With her back to him, Najma let Omar hold her as they leaned against the balcony railing. His stubble tickled her ear and she took a deep breath. He bent to kiss a tear from the side of her eye. Neither wanted to say tired words of goodbye, or missing each other, or not being able to live without one another. Their hearts were already heavy with the weight of these unsaid redundancies. And saying them would only make it all too real.
His heart beat against her back, cruelly counting the seconds down.
When he pressed his lips against her temple to whisper, "Najma," she twisted around in his arms, to bury her face in his chest, sobbing uncontrollably.
"I'm sorry, so sorry," she hiccupped later. "I promised myself that I wouldn't cry and ruin our time together. I'll do that once you're gone." She burst into tears all over again.
She had seen her crazy, unpredictable and fun-loving husband turn more and more somber over the last few hours.
It had broken her heart.
He cupped her face and wiped her streaming tears with his thumbs. "Cry all you want. It gives me more reason to hold you. And I hate the idea of you crying alone. Promise me, you won't hide your tears from me, or put on a fake smile when we skype or facetime. Don't be filmy. Just be you."
That's exactly what she had been planning to do. She smiled suddenly. He knew her so well ...
Returning from the airport, for some time, it had been easy to pretend that they had all the time in the world. It had been exciting to catch up with everyone, be teased mercilessly, distribute gifts, and dress up for the party in their honor. Nikhat and Nuzzhat and later Humaira, had fussed over her, offering conflicting suggestions for jewelry and clothes and hairstyles. They had teased her so much that the rising color on her cheeks was pretty much a permanent fixture.
No designer blush needed, Nuzzhat ribbed. No sirree!
They had lovingly helped dress her, drape and pin her dupatta just right, and style her hair, even attaching a gajra on the side. All the girls were going to wear one.
Wouldn't it be so much fun?
All the sisterly hard work had to be redone of course.
Omar had kicked up a fuss about his suit needing ironing. Many an aunt and saali had offered to help, but apparently only his wife knew how to do it just right. Unsuspecting, she had gone into the guest room, only to be dragged and pinned against the wall to pay a hefty fine for looking too gorgeous for her own good, smelling delicious, and avoiding him all evening. The iron had dropped from her limp fingers and landed on his toes.
He'd yelped and hopped on one foot after cussing under his breath.
"Dammit, Najma! Loving you is like going into battle without armor. I have too many scars and fading black and blue bruises to count by now!"
"I'm so sorry," she had cried out, hands on her mouth, eyes wide with alarm.
He had kissed her roughly. "It's fine babes, it could've been worse! At least, it wasn't plugged in or burning hot ... as I will be ..." He had waggled his eyebrows at her and whispered more bawdy threats and promises.
She'd giggled and blushed and covered her face.
Scooping her up in his arms he had limped over to the bed for some heated payback and ironing out of marital issues. The suit laid out on the bed had become even more creased. And the mogra flowers had hardly stayed in her hair. The gajra, with some help, had slowly snaked its perfumed way down her body and ended up crushed under them; the flowers lay scattered, spontaneously combusting into a shower of fragrant embers.
Later at the party, Ayaan bhaijaan and Omar's cousins had dragged them to dance to re-mixes of Lungi Dance, Dilliwali Girlfriend, Badtameez Dil and many more ephemeral item numbers of the day.
The grown ups had pooh-poohed and rolled their eyes at such meaningless lyrics in aaj kal ke behude gaane.
"Gaane toh humare waqt mein hote the!" An elderly granduncle bemoaned.
"Shayari ka toh zamaana hi nahin raha!" An older aunt sniffed.
"Nahin, nahin, aisa nahin hai Khala," Dilshad had interjected. "Meri bahu bahut acchi modern shayari karti hai!"
"Mera beta bhi," chimed in Shireen, and the moms had laughed to Khala's dismay.
A laughing Dadi had patted her arm. "Let them be, Baji. Ab inn bachhon ka zamana hai!"
It had been such fun ignoring the stick-in-the-mud oldies and kicking up their heels to dance their hearts out! Omar had twirled her, while Humaira, Nikhat and Nuzzhat clapped in rhythm and the boys whistled and whooped around them. She had been giddy with delight when Omar belted the lyrics in sync to, "Tere liye hi to signal tod taad ke ..."
In the masti haze, both of them had forgotten the parting barely less than twenty-four hours away. She had thrown her head back and twisted with abandon, and he had leaped with Ayaan and other cousins to maniacally do the Lungi Dance.
It had been exhilarating!
When Zoya and Bhaijaan had come in, Zoya had squealed and run in to join them. She had hugged Najma to her and they had shouted out and pulsed to Badtameez Dil, steps already familiar from having danced to it a hundred times before.
Najma had looked at Bhaijaan to see him shaking his head at all the craziness. He stood at the edge, an arm around Nikhat's shoulders pretending disapproval. But when "1, 2, 3, 4, get on the dance floor," came on, it was perfect timing!
Ayaan bhaijaan and Nuzzhat had pulled their quieter siblings into the heart of the thumping, pounding action. Nikhat has danced shyly even though she was the best dancer among them. Najma caught Omar's cousin Feroze, watching her from the side before he too was sucked into the seething, gyrating whirlwind of surging and heaving bodies.
She remembered Zoya dancing in circles around a beaming Asad Bhaijaan, giggling up into his face and grabbing his hands in hers. Winking up at him, she sang loudly with, "itna mazaa, kyun aa raha hai, toone hawa mein bhaang milaya!"
He had thrown his head back and actually laughed before gathering her in his arms!
Wrapped in the circle of her husband's arms, Najma sighed now, remembering how, in the end, Omar had pulled her into his chest and they had swayed to the music, oblivious to the zany Gangnam style movements around them. The siblings and cousins had formed a jiving wall of noise that shielded the newlyweds from raised eyebrows and parental frowns. She had seen Zoya and Bhaijaan in a similar walled off private world. Even though they weren't in each other's arms, they were still lost in each other's eyes.
Suddenly, she was jealous of Zoya and Bhaijaan.
They get to be together but I won't see my husband for six long and lonely months.
Omar's arms tightened around her.
She closed her eyes and switched off her mind to savor this moment to make it last forever. The disintegrated gajra, a blushing witness to their lovemaking, was gone. But its scent lingered on their intertwined bodies.
They sighed in unison. Their stillness formed a stark silhouette against the night sky; tomorrow it would have one less stargazer.
Zoya had been holding Humaira's hand. Her other hand was clasped firmly in Asad's warm and comforting grip.
"He said her name was Tanveer ..." Humaira had whispered.
Zoya snatched her hand away from hers as if burned. A silent gasp ripped through her. Asad's grip tightened around her convulsing fingers. His thumb gently stroked the self-inflicted bruises from this morning.
She let her hair veil her face.
Humaira sensed her withdrawal; it pierced through the shell of her own numbing shock. She rushed to kneel in front of Zoya and held her hand in both of hers.
"Zoya Bhabhi, I'm so sorry for even mentioning that woman's name."
Zoya ducked her head into Asad's shoulder. His arm had already come around to protectively hold her tight to him.
"I'm so sorry, please forgive me." Looking at a recoiling Zoya Bhabhi who had always been so strong, Humaira too was locked into a cycle of pain. She had just realized how hard it must be for Bhabhi to be reminded of ...
Unable to bear Humaira's self-inflicted grief, Zoya leaned forward to hug her. That woman's name didn't bother her for the reasons Humaira thought.
She kissed the top of her head.
"Forget it, it's ... I'm OK."
And she was, Zoya thought as she squared her shoulders.
To an extent.
To be surrounded by people who loved her so much: a sister she could hold, a husband who put roses on her cheeks and stars in her eyes.
She was better than OK.
Zoya's hand flew to her stomach.
But she could feel Asad stiffening in suppressed rage next to her. She turned to smile at him and squeezed his hand to let him know she really was fine.
"But Humaira, what happened? Who said her name? Someone here at the party?" Ayaan asked, still confused about the unnamed ripples of undercurrents radiating around them.
"Abbu ..." she whispered.
"What?" Ayaan croaked. "How would he ...?"
Asad looked down at Zoya's bowed head. She was holding herself too tight again, afraid to fly apart into a million pieces. He gathered her even closer. He wanted to haul her up and take her home, press her face into his chest and tell her over and over again, that he would fix everything, burn down anything that caused her pain.
His lips thinned in grim frustration.
Humaira looked into Ayaan's worried face, pleading silently with him to not ask any more questions. He pulled her up on the sofa.
"Bhai knows about ... you know. I just told him. You can say anything in front of them." He rushed to reassure her.
She exhaled deeply. Holding Ayaan's hand for support she let the pent-up distress and confusion bubble out.
"Abbu told me ... her name this morning. I thought the name sounded familiar but I couldn't place it. She's missing. The police can't help much. Abbu doesn't have a picture but he'll talk to a sketch artist tomorrow." Her words frantically tumbled out. It was as if they needed to break free from being strangled and trapped in her mind.
"I have her picture ..."
Asad nodded stiffly.
Ayaan and Humaira whipped their heads to look at Zoya. She was staring at the table in front of her.
" ... from the trip."
Asad leaned back and sighed out loud. He had almost deleted those pictures in Agra. But thanks to those pictures, he had been able to put Rakesh's team on her trail. Had Zoya not offered the pictures from her iPad, he wouldn't have known how to volunteer this piece of information to Humaira or Gaffoor Siddiqui.
He smiled grimly.
What was even the use of those photographs any more? Tanveer had slipped through the cracks yet again. He dragged his attention back to the conversation.
"... thanks Zoya bhabhi. When we go back home, I'll send the picture to Abbu to confirm whether it's the same person."
Both she and Ayaan looked at each other.
"What are the odds?" He mused. "How is it even possible? It's too much of a coincidence, right Bhai?"
Nikhat came up to perch on the sofa arm. "Bhaijaan, why are you all looking so serious? Is everything OK?
Asad stood and drew her down to sit next to Zoya. He stepped away to make some quick calls.
Omar's phone buzzed to indicate a new message. Sighing, he pulled out his phone. A pressed white mogra flower fell out.
Najma bent to pick it up and tucked it in her bra. His eyes shuttered.
The phone buzzed again.
He showed the screen to Najma.
"Looks like Zo waved her magic wand. Your brother just arranged a car to sneak us out of here and take us home. Our bags have already been smuggled on board."
Najma didn't even bother to blush. But she did ask one burning question for courtesy's sake: "We were supposed to spend the night at your cousins' ... what'll everyone say?"
He yanked her to his chest, "that we are shameless and horny! Badtameez Dil and Dilliwali girlfriend went to do gandi, gandi, gandi baat!" Omar sang out in tune to all the songs.
She giggled, highly diverted by the return of her playful husband.
"Anyways, let Zo and Asad handle the PR on that. They must have more experience in excuse-making after all!"
He gave her a quick kiss and pushed her through the French doors with strict instructions: "don't look at anybody! Keep going even if someone calls out your name. In fact, hold your phone to your ear as if ... Just make a beeline for the main door and I'll follow in a couple of minutes. See you by the elevator!"
As she moved to leave, he tugged her arm to growl in her ear, " ... and if we have the elevator to ourselves, we could stop it midway and do some sightseeing, hmm? I'll really show you Kerala this time."
"Omar!" she hissed, already praying and crossing her fingers for an empty elevator. It was just after 10pm. The liftboy would have left, right?
Backing away from him, she quipped, "you know, I'd rather see Kashmir!"
He groaned and looked at his watch impatiently.
Hanging up, Asad rubbed his brow.
Still no trace of Tanveer.
May be there was something to Zoya's idea about Tanveer's doctor. He had mentioned it to Rakesh who was already trying to get someone hired at the clinic for an inside track.
But at least he had been able to get Najma and Omar out of here. If the gory secrets were to come tumbling out into the open, then these two needed to be out of the way. Safe from fresh worries of monsters lurking in every shadow. They had precious little time together. It needed to be free of ... of this foul mess. There would be time enough for it later.
And it would temporarily shut up his wife for callig him a pyaar ka dushman!
Most of the evening, Dilshad had kept an anxious watch over Najma and Omar. Her heart went out to them. My babies. Wiping a tear, she turned and nearly ran into Shireen. She too was gazing at the newlyweds and smiling.
"It's so good to see the children happy." She patted Dilshad's arm, "though I know, Najma will miss him terribly."
She looked away at Nikhat in quiet conversation with Feroze, and clasped her hands hopefully. "I wish Nikhat also finds a nice boy like Omar."
Dilshad rubbed her shoulder, "she will. She deserves only the best. Feroze looks like he's perfect for her."
Shireen raised excited and grateful eyes to her face, "really? You think so? We always worried about her. She's the quietest. Never any trouble. Mature beyond her years."
She sighed. "Ammi always called Nikhat maintenance-free.' Because Ayaan sucked up too much of my maternal attention and energies."
A shadow crossed her face. She remembered Imran. Unconsciously, she gripped Dilshad's hand tighter, "when the engagement with Imran broke off ... I was so terrified for her. I almost feared ... she would hurt herself." A sob escaped her.
Dilshad had wrapped her arm around her shoulder and led her to a couch, comforting her. "Shireen, she would never do something like that. Haven't you seen how strong she is? Look at her."
She pointed with her chin. Shireen had turned to see Omar hugging Nikhat to his side as she laughed up into his face. Najma was clutching her head in despair and Feroze looked on, charmed and wistful.
Dilshad continued to soothe her fears, "yes, it's always the quiet ones you worry about the most, isn't it? Asad bhi aisa hi tha. Always thinking of us and never about himself. I almost feared he would let Zoya get away! Tauba! If he had taken even a day longer, I would have cracked his skull!"
Shireen smiled. Yes, Nikhat was stronger than all of them had given her credit for. In fact, she had become a little bolder since the Imran fiasco. Being at the other house more and more these past few days, had made her smile and laugh more. Omar had certainly been a good influence too. They talked quite frequently over the phone. She had rejoined her kathak classes and was just talking excitedly about martial arts classes that Asad had organized for the girls.
Earlier, along with Najma, she was considering applying for a Masters program once their results came out. But lately Shireen had seen books on MBA and MCAT test prep stacked by her bed.
Please Allah! Just let her be happy ... let her find a boy who will value her quiet strength.
Zoya came up quietly behind him and slipped her hand in his. Inside, dinner was underway. Through the wide plate-glass, floor to ceiling windows, Asad watched Ayaan, Humaira, Nuzzhat, Nikhat and Feroze laugh and chat at a table. The parents sat at another table equally at ease.
"I know what you did," she teased softly.
"What did I do?" he looked at her suspiciously but still brushed her hair off her face.
"You played fairy godmother!"
"I'm a fairy now!" he growled.
"A macho and se*xy one, but still a pyaar ka farishta!"
He quirked an eyebrow.
She held up her phone. "Tamatar texted me to say thanks for waving my magic wand. Little does she know that her Bhaijaan has become quite an expert at magic, not requiring any supervision!"
"Magic, huh?" Asad held her hands in his and kissed her knuckles.
"Pure, unadulterated, love potion type, magic!" She grinned, watching his expression change, his eyes narrowing.
"Any left for me?" Zoya purred.
"Only the best kind! Hard core," he moved a step closer. Wiggling her hands free, she moved one step back.
"Dark magic," he took another step, and so did she. He heard her breath catch.
"To match that voodoo that you do," Asad breathed. Zoya moaned softly.
He pulled her toward the railing and nuzzled her neck after pushing her hair to one side. "But first things first, tell me, you're OK?"
She nodded. Too eagerly. "I will be."
"Let's get out of here. I'll give you a back rub, a deep tissue massage ..."
"Mr. Khan, those massages always go incomplete because you demand a happy ending! And we used up too many tissues last time to mop up the oil spills! Besides, have you forgotten, we have to give Ammi, Aapi and Humaira a ride back home?"
He looked blank for a second. "Because the lovebirds took the other car," she explained patiently.
Realization dawned, and he exhaled. "Let's get something to eat then."
"I'm not hungry."
"Zoya! You have to eat properly!"
"I munched on starters all evening. I'm stuffed."
Her husband started to drag her inside to get her to eat something.
"Should we wait for Humaira to find out on her own, or ..." Zoya asked, to divert him.
He tucked her hair behind an ear. "Are you ready for her to know?"
She squeezed her eyes shut. "I don't know," Zoya nearly sobbed.
Asad crushed her to him.
"If she finds out about me, won't she also find out about her Ammi?"
He didn't answer, waiting for her to sound out and sort the tormenting and treacherous thoughts.
Zoya fell silent.
"What does your gut say? Your instincts have been foolproof. We'll do whatever feels right to you." He assured her, kissing the top of her head.
"I don't know," she sighed. "A part of me doesn't want anything to change. But a part of me wants him to acknowledge me. I want her to know she's my sister." Zoya sniffled.
"She will. I promise."
Slow music played inside. Their bodies swayed to the faint strains of "Tum hi ho." He wanted to erase all sadness from her eyes. He wanted to see that dimple flash again. Brushing his lips over the shell of her ear, he whispered, "the post-curfew action was pretty good today, hunh?"
Zoya shivered. And giggled. "Oh my god, it was glorious! I can't believe we actually did that! What if someone had walked in on us?!"
"We've had practice," Asad's triumphant voice rumbled in her ear, and her blood thrilled.
Najma and Omar's Waleema!
And then, someone had nearly walked in on them!
She had worn a lehenga that night, her husband a sherwani. Because they had been at their own house, it had been easier to sneak away.
She smiled remembering ...
Zindagi, ab tum hi ho ... chain bhi ... seductively played on.
Asad twirled her and slammed her back to his chest. His arms wrapped around her waist as his hands splayed her stomach.
"You had texted me to lure me into our room," she whispered.
"Mrs. Khan, I didn't need to lure you. You nearly tripped over your two feet to come running to me."
"I came all right!"
Asad chuckled heartily at that.
The room had been dimly lit as she entered. The door had closed with a soft whoosh behind her. Before she could whip around, he had her picked her up and carried her to the closet.
"Asad!" she had whispered. It had meant to be a reprimand, but sounded too much like a moan craving the promise of familiar surprises to come.
Setting her down, he turned her to face the wall as he bent to drop openmouthed kisses on her nearly nude back. He still remembered, two useless doris had hung and swayed, obstructing the path of his questing lips, and he'd pulled them loose impatiently. He had wanted to rip them off. But they needed to go back and join the celebrations. Mingle and make nice; smile, bob and curtsey.
His fingers had dug in making her cry out in pain. They had slid under the sequined and studded fabric, and slowly he had unhooked and peeled it away from her eager skin. Asad cupped and stroked her as he kissed her arching neck. One hand had crept down to tug at the golden, tasseled drawstring. All evening he had watched the sassy silken tassels swing and swoosh against her hips and legs.
It had made him rock-hard.
That evening, he had imagined her out of the lehenga, creamy and resplendent behind the translucent dupatta. He would yank that last defense from her. The glittering dupatta would fly in the air and feather down at his firmly braced feet. Because her feet would not be on the floor.
The lehenga had capitulated to slither and puddle at her high-heeled feet in a soft whisper.
He had spun her around and soft hisses and moans escaped her mouth. Her own hands hadn't been able to resist tugging at his confining clothes. Her fingers had trembled in unbuttoning the sherwani. Each had sighed the other's name in fierce longing. Unhurriedly, their bodies had homed in to revel in each other's spiraling heat. He had hitched her up and her legs had irresistibly wrapped around and sheathed him.
And that's when it had happened.
The bedroom door opened and a second later, they'd heard a pair of unrecognizable voices.
Her eyes had popped wide open in alarm, and Asad's hand had come up to cover her mouth. Her legs had slid down in blind panic.
Some cousins had blundered in, "I think we're supposed to leave the gifts here. That's what Khala said." One of them said in confusion.
"Hurry then! Just leave it on that settee."
The sounds of laughter, music and chatter drifted in from the open door. The voices continued to bicker about whether this was the right room. There weren't any other gifts here. May be they were supposed to put them in another room.
Asad's eyes had bored into hers, and his lips had curled in a sly grin. Her desperate hands had clutched his shoulders. Deliberately, he replaced a bashful leg around him, and grabbed her thigh to drape her other leg over his shoulder. Hand still over her mouth, he began to move sinuously, demanding synchrony.
She trusted him to avert any risk of exposure. Placing herself in his sure custody, she had let her head fall back in rapturous but silent, lip-biting surrender. The studded dupatta had left ruby-red imprints of a hundred jewels on her bare back.
Kyun ki tum hi ho ... played on. They swayed synchronously.
Even now she blushed, remembering that after she had stepped out of the room, Ammi had pulled her aside to re-do her blouse strings.
"Oh god Asad, we're so bad," she said, hiding her face in his chest.
He grinned and murmured in her ear, "you are such a terrible influence on me, you know? You make me want to do things I wouldn't have dreamed of doing in another lifetime. See what I mean by that jaadu that you do?"
"Ammi is right to police us!" Zoya giggled.
"Asad, Zoya, chalo beta, have something to eat. It's not good to go hungry for so long."
They sprang apart, and she laughed when she heard her mother-in-law call and husband swear under his breath.
"Ji Ammi." Zoya towed him in to join the others.
She sat down next to Nikhat who looked up and blushed.
"Bhabhi sit, let me get a plate for you."
"No! I'm fine. I'm not hungry," Zoya insisted. "So Nikhat, are you all set for the taekwondo classes?"
Nikhat ducked her head. Next to her Feroze piped up, intrigued. "Taekwondo? That's awesome!"
Nikhat looked up, surprised. She hadn't seen this side of him all evening.
He blushed furiously. "Umm ... actually, I have a black belt, second degree."
The whole table erupted in squeals and shouts. Everyone turned to look at them and Feroze nearly passed out from being the center of admiring attention.
Asad joined them with his plate.
"What happened?" He looked at his wife suspiciously, assuming that she must be responsible for the uproar. He frowned. She didn't blurt out about ...
"Bhaijaan," Nuzzhat exclaimed. "Feroze just told us that he's a second degree black belt. Isn't that cool?"
"That's so cool," gushed Zoya. Asad had just speared a cucumber slice with a fork and raised it to his mouth. She grabbed his hand to eat it instead, and continued, "I'm a martial arts expert too. Main salute karti hoon, toh apne aap ko behosh kar leti hoon. My hand is so strong, isn't it, Mr. Khan?"
Asad choked on the piece of kebab he had managed to nearly swallow without any interruption from her. Ayaan slapped his back. Humaira brought over a glass of water for him. The girls were sniggering, whether at their Bhabhi or Bhaijaan, no one knew. Feroze's color had gratefully returned to normal by now. Ayaan pressed him to tell them more about how many years he'd trained, since when.
"Um, it's been a while now. I'll be trying out for a third degree when I get back. I also teach kids on the weekends at our local community center," he volunteered shyly, ears red. This brazen self-promotion was alien to him. Usually his mother would gush over his accomplishments to complete strangers, and he would stand by dying of embarrassment. But somehow, this table-wide wonderment had been a jolt of raw caffeine to his system.
Zoya listened and chatted on, sneaking food off Asad's plate.
"Zoya, should I make a plate for you?"
"No, I'm not hungry!"
"Of course, I can see that," he muttered as she guided his hand to stab a piece of paneer tikka and eat it with relish, "mmm, yum!"
"I'm going to get a diet Coke," she half-stood.
Asad pulled her down. "No Diet Coke," he scolded lightly.
She pouted. He narrowed his eyes at her and poured her a glass of water. "See, it's even got lemon wedges!"
"Mr. Khan you're so mean!"
Ignoring her, he lifted the glass to her lips.
Ayaan stopped midway, a little later, to grin broadly at Bhai continuing to spoon feed an animated Mona darling. Oblivious to the others around them, he would take a bite of his food and then feed her the next one. Every now and then, he carefully wiped the side of her mouth with his napkin. She often pushed his hand away for cutting her off in the midst of talking to the others.
Quietly, Humaira placed another plate in front of Asad. He smiled at her gratefully.
When he offered his wife another bite, she groaned, "Allah miyan, what's wrong with your Mr. Khan! I told you I wasn't hungry."
She couldn't understand why everyone was laughing suddenly.
"But you know what? I could go for some of those gulab jamuns!"
Song in Title:
Mere Brother Ki Dulhan (2011) "Kaisa Yeh Ishq Hai"
"Why did you say it was too much of a coincidence?" an anxious Humaira asked Ayaan over the phone the next day.
"Umm ... I'll tell you in person. Can't talk right now."
"Come here for breakfast and we'll talk," she instructed grimly.
Humaira puttered around restlessly, still deep in thought. She had arranged and rearranged the cushions on the couch, and the plates and cutlery on the table.
At least five times by now.
She'd slept poorly and was tempted to bite her nails, a habit outgrown long ago.
It certainly would be too much of a coincidence if that woman went from this house, straight to hers. But the way Ayaan had said it, and the way Bhaijaan had looked down at Zoya Bhabhi's bent head to hug her more protectively, made the hair stand on the back of her neck.
Something was afoot.
They all seemed to know something more. And it was to do with that ... that Tanveer.
She felt conflicted and guilty.
In her heart she was hoping for two impossible miracles. One, that the woman wouldn't be the same Tanveer. And two, if it was, then please don't let me be related to her.
She remembered her so clearly from that evening now. They had all thought her so elegant when they were first introduced to her as Bhaijaan's fiance. But Tanveer had been distant. She hadn't said a single word to Humaira even though they sat directly across from each other all evening. She only deigned to talk briefly to Nuzzhat and Nikhat, and didn't seem particularly close to Najma either.
Later, the girls had talked about her and been slightly disappointed that their Bhabhi-to-be hadn't seemed warmer. May be she was just as serious as Asad Bhaijaan. She did seem really conservative and just his type. But then they all had quickly dropped the subject and gushed over Zoya Bhabhi and what a firecracker she was to go up against Asad Bhaijaan of all people!
Late into the night they had whispered and giggled about the evening at the restaurant. Would they ever have the guts to stand up for a girl being harassed by eve-teasers? And end up in jail on top of that?
Wow, Bhaijaan really must have been furious when he went to bail her out! And still she said nothing so that Najma wouldn't get into trouble.
Who does such a thing?
No wonder Najma seemed so fond of her, linking arms with her wherever they went, high-fiving, whispering among themselves, and giggling with their heads close together.
Nuzzhat had expressed what they had all been thinking that night: "wouldn't it be so cool if Bhai was getting married to Zoya instead? She would be so perfect for him!"
They had all tittered nervously and Nikhat had slapped her arm: "Chup! Aise nahin kehte."
Humaira's heart plummeted.
Could that woman really be her sister? No one had wanted to be related to her by marriage. And she would be related to her by blood?
She'd seen her be so cruel that day.
Tanveer had maliciously tried to badmouth Zoya Bhabhi but thank god, Bhaijaan had stepped in. Humaira had seen Bhabhi duck her head behind the menu to hide her misery. Instinctively she had held Bhabhi's hand under the table and squeezed it in comfort. Later, when the topic of her entanglement with Najma's harassers had come up, Tanveer had made a face and looked away as though she couldn't wait to get away. As the evening progressed, her face grew more and more stony, her gaze icier.
Please Allah, don't let me be related to her!
When she got married to Ayaan, wouldn't there be some awkwardness at family get-togethers? What would happen when her sister and sister-in-law came face-to-face with each other?
Humaira's fingernails dug into her palms. Why do I have to be related to people who hurt the people I've come to love the most?
A sob nearly escaped her.
Please don't let me be related to her! Please let me protect Abbu ... and Ammi from her.
She had sent the woman's picture to Abbu from Zoya bhabhi's iPad last night.
Bhabhi had suddenly looked so wistful. Puzzled, Humaira had seen her look down at Abbu's name as she ran her fingers over the screen. Bhabhi had then hugged the iPad to her, and Bhaijaan had looked as if he would break something. As she closed the door to their room behind her, she had seen Bhaijaan gather her in his arms. Was Bhabhi crying? Was she thinking the same thing? That her hone-wali devrani was related to ...?
She felt wretched for bringing up that woman who still seemed to have the power to make Zoya Bhabhi so sad.
Humaira sighed. Abbu must have already given the picture to the police. She wished she hadn't been so hasty.
Yes, Abbu was worried.
But what if ...
Her chin lifted.
Even if I am related to that woman I'll still choose this family over her. I won't let her hurt Zoya Bhabhi!
She took a deep breath and exhaled, feeling so much better now.
More at peace, Humaira looked over her shoulder into the kitchen. Phuphi and Aapi were talking in happy whispers these days.
Something else was afoot.
Were they planning some kind of a surprise? Was Zoya Bhabhi's birthday coming up or something?
She felt that familiar pinch of longing.
Ayaan was so lucky to have so many loving siblings and now such a fun sister- and brother-in-law!
She'd never had a sibling. And now that she did, she wished ...
She needed to talk to Ayaan first. Then she would do what needed to be done.
Zoya rounded on him. Suddenly she was mad at her husband. "Why didn't you let me have my Diet Coke last night?"
He'd been getting ready for work; she was making the bed. Asad looked at her patiently. Arms folded across his chest, he raised a hand and began counting off on his fingers. "Because it's full of nasty chemicals, too many unpronounceable additives, fake colors, and carcinogens."
"So may be I should switch to real Coke?" she asked. Too innocently.
"Humph! Do you how much sugar there's in one can of coke?"
She rolled her eyes at him in annoyance. "I don't, but I'm sure you're about to tell me, Dr. Jahanpanah!" she muttered thunderously.
"12 teaspoons! No carbonated drinks for you any more," he lectured. "Carbonation isn't good for the bones. Studies have linked aerated beverages to osteoporosis as you age."
"Hello? Where's my husband and who are you? I didn't realize I'd married Dr. Oz!" she demanded as she boxed his pillow.
Truth be told, she knew he was right. She's heard these familiar lectures from Jeeju and Aapi. Intellectually she knew. But emotionally, she craved.
She didn't want to be good. She was so good at being bad.
It was her signature.
Being good would erode her street cred. She may as well be Mary freakin' Poppins!
She was craving that sweet, rich, brown, frothy, bubbly, ice-cold, tongue-tingling elixir--
She fled to the restroom.
"Zoya!" an alarmed Asad followed. He held her hair back as she hurled her guts out.
She wanted to smash something.
Here she thought she would be one of the lucky ones.
Baby Ahmed Khan had just leveled the playing field and made her a cliche.
Ima kick your nasty little butt, morning sickness!
But after my stomach slides down from my throat and returns to its original place. Allah miyan, what's wrong with you? So not fair. Why couldn't Mr. Khan get morning sickness instead?
She glared at him after washing up. He grinned, put up his hands defensively and slowly backed away from her.
Yeah, you better back away.
She burst into tears.
"Aw Zoya, come here," Asad pulled her into a fierce hug and kissed the top of her head.
"I wish I could say it'll get better." He murmured soothingly. "I'd take your place in a heartbeat so that you didn't have to go through this."
"You would?" she sniffed into his shirt.
"Absolutely! For you, a thousand times," he whispered into her hair.
"Jeez Jahanpanah, I better not be pregnant a thousand times!"
He cracked up laughing.
She smiled. His words didn't take away the sting completely, but she felt immensely better just hearing him say that. He had read up on it more than her anyways. So he knew what was coming up in the next few months. And he didn't tell her about any of the bad stuff, just to spare her.
Or to save his own butt, most likely.
She knew in her still-unsettled gut that there were some mean little surprises in store for her. On facebook, a friend's sister ranted openly about her pregnancy. She railed constantly against what they had collectively christened this phenomenon: preg-atory! It would be accompanied by heartburn, tiredness, swollen feet, gestational diabetes and what not!
Zoya had decided to skip those pregger postmortem posts for now. Asad teased her about burying her head in the sand and being an ostrich. So what? The less she knew, the better it would be for him.
There was a knock on the door.
Oh great! The daily miserable dose of poison was here!
Asad grinned and patted her back in sympathy. Disengaging himself, he went to open the door.
There stood a beaming Ammi with the detestible glass.
Got haldi milk?
Zoya fled to the bathroom, once again to hug her porcelain accomplice. She retched miserably but nothing much came out this time.
Oh really? So morning sickness was just as much about assuming the position and not puking? Now she really did look like an ostrich, she fumed.
Genius! Who the hell came up with this?
Vengefully, she brushed her teeth for the third time that morning and stepped out. Dilshad made kissing sounds and patted her back. But she held the glass in front of her bahu's face firmly, not bridging any dissent.
"It'll do you good, beta. Now, quickly, ek saans mein gatt-gatt kar ke pee jao. That's a good girl." She murmured the practiced lines.
"Chaand jaisa baby hoga."
"I don't think so. At this rate, this baby is going to be yellow-yellow, dirty fellow," muttered Zoya after hastily downing the nasty stuff.
Asad chuckled. His wife said and did the darnedest things. But his eyes narrowed suspiciously when he saw a twinkle in her eye and a dent in her cheek.
Suddenly she was ravenous.
"Mr Khan, just for putting me through this, you get to order pizza for me!"
He nearly opened his mouth to protest and deliver another lecture on junk food, but she gave him the stink eye.
Reluctantly, he dialed.
If she was thinking about food, then he was off the hook.
For the time being, at least.
"I wish I hadn't listened to you and let Bhaijaan book my tickets to Dubai!" Najma half-moaned.
The packing was done. Each had reminded the other a dozen times about relevant paperwork, time differences, international calling codes, and taking good care of themselves. Now their exhausted bodies clung to each other, dreading the afternoon departure.
"No. I told you, I can't handle saying good bye so many times." Omar leaned back against the headboard. "I don't want you to be miserable and alone in Dubai after I've caught my flight back home. Asad would have insisted on accompanying you or sending Ayaan. And half the family would have tagged along too."
She ducked her head into his shoulder.
"It's better this way, Najma." He kissed the top of her head. "A swift surgical cut will be simpler."
She didn't have the energy to protest. They fell silent. And she fell asleep in his arms as he brooded about the long trip, his dead and empty apartment, mail and bills that must have piled up, work to join ...
Thank god Ammi had said that she'd take care of stocking up on groceries and picking up his dry cleaning. Knowing her, she'd probably give the place a good scrubbing too.
His parents had left for the US a week ago.
Omar felt her even breath against his neck and pressed his lips to Najma's forehead. He was going to miss her so damn much! He had come here, very reluctantly, to attend a cousin's wedding.
He'd dreaded mothers of eligible daughters eyeing him hungrily at all the shaadi functions. As though he was a piece of meat with a "Made in USA" stamp.
Ya Allah! The endless questions!
"Beta, where do you work? Do you have any brothers or sisters? Why do you live all by yourself in the same city as your parents?"
He would hear whispers and giggles behind his back.
And then his cousins would bug him with other questions, "you must have so many girlfriends in the US, right? Any of them white or blonde? What are black girls like? Isn't San Francisco like the gay capital of the world?"
Who were these people!
He smiled wryly.
He had sworn he'd never agree to an arranged marriage or, marriage to a girl back in India. They'd have nothing in common. Ammi had started dropping painfully-obvious hints, and he'd brushed her off. Not for another two years at least, he'd insisted. But then he had been blackmailed into an informal meet and greet. Omar had figured he'd have a lousy time and then hold that over his parents' heads so that they wouldn't pester him for at least another year.
It was a good thing that the prospective rishta had been Zoya. He was in fact looking forward to seeing her again after so many years.
It was an even better thing that at the door, he had been greeted by a cherubic face, with the reddest cheeks and the shyest smile.
And there had been no turning back after that.
His friends were going to kill him. They were threatening a post-wedding ex-bachelor party in Vegas.
Najma would kill him.
He interlaced his fingers with hers and lifted her hand to place a soft kiss on her knuckles. His phone pinged and he picked it up off the bedside table, trying his best not to disturb her.
"Come on down for breakfast," Ayaan had messaged.
With a thumb, he texted back, "later."
Tightening his arms around Najma, he closed his eyes and dozed too.
"This tastes funny," Zoya complained about her pizza. Najma and Ayaan grabbed a slice too, despite being scolded by Dilshad to eat a proper breakfast.
"Nah! It tastes just fine," said Ayaan. "And big mom, why aren't you scolding Mona darling for not eating a proper and healthy breakfast?"
Dilshad looked at her bahu fondly and patted her head. "Let Zoya eat whatever she wants."
"But why? That's not fair!"
"Ayaan," his brother put down the newspaper and glared at him. "Cut it out!"
"Give it up. When Ammi and Zoya team up, there's no stopping them."
"Oh really, suddenly you of all people will let her eat junk food just because she's your begum? You're all spoiling her you know, hai na Aapi?"
Zeenat laughed. "Ayaan miyan, every girl should be so spoiled in her sasural!" She removed kaajal from an eye and rubbed it behind Zoya's ear. Zoya stuck out her tongue at her devar, lapping up all the attention.
"Bhaijaan apki problem kya hai?" Nuzzhat butted in as she dug into her own slice, "why are you asking so many questions when you are getting to eat pizza for breakfast?"
"Eggjactly Raabert! Ye question and answer ki dukaan band karte ho ya main pizza box band karoon?"
Ayaan rolled his eyes but quickly grabbed another slice before the box lid slammed down on his fingers.
Dadi smiled knowingly. She had suspected yesterday but was certain today. The palm fluttering over the stomach very other minute, the erratic appetite and taste changes could only add up to one thing. She had already tied a taawiz around her granddaughter-in-law's arm and blessed her after blowing the air around her to ward off all evil spirits. Now, she tied one on Omar's arm.
Again Ayaan protested.
"Dadi sirf inn Americans ke liye? What about all of us? Bhopal ki murgi daal barabar?"
Dadi laughed delightedly. Ayaan was her favorite after all.
"Kuch aisa hi samjho beta," she teased him. "I'm an all-American Dadi-saas now." And soon to be par-dadi, she slyly exulted to herself.
The whole family and his cousins were here to see Omar off. Because he had banned anyone from coming to the airport.
"I'm already married. Don't need band, baaja and baraat anymore," he'd announced to the families' dismay.
Only Najma, Asad and Zo were allowed, and only so that Najma would be taken care of on the return trip home. To compensate, the farewell had turned into one boisterous party at the Khan house. And breakfast had morphed into brunch. But every now and then, people would randomly hug Najma or pat Omar's back. With so many air-blown exorcisms, all evil spirits must have been banished to the outskirts of Bhopal if not the ends of the earth.
Omar's heart was full.
It was very rare for him to be surrounded by so much family. His cousins in the US lived in the east coast so they met just once or twice a year for family reunions. Here, cousins and in-laws were tripping over each other and falling out from the woodwork like there was no tomorrow.
It was a zoo.
And he was loving it.
More than thirty people in the room and to be related to all of them!
M.A. as Zo would say.
He looked across the room at Najma. Zoya was holding her by the waist and they were chatting softly over half-eaten pizza.
How could these women eat this stuff? This wasn't pizza. It was gloop slapped together and thrown into an overheated oven. He'd treat Najma to the real stuff when she joined him back home.
He grinned, watching Asad stalk over and shut the pizza box decisively. "Enough now. No more of this junk. Have something healthier now." He placed a bowl of fruit in front of his wife and tried to get her to swallow a piece of watermelon.
Ayaan whooped. "Dekha! I knew my Bhaijaan would come out of hiding pretty soon."
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan?" Zoya lunged to grab the box from Asad's hands as he held it over her head.
"Beta, khane do humare dost ko." Rashid called out from the living room. "It's OK once in a while."
"Abbu, you don't know. This is all she eats, all day long!"
"Mr. Khan!" sputtered his wife as she climbed up on a chair for better access to her precious pizza.
"Mrs. Khan, niche utariye, abhi! And you just said it tasted funny. Why must you eat it then?"
Zoya frowned, "yeah, it did taste kinda funny ..." She narrowed her eyes suspiciously.
Hands on her waist, she demanded, "did you ask them to make it with low fat ingredients or that yucky whole wheat stuff?"
He closed his eyes in exasperation.
She gasped at the sacrilege, "you did, didn't you?"
"Whole wheat is good for you and not yucky! Besides, I did nothing of the kind," he growled. "But may be next time ..."
"Oh really? Don't you dare!" she sassed, still scrambling to lay her hands on her confiscated treat.
"Zoya, it's the same as always," interjected Najma, taking a bite just to be sure.
"Really? Let me see." She tried snatching the box from her husband's hands yet again.
"Mr. Khan!" she hopped on the chair, "will you stop being the Jahanpanah of food police, for just this once?"
"Zoya, stop it and get down!" he scolded, scooping her off the chair by her waist. "All this fast food and acrobatics is not good for the baby!"
He saw her eyes pop wide open and realized what he'd just done. He heard collective gasps around him and then squeals, shouts and whoops.
Dilshad slapped her head and looked at Zeenat. Between the two of them they had joked that Zoya would be the one to blurt this out.
Who'd have thought it would be Asad!
By now everyone was swarming around the blushing parents-to-be. Ayaan leaped on his bhaijaan's back and wrestled him to the floor.
"A baby!" he hollered sitting astride his brother. "Aap Abbu? And I'm going to be a chachu?"
Flat on his back, Asad groaned and covered his face with both his hands. He couldn't believe what he'd just done. He was always convinced that Zoya would be the one to ...
Damn! He'd never hear the end of it now.
The girls piled on top of him as well, and kissed their bhaijaan's face in glee"a first for them. "We'll be Phuphis!" they shrieked in delight. Asad had to cover his ears now.
Humaira hugged her. "Zoya bhabhi, I'm so happy for you," she said softly as Zoya hugged her back just as fiercely.
Shireen too joined them in a group hug. Her eyes were moist as she looked at Badi bi. "Ammi, hum Dadi ban jayenge?"
"Mujhe kal hi shaq ho gaya tha!" she boasted as she kissed Zoya's forehead. She removed some money from her bag and pressed it into Zoya's hand. "Khush raho," she murmured through tears.
"Zoya!" sobbed Najma as she rushed to cling to her Bhabhi, "I'm so happy for you and Bhaijaan."
Rashid meanwhile pushed Ayaan off and held out his hand to pull Asad up. He slammed him into his chest.
No words came.
No words were needed.
He simply cradled the back of his head and dropped a kiss on his son's shoulder.
"Dilshad inki nazar utaro," ordered Dadi. And Zoya and Asad dutifully lined up for the familiar ritual. Zoya ducked her head and let her hair curtain her face. Ever since her husband's inadvertent broadcast, she hadn't uttered a word, and her lashes hadn't lifted off her reddened cheeks. Asad looked down at her, worried. He put his arm around her waist and subtly drew her into his side.
Dilshad's eyes misted.
She kissed Zoya's forehead and spoke softly, "you've brought joy and laughter to our home ever since you came here. Because of you, my Akdu son is happy and our family is together. Hum sab ko itni saari khushiyaan dene ke liye, shukriya."
Zoya turned her face into Asad's sleeve and burst into tears.
"Yeah, she's pregnant all right!" quipped Omar. "All those leaky hormones."
"Omar!" Najma, Nikhat, Shireen and Zeenat chorused to chide him.
Ayaan boxed his shoulder, "shut up, Phupha!"
Omar choked on his coffee. "What the hell? I refuse to be called Foofa. A loofah sounds better."
Nikhat pinched his cheek, "Foofa nahin, Phupha!"
"Let the baby call Pheroze Phupha that," he teased her. She blushed hard and fled to Humaira's room after a strangled, "Omar!"
"I'll get the baby to call you Oompa loompa," a bold Feroze muttered and scowled at him for chasing away Nikhat. "Cos. you're just as annoying!"
Omar chuckled, fondly remembering their marathon sessions of watching Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as kids. "Ooompa Loompa would be an improvement, Pheroze Phupha!"
He loped over to give Zoya a sideways hug and drop a kiss on her head. "May the force be with you!"
"Thanks Omi-Wan!" They grinned at each other conspiratorially, die-hard Star Wars nerds.
"Just for you Zo, I might even consent to be called Phupha!"
"I don't know, I like the sound of Oompa Phupha better!" She and Feroze high fived.
Humaira was still reeling from shock and horror. Ayaan had just given her the highlights of Tanveer's deeds when she lived here. He had reluctantly left for work on Bhaijaan's orders and promised to talk more in the evening.
She sat on the floor in her room, leaning heavily against the bed. When Zoya bhabhi had been hurt, it was Tanveer who had pushed her down the stairs? Just because Bhaijaan had broken off his engagement with her? Oh my god! What kind of a woman was this?
"I don't know why he even got engaged to her in the first place," Ayaan had wondered. "On the trip they seemed to have no interaction or chemistry. May be Badi Ammi arranged it. But she too didn't seem that close to her. Then why?"
He had always found that whole episode odd. When he tried to talk to Bhaijaan about it on the trip, nothing came of it. Bhai just hedged and changed the subject.
Humaira had been aghast when he told her how Tanveer knew Imran from before and even had a relationship with him. That's why they had broken off Nikhat's engagement to that scumbag.
Oh my god, what has Abbu gotten himself into? He had confirmed that it was the same woman in the photograph.
Ayaan was right. It was, indeed, too much of a coincidence.
Humaira wiped the tears off her cheeks decisively.
She grabbed her phone and took a deep breath.
And punched in some numbers.
"Ammi? I need to talk to you."
Asad had pulled some strings and arranged for Najma to spend time with Omar at the airport lounge while he waited to board his flight.
He now stroked Zoya's hand as they waited in the car in the parking lot. She shifted in her seat to face him and brought their joined hands to rest against her cheek.
"I'm sorry," Asad whispered as his thumb traced her cheekbone.
"What for?" she asked, alarmed.
"For blurting it out in front of everyone."
"I always thought it would be me ..."
He chuckled, "me too!"
"Mr. Khan!" she scolded, but with no real fire. She was beat. The warm leather seat, the cool air from the AC, his thumb on her cheek, were all conspiring to put her into a deep contented coma. Her eyes drooped. She felt his warm breath on her cheek and felt his lips press against the corner of her mouth.
Her lips curved into a smile.
Zoya startled when she heard the door on his side open and slam shut. Puzzled, she watched him walk around the car and open her door. He bent to adjust her seat controls so that her seat reclined. He slipped off his suit jacket and draped it over her.
"Shh. I know you're exhausted. Just rest. I shouldn't have let you come. I told you to take a nap."
She grabbed his hand before he closed the door, "I wanted to hold Najma on our way back home. She'll be heartbroken and too embarrassed to say anything in front of you. Besides, these were Omar's strict instructions."
He looked at her long and hard and bent again, to kiss her forehead this time. "You're mad. And too good for me, you know."
"I know," she feathered her fingers across his cheek, not wanting to break contact. "And when we go home, I'll show you how good."
By the time he came around to sit in the driver's seat, she was nearly asleep. He reclasped her hand and she sighed.
And she slept. Right in the middle of planning a grand seduction.
He looked down at her indulgently and shook his head. She had argued with him about not staying in the car with the AC on full blast.
"Mr. Khan, we'll be adding to all those greenhouse gas emissions!"
He had smirked at that. Last week she had insisted he read an article on how the US was reducing its emissions. "Down by 2%! Isn't that cool?"
He held firm now. "You're right, but"-"
"As always," she hadn't been able to resist interrupting.
He placed a finger on her lips, and reiterated, "but, I'm not going to let you stand outside in this heat."
With his chin he pointed to the clock on the dash, "there are still two more hours for Omar's flight. Which, by the way, contributes to even more emissions. If Indians stopped going to the US may be India could lower its emissions too!"
She had rolled her eyes, but grinned.
"You will sit here comfortably, and not argue with me about greenhouse gas emissions, Indian or American, OK?"
"Jo hukum, Jahanpanah," she'd murmured gratefully and kissed his finger.
Song in Title:
Dabang (2010): "Tere Mast Mast Do Nain"
She had insisted that they meet in a public and neutral place. Not home. Raziya had agreed without any protest. She was just thankful to hear Humaira's voice. But she was also dreading the meeting. For Humaira to call and request a formal meeting could only mean one thing: She was ready; she wanted answers. Raziya quailed at the thought of what the questions would be.
At a coffee shop in a generic Mall, Humaira faced down her mother. Ammi looked drawn. Her heart missed a beat. She had mustered enough courage to fix this meeting, but taking the next step was proving harder than she had imagined.
"Bolo beta," said her resigned mother.
"How is Abbu?"
Raziya sighed. "He's ... fine."
"Is he? I met him at office last week. He told me about ... Tanveer."
Raziya gasped. Humaira knew? She had hoped that Siddiqui saheb would delay this revelation. But his guilt was making him anxious and careless. She lowered her gaze, agitated and unsure where this would go.
Humaira hated to bring up all this. Ammi looked devastated. Having your husband's illegitimate child thrust upon you must be torture for a stern and self-assured woman like her mother. Did she ever wonder if it was payback for her past misdeeds?
"He also told me she's missing, and he didn't have her photograph."
Raziya listened, her heart hammering. She watched pain flash across Humaira's face and nearly reached out to touch her hand.
"You know Zoya Bhabhi, Asad Bhaijaan's wife? She's the one who donated blood for me when I was shot. She had a picture of this woman who lived in their house, and I sent it to Abbu. Abbu said it's the same woman."
She looked up sharply as her mother made a choking sound. Raziya's face was grey, her lips white.
"I'm sorry Ammi. But that's why I called. I think this woman is scamming Abbu. She's the reason Nikhat's engagement broke. She had a relationship with that Imran. Can you believe it?"
Anger flashed across her face. "She pushed Zoya Bhabhi down the stairs! Ammi, I can't bear to think that I could be related to such a person!"
Tears were streaming down Raziya's face. She tried to kill you too, she wanted to scream. If you can't stand to be related to her, wait till you hear about what I did to Zoya! And when you find out that I was the one who planted Tanveer there"-!
She broke down, hopelessly covering her face in her dupatta. It was all over.
Humaira rushed to her side to console her. "Ammi, I know it must be so hard for you. I'm sorry I brought this up." She massaged her mother's shoulder and back.
"That's why I was thinking of coming back home. I want to protect Abbu and you from this woman."
Raziya gripped her hand in gratitude and relief. Yes! Please come home. I've missed you so much.
"But, there are some conditions," Humaira asserted. "I need to know everything about why you did what you did to Rashid Phupha. I know that Ayaan will not be happy about me coming back home. But I have to do this."
Still gripping Raziya's hand, she continued wistfully, "and, I'll be going to Bhabhi and Bhaijaan's house everyday. I don't want you to stop me. Do you know, Zoya Bhabhi's pregnant?"
Humaira's face glowed and Raziya's heart sank. "When I get married I'll be chachi!"
No, you'll be khala whether or not you get married, Raziya's tortured soul cried.
Humaira went on, unaware of her mother's self-inflicted purgatory. "I know that in the past you've always badmouthed that family. Ammi you were so wrong about them! I've been living with them all this while, and they are the best people I know. I won't hear another bad word about them."
Humaira took a deep breath and crashed in the nearby chair, completely deflated. Wow! She'd never talked this way, or said as much to Ammi before. She was already missing her new family. But no, Abbu needed her. And Ammi seems completely different: broken and beaten. She patted Ammi's knee unable to see her in so much pain.
Raziya was screaming in her head. No! I can't tell you why I did what I did. You'll hate me forever. Your life will be ruined. I know, you'll never forgive yourself.
"Please Ammi, tell me. Apki kya majboori thi that you took such a step? Why did you try to blackmail them? Ayaan told me that you threatened to hurt Dilshad Phuphi. Why Ammi? If you only knew how much they love me, and how they took care of me. Why would you do it?"
"Humaira! Bas karo. Don't ask me these questions. I can't tell you. I hate myself for the kind of person I was then. Isn't that enough?" she begged her daughter to be the grown-up.
Humaira leaped out of the chair and stood ramrod straight. "Ammi! I want to believe that there was some desperate reason for why you did that. I want to understand how you could push me to get married to Ayaan when you had such a bad history with that family? I need to know. They still accept me, even after what you did. For that, I need to know. "
Raziya stood too. "I'm sorry, but I can't go back to that dark time again. Don't do this to me." Or yourself.
"Ammi, I have a right to know. If you don't tell me, I refuse to come back home!"
"Humaira, ye kya zidd hai!"
"No Ammi, I'm serious." She dashed the tears steaming down her face. "I am your daughter after all. I can blackmail too!" she lashed out against her mother. Why, when I'm giving you the chance to redeem yourself, are you still resisting? Why can't you understand the guilt I feel whenever I look at Ayaan's parents?
"You have two days to think this over. I want answers, and no' is not an answer I'm going to accept!" She picked up her bag to march off.
"What will you do if I say no?" Raziya taunted desperately.
Humaira spun on her heel. "I will take out an ad in all the city newspapers and the Badi Masjid bulletin to publicly disown you as my mother. From that day, I will be dead to you."
"Two days Ammi."
Asad looked in the backseat and smiled as he shook his head. A tearful Zoya was hugging a quietly sobbing Najma. He heard Zoya whisper soft words of comfort and his heart warmed. As he backed the car out he heard the sobbing get louder. Alarmed, he twisted around, worried for Najma.
But it wasn't Najma.
"Zoya? Are you OK?"
He looked at Najma wondering what had happened. Both were wrapped in each other's arms and crying uncontrollably. Asad pulled over. Retrieving his handkerchief from his pocket he asked gently, "Zoya?"
Najma raised her head and began wiping Zoya's tears. She took the handkerchief from Asad's outstretched hand to wipe Zoya's tears.
Zoya wailed louder.
Najma's sobs were receding. Shock and fear were taking over. She too was wondering about her Bhabhi's breakdown.
"Zoya!" hollered Asad. "What's wrong, tell me. I can understand Najma crying but why ... ?" He got out and dashed to open her side of the door, looking worried.
Najma patted her back, still sniffing herself.
"Zoya? Talk to me. Why are you crying so hard? Is everything OK?" Asad continued to panic.
"I can't bear to see Najma be so sad. But now I can't stop crying," Zoya wailed.
Asad and Najma looked at each other. Najma giggled and dashed her tears. Asad raised his eyes heavenward, in exasperation or gratitude, who knew.
He grinned. At least Najma was smiling.
"I see a kulfi wala, Najma would you like some?" Asad teased.
He heard a loud sniff. "Me too!"
He chuckled. Of course! Why else would he even offer?
Asad helped the girls out of the car and hugged each of them close. He dropped a kiss on Najma's head, asking anxiously, "are you OK, Tamatar?"
"Ji, Bhaijaan! I'm much better now. Thanks to paagal Zoya," she pinched her Bhabhi's cheek and handed her Asad's handkerchief.
Zoya wiped her face in the same handkerchief she'd used earlier and eagerly stepped forward to place their orders. Najma slipped her arm around Asad's waist.
"Bhaijaan, I'm really happy for you. I'm sorry I've been upset and all weepy, par main aap dono ke liye bahut khush hoon."
Asad hugged her tighter. "I know Najma! You don't even have to say it. And you have every reason to be upset. It's not easy for us to live without these crazy Americans."
"Bhaijaan!" Najma gasped with pleasure and embarrassment. It was so rare for Bhai to joke with her. That too when she had been crying.
Zoya popped over with a bouquet of kulfis, eyes sparkling, a sky swept clear by cleansing rain.
"Najma, I got us two each. And, Mr. Khan, here's one for you."
They slurped over their treats and scrambled to get in the car when the first raindrops started to fall.
Dropping them home, he'd gone to office to catch up with work. The rain didn't let up all evening. When Asad returned much later, the neighborhood was darker than usual. No electricity. Generators and inverters feebly chugged and pumped energy into rationed lights and fans.
When he let himself in, he could smell pakoras being fried. Songs played on Zoya's iPad as she scooped and folded fat chillies in the batter and dropped them into the hot oil. The oil spluttered and sizzled. She chatted loudly with Humaira and Najma as Aapi pulsed green chutney in the blender.
Ayaan lounged against a counter, head deep in a bag of potato chips. Asad had already seen his bike parked outside. As Humaira ladled the deep fried goodies onto a plate, Ayaan popped a chip into her mouth. Next was Zoya's turn and then Najma's.
Dilshad sighed as she poured out the adrak elaichi chai to hand to Asad. "Why are you people frying so many pakoras jab pait chips se bharna hai?" she groused.
Zoya looked up to beam at her husband. With the back of her hand she pushed her hair off her face. A smear of batter coated her hair.
"Hi Mr. Khan! You have to try these pakoras! We've stuffed the chillies with dhokla masala and it's so yum." She licked her lips in anticipation.
His mouth watered. She looked good enough to eat herself. Najma brought over a plate heaped with sizzling pakoras with a bowl of chutney in the center. He grabbed a napkin and a pakora, and dipped it into the chutney.
"Asad! Wash your hands at least," Dilshad scolded, wondering why her adult children needed to be reminded of simple things like little kids.
The first bite was delicious. He nearly moaned at the explosion of flavors and the accompanying heat. Zoya ran over, dying to know his verdict. She took a quick sip of his tea and pushed back her hair on the other side. Now both sides of her bangs were evenly coated. Asad munched while tucking her hair behind her ear.
"Aap pehle se hair band ya clip nahin laga sakti theen?" he asked, bemused and smitten.
Handing her his mug and wiping his hands, he strode into their bedroom to return later with her hair scrunchie. As everyone looked on, he deftly secured her hair in a neat ponytail.
Ayaan sniggered. Humaira glared at him. It was so sweet the way Bhaijaan took care of Zoya Bhabhi. She was beginning to suspect that Ayaan would be totally useless as a husband.
Najma sniffed and burst into tears.
"Aww, chhota baby," Zoya wrapped her in her arms and promptly started crying too.
Asad rolled his eyes. This was getting worse and worse. How many times in a day was she going to be crying in the next nine months?
Setting his mug down on the coffee table, he hugged both of them and rested his chin on Najma's head.
He fished out his handkerchief to hand to his wife. She sobbed harder.
"What now?" he asked.
"It's the same one from this morning when Omar said it was my hormones!"
Najma wailed with new intensity now.
"Kulfi? Any one? Diet Coke?" he asked desperately.
Dilshad came over to hug Najma and make cooing sounds.
Humaira took a video of this unfolding scene and smiled. Ayaan lumbered over.
"Why take a picture of them being all emotional?"
Humaira giggled. "Because Omar gave me strict instructions to take multiple pictures and videos of Najma all day, and send them to him. This way he can feel that he's with her. Isn't that sweet?"
"No. It's retarded!"
"Just kidding! He begged me to help Najma with her TOEFL and GRE applications and chauffer her around when she needs her transcripts and letters of recommendations."
"Aww, so cute! I wonder what instructions he left for Phuphi," she mused.
"What's cute?" Najma asked holding up the pakoras for them. Seeing Zoya cry made her tears myseriously vanish. She found an overemotional and bawling Zoya too comical.
"Bhabhi and Bhaijaan," Humaira said shyly. She didn't want to mention Omar's name for fear of making Najma cry.
They all dug in.
Dadi and Rashid were speechless. Shireen sobbed quietly, "why?" she kept repeating.
"Ammi, please. I'm sorry, but I can't do it. Please try to understand." Nikhat knelt in front of her mother and begged.
"Lekin beta, every girl gets married. We'd like you to find a loving partner who you can spend your life with. Have kids, be happy." Dadi said, perplexed at her quietest granddaughter's firm refusal to get married.
At Shireen's behest Rashid had talked to Omar's parents and then Feroze's. Everyone had seen them get along well at the party and the get-together the next day. They had all conferred and decided that Feroze would be a perfect match. Then why this?
"It's because of that weasel Imran, isn't it? I could kill him!" Fumed Rashid. He paced up and down, helpless and furious as Haseena bi's cruel words and Imran's betrayal came rushing to choke him.
"Abbu, please calm down." Nikhat ran to hug her father.
Shireen wiped her tears and blew her nose. "But beta, you seemed to get along so well with Feroze. We thought this was the right thing to do."
"Ammi, Feroze is very nice. I have nothing against him. But I don't want to get married now. I want to study, and work. Please!"
"Par beta, you can study after marriage. Dilshad was telling me that Najma plans to apply for a masters in the US," Shireen persisted.
She rose to cup Nikhat's face. Fear stabbed her heart. What would happen to her daughter in this world if she didn't get married? Their small world was so cruel to girls who remained single. Had she failed as a mother?
"Ammi, Kya hoga meri bachhi ka?" she whispered helplessly.
Nikhat clasped her hands in her own and smiled. "Ammi, look at me. Main apna khayaal rakh sakti hoon. For the first time in my life I feel strong and confident. And then I have all of you. Please give me a few years to find myself."
Badi bi came over and put her hand on Nikhat's head. "Beta, I can understand your point of view. And I support you. But right now your parents are feeling they've failed you in some way. Maan-baap ko lagta hai beti ki acche se shaadi ho jaye, then everything will be all right."
"But dadi, what if I had gotten married to Imran? Can you imagine what my life would have been like with a mother-in-law like Haseena bi?"
She wrung her hands and spoke quietly. "I am scared of the idea of marriage. But I'm more scared to give up this sense of self I've found over these past few months. Aapko pata hai how hard it is for girls to be paraded in front of prospective grooms and their families, wait for their verdict, face rejection and then start all over again?"
She ran to Rashid, "Abbu please don't make me go through all that all over again."
Rashid held her to him as she sobbed. He stroked her back. Shireen sobbed too, frightened and heartbroken. Nikhat was right. It wasn't fair for girls to have to go through this kind of sabzi-mandi evaluation. But what could parents of daughters do? Did Nuzzhat think this way too?
Rashid offered his handkerchief to his daughter and patted her shoulder as she wiped her eyes.
He then held at apart by her shoulders, "Nikhat, we never realized that this was so hard on you. But there are two things I want to say to you: One, there will be no dekhna-dikhana. Feroze and his family have already agreed to the nikaah."
Nikhat started to protest, and he held up a hand. "But, if you're not ready, I will talk to Abdullah saheb and we'll say we're sorry. Doosri baat. I am proud to see you so strong. We will support you in whatever you want to do, right Shireen?"
He looked at his wife. Shireen took a deep breath. They had been traditional and mindful of cultural conventions and reet and rivaaz. But it had brought her daughter only grief and humiliation. May be it was time to stand tall with their heads held high with their daughter, instead of bowing their heads in front of greedy ladkawalas like the Qureshis.
She wiped her tears firmly. "Jee, aap sahi keh rahe hain. Although Feroze and his family are nice people, if Nikhat wants to wait for marriage then I can wait too."
"Ammi! Thank you so much!" Nikhat threw her arms around her mother's neck and kissed her cheek.
Dadi hugged her too and told her to go freshen up. As she started to leave, Rashid called her back.
"If you want, you can work at our office and get some experience as you apply to other places."
His heart lifted to hear her squeal in delight and skip away to tell Nuzzhat the good news.
"Rashid, what are you going to say to them? Ek ladki unke ghar mein byaahi hai, and now we are breaking off the rishta for another daughter. I'm scared. What if ..." Shireen twisted the end of the dupatta nervously.
He brushed his hand through his hair. "I don't know. I'll talk to Asad and Dilshad first." Shireen came to pat his back, worried about how hard it would be for him to talk to Feroze's or Omar's parents.
He put a comforting hand on her arm, "It'll be hard," he said, reading her mind. "But Nikhat is so fragile right now and we have to think of her first. That Imran business really left her scarred it seems. I don't want us to push her. Let's give her a chance to breathe free with no pressure."
Dadi rolled her prayer beads between her fingers and covered her head to murmur her prayers. "Tum theek keh rahe ho Rashid. Kaafi gehra sadma pada hai bacchi par. Let's back off and let her be."
He sighed. "Shukar hai Allah ka that Omar's parents are such fine people. And so are Feroze's parents. I feel terrible that we won't have another son-in-law from that family. Feroze is a good boy. But if that's Allah will then ..."
Zoya held up another pakora for Asad to bite into. Their eyes snagged as he took a slow bite, his tongue snaking out to lick her finger. This one was spicier than the last one. His mouth was on fire. He hissed.
Suddenly the lights blew out.
"Uff! I told the guard to get the inverter fixed," Dilshad muttered in exasperation. "Najma beta, get the candles."
In the pitch dark, Asad seized Zoya by her forearms to crash her to him. A soft gasp escaped her. He sucked her lower lip and thrust his tongue in to mate with hers and bank the spreading fires. The heat index of the chilli peppers lowered as she melted against him. He broke away just a second before a couple of candles flared up in the kitchen.
Brushing his hair off his forehead, Asad sipped the last of his tea and went to sit on the couch. Zoya swiped her mouth. Her lips burned as if branded. Her mouth was on fire as if she'd eaten ten chillies in one go.
"Mirchi!" she yelled and ran to get chilled water and rinse her hands.
"How are the pakoras?" she asked Humaira on the way. "I still haven't had one," she grumbled.
Humaira's eyebrows arched. But didn't Bhabhi just say ...?
She watched Zoya wash up and take a bite and moan in delight, "so good!"
As she threw her head back and closed her eyes, Humaira saw Asad bhaijaan look at Bhabhi with a long and hooded gaze. She noticed a batter-smudged handprint on his dark shirtfront, and she blushed.
Aapi patted Zoya's shoulder, "zyaada mat khana. You'll get indigestion."
"Mmm, Aapi it's worth it!"
"Badmash ladki, koi baat nahin sunti ho meri! Dekhna, your kids are not going to listen to you too!" Zeenat pulled her ear playfully.
"Phir main aapki tarah, unki choti kheenchungi! Or better yet, I'll send them to you."
"Ya Allah! You're impossible and incorrigible!"
"Koi shaq?" came the cheeky retort.
Asad thought back to another evening, months ago, when he had returned similarly from work and found the neighborhood shrouded by another electric outage. They had all gone out into the backyard. A minute later Zoya had come out carrying a tray of mugs of steaming ginger and masala tea. A candlestick on the tray cast a soft halo of light on her face.
She had handed him his mug tentatively, a fragile peace offering, "umm, Mr. Khan, tea?" They had barely been civil to each other since his bitter outburst over the gas leak.
He'd stiffly stuffed his hands into his pockets and she had ducked her head.
"Asad, try it, it's really good," Ammi had encouraged.
He had taken the mug from her without a word. He didn't have tea, only when he got a cold once in a while and Ammi forced him to have some. He took a sip of the light sugary, milky concoction just so that he wouldn't have to say a word in repsonse. The strong ginger flavor blended with cardamom had made him sigh in pleasure.
"Zoya, I love your adrak elaichi chai," Najma had said. And since then, so had he.
Ammi had shivered, and just as quickly, Zoya had dashed inside to get a shawl. They had all heard her cries of "ouch!' as she blundered about. Najma giggled, Ammi smiled fondly and sighed, and he had rolled his eyes. But she had hobbled out and tucked Ammi snugly in a shawl and given another one to Najma. She had been excited and gushed about the fun of sitting in the dark together and looking up at the moon. She didn't know there were so many stars in the sky, she whispered in awe.
"Phuphi, you know you can barely see the stars in New York. The skyglow there is so bad."
"What's skyglow?" Najma had asked.
"Light pollution. From the night lights in the city."
Later, she and Najma had nagged everyone to play Antakshari. Five seconds later, Tanveer had pretended to be cold, rubbing her hands together and hugging herself. And Zoya had nearly gotten up to get her a shawl too.
But Tanveer had purred, "rehne do Zoya, Jammy can give me his coat."
He'd been forced to part with his jacket and drape it across her shoulders. Zoya's smile had slipped. And his heart had twisted. Those were the days when his rigid self-control wouldn't allow him to admit even to himself how attracted he was to her. But he would catch his eyes following her, alerting to the sound of her voice or giggles. He would watch her, many a night, sitting alone on the bench caressing her father's music box and his fists would clench.
Thank god, that night Najma had put the 440-volt smile back on her face. She had invited Zoya to share the shawl with her and they had snuggled together under it as they sang off tune, eventually winning the competition against Ammi, Tanu and himself.
Najma and Tanu had then pestered him to play his guitar and sing for them. He did, and with a pang watched Zoya's lashes brush her pale cheeks.
Her yearning to belong and fear of being an outsider had only registered with him much later. She had hurriedly plastered a smile on her face and watched them sing a song she didn't know the words to. She clapped in rhythm and gradually joined in when the lyrics and tune became more familiar. He'd been mesmerized by her eager and hungry eyes looking at Ammi and Tamatar, as she tried to master the song. Quick to recover, pick up and dust herself off, always ready for a new experience and adventure with no grudges or hard feelings. She was Sheherzade and Lucille Ball. Fun and daring of the West, wisdom and grace of the East.
That was his Zoya!
Now, under the cover of semi-darkness, he texted her, "room. Now"
"Y do U think? After teekha, I want meetha."
"No!" she texted back, "can't."
"I know how to turn a no into a yes! Yes! YES!"
She squeezed her eyes shut and silenced her phone so that the others wouldn't hear the rapid successive pings as their lust ping-ponged across cellular devices, from the couch to the kitchen. But thanks to that fiery kiss and these se*xts she was mighty close to a steamy YES! right now.
"Stop showing off! And I have to help with dinner"
"I'll help with dessert"
"Aaahhh! U're killing me"
"U have batter in your hair & are half-done already. My turn to stuff and gorge on my laal mirchi" These words were followed by a string of hot red peppers. She was wearing red after all!
"I thought I was meetha!' she shot back.
"You will be, after I'm done with U"
He heard her groan and grinned.
"Ammi, I'm going to change," Asad announced and left for their room.
Zoya had to hold herself tight so that she wouldn't bounce restlessly on her feet or rush in after him as if attached by an invisible elastic band.
Not fair, Mr. Khan!
But he was right. She was nearly done. Undone rather!
She raised her hand to her hair remembering his text. "Allah miyan! What's wrong with me?" she squealed. "How do I have all this batter in my hair? Humaira, Najma, why didn't you guys tell me?"
They laughed and shrugged. "Here, Bhabhi, let me help you wash it off in the kitchen sink," offered Humaira.
On the iPad, Adnan Sami crooned, "ishq tera garam masala ..." and Zoya clenched her thighs. She hugged herself.
"No! umm ... er ... I'll go do it in the restroom," and she fled gratefully for a promised saucy and spicy treat.
He was shirtless and barefoot. Just a pair of unfastened jeans.
Are you wearing anything under those jeans?" she asked, already knowing the answer. Zoya tugged her hair free and shook it loose.
"Come find out."
Asad yanked her to him. Before she could catch her breath, he whipped her shirt off over her head. And before she could clear her vision, he unhooked her bra and sent it sailing to land on the headboard. He lifted her by her hips aligning her with his mouth to suck and feast. Zoya arched like a bow strung taut, arrowing herself deeper into his mouth. The touch, the sounds of his lovemaking, made her head rear back helplessly; her hair swept his arms at her waist. On their own, her knees bent and toes pointed toward her swaying hair. Jeans-clad hips crushed and ground against jeans-clad hips. Their bare upper bodies were one. She thrashed.
"It burns," she protested as she wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed him closer.
"Good," he taunted after a deep tug that turned her molten. He grunted as she scissored her legs around his waist tightly.
"Oh really?" she asked innocently and rubbed herself against him more for herself than to punish or tease him.
He carried her to the settee and gently slid her down. The faintest moonlight streamed in from the window when a cloud passed. Unsnagging her jeans he peeled them off along with the flimsy lace. His urgency inflamed her more.
She gripped his hands, "Asad, slow down!"
"No," he growled, pushing her hands away.
"Now!" and her jeans landed in a tangled heap at the floor.
Her breath caught. She trailed a lazy finger across his taut stomach inching lower to the open fly. He flipped her over and raised her on her knees, kissing her shoulder. She reached out to push the windows open as he undressed. Then she grabbed a cushion to rest her elbows on it, waiting for him. He entered her swiftly.
To the hilt.
She bit the pillow and whimpered into it, "oh god, yes!"
"Told you!" he crowed softly.
"Shut up, Mr. Khan!" she scolded, arching, writhing. Reveling. One hand gripped the windowsill to brace herself.
The rain danced and pattered outside. A soft breeze swirled the billowing sheers and sprayed her face.
In the living room she could hear soft strains of singing and some laughter. "Humnein tumko dekha, tumne humko dekha ..." sang Ammi and Aapi.
They were playing antakshari? Without her?
His fingers dug into her waist. And he started to burrow and bore deeper.
"Asaaddd, please," she hissed through clenched teeth. Her knuckles were white against the sill.
"Please what?" he panted, relentless.
He jerked and went still.
"Asad?" she complained.
"Shh, give me a second."
And he began moving again. Hard and fast. Her teeth dug into the cushion. She wished it were his shoulder but she loved this way best. This was when she'd feel him sink in deepest. Closest. Nudging her womb.
So erotic. So damn hot.
"Ooh, so good!" she moaned biting her lower lip.
"Suraj hua madhyam, chaand jalne laga," Ayaan and the girls sang outside.
She wiggled impatiently, rocking him in further. "Please, please ... harder" she crooned. Her hips begged, luxuriated, going wild.
"Oh god, Zoyaaa! Don't say"-!" He threw his head back, helpless. "You make me lose all control!"
His roughened words through clenched teeth and breaking self-restraint were enough to drive her over the edge.
"Main theheri rahi, zameen chalne lagi ..."
"Yes! Yeesss!" she buried her face in the pillow to smother her cries. Her hair cascaded off her shoulders now dewy from the rain.
Song in Title:
Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010) "Tum Jo Aaye"
"BTW, this mirchi is already stuffed, thanks to you and Baby Ahmed Khan," she texted him just after dinner.
"You're getting slow Mrs. Khan. I was expecting you to say that 2 hours ago!" He messaged from the living room.
The lights were back on. Asad was working on his laptop, overseeing Ayaan create a report for an important presentation tomorrow. In between, he was fielding texts from his wife hellbent on sassing him and destroying his concentration. It was going to be a big day for Ayaan tomorrow. His big chance to be in the big leagues. Humaira was more nervous for him and peeked over their shoulders every now and then. She rolled her eyes, wrung her hands and crossed her fingers when he seemed to space out. She wanted to rap his knuckles for flaking out. Ayaan, focus! she wanted to scream.
"I was distracted!" Zoya tried to save face. "And just for that, Mr. Khan, no meetha 4 U tonight! Bet you didn't expect that!"
"That's OK, I'm in the mood for khatta now," his text retorted.
She stomped her foot. Was she really getting slow? Allah miyan, if it's true then that's so not fair!
"Oh really, you want some imli or pickle?" she sassed back. "I thought I was the 1 who's pregnant. When's your baby due?"
She heard him laugh and pumped her fist. Yes! Not so slow after all.
"Same day as yours!"
Annnhhh! She mentally groaned. The man was keeping up. She must be slowing down after all.
"Aapi! Soak more badaams for me!" she harrumphed.
When Dilshad came down for water late at night, she saw Asad in the backyard, deep in thought, and pacing furiously. She watched, worried, as he ran his hand through his hair and cracked his knuckles.
"Asad? Why aren't you asleep?"
"Kuch nahin Ammi. I'm just ... thinking."
Dilshad took at sip of her water and sat down on the bench. She patted it, inviting him to join her. "Tell me what's bothering you. Is it Nikhat?" Rashid had called and briefly told them about Nikhat's decision earlier that evening.
Asad sighed. "Jee, Ammi. I support Nikhat. But I hope it won't affect how Najma will be treated by their family."
"They are really nice people. From what I've heard Zeenat say about Omar's parents, and what we've seen of them, they seem warm and kind. And incredibly open-minded. Najma will be fine. That's what I told Rashid too."
Dilshad sighed and continued, "poor child. Your Abbu told me they fear that incident with Imran seems to have scarred Nikhat in some way. My heart goes out to her. Such terrible people! And now she's scared to trust such wonderful people because of that."
He bowed his head and exhaled deeply. Dilshad put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "There's something else, isn't there?"
"I'm worried about Zoya, Ammi."
"Why? Has something happened?" She half-rose in panic, clutching her heart.
Asad gently pulled her back by her arm, "no, nothing's happened. But she's crying too much these days. I read about this, and Dr. Sharma also told us that it's only hormonal."
"But you're not convinced it's just that."
"No. I think there's something deeper ... ek gham hai jo Zoya ko undar se khaye ja raha hai. I know she desperately wants to be reunited with her father. She wants him to acknowledge her as his daughter. Ammi, I know ... it's killing her that he's so worried about Tanveer and doesn't know the truth about her. She aches for Humaira to call her Aapi or Baji, not Zoya Bhabhi."
Dilshad spoke wistfully, "now that she's going to have a baby, she must yearn for him even more."
He rose and started to pace again. "I shouldn't have listened to her! I should've taken her to meet him as soon as we found out."
Asad stopped in front of her. "You know Ammi, she doesn't hold her music box any more. I think she's hidden it somewhere. It's not in its usual place ... She either doesn't want Humaira to catch her with it, or, I think she's done it because of all the buzz about pregnant women staying happy and thinking only happy thoughts."
Asad knelt before her, "She's trying to repress her feelings for the sake of the baby, and me. That's not right, is it Ammi? This can't possibly be good for her or the baby."
"Mera bachha," Dilshad whispered, stroking and smoothing his hair. "How much is Allah going to test her?"
He paced long after Dilshad went up to bed. Should he go meet Siddiqui saheb? Or should he just let nature takes its course? If he did go, then what proof did he really have? Why would the man believe him? Especially when they were business rivals. He didn't even have the music box to show him. Where had she hidden it?
Asad went to bed only when he felt a pair of arms embrace him and his wife's lips at his neck. She dragged him away, complaining that she and the baby couldn't sleep without him by their side.
When Zoya went to open the door the next morning she was greeted by a gigantic bouquet of roses. She squealed with delight. Her husband was back to spoiling her instead of razzing her. She reached her arm out ...
Feroze peeked from behind the mountain of roses. "Hi Zoya Bhabhi! I got these for Najma. Omar's strict orders."
Zoya's face fell. Not for her? But then she squealed again. "Najma!" she yelled up the stairs. "Special delivery for you!" Everyone spilled into the living room. New morning, new show.
Zoya waited at the bottom of the stairs dying to see Najma's reaction. She wasn't disappointed. Najma shrieked and sobbed. Humaira dutifully took pictures and videos, as did Feroze.
"But he hasn't reached home as yet. How did he contact you?" Najma inquired of her brother-in-law after wiping her tears. He had called her when he landed in Dubai. There was a five-hour wait there and then a sixteen-hour flight to San Francisco.
"He told me before leaving. I was instructed to buy the biggest bouquet of roses today and appear at your doorstep to take you to Khala's house where you are to spend the rest of the day with all the cousins and aunts and uncles. They've been told to spoil you rotten and treat you like a princess." In fact, Omar had ribbed him about may be having Najma bring Nikhat with her for company, but there was no chance of that now.
Najma blushed with pleasure.
"Haww Tamatar, this is your big test! You better be on your best behavior and represent the Khan family well. Aakhir humari izzat ka sawaal hai!" Zoya teased.
Feroze grinned. She offered him a drink and snacks as Najma went to get ready for her big day at her sasural, Cinderella at the castle in the absence of her Prince Charming. Dilshad and Aapi clucked loudly and followed her to wave their maternal magic wands. Humaira, the trusty photographer and videographer charged after them to memorialize the moment for everyone's favorite Jeeju.
"How are you doing Feroze?" Zoya asked cautiously. Asad had told her about Nikhat's decision. Admiration for Nikhat had warred with regret that she was missing out on being with such a nice guy. She had met Omar's cousins as kids at birthday parties and religious holidays back in the US. He was the older, quieter and shyest one. The observer and confidant, and everyone's secret keeper. And he was also the one with a wicked sense of humor once he became comfortable around people.
If only ...
Feroze ducked his head and she saw his smile slip. Her heart melted for him. These Khans! Breaking hearts all over the place.
"I'm fine ... Bhabhi. Thanks for asking."
"Call me Zoya. And I'm sorry it didn't work out with Nikhat," she said softly. She wanted to blurt out about Imran, assure him that Nikhat was neither heartless nor a snob. She wanted to ...
"Me too," he sighed.
Impulsively, she went to the side table and picked up the address book, a pen and post-it note.
Asad would totally kill her. Thank god he'd left early today!
Checking the address book she wrote something and then handed him the note.
"She's going to be here all day. Talk to her."
He looked at her and then at the paper clutched between her fingers. And then slowly he took the yellow scr*ap and slipped it into his shirt pocket.
"Wish me luck."
"You won't need it," she patted his knee. "Keep me posted," she said hurriedly as everyone trooped down the stairs.
Nikhat was loving it in Abbu's office. At first everyone treated her with kid gloves but when they saw that she wasn't about to be coddled and oohed and aahed over, they all went about their business and left her alone. Abbu's secretary had given her some simple computer tasks that she wasn't completely bored with as yet.
She had silenced her phone and ignored the thousand and one frantic text and voicemail messages from Ammi and Nuzzhat. Even Ayaan bhaijaan had left a few teasing notes. Zoya Bhabhi has sent a simple, "I love you and am so proud of you. Good luck." It warmed her head to toe. Humaira had sent her an inspirational quote and Najma had called to talk to her.
"I would have loved it if things had worked out. But you know that both Omar and I love you so much, right?" Najma, like the rest of the family, heartily approved of how close Omar and Nikhat had gotten. The two of them were the perfect foils to one another, sharing an odd and unexpected kinship. Nikhat felt so guilty when she saw Najma's name flash on her screen. Allah, please don't let Omar hate me!
Nikhat assured everyone that she was fine. Asad bhaijaan had come to pick her up and take her to Abbu's office. He gave her a small bunch of flowers, "Zoya sent you these. I think they are from our backyard."
She'd buried her face in them inhaling the sweet scent and he'd hugged her sideways and kissed the top of her head, "have a great day! And remember, if you hate it here, you can always come work for me! We're bigger and better!"
Remembering Ayaan bhaijaan's first day at work, she had expressly forbidden Ammi to send lunch. "I'll eat with Abbu, please don't worry about me, Ammi."
She sighed with pleasure. This wasn't so bad. For a second she thought about Feroze and felt a pang. "No, it's for the best," she told herself. She got back to work after checking the clock. Half an hour before everyone broke for lunch. She wanted to run something by Abbu when she joined him then.
She felt a tap on her shoulder and turned around. It was Mala from the front desk.
"Ms. Khan, Ma'am, there's someone here to meet you."
"He won't give me his name. But he's been waiting for a long time. The guard wouldn't let him in. When I stepped out, he explained that it's urgent. He seems well-dressed and from a good family. So I thought I'd come up and tell you myself."
Nikhat just knew. Her heart chugged and thumped. Oh god, what now? And on her first day at work too! She thanked Mala and rose to face him. For a fraction of a second she had been tempted to tell Mala, "tell him I'm not here."
But no. She owed him at least this much.
He leaped up from the chair as soon as he saw her descending the steps. His helmet nearly went flying.
"Hi," Feroze said shyly.
She smiled tremulously.
"Umm, I'm sorry to bother you here. I shouldn't have come." He gripped his helmet tight.
"No, please, it's OK. Have a seat." She led him to a nook with potted plants and two comfortable chairs.
"Can I take you out for coffee? Please?"
She wanted to go. But she didn't want to go. If she didn't go, it would all end here. She'd probably never see him again. If she went with him, she knew there would be no turning back. It would be that clichd jhatt mangni, patt byaah. She wasn't the kind to flit from romantic dalliances to flings. If she went out today, it would be a permanent declaration of a lifelong commitment.
"It's fine. You don't have to. We can talk here." And he took a seat.
She had seen the light leave his eyes and it had done something to her heart. Had he been hurt by her reluctance? Did he actually like her?
Oh god, what are these feelings?
She sat too and waited for him to say something. She felt too tongue-tied.
He seemed to make a sudden decision. "I just wanted to know why you said no," he asked simply, calmly, with no rancor or recriminations.
He was dying to ask: was it me? I thought you liked me. I liked you. I like you. Otherwise I wouldn't be here. I've never done anything like this before.
But he remained silent. He wanted her to answer without him trying to fill in the uncomfortable silence between them with defensive excuses or pleas.
Nikhat looked at him. He looked so vulnerable. Had she hurt him by refusing him? Did guys feel this way too?
"I ... I want to study and work. I don't think I'm ready for marriage yet."
"Women study and work even after they get married. Najma"-"
"I know Najma will study further. But it's different for her. Theirs was a love marriage."
"Ours could be too," he whispered roughly.
Her eyes flew to meet his. She saw hope and fear and something else blaze in his direct gaze. She blushed and lowered her lashes. He looked down at her bowed head and made a split-second decision. Where had all this boldness come from suddenly?
"Let's get some coffee, or ice cream, or ... whatever you wish." he stated more firmly this time.
"OK," she whispered.
He held the door open for her. "Do you want to get your bag or ... tell uncle?"
She looked up at him blankly and then at her empty hands. She looked up in confusion at Mala at the desk.
"Go ahead Ma'am. I'll tell sir," she reassured her.
She was rooted to the spot.
"Nikhat?" Feroze held out his hand to her.
She looked down at his open palm and slipped her hand into his. She felt him tug her toward him and allowed him to lead her out. In a daze she watched him mount his bike, secure his helmet and turn to her. She sat in the backseat and bravely slipped her arm around his waist.
Ya Allah, what am I doing?
Was she just experimenting with something new and forbidden? Would she do this with just anyone? If Imran had come up like this would she do the same? Unconsciously she clutched his shirt. Her friends would sneak out on dates with boyfriends. Is this what she was testing and trying on?
She felt confused. She wasn't the kind. She had haughtily defined herself as too old-school. Too sure that she'd never be those types who sneaked around behind their parents' backs and led double lives as goody-two shoes at home and risk-taking rebels outside.
But she felt bold too.
She wanted to see where this went. She felt in control. Her fingers started to loosen their tight hold on his shirt. And she felt his palm press down on the back of her hand. He pulled over to the side of the road and removed his helmet.
"I have no idea where I'm going. Do you know where we can find a good place to talk?"
"When are you leaving for New York?" were her first words to him after they placed their order.
He looked at her in surprise. Why are you really here, she was asking.
"When I've convinced you to give us a chance."
He saw delight bloom in her eyes, but then, just as swiftly, they were shadowed by pain.
"Why? Is it because I was the first girl to say no to you?" She asked defiantly.
He chuckled self-consciously. "You aren't the first!"
She felt raw acid course through her. Whoa! What was that? Jealousy?
"Did you go after every girl who said no to you?"
"No. Just you."
Now that felt really nice. She didn't want to explore why as yet.
But then she frowned.
"Why? Am I that easy to demand an explanation from? I hurt your ego because you didn't expect a girl like me to say no, right?"
"Wrong. At first I thought it was because you didn't think me worthy of you."
She nearly snorted. Him worthy of her? Never in her life had she ever wondered if a guy would be worthy of her. It had always been about if any guy would even like her for herself.
"But now I know it's not me you turned down, but some vague idea of marriage which you see as unequal or repressive."
She gasped. How had"-?
"And you are here to convince me otherwise?" She asked more playfully now. He was right. That's exactly what she feared an arranged marriage would be like. Asad Bhaijaan's and Najma's marriages seemed hauntingly beautiful, but she was sure that would never happen to her.
She was ordinary.
But her darkest fear went deeper. She had never fully admitted it even to herself. She loved Abbu to pieces, but she wondered if he could leave someone as beautiful and graceful as Badi Ammi, then there was no way that she, a plain jane, stood a chance to save her marriage even if she did end up marrying. On bad days, she thought: who would want to marry me? On worse days: why would someone want to stay married to me?
She didn't want Feroze to breach her carefully erected walls of tangled insecurities and self-defense.
But he did.
"What happened Nikhat? Why are you so scared of marriage? Someone hurt you. You've taken their rejection to heart."
Her eyes widened and teared as she looked at him in panic; the wall came crashing down. Woodenly, unexpectedly, the words spilled out.
She had been engaged not long ago. She thought she had no choice. She thought she should be grateful that someone was willing to marry a dark-skinned girl like herself. She thought he actually liked her. For a moment she had allowed herself to dream dreams and weave fantasies. She had made herself perfect in everyway: she could sew, cook, bake, paint, dance, run a house. She had tried her best to compensate for that one glaring defect.
But it had all been an illusion.
She wasn't a person. She was a damaged marker of her parents' and uncle's wealth. Just an unfortunate carrier of a name and legacy. His mother missed no opportunity to remind them of their charity in choosing her despite her darkness. Each visit was punctuated with suggestions for trying out new whitening creams and technologies. And he had betrayed her by carrying on with another woman on the side.
She was fair.
She was beautiful.
She was also pregnant.
Nikhat fled to the restroom to break down into tears. She had never said these words out loud to anyone. She didn't want to upset her parents or siblings. Only Dadi knew a little bit about how wretched she felt.
When she stepped out she saw Feroze pacing in the empty hallway, just outside. He handed her a water bottle and his handkerchief, both of which she accepted gratefully.
"He's a bast*ard!" He spat out. Nikhat's eyes flared. Not the language she thought she'd hear Feroze use. Omar may be. No, for sure.
But not Feroze.
"And not just because he stepped out on you. Because he didn't stand up for you!"
How did he know Imran didn't stand up for her?
"How do you know he didn't"-?"
"If he had, his mother wouldn't have had the nerve to say those rotten things to you! Say no to me, but don't let scumbags like that dictate what you think of yourself."
Everyone, Ammi, Dadi, Abbu, Ayaan and Asad Bhaijaan, had all said the same thing. But that was because they loved her, she was family. But hearing Feroze say it, meant a world of difference.
Her heart lifted. She beamed up at him.
"Get out your phone," he ordered.
She blinked. "I don't have it. I left it at the office. Why?"
"Here, take mine. Have you seen Jab We Met'?"
She nodded, perplexed.
"My sister forced me to watch. Call that ass and call him every swear word you know."
Nikhat gasped and then grinned impishly.
And his earnest outrage on her behalf and his cheerleading just got to her. It hit her right in the gut. She punched in Imran's numbers surprised that she still remembered.
"Imran? This is Nikhat." She looked into Feroze's face for courage. He nodded and lifted his chin.
"I wanted to call you and tell you that you're a ... a weasel, an ass ... a gadha, suar, ku*tta, kam*ina ullu ka pattha!" Her voice grew stronger with each word. "Did you think your rotten mother and you could walk all over us? Over me? You smarmy son of a bi*tch ... you luchha, lafanga, cheapster ..."
"Ass*hole," prompted Feroze.
"Ass*hole!" she repeated.
"Di*ckbag," he suggested.
"Umm ... Di*ckbag!"
They continued to collaborate as they poured over every bad word in their mental thesaurus and urban dictionary.
This was fun. Especially since she could hear Imran sputtering at the other end. What a moron! He didn't even hang up!
She repeated it not even knowing what the words meant anymore.
"Asswipe!" She choked at that one.
"Devil's spawn!" She loved that one. It was perfect.
She remembered what Ayaan Bhaijaan had called his mother once. "Bhainseena ka toota hua seeng," she yelled.
"Teri maan ki"-!!!" she shouted for good measure and covered her mouth guiltily.
She felt exhilarated. Vindicated.
Grinning, Feroze took his phone from her and held up his hand in the air to high five her. She smacked her own palm against his.
They walked out, giddy and guilt-free, half-drunk coffee and cappuchinos long forgotten.
A young girl with a heap of balloons ran up to them, "Uncle, uncle, aunty ke liye balloon kharido, please!"
Feroze looked at Nikhat and pulled out his wallet. And he bought all the balloons she had.
Replacing his wallet, he gave Nikhat one balloon from the bunch. "I read this somewhere. Imagine this is one of your biggest fears. Release it."
Smiling, she closed her eyes and let it go. They both watched its trajectory, wishing upon it. It floated and bobbed in the air. It brushed against a branch and an electric line and snaked higher.
He handed her another one. "Your biggest doubt."
She released it too with a laugh. It snagged on a branch and then popped. She giggled.
She looked up at him in surprise. Anger? She had never articulated anger before. If she ever felt the emotion, she suppressed it. Nice girls weren't supposed to be angry.
With a delirious sigh, she released her anger into the universe too.
"Your insecurity." She grabbed two-three more from his hand and released them together, nearly hopping and skipping. He laughed. Her glee was contagious. By now little kids had surrounded them and were clapping for each balloon that broke free.
He handed her another, but she stayed his hand, "your turn now."
She repeated the same instructions, and watched his face as he let each go.
She took one balloon from him and handed it to a little boy, "for hope," she said.
Following her cue, Feroze handed one to another child, "for new beginnings."
"For ... friendship," she said softly.
"For fun!" he responded, as a little girl squealed and skipped off with his balloon.
"For teamwork," sighed Nikhat.
"For champions," a little boy beamed a toothless grin.
"For ... yes," she said loud and clear. She waited for his reaction.
Feroze blushed but remained silent.
"That's way too soon! Sorry," he said distantly. "I don't want your gratitude or pity!"
She gasped. What!
The string in her hand released from her feeble grip.
He distributed the remaining balloons quietly and walked over to the bike. He donned his helmet and waited for her climb on.
Nikhat felt disoriented. Had she offended him? Didn't he like her any more? Her heart plummeted and shoulders drooped. She looked up into the sky one last time. She saw tiny colored dots getting tinier. Their fears, doubts, anger and insecurities floated away. Their hopes, friendship and fun were clutched in tiny grubby hands not a few feet away.
Her chin lifted and shoulders squared.
He dropped her off at the office.
"Thanks," he said shyly. "And I'm sorry for taking you away from work for so long."
"Give me your phone," she ordered. "I have to make an important call."
He handed it over obediently. She called her number and left a missed call. Handing him his phone she said, "now I have your number, and you have mine."
"You're going to study and work, and in a few days, I'll be going back to New York to teach a summer class on International Relations. What's the point?" he asked looking away.
She looked at him archly, "International Relations IS the point. You'll take me out for lunch tomorrow. Half a cup of coffee doesn't qualify as a date for a girl like me!"
"And if I say no?"
"You're a Ph.D. and already working. You don't get to say no," she said cheekily. "I'll be waiting here. Tomorrow, high noon."
She didn't know how hard she was gripping her hands, or how deep her nails were gouging her palms till she saw his eyes light up and lips curl into a full smile.
Wait, was that actually a dimple in his cheek and chin? OK, the kids better inherit that!
"Yes ma'am!" he replied simply.
As he kickstarted the bike to leave, she tapped his shoulder. Again, she wondered at her own audacity. He lifted the visor.
"You're such a liar! I can't believe any girl said no to you!"
Their eyes met and held for a long time. He turned the bike off and pulled off his helmet. "They did. But they may have regretted it after finding out what a prize catch I am!"
Her laughter pealed across the parking lot. "Will I have to fight off a long line of no-sayers and regreters?"
"Probably," he counted on his fingers and she slapped his shoulder. "Four or five of them. But you could do it with all the gaalis you know."
She leaned back weakly against the bike as she doubled over with laughter again.
Nikhat held out her open hand, "done!"
He looked at her open palm. Qubool hai? He low-fived her. He wanted to pull her by that hand into his arms and plant a kiss on her lips.
May be tomorrow.
"I think the bigger question is: how many said yes?" She asked, an eyebrow raised, still not wanting him to leave.
"A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell."
"Feroze! All that 'main bechara' charm was just to reel me in?"
He shrugged, "it worked, didn't it? See? You're putty in my hands."
"Luchha, lafanga, ku*tta"-?"
She rushed to put her hand on his mouth. Both blushed. She jerked her hand back as if burned and clenched it. A plesant and comfortable silence stretched between them.
Nikhat hugged herself. "What a first day at work!" she quipped.
"Just imagine what your first day back at school will be like."
"Really interesting, if I had you for my professor. And I'm such a good student too!"
She gasped, unable to believe that she had actually said something like that. Where had THAT come from? Her hands flew to muzzle her mouth. Good god, what was happening to her? Who was she?
"Miss Nikhat Khan, I do believe you're flirting with me! Besides, it's against policy for professors to date their students, even the best ones. You'd get me fired. Then we'd have to make do on your salary alone!" He fastened his helmet and roared off.
Rashid watched from four floors above. Is that why she had said no to Feorze because she liked someone else? He had told the guard to buzz him when they came back after Mala came to tell him that Nikhat Ma'am had gone out for coffee with someone. He had pressed her for more details, but that's all she knew. He nearly called down to order the guard to note down the bike's license plate number. But no. He trusted Nikhat. And having the guard snoop around would just make the staff talk and speculate among themselves.
He couldn't see the boy from up here, but he saw her body language. She looked happy and confident. Her shoulders were thrown back and her head was held high. She actually touched him and laughed with abandon. He had rarely seen Nikhat laugh like that. He saw him slap her hand in a breezy low-five, and then her hand lifted to his mouth! His Nikhat? So free and at such ease with a young man? Rashid continued to watch as the young man rode away and Nikhat's eyes followed him. She crossed the lot and entered their office building, a spring in her step.
Rashid was happy for his daughter. But he was worried too. How long had she known this man? Why didn't she tell them? Was he a Hindu or Christian boy? Would that matter? Yes, and no.
She had kept track of his meetings by chatting up Prasad. At around 2 o'clock Zoya called Prasad again.
"I'm sending a gift for Mr. Khan. Let the delivery boy through the side entrance.
Someone knocked. When Asad looked up from his laptop, he saw the tallest and widest flower arrangement he'd seen in his life. The fragrance of tuberoses filled the room. Grinning broadly, he rose to supervise its accurate placement on the coffee table. He grabbed the small card while retrieving his wallet to generously tip the delivery boy.
His hand arrested in mid-air as he read the words. His favorite, Rumi.
"When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you're not here, I can't go to sleep.
Praise God for those two insomnias!
And the difference between them."
From the corner of his eye he saw the delivery boy turn to leave. "Wait, please. Here's ..."
He looked at the baseball cap, the slight back in the loose shirt, the skinny jeans. Hmm, why did the delivery person have the cutest butt? Just like his wife's.
He quietly snuck up behind her and pinched her butt.
"Mr. Khan!" she squealed turning around. "How did you know? I hope you don't go around pinching random delivery walas' butts!"
"I can recognize you in any disguise, any where, that's how," Asad flipped the cap off and watched, mesmerized, as her hair tumbled down. "Besides, isn't that my shirt?"
"So it was the shirt you recognized, not your wife!"
"Why the flowers?" he asked tucking her hair behind an ear.
"Just like that! I was missing you. Najma's gone to her sasural. Ammi and Aapi went shopping. Humaira's disappeared somewhere too."
He pulled her in for a hug and kiss and led her to cuddle on the couch.
"How did Ayaan's presentation go?"
"Pretty good. He's a natural at this. I have to slog hours getting the littlest details right, and he just breezes in, oozes charm and confidence. Within minutes, he has them eating out of his hand." Asad proudly recapped for her.
"Humaira was so nervous." Zoya mused. She planted a kiss on his cheek and rose to go. "I know you're busy, I'll see you at home in the evening."
He pulled her back to land her in his lap, "don't go."
"But you have a meeting at 4!" she complained, snuggling in deeper.
"How would you know?"
"I've been keeping tabs on you."
"Shhh," she smoothed his brow, "a detective or reporter never gives up her sources."
"You're bored right?"
"Totally! How long can I help Ammi and Aapi, chat with Humaira and Najma, catch up with my blogging, and read?"
"Join work here."
"No. No one will take me seriously since I'll be the bossni, and you won't get any work done!"
He chuckled and stroked her cheek. "Then work from home. Get involved with or supervise the work that's about to start at the children's center."
Even before they got married, they had talked about showing their gratitude for finding each other by doing something good, some kind of public service or community outreach or enrichment program. Asad had talked to Jeeju to find out the name and whereabouts of the orphanage where they had found Zoya. And since then they had committed to building an extension to the existing structure which would house additional classrooms, a computer lab and sports facilities. The ground-breaking ceremony would be in a few weeks.
Her eyes sparkled. "Yes! We can do a fundraiser to raise more money for equipment."
"Sounds good. Talk to Prasad and get started." His desk phone rang.
Zoya let herself out quietly after a quick peck on his cheek. He had pulled her to him letting his palm linger and rub her stomach gently. Every morning he still chanted Allah's name ninety-nines times, hand possessive and protective over her belly. They would talk softly to, and through the baby after this ritual: tell Ammi this, watch Abbu do that ...
Still talking over the phone, he took her hand in his, and raised it to his lips.
"Yes, I'll see you there," he told whoever was at the other end, and then bit down on her thumb pad.
As she got into the car, her phone pinged. A new message. She looked at the screen and pumped her fist in the air, "Yay! Good job Zoya!"
"We're going out for lunch tomorrow," reported her latest matchmaking client.
Song in title:
Veer (2010): "Surili Ankhiyon Wale"
Asad had an idea but he needed her music box for it. And he had searched everywhere in the room. He had been systematic and thorough in his search: starting from the top to the bottom, clockwise from the door. Meticulously, he had worked his way around the room.
Absently he looked at her bedside table and smiled. Zoya had insisted on hijacking and displaying the jar of marbles from his treasures of the past. When they talked in bed, her hand would often lift to caress the glass, or rattle the marbles playfully next to her stomach. Her fingers would tap on the glass or the metal lid, beating some improvised rhythm. Next to the jar sat a fine bone china bowl and in it nestled the scruffed up cricket ball from his high school days. Some lazy, langorous nights, he would show her how to hold it just right: the correct placement of the fingers and thumb, how with a deft flick of the wrist, you could make it spin to rattle the opposing batsman.
"When can I watch you play?" she'd begged countless times.
Treasures of the past ...
Asad's eyes widened.
Of course. He should've thought of it sooner.
He dashed to the storeroom to retrieve the beat-up cardboard box with his childhood toys and collectibles that she had insisted they pour over, and root through, not long ago. There, on top of the hardbound books sat her music box. Her fatherless past and his, jostled and bumped together offering mute, but mutual comfort and companionship.
He lifted it out carefully.
Raziya thought long and hard about Humaira's ultimatum. She had seen the fire of angry determination on Humaira's face.
And it scared her.
"I want to protect you and Abbu ..." She'd said earlier, before the furious stipulation.
My baby! So strong and so loving ...
I did this. My daughter will cut me out of her life because ...
Wouldn't that be better though? She wouldn't have to find out the ugly truth ...
Tell her the half-truth may be?
The same tired thoughts keep battering her conscience and mind. The endless self-negotiations had shredded her soul by now. She had no energy to carry on. The only reason she did anything now was to ensure her daughter's safety from a madwoman.
A madwoman that she had unleashed upon the two families.
Listlessly, she would hang out at the doctor's office, morning to evening, on most days. Once, in snooping through Tanveer's things, she had found doctor's reports and noted the address. She hoped that Tanveer would put in an appearance here one day, and finally they'd know her whereabouts.
Even she knew that Tanveer wouldn't just disappear. She was here, for sure, lurking around, biding her time, ready to strike like the poisonous viper that she was.
But it was a long shot.
A smart woman like Tanveer could just as easily have changed doctors.
Raziya sat in the waiting room, stifling in a burqa, face covered, only weary eyes showing. She looked up in surprise at the young, slender woman who had just walked up to the front desk. Jeans peeked from under the burqa edge. She lifted her veil, and Raziya gasped.
"Hi, I'm new to the city, and my friend recommended Dr. Jain."
She went to sit down to fill up the paperwork that the receptionist handed to her. Raziya watched, puzzled and intrigued.
That was Tanveer's doctor. Was Zoya here for the same reason as her?
My god! Zoya shouldn't have come here on her own. What if that witch is lurking around? Raziya twisted her head around to scan the faces of the people in the waiting room.
Some women, some with husbands or relatives.
She breathed a sigh of relief.
She was sure that no one at home knew that Zoya was here. The child had a mind of her own and was fiercely protective of those she loved. Humaira and the girls had told her long ago of this girl's exploits, the maniacal lengths that she went to for justice and family security.
Then, she had waved this hero-worship aside, only worried at the growing closeness between the two families. Then, she had worked tirelessly to get rid of this girl, eager to sabotage any budding warmth between the two families.
She pretended to pick up a magazine from a side table and went to sit next to Zoya. Surreptitiously she peeked at the information she was filling out.
Raziya nearly moaned aloud.
In the box for the patient's name, Zoya had filled out: Zainab Siddiqui.
Ya Allah! Her mother and father's names. She watched as Zoya's fingers traced over the names.
Raziya's eyes prickled unexpectedly. The magazine slipped and fell with a thud from her slackened grip.
Zoya bent to pick it up for her.
"Shukriya," she said in a strangled voice.
Zoya returned the forms to the front desk and came back to sit down in the same seat. Her hands gripped each other tightly. A leg bounced nervously.
Soon, the nurse called out, "Zainab Siddiqui!"
Again, and then again.
Raziya looked at Zoya in surprise. Why wasn't she moving? She watched in alarm as Zoya fled outside with a strangled cry. Curious and concerned, she followed her out into the lobby.
Zoya was leaning against a pillar, distraught and nearly in tears. She stumbled blindly, and would have fallen down the stairs. Raziya quickly grabbed her elbow.
"Beta, are you all right? I saw you run out of the doctor's office."
"Jee, shukriya." Zoya looked up gratefully at the burqa-clad woman. Her voice sounded kind and eyes seemed ...
She didn't know what had made her come here.
So dumb! Asad would be livid. That's one of the reasons she couldn't go through with it.
She had decided to pretend that Tanveer was the friend who had recommended Dr. Jain.
That would be her cover.
As the doctor examined her, she would casually ask: "I talked to her last week and she told me about you, and gave me your number. But since then, her phone's been switched off and no one's home. I'm worried, especially since she seemed upset about the baby's health. I'm so scared for her. Would you know anything, or have any contact information for her?"
But she lost her nerve as soon as she wrote down Ammi's name on the form. Doubt and fear plagued her: what if the doctor refused to tell her anything? What if Tanveer did come to meet the doctor later, and Dr. Jain told her about her friend, Zainab Siddiqui? Tanveer was sharp; she'd immediately guess who that was. That would make her even more cautious ... and dangerous. Zoya's palm had cradled her tummy instinctively.
Besides, even if she did find out anything, she'd have to tell Asad or Rakesh. And then Asad would go ballistic and really handcuff her for eternity.
She shouldn't have come.
But she needed to find Tanveer, to expose her to Abbu so that ...
"I shouldn't have come ..." she whispered. "My husband will kill me."
"Kyun beta? Does he hurt you? Do you need protection?"
Raziya just kept asking random questions.
God knows why.
She knew that Asad would never hurt her. He would kill anyone who hurt her. Like herself.
She had seen his rage at the clinic that day when Zoya had donated blood to Humaira.
"No! He would never"-" Zoya's voice rose and her hand flew to her stomach.
Raziya's arm reached out reflexively, and she held Zoya's hand. "Come, sit down for a bit. Let me get you some water."
"No thank you Aunty, I'm fine. Aap bahut acchi hain."
Raziya's heart thumped with guilt and remorse. "You look upset. Can I drop you somewhere?"
Zoya looked at the woman's kind eyes. She had asked the driver to wait for her outside Badi Masjid. Inside, she had donned her burqa and caught an auto-rickshaw to this address. She did need a ride back to Badi Masjid.
"That would be great! Can you drop me off at the Badi Masjid? My car is there." She didn't know why she blurted out that last part.
"You didn't want anyone to know you were coming here." Raziya asked in the car. "Is everything OK?"
Zoya ducked her head. Yes, she didn't want anyone to know. "Jee, I was wrong. I should have told my husband. He would have come with me."
May be, she could get Asad to come with her. They could pretend to be new to the city, just transferred, looking for a new doctor ... her mind ran a mile a minute.
"I'll drop you off and then I have to go to the Yateemkhana on Masjid Road." Raziya nearly choked. Now why had she included that bit of information? Her tongue was no longer under her control. It flapped and wagged incriminating and indicting her more and more.
"Really? I go there all the time too! We are building an extension there. It'll have my Ammi's name." Zoya nattered on excitedly about the project, their plans for it, the fundraiser ...
Impulsively, she reached out her hand to put it on Raziya's knee. "Aunty, you have to give me your number. I'll call you to let you know about the ground-breaking ceremony that'll be in a few days. Here, just add your phone to my contacts."
Raziya was dazed but did so as if on auto-pilot.
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with me! I didn't even ask your name."
"Oh, what a nice name. It means watcher' doesn't it or 'follower'? Does it have two e's or an i'? I'm Zoya, by the way."
"Umm two e's," Raziya wasn't too sure herself.
Zoya's thumbs worked furiously to add Raqeeba Aunty's name to her contact list.
She thanked her new friend profusely as she covered her face again and got off the car. "Bye Aunty, thank you so much for talking to me and giving me a ride."
Raziya gripped her hand and felt compelled to warn her, "beta, be careful. If you ever need help ..."
Raziya watched her cross the street and get into a car which pulled out and drove away. She wiped her eyes and was about to ask the driver to turn around when she saw another car pull away from the curb and follow Zoya's car.
The hairs on the back of her neck rose.
She urged the driver to follow the car and get close to it.
"Aur tez chalao!" she ordered him desperately.
She tried her best to peer into the other car. In the backseat sat a woman in a burqa anxiously pointing in the direction of Zoya's car.
It must be Tanveer. It had to be.
Raziya's heart beat faster. She pulled out her phone and took a picture of the car's license plate number. Then she called Rakesh, but could only reach his secretary.
"I see a car following Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan's car. Is it one of your people? No? Let Rakesh know immediately. There's a woman in a burqa in it. I think it's Tanveer. I'm sending you a picture of the license plate number."
Idiot! Why weren't Rakesh's people having Zoya followed knowing that Tanveer would show up eventually? Just having a bodyguard in the car obviously wasn't enough! Especially when Zoya was so good at evading any restraints against her independence.
Zoya went straight home. Tanveer's car stopped at the end of the street. So did Raziya's, just a little behind. She watched as Tanveer's car waited for about fifteen minutes and turned around. She ordered her driver to continue following the car. It stopped in front of a mid-level unobstrusive guesthouse not too far from the Khans'.
Was this where she was holed up?
She watched the woman disembark and go through the gates. She walked slowly, favoring her back. There did seem to be a slight baby bump. It had to be her. She dialed Rakesh's number again. Same secretary.
Should she call Asad?
No, he scared her. The cold fury and contempt in his voice made her shrivel inside herself.
Impatient with her thoughts, she decided to check out things for herself. She walked up to the main desk and sniffed loudly.
The manager looked up. "Can I help you madam?"
Raziya started to cry.
"Ma'am?" he panicked.
"Please, I need your help. My daughter ..." She wailed loudly for effect.
The manager looked stricken.
"That girl who just came through. She's my daughter. She's run away from home and her father's in the hospital. I need to know which room she's in."
"I'm sorry ma'am, we can't give out that information."
Raziya slid two thousand rupee notes toward him, "please, have pity on a poor mother ..." She bawled louder.
"But ma'am ..."
"I understand that you are not like that. Don't tell me, just let me take a peek at your register." She slid another couple of thousand rupee notes toward him.
He palmed the money, pushed the register toward her, and stepped away from the desk to tinker around in the cubby-holes behind him.
She eagerly looked over it and flipped the pages over to the day that Tanveer had left their house. She ran her finger down the names not seeing hers. But one name made her gasp: Zoya Siddiqui.
That evil tramp!
She texted Asad the address and room number, and finally, with shaking fingers, the alias Tanveer was using.
Rashid had decided against telling anyone about what he knew. But he fretted over the decision. Should he tell Asad? Ayaan?
His sons might actually go and beat the man to a pulp.
Talk to Nikhat may be?
"Beta, I have a favor to ask of you." He called her from his office.
"Jee Abbu, anytime! Boliye."
"It's about Nikhat ... It's really delicate ..."
Zoya frowned, "what happened Abbu? Is everything OK?" Oh my god!
"Yes, everything's OK. But I saw Nikhat with this boy. I don't know who he is, and I'm a little concerned. Can you talk to her and poke around to find out more about him?"
"Ahh, sure Abbu, don't worry. I'll take care of everything." She giggled as she hung up. Damn, she'd better warn Feroze. They had decided to not tell Nikhat about her knowing anything about them as yet.
She had teased Feroze mercilessly though, and christened them FerNi"a combination of both their names as the media was wont to do with TV and film celebs.
"FerNi pak rahi hai?" she'd ribbed him earlier.
"Dude," he'd said, grinning and rolling his eyes.
"Abbu saw FerNi cooking," she texted him now. "I've been retained to investigate and report on his daughter's secret admirer."
When Feroze saw the text he didn't know whether to laugh or hide.
"What?" Nikhat asked him.
"Later. What do you recommend here?"
"I have no idea. I've never been here before. Do you feel like Indian? Do you like Indian food?"
"Love it. And Indian food in India is the best!"
"We have many Indian places to eat there, but it's not the same."
Nikhat couldn't resist asking after they'd placed their order. "By the way, how did you know where to find me yesterday?"
"I have friends in high places. Some day I'll introduce you to that friend." came the simple reply.
When the food arrived he chuckled.
"What?" she asked defensively. So weird. She felt the need to defend everything Indian all of a sudden.
"I can never get over this. Why are the servings so small?"
Nikhat narrowed her eyes at him.
"I'm just saying. In the US, the portion sizes are huge. Even in Indian restaurants."
"May be that's why Americans are huge too?"
He laughed out loud.
"Touche! I can see why Omar's so fond of you."
Nikhat glowed. Resting her face in her hand and her elbow on the table she sighed, "tell me everything about you and Omar and ..."
Feroze looked at his watch and quirked an eyebrow, "everything? I'll give you a trailer. We'll have to meet again for the film."
"Lunch tomorrow?" he asked.
"At this rate, I'm going to put on a lot of weight."
"Great! Then you'll be American!"
"Feroze!" her laugh and mock-outrage pealed in the room and she covered her mouth self-consciously. She'd never laughed this loud before.
"Besides," he teased. "Aren't you all going to be learning Taekwondo? That's good exercise."
"We start tomorrow. The girls already hate me because they have to get up early in the morning just so I can get to work on time."
"So let them do it later in the day. I can teach you by myself," he offered, his gaze holding hers in an open challenge.
Her breath caught and lashes lowered. She nearly accused him of flirting, but couldn't. She imagined him teaching her, just her. And the blush on her cheek deepened.
"I would love that," she whispered. "But I don't want anyone to know about us as yet."
His jaw tightened. "You're ashamed of me? Or are you just experimenting having a secret boyfriend?"
"Feroze, no!" She rushed to cover his hand with hers and blushed again when he looked up at her.
"I could never be ashamed of you! And would it be so bad if we keep it a secret? I ... I just want it to be us right now. I don't want the families going crazy with preparations and shopping and ... all that. Please?"
She started to remove her hand from his but Feroze moved his own to cover hers.
"Fine. So girlfriend and boyfriend for a few days?"
"Yes, please," she whispered, guilty yet jubilant. He squeezed her hand.
Feroze rubbed his face with the other hand. "I want to take you out for dinner, a movie. Dancing."
"I love dancing!" she moaned.
"I don't, but I'd like to see you dance."
Her eyes gleamed.
"What?" he asked warily.
"I've always wanted to take salsa classes but was too shy to partner up with anyone. There's a place close by which has evening classes," her eyes pleaded hopefully.
Feroze slapped some money on the table and rose to offer her his arm, "Senorita Khan, let's get us signed up for some salsa classes!"
"Asad, we should have a friendly cricket match with Omar's family!" Zoya proposed a few nights later.
Now why hadn't she thought of this earlier? It would be such fun! The perfect excuse to get the families and extended families together.
She squealed, already in love with the idea. "Us vs. them!" But her face became serious just as suddenly, "but whose side will Tamatar be on? She'll be so torn."
"Not a good idea." Asad countered, coming out of the restroom after brushing his teeth, towel still in hand.
She pouted, and he held up his hand to appease her, "the Nikhat thing is still fresh."
Zoya's eyes twinkled and she couldn't resist giggling.
Dude, shut up! Do NOT give this up, she scolded herself.But Mr. Khan was a keen observer and a trained expert in reading his wife's facial expressions by now.
Asad stilled, hand arrested in wiping his face. He looked at her closely. She thought of herself as Sherlock, and him as Watson, but once in a while he turned the tables on her just to keep her on her toes.
"Zoya? You've got something to tell me, hmmm?"
"No!" But her guilty expression was a dead giveaway.
"What aren't you telling me?" He paused to think back to what he had said last.
"It's something to do with Nikhat isn't it?"
"What you don't know, won't hurt you!"
"Allah Miyan, stop shouting Mr. Khan! You'll scare the baby."
"You said so yourself, the baby's smaller than a gnat, so that blackmail won't work on me."
Damn! She'd trained the man too well.
"And, stop distracting me. Is she seeing someone and that's why she said no?" He knew he'd struck gold when he heard her gulp.
"Who is he?" he towered over and glowered at her.
"Really Mr. Khan, has that tone or that look EVER worked on me? Besides, he's a good guy, in love with her and she's in love with him. That's all that matters."
"In love? But why hasn't she told us? Is it because he's Hindu? Or Christian?"
"Would that be such a big deal?"
"Not between them, or for us. But with the families it could get tricky."
"OK, before you start going crazy, no, he's neither."
"So he's Sikh?"
She rolled her eyes, on much safer ground now. "What if he's Jewish?" she teased.
"Oh. My. God. Where did she find a Jew in Bhopal?"
"Why? Aren't there many Jews in India?"
"Not too many."
"Whoa! I'm from New York. I have many Jewish friends. I taught them gaalis in Hindi and they taught me bad words in Yiddish! And besides, wouldn't a nice Jewish boy be far better than a Hindu, Christian or Sikh boy?"
"Well, he'd be circumcised for starters!"
She rolled on the bed and laughed till tears ran down her cheeks.
"Mr. Khan! He's Muslim, all right?"
"Then why all this secrecy? Oh my goodness, he's married! I'll kill him!" He staggered to sit down heavily on the bed.
"No! Stop it!" She rose to hug him from the back. "He's not married! Asad, it's her secret to tell, not mine. May be, for the moment, she wants to keep it to herself. She just took this big decision, and probably feels embarrassed that she's back to square one."
She kissed his cheek, "remember, we didn't want anyone to know about us in the beginning. The longing looks and stolen kisses had their own sizzle factor. Chill, and stop being Dracula Ahmed Khan."
"You're sure he's a good guy? He'll be good for her? You've met him?"
"Umm hmm. He's perfect! Trust me," Zoya glided into his arms to seal her reassurance with a kiss.
"Can't you at least give me a hint?" Asad coaxed.
She studiously looked at her fingernails.
"Zoya?" he breathed in her ear, nuzzling her neck and trailing his hands over her.
"Mr. Khan! Stop trying to seduce it out of me!" But she involuntarily lifted her hair to allow him more nibbling access.
"So I will be able to seduce it out of you?" He nipped the throbbing pulse at her throat. Asad slid his thumbs under the straps of her silk negligee and slowly stroked her back. Expertly tugging them off her shoulder, he dipped his head and nibbled some more.
"If you promise me the cricket match," she gasped, arching.
"Done!" He trapped her flailing arms and held her wrists behind her back.
"And a 3-alarm orgas"-" he swallowed her blackmail and set about to work hard for his bounty.
"How about a midnight family picnic to watch the meteor shower tomorrow?" Asad offered, after the raging fires had been banked and breaths returned to normal.
"Really?" Zoya squealed in glee and rose to lie across his bare chest.
She flicked her tongue over his nipple; he jerked and she giggled with satisfaction. Across his chest, her charged fingers traced familiar patterns, initials and words in her favorite afterplay ritual. Sometimes she would make him guess the erotic calligraphy on her own personal canvas. Lately, he would do the same on her still-flat stomach.
"Not cursive!" she would moan. "I can't understand anything. Use all caps, please."
"Shh, it's between Abbu and his baby. I'm writing a secret letter."
"Meteor shower! What a great idea!" Zoya still couldn't believe it. How did"-?
"Just for that, Jahanpanah, not only will I tell you about Nikhat's mystery man, but you could get very, very lucky, very soon."
Her fingers skittered over and drummed his six packs. "Well, as soon as you're ready to get lucky!"
Asad flipped her on her back and pinned her under him, "tell me now. By then I should be very ready!"
"No, first things first. How did you think of a meteor shower picnic? You do remember our last meteor shower, right?"
He groaned and rolled away on his back.
"Yeah, you better cover your face, Mr. Akdu Ahmed Khan! You were a total beast that day! Chalta phirta Tehzeeb ka doctor and tameez ki dukaan!"
"You reserved all that rude Akduness just for me, right? I hope you never behaved that way with any other woman!"
"And you better not have sassed any other man that way! You really pressed my buttons. Wouldn't back down one bit! We were even. You couldn't shut up and let me be. You had to give me a piece of your fine mind!"
"You deserved it!"
"We both got what we deserved and wished for each other," Asad said softly as his fingers fanned out on her stomach. "And believe me, if I hadn't been so furious I'd have just ended up taking you in my arms and doing this!"
He settled between her legs. Oh yes, he was ready now.
"You did take me in your arms then, remember?"
Asad nuzzled her nose with his, "you tripped, as usual! That counts?"
Her voice broke, "every look, every touch counts. And that night each shooting star conspired to bring us closer."
"So sentimental Mrs. Khan? Where's my spitfire hell-raiser who made my blood steam even then?"
Zoya wiped the corner of her eye, "gee thanks, Mr. Khan! All that fiery temper, character assassination and flaring nostrils was meant to be foreplay?"
"Babe, if you have to ask, then I haven't shown you what foreplay is! Your lesson starts now." he deftly silenced all sass and post-fight analysis.
Class was now in session.
With his fingers and mouth on her skin, he defined and illustrated the term in slow, painstaking detail. He demanded complete attention, punishing insubordination and any challenge to his authority.
"There will be a test," Mr. Khan instructed gruffly while exploring the back of her knee with his tongue.
He shushed all hisses and moans, "and it'll be 90% of the final grade."
"And the other 10%?" she breathed, eyes closed, body thrashing in reaction to the liquid fire ascending up her thigh.
He pulled her on top of him.
"Shh! No questions! The other 50% will be based on how many syllables you add to my name as you scream it ..." His fingers kneaded her molten flesh and his mouth rewarded her with twin bonus points for excellence in riding and arching.
" ... and 60% for the perfect arc of your back as I do this ..." His thumb traced each bump of her spine, and she convulsed, suctioning him.
"Good girl! A+!" he pronounced through gritted teeth and heart pounding in his ears; she graduated the class with full honors.
But in the cresting heat of the moment, the master had completely forgotten that the student still hadn't told him what he'd started, so diligently, to find out.
Mission not accomplished.
The crafty student, even under the threat of detention and failing the class, hadn't snitched yet on the secret admirer's identity.
He'd just been Watsoned.
"I'll have to make my own ghee?" shrieked Najma. Dilshad and Zeenat laughed.
"Not if you don't want to," Zeenat pacified her. "You get everything in the stores these days. Spices vagairah to ab mainstream grocery stores mein available hain. But home-made is still home-made. A lot of us still make our own ghee, white butter, cream, papad and masalas or achaars at home. It's just fresher, and you can't the trust the packaged and frozen stuff anyways."
"Yeah, Najma you should see Aapi's friends. They are the best cooks! Some are Gujaratis, Punjabis, South Indians, Maharashtrians. She has a big Indian circle of girlfriends and they have a blast!"
Zoya chimed in from the dining table where she sat chopping mounds of veggies for undhyun. She was craving it all of a sudden, and had begged Aapi to make it and treat the others to it as well. Aapi made the best undhyun; she had learned it from her Gujju friend back home.
She continued filling in Najma and Humaira who helped her. "They used to go for Hindi movies and girls' nights out, and Jeeju and I would order pizzas and watch old cricket matches. Not fair, haan Aapi! She even went on a cruise with her friends, humko akela chhod ke!"
"Theek hi to hai, beta," Dilshad spoke gently. She too had a tight-knit, but small circle of friends who had supported her in tough times, sharing laughter and tears, trading recipes, and pick-up and drop-off duties of kids from school or tuitions.
"Friends can be such lifesavers. They make you laugh and forget all gharelu responsibilities. Hai na Zeenat?"
"I know," agreed Zeenat as she held Dilshad's hand. "We had a younger friend who had recently married and come to the US. At our get-togethers she'd say: main yahan aati hoon to lagta hai ki apne maayake aa gayi!' Friends are such fun!"
"But Aapi, I won't know anyone there," Najma pouted. "Omar will be at work, main sara din kya karungi?"
"Look beta, when we first went to the US, we were both new to the place. But Omar has lived there all his life. He has friends, cousins and a whole set up that he'll introduce you to. No worries."
Najma twisted her hands nervously, "par Aapi, he'll have American friends and I'll feel so out of place."
"Don't worry," Aapi assured her. "There are so many Indians in the US now. Ek patthar phenko, Indian ko lagega. Especially in the Bay area where you'll be."
Zoya wiped her hands on the apron and went to hug Najma.
Kissing the top of her head, she said, "Tamatar! When I came here from the US, I knew no one. But I found the most wonderful people didn't I? American ho ya Indian, you'll find wonderful people, no matter where you go. And you're going to California"they are waaay more friendly over there. New Yorkers can't be bothered being friendly!" she and Aapi high-fived.
"I'm kidding! But New Yorkers are stereotyped as rude. Bechari Ni---"
She coughed to cover up. She better shut up. Asad had already wrangled Feroze's name from her breathless lips early this morning by withholding gratification. She thought he'd forgotten. But no, Jahanpanahs had great memories ... and great skills at making her forget in the throes of ecstasy ...
"Bechari who?" Najma asked.
"My friend Nikki. She's moving to New York from Bho"- Boston! No, but I love New York, you guys. Najma you have to go there. It's one of my favorite cities!"
"Haan, haan, of course she'll come to New York," Aapi said. "Niagara Falls nahin dekhna hai kya?"
"Unless Omar is like Jeeju!" Aapi and Zoya laughed, and everyone looked at them quizzically.
"Dilshad Aapa, the country is so big, it takes six hours to get from one end to the other on a non-stop flight, and I'm not even including Hawaii."
Zoya took up the narrative, "we would beg Jeeju to take us to the Grand Canyon which is more west. And kanjoos Jeeju would say: people in eastern US go to Niagara Falls, for those on the West, there's Grand Canyon. Dono dekhne ki koi zaroorat nahin hai!"
"Have you been to Hawaii?" Humaira asked wistfully.
Again, the Americans laughed.
"Humaira, jab aapke Jeeju Grand Canyon nahin le ke gaye, to Hawaii to bahut door ki baat hai beta!"
"Humaira ke Jeeju le ke jayenge!" Zoya boasted, clapping her hands.
Everyone cheered. But her face fell. They thought she meant Omar, but she had meant Asad ...
Song in Title:
Saathiya (2010) "Saathiya"
"Zoyajaan, who's this Nikki from Boston that I don't know?"
"Aapi!" Zoya groaned.
She was already drowsy from a full stomach and Aapi massaging oil in hair, and now this interrogation.
Me and my stupid mouth, she thought.
"You don't know her Aapi, she's a facebook friend. It's so cute. She just started going out with this guy"-"
"And you must've played match-maker as usual? Sudhar jao! Now you give online dakhal in people's lives too!"
"Aapi, that's so mean!"
"Take care of yourself beta, and your baby. Eat healthy, sleep well." She tugged her hair playfully as she worked the oil into her roots. After so many days she had got her hands on Zoya and finally convinced her to say yes to some deep conditioning.
"But Aapi, this is Zoya's true calling!" Najma butted in shyly. "In fact, I think she should start a business where she can make some serious money from getting people together."
Zeenat and Dilshad laughed.
"No!" Zoya corrected her. "If you make money from it then it's not worth it. What if people I brought together broke up? They'll ask me for a refund!"
"Aur refund kahan se dogi, when you'll have spent all the money on movies, diet coke and pizza!" Zeenat teased.
"True," Najma mused. "But I wish you could do something for Nikhat and Feroze bhai. It would have been such fun if that rishta had materialized."
Zeenat watched Zoya duck her head. She pinched her shoulder and they grinned at each other unashamedly. Now she knew exactly what Zoya had been up to!
Dilshad watched them gratefully, despite the tinge of sadness. Zeenat would be leaving tomorrow and Zoya's tears were marshaled just at the brink. She glanced over at Najma who was pensive too, missing Omar even after hours of facetime and skype. Thank god, he had reached home safely!
Dilshad's lips moved soundlessly, invoking a dua.
"Chalo bhai," she shook everyone out of their moodiness. "Zeenat, Najma ko aur American tips nahin dene hain kya?"
Zoya beamed in support of the wonderful idea, "aaj ka lesson: a freezer and ziploc bags are a girl's best friend!"
Najma groaned and Zoya snickered. "Main yahan raaj karungi and you'll have to be your own maid Tamatar," she teased Najma and stuck her tongue out at Aapi.
"Tabhi husbands ko train karna padta hai. Indian men are very well-behaved and domesticated outside of India! Jeeju's biryani tastes way better than Aapi's! And he's in charge of loading and unloading the dishwasher every night."
"If only I could get him to make rotis," muttered Zeenat.
"Haaw Aapi" Najma guffawed.
She fantasized about the ups and downs of desi life in America. I'm not stepping in the kitchen the first week, she decided.
Nope, no way.
His momentary joy at hearing about her whereabouts and safety was quickly dashed. Gaffoor Siddiqui couldn't understand why his daughter was being thus held and harassed by the police. She was in a delicate condition, had powerful connections and the best fleet of lawyers, then why?
How could it possibly be?
Soon, however, a grim portrait has started to emerge. His lawyers were bringing nasty reports of the crimes his daughter was being accused of. Multiple counts of attempted murder? And the accuser was none other than his former adversary and younger daughter's current benefactor.
The old man twitched in impotent confusion.
"Sir, Mr. Asad Ahmed Khan to see you."
And the next instant his nemesis stood before him, a leather bag by his grim side.
He blinked several times. "Leave us alone," he instructed his secretary and waved Asad toward the sofa.
Siddiqui's facial muscles were frozen in dismay.
Why was he here? He wanted to confront and accuse him. But Humaira was still a guest in this man's home. Even that he couldn't fathom. She would tell him nothing about her decision to continue staying at that house. Raziya refused to say anything either.
One late afternoon, a few weeks ago, he had even gone to this man's house to bring his daughter home. But first, he'd made sure, that Asad was at work. This was unlike him, but it was necessary. It was not right that she stayed so long away from home, and so long away in a near stranger's home. In this man's home.
That afternoon, he had been ushered in nervously by this man's wife. He had sniffed in disapproval at her western clothing. But her eyes had lit up like a thousand lamps. She had stared at him for a long time with her hand to her heart and then turned her face away to quietly welcome him into her home.
The abyss of hope in her luminous, beseeching eyes haunted him even today.
She had wanted to say something to him, of that he was sure. Her hand had almost lifted toward him but shrunk away at his stern frown. Her lips had quivered and she had pressed that hand to them instead. But then Humaira came up behind her, "Abbu, what are you doing here?" And she had just as quietly lowered her anguished gaze and melted away.
Humaira had told him simply and firmly that she needed more time.
On his reluctant way out, he had longed for a glimpse of the girl who carried a well of wretched hope and screaming yearning in her eyes.
But those eyes remained elusive.
Asad cleared his throat, and it brought Siddiqui to the tangled present. Why was this man gunning for his older daughter while harboring his younger one? He wanted to shout at him, rail at him, but he had no energy to spare.
"I don't understand why ..." he felt powerless and frail. He wasn't up for any business or legal feud anymore.
He tried to speak again, "why are you blaming Tanveer for such terrible things? Why would she try to run your wife off the road? What kind of game are you playing?" Suddenly he couldn't stop talking.
Asad's face was carved in granite.
Earlier he had refused to sit down with a shake of his head. Siddiqui stuttered to a stop. The questions meant as piercing accusations fell away feebly.
Asad set the bag on the table and began to slowly unpack its contents.
Gaffoor Siddiqui stared.
He watched breathlessly, helplessly even, as the articles multiplied on the coffee table: was that Humaira's music box? How did this man have it? Was he now going to use Humaira to exact some kind of revenge? He nearly snarled in anger, but stopped as he saw the other treasures.
They nagged at his memory and punctured his soul.
He picked up the music box first. It was dull from use, its paint faded. As the music floated out, he examined the figure inside more closely; its dress was frayed and the dancer tilted just a little to side. This was not Humaira's.
His heart beat faster.
That jewelry box was so familiar and yet so alien. His hand jerked toward it. His fingers traced the paisley designs he'd carved into it a lifetime ago. They were uneven, amateurish, but Zainab had loved them. She had kissed his calloused hands and ...
He forgot the questions brimming at his lips and eagerly opened the lid to gasp at the simple pair of earrings he had given her.
His first real gift to her.
He had taken her to an Indian jeweler because American jewelry was rarely made with anything more than 14 karat gold. It had been a long but beautiful drive. He'd bought her these from his first paycheck.
His eyes watered shamelessly.
Now his gaze fell on other excavated exhibits from his past. That saree too was his gift to Zainab when they had decided to get married. Ribbons of memories swirled before his eyes.
Asad was forgotten.
His hands blindly reached for a small photo album and his heart wrenched at a faded picture of Zainab holding a baby girl. Hungrily he flipped through the other pictures of a little child, a little scr*ap of dimpled sunshine. Yes, that little girl from a lifetime ago had a dimple!
Raising leaking eyes to Asad's implacable face, Siddiqui begged for answers.
"How?" he croaked, beaten. "Where did you get these? What terrible game are you playing with me?"
Asad still remained quiet. From a folder he removed a piece of paper which he handed to the old man.
With trembling hands Siddiqui looked at a bad photocopy of an old photograph. That too was all too familiar. It was a group picture, decades old, with his face partially blurred out.
But how ...?
Tanveer had shown him its original. He had, in fact, presented her his own copy, fully intact, framed in silver. But when Tanveer had fled from home she hadn't taken that with her.
Next, Asad handed him an American passport. Siddiqui flipped it open in a daze. It was the same face. Those eyes! The same eyes that had mutely pleaded with him that day. They shone in this thumb-size portrait. He glanced at the name and blanched. Zoya Farooqui?
Last, Asad gave him scanned copies of old passport pages.
Zainab Farooqui, the first one read, next to her picture on the left. Siddiqui's gnarled fingers lingered to trace the photograph.
The last sheet was also from an old passport ... a child's photograph, the same child with the dimpled smile who had appeared at his doorstep, by her mother's side, eighteen years ago ...
... the same child he had bribed with a music box ... to cowardly bequeath a world of grief on her tiny shoulders.
Zoya Farooqui, it said.
Mother's name: Zainab Farooqui.
He staggered and fell heavily on the couch.
Asad began speaking.
"No, Ayaan, I have to go, for my peace of mind, if nothing else. I must know why she did what she did."
"But I told you, whatever she did doesn't matter! I won't ever let it come between us, then why? Why won't you give this up?"
"Because your family is my family. And I want to know why someone would want to hurt my family!"
Ayaan hugged her tight to him, not caring who saw them or the shrill wolf whistles and catcalls that erupted around them.
He had come here to drop her off even though she had told him repeatedly that she'd be fine on her own. She was meeting her mother at the same place again.
Ayaan wasn't too happy about it. He feared her search for buried answers to their past would ruin what they had. If her mother had blackmailed his father, then his father must've done something blackmailable ...
And that scared him even more.
Things were going so right. Why fix it if it ain't broke, an inner voice jeered.
He shook his head and ran his hand through his hair, "then let me at least wait for you to take you back to Bhaijaan's."
"Ayaan, if Ammi gives me the answers I'm looking for, I plan to go home with her. I'm worried about Abbu. And her too. She looks ill." And I want to tell them about Tanveer's sleazy past, she thought to herself.
Humaira held his hand, "I already talked to Phuphi and Zoya Bhabhi about it."
"No! Are you serious? How'll we meet like we do everyday?"
She held his hand in hers, "I've told Ammi that I plan to come to Bhaijaan's house for the Taekwondo lessons, you can pick me up and we can meet that way."
"But I want to see you everyday, not every other day! Meeting for dinner at Bhai's is such fun. C'mon, you cannot be serious!"
But he saw her jaw set firmly and sighed, fully aware that he wouldn't be able to shake her resolve. He backed her against the bike. Nearly losing her balance she gripped his jacket lapels with both hands.
"Fine! But let me at least take you out for dinner tonight," trapping her between his hands on either side, he nudged her forehead with his, "please!"
"Ayaan, stop! People are watching," She blushed, a hand loosened from his jacket to flutter on his chest.
"I don't care. Say yes, I'll come pick you up."
"Abbu might not let me go out at night."
"Then sneak out!" He waggled his eyebrows at her, "I'll wait downstairs for you, under your window." He looked at her meaningfully, reminding her of the infinite intimate possibilities that a clandestine meeting could generate.
Her heart accelerated. "Ayaan!"
"I mean it! We're engaged after all."
She looked at the unruly hair, the mutinous expression on his face, and her heart skipped a beat, "OK, OK, let's see how things go with Ammi and then I'll call you."
She thought aloud wistfully, "may be, I can ask Abbu if I can go out with you around 6?"
She turned to him suddenly, "what if I join the dance classes that Nikhat goes to? Then you can drop me back home on those days too."
"Great! It's in the evening, and I can come pick you up straight from office. Do it!"
Up in the food court, Raziya felt trapped. Her foot tapped impatiently. The sensation of needles and pins was back. But the ethical pins and needles that she walked on gave her the most discomfort.
Her deadline was up. Humaira would be here soon. How could she possibly convince her to come home and yet keep her worst crimes a secret? The truth would kill her!
She saw Humaira walking toward her and her heart constricted. She looked carefree and confident. A small smile played on her lips.
I'm so sorry.
A desolate and inconsolable Siddiqui watched Asad pace his office as he told a fantastic story of a conniving houseguest sent on a diabolical errand by a wicked stepmother. This embedded spy stole the birthright of another guest who had come from a land far away ...
... a young girl, bold and bright, marked by a fiery scar ... carting a secret mission and legacy: a cherished music box, a few letters and pictures lovingly saved in a hand-carved jewelry box. She had come from beyond the seven seas to a forgotten land of larcenous monsters. She had come armed with a fierce hope to be re-united with a lost father.
But those monsters hadn't forgotten her.
And even as she slayed and tamed dragons, in her heart she hid a terrible fear: she was unwanted, unloved by a father who had not come looking for her and may never accept her.
That thieving, hooded guest was banished from that house and the questing daughter was led to believe that the father she sought had died a long time ago.
Only two conspirators knew that the real father was alive.
She, who had stolen the precious evidence, the bundle of letters and photos from the grieving daughter, next blackmailed her way to that forgetful father's doorstep, claiming to be his real child. That father had let mere pieces of old paper trump blood.
Siddiqui was aghast, insensible. "How ...? She told me ... but ..."
He gesticulated wildly, "How did Tanveer even know about me?"
"Ask your wife!"
"What? Raziya? That's impossible!"
"You can confirm it with Mrs. Siddiqui later. She knows that we know."
"She knows? Zoya? Zoya knows about me?" the condemned man asked, fearfully, hopefully.
Asad swallowed and took a deep breath, "... yes ..."
"Since we got married."
"But why didn't you tell me before?" He asked in frustrated, impotent fury.
"Because Tanveer had already made her move by then." Asad's voice cracked for the first time, "and because Zoya didn't think that you'd believe her. Her strongest proof was gone, and ..."
He swore under his breath.
"And what? Tell me, please."
"She didn't want you to go through the humiliation of a paternity test," his son-in-law whispered brokenly.
Tears were openly flowing down his face. "I begged her to, but she said that it was good enough for her to know that you would have accepted her ... and that Humaira was close to her."
Questions, doubts, guilt and hope swirled in the old man's mind. So that's why this man had allowed Humaira in his home! Emotions and logic warred. But weakness and fear made disbelief stronger.
"How did you know that Tanveer did this?"
Angrily, Asad swiped his face free of tears, "I was having her followed since she left our house. She pushed Zoya down the stairs, nearly killing her, and I knew she wasn't done wreaking havoc on my family!"
"Pushed her? Unbelievable!" a still-uncertain Siddiqui muttered to himself.
Asad felt pure rage surge through him. Unbelievable? You pathetic son of a bit*ch, you don't even know what else your daughter knows about you! He controlled himself and took deep breaths.
He needed to calm down or he'd smash something. His knuckles whitened on the bag's handle.
He had worked feverishly to accumulate this evidence over the last few days. He'd grabbed whatever articles Zoya held dear, just intuiting that somehow they may be significant as proof. He talked long to Anwar one night and got him to scan and email him the pages from the old passports.
Thank god Ammi had suggested that!
But now came the hard part.
He felt pity and scorn for this man snivelling in front of him.
But he also needed this man.
Zoya needed him, and he'd put away all rancor if having this man in their lives meant that Zoya wouldn't have nightmares when she slept, and tears in her eyes when she woke.
Siddiqui was locked in his own world of despair and hope. That's why Zoya had looked at him that way at Asad's house?
"But Tanveer? How can ...?"
He fumbled in despair. It was easier to accept Tanveer as his daughter. At least she mirrored the dark heart of his past. But the weight of Zoya's 24-karat hope and mercy was too much to bear.
"Tanveer tried to have your daughters killed!" Asad snarled. He had one mind to rip this man in half.
Patiently, and with barely repressed fury, Asad explained, "we have proof that she had Ayaan and Humaira followed from Indore and shot at. But then she disappeared after she arranged Zoya's accident. We have her on tape ordering the hit. Zoya could have died!"
Asad's anger knew no bounds now. His voice boomed in wrath, ricocheting off the glass and concrete to strafe Siddiqui's numbed soul.
He raised an accusing finger to indict his father-in-law, "all these days you were harboring a snake in your house! And all these days she could only ask Humaira a million questions about you. What stories did your Abbu tell you when you were little? Did he teach you how to ride a bike? What did he do when you got hurt? What if you had a scary dream? Does he"-?' "
Siddiqui shrunk away from him, covering his face.
Asad stopped to catch his breath and swallow the growing lump in his throat. These eager questions about absent fathers were all too familiar. He too had wanted to ask Ayaan these questions when they were younger.
But he never did.
What was it like to have Abbu tell you stories at night, or to wake up from a scary dream and have him hug you in comfort?
Did Najma feel that way too? At least he had tried his best to watch over Najma. And thank god Zoya had Jeeju!
But that hollow felling on all those annual days at school ... parents' day ... sports day ...
Forever cursed ...
As much as he had steeled his heart, truth be told, he too had yearned just as much for a father's daily love ...
But Abbu had deliberately kept away. To protect them from harm threatened by this man and his wife.
He squeezed his eyes shut in revulsion and misery.
Asad brushed his hair off his pulsing forehead trying to calm himself. This wasn't the time for raking the embers from their past. If he dwelled more on it he'd walk out to never come back. And if Zoya could forgive his Abbu ...
He took another steadying breath.
They had silently pledged to each other: we'll be better parents. We won't let our fathers' pasts cast a shadow ...
He really didn't want to share the most perfect""
But the old man needed to know.
"She's ... she's pregnant and"-"
"Yes, I know Tanveer's pregnant which is why I couldn't understand why you would go after her so aggressively."
Somehow, he still couldn't wrap his mind around this explosive revelation. While his heart had exulted that Tanveer wasn't his blood, guilt and remorse delayed the heartbreaking truth from sinking in: Zoya was his daughter.
"Zoya is pregnant! And we nearly lost the baby because of Tanveer!" Asad roared, livid, taking a step dangerously close.
A forced deep breath, and he backed away before he could trust himself to speak again.
"It's killing her not being able to call Humaira her sister, or knowing that her father's alive, and worrying about a viper who's pretending to be his daughter!"
Gaffoor Siddiqui crumpled to the floor, a shattered man today.
"You should've told me!" he accused Asad in a tattered whisper.
Asad's hands fisted and his jaw steeled.
"She wouldn't let me! She doesn't even know I'm here. She didn't want me to tell you because, it would mean Humaira would find out what her mother and ... you did ... what you made my father do ... eighteen years ago in the gudia factory," he lashed out, blinded by tears.
"Ya Allah!" the old man clutched his heart and sobbed like a baby on his knees.
"What do you want from me? How can I possibly make any of this more bearable?" He begged, eons later. He had aged a decade in the past hour.
Asad sighed, "meet her, hold her once, and let her call you Abbu."
Fresh tears spilled down the old man's craggy cheeks.
"And you, of all people, would be OK with her meeting me?"
Asad turned his back on the old man and stared out of the window. Seven floors below, a traffic jam snaked around the building's perimeter.
"Yes," he spoke harshly. "It's what she's wanted all her life. She still has nightmares about that terrible night. And now, with the baby ... She's trying to be happy for the baby, for me, but ..."
He turned back to plead with his father-in-law. "Please, she needs you. I would give anything to keep her smiling."
He had asked for two days before being united with his daughter.
And Asad had agreed.
Humaira would not know for now. They wouldn't wrench the veil off her mother's deeds as yet.
Asad called from office one evening. Aapi had left for the US the day before, and he knew Zoya was missing her terribly. "Come over to my office and we'll go out for dinner and a long drive."
Zoya grumbled. She didn't feel like dressing up. But a husky "please," from her husband, a few promises and wishlists later, and she happily relented.
She dressed with extra care wondering where he would take her. Zoya wore one of the many salwar kameezes she'd got as gifts but had never worn as yet. May be Mr. Khan could be persuaded to take her dancing, she hoped, as she fastened her earrings. How many days did she really have before she grew round and ungainly?
Might as well live it up. Carpe Diem.
She spoke to her reflection: Issi baat par ek sher ho jaye!
Kaal kare so aaj kar, aaj kare so ab
Aish kar le Mrs. Jahanpanah
Kal ban jayegi round as tub
She slipped on dozens of bangles and jiggled them shaking her wrists. Spritzing on her favorite perfume, she twirled before the mirror.
Rubbing her stomach she crooned, "baby, Abbu's taking us out tonight! Would you like Thai today, or Italian? Ummm, garlic bread! Or green curry? Ras Malai? OK, Indian it is."
Lately she's begun to wonder at her cravings and appetite. The baby seemed to steer her more and more toward Indian foods these days. Humph! Mr. Khan's genes better not prove to be dominant.
In the office, everyone had greeted her deferentially and she couldn't resist giggling.
She'd never get over this part. What if she'd worn her mini-skirt? Then Asad would have to declare a holiday for tomorrow: a day-off with so many employees keeling to the floor and smashing their heads open! She nearly snorted. Behave Zoya! she scolded herself.
She had the insane urge to slow-wave like the Queen of England as she walked through the parting, bowing masses.
Being married to the Jahanpanah had its quirks and perks after all.
She saw Prasad pick up the phone and speak urgently into it.
Zoya suppressed another grin.
Had Omar been here, he'd have sniggered that the minion was informing his lord and master of the queen's arrival.
"He's probably saying, ba adab, baamulaiza, hoshiyar. Begum-e-Khaas, Mallika-e-Zoya tashrif la raheen hain!' "
Prasad escorted her to her husband's office, offering a smorgasbord of beverages and delicacies on the way; Zoya struggled to keep a straight face as she gently refused the offerings. A cheeky smile lit up her face as she saw Asad step out and close the door behind him. He waited for a bowing and scr*aping Prasad to leave before taking her hand in his and kissing it.
Tucking her hair behind her ear he asked, "you OK?"
"Umm hmm. Why wouldn't I be? I got a royal escort and parade. The only thing missing was being showered with flowers and a 21-gun salute. May be next time?"
Stroking her cheek Asad hugged her fiercely.
"And my Jahanpanah six packs is taking me out. What else could a girl ask for?"
"I love you," he whispered.
She framed his face in her hands. His somber expression made her eyes widen.
"Asad? Are you OK?"
"Everything will be OK." He promised with a deep kiss. "Come, I have someone I want you to meet," he said tenderly as he opened the door ushering her inside.
Zoya stepped inside and froze.
Her breath stopped and she would have fallen to her knees, but Asad's hands held her shoulders. Their warmth and strength kept her upright.
She didn't know what to do with her hands. She bowed her head instinctively to greet him formally, but words failed her. She was an infant again, lacking any verbal skills.
All language, sensibility and comprehension fled.
What remained were an animal cry, and a flood of tears, which blurred her vision through which she saw her father take off his glasses and polish the lenses. Zoya whirled blindly to crash into Asad's chest weeping hysterically. He held her, murmuring in her hair. He knew what she was thinking and how she was tormenting herself.
"He's really here," he whispered. "You're not hallucinating, we don't have to pretend anymore. He knows."
She lifted her eyes to him at that. Her eyes had pleaded seconds earlier: Don't let me fly apart and give everything away.
"Zoya? Meri bachhi!"
Asad wiped her tears. "Go meet your Abbu," and he turned her around.
"Apne Abbu ko maaf kar dena beta."
And she fell into her father's arms and cried with him.
Song in Title:
Agneepath (2012): "O Saiyaan"
"No!" Nikhat yelped in dismay when she read the new text message.
"Now what?" Feroze asked.
She turned to him, still cooling down from the adrenaline high from their dance class.
"You're never going to believe this. Humaira wants to join this class!"
A hand on his waist, and the other scrubbing the back of his neck, Feroze sighed loudly. "Damn!"
Just when he was really beginning to enjoy the high-octane sensuality of the dance, and the perks of holding her against him! They leaned against the bike, the same bike that Omar rode into Najma's life on. It had brought other lovebirds together too.
If it could talk ...
"Tell her, she'll need a partner and you already have one. A college friend."
"I'll try. But I wouldn't be surprised if she ropes in Ayaan or Nuzzhat."
Feroze reached for her hand and lightly ran his thumb over her fingers.
"This sucks," he stated the obvious, and swore under his breath.
She laughed. For a professor, he was a man of few clipped words. But over the past few days, she'd heard some colorful language from him that never failed to make her giggle.
She'd asked him once, "do you swear in front of your students?"
"On some days, swearing is good for the soul, right?" he'd winked at her.
She'd grinned madly. Didn't she know it!
"Oh well, the dance class was good while it lasted." Nikhat whispered now as she interlaced her fingers with his. Her finger pads thrummed against his.
He looked at her, disappointed, and she took a deep breath.
"OK, OK, I'll talk to Humaira. After all, you'll be gone soon and I want to steal as many moments with you as I can."
"Umm, about that ..."
"What?" her heart twisted. "Please don't tell me you're leaving sooner!"
"I've been thinking ..."
Before he could continue, she rushed headlong to plead with him. Her hands fisted on his shirt in anxiety, "I"ll tell Humaira about us and she'll back off. I'll tell everyone else too, if you want."
She didn't care if everyone around was looking at them funny. She wasn't ready for him to leave as yet.
Feroze raised her hand to his lips. And grinned.
"I was going to say that I've cancelled my summer class and plan to stay longer. Apparently the boys in our family can't get enough of the girls from your family! To hell with our jobs!"
"Feroze!" she punched his chest. "You nearly killed me. I'm not talking to you!"
Nikhat spun on her heel and walked away, looking to flag down an autorickshaw. But Feroze caught her by her wrist and yanked her around to slam her into his chest. His arms came up around her to trap her wriggling body.
"Feroze!" she protested. "Stop it, people are looking," she hissed at him, embarrassed, yet enchanted.
"Let them. At least these people aren't related to us! Tell everyone only if you want to. I kind of enjoy this chori-chori chupke-chupke romance. But don't keep me a secret for too long."
She mulled over his words as she disengaged herself from him. "I'll talk to Humaira and let her know. It's OK if only one person knows, right?"
"Umm, about that ..."
"Feroze!" she growled and pinched his arm, "who did you tell?"
"Remember that friend who gave me your dad's office address?"
Her eyes narrowed.
"It was Zoya."
"What? Oh my god, if she knows, Bhaijaan knows for sure," Nikhat groaned as she smacked her head.
"Are you serious? Even more people know about us?"
"Well Omar was bugging me about fixing me up with his friend's sister, so I had to shut him up."
"His friend's sister! I'll kill Omar," Omar's favorite saali muttered under her breath.
Then she groaned again. "Najma knows too, then. This is ridiculous and you are completely useless!"
"Oh really? If I was so useless, we wouldn't be here, because a certain ice queen had decided that she didn't want to get married to me."
"And what makes you so sure that I want to get married to you right now?" Asked the ice queen haughtily.
He stared at her, jaw dropping open. He knew she was teasing, but suddenly he didn't want to play games any more. Furious and hurt, Feroze stalked to the bike, slapped his helmet on, and climbed astride.
"Feroze!" Nikhat tried to stall him by clasping his hand with both of hers. Gently but firmly, he shrugged her hand off. She tried to hold his hand again, and again he brushed it off.
"Get on, I'll drop you home," he said brusquely without looking at her.
She walked to the front of the bike and turned to face him. He looked away. But after a minute, curiosity got the better of him; he turned to her, surprised that she said nothing or didn't try to hold his hand.
He saw her kneeling patiently on the dusty street, hands clasped tightly in her lap.
"Nikhat! Are you absolutely nuts? Get up!"
"Feroze, will you marry me?"
Tearing his helmet off, he leapt down to sweep her up before he crushed Nikhat to him, kissing her breath away. They remained oblivious to the spontaneous cheers and applause that broke around them.
Dilshad had waited up for them so that she could hold Zoya tight and make sure for herself that she was all right. She heard their car pull into the driveway and rushed to the door. Asad was helping Zoya out. He let go of her hand when he saw Dilshad at the door.
Zoya looked up with a tremulous smile at her.
Dilshad wrapped her in her arms, rocking her like a baby, willing her strength to seep into Zoya's limp body. Zoya was all cried out, but she clung to her mother-in-law's calming warmth and fragrance.
"Tum theek ho?" she asked anxiously.
"Perfect! Ammi, did you know Mr. Khan took me to meet my Abbu?" She brandished her kada and pointed to the gift bags Asad had unloaded by now. Zoya was wrung out, but still so wired. The adrenaline still hummed through her blood and she was unstoppable.
Dilshad smiled and patted her cheek. "I know. And I'm so happy that you finally met your Abbu. I know how much you yearned for him."
Zoya's eyes moistened. She swayed with exhausation. She just wanted to melt into her husband's arms now; she felt so drained.
"Get some rest now. I know it's been a long day for both of you," Dilshad said and kissed her cheek. "And tell me everything about it tomorrow, hmm?"
Tucking her head in the crook of his neck Asad walked her to their room.
It was finally his turn to really hold her. With each batch of tears, he had kept his hands to himself all evening, but only with a great deal of self-control. She sighed in his arms now, some of the tiredness leaving her bones.
Zoya kissed his cheek and moved away to remove her earrings and bangles. In the bathroom she could hear the water running in the tub and she smiled.
Perfect. Just what she needed.
She undressed and secured her hair high as Asad called out, "Zoya!"
"Ummh!" he grunted when he saw her and held out his hand inviting her to join him in the tub.
"Just a sec," she whispered.
Pulling out some candles from the cabinet she lit them and turned the lights out. Then she gratefully slid into the hot water to lean back against him. Asad's arms came around to wrap her and they both sighed in relief. He ran his hands over her. She loved it when he murmured in her ear, reporting on the changes he touched and felt in her body.
But tonight she wanted a different report. "Don't miss out a single detail," she'd commanded.
"Tell me how you did it," she urged.
Asad played with her fingers. "I decided for sure after you told me about visiting her doctor. I knew I had to do something soon, or you'd think up another hare-brained scheme to track that woman down!"
She was too exhausted, and too indebted to playfully slap his hand or scold him.
Yes, after much thought and agonizing soul-searching, she had told him, haltingly, about how she'd gone to Tanveer's doctor's office. How she couldn't go through the rest of her brilliant plan because she felt guilty that she was doing it without telling him. Zoya had feared that Asad would be furious. She had squeezed her eyes close and bowed her head, a defendant awaiting a guilty verdict.
One look at her face and he had melted.
Her eyes sprang open as she felt him take her in his arms.
Now he began to tell her about the day he visited her father at his office. She wanted to know about every detail, every look, every word. Thumbs stroking her shoulders and back, he did as she asked. She took his hand in hers and holding it over her heart leaned back to feel the rumble of his chest on her back and the timbre of his voice in her ear. She planted a hundred kisses on his wet palm.
Later, they just held each other in silence.
And in that candlelit silence, and watery, fleshy coccon, Zoya relived every look and every word she'd shared with her father that night. When she had finally lifted her eyes to look into Abbu's face she had wiped his tears. His hand had come up to hold hers, and it was then she noticed that it was covered with tiny cuts and angry red blisters.
"Abbu, what happened to your hands?" she'd cried out in alarm.
"Nothing beta, I wanted to punish them for letting you go so far away from me, for not being there for you when you needed me."
"No! Abbu, please don't talk like that." And she'd broken into fresh tears. To just have him say this was enough to wipe away some of the eighteen-years worth of questions and tears.
Siddiqui had led his daughter to the sofa looking up at Asad for silent permission. Through blurred eyes he saw Asad nod, and his chest heaved in gratitude. He sat her down and outlined her face with trembling fingers like a blind man reading each bump and dot on a braille page. He gazed long into those eyes that had haunted him, and kissed her forehead. His roughened fingers reached for something on the coffee table. Zoya saw an array of gifts and treasures, and her eyes lit up with irrepressible delight.
"For me, Abbu? Is all this for me?"
"Not all of it," and he had surprised himself by laughing to see her pout.
Even Asad was sporting a half-smile. And Siddiqui had felt a deep slash of regret rip through him. He had missed out so much on each moment of her life. He had missed every milestone: birthdays, successes, hurts and tears, smiles and laughter, her wedding ...
He had so much to make up for.
He bent to retrieve a gift-wrapped cube and placed it in her lap. And he smiled again to see her shake with excitement. She bounced in her seat eager to dismantle the wrapping to reveal the second gift from her Abbu in eighteen years.
"Main kholun isse Abbu, abhi, please?"
"Haan beta, I want to see your face when you open it." He couldn't understand how easily he could laugh and smile. He had imagined this meeting as nerve-wracking and emotionally depleting; it had turned out to be soul-quenching and infinitely uplifting.
Zoya ripped the paper, grinning cheekily at her husband who was grimacing at the unnecessary violence. Gaffoor Siddiqui watched his daughter hand over the mutilated wrapping paper to his son-in-law who meticulously folded it and stacked it on the table-top, patiently awaiting future spoils. Her father couldn't resist being charmed, and was about to laugh out loud when he heard Zoya gasp.
She held a carved wooden box lined with blue velvet, inside which nestled her cherished music box. But she didn't take the music box out of its new home. Her fingers traced the freshly varnished paisley designs on the surface. They matched the ones on Ammi's jewelry box.
"Abbu, is that why your hands ...?"
An overcome Siddiqui nodded in embarrassment. "I wanted to claw my hands off, but then decided that you deserved so much better. It's rosewood." He said shyly.
"I haven't worked with wood for so long. That's why it's somewhat uneven here, see? And here."
Zoya took his hand in hers and held it against her cheek. "It's beautiful, Abbu. I'll pass it on to my daughter or son one day."
He sobbed at that, and Zoya embraced him.
Asad watched through misting eyes. He was grateful for the gift too. In fact when he had first started to search for her music box, it was to order a customized hand-crafted box ... He too had thought of it being embellished with a filigreed design. He would take her to the dargah afterwards and hand her a red string of hope to tie through the box's lattice pattern ...
Stirred, he watched Zoya's face ...
Both men laughed when Zoya next squealed, "Abbu, what else did you get me?"
"I know I'm late, but I wanted to give my daughter a bridal dress. May be you can wear it on your first anniversary?"
As she twirled happily with the heavy bridal dupatta in front of the bathroom mirror, Siddiqui turned to Asad in wonder, "how can she forgive so easily?"
Asad smiled, "that's Zoya. The most generous spirit I've seen all my life," his eyes stung.
Both ran to the open door of the restroom. Asad got there first. "Zoya! Are you OK? What happened?"
"I'll be big as a house on our first anniversary. How'll I fit into the lehenga?" she wailed.
"Godh bharai?" her father had offered tentatively.
She had wailed even louder.
The water had become tepid. And Zoya had dozed off. Asad laughed to himself thinking about his father-in-law's expressions of continued amazement.
He had chuckled even then. What the old man was seeing was just the tip of the iceberg. His life was not yet Zoyafied, as his wife liked to claim. There were many roller-coaster rides and mini heart attacks ahead.
All through the two days before meeting his daughter, Siddiqui had anxiously called Asad at least a dozen times. What's her favorite color, favorite food, does she only wear jeans? Will she be OK? What if I do ...?
He had insisted on taking them to his house afterwards for dinner. Asad had stiffened, but agreed when his father-in-law reassured him that no one would be home. There, he had ordered pizza, kachori and coke, and had scores of spicy junk foods and sweets prepared for his daughter's first homecoming. Her eyes had teared when he fed her with his hands and they wiped each other's cheeks. Before leaving, he had handed a leatherbound folder to Asad.
"This is for both of you."
"Abbu, please!" Zoya had protested. She was rotating the heavy, gem-encrusted gold kada on her wrist. "This used to be your dadi's," Abbu had said as he slipped it on for her.
"You've already given me so much. Thoda aage ke liye bhi bacha kar rakhiye," she teased. Then she bounced and clapped, "May be you can give me a gift everyday!"
"Beta, I've done nothing as yet. I will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for missing out on watching you grow into a beautiful woman."
He pressed the folder into Asad's hands. When Asad unzipped it, he stared, aghast at the house and business papers.
"Mr. Si"-" he stuttered to an awkward stop not knowing how to address him. Siddiqui had placed a hand on his shoulder in understanding.
"It's fine." He pointed to the papers. "I've made Zoya and you the heirs to half my estate. No, don't refuse. Please let me do this."
He clasped his hands behind him. "I wanted to give the house to Zoya and the business to you. I have robbed both of you ... Your childhoods ... a father's love ..."
He removed his glasses and wiped his eyes, "but I can't be unfair to Humaira to make up for my guilt and crimes of the past."
Asad unplugged the drain and bent his head to gnaw on her dewy shoulder.
"Annhhh," she moaned sleepily.
"Bedtime, Mrs. Khan," he reminded her.
Reluctantly she dragged herself out and let her husband pat her dry. Wrapping a towel securely around his waist he lifted her in his arms to tuck her in bed. She pulled him down to her by his neck.
"Hmm?" he asked, kissing her nose.
"I'm dead sleepy, so I'm going to take a quick nap, and then I'm going to give you the thanks you so richly deserve!" she murmured.
Zoya grabbed his hand as he moved toward the closet to change into his night-clothes.
"No clothes allowed, Jahanpanah. Why delay my gratitude and your gratification!"
He laughed softly and shook his head. A smart ass even half-awake. But he blushed in the dark as she yanked the edge of his towel and it slithered to an immodest heap at the floor. She was fast asleep by the time he straightened from picking up the useless terry-cloth at his feet.
Two hours later, she came alive under him, breath hitching sharply, body instinctively melting into her husband's familiar weight as he claimed her, hard, and hilt-deep, teeth at her already-arching neck.
Gripping the twisted sheets, she cried out a primal orgiastic cry.
"You're welcome!" he declared roughly against her pulsing skin.
Tanveer wondered at the sudden disappearance of her father and his lawyers. The old fool had looked miserable and indignant. He had yelled hopelessly, beady little eyes looking panicked and helpless. He had spluttered when haranguing the local police, uselessly reminding them, "aap jaante nahin main kaun hoon! I'll have you transferred ... I know so-and-so ..."
Blah, blah, blah. Put some heart in it, you old coot, she wanted to scream. She had been smug that he'd be able to get her out on bail though.
So what happened exactly?
Ice ran down her spine.
They knew, did they?
Either Asad had bulldozed his way high up the judicial ladder and cracked down on the case with a hundred gavels, or the sentimental old fool had been hit on the head with the blunt truth.
But how had they found her? She'd been so careful, not going to her former doctor, always going out only in a burqa, and surreptitiously following Zoya. Even that part was frustrating. Zoya didn't step out of the house much these days. When she did, Asad was with her, or the Mr. Universe bodyguard accompanied her highness on every errand. Too much of the past weeks, Tanveer had sat cooped up in the private taxi she'd hired and her back was permanently sore as a result.
And this is the reward for my caution and effort?
The swiftness with which she had been cornered and deposited in a cell crowded with smelly, trampy women had taken her breath and wits away.
Never mind. It was just a momentary setback. Only mildly annoying.
The money was secure. Check.
Plan B? Check.
She started screaming and writhing in pain. After she stuck her finger down her throat to throw up dramatically.
"She's pleading temporary insanity and complications from her pregnancy," Rakesh told Asad over the phone.
"Of course!" Asad sighed. He hadn't expected any less. The woman just wouldn't go silently from their lives.
"I'm surprised she's not claiming that her evil twin did it," he muttered grimly, rubbing his eyes.
Zoya's distraught face, from when he'd seen her at the accident site, flashed before his eyes.
"Tell me she's not going to talk her way out of this?"
"With all the evidence we've turned in against her, she shouldn't."
Asad brooded. His fist clenched behind his back. He didn't trust her or her ability to slip through the cracks. The police hadn't found the money anywhere, nor bank passbooks. The unfinished nature of the business niggled and nagged at his mind.
But everyone was immensely relieved that she was in judicial custody now.
And thank god, Zoya was back to being Zoya again.
He had left home this morning with her still touching and re-touching her new treasures fanned out on the bed. Just after breakfast, a courier had delivered yet another gift for her. Seeing who it was from, Asad had led her inside to their room before she tore into it. He watched indulgently as she fished out a bubble-wrapped picture frame. Her gasp of delight was a shot of pure adrenaline in his arm.
"Asad, look! I can't believe Abbu had this photo of me and Ammi all these years."
It was a faded photograph in a plain frame: a dimpled toddler gripping a familiar music box in her pudgy hands, while being restrained unsuccessfully by her mother. It must have been taken that fateful night, Asad thought. He looked up sharply at Zoya hoping she hadn't put the pieces together. Zoya hugged the frame to her and rocked herself. Putting it on the bed, she flung herself in Asad's arms.
"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" she swung from his neck giddily. "I don't deserve you," she sniffed.
"Don't ever say that," he jerked her to him planting a kiss on her forehead.
"Arz kiya hai, When it was dark, you always carried the sun in your hand for me'," she quoted softly, after stealing another kiss.
"Who said that?"
"Why? Cause it couldn't have been me?"
"Some Irish poet, Sean O'Casey, I think."
"Allah Miyan, what's wrong with you, Mrs. Khan? You are finally beginning to appreciate true poetry and fine verse! Humare saath ka asar hoga," he teased.
"Touch Mr. Khan, you're lucky I'm too happy to hit you right now."
The doorbell rang again and they heard Najma shriek after a second. They ran out in panic, yelling "Tamatar!" together.
It was deja vu all over again.
But this time Najma had her face buried in a giant bouquet of roses and Dilshad was gripping the kitchen counter's edge with one hand while the other tried to calm her racing heart.
"One day, you kids will give me a heart attack," Dilshad grumbled.
"Aww," cooed Zoya. "So cute!"
Najma turned around and handed her a smaller bunch of the tiniest wisps of white flowers.
"For me?" Zoya asked.
Najma, color deeper than the roses, nodded. "Omar said something about baby's breath."
"Yes, these are baby's breath! How perfect! Najma you have the best husband in the whole wide world," she gushed.
But then she saw Asad's face and giggled, "After mine, I mean!"
As Asad slipped into his suit jacket, Najma rooted around in the box that had arrived with the flowers.
"Zoya, Omar sent you something else too," and she handed a medium-sized gift bag to her sister-in-law.
"Oh my god, I've never got so many gifts in my life," she squealed and ripped the tissue open.
"What is it?" begged Najma. Asad, curious himself, hung around for the reveal too.
Zoya held up a Star Wars logoed infant onepiece jumpsuit, which read: "The force is strong with this one."
"Oh my god, I love it!" and she splayed it over her belly. "Look baby Jedi, look what Omi Wan Kenobi sent. This is what you'll wear when we bring you from the hospital."
"Then we better wash it at least 2-3 times." Dilshad cut in.
"Why Ammi?" Zoya asked.
"So it'll be soft against the baby's skin. Which reminds me, we can take a look at some of Asad and Najma's baby clothes and decide which ones can be re-used."
"Aww," went Najma.
Asad looked at Zoya's suddenly striken expression. He knew what she was thinking: no one had saved her baby clothes.
"What else did Omar send," he prompted gently.
Flashing him a grateful grin, Zoya pulled out a telescoping light sabre and brandished it gleefully. It glowed green and made a buzzing electronic sound when swished.
Najma and Asad looked at each other and rolled their eyes. "Oh god! You two and your Star Wars cr*ap!"
Thrusting the light sabre's glowing tip under her sister-in-law's chin, Zoya thundered in her best Darth Vader voice: " I find your lack of faith disturbing.' Tamatar! You take that back! Right now!"
As Asad left for work, Najma was being chased around by her bhabhi maniacally waving the light sabre. Zoya was humming the ominous Darth Vader theme track.
He shook his head hearing Dilshad scold the girls half-heartedly.
But he got out fast to avoid the sacrilege of seeing his wife jump up on the sofa, as she did so often when passionately defending a cause close to her heart.
"Sh*it!" groaned Feroze.
"What?" Nikhat asked with a hand clutching her heart. Her other hand was still under the table, tingling in his secure grasp.
"We're on youtube!"
"What? Stop making stuff up."
"No, seriously, Zoya just texted me"-"
Nikhat's phone buzzed.
"Humaira. Yup, we're on youtube. 1563 views already!" She covered her miserable face.
Just this morning, Ammi had suspiciously kissed her forehead and hugged her longer than usual. She seemed happy and too cheerful.
Had Humaira blabbed on them?
Abbu too had smiled a bit too smugly when he caught her checking the clock just before lunch.
Was she just being paranoid?
God! This secret-keeping was so stressful.
And now the cherry on top.
"Great! Just bloody great! Wait till my students get a hold of this. Bhopali proposal' my foot! Jeez! My department!"
Feroze's professional life flashed before his eyes; he saw it circling and flushing down the toilet.
Nikhat saw his expression and burst into tears. "I'm so sorry. It's my fault. Sab meri wajah se hua hai!"
Feroze held her by her shoulders in the booth. They were at an Italian restaurant this afternoon. By now they had explored quite a few eating places for each lunch date. Nikhat hadn't eaten out so much all of her life. And Feroze was already complaining of his jeans fitting a bit too snugly.
He took the napkin at the table and started to dab at her tears. "Ms. Nikhat Ahmed Khan, looks like you'll have to support me till I find a new job!"
She cried more, and he laughed. "Hey, c'mon, I'm kidding." He rocked her against him as she burrowed her face in his chest.
"But what about your job? Your department people?"
"It'll all be fine. A couple of academic publications, and I'll be golden. Let them find out. In fact, I think my coolness factor just went up!"
He handed her a glass of water.
"Just think, our very own 15 minutes of fame. Tomorrow someone else will be in the spotlight and we'll be forgotten. But at least our grandkids will have a record of how their dadi prosposed to their dadu!"
"How can you still want to marry me?" She sniffed looking up into his face.
His thumbs rubbed the hot tears away, "because, no one ever asked me so nicely. And now that the whole world's seen it, I gotta do it for the grandkids."
Feroze tilted his head to the side and brushed her ear with his lips. "Besides, since that kiss, I've thought of doing nothing else."
Her tiny gasp of awareness scorched him. "Grandmother of my grandkids, get ready for Act II on youtube." He bent to kiss her.
Nikhat's palm cupped his cheek as her head fell back to pose for a perfect shot for posterity, in case anyone was filming them.
Nikhat's screaming instincts were right. Despite Zoya begging and then threatening him, Asad had insisted on telling Abbu about Feroze. No amount of pouting or batting her lashes at him had made him change his mind.
"Zoya, Abbu needs to know. It's not right that he hears about it from someone who might see them together. I'm assuming they are meeting every day?"
She made a face and cut her eyes away from his. "Of course they're meeting everyday! They're in love and he's not here for too long."
"See? That's why we have to tell Abbu and chhoti Ammi."
"I hate it when you're right." She grumbled. "I feel so guilty now. You've taken away the joy of being a secret matchmaker!"
"You'll survive. God knows why my sisters have to fall for pardesi boys though," Asad muttered under his breath.
"Oh hello!" Zoya hollered, fists on her waist, "Mr. Khan, you fell for a pardesi girl too!"
"Yes, you are the one to blame for everything." Asad pointed an accusing finger at her, "you brought those boys into our lives. And now my sisters will be living 12,000 kilometers away from us."
"Oh please!" Pushing her face up to his, she stabbed his chest with her finger. "Don't forget, everything good that's happened to you, to this family, is because of me. Even Ammi said so."
"Oh really, earlier I carried the sun for you, aur ab solar eclipse?"
Her hand moved to rub her stomach and she grabbed his collar with the other. "Shut up, and kiss me, or you can sleep in the living room tonight! I'm not too happy with you right now Mr. Khan."
Asad threw his head back and laughed. His arms came around to hold her against him. "Oh god, I give up, you're too damn much!"
Many kisses later, he teased, "so you're going to wear this everyday?"
For two days now, in the privacy of their room, she'd worn the lehenga her Abbu had given her. She preened in front of the mirror, tried on different shoes, hairstyles and jewelry with it, and had taken at least a dozen selfies. Profile pictures on all her social media sites had been proudly updated. Songs played on her iPad, she swayed and sashayed to wedding and item numbers.
Asad had mentioned this weird obsession to Aapi and Jeeju this morning, and they had laughed knowingly. Anwar told him to be prepared for her wearing it at least for the next few months, or at least till she no longer fit in it.
It was a Zoya thing.
For her seventh birthday a close friend had presented her with a Sleeping Beauty costume. And Zoya had worn it everyday after school as she watched and acted out the Disney movie a thousand times, humming the tune based on Tchaikovsky's unforgettable masterpiece for hours afterwards. For days Anwar reminded Zeenat, "take a video, we'll show it to her husband and kids."
But it kept getting postponed.
The day Zeenat had finally set up the video in Zoya's room to quietly record the princess replay, was the last day she'd worn the costume. Just like that, she was done with being Sleeping Beauty. Anwar still hadn't forgiven Zeenat for not getting Zoya on tape sooner. But Aapi had saved the dress, faded and limp from multiple washings. Some sequins had fallen out, but it was still a cherished relic. Zoya had graduated to multiple screenings of Mary Poppins, Sound of Music and Little Women. Before signing off, Zeenat had told Asad, "ask her to tell you about the time she cut her hair because she saw Little Women,' and wanted to be called Jo."
Smiling, Asad crooked his finger under her chin and raised her face to his. "You look beautiful. Here's what we'll do. This weekend, let's get the family together and have a professional photoshoot. You can wear this lehenga. We can even send a picture to your Abbu."
Her shriek of delight as she threw her arms around his neck nearly deafened him; but it meant that he'd done absolutely the right thing. No way was he sleeping in the living room!
Not by a long shot.
Song in Title:
Agneepath (2012): "O Saiyaan"
Raziya gave thanks for every day her daughter had been home this past week. Fine, so she'd told a little lie.
And it really wasn't a lie. Not telling her the complete truth was not really lying. Why complain when things were finally better than before?
She had helped Asad Ahmed Khan put Tanveer away for good, that earned her at least a couple of brownie points, didn't it?
Siddiqui saheb was mellow and at peace after his private reunion with Zoya.
And all three of them had kept her darkest secret.
Humaira didn't know.
That day at the mall, Humaira had frantically insisted that Tanveer was a con artist scamming Abbu. She was an impostor and a violent psychopath.
"I want to come home, but you hold the key Ammi! Tell me why," she had pleaded.
And that's when she had lied.
"Your Rashid Phupha worked for us. We were the only ones who knew that he had two families so we got him to do some things for us."
Humaira had cringed. "What kind of things?"
Raziya had adjusted the dupatta on her head longer than needed, her fingers had twisted the ends of the dupatta uneasily.
"Ammi! Tell me, please!"
"We needed the insurance money, so we got him to burn the factory."
Humaira had gasped.
"And you threatened hurting Dilshad Phuphi because he wanted to report you the police, right?"
"Yes," she'd said in a small bleak voice. She had already decided that she wouldn't tell her more.
"Ammi, how could you?"
"I was so wrong, beta. I regret it everyday of my life. If I could turn back time ... If I could throw myself at Dilshad's feet, I would."
She had sobbed in earnest. Because she knew that Humaira would find out one day what really happened.
It could kill her.
And she would hate her mother forever.
And she also knew, it wasn't just Dilshad's feet she needed to throw herself at.
Humaira knew she should have pressed Ammi harder. But, she needed an excuse to come home too. As much as she missed everyone at the Khan house, she had to be here to take care of Abbu and Ammi from a psychotic criminal. Thank god that woman was out of their lives and safely tucked away behind bars!
But Abbu must be devastated.
Earlier, she had tried to talk to him but he had looked sad and stared at something in the distance. But these past couple of days, he seemed more upbeat. She had overheard him talking on the phone to his lawyers. He must be getting updates on that scheming impostor!
She had to tell him about her, before he got her released on bail and back into their lives.
That morning after breakfast, she approached him in his study.
"Abbu, I need to talk to you. It's important, please."
He looked distracted as he held a book in his hands without really reading it. But he didn't look annoyed at the interruption. Any other time he would have been short with her, but today he smiled and lovingly touched her head after replacing the book on the shelf.
"Bolo beta. Why do you look so worried? Is something wrong?"
She wondered at his calm cheer. She got more nervous. Was he happy because he was hopeful of Tanveer's release?
Oh my god!
"Abbu ... It's about Tanveer. I don't think she's your daughter," she blurted out, twisting the ring on her finger.
She dared not look into his face. Would he be upset? But she was startled when she heard a muffled laugh.
"It's OK beta." He held her by her shoulders and looked at her with pride.
"You have nothing to worry about. I know."
"You know!" She couldn't believe her ears. "How?"
"Bas yoon samajh lo, that a good Samaritan helped me find the truth."
"Thank god, Abbu! I was so worried. You don't know what kind of a woman she is. You know she pushed Zoya bhabhi down the stairs!"
She saw her father wince in pain and grabbed his hand. Siddiqui patted her hand.
"Come beta, tumhare hath ki coffee piye bahut din ho gaye. Then you can tell me all about your time there, and Zoya ... your Zoya bhabhi."
As they walked down the stairs arm in arm, Humaira chattered about how sweet and crazy Zoya Bhabhi was. Her silly shayari, fierce protectiveness, and how everyone said that Asad Bhaijaan was a changed man now because of her. How nice Aapi and Jeeju were, and wasn't it nice that Zoya bhabhi had them after she lost her parents?
He hung on to every word of hers, his heart sore and eyes moist.
At the landing she gripped his arm urgently, "Abbu, I know that Ammi and I didn't tell you the complete truth about my accident. Actually ... there was some gang shooting on our way from Indore, and I got hit. But it was nothing major," she rushed to reassure him when she saw him blanch.
"But you know what Abbu? I lost a lot of blood, and Zoya bhabhi gave me blood."
Siddiqui's step nearly faltered, but Humaira put her arm out to catch his elbow and continued talking.
"She's so nice! You have to meet her! But Abbu don't judge her because she wears jeans and is quite outspoken."
He continued to reel.
Asad hadn't told him about Zoya donating blood to save Humaira. He closed his eyes helplessly. Who was he to judge her? But he had judged her when he saw her for the first time, hadn't he?
He didn't deserve that child's love or forgiveness. He had given her a lifetime of pain, blow, after terrible blow ...
Why hadn't she spit on him? Demanded why he hadn't come looking for her, or what had really happened to her mother?
He had seen Asad's fury that day ... both Zoya and Asad knew most of the grim details of the horrors of that night.
Asad had said she had a scar from that day.
And nightmares ...
A mere child in that fiery tomb!
The pain ... the fear ...
How had Asad not broken his cowardly neck for what he had or hadn't done eighteen years ago?
His knees buckled. He paused to remove his glasses and polish them, ducking his head so Humaira wouldn't see the shame and self-loathing on his face.
Midas-like, he looked down at the gilded house spread out at his feet.
Its grandeur taunted him; its history haunted him.
He was an epic failure as a father to Zoya. Even hyenas treated their young better, an inner voice jeered.
Nothing he could do could make up for what he'd done.
But he would die trying.
"Abbu?" Humaira asked tentatively as she busied herself assembling the ingredients.
He cleared his throat and swallowed the lump of ashes in his mouth.
"Haan beta?" Arms crossed, Siddiqui distractedly watched Humaira prepare the coffee. He shifted to press his knuckles to his mouth.
The burner's blue flame under the steel pan hypnotized him, waving and beckoning seductively.
He almost reached out to touch it ...
"Now that we know about Tanveer, what should we do to try to find ... your ... real daughter? Shouldn't you hire a private detective or a lawyer who can look into this, and bring her home?"
"We will, beta, I promise," he choked out.
Humaira rushed to hold his quaking shoulders. Siddiqui slid to the floor on his knees and wept inconsolably in his younger daughter's arms.
The milk boiled and bubbled, marching militantly to the top to immolate itself. Its acrid martyrdom hung over his curdled soul.
Zoya fretted. Now that Asad had told Abbu and Chhoti Ammi about Feroze she debated whether to let him know, or just let the lovebirds find out on their own.
"I feel like I'm setting them up to be punk'd if I'm not honest with him," she muttered.
"Then tell him." Asad said simply.
They were headed to the children's center this Sunday morning for an ice cream and chaat party that Zoya had organized for the kids.
"Mr. Khan! You're no help at all! And you're the one who started this with your 'full disclosure rules,' " she said in irritation, making sarcastic air quotes.
"Do you want me to call him, invite him over, say Feroze, the jig's up. The whole family knows'?" Asad asked with infinite patience.
He continued ribbing her, "In fact, we'll tell him, since the internet knows, we decided it was time Abbu and Chhoti Ammi knew too?"
She sighed in exasperation.
She'd told him about the youtube video, but very reluctantly. Zoya thought he'd be livid. She worried her husband would charge down to the other end of town and beat up his future brother-in-law. So she'd broken the news gently, only after she had him in bed, out of his clothes, putty in her hands, mind completely blank.
And after hiding his car keys.
But Asad's mellow reaction had taken her by surprise. He just grinned and shook his head. Who knew that Nikhat of all of them would turn out to have the most adventurous love story? One would have figured Ayaan turning up on youtube more than anyone else.
Besides, now, Asad was a man converted.
Having known the pangs and highs of love, he no longer waged war on its new recruits.
After making sure that there was no danger of him bolting to protect his sister's honor, Zoya asked, "do you want to see it? It's so cute."
She slowly traced his lips with her fingers as she leaned over him, her hair a dark curtain of privacy.
"No! And you better make sure that our own little video doesn't go public either!"
He declared the subject closed by flipping her over and doing things guaranteed to make her mind blank too.
"I watched our video," she said breathlessly as she softened and burned under him.
Hot breath to her ear, he whispered, "Without me? Now you'll have to give me an action replay, word for word, blow by blow."
"Let's watch it right now!" she implored, body intimately molding to his.
"No," he pinned her under him, extending her arms over her head. "Tell me ..."
Her voice cracked as she obeyed him. The throaty words spurred his actions; her involuntary gasps in between, stirred his blood. His breath hissed with each sensuous detail she narrated; her body bucked as his fingers and tongue remembered old and discovered new sensations ...
Back in the car she continued to protest his teasing and non-compliance.
Her fingers tapped impatiently on her phone.
He shrugged and laughed at her dilemma. "You only want the glory but not the glitches," Asad mocked.
"Hmmpphh! You never take me seriously, or give me credit for"!"
"Oh please! Don't even try throwing yourself a pity party. When you make sense I take you plenty seriously."
She gasped and then pouted. "You're being especially mean today. I'm sorry, I didn't know you were on your period."
"Zoya!" he wheezed through shocked laughter. "Always misbehaving!"
A low growl from her told him she was still miffed.
He took her hand in his and interlaced their fingers tightly to stop her from pulling away. "I loved your idea of having local ice cream wallas and chaat thelas come to the center, instead of giving the contract to some big corporate outfit, hmm?"
It had been her idea and something she'd been thinking about for sometime now. Why not support small local vendors rather than some bloated faceless franchise? It had been hard to co-ordinate though, but she'd loved every minute of it.
Asad had been worried about security and food safety but with Najma, Humaira and Nuzzhat working with some people from Rakesh's office, together they had created a registry for the vendors who would be invited back for future functions only under the strictest sanitary conditions.
Rakesh's office had processed photographs, fingerprints, phone numbers and addresses as a show of commitment to future contracts, and a running database of contacts and profiles to ensure accountability.
And her Abbu had insisted on paying for the whole affair.
"I want to do this for you, for the place where you found shelter when I turned my back on you," he had said through penitent tears on the phone that morning.
Her own eyes had misted. "Abbu, forget about the past. Just be with me now and always."
"Till my dying breath," Abbu had said softly before he hung up.
She squeezed Asad's hand back now. "Jahanpanah, you take advantage of my sunny nature. You know I'll forgive easily so you poke fun at me and then say or do something that'll make me forget how mean you were."
"True, I do. You make it so easy," he smiled.
"Asad!" she punched his arm.
He pulled over to the side of the road and trapped both her hands in his to kiss them.
"Who is your biggest fan?"
She looked away.
"Fine! You are!"
"Who writes her name on my heart every night?"
"Who do I kiss goodnight?"
"Who's going to be the mother of my children?"
She was loving this. Who cared if they were going to be just a little late?
"Who gets your pizza order just right?"
"OK, on most days."
"Who's the one woman in the world I'd do a strip tease for?"
Zoya grinned triumphantly. "Me."
"Which dimple did I fall for?"
"This one," she said pointing to it.
"For whom did I plan the photoshoot this evening?"
"Then, who do you want me to tease, the neighbor's wife?"
"Don't you even dare!"
She smiled when she saw him laugh.
"All good? Am I forgiven now? Ab Chalen?"
"On one condition ..."
"What?" he asked warily when he saw the wicked gleam in her eyes.
"Strip tease, tonight?"
"Zoya Bhabhi, you look beautiful! What a gorgeous lehenga!" Humaira gushed in open admiration that evening. She lovingly straightened the dupatta and fixed its drape.
The ice cream and chaat party had been a resounding success despite the heat. After a light lunch everyone had retired for a Sunday afternoon nap.
And now the party, in full fancy dress, was back on. The photographers had set up in the living room and the family bustled around everywhere else in their finest.
Zoya smiled secretly, radiant.
"Did Bhaijaan get it for you? It's so pretty. He has great taste."
"Yes he does," Zoya responded cheekily catching her husband's eye.
"I love your suit too, Humaira. It's new? I haven't seen you wear it."
"Ayaan got it for me," she said shyly.
"Good job, Raabert," Zoya declared as she pinched his cheek playfully. "I'm so proud of you!"
Ayaan ducked his head self-consciously. He was thrilled that Humaira had got permission from her parents for this evening. But he was not pleased that he had been made to wear a monkey suit. A sherwani he'd have been OK in. But why a suit and tie? He kept picking at his collar and swearing under his breath.
"Total dash mein bumboo! Who's useless idea was this?" he hollered at Najma and Zoya.
"Must have been you two! Never missing a chance to play dress up! Humko bakra bana diya!" he scoffed.
Zoya giggled and let him rant.
"A photoshoot? How filmy! Kaun karata hai? Who are you? The Yash Chopras?" He continued to get worked up.
Najma laughed and held up her hands. "It wasn't me, I swear. But Bhaijaan, it's an awesome idea!"
Ayaan rounded on his Bhabhi. "No it's not. It must be Mona darling's idea! You must have bugged Bhaijaan with your bakwas shayari and he must have agreed just to shut you up!"
Zoya sucked in her cheeks to keep from laughing. She had seen her husband striding towards them.
"Hey, your Bhaijaan loves my shayari these days, so you better watch it!"
With a finger plucking the collar away from his neck he continued to harangue them as the girls rolled their eyes and giggled.
"Bhaijaan, stop pretending as if you're not pleased at how dashing you look in a suit," Nuzzhat teased.
"Such an idiotic idea, jiska bhi tha!"
"Ayaan," he felt a playful slap upside his head and turned to look at his brother's serious expression.
"Mera idea tha."
Ayaan turned red as all the girls burst out laughing.
"Bhaijaan! Aapka?" He looked crestfallen at the betrayal by his own brother.
"Kyun bhai aap log sab mil kar hamare bete ko kyun tang kar rahein hain?"
Shireen walked up to them and lovingly brushed invisible lint from her son's shoulder.
She was so proud of him tonight. He had never looked handsomer. He was being so responsible these days. Working so hard. In fact, she worried that he worked too hard and didn't eat enough.
"My Ayaan looks so handsome in a suit doesn't he, Humaira?" She asked, fixing his tie, and everyone agreed wholeheartedly.
"Asad, this was a great idea! I'm glad you insisted he wear a suit. Meri to yeh kahan sunta hai!"
Shireen fussed some more and removed kajal from her eyes to swipe it behind her son's ear. His sisters and Bhabhi did the same and suddenly Ayaan was sporting multiple kala tikas as thousands of evil eyes were blinded and banished.
He nearly fled from the torment, but stopped as he heard Humaira laugh.
He looked at her indulgently.
These past few days had been tough for both of them. They barely got to spend enough time with one another. Whenever they met, they were surround by his sisters and Bhabhi. Once in a while they met up for coffee. He was grateful for this bonus meeting, even though he had to wear a stifling suit. And it was enough to see her wear the dress that he had spent hours trying to decide upon.
Tonight, he was mock-grumbling just because he loved being the contrarian.
It was his trademark.
And the happier he was, the more he misbehaved.
The photographer turned on the lights and rearranged the backdrop. Both Zoya and Asad wondered why the other was anxiously looking at the clock or whispering conspiratorially on their phones.
Asad looked around for her as the photographer posed him, Ayaan and Abbu.
He blushed with pleasure when Abbu said, patting his shoulder, "the next time we do this, I'll be holding your baby."
Asad tracked Zoya with his eyes as she returned from their bedroom carrying her laptop. She looked excited, and he frowned.
Something was up.
As the men started to break away to make room for the next group shot, she stopped them.
"Rukiye, please!" And she held up the laptop for everyone to see the screen.
Najma gasped in delight. "Omar!"
"Hey guys, surprise!" Omar waved, resplendent in a suit and tie himself.
"Can't have a family portrait without me, now can you?"
"Beam me up Scottie!" Omar winked at Zoya.
Amidst the squeals and animated laughter, the men were photographed again but this time with Omar, as Ayaan held up the laptop. It was not easy because the photographer had to do some magic to keep the glare off the screen.
"Great!" Ayaan cribbed. "He won't even be in the portrait. We'll just tell everyone that the bright glare next to me is Jeeju number 1."
"Hey! That bright glare next to you makes your girl face look better," Omar retorted from 8000 miles away.
"Our own version of Beauty and the beast!" Nuzzhat called out.
"He's the beauty," both Omar and Ayaan pointed fingers at each other.
"Omar," Asad warned in a low growl.
"Yeah, yeah, man, I love you too."
As the men tried to not dissolve into laughter so the photographer could finish the shot, Humaira, Nuzzhat and Nikhat called out, "Omar, we miss you so much!"
"Tamatar has become gaajar in your absence," Nikhat said softly, stroking Najma's arm.
Omar's smile dipped. But then he cleared his throat.
"Wow Nikhat, so much info about vegetables. Why not, I hear you've been eating out every day!"
"Omar!" She blushed, mortified, even more tamatar than her sister; Najma snickered at her elbow.
She then hugged Zoya for thinking up of this unique surprise. "I can't believe you both kept this a secret from me! I love it!"
Najma took the laptop from Ayaan as everyone readied for the next shot. She and her husband made eyes at each other, wanting to say so much more, but minding the company around them. "I love you," he mouthed and she blushed touching her ear; it was their decided-upon secret signal of saying I love you in public.
The doorbell rang.
Asad excused himself to get it.
And there were collective gasps again.
"What happened?" asked Omar as Najma looked at something off to her side with her mouth hanging open.
Zoya bounced on her feet and clapped, extremely proud of her husband's impressive pyaar-ka-farishta track record. He was really getting good at this.
She would have jumped in his arms, but ...
He stood smiling benignly as he shook hands with Feroze and ushered him in. Nikhat tried to hide behind Dadi even as she peeked at Feroze, in what else, but a suit.
Seeing Feroze at the door, everyone had turned to look at her and she had covered her heated face, wanting the earth to open up. It was clear that Bhaijaan had invited him. Shireen came over to hug her and that's when Nikhat knew that the whole family already knew.
Had they seen the video?
Badi Ammi and Nuzzhat may have been the only ones who were completely taken by surprise, but yes, everyone else gave her knowing smiles.
Even Dadi had known?
The men were photographed again, this time with Feroze whose eyes sought Nikhat's.
"Arre, may be we should wait a little more. Nuzzhat ke liye koi aata hoga, then we'll include him too," Rashid joked.
"Abbu!" Nuzzhat protested.
"Not for another two years," Asad said. "And he better not be from America," he looked pointedly at his wife.
Studiously peering at her fingernails, she said, loud enough for everyone to hear, "well, Feroze does have a younger brother ..."
"No!" howled everyone.
"Hey?!" protested the outnumbered Americans, throwing their hands up in the air at this blatant in-law diss.
After everyone had fussed over Nikhat and Feroze, warded off evil spirits with kala tikas, tawizes and duas, the younger generation was photographed next. Real, virtual and to-be spouses were all crammed in.
Najma and Nuzzhat sat in front, both holding up the laptop between them. Nuzzhat couldn't resist holding up two fingers behind the screen giving her Jeeju fake rabbit ears. Najma tried to slap her hand away as Dadi scolded her playfully, "Jeeju ke sath aise nahin karte!"
"That's OK," said Omar. "Dadi, rabbits love gaajar, right Nikhat?"
Asad insisted on a few photographs with just Zoya and Humaira. Later everyone convinced him that he and Ayaan needed to be with the girls in at least one portrait too. Gratefully, Zoya stood with Humaira's hands clasped in hers, flanked by Asad and Ayaan on either side.
The entire family's portrait took a long time to set up.
With Ayaan and Omar talking smack and trading barbs, the doting moms shushing them, murmuring "Ya Allahs" every now and then, the girls giggling, Feroze trying to grip a blushing Nikhat's hand, Zoya's improv shayari, and Asad clutching his forehead and rolling his eyes, it was an uphill task to get it just right.
Only Rashid and Dadi reverently soaked up the shenanigans, calmly beaming at the filial completeness, however rowdy.
Despite Humaira's return, Raziya still slept fitfully. The nightmares of Humaira begging to be saved from a fiery crypt scalded her subconscious; in her waking hours her soles burned her conscience. A spectral sentry, at nights she patrolled through the empty halls of the cavernous house hoping to tire herself out and fall into a dreamless sleep.
Some nights she did.
Tonight she hobbled down the stairs not bothering to turn the lights on.
Practice had made her haunted tread perfect.
After walking for a good 20-30 minutes the tingling in her feet thankfully receded. As she turned the corner, she saw a weird glow coming from the kitchen and dashed inside.
She stared in horror.
Her husband had turned the gas burner on and had deliberately lit his kurta sleeve on fire.
He stood, mute and unflinching, staring at the fire, hypnotized.
"Siddiqui saheb! Aap ye kya kar rahein hain?" She rushed to turn the gas off and poured a pitcher of cold water on his arm.
He whispered incoherently and she pressed closer to catch what he was saying.
"Eighteen years ago, did you put out the fire on her clothes that night?" he rasped.
The pitcher fell from her hands to smash into a million crystal shards.
She remained quiet.
"Bolo Raziya. Tell me, how much was Zoya screaming in pain that night? How terrified was she? Was she calling out for her dead Ammi?"
"Stop it!" she begged through a choked throat. She fell to the floor letting the glass pieces pierce her knees and palms.
"You know it was all a horrible accident. We were both fighting over the knife ... I just wanted to scare her with it ... to get her to leave. But in the heat of the moment ..." she begged for his complicity.
"But Zoya? Did you bring her there to kill her?" He had never verbalized this question all these years. But he had certainly thought about it on many a sleepless night.
"No! I would never --! I didn't even know she was there. I only found out later when I heard her screams."
"She was on fire?"
" ... yes ..."
" ... her arm ..."
"She was just a baby!" he croaked, heart almost exploding from his chest.
Siddiqui covered his face wanting to claw his eyes out. "Oh god, what have we done! Why didn't Allah smite us right there that night?" He picked up a fistful of glass.
"She knows about us. Still she donated blood to Humaira? She did it to save your daughter Raziya! You knew about that too!"
"I'm sorry," whimpered Raziya.
"Zoya, meri bachhi, why do you forgive your Abbu so easily?" he moaned.
With her bloody hands, Raziya struggled to restrain his hand before it could stab his eyes with the broken pieces of glass he had picked off the floor.
"She's pregnant. What horrible legacy have I left her? What will she say when her children ask about their nana and nani? What will she tell them when they ask her about her scar?"
He covered his face in shame and regret.
They sobbed in the darkened kitchen on a bed seeded with broken glass and grisly sins.
Song in Title:
Agneepath (2012): "Abhi Mujhme Kahin"
Topic started by dixeij
Last replied by -jass-