"Phuphi? What's happened to Zoya bhabhi?" An anxious Humaira inquired of Dilshad the next morning.
Dilshad looked at her apprehensively. Her heart wrenched painfully as she remembered how, not so long ago, she had pledged with Badi bi that they wouldn't let the evils of the past haunt the kids' lives. The children had shown the grown ups the road to redemption and reconciliation. Why then, were they meant to bear fate's cruelest jabs? However, she also dreaded the truth coming out for Rashid's sake. It would crush him when he found out about the identity of the corpse found in the factory. But at the same time, she couldn't be grateful enough for Asad and Zoya's magnanimity. How could neither resent Rashid or Humaira? Her eyes teared.
By god's infinite grace, they had become each other's strength and inspiration. And couldn't we all learn from their example?
"Is everything OK?" Humaira continued worriedly.
With Phuphi taking so long to respond, Humaira's blood curdled even more. Oh god, don't let anything be wrong with Zoya bhabhi! What if it was all her fault? What if something had happened to Bhabhi when she was donating blood that day? An infected needle? What if it was the baby?
"Kyun beta? Why do you ask?" Dilshad hedged, as she handed her the plates and cutlery.
Humaira frowned in concentration, her hands gripping the silverware tightly. She was almost in tears.
"Something has happened. I just know it," she whispered bleakly, dying to know what was wrong, but terrified of hearing the answer.
She was helping set the table for breakfast. "Usually she's up and about by now. And then since yesterday she's been so down. I know she's been crying. She's OK na, Phuphi?"
"She must be missing Anwar," said Aapi, coming down the stairs.
"Yes. But I also know that it's something else. Please tell me. I can't bear to see her like this." By now tears had begun to fall from her frightened eyes.
Dilshad and Zeenat looked at one another. Then Dilshad cleared her throat as she made an instant decision. Humaira's tears confirmed her resolve. The grown ups had done the damage. It was time to let the children take over and blaze the path to healing. Zeenat didn't even know about this girl's relation to Zoya. But blood was talking and making its own way. She would let it.
Dilshad wiped Humaira's tears, and stroked her face gently, "umm ... beta ... actually she lost a very dear relative ... that's why."
Humaira gasped. "Who?" she whispered, aghast.
"Her mother's ..." Zeenat wiped her eyes, and taking the cue from Dilshad, whispered, " her sister."
Dilshad embraced Zeenat sideways. Asad came out from their room just then. Humaira leaped toward him.
"Bhaijaan, how's Zoya bhabhi doing now?" Her eyes were wide with worry. With a pang he realized that when she wrung her hands like that, she looked so much like Zoya.
He looked up from Humaira to his mother, thrown off-balance by her moist eyes and deep concern. Dilshad nodded reassuringly. Don't push her away, she telegraphed to him.
"Ah ... umm ... she's just a little tired."
"Is she up? I'll get her some coffee," Humaira offered, and dashed to the kitchen when he nodded yes.
"Can I get some herbal tea instead?" piped up Zoya, her voice buoyant and animated. Dilshad's heart sloshed with maternal pride.
Everyone turned to look at her in surprise. Fresh from a shower, Zoya glowed and beamed. Humaira couldn't help herself. She ran and hugged her with one arm.
"Are you OK Bhabhi?" She asked anxiously. "I'm so sorry about your aunt."
Zeenat nearly staggered, blinded by pain. Dilshad held and patted her arm. They looked in alarm at Zoya. Asad sprang behind her, ready to take her in his arms, if she flew apart.
Zoya's eyes teared and smile dipped, but she gratefully enveloped Humaira in a bear hug.
"I'm fine, thank you," she said softly.
Humaira led her to the couch. "You sit here and don't move. I'll get you tea and whatever else you need." She fussed.
And everyone let her. Trust them, Dilshad seemed to signal Zeenat.
"I can whip up an omelet for you if you want? With spinach and capsicum," Humaira continued.
Zoya paled and made a moue. "Not now. Just some plain toast, thanks."
Humaira skipped to the kitchen, while Zeenat came to feel Zoya's forehead and pulse. "Tum theek ho?"
Asad looked on indulgently. He had already done a similar panicky inspection earlier in their room.
"Haan Aapi. Hundred percent! I promise."
He grinned. He'd been rewarded with a much more amorous response. She had wrapped her arms around his neck and tilted her head back coquettishly, "I'm fine. But I'd be finer if ..."
"Oh really? I've to spell it out for you now?"
"You'll rest today!"
"ZOYAA!" he hollered in alarm.
"What? I was going to say, F-U-N, fun! You have a one-track mind Jahanpanah!"
"R-E-S-T! Doctor's orders," Asad said in exasperation.
"Dr. Asad Ahmed Khan!" He teased, reminding her of their last evening in Agra.
"Asad!" she'd protested at his tormenting of her and wiggled against him.
"Are you sure?"
"Humph! Here I am offering myself to you on a platter, aur aap hain ki haan-na kar rahen hain. Forget about it!"
And she stood up in bed ready to leap off in a huff.
"Zoya! Always the drama queen! I'm just worried about you," he said gently, trying to pacify her as he pulled her back. Her head landed on her pillow and he stroked her jaw and lips with his thumb.
"I don't want you to fake being cheerful for all of us. Just rest and take it easy."
"I'm not faking, and I don't feel like taking it easy!" she'd exclaimed stubbornly, plump lips pouting.
"Zoya, please! It was a rough day for you yesterday. Why do you think I've taken the day off? You're not leaving this bed. You'll rest even if I have to stand guard over you."
"Asad, I promise I'm fine. And I'd rather have my body made love to, than have you stand guard over me. What a waste! You may as well go to work then!"
"Always arguing! Why do you never listen to me?" he'd growled.
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize I was such a pain." She slid back into bed and covered her face with the rajai.
"Annhhh! I give up!" he'd roared and stomped off toward the bathroom. And then she sniffed some more.
His head fell back and he groaned. The woman had him completely wrapped around her little finger.
"Zoya, don't cry." He sat by the bed's side. "The whole point was to take care of you and keep you happy!"
He had sneaked into the rajai and tickled her till she giggled. The tickling and giggling had soon turned to kissing and sighing, and much more. The covers were kicked off and she emerged later, cheeks rosy and eyes radiant.
"If you had listened to me at the start, we wouldn't have wasted so much time," she had pouted after a vigorous, albeit muffled session of make-up s*ex.
"I'm always wrong, it looks like," he'd grumbled as he got out to go shower.
Zoya had clutched his hand. "No, Asad! Don't you see, I really am fine? Everything's fine. Because you made it right."
She patted the bed next to her, "hold me."
He sat back and leaned against the headboard. She snuggled into his lap. Asad had nuzzled her neck as she played with his fingers.
"You know what? I realized this yesterday. Yes, it was a rough day, probably one of the hardest days in my life, but you were there for me, you took care of me. Ammi, Aapi and Jeeju were with me, thanks to you."
Her eyes filled. "And finally Ammi has a resting place that I can visit and offer chaadars, flowers and prayers at." Zoya kissed his knuckles.
Asad crushed her in his arms and buried his face in the crook of her neck. "Oh god Zoya! I keep thinking of my terrible words to you about your Ammi! How can you ever forgive me?"
"Asad! Stop it, you stop it right now!" She kissed his temple and hugged him fiercely.
"That was a lifetime ago. Look at your actions now! Don't actions speak louder than words?" She sat back and kissed him hard to punish him for even thinking such thoughts.
"I have you! Jeeju understood this too. He said so to me at the airport. So please stop torturing yourself about what you may have said, hmm?" She held his face and gazed steadily at him.
And she went back to talking about her recent epiphanies and his rightness, as though nothing had happened. Asad brushed her hair back and tucked it behind an ear. He loved how she rode the roller coaster of her life squealing with joy, and avidly anticipating every giddy turn, arms open wide, head thrown back. Sure, there were tears along the way. But in her book, they just made the dips and crests that much more fun!
"You know, I was listening to the recording again." Zoya thumbed his stubble. "Ammi was humming that song, Aane wala pal, jaane wala hai,' and it felt like a sign."
"I loved it when you sang that song that day. But it also broke my heart." Asad breathed in her ear.
"Shh," she put her finger on his lips to shush him, and smiled contentedly.
"I love that you'll be home with me today, but please stop worrying about me. I really am fine."
Asad recalled that yesterday Ammi had said the same thing as Jeeju. Zoya really was going to be OK.
When she nodded eagerly, he'd hugged her tight, "then let me spoil you today. At least listen to me on that."
"Allah miyan, what is wrong you Mr. Khan? What else have I been trying to tell you to do since this morning!"
Humaira brought him his coffee and Zoya's toast, and Asad snapped back to the present.
"Bhaijaan, Phuphi's asking if you'll take lunch from home today."
"I won't be going Ammi," said Asad, taking a sip of his coffee. "I've moved my meetings and site visits. Most of the other work I can take care of from home." he elaborated, as he settled down to read the newspaper.
"Great," said Dilshad. "In fact you should do that once every week."
"And here's your tea Bhabhi. What should we do today? Watch a movie? Bake a cake? With chocolate icing?"
"Yes!" squealed Zoya, and recited a sher that had made Mr. Khan roll his eyes a long time ago:
Baaton mein ho mithas, toh lagta hai banda nek,
Baaton mein ho mithas toh lagta hai banda nek,
Karvi baatein bhool jayen, have some chocolate cake!
Asad nearly choked on his coffee. He did remember that sher. And he also remembered what had happened after.
The last time his wife had attempted a cake with chocolate icing, she had misplaced the sauce, and he had ended up knuckle-deep in it. And been mad as hell about it too.
Zoya grinned smugly as he coughed. Oh really, Mr. Khan? So you do remember! May be she should make some extra chocolate sauce today? Just for some Jahanpanah loving. She nodded excitedly to Humaira as she took a sip of her tea.
Humaira was suggesting more activities, "would you like me to paint your toenails? Nail art?"
"Umm hmm ..." Zoya took another sip. "But make sure you leave the smallest ones unpainted."
"Because, I'm going to do them later," said Zoya with a sly look at her husband, an eyebrow arched. Asad blushed, face behind the paper. He had said that he'd spoil her after all. Just yesterday those toes had tortured him. Payback would be sweet. Just like that chocolate sauce.
He saw Aapi furtively wipe an eye. Setting the paper aside, he went up to her and put a comforting arm around her.
She looked up. "It'll be OK. After all, you've known her longer, and must have heard Zoya Farooqui kuchh bhi kar sakti hai,' at least a thousand times more than me!"
Zeenat smiled fully for the first time today. Asad squeezed her shoulder, "she's really going to be fine."
After lunch and wrapping up most of his work, Asad contacted Rakesh. Things had been a little too quiet on the Tanveer front. He didn't trust her. What if she was planning something major? After all she was still in town. He mentally scanned down his checklist:
They'd constantly been in touch with Najma and Omar.
Humaira was safe at home.
Ayaan under his watchful eye at work.
Everyone else fine at the other house.
So far there was nothing to worry about. But knowing her, he didn't want to sit back and wait for her next diabolical move. And it would come. Of that he was dead sure.
He'd been played a sucker once. Never again.
"What has she been up to? What information have you been able to squeeze out from those men who shot at Humaira?"
He was pleased to hear about the added details for the charge sheet being prepared on her.
"But she's not going out much," reported Rakesh. "Just to her doctor and then back to the Siddiqui house."
Asad listened, his mind restlessly anticipating all possibilities of attack from her.
"It may be because there are some issues with her health. We were able to peek into her medical records at the clinic. Besides some other recent injuries, the doctor has noted higher than normal levels of Plasma protein A in her bloodwork. Our research shows that this may complicate her pregnancy."
Asad sucked in his breath. He felt terrible. Although Tanveer had been a thorn in their flesh and had endangered many loved one's lives, he didn't wish the baby any ill. In fact, he had been a lot more merciful to her precisely because she was pregnant. After her vengeful attack on Zoya, he had come very close to having her hauled away for permanent jail time where she'd rot away for the rest of her life. That she'd been let off with just a slap on her wrist, was due to his steely self-restraint. And Zoya's unparalleled spirit. Only her pregnancy had saved her.
Tanveer was reeling. The doctor had called her to come in for more tests. Dr. Jain had seemed somber when she'd gone for her check-up earlier in the week. Something was wrong. She was sure of it. The doctor had already scolded her for her carelessness in not attending to the head injury. She had shown concussion-like symptoms over the past few days: nausea, headaches, blurred vision, fuzzy mental faculties. It could be bad for the baby, she had reprimanded.
"Do you know that recent studies show that victims of head trauma have higher chances of Alzheimer's later in life? Tanveer, you have to be more careful about your health," she had said.
"I'm ordering some tests to check your Amyloid levels. High levels will mean bad news."
Tanveer came out of the bathroom wiping her face in a towel. Hatred for Razia bloomed up in her. If anything happened to the baby, that woman would be responsible, and she would kill her with her bare hands.
She flung the towel away and tried the numbers of those hired men again.
She paced up and down. She had instructed them to deliberately miss that time. Now, if anything happened to her baby, she would make sure that the daughter paid for her mother's sins. As gruesomely as possible.
Tanu tossed the phone away in frustration. Damn idiots! Where were they? Had the police really nabbed them? She better find new lackeys, and soon. But it was getting harder day by day. Her back and feet hurt. And now these concussion-induced signs made her want to stay in bed all day long.
The house was feeling oppressive too. Her self-righteous prig of father had supposedly returned early from his out-of-town trip. But she was reluctant to talk to him about all that had transpired in his absence. It would mean bringing up the attack on Humaira. The old man obviously didn't know anything. Razia bi had hidden that detail from her husband. And here the old man was eagerly planning family outings for some sisterly bonding! Hah! She just needed to find out where her precious little sister was holed up. She knew that Humaira was not with Rashid and family despite what Mr. Siddiqui thought. She had called under the pretense of being a college friend. Then where was she? Back with that Aunt in Indore? Everyone was being too tight-lipped about sister dear.
She'd gnaw it out somehow. She always did land on her feet.
Nikhat and Nuzzhat were here too. They were all caught up with the honeymooners. The reception at the houseboat had been fuzzy. Or so Najma claimed!
Omar had been AWOL. "He's in the loo," gasped Najma.
The cake was half demolished. Pizzas delivered and devoured. Ayaan had put in a surprise appearance. He strutted in, flirted outrageously with Humaira, pulled Nuzzhat's hair, was swatted by Zoya and begged Nikhat for a champi. He had left very reluctantly, only when bhaijaan had crossed his arms and glared at him.
"But bhai, why can't I work from home like you?"
"Sure! Go work from your home."
The girls had guffawed, and Ayaan had gone red in the face. But Zoya had felt bad for him and Humaira.
Mr. Khan!" she'd chided her husband. Don't make him look bad in front of Humaira, she begged silently. Please! But Akdu Ahmed Khan didn't budge. Ayaan was seen off at the door by the all the women.
Asad had rolled his eyes.
That's exactly why Ayaan would never grow up, he muttered. Even in the office, he was managing to charm his way out of hard work. Too much giggling and nonsense shaayari bounced off the walls. Now homemade food was being shipped in by the truckloads. The whole place reeked after lunch.
Nails were painted and re-painted, nail art practiced. Najma's supplies had been raided to add more flair. Zoya was even dispatched to beguile Mr. Khan out of his collection of fine-tipped sharpies and whitening pens. Dilshad and Zeenat too had succumbed to forced manis and pedis.
Next up, it was rounds of Antakshari and Charades. Dilshad and Aapi had been dragged in to participate in this too. It was as if the melancholy from yesterday had to be laughed and sung out of the house.
The girls raucously bellowed when Aapi struggled with enacting a movie that was making her blush with embarrassment.
Zeenat frowned and scowled at the girls. "Tum ladkiyaan bahut badtameez ho!" she scolded.
"Bhabhi, you show her how to do it," crowed Nuzzhat, and Zoya turned a dull shade of pomegranate red.
But never one to bow out of a challenge, she dragged Nuzzhat by her hand and made her stand in the center of the room. Then Zoya amorously wrapped a leg around her and embraced her, pressing her body against hers.
"Khajuraho," someone yelled. Nuzzhat was apopletic with laughter.
"There's no such movie," giggled Humaira.
Zoya had continued to wiggle and tighten her leg around a now mortified Nuzzhat. Zoya waggled her brows and shook her head side to side like a demented Bharatnatyam dancer.
"Kamasutra!" everyone yelled. And they all broke into peals of bawdy laughter. Nuzzhat was on floor, snorting and wheezing.
And just like that, everyone began teasing Nikhat about Omar's cousin. He was as serious as Omar was incorrigible. What a perfect jodi!
"Aankhon hi aankhon mein baatein hongi," Zoya teased.
"Aankhon hi aankhon mein ishara ho gaya, baithe, baithe jeene ka sahara ho gaya," sang Dilshad.
"Chup-chup khade ho, zaroor koi baat hai," rapped Aapi.
"Pehli mulakaat hai ji pehli mulakaat hai," they sang together.
The girls were mesmerized. They had never heard these songs. But Dilshad and Zeenat's oldies dance to them looked so charming and cute!
"Another sister lost to the US? Not fair!" groused Nuzzhat later.
"Stop it you all," blushed Nikhat.
"Just think, they'll find you a pardesi boy too," Humaira teased Nuzzhat.
"And then you can act out Kamasutra, Amreekan version!" Zoya laughed till she was breathless as Nuzzhat pelted her with cushions.
"I'm not getting married outside of India. No way! The guy had better be in Bhopal."
"I'll ask Raabert to ask around in Mr. Khan's office, OK?" ribbed Zoya.
"Then Chhoti Ammi can double the steel lunch boxes!"
The hoots just never ended.
"I'll make tea," Dilshad rose a little later.
"No, Badi Ammi, I'll do it," Nikhat tugged her down and went off to the kitchen.
Zoya suddenly broke into a face-splitting yawn.
Aapi patted her knee, "you look exhausted. Go get some rest."
Humaira jumped up, "yeah, Zoya bhabhi. Please get some rest."
"You need rest too, Humaira. Did you have this morning's medicine?"
"Yes I did and I'm fine. You go."
Asad was at his laptop in the room. All afternoon long, he had heard the chatting, laughing and singing, and his heart had warmed. There was even a loud roar. Kamasutra? Had he heard right? What the hell was happening in there? There was a time when he would have found all of this absolutely unacceptable. Which is why Najma never had her friends over. But now, it meant that all was right with the world.
He looked up too see her pale face. Asad shot up to get to Zoya's side to feel her forehead and pulse.
"I told you not to overdo it! Why did you have to be so manic? You never listen. Look how pale and worn out you look," he hovered and scolded.
She didn't have the energy to argue with him. She was feeling too tired.
"Go change and get into bed," he ordered. "I'm not listening to another word. If you're good, I'll even take you out tonight."
For once she didn't put up a fight and obeyed him quietly. He drew the curtains and picked up his laptop to go to the living room.
"Asad?" Her voice sounded soft, beaten.
"What?" He rushed over.
"Stay with me. And you don't need to draw the curtains. Just sit by me and work on the bed."
Her energy seemed to be draining by the minute. He frowned. As he stretched out on the bed, legs crossed at the ankle, and leaned back against the headboard, she scooched over to rest her head by his thigh.
"Paint my nails later?"
"Umm hmm," he couldn't resist stroking her cheek.
Within minutes she was fast asleep.
Song in Title:
Agneepath (2012): "O Saiyaan"
Her lashes swept her cheeks delicately as Zoya slept by his side. Asad worried. He would glance down at her every now and then while working. She looked too frail. That burst of hijinks from this morning had vaporized. Her cheeks looked hollow. Was the shock of her Ammi's news too much? Was all that day-long manic energy just a cover-up? Could something have gone wrong at that clinic? There were so many cases reported of Hep C during transfusions these days. He should have been more watchful.
He would burn the place down!
There was a knock at the door and he slipped away to answer it before Zoya woke. But he made a mental note to call for an appointment at the earliest.
It was Humaira.
"Bhaijaan, there's some lady here asking for you."
Asad frowned, but closed the door softly behind him. Seeing who it was, he nearly slapped his head for forgetting.
"Ms. Sheena! I'm so sorry. I completely forgot to inform you."
He had arranged for a martial arts instructor to come home and start basic self-defense training. He wanted the girls to get started as soon as they had returned from Agra. He'd even talked to a couple of female instructors for private training from one of the premier Martial arts schools. But then the attack on Humaira had happened and ...
He introduced Ammi, Aapi and Humaira to the instructor and then apologized profusely. Could they begin the lessons next week? His wife wasn't well and Humaira was still recovering from a serious injury. By then his sister would be back too. They finalized the details. He showed the instructor the store room which would be cleared by next week for the sessions.
Humaira peeked from behind Asad, bursting with excitement. Such fun! Her parents would have never let her do something like this, saying that it was unladylike. From all that she had heard from Nuzzhat and Nikhat, she never imagined that Asad bhaijaan, of all people, would think any differently.
After Ms. Sheena left, she couldn't restrain herself.
"Bhaijaan, I never thought that you would let us do something like this."
Dilshad smiled. Six months ago, she'd have wondered the same. But no longer.
Asad ducked his head self-consciously.
"Umm ... voh ... actually ..."
Dilshad chuckled. Asad smiled too.
"Mera yeh karna thoda ajeeb laga na, Ammi?"
"Bilkul nahin! I think you're doing the right thing. Girls should feel confident about their bodies and never live in fear."
Zeenat smirked knowingly. Anwar's cheetah had gotten to their son-in-law.
Asad nodded his head in thanks to Humaira when she got him his coffee. No one knew about their close shave at Mangalpur, or even the more recent incident at Agra. He wished he had thought of doing this a lot sooner. That day Zoya's trusty pepper spray and quick thinking had turned a terrible event from getting worse. His fist tightened on the mug handle. He hadn't known this kind of fear before. He had always worried for Ammi and Najma's safety. However, he had also been supremely self-assured that he would be their most effective shield. No one had dared to tangle with them when he was by their side. But the vulnerability he had felt that night, shook him to the core. Alone, he could have taken on anybody. But worry for Zoya had nearly paralyzed him. One moment she was by his side, and then bam! She was gone. For a few horrible seconds, he had feared them becoming a grim national statistic.
He shook his head to rid himself of the possible terrors of that night.
"Yes, Ammi. Girls should be able to protect themselves."
Dilshad too sat down on the couch, responding instinctively to the seriousness of his tone.
"But having such training may be about something more. It could sharpen one's presence of mind and ability to make quick, life-saving decisions."
Humaira gasped aloud and Asad looked at her.
"Abbu would never let me do anything like this," she thought aloud.
She twisted around to appeal to Dilshad. "You know Phuphi, so many times in college, boys would misbehave with us, but we never told anyone at home. Abbu would have banned us from going to college."
Asad nodded his head sadly in agreement. "May be sometime ago, I would have reacted the same way, or even sent Najma to college with a bodyguard. But for how long? Men are getting bolder, and girls are scared to tell at home because they fear additional restrictions on clothing or going out? This just lets men get away with criminal acts."
He laughed self-consciously. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to lecture. I just ... I don't know. It makes me angry to read and watch about daily attacks on women. That's why I thought we should do this."
The women murmured in acknowledgement. Asad paced now, restlessly.
"A few months ago I came upon Nuzzhat and Nikhat being harassed by some boys in the mall. They stood frozen and the boys circled them like hounds. And then Zoya entangled with those eve teasers at Najma's college. It seems never-ending."
Zeenat too remembered the incident from when they had first come to India.
Some boys at another table were singing lewd songs. She had been horrified that Zoya had boldly walked up to them and started to sing with them. She'd clutched Anwar's arm in panic. Stop her! she'd begged. He had smiled and said, she can take care of herself. And Zoya's fearlessness had shamed them. They had slunk away, tails between their legs.
"Asad, you're right. These cowards prey on women's fear and silence."
The doorbell rang and Humaira went to answer the door. Asad smiled ruefully. There was a time when he wouldn't have allowed Najma to open the door if he was home. But he too was easing up on domestic restrictions. Safety wasn't just about defensive living any more.
But he sobered just as quickly, and sighed. He still felt antsy about Tanveer. She was a loose canon. May be subconsciously, the idea about self-defense training for the girls was also because of the constant threat that loomed over their family. Eighteen years ago, they had been ambushed by the likes of Razia Siddiqui.
Not any more.
Ayaan tumbled in, a breezy harbinger of chatter and clatter. His helmet, already chipped and dented, fell carelessly to the floor and banished the gloom. Dilshad and Humaira rushed about to cater to his needs as he crashed on the sofa. Zeenat went to pick up his helmet and place it on the side table.
"Bhai, what a long day!" he grunted self-importantly. "How do you do it everyday?"
Ayaan wiped his brow dramatically, "in fact, why do you do it everyday! Oh man, badi Ammi! I'm dead. Where's Mona darling?"
Zoya felt infinitely better after her Jahanpanah-mandated nap. She stretched contentedly and felt around for Asad. She freshened up and began to straighten the bed.
"You're up already?" Asad came in, carrying his coffee mug.
"You weren't here," she complained.
Asad sensed her mood dipping. Placing his mug on the side table, he opened his arms wide and she glided into them and buried her face in his chest.
Lifting her chin, he asked with concern, "you okay?"
"So what's the mission? Dinner? Movie?"
Zoya made a face.
"Long drive? And chaat!" she pleaded.
"Street food? You'll get an upset stomach."
"Hmph! Upset stomach hoga mere dushman ka! My stomach is Teflon-coated."
"Sar bhi!" he muttered.
"Jahanpanah! Do not mess with Zoya Farooqui Khan!"
"I know. I know," said Asad shaking his head and muttering, "what was I thinking?"
When they came out of the room they were accosted by an indignant Ayaan.
"Bhaijaan! Martial arts training? Inn cartoons ke liye? What a waste of time and money. Besides, I can teach them much better."
"Ayaan, shut up!" scolded Humaira.
She was really upset with him. Here she had been raving about how Bhaijaan was so cool and supportive and understanding, and suddenly Ayaan turns into an idiotic macho pig.
Asad ignored him. But not Zoya.
"Oh really Raabert? Kucch aata bhi hai ya aise hi?" And she assumed her warrior pose.
"Oh please!" he taunted. "Don't even start. Kucch ho jayega and everyone will say devar ne bhabhi ko maara."
"But bhabhi toh devar ko maar sakti hai," and she suckerpunched him.
She blew on her knuckles and Ayaan, doubled over, gasped out, "Bhai!"
"Humaira begum," he turned to her for sympathy, when he didn't get any from his joru ka ghulam brother.
"Serves you right, Ayaan Ahmed Khan!" she retorted and turned her back on him to stalk away.
He rushed over to beg for forgiveness.
Zoya's restless eyes gleamed. She had just spotted her devar's bike keys on the side table. She picked them up and tried to get her husband's attention.
It wasn't too hard.
She jiggled the keys and raised her eyebrows.
Zoya ran out the door. Grabbing Ayaan's discarded helmet, he called out to Dilshad, "Ammi, we'll eat out!" and slammed out of the house just as fast.
"Hunh? What happened?" looked around a befuddled Ayaan.
"Good, I'll keep you all safe, big mom," he waggled his eyebrows at Dilshad. She laughed.
"Big mom? Allah, ab yeh kaun hai?"
"Badi Ammi, big mom. Same thing!"
Tanveer shook with anger and sorrow. She still couldn't fathom the doctor's words.
"There is a high chance that your baby could be born with Down syndrome."
She would kill Razia.
It didn't matter that the doctor said that her head injury had nothing to do with any of this. It's rare, but it does happen one in a million. But in her mind, Tanveer was convinced that it was someone else's fault. Because if it wasn't someone else's fault, then it would be her own.
It had to be Razia's doing. The earlier attempt at the cabin, and then the push. It had to be her.
She had been pleasantly surprised when she felt the baby kick for the first time. And now this? How unfair? Why was everything bad only happening to her? Why did everything have to go wrong only with her, while others enjoyed their brittle little lives with no problems whatsoever?
Going down to the kitchen to get herself a glass of warm milk, she noticed Razia creeping up the stairs.
Her fingers itched to push her down the stairs. But with superhuman effort, she restrained herself. Too easy. She would devise more slow torture for her. Later.
At the vista point near the Hilltop Restaurant, Asad leaned back against the bike with Zoya wrapped in his arms. They looked down at the lights of the city spread like a glittering carpet before them. He pushed her hair to one side over her shoulder and bent to press a kiss on her neck.
He groaned, and she smiled as she felt him leap against her. His arms tightened around her.
"Don't ask me to make love to you here!"
"If we'd brought the car, I would have," she sighed.
He growled possessively in her ear.
"Recite me something."
She loved to have him read to her, or recite passages of shayari and poetry. In bed, she would pillow her cheek on her palm and close her eyes, savoring the texture of his voice. She particularly loved when he recited memorized passages.
Asad lazily trailed a finger down her arm. She shivered.
"I never knew that when I read "A Thousand and One Arabian Nights" as a kid, that I'd find my own Sheherzade."
Nipping her ear he recited a passage from memory.
"She comes like fullest moon on happy night,
Taper of waist with shape of magic might.
She hath an eye whose glances quell mankind,
And ruby on her cheeks reflects his light."
Eyes shut, she felt his husky voice rumble through her, head to toe.
"I bet you read that just because the king executes all his wives," she teased.
"Never! I read it for Ali Baba, Sinbad, and Aladdin ... and other heroes. I didn't even know then that the main storyteller was a woman spinning tales to save herself."
He nuzzled her ear with his nose, "now I'm convinced, it was a sign of things to come."
"Yeah, Jahanpanah six packs who fight love the most fiercely, fall the hardest!"
Asad chuckled softly, "and say, oh no! Mera ghutna chhil gaya!' "
She turned in his arms, exhilarated, "you remember!"
"Koi bhool sakta hai bhala!" He kissed her temple and tucked her hair behind her ear. "Chalen?"
"No! One more."
He kissed her palm.
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field.
I'll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other' doesn't make sense any more."
Zoya's eyes misted. She took a deep cleansing breath, "Asad, that was beautiful."
With charged fingertips she traced his brows and nose. She shuddered as his lashes fluttered against her palm. With her thumb she parted his lips.
"Who needs a car! That was like being made love to," she whispered as they sat astride the bike. Arms and thighs tight around him, she pressed herself against him. Eyes closed, she replayed his words. Gripping his legs with her own, she leaned her head back and spread out her arms. The wind blew through her hair and fingers. Happily, she wiped a tear from an eye.
"What are you going to do today?" Asad called to ask from work the next day.
"Ammi and Aapi plan to go shopping. But I don't feel like going."
"Zoya, you feeling okay?" Asad asked with concern.
She usually didn't miss out on a chance to go out and eat junk food. And going out for shopping and then gorging on unhealthy food was a given. It was a Zoya rule.
"Yes ... I just want to be alone ..."
"I'm coming home."
"No! Asad, please. I'm really fine. I just want to go to the dargah."
"Do you want to meet me for lunch?"
"I'd love that. I'm craving butter chicken and mango lassi!"
Asad smiled. She was back. If she could talk excitedly about food, then she was already fine. "OK. I have a meeting that may run late. Take the driver and text me. And then when you're done, come here."
After visiting the dargah Zoya went to pay her respects at her mother's gravesite. It was here that she felt a sense of calm and wellbeing. She didn't know how long she sat here communing with a lost mother, sharing her hopes and fears.
Asad's client was running late. He sighed in frustration. He decided to get an update from Rakesh in the meantime.
"She went to another clinic today. We think her doctor ordered some new tests and referred her to a specialist. My man is still following Miss Tanveer. She went to the mosque. But from her phone records we also know that she's contacted some new people. We're trying to get some background on them."
When Asad hung up he knew that Tanveer was regrouping. She was getting ready to strike. He dialed Zoya's number but couldn't reach her. He called the driver who assured him that all was fine. Madam was still at the cemetery and he had a clear view of her.
Prasad came to get him. The client was here.
Tanveer's fury and despair knew no bounds.
She had just finished a thousand tests, and been poked and prodded for the hundredth time. Blood and urine samples. That vile liquid they made her drink. It was as if her body was a medical experiment. Alien and only microscope-worthy. Having redressed and stepped out of the diagnostician's office, she had swayed with fatigue and irritation. And who should she see but her nemesis, glowing and smiling? Like an avenging ghost, she followed her out of the clinic and asked her driver to tail the car. Over the phone she gave her new men clipped instructions.
Enough was enough.
She was going to go all out; all guns blazing.
When Prasad burst in through the door, Asad looked up in annoyance and then alarm.
He knew something was very wrong.
"Rakesh sir is here. There's some bad news."
Asad's face paled and palms sweated. Excusing himself he stepped out of the conference room. He told Prasad to pacify the client as he dashed to his office to find out what Rakesh had to say.
"We intercepted a call from her confirming a hit on your brother. His bike's brakes have been disabled. And he just left. The good news is that we know where he's headed, and my guys are trying to flag him down."
Asad sank on the couch, his head in his hands. Rakesh got him a glass of chilled water.
"We're also trying to call your brother on his phone but he's not responding."
Rakesh's phone rang. While he attended to it, Asad's phone rang too. It was their driver. His heart stopped.
"What!" he barked.
"We were hit by a speeding car. Sir ... Madam is hurt"-"
"Near the Badi Masjid. I've called the ambulance. Sir, I'm sorry."
Asad sprinted down the hall. He knocked into someone and blindly pushed them away. He had no time to wait for the elevator. He raced down the stairs towards his car. How he made it to the accident scene he had no idea. His mind didn't register the blaring horns around him, the oncoming rush of the traffic, or traffic lights for that matter.
He ran the last hundred yards to push his way through a crowd of do-nothing gawkers. They were loading her on to the stretcher into the ambulance when he got to her side.
Thank god she was conscious.
"Zoya!" Eyes wild, he gripped her bloodied hand, kissing it.
"It's going to be OK. You're going to be OK. I'm here."
She was crying, distraught and frantic. She held their clasped hands over her stomach.
"Asad, the baby! Don't let anything happen to our baby."
On a hunch, she had decided to go on her own to Ammi's doctor on the way to the dargah. She just had a feeling. There was no morning sickness, but it was just the way her body felt. There was a tenderness and oversensitivity that felt strange and uncanny. When Asad had made love to her last night, she had hissed louder and arched more violently. She almost couldn't bear him suckling her. His mouth, the nick of his teeth, the flick of his tongue, and the rasp of his stubble had burned her sensitized flesh. Moaning and writhing in his arms, her eyes had suddenly flared open. Yes! She was pregnant! Earlier, on their way back home on the bike, she'd whispered in his ear just before disembarking.
"Thanks for the midnight ride, Jahanpanah!"
He'd grabbed her arm and twisted her to crash against him, "just thanks? Jahanpanah wants more."
Nipping her ear, he'd demanded, "a lot more."
She had trailed her finger down his lips, and wiggled against him, "Sheherzade will ride you so hard tonight ... you'll see a thousand and one stars!"
Giggling, she had skipped away, out of reach from his hungry lips and grasping hands.
And she had. Hugging her secret knowledge to herself, she had twisted and thrashed on top of him with complete abandon. She had bitten and sucked his fingers keeping them away from her oversensitive bre*asts that felt fuller than usual. He had bucked harder thrusting in deeper. She had guided his hands to cup her butt instead, and his fingers had dug in, seeking revenge. Head thrown back, she had laughed softly, sphinx-like.
There would be bruises tomorrow.
But once she told him he was going to be a daddy, there would no end to the pampering and sweet lovin'. Tonight it would be just the two of them. Tomorrow there would be a new awareness. A new promise. She kept him pinned down with both hands to prevent him access to her bobbing chest. Her fingers had homed in on his mouth and he had bit them hard and sucked on them. He had raised his own hand to cup her nape and his thumb had slowly skittered across and stretched the slick skin on her throat.
Damn! He knew what that did to her.
Coming, her thighs had convulsed around him and she'd raked her nails on his nipples. His hands had spasmed on her waist. Tomorrow, there would be purple smudges there too.
Watching the unfolding drama and the lovebirds' trauma from across the street, Tanu had grinned smugly.
"Ghar chalo," she instructed her driver.
Settling back in the seat, she thanked serendipity. She had been livid when she saw Zoya exit from Dr. Sharma's office. The same office Khala had dragged her to a few months ago. Zoya's beaming smile had driven a nail through her heart. So she was pregnant. Sure, they must have been going at it like horny bunnies all this while. Their chemistry was unmistakable. In fact, she had suspected they were already doing the nasty even before the nikaah. Why do they get to be happy? And not her. On a whim she had decided to follow Zoya. She had twiddled her thumbs in the car at the dargah. And then the cemetery. And it was then that the idea struck her. She called her contact to arrange a quick hit and run. The promise of extra money had gotten her the top of the line expedited service. It was a good thing that Ms. New York had spent a nice long time by the grave. Her detour by the pastry shop had earned her even more time. Tanveer had wondered about the boxes of pastries the driver carried out. It could have fed an army. She had smirked. Too bad it would all go waste.
Song in Title:
Jurm (1990): "Na Koi Hai, Na Koi Tha"
When a stunned Rakesh had turned around, the glass door swung on its hinges.
So Mr. Khan had already heard.
Wearily, he wiped his brow and took a deep breath. It had been a narrow escape for Mrs. Khan. A second's delay, and the speeding van would have taken her side of the car off and crushed her. Thank god, his team was able to alert the driver who had accelerated hard and swerved away just in the nick of time. The van had rear-ended them, missing her door entirely.
He too left to go to the crime scene. The van driver had already fled the scene. At least he had better news to give to Mr. Khan about his brother.
Asad stumbled into the ambulance, shell-shocked. A baby? A thousand questions ricocheted in his head. How did she know? When did she find out?
But no sounds or words came.
His ears registered a distant clanging sound. His disconnected brain couldn't figure out that it was the siren. He couldn't look away from the cuts on her hands. Bright red dots puddled up. The nurse swabbed at it with a cotton ball. The red bloomed on the white.
Her wounded cry wrenched him from his waking coma.
His eyes restlessly scanned her body as the first responders secured her and checked her vitals. Asad's hands brushed her face fearfully. He didn't care if he was in the way. He needed to feel her warmth, touch her skin. He feathered her cheek with his knuckle, scared that she would break. She had tried to shield her face from the flying glass with her hands. The emergency technician kept reassuring him that she was not seriously injured. She was lucky to have missed direct impact.
Even he knew it could have been a lot worse. He had seen the state of the mangled van flipped upside down, and his blood had run cold.
He knelt by her. Asad wished he could hold her in his arms, but the nurse had stopped him from shifting her.
"Sir, we still have to be careful in case there are any head or neck injuries."
"Zoya!" He whispered hoarsely. She clutched his hand to her lips and was sobbing uncontrollably.
He looked at the attending nurse hopelessly, "my wife is pregnant ... please make sure ... the baby"-" And he too had broken down.
Stroking her stomach protectively, he promised her through his tears, "Zoya, everything will be fine. I won't let anything anything happen to you or the baby."
It was what she had wanted to hear. Her heart had jolted in fear at his vacant expression earlier. As though that was all the reassurance she needed, she sighed and closed her eyes.
"Zoya! Please don't leave me," Asad had whispered brokenly, lips pressed to her temple.
A little later the nurse cleared her throat. "Sir, the police will be at the hospital to ask questions. I'm sorry."
Rakesh had followed the ambulance to the hospital and waylaid the police even before Asad staggered out. Zoya was wheeled away in a flurry.
"Mr. Khan, I'll take care of the formalities with the police. You take care of Mrs. Khan. And, your brother is fine too."
An hour later, a more stoic, but grim Asad had demanded details. Zoya had been cleaned and stitched up. The doctors were just beginning to run a battery of tests to assess internal injuries. His pale skin stretched taut across his cheekbones. Her blood was still on his hands. For a long time he gazed at it. It had dried and darkened; it snuggled into the lines of his hand, fanning out into the microscopic trenches.
"It was Ms. Tanveer. My team was able to call your driver who did his best to prevent the worst from happening. We have her on tape ordering the hit and run. We'll be turning in the evidence to the police. The van driver fled the scene, but we have his number. My guys are trying to track him down. He's injured and won't get too far."
"Do everything you have to to put her away for good," Asad spoke harshly, fist clenched, fingertips grinding her blood deeper into his hand.
"I'm done playing nice. I want her to rot behind bars for the rest of her miserable life. You have my lawyers' numbers. Make it happen. I never want to hear her name again."
He couldn't even bear to think of what could have happened. What if it had been a truck instead? What if they hadn't been able to intercept her call? What if it had been rush hour? He knew that these questions would haunt him for a long, long time.
He looked up to see Ayaan rush over to hug him tight, "Bhai!"
Asad squeezed his eyes shut. His body slackened as he let Ayaan brace him. Thank god, at least he was fine. He felt cool fingers on his forehead and opened his eyes to peer into Ammi's tear-streaked face.
"Ammi!" he broke down in her arms.
Many hands clapped his heaving shoulders and rubbed his back as Dilshad held his shuddering body. Everyone was here.
"She'll be OK, Asad. Have faith. We all know she's a fighter." Dilshad had choked out through a tight throat.
Aapi patted his cheek and handed him a chilled water bottle. "Tumhi ne mujhe yaad dilaya tha: Zoya Farooqui kucch bhi kar sakti hai!' Himmat rakho. She'll be fine. Tomorrow she'll be arguing with you."
Fresh tears had fallen from his eyes. "I'm sorry Aapi!"
"Shh, aisa nahin kehte hain, Asad. Tumhari wajah se she avoided being hurt more seriously. Your watchfulness protected her."
Rakesh had filled them in on how the driver has reacted with quick thinking and deflected the impact away from Zoya's side.
Rashid gripped him by his shoulders. Tears were streaming down his face to see his son's helplessness. He cradled his head and rocked him in his arms. A father muttered strangled duas over his child's head. Dadi, head covered and beads sliding between her fingers, mouthed silent prayers. Nikhat and Nuzzhat hugged him from the back. Humaira sobbed in Shireen's arms.
Asad felt their love and concern buoy his flagging spirit. His prayers joined theirs.
Ayaan cornered the guy who had introduced himself as Rakesh. Fists on his waist, he had confronted the guy with a barrage of questions.
"What the hell's going on? Who are you? How did you know to nudge me off the road and that my brakes had been killed? Is this connected to what happened to Zoya? Is someone targeting our family?"
He looked away, and whirled on him, "is this connected to Humaira's shooting?"
"I'm sorry sir. I can't say much unless Mr. Khan says it's OK," Rakesh said calmly. His phone buzzed and he held up his hand.
"Excuse me, I have to take this," he said waliking away.
Rakesh was surprised. It was Mrs. Siddiqui.
"I tried Asad's phone but it's unreachable. I can't reach anyone else at either house. Something's wrong isn't it? I just know it. What happened? Is it Humaira? Is she alright?" she garbled all the words together in panic.
"Umm ... you'll hear this soon enough. Mr. Khan's wife was in an accident. Everyone's at JK Hospital."
He heard her gasp.
"Why did you call, Mrs. Siddiqui?" He prompted her after a long silence.
"It's Tanveer. She came rushing home and is packing. She's getting ready to fly the coop. I'm dead sure of it."
Rakesh laughed grimly. "Don't worry. She won't get very far," he assured her and hung up.
Ayaan scowled. His spidey senses were tingling and he knew this guy was giving him the run-around. He had figured out quite quickly that his brakes had given out. He had been distracted thinking of ways to patao and manao Humaira. She still hadn't forgiven him for his dumb comments about the self-defense classes last night.
"Tum log and martial arts! My nail broke, ooh, my hair is all messed up. Ouch! Meri choodi, mera kangan!', " he had mimicked and teased her relentlessly.
Zeenat and Dilshad had giggled. Not because they agreed with him, but because they knew he'd get his butt kicked pretty soon. He had no clue and paid no attention whatsoever to the changing colors and emotions on Humaira's face. When for the fifteenth time he had scoffed at the idea, she had lashed out at him in cold anger.
"I thought you were a 21st century man. But looks like your thinking is like my Abbu's and all those men who want to keep women locked up in golden cages thinking that we'll be safer that way."
Her eyes blazed.
"Do you know, in western countries they keep calves in tiny cages? Do you know why? Their meat is the most tender because they can't move a muscle! That's what's happening to so many girls in India!"
Ayaan's breath had been knocked out of his chest at this unforeseen onslaught. He sputtered in confusion. He had never imagined Humaira being such a spitfire.
That Mona darling had to be behind this!
Humaira had stalked into her room and slammed her door shut.
Even Badi Ammi had been mad at him then.
"Big mom will give you big slap," she had glowered at him, and he had the grace to turn red.
"I'm sorry," he had said softly, and she had smiled reluctantly and patted his head. It was impossible to be mad at him for too long.
"Paagal kahin ke! Bilkul sahi kaha Humaira ne! Beta, this is another reason why girls lose heart and feel powerless. They need support, not ridicule."
He had been mortified.
Her words stung.
He hung his head in shame.
Zeenat tried to lighten the mood.
"Bach gaye tum! Zoya hoti toh khoob khabar leti tumhari! Kaan pakad kar, she would have made you do at least fifty sit-ups."
Still reeling from Humaira's brutal condemnation, Ayaan had suddenly realized that he was unable to control the bike.
On his way to the office, everything had been fine. First hit by panic, he had maneuvered to avoid hitting anything or anyone. It was a grueling task. There were too many slow-moving rickshaws, pedestrians and thela-wallas weaving in and out, along with stray dogs and sluggish cows. He had looked for a tree that he could slam into to break the momentum. But given Bhopal's recent road expansion hysteria, there weren't many trees to ram into. Crashing into the center divider would only make him fresh roadkill. However, within minutes, a car had veered in front of him and magically cleared the traffic ahead of him. A guy in the passenger seat had waved to him.
"Your brakes have been tampered with! Follow us," the guy leaned out and yelled.
Although stunned, Ayaan breathed a little easier. Bracing himself for the impact, he nudged his front tire against the car's bumper. He hung on for dear life, letting the car control the speed of his bike. The car began slowing down and eventually pulled over to the side. His bike had gently come to a rest too.
It was a narrow escape. His back was drenched in cold sweat then.
And now Mona Darling?
Something didn't add up.
It couldn't be!
He saw the doctor come out and consult with bhai. Bhai had charged into the room. Everyone outside had bowed their heads in silent prayer.
Let her be OK, Ayaan prayed.
He didn't even want to think about what Bhai would do if anything happened to Zoya.
He saw Humaira charge after the doctor and followed her.
"Please doctor, how is she? Does she need blood? Take mine! I know it matches," he heard her hiccup through sobs.
The doctor patted her arm kindly and walked away. Ayaan walked up to stand behind Humaira and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. She leaned into him and blindly clutched his hand in fear. As Ayaan held Humaira, a dangerous idea began to gather storm in his head.
Was Mumani behind all this?
But why was there so much security? Who was this Rakesh guy really?
Asad had leaped to her side and her hands spasmed around his. Her eyes had begged answers, but he had none to give her.
"Shh, I don't know baby. They are still running tests. We'll have to wait for the results."
He kissed her knuckles and one hand cupped her stomach. He gently stroked and massaged it before placing a kiss on top. With a pang he thought of the first time they had made love. He had kissed her stomach then too.
"We'll pray together. Thank god, you're OK. I died a hundred deaths. Where does it hurt? Can you move your legs and toes?"
Zoya framed his face in her hands. "I'm OK. Just some pain in my neck. Whiplash from the impact, I think."
"You have a pain in your neck?" he teased, and she smiled after so long.
"When did you know?" he asked softly, his eyes moist again.
"Hold me," she insisted.
He sat on the bed and gently lifted her in his arms. She sighed and breathed in his scent.
"I felt it in my bones last night, Asad! I just knew it when we were making love." She dashed her tears. "Then this morning I went to Dr. Sharma to confirm."
She smiled bleakly. "I was looking forward to coming to your office. I went to the Cake Shop to buy pastries for everyone at office. I even bought black forest pastries just for us!"
She buried her face in his chest and wept bitterly. Asad cradled her head and rained kisses on her head.
"I should have told you. I'm so stupid. I was going to surprise you," she sobbed out.
"No! This is not your fault. And Insha'allah, everything will be fine. Everybody's outside. Praying. It has to count for something."
"They know about the baby?" She asked fearfully.
"No. They're out there praying for you and look, you're fine. The baby will be too." He promised and prayed, his hand splaying over her belly.
There was a soft knock on the door. The attending doctor walked in, accompanied by another doctor. He introduced them to her.
"This is our gynecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Nagpal. I know you both had questions about Mrs. Khan's pregnancy."
Asad got up to stand behind Zoya. She leaned against him, refusing to let go of his hand. His thumb absently stroked the top of her hand.
"Because it's so early, it's going to be really hard to determine the fetus' health at the moment. It's a good thing that you didn't sustain direct impact on the abdomen. And there is no bleeding. That's good news too. We can do an ultrasound but I don't know how much that'll really tell us. I am going to order a CBC panel. Our biggest concern for now would be something called placental abruption ..."
The doctor rattled on with a lot of medical jargon and terminology. Asad listened intently. But Zoya had already tuned her out. She didn't want to hear worse-case scenarios. She squeezed her eyes shut and leaned more heavily on Asad. His arm came around her to envelop her in its comfort.
Ammi watch over my baby, please.
Zoya held both their interlaced hands over her stomach. This time her tears fell for her mother. Alone, scared, how must she have felt when she found out about being pregnant? You watched over me. Your courage gave me life. You led me to Aapi and Jeeju, and then Asad. Please Ammi, please let my baby be fine.
Watch over my baby.
Razia had felt the earth slide from under her feet when she heard about Zoya. Could Tanveer have had something to do with that? Why else would she be so eager to flee?
Some power had drawn and dragged her to the hospital. Asking around she had finally bumbled on to the right floor. She covered her face and stood paralyzed as she watched Humaira tearfully plead with the doctor.
"... take my blood," she heard her impore.
"She's your sister isn't she?" The doctor had asked.
Razia had nearly crumpled to her knees. She had watched anguish glaze her daughter's face and wanted to rock her in her arms telling her that everything would be OK.
Humaira stood rooted to the spot.
Her eyes went wide with shock and pain. They were blood sisters, she thought. Zoya bhabhi had given her blood after all. She would be her jethani. That made them sisters too.
The music box!
"No ... yes, YES! She IS my sister. Please take my blood if you have to."
"Don't worry. If the need arises, then we will." And the doctor had walked away with a gentle pat on her head.
Humaira had turned blindly into Ayaan's arms and sobbed bitter tears.
"Shh, Humaira." Ayaan had held her tight and rubbed her back. He lifted her chin and wiped her tears.
"It'll be OK. She'll be fine." He kissed her gently, soothing her, and Humaira melted into him.
Razia watched over them, heart full and eyes desolate.
The doctors had said it was okay to take her home. She could come back the next day for the results and more extensive check-ups if needed. Dr. Sharma had been informed. They could even ask her for a second opinion. Asad lifted her to place her in the wheelchair. Aapi fixed her kurta and dupatta lovingly. She pressed a kiss on her forehead.
"Mera cheetah," she used Anwar's words.
Zoya had smiled gratefully. Allah, give Aapi a chance to call my baby that too. Jeeju will be such a great nanu. She glanced down in her lap. There were still some bloodstains on her clothes. She had dressed with such care this morning. She knew she was going to Asad's office for the first time as Mrs. Khan, and she wanted to look her best in an elegant anarkali suit.
Just let the baby be all right, Allah Miyan.
In the elevator she grasped Ammi's hand. Dilshad looked down at her and stroked her cheek.
"Ammi, can we host a Quran khwani?" Zoya asked softly.
"Zaroor, beta. Kitna nek khayal hai! I'll arrange it for tomorrow."
Zoya's other hand had gripped Asad's even tighter. She held their joined hands to her cheek. Asad's thumb caressed a tear away.
Dilshad's instincts were screaming.
Asad and Zoya looked too grim. Too sad. She was coming home and looked remarkably fine for having been through a car crash. But there was no joy or relief on their faces, just despair and fear. Zoya rubbed her palm over her belly.
Ya Allah! She was pregnant.
Dilshad's heart squeezed in pain. Oh my goodness! Please Allah, let the baby be all right. Don't give my children any more pain. They've been through too much already.
She almost sobbed out loud. Shireen rubbed her shoulder and she looked up into her eyes. Hot tears slid down her cheeks and Shireen wiped them as they stepped out of the elevator.
"Allah will protect her."
Dilshad's heart constricted and she couldn't help a sob escape. Shireen enfolded her in her arms and cried with her. She could understand. She had felt the same terror when she had heard about Humaira. Such young, gentle girls, so full of life, loved so much by their sons. Why was this happening?
A driver from office had driven his car over from the scene of the accident. Asad lifted her into the passenger seat and tenderly buckled her in. His hand had lingered on her stomach and their eyes had locked.
"I love you," he whispered in her palm. Zoya leaned back, overwrought and exhausted.
"Should we tell Ammi?" she asked much later in their room.
They were in bed. Asad shifted to hold her back closer to him, and he wrapped his arm around hers over her stomach. The heat from his hand seeped through and warmed her head to toe.
"I was thinking about it too."
"She'll know what to do. Her duas will have more power." Zoya whispered.
She had learned the value of shared grief that day when everyone's love and grace had swaddled her in a thickly comforting embrace. Their tears had mingled with hers, and it had mended her battered spirit.
Asad kissed her shoulder.
She was right.
"I'm so scared, Asad."
She had already made three trips to the bathroom since they'd come back home an hour ago, to check for any signs of bleeding.
"Me too baby, me too." His arms tighetened around her.
There was a soft knock on the door. Asad got up to open the door and Dilshad came in. Seeing her, Zoya couldn't stop herself.
"Ammi!" she burst out, and half-ran to fall into her arms.
"Na, beta. Sab theek ho jayega. Everything will be fine."
Dilshad led her to the settee.
She took Zoya's tear-streaked face in her hands and stated, "you're pregnant."
Through sobs Zoya nodded yes. "I'm so scared Ammi. What if something happened to the baby?"
Dilshad held her arm out to an equally miserable Asad and pulled him to sit on her other side. She held their faces next to hers.
"I know. I'm terrified too. But I also know something about the power of love and hope. I know that sometimes bad things happen to good people, but good people create and draw the positive energy of the universe. Tum dekhna, the baby will be fine. I'll be the first one to hold it in my arms and bless him or her."
She cried with them. Asad told her about what the doctor had said. There was good news: no direct impact and no bleeding.
"See?" she wiped Zoya's tears and her own. "Allah is already watching over my grandchild. Now tell me when you found out."
Zoya blushed. "I had a feeling, and thought I would go to your doctor to confirm this morning. I was going to surprise"-" her eyes locked with Asad's.
Dilshad gripped their hands in hers and brought them to her mouth to kiss them.
"It's OK, sab accha hoga. The baby's parents are strong, of course the baby will be fine!"
"Baby's dadi is stronger," said Zoya with a hopeful smile, and Dilshad and Asad smiled too.
"Main dadi ban jayungi?" Dilshad asked with wonder.
"Allah! What will its first words be? Voh ... actually ... main, ya Allah Miyan?"
They laughed through their tears, much more hopeful and sure now.
"OK. Let me go now and prepare for the Quran Khwani tomorrow. Dekhna itni saari duaon ka bahut accha asar hoga. I'm going to send some haldi milk with Humaira. Asad make sure that she drinks it all."
Closing the door after her, Asad re-wrapped her in his arms and they gazed out of the window. The sun would set soon. The sky was on fire, edged bright with incandescent pink and purple streaks across a blue canvas.
"I hope I'll be a mother like Ammi," she whispered.
"You will be. Just a little crazier and louder. You'll be a bigger kid."
"A total MILF?"
She whispered in his ears; his eyes popped and ears reddened.
"Mrs. Khan, you take my breath away. Every single day."
And Asad bent to kiss her, his lips sucking urgently on her lower lip. His tongue parted her mouth further and slid in to reassure her that she would indeed be the se*xiest mom, and soon. Their tongues twined and desire flared.
Coming up for air he pledged, "happy mother's day, Mrs. Khan!"
Her eyes brightened and Zoya giggled, content and confident. "Happy father's day, Mr. Khan! You are going to be Abbu Ahmed Khan!"
She stepped away and twirled back to him. "Nahin! Wait!" She paused dramatically.
She put on a super serious expression on her face.
"Jahanpanah, main aapke bachhe ki maan ban ne wali hoon!" And she laughed up into his face.
He swung and spun her in his arms. Setting her down, Asad cupped her face and kissed her closed eyes. Pushing her hair behind her ear he huskily recited a couplet from Rumi, and sucked the tear that sneaked out:
"If anyone asks you
How the perfect satisfaction
Of all our se*xual wanting will look,
Lift your face and say,
When someone quotes the old poetic image
About clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
Slowly loosen knot by knot the strings of your robe.
Dilshad came in herself later with the haldi milk and stood guard over Zoya till she had gulped the last drop. She stroked her daughter-in-law's bent head and clucked, making kissing sounds all the while.
"Shaabash!" she encouraged when Zoya scrunched up her face and returned the glass.
As Zoya went to the restroom to re-check for spotting and secretly wash out the vile taste, Dilshad patted her son's cheek. She gave him instructions for repeating Allah's name ninety-nine times by placing his hand over Zoya's tummy at dawn, before eating anything.
He nodded obediently. "I'll say it 99,000 times Ammi! Every morning. I just hope the baby will be fine and healthy. I can't bear for Zoya to go through so much grief. I had promised her that I would never let her cry."
Dilshad smiled and framed his face in her hands.
"It's not the tears that matter beta, but the smiles that come after. It's your promise to always be by her side that matters even more. And crying together makes your love stronger."
She hugged him.
"And just wait, there will be smiles and laughter. Pitter patter of little feet, aur khoob saari kilkaariyan!"
"And mountains of dirty diapers," quipped Zoya from the opposite end of the room, blithe and cheery.
Dilshad opened her arms, a safe harbor beckoning. Zoya glided in to be cosetted and cocooned.
Song in Title:
Abhimaan (1973): "Tere Mere Milan Ki Ye Raina"
Tanveer was a nervous wreck ever since she had returned. Her hands shook. She knew it was only a matter of time before he came after her. It was the money that she had come back for. She had worked too hard for her stash and couldn't just leave it behind. She'd squirreled it away in different parts of her room to keep it safer, and just needed to remember all her hidey-holes.
The taxi waited below. She hovered anxiously for the driver to load up the bags in the trunk. She had abandoned all her belongings; more room for the cash. Coming down the stairs she had even tossed her phone. Less baggage the better. She had stuffed a few wads of cash in her handbag: emergency money to buy essentials and shut people's mouths.
Locked and loaded, she breathed a sigh of relief as the cab pulled out of the driveway. She weighed her options. She couldn't risk the airport. The train station would be chaotic enough to be lost in the crowd. But she'd have to wait for the next train, walk a lot to get to a platform, climb up and down stairs.
She was torn.
Self-preservation dictated that she run as far to the ends of the earth as possible. Somewhere, where a blood-seeking Asad couldn't find her. But curiosity twisted her arm and slowly strangled that primordial instinct. She directed the driver to take her to a four-star hotel. She could afford to treat herself and hang around anonymously to stir the pot if needed. She even had the perfect alias picked out.
Zoya had felt the blessings and grace pulse through her. First Ammi. Then Aapi and Jeeju.
Last night Dilshad had kissed Zoya's cheeks. "Tell Zeenat if you feel that it's the right thing to do."
Glancing up at Asad, Zoya had nodded. There had been tears of joy and fear, and then collective sighs of prayer. In the pre-dawn light she had felt the warmth from Asad's hand radiate out from her belly as he chanted Allah's name. His voice had caught first and then steadily grown stronger. She had felt the air vibrate and fuse all three of them seamlessly.
All morning, both Ammi and Aapi, digging deep and richly into their motherly databases, had plied her with holy water, rubbed mysterious herbs on her stomach, cast off evil nazars, and fed her chilled kesar milk and soaked badams. After the Quran Khwani they would go to the dargah and feed the poor while Asad took Zoya to the doctor.
Dried red chillies had burned furiously and brightly, smoking the air with their pungent bite, searing away every spell cast by evil eyes.
During the prayer service, she had felt certainty and power crackle through her all the way to her fingertips. So many people had come after hearing about the accident: family, neighbors and friends. Even people from Asad's office.
She felt humbled and celestial.
So many soft hands had patted her head or arm, blessed her, chanted over her as Dilshad and Zeenat flanked her. An elderly aunt had even tied a tawiz from Ajmer Sharif on her arm. Humaira fussed and clucked around her. She fixed the cushions on the sofa to make her more comfortable, brought her water and juice. She had even stood guard outside the bathroom door each time Zoya had gone in to check for spotting.
But over the last hour, Zoya had stopped checking. There was no need to any more.
Humaira nervously climbed the stairs to Abbu's office. He had called last night and told her to come see him now that she was better. He had something important to tell her. His PA stood at attention and ordered tea and snacks for her. She leafed through a magazine in the outer office and waited for Abbu to be done with his meeting. Why had he called her here? He had stuttered through the invitation and cleared his throat multiple times.
The door opened and the client stepped out. Her eyes widened and breath caught. Why were the police here? Oh my god!
"Abbu, police?" she asked as soon the door closed after her.
Gaffur Siddiqui walked over to carefully embrace her. "Are you OK, beta? All better?"
"Ji Abbu! But why were the police here?" Her voice rose an octave.
"I'll explain. But first tell me when you'll be home."
"Umm ... Abbu ... voh ... actually ..." she realized suddenly that this Khan-trademarked phrase, as Zoya Bhabhi called it, had great utility. You could really stall for time and gather your wits together.
She had an insane urge to laugh.
"I will Abbu. Soon. But is everything OK?"
Her father sighed. He looked thinner; gaunt even.
"Abbu, aapki tabiyat?"
"Don't worry Humaira. I'm fine. Come sit with your Abbu and we'll talk," he invited her to join him on the couch.
"Kya hua Abbu, you seem really tense." Humaira was really worried now. Something had to be seriously wrong.
"Ek zaroori baat thi ... It's hard to tell you Humaira, but you will be hearing about it soon."
Pacing restlessly he ominously wiped his brow. He held up his hand when he saw her leap up in concern.
She trembled when he came to sit by her and took her hands in his. "Humaira, I'm embarrassed to say it. I don't know how to tell you ... you have an older sister ..."
She gasped. He covered his face in shame expecting a look of horror and revulsion.
"What? What did you say, Abbu? What do you mean?"
There was no way out of it anymore.
Haltingly and through tears, he recounted his first secret wedding with a woman he had met in the US. How, when he came home he had been pressured to give up his wife and remarry. Later he had found out that he had a daughter, but he was separated from her when she was a child. But more recently he had been re-united with her. He had even brought her home to live with them. Now, all he wanted was for his daughters to be together with him under the same roof.
Gaffur Siddiqui said all this with his back turned to her, gazing out of the window. Seven stories below, traffic rushed on the road. He turned when he heard the door slam behind.
His shoulders slumped. He hadn't even got to the part about his daughter having gone missing since yesterday. Reluctantly he had called the police. But they couldn't help much. He didn't even have a photograph of hers to give them.
He was worried. All her belongings seemed to be left behind. But her room had looked as if a tornado had blown through it. The servants just told him that she had taken some bags and called a taxi. The police officer had patronizingly told him that she seemed to have left of her own volition and there wasn't much they could do.
Dr. Sharma told them what Zoya had already known in her being.
So far, so good. It had been more than twenty-four hours since the accident, and if she hadn't spotted yet, then most likely everything was fine. But, she said, they would still need to monitor and check for any abnormalities. Come back in a few days. And yes, they would have to be careful. No intercourse.
The doctor was interrupted by the phone ringing.
Zoya meanwhile, had nearly snorted out loud at her words. She almost dropped to the floor to roll and laugh uproarously.
But only because she knew that Asad was already praying for the earth to open up and swallow him. She squeezed his hand. This was his mother's doctor after all.
The devil in her had almost whined out loud though: no intercourse? Ever?
But she held her tongue.
She was going to be a mama soon; she better start learning how to behave. At least in front of strangers.
She was dying to ask: for how long? Gee, how do you think we got here, Dr. Sharma? Yeah, that's right! With a lot of intercourse.
She counted till ten.
If she asked the doctor when they could have se*x, then Asad would ... poof ... just disappear into thin air or explode from embarrassment.
Like, right here.
Already he was having trouble breathing. His face was more tamatari than his sister's. He was an inch away from leaping out of the chair and flying out the door.
The doctor finished with the call and wrote up some prescriptions for pre-natal vitamins, and handed her brochures and reading lists for neo-natal care.
Asad's breathing normalized. His color returned.
" What to Expect When You're Expecting' is a cult favorite," Dr. Sharma said with a smile.
"Troops of women have marched in and out of this office over the years, armed with knowledge from that book alone!"
Zoya nodded in dismay. She'd already bought and downloaded it on her iPad. Barely half way through the first chapter, she was bored out of her wits, and yawning. She really didn't want to know what was going to happen to her body in the next nine months. It looked like a construction zone in there.
Asad had commandeered it from her, and had already read the first three chapters.
Allah miyan! Her Akdu Ahmed Khan was going to turn into this all-knowing, chart-keeping, whistle-blowing monster who would go all control freak on her diet and exercise, and when to sleep and how to sleep, and not to run or jump, don't do this, don't"-
Oh, she just knew it! The OCD Khan she had tamed was going to come marching out from hiding and rain down on her like a judge's hammer.
"Order, order!" he would yell day and night.
"Aapko umar qaid ki sazaa sunayee jaati hai!"
And on top of that, to not even be able to have se*x with her Jahanpanah? The only way to shut him up and make his mind go blank by"-
Bahut na-insafi hai!
She glared at him with squinty eyes. He reeled back not knowing his offense, but prudently deciding to seal his lips.
Dr. Sharma sniggered.
All these years, and she still cracked up over silent spats like this between hormonal wives and egg-shell-walking husbands.
As they were leaving the office, Zoya held back. Asad knew exactly why! He was just too damn embarrassed.
"Zoya!" he ground out through gritted teeth, "don't you dare!"
He couldn't get out of here fast enough.
"But Mr. Khan, I want to know"-"
"No!" He growled softly and pulled her by her arm.
She resisted. "You go ahead. I'll just be a minute," she whispered, her eyes flashing. She was this close to getting pissed off at him again.
"I said no! There's no need. I'm reading about it, and I'll tell you."
"No!" She jerked her arm free from out of his fingers. "I want to ask Dr. Sharma when we can have se*x," she hollered.
You could hear a pin drop.
Gasps erupted and mouths gaped in the waiting room.
"Tell me about it," muttered a visibly pregnant and harried woman. Her husband blushed.
Zoya's hands flew up to slap her traitorous mouth shut. Her eyes could have fallen out of their pretty little sockets.
She was done for. She'd gone and done it now. She was pretty sure, that when she turned around, she would not find Asad by her side. She wasn't even sure she'd find him in the parking lot.
Or the same PIN code.
The old Asad would certainly have fled.
Or yelled till he was purple in the face about tehzeeb and adab and lihaaz and tameez and tarbiat.
But love and impending fatherhood's glorious dash mein bumboo had unforeseen and maddening effects on Jahanpanahs.
He threw his head back and laughed till tears streamed down his face.
He had continued to chuckle in the car after overseeing her buckle up securely.
"I can't believe I just did that!" Zoya covered her face in embarrassment.
"Believe it! You just did that," he said flatly, as he backed out to drive them home.
She slapped his thigh.
"Aapko kya hua hai? How come you didn't go ballistic on me and read me the riot act?"
"I almost did. But then I heard that woman, and I couldn't hold it together.
"And here I thought, Zoya aaj toh tu deewar mein chunvayee jayegi!"
"Imagine going back there again next week! At least I can hide my face by wearing a burqa. What're you going to do, Mr. Khan?" she teased.
Zoya giggled, "Poor Jahanpanah! Your begum is so shameless." She lifted his hand from the gearhead and kissed the top.
"It must be right." Asad mumbled a little later.
"Forget it." He was blushing now.
"Jahanpanah!" she threatened.
"That women become cranky and horny during pregnancy," he yelled.
"The book said that?"
"Great! Just great! And now the se*x curfew to live through!" She slapped his thigh again.
"What? What did I do?" he mock-yelped.
"Nothing! Nothing at all!" she muttered mutinously. "Aapko doctor-ordered se*x fast bahut mubarak ho!"
"Shukriya! Aapko bhi!" he snickered.
"Oh really?" she drawled. Her eyes glittered dangerously. Her hand moved up higher on his thigh.
"No! Zoya! N"-!"
When he threw his head back this time it wasn't to laugh.
Aapi and Dilshad kissed her on the forehead when they got back home. They had already heard the good news because she had texted earlier. Ayaan and the girls were here too. They were all clustered around the kitchen island busy over something. The girls were whispereing and giggling, and slapping away Ayaan's hands.
"Itni der kar di. You ate out?" Aapi asked.
Asad fled to the bedroom muttering something about an important phone call.
Color high on her cheeks, Zoya answered, "ji Aapi."
Pulling her to the couch Zeenat asked, "kya khaya? Zaroor pizza khaya hoga. Haina?"
"Nope. We had chaat, bhel puri and kulfi!"
"Ya Allah! Yeh ladki!" Zeenat slapped her head and spoke in a low tone so the others couldn't hear. They didn't want to tell everyone till they were absolutely sure about the baby's health.
"Here both Dilshad Aapa and I are trying to feed you healthy food for you and ... Aur tum ho ki, sab pe paani pher ke aayi ho! What if you get sick?"
"Aapi, you know I never get sick!"
"Zoya! Stop tempting fate!" she cupped her face trying to convince her to improve her ways.
"Beta ..." Zeenat flashed her eyes. "Ab toh thodi responsible ho jao! Maa ban ne wali ho!" She hissed.
Zoya squinted at her. "Aapi! Don't nag," she pouted.
"Zeenat," Dilshad came to her bahu's rescue. "Meri bahu bahut samajhdaar hai!"
Zoya stuck her tongue out at Zeenat and edged away.
"Badmaash ladki! Sudhar jao! Warna abhi tumhari choti kheenchti hoon!" Zeenat chased after her.
Zoya giggled. She had grown up playing this game with Aapi all her life. She dodged and wiggled, keeping out of arms' length. Easy peasy.
She stopped at the other end of the table and a dimple peeked.
"Dieting karaiye akal ko, akal hui hai moti," she recited her favorite sher that she had composed for Aapi in the ninth grade.
"Irshad! Irshad!" encouraged Dilshad.
Humaira watched from afar, fascinated by and jealous of this filial playfulness. In their home, no one was supposed to behave this way with parents. Abbu was too stern, and Ammi never laughed with her like this.
"Dieting karaiye akal ko, akal hui hai moti
How will you kheencho that, when there is no choti!"
They zigzagged around the dining table. Giving up, Zeenat opened her arms and Zoya ran into them. She let Aapi kiss her by holding up alternate cheeks.
Dilshad laughed, delighted. By now the others had joined them and were asking Zoya to repeat her shayari. Ayaan was rolling his eyes. Nikhat proudly carried a lopsided cake. It was decorated with random initials made out of Gems stuck into the chocolate icing.
"They're our initials," explained Nuzzhat when Zoya looked up quizzically. Nikhat cut a piece and fed it to Zoya. And then she smeared the icing on her cheek, "welcome back and stay well, Zoya bhabhi!"
Asad leaned against the doorjamb watching these capers and shaking his head. He blushed remembering why they'd been late in coming home.
To pacify his frisky wife, he had offered to take her to his office. Everyone would be gone by now.
"Won't there be security cameras?"
"Uh ... yes, but no one monitors them 24/7. And there're none in my office." he reassured her.
"And why exactly are you taking me there, Jahanpanah?" Zoya'd asked coyly.
He looked down his nose at her. "Oh, you don't want to go? Fine, let's go home."
"No!" she moaned. "I want you, now!"
Asad's pulse had leaped and he'd nearly wiped out. The woman just drove him crazy. In his wildest dreams he wouldn't have imagined making this offer. He had very nearly offered the backseat. But somehow, he'd called up his reserves of steely willpower to get them more privacy.
But lust didn't stop him from driving very carefully or keeping an eye out for anything out of the ordinary.
They had tumbled through his office door, lips fused and hands untucking each other's clothing. Reluctantly, Asad had moved away to turn on a lamp and shut the blinds. He turned around, and sucked in his breath.
She stood in the middle of the room, naked.
He leaned against the desk.
"Come here," his voice was raw with desire.
When she sailed into his arms, he kissed her bare shoulders reverently. He lifted her up in his arms. With the slightest of nods, he indicated the desk.
He raised an eyebrow. Or the couch?
Her heart flipped over. She would have loved the comfort of sinking into the cushions. But the desk had its own seductive appeal. It was too neat, the glass too pristine, the stationery marshaled just a bit too precisely.
It was too Jahanpanah.
She would mark it.
She wanted it to carry smudges of her fingerprints when she gripped its edge in hot surrender. She wanted to heat the cooled glass and write their initials in the fogged residue. Tomorrow when he sat at this desk, she wanted him to remember.
And go rigid with desire.
And then phone her to seduce her all over again.
She wanted him to remember her stretched across this very table, when she had swept his preciously ordered papers and supplies off, to enthrone and coronate herself.
"Mrs. Khan, you're a devil with an angel's face and a goddess' body," he said in exasperation and devotion a little later.
She was draped across his table breathing hard. She had shivered when he first laid her on it. Now her hair spilled over and fanned out. Knowing that they'd be unheard, she had screamed out his name along with other words of hot need.
She had begged for mercy.
She had begged for release.
She had threatened godawful revenge.
The balls of her feet had dragged up and down on the glass making squeaking sounds as she thrashed in the throes of ecstasy.
Slowly opening her eyes, she put out her hand for him to pull her up. Hopping off the table she had embraced him.
"Thank you baby, I needed that. So bad. But I still miss you," she moaned.
She tilted her head back to let him trail kisses down her throat. His fingers warily feathered across her bre*asts.
"Does it hurt?" Asad asked with concern. She had told him about them feeling oversensitive and he had avoided adding to her discomfort.
"Yes," she guided his mouth down to offer herself up, "it tickles and burns, but right now it makes me feel ultra-feminine."
She hissed as his mouth closed over a heat-seeking bud.
Zoya then dragged him to stand at the front of the desk and sat herself down in his plush leather chair.
"Your turn," she promised.
Her name too had reverberated in the room amidst hissed and satisfied growls of pleasure. His fingers had splayed across the glass and then gripped the edge before entangling in her hair. His body had bowed back and twanged under her fraught ministrations. Just before losing control he had pulled her up to him roughly by her hair and whispered in her ear, hotly echoing her earlier pleas, "I know we can't. But oh god! Zoya, I wish I was inside you right now!"
And she had lost control with him.
Later they had cuddled on the chair.
His hand had crept over to her stomach and warmed it. She had covered his hand with both of hers. They had kissed and tasted themselves.
His hand had crept lower.
She jerked in his arms.
"One for the road," he whispered.
Song in Title:
Abhimaan (1973): "Tere Mere Milan Ki Ye Raina"
Asad watched Nikhat and Nuzzhat circle and dance around Zoya feeding her cake and smearing it on her face. Her tongue darted out to lick off the icing from her lip and his breath jammed in his chest. That mouth! Just a little while ago it had been on him.
Like always she had begun by kissing and licking the scar on his stomach. It had a history that she now knew intimately. The first time he'd finally told her about it, after she had issued multiple threats, ultimatums and kasams, she'd cried softly, whispering "I'm sorry," a hundred times over. He had kissed her tenderly, and wiped her tears saying, "it's not your fault. I'm just glad you were able to escape."
The angry slash, puckered and whitened, had lashed them together seamlessly ever since their first stormy meeting.
His body had already tightened in anticipation as she had continued lower. A steamy fusion of soft lips, hard teeth and coiling tongue that bit, licked, and sucked. It had made his head snap back and hips buck wildly. His hands had fisted in her hair and he had let out a powerful growl before dragging her up ...
His eyes hooded. She looked at him then, from across the room, and their hungry gazes collided. Zoya saw their recent lovemaking, so satisfying yet incomplete, replay in his stormy gaze. Her hand arrested in mid air.
Unashamed awareness crackled between them.
Eyes locked, he strode over to her, panther-like, pulling out his handkerchief. Asad lifted his hand to wipe her cheek clean and she lifted hers to cup her hand over his. Their bodies swayed toward each other, hopelessly hypnotized, snake to a charmer.
They could have been the only ones in the room.
"Ahhemm!" went Ayaan.
The girls tittered. "Ooh, Bhaijaan!" whooped Nuzzhat.
Zoya's lashes swept across her burning cheeks and her hand fell away. Asad clenched his free fist. He wanted to smooth his knuckle over that heated skin. He wanted to hold her to him and feel her breath on his chest. He didn't care that everyone was here. His mother. Her Aapi.
Nothing, no one mattered.
Asad took a deep breath. This hadn't been in the book.
Was this the baby's doing? The ultimate survivalist? Did a tiny dot of a being pull the heartstrings to knot and knit its parents ceaselessly into each other?
Playing cupid; this tiny tyrant, god with mischief.
It was the little trickster's wily chaal.
A puppeteer's primal chhal and kapat: dictating its Ammi Abbu's se*xual distance to ensure survival, yet fueling a fierce yearning that never let them forget its mighty tug.
When Zoya's lashes fluttered open, she saw Asad still looking at her.
His gaze glittered: remembering ... reminding ... promising.
Slowly, deliberately, his hand reached out and fevered fingers circled her wrist. His thumb stroked the inside of her wrist.
Zoya's heart jolted.
He had never done this before. Staking public claim. Branding her.
"After Jahanpanah's fateh," he had said playfully in Agra.
He may as well have said it. Now. But it wouldn't have been playful.
Her mouth went dry.
And yet she wasn't embarrassed.
She was luminous.
Asad tugged, an insistent partner leading in dance with him.
"Say goodnight," he commanded softly.
Her eyes flared wide.
Everyone gasped, already affected by the raw energy rippling between them.
Any other time, Zoya would have uttered a mortified, "Mr. Khan!"
Any other time she wouldn't have needed to.
She knew he meant business now. If she demurred he would go all caveman on her. His insistent grip on her wrist and the resolve in his eyes promised just that.
Just try, he dared.
"Goodnight," she whispered to the room absractedly, eyes only for him. Heart on her sleeve.
A floored femme fatale.
A trophy claimed. A Mallika waving to her subjects.
Nuzzhat giggled, clapping a hand on her startled mouth.
"Whoa!" hissed Ayaan when he saw bhai sweep his bhabhi into his arms at the door and stalk into their bedroom.
Without breaking eye contact with her.
The door clicked softly after them.
Humaira's breath had leapt at the electric charge in the room. Something had pulled and pooled in her core and she dared not look at anyone. She wasn't embarrassed; she was on fire.
She dared not think of Ayaan or she'd vine herself around him wantonly.
Earlier in the day, she had cried in his arms after fleeing Abbu's office.
What a nightmare! A mother who had blackmailed for eighteen years, and now a father who had a secret family and daughter. Ayaan had taken her to her favorite coffee shop. Blubbering over a cappuchino, she had told him everything.
He was aghast.
His brain buzzed and ears clanged. He gripped her hand in sympathy.
Just like his Abbu? What if he and Nikhat and Nuzzhat had never known that Bhaijaan and Najma existed? Who would he be without Bhai in his life? He had learned his most cherished life-lessons at Bhai's knee rather than Abbu's.
Ayaan shuddered. The horror mounted.
Would that lost daughter hate her father as much as Bhaijaan had hated Abbu? Wouldn't she be justified?
His eyes prickled suddenly. What happened to girls who grew up without fathers? Najma at least had had Bhai to look out for her. Suddenly Humaira's bitter words about female helplessness from the day before swarmed in his ears. If girls from rich families, having both parents alive and together, felt that way, then what about girls that had none of these layers of security? Unable to restrain himself, Ayaan knelt by her and ardently pressed Humaira's hand to his lips.
"Oh god, Humaira! What must have happened to her? Why didn't your father try to find her?"
Her heart warmed. He did understand. He was saying what she had been thinking.
That day she had lashed out at Ayaan in blind rage. But now guilt rose up to suffocate her. She had lived a life of comfort and security, doted upon by loving parents, spoiled rotten by curtseying servants. And all the while there had been an older sister who had lived at the edge of her golden world, invisible, empty-handed. Huddled at the mercy of strangers' random acts of kindness? Did she ever peep into this world and see a younger sister in the lap of love and luxury? Wouldn't she hate her younger sister?
She had nearly burst into tears all over again. Why couldn't she have had what Ayaan did? An older sibling's mighty shade that protected from the sun's pricks and the rain's darts.
What would she have called her?
She thought back to what Abbu had said. He had found her and brought her home? She would have known sooner if she had been home, or in touch with Ammi. Was this what outsiderness felt like? To know and not touch. She was on the outside looking in now.
There was no comparison. Self-loathing rose up to choke her.
Even without her parents or a home to call her own, she still had so much more. Ayaan. His family. Zoya bhabhi. Bhaijaan. Nikhat and Nuzzhat and Najma. Now Omar.
A part of her wanted to run home and throw herself at that sister's feet. I'm sorry. I didn't know that I lived your life. I stole from you. I robbed you of your birthright. I should have walked in your shadow. I should have worn your hand-me-downs. I should have lived like the second-born that I am.
Ayaan looked at the pageant of emotions on her face as her eyes dripped in guilt and horror. He dropped kisses on her clenched and bloodless fist. His own eyes felt damp.
"Humaira? I get it babes. I know what you're thinking. That's how I felt when I realized that we had taken so much away from Bhai and Najma."
That's why she loved him so much! Humaira broke down completely, grateful, yet heartsore. But there was another part of her that felt a bone deep regret. When the doctor that day had asked her if Zoya bhabhi was her sister, a fierce desire had risen in her to be that sister. Her frantic mind had sought irrational proof and zoomed in on that shimmering image of the music box.
A golden world exactly like hers.
What an uncanny omen of connection!
That moment the stars had aligned and she had made a mystical decision. She had cut cords and walked away from tainted blood to tie knots with people who felt more like family. It was at that moment that she had pledged to herself that Zoya bhabhi was the sister she never had, and bhaijaan a stern but protective Jeeju"a brother she never had.
But that solemn and hopeful oath now lay shattered at her feet. Its scr*aps mocked her flight of imagination as fantastic self-delusion. You are your mother's daughter, they taunted. You don't deserve a sister like Zoya bhabhi or Jeeju like bhaijaan.
She had been inconsolable.
And now, looking at the combustible passion between them she had felt a sharp pang of lonely longing. Him carrying Zoya bhabhi away from her with every step and shutting the door on her was a deathknell. She was an outsider looking in. An exiled voyeur who could peep through a keyhole, but never have what was beyond the door.
Because she didn't deserve it.
Razia gazed out of the car window. She came here almost daily now. Eighteen years ago she had come here, bitter and enraged ... A cruel cliche.
She shuffled out now, covered her face with the plain dupatta secured under her eyes, and stepped into the gated compound. The transformation was stark. No chains and swathes of gold or colorful clothing draped her. She had even let the grey in her hair go uncolored.
Girls in uniforms squealed and played in the grassless field. She went to the back to sign up for her daily task: clearing and manually hauling the trash and washing the latrines in the orphanage.
She had started the day of Humaira's shooting. Some bizarre notion had convinced her that the harder her penance, the better she would be able to bargain with Allah. Take care of my daughter, she pled everyday. Take me; destroy me, not her. In an even stranger act of self-loathing, she had stopped taking her medication. Punish me, not her. Don't let the sins of my past ruin my child's life.
In a fit of delirium she had even attended the Quran Khwani yesterday, incognito. She hoped to catch a glimpse of Humaira to assure herself that she was fine. She promised herself that she would slink away as soon as her eyes caught sight of Humaira. There was heavy security, but after comparing her face to a photograph, the female security guard had waved her in.
Must be Tanveer's picture.
She had sat through the service, eyes glued to the back of Humaira's covered and bowed head. She had seen her daughter jump up to her sister's aid each time. Humaira had brought her juice, brushed Zoya's hair off her face, hovered over her asking a hundred times if she was OK, and if she could get her anything.
Tears had streamed down Razia's face. They dampened her dupatta that she clutched around her eyes. Zoya and Asad had accepted her in their home and hearts even after knowing the whole truth. But what would Ayaan do when he found out? Rashid? Badi Bi? They would cast her out for being her mother's daughter.
She had nearly sobbed.
When everyone rose to bless Zoya and praise Allah for her having survived the accident without much injury, Razia had dithered and wrung her hands. She had nearly turned to leave but a hand had stalled her. Nuzzhat was offering juice and sweets.
A second's delay, and she had been propelled by a wave of women toward Zoya. Her hand had stretched out on its own. It had lingered on her covered head. But as if burned, Razia had pulled her hand away. Grasping her slipping dupatta she had fled.
She walked, not knowing where. She forgot that she had come here by car. The sun beat down on her back. Traffic screeched. Urchins and streetdogs swirled around her.
Eighteen years ago, she had clinched Humaira's legacy and sealed it in blood and fire. Today, she had thrown her to the wolves. Her daughter was at strangers' mercy because of her. Ayaan and Asad were half-brothers. The deep and steady bond between them had been unshakable.
Humaira could have had that.
She stopped suddenly. A cyclist swerved past and spat out an expletive.
She stood rooted, oblivious to him.
Humaira did have that. Now. But for how long?
Shame and desperation clawed at her.
"Mr. Khan, I have bad news." Rakesh decided to cut to the chase.
Asad had just returned from a site visit and was trailing his fingers on his desk remembering last night. His spine stiffened.
"We lost her."
Dead silence bristled on the line.
"How?" Asad hissed.
"We followed her out of the Siddiqui house to Badi Masjid. We haven't seen her since. We think she dumped her phone, changed into a burqa, and sneaked away. My guys waited for hours afterwards. There was a big contigent of pilgrims leaving for Ajmer Sharif. There were too many people with bags. I'm sorry."
Asad felt cold fear race down his spine. With a cautious Tanveer on the prowl things could get very bad.
Only one thought buzzed through his head: He had to talk to Zoya. He grabbed his keys.
Everyone looked up in surprise when Asad stormed in. In the middle of the day? Dilshad and Zeenat had looked at each other and grinned. And then shaken their heads.
Will you, or should I? they seemed to ask each other.
"They'll be fine," Dilshad reassured Zeenat in a whisper. She was confident that the doctor had already told them to be careful, and that these two wouldn't let anything happen to the baby.
All that smolder and steam?
She'd have to have another talk with them. And soon. Allah! Najma and Omar were coming back this evening. Her house would be a den of randy pheromones and twitchy newly-weds.
This time Zoya had exclaimed, "Mr. Khan!" when he had grabbed her wrist and dragged her to their room.
"We need to talk," he said grimly and her dimples disappeared.
"Asad?" she asked in fear.
Closing the door behind him, he sat her down on the settee and knelt before her. He examined her injured hands for a long time before speaking.
"She did this!" he said with barely repressed rage.
Zoya wrapped her fingers around his face, alarmed for him. He shifted his head to plant a kiss on her palm.
Getting up to pace and release his pent up fury he told her everything. The attempt on Humaira, her moving to the other house, their surveillance of her, ordering the accident, and now her disappearance. Mid-step, Zoya turned him to her and held him. His arms came around her and he breathed in her scent, treasuring the feel of her fullness against him.
Sitting her back down on the settee he held her hands and knelt before her.
"Zoya, she's out there. Waiting to strike. She's vicious. I know you'll hate this, but please, I don't want you going anywhere without an escort. In fact, you'll stay home. If you need anything I'll get it for you. I'll take you to the doctor or the dargah or your mother's gravesite."
Her lips had straightened into a mutinous scowl. Oh really? Didn't she know it? Right before her very eyes, her charming and se*xy Jahanpanah was turning into the old tight-assed Akdu.
"Asad, I go to other places too. Shopping? Movies? The Mall! The orphanage? What about the British Council Library? I was planning to go today."
Asad's eyes bored into hers. They were wide with worry, his skin looked pinched and his eyes and hands around hers pleaded with her.
"I know you'll hate this," he'd said. Aww.
Zoya stroked the frown between his brows. "You're right."
"I do hate this!"
"Zoya!" he rose, exasperated with her. His fists balled and he looked around frantically for something to smash.
"Why don't you understand how dangerous and obsessed this woman is!" He dragged his hand through his hair.
"She knows common criminals who will do anything for a little cash. And she's flush with a lot of cash right now. How do I make you understand how serious this is?"
His voice was rising. The pulse in his forehead was pounding. Zoya watched him, face resting in her hand. He paced and roared like a caged lion.
She leaned back and rubbed her stomach. Look baby, there's your Abbu: crazy with love for us. I can't wait to see him hold you in his arms. Your tiny fingers will curl around and grip his finger ...
"If something happened to you, I'd die!" her husband was still shouting.
"Asad!" she flew to him and into his arms.
She felt horrible for tormenting him. She knew he was right. They had come so close to losing their child because of that hateful woman. And here she was teasing him when he was crazy with worry for her and the baby.
"Shh," she soothed him. "I promise I'll do whatever you say"-within reason," she flashed her eyes at him. "I was just pulling your leg."
"Pulling my leg!" he growled. "Are you mad?" he nearly shook her by her arms and then hugged her fiercely.
"Please, please be safe," he murmured in her hair.
"We will be. We have you," Zoya pulled out and framed his face in her hands. "Hmm?"
Asad squeezed his eyes shut and sighed yes. He smiled when she ordered, "now kiss me and make it all better."
He did, after which Zoya led him to the bed and climbed into his lap after pushing him down.
"So, now what?"
"I don't know. I can't think straight. Can't concentrate on work either. I've cancelled two meetings already." Asad scrubbed his brow in frustration. "I'm meeting Rakesh to figure things out, but I needed to let you know first about the danger of taking this too lightly."
"We'll just have to think like her." Zoya murmured, deep in thought.
He twisted her face around to him: "one, I don't want you thinking like her, probably not good for the baby. Two, she's a sociopath! You're too good and incapable of doing it."
Zoya leaped up in excitement, "but Asad! That's just it. When the FBI creates a profile for serial offenders, they get into their heads to predict what the psycho will do next."
"Zoya! This is not some American crime drama. This is real life."
Her eyes gleamed and he already knew that it was pointless to try and talk her out of it. She rubbed her hands together and he knew. That mind was working a mile a minute and up to some hare-brained scheme.
"Zoya! No!" he hollered.
She crossed her arms and pouted. Asad sighed in defeat. If he persisted and threatened, she'd dig her heels in and not even tell him what she was up to. He'd learned this hard lesson from too many well-meaning but not-so-foolproof escapades.
"OK, tell me what's going on in that head of yours."
"Don't you dare go there to snoop into her doctor's office!" Asad roared.
"I won't. But Rakesh's people can stake out the place till she shows up."
Asad looked at her appreciatively. "But," he suddenly popped her smug little bubble, "what if she comes in a burqa?"
Zoya made a face. She knew he'd reject the next idea outright. "Use me as bait at the cemetery?"
"NO!" Asad towered over her furiously. "I just may have to handcuff you!"
"Oh really Jahanpanah? Do you even remember the last time I was ... I mean, we were ... handcuffed?" Her eyes gleamed. "Only handcuffed to you is qubool hai to me!" and she batted her lashes at him.
"Stop trying to distract me. I mean it. You will not do anything that'll get you into trouble. You will not channel your musibat magnet skills!"
"Allah Miyan, what's wrong you Mr. Khan? How can you even say that! Am I always such a musibat? So basically now I'm only good for se*x and babies!"
"Stop twisting my words," he warned. "That's not what I mean and you know it." He was disoriented. He wasn't sure if she was really mad or still pulling his leg.
Her eyes went coal-black. "All I know is that you think I'm impulsive and thoughtless. You think I'll deliberately put the baby in danger just so that I can have fun playing Sherlock Holmes. You don't trust me! You never have!"
Zoya stormed out of the room.
Oh yes, she was mad for real, all right. He slapped his head.
Zoya was blinded by tears of rage and hurt. She wanted so bad to run out of the house and keep running. But after everything Asad had told her about Tanveer and his genuine worry for her, she kept indoors. She looked for a place to hide and lick her wounds. Thankfully no one was around when she slammed out of the room.
Heart in his mouth he dashed out of the room to find the kitchen and living room empty.
He ran outside to ask the guard if she'd gone out.
"No sir, no one left the house."
His heartbeat slowed. Thank god, she was still home. By the time he went inside, everyone was in the living room.
"Bhaijaan, is everything OK?" asked Humaira.
"Yes," he muttered.
Dilshad hid her grin. First fight. It was long overdue. The two of them hadn't had a drag-down screaming match for sometime now. Zeenat had never seen them fight so didn't know any better.
"Where's Zoya?" she asked.
"Umm ... voh ... actually ..."
"Uh ... she's resting, and not talking to me," he ended lamely.
"Aww," went Humaira and Zeenat.
He was itching to go look for her but didn't want to alarm everyone. He went back to the bedroom and tried her number. The phone rang by her bedside. The terrace? He was half-way up when Prasad called. He had to leave right now. But he couldn't resist sprinting up the stairs to check the terrace. She wasn't there. Storeroom? He raced down.
"Asad, what happened?" asked Zeenat as she set the table. "Come have some lunch."
"No Aapi, I have to run. But I have to check something real quick in the storeroom."
She wasn't there either. Where"-? There was only one other place where she could be. But he stopped himself. May be she needed to be by herself. He didn't want to crowd her. Reluctantly he left for office to pacify a client who was having a cow about sloppy schedules and unmet deadlines. He really needed to hire a few more people.
First she had just been mad. But when he didn't come looking for her she started to weep. She heard his car leave and cried bitter and pitiful sobs into Najma's bedcover.
Song in Title:
Jab We Met (2007) "Tumse Hi"
Asad couldn't concentrate. He kept thinking about Zoya. If only he didn't have to leave without talking to her.
He had worked all through lunch, and nearly threatened to walk off a project. The client, already antsy about government permit restrictions, over-zealous inspections and fines, had been hinting at cutting corners for days. Today, he had demanded outright that Asad's company do so, even gloating about a possible under-the-table workaround.
"I don't want any more delays. Forget redoing the drawings. Or better yet, draw them up and we'll send them in. Doesn't mean we have to stick by the new specifications. I'll take care of shutting these people up," he said with an oily smile.
Asad had been livid.
He slammed his laptop shut and rounded on him, face dangerously close to his client's.
"Mr. Shah, get this straight. I won't be signing off on anything illegal, or compromise professional ethics. You can get someone else to do that!" he ground out, eyes blazing.
"And," he clenched his fist, exerting supreme self-restraint in not grabbing his collar and shaking this grasping, greedy"- "you better comply with the updated building codes if you do get someone new or, rest assured, I will report you to the BMC!"
An intimidated Mr. Shah had stepped back involuntarily. Fixing his suddenly tight collar, he tried to save face, gushing with false bravado. His hands waved wildly.
"Good luck with that Mr. Khan! Your super self-righteousness and ... this ... this ..." he sputtered, spit pooled in the corner of his mouth, "maha-Gandhigiri won't go too far with all the babus and policticians I have in my pocket!"
"But it will with the media," said a dead-calm Asad, with a low growl.
"With so many buildings collapsing because of irresponsible builders like you, the Indian public has woken up and is demanding change. What do you think will happen if I leak this conversation to the press?"
He held up his phone. Not that he had recorded anything. The idea had only occurred to him a second ago. In a flash his brain had telegraphed the question: what would Zoya do? And now, seeing the color leave the man's face, he knew his work was done.
Asad stormed off, glad to get away from this vileness.
He grinned suddenly.
No one had ever accused him of that before! Because in another life, he would have punched the man's face in. Red hot anger would have made him beat him to a bloody pulp for even suggesting"-
But it would have solved nothing. Asad scrubbed his face with both hands and looked at his watch impatiently.
He had been blind.
He knew now why Zoya was upset with him. In blind panic he had reverted to old habits where he viewed the world as only black and white. When he went into his hyper-protective mode, he didn't think that anyone else would be as careful, or do as good a job as him. It was usually my way, or the highway for him. And most of his life, Ammi and Najma had even let him get away with thinking like that.
He rubbed his forehead impatiently.
It had taken him too long to realize that Zoya was just as fiercely protective of their family. Like him, she'd put her life on the line for those she loved.
In a heartbeat.
And this was not because she was careless. It was because she cared too much. She had saved Najma from being molested, even gone to jail for it. Like an Amazon she had guarded Ammi from being fatally shot. His blood ran cold each time he thought of how close she had come to being gravely injured herself when she tackled with that hired killer. A skilled marksman, nearly twice her size, and armed with a loaded gun. Even now he squeezed his eyes shut imagining the worst.
And in misplaced fury he had lashed out against her, and"-
Asad raced home, driving like a maniac. He needed to hold her in his arms. He had already called and left a million messages on her phone. He had pleaded, recited couplets from Rumi, and made a thousand promises. He needed to hear her voice. The meeting had left a bad taste in his mouth. He needed her grace to raise his spirits and feel grateful about the world again.
After a night of restless tossing and turning, Humaira resolved to talk to Abbu. It must have been so hard for him to do what he did. And, she owed her sister that much. She would do it for her, if not for Abbu. She didn't want her sister to think that Humaira had fled the house because their father had brought her home. She just hoped that Ammi was at least being civil to her.
She felt ashamed once again.
She had come close to losing Ayaan because of Ammi. Please don't make me lose Baji because of her too.
"Abbu?" she whispered when he picked up the phone.
He sounded weary. Her gut clenched. She missed him and being home. With a pang, she finally admitted to herself: she even missed Ammi.
"Umm ... Abbu, I would like to meet Baji ... I mean Aapi, I think." Her voice tapered off into a strangled silence.
She heard him clear his throat.
"Beta, I am so happy to hear you say that. But there's a problem."
Her heart caught. Oh my goodness! She could imagine him removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes in worry.
"What is it Abbu? Is Ammi OK?"
"Humaira ... it's your sister. She's ... she's missing."
He sighed. "I don't"-"
"Hang on, I'm coming over right now, Abbu!"
She dashed out with her bag and nearly toppled Phuphi who was coming to knock on her door.
"Humaira beta, careful! What happened? You look worried," Dilshad asked, worried herself.
"I have to go to Abbu's office, Phuphi. I'm sorry. I'll call a taxi." Her words tripped over themselves.
"No, don't. We'll drop you on the way."
The tires squealed on the driveway as Asad braked sharply. Inside, the house was empty. Where"-? There was a hand-written note taped to their bedroom door.
We are going to Abbu and Chhoti Ammi's place. Make sure that both of you come over as soon as Asad comes home. Shireen has invited us all to welcome the honeymooners there. Tell Asad that Ayaan and Abbu will pick them up from the airport.
He crept inside cautiously. They must have thought that she was still resting. But the bed was pristinely made. Her phone was still on the side table. She wasn't in the restroom either. Grabbing her phone, he ran up the stairs to Najma's room.
His face fell.
Here too the bed was perfectly made. He almost stepped out. But the AC was on. He walked up to the open restroom door.
His heart plummeted.
She wasn't here either. He turned to walk away, and the lopsided arrangement of the pillows snagged his attention. One pillow was missing.
He actually went down on his knees to look under the bed.
She wasn't there. He looked around in bewilderment. The restroom's open door beckoned again. This time he stepped into the room and nearly laughed.
She was actually curled up in the bathtub!
Cushion under her tear-streaked cheek, she slept peacefully. He almost reached his hand out to brush the hair off her face, but stopped.
She had stayed back for him. The old Zoya would have run to the dargah or her dead mother's side to cry her heart out.
He stood up.
Taking her phone out of his coat pocket he put it on the tub's edge.
He had an ambush to plan.
Humaira had rushed to hug Abbu.
"What happened, Abbu? Tell me everything. From the beginning," she ordered after settling him down on the sofa and handing him a glass of water.
His mouth parted in mute wonder. Gaffur Siddiqui had never seen this side of his daughter. Timid and demure, she had never raised her voice before him. He was surprised by her take-charge attitude. When had she grown up? He looked into her face as she leaned over him with her hand on his shoulder. Taking her hand in his, he patted the sofa next to him.
Somehow, it was easier to talk this time. He had seen the deep concern in her eyes and no longer feared any judgment from her. He leaned on her maturity and strength, and slowly told her all: his guilt, regret, and above all, his disappointment. He had hoped that he would feel more love for his long-lost daughter. But she had lived like a stranger with them. He didn't feel close or connected to her. He had often caught her looking at him with contempt in her eyes. May be, she really hated him for what she had gone through?
Silent tears ran down his wrinkled cheeks.
Humaira clasped his hand in hers. Pity and sympathy warred in her. Some part of her understood her sister's aloofness. Why would she feel any human connection to a man who had abandoned her to be raised by strangers in a cruel world? She was even more sure now that her sister would never forgive her, let alone accept her.
Her heart twisted. Since Abbu had last told her about having an older sister, in some corner of her mind, she had woven stupid sappy dreams of having an Aapi who would welcome her with open arms. They would cry together, and Humaira would beg for forgiveness. Through tears, her sister would pat her head and wrap her in her arms.
Moron! You are such a fool to even think that it would be so easy. Not everyone is like Asad Bhaijaan and Najma who never held anything against their siblings.
She ordered coffee for him.
"What did the police say, Abbu?"
He sighed heavily, and went on to tell her about the lack of any leads.
"Beta, I must be getting old and forgetful. I don't even have a photograph of hers." He hung his head in his hands.
She massaged his back. "It's not your fault."
Humaira stared out of the window, depressed and uneasy at Abbu's self-deprecation and helplessness. She felt torn.
A part of her wanted to move back home so that she could watch over Abbu. But if she did, wouldn't it be betraying Ayaan and his family? But Abbu needed her ...
Suddenly she whipped around, "but Abbu! What about a sketch artist? Didn't the police say they could do that?"
Her father's eyes burned with hope and surprise. "What a great idea!"
He leaped to his desk to talk to the Police Commissioner.
Later he hugged her and kissed her forehead. "He said that they don't do it officially for missing persons. But he can send an independent artist who would be able to help."
Gaffur Siddiqui looked fondly at his child. "Bahut samajhdaar ho gayee ho tum. And I'm so proud of you that you don't resent her, and are even helping to bring Tanveer home." He patted her head lovingly.
"Didn't I tell you? That's her name."
The name sounded vaguely familiar but she couldn't place it. She was sure she'd heard that name before though.
When Zoya's phone rang she popped up, disoriented.
What time was it? The room was darker, the sun had moved to the other side of the house. Then she saw where she was, and her lips drooped in self-pity. Pregnant, alone and weeping herself to sleep in the bathtub!
Great job, Zoya!
How far you've come along to become a sorry cliche. From the Big Apple to Bhopal. Her mouth watered. Suddenly she was craving a slice of warm apple pie from Marie Callendar's. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side. To die for.
The phone rang again. It was Asad. She saw the number of missed calls and messages, and a reluctant smile tugged at her lips. Had he been calling all this while? And how did her phone even get here?
Her heart lifted.
Akdu Ahmed Khan was home!
Smiling more broadly now, she put the phone to her ear. His low voice gave her goosebumps.
"Mere khwabon mein apke saaye hain,
Meri tanhayeeyon mein aap khalal deti hain,
Mere andheron mein aap roshni ban ke aati hain ..."
Her breath caught.
The same words.
"Agar aap mujhe itni napasand hain, toh mere khwabon mein apke saaye kyun?
Agar aap mujhe itni buri lagti hain, toh kyun meri tanhayeeyon mein khalal deti hain?
Kyun mere andheron mein roshni ban ke aati hain?"
His first near-confession from that night when they had come so close, and then been ripped apart. She closed her eyes, savoring the memory. The words had been questions then, but they transformed into a renewing of the vows now.
He continued. Huskily.
"I resisted so hard, for so long, but ... you bewitched me, body and soul.' "
Her head fell back against the tub's edge and her heart knocked in her chest.
Playing unfair, Mr. Khan. Quoting from her favorite Austen film! She had forced him to watch it with her, and he'd been caught up in it soon enough. After watching the film she had poured over favorite passages on her iPad, and read them to him. Now, her crafty Akdu was channeling Mr. Darcy.
How was she to resist?
Leaping out, she splashed cold water on her face, smoothed her hair, and flew down the stairs. Zoya slammed into their room, breathing hard, phone still desperately clutched in her hand.
She drank in the sight before her.
Changed into jeans and a black shirt"Allah miyan, black shirt! He leaned against the windowsill, legs casually stretched out, crossed at the ankle. Head bent, he made adjustments to the guitar in his lap.
He didn't look up.
As she stepped in, Asad began strumming a tune guaranteed to melt her into a slushy, squishy mess.
Very impressive Mr. Khan!
She should have known. The make-up wooing would have to be meticulously planned and executed. Jahanpanah style! He wouldn't have had it any other way.
Picking up a pad and a pen from the table, she glided over to his side of the bed and sat down to listen, elbow on knee, face in her hand. He had his laptop open on the console and was following the chords on some webpage. As the music faded, their eyes met. She wrote something on the pad and held it up for him to see.
It was the number six.
Asad leaned over to set the instrument on its stand but she took it from him to hug it in delight.
Carefully replacing it in the stand she ran into his arms for a tight, overdue hug.
"I'm sorry," he whispered in her hair.
"Me too! I missed you so much."
"I do trust you, you know that right? It may be messy, but your instincts are always right!" He rocked her to him. "I know better now. You can take care of yourself. I know you'd never do anything reckless ... well, you would. But only to protect our family. I get it."
He hugged her tighter to him, burying his face in the crook of her neck. "But I go crazy worrying about something bad happening to you."
She burrowed in deeper, nose in his neck, inhaling deeply
Lifting her chin he asked solemnly, "do I really need to tell you how much I love you?"
Zoya raised her lips to his, "you already did, with all the high-octane charm offensive. But I can never get enough!" Her voice dropped to a throary murmur, "tell me again ..."
Asad stroked her lips with his thumb, and pressed his lips to her ear, "... saanson se uljhi rahen meri saansein ..."
He kissed her.
Pulling apart, he grinned down at her devilishly. Asad waved Ammi's note under her nose and wagged his eyebrows.
She grabbed it from his hands and gasped. "The whole house to ourselves?"
"And, I have more good news," he nuzzled her nose with his. His raised an eyebrow, remembering ...
She had desperately tugged him awake late last night.
"Asaaddd!" she'd arched and thrashed.
Alarmed, he had switched the lamp on.
He'd looked at her blearily, hardly aware of the volley of questions that flew out of his mouth: "Zoya! Are you OK? Is it the baby? Does it hurt?"
She'd wiggled against him mercilessly and moaned, "yes, it hurts dammit! Intercourse! I want in-ter-course!"
He didn't know whether to laugh or yell. Chuckling softly, he had chosen foreplay and partial gratification instead.
"What's the good news?" she now begged impatiently, bouncing on her feet, hands fisted on his shirt.
He swung her up in his arms. "Dr. Sharma called. The CBC panel results came back fine. All's good."
She smiled, and then her eyes got stormy.
"Yes, the curfew's been lifted." He nearly staggered with the shock of her gleeful shriek.
They tore off each other's clothing. Some buttons flew, and seams came close to being ripped. Another shirt got added to the growing pile of shirts that needed mending. Tomorrow, she promised herself. I'll get to them tomorrow. She had become an expert button-sewing domestic diva after all, thanks to all the practice!
Even though they had the whole house to themselves, they still ended up making love in their bed. It was slow. And sweet. They left the door wide open to broadcast their intimacy from room to room. Zoya moaned his name out as her nails raked his back. She would have screamed, but he swallowed her cries. The christened house wrapped them in its private embrace, its corners intimately remembering words spoken by a new guest from New York, eight months ago:
"Aapke ghar mein mohabbat hai
Iss kadar chhayee hui,
Deewaren tak lovers hain,
Kono mein mila karti hain."
"Happy, Mrs. Darcy?" he asked later, nuzzling her ear.
"Incandescent," she breathed.
Asad snickered and lifted her hand to kiss her knuckle. His eyes widened in shock.
"Zoya!" he held her face in his hands urgently, "did I make you cry so much?"
He knew that when she cried hard she stopped up her sobs by shoving her fists in her mouth. He massaged the tiny bruises and kissed them, "I'm so sorry, baby."
"No!" she rushed to reassure him. "It wasn't you ..."
"You're just saying that to make me feel better."
Zoya rose up on her elbow to stroke his brow, "no, really. It was about what you told me about ... Ab"- Abbu taking her home with him."
Fresh tears pooled in her eyes as she whispered, "he really would have accepted me?"
He crushed her to him. "Of course he would! He doesn't know what he missed out on. It's his loss. You'd have been the best thing to happen to him." Asad spanned her stomach possessively, "like you are, to me."
They lingered and talked in each other's arms. He told her about his client and watched the expressions of anger and alarm flit over her face. But soon her eyes widened in delight and pride and she hugged him tight.
"So kickass! I wish I was there to see his face!"
But suddenly the color drained from her face as fear clutched her heart. "But Asad, people like him know dangerous criminals. What if he tries to ...?" She was unable to go on. Manglapur flashed before her stricken eyes. Her fingers convulsed on his shoulders.
He chuckled. She punched him. He burst out laughing.
"Mr. Khan, it's not funny! You may be Jahanpanah, but you're not invincible!" she yelled, outraged. "What if he sends gundas to threaten you"-?"
Asad held her flailing fists. "You don't see the irony in this?"
Eyes slitted, she sat up pulling the sheet to her chin. She co*cked her head to the side. "What do you mean?"
"This morning I was saying the same thing to you about Tanveer knowing dangerous people."
"Hmm ..." she lowered her gaze.
"Hmm, what?" he prompted.
She let out a long martyred sigh, "OK, I'll be careful if you're careful. Deal?"
"Done. But I want you to be extra careful."
She glared at him.
"Please, for me? You know she would have burned the house down without a second thought. And at that time it was just for the money. Now, it's personal for her."
Her eyes softened, her pouting mouth curved, "OK, I promise."
He had told her about Tanveer being the one behind the gas leak. She still stewed about that. How dare that woman try to harm her family?
"We better start getting ready," she reminded him.
"Unhhh!" He fell back on his pillow and covered his face with an arm. She knew how much he hated parties.
She kissed his shoulder. "It'll only be family," she cajoled.
"Well, Omar's side of family too. Fine, rest. I'll shower first, then you can get ready."
Asad lowered his arm. His hooded gaze followed as she rose and tied her hair in a bun. He watched as she went to the closet to retrieve a towel, and then entered the washroom. A minute later he heard the shower run. Flinging the twisted sheet back, he strode in after her. Why waste water on two solo showers when one would do just as well? One of their prenuptial vows had been water conservation after all.
"Omar, I swear I'll kill you!" Najma hissed loudly. When he wasn't teasing her or pinching her, he was pretending to ogle young women around the airport knowing how steamed she'd get about it. She had glared at him, but by now he had become an expert at dodging her shin-kicks.
"I'll just have to send you back to the US with a chastity belt," she had muttered a couple of days ago when he was doing the same at the beach.
He had laughed outrageously at that. But seeing her wistful expression he had sobered up pretty quick. Their days together were limited. Each day was inexorably counting down to a long separation. Entire continents and time zones would divide them. He had pulled her into his arms then, not caring who saw, and kissed her hard.
Najma had struggled in her husband's embrace and he leered down at her, "let them see and be jealous of us!"
She had blushed a deep red when some people had passed by, whispering and giggling. But then she forgot about them and remembered only the feel of his skin against hers.
Even now, as they wheeled their bags towards the entrance she reddened thinking about how she'd never be able to look at Bhaijaan and Ammi. Zoya better be there to receive us or I'm just going to die, she thought. Of course Zoya would be there. Wild horses wouldn't keep her away. In fact, Najma rethought things, Zoya better not be there. She'll tease and deliberately ask embarrassing questions. Bhaijaan would blush, but say nothing to stop her. And with both her husband and Bhabhi ganging up on her, she wouldn't stand a chance.
She covered her face.
They had hardly stepped out of the hotel room or the houseboat this past week. Each time she had wanted to go out, Omar had yanked her back into bed.
"No point wasting time on sightseeing. You're all I need to see. Let's do some Omar and Najmaseeing."
He had memorized random lines that he'd keep reciting and repeating whenever she demanded to go out: "Gar Firdaus barrue zamin ast, hami asto, hami asto, hami asto."
"Isn't that about Kashmir?" she asked the first time he had used that phrase to cancel her petition for a walk on the beach.
"You're my Kashmir. My heaven on earth."
He placed his thumb on her swollen lips, "it is here." Omar then trailed his fingers down her cleavage, "it is here." As he moved lower, she slapped his hand away.
"It is not here!"
He managed to convince her otherwise quite easily.
"Say it," he commanded later.
"It is here ..." she breathed.
"But what'll I say when someone asks, how was Kerala, what did you see?" Najma asked after her breathing had slowed and her head had finally stopped spinning from a dizzying climax.
"Tell them to find out for themselves. Tickets are quite reasonable. Tell them that you saw the inside of a hotel room, in fact, mostly a lot of the room's ceiling!"
He had trailed kisses all the way down. With a rough voice, he had whispered, "tell them that you saw Kerala on the inside of your eyelids while your husband was taking a slow tour down your body."
Most days they had turned down housekeeping. The pile of room service dishes outside their room kept getting bigger.
He had tried to emotionally blackmail her the first couple of days: "Sure, let's go sightseeing. We have all the time in the world. So what if you won't be seeing me for five months after this."
But that would make her cry.
But eventually they did have to go out to restock on supplies the third day. Pure necessity. Omar had proudly displayed the empty package of condoms and she had covered her face with her hands. She had resolutely turned her face away in the car as he stopped at a Chemist's shop. This was so embarrassing!
Back in the car he had jiggled the paper bag: "Dinner or dessert?"
"Dinner," she said sweetly.
Dessert was guaranteed after all.
She looked up now and saw Ayaan bhaijaan scanning the crowd. Abbu was by him. Her heart stopped. She rushed over.
"Bhaijaan, Abbu! Aap yahan? Is everything OK? Ammi? Asad bhai?"
Rashid placed a hand on her head as Ayaan and Omar shook hands and bumped fists.
"Sab theek hai beta. Can't a father come to pick up his daughter and son-in-law?
That evening as he parked the car in the building's visitor lot, Asad tugged her hand before she stepped out. Hand on the door lock, Zoya turned to look up at him in surprise.
Eyes glittering, he jerked his chin half an inch.
She gasped aloud. "Asad!" she whispered, aroused and shocked. "No!"
He locked the car doors and crossed his arms.
"Do it." He ordered quietly.
She blushed a deep red. As they'd left home he'd teased her about going commando. She had giggled and then forgotten about it all in the car ride over.
It was obvious he hadn't.
"Now," he said roughly as his hand tightened on her wrist.
Her body zinged in awareness.
Silently, in slow motion, she shrugged her arm from his grasp. Unable to take her eyes off from his, she obeyed. She bent to raise her saree and lifted her butt to slide the panties off her legs. The feel of her own fingertips on her sensitized skin aroused her even more. As she slid them down, they got caught in her heels; she heard him swear under his breath.
She tried to discreetly tuck them away into her tiny sequined purse. With a groan, Asad snatched the black lace scr*ap from her and stuffed them in his pocket instead. Her flesh burned under the intensity of his gaze. She rubbed her thighs together and her back arched involuntarily.
Oh god, all evening would be exquisite torture. He would make sure of that.
Even in the elevator, if the lift boy hadn't been there, he would have taken her against its smoky mirrored walls.
As they got off the elevator, she whispered, "I didn't know that my pregnancy would be such an aphrodisiac for you!"
"That writer should write about the libidos of husbands of pregnant women," Asad muttered.
Finding the corridor empty he pulled her in for a hard, punishing kiss, that threatened an evening of subtle, yet public foreplay. "Better yet, may be I'll write that book!"
Luckily Dilshad opened the door. Her smile turned upside down as she rubbed off the dregs of his wife's lipstick from the corner of his mouth with her dupatta.
"Allah, Tum dono!" she muttered in frustration. She tut tutted in dismay. She had just read her daughter and son-in-law the riot act. Now these two.
"Behave now! Don't make me come over and yell at you again."
She probably shouldn't have said that. It only made him bolder.
As their eyes tangled with each other behind her back, her son tilted his head again. A fraction of an inch. Zoya's lashes brushed her pinkening cheeks.
The hunt was on. He had issued fair warning.
His eyes chased and stalked her all evening long, keeping her in a constant state of fluttery, misty arousal. Her back, covered only with silken doris hungered for his touch. For a brief second she had even felt his thumb snag in the doris and rub against her skin as he pulled her to introduce her to a distant relative. Her blouse felt tight, suddenly constricting. She wanted him to cup her possessively, relieve the pressure, to feel his finger and thumb stroke, twist and tease her. She wanted to feel his palm on her stomach high-fiving their baby and reassuring: Abbu's here. How does this happen, she wondered. How do warm maternal instincts silkily lace together with white hot lust?
She was surrounded by the girls who were teasing Najma. No one noticed Zoya being preoccupied, or her eyes darting away every two seconds. With quickening breath she watched him from afar. His fingers curled around a glass and he raised it to take a sip of his drink. His lips curved around the crystal, and she nearly moaned. When he shoved his hand into his pocket and looked straight at her, her knees melted, as liquid as the drink he held in his hand.
A half hour later, he dragged her to the balcony that wrapped around the whole flat on all three sides.
"Asad, what are you doing? Everyone will see!"
"I want you now."
She gasped. "Ammi will kill us!"
He pushed her deeper into a recessed corner behind a pillar. So high up, they could still hear the traffic below. Raucous Bollywood music thumped inside. Asad pressed against her and she moaned. A water fountain gurgled close by and occasionally splashed them.
"Oh god, Asad!" she breathed. She felt voluptuous. Silken. Sinful. Her head rolled against the wall as he bit her neck and sucked on it. She swayed and started to grind against him.
"Now, please!" she urged, turning renegade. "Take me!"
"Zoya!" he groaned against her beseeching skin.
In a flash, he'd raised her saree and petticoat. His fingers feathered between her thighs. She arched as much as her trapped body would allow. Scattered cold droplets from the fountain hit the fevered flesh on her bare legs; she shivered and hissed.
One hand under her chin, he bit out harshly, "look at me when I enter you."
She nearly cried out. But her eyes closed in erotic desperation as she felt him plunge in and possess her. Bracing one hand on the wall behind her, and clutching her hip with the other, he drove in, still commanding, "Zoya, look at me!"
She opened drugged eyes to let him brand her with his burning gaze. Her mouth parted and he dipped his head to slide his tongue in. In the distance they heard voices and his rhythm grew more insistent. Zoya wiggled desperately, embarrassed and aroused as she had never been before.
Shrieks of laughter and squeals grew louder.
She mewled and whimpered. Her hands dug into his hair, molding the shape of his skull.
"Where's Zoya Bhabhi?" she thought she heard Nuzzhat.
Her hips churned wildly as she felt herself spill over. Arms clasped around his neck, she pressed her lips to his temple to stop herself from keening like a cat in heat. As her body went limp he continued to plow harder into her.
"Oh my god, Asad," she breathed, her muscles still convulsing around him. "You consume me!"
He shuddered to a climax dragging her along with him for another one.
"Zoyaa!" he exhaled in her hair, "I love you."
She started to cry softly.
"Zoya, what is it? Tell me," he asked, worried, as they finished readjusting their clothes.
"I'm scared of this. Tell me we'll always be together, happy in each other like this?"
He drew her to him in a fierce embrace and tucked her head under his chin. "Always. I pray for it everyday, baby, every single day."
Song in Title:
Junglee (1961): "Ehsaan Tera Hoga Mujhpe"
Even in the midst of that tingling and throbbing lust fog, Zoya had been acutely aware of Najma and Omar's glum faces. She felt an odd kind of guilt.
She would have her husband close by to hold and love; her friend would not. The newlyweds would spend the night at his relatives' place and he would leave tomorrow. Six months of lambi judai! If she had to live away from Asad for a half a year, she would go insane and drive others around her insane as well.
Her heart ached for Najma. As they sat huddled together in Nikhat and Nuzzhat's room, Zoya held her weeping sister-in-law in her arms, nearly in tears herself.
Najma felt so grateful for Zoya's silent understanding.
She didn't want to moon and mope around too obviously in front of Bhaijaan and Ammi. How embarrassing. They would think that just in a few days her husband had become all-important to her. More than the two people who had doted on her all her life. But she could be free and honest in front of Zoya. Through tears she could express her deep grief and fears.
Zoya had wiped and kissed her cheeks.
"I'm so sorry Tamatar. I wish I could do something so that you could go with him or he could stay longer!"
Najma smiled through her tears. "I know Zoya. And I know, if you could do it, you would. Even I wish you were some kind of a fairy godmother who'd wave her magic wand!"
Zoya hugged her tight. "No, you don't want me as a fairy godmother. I might mess up the charm and turn Omar into a pumpkin! Or a frog. Your Bhaijaan would kill me. And you would have to kiss the frog all your life to turn him back into a prince!"
Najma sniffed. And laughed. "Thanks. I feel so much better now!"
"NOT!" they both said at the same time and dissolved into giggles yet again.
She held her bhabhi's hand, "Zoya, I'm so glad I have you. I'd be embarrassed to share any of this with Ammi or Bhai. They'd think kitni jaldi parayee ho gayee.' "
Zoya knelt in front of her, "paagal Tamatar! Why do you think your bhaijaan and Ammi will judge you for being in love? Ammi is thrilled that you are happy and have found her the best damaad. He's only second to her best bahu! And your bhaijaan? You know I'll take care of him!" she retorted smugly.
"No, but seriously," Zoya went on, "he would never think that. He's not happy that you're all grown up and married. In fact, he wishes you'd waited a whole year to get married."
Zoya laughed at that sound. "Exactly what I told him! But," she brushed her fingernails against her saree and blew on them, "thanks to your super-bhabhi, he knows exactly what it's like for two people to be in love and miss each other like crazy."
"Zoya! I don't need to know about my brother's love life. Jeez! La la la la la la la la ..." she rattled on, blocking her ears with her palms.
Offended, Zoya looked at her in mock-anger, fists on her waist.
"Oh really? Then let's talk about your love life, and how much of Kerala you really saw! Not much, right? Let me guess. The houseboat nearly capsized, hai na? Did the fish blush?"
"Zoya!" Tamatar flamed tamatari, and fled the room.
"Najma!" her bhabhi hissed, "wait up!"
"And you would know?" taunted Najma, making the mistake of continuing their honeymoon show-and-tell oneupmanship.
"Well, we weren't on a houseboat so I wouldn't know about that, but a certain train sure rocked a lot!"
"Zoya!!" Najma groaned and covered her face.
Her Bhabhi grabbed her arm and they guffawed with their heads together.
And that's how Asad found them. His heart warmed seeing them like this. He would forever be grateful that he had fallen in love with and married a girl who loved his family as much as he did, if not more. He drew Najma into a side hug and dragged Zoya to his other side, looking down into her eyes with silent gratitude.
"Hey, why wasn't I invited to the party?" called out Omar. Najma blushed and ducked her head into her brother's shoulder.
Asad frowned at the intrusion, forgetting for a second that his baby sister was married to this interloper. Omar insinuated himself in between them shamelessly, surreptitiously drawing Najma closer.
"Zo, I'll be needing your butt-kicking services," Omar looked at her archly. "Your Raabert is bugging me about going out afterwards for dancing, sundaes and coffee."
She saw Najma's face fall and patted his arm, "don't worry kids. Mona darling is fairy godmother, and she'll fix everything."
A much-happier Najma beamed.
"Oh really?" Asad asked, "how is Mona darling going to do that? And what needs to be fixed or kicked exactly? I thought everyone would be very happy to go gallivanting in the middle of the night, except for me."
Zoya looked at him pointedly, trying to telegraph her friends' dismay, "you'd be very surprised Mr. Khan!"
She dug her elbow into his side, "umm, Mr. Khan, Dadi wanted to talk to you."
He looked down at her quizzically, head co*cked to the side.
How did she know Dadi wanted to talk to him? Her phone hadn't rung. And if Dadi wanted to talk to him, why didn't she tell him sooner? His wife dragged him away babbling non-stop about how forgetful he was, and hadn't she already told him this. She turned to wink at Najma, while clinging to her confused Jahanpanah's arm. She giggled as she saw Omar drag his blushing bride away while giving his accomplice an enthusiastic thumbs up.
"Zoya!" Asad shook off her hand in annoyance. "What is all this? And why are you herding me? I wanted to ask Omar something. Where'd he go?"
"Allha miyan, what's wrong you Mr. Khan?! Couldn't you see that the poor things needed time alone? What else was I supposed to do?"
He groaned clutching his forehead.
"Oh god, he better not"-"
"What? Do what we just did?"
Asad blushed a tomato-red himself. "Will you stop putting such images in my mind, woman? She's my kid sister for god's sake!"
"Mr. Khan! They are married, in love, and about to be parted for a good half year. They need all the time they can steal. Don't be so mean."
"Mean? You think I was doing that on purpose?" he glowered at her.
She glared back at him, "yep, because you are a total pyaar ka dushman, Tayyab Ali!"
"Pyaar ka dushman!" Asad roared pointing an accusing finger. "You better have lots of badaam Mrs. Khan, because I don't want my child to have selective amnesia like its mother!"
"Allah!" behind them, they heard Dilshad groan, "ye dono! When they aren't being besha*ram lovebirds, they are fighting!"
Zeenat giggled as she slipped her arm in Zoya's. "Aise hi ladte the ye dono?"
"Din raat. For six whole months, Zeenat! Every morning and every evening, this is what Najma and I would wake up to, and go to bed seeing. Sher cheete ki ladai!"
She sighed, "I should have sold tickets!"
Dilshad, an ironic bard, continued giving her samdhan an excerpted account as the warriors of her epic saga glared each other down"one, arms folded across his chest, the other, fists planted firmly on her waist.
"Aap musibat hain!"
"Aap 17th century se hain!"
"Aapko rishton ki ehmiyat nahin hai!"
"Aap judgmental and Akdu hain!"
"Aap ko apni hadein nahin pata hain!"
"Aap pathar dil hain!"
"Aap ... voh ... actually ... main ..."
"Aap emotionally challenged hain!"
Zeenat loved it. "I wish I had been here to see this!"
"Arre Zeenat, ye to sirf trailer tha! I have never seen my son behave this way."
"So cute," Aapi laughed, delighted, as she saw Asad blushing. She patted his back, "bahut tang kiya meri Zoya ne?"
Asad's eyes had already begun to soften as he heard his mother replay six months' worth of turbulent chemistry between the two of them.
"... bas, thoda sa," he said softly, eyes only for Zoya.
Both had imperceptibly lurched toward one other.
"Par maine bhi innko kafi tang kiya." He had intended to say it playfully, boastfully. But it came out as a plea for forgiveness for every time he had ...
She was right. He had been mean.
"Mera baccha," Zeenat caressed Zoya's cheek. "So far away from home, all alone, and seedhe sher ke pinjare mein chhod diya?"
Aapi dug her elbow playfully into Zoya, fully expecting her to come back with her trademark, "oh really?" or "Allah miyan, what's wrong with you?"
But Zoya remained silent. Her own eyes had softened. She knew what he was thinking. We were different then, Mr. Khan, she pleaded. Don't beat yourself up about that time.
We have now.
And so many tomorrows.
She grinned up at him impishly.
Those fights were just foreplay. Sensuous, heated mating dances. Each time we fell into each other's arms, it was a slow dance; just a preview of love to come. And Aapi, if we hadn't fought all those months, this would be our second pregnancy, nikaah, or no nikaah!
"Lekin aaj kal, these two drive me crazy by not fighting!" Dilshad joked, already sensing the smoldering change between the two of them and rolling her eyes.
"Convent school ki Mother Superior ki tarah, I have to play monitor!"
"Bad cop," quipped Zeenat.
"Ammi Havaldaar!" snorted Zoya, waving an imaginary baton.
"Restraining order ki kami hai bas, or may be hathkadis to opposite ends of the room!" teased Dilshad.
Happily she watched them smile a secret smile. Hathkadis brought back memories.
Dilshad laughed as she saw her son stalk away from all this female-dominated domestic psychoanalysis and forensic indictment.
"Mr. Khan," his wife called out, "Voh, Ayaan"-"
"I'll talk to him ... don't worry," he reassured, giving her a long hooded look before leaving.
Zoya leaned on Aapi, covering up a sudden yawn.
"Theek ho?" Aapi asked. She nodded.
In synchrony, both mothers removed kaajal from their eyes to plant twin kala tikas behind Zoya's ears.
"Khush raho!" Zeenat prayed through suddenly stinging eyes.
She still hadn't told Zoya that she would be leaving soon. But now that everything was settled about the baby she needed to get back to her husband. Even though he said nothing, she knew Anwar was skipping meals and overworking, not wanting to come back to a dark and lonely house. It was time to move back to the empty nest and look forward to a brood of transnational grandchildren. FAO Schwarz's flagship store was about to be depleted!
Just yesterday, Anwar had introduced them to the world's largest bow-tied and vested teddy bear via skype.
"Awww," Zoya had clapped her hands and cooed. "Jeeju how come you never bought me something like that?"
"We were just starting out then, beta. Aur waise bhi, assal se pyaara sood hota hai," Jeeju had retorted.
Oh, she was so sick of hearing that line! Day and night, she would hear Ammi and Aapi say that too.
"No way is my kid going near that monstrosity," Asad had muttered later, in private.
"Mr. Khan, you're so mean!"
And the battle lines were re-drawn.
But not for long. She had managed to easily divert him.
"Asad, you promised to show me your toys and things from when you were a kid!"
"Please," she begged and bounced when he rolled his eyes.
"There aren't that many," he said quietly.
And Zoya had sobered up, her heart going out to him. "I'd still love to see them," she coaxed. She knew that growing up, both he and Najma didn't have fancy toys.
A long time ago Najma had shown her the dollhouse bhaijaan had built for her as a kid. It was made from a simple cardboard box. Its sides had been painted with watercolors which had now faded. Windows and doors had been meticulously cut in. They could be closed and opened. You could still see the pencil marks where he must have measured and marked before making the precise cuts. The details had been breathtaking. Fabric scr*aps from Ammi's sewing work had been used as curtains and bed covers over a bed made of folded newspapers. Bottle caps served as mirrors and a gas stove. Matchboxes and matchsticks, ice cream sticks, straws and jam jar lids had been transformed into furniture with paint and more fabric. Shiny foil from chewing gum wrappers had been rolled into tiny balls and glued on as knobs. A cigarette box made a refrigerator. A matchbox, painted black was a TV. Other matchboxes had been sawed in half and stacked to make dresser drawers for different rooms.
It must have taken days to collect the recyclables and put together!
It had brought tears to her eyes. She had wondered about this side of him then, when she was still falling headlong in love. So tender toward his sister, so protective of his mother. And so angry with her. Even then she had felt a pinch of self-pity. Am I really that hateful? So unfit?
She shook off those memories of pain and heartbreak and held his face in her hands. "I don't care! They'll be priceless treasures to me. I want to hug them and feel what you must have been like as a child. I want to save them so that we can show them to our kids."
He grinned. Once again she'd managed to weave dreamy fantasies from buried shards and broken fragments. Her enthusiasm was catching; it made him want to check out the toys too. Grabbing her hand he had led her to the storeroom. Pulling up a chair he made her sit on it. He rummaged around in old cupboards trying to find a battered cardboard box with his name on it. After a few sneezes and bumps he unearthed it. When he turned around, Zoya burst into peals of laughter.
"What?" he asked frowning.
"You look so excited. And so cute!"
He walked out with the box.
"Come, we'll open it in our room. Grab me some wet washcloths so that we can wipe the dust off."
"Humph," she grumbled. "Trust you to make any fun thing into boring work."
"OK, OK, coming right up Jahanpanah. Sheesh! Here I wanted to play house, and he turns me into his maid. Typical!" she continued to mutter to herself.
"I heard that!"
"Good for you! Obviously nothing wrong with your hearing. Yay!"
By the time she came back to the room he was on the floor with the box in front of him. She handed him the damp washcloth and he began to wipe the box down.
"Asad, hurry!" she urged as she too settled down next to him.
Very carefully he opened the box to reveal treasures from long ago. Out came a jar of marbles. She squealed, grabbing it. He snatched it back to wipe it down.
"How do you play with these? Teach me."
She set it next to her and waited eagerly for more.
He took out old school notebooks. She could hardly contain herself.
"On my god, look at this handwriting. It is so you." There were no red marks and countless glowing comments from teachers about the neatness and accuracy of the work. She hugged them to her chest.
"You were one of those perfect kids right, who made no mistakes? The teachers always held you up as a model student and all the other kids hated you?" She groaned.
He took out a shoebox full of tiny cars. They were neatly arranged in precise rows on top of a cotton pad. The colors may have faded but none of them had a chip or missing part.
"Asad! I love this so much," she whispered in wonder. Some of the cars had doors or trunks that opened. Each specified the model number and famous car manufacturer on the undercarriage.
Her eyes misted. "I have a similar collection back at home. It's smaller than yours and not as well-maintained! Obviously. My favorite used to be this red Volvo hatchback station wagon. You know, they don't make them like this any more. It's all cheap, lightweight plastic with no working parts anymore."
He hugged her sideways, grateful for reliving the memories of his childhood which weren't tainted by anger or bitterness.
"Which one's your favorite?" she asked softly.
He delicately fingered them all and then picked up a tiny beetle.
"I always imagined that when I grew up, I'd buy Ammi a Volkswagen exactly like this."
"Aww, you were always a heartbreaker weren't you?"
Unable to resist, she peeked in and saw comic books neatly stacked. She pulled out hard-bound books on Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, A 1001 Arabian Nights. Each had official seals and inscriptions on the inside for winning debate or essay competitions, or for placing first in class.
"Aww, my Akdu was a total nerd!" She climbed into his lap to hug him and place kisses along his jaw. "I wish I'd known you as a schoolboy. You must have been a Prefect or a Headboy for sure."
"And Captain," he pulled out a battered cricket ball.
"Cricket! You were team captain? My Dhoni! I am so in love with you all over again!"
Zoya shook her head as she wiped Aapi's lipstick off her cheek. The party was in full swing around her. Nuzzhat and Nikhat circulated, chatting with relatives. Aapi and Ammi were with Dadi and Chhoti Ammi. Abbu was in deep conversation with Omar's cousin. Hmm. Isn't he the one everyone had been whispering about for Nikhat's rishta? Zoya crossed her fingers. Yay! He would be perfect. She watched Asad nab Ayaan and pull him aside. From across the room, Humaira's eyes followed both of them. Zoya smiled as she saw Humaira's eyes widen in panic. Poor thing! Worried that her Ayaan was going to be taken to task by my Akdu for some new prank or escapade.
She walked over to link her arm with Humaira's.
"It's OK," she reassured her sister. "Mr. Khan's just telling him that we can't go out after this. I don't think Najma and Omar will be up for it."
Humaira nodded in understanding.
"Zoya bhabhi, tell me, why do you still call him Mr. Khan? You can't possibly be calling him that in private!"
Zoya sputtered. "Oh really? All of a sudden you're so curious about what we do in private!"
"No! I didn't mean that!" Humaira blushed.
Zoya laughed heartily and hugged her close. "I know. I'm just messing with ya. I wanted to remove those worry lines from your face. You seem tense these days. What's going on?"
Humaira sighed. She was dying to share everything with Zoya bhabhi of all people. She loved that Ayaan had been an absolute rock during all this. But she didn't want to tell him about her dithering over the decision to move back home.
"Kya hua Humaira? Can't you tell me," Zoya urged softly, crooking a finger under her chin.
"Bhabhi, both you and Asad bhaijaan have been so nice to me. I love staying with you all. Phuphi and Aapi have made me feel so welcome. But I'm thinking that it might be time for me to go back home." Her voice nearly broke.
Having said it aloud made her realize that she had actually made up her mind. She was going home.
She needed to be with Abbu. She needed to face Ammi. No more running away and hiding.
Zoya gasped. No! Please don't go. I've only just found you, after so many years! Her eyes teared.
"I've loved having you with us. Are you sure? We'd love it if you stayed on."
"I'm worried about Abbu, that's why. Otherwise I would have stayed on. Promise!"
"What happened to Abbu?" Zoya's heart stopped. "I mean, your ... Abbu."
Humaira looked away. She wanted to tell her all. But it was so complicated. Zoya bhabhi looked so concerned. She had tears in her eyes. How could she feel so deeply for me? Since day one Zoya bhabhi's only thought of me. My fears at the fashion show. My silly worries that day when we met at the restaurant. Donating blood. Nursing me back to health.
I was so miserable that day. When they had met at that restaurant, Zoya bhabhi had been the only one to sense her pain. She had talked about ...
Humaira thought back to their conversation that evening. She had been forlorn because she thought that Ayaan liked Zoya bhabhi. They had gone together for a fun trip to Ajmer, Jaipur and Agra that Ayaan would not stop talking about. She was just his type: jeans-wearing, shayari-reciting, witty, bold, feisty ... He seemed to hang on to every word of hers, he seemed so charmed by her. But Zoya bhabhi had not seemed to flirt with him or encourage him in any way. In fact, she had actually changed places to sit by her, comforted her and even held her hand in sympathy. She had been sad herself that day.
What had she said then ...?
"Isn't it funny? The person I ... I like, doesn't really like that I dress this way. Nor does he approve of what I do or think, for that matter. But I've only just begun to stop feeling sorry for myself."
She had squeezed Humaira's hand in hers, "and you know what helps? Getting mad!"
Humaira smiled a watery smile now. Zoya bhabhi had clearly been talking of Asad bhaijaan then! Someone who she had thought so confident and invincible, had been hurting from the pangs of unrequited love.
Just like her.
Much later, Ayaan had told her how both bhabhi and bhai had loved each other, but because of some misunderstanding ...
Hadn't Asad Bhaijaan been engaged to someone else then? In fact, that evening had been a special get together so that they could all meet his fiance. What was her name?
Zoya saw Humaira's mouth form a big O. Fear gripped her. She grabbed Humaira's hands in both of hers.
"Humaira? Munna what happened? You're scaring me."
She felt her sister's hands tremble in hers. She pulled her in for a tight hug.
Blindly, her eyes sought Asad's. He turned, heeding her silent cry from across the crowded room.
In a flash, the brothers were by their side.
"Mona, what happened?" asked a worried Ayaan. "Why is she staring blankly like this?"
He tried to hold Humaira's hand. It was cold and clammy.
Asad's eyes collided with Zoya's.
A frantic Ayaan tried to disengage a stiff Humaira from Zoya, to take her in his arms. Asad and Zoya moved to shield them from prying eyes.
"Zoya?" both men asked.
She swallowed. "She was telling me that she wants to go back home. ... that she's worried about Abbu ... her Abbu, I mean."
Her anguished eyes squeezed shut.
"What happened to Abbu?" she whispered to Asad who held her to his side.
Asad frowned. Rakesh's people were still following the Siddiquis. If anything had happened, he'd have heard. He led Zoya out to the sofas on the balcony, signaling Ayaan to bring Humaira too.
Ayaan knelt before Humaira as he settled her in on one of the couches.
"Humaira begum?" Ayaan pled in desperation. "Tell me what's going on? Why do you want to go back?"
"Tanveer!" Humaira choked. "He said her name was Tanveer."
Song in Title:
Love Aaj Kal (2009) Aj Din Chadheya"
Topic started by dixeij
Last replied by -jass-