He felt around in the pockets and his smile fell--no note. But Asad laughed as he slipped into his suit jacket and spied another treasure on his sleeve. She was really taking this killing-him-with-sugar to the next level. The assault was breathtaking and ... relentless.
He pulled out the all too-familiar earring that had been carefully pinned to the cuff; it winked at him reminding him of those ceaseless days of lonely desire and quiet heartache--when she was a million miles away despite living a few feet across the hall.
The memories--old and new--punched him in the gut.
The note in the inner pocket was what he thought he'd expect. Must be more Neruda. But Zoya was not as predictable as him.
"Haan pareshaan hoon main, lagta nahin hai kuch sahi,
Haan pareshaan hoon main, lagta nahin hai kuch sahi,
Mere Shah Rukh Kaan mein jhumka hai, Salman Kaan mein nahin."
Of course he wouldn't be spared her own shayari. Even in absentia.
"Aapka Salman Kaan is very careless. When I get home I will punish it. Par asli Mr. Khan ke paas aapka jhumka salamat hai," Asad texted her. He'd already talked to her before breakfast.
"Aww," Zoya replied. "Perfect! I'm waiting for my asli Mr. Khan to come home. So is my Salman Kaan."
"Tomorrow," his text promised. "And," he added. "We need to talk about renaming those ears of yours. I'm not going to tolerate strange men's names attached to any of your body parts."
Zoya laughed heartily at that. "As if!" She punched in defiantly.
But a minute later his phone pinged to reveal a brand new text soaked in sensual appeal"her overactive imagination and clenched thighs had conspired to convert all sass into a desperate petition: "We don't need to talk. Christen my ears and every other body part with only your name. Brand me with your teeth, tongue and lips till my heated blood calls out your name. Swallow my cries to silence me if you want.
Rip into me
Dip into me"and with a tattooist's needle, ink me with your name because your name in bridal mehendi wasn't permanent enough.
In the car the driver looked back at him in alarm when he groaned aloud. Asad ducked his head and squeezed his eyes shut. All the way to the client's office he imagined lingering over each contractual item in graphic detail. He was going to make her pay for this discomfort and the superhuman self-control he had to exert to make himself get out of the car without making a complete fool of himself.
"You remembered to take your epi-pen right?" All that talk of signing made Zoya suddenly remember and slap her head. That memory of him in anaphylactic shock from nearly a year ago stung her breathless. However unintentional on her part, it had been because of her silly need to impress him. For once she regretted her own shayari.
Jab problem hogayi hai solve, toh kyun hai mathey pe shikan,
Jab problem hogayi hai solve, toh kyun hai mathey pe shikan,
Aao milkar banate hain, zaikedaar satay chicken!
Stupid chicken satay. As much as she loved it, she'd stayed away from that dish ever since.
Tears puddled in her eyes. Stupid hormones.
"I hate that you don't take your allergy seriously," Zoya texted him when she didn't hear back from him in the next five minutes.
"Ask twice to make sure that they don't let peanuts anywhere near your food."
A flurry of Zoya's panicky texts clogged his notifications when he walked out of the first meeting of the day. Asad had silenced his phone and turned it on its face so he'd focus on blueprints, figures and numbers and not see visions of a nude, Neruda-reciting nymph of a siren-wife.
"I did and I will." He answered her first and third texts. She had placed the Epi-pen by his wallet and phone for god's sake.
Asad grinned and shook his head.
Zoya always fretted over his allergy whenever they went out anywhere. She created a big enough fuss that the restaurant or hotel staff would trip over themselves to do her bidding; it was the only way to keep her voice down. And then she also carried a standby epi-pen in her own bag. Just in case, she'd say.
"You do know that I managed to survive without you for twenty seven years?" Asad called her back wanting to hear her voice.
"You did. But see how much of the damage I had to undo! Kitna zeher utarna pada mujh bechari ko," she replied.
"Please! Kissi bhi angle se aap bechari nahin hain!"
"You're welcome," she said ending all discussion.
But looks like Zoya still wasn't done getting in the last word. "P.S. I must be your asli Epi-pen! You need regular shots of me to keep you sane and human!" Her text announced the next second.
True, he sighed to himself. After you give me an unscratchable itch. He still burned from her earlier text.
His allergy was fast becoming an experiment and research project in itself though. She'd given up eating peanuts herself. "What if you kiss me and go into anaphylactic shock?" This was harder because since then she'd been craving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Zoya's manic research on the subject was leading to some head-scratching confusion. "This study says that babies should be exposed to nuts to reduce their chances of developing allergies. So should I start eating peanuts? But nut allergies are genetic!" He would have to pull her into his arms and kiss her silly to calm her down. "You're my nut," he's say. "And see, I'm not the least bit allergic to you!"
"But you were, in the beginning!" she'd wailed"hurt and freshly hormonal.
"True, but look, I'm cured now. Thanks to you."
"Exactly what I've been trying to tell you Mr. Khan!" was her dizzying comeback. How easily she bounced back""main zyada der kissi se upset nahin reh sakti. Mera nature hi nahin hai," he remembered her saying a long time ago when it was his nature to be upset with her"always.
And continuing their discussion, happily she'd proceeded to kiss him all over. "Thanks to me, you're no longer allergic to smiling." Kiss. "Or laughing." Kiss. "Or loving." Kiss. Kiss. "Or musibatitis." Kiss. "Or pizza." Kiss.
She'd giggled and blushed with warm pleasure when Asad rolled her under him and bent his head to whisper naughtier lists in her ear.
Asad pushed back his sleeve to check the time. Only thirteen minutes had passed since he'd checked it last. He sighed. Time was frozen solid.
The gush of memories wasn't the anti-freeze he'd hoped they'd be. Time stood still"a hardass warden that wouldn't let him out of confinement or allow conjugal visits.
Zoya couldn't shake off her funk today.
Either the lack of sleep from yesterday was getting to her or she was becoming one of those annoying women who couldn't function without her man. So lame! You better not turn into one of those women who can't think of anything besides their husbands.
But just to be extra sure, she had called Prasad about peanut-less food orders. Twice.
Watching an action film, once her favorite thing to do, was not helping. How come she didn't notice before how noisy and clichd they were? No cricket matches were on--Dhoni and his team were on sabbatical. Twitter and facebook felt dead today, and the baby book just made her feel like crying more. She had a new project in mind but felt too leaden to even start.
Neruda drooped with her and Ghalib's taunts were particularly macabre today:
"Hathon ki lakiron pe mat jaa ay Ghalib,
Naseeb unke bhi hote hain jinke haath nahi hote."
"Ragon mein daudtay phirnay ke hum nahi qaayal,
Jab aankh hi say na tapkaa to phir lahoo kya hai?"
She couldn't bear to mope in front of Najma or Nikhat and begged away to rest in her room. Zoya couldn't get over her sisters-in-law's restraint. Had it been her in their place she'd have been unbearable by now"a total head case.
She sat on the floor, arm on the bed, head on her arm.
Dobby hopped up on the bed and tried to nuzzle her. He could sense her blue mood dipping and darkening in the shadowed room. The cat butted her head with his. I'm here, he seemed to say.
She smiled and hugged him. "I'm missing my original tomcat," she told him. "But thanks for being here."
Asad had texted her earlier: "Make sure that Dobby stays off my side of the bed."
"And me? Should I stay off your side of the bed too?" she'd quipped in reply. She had been in a better mood then.
"You are in my heart, in every breath, and always on my mind. Your side of the bed is mine, mine's yours. Besides, on our suhaag raat you'd said that sides didn't matter. What mattered was that you be on top."
When she had cried on reading that, she didn't realize that her mood would soon start tanking"a mossy stone sinking to the bottom of a still river. Earlier in the day they had all watched wedding videos and leafed through stacks of albums. It had left her with a dull void in her stomach making her miss Asad, Humaira, Aapi and Jeeju even more.
Her hand almost reached out for an album on the nightstand. Zoya had already seen the videos and pictures of her nikaah at least six to seven times between yesterday and today.
Her fingers had traced Asad's face as she told the baby about the day Ammi and Abbu said qubool hai.
Here was Abbu looking up to see Ammi coming down the stairs.
Here baby's phuphis and khala had blocked Ammi's way and refused to let her sit at the ceremony as they demanded a ransom and toll tax.
Of course that was my idea! And only your Abbu knows this, I had jeans on under my lehenga"just felt more comfortable that way.
Ayaan Chachu had yelled at the girls to remind them that they were from the ladke wala side. Omar Phupha had called it a troll tax; Chachu had lunged at him. They'd fought and had to be separated by Dadu and Nanu. There was Abbu smacking his forehead at the delay and disturbance.
Zoya smiled looking at the pictures of the ceremony.
She'd taken her own sweet time to say quboool hai. I don't know why. I wanted to savor the moment but I also wanted to give thanks for everything that had brought me to this moment, I guess.
Here's Nani freaking out that I'll mess up the whole nikaah. But Abbu knows better--see, he's grinning.
Yes, Ammi did get just a little teary after Abbu said qubool hai. I couldn't help it.
Yes, I was happy. Of course it's possible to cry happy tears. Wait till I hold you in my arms for the first time. I think I'll be bawling more than you.
And here is Abbu taking ages to adjust and re-adjust the haar around Ammi's neck. Why was everyone laughing in this picture? Because after eons of meticulous straightening, Ayaan Chachu had joked: "Bhaijaan, it's still not straight."
The pictures of her downcast eyes and reddening cheeks as Asad fed her sweets under Dadi's supervision made her heart flutter.
The close-ups showed the twinkling details of her jewelry and each piece of jewelry reminded her of the exquisite gyrations of their suhaag raat. It was as if with the ritual of fastening that heirloom behind her neck the foreplay had already begun.
In this picture was he already imagining how he'd direct and cho*reograph their scenes of coming intimacy? Because except for the rani haar and her bridal dress, Asad had forbidden her to remove any other piece of jewelry later that night. That night, studded from head to toe and with help from him, she had ridden him hard ... and slow. Two flames, they had burned as one. It hadn't been their first time; their bodies had molded and clung to each other in that remembered frisson as his hands and the jewels marked her as his. "You're such a goddess," he'd said, his hips bucking under her to thrust him in deeper. His fingers had grazed her neck, over her bejeweled body, to trail down lovingly over her [email protected] to mine her silken wetness.
She'd thrown her head back and--
No, no, no. Don't go there. She had to do something else or she'd go completely crazy. Zoya changed into her yoga pants and tee to try some stretching and breathing therapy. Next she'd go for a cold shower.
That evening Asad was surprised to see his mother's name flash on his phone screen. He had talked to everyone just before dinner taking special care to talk to Najma the longest. He knew she was missing Omar terribly and that studying for her GREs just added to her misery. He'd videochat with Zoya later at night. Unfortunately Asad hadn't been able to slip out of the business dinner his last night in the city.
"Ammi? Is everything OK."
His breath caught at her pause. "What is it Ammi?"
"Zoya was really down all day long. And then we were watching the news ... Asad, there was a report of another gang rape. And Zoya burst into wild tears. We couldn't get her to stop weeping. I talked to Dr. Sharma. She says it's nothing to worry about. Women get over-emotional and sensitive at this time."
"How's she now? Did you check her blood pressure? Sugar?"
"She's calmer now and her blood sugar and pressure's fine too. Talk to her. I know that you were going to call later. Abhi phone kar lo beta."
Excusing himself from the client he tried Zoya's phone.
He acted swiftly. Within half an hour, the Siddiquis and everyone from Rashid's house were knocking at the door. Siddiqui claimed that he was missing his girls too much and wanted to take everyone out for kulfi and ice cream.
At the traffic signal, Rashid bought balloons for the girls. Multiple heart-shape wala balloons to remember missing husbands by.
Nuzzhat objected to being treated like a love-sick puppy like her sisters and Bhabhi. So Dadi ordered the vendor to make a balloon animal for her"in the shape of a dog.
"Yay!" cried Nuzzhat.
How could anyone be depressed with so many vibrant balloons bobbing around them?
Zoya perked right up. Najma and Nikhat came alive too.
They batted each other's bunches playfully. Now Nuzzhat wished she had her own bunch. She wouldn't have minded the gaudy hearts one bit.
The family chatted in small clusters. Sitting away from the parents, Nikhat shyly told the girls about how Feroze had helped lift her spirits and win her over by administering some unique balloon therapy: Letting go of fears, doubts and insecurities, and holding on firmly to hope, fun and cheer.
"Wow, aren't you glad I gave him the address to Abbu's office?" Zoya teased Nikhat.
"Yes, Zoya Bhabhi. I'll owe you forever."
"Me too," Najma piped up. Thank god for this distraction. She was going nuts cooped up all alone in her room. How she wished she could fling those fat GRE prep books at the door or mirror. I hate you, America. You suck.
"But Zoya, couldn't they have been from India, not pardesis from a milllion miles away!"
"Apparently not! Looks like no desi boys were good enough for the Khan girls. And Americans rock, OK?" Zoya blushed. Because she'd landed herself the best desi boy! She remembered Asad calling himself and Dobby her desi boyz. And then there was a show he'd put on for her with furry handcuffs and a boa ...
Her smile slipped. Zoya shook off the mantle of melancholy. No! It's just one more day. Get over yourself already.
"Girls, let's do our own balloon therapy! C'mon, write a message on a balloon and let it go into the universe."
They scrambled to find a sharpie or a marker. None was available. Bags were raided and rummaged through: eye pencils with soft tips would have to improvise. They wrote shy and cryptic love notes on inflated hearts and posed with their messages in sad selfies for their husbands: "Missing U," "xoxoxo" announced a few hearts. A sad face with fat teardrops adorned a couple others. Net lingo was scrawled across both sides of many others: ILY, lya, lyf, LAK, LOLF, LOML, ly4l ...
If Ayaan had been here, for sure he'd have broken into his besura, "Pyaar tumhe kis mod pe le aaya," routine. But so what if Ayaan wasn't here. His father was. Rashid started singing the song and Dilshad laughed. And the parents joined in teasing the girls:
"Pyaar tumhe kis mod pe le aaya,
Ki dil karey Haye!
Koi yeh bataaye kya hoga!"
The girls turned beetroot red. But Zoya and Nuzzhat couldn't resist joining in; Najma and Nikhat felt too shy ... and sad.
Dadi scoffed at such a wahiyaat song. She sang "mere piya gaye Rangoon, wahan se kiya hai telly-phoon! Tumhari yaad sataati hai!" instead.
Raziya, Dilshad and Shireen gleefully joined in and the girls laughed.
The balloons waved and bobbed valiantly despite being heavy with heartache as they floated away watched by a rapt audience that took more pictures.
Nuzzhat could have pulled her hair out as more balloons were signed and released. "Use lipstick also!" She hissed snidely. "Send little koochie-koo wet, slobbery kissy kisses too!"
"Silly girl, the lipstick won't show on the red," Zoya countered.
"Kisko dikhana hai?" Nuzzhat asked, her eyes wide in disbelief.
"Arre, go take your balloon doggie for a walk. It wants to do potty," Nikhat teased her softly.
"Or borrow one of our balloons and send a message to Faiz. Tell him that your baby is fine!" Najma joked pointing to the balloon dog. (They had to keep their voices down so the parents wouldn't hear them.)
The girls hooted; Nuzzhat snorted and stomped her foot in rage.
"Incredibly FOOLISH!" she hollered just like her brother.
"Aaannnhh!" her Bhabhi groaned missing her Bhaijaan even more.
"We're by the lake having kulfi. Missing you," Zoya texted Asad with a string of smiley faces, hearts and ice cream cones. She knew he was at dinner and didn't want to disturb him. Pouty selfies with the girls and their balloons followed.
"Me too. I love you," he replied when he got the chance. Asad relaxed reading her text. He had sensed that she needed a jolt of pure sugar running through her system. And some parental fussing and spoiling wouldn't hurt either.
It was a good thing the client was chatty and in a good mood. He didn't notice Asad's impatient pensiveness as he nattered away in benign oblivion.
Dimpling deeply, Asad smiled fully at her next text and the client stopped talking mid-way.
"Good news, Mr. Khan?
"Yes," Asad answered simply.
"Baby's kicking and says hi," Zoya's latest text had said.
"Good baby," he thought.
The client chattered on; Asad was more attentive now.
"When and how did you arrange for the flowers?" Zoya gushed later on facetime when they had returned home from their surprise night out after a boisterous round of antakshari of the girls against the parents. The parents won easily--who really remembered newer Bollywood songs? The oldies were pure gold.
Asad too had returned to his hotel.
He peered at her trying to detect traces of her earlier distress. Her eyes weren't puffy any more, but they were unlined--her crying jag must've scrubbed out the dark kohl she usually wore. "I asked Ammi to help. She told me how upset you were this evening. When you all were out, the delivery person left the flowers with the guard."
"So many flowers, Asad. You must have bought out the entire shop!"
"Zoya, look at me." He said as she ducked her head. "How are you, really?" Her head was bent and she stroked Dobby's back.
Her smile dipped. "I don't know what happened. It was so embarrassing. I couldn't stop crying. I kept thinking, if we have a girl what kind of world we're bringing her into. What if this happ"-""
"Shh," Asad soothed as she teared up again. "If we have a girl, she'll be a gun-slinging cowgirl and Jhansi ki rani just like her mom."
"I don't feel like Jhansi ki rani today," Zoya said softly. "I feel beaten down and scared. I've always feared for the baby's health. But now ... it's as if being healthy isn't enough ... Parents do everything for their daughter"good health, education, opportunities ... and in an instant someone could take that away just because she's a girl. Asad, she was only 15!"
"Oh god!" He squeezed his eyes shut in horror. He hadn't yet tuned in to the news. "Baby, stop tormenting yourself." He didn't want her staring into that abyss. It would be too hard to climb out. "Please."
"Asad, I want you so bad right now! I hate that I can't seem to hold myself together without you. I can't remember ever feeling this vulnerable. How do parents cope when such things happen to their kids?" Zoya wept as she hugged her knees. She was wearing his kurta and the sleeves flopped over her fingers.
Frustration mushroomed; he cursed the distance. "Zoya," Asad whispered. His hand had unconsciously risen to touch her through the screen. Her broken words made his helplessness worse. He knew she would have a rough night tonight. She'd probably have nightmares. He wanted to be there to hold her through it.
"Less than 24 hours baby, please. Sleep with Ammi tonight."
She shook her head. Even she knew that the nightmares might come bringing demons to drag her down to the pits of hell. "I don't want to bother Ammi."
Asad didn't try to talk her out of it. He would just tell Ammi himself and she would take care of the rest. Right now he needed to talk Zoya through her fragile state of mind.
"Do you want to go New York? To be with Aapi and Jeeju, see your friends?"
"No! I mean yes, but only if you come with me."
"Then I don't want to go. But thanks for offering. I know you couldn't have been happy about it."
"If it made you happy, I'd learn to live with it."
"You make me happy."
"Call Aapi. Tell her to come here and stay with us."
"OK, but she won't come till much later, I know. Jeeju will say, bahut na-insafi hai. Apni begum apne paas mein, and you want to separate my begum from me for so long.' Then he'll sing lambi judaii," Zoya smiled and rolled her eyes weakly.
They sighed in miserable silence.
"Tell me what I can do for you." Asad begged. "Anything."
"Sing for me," she urged him and Asad smiled, half-eager to please her yet embarrassed.
"Please! I'll even get your guitar and play the chords you taught me."
He sang "Zindagi ki yahi reet hai," softly ... hesistantly. Asad didn't even wince at her missed notes. Zoya's hungry eyes drank in his face. Her fingers forgot to strum the guitar; instead they drummed and stroked her stomach in a lulling rhythm.
"Will you be able to sleep OK?" Asad asked finally.
"Good. Remember Neruda's words from your last note in my shirt pocket?" Asad fished it out of his wallet (he'd dated them and put them in chronological order) and read it to her: " Already, you are mine. Rest with your dream inside my dream ... and already, not only am I not without you, I alone am your dream.'"
"I'll be OK, Asad. Don't worry about me. I didn't mean to bring you down."
"I wish I'd brought you here with me. I'd hold you right now and kiss away those tears."
"There would be no tears if I was with you. No nightmares either. I didn't know how prophetic that note would be: you alone are my dream. And remember, you said that if you took me with you then you'd worry even more and not get any work done!"
"I was a damned fool," he said as his pinched the bridge of his nose.
"More than incredibly foolish."
He'd just have to fly in earlier, Asad decided after they'd wished each other goodnight and hung up to stare at the lonely ceiling. He'd even been desperate enough to find out about travelling by car or train. But there was no way to get home sooner than on a flight. And the first flight out was at 6 the next morning. Indian aviation authorities had still not greenlighted domestic red eye flights to allow overnight travel.
Irritation flared through him.
Incredibly foolish Indian authorities and carriers.
In the middle of the night he jerked wide awake. Asad looked at the clock display: 3:17. He could have sworn he heard Zoya's voice calling out his name.
When he rang her he could hear the tears in her voice.
She had rushed to grab her phone before it woke Ammi.
Zoya didn't even know when she'd fallen into an exhausted sleep and when her mother-in-law had slipped in to sleep beside her. But she had welcomed Dilshad's cool hand on her forehead and soothing murmur when the nightmare seized her by her throat and shook her awake.
Thank you Asad.
"Zoya?" His voice cracked in alarm.
"I'm OK," she whispered.
No, she wasn't.
"Ye"s ... How did you know?" she hiccupped.
"I just knew."
"The bat signal lit up, right?" Zoya sniffed.
Asad grinned. Her good humor must be returning.
"Come to think of it, my bat antennae were vibrating."
"Bats have antennae? On their heads?"
"Umm, babe, my other head ..."
She giggled softly as she fell back into her pillow. His pillow actually. "Mr. Khan, you sure make a batgirl feel cherished. I'm sorry. Looks like you're not getting any sleep worrying about me. Sleepless in Hyderabad?"
"I'll survive. And make up for it when I get home."
"What if I don't let you get any sleep when you get home?" she teased.
"Well, then at least I'd be getting lucky!"
Zoya laughed under her breath. "Yes, you would. And that's a promise Jahanpanah."
"Asad?" She asked a few minutes later.
"I'm not crying because of any nightmares anymore. Or because you're not here. I'm crying because I'm the lucky one"I have you."
"Good. But can't you feel lucky with smiles instead of tears? That dimple of yours has gone into hiding, right? Isn't that unfair to the world? So much be-insafi and global atyachaar!"
"My dimple went to Hyderabad with you. It must be hiding somewhere in your bag. No, it's probably in the palm of your hand. See?"
She flashed him a smile when he looked up at her from his palm. But it didn't have its usual 440-volt brilliance.
"I'll bring it back with me then. Just a few more hours. You want to listen to the baby's heartbeat together?" He played it on his laptop when she nodded yes.
An anthem, it knitted their hearts together tighter.
"Put you hand on your stomach and close your eyes." Asad told her. "I missed reciting Allah's name yesterday."
She repeated the invocation after him; somewhere around the fifty-third chant Zoya fell asleep, phone still to her ear. He heard her even breathing and relaxed. His fingers brushed against the note in his kurta pocket. It had been his latest find"rolled up in a tie.
"But I love your feet
only because they walked
upon the earth and upon
the wind and upon the waters,
until they found me."
" ... And nearly ran me over," Zoya had added, sneaking in a reference to their first few volatile meetings.
Meetings? Head-on collisions rather.
Galvanized, Asad rose to offer prayers and get ready. He had an early flight to catch.
Zoya had just showered and was humming "Zindagi ki yahi reet hai" as she changed the sheets on the bed. He had to grab her and cover her mouth so that she wouldn't squeal in surprise and bring Najma and Ammi rushing down to check on her.
An excited and unjealous Dobby wound around and rubbed himself against Asad's legs.
Zoya's eyes slashed daggers at him for scaring her, and then for delaying their reunion kiss. She struggled to break free. Asad removed his hand to place a finger on his lips to make sure she kept quiet. She smacked his arm away and launched herself into his arms.
Zoya wanted so bad to whoop out his name in celebration but he wouldn't let her. He swooped to feast on her mouth and shush her, parting her lips to plunge deeper. She bit his lip before sucking on it. They moaned in hungry protest against a separation that felt like a life sentence But when she sagged against him to inhale his scent she'd already forgotten all eager questions about his early return or complaints on being ambushed.
He was home. It was enough.
She could breathe again. She no longer felt that weight squeezing her chest.
Reading braille Asad ran his thumb over her lips as though feeling them for the first time. She grabbed his hand to plant kisses on his palm. "I'm sorry that I was such a baby and you had to cut your trip short because of me. But thank you, thank you so much for coming home early!" Zoya whispered against his throat.
He rocked her to him. "I left Prasad and another associate there. They can handle the rest of it. I'll teleconference with the client later this afternoon."
Asad scooped her up to lay her down on the bed. He knelt on the floor and pushed her shirt up to stroke her baby bump before showering it with a thousand kisses and resting his cheek against her skin. "I missed you both so much!"
Zoya laughed as the baby kicked its Abbu's face. "We missed you like crazy too! Welcome home Jahanpanah!"
He looked down at her face. Yes, there it was: his beacon, that slice of moonlight"that dimple.
Yes, he was home.
Offerings at an altar, he kissed every inch of her glowing face. Even the tear that snuck down her cheek.
"You are full of wonderful surprises today," she sang out a few hours later. "I'd give you a wonderful surprise of my own but I'm afraid you'll crash the car!"
Asad was driving them to the hospital.
He groaned. "I could pull over under that tree over there."
"Mr. Khan, always so full of yourself!"
He looked at her pointedly and she blushed hard.
"Stop pretending to be so shocked Mrs. Khan. You're the one who puts these devilish ideas into my head!"
"Your head!" She couldn't squelch the peals of laughter that erupted.
He blushed this time. "OK, behave now. You've gotten me into enough trouble for one day as it is."
She didn't care if he called her Mallika-e-Musibat today. She was too deliriously happy. They'd made love and later fallen asleep in each other's arms for a much-needed catnap. When she stirred awake she saw him gazing down at her ready to rinse and repeat. He had plundered some of the bouquets to shower her with multi-colored petals. They still clung to her lambent body. His dark head had bent to blot out the late morning sun. His fingers sleeked and caressed her intimately.
She was on fire again, burnished and re-branded.
When she'd stepped out to get him coffee, Zoya saw Najma going up the stairs with a cup and laden plate. She was probably going to study and have breakfast in her room. Dilshad was still in the kitchen. She turned to Zoya and beamed.
"When did Asad come?" she asked.
Zoya had turned crimson. How did Ammi know? Had she heard them? They'd tried to be super quiet. Under different circumstances she'd have snorted at the question: When did Asad come? Umm, twice actually since he got back! Thank you, thank you very much.
"How did you know Ammi?" Zoya asked.
"Your face told me. Aur black and bitter coffee toh tum peeti nahin! Bas, case solved."
When Zoya told Asad about his mother's detective skills he'd covered his face in embarrassment. Trouble with a capital T"that was his wife. But even he'd roared with laughter when she told him about her silent monologue in response to his mother's question. He'd kissed her hard in punishment and reward"that sinful mouth was both trouble and thrill.
They'd just been to the dargah. Now they were going to the children's ward in the hospital to distribute the rest of the flowers from their room. Zoya had whined about the flowers dying soon and what a tragic waste that would be. If only there was a way to prolong their life.
"Let's take the rest of them to cheer up some sick kids," Asad had suggested.
"Mr. Khan you're an absolute genius," she'd clapped her hands in delight. "An Einstein and Mother Teresa rolled into one."
"So I have funny hair and am a virgin?" Asad asked, an eyebrow quirked.
Zoya had looked up at the clock. "Well, you have been a virgin for the past two hours. We'll have to do something to fix that."
And then the post came.
Dilshad and Najma had come running down on hearing Zoya shriek. Asad too dashed out, hair wild and shirt still undone.
Zoya was bouncing on her toes. "Ammi! Mr. Khan sent me the most beautiful postcards from Hyderabad," she explained to her mother-in-law who was still clutching her racing heart.
Dilshad looked at her son standing at the bedroom door and glared at him. He fled inside.
Allah! Her children hadn't given her a heart attack as yet. But she was pretty sure that her daughter-in-law would definitely succeed in doing so one of these days. And then heaven alone help her once the grandkids came.
"Really? Postcards all the way from Hyderabad?" she indulged her bahu. "Show me."
"Umm, voh ... actually ... they're like ... you know ... voh ..."
Dilshad laughed. "Mr. Khan ki toh main acchi khabar loongi! Jaan le rakhi hai!"
Najma stomped up the stairs in mutual irritation. So not fair. Americans might rock but America, I totally hate you.
Song in Title:
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007): "Bol Na Halke Halke"
Zoya sighed in contentment. Finally she'd given in and consented to wearing maternity jeans. Thank you Allah miyan"at least they were still far more comfy than any other piece of clothing known to man; she had also commandeered more and more of Asad's shirts. He had come around to accept this forced sharing as gracefully as possible""you owe it to your baby's mom" is what she'd silenced him with. But may be she'd really won him over by her usual charm and wit: "Jahanpanah's kaneez has exclusive rights on Jahanpanah's kameez. Deal with it."
Comfort was a relative thing these days.
Her stomach itched like the dic*kens but everyone kept telling her not to scratch it. "Put oil or lotion. Permanent stretch marks pad jayenge beta," Shireen told her when she saw Zoya go savagely at her mounding stomach with both hands.
"I don't care," Zoya screamed in her head as she set upon her tummy once again. "Who cares about stretch marks. This feels like heaven right now."
Dilshad glared at her and Zoya ducked her head. Her mother-in-law had been threatening to tape oven mitts on her hands if she didn't cease from attacking herself like a manic monkey.
Shireen and Badi Bi were over for lunch. Nikhat had joined work back at her father's office to keep sane and also keep an eye on her father who'd insisted on going back to work too; Nuzzhat was chin-deep in rehearsals for her troupe's street theater campaigns and performances.
Shireen was missing her favorite son and felt as if she had nothing at all to do with her time. For once Nuzzhat was so glad for her mother's preoccupation with her brother. No nikaah talk and no martyred nikaah sighs were always a good way to start one's morning.
Shireen returned to the subject she had come to discuss. "Bhaijaan and Bhabhi want us all to move back in with them. Bhabhi says that the house feels too big and empty with no one there. Ghar kabristan lagta hai' she says. I don't know what to do."
"What does Rashid want?" Dilshad asked.
"He says he wants to discuss it with Ayaan first. But a part of me wants to go back. It was so nice no, when we were all together for those few months? Bhabhi was saying that she's going to talk to you all about it too."
"It was nice to be together under one roof," Dilshad said. "Back then it had been a necessity. But Asad would never leave this house."
Zoya nodded in silent agreement. Good or bad, this house was their home and it was an elemental part of Asad's identity as a son and brother. Even when they'd lived under her father's roof at the Siddiqui house it was a given: that was only a temporary thing"a circumstance borne out by dire necessity, nothing else.
And as much as she railed against how unfair it was that girls were expected to leave their families to live and adjust in their husbands' homes but never men in their wives' homes, she would never ask this of Asad.
Because this was more her home than her father's home.
And this place, this little corner of bright earth, these walls"they were all Asad. Her eyes lifted to the main door. And as if it was yesterday, Zoya remembered her first sher as she'd crossed over the threshold into this house"into her foreshadowed destiny:
"Aapke ghar mein mohabbat hai iss kadar chhayi hui,
Deewarein tak lovers hain,
Kono mein mila karti hain."
She had found her family right here, in this house.
An Ammi who loved her to pieces ...
... a husband who had reunited her with her father and sister.
... an indulgent lover who had fought for her"well, after fighting with her for months! "From musibat mehmaan to Mrs. Jahanpanah?" Asad often teased her. And just as often Zoya would chirp out one of her many trusted shers:
"Teri meri zindagi ko mil gaya naya track,
Teri meri zindagi ko mil gaya naya track,
Jab Ms. Farooqui ko mil gaye Jahanpanah six packs!"
"Oh really?" he'd say. "The last time you recited this sher it was: tedhi medhi zindagi ko mil gaya sahi track.' You should try to be more faithful to your own compositions."
"Whatevs! It's called improvising, Mr. Khan. And does it really matter? The last line is still the same!"
"The punchline you mean."
Shireen laughed shyly as she looked from Zoya's spaced-out face to Dilshad's. "Yes, even I can't imagine Asad living permanently in his father-in-law's house. Ayaan might think the same. Let's see what happens."
"May be the kids can all stay together and we parents can move to the big house," Dadi offered.
"NOOo!" Zoya hollered as she reached out to hug and shield Dilshad. "Never! I'm not living without Ammi."
Dadi couldn't resist. "Dekh lo bhai. Aisi hoti hai saas bahu ki mohabbat. If they started to show this kind of a relationship on Indian soap operas, our poor Naz would have nothing to watch!"
Dilshad laughed as she hugged Zoya back and kissed her head. She arrested her daughter-in-law's hand as it crept to her scratch her tummy again.
"Haye Allah Ammi, will she be good to my Nikhat?" Shireen fretted over new yet familiar worries. Terrible visions were making home in her mind.
"Of course!" They all reassured her.
"Nahin toh our Nuzzhat will fix her Naz aunty when she marries Faiz!" Badi bi declared firmly. The family knew that the next nikaah was a foregone conclusion.
"Pata nahin why we give our daughters away ... Darr lagta hai ... the things they show in these serials ..." Shireen wondered. She would love for Nuzzhat to get married and Faiz would be just perfect, but ...
Both daughters so far away? No. That wasn't sitting right with her.
It was getting warmer. Warm enough to sit out on the bench at night snuggled up under a shawl. And that's where they sat this night after dinner when Dilshad and Najma had gone upstairs.
Asad rested his palm on her stomach hoping to track the baby's movements. But looks like the baby too had turned in for the night like its Dadi and Phuphi.
"Hmm ..." His cheek rested against her head. She had scooted close enough for him to pull her in his lap. But it was getting harder and harder to do this: the baby kept getting in the way.
"When you were away, I was reliving all of our history and memories together. I even looked at pictures since the time I came here from New York ... my facebook posts and all ... and I realized one thing."
"What was that?" He nibbled on her knuckles.
"Before we got together I often lashed out against you for being emotionally challenged or not being honest about your feelings. I knew that you felt something for me but I thought you hated yourself for being attracted to me. I never realized the pain you were going through for feeling trapped by Tanveer's con. I'm so sorry."
Asad dropped a kiss on her head. "There's nothing to be sorry about. On some days I think that I deserved it for being so rotten to you at first."
Zoya rushed to cover his mouth. "No, don't even think it! I should have known that you're so upright, and that as a man of principle you'd do the right thing, no matter what the cost. May be that's the quality I fell in love with in the first place. But I was so caught up in my own grief and insecurities that I couldn't see your helplessness."
Zoya interlaced her fingers with his on her stomach. "If her baby really had been yours, I wouldn't have wanted you to leave her. I would have wanted you to do the right thing too."
His arms tightened around her as Asad sighed. "Her baby could never have been mine. She could have drugged me, or put a gun to my head, and the baby still would never be mine. But yes, those days were awful. I had always thought myself so principled, absolutely right, and above all reproach ... I must've been so holier-than-thou." He grinned to see her nod in complete solemnity. "And then her accusation ... it destroyed me"everything came crashing down. I couldn't trust myself anymore. I thought myself unworthy ... unworthy of you, of Ammi ..."
Zoya gripped his hand tightly. Bi*tch! She hated Tanveer for this the most.
Asad continued quietly, excavating decayed layers of remorse and trauma.
"Everyday I battled with myself"on the one hand I couldn't believe that I'd be capable of doing something so uncharacteristic, so ungodly. Thank god Ammi believed me incapable of it too or we'd have never been together today. Her faith in me gave me the courage to start trusting myself ... to start fighting for us."
Zoya kissed his shoulder. Her eyes pricked. "That's what I mean," she whispered. "I wish I had been your strength too then, just like Ammi. I wish I knew what you were going through."
Asad gathered her closer. "But how could you? I didn't have the guts to tell you; I was so ashamed. I knew you were going through your own pain. It killed me. You know ... I came pretty close to telling Tanveer that I would take care of the baby but needed to be with you, just you. That I couldn't marry her."
"Really?" Zoya gasped. "So what you said to her later about marrying me and raising the child as our own was all true? It wasn't a trick to throw her off?"
Asad nodded. "It was all true. And it came after months of questioning my own rigid beliefs and ideals. I couldn't go on for a single day ... a single second without telling you how I felt. Growing up I didn't want to ever marry thinking that I would hurt a woman like my father hurt Ammi. But here I was hurting you on a daily basis"it was as if it was doomed by my DNA; I couldn't escape it. Then I talked to Abbu that night at the dargah and everything seemed so clear. His words and anguish made me re-think it all. Did I want a lifetime of regret and pain, or did I have the courage to reach out and grab my happiness with both hands?"
Asad stroked her stomach. "I guess as parents you hope that your kids will learn from your mistakes and always be happy. But sometimes the kids insist on making their own mistakes to earn their life lessons. That's what Abbu was trying to tell me that night. He saw that I was in love with you and miserable. That day Abbu braved my daily fury to make me realize that I was going to make the biggest mistake of my life. He was not asking for forgiveness for himself but telling me to forgive myself, telling me that I deserved to be happy. That it was OK to choose love instead of duty. And that one mistake shouldn't determine the rest of my life."
Asad exhaled and looked out into the darkness. "Who knew that the walls of self-righteousness I'd built around me were slowly choking me?"
Zoya turned in his arms to frame his face in her hands. "Bechare Jahanpanah ... Anarkali ko and khud ko bhi deewar mein chunva rahe thay!"
Asad snickered softly. So true. He tucked a stray lock behind her ear"that ear had been re-christened now. Yes, it was both Ammi and Abbu who had pulled him out of that abyss. On his own he had come pretty close to losing it all.
"See?" Zoya continued. "Once you punched and kickboxed those walls down, you let in forgiveness and happiness. For yourself, and for Abbu, Ammi and Najma. But most of all for your Kaneez!"
Asad nodded as he looked down into her animated face. "Hmm ... I was also letting in lots of dash mein bumboo!' as Ayaan says."
"But yes," he continued, "I think that's the moment I must've subconsciously decided that no matter what the results of the investigation, I would come clean with you. You deserved the truth. We deserved to be together. I still remember what you said that evening when were leaving for the restaurant"that love is a once-in-a-lifetime chance that Allah gives us. I didn't want to squander that. Or this." He kissed her slowly, gratefully.
"Oh my god, I never knew!" Zoya raved as she came up for air. "I always thought that you'd choose principle and duty over love." Her lips thinned. "And that's exactly what that tramp banked on"your flawless character and the history with your Abbu. If Tanveer were alive, I swear I'd kill her all over again just for that. And I'd do it so clean, no one would even know."
"Shh," Asad chuckled. He had heard this rant before. "Shant meri Jhansi ki Rani! Please, khuda ke liye, stop indulging your violent fantasies. It's not good for my baby. I'm so glad I banned you from watching your American crime dramas!"
His brother had named him Mukka Ahmed Khan; who knew that his begum would have a bigger Mukka fetish!
Zoya pouted at the clipping of her wings. But she didn't mind the ban that much. After her freakout over the recent news story it made sense to not watch shows like "Law and Order: SVU." But she did miss her favorite show "Criminal Minds." She was such an awesome armchair profiler herself that she could be an honorary member of the FBI's BAU.
But Jahanpanah had sabotaged her fantasy career. Nipped it right in the bud.
Asad laughed softly at her muted growl. "OK fine, you can watch Castle' or Rizzoli and Isles' but no Crim Minds'!" he gave in, using her nickname for her favorite show to appease her. He'd learned to pick his fights by now. And she'd told him how she'd grown up on a steady diet of American police procedurals"also Aapi and Jeeju's favorites. She could flash her pretend NYPD badge in a nano-second"she'd practiced it so often as a kid. So why put her on a total crime show diet and make her moodier? It would only come back to bite him in the butt.
Asad often gave in and even ocassionally deigned to watch "Castle" with her; though he'd ruin it for her by pointing out the clichs and predicting the murderer by the 24th minute. Half the time she watched the show with her hand clamped over his mouth.
"Don't you dare ruin it for me, Mr. Khan," she'd scold him.
"It's so obvious," he'd mutter before picking up a book.
"You know, Castle reminds me of you," she'd mused one day.
"Please! Actually, he reminds me of you." Asad said. She beamed. "Besides, I'm not a dumb ass," he retorted under his breath.
"Really. He's such a nerd. Just like you." That usually pacified her. Cos. everyone knew: nerds ruled.
That night Zoya shot up straight in bed in the middle of the night.
"Wha"?" Asad muttered sleepily. "Is the baby OK?" he snapped fully awake too.
"Mr. Khan!" Zoya hissed. "You're not the man I thought you were!" Her glittering eyes stabbed him and her finger was starting to wag menacingly.
Nightmare? "What happened? What the hell are you talking about? Did you have a bad dream?" Asad squinted at her. His eyes refused to stay open but his head told him that he couldn't afford to shut them just yet. Some drama was unfolding and by the looks of it he was the principal character in it. He just didn't have the script yet.
"You would have left the mother of your child to be with the woman you loved? How could you? You'd abandon your own child?" Zoya's voice was threatening to rise to screech levels.
Asad had no clue what she was going on about. "I would never abandon my child," he said sleepily. "Where's that even coming from?"
"But you said""!"
"I said I would raise my child with you. Please pay attention to the details," he scolded her mildly. "Always going off half-co*cked ..." Asad muttered under his breath. "Incre""
"Don't you dare incredibly foolish me! You would have left the mother of your child to be with your ... your ...?" She sputtered.
And she stuttered.
"My soulmate? To be with the person I was in love with? Yes," he stated. "Do you have a problem with that?"
Sadly, he wouldn't be getting much sleep now.
"No! ... I mean, yes! I do have a problem with that!" Her brain wasn't being able to keep up with her somersaulting mood and hormones. She felt angry, but she didn't know exactly why. Her words were getting stuck and clumping together like swamp mud.
Asad sighed. Loudly.
"And that problem is?" He asked with infinite patience.
"You would have walked out on the mother of your child to be with someone else!" Her voice was quavering.
Uh oh. Asad knew that this was going to be his fault somehow but how the hell was he supposed to figure out what he'd done wrong? He tried to recall their conversation from the evening. He hadn't said anything objectionable or even mildly incriminating ... In fact, she'd agreed with him then, wholeheartedly. Then why was she pitching a fit now?
With supreme patience he held up a hand and counted off. "First of all, she wasn't pregnant with my child. Second, that woman was Tanveer. Even a snake would have walked out on her."
"Scr*ew Tanveer! I'm not talking about her," Zoya hiccupped.
Oh boy. "Then what are you talking about?"
"If you fall in love with someone else tomorrow, you'll walk out on me!" Zoya finally articulated her distress and flung herself on the pillow sobbing great, big, fat, gut-spilling sobs.
Asad laughed; Zoya cried even more.
"And you'll take my baby away from me too and raise it with some ... some stuPPid tramp!"
"Hey, you're no stupid tramp. You're Jhansi ki Rani," he teased.
He pulled her to him. She struggled and kicked. "Mrs. Khan, just because I call you Jhansi ki rani, doesn't mean you go all Jhansi ki rani on me. Settle down now. Like a good girl."
He wiped her tears.
"Now tell me what's really bothering you? Could I ever leave you or walk out on you? Is that even humanly possible?"
"What would Jhansi ki rani really do to Jahanpanah if he even thought about leaving?"
Her eyes slitted. "She would chop up his seventh pack into little itty-bitty pieces and feed it to her pet tigers," Zoya announced, very sure of herself. Dobby nodded in sage counsel.
"And that's why you've been banned from watching Criminal Minds'!" Asad countered. "I'm going to put a lock on her American channels," he vowed under his breath as he turned his back on her to slam his head down and feign sleep.
"Umm ... Asad?"
She snuggled into his back and drew contrite circles on it. Then she wrote elaborate apologies. She even tried to sneak her hand into his kurta but he slapped it away.
"I'm sorry," Zoya whispered. "I know I get crazy sometimes ..."
He snorted. "Sometimes?"
She dug her nails into his back punishingly; Dobby would be proud. Asad yelped.
"OK fine, sometimes. You were saying?"
Zoya made a face behind his back and he grinned to himself as he imagined her pouting. Yes, Mrs. Khan, waking me up in the middle of the night to narrate graphic dreams of my own castration and turning me into cat food is going to cost you.
Zoya laughed suddenly. Asad frowned"this was not the reaction he'd been imagining.
"Please Mr. Khan! Do you even know how to set the locks on the TV? The menu is password protected so good luck figuring that out. And do you really want to take pangas with a techie who could mess your phone or laptop?" She cleared her throat dramatically. "Or CDs with really important presentation details, hmm?"
He retaliated the only way he knew how. He shut up that back-talking mouth and erased that mischief-making mind of hers as he put his seventh pack to good use.
An already neutered Dobby rolled his eyes and tsked.
"I was kinda hoping for twins," Zoya mused in the car the next day.
"You're disappointed?" Asad asked backing out of the parking spot.
They were returning home from their ultrasound appointment. Thankfully all was well"the baby was doing fine. At the anxious mother's insistence the technician had even counted and recounted the number of toes and fingers on the arm and leg that were visible. Zoya and Asad had peered long at the grainy image. Zoya was embarrassed.
She couldn't make out a single detail, neither head nor nothing"it looked like a bluish grey blob in there. And here the sonographer was gushing about the baby's perfectly formed head and legs and arms.
In the car, Zoya fingered the edges of the print copy of the image. She frowned. "Asad, are we terrible parents for not being able to see the baby?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Asad assured her. It never ceased to amaze him that she found no qualms in expressing her deepest fears or the guiltiest of insecurities. Truth be told, for a second that thought had flashed across his mind too. But hearing her echo it out loud made his own worries sound silly, unfounded.
Thank god, Zoya thought, that he'd been equally clueless about not seeing the baby's shape or she'd have really wallowed in maternal insecurity. The technician had to finally outline the baby's image on the printout by pen"that's when she "saw" the baby.
And now the details of the shape were breathtaking. The sonographer probably knew the gender of the baby but they were given a lecture before the procedure"don't ask, don't tell; papers and waivers were signed. The medical community was bound by law to not disclose the fetus' se*x. And given India's anti-female child culture it was only right. Zoya recited a silent prayer for the baby's safety. For all babies' safety.
"Hi baby," Zoya cooed at the picture. A finger ran over the outline for the eleventieth time. "See you in a few months." She kissed it and reached out to put it to Asad's lips. He kissed it too. She was already planning the layout of the picture in the baby book.
"Silly woman," Asad laughed softly when she returned the picture to the folder. "What's the point of kissing the image? The baby's in here," his hand curved over her tummy possessively.
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan!" Zoya scolded.
Obviously I can't kiss my own tummy. And neither can you while you're driving. So for now this is the second-best option."
He held her hand and stroked the top with his thumb. "You're right. And you're always such a problem-solver, no?"
"None at all."
"You know, I'm going to put this in the baby book next to the picture of you as a baby"all nangu baba and just wearing a taawiz."
"What?" Asad slammed the brakes to stop the car from veering into oncoming traffic. "Zoya, don't you dare!"
"Oh, I dare," was the smug reply. One of the unexpected joys of her pregnancy was also the introduction to childhood pictures and legends of her husband as a baby and young boy. Dilshad loved telling her stories of Asad as a boy and Zoya had loved teasing him when they were going through old albums. He wasn't as shy as a boy apparently.
"Mulk ki tarikh kahegi ki aap mulk ki shaan thay,
Log to jawaan ho jaane ke bad bante hain,
Aap toh bachpan mein Salman thay!"
"When did you learn to be so shy and proper?" Zoya teased him when they were alone in their room. Her smile fell when she saw him frown. It must have been when Abbu ...
"I wish we'd known each other as kids," she rushed to add wanting to erase those lines of pain. "I'd have beaten the pants off you at cricket and basketball."
"I know you are madly in love with me Mrs. Khan, but don't you think you should tone down your fetish to get me out of my pants every second," Asad murmured as he pulled her to him. He knew she was trying to make him forget that sudden stab of remembered pain.
"My fetish?! Mr. Khan, always so full of yourself!" Zoya shrieked, mission to make her husband smile forgotten and abandoned.
Asad ran his tongue over the shell of her ear. "Only full of you. You are my fetish ..." He raised her wrist to shake her bracelet. "... my lucky charm." He lifted her chin with a finger. "And babe, I'd drop my pants for you any time, cricket or not."
"Now you're talking!" Zoya laughed up into his face.
"Ammi's quiet staring is beginning to freak me out," Nuzzhat told her sister one day.
"I know right," Nikhat noted as she combed her hair. "She keeps looking at me for hours and gets this weird tragic expression on her face."
"Exactly! First I thought it was because she's thinking of you going to the US, but she looks at me that way too. May be it was a good thing that Bhaijaan was always around to distract her from worrying too much about us. Thank god they're coming back tomorrow! Otherwise Ammi's zombie look ..." Nuzzhat shuddered.
"Oh my goodness, Nuzzhat! Do you think something's wrong? I hope she's not sick or anything!" Nikhat felt too weak to stand up. She crashed on the bed worrying as she imagined the worst.
"Khuda na kare! Baaji stop scaring me now. I'm sure everything's OK. I'm getting late right now but let's talk to her this evening."
"It can't be anything to do with Bhaijaan's nikaah or Humaira, right?" Nikhat wondered. "Do you think she feels awkward or possessive about Bhaijaan being married now?"
"Baaji please, you're just imagining things." But Nuzzhat's eyes had widened too. Please lord, don't anything bad happen to our family again.
Nikhat remained pensive even after her sister had dashed out"ghodon pe savaar. She still had an hour before she left for office. She'd already chatted with Feroze about her day yesterday and filled him in on Ammi's weird behavior. "Talk to her gently," he'd advised. "And give her some space. May be everything is just sinking in for her. And she can't be too happy thinking of you leaving her in a few months."
Aww, didn't she have the most understanding husband in the world? Crossing her fingers she decided to talk to her mother. When she went out, she saw Shireen staring blankly at the TV.
"Ammi, kya hua? Why are you looking so sad?" she sat down next to her and picked up her cold hand.
Shireen looked up at Nikhat and stroked her cheek. "I'm fine," she said softly.
"But you look so lost these days. Is something wrong? Are you worried about something? Please, trust me. Tell me." Nikhat pleaded. She hoped no one was ill. "Ammi, please!"
Shireen disengaged herself from her daughter. "It's nothing. Don't worry about me." She rose to go to her bedroom and closed the door after her.
Nikhat decided that she'd tell Dadi about her worries. Dadi in her own overbearing way would be able to gouge out Ammi's fears or worries and help them to get to the bottom of things. This looked serious.
Rashid looked up to see a terrified Humaira at the door. She was twisting the ends of her dupatta between her agitated fingers. It had been two days since Ayaan and Humaira had returned from their honeymoon.
"Kya hua beta? Is everything all right?"
She twisted the pearl ring on her finger. On the day of her nikaah Zoya had slipped it off her finger to put it on her sister's.
"But Aapi ... it's yours. Ammi gave it to you." Humaira had protested.
"No, it's ours. It's your special day and I want you to have it. You can give it back to me whenever you want. But I want you to wear it for now."
"Humaira?" Rashid prompted her.
"Umm Abbu ... " She didn't know how to talk to him. But she needed to say this. It was eating her up inside. Why didn't she say it before her nikaah? "I know you've accepted me despite what Ammi""
"Beta, that's all over now. We've put it behind us."
"I know. And I'm so grateful to you for that. But ... Ammi wants us to move back to that house and ..."
Rashid had discussed it with Ayaan. And Ayaan had left the decision up to his father. He'd be fine either way.
"It won't bother you to go back?" A surprised Humaira had asked him.
"It would have a few months ago. But I grew up in that house and Mumani has really changed. If that's what Abbu decides, I'd be fine with it."
"Abbu ..." Humaira continued. She was still getting used to calling him that. "If you decide not to go back I'd be fine with it. I would understand your reluctance. I know that Ammi ... I mean Phuphi- I mean Ayaan's Ammi," Rashid smiled at her confusion and hesitation. "I know that she wants us all to go back. But may be it's soon?"
Rashid called her over to sit on the sofa. "You are worrying for nothing beta. Like Ayaan's, my reluctance is gone too. Seeing my children happy I feel I can trust life again. I'm no longer afraid of happiness. And I certainly have no resentment against Bhabhi and Bhaijaan any more."
"But how can you not!" Humaira jumped up to pace the room. "So many years of secrets and regrets ..."
Rashid put his hand on her head and led her back to the sofa. "There was a time when anger and bitterness ruled my heart. Those were dark times. I had lost all hope. Asad's hate reminded me daily of everything I had done wrong. But his forgiveness opened a door"it let the sun in. I could feel myself slowly healing."
He noticed the sheen of tears in Humaira's eyes and patted her head again. "I know you are still thinking about what happened at the gudia factory with Tanveer. But can't you see that even then Asad and Zoya had already forgiven us, and did so much to protect us so fiercely from ever being hurt again? And Bhabhi was already repenting her sins. If Zoya can forgive her ... me ... "
"Then there's nothing else that matters." Humaira said. Her eyes shone brighter now.
"Only second chances matter now." Rashid added fervently. "And what we choose to make of them. I'm proud of Ayaan for understanding this too. We're lucky. So many people never get a second chance." He was asking her to let go too. To give herself a chance to open up to possibilities of moving on beyond regrets.
"I don't know who said it," he went on. "But I read somewhere, or heard this: If you want to be fully human and fully humane, you need to learn to live, not without regret, but with it.' "
"But why? How?"
"Because we aren't perfect. We make, and will continue to make mistakes. The point is to not erase or bury them but learn from them, I guess. Forgive ourselves ... move on."
"So you won't have any regrets or guilt, or even resentment if you decided to move back?"
Rashid laughed. He felt relaxed these days and craved the daily doses of crazy that his family doled out. "May be there will be all of those things. But beta, why should we be scared of them? Living in fear is a terrible burden"I know. I did it for twenty years. But now there's nothing to fear."
"Or regret?" she asked hopefully.
Rashid smiled fully. "Or regret."
It was the first time he'd returned to this place since then"this little broken off piece of hell.
Asad scrubbed his forehead in angry frustration. He had kept away from here and delegated the clean up and restoration work so far. But today he felt drawn to this site; he had to force himself to not relive its jagged history.
But once inside, the dam of memories breached.
The columns were newly reinforced but his eyes were drawn to the one that he and Ayaan had been lashed to. The floors had been scrubbed clean and the debris removed, but here was where Zoya had been strapped in and tormented ... here he'd been forced to say that condemned word.
His eyes blurred.
The traces of their tears and blood were no longer here but her screams were still bouncing off the roof and freshly plastered and painted walls.
His chest burned; Asad fell to his knees.
His hand hit the cold floor. This spot. Here was where Zoya had shut down on him. He'd said that word only two times, but her catatonic silence had echoed it a million times over.
He took a deep breath to rid himself of the dust of those recollections. It was over. And no way was he going to let this place cast a shadow over their lives any more.
For days now he and Zoya had been chewing over this unwanted inheritance"this blasted legacy.
"Bulldoze it, blow it off the face of the earth," was his first and last verdict regarding the gudia factory.
But Zoya dithered. " ... I don't know. I want that piece of land to be something more than its past. Something hopeful ... Can't it be rehabbed ...?"
But rehabbed as what? She had researched a variety of options: a school, donate it to an NGO or the mosque, restart the factory ...
But one thing had emerged very quickly: Zoya could not think of selling it. And as much as Asad wanted to raze the structure to the ground, she couldn't bring herself to do that either. Her Ammi's blood had spilled there. The factory's DNA was stamped onto her skin after all.
"If you want to hang on to it, we could convert it into office spaces or a warehouse and lease it out," he'd suggested one time.
"But that's ... that's so commercial ... so utilitarian!" Zoya said with distaste.
Asad had framed her face in his hands, "then what do you want to do with it?"
A frown marred her brow as her lip stuck out. Asad had laughed. He loved this intense expression of hers"she'd looked deep in thought but also annoyed about something. But she wasn't annoyed. He knew that she was working out the kinks in her idea. He could hear the gears grinding.
"I want it to be special ... to mean something more than brick or mortar, or a forgotten graveyard of old crimes and horrors."
"I don't know. It's a semi-industrial area. Wouldn't there be more factories in the neigborhood, lots of chemicals and toxins? Zoning issues? Anyways, I don't think it would be safe for kids to be inhaling all that stuff and spending a good 6-7 hours a day in there. Even the EIR might say that."
Asad sniggered. How American of her"Environmental Impact Report she probably meant.
"Then what else?"
Zoya twisted the shirt tail in her restless hands. That only meant one thing: she had an idea but was worried he wouldn't approve. Asad rolled his eyes. So what else was new.
"Hmm?" he encouraged her.
"I was thinking ..."
"Yes? Go on."
"I mean I love the idea that they used to make dolls there ..."
"So we make dolls ... again?"
"Really? You think so?" Zoya asked as if it was his idea. Trickster.
Asad crossed his arms and said nothing.
Zoya pouted. She knew she'd been caught out. "Yes ..."
"Isn't that commercial though?" Asad asked in confusion. How would this be any different from office spaces? Wouldn't it be more of an administrative and legal headache?
"It could be. But with a difference. We could provide employment for low-income women, collaborate with cottage or small industry type endeavors. I've been researching"Bhopal is known for its Zardozi work. There are many self-employed programs for women we could team up with! What if we made specialty or ethnic dolls? You know, in the US there's this Amercian Girl doll concept that does really cool stuff with history. Each doll is different, from a different time period and region, has her own backstory, wardrobe and""
Her words fox-trotted across a painted landscape of fantasy and wonder.
"And then there's the Build-A-Bear type workshop where we could have interactive""
Asad smiled. Her enthusiasm was wildly contagious ... and bewitching. He could already see happy children lining up to build and play with such toys. But his eyes stung when he heard her whisper, "I want to dedicate it to the girl child."
He folded her in his arms. "Oh god Zoya, you're so beautiful." God knows why, but that had made her cry.
"But it'll be a lot of work and stress. And I don't even know if it's going to be financially viable." Zoya cried into his shirt.
"I guess we'll find out," Asad soothed her. "Now tell me, how many of these American girl dolls did you have and what's this build-a-bear thing?"
"I have one doll. You can customize it to make it look and dress like you."
"Oh my god," Asad couldn't believe it. "You mean to tell me that there's a doll out there that looks like you did when you were a kid?"
"Why haven't I seen this? Tell Aapi to show it to me on facetime and then ship it here."
"Really. I can't wait."
That night he'd nudged her awake. "May be we can make action figures too."
"Like Batman and Wonder Woman?"
"With Zardozi capes!"
He laughed at the image of Indianizing American super heroes.
"Goodnight Mr. Khan."
"But there'll definitely be Jhansi ki Rani," he called out softly.
"I love you, Mr. Khan."
When he blinked awake the next morning he saw her dimpling at him from her side. A slow smile spread across his face.
"What are you up to Mrs. Khan?"
"Speaking of action figures, how about a pantless Batman?"
"And a topless Wonder Woman?" He asked; she giggled. He pulled her to him. "Umm, babe, I don't think that we should be branching out into adult toys so soon ..."
"May be in about five years?" Zoya asked resting her chin on his chest.
Song in Title:
Kurbaan (2009) "Shukranallah"
"Asad you tell her! Meri toh koi sunta kahan hai," Dilshad frowned at Zoya at the dinner table that evening.
Zoya grinned back at her shamelessly. "But Ammi it itches so bad!"
"You're telling me! I've had kids too." Asad and Najma looked at each other and rolled their eyes. She grinned to see her brother clutch his forehead. Poor Bhaijaan.
"But beta, I'm telling you to not scratch for your own good. Do you think I like bossing you around and bullying you? I hate it!" Dilshad raised the spatula when she saw her bahu's thumb try to sneak another scratch at her belly. "Don't make me hit you!" she threatened.
Zoya giggled. "Ammi please! Stop pretending to be one of those filmy saasu ma's! Aapke bas ka nahin hai."
"Ammi, don't worry, I'll take of it," Asad tried to pacify his mother too.
"Oh really?" Zoya reared her head dangerously to look at him. "How exactly will you take care of it?"
He tilted his head in warning. Give it up, he seemed to say.
When she was about to argue further with him he narrowed his eyes at her.
Zoya sighed in surrender.
"Fine!" she muttered. "Such torture and abuse I have to bear in my sasural."
She made a face. "Najma, I can't even expect my husband to stand up to his mother. So typical!"
Najma laughed. "Zoya, stop it! I wish every girl was tortured and abused in their sasural like you are in yours! Life ban jayegi!"
Zoya looked at a smug Dilshad and nodded. "I know," she stage-whispered to Najma. "Kabhi-kabhi I say this stuff just so that nazar na lagey. What if there's a mischief-making farishta who sees us so happy and jinxes us?"
"Please!" Asad drawled. "The only mischief-making farishta in this house is you."
Zoya gave him the look. Watch it, or the jinx could land on you, it seemed to say.
Asad's smile started at one corner of his mouth and took its time to get to the other side.
With his eyes he pointed to his ring on her finger.
Zoya blushed with pleasure as she remembered the inscription: Qubool hai.
Nicely done, Mr. Khan.
But his smile disappeared when she raised huge doe eyes to his. Asad excused himself from the table abruptly.
A second or two later Zoya's phone pinged to show a new message: "Wipe that look off your face, Mrs. Khan, or I'm not going to be responsible for what I do to you."
Zoya forgot to scratch her itch as she bit back a moan.
"qh," she texted back.
"What do you think Zainab? I understand that Asad doesn't want to move back in, but he's not even letting Zoya come home with us for the delivery." Raziya was at the gravesite complaining about their son-in-law. "He's saying everything will happen at the Khan house. Kaise samjhaoon iss ladke ko!"
She fiddled with the flowers and swept the stone with her hand. "Hmm, may be I'll ask Badi bi to talk to him," she decided after some thought. "Can you believe it, Siddiqui saheb says that it doesn't matter where the godh bharai ceremony is and which house she's in when it's time for the delivery. What matters is that our daughters be happy."
Her eyes misted. Both she and her husband had indeed come a long way. Raziya stroked the stone and arranged the flowers. "He is right, isn't he? I wish I had understood this a long time ago. I don't know why I gave in to the dark fears that consumed me. I couldn't understand such a simple thing"what matters is that our daughters be happy. They could have been happier growing up together ..."
A crow cawed in the distance. Raziya shook herself off. She had promised not to keep wallowing in the past. She'd been given a second chance ... a new beginning ...
She wiped her eyes and sat up straight. "Chalo, even if Zoya stays at her sasural at least Zeenat will be here for the delivery. I doubt if Asad will change his mind. The only person who could make him do it""
Her eyes gleamed and she grinned. Yes, she'd try that too. "Let's see how he says no to Zoya! Anyways, I've been making lists of things to do and get. There's no point getting her sarees or lehengas, right? Even jewelry ..."
She sighed. Yeh ladki ... Nothing traditional or normal for this girl. Raziya had consulted for hours with Zeenat also. Zeenat had laughed at her elaborate plans. "Cricket, films, music and tech gadgets"iske alawa if you get her anything else, she's not going to even touch them."
Zeenat had sighed too. "Her jewelry is still sitting in our safe deposit box. We wanted to mark her 13th, 16th, 18th and 21st birthdays with special pieces ... Her heavier lehengas and salwar kameezes ... ? Many of them she gave away to her American friends to wear as costumes for Halloween or New Year's parties. Ya Allah, yeh ladki! But you know Raziya bi, I can't imagine Zoya in anything else besides jeans. Uska trademark hai. We gave up a long time ago."
"Trademark is right, hai na?" Raziya continued chatting with the headstone. "You should see her. It's killing her to have to wear baggy shirts and jeans. Baby will be born wearing jeans too, I'm sure!"
Zoya frowned. For days now she had been wracking her brains for a solution. Aapi had sent her the baby book. But as much as she loved it, there was no official page on which to add what Aapi and Jeeju meant to her and their special relationship to the baby. The family tree held the names of her Ammi and Abbu and their family histories"names of people she'd never met nor known. Her Ammi and Abbu hadn't even been in her life, Aapi and Jeeju had. And god knows what she would have been like if she'd had Abbu in her life from the beginning. Would she be traditional and calm like Humaira?
Aapi and Jeeju had given her the room to be herself. She was what she was today thanks to having them in her life. Then why was there no room for them in this book?
Nope. She was going to fix that.
Idly Zoya re-flipped through the baby book. It was growing massive with additions of loose sheets and her more recent project. It was taking on the look of a messy scra*pbook ...
Hmm ... scra*pbook ...
Her eyes gleamed with renewed purpose. Two birds, one stone. If she did fold the baby book into a scra*pbook then she could add her own pages, customize them and even sneak in a surpise for Asad at the same time. Ammi could help her with it. May be they could even make a scra*pbook for Najma to take with her ... the possibilities were endless.
She should have known. Aakhir Zoya Farooqui kuchch bhi kar sakti hai!
"Mr. Khan, a Mrs. Khan to see you."
Asad smiled. Strange. Why would Zoya have herself announced so formally? What new tricks was she up to now? He leaped out of his chair as Shireen was ushered in.
"Chhoti Ammi, aap?" He faltered in confusion and alarm. "Is everything OK? Please have a seat."
Asad ordered tea growing more and more concerned at her blank expression and the stiff tension that oozed from her.
Shireen looked at him with watery eyes. One hand desperately clutched her dupatta end. "I wanted to talk to you. Only you'll understand this. Everyone else will dismiss my concerns ... or make fun of them."
Her words chilled him. Asad sat down too by the sofa and waited till the server had handed her the cup of tea and left.
"What concerns? Is it Ayaan? Abbu?" Terrible scenarios were playing out in his head. His mind raced. He'd heard nothing out of the ordinary. The only thing on everyone's minds these days was the big move back to the big house.
"Are you worried about moving back to the Siddiqui house?" He prompted. Her silence was slashing a million knives though his gut. He began sorting through a mental list of health scares, family politics and fights.
Did something happen?
An uneasy hand fisted behind his back.
"Chhoti Ammi? You're scaring me."
Shireen placed the cup and saucer on the coffee table with extreme care. "I'm scared," she said finally.
"Don't laugh. But I saw this show. And in it ... this man is settled in America and he sends his wife home to her parents for a month after ten years of marriage."
Asad stared at her in utter incomprehension. In her hurry to get the words off her chest Shireen didn't notice his disbelief. " ... but instead of sending her the green card papers he'd promised, he sends divorce papers. She ends up having no legal status in the US and can never go back to see her kids who are US citizens."
Asad blinked. Wha"? But he schooled his face to not show his rising skepticism.
Shireen looked up at him, tears in her eyes. "I'm scared for Nikhat ... even Najma. And now everyone is after Nuzzhat to get married to Faiz. What if something like this happens? Do our girls have any rights in a foreign land so far away from home?"
"Umm ..." Asad's mind was blank. He had no response, so unprepared had he been for this curveball.
"I want you to do something about it," she continued, her voice a lot firmer now, her mind made up. She looked up at him hopefully"her eyes pleading for understanding and reassurance. "I want you to promise that you'll look out for the girls, their rights. That something like that could never happen to them. Itni door, wahan unka kaun hoga? What'll happen to them if ... ?"
"Chhoti Ammi, both Feroze and Omar are good men. Their families are good. This would never happen. That was just a show. I don't think you should worry about this."
"Your Abbu was a good man too."
She saw his face shut down and nearly crumpled.
Tears fell down Shireen's face. It had taken so much courage to talk herself into coming here. She had always been scared of Asad and his temper. But she had seen him mellow over the past year. Living together in the Siddiqui house had shown her an intensely protective side of him. She had even forgiven his outburst against Ayaan"he had yelled at Ayaan because he'd been terrified for his safety. Shireen gripped Asad's forearm urgently.
"I'm sorry to bring this up. But your Abbu did leave your Ammi"a woman far better than me. I will forever carry that guilt with me to the grave. It was so hard for her"who else knows this better than you? She was all alone, here, in a city where she knew so many people, had so many relatives. But at least she had her kids with her. Asad, think of the girls in a brand new country, thousands of miles away"no other relatives besides their husbands and their families."
Asad wiped his forehead with a cold hand. Dread and anxiety seeped through his frame.
"At least find out the legal aspects of a worst case scenario. Please!" Shireen wiped her wet cheeks. She had seen something flicker in his eyes. Compassion?
Braver, she went on, "what about their immigration status or rights if something like this happens? Do they become citizens right away or is there a longer process? What's their status in the meanwhile? Can they leave the country during that period?"
Asad stared at her.
His mind veered to that day of horror when he too had been forced to say that one terrible word which would have left his wife and child adrift. He had talked to the girls later and told them pretty much the same thing: don't rely on a man however good he may be. Be strong.
But that was easier said than done, wasn't it?
Just learning Taekwondo wouldn't make them strong.
Yes Zoya was strong"she had true mettle and grit. But she was different from his sisters. She had work experience and exposure, she'd interned and freelanced as a developer in the US, and still dabbled with her blogs and apps and kept her skills current. But above all, she had a fierce and independent spirit; her self-reliance and spunk were her protective armor"she was a warrior.
But years of being over-protected and sheltered could have disabled his sisters"after all, you can't grow a brand new pair of spiffy wings overnight when your original ones have been clipped.
Asad shook his head in dismay. How come he had never thought about asking these questions himself? He'd been so wrapped up in his own perfect little world that he"
What kind of a brother was he?
Shireen had seen him struggle with himself and felt a glimmer of hope.
"I wanted to talk to vakil saheb about this but I'm scared. If your Abbu finds out, or anyone else, they'll think I'm paranoid and just imagining things. I didn't know who else to go to. You are the only one I can trust. You are the only who'll know what to do."
"Chhoti Ammi ... " Her faith in him humbled him.
"Do you also think I'm being silly?" Fresh tears pooled in her eyes. "I haven't been able to sleep for weeks thinking about this. It's so unfair"we worry about daughters getting married first. And then about what could happen to them if" On that show that girl is so helpless. She was so dependent ... first on her husband, then on her father and brothers. Itni be-bas, majboor"apne bachchon se juda ... Her own family wouldn't support her. Am I being silly?"
"No, you are absolutely right."
Shireen watched Asad lope over to his desk and place a call to his lawyer and it was as if all the secret stress she'd been carrying around on her shoulders melted; she could breathe again. She heard the urgency in his clipped tone and knew she'd touched a chord.
"Thank you for listening to me and taking me seriously," she said when he ended the call.
"I should have thought of it earlier," Asad said; his voice was low and tense. "I've fixed an appointment with the lawyer. He'll have an immigration specialist there too. We can ask them for more details and see what steps we can take to protect the girls. Aap chahen toh we can also talk to Maulvi saheb."
"But do you think we should tell ..." Fresh worries paralyzed her now. Shireen struggled to articulate them as coherently as possible. "I mean, if Naz and Hana find out will they treat the girls differently? Kuch bura toh nahin hoga?"
"I don't know. May be not. Naz and Hana aunty are wonderful people"absolutely incapable of hurting anyone. But this is still worth doing. I'm glad you came to me with this. I should have thought of it myself," Asad berated himself again.
"Beta, you're the best brother and son there is, and the kids look up to you." She smiled up at him. "I'm sure you'll be an incredible father too. We're all so proud of you." She hesitated. "You've been through so much, and a lot of it was because of me."
"Chhoti Ammi please don't say that. There were a lot of factors that led to what happened all those years ago."
Shireen took a deep breath. "Since this idea came into my head I've been thinking more and more of Bhabhi's actions. Did this fear of losing Bhaijaan lead her to"? This kind of insecurity can change a person, Asad. Look at me ... "
She turned away from him and exhaled before confessing her darkest anxieties. "Your Ammi was so strong. If it had been me in her place ... I couldn't do what she did. It's so ironic that all these years I lived in fear of your Abbu leaving me and going back to her." She turned back to face him. "Tumhe yaad hai, when Ayaan came to live with you when he was a baby?"
Asad nodded as he swallowed a lump. Those days with Ayaan were the only bright spots of his childhood. A sunny Ayaan's adoration of a big brother, his goofy antics and aimless chatter had made it possible for Asad to be a child himself for a few hours.
"I'd had a nervous breakdown." She covered her mouth to bite off a sob. "I ... I tried to hurt myself. I lost complete control and threatened to ... " Shireen couldn't go on. Some secrets and regrets were too dark to see the light of day.
The silence was deafening. It stretched between them"the sediment of the past shifted and settled into a startling new perspective.
"Thank you for what you did for Ayaan then." Shireen spoke again, but very softly, as if not wanting to rock that fragile bond that had just been forged between them. She wanted to stroke his cheek but was terrified he'd reject her. "I had become selfish then because of those fears. May be I was jealous of how much Ayaan loved you. It was always, Bhaijaan this,' Bhaijaan that,' and I know that the girls hungered for that same bond with you." She wiped her tears. "And now I see why they all worship you. You're doing all this for""
Asad cleared his throat to disengage himself from the hoary tentacles of the past. Why dredge a healing scab?
"Nikhat and Nuzzhat are no different for me than Najma. I'll do everything in my power to protect them. But Siddiqui saheb also has daughters," he tried to remind her gently. Daughters who were married into their family. Couldn't they face the same future she feared for her daughters, a future that she'd tortured herself with all these years? Hadn't he come close to doing the same thing to Zoya, whatever the circumstances?
"But you and Ayaan are so good! You love the girls so much!"
"Feroze and Omar ... and Faiz are good too. They love Nikhat and Najma and won't let anything bad happen to them."
Shireen considered his words. "You mean ..."
"I mean that it's good to worry about the girls and we should definitely try our best to protect their interests and rights. But we shouldn't let constant fear trump our faith in good people." He took a deep breath. After all he had learned this lesson the hard way too. "But yes, the girls need to think more seriously about being strong and independent. I never want to see them helpless or dependent on anyone."
A lifetime of his mother's daily struggles and tears flashed before his eyes. Ammi was incredibly strong too, but that strength was hard-won. It had come at a steep cost; and her blood, sweat and tears had turned him bitter. His own faith had eroded in the basic goodness of humankind.
Shireen was still processing his words. "So you're saying that whatever we do to protect Najma and Nikhat we have the same responsibilty toward Humaira and Zoya?"
Asad's eyes widened and his breath caught at the simplicity of her deduction. Yes, it was clear as rain. That's exactly what he should have thought of himself too.
"You're right again, Chhoti Ammi. You're absolutely right! That's precisely what we should do. Thank you."
Shireen beamed. No one had ever made her feel so sensible or wise. Instinctively, she put her hand out to touch his head. She'd never done this either except for that brief moment at his nikaah. Bolder, she pulled his head down to kiss his forehead and blow the air around him in blessing.
"Khush raho," she whispered before leaving. "And Asad?" She smiled at him fully when he looked at her. "Thank you."
Long after she was gone, Asad stood gazing out of the window"unseeing ... sightless.
He cringed at the cynical heartlessness of what he would have to do"to prepare for doom in the midst of happiness was chilling enough. But Chhoti Ammi was right. Who else knew better about what happened to a woman when her husband left her? Zoya's broken sobs too slammed into him: "how would you prevent this from happening to our daughters?" And for the first time Raziya Siddiqui's actions from nearly twenty years ago now seemed starkly clear"in her own monstrous way the woman was trying to secure her own, and her daughter's rights. Because in this world apparently women had scarce options: to become a monster in grim self-defense, or become fodder for other monsters. Besides, may be some of Ammi's strength also came from having a son. What happened to women who only had daughters?
"So you're missing me?"
"In your dreams!"
"I didn't know you were so concerned about my dreams."
"Please! I have better things to do in my life."
Nuzzhat slammed her phone face down on the bed to escape Faiz's moronic teasing. They texted once in a while since he'd left. But ever since Zoya Bhabhi had shared a group picture with him they had been in more regular touch. And then Nikhat Baaji had gone and shared a picture of her with the balloon animal and his teasing had been relentless.
"Yeah, better things to do in life like playing with imaginary pets and babies."
"Shut up. Don't you like have classes to attend, or MCATs or LSATs or GMATs and whatever to study for?"
"Cool! You're keeping track of my study schedule?"
Ya Allah, galti ho gayi! She clutched her forehead in despair. Nuzzhat decided that she'd only get some peace if she ignored him. So she did. But that wasn't acceptable to him. He called her up.
"You're really bored aren't you?" Nuzzhat asked. "That's why you're bugging me."
He sighed. "I'm sick to death of studying and pulling your leg is such a stress-buster."
"Not for me!"
"I'm sorry," he said contritely. "But you do make me laugh. And I need that so bad right now."
"Cos. I've been up since 3am."
"Why so early?"
"I just work better at that time. But I'm going to get some cereal and plan to crash till about 10."
"Cereal? For dinner?" She asked.
"It's morning here."
Damn. She kept forgetting. "Right! But still, cereal?" Nuzzhat made a face.
"I love it. Chilled milk and crunchy cereal"it's the best comfort food."
"Hmm. I doubt it but I'll take your word for it," she parried.
"You should try it." He said with dead seriousness.
"Never! I hate milk."
"The milk here tastes pretty good. You'd like it," he said softly.
Here? I'd like it? There? "I have to go. Bye!" Nuzzhat slapped up a hand to cover her mouth. She hated when he did that. She could never decide whether he was being serious or just teasing her by adding to the wedding bells fantasy spun by their families. But a part of her didn't know whether she wanted him to be serious.
"Never!" she muttered in anger. "He really must be bored to try flirting with me."
"OK fine," he texted her back. "Then you can have something else for breakfast."
Sh*it, this was serious flirting. Having breakfast together meant that"
Idiot! Don't even think it.
"I will." She texted back. "I plan to have upma, poha and hot samosas for breakfast tomorrow. And aloo parathas, may be. Nothing beats an Indian breakfast, right here in India! G'night."
There. That should make her intentions crystal clear.
"Mmm," his text read."Sounds great. I have upma mix. Will try making it this evening."
Her heart melted like a greasy blob of butter on a hot aloo paratha.
There was no doubt about it. Se*x had become trickier. But that didn't stop it from being fun or blissed-out perfection, or even a topic of intense curiosity and discussion. As usual Asad was the more antsy one. He had a hundred questions and worries: "what if it's not safe?"
"Won't it hurt?"
"Can't the baby see?"
"Won't the baby be psychologically scarred or traumatized?"
"Jeez Jahanpanah, thanks for sucking all the fun out of it!" Zoya pouted.
She'd tried to reassure him with all her worldwide research. She'd sent him articles on it during office hours with subject headings of "NSFW (but safe for the baby!)" Allah Miyan, she had even talked to the doctor about it! The verdict was clear: intimacy was good for the mom. And what was good for the mom was good for the baby"she'd tell her ultra-cautious husband. "With a little care, it's safe all the way till my water breaks."
He had just finished rubbing lotion on her stomach to soothe the permanent itching. Zoya leaned back against him sitting between his legs. When Asad nuzzled her neck and his hands traveled up to cup her, she held up her hand and started to count off on each finger.
"Yes, it's safe."
"No, it won't hurt."
"No, the baby can't see or feel it."
"And psychological trauma be damned! Ima get me some sugar tonight, so put your head in the game mister!"
He chuckled. "My head?" He lifted her hand to nibble up her wrist and tease the inside of her elbow.
She blushed and hissed. "Looks like my research convinced you," Zoya gasped.
"Seeing you sprawled in my arms, half-naked and ready"that convinced me more," Asad murmured. She was torturing him by wearing her baby doll peek-a-boo lingerie to bed these days. "They're roomy and so comfy," she'd twirled in one tonight.
"They leave nothing to the imagination," he'd growled.
"Gee, that's kind of the point, Mr. Khan!" Zoya batted her lashes at him.
His hands and mouth were already busy finding and tracking new geographies of sensation across her body. Her [email protected] weren't as sore as they were in the first trimester, but they were tender and even fuller ... and so damn sensitive. Asad blushed each time he imagined the baby suckling her. That image burned him up. He bent his head to tug hard at her dark nipple and Zoya's moan of pleasure and arching back inflamed him even more. She'd told him that these days even the slightest of caresses had her close to spilling. "Am I normal?" she asked once. His mouth had been too busy to answer then, but he's let his body speak for him and she'd been more than willing to listen.
He grasped her hips and guided her to the side of the bed. This was one of the positions that was most comfortable for her these days. A tug here, and there, and the lace and chiffon had fallen away as intended. Asad lifted her feet to his shoulders as he took her as gently as possible. But the sight of her toes painted the palest shade of pink made him buck. He'd painted them for her last night. And her new sensitivity had bewitched him. Asad couldn't resist biting those toes now as he moved inside her.
Zoya gasped. She reached her hand out to his mouth and he bent to suck her fingers. He watched her reach between their writhing bodies and spread herself for him. Her fingers brushed against him with each thrust. It drove him nuts like she knew it would.
"Oh god Zoya!"
Asad wanted to spread her legs wider for deeper access but he didn't. However NSFW, he had read those articles she'd sent him after all. As he continued to twist and roll he removed her hand from between their bodies; he wanted to hear those hot, raw sounds of flesh slapping against wet flesh.
"Am I hurting you?"
"No. Never. Oh god, right there Asad, right-there-right-there-right-there! Right! There!" Her dizzy head whipped back as she jerked. Zoya keened and went gloriously limp.
He couldn't hold on for much longer. His heart thundered in his ears. Her wild abandon always hurtled him over the edge. Always.
"God!" he grunted through labored breaths, "I can never get enough of you."
Humaira was helping her mother with the godh bharai prep and laughing her head off at the to-do list and her mother's escalating anxiety. She'd never seen Ammi so flustered. Who was this woman? The Ammi she knew was commanding and super-organized. But this woman was a bumbling mess. Even the servants weren't terrified of her any more. They dared to joke with her.
It had finally happened. Despite Humaira's worries the family was all moved back into the Siddiqui house. At Abbu's insistence, she and Ayaan were living in the outhouse cottage"it was perfectly comfortable: just near enough to be close to the big house and far enough to be a private getaway. She suspected that Aapi and Jeeju had had something to do with this arrangement.
How did Aapi know? She'd been mortified at the thought of living with her brand new husband in the same house they'd grown up in. She'd told Ayaan one night: "it would be like we never grew up. I'd feel as if we were still playing ghar-ghar."
"That was the most ridiculous game you girls played," Ayaan had scoffed. He used to throw their dolls off the roof and then dash away to be with Bhaijaan or his friends to escape Mamu's anger.
She buried her face in his shoulder. "I can't imagine coming out of our room every morning and looking at Abbu or Ammi. I'd die of embarrassment!"
"Why Humaira begum? We're married, and everything embarrassing is legal and legitimate now! So who cares! Let others be embarrassed imagining what we did!" He leered at her before proceeding to do exactly all of those embarrassing things as she giggled shyly.
Startled, Humaira blushed to see her mother staring at her. "Umm ... yes Ammi?"
"Beta, list check karo. Did we get everything? There's so much to do and you're no help at all. Bas hasti rehti ho!"
Ah yes, the list. Humaira remembered what had made her laugh in the first place. For the ceremony in the seventh month of pregnancy, they needed to get seven different fruits, seven vegetables and seven kinds of nuts"a coconut and supari were mandatory.
"Ammi, just order a pizza with seven toppings! That'll make Aapi a lot happier. Or paan with seven fillings." She knew her Aapi was weirdly craving sweet paan these days. She said it soothed her newest ailment: acidity.
"Really? She'll like it?"
"Ammi, I was kidding!" What was was wrong with this woman?
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarves!" Nuzzhat hooted.
"Seven Year Itch!"
"Woh Saat Din!"
"Saat Khoon Maaf!"
"Satte pe Satta!"
The girls were having too much fun at Raziya's expense. Now they were offering suggestions for films with the number seven in the title.
"Hum Saat Saat Hain!" That really set them off.
"Stop it, bahut badmashi ho gayi," Dilshad scolded them half-heartedly. Because it was the first baby in both the families, elders were being consulted left and right; and the girls couldn't resist adding their own spin and spice onto old rasms to jazz them up.
The Taekwondo classes had resumed"at the Siddiqui House this time. "I like to hear the girls' voices and laughter," Siddiqui saheb had told Asad. It also gave him time with Zoya while the girls went through their routines. The house was once again feeling lived in. It was no longer a fortress or an uneasy mansion resting on skeletons of the past. It breathed freely now, awaiting the pitter-patter of little feet, and the squeals and chatter of the next generation.
"We'll have the Quran Khwani first and then do the ceremony," Raziya confirmed.
"But we can do our dance before the ceremony, right Mumani?" Nuzzhat asked anxiously.
"Haan, haan. Of course!"
Because apparently no family function was complete without a dance any more. The parents had given up trying to talk the girls out of it. "Let them," Dadi had said finally to end all drama. "Jaan chhutey!"
"Yay!" The girls had cheered when Dadi winked and gave them a thumbs-up sign.
Nikhat was cho*reographing the Phuphi-Khala dance gala"they'd even given Dadi a special entry. They all'd been practicing for days and Zoya was dying to see them but she'd been strictly forbidden to back off.
"It's a surprise," she was told. She wasn't even supposed to know that they were doing the dance in the first place. Najma was coming over everyday pretending to go the library. But Siddiqui saheb had blurted out the secret in front of Zoya one day.
The girls had roared in dismay.
"ABBU!" Humaira had scolded him. "I can't believe you did that!"
He had covered his face saying, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I forgot," at least twenty times. He really had forgotten. He had just assumed that Zoya knew. She always knew everything. She was usually the mastermind of many an escapade. How could she not know that they were planning this right under her nose?
Zoya had screamed in delight first, thrilled at the honor. But then she'd pouted when she was excluded from all the dance practice fun. It was killing her to be kept in the dark. Since Siddiqui had outed the secret he felt compelled to entertain Zoya while the girls practiced. He could see her itching to bust through the locked doors.
"Let's go see a movie," he said one day to divert her.
Zoya squealed but then she frowned the next instant. Hindi movies had become a tad too risqu to be seen with her father. And no good English movies were playing except for"
Her eyes lit up.
So she took her father to see "Frozen." On the way to the theater Siddiqui laughed at a newly-received text message.
"What is it, Abbu?" Zoya wanted to know.
He showed her the screen. "No coke or junk snacks for her," Asad had messaged.
Zoya made a face. She had told her husband that they were going to see a film as a courtesy. It wasn't to have him sabotage her fun as if she was some bratty kid. Allah miyan, what's wrong with the man!
Still chuckling, Siddiqui patted her knee to calm her down. He had begun to enjoy the many animated films that his daughter had introduced him to. They'd seen "Up""which he'd loved, and several others. But his favorite was "Finding Nemo." Especially since Zoya had told him about her own history with it. It was a film about a father traveling across seas and oceans searching for a lost child. She had gone to see the film on Father's day with some friends and their family. That night at the sleepover at her friend's house, Zoya had wept quietly into her pillow. She'd wished she was Nemo, she wanted so bad for her Abbu to come find her. But he never came.
Siddiqui had wept too and hugged her tight when she told him this. The following week he'd given her a fish charm for her bracelet.
"Cool!" Zoya cried out as she removed the bracelet to clip on her newest momento. "It's Nemo, right?" she asked.
"No, that's the father," Siddiqui replied pinching her cheek. "Nemo toh tum ho."
Asad had told Zoya about Shireen's visit. She had helped him with some of the research and even called some immigration attorneys in the US to satisfy her own curiosity. But Shireen probably wanted more official reassurance. So Asad arranged for them to meet the lawyer and the immigration specialist.
Some of Shireen's anxiety dissipated after hearing that as spouses of American citizens the girls would be issued a two-year green card upon entry at a US port. A three-year permanent residency later they could apply for citizenship if they wished.
She had other questions. Could their legal status be jeopardized or called into question at any point?
Short of a criminal offense, no.
Unrestricted travel outside the country? Yes.
Finally she seemed to breathe easier. "So basically, the girls need to hang on to their passports and green cards?" She asked Asad hesitantly after the lawyer had left.
He nodded. "What is it Chhoti Ammi?" he asked when he saw her twisting her dupatta guiltily.
"I hate that telling them to be so guarded with their passports would make the girls seem anxious and distrustful of their own husbands," she admitted. "I am being too paranoid. May be I shouldn't have brought this up."
"No, your instincts were right. We are doing the right thing. I was uneasy about that part too. But we're only looking out for them. That can never be a bad thing."
"Should we tell them?"
"Yes, they need to know. Since that time in the gudia factory I've decided that the girls have the right to know everything that affects their lives. I plan to talk to them about this and also talk about financial safety nets. It's not going to be an easy conversation. But it's got to be done."
"I was thinking right away."
"No, do it after the godh bharai ceremony." Shireen interjected. "This talk will upset them and they'll need some time to get over it. They're all so excited about the function right now, I don't want to spoil that."
"Do you want to be there when I talk to them? If you want, I can make it seem that it was all my idea."
Shireen hesitated. It would certainly smooth things over. No one would question Asad's ways or decision. It was something they'd expect from an over-protective brother.
" ... No, I'll be there too." His words about not keeping anything from family members any more had touched her. She squared her shoulders. "Let them see a mother's anxiety and desperation. They may even understand it one day."
Asad nodded. Still deep in thought he rested his hands on his waist. "May be we can tell them about their passports and green card closer to when they are leaving for the US. But I still want to talk to the family about one main thing."
Her eyes widened in fear. "What?"
"It's nothing to be alarmed about. I'll explain when we come over for dinner tonight."
Raziya had invited them for a grand family dinner on the eve of the godh bharai function, which would be held at the Khan house. Too bad, she hadn't been able to budge Asad from his earlier decision"both the ceremony and the delivery would be at the Khan house. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Shireen had been on pins and needles the whole evening. She barely managed to swallow a few bites during dinner. Thanks to the usual noisy banter between the kids, no one had noticed her silence except for Asad.
Over after-dinner coffee for him and badaam milk for the others, Asad set out a number of folders on the center table that he'd removed from his briefcase.
"Bahut kha liya," Rashid complained patting his stomach. "Asad, what is this beta?" he asked.
"Abbu, I've established trust funds for the girls," he said as he handed a folder to each of his sisters. Everyone peered over their shoulders and there were multiple gasps at the numbers.
"But Bhaijaan, why?" Nikhat asked, puzzled.
"Because it's your right and it gives you the means to be independent and self-reliant. You can do anything you want with it"further studies, start a business, whatever."
Zoya couldn't contain her excitement. She jumped in and rattled off the rest of the information. "I told Mr. Khan that a part of the portfolio should be invested in stocks and bonds for long-term growth. You guys can draw a fixed monthly or annual income from it," she announced with a clap.
"Even when you're in the US," Asad added for Najma and Nikhat's benefit. It comes with a card which lets you withdraw funds."
Except for Shireen, the parents' eyebrows had crept up during this surprise declaration.
"Par beta, what is the need for this?" Dilshad asked. The girls were still processing the reality of suddenly being mistresses of their own fate"financially.
"Zaroorat hai, Ammi," Asad said. "If Ayaan and I can enjoy the luxury of making our own decisions, doing whatever, whenever we please, having full control over our lives, then so should the girls."
"But they have husbands to take care of their needs," Dadi frowned.
"But I don't"" Want them to be ever dependent on their husbands, he wanted to say.
"Dadi," Zoya interrupted him trying to soften the blow of his impending words. "Sometimes a girl needs her own spending money. What if she feels shy about asking her husband? What if she wants to surprise her husband with a special gift, or try something that's her passion"something that she's always wanted to do but didn't have the guts?"
"Hmm," Dadi seemed to give that some thought. Asad smiled. Zoya's fanciful spin had deflected the real anxiety behind his actions: what if a husband turns his back on his wife? What's a girl to do"that too in a foreign land where she has no family support? He looked up at her in gratitude and she winked at him.
Asad blushed. He glanced at Shireen and saw that her eyes were wet. He cleared his throat. "Umm, but this isn't just for Najma, Nikhat and Nuzzhat." He pulled out two more folders and handed one to Humaira and the other to his partner in crime"Zoya.
While Humaira and Ayaan gasped and peered at the papers, Zoya's eyes widened and lips pursed. She really did look like Nemo right now, her father thought with a surprised chuckle.
"But ... why ...?" she spluttered looking hurt and ready to burst into a million tears.
"It's just the right thing to do," Asad said. "You're both part of the family and no different from Nuzzhat, Najma or Nikhat."
"But Asad"" Raziya was equally shocked by this unexpected gesture.
"Mr. Khan, how could you!" Zoya threw the folder on the table and stormed out the main door. Well, she tried to storm out but given her current size, a quick and very undignified waddle was all that she could manage.
"Zoya!" Asad chased after her. He was baffled at this tantrum. What now? He thought he was doing the right thing.
"Wait up!" he turned her around to face him and grabbed her by her shoulders. "What happened? Why're you upset?"
She was crying in earnest now. "Why'd you do that? Does that mean you could leave me and you're just taking care of me in advance' "? She made agigated air quotes to drive her point home.
"Never!" he tried to hug her but she wouldn't let him. "We've been over this a million times"I'm never leaving you, nor letting you leave me. Get this through your thick head once and for all," Asad tapped and pressed a finger into her temple.
"Then why a trust fund for me! I don't need your money!" She stamped her foot on the ground after beating her fists against his chest.
Asad couldn't help laughing as she steamed and hissed in hurt anger. "Babe, I know you don't need my money. I also know that you have money of your own. But this isn't about money."
Zoya sniffed. She even unconsciously accepted the handkerchief he'd pulled out for her. "Then what's this really about?"
"It's about ..." he took the cloth from her hands and gently dabbed at her tears as he held her chin. "It's about really giving you a say ... as an equal"" He placed a finger on her lips when she tried to protest. He struggled to tell her that he was simply putting his money where his mouth was. "I know that nothing can stop you from doing what you want. But I don't want to be that guy who just thinks about his sisters' financial security and ignores his wife's needs and rights. This is not about you. This is about me doing what is right."
Aw damn. Zoya couldn't stop a re-run of the waterworks. She fell into his arms not caring if the guard or the drivers saw them. "Asad, you amaze me ... completely floor me," she said when she could talk again. "I love you."
"Are you sure?" he teased as he led her back inside. "I'm not a terrible husband trying to buy his wife's love with money?"
"I never said that!" She squeaked in dismay.
"You did run out like a bat out of hell," he muttered.
"Mr. Khan!" she hissed. "Just cos. I called you Batman once, you don't have to---"
"All better?" Raziya asked.
"Jee Aunty," they turned to answer in blushing unison.
"Shukar hai Allah ka," Raziya adjusted the dupatta on her head and went back to bustling about the preparations for tomorrow.
Song in Title:
Agneepath (2012): "Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin"
Loved chapter 1
LOVED IT!!!! It took me so long to read it all.. But mission accomplished!! Yayyy!!
Topic started by dixeij
Last replied by -jass-