They had already planned out the itinerary for the day. But that meant stepping out of their room first.
"No! It's beyond embarrassing." She buried her face in her hands. "I'm not going out. They'll know we did it!"
"Zoya, you're pregnant, of course we've done it," Asad stated the obvious. When they'd tip-toed out of the bathroom, they'd blushed to see the door closed. Both knew it was Dilshad's doing.
"But this time they probably heard us!" she couldn't get over the horror.
A part of her was grateful for this though. If her biggest fear at this moment was se*xual embarrassment, then wasn't life just mashallah?
Sitting cross-legged on the bed Zoya cupped her face in her hands and wondered aloud, "you're right, may be it isn't the end of the world. Who cares? We're married after all."
Asad's lips curled in devilry. An eyebrow co*cked as he asked a little too innocently, "are we?"
"MR. KHAN, I SWEAR TO GOD, I'LL KILL YOU!" She leaped up on the bed and hopped in rage, mad as a Tasmanian devil bitten by a PMSing hornet.
Asad couldn't resist this sight. He threw his head back and laughed. He hadn't laughed like this for ...?
Hauling her off the bed, he kissed her. Hard.
Asad was replete.
He had caught up with the baby, kissed Zoya's rounding stomach at least a hundred times, and together, they'd listened to the baby's steady heartbeat"it had re-sewn their warp and weft into a firmer fabric. An equally exuberant baby had been the perfect angel by not making its mama go careening to the bathroom to hurl in a fit of morning sickness.
In fact, come to think of it, she hadn't been sick for the past few days.
Shy at first, Asad had shown her the letters he'd written to the baby every night, and Zoya had kissed his fingers through fresh tears. The letters were now safely tucked away in their drawer. She would make him read them to her and the baby tonight. Every night. In fact, Zoya loved the idea so much that she decided she'd write a journal to the baby herself.
"Chaliye," Asad ordered after pinching her butt. It broke her reverie and she squealed.
Zoya dived back in and pulled the sheet over her head; she crashed into the headboard. "No," she groaned.
Asad came to sit by her side and peeked under the sheet. "C'mon, or it'll be too late to talk to Aapi."
"Annnhhh!" but she got out and smoothed her hair in the mirror.
They breathed a sigh of relief when they saw the empty kitchen and living room. Dilshad had left a note for them on the table. "We're going to the hospital. They may let Rashid go home today."
"Cool," Zoya exclaimed. But then she made a face. "I still shouldn't go in front of him, right?"
"Let's see what the doctors say." Asad tucked in her hair behind an ear. It was pure bliss to be able to touch each other again. He couldn't resist running his hands over her body and had promised to do a leisurely inspection later on so that he could lovingly record and report the brand new changes in her body. She had missed that so much!
Asad framed her face in his hands, "before we'd, you know ... made up, it wouldn't have been good for him to see you and me look so miserable. But now, I think it may actually do him some good."
Zoya grinned up at him cheekily. "Oh, so this is a new type of therapy? Abbu'll feel instantly better knowing that we fu--"
"Zoya!" he squeaked in alarm as he covered her mouth and looked around to make sure they hadn't been overheard. "Behave!"
"Make me!" She skipped away from him.
Asad yanked her back to him. "I wish! But misbehaving Ms. Farooqui has made me too besh*aram to be any good."
"Aw, Mr. Jahanpanah Bond, as your boss, I hereby renew your license to be as besh*aram as you want."
Asad backed Zoya into the kitchen island and looked down at her, drinking her in. His thumbs stroked her cheeks. "I love you so much, Zoya. That katilana dimple makes me want to be badtameez and besha*ram with you all day and all night long. Only you. Your smiles and giggles are the bedrock of my world. Your tears crack my soul."
Zoya sniffed. "You better watch it, Mr. Khan; if you're going to flirt with me so shamelessly I'm going to be a hysterical, weepy mess! And today already promises to be the day of tears."
She went up on her toes and kissed his nose, "so that tomorrow will be all about smiles and laughter."
Asad took her hand in his and kissed it. Then they trooped up the stairs to talk to Anwar"with some stops in between for lingering kisses and hot gazes that promised lazy foreplay and sizzling ... frenzied afters.
Anwar looked at them indulgently as they facetimed with Zeenat.
He was much calmer now, thank god.
That day and the next couple of days, he had been insane with fury and hollow regret. He could only see Zoya's in-laws and father as the catalysts of her torture that day.
It brought back all those terrifying moments when both he and Zeenat had held a squawling Zoya as a baby unable to lessen her pain and grief. How do you pacify a child so torn by pain that even her screams dry up? How do you rock a child so that she remembers to breathe? How do you forgive yourself for wishing for death to ease her pain?
It had taken nearly a year for Zoya to fully recover ... to recover her laugh ... her Zoyaness. Zeenat and he had sworn then that they would always look out for her and never let anything bad happen to her ever again. Zoya's dimples had become the trophy they pledged their allegiance to every morning ... the evening star they swore by every night.
But seeing her tied and torn up, tormented, bleeding and manic that day in the factory of horrors, had made him want to claw someone's heart out and feed it to blunt-beaked buzzards. The horror of the moment when he realized that Asad's father had been responsible for that scar ... was unspeakable.
Since that day, when he looked at Asad he could only see Zoya's vicious scar ... he could only hear her screams as a child ... and her screams that day in that warehouse ...
He could only bear to look at and talk to Dilshad.
But Asad's quiet grief afterwards had washed away his rancor. And Anwar had begun to realize that just like Zoya needed him and Zeenat when she was a child in pain, she needed Asad now. Only Asad could be the salve that her bleeding, blistered soul hankered for. Like Dilshad and the others, he too prayed for and craved their reunion. They had been so happy; Zoya had been so happy.
Please, let them find their way to each other.
Months ago, he had seen Asad take such exquisite care of Zoya when they'd buried her mother. That these kids had known all the gory family secrets and kept them from everyone else was a strength they could have found only in each other.
Please let them find their way to that strength again.
"Zoyajaan! I will kheencho that choti!"
Shaking himself, Anwar wiped a tear as he now heard the familiar banter and the old playful Zoya. The voice laced with a thousand giggles was back and was backchatting Zeenat.
If he closed his eyes they may as well have been in their brownstone in New York.
His glad heart leaped.
"Ya Allah, ye ladki!" he heard his wife exclaim.
He felt the weight of the world lift from his aching shoulders.
Anwar smiled and gripped Asad's shoulder firmly, squeezing it in solidarity and apology. Zeenat's eyes misted too as she saw Asad's smile slip. She knew that Anwar had lashed out against Asad on that day and also about how deeply he regretted it now. He had also told her about the yawning distance between Asad and Zoya.
"Zoya, be good, OK? I want you to take extra care of Asad. Lakhon mein ek hai humara damaad, samjhi tum?" She glared at Zoya who had stuck her tongue out at her Aapi and was rolling her eyes.
"Asad?" Zeenat continued now, trying hard not to weep. She would have to say it, because she knew her husband would never be able to express it. "We love you, you know that, right?"
He nodded, suddenly too emotional.
"You're like the son we never had," she continued.
"Hey, I thought I was the son you never had," Zoya interjected taking mock-offense but eyes now bright with unshed tears.
"Chup karo tum, badmash ladki!" Zeenat scolded her as Asad and Anwar smiled.
"Asad, I know aapke Jeeju ne uss din, gusse mein ... " She sniffed to control her shaking voice. "I know Anwar ne bahut kucch keh diya. We are sor"-"
"Aapi," Asad interrupted her apology. "I'm going to be a father. I think I am beginning to understand what Jeeju was going through. If that had happened to my daughter, I'd have said and done a lot worse."
Asad wrapped Zoya's hand in his as she and Zeenat both erupted in tears. Anwar held Zoya and Asad's shoulders from behind as he dropped a kiss on Zoya's head. He lifted his palms in prayer.
The hospital was the next stop. Zoya was yearning to hold Humaira. All these days of being in a fog of misery had made her blind to her sister's pain and self-isolation. She knew that her father would be a mess as well.
She had wasted so much time.
There was not a minute to be wasted any more.
But before that Asad took her to her mother's gravesite. Head covered, Zoya kneeled to kiss the stone they'd covered in a chadar.
Zoya wiped her tears and smiled. "Ammi, everything will be all right now. Thank you for looking out for me all these years. Thank you for sending Asad to nearly run me down with his car a year ago."
Asad threw his head back and groaned. Not that again!
"I did not run you down! You weren't looking. As usual." He smiled too.
She elbowed her husband sharply. "Ammi, thank you for bringing me to India and throwing me in this man's path and arms. Even though he's only my half-husband now and I'm probably living with him in sin!"
Asad rolled his eyes which had just prickled a second ago.
"OK, fine, we'll go talk to Maulvi Saheb right now!" he tugged her up by her hand.
Zoya rose and pressed her fingers to her lips before touching the sun-warmed stone again. "And Ammi, thank you for sending Dobby too. I love you."
This time when she cried in the car Zoya didn't push Asad away. She clung to him.
They bought flowers on the way. And balloons. At the hospital, first she insisted that Asad get fully checked out. He growled about the fuss but Zoya wouldn't hear a word. There were no fractures or broken ribs, thank god! But both blushed when the doctor told him no strenuous activity or heavy lifting.
Next, Zoya leaped to get to the floor that she knew Raziya was on. Humaira would be there. The balloons were for her. She saw Humaira huddled in the sculpted bucket seat. Ayaan was kneeling in front of her and pleading with her. But Humaira looked away. She wouldn't let Ayaan take her hands in his. She continued to tighten and curl up into a tiny ball of misery.
"Humaira," Zoya whispered.
Humaira looked up at her and with an anguished cry ran towards the exit by the stairs.
"Humaira, no!" Zoya ran after her too. The balloons bobbed uselessly.
Asad held her back. "Let Ayaan ..." he told her as they saw Ayaan determinedly lope after her.
Zoya nodded and braced herself for the next obstacle course. Asad placed a kiss on her shoulder and nudged her toward the door.
The hydraulic door whispered close behind her. Zoya saw her Abbu by the bed, his head in his hands in the semi-darkened room. He had probably dropped to sleep in exhaustion. A comatose Raziya was attached to machines that whooshed, beeped and clicked around her. Soon, the family would have to make the decision to pull the plug ...
Her heart wrenched. No flowers decorated the surfaces as they did in countless other hopeful hospital rooms.
She tiptoed to the table to place the bouquet of flowers. The splash of vibrant colors lit up the drab whites and greys of the room. The cellophane rustled; Siddiqui saheb stirred.
"Zoya?" He whispered in disbelief. He believed himself to be dreaming. Was it the angel of death come to take away his shattered wife?
May be it was for the best.
"Abbu!" Zoya ran to him and hugged him from the back, resting her cheek against his head.
He wept. How could she still bear to touch him or call him Abbu? How could she bear to be in the same room as Raziya?
"Shh," she came and knelt before him.
Siddiqui hid his face in his hands. "Zoya, go away beta. I don't deserve your calling me Abbu. Allah dushman ko bhi aisa Abbu na de!"
"Abbu please," she scolded him, firmly wiping her tears away. "I didn't spend all my life looking for you to have you tell me what to do and what not to do. You know by now that I do as I please!"
"I should go away as far as possible from you. I don't want to cast even a shadow on the happiness that you so richly deserve," he muttered as if talking to himself.
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Abbu!" she shot up, hands on her waist. "If you leave me again, I'll never forgive you!"
Siddiqui began to sob, "why have you forgiven me? I don't deserve your forgiveness, or Asad's or Rashid's!"
"Abbu, we've had this conversation before and nothing has changed. You promised that we would look ahead, and not behind us." Once again she knelt by his knee.
He raised his tired head to finally look at her; Zoya's mutinous face still showed traces of tears. But her pout and tiny frown parted the thick clouds of woe that had suffocated him all these days. Not seeing her all this time had made him shrink. She would never forgive him again; and she would have been right to do so.
He nearly smiled and raised his gnarled hand to pat her head. "I did wrong by Zainab. And you. I shouldn't be given a second chance! But I ache to hear your voice, to see your face. Tumhara chehra dekhe bina mera din nahin shuru hota. I would willingly banish myself from your life but I'm too selfish. I want to stay. I want to see you become a mother. I want to hold your child in my arms. I want to celebrate that tiny part of me that did right by having you in my life."
"Then it's settled!" Zoya kissed his hand. "You'll be my Abbu and my baby's Nanu and always be by my side."
"Nanu ...?" he said the words in wonder. But then his face twisted. "No! I don't deserve to be called that. Anwar saheb ka haq hai woh! I'd just be happy to get a glimpse of him or her from a distance."
"Abbu, again! Will you please stop being such a drama queen! This is the last time we are having this conversation. I won't hear anything more about going away or watching from a distance"my life is not doordarshan! You will be in it. You promised to change diapers! I want what we had before. I feel greedy. I want all my family around me. I want you to read me and my baby, bedtime stories! My baby deserves to have two Nanus!"
Nanu? Bedtime stories? Diapers? Tiny feet and tinier hands ...
Siddiqui didn't mind being scolded at all or being called a drama queen, whatever that was. He felt like he was the child here and she his mother. And it was right. That's exactly what his mother would have said too.
Shaking himself out of the overstuffed chair, he stood to hug her; he sensed a new life course through him. Siddiqui felt hopeful and alive again, he was a child, eager to get the day started.
When Asad walked in a minute later, he smiled to see yet another doubter being forcibly reanimated after express orders to DNR (Do Not Resuscitate)! His wife was a miracle-worker, of that he'd never had any doubt.
But her services were needed elsewhere too.
"Zoya," he said softly. "Humaira's back."
Zoya wiped her eyes and sniffed hard. More tears and sniffles were waiting for her. But so was a life finally free from secrets and lies. And she really was feeling greedy. And impatient. She wanted their old life again. She would snatch her happiness and her familiy's from the toothless jaws of fossilized pain and grief. That had been her silent pledge to herself at the dargah this morning. She turned to leave but Siddiqui stopped her. Reverently, he touched her arm where her scar was. He ran his fingers over her arm and raised it to pepper tiny kisses over her sleeve, "kitna dard hua hoga, meri bachchi! If I had known, I'd have never ever"-Ya Allah, mujhe maaf kar dena!"
"Abbu!" She couldn't stop the tears now.
"I'm sorry for giving you so much pain. I should have been there to protect you. What a terrible father I am!" Siddiqui hugged her to him and they cried in each other's arms.
He'd caught up with her in the stairwell as she fled from the 4th to the 3rd floor. Grabbing her from the back Ayaan pushed Humaira against the cool wall. Pigeons cooed on the ledge of the open grill.
"Humaira, I've given you enough time. You're not pushing me away any more!" he hissed.
She turned her face away. Like her sister, she too had gone numb and mute since that miserable day. Every waking moment since then, Humaira wished she could have taken Zoya's place that day. She'd gladly have taken the blows ... she'd have taken the roasting alive ... the scarring. Anything, but to be what she was ... the daughter of a vicious woman who had killed and maimed ... She wanted to rip her skin off her bones, to be bloodless, to not have her parents' tainted DNA.
Aapi's screams had echoed inside her head for days ... they had bashed and bounced against her eyeballs and eardrums but still she could see ... still she could hear. How? Why?
Her mother lay here dying. In a coma. Humiara wanted her to be dead. As dead as Aapi's Ammi. She'd trade her for Aapi's Ammi. Humaira hadn't been inside the hospital room. She knew if she stepped inside she'd rip off the tubes and needles from her mother's repulsive body. She knew she would tear out her mother's womb with her bare hands and immolate it, and herself"the fouled fruit of her looms.
They had kept her under observation for 72 hours because she'd tried to hurt herself. At home, Humaira had gone into her mother's medicine cabinet and downed all her meds in some diabolical infliction of poetic justice. Too bad her mother was unconscious because Humaira wanted her to see how much she hated herself, her body, everything that her mother had worked hard to protect and preserve. In the emergency room they had made her retch her guts out"Humaira was disappointed that she didn't see her mangled heart and other organs ejected out of her body.
Sitting outside her mother's room every day, Humaira imagined throwing herself before trucks and trains, off roofs and ravines. She could stare at hours at a knife blade or razor. She smiled at visions of dousing herself with kerosene and slow-dancing with flames in a lover's lurid embrace as her mother looked on.
Ayaan had stood by her side whenever he could get away from his father's bedside or his mother's knee. And Humaira dreamed of hanging herself from a ceiling fan, or slitting her wrist and draping her arm over a white bathtub ... drink some phenyl may be. Rashid Phupha's heart attacks were also her doing. Her mother's, technically, but hadn't her mother really done all this for her? Humaira, after all, was the deity at whose idolatrous altar her mother had offered human sacrifices ...
Aapi had disappeared.
She hadn't seen her or Jeeju for days. And Humaira had lost that last iota of faith in her deliverance. She had started crying on the seventh day. And she couldn't stop.
"Humaira! Listen to me!" Ayaan shook her now. "I will not let you walk away from us!"
"NO!" she screamed at him. The pigeons flapped away in alarm.
"Go away, Ayaan! There is no us' anymore! Don't you get it?"
"Yes, there is. There'll always be an us' and I'm not going any where!" He let go of her arms.
She was talking and she had a lot to say. He knew she wouldn't run away; she was raring to talk now. And that was good. For too long he'd seen her quiet as a mummy"wrapped in shrouds of doom. She hadn't responded to overtures from Nuzzhat or Nikhat, or even Omar. And Ayaan didn't have the guts to approach Bhai or Mona darling. They were in their own circle of hell.
"Why? Why won't you go away?" Humaira croaked. Her voice still wobbled. "So that there's even more damage my mother can do to your family? What if I become her? What if I kill people who make me insecure and burn babies?!"
Ayaan laughed. He couldn't help it. She whacked him across the head and he stumbled. "Humaira, you could never do that, no matter how hard you tried! It's funny because I can't even imagine you doing anything like that!"
"How do you know? What if tomorrow I get jealous of Aapi's baby and do something to it?"
"Yeah, right," he kidded. "I can just imagine the bloodbath because Bhai will kill you! Give it up babes, I know, you won't. You can't!"
"Ayaan, stop this. I can't be with you. I just can't. Not after what my mother did to your Abbu, and Jeeju and everybody. And Aapi! Oh my god, what she did to Aapi! I wish she had set fire to me!" Humaira turned away from him. "Please, just leave me alone."
"I've left you alone long enough. You nearly killed me by trying to hurt yourself. Thank god, Nuzzhat found you! Abbu's a lot better now and we're taking him home today. So be prepared to see a lot more of me. I don't care if you have me reported for stalking."
He saw her shaking her head and get ready to speak up. "Nope, it's just not negotiable, babe."
"Ayaan!" she stomped her foot in frustration and turned to leave.
He hauled her to him. He'd given her enough notice. No way was she going to play the same beaten record. He was done. He crowded her into the corner and dipped his head to shut her up. She struggled against the kiss that she had craved so badly. She used her fists to pummel him. But soon her hands clung to his jacket. She had tried to punish herself before by practicing some Ayaan-fasting, but he never let her self-imposed celibacy get too entrenched. That was her problem since fourth grade: she could never resist his rakish charm. Never.
That she was still a virgin was not because of her choice, or morals; it was because he had applied the brakes of self-restraint for both of them.
Ayaan was at breaking point too. Just once he wanted to lose control with her so that he could wipe away her misery and make her go crazy in his arms. "I love you," he said when they came up for air. "If we were somewhere more private I would have made love to you right now."
She gasped; his eyes blazed. Color was returning to her cheeks and sparkle to her eyes.
"That is how serious I am about being with you. Forever. And that is why I'm not letting you go anywhere." He kissed her more gently this time and felt her tears on his cheeks.
"Ayaan, I'm so sorry for what my mother did!" She wept, finally letting go of her heartache.
"But you aren't your mother!"Ayaan insisted. "Our parents' wrongs aren't ours," he said through soft kisses. "We have to believe that, or we'd just be miserable for the rest of our lives. I think Bhai and Zoya have shown us that our generation can be smarter and kinder if we believe in the power of love. I guess if there's love, then the forgiveness comes automatically. Is that too corny?" He ruffled his hair in embarrassment.
She smiled slightly. "For you, yes!"
"I mean, may be your dad and ... mine, didn't stand up for love. They gave in to fear or something. But I can't imagine Bhai without Zoya ... or me without you. No way in hell is anyone coming along to separate us. Not even you!"
She grinned, after what felt like ages.
"So you'll believe in the power of love with me?"
Humaira's gaze lowered and her smiled quivered. "I'm scared," she said finally.
"Well, may be the power of se*x can sweeten the deal?"
"I'll take that as a yes!" He ground into her and she blushed. "And Humaira?" She looked up at him. "I'm done waiting for you to test your independence and spread your wings. We're getting married as soon as possible, and that's final! No ifs, ands or buts, OK?"
She nodded before burying her face in his shoulder.
He took her hand in his and pulled her up the stairs. "Ready to talk to Mona darling?"
Humaira took a deep breath. Her eyes prickled. "May be it's time now. I want so badly to hug her, but how can I face her?"
"By letting her hug you, hold you. By facing the past and then letting it stay in the past."
Humaira squared her shoulders.
"Najma?" Asad spoke softly over the phone. "Bring Dadi and the girls to the 4th floor. No, just you four. I'm waiting."
While waiting for Zoya, Asad had paced outside, and come to a grim decision. Her words from this morning had tumbled in his head all day long in a washer's spin cycle: "Tomorrow our daughters could be at this crossroad. Would you be able to stop that?"
His own words rose up like curling smoke: "If that had been my daughter I'd have said and done a lot worse."
At that time he had been distracted by his own demons and Zoya's spiraling distress. But now those words rattled around in his head, restless and tireless.
He couldn't get Najma or Nikhat's faces out of his mind either. Or Omar's or Feroze's. Yes, he had made his mind up. Enough was enough. Once Ayaan brought Humaira back, they would sit the girls and Dadi down and answer the questions that buzzed in their anxious minds.
When the girls came up, with Zoya and Humaira ensconced inside with Siddiqui saheb, Asad cleared his throat.
"Dadi, you may know a little bit about this but I think it's time that you all knew what happened at the factory that day ... and eighteen years ago."
Ayaan covered his face. He had wondered whether to tell their sisters. A part of him wanted to stop Bhaijaan. They didn't need to know. How would they look at Humaira? Would they hate her? Omar and Feroze would know too. Wouldn't they regret marrying into this godawful family of freaks?
Asad read Ayaan's mind. There was no need for any P-language any more. Straight talk was what they really needed. Hiding the truth all these years had wrecked their families, and as clichd as it sounded, truth was to only way to set them all free.
He told them. Everything.
But he told them his reason for telling them, first. "I've been wrong trying to protect you all from this. I was playing god with your lives, controlling what you knew or didn't. You should know as members of this family. This is your history too."
Asad could see the impatience and fear on their faces. They dreaded his coming words wondering why it needed such an ominous preface.
Asad told them about what happened eighteen years ago: A woman who had come from America with her three-year old dimpled daughter. A murder, a conspiracy, a reluctant arsonist, a fire ... and a cruel scar ...
In painstaking detail, he recounted their parents' blood-soaked, ash-clogged history ...
"That young girl was Zoya." Asad uttered finally as he crossed his sore arms across his chest. His arms and chest still hurt, but thank god not as much as they had these past few days.
Dadi sobbed into her dupatta. Yes, she had known and even lived through a part of this story. But Rashid's acts had hurt Zoya?
The girls wept quietly.
They knew it had to be bad. But this was so much worse. It was so easy to imagine culprits being strangers. But what did you do when they were your own blood?
"A scar? Zoya?" Najma couldn't process it. Ayaan nodded shamefully. He had seen how deep and long that scar was; he had seen how steep and wrong her terror was.
His sisters' questions spurted with growing horror: "She knew all this? When? Bhaijaan, how long have you known this?"
Asad nodded. "Some of it we knew before the wedding. The rest we found out ... when we were away on our honeymoon." He was done sugarcoating the truth.
Nikhat and Najma pressed their hands to their ears trying to block their Bhaijaan's words out. What had he and Zoya been through when they first found out? How did they go on? And yet they had forgiven Mumani? Humaira's Abbu? Their own Abbu? How had Zoya loved them all even after knowing this?
Nuzzhat sat frozen in self-loathing. They had lived cushy, ignorant lives. Arrogant lives, while"-
"But there's another reason why you must know everything." Asad continued, "because, eighteen years later ..." He wiped his brow with stiff fingers. "Eighteen years later Zoya and I tried to keep these details from ever leaking out. We thought if we kept a lid on this, everyone would be protected, everything would be OK. But Tanveer had other plans. That day she put up a grand show to connect all the dots; we couldn't do a thing. Abbu ... collapsed when he found out about Zoya ... and that he was responsible for her scar."
Ayaan had been pacing behind him through the retelling. He pulled his hair now. He wished he could have turned time that day. If only they could have done things differently, if only Rakesh's team had gotten there on time, as planned ... if only ...
But Asad was still not done. This part was the hardest; they all needed to know of this too. He couldn't help but relive the awful moments when he had seen Zoya fracture again ... and again"he had seen it on the train on their honeymoon, during her recurring nightmares ...
Then it had been because of their father and Raziya Siddiqui.
But that day in the factory ... and then back at home ... another trauma had sliced and minced her. The doctors had shaken their heads and murmured of the lingering effects of PTSD. They had talked of aggressive medications, but Zoya was pregnant.
Asad felt angry for her. On her behalf. Jeeju's helpless words pierced his conscience: "cowards ... monsters," he had called them all.
At the dargah this morning Asad had finally understood. Perhaps he now understood the root of Zoya's earlier anguish: She had easily forgiven her mother's murder, the exile from her father, her scarring even. She had finally healed and even married the man who was the son of the scar-giver. But Tanveer's scratching off the scabs of the past topped by the forcible "talaaqs," had seared a fresh new scar on Zoya's psyche: the unwitting father had given her the scar on her arm, the unwilling son ... on her entire being.
It had imploded her.
You couldn't see the shards and torn flesh this time, but they were there. He had seen them this morning. This morning as he had held her through her breakdown and free fall into the abyss, he had panicked seeing Zoya struggle like an asthmatic to draw breath. She had told him too of her new nightmares and he had fallen apart. Her fears were justified; her trauma, inexcusable. She hadn't said it, but he knew now: with his third "talaaq," their child would be condemned to the same history as its parents: fatherless"living at the cusp of legitimacy and despairing hope, robbed of bedtime stories, annual and sports days ... Yes, their child would have angry birthdays, hollow milestones and a mess of grief.
No, he was not done. They needed to hear it; he needed to say it.
"I want you all to listen really carefully," Asad emphasized each word. The girls went silent and breathless. "That day Tanveer threatened to kill Zoya and ... and the baby. She forced me to say talaaq'!" His voice had dropped to a harsh whisper. It was hard to control his own emotions because it all came flooding back. The girls strained to hear his words. They gasped at that word and looked at each other in horror and confusion.
Were Bhai and Bhabhi divorced now?
"No, we aren't, thank god!" Asad exhaled loudly. "All these years I was angry at Abbu for leaving Ammi. I had tunnel vision. I only saw her daily struggles to raise me and Najma. But that day I could have been that man. My child could have hated me ... for more than half their life." His voice cracked.
He wanted to rage and pace, but he controlled himself. "That word can be used by us too easily ... but its savagery cuts women more deeply."
Asad's mouth twisted. "That word ... its fallout ... lasts for generations." He struggled to go on. "That's why you have to make yourselves stronger. If it means working, being financially independent, whatever you have to do, do it. Do not ... don't rely on a man, however good, to take care of you. Don't let that word or even its shadow break you."
"Asad!" Badi bi nearly collapsed with the weight of his words ... their bitter implications.
"Bhaijaan!" It wasn't just the girls who cried out in horror but Ayaan too.
"I mean it," Asad said, scrubbing the tears off his face. "I love Zoya. But even I had to say it ... It nearly killed us."
He would have walked away swaddled in his own self-persecution. But his sisters threw themselves at him to hold him and wrap him in their perfumed empathy. Ayaan too flung himself at the sibling huddle to enfold all of them in his embrace. Their collective warmth slowly wicked away the chill.
When Zoya came out and saw them crying, her feet skidded to a halt in fear. Her wet eyes met Asad's and a cold hand crept to her heart. "Abbu?" she asked fearfully. "Oh my god!
The girls saw her then. And they pounced on her. Cries of "Zoya!" and "Zoya Bhabhi!" nearly staggered her as they encircled her in a group hug.
"No, Abbu's OK!" Asad told her hurriedly.
And a smile broke out on his face. It drove away his grief. Even now she worried for his father. Asad peered at her. She looked exhausted. Zoya swayed from the day's emotional and physical onslaught and he leaped to hold her. Gently, he extracted her from his sisters' clinging arms and hugged her. Without a backward glance, Asad led her away to the stairwell.
The pigeons had returned. They cooed watching another pair of lovebirds. These two didn't fight; they sighed into one another. He sat down on a step and pulled her in his lap. Zoya burrowed in his chest whispering, I love you. Asad dropped a kiss on her head. No sooner had she tucked her head under his chin and she was fast asleep. She had pretended sleeping all these days; now she really slept. His cheek against her hair, Asad dozed too.
"Humaira? I'm sorry I wasn't there for you, baby." Zoya had whispered when Ayaan pushed her into Raziya's room and closed the door after him. Siddiqui had covered his mouth to hide his trembling lips. He understood Humaira's grief but had felt powerless to do much about it. Her suicide attempt had made him want to kill himself too. They had continued to wallow in their personal bubbles of hell not able to do anything for each other.
Humaira had burst into fresh tears at Zoya's words. "Stop it, Aapi! Don't call me baby, or treat me so nicely. I don't deserve it. Everything terrible that's happened to you was because of me!" she fell to the floor at Zoya's feet.
"Shh," Zoya stooped to sit by her and hold her. Humaira had continued to weep.
"How can you bear to look at us?" Humaira gasped. "How can you even be in the same room as HER?!" She had flung her arm out in revulsion and pointed to her half-dead mother.
"Because I love you, and that trumps everything else. Why would I only cry for what I lost? I want to cherish what I've found." Zoya stated simply.
"But Ammi? What she did, was unforgivable!"
Zoya smiled and took Humaira's hand to rest it on her lightly swelling stomach. "Your Ammi saved my baby. Tanveer would have shot me and Mr. Khan, but your mother took a bullet for us."
"But she killed your"" She saw Zoya's eyes fill and could have killed herself for it.
"She killed Tanveer. And that's what matters more to me right now."
"But Aapi ... all this would have never happened had she not ..." She was wracked by sobs again and couldn't go on.
"She may have started all this. But she also ended it. Humaira," Zoya sighed. "I know you feel guilty and responsible for all this somehow. But it really had nothing to do with you. You were an infant and I was a toddler. What did we know? But we know better now. Can't we make sure that the next generation grows happy and knows the love of aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins?"
Humaira bowed her head. "Ye"s," she whispered.
"So you promise to change diapers?" Zoya teased.
Humaira giggled through her tears. "Promise!"
"Even the extra smelly ones?"
"Specially those." Humaira vowed fervently.
"Zoya, come to bed babe," Asad texted her for the third time that night.
In a burst of grateful high jinks the celebrating siblings and spouses had gathered at the Khan house for dinner, movies, makeovers and sleepovers. The men however had soon tired of the manic fun, noisy chatter and staying up late that the girls seemed to love and thrive in. Ayaan was snoring on the couch. Feroze had gone to bed, alone, and Omar had dragged a somewhat-reluctant Najma away.
"Hmmphh! I am enjoying my time with the girls as a semi-single woman. I'm going to watch Desi Boyz' and check out what all the fuss with Magic Mike' was about! And we're having mocktail Cosmos, so forget about it Mr. Khan!" Zoya responded.
Asad groaned and punched the pillow. What the hell were Desi boys and Magic Mike? Asad powered up his laptop.
Five minutes later, he yelped. Male strippers!
He fumed; he prowled; he went on a scavenger hunt.
When Zoya saw the next text her eyes bugged and she had to cover her mouth to repress a thrilled squeal: "Wouldn't you rather see the Magic Jahanpanah and your desi boyz ka live show?" it asked.
The attached photo made her choke on her virgin Cosmo and gave her some very unvirgin tingles and flushes. She mock-yawned, stretched and pushed herself off the couch. "Guys, I'm dead on my feet. I'm off to bed, nightie-night!"
"Spoilsport!" But they mostly ignored her. Too much eye candy on the screen.
Zoya tried not to run into the waiting arms of her magic Jahanpanah who had made such a glorious effort to market his competing services"he wore only the blackest sunglasses paired with a matching half-loosened necktie.
And nothing else.
The fading bruises across his chest may have been the lashes scored by an adoring dominatrix ... His sculpted six packs glistened.
Her mouth watered.
Feathered handcuffs were gripped between his teeth and a furry cat was held just strategically enough to not leave her guessing ...
It couldn't be. No way.
Dobby could not be winking.
Mmm Mr. Khan, the sinful Ms. Farooqui is going to get very lucky tonight.
Booty call, start your engines, here I come.
Zoya skipped into the semi-darkened candlelit room and latched the door behind her. Wow, being a newly half-single girl about town did have some fun perks.
She'd decide after tonight's one-night-stand if she'd keep her Jahanpanah with benefits, or enter a no-strings-attached relationship with a certain Akdu Ahmed Khan in apartment 3B. And if that didn't work out, there was always that incredibly foolish "main-voh-actually" Rumi-reciting and dangerously-driving sweetheart in 2C. And when not on a mission ... the super-se*xy secret agent, Jahanpanah Bond in 4A would do just as well.
Yum, she was going to have her hands full"-
She remembered his words and blushed: "Tonight Mrs. Khan, you're going to be full of me!"
Yup! She was going to have her hands full juggling 50 shades of Khan.
Bring it, Mr. Khan.
When the soft strains of "Beintehaan" started up, she groaned in anticipation. Wow, he'd even accessorized with the feather boa that she'd used on him in one of her Hawa Hawaii seduction routines.
Ooh la la! Bijli giraney, main hoon aayi.
Correction, bijli girane main hoon aaya ...
Dobby had been discarded for the guitar because all of a sudden her Akdu was feeling shy. She plucked the guitar from him and stood back hugging it.
"Makhmali raat ki ho na subah ..." played on.
... Do bekhabar, bhige badan
Ho besabar, bhige badan
... Le rahe raat bhar angdayiyaan"
She swayed to the music and blushed at its sultry promise.
Song in Title:
Race 2 (2013): "Be Intehaan"
After Bhai's bombshell declaration, when Ayaan slunk into Mumani's room he was surprised at his lack of resentment against Humaira's mom. She looked too frail and forlorn so close to her end anyways. As he looked around the room, he half-smiled. The flowers chased away the banality of arrested death, and the bouquet of balloons bowed and bobbled in valiant cheer.
Humaira was curled up in the easy chair ... fast asleep.
Finally, she seemed at peace!
He turned when he heard the door open. Siddiqui walked in holding two paper cups of coffee; he ground to a halt as he saw Ayaan.
"Ayaan?" he croaked with uncertainty.
Siddiqui was no longer sure how Rashid's family would react to him ... to all of them. Raziya had the advantage of being in a convenient coma. That just left him to be the face of evil that had destroyed the family. And it was only right. His cowardice had brought this on. He should have seen the warning signs; he should have been able to protect Zainab and Zoya ...
Siddiqui recoiled as the image of Zoya screaming when Tanveer had pushed her toward the flames flashed before his eyes. It was only fitting that he hadn't slept much since that day"because when he did, he saw himself pushing Zoya into a fiery grave.
Thank god, Zoya had Asad now"
Unbidden, the words from Harivansh Rai Bachchan's poem sprang up in his head:
Ashru, swed, rakt se,
Lath-path, lath-path, lath-path,
Agneepath! Agneepath! Agneepath!
Blinded by shame he nearly stumbled, spilling the coffee. The hot liquid scalded his hand and spiked his heart. His eyes watered"not just because of the burn, but because they remembered how much worse Zoya's pain must have been.
Zoya and Asad had married despite knowing about their intertwined histories baked in fire and soaked in blood. The nikaah between Humaira and Ayaan was most likely off though.
Then what was Ayaan doing here?
"Mamu, how are you?" Siddiqui was even more surprised by the question"he was thrown by its neutrality. For almost the first time since he could remember, Ayaan didn't look at him with contempt.
There was no anger or judgment.
"I'm OK, beta," he answered after clearing his throat. "Aur Tum? Humaira told me that your Abbu is doing much better. You don't know how glad I am to hear that."
Guilt made him duck his head. "I'm sorry for everything," he whispered. "I wish I hadn't been such a coward. We ruined Zoya's life then." He looked at a sleeping Humaira. "And we've possibly ruined Humaira's life now. What a terrible father I am!"
"Mamu," Ayaan interrupted. "I was mad, I'm not going to lie. That day at the factory ... specially when Abbu collapsed, I could have killed you with my bare hands."
Siddiqui bowed his head in misery and wept quietly.
But Ayaan wasn't done yet. "What your actions did to Bhai all those years ago"-that still makes me mad. But when I look at Zoya and Bhai and see them being OK with you ... When I see them put the past behind them, it makes me want to do the same. I may take longer to be as noble as them, or may be I won't. Who knows? But I do know one thing: Humaira and I are getting married as soon as possible."
"But Ayaan? Even after all that's happened? What if later on this comes between you two?"
Ayaan ruffled his hair in agitation. "I don't know what to think any more, Mamu."
He remembered Humaira's words from a long time ago:
"Ayaan, you are thinking of our future together and are more worried about hurting me instead of hating me for what my mother did? I don't think you could ever accuse me of being like my mother. But if you do, I hope our love will be strong enough for me to hit you with something hard and get past it."
He grinned. "It could happen"stuff might flare up. But I hope our love will be strong enough to get past it"that's what Humaira said to me some time ago. She made me believe. And I want to believe in that love. Not hate, or anger, or revenge." Funny, he no longer felt embarrassed talking like an uncool goody two-shoes.
Siddiqui smiled and came closer to pat Ayaan's shoulder. "Where did you kids pick up such deep mystical ideas? When did you all grow up to be such fine human beings? I wish I had your strength and integrity. But I will spend the rest of my life learning from you all if you'll have me in your lives."
Humaira stirred awake. She had heard her father's words and smiled. Yes, she could see signs of healing all around her. Tender green shoots were unfurling from a sooty stump they'd thought long dead. Their parents had kept vicious secrets from all of them and spawned brooding resentment; but Aapi and Jeeju had righted the arc of their families' history, thank god! They had tilted their universe just a little bit to let in the sun"the best disinfectant.
She glanced at her mother. Strange, she didn't feel like ripping out the tubes or stabbing her with syringes or scalpels any more. Humaira rose and brushed the thinning hair from her mother's forehead. But she didn't completely agree with Aapi. May be her mother had to die in order to set their world finally right.
Her heart beat hard.
My mother for yours, Aapi.
What a show it had been! Its sensuous aftermath had been just as be-intehaan too. The playful se*x-talk and smoky gazes had soon morphed into devouring devotion and searing worship.
Later, in each other's arms, her head on his bare chest, Zoya asked what she'd been meaning to ask since this afternoon. "Asad, why were you all crying at the hospital? You scared me for a second. You know, I thought something terrible had happened to Abbu!"
In the velvety dark, he hugged her tighter, pulling up the quilt more snugly around them. "I told the girls what happened at the factory"that day, and eighteen years ago."
Zoya couldn't restrain a tiny gasp. "Everything? Even us? But why? Did they have to know about your Abbu or my scar?"
"Yes, they had to know." His thumb rubbed circles on her nude back, igniting a slow fire. "If they are to be the masters of their destinies, they need to have all information that affects their lives. No more secrets and protecting people from knowing the truth."
"Mistresses," Zoya smirked as she nicked then sucked his nipple.
"Huh?" Asad asked through a hiss.
"Mistresses of their destinies, you mean!"
"But mistresses sounds weird ... wrong, somehow."
"Exactly! Even our language won't let women be the mistresses of their destinies!" She kissed his shoulder. "But why were you all crying?"
"I told them that they needed to become stronger"work, study, do whatever it took. I was thinking of what you said this morning. About ... watching our daughters if they were at the same crossroad and not being able to do a thing. I couldn't get over how helpless Jeeju felt that day ... And then that word"it was the last straw for you. You're one of the strongest women I know, and yet everything fell away that day ... and in the days after."
Zoya took his face in her hands and kissed him, "Mr. Khan, you still haven't told me why y'all were crying so hard!"
Asad sighed. "I told them not to depend on a man, however good he may be."
"Asad!" She couldn't believe it. "I'm so sorry! You did that because of me, didn't you? Because of what I said!"
"No, I meant it! You were right. Look at our mothers"destroyed by men who weren't necessarily bad, just flawed. What's the difference really? My Abbu did it all to save Najma. I said that word to save you. The end result could have been the same." His hand tightened over her stomach. "This child could have grown up without me and hated me for hurting you."
"Never!" Zoya cried out. "You wouldn't have let that happen. You fought too hard for us to stay alive, we'd have found a way to be together."
The silence settled between them.
But restless energy corroded him. "Zoya, I still can't get it out of my mind. If it had really happened ... If Tanveer had succeeded ... and if this baby's a girl, she'd grow up without a father and then get married to a guy who could end up leaving her ... I kept thinking of Najma ... That's why I had to tell them."
Zoya cried then. Damn, she thought she was done crying! Yes, this had been a big part of her doomed dread during her self-imposed isolation all these days. But she cried more because Asad now plumbed that horror too: to barely recover from the loss of her father who had left her eighteen years ago ... to then have her husband leave her at the same spot eighteen years later ...
"I'm sorry," Asad whispered. "I couldn't ever do that to you."
Zoya kissed his fading bruises after he wiped her tears. "I know that now. And Asad? I'm so sorry for shutting down on you like that for all those days. I know I hurt you terribly. I stole your time away from the baby." She sniffed. "I can't believe I doubted you even for a second. It was that word ... oh god, I hate that word!" She buried her face in his shoulder. Her hair fanned out over his chest. He stroked her scarred arm.
"Shh," Asad planted a kiss on her head and squeezed her to him. He shuddered again still thinking about her breakdown this morning. Her tortured breathing had made him flashback to that terrible time in Mangalpur when he thought"-
Watching her gasp to draw heaving gulps of air through constricting airways had made him feel the same helplessness all over again. And then Jeeju had told him that when she was a baby she struggled for breath similarly when she was in extreme pain ...
He hadn't been able to breathe for a second too.
Lifting his hand to her lips, Zoya murmured, "and you know what? May be I couldn't see things as clearly then, or think straight. But things would have been different this time because you're not your father. I know that word broke me for some time, and I couldn't see past it. But now I know what you believed then"a word wouldn't, couldn't ever tear us apart."
Zoya knew about his own fears of being his father's son: hurting a woman so terribly that he wouldn't even consider the idea of getting married initially. Asad had already told her about his terror for her: a repeat of Mangalpur ... Then why had she"-
Asad rolled her on her back to nuzzle her neck. "So, tomorrow's appointment?"
"Cancel it," Zoya said slipping her arms around his neck and already sighing and arching as she snuggled into his embrace. "We don't need Maulvi Saheb to tell us whether we're married or not. I loved what you said this morning"nothing could change how married you feel to me." Asad lifted his head and she kissed him full on the mouth and continued, "me neither. Those words were the best renewal of our vows I could ever wish for. Just as powerful as the first time we said Qubool hai'!"
Asad feathered her lips with his knuckle thinking back to this morning again. Still haunted, she'd told him more about the spiraling terror that had triggered her panic attack.
"I kept thinking if you ever got mad at me again and said that word one more time, then it'd be all over between us."
Even then Asad had tried to gently soothe her fears with a little bit of teasing. "Let's count how many things are wrong with that idea: one, I think there's an expiry on the word tal"'!" Of course she'd covered his mouth. He had kissed her palm and removed it.
"Asad, don't say it!" Zoya had said through fresh tears.
He'd kissed her thoroughly before continuing: "If you don't say it three times in one sitting, then you probably have to redo the whole thing. You don't continue from the last time, like some episodic TV show, I think."
"Asad! How can you you be so cavalier about it?" She'd shaken him by his shoulders.
"Because, it's never going to happen! Besides," he silenced her with a finger to that mouth, unable to resist thumbing her lips. "I'd never be mad enough at you to say that word."
"But I have made you insanely furious in the past. Remember the meteor shower night? Or when you bailed me out of jail? I've never seen you angrier!"
His eyes had darkened. He remembered those times all too well. And also when he had struck her thinking she'd been responsible for the attack on Ammi. And he had said terrible things about how she deserved to lose her Ammi.
Asad had no idea that she had spun so many frantic insecurities in her mind around one word. It killed him that she had weltered in these fears for days. That's why she'd gone silent? Thank god, they'd put it firmly behind them!
But she'd still had some residual qualms. "What if I do something stupid and"-"
This time he'd covered her mouth to shut her up and to put an end to her self-torment.
"I'm no longer that man, Zoya. Anger fueled me in those dark days, no more. You know better; you're the one who changed me. I'm never saying that word. I'd die first."
"Asad!" she'd hugged him so fiercely that he'd almost staggered back. "That's the other word you have to promise you won't say. Ever!"
"Zoya," he groaned in her ear now. Her knees were already hugging his sides. His hand moved to stroke and tug under her toes and that familiar current leapt up her jerking body.
He flung the covers off their reheated bodies.
"Oh god, Asad, why did I waste so much time!"
"Shh, it's over. But Mrs. Khan, you do owe me big time," Asad breathed against her neck. His tongue and teeth played havoc with her wanton pulse.
"I do. Forever," she barely got the vow out, so distracted was she by his seeking fingers.
"I'm going to collect every debt ... with interest."
Zoya pushed him off her to straddle him and slowly kiss Asad down his chest to his six packs, "wanna start collecting now, babe?"
She slithered lower.
She licked him and he bucked.
"Jo hukum, Jahanpan"-!"
His hands fisted in her hair and his back and neck arched.
Dobby meowed somewhere. Zoya would have giggled but"-
"Remember to come home early," Zoya reminded him for the second time the next morning.
Asad nodded as he packed his laptop for work. It was time for them to meet his Abbu who was doing much better. In fact Rashid had requested the meeting, and they couldn't wait to see him.
"Even though I'm not working right now, I hate Mondays," Zoya pouted. She had begged Asad to work from home today wanting to just feel him next to her, but there were stupid meetings and ridiculous presentations and pitches he couldn't get out of.
"Don't remind me," he groaned. "And don't ask me again, I won't be able to go otherwise." Asad almost wished she would ask him to stay back. He resigned himself to going when she didn't.
He headed for the door.
He smiled. "Hmm?"
Zoya was perched on the settee absently stroking Dobby's head. The cat's eyes were squeezed shut in total bliss. The morning sun on his back, Zoya's fingers ruffling his fur"it was Mashallah! Dobby raised his head to glare at Asad and frown at him"Asad was encroaching on his time with Zoya"you have her for the nights, he seemed to say, during the day she's mine!
Go to work, already, the cat winked at him. What's the hold up?
"Did you notice, something?" Zoya spoke softly.
When Asad looked blank, Zoya beamed up at him. "The morning sickness stopped!"
He couldn't restrain himself. So he'd be late by a few minutes! Asad returned to kiss her upturned nose.
"Perfect!" he drawled as he knelt before her. "Any cravings I can satisfy?"
He shouldn't have asked that. Her eyes dilated and Zoya's lids drooped. Dobby sighed in frustration and huffed off the settee"this would take some time obviously.
They didn't even miss him! Bipeds were pathetic.
When Asad rubbed her lips with his thumb she caught it between her teeth and slowly sucked on it.
His eyes closed as he groaned.
"I would love to eat you up, Mr. Khan ... " Zoya winked at him. " ... again!" He blushed. "But now that you mention it, I'm so craving"-"
"Pizza?" Asad asked already knowing the answer.
"No! Jam and bread!"
Asad laughed at the simplicity of the craving. God knows why his eyes prickled suddenly. Sure, his wife was hormonal, but it didn't explain how he was becoming a nearly-weepy basket case himself. Would he be one of those dorky husbands who also experienced phantom labor pains? Hell yes!
Zoya bumped heads with him.
Asad pulled out his phone. "Prasad? I'm running 30 minutes late ... Yes, everything's all right," he added after a minute as he locked eyes with Zoya. Ever since the attack, Prasad had become a clucking mother hen. "I just need to make something special for my wife."
Tail twitching, Dobby followed them out to the kitchen. But not before hacking up a hairball near Asad's computer bag.
Sipping her tea in the living room, Dilshad smiled looking at Asad trying to make a simple sandwich for Zoya. He had to force her down on the chair each time because she kept leaping up to peep over his shoulder and get in his way.
He had removed his suit jacket to meticulously drape it over a chair back. Zoya was giggling at the military precsion of the plate and knives"no, the same knife couldn't be used for the butter, and to dip in the jam jar. Were they barbarians?
"Trim the crusts off, please," Dishad heard Zoya beg Asad. Of course that required a third knife. Zoya rolled her eyes.
Dilshad sniggered when she heard him mutter, "you Americans are so high maintenance. And super wasteful!" Her son had obviously forgotten the days of his high-maintenanceness"or his royal Jahanpanahness, as his wife liked to say.
"Dobby can eat the crusts! See, Mr. Khan, it's all part of the cosmic food web. It's a glorious circle of life!" Zoya retorted as her arms swung in a graceful arc, painting a rainbow. Dobby danced around her legs in wholehearted agreement. He was behaving himself knowing full well that if he jumped up on the counter he would be spritzed away with a water spray bottle ... another reason he was miffed with Asad. After all he was the one who'd devised this punishment.
Painting a rainbow ...
Dilshad couldn't help but remember that miserable afternoon, more than a year ago, when she and Asad had returned home to see the kitchen in utter disarray. In those days, they lived their lives one bleak day to another"always in the shadow of a sunbeam, in the permanent penumbra of hope. Zoya had popped up suddenly from behind the counter and Dilshad had felt the chill fade. A voice with a thousand giggles had announced that she was baking a cake for her beloved Phuphi who seemed to be having an off day. There was some song and dance routine that Zoya had performed as Dilshad had watched, mesmerized and infinitely grateful.
Her son"who had an off day every day since Ms. Farooqui had entered their lives"had huffed and puffed next to her, stiff with cold annoyance and disapproval, but even then Dilshad's heart had craved this.
Her heart's desperate craving had perhaps willed this into happening.
... Itni shiddat se jo chaaha ... qayanat ne milane ki saazish ki hai ...
She saw Zoya sneak a lick of jam from Asad's finger. He did the chin thing to remind her that Ammi was right there behind them.
"So?" Zoya mouthed. "Remember, we're married!"
He looked at her with a lop-sided smile when she wagged her finger and slanted her eyes at him.
Dilshad ducked her head behind the newspaper to hide her smile. This time she didn't rush to protect them from evil nazars.
Their love was enough for that.
She heard Asad ask her what she'd do today.
"Aapko yaad karungi," Zoya replied with unrepressed snickers.
There was a minute's silence and a knife clattered. Dilshad cleared her throat.
"Umm ... uske baad?" She could hear the merry trace of a smile in her son's voice. How she had hungered for this!
Zoya sighed. "I have to finish making that cellphone app I was working on before---"
They continued to talk softly. Dilshad dropped the newspaper in her lap to steal another look. She just relished watching them from afar. Their growing distance in the past few days had broken her heart. She had bled and prayed for both of them unable to do anything to offer comfort.
"She'll come back," Dilshad had whispered in Asad's ear one forlorn evening as she reached up to kiss his forehead and hug him.
"Take your time. You have every right to heal in your own way," she'd said to Zoya as she had framed her face in her hands.
Zoya had wept bitter tears and a wintry chill had swept through Dilshad. She knew the baby was all right; they'd just been to the doctor. Then what had come between these two?
Kiski nazar lag gayee?
Then yesterday she had heard them shouting at each other and she had finally smiled at the coming thaw. Yes! It was always the fighting that propelled them into each other's arms"it was the necessary foreplay ... and foundation of their relationship. When she had heard the predictable sighs and moans, a blushing Dilshad had raced to close the door to their room softly behind her. Thank god everyone else was upstairs!
She had beamed.
Everything would be MA now.
Thank you, Allah miyan!
She looked across the room to see their heads together as Asad oversaw Zoya's snacking while carefully wiping away stray crumbs from her mouth.
This was so much more than what she could have wished for her son a year ago.
Softly, Dilshad laid her cup down to raise her palms. Soon these palms would be cradling her grandchild; her eyes stung, unable to contain a million fluttering hopes. Because she was no longer afraid of being happy ...
Humaira was back at the Khan house when she wasn't by her mother's side at the hospital. Her father knew and understood that she needed to be with Zoya. Because when she wasn't, guilt snuck up on her, making her cry every now and then.
With Zoya, she smiled and laughed. She could even think of wedding plans and blush at the merciless teasing.
Thank god for the teasing!
It meant that everything was as is"nothing had changed between her and her future sisters-in-law. They didn't hold her mother's crimes against her.
Today was special. She and Aapi were going to be meeting Ayaan's Abbu for the first time since ... that day.
Both the sisters worried about this meeting.
While Zoya didn't want to be the stressor for yet another heart episode, Humaira fretted about going in front of Rashid at all. Ayaan had said that the nikaah was back on, the girls seemed fine too. But what about Shireen, Rashid and Badi bi? Could they ever look past her mother's actions? She wouldn't blame Rashid Phupha if he lashed out at her and threw her out of the house. Humaira cringed. Her Ammi had actually threatened to kill Najma who was barely a year old?
A sob shook her. Oh god, what if this thing was hereditary? What if she did such things? Why were they accepting her in their homes? Into their hearts?
"Humaira?" She fled to the bathroom at Zoya's voice and locked herself in.
"Humaira, don't do this to yourself," Zoya rested her forehead against the door. She could hear her sister trying to muffle her sobs on the other side.
"At least let me hold you," Zoya offered. When Humaira still didn't open the door, she slid down on the floor and leaned against it.
She tried some blackmail.
"Munna, I'm not leaving here till you come out. And pretty soon, you know, it'll start to get uncomfortable for me. I already feel my back hurting."
She heard a loud sniff from inside and smiled to herself. Come on baby girl, she urged her sister silently.
But Humaira still didn't come out.
Zoya smirked and hummed softly. She remembered how Aapi would try to manao her when she got into one of her snits as a kid.
"Phoolon ka taaron ka, sabka kehna hai,
Ek hazaaron mein, meri behna hai.
Saari umar, humein sung rehna hai!" she sang.
"Aapi!" Humaira yanked the door open and crashed into Zoya's waiting arms.
"I can't go! How will I face them?" she wept.
Zoya let her cry knowing that she needed the release. As Humaira's sobs tapered off she kissed her forehead. "Humaira, it's over." She stroked her sister's face. "Let the darkness of the past go. It hurts me to see you torment yourself like this."
"But Aapi! How can Phupha even look at me without thinking of what Ammi made him do to you? And Najma? Oh my god! No, I can't go, I won't!"
Zoya held her hands. "Did you do any of those things?"
"No. But she did it for me didn't she?"
"That doesn't make you part of what happened."
"I wish I had never been born!"
"Humaira!" Zoya cried, in tears now herself. She held her tummy, "don't ever say that!"
Humaira burst into fresh tears when Zoya took her hand and placed it on her stomach. "You were just a new-born then." Zoya soothed her. "Who knows, whether it was post-partum depression, or just"-"
"Don't, Aapi! Don't even try to justify what Ammi did!"
"No, I'm not justifying! Just trying to understand why." Zoya looked away into the distance.
"Listen, that day when I heard Mr. Khan say that terrible word"-" It was Humaira's turn to grip her sister's hand in comfort. "I ... I don't know if this makes any sense. But I felt so vulnerable and fragile. I'm a strong girl, our love for each other is so strong ... I know he was doing it to save me and the baby. But that day I felt as though that word obliterated me ..."
She wiped her tears and took Humaira's face in her hands. "Think of your mom. Whatever that fear was that made her go to such insane lengths ... may be she feared our Abbu would leave her ... I know it doesn't make it right. I know that what she did was still wrong. I wish ... Everyday I wish Ammi was here, with me! But our culture makes it impossible for women to exist without men. Mr. Khan's Ammi was incredibly strong. She also had him, thank god, even though he was just a kid himself! But""
Humaira hugged her hard and they both cried together. She didn't understand her mother's motives nor condone them. But Aapi's words made a terrible kind of sense too. Their father had to shoulder some of the responsibility in this.
And a fierce hope blazed through her, setting her aglow.
"Our parents' wrongs aren't ours," he'd said.
He had talked of the power of love and now it made perfect sense. Her Ammi and Jeeju's Ammi had stood at that awful crossroad that day, eighteen years ago. Her Ammi had chosen the road to damnation ... but Badi Phuphi had chosen grace and dignity. Had the fathers stood a little bit firmer, their spines been a little steelier, then may be the course of their history would have been different"she could have learned to walk holding Aapi's finger like Ayaan had, holding Jeeju's.
"Our generation can be smarter and kinder if we believe in the power of love." Ayaan had said.
And Ayaan would never let something like that happen to her. Just like Jeeju would never ever let anything happen to Aapi. He would take a bullet for her, throw himself on a hand grenade if he had to, but he wouldn't let a single hair on Aapi's head be hurt. And that was the difference between the two generations, wasn't it? And if Ayaan and Jeeju could not be their father, if Aapi could forgive their father and her mother, then couldn't she, Humaira, not be her mother either?
When Zoya raised her head to look at her sister this time, she saw the change.
"You believe now, don't you?" she asked Humaira.
"So you'll come with us, right?"
"Only because you'll be there by my side."
"Forever! Are you serious! You're my go-to baby sitter and diaper-changer-in-chief after all! Saari umar, humein sung rehna hai," she re-sang the song clapping her hands.
"Ek hazaaron mein, meri behna hai," Humaira sang fervently cupping her sister's face.
"Please! Ek hazaaron mein tum hogi. I'm ek laakhon mein!' "
"Aapi!" a shocked Humaira squeaked. "That's so mean!"
"I'm kidding, rondoo kahin ki! Jeez, so sensitive!" She ran away, and Humaira chased after her, laughing for the first time in eons.
Everybody else had gone ahead. Ayaan had insisted on escorting Humaira. He knew she'd be skittish in meeting his Abbu and Ammi. Zoya waited for Asad to get ready so that they could join the party. He'd tried his best to come home early but it hadn't been easy to get away ...
Tomorrow Omar and Najma would leave for Abu Dhabi and in a few days Jeeju, Feroze and Faiz would be gone too. Another few months and Najma and Nikhat would finally leave for the US.
She could already feel herself missing all of them.
Zoya drew in a deep breath of the night Jasmine in the backyard. When Asad came and held her from the back she leaned into his warmth and fragrance.
"You look thoughtful," he murmured.
"I don't want anyone to leave tomorrow, and the day after, or the next!"
Asad chuckled. "If it were up to you, you woudn't let me go to work or let anyone else work either!"
"I'm going to miss Najma so much! I haven't been apart from her for like ... forever!"
"Except when we were on our honeymoon," Asad pointed out shaking his head.
"Or her honeymoon," Zoya added and he frowned.
"I was thinking I would surprise you, but may be this will lift your spirits." Asad showed her two tickets. He knew she was nervous about meeting his Abbu. And that she was nervous for Humaira too.
"Air tickets? To where?" She eagerly grabbed them out of his hand to flip them open.
"To see Jhansi ki rani's shield." Asad told her, hooking a finger under her chin. "And then on to Jhansi of course, to pay tribute to your kickass patron saint and forebear!"
"Really?" she hopped in excitement. "When?"
"Asad, can we also go to Ajmer Sharif now that everything's OK?"
"Sure, but it'll have to be a quick day trip. I can't get away for too long." Asad said, taking her face in his hands and kissing her. "Ab chalein?"
A hush fell in the room when they entered and Zoya skittered to an uncertain stop. Asad's supporting hand at her back braced her.
Shireen was the first one to come up and hug her.
"How are you?" she asked after kissing Zoya's forehead.
"I'm fine, Chhoti Ammi."
"Come," Shireen took her hand and led her and Asad to an inside room where Rashid was sitting in an armchair with his feet propped up. Badi Bi and Dilshad were there too. Shireen closed the door and came to sit by Dilshad's side.
Intuitively Zoya glided up to sit by Rashid's knee. "Hi, Abbu!"
He placed a hand on her head.
"Khush raho," he whispered.
Rashid reached his other hand out to Asad who took it and knelt on his other side. "Abbu, aap theek hain?"
"Tum dono ko dekh liya, now, I'm fine." Rashid thought he would cry inconsolably and not be able to look into Zoya's face. But he found that he couldn't look away from her face.
He took Zoya's hand in his. "Terrible things happened eighteen years ago. I was responsible for giving you so much pain and taking away so much." He squeezed her hand and looked at Asad to grip his hand firmly too. "But Allah brought you two together for a higher purpose"I'm sure, it was to make everything that we did wrong, right."
Rashid's hands slid up to cup their cheeks. "I know that you both have forgiven me even though I am not deserving of it. It'll take me much longer to forgive myself."
There was a knock on the door and Ayaan breezed in dragging a petrified Humaira behind him by the hand.
"Hey guys!" He greeted them all, unable to contain his excitement.
Zoya grinned too. "Don't worry Abbu. Take as long as you want. In fact, Humaira would love to give you company. You both can start a club and have annual competitions: Kaun Karega Khud Ko Kum Maaf!"
Humaira gasped while Ayaan cracked up. Shireen glanced at Rashid nervously as Asad nodded his head in benign approval.
Zoya surged up to put her hands on her waist and announce: "And only the loser of this competition gets to hold my baby!"
"No!" Rashid and Humaira shouted in dismay.
Badi bi started it all. She laughed and snorted till tears rolled down her face.
There were more tears; but far fewer than they'd all imagined. Because the smiles and laughs had been waiting for far too long to stay dormant any more. They burst through, giddily slicing the layers of regret and gloom.
Nuzzhat peeped in from the open door to join in the celebration. Her sisters and Jeejus spilled into the room too. Omar held up his phone. "So should I call for the ambulance, or pizza?"
"Pizza!" Zoya and Ayaan yelled, high-fiving.
The pizzas were promptly ordered despite the moms' threats and pleas not to because there was more than enough homemade food. Badi Bi led Zoya and Asad away to ply her with Zam Zam water after Quran verses were invoked and multiple kala tikas applied to ward off kambakht buri nazars.
"Ek baar humein woh heartbeat ka audio phirse suna do, please," Rashid begged Asad. He had craved that sound and punished himself all these days feeling undeserving of such benediction.
Humaira looked at Ayaan remembering the last time they'd heard the baby's heartbeat together. They'd fought over their wishes and hopes for the baby. It had been just the night before that grisly"-
He gripped her hand tightly.
Asad played the audio to a rapt audience as Humaira's other hand crept up to cup her sister's stomach. Zoya's hand came to rest on hers.
Humaira felt invincible ... unstoppable; she had her lifelines with her now.
Ayaan grinned. "Fine!" he said in her ear. "She'll be an Olympian gold medalist for India! Happy?"
She laughed into his face. "Very! Though now I'm certain that after a long career as an Olympian, she could well be the next Pope!"
Song in title:
Aaja Nachle (2007): "O Re Piya"
Of course it turned into a party once the music started up and the games and dancing began. The sofas and tables were pushed back for an impromptu revival of the sibling dance performances from all the mehendi and sangeet functions of the past. Shoes were kicked up and off, bawdy jokes shared and shushed at.
The family was in a hurry to stamp out the grief and grab on to the cheer"it could have been Eid, birthdays and the new year's celebration all rolled into one.
In each other's arms, slow-dancing to "Tujh mein rab dikhta hai," an unembarrassed Asad bent his head to whisper in Zoya's ear: "Jeeju and Abbu are talking. Looks intense."
A year ago, he wouldn't be caught dead slow-dancing with a woman in front of his family. In front of his sisters! The parents? But now? It became harder and harder to pry Zoya out of his arms.
She swayed lightly with her eyes closed in contentment and arms around his neck. "Let them. It's all good. I'm done worrying about anyone finding out the truth any more."
Asad brushed his lips against her forehead. "True." She was right. It was all good.
She giggled softly and tilted her head back to look into his face, "remember when all this started? You were so serious on our Mehendi night." Zoya put on a mock-serious expression.
" It's about us. My truth, your truth, our truth!' "
Asad smiled. "Yeah, I remember. I had talked to Abbu and Jeeju that day and some crazy mind-melt happened as I connected the dots from eighteen years ago. It was too much of a coincidence. And I was terrified of losing you that night." His arms tightened around her.
She grinned up at him. "You know, Abbu's right. Allah must have brought us together for a reason. And neither you, nor I could do much to stop the head-on collision that was meant to be! Your fears then, my own fears more recently, must be just a reminder to hold on tight to each other and never let go."
Asad looked down into her face. "And never hide our fears from one another." He thumbed her nose, "You know, you can be quite poetic when you're not reciting your world-famous shayari!"
"Mr. Khan! Don't forget it was my world-famous shayari that got you to fall in love with me!"
"Oh really!" he snorted. "Bahut khushfehmi hai aapko. Let me assure you: it definitely wasn't the shayari!"
Zoya pouted prettily. "Then? It was this dimple, right?"
A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. "Getting warmer."
"My karate then!"
Asad laughed and wrapped her tighter in his embrace. "Your grand delusions about your karate, you mean? No, I'm denying it if you tell anyone, but Mrs. Khan, it was that world-class ass."
Zoya laughed too. "I knew it! Aap shakal se hi lecherous dikhte hain! I totally called it when we met the second time."
She slapped his shoulder. "It was the second time when you ran me over and a cartload of flowers fell on me! Pregnant women lose their memory, not their besotted husbands!"
"My memory is razor-sharp no matter how besotted I might be. I meant that I saw you for the third time, then. I'd already seen you at the dargah, remember."
"Hmm," Zoya conceded as she rested her head against his shoulder. She loved to re-hear about the first time he'd seen her.
"Say it Mr. Khan," she'd tease him often. "It was love at first sight."
He would always blush at that and then quickly add: "but not at the second, third and fourth sight!"
That would always earn him an angry, "Allah Miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan!"
"You are what's wrong with me, Mrs. Khan," he'd murmur and be rewarded with that perfectly smug dimple.
Asad knew she was tiring from staying up on her feet for so long. His crazed siblings had insisted on playing "tuney mari entriyaan" at least three times, and Mrs. Khan had danced breathlessly all those three times. When "Galiyaan" and "Samjhawaan" had come on, she'd dragged him in too. "You have to! I love this song!" she'd say with each new song that came on.
He was unable to say no. Why would he? It gave him the perfectly legitimate excuse to hold her.
Asad bumped his nose against hers, "you know, may be it was that ridiculous pepper spray goddess that I fell for. But everything's all right now, Mrs. Khan. And, Allah Miyan knows it too. Chaliye, let's get you seated and put your feet up."
Asad looked down at her feet in high heels"her French-tipped toes twinkled at him. "If we were home, I'd give you a foot rub."
She dimpled up at him for that. She loved the foot rubs that turned into foreplay very quickly. That first slow pinch of her tootsies and her head would fall back as she'd slowly go melty-crazy.
"Why do you even have to wear heels?" Asad muttered not happy with the soreness they led to later.
"Because they make my feet look se*xy! Jeez, why do you think? Pretty soon my ankles will get fat so there's a very small window of cuteness remaining."
"Even fat, your feet will be cute," Asad drawled, smitten.
"Aww, Mr. Khan, you were raised right! But don't ever call me fat again!"
His eyes slitted. "Only if you wear these heels when we make love tonight ... and nothing else!"
Zoya hissed. She let her hair fall over her face to hide her blush as Asad led her to one of the sofas on the balcony. "That's the only reason I wear them, Mr. Khan," she breathed in his ear.
It was his turn to hiss and make her melt.
Anwar and Rashid had met awkwardly tonight. A hand on his mouth to cover up the quivering of his lips, Rashid broke the silence first. He had to clear his throat several times. But looking at Asad and Zoya swaying in each other's arms had given him the much-needed strength.
"Anwar Saheb, I don't know how you can even bear to be in my house and not want to strangle me for what I did to Zoya. Main ta-umr aapka gunehgaar rahunga."
Anwar's eyes prickled. Sometimes just one penitent word said with the right inflection washed away years of resentment. They knew all the grisly truths now. All those truths that Zoya had been yearning for all these years ... seeking a desperate connection to her elusive past.
Thank god, it was all behind them now!
He too looked at Zoya and Asad in the dimmed lighting and felt at peace. Anwar had seen true grace through these two, and nothing else mattered any more.
"Rashid Saheb, I don't know what unspeakable horrors took place here years ago. That day in the factory I could have burned everything down. But when I look at Zoya now and see how happy she is ... when I see how much Asad truly loves her, it makes me want to forget every terrible thing that happened eighteen years ago."
Rashid smiled in gratitude. "Zoya is a breath of fresh air we desperately needed because we were slowly suffocating to death. She brought me closer to my son. Thank you for her. And thank you for accepting us despite"" Rashid couldn't stop himself. "That day at the factory I wished I had died when I found out ... I wished I could saw my hands off for what I did to her."
Anwar placed a hand on his arm to prevent him from further incriminating and torturing himself.
"No, no, it's OK. But I've never felt so selfish in my life, Anwar Saheb. I still wanted to stay alive to see our grandchild, to hold our grandson or granddaughter in these very hands." He looked down at his hands in revulsion. "These hands that have blood on them."
Anwar patted his shoulder in silence. No words or platitudes could help Rashid right now. He had to find his own peace ... at his own pace. But yes, seeing Zoya and Asad together would get him there sooner. And once the baby came ... there would be no looking back.
Asad had taken off his suit jacket for her to shrug into to keep the cold at bay. Feet up on the couch, Zoya watched him and the guys bent over the barbecue grilling food and taking requests. Funny, the smell of fish or frying onions no longer sent her flying to the bathroom to hug her porcelain buddy.
People were right about the second trimester!
Humaira came and crashed next to her. She massaged Zoya's back knowing that her lower back got a little sore these days. Soon Najma and Nikhat cozied up with them too. Nuzzhat brought over a soft blanket and they all snuggled under it.
Najma was similarly enchanted by the sight of the guys at the grill. "Wow, who'd have thought that we'd be sitting and the men would be cooking!"
"I know," Nikhat mused. "I've never seen Abbu in the kitchen."
Najma's smile slipped and Zoya held her hand quietly. Humaira was going to agree with Nikhat Baaji, but then she realized how Najma and her Aapi must have felt after hearing that. They didn't have their Abbus living with them, let alone have the luxiry to complain about them being absent from the kitchen.
"It's our generation, guys! We're faster, better and smarter!" she said fervently. It was true after all, and it was a pleasure to see both Aapi and Najma beam.
Zoya laughed to shake off the momentary gloom. "Girls don't get too comfortable with this sight. They really don't cook in the kitchen. It's the occasional outdoor barbecue that makes them crack open the aprons and the grilling tongs! It's manlier!"
"After the women have spent hours in the kitchen marinating stuff and making the chutneys and chopping up the garnishes, right Bhabhi?" Nuzzhat snorted.
"Hey, that's not fair," Anwar interjected as he sat down near them. "Zoya you know I'm handy in the kitchen too!"
"Sorry, sorry, yes Jeeju you're right. My bad. Girls, some men do work in the kitchen as well! Jeeju's kababs and biryani are the best!"
"But Jeeju, the mess you leave the kitchen in? Uska kya?"
"Arre, you have to make them clean that too," Feroze's mom added as she plonked herself down to join in some male-bashing too.
"Naz aunty, both my Jeejus are excellent at this stuff. You and Hana aunty did good!" Nuzzhat gushed.
"Oh yes, we had to make sure that our husband's bad training by their moms was not passed on! They don't come out like this from a box! Train karna padta hai! And boys just need to know how to cook. It's the 21st century after all."
"Seriously, right! I wish Ammi had done that with Ayaan Bhaijaan." Nuzzhat raised her voice dramatically. "But no, he was only born to eat!"
"Hey, I heard that!" Ayaan shouted. "And with so many good cooks, you need someone to appreciate all the good food"woh mera kaam hai! You guys should be paying me! After all I'm providing the entertainment!" And he strummed his guitar with a flourish.
"Besides, Bhaijaan doesn't cook either!" Ayaan retorted. Asad slapped him upside his head and pointed to the chicken legs he was grilling.
Zoya wagged her finger at her favorite devar. "He's making an effort though. Just this morning your Bhaijaan made bread and jam for me!" She didn't miss Asad blush and duck his head.
"So Raaburt, looks like you're the only useless male left standing!"
Nuzzhat clasped Humaira's hand. "Humaira Baaji, you've got your work cut out for you!"
"But Nuzzhat," Naz winked at the others. The girls giggled. "I've trained both my sons to be experts in cooking and cleaning, not just Feroze!"
"That's great aunty!" Nuzzhat was smart enough to re-play this game as a seasoned pro. "Your other bahu will be eternally grateful too! But I'm sure you taught your sons to cook so that your serial wali bahus wouldn't poison you like a typical soap saas deserves!"
"Nuzzhat!" Nikhat yelped, horrified. "How can you talk like that to Ammi? Say sorry right now!"
But Naz was laughing too hard and waved away all apologies. She loved locking horns with Nuzzhat who gave back as good as she got. Since Feroze's wedding she'd been ribbing the girl non-stop by pairing her up with Faiz at every meeting. The first time Nuzzhat had turned red and run. But ever since, she'd stood her ground, stuck out a hip and sassed her aunty right back.
And Naz loved it!
Nikhat was the sweetest thing, and just the perfect angel for her Feroze. But Nuzzhat"? Nuzzhat was a firecracker. She'd be perfect for her Faiz. If only she could convince this girl though. She was turning out to be a hard nut to crack. But no one could stop Naz from getting what she wanted. It wasn't a matter of if,' it was just a matter of when.' She would let Nuzzhat and Faiz think that she'd given up on ever seeing them together. And just when they relaxed their guard, Bam! she'd bulldoze her way right through.
Idiots! Mujh se punga lete hain.
As Hana joined them all in her shawl, she saw the glint in her sister's eye and sighed. Ya Allah, here we go again!
She grinned up fondly at her son as he brought over a platter of sizzling goodies for everyone to dig into.
"Yum!" Zoya slurped. "Omar, this is to die for!" Her cohorts heartily agreed.
"Hey girls, go easy will ya!" Omar joked. "We're not robots at an assembly line you know!"
"Omar, shut up and get us more chutney," his aunt ordered.
"Ji Khala!" he answered obediently as the girls giggled. They had never seen anyone shut up Omar so effectively.
Nuzzhat loved Naz aunty"she was so badass! If only she didn't keep bringing up Faiz each time. It was beyond embarrassing. Her Ammi would get starry-eyed and Faiz would wink at her, unashamed. If these guys didn't shape up soon she'd have to sic Asad Bhaijaan on all of them. As it is she was sick of Ammi constantly telling her to go get her brows done or to start wearing contact lenses. Really? When she wanted contacts in the twelfth grade, everyone told her to stick to wearing glasses"don't look too pretty or you'll attract unwanted male attention"was the typical Indian logic. But now that there was an eligible bachelor within a five-mile radius, Bam! everyone was giving her beauty tips!
Dilshad and Zoya cried after seeing Omar and Najma off at the airport the following morning. On the way back Asad tried his best to cheer them up. "They'll be back for Ayaan and Humaira's nikaah," he reminded them for the third time.
"But Najma will miss out on all the dance practices and shopping!" Zoya pouted tearfully.
"I thought you were going to skype her and teach her all the steps."
Zoya frowned at him. "Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan! Ammi and I want to be miserable right now, so stop trying to cheer us up. We want to wallow and feel sorry for ourselves"it's our party and we'll cry if we want to! Don't rain on our parade, right Ammi?"
Dilshad smiled. "Yes Asad. I can't be expected to bounce back twenty minutes after my daughter's departure. I need to miss her a little longer."
"See?" Zoya stuck her tongue out at Asad.
He shook his head. This didn't make sense to him at all. All his life he had rushed to make things right for his mother, not letting a single tear of hers fall to the ground. Seeing her wallow in grief was against his life principle. And yet Ammi had actually smiled when Zoya agreed with her about wanting to feel sorry for themselves? What alternative universe was this where you wanted to prolong the gloom?
But looking at Zoya gave him his answer.
She covered his hand on the gearshift. She knew he was thinking of Najma too and her departure for the US much later. She knew too that he was valiantly covering up and trying to get them to smile instead.
Her Akdu was a total softy!
After they'd dropped Dilshad off at home, Zoya leaned over to peck his cheek. "I know you miss her too. It's OK to feel miserable, Mr. Khan," she whispered.
"Girls shouldn't get married and move so far away from their families," he muttered mutinously.
Zoya's eyes teared up again. "But it's OK if they do and they're deliriously happy, right?"
"Aw baby I didn't mean that!" Asad said in belated remorse. She had left her family far behind for him too. He covered her hand this time and lifted it to his lips. "Their husbands better make up for it by keeping them deliriously happy! It's their lifelong responsibility!"
Zoya felt too overwrought to respond with a sassy comeback. But she nearly burst into tears when Asad leaned over and whispered, "thank you loving my family even more than me!"
"My family too, remember?" and he couldn't resist kissing her.
"Are you ready to go?" He asked with concern.
Zoya sighed and leaned back in the carseat. "As ready as I'll ever be. Let's do this."
Asad started the car and pulled out from the driveway. They were headed to the hospital where the doctors were doing some final tests on Raziya. If she didn't show any response, the family would have to make a painful decision ...
Both Siddiqui and Humaira had told her to stay away; she didn't need to be here. But Zoya had insisted and Asad hadn't protested the least bit. She wanted to be there for Humaira and her Abbu, and he just wanted to be there for her"it was as simple as that. So what if a meeting had to be rescheduled. This was more important.
Everyone else was here too. Wild horses wouldn't have kept Ayaan away. Nuzzhat and Nikhat were present with Feroze in tow.
They all talked in scared whispers.
When the doctor came out of the room they knew that the news wasn't good. Hearts heavy, they streamed into the room to see a distraught Humaira weeping in Ayaan's arms. Slouched in the chair, Siddiqui Saheb looked nerveless and crushed. Zoya dashed to hold him from the back and massage his shoulders.
"Abbu!" She pressed her cheek to his head.
He rose to hug Zoya and offer her his chair. "May be this is the right thing to do," he whispered in her hair. "It'll give us closure. She took away too much. Shayad Allah ko yahi manzoor hai."
"No Abbu, don't say that!" Zoya sobbed. "I would never want Humaira to be motherless. And Aunty saved my life many times. I wish we didn't have to do this. I wish we could be as happy as we were before."
The nurse came in and Humaira fell into Zoya's arms.
She thought she'd be ready to let go. My Ammi for yours, she'd pledged to herself. But now her hands shook. She wouldn't be able to do it. She wanted her Ammi to be alive, to see her nikaah.
But suddenly Humaria felt ashamed for being so selfish; she should be lashed for her thought-crimes! Wouldn't Aapi have wanted her Ammi to be at her nikaah? And hadn't her mother deprived Aapi of all those joys ...
The nurse tried to say something. Asad intercepted and herded her away. Zoya watched him nod grimly as the nurse spoke softly. They heard snatches of abstract words: "hypothermia ... bradycardia ..."
Asad returned to gently disengage Zoya and Humaira, and led them to Raziya's bedside. Humaira clung to his arm. "Jeeju, no!" she whimpered.
"Shh," he soothed her. "Everything will be OK, trust me," Asad said as he sat her down on the bed. He pulled up Siddiqui Saheb's chair for Zoya to sit on.
"Humaira, talk to her." Asad urged his sister-law. Zoya took the cue from him and took Raziya's hand and put it in Humaira's. She covered their joined hands with her own.
"Humaira, may be she needs to hear your voice. She needs to hear you forgive her," Zoya cajoled her.
Ayaan gripped Humaira's other hand and she leaned into him, still weeping.
Ayaan looked at Zoya, his own eyes moist. "She thinks that by forgiving her Ammi she's being disloyal to you," he interpreted Humaira's distress in a low voice.
"No, Humaira!" Zoya gasped. "Oh my god, no! I can't bear to see you tear yourself in two like this. You have to let go. For me, please."
Humaira shook her head and continued to cry. She pulled her hand from her mother's and hid her face in her hands.
Zoya gripped Raziya's hand tight in both of hers. It felt dry and limp. She massaged it into warmth and placed it on her swelling belly. Siddiqui pressed his hand on her shoulder.
Zoya's soft voice rose up and charged the room. "Aunty, you saved my baby. Thank you."
Humaira cried out and tried to yank Raziya's hand away from Zoya. But Zoya held firm and grabbed Humaira's hand to cup over her mother's.
Humaira went still; she stopped struggling.
Zoya continued, "Aunty I know you watched over me. Eighteen years ago you did it all for Humaira. But this time you did it for me. I know it." Zoya fingered the taawiz at her throat with her other hand. "You protected me and the baby as if we were your own."
Humaira was weeping hysterically and slowly slid to the floor by Zoya's knee. "Aapi," she sobbed.
Zoya looked down at Humaira through her tears. "I want to forget what happened eighteen years ago. But you're holding on to it too tight. I want to remember your mother's more recent actions"a madwoman would have killed us all, but your mother stepped in front of us like a raging lioness protecting her cubs. She wanted us to tell you the truth, Humaira! But Mr. Khan and I didn't want everyone to know ... we didn't want you to know. She kept telling us that you all needed to know because coming from Tanveer's mouth it would be so much worse. But""
She now understood Asad's point about girls knowing their histories to be masters of their destinies. She herself had come to India seeking the truth of her own history. Then why hadn't they told"?
"I know we were wrong to keep the truth from you. I wish we had listened to your Ammi then ... She even wanted us to tell the police, to go to jail for her crimes ... But we just wanted to protect you."
Zoya tucked a finger under Humaira's chin nudging her to look up at her. "She surrendered you to me saying that you are my baby too. That my blood runs through you now."
Ayaan knelt to hug Humaira who still shook from the sobs.
Zoya blindly reached for Asad's hand. "Mr. Khan," she whispered. "Play the audio of the baby's heartbeat."
And the baby's heartbeat boomed and bounced in the room.
It chirruped and chugged.
It galloped to taunt the artificial beeps from the ECG machine urging them to catch up and beat in sync.
Zoya cupped Humaira's cheek, "you hear that?" Humaira nodded. "Your mom made that happen. Forgive her." Zoya pleaded.
"Ammi!" Humaira cried out finally letting her restless demons go.
Her hand tightened on Zoya's stomach over her mother's. "Thank you for looking out for Aapi's baby. Thank you for this sound ... Ammi!" Humaira paused, listening intently to the merry rat-tat-tatting of the baby's heart.
Zoya bent to hug her in gratitude as she waited.
Her face fell and lower lip stuck out when nothing happened. No quickened beeps from the ECG machine, no happy spikes on the monitor ...
She really wanted to believe in the miracle of forgiveness and the power of the baby's heart rate. Zoya was sure that Asad believed the same and that is why he had engineered this bedside tableau.
The baby's heartbeat faded.
"Mr. Khan, play it again," she whispered. She wanted to hear her child's brash hope and embryonic sass once again.
Zoya closed her eyes to let the buoyant drumbeats percuss through her being as Asad replayed the audio. He held her hand and lifted it to his lips. That's when she felt a fleeting flutter.
A twitch ... a jerk ... and a spasming on her stomach.
Zoya giggled. She felt Asad's lips curl knowingly in the palm of her hand.
As they drove back home, Zoya dozed next to him. It was as if performing miracles was too draining for her and the baby. Asad grinned, immensely proud of his tiny family. But if word spread of their healing powers, he'd have to start selling tickets!
She woke up blearily when he lifted her in his arms to carry her inside. "Mr. Khan, I can walk! And the doctor told you, no heavy lifting!"
"I thought you weren't fat," he joked.
She was drowsy, not dead. Zoya yanked his ear, "I'm not!"
He shushed her as he rang the doorbell and whisked her to their room once Dilshad let them in.
Tucking her in, Asad thumbed her lips. "Rest now. When I come back, I might have a surprise for you."
She resisted the cloak of sleep even as it tried to overpower her. "What? When?"
"Later. Now get your beauty sleep."
"I don't need any beauty sleep," she mumbled even as she turned over and curled up to be more cozy in the bed. Dobby glided up to sniff her nose and give her a onceover, and then went back to dozing, satisfied with his feline diagnosis.
"Asad?" Zoya called out softly as he was about to leave.
"Thank you for taking care of my family."
She was already asleep by the time he whispered, "hey, my family too, remember?"
"Did everything go OK? How's Raziya Bi?" Dilshad asked him as Asad closed the bedroom door softly behind him.
He grinned. "They are doing more brain scans and EEGs but I think she's going to be fine. Has your bahu's jadoo ever failed before?"
Dilshad laughed in relief and pride.
She framed his face in her hands. "I've never doubted her for a second! But you on the other hand? Always doubting. Twenty four-seven, you were nothing but rude and Akdu to her! Woh bhi, for months! Pata hai, Zoya used to say, Phuphi, Mr. Khan has two factory-installed settings: mujh par dahadte hain, ya gurrate hain.' "
Asad had the grace to blush. He certainly wasn't going to tell his mother that he had already fallen for Phuphi's Ms. Farooqui"hook, line and sinker"and that most of the dahadna and gurrana was just camouflage.
Though there were those hundreds of times when he was genuinely furious.
Asad paused, pensive ... Zoya was right.
He did have a bitterly volatile temper those days.
And although he hadn't been able to scare or silence her then, it had scared her silent now, after he'd said that terrible word"
"Har waqt uss bechari ke peeche pade rehte thay tum!" Dilshad continued to reminisce fondly.
"I know, I know," Dilshad smirked knowingly holding up her hands. She repeated his pet phrase from those days: "Woh bechari nahin hain!"
Dilshad continued to smile as she walked him out to the main door. "I still remember when both of you came to me individually, to advise me that the other person needed a psychiatrist because of a serious mental disorder! Yaad hai?"
He did remember that. Asad laughed, not the least bit embarrassed. It was around the same time when Zoya had decided that he was depressed and even barged into his room with therapeutic packets of green tea and dark chocolate. The woman's love for taking on pity projects and "fixing" things was legendary ... and obviously hard-wired into her DNA.
"Aap ro rahen hain?" she had asked seeing him wipe his face with a towel.
Now which reasonable person would not lose their temper at such insane deductions and interruptions?
Yes, they both needed therapy! Or at least he did, for his anger management.
He grinned; turns out, Ms. Farooqui was the best therapy the doctor could have ordered!
"Aapi, the doctors are saying that Ammi's showing signs of cognitive recovery. She squeezed my hand like she squeezed yours this afternoon!" Humaira gushed over the phone to Zoya.
"That's awesome!" Zoya replied. "I'm so happy for you! But it's late. Why haven't you come home as yet?"
"That's why I called. I'm spending the night here so Abbu can go home tonight."
Zoya sighed as she hung up. She was getting bored. Asad was working late again and Najma wasn't here. Dilshad had turned in for the night after an early dinner and so had Jeeju who had work emails to wade through.
She'd already chatted with Aapi in New York.
Now what? She didn't feel like working on the college curriculum design or the apps that she was fine-tuning.
"I'm missing you," Zoya texted Asad. "This is turning out to be a lousy surprise, Mr. Khan!"
She heard the car in the driveway and ran to get the door. Her complaints died on her lips. She was going to dump her boredom and irritation on him, but Asad looked beat.
"Hi!" Zoya smiled at him before hugging him.
Asad sighed, breathing in her scent. "Mmm" he hummed. "God, I needed this so bad."
"So late!" she couldn't resist pouting even as she nuzzled the crook of his neck.
"I almost got out an hour ago but""
"But stuff came up."
"Hmm," he rumbled.
"I could give you a massage after dinner?" Zoya suggested as she ran her hands over his shoulders feeling for kinks and knots at the base of his neck.
"No, surprise after dinner!" Asad called out over his shoulder as he went to freshen up.
"It can wait," his dutiful wife responded primly but he waved her words away. She was dying of curiosity and he knew it.
"Zoya, you didn't have to wait for me! You have to eat at the right time." Asad chided her as they sat down to eat.
"I had salad and dal with Ammi and Jeeju. You know I'm not the kind of person to starve myself waiting for her husband!" she joked.
"Of course," he muttered. "What was I thinking?"
"Aha! So you did want me to wait for you and starve myself!"
Asad slapped his forehead. Damned if you do, and damned if you don't!
"No, I like your way better. Eat a little with them, and then more with me."
Zoya beamed at him. "Aww, tell me you'll like my ways even twenty years from now!"
"Twenty years from now, I probably won't have anything left to say. I'll be a mute joru ka ghulam ... an aging Doberman on a leash!"
But her eyes glittered and she giggled.
"What?" Asad asked warily; his own eyes narrowed.
"Nothing. I'm just imagining you in a dog collar and on my leash ... and nothing else!"
"And what are you wearing in this fantasy?" Her joru ka ghulam asked, intrigued by the possibilities of this cosplay.
Zoya walked up behind his chair and leaned in to breathe into his ear, "A little leather ... " She nipped his ear before whispering, "and a lotta ... thigh-high ... sky-high ... fu*ck-me boots!"
He spluttered and groaned, but then Asad's eyes popped wide open in alarm.
"And where are the kids during all this?"
Zoya frowned at him for ruining the moment. "They're either away at college, or in the US with their Najma Phuphi, sheesh!"
Asad had coaxed her to sit in the backyard to await her surprise. She was bursting at the seams imagining all kinds of spicy and saucy delights. But her face creased into a smile when Asad tapped her shoulder and slid in a plate under her nose.
"Blueberry cheesecake!" Zoya yelped in delight.
She couldn't resist: "Arz kiya hai!"
A year ago, any time he heard this preface to her disastrous shayari, he would groan and roll his eyes or grind his teeth.
Funny, how now it no longer grated on his nerves. In fact, a part of him was always curious to find out how she would mangle good poetry this time around.
She didn't disappoint him!
"Kabhi shola, kabhi shabnam,
Kabhi real, kabhi fake!
Kabhi hasaayen, kabhi rulayen,
Aur kabhi khilayen yeh blueberry cheesecake!"
"Babe, nothing's fake, it's all real! But I know you were craving cheesecake since last week, so I thought I'd surprise you."
Mouth full, eyes big as saucers, Zoya stared at him. She swallowed audibly. "This is the surprise?"
Asad co*cked his head to the side, "you don't like it?"
Her gaze lowered. She took another bite of the cheesecake. "I love it." Zoya said softly.
"But you thought there'd be something more, something grander, possibly more dramatic and filmy?"
"Umm ... voh ... actually ..." At his suppressed snort she retorted, "well yeah, kinda!"
"I think I've spoiled you too much," Asad muttered with his arms crossed across his chest.
Zoya put the plate down on a side table and her fists on her waist, "yes Mr. Khan, it looks like you might have!"
He glared at her.
"Aww, poor baby." She pulled his arm loose and pushed Asad down on the couch. Climbing into his lap, she spooned a bite of the cheesecake into his reluctant mouth.
"No matter how small or big your surprises, I'll always love them. But I will admit it, I was a teeny-weeny bit disappointed. You really have spoiled me rotten, you know? It's all your fault!"
Before he could open his mouth and utter another word, she dipped a finger in the cheesecake and popped the sinful confectionery into his mouth. He sucked her finger and she felt a mighty, melty tug and clench between her legs. Zoya returned the favor with a slow kiss guaranteed to burn him up.
When he could catch his breath Asad pressed his forehead against hers. He smiled and nodded when she asked: "please tell me there's more where this cheesecake came from so that we can role-play tonight?"
Asad kissed her nose. "What are we playing tonight?"
"The pastry chef and customer get locked in the bakery overnight."
He waggled his brows, "so, creampie tonight?"
She gasped. "Asad you are so bad!" Zoya covered her flaming face, ready to flee inside.
Laughing, he tugged her hands off. "Look at me."
She shook her head no.
"Please," he begged and when she raised her eyes to his, Zoya's jaw dropped.
Asad was on his knee, sporting a cheeky smile and holding up a ring.
"You couldn't possibly think that it'd just be the cheesecake! I have a reputation to uphold after all!"
"But, what is this? Why?" Zoya asked through suddenly prickling eyes. So not fair! He could make her blush like a schoolgirl one second and turn her into a soppy mess the other.
Asad took her hand in his and kissed her bare ring finger. "No way are you wandering around without my ring on your finger! You're mine, and I want the world to know it too."
"Your bun in the oven doesn't count?" Zoya sassed.
Asad gazed long at her through hooded eyes and she blushed again at the se*xed-up, mixed-up bakery metaphors.
He ran a knuckle along her cheek and jaw.
"Mrs. Khan, I can't believe that blueberry cheesecake would have you blushing like a bride. I should bring some home more often!"
"May be you should," she said softly, her eyes luminous.
He showed her the inscription on the ring: Qubool hai. The two "o's" intertwined like wedding rings.
"Asad," Zoya sighed and melted into him. "You're going to make me cry all over again!"
He lifted her face to suck her tears away, "since you're already crying, how about I sneak in wish #4 on that husband's to-do list of yours?"
Asad turned her around and covered her eyes.
She looked up at the sky when he removed his hand.
It was good enough for her that he remembered the wish list. But of course, her Jahanpanah didn't do things half-way. He had to top his own reputation of being the Jahanpanah of surprises!
"I was a silly girl who knew nothing when I made that list. Who needs the moon, I got you!" Zoya sniffed when he slipped the ring on her finger. "Because when it was dark, you always carried the sun in your hand for me' "
He lifted her up and carried her to their room.
Later that night, smack dab in the middle of their bakery tryst, when love-suffused sugared fantasies were being fulfilled and passion-whipped caramelized promises being kept, Asad yanked her head back by her hair to breathe roughly into her ear: "no way are the kids going to the US without us!" His tongue swirled her glazed skin.
"Asaaddd!" She clamped tightly around him and came.
Song in Title:
Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008): "Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai"
"You know, they call it the honeymoon trimester," Zoya said as she traced circles on his chest.
"Why? Because the nausea stopped?" Asad wondered as his thumb explored the small of her back.
"That, and because ... umm ... I could be more sensitive in just the right places so ... se*x'll more fun!"
"More sensitive than usual?" he leered.
She blushed but retorted: "and more fun than usual!"
"Perfect!" Asad rolled her on her back and kissed her rounding stomach. "Do you feel any flutters? The book said the kicks might come around the fifth month. I can't wait."
He continued to rain soft kisses on her stomach. "It's not fair," he grumbled. Asad spoke directly to her stomach. "Why can't dads-to-be get to feel the baby grow and move too?"
"Aw, honey ... as much as I'd like that, I love these 7 packs too much!"
Asad blew a raspberry on her stomach and she giggled at the tickle. "You, Mrs. Khan, are incorrigible! Mad-hatter, hard-core, super-bad, incorrigible!"
"And you love me more for it!"
"True," Asad sighed in surrender.
Zoya couldn't resist running her fingers over the ring again or recall how he'd punked her just a little while ago.
"Asad, when did you get this?" she asked, more serious now.
"I got it the day after ... you know, when we came back home from the hospital""
"Asad, I'm so sorry!" she gasped, feeling terrible once again for shutting down on him for so many dark days.
He kissed her. "Don't be. I didn't understand the depths of your fears then. That's why I got the inscription done later. After we'd made up. Do you like it?"
"I love it, it's beautiful!" She held her hand away to admire the ring. "And the inscription is MA. Just perfect! You're getting really good at this surprise thingy, you know?"
Asad kissed her finger over the ring. "I didn't want to give you the same ring that she'd ruined. I wanted this one to be a new start ... to mean something more special."
"To be our forever ring?"
Asad smiled in the dark as he settled back against his pillow. "Yes ... our forever ring ..."
"With blueberries on top?"
He didn't say anything.
"Asad?" she whispered.
No answering "hmm," just a soft and even breathing.
Aw! He'd fallen asleep, so knackered out was he from a long day of being her super hero--carrying the sun and getting the moon for her. She'd at least had an afternoon nap, which is why she was wide awake.
Zoya slid out of bed, dressed, and softly crept to the living room with the iPad tucked under the arm.
"Shh, Daddy's sleeping" she shushed Dobby when he stretched and meowed in protest for being left behind.
She'd brought along the baby book that Aapi had sent and flipped through it now after fixing a cup of hot chocolate for herself. Dobby begged for some too so he got some warm milk--minus the chocolate.
"No chocolate for you, Mister!" she mock-scolded him. Zoya rapped his nose playfully, "it'll kill ya, ya know?"
But Asad would kill her instead--she'd let the little furry moocher jump up on the counter--something she did on a regular basis behind the Jahanpanah's back.
The baby book had got her started on her new project--or set of new projects. The pages on "All About Mom and Dad" had been fun to fill out with Asad in the quiet evenings after dinner.
She ran her hand over his handwriting in the section describing her.
She loved re-reading this part.
"Your Ammi will be your biggest fan, accomplice, co-conspirator, therapist, cheerleader and advocate. I'm jealous that you'll love her more than me because she is fun, spontaneous, and the goddess of eternal mischief. She'll make you laugh and smile for no reason ... I'm sure you both will conspire against me and break all the rules I set. You'll eat junk food and sneak in food on the bed. There'll be crumbs ... and then the ants will come ... and I'll yell.
And you both will roll your eyes behind my back."
But I'm also sure that your friends will find her really 'cool' and 'chill' and will want to hang out at our house for just that reason. Why not? Our house will also be the headquarters of junk food and bad music.
P.S. Beware her shayari! (May be that'll keep your friends away.)"
P.P.S. No matter what she says, she really does not know any karate. (Her so-called battle moves are a mish-mash of terrible action films.)
P.P.P.S. No jumping in the bed."
Zoya laughed. Like he'd ever be able to enforce that last one!
She flipped through the book browsing through Asad's letters to the baby that she'd tucked in here. She re-read what she'd written about Asad under "All About Dad."
"Your Abbu is MA! I know he'll be your hero (he's mine too!). He's spoilt me rotten and I worry how terribly he may spoil you. You may turn out to be Akdu Ahmed Khan ka baap! I can't wait to meet you in person. We'll have so much fun even though your Abbu will try his best to be all stern and strict and do his military commander on crack routine.
But the trick with him is to flash your dimple at him--he caves in like melted butter. You will have dimples, won't you?
"He'll teach you how to play cricket and the guitar, and paint your toenails if you're a girl--he makes the best pony tails already--you can thank me later! He'll make sure you eat healthy to make up for all the junk food I'll ply you with. But he'll make pizza for us for Sehri and crustless bread and jam sandwiches! Of course they'll be perfect."
"Your Abbu will beat up all bad guys who try to hurt you--your Chachu calls him Mukka Ahmed Khan!' He'll chase away all monsters and nightmares, and read bedtime stories each night. He'll pluck the stars and the moon and the sun for you--he's had good practice. Again, you can thank me later."
"P.S. You'll break your Abbu's rules for sure--there'll be curfews and you'll be given time-outs and grounded for all kinds of offenses. But no matter what stunts you pull, or what trouble you get into, we will always, ALWAYS be there for you."
They both had teared up slightly as Zoya had written this. One day, may be, they'd have some difficult conversations with their children about their own childhoods and those crushed feelings of growing up with absent fathers ...
But for now it was enough to know that they could redo a fantasy childhood through their baby.
Yes, this baby would be spoilt rotten, and not just by the multiple sets of doting grandparents. No, this child would be spoiled by parents craving to wipe out the daily childhood tears shed into forlorn pillows as their lips had moved soundlessly--begging for answers ... praying for impossible reunions.
"P.P.S. I hope you won't ever be afraid to confide in us. I can't wait to meet you!!! And hold you in my arms. I'm dying to see your tiny fist curled tight around your Abbu's finger," she'd added at the bottom of the page.
Because she had run out of room on the page, Zoya had tucked in pieces of paper with additional notes. So ironic! Asad's side of the page looked so messy and hers so pristine ...
She ran her hand over her stomach protectively as she read one of those notes now:
"P.P.S. Part II: We listen to your heartbeat everyday, whenever, and as often as we can. Your Dadu says that hearing it makes his world pure, and whole ... and right. Your Anwar Nanu says your heartbeat is our family's lifeblood ... the artery that squeezes America and India a little tighter together. Your Dadis and Nanis don't say much when they hear your heartbeat. But they just get this happy glimmer in their wet eyes as they hug themselves tight and I know they can't wait to get their hands on you."
Zoya yawned. It was contagious; Dobby joined in too.
When she crawled back into bed she snuggled up against her husband's back. She didn't know whose heartbeat she could hear pumping in her ears, but the steady rhythm lulled her into a deep sleep.
She dreamt of a tiny dimpled fist clutched in Asad's firm hand.
"Tada!" With a flourish, Ayaan uncovered the dish he was holding.
The girls peered over his shoulders to see what all the fuss was about.
All day long there had been a lot of harum-scarum boasts of a super surprise and how, once and for all, Ayaan, the master chef, was going to shut up all his critics. He still hadn't forgotten, nor forgiven, the estrogen-laced attack on him from a few nights ago.
There was flurried back and forth between the kitchen and living room and the main door swung on its hinges each time servants were dispatched to the market for mysterious ingredients.
"Do we have nutmeg?" he yelled from the kitchen an hour ago.
"What's nutmeg?" Shireen wanted to know from the girls.
Zoya tapped on her iPad. "umm, something called 'jaiphal' in Hindi."
"Oh, voh! Second drawer mein rakha hai beta, next to the zafraan," a doting mom assisted from the sidelines.
Everyone was barred from entering the kitchen at Rashid's house and asked to assemble in the living room instead. Zoya and Humaira had been invited as guests of honor.
With every clatter and crash, Shireen had jumped up and down like a rewound Jack in the box. With every groan and curse she'd called out, "Ya Allahs," and "hayee mera bachcha" only a thousand times by now.
Dadi sat placidly clicking and sliding prayer beads between her restless fingers. She wanted front row seats to the show that was unfolding--this was so much better than those soap operas on TV. But all the helter-skelter was also making her head spin a bit.
Rashid watched too--soaking up the beams of merriment and balm of cheer. He wouldn't mind giving up another twenty years of his life ... for this.
"Wow, Bhaijaan," Nuzzhat remarked as she looked over his shoulder. "That looks half-decent. What is it though? And is it supposed to crater in the middle like that?"
"Shut up, oye!" Ayaan barked. "Bandar kya jaane adrak ka swaad!"
"Ayaan," Rashid scolded half-heartedly. "Stop calling your sister a bandar."
"Sorry Abbu, I meant bandariya. My bad!"
Nuzzhat elbowed him. "Yeah Abbu, only bandar Bhaijaan knows this adrak ka swaad, I bet," she snorted.
"Nuzzhat!" Shireen scolded. "Stop bugging him. Bechara, my Ayaan!"
"Please Ammi, khuda ke vaste, you know woh bechare nahin hain!"
"Chuppp!" Shireen's eyes blazed in her son's defense. "My baby, he worked so hard and you girls are being like some picky judges on a top chef show!" She looked at the dish from many angles. "But Ayaan, beta what is that?"
"Ammi, it's an apple pie! Mona darling, I heard you say you were craving some."
"Umm, yeah I did say that," she looked at the thing suspiciously and sniffed the air doing a mental facepalm. "It smells pretty good, Raabert. Though it looks kinda beat up. But I'm sure it tastes MA!" She announced with fake bravado when she saw his face fall.
"Here then, have some!" Ayaan shoved a spoon into her hand.
Zoya speared the crust with a silent prayer and tried to scoop out the filling. It was just a little bit runny. She took a tentative bite.
"Hey! Not bad. Not bad at all!"
The girls pounced on it too. But after their first bites they made faces. "Is this the famed apple pie that Americans go on about," Nikhat asked with dismay.
"Why's it so soupy?" Humaira asked.
"And lumpy!" Nuzzhat added.
Shireen frowned but wasn't brave enough to taste the pie herself.
"Girls!" Zoya frowned too. "Stop being so judgemental OK? God, you guys are so mean!"
Shireen nodded her head in vigorous agreement.
"Ye--s, the filling is supposed to be firmer, but I love the crust! And Raabert you did awesome! The crust is the hardest thing to get so flaky. Thank you so much for doing this for me! You're the sweetest bandar I know. Even the bandar that kicked you in Agra would approve!"
Everyone laughed. Everyone knew that story as if they had been there thesmselves, such visual details had Zoya and Najma provided in the repeated retellings. Zoya still loved looking at the pictures Dilshad had taken right after that moment. It was that perfect moment permanently frozen in time when both she and Asad had forgotten their pain for a fraction of a second, and laughed, dil khol ke, at Ayaan's expense.
Thank you, Raaburt!
Zoya took the pan from Ayaan's hands and plonked herself down on the dining table to satisfy her cravings for long-missed American food. When the other girls tried to get another bite she fended them off with her elbows. "Hey, I thought you guys didn't like it!"
"Zoya Bhabhi, if I'm to go to America in a few months, I need to understand the local cuisine. Feroze keeps sighing about pumpkin and apple pie too. May be after a few bites I'll develop a taste."
"Good answer," Zoya pronounced as she allowed Nikhat to share. But she glared at Nuzzhat and Humaira and wagged her fork at them for not being believers.
"Actually, the crust is pretty good ..." Nikhat said between bites.
Ayaan glowed and sat himself down to tuck into the pie too. Humaira and Nuzzhat's sheepish hands were slapped away. Though finally the chef of the day did relent to let them pick off his plate.
" ... I'm not crazy about the goopy stuff though." Nikhat added and Ayaan tossed his hair back in annoyance.
"Guys, you know what makes apple pie really good?" Zoya interrupted before any sibling battles could flare up. "A la mode! Raaburt, please tell me you stocked up on vanilla ice cream!"
And Wajid was dispatched yet again to the supermarket.
"Humaira?" Her voice was still weak.
Raziya had woken up expecting to battle live demons. Her memory had come gushing and spurting back and so had the horror and guilt. She had expected to open her eyes in some seedy jail hospital ward and find herself handcuffed to a battered bedrail.
She did not expect to see Humaira by her side.
"Ammi! How're you feeling?" Humaira feathered the hair away from her mother's face.
Raziya started to cry. May be she had passed on to an alternate world where she had committed no crimes ... Humaira still loved her ... and called her Ammi, instead of names.
"Zoya?" Raziya seized her daughter's hand in terror. "Is Zoya OK?"
"Yes, thanks to you," Humaira said brightly. "She just left. Aapi got you those flowers. The balloons are for me. She brings new ones everyday even though I told her not to. But she says she likes to do it. And that it helps out the girl that she buys them from."
She knew she was babbling.
Humaira felt awkward. She knew she'd forgiven her Ammi.
But a part of her still felt disloyal to Aapi.
Only Ayaan could help her sort out this muddy muddledness.
"May be that's a good thing," he's said last evening before kissing her good night. "May be both you and your Ammi have to carry that guilt around with you--and that is to be your redemption."
He'd taken her face in his hands. "And that's what makes me fall in love with you a little more every day. If you didn't feel just a pinch of guilt for what happened, even though you had nothing to do with it, you wouldn't have been you. You wouldn't have been Mona Darling's sister."
Humaira's eyes had dripped. "Who are you, Ayaan? When did you become so deep and intense?"
He'd grinned a lop-sided grin and kissed each quivering eyelid. "May be I grew up," he replied.
"Don't grow up too much, OK, " she beseeched. "I don't know how you can make something so terrible, sound so right. But at this point I'll take anything! Thank you for making it right," she's said impulsively before dragging his face down to kiss him.
"Humaira, I'm so sorry," Raziya whispered, breaking her daughter's reverie.
"Ammi, it's OK. Aapi told me everything and I'm slowly getting close to being at peace with it all. But it'll still take some time."
But it wasn't enough for Raziya. And she knew it too.
Her husband and daughter, and even Rashid, had each gone through a period of acute shame and guilty introspection, followed by hesitant self-forgiveness ... However Raziya's choices eighteen years ago had doomed her journey to be much longer. And more painful. She knew that she had done only part of the penance; and also that Zoya, Asad, and Dilshad had forgiven her too easily. But what about Ra"?
"And Rashid? Tell me he's OK too?" She cried out.
Her poor baby. Rashid, Badi Bi and Ayaan would probably never accept Humaira any more. In the end, she had effectively ruined Humaira's life.
"Rashid Phupha is absolutely fine! He's at home now, recovering. I just saw him and he was trying his best to avoid eating the apple pie Ayaan made." She smiled at the memory as her mind darted back to the afternoon's mirth.
"It must be all the medicines I'm taking," Phupha had guiltily apologized to an indignant Shireen. "That's why I've lost my sense of taste."
"You just met them?" Raziya begged for clarity and mercy. "They ... they are fine with you? They don't hate--?"
"No, they don't hate me, Ammi. I don't know what magic or miracle is at play here, but they've all accepted me even though everyone knows the truth about what happened when we were all kids ..."
A faraway look softened her eyes. "Ayaan says it's the power of our generation. The millenials rule, says Aapi ... and that as if in dying, Tanveer sucked away all the evil and bad that could have destroyed our families ..."
Zoya had many pet theories and by now the girls just rolled their eyes and gripped their foreheads when she started off on her speculations--punctuated with newly-minted sound effects and fight scenarios.
"Guys, it's like she had opened a portal to hell," she said one day about Tanveer. "And then when she died, Whoozzzt! Like a giant vacumn cleaner, all the negative stuff she brought with her got sucked away too. Awesome, no? And then the portal closed behind her, forever! KLANNNGGGT!"
Many a day she'd pout and huff in dismay and then clamber up on the bed to mime the battle moves she would have used. "If I hadn't been tied up that day, I'd have kicked her in the face. And then when she was moaning in pain I'd jump up and POW! Jam my elbow right up her fat nose. She'd be writhing in pain on the ground, and then like Akshay Kumar, I'd fold my knee behind me, power through another high kick, and KABLAAMMM! Crack her back. Her spine would be severed in two. She'd be the one in a wheelchair!"
"Aapi! Stop it will you?" Humaira had to chime in one day. "The baby can hear everything, and you're having a little too much fun relishing this imaginary violence. If Jeeju hears you talk like this, he'll ban you from watching all your favorite action films!"
"Nev--ver! What if the baby is like that Abhishek guy in the Hindu epic who couldn't fight back because he didn't hear the whole story?"
Nuzzhat had really slapped her own head then. "You mean Abhimanyu from the Mahabharat! Really, Zoya Bhabhi, and which mega-battle is your baby going to fight in?"
Fists on her waist, Zoya had glared at her sister and nanads as they all'd cracked up at that.
Humaira giggled behind her hand now. Aapi was too much!
"Humaira?" Raziya called out. "Why are you zoning out like that, beta? Is everything really OK? Are you hiding something from me?"
She gripped her mother's hand. "No Ammi, everything really IS all right. ... and you helped with that. May be that's why everybody still loves me ... " she whispered through stinging eyes.
"Ya Allah! I wish I had died." Raziya cried. She didn't know that she she very nearly had. The diabetes, potential drug interactions, and ensuing complications hadn't helped with the healing process.
"Ammi! Please don't say that. You saved Aapi's baby. Don't you want to see him or her?"
"I do, so much! ... But I wish I wasn't such a burden on your conscience and happiness ... I have so many regrets ... I'll always regret that I robbed you and Zoya. You could have grown up together ..."
Siddiqui walked in carrying food from home. "Raziya!"
"I want to meet Zoya," Raziya stated firmly, looking from one to the other. "Please? Would she want to see me? How's she doing?"
"Are you going to have a sweet tooth?" Zoya entered today's events in her baby journal that night. "I'm craving pies and cakes all of a sudden. Your Abbu got me blueberry cheesecake the other day as a surprise, and then today your Ayaan Chachu made me an apple pie! From scratch! So cool na?"
"But back to the sweet tooth. If you get cavities, then your Abbu will kill me."
When Asad leaned over to read what she'd written, he shook his head. "Stop making me sound like a serial killer. And yes, I will not pay for any fillings, so you better get the kids to brush and floss regularly."
"Oh really?" a horrified Zoya argued. "It's my job to oversee brushing and flossing? Because I'm the mom? Mr Khan, you better be a hands-on dad. Or else!"
"Or else what?" He taunted, brows waggling.
"Or else ..." She smashed a pillow on his head when she couldn't think of a single retaliatory remark.
Asad dodged the second blow and she got madder.
"Or else you're going on a lambi judaai se*x fast! Yes! No sugar or pastry chef for you!" She squealed in delight when he lunged to grab her in order to change her mind.
Zoya gasped for breath when he tucked her under him to kiss all the fight out of her.
"Or else, no 'cream fillings' for you!" she breathed. She didn't even know when her arms had twined around his neck. Asad groaned in protest and surrender. He couldn't look away from her heaving chest.
"Or, any grinding and drilling," she added, tongue firmly in cheek as she rolled her hips against him.
"So I guess we're playing Dentist-Dentist tonight?" he asked after a keen and thorough exam of some soft and se*xy body parts.
"What fine teeth you have Mr. Khan!" she gasped.
"The better to taste and bite you with, Mrs. Khan."
"Oh, so we're mixing it up with Red Riding Hood?"
"Want to ride my hood Mrs. Red?"
She would have laughed her head off but Dr. Wolf Khan, DDS, had other plans for her.
"Open wide. Like this. Have you been flossing regularly Mrs. Khan? Maintaining good oral health?"
She giggled. "Like this?"
Tonight was the third night in a row she couldn't sleep. Was insomnia one of the side effects of pregnancy? She felt too lazy to research it though, or to drag herself out of bed for some hot chocolate.
Dobby lifted his eager head from his cozy perch ... hoping ...
He sighed in disapproval when Zoya didn't budge.
Through the starlight streaming in from the arched window Zoya watched Asad's chest rise and fall with each breath.
She smiled. That sight was her preferred drug of choice.
When they were first married, she'd wake up in the middle of the night, lean over, and hold her finger under his nose to check if he was breathing. Or place her hand on his chest to feel it move under her palm. Then she would scold herself for being so paranoid.
Let me always find him by my side each night, she'd pray.
Asad sleepily reached out to pull her to him. "Sleep," he ordered softly.
"I can't," she whispered back.
His palm cupped her stomach and stroked it in calming circles. When it stopped, Zoya laced her fingers through his.
As Asad slept, her mind floated and flitted.
She smiled dreamily.
Even Raziya Aunty had regained consciousness. Her Abbu had called earlier, wondering if she could stop by.
Of course, she could!
Raziya had burst into tears as soon as she saw Zoya enter the room. And so had Zoya.
"It's over, Aunty. It's all over," she'd said after the first storm of grief had passed. That grief had been edged and streaked with relief. "We can finally breathe and not constantly look over our shoulders any more."
Raziya had held up her arm to beckon her closer. Before that macabre day she'd always been scared to touch Zoya. What if Zoya felt repulsed? These hands had taken her mother's life after all. But now it was as if she couldn't draw another breath before she felt the warmth of Zoya's body.
Blindly, she reached for Zoya.
... touching the face of god ...
A marooned survivor finally rescued, Raziya's hands traced the contours of Zoya's face and wiped her falling tears away. Raziya's fingertips feathered across those eyes and cheeks as if refamiliarizing herself with a cherished but once-lost heirloom.
"You must have got these from your Ammi," she murmured to herself as her thumbs brushed across Zoya's dimples.
Raziya kissed Zoya's forehead.
With quivering fingers pounding with her lifeblood, she slowly and hungrily re-traced the outline of Zoya's face ... her eyes ... her cheeks ...
---and a flash of a long-forgotten memory crackled through her body---once ship-wrecked, that memory now surged up breaking through the surface of Zoya's consciousness.
Her eyes squeezed close.
... a soft, too-familiar voice had floated in her ears. She could feel a soft finger tracing her eyelids, her nose, her cheeks ...
" ...This is Zoya's face ..." that faraway voice sing-songed.
"... these are Zoya's starry eyes ... this is Zoya's naughty nosie ... these are Zoya's cheeky cheeks ... these are Zoya's rosy lips ..."
" ... and these? What are these?" her Ammi would ask as she dug her fingers into her cheeks.
"These are Zoya's magic DIMM--PIES!" Zoya would squeal as a child as Ammi would proceed to tickle her.
Her eyes popped wide open. Zoya remembered suddenly, as if it had happened less than an hour ago. She remembered. Starkly. All too clearly in fact: that is how Ammi would wake her up every morning when she was a kid.
Zoya sobbed in Raziya's arms. "Ammi!" she called out.
Raziya'd wept too. And so did Siddiqui and Humaira.
"All the time when I was slipping away, this face kept pulling me back in." Raziya said through broken sobs. "A part of me wanted to die ... for it all to be over. I deserved it after all. But a part of me wanted to stay on. To see you." She took Zoya's hands in hers and kissed their tops. "Many may think that Allah keeps me alive to punish me for my sins. But I will thank Allah everyday for giving me a second chance. To see you, my rahbar ... my rahnuma ..." she kissed her face again. "Thank you for coming back into my wretched life ... for giving me a new lease on life."
Zoya smiled. "Are those nice things? What do those words mean, Aunty?"
And Raziya laughed at the innocent curiosity.
When Siddiqui tried to explain their meaning, she held her hand up to stop him. "They mean you," Raziya stated, simply ... fervently.
Zoya sighed as she turned and tossed in bed. Thank god, Allah Miyan! Everything would be OK now. She couldn't wait for Humaira and Ayaan's nikaah. She'd better try on her lehengas to see which ones would fit. And she better get on their case to set a date fast. Or she'd grow even bigger with each delay.
Which lehenga would she wear? May be a saree? And then may be she could lure her husband away for another tryst ...
Asad stirred and pressed himself against her; her breath caught. When his hand moved up to cup her [email protected] under the thin silk, her blood heated. Zoya turned in his arms to hug him. "Oh thank god, Asad! I wanted you so bad."
"I heard your blood calling, babe. Even before you knew it," he breathed before letting his hand drift south. His lips nuzzled her neck. "You're so wet for me ... so perfect ..." He parted and stroked her and she jerked uncontrollably. "So swollen for me ... so damn perfect ... ahh, Zoya, you burn me up!"
She tugged his mouth to her greedy [email protected] A powerful swirl and suck had her arching in mind-bendng pleasure. She wanted him to linger ... but she also wanted him moving inside her ... hard--and fast.
"Please ... please," Zoya whimpered.
"Please, what?" he teased and tarried. Like always. And she went crazier with need.
"Do things to me, pleeease!" she begged gripping his shoulders.
"What things?" he asked as he continued to slowly torture her with his tormenting mouth and hands. He knew what things. He just loved to hear her tell him about them as her breath hitched and body twitched.
"Nasty things--aahh, Asad!" she moaned as he redoubled the assault. " ... heavenly things ..." she murmured as her spasming fingers dug into his biceps. Her hips bucked and begged. " ... things to make my eyes roll back in my head!"
When had their clothes melted away?
He chuckled softly and rose to do her bidding. Zoya protested only slightly when Asad pulled her to her edge of the bed. Feet braced on the floor, he raised her legs to rest against his chest and entered her in one swift, sweet ambush.
She cried and moaned in the back of her throat, both at once. Her neck arched and fingers struggled to catch a grip on the twisting, sliding sheets under her as he dictated a relentless rhythm.
He paused. Asad let one of her legs slide down ...
She protested, impatient.
But when he pivoted sideways, still inside her, and lifted his leg to place his foot by her undulating hips, she felt the penetration spear through her at an alien angle.
Shock and pleasure rippled through to drag a mini-scream from her startled lungs.
"Nasty things like this?" Asad taunted, harsh breaths sawing through his gritted teeth.
"Oh god, yes! Ye ... es ... yes ..." Zoya continued to mewl. Her nails pierced and raked his raised thigh with each deliberate and glorious thrust.
"Asad!" she panted and writhed, half-crazed with a looming [email protected]
"Look at me!" he commanded.
She watched, entranced, as he sucked two fingers and let them swirl over and knead her throbbing bud.
Her thighs clenched in grateful and greedy anticipation. The sensations thrashing through her wouldn't let her eyes stay open any more.
"Oh god Asad, you're so thick in me tonight!" she cried through crescendoing moans.
Asad jerked, at breaking point. "Am I hurting you?"
"No! ... no ... I love it! More ... please, mooore!" She keened harshly as she came undone.
He saw her body churning and crashing, awash in the starlight ... aglow, and he couldn't help himself.
"Please!" Zoya repeated a couple of days later in Jhansi. She batted her lashes at him and flashed her killer dimple. Asad shoved his hands in his pockets, immune to her charms.
"OK, last one. I promise!"
Their little weekend getaway had been a dream. Just as perfect as her Jahanpanah had intended.
But Asad kept resisting the millions of selfies she'd planned and posed all through the trip. He had made the mistake of buying her a selfie stick--and it had been a sure-shot way to shoot himself in the foot.
He had weakened of course. Because the blackmail and pouting had been endless: "I'll get fat pretty soon. I'll be running away from cameras then, Mr. Khan. Please!"
Dimples had flashed and he'd given in. Like she knew he would.
One more selfie couldn't hurt.
But getting her the Go Pro had been a bigger mistake. Asad shuddered to think of what new videos she'd make of them. If the kids ever got their hands on--
He nearly passed out from the horror.
Granted, he knew that his wife wasn't into jewelry. She wore his ring all the time and her Ammi's earrings most of the time. The rest of the exquisite pieces he'd gifted her in the early days of their marriage were tucked away in a home safe that she barely glanced at. The heavier, 'sethani' pieces as she called them, huddled, unworn, in a bank locker. And Zoya probably had no clue where the locker key was. She had to be reminded to put on the real stuff at a function or event.
It was a given: gifts of jewelry were a no-go; they'd be wasted on his begum.
So lately Asad had begun compensating with gifts of technology: he'd bought her enhancements and upgrades; heaped her with the top of the line gadgets and apps that drew appreciative squeals from her. At least she'd use his gifts this way.
Thanks to him, she had the latest gizmos and games. He'd bought her registration and unlimited online access to the annual CES conferences at Las Vegas. She was now a lifetime member of various techie portals thanks to an over-indulgent husband and had even wormed her way to snag guest blogs on CNET and The Verge.
At home, the home theater and security systems had been pimped out and souped up. Who knew how many remotes there were in the house and which devices they controlled, or even how. Well, Zoya knew.
"Did you always have a royalty fetish or did that happen after I named you Jahanpanah?" she asked as she oohed and aahed over the artifacts, architecture and decor at the many museums and palaces they'd visited. She had pressed her nose close to the glass to peer at Laxmi Bai's shield and chain armor in Gwalior.
"After you obviously," Asad stated what she'd always known. "And I do not have a royalty fetish! I wasn't the one drooling over the queen's room at Scindia Palace."
"Oh my god, that was so adorbs!" Zoya gushed. Which girl would not fall in love with the tiny, four-feet tall Maharani Chinko Raje Scindia's room? Everything in there was built to scale for her size: the miniature four poster bed decked in the finest brocades and silks, the desk set and chairs in the rarest mahogany, ebony and teak, and richly upholstered sofas and jeweled armoires would be any girl's dream--whether she was 9, or 90. It was the perfect dollhouse for a life-sized doll.
The room was beyond charming!
But she frowned when she saw a speculative light in his eye. "Asad? What're you thinking?"
"Would a girl really like that kind of a room?" he asked in all seriousness.
"Of course! Why not--?" She watched him look ultra-plased with himself. "No! Are you thinking that if we have a girl, you'll build a room like that for her? Oh. My. God."
"Why would that be a bad thing? I thought you'd love the idea," Asad was not pleased with her lack of enthusiasm. "I could recreate it exactly, have everything custom-ordered and made ..."
"Mr. Khan! News flash: You're not a maharaja! I just call you Jahanpanah, you're not one for real, remember? Good god, I've created a monster." Genius. Hundred years from now, people would be marching through their house to see the room Jahanpanah Asad Ahmed Khan had built for his daughter.
"And if it's a boy," Asad continued to muse, ignoring her reality checks. "I'd love to recreate that train set ... We could make that life-size too, winding around and inside the house ..."
He was referring to the famed silver train set in the Jai Vilas Mahal's Darbar Hall which ran on a track on the large dining table, serving drinks and food in its various compartments. Zoya slapped her head. She really shouldn't have given him that book, "Freedom at Midnight." Its one chapter on the description of India's eccentric maharajas and nawabs had obviously gone to his head.
Zoya watched him mutter to himself about measurements and variables, logistics and whatnots.
Aw, it wasn't that he was pretending to be a Jahanpanah. No, in his own way, his daddy-instinct was kicking in and he was nesting. Pregnant women did that didn't they? Making preparations for the coming baby. Then why couldn't fathers-to-be?
Zoya took his fingers in hers and squeezed. She'd let him plan and prepare the nest for their baby and not rain on his parade. She joined him in his princess room-designing and train-building ideas, asking questions, suggesting maternal modifications (could he really bear to have train tracks running through the house, and how safe would it really be?) and potential hi-tech alternatives.
"I can put it on a smart grid. It'll be accessed remotely. No! Voice-activated! We can even do a robot"like R2D2 from Star Wars! You know at CES this year, they unveiled ..."
They spun golden and silicon fantasies for their kids ... weaving in their own childhood yearnings and desires.
This time around, together, they'd do childhood right.
She'd already told him about that newly-retrieved memory of her Ammi's touch on her face every morning. Zoya had used her index fingers to do the same to Asad's face as she told him how Ammi would wake her: Zoya gently traced the outline of his face, and using the pads to caress his eyes, stroked his nose down from the bridge to its tip, circling around his cheeks and feathering over his lips before kissing him.
"That's beautiful," he whispered.
"I know. I can't believe I'd forgotten how cherished I felt when Ammi did that. How happy I was ..."
Tenderly, he repeated the ritual on her face.
Tears slid down through her closed eyes when he touched her eyelids. Asad bent his head to suck them away.
"Asad!" Her voice cracked.
"Shh, I know baby," he soothed. "I love you," he said, gathering her to him. "And we'll make new, happier memories with our kids."
And she could die right now and be the happiest girl in the world.
But it was a good thing that her husband had better plans for her. "What do you want to do for our anniversary?" Asad tried to distract her.
It was easy.
Plans for parties and fun never failed to bring her bouncing back. "Am I bipolar," she'd asked him once because of the mood swings and highs and lows. "No," Asad'd said as he tucked her hair behind an ear. "You're just you--too complex to be defined by any pop psychobabble. Too precious to be measured by any clinical diagnosis."
Zoya giggled and sniffed now.
She was back.
"An anniversary date? I know! How bout we go back to Apna Dhaba?"
"What?" he yelped. "Are you out of your mind? Never! Not in a billion years."
"Are you chicken, Mr. Khan?"
"No, just smart, Mrs. Khan."
A few days later, they still hadn't decided on a plan of action or destination for their upcoming anniversary. But thanks to Ayaan's manic nagging and Nuzzhat's emotional blackmail ("Feroze Jeeju will be leaving soon, please!), the family had agreed to a grand road trip to Pachmarhi, a small hill station about three hours away. Rashid was doing much better, almost good as new, and Raziya too had been given the greenlight by her doctors. Being accepted by the others, no questions asked, had helped accelerate her recovery.
Siddiqui had resisted initially. Even though all was fine now, it may still be uncomfortable for the others to be around him and Raziya. That too in such close quarters.
But he'd been charmed and cajoled into going by his daughters.
"Abbu imagine, the whole family together! Just think, it'll be like having a pre-wedding party. No! A wedding shower! It'll be such fun! You have to come, please." Zoya couldn't stop gushing.
"Haan Abbu," Humaira had her own blackmail techniques. "I'll get married soon and move away. I'll miss you and Ammi ..."
It was bound to work. How could Siddiqui withstand the double assault or the vision of promised family fun?
"Abbu! Humaira! I have a great idea. At nights in the hotel, Abbu can read us bedtime stories!"
Humaira had jumped in glee and Siddiqui had laughed.
"Fine! We'll go. But only if you girls manage your mischief!"
"Mischief managed," his daughters vowed in naughty conspiracy, fingers crossed behind their backs.
Ayaan was particularly exhilarated. Though traveling in a luxury bus and not taking his bike was a bore, it wasn't so bad with all the singing and games, teasing and chitchat.
"It'll be my bachelor party," he'd exulted and gloated to Humaira earlier.
She'd harrumphed in dismissal. "LOL! With your Abbu and my Abbu there, it's not going to be the bachelor party of your dreams--you may instead end up playing chess or listening to old time shayari. And then with Feroze Jeeju and my Jeeju to keep you in check, I might end up having a raunchier bachelorette party!"
Ayaan's panicky eyes would have put a deer in the headlights to shame. This was a serious dash mein bumboo.
"What? No, no, no, no!" He raked his unruly hair.
She was right. Bhaijaan would be a super spoilsport, and egged on by Abbu and Humaira's dad to keep it quiet and respectable, Bhai would be worse than Killjoy Akdu Ahmed Khan. Unfortunately Omar wasn't around to keep things chill and Feroze was the most seedha-sada guy he'd ever seen--so basically he was useless. Only Faiz could be trusted to shake things up.
A wicked gleam lit up his eyes.
"Then I'm crashing your bachelorette party. No ifs, ands, or buts about it!"
"Now that's what I'm talking about," Humaira retorted smugly as she pivoted on her heel. He'd just been pwned, as Aapi would say, and he didn't even know it yet.
Thank god, only another hour more to go! Her back was feeling just a little tender and she was trying her best to clamp down on the rising nausea. She didn't want to have to stop the bus so she could throw up. Everyone would see. So gross and embarrassing. And then Asad wouldn't let her have any fun with all his fussing and bossing her around.
She sighed. Forty eight minutes more.
Zoya's ears pricked at the discussion behind her.
She'd been dozing in the front of the bus and heard Dilshad in the back telling Dadi and Raziya about some family court child custody battle she'd helped arbitrate more than a year ago.
Wait, more than a year ago? How did she not know about this till today? She'd already been in India at that time, then where was she when Ammi did this? Why didn't Ammi tell them all about this detail of her life?
Zoya leaned in to listen more intently.
"It was a nasty case," Dilshad went on. "Terribly tragic. The little boy's father was bad to the bone and wanted custody only to harass his ex-wife, but the court wanted to be fair. It was a small town, pretty close from this point. Just about twenty minutes away from here."
"Ammi, when was this?" Zoya couldn't restrain herself. Curiosity was killing her. She looked down at Dobby's crate guiltily. Poor bugger. He was on a time out thanks to Asad. The first hour he'd behaved himself but soon he was bored and had started yowling and scratching at the seats. So the Jahanpanah had ordered umr qaid (temporarily) and the offended cat was sulking in his traveling case.
"Arre beta, it was around the same time you and Asad were at Mangalpur for that wedding, remember?"
Zoya's eyes bugged. Oh boy, did she remember!
Dilshad gazed out of the tinted windows. "I wonder if on our way back we can do a quick little detour and check on my cousin's family. Tumko bahut mazaa ayega."
Zoya had just tilted her head back to gulp down some ice-cold water. Hearing Dilshad's wistful words, she choked and spluttered all over herself. The repetitive and tortured coughing fit brought Asad running to check on her from the back of the bus.
"What happened?" he asked after he'd stroked her back in comfort and offered his handkerchief to wipe her streaming eyes. He was just getting ready to yell at her for being her usual careless self.
Dilshad and the others had gone back to chatting among themselves once they saw Asad take over.
Zoya flashed her eyes at him and held up a hand not knowing whether to laugh or cry. "Get this," she hissed. "On our way back, Ammi wants to stop over at Mangalpur which is like twenty minutes away from here! Can you believe that?"
"Wha"?" Before he could respond or throw a fit to nix such terrible ideas, the bus jerked.
Zoya tumbled into his arms as the bus shuddered to an abrupt stop.
Annoyed shrieks erupted all over.
"Hey, what happened?" Ayaan and Faiz yelled from the back.
"Ya Allah, sambhal ke," called out a shaken-up Dadi.
"Take it easy, man," Faiz muttered.
They all heard fists pound on the door and then frantic, frightened voices. "Please, we need your help! They'll kill us. Bacha lijiye humein, please!"
Everyone in the bus froze as the armed guard ushered in a young, distraught couple. The girl was weeping and the boy kept murmuring assurances of how he'd take care of everything and wouldn't let anything bad happen to her.
The passengers looked on, enthralled.
"It's no use," she sobbed. "You won't be able to do a thing. They'll kill us both!"
Zoya's eyes shone; her backache and nausea evaporated. She clasped her hands together with devilish purpose. Freshly invigorated, she struggled against Asad to free herself.
His eyes narrowed.
He could already see the gears in her head grinding: play supergirl or fairy godmother? In her head she was already donning the mantle of a pyaar ka farishta hell-bent on assisting with the course of true love.
Asad groaned. Great. Just bloody great! Mangalpur and Zoya were never a good combination.
This felt like a bad case of deja vu all over again.
Song in title:
Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999): "Chand Chhupa Badal Mein"
One look, and Asad had known: the terrified faces of the lovebirds, the girl's tear-streaked face, the boy's desperate clutching on to her hand ...
He'd added two and two, and the answer wasn't pretty.
Asad urged the bus driver to go faster and quietly told the guard to be on full alert. Thank god, they'd agreed to take an armed guard with them. But would just one be enough? His mind raced, making lists, doing safety checks and planning for a siege or ambush that was sure to come.
The panicked lovers peering anxiously through the rear windows and ducking when a car or jeep went by, could mean only one thing. The demonic Mangalpur Panchayat, or something pretty similar, was at its old game: the self-appointed moral caretakers were back to hunting and lynching rebels who dared to cross caste or community barriers.
He felt sick to the gut.
Slowly, Asad cast his eye around the bus. This was his family and they could all be hurtling toward sure disaster and danger.
Oblivious, he cracked his knuckles.
Asad watched as Zoya and the others fussed over the girl who was still heaving dry sobs. He knew that Zoya had understood the situation perfectly well too. She listened to the questions Dilshad and Shireen asked the girl and kept glancing toward him anxiously.
He watched Ayaan and Feroze and the dads question the boy. Asad looked back at Zoya and caught her eye. With the barest of nods he signaled her over.
"You're thinking what I'm thinking, right?" She asked as she came over.
"Manglapur, Part 2?" He frowned crossing his arms over his chest--it was tight with fury and anxiety. Had he been in a better mood he'd have teased her that she had jinxed it by mentioning Apna Dhaba the other day.
But this was serious. Serious like a heart attack.
"Oh god Asad, don't even say that!" Zoya gripped his forearm. "I'm terrified for them. Remember the last time we were here, there was some news of an honor killing? What if--?"
He nodded grimly and wiped his brow. Asad's mind had flashbacked to that same incident.
Before leaving for Maryam's ill-fated wedding in Mangalpur, he'd seen a breaking news story on TV of a fugitive pair of lovers being hunted and tortured in the area. Later, during their own escape from the blood-thirsty Panchayat, Asad had found evidence of a buried corpse. And then when he'd turned around to warn Zoya, he'd seen her unconscious on the ground. Trying to get to safety had been futile. Within minutes, they'd been surrounded and cornered by the Sarpanch's rabid militia in the middle of nowhere.
That's when Asad had known that they had been set up by that fake rescuer who had shot off their handcuffs as he pretended to help them.
Zoya had even warned him not to trust the guy.
Turned out, she was right. It was a trap: that impostor had been sent to lull them into a false sense of security and drug them so they could be easily disposed of. The water bottle the man had given them must have been laced with some drug. A careless Zoya, in typical Zoya fashion, has drained the water, not saving any for Asad.
And that had nearly been the beginning of the end for them
Asad sighed, restless and on edge.
"I was thinking the same," he told Zoya. "These two look like they've eloped. What did she tell you all?"
"There's something fishy. She says her name is Babli and the guy's name is Bunty. That sounds made up to me. They're hiding their real names. Why?"
"Because they aren't from the same caste or community," Asad speculated.
"You mean this could be an inter-religious thing? Oh my god!" Her hands flew to cover her mouth.
By now even she knew how dangerous inter-faith relationships could be in some parts of the Indian hinterland. She'd read and watched with horror enough news stories about public hangings of lovers, caste wars and communal riots.
And here, in the outskirts of Mangalpur, they already knew the worst about the Sarpanch and his brigade of vicious outlaws from personal experience. No wonder the two runaways were terrified.
Zoya looked around the bus. Naz and Hana aunty huddled with Dadi whispering animatedly. The men, old and young, clustered around "Bunty" pumping him for information and reassuring him.
She looked back at Asad's face. It was ashen, the skin was pulled taut across his cheekbones and jaw.
Zoya rubbed Asad's arm. "Asad, look!" She pointed at their family. "This time it'll be different. We aren't alone any more. We have an entire regiment here!"
"And they have rifles, swords, chains, machetes, drugs ... and no souls."
Her eyes stung. He'd gone into lockdown Jahanpanah-at-jung mode--Humaira's General Jeeju had made a comeback. He'd be a prickly bear now and impossible to reach out to.
Fine, if he was going to be like that, and she didn't blame him one bit, then she'd be his trusted lieutenant. Just this once, Zoya Farooqui would force herself to take a backseat and refrain from too much backseat driving--if Allah Miyan could help her behave, that is.
"Asad, breathe ..." Zoya urged, clutching his fist. "Call Rakesh and arrange for back-up. Should we turn around and go back home?"
Asad exhaled. The veins in his forehead pulsed.
She glared at him. "I know your instinct is to go into hyper-protective and silent mode and block us all out. Don't! Trust us, please."
"Fine," Asad sighed. "You talk to Rakesh and I'll call the Police Commissioner back home to alert them in case we need official help. God knows that the local police here is in the Panchayat's pocket. You're right. This time around we know what they're capable of and we're more of us. But Zoya?"
She looked up at him.
"No being a superhero, OK?" he wagged his finger at her. "You will not leap before you look. You will not go off half-co*cked OK? If you want me to share my plans and ideas with you then you'll have to promise to do the same! Or I will seriously handcuff you to this seat right here!"
"Really? And where would you find handcuffs here?"
She blushed when he raised an eyebrow. Fine, so he knew she'd packed her pink fuzzy handcuffs. Damn him for knowing her so well!
She made a face.
"Fine, jeez! Jo hukum, Jahanpanah! Happy now?"
"Umm hmm," he grunted in dissatisfaction not trusting her one bit.
He was about to turn away to make the calls but Zoya held him back. "Asad, nobody knows what we know. How do we ... Should we tell them about how lawless they are and how vicious these people can be?"
"Let's wait and see on that."
"Need-to-know basis. Got it," she said in complete seriousness.
If he wasn't out of his mind crazed with worry he may have actually laughed at her American crime drama lingo--her default setting in times of crisis. But he'd rather have her excited about an adventure than paralyzed with fear.
Asad couldn't help run his knuckle across her cheek. "Babe, it'll be fine. It'll all be fine. I just need you to behave though."
But Zoya's head was already miles ahead. "I know what we'll do! If we do have to tell the family then I can say that I read about some evil Panchayat in the area or watched a program on it on the news or something. They don't have to know that we have first-hand experience with these gundas. Didn't at least some of those jungli jackasses go to jail? Haha, did you see what I just did? Jungli jackasses go to jail'!" She laughed at her alliterative sass and general brilliance.
Asad squeezed the bridge of his nose and took a deep breath.
Deep breaths ... he coached himself. It'll be OK ... he lied to himself.
Other women would be terrified, but no, not his wife. Their time together from their last Mangalpur escapade came flooding back; so did the dread.
Running from the Panchayat to the police station had seemed like the right thing to do at the time. But the police had been no help. They had turned out to be on the Panchayat's payroll. And soon they had been imprisoned and handcuffed: the crusaders seeking justice had become common criminals about to be executed in some kind of fake encounter.
And Zoya had continued to chatter and protest non-stop.
Then he had dismissed her as annoying, not even letting her tell him about Miriam's real reason for not wanting to marry the boy her father had chosen for her.
Asad couldn't help thinking about Zoya's fierce belief in justice. She had been mad at first at how corrupt the police were and disgusted at the misogyny of the Panchayat's men.
And later she had fought by his side so that Yash and Aarti could escape to freedom to rescue their kidnapped son.
Her instincts had been right all the time and he had ignored or scoffed at her for her ideas and theories. This time around though, he wouldn't make the same mistake. But still, she needed reining in, or god knows what fresh trouble they could get into.
Zoya was already on her phone with a plan buzzing in her head. Finding stories of rogue Panchayats and vigilante mobs would be easy, she convinced herself. And may be that information would be good enough to put the family on guard and take the potential threat seriously. And then they could get started on the next phase of the plan.
It was a good thing she didn't see Asad shake his head or roll his eyes heavenward.
Together they came up with a plausible patched-up story, just in case the family asked questions. The only person who may be able to see through that story was Dilshad. They debated whether to tell her the whole truth.
"Too complicated. Let it be," Asad decided.
"But ... what if she suggests that we call that uncle of yours, Maryam's dad, for help? How are we going to deflect her questions?" Dilshad knew only part of the Mangalpur story: Maryam's wedding had been called off because she'd run away to escape a forced marriage.
"I don't know," Asad scrubbed his face. "Let's just concentrate on one thing at a time."
Asad and Zoya walked back to the women who continued to console and comfort the young girl. He knelt before her.
She flinched in fear.
"Please don't be scared of us. We'll try our best to help you. But we need some details. Who is after you? Your family?"
She nodded her head.
"Anyone else?" She nodded more vigorously.
"How many people? Are they armed?"
She burst into tears. "His family too. And the Panchayat ..." she hiccupped.
Restless energy pulsed through Zoya. This was so wrong. True love was a once-in-a-lifetime blessing: so hard to find and keep. Then why did people have to stand in its way instead of helping remove its obstacles? If she was the president or the prime minister, she would have these pyaar ka dushmans pepper sprayed and handcuffed to each other for life!
And a brilliant idea came flaring up. She grabbed her phone and backed away into an empty corner.
Asad looked down at the sobbing girl. It didn't matter what their real names were, or which one was Hindu or Muslim if that really was the case. Ammi and Chhoti Ammi had been able to wrangle some more details out of her: her family was forcing her to marry an old widower from their community. The two lovers had fled and spent the night in the forest hiding from the mob.
But this detail was most important: were they from different faiths? Because if they were, then the situation was much, much grimmer.
Asad's heart hammered.
Were they headed into the eye of the storm: a communal conflagration? Everything could go up in flames if that was so. He needed to know. And only Zoya could worm that information out of this girl. He looked around for her and frowned when he saw her in an intense exchange on the phone. He raised his brows when their eyes met and she held up a hand before ending the call. She waved him over.
"OK here's the sitrep--"
"What's a sitrep?" Asad couldn't help but be momentarily distracted by this new language. He was doomed. With a brother who was a self-proclaimed expert in P language and a wife who spoke Americanese, how was he supposed to function?
"Situation report! Mr. Khan you gotta keep up. I called Maryam in Dubai," Zoya spoke in a rush. "I told her about what's happening here and asked her to call someone trusty in her village to find out more about the situation. May be someone will know. She'll call back as soon as she has something. She also told me that she and her brother know of an organization that has safe houses for such runaways."
Asad nodded in admiration. "Good girl! Zoya, talk to this Babli in private and find out if this is an inter-religious thing. If it is, this could get really messy."
She held his hand, "Asad? Umm, I don't know if you're going to like this idea" Just listen," she pleaded as she saw his eyes shutter. "Remember Agra? When you were fighting those guys, an uncle ji came up and told all the spectators to contact news shows and agencies? And then Bam! The media was there! Should we try something like that? I can get the girls and aunts working on it."
She watched Asad rest his elbows on his knees and drop his head in his hands.
Sh*it! Sh*it! Sh*it! This was going to be bad.
"OK. Do it," Asad told her before he rose to go talk to the men. If it was the same Panchayat, then the locals would be of no help. And in order to level the playing field he had to make sure that they had enough outside resources so that there would be no repeat of the past this time.
Zoya signaled Humaira, Nikhat and Nuzzhat over and began explaining her plan. She would rope in Naz and Hana aunty next.
Asad asked to talk to the young man alone. He looked terrified and Asad's heart melted.
"Don't worry, we'll help you two get to safety. But I need details to protect my family. Something tells me that you're using fake names. I don't want to know your real name or hers--that was a great idea to choose religion-neutral names. But I do want to know if you both are from different religious communities."
The young man looked torn, his eyes fell, and Asad knew his hunch was right.
Damn! Damn! Damn!
"OK, forget about it. Do you have relatives or friends you trust whom we can contact? We can give you a phone ..."
"I don't know," Bunty whispered. "What if I call and those people betray us to the Panchayat?"
"You're right, I understand," Asad patted his shoulder.
"Bhai!" Ayaan shouted and Asad looked up.
"There's some kind of a checkpost coming up. There's a huge mess of traffic up ahead."
Terror flashed through the young man's eyes. He gripped Asad's arm. "This isn't a legitimate check point. It's got to be them. Please, help us. If they catch us--"
"We'll protect you both. Don't worry."
"Mr. Khan!" Zoya called him over. Maryam had called back with an update. "She talked to her cousin. You were right. Her name is Sadia and she's from their village. And he's Hindu, but from a neighboring village."
Asad slowly nodded his head. "I've called Rakesh and he's sent a team but it could take more than an hour or two for them to get here. Did you do the media thing?"
"Yeah, the girls are at it. I think we need the guys to do it too. More coverage, more urgency!" Zoya leaned in and whispered in his ear. "Asad, I have another ace up my sleeve."
"Is it safe?" he asked.
Her lips thinned in mutiny.
"Do it!" He said as he went to the front of the bus to make an announcement. He trusted her. And at least she'd asked him this time instead of dumping any surprises on him. Because the old Zoya was a do-first-and-apologize-later kinda gal, as she loved to say.
Zoya called Faiz and Feroze over and together they got busy. She hoped and prayed that the phone reception and strong signals would continue. If they lost that, then they were doomed.
"Listen up, everyone," Asad drew their attention.
"We may have some trouble up ahead, so we need to be very careful. Looks like these two are being pursued by some dangerous people. The local police isn't going to be any help. This area has a long history of lawlessness. If some armed people enter the bus, be quiet and calm. Don't engage with them at all. Ayaan, that especially means you! Meanwhile, we need ideas for how to disguise these two if someone comes to check."
"Jeeju!" Humaira piped up. "Dadi has a burqa. We can put it on Bunty."
Everyone looked at Dadi. They couldn't remember ever seeing her in a burqa.
"What? I keep it for emergencies," she protested. "Aur phir, you kids turn the AC on full blast, a burqa comes in handy."
They younger generation shook their heads in disbelief, the older generation, in complete understanding.
Yeah, the kids did blast the AC too high.
"Babli can cover her head and face with a dupatta," Humaira returned to the original discussion.
"No," Asad said. "They would expect something like that and could force the women to show their faces.
"The only way to make them pass muster is to dress up Bunty as a girl ... may be," Nuzzhat said.
Everyone looked at the young man who would have blushed had he not been so terrified. He had a day-old stubble and mustache.
"I'll get my electric shaver," Faiz suggested.
"I'll get my make-up kit and a suit," offered Nuzzhat.
"What about Babli?" someone asked.
"I can dress her in my jeans. We'll need a loose Tshirt from one of you guys," Zoya added.
Nikhat looked at Babli. "I can cut her hair."
"OK, do it!" Asad announced, mentally crossing his fingers. "We may have about 10-15 minutes before someone comes to check our bus."
And the makeovers were under way. If it hadn't been a life and death situation, this could have been a lot of fun.
Bunty was dressed up in the pinkest salwar kameez, while Babli was poured into Zoya's jeans and a Goth Tshirt and plain white shirt from Ayaan. It was a good thing she was slender and thank god she didn't have any nail polish on. Her nails were trimmed, jewelry removed, and the lightest stubble and mustache were drawn on; they thickened her eyebrows with an eye pencil.
The young girl cried when Nikhat cut her long braid off. That took the longest: the nail scissors were too tiny.
Bunty needed more work.
After a good scrub with the electric razor, the girls applied a film of foundation and other goopy stuff to even out his skin tone. A tweezer shaped his brows, as blush, eye shadow and mascara were slapped on, along with lipstick that matched the suit to a T. Everything looked perfect except for his hair. They had covered his head with a dupatta but something was missing ...
Humaira grabbed Babli's lopped-off braid. Multiple hair bands and safety pins secured it to the back of his pink kurta.
He looked beautiful. Zoya grabbed Nuzzhat's glasses off her face and shoved them on Bunty's nose. Not to be outdone, Humaira gathered his discarded shirt and pant and bundled them up under the kurta. There, now he also looked very pregnant.
They all cleaned up hurriedly. When three masked men armed with rifles entered the bus, the passengers were playing antakshari.
They stopped when a man pointed a muzzle in their general direction.
"Sit quietly," he yelled. "You'll be free to go after we've checked the bus for fugitives. Have you seen a young boy and girl? He's wearing a blue shirt and she's wearing a yellow suit."
Everyone murmured no as the other two men went down the aisle examining everyone's faces closely.
Dadi made loud annoyed noises. "Hurry up, bathroom jaana hai humko! Kya musibat hai yeh! Why have you stopped us?"
"Badi bi, shaant ho jayiye. Just a little longer," Raziya and Hana soothed her.
Asad had been tense all the while. He hoped that the men who boarded their bus wouldn't be the same ones who had captured them the last time. There would be hell to pay if either he or Zoya were recognized. Zoya had done something different to her hair and put on her sunglasses so that helped, and he had borrowed Faiz's baseball cap.
He prayed. Asad didn't know that he was holding his breath till it expelled forcefully when the last man exited the bus not having found anything suspicious.
But there had been one hairy moment that had nearly made him keel over from a heart attack.
One of the men had peered intently at Bunty and he'd begun to squirm. If he played so nervously with the end of the braid, it might have just come loose and plop down at his feet.
Raziya shifted to hold his hand and made soothing sounds. "Don't worry, beti. Sab theek ho jayega. Take deep breaths." She glared at the gunman, partially blocking Bunty from view, "please stop scaring my bahu! Bechari buri tarah se darr gayee hai!"
"Faiz, I think your begum is feeling nauseous," Nuzzhat had chirped.
Faiz had nearly fallen off the seat. "Huh?" he'd bleated.
What? Why did he always have to be the husband on call for fake pregnant women? The sooner he got out of India and back to sanity and non-pregnant fake wives, the better. Nuzzhat glared at him and jerked her chin. He got up to sidle next to Bunty to play the dutiful husband.
He patted Bunty's knee awkwardly.
"Go get some lemonade for my begum," Faiz told Nuzzhat crossly. "Since you have such experience being pregnant!"
Asad's face had begun to steam. What the hell were these two playing at? He looked at Feroze who was trying his best to stop grinning. Feroze looked at his mom--Naz looked like a Cheshire cat, supremely pleased with the banter between Nuzzhat and Faiz. If--no cross that, when she had her way, Nuzzhat would be Faiz's pregnant begum in the future. For real.
When the other gunman paused before Babli, Ayaan pretended to teach her how to play a chord on his guitar. His head too partially blocked the girl's face from view; the guitar pretty much hid Babli's upper body. When he raised his head however, he wasn't sure why Humaira was glaring at him so much.
They all sighed in relief when the three intruders left.
But that relief was short-lived. It was as if fate was disappointed and reluctant to let the family get off that easy.
They were supposed to have reached the scenic hill station by late lunch. But thanks to the delay that plan was shot.
The next thing to give out was the bus.
Children up ahead on the road were playing with firecrackers. One rocket went awry, the kids fled in different directions, and the bus driver had to swerve to avoid hitting one. An uneven curb loomed, or was it a pothole?
The bus groaned as the axle gave out.
New parts were needed. And of course these new parts weren't available locally. It would take hours. They would have to spend the evening, if not the night, in Mangalpur.
The dominoes were falling.
Fate cackled in malicious glee.
Asad's nervous system was fried. To the rest of the family this seemed like a grand adventure. Even the parents weren't too worried. Only he and Zoya knew that under the charminig faade of an idyllic town lurked violence and mayhem. He had tried to get them out of here. He'd called Prasad to arrange for another bus to be despatched from Bhopal that could pick them up and take them to Panchmarhi.
Asad didn't care how much it'd cost.
But that too would take time to make it here.
Meanwhile they needed to get to a rest stop for food and amenities. On this stretch of the highway they were able to flag down four cycle-rickshaws for the parents. The rest of them had to trudge up a mile to get to Mangalpur which also seemed like fun to most of them. Ayaan and Faiz yukked it up, entertaining the others while the girls giggled in encouragement.
But Bunty and Babli had balked at going back to the small town. And rightly so. Someone could recognize them.
An encampment of construction laborers on the outskirts of Mangalpur seemed to be the perfect temporary refuge for them. Asad had bribed an old woman and her daughter to look after a pregnant woman and her devar--the story they'd come up with to camouflage the lovers' identity. He'd promised to return with food and reinforcements.
A half hour later, Asad had snorted in impatience when he saw Apna Dhaba in its washed out, miserable glory. Deja vu sure was a bi*tch.
He glared at Zoya now.
You did this, he silently accused.
Did not! Her eyes flashed in justified temper.
You are a musibat magnet, he seemed to say as he shook his head in incredulity and defeat.
You are judgemental and paranoid, she retorted through slitted eyes.
After setting up the family in the cramped inn, Asad left to drop off food and supplies for Bunty and Babli. Zoya refused to be left behind.
"It'll be fun! For old times' sake! Pleeeaase!"
Like an idiot he'd given in even after hollering about the mess of trouble they'd gotten into the last time. But he was feeling less edgy now. Rakesh's team would be here soon as would the new bus.
"No jeans, then. At least change into a suit to fit in with the locals."
Within minutes, she had.
"Aw, Mr. Khan, you just like to pretend that you're Akdu. But I know you're a total softy. It's so sweet of you to worry about those two!"
Fate cackled and clapped even louder.
Asad and Zoya.
C'mon! What could go wrong?
Zoya covered her face with her dupatta hurriedly when a jeep braked hard next to them. And Asad kicked himself for not wearing the borrowed baseball cap and for giving in to his musibat memsahib.
"Chehra dikhao," the armed jeep driver barked.
Zoya let the dupatta fall away slightly. "Have you seen a young couple around here? The girl is in a yellow suit and the boy's wearing a blue shirt?" The other gunman demanded when they seemed satisfied with their appearances.
Both Asad and Zoya shook their heads no.
They exhaled in sync when the jeep drove off.
But the jeep braked again a few feet away. And it backed up next to them. "What are you doing in this area?" The driver asked again.
Asad explained about their bus breaking down, waiting for it to be repaired.
"Have you been here before? Why do you look so familiar?" The other man jumped off the jeep and grabbed Asad's throat.
Asad pulled Zoya behind him to shield her as he twisted the man's hand off with his other hand. The man flinched in pain and fell away.
The driver leaped off to tackle Asad from behind.
Zoya screamed as Asad kicked out the man's foot from under him and threw him to the ground over his shoulder. Feet braced, knees bent, Asad held up his fists in readiness for the next attack making sure to keep Zoya behind him all the time.
She watched him spin and fly in front of her.
Zoya saw Asad blurred and defined only by slashing elbows, fists, knees and feet.
She couldn't even see his face.
It could have been a thrilling fight sequence from one of her many favorite action films. But fear for him squeezed her heart. The dull thuds of body hits and slams sickened her. She would have aimed her pepper spray at one of the assailants but she worried that it may get into Asad's eyes and disable him. Zoya stood still, arms over her tummy not making a sound. She tried to slowly back away from the churning limbs and grunts.
This was making her sick. She wanted it to stop.
Zoya stumbled to her knees.
Asad wiped his face on his torn sleeve as he watched one of the men collapse on the ground in a dead stupor and the other stagger down, winded and groaning in pain. Nearly blinded by the blood and sweat on his face, Asad lifted his shirtfront to wipe his eyes and saw Zoya sprawled in a heap.
She raised her head to look at him and stood up. He rushed to pull her in his arms but her arm blocked him.
Asad fell back, stunned.
Tears fell down her cheeks.
Asad began to panic. "Zoya, baby, what is it? Are you hurt?"
"Yes, I'm hurt goddammit!" she lashed out at him and stabbed his chest with her finger. "You did this super macho Salman-Khan-style fight sequence to protect me and the baby right now. But the last time, you left me here to die, Mr. Khan! Why? Did you hate me so much then?"
And sobbing, she tried to run away from him.
"Zoya? ZoyAAA!" Asad grabbed her wrist. She struggled to free herself.
From the corner of his eye, he saw one of the assailants stirring. Zoya saw it too and already angry, she blasted the man with the pepper spray in her hand.
He yelled and swore.
Swift as lightning, Asad lifted Zoya to dump her in the jeep's driver's seat as he climbed in the back. "Drive!" he commanded. Thank god, the driver had left the key in the ignition.
Momentarily disoriented, she did as he told her.
In the next twenty minutes, Bunty and Babli, minus their disguises, were speeding away toward Bhopal in the same jeep with extra cash and Asad's phone. He had called Prasad who was already en route in the new bus. Prasad would meet them, get them a new phone and escort them back to the city where they could get help from some NGOs.
But all the way back Zoya still refused to listen to reason.
She totally knew she was being a drama queen, but a small part of her was reliving the horror of their first Mangalpur misadventure that she'd buried deep down till now. She had been unconscious through the worst of it and only had Asad's word for the trauma of her emtombment.
But suddenly now she could taste the dust and ashes in her mouth. And it all came rushing back.
For days after that incident she had coughed up dirt and dust and wondered at her return from the dead. Then, Aarti's words kept bouncing around in her head.
But now only one question bounced back and forth in her head: why did he leave her to die?
Back in the room she helped bandage and ice his injuries but she wouldn't look at, let alone talk to him. Asad cajoled and begged. She cried silently. He tried to hug and kiss her but she went limp in his arms.
She put on a fake smile when Ayaan and Humaira dragged them out for dinner and a bonfire. They sat on the same steps they had so long ago.
They'd been reluctantly handcuffed to each other then but were hyper aware of one another. They had watched two married people in love then, unaware that their own unfolding destiny would mirror Yash and Aarti's love. Aarti had been pregnant too then.
But this time they were bound closer than ever and yet miserably apart. She disappeared soon after to be with Humaira and her Abbu.
Asad paced in their room. The same room that they'd been in more than a year ago. Earlier in the day, today, she had laughed at the familiarity of the room as he had grumbled.
"Look at the curtains! I don't remember them being so purple or the walls being so blue," Zoya had exclaimed. "If you squint your eyes enough, you can pretend it's a stretch of the Mediterrenean Sea!"
"Look at the sheets. They probably haven't changed them since the last time we were here," he had grouched in dismay and disgust.
"Mr. Khan, you're such a fusspot. Always the glass-half-empty kinda guy!" She'd nuzzled closer to him. "Like last time, we could almost sleep on the floor!"
Zoya had continued to laugh at him when he had called the manager and staff to demand a thorough cleaning, new sheets and fresh towels. He had stood guard over the cleaners and dusters and pointed out spots they'd missed. They marched to his orders in fear but beamed when he slipped in extra bakshish for each of them.
The room felt forlorn without her. Asad couldn't stand it any more. He strode up to Siddiqui's room and rapped on the door. When Humaira opened the door, he barged in and grabbed Zoya's hand.
Raziya and Humaira sniggered.
"Say goodnight," he commanded his pouting wife. "Time for bed and we need to talk."
"Jao beta," Siddiqui made a kissing noise and patted Zoya's head.
He knew something had upset her. The dimples had gone into sullen hiding ever since they'd returned from checking on Bunty and Babli. Her mind wasn't in the story tonight. It must have been some fight between her and Asad. And only his son-in-law could fix it and return that dimple to its original depth and glory.
Siddiqui shook his head in wonder. This new generation was much bolder and better problem-solvers than they had ever been. He would have never had the guts to burst into his father-in-law's room and drag his wife away.
Asad dragged her into their room and bolted the door close behind. He yanked her to him before she could lock herself in the bathroom.
He held her by her arms, "do you think I haven't kicked myself for leaving you everyday since?"
Zoya began to weep. "You hated me," she sobbed. "That's why you left me. You were so mad even when I got here."
Asad flinched in guilt. Yes, he had been spiteful and had wasted no chance in letting her know how much he hated h
"I thought I hated you. But you had already gotten under my skin. I couldn't just leave you there to die. I ran all the way back, my heart in my mouth worried that I might be too late. It still kills me to think that each step away from you that day robbed a breath from your body."
He knew for a minute he'd become selfish--and that had always haunted him too. The Sarpanch's henchmen had guns and swords and wouldn't hesitate to kill him if he resisted too much.
Ammi and Najma's faces had swam before his blurring eyes.
If something happened to him, what would happen to them? That had been a recurrent thought that day and his only miserable excuse.
But he was scared to say this in front of Zoya now.
And somehow, suddenly, she seemed to understand his decision from back then. In those dark days of unrequieted love, hadn't she refused to forgive herself for being so irresponsible as to put him into danger? Hadn't she berated herself a thousand times for the same reason? If something happened to Mr. Khan because of her, what would happen to Phuphi and Tamatar? They had no one else.
Then why was she mad at him for choosing them instead of her at that moment? She meant nothing to him at that time. She was just a musibat and a mehmaan then.
Zoya burst into tears.
"I thought I'd lost you!" Asad said, gathering her in his arms.
"I couldn't breathe either!" Asad whispered into her hair. "I breathed only when you opened your eyes. I'm sorry! I would have killed myself if something happened to you."
And she would have died too if something happened to him.
How would Ammi and Tamatar gone on without him? She would never have been able to forgive herself if the Panchayat had hurt Asad.
She clung to him now, in thanks and remorse. May be he had taken the right decision.
And despite his anger or hate toward her in those days, he had still come back for her, revived her. She remembered him taking care of her before, and then especially afterwards. He'd been exquisitely tender and each time it had brought her to tears.
Even then he had been fighting his attraction for her. The crackle of the chemistry between them was undeniable. And even he'd felt it--she just knew it. No, it wasn't hate. In fact, however reluctant, he had rescued her and helped her escape right from the start hadn't he?
"Thank god, I was unconscious at that time," Zoya sniffed into his shirt. But his desertion still hurt a little bit though. "Or otherwise I would've felt so alone and scared. It would have broken me. What if I was conscious? What would they have done to me? Would they have rap--?"
"Shut up Zoya! Don't even think it!"
"You had family. I had no one then. I was just a detested guest," she pouted, still milking the pity card.
"You always had me," Asad hugged her fiercely, eyes closed in prayer and gratitude. Ammi had always been right.
"I'm so sorry. I can't imagine life without you, or life without a smile from you," Asad rained soft kisses on her face before tilting it up to mock-scold her. "And what have I said about your tears? They remind me too much of my pain. I can't bear them. Don't, please!"
He kissed her again undoing the grief and unraveling the hurt. Zoya kissed him back with equal gusto: a smitten collaborator and hungry humsafar. The fight and heartache needed to be erased after all, scrubbed clean and made anti-septic.
She wanted to feel his arms around her to wipe out those terrifying memories and desolate moments. And she had got her wish: they were spending the night at Apna Dhaba after all. Then why not make the best of it? And brand new memories in the process!
Zoya giggled suddenly.
"What?" Asad asked, unable to keep up with her on this emotional roller-coaster.
"Aarti and Yash thought that we were in love then and married. Do you remember how embarrassing it was when they asked when we were planning a family?"
"Who knew they were psychic!" Asad bent his head to suck her lower lip and they both groaned at the knock on the door.
"Asad? Zoya? Open up!" It was Dilshad.
They broke apart to let her in.
Fists on her waist, Dilshad glared at them.
"I only want to know the truth. What happened the last time you both were here?"
They both protested loudly that she was over-reacting and misreading things.
Dilshad held up a finger.
"Don't! Don't even try to fool me. In the bus, I wondered why Zoya had changed her hairstyle and was suddenly wearing sunglasses." She rounded on her son, "and I've never in my whole life seen you wear a baseball cap. Obviously you both feared being recognized. And obviously you've been in some kind of a fight since you got back. Speak."
After one last sheepish look between themselves, they obeyed her.
They told her all.
Except for the burial and final rescue. She didn't need to know about that.
"Ya Allah!" Dilshad slumped on the bed, her head in her hands. "If something had happened to either of you, I'd have clawed Dilawar's eyes out! How dare he? Aur tum dono!" She still wasn't completely done with them. "Why do you have to hide these things from me? Why do you think I'm so fragile that I have to be protected from bad news?"
"We're sorry, Ammi," Zoya spoke up. "We didn't want to worry you."
Dilshad beckoned her to her side and hugged Zoya. "Idiots!" she muttered. "Pehle Tom and Jerry, phir Batman and Robin bante hain dono!"
Zoya giggled. "Ammi, I don't think Mr. Khan would like the role of Robin!"
Asad snorted, "please! Ammi obviously meant that I was Batman."
"Oh really? Then I'm Wonder Woman!"
Dilshad tsked and showed herself out. Thank god, she didn't see the glint in her son's eye at the mention of Wonder Woman. Because suddenly he was imagining his Wonder Woman in her se*xy All-American red, white and blue get-up.
When Zoya leaped into his arms, Asad misbalanced and crashed on the bed with her on top.
A loud groaning sound was followed by a louder crash.
Zoya started laughing first.
"Nice job, Jahanpanah. Now we really will have to sleep on the floor because it seems Batman and Wonder Woman just broke the bed!"
Asad laughed too. "Mangalpur, Part 3! The curse that keeps on giving!"
"Hey," she smacked his shoulder. "I could turn the curse into a gift!"
"How, Mrs. Khan? What magic tricks do you have up your sleeve now?"
He grinned when she whispered in his ear. "So what? We'll improvise. Forget the costumes, it'll just be superhero capes for when Batman mounts Wonder Woman after beating up the bad guys. You better have red and black dupattas."
"Oh Mr. Batman," She wiggled suggestively on top of him. "You don't know what things I carry with me for exactly these kinds of se*xual emergencies!"
And even this would have lasted if their bus driver left with the disabled bus, hadn't blabbed. He had found company at a local chaiwala. And found some country liquor too. And it had loosened his tongue as the night deepened.
And an equally drunk but rapt audience listened to a filmy recap of fleeing lovers, generous benefactors, makeovers and disguises ...
Mangalpur wasn't done with them as yet.
Song in Title:
3 Idiots (2009): "Jaane Nahin Denge Tujhe"
"My silly Wonder Woman," Asad teased her late into the night. "If you hadn't been so mad at me, I could have at least held you when they lit the bonfire. I knew it scared you."
"It did," Zoya admitted. "And I missed you holding me." She had kept her eyes averted most of the time, tapping away uselessly on her iPad. Abbu had held her hand and she'd found that incredibly comforting. She didn't want to freak out too much and bring everyone down with memories of Tanveer's reign of terror they'd just barely overcome.
That evening Asad had seen her stiffen when the lit fire leaped and arced; he watched her flinch and look away. He knew she was putting up a brave front when every nerve and cell in her body was screaming at her to bolt and hide. He had smiled at her spunk and shook his head at her stubbornness. Always Jhansi ki Rani, even when battling her own fears. Asad knew she was still upset with him about the fight and wouldn't let him comfort her. He remembered when she'd run away from a similar fire in the backyard. It was then that she'd told him about her fear of fire ... and her quest for a lost father.
She didn't run away this time. And her father was by her side.
The scars were healing ...
The fires were receding ...
Asad had stood up in front of her to block Zoya's view of the flames.
And gratefully he'd noticed Raziya stop Ayaan from adding more logs to the fire. "Bahut dhuaan hoga beta and it's not good to breathe in all this smoke."
"I was kicking myself for having picked a fight with you, you know. Such bad timing! And you, Mr. Khan? Couldn't you just drag me into your arms and hold me tight? I kept hoping you'd be my superhero. But no! You had to be super Akdu!"
"In front of everybody?" Asad asked, shocked. He stroked her back. "If I had, then everyone would have remembered your fear and the whole factory episode."
She harrumphed in the dark. "Always Mr. Practical! You don't have a single spontaneous bone in your body, you know," Zoya complained.
"Babe, I thought I just showed you the single spontaneous bone in my body!" Asad teased as he pinched her butt to remind her that she'd ridden that bone not so long ago, and how he'd had to cover her mouth to silence those throaty moans. Who knew how thin these walls were in Apna Dhaba?
"Mr. Khan!" Zoya squealed and giggled.
Her husband's besha*ram sense of humor was becoming more and more Mashallah. She couldn't believe that this was the same "voh ... actually ... main" guy who accidentally recorded his "mat jao Zoya" message in a video she may have never seen, took months to say I love you, and that too when she was this close to leaving--again.
Jeez, thanks for all the heartache, Mr. Khan!
And no, she hadn't forgotten the recent ride on the bat mobile either. Wonder Woman's butt would show bruises tomorrow where Batman had kneaded her flesh as he'd helped her take him in deeper, stretching her tight. The muscles in his arms had bunched as he braced her on top of him hotly sliding her up and down and pumping deep into her.
"I love you, Batman Ahmed Khan," she whispered into his shoulder. "Thanks for shielding me from the bonfire, by the way. You were being my super hero after all! I noticed."
"I love you too, my All-American Bhopal ki Wonder Woman! And I'll always be your super hero. I thought you said it was in the fine print in the nikaahnama!"
There! That's exactly why I love your Abbu so much, she told the baby as she ran a palm over her stomach. It's not just because he's our super hero. It's also because he listens and remembers what I may have said months ago.
"I was thinking ..."
"Umm hmm ..."
"Our last time in Mangalpur ... I don't think you hated me."
"I didn't? Even though earlier today you were convinced otherwise?"
"I was being hormonal, I guess."
Asad chuckled. Didn't he know it too! These days, baby in her belly, his Jhansi ki Rani waved her hormones around like a warrior's shield--and often clocked him with it too.
"But admit it, Mr. Khan. You were falling for me and just being major Akdu about it. You know what I really think?"
"What?" He continued to smile in the dark.
"You kept pushing me away during those days. You lost no chance to be angry with me, or to yell at me ..."
"... when you were really angry at yourself. It was all cos you were slowly and irrevocably falling in love with your Ms. Farooqui, right?"
"My musibat mehmaan, you mean!"
"Admit it. Everytime you yelled at me it, basically it was your way of saying I love you'!"
"Really?" Asad taunted.
"Say what, Mrs. Musibat?"
He rolled on his side to trace the outline of her face with his finger, gently drawing on her eyes, nose and lips like her mother used to do, years ago.
"You challenged everything I believed in, everything I stood for. Yes, I was mad at myself for falling for you. How could I be falling for a woman who wore jeans, repeatedly told me that I belonged in the 17th century and was loud and messy as hell? Any other girl, and she'd have backed off and disappeared. But not you. You stood your ground. Well, when you weren't falling into my arms every other minute, that is!"
"Please!" She swatted his chest before kissing him. "Count your blessings! Aise takratey aur girtey naubat yahan tak pahunchi ki nikaah hua hum dono ka!"
"You know, I've been around hundreds of guys," she continued and didn't see Asad frown. "But I've never fallen so much, or as often as I did into your arms. Either it was some inner ear imbalance thing that you, and only you brought on. Or it must have been Allah's way of bringing us together because god knows, you were being too damn stubborn!"
"So out of those hundreds of guys, you didn't fall into a single guy's arms except mine?" He still gently traced her face.
"Not a single other guy."
"Good. Let's keep it that way."
"And look, now that we're together, the imbalance thingie, magically cured!"
Zoya sighed in bliss. This new epiphany exhilarated her. In all those initial months of fighting with him she had always wondered at the unresolved contrast. He was a se*xist bear to her, no doubt--constantly looking down his nose at her to judge her brashness and yelling at her for her supposed lack of tehzeeb. But when she saw him with his mom and sister, he was a teddy bear--tender, indulgent and infinitely patient.
In her own stereotyping of him in those early days, she used to think he'd be one of those typical Indian husbands who treated their wives like second-class citizens: "yahan mat jao," "yeh mat karo," "chup raho," types.
Asad circled the tip of her nose before kissing it; it broke her reverie, "No matter how hard I tried to stay away from you, this nose kept sticking itself where it didn't belong. And this mouth!" Asad kissed the corner of her lips. "This mouth kept sassing me and mouthing off like nobody's business. You drove me mad, you know!"
"And when you still weren't satisfied with messing up my mind and heart, you branded me." Asad held out his palm and she licked her initial on it.
"So yes, I was fighting you, but mostly myself."
"Good Jahanpanah," she kissed him as a reward for giving her the perfectly right answer and then pinched his cheek. "Silly Mr. Khan. You should have just listened to your favorite poet, Rumi: 'Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it'."
"That was beautiful," Asad breathed. "And true. So you're finally training in fine verse and shayari Mrs. Khan? I'm impressed."
"Jeeju says one should never stop learning. And after listening to you recite such poetic verses, I thought I'd look into Rumi and some Ghalib. Just for you Mr. Khan! I also came across Pablo Neruda's poems. They're gorgeous! You have to read his love sonnets."
"I could. But I'd rather you recited them for me," Asad ran the tip of his nose against the shell of her ear. She shivered deliciously.
Thank you Allah Miyan that she was totally wrong about him in the beginning! And Allah Miyan knew it too: she was falling in love with him as well. Right here, in Mangalpur ... when he had fed her ... saved her.
He may have huffed and puffed and tried his damnedest to blow her house down.
But under that granite exterior that never failed to roar at her, there beat the squishiest, sweetest and gooeyest of lionhearts.
A part of her wished that their child would be a girl who'd have her daddy wrapped around her tiny finger. He would be toast ... or putty ... or both. But then she also wanted a boy: a mini-Akdu version of Asad might not be so bad.
Zoya sighed, content as a cat as she wiggled around to find the best sleeping position. Asad peppered her bare shoulder with velvety kisses. On some nights she just loved to sleep in the nude. Because she loved to be woken up by his rough stubble at her cheek or neck as he moved deep inside her. "Good morning," he'd whisper as she sighed awake, already dimpling though still half-asleep. Some mornings he'd surprise her with toe-curling, hot honey licks and lusciously scorching nips that had her melting from the inside out, shimmering and shattering from the silken heat.
He'd chuckle at her readiness for him, ripe for the taking. "Too easy," he'd tease her, and she'd be too far gone to sass him back.
They laughed languidly when they heard a thump and an angry meow. Dobby had comandeered the broken bed as his new scratching post and throne. But the sagging bed was putting up a valiant fight in its last throes of insurgency.
As Zoya dozed lightly, she plotted how she'd wake up her Jahanpanah tomorrow morning. She'd forbidden him to slip into his night clothes for just that reason. She dreamt of how his Kaneez would tease and taste him awake, feel him full and deep in her, and then mount him in nasty, randy conquest. She half-giggled to herself at the unmentioned stealth competition between them: who'd wake up first and wake up the other for morning se*x games.
Zoya felt his fingers feather between her legs and quivered. He traced more intimate outlines now, painting her steamy wet. Hot damn, her super hero also had mind-reading powers.
"Again?" Zoya sighed, not the least bit reluctantly.
"Again. For Mangalpur. For being alive, together, stuck here once again and rebranding hot new memories."
And Batman swooped down on her, restless ... hard. He needed his super powers recharged.
Gotham's welfare depended on it.
And Mangalpur was sure living up to its Gotham potential.
The family was looking forward to the tranquil lakes and waterfalls of Panchmarhi, unfolding scenic vistas ... and of course, the luxurious hotel amenities.
Breakfast of steaming dhaba tea and piping hot pakoras, some spicy bantering and jokes, and soon they'd be off. The additional armed bodyguards Rakesh had sent had reached last evening. The new bus was here.
What could go wrong?
Asad was feeling lucky.
But the morning brought other surprises--roadblocks, rather. Thanks to a chatty bus driver from last night, word of helping the fugitives escape had spread in the area and the local militia had started gathering outside the inn. The rumblings of disapproval grew louder and more aggressive just as the family was readying for departure.
One of the bodyguards knocked on their door to inform Asad.
And in a split second, the inscrutable mask slipped back on. Asad was transformed into what Zoya had playfully anointed him last night: full on Batman-mode--hooded, on alert and badass.
He was pissed off. This morning his teeth weren't clenched in dread for the family; they were gritted in hard-core fury. Yesterday he had feared a siege; today, icy defiance surged through him.
The oncoming siege had them scrambling to launch pre-emptive strikes.
This time it wasn't just him and Zoya. This time they had the whole family on their side. General Jeeju and Jhansi ki Rani had their troops by their side. And the troops, thanks to Tanveer's megalomania, had already been trained and prepped for just such a situation.
And this time they'd get it right, right from the start.
Bring it, his steely jaw challenged.
Asad texted Ayaan and Feroze to keep the moms and girls indoors asking them to barricade the doors with whatever furniture they could find in the room, and then join him on the balcony outside. Inside the room, pepper sprays and penknives were at the ready--their safety drills from the past few months auto-kicked into gear.
Zoya and Faiz had leaped into action just as swiftly.
Yesterday they had lined the ducks in a row by calling the American consulates in New Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad to report harassment and threats to their safety. The consulates had contacted the police in Bhopal and Indore to demand protection. Back in the US, Anwar (who'd left a week ago), and Feroze's and Omar's dads blitzed the Indian Embassy with distress calls about family members in danger in India.
With the help of the girls, Zoya also posted the Go-Pro video of yesterday's blockade and bus raid on numerous news sites. While the makeovers of Bunty and Babli were underway, Faiz had installed the camera in the back of the bus to capture the moments perfectly: the gunmen's masked faces and rifles were clearly visible, their barked orders equally audible.
And now Faiz was wearing the Go-Pro to record and later transmit the current crisis: the camera continued to capture the angry shouts and cries by scores of masked men, astride bikes and jeeps, brazenly waving swords, machetes and rifles.
The morning sun glinted harshly off rifle muzzles and raw sword blades.
The others too were taking video clips on their phones and sending them back to the girls to flood news sites with minute-by-minute developments. Everyone's facebook and twitter and whatsapp and instagram friends and followers had taken up the calls for help and appeals for protection.
The information loop was widening; the public gaze on Mangalpur was sharpening: the sleepy, obscure township was slowly morphing into ground zero of terror and gunda-raj.
"Hamari izzat ka sawal hai," the Mangalpur desperadoes yelled, unaware that viewers around the state could see them.
"Izzat ke badlay khoon," they chanted, naked bloodlust writ across pumping fists and partially covered faces, unaware of how menacing and medieval they looked. Their wild cries were punctuated with crashing bottles and fired airshots.
Soon the calls and comments to news stations started pouring in, just as the social media, dominated by a more progressive youth, erupted.
The media hadn't taken the bait yesterday. Not dramatic enough.
But today, outraged public uproar and new footage of a continued filmy siege that could boost network ratings had the media scrambling to out-scoop each other.
The narrative was perfect for breaking news: inter-religious lovers fleeing from the danger of sure death and honor killing, being assisted by urban professionals and good Samaritans who were now being persecuted by regressive local thugs and mobs. And having some Americans caught up in the midst of this blood drama was just pure ratings gold.
Reporters across multiple channels were sending in footage of themselves racing to Mangalpur in their news vans to cover the unfolding events live. They were interviewing locals along the way to fill airtime and feed the frenzy.
The networks had also managed to unearth stories and statistics of rural rampages around the country of warring communities entagled over inter-caste and inter-faith alliances which led to public bloodbaths: lovers being lynched, or burned or buried alive.
Panels and debates were quickly patched together to compare India vs. Bharat, growing cosmopolitanism butting up against seething old-world class and caste wars. Old cases were drummed up, statistics parroted, experts, activists and government officials cited in animated or somber sound bytes.
The mob was getting antsier by the minute and tried to bust through the doors of some rooms, but the beefy guards armed with better weapons than themselves were holding them off.
Someone threw a homemade bottle bomb into one of the rooms through a window.
Zoya gasped in terror as the curtains lit up. Dobby yowled and jumped into her arms. Raziya had dived to pull them down and stomp out the flames. Humaira, in the meantime, unhooked the curtain rod to use as a staff in case anyone broke through the door.
Everything in the room was fair game.
They'd taken the lamp bases apart to use as clubs, broken up the bulbs and vases, and along with drawer knobs and screws put them in pillow cases to swing against an attacker if need be.
"Zoya, are you OK?" Asad yelled from outside as they heard the smashing glass.
"ZOYA? Ammi?" he yelled when he got no answer.
"I'm fine, we're all fine," Zoya called out after taking a deep shuddering breath and hugging Dobby for comfort. She didn't need Asad distracted and worried for them. Get a grip, Zoya, she scolded herself. With so many people who loved her and leaped up to shield her from fires, she needed to stop being so phobic. And by god, if they got out of here safe, she'd even look into doing something about this fear of hers. No way was she going to let fires paralyze her or get the better of her. Na ah.
Some of the younger men in the mob were becoming restless and pushed closer; the battle cries grew louder and more savage. Ayaan and Feroze too had unhooked several curtain rods from the other rooms to use as weapons, but these wouldn't be much help if they got rushed.
"Mr. Khan, please," Zoya called out from the room, "guys, please come inside! It won't do us any good if you get hurt."
The moms too repeated frantic pleas for the men to come inside and not expose themselves to the deranged outlaws whose rumblings were rising.
"Mr. Khan! I swear to god, I'll kill you myself if you don't come in this instant!" Zoya was really getting pissy now.
Asad rolled his eyes and expelled his breath.
He could imagine her behind the door with her fists digging into her hips and a pout and scowl marring her face.
"If you don't come in, I'm coming out!" his wife threatened.
He heard the door unlatching.
"Fine, fine, we're coming in."
With the guards posted outside, the guys hustled in. Together they hefted the bed and dresser in front of the door to reinforce it. One of the guards had slipped a gun into Asad's hands.
"If they do break in, all the ladies need to barricade themselves in the bathroom," Asad commanded. He glared at Zoya, "without a single argument or blackmailed threat!"
She made a face but remained silent. When the time came she'd do what she felt was needed.
And he knew it too.
Asad's eyes narrowed and his chin jerked to subtly threaten her into submission.
Zoya turned her back on him and he could have sworn he heard a barely repressed snort.
His head fell back.
Damn, damn, damn.
Outside, the drama was intensifying: former collaborators were being forced to choose sides. The reluctant local police was feeling the official pressure to protect the outsiders against a mob--nay, a brotherhood--they knew so intimately.
With Asad's call to the Police Commissioner and the renewed demands from American consulates and the Indian foreign service wanting to avoid an international incident, the local police could not afford to aid and abet their old buddy, the Sarpanch. More forces and police in riot gear were coming from Bhopal and Indore--the inspector and his cohorts needed to put up a show of doing the right thing.
As the Manglapur police chief dithered, unwilling to anger the Sarpanch yet scared for his job security in the face of escalating media scrutiny, the girls and parents began calling local and national news agencies to provide live interviews of hapless tourists caught up in a rural gangwar nightmare. They told of being barricaded in a poorly defended room, scared for their lives in the face of barely unleashed violence.
They had an elderly woman in their midst.
The family answered questions about how they were feeling (Aapko kaisa lag raha hai? Aap kya mehsoos kar rahein hain?), how many hooligans were assembled, how menacing they looked, and what precautions they had taken.
But the family refused to answer questions about the lovers or reveal their names, real or fake.
Siddiqui and Rashid contacted local politicians, district and state representatives to loudly complain of being harassed in their constituency. With the media already on its way and airing the footage and the on-air interviews with the family on an endless loop, the politicians were compelled to despatch negotiators and bahubalis to control the situation and manage the public relations nightmare that could rock their political careers.
Already some reporters were knocking on political doors and demanding uncomfortable answers: "aap apne ilaake mein kanooni vyavastha ke liye kya kadam utha rahein hain?"
Meanwhile the rhetoric outside Apna Dhaba ran high. The Sarpanch and his henchmen continued to denounce shehri outsiders who interfered with hallowed local customs and centuries-old riti rivaaz. They made a lot of noise about pardesis kidnapping and trafficking a girl from their community. They pitched more Molotov co*cktails toward the room.
Glass smashed, warning shots by the guards tore the air.
Asad's heart sank when he heard the nearing battle cries and the volley of shots as the door began to splinter. Everyone pressed against the walls and crouched on the floor.
They heard more powerful shots: the guards were returning fire. But how long could six men hold off a lawless army?
Asad looked around him and saw Zoya and the girls huddled in a corner working furiously. A pungent smell invaded his nostrils and his hackles shot up.
"What are you girls doing?" Ayaan asked, equally curious. Asad crawled over to see for himself.
"Are you mad?" he yelled as he sprang up. "Where did you get this? Don't you know, one misplaced shot and the whole room could go up in flames?"
He was nearly hyperventilating with fury and rocking on the balls of his feet in utter outrage: shockwaves rippled through him. Asad shoved the gun in the back of his waistband and blasted Zoya, wanting to shake her till her teeth rattled.
"You! It has to be you! Always coming up with crazy ass insane ideas! Aaarrggh!" he grunted in frustration as he punched the wall.
Zoya ignored him even though Nikhat quivered next to her at her Bhaijaan's rocketfire temper.
"Feroze, Faiz, take over from them please, before I shoot myself to end this torture!" Asad called out.
He couldn't believe it.
Where had they acquired a kerosene can and so many soda bottles from? And how the hell did they even know how to make Molotov co*cktails?
Of course only one person could have come up with this genius idea.
And this idea? It was so brilliant, so genius, and so goddamn foolish at the same time that he could bang his head on the wall till his brain was pulp.
Why, why, why, did she do these things? And why the hell hadn't he thought of it first instead of glaring at Mangalpur's finest gundas from the balcony for half an hour?
"Zoya," he yelled. "Where did you get these supplies? They could not have been just lying around in the room," he almost pleaded with her to make him understand.
The guys were now helping, and the bottle bomb production picked up pace looking like a well-oiled assembly line.
The girls had ripped the curtains and sheets into shreds to use as wicks.
Finally Zoya looked at him. He had calmed down a smidge and was possibly ready to listen to reason.
"Umm, I phoned Chhotu and asked him to bring us this stuff through the window. Cool no? Poor thing had to smuggle them in a gunny bag."
Asad squinched his eyes in confusion. Who the hell was Chhotu?
"Who the hell is Chhotu?"
"Mr. Khan!" his wife scolded him. Being Batman was fine and all, but he really shouldn't be blind as a bat either. "Don't you remember that sweet guy at breakfast who served us tea and got us extra spicy chutney?"
Dilshad rubbed his shoulder to calm him down. "Be grateful she just phoned him and convinced him to help us. Some bribery was involved and he now has a brand new Nikon camera. But your madam was ready to wear Ammi's burqa and step out herself."
Asad simmered. A fine sweat broke across his forehead. If he ground his teeth anymore he'd soon have to be fitted with dentures.
"I think Chhotu has a crush on Aapi," Humaira giggled. Siddiqui made a sound in the back of his throat.
"Oh totally!" piped Nuzzhat as if stating the obvious.
Asad slapped his forehead.
He glared at Zoya murderously as he did a quick mental check for where she'd stashed her pink furry handcuffs. They must be in her backpack.
He'd have to invest in a real, heavy-duty pair of handcuffs and keep them on him 24/7 for such wifely emergencies. This was getting ridiculous. God knows what was in the water in Mangalpur that made this woman pull insane stunts like this. Why--
"Genius, just bloody genius," Ayaan muttered.
"Now what?" Asad asked, briefly distracted. His jaw ached from gritting his teeth so tight.
"Mona darling thought of everything except matches or a lighter without which these little sh*it-throwing machines are useless!"
"Ayaan!" Rashid hollered.
Everyone looked at Zoya.
"Sorry, sorry," she said, pulling out her phone to call Chhotu again.
Asad glared at her. What else could he do? But at least now he had some ammunition to burst her ego balloon when she ever decided to gloat about her genius in the future.
Chhotu answered his phone eagerly.
This was the most fun he was having in his life. A super-expensive camera, a new best friend who was cute as heck? What else could a guy ask for? When he strutted up to the back window with the matchboxes, he had raised his collar and fluffed up his hair in jaunty anticipation.
He knocked on the window and when Zoya opened it a peep, he beamed at her.
"Thank you Chhotu, you're so sweet!" Zoya gushed.
He blushed with smug pleasure. Chhotu swayed in giddy delight when Zoya held out her palm to take the matches from him.
"Nooo," he drawled in self-importance. "Not so soon. Pehle ek thank you kiss dena padeg--
He didn't see it coming.
In the next second he was yanked and slammed hard into the iron bars by that same upturned collar. When he opened his eyes he had to blink multiple times because his vision had blurred. When it cleared, Chhotu squeaked and flinched in terror: he was millimeters away from a powerful fist.
"Mr. Khan, no!" someone screamed.
"Kiss chahiye? Thank you, kiss? Main deta hoon kiss!"
Asad remembered Chhotu perfectly well now. He was the same annoying pipsqueak who had been pumping him at breakfast for tips on how to sculpt his doughy body. And only his zany wife would bother to find out every helper's name and history. She probably also knew how many siblings the little creep had and what medicines his mother took.
"Want to know how I got this body?" Asad hollered in the bleating Chhotu's face.
An anxious Zoya was pulling on his arm to possibly spare the idiot's life. Reluctantly Asad uncurled his fist. He held out his palm. "Matches!" he snapped.
Chhotu scuttled away in fright after flinging the matchboxes in his hand.
Asad would have bellowed at Zoya if they hadn't heard renewed yells and shots from outside. But he did glare at her to let her know that he wasn't done with her as yet.
"As if!" she muttered under her breath before tossing her hair.
Ayaan grabbed the matches from his brother's hand while Asad yanked Zoya's arm to whisper in her ear, "I'll kill that Chhotu! And how dare you get so pally with his type?"
"Mr. Khan," she hissed. "Stop behaving as if I've been flirting with the help! And I got him to help us didn't I? Then what's your problem?"
The racket of the mob clashing with the guards was getting louder.
"I'll deal with you later and show you what's my problem," Asad wagged his finger at her as he charged to man his post at the door.
The women had really been busy while the hooligans were amassing outside. Naz had showed the guys another homemade weapon they'd put together. If any of the gundas did break through the door they would be greeted with a dupatta full of red chilli powder thrown into their faces.
"Where did you get all this chilli powder?" Faiz was curious. Did all women in India carry red pepper around with them for protection, he wondered.
"Chhotu!" the girls had chorused and Asad had rolled his eyes again.
"Good job, guys!" Faiz congratulated the women. This was way cool. He sure was revising his impression of Indian women in this trip.
It was bound to happen.
For how long could six armed guards and three reluctant policemen hold off more than twenty-thirty armed men. Asad just hoped that none of Rakesh's men were too badly injured. And luckily the guards and their powerful rifles had done fair damage to the Sarpanch's army. The flaming Molotov co*cktails lobbed from the windows by Ayaan and Faiz had helped slow the assault and take down some more thugs.
But some of the battered hoodlums still broke through the rickety ramparts that the family had erected.
The first batch was downed by the mirchi grenade launcher. But a couple of others still staggered through to only be taken down by Faiz and Feroze armed with curtain rods. Asad had already herded the women into the bathroom and latched the door after them. He gave them strict instructions to latch it from the inside.
"Ammi," he had whispered to Dilshad prior to locking them in. "Just keep an eye on her and don't let her get into too much trouble."
She patted his cheek.
His eyes met Raziya's. "Aunty!" Watch out for her please, he entreated silently, like you did before.
Raziya's eyes stung. It was the first time he'd called her aunty. She nodded her head vigorously in assurance because words failed her.
"I will. With my life," she breathed. She didn't know if Asad heard her or not.
"Mr. Khan," Zoya groused. "I'm right here! Stop giving everyone instructions on how to guard the crown jewel!"
A murderous howl erupted from him. "At least the crown jewel shuts up and stays put! You--!"
"Stop it you two!" Dilshad scolded. "This is neither the time nor the place for your Tom and Jerry act. Asad, go!" she shooed him out missing the worried look that zinged between husband and wife. Both knew that the act was a partial cover-up for the real terror they felt for each other.
He had seen the sheen of tears in Zoya's eyes as she hugged herself. I'll be fine, his chin-tilt reassured her, just please be good--for me.
The moms didn't see it, but he'd pressed the gun into Zoya's hand. And her heart had squeezed in foreboding, soaked in dread. He was going to bare-knuckle it out there and was silently telling her to use the gun if anyone got through the door.
She nearly crumpled to her knees.
Zoya nodded to him in promise as she tucked the firearm in her waistband in the back. I'll be good, just please take care of yourself, she begged too.
Shireen sobbed as Hana comforted her. Nikhat looked as though she might burst into tears any minute herself. She was terrified for Feroze and her Abbu and brothers.
But like her sister she was mad too.
All their Taekwondo training was flooding back along with the justified anger. Humaira had taken charge and pushed Zoya to the back of the room glaring at her for resisting. "Aapi behave, or I'll seriously call Jeeju!"
Outside, Faiz and Feroze were the first line of defense against the attack. When they fell back fighting and tumbling with some of the more able-bodied henchmen who'd broken through, Asad and Ayaan tackled the new entrants. They blocked blows with their forearms delivering swift cuts and punches. High kicks, upper cuts, and a well-aimed knee or a chokehold were effective in keeping the wolves at bay.
For some time.
Rashid and Siddiqui were pitching the remaining fireballs to stem the speed of the invasion.
As both pairs of brothers thrashed and battled against at least six or seven men, the Sarpanch's right-hand man sneaked in. He knew there were women in the group. He also guessed that they must be in the bathroom. The only way to gain any advantage over these shehri fighting machines was to hold their women hostage. The intruder kicked at the door and with a few body slams and hits with his shoulder was able to break through it. The women inside screamed as he barged in.
He leered at them getting ready to laugh like a filmy villain.
But when the first mist of pepper spray hit him square in the eye, the hapless man screamed and fell to his knees covering his eyes. They were on fire. A curtain rod rained down on his head to wallop him and he fell sideways clutching his bleeding head now.
The Sarpanch rushed in springing over the man's prone body. He'd managed to evade the flailing and flying limbs of these women's menfolk. But just barely. Asad had tried to grab him by the scruff of his neck. But another man had him pinned down in a headlock.
Seeing the bathroom door splinter and hearing the women's screams had re-galvanized the guys. Feroze's knees, elbows and knifehands inflicted some ferocious harm on the assailants. Faiz was sweeping up with the spinning curtain rod.
Groans and cries filled the room as blood spilled.
With the looming threat of Tanveer's attack and in the face of the girls taking Taekwondo classes, Ayaan had stealthily trained at Krav Maga classes that no one knew about. Because of the high-octane emotional overload at the gudia factory, his counter-attacks were unfocused and not nearly as efficient.
But not now.
Now these aggressive Israeli street-fighting maneuvers and strategies were kicking serious butt. Ayaan was in the zone. He felt no pain and registered no injuries. His arms flew and heels danced as the opponents' necks and noses crumpled, eyes were gouged out, spleens ruptured and ribs cracked.
Asad would have been proud but he had no time.
His heart was in the other room and his head not yet in the game. Someone was choking him from behind. Asad jammed his elbow in the attacker's solar plexis and pivoted to slam his foot in the man's upper thigh. He heard something snap as the explosive kick landed. A swift chop to the side and the man screamed in pain as he free fell.
But just as soon, another man was on him.
Luckily Asad had seen him from the corner of his eye and was ready for him. When the base of his palm connected with the thug's nose, blood spurted all over him. Ready to hammer in the kill shot, Asad swiveled his head in alarm when he heard Zoya yell from the bathroom: "Humaira, SING! S I N G!"
Asad froze. What? Why was Zoya yelling at Humaira to sing? He breathed easier when he heard Dobby yowl in anger and a man scream. Good boy.
There was a clatter from the bathroom and the next instant Asad heard a man grunt and cuss in pain. "Good girl!" he heard Zoya cheer.
He wiped his face and looked at the carnage around him. Thank god everyone was fine and still standing. Groaning and writhing bodies lay scattered around them.
But before they could draw another breath, three more intruders burst in. Ayaan and Feroze surged forward, ready to make mincemeat out of them.
In the melee, they heard a gunshot from the bathroom and went deathly still.
"Zoya, are you OK?" Asad yelled even as he struggled against a new attacker. He punched him square in the face waiting for Zoya's reply.
Another gunshot boomed in the small room followed by a piercing scream.
"Mr. Khan, stop yelling. I'm fine. But Mr. Panch here ain't going nowhere anytime soon. Sh*it! I think I may have blown his little sarpanches off!"
"ZOYA!" Several voices yelled in unison to shush her. The 21st century Jhansi ki Rani sure had a mouth on her.
It must have been a slow news day because national stations picked up the developing story of a gun battle.
The girls had probably left their phones on during all this mayhem and the media was salivating, having smelled blood.
All this set off churning ripples that were bound to reach and rock Mangalpur.
The entire stand-off must have lasted well over an hour. Thank god the pre-emptive strikes they'd launched rode in to the rescue just as more attackers tried to break through the back window of their room. The riot police and ambulances got there minutes ahead of the media.
All channels regretfully aired the chaotic aftermath and final round up of the bloodied and roughed-up village goons.
This was a total bummer. This whole shebang was soon turning into a non-story.
The reporters wished they'd been here for when the battle was at its full-blown climax. This was no fun because the family had barricaded themselves in one of the rooms to clean up and reboot"so live interviews with the triumphant survivors was out.
The media's attempts to further drum up fresh news masala were frustrated too when half an hour later, the family, with their faces covered, was escorted to their bus under heavy police protection. The tinted and locked bus windows afforded no views, this driver was too tight-lipped as were the injured guards. The bus roared off and so did any hope for additional media hype.
The only thing left to salvage their credibility and fill airtime was to interview locals and eager witnesses lining up for their 15 minutes of fame.
Chhotu stepped up to the plate telling tales of being a loyal ally and daring benefactor of the now departed family. The reporters pumped him for names and background, none of which he knew. He puffed up his chest and refused to give away his friends' identities. No, no bribes would work on him, he was that loyal. He showed them the fresh bruises on his face. He got them when he had tried to protect one of the women by stepping in to save her from a vicious attacker.
In the bus, everyone slept. The adrenaline had worn off, and they had come crashing down from its high. The men were sprawled across the double seats, ice bags on their hands and heads.
But Zoya was still buzzed, still too wired to close her eyes for even a second. She toyed with the charms on her bracelet, and grinned at the latest addition: the Manglapur trophy.
After they'd made up yesterday, Asad had dropped a tiny jewelry box in her palm.
"Mr. Khan, you know I don't wear much jewelry!"
"Just open it. This is something different."
She had started laughing when she popped it open. "Oh. My. God. This is so unbelievably cute and just too perfect! How and where did you even dream this up?"
"The anniversary of our Mangalpur adventure just went by so I had this specially made for your bracelet. I was going to give it to you our first night at the hotel in Panchmarhi. Who knew that I'd give it to you in Mangalpur in the middle of Mangalpur madness!"
"Oh, so I wasn't that one who jinxed us. It was you!" Zoya had accused him, her eyes bright with delight.
Asad had grinned. "Must be some cosmic conspiracy that brought us back here. I thought lightning never struck the same place twice."
"I guess it does Mr. Khan, specially when it's you and me! Here, help me clip it on."
Zoya sighed as she touched the tiny cuffs. Who knew married life would bring such wonderful treats and treasures ... and trophies.
Humaira peeked over her shoulder and grabbed her wrist. "Ooh Aapi! New charm? Handcuffs? From Jeeju, right? Haaw! Do I even want to know what they signify?" She hissed playfully.
No, you don't! Zoya thought as she rapped her sister on the knee. "Umm, Humairoo, Mr. Khan gave them to me as a joke. For that time I went to jail, remember? And he had to bail me out."
"Aww, how cute! You both are so adorable, you know?"
"Please, your Jeeju would be maha offended if he heard you call him adorable."
"He'll survive, I'm sure," Humaira butted her shoulder with hers.
Raziya watched from the back as the sisters leaned their heads against one another and talked in whispers. She went back to her nap, a satisfied smile on her face.
"Aannhh!" Zoya squeaked a half hour later and Asad dove to her side sliding on a bent knee.
"Zoya, are you OK? What happened?" He was already imagining the worst. They should have never even thought about going to Panchmarhi. He'd have the bus turn around this insant and go back home. Never again would they set foot within a 50-mile radius of Mangalpur.
"Mr. Khan! The baby!" Zoya yelped, in tears. So intent was he on his revenge fantasy against Manglapur that he didn't see her dimples. Asad would have probably shredded the bus seats apart with his bare hands but she tugged him back down by his hand and placed it on her tummy. "Did you feel it? The baby kicked!"
Song in Title:
Ek Villain (2014): "Galiyaan"
"You know, Bunty and Babli sure lived up to their filmy names!" Zoya mused much later in the hotel room as they got ready for dinner.
"What do you mean?" Asad asked.
"There's a movie by that name. And a song. It goes something like unki jodi shaamat aur qayamat.' They sure brought shaamat and qayamat with their entrance and exit."*
"Hmm ... though by now, isn't our jodi more shaamat aur qayamat?"
"Totally!" Zoya grinned cheekily. "And I love how Ammi calls us Tom and Jerry. Of course I'm Jerry"the cute and smart one!"
"Speaking of smart"why in god's name, in the middle of all that shaamat and qayamat, were you yelling at Humaira to sing?" Asad asked. He knew his wife was zany, but this thing sounded too bizarre even for her.
Zoya laughed richly. "Aww Mr. Khan, you're so cute! I wasn't asking her to sing, I was telling her to S-I-N-G"which is an acronym for kicking butt. I taught it to all the girls. It's one of my signature battle moves"also from a movie!"
Oh yes, he'd forgotten those famous "battle moves."
"Really?" he indulged, smoothing his collar.
"Oh, you don't believe me? Here, I'll show you!" And she hopped up on the bed to demonstrate"still just clad in her underwear. His eyes hooded as they took in her perfectly rounded [email protected] firmly encased in black lace revealing a mouth-watering cleavage.
And that luscious butt!
"See, the S' is for ramming the elbow in the solar plexus if a guy's holding you from the back. I' for stomping on his instep with your heel. N's' for smashing his nose, and do I really have to tell you what the G' is for?"
"And I'm thinking of making the acronym Indian"S-I-N-G-H, you know, like Singh is King? The H will be for bashing the head with both fists clenched together! Yes!"
Asad's eyebrows had shot up in admiration during the demo as desire took a backseat. He clearly had no idea what Singh is King thing she was talking about, but the action replay was sure one helluva sight. And the unadulaterated enthusiasm was the cherry on top. He clapped for her and she beamed, chin in air.
Dragging her into his arms and setting her down on the floor, Asad hugged her.
"Those were superwoman moves indeed, and I'll never doubt you, not even for a second."
"Good!" she retorted rubbing her cheek against his. "Humaira's gotten really good at it you know"you should've seen her this morning. Out " standing!"
But she fell silent as Asad's hand crept down to cup her stomach. She hadn't felt the baby move again since that time in the bus. All evening Asad had kept his ear and face glued to her belly, but to no avail. He was disappointed. And jealous as hell. Zoya laughed to see him pout.
"Poor Jahanpanah, Baby Ahmed Khan isn't respecting your shahi hukum, hmm? It could be prophetic you know," she teased him. "A sign of things to come"when your Shehzada or Shehzadi Ahmed Khan won't obey a single rule of yours! It happened to the real Jahanpanah too, you know!"
She couldn't resist re-daydreaming about him as the uptight Jahanpanah.
Too bad the baby would never get to see its Abbu in that avatar. Good thing though.
The now mellow Jahanpanah glared at Zoya balefully. He bent to pick up a discarded cushion from the floor. "It's all your fault. Of course the baby's going to be disobedient! Look at its mother. Refuses to listen. Does as she pleases," he muttered under his breath as he punched the pillow, firmly punctuating each sentence.
She grabbed his face to kiss him heartily. "And you love baby's mother the more for it! Admit it, Mr. Khan! Could you have actually fallen for a girl who obeyed' you, who wasn't badtameez?"
He grunted and she pretended that it was in agreement.
Because it was.
That evening during dinner, the family couldn't resist rehashing their Mangalpur caper and doing a verbal victory lap. The men were still sore from the hand-to-hand combat though their hard-earned success had helped relieve some of the aches and pains. All the men and girls had been put on a hot haldi milk regimen the minute they'd stepped foot in the hotel. It was the strangest en masse room service order the hotel had received in its history.
Over Facetime, Ayaan and Faiz jointly narrated the events to an envious Omar and wide-eyed Najma. They cut each other off, trumping and trumpeting their triumphs.
"Dude, it was so cool! You shoulda seen us""
"It was like a fight scene from an action film! It must have lasted for like half an hour, right?"
"Please!" Naz butted in. "It was our hard work that made you guys look like heroes. Omar you should have seen us"your mom and me were like Charlie's Angels, except better. If only we had guns! Zoya where did you get that gun? If I had a gun I'd have""
Hana had her face buried in her hands. She should have known her sister would hog the limelight and be the noisiest one to gloat. Though she did move pretty lightning fast with a can of pepper spray and a belt. May be watching too much TV did have some benefits after all.
But if you believed Naz, then she learned to pop open a can of whoopass by watching TV because women in soaps were so lame.** She wrote better scripts and feminist action scenes in her head and that's what must have made her a slicing, dicing, ass-kicking mama!
Hana shuddered. If their husbands found out about the guns and swords, and gundas and panchayats, then they'd never be able to come back to India unescorted by an anxious male.
Then there was Dadi.
She was grousing that her fighting wings had been clipped by overprotective kids and grandkids. She was not happy to be made to sit on the closed toilet seat for her safety. She could have done some serious damage with a curtain rod or a pillowcase full of shrapnel, couldn't she? Her knitting needles could have taken out an eye ... or four.
Najma couldn't take it anymore. She called her mother on her cell to demand clearer details instead of swagger. She had a million questions and worries. "Are you all OK? Bhaijaan? Zoya and the baby? Abbu? How did this even happen, Ammi?"
Dilshad's quiet answers and gentle serenity slowly helped to calm her down.
"The baby kicked today!" She told her daughter.
Najma burst into tears.
When Zoya had squealed out loud in the bus, several alarmed mom hands had rushed to check her forehead, test her pulse at the wrist and throat, and offer her water. But when she announced the baby's first kick, cheers and tears had erupted all over. It was the best news that the triumphant yet battered family could have got today. So many fervent hands had cradled and heaped her tummy with fluttering duas and pledges. The baby was their lucky mascot after all"a talisman of hope and heavenly grace.
Najma was so missing being a part of it all. She felt so jealous when Ammi told her how Humaira had bent to kiss her sister's stomach.
She wanted to do the same!
After they'd talked to everyone in the family she rounded on her husband, fists on hips. "Apple better be developing some magic app so that I can touch and feel my family through Facetime!"
And then she'd promptly burst into fresh tears.
"Aww honey, c'mere! You'll see them all this weekend." Omar soothed. But he knew why she was really crying. She was crying for when he would leave for the US again while she'd have to stay back awaiting her visa. And then when that came through and she joined him in the US, she'd be separated from her family by a much longer distance, and, for a much longer time.
"May be you should've just married a nice guy from India," he half-teased.
"Stop it!" she sniffed into his shirt.
"No, seriously, that way you could've been closer to your family instead of being thousands of miles away from them because of me."
"Shut up, Omar!"
He should have known better. His amorous teasing was rewarded with a swift kick to the shins.
"Hey watch it! Any higher and you won't be able to have babies of your own!"
But it got him the desired result: she laughed as she fell into his arms.
The girls chattered away rehashing their own glories. To celebrate their teamwork of spraying and pounding the bad guys with curtain rods and weaponized pillowcases, they had all decided to dress in girly pink and wear frou-frou gajras in their hair and at their wrists""celebrating girl power," Nuzzhat said.
"Nuh ah, Goddess power!" Zoya had amended, pumping her fists. Dadi had agreed and joined the gang too in wearing flowers. In fact, the once-exclusive Zingo Hotties club had grown to include many new warriors now.
Humaira proudly showed off a nail she'd chipped during her SING-ing and Nuzzhat showed them a darkening bruise on her knuckle. More war stories were traded and relived, cuts and bruises matched and compared.
And then in the middle of all this post-Mangalpur analysis and commentary, Zoya spluttered on her fourth sip of the Coke she'd stolen from Humaira.
"It's kicking again!" she interrupted Asad's worried question as she grabbed his hand.
This time when he put his palm on her stomach he felt it too. The warmest smile broke across his face. It was a smile his mother hadn't ever seen and her eyes misted. She turned her palms upward under the table to give thanks. If all her sorrow, all these years were for this smile of innocent wonder and pride, then she'd go through it all over again.
Dadi walked over to kiss and bump their heads together. She draped a flower lei over them in blessing.
She pressed some money into Zoya's hand after intoning "khush raho" and blowing the air over their heads.
"Bhai, jaldi-jaldi aur nikaah and bachche karo," Dadi announced looking around the table at Shireen and Raziya. "I want more babies kicking!"
Humaira ducked her head, blushing furiously but disagreeing"no way Dadi! No kicking babies for me right now. I want to practice my own kicking and flying first.
Asad's hand was still on Zoya's stomach under the table, warm and proud. She snuck another sip of her sister's Coke and nearly jumped out of her chair. "Oh my god, the baby's really loving Panchmarhi I think!
Asad grabbed the Coke glass out of her hand and glared at her. "It's not Panchmarhi it loves. It's all the sugar in that Coke that's making my baby go psycho in there!"
"Mr. Khan!" She scolded, outraged. "Really?" She wondered a second later. "It's the sugar?"
"Yes, Mrs. Khan, it's the sugar. Enough pretending that you're not drinking from Humaira's glass!" Asad ordered his sister-in-law to keep her glass away from Zoya.
"Bechari," Raziya clucked, feeling bad for Zoya when she saw her pout. She was thrilled to see Zoya wearing the pearl ring she'd given her.
"Aunty, woh bechari nahin hain," Asad responded"on auto pilot.
"Humaira, beta you shouldn't drink too much Coke either. It's not good for your teeth or health. Chhod do isko." And Raziya asked the waiter to remove her daughter's glass from the table.
Humaira's mouth fell open. She turned to glare at her sister. "Thanks a lot Aapi! You know, I just got one sip from it!"
Zoya giggled. "Hey, deal with it"this is what it means to have a sister! I've got birth-order rights, you know! And my baby will have it over yours too!" She wagged her thumb at her sister before leaning over to high-five their Abbu.
"But Humaira's Jeeju will make sure that no one tramples on her rights," Asad settled all debate between the sisters. "And a girl who SINGs so well deserves a special treat." He called the waiter over to order more Coke for her and leaned over Zoya to high-five his favorite saali.
Raziya laughed outright at this banter and one-upmanship.
Yes, Badi Bi was right. Babies. Lots of babies.
She beamed at Shireen, silently echoing Badi Bi's hopes: Jaldi karo! Line lagao!
The moms were already knitting booties and caps and tiny sweaters for Asad and Zoya's baby. These tiny treasures could be handed down to the next baby, and then the next one ... and""
Raziya gripped Shireen's hand in glee.
Naz was their ringleader; she belonged to a knitting circle in the US and was teaching them some nifty patterns"because with 5-month long winters in the Northeast US, what else was she going to do besides watch TV and knit?
But Shireen had bigger worries.
Ayaan and Humaira's wedding was set for next weekend. Shireen now fretted if her boy's bruises and shiners would have healed by then. How would it look if the Dulha looked beaten up? For his own nikaah? Bandages instead of sehra? What would people say?
Ya Allah, yeh ladka!
"Chhoti Ammi, don't worry when Zoya Farooqui's here! Aap ko pata hai na, Zoya Farooqui kuchh bhi kar sakti hai!"
"Yes, Chhoti Ammi, Zoya will do her voodoo and Ayaan'll be good as new in 2-3 days," Asad reassured Shireen by backing Zoya's boast.
"What voodoo," Ayaan asked suspiciously. He sprang back in alarm when a terrible idea struck him. "You won't put make-up on my face, right Mona darling? You wouldn't do that to me!"
"Ha ha, the dulha will need tons more make-up than the dulhan, then!" Nuzzhat joked.
Zoya ignored them as she prepped her supplies after dinner. Once again, strange room service orders were placed. It added fresh masala to the employees' ongoing speculations about the big party that had recently arrived from Bhopal.
"Ayaan, relax," Asad assured him. "It's not make-up. She does something with tea bags, parsley and cabbage leaves, and ... cold and hot compresses. May be some vinegar's involved too. And definitely haldi. I don't know what the process is, but it'll bring the swelling down and reduce the inflammation"I promise. You'll be a sundar dulha in no time at all!"
"Chaand jaisa dulha!" Nuzzhat giggled and it riled Ayaan to no end. "Chaand with lots of daags!"
"Nuzzhat!" Several voices scolded her for having too much fun at her brother's expense.
Ayaan ignored her. He was more intrigued by something completely alien. "Wow Bhaijaan, you're suddenly a believer in Mona darling's home-made remedies? Unbelievable! You aren't the same Mukka Ahmed Khan I used to know. Now you're all into gharelu nuskhas and girly nakhras! Do you do facials and pedicures too now?"
He had to duck because the Mukka had come pretty close to smashing his already bruised face.
But Asad blushed at Ayaan's teasing.
Because suddenly he'd remembered his wife's fussing and TLC during their honeymoon when he'd been similarly bruised from that fight at Taj Mahal. Initially he'd protested at her ministrations, but giving into her had been remarkably easy ... and exceptionally rewarding. She'd bustled about patting his face gently and dropping soft kisses on his eyes or nose. Her soft fingertips had fluttered over his face, infinitely tender as they stroked and massaged.
"Ayaan miyan, just a few more days and soon you'll be swearing by girly nuskhas and nakhras too"just wait. They can be surprisingly effective."
And se*xy as hell.
More than a couple of times he'd interrupted her routine to demand different ministrations further south as she slapped his hands away with shy cries of "Mr. Khan behave, will you!"
"Really?" Ayaan frowned. He peered at his brother's face"not as blue and black or swollen as his own. Either Bhai was way better at protecting his face than he was, or Mona Darling had already worked her magic on it.
May be it was worth a try.
Not that he minded the bruises"they were a kind of badge of honor. But for Ammi's sake and Humaira's, and the many wedding videos and photographs that would record the moment for posterity, he might as well surrender to some coddling and conditioning.
But only if his Ammi and Bhai insisted.
Ayaan spun on his heel. "But how do you even know about her voodoo? How many scr*apes and fights have you been in since you guys have been together?"
Asad started laughing.
How many scr*apes and fights had he been in since Ms. Farooqui walked into his life?
His brother wouldn't even be able to count them on the fingers of both hands.
Because come to think of it, although she had knighted him as Batman only recently, he'd been on Batman-duty pretty much since the first day she'd waltzed into his life. It wasn't just love at first sight for them; no, more like love at first fight. The haldi paste she'd researched on the net on their return from Mangalpur over a year ago, was just the beginning of her growing expertise on home-made remedies"just for him and his war wounds ... his post-Zoya battle scars.
Asad continued to chuckle and Zoya knew what he was thinking. Some team they made! Definitely more shaamat and qayamat than any Bunty and Babli, filmy or not!
"You were thinking about it, right?" she asked later in their room.
"Thinking about what?" He was distracted by the perfumed gajra in her hair as he held Zoya from the back, palms on her stomach.
"About how many scr*apes and fights we've been in together." Her body bowed back as he ran his hands down her arms: a maestro tuning his instrument. Asad raised one of her hands to sniff at the creamy flowers at her wrist.
"God, you smell so good!" He nipped her ear and she sighed. "No, I was thinking about how you'd already worked your spell on me this afternoon"my face was the least swollen and bruised compared to the others. But yes, afterwards, I was thinking of the number of jams and pickles you and I seem to get ourselves into. What's the average by now, one a month?"
Zoya gasped. "Am I bad luck or something?"
"Never! You're just a cosmic tornado that tosses my world upside down every now and then." Asad nuzzled her neck. The garland that Dadi had placed over their heads earlier rose and fell on her swelling chest. She'd worn it for the rest of the evening. It had rippled and rolled each time she moved and all evening he'd imagined what he'd do with it later.
"So what you're really saying is, I am a musibat magnet!"
An impatient Asad removed the garland from her neck to temporarily don it himself. Next he raised her kurti by its hem to yank it off her head. Before she could splutter in indignation he'd tossed her bra away too.
"You are that," Asad murmured as he peppered her with kisses. He returned the garland to drape it over her neck and kissed her along its fragrant edges. She quivered. "Who knew that a musibat magnet was the best thing to happen to me!"
"I knew!" Zoya giggled as she wiggled out of her jeans.
Her stomach growled.
Zoya's laugh interrupted their se*xual feast. "Oh god Asad, may be you shouldn't have mentioned jams and pickles!"
He picked her up to set her on the bed before peeling off his own clothes. "I'll call room service later for all the jams and pickles in the world."
"But love service right now?" she breathed, already arching and writhing in rosy expectancy as he joined her.
"Served hot ... in bed," he promised through hungry love bites. "I was hard for you all evening," Asad murmured in her hair, effectively nixing all wordplay.
"I was wet for you all evening."
He groaned at her revenge.
"And bread too?" Her fragrant wrists wrapped around his neck.
"And bread and everything else on the menu." Of course he knew that half her mind was still on food.
Asad bent his head to empty her truant mind of diversions. His mouth detoured from her lips to the shell of her ear. A suck at her ready throat and he was almost there.
She moaned in that familiar frenzy.
He turned his head to lick her wrist and nip it.
A sigh hissed out. Zoya nipped his neck too, slowly running her tongue over the bite.
He ran his fingers down her spine to cup her butt and then feather them over her inner thigh.
She was toast.
He chuckled in confident supremacy.
"Touch me," her siren song called. "Baby, see how wet I am for you," she seduced him into smitten surrender; he bucked wildly.
"Oh god Zoya!"
She brought his face close to hers and draped the other half of the garland over his head as he entered her, hilt-deep.
Her knees hugged his hips.
"Watch me fly apart into a million pieces," she demanded as her own eyes whispered close. Her fingers curved around his head; his hair curled around her fingers.
His breath caught.
The string around their necks caught too, and the gentle yoke broke"it snowed mogra debris over them as her head whipped and fell back.
And the dizzying aftershocks conspired in wiping out her mind.
But she didn't forget to have him order pizza for her later.
The next night she was restless and wide-eyed as ever.
A day's worth of trekking and picnicking by the waterfalls and she was still too wired to sleep. So she did what she'd been doing recently when spells of insomnia hit. She had brought the baby book and journal with them despite Asad's growls of protest""Do we have to take everything with us on a three-day trip?"
"Yes, Mr. Khan, we do. Because this will be the perfect opportunity to have my Abbu and your Abbu fill out the family tree pages. How cool for the baby to have its history in one place! The names of grandparents and great grandparents! If only I could get photographs! You know, Abbu is going to go through old albums with me and tell me everything about""
Asad's heart had knocked in his chest at her words as she gushed on, eternally upbeat, ever fiesty.
Family history"that's what she'd yearned for all her life, hadn't she? He, on the other hand, had spurned his family history for more than half his life.
He had wanted to bury his family past, pave it over ... like his Abbu had tried to bury her mother in an anonymous grave. But Zoya"the warrior archaeologist, the hopeful historian"was hell-bent on excavating the past from its dusty, caked-on layers"to give it a decent send-off ... just like they'd properly laid her mother to rest in her final resting place.
Abbu had been right all along: he and Zoya must have been brought together to right the arc of their tangled family histories.
Yes, no matter how stained or snarled, family history was one of the best gifts they could give to their child.
A somber Asad bent to kiss her cheek.
"What was that for, Jahanpanah?" she'd dimpled, still immersed in her discoveries and plans for the baby book.
"For being you, for doing what you do"for being the glass half-full kind of girl."
"Umm, so Jahanpanah is happy with his kaneez?"
"Very. Kaneez keeps him honest and grounded," he answered with brooding intensity.
With another kiss on her bent head, he left her to change into his nightclothes.
Zoya was making new discoveries about herself in the process of filling out the pages in the baby book. One of the detours this mini-project had spurred was that she getting in touch with her Ammi's relatives over facebook and whatsapp and finding out more about her. Now that she had come to terms with her past, Zeenat had become more forthcoming about putting her in touch with long-lost relatives. Some of those relatives had shared old photographs of her Ammi as a child and young girl.
New discoveries may lead her down untraveled paths, but how could she resist re-visiting the old and familiar ... The baby book was becoming a treasure trove of well-thumbed history ...
As she flipped through the pages, re-reading here and correcting there, she did a double take.
Aw, Asad had crossed out something on the Mommy page.
"P.P.S. No matter what she says, she really does not know any karate. (Her so-called battle moves are a mish-mash of terrible action films.)"
She laughed in delight. A straight line now ran across this tongue-in-cheek declaration.
When did he even do it?
He'd now carefully re-written in the margin: "P.P.S. While she has no formal training in martial arts, your Ammi is self-taught in a million different ways. She can take pretty good care of herself and everyone around her. That scar on her arm is a mark of how strong she is. I hope you'll be more like her.
P.P.P.S. Tell her to teach you how to SING. No, how to SINGH. And then, girl or boy, I'll train you on my punching bag to be an expert hitter."
She loved it! She didn't realize that her eyes had pricked as she hugged the book to her. He must have done this when they got to the hotel. Or when she was getting ready for dinner? Or may be during her nap?
Zoya didn't know it, but when Asad was reading his initial comment he had suddenly flashbacked to one Mangalpur moment from a year ago.
And he'd laughed out loud. It was a classic Zoya moment after all"a perfect snapshot of everything ridiculously and gloriously Zoya.
And that memory had made him re-do the baby book comment about her unparalleled spirit. She was right: he was Akdu. So many times he'd tried to burst her rosy bubble, delighting in being snide and snapping at her.
In fact that punching bag comment reminded him of the last time he'd been so mad at her for ruining his CD.
But the true warrior that she was, she soldiered on, supremely confident, wildly audacious. A slugger to the last breath.
It never ceased to amaze him; it stunned him.
Nikhat and Nuzzhat were right.
A year ago in Mangalpur"the crucible of their destiny"he'd been annoyed at her bounce-backability, her recover-in-a-nanosecond attitude.
Here they were, in the middle of god-knows where, handcuffed to each other, being hunted by lawless lunatics, and there she was, boasting about her karate and how her hand was so strong that when she saluted "main khud behosh ho jati hoon!"
Then there were her endless boasts of being an eternal problem-solver. The woman seriously lacked any sense of irony!
Then there were her grandiose pretensions of being a self-styled shayar. There was something about being Shayara Bano!
As Akdu, he'd stewed and huffed; as Zoya, she'd giggled and slayed.
Dimpling shamelessly and always in-your-face; always digging her bratty heels in; always going up toe to sassy t o e ...
And always that fighter's stance ... something he'd recognized instinctively; something he knew intimately from his own punching-bag and life's self-training.
Never backing down; never taking no for an answer; never taking any prisoners"that was his Zoya! A scorched-earth policy that had zapped him straight and sent him tumbling straight into her arms. He may have made fun of her for being clumsy, but turns out, he was the clumsy one: slow to trust his unfurling destiny, slower to confess unless under the influence of bhaang pakoras or lying about coin tosses!
Zoya didn't know this, but as he'd finished correcting the page in the baby book Asad had squeezed his eyes shut in fresh embarrassment: another memory had assailed him. He'd blushed at his own incredible foolishness from those volatile days.
He'd recalled the fire and ice of their first meeting.
Had he really said something so pompous as: " Agar ladkiyan apni nazrein neechi rakhkar chalein toh unhe aur kissi ki hifazat ki zaroorat nahi padegi! Aur ghar se aise tamasha bankar niklengi toh sab aise hi dekhenge. Jisse aap pabandi keh rahin hain usse hum tehzeeb kehte hain. Numaish paschim ki ada hai, sha*ram purab ka gehna. Iss mulk mein auratein issi gehne se sajti hain?"
Jeez! Yeah, he did sound like some over-starched, prickly Nawab from the 19th century. A tight-ass who'd been taught his lesson now, thank you Allah miyan!
Grinning, Asad had even covered his face. He dropped his head in his hands remembering his parting shot from that first meeting when he thought he'd met the girl he'd fallen for. He couldn't believe it then. Wasn't this the same girl from the dargah? Had Allah really listened to his unspoken minnat that day? "Toh yahin poori meri Eid ki mannat hogi," the qawwali singer had crooned earlier at the dargah.
Worried that she was hurt, Asad had leapt to help her up. "Are you OK?" he had asked with concern. And then that girl had turned around and bitten his head off. The tehzeeb-e-afta girl of his dreams had morphed into a fire-breathing dragon. Before his very eyes.
"Isse achha main New York mein hi thi!"
"Agar aapko iss mulk se itni problem hai toh wapas New York kyun nahi chali jaati? Bada ehsaan hoga aapka iss mulk par!"
And only a few months later he'd be (not) recording a video message for her, begging her not to leave for New York: "Mat jao Zoya!"
Idiot! Serves you right. What he should have said instead was: Mat jao Zoya. Bada ehsaan hoga aapka iss Akdu Jahanpanah par.
"Don't be ridiculous!" He growled a few days later, back home.
Zoya glowed, very pleased with his response. She knew he'd say something like that. But hey, a girl likes to hear it out loud once in a while too.
"But why? Aapi's is insisting that it would be the right thing to do."
"Tell Aapi you're not going anywhere. The baby's going to be born here and no way am I letting you go to New York for the delivery."
"No way?" A smug Zoya wrapped her arms around his neck.
"No way in hell!" Asad insisted.
"But why?" she grinned up at him, head tilted to the side.
"Because you're needed here."
"But why? Why would you need a fat, pregnant woman underfoot?"
"Zoya! No games OK, enough! You're not going away and that's final."
"But you still haven't given me a single logical or practical reason!" The pout deepened.
"I don't need to give you a reason."
"Fine! Because I want to talk to the baby everyday, feel it grow inside you every single day, and because I wouldn't be able breathe without you by my side! Is that logical enough for you?"
"Aw Mr. Khan! Was that so hard? On some days, getting you to say something romantic like that is like pulling teeth," she kidded.
Asad harrumphed. He knew she was pulling his leg. Zoya wasn't going anywhere"she knew it, he knew it. But still, he always brushed aside any talk of her going to the US. The idea of her going so far away felt alien and just plain wrong. It was such a long flight ... she'd be gone for so long. What if something happened?
"It's New York, not Mars," she would tease him. But how cool would it be to go to Mars"the new frontier! And Zoya was nothing if not a frontier woman! She had signed up for the Mars One project way back when it was first announced"a human settlement by 2023! Asad had predictably blown a gasket.
No way. No how.
Aapi and Jeeju would have to come here if they wanted to see her. New York may as well be on Mars.
"Speaking of going ..."
Zoya co*cked her head to the side waiting for him to finish. Who was going where? Another trip?
"I have a business trip to Hyderabad coming up."
"Nooo!" she hollered.
* I want to thank MayurChan for this remark!
** Dedicated to Iansomer and our routine discussions of kickass women in action in TV and film. Thanks also for the gorgeous Asya and Tom and Jerry edit"isn't it just perfect?
Song in Title:
Kailash Kher "Saiyaan" (2008)
"You cannot be serious! You throw a fit about me leaving for New York knowing full well that I wasn't going, and then you dump this on me!"
"Zoya please! Hyderabad isn't New York."
She flashed her eyes at him. "How long?"
"How long have you known?"
He hesitated. Dobby wound around his legs restlessly and raised his head to wink at Asad. Sucker! he seemed to say.
She walked out closing the door softly behind her.
He would have laughed at her restraint in not slamming the door, but he sighed instead. Dobby butted his head against the closed door wanting to be let out.
Asad glared at him.
"Even you think I'm wrong?"
Dobby turned his back on his frenemy and sat down to lick his paw.
Incredibly foolish. He was now talking to a cat giving him attitude and bent upon ignoring him"just like someone else he knew. Something told him that he'd have to pay for keeping this info from her. He really should have told her sooner. Or at least he should have shut up about New York for now.
Walked straight into that one, Akdu.
She was upset, there was no doubt about it. But now she was trying to talk herself into getting over it.
Suck it up, Zoya, she scolded herself.
Even she knew in her hormonal gush that she was using her anger as a concealer for the hurt. She knew she was going to miss him like crazy.
It's only three days, you'll live, Zoya comforted herself.
But that didn't stop her from being ticked off at him. She couldn't go anywhere but he could? He'd be all fire-breathing dragon on crack when it came to her going places, but she was supposed to smile and blow kisses at him when he went? Oh really, Mr. Khan!
Her eyes squinted.
Her chin lifted.
Better keep your big boy pants on, Mr. Khan.
Cos. babe, you ain't seen nothin' yet.
The Plan, Part One. It was on.
Tom was going to get a Jerry wala jhatka.
The nikaah prep was in full swing. Siddiqui was shaking his head this morning at the encyclopedic "list" of shopping that still remained to be done.
He glared at Raziya.
"Don't pull this on me. Ever since Humaira was born, you've been collecting her ghrihasti ka saamaan. Whenever you bought anything for the kitchen or the house, you bought duplicates. Humaira ke liye kaam ayega,' you told me then. Kahaan gaya woh sab?"
Zoya giggled. "Really? Twenty-one years' worth of dahej? I want to see!"
The girls squealed in agreement and stormed the storeroom. Siddiqui tried to stall them, divert them. But there was no stopping a tsunami of loudly eager girls hopped up on cold coffee.
Better to get out of their way. Even Dobby knew it. He was visiting his old hunting grounds and had accompanied Zoya and Najma for dance practice to the Siddiqui house.
Siddiqui looked up in alarm at Raziya in the suddenly empty and silent living room. "I wish you hadn't told them where all that was. Won't Zoya feel terrible when she sees that stuff for Humaira?"
Raziya had paled too. After all Zoya's mother hadn't been able to do that for her daughter. She looked away into the distance. Siddiqui had to strain his ears to hear what she was saying.
"Forgiveness doesn't change the past,' I read somewhere. But it does enlarge the future.' She will feel terrible, I'm sure. But I think you underestimate her. She'll surprise us. As usual."
The fragile bond between her and Zoya was getting sturdier every day. It may have been initially forged by guilty tears, pearl rings and gold tawizes, but its finer strains were still being hammered out in the smithy.
"Shielding her from it may be far worse, Siddiqui Saheb," Raziya continued. "I won't walk on eggshells around her. Let yourself be open to both pain and joy. It was Zoya who taught us that, remember?"
He shook his head in misgiving. Siddiqui hurried to follow the girls so that he could protect Zoya in some way if she did fall apart at the sight of a lifetime's worth of a mother's love that she had missed.
He should have had more faith.
Not just in Zoya but in Humaira too. May be Raziya understood the sisters' bond better.
His eyes were damp as he saw the scene before him. He should have known that the other girls would not let Zoya fall apart either. Yes, there were moments of stinging longing but Humaira dispelled the clouds with a hug and kiss. "I love you," she said as she leaned her forehead against her sister's.
Najma's eyes had teared too. In the early days her Ammi hadn't been able to collect her ghrihasti ka saamaan, but later a self-driven and tenacious brother had overcompensated for that shortfall. She smiled when Nikhat embraced her and dropped a kiss on her head.
Now, there were squeals and laughter as they emptied out big trunks.
"There's like at least three pressure cookers here. Different sizes. What did Mumani think? That you'd be in the kitchen all day?" Nuzzhat joked.
She eyed the other trunks. If there was similar junk in there too then this wasn't going to be as much fun as they'd imagined.
"Well, since Ayaan is getting better at cooking, Humaira can share her pressure cookers with him." Zoya teased her sister.
"Or we can save it for your dahej! You can make buckets of khana for Faiz!"
Nuzzhat made a face when the others high-fived. "Please!"
"Oh my god! Look at these steel ka bartan sets. It could feed an army!"
"There's a sewing machine here! So cute. Humaira Baaji, do you even know how to sew?"
"No. But may be Ayaan can learn?" Humaira suggested.
They laughed and then oohed and aahed at the trunk filled with sarees wrapped in clear plastic packaging.
"Such heavy silks? Kanjeevarams? Wow Humaira, you'll look so cute"you'll just need lots of oil in your hair!" Najma had thrown herself fully into being the groom's sister"she had so much fun to make up for since her return.
"Look at all the colors guys! You gotta love Indian fabrics, right?" Zoya ran her fingers over the smooth silk.
Raziya had come up behind them too. She looked at the mess and smiled. She sat down on the floor next to the piles of sarees.
"Girls, everyone sit down. I want you all to pick out two sarees from here for yourself. I don't know if Humaira will ever wear these. Choose your favorites."
Cheers broke out. So did the tussle for the finest sarees: Chanderis and Patolas, Balucharis and Benarsis, Kanchipurams and Kanthas, Ghatcholas and Ikats plus so much more. It was as if the silk emporia of each state had opened up at their feet.
"Aunty, when did you buy all these?" Zoya asked.
"I just collected traditional Indian sarees whenever I saw one I liked. Fashions keep changing, but I knew these were classics. Do you like any of these? How about this? You can make a kurti out of it."
"No, I could never ruin such a gorgeous saree! But Humaira why don't you wear sarees? Hey, I know! Guys, let's try these out right now!"
And the merry cyclones bounded off to change for the impromptu saree pageant. Already they were planning photo and selfie sessions. They charged towards Humaira's room but Raziya stopped them.
"No, go down to Zoya's room. Humaira's room is a complete mess right now."
The room Zoya and Asad had stayed in before Tanveer's attack was Zoya's room now. It had been newly redone in her favorite colors, her pictures, along with Asad and the rest of the family graced nightstand and dresser tops. There was even a special bed for Dobby for whenever they decided to visit and sleep over.
Siddiqui watched the women dash off in amazement. Where did this zest for life come from?
Raziya was supervising the servants' re-organizing and packing of the trunks. He touched her shoulder and she looked up at him in surprise. "Jee?"
"Thank you," Siddiqui said before leaving. He was grateful indeed at the effort his wife was making.
Except it was no effort for her. Maybe disowning her jealousy and greedy fears had paved the way for Raziya's deliverance. Or perhaps it was her near-death experience. Or may be it was all Zoya.
Even she didn't know.
Nor was Raziya going to waste time trying to figure it out. As the day followed night, Raziya understood now that she had two daughters, Zoya was the firstborn and was to be spoiled accordingly. She got first dibs on everything, was consulted on every household and nikaah detail. Sometimes even Humaira pouted at being the second-best but Zoya managed to manao and patao her quite easily. "Behave," she'd tease her. "I'm not just your Aapi, but soon I'll be your Jethani and then I'll really bug you!"
But for her to relinquish her guilt completely, Raziya needed to do one last thing. And she needed Zoya's help and blessing for that.
"Only if you think it's OK ... I'd ... I would like to visit your Ammi's gravesite," Raziya had asked Zoya just before leaving for Panchmarhi.
Wordlessly a weeping Zoya had fallen into her arms. And together they had gone and sat by Zainab's resting place. She had held Zoya's hand in hers.
"Zainab, every day of my life I will wish that we could trade places. I wish you were here instead of me and could see what a beautiful person Zoya has grown into. You would be proud of her."
She had sobbed too when Zoya had touched the stone and whispered, "Ammi, I miss you so much." But she no longer wept in guilt; she wept in grief with Zoya.
And since then, she'd started to visit the gravesite on her own. She took her knitting with her and chatted with the headstone about what happened that day. "The girls did this ... the girls did that ... do you think ..."
She was in the middle of crocheting a headscarf for Zoya. Sniggering, Raziya told Zainab about how Ayaan had teased Zoya about wearing a fishing net on her head one Iftaari.
He had recited some nonsense sher.
"Arz hai: Main machli pakad nahin, bhaga raha tha,
Doston, main machli pakad nahin, bhaga raha tha,
Bachna ay machliyon, woh maaya nahin, Zoya jaal aa raha tha!"
Zoya had pouted and returned with a terrible comeback of her own.
"Machli kahe, main jal bin hi achchi,
Machli kahe, main jal bin hi achchi,
Iss ghatiya shayar ke ghatiya baal, chee, chee, chee."
Raziya had promised to knit her new one so that no one would have to listen to any more ghatiya shayari and all machlis and human ears could be spared.
She came here often, on late afternoons, and made plans and lists for the upcoming nikaah, the baby, godh bharai rituals, and just about everything else she could think of.
Other visitors to the cemetery wondered at the crazy woman who talked to herself. She looked like she was from a respectable family. Poor thing. Some terrible grief for a lost loved one must have unhinged her.
Finally she had deigned to take his call after dinner.
"Why aren't you home, or taking my calls?"
"Oh, didn't I tell you? I'm spending the night here at Abbu's place."
"Mr. Khan, please stop yelling at me." She sniffed. God knows why. It wasn't as if she was crying or anything.
"You know you're being unreasonable, don't you? Fine, I should've told you sooner. But how does it matter?"
She remained silent and cried when he hung up on her.
"Zoya?" She scrubbed her face before turning around.
Siddiqui sat down on the bed and waved her over. Raziya sat on the chair opposite them.
"Fight with Asad?"
Zoya bowed her head neither confirming nor denying her father's suspicions.
"We love having you here, but not if you've fought with Asad." Siddiqui soothed.
"If after her nikaah Humaira fought with Ayaan and came here, what would you do?" Raziya asked.
"I would box Ayaan's ears!"
They laughed. Yes, she would do it too.
"Aise jhagda karke nahin aate, beta. Ghalat baat hai. Talk to him tomorrow, OK?"
Zoya nodded in shame and agreement. "Will you box Mr. Khan's ears, Abbu?"
"La hau walla quwwat!" her father shuddered.
"Your Abbu has a lot to live for. I don't think he's in a big hurry to leave us as yet!" Raziya teased both of them. "Achcha ab so jao. You must be tired. Have you had your milk?" she fussed.
A co*cktail of guilt and longing strangled her.
She felt too uneasy to sleep. Zoya hadn't realized that in punishing him she'd be punishing herself just as much. Or more. Tossing and turning wasn't helping.
No sir, not one bit.
Should she call him? Just to hear his voice?
She looked at the pristine pillow next to her.
And punched it.
But groaning she hugged it to her a second later.
Should she just have the driver drive her home?
Dobby meowed softly and hopped up on the window sill.
"Are you missing Daddy too?" She asked him in the dark. He meowed again. Louder this time.
She heard a tap on the glass and went to investigate.
Zoya could have whooped for joy at the welcome sight outside her window. Thank you Allah Miyan that her room was on the ground level because how else would she sneak her husband inside?
She fell into his arms murmuring apologies and promises. Dobby hopped up on his shoulder in welcome. Asad extracted himself from the cat's claws gingerly.
"Thank god you're here! I was dying," Zoya inhaled his scent as she kissed him along his throat.
Asad held her tight. "Babe, you drive me crazy you know that, right? Ayaan kept breaking into my room all these years but of course you've made me do the same now. In my father-in-law's house! Shame on you for corrupting an upstanding citizen."
"Shut up Mr. Khan, and kiss me!"
She still clung to him when they surfaced for air. "I missed you so much, it hurt," Zoya whispered.
"Then don't leave me," Asad teased. "Simple."
"But you'll be leaving me for three whole days!"
"Do I look happy about it?" Asad asked with exquisite patience. "I would take you with me if I could, but I'll be gone all day and I don't want you in a new city all by yourself."
Zoya pouted. She wasn't some helpless damsel in distress. She could take care of herself in a new city. Hello? I came to Bhopal on my own, didn't I? I grew up in New York!
Asad tucked a finger under her chin and brushed her lips with his. He knew exactly what was going on in that head of hers. "I know you're New York ki Jhansi ki rani and will SINGH your way out of any trouble."
She beamed. Nicely done Mr. Khan. I have trained you well, Jedi.
She frowned, not liking the sound of that "but" at all.
"I'd worry. I wouldn't be able to get any work done because I'd be a basket case wondering whether I'd get a phone call from jail or the hospital."
She snorted and stamped her foot. "I am NOT a musibat magnet!"
"You think you're not." He tried to kiss her again but she was having none of it.
"Stay away from me Mr. Khan. I wouldn't want you to catch my infection."
"Infection? Wha"" He asked in alarm.
"My musibat-itis! What if lightning strikes and you get hurt?"
She turned her back on him.
"So what if lightning strikes? We survived the meteor shower didn't we?"
"Zoya, are you going to sulk around and be un-Zoya Ahmed Khan, or do you want to have some fun. How about some mohabbat-itis?"
Her eyes lit up; those dimples deepened. The meteor shower reference had already made her melt at the knees. She spun around. "What fun?"
He pulled out her red bikini from his pocket. "We never took this one out for a spin!"
"Asad!" She leapt into his arms to reward him for coming up with the best idea ever. But he still needed to get one thing straight. "You're forgiven Jahanpanah, but you better not think that I can't go any where alone or take care of myself just because I don't have what you have between your legs!"
"Babe! I'd never, ever think""
She pulled his head down to shush his sputtering for good.
At breakfast the next morning Zoya was surprised by the array of Asad's favorite dishes at the table.
"Aunty, how did you know?" she asked as everyone settled down at the table.
"I knew he'd come."
"I texted him to spend the night here. But then the guard called me to let me know that he was here!" Raziya winked at her. "Kyun, sahi kiya na maine?"
"Jee," Zoya nodded her head, more than grateful.
She watched, blissed out, as Humaira fussed over her Jeeju and Raziya fluttered about to see to her damad's every need and comfort. It reminded her of Najma and Ammi back at home. She understood their need to coddle him a little better now. When she first came to their house more than a year ago, she used to think that Najma and Ammi jumped at his command because they feared his usool-icious temper.
But now she knew better.
Now she was one of his women who did the same"unabashedly. He fought so fiercely for their happiness; he was entitled to some pampering. Jahanpanah was no longer a tyrant of the 17th century. He was their 21st century softy, their black knight in titanium armor.
Zoya had to laugh as her Abbu sighed at the estrogen-laced bustling around his damad. Raziya and Humaira stood on Asad's either side refilling plates, bowls and glasses, clearing a crumb here and a morsel there.
"Hum toh ghar ki murgi daal barabar hain," Siddiqui grumbled.
"Aww," Zoya stood up to pamper him herself.
"Nahin beta, you sit. I'm fine."
A servant came up to the table. "Bibiji, yeh wahan mila."
Zoya flushed a dark red and nearly slapped her forehead.
It was her charm bracelet.
She'd taken it off to put by the side of the pool because she feared its jostling and dancing charms would clink too loudly in the hushed hours of midnight.
Allah Miyan, what's wrong with you Zoya! She palmed it congratulating herself for being surreptitious. But Asad had seen her face. His eyes dropped to her fist.
"Humaira, help your Aapi with her bracelet. She keeps misplacing it here and there," he told his saali.
His wife blushed harder. She was radiant in a cream and orange Kanjeevaram silk saree this morning and he couldn't take his eyes off those lashes that shyly feathered her reddening cheeks. His gaze lowered to take in the diamond studded nose pin that Raziya had given her and the heavy pearl and gold jhumkas that belonged to her Dadi.
"Jeeju! Your shirt!"
It was Zoya's turn to grin at his expense. She rested her face in her hands and dimpled impishly.
"Mr. Khan, you've dribbled the sambhar all over your shirtfront. You should really try to be more careful!
Asad's lip curled and an eyebrow ticked up. "Um ... I'm sorry. I hurt my hand yesterday," he said.
Damn his revenge.
She'd bitten his hand last night as he'd covered her mouth to silence the throes of her second [email protected] She hadn't been able to control herself when he'd breathed into her ear: "every lightning strike and har musibat-itis qubool hai."
"Mohabbat-itis bhi qubool hai?" she'd sassed when she could breathe again.
"Qubool hai," he'd panted through his own release.
Her renewed blush told him that she was thinking of last night.
Asad blushed too. He had laid her by the side of the pool and lazily run his fingers down her body stopping to caress and stroke her. He'd pushed the bikini bottom to the side and his tongue had joined his fingers till she shook and arched in silent rapture. He'd lowered her into the pool with him then. And just before entering and burying himself in her he breathed in her ear before kissing her so that she could taste herself on him: "Mrs. Khan, what I have between my legs craves to be between your legs. Night and day."
Zoya had gasped in fresh arousal and his mouth had homed in.
He looked at her. She looked divine in that saree.
He was hard.
Despite Shireen's multiple heart attacks, the nikaah went off mostly without a glitch. The family had gotten the nikaah routine perfected to a science by now. Old and new rituals collided with each other and invented rasms gained new traction. The dances were almost perfect minus a few missed steps and snickers. Ayaan's sisters were dying to be on the ladki wala side because of all the fun, but they had to be the pouty nanads who got smacked on their butts with a flower stick wielded by their Bhabhi number one.
The elders shook their heads as the bride took a million selfies with her sister. She stopped only when her mother snatched her phone away. Zoya's phone was confiscated too. "Nikaah ki rasm padhni hai! Qazi Saheb is waiting. Do all your badmashi later."
The dulha was a coiled spring. If Asad and Rashid hadn't been holding him down by his shoulders, he'd have been rebounding off the ceiling. He hated the sehra because it prevented him from running his hand through his wild hair.
When Qazi Saheb asked Humaira for her assent, the girls whispered and giggled among themselves in conspiracy. Qazi Saheb waited some more. He cleared his throat.
Shireen collapsed on the sofa.
"Humaira!" Ayaan hissed from across the sheer screen. He remembered that Mona darling had pulled the same stunt at her own nikaah.
The girls laughed.
"Fine Humairs, put him out of his misery!" her sister instructed finally taking pity on her devar.
"Qubool hai," Humaira whispered shyly. Her smile widened with each vow.
Ayaan expelled his breath. His qubool hais tripped out of his mouth even before Qazi Saheb could finish reciting the questions.
He bit Humaira's finger when she fed him sweets in the post-nikaah rituals. Zoya smacked his head.
Dadi presented Humaira with a haar; it was another family heirloom. Zoya lifted hers to compare their jeweled legacy and the sisters grinned at each other. Phones were unholstered and unlocked, arms were raised in synchrony. Selfies of the sisters nuzzling cheek to cheek and sporting nearly-matching rani haars would soon clog facebook and instagram pages.
"You better take care of my baby sister!" Zoya told Ayaan just before the ruksati.
"Or what?" Ayaan taunted. "You'll hit me?"
She glared at him. "I won't, but my husband will!"
"Please! Since his nikah the Mukka has left the building."
He saw her eyes well up. Ayaan put his arm around her. "Relax Mona darling, I promise that I'll take real good care of her. In fact, I'll take such good care of her that you'll be jealous. You'll complain to Bhaijaan about being Akdu and unromantic!"
Zoya laughed. As if that could ever happen. Raabert had no clue about how romantic his brother could be. Wasn't he the one who had said, "Bhaijaan is building Taj Mahal for Mona!" when they were discussing plans for a treehouse in the backyard?
The newly-weds were off on their honeymoon; Feroze too had left for the US. Omar had gone back to Abu Dhabi; Najma would follow him in a few days.
Asad had left for Hyderabad this morning.
The girls moped. They were miserable. They lay around listlessly, draped on couches and slouched on the floor; they saw nothing; they said nothing.
They stared into space.
Nuzzhat had had it with all this bakwaas.
"I'm never getting married," she muttered under her breath. "Marriage makes you useless."
"Girls, come on. Snap out of it," Dilshad scolded them. "We have so much work to do."
They were all in the Siddiqui house and the moms had marshaled the girls together to wheedle them out of their funk. An intervention was sorely needed because the moping girls had hatched some terrible self-therapy: watching their wedding videos. One by one. Hours would be wasted and they'd miss their husbands more than ever.
"Chalo!" Dadi huffed. "Bahut ho gaya tum logon ka."
Reluctantly the girls trooped to the storeroom. They had come up with the plan after all. It was now time to execute it.
Dadi nodded to Raziya to put on some music. "Shammi Kapoor ke songs lagao. Let's have some fun as we work!"
Here was the plan: when they had rooted around Humaira's ghrihasti ka saamaan that day, it had become quite clear that Humaira would never use half the things her mother had collected for her over the years.
"Let's donate it!" Zoya had suggested.
That sounded like a great idea, but to whom? The servants' kids were still young.
Zoya had squealed and bounced on her feet and the others looked at her knowing that she had come up with a killer idea.
The only question that now remained was: how unrealistic would that idea be?
"Abbu, I've been following this great discussion online about growing wedding expenses and how it's becoming harder and harder for low income families to afford arranging nikaahs. Can't you sponsor one of those communal weddings for the poor? We can donate all this to two or three couples!"
"An Ishtimayi nikaah?"** Siddiqui pondered the idea. "Hmm, that's a thought. Let me talk to Maulvi saheb to see what we can do."
And they had gathered here today to parcel out the goodies for three couples. Brand new pressure cookers, steel ka bartans and sewing machines were neatly divided up along with countless other household items.
And all this good work was set to bouncy Shammi Kapoor songs.
Often the girls broke into dance singing along and twisting to, "tally ho ... tally ho ... tally ho!" or "Ah ah aaja, ah ah aaja, ah ah aaja, ah aaah!"
They dissolved into giggles when Dadi joined in too.
"MONICA! Oh my darling!" the girls hooted together as the moms danced.
It was such fun. They were breathless with laughter.
The girls didn't know that the moms had silenced all their phones. Husband missed calls and texts multiplied in the notifications.
He was used to that sound of crinkling paper in his pockets by now. Asad smiled, eager to see what this secret note would say. He didn't know when Zoya had sneaked in these little surprises. But they sure made his day go a little smoother.
He'd discovered the first one on the flight. She'd told him about falling in love with Pablo Neruda's poetry. He hadn't had time to check it out for himself.
But now he didn't need to.
Because many of her notes cited a verse from Neruda.
"... so I wait for you like a lonely house
till you will see me again and live in me.
Till then my windows ache."
He was saving those notes in his wallet; soon it would start to fatten with the cologne of her expressed yearning and the weight of his repressed ardor.
"Love is a clash of lightnings," said another one. She'd drawn a winky face on it. And he'd laughed at her gentle reminder of their last fight and make-up session.
He couldn't restrain himself.
Landing at the airport in Hyderabad, Asad bought more than a dozen glossy postcards with vintage photographs of spectacular landmarks. He'd take her on a virtual tour of the city even though she couldn't be here right now.
He posted two of them from the airport itself.
In their poetry face-off Asad quoted Mirza Ghalib.
"Mat pooch ki kya haal hai mera, tere peeche,
Tu dekh ki kya rang hai tera, mere aagay ..."
"Roney se aur ishq mein be-baaq ho gaye
Dhoye gaye hum aise ki bas paak ho gaye ..."
Another memory slapped him upside the head. Ghalib and Ms. Farooqui may not be a good match. But Ghalib should be thankful.
Thanks to Ms. Farooqui, her husband recited him often.
He almost sent a third postcard off too. No, a little later would stagger the delivery. So what if the post ran late or if the postcards reached her even after he was back home, in her arms?
If words had wings ...
He knew he could have texted or called. But snail mail had its own charm"the texture of the cardstock, the hand-written words one could run one's fingers over, the surprise of receiving a hand-delivered note that'd traveled across hundreds of miles ... the delayed gratification ...
It was a physical, tactile record of slowing down ... taking a moment to stop and wonder instead of mindlessly tapping on a screen. It would be another artifact that they would store in their drawer.
By evening he couldn't wait to see her on facetime and catch up. Asad had declined dinner with the client. A headache, he'd pleaded.
Room service would do.
Her eyes were huge. So luminous. A thousand lamps burning. She wore the pale pink silken sarong.
"I miss you so much," he said softly.
"It hurts?" Her eyes were damp.
"Did you like my surprises?"
"I loved them. Both the poetry and the idea of hiding those notes."
"I've been researching love poems like crazy," Zoya sighed. "And they've made me sadder and miss you even more. Have you heard this one:
Kitna khauf hota hai shaam kay andheron mein,
Pooch un parindon say jinke ghar nahi hote?' "
"Asad, you never told me that Mirza Ghalib's name was Asadullah Khan! Why would you do that? Why wouldn't you tell me such an important detail?"
"Abhi mashroof hoon kaafi, kabhi fursat mein sochunga,
Ke tujhko yaad rakhne mein, mai kya kya bhool jaata hoon."
"Aww, is that Ghalib too?"
"Umm hmm ..."
"Are you tired? How was your day?"
"I don't remember a single thing about my day. I hope to god that Prasad took notes. Tell me about your day."
They scolded each other for not eating well.
Dobby came up to say hi. He butted his head against the screen and batted the keypad. Asad had a feeling that the cat was rubbing his nose in it.
I'm here and you're not, he seemed to be gloating.
She was tiring and so was he. But they didn't want to sign off as yet.
"Go to sleep."
"I don't think I'll be able to sleep tonight," Zoya said.
"Try. I'll watch over you. Come closer. Let me say good night to the baby."
Asad touched the screen.
"Good night," he whispered. Don't trouble Ammi too much." He had already listened to the baby's heartbeat two or three times by now.
Zoya got out of bed and tugged at the string behind her neck. The pink silk fell to the floor. He hissed.
"I'll be sleeping in the nude tonight, Mr. Khan. Watch me. Miss me."
"Oh god Zoya!"
"I love you too," she blew him a kiss as she settled back into bed against the pillow. Not satisfied, she threw her pillow away and grabbed his to tuck under her head. "It smells of you. Hurry back to me. I'm cold without you."
"Zoya, you're killing me!"
"Good! You better think twice about leaving me then."
The woman was incorrigible. Always had to have the last word in.
But irresistible too.
A few times he had to toggle the touchpad so that the computer wouldn't go into sleep mode. He watched her go into sleep mode and only then did he catch some sleep himself.
He heard paper crinkle again. Asad smiled the next morning as he retrieved a note that had been secreted into his sock roll.
"By night, Love, tie your heart to mine, and the two
together in their sleep will defeat the darkness ...
... so close that your hand on my chest is my hand,
so close that your eyes close as I fall asleep."
Now how did she know that he'd pull out this exact pair of socks for day two? Was he really that predictable?
Asad left his postcard to be mailed out by the first post at the front desk.
He had quoted Faiz Ahmed Faiz this morning.
"Raat yun dil mein teri khoyi hui yaad aayi,
Jaise viraane mein chupke se bahaar aa jaye,
Jaise sehraaon mein haule se chale baad-e-naseem,
Jaise beemaar ko be-wajah qaraar aa jaaye."
*I must thank MayurChan again for this idea: Asad needs a break from his crazy wife and family!
**Thanks for sharing that video Iansomer! That's where I got this idea from.
Song in Title:
Woh Lamhe (2006): "Kya Mujhe Pyaar Hai"
Topic started by dixeij
Last replied by -jass-