It was late.
Whan Ayaan dropped her off at home that night he walked her all the way to the main door. Their hands brushed against each other and he grabbed her wrist. Lifting it to his mouth, he nipped the inside and she hissed.
Pulling her behind the pillar to hide them from the guard's prying eyes, he wrenched her against him.
"I couldn't take my eyes off you all night," he breathed in her ear. "You look beautiful."
He trailed a finger down her arm and she shivered.
"Ayaan, what's gotten into you tonight! Abbu will see us." But she didn't exactly struggle out of his embrace, nor free her wrist from his grasp.
"You smell so good," she breathed, wrapping her arms around his neck.
"I don't get to see you enough." He nuzzled her neck and kneaded her back painfully.
"I miss you so much, Humaira! I could kick myself. We lived under the same roof all our lives and I never appreciated it. And now, it kills me that I get to see you for only a couple of hours in a day!"
His smoldering intensity was doing a number on her.
Her body surged into his.
"Shh, Ayaan. It'll be fine," she soothed, kissing his cheek.
Leaning back, he tilted her chin up roughly.
"You're different. Ever since the shooting. And now that you're back home. I can't put my finger on it, but I feel like you're growing apart from me, like I'm losing you."
"No, Ayaan!" She let her hands sink in his hair and gripped it tight.
Raising herself on her toes she boldly whispered against his lips, "You're not losing me. I'm just finding myself."
She pressed her parted mouth to his and sucked his lower lip, slipping her tongue in. Ayaan jerked and gripped her by her hips to fit her to him more intimately, almost lifting her off her feet. With one hand he yanked her back by her hair and leaned over to bite and suck on her brazen lips. He kneed her legs apart and molded her to him.
As they broke apart to drag fresh air into their lungs, Ayaan ground into her. "You don't know how se*xy you are, taking the lead! See, the old Humaira would never have done that!"
"The old Humaira wasn't engaged to a man with a job who just bought her this gorgeous suit with his first month's salary."
He grinned with pleasure. "So Humaira is all grown up now? A full-blooded woman?" he drawled, rotating his hips against hers.
They twisted and sprang apart when they heard the front door open. She would have jumped aside but he grabbed her arm to keep her in front of him.
She blushed and burned with frustration.
"Jee Abbu, I'm just coming." Behind her, she heard Ayaan groan softly and she turned crimson.
"Kaise ho Ayaan?" Siddiqui asked gently.
"I'm fine, thanks." Ayaan responded gruffly.
"Jee nahin ... shukriya. It's late, Allah hafiz."
And he roared off.
Later that night Zoya insisted on sending a jodi selfie of theirs to Aapi and Jeeju and her Abbu.
Asad protested half-heartedly.
He had already started to loosen his tie. It had been a long night of antakshari and charades egged on by his wife and hyper siblings. As fun as it had been to defeat her team (who knew that Dadi knew so many songs!) he was glad to see everyone leave so that he could get out of these clothes and straighten out his stiff back.
Getting her out of her clothes would be the cherry on top.
All evening he had ached to watch her flit around in the pale green and peach frothy concoction of chiffon and zardozi. When she had jumped up to act out the film titles for her team, he had nearly groaned aloud. Twice he had to excuse himself to go get a glass of ice-cold water.
"Zoya, not now! We'll be sending everybody the professional pictures anyways. That's why we did this, remember?"
"But that'll take days. And we're already dressed up. And soon, I won't want any pictures taken of me because I'll be ugly and fat. Pleeease!"
"Pregnancy has made you a first-class blackmailer," he grumbled.
She grinned impishly, not taking any offense because she was getting her way, and she was in such a good mood. She didn't even scold him for not lustily disagreeing with her that she could ever be ugly and fat.
She had them pose, cheek to dimpled cheek and clicked multiple times.
"One more! My eyes were half-closed in that one."
"And mine were rolling in all of them," he muttered.
"Asad, you're so mean!"
He knew of only one way to get her to give up her selfiemania. By now he had begun to nuzzle her neck and nip her ear, trailing micro kisses along her jaw. She shivered in delight but still mock-scolded him.
"Allah Miyan! What's wrong with you Mr. Khan! Just one," she begged, eyes wide, lips pouting.
"I'll give you two," he promised huskily, as he looked deep into those eyes, chin pointing to the bed just so subtly.
She sighed, giving up.
Asad sucked her earlobe and let his hands explore her bare waist and exposed back. He knew the slightest skittering of his thumb across her ultrasensitive back would make her hiss and writhe in a flash. A scr*aped fingernail across her spine after undoing her blouse in the back, and she would be toast.
He ground against her, sealing the deal; she moaned.
"OK, let me just send this one," she pleaded.
As she was about to mail the photo to Aapi and Jeeju, Asad seized her hand.
"Wait!" he yelped.
"What?" Zoya panicked, hand on her heart.
"Check and double check. Make sure you never send that video of ours to someone by mistake!"
"Oh, what the hell, I'll send it to them tomorrow." She flung the phone on the bed and unpinned her dupatta, letting it fall to the floor.
"Now that's what I'm talking about!" He crowed.
Hooking a fingertip into the waistband of her lehenga, he drew her to him whispering erotically in her ear, "I've been hard for you all evening."
She shuddered in his arms, "I know," she whispered.
Slashing her ear with a thrust of his tongue, he continued to torment her by recounting his own torment in slow detail, "when you were acting out Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani,' I wanted to lift you over my shoulder and carry you to our room to act out jawaani diwani with you!"
"Oh god, Asad!" she moaned. "I wish you had!"
Clothes half-undone, they reveled in each other's remembered touch and taste. As they fell on the bed and tried to untug each other out of ties, buttons, snaps and drawstrings, Asad's knee bumped into her phone.
"Asad! Don't stop now, this diwani will kill you!" she complained.
She opened her eyes, ready to pull him down by his hair if she had to, and saw the expression on his face.
He held up her phone.
"You keep giving me heart attacks! That's what!"
"What've I done now?" she pouted defensively.
"You very nearly butt-dailed Aapi."
She gasped. Grabbing her phone from him, she switched it off and tossed it closer to the headboard. Asad still didn't trust her. And as it is the bed was overcrowded with their clothes.
He carried her to the settee.
"Jahanpanah, I love your problem solving skills!" she crooned wiggling against him.
She had grabbed his tie, still knotted, from the pile of discarded clothes and slipped it around his neck.
Pulling him to her with it, she demanded, "now, where were we? Oh yes, you promised me two happy endings."
Hands on either side of her, Asad laughed softly. "Start counting, Mrs. Khan!"
"Mr. Khan, homework again? You're lucky I was always good at math!" Zoya giggled, but was soon silenced.
Her purrs and mewling grew louder, and his blood pounded harder. She dug her nails into his shoulder as visions danced on the inside of her eyelids: that first time she had landed on this settee and in his arms. He had turned to tuck her under him then. What if he had taken her then?
Her eyes popped open.
Asad had removed the tie from around his neck and secured it around her wrist and his own with a swift tug of his teeth.
His eyes glittered and bored into hers. They willed her to remember that time of exquisite se*xual torture when they'd been shackled to one another in Mangalpur.
What if he had taken her then, they asked.
He had certainly wanted to.
"Asad," she moaned as the fingers of their bound hands convulsed to interlace.
"Why did we waste so much time?" her breath hitched and she whimpered and keened in her throat with each smooth slide and every hard thrust.
"Shh," he quieted her. "Zoya, keep it down, or I won't last long baby. God, the sounds you make! It's enough to drive me over the edge!" he panted through clenched teeth, grinding into her powerfully.
She bit her lip to comply; she wanted it to last forever too. But the sounds of flesh against flesh and the sighs of their lovemaking conspired to derail her resolve. Zoya arched silently, surrendering to that red-hot friction set by his insistent rhythm and pace.
His lips and tongue sucked at her throat, and she couldn't keep from crying out as she crested; the waves of passion washed over her.
A second later, he collapsed too, crashing down with her.
For days now Siddiqui had heard Humaira talk about her.
Zoya Bhabhi this. Asad Bhaijaan that.
When she returned from her taekwondo classes in the morning, flushed and exhilarant, he would have cold coffee waiting for her.
"Should ... Zoya be doing this, in ... in her condition? Isn't Asa" I mean, aren't they worried about the baby?" He had asked.
"Abbu you should see Asad Bhaijaan around Zoya Bhabhi! If it was unsafe, Zoya Bhabhi wouldn't even be allowed any where near the room. I'm surprised he doesn't get her doctor to come sit and supervise everyday!"
She saw her father smile and smiled too.
"No, the doctor says that mild forms of exercise are good for now. And I don't think even Asad Bhaijaan can say no to Zoya Bhabhi!"
Siddiqui grinned with pride.
"And are you enjoying these classes?"
"I love it, Abbu! And I'm really good too. And it's such fun. Najma and Nuzzhat keep giggling. Zoya Bhabhi interrupts with her shayari and even the instructor can't keep a straight face. And we tease Nikhat that she better get good at it fast because Feroze Jeeju is a second degree black belt!"
She had told him about Nikhat's love story last night, minus the youtube video of course.
Humaira loved spending time with Abbu these days. He listened to her and asked questions about her interests and how her day went.
He had never done this before.
Like last night they had stayed up late chatting after Ayaan dropped her home from the photoshoot.
Siddiqui looked at her animated face. He too had begun to look forward to time with her in the morning and evenings. He hadn't seen her as relaxed or confident in his presence ever before.
"Did you want to take self-defense classes before?" he asked unexpectedly.
Humaira looked at him in silence.
"I don't know Abbu." She said after a long pause.
"I mean, at college, boys pass comments and misbehave, but we just learned to be quiet, look the other way, and ignore them."
She picked at the dupatta that was still tied at her waist. "But now I can't bear it. I feel so angry and I want to shame them for their bad behavior!"
"And somehow, now when anyone tries anything funny, I stand tall and give them a look, and they slink away. And that feeling of standing up for myself or someone else is awesome, Abbu!"
He looked at her in awe. He hadn't known that what he thought was decorum and ladylike behavior, was women's compulsory defense against the fear of being in a skin that men pawed at everyday. Technically, he knew of the vulnerabilities of being a woman, but he had thought that sheltering and protecting them through demure clothing, guards, and private cars, was enough to shield them from the daily oppression of being a woman in India.
"Why didn't you tell me about this?" He asked.
"Abbu! You would have either not let me go to college, or you'd have complained to the principal or dean, and it would have been so embarrassing."
He nodded in understanding and guilt. He would have done exactly that.
Humaira, meanwhile, was surprised that she could actually talk to him this way.
"I am going to talk to the College Board of Trustees about this," she heard him mutter.
"Abbu no! See that's why girls don't tell their parents half the things! Because parents over react."
"I understand beta. But this is not right. Parents need to react to something like this. Don't you think that's why boys get away with this behavior? Because they know that girls will remain silent? But, I had no idea that even girls from our background faced this daily se*xual harassment."
Whoa! Had Abbu just used the "s" word in her presence? Humaira's eyebrows climbed. But she also remembered a conversation in the other house, what she thought of as her second home now. In defending his decision to have the girls learn martial arts, Asad Bhaijaan had something similar. And Aapi had said something about how women's silence encouraged men to behave badly.
"You're right Abbu. It's really bad for all women, no matter what age, or class."
She rushed to tell him about Zoya Bhabhi and how she had come to Najma's defense, months ago, against two eve teasers.
And gone to jail for it.
Siddiqui's fingers on his teacup tightened in anger. He really would talk to that wretch of a principal.
How dare he?
He brooded over his cold tea as Humaira went to shower. Shoving the tray aside he paced in his study for hours.
Memories, ideas, schemes ebbed and flowed in his head.
He called Zoya.
"Hi Abbu!" His heart lifted just hearing the million giggles in her voice. "Did you like my picture in the lehenga you gave me?"
"I loved it. You and Asad make a beautiful couple. But beta, yeh taekwondo? Should you be doing this in your condition?"
She laughed. Aapi had asked the same thing when they started the classes. She had insisted on talking personally to Dr. Sharma.
"We checked with the doctor Abbu. Otherwise do you think my husband would even let me? Aap to jaante hain Mr. Khan ko."
"Haan, bahut suna hai tumhare Mr. Khan ke baarey mein," he teased.
"Really Abbu? You have to give me all the dirty details!"
"Please Abbu, I need some masala to blackmail him with. He's being really annoying about what I should eat, or not eat. Can you believe it, he's contacted all the local pizza parlors and forbidden them to deliver unless he places the order! And I'm dead sure that when he orders, he asks them to doctor the ingredients with whole wheat, extra veggies and all. Yuck!"
"That's fine," he wheezed through laughter and whole-hearted approval for his son-in-law, the health czar.
"You just come here, or to my office whenever you are craving pizza. Your Abbu will order the finest pizza in town."
"Yay!" He heard her cheer. "And Diet Coke?" she pressed her advantage.
"No, even I'll have to put my foot down on that one. Fresh juice only. Bahut kharab cheez hoti hai beta. Mat piya karo. Even after the baby comes."
"Not fair Abbu. Every morning Ammi forces me to have haldi milk. You don't know how poisonous it is. Itna atyachar ho raha hai aapki beti par yahan!"
When Raziya passed by his study, she stopped.
She had never heard her husband laugh like this. These days she watched him with Humaira with growing envy and regret.
He was a changed man.
Who knew that a man who once saw women as second class citizens meant to be seen not heard, was now seeing a whole new world through both his daughters' eyes.
Meanwhile, she had risked so much for so little ...
And had nothing to show for it ...
"But I wanted to talk to you about something more serious," she heard her husband say.
Raziya walked away.
She didn't spy or eavesdrop any more. She just didn't have the heart for it. She had sabotaged things enough already. These days Raziya just gave thanks for the borrowed time she had with a happy and strong Humaira, and a mellow and doting Siddiqui sahib.
Better him than her to enjoy meager redemption.
Her salvation was the few more days of respite from complete exposure and condemnation which was just waiting around the corner. Every new day was a blessing and a curse.
"Boliye Abbu." Zoya grew serious too.
"I wanted to meet you and Asad and discuss something important."
He reassured her when he heard the panic in her voice. It was just a new project that he wanted their ideas on.
They met in his office that evening.
Asad was pensive. What now, he wondered. Zoya was nervous. She too wondered what Abbu was going to say.
Was he ill? Did Humaira know?
After hugging her father she clapped with glee when she saw a pizza waiting for them.
He poured juice for her, "yeh bhi peena padega, right Asad?"
She made a face, but her husband nodded enthusiastically.
"Try it. I've had it made especially for you. It's got ginger and mint and fruits. It's delicious!"
She took a tentative sip, and her eyes widened. "It's yum! Here, Mr. Khan, you must try it, it's so good!" And she shoved the glass under his nose.
"Abbu, I want the recipe," she continued talking to her father even as her husband was forced to gulp down the juice meant for her.
Siddiqui roared with laughter, championing her atyaachar on his son-in-law. Who knew that when in their former lifetimes, he had seethed and glowered at his arch-nemesis, Asad Ahmed Khan, that the takeover and merger would be through his own DNA!
"I'll give you our cook's phone number. You can get the recipe from her and order whatever you want her to make for you."
Siddiqui ordered coffee for himself and Asad. Zoya force-fed him the slice of home-made cake she'd sneaked out for him.
"Abbu, I had to hide this last slice from Ayaan and the girls. You have to have some. Maine apne hathon se banaya hai."
"Tab toh hum zaroor khayenge." He smacked his lips in anticipation and praised her baking skills with every bite she fed him.
Asad watched in stunned silence, half-charmed, half-jealous that his wife was completely ignoring him. In the car, on their way over, she had teased him, "Abbu's going to tell me all about your dark secrets as a competitor and business rival."
"I have none," he'd boasted.
"Of course!" She'd given an exaggerated sigh. "Because you are Mr. Perfect who does things by the book. How boring!"
He had pinched her thigh and she'd yowled in protest, "I'm going to tell my Abbu about all this domestic violence!"
"Then I'm going on a se*x strike," he had threatened.
"Oh really? And I'm the blackmailer?"
"So Abbu, what did you want to talk to us about?" Zoya asked as she helped herself to the goodies ordered especially for her.
Her father looked at her indulgently and Asad hid a smile behind his hand. Neither was willing to tell her to not put her feet up on the couch or eat pizza without a plate.
It was just a couch.
"Humaira told me about how the college principal had you arrested for standing up to gundas. He turned in his resignation this afternoon."
Zoya choked on her pizza and Asad patted her back while her father rushed to offer her water.
"But Abbu, that was so long ago!" she protested while Asad grinned.
Old money and elderly patriarchs did have some use after all!
"No, and it's not just because he had you arrested. It's because he participated in making eve-teasers more bold on campus. Humaira told me how bad it is for girls everyday. And then with everything on the news these days ..."
Siddiqui got up to pace restlessly with the coffee cup in his hand. Asad and Zoya looked at each other wondering what was going on in his mind.
She reached for Asad's hand.
With each report of rapes and assaults, they too had had similar discussions. A couple of times she'd even ended up in tears thinking about her unborn child ... what if it's a girl?
What kind of world of terror will she enter?
All her life she will live in fear of being jumped, being scared of shadows.
All her life she will classify men into two categories: the protectors and the predators. Sometimes she will mistrust the protectors and trust the predators.
Half her lifetime's energy will be squandered on looking over her shoulder ...
What kind of world was this?
She shook her head to rid her mind of the familiar demons, to pay attention to what Abbu was saying.
"That's why I called you two today. I'm one of the trustees. I want the College to have some kind of awareness or assault prevention program or course that will be made mandatory. It'll teach about these things ... and will be not just for girls but for boys too."
Zoya sputtered with delight.
"You mean like sensitivity training? Yes, Abbu, in the US, all workplaces have mandatory se*xual harassment training. I know that some universities and colleges even have training for men and women about not being silent bystanders and how rape is also a men's issue! There's a great TED talk on this by Jonathan Katz! Remember, Mr. Khan, I showed it you?"
"Jackson Katz, yes I remember." Asad nodded.
She grew more and more animated and just as breathless, now nearly hopping on the couch.
"What a super idea! I love the idea of having an actual course that students have to pass in order to graduate. We could invite law enforcement experts, gender and feminist studies professors, self-defense instructors, even organizations that work with victims of assault."
She stopped to catch her breath.
"Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! Abbu you're a total genius!"
Siddiqui stood transfixed, beaming at this heartfelt knighthood.
"Zoya, get down," Asad chided gently as he held out his hand.
She took his hand and climbed down, only to now bounce on the floor.
"Mr. Khan! Isn't it a great idea? I've been thinking of doing something about this issue for so long. But this is absolutely perfect!"
"It is a great idea." Asad agreed. "In fact, may be I can have some training like this for the employees at my office too. I know that some multinational companies probably do this already."
Zoya gripped his hand in excitement and squealed, nearly hugging him, but then remembered her father.
Siddiqui cleared his throat and they looked at him, blushing.
He laughed. "Sahi keh rahe ho Asad. I'll do it in my office too. And beta?" He took Zoya's hand in his, "this is where you come in. I've been told that you are an expert researcher, tech wizard and crusader for justice."
Zoya's dimples deepened and her husband nearly choked on his own laughter. A crusading and musibat-embracing Zoya was happy enough. But heap praise on her for her righteous ferocity, and one could earn her undying love and loyalty for eternity!
"Will you try to put together a proposal, actually two, one for a college level course and another for a professional workplace?" he looked at Asad. "If both of you think it's OK, that is."
"Umm, Zoya?" Asad quietly interrupted her hearty affirmation.
"Mr. Khan! You CANNOT try to stop me from doing this! I was BORN to do this!" she hissed loudly, fists planted firmly on her waist.
Siddiqui hid a smile.
This was hilarious.
He had seen Asad previously at business conferences and the man had been aloof and stern, steel, clad in ice.
Now, he watched his whipped son-in-law, raise both his hands defensively and take a deep calming breath, already preparing to be railroaded.
"I'm not stopping you. I doubt anyone can do that. But you can do this only if you promise to be careful, take care of your health and listen to me once in a while."
Zoya held out her hand, "deal!" and they shook on it with mock-solemnity.
Asad laughed looking at her animated face. He wanted to pull her into his chest but his father-in-law was just a few feet away.
He dropped her hand reluctantly.
"Kyun, Mr. Asad Ahmed Khan, koi aisa bhi hai iss duniya mein jo aapki nahin sunta hai? Uski aisi jurrat?" Siddiqui deadpanned.
Zoya loved it!
Abbu was actually teasing her Akdu? Aww, Asad was blushing! She wanted to fling her arms around his neck and kiss his cheek.
She sighed and clasped her hands to her chest turning to her father.
Her face fell.
He looked tense all of a sudden.
"Abbu, what is it?"
He sighed heavily and collapsed on the armchair.
"Abbu!" Zoya panicked. "Is everything OK?"
She knelt in front of him and held his hands. He removed a hand from her desperate clasp and stroked her head gently.
"I don't deserve you. I don't know why Allah is giving me a second chance, but I want to grab it with both hands and give thanks with every breath."
She smiled up at him through her tears.
He got up to walk to his desk and picked up a folder of papers. Both Asad and Zoya tensed with the change in his expression and mood. She rose, blindly reaching for Asad's hand again. He gripped it tightly trying to transmit his warmth and strength to her. When Siddiqui turned around to face them, his eyes were moist. He looked at their clasped hands and broke into a beatific smile.
"Ek doosre ka aise hi saath dena, aur hamesha khush rehna."
Taking both their hands in his he placed them on top of the folder. Choking up he said softly, "I can't begin to make things right, but I intend to spend the rest of my life trying."
"Sit," he indicated the couch, and they both did, dutifully.
"This is not easy, but it is the only right thing to do to correct the mistakes of the past. This folder has the property papers for that piece of land which used to be the site of the gudia factory."
He didn't have the strength to look into their faces but he forced himself to. Zoya looked stricken and a muscle throbbed in Asad's neck. He saw Asad's grip tighten around Zoya's hand.
"I'm sorry to bring this up. It is after all, also the gravesite of both your childhoods. But I'm going to have the factory demolished. The land is now in both your names. I leave the decision to convert it into something hopeful and blessed as I know only you can."
He saw their faces relax, the pain recede somewhat.
"If anyone can make flowers bloom in the desert, I know it's you two. Has anyone told you that you make a great team?"
"Abbu, I tell Mr. Khan that, every, single, day!"
Siddiqui laughed through blurred eyes as he saw Asad groan and cover his face, falling back to sink into the couch.
"True," Asad said. "She does tell me that everyday. After which she insists that she's the main hero and I'm the sidekick."
"Mr. Khan, stop making up stuff!"
"No?" he asked, tongue firmly in cheek. "You don't call yourself Lady Sherlock? What does that make me then, Watson, right?"
"I love watching tum dono ka Akbar-Birbal act," Siddiqui remarked.
"See?" Zoya said to her husband smugly. "Since you're Jahanpanah, that means I'm your mulazim Birbal."
"Hmph!" Asad dismissed her claim haughtily. "Again, you get to be the more intelligent partner!"
"Ab jab main zyaada intelligent hoon toh ..." Zoya high-fived her father.
Before leaving, Abbu had held her back. "Main tum dono ka gunehgaar hoon. Maafi ke layak bhi nahin hoon. Lekin ho sake toh, iss badnaseeb baap aur sasur ko maaf kar dena."
Zoya had nearly burst into tears and they had hugged. Both Siddiqui and Asad removed their handkerchiefs simultaneously to wipe her tears.
She had looked down at the twin offerings and started to laugh.
"Dekha Abbu? Why should I think of the past and make myself sad, when today I have both of you to take care of me. Ammi used to sing a song, Aane wala pal, jaane waala hai"-'"
"Ho sakey toh iss me, zindagi bita le, pal jo ye jaane wala hai," Siddiqui quoted softly, eyes moist again.
"So from today, we'll find moments of happiness and not be sad about the past, OK Abbu?"
Her unparalleled zest for life's little joys was contagious.
"You're right," he smiled. "Itni pyaari baatein karke dil jeet leti ho." And he patted her head affectionately, noting Asad's silent agreement.
"Abbu, issi baat par ek sher arz hai!"
Her father looked on indulgently, but her husband clutched his forehead in despair. He fretted that Zoya was just about to tank her hard-earned goodwill!
"Ghalti ki sazaa hoti hai, bhool ki hoti maafi,"
"Irshad! Irshad!" encouraged a charmed Siddiqui who could find no fault in his child's super powers.
Asad squeezed his eyes closed however; but he was still intrigued to hear what would come next. He remembered how it went the last time he'd heard a version of this sher. She thought she was blackmailing him for keeping his secret agent identity from Ammi!
She had rhymed maafi with coffee then: "Aaj Jahanpanah khud kaneez ke liye, bana kar laaye hain coffee."
What would be today's rendition?
"Ghalti ki sazaa hoti hai, bhool ki hoti maafi,
Meethi baatein karte hain, but your office has no toffee!"
Her father stood before her, slackjawed in disappointment. When he had heard Humaira say a thousand times that Zoya bhabhi was a super shayar he had expected fine verse and profound thought.
"Ye kya tha? Ya Allah, ab Ayaan jaise ek aur paidal shayar ko jhelna padega!"
"Abbu! You're so mean," Zoya pouted. "I didn't have enough time to come up with something more creative. Par phir bhi, aapko meri effort ke liye daad deni chahiye!"
"Sorry, beta. Kya karoon? Shock ke maare daad nikli nahin." He was laughing openly now along with Asad.
Asad was guffawing. "Daad nikli nahin!" he snorted.
"Accha, theek hai, main aur meethe andaz mein haal bayaan karta hoon," her father held up his hands to pacify her.
"Arz hai, ghalti ki sazaa hoti hai, bhool ki hoti maafi."
"Irshaad, irshaad," hooted an enchanted Zoya.
"Ghalti ki sazaa hoti hai, bhool ki hoti maafi,
Itni berehmi se katal, bechare sher ke saath hai kitni na-insaafi!"
Zoya squealed in delight. "Abbu that was so cute! I must get my shayari genes from you!"
"La hau walla quwwat!" her father mock-lamented.
She was happy and bubbly as they left, still chatting about Abbu's superior shayari skills.
In the car, she stroked his arm, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to ignore you like that."
Asad grinned. "It's OK, I'll survive. And I've had you to myself longer. But I'll need payback and a lot of special attention."
"You got it!" she promised. But she couldn't resist teasing him. "Bechare Jahanpanah. Itni be-insaafi. But you probably deserved it for getting the meteor shower date wrong and getting me all excited about a midnight picnic."
He harrumphed."Will you let that go? I just overheard someone in office talking about it. They said the 17th. How was I to know they meant the 17th of next month?"
"You could have checked and confirmed. That's how you would know! Or just let Prasad handle these things from now on."
She leaned over to peck his cheek. "Aw, I was just kidding. This just gives me more time to plan a picnic to remember." She sighed.
"Wouldn't it be cool if we could have Nikhat and Feroze's engagement ceremony under the stars?"
"Hmm great? Or hmm, you're just saying that so I'll shut up?"
Asad laughed and shook his head. What a day! Barely getting a word in edgewise all evening, but sure a lot of bellylaughs that felt good for the soul. Who knew that he'd laugh so much in the presence of Gaffoor Ahmed Siddiqui? He braked suddenly to avoid hitting a stray dog, and the gudia factory papers in the folder on the backseat went flying. Zoya twisted around and groped to pick them all up and refile them in the folder.
Her smile evaporated.
She looked out of the window, deep in thought. Asad interlaced his fingers with hers.
"You OK?" he asked softly.
When she turned to face him she had tears in her eyes.
"Zoya! What happened baby?"
"Just take me to Ammi's side, please Asad."
"It'll be closed. I'll take you tomorrow, promise."
"Then take me to the Dargah."
Asad parked near the Dargah. Leaving the car on, he walked over to the passenger side and opened the door. He helped her out but didn't let go. Settling in her seat he pulled her in his lap and shut the door. Zoya sighed and snuggled into his chest as she wept quietly. He stroked her back and murmured a thousand endearments and promises.
His heart too felt full.
It wasn't that he resented Siddiqui Saheb for the past any more, or even for bringing up the past. It was just that, any reminder of that time and place brought the pain flooding back so unexpectedly that it took one by surprise, leaving one breathless at its sheer intensity.
He rocked her to him letting her cry herself out.
She kissed his cheek when the storm had passed.
"I love you," they both said together, and then laughed. Pulling her scarf out from her bag she covered her head.
And together they walked to pay their respects and tie a knot of hope and peace.
Song in Title:
Veer (2010) "Surili Ankhiyon Wale"
It was a pale morning, smoggy and tired. The sky sagged oppressively.
"I want her to know." Siddiqui said grimly as he removed his glasses and polished the lenses.
Raziya made a choking sound.
"Eighteen years," he sighed.
He cleared his throat.
"For eighteen years, one daughter sacrificed her birthright so the other one could live a charmed life ... I was a coward. We've asked too much of her already. Humaira has been sheltered and protected all her life, while I left Zoya at the mercy of strangers."
Her fingers stiffened arthritically.
He sighed heavily again and replaced his glasses. "Humaira's life of luxury has been a gift from Zoya, and you know that too. It's time."
Raziya didn't even gasp as the familiar pain shot up her side.
She had known this day would come.
But when it did, she was still taken unawares.
Not much mattered to her these days except for Humaira's reaction at the truth of her mother's past. The blowback from that grisly discovery would be swift and heartbreaking. She just knew it.
Humaira would be crushed.
Raziya's hands shook as she adjusted her dupatta on her head.
But at least Humaira would have Zoya by her side. And Asad, and Siddiqui saheb. And Ayaan.
By now, Raziya's faith in her stepdaughter's innate mercy had deepened. She had spared her after all, and for far too long. Zoya would take their secret to her grave before letting Humaira get hurt, even of that she was certain. She had heard so much about how Zoya had taken care of her when Humaira was at their home. "Ammi, I would just think of something, and she'd have it ready for me!"
Her daughter would never tire talking about Zoya.
When Raziya had asked Humaira one day about talking to Shireen about setting a wedding date, her daughter had laughed.
"Ammi, you're just like Zoya Bhabhi! She keeps teasing me about wedding dates. When she sees something in a magazine, or on TV, she'll say, Humaira! This'll be perfect for your nikaah!' But not now Ammi. I want more time."
Raziya's eyes had teared up when she heard this.
So Zoya too was just as eager for this wedding to be soon?
But she wondered why Humaira didn't want to set a date as yet.
A few months ago, she would have been ecstatic at the idea of getting married to the man of her dreams. But what was holding her back now? It was as if Humaira had suddenly grown up in the last month or so. Her relationship with her parents had changed too. She was surer of herself, as she radiated a calm strength. Both her parents had come to rely on her rather than the other way around.
But Humaira was more sombre too.
And Raziya wondered how much of that was on account of her feeling shame for her mother's actions. And how much of that was on account of her feeling penitent for her father's inaction.
When she overheard her daughter chatting to her Abbu about Zoya, Raziya was haunted by the longing she heard in Humaira's voice. Though she had never said it, she knew that her daughter wanted her missing sister to be like Zoya.
Suddenly, Raziya went deathly still.
She knew in a flash why her daughter was reluctant to discuss getting married as yet.
She wanted her sister to be at her wedding!
And that's what made her take the plunge.
Raziya knew it was time to pay up her dues.
She bowed her head and sniffed.
"Jee, you're right. Aap jaisa theek samjhen."
Siddiqui looked down at her in surprise and unexpected sympathy. He felt terrible too about how this would affect Humaira. But he felt driven by his conscience. And even more so by Zoya's unquestioning acceptance of the piecemeal love that life had thrown her way. She loved wholeheartedly, fiercely, but didn't expect the same in return.
She looked at others' love for her as a random gift and not something that she was entitled to.
And that was the most harm he had done by abandoning her.
When he was with her, a winsome Zoya's matchless spirit was enough to wipe away all self-doubt. But away from her, Siddiqui continued to be riddled with guilt and despair.
He looked down at his wife's bent head.
"May be ... I think ... let me talk to Asad first."
He had begun to rely more and more on his son-in-law's strength and uprightness. He wanted so badly for both his daughters to be united now. Humaira already loved Zoya even without knowing that blood linked them. And Zoya's yearning for Humaira was obvious that day when she had lovingly traced Humaira's photograph on his desk at the office. Asad's words from the day he revealed Zoya's identity reverberated in his mind often. They pierced his soul when he went to bed at night and when he woke from smoke-filled dreams in the morning.
"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"-?' "
He squeezed his eyes shut. He had robbed both his daughters. Humaira's words too echoed and tumbled across his mindscape.
"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?"
It was time.
His daughters had shown him the way. He would take his cue from them. They deserved each other's love, and their union would be his best legacy to them.
In getting his daily updates from Rakesh, Asad, just like everyday, insisted that the people keeping tabs on Tanveer be alert for any gaps in security.
"I still don't like that we didn't find the money. It means she was prepared and has plans for an escape. And with the minimum security at the jail hospital, she might try anything, anytime."
Rakesh reassured him. At Asad's behest, his team had promised the staff lavish gifts if they reported on Tanveer's activities and visitors. If she talked for too long with someone, the team knew about it, and by the end of the day, an in-depth report and background check appeared at Rakesh's desk.
"We already have our people guarding all the entrances to the facility. But if she sneaks into an ambulance, or decides to leave on foot in a burqa, we may not be able to catch her." Rakesh informed him.
"Get someone inside then. More than one person if you have to," Asad instructed grimly.
"We've been considering entrapping her by having one of our people become close to her. But as yet, we haven't been able to get our guy hired. Bribing someone already there is our other option. We've narrowed down two candidates."
"I don't care that this thing is costing me a fortune," Asad dragged a hand through his hair. "All I want is freedom from the constant fear that she'll harm my family. And somehow, I'm dead sure that she's waiting to strike yet again."
As he disconnected, Asad thought about their visit to the dargah last night where they had read and tied sacred duas in prayer. Zoya had cried softly in his arms in the car, but then they had dusted their grief off and walked into the sanctuary with a light heart. Looking through the screen at each other, they had been secure in their love and hope for the future. Their bonded hands, like the tied strings, felt eternal.
But now he felt that they had been too nave.
A flash, and a cord could be forever severed.
His fist clenched.
Damn! He'd caught on.
He'd caught on that she was going behind his Stalin back.
He'd caught on that she was getting her pizza fix by deploying the help to the stores to place and pick up her orders.
Mr. Khan was getting too smart for his own britches, Zoya fumed.
The maid had hung her head and muttered, "Sir ne mana kiya hai."
The driver echoed the same instructions from Akdu: "Asad sir said not to."
Same story with the guard.
In the middle of a meeting Asad covered his mouth to hide his smile when he saw the angry text from his wife: MR. KHAN, I WILL KILL YOU.
Violent and angry emoticons followed.
And then came the next one.
You WILL sleep in the living room tonight! Or better yet, I'll sleep with Najma.
His smile vanished.
OK, this was not good.
After the meeting, he reluctantly placed the order for her pizza, to be delivered exactly as she liked it: loaded with carbs and fat, dripping with cheese, and basically super unhealthy and anti-Akdu's health decree.
Just for today he wouldn't mess around with the ingredients. No way would he be spending a night apart from his Mrs. Jahanpanah.
Now that would be hell!
And he felt bad for her too.
The morning sickness wasn't letting up, and now she had become particularly smell-sensitive. Cooked spinach and jeera tadkas would send her flying to the restroom where she'd be doubled over in agony. Even saying the words palak and jeera now had the power to make her nauseous.
"Asad, this baby is trying to kill me," she had moaned one morning after some especially bad round trips to the bathroom.
"Never," he had soothed, pulling her into his lap. "I doubt if anyone could keep you down for too long. The baby's just testing you and letting you know who's boss. And it's telling Abbu to take better care of its Ammi." He had kissed the top of her head and wiped her tears away with his thumbs.
When Zoya made a face, he tried to tease her into a good mood, "It's Zoya Farooqui's baby after all, of course he or she's going to be a little hell-raiser!"
That made her smile and even giggle.
"How about two sips of coke?" He asked, brushing her nose with his.
Her eyes had sparkled again. "Three?"
He had rolled his eyes, but said nothing even when she'd stolen a fourth sip.
Feroze had re-introduced Nikhat to his parents and brother over Facetime. Nikhat shyly bowed her head first, but then she took a deep breath and lifted it to look directly at them.
"Maine aap sab ka dil dukhaya. I'm sorry," she whispered forlornly.
Feroze quickly put his arm around her shoulders in comfort.
They both looked up surprised when they heard a snort from his brother.
"Bhabhs that's OK! It's good for Bhai to suffer once in his life. Sheesh! You don't know what it's like to live with the golden child! Oh wait, I guess now you'll know!"
Both the parents had laughed at that, and Nikhat cut her eyes to Feroze. Golden child?
He was blushing.
She'd tease him about it in private later. She squeezed his hand under the table, away from his family's view.
"So Nikhat, did you make my son suffer?" His mom asked sternly and Nikhat paled in fear.
Oh my god!
Was her saas going to be one of those types?
"Kyun dara rahi ho bechari bacchi ko!" His father intervened. "You were the most excited of all of us that she said yes!"
His mother broke into a cheeky smile. "I was. And I really was teasing beta. No, I'm not going to be like those daily soap saases! I know exactly those types."
She looked at her husband and rolled her eyes playfully. "I had one of those myself!"
Her sons groaned, familiar with the nok-jhonk to follow.
"My mother was a saint." Feroze's dad said calmly.
"Abbu!" his sons tried to stall the unfolding drama.
"She is. Now!" Feroze's mother retorted.
Nikhat covered her mouth aghast at this banter. She looked nervously at Feroze. But he seemed placid, as still as the lake on a windless day.
"Oh please, your only regret is that you didn't get to be the suffering bahu from your useless serials."
His Ammi's back whipped straight and she held up her hands in warning.
"Uh oh," grinned Faiz, winking at Nikhat. "Oh no, you didn't!" he muttered.
"Oh, she was so perfect!" Nikhat's future mother-in-law continued. "No wonder, she made sure every two hours that her ladla beta was fed and clothed properly!"
"And I was, so problem kya hai? You were a great wife and bahu, what else do you want to hear?"
"I was a great wife? Past tense?" She planted her hands very firmly on her wide waist now.
"May be. You don't take as good care of me now! Kyunki ab aap ko meri Ammi se competition nahin hai!" He pouted.
"Guys, please, stop!" Faiz begged. "Bhai, ab toh kuchh bolo. Or Bhabhi will say no again!"
"Nahin beta, na mat kehna," her future father-in-law pleaded with her. "I was hoping for an ally who would support me in our daily soap opera."
Nikhat still looked uncertainly at Feroze and then his mother. And Feroze's mother looked at her back, dead in the eye.
Then she clasped her hands to her chest and squealed. "Nikhat, it'll be so much fun! I've been waiting my whole life for my very own bahu! I was beginning to worry that my son was gay. Not that I have anything against gays. Par bhir bhi, main soap wali saas kaise banti?"
"Please Ammi," Faiz scolded his mom. "Same-se*x marriage was made legal in New York in 2011. You could still be a soap saas!"
"Very funny!" His mother retaliated. "As it is, all my life I've been surrounded by men. Ek aur ladka? Na baba, thank god Feroze found Nikhat!"
Nikhat was hyperventilating by now. But Feroze continued to smile serenely.
"Welcome to the family," he said softly, patting her hand. "Are you sure, you still want to marry me?"
"Ab toh karni padegi." His father asserted. "We have incriminating video evidence that we can use against you!"
A blusing Nikhat fled. And her brand new family laughed.
"There you go, commercial break de ke bhaag gayee aapki soap bahu," Feroze's dad remarked to his wife.
"Feroze, what was that?" she asked later.
Taking her in his arms he laughed. "That was my nautanki family. I've often asked Ammi if I was adopted."
She smacked his chest. "You're scaring me."
He laughed and guided her to sit next to him.
"Look, I know they're unconventional. But think. Mom talks like that because Abbu is cool with her being outrageous. In fact, he encourages her. And despite what she said about Dadi, they got on like a house on fire. Well, on most days. Till the very end, Dadi was convinced that no one could take care of our dad better than herself."
Nikhat still looked unconvinced. Eyes wide she looked at him, a deer caught in the headlights. Feroze laughed again and tucked her into his side.
"Nikhat, don't look so frightened. My folks will be mortified if they found out they scared the living daylights out of you! They were just being themselves, that shows they fully accept you as one of us."
"Really? Your mom will like me?"
"She'll love you! Till now I was the normal center of the family. Now there'll be two of us. Together, we'll manage them all just fine. And then we have our taekwondo skills too if their soap drama gets too over the top!"
She laughed, finally at ease.
"Families can be nutty, no?" she said looking up into his face. "Look at mine! Ammi's hyper about all of us all the time. She's constantly terrified that something terrible will happen to us. Ayaan is fine now, so she's more relaxed. But during his wilder days, she was convinced that he'd either be in an accident, or get arrested, or beaten up. Abbu is mostly quiet."
"Sounds more normal than my family!" Feroze said. But he became serious. "My cousin has this theory. She says that Indian parents who just have boys, are bindass and chilled out. But parents with daughters are stressed out all the time, worrying about rishtas and shaadis."
"She's right, you know!" Nikhat said. Then she groaned, "Indian mothers specially! My god, the millions of times I've heard Ammi beg relatives and friends: aapki nazar mein koi ladka ho toh bataiyega.' "
She buried her face in his chest, "Feroze, it was so embarrassing! Thank you for saving me from that dialogue. Family gatherings and weddings would be such torture!"
"I don't know about saving you. There will be a lifetime of dialogues from my Ammi now!"
"Asad, remember that terrible night?"
Late into the night, they were still wide awake. She'd dragged him to the terrace.
"It'll be such fun!" she pestered him.
Once again he had furnished their nest with chair pads and cushions. She had brought a sheet and a mosquito repellent coil with her this time. Asad rested on his back, an arm under his head. Zoya lay in the crook of his other arm tracing circles around his kurta button. They had already touched the constellations, fenced with the big and little dippers, counted the diamonds in Orion's belt, and traced the flightpaths of solitary planes.
"Which one, babe? Those days when we were apart, every night was terrible."
Sometimes they talked of those days when they had lived under the same roof as lovesick, heartbroken strangers, because he was engaged to someone else and she was a mere guest.
"That one night when we were all by ourselves ..."
He groaned, remembering perfectly. That one night, months ago, had indeed been the longest and darkest night of them all. It reminded them of all they could have lost.
And the fragility of all that they had now.
"Yes, that night qualified as hellish for sure," Asad said huskily. His arm tightened around her.
Those were the terrible days from the time they had just returned from the trip to Ajmer Sharif, Jaipur and Agra. Their mute suffering went unabated. Each grey day had crept and bled miserably into the next, and the next.
That morning, Ammi told him at breakfast that they'd be going for a relative's wedding function in the evening. He'd made a face, and Ammi smiled.
"We'll leave dinner for you. Humko aane mein der ho jayegi. Make sure that you reheat it and eat well." Dilshad had ordered in mock-anger.
Asad had nodded and left for work.
Thinking he'd be alone at home he'd left early. Not that he was getting much done at the office. Every breath made him think of Zoya's downcast eyes and rosebud mouth.
His eyes were gritty, his head had pounded.
Stepping out of the room after a shower he had come to a halt when he heard Zoya's aggrieved voice coming from her room.
He had assumed she had gone with the others.
"You really didn't know that I hadn't gone with Ammi and Najma?" Zoya shivered in his arms. Asad pulled up the sheet more snugly around them.
"No. And it killed me to hear the pain in your voice."
Raising herself, she kissed his cheek.
"I chickened out. I lied to Ammi and told her that I had to go to the immigration office. I couldn't bear to be at a function celebrating someone's wedding. I kept thinking of your Waleema ..."
"OUR Waleema, and it was beautiful!" Asad said emphatically as she ducked her head in his shoulder. "The journey was rocky, but Zoya, we were meant to be."
She sighed and her breath fanned his neck.
He felt confident now, but then, it had been a different story.
That night his doomed feet had moved toward her room of their own accord. That's when he'd heard her pleading with the ticket agent about the stand-by status on an earlier flight to New York.
His blood had turned to ice.
His instincts had been right after all. She was leaving!
He heard her say in a small voice, "I lost my father ... if you could please take that into consideration," and he had nearly staggered from the pain. Hers? His? He didn't even know any more.
"That's OK, thanks for trying," her bleak sigh had made him grind his fingers into his palm.
"Stupid, stupid, stupid," he'd heard her mutter the next second. Something slammed heavily.
"C'mon Zoya, you can do this. See, you're already stronger than yesterday."
"I wanted to push through the door and pull you in my arms and never let go. I wanted to tell you that you weren't stupid, and that you're the strongest woman I know." He stroked her scarred arm.
"Asad, I watched that door almost all night. I too kept hoping you'd come crashing through and wake me up from a nightmare that just wouldn't end."
He'd heard her sniff after she'd hung up and his hand had clenched on the door jamb.
"You is kind, you is smart, you is important," she kept repeating on and on to herself. The next minute, he heard the strains from her music box muffle that strange litany.
"What were you saying? Some strange lines ... you is smart ...' "
Zoya giggled. " You is kind, you is smart, you is important.' They are lines from a book and film called The Help.' A little girl who's unloved by her mother is told this by her black maid."
Asad tucked her more securely under him, "you are the kindest, smartest girl I know, and most important to me."
Her teeth gleamed in the dark. Flinging her arms around his neck she kissed him senseless.
"Jahanpanah, you sure know how to make a girl truly happy."
"I've had lots of practice by now. But those days, I was the one who caused you the most pain."
"Shh," she pressed her finger to shush him. "Am I not happy now? Don't you always carry the sun for me? Make all my dreams come true? Even the wet"-"
"Zoya!" he hissed and then shook his head. "I had no idea Ms. Farooqui was just a prelude to Ms. Behaving!"
"Poor Mr. Khan, if he'd only known how good I was at misbehaving, he wouldn't have taken so long to confess his love for me!" she teased.
He kissed her, feeling her soft lips under his. His warm palm cupped her stomach. Their child was growing in there.
Only now he could think of those forlorn nights and not break into a sickly sweat. Asad crushed and rocked her to him.
Thank god it was in the past!
He thought again, of how in a numb daze, he had moved to the kitchen after overhearing her conversation with the travel agent.
The counters, table and sink were pristine, which meant that she hadn't eaten anything either.
Restlessly, he'd puttered around in the kitchen, opening and closing drawers loudly, rattling the cutlery to draw her out. Instead he noticed her partially open door close softly shut as he pressed the buttons on the microwave. He had noticed that she was more careful around him those days, not chattering loudly or slamming doors, dropping or spilling things.
It was as if she was quietly erasing herself. Retreating from his life, making herself invisible, clearing away her tracks from the pages of his life.
Desultorily, he had sat alone at the table barely able to swallow the par-heated sawdust before him.
The silence had shredded his nerves.
Her absence echoed off the walls.
Unable to eat any more he got up to toss the food in the trash. He looked at the closed door to her room again.
"I couldn't bear it!" Asad told her now. "I saw you bury yourself in your grief every day, and felt helpless that I couldn't do a thing."
"I thought you pitied me since the day I barged in to tell you about how I felt about you. Oh god Asad, I felt like such a major fool. You were so proper, so dignified, so critical of me. And here I was, totally the opposite, a meddling, bumbling moron who thought that Jahanpanah would actually stoop to like her, let alone love her."
He wiped the lone tear that slid down her eye. "You were never a moron! And Jahanpanah had already fallen for you the first day he saw you. You never noticed me though. And when you did, you bit my head off!" He pouted.
She giggled and rose to nip his pouting lower lip. "Oh poor baby! Itni himakat meri? Don't you think I should be spanked for that?"
Asad laughed. "You will be, Mrs. Khan, you will be."
"Can't wait! And Asad?" her voice dipped seductively.
"Speaking of biting your head off ... I could kiss it, umm, mmm, and make it all better."
"Zoya, you are so bad!" He blushed.
"Oh? Fine, I won't do it then! I'll be good."
"No! I didn't mean that."
"Oh so you don't want me to be good?"
"Oh god, Zoya!" he groaned, aroused and rock-hard. He raised himself to fling his kurta off.
"Mr. Khan, admit it, you love me when I'm bad. Especially when I'm so good at it! Tell me quick, how bad do you want me to be?"
"Yes, you are so good at it ..." He leaned over to tell her what he wanted her to do. Her palms and fingers feathered over the hard planes of his bare chest. His lips at her ear gave her goosebumps. Even though she knew exactly what he wanted, she still gasped to hear his hot demands in her ear. He traced her lips with his thumb and she parted her mouth to nip and suck at it, miming what she would do to him ...
"Ah Zoya ..." he jerked as he felt her hand creep lower and mouth follow tantalizingly. Her tongue flicked his navel and scar, and his hands fisted in her hair. He spasmed, taut with anticipation, when her teeth yanked at his drawstring ...
"You're pure magic ... and wicked as hell," he moaned in helpless surrender, amplified to that single rife sensation. His hips reared and rolled hopelessly, craving her molten ministrations ...
In one urgent tug he pulled her on top of him to mount and ride him relentlessly. His hands branded her arms as he buried himself deeper, completing the succulent torture.
They needed these musky dalliances to sweep away those terrible memories of pain and separation. Because those days, just like now, they were hyper attuned to each other's presence and heartbeats.
Zoya had heard him banging around in the kitchen that night. She had never known him to be so loud before. Was he angry, she had wondered. Upset that she was here and hadn't gone with the others?
She had shriveled up inside as waves of pain threatened to choke her. Shaking off the impending bout of self-pity she hauled herself off the bed where she'd been sitting cross-legged, begging with the airline representative to put her on a stand-by. She'd tip-toed to the door and softly closed it.
"You will not cry!" She'd scolded herself then for the millionth time.
"Those days I pep-talked a lot to myself." She told him.
"And I cursed myself for being the world's biggest fool." He said softly, brushing her hair away from her dewy face and that sinful mouth.
Coming back to the center of her room she'd pounded through her routine of jumping jacks. She'd taken to doing this since their return from Agra. It kept her temporarily sane. At this rate, at the very least, she'd be in great shape. Only now he told her how he too would similarly slam away at his punching bag to burn off restless energy and punish himself.
"I could see those days that you were losing weight. You had dark hollows under your eyes."
"You noticed?" she asked in wonder.
"I only had eyes for you. I noticed how you absently stroked your arm. It was only later that I found out about your scar. And then it made sense."
"I used to stroke my arm?" She had never realized that.
"Yes you did, and I wondered if you were hurt." He stroked her arm now and nuzzled her neck.
She burst into tears, "may be it was to tell myself that I didn't deserve you, I was scarred, and you were perfect ..."
"Zoya, no!" Asad cradled her head dropping a thousand kisses on her hair. "Besides, I agree with Khalil Gibran."
"What did he say?" She asked curiously, tears nearly forgotten.
"The most massive characters are seared with scars."
Zoya thought back to that night's torment. Somehow, even not wanting to, her mind kept wrenching back to that point of utter misery. A quick shower after her desperate exercise mission, and she was surprised to hear a knock at her door.
As if it was just a second ago, she still remembered how her heart had kicked into overdrive.
Don't be dumb. It couldn't be Mr. Khan, she'd told herself.
May be Phuphi and Najma and ... had returned early from the ...
She just didn't even want to think of the name of the function. Because then it made her think of Mr. Khan and Tanveer's Waleema ...
Another stab of pain had ripped through her then, and now.
It was indeed Mr. Khan at the door, and her eyes had widened in hope and alarm. Her hand on the doorknob had tightened.
"Umm ... Ms. Farooqui, I know you haven't had dinner. I ordered pizza for you. I hope I got the order right?"
"Thank you, but ..."
"Just a little?" He insisted kindly, stepping forward as if drawn in by an invisible reel.
She had lowered her gaze, not wanting to give away her stupid heart's flip. Quietly, she'd stepped out. As she settled down at the table, he brought over a chilled Diet Coke for her.
"Thank you," she'd said huskily, sick with embarrassment and unrequited love. Don't pity me, please, she wanted to say.
I'll be fine.
"Umm, Mr. Khan ... I ..."
"You want to watch the IPL match?" He had cut her off midway.
"Because I didn't want you to apologize for your confession." Asad said now. "And I didn't know if I'd be able to look into your face. I wanted to fall to my knees and beg for forgiveness."
Her hand fisted on his kurta. "At least you knew that I loved you. I didn't ... I thought you still disapproved of me. Every day, I cursed myself for even thinking that you could be interested in someone like me."
He hugged her fiercely to him, kissing away her doubts, "it was only you, always you!"
He had seen her bite her lower lip and stroke her right arm again. She did that a lot lately. Was she hurt, he had wondered for the fiftieth time.
"I interrupted you because I was scared you were going to tell me that you were leaving. And this time round I didn't even have the right to say, mat jao Zoya.' "
His words from the past, "mat jao Zoya," taunted him mercilessly those days. He screamed them in his head every night before falling into an uneasy sleep.
It was those words of his that had brought her to his room that night ... those words that had made a hypocrite of him.
"Why don't you bring your plate to the sofa," he had offered then, as he turned the TV on switching to a sports channel that was airing the matches.
She'd looked at him in exasperation and held up her hand.
"Mr. Khan, I know what you're trying to do. Please, you don't have to feel guilty. Don't change your rules on my account. I'll be fine. I'm a strong girl. Can you please forget what I said that day ..."
No! Those words had gutted him; he had just stared at her in utter misery. He would never forget. Her words had meant the world to him, and in just a few hours those words had become an elegy.
"Can't you go back to being mad at me all the time? And yelling at me for ..."
That had made him smile.
"For being messy, standing up on the sofa, always arguing with me?" he had rushed to complete her sentence, and then kicked himself for it.
"But even in your pain you managed to occasionally put me in my place," he teased.
"Yes. Those days I'd decided that I needed to start getting mad at you, or I'd fall apart completely. I didn't want you to pity me." Zoya said softly.
He had convinced her to eat while watching TV and a temporary truce had been established that night.
It was awkward and stilted for the first ten minutes. But soon they were lost in the drama of the match, the commentary, replays, interviews and game analysis. Her favorite, Dhoni was on, and he was on fire. Zoya had squealed with each six and four, pumped her fist at the Super Kings' win and generally made a loud nuisance of herself. And he had almost gagged as regret throbbed through him. Here was a girl, his equal, who would have stood by him shoulder to shoulder through thick and thin, and he had squandered it away.
"You know, I watched you more than the match that night."
"And I wanted to kick Dhoni's butt."
Her laughter pealed loud and clear. Asad rushed to cover that wild mouth of hers.
"Zoya!" he hissed. You'll get us caught."
"Mr. Khan, you behave as if we aren't married and about to have a baby. Don't forget that just a little while ago you were being the loud one ..." she whispered hotly in his ear and he groaned. Irrepressible, as usual!
For a glorious hour or two they had bantered and bonded that night watching their favorite game. They quizzed each other, hopelessly in love, and impressed with the other's knowledge of trivia. During breaks he had scoffed at the commercialization of a great sport and she'd heartily agreed. She told him about how much worse it was in the US with college basketball and professional football.
"They spend billions of dollars for the Super Bowl ads that are never seen again. It's nuts! Do you think that'll happen here too?"
"It could. Look at all the cheerleading and face painting in team colors."
Asad had kept a close watch on her appetite, pleased that she was eating well. He even took a slice when she offered him one.
It tasted surprisingly good.
And he was starving all of a sudden.
And then Ammi had texted to let him know that they wouldn't be able to make it back home. Khala had insisted that they stay the night.
"When I read Ammi's text, I thought my heart would implode and crater. And then you looked up at me, and it did."
Zoya too had felt something squeeze her heart when she'd looked into his eyes. A big mistake. She'd forgotten her own pledge, don't look into his eyes.
"Mr. Khan, is everything OK?"
He'd cleared his throat.
"Umm, yes ..." he said huskily. "That was Ammi. They can't come back tonight."
He had cut his eyes away, not wanting to look at her.
He heard her gulp.
"Oh," she'd said softly.
She got up hastily and gathered the pizza box, napkins and dashed to the kitchen. They heard a noise from Asad's room and both heaved a sigh of relief and ... possibly regret.
"Thank god for Ayaan!" They both said together and laughed.
" Goodnight! And thanks for dinner,' you said and fled to lock yourself in your room. It happened so fast. A blink, and you were gone."
"I was dying! I didn't think I could look at you." In fact, in her room she'd slapped her head thinking about her last words to him.
"Thanks for dinner!" Gadhi Zoya!
It wasn't a date, you moron!
"I could hear your voices in the living room and the sound of the TV and every second I thought of how we'd be alone once Ayaan left."
She'd prowled and paced to eventually crash on the bed hugging herself.
"It'll be all right. You'll be all right." She had repeated to herself like a manic parrot stuffing her earphones in. If she didn't talk, she'd think.
If she thought, she'd ...
Two hours later, she had still twisted and turned and tossed in bed.
Sleep eluded her.
Her body was tired but her mind was just as wired.
"I think I kept hallucinating. I watched the door to my bedroom imagnining the knob turn to reveal you at the door. Asad, I wanted you so bad! I wanted to pray, but I was scared that I'd end up asking for you and that would be wrong."
Restless, as if being chased by demons, that night she'd flung the sheet off and jumped out of bed. Opening the door cautiously to not make a sound, she tiptoed out to the backyard. She needed to pace more.
But this time around, she needed a lot more room.
"I couldn't sleep either. I heard your door open and close softly. And I thought that you were leaving me forever. It was my worst fear those days."
His heart had jolted.
Please don't leave, it wanted to shout.
Then he'd heard the door to the backyard. He'd grabbed a pillow and smashed it over his face. He too had been thinking of going to the backyard because he couldn't breathe in here.
But not now.
He got up and slipped out of his room to sneak up quietly to the terrace. And for almost half the night he had kept vigil over her shadowy figure darting from one end of the backyard to the other.
His fingers had ground on the railing when he saw her drop to her knees, shoulders heaving.
Only superhuman self-restraint had kept him from not rushing down to pick her up and wrapping her in his arms to never let go.
"That night was it for me." Asad said, stroking her head tucked under his chin. "I decided that I wouldn't, couldn't, live without you."
"Oh really?" Zoya scoffed. "What exactly were you planning to do? Ms. Farooqui ... aap ... yeh ... voh ... main ... actually ..."
Asad laughed good-humoredly. "I was waiting for some evidence against Tanveer. And then you would've been mine."
"Mr. Khan! I was going to leave in four days!"
"So? I'd have stopped you filmy-style at the airport, or followed you to New York. But I was not going to let you walk out of my life this time. But yes, Omar turning up the next day was the last straw ..."
"That finally broke the Akdu camel's back!" her laugh tinkled.
They clung to each other on the same terrace that he had kept vigil from. He kissed her now, gently, desperately, gratefully.
Asad ran his knuckles across her cheek and jaw. "I must've done something right."
"You did. You came into my life and made everything right. I must've done something right, more," she breathed, heart on her sleeve.
"Mrs. Khan, you better remember these words when you're mad at me the next time and try to hit me with whatever you find handy," Asad cautioned before rolling her over and making her forget everything for the moment.
Song in Title:
Anwar (2007): "Maula Mere Maula"
"Uunnnhh" Asad grunted as he looked at his phone screen.
Damn! The woman had no mercy on him.
Two seconds earlier she had texted him that Najma had gone out with friends, and Ammi had gone shopping with Dadi and Chhoti Ammi.
"Why didn't you go with them," he messaged back distractedly focusing on adding up numbers in his head and making a thousand mental notes.
"Didn't feel like it," she responded. And he thought the conversation was over.
Not his wife.
"I'm horny," her next text read. It was accompanied with a selfie of her in his unbuttoned white shirt, leaning against the headboard. One hand gripped the edge of the headboard behind her, and the shirtfront parted just enough to reveal the gentle swell of her bre*asts. Her legs were bent just enough to leave him guessing.
Asad's head slammed back into his office chair as his startled breath whooshed out of him. Raw desire crackled through him.
He had been immersed in spreadsheets and reports. But now, thanks to her, his concentration was shot. When he re-opened his tightly squeezed, unfocused eyes, the white on the computer screen reminded him of his white shirt on her. Spreadsheets made him think of bedsheets ... those twisted bedsheets under them. His fingers convulsing on the page had him imagining her fists gripping satin sheets at that moment of crowning glory...
That moment when she was a hot satin sheath ...
Asad slammed his fist on the table.
Everything on it rattled.
He looked, dazed, at the sheet of glass that was his tabletop. Visions of Zoya, from an evening not too long ago, danced in his head. She had marked that table, she had writhed and moaned, she had screamed out his na"-
He pushed the chair back violently, and grabbed his car keys.
When Zoya heard his brakes squeal on the driveway and his keys in the door, she ran and flew straight into his arms. He had already loosened and tossed his tie in the car. His suit jacket was forgotten, still draped on the back of the chair in his office.
Asad scooped her up and she wrapped her bare legs around his waist pressing herself up against him. The raw heat radiating from her drove him insane.
"You could drive a man to crime Mrs. Khan! The number of illegal turns and red lights I ran through, just to get to you!"
"I was scared that you'd drive rashly," she whispered. "I'm sorry," Zoya breathed as she kissed his neck. She squeezed him to her as she let his shirt slip down her shoulders.
"Don't be," he said as he set her down on the edge of the bed to swiftly undress. Her shirt went sailing too.
Asad nudged her on her back. Lifting her legs to splay her ankles over his bare shoulders, he crowed as he took her, "oh yes, you are ready for me!"
"I've been so ready forever!" she gasped as their bodies moved together in a new and familiar rhythm.
Later she watched him get ready to return to work. Zoya sat up to lean against the headboard and pulled up the sheet to cover herself. Languidly, she secured her hair in a loose bun.
"Asad, I've been thinking ..."
"Uh oh," he teased. "What new schemes now? I thought you were busy researching your Abbu's proposal."
Her eyes flashed.
"I am. But I need breaks don't I!" she retorted. "I was thinking about what you said about not trusting Tanveer to stay put in the jail hospital. I have such a kickass idea!"
"No!" he groaned. And she pouted, as he knew she would.
"OK, I might regret this, but let's hear it," he said as he buttoned and zipped up, standing at the foot of the bed.
She giggled, momentarily distracted.
Wasn't this like dj vu? Same suit vest and shirt. Standing at the exact same place.
The only thing different in this scenario was her. She was no longer hiding behind the settee, but on the bed, naked, entangled in his sheets.
Zoya hooted and slapped the bed top several times.
Asad looked up, puzzled.
He had no idea that suddenly she was remembering that day, from months ago, when she had snuck into his room to look for her missing earring. It was right after the Akram fiasco and he had yet to apologize to her. Just the night before, they'd had one of those high-octane kicking and screaming matches.
And both had sworn to never speak to each other again.
"Agar saari kayanat bhi khatam ho jaye, aur iss duniya mein sirf main aur aap bache, tab bhi main aap se baat nahin karunga!" He had thundered and raged.
As she was rifling through his things convinced that he had her earring, she heard his voice from the next room and panicked. In desperation she'd crouched behind the settee hoping that he'd leave soon so she could make a clean escape. May be he'd just come to get a forgotten file and would be gone in seconds.
But fate had other plans.
Somehow, during those days, fate apparently had nothing else to do except cackle gleefully and chomp at the bit to watch these two battle it out in the boxing ring.
Fate had an all-season pass, and the best ringside seats in the house.
Sometimes, to make it even more interesting, it even tripped them up so they'd end up reluctantly in each other's yearning arms.
A kinky mistress, that fate.
And as fate would have it, Mr. Akdu Ahmed Khan had walked into the room and promptly begun stripping.
Aww, her Mr. Khan had stripping talents even before he'd perfected them, just for her!
In mortified silence she'd covered her eyes that day, hopped in the tight space and clutched her head in growing despair, but he continued, oblivious and relentless.
He removed his coat and carefully placed it on the bed. Of course! Her Mr. Perfectionist Ahmed Khan.
Then the tie, vest and shoes had come off.
And then he began to unbutton his shirt.
She gulped in dismay.
Damn those six packs!
Zoya stayed quiet till he removed his belt. But once she'd seen him reaching for his zipper, she'd jumped up to yell at him.
"Stop it, Mr. Khan! What's wrong with you? Ab kya saare kapde utarenge kya?" And she ran out of the room, even more horrified at her own audacity.
He'd followed close on her heels, outraged and spluttering.
Except he'd remembered the vow to never speak to her again.
And then the cutest thing had happened.
Mr. Khan's epic sign-language fail!
Even then, her laugh had bubbled up and incensed him further. The vein in his forehead leaped and pulsed maniacally, ready to pop. She'd made him madder by uttering one last volley before spinning on the ball of her foot to run off giggling to her room.
"Waise bhi, main apna earring dhoondhne aayi thi, aapke six packs dekhne ke liye nahin (liar)! Aur bilkul bhi decency nahin hai na aapme? Kyun ki decent log humesha kapde change karte waqt, darwaza band karke rakhte hain!"
Hoo boy! Now that was ballsy of her. And poor Mr. Khan didn't even have a chance to logically explain that even if he had locked the room, she was already inside, and would have still been treated to the nazara of the bared six packs!
She hadn't missed his frustrated, "badtameez ladki!"
Present-day Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan roared with laughter clutching her stomach. Asad c0cked his head to the side quizzically.
"What's so funny?" he demanded midway through buckling his belt.
She pointed a finger at him and continued laughing.
He frowned. "Me? What did I do?"
And using sign language to jog his memory, she tried to remind him of that insane encounter.
At first his brows knitted in confusion.
What was she up to now? Never could tell with his wife.
But then he paid closer attention to her gestures: she pointed to her ear and then to the spot behind the settee and covered her eyes. Next she put on a super serious expression on her face, scowled, and pretended to unbutton a shirt and unzip invisible pants; she pointed to the corner again and covered her animated face.
She made the sign of zipping her lips shut.
And he remembered.
He too laughed.
"You drove me crazy those days!" he teased. "The things I've done since you entered my life! Even sign language!"
He glanced at his watch. "Now are you done playing? Do you want to tell me about your grand plan or not?"
Zoya sat forward, crossed her legs and clasped her hands in delight.
"OK, hear me out without throwing a fit. Though I miss you throwing a fit these days and getting mad at me ..."
His eyes narrowed in frustration; her eyes lit up as the words tumbled and somersaulted over one another.
"OK here's Plan A. Rakesh's people bribe another inmate, and stage a daring escape. We leak it to the media. Imagine! A media circus on the ineptitude of the whole department. Aanan-faanan' and afra-tafri' on the news all day long! Lambi guhaar' and all that. Loud panel discussions where no one listens to anyone!"
She held up her hands when she saw her skeptical Akdu frown.
"With all the negative press and attention, the security at the jail would be beefed up like never before. So even if Tanveer was planning something ..."
" ... the heightened security would delay it, or kill her grand schemes. By then she'd be too close to delivering her baby ..." Asad completed her sentence.
Zoya beamed at the approval. But then she saw him frown again.
"And plan B?"
She exhaled. The man was too detail-oriented to get much by. Zoya lowered her gaze and played with her fingers. Asad crossed his arms across his chest suspiciously, hackles waiting to rise.
"Go on," he drawled.
"Umm, well ..."
"Voh, main, actually, etc. etc. Aage boliye!" Asad waved his hands impatiently.
She threw his pillow at him.
She twisted the sheet in her hands.
"Rakesh's people could help Tanveer escape and"-"
"What! Are you out of your already-crazy mind?"
He raised and pointed his finger at her, as she roared to stand up on the bed, naked and furious. Her hair spilled wildly over her shoulders.
"Zoya, don't you dare go Allah Miyan on me now! Why would you even say that? Of all the nonsensical, hare-brained"-" Asad spluttered.
Of course she had jinxed it, and here he was yelling at her.
Hands on her waist, she glared at him, breathing fire. "You never hear me out! You judgmental, stick-in-the-mud, no-one-knows-better, Akdu Jahanpanah, Tarzan ki aulad!"
"Tarzan?" he looked up at her after a pregnant pause, eyebrows co*cked sardonically. But then he got distracted as his gaze travelled south only to be snagged by her [email protected]
She huffed; he swallowed.
"Mr. Khan! My eyes are up here!" she hollered, tongue in cheek.
"Hunh?" Asad gulped.
"You were right, they are fuller," he whispered in awe, still dazed, all anger and plans A, B, F and G forgotten.
Just this morning she had been looking at her body in the mirror from all angles, half-eager and half-regretful of the coming changes.
"What? These babies?" She cupped them, inevitably thrusting them in his face; he groaned. Zoya giggled and stepped back out of reach, as his hand lifted unconsciously to caress her.
"Unnhh!" he protested. In their frantic coupling he hadn't had a chance to give her bre*asts the full attention they deserved.
"Asad, honey, up here," she said softly, with a barely repressed giggle.
She moved closer and crooked a cheeky finger under his chin. But that brought her within touching distance. His fingers traced the freshly darkened areolas reverently. The book had talked about this coming change in her body, but the touch and feel of them was something else altogether. Watching her rub creams and lotions over her body to soothe the itchiness and soreness every morning was its own turn on.
"Are you still sore?" Asad asked softly as his thumbs feathered over the swollen burgundy nipples.
So dark and tender, so rich with anticipation.
Slowly, he blew his breath on one, and she arched; her hands gripped his shouders involuntarily.
"Yesss," she hissed.
"Asad, remember Plan B?"
She framed his face in her palms. "Listen! They entrap her and help her escape, but deliberately mess it up, so she gets caught. Media circus and hoopla, public goes nuts over the feel-good story! And Tanveer gets thrown deeper into the freezer with the keys tossed away, hopefully forever."
Asad's eyes glittered. "You have a devious, devious mind," he remarked. "And a sinful, se*xy body."
"And I'm way better at sign language!"
"True." He pulled her to him by her waist and his tongue helplessly curled around an oversensitive wine-dipped bud.
"As"ad," she moaned as she gripped his hair and bowed back wildly. "Don't start what you can't finish."
"Damn!" he pushed himself away from her and ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "You're right. I have to go."
He bent to kiss her stomach, letting his palm linger, "bye baby, tell Ammi to be good."
"Hey! You be good!" she tossed her hair back.
"Babe." Asad drawled softly. "I thought I already showed you how good I am."
"Oh yes," Zoya whispered, hand on her heart, stars in her eyes. "My bad! And you did get here on such short notice to put out the fires!"
He chuckled. Grabbing his phone and keys, he said, "And I like plan A much better."
"But Asad," she put her hand on his arm to stall him as she hopped off the bed. She smoothed his shirt and fixed the collar. His arms came around her.
"Plan A has too much collateral damage. People could be fired or transferred for no fault of theirs. It'll be humiliating for their families. But Plan B could make the police and security look like heroes if they foil a prison escape."
Asad looked down his nose at her and pulled her in for a long kiss. "Of course, how could I forget? My Jhansi ki rani is also Mother Teresa! You're incredible, you know that? What was that again? You is kind, you is smart, you is important.' "
"Aww, and you, Mr. Khan, is a heartbreaker!"
I love you, she signed with her fingers. He kissed her fingers.
Zoya wrapped the sheet snugly around her as she walked him to the door. Asad pulled her close again for a last snuggle and kiss. They heard a car in the driveway. His arms tightened around her.
"Mr. Khan, let me go, Ammi's here!"
He grinned and nuzzled her neck.
A car door slammed.
He let her go only when he heard the key in the lock. She fled to their room without a backward glance.
"Drive safe!" she called out over her shoulder as she disappeared behind the bedroom door.
"Ah, Hercules and the Augean Stables.' That's pretty ingenious!" Rakesh remarked when Asad told him about Zoya's ideas and concerns.
"She's into crime dramas and police procedurals, right?" He continued.
"Like you won't believe," Asad sighed. So many times he'd told her not to watch her favorite American crime shows. "Our child will be a serial killer at this rate."
"Allah miyan what's wrong with you Mr. Khan!" was her stock response. "Why won't our child be a super cop or ace detective?"
"You know, I could use a creative problem-solver like that. I've heard she's a tech guru too. Would Mrs. Khan be interested in working for me?" Rakesh continued to gush, blindly treading where no man had gone before.
But then he squeezed his eyes shut in embarrassment when he heard complete silence at the other end.
He would probably lose his best client now that he'd put his foot in his mouth. He mentally kicked himself harder.
More silence, and then a long sigh.
"Umm, Asad, I'm sorry I probably shouldn't have said that." He rushed to apologize.
Asad exhaled heavily. "The problem is that she would love to, and be damn good at it too! But I would die of a heart attack worrying about her. And if you want your single biggest client to keel over from the stress, sure, you can have her!"
Rakesh laughed, more at ease now. "No, that's OK. I'll make do. Though I might just have to charge you extra for letting go of a crack shot operative just to keep you alive," he joked.
"Yes, it is your loss. She's also a brilliant hacker and activist par excellence!"
He chuckled when he heard Rakesh groan.
But," continued Asad. "Half the time you'd be bailing her out of jail, or sending in the army to rescue her, because she will follow her nose and heart and get herself into trouble. And she will fight you tooth and nail if she believes in something and you happen to disagree with her."
"Looks like you speak from experience. And I bet she'd clock you if she heard you say such things about her." Rakesh observed sagely.
"You don't know the half of it," Asad muttered as his wife's exploits and escapades flashed through his mind in a technicolor montage. He smiled and shook his head fondly. The fights, the adamant deductions, the zany proof-gathering ... all peppered with Allah Miyans!'
Damn! She would make a great detective. She had the instincts of a bloodhound and the passion of a crusader.
"So you want to greenlight Plan B, then?" Rakesh asked more seriously.
"Run some worse case scenarios by me and then let's decide." Asad hedged as he pinched the bridge of his nose.
He wasn't completely sold on the idea. One misstep, and everything could be over. He wanted to move very carefully on this. On the one hand, he worried about being too paranoid. Were they seeing ghosts where there were none? May be Tanveer had been neutralized. But on the other hand, he couldn't be cautious enough. A pre-emptive strike might just be the best recourse. The woman had proven to be diabolical in her tenacity and focus after all.
"Feroze, you get Indian channels in the US?" Nikhat still needed more assurances and time to wrap her mind around her future family's whackiness.
"Yeah, and my mom loves them all. She blogs and tweets about shows. Sometimes she and her friends will have marathon viewing sessions with potluck. We get shooed out of the house on those days."
"She's on twitter?" Asked an impressed Ayaan.
"What's her handle?" he asked, whipping out his phone to pull up the app.
"I'm not a hundred percent sure. Try Desi Soap Lover,' " Feroze said.
Ayaan pulled up the account and Nuzzhat, Najma and Humaira leaned over to take a peek. They were all gathered at the other house this evening. Shireen had invited the kids over for tea. Both Ayaan and Nikhat had left work early; but Asad couldn't get away.
"Oh my god! Sooo cute! She's fangurling over Jalal from Jodha Akbar!" Humaira cooed.
"Really?" Zoya squealed. "Show me!"
She saw that show too once in a while. "Research on the original Jahanpanah," she'd said to Asad a long time ago.
But the phone screen was too small for so many heads jostling over it.
"Allah Miyan what's wrong with us? Here I'll pull it up on my iPad."
Nikhat made a choking sound and Feroze laughed.
"We make a lot of fun of her and she's good-humored about it. She and dad will pass comments and laugh like lunatics at all the over the topness of those shows."
"They seem to have a really fun relationship," Nikhat said wistfully.
"Don't ask! They're like best friends who won't let anyone enter their secret circle. Not even us! We surprised them with a Masala cruise to the Bahamas for their 25th wedding anniversary. They even had some soap stars on board. We worried that they'd never come back because they were having too much fun not being parents."
"What's a masala cruise?" Ayaan asked, flipping his unruly hair.
"What's with these American parents and cruises?" Nuzzhat interrupted. "Najma, how about Omar Jeeju's parents? What are they like?"
While Najma eagerly elaborated on the virtues of her in-laws, Zoya murmured "Aww, so cute," dreamily.
What would she and Asad be like on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary? By then, they'd already have a nearly twenty-four year-old son or daughter, hopefully with younger siblings. Would their kids too throw a party for them? May be this time, she could surprise her Jahanpanah with a Palace on Wheels trip?
Twenty five years!
Meanwhile, at the dining table, Nikhat leaned in with her face in her hands, lapping up all the juicy details about her own kooky in-laws and painting vivid pictures in her head. There had been too much seriousness in her family; Feroze's family sounded enchanting, like fun characters at an amuse*ment park or an American sitcom.
The girls and Ayaan were still browsing over the tweets. They laughed at some funny memes his mom had posted. Feroze stealthily brushed his knuckles against Nikhat's cheek and she blushed. Her lashes fluttered close to savor the feel of his hand.
Najma caught that tender gesture from the corner of her eye. She even saw Nikhat's blush.
Her heart twisted.
She missed Omar so much that it hurt. Just yesterday, she'd burst into tears as she was talking to him on Facetime. She had touched his stricken face on the screen.
"I'm sorry, I know I shouldn't!"
"Najma, stop apologizing," Omar said softly. "I miss you so much too. I wish I could hold you and kiss away those tears."
"Silly man," she had giggled through her tears. "If you were here, I wouldn't be crying would I?"
He had laughed too, and teased her about what they would be doing instead"in excruciating and graphic detail. And a blushing Najma felt better again.
Well ... better, but ...
She blushed harder, living up to her nickname.
She looked at Nikhat and Feroze, and felt another stab. But this time it was for Nikhat. Nikhat too would be in her shoes soon. She too would fret and pine in silence, missing Feroze terribly once he left for the US.
Why did the men they loved have to live so far away?
Pardesi babus breaking desi girls' hearts.
Nikhat looked up just then at her, and their eyes misted. She knew what was in store for her. She rose and glided over to hug Najma, a sister, a sister-in-law to be, and soon, miserable allies in the same boat.
"Ooh, Mohit Raina from Mahadev! And look, she loves Arjun and Purvi from Pavitra Rishta." Giggled Nuzzhat.
"Not bad at all. I'd love to meet your Ammi, Jeeju! She sounds like super fun."
"She is." Feroze said warmly as he sauntered over to peek over their shoulders.
"Our friends love hanging out at our place. And not just for the food. But also because she's up to date with the latest Hollywood, Bollywood and political gossip. They ask her for advise about girlfriends, parents, Feng Shui, everything. She loves pranking us. Anything can happen on Halloween and April Fool's day in our house!"
"Such fun! Baaji, you're so lucky!" Humaira teased Nikhat.
But Nikhat's smile dipped. Oh my god, I'll be the boringest bahu in the funnest family.
They'll hate me.
But Feroze came over to hold her hand comfortingly.
"Nikhat, relax. My family needs you more than you need them!" He whispered as if reading her mind.
She looked up into his face, smitten. No one had ever said that to her before. Well, Dadi and Abbu had, but they said that because they loved her unconditionally.
"And," he promised softly, eyes hooded, "for next April Fool's day, you and I will play the best prank on her. Together, OK?"
"OK," she pledged shyly. She knew he too was thinking of the long separation to come and this was his way of reminding her of the light at the end of the tunnel.
"Who's so much fun and lucky?" Dadi piped up as she came into the living room, charmed by all the young chatter she could hear from her room.
Both Feroze and Nikhat jumped apart. Nuzzhat rushed to explain how cool Jeeju's Ammi was and which soaps she was tweeting about.
She liked Jalal from Jodha Akbar too. She made the girls read out the tweets on the show.
"There are fan clubs? I like the father in Beintehaan! Does he have a fan club?"
"Ooh Dadi has a crush," teased Ayaan. Multiple hands smacked his head, but Dadi laughed.
"I want to do this too." Dadi surprised them all. "Show me how to do this titter thing. Then I can be cool like Feroze's Ammi too."
A suddenly lightheaded Nikhat nearly passed out. An unflappable Feroze held up a glass of water for her. He laughed out loud when she winked at him and whispered, "welcome to the family."
Asad called Zoya just before coming home from work. Her Abbu had called earlier. He had decided that he wanted Humaira to know as soon as possible. He didn't want any more delays. He wanted to hold both his daughters. And he wanted to talk with them first about the best way to break the news to Humaira.
"Really? Are you sure?" Zoya cried out after she'd finished complaining to him about coming home so late.
"It's all your fault," he'd chided her. "I had to stay in longer thanks to the tempting afternoon delight you served up."
She giggled. But now Zoya's eyes glistened with unshed tears at the news. Humaira would know?
Her heart sang.
She threw her arm out and spun around in merry circles still clutching the phone in her other hand.
"How? When?" she begged.
"Think about it and we'll talk when I get home. You're the idea factory after all!" Asad teased.
"OK," she whispered breathlessly, still twirling.
"Want me to get kachoris? Kulfi? Jalebis, to celebrate?" he asked indulgently.
"Umm hmm," she said distractedly, and Asad smiled to himself. Was that a yes to all of them? She had already hung up on him before he could confirm. Probably already spinning a thousand plans for the big reveal.
He chuckled aloud.
If he knew his begum right, she must be already cho*reographing a dance performance in her head by now. And by the time he reached home, he and the rest of the siblings would have been roped in and assigned some role in the skit cum surprise party that he was sure she'd have planned.
Laden with the snacks which his mother would most likely scold him for, Asad kicked the main door shut behind him.
"Ooh, Bhaijaan! What did you get for us?" Najma asked.
She was so bored trying to comb through her fat GRE prep book. The words floated around incoherently on the page. She had already yawned fifteen times in the past forty minutes. And every third minute Omar's face and smile would swim before her eyes. She was still on the same page she'd been on twenty minutes ago. Because through hazy eyes her fevered imagination had enacted his s*ex talk from yesterday in glorious detail.
Omar! She screamed in her head.
But now she was grateful for the distraction.
"Asad! Phir se? You'll make them ruin their appetite for dinner again!" Dilshad complained to no one in particular as she saw her son put the bags of junk food on the table. She may as well pack away all the food they'd made. Or give some to the maid the next day.
It was useless, she clucked to herself happily. Her house was overrun with overgrown kids.
But so what?
Theek hi toh hai na, she reminded herself. Both Asad and Najma needed such moments of carefree indulgence when they could be kids again.
Chhoti si pyaari si shararatein!
Her children hadn't even had the luxury of that, growing up. Asad had adulthood forced upon him when he was too young. It had made him too serious and angry at the world. And Najma too early on had learned to repress her desires and be trouble-free, so as not to cause her Ammi and Bhaijaan any stress or worry.
"Where's Zoya?" Najma asked as she inspected the goodies, breaking off a piece here and there to sample them.
"What? She's not home?" Asad nearly yelped.
"No, we thought she was going out to meet you. She left in a big hurry."
Asad was already dialing her number.
Both Dilshad and Najma closed in on him, sensing his rising panic.
"Kya hua, Asad?" His mother asked.
He couldn't tell her in front of Najma.
"Everything's fine Ammi." He looked at her meaningfully and stalked off to his room.
"Najma, put away these things. Let me go talk to him."
"Par Ammi! What if something's wrong with the bab"-"
"Shh! Aisa nahin kehte beta. Everything will be OK. Don't worry. Just let me talk to him first."
When she entered his room, her son was still on the phone.
"Jee. I just talked to her driver. I'll call you again when I get there."
Asad sighed as he hung up and felt Dilshad's hand on his shoulder.
"I shouldn't have told her over the phone," he muttered. "I should've waited to tell her in person."
"Asad? You're scaring me. Zoya theek hai na? The baby?"
"Ammi, she and the baby are fine ... It's her Abbu. He wants Humaira to know that Zoya is her big sister. I thought she'd be happy which is why I called her as soon as I could."
"And she's not happy? How do you know?"
"Because she's Zoya," he smiled grimly.
"I bet she's worried about Humaira finding out about the past and falling apart."
Fear clutched Dilshad's heart.
Everyone would find out about Rashid too then.
Asad looked at his mother's stricken face and put his arm around her shoulder.
"Yes, Zoya's probably thinking the same thing as you. Knowing her, she wouldn't want anyone to know about what happened that night at the gudia factory. And telling Humaira would mean that all the secrets will come tumbling out."
He dragged his hand through his hair.
"What do I do with her, Ammi? She thinks about everyone else except herself. I just know it in my gut. She must've decided that we shouldn't tell Humaira. That's why she ran."
"Where is she now?" Dilshad asked as she wiped her tears. Gratitude warred with guilt. Both were overshadowed by shame.
It wasn't fair that a child carry the burden of her elders' sins and selfishness. Dilshad had seen her own children pay the price for that.
Asad was right.
Zoya was planning to take on the weight of both their fathers' sins on her slender shoulders. She had appointed herself the sole gatekeeper of the secrets from eighteen years ago. And she would guard them to her dying breath so that no one would get hurt. Not Humaira or her Abbu, or her father- and mother-in-law, Dadi, Chhoti Ammi, or Ayaan ... or the girls.
Her own hurt be damned.
And if that meant squandering her one chance to be openly acknowledged as an older sister or daughter, she would do it in a heartbeat.
"She's at the dargah," Asad told her as he palmed his car keys. "I'm going to get her home."
Through tears Dilshad advised her son, "tell her ... tell her that no family love or harmony would be complete at the cost of her silent grief. Tell her that if she thinks of herself as a part of this family, then she has to trust her family to do right by her."
Bracing herself for that final declaration, Dilshad sniffed and wiped her face with her dupatta.
"Tell her, that I command her to put everything in Allah's hands. That she needs to trust Allah's will and justice. She owes it to her mother ... and her unborn child."
Pushing him toward the door, she entreated, "now go and bring her home so that I can hold her."
Asad embraced her, his own eyes moist. "Shukriya, Ammi," he whispered as he dashed off to do her bidding.
Dilshad squared her shoulders.
It was time Najma knew too. It was time they treated her like an adult and not the sheltered baby of the family anymore. She wouldn't tell her all the details. Nothing about Rashid or Zoya's Ammi. Just that Zoya was Humaira's sister.
She texted Asad about her decision.
Raziya's heart quivered with the gush of conflicting emotions. She wept as she held the sobbing girl in her arms. The doomed words, "mujhe maaf kar dena," kept ricocheting in her head.
But she dared not say them aloud.
She had called Zoya on an impulse.
Ever since Siddiqui Saheb had told her that he wanted Humaira to know about Zoya, her fingers had itched to make contact with the girl into whose hands Raziya would be bestowing Humaira. Because once Humaira knew, it would be over.
"Aunty!" Zoya had cried out when she picked up her call.
"Kya hua beta? Is everything OK?"
And she heard Zoya burst into tears. Instinct and compulsion took over.
"Where are you? I'll be there."
Through sobs Zoya had given her directions and her heart had jammed. Why was she at the gudia factory of all places?
She had zipped right over, knowing that this was the beginning of the end.
Some terrible power had drawn her there, the site of her gravest offense, the shallow grave of her humanity.
She knew she was walking toward her doom.
Eighteen years ago she had come here in anger and resentment, confident of her power to overcome the stigma of being the other woman, desperate to stake claim to a precarious legitimacy that she saw slipping out of her hands.
Now in the gathering dusk, and the dark hulking shadows of the skeletal remains of the factory, she knew why her leaden feet had dragged her here.
She had been summoned.
It was judgement day, the hour of reckoning.
Zoya's huddled figure made the past flash before her weary eyes.
Her hands lifted on their own to hold the child's heaving shoulders as she sat next to her on the dusty, ashy threshold.
"Everything will be all right," she soothed through a raw throat. But Zoya's sobs had gotten louder.
"Tell me, I'll make it all right," she pledged desperately as if every tear and each sob from this girl were draining away her own life.
She squeezed her tighter to her bosom which was heavy with guilt. She quailed at the thought of being found out. What would Zoya do if she found out that she was being comforted by her mother's murderer? Clasped in the arms of the woman who had given her a deadly scar and separated her from her father and sister for eighteen years?
"I have a sister, but she doesn't know."
Raziya's stiff fingers stroked her back. It took all of her effort to not run away from there and keep running.
"Tell her then. She's blessed to have you as an older sister," Raziya choked out.
"No! I can't." Zoya whispered hoarsely.
Raziya's heart bled. She knew the answer but still asked, "why?"
Zoya wiped her eyes and lifted her face to look away. "Because, if she knew ... if knew the whole truth, then she'd never forgive herself and ... ."
She wrung her hands after wiping them on her jeans. "I don't want her to hate her parents. All my life I longed to have my Abbu and Ammi ... I don't want her to feel the same loss ..."
"But beta, your sister will have you, she'll need you"-"
"She'll always have me." Zoya asserted softly but more firmly now. Her shoulders squared.
She rose to dust off her clothes.
Raziya didn't know whether to be grateful or griefstricken. While Zoya's decision may give her more time to maintain the faade of respectability, it would delay Humaira's"-
She rose too to grip Zoya's hands urgently. May be she was still being selfish. May be her actions today were just as tainted with self-preservation as they were eighteen years ago. Then too she had fought for Humaira's rights, a mere infant. But today she was battling for her daughter's happiness through Zoya's legitimacy.
She didn't miss the grim irony as it slapped her upside her head.
"Does she know that she has a sister somewhere?" She asked tentatively.
"Yes," Zoya whispered. "But she doesn't know that the sister she's seeking is me."
Asad slammed his fist on the steering wheel.
"C'mon Zoya, don't do this to me," he muttered to himself.
She was still not taking his calls. But her driver had called to tell him the address of the place where madam was right now.
Asad's heart jackhammered in terror.
When he had last talked to Siddiqui Saheb, he had told him about his fears that Zoya would never agree to telling Humaira. That Zoya would rather invest her life's quest in Humaira's ignorance, than desolate awareness.
He had heard his father-in-law choke up, unable to utter a single coherent word.
It was then that Asad had seen his Ammi's text, and a desperate idea had started to take root in his mind.
He could come up with some nifty ideas too. May be not as prolifically as his wife, but still ...
He tried her number again and thank god she picked up this time.
"Asad! I'm sorry. I know you must've been worried."
He took deep breaths. "Are you OK?"
"No, I can't think straight."
"I'll be there in five minutes. Stay in the car."
"I'm fine. Aunty is here with me. I'll wait for you."
She hung up before he could yell at her about staying away from strange aunties. What Aunty was this? Was this the same woman she'd met at the clinic when she'd tried to get information on Tanveer?
He accelerated and wove madly through the traffic. It was nearly dark by the time he reached the site. The driver hovered anxiously keeping a watch over Memsaheb from a distance. Asad noticed a burqa-clad woman holding Zoya in her arms, and he breathed again.
She broke away and ran to be held by him.
"Apna khayal rakhna, beta," the woman whispered as she backed away to hastily melt into the night.
They stood in each other's arms.
Asad dared not move for fear that she'd vanish into thin air. This was the first time they had come back to this place since they'd found out about its grisly tentacles that reached far back into their twin pasts. Asad agonized over her fragile state of mind, and willed his body's strength to surge and thrum through her.
He didn't know it, but his strong heartbeat hammering against her temple, his smell, and his arms holding her securely, slowly wove their magic and mended her broken spirit; piece by shattered piece.
Lifting her face to his, she moaned, "Asad, I don't want her to know if it means finding out about her Ammi."
"Shh, I know baby. We'll do whatever feels right. Just don't ever run away from me again. You know it kills me."
She clung desperately to him.
He cupped her face in his hands, "do you want me to take you to the dargah?"
"No I already went there. Take me to the hill top where we can see the city lights below and the stars above."
Asad dismissed her driver and told him to return the car home. He also called Dilshad to let her know that Zoya was fine, and that they'd be late coming home.
Once there, they sat in silence in the car with the windows rolled down, seats reclined, and the sunroof cracked wide open.
Asad played with her fingers.
He cleared his throat.
"I know you want to protect Humaira ..."
Her hand convulsed in his. He stroked the top of her hand in slow circles and her fingers finally relaxed.
"But am I so bad for wanting to protect you from heartache?" He continued.
"Please ..." she begged.
"No!" Asad twisted his face around. "It's plain unfair. You're asking me stand by and watch you die a little every day of our lives!"
Yes, it was unfair, Zoya thought. She hadn't thought of the effect her decision would have on Asad. Her sacrifice would condemn him into a complicit silence as well. Aunty's recent words sloshed around in her head too. Barely an hour ago when she'd told her that Humaira knew of her sister's existence, Raqeeba Aunty had held her by her shoulders as if trying to shake some sense into her.
"Think," she'd pressed on urgently. "If she's as sensitive and intuitive as you, will she move on with her life till she has found her sister? Will she get married? Won't she permanently live in a kind of guilty limbo, blaming herself for living a borrowed life?"
Zoya's eyes had widened.
She knew that Humaira was indeed delaying her nikaah. She wouldn't give a clear answer for why she was hedging.
"I'm just not ready right now," was all she'd say before changing the subject. Ayaan would duck his head when she'd look at him in askance.
Was this the reason why she was putting it off?
"Asad, I'm sorry," Zoya cried out. "I don't know what to do. I want so badly for her to know, but she'll feel so guilty. What about Ammi, and your Abbu? Chhoti Ammi and Dadi? Everything will change. We've only recently found happiness, it'll be wrenched away just because of me."
She wept bitterly as she snatched her hand from his and covered her face. Asad swore under his breath and shot out of the car to open her side of the door and gather her in his arms. He lifted her out and held her tight against him.
"Don't forget you were a big part of bringing us that happiness. And is it so fragile that it'll be ripped apart by doing what's right? Ammi knows already, and she gives her blessings." He clasped her hands in his and placed them on his chest after kissing each fist. She disengaged to turn her back on him, still not fully convinced.
"Do you know what Ammi said?"
She shook her head.
"She said, tell Zoya to trust Allah's will and justice. She owes it to her mother and her unborn child.'"
Fresh tears sprang up in her eyes. Asad wiped them away with his thumbs.
"What if there was a way to tell Humaira that you're her sister without her finding out about her Ammi?"
She jerked up straight as an arrow. "What're you saying? How is that even possible?"
Asad pulled out his phone and showed her the text that Ammi had sent him.
"We need to put things right as soon as possible. I'm going to tell Najma about Zoya and Humaira. But I won't let her know about their Ammis' history or, about your Abbu's role in any of this."
That text had made his brain hum with possibilities. Could they get away with the half-truth to preserve both of Zoya's desires: publicly being acknowledged as a big sister, and not having to reveal the murky history of that revelation? It would mean letting Raziya Siddiqui off the hook, and he hated that. But it could mean everything to Zoya ...
Her teeth gleamed in the dark. She bounced on her toes and flung her arms around his neck. "Please, please, please can we do this?"
He laughed and swung her in circles. "Allah Miyan, what's wrong with you Mrs. Khan? If you hadn't run away, we could have brainstormed this two hours ago!"
And finally, as he set her down, he heard that sound that lifted his heart: she giggled. He tucked her hair behind her ear and whispered a couplet.
"Don't go anywhere without me.
Let nothing happen in the sky apart from me,
Or on the ground, in this world or that world,
Without my being in its happening."
She sighed blissfully and stroked his jaw. "What is it about this place that makes my Jahanpanah so shayarana?"
"It's not the place; it's you," he said simply.
Her breath caught. And Asad continued as he rocked her to him,
"Vision, see nothing I don't see.
Language, say nothing.
The way the night knows itself with the moon,
Be that with me."
" 'The way the night knows itself with the moon, Be that with me.' Asad, that was so beautiful," she moaned.
Her stomach growled loudly and they laughed. "Baby doesn't much care for all this shayari," Asad joked.
"Baby better know that this was meant for Ammi's ears only," Zoya huffed back.
Asad helped her back into the car and buckled her in. "Now let's get some food into Ammi for the best jaccha baccha." He tickled her tummy, "though thanks to Ammi's disappearing act you missed kachoris, jalebis and kulfi."
"What?!" shouted Zoya. "Why didn't you tell me," she complained.
"Hello? Did you take my calls? Someone was too busy playing hide and seek!"
She whacked his shoulder.
That night she shook him awake. All of a sudden she was craving cold jalebis. Sleepily Asad tucked her head under his chin.
"What the hell's jaccha baccha? Is it something to eat? Cos' I'm starving!"
Song in Title:
Once Upon a Time in Mumbai (2010): "Tum Jo Aaye Zindagi Mein Baat Ban Gayee"
"Ayaan, I want you to be completely honest with me." A somber Zoya spoke in dead earnest.
"Kya Mona darling, why so serious?" Ayaan asked as he sprawled sideways in the chair, legs dangling carelessly over the armrest.
Before they did anything further, she had told Asad, she wanted to talk to Ayaan about Humaira's reluctance to get married. She had a hunch and needed it confirmed. So she had come armed with lunch from home, and they'd called Ayaan into Asad's office.
"It's about Humaira," she said, watching his face closely.
His gaze lowered. All playful banter evaporated. Ayaan swung his legs to the floor and hunched over, head in his hands.
Asad and Zoya looked at each other.
She leaned over to stroke her brother-in-law's arm. He sighed and shot out of the chair to pace the floor. Ayaan had already raked his hair in agitation several times.
Now he violently shoved both hands into his pockets.
"What about Humaira?" he hedged.
Asad rose to hold him by his shoulders. "Sit," he ordered gently.
"What's bothering her? Why isn't she excited about her nikaah?" Zoya pleaded as he settled back down into the chair.
"She told me that she wants her sister found first"at least that's what she says."
Zoya gripped his forearm in panic, "but you don't think that's the real reason?"
"It's a big part of the reason, but there's definitely more," he sighed.
"I think she's paralyzed with guilt and shame. First she finds out terrible things about her mother. Now her Abbu. She feels her parents have hurt and used others. That she doesn't deserve to be happy. I have a feeling she's rethinking the nikaah as some kind of self-punishment. I can't seem to reach her; I feel her slipping away."
Frazzled, he ran a hand through his mop of hair yet again.
For the first time in his life, he felt powerless to put things right. He, who could charm his way into and out of anything, suddenly couldn't pierce through the aloof armor Humaira had erected around herself. She had become quieter and more preoccupied. Sure, she still met him everyday, participated in all family banter and togetherness, but some of that was on autopilot, as if a part of her had shut off.
Zoya's tormented eyes collided with Asad's. He held her gaze, willing her to make the decision. She nodded, giving silent consent; she couldn't' trust herself to speak right now.
Asad cleared his throat. "Umm Ayaan, we believe we know who her sister is."
"What?!!" The chair clattered on its back behind him. "Who? How?"
"Calm down." Asad commanded.
Ayaan righted the chair and sat back down, knowing full well that Bhai wouldn't go on till he'd collected himself.
He took a deep breath.
Asad began to speak in a low tone. Ayaan leaned forward to concentrate on the words.
Together, with Dilshad's help, they had perfected a script of half-truths. Ayaan would be their test audience. His reactions and questions would determine if the script needed minor tweaks, or a major re-write.
Asad stood and paced now; restless energy rippled through him. Zoya was dying to leap up and hold his hand, but she restrained herself, choosing to rub her stomach instead.
"When Humaira told Zoya about her music box, we both were struck by the coincidence. How could there be two identical handmade things?"
Ayaan frowned. He remembered Humaira telling him excitedly that Zoya Bhabhi had the same music box.
"On a hunch I had my investigator look into Siddiqui Saheb's background, especially the time he was in the US. The times and dates matched up."
Ayaan's brows drew close together in puzzlement as he tried to make sense of his brother's narrative. "What are you saying Bhai? That Zoya"-?"
"Zoya was able to get Humaira's hair, and collect blood samples from her bandages. We sent both their samples to a private lab in Mumbai to do a sibling DNA test for a common parent."
Asad paused dramatically. "It took a while, but there was a match."
Zoya crossed her fingers under the table. She hoped that Ayaan wouldn't remember exact dates or finer details that could well derail this fictionalized story. She looked at him under her lashes.
He looked dazed.
She raised worried eyes to Asad who nodded in comfort.
"How long have you known?" Ayaan whispered, looking ruefully at Zoya.
She took up the storytelling now. This part she could handle.
"A couple of weeks. Mr. Khan talked to ... Abbu. I wanted another test, this time to check Abbu's and my DNA, to be absolutely certain after Tanveer's hoax."
"But," Ayaan muttered in confusion. "I thought you said you had found out that your Abbu passed aw"-"
Asad continued, "Exactly! That's what we thought too. I had that man's background and family investigated too. Turns out, none of that was true."
His fist slowly curled and clenched in cold anger at Tanveer and Raziya Siddiqui's vilest scam. He still remembered holding a shattered Zoya at that man's grave. Eighteen years' worth of hopes for a reunion with a long-lost father lay dashed, ground to dust, at her feet.
In the car ride to the cemetery, with a sinking heart, he had heard her chatter and prattle on about what she would say to her father when she met him for the first time.
"Aap ko pata hai Mr. Khan, iss din ki rehearsals ki hain maine kitni kitni baar! ... Main ladoongi unse! Poochoongi, ki voh mujhko chhod ke gaye kyun?"
Her playful banter had soon turned teary, as she'd run down through a gamut of reunion scenarios to finally confess, "main unse kuchh nahin keh paoongi. Main unhe dekhoongi, unse galey miloongi, aur roh padooungi."
And, as if was yesterday, he also remembered her decision to leave right after. Because the reason for her visit to India no longer existed.
"Kucch kahaniyan kabhi poori nahin hoti hain Mr. Khan, unki kismat mein adhoora rehna hota hai," she had said through hopeless tears.
Those words had felt tragically prophetic.
He had come so close to holding her hand in comfort and promise. Probably that night, at that moment, he would have asked her to stay back for him, held her hand to never let go.
But her next few words "I think I should leave," had arrested his hand mid-way.
The aftermath of that wicked lie could well have been the beginning of the end for him and Zoya. He knew now that Tanveer too had a vested interest in making Zoya believe that her Abbu was dead: Zoya would leave for the US.
And she had come close to leaving.
Packed up, she had said goodbyes, and nearly walked out the door and out of his life.
Thank god for his inadvertent recording which made Zoya confess her love! Had she not come into his room that night, he wouldn't have known about her feelings for him. Had he not known about her feelings for him, he'd be married to Tanveer right now thinking that her child was his.
Asad shuddered and sought Zoya's eyes for a blessed reality check. She grinned up at him cheekily. That dimple!
"Siddiqui Saheb agreed. We didn't want anyone to question Zoya's legitimacy."
"Like Humaira's Ammi!" sneered Ayaan.
"Those results came in yesterday," Asad spoke with finality.
At least that part was true. Between themselves, they had all decided that this would be the best proof, and an added distraction from the backstory of jealousy, revenge and blackmail.
Siddiqui Saheb had gladly consented to the DNA test. He'd do whatever would get him closer to his daughters' reconciliation to officially seal their budding affection and attachment to each other.
Zoya's yearning for a younger sister to spoil and cherish, was also his own.
He wanted his younger daughter to hold her head high and feel proud for being related to at least one family member who was the essence of immaculate generosity and grace.
Ayaan's delighted eyes now shone with moisture. He sprang up to grab Zoya and spun her around in circles.
"Mona darling! This is freaking awesome!"
Zoya shrieked. "Raabert, I'm going to be sick all over you. Put me down, please!" she begged, equally ecstatic and only slightly nauseous.
He did. But not before one last jab, "So now I can call you Mona Saali?"
"SHUT! UP!" She hollered, smacking his arm.
"Bhai!" Ayaan dashed to Asad to leap in his arms. Asad laughed as he hugged him, dropping a kiss on his shoulder.
"Humaira will be so happy!" Ayaan sighed as he disengaged. "You know she really loves you, Mona darling?"
"I love her too," Zoya said through tears.
Ayaan's eyes stung as he watched Bhai embrace Mona darling and wipe away her tears. With a pang he realized some of Zoya's heartache. How hard must those days have been to know and yet not know about her Abbu and Humaira? To first think that your father was dead, and then to wait for weeks for some strangers at a faceless lab to prove that he was indeed alive.
He loved to see Humaira and Mona darling get on so well. The time Humaira had spent at their house while recovering from the gunshot wound had healed her spiritually too after she'd found out about her mother's deceit.
He made a face.
"Par Bhai, what about Mumani? Does she know?"
Zoya and Asad looked at each other. "Their Abbu will tell Mrs. Siddiqui today, so that we can break the news to Humaira." Asad said softly.
Zoya leaned on him, head to his heart, savoring the feeling of his warm palm on the small of her back.
"When are we going to tell Humaira?" Ayaan asked the one question that was on everyone's mind.
They had already told Aapi and Jeeju who were thrilled for Zoya.
But it had been emotionally wrenching. Zoya had thought that Aapi would be more distraught. Zeenat, who had gotten to know Humaira since her extended stay with them, cried for Zoya.
"Ab tumko bhi koi Aapi kehne wali mil gayee hai," she teased through tears.
"Now you'll know what it's like to have a younger sister who'll borrow your things and forget to return them. You'll worry about her marriage, aur phir tumko pata chalega ki tumne mujhe kitna sataya!"
Zoya laughed through her own tears.
"And I'll threaten to kheencho her choti?"
Zeenat laughed too and teased back: "No, because thank god Humaira doesn't pretend to be a shayar!"
"Aapi, that's so mean!" Zoya had mock-glared at the woman to whom she owed everything, and loved so much.
"And besides," she flashed her eyes at her Aapi, "uska hone wala shauhar is a wannabe shayar. So we're even."
Anwar however, was more overwrought, and mostly silent.
"Jeeju?" Zoya had whispered. "Are you OK?"
"I'm happy for you," he said, all choked up.
She burst into fresh tears and Asad came over to hold her by her shoulders. Anwar cried too as Zeenat patted his back. Zoya wiped her cheeks and took a deep steadying breath.
"I still meant what I said that day, Jeeju. You'll always be my Abbu. You are the one who tucked me in every night after checking for monsters under the bed. You cheered the loudest when I scored a goal or made a basket. You fought with Aapi to let me come here last year."
Anwar smiled fondly. "Yeah, with those diplomatic skills and negotiations, Obama should hire me to work for the State department!"
Zoya laughed heartily, as did Asad and Zeenat.
"And remember when I told you I had a crush on Mr. James, you scowled and glared at him all through the parent-teacher conference? I thought I was going to die of embarrassment!"
Asad gave Anwar an enthusiastic thumbs up, and he grinned.
"Yes, I agree, if you can make your kid die of embarrassment then you are a true parent."
He sighed heavily. "I don't know ... there's just a part of me that's still angry at that man for ... for everything. But ... I guess, his loss was our gain," he whispered as he scrubbed his tears away.
"And mine," Zoya smiled as she touched the blurring image of her Jeeju Abbu.
That night, in the dark, Asad stroked her stomach. "Will the girls tell me when they'll have crushes on boys?"
Zoya giggled. "Aww! Will you be able to handle it though? I think they won't tell you just to save you from having heart attacks. Or they'll tell me, and I'll tell you."
"Promise. But with a two-week delay OK? By that time they'll have moved on to other crushes."
"Mr. Khan, I don't want a long line of boys' parents outside my house complaining that you beat up their sons."
"I'd do it too!" he growled.
"And that's why the girls won't be telling their Abbu!"
"Asad," she said suddenly. "We won't find out the s*ex of our child. I want to be surprised."
Her friend from the US, who was pregnant, had posted a picture of her ultrasound image on facebook. Everyone had left a bajillion congratulatory comments and likes. Their common friends had teased Zoya that soon she'd be posting her own picture of the ultrasound. "Uske sar ke seeng bhi dikhenge," a friend had joked.
Asad sighed. "You don't have a choice. It's illegal in India to find out the gender of the fetus."
"What! Why?" She sat up in dumb shock.
And then she remembered.
She had watched Satyamev Jayate last year in the US, and cried in anger at the horror of female infanticide in India.
She cried now again, fiercely hugging her stomach. Asad wrapped her in his arms to rock her. They had read together about the growing fetus, the doctor too had corroborated that the baby would be almost an inch by now. How could any one want to harm a tiny being just because it wasn't male?
Zoya hadn't told anyone this, but for days after watching that episode, she had cried herself to sleep. Because she had wondered if her own father had never come looking for her because she was a girl.
If I was a boy, would he have ...
"Shh," Asad soothed her, his own palm over hers on her tummy.
"Why do these people not value women?" she sobbed. "How can girls smile or laugh knowing that even before they were born, they weren't wanted?"
"Don't say that," Asad said. His own eyes stung. "Thank god, the majority of people don't believe that."
He framed her face in his hands. "Yes, there are terrible cases we read of everyday, but the average person is still good. Not all parents are the same. There are also people like Malala Yusufzai's father. Yes, there are obstacles, but no one can stand in the way of a determined woman"you are the best example of that! And remember, I told you about Jhansi ki Rani?"
She nodded. She loved that story. "Tell me about her again," she begged as Asad laid them back down and tucked her head in the crook of his neck.
They were flying in for the engagement. And every day Nikhat had been getting to know her future mother-in-law in all her vibrant avatars; every day she fell a little bit extra in love with her kooky heartiness.
But in their very first one-on-one phone conversation, Nikhat had hurriedly clarified: "Aunty, I don't watch soap operas."
"Call me Ammi, and so what if you don't! I watch enough for the whole family!" she boasted.
"But why?" Nikhat blurted.
She hated those nasty soaps that Dadi and Ammi watched. Before she'd met and fallen in love with Feroze, those soaps were emblematic of everything she feared in a marriage. Scary female in-laws in the forms of saases and bhabhis and nanads and devranis or jethanis. And husbands who were easily brainwashed and manipulated by all these witchy in-laws parading around huge havelis in their designer best.
Nikhat bit her tongue.
She hadn't meant to sound judgmental about her mother-in-law's favorite pastime.
She held her breath.
Her mother-in-law laughed. "I know beta. And I get annoyed with them too and never stay long enough with a single show. They're so formulaic aren't they? So predictable!"
"I know," piped up Nikhat, finally feeling that she was on the same page.
"A smart and sweet girl with many dreams will end up married in a big house with a big family of villains," she muttered shuddering.
"And the villains have super senses"they can hear everything, see everything, and control everything. But the good people will be dumb and silent." Her saas added. "Even when they get caught, there's hardly any punishment. Two days later, it's business as usual. Same saazish, same scheming. Nalayak kahin ke!"
"Exactly! Why do the villains have such power and the good people none?" Asked Nikhat.
"Because the idiot writers think that without evil there's no story. Besides, it's the only way to keep the lead couple apart. Because according to the formula, the lead couple can never be together. Apparently the world would come to an end." Feroze's mom joked.
"But the lead couple will have their own theme song and land up falling into each other's arms a thousand times. In slow motion." Nikhat was liking this game a lot.
"Aha! So you have seen some!" guffawed her future mother-in-law. "There'll be lots of eye s*ex and dupatta and watch s*ex, but no suhaag raat!"
Nikhat gulped and then snorted.
"Because that's the only form of family planning practiced in India!" Her future saas cackled with glee.
"Ammi, you're too funny and I love you!" Nikhat couldn't resist saying through peals of breathless laughter.
"Which one's your favorite? I'll try to check it out and then we'll compare notes," she finally gasped.
"Arre beta, they're all bakwas. I pretty much graze through 7-8 of them. I'll watch a little here and there to make fun of them. Might like the lead couple in one, a saas-bahu in another, or the dad or a villain in a third. It all changes week to week."
Oh my god! Nikhat smiled to herself. It was confirmed. Feroze was definitely adopted.
"But you know beta," her new Ammi became serious all of a sudden. "Sometimes I just quit them all. These soaps show too much female degradation. Trophy men are paraded as eyecandy, and the main stories revolve around woman-on-woman abuse. And I hate that! You don't want to know how many times I've written to the BCCC to complain about some torture track!"
"Wow!" Nikhat uttered in amazement. "That's so cool! What's the BCCC?"
"Some board that oversees content on TV. Not much changes, but at least the channel is forced to put an apology scroll at the bottom of the screen during the show."
"That's amazing, Ammi! Feroze didn't tell me that you are such a rockstar!"
Nikhat smiled as she hung up. She remembered how Feroze had encouraged her to get back at that spineless Imran. So that's where he got his stand-up-against-bullies-and-creeps skills from!
You go Ammi!
Raziya sobbed at the reprieve she'd been granted. When Siddiqui Saheb had told her of Zoya and Asad's mercy she had fallen to her sore knees and wept tears of shame.
A part of her wished that they had chosen justice instead.
This burden of grace was intolerable. She didn't know how she'd be able to face Zoya. Not appearing in front of her would be preferable, but then everyone would think she was upset"-
Her head lifted; her jaw tightened.
May be that's what she would do. Play the offended stepmother so no one would expect her to come much before Zoya. She could unsheathe her former malignance, and huff and puff around in perpetual disapproval of the happy family reunions and waste away invisibly in some corner of the house.
They would all leave her alone then.
"I am going to meet her," Zoya said stubbornly.
"Zoya, no!" Asad swept an agitated hand through his hair.
The one person he did not want his wife coming face to face with was Raziya Siddiqui!
The nightmares would return, of that he was certain.
He feared she would fly apart.
That desolate night on the train was still too familiar. That night he had held her limp body, worried about losing her forever. That night, he had battled for hours with her fears and his own, and it had nearly destroyed them.
No! Never again.
Zoya held his cold hand and raised it to her lips. "I know what you're thinking," she said softly.
"I got through that night because of you. I got through the mehendi night too, because of you. You'll get me through this as well. Would I even consider this if it weren't for you? I trust you Asad. I can only think of doing this because I know I have you by my side."
She melted into him.
He felt himself nearly relenting. Asad's arms tightened around her. Unbidden, a memory surfaced. It was from an eternity ago, when she had snuck into his room with cookies and coffee to pull him out of his silent zone.
And even then, it all went back to that blasted gudia factory! The crimes of Raziya Siddiqui that had triggered the desperate actions of his father!
Except that day, they hadn't known the entire story.
In bitter hatred he had called the police on his father. Back home, he had clashed with Ammi that night, possibly the first and last time, and in blind fury she had slapped him for saying he wanted Rashid Ahmed Khan to rot in prison for murder. He had hated his father even more that night. Because of that man, Ammi had raised a hand on him!
And Zoya had come in that night braving his wrath, to reach out to him in the thorny abyss of gloom.
"You know what Mr. Khan? Hum dono ki aapas mein bilkul nahin banti. Hum kissi bhi baat par agree nahin karte," she had said then, to draw him out of his brooding stupor.
Framing his face in her hands, she repeated some of those words softly now.
Then, they had surprised him.
He had never heard her speak that gently with him. She had initially tried humor; but it was her solemn intensity that had pierced through the fog of oblivion he'd buried himself in.
"Par jab bhi koi problem hoti hai na, toh mere dil mein ek bharosa rehta hai, ki Mr. Khan hain, woh sab theek kar denge. And trust me, main aap pe, aur aap ki strength pe bahut rely karti hoon."
She feathered her fingers across his lips, and gripped his hand now. She was begging once again for him to trust her instincts and her faith in him.
She had been right then, hadn't she?
"Dammit Zoya," he raged, pulling his hand out from her grasp. "You always sweettalk your way out of everything!"
"Shh!" she implored. "You're scaring the baby."
Hands on his waist, he looked at her in exasperation and shook his head.
This would bother the baby, but the emotional blender she'd be putting herself through would leave the baby unscathed?
"Exactly," he tried another tack. "It'll be bad for the baby to put yourself through this willful trauma."
Grabbing his hand, she dragged him to sit on the settee and burrowed in his lap.
He knew he was about to be railroaded. Zoya cupped his face again, and he half-smiled. If his daughters had even a tenth of their mother's persuasive skills, he was going to be toast.
"May be you're right."
Wait, this wasn't what he expected her to say. Asad's eyes narrowed in anticipation of being further blindsided.
"But I'll have to face her some day once Humaira knows. Then why not on my terms?"
"But why?" He still didn't get this urgency. "What can you possibly hope to achieve by doing this?"
"I don't know," she said, her voice hollow. "May be I'm ready to hear her side. May be I'm ready to let go and face my nightmares."
Zoya leapt up and paced the floor, gesticulating wildly.
"But I do know for sure that I want to be able to look at her without rancor. I want my relationship with Abbu and Humaira to be unmarked by any anger or bitterness toward her."
Asad rose too to embrace her. "Are you sure we're doing the right thing? Even now we can put her away with the evidence we have." He held her face, "what if you resent her later? She took away too much! Why are we agreeing to look the other way and let her go scott free?"
"For our baby," she whispered, looking up into his face. He held her silently for a long time. She breathed in his scent and closed her eyes.
His heartbeat knocked against her temple, steady and stirring.
Asad waited outside.
Zoya didn't want him looming over and scaring Raziya Siddiqui by his angry presence. And Asad too had preferred to pace outside so that he wouldn't be tempted to strangle the woman if she even dared lift an eyebrow.
Humaira was still at the Khan house. Today's taekwondo session was to be longer. The girls' instructor had invited another instructor for a demo and then they would practice the forms to graduate to the next belt.
He had whisked Zoya away under the pretext of a doctor's appointment.
He watched Zoya stand carved in stone as the oversized door swung open. Even without seeing who it was who opened the door, he knew it was Raziya Siddiqui.
He swore under his breath as his fist balled and jaw clenched.
He had a good mind to stalk over and sweep Zoya into his arms and carry her away. But for her sake he took deep breaths and paced like a caged lion in the driveway.
The guard at the gate watched him uneasily.
The door closed behind Zoya and his heart skidded to a stop.
Zoya had dreaded looking into this face.
She had practiced many a dialogue in her head in advance of this meeting. But everything fled from her mind as she watched this woman's eyes filling with tears. She saw Raziya Siddiqui's hand lift the corner of her dupatta to hide her quivering lips. And that was the moment when Zoya decided to step into the house. She had wanted to bolt the minute she saw the door opening. She wanted to run into Asad's arms and never look back.
But her feet had grown roots suddenly.
Through her wet lashes Raziya gazed at Zoya.
And she thanked Allah for her earlier decision. It was tempting to regress. She could harden herself and be the malevolent effigy she had been all these years.
But Humaira's wan face floated before her eyes.
She was done pretending. She had lost too much and taken even more. She just didn't have the energy for faades and plots any more. Raziya just wanted to drift down the path of least resistance now, rudderless and rootless.
She would let nature take its course.
Moreover, she couldn't rob Humaira's peace of mind any more.
Nor Zoya's birthright.
She too had been on pins and needles since the moment Asad had called to curtly request a meeting with Zoya. Even through the phone, she had felt the waves of repressed fury in his voice.
He took a shuddering breath.
"She wants to meet with you before we tell Humaira."
That sentence had been a warning to her. But those words and tone were also a kind of plea. She sensed his worry and felt shame flood through her. Why did it feel as though he was sending in a lamb to the slaughter?
She had staggered with the weight of his anxious scorn. Please don't think that you're sending her in to face the firing squad, she wanted to reassure him. I should be facing the firing squad ...
Her heart had stopped when the doorbell rang.
Ever since Asad's call, she had fretted about whether to stand or sit when Zoya entered. Where would she place herself? Not at the top of the stairs"no power games here.
At the foot of the stairs? By the couch?
She had readjusted her dupatta on her head a thousand times.
Raziya waved the servant away and went in to open the door by herself.
She dreaded, yet welcomed the meeting.
Not that day, but today was her day of reckoning.
Silently, she put her hand out to invite Zoya in. A still shell-shocked Zoya stumbled, and Raziya's hands reflexively reached out in support.
Zoya's eyes widened.
Raziya led her to the couch and waited for the servant to set out the drinks and snacks.
"I'm sor"- thank you," she whispered brokenly when the servant left the room. She didn't know what to say.
"I'm glad that Humaira has you," Raziya added, her voice a little bit stronger.
She waited for Zoya to condemn her, blast her with questions, rake her over the coals or toss her into the fiery pit of hell that she deserved.
Zoya had caught a glimpse of this woman only once at the courthouse when Asad's Abbu had been sentenced. She had seemed cruel then, bedecked in gold jewelry, haughty and imperial. She had glared at them as she led away a weeping Chhoti Ammi.
Today she looked older. Greyer.
Shorn of her gold trappings and dressed in a plain suit, she no longer looked anything like the imagined monster of her nightmares.
"Why?" Zoya whispered.
She saw the woman before her crumple; Raziya squeezed and twisted her fingers. Her head was bent and fat tears fell on those knotted hands.
"I didn't mean to," she bit out harshly. "I had just had Humaira, she was only three weeks old! I went insane with jealousy and fear when I found out about ..."
She saw Zoya's lips whiten and quailed with remorse.
Restless, she rose to turn away, but the self-incriminating words just kept tumbling out. "There's no excuse. I could see that he loved her, he was so torn. I thought he'd leave us. We were fighting for the knife and ... and ... I went blind with rage ... oh my god, what did I do?"
She sank to her knees, deflated.
"Did she ... suffer?"
The barely whispered question crucified her.
Raziya covered her face. "I'm sorry. I'm so terribly sorry! I wish I could die for the pain I've caused you. For robbing you. I know about your scar. I don't deserve your mercy. Why didn't you send me to jail? That's where I belong!"
Raziya wept bitterly. Blindly, she groped for something on the coffee table. The biscuits went flying. Dishes clattered to the carpet. Her arthritic fingers wrapped around a silver fork.
"I'm sorry," she kept muttering repeatedly as she stabbed the top of her hand ineffectually. Each stab was punctuated with a pathetically sobbed, "I'm sorry."
"I should've died, not your Ammi. She was a better woman than me," she continued bitterly.
"Aunty!" Raziya felt soft hands on her shoulders. She looked up into Zoya's face wet with tears. Zoya tried to wrestle the fork away from her.
Raziya frowned. "I don't deserve to be called that," she said. She looked down on her bruised hand. The skin had broken and there were tiny drops of blood pooling.
"Why isn't there more blood?" She asked Zoya in surprise as she held her hands out helplessly.
Her eyes went dark. Blank. She remembered the horror of her actions from the night so long ago. There was so much blood. Warm and sticky, it clung to her fingers. It got under her nails, in the crevices of her hand. And it smelled"metallic, coppery. It smelled of death.
Her bile rose.
"There's blood on my hands, I can smell it, then why can't I see any? Where is my blood?" She pleaded as tried to stab her hand with even more force. "Where is my blood?" she shrieked.
"Aunty!" Zoya tried to shake her out of her trance.
"I told you, don't call me that!" Raziya lashed out weakly.
"But I have called you that in the past, haven't I?" Zoya asked.
She looked at this girl, speechless. The fork slipped to the carpet from her clumsy and and now limp fingers. "How did you know?" she asked finally.
Zoya sat down by her and held her hand. "You no longer wear any jewelry, except for this pearl ring. It's unique and must be special." She had seen that ring when Aunty had helped her up from when she had stumbled earlier.
And she had known.
Raziya looked down at the only ring she wore. She had locked away all of her previously-beloved gold ornaments.
She couldn't bear them touching her skin any more. It was as if they burned her. They felt like a million insect feet rasping across her papery skin.
Only this ring she kept on.
Yes, it was special.
For their twentieth wedding anniversary, Humaira had begged her Abbu to buy it for her. "It's so beautiful Ammi! I'm going to wear it for my nikaah, whether you like it or not," she had said.
"Zoya!" Raziya couldn't stop herself any more. She pressed her hands around Zoya's face. Some blood trickled down her wrist.
"Main tum se maafi maangne ke layak bhi nahin hoon. Tab bhi tum? Kyun? Kaise?"
Zoya closed her eyes. Tears streamed down her face.
"I'm done. For eighteen years I've been seeking, searching, longing ... waiting." She rubbed her tummy. "Nothing will bring back Ammi now. We're going to have a baby. I want a fresh start. And I want to hold Humaira."
"Your blood, your Ammi's blood, is in her veins now; it has replaced mine. Humaira is your baby too," Raziya stated fervently.
Zoya wept. And so did Raziya.
Asad couldn't bear it any more.
He just shouldn't have let her go. Why did he give in to her?
The guard tried to stop him as he saw Asad advancing menacingly. Asad pushed him aside after a brief scuffle, which resulted in a ripped sleeve and bloody nose for the guard.
Asad had set a mental deadline for himself. No more than thirty minutes. If she wasn't out by then, then he'd go charging in, all guns blazing, and get her out in a fireman's throw if he had to.
He didn't have to.
When he crashed his way in, he stood shocked as he saw his weeping wife wrapped in her stepmother's arms. She too sobbed as she cradled Zoya's head against her heart. The barracuda formerly known as Raziya Siddiqui had been tamed, anointed by Zoya's falling tears.
Through misting eyes he nearly smiled and shook his head.
Why had he even worried? He should have trusted that sworn mantra: Zoya Farooqui kucch bhi kar sakti hai!
Once again, she had woven her magic spell and charmed the proverbial hornet from its nest.
He cleared his throat.
"Zoya," he whispered.
She raised her head and smiled at him. She held out her arm and he walked to her to clasp her hand. Raziya broke away, sneaking a look at Asad from under her lashes.
Asad saw the smear of blood on Zoya's cheek and went crazy. He noted another bloodstain on her hand. His eyes had just registered the scattered dishes on the floor.
He saw red.
He grabbed Raziya by her throat and hauled her up, "what did you do to her? I'll kill you if you hurt her!"
"AS-AD!" Zoya screamed.
Her hands tried to release his viselike grip. The guard had stumbled in by now and grappled with Asad who shoved him aside with one blow. He crashed into the table behind him and the glass smashed; the guard groaned in pain. The servant came running too and tried to feebly intervene. One look at Asad's face and he backed away in terror.
"Asad! Please stop!" Zoya pleaded. She wiped her hands on her jeans. "It's not my blood. I'm OK. See?"
His fingers loosened. Asad reached to touch Zoya's cheek and anxiously wiped the blood off.
He breathed a sigh of relief.
Raziya had slid down on the floor coughing, weak and dizzy. Zoya rushed to help her up. With the servant's help, she plied her with water.
Raziya still gasped for breath.
"Aunty? Are you OK?" Zoya knelt in front of her.
She patted Zoya's hand and nodded. "Yes, I'm fine," Raziya gasped.
A furious Zoya rounded on her husband. "Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan? Have you gone mad?"
Raziya watched in amazement. If she could breathe, she'd have laughed at the scene before her. Asad Ahmed Khan, the pugnacious man she had only seen glaring and scowling, fire-breathing and stomping, who scared the wits out of her, was being read the riot act.
"Do you even know what could have happened? What were you thinking?" Zoya still continued to rage at him.
Asad hung his head and covered his face. "I'm sorry. I saw the blood and thought you were hurt"-"
Zoya's eyes softened. She touched his arm. "I'm fine, I promise."
She looked around the room. A chair lay overturned. Shards of glass and crockery huddled together with the decimated food and drinks. The servant had called the cook and together they were trying to restore order and clean up the place as unobstrusively as possible.
They lingered a bit longer, curious about the unfolding drama.
"I'm sorry Aunty, my husband doesn't usually make such a grand entrance," she said apologetically.
Asad's face reddened. "I'm sorry," he muttered shoving his hands in his pockets.
Zoya was petrified. What if Asad's meltdown had wiped out the fragile goodwill they had just groped toward? How would this affect her relationship with Humaira now?
"Sorry?" she continued to yell at her overprotective husband, angry yet also understanding his frantic concern. This was Raziya Siddiqui's lair after all. And Asad had been most reluctant to agree to this meeting. He had only consented because she had compelled him.
"Say sorry to Aunty! You almost gave her a heart attack! Allah miyan! I still can't believe you just did that."
Asad turned to Raziya, and with bent gaze said a solemn sorry. "Please forgive me," he said to her. Her heart lifted at the simple words devoid of anger. This wasn't the surly man who looked daggers at her with the daily ferocity of an avenging angel.
"No, please don't worry about it. I deserved it," she whispered. Dashing the tears from her eyes with her dupatta she ordered the servant to bring more juice and snacks.
Zoya's eyes prickled. "Aunty, main bhi inki taraf se maafi maangti hoon."
"No!" Raziya blurted out rushing to hold Zoya's hands in her own. Tears coursed down her face. "Never say that again! Main tumhare pair ki dhool ke bhi layak nahin hoon. Please, let's just forget about it." She poured out the juice that the servant had just carried in.
"Sit. Here, have this. Your Abbu told me that you like this. We had it specially made for you."
Zoya made a face, "Abbu thinks that I like it, but I really don't!" Raziya looked dazed and glanced at Asad in mute confusion; he shook his head.
"She passes it on to me," he said.
"Then have some water," Raziya insisted after recovering her poise. "So many tears, what if you get dehydrated? It's not right in your condition."
Dutifully, Zoya had some water. And a bowl of cut fruits that Raziya wouldn't let her leave without.
Before they left, she pressed some money into Zoya's hand. Then removing the pearl ring, Raziya slipped it on Zoya's finger. Through tears she said, "Humaira always said she would wear this ring at her nikaah. Now all she has to do is ask her Baaji."
Her mother's and Ayaan's fears were indeed well-founded.
Humaira had sub-consciously made the decision to postpone her wedding. God knows when, but she had promised herself, that just like the lost sister who lived in a permanent limbo, who had walked in the blistering sun while she rested in the shade, she too would walk in her lonely footsteps till they were united.
No nikaah, no nothing.
She had cried bitterly once her conscious mind had figured out this terrible alternative.
Ayaan! her broken heart had screamed.
But once done, she stuck firm to this vow.
In her own way, she had tried to expedite the investigation. Every day she enquired of her father of the progress on the case. She had already poked around in old albums in the storeroom for clues.
Today she planned to invade Abbu's study. Each book was flipped through for any [email protected] of paper, or photograph, or address ...
But two hours later, she had found nothing. Just dust, and bitter remorse that made her fingertips and eyes gritty.
In desperation she even went to the room that Tanveer had been living in.
This was the first time she had entered this room since her return back home. She wouldn't step into this monster's room who had tried to hurt Zoya Bhabhi, not once, but twice!
Instinctively, her hand lifted. Her shoulders and biceps were more toned now, thanks to all the angst-burning taekwondo. Humaira was the fastest learner amongst them all. All her misery and self-recrimination was channeled and honed into a fierce tunnel vision of flying limbs and war cries. And the edge of her hand was now at the ready to strike a sharp blow. If Tanveer ever came before her, Humaira thought for the hundredth time, she's dead meat.
She didn't expect to find much here. May be she had come here to sniff the enemy's scent. May be she was that bloodhound who is given a token whiff of the quarry before it sets off determinedly to pick the trail.
That woman had taken all her belongings with her. Thank god! But may be she'd left something incriminating behind. Humaira rooted through the closet and then the magazines by the bedside table.
Listlessly, she looked through the drawers on the nightstand. A picture frame had been tucked away in the corner. Eagerly, she pulled it out only to be disappointed. It was an old, crackled, black and white print of some young men in traditional clothing. She looked closer. Wasn't one of the men on the right, Abbu?
She put it away, dejected. Abbu! She screamed silently, why aren't you doing more to find her?
Humaira looked at the time. It was time for Ammi's medicines. Mrs. M. had left some weeks ago and Humaira had taken over administering the meds and keeping tabs on doctors' appointments and follow-ups. She took up a tray of food and Ammi's insulin injection. But Ammi was in the restroom. Humaira put the tray on the bed and sat down heavily, deep in thought.
She looked around the room, heartsore and emotionally drained.
Abbu's copy of the Quran was sitting unevenly across the nightstand. She moved to straighten it. But then she picked it up to casually leaf through it hoping for inspiration and strength. Please Allah! Please keep her safe and lead her to us.
Something fluttered out.
She bent to retrieve it and turned the stiff paper around.
It was from the photoshoot. A portrait of her and Zoya Bhabhi?
Her eyes widened; her heart thundered.
The door to the bathroom opened, and she hurriedly slipped the picture back into the holy book.
"Ammi, your food and medicines," she said and dashed off to her room.
From her closet she removed and held the music box to her cheek.
Tears fell from her eyes splashing on to the music box: one of a pair, a cherished and shared inheritance whose partner nestled in the Khan home on a bedside table. Smiling through her tears, she opened it to let the melody wash over her, its chords braiding through her heartstrings. And her sister's.
Thank you Allah miyan for answering all my prayers!
She jerked hearing her phone ring.
Humaira wiped her tears.
"Beta, can you come to my office? I have something important to discuss with you."
When she entered the office, she saw Abbu walk towards her holding his arms out. But it was the person behind him that she ran to.
Humaira fell into Zoya's arms, sobbing.
"Aapi," she cried. "I always wanted it to be you!"
Song in Title:
Agneepath (2012): "Abhi, Mujhme Kahin"
Before telling Humaira, Siddiqui first wanted to talk to Anwar and Zeenat, and then Rashid and Shireen. There were many wrongs to make right. And he wanted a fresh start; a clear conscience wasn't completely possible since Zoya and Asad had firmly closed the door on the dreadful events from eighteen years ago.
Neither was an easy conversation.
Owning up to being a delinquent father was the easiest part, however. It had been harder to thank the man and woman who had raised his daughter as their own.
He felt awful.
He didn't want them to think that he was staking his claim just because he was her biological father.
"She is still your daughter. Still Zoya Farooqui," he had wept. "I am just blessed that she has forgiven me and chosen to include me in her life. I don't deserve her."
Even Anwar sobbed. But at least now the resentment he had felt when he'd first heard of this man, ebbed.
"Jab se hosh sambhala hai, it's been her heart's desire to find her Abbu." Anwar said softly. "And now I'm happy that she has you."
"Shukriya," Siddiqui said penitently. He also meant it as a heartfelt thank you for all the years Zoya had found love and strength with these people while her own father lived an oblivious life, unblessed and godless.
Shireen too had wept. Next to her, Raziya hid her face in her dupatta and sobbed for her crimes"both the ones acknowledged and concealed.
"My selfishness and malice muddied your paak rishta with your munh bole Bhaijaan. Don't hold my sins against my daughter though," she begged. "She's always been pure-hearted and has always loved Ayaan. Meri wajah se she was delaying getting married. She's right to be ashamed of me."
She completely broke down then and Shireen held her by her shoulders.
"Bhabhi, bachhon ka dil saaf hai, let them show us the way by their innocence and goodness. And we've always loved Humaira as our own."
"Bachhon ke saaf dil se ek aur baat judi hai," Siddiqui told them, wiping his own eyes.
Telling them about Zoya elicited gasps and tears of joy from Rashid, Badi bi and Shireen. Somehow he sensed that knowing Humaira was related to Zoya made her even more cherished in their eyes.
And for that he was grateful.
In finding his older daughter, he'd negotiated redemption for his younger daughter. Because Humaira's destiny was to no longer be recognized by her doomed parents' name; she would, from now on, be only Zoya's sister.
Eyes moist, Asad and Siddiqui watched the sisters cling to each other as they caressed and kissed each other's faces.
Zoya rained kisses on her eyelids and cheeks. "I'm so happy," she kept whispering. "I love you so much, Humaira."
Humaira cried harder.
Siddiqui stepped up to hug his daughters tight to him, fondly tucking their heads under his chin.
More indebted tears rolled down his own craggy cheeks.
Everything was finally all right.
The three of them stood like that for what seemed like forever.
"Umm Humaira, munna?"
"Yes Aapi?" Humaira sniffed.
"Can we sit and hug? My feet are killing me!" Zoya moaned.
Humaira giggled. "OK, and I'll massage your feet for you."
Asad walked over to offer Zoya his handkerchief; she took it gratefully.
Humaira looked up at him with streaming eyes.
He grinned down at her and stroked her head. "I've always wondered what it would be like to be called Jeeju."
"Jeeju!" she cried as she rushed into his arms. Nearly knocked off his feet he laughed as he held her.
Zoya and her Abbu looked on, arms around each other. They knew the questions would come. But right now, each wanted the moment to last forever.
Humaira wiped her eyes and they collided with Zoya's. Smiling, she flew back into her sister's waiting arms.
"Abbu! I'm going to be a Khala!" She crowed as her eyes locked with her father's.
"And I'll be a Nana," her Abbu boasted.
Humaira led Zoya to the sofa and settled her in. She sank at her Aapi's feet and hugged her knees. Her hands massaged Zoya's calves.
"How did you know?" Zoya was dying to know.
"I willed it into being you," Humaira stated simply, looking up into Zoya's face. "Ever since I found out I have an older sister, I've wanted it to be you. I prayed so hard, that Allah gave you to me!"
She murmured softly, "kehte hain na, kisi cheez ko poori shiddat se chaaho toh' ... something ..."
" toh poori kaynaat tumhe ussey milane ki koshish mein jut jaati hai.' " Asad completed the quote, looking deep into Zoya's eyes.
"Exactly!" beamed Humaira. "So shiddat plus kaynaat koshish, equals you"the best Aapi I could have asked for!"
Zoya bent to kiss her on the head and grip her fingers. Humaira saw the ring and her eyes teared again. She dropped a kiss on Zoya's beringed finger and held her sister's hand to her cheek.
Her heart was full, her world complete.
Ammi's acceptance of Aapi made this union even more perfect. It meant that she was making a sincere effort; Humaira knew how much she loved this ring. And it was as if Aapi wearing the ring sanctified Ammi's past, and pardoned her sins.
Now, may be even she could think of forgiving Ammi.
"Abbu," Humaira said as she wiped her face. "We'll go to the dargah after this to give thanks for finding Aapi!"
Siddiqui too came to sit by them. Asad leaned back against the desk, arms crossed.
Every one looked at Humaira.
And she looked back at each of them.
"What?" she asked finally, self-conscious all of a sudden.
"Don't you want to know how all this happened?" Her father asked.
"No," she stated emphatically, lifting her chin. "I don't care about the how or when! Does it even matter?" She squeezed Zoya's hand and their fingers interlaced.
"All I care about is spending as much time as possible with you. And holding my niece or nephew when the baby comes."
Zoya cupped her face in her hands, "and changing diapers?"
"I'll be the best diaper-changer in the world!" Humaira promised solemnly.
"Only second to your Jeeju of course," Zoya countered with confidence. "In fact, before anyone can change diapers, your Jeeju will give classes on the correct technique, 90 degree angles and military precision of the folds!"
"Even I'll take that class," their Abbu pledged.
"But before changing diapers, will you let us plan for your nikaah with Ayaan?" Zoya still held her face.
"But Aapi I want to spend more time with you!" Humaira protested.
"Who says nikaah ke baad you won't be able to spend time with me? When your Jeeju and Raabert are at work, you'll be with me. And when the baby comes, in the mornings you can be Khala and in the evenings, Chachi!"
Humaira blushed and nodded shyly as her Abbu laughed and Jeeju nodded with approval.
"Give it up Humaira," Asad teased. "I don't think anyone's been able to say no to your Aapi. Believe me, I tried!"
Why did you have to mention Humaira's nikaah to Zoya as she was leaving? What if Zoya thinks that that's the only reason why I agreed to the reconciliation?
She fretted. She hadn't meant it in that way. She didn't want Zoya to think that she held Zoya responsible for the hold up to Humaira's nikaah.
She decided to text her.
Her hand hovered over the screen of her phone. What would she say without sounding stupid or insincere?
"I wanted you to know that I"
She erased the message.
She backspaced that too.
Raziya flung the phone away in frustration and then hurriedly picked it up and punched in Zoya's number before she overthought it too much.
"Beta, it's me." She paused. "I'm so embarrassed," she started.
She smiled hearing Zoya's voice on the other side telling her to stop being ridiculous. "I'm more embarrassed, Aunty. I still can't believe that Mr. Khan did that!"
"Nahin! I forbid you to even think about it any more. I'm sorry that I pretended to be Raqeeba. I saw you at the clinic that day and couldn't help myself. I knew I couldn't appear before you as myself."
"Aunty, I am very happy that I met Raqeeba Aunty. She helped me out at a time when I needed to sound and sort out some jumbled thinking. And Mr. Khan told me that it was you who sent him the information on Tanveer that led to her arrest. Thank you for that!"
Raziya was mortified.
The pain sharpened. The old abscess oozed.
Here was yet another sin of hers stabbing her in the heart. In myopic arrogance and malice, she had brought Tanveer to this town and unleashed an endless cycle of venom. Yet again, in trying to salvage one self-created crisis, she had freed an evil jinn that swept up everything good into a whirlwind of malevolence with Zoya at the unfortunate epicenter of it all.
Tanveer had harmed Zoya more than once.
Raziya bristled with anger at that tramp.
But it all ebbed away to be replaced by profound shame.
Her own offense was graver. She had not only robbed Zoya of one parent, but two. And she had kept her away from her Abbu not once, but twice.
Her voice quavered. "Zoya, I was the one who brought that woman here. I will never be worthy of your forgiveness. Kaash, maine pehle hi rishton ki ehmiyat samajh li hoti."
"Aunty, you promised that you wouldn't bring it all up again." Zoya pouted. "As it is, you are maaroing one of Mr. Khan's favorite dialogues from when he used to be constantly mad at me!"
"What do you mean?" Raziya asked, wiping her eyes with her dupatta.
"Aapko pata nahin hai, Mr. Khan and I never got along when I first came here. He always disapproved of the way I dressed and everything I did. He used to say every second day," and Zoya changed the tenor of her voice, " Ms. Farooqui, aapko rishton ki ehmiyat nahin pata hai!' "
Raziya laughed. "But you cleared his misconceptions! Tumhare liye rishte hi sabse zyada ehmiyat rakhte hain," she said softly. "Aur maine tumhe apne sabse kareebi rishton se mehroom rakha."
"Aunty, I'm hanging up if that's all you are going to talk about." Zoya whispered.
"OK, OK, ya Allah! Yeh Ladki." Raziya cleared her throat.
"Accha suno, I called because I didn't want you to think that I'm behaving myself only for Humaira's sake. Yes, I would like her to get married and be as happy as you, but"-"
"Aunty, please! I know it already. And I have to go now. I have so much stuff to do before everyone comes tonight. Accha main rakhti hoon, bye!"
Raziya looked at her phone, dazed, and then shook her head.
What was this girl?
She looked at the time.
Ya Allah! There was so much to do!
"Go to the terrace," Zoya urged Ayaan. "I'll send her up in a few minutes."
"Why?" He quizzed stubbornly, eyebrows drawn together. "I can take her up there myself."
"Allah miyan what's wrong with you, Raabert! Stop being so unromantic! It'll be a surprise for her, that's why! Don't you want to re-propose to her so that we can get the nikaah back on track?"
His eyes gleamed. "Saali darling, you're the best! I'm on it!" He pounded up the stairs two-three steps at a time.
At the landing he gave her a manic thumbs up.
Clowns! Asad muttered to himself, shaking his head.
He was feeling blue and out of sorts.
And watching these two yuk it up was just fresh salt on his wounds. With a supremely happy Zoya, and a hellion Ayaan in stealthy collaboration, there was no telling what plans would hatch next, and which merry schemes might derail sanity and logic.
Thank god, Omar"-
He looked guiltily at Najma.
Poor kid! He knew she was missing him terribly. They had all just facetimed with Omar, and Asad had caught the twin expressions of pain that had flashed across both their faces. It only passed when the girls gushed and thanked Omar for the gifts he'd ordered and had delivered for them; he glowed then.
"Please stop staring at me," she said shyly. She had come up only because Aapi had said that she'd left her phone up here. And Ayaan had grabbed her after closing the door behind her.
"I can't help it," Ayaan said as he pulled her close. "Having an older sister must suit you, you look divine!"
"I'm just so happy!" Humaira whispered, throwing her head back and arms out.
"I know, it shows. Will you make me a happy man today?"
"Ayaan, what're you talking about?" she asked suspiciously.
Hooking a finger under her chin, he brushed her lips with his, "will you finally marry me now? I know you've been reluctant to talk about the nikaah for so long. But now everything's OK, right?"
"I was always going to marry you. Since I was in the fourth class and you cracked your head open trying to run away with my favorite doll."
"I just told you, when I was around ten. You must have been a little over thirteen." She smoothed his hair and traced his jaw with a finger.
Aapi must have been twelve around that time.
In New York; so far away from her.
Had she been here, she'd have wrestled the doll away from Ayaan, pulled his unruly hair, and returned it to her younger sister after yelling at him: Allah miyan, what's wrong with you!
"No, I mean when will you marry me? Don't make me wait any more," Ayaan groaned, molding her to him.
Humaira took a deep breath, "give me at least three months."
"No! Why not the same day as Nikhat and Feroze?"
"Because I want to spend more time getting to know Aapi. You've had all your life with Bhai"- no I mean Jeeju and the girls, I just got a brand new sister! I have a million questions for her, I want to know everything about her life in New York, and I want to spoil her as the pregnancy progresses. I have to make up for years of sleepovers, makeovers, midnight gossip, borrowed clothes, pillow fights ..." She sighed as she ran out of breath.
"But Humaira, why can't you do all that after we're married?"
"No, I just want it to be Aapi and me time. I want to be spoiled rotten by my Jeeju, I want to go crazy preparing for my neice or nephew's arrival."
"But jaan, she's married. Do you think Bhai will be too pleased about sharing Mona darling?"
"He'll have to! I'm his only saali."
Ayaan sighed moodily. Humaira pressed her lips to his cheek. "Please Ayaan, for me!"
"Two months?" He asked hopefully.
Ayaan whooped, and she laughed as he lifted her up to spin her around in circles. She stopped only when he put her down and swooped to kiss her breath away.
"Who knows," he joked later. "We could make a little sister or brother for Bhai and Mona darling's kid!"
"Ayaan! I'm not having kids the first two years of our marriage," she asserted.
"Fine," he countered. "But we'll keep trying not to have kids right?"
"Ayaan!" She blushed and struggled to free herself. He clasped her tight to him till all the fight drained out of her and she melted against him.
As the night wore on, Asad glowered more and more at anyone who dared look at him.
The girls were going to have a sleepover at the Siddiqui house at Humaira's insistence, and he hadn't been able to say no to all those bright eyes pleading with him to say yes. But spending just a few hours away from Zoya was going to keep him up all night.
Moodily he wondered how Najma and Omar did it and got through the days.
He sighed as he wandered over to crash on the sofa next to Abbu.
"Another one bites the dust," Rashid commented, immensely happy with himself.
Asad nodded. He knew his father was talking about Nikhat, but right now he felt too dust-bitten and beaten to respond. He couldn't decide whether he should be happy for the time here with Zoya, who was just too busy being a social butterfly and queen bee rolled into one, or angry that the night just never seemed to end, and would be even longer in an empty bed.
Everyone's obvious glee around him only made him crankier.
Rashid's house was a zoo.
Nikhat and Feroze's engagement ceremony had just concluded; giddy congratulations, blessings and duas were still being tossed around like belated confetti. The blushing lovebirds were surrounded by teasing cousins and raucous siblings. They'd just been force-fed phirni since the moniker FerNi had caught on like fire. Feroze's Ammi was entertaining everyone and his father was beaming.
In contrast, Najma and her mother-in-law were tucked away in a quiet corner trading Omar stories. He had prevailed upon his mother to attend the engagement and wedding and stay back to be with Najma"as a proxy for him. She had come armed with gifts, cards, letters and DVDs of childhood pictures, class projects and videos. Barely left with any room in her bag for her stuff, her son had flippantly advised her: "So what? Buy the latest fashion sarees and jewelry in India! Najma will help you. It'll give you even more time together."
"He's this close to quitting his job," she'd told Najma the moment she landed at the airport two days ago.
And Najma had burst into tears.
"Na beta," her mother-in-law hugged her. "He'll kill me if he found out I made you cry as soon as I landed."
"Ammi don't say that!" Najma protested.
"I mean it!" She had continued to tease her bahu. "I've been given strict instructions on what to do everyday of my visit. There's even a list he's emailed me. I promise!"
Najma had begged to see that list and laughed and cried to see some of the items on it: Ammi had been instructed to take her bahu out for a movie or three, a spa date and mani-pedis. A day was to be set aside for watching home made videos when they finally tired from all the shopping. Then his mother was supposed to cart back DVDs and momentoes from Najma's pre-marital life, or LBO, as he teased Najma: life before Omar. She told her saas about how every morning and evening she saw her husband prepare breakfast and dinner for himself while they chatted. She was pleasantly surprised to find out that Omar was pretty adept in the kitchen.
Nice job Ammi!
"Make sure you keep him on his toes even when you come to the US. In fact make him responsible for the cooking on the weekends," Omar's Ammi had advised her shocked bahu.
"He sent me a list too," Najma shared shyly. "I'm supposed to pamper you. It'll all begin with taking you to the dargah and showing you where we tied strings together for the first time. Then the lake where he proposed," she added, her face a fiery red.
"I'll bring my bahu too," Feroze's mom had interjected. "Phir hum dono saas mil ke inn bahuon ki band bajaenge!"
"Naz!" Her sister reprimanded her. "Kabhi toh serious ho jaya karo."
"Please, serious hoongi apne jaanaze pe! As it is you're serious enough for the whole family."
Her sister looked at her patiently. "If I wasn't serious and sensible enough, tum kahin jail main band baja rahi hoti'n!"
Both Najma and Nikhat had gasped in alarm.
"Come girls, let me tell you about Naz and her rangeen duniya," Omar's mom said linking her arm with her sister's.
"Yes girls, come," Feroze's Ammi parried as they continued on to the airport parking lot. "It's much better than Hana's sangeen duniya!"
"Naz, must you always have the last word?"
"Why do you think I was born after you? To have the last word! And to add color to Abba Ammi's black and white world." Usually older siblings teased younger ones about being unwanted, found on a trash heap, or being adopted. But Naz had hijacked that narrative a long time ago. In her world, she was born, exactly eleven months later, because their parents were in a hurry to have a real baby, not a boring holier-than-thou angel.
"Ya Allah!" The discussion grew fiercer on the way to the dargah. "I thought I'd have some peace when you got married. But then Omar was born. I've always wondered if he's a mini you."
"Just like Feroze is a mini you! You did some tona totka like that vamp in that show."
"Uff! Your ridiculous shows! Which show? What vamp? Zaroor, you must have caught sight of yourself in the mirror!" Hana said.
She smiled serenely at her sister's open-mouthed speechlessness. Only she could keep a leash on Naz once in a while.
In the backseat the girls sniggered. All of Najma's melancholy had evaporated.
Ammi was right.
Naz Khala did have a lot of Omar in her.
But that put down was Mashallah! Khala was still recovering.
Shireen and Dilshad had also decided to join them for the dargah, along with Zoya and Humaira.
"This is the Bhopal saas-bahu express and that one's the US saas-bahu express," Zoya joked in their car.
"Haye Dilshad, why do our girls have to go so far away?" Shireen protested. "Itne pyaar se ladkiyon ko bada karo, only to give them away to complete strangers. Uppar se, to go so far away! Bahut galat baat hai."
Dilshad nodded in agreement. Najma's impending departure, even if months from now, creeped upon her once in a while and left her heartsore. But at least the sisters would be together, even if thousands of miles across the vast country.
"But Chhoti Ammi, don't worry," Zoya tried to cheer them up. "You have two new daughters in exchange!"
"That's true," Shireen said, feeling much better now.
"Ammi, remember we have to pick up mangoes later." Zoya had fallen in love with Indian mangoes. Mexican mangoes in the US were good; but the Indian mangoes were just MA!
Must be the baby, she wondered for the fortieth time. It was, after all, one of the few foods she could keep down without fleeing to the nearest restroom. She was convinced that the baby would be Indian with a vengeance!
"Jaldi karo Ammi, you'll make us late!" Ayaan nagged his mother for the fifteenth time.
The excitement was making him bounce off the walls. "Mona darling, you always have the best ideas!"
The girls too jostled around, chatting and squealing, eager to set off.
Finally, Zoya had her heart's desire.
Or at least one of her heart's desires.
The cricket match was yet to happen, but everyone had loved the idea of camping out to catch the meteor shower after the engagement ceremony. And everybody would have been on their way too, but for the fussing mother brigade. While dinner was done, the Ammis still bustled around to put together snacks and paper supplies, achars and chutneys, drinks and everything else needed to feed an army.
For a month.
The servants had already made multiple trips to load up the cars.
Asad groaned in frustration.
Ayaan riding herd on everyone meant that they all would leave too soon. He had hoped that everyone would linger, slowed down by the food coma. Leaving late would delay them at the hilltop to watch the shower. With half the night spent oohing and aahing at falling stars, the sleepover would surely be cancelled. Or postponed. But no.
He frowned at his brother.
Ayaan's euphoria was a serious dash mein bamboo.
Zoya hid a smile as she watched her husband scowl mutinously. Being a generous and bindaas Jeeju was turning out to be hard for her Jahanpanah. She sidled up to him and slipped her hand in his for comfort. He crushed her fingers to avenge her treason.
"Ouch!" she hissed.
He blushed as heads turned. And got even madder at his wife's continued betrayal. She seemed gung ho enough to spend a night away from him. Fine!
Asad stalked off to wait by the cars now being loaded with mats and dhurries, and shawls and blankets. He missed Zoya's downcast eyes.
He pretended to be interested in Ayaan who was supervising the loading of his telescope that Bhai had given him just last year.
Zoya sighed, miserable at her husband's sulky rejection. But she smiled when Humaira came and hugged her from behind. "Aapi, it's going to be so much fun," she gushed.
And it was.
But not if you asked Asad.
It was one of the longest nights of his life, half of which he spent seething with martyred indignation.
In the middle of his presentation two days later, a mellower Asad casually slipped a hand in his pocket and felt something silky brush against his fingers. Puzzled, he pulled it out and blushed furiously, immediately stuffing it back into his pocket.
He should have known better.
His wife was out to get him.
Not a minute's peace. Just trouble with a capital T.
She may have forgiven him for being a cad on the meteor shower night, but her revenge wasn't done.
Her text a little later simply stated: thanks for the memories Jahanpanah! Loved your gift. Hope you liked mine!
He shook his head. One of these days she really was going to get him into trouble! Asad rubbed his wrist ruefully.
The red welt on the inside made him smile, and blush, thinking of last night: the night of their making up; the night of her homecoming.
She had worn his gift to her; his breath had caught.
Hair over a bare shoulder she had looked at him, sultry and smoky. He hadn't seen her in nearly 24 hours! His hungry gaze had travelled from the spaghetti strings that tied behind her neck, down the peek-a-boo lace and silk sarong-style concoction that hugged her body and swirled around her ankles. Her feet were clad in matching feather high-heeled mules in the palest pink. As she slow-walked toward him, a bare leg peaked from the delectably parting folds.
"You remembered," Zoya said shyly, eyes luminous.
Taking her hands in his, he'd kissed the tops of both, "I never forgot. And I'm sorry for being such a bear." Asad replied.
Turning her back to him he'd rained contrite open-mouthed kisses on her naked back.
"You smell and feel so good," he groaned. "Zoya, I missed you so much! Never leave me again!" His hands had traced her body through the wanton lace as if he hadn't touched her in ages. Impatient fingers and thumbs had drawn lazy circles.
Her sighs and hisses had filled the room.
His hands became bolder, resenting the sheer barrier warmed by her body heat. They snaked under the lace panels to part the draped silk. His fingers stroked and strummed her arching body.
"I missed you too," she moaned leaning into him.
He repeated a favorite couplet at her ear. Goosebumps flared across her skin.
"When someone quotes the old poetic image
About clouds gradually uncovering the moon,
Slowly loosen knot by knot the strings of your robe.
Her breath had hitched.
One tug at the silk ties at her neck, and the blushing fabric had pooled at her feet.
She laughed huskily.
"Jahanpanah, for something that you special-ordered, paid a fortune for, and surprised me with, shouldn't I have worn it just a little bit longer?"
Lips at her throat and hands everywhere kneading her to him, Asad murmured, setting her blood on fire, "I saw your face even before I saw you looking at this in the gift shop window. For nights after, I imagined you in it, and fifty different ways of how I would get you out if it. When I saw you blush, I knew you were thinking the same."
His teeth rapsed along the slender column of her neck, "it's stayed on long enough!"
"Oh god, Asad, don't remind me of that time!" Zoya pleaded.
In the late afternoon when she'd returned from the sleepover, she'd spied a giftbox on the bed, wrapped with a wide silk bow.
A single long-stemmed red rose lay on top, a virgin on the bridal bed.
The moment she had undone the packaging and seen this wisp of a thing nestled in the tissue, her eyes had stung bringing back memories from a time long past.
Her fingers skimmed over the fabric. She missed him so much!
They had just barely exchanged a text or word all night. She knew he was still unhappy about the nightlong separation.
She had held the negligee to her cheek and re-read his note: "Get all the sleep you need before I return, because you're not sleeping tonight.
I'll be late. Dinner with a client.
P.S. I saw you looking at this that day. I've wanted you to wear it for me ever since."
Hugging the gown, she sank back into the bed, tired and mush.
Asad, she moaned as she curled into herself.
She remembered those days of blistering grief!
All the torment from that first trip to Agra resurfaced.
On their way in to the restaurant for dinner at the Oberoi hotel, they had passed various boutiques with exquisitely appointed window displays. Some young girls were giggling and whispering in front of the La Perla display. When they dispersed, Zoya saw what they were looking at: A headless mannequin was posed draped in exactly this gown.
She had blushed imagining herself in it, and then out of it.
Just for him.
But then she had blanched in pain when Najma giggled and whispered in her ear, "may be I should tell Ammi to buy something for Tanveer from here for the honeymoon!"
She had ducked her head, cross with herself. When she had prayed at the gravesite of the two royal lovers at the Taj, Zoya thought that her acceptance of an unrequited love's fate would numb, if not reduce the pain.
But Najma's words had sickened her to her stomach.
The pain had slammed her, wave after wave. Dinner had been an ordeal of forcing down food that her constricted throat refused to swallow, and haunted eyes that begged teary release.
She didn't know that Asad had seen her face then. He was waiting for them a little ahead having peeled past the shopfront at a brisk clip. Later, on his own, he had retraced their steps to see what it was that had arrested Zoya's attention, making her blush first, and then turn paperwhite with pain.
She didn't know that he too had felt the twin emotions of searing lust followed closely on its heels by piercing anguish and loss.
For their honeymoon they'd stayed at the same hotel and he'd gone to buy that negligee. They didn't have any more left. Only the display piece was available at a discounted price, would he like to buy that?
No! Not the display that so many hands must have touched and eyes leered at. It had taken long enough because the style had been discontinued, but they had specially re-ordered it from somewhere in Europe, and delivered it to his office the other day. He hadn't wanted it delivered at home. If Zoya opened the package in front of everyone, then he'd have to probably relocate to another city.
He would never be able to look at Ammi and Najma!
He had snuck it into the house in a non-descript paper bag and left it on the bed for her that morning as a welcome home gift as well as an apology.
Hands still exploring her dewy warmth, Asad had bent on his knees to tug at the g-string tied with tiny bows low at her waist.
With his teeth.
Zoya had gasped in surrender.
Those teeth had then skittered across the bare skin of her undulating hips. He'd turned her to face him and tugged the strings off on the other side. That silky scr*ap, that now sat steaming in his pocket, too had blushed to her feet.
Her fingers had clutched his hair in anticipation.
He'd dipped his tongue to taste her.
Zoya had keened, all former heartache and separation long forgotten.
"Even then, that first time in Agra, I thought of doing this," he'd drawled between nips and firm licks.
She jerked and swayed, molten and satiny.
Her brain barely registered his words. It was only focused on the sensuously darting tongue that brazenly parried and thrusted, branding her, healing her.
"But then I also imagined making love to you without removing either of these. That night too was sleepless. I would have parted the gown with my hands and steadied your bucking hips.
And I would have parted your legs ..."
He'd found her sweet spot.
" ... Like this."
And she had gone crazy.
Later, she'd told him, "I went down to buy that gown on our second visit to Agra. But they didn't have it. I made up for it by buying these!" She triumphantly swung the matching feathered handcuffs on her finger. But with the assault on them at the Taj the next day, she had completely forgotten about this little toy.
But last night she'd had such fun with him in those! Hands tied behind his back he had begged for mercy. Being blindfolded by the silk strap that had earlier held the gift box together only intensified the sensory overload.
When she moved in for the kill, he had completely lost his head.
"Zoya, please!" he'd implored to no avail.
He had strained against his restraints, his own hips bucking and vaulting at her skilled ministrations. Her tongue too had punished and lashed him.
When she eventually did release him, because she found it equally unbearable to not feel his hands on her, he'd ripped off the blindfold, grabbed her by her hair to sink his teeth into the crook between her neck and shoulder as he took her. He had intended to discipline her, but c'mon, it was really to muffle his hoarse cry.
Because if he didn't"-
He wouldn't be able to face Ammi or Najma the next day.
"Welcome home!" Asad intoned as she crested again in his arms, slick with spent passion.
"No more sleepovers for a long, long time," he'd threatened weakly, still breathless.
Zoya had laughed at that.
She'd remembered Feroze's mom's comment from the night before at the meteor shower. A crestfallen Asad, in one last ditch effort, had tried to convince everyone that Zoya was too tired for the sleepover and needed her rest. Even his mother hadn't come to his rescue!
And his protests had been easily dismissed by the girls.
"Bhaijaan, we promise we'll let Bhabhi sleep well," Nuzzhat had affirmed.
"Yes, Jeeju, I promise, she'll be well-rested when she returns home," Humaira vowed.
Asad had sighed in defeat. He tried one more tack.
"But she always gets sick in the morning and"-"
"So what?" Feroze's mom had butted in. "The girls will take good care of her. Unless you think there's something special that only the baby's daddy can do!"
After a second's pause everyone had roared with laughter and Asad had perished of embarrassment. Luckily the night hid his reddened face, more tamatar than his sister's.
Both Feroze and Omar's mom had tried to scold her, but their feeble reprimands were lost amidst the guffaws.
Just shoot me, he'd groaned to himself.
Asad had only breathed again when the stars started to rain around them in the next second.
Saved by the skin of his teeth by shooting stars!
Two hours later, Nikhat had called him. He'd been thrashing like a delirious castaway on an unmoored skiff tossed on an angry sea.
He'd grabbed the phone in alarm, "Nikhat, is everything OK? Zo"-!"
"Everything's fine Bhaijaan. But Zoya Bhabhi hasn't smiled even once since we got here," she told him softly.
He felt mortified.
His grouchy possessiveness was ruining her time with Humaira and the girls. Asad immediately called her.
But only after he had pizzas delivered to the Siddiqui house from a place open 24 hours.
"I know I'm being irrational and temperamental. I just miss you." he'd lamely excused his behavior when she picked up, but said nothing.
"Remember when you messed up my phone and I had to say the password a hundred times to unlock it?"
"Umm hmm," she said softly as she smiled at the memory. She waited for him to say that verbal password.
But he was her Akdu after all.
"I won't say it till you recite that ridiculous sher," he teased.
Zoya laughed fully for the first time in hours that night. "No!" she protested.
She moved away to the balcony and cupping her hand around the phone repeated that sher that had infuriated him all those months ago, but thrilled him now.
"Truck ke peeche bus, bus ke peeche lorry,
Truck ke peeche bus, bus ke peeche lorry,
Phone theek karwane se pehle, kehna padega sorry!"
"I'm sorry Zoya." Asad said huskily.
She sniffed. "I'm missing you."
"I miss you more. Now go and have fun. Because you're not spending another night away from me for years to come."
"Jo hukum Jahanpanah!" she chirped. He heard the giggles in her voice and grinned, finally a little more at ease.
She'd glowed the next morning when the girls squealed in delight at the chocolate dipped strawberries and assorted pastries Asad had ordered for them for breakfast.
They were home delivered by Ayaan and Feroze.
Song in Title:
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007): "Bol Na Halke Halke"
After the presentation, he walked to his office shaking his head ruefully, his wife's mischief still burning a hole in his pocket. Asad halted at the door to see Humaira moping at his desk. Her face in both her hands, she stared moodily into space.
Setting his laptop down he looked at her with worry. "Humaira, what happened?"
He knew Ayaan was fine because he'd just seen him on his way in from the conference room.
"Is it your Aapi? Is everything OK?"
"Jeeju!" She burst into tears.
Asad knelt by her. "Did you have a fight with Ayaan? Come here. Tell your Jeeju what happened." He soothed, as he gently took her in his arms and led her to the couch.
She hiccupped. "I'm sorry!"
"What for?" He asked, puzzled. He poured out a glass of water for her and pressed it into her hands.
"I didn't mean upset you by insisting on the sleepover. I saw how sad Aapi was yesterday." She looked up at him from under her lashes as she sipped the water.
Asad covered his face and groaned.
"Na bachhe, I'm sorry for being such a buzzkill! I should have realized how much you both need each other. I was being jealous. I promise, I'll behave better from now on. I feel terrible for making you and your Aapi sad."
"Jealous? Of me?" She asked surprised, tears forgotten, eyebrows to her forehead.
"I don't know!" he sighed, raking a hand through his hair. "I know, it seems weird. Even I can't explain it. But it's nothing, I'll get over it."
"So we can have another sleepover real soon?" she asked, hands clasped hopefully.
"Umm, voh, actually ..."
"OK, not that soon," she kidded. Her humor fled however, to be replaced by a pensive look.
"Jeeju, I'm sorry for what Ammi did."
He hugged her sideways. "You have nothing to be sorry about. We just want you to plan for the nikaah and enjoy the rest of the time with Zoya. The honeymoon's on us. Your Aapi said something about Hawaii?"
He laughed to see her blush and duck her head. "And Humaira?"
"You can plan a sleepover whenever you want."
She grinned. "You're sure?"
He chuckled, "yes. I'm not thrilled about it, but I'll survive!"
"Umm, how about next Saturday?"
"Deal! And Jeeju?" She loved calling him that.
"Hmm?" He walked her out. Ayaan was leaning against the door looking at them quizzically.
"Make sure you tell Aapi that the lipstick stain on your vest is mine, or the sleepover will be happening tonight!"
She had asked for a meeting at the dargah.
Raziya steeled herself.
Even though Zoya and Asad hadn't said it, she knew that Dilshad knew. As averse as she was to doing this, she knew that it needed to be done.
Humaira was truly happy.
She needed to give thanks.
And after Zoya, she had hurt Dilshad and Rashid the most. She shuddered to think how she had threatened Najma's life. Seeing a newly-married and chanchal Najma in her house for the sleepover, made her think of Asad and Dilshad's generosity. For them to allow her and Zoya to spend the night at the Siddiqui house must have taken a special kind of strength and faith.
She clawed the barely healed gash on her hand.
Ya Allah, how many sins have I committed? Give me a chance to make things right. This had become a daily prayer in her head.
Hearing the girls' giggles and chatter in her house two nights ago, made her regret her actions all over again. But the sound of their perfumed laughter and teasing, the sight of flying feathers from disembodied pillows, the shrieks and squeals set to loud music, had all lulled her into the best sleep she'd had in a lifetime.
And that was addictive.
She wanted it more, and more frequently. She wanted to hear the deep voices of sons-in-laws, and the cries and pitter-patter of contented and cherished babies in her house next.
And that is why she needed to meet with Dilshad.
They could have had this for eighteen years. She could have co-existed peaceably with Zainab, like Shireen and Dilshad. Humaira could have had her Aapi by her side all her life, just like Ayaan had Asad.
But at least now the house that was lately shadowed by sorrow and penitence was coming alive. That night, all the girls had worn matching cotton nighties gifted to them by Raziya. She had made sure that they were full-sleeved. Even then she had shriveled up in self-disgust. A three-year old Zoya's face contorted in pain swam before her eyes.
Allah, give me a chance to make things right.
The morning after the sleepover had been noisier and more boisterous. The girls had jumped fully-clothed into the pool and splashed everything and everyone around indiscriminately.
Siddiqui Saheb hadn't been spared either.
He had laughed as he sat by the side, sipping his coffee prepared by Zoya.
He later stood guard over her till she had finished her "favorite" juice. Raziya hid a grin when she saw Zoya's dismayed face.
"It's either this, or the haldi milk," her father threatened. Zoya had gulped it down in record time.
But Raziya had spluttered in fear when she saw Zoya go into the pool and be the most playful of them all. "Zoya," she fussed. "Be careful," "don't do this," "don't do that," "bhaago mat beta, farsh gila hai! "
She couldn't help herself. What if she slipped?
Humaira had laughed. "Aapi, Ammi is terrified that Jeeju will demand a full report and take her to task for not looking after you!"
She didn't understand why both her Ammi and Aapi had smacked their heads at that.
She wasn't too far from the truth!
Raziya had grinned sheepishly. She held up her phone and scolded Zoya, "if you don't listen, I'm calling Asad."
And she almost did call him when the girls went to the backyard and Zoya insisted on showing off her basketball moves at the rusted hoop installed for Ayaan years ago. Raziya finally put her foot down and herded the girls inside when Zoya discovered one of Ayaan's battered skateboards and decided to demo her "mipster" attitude.
"What's mipster?" Nuzzhat asked trying to do what Bhabhi had just shown her.
Zoya giggled. "That's what we call hipster Muslims in America! You should check out this youtube video on the Mipsterz'. It's based on a Jay Z song. It's really cool!"
Raziya had let her back into the house only after closely examining her hands and feet, worried to death about contact with rusted nails and septicemia. She ordered the servants to clean up the backyard even more thoroughly.
Petis of mangoes had been trucked in. Brunch with the boys was dominated by a mango-eating contest which Ayaan won, hands down. Except afterwards he rolled around clutching his stomach and belching up a storm.
Everyone had roared when Zoya nicknamed him "Raaburp" for the rest of the day.
Siddiqui Saheb had taken the day off from work, and just smiled benignly as he watched the girls flit from one end of the house to the other. As a surprise he had called in manicurists from a local beauty parlor. At least then, the girls stayed put in one place without Raziya following them around to make sure that nothing happened to Zoya.
Both the parents had hung around, unashamedly eavesdropping on all the girly gossip. Their Abbu kept getting confused between Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. His daughters repeatedly corrected him, which he didn't seem to mind one bit.
"But why didn't she go into badminton? We could have had a national level woman player," he had clucked in disappointment at Deepika Padukone's unfortunate career choice.
"Abbu!" the girls had rounded on him. "How can you even say that?"
Raziya had come to his rescue. "Beta, you are both missing the big picture here. Can't you see how far your Abbu has come? You should be proud of him that he's even talking of professional women's sports like this. At one time he used to frown at Sania Mirza in disapproval!"
"Wow!" Zoya said in belated admiration. "I never thought of that. Good job Abbu!"
And Raziya beamed now as she relived all the cheery moments, and that's how Dilshad found her.
She smiled too. "Zoya ka asar aap par bhi nazar aa raha hai," she kidded. "We really missed the girls yesterday. They had a great time!"
"Kitni pyaari bachhi hai! Kaash ..." Her face fell. "I could have had this ... but I ruined it ..." she said.
Raziya cleared her suddenly clogged throat.
"I'm sorry," she whispered through fresh tears. "Zoya ke baad, main aapki sabse badi gunehgaar hoo'n. I don't know how Zoya and Asad, and you, can bear to even look at me. I should be rotting in jail, not breathing in this fresh air, and that too at a place of worhsip."
Dilshad looked long at children playing in the puddles outside the dargah. Vendors loudly hawked their wares; colorful banners fluttered at the dargah entrance. Pirs, dressed in green, waved incense and peaco*ck feathers at pilgrims, muttering blessings and dispensing taawizes.
"I think the kids have shown remarkable maturity and compassion in all of this. Let's just follow their example. I just hope they'll find the happiness that we were unable to hang on to."
"Insha'allah!" intoned Raziya softly. "Ab unhi ki khushiyaan meri duaon mein har dam shaamil hain."
Heads covered, they passed into the shrine to pay their respects and pray for everyone's well-being, especially the kids'.
"I loved your gift," he texted. "It's keeping me warm here without you."
Dissatisfied with just texting, Asad called her impulsivley. "Humiara was here making me feel guiltier about being a total ass about the sleepover!"
"Aww!" Zoya sympathized. "Poor Jahanpanah, now a saali to be answerable to as well!"
"And a local sasur!" he kidded.
"Mr. Khan!" she scolded him.
"Was I so obvious that night?" Asad asked. "First Nikhat, and then Humaira?" He ran a sheepish hand through his hair.
"May be you weren't, but I was too transparent," she sighed. "I was dying. First, to be away from you, and then to field your sulking! But I also wanted to spend time with Humaira."
"She's asking for another sleepover next Saturday."
She had loved the sleepover, but the day after had been a blur of groggy exhaustion. When would she stop feeling this tired? The doctor had said that she'd be less tired in the second trimester.
She couldn't wait! She had never felt this delicate or fragile before.
She would also begin to show in the next trimester.
... a little give, a little take. The circle of life.
But if there was another sleepover, there would be Asad's fiery temper tantrum to contend with all over again when he took on his Akdu avatar.
"My thoughts exactly! I'm not happy about it." He laughed. "But I promise, I'll be good this time. Specially since I get such a nice welcome home surprise to cheer me up! And if there are to be more sleepovers, then Jahanpanah will also need a lot of attention the night before."
"Oh really?" she bantered.
And they phone se*xed the rest of the lunch hour away.
Humaira glared at Ayaan as she walked out.
"What?" He came bounding after her. "What did I do?"
"I'm never getting married," she hissed as she trotted to the parking lot.
"Because then you won't let me have sleepovers too!"
His multiple texts and calls, and refusal to let her hang up on him had been cute that night. But in the light of day, it felt overbearing. Would he be jealous too, like Jeeju?
Ayaan laughed and she got madder, itching to smack him.
"Humaira, babes!" He held up his hands defensively. Only he knew the sting of her hard karate chops.
"Of course I'm not going to let you go for sleepovers after we're married!' he said as he blocked her knifehand strike.
"Ayaan! How could you?"
He grabbed both her hands in his and twisted them behind her back. She slammed up against him; her breath hitched.
"Look, I've been waiting for so long to get you into my bed." He whispered in her ear.
"But you keep postponing our nikaah. Why the hell will I allow you to spend a single night away from me once you're officially my begum?"
His tone became more intense, more urgent; all playful flirting was gone. "I spend the nights alone now because I have to. But once we're married, every night away from you will be hell! I will NOT share you with anyone!"
Ayaan held her wrists with one hand behind her and twisted her face up to him with the other, "and if you didn't feel the same way about being away from me, then I'd be mad as hell too."
"So I'm supposed to be miserable when I'm not with you?"
"Exactly!" He nuzzled her neck. "RTFM! It's right there in the manual!" Ayaan said as he nipped her earlobe.
She blushed, "Ayaan, stop it! People will see." But she blushed harder as she now understood her Jeeju's point of view a little better!
May be she'd give her Jeeju a break just this once.
"Tell me about Jhansi ki rani again," Zoya demanded out of the blue that night.
"Why? Me being married to one isn't enough?" Asad teased.
He chuckled as she whacked his shoulder. "See what I mean? OK, OK stop pelting me!" He settled her in his arms, palm on her stomach.
"She was the queen of Jhansi and fought fiercely against the British."
Zoya breathed in his scent. His chest rumbled just as she loved it, when she put her ear to his heart as he spoke softly.
"This was during the revolt of 1857. They say she fought on horseback with her son strapped to her back."
Zoya sighed dreamily, "you know, the baby on her back reminds me of Sacagawea. She was a native Indian woman, possibly America's first female explorer, interpreter, diplomat and everything else! She never got the credit!"
Raising her face in her hand she told him with pride, "in the third grade, I gave a book report on Sacagawea and I dressed up like her with a doll on my back!"
"Do Aapi and Jeeju have pictures of that? I'd love to see that!" Asad stroked her cheek. "You were big into dress up I hear! Sleeping Beauty and Disney princesses, and what not."
She grinned. "My princess phase gave way to Jo March, Maria from Sound of Music,' and Hermione! For many Halloweens I dressed up as a pirate or a witch."
Asad laughed. "Yeah, I can't see you as a princess, but you must have been the perfect pirate and witch!"
"Tell me about her shield." Zoya returned to his narrative about Jhansi ki rani, not at all offended by his teasing.
"How many times have you heard this before?"
"We went to Gwalior for winter break with some cousins and visited the Scindia museum. They have her shield displayed there. It weighs around 25 kgs."
"That's more than 50 pounds! To hold that on one arm, on horseback, and a baby strapped to your back. That's badass!" If she had known about her as a kid, she'd have loved to be Jhansi ki rani on every Halloween!
"And don't forget, a sword," Asad reminded her.
"Which must have been just as heavy! Wow! Asad?"
"When are you going to take me to all these places, Jhansi? Gwalior?"
"It's too hot right now!"
"But any later and I'll be big as a baby elephant and immobile" she pouted.
"Elephants aren't immobile. Don't you remember Gauri at Amer?" Asad teased and got a smack across his chest for really being wicked this time.
"And Anarkali at Chokhidaani," Zoya reminisced softly, momentarily distracted by the painful memories.
"Arz kiya hai, teer-e-nazar se aashiq ghaayal ho jata hai,
Teer-e-nazar se aashiq ghaayal ho jata hai,
Elephant se zyada, pregnancy mein insaan immobile ho jata hai!" Asad recalibrated one of her old shers to shake her out of her sudden quiet.
"Mr. Khan!" She really pounded him now. "I'll make this aashiq so ghaayal, he'll be immobile!"
"Zoya! Stop it," he laughed. Asad trapped her flailing hands in his and rested them on his chest. "This baby is going to come out fighting and karate-chopping at this rate," he joked dropping a kiss on her head.
"I can't wait to feel the first kick," Zoya sighed.
They heard a muffled crash somewhere in the house and sat up in alarm. Asad turned on the light.
"Stay here," He commanded. "I'll go see what it is."
"But Asad, don't go like this! Take something," she looked around the room frantically. What could he arm himself with? Where's a baseball or cricket bat when you really need one? She dashed to get her purse and rummaged for the pepper spray.
Asad looked at it and rolled his eyes. But he took it obediently when she glared at him.
"Call the guard and lock the door after me!" he instructed.
He stepped out cautiously, closing the door softly behind him. Ammi and Najma were at the landing craning their necks to see what was up.
"Go to your rooms Ammi, I'll check it out," he ordered.
His heart hammered. He had seen the broken wondow. The moonlight streaming in glinted harshly off the glass shards.
This was deliberate.
And no commotion outside meant that the guard had been immobilized.
The grim irony of the word hit him square in the face.
"Please! And call Rakesh." he whispered roughly to jolt Ammi and Najma out of their frozen state.
They scampered upstairs.
The pepper spray in his hand mocked him.
He duckwalked to the kitchen, keeping low behind the table and the counters. The light from the windows threw just enough of a glow to eerily illuminate the darkened house. A knife would be best. A rolling pin may be good too. Whatever he could lay his hands on, and quick! He tried to think which drawer they'd be in and how he'd open it without the slightest noise. Feeling his way around the dark, his fingers brushed against a tall bottle.
The Roohafza bottle on the counter!
He grabbed it by its neck and hefted it to feel its weight. It was nearly full.
Stealthily, he moved toward the living room window. Body shielded behind the wall, he tried to peer out in the darkened courtyard.
He crept toward the broken window and nearly yelled out as he stepped on some broken glass in his bare feet. Damn!
Feeling with his hand he tried to remove a sharp piece from the sole of his foot while still clutching the bottle in his other hand.
A sudden movement and crunching glass underfoot startled him. Before he could turn around, someone seized his shoulders from behind to pin him in a headlock. The attacker tried to choke him, intensifying the pressure. The smell of sweat overwhelmed Asad as he gasped for breath.
Instinctively, his elbow whipped out behind him.
He heard a grunt as the assailant reeled, stunned from the blow to his solar plexis. Asad spun around to yank the man's neck. His knee jerked up to hit the intruder smack in his face. Hard.
He heard a crack and knew he'd broken the man's nose.
But the attacker was stronger than he'd given him credit for.
They grappled and thrashed around trying to get the better of each other. The bottle nearly slipped from his grip. He seemed unable to get into the right position to hit the man with it.
More glass embedded itself in his soles.
He heard a crash and then a scream from their room.
A knife blade flashed.
Asad staggered backwards to avoid being sliced at the throat. Raw anger made the blood pump in his ears.
He had no time for this.
He needed to get to Zoya.
The assailant lunged at him again. Swiftly blocking another thrust with his free hand, a well-placed knee in the groin, and Asad tackled him to swing the bottle in a wide arc, smashing it on the man's head.
A bellow of pain, and he went down like a pile of bricks.
The smell of Roohafza filled the room.
Feet bloody, Asad leaped toward the bedroom and cursed himself for telling her to lock it. He could hear a scuffle followed by Zoya's angry cries and his blood boiled even as his heart climbed up in his mouth. Asad slammed his shoulder into the door to break through. He heard more grunting sounds from the room and his panic grew.
Sirens wailed in the distance.
He hurled himself at the door again.
The wood splintered.
One more shove, and it crashed open, swinging violently on its hinges.
His eyes were wild with terror. The sight before his eyes staggered him. The lamp at her bedside table rocked violently, having being knocked on its side. The swaying light cast maniacal shadows on the wall and ceiling.
The chairs were in disarray.
"Zoya!" He rushed to her, nearly slipping on some mysterious pellets. His already injured feet protested. He gritted his teeth through the pain.
A man in black was trying to wrench something away from Zoya's hands who huddled by her side of the bed on the floor and cussed a blue streak.
Blinded by rage, Asad roared wildly and lunged to lay his hands on the scruff of the intruder's neck. He lifted him off her to slam him into the wall. A couple of lightning fast left hooks and furious jabs knocked most of the fight out of the prowler, disabling him. But Asad continued to punch the man in the face repeatedly till he slid down to the floor barely conscious.
Asad wiped his mouth with the back of his hand; he dashed his hair off his forehead.
He heard her moan behind him.
Terrifed, he gathered her in his arms.
"Zoya? Talk to me! Are you OK?" he crushed her in his arms.
She was sobbing. "I'm fine," she hiccupped.
Asad looked at her hand. It was bloody. His own blood ran cold.
"Asad!" Dilshad called out from the living room.
Rakesh and two policemen rushed into the room and immediately collared the groaning culprit who was still clutching his face and whimpering.
Asad couldn't get a more coherent response from Zoya. "Call the doctor!" he yelled to anyone who would listen.
"Zoya?" he cried, nearly blinded by tears.
Her hand came up to cup his cheek. "I'm fine," she said.
"There's so much blood," he whispered, voice cracking.
"It's not mine," she huffed, offended that he'd even think that.
Zoya opened her palm and held out his cricket ball. "I scattered the marbles on the floor to trip him, and then when he tried to grab me, I smashed him in the face with this! Mr. Khan! I told you that day, we should have kept your cricket bat in here too!"
And then his Jhansi ki rani promptly fainted.
Within the hour, everyone had stampeded to the Khan house.
Zoya was conscious now, unscathed, and being fussed over in her old room by the women. Asad's injuries were bandaged and iced; the men conferred at the dining table.
Siddiqui insisted that they all regroup at his place.
This house was unsafe till the windows and doors were fixed. He and Raziya invited them to spend at least a week with them, not brooking any dissent.
A quietly seething Asad agreed.
It was late; everyone needed their rest, Zoya the most.
And she would feel much better in her father's house.
But first thing in the morning he and Rakesh were going to sit down together and figure out the how and why, and what next.
Tanveer was still in custody. Her visitors and contacts were being closely monitored.
Then where had this attack come from?
The guard was unconscious and gravely injured. He had been taken to the nearest hospital. Rakesh's people would work all through the night to suss out most of the details of the assault: point of entry, prints, sketches, and interviews with neighbors, without getting too much in the police's way. Once the guard regained consciousness, he would be able to tell them more.
Asad hobbled in to check on Zoya. Humaira and Raziya cleared the space next to her and stepped out. Dilshad and Najma were packing their belongings with the help of Shireen and Nikhat. An anxious Nuzzhat had been left at home with Dadi.
Before leaving, Humaira grinned cheekily up at him.
"Sleepover tonight, Jeeju! Hah! In your face!" And she did a little bhangra step.
Asad and Zoya laughed for the first time since the blitz. A smiling and scolding Raziya dragged her away. She had already tied the taawiz from the dargah on Zoya's arm while reciting holy words and blew the air around her head to ward off evil spirts.
"Asad!" Zoya cried as he sat down by her side.
She examined his bruised knuckles and blew on them. She dropped soft kisses on both hands. Seeing his bandaged feet brought tears to her eyes. He held her to him, just grateful that she was fine. But she could have been seriously harmed if not for her presence of mind. Fear for her safety and bristling anger at the home invasion made his jaw clench tighter.
"See?" His wife patted his cheek, "we should have kept that security system I tried to install when I first came here!"
Asad groaned remembering the disaster that had been.
Those days Ms. Farooqui was a musibat-inviting guest, a constant thorn in his side, bent upon wreaking havoc on his sanity! She had become suspicious of Ayaan's nightly visits and used to patrol the house armed with her pepper spray. The last straw was when she tried to wire the house for a burglar alarm to protect her precious Phuphi and Tamatar. The devastation in the living room that night was comparable to the mess tonight! He had gotten entangled in the yards of wires, fallen hard on his butt, and broken another brand new phone. A phone that had replaced the earlier phone she'd commandeered and tinkered with to teach him how to say sorry!
"It was meant to be Mr. Khan! Just accept it," she had exulted later. "It was karma for tackling me to the floor my first night here."
He cracked a smile now.
Irrepressible! And unparalleled, as always!
"You're OK?" he asked. When she nodded yes, he teased her, "I got so scared when you fainted. Kahin aapne salute karte waqt apne aap ko behosh toh nahin kar liya? Aapka haath itna strong jo hai?"
"Asad!" she smiled.
Zoya cupped his face, frowning earnestly, "tell whoever is cleaning our room that I want every marble picked up and dusted, and returned to the jar by my table. I'm not leaving till that's done. And I want the ball cleaned up too and returned to me ASAP!"
He took a deep breath and grinned. Bumping noses with her, he promised, "I'll get Ayaan to do it."
Her frown deepened.
"What?" Asad asked in alarm.
"I'm so mad at that stupid chor! Cleaning up the marbles will remove all your tiny fingerprints from when you were a kid."
That night they clung to each other in a strange new house and bed. Zoya wept quietly in his arms. The adrenaline had crashed and fear of what could have happened was beginning to insidiously creep into their hearts.
Asad sucked her tears away. "When the baby comes, I'll tell them about the 19th Century Jhansi ki rani, and then about my 21st Century Bhopal ki rani!"
She sniffed. "I was pretty awesome wasn't I?"
He laughed in the dark. "The best! You kicked ass!"
"Really? And then you finished him off! We are a super jodi number one!"
"Koi shaq?" he gloated.
She rubbed herself against him. "Asad?"
"In your father's house?" he groaned, but not being able to resist nuzzling her.
"But everyone's upstairs. We have the whole downstairs to ourselves!" They had been given the room down here because of Asad's injuries.
"I'm too wired to sleep!" Zoya harrumphed. She turned her back on him and tried to settle into a comfortable position.
But she just couldn't feel right.
She flipped the covers off.
And then she pulled them back on.
She boxed her pillow trying to find the right angle to fit in the crook of her neck.
She sighed loudly.
Asad was wide awake through all this bed wrestling, pillow fluffing drama.
Finally flipping her on her back he tucked her under him, pinning her arms on top of her head.
"Enough!" he growled. "Stop your burrowing and tunneling."
"Make me!" she sassed, slipping her hands under his kurta and raking his muscled back with her nails.
He jerked and ground against her to whisper hotly in her ear. "I guess I'll just have to do some burrowing and tunneling of my own to get you to stop!"
"Asad!" she gasped in shock, and then moaned, "yes, please!"
Her back arched helplessly and her toes curled.
They fell into a bone deep sleep afterwards, their grateful bodies entangled and finally still.
"Sh*it!" he swore and flung his phone away. All this planning and bold action! And nothing concrete to show for it.
Imran paced in the tiny mezzanine barsaati he was holed up in since Asad Ahmed Khan had ruined his life. His family had slunk away to live with reluctant relatives in some podunk town.
He refused to go.
Tanveer and her cache of illicit money were here. He made do with freelance and seasonal work. He hadn't intended to mount the midnight attack on Asad's house.
But he had seen her. With him.
That meteor shower night!
Imran punched the wall and yowled in pain.
He had been there too with some drunken buddies who were more interested in ogling starry-eyed girls coming to the place in droves instead of the starfall. He had wandered off to be by himself.
He felt discontented.
For the thousandth time he cursed his fate. If he could wish upon a falling star, he'd ask for Asad Ahmed Khan's head on a golden platter.
It was then that he'd caught sight of a large group of happy revelers. They were dressed in their finest, as if celebrating a family function or milestone. He felt drawn to the mirth and easy camaraderie. A little closer, and he had come to a jarring halt.
It was them!
He pushed his baseball cap lower on his head and inched closer. At the center of the group, he saw Nikhat laughing up into a young man's face. And that man looked down at her, indulgent, smitten.
Corrosive acid lanced through Imran's gut.
He hovered and burned.
For god knows how long.
Imran saw that young man lead Nikhat away from the family. They walked, arm in arm, leaning into one another.
He followed them, unable to stop himself.
He heard their laughter and her soft voice. Once, he even heard her say, "Feroze!" in mock-anger and unfeigned love.
He saw her run from Feroze and him chase her. She shrieked as he caught her up from behind and swung her in his arms.
Imran watched through a hateful haze as Feroze bent to kiss her. On the lips! How dare"-?
He spun away, furious and breathless.
Wasn't this just the perfect bow on top of the shi*ttiest box!
They would pay.
He still hadn't forgotten that phone call from her when she had hurled every known insult at him. That bi*tch!
He had rustled up a couple of hooligans from his blighted neighborhood. They needed little persuasion to vandalize and terrorize the inhabitants of the Khan house. There would be only one man in the house. They could choose to do whatever with him and the women. They could walk away with whatever they could lay their grubby hands on.
It was a rich family. It would be an easy jackpot.
It was just his luck that the morons had messed it up! Not only had they been unsuccessful in taking his nemesis down, they had gone and got themselves nabbed by the police too.
Thank god, he'd given them a fictitious name!
Imran gnashed his teeth.
He'd still find a way to get even.
Breakfast was a riot. Asad had been nagged into taking a day off. His protests to work from home went unheard.
Humaira threatened to confiscate his laptop and phone.
She was really glorying in her new-found powers as a saali.
Everyone from the other house had come too. Feroze and his mom and aunt were present as well. After all the night's comings and goings were rehashed, Asad conferred in Siddiqui Saheb's study with Rakesh. Zoya itched and moped to be a part of it and was finally let in. So were Ayaan, Rashid and Siddiqui. Rakesh showed them all a sketch his people had put together after talking to the two suspects. The name of the person who hired them had turned out to be a dead end.
The sketch showed a man's face covered in thick facial hair and a baseball cap pulled low over the head. Dark sunglasses hid his eyes.
Ayaan looked at the sketch the longest.
"What is it Ayaan? Do you know him?" Asad asked.
"I don't know Bhai," he raked his hand through his hair. "But he looks vaguely familiar. May be ..." He shook his head.
When the sketch was passed to Zoya, she too looked long at it. Not the face, but the black cap with an orange logo of flames seemed familiar.
"Mr. Khan, why does this cap look so familiar?" she mused. "It's like I saw it recently."
Rashid and Siddiqui tried to peer at the figure too but couldn't seem to come up with much.
"He looks like a thousand men we see on the street everyday," Rashid said in frustration. "But yes, Ayaan, there is something so familiar about his face at the same time."
His eyes shone as he looked at Rakesh. "Is there a way to re-draw this without the mustache and beard?"
"It's worth a try," Rakesh nodded. "I'll try to have that done by the end of today."
Everyone looked at Zoya as she gulped loudly and squeaked.
"What?" Asad asked, worried. "Are you OK?"
She looked at Rakesh with barely concealed glee. "If you can scan that for me, I can try to erase the facial hair digitally and match the face as well as the logo on the cap from any secure database."
Asad groaned. No one understood why he was clutching his forehead in this manner.
Siddiqui instead, beamed at his daughter's genius. Ayaan took a picture of the sketch with her iPad that Zoya handed to him. He sent it to the girls and the mothers to see if the image jogged their memories.
"You have a program that can do that?" Rakesh asked in awe.
"Umm ..." she looked at Asad and he rolled his eyes.
"She doesn't, but she hasn't let that stop her in the past," he sighed in defeat.
"I'll need your laptop," Zoya batted her eyelashes at her Akdu husband and reached for it.
"No!" he hollered, twisting to push it far out of her reach.
Rashid was aghast at his attitude, "Beta, how can you talk to her like that? Bechari humari dost, help hi toh karna chah rahi hai."
"Abbu, woh bechari nahin hain," Asad growled.
"Take mine," Siddiqui offered, miffed that his son-in-law was being so rude to his brilliant and obviously gifted daughter.
"Umm, Siddiqui Saheb," Asad said gently, "you probably shouldn't give her yours either. What Zoya plans to do may not be a 100% legal, and your IP address could be compromised and flagged."
Siddiqui's eyes bugged; Rashid laughed. "Obviously my dost has done this before! Shaabash mera cheetah!"
"Now that's what I'm talking about," Ayaan whooped.
Nikhat touched her ring again and smiled. Feroze had dropped her off at work. Thank god Zoya Bhabhi, the baby and Bhaijaan were OK and safely ensconced in Humaira's house!
She giggled to herself remembering Feroze's groan when she had broached the subject of postponing the nikaah for a few days.
"You're right, we should, specially after what happened with Zoya and Asad. But am I so terrible for not wanting to?"
She had squeezed his hand, "just a few days, please?"
"OK, we'll move up the date," he sighed. "But then I want another week added to the honeymoon!"
She blushed at that even now.
"If we do that, then Faiz can attend the mehendi and sangeet too," he let out a martyred sigh, not the least bit happy. Faiz wasn't free to attend the pre-wedding functions and was flying in on the day of the wedding.
When her phone pinged to indicate a message from Ayaan, she opened it hoping for an update on Asad Bhaijaan and Zoya Bhabhi.
She looked at the attached picture in puzzlement. Ayaan's message "He looks too familiar, do you have any idea?" made her look at it even closer.
He did look familiar.
Who was this man?
She texted him back saying that while she couldn't place him, he did look very familiar.
"Weird," Ayaan remarked as he read Nikhat's text.
"What's weird Raabert?" Zoya asked.
After a half hour of nagging, she had finally managed to sit Asad down so that she could apply more ice packs on his bruised and discolored knuckles. She had loved forcing him to gulp down haldi milk that Ammi had brought in.
He made a face and she'd gloated in triumph.
See? I do this everyday, she seemed to say.
After much fussing she had even convinced him to put his feet up so that she could apply the doctor-prescribed antiseptic ointment and wound dressing on his cuts. Earlier, she'd teased him in private, "aw, look who's immobile now!"
"Both Nikhat and Nuzzhat say this sketch looks familiar. So do Ammi and Abbu, and Humaira and Mumani. But Najma and Badi Ammi, and you both don't seem to know him." He scratched his head.
"So obviously you guys know him from before," Zoya stated simply.
"Know him? But from where? And why can't we recognize him?"
"From before the time when Mr. Khan reconciled with Abbu. That's why we can't recognize him, but you guys find him familiar."
Asad and Ayaan looked at each other. Ayaan whipped out his phone to look at the picture again. "Mona darling, do your magic and clear off his facial hair!" he urged.
Asad picked up his laptop from the bedside table, "here."
Zoya rubbed her hands in glee and got started. But after a while she huffed in irritation. "Too many security filters! This'll take forever!" she grumbled. "Humaira get me yours."
Badi bi had come to visit too. She wandered into the room wondering why everyone was crowding around a computer screen. Ayaan explained to her about the sketch.
"Hum ko bhi dikhao," she demanded as she pulled out her glasses. She peered at it forever.
"Arre suno, Ayaan," Badi Bi said after a long time. "Doesn't this boy look a little like Imran?"
Before a surprised Ayaan could respond, his phone pinged. He opened Nikhat's message, "This guy reminds me of Imran. How weird!"
"Bhai!" he yelled. "It's Imran!"
"Imran Qureshi?" Asad grabbed the phone from Ayaan. "Yes, it could be him."
He had seen him all of two times.
The first time was at the Thai restaurant when he had finally confessed his love to Zoya. But then he had barely looked at that man twice, because that evening he had eyes only for Zoya. The next time had been in the hotel room when they had confronted him and Haseena bi about his relationship with Tanveer.
His blood froze.
Zoya had cleaned up the image by now. She held up the laptop for everyone to see.
It was indeed Imran.
But why? Asad stepped away and was already on the phone to Rakesh. "Find him," he ordered in a low tone, giving him Imran's full name, last known address and work information. He hoped that Imran hadn't changed phones, and that they could still track him from the number they had for him from the time they were trying to find Tanveer's pregnancy details. He listened for a while and then hung up, looking grim.
"Asad, what is it?" Zoya asked fearfully as she followed him to the closet.
"They showed the sketch around at the jail. The same man visited Tanveer yesterday." Asad told her through clenched teeth. He didn't want to talk about that woman in front of everyone else.
"That bi*tch!" Zoya muttered. "When are we going to be free of her?" Her palm fluttered to her stomach. With the other she clutched his sleeve. "Asad, I'm really scared now."
He drew her into his arms murmuring assurances and endearments. He didn't have the heart to tell her that he was worried too.
Song in Title:
Bachna Ay Haseenon (2008) "Khuda Jaane"
Zurrat Sau Baar Rahe, Ooncha Ikraar Rahe, Zinda Har Pyar Rahe
She jackknifed straight up in the middle of the night and gasped. Asad too shot up next to her to hold her. He was afraid that her nightmares would return. Last night she'd been too exhausted, but tonight ...
Just being under Raziya Siddiqui's roof might be the stressor to trigger an episode.
He shouldn't have listened to Siddiqui Saheb!
"Zoya! It's OK baby, I'm right here," he soothed, holding her against him and brushing her hair off her face. He tucked her head under his chin letting his warmth soak into her body; she was taut as a bowstring.
"He was at the meteor shower!" she exclaimed.
"Who?" he asked, disoriented.
Asad frowned. "What are you talking about? How do you know?"
"I remembered that cap with the logo from that night! Asad, he was watching us."
"Watching us? Why didn't you say anything at that time?"
"I didn't think too much about it. Besides, you were too busy being Grouchy Ahmed Khan and mad at me for the sleepover!"
He pulled her down with him. "What else do you remember about him? Was he alone? When was this?"
"I noticed him when we were singing zindagi ki yahi reet hai.' " She gripped his arm. "Oh my god, Asad, I think he was watching Nikhat!"
He made her close her eyes to reimagine the scene and setting. How long was he there? Would it help if they went back to the place to jog her memory?
Between the two of them they had already hashed and rehashed all the possibilities of the Imran-Tanveer conspiracy. Had he always been in cahoots with her? Or was this a new alliance borne out of the old adage: my enemy's enemy is my friend? Should they try to entrap Tanveer using Zoya's idea of a fake escape? But that would still leave Imran as a loose end. And what would the collateral damage be?
Now there were new questions: was he following them? If so, then since when?
Arm curved around her, Asad stayed awake long after Zoya fell asleep. He didn't like this feeling of being watched and hunted. He feared for Nikhat now.
What if Imran tried"-
He needed to talk to Feroze first thing in the morning.
Omar had already called, equally worried about the incident and Najma's safety. He had insisted that Najma stay with his mom at his relatives' house for a couple of days.
"But Omar, there's better security here. If someone is after the family then Najma is safer with us," Asad tried to explain to him.
"I just feel so helpless being so far away," Omar muttered. It was bad enough to be newly married and thousands of miles away from your bride, but to imagine the danger she was in, and not be able to do anything about it was ten times worse.
"The immigration paperwork seems to be bottlenecked too," he groused.
He didn't know how long he'd last at this rate. He put up a brave and bindaas front for Najma during their facetime chats on most days, but he brooded long afterwards.
Between themselves they propped up each other's sagging spirits. On the days when she was most upset, he'd cheer her up with his goofball antics and infernal teasing.
"I'm getting your name tattooed on my arm," he told her one day.
"No!" she had shrieked. She had covered her face. "Please no, that would be so embarrassing!"
"Embarrassing? My love for you is embarrassing! You don't think about the pain I'm willing to sit through for you, but no, let madam not be embarrassed!" he'd huffed, and she had to talk to him down from his raging bull act.
On the days he felt edgy, and ready to drop off a cliff, she talked about how they would go home and furniture shopping once she joined him. Because he'd told her that they'd buy a house when she came to the US. Every now and then, he sent her pictures of open houses in good neighborhoods with excellent schools.
On other days, she told him about what she would cook for him, and what saucy surprises she'd have waiting for him when he returned from work.
"I'm trying to wrangle an overseas business trip," he told Asad. "If it comes through I'd like Najma to join me."
"Of course. Where?" Asad asked.
"Still working on it. Let's see. At this point, I don't care if they send me to Timbuktu!"
"They don't have offices in India?"
"They do, but nothing related to my line of work."
"Don't sweat it, I'll take care of it. But you'll have to take her to Delhi."
Asad unclenched his fist and rotated his stiff neck as he hung up. Tension seeped through his frame. Feroze and Nikhat's decision to delay their nikaah by a few days now felt like an ominous sign. They'd all be sitting ducks if Imran and his henchmen decided to mount some kind of an attack at the function.
His mind ran a mile a minute, plotting more devious trips and traps than the ones cooked up by the writers of the pulpy caper films his wife loved to watch.
A decoy? Several decoys?
It would be expensive to do, he thought for a second.
But more expensive not to, he decided.
"I might know a little about why she did it," Zoya murmured as she tapped away on her iPad one night after dinner. Asad sat by her side doing his own work on the laptop.
"There's no excuse for what she did." Asad said. They were talking about Raziya. "Though I know she's making a genuine effort to be good. But she better not forget that she walks free only because of you!"
She stroked his arm and leaned over to kiss him on the cheek. "Thank you," she said. "I know you didn't want to ..."
"Only for you," he said softly. He shut down his computer and put it away. His arm tightened around her waist as he pulled her closer to him.
"Asad, I know you're right about there being no excuse. But I have a feeling it might have been post-partum depression."
"What's that?" Gently, he pulled her iPad out of her grasp to deposit it on his laptop. With his free hand, he thumbed her plump lips watching them move as she spoke.
Her voice became breathy. She was this close to dropping the subject entirely.
"I've been reading about it. And it can be pretty scary. Some new mothers find it hard to adjust to the demands of post-pregnancy stresses. They self-hurt or can't bond with the baby, or even fall into a deep depression. Ammi turning up with me at the time that she did, could have been a stressor."
"Zoya! Don't even try to excuse her crime by a citing some medical condition. No, what she did was plain wrong!"
Zoya hugged him and smoothed his frown. "You're right. But I'm scared."
He stiffened. "We'll leave right now and move into a hotel if we have to. You don't have to live here a second longer than you want to."
"No, not her. What if I have post-partum depression? What if I can't bond with the baby?"
Asad relaxed and smiled. "Impossible! The baby might get depressed because of how much you'll bond with him or her! But you? Never!"
"Aw Jahanpanah, you're too good for me!" she gushed. She bit down on his thumb that was still trailing promises, and he hissed.
"Asad, really? Again, so full of yourself!"
He leered at her suggestively and pressed her down on the bed. Zoya laughed and blushed remembering what he'd said the last time she'd said this to him: "tonight Mrs. Khan, you'll be full of me too!"
His intent gaze meant that he remembered too and was ready to follow through on that promise.
Her phone pinged and he swore under his breath. Rolling away he sighed in mock frustration. "Go, it's story time!"
"Yay," she squealed and dashed off.
Asad shook his head indulgently and sitting up, reached for his laptop.
The attack had turned out to be a blessing in disguise of sorts. It gave Zoya unrestricted access to time with her Abbu and Humaira, while ensuring that she spent the night in her husband's arms. Bedtime stories had become a quirky nighttime ritual at the Siddiqui house.
With both his daughters in their nightclothes on either side of him, Siddiqui read aloud short stories or chapters from books, with constant interruptions and commentaries from them of course. He read them some of his favorite Hindi and Urdu writers. Last night, all three had tears in their eyes when he read them Premchand's "Eidgah." Tonight they had forced him to read a chapter from Humaira's battered copy of Harry Potter. They giggled shamelessly at his pronunciation in English.
"Tum log bahut badmaash ho," he scolded them again. "Jao, hum nahin padhte!"
"No, Abbu! It's so cute. Please," Zoya begged.
"Promise Abbu, we'll be good," Humaira pledged, winking at her sister.
He resumed, only to cross his arms and huff with displeasure when they roared again fifteen minutes later.
Raziya removed her glasses and hid her own smile behind her hand. She sat in the rocking chair making lists for the ceremony tomorrow. The mothers had insisted on hosting a Quran Khawani to pray for peace and give thanks for everyone being safe. She now laughed outright at her husband's pretense to be mad at his girls when she knew that all day long he looked forward to this time with them.
This whole week he had taken off from work. He took the girls (Nikhat too was off from work because of her nikaah) to the bookstore and the university library for some peace and quiet after they'd dragged him to the mall the previous day. At the mall, he had thrilled them all by buying each of them a silver charm bracelet with their initials as the inaugural charm. They could individualize and customize these bracelets at will, or with each milestone.
Siddiqui presented Zoya with a special charm of a baby carriage for her bracelet.
He wanted one of a miniature music box, but there were none in the right shape. He decided he would secretly special order one from their jeweler. They could make an exact miniature replica of the music box he had given her so long ago.
Everyone also visited the dargah and the children's center, armed bodyguards in tow of course. The construction of the new addition was coming along nicely. Everyone trooped in through the construction zone; only Zoya was forbidden to set foot anywhere near it as per Asad's strict orders.
She fumed silently at having to idly twiddle her thumbs as the others oohed and aahed over the annex taking shape. Nuzzhat called out to her from the first floor and the girls waved to her, rubbing more salt on her wounds. She smiled up at her Abbu who had decided to stay back with her in sympathetic company.
Zoya took her Abbu to visit her mother's gravesite. Together they offered prayers and a chaadar. On the way Siddiqui had given her a silver meenakari box. It held that precious bundle of letters and photographs that Tanveer had stolen from her months ago. It also had a new and unfamiliar stack of yellowed papers, neatly folded in threes.
"The letters your Ammi wrote to me," he said through tears. She had pressed them to both her eyes, hugged them to her and eagerly leafed through them and traced her mother's handwriting.
Asad meanwhile was overseeing the clean-up, repairs and upgrades at the house, but most importantly, the installation of a state of the art security system. All the locks on exterior doors had been changed. At the same time he had insisted that the workers be completely vetted before working inside the house. Ayaan had been posted to monitor all renovations. Feroze had volunteered to give him company and be a second pair of vigilant eyes. What else was there to do? Meetings with Nikhat had now been forbidden so close to the nikaah.
Asad wasn't taking any chances. They wouldn't be caught unawares now.
He would have liked bulletproof glass at the front windows, but it would take too long to order and replace. And, his wife had teased him about overkill: not going overboard with making the house a fortress, even if he was the Jahanpanah!
He grinned as he spied the pepper spray canister on the kitchen counter during one of his late evening inspections. Some worker must have picked it up from where it had fallen that night.
Pepper spray! Ms. Farooqui's weapon of choice in those days. Besides her tongue of course! Even now he couldn't get over how riled he'd get by her single-minded ferocity to stand up to him and get under his skin ... like pepper spray.
Asad had joked once: "If you ever decide to stand for election, your chunav chinh will be the pepper spray!"
He made a note of buying one for each of the girls to keep handy.
In the now nearly-restored bedroom, he smiled again when he saw the jar of marbles and the freshly polished cricket ball in a new bone china bowl. The old one had been used as a missile by his wife.
That assailant really mustn't have known what hit him!
Co*cky about an easy mark, he must have been stunned by a flying saucer aiming straight for his head. Even before he must have recovered from that and taken a step forward, he must have started to roll and slip on the scattered marbles. And when in fury he'd have finally gotten to her side to grab her arm, a solid sphere socked him smack in his eye!
Looking at the cricket ball gave him an idea, and he smiled.
His smile vanished though at the thought of what could have happened. Zoya was pregnant for god's sake! What if the baby"-
His fist clenched in cold fury.
He would make Imran, and anyone else who dared look at his family sideways, pay.
When she came down from story time, she yelped and gasped aloud at the last step. Suddenly she was airborne and scooped up into her husband's arms. He swore under his breath at her inability to keep the noise levels down.
"Kya hua, Zoya beta?" Siddiqui came running to the landing above, followed closely by Raziya. They peered worriedly in the dark. Raziya moved to turn the lights on.
"Umm, I'm OK Abbu," she called out, dying to giggle. "Goodnight!"
"Be careful, and don't turn the lights off till you get to the bottom of the stairs," her father fussed. "You have to be more careful now."
"Ji Abbu," she called out, still repressing a giggle. Abbu didn't have his glasses on or he'd see that she was still being held aloft in Asad's impatient arms.
"Enough with the father-daughter banter and story time," he growled in her ear. "Time for Jahanpanah and Jhansi ki rani to --"
"Asad!" she admonished him as she covered his raunchy mouth with her hand. Shaking her hand off, his tongue slashed through her ear as he whispered promises of hot, carnal delights between two royal personages; she moaned, thighs clenching with want.
Inside, he set her down and locked the door behind them. Before she could move, he had backed her against the wall, arms extended up, fingers interlaced. He nuzzled her neck, she moaned and softened against him.
"Re-writing history in my father's house?" she teased.
He bit her neck and she mewled. "It may be your father's house, but," his hands roved over her aching body. "but you, Mrs. Khan, are all mine, across all time."
His fingers snaked in through her kurta slits and Zoya's back arched in anticipation. But instead of moving his hands up, he surprised her by tugging at her salwar's drawstring. As it pooled at her feet his hands moved to unhook the clasp on her back. Gripping the ends of her kurta he drew it and her bra off her head. Her own restless hands roamed and explored his body. He pinched her so tight before swooping to suck her hard that she came up on her toes, nearly undone.
The silver bracelet glinted in the starlight as her hand came up to cup his cheek at her [email protected] Entranced, he nipped her wrist where the letter Z' dangled alongside the baby carriage. The innocence and promise of that tiny charm swinging from her arm as she arched wantonly in his arms, naked, made him insane with desire. She tried to wrench her hand from his grasp so she could pull his kurta off. He held tight, still nibbling on the inside of her wrist.
"Asad, get this off, please," she begged. "I want you now!"
"Not so fast."
He toyed with and tormented her some more till she was nothing but a hissing, ticking ragdoll, limp and replete, just molten lava cooling. She stood splayed against the wall, held up only because his body was pressing against hers. Finally, when he was done punishing her for abandoning him for bedtime stories and outing his amorousness by squealing loudly, he picked her up to deposit her gently on the bed.
He shucked off his clothes.
Her grateful arms came around him as his body covered hers.
This felt so right. How was it that this skin against warm skin, flesh skimming over soft flesh dissolved all tiredness, all worry? How was it that every sense crystallized into that red-hot pinpoint of impact, that moment of erotic contact when she was already so wet, slick and swollen for him? And how was it that he sensed the tear sliding down the side of her face and bent to lick it even as he moved powerfully inside her? As more tears threatened to swim to the edge, her body clamped around him and he convulsed, cradling her head in his hand. She raised her head to bite him on the neck this time. And as her hand came up to grip the hair at his nape, the swinging baby carriage completely undid him.
"Oh god, Zoya!" he groaned.
"I love you, I love you much," she cried out as he crashed on her, his heartbeat drumming against her palm.
The Taekwondo classes had regrouped at the Siddiqui house too. Humaira was the happiest, second only to her Abbu, and Raziya only shook her head in merry wonder these days.
Martial arts for girls, in her house?
One of the girls working?
And his older daughter perpetually in jeans?
Her friends and relatives would never believe it of Siddiqui Saheb!
The classes were going well and the girls' skills were improving day by day. Except the girls' regimen was ramping up, but Zoya's was slowing down. She wasn't allowed high kicks anymore, no pad-work either.
And sparring was an absolute no-no!
Pretty soon she'd just be a spectator. Only stretching and ringside seats for her and Baby Ahmed Khan while the baby's khala and phuphis got better and stronger.
But then she was already so good at self-defense, what with her ability to salute and make herself faint because she was so strong.
But at Asad's behest she had talked to Ms. Sheena. The girls needed to be trained to anticipate and block any strike, choke hold, or grab.
They needed to be able to react swiftly, use their thumbs, nails, elbows, knees and heels as effectively as possible to gouge and disable any attacker.
They were under siege.
A stalker was on the loose.
"But what about you, Mrs. Khan?" Ms. Sheena asked, worry lines on her forehead.
Zoya blushed a deep red when Najma came up to hug her from behind and announce, "I think the plan is for Bhaijaan to personally train Zoya!"
The girls hooted. None noted Nikhat's blush.
"But Jeeju may have to learn a thing or two from Aapi," Humaira bragged. "My super Aapi is pretty capable of taking on gundas and cracking their heads open like ripe watermelons!"
"Really?" Ms. Sheena asked, impressed inspite of herself. "Can you show me some of your moves?"
Enthusiastic cries of "yes Zoya Bhabhi," and "Yay, Aapi," made Zoya really itch to show off her moves now.
And then she mimed her favorite and most practiced skill that she and her friends could do even in their sleep because they'd done it so often after watching Sandra Bullock in "Miss Congeniality."
She could do SING with one hand tied behind her back, blindfolded!
She was so good that she virtually danced the steps to some internal music in her head. She had it timed to exact seconds.
Zoya punched her elbow out behind her, raised her foot to stomp with her imaginary high heels into an imaginary assailant's instep, then she swiveled to smash the heel of her palm into the same attacker's nose. But when she raised her knee to jam it into his imaginary groin, she nearly toppled.
What the f"-?
She teetered on one foot and fell to the floor. Humaira and the girls rushed to her aid.
Asad came storming into the room the next instant. He was just on his way to work and had heard the cries of alarm. So did Dilshad, Raziya and Siddiqui who were all still sipping the last of their breakfast tea at the table.
One look at her tumbled on the floor made him slide to his knees by her. He grabbed her face in his hands, "What happened? Zoya, are you OK?"
He looked up in barely repressed anger at the girls. "What happened?"
They all stared at him mutely with wide panicky eyes.
"Mr. Khan!" Zoya had to force him to turn his face to her. "I'm fine. I'm just so freakin' mad!"
A reluctant half-smile tugged at his mouth.
"Why?" he asked, as he lifted her up in his arms.
She wasn't too happy at that either. It made her feel even more helpless and fragile. And she wasn't one of those feeble women.
"Because I fell, that's why! Put me down, I'm fine!" she flashed her eyes at him, mortified to be the center of all the attention and have the whole procession follow them into the living room.
Allah miyan! All they needed was a band.
He ignored her and carried her to the sofa. "How did you fall?" Asad glared down at her, arms crossed impatiently.
He knew that she must have been up to no good.
"I told you no more high kicks. Dr. Sharma said so as well."
"Zoya, what were you doing? Were you doing the kicks?" he growled. The pulse in his forehead throbbed.
"I was showing off my battle moves OK! Are you happy now?"
"You have battle moves?" an incredulous Asad asked even as he tried not to snort.
Dilshad and Najma looked at each other, all too familiar with this battle of wills.
But the others were new to it. Siddiqui and Raziya nervously sat down at the edges of neighboring chairs to watch this drama. The girls crowded around Najma, worried, but curious. Humaira perched on the sofa arm swiveling her head from her Aapi to her Jeeju.
Zoya had heard that barely-there snort and her head reared dangerously. As it is she was embarrassed about not being able to complete showing off her superpowers.
What the hell had happened?
And then here was her husband undermining her supergirlness even more. She scrambled up to stand on the sofa and pointed an accusing finger at her husband.
"I do so have battle moves and you said so yourself that I kicked ass that night! And then in Agra and Man"-"
His eyes widened as he realized where she was headed. Pretty soon she'd be babbling about Mangalpur too! And then there would be questions that would need a whole month to sort out. And if more details of how prone they were to violent attacks came out, then both their families would gladly handcuff them and put them under house arrest for all eternity to come.
He tilted his head to the side ever so subtly that only she noticed. His eyes narrowed, signaling her to keep quiet.
She huffed and retracted her finger, instead clenching her fist. Her lips thinned into a grim line.
"Beta, what happened in Agra?" asked her worried Abbu.
"Voh actually Abbu ..." she hedged as Asad helped her down from the sofa.
Siddiqui and Raziya, and Ms. Sheena, could not, for the life of them, understand why the rest of them were laughing so suddenly. Asad grinned harder as he saw his still-mad wife glare at him. Pretending to see him off at the door with his suit jacket in hand, she pointed her finger at him and whispered furiously, "I kicked butt at Agra and Manglapur, and you know it too!"
"Oh please," Asad hissed back, tongue in cheek as he slipped into his coat.
"You did nothing of the sort," he teased in mock-anger just wanting to see her get more riled up. Neither knew that they were still being watched by an avid audience.
"Mrs. Khan," he goaded her further by continuing to rag her in a low tone, "you just like making up stories of how you beat up gundas, when in reality, each time, I've been the one who's had to come and rescue you like the helpless damsel in distress!"
He walked out of the house.
"Mr. Khan ke bachche!" she hollered and chased him down.
"And then you always faint like a Victorian princess who needs her smelling salts!" He added as a parting shot, twisting the knife in deeper.
She gasped and spluttered, and fluffed up like an angry chicken. You could call her any name, but no one got away with calling her "helpless" or a "damsel in distress."
And definitely not a "princess!"
She followed him out, blinded by justified rage.
"Oh rea"-?" she bumped into his solid back.
He turned and hauled her into his arms. Zoya resisted even though she couldn't think of a single comeback that would restore her dignity and crumbling street cred.
"Mr. Kh"-!" she hissed, but he swooped to kiss her hard and shut her up for good. He bit and then sucked her lips, and thrust his tongue in to conclusively end their duel and give her comeuppance. She squirmed, but eventually her head fell back in surrender as she vined around and clung to him.
When she opened her glazed eyes he was grinning at her shamelessly.
"You think you're the only one who can pick a fake fight!" And with that he clicked the car open, climbed in and roared off with a jaunty wave.
She stared open-mouthed after him, not even blushing to see the guard studiously avoid her gaze. When she skipped back into the house she had no idea how mussed up and thoroughly kissed she looked. Everyone sniggered and dispersed in a hurry.
Dilshad slapped her forehead.
Allah, yeh dono!
Thank god Siddiqui Saheb had just left to attend a phone call. Humaira dragged her Aapi away to her room and stood her in front of the mirror.
Zoya turned a dull shade of pomegranate red.
"Allah miyan what's wrong with me!"
Asad's clipped words of caution were still echoing in his head. He had briefly explained about some woman Tanveer who was calling the shots, but as far as Feroze was concerned, Imran was the real threat.
He agreed with Asad.
The bike was out. He had read and heard too much about acid attacks against women in India to not immediately grasp how much of an easy target a passenger on a motorcycle would be.
While Imran's photograph had been circulated all around Rashid's, Siddiqui's and Asad's offices, he had proved to be more slippery than an eel. And the fact that he could hire petty criminals meant that he had some kind of resources and a network.
Pulling his phone out, Feroze gazed long at Imran's image. Having Nikhat call him up that day and curse him out now seemed as irresponsible as waving a red flag in an enraged bull's face.
Why did innocents have to live in fear while jerks like Imran roamed free?
But soon his heart squeezed in terror.
After the nikaah and honeymoon, he would leave for the US. And Nikhat would still be here, caught in the crosshairs of a madman. While he trusted Asad and his team to be able to eventually corner Imran, he also knew of the notorious ineptitude of the Indian judicial system.
He checked the time. It was too late to talk to Omar. But they needed to talk to immigration lawyers on the double about expediting the girls' paperwork. Thank god an FIR had been filed for the attack that day and a warrant for Imran's arrest was out. The official paperwork to prove the existence of a threat would be a good starting point. And Zoya's word about Imran's presence at the meteor shower night just might escalate the urgency to consider the imminent danger of a stalker determined to cause harm to the Khan family.
By now Rakesh and Asad thought it best to share the entire convoluted history of Tanveer and Imran with the police. It was also a good thing that Tanveer's previous attempts against Zoya were also officially recorded. Imran must have changed Sim cards if not his phone. He'd also fled the neighborhood that the two hired assailants had led the police to. He was in the air. The only tenuous hope was that he would try to visit Tanveer again.
But he was being too cautious.
It all came back to keeping an eagle eye on Tanveer. And since getting his people hired was taking too long, Rakesh just increased the number of people's palms to be greased at the jail. Nearly a third of the staff was on his payroll.
It had become a running joke by now.
People were now lining up and asking to be paid informants. Zoya joked that if Tanveer and Imran kept the Bhopal gunda population gainfully employed, then Rakesh and Asad were soon becoming competitors in putting together a vigilante army of Indian government karamcharis.
"I can even create a web site for you guys," she teased Asad one day. "We'll call it Chai-paani dot com!"
But soon her eyes got dreamy.
"Asad, wouldn't it be really cool if we could have like an underground network of good Samaritans who looked out for the innocent and stood up to bad guys?"
Asad grinned, "you mean like the Justice League or X-Men?"
"Yes!" Her eyes shone. Asad rolled his.
He brushed the tip of her nose with a knuckle. "You'd be Wonder Woman, I guess?"
"You bet! Though this morning you didn't seem to think so." Wrapping her arms around his neck, she cooed, "and what would you be Jahanpanah? Batman? Or Superman?"
"No, not Superman," she decided. "Batman! Cos. he's more Akdu!"
"I'll be whatever you want me to be," he said huskily. "Count Dracula?" and he bit her neck. Twirling her, he slammed her back against his chest while nuzzling her ear and grinding into her, "Batman?"
She giggled, "how about each member of the league and X-men every night of the week?"
"Jo hukum Mrs. Jaha"-!Damn!"
"Your phone. Isn't it too late for story time?" he complained.
"Shh, I'll take care of it," she promised. "But Mr. Khan, I'm serious about the Justice League concept."
"Superheroes? You're crazy."
"I know," she giggled. "And that's why you love me so much! But seriously, I mean it about some kind of a secret society that helps out people in need. Like the Underground Railroad! Let me just tell Humaira that no story time tonight for me cos. I'm beat. And then I'll tell you this awesome story about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad!"
It was the night of the nikaah and thank goodness everything had gone off without a hitch. Feroze and Nikhat had been whisked away and were already half-way to Bali for their honeymoon. So what if the suhaag raat had to be delayed?
It had all gone off without a hitch; and it may have had something to do with the fact, that all three houses were decked to the nines pretending to be the nikaah venue with loud band baja and dancing baraatis for hire, when the nikaah had actually taken place at a private farmhouse on the outskirts of the city.
A heavily guarded private farmhouse.
All residences had surveillance teams posted to keep track of uninvited guests.
After the initial unease, the ceremony had proceeded beautifully. The thick veil of tension and strain about security and everyone's safety was momentarily forgotten thanks to Zoya, Dadi and Ayaan's boisterousness, and Feroze's mom and Faiz's retaliatory smackdown. While some elders had frowned at the collective bachkanapan of the families, specially the Americans, everyone had managed to whoop it up and have fun. Nuzzhat had been teased mercilessly for not following through on the Khan tradition of a wedding and sagai combo.
"Sure, why not? Shouldn't mess with tradition!" Faiz had volunteered gamely. He had backed off only when Asad came and stood in front of a blushing Nuzzhat with his arms crossed menacingly.
Shireen had been a nervous wreck because of her kids' escalating misbehavior. Seeing the disapproving expression on Maulvi Saheb's face hadn't helped.
Asad was the only one she could rely on. He ocassionally talked the revelers down from their giddy high. They behaved for all of fifteen minutes, then went back to being the death of her.
Her own Bhaijaan was of no help any more.
Siddiqui just smiled and even egged them on when the girls demanded ransom. He had been apprised of the ritual and seen the DVDs and albums of Zoya's and Najma's weddings.
Standing with Zoya and Humaira on either side, Siddiqui had proclamed loudly, for all to hear, "We think we'll keep our daughters with us for a little longer, we love them too much to give them away. Kyun, ladkiyon, qubool hai?"
"Qubool hai!" the girls and Dadi had squealed, jumped and pumped their fists in the air.
And Shireen had nearly keeled over with stress.
Only Omar's mother could calm her down. But by the time she calmed down, it was time for the bidaai. Both Naz and Shireen wept in each other's arms. Feroze's father surreptitiously wiped a tear himself.
And it was confounding how, just as quickly, Zoya, the girls, Dadi and Ayaan had become subdued and somber.
Faiz couldn't help but rag his mom, "Ammi, but why are you crying? I thought you'd be a thrilled saas who now has her own brand new bahu to torture!"
"I'm a saas now," Naz bawled. "The most detested creature in Indian culture!"
When Dilshad was rubbing oil in her hair the day after, Zoya complained to her about her disappointment with falling over when she was showing the girls her self-defense skills.
"It's normal," Dilshad soothed her. "During pregnancy a woman's center of gravity shifts, so balancing for too long on one foot becomes tricky."
"So unfair Ammi! Why do these things happen only to women?"
"Poochho mat," Raziya joined in. "When I was pregnant with Humaira, my feet grew a whole size!"
"The acidity!" groaned Dilshad.
"My teeth shifted!" Shireen added sadly.
Dadi showed a ring on her finger. "It's been stuck on my finger forever. Can never get it off!"
"What?!!" Zoya shrieked and leaped up to run to her room to check her teeth, fingers and feet.
"I'm never getting pregnant again," she furiously texted her husband. "And once the baby comes, I'm never having s*ex again!"
Her phone rang the next second. "What happened?" her alarmed husband thundered. What the hell was she talking about?
"What did I do?"
"You made me pregnant, that's what you did," she bawled. "Not only will I be ugly and fat in the next few months, but I'll be a fire-belching, gap-toothed monster with big feet and sausage fingers! I'll be like Fiona from Shrek'!" she wailed.
Asad frowned. "But what does that have to do with not having s*ex?"
Song in Title:
Dor (2006): Yeh Hausla
Topic started by dixeij
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