"Jaldi karo!" Siddiqui urged his daughters. He didn't want them to know that he wanted to find out what happened next in Harry Potter. He had taken to reading the book by himself. But he would grumble to them about what a nonsense book it was, and how he could have written it much better.
They giggled, charmed by their father's falling in love with Hogwarts and its denizens. And because they knew how the story ended, it was really hard not to blurt out things and eagerly discuss characters or events from the books. They promised to watch all the movies with him. In fact they'd watch the first one as soon as he finished Book I.
A new Harry Potter vocabulary had become their secret language that Raziya and Dilshad couldn't, for the life of them, decode.
There were other mysteries too.
Why had frothy cold coffee been re-branded Butter Beer? Why were dupattas being worn as capes and Siddiqui Saheb's sherwanis being worn as robes suddenly? What were the girls doing swishing Dandiya sticks around for? And where had all the brooms disappeared to?
Zoya was loving this!
Back at home when the first Harry Potter craze had started, she and Jeeju would annoy Aapi the same way since she was just a Hufflepuff; always losing at Quidditch.
In the middle of the ninth lap he came to a dead stop. His head shot up out of the water as he shook out his waterlogged ears. Should they take this extra precaution? Have everyone move under one roof for better security and protection?
Asad dove his head under and soundlessly sliced through the water letting it ripple over him.
Since the decoy locations for the wedding had worked so well to disable potential attacks, could they use one of the residences as a decoy or bait to entrap"-?
He let the idea percolate in his head as he flipped over to do a languorous back crawl letting his arms propel him forward and stretch him out.
Asad had taken to swimming in the evenings in the indoor pool to de-stress. It cleared his head as nothing else.
But as much as she loved to watch him do a slow crawl one end to the other, trace the long arc of his arms power through the water as his legs scissored under the rippling surface, Zoya forced him to wear a T-shirt over his swim shorts.
"Why?" he'd protested the first time.
Her face flamed. "Because I don't want anyone to see the marks I leave on you! And I definitely I don't want Abbu to see my face when I'm drooling over those six packs!"
"Hmm," he growled, pretending to be put upon for having to make such a big sacrifice. Those marks he wore as a badge of honor. "Battle scars," he'd teased her once. "From when my Jhansi ki rani slays me!" But then he frowned. His wife had an uncanny way of tricking him to do her bidding by blackmail or flattery.
"OK fine, have it your way, be a showoff. Don't wear a T-shirt!" she huffed. "But only if I can swim too."
His eyes hooded, all speculation about her motives forgotten.
"In my bikini ..." she added huskily.
He gulped. "You wear bikinis?" Asad rasped in a hoarse voice.
"Little g-strings? Barely-there, skimpy, two-piece nothings? And went out in public?" he choked out, half-rabid with disbelief and lust.
"Nothing as revealing as that. They were two-piece, but cute, virginal bikinis."
"Virginal bikinis! Is there even such a thing?" Asad foamed at the mouth.
He was at a loss for words, not sure whether it was because he had found out a startling new detail about her, or because he couldn't get the image of her in a bikini out of his head.
Asad edged closer and crowded her against the wall. Nuzzling her neck he whispered, "tonight, when everyone's in bed, you and me, in the pool. Wear your bikini."
Zoya sighed. "I don't have it with me," she moaned.
"Then I'll go home right now and get it for you."
She laughed. "Mr. Khan, when I packed to come to India, I had no clue that I'd meet you and you'd invite me for a midnight swim. If I'd known, I'd have packed all three pairs."
"Three pairs? What colors?
She giggled. "One was a turquoise blue, burgundy with white flowers ..." He groaned.
"And the other was white?" he guessed.
"No!" she corrected him. "White is dangerous. Once it gets all wet, there's a pretty good chance of a peep show."
"Oh. My. God." He groaned louder. "That's it! Tomorrow we're going shopping and you're buying a white bikini," he declared.
"No!" she ran from him. "In a few days I'll start to show and then when am I ever going to wear a bikini?"
"I don't care. I want to see you in one, and that's final. You'll wear one for my eyes only!"
"Fine! I kinda want you to see me in one too," she breathed as she cuddled up to him, arms around his neck. "But what do we do about tonight?" Zoya dug her hands in his hair still damp from his post-swim shower.
Asad's eyes gleamed. "Those sinful shorts and my vest!"
"Deal! You'll have to get them from home though."
He promised that he would. He could even dash out now, if she wanted.
"In the meanwhile," Asad frowned down at her. "Do you have any pictures of yourself in a bikini on facebook?"
"Umm ... May be one from when I was in high school."
He threw his head back and groaned. High School!
He kissed her hard and shook her. "Why didn't I know you in High School?"
Asad shook his head in wonder, more at himself than her. He was initially shocked that she wore bikinis, but he was turned on too. It was only right that all his preconceived notions of proper femininity be toppled one by one by the one woman he had fallen head over heels in love with. He'd told her once, "it scares the hell out of me that I'm so in love with you," and she'd laughed in his face before blowing him an airy kiss.
He imagined her in it, and then how quickly he'd get her out of it.
If his college friends (yes, he did have friends, he would have to tell his wife now and then. "How come I've never met one?" she'd ask tartly) could only see him now ...
"Show me that picture," he ordered as he plunked her iPad in her lap.
The foreplay began early the next morning at the dining table. She looked up to see him staring at her, heavy-lidded, and felt awareness zing through her veins while the color heightened on her cheeks.
Holding his gaze she winked at him.
He choked on his cereal.
Later Asad called from the office. "But weren't you conscious about your scar?" He still couldn't get the image of her in a bikini out of his head.
Zoya laughed. "I always wore one of those tattoo sleeve covers on my arm. Problem solved!"
"What's that? Who gets a tattoo to only cover it up?"
"Because Mr. Khan, we Americans think of everything! The sleeve covers are for people who have badass tattoos but work in conservative establishments where your customers or clients may get offended if they saw employees with tats."
"Hmm," Asad demured, still vaguely dissatisfied.
Twenty minutes later he called again, still mystified. "But why not just wear full sleeves? You Americans are known for branding solutions to non-existent problems!"
"Hey, watch it!" She hollered. And then Zoya explained patiently, "because some places have uniforms with short sleeves."
"Be ready," he reminded her. "I'll come get you at around 1."
She smiled. He really was serious about shopping for a bikini!
In the car she cribbed for the umpteenth time.
"You're the only girl I know who finds shopping boring. Even Dadi gets excited about shopping!"
"It's dumb," she complained. "I hate having to paw through miles of racks in department stores stretched across acres. Back home I'd order things online and if I liked something, I'd just order it in multiple colors! And if I really, really, like something, I just multiple order the same thing. Saves so much time and energy."
"I noticed," he teased.
He probably had more clothes than her. Her wardrobe had doubled, but only because of the various lehengas, sarees and suits that she'd gotten as gifts, not because she had gone shopping for them.
"Since you really, really, like me, how many of me would you order?" Asad asked as he swung the car into the underground parking.
"A whole boatload of you! Imagine how much I'd have to pay in shipping and handling!" She laughed taking his arm as they walked toward the elevators.
"I'd order you in all colors," she whispered in the lift. "A purple one for when you're at your most Akdu. Yellow for when you stand guard over me as I drink that disgusting haldi milk. White for when you're at your se*xiest. And red for when, you know ..."
"Say it!" He braked his feet, refusing to budge as they exited on the main floor.
"Asad!" she admonished him in a low tone as people glared at them for blocking access and being forced to walk around them.
He glared at her and she sighed.
"Red for ready." Her voice dropped an octave and she leaned into him. Asad bent his head to catch those husky, silky words of hers, "for when you're fully aroused, ready to enter me," she whispered.
He threw his head back and groaned letting her impel him forward. Asad shook his head to clear the red mist of desire that had already made his pants a bit too snug. Trust her to take a bean of an idea and spin it into tall tales with complex back and cover stories and end up turning him on in the process.
"And pink for when you're most romantic," she continued as she pinched his cheek.
"Pink!" he spluttered. "With a tutu and a tiara! Of course the pink me will be missing some vital body parts!" Damn, he still couldn't get his mind off some vital body parts!
Zoya doubled over with laughter.
"Jahanpanah, behave!" She backtalked.
But then she looked with dismay at the mall stretched out before her. "I'm here, and doing this only for you and your R rated fantasies. I'm waiting for this 3D printing technology to really take off. Imagine if you could just 3D print a bikini at home!"
Her feet faltered. "Asad look at this place. Isn't it so depressing?"
The cloying smells from the perfume counters nearly gagged her. And the army of eager beaver salespeople with "ma'am, sir, can I help you?" was plain annoying.
She felt bad for them.
Only in India would you find dozens of uniformed employees bowing and [email protected] and falling over themselves to treat shoppers like feudal lords. Please, just let me be, she wanted to tell them. What part of "thank you, I'll let you know," was so hard to understand? At least in America they left you on your own with a polite, "let me know if you need any help."
She sighed miserably.
"Come on," Asad pulled her along. "If you're good, you can have pizza and kulfi."
That put a spring in her step. And the sooner they got this done, the sooner they'd be out of here. Her hand itched to pinch his cheek again in gratitude.
But she restrained herself by only interlacing her fingers with his, "Aw, now that's my white Jahanpanah with a dash of pink!"
"Pizza and kulfi is se*xy and romantic?" Asad asked after trying to remember her color-coding system. The only one he really cared about was red.
"You know it is for me!"
But shopping with Asad wasn't that bad, thought Zoya much later. May be because the act of shopping itself had become foreplay too. She had held up the skimpiest bikini up against her and his dark eyes had hooded.
"White," he'd mouthed as he jerked his chin to the side, and she'd blushed. He'd bent to brush his lips against her ear and breathed, "I'm pretty close to red right now."
She'd shuddered and nearly moaned aloud. Allah miyan, skewered by her own imagination and motor mouth!
And he insisted that she buy a red bikini too.
"Asad," she'd hissed. "It's such a waste. We don't even have a pool at home!"
"I'll build one if you want, and in the meanwhile, you'll wear these for my own private shows."
Zoya had sighed as he ushered and steered her toward the section with kurtis. "I don't need any," she told him firmly. But Jahanpanah was in no mood to hear no today.
Or any other day for that matter.
The two salespeople jumped to attention and brought over dozens of styles and colors. She just sat and watched as Asad hand-picked a turquoise blue kurti with zari work, and a black one with large gold and red paisleys on the sleeves and back. It was beautiful.
"Ammi won't let me wear black," she reminded him with regret.
But he ignored her. He finally picked out a white kurti with blue embroidery on it and she fell in love with it. She didn't even mind trying them on, but she put her foot down after the first three.
"I'm done!" she announced and this time Asad had to back off. But he did drag her to the shoe department and their mating dance began all over again. This time she was grateful for the over-eager salesmen who brought boxes to her as she rested on a chair.
Thank god for shopping in India!
You just sat, and the merchandise came to you. You pointed and Voila! In an instant it was at your fingertips or feet.
Again it was Asad who told them which styles to pull out and slide on her feet. She tried them on and paraded up and down only to see the look on his face. The pedicure from the sleepover was still fresh and she knew that he liked what he saw. Today she was sporting a most delicate toe ring. Its rhinestone winked at him in those kitten-heeled burgundy slides. He made her buy two of those.
And one in black.
She was now regretting telling him her secret shopping formulas and worry-free retail philosophy.
"Asad, in the next few months my feet are going to swell up, when am I"-"
He looked down at her patiently; she sighed and happily shut up. After all, he had told her that night when they first confessed their love to each other, "I want to spoil you!"
And he had, every day since then.
So why stop today?
Zoya was exhausted and now tugged him away. But she couldn't help but squeal and gasp as they passed the baby department. Rows of tiny clothes and the most darling shoes no larger than her Jahanpanah's thumb! Zoya clapped her hands and bounced up and down when she spotted a tiny blue cricket jersey with Dhoni's name. Hand to her heart, she refused to budge from there. But Ammi had expressly told them that they weren't to shop for anything for the baby. "Nazar lag jayegi," she had cautioned them.
She turned away knowing that they shouldn't buy it. May be later. But she wanted that jersey so bad! It was so cute. And of course her husband had to get it for her. When he went to pay for the items after settling her down in a comfortable chair, he ordered the saleperson to get a teddy bear and the blue jersey. He'd suffer Dhoni's name in his room as long as she kept the teddy bear on the settee and off their bed!
When Asad dropped her off at her Abbu's house with all the purchases, he told her to get some rest. "Remember, I need you to be fresh and alert for our midnight swim tonight!"
Oh god, she quivered and hugged herself. This was turning into quite the production, a hunting game where the predator brazenly stalked and taunted the prey.
But the prey was powerful too.
A raised eyebrow, a licking of the lips or biting them, could make the predator groan in agony. And a butt wiggle, and arched back, had the power to bring him crashing to his knees.
"Yes Boss," Zoya grinned cheekily at him over her shoulder.
"Would you like a lap dance to take the edge off?"
"Aaannnhhh!" Asad groaned. "I have a meeting woman! How do you expect me to concentrate with that image in my head?"
"Simple! I don't," Zoya said and shut the car door with a flourish, sealing his protracted se*xual torment.
"Zoya," "Aapi," Bhabhi, what'd you get?" the girls swarmed around her.
"Umm, let me just freshen up and I'll show you." She dashed to their room to hide the bikinis in the cupboard. Just as she was closing the closet door the girls spilled into the room and plonked themselves on the bed. They tore through the bags and Zoya breathed a sigh of relief that their seduction paraphernalia had just narrowly escaped detection.
Jahanpanah, one of these days, you'll get me into serious trouble!
But she forgot everything when she saw the teddy bear wearing the Dhoni jersey. She squealed the loudest and Siddiqui, Raziya and Dilshad came running from all directions with alarmed cries of "kya hua?"
Dilshad was the first one to interpret the mayhem as she watched her bahu hugging a teddy bear.
"Kucch nahin Siddiqui Saheb. These girls just like giving us mini heart attacks for no reason at all. And it's all the boys' fault for spoiling them rotten."
"But reason hai na, Badi Phuphi" Humaira quipped. "It's to check your reflexes and to see how alert you all are. Ab umar ho chali hai aap sab ki! At 4pm there will be another test."
The girls sniggered and Raziya swatted her back. "Hatt, badmash kahin ki! Aise kehte hain baddon ko?"
"And at 5pm tum logon ka IQ test hoga," Siddiqui retorted. "Dekhen toh sahi ki tum Muggle millenials ko kuchh aata bhi hai ya nahin."
"Good one, Abbu," Zoya cheered him. She held her Dhoni bear aloft and he smiled indulgently.
But at 6 in the evening Nuzzhat could be seen rolling her eyes in Humaira's room. Because everyone around her had gone mental.
Even though they were all together, the other girls wore secret smiles and blushed looks. Of course, they were all probably se*xting and not letting her brothers or Jeeju work. Soon, when she returned from her honeymoon, Nikhat Baaji would join this gang too and she'd be left all alone.
So damn annoying!
She bi*tched about feeling left out to her friends. "Tu bhi dhoondh kissi ko," one of them replied.
"How about that brother of your Jeeja? He was so cute!"
"Shut up," she typed. "Don't even! I don't want Ammi to get any ideas about ladkas and rishtas! Thank god she's still recovering from Baaji's nikaah."
Nikhat's nikaah was bittersweet for her.
Nuzzhat loved her Feroze Jeeju to pieces, but missed her sister terribly. She loved that Nikhat Baaji had found the best guy and funnest saas in the world, but then she would go so far away. More than half way across the world! It was great that Ammi's fears about Baaji's nikaah were unfounded and now laid to rest, but now it meant that Ammi would transfer all that pent up marital and maternal attention to her and worry day and night about her nikaah. Soon she would begin nagging Abbu at dinner, "ghar mein jawaan ladki baithi hai, aur aapko toh uski fikr hi nahin hai!" And very soon she would start off any where and everywhere, begging anyone and everyone: "Aap ki nazar main koi ladka ho toh ..."
And that is why she needed Faiz to get out of town ASAP, or her mother would start getting ideas.
Damn! So depressing. Parents! Why couldn't they get amnesia once in a while?
She group texted her Bhaijaans and Jeeju, still miffed about the current state of affairs. "Your begums are being totally annoying. How about going back to work now so they can pay some attention to me?"
"Aadhi gharwaali, my workday hasn't even begun yet, so I'm entitled to some wife time. Let me and my begum be. But yeah, your brothers should have their noses to the grindstone, not pressed against and fogging up their phone screens!" Omar group texted right back.
"I love you Omar Jeeju, you're the best! Sowwie!" She replied. She'd forgotten about the time difference. And Najma Baaji she could forgive, but not her Bhabhi and Bhabhi-to-be who were still being so annoying.
"I survived the meeting no thanks to you. 6 more hours to our midnight date," Asad reminded her. "And Nuzzhat is feeling ignored," he added before signing off.
She looked up guiltily and noticed Najma and Humaira's expressions mirror her own. Nuzzhat was pouting and had her head buried in her phone as she tapped away furiously.
The girls' eyes met and sealed in conspiracy.
Zoya held up three fingers for a silent countdown. At one, they collectively pounced on Nuzzhat and she shrieked in fear first, and then gasped for breath when they tickled her to death.
"Ab kya hua? Five points off for Gryffindor!" Siddiqui called out from his study.
"Kucch nahin, Abbu Dumbledore!" Humaira called out, breathless with laughter. "We're just trying not to ignore Nuzzhat!"
"Only I can help you," Imran told Tanveer. "And I'll do so only if you give me a cut of that money you've squirreled away somewhere. It's no use to you rotting away here on the inside."
He had come to meet her even though he knew it was risky. But that money was calling out to him. He needed it if he wanted to set his life right. Get out of town may be, start over somewhere else with a clean slate. Nikhat was married, and all his attempts to find out where she and her new husband had disappeared off to had failed.
Once again that Asad Ahmed Khan had got in his way.
First, he'd thwarted the attack. Next, he had created an elaborate ruse to cover up the nikaah whereabouts. If he had more money, Imran could have hired more intelligent and better experienced goons.
But scarcity was a bi*tch.
As it is he was [email protected] the bottom of the barrel and coming up empty.
The heightened security at all three houses was another deterrent. Even petty thugs weren't keen on messing with that. Tanveer and her stash were his only hope of retribution and rehab.
"You owe it to me. I am the father of that child you're carrying after all."
She glared at him. She was so pissed at him, the baby, and everything else around her. Why had she even consented to meet with him? Initially, it had been for the entertainment value.
She knew exactly why he was sniffing around her.
But now she was just so fed up.
The heat, the flies during the day and mosquitoes at night, the terrible food, the wretched tramps around her, were all too much. She better get out of here fast or she'd be doomed. So far she had lay low to gather her strength after that stint which took her to the jail hospital. She had hoped to find an avenue of escape, closely studying the lay of the land, but nothing concrete had materialized. And then when she had returned, some idiot had knocked into her and she'd twisted her ankle.
But now that she was feeling much better, she needed to get back on track.
She tried not to roll her eyes as Imran droned on self-importantly.
Really? Now you claim paternity? When I'm freaking locked up in jail! Had you manned up six months ago, may be things would have been a lot different, you bloody fool! How far will you run once the baby comes? Or if the baby has a birth defect, which the doctors had warned her about?
"So tell me what's new with the Khans," she cut his tired spiel off. "How are we going to get even with them?"
He sat up eagerly in the molded plastic chair and leaned forward. Imran told her about all that he'd done so far and how he'd failed because these days even hired gundas were lazy scum.
Tanveer squeezed her eyes shut in frustration. The morons she had to deal with! If he really wanted to do it right, all he had to tell those idiots was to slash the gas hose and set the place on fire.
Cheap, dramatic and final.
She'd have to do her own thing. If she relied on fools like this, she'd never get out of here.
"I think we got him," Rakesh updated Asad. He went on to tell him how an elderly man had come to visit Tanveer today.
"We think it may be Imran in disguise and my guys are staked out at some sleazy hotel where he may be holed up. I just alerted the police who might raid the place."
Asad heaved a sigh of relief. Please, let it be Imran, he prayed. Please let it end.
"My people are in place whenever you want to greenlight the great escape." Rakesh's voice broke through his solemn reverie.
Ayaan had been apprised of all the history as well as the plan; he had named the mission "Operation Great Escape."
"How long before your people send out the feelers to test if Tanveer will take the bait?" Asad asked tapping his fingers impatiently on the desk.
"I'd say, anywhere from three days to a week. Two people pretending to have a conversation about planning an escape with outside help, and another to make sure that she overhears it. The ball will be in her court. Then all we do is wait for her to approach my guys."
For a second, Asad hoped that Tanveer wouldn't take the bait and just give it all a rest.
But he also knew better by now.
If she'd salted her money away somewhere, then for sure she wouldn't be parted from it for too long. And if she was determined to get out, then he'd prefer it to be his way, on his terms, so that he could control the outcome.
"Do it," he told Rakesh grimly.
Zoya and Siddiqui sat at the dining table as she showed him what she'd done so far regarding the college class proposal. She had already created a website which she hadn't published as yet. It had a violence-against-women tracker and mapper, videos and talks, links to non-profit organizations and a resources page. After consulting with Asad, she had even added their assault in Agra as one of the numerous survivor stories, as well as Miriam's story in Mangalpur. She had changed their names for safety and privacy reasons. Zoya had contacted Miriam in Dubai to ask if she would be willing to do a follow-up interview and even if she wanted to be involved with the project.
Miriam had heartily agreed.
So far so good.
However, because they were going for systemic changes, they would face stiff resistance besides apathy and cynicism. She had studied in some detail, the history of se*xual harassment prevention and gender policy and legislation in the US and India. Repeatedly, her research showed that resistance came from the far right, religious groups, businesses, administrators and bureaucracy, and sometimes, even from women.
What if there were protests from youth and student groups? Educatonal institutions would cave in to ward off prolonged curriculum disruption.
Zoya produced hard copies of several studies from reknowned scholars and professionals, and handed it to Siddiqui for further reading.
"To even get the ball rolling and set the stage for this program, our approach has to be multi-pronged. The will to change must come from the top, because faculty and administrators may resist the idea too. They could drag their feet or may throw up legal and logistical challenges that could derail the idea even before we launch."
Ordering change, would not make people's minds change. At the same time, lecturing people about the issue would turn them off too.
Siddiqui looked on, more and more impressed as she went on. He had faith in her, but may be he suspected that not much could be achieved in such a short time. And they had had many distractions since he first proposed the idea and entrusted her with it.
"And the youth and student groups need to feel invested in this process too." Zoya continued. "We'll start with a survey for faculty, staff and the student body to assess involvement and commitment to the issue. We can't make it mandatory but we can incentivize it with raffles, gift certificates, or any other kind of recognition."
She leaned forward eagerly, "wouldn't it be awesome Abbu, if people proudly put participation in such programs on their resumes and it made them more marketable as a valuable employee to have?"
He nodded, infected by her optimism and vision. He made a mental note, in hiring interviews he would insist on including questions that addressed this issue. His mind wandered: what if men put down such kind of training on their CVs on matrimonial websites and profiles?
Siddiqui smiled as Zoya touched his arm to bring his attention back to her. She had already created the pre- and post-program questionnaires and related spreadsheets where they could start inputing data once it started to roll in.
He watched, charmed, seeing her become more and more animated. She sat up, crossed her legs on the chair and rattled on about bringing celebrities on board.
But then Siddiqui frowned.
He used to think of all this celebrity endorse*ment as fluff and a kind of selling out, but as the other girls crowded around them and threw ideas into the midst, he could see the value of marketing an idea to create broad-based consensus by adding a "cool factor" to the mix.
It was about changing attitudes after all. And if celebrities could do it, then why not?
Programs like Aamir Khan's Satymev Jayate had already paved the way for such activism and consciousness raising.
"If we get a Bollywood or cricket star, a well-known journalist or popular writer to talk up the importance of changing our mindsets through such programs, then we can really make this stick in people's minds, Abbu!"
Humaira jumped in too, "and find as many men in support as women. There are many groups such as Men Against Rape and celebrities already discussing the issue. But so far we've been talking of what's wrong. This can start the conversation about what we can do." She had been helping her Aapi with the research.
Zoya's Prezi presentation showed comparative success rates in the US and western European countries. Zero tolerance policies helped, but in a country such as India it would run into immediate obstacles. Expelling and blacklisting offenders who'd been charged with assault and rape would be too hard. She brought up cases where universities had to backtrack in the face of political pressures if the defendant was a politician's or government official's son.
The stats were staggering and sobering.
They had to instead find ways to harness the power of men as allies not painting them as the enemy. And here is where celebrities, bystander intervention, self-defense training, and expert guest lecturers came in. She was in talks with a local street theater group to script plays that would integrate prevention and empowerment by emphasizing bystander intervention as an effective deterrent to eve teasing.
A great change was sweeping across India. The Nirbhaya case had energized the masses and now rapists were being shamed instead of victims.
This was the moment. It was theirs to seize.
Zoya went on to present best and worst-case scenarios and a timeline. If they were aggressive enough, the first session could be within six to eight months. Ideally, the hope was for them to become the first institution of its kind to offer such a comprehensive training and education program, and get a chain reaction started if they could get accreditation and national recognition.
This was a lot to digest and she hadn't even compiled the final report. Her Abbu would study the materials and reassess how much and how far he could extend himself.
Siddiqui walked away, deep in thought elated and proud of Zoya, but simultaneously terrified of the responsibility this would thrust upon them.
This was a noble enterprise. But did they have the mettle to see it through?
Because there was another barrier to this campaign of change too. And it was the basic risk of a backlash. She had already seen this fear in Asad when she had run her ideas by him. As much as he supported her, he couldn't hide his reluctance in letting her go too far with these plans. Such a public campaign would bring her and anyone associated with the issue, under the radar of disgruntled and disaffected males, domestic abusers, and anyone who saw female empowerment as an assault on the status quo. Since the beginning of time, any social change was seen by some as a loss of god given privileges and rights. And when perceiving their familiar rights under attack, such people often resorted to violence. Statistics showed that with each wave of gains in women's rights, violence against women shot up too.
Didn't they already have enough enemies in the form of Tanveer and Imran?
Zoya knew Asad was right, and even that concern she had factored into her report, which was still a work in progress. After all, many parents would object to their daughters participating in such programs precisely due to such a fear. Men who did participate, would be made fun of for being pu*ssy-whipped and emasculated.
But they had to get started somewhere, didn't they? And as much as Asad hated the idea or his gut twisted in fear, he stepped back when Zoya reminded him, "Jhansi ki Rani didn't become Jhansi ki Rani because her husband told her to stay at home."
"But you will stay behind the scenes. I don't want you to be the face of this campaign." He had put his foot down.
"You're right, with the baby coming I won't have the time either." She solemnly agreed.
She sat up at dawn and shook Asad awake.
"What?" he grumbled trying to tuck her under his arm, eyes still closed.
"The bikini top!" Zoya squeaked. "It's probably still floating there waiting to be discovered by whoever wakes up first. Mr. Khan! I told you we shouldn't have!"
Asad's eyes popped open wide in alarm and he bolted out of bed to go retrieve the telltale sign of their midnight romp. Ammi would seriously kill them if she even caught a whiff of their besh*aram activities.
He kicked away Dhoni bear who was blocking his path. Thank god his wife didn't see him do that.
And thank god there wasn't a full moon last night! Because otherwise the large domed skylight over the pool would have acted as an indiscreet spotlight. The oblivious moon had its back to them, the domed searchlight was switched off, and the silhouetted darkness wrapped them in a velvety embrace. Asad held her against him, lazily trailing a wet hand on her cheek and tucking her hair behind an ear.
The water lapped around them.
It drove him crazy that she couldn't muffle her hisses and soft cries of arousal as much as she bit her lips or burrowed in his chest. He had already done an in-room inspection of the bikini's translucence and given it an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
His hand moved up to her nape and he tugged the strings loose.
"Asad," she gasped softly. "What if someone sees us?" she whispered, even as her eyes closed and her lambent body invited his ardent caresses. The wet material still clung to her even though the strings had come loose.
"Shh," he bent his head to tease her free with his tongue. She forgot all questions and any doubts as his fingers sneaked between her legs and pushed the bikini bottom aside to stroke her intimately. She bit his shoulder to keep from whimpering with electric pleasure.
She was molten, golden in his arms.
Asad raised his head to look at her face.
"Come for me. Now!" he commanded, his voice rough with desire. He kissed her eyes and mouth as she shuddered and peaked. Her hands had spasmed on his arms and she was unaware that her nails scored him.
He loosened the strings at her back and buried his face in her cleavage. "Zoya!" he moaned.
"Oh god Asad, no, not here," she had begged helplessly as he unsheathed himself and moved to mount her. His thumb had feathered across her bruised lips. Merciless, he'd pressed on, seeking and craving her tight clench.
He knew she was terrified of discovery and her warranted fears inflamed his blood.
He knew she was a noisy lover and its promise pushed him to breaking point. Because he knew how he would silence her and swallow her dissent and consent.
Lifting her to fit him he slid in and her head rolled back. Her short gasps and quick breaths scorched him.
"Say it," he told her through gritted teeth.
"I love you, I love you." Her breathy litany in his ear punctuated each grateful thrust as he hitched her hips closer impaling her deeper. Her strangled words faded.
"Keep saying it," he shook her.
"I can't, oh god, Asad I ca"-!"
The water churned and tossed around them, a heaving blanket and blushing voyeur.
Song in Title:
Fanaah (2006), "Mere Haath Mein"
"No Ammi, I won't go and you can't make me." Nuzzhat shouted over her shoulder and flounced off to her room.
She knew exactly what Ammi was up to. Just because Nikhat and Najma baaji were going with their in-laws to Ajmer Sharif in two weeks, didn't mean that she had to tag along too. But no, who'd explain that to Ammi who could already smell the mehendi and hear shehnais? And Naz aunty too was looking at her funny these days.
Abbu never said no to Ammi. And the other girls were useless too. No one understood why she hated being teased. Only Asad Bhaijaan was on her side. He glared at them all when they continued to rag her about Faiz.
"Focus on your studies and ignore these people," he told her one evening when the teasing had gotten particularly oppressive.
Zoya had held her face, "aw, we're sorry for messing with you, Nuzh! But we'll never force you to get married. And we'll stand up to Chhoti Ammi so don't worry. I have so many tricks up my sleeve! Aapi used to bug me too about marrying all the time! She would chase down boys at the mosque or the community center and ask them, beta aapka naam kya hai, aap kya karte ho?' So embarrassing, Allah miyan!"
"Oh my god, Zoya Bhabhi!" Nuzzhat hissed. "Will you keep it down? I don't want Ammi to get new ideas about how to find raah-chalte eligible boys! But what tricks? Tell me more."
"I would wear shorts or a mini skirt when Aapi invited ladkewalas home and accidently' forgot to tell me about it!" Zoya told her, using air quotes.
Asad grinned in approval, perfectly satisfied with her evasive blocks of nikaah to anyone else.
But Nuzzhat frowned. "I don't have any. Can I borrow yours?"
Now Asad frowned in disapproval and Zoya laughed, teasingly bumping his shoulder with hers.
She was familiar with all of Aapi's sneaky chaals and had her own well-appointed arsenal to counter them.
But she had become over-confident.
Because the Akram-ambush she hadn't seen coming. That was when Aapi pulled out all the stops.
Zoya looked up at Asad.
But then that sneaky trick was the one that got her to flee the nikaah from hell, all the way to the dargah and ...
... and the rest is history!
She sighed happily and returned to soothing Nuzzhat's fears.
"When Aapi sent Omar to check me out,' I was planning to put stinky oil in my hair and braid it into sausage rolls, draw a unibrow to connect my eyebrows, and wear my oldest, most faded jeans! You don't know how much I missed my Halloween witch make-up kit that day! I had a whole collection of glue-on tattoos and piercings."
Asad laughed at the image. Yes, she did have a flair for drama. He still remembered when she'd pretended to have chicken pox to avoid deportation!
"Why didn't you do some of those things?" Nuzzhat asked. She remembered vaguely that Omar Jeeju had first met them all because Aapi had proposed a potential rishta between him and Zoya Bhabhi.
Zoya looked at Asad again and held out her arm.
Surprisingly unembarrassed, he took her hand in both of his, and placed a lingering kiss on it.
Their eyes locked.
Nuzzhat blushed. She had never seen Bhaijaan be so demonstrative.
But she became serious when she saw something painful flicker in both their eyes.
Zoya blinked several times and cleared her throat. "I didn't, because your Bhaijaan was going to be there too. And I wanted to look my best ... for him."
The piercing ache of those days gave her sudden goosebumps.
But when Asad squeezed her hand, she smiled.
The cloud passed.
The pain of the past mattered only because it was meant to bring them closer eventually.
He bent his head to whisper a line from an old Rafi song for her ears only, "Hai ban ne sawarne ka jab hai maza, koyi dekhne wala aashiq toh ho!"
She glowed with pleasure.
Nuzzhat gripped her other hand with urgency and dragged her away. "Bhabhi, promise me that you all won't press me to get married until I find a guy who makes me want to look my best?"
"Done!" Zoya shook hands with her on that promise.
"And looks at me the way Bhaijaan looks at you!"
Zoya turned a shade of red that would make Tamatar look pale by comparison. She nearly fled to hide her face in Asad's shoulder.
"Umm, your Bhaijaan is right," she added. "Studies first, and whatever else you're passionate about. Now stop worrying about a nikaah ambush, and tell us about your next theater performance. Were you able to contact anyone at Pandies for the workshop?"
Pandies was a Delhi-based feminist-activist theater that organized workshops for children in villages and slums. Nuzzhat and some members of her theater group were excitedly talking about attending one of their workshops.
As they were walking away arm in arm, Zoya froze. She gasped as a sudden idea came to her and she began to shake with glee. "Nuzh! What if your troupe did a street play on this exact issue"girls being pressured by their families to marry young, instead of pursuing their studies and ambitions?"
Nuzzhat shrieked with joy, "oh my god, so many of my friends would relate to it too! One of my friends has stopped taking solo pictures because she's sure her mom will sneak it out to show to ladkewalas or post on matrimonial sites!"
By now Najma and Humaira had joined in too.
Everyone nodded their heads in understanding.
Yes, the solo pictures which Indian girls become wary about taking around the time they turn nineteen or twenty. Because you never know when your mother could get her hands on it to float it around in the marriage market.
Could the selfie-culture be playing right into eager moms' hands? Well, Nuzzhat and her friends only took group selfies now. Whatever it took to discourage their mothers' match-making hopes that were hard-wired into their DNA.
Asad shook his head as he watched them all hatch loud conspiracies to undo millennia-old power structures. Earlier, he had no idea that girls hid this additional fear in their hearts. Zoya had told him once about her own fears regarding marriage"she had called it a game of chance"Russian roulette, where you didn't know what you'd get when you pulled the trigger.
She's told him that she was terrified of marriage not just because of her own parents' history. As was he. But also, because she could have very easily ended up being married to someone like Akram, or in Nikhat's case, someone like Imran.
He felt a chill creep up his spine.
A smile tugged at her lips.
It could only be under these circumstances that a woman would smile when she couldn't button up her jeans!
In the mirror she couldn't really see a bump, just a gentle rounding out of her stomach, and if she wanted to, she could fasten her jeans, but for the first time in her life, jeans felt uncomfortable.
Zoya pouted and then rubbed her tummy. OK baby, I get it. You're getting ready to put on a show.
Reluctantly she changed into a salwar kameez. But that started its own chain of discomfort.
Not physical discomfort, no.
"Are you going to the dargah?" Najma asked. "I'll come too."
"I wasn't planning to, but sure, let's."
"Then why're you wearing a suit?" Najma frowned.
And everyone after that asked her the same thing, "going to the dargah?"
So, she'd improvised. Leaving the top button of her jeans undone and just covering up by wearing Asad's shirts seemed like a good compromise: it helped her be comfy without having to sacrifice her street cred.
But that problem-solving came with its own complications. On some mornings they would fight over the same shirt.
"I was planning to wear that," Asad fussed one morning, shirtless.
Her frown matched his. "First come, first serve," Zoya tossed her hair in irritation.
She'd just hugged her porcelain buddy thanks to the morning sickness, and was in no mood to put up with Jahanpanah's scowls.
And the sight of his flat abs was another red flag.
Asad pulled her to him by her wrist, "moody, Mrs. Khan?"
"You would be too, if you'd just hurled your guts out and couldn't pull your jeans together!"
In a burst of temper she tried to stomp his foot. But he was a bit more agile than her, and swiftly lifted her off her feet before she could do much damage.
"Asad!" she scolded. "Put me down!"
"So you can practice your famous battle moves on me? I don't think so."
Her temper was fast fading. Why wouldn't it? The freshly applied spicy cologne was already doing a number on her. She was up in his strong arms against his bare chest, how could it not?
But she couldn't resist prolonging the pretense. Zoya crossed her arms to stop her hands from roaming the expanse of warm, hard flesh.
He said something.
"Hmm?" she asked, already half-distracted.
" ... dimple first," he urged.
"Then Jahanpanah will have to issue a begum-tickling farmaan," and dumping her on the bed he proceeded to coax the obstinate dimple out by tickling her till she giggled helplessly. He bent to kiss her stomach and whisper daddy-to-baby chatter. A lazy finger traced his daily love letter to their baby just above her open fly.
She moaned, dissatisfied, when he moved away.
A recharged Zoya sighed with giddy pleasure as she rolled over to watch him.
"I'm sorry for being so grouchy lately," she said to him as she watched him eye his remaining shirts, debating which one to wear.
"It's OK," Asad said. "I'd be grumpy too if I had to deal with morning sickness every day!"
Getting up to put her arms around him, she generously offered the shirt off her back. He was such a sweetheart for saying that after all; she just loved that he got it. "Fine, take this shirt, I'll find something else to wear."
Asad waited for her to slip out of it. He tapped his foot impatiently, and looked at the clock several times as she shook it out.
He leered at her in a bra and half-undone jeans bending to kiss her cleavage. She held up the shirt for him.
"No, it smells all girly now, and you've already wrinkled the sleeves by rolling them up," he announced with a micro-smile.
"Oh. My. God!" Her flash of temper returned at the rejection. "Mr. Khan, you're so high maintenance!"
She huffed back into the shirt buttoning it up with a vengeance, "and lecherous as heck!"
"Sab aapka asar hai," he yelled to her departing back. "I used to be Akdu karela, remember?"
She came back to wag a finger in his face, "you also used to be a sarru, pyaar ka dushman, Tayyib Ali who wasn't getting' any! Keep this up, and you won't be getting' any in the near future either!"
"Zoyaaa!" he yelled. But she'd skipped out of earshot.
Damn, again with the weekly se*x strike blackmail!
But, no worries.
He always managed to charm his way back into her graces. Tayyib Ali had come a long way from being a pyaar ka dushman since Mrs. Tayyib Ali came into his life.
What the hell was he doing here? Thank god Ammi wasn't home or she'd get stars in her eyes just at the sight of this guy. Dadi was a much better person to have at home"so much more normal and laid back, and right now snoring slightly as one of her favorite TV shows blared away.
Nuzzhat had just gotten out of the shower and was wearing a light suit because it had been so hot outside as they practiced in the stuffy auditorium. She was part of the street theater troupe and was the one who had hooked up Zoya with the organizer for research on her report.
"Hi," she said tentatively, not really sure why he was here.
Faiz didn't answer; he just did his best to not glare at her.
What? Why does he look like he's swallowed a lemon, she wondered. Zaroor must be a case of Delhi belly. These firangis had weak stomachs. They needed mineral water and hazaar chonchle to survive the Indian spice and heat.
Not that she didn't love her Firangi Jeejus, but she still teased them about their snobby, anti-Indian, ABCD stomachs.
"I'd like to know why my cousins are ragging me about having an American girlfriend?" He asked.
"Ask them. How would I know?" Nuzzhat rolled her eyes. Who the hell did he think he was?
"I did. And they told me that you're the one who went about saying at the Sangeet and Nikaah that I was living with my white girlfriend."
She gasped. "Never! I never said anything about a live-in relationship. Your cousins are either deaf or liars."
He didn't get this under-the-radar low-grade hostility that she threw at him at each meeting. God knows why she seemed so bent out of shape. She wasn't exactly rude, but there was this veneer of distaste when she was with him. It was as if she'd heard a nasty rumor about him and had permanently reserved judgment.
"Excuse me?" He couldn't believe his ears. Calling his cousins liars? Now that was low.
When she didn't answer and just stared down her nose at him, he adopted another tack.
He smiled sweetly. "Does Bhai know that his little saali is such an imaginative journalist and chef?"
She looked at him blankly. Chef? Journalist?
This is what Attention Deficit Disorder must look like. Must be an American thing.
"That she seasons everything with mirch masala and broadcasts stories for ratings?"
She gasped in outrage.
Nuzzhat drew herself up to her full height. "Jeeju is the one who hinted that you had a girlfriend. And I do not spread stories. Your information is coming from defective sources."
"Really? Cos. to me it seems that you've made up your mind about me, and are determined to think the worst of me."
Nuzzhat's gaze lowered in shame.
He was kinda right.
Trying to sabotage the developing narrative of a nikaah between her and Jeeju's younger brother, she had been deliberately rude and flippant. And truth be told, she may have been purposely indiscreet in airing his supposed relationship status. But she didn't think that he'd actually come here to face off with her.
Ashamed now, she berated herself.
She'd thought that he'd be leaving for the US soon, and everything would be forgotten. But she hadn't realized that she had embarked on some kind of spiteful character assassination.
If Baaji found out, she'd be furious, and if Jeeju found out, he woulnd't say anything, but he'd be terribly hurt.
She felt miserable now.
Glancing briefly at Dadi, she grabbed him by his arm and dragged him to the balcony.
Faiz was too shocked to resist at first.
"What're you doing?" he spluttered.
"Shh," she put up a finger to her lips. "You'll wake up Dadi."
Nuzzhat felt embarrassed and shy now. Should she tell him the whole truth? Would she be able to?
Twisting her dupatta end in nervous fingers she tried to pacify him. "I'm sorry. It's not you that I have anything against. It's just ... just that I'm getting really annoyed with everyone pairing us up and coming to the foregone conclusion that we'll get married."
"Hunh?" Faiz couldn't believe it. He'd heard similar talk, and also been teased about it, but he hadn't reacted this way. Then why had she?
"So what?" he tried to reason with her. "Let them talk. It doesn't have to come true."
"Because you do have a girlfriend?" she asked archly. She pinched herself. Now where had that come from?
"That's neither here nor there," he replied stiffly.
Nuzzhat sighed. "Look, you don't get it. For you, it's just light talk that you can easily brush off. You'll be leaving soon anyways. But for girls, such talk is scary. It becomes prophetic and takes on a life of its own. Mothers start to daydream about rasms and shopping, invitations and dahej. I don't want this matchmaking bakwas to go any further."
"So you built this elaborate story of my degenerate character just to get out of marrying me?"
She blushed. "I'm sorry about that. I shouldn't have."
Faiz smiled. "My cousins think I'm a stud, so I'm not complaining too much. But if mom finds out, my life back home will be hell. She'll camp out at my place determined to do jasoosi on an imaginary white bahu. And if that happens, I'll blame you."
She gulped. "I'm really sorry, but why would having Aunty with you be so bad? She's awesome!"
"That she is. But she's also a social creature who'll host parties and get-togethers and TV marathons. She'll grill my friends about my social life and parade nice Muslim girls for me to stumble upon every other weekend. She tried that with Bhai. And I've no time for it. I've got my LSAT to study for."
"Oh?" So may be he understood a little bit about what it was like to be a commodity in the matrimonial bazaar?
"What can I do to dispel this rumor?" Nuzzhat asked contritely.
His eyes gleamed and lips twitched devilishly.
"Pretend to be my girlfriend?"
He laughed. "Relax, I was kidding!"
The wheels had been set in motion. Any time Tanveer could well take the bait. They hoped.
But they worried nevertheless.
Sometimes the best-laid plans could self-destruct. But at the same time, they had to risk it to ensure freedom from this daily worry.
But the hyper-vigilance, and permanent alert mode was taking its toll on everyone.
It was like living in a bomb shelter.
They jumped at the slightest sounds, pensively checked rearview mirrors, stayed clear of windows and glass doors, and restricted all recreational outings.
Everything looked suspicious, servants were frisked coming in, undercarriages of cars were minutely examined. Prayer beads clicked, prayer mats unfurled and were refolded with sincere fingers.
Siddiqui Saheb could be seen on his secret midnight vigils checking and re-checking doors, windows, gas cylinders and recharged emergency lights and supplies. Around 2AM Asad did his own silent inspections after a quick check with the night guards. And between 3 and 4AM, Raziya walked around re-tracing their anxious steps.
None knew about the others' sentineling.
Understandably, Zoya fretted about Asad till he was back safe at home.
He wouldn't listen to her, often dismissing her worries with a crooked smile. Every morning she argued with him about having a bodyguard with him, but he'd flat out refuse.
That got her so mad. And although she hated the idea of owning a gun she wanted him to consider it.
"Relax. Tanveer won't hurt me physically. She'll try to get to me through you or Ammi. Or Ayaan and the girls."
He pulled her in for a hug and she wrapped herself around him.
But it still did nothing to relieve her anxiety.
"But what about Imran?" Zoya protested another time. "He wants to go after you and Nikhat."
"I'll be fine," he repeated, downgrading her fears as he got ready for work one morning
She shook him by his collar. "Mr. Khan! You're really making me mad! I'll kill you if you let anything happen to you."
She did box his stomach when she saw him bite his lip to stop himself from laughing.
"I'm serious!" she growled. But her playfulness was soon replaced by worry. "At least think about a gun though. I hate guns, but if it keeps you safe"-"
Asad hushed her with a finger to her mouth. "No guns," he insisted.
Zoya frowned and opened her mouth to argue further.
He crooked a finger under her chin to stall her. "Remember the last time you found me with a gun in the house?"
She hid her face in embarrassment as Asad laughed and hugged her.
Ah yes, the days of the Jahanpanah Bond mystery and misunderstanding!
When she first came to their house, in true Zoya fashion, veteran watcher of many a crime drama and spy thriller, she'd confidently concluded that Mr. Khan was a secret agent. One night, when she had burst into his room to catch his mystery visitor red-handed, Mr. Khan had pulled a gun on her to keep her quiet, and that had verified all her suspicions.
And terrified her.
For once, Mr. Khan had been able to render Ms. Farooqui speechless without covering her mouth with his hand or his own mouth.
So sure was she of her super-sluething abilities that when he had put his hand in his coat pocket to retrieve something the next day, she thought he was going to pull the gun on her again. What better way to deal with the mohtarma musibat he hated so much? She had assumed that her visa expiry woes were his diabolical doing too.
And for all of two minutes she had even donned her best goody-two shoes avatar. Asad had enjoyed the brief moment of triumph when he'd been able to bully her into good behavior.
But, much to his dismay, that hadn't lasted long. Because she had turned the tables on him soon after. She'd tried some blackmail of her own.
"You were so funny with your super detective act and scared face! And as always, armed with that pepper spray!" he teased her now, flicking the tip of her nose with a finger as he slipped his laptop into its protective sleeve.
"And you were so mean to threaten me like that!"
"That's why, no guns."
"You're right," Zoya sighed in resignation and rubbed her tummy protectively.
"Guns are more trouble than they're worth. We have too many crazy gun nuts in America, and too much gun violence. But I'll admit, I felt this weird little thrill when I thought you were an agent!
I even imagined us as a super crime-fighting duo!"
"I'm not surprised," he teased, smiling despite the half-urge to roll his eyes.
He was quite familiar with her vivid imagination and the crackpot conclusions she was capable of jumping to. That imagination had got them into many troubles before, but, to be fair, it had also saved them from many a scr*ape too. And by now he'd learned to take the good with the bad. Or at least, pretend to take the good with the bad.
His wife's imaginative leaps were legendary.
There was a time when she'd first started living with them, when she'd misinterpreted his relationship with a foreign client. Sure of her deductions, she had managed to convince Ammi that he was in love with the woman and breaking up with her because she lived in New York. How could a sane person confuse "deal" with "dil"?
Only a very imaginative Ms. Farooqui, of course!
And of course, it had gotten Ammi wildly excited who'd even given her blessings for the nikaah; he'd been mortified!
But then, who'd have known that he'd end up marrying a woman from New York anyways!
That imagination was trouble with a capital T. But it came with some extraordinary benefits, no doubt.
As he was about to find out.
"How could you even think that I was a secret agent? Too many TV shows and movies, of course." Asad shook his head in wonder, but then saw the glint in her eye and grinned.
"Asad?" Zoya pouted, wiggling her hips against his in that familiar rhythm. He felt himself leap in response, and she knew it too.
"Fine, I'll be Jahanpanah Bond tonight!" He nuzzled her neck as his hands grabbed her mischief-making hips.
She squealed with delight already planning the wardrobe. May be her pink feathered handcuffs could come handy again. But she'd have to send him home to pick them up. And some other accessories too.
But that would ruin the surprise.
Her lips puckered in thought.
"Will you be a Russian spy, or Moneypenny?" Asad wondered aloud. He was also mentally calculating if they had time for a quickie.
"Oh please, I'll be your boss!" Zoya retorted.
"M?" Asad asked, even as he locked the bedroom door and herded her toward the walk-in closet.
"No," she sassed, slapping his wandering hands away. "I'll be Z." And she shook her charm bracelet with the dangling initial in his face.
"You mean Zed?" Her dark teal top whispered to the floor. His fingers reveled in her softness.
"No, I mean Zee!"
"It's Zed," Asad insisted, tongue firmly in cheek, but hands zigzagging across her denuded upper body. He snicked her zipper open, his warm fingers skittering down from her stomach.
"No it's not! It's Zee." She bit down from his jaw to neck, sucking him hard on the way.
Now he'd have to wear a tie to work.
"Americans! If you're playing a British role, it's Zed." he clarified, hooking his thumbs in her belt loops and dragging her jeans down.
"Please! Americans kicked the British out on their asses 200 some years ago! It's Zee." And she ground her ass into his tenting pant's front for emphasis.
But her victorious smile quickly faded. She swung around to face him.
"Asad, please be careful. I'd die if anything happened to you."
Her lips thinned in determination and her hands planted themselves on her waist, "in fact, as your boss, I command you to not get hurt. Or else!"
"Yes, boss!" He hauled her up so that she could wrap her legs around him giving him perfect access.
"Be safe," she clung to him. "Please, promise me!"
Hand on her contrary mouth, he jack-hammered home.
"Oh god Zoya, you're so tight!"
She jerked, and her eyes rolled back in her head.
Zoya's fears faded in his arms.
The Siddiqui house had become the de facto gathering place and war room"The Situation Room"Zoya would playfully call it. Humaira took it a step further by calling Asad "General Jeeju" as she prefixed, "yes sir! Jeeju sir!" to everything she said to him.
Sometimes she'd also snap a salute, and click her heels smartly. Everyone found this hilarious and Asad was reduced to clutching his forehead in mock-despair"a gesture Humaira's Aapi was all too familiar with; it was a gesture he'd perfected thanks to her after all.
Dilshad would even tease Humaira, saying not to salute too hard, or she'd make herself unconscious like her Aapi.
Raziya beamed with pride. Humaira's coming into her own person, becoming someone who was happy and sure of herself, was just priceless.
She'd do anything to protect this.
"Does your family nickname others also, or do they reserve this special honor only for me?" Asad huffed that evening.
"Nope, we do it specially for you," Zoya teased, elbow in her lap, face in her hand. "Because Jahanpanahs are also Generals, right?"
"Jahanpanahs also have harems," Asad snapped, an eyebrow arched.
Her chin lifted off her hand, a submarine periscope, surfacing to find its target.
"Not when they are castrated," she smiled sweetly, rising to drop a warning peck on his cheek.
Asad roared with surprised laughter.
He held up his hands in surrender, "OK, message received."
He should have known better not to engage in a war of words with his wife. As she always liked to remind him, she was better armed!
"You're lucky you're cute," he pulled her into his lap and kissed her hard. "Chaliye, aaj aapko deewar mein nahin chunvayenge!"
"Aur kal?" Zoya asked innocently, head co*cked to the side coquettishly.
"Kal ho na ho."
"ASAD! Don't say that!" she slapped his shoulders alternately with both hands. "I told you, I'll kill you!"
Fear speared her heart.
"OK, OK," he held her hands captive. "Kal bhi nahin chunvaenge. But only if you're good."
She pouted. "Good is boring. Besides, I'm better than good, and," her voice dropped, "so much better when I'm bad!"
"You're gorgeous when bad!" he swatted her butt, and she squealed.
On her way to the kitchen, Dilshad heard their laughter and her heart lifted. She knocked on their open door and walked in.
"It's so nice to hear you laugh," she stroked Asad's hair as he bent over his laptop.
Always be happy, she prayed and invoked a dua.
He was too tense these days.
Besides work deadlines and meetings, there was the relentless worry of a potential attack by Imran or Tanveer.
She lost the baby three nights ago.
It was odd to feel distanced from oneself like this, from every medicalized thing that was happening to her body as they poked and prodded her to stem the bleeding and pre-empt infection. The lethargic jail healthcare workers puttered around Tanveer in the large common ward.
A ceiling fan moved the stale air around in fetid circles.
Already her mind was racing thinking of ways to use this situation to her advantage. She ached in a million places and the stitches were still raw. But Tanveer didn't trust the shoddy work of the doctors on the government's payroll. She'd be lucky if they hadn't left a pair of scissors or a sponge in there. She could be dying or hemorrahging even as she lay in a sweaty heap in one of creaky metal beds.
Luckily no one else was in the ward, only a female guard posted by the door. The shifts changed every eight hours. And the one on night duty she'd already befriended with serialized sob stories of domestic violence and dowry demands. How her in-laws had framed her because she wouldn't consent to an amniocentesis to determine the fetus' gender.
Her smirk was soon replaced by a grimace of pain. Tanveer was growing restless with her confinement. With the baby gone, it was as if a second chance was just an arm's length away.
She could taste her freedom.
"No Asad, please, don't!" Zoya burst into tears as she held him from the back. He had been gazing out impassively through the window, shoulders set stubbornly, and jaw stiff from gritting his teeth.
He turned and drew her into his arms kissing the top of her head. "I hate it too," Asad soothed. "But it may be the only way to end this nightmare."
She clung to him desperately. "But it's our home. It's ... everything to us. To you. It's your baby."
Asad smiled grimly, "it was. Now, you and the baby are everything to me. Aap dono par aise lakhon ghar qurbaan." His palm curved over her stomach possessively.
She rushed to cover his mouth.
This was all that monster's doing!
It was because of that vile woman that Asad had even come up with such a drastic idea. Use their home as bait? As a possible staging ground to entrap Tanveer who may well destroy it?
That was her home, where she fell in love with Ammi, Najma, and most of all her Jahanpanah.
But even more than her love for the house, was what it meant to Asad.
He had never said it, but she knew it was a tiny piece of the earth that he could proudly claim as entirely his own, something he'd built with sheer grit and passion. He hadn't inherited it. Alone, he'd clawed his way up to provide a roof over his Ammi's and kid sister's heads. He'd made thousands of quiet sacrifices along the way, only some of which she knew. The time when his friends would be out, painting the town red, he doubled down to work at a relative's small construction company. When across the city his father's business was booming, his name splashed across billboards near upcoming residential and commercial projects, Asad had resolutely refused to use his father's name and influence to scale the ladder of success.
Their home was a measure of those hard-won triumphs; it was his pride, his identity. It was where they had stowed some of his cherished childhood treasures to show their kids.
How could he even bear to use it as a mousetrap for that bit*ch to defile!
But this time Zoya's wiles and persuasions didn't work on him. She couldn't talk him out of this terrible decision.
"Please Asad," she continued to plead with him. "I was looking forward to going home now that everything's repaired and reinforced. Ammi and Najma too want to go back home to their rooms, rest their heads on their pillows."
"Zoya, we have to think rationally, not emotionally. First of all, this is not final as yet, so you may be worrying for nothing. It's still just an idea we're toying with. Second, if it comes to it, and this could take those two out permanently, I'd put up the house as bait in a heartbeat again and again. Our lives are more important than a house."
Her hands fisted on his shirt. "But it's not just any house! It's you! I can't bear the thought of"-"
"Shh, I know, baby, I know." He hugged her to him. "But I'm here. As long as we're all safe, I don't care where we live."
And even she had to agree with him on that.
Because Tanveer had managed to slither her way out of the jail hospital.
Their carefully-laid groundwork for the faux escape had been bypassed by the eely woman.
The details of her escape were still fuzzy.
But there was a shame-faced female guard who was now sporting a nasty bump on her concussed head, and regret on her bruised conscience for falling for the oldest con job.
From what little they could piece together, she'd master-minded a simple switcheroo, and apparently Tanveer had strutted off the premises dressed as a jail employee.
They were back in the crosshairs.
"There's some bad news and good news," Feroze told Nikhat when they had briefly surfaced from the honeymoon fog.
Nikhat paled. Horrific visions of accidents and illnesses raced and trampled over one another in her head.
"Is everyone OK at home?" she whispered in a voice laced with rising panic.
"Yes, thank god!" Feroze assured her. "Everyone's OK, but ... Tanveer managed to slip away once again, and they still haven't found that dirtbag Imran."
Nikhat's eyes widened with terror. "Are Asad Bhaijaan and Zoya Bhabhi OK? Oh my god, Feroze, we should go back right away!"
He drew her into his arms for a comforting bear hug. "Asad and Zoya are fine! Full battle mode on. And about going back? That's where the little bit of good news comes in."
Nikhat tilted her head back to look at him. He grinned down into her face.
"Asad wants us to extend the honeymoon," Feroze said, matter-of-factly.
She covered her flaming face with hands still richly filigreed with the nikaah mehendi.
" Two less people to worry about,' is how he put it," Feroze tugged her hands away to kiss her cheek. "Now we wouldn't want to add to your Bhaijaan's worries, would we?"
"Oh god," Nikhat groaned. While Bhaijaan's concern was heartwarming, it was pretty embarrassing to have your older brother tell your husband to prolong the honeymoon.
As it is, she had been dreading returning to face the family. How would she ever be able to look at Abbu after all the things she'd done these past few days? She squeezed her eyes shut and hid her face in her husband's shoulder as he lifted her up to carry her to the bed, intent on adding to the x-rated list of things she'd do on this trip.
"So, should we continue to stay here and give the housekeeping staff a break from room 1230 in this hotel?" He yanked off the towel she'd wrapped around herself as she'd stepped out of the tub.
"Or," Feroze nuzzled her dewy skin, "be badmaash in another hotel and give their maids some chhutti too?"
"I don't care," Nikhat flipped her hair over her shoulder as she pulled him down to her by grabbing him by the neck. "As long as we don't turn up on youtube, and you take me dancing tonight, I'd be happy enough living in a tent."
"All that salsa and paso doble in bed, doesn't count?" He nudged her neck with his nose while his hands got busy.
She dug her nails into his shoulders and murmured through sighing gasps, "I meant dancing in public with clothes on! But," she kissed him full on the mouth. "I could go for some dirty dancing right about now!"
Song in title:
Race (2008): "Pehli Nazar"
The black and white cat seemed to appear from nowhere that morning. And Zoya fell in love with it at first sight.
"Oooh!" she squealed when she first saw it in the lawn. Humaira and Najma had jumped in fright as the cat came to rub itself against their legs.
Zoya scratched its head behind the ears and the cat arched in ecstasy, purring with delighted satisfaction.
"Aww," went Zoya. Her mind was already racing picking out a name.
Oreo? Too obvious.
She didn't even know its gender. So something gender-neutral?
The cat hopped and curled up in her lap proceeding to wash itself nonchalantly in telepathic approval of the christening.
"ZOYA!" she looked up to see Asad charging toward her. He scooped up the cat and ran to toss it over the fence.
It yowled in anger.
"Mr. Khan! How could you do that?"
She ran over and made cooing noises at the cat which had gracefully leaped up on the fence; it butted its head against her hand, lapping up the adoration that was its due.
"Zoya, keep away from it!" He grabbed her arm to drag her to the hose so she could wash her hands. "In fact, go inside and wash up with lots of antiseptic soap."
"Why're you being so mean?" she demanded. "It's Dobby, he's so cute!"
"Dobby?" Asad frowned. But then he remembered his mission. "No cats! Pregnant women shouldn't go near cats. They can get toxoplas" something! It can cause birth defects."
"Oh please, Mr. Khan!" Zoya rolled her eyes. Trust him to have read up on every pregnancy-related thing under the sun. "I've read the research too. You're being paranoid as usual. They're harmless as long as I'm careful and don't come in contact with their fecal matter. Besides, I'm immune."
"Oh really?" Asad asked, already scoffing at the notion. She really believed that she had super powers and was invincible.
"No, I mean it," she told him smugly. "I already got toxoplasmosis," she looked at him archly. " ... as a kid, so now I'm immune. You can check with all your experts and sources!"
"Aaannnhhh!" he grunted through a forehead-clutch.
"No beta, Asad is right," her Abbu intervened even though he did find the cat cute and loved the name Dobby. "These stray animals can carry many diseases. No cats."
She pouted mutinously.
She glared at her husband for getting her father to gang up on her and muttered under her breath.
Asad shrugged, unfazed by her mutiny.
"How did you already get it?" He asked. "Did you have cats as pets?"
"No, but our neighbors did. I would take care of their cats when they were on vacation. And I volunteered at our local animal shelter."
"Of course! Why do I even bother to ask?" Asad muttered under his breath. She probably worked with Doctors without Borders too in some secret life. And one day he'd find out that she had already won the Nobel Peace Prize while he had been straightening sofa cushions and deciding which tie to wear.
Asad beamed down at her; he would have kissed her hands but they had just come in contact with that revolting cat.
He sighed. One of these days, he would most likely keel over from a heart attack worrying about her. And once the kids came ... there was pretty much no hope left for him. They may as well sign his death certificate now.
Asad watched as Dobby glided back and re-hopped to circle and settle into her lap. This time he wasn't sure if it was the cat, or whether it was his wife making the purring sound.
That sound, and sight, stirred his soul.
Tanveer smirked to herself. It had been so easy.
Fix a time and a place, phone in an anonymous tip to the police, and Bam! Imran was no longer a problem.
Bloody fool! Just because he'd helped her get out of jail, didn't mean she was going to be beholden to him.
She owed him nothing. And she didn't want him around gumming up the works when she made her next move.
Tanveer needed time to fine tune her next plan of action. The investments and arrangements she'd made just before being nabbed by the police the last time, were now paying off.
But it still bothered her that she had got caught the last time.
How could it have happened? Just when she was all set to move into the new place, the police were beating down her door at that guesthouse.
How had they known?
Tanveer shrugged. It was probably that detective that Asad had hired. He had turned out to be smarter than she gave him credit for.
But all that was water under the bridge.
She had a brand new blitz to plan.
She looked around her with pride. Tanveer had always been good with money. The luxury apartment that her fake Abbu had given her to wash off his sins, she'd managed to sell for all cash just in the nick of time. Some of that money she'd invested in a smaller flat in the same complex that Rashid Ahmed Khan and his family lived in.
Right under their noses.
There was a lot of security, yes, but pretty soon they would become careless. And Ayaan was a wild card in that household. His volatile personality may well play into her hands. And the youngest sister, whose name she couldn't remember, was going out more and more these days with friends.
But for now, she needed to set the stage. Tanveer had time on her side, and no pregnancy weighing her down any more. She'd been only mildly surprised to find out that the Khans had moved into the Siddiqui house during her time in jail.
Hmm, so Zoya had finally been reunited with her Abbu.
Tanveer couldn't help laughing. It was nice to leave Ms. New York her leftovers for once: A chewed up and discarded Abbu whom she'd fleeced to the fullest.
If only Asad ...
She exhaled, wincing slightly at the pinch of the drying stitches.
But thanks to her dutiful daughter stunt, she knew the Siddiqui house like the back of her hand. And Raziya was the weak link there. Most likely the Khans didn't know about Raziya's past sins, or she too would have been rotting in prison. There was no way that Asad would let Raziya roam free if he had any idea about what she'd done to his father and Zoya's mother. In fact, he'd probably kill her with his bare hands if he knew.
Such sentimental and emotional fools, all of them.
Tanveer had just the place in mind for her final reveal.
It would be the piece de resistance.
She had spent hours in prison perfecting her ambush and its climax; her hands itched to get started. But she needed to be patient. All ducks needed to be lined up in a neat row for her plan to go smoothly.
Her phone buzzed. Tanveer eagerly opened the new message.
The lookout had just told her what she wanted to hear: The Khans had come back home.
They were woken up by a loud shriek from the front door. Spilling into the living room they had all grinned with surprised pleasure and misting eyes to see a sobbing Najma being rocked in Omar's arms.
Asad chuckled as he saw Dobby slyly streak into the house. Thank god he had sent someone from office the other day to round up the cat, take it to the vet for shots, delousing and grooming. Turns out, Dobby was male who had now been effectively neutered. No more little Dobbies colonizing the place. Besides, being fixed made him less prone to illness and, prolonged his life.
Dobby should be thanking him.
"Did you know Omar was coming?" Zoya asked him as they returned to their room to freshen up and get the day started.
She didn't see the Jahanpanah shut the door in Dobby's face. The cat hissed in offended anger and scratched at the door making pathetic sounds.
"No, but I told him about Tanveer escaping. That must have freaked him out enough to come charging on the first plane over."
"Aww, I'm so happy for Tamatar! She never said a thing. But we know how she missed him terribly."
Zoya hugged Asad. "I'm so happy I don't have to spend time away from you ... that you come home to me every evening."
Before he could echo her sentiment or drop a kiss on her head, she fled to the bathroom clutching a hand to her mouth.
He was startled by a series of raps on the window. Asad turned his head to see Dobby glaring at him through the glass when he was done head-butting the window.
Breakfast became an impromptu party with everyone dropping in to welcome Omar. He was here for just a week before he went on to Bangalore and then Abu Dhabi for work. Najma would be going with him too.
Asad had breathed a sigh of relief. It was just this week that he'd have to worry for Najma. After that, thanks to Omar she would be far away from the damage that Tanveer could visit upon them.
But by then, Nikhat and Feroze would return.
His danger-meter pinged alarmingly.
Asad's brow darkened.
He would just have to nudge the family to go to Ajmer Sharif sooner.
Because he could feel it in his gut: Tanveer was arming for battle and spoiling for a fight. She had trained her sights on him and Zoya. But, if it became impossible to penetrate the defenses around them, then she would turn her basilisk gaze on the rest of the family.
She had burnt all her bridges now; the woman had nothing more to lose.
Asad looked at Najma's glowing face and felt a pang. She just couldn't stop smiling as she watched Omar and Ayaan back-slap and fist-bump over something. Ayaan wasn't even razzing Omar, having missed his co-conspirator so much.
Omar's eyes too kept straying to hers and Tamatar didn't even blush.
Omar walked over to slip his arm around her waist and Najma leaned her head on his shoulder. Dobby would have been jealous of her contented state of being.
Dilshad smiled as she looked at the happy couple. She wouldn't bug them about minding the company and behaving themselves just yet.
They'd earned a spot of besharmi!
She rushed to the kitchen to bring out her supplies and cast a mystical net of blessings to shield them from evil eyes.
The next night Zoya saw Asad's face turn ashen as he spoke to Rakesh, and she knew something terrible had happened. She braced herself to fight with him, knowing that he'd try to keep the bad news from her.
She could already hear her heart pounding in her ears.
Mentally she did a head count. Thank god, everyone was home and accounted for!
When Asad hung up and turned around, he too knew what was coming. They had had these brittle discussions before. And eventually she would get him to confide in her.
His shoulders and neck hurt.
The constant grinding of his teeth these days ensured a mild headache by the evening. At Zoya's insistence he was working more from home. But the steady anxiety for everyone's safety was beginning to sap his will.
All these days they had waited for the other shoe to drop. The wait had been unbearable.
But no more.
Tanveer had struck.
Her heart went out to him. He looked so tired. Silently, Zoya hugged him trying to wick away his fatigue.
She kissed his neck, whispering "I love you." She wouldn't nag him about it. He would tell her when he was good and ready. But she could tell. It was bad.
Asad walked them over to the chair and sitting down, pulled her into his lap. He buried his face in her hair.
"They attacked the house this evening," he told her.
Zoya gasped. She squeezed her eyes shut as her hand clutched his shirt.
Thank god for Asad's instincts!
She didn't even want to know what had happened. He had been right. The house was just mortar, bricks and glass. What mattered was that everyone be safe.
The Khan house had been staged as a decoy as soon as the news of Tanveer's jailbreak had reached them. Four of Rakesh's operatives of similar size and stature as them had been stationed in the house. A man posing as Asad was even riding his SUV to make the set-up seem as authentic as possible.
They had waited for an attack they were sure would come.
And Tanveer had fallen for it.
"Is everyone OK?"
"The guy posing as me wasn't there because I was supposed to be at work. Her people used tasers on the two guards and cut the power supply." Asad's voice sounded flat. "Then they entered the house from our room."
"How many of them?" Zoya asked in a tight whisper.
"Six. It's a good thing that Rakesh's people are well-trained and were armed, or it could ... it could have ended very badly. She wasn't there. It seems these men were supposed to round up the women in the house and take them somewhere else."
"Oh god Asad!"
He took a shuddering breath and his arms tightened around her. "Zoya, it could have been you. And Ammi and Najma."
She couldn't bear the torment in his voice.
"But honey, it wasn't, and it's all thanks to you!" Zoya pressed her lips to his neck. "They got them, right? Now Rakesh and his guys can question them and try to find out her whereabouts?"
"We hope so. But three of them got away. And according to Rakesh, they all seem hardened and hardcore. It won't be that easy to break them." Asad pressed a hand to his face. He wanted to pace the floor but he also wanted to hold on to her as a life line. "She's obviously escalating. Hiring so many people suggests she has resources ... this time she means business and is looking for a showdown."
"Are you going to ask your Abbu to move in here for the time being?" He had discussed the idea with her.
Asad sighed heavily.
"Yes, I think so. It's the only way."
He was hoping nothing would happen in the next three days. That it would take Tanveer at least that long to regroup and re-marshall her forces. The sooner most of the family left for Ajmer Sharif, the easier he'd breathe. He wouldn't tell anyone about this new attack or everybody would decide to cancel the program. Thank god Imran was in custody. Asad had a strong feeling that Tanveer had something to do with that.
Rashid had taken some convincing, but eventually he'd agreed. Better to be under siege at one location, instead of two. Nuzzhat would go with her sisters, Jeejus and their in-laws to Ajmer, while he, Shireen and Ayaan would move into the Siddiqui home. Badi bi had already left to stay with a relative in Indore.
Everyone tried to convince Humaira to go to Ajmer too, but she put her foot down. She wouldn't go anywhere without her Aapi and Jeeju. If they wanted her to go, they would have to come too. Dilshad too refused to leave Zoya, and finally Asad had to hold up his hands in surrender. He didn't even bother trying to convince Ayaan.
It was a given.
Ayaan wasn't leaving his side.
Omar and Feroze had demurred too, volunteering to stay back as back up. Strength in numbers was their argument. They knew a little bit more about the imminent danger than the rest of the family. But Zoya, more than Asad had finally persuaded them to go. She had pleaded with them for his sake.
Asad was just too stressed these days.
And if his sisters were well out harm's way, he might sleep a little easier.
"Zo, it's not right," Omar had objected again and again. "We're all family and need to stand together at this moment of crisis."
"Omar, please!" Zoya had whispered through tears.
If anything happened to them, at least the girls would be fine. The rest of the family didn't even know the worst about Tanveer, then why stay back and come face to face with her malevolence?
And there was another fear that haunted Zoya and Asad.
This time they might not be able to keep a lid on the family secret from eighteen years ago.
Besides, they both also knew that Tanveer just wanted them. She didn't care about the others. As a result, they would have to serve themselves up on a platter as bait. And the more people they could keep from being collateral damage, the better.
"Omar's right," Feroze had interjected. "The more of us there are, the less she'll think of mounting an attack."
"No! She's lost it completely by now. The attack is coming. It's just a matter of when, not if."
Omar shook his head violently. "Then that's why we have to stay. C'mon Zoya, we know where Asad is coming from. Typical desi ladkiwala vs. ladkewala nonsense, where the girl's brother will bend over backwards to please the in-laws and not let them know of their troubles! But that's not you, nor us. We married into the family, and that means that your problems are our problems too."
Feroze nodded in agreement. He didn't get this in-law inequality either. Indian girls were supposed to dedicate the rest of their lives to the welfare and well-being of their in-laws, but the men had no such obligation to their wives' families?
That was just wrong.
Zoya gripped Omar's hands, grateful for his words and support, but just as adamant.
"Please guys, if nothing else, do this for me. I know it seems unreasonable to us as Americans, but Mr. Khan is just about ready to implode from the stress. He's not eating well, nor sleeping. When he does manage to sleep, he wakes up sweating from nightmares. He paces up and down the hall half the night checking on everyone. This is killing him."
And she burst into fightened tears. Omar rubbed her back, still ready to protest.
"Please Omar, it's our fight, our battle, and we don't want you guys caught up in the middle. I'd die first."
"Shut up, will you?" he'd tucked her into his side, frustrated and super reluctant to give in.
But Feroze made the decision final. "I agree with Omar a 100%. What you're asking of us, makes us feel like rats abandoning a sinking ship. But I can understand Asad's point of view too; I might've done the same thing." He turned to his cousin, "And Omar, we'll survive feeling like wusses. If our leaving gives Asad even a second of relief, we'll do it. But just for you Zoya, cos. I owe you one."
Earlier, each time she'd passed by the pool, she'd blushed guiltily remembering the last steamy time they had been in there.
And Asad would grin roguishly seeing her avert her eyes and turn red.
That would make Zoya glare at him. He'd widen his eyes, feigning innocence, then undermine it with an imperceptible jerk of his chin, which shamelessly suggested, "tonight?"
Another time he'd co*cked his head just a bit, to whisper in her ear that they still had to take her red bikini for a spin.
She had nearly melted into a messy puddle right there.
Mr. Khan! She would stomp her foot each time. You've turned me into one bad girl.
But that was then.
When they hadn't heard of Tanveer's brazen escape and the most recent attack on their home.
Now Asad seemed remote and preoccupied.
On each call with Rakesh, his voice was clipped and lips would be set in a thin grim line. He'd get this flinty look in his eye as his mind raced imagining a thousand ways to secure levees and blockades. Sometimes she felt him shut her out, and it chilled her.
She possibly hated Tanveer the most for doing this.
Zoya had seen and been increasingly alarmed by Asad's bleak restlessness. His wakefulness put her on edge.
His nightmares made her ache for him. Only one thing brought a smile to her lips these days, and that was Dobby.
Dobby marched behind Asad as the general paced, or kept a watchful eye from the windowsill when the general brooded. And watching him leap into Asad's lap, and arch his back as Asad absent-mindedly stroked his fur, brought out her dimples which had gone somewhere into hiding.
Sometimes, she'd have to compete with the little furball to climb into Asad's lap first. Then Dobby would playfully bat his paw at her till she scooped him up into her own lap. She called it a triple-decker, or a Zoya sandwich, and all three of them would sigh at the luxury before the cat settled himself in for a leisurely bath.
Watching Dobby wash himself was a kind of meditative therapy in itself.
Even for Asad.
Initially he had groused at the cat hair and the cat smell, but Dobby had quickly batted away the Jahanpanah's defenses and firmly insinuated himself into his graces. Because Asad knew that with the lockdown and virtual house arrest, Zoya was this close to cracking; she was already bouncing off the walls with restless energy. Researching and compiling her report kept her occupied for some hours during the day.
But she was beginning to fray at the edges.
Keeping the severity of the danger a secret from her Jeeju and Aapi wasn't helping either. Zeenat sensed that something was not right and that Zoya was holding something back from them, but she couldn't get Zoya to spill the beans.
In the midst of this thick tension, Dobby had been key in replacing Zoya's frowns and pouts with giggles and laughs. And that was enough to make Asad fall in love with the little pest too. The cat provided endless entertainment chasing the red dot of the laser pointer that Zoya had swiped from Asad's computer bag. A few times this led to more drama: the cat would trip up a servant, or scare Raziya or Dilshad by dashing around them. That made the girls break out into fresh giggles and guffaws while the mothers scolded them for acting like kids.
Eyerolls and snorts would follow.
Nuzzhat and Humaira even had bets going for how many times a day a servant would drop something, or the moms would screech and scold, or Siddiqui Saheb would be caught in his study with the cat napping in his lap.
His heart raced.
Asad couldn't breathe.
A heavy weight crushed his larynx.
He flailed like a fish gasping for a snatched habitat. Rows of shrouded bodies flashed before his burning eyes. He tried reaching out to a disembodied hand but only grasped a fistful of smoke. He could have sworn he heard a scream, but it was his own, and it clogged his throat, shredding it raw.
"Asad!" Zoya shook him awake.
He felt her cool hand on his forehead and cheek, and his breath returned as he took deep gulps of air. Asad willed his eyes open to greedily look into her face.
Zoya was leaning over him lightly running her hands on his face. Despite the chill from the AC, he could feel sweat running down his back. She dropped tiny reassuring kisses on his face and he crushed her to him, drawing pure oxygen into his starved lungs.
"Asad, please don't do this to yourself," she pressed her lips to his temple. "I can't bear to see you like this." Zoya stroked his hair away from his damp forehead. She made soft kissing sounds to comfort him.
"I feel I can't do enough to keep you all safe. That everything will be over ... lost forever. Every waking moment when I'm not with you, I'm terrified that the police will call me to tell me that ..."
He swore under his breath; his voice cracked, "I don't want to lose you!"
"Shh," Zoya tried to smooth his anguish away. "You're doing everything you can ... the absolute best that you can. But you're not superhuman! Cut yourself some slack."
She continued to gently rub his temple with her knuckles, whispering words of love and strength. She reminded him of how his razor-sharp instincts had saved them.
She recited the list of precautions they'd already taken. Omar had brought a number of wearable GPS devices for everyone to keep on at all times. He had even suggested doing mock safety drills every other day so that they would be better prepared. CC Cameras had been installed, electronic alerts set up, and pepper sprays and panic buttons had been distributed like Halloween candy. Everyone was supposed to check in via phone with at least two people every hour.
What more could they have possibly done?
Zoya stroked his jaw with her knuckle as he turned her on her back and leaned over her. His arm tightened around her protectively and their legs entwined.
She was still trying to reassure him that he had to stop feeling so responsible for everyone's safety. "I could tell you that everything will be all right. But honestly, I don't know if that's true. But if there's one thing I do know, it's that you won't let anything happen to us." Zoya took his hand and rested it on her tummy. "You would walk through fire to keep us safe, you'd break through stone walls and iron chains to get to us if we were in harm's way."
An unexpected chuckle broke through his fears. "You watch too many films Mrs. Khan! How can you be so sure about it? I'm no Singham or that Dabang Pandey who could do those things!"
She slapped his shoulder before looping her arms around his neck. "Mr. Khan, please! Do you think I'd have married just about anybody who wouldn't do these things for me? It's in the fine print in the nikaahnama!"
She kissed him full on the lips. "And I know you're a man of your word. I trust you. Now make love to me, cos. I'm so turned on by how hot I made you sound right now!" Her hands buried themselves into his hair and she wiggled against him.
She'd missed him so much!
Asad laughed outright, but was soon silenced by a very demanding and frisky Shareek-e-hayat.
"How do you do it?" Asad asked later as they continued to cuddle.
Sleep still eluded them.
"How do you not just shrivel up in fear of what could happen? Of what she could do?"
"I get scared too. But then I make myself think of what I have right now." Zoya kissed his shoulder, "I've got you. And you've always slayed my demons. Each time. I've told you before, you're my superhero! My dua." She took his hand to once again place it over her stomach.
Every day their child continued to grow stronger.
His hand convulsed. "But what if I'm not there with you when--? When she strikes."
They both knew by now that it wasn't a matter of if, but when.
"What if I can't get to you in time? What if I let you down?" Asad shuddered, his fears returning, magnified and multiplying by the minute.
"As much as I would love for you to be with me 24/7, you can't. But you're here with me right now. And I want to make every minute count. We'll live a lifetime in a moment!"
"I can't think that way! How do you not worry about what could happen?"
"I used to," Zoya owned up softly. "But, now I've given myself up to Allah's will. Que sera sera!' "
For a second she thought of her mother. If it was her destiny to follow her Ammi's tragic fate, then so be it. Meanwhile, she'd live every minute as if it were her last. But Zoya hid these thoughts and self-pledges from Asad. He would surely pop a vein if he even got a whiff of her cheerful fatalism.
But thanks to some divine decree, she'd cheated death several times: the gudia factory, Mangalpur, the car accident ... Insha'allah, she'd do it again. She had her Jahanpanah looking out for her after all. She would survive, like she did, eighteen years ago.
"What's Que sera, sera'?" He asked, nibbling her fingers.
" 'What will be, will be. The future's not ours to see.' I promised myself that I'll live every moment in the here and now. Like right now!"
She clapped her hands and rose to light some vanilla-scented candles. Asad watched her, puzzled and still unconvinced. She went to the dresser to get a bottle of olive oil.
"Zoya, just come to bed."
She hushed him with a finger to his lips. "Give me this, Asad. Just let me touch you, feel you. In this moment, just be completely mine."
She pushed him down on the bed on his stomach. He sighed and settled down without protest. Climbing astride to sit on his waist, Zoya began to work the oil into his skin, slowly loosening the stubborn kinks from his neck. With strong strokes of her thumb and fingers she dug into the flesh of his shoulders to tease out the knots and stresspoints. Initially, Asad hissed when a knuckle or elbow dug in painfully. But eventually he gave himself up to the insistent rhythm of her deft and brisk kneading. The heels of her hand ground into him and sculpted his flesh, the sides of her hands pummeled his upper back. The steady friction warmed her hands to a blaze. And now she used the fire to mold and burnish him.
Asad groaned in relief.
She slowed down to a mild rubdown as she felt his breathing become even and get deeper. And still massaging his back in slow soothing circles, Zoya slid off quietly to cover him up.
He slept like a baby.
He slept through the night for the first time since Tanveer's attack on the Khan home.
He missed his 2AM patrol; Dobby shook his head in professorial disapproval.
The next day Asad had left for work promising to come back in two hours and checking in via text. She had let him go without too much of a protest. By now, they both knew that worry for each other and the others was part of the daily grind.
But he had insisted that the family do a drill before he left.
Just in case.
With help from Omar, Feroze and Faiz before they left for Ajmer, Zoya had perfected the basics of a safety drill drawn from years of practice from school lockdown drills in America. It was simple enough; the key was preparedness, muscle memory and speed. Initally it had been met with a lot of giggles and dismissals from the desi crowd. And the hapless Americans had looked at each other and grinned in remembered shame. The words they were hearing now, were the literal translations of words they had used themselves, years ago, when forced to do the drills despite the fun of classes being cancelled:
"So lame, man!"
"This is just dumb!"
"Fu*ck this! Like this is ever goin' to work?"
"Sorry Bhai, but c'mon!"
"Do it, or go to Ajmer with everyone else," His brother commanded, and Ayaan shut up.
And sure enough, pretty soon the doubters had been whipped into shape by Asad's glares and scowls. Omar wrestled Ayaan, the biggest culprit, into submission, while Feroze timed them with a stopwatch.
The first practice was a total bust.
No one took it seriously. Half the people forgot which room was the safe room. The parents strolled in late and half of them had forgotten their phones or GPS bands.
That earned everyone a grim lecture from Asad.
Then Zoya'd had a brilliant idea.
"We'll show you how it's really done!"
Faiz and Omar groaned. But Feroze agreed. It would be a good model to showcase the plan's strength and pinpoint its weaknesses.
And they did the demo. In record time with Asad timing them this time.
High fives and celebratory fist pumps and bumps followed. There was also some weird touchdown end zone dance by Faiz.
It burned Ayaan up.
He couldn't bear to be upstaged by the ABCDs' drill precision and moronic gloating. And as much as Najma and Nikhat loved their brand new pardesi husbands, they weren't going to just stand by idly and listen to stupid cheers of "USA! USA! We're number One!"
This meant war!
The next time around they were the ones herding the elders to make good time and beat the set record. It took at at least three practice runs to get close to the time set by the Americans. Dobby supervised, often being the first one in. This was fun. The humans were playing a new game, and he was winning each time.
Each person was supposed to activate their GPS bands as soon as they were in a safe location and call an emergency contact on their list. The instructions were simple: No looking for others and wasting time, grab your phones and run to the safe room. Siddiqui Saheb's study was the most sheltered room with sturdy shelves loaded with books on each wall. The door was solid wood too, which was to be barricaded from the inside by moving the desk and chairs in front. The study had already been stocked with supplies of pepper sprays and pocket-knives which could be sneaked into clothing if they were forced out from the room. There was a monitor in the room that connected to the cameras at the front door, living room and the entrance to the study.
Much to Humaira's delight, her Jeeju had taken her christening of him as the general a bit too seriously. She was deputized to be in-charge of the checklists he'd created, and it was her solemn responsibility to double-check that all phones were being charged by 10PM every night. Because some people (like her sister and fianc) could not be trusted to charge their own phones. Really into her role as the chief lieutenant she had even acquired a pair of binoculars that she used to peer out of windows during the day when she patrolled, and keep an eye on the streets and alleys.
As Zoya had reminded Asad earlier, there really was nothing that they hadn't thought of, or prepared for.
Zoya felt anger and desperation flare through her.
There were real world issues and problems much grimmer than theirs. They were lucky as a family of privilege and means who could afford to invest in protection and security.
But what about people who had no means?
Forced to be housebound, thanks to Tanveer's spiraling obsession, Zoya had started to deepen her research for her father's project.
And she felt helpless with each iota of new information.
Gang rapes and honor killings were escalating in India. Their own state, Madhya Pradesh, reported the highest number of rapes in the country.
Earlier, her father's vision of female safety and empowerment had charged her with a searing hope for women coming together in support of each other, standing up as one against injustice. When she had dreamily talked with Asad about her romantic notions of superhereos like the Justice League, she had imagined a network of informants, responsible vigilantes and quiet culture-jammers banding together to help women and the powerless.
In the US, she had heard about how, in the wake of the date rape crisis in the 90s, college girls began to write the names of their rapists on the walls of bathroom stalls: of classmates, boyfriends and even professors. The rapist list, it came to be called.
More recently, a Columbia University student was shaming her rapist and college by carrying the mattress that she was raped on, around campus, and to her classes. Over the days, other students on campus, men and women, had begun to help her carry the matress as a sign of solidarity.
She loved the stories from around India of older women in buses and trains surrounding and shielding eve-teasing victims and shaming their molesters. She had always believed that women and men were capable of coming together to help and protect each other.
So why couldn't that happen more often? And why wasn't it enough to keep women safe? How did women like Tanveer undo years of gains?
She remembered the crowd's slogans from when she and Asad had been attacked in Agra on their honeymoon: "Aur nahin, ab bas!" Even then, it was two young girls who had come forward to energize the crowd. And soon men had joined in too.
Yet, here they were, held virtual hostages by one woman's jealous rage.
Tanveer's psychopathic venom was undermining Zoya's faith in a safer world for women. How could women go forward if some women insisted on holding them back? How could women trust each other and not see each other as the enemy with someone like Tanveer harassing them? How could they ever hope to build alliances?
Naz aunty's playful jabs at Indian soap operas reminded her of yet another minefield: the dreaded saas-bahu relationships on TV, that made women in the real world more suspicious of same-se*x alliances across generations.
Thank god, she had the best mother-in-law in the world! Nikhat and Najma were equally lucky. Why couldn't every girl count on that and be as blessed?
It really came down to this: why would women look out for one another, when 24/7 on Indian TV, they were being told that saases and bahus were bit*ches? That women were only good at kitchen politics and saazish?
With an anguished cry, Zoya remembered the reason for her own mother's brutal death: another woman had felt threatened by her presence and existence.
She didn't want to hate Raziya aunty, or even Tanveer for that matter. She didn't want to fall into that narrow crack of a space where women clawed at each other to compete for male favor and attention.
But how could she not hate Tanveer for all that she had done?
Tanveer's bogus claim that Asad had taken advantage of her at a weak moment, made every honest victim's claim of being raped, suspect. One reason why stricter se*xual violence laws were not being passed in India despite the collective horror over the Nirbhaya case, was because men were claiming that false claims of rape would escalate.
When women sabotaged each other, guilty men still came out winners.
And nothing ever changed.
The bile rose up again.
She fled to the restroom.
She felt like crying. What kind of world was she bringing her baby into? Did this baby even stand a chance with Tanveer's petty mission that could take diabolical proportions and wipe out everything in its wake?
Last night she had managed to allay Asad's fears.
But her own surfaced right now.
Song in title:
Woh Kaun Thi (1964): "Lag Ja Gale"
You could seal most gaps, but not all. You could go mad anticipating the enemy's every move, but an unforeseen event or glitch could trip you up and scatter a tightly-held hand of cards. They had planned for Tanveer's faux escape from jail, but her self-preservation instincts and reflexes had proven to be stronger.
The ace up their sleeve had turned out to be a chimera.
And that tiniest chance of malfunction, in his mind, became the slippery slope to the specter of complete failure; it plagued Asad night and day.
He'd never felt this exposed or vulnerable in his life.
And it ate him up inside.
However much he wanted to be seduced by it, he couldn't share Zoya's live-in-the-moment optimism and worry-free philosophy. For too long in his life, he had known only deprivation and the gut-wrenching fear of losing it all. There was no such thing as a worry-free philosopy.
No Hakuna Matatas for him.
One fateful night, eighteen years ago, had robbed him of Abbu's guiding hand from his head.
Just one cruel snap of the fingers, and everything was smoke and soot.
And Asad had come too far, worked too hard since then, to let someone like Tanveer take it all away.
She would do so only by prying it loose from his cold dead fingers.
But that same night, eighteen years ago, had taken far more from Zoya. And that was his biggest fear; it choked him up and froze him in terror. She had lain there, shrieking, motherless, engulfed in crematorial flames.
His throat burned.
He couldn't trust anything. Anyone.
He drove himself into the ground plugging holes and covering all bases; he was spreading himself paperthin. Because history was known to have a nasty sense of humor and a narcissistic streak; it had an uncanny way of seductively unfurling and repeating itself. If you didn't look over your shoulder every second, history stabbed you in the back.
Zoya had survived then.
But would she, this time around ... ?
Raziya had saved her then.
But Tanveer was no Raziya Siddiqui.
He knew that Tanveer would go to insane lengths to get her hands on Zoya. And once she did, he couldn't even let himself think of what she'd do.
He cracked his knuckles; he'd begun to do that recently without realizing it.
Work was a blur. He was on auto-pilot these days.
Grim ... gaunt.
He wasn't taking on new projects. And he was delegating all old ones. Asad hoped to god that he wasn't jeopardizing lives or livelihoods by the undeliberated decisions he was taking, or the papers he was signing away blindly.
Thank god for Prasad and Ayaan!
He wouldn't know what he'd have done without them.
And once most of the family left for Ajmer, he was almost eager for Tanveer to strike. He wanted these days of sick limbo to end.
He had worn himself out on the treadmill of ceaseless dread.
He wanted to confront her, come face to face.
He wanted it to be over, once and for all.
Asad just hoped that he wouldn't live to regret his weary wish for a showdown with a madwoman.
Zoya however, mostly fearless on most days, chafed at the relentless curfew-like restrictions. She was dying to visit the dargah and her mother's gravesite, chill with the kids at the children's center, eat gol guppas and chaat, or watch a movie or two.
Her hand clenched on Dobby's fur and he stiffened, not pleased with an interruption in his naptime. She absently patted his head and his claws retracted.
If the woman came before her, Zoya fumed, she would gladly slap her tight for sucking out all the joy from their lives.
She looked up to see her father watching her closely. "Kya hua Abbu? Why are you looking at me like that?"
"You look mad enough to bite someone's head off. Tum batao, kya hua?"
A wistful sigh petered out. "I hate this," she muttered.
Siddiqui patted her shoulder. He understood. He hated to see the spark dim in her eyes. Through those eyes, he had seen a new world, an alternate universe.
He had also seen the face of mercy.
He didn't know where this faith and hope came from. Or, may be he did. But he did know that finding Zoya after all these years had to have meaning in his life. Zoya conferred meaning to his life.
It couldn't be for nothing.
He knew he shouldn't be thinking it, but he was almost glad for Imran's fumbled attack on the Khan house. Because it gave him an unadulterated second chance. And he wouldn't let that tramp Tanveer, that pretend-daughter and impostor, ruin this moment.
He'd do everything that Asad said, and more.
It was that simple.
But Zoya hated this mandatory internment even more because Asad kept pushing her away from him.
And all because of a woman who now stood invisibly, but tangibly between them! That woman who had now graduated to playing deadly cat and mouse games. A couple of days ago, a large bouquet of assorted flowers had been delivered to the house. Since all deliveries were to be intercepted by the guards they'd taken it apart but found nothing.
But Tanveer's plan had worked.
There were no sighs of relief. Instead the stress and fear levels in the house had skyrocketed.
Then one afternoon, a man on a bike had flung a Molotov co*cktail over the walls. It did no real damage; it wasn't meant to.
Another day it was a box with a smashed porcelain doll in it.
Yesterday, a brick had been lobbed through the front window.
Today, a dead black cat lay at the gate.
A terrified Zoya had squeezed Dobby to her at this discovery, and he had squeaked and spluttered in dismay.
Some culprits had been nabbed and questioned. But they were common street desperadoes who'd been approached with promises of quick cash.
And of course, these simple memos of terror were having the desired effect. Tanveer was waging a psychological war on them.
They were being cooked in a pressure cooker.
And worse, Asad was becoming kind of manic depressive in his excessive worry; it scared Zoya more than anything that Tanveer could ever do. The permanently clenched jaw and sternly etched frown plummeted her spirits. The rapid-fire instructions to servants and security guards, short bursts of temper with everyone around, and racing anxiety continued to alarm her.
Just last night he had butted heads with Ayaan and chewed him out for coming home late. Raked him over hot coals, rather.
"Asad," she'd told him later that night in the privacy of their room, "calm down. You were really hard on him."
She longed to stroke his forehead to wipe that frown off, or hold his head to her so that he'd remember to breathe once in a while.
But he never sat still these days. When he did, he bristled in repose.
It was like hugging a cactus.
"Why can't he be more responsible?" Asad thundered as he smashed his palm on the dresser. It rattled. "He never takes anything seriously! Why don't any of them understand how crazy that woman is?"
"This is just a trailer! She's only getting started!" he raged.
Zoya made shushing sounds to soothe him. She hurried to hand him a glass of chilled water hoping it would act as an extinguisher to his erupting and escalating fury. She knew once his tirade started, it would take him several minutes to wind down.
Still seething with pent up rage and barely restrained violence, Asad's hand shot out to slam the glass out of her hand with the force of a battering ram.
She cried out.
The water flew in a graceful arc as the glass smashed to the floor and shattered.
Zoya stood frozen. Equally broken.
Hissing, Dobby ducked under the bed.
"Kya hua?" Rashid came running to the room to check on them.
Over his shoulder, he called out to the others to scramble to the safe room because they'd just been attacked.
Panic and pandemonium collided and stampeded over one another.
The mothers squealed with fluttering hands to their hearts. Everyone tried to recall the correct instructions even as they debated with each other if they should check to see if all was OK with Zoya and Asad.
"ABBU!" Asad couldn't believe it!
Why couldn't these people remember anything?
Would they ever get it right?
"Nothing's happened! But you're all supposed to go straight to the safe room if something had happened! Why is that so hard to remember?" He hollered.
Asad turned to look at Zoya while Rashid went to tell everyone that it was just a false alarm. Nothing to worry about. Zoya and Asad were fine, and Asad was just being a grizzly bear.
But, it would be nice if they all practiced the drill more tomorrow to get the details perfectly right. Just to be safe.
And it would also make Asad less snappy.
Asad could have laughed at the family's flustered attempts to follow the drill yet misremember the most important detail.
If this had been a real emergency, they'd have been cooked.
But looking at Zoya's face made him want to weep. She bowed her head and still massaging her wrist, bent to pick up the pieces of raw glass.
"No!" he barked. She flinched, and he felt even worse. "Let me," he added in a softer tone.
Asad made her sit down at the edge of the bed, and called the servant to clean up while he picked up the bigger pieces of jagged crystal. He continued to watch her with a heavy heart as he supervised the cleaning up.
"I'm sorry," Asad knelt before her when the servant left. He took her limp hands in his and pressed his face into them. She winced when she tried to struggle out of his grasp.
"Zoya, please! Don't push me away. I'm sorry."
"Push you away! You're the one"-!" she half-sobbed.
She took a deep steadying breath.
"You're beginning to scare me Asad. You think of nothing else these days. Can't you see that she's already winning if you carry on like this?"
"I can't believe you're saying that!" Asad snarled as he rose to pace the floor, a sleek, stalking panther. "How can I think of anything else? You know what she's capable of, even if the others aren't!"
"Then why don't we tell them what she's capable of? They have a right to know too! Why are we brushing most of her sins under the carpet?" Zoya retorted, equally incensed. "I really don't care about her. But I do care about you! And you're not you these days!"
"How can you expect me to be myself? Nothing's normal right now! And you think I don't care about you! I've seen first-hand what she's done to you. She threw you down the stairs, and I couldn't stop her! She had Humaira and Ayaan shot at, to get at me! She ran your car over and I wasn't able to do a thing! We could've lost the baby!"
He wanted to shake her for not seeing things his way. No one seemed to understand his urgency or alarm.
Not even her!
"When her people attacked the house they came through our room to get YOU first!"
Asad's voice rose with each tormented phrase. His eyes were fierce beads of burning coal; his mouth twisted into a bitter grimace.
He couldn't control his volcanic temper any more.
Livid, Asad smashed his frustrated fist into the closet door. Enraged with the dull thumping sound it made, he pounded it repeatedly with both fists.
The door, a poor substitute for his punching bag, began to splinter.
"ASAD!" Zoya yelled in alarm. Only now was she beginning to realize the true terror that haunted him night and day. It wasn't Tanveer's power to rain evil on them, it was his own absence and impotence he dreaded most.
She rushed to grip his hands before he hurt himself any more.
He fell upon her.
Asad grabbed her by her neck and snagging his fingers in her hair, he yanked her head back to cruelly ravish her mouth.
Zoya gasped; her hands came up to push him away, but she couldn't.
She didn't have the strength, nor the will.
The kiss was all sharp teeth and abject grinding. It was too long before he sucked on her bruised lips in apology.
She reeled in shock still clinging to him.
But he was only getting started. Seizing the top of her shirt with both hands, Asad ripped the shirtfront open. The buttons popped and skittered like spent shell casings. Her bra was destroyed too as his hands tore through the hooks, mutilating them.
He flung it away, a grenade that parachuted softly to the floor.
Neither noticed Dobby poke his head out and swat the strap. It was Christmas! Suddenly there were so many new playthings. A new toy! It was soft and even smelled of his favorite person.
Meanwhile, Asad and Zoya were caught up in a churning firestorm of their own, oblivious and uncaring.
His fingers bit into her upper arms, his mouth harsh on her throat.
He was unstoppable.
In a frenzy.
On a tear.
The violence in him needed an exit.
Zoya felt desire and fear weld together and surge through her as he slammed her into the wall.
Her breath was knocked out of her.
She raked her nails at his nape in warning.
"Asad!" she tried to break through his blinding haze. Zoya bit his neck to bring him back from the swirling darkness that was consuming him.
But she arched helplessly next, crying out in steamy pain, as he sucked her taut nipple hard, drawing and tasting blood. Raw lust stabbed her gut, and she felt wet consent gush through her even as the sting of his bites seared her flesh.
She clenched her thighs squeezing his hand when it slid between her legs to claw at her mound through the jeans.
His ravenous mouth possessed hers once again. He sucked on her upper lip and she liquefied further.
Impatient and heedless, Asad hoisted her up and carried her to the bed to consume her.
Wrestling her jeans off he speared his fingers to embed them in her hot, satiny center after pushing her panties to the side.
A satisfied cry erupted from her mouth even as she tried to hold his hand, "Asad, please, you're hurting me!"
His hand stilled for a second. But he was pitiless the next instant.
Her skin buzzed.
She exploded into a million crashing sensations when he knelt down and his invading mouth and tongue accompanied the furious strumming.
More teeth. A lot of tongue.
Her body resisted yet welcomed the conquest. It thrashed. It levitated.
He ruthlessly pinned her bucking hips down.
Asad wouldn't give her a chance to recover before beginning the assault all over again.
He wolfed her down.
Her falsetto cries of completion crescendoed again and again.
He was insatiable.
He couldn't get enough of her.
He would brand and re-brand her. All night if he had to.
He shredded her panties tossing them behind him. His thumb pressed and toggled, his tongue circled and swirled, his lips suctioned and teeth skated till she shuddered and shattered for him once more.
She had lost count by now. Her head had thrashed and arms had flailed; with each lift off she'd gone dizzy and weaker.
Still he wanted more.
A fever was upon him.
Swiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Asad turned her around and brought her up on her knees. His hands cupped and kneaded her butt. As she bent on her elbows, her naked ass waved in sweet invitation. Groaning out loud, Asad dug his fingers into that heart-shaped confection. He could hold himself back no longer. Undressing, he homed into her as he rolled his hips to pleasure her and himself.
She mewled in grateful delight, surprised that she had anything left in her any more.
The sight of her fists twisting the sheets, was what nearly undid his stupor.
"No, no, no!" she panted. "Please, don't stop," Zoya begged, her voice rough from all those orgastic cries. She was so close to the edge, just primed right to go off again.
"Asaadd, don't you dare stop!"
"Shh," he uttered through gritted teeth. Something in her tone, her achy, breathy voice, the way she called out his name, broke through his inscrutable numbness.
Heartbreak splintered him.
"I hurt you ... I'm sorry," an agonized Asad whispered from behind her.
"Oh god Asad, later! Just give it to me right now baby," she pleaded desperately, tossing the words over her shoulder and writhing against him mercilessly.
And suddenly he wanted nothing else but to relish the erotic sight of himself disappearing into her again ...
... and again
... and again.
He reclaimed her.
Hard and fast.
"Am I hurting you?" He grunted.
Her rhythmic keening flung him over the edge along with her.
"No ... no. Oh my god, oh my god ... yes ... YES ... YE ... ESSS!"
His self-control ripped. His mind went blank.
"ZoyaAA! Oh god, I love you so much!"
"I'm so sorry," Asad repeated later.
His atoning eyes roved over her. Her lips were swollen and tender. The sight of the darkening bruises he'd left on the rest of her body scalded and mortified him.
He had drawn blood!
There'd be tiny scabs on her broken skin tomorrow, thanks to him.
How could he have been such a beast?
She lay in his arms, naked, for the grim inspection of the aftermath of his brutal lovemaking.
Zoya wrapped her arms around his neck. "Remember that night on the train when I needed you to mark me because I couldn't bear the pain that was hollowing me inside out?"
He nodded, taking her hand to place a fervent kiss in her palm.
"You're carrying around something that's eating you up inside too. You won't share it with me. That hurts me more." Zoya whispered through tears.
Asad buried his face in the crook of her neck. His body was wracked with dry sobs. He couldn't bear the thought that he'd hurt her.
He should be flogged!
He'd hurt her most when every waking moment, anxiety for her ate away at him and eroded his soul.
How could he tell her that he was haunted by the visions of her limp and lifeless body in his arms? Graphic memories of Mangalpur floated up to suffocate any ray of light or sliver of hope in him.
His mind taunted him.
It insisted on running the scenes of their capture and separation in Mangalpur on a sick loop as if it were just a preview of things to come.
His mind mocked him with a blow by blow action replay.
He couldn't even remember how many armed men had pinned him down that day as others dug up a fresh grave to bury Zoya alive.
It still shamed him to this day, that he'd let himself be driven away while she lay in the dirt, motionless and defenseless, at the whim and mercy of vicious men about to entomb her.
Haltingly, he told her all this tonight, baring his soul, emptying his angst.
He told her of the horror of the moment when he'd run all the way back to the forest, but didn't know where to start looking for her. His mind had shut down, and guilt had paralyzed him.
Each fading second slashed him and tore him up inside. Then, and even now, in its retelling.
Frantically, he'd scratched at the empty earth in haphazard patches, stubbing his fingers, but finding only clumps of mocking dust.
He'd tasted ashes and tears as he shouted out her name through a raw throat.
He wasn't even sure if he was in the right place.
He had felt disoriented and defeated.
It could only have been some miracle that had sent Yash and Aarti to help him. It was Yash who, with a clearer mind and sharper eye had found freshly packed earth under a pile of dry leaves. Together they had clawed at the makeshift grave to resurrect her.
But when they'd unearthed her, Zoya had been unresponsive to the CPR he'd performed on her. No breath had sighed from her lips; no sass reproached him with "Mr. Khan, what's wrong with you?"
His angry words had ricochetted in his head. "Mujhe uss din ka intezaar hai jab aap meri zindagi se hamesha ke liye rukhsat hongi!" He'd said to her, just a few hours ago.
Pungent regret and searing loss had bloomed in his heart as he'd staggered and sunk to his knees, bereft and soulless. So many unsaid words, a promise of a lifetime had slipped from his hands like dead, decomposing dirt. Again it was his fault: his stubborn refusal to believe in her instincts. And she had paid the price for his unrelenting arrogance.
Unknowingly, he had impaled himself on a thorn and her initial had bled from his thoughtless hand.
Invisible threads and chains had bound them to each other, they'd realized much later.
His dripping blood ... her branded initial ... had mated them for life that day.
It had breathed new life into her.
Zoya reminded him of this now as she kissed the initial on his palm. "I came back, because you came back for me! I'm here because you were there."
"But what if I don't ... if I can't, this time?"
She burst into tears. "You will," she pronounced softly. She knew it in her heart, and it was enough for her.
Why wasn't it enough for him?
"I know I will till my dying breath!" He removed her hand as it tried to clamp his mouth shut. "But what if it's not enough?"
Eyes brimming, she shushed him. They held each other for a long time.
"Don't move," he ordered a little later as he rose to put on his pants.
Wiping her tears, she nodded, wondering where he was going at this time. He returned with a bowl of ice. Gently, he placed a cube on her lips to ice the swelling down.
She hissed. It burned!
His pulse leaped and their eyes snagged. It felt as if he'd smiled after a lifetime. Her tongue peeked out to lick away the melting ice and grazed his fingertip.
Asad groaned. "How do you have this effect on me?" He asked, bewildered and bewitched.
She wiggled and beamed up at him.
Asad trailed the disintegrating ice cube down her chin and throat to her cleavage. His mouth followed the chilled route setting her on fire. His tongue curled to sip and taste her. He transferred the cube to his mouth and played with her thrumming and singing nerves before crunching down on it. Still gazing into her heated eyes, he retrieved another cube to press it on one tender peak. He rubbed it on her sore nipple and circled around it to soothe the love bites and whisker burn. And as he moved his hand to relieve the other neglected bud, his mouth sought out the first one to re-taste it and draw the chill away. She gripped the hair at the back of his head and arched into him.
"Asad, that feels so good!" she moaned in need.
They felt rather than heard the thump on the side of the bed. Dobby brushed and rubbed against Asad's legs.
"Oh god, has he been here all this time?" Asad wondered.
Zoya giggled and swatted the cat off the bed, "bad boy, Dobby! Get lost!"
Dobby yawned in dissatisfaction and hopped down to resettle under the bed with the tattered leopard print bra. His ears co*cked briefly at the happy sighs and soft cries that came from above. His favorite humans were playing the baby-making game again, making tiny noises and causing a gently rolling earthquake. Thank god it wasn't as extreme as the earlier hurricane that'd made his fur stand on end.
Taekwondo classes had been indefinitely suspended. Half the girls weren't here. Besides, Asad had decided that he couldn't put the instructor in harm's way. Tanveer could well threaten or torture Ms. Sheena in order to extract some nugget of information from her.
Or do it simply to tighten the screws.
Humaira, however, was still trying to get Ms. Sheena to continue teaching her over Skype. Zoya had loved the idea of a virtual class and was already researching the possibilities for their Abbu's college class proposal. Meanwhile Humaira's General Jeeju had also put her and her Aapi in charge of teaching some basic self-defense moves to the parents.
And this was turning into its own comedy of errors.
Shireen just couldn't get the hang of it. For someone whose fears for her children's safety were unbreachable, she couldn't fathom anyone being as vicious as Tanveer.
Why were they all going crazy anticipating a filmy attack that might never come?
The moms had been shielded from knowing about the recent gifts from hell. The brick-through-the-window had been covered up as a careless accident. And the Molotov co*cktail was explained away as the start to a mock drill to practice their safety readiness.
Was Asad always like this, Shireen wondered, not for the first time. Is this how it was to live with him? She didn't like the way he had shouted at Ayaan that night.
How did Dilshad and Najma put up with him all these years?
But then she felt guilty.
It was because of her and her kids that Asad had grown up fatherless. And may be growing up without a father who lived in the same city did this to you.
It made you paranoid ... and angry.
She had seen him lose his temper before. But Ayaan had always thought the world of him. Ayaan could go against his Abbu but never his Bhaijaan. More recently Shireen had seen a softer and more protective side of Asad and it was hard for her to reconcile these two contrary sides of the man. From what Rashid had told her, Asad had been instrumental in getting rid of Imran and saving Nikhat from that dreadful family. She was happy that the brothers were working together even though Ayaan was working too hard. And then at Nikhat and Feroze's nikaah, Asad was the only one who tried to get the rest of the kids to behave for her sake.
Her brow relaxed.
She could see why her children worshipped Asad.
His love for them was genuine. And he was generous to a fault. She even knew and was grateful for his insistence that the girls leave for Ajmer immediately. And Zoya had come and apologized on his behalf yesterday. Even Dilshad had pressed Shireen's hand and looked guilty when Asad was reading Ayaan the riot act.
Did he have to shout at Ayaan so badly that night?
Raziya walked on pins and needles these days. Not because she knew the monster she had unleashed. Not also because of the carnage that Tanveer could visit upon them. She fretted because most of the people who would become Tanveer's victims didn't even know that Raziya was the bigger culprit. To see Humaira's pinched face as she earnestly patrolled the house, marching up and down, putting her heart and soul into protecting her Aapi, slayed her.
A few nights ago she had even mustered up enough courage to tell Siddiqui Saheb about the guilt churning through her.
"I want to talk to Asad about telling everyone ..." She had choked out.
He hesitated. He had been thinking the same thing. Siddiqui didn't know how much Dilshad knew. But he knew that she knew a lot more than Rashid or Shireen. All these days he had observed how close Asad was to his mother and how he valued her opinion and trust. However, Rashid and Shireen were mostly in the dark about why a madwoman was targeting their family.
Should they be told? But Tanveer's story was also knotted with their own murky story from eighteen years ago. So far Asad and Zoya had managed to firmly lock away that family skeleton in the back of a closet.
This revelation may well rip the doors apart.
"Will you be able to face ...? Siddiqui hesitated. "What about Humaira?" he asked anxiously.
Raziya sank down on the bed twisting her desperate hands. "She'll hate me!" she whispered.
She squared her shoulders. "But the others should know. They need to understand how unhinged Tanveer is and what lengths she could go to to get what she wants."
Raziya bowed her head. "I've been more than lucky to have even this much time with her. She needs to know at least a part of the truth if not the whole truth. I need to tell them all that I got her here."
"But won't that ... lead to questions about why?"
And that was her real fear wasn't it?
Like Asad, Raziya too knew that the attack was not a matter of if, it was a matter of when. And when Tanveer rounded them up for her diabolical circus of death, she would surely gloat about Raziya's past sins as she gleefully cackled and peeled back the curtain from the terrible horrors of the doll factory.
That evening Zoya saw Ayaan gazing moodily out at the night in the backyard, and she felt compelled to go up to him.
"Ayaan? I'm sorry," she said softly so as not to startle him.
"Hmm? What? Why?" he looked genuinely puzzled.
"I didn't like it when Mr. Khan yelled at you like that. And I know Humaira and Chhoti Ammi were hurt by it too."
"Oh that!" Ayaan waved his arm in dismissal. "It's OK, I know Bhai is under a lot of stress."
A sigh of relief whooshed out of her and she relaxed. "But still. He shouldn't have. I tried telling him."
Ayaan chuckled as he swung up to sit on the railing. "And how did that work out for you? Did he bite your head off too?"
Zoya blushed a bright crimson. Thank god, it was relatively dark out here. She nearly covered her face as a thought popped in her head: your Bhaijaan bit more than just my head off!
A giggle escaped and Ayaan look at her quizzically. Zoya blushed deeper.
"Umm, I'm a veteran by now," she said to cover up. "After all, your Bhaijaan's gotten better by practicing his public yelling skills just on me!"
"Aah yes! From when you were the musibat mohtarma! I remember. Really? He was that bad hunh?"
"He was. Ask Ammi or Tamatar. But I always yelled back at him ..." She grinned shamelessly.
"Oh, so that's the trick!" Ayaan joked.
"I don't know about tricks," Zoya mused dreamily. Instinctively her hand palmed over her stomach. "But we came pretty close to decking each other. Our first few meetings were a scream-fest, in public, with an audience. I think we even hated each other back then. He tried to bully and scare me. Too bad for him, I wouldn't back down!"
Zoya sighed, "a couple of times, he demanded that I leave the house. A couple of times, I did."
It was a favorite game of theirs, wasn't it? She was always leaving and Mr. Khan was always turning the tables on her.
"No!" Ayaan still couldn't believe it. "That's funny. I never knew this side of Bhaijaan. I mean I've seen him angry with Abbu when"- well, from before. But he's always been a gent with women. And whenever I saw him with you, he always seemed concerned about you. Even on that trip. Of course now he's a basket case thanks to whatever jadu-tona you've done on him. He's all moony-faced and googly eyes."
She was still laughing when Asad joined them.
"Who's all moony-faced and googly eyes? What does that even mean?" He asked, taking a sip from Zoya's coffee cup and making a face.
"See?" Ayaan turned to Zoya. "He would've never done that before you!"
"He better not!" Zoya threatened smiling up at Asad. Her hand itched to stroke his cheek but she restrained herself.
"Do what? What new Mona Darling and Raabert banter is this? Do I even want to know?" Asad asked in good humor.
Ayaan was surprised by his mellowness.
"Take a sip from any woman's cup. Admit it Bhai, you do some things only since you've been married."
Asad grinned cheekily. Ayaan didn't realize that he'd taken a sip from Zoya's cup already knowing that her coffee would be sweet and milky and not to his liking at all. It was just something he wanted to do short of pulling her into his arms.
"Ayaan," he drawled as he winked at his wife. "Trust me, there are many new and different things a man does when he gets married."
Zoya spluttered on her weak coffee.
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan!" A shocked Zoya fled the scene in total embarrassment. She'd never seen him be so besha*ram before. The man was losing it!
Asad laughed like he'd never laughed in the past few weeks and a blushing Ayaan looked at him in amazement. When had Bhai become this relaxed and bindaas?
"What's up, Bhaijaan? Aaj aap talwar le kar sabka sar kalam nahin kar rahe?"
Asad's laugh tapered into silence. He looked at Ayaan's face. It looked puzzled and hurt. He grabbed Ayaan by the scruff of his neck to enfold him in a bear hug.
"I'm sorry," he said after a long time as he held Ayaan apart by his shoulders to look him straight in the eye.
Ayaan grinned, all hurt and rancor forgotten. The Bhai who spoiled him rotten was back, and all was well.
"For what?" Ayaan ruffled his hair. "For nearly suffocating me right now?"
"No, I won't apologize for nearly suffocating you." Asad retorted. "I'd do it again in a heartbeat. No, I'm sorry for losing my temper and yelling at you."
Even he knew that this was the first time he'd lost his temper with Ayaan so badly.
"It's OK Bhaijaan. Jayiye maaf kiya. In fact Mona Darling was just telling me that in the good old days she saw this side of you everyday! Aap itna chillate thay unn par? Roz? No wonder she named you Akdu Ahmed Khan! And Jahanpanah!" He guffawed. "No wait, Jahanpanah six packs!"
Asad ducked his head. Yes, he had been particularly Akdu these last few days. Zoya was right to call him on it. But neither Ayaan, nor anyone else knew how he'd earned the nickname of Jahanpanah six packs, in the good old days as he called it!
The woman had completely bewitched him. Body and soul. And ruined him ... making him useless ...
His teeth gleamed in the dark. "Ayaan, I wasn't yelling at her."
It was foreplay, Asad snickered to himself.
"I was protesting. Those were the last throes of a man's revolt before he laid down his arms and surrendered permanently."
Ayaan laughed too. "Bechare Bhaijaan, Mona darling ke ishq mein ghayal! But Bhai, do you have to practice your Akduness on us, just because you married her and are too scared to yell at her these days!"
He ran squawking with glee as Asad tried to smack him upside his head.
Shireen watched them from her balcony. She smiled, finally at ease.
Song in Title:
Blood Money (2012) "Chaahat"
"I love you," Asad slipped his hands to hold her from behind as she ran a brush through her hair that night.
"Of course you do," Zoya piped up as she examined her hair for split ends. She leaned back into him savoring his scent and loose-limbed strength. After so many days she was getting to see this mellow side of him again.
And she was loving it.
"I need to get my hair cut." Zoya murmured, as if talking to herself. "Will you take me after the doctor's appointment tomorrow?"
"Sure, because I have nothing better to do."
"Jahanpanah, stop being so Akdu!"
"Fine. But don't get it cut too short. I like it long." He ran his fingers through her hair and tugged.
Asad pushed her hair over the shoulder to drop a kiss on the back of her neck.
"Just a trim. Would that be OK with Your Highness?"
"Yes it would be OK with my highness ... but even better with my hardness," he drawled, grinding into her.
Zoya's laughter tinkled in his glad ears as she purred with pleasure. Turning in the circle of his arms she nipped his neck to whisper, "I love you too, you know. And I just love it when you're playful and se*xy like this."
"Hmm," he grunted as he got his phone out to check his calendar for tomorrow and text Prasad to move around a meeting and site visit.
They looked up at the knock at their door.
Asad planted a swift kiss on her lips before opening the door to let Siddiqui Saheb and Raziya in.
They looked nervous; Asad frowned.
"Kya hua Abbu? Is everything OK?" Zoya spoke before he could utter the same worried questions.
"Haan beta, everything's OK. But we wanted to talk to you about something. It's important."
Zoya's hands gripped Raziya's as they furiously twisted and shredded her dupatta end. "Is Humaira OK?" Zoya gasped, nearly hyperventilating.
Tears flooded Raziya's eyes. She still marvelled at this child's mercy. That she could even bear to touch and comfort the woman who had killed her mother and scarred her, was grace beyond Raziya's mortal scope.
It must be beyond the frontiers of the human spirit.
A sob escaped her. Shame overcame her.
Zoya hurried to seat her in the chair and brought over a glass of water. Asad however, had begun to stiffen the minute they had walked into the room. His body squinched into the remembered rigid tension too familiar from the past few days.
What was it?
Had something happened?
The Siddiquis faces mirrored bad news. Asad's impulsive fist clenched.
All his worries and anxieties came crashing through the dyke that Zoya had painstakingly erected overnight.
He almost didn't want to hear what they had to say.
But Zoya had no qualms about voicing both their fears. Thank god for her directness and candor!
"Aunty you're scaring me. What's happened?"
"Nahin, aisi koi baat nahin hai. We didn't mean to scare you," her Abbu interjected.
"But ..." he continued. "We are here because we've decided that we want to tell everybody about how Tanveer came here and why they need to take the threat from her more seriously."
After the initial hesitation, Siddiqui's words tumbled and tripped over one another.
Zoya sat back with a hand to her heart. She sighed in relief. Thank god nothing bad had happened! Asad too seemed more relaxed, and she took a deep grateful breath for that.
Before she could say anything however, he spoke up.
"It's ironic. Zoya was suggesting the same thing some time ago."
"But," Zoya rushed in. "We really don't have to tell them why or how she came here, do we?" She looked at Asad, pleading for confirmation.
He gave a nonchalant shrug. "Yes, I don't think that matters any more. What's more important is that she do us no harm."
"No, it matters!" Raziya jumped up. "They need to know that I brought her here! This cycle of bitterness and violence that I started needs to end now. You both have been too kind. But I must take responsibility."
She burst into tears. Siddiqui bowed his head in disgraced complicity.
Asad's voice broke in over Zoya's anguished cry. "But why rake the embers of the past? What'll it achieve except for fresh misery and heartache?"
"It'll make Shireen and Rashid more cautious," Raziya answered looking at Siddiqui Saheb. "And it'll"- Siddiqui Saheb, kucch kahiye aap!"
He cleared his throat. "Yes. I love Shireen, but she can be too trusting or blind sometimes. She may be the weakest link in our house and if Tanveer gets through to her by some ruse or deliberate misunderstanding ..."
Asad's ears pricked. He knew what they were really saying. He swiped a weary hand over his face. Zoya had been right to read him the riot act yesterday. He hadn't taken her words seriously then.
But now ...
He knew his unjustified anger at Ayaan must have hurt Chhoti Ammi the most. Everyone else seemed to have seen it too. Siddiqui Saheb and Mrs. Siddiqui were here to caution him. Be careful, they were trying to say. Don't alienate anyone in the family or you could be playing right into Tanveer's hands*.
Asad sat down too and looked his father-in-law. Elbows on his knees he rested his chin on his fist. "You're right. We'll talk to everyone tomorrow to explain why these precautions are necessary."
Raziya heaved a doomed sigh. It was done now. Tomorrow everyone would know. And hate her.
"But," Asad continued, looking at Zoya's stricken face. "We'll stick to the original plan. No one needs to know why and how Tanveer got here. We'll only focus on her crimes from the past 8-9 months since she tricked her way into this house."
"But Asad ..." Raziya couldn't stop herself. She was thankful for their continued kindness but it could jeopardize everyone's safety if they didn't factor in the grim reality of her crimes.
"I ..." she sniffed. "... what if Tanveer tells everyone about my role in all of this? Wouldn't it be better if we told them now? Coming from her, it may do a lot more damage." Her voice had changed. It was the beaten voice of a freshly-freed convict who craved the dark misery of his former cell. Her jagged voice rasped like tired, cracked feet on broken glass.
Asad and Zoya looked at each other. They knew she was right. But they also hoped against hope that such a defense would be unnecessary. Zoya implicitly trusted Asad's ability to ward off such a revelation that could rip the family to bloody shreds.
"We'll see ..." Asad's words seemed to come from a great distance. "Let me think more about this."
Nodding, Siddiqui wished them goodnight and walked out. Raziya stayed back to place a tentative hand on Zoya's head. As she turned to go, a blur scurried out from under their bed to land at her feet.
Raziya couldn't control an inelegant guffaw.
First Zoya, and then Asad, turned beet-root red. Asad fled to the bathroom while Zoya scooped up her mangled bra after wrestling it away from Dobby's greedy clutches; she hid it behind her her back.
"Stupid Dobby!" Zoya hissed and Raziya laughed harder.
"Kya hua?" Siddiqui Saheb called out from outside almost turning around to return.
"Kucch nahin," Raziya giggled hiding her face in her dupatta. "Humare aapas ki baat hai," she stage-whispered as she stepped out, herding him away.
"But why were you laughing so hard?"
"Nothing," Raziya tried to shush him. "Just something between us ladies."
"Ladies? Par Asad bhi toh tha wahan!"
Zoya closed the door after them and leaned against it weakly. Dobby rose on his hind legs to retrieve his favorite toy.
"Shoo!" She hollered, waving the bra at him. "You're so bad! And spoiled rotten to the core!"
He wound himself around her legs thrilled that she was playing with him.
Asad leaned against the doorframe and watched them. "You would know about being bad," he teased.
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan! Did you see how embarrassing he was? What if Abbu had seen him? How will I face Aunty tomorrow?"
"You'll survive. Like Dobby you always land on your feet, Ms. Farooqui!" Asad drawled.
"Oh really?" Zoya taunted with a raised eyebrow. "At least I wasn't the one who bolted to hide in the bathroom. Could you have been more obvious?"
"Why don't you throw that thing away?" He changed the subject.
"I did!" Zoya whined. "I don't know how he fished it out."
"He's obviously in love with that thing," Asad grumbled in good humor.
"Well, you were too before you destroyed it!"
He grinned at her devilishly. "True. May be it's time to go shopping again Mrs. Khan. You'll soon be popping out of the clothes you currently own. And that bra wasn't covering the goodies as well as it should have!"
"Asad!" She threw the offending undergarment at his face.
He laughed and dodged.
Dobby pounced on the bra. His tail twitched in delight.
"No!" Zoya and Asad yelled in unison.
Dobby peed a little on the floor in abject fright.
"Aw, it's OK baby, don't be scared," Zoya stroked his head while cooing softly; she dropped to the floor next to him.
Asad rolled his eyes. That's how the little bra-swiping monster got away with murder every day.
Zoya leaned against Asad at the hilltop"their favorite getaway spot. The carpet of citylights twinkled and shimmered below.
And that's where she was ... somewhere down below, crouching ... controlling the strings of their destiny.
"We're tempting fate, aren't we?" Zoya finally broke the languid silence.
Asad sighed. "And her."
A reckless idea had grown like a stubborn weed in his psyche: if Tanveer wanted them then they would make themselves accessible to her. At least the rest of the family would be spared her megalomania.
Zoya put up no protest even though he hadn't voiced this subconscious decision. She probably already knew even before he thought it. And some inner strength impelled her absolute faith in him.
That's why today they had lived as if they had a million tomorrows. ... or none at all. Because tomorrow they had to talk to the family ...
After half a day's work, Asad had picked up Zoya from home to keep their appointed date: a promised rendezvous with multiple stops and way stations in between.
They had listened, rapt, to the baby's strong heartbeat at the doctor's office. It had thundered like galloping horses rushing headlong through the unbridled wind.
Their charmed wonder at that sound was ceaseless.
Zoya had asked Asad to record it and they kept playing it back over and over again in the car. The fifth time around, the booming heartbeats sounded like a tenacious train hurtling through a tunnel.
At the salon they had dimpled at each other in the mirror as Zoya got her hair shampooed and trimmed. But soon he'd grown alarmed to see a frown mar her smooth brow.
Her lips pursed and pouted dangerously.
A minute later Asad grinned reading a text from her: "Go sit in the car."
"Why?" his text asked.
"Because I don't like how these women are looking at you!" The angry emoticons that followed made him chuckle.
"Jealous, Mrs. Khan?"
"You bet your sweet ass!"
"I think your ass is sweeter," Asad responded as he winked at her in the mirror.
"Really, Mr. Khan? Tell me more about my sweet ass." In the mirror she batted her lashes at him.
"It makes me want to do things to you."
"What things?" He could have sworn he heard a soft purr.
"Things that make you go wild enough to scratch me, and yell, YES! YES! YES!"
He watched her blush and lower her gaze.
"I don't yell!" she still sassed.
"You moan ... loudly!"
"Oh really? I'll keep it down then." A sad face emoticon followed.
"Don't even think about it! I love the sounds you make."
Her full lips curved deliciously and her dimple winked at him. He wanted to drag a drugged thumb over those plump lips.
And then dip his head to suck on them.
When she raised her eyes to his again, Zoya blinked after a long stare, reading his mind in matched assent.
Dinner had been street food garnished with spicy miyan-biwi nok-jhonk because Asad felt the need to grumble against the food's lack of hygiene, and his wife felt equally complelled to publicly announce that her husband was hardwired to be Akdu because he lacked a single fun or masti cell in his body.
"Stop exaggerating, Mrs. Khan!" He'd whispered in her ear. "There's one masti muscle in my body that's a lot of fun. For both of us! And, it's hardwired all right!"
She had snorted the gol guppa pani through her nose. The spicy and tart water stung her sinuses.
"It's a muscle?" Zoya'd asked innocently after she could breathe normally again. "I thought it was all bone!
"It's versatile and has a mind of its own," he gloated.
"So it's schizophrenic?" Zoya asked through more giggles.
"Nope, it's ambidexterous!"
The other patrons and vendors had watched them, charmed and intrigued. What was so funny that she had to bend over while squealing and clutching her stomach so hard? They watched him help her up and his hand linger on hers.
"Wow, Mr. Khan," Zoya whispered as she wiped her streaming eyes. "Nice comeback!"
Asad cleared his throat. "Speaking of come"-"
"Mr. Khan!" she sassed. "Not in public!"
Asad tilted his head in mischief. "In private then?"
"Only if you're good!"
His response had made her dimple flash and cheeks blush furiously all over again.
Wrapped in each other, they silently gazed at the glowing city below. Asad lifted her wrist to his lips where a brand new charm dangled from her bracelet: the cricket ball charm he'd special-ordered for her had finally arrived. It commemorated not just their love for the game but that moment of badassery when she'd socked an intruder full in the face with his cricket ball.
Zoya's charm bracelet was becoming a unique gallery of personal momentos. Her Abbu had given her a filigree replica of her cherished music box. And next to her own initial, she'd added Asad's.
"A to Z, and everything in between," she'd told him. Asad watched her jiggle the charms to hear them clink as they swung from side to side.
They weren't aware of a shadowy figure watching them.
Asad tapped the screen on his phone: galloping horses thundered headlong through the unbridled wind.
Hands interlaced on her stomach, they beamed.
Tanveer crept around a gnarled tree trunk to keep an eye on her quarry. Annoyance rippled through to choke her.
They were playing games with her, were they? They strutted in the open when she had declared open season on them?
When her people gave her an update on Asad picking up Zoya from the Siddiqui house in the middle of the day, her nerves had tingled in anticipation.
She'd rushed to the clinic to stake the place out in triumph. May be she'd mess with them or just keep an eye on their movements.
But a glimpse of their heads bent together and their radiant faces had popped her bubble of confident victory.
They were dressed up?
For a doctor's appointment?
Their unhurried carelessness after the stop at the doctor's office infuriated her further. Stopping at a luxury beauty parlor for a hair cut when they were supposed to be cowering under siege at home?
Were they brave or just brainless?
Unable to sit in her own car another second longer, Tanveer had donned her burqa and slipped into the salon to watch them more closely. When the pesky attendant had come asking what she wanted done, Tanveer had offered herself up for a reluctant manicure. As she sat with her hands splayed like a scarecrow, her skin itched to claw their mooning eyes out. She watched them make eyes at each other in the wide mirror. She watched helpless with rage as they texted back and forth.
Zoya's blush and lowering gaze made her blood rush.
Jealousy flared through her already scorched nerves. Her hand jerked uncontrollably; Tanveer cried out as the manicurist's scissors cut deep into her cuticle.
"I'm so sorry," the terrified employee bleated incessantly. Tanveer could have strangled her for drawing everyone's attention to them.
When the Khans left, Tanveer walked off too, her manicure bloody and incomplete.
They gorged on the spicy food, but it gave her heartburn instead. Their whispered banter and more laughs and blushes had made her want to hurl. And throw a tire jack through a shop window.
And they still didn't rush home to huddle in their mansion that she had morphed into a gilded prison.
No, they drove leisurely through the city, laughing, strolling by the lake, snarfing up kulfis, stopping to pick up flowers for Zoya, and ending up at this hilltop for some stargazing and infernal moonsighting.
Asad Ahmed Khan must surely have lost his mind in his Ms. Farooqui-driven love fog. They weren't taking her seriously? Did they not receive all the gifts she had left them: signed, sealed and hand-delivered?
Why? Why weren't they back at that fortress guarded by the city's best surveillance teams and security detail?
It was getting late and they still loitered.
Why were they here in the dark, lingering, arm in arm, hugging and shamelessly"-
They acted as if they had an eternity.
Eyes squinting murderously, Tanveer watched as Asad bent his head to kiss Zoya full on the mouth. She saw Zoya melt into his frame as she sinuously wound herself around him to go up on her toes and curl her fingers through his hair. He pressed her into the side of the car and his hand roved from her bare waist down to"-
As Tanveer edged closer she heard Zoya's soft moans. His dark head bent to whisper something in her ear and Zoya sighed and shuddered.
"... remembered, Mr. Khan?"
She heard snatches of Zoya's husky words.
"... love here?"
Tanveer sidled even closer to hear Asad recite a scr*ap of poetry: "When lovers moan, they're telling our story.
He bent his head to reclaim Zoya's parted mouth. Their hips ground into one another.
Poison coursed through her. Wasn't that Rumi, Tanveer wondered distractedly. Sharp nails gouged her empty palm.
Transfixed, Tanveer watched Asad open a door and lift Zoya in his arms to place her in the back seat. As he rounded the car to enter from the other side, Tanveer saw him already unbuttoning his shirt.
The car door slammed.
She nearly screamed.
But she couldn't stop herself from creeping forward even more. A couple of feet away from the car, Tanveer slid to her knees not realizing that vengeful tears washed her face. Her twisting hands had already clawed at the fresh wound on her finger.
Why did they get to have this?
The uptight and conservative man she knew as Asad Ahmed Khan wouldn't have been capable of such -- such brazen acts. When she had come to Bhopal at Raziya's behest, a big part of her had jumped at the chance to worm her way into the Khan house. Becoming Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan would have been a piece of cake"the Khans were too trusting, too simple to see through her decorous veils of deception.
The failures of the last few months flashed before her.
She would have been successful too. Even if Asad suspected Tanveer's motives he was too much of a gentleman to back out of a commitment.
But Zoya Farooqui, that intruder from New York, had ruined everything.
In her mind's eye Tanveer saw them writhing, half-naked, making love in the cramped confines of the backseat.
They were doing this on purpose to taunt her ... torment her.
Her fingers scrabbled in the dirt and detritus.
When she saw the vehicle sway and gently rock, she crushed dry litter and soiled clumps into her bloodied hangnail.
She should go back to her car and order the driver to ram it into theirs. A little nudge with the front bumper and their car would topple over to plunge into the blind ravine below. The lovemaking fools would be crushed to death in the act itself.
She'd give coitus interruptus a new face!
But no, that would be too easy and not satisfying enough.
As much as it killed her, she'd stick to her original plan.
With one last look at the car windows which were now fogging up, she stalked away. But she couldn't block out the muffled sounds ... Zoya's ecstatic cries of "oh god ... Asaaddd! I'm coming!" stabbed her ears.
Did she imagine this? Was her crazed mind making her hallucinate?
... But his grateful growl of completion ... "Zoyaaa!" finished her off.
Demented with thwarted desire, she stumbled.
Her wasted soul recoiled.
The nail-biting, hyperventilating family rounded on them in blind panic as soon as they entered the house:
"Are you crazy?"
"Where've you been?"
"What took so long?"
"We were so worried!"
Asad raised his hands in surrender to pacify them. "We told Humaira and Ayaan that we'd be late. I texted. Zoya called."
They were bombarded with more outrage.
"But still! It's close to midnight!"
"How can you be so careless?"
"You tell us to be careful but expose yourself to danger?"
"Being out for so long, and with no bodyguards! What were you thinking?"
"Abbu! We're fine. Really." Zoya took Siddiqui's arm and led him away to the sofa to settle him in.
"I really needed to get out, Abbu. I was going stir-crazy. So Mr. Khan decided to surprise me. But I promise, we kept sending updates to Humaira and Ayaan. I even texted Ammi."
She smacked Ayaan's knee who was now perched on the sofa arm. "Why didn't you tell everybody?"
"I did!" He hopped up to throw his arms melodramatically into the air. "But do they listen to me? No! Everyone was too busy worrying about their precious Mona darling and their khandaan ka chiraag!"
But Zoya was already diverted. "Mr. Khan!" She leaped up to clap her hands, "Let's show them, um ... listen to the audio of the baby's heartbeat!"
Humaira squealed the loudest. "What? I want to hear!"
She jumped up and down, flustered yet over the moon. She wanted to record everyone's expressions and fumbled with her own phone, but she also wanted to hold Aapi's hand as they all listened to the first sounds of her niece or nephew. She gratefully surrendered her phone to Ayaan who volunteered to take the video for her. "Get everyone's faces!" she ordered.
He rolled his eyes. Of course he would! Did she think he'd take pictures of their feet?
They all crowded around Asad. He broke away and came to sit on the sofa and played the audio.
The sound of rushing hooves racing against hurtling trains filled the room.
Everyone gasped at the miracle. Rashid urged Asad to play it again as the parents wiped suddenly wet eyes. Dilshad sobbed openly and Zoya wrapped her arms around her.
"He's running a marathon in there! Champ banega mera sher!" Ayaan announced with avuncular pride, all video-making instructions forgotten. Rashid sat back, nodding his head vigorously, speechless with awed gratitude.
"Excuse me! How do you know it's a boy? It could be a girl!" Humaira couldn't believe the arrogance.
With a flourish Ayaan pointed to himself and Asad, "because, the Khans' firstborn is always a male!"
"Oh hello? Are you blind?" She pointed to Zoya and herself, "the Siddiquis' firstborn is always a girl!"
"Well Mona darling is a Khan now, so it follows that"-"
"Oh please! Look at my Aapi. Whose genes do you think will be dominant and kick some Khan butt from here to eternity?"
Ayaan roared with incredulous laughter. "Are you freaking nuts?" he scorned. "Have you seen my Bhaijaan? He's top gun, General Akdu Ahmed---"
He looked at his blissfully besotted Bhaijaan making eyes at his wife, and sighed.
"You're right," Ayaan conceded defeat. "The Khans don't stand a chance!"
Humaira and Zoya cackled with glee and high-fived. Even Raziya laughed at that along with the others. Though secretly she was convinced the next generation's firstborn would be a boy.
She could just feel it in her bones.
"She'll be a gold medalist sprinter for India!" Humaira continued to boast about her niece. Siddiqui nodded in proud agreement.
"Kyun nahin, kyun nahin! Uski Ammi bhaagne mein ustaad jo hai!" Ayaan fled himself as Humaira shot up to box his ears.
"Asad! Zoya!" Dilshad called out to them before Humaira and Ayaan could come to more blows. Wiping her eyes with her dupatta, she ushered them into the kitchen. She was relieved to see them both look serene and happy. Ayaan and Humaira's cheekiness had further feathered away all gathering clouds.
But her heart had quailed in fear nevertheless.
She needed to remove any evil spell that may have been cast on them when they were out for all these long hours. Pressing a taawiz to her eyes she tied it on Zoya's arm.
Dilshad blew the air around their bowed heads, fondly placing her palm on Zoya's tummy in blessing and prayer. In her fervently whispered duas she asked for her grandchild's safety and joy. May its heartbeat drum in happy health for a long, long time to come.
She held Zoya to her heart.
At work the next day, Asad brooded over the family meeting from this morning. Mrs. Siddiqui's words about telling them all now, instead of letting Tanveer misuse and brandish that information against them later still made a lot of sense. But they had chickened out at the last minute and done the safe thing with a little bit of creative editing.
Shireen had been livid on finding out about the shooting that could have hurt Ayaan. Till now most of them had thought that Zoya's accident was just that, an accident; only now they knew that Tanveer had been behind that too. Asad also told them all about the latest attack on the Khan house and the decoys he'd posted there. The truth about the recently-sent gifts to the house made everyone gasp. Scared straight, the family pledged daily runs of the safety drills.
"How does she have the resources to hire so many people and do so much damage? It takes a lot of money to pull something like this off." Rashid had wondered aloud. Ayaan nodded absently too.
The Siddiquis had bowed their guilty heads in shame. They had been Tanveer's inadvertent bank-rollers after all.
Taking a sip of his mid-afternoon coffee between meetings, Asad grinned suddenly. Hearing of Tanveer's multiple trespasses, Humaira had jumped up to assume her warrior pose and threaten: "I'll kill her!"
She'd even yelled her Taekwondo Kiai.
Everyone's faces had brightened with indulgent smiles at her passionate war cry.
"Humaira, don't say that!" her mother, however, had scolded in furious panic.
Raziya's face had gone ashen as if she had seen a ghost of her past. Her hands had trembled in awful premonition.
When she had dashed to her bedroom, Asad had thought that Humaira's words had reminded her too much of her own actions from eighteen years ago.
But she soon returned to press something into Zoya's hands.
"It's a special protective taawiz that'll keep you and the baby safe from all harm. Always wear it close to you."
No one knew it, but it was a taawiz that she'd had made for Humaira when she had first heard of Zoya's quest for her father, almost a year ago. Then, she'd have done anything to keep Zoya from knowing the truth and ever reuniting with her father; now, she knew better.
Now, she knew that Zoya was her redemption. And Humaira's.
Everyone had peered at the tiny, filigreed cylinder on a thin gold chain. Inside the delicate gold jali work was a glass insert within which nestled a miniature scroll inscribed with passages from the Quran.
Humaira tied the clasp behind her as Zoya fingered the pendant at her throat.
Delighted, and dimpling she'd looked up at him to"-
Asad frowned at the commotion outside his office. He had barely put his mug down to check on the ruckus when his door burst open to reveal an injured and bleeding Prasad. Several workers stood behind him murmuring uneasily.
"Prasad! What happe"-?"
"Sir! I was attacked," he panted as he sagged against the doorframe still clutching his stomach.
"Who? How?" Asad rushed to his side while yelling at the others to call an ambulance or a doctor. He led him to the sofa and plied him with water.
"They took my phone ..." Prasad's voice was fading fast. He coughed and blood dribbled from the corner of his mouth.
"It'll be OK, Prasad," Asad soothed pulling out his handkerchief. "It's just a phone. Forget about it. We need to get you to a hospital first."
"But ... sir, it had all the information about your schedule ... meetings ... addresses and numbers ..."
A red flag flared before Asad's eyes.
His hand arrested in mid-air; his heart thundered so loudly and so surreally in his ears that he wondered if it was the baby's. It had been nearly impossible to think straight. But Prasad getting the much-needed medical attention was a bigger priority right now. His breathing was becoming more and more labored.
Just before he could call home to ensure everyone's safety, however, Prasad's shoulders slumped and he lost all consciousness.
Only when a doctor with a clinic in the same building had rushed in to attend to Prasad did Asad get the chance to text Zoya and issue an all points high alert. When he called to check on the family, he breathed a sigh of relief.
Everything was fine.
But not so the next day.
Hearts in their mouths, palms clammy and rigid with tension, Asad and Ayaan raced to get home that afternoon. An anonymous call had come through the office switchboard asking a single terrifying question: have you checked on your family?
Dashing to the car, Asad had directed his staff to call the police to get to the house. But the police were busy: a car explosion had rocked a mall parking garage, injuring hundreds. The city was on full alert for a possible serial bombing threat. All hands were on deck; no one could be spared.
Frantic, Asad veered away to overtake a lumbering truck that was slowing them down and stepped on the gas to make up for lost time.
He sped and fishtailed through the erratic traffic.
The house was a mere 15 minutes away but it may as well have been on another planet; each meter was a lightyear. It was taking an eternity and each second's loss hollowed him inside out. It was like they were wading through wet concrete mixed in with tarry quicksand.
Soon, soon he would be at the familiar cross street. He ran through another red light; car horns blared in protest.
But just a mile ahead, the SUV was soon intercepted and expertly run off the road by two trucks working in fiendish sync. Five masked assailants, some brandishing assault rifles, jumped out of an accompanying van to surround and effectively disable their car.
It was all too swift, and even anticipating the blitz hadn't prepared them for the jolt of being completely cornered and outnumbered.
The lack of an armed bodyguard by their side, or a gun in his firm grip, had made Asad slam his impotent fist on the steering wheel.
Zoya's worried words of caution from a few days ago echoed in his frustrated ears.
Damn you Zoya, I don't need you to be right yet again, he screamed in his head.
He and Ayaan were forced out of the car at gunpoint and kicked down to the ground and told to raise their hands over their heads. Ayaan was struck with the butt of a rifle for cussing a blue streak and resisting. They slammed him into the car's side to punch him in the gut for disobeying instructions.
"Ayaan!" Asad yelled, trying to warn and pacify his hot-headed brother. They needed to conserve their strengths for whatever lay ahead. It would be much worse, of that he was sure.
Rough, scratchy cloth hoods slipped over their heads to block out the sunlight.
Just be safe, Asad prayed silently on his knees as he felt his hands being ziptied behind him. Tightly secured, they were both hauled up and tossed into the back of the van.
Just please be safe, he continued to plead, desperately telegraphing his hope. Because this carjacking meant only one thing: if the house hadn't already been attacked, it would be. Soon. It could even be happening right this minute. And they were all being rounded up for the final pageant: Tanveer's show was on the road.
Song in Title:
Omkara (2006): "O Saathi Re"
This time the attack was real.
The ominous sounds of cracks and booms and smashing glass had reverberated through the besieged house. And this time they had done everything exactly right. All those daily drills to timed precision had finally paid off. Like obedient troops to an invisible General's orders, they had marched in synchrony and manned their posts and delegated duties.
The SOS messages had been sent and GPS devices just as swiftly activated.
It was only when they turned around to face each other in the safe room that they realized that one person was missing.
Humaira gasped and covered her mouth to prevent an agonized moan from leaking out. The mothers turned to look at her. Their widening eyes betrayed the same horror: Zoya! Where was Zoya?
"Badi Phuphi, no!" Humaira yelled, even as it killed her to say those words.
Dilshad had run to remove the barricades they'd pushed in front of the door to secure themselves while Humaira was switching on the camera monitors which were installed on a backup charge. They couldn't see Zoya within any camera range.
"Par beta, Zoya is out there. She needs us!" Dilshad's tears fell and her hands shook.
The men weren't at home at this time of the day. The instructions were strict: after a specific time lapse they had to lock themselves in, no matter who was missing. And they had to stay under lockdown till they got the all-clear signal. Did they do the wrong thing by following the instructions too carefully? Shireen quietly sobbed into her dupatta and Raziya stood frozen in a corner: At least Shireen and Dilshad's girls were safely away.
But her daughters were in the direct line of fire.
Raziya stuffed her dupatta in her mouth to stop herself from screaming. The drums of doom beat in her ears, deafening her.
They heard a loud crash just outside the room and the sounds of a scuffle. On the screen they saw a man drag Zoya to the middle of the hall. They saw Zoya pick a vase from a console table and try to smash it on her captor's head. But he was swifter and dodged the blow. In retribution he landed a resounding backhanded slap across her face. Humaira's arm tightened involuntarily"she saw Zoya bite her lips to stop herself from screaming.
When Dobby attached himself to the villain's face with his claws, the man growled and flung the cat away nearly trampling upon it.
"No!" Zoya mouthed. She straightened up and allowed herself to be dragged away, defiantly obedient and fiercely compliant.
Angry tears fell down Humaira's face.
Dilshad sank to her knees, "Zoya, meri bacchi," she whimpered in helpless terror as they heard more yells. They watched Tanveer glide on to the screen to face Zoya.
The entrapped refugees in the safe room stilled at the crack of a gunshot. The camera outside the study had been blown out.
Some alien power took over Humaira's instincts in this moment of crisis: her numb fingers flew across her phone screen: Plan B, the plan that only she knew about in the whole house, needed to be set into motion. ASAP.
"It's on," she group-texted.
And not a minute too soon.
Because from outside the door they heard Tanveer's voice ring out loud and clear: "It's no use, ladies. Come on out."
How did she know that only the women were home, a fraction of Humaira's brain wondered. They looked blankly at each other not knowing what to do. The indecision weighed heavy on them.
"No? How about if I tell you we have your precious Zoya right here with us?"
They heard slapping sounds and muted cries from outside. Humaira's fists balled by her side. She knew what Tanveer was doing to Zoya without the need to look at any screen; and she also knew that her Aapi was holding back her screams for their sakes"so they wouldn't be blackmailed into stepping out into danger.
Raziya squeaked in alarm. That tramp! Always a step ahead of them!
"You still won't come out? Not even when I do this?"
This time Zoya couldn't hold back. She screamed in abject pain.
Humaira couldn't bear another second of this. She dashed to the door to slide away the heavy desk with Dilshad and Raziya's help. Shireen meanwhile had wiped her tears and been busy tying pepper spray cannisters and pocketknives into everyone's dupatta corners.
They all tumbled out of the door to see Zoya on her knees.
The women winced to see the welts across her face where the last stinging slap was still imprinted on her right cheek. Zoya held her arm at an awkward angle and refused to look at them. Oh my god, had that witch broken her arm?
Dilshad ran to help her up but Tanveer stepped in the way.
Armed men surrounded them.
"Not so fast, Khala! Koi dua ya salaam nahin? Kahaan gayee aapki tehzeeb?" She smirked.
"Tanveer!" Dilshad slapped her with all her might. "How dare you? Asad will kill you if any harm comes to Zoya!"
"Really?" Tanveer's eyes glittered dangerously. "But Zoya is Supergirl, isn't she? How could I possibly do anything to harm her? Meri aisi jurrat kahaan?"
"Shut up! Asad and everyone else are already on their way over. You don't stand a"-"
Tanveer threw her head back and laughed.
"Correction. They were on their way over. They aren't any more."
The women gasped. What did she mean?
She laughed again.
"Don't worry. I haven't killed them ... not yet anyways! Now, let's go and get this party started. I can't wait for the fun to begin!"
She nodded to her men and they began to herd the women toward the main door. Humaira struggled and fought back but one of the armed men grabbed her throat and squeezed hard. Raziya roared and rushed to claw at his fingers, but he pointed the gun to Humaira's head with his other hand.
Raziya backed off. "Please, don't hurt her," she whimpered in fear.
Tanveer laughed behind them. "Raziya bi, so desperate for your daughter's safety?" she purred. "That same daughter for whose sake you've taken so much from others? Where were your protective instincts when it came to hurting someone else's daughter."
Raziya inhaled sharply and shut her eyes tight.
Here it comes, she thought.
Everyone will know.
Humaira might just kill her instead of Tanveer.
Tanveer cackled yet again, "aw, Raziya Bi, I've missed you so much. I haven't had so much fun in such a long time!"
She clapped her hands in delight. "But I'll save the best for later. Why waste all my wit on such a small audience?"
Her face hardened, "chalo!" she called out to her henchmen.
They dragged the women away.
She'd had this sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.
For more than a few weeks now, Zeenat had been after him about trying to find out what was bothering Zoya and Asad. On Facetime and over the phone, she could tell that something was afoot and that they were both worried and hiding something serious or terrible from them.
Their caginess was beginning to grate on her.
His wife's endless jumpiness had finally convinced him to go check things out for himself. Only then did Zeenat calm down enough to leave him in peace. Since by now he'd given up on getting any straight answers from Asad, Anwar had been in constant touch with Omar. His own antenna had tingled when he's heard of Omar's unplanned trip to India.
Something really was going on.
And it must be pretty bad.
Omar too had initially hemmed and hawed; but he didn't completely agree with Zoya and Asad about keeping all this a big family secret. He didn't get why Indians believed that keeping bad news from family was a noble enterprise. "Bechare chinta karenge," was a favorite desi-ism to prevent sharing news about health scares or money troubles. His grandparents, bless their hearts, played that card on his parents every few years. Why didn't they realize that it led to even more worry because then you imagined the worst and let the stress eat away at your insides?
But eventually he'd caved in after getting Anwar to agree that he wouldn't tell Zeenat (or Zoya would kill him, even if he was married to her favorite nanad). The irony of that blackmail didn't escape him.
Well ... he was American, but Indian too!
Anwar hopped the first flight over.
But his flight from Mumbai to Bhopal had been indefinitely, infernally delayed. And then once he'd hounded the taxi driver to race through Bhopal's blockaded streets, he'd realized that the Khans weren't at their own home any more; they were temporarily holed up at the Siddiqui house.
He knew the area around the Khan house quite well but had no clue about this part of town.
The stop and go traffic combined with asking around for directions had set his teeth on edge. Fleeing minutes had felt like creeping hours. He couldn't wait to see and hold Zoya and determine for himself that she was absolutely fine.
When he finally reached the gates and pulled out his wallet to pay up, skidding wheels and impatient horns had startled him. He saw SUVs and vans peeling out of the mansion's driveway.
The hair on the back of his neck rose.
Something felt wrong. He couldn't see anyone's faces in the cars, but too many people were crammed into each vehicle.
Blind instinct took over.
He leaped back into the taxi to order the surprised driver, "jaldi karo, follow those cars!"
The driver demurred. "Udhar raasta bund hai!"
"I'll pay you double!"
The car flew.
He punched in Omar's number on his cell.
"Jeeju! We're on our way too. Humaira just texted us. They're in trouble."
"What?!" Anwar asked, confused and dazed. "I'm following a bunch of cars that just left their house. Should I go back to see"-"
"No! That's great! We have their GPS co-ordinates and yes they are on the move. Just keep an eye on them and let us know their location. We may lose their GPS signal if they take an unmapped route. We should be there in less than an hour"this damn traffic and stupid roadblocks ..."
A part of the city was at a standstill. On the radio hyper-excited journalists speculated and blabbed about the possibility of a serialized terror attack. Hapless witnesses at the mall were being asked the same freaking question in different ways: "Mall parking garage mein afra-tafri dekh kar aapko kaisa lag raha hai? Kaisa mehsoos ho raha hai? Please humein vistaar mein bataiye!"
You could see a lot of police but you couldn't get them to help you. "Duty par hain! Not our jurisdiction!" were the heartless refrains with which they were shooed away.
Gritting his teeth, Omar had slammed his palm on the dashboard a few minutes ago.
"Don't try to approach them, Jeeju," Omar cautioned Anwar after a deep steadying breath. "Keep a safe distance. We don't want to spook them into doing something stupid or dangerous."
None of them mentioned that neither Asad nor Ayaan were answering their phones. Whatever this was, it was something too well-planned and highly cho*reographed. And it would get a lot worse before it got better. Omar scrubbed his forehead in agitation. He looked at Najma's tense face and smiled at her in reassurance.
When Zoya had stepped out of the closet and seen Tanveer lounging on the bed, her first thought was that she was hallucinating.
How had the alarms not triggered, how did this woman get into their house? Only later would they find out that Tanveer's band of criminals had tazed, shot and bulldozed their way in after disabling the electric and phone lines. The guards had been held and cuffed at gunpoint after one of them was critically injured due to a gunshot wound and another shot in the leg.
Tanveer had risen and sauntered over to the dresser. She'd taken out a measuring tape and and proceeded to measure its length. She dictated notes to herself on her cellphone.
"Tanveer! What the hell are you doing?"
"I don't like this," the witch had drawled. "I'm going to replace this. And those too," she said, pointing to the drapes.
Zoya had been blown away by the woman's audacity and hostility. Before she could react or respond, one of Tanveer's gundas seized her by her neck to drag Zoya away. No amount of kicking and scratching had worked on the over-muscled brute. And she didn't want to scream. But the magnitude of the home invasion and the sight of Tanveer's armed stormtroopers swarming the house had sickened her.
In the car, Zoya dared not look up into Ammi's or Humaira's eyes. She was too terrified that she'd burst into frightened tears.
She felt guilty.
First, it was because of her that the rest of the family was being targeted and tormented. Besides that, she of all people, at this moment when it mattered most, had been caught unawares and without her beloved pepper spray or cell phone. Asad's words, spoken not too long ago in jest, haunted her: if you ever decide to stand for election, the pepper spray would be your chunav chinh ...
If she did survive this ordeal, Asad would kill her.
"Tanveer, I know you want me. But let the others go, please!" She pleaded with the woman in the passenger seat up front.
Tanveer rapped her across her knees with the butt of a gun she'd been twirling around playfully. "Shut up Zoya! I'm in no mood for your self-sacrificing goody-two-shoes act! It makes me sick! You make me sick!"
Huddled in the backseat, Zoya tried not to hug her stomach"it may set Tanveer off even more. The gun swinging loosely from her fingers terrified her.
She was scared for the baby.
Hands clasped desperately, she prayed and talked to the baby in her head: "You'll be fine, we'll be fine. Abbu won't let anything happen to you. I promise!" She kept repeating this vow as she closed her eyes to cast her strength into that tiny being whose heart had beaten so strongly. Just this morning, before Asad left for work, they'd listened to the heartbeat again. It had tom-tommed in triumphant glee.
At dawn the baby's Abbu had placed his warm palm on her stomach and even recited Allah's name ninety-nine times ...
Her hand moved to her throat. Zoya felt the warmth from the taawiz zinging through her till her fingertips tingled. She willed its words of protection to weave a shield around her womb.
The sound of rushing hooves and hurtling trains charged her reinforced soul.
Suddenly Aapi's voice filled her head warming her even more. "Chanda hai tu, mera suraj hai tu," Aapi would sing to her when she was a kid.
"I'm not Chanda, I am ZoyAA and I'm American!" she used to yell before running away to hide from Aapi and her weird names for her. She used to think then that Chanda was another name for Canada.
She sniffed and wiped an errant tear.
And then Zoya sang that once-forgotten and so-familiar song in her head: "O meri aankhon ka tara hai tu."
Steely calm flooded through her, banishing any residual shadows and fears. Her veins thawed as spunk radiated from her lionheart. If anything bad happened to her then it was meant to be, but by god, she'd go down kicking and fighting. Please Allah Miyan, let me be able to land one good kick on Tanveer's rancid ass!
Taking a deep cleansing breath she took stock of her surroundings. She was squished between Ammi and Chhoti Ammi. Her hand crept to clasp Dilshad's. The charms on her bracelet rustled softly.
At the next signal their car swerved and braked suddenly.
Tanveer swore as her gun fell from her hand.
She screeched at her driver to be more careful but bit her tongue when someone knocked on her window. Unwillingly she rolled it down.
"Sorry ma'am, the road ahead is blocked. There's been a horrible accident up ahead and an angry mob is gathering. You may want to take an alternate route."
That reminded Zoya. Placing a cool hand over her wrist she switched on her GPS that she'd forgotten earlier. She needed to pull it together: she couldn't afford to lose her Jhansi ki Rani-ness.
With the heels of her hands she scrubbed away all traces of weak tears.
"OK, Zoya's turned hers on and she's with the rest of them too," Faiz called out from the backseat.
"Thank god!" Najma sobbed.
It had taken days to convince Omar and Feroze to bring them along. Before leaving for Ajmer Sharif, and behind Zoya, Asad and Ayaan's backs, they had all cornered Humaira and bullied her into agreeing to their plan. Nikhat and Najma had threatened her with filmy kasams""for the baby's sake! Tumhe humari kasam, hamare hone wale bachchon ki kasam!"
And a distraught Humaira had signed the invisible pact: when trouble struck she would let them know immediately.
They would take care of the rest.
And they did.
The moment they got her text, they set out in two cars with bodyguards of their own. Najma was in touch with Rakesh who was doing his own frantic damage control by getting his injured employees to the hospital and manning their own monitors and transmitters.
"Bhai," Asad heard Ayaan's muffled whisper next to his ear.
He rounded on him in his best Akdu mode"as best as he could with his hands tied behind his back and head shrouded in a smelly hood. "Ayaan, are you mad? Why did you have to fight with those men? Didn't you see their weapons? Tumhein kuchch ho jata toh?"
"Chup karo, you two," someone hollered from the front and smacked their heads.
"PI'm fpine! Dpon't wporry pabpout mpe."
"What the hell?" Asad whispered. "What the hell nonsense are you muttering? Is this the time to be funny?"
May be the gunman had hit his kid brother too hard that's why he was speaking gibberish. What if he had a concussion?
Ayaan elbowed him. "Bhai, P-language," he hissed. "Remember?"
He groaned. If his hands were free, Asad would have gladly smacked his forehead. As an annoying and self-important teenager, one day Ayaan had decided that they would only communicate in P-language so that no one would know what they were saying. Especially his bratty sisters.
Ayaan had been a natural at it.
But Asad could never get the hang of the P-language: placing a P before every vowel. He had tried. For four full days. On the fifth day Ayaan had to concede defeat in the face of the Mukka language; and mercifully, the P-language had died a quick and painless death.
But who knew that it would rear its nonsense head and actually be useful! Asad struggled to articulate himself in this alien language now. It was pretty smart of Ayaan to think this up. If he got out of this alive and with everyone safe, then by god, he would learn and master the P-language"even get a Ph.D. in it.
"Po kpay," he said, hoping that he'd used the damn P in the right place.
A delighted Ayaan next P-languaged him to fish his penknife out of the pocket sewn into his jacket sleeve.
One of the gunmen rapped him on the head for muttering.
"Hey," Ayaan yelled back. "I'm praying, OK!"
Asad nearly laughed out loud. He snorted to hear Ayaan's next few words.
Ayaan pretend-fought with Asad. "Bhaijaan, it's all your fault that we're in this mess. Why didn't you listen to me? You never listen, you think you're know-it-all and some goddamn Akdu Ahmed Khan!"
He tried to ram his shoulder into Asad's and slid closer.
"Shut up, Ayaan! You never listen or follow instructions!" Asad played along. Their captors let them be, no longer interested in this petty sibling rivalry.
Ayaan twisted to allow his brother better access. He even coughed to cover up the sound of the zip sliding open. It was hard: the van bumped, the goons kept hitting them to shut them up, and reaching around with both hands tied behind one's back was nearly impossible.
It was slow and painstaking work.
Sweat rolled down Asad's face. He concentrated on getting a grip on the tiny zipper. Damn his brother's fashion sense! There were at least three zippers that ran diagonally across the leather sleeve. How was he going to figure out which pocket the damn knife was in? His hands slipped; his wrists hurt as the ties cut into his flesh.
But he tried and concentrated harder.
Because if he didn't, Zoya's face swam before his stinging eyes and paralyzed him.
Finally! He could feel the stubby end of the knife. But there was other junk crammed in there too; Asad cringed. Oh god, don't let that be dried up gum. Carefully he tried to slip the knife out. In trying to flick it open he nicked himself and Ayaan several times.
This time Ayaan cussed in earnest. "Damn! Sh*it! Pi*ss! Fu*ck! Shiii-itt!" When he launched into Hindi gaalis, Asad elbowed him.
"Shut your mouth Ayaan, and mind your language!" he ranted, just as earnestly.
He tried to file away at the hard plastic ties. He didn't know if Ayaan had done the same as him when they'd been caught: tighten his fists keeping them side to side to make them thicker. Once they had shoved him into the van he had turned his hands making the palms face each other; this had loosened the cuffs allowing him more wiggle room. In broken P-language he explained to Ayaan that he wasn't cutting the tie all the way through. He still wanted to maintain the illusion of them being handcuffed once they'd reached wherever they were headed.
Asad slit his own just enough that once he flexed his arms and pulled hard, the tie would pop open. He tried his best to slide the knife into Ayaan's jeans pocket to be more accessible for later.
The van halted and the doors jerked open. They were hauled out just as unceremoniously as they'd been thrown in. Asad tried to figure out the site's location through sound and smell clues. In the distance he could hear a slow-moving train. The metallic smells and the stench of disuse around him didn't help much in orienting him.
It was an abandoned place for sure. A warehouse may be?
They heard a heavy door on rollers slide open. Inside there were muted echoes of ... sobs, cries, a woman's pleading voice ...
As they were marched closer, the voices grew louder.
He heard Tanveer's cackle and his blood boiled.
"Ah, look who's here to join the party," she called out. "Welcome Jammy! The guest of honor and so fashionably late!"
Asad co*ocked his head to the side and took an involuntary step toward her to sock her in the face. But then he remembered that his hands were tied ... Two men held him on each side or using echo-location he'd have rammed his head into her smug face.
But he needed to bite his tongue and hold it together.
He knew she expected him to rage and sputter in impotent anger. And he needed to hear familiar voices to make sure that everyone was OK.
"There are some vans here. It's an abandoned warehouse," Anwar told Feroze who'd put him on speakerphone. "Wait, there's another van pulling in." After a brief pause he spoke again, "I think this might be Asad and Ayaan. I see one person in jeans. Their heads are covered and their hands are tied behind their backs."
Nikhat and Najma couldn't bear to hear this. They sobbed in fright for their family. Nuzzhat gritted her teeth. She wanted to march over and kick someone. She pushed her glasses higher on her nose and sniffled.
"Baaji, they'll be fine. It's Asad and Ayaan Bhaijaan after all. They won't let anything bad happen," she consoled them and herself.
They were still too far from the place. It would take them another 25-30 minutes to reach there. And anything could happen in 25-30 minutes.
Nuzzhat wanted to scream in angry frustration. She bit her knuckle. It was hard to sit still and not do anything to help her family that had been taken hostage by a madwoman.
Thank god her Jeejus had caved in and let them all come!
Omar and Feroze had told their parents that after visiting Ajmer Sharif, they were going to visit other tourist spots in Rajasthan. But instead they had returned to Bhopal and parked themselves in a hotel. Initially Feroze had wanted the rescue mission to be just himself and Omar. But Nikhat and Najma wouldn't take no for an answer. "We know the city much better than you," they'd insisted.
Their husbands had to relent. Faiz too couldn't bear to be left behind with the oldies. And there was just no way in hell that Nuzzhat would stay back without her sisters. They were all a team and anyone who even suggested otherwise, she'd bash their skulls in.
Humaira had kept them updated about the gifts of terror and the rash of crank calls. The day before she had texted them that the Khan house had been attacked a few days ago. At the girls' insistence, they had all driven past the Khan home.
Seeing it unlit and abandoned had made Najma weep.
Pulling out his phone, Omar had played back the recording from Humaira to console her. She had sent the video that Ayaan had managed to take that night. Hearing the baby's strong rhythmic heartbeat had brought a smile to Najma's face through her tears. She watched Ayaan Bhaijaan banter with Humaira and Ammi tow Zoya and Asad Bhaijaan off to the kitchen to cast away all evil spells. Everyone's faces had softened with hope and pleasure.
Najma feathered her fingers across the screen to touch their faces. She would see them all again.
Omar had tucked her head under his chin.
When they removed his hood, Asad blinked in the harsh light. He had expected this, visualized and agonized over this for weeks, but it still hit him hard.
The woman had indeed planned this well. To stage the showdown at the wretched gudia factory"the beginning of it all"was diabolically genius.
He felt oddly distanced as he allowed his eyes to adjust to the artificial brightness. But seeing Ammi tied up made him want to punch something. It took a superhuman effort to not flip out and go ballistic. He was restrained only because he couldn't see Zoya.
Ayaan however, had no such reservations. He shouted and cussed at the men holding him. Because his parents were here he couldn't use his choicest curses so he resorted to inventing gaalis"shouting them at the top of his lungs.
Asad used the distraction to his advantage.
His eyes roved to take stock: not too far from Tanveer a fire burned in an old rusty drum. He noted some men in a loose circle with guns trained on the family. His fist clenched to see Abbu and Sidddiqui Saheb tied together to a pillar. Ammi and Chhoti Ammi, and Raziya and Humaira were tied up to two other pillars.
A firebolt of fury crackled through him.
His hands itched to take these hired men's limbs apart, take this doomed place apart that was in his and Zoya's name now, a place whose roots manacled their childhoods, a place that always cast a shadow on their happiness.
Asad struggled to tamp his raging emotions.
His heart skidded to a stop. Where was Zoya?
His nerves hummed and leaped with volatile terror. Asad swung around to demand in a low tone trying not to betray that flare of alarm: "What do you want, Tanveer?"
"Nothing much Asad. I'm a reasonable woman, a little respect and some retribution will do for now," she simpered.
She nodded to the men holding him and Ayaan, and they were frog-marched to be tied to a forlorn pillar"a 2X2, thick concrete pillar.
Asad's heart sank.
Tanveer spun slowly on her feet and held her arms out in welcome. "Ladies and gentlemen, we're gathered here today ..." She laughed.
Her nostrils flared in spite and her mouth twisted. "We're gathered here today because I am sick to death of you all"-"
"Tanveer, you ingrate"-! We welcomed you in our home and this is the thanks you give us!" Dilshad's voice quivered with outrage.
"Oh please, Khala. You are such an innocent. You didn't welcome me. I came because I was sent to your home"I was sent on a very special mission."
While the others looked puzzled Raziya and Siddiqui squeezed their eyes shut. Asad tried to keep interrupting, angrily demanding to know Zoya's whereabouts. He also hoped that the others would be distracted from Tanveer's vengeful revelations.
"Who sent you? Why have you brought us here?" Rashid couldn't help but demand. His mind had zeroed in on the woman's menacing words.
But before Tanveer answered they heard a muffled groan of protest from a dark corner in the back of the warehouse.
Asad's heart went into overdrive.
He thrashed against the thick ropes holding him.
Tanveer grinned. She rubbed her hands in delight. "Patience Rashid Saheb. Itni bhi kya jaldi hai? Iss raaz pe abhi parda rehne dete hain. But before we proceed further, let me bring out exhibit A."
She signaled a henchman who tucked his firearm into his waistband and disappeared to reappear a minute later with Zoya gagged and bound in a wheelchair.
At the sight of a bruised Zoya with a gag and blood at the corner of her mouth, a feverish Asad roared, "TANVEER!" even as he strained against his restraints. His back arched and head hammered against the concrete when he noticed the awkward angle of Zoya's arm. She was wincing in pain. Was she hurt? Why was she in wheelchair?
The ziptie snapped behind him. Next to him he felt Ayaan break free from the cuffs too. But they were still moored to the pillar with a thick rope wound multiple times around their chests and waists.
"Just tell us what you want from us!" Asad continued to shout at Tanveer even as he pleaded with her for mercy, "please!"
"Who sent you? Who are you?" Rashid continued to ask.
Humaira was giving thanks for the pocketknife that Chhoti Phuphi had tied in her dupatta corner. With no one looking in their direction, she had managed to wiggle and grab a hold of it. But opening a knot with one hand was proving to be impossible. She whispered and hunkered closer to her mother who was quietly sobbing.
"Ammi!" she whispered urgently as she tried to hold her hand through the ropes. "Help me untie this knot."
Together they pulled and twisted the thin cloth to free it. Raziya was just grateful for something to do instead of watching everything unravel and come apart at the seams. Humaira prayed that the knife wouldn't fall and attract someone's attention.
"Tanveer!" Asad hollered. "Why are you doing this? What could you possibly want?"
"What I want? Stop being so coy, Jammy! You've always known what I've wanted."
Tanveer couldn't get enough of goading Asad by baiting Zoya. She strode to her nemesis to loosen her gag. Zoya coughed as she drew in deep ragged breaths. Her teary eyes sought Asad's. Her cheek was swollen.
Eyes locked with Zoya's, Asad hissed. "Then take me and let everyone else go." He saw Zoya squeeze her eyes shut and shake her head.
"Take you and let everyone else go? How noble and exactly what your begum said too! It's as if you both are goddamn mind-reading soulmates!" She laughed, loving her own dark humor. "Rest assured Asad, I will take you, but sorry, I won't let everyone go. I want them to enjoy the show. Live show ki baat hi alagh hoti hai! And there are so many curtain-raisers coming up!"
Raziya's hands shook; she knew exactly what was coming next. She watched with unblinking eyes as Tanveer slowly circled Zoya as if deciding what to do with her. Zoya stiffened her spine but stayed mute. She knew that saying a word would just make the situation worse. Annoyed with Zoya's mild and unruffled manner, Tanveer creeped up behind her and pushed the wheelchair toward the burning drum.
As much as she had been forcing herself to stay calm, she couldn't keep quiet as the flames neared with every agonizing second. Zoya screamed. She kept screaming as her wheelchair rammed into the drum and came to rest a few inches away from the leaping inferno. Embers flew in her hair and singed her clothes.
"Tanveer!" Asad shouted in hopeless tears. "Don't, please ... just leave her alone. Don't do this!"
"Please," he didn't realize he was begging Zoya to look at him so that he could assure her that he wouldn't let anything happen to her. But her rising cries of terror lanced him. He could do nothing for her. He had failed her as he stood by watching her fly apart. His nightmares from many a sleepless night taunted him.
Zoya continued to scream and scream ... and scream ...
"Tanveer, get her away from the fire, please, I beg you!" Asad's voice became hoarse with despair. Others pleaded with her too but she remained resolute in enjoying Zoya's breakdown.
Zoya's screams got fainter. No one could understand why Zoya, someone who was so fearless, was so helpless and so overcome with fright.
Raziya cried bitterly. "No, no! Stop!" her feeble words echoed.
She knew; she withered inside.
"Please," Asad continued to implore her. "She's scared of fire. She has a phobia. I'll do whatever you ask. But please don't do that to her!"
Siddiqui couldn't bear to hear Zoya's endless screams. He didn't know about her fear of fire. But it made sense and it killed him to watch her. Her eyes were wide in terror and her mouth wouldn't close. Her tied hands slapped at the metal armrest as if warding off imaginary demons. Mesmerized by the snaking fire Zoya's haunted eyes remained riveted to the fiery fiend of her nightmares.
Weeping, he joined the desperate chorus begging Tanveer to release Zoya.
Eigtheen years ago, in this same place, Siddiqui had done nothing for her; condemned to watch his daughter crumpling before him in anguish, he could do nothing even now. He had never felt so useless and so powerless in his life. Her screams had knocked, bumped and ricocheted against his thin soul.
Her voice tapered ... a broken, beaten, mangled murmur.
"Please, I'll give you everything," he sobbed. "Zoya, meri bachchi!" he cried. "Iss badnaseeb baap ko maaf kar dena ... main tumhare liye kucch nahin lar paya ..."
"ZOYA!" Asad shouted as he saw her slump forward. A dead hush rose to shroud the large space.
"Thank god! All that screaming was giving me a headache! Jammy, of course I know she's terrified of fire. Why do you think I planned this? And that too, in this place!" Tanveer laughed at Asad's naivete.
Again she signaled a minion who stepped up to drench Zoya with a bucket of water.
As Zoya struggled to regain consciousness, Asad redoubled his frantic efforts to break out of the restraints.
"Ayaan, get that knife," he whispered.
"I'm trying Bhai, I'm trying. You hold still so I can get some slack to work in my favor."
Blinding sweat poured down their faces. Ayaan gritted his teeth and whispered, "I'm going to try to wriggle downward so the ropes can slide up around my shoulders and neck. I can't get my hands to reach it. I need you to press as close to the pillar as possible."
Asad flattened himself against the concrete wall and felt the ropes crush his ribcage as Ayaan struggled to get a grip.
"Please, hurry," he whispered.
"Tanveer," this time Humaira spoke up through her own tears. "Please, move her away. Abbu will give you anything, do anything, so will Jeeju. PLEASE don't do this!"
"Look, Zoya," Tanveer taunted a now recovering Zoya. "Look how they beg me to save you. You, who took everything way from me!"
Zoya noticed the fire again and began to whimper before breaking into fresh screams.
Her throat was torn and raw now.
"Zoya!" Asad called out to her to make her turn toward him and away from the flames. "Look at me, don't look at that," he cajoled softly. His voice rose, steady and sustaining, despite his tears. He kept repeating those words to her in many variations.
Her glazed eyes fastened on his lips. He told her that she was stronger than that fire. He told her that she would slay that fire like Jhansi ki rani ...
His hypnotic tone lulled her. Her breathing evened. If she focused on Asad's voice she might just fool herself into believing that there was no fire.
But Tanveer wrenched her face back to face the fire.
"How cute tum miyan biwi ki mohabbat aur chaahat!"
Zoya shut her eyes tight and bit her lips to stop herself from screaming. Besides, Asad's words had brought her back from the brink of frigid horror. His words, his voice, were breathing a new fire inside her.
"You got lucky," Tanveer hissed in Zoya's face. "One slip up, or I'd have been Mrs. Asad Ahmed Khan today! My baby would have been alive today!"
She yanked Zoya by her hair to tip her head back painfully. "And I wouldn't even have cared if he'd taken you on as a mistress! Why couldn't you just let things be?" She shouted, spit flying.
Zoya gasped from the remembered pain of those dark days when this woman had ripped her apart from Asad. It was uncanny how Tanu had sensed her deepest, darkest desire from that time. So heartsick had she been then, that for a fraction of a second she had even entertained the notion, that if he'd asked, she would have gladly consented to being the other woman in his life if Asad had married Tanveer.
She felt sick to her stomach now just as she had then.
It had been a terrible moment of weakness.
How could she have even let that thought creep in? She had begged Allah's forgiveness for letting even the pinpoint of such a sinful thought breach her defenses.
"Mr. Khan would never have done that!" Zoya spoke up through the lump in her sore throat. She knew Asad would have been stronger than her. He had his own father's acts casting a deep shadow over his soul.
"But you would have!" Tanveer shrieked. "Bad blood always finds its way. You are your mother's daughter after all!"
"Tanveer!" Raziya couldn't stop herself.
Zoya's eyes flashed fire too. "You can talk of what ifs and if onlys till you're blue the face, Tanveer. The truth will never change: you failed, because you were wrong. I have no regrets! You, on the other hand"-"
Tanveer slapped her. "You self-righteous bit*ch!" she shrieked.
She stalked to Raziya who was still cursing her. "Badi takleef ho rahi hai Raziya bi? So sensitive about your husband's illegitimate daughter. The same daughter who"-"
They all heard a commotion outside, some shouts and then a bleeding Anwar was hauled in.
"Zoya!" he called out to her. He couldn't bear to stay outside and listen to her scream for a second longer. He wouldn't wait for the others to come. He'd barged in empty-handed, a manic animal to its cub's rescue.
"Jeeju!" Zoya shouted in joy and fear.
"Oh how wonderful!" Tanveer clasped her hands in glee. "Another guest! And another fan of our Ms. Farooqui!"
"Tie him up too," she snarled, and a minion rushed to do just that.
Najma wept bitterly. The police blockade had snarled the traffic ahead and they were stuck.
"She'll kill her. I know it, she'll kill her." Najma kept repeating.
"Shh," Nikhat sobbed too. "Don't say that, Najma! Have hope. Insha'allah we'll reach there in time."
Omar, Feroze and Faiz had jumped out and were in deep negotiations with the constables at the roadblock. Feroze spoke to his cousins to get numbers of high-up officials while Omar tried the numbers of the Police Commisioner that Prasad had given him.
Faiz stood in the middle of the chaos. He watched the girls weeping in the car and his brothers pleading with unknown people on their phones. He felt stranded and moorless"they were strangers in this place. They knew nothing: no routes, no influential people who could help them, nor did they have access to resources they would have at home where a simple 9-1-1 call would be enough for the local PD and a SWAT team to arrive between 5-9 minutes.
He nudged Feroze and whispered in his ear, "Bhai tell them that there's a fire or a bomb explosion at that location. Or that it's a terrorist hostage situation or something. May be they'll rush resources at record speed then!"
Feroze hung up and looked up at Omar. Their eyes met. They felt terrible for doing this. Back at home they'd be misdemeanor charges filed against them for knowingly calling in a false report of a crime.
But this was a matter of life and death too, wasn't it? And it was a hostage situation; it wouldn't be a false report.
Both of them as well as Faiz began to make distressed eyewitness calls to the police. Back at the car, they got the girls to call in reports of an explosion and gunshots at the same location too.
They left anonymous calls and tips to several media outlets.
For the moment this was all they could do: sit in traffic and pray. They raised their heads and palms heavenward.
Song in Title:
Kurbaan (2009) "Ali Maula"
Nuzzhat had had it with the inaction. She needed to do something or she'd implode with anxiety. She slapped Nikhat's thigh. Nikhat jumped.
"Baaji, give me your bags!"
"Why? What do you need?"
Nuzzhat just grabbed their purses and began to shove them under her kurta over her belly. "Here, round it out so I look really pregnant!" she instructed Nikhat and Najma.
"What? Nuzzhat! What's gotten into you?" An alarmed Najma asked.
"Forget about that! Get the guys to tell that Policewala that there's a woman in labor in here and that you have to get me to the hospital. STAT!"
Both Nikhat and Najma looked at her as if she'd grown horns or extra limbs.
"Hurry!" she hissed as she adjusted her sister's purses and covered the lumpiness with her dupatta. Najma jumped out to tell the guys about this development.
Nuzzhat arranged herself over the backseat. "Let me know when the officer gets close," she told Nikhat.
When Nikhat signaled her baby sister that the policeman was nearing the car to check on them she saw her sister transform into another person. Letting her head fall back Nuzzhat let out loud cries of pain as she tossed her head side to side as if she were in great physical agony.
She grabbed a shocked Nikhat by her arm and screamed, "Baaji, hurry! I can't bear it. This baby is going to kill me. AaAnnNhhh!" She hoped the others would go along with this extempore act and not give her away. This was the only way she could think of to get to their destination sooner and help their family.
She continued to groan loudly, peppering the groans with lusty wails; as the policeman peeked into the backseat her legs and arms flailed. She gripped her belly and gave another high-pitched scream.
"The contractions are coming closer! This baby will be born here if you don't get me to the clinic! Right now"
She had to supply her own dialogues too because apparently everyone else was too tongue-tied to say anything.
The policeman looked flustered and tried to pacify her. "Madam shaant ho jayiye!"
"Shaant ho jaaoon? Main shaant ho jaaoon? Are you crazy? Get me out of here. I'm not giving birth to my baby in the middle of the street. GET ME TO THE DOCTOR! NOW!"
The poor constable reeled from the ear-splitting tongue-lashing. A crowd was beginning to gather and there were ominous murmurings.
Omar was the first to recover. "Please officer, you have to let us go. My sister-in-law needs medical attention. As it is her pregnancy has too many complications. Please!"
"AAAHHH!" Nuzzhat belted out another loud one for effect.
Omar got swept up in the moment too. He clapped a hand on Faiz's shoulder and shook him. "Tell the officer that she has to be taken in for an emergency C-section."
Faiz opened his mouth but words failed him. He gaped like a lidless fish.
Omar turned to the policeman who was wiping his brow in painful indecision. "See, sir, how the baby's father is in complete shock, he can't speak! He's so worried. He'll probably have a heart attack. Please you have to help us!"
Faiz stumbled. His eyes bugged more; he gulped. Feroze covered his mouth to hide a smirk.
"Oh god," Nuzzhat moaned. "Here comes another one!" She really let it rip this time. Everyone shrank away from the volume of her shriek. Omar pushed Faiz into the car and Nuzzhat grabbed him by his collar, "This is all your fault! You did this to me!"
Blindly Faiz groped for her hand, "I'm sorry," he whispered in a daze. He didn't even know what he was sorry for. From the looks of it he was going to be a father and the baby's mother was livid enough to claw his face off.
The girls begged and cajoled the officer to do something. Their sister was in great pain and if the baby was born here there would be fears of infection and safety.
The harassed policeman fled to consult with his colleagues.
Nuzzhat kept up her noisy act.
Within ten minutes they were cleared to drive past the checkpoint. Omar had demanded a police escort but one look at a raving and ranting Nuzzhat had made the police wary of accompanying them. The havaldaar told them that he'd radio the next checkpoint so that they could sail through it too.
They raced to get to the warehouse. As a spent and drained Nuzzhat leaned back with her eyes closed, Faiz couldn't help but exclaim, "Whoa! That performance was worthy of an Oscar! You actually made me believe that I was going to be a father!"
Nuzzhat slanted an eye open, "In your dreams, pardesi boy. Don't even think about it!"
Nikhat giggled. And everyone laughed.
"Shabaash mera cheetah!" Feroze patted his saali's head fondly.
"You scared us! Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Nuzzhat?" Najma kidded. Their smiles froze and Najma burst into tears.
They stared ahead, their faces grim. They hoped the good luck would hold up even when they reached the warehouse.
Omar played back the recording of the baby's heartbeat.
A beacon, it beckoned them, pounding out a Morse code of distress.
"This is getting boring," Tanveer decided as she watched Anwar struggle against the ropes and repeatedly curse her.
"I don't care who you are, what you want! Just let Zoya go!"
"Ah, but you should care Jeeju. You should care a lot!" Tanveer's maniacal laugh bounced off the hard sooty surfaces of the decrepid building.
She slithered up to Asad and ran a fingernail slowly down his face. He grimaced in repulsion. His free hands fisted behind him.
Her lips firmed in a straight annoyed line.
With a glare at him she stomped off to Zoya's side, circling her like a shark. He would behave only if he perceived a threat to Zoya.
It galled her.
She nodded to one of her men who signaled the others. Silently, slowly, they started to gather and heap broken chairs, tables and wooden beams into a pile.
Asad's heart jammed.
"Ayaan!" he whispered. "Hurry, please ..."
Luckily Ayaan was on the other side so Tanveer hadn't noticed that he'd slid almost half-way down the pillar. His shirt and jacket had been pulled free and the ropes were biting into his skin as he tried to maneuver them closer to his shoulders. Just a few more inches and he'd at least be able to grasp the damn pocketknife which was so close but felt miles away.
"Bhai?" Asad heard the desperation in Ayaan's voice. "Which pocket did you put it in? I can't find the penknife," he whispered.
All hope seemed to be evaporating, a puff of smoke in their clammy fists. Till now he had been stalling and baiting Tanveer because he was confident that they'd be free any second once Ayaan found the knife.
Asad tried to clutch on to his disintegrating sanity as he closed his eyes and tried to picture where he'd put the knife. Did it get jostled in the van? Or fall out when they were dragged out and hauled in here?
"Front right ... no, left," he bit out. He could have kicked himself: why didn't he just slip the knife into his own back pocket? His arms were hurting from having strained for so long against the ropes that cut into his flesh.
His chest burned.
His throat was dry.
"The police will be here soon," he snapped at Tanveer. "You think we didn't anticipate your attack?"
Tanveer spun on her high-heeled foot. Her red sequined dupatta flared out behind her like a jaunty cape. She had taken such care to dress in her finest clothes today. It was going to be her day, her triumph. It was going to be that crowning moment for which she had slogged for so long. This was her party, thrown in her honor; she'd be the emcee, the pirouetting prima donna, the sashaying showstopper, and the crowned champion: the multi-tasker par excellence!
"Aw, poor Jammy," she cooed. "The police is way too busy today!"
He stared at her. "The bomb blast at the mall? You did that?"
She laughed heartily. "I wish! No, I didn't do that. But I did take advantage of the chaos that followed."
"Enough Tanveer! The police may be delayed but they'll be here."
"Are you sure?"
He frowned, "what do you mean?"
Tanveer smirked. "I had my people call in multiple reports of bomb blasts all over the city. The police are probably tripping over themselves investigating every report by now!"
Asad let out a silent groan. Her tactics would make a covert operations commander proud.
She let out a long dramatic sigh.
"Let me tell you why you all are really here, Jammy. You think this is revenge for all the times I failed to snag you, or missed killing your precious Ms. Farooqui?"
Asad's face twisted viciously and she laughed again.
She held out her hand and counted on her fingers. "Yes, killing Ms. Farooqui is a fun game I've played in my head for months now! Hmm, if I were to count the number of times ... let me see ..." She grinned. "There was that time I pushed her down the stairs but that wasn't the first time I tried killing her," she gloated.
Seeing his contorted face made her bolder. "Yes Jammy, even you, the hero of this miserable story, didn't know of so many of my attempts on her life!"
Asad seethed but remained silent. He didn't trust himself to not upset her further. He didn't even want to think about what she'd do next.
"Shut up Tanveer!" Siddiqui shouted. "What kind of a monster are you? You're a blot on womankind!"
Winking at Raziya, Tanveer continued as if Siddiqui hadn't even spoken. But she strode up to that man who had played her father for a few weeks. "There was poison and acid involved."
She laughed when she heard the multiple gasps.
"Then there was that time when I tried to electrocute her." She looked at her fake father but spoke to Asad.
Asad blanched. That was her doing? He thought it was a freak accident when he'd rushed to Zoya's bathroom to remove the live wire from her tub.
"You are a fool Tanveer," Asad said quietly with a lop-sided grimace. "Each of those times you only succeeded in bringing me and Zoya closer."
A flash of stubborn hope flared in him. If Zoya'd survived all those attempts, she'd be fine today too.
He smiled grimly and Tanveer faltered.
But she was quick to recover.
"Yes, she seems to have more lives than a cat, doesn't she? Because each time you were able to rescue her. But you won't be able to do so today. Who knows, may be she'll even beg you to kill her today!"
"Shut up, Tanveer! You're a psychopath," he spat out.
Angry tears slid down Asad's face. Each time hope reared its downy head it got kicked down. Once again Tanveer's evil obsession had proven so much more powerful than all their combined efforts. Would she really get away with it all?
No, his mind screamed. His sore shoulders squared. He wouldn't let her. He redoubled his efforts to break free. He didn't care about the abrasions that were now being tattoed on his thrashing body: a violent calligraphy stamped on his flesh in blood.
Tanveer's brows furrowed in frustration. The battle of wills with Asad was exhausting. Each time she beat him down, he'd rise up again to challenge and spurn her. To counter Asad's haughty rebellion, she needed to cow the other members of her carefully-chosen and assembled audience. He would break once she brought out her trump card. She moved on to the pillar where Siddiqui, Rashid and now Anwar were tied.
"I'm no fool, Asad!" she pronounced remembering his earlier boast. "You all are the fools!" she sneered.
"Abbu dearest," Tanveer cackled as she came to stand in front of Siddiqui Saheb, "it was so easy to fool you that I was your daughter! But no, super-jodi Asad and Zoya had to ruin that too!"
"You tramp," Siddiqui bellowed. "Don't blame your faults and failures on others. You are alone today because of your vicious nature. How dare you take Zoya's place! You failed then, you'll fail now too. Allah is watching!"
Her eyes slitted. She hated how everyone was free to call her names and predict her doom while they sang Zoya's praises. Venomous bile coursed through her. She turned on her heel to face Rashid.
"Please let Zoya go, let all the women go. You can do what you want with us," he spoke softly.
"Rashid Saheb, you poor fool, you know nothing!"
He raised his eyebrows but refused to be baited. "I really don't care why you've got us here. All I care"-"
"Oh I will enlighten you soon Mr. Rashid Ahmed Khan. Because there's a very special reason why you're here. You're here because of what you did eighteen years ago."
Raziya gasped and Siddiqui bowed his head once again.
Rashid paled. "What do you mean?" he breathed.
"I mean that Mr. and Mrs. Siddiqui made fools out of you that day, Rashid miyan! Why do you think I brought you all here to the scene of your crimes?" She spun in a slow circle raising her arms to the side to show the factory.
"Tanveer shut up!" Dilshad shouted. "Stop this nonsense and let us go, for god's sake!"
Zoya too butted in, "you want me and Mr. Khan, Tanveer. Let the others go! Stop this right now!"
"Aww, poor Khala trying to protect these common criminals. And her dutiful bahu being such a saint too! But today I'm going to expose everyone, peel back the dusty veil and reveal all your sorry secrets!"
Shireen, Humaira, Ayaan and Anwar looked on dazed. But Raziya's heart sank. This was it. This was the moment when they would all hate her more than Tanveer. She felt faint when Tanveer came and stood before her.
"But you know everything, don't you Raziya Bi? You know exactly which secrets I'm talking about, right?"
Humaira was still trying to free her pocketknife but she was getting too tired of Tanveer's nonsense. "Stop with your stupid threats and secret games! We all know exactly the type of person you are. Who's going to believe anything you say anways?"
An incensed Tanveer grabbed her by her hair and shook her hard. "Really, you, a mere slip of a girl, are going to tell me what to do? For your mother? For your precious sister? Do you even know what your mother did to your sister?"
"Tanveer no, please, I beg of you, don't," Raziya sobbed openly now even though she knew how futile her pleas were.
But there was no stopping this madwoman any more. Still glaring at Humaira she pointed a finger at Rashid. "Rashid Ahmed Khan, ask Raziya and Siddiqui Saheb whose body it was that you set on fire that night eighteen years ago!"
"No!" Zoya screamed again. Asad too shouted to get Tanveer's attention but the damage had been done.
Rashid's face trembled. He knew terrible things were coming; he knew they would be more terrible than that night which had changed the course of his miserable life.
"Bhabhi? Bhabhi"- Bhaijaan, what is this woman talking about? Tell them that you forced me to do that. Tell them Bhabhi, that I did it because you threatened to kill Najma that terrible night!"
Humaira gasped and turned to look at her mother. Her mother's face told it all. She looked for a denial from her father. But he too shook his shamed head as tears fell.
No, no, no!
What was happening? What were these people talking about? She looked to her Aapi and Jeeju to correct the wild accusations and set everything right. But their heads were bowed too. Zoya wept in her shoulder and Asad shook his head in sorrow.
Humaira's hands fell limply by her side. Her hammering heart was trying to tell her something ...
But Tanveer was only half-done. "Oh Rashid saheb, setting fire to this factory isn't even the worst thing they made you do!"
She clapped her hands again to see Shireen break down and Ayaan shout.
"They won't tell you that woman's name, but I will! Do you want to know who that woman was? Her name was," she paused for dramatic effect savoring the sobs and moans from Dilshad, Zoya and Raziya.
With a flourish, she exulted, "her name was Zenab Farooqui."
"Zenab? Zenab? That's Zoya's mother, what the hell are you talking about?" Anwar asked, sick with confusion.
Next to him Rashid gasped as his face twisted in self-loathing. The pieces were slipping and sliding into place ever so slowly and a grotesque montage was emerging from the ashes of the past.
"Bhabhi?" Rashid's voice cracked. He looked at Raziya and then at Siddiqui Saheb for confirmation.
They were a sobbing, soggy mess.
"Ammi! Ammi, please tell me that's not true!" Humaira shrieked. "Tell them all that she's wrong!"
Aapi's mother? No, it couldn't be! It would mean that"-
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," Raziya wept as she hung her head. She would have been on her knees but the ropes held her up.
"Kill me please, Tanveer. Just end it. I deserve it. I killed her. I killed Zenab!" She shouted, blind with tears. "And I asked you to set the factory on fire. I threatened to kill Najma if you didn't do it! I'm so sorry." She faced Rashid and brokenly confessed her sins.
She looked at Dilshad and then finally at Zoya and wept.
"Zoya ... beta ... tell her to kill me ..." her miserable voice rapsed.
Rashid moaned in pain. He gnashed his teeth uselessly, unable to face his son or daughter-in-law.
"It doesn't matter!" everyone heard Zoya shout through the spiraling misery. "That was a lifetime ago. We were so happy. Allah gave us a second chance. I finally found my Abbu and sister, but Tanveer you ruined everything!"
Zoya pounded her tied fists uselessly on the armrests.
"I ruined everything?" Tanveer couldn't believe the idiocy. Grabbing a gun from one of her goons, she marched up to Zoya and hit her hard with it across the face. Zoya's head snapped back from the violent blow.
"Tanveer!" Asad shouted.
"You really are too much Ms. high and mighty Zoya Farooqui. I can't stand you for this reason! You've forgiven your weak father and his murdering wife but I've ruined everything! I don't know whether you're a saint or a complete fool."
Everyone looked at Zoya in mute horror. She had known all this? Ayaan was terrified to see Humaira's blank expression. And dammit! He still needed a few more inches to get to his knife. The ropes bit into him; he didn't even want to think what was Bhai's haal. As he writhed and pulled, he noticed a sliver of plaster crumble from the corner of the pillar where the ropes had repeatedly chafed against it.
"Bhai, pull harder," he told Asad. "This is an old building, the plaster may crumble just enough to give us room to wiggle out!"
New hope flared inside Asad. Together, they swung side to side to grind and churn the ropes against the brittle corners. He needed to get out of these restraints. The darkening bruises and blood on Zoya's face hurt just as much the rough rope mauling and lashing his flesh.
And her quiet grit was bruising his psyche.
Tanveer was so dissatisfied.
She had expected more drama and and craved more histrionics. But these people always let her down.
And that sainted Ms. Farooqui was a total wet blanket.
Always a killjoy. Always disrupting her grand schemes.
Furious, she moved closer to Zoya's right side. One hand clawed at Zoya's throat.
"Fine I've ruined everything. But let's see if Exhibit B adds some masala to the party," she announced.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, the centerpiece of tonight's festivities!" With a demonic flourish, she ripped Zoya's right sleeve to reveal her scar. Zoya turned her face away, weeping even more.
Asad roared and cursed at Tanveer. He was a raving madman by now who couldn't break free as his anger, fear, frustration and desperation clawed at him. Despair savaged him.
He pulled and strained against the cords of fate that bound and imprisoned him.
Raziya sagged in torment at the sight of that scar, the size of that scar.
"Umm, Rashid Saheb, that fire you set here, eighteen years ago? Look what it did to everyone's ladli, humari apni Zoya!"
"What?" Rashid choked. "No, no, no, no!" he cried out as a spasm rocked his heart.
Dilshad sobbed for Zoya and Rashid.
"Yes!" the monster persisted in twisting the knife into their collective hearts. "She was right here, poor baby. A mere two or three years old, right?" she looked at Asad in victory. "And you didn't even know that you'd have torched her alive! And that's why she's phobic! See?"
Tanveer reached out to pick up a flaming torch from the drum and waved it in front of Zoya's face.
Zoya screamed and cowered as the flame swam closer to devour her. She cried and twisted violently in the wheelchair, upending it.
Anwar was beating at his ropes and moaning incomprehensibly. "I will kill you! I will kill you all," he shouted.
Zoya's face from eighteen years ago flashed before his streaming eyes. As a baby she had writhed and screamed just like this when the nightmares hit. He and Zeenat had rocked her and sang to her telling her that they would not let anything bad happen to her ever again.
They had lied.
They had thrust her back into this seething inferno, this vile pit of vipers. Oh god Zoya, why did you insist on coming to India to find your wretched father?
Zeenat was right. You should have never come to this hellhole.
Tanveer continued to revel and terrorize Zoya swinging the flaming torch on her face. "Yes, Rashid miyan, see how she reacts to the fire that claimed her mother's body and gave her this signature scar? All thanks to you!"
She continued to wave the fiery wand in front of Zoya as she lay on the floor struggling strapped into the instrument of her torture.
"TANVEER! Stop it!" Asad bellowed just as he saw Zoya collapse.
"Abbu!" Ayaan hollered and everyone turned to look at Rashid. His face was an ugly shade of red and he cried out in pain. Had his hands been free, he'd have been clawing at his breaking heart.
"He's having a heart attack!" Ayaan shouted again. "Somebody do something! Bhai! Tanveer, release him, he needs chest compressions, please!"
Tanveer tsked in annoyance. These people always ruined her fun. Just when things were getting to be good, they interrupted with their own petty dramas. She nodded to one of her men and he unbound Rashid who collapsed to the floor now clutching his heart and grunting in pain.
"Rashid!" Shireen sobbed insensibly.
Several things happened at once.
Ayaan and Asad burst free before any of Tanveer's men could react. As Ayaan ran to assist Rashid, Asad ran towards Zoya. He kicked and knocked the blazing drum over to block Tanveer's mercenaries.
The two men who tried to intercept were slammed on their sides and punched hard as the brothers bolted towards their targets.
Fists flew, jaws shattered and noses broke.
"Zoya, look at me!" Asad got to Zoya to pull up the chair and untie her hands and feet.
He caressed her face to revive her. Slowly her eyes opened and drank him in. He had nearly undone one of her hands when something heavy cracked the back of his skull.
"Asad!" Zoya cried out. She slipped her hand out to loosen the other knots and flew to his side as he clutched his head and groaned.
And just as soon as the tables had been turned, things were back to square one. Asad rose and staggered to block the men from grabbing Zoya but they were too many.
He struggled in vain but many sets of arms re-chained him.
Tanveer's men beat and rounded them all up again. But this time she didn't have her men tie up Asad. She didn't need to.
Zoya was pushed back into her wheelchair and Ayaan retied.
Tanveer pointed a gun at Zoya's head.
"Enough games!" she screeched. "Bahut ho gaya. Here's what I really want Jammy," she looked at him as he held his bleeding head.
"I want you to give your beloved begum a talaaq and marry me!"
"NO!" everyone shouted.
"Yes!" Tanveer happily matched their horrified voices. "Or," she pushed the slide on the gun, "you can say goodbye to Zoya and your khandaan ka chiraag!"
This time she aimed the gun at Zoya's stomach.
Terrified gasps erupted all around them.
"Tanveer, you wouldn't! If you loved me even a little, you wouldn't do that! We helped you and your mother when you were a child. How can you even think of doing this?" Dilshad cried in despair.
"Forget it Khala! I did love you, but that stopped once you threw me out of your house! So Asad, what's it going to be? Marry me and save Zoya and your child, or stay married to her and lose them both?"
"You're insane," Asad ground out through the raw pain. He'd sunk to his knees.
"Even if I did divorce Zoya and marry you, what makes you think I wouldn't divorce you the next second?"
He stood up shakily, still holding his head. He was losing blood. Asad squeezed his eyes to clear his vision. "And ... what makes you so sure that I wouldn't go back to Zoya?" He walked toward her slowly.
"Oh I'd make sure of that. If you divorced me, you'd still have to do a Halala nikaah to go back to her. Not something that either of you would want, right?"
"I'd go back to her and live with her without a nikaah!" He shot back, eyes watering from the pain.
"Such blasphemy! You'd break your cherished priniciples and usools for this woman and live with her in sin?"
"Yes!" he shouted. "And you know it too. Now put that gun away and step away from my wife!" Asad ordered her in a cold voice as he advanced on her.
Tanveer completely lost it then. Stepping back she fired a random shot near Zoya's feet. Screams and shrieks broke out.
Asad leaped forward to wrest the gun from her hand but she now held it back to Zoya's temple. He backed away.
"One more step, Jammy, and she dies."
He raised his arms in surrender. "Zoya, are you OK?" he asked like he had so many times before.
"Yes, I'm fine," she nodded through tears.
"How wonderful! Now that she's fine, say it, Asad," Tanveer commanded, impatience eating away at her.
"Say what?" he stalled.
"Pronounce the first talaaq."
"Never! It won't be valid anyways. Everyone here will be a witness to testify that it was forced under pressure, at gunpoint. It won't work Tanveer. Give it up."
"Shut up and don't try to preach to me about legal or moral issues! I really don't care. It doesn't matter, I want it kyun ki mere kalaeje ko thandak milegi. Now do it!"
Tanveer dug the gun into Zoya's temple. "I won't miss this time Asad."
He watched in agonizing slow motion as her hand gripped the gun tighter and her finger started to squeeze the trigger. Zoya's arms covered her stomach protectively and she pressed her eyes close.
"OK, I'll do it, but step away from her." He couldn't bear to hear Zoya sobbing. He felt like weeping too.
He wanted to tell Zoya that it wouldn't be real. That no one could come between them. Hadn't he already promised her that evening when they had first confessed their love to each other? Aaj ke baad humare beech mein koyee nahin aayega ...
Rolling her eyes, Tanveer took one step back but now aimed the muzzle back at Zoya's stomach. She made a show of squeezing the trigger again.
"He's right, Tanveer." Everyone turned to look in shock at Shireen. She spoke softly, poignantly. "Such a Talaaq would never be recognized even if he spent the rest of his life with you pretending to be your husband."
She looked at Rashid slumped over with a hand to his heart. With each word she sounded the death knell on her own marriage.
"You could never separate two people whose hearts beat as one, who love each other and who'd do anything for one another. You foolish woman! You can try, but you'll never succeed in keeping them apart!"
She was delivering a lyrical eulogy even as she watched Asad and Zoya weep for the coming loss that would shatter them.
Tanveer was royally pissed. So close to her manzil and this twit had to open her mouth and ruin the moment.
Suddenly Shireen had transformed into an idiot savant!
Just her bloody luck.
And Tanveer was sick to death of people calling her a fool. She'd pulled all this off single-handedly, here they were, helpless, soggy effigies of themselves, and still they lorded their moral superiority and emotional glory over her.
Clamping her teeth, she fired off a shot in Shireen's general direction. Plaster crumbled off the pillar. The women screamed and shouted in protest. The men joined the chorus of curses and Asad let out the breath he'd been holding for the past few minutes.
It felt like a lifetime.
But Tanveer was not to be distracted from her mission. These people's churlish whining was just mildly annoying white noise for her.
"I'm still waiting, Asad. Do it," she ordered, snapping the fingers of her other hand. And just for the fun of it, she fired off another shot near the wheelchair's base.
A condemned silence fell.
Asad held up his hands to beg for mercy, and with tears streaming down his face he continued to pray for respite, for some miracle that would prevent the inevitable.
"OK, OK, I'll do it but please don't ..."
"Enough stalling! Asad, say it, or I swear I will blow her head "-!"
He uttered the doomed word: "Talaaq!"
Zoya's shoulders heaved as she shook her head and moaned, "no! Mr. Khan, no!"
Everyone else was sobbing too except for Humaira who was still in a numb daze. Shireen wept. She couldn't decide who it was that she wept for. Zoya or Asad?
For Rashid? Dilshad?
The scene playing out in front of her brought all her doubts and fears of the past eighteen years to the surface. Did Rashid feel just as desperate when he divorced Dilshad? What had Bhabhi done? Had she held a figurative gun to his head too?
She looked at her husband.
He leaned weakly against the pillar and sobbed like a man who's lost everything. His breathing was still labored and Shireen's own heart squeezed in heavy distress.
Please Allah, she prayed. Please do something to stop this. Don't let history repeat itself.
She couldn't take her eyes off Zoya's scar.
"Asad? I'm still waiting," Tanveer prompted him.
"No," he crashed to the ground on his knees and wept. No help had come. All their precautions had been for naught. Where were Rakesh and his people? The Police?
"No, I'll leave her and never see her again, or my child. But don't make me do this, please!"
"Sorry, that's not good enough for me," Tanveer said soflty. "Come on, I don't have forever! I called Qazi saheb who'll be here pretty soon." She edged closer to Zoya, yanked her head up by her hair, and hit her across the temple with the gun once again.
He still remained silent and shook his head.
"Asad, you're pissing me off!" Incensed now, she grabbed Zoya's hand and yanked her engagement ring off forcibly.
Zoya screamed in pain and horror but didn't resist. She was scared that Tanveer would punch or kick her in the stomach.
Asad roared and lunged at Tanveer. She replaced the gun's tip at Zoya's head.
"NOW!" she repeated.
He shook his head in hopeless denial and dropped his face into his impotent hands. She fired another shot toward Zoya's feet.
"Talaaq!" A crushed Asad whispered.
Tanveer grinned. She was getting closer. And everyone's combined misery was finally making this worthwhile. Their woeful bleats and sniffles were like shehnais to her ears.
So close"just one word away.
One more word, and she'd be on top of the world.
Asad's eyes drooped; his blistered fingers clawed at the ground.
His mind was splintering, it was perhaps a psychic hemorrhaging unwilling to process his barren anguish.
He had begun to hallucinate. Visions of the past haunted him.
Zoya's victorious words from Mangalpur reverberated in his head.
Yes. Badi decent and acchi si fight ladi humnein.
He saw their hands in handcuffs.
Her comically referring to "Sarpanch" as "Mr. Punch!"
Getting entangled with her everyday ... for a lifetime ... without handcuffs.
"Till my dying breath," he had said not so long ago.
He laughed. Her unique insults reserved just for him.
Snatches of unheard songs broke into his concussed stupor. "Tu jahan main wahan ..."
"Bol na halke halke" Did that really happen or was it a bhaang-induced hallucination? Wishful thinking on the part of his fevered brain?
"I want to spoil you," when had he said that? Did he spoil her enough?
What if he never got another chance?
The images rolled on the screen of his numb mind in vivid technicolor and in black and white montages. Dimples flashed.
His akduness: "Neeche utariye!"
Asad smiled suddenly.
"Aap shakal se hi lecherous lagte hain," "yeh repeat offender hain!" she'd said once. When?
His mind reached into secret drawers and found them empty.
"C'mon Mr. Khan, aap bhi toh dekhne layak cheez hain!"
He must surely be dying. Why else would their life be flashing before his eyes?
"Iss smile se dilwaalon ka katl hota hai, patthar dil waalon ka nahin!"
"Dance isse kehte hain, Ms. Farooqui."
His mind continued to surf and search the web of their story. The fracturing databases in his brain were cross-connecting and cross-firing.
"Kucch kahaniyan kabhi poori nahin hoti hain, Mr. Khan!"
"Ek kamra milega ...?"
"Asad? What the hell are you muttering? Stop pretending, it's no use!"
"Till my dying breath ..." he murmured.
She swung around in fury when she heard Shireen laugh. "He's losing consciousness Tanveer. His mind is playing tricks on him. If you wanted to get married so badly, your stupid he-man gunda over there shouldn't have hit Asad so hard on the head."
Tanveer had had it with this woman who'd turned into an opinionated fire-breathing dragon from a feeble mouse.
"Shireen, no," Dilshad tried to warn her as Tanveer strode over and slapped Shireen.
Shireen still couldn't stop laughing. Hysteria bubbled up from her lungs to spill over her lips. When Tanveer pressed her head close to her face to warn"-
Shireen head-butted her.
The cracking of skulls echoed dully ...
"You bit*ch!" Tanveer snarled as she massaged her forehead. She'd staggered a few steps back. Now, she aimed her gun straight at Shireen's heart.
"Qubool hai," Asad whispered to undo each grisly word he'd said to Zoya.
Tanveer shrieked and leaped toward him. He was trying to crawl toward a weeping Zoya.
"What are you doing? This means nothing. You can't do that!"
"Qubool hai," he continued, oblivious and delirious.
Tanveer gritted her teeth. "Oh really Asad? You will play games with me like this. Fine! That's it, say bye to your Ms. Farooqui!"
As she got ready to aim another shot, a flash of black and white fur flew into the air and landed smack on Tanveer's face. It hissed and yowled making unholy sounds as Tanveer lost her balance and shrieked in fear and pain. The gun clattered away from her. Her cries matched Dobby's who had sunk his claws into her cheeks and neck and wouldn't let go. He bent his head and latched on to her nose with his teeth doing his best to tear her flesh off. She yowled louder than him as she tried to shake him off.
But he hung on for dear life.
Asad scooped up Zoya to crush her tight against him.
Dobby? He didn't care where that 23-hour napping, bra-stealing, pee-dripping monster"no guardian angel"had come from. He was just glad that he'd swooped down like an avenging super hero straight out of the pages of a comic book.
For months they would all speculate and offer theories for how Dobby got here from the house. No one really ever knew. Much later Zoya would tell him and the kids (in the censored version of course) that her Ammi had sent him. Not only now; but also on the day he'd first walked into their lives and adopted them.
Raziya watched Tanveer fling Dobby off her scratched and bleeding face. She rose on an elbow and groped around for the gun that had fallen out of her grasp.
By now Raziya had found the pocketknife and gently removed it from Humaira's limp hands. She flicked it open and cut away their restraints.
The ropes fell away and Humaira sagged to the floor"unmoored, bereft.
Raziya knew she could do nothing for her daughter.
The cord had been severed.
From the corner of her eye, she saw Tanveer clamber up and aim the gun at Asad and Zoya. Shoving the knife into Ayaan's hands she lunged at Tanveer just as the gun went off.
Confused yells and cries erupted.
Sirens sounded in the distance.
Ayaan feverishly worked to cut away the ropes they'd reused on him. He freed Shireen and Dilshad both of who ran to Rashid. Next he helped Siddiqui Saheb and Anwar.
Rakesh and his guys as well as Feroze, Omar and Faiz and their bodyguards rushed in with the police following after a second's delay.
A catatonic Zoya fell into her Jeeju's arms.
"Ammi!" "Ammi," she kept whimpering.
Her eyes were glassy, she stared at them all without seeing anyone.
Siddiqui hid his hands behind his back and wept; he moved only to take off his glasses to wipe his tears.
Some of Tanveer's hired goons had fled even before the first sound of the sirens. Flying cats, head-butting mummys and fiery futures were not worth hanging around for.
The remaining ones were quickly cuffed and led out.
Siddiqui bent down to turn Raziya over. She was bleeding. Under her Tanveer groaned in pain. Raziya had managed to stab her multiple times in the chest using the knife she'd sneaked into her bra when they were ordered out of the safe room. Pushing Raziya's body off her, Tanveer tried to raise herself, Raziya's penknife now clutched in her hands.
She looked around for Zoya, and in the melee tried to crawl toward her.
"Tanveer, put that down!" Asad now held the gun and pointed it at her.
Tanveer still crept forward and raised her arm to strike.
"Tanveer stop!" Asad warned her, his hand ready to squeeze the trigger
With one final groan Raziya pushed herself up and threw herself at Tanveer to grasp her raised hand. Twisting it inward, she plunged the knife into Tanveer's neck.
It pierced her carotid artery.
Blood spluttered and gushed; she gurgled.
Tanveer's bridal dress bled red.
She fell back, lifeless, sightless.
Raziya collapsed on the blood-logged floor next to her.
Song in Title:
Dil Chahta Hai (2001): "Tanhayee"
Rashid suffered another attack; in the ambulance, a distraught Shireen clasped his hand and pressed her lips to it.
Ayaan was riding along too but his head was still at the factory. He hoped his sisters would take over Humaira and tend to her. He couldn't even hold Humaira in the chaos as they'd all rushed to load Rashid and Mumani into ambulances.
Solid ground was fast disappearing from under their feet.
Ayaan dropped his head in his hands and sobbed.
It was all over.
Their lives had been a glossy mirage built on the shifting sands of deceit, lies and murder. No, built on brittle bones ...
And some people had known this all along.
They deserved this misery ...
How would Humaira ever recover ... How did Zoya endure even after knowing everything? And Bhai?
His sisters' questions kept tormenting him: "Bhaijaan, what happened to Zoya Bhabhi? Why is Humaira like this? How did Abbu collapse? What happened here?"
What? Why? How? ...
The endless questions that they all had the answers to, except nobody wanted to answer those questions. An innocuous bandaid had been ripped off ... but under it was not a bruise, but a tumor.
Not a tumor, but a time bomb.
And that time bomb had ticked its last tock before detonating in silence.
Even when Tanveer's death was confirmed, everyone's hearts had cracked to see Asad and Zoya. There had been no exultation or joy at the slaying of a rabid and rampaging beast. Instead, the zombie virus continued to feast on everyone's brains and hearts.
Tanveer may have died, but the damage she'd wrought would last a lot longer.
Ayaan couldn't even imagine what Bhai was going through right now. To see him so helpless when Tanveer had blackmailed him into pronouncing the divorce decree had made Ayaan want to tear his eyes out. May be a tiny part of him had registered that this was his father's story too. And that is why he had opted to go to the hospital with Abbu and Ammi even though he wanted to stand by Bhai's side.
But to see the horror on Bhai's face when Zoya had descended into some kind of catatonic or fugue state afterwards, had been infinitely worse.
Her blank eyes had sought only Jeeju's face as she'd cried in a baby voice, "Ammi! Ammi! Bachao!"
She hadn't seemed to recognize Bhai who had staggered backwards as if shot in the heart.
Holding Zoya, Jeeju had pulled out his phone and yelled through tears, "someone call Zeenat, hurry! Put her on the speaker," he'd ordered in anger and despair.
Dilshad had fumbled with the phone and then they'd heard Aapi's anxious voice, "Anwar? Anwar? Hello! ANWAR! Where are you?!!! Talk to me!"
"Zeenat," he'd sobbed. "They destroyed her again. All these cowards, they killed our baby all over again!"
"No!" Asad had fallen to his knees.
Ayaan had rushed to his side and held his quaking body. But just then he'd heard his mother's wild cry, "Rashid!" and he'd run to her to catch her from collapsing on the ground as the paramedics tried to revive his father.
Over the phone they'd heard Zeenat's screams, "No, no, no! What happened? Where's Zoya? Tell me she's OK! Anwar!"
... endless questions ...
"She's not OK," he'd cried. "It's like she's three years old again when we found her at that orphanage. She's rocking herself like she did then too."
Snatching the phone from Dilshad, he described Zoya's state to Zeenat as everyone looked on in growing horror. Zoya was rocking manically. Her tearless eyes were wide open and some trapped animal sound was coming from her twisted mouth. Her fists were beating her chest, whether in funereal mourning or wanting to shock her heart into stillness, no one knew.
Siddiqui Saheb was sobbing against a pillar. He'd dragged himself as far away from Zoya and Humaira as possible. He beat his own feeble fists against the concrete.
"You were always right," Anwar raged. "We should have never let her come back to this godforsaken place, to these monsters."
He'd broken down then as he tried to control a violently shaking Zoya.
"Sing to her, Zeenat," Anwar sobbed. "She needs us. Sing to her before she starts clawing at her scar again."
And through the phone they'd heard Aapi's cracking voice as she sang. Anwar pressed the phone to Zoya's ears. It slipped from his hands because she was rocking so violently. A teary Najma, who didn't know what was going on, instinctively slid next to Zoya and held her stiff fists. Zoya's body was taut as if in rigor mortis. Omar knelt behind Najma too, absorbing the blows and wrapping his own hands over Najma's. Zoya's tremors rocked them too.
"Mere ghar aayee ek nanhi pari ...
Chandini ke haseen rath pe sawaar."
Anwar too sang along brokenly, as he continued to cushion Zoya's shuddering frame.
"Mere ghar aayee ek nanhi pari ..."
A weeping and hiccupping Zeenat dug out those old songs that she was planning to sing for her coming grandchild ...
"Chanda hai tu, mera suraj hai tu ...
O meri aankhon ka tara hai tu."
But when she sang that one song, Zoya crumpled and wailed as if demons were dragging her to the fiery pit of hell:
"Aane wala pal, jaane wala hai ...
Ho sake toh isme, zindagi bita le,
Pal yeh bhi jana wala hai!"
"Zoya!" Asad choked as he saw her faint again.
At the hospital Rashid was still critical, and Raziya in surgery; Zoya was undergoing psychiatric evaluation. The shell-shocked family huddled outside unwilling to make eye contact with each other and grateful for the segregated pools of misery that tossed them across different hospital floors and wards.
Omar, Feroze and Faiz were the pillars and vital connective conduits that they all leaned on. They zipped between desolate family clusters with updates, sustenance and robust reinforcements.
The girls knew that some terrible trauma had visited their family; its source was invisible to them, but its aftermath was fracturing their universe. They knew too that they had to put aside their questions for the moment; their quiet strength had to buoy the family from its slow descent into the abyss.
Najma mothered her mother and brother, and Nikhat hers.
Nuzzhat refused to budge by Humaira's side. A frozen Humaira crouched unblinking and unfeeling next to her shattered father.
Her body was ice. The only warm patch, if she felt it at all, was between her shoulder blades where Nuzzhat's sturdy hand braced her, ready to steer her away from the brink of freefalling misery.
Anwar and Asad had tussled over holding Zoya as they'd staggered out of the warehouse. But finally a reluctant Anwar had relinquished her to his son-in-law"he had no idea about doctors and which speciality hospital to go to; Asad did. And they needed to get Zoya looked at by a mental health professional as soon as possible.
Asad lifted her limp body into one of the cars.
He dropped a kiss on her oblivious head.
She remained stiff as a plank.
Many stitches ... tests ... bloodwork ... prescribed painkillers ... and unheeded instructions later, they had returned home. The clinical smell of death covered over with bleach and chlorine dragged in behind them.
Tattered, they returned to the Khan house.
Except it wasn't home any more.
She refused to look at him let alone let him touch her.
At night Zoya pretended to be fast asleep.
And each night he knelt by her side and kissed her hand.
In the prenatal mornings, Asad knelt before her again only to lightly feather his fingertips to her stomach and recite Allah's name in his head.
He would be gone when she woke.
The nightmares had returned and when he held her she went rigid in his arms.
He didn't know that her nightmares had morphed ... they'd been re-baked by a new trauma's temperature: The fire roasting her alive was still there, but this time it was Tanveer who set the fire, and Asad just ... watched, before walking away. She called out to him till her throat bled raw but he receeded into the blackness.
She would only let Dilshad, Najma and Anwar any where near her.
No sound passed her lips.
Borne on a spiraling unspoken torment that widened the divide, they continued to drift.
Fingertips that had once touched and caressed, now curled in to clutch emptiness.
Hollow sorrow shriveled them up.
For yesterday's appointment with Dr. Sharma, Asad had begged Dilshad to accompany them and stayed outside to pace in the waiting room so that Zoya could speak freely. It was the same waiting room where she'd blurted out, "I want to find out when we can have se*x!"
He'd promised to find the answer then.
But he didn't have any answers any more.
"Just give her some time," Dilshad had said with a hand on his shoulder. Asad had ducked his head and nodded. He didn't have the heart to tell his mother that he was terrified that they had run out of time. That all of her valiant defenses against evil nazars had fallen woefully short.
Asad had offered to take her to the dargah and she had nodded silently.
But when he had taken Zoya to her mother's gravesite, she had burst into tears and refused to leave the car. When Asad tried to take her into his arms to comfort her, she'd resisted and turned her back on him.
At dinner that first night Zoya had refused to come to the table.
Many nights after that, Asad had pretended to be working during dinner so she'd eat with the others. But last night Dilshad bullied him into joining them.
"Enough! I won't let you eat alone any more." Reluctantly he'd slapped the laptop closed to appease his mother.
But when he came to take his place, Zoya rose to walk away.
Asad grabbed her wrist to stop her. Then getting up, he gently pushed her down in the chair and walked out of the front door.
That night he had driven to the hilltop, alone, and spent hours with his head pressed against the cold steering wheel.
She had initiated the distance but now she didn't know how to undo it. Something had broken in her. Each time Zoya looked at him from under her lashes she heard the air buzzing with that fatal word, "talaaq!"
Yes, her brain tried to tell her, he was forced, he did it to protect her. It had killed him to say it, and he had said "qubool hai" later.
But the shrill decibels of "talaaq" continued to drown out everything else.
She had felt his kisses on her hand every night, his atoning fingers on her tummy in the mornings ... even a teardrop on her palm.
Had she gripped his hand as he walked away ... ?
But him walking out of the front door had struck her dead cold. The finality of the closing door had splintered her. It had finally started to thaw her"Zoya felt a sharp loss, a deep gash that cleaved her in two.
She wanted to run behind him and hold him.
Why didn't you Zoya? Why did you let him walk away from you?
She had waited for him all night and he hadn't come back. So many times she wanted to pick up the phone, call him, text ... but in the end she couldn't.
The empty room was a mausoleum.
"Kaneez ko deewar mein chunvaenge, Jahanpanah?"
"Nahin, dil mein."
"Lekin chunva ke rahenge?"
"Ab aap aise hi kabu main aati hain to yehi sahi."
She hadn't spent a night apart from him since they'd been married.
Well, except for that sleepover.
When Zoya pressed her hands to cup her stomach the charms on her bracelet rustled. She lifted her wrist to her face. Asad's initial dangled against hers. They brushed against each other.
"A to Z and everything in between ..." she'd said to him.
Why did you let something come between us then?
The tiny cricket ball swung and spun in slow motion ...
Her tears fell.
Everywhere she looked around the room she saw haunting holograms of the two of them.
Asad's face swam before her eyes.
By her bedside sat the polished marbles in the jar along with his cricket ball in its bone china nest. When Zoya looked across the room she saw the settee ... so many times she'd fallen into his arms on it.
That first hug thanks to her curiosity and his mistaken identity ...
She had hidden here when she'd come looking for her earring ...
She had hidden here on their suhaag raat too because she was so embarrassed ...
"Mr. and Mrs. Khan ... hiding by the settee ... not K-I-S-S-I-N-G?"
They had made love on it ... it was raining that evening ...
"BTW, this mirchi is already stuffed, thanks to you and Baby Ahmed Khan ...
"You're getting slow Mrs. Khan. I was expecting you to say that 2 hours ago!"
"When's your baby due?" she'd sassed.
"Same day as yours!" he'd texted after.
Asad had wrapped and tightened his tie around their wrists when they'd made love after the photoshoot he'd arranged for her so she could wear the lehenga that Abbu had given her ...
That one evening when they had prayed for the baby's well-being he had recited Rumi's eternal words for her:
"If anyone asks you
how the perfect satisfaction
of all our se*xual wanting? will look,
lift your face and say,
Zoya ran to the closet and opened the drawer"that miniature museum that archived their history, and their crackling chemistry ... broken phones ... one wrapped in colorful tape and with a pink post-it note ...
This is where he'd kept her earring after ...
The ruined CD was still here ...
... the coin that was tossed in the air to determine whether she'd stay or go ...
The coin toss she'd insisted on just after "mat jao Zoya" ... because there was no other way she could think of to stop her departure. And the lie he'd told after that which had made the decision for her.
Three words, "mat jao Zoya," that had started it all.
Three words said in a tiny restaurant supply room through tears and kisses.
Two words that united them before the eyes of Allah and loved ones ...
And one word that wiped out everything else ...
A tear slid down her cheek.
Zoya looked across the room toward the picture window and the settee under it. That is where she'd stood nearly nine or ten months ago when she'd delivered her half-confession of love. Her heart had beat so violently then that it could have leaped out of her mouth to land clumsily at his feet ...
Her heart beat just as violently now ... Zoya looked down at the drawer. Next to these collectibles of the past lay the sassy relics of their present: feathered handcuffs ... the white bikini ... More post-its that she'd tucked away as naughty surprises in his pockets to discover at work.
There was more:
Cards ... notes ... the scores that she had awarded him on their honeymoon ... a silly wish list from her past ...
It was from a past that was Asadless, an all-seeing past that knew who that list was for.
... the DVD that he'd surprised her with ... sent with the reddest roses and black forest pastries.
"You're sure you're fine?"
"Better than fine. Just mushy and all gooey. Like a chocolate bar left out in the sun."
"Mmm," his voice rumbled.
"You're too good to me, you know."
"Mr. Khan!" she giggled. "Always so full of yourself!"
"Mrs. Khan, tonight you'll be full of me too!"
Ammi's voice ... and her childhood pictures. In playful retaliation for all of her nicknames for him, Asad had christened her with one himself: "Telpur ki shehzadi" ...
"ASAD!" she missed him so much.
The physical ache slashed at her ... she may have been on a conveyor belt slowly being fed into a thresher or a woodchipper. If someone came in here with a black light they'd surely be able to see the blood spatter patterns across the walls ...
Zoya picked up the lion mask from his childhood that she'd found once and adopted, not even knowing it was Asad's.
"I'm sorry!" her hollow words boomeranged to gut her. "Please come back!"
She cried herself to sleep next to the open drawer, the mask clutched to her heart.
In the morning when Asad came back he went straight into the bathroom without looking at her.
She'd sat clotted on the pristinely-made bed.
When the bathroom door unlocked nearly an hour later, she tensed even more.
Zoya was terrified of looking into his face.
But she craved a glimpse; she hadn't looked into his face for a lifetime. And being robbed for even a second would be too long; she would die.
Zoya crept to the bathroom door and saw him from the side: shirtless, just in pants. But seeing him barefoot pinched her heart. The naked vulnerability of his bare feet reminded her of the first attack on the house ... he had stepped on broken glass and then beaten her attacker to a pulp ...
She saw him peering into the mirror to apply something to his chin and neck. Had he nicked himself shaving? Asad hissed in pain as he moved his shoulder stiffly.
She frowned in concern; she wavered at the threshold.
When he turned, she gasped. Tears stung her eyes and she ran to him unable to stop herself.
Zoya searched his gaunt face; Asad looked away, chin rising in hauteur.
But she hadn't missed the redness of his eyes.
She couldn't resist running her fingers over the bruises that fanned out on his chest and arms when he'd thrown himself against fickle destiny's ropes to free himself at the factory. Deep dark marks were riven into his skin as if he'd been whipped by thick leather ropes studded with nails. Angry wounds snaked and coiled over his chest and stomach.
She knew he hadn't let himself be examined by any doctor since that day. They had stitched his head injury but did nobody look at these?
Zoya knew he was punishing himself.
He could have been one of those martyrs who lashed themselves for their sins and walked on hot coals ...
Asad had gone perfectly still when her fingers grazed the unhealing welts. He had hungered for this. Yet his muscles had bunched and fists balled and he still wouldn't look down at her. Zoya blindly pressed her lips to the bruises, flicking her tongue out to lick him and he jerked.
His throat moved; the Adam's apple bobbed.
Asad's eyes squeezed close.
But he remained immobile, as painfully stiff in her arms as she had been in his.
She continued to kiss him. Zoya pressed her lips to his throat and heard him swear and groan under his breath. But she still couldn't feel his arms around her. He wasn't wearing armor, but he may as well have been. His corded arms were steely columns that still left her marooned.
He was half-naked, but she felt exposed. Her tentative fingers stroked the old scar at his stomach and moved to undo the clasp at his waist.
She knelt before him.
"No!" Asad cried out. He raised Zoya forcibly to her feet by her upper arms.
"Don't," he bit out wanting to fling her away from him. But he didn't want to hurt her. He'd hurt her enough.
"Don't cheapen yourself on my account. No amount of se*x or bl*ow jo*bs will fix this!"
Her eyes widened.
"Asad!" She sobbed at his ruthless rejection. He had never thrown the se*xual act itself in her face before.
He rounded on her, eyes blazing. "Do you know how long I waited for you to call out to me when you were in pain? To let me touch you, hold you? You blocked me out, Zoya! You wanted to punish me? Fine, you succeeded! Are you happy now?"
"No, I'm not happy!" she yelled back. "I'm miserable!"
Asad exhaled and wiped his brow. "Why? Why must you be miserable too? Isn't me being miserable for the two of us enough!"
"I'm sorry," she gulped through tears that blinded her. She'd flinched at his bitter words; yet they were her only anchor.
He sighed turning away. "I am sorry too."
"You won't let me hold you. You treat me like a leper. Were you ever going to let me near you?"
She was weeping and slowly slid down. Her knees buckled, refusing to hold her up. He swung around to leave.
"No! Asad, don't walk away from me again! Or I'll never be able to""
"You walked away, Zoya." She saw angry tears in his eyes, or were those her own?
"You let her break us," his bleak whisper echoed.
Asad turned on his heel and this time she did run to hold him from the back, letting her hands slide up his shredded chest. Somehow her knees succeeded in holding her up.
"I know I hurt you. I hate myself for it!" Zoya rained hundreds of kisses on his back. "But I keep hearing those words. I hear them when I wake up, before I fall asleep"--if I fall asleep!"
She burst into fresh tears and backed away from him.
He had gone still.
"I don't even know if we are still married any more! How can it be so easy to end what we had? How can one word said three times over"-!"
Zoya couldn't go on. Her throat was closing in on her and strangling her words ... her breath.
Asad turned to see her on the floor by the tub. She was hugging her stomach and her body was harrowed by great sobs.
"Zoya, shh," he knelt by her trying to hold her. She pushed his hands away, gasping for breath, for control.
"We're two-thirds divorced, aren't we? Once more, and we'd have been fully---" she hiccupped and tried to draw a breath.
"Zoya, no! Never!"
She held up her hand to stall him. "Why not? Just one word away and I'd be your ex-wife ... you couldn't have touched me then ... would you have held me then? Tomorrow, if you get as mad at me as you're today and said it even once, wouldn't it be the third tala"-?" She couldn't even say the word even though it had pealed in her head all these days, deafening her, driving her insane.
There was so much she wanted to say but her tears and stupid voice wouldn't cooperate.
"I know you aren't your father's son, you've proved it in a million different ways. But me? Am I not close to being that woman ... your Ammi, my Ammi? I'm just one word away from being another chhodi hui aurat!"
Asad's tears fell too. He had no idea that she'd been entombing herself in such existential misgivings. And damn it, she still wouldn't let him hold her. She kept slapping his hands away.
And of course, this was Zoya. She still wasn't done.
Her voice rasped, struggling to surmount some treacherous ravine or mountain pass that gave no way to retreating armies.
"Your father, my father, you"you can all claim to be manipulated by some vamp, but why do your words have such power? Why do they get to obliterate everything?"
"No!" she tried to shout, but her voice collapsed.
"That place ... that factory took away everything from me eighteen years ago, and it almost took away everything""
"I know, I'm sorr--" Asad tried to soothe her.
"No you don't know. You don't know what it's like to be the biggest freaking stereotype! I thought I was strong. I talk about women's rights and I was nothing but a strung up turkey strapped to a wheelchair!"
"I do know!" Asad raged too. "I was there, remember? What do you think it was like seeing you disintegrate and not being able to do anything?"
Zoya shook her head. He still didn't get it. Why was it so hard to go on? Why wouldn't her throat let her say what her head had been screeching for so many days? She had screamed so much that day. Just like she had screamed for her Ammi so many years before. And she'd pretty much stopped speaking since she came back home. Shouldn't her voice have healed by now? Or had it given up too?
"You don't get it. You just don't get it! I was my mother, your mother. I was a woman in an age-old battle with another woman over a man! It could have been a scene from centuries ago and I prided myself as a woman of the 21st century!"
Asad's eyes widened. He couldn't bear to see her unravel. But she wouldn't let him come close to her so that he could hold her and kiss away the horrors she'd embraced.
Angry at herself, at him, Zoya flung out her hand where her ring was. It was still bruised where Tanveer had yanked it off.
"I am almost your ex-wife. My ring is gone. You would have put it on her, married her, fu*cked her!"
There! She'd been just as crude as him. She wanted to inflict pain too.
She wheezed through sobs that wouldn't let her exhale. An avalanche of air was trapped in her lungs.
"Shut up, Zoya! Just shut up!"
She shook her head. "You would have married her. She would have had rights over you, and I'd have had none! Even though I will be the mother of your child, and even if your name is embossed across my heart!"
Asad swept her into his arms crushing her to him despite the throbbing pain in his arms and chest. Her breath exploded out of her but that boulder in her throat wouldn't budge.
Zoya continued to fight him off. Had he been wearing a shirt, she'd have been shaking him by the collar.
"Tomorrow our daughters could be at this crossroad! Would you be able to stop that?" she asked as she saw him crumble. She knew she was going for the jugular this time.
"I did it for us. I had to say it for you and the baby." Asad whispered in her hair.
"No! You think I would've been alive if you'd said that word one more time? I'd rather have died!" she still struggled against him.
"Zoya, shut up and listen to me! I would have done anything she asked me to do if it kept you and the baby alive." Asad held her face in his hands, "I'd do it again!"
"No! Allah miyan Mr. Khan what's wrong with you! Haven't you heard a word I said?"
"Yes, I have. And you're done talking. Now you'll listen to me. I swear, I'd do it again! And again!"
She nearly punched him in the chest but then remembered his bruises. So she bit his ear instead.
"Ouch!" Asad laughed through his own tears and nearly shook her. "Of course, we're still married! How can you even doubt that? And if you're still not sure we'll go talk to Maulvi Saheb today. But remember this, nothing he could say will change how married I feel to you."
He lifted her chin, "and listen very carefully Mrs. Khan, I would have said that word a million times to keep you alive, you hear that? And even if those words separated us legally, officially, I would still come to you every night, wake up next to you every morning. Only you."
She buried her face in the crook of his neck and wept.
"Yes, that one word has terrible power but nothing could erase what we had yesterday and have today, nothing could ever erase what we'll have tomorrow and the day after. And if a word could erase everything between us then I would erase that word"expunge it from all spiritual dictionaries and legal databases. And Allah would have forgiven me for it."
He held her face in his hands. "Zoya, I love you. Was I so wrong to believe that that would be enough for us?"
Zoya shook her head. No he wasn't wrong. Finally, she breathed.
He kissed the top of her head, hugging her even closer if that was possible. "I thought you were going to leave me. You wouldn't even look at me!" Asad voiced his own dark grief. "Would you have taken the baby and gone back to New York?"
Zoya trailed soft kisses on his chest. "All these days I've been driving myself crazy about us, but I could never ever separate you from the baby!" Not after what both of us have been through with our own fathers, she meant to say.
And he understood.
His eyes brimmed.
"Thank god!" Asad said in prayer. "I missed talking to the baby and touching you, writing on your tummy. Oh god, Zoya, you killed me! I thought it was all over between us. That you would run away from me. I thought I'd wake up and find you gone."
"I'm never letting you go," she told him firmly, understanding his fears and laying them to rest. And now that she'd voiced her darkest terrors, she could feel her strength return. "I'm as permanent as that scar you got because of me."
"Which one," he teased through his own tears. "This one on my stomach, or this one?" Asad held out his palm.
Zoya slitted her eyes at him and glared. His lips twitched and so did hers as she bent to kiss his palm. "There, is that better now?"
Lifting her face, he sucked her tears and their eyes locked. "It'll be much better when you kiss away my other bruises too," Asad said huskily.
They swooped at each other, ravenous and restless for each other.
"Oh god, I missed you so much," each whispered.
He picked her up. "Asad, no!" Zoya yelped. "Put me down!"
He stilled, and looked down at her, hurt.
"You're hurt," she told him. "Your arms, and these bruises ..."
Asad grinned. "You scared me. I thought you didn't want me to touch you!"
"Are you kidding me?" she said. "I've craved your touch, your hands, your mouth on me. And I've hungered to touch you, taste you. But let me put something on this, a hot pack or something. Please!"
He put her down and backed her into the wall. "Later. First I want some sugar," Asad breathed, nipping the jumping pulse at her throat, " ... and a lot of spice! I died a thousand deaths each day when you turned your back on me!"
He silenced her with his mouth; she moaned in her throat at the delay and the reprieve.
Their ready fingers remembered the familiar clasps and buttons and just how to get each other out of their clothes at record speed. For a minute they let their naked bodies rub against each other, reacquainting themselves with the feel of each other's skin: the soft silk, the angular velvet. Wet heat burnished her waiting flesh; it sighed in welcome as he took her without any foreplay.
Zoya gasped and arched as she felt him move inside her. The familiar shock of the swift entry meant that she was finally home. She wrapped her legs around his waist and clenched and unclenched her kegel muscles; Asad groaned with pleasure. Absence and heartache made their practiced rhythm even more intense.
The frenzy mounted; their bodies steamed. The sighs and cries of satisfaction echoed in the small room.
Her eyes popped open.
"Oh God!" She moaned, holding her head in despair as she rested her elbow on his flexing shoulder.
"What?" Asad panted through gritted teeth even as he rocked her pinned to the wall.
"The bathroom and the bedroom door are wide open. Oh my god Asad, everyone must have heard us!" She cried out in shame.
Asad's eyes glittered. He twisted and rolled to bore into her at a different angle. A soft cry escaped her as Zoya arched helplessly, biting her lips. Her eyes drooped.
"Let them hear me fu*cking my wife!"
Her eyes flared open. Was he still mad at her? At what she'd said earlier? He dipped his head to swirl his tongue in her ear. She sank her teeth on her lower lip to stop another keening moan from escaping.
Blushing, she gripped his hair painfully. "Oh god, Asad! Say it again," she shuddered.
He did, dropping his voice an octave lower.
In the past he'd always used that word as a husky promise in her ear, never an open challenge like this spoken aloud.
"Again," she rolled her head to the side.
He did, even more huskily.
She'd begun melting.
And there it was: That se*xy purr.
It undid her.
She tightened and clamped around him, convulsing and spilling. Her lips parted in a silent scream. Asad swallowed the tiny mewls that she couldn't smother.
Dobby circled around two times before settling down on Asad's dark pants for a nap. They were warmer than the marble floor.
Finally! Those sounds meant that things were back to normal even though he was in a brand new place; he had already explored all the nooks and crannies and found favorite spots to sunbathe in. And he loved his new bed which was big enough for a king; Dobby almost didn't mind sharing the settee with his vazir: Dhoni bear.
As he washed his paw, he eyed the polka-dotted bra near the tub.
Title in Song:
Kurbaan (2009): Ali Maula
Topic started by dixeij
Last replied by -jass-