll ask my cousin and his wife to join us too. They've returned from their honeymoon and keep making googly eyes at each other. Everyone's sick of them. This will make the parents worry less because we'll be a bigger group. Safety in numbers and all that."
"Great! But Zoya will kill us for watching the film without her," Said Najma wistfully. "We'd talked so much about watching the film together. She's a big Ranbir fan."
Putting his arm around her shoulders Omar teased, "Babes, Zoya is diwani for a new Ranbir now, and their jawani is -"
"Omar! You are so besh*ram!" she kicked him in his shins before he could finish being obnoxious.
"Dammit, the old bruises haven't healed as yet!" he complained rubbing his shins.
Ayaan's ears pricked. "Old bruises? What the hell have you guys been up to?"
"Shut up, Ayaan! It's not what you think." yelled Omar. Najma went red and fled even as everyone else snorted.
"It better not be," mumbled Ayaan. "Not fair that everyone gets some sugar except for me." He violently kicked a stone off the street. He wanted to make googly eyes, whatever that was.
"I'm missing you like hell," he texted Humaira. "And these idiots are driving me insane. Love you."
The idiots surrounded him. "Aww, missing Humaira begum!"
"No shayari bhaijaan? Ishq mein toh acchhi shayri seekhiye kum se kum!" teased Nuzzhat.
"Pyaar tumhe kis mod pe le aaya!" belted Omar. Ayaan punched his shoulder.
Omar grabbed him in a headlock. "Kyun saale miyan, why are you being such a killjoy? Aish kar, before she puts you on a leash."
He was rewarded with more bruising kicks and punches. This time from his saalis as well.
Badi bi had given Dilshad the highlights for why they had left that house. She'd put her hand on Dilshad's shoulder as she saw her expression of pain and horror. So much misery inflicted by a few vicious people who did wrong, and then did more damage to cover their tracks.
Badi bi's heart had wrenched.
She knew how her son and his first wife had suffered due to this senseless manipulation of their lives. Her biggest regret would be not doing enough to mend the breach which had alienated Asad and Najma the most. Tears in their eyes, both women had held hands and whispered a prayer that at least good things were happening now, and that the younger generation would be spared the pain.
"Bachhon par isski aanch bhi nahin aane denge," they pledged.
"Mujhe maaf kar dena, Dilshad," her ex-mother-in-law had pled later. "Main kuchh nahin kar payee. Half the things I only found out now."
She sniffed in regret, "bahut raaz mere bete ne apne seene mein dafnaye rakhe. I wish I knew then, and may be we could have stopped some, if not all of this from spiraling into disaster."
Dilshad nodded, her throat tight. She wouldn't crack open a door she had locked firmly so many years ago. Her life had been dedicated to her children and nothing would change that. There were marriages and grandchildren to look forward to. Her fiercely proud and protective son had reconciled with his father. That was more than she could have asked for in this lifetime.
When Raziya met Tanu at the appointed spot to hand over part of the money, they had armed company. While a part of her felt elated that finally she had managed to scare Tanveer enough, there was another part that was more scared for herself. Why hadn't she thought of keeping her own driver close by? What if Tanu tried to have her killed?
Stiffly, she handed the bag over. Her wound still hadn't healed enough.
In taking the bag from her, Tanveer raked her nails into the unhealed wound and Razia screamed in pain as she fell to her knees, nearly passing out.
Tanu looked at her spitefully. "Bi, I am not done with you as yet. I hear your daughter is no longer living with you."
Raziya paled. How did this woman know so much? Did she have spies in her own house now?
"How dare yo"?" She choked in fear when one of the burly men by Tanu's side moved closer. The butt of a gun was clearly visible in his waistband.
"Be really careful Bi," Tanu gloated. "What is that saying? People who live in glasshouses...?"
Razia quailed. She knew that Tanu would exact some form of revenge on her.
"Stay away from my daughter," she begged through gritted teeth.
Tanu laughed maniacally. "I'll see. No promises. Make sure you pay up!"
When Razia reached home that evening she hired a body guard for herself and dispatched one to protect Humaira at her sister's. And then she fired all the servants.
"Asad?" she leaned into him as they bid farewell to the Taj and she looked longingly at the marble beauty for one last time.
"For bringing me back here and re-doing the memories with me."
"Any time." He promised.
"So, Mrs. Khan, I hear you plan to take me to see more historical monuments?" She looked up at him quizzically? What was he talking about?
He looked down at her and teased, "Big Ben, Westminster Abbey?"
She gasped and slapped his shoulder. "How do you know? I'll kill Omar!"
"No, not him. I'll tell you when we get back."
Since his mood had obviously improved so much, she tried exerting a little more manipulation.
He alerted to the tone of her voice and rolled his eyes.
"Hukum kariye." He sighed, ever the martyr.
"No!" he groaned.
"I want to tie a thread for us at the dargah." He was beginning to relent. Just another nudge.
"You can be the doctor, I'll be the nurse."
"Zoya! Don't push it. It's too damn sultry and hot," he complained, wiping his brow.
She went on, as if he hadn't said a word, "and then in our hot hamaam tonight I'll be your sultry siren and wash away all the sweat and grime of Agra. We can even play Buckingham Palace."
Oh, what the hell!
Except. It wasn't Buckingham he was thinking!
His eyes narrowed and the corruption peeked. "Oh, you mean---!"
Nearly doubling over with laughter, she pointed an accusatory finger at him and mock-glared, "Don't say it!"
Song in Title:
Fanaa (2006): "Mere Haath Mein, Tera Haath Ho"
"Asad, I've been thinking." She said on the flight back home.
Eyes closed and head against the seat back, he laced his fingers with hers.
"The recent floods in Uttarakhand? Now that we have duplicate tickets for the Champion's Trophy, why not donate one set to raise money for that."
His eyes jerked open. "Genius idea, go on."
Excited, she twisted around in her seat and went on, "we can go on the ones I booked. I know you'll have to downgrade to business class and do some slumming. But, your package we can donate to some celebrity auction where a rich cricket fan can bid on it, and the money can go to rescue work at Uttarakhand."
"People will bid on my package?"
"Asad, behave!" she whispered loudly, completely mortified. But she giggled; the man had taken lightening up to bawdy new levels. Slapping his shoulder she scolded, "you have got to be put on a s*ex fast, mister. I can't trust you not to blurt out anything any more."
"And what makes you think that a s*ex fast will make me less besh*aram?" he teased, eyes still closed.
"Allah miyan, pyaar ke side effects!" she lamented.
"And x-rated benefits," he countered.
"True," she sighed with satisfaction. "Absolutely LOVE the benefits!"
Gripping her fingers tighter he said softly, and more seriously, "If you want to research the charity, I'll tell Prasad to finalize the details."
"As soon as we get home."
"And Zoya? Remind me to thank Jeeju and Aapi."
"For you." She knew he was reassuring her about other unsaid things between them. See? You're not your father's daughter, he was telling her.
I know now.
She rested her head on her husband's shoulder and dozed.
When they landed, Asad was surprised to find a text message from Rakesh asking him to call.
"Mr. Khan, there's been a new development." Rakesh reported abruptly, without any exchange of pleasantries. "My people are still following the Siddiqui's."
He hesitated. "And yesterday, Mrs. Siddiqui went for another rendezvous with yet another bag."
Asad listened, his breath quickening, anticipating some strange new piece of the puzzle.
"She met Miss Tanveer."
That wasn't what he expected.
Zoya saw the expression on his face and became alarmed. She gripped his arm with her hands. Oh god, let everyone at home be OK, please.
"Find out what happened since that day," he spoke tersely and hung up.
"Asad?" she asked fearfully. "Are Ammi and Najma OK?"
"Hmm? Yes, yes. Everyone's OK, thank god." He wiped his brow.
"Then what happened? Why do you look so grim?"
He called for additional security details for both residences first.
Taking her elbow, he promised, "I'll tell you on the way."
"So Humaira's ... mom sent Tanveer to our house? And she's still blackmailing her. My goodness, who are these people?" She couldn't fathom such malignancy. But both of them had breathed easier, for Humaira's sake, that Tanveer was still alive. Looking out of the car window Zoya firmly tamped down the thought of Razia's biggest offense.
Asad looked pensive too and gripped her cold hand. "I don't care if they bleed each other dry for the rest of their lives. They deserve each other. But that woman's continued presence in Bhopal means that we have to be on full alert. With the wedding coming up, she could try any new trick to get back at us."
"May be it's a good thing that they've turned against each other and will keep busy trying to outmaneuver each other." She took a deep breath and blurted, "oh god, Asad, it's not fair that we have to come back to this stress and ugliness."
"I know." He squeezed her hand reassuringly and smiled. "But we did have the most wonderful time, didn't we Mrs. Khan?"
Her lips too curved into a grateful smile. "The best. Impeccable planning as usual, jahanpanah. Just MA!"
They disembarked and gathered their luggage. Pointing his chin to the familiar bikes parked in the driveway, he teased, "ready to face the naatak mandli?"
"Unnhh! I want to go back to Agra and the Palace on Wheels!"
"I don't want to share you with anyone. Just want you to myself." He murmured.
"That's exactly what I was thinking a couple of days ago," she moaned.
"I think we've proven time and again that great minds like us, think alike," he leaned in for one last cuddle, reluctant to go inside.
"And fools don't differ, Mr. Khan, fools don't differ." She let out an exaggerated sigh as they lingered at the door.
"We would have been getting ready for dinner at this time." She snuggled into him.
"And ... called room service instead." He tucked her hair behind her ear and dropped a quick kiss on her forehead.
"I'd be taking off your saree and blouse just about now," he whispered hotly reminding her of their last night on the Palace on Wheels.
"With your teeth," she breathed, eyes drooping and heavy with desire.
"Hmmm," he flicked his tongue out to lick her ear. She shuddered.
"You spoilt me rotten. It's going to be so hard to come down to earth now!" she complained.
"No! Let's run away before anyone realizes we're back. One bonus honeymoon night. Asad, please!"
The door swung open. They sprang apart guiltily and regretfully. The honeymoon was officially over.
But another honeymoon was being planned too.
"Bali?" Omar persisted.
Najma glared at him. "Stop showing off your US citizenship, Mr. no-visa-needed for most of the world!"
"OK so desi honeymoon. Kerala? Houseboats and rasam? Or Kashmir? Houseboats and rogan josh?
"Why houseboats? It's making me seasick just thinking of them. And how can you even think of food? I'm still stuffed from the late lunch."
"I'm going to miss all this great Indian food," he murmured tragically. Her face fell.
"OK, whatever you decide. But let me know soon." He pulled her to him. "And once you join me in the US I'll take you on a second honeymoon to Italy."
She gasped with delight but sobered quickly. It would be hell waiting out the separation.
"Five whole months, Omar! How'm I going to survive?"
"Shh, I know. Facetime zindabad."
"We had a friend, and we used to call her a US visa widow, and now I'm going to be one," she wailed.
He hushed her by kissing away future tears, at least temporarily.
Transnational immigration issues were a total pyaar ka dushman. Worse than Tayyab Ali. It would take anywhere from four to six months for her paperwork to be processed once the legal documents of the wedding went through. Besides the official paperwork, photos of the wedding ceremony and guests would be sent, along with invitation cards, to prove to the hyper-suspicious US government that this was not a marriage of convenience for the much-sought-after green card.
Meanwhile, she would dutifully slog on her college applications for US universities, beg for letters of recommendation, prepare for TOEFL and GRE, and do other mind-numbing stuff to twiddle away 182-3 days of virginal loneliness.
She kicked his shin, "why did you have to be born in America, ABCD kahin ke?"
"You stop that right now, or I'm calling the US Embassy to report unlawful assault on an American citizen!" He got kicked in the other shin.
"Obama will send drone, I'm warning you!"
"OMAR! Shut up! That's a horrible thing to say."
They heard some commotion from the living room. The honeymooners were back.
Najma perked up, "Bhaijaan and Zoya are back!" She was off to greet them but was yanked again to a hard chest and kissed senseless by her pardesi boy.
"Tomorrow's the mehendi and then the next day's the wedding," Dilshad had to shout to get everyone's attention like some Mother Superior at a convent school. If she had a ruler, she'd rap it on the table. Her eyes met Zeenat's and they sighed. Happily.
This generation just didn't listen, and now even her son"the last holdout"was a gone case. The point of a honeymoon was to get each other out of your system, not become even more besotted and useless.
And clumsy. Making eyes at his wife, her son had absently knocked over his coffee and not even flinched. This after, she had taken these two aside and told them in no clear terms: family would be coming. Elders, cousins and Maulvis would be thronging the place. Keep away from each other and hands where I can see them! One had blushed and the other had giggled, but there was no evidence of them having heeded her warning.
And then the couple to be married was just as bad. Allah! Her house was just an inch away from becoming like some cheesy American film where randy teenagers could be found making out in closets and under the stairs, or behind shower curtains. She dared not look under the table when her napkin fell to the ground. Handsies and footsies for sure, if all their faces were any indication. Earlier she had even dispatched Zoya to give Najma a talking-to about the birds and the bees, the beaks and the stingers.
But she'd missed her daughter-in-law's sheepish grin. Ammi, I have no right to give her that talk! How can I preach when your son and I didn't practice?
Dilshad smiled contentedly now. Sab manzur hai mere Maula! Just keep my kids happy. And some grandchildren would be sone pe suhaga.
Then she saw Ayaan's mutinous face. Bechara mera bachcha. She stroked his head, and he looked up. "Badi Ammi, tell them to stop being so annoying!"
"Kya karoon beta. I already did. Koi meri sunta kahan hai?" But she teased him, "lekin agar Humaira yahan hoti, you would have been just as annoying, hai na?"
He grinned. True dat. And thank goodness, Humaira would be here for the mehendi tomorrow. She had convinced her father that Ayaan would pick her up and she would be staying at the Khans' till the wedding.
Gaffoor Siddiqui was coming closer to making quite a momentous decision. After all these days of soul searching he had come to the conclusion that this was the right thing to do. After twenty years of cowardice, it was time to face his sins and make amends before he met his maker. Rashid had moved out with his family and now stood strong and proud with all his children by his side. This boldness had both shamed and inspired Siddiqui. But before doing anything, he had to talk to Razia. Thank goodness, Humaira was away.
"I want to discuss something with you," he told her that morning.
Razia stilled in the act of pouring his tea. His tone made chills run down her spine. Now what? She was convinced, given her recent string of bad luck, that more bad news was coming.
"Kahiye," she said demurely, offering him the delicate bone china cup and saucer, her pride and joy once. Now, the pattern of red flowers with yellow centers reminded her of blood and pus.
"I was recently re-united with my long lost daughter."
Razia choked on her tea. No! No! No!
"I tried to keep it from all of you, but I have decided that it's time to do the right thing. I will be bringing her to live with us this evening."
Her cup and saucer shattered to the marble floor. Shards of white and red stabbed the milky mess. He knew? He had met Zoya? Of course Asad Ahmed Khan must have twisted her husband's arm. The whole town knew about his punishing revenge against the now bankrupted and disgraced Qureshis. But why would Zoya come to live with them? She was married now.
"How? When?" she whispered in horror.
"She came to me some time ago. I tried to bring her then, but she convinced me that it would be too disruptive for my family. Such good upbringing! Putting away her needs and rights so that her father may continue to be respectable in society! I am so ashamed Razia." He had tears in his eyes. He didn't see her's.
But the little b*astard has respectability now, why would she even want to come here? What about my daughter and her rights? The silent screams knocked about in her pounding head.
Her husband cleared his throat. "But there's something else. It's a little ... unsavory. I am not condoning her actions, but I have decided to stand by her. She's had a rough life. ... She's unmarried, but pregnant. I've decided that I want to take care of my daughter and grandchild to make up for all the years of neglect."
He didn't see Razia sway and crash onto the bone china shards swimming in the sugarless tea.
When Zoya brought in their morning coffee, he was in the shower. Damn he'd locked the door or she'd have joined him. She sipped her coffee and smiled thinking of the evening before. Coming back home and being with everyone had been great. But it was torture not being able to hold or touch each other, or sit in his lap whenever she wished, or just walk around in his shirt and nothing else.
For all of 20 minutes they'd listened to Ammi and not looked; or even peeked. But soon, their molten gazes had furtively and hungrily tugged at one another and played tag. Their fasting eyes had messaged and s*exted each other. When she had gone to the bedroom to get everyone's gifts he had grabbed her from behind whispering, "and my gift?"
"Now!" he'd growled making her blood electric.
"Asad," she'd moaned melting against him. Reluctantly she had struggled out of his arms to return to the living room. But only after long drugging kisses, and threats, and promises of later delights. At the door, she'd come back for a quick peck.
"What was that for?"
"A thank you. For taking care of me and making me feel so special."
"Even though I couldn't bring our khidmatgar with us?" he teased.
"Jayiye, maaf kiya!" she'd chuckled as she left laden with trinkets and souvenirs from their honeymoon travels.
But at the door, she couldn't resist a parting shot, "and Mr. Khan, even if you couldn't, I did bring my khidmatgar back with me!"
The woman was irrepressible!
Their lovemaking that night had been slow and long, but quieter. A lot of lip-biting and knuckle-stuffing, muffling and swallowing of screams. And that had been erotic in its own way. Her body had quivered and thrashed more intensely to compensate for choked vocal expression. Her heels had dragged at the silken sheets and kicked the reshmi covers off in the moment of crowning arched release. His thumb had dragged across the skin of her slick throat and she hadn't been able to stop herself from screaming his name. Chuckling softly, he had covered her mouth. How was it that having the house overrun by so many relatives was pure agony, but also exquisite ecstasy when in each other's heated arms, breaths fusing, under the cover of perfumed darkness?
When he opened the bathroom door to step out with just a towel around his waist, he knew his wife was ready for him even without looking into her smoky, dilated pupils.
A raised eyebrow and the tiniest of head shakes, and she was already hurriedly unbuttoning her shirt.
Her bra landed on his face and slid down his bare chest.
Here she was. A victim of her own ingenuity. May be her luck had run out after all. Idiot! Did you have to stay this long? Should have known to quit when she was ahead!
Her "Abbu," in a crisis of self-loathing and martyrdom had insisted that he would be taking care of her from now. Every noble refusal of hers had made him feel guiltier and more determined to do the right thing.
I am not your daughter you blind, blithering fool, she had wanted to scream. But lately, fear was settling coldly in her heart. She already had Asad Ahmed Khan out for her blood. There were the mandatory haazaris at the local thana, thanks to his lawyers. Razia had made her realize her mortality that fateful day and she could never feel safe anymore. And if she made an enemy out of yet another powerful man in Bhopal, her goose would surely be cooked.
Welcome to the Siddiqui Mansion, she told herself as she and Razia spitefully glared at one another. Home Sweet Home.
"Yeh, tumhari Ammi," her jackass Abbu had said piously. She would have choked with laughter if she didn't have the urge to hurl her guts out at her new Ammi's feet.
Razia's skin crawled and her blood sugar dipped. The arsenic-fed chickens had come home to roost.
Song in Title:
Blood Money (2012) "Chaahat"
Razia's phone buzzed even as she was shooting daggers at her new viper of a daughter. That smug impostor! She wished she could drag her out, kicking and screaming, by her hair.
Allah, give me patience!
She glanced at the screen. It was Humaira's bodyguard. Her pulse jumped in anxiety.
She turned away from her husband and his precious guilt trap. You moron! But she didn't know whether she was calling him that, or herself.
"Bibiji, there's some bad news." Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god!
"Kya hua?" she clutched her racing heart. The doctor had told her to avoid all stress.
"Voh ... bibiji ... kaise kahun ..."
Her blood curdled. "Chup chap batate ho, ya tumhara bhi wahi hashra karoon jo tumhare bhai ka?" she hissed.
"Ji, sorry, madam. She was on the bike with this boy and there were shots ..."
The phone slipped from her lifeless hands. She turned around slowly. Tanveer's gloating face swam before her eyes. Thankfully, Siddiqui saheb had stepped into his study. Razia sprang to choke her throat.
"I told you to stay away from my daughter!"
"Stop! You're hurting me!"
"Don't even think that I'll let you get away with this!" Her fingers spasmed, and her nails dug mercilessly into the soft flesh. She would have killed her but had somewhere else to be.
Before Tanveer could scratch her injured arm, Razia shook her hard with inhuman strength and threw her across the floor. Tanveer's head slammed against the coffee table. She cried out in pain.
"If anything happens to my daughter, I will kill you! And rest assured, this time, I won't fail." Calling her driver on the phone, Razia raced out of the house.
They grinned at each other as they put their clothes on. He wanted to cuddle but she had to be outside, ASAP. Voices rose and fell in the kitchen.
The breakfast rush was here.
The Khan diner was open for business.
He inhaled her scent as he came up behind her to hold her by the waist. Holding her palms out, he whispered, "your mehendi is beginning to fade." He traced the hennaed filigree with his thumbs and she quivered. He dropped a slow deliberate kiss on her palm.
"I'll get a second coat tonight," she quipped. "And," she turned in his arms and linked her arms behind his neck, "tonight you get lucky only if you can find your name in my mehendi." Rising on her toes she planted a kiss on his curling lips.
"I'll find it if it takes all night, with detours in between," he bragged, tipping her head back and thumbing her lips. "But, it's my name on your lips that sets my blood on fire." He whispered seductively in her ear, and swung her up in his arms.
"Asaadd," she cooed languorously. She hadn't cooled down yet and was still throbbing and ticking from an intense afterglow. Wrapping her legs around his waist, she squeezed him to her. "Oh god! I can't get enough of you," she moaned.
"Stay," he pleaded.
"No, I have to help Ammi," she whined.
"Afternoon delight?" he queried roguishly.
Asad's phone rang. He groaned. They disengaged reluctantly after a quick peck. It was Ayaan.
"What!" he half-shouted a second later.
Zoya nearly dropped the coffee mugs she was carrying back to the kitchen. Putting them on the side table she rushed to hover near him. This was not good. Something was very wrong. She clutched his arm in panic and rubbed his back comfortingly as he listened.
"What?" she asked fearfully as he hung up and dashed to retrieve his car keys.
He looked at her darkly and swallowed. "That was Ayaan. Someone fired shots at them."
The blood drained from her face and she staggered. Supporting her, he walked to the bed where both sat heavily.
"Tell me they're OK? Humaira?"
"They're at a nearby clinic. A bullet grazed her arm."
She swayed, nearly fainting.
"Zoya, she's fine. It's a flesh wound with lots of blood loss though. She's in a lot of pain but conscious." He held her, massaging her back, head tucked in the crook of his neck.
"I'll get them home."
"Asad," she said softly. "What if she needs ...? Let me come, please."
She has her murderous parents if she needs anything, he nearly shouted.
"OK," he ground out, not pleased, but knowing that he'd be unable to talk her out of this one.
"Don't tell anyone here right now," she begged.
"Just Ammi. Let's go."
Razia knew who was behind the attack. And also why Humaira's life had been spared. This was a warning from her nemesis now parked in her own home. From the car she had called her doctors and threatened and bullied them to drive down to the nondescript clinic in some podunk town to evaluate her daughter's injuries, and, if possible, transfer her to the best medical facility closer to home.
But her daughter had refused to meet with her. Ayaan scowled at her, gritting his teeth, but not saying a word. After lashing out at her mother, calling her the vilest of names, Humaira had dropped into a dead stupor and her vitals had crashed. The doctors had rushed to resuscitate her and bleated about the necessity of a blood transfusion and keeping the patient stress-free.
"Take my blood! I'm her mother." She had cried out in vain. Her own doctor had frowned at her and shook his head. "Mrs. Siddiqui, you have diabetes. And although some diabetics can donate blood, the kind of insulin regimen you're on prevents you from being a blood donor."
She had screamed and screamed and screamed then.
Orderlies and security guards were brought to calm her down or throw her out. She screamed more as they tried to restrain her. It didn't even occur to her to call her husband. Struggling to break free she had suddenly stiffened. Through streaming eyes she saw Zoya's pale and stricken face and Asad's thunderous visage. She fell to her knees and sobbed in shame and gratitude. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
The orderlies released her. "Please calm down madam, or we will have to ask you to leave."
With her nails she raked and tore through the barely healed flesh of her arm.
They knew the awful truth from all those years ago. Asad would have killed her and Razia knew that too. Ayaan's anger was nothing compared to what she had seen in his brother's eyes. She had seen his clenched fists and teeth set on edge, as he heard his wife offer to donate blood. Ayaan had looked up, surprised and humbled. Asad had crossed his arms stiffly across his chest and bowed his head in mute acceptance.
The blood had roared in his ears when he saw a distraught Razia Siddiqui sniveling in the hallway. His arm around Zoya had tightened and a vision of her scarred arm had made him blind with rage and loathing.
But he tamped his fury.
Because having to stand by, watching Zoya do what he knew she would volunteer to do, was more important. He hated it. But, he understood. Had it been Ayaan he would have done the same thing. When Ayaan had looked at him quizzically, he'd shaken his head. Later, he implied.
He had stood guard mulishly to monitor the cleanliness of the instruments and equipment. He gave clipped instructions and had stared the doctors and nurses down. They scrambled to make his wife comfortable. She had even let out a half-giggle sympathetic to their plight. The clinic's owner and department heads had stood at nervous attention and wrung their hands uselessly. They whispered among themselves, terrified that something would go horribly wrong with even a simple procedure as this. And then they'd have to face this man's full-blown wrath.
Through all of this, in the background he kept hearing that miserable hag's whimpers and sobs.
"My baby, save my baby please," she was whispering brokenly and his blood boiled. He re-lived the piercing screams in the recording, and his fists wanted to smash through the window overlooking the room where the transfusion was taking place.
He saw Zoya turn her face away from the needles and tubing. He knew she was crying. He felt pure, raw revulsion churn up inside him. You keep taking from her, you blood sucking leeches, he silently roared.
He wanted to drag the woman by her hair and slam her into the window. See that covered arm? He wanted to shout, you did that to my wife. She was a baby, crying for help and you-- . Unable to breathe, he stalked away to pace by the nurses' station.
He felt her creep up behind him.
"Thank you," she said hoarsely as if the words were forcibly being extracted from her throat.
He spun around to face her, breathing hard.
"Thank her! Say it to her face!" He spoke in a harsh undertone with barely suppressed outrage. The veins in his forehead were close to popping and his fists ached to do some serious damage. He didn't want Ayaan to overhear them. He nearly blurted out: it's only for Zoya and Ayaan that I'm glad Humaira will be fine.
"I can't!" she broke down completely then. Asad looked away in disgust. She tried her best to compose herself.
"Please, you have to listen to me..."
He rounded on her in blazing fury. "She wouldn't let me report you murdering fiends to the police even though we have the evidence that will send you away for a lifetime."
He pushed his hair off his forehead violently. "She thinks it would shatter Humaira."
His voice fell to a bitter whisper. "All her life she didn't even know where her mother was buried. She came to India only to find her father. But, even though she knew Tanveer was posing as his daughter, she didn't want him shamed by paternity tests." He spat bullets.
He pointed an accusing finger in her face, "every moment of luxury you enjoyed with your family intact, was off her mother's bones and ashes and her scars! I may forgive you for ruining my childhood but I'll never forgive you for what you took away from Zoya! Get out of my sight before I do something that I know I won't regret."
She fell back as if he'd punched her.
"It was Tanveer who did this." She finally whispered.
"I don't care," he answered grimly.
"She could have gotten Ayaan too ... and then with the wedding coming up ..."
He turned around to face her.
"How do you know?" he growled, still not sure he would be able to restrain himself from strangling her.
"Because I know. She wants revenge against me and is in my house pretending to be my husband's daughter even as we speak," she spat.
Asad laughed humorlessly. "Poetic justice," he murmured. On their way here, Rakesh had updated him about Tanveer's latest whereabouts. He hadn't told Zoya about it, yet.
Razia lowered her eyes, ashamed.
Woodenly, she rattled off her offenses to make him take her seriously. "I brought that woman here. You already know why. I know I deserve to be punished. Humaira not speaking to me is punishment that I deserve too. But please, please make sure that you stay alert. She is capable of anything."
"Like you?" He sneered.
"She has reason to hate you now more than ever." Razia went on, not being able to stop herself from confessing her sins. But she needed to convince this man at any cost. He may be her only hope of keeping Humaira safe. After all, he was related to her by marriage now. She had to find a way to make him listen.
"She is a ruthless mercenary. When I first sent her to your house, she nearly burnt the house down by tampering with the gas cylinder. I never told her to do any such thing."
The breath was knocked out of Asad's chest. That gas leak had been Tanveer's doing?
Razia saw his eyes widen in horror and pressed her advantage. "She gloated to me later that she even set up your allergy attack to get you all out of the house. She said that it was easy. You would blame ... Zoya."
She knew her job was done when she saw him stagger backwards. "Please, watch your back, and ... and Humaira ... I'm sorry." Covering her face, she fled. She had seen the doctor come out and reassure Ayaan. Ayaan had lifted his head heaven-ward in gratitude. Humaira was going to be OK.
But Asad was not OK.
Horrifed by the new revelations, he couldn't help but think that he may have given Zoya scars too. Just like his father. Like that woman! Oh god, what else had he done, that he didn't know about?
Ayaan was walking toward him with a relieved smile on his face. Blindly, Asad dashed past him into the room and crushed his wife to his chest.
Later, he had nearly cried out in anguish when he heard Ayaan fussing over a conscious Humaira. "There's going to be a big scar on your arm now. You can tell our kids that you got it in a gun battle when we were fighting bad guys."
Wrapped up in each other, the crime fighting lovebirds hadn't even noticed their departure. Quietly Asad had led Zoya out and held her while she sobbed. She was still unsteady on her feet, even after the weak tea and glucose biscuits the nurse had handed her after the procedure.
He had called Ammi ahead. She told everyone and updated them on the good news: Humaira was going to be fine. She wouldn't be able to attend the mehendi but would be at the wedding tomorrow. Ayaan would stay on, and Shireen would join them to fuss over them to her heart's content. Asad had left his car with Ayaan so that Humaira would be comfortable on the way home.
They had taken his bike home. Ten minutes into the trip, and he felt exposed. While he had made sure that there was security at the clinic, he hadn't thought of their own safety. Razia's words of caution etched and echoed in his brain. What if the assassin returned? They were a wide-open target. Twice he pulled over. Zoya had heaved hollow retches by the side of the road. With a pang he realized that she'd hardly eaten all day. He shielded her body with his from any crack shooters out there. Each second, he had been vigilant as a hawk, weaving through traffic and steering clear of vehicles that came too close.
Dilshad had felt a stab of fear when she saw Zoya's tear-streaked face. She looked too pale and was leaning heavily on Asad. He would have carried her in but didn't want to alarm everyone. Of course, at her insistence. Zeenat rushed over to fuss over her, cupping her face in her hands, feeling her forehead.
"Asad?" His mother had asked, hand on her heart.
"She's just upset Ammi. After some rest she'll be fine." Back in their room, he had made her sit on the settee while he ran the hot water in the tub. He didn't want her to go into shock; she looked too dazed and wrung out. He helped undress her and climb into the tub. Gently, he tied her hair back and sat on the edge with a towel on his thigh. She buried her face in the towel and he stroked her back and massaged her neck. With his other hand he brushed the hair from her face.
"She'll be fine," he soothed.
"Thank god," she sighed, eyes closed.
Thanks to you, he thought.
She gripped his hand and looked up into his face smiling wanly. "Asad, thank you."
Stroking her dewy cheek he asked in disbelief and shame, "what for?"
"Your strength, for being there. For being my super hero every time."
"Shh, you're exhausted ... and crazy."
She looked too weak and vulnerable. May be he'd get the doctor to check her out. He helped her out and gently wiped her dry. Slipping on an old, soft T-shirt of his on her, he lifted her in his arms and tucked her in bed. Kissing her forehead he ordered, "rest. I'll help Ammi."
Her eyes drooped and closed. He drew the curtains and dropped another kiss on her forehead, then tiptoed out.
Gaffoor Siddiqui was very proud of his wife. And even more ashamed of himself. She hadn't made a fuss about the new family member. May be she was more worried about Humaira's fall than he gave her credit for. Thank god he had talked to Humaira.
"Apna khayaal rakhna beta. How many times have I told you to not run up and down the stairs?"
"I am fine Abbu. Please don't worry. Phuphi is taking good care of me."
Her father sighed. "When you come back home I have something important to discuss with you."
"Jee Abbu," she had said quietly, crossing her fingers behind her back.
But he wondered distractedly after dinner, why all the servants had been replaced. He didn't like the look of some of the new ones. He shrugged. It wasn't his problem. The women would handle it. They looked calm enough. A little pale, but it was their first day together. It was understandable. What he didn't know was that his wife and new daughter had hired a slew of bodyguards and food-tasters in the guise of hired help. Siddiqui Mansion had morphed into gang war turf. And later he mentally kicked himself. He had forgotten to ask his newly found daughter about the dark bruise on her forehead. What was wrong with kids these days? First Humaira. Now Tanveer. Can't walk straight or take care of themselves. That's why women needed men to look after them.
In less than a month's time, old and new guests had assembled to shower blessings on a new joda at the Khan home. Everyone missed Ayaan and Humaira terribly. Dilshad looked anxiously at Zoya. She was making an effort to tease Najma but her heart wasn't in it. Omar noticed too and took her aside.
"You promised me you would sing those gaalis. We're all missing the old batty Zoya. C'mon, make my day. It'll be your gift to us."
Her chin lifted dangerously. Her nostrils quivered.
"Batty? Zoya Farooqui and batty? Teri maa ki"!"
Omar barked with laughter. "And she's back!"
He dragged her back to the settee where Najma was having her mehendi applied, supervised by her sisters. Grabbing a dholak from one of the women on the dhurrie, he shoved it into Zoya's hands. Dilshad smiled warmly and covered her ears in jest.
Zeenat laughed and came to sit by Zoya. She kissed her forehead and tugged the dholak away from her. No one trusted Zoya with the dholak, much to Asad's amuse*ment and relief. Nikhat and Nuzzhat gleefully sidled up to their bhabhi as well. Anwar pinched the bridge of his nose. Their gentle friends from America had no idea what was going to hit them upside the head. He grinned in anticipation.
"Hana Aunty, this one's for you." Asad's heart warmed hearing the familiar bubbling of a million giggles in her voice. Thank you Allah Miyan!
"Main angrezi padhi likhi ..." she sang, winking at Humaira.
The fun had just begun.
Humaira, Ayaan and Shireen watched on Skype and laughed at the offensive lyrics. Shireen kissed the top of Humaira's head. Although she was saddened by the details of her parents' ill will, she still loved this girl as her own. She hoped that they would be able to have a similar ceremony for the two of them soon. Now she beamed in pride at her daughters' dance performance to "Mehendi hai rachne wali."
This was followed by Omar's cousins' dance. Shireen looked closely to identify any potential sons-in-law. One of the boys had potential. He danced self-consciously but valiantly soldiered on. So perfect for my shy Nikhat. She made a mental note to talk to Zeenat and demand a full profile.
Ayaan was supposed to perform with his sisters on "Thug Le." At Humaira and Shireen's gleeful insistence and rhythmic claps, he danced in accompaniment for their eyes only. Some orderlies and nurses peeped from the window.
Shireen lovingly circled his head with money in her hand and stepped out to distribute it among the unintended spectators.
Song in Title:
Jurm (1990): "Jab Koi Baat Bigad Jaaye"
That night he had held her to him. Seeing Humaira be more herself had lifted Zoya's gloom, but she was still drained.
Asad kissed her hand and inhaled the Eucalyptus oil from the freshly scrubbed mehendi. "I wish I could take you far away from all this," he whispered, and smiled.
She was already fast asleep.
He couldn't sleep. Turning on his back, arms under his head, he stared at the ceiling.
Maybe the Siddiquis were no longer a physical threat, but Tanveer had to be neutralized before she did more serious harm. The shots had been an unflinching warning. And they weren't just meant for Razia. That woman had declared open season on his family too. A few inches off, and Ayaan could have been the marked one. And with him driving on a congested highway, the toll could have been much worse.
He got up and carried his laptop to the living room. But he couldn't sit still. Asad paced restlessly. He checked and double-checked all locks on the doors and windows. He even peeked into Ammi's and Najma's room to assure himself that they were fine. Soon however, an uneasy idea began to take root in his mind. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. It made him cringe. He was not a man who fudged the means to an end. But he would do anything to keep his family safe.
Mind made up, he worked long into the night.
He first reviewed all the reports that Rakesh and his team had compiled. Only after many spreadsheets, SWOT and means and ends analyses, reports, emails and messages later, was he mildly satisfied enough to turn in.
But when Asad crawled into bed hours later, he was still wired. He pressed himself around Zoya's warmth and softness.
He wanted her.
He switched on the bedside lamp and flung the thick sheet off. She tucked her legs under, reacting to the AC's cool air. Her skin goosebumped. Turning her on her back he lazily ran the back of his fingers against her face and brushed the lashes fanning her cheek. She sighed in her sleep and curled into his body heat. Kissing her forehead, he trailed his fingers lower and traced her curves through the diaphanous kurta. On some nights, that's all she wore. Never for too long though, he grinned to himself. And tonight was his lucky night. She stirred and shivered. Taut with anticipation, he kissed her down her throat and over her kurta.
"Asad?" she breathed and stretched, still half-asleep. His breath caught as he saw the kurta tantalizingly drag up her creamy thighs. His blood pounded gazing at her body through the translucent fabric. He wanted it off, but then he also wanted to touch her through it too.
With his thumb he circled and teased, and then bent his head to clamp his mouth over a pebbled peak. Her hands blindly clutched his head. Her blood warmed and toes curled. When he lifted his head, the sight of the wet circle over the sheer cloth aroused him even more. He could just make out the dusky areola. His fingers slipped under the kurta's side slit to touch her more intimately and her thighs clenched around his hand. She arched and moaned. Flipping the fabric aside, he moved his mouth lower to join his fingers.
She was so ready for him.
"Zoya!" he intoned gruffly. Her back and head surged off the bed to heed his primal mating call.
"Oh god please, Asaaddd!" she moaned desperately. He nibbled on her upper thighs and returned his tongue to swirl and tease her. He made figure eights, pushed and parted, dipped and nipped; his tongue danced with her heated flesh. Her hips wiggled and swayed. Lava coursed through her veins. Lifting his head, he blew hotly on her charged and swollen skin and flicked his tongue out one last time; she jerked uncontrollably.
She arced and keened.
He didn't care if anyone heard them.
Shedding his clothes he entered her deep and hard, much to her relief. But he wasn't done with her yet; he set a relentlessly slow-paced rhythm. She complained. Accusing him of torturing her, she flailed and scratched, and begged and sobbed for faster release. He chuckled softly, without mercy, and swallowed the rest of her refrains. Her fists pounded his shoulders first, and then loosened to cling to them as he drove them headlong over the cliff.
Someone had come to meet her. The new servant said it was a message from Humairaji. Razia ran all the way to the main door and looked at the slim middle-aged woman. She was dressed demurely, and had a suitcase behind her. She greeted her respectfully and handed her a heavy manila envelope, sealed and titled, URGENT.
Her heart jammed.
Telling the woman to wait, she went to her room, locked it and sat down to stare at the package. She shook it like a child trying to identify the contents of its Christmas gift. Or a bomb expert examining an unclaimed package. Curiosity got the better of her. She slit it open. A generic phone slid out, along with new sim cards and a typed letter.
She flipped to the last page and her heart stopped. Asad Ahmed Khan.
Was this some legal notice? It didn't look official though.
She began reading.
Mrs. Siddiqui, it read. Although I don't trust you, and still hold you responsible for a lot of grief to the people I love, I have decided to work with you to beat our common enemy. Keep this phone with you, it'll be our means of emergency contact. It already has some numbers in the contact list. My alternate number is under Humaira's name. The lead investigator, Rakesh's number is under chhoti Ammi's name.
The woman who brought you this (Mrs. Mansur), is a trained investigator with martial arts skills. She will be armed 24/7. Employ her as your housekeeper or nurse and keep her close. She has medical training.
The sim card needs to be inserted into Tanveer's phone"figure out the best way to do it with Mrs. M's help. She will take the original card to duplicate its contents and then it will be switched back so that we can track her every move and call. You will have the time. At around 2pm Tanveer will have some visitors. Make sure she is unable to contact your husband.
Humaira has arrived safely and will be staying with us for a few days. She has asked for her blue and pink lehengas, and matching jewelry to be sent to her by this afternoon. Mrs. M. will handle the delivery.
Memorise the contents of this letter and then destroy it.
Asad Ahmed Khan
Razia's breath expelled in amazement and hope.
"If you go to Kashmir then you have to accept some kind of an armed escort." He said with finality.
Omar was pissed at Asad. "Are you sh*itting me man?" he bellowed. He just couldn't freaking believe it.
"Look, I know things are much calmer there now, but still, you're an American citizen. You could be kidnapped or god knows what else. There's enough trouble at home as it is. If you want me off your back, go somewhere else."
"Asad, you're being paranoid and mental."
"May be. But I'm not budging on this."
Omar sighed. He tried to reason with his future brother-in-law. "Hey, I know that this Tanveer thing has you freaked out. I get it. But, we can't give up living normal lives. And this is a once in a lifetime thing for god's sake!"
"Think about it. Armed escort, or," Asad held up a manila envelope, "Kerala, God's own country? Beaches, houseboats, mountains, spices." He paused for effect, "on me."
All the dedicated plans and work from last night were paying off. A flurry of couriers and despatches had been unleashed since the morning, and results were beginning to trickle in.
Omar glared at him stubbornly. "I don't trust you man. You might have an army of security personnel hot on our trail there too."
Asad looked at him blankly.
Omar paced restlessly. "God's own country, or heaven on earth? Tough call. What's that quote, it is here, it is here, it is here?"
"Gar Firdaus bar-rue zamin ast, hami asto, hami asto, hami asto."
Asad waved the envelope in front of him.
"Fine!" Omar let out a martyred sigh. "But, one day we will go to Kashmir, and that will be on you too."
"Done! We'll join you. In fact, we'll take everybody with us. Just like everybody wanted to come with us on my honeymoon!"
Omar smirked. "So, this is revenge? OK, you got me."
Zoya came to call them inside for lunch.
"Zo, I hate your husband." Omar groused stomping ahead of them.
She grinned shamelessly. "Aww, that's too bad. I love him," she whispered softly.
Asad grabbed her arm and tugged her to him. "And that's all that matters," he said. They lingered and nuzzled and then arm in arm, heads together, they walked in from the backyard.
"Ahhemm!" Dilshad cleared her throat in warning.
They looked at her and grinned cheekily.
Her eyes popped. Asad pulled in Zoya tighter to him and they snuggled closer. Her jaw fell. Her own son? She gave them the stink eye.
Now they didn't even bother to blush and guiltily jump apart.
Behaya kahin ke!
Wordlessly, she pointed an imperious finger to the kitchen and they marched at her silent orders. At the counter she pulled out her evil eye remedy paraphernalia, and utaaroed their nazar. Dilshad chanted holy words and blew the air around their heads to ward off all evil. And since she was already at it, Najma and Omar were roped in for some motherly fussing too. She decided to ignore Omar giving Asad the evil eye. Since the bride and groom-to-be weren't meant to see each other, her giggling sisters carried a veil to shield a blushing Najma. Ayaan and Humaira, and Nuzzhat and Nikhat were up next.
After blessing all the children, Dilshad used her tried and tested choomantar "mother knows best" trick. She clapped her hands giddily and sighed, "Bas, ab khoob saare grandkids for me to play with!" Besotted lovers quickly scattered in different corners with alarmed and embarrassed cries of "Ammi! Badi Ammi! Aunty!"
That should give her at least half an hour of peace from having to play the pyaar police. She sighed morosely. At one time she could have trusted her son to be the bad cop but, alas, he had changed and become basically useless.
Nuzzhat and Nikhat were still around, and they squealed, "babies!"
"Yay! Little half-American babas to spoil!" cried a delighted Nuzzhat.
"Half-desi golu molus," sighed Nikhat.
Two couples blushed. But one couple stole hopeful glances. Zoya protectively hugged her stomach with a prayer, as she curled up on the couch snuggling into Jeeju's shoulder. He put an arm around her and Asad's eyes softened from across the room.
"I'm not changing any diapers!" declared the youngest future aunt.
"Aww, I don't mind changing a few," said Nikhat with her hands clasped wistfully.
The vision of little hands and feet painted by the girls was enough to tug at Dilshad's heart. She had half a mind to tell her son and daughter-in-law: go make me some babies. Now!
She had promised herself that she wouldn't be one of those mothers-in-law.
"So cute, their little hands and tiny feet," gushed Nikhat. Her eyes twinkled.
"I have an idea," piped up Nuzzhat. "Badi Ammi, let's look at bhaijaan and Najma's baby pictures!"
"No!" yelled a mortified Najma from Zoya's former room.
"Yes!" clamored Zoya. She had already seen them a hundred times but could never get enough. She ran to their room to get the well-thumbed albums.
"Allah," moaned Dilshad. "I want grandbabies. Now!"
Tanveer moped. She had been feeling fuzzy and wooly all day long. The nausea had returned and along with it came the usual tiredness and dizzy spells. Damn this baby! While she was thrilled at her latest victory, she still felt dissatisfied and bummed. Being cooped in his house was murder. What was the point of all this gilded luxury if one still felt like sh*it?
"Bibiji, there are some people asking for you," her maid came and informed her.
Now what? Who knew she was here? She hardly knew anyone in the city. The ones she knew either had no roof over their heads, or hated her guts.
She quailed when she saw her guests. It was the same police officer who had arrested her earlier.
"Madam, we have some questions for you. You need to come with us to the station."
"But what have I done? Please! I'm sure you are mistaken." She pleaded pathetically.
"There was an attack reported this morning and two assailants were caught fleeing from the area. When questioned, they gave us your name as the person who had ordered the hit."
She stumbled. What? But how? And since when had the Indian police become so efficient?
"You can't do this. I've done nothing." she shouted in outrage. "Do you even know who my father is?"
Confusion engulfed her. Her phone slid from her shaking fingers. She could find no words to defend herself and was unceremoniously escorted by two policewomen into a rickety government issue van. It clattered and shook and made her insides rumble.
"Please, slow down," she cried. "I am pregnant and this could harm the baby."
The heftier of the two policewomen sniggered and snarled at her, "should have thought about that sooner. This is standard procedure. We aren't going to change it just because you may be some rich man's daughter." They cackled among themselves.
"Please, I need to call my lawyer," she decided to mollify them by being more charming.
"Later," the other officer said in a clipped tone.
Humaira had been set up in Zoya's old room. Shireen and Ayaan had wanted her with them in their house, but Asad had put his foot down. There was better security here. And as it is the kids spent all day at the Khan villa. It would be easier for Humaira to get rest every few hours and still be with everyone. At least till the wedding. His grateful wife was the only one who knew why he'd insisted so adamantly. If they were alone she would have given him a bear hug and rained a thousand kisses on his face. She had fussed over Humaira, doing her best to make her comfortable. She had plied her with haldi milk, taken over the medication schedule and shooed everyone out to let her get some rest.
Asad was in their room on the phone when he felt her arms hug him from the back. Smiling, he turned around and saw tears in her eyes.
"Rakesh, I'll call you back," he said hurriedly and hung up.
"Zoya? What happened?"
She crashed into his chest.
"She keeps calling me Zoya bhabhi all the time, and thinks she's imposing on us," she hiccupped.
He wiped her tears and rocked her in his arms. "She's a shy kid, give her some time. Not everyone can be as adaptable and bindaas as you."
"I'm adaptable? But you used to think I was stubborn and spoilt."
"You never complain like I thought an NRI would, though you always fought with me. You are modern but value traditions." He leaned his forehead against hers. "But I still think you're stubborn," he teased. She bit his neck. He laughed.
"And I love spoiling you," he crooked his finger under her chin and lifted her face to brush his nose with hers.
Rising on her toes, she hooked her arms behind his neck. "And you have! Without a wish list, you completed every single wish and fantasy of mine. Even the ones that I didn't know I'd wished for. Thank you, for letting Humaira stay with us, even if it's for just a few days."
"Un unh. Just a thank you won't do."
"Oh really? Then how can I show my appreciation, jahanpanah?"
"I'll make a list and you can start tonight."
"Jo hukum, mere aaka." She snapped her fingers as if remembering something important. "Ooh! Tonight's Najma's suhaag raat!"
He covered his ears and closed his eyes and shook his head violently. "No! That's my sister you're talking about. Why did you have to say that!"
She laughed, "Mr. Khan, you're such a baby. She'll be a married woman tonight."
He shuddered in despair.
"OK, OK. Here's what we'll do," she covered his eyes with her hands. "Trust me. Now think about our suhaag raat."
He grinned, "which one?"
She slapped his shoulder, "Allah miyan! What's wrong with you Mr. Khan! The official one, OK!"
"But I think of our first time together as our suhaag raat too."
"Not fair. You always know what to say to make me melt. But think. The first time was great, but the real one was sensational."
He gripped her by her waist. "Go on," he prompted.
Her voice dropped to a breathy whisper. "Multiply that with ... umm ..."
"That night on the train when you put on a show for me. You were gorgeous!" he declared; he brushed his lips at her neck as his arms tightened around her.
"Hmm, I was thinking of your show for me, but that'll do too," she purred. "And may be I can make a new video?" Framing his face in her hands, she kissed him on the lips and skipped away.
Fists planted on his waist, he glared at her. "Fine! This time at least you'll be in the spotlight!"
She gulped. She hadn't thought of that.
"Oh yes! In fact that'll be on my wish list, Mrs. Khan."
She got serious all of a sudden. "Asad?"
"Can we make a baby tonight?"
He opened his arms and she rushed in. "That's number one on the list," he promised.
Song in Title:
Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973): "Chura Liya Hai Tumne"
The tradition of halting the nikaah rituals midway to demand a bridal ransom was effectively consolidated that night. In fact, it became more elaborate under Zoya's manic charge. As if in a court of law, the groom's words about a nanad troll tax were used against him. For his parents and family's benefit, a clip from Zoya and Asad's wedding was played where Omar had taunted the sisters about bhabhis exploiting nanads as unpaid maids.
His family cheered; he groaned.
In a short skit that followed, the new Bhabhi refused to let her sister-in-law get married and go so far away from her. Who would she watch films and drool over Ranbir Kapoor with? What if her nanad's in-laws mistreated her overseas, or her husband neglected her? The siblings had to convince her that Najma would be fine because her husband would take good care of her.
"How?" She'd demanded.
"Bed tea every morning!"
"Hummph!" she'd retorted, unconvinced.
"Romantic dates every week," gushed Nuzzhat.
Bhabhi had rolled her eyes.
"He'll cook and clean for her."
"Go on," she said, mildly interested. She winked at Omar vengefully. Now who'll be the maid!
"He'll bring her to India every six months."
She looked at her fingernails and frowned, still dissatisfied.
"No," piped up Ayaan. "He'll fly in all of us to the US to be with her."
"And serve us tea in bed and cook and clean for us?" asked Zoya.
"Yay!" yelled the Khan brigade.
"Perfect," said a mollified bhabhi, finally giving the nuptials an A-OK sign. But the saali troll tax still had to be paid.
This time Omar was left cooling his heels while Asad and Ayaan supported their sisters in the blockade. Some shoving and rough housing between Ayaan and Najma's future devars led to Asad having to step in to broker a fragile truce.
Shireen had clutched her head in despair. What would Omar's family think about her out of control children? No amount of shushing and glowering at them had helped. Here she had tentatively asked Zeenat to inquire about one of the boys for Nikhat's rishta, and what does her son do? Glare and lock horns with exactly that one. She breathed a sigh of relief as Asad separated the men, finally letting go of badi Bi's arm that she had unconsciously gripped in panic.
Omar must have already prepared his family for this ambush because the girls once again walked away with a dupatta heavy with loot. His cousins booed and hooted. Ayaan puffed out his chest and lunged; Asad pulled him back by his collar.
Shireen could have wept with frustration. Ya Allah! Yeh ladka!
The tradition of a twofer wedding and engagement bonanza too was retained. After the nikaah and blessings, Ayaan had surprised Humaira with a proposal as he and Zoya had performed a hurriedly improvised dance to "Mujhse Shaadi Karogi." Mostly unsynchronized, the two had bungled through their imperfect Laurel and Hardy routine. Humaira had laughed and cried. So had Zoya. Shireen had beamed proudly. Finally, her son was doing something right and not making them all look bad. He was just so perfect. And such a good dancer too.
When Rashid had put his hand on her head to offer blessings, Humaira had hidden her face in her dupatta and sobbed, "I'm sorry," repeatedly. Zoya hovered around protectively, wringing her hands.
"Beta, you have nothing to be sorry about," he'd said, patting her head. "We are very happy for both of you."
Asad had walked up behind Zoya and put a comforting hand on her waist to draw her close to him. Dilshad gave him a death stare. Move away, she seemed to say. He didn't. He pulled his wife in even closer.
Uff! Her eyes locked with Zeenat's. Kya karoon main inka, she seemed to say.
Zeenat laughed and raised her eyes and palms heaven-ward. Allah miyan, don't jinx this.
Razia was in excruciating pain. Her feet were killing her. The doctor had casually warned her about this. Peripheral neuropathy he'd called it. He'd also carelessly tossed her a brochure that explained the symptoms: she'd feel as if she were walking on pins and needles, ocassional numbness, or even prolonged burning sensation.
Intellectually she knew that the burning sensation was part of the documented symptoms of the diagnosis. But in her heart she knew, this was karma. It was only fitting that she'd feel the flames of the fires she had set decades ago, lick at the soles of her feet. At nights, those flames burned knee-high. She prayed for numbness and pins and needles instead. But her body refused to cooperate.
It remembered. It punished.
As she climbed up the stairs to her room, she saw a sliver of light under Tanveer's door. Trouble sleeping? She smirked. Mrs. Mansur had switched the sim card back and everything was now in place to track this woman's conversations and movements. How dare you try to hurt my daughter! But regret stained her soul. She had brought this woman here. And now she was under her roof while her own flesh and blood was a refugee in another's home?
Her lips thinned.
Not for long.
This woman had signed her own death warrant by targeting Humaira.
But the ghosts of the past refused to acquit her. They fanned the flames of remorse. Her nightmares recurred. Many a night, she woke up clammy, her heart racing a mile a minute. Zoya's face from yesterday swam before her eyes, and Asad's bitterly angry words echoed in her head. Her daughter was now at the mercy of those two? She was safer at her step-sister's house than her own father's?
It was all her doing.
A child's contorted face, screaming in pain and grief stabbed her heart. Unmindful of the pain in her feet, Razia trotted to her room as if chased by devils. She slammed her door shut and leaned heavily against it.
That girl's blood was now coursing through Humaira's veins, detoxing her heredity.
That girl knew everything and still ...
Razia couldn't bear to complete the thought. Her conscience stubbornly skittered away in denial and self-pity.
Omar and Najma were going to spend their first night at the Palace Hotel and fly to Cochin the next day. When the guests departed, Dilshad and Zoya had cried copious tears in each other's arms already missing their Tamatar. Asad had disappeared into the bedroom.
"It's the first time she's been away from me since she was born," lamented Dilshad. "Why do we raise daughters only to send them so far away from us?"
"Exactly! It's just wrong. Boys should have to stay in their sasural." They trooped to Najma's room and laughed through their tears at the mess.
"Allah! Kya haal bana rakha hai kamre ka," Dilshad remarked fondly. Her hands fluttered over Najma's things. She lovingly caressed the carelessly-strewn clothes on the bed and started to fold a lehenga.
"Ammi, it's too late to do this now. Promise, I'll take care of it tomorrow."
Dilshad sighed. "You're right. I'm exhausted." She left, already planning tomorrow's breakfast menu.
Zoya went to check in on a sleeping Humaira. She sat by her side and gazed at her, not daring to touch her. But she couldn't stop herself. She gently brushed her hair from her face and patted her cheek. Tucking her in more securely she tiptoed out of her room.
Asad was sitting on the settee in the dark. Elbows on his knees, hands interlaced under his chin, he stared sightlessly at nothing. Aww. It couldn't be easy to have your baby sister leave you when you'd had her underfoot all of her life. Zoya snuggled next to him and pulled his hand into hers.
"How old was she when you moved into this house?" she asked softly.
"About sixteen," he whispered morosely.
"What's the best part about having a little sister?"
Wrapping his arm around her tightly, he tried to answer the painful curiosity behind her question, "everything. She looks up to you and wants to do everything you do when she's a baby. It's different as a brother I guess. I wasn't allowed to bring friends over. As a teenager, you are her banker, police, bodyguard, bouncer, and chauffer. Her friends giggle when you come home, and she shoos you out before you embarrass her."
"I don't believe it," she teased. "I'm sure she shooed you out because they all had crushes on you."
He butted his head against hers playfully.
"Did you give her the talk about boys?"
"What boys? What talk?" he asked in alarm.
"Mr. Khan! Growing up, girls have to be told how bad boys are. That they're only after one thing, and the lines they will maro to get you to fall for them." She grinned recalling Jeeju trying to bumble his way through this rite of passage.
"Oh my god! I should have told her all this!" He whispered in horror. "May be, if she had an older sister ... I don't even know if Ammi talked to her about ... you know ..."
"Don't worry, Ammi already delegated me to do that. But I'm pretty sure Omar had already enlightened her about some of the stuff!" Zoya giggled.
He kissed her knuckles, "make sure you give that talk about boys to Amna and Nilofer."
"It'll be better coming from their Abbu having been a boy himself," she said deicisively. They sat in companionable silence thinking about sisters and daughters.
She nudged his shoulder with hers, "so, were you?"
"Huh? Was I what?"
"Mr. Khan! Were you one of those boys who pataoed girls?"
He looked at her, an eyebrow raised.
"No? Knowing you, you probably had a crush on your teacher, right?"
She giggled, "ooh! Next time I'll have to play the teacher then. Biology or chemistry teacher?"
"Shut up," he said softly, covering his face in embarrassment.
"I had a crush on my history teacher," she mused. "Mr. James. He was so cute, and so hot at the same time!"
"Oh really! He's history now!" growled Asad.
"Jealous Mr. Khan?"
"I miss her already," Zoya sighed a little later. She squeezed his hand and continued reminiscing. "Najma really made me feel welcome, you know. Unlike someone else I know." He laughed and dropped a kiss on her temple.
"She's the friendliest of us all." He sighed with dissatisfaction and fell back on the settee with his hands clasped behind his head.
"She's too young. We should have waited at least another year to get her married."
"Asad," Zoya leaned over resting her face on his chest. One of his arms came down to loosely embrace her.
"She's old enough and didn't want to wait. And she'll be back with us in no time. We'll have her all to ourselves for at least another five or six months."
"Till she goes 12,000 kilometers away!" he groused miserably.
She really had nothing to say to that. So she just rubbed his chest in comfort. Pulling his face to her, she kissed his cheek. "I'm sorry, baby. I wish we could keep her with us forever too."
His phone rang. They sat up. He looked at her in alarm already imagining the worst. Who could it be at this hour?
"Hello?" He listened, hung up, and muttered under his breath, "idiot!"
He looked at her and shook his head. "That's the security outside. They caught Ayaan."
"Outside Humaira's window right?" She asked already knowing the answer.
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with him! At this hour? But so cute!"
She giggled when she saw her husband frown. "Not fair, Mr. Khan! How come you never tried to sneak into my room?"
And then she laughed and answered her own question. "Oh, but you did. You just boldly used my bedroom door!"
He grinned. "Come let's figure out what to do with Ranjha Romeo. And Mrs. Khan?"
She looked at him, already knowing exactly what was on his mind.
"Fine!" she harrumphed. "I'll be the teacher who stays back for extra classes to tutor a student falling behind in his studies."
"No, I was a topper! I'll be the student falling ... for his teacher!"
"A topper hunh?" she rubbed herself against him, already turned on by all this verbal foreplay. "I'll be the judge of that, and may even let you top if you're a good boy!"
"Oh honey, I'm better than good!"
They let a sheepish Ayaan in. Asad slapped him upside the head and Zoya scolded him.
"Raabert, she's still recovering and needs all the rest she can get. It was a long day for her. Let her get well before romancing her."
"I just wanted to make sure she was OK," Ayaan mumbled.
Asad stood with his arms folded across his chest and looked at his brother crossly. "Go home, Ayaan."
"Mr. Khan, it's too late for him to be on the streets at this hour. He can stay here."
He frowned. He didn't like where this was going but he also knew that she had a point. He hated it. It was depressing enough that he was joining work tomorrow, and now this.
Don't say it, babe.
But she did.
He groaned aloud.
"I can sleep with Humaira and he can sleep with you," she said.
Asad sighed, very disgruntled with the teacher's homework assignment, "Fine."
Ayaan hung his head in shame. "I'm sorry bhaijaan. I can sleep on the couch."
His brother glared at him and stalked off to his room. He flung a t-shirt and track bottoms at his face.
While Ayaan changed, Asad kissed his wife and grumbled in disappointment. "We were supposed to make a baby tonight."
"I know," she sighed. "But baby's chachu had different plans."
He swore, "tell me again why he can't sleep in Najma's room?"
"Because it'll take an hour to unearth the bed from under her lehengas and blouses and sarees and dupattas. Would you like to help me do that? No. Cancel that. If you helped me it would take five hours."
"Women!" he complained. "But at least in those five hours we could have had some fun."
"True. But if we did let him stay in Najma's room, he'd just sneak back into Humaira's room. This is the only way," she sighed unhappily.
The bathroom door unlatched and they moved apart.
"Mr. Khan, give Ayaan that talk and tell him no sneaking into Humaira's room," she hissed and grabbed her night things to run from the room.
"Yes ma'am!" he muttered in dismay.
Giving him the stink eye, Asad shoved a pillow and sheet into Ayaan's hands and pointed to the settee. With a martyred sigh he got into bed. Automatically his hand groped for Zoya's and then he remembered.
"Moron!" he spoke aloud in the darkness and flung a cushion in his direction.
Ayaan snorted. "Sorry bhaijaan, I'm really sorry."
"Shut up Ayaan and go to sleep."
"Good night, bhai." But Asad could hear him shuffling and shifting restlessly. He grunted.
"What?" Asad yelled irritably.
"Remember, when we shared a room on our trip to Ajmer? We were really miserable then, right?"
Asad folded his arms behind his head, "hmm."
"You never told me then that you loved Zoya. Why? I always shared my likes and crushes with you."
Asad sighed. "Ayaan," he warned.
"No really, bhai, why didn't you tell me?"
"It was complicated. I ...," he cleared his throat "... I was supposed to marry someone else then."
"And you probably weren't sure if Zoya liked you or not."
No, I knew. She'd told me.
His heart constricted thinking of those godawful days when the idea of marriage had felt like a death sentence. His anger at Tanveer grew deeper. He recalled how she had baited Zoya mercilessly. It galled him that Tanveer had been framing Zoya of minor crimes, absolutely confident about his prejudices and biases. The events of those long months played a leaden montage in his head. Since day one, that woman had been working against them. Asad tamped his self-loathing. Thank god Ammi and Najma had stood by Zoya in those days. He certainly hadn't. And he hadn't yet told Zoya about the latest developments at the Siddiqui house either.
He hated that he had joined hands with Razia: the same woman who had hurt Ammi, threatened to kill Najma, and traumatized Zoya.
It ate him up inside.
Wasn't he betraying the most important people in his life?
His resolve became steelier. This was for a greater good. And, in any case, he did have incriminating evidence against the Siddiquis which combined with what Abbu had uncovered, could put them away for a long time. Working with her didn't mean he was going to let her get away with murder. It just meant that he was taking care of business for now: Tanveer. He had gone too easy on her earlier because of her pregnancy. No more.
He debated whether he should tell Ayaan that Tanveer was pretending to be Humaira's sister. But that may expose the truth about Zoya's ...
Asad sighed. He turned restlessly on his side. Ayaan was snoring softly.
The night was hard on Tanveer too. She still recalled the humiliating ride over to the police station and the endless wait in a dimly lit room to be questioned. They gave her room temperature water to drink in a cloudy, chipped glass. The lawyer sent by her fake father's office had proven to be a stuttering buffoon. Was this what all that money could conjure up? Little did she know that the lawyer had been a decoy sent by Asad's investigator. Many hours and hoarsely delivered threats later, she was deposited back at the Siddiqui mansion. Only to be told that her father would be out of town for at least the next ten days. Great. And now the lawyer was asking for a retainer and had handed her a long bill of charges for paperwork and affidavits and stamp paper notarizations and other rot. She'd have to dig into her stash to shut him up.
Her phone too was acting up. She couldn't contact the duffers whom she'd deployed to scare Humaira and Ayaan. What she didn't know was that one digit in their numbers from her Address Book had been altered, so that she couldn't reach them. They had been rounded up by Rakesh's team and were being interrogated about fellow henchmen. They would be handed over to the police after spilling their guts, to solidify the case against Tanveer.
Her eyes were gritty and her head still pounded. And thanks to the pregnancy she couldn't take a powerful painkiller. She knew the wedding at the Khan home was today. All this nonsense and delay had prevented her from executing a dramatic surprise. Damn. A missed opportunity. This pretending to be a rich man's daughter was turning out to be a bigger pain in the neck than she had planned for. She'd have to devise ways of extracting herself from this cloying and pointless relationship.
Zoya was restless too. Her conversation with Asad about growing up with a younger sister tugged at her heart and soul. For the longest time she gazed at Humaira in the darkness, her face illuminated by the faintest moonlight. She wanted to think about what it would be like to grow up with a sister and a mother and father. Asad had talked about teaching Ayaan and Najma to walk for the first time. She could have done that too. She'd feel her sister's little fingers grip hers tightly as a tiny Humaira put one wobbly foot in front of the other. She too would have helped her sister learn to ride a bike, bandaged her skinned knees and painted her nails. Her hand crept toward Humaira's. She touched her fingertips and froze.
Each time she let her mind wander down that path of sisterly love, she blundered onto the dark road that led to the burning factory and a lost mother. And it all led back to this girl's mother.
Unbidden, flames and smoke rose before her eyes. Her eyes burned. She tried to sweep away the broken images of countless nightmares from her mind. But the flames chased her.
Zoya flung back the covers and ran out of the room. She leaned against the wall in the darkened living room. Her chest hurt from holding the screams and sobs in. She sank to her knees.
Oh god, please don't make me hate her.
Please make it stop hurting.
Just make me forget.
Hot tears fell. She tried to choke back the sobs. Not wanting to disturb anyone she fled upstairs to Najma's room, fell to the floor, and wept by the bed laden with silks, brocade, zardozi, tissue and organza.
And that's where Asad found her.
"Zoya, why didn't you come to me?"
He held her as her body was racked by sobs. He should have known that being that close to Humaira was still too soon and too raw for her. Just last night she'd woken up screaming from those familiar nightmares. He had thought that it was because she'd seen Razia Siddiqui yesterday. He should have realized that although she didn't blame Humaira for the past, Humaira was a living reminder of that night when her world had come crashing around her.
"Why did she do it?" she wept. "Why didn't she kill me too?"
"Zoya, no! Don't ever say that." He felt helpless, unable to erase her pain.
"Ammi ..." she whimpered.
Asad's throat felt tight. His eyes blurred. He rocked her to him.
He loathed himself even more. Desperately he vowed, "I'll kill her."
"No!" Zoya covered his mouth with her palm in horror. "What would happen to Humaira then? I wouldn't wish this on anyone."
He nearly sobbed along with her. "I'll send her to rot in prison then. I won't let her get away with doing this to you."
"No, Asad, please don't." She dropped kisses on his face pleading with him to reconsider.
"Oh god Zoya, how do you do it? How do you forgive?"
"Nothing else matters. I would bear a thousand more scars if it could only bring her back! I'd walk through fire."
"Shh, I know. I know," he soothed. "You're my Jhansi ki rani. I'm sure you'd have done it too. But don't. For me."
She smiled gratefully through her tears. Burrowing in his chest she asked sometime later, "how'd you find me here?"
Wiping her tears he told her how he'd heard muffled sobs and footsteps up the stairs.
"Are you just a light sleeper, or am I such a loud crier and stair climber?" she sniffed.
"I couldn't sleep without you by my side."
"Oh thank god!" she whispered as she flung her arms around him once again.
Later he helped her up so that she could wash up in the restroom. When she came back out, she saw all of Najma's fineries piled messily on her desk and chair. She chuckled. It must have been hard for him to not neatly fold each item of clothing. Holding out his hand he led her to the bed and pulled back the covers for her to slide in. As he tried to tuck her in she tugged him by his hand insisting that he join her.
"Not in my sister's bed," he muttered in embarrassed horror.
"Just hold me, no hanky panky I promise," she enticed. As he got in with her to hold her, they sighed in contentment. It felt so good to be in each other's arms. So right. A second later they heard the silks and sequins on the desk rustle to the floor with a soft plop.
She giggled, "nice job, jahanpanah!"
She pulled him back when he tried to get out to re-stack the jeweled and studded clothes.
"Let it be," she whispered. "They can wait. I don't want to."
He lay back and they re-settled into a familiar comforting embrace.
"Tell me about that time you thrashed those gundas who were beating up Ayaan."
She giggled when he muttered, "I should have let them beat him longer!"
"Tell me," she implored. She loved hearing stories of their childhood and often begged for reruns. Listening to the steady rhythm of his voice and the cadence of his heartbeat in her ear, she fell asleep, content. And not much later, so did he, equally replete.
Song in Title:
Dor (2006): "Yeh Hausla"
Razia's heart twisted. She had begged Asad to send her photographs and videos of the wedding so that she could catch a glimpse of her daughter. He had curtly brushed her off with barely repressed anger. This was not why he had given her that phone he told her brusquely.
But eventually he had relented.
"Tell Mrs. M. to handle this."
And Mrs. M. sure had come through. She had stayed back after delivering Humaira's things. She'd taken exclusive pictures and film of the events last night and now set it up for Razia on her laptop. She drank in the sight of her daughter, beautifully dressed, laughing at the antics of the Khan siblings, amazed at the proposal.
Engaged? Without her parents there?
And no rancor from Rashid? And Dilshad? She was actually letting Humaira stay under her roof?
The sight of her daughter sobbing in guilt made her wince and cry too. Her hand jerked, and hot tea spilled, scalding her lap. Watching Zoya around Humaira made her flinch more. What had she done? What would happen to her child when everyone found out about Zoya? Her heart raced and pounded. Everyone would hate her. Would they break off the engagement?
She gasped. Her clammy hands tingled and knotted. Suddenly she couldn't breathe. Pain shot up her chest. Was she having a heart attack? She swayed and sank to her knees.
And broke yet another cup and saucer from her favorite tea set.
Zoya puttered around, listlessly neatening Najma's room. After breakfast she, Aapi and Ammi had deftly tackled the mountain of clothes to stack and hang them in the closet. They had chatted about the weddings, engagements, mehendi and sangeet ceremonies. The albums from Zoya and Asad's wedding had just come in, and everyone poured over them. Upcoming functions were discussed. Zoya and Dilshad tried to convince Zeenat to stay back. Jeeju was leaving for the US tomorrow.
But now she missed her husband terribly. After so many days of blissful togetherness, being without him even for some hours was intolerable. She didn't want to bother him at work and so had texted him only once.
"I'm NOT missing you" she'd texted the first time, an hour after he left.
She had already checked her email, facebook page, uploaded pictures from the trip and wedding celebrations. Even Humaira was resting now. She had fussed over her, changed her dressing and brushed her hair. They'd gabbed non-stop, rehashing all the excitement from last night. She'd teased Humaira about Ayaan's proposal and oohed and aahed over the ring. She remembered that Humaira was fond of Shah Rukh Khan movies, and they had planned to watch Kuch Kuch Hota Hai after lunch.
But now there was nothing to do.
"Dying here," she'd texted again.
Asad called two minutes later.
"Me too. How have I let you become such an addiction? I can't get any work done," he sighed.
"Come home early?"
He sighed again and she could picture him tiredly running his hand over his forehead and pinching the bridge of his nose.
"Can't. Two site visits."
"Asad!" she complained.
"I know. Hate it too."
"Put Ayaan to some good use. Make him do the legwork," she urged. She had been dropping hints about Ayaan being gainfully employed and he had finally given in and drafted Ayaan to be a high-profile gopher. It was mostly eclectic non-specified gruntwork, but at least it kept him out of everyone's way. And it allowed Humaira some much-needed rest.
"I have. But unfortunately, I'll still have to go," he said unhappily as he dragged a hand through his hair.
She let him off. But only after telling him what she would do to him when he returned.
A blow by blow account.
In slow and graphic detail.
His tiredness evaporated. Visions of promised seductions gave him wings. He was charged like a manic energizer bunny all through the hated post-lunch meetings, much to his associates' dismay. Every now and then he would stop midway to grab a legal pad and jot down project design ideas or proposals. He made to-do and checklists, drew up plans and placed orders. Conjugal phone s*ex could make such a difference in productivity and project management. Who knew!
Humaira rested but couldn't fall asleep for the nap that had been mandated by Zoya bhabhi. She tossed and turned as much as her bandaged arm would allow. Her heart was full, and yet heavy. She traced the ring on her finger. It brought comfort and hope.
She had her heart's wish: Ayaan. And permanent official membership into a family she had loved all her life.
But she felt isolated. Guilt raked at her. Shame shredded her nerves. How could they possibly accept her knowing all that her mother had put them through? She just knew it in her gut. She knew that her mother's schemes were only the tip of the iceberg. What if there were worse things lurking under the murky surface? She shuddered and tensed; pain shot up her arm.
She took a deep steadying breath.
A part of her gratefully sensed that Asad bhaijaan had deliberately engineered her stay here. Did he know that she would somehow feel too raw to face Ayaan's family so soon after finding the truth about her mother? Did he and Zoya bhabhi bring her here to decompress, and mend her bruised spirit?
She turned again and sighed miserably. How could you hate your mother and still miss her? Ammi would have fussed over her right now, her soft hands pressing into her forehead would be a balm more soothing than any painkiller. She would have scolded her for not being more careful, or not heeding her motherly nagging to take her vitamins regularly or eat heartily. She would have ordered the servants to cut up fruits, make soup, rub her feet, or get her hot chocolate or flavoured coffee from her favorite caf.
She suddenly smiled.
Funny how Zoya bhabhi had been doing all that stuff lately, as if she knew instinctively that she missed a mother's healing touch. She ran her hand down the braid that Zoya bhabhi made for her after oiling her hair. She felt so embarrassed being here, in the way of their domestic bliss. A reminder of the blight her mother had wrought. How could a near stranger do so much for you? Give you blood, dote on you day and night, and laugh and chat with you while painting your nails? When she got married would she be able to have someone come live with her new husband and family, and still be as kind and generous? And not at all resent the intrusion?
She finally fell asleep looking forward to watching her favorite film. Zoya bhabhi had promised her pasta salad and garlic bread for lunch, and Nuzzhat and Nikhat would be there too.
When Zoya peeked in on her sometime later armed with fresh laundry, she smiled looking at Humaira's cheeks resting against her hand, her lips brushing her engagement ring.
Ayaan was bored out of his mind and so darn tired. Since the morning, he'd been despatched to three different clients to deliver contracts or paperwork, or whatever. He was only here because bhai had insisted. And after last night, he felt that he owed him big time.
But he hated this.
He'd been guilted into thinking about future responsibilities now that he was to be married. And he didn't even get his own office, just a measly desk and computer on which most of the sites he usually visited were blocked.
Damn! This sucked.
Bhai had even dictated that he dress appropriately, shave and make himself presentable.
What the hell, man!
Razia scowled at Tanveer on the dining table. How dare she sit in Humaira's chair? But she swallowed the rising bile. Deep breaths, she coached herself. Just this morning Mrs. M had rushed over to lift her into bed after her collapse.
"Take slow deep breaths," she'd advised.
Hand on her belly, she coached her through the breathing. "Fill your stomach and feel it inflate. Good."
Next she had her flex and loosen the muscles of her arms and legs. "Think happy thoughts."
Razia closed her eyes and tried to focus on the image of Humaira's smiling face. She instantly felt calmer.
"What happened? Was I having a heart attack?"
"Panic attack," said Mrs. M. "Have you experienced this before?"
"Not this bad," whispered Razia. She was being strangled in her own body. It too had taken sides against her.
She brought her attention back to what her husband was saying to his fake daughter.
"... together. I'll talk to her and when she comes back I want you to become friends. May be you both can go away to Indore and stay at my brother's resort so that you can get to know one another better."
He didn't see his wife blanch. Never!
Deep breaths. Deep breaths, she repeated the litany in her head. Thank god her daughter was safe ...
She squeezed her eyes shut. ... with her real sister. She bit her lower lip to restrain a sob from escaping.
Sh*it! Sh*it! Sh*it!
Ayaan groaned. This was turning out to be the worst day of his life.
He wanted the earth to open up and swallow him whole! It was bad enough to be stuck in Bhai's office and turn down an invitation from his friends at the clubhouse. But then what does he see looking up? Wajid waddling his way with a three-foot tall steel lunch box.
Ammi why do you do this to me?
Ayaan looked on in horror as Wajid neared. He wasn't sure, but he heard some titters and snorts around him. He squeezed his eyes shut. Why me? Is this what his life had come to? Engaged and suddenly you became a lame ass loser whose mom sent bucketfuls of desi food at your workplace?
But he was also Ayaan Ahmed Khan.
And he knew how to turn the tables and make himself look good anytime life threw him a wussifying curve ball.
He wasn't a charmer for nothing.
"Great!" he yelled loud and clear. He stood up, rubbed his hands in glee, and addressed the room: "Hey guys, my mom sent homemade food. Wajid, what did Ammi send?"
Wajid blushed, shy and thrilled to be the center of attention.
"Mutton biryani, matar paneer, koftey, rumali roti, ras malai ..."
"Awesome!" gushed Ayaan, happily lapping up the jealous sighs he heard around him.
"C'mon, let's all go to the break room and dig in," he herded the eager officemates and breathed a sigh of relief at a crisis averted, his coolness factor still intact.
The girls were here and all of them, along with Aapi and Ammi, were sprawled around watching Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. When the doorbell rang, Zoya insisted on getting it. It was too depressing anyways. Anjali's heartache reminded her of those dark days when she thought Asad hated her for lacking tehzeeb and was instead marrying someone who seemed to be a paragon of piety and virtue. She sniffed and wiped her tears. On opening the door she gasped aloud.
"What happened? Zoya are you OK?" called a worried Aapi.
Someone paused the film and everyone ran to the door. To find Zoya's face buried in the largest bouquet of the reddest roses.
"Oh! My! God! Bhaijaan is too romantic! That must be at least three dozen roses there," gushed Nuzzhat.
The delivery boy cleared his throat, "four," he said, and held aloft a small gift bag and more plastic bags. The girls fell on them.
"Here, Bhabhi, this is for you," Nikhat handed her the small gift bag. Nuzzhat already had her face buried in the other bags.
"Oh my god! Oh my god! Oh my god! Garam garam kachoris and pastries. Bhaijaan is too good."
"But Nuzzhat, we just had lunch, like an hour and half ago," protested Humaira.
"Baji! Kachoris and black forest pastries! How can you resist?" tempted Nuzzhat.
Everyone looked at Zoya when she yelped at the name of black forest pastries.
"Everything OK beta?" asked Dilshad. She didn't undersand why her bahu was as red as the roses.
Zoya fled to her room with the flowers and gift bag. Oh my god was right! Thank you Mr. Khan for spoiling me and nearly getting me into trouble with Ammi right now! She'd never be able to look at black forest pastries the same way again. She opened the gift bag expecting a jewelry box, but pulled out a DVD instead. Intrigued, she skipped over to insert it into her laptop. Before hitting play, she read the card. A plain white card with Asad's handwriting scrawled across: I can't bring her back, but hope her voice and pictures will bring out that dimple I love so much.
As the DVD began to play her eyes teared up. He must have sneaked away her small photo album with just a handful of her childhood pictures. The slideshow of her old photos was accompanied by the recovered audio recording from the doll. She heard her mother's voice clear as a bell and her own, happy and cherished.
Her phone rang.
"Are you OK?" Asad asked, worried. He had asked Rakesh to just isolate the initial part of the recording with Zoya and her mom. But only later had he realized that she may fall apart with the emotional overload of listening and watching it by herself. He kicked himself for not giving it to her in person when he could have held her in his arms.
"Asad, I love you so much." Her voice sounded soft and feathery.
"You're not crying, right? I should have been there."
"I'm so blown away by this. When did you even think of this?"
"The first time I heard it. I knew I wanted you to have happier memories of her."
"I wish you were here right now too. I would have kissed you and hugged you so tight!"
"You're sure you're fine?"
"Better than fine. Just mushy and all gooey. Like a chocolate bar left out in the sun."
"Mmm," his voice rumbled.
"You're too good to me, you know."
"Mr. Khan!" she giggled. "Always so full of yourself!"
"Mrs. Khan, tonight you'll be full of me too!"
"Umm hmm," he gloated.
She laughed, outraged and smitten.
Ayaan's phone pinged. And the texts started coming in.
His sisters and Humaira were going on and on about about how romantic bhaijaan was, how he'd sent over a whole florist's shop full of flowers for Zoya and goodies for everyone else.
He felt something alien bloom inside of him. Envy?
He wanted to be that hero too. He wanted everyone to gush over how he had bought a whole store worth of flowers and food. Wouldn't it be nice if he could do that for Humaira? He'd buy her jewelry, dresses"
He had money, but he'd often have to beg Abbu for extra to cover costs by the third week of the month.
The logical side of him knew that it was time for him to get his act together if he hoped to be a fun-loving husband. But the stubborn playful side of him felt betrayed and oppressed. Why did he have to work stuffed in a soulless cubicle like a robotic yesman? He wanted to listen to and make music, ride on the open road, hang out with friends and family, sweep Humaira off her feet ...
He looked up and swore under his breath. Here we go again. Prasad had another bunch of documents for him to hand deliver. Brilliant! All his life he'd dreamed of being a glorified messenger boy. Was bhai taking revenge for last night?
As Zoya arranged the flowers in their room she knew exactly how she'd welcome her husband from his long first day at work as a married man.
When Asad walked in he'd hoped to be greeted by a smiling Zoya. Instead there were only Ammi, Humaira, Aapi and Jeeju in the living room. He gave them a desultory greeting and eagerly leaped toward their room. Empty. He saw the flowers arranged in a place of honor at the console table by the settee. She wasn't in the closet or the restroom.
"Where are you?" he texted anxiously.
"Freshen up and come outside," she texted back.
"I wanted a hug and kiss after a long day. And a mouthful of melted chocolate," he responded.
"All in good time," came the reply.
After a quick shower and change, he stepped out hoping to catch an eyeful of his wife. And he did. She took his breath away. She was wearing a saree. And a saree that he'd got her. Simple and radiant. She was setting the table. The others were in the living room watching the news. Her eyes met his and color stained her cheeks. Getting a glass of ice water gave him an excuse to brush against her.
"Hey gorgeous!" he whispered as he walked past her to the refrigerator. His heart beat faster as he heard her gasp in heightened awareness.
She watched him tilt his head back and gulp the water down. Her eyes were riveted to the corded muscles in his neck. He knew she was watching from across the kitchen. Eyes locked with hers he swiped the back of his hand to wipe his mouth. Slowly. And she moaned softly. He grinned and began humming. She strained to hear the song. And then grinned too. Their favorite. Mr. Khan certainly hummed better than he whistled! She bent to straighten a fork and her pallu slid down.
He stopped humming, making a choking sound.
"Asad? Come sit with us and tell us about Ayaan's day at work," Dilshad called. Humaira blushed.
Asad groaned and dragged himself over.
Dinner was a slow dance of sweet torture. She wouldn't sit so he couldn't feast his eyes on her. Zoya glided back and forth between the table and kitchen. She and jeeju bantered merrily. She fussed over Humaira. Each time she came to him to refill his plate her pallu brushed against his knuckles and elbow. He wanted to wrap it around his hand and tug her into his lap. Half way through dinner, Ayaan popped in. She got busy serving him. Everyone wanted to know how his day went. No one noticed a silently fuming Asad. His fist balled. He wanted so bad to throw his chair back, scoop his wife into his arms and march into their room to sink his teeth into her neck as she threw her head back in surrender.
"Bhaijaan, he didn't bother you, no?" asked Humaira timidly.
He looked at her blankly not having heard her question completely.
"Of course he did!" piped in Zoya, rescuing his butt.
"Raabert must not have let anyone else in the office work either. He must have played his guitar, made paper airplanes and jammed the copier."
Asad bravely defended Ayaan, "no, he was really good today. A client called to tell me about my charming brother and demanded why he hadn't seen more of him. I was impressed. But there was some noisy lunch party in the break room."
His wife looked at him gratefully. Humaira was glowing.
"Oh my god, don't remind me," groaned Ayaan. "Can you believe that Ammi sent this humungous lunch box? I had to do something!"
"What did chhoti Ammi send?" asked Zoya as she finally settled down to eat. Asad squeezed his eyes shut and blew his breath out in frustration. Now that she was sitting, he couldn't admire that sliver of creamy flesh at her waist each time she adjusted that slippery slidey pallu of hers. Had they been in their room, he'd have grabbed her by her hips, traced the contour of her waist with his tongue and sunk his teeth into that soft skin of hers.
Zoya's eyes shone as Ayaan rattled off the menu. "Ras malai! It's been ages since I had ras malai," and she looked at her husband archly.
He blushed furiously remembering the night on the train when there was ras malai on the menu but he had dragged her away before dessert could be served. And now she blushed too, suddenly recalling what he'd seductively breathed in her ear about just desserts and which one she'd be treated to. And how. She stole a look at him and her breath snagged. He was openly surveying her under drooping lids.
"Hey, I know, let's go out for kulfi!" suggested Ayaan.
"Yes!" squealed Humaira and Zoya.
No! groaned Asad.
"Tum log jao," Dilshad assured them. "Zeenat and I will clean up."
They went out for kulfi and he went nearly cross-eyed each time his wife licked and swallowed the melting treat on a stick. And she knew it too. In the car, as Ayaan yammered on by his side, he'd stolen looks at her in the rear view mirror. Ah, Mrs. Khan, he promised her silently, you're so going to be punished for tormenting me like this.
Back home, he supervised Ayaan's mounting his bike. "And you better not come back. I only want to see your face in the office tomorrow," he threatened showing him his clenched fist.
So did Zoya. Yeah, Raabert, stay the hell away so that I can seduce my husband tonight.
The parents had turned in for the night. Asad's phone rang and he took the call walking into the backyard. Zoya walked Humaira to her room.
"I'll help you wash your hair tomorrow, hmm?"
"Thanks Zoya bhabhi! I'm sorry to be so much trouble."
"No!" protested Zoya, hugging her sideways minding her injured arm. "Stop saying that! It's no trouble at all. I love having you here."
"You bet! Now get a good night's rest."
On her way to the bedroom, she saw Asad still on the phone in the backyard. Perfect!
She flitted into their room eager to set up before he finished with his call. When Asad walked in, the room was dimly lit with dozens of scented tealights. She'd deheaded some roses from the bouquet he's sent earlier, and their petals were strewn across the bed. When he first entered, he didn't see her behind the roses. She was standing by the window gazing out. She'd pulled her hair to one side over her shoulder and it hid her face.
Locking the door behind him and drawing a long-stemmed rose from the vase, he went to stand behind her. He trailed the rose down her bare back and she shivered.
"Asad," she moaned.
Pulling her closer to him he now trailed the rose up from her wrist to her shoulder. Her head fell back to rest against his shoulder and he continued to brush the flower from one shoulder, over her heaving chest to the next. With his free hand he pushed her deliberately unpinned palla off her shoulder. It slid down and he moved the rose to trail it over her exposed stomach. Soft sighs and hisses escaped her lips.
Unable to bear the torment any longer Zoya turned and buried her face in his chest. She heard his soft laugh rumble up against her ear. Asad lifted her chin and next brushed the rose on her closed eyelids and cheek.
"Enough!" she whispered urgently, and grabbing the stem from him, she tore off the petals and flung them in his face. His eyes widened and he threw his head back and laughed. Wrapping her saree around her he teased, "too much?"
Rubbing his thumb over her parted lips he breathed in her ear, "how do you think I felt all evening with you parading around gift-wrapped in a saree and me not being able to touch you?"
He bent to nip her throat and she melted into him. Their bodies twined and snaked together urgently. Their lips clung and fingers explored. A crack of lightning streaked across the night sky and they twisted their heads to watch the drama unfold. Fat raindrops slashed the window pane.
Zoya's eyes gleamed. Her dimple flashed. Dragging her palla over her shoulder she ran toward the door.
"It's the first rains Mr. Khan! Make love to me in the rain. Under the stars." She held out her hand.
He expelled his breath. "What stars? There'll be clouds."
"Then you put the stars in my eyes," she challenged him.
"Mrs. Khan, you're mad," and he took her hand to be pulled into the storm.
Song in Title:
Ijaazat (1987) "Katra Katra Milti Hai"
She had nearly run into the backyard first, but Asad pulled her back. "Security!" he hissed, and she'd giggled.
She raced up the stairs. Fingers crossed, he hoped she wouldn't make a sound that would make Ammi come out to check. It would be hard to explain their half-undone clothes. He tried to button his shirt but his wife kept tugging at his arm. Her anklets tinkled softly and he nearly groaned aloud. All evening he hadn't heard them. But in the quiet of the night and in the unlit house, the sound magnified and echoed. He hoped that the ACs running in everyone's rooms and the rain on the windows would be able to mask their sound.
Once on the terrace, she ran with her arms outspread into the pouring rain.
She twirled with her head thrown back and palms open to the sky. Her palla fluttered in the balmy breeze. He locked the door behind him from the outside and turned to drink in the sight before him. Zoya danced with her face lifted to the heavens, a broad joyous smile flashing like a beacon. She pushed her wet hair off her face and looked around for him.
Zoya shook her head in disbelief. "Asad," she called. "Come out from under there. Feel this on your face. It's so good!"
Asad let himself be yanked by his elbow. He too lifted his face to the sky and let the cleansing rain wash over him. Zoya pushed his arms out to his side and opened his palms. She spun in circles from one outstretched palm to the other, planting kisses on both.
"See?" she skipped and danced around him in circles. "Isn't it just the best?" She hummed, and then soflty broke into song, "raindrops on roses, and whiskers on kittens. Bright copper kettles--"
"Enough!" he growled and crushed her to him to kiss her. Pushing her dripping hair over her shoulder he bent to lick the streaming drops off her wet back. Her blouse strings had already come loose in the room. Asad pushed the fabric off her shoulders to her elbows trapping her arms by her side. With open-mouthed kisses on her neck he sucked a trail of raindrops. Goosebumps erupted over her bare skin and she shivered deliciously. He let his hands run up and down her bare sides. Soft purrs escaped her mouth. Zoya struggled out of the clinging blouse and turned in his arms. Her palla was plastered to her upper body and he peeled it off. Her back arched as he touched and feasted on her. Her hips wiggled and undulated against him rhythmically.
"Please Asad," she moaned, desperately clutching his wide shoulders. He let her go and she blinked. Her dazed eyes registered him tugging his shirt loose and unbuttoning it hurriedly. She moved forward to assist. He wrestled her hands away. She gasped, outraged. He walked over to the covered porch to grab the chair pads and cushions from the chairs and chaise lounge. Zoya watched, fascinated as he arranged them on the floor. Flinging his shirt to the ground he held out his hand to her. She glided into his arms. Her hands explored the steel beneath his wet skin. She let her nails rake and mark him. He hissed. With her fingertips she felt his collar bone and fluttered her fingers down to test the hard planes of his body. Her mouth followed.
"Oh god, Zoya, that mouth of yours!" He swore under his breath as his fingers dug into her waist to haul her closer, and his pelvis ground into her. Her live-wire tongue flicked lower and he jolted. His fingers touched her face and he slid his thumb into her hot mouth. She sucked on it and his body jerked. He dragged her mouth to his and bit her lips only to suck on them later. She pushed him back forcefully avenging his pushing her away earlier. Tripping, he fell on the cushions. As he lifted himself on his elbow, she raised her saree a few inches and firmly planted her toes on his chest pushing him down deeper into the cushions.
"Not so fast, jahanpanah," she threatened.
"No?" he teased.
His fingers snaked to stroke the arch of her foot. Her body bowed back. With his fingertip he slowly and treacherously outlined the shape of her foot. He caressed her ankle encased by the payal. It tinkled. Lifting her foot off his chest he nipped her toes and continued to trace the studded toe ring with a lazy finger. One yank and she came crashing down on him.
Kissing her, he rolled her under him. The rain laved and steamed. Electricity crackled above, in the skies, and between them as they unwrapped each other from the confining clothes. She bucked under him; her heated flesh tingled, further stoked by the pelting drops. His fingers deftly kneaded the rivulets of rain into her and strummed to whip up her body into a s*exual frenzy. Her blood thrummed.
"All evening long, you were prancing around, commando?" he growled, shocked and inflamed. All she wore now were the silver anklets. They chimed softly clasped behind his hitching waist. The rain drummed a drunken tempo on his muscled back. Asad grabbed her wet hair and pulled her head back to sink his teeth into her writhing neck. He swirled his tongue, further scorching her wet skin. Her mouth wrenched open as a powerful org*asm ripped through her.
And then him.
Thunder and lightning rippled above, illuminating each drop of rain into a shower of diamonds.
She saw stars.
"For once I am thankful for your OCD!" Zoya remarked later, when she got her breath and voice back. She patted her hair dry with the towels he had grabbed on the way as she dragged him up to the terrace. Now as she readjusted her clothing heavy with the season's first rains, she grinned. Her OCD Khan was meticulously replacing the cushions on the patio furniture and taking his sweet time doing it too.
As he unlatched the door to go inside, she melted into him once more, "you've really never done it before?"
"Done what?" he wondered.
"Danced in the rain?"
"Aw, Mr. Khan, a rain virgin," she snickered and ran ahead of him.
"Zoya!" he whispered urgently. "Either take off those payals or don't run. Please, I beg of you."
Hands on her hips she bent her knee and smashed down her toes. On his foot. Chhamm, chhamm, chhamm, tapped her sassy toes like a kathak dancer's.
"Zoya!" he hissed in exasperation and pleasure. He scooped her up in his arms and carried her to their room. She just couldn't be trusted to behave herself.
But just for him, she did behave, and didn't swing her legs too much.
The next day Zoya couldn't resist listening to the DVD over and over again after Asad left for work. She watched the slideshow of pictures of herself. The sound of Ammi humming "Jaane wala pal" was enough to fill her with a deep sense of well-being. She smiled through tears. Ammi sang, "mere ghar aayi ek nanhi pari," and she heard herself repeat with a lisp: "nanni pawi." Toward the end, there was even a scratchy section with her father's voice and the faint strains of her cherished gift from him. She got up to retrieve her music box. Thank god Tanveer hadn't gotten her hands on that as she stole her patrimony. Her palms hugged the globe, shiny from millions of times of rubbing and cradling. Like always, her fingers caressed the top and then opened it gently.
The entwined figures danced slowly and the familiar melody floated out. She willed away thoughts of where her father would be right now. She pushed the image of Tanveer off the brink of her consciousness.
She had Humaira.
So what if no one knew. Unconsciously her finger traced the tulle edge of the ballerina's skirt. Her eyes filled. She saw a flash of movement from the corner of her eye and looked up. Humaira stood at the door, her eyes wide as saucers and mouth hanging open.
"Humaira, is everything OK?" Zoya discreetly swiped at her eyes. She rushed to pull her down on the bed and feel her forehead. "Do you want anything? Why didn't you call me?"
"Zoya bhabhi! Where did you get that music box?" Humaira asked in wonder.
"Umm ... it was a gift from a long time ago," Zoya spoke softly, her heart nearly tipping over. One hand squeezed the other painfully.
"Can I see it?"
"Sure!" and Zoya carefully transferred her legacy into Humaira's waiting palms. Humaira's fingers traced the delicate design and her thumb stroked the contoured edges. She was almost too scared to open it. Her own eyes blurred.
"I bet there's a dancing couple inside and the girl is wearing a pink tutu."
"White," said Zoya softly.
Gently, Humaira lifted the top and the music replayed. She gasped and turned to Zoya. "Bhabhi, I have the exact same one and it plays the same tune! Abbu gave it to me. How weird is that!"
Zoya ducked her head and pretended to rearrange the cushions on the settee. She didn't know what to say: how nice!
No, it's not weird at all.
Or, my Abbu too.
Thank god Aapi called out to her at that exact time. She darted out.
Asad roughly dragged his hands through his hair. He'd just been on the phone with the Police Commisioner who'd told him that the local police were going to be disposing the unclaimed remains from the factory. Making up his mind, he grabbed his car keys to fetch Zoya from home. On the way, he made several calls to his lawyers that would blast the red tape away within next few hours. But for now, he was more concerned about Zoya. Should he tell Ammi? After all how long could they keep this to themselves?
He took the plunge and called Dilshad, "Ammi, I'm outside. I need you to come out right now. Don't ask any questions, please. I'll explain."
Dilshad's heart drummed in her ears. She leaped toward the main door. Luckily, she'd been alone in the kitchen just about to get lunch started. Zeenat was helping Anwar with his packing, Humaira was resting, and Zoya was in her room glued to her laptop.
"Asad! Kya hua beta? You scared me."
"Ammi, get in, I'll explain everything. Just trust me."
He kept reassuring her that everything was all right, but what he had to tell her was important. He drove up to the dargah for courage and privacy. After they offered prayers, he opened up as cautiously as possible. After all Ammi was also connected to this. But this was such a twisted nightmare. He spoke haltingly in an urgent undertone. As Dilshad held his forearm, he gathered more strength.
"Ammi this is about all that mess from the factory eighteen years ago. Do you remember the remains found there?" His throat choked. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat.
"Yes, of course I remember!" Dilshad began to fear the worst. What if there was new evidence to implicate Rashid? Things had only just gotten better and brighter, and suddenly everything would be turned upside down again?
"That was Zoya's Ammi."
Hot tears fell from her eyes as Asad told her most of the rest: the Siddiquis, Zoya's parentage, her mother's murder. But he didn't have the courage to tell her how Abbu had been forced to set fire to the factory, the threat to Najma, or that Zoya had been present there. Why make things more complicated? She was already sobbing hysterically.
They sat in the car for a long time. Silent and miserable.
"Does she know?" Dilshad asked finally.
"Yes," he whispered, his voice thick with emotion.
"Allah! Take me to her right now, Asad."
On the way he told her about claiming the remains and giving her mother a proper burial. And Dilshad understood with a pang why her son had told her this. Had this official notice not come up, both of them would have taken this secret with them to the grave. Her heart ached for Zoya. She always knew that her daughter-in-law had a heart of gold. She had come seeking her father, only to find out that he was dead. Now, he was alive, and she knew who he really was, and yet held her silence? How must she pull herself together each day looking at Humaira? Loving her? Fresh tears fell and she sobbed harder. To know all this, and to still go on normally as if nothing terrible had happened? She must have a spirit of steel. Dilshad looked over at Asad and the grim set of his mouth. Wiping her tears, she patted his arm.
"I always knew she was brave. But I'm so happy she has you."
He looked up at her in surprise.
"Haan Asad, I just know it. You must've been her rock during all this. I'm so proud of both of you and blessed that you have each other."
"Do you think we should tell Jeeju and Aapi?"
Dilshad looked away and tried to put herself in Zoya's shoes. She knew that Zoya would resist this, just to spare everyone pain, but at this time she needed everyone who loved her by her side.
"I know her first instinct will be to say no, but I think it would be the right thing to do. Zoya has to share this grief with all of us who love her, or it'll eat her up alive. "
"Thank god you feel the same way. But how do we do this? Jeeju is leaving tonight."
"You tell Zoya, and I'll speak with Zeenat and Anwar. Call Ayaan and tell him to take Humaira out for an hour or two."
"Umm, Ammi, I don't know if Zoya would want them to know about the Siddiquis as yet."
"Don't worry about it. Just take care of Zoya. You both have kept this long enough to yourselves. I'll take care of everything now."
Zoya looked up in surprise when Asad walked in quietly. His expression made her freeze in terror. Putting the laptop aside she rushed to him.
"Asad, what is it? Najma?"
He held her tight. "Najma is fine."
Kissing her head, he led her to the bed. Taking her hands in his, he pulled her in his lap.
He pushed her hair behind her ear and said softly, "Zoya, it's your Ammi... The Police Commissioner called me today. They are releasing your mother's ..." His eyes too teared when he saw her shattered expression as her face began to crumple. Asad pressed her face into his chest, "I'm sorry baby, I'm so sorry." He cradled her head against his shoulder and kept murmuring soothing words till her sobs subsided.
"Zoya!" Aapi knocked on the door. Asad slid her off his lap and rose to open the door. They rushed in and surrounded Zoya, hugging her and fussing over her.
"Mera baccha," sobbed Zeenat, caressing and kissing her face. Dilshad held her on the other side and Anwar knelt in front of her holding her hands. Heads together they cried for her, and she with them. Though surprised at first, she just let her grief and their love wash over her.
Asad's phone rang. He cleared his throat several times before taking it.
"We should go," he announced after hanging up.
Aapi and Dilshad wiped her tears with their dupattas. Jeeju rose and folded her in his arms. They filed out to let her change.
"Asad?" Zoya asked through a raw throat.
He wrapped her in his arms, "I've arranged for us to go to the masjid and have a proper service for your mother. Why don't you change and then we'll go?"
In the car Dilshad and Zeenat bookended her between them and stroked her hands, ocassionally dropping kisses on her head. Her heart brimmed. Her eyes met Asad's concerned gaze in the rear view mirror and she smiled wanly at him.
And he knew he'd done the right thing.
Heads covered, they walked toward the mosque courtyard for the prayers led by the Imam before going to the cemetery. Zoya bowed her head and said a silent prayer of peace and gratitude. Sandwiched between Aapi and Ammi she looked up at Asad and Jeeju standing in front of them. Surrounded by people who loved her, she whispered the duas for a mother who had brought her here and led her to happiness and love.
When Jeeju and Asad walked ahead to the cemetery for the burial, Zoya collapsed in Aapi's arms. Voice already hoarse, she could only manage to whisper a broken, "Ammi ..."
When Asad returned, she kissed his dusty soil-covered hands and buried her face in them. He tucked her covered head into his shoulder and held her tight; they sighed, completely wrung out.
Asad held her, fiercely cushioning her quaking body in the last throes of grief and despair.
Zeenat was just as distraught and fell in Anwar's arms.
"My baby," she kept repeating brokenly.
On the way to the car, Anwar comforted her, "look at her, Zeenat. She couldn't have found finer people to take care of her."
He pointed to the tableau before their eyes: Zoya walking in between her mother-in-law and husband. Dilshad had her arm around her shoulders, and Asad an arm around her waist. The sun broke through the dense layer of dark clouds and Zeenat sniffed.
"You're right. She'll be fine."
Humaira and Ayaan parted reluctantly at the door.
"Go back to work now," she said softly, ruffling his hair.
"Unnhh," he groaned.
"You know Ayaan, I'm really proud of you."
He beamed. "Why?"
"Because you are really trying. I know that both my Abbu and yours had constantly nagged you about working. And you hated the idea. But now you are giving this a real shot. That's why!"
"Humaira begum, if I'd known you'd be so proud of me, I'd have joined work a long time ago!"
She rolled her eyes. Yeah right! Those days he was not even into her, just friends, bikes and girls.
"So, what's your favorite part about going to work?"
He scowled. "Absolutely nothing! I'm only doing this for you. And I have a sneaking suspicion that Mona darling put Bhaijaan up to this."
Humaira giggled. Her thoughts exactly.
"You really hate it that much?"
"Nah! Truth be told, I don't mind it that much. Most of the other people are not much older than me. They're terrified of bhai, but really respect him. They're cool with me even though I'm the boss' kid brother. But the best part is that they don't treat me as the boss' brother who needs special attention. We hang out. They laugh when bhai makes me do some mindless cr*ap. Better you than us,' they joke with me."
"Aw Ayaan, that's great."
"Well, it ain't great, but it's OK. There's this bindaas woman, Gita, who tells me, 'Ayaan miyan, if it doesn't kill you, it only makes you stronger. Now go get strong and build some character.' "
"Oh really? And how old is this Gita?" Humaira asked archly.
"Relax! She's married and has a young kid."
"Good. Now tell me about the other unmarried women you're hanging out with." She glowered at him.
"Hmm, there are two. Monica and Shabana. And they're really cute."
"Ayaan Ahmed Khan! Get lost! I never want to talk to you or see your face again." She stomped off to go inside and he grabbed her uninjured arm as gently as possible.
"Arre, Humaira begum. I was just messing with you. They've already seen your picture and their hearts are broken because I'm taken."
"Oh shut up!" But she smiled. "And go now. Bhaijaan must be wondering where you are."
"No worries. He's the one who told me to take you out to cheer you up."
Her eyes shone. She would be forever grateful to Bhaijaan and Zoya bhabhi for looking out for her like an older brother and sister. As she bid him goodbye and walked dreamily to her room, she thought about this morning. So strange that Zoya bhabhi had the same music box as hers. She tried to remember what Abbu had said when he had handed her the music box on her birthday.
"I made it myself. I had made two but ..."
She couldn't recall what he'd said about the other one because she'd been so taken up with it and the music had started playing. How can there be an exact replica of something handmade? She'd ask him about it again when she went home.
Her heart stopped.
She would never go home.
At the airport, Jeeju had hugged Zoya and kissed her forehead. "Zoya, I know it's been a hard day, but I am proud of you and so happy for you at the same time."
She understood him perfectly. "I know, Jeeju."
"Apna khayaal rakhna, beta. I'm going to miss my little girl."
They walked arm in arm to the terminal. Asad and Zeenat hung back and watched her say good bye.
"Haan beta, bolo."
"You've always been my Abbu to me. I'm sorry I never said so earlier."
And this time it was Anwar who cried like a baby.
Late at night, wide awake, Humaira wondered about the thickly tragic undercurrents at home. Something heavy was afoot. Everyone looked drained and emotionally bereft. Yes, Jeeju was leaving for the US. But this felt deeper and more melancholy.
And it all seemed to center around Zoya bhabhi. Since the morning, there had been a somberness that clung to her. Humaira hadn't been fooled by the surreptitious brushing away of her tears that morning. And now?
Even before they left for the airport her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. She barely seemed to have energy to support herself upright. Bhaijaan had hovered protectively.
And it all seemed to weirdly coincide with his instructions to Ayaan. Was she meant to be lured away? Did something bad happen? Her breath caught and her throat went dry. Was Zoya bhabhi pregnant and did they lose the baby? She felt tears spring to her eyes. Oh god no! Don't let something like that happen. That would be horrible.
No, that can't be right.
If that had happened, she would have been in bed. Bhaijaan wouldn't let her step a foot off the bed, let alone go to the airport. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Thank god, Allah Miyan!
She pulled out her prayer mat, covered her head, and sank to the floor.
The rain fell softly that night. Not the downpour of last night, it was gentler and mistier. Zoya watched the raindrops drip and splash across the glistening leaves, perched on her husband's lap. She sighed and leaned back into him. They were sitting on the terrace under the covered portico, protected from the rain, but still able to enjoy the 180-degree view of it.
Asad hadn't even complained about the cushions being damp.
She was all cried out and emotionally fragile. But listening to the tapping of the raindrops combined with Asad's steady heartbeat under her ear calmed and centered her. Is this how babies felt in the womb? A watery cocoon of safety and circle of warmth that makes your heart whole and toes toasty? She placed his hand on her heart and looked up to see him fast asleep.
She had thought herself too worn out to move, but now a new energy crackled through her. She got up and walked into the misty rain to quietly gaze at the blurred horizon. Her lifeblood pulsed at her fingertips and pounded in her ears. Zoya let her head fall back and opened her arms wide to embrace the night sky.
Ammi was at peace now.
She swiveled to look back at Asad, sleeping from exhaustion. But she couldn't let him sleep here all night. He'd be stiff and achy tomorrow.
She bent to kiss him awake. "Asad?" she tugged on his hand. "Come on, sleeping beauty, let's get you into bed."
"I'm not sleeping beauty," he complained, still groggy. "I'm prince charming."
"Yes you are. You're my Jahanpanah charming. My shahi tukda." She let herself melt against his warmth. His arms came up around her, strong. She breathed in his familiar scent. Everything was going to be all right.
"Come on, let's get you a good night's rest." She held on to him as they staggered down the stairs to their bedroom. She thought of last night and smiled.
He noted her damp clothing, "Zoya! Stop going out in the rain every night. You'll get sick," he admonished lightly.
"No, I won't," she retorted, with supreme self-confidence.
They clung to each other in bed after he'd made her change into dry clothes. Sometime later he asked, "are you OK with everyone knowing? I'm sorry, I didn't ask you."
She kissed him lightly on the lips. "You did absolutely the most perfect thing. It wouldn't have been right any other way."
"I'm going to work from home tomorrow."
"Even more perfect," she whispered softly, kissing his cheek.
Turning her back on him she snuggled against his chest and tugged his palm to rest on her stomach. Asad tried to cover her with the light Jaipuri rajai, but she kicked it off.
She was feeling just right, just warm enough.
Song in Title:
Fanaa (2006): "Mere Haath Mein"
Topic started by dixeij
Last replied by -jass-