Kuchh Aisa Reham Iss Lamhe Mein Hai, Yeh Lamha Kahaan Tha Mera
Asad laughed as Zoya rained pillow blows on his head the next night. "It's not funny, Mr. Khan!"
"It is!" he choked through guffaws. She continued hitting him no matter how much she loved to hear him laughing.
For once Asad had managed to stump her cold. She thought she was so smart. He knew she still wasn't a hundred percent on board with the trust fund idea. Zoya'd tried to sign it all over into his account today. But the provisions of the trust fund didn't allow a lump sum transfer, or even a transfer of a big figure within the first year; now she was blistering mad about it.
"Zoya, stop!" he grabbed her by her upper arms. "Give it up and accept the money gracefully. Or I'm going on a sex strike!"
"You wouldn't last a day!" she cried in frustration.
"Oh Mrs. Khan, I would. You wouldn't want to test me, would you?"
"Come here," he soothed, gathering her in his arms. "I'm going to get upset if you don't let me do this. And you know that Jahanpanahs don't like to get upset, right?"
"Jahanpanahs think they are too smart for their own good," Zoya muttered in mutiny.
Asad stroked her arms as he kissed her neck. He tried his best to make her see sense. "Look, don't think of it as taking-care-of-you money,' think of it as investing-in-your-dreams money.' "
"Hmmm," Zoya closed her eyes as she leaned back contentedly against him.
Dobby was curled up next to them and stretched so that Zoya could rub his belly too; Asad had just finished applying lotion over her domed tummy. They had all come to love this nocturnal ritual.
"Go on," she said. "Tell me more about this so-called investment.' "
He played with the bracelet at her wrist. Asad's thumb brushed against the jewel-encrusted fish charm. He loved thumbing over the different charms; they were prayer beads sliding between his fingers.
"I know that you're coding and developing those mobile apps of yours. This could expand your research and design, or subscription or ... collaboration capabilities ... "
His voice tapered off.
Asad always struggled with the tech vocabulary. Half the time he didn't even understand the terms or what she chattered on about at a mile-a-minute warp speed"her passion and know-how amazed him. But Zoya's techie universe may as well be another galaxy to him.
She'd recently told him about her latest exploits.
The moment he'd heard that word his jaw fell open in horror. May be Zoya was right: "what you don't know, won't hurt you," was her mantra. He shouldn't have asked.
"Hacking? Are you crazy! Is it legal? You'll get arrested or sued!" Asad sat down heavily on the settee. "Or probably deported," he had croaked.
You never knew with her. Here he was trying to watch out for his sisters' legal status as spouses of American citizens and his own wife could be landmining her legal status in India.
Asad nearly passed out at the thought.
"Zoya, you'll be the death of me one of these days!"
"Jeez, Mr. Khan, thanks for your faith in me! I'm no black hat or cracker!"
"Blackhat? Cracker? What's that?" There she went again with that obscure nerdland vocab.
"People who hack through systems with criminal intents or purposes--you know, like credit card or banking fraud, jamming signals or generally messing with national security."
"Zoya, I didn't mean that!" Asad explained contritely. "Obviously I know you'd never break the law!" He smacked his head. "No, scratch that. I do know that you'd slip through loopholes and find grey areas to exploit if it was to protect someone you loved--after all your sense of justice and loyalty is legendary by now."
"Wouldn't you do the same?"
Asad paused. His head fell back against the headboard as he sighed deeply. " ... more than a year ago, may be not. But now ..."
Zoya remembered his past anger against his father--thank god that was a lifetime ago! It was a time when anger ruled his heart. Asad's sense of justice was more black and white in those days; no grey areas for him. He was convinced that his father was guilty of murder and had even gone up against Ammi and Ayaan--two people he loved most in the world--to prove it.
Ammi had struck him for reporting Abbu to the police.
And Ayaan had even called him a "sautela bhai" for not backing down.
Asad had been a broken man that night. He'd locked himself in his room and she'd had to sneak in from the window with coffee, cookies and comfort. "No matter how much we fight, I always know that Mr. Khan hain, he'll take care of everything," she'd said to him. Somehow she'd managed to chip through that wall of iced silence he'd locked himself behind.
Zoya turned around now to stroke his cheek and hug him; she hoped to erase the sting of bad memories that must have lanced him all over again.
"Don't kid yourself Mr. Khan." She massaged his forehead. "You'd do anything, however illegal, for the people you love. Your love and loyalty is just as fierce--it always was. And don't worry about me. That hackathon thingy? It was an NGO-sponsored international event, OK--there was nothing illegal about it. They work in partnership with the tech industry. Women from all over the world were participating."
Asad smiled as her excitement got the better of her and she chugged on in its thrilled grip.
"You know it's really cool! Like some coders from Brazil made an app that adds a female safety feature to restaurant and bar reviews on Yelp! Now women can rate bars or clubs based on ... "
Zoya's eyes gleamed. His earlier words about investing in a dream and their shared sense of justice had given her the perfect idea for the use of that money.
Much more relaxed now that he was assured of her own safety and status, Asad exhaled in relief and returned to the subject that had got him so worried in the first place. "So this wasn't illegal? Thank god! Not that anything illegal has stopped you in the past." He grinned in devilry. "Hmm, may be you shouldn't be given all that money. We'll probably need it to bail you out."
"Asad!" she warned. Just when she'd finally begun to accept the money and make plans for it!
"No, you could be right. Forget about calling it a trust fund. Let's think of it as a future bail fund."
She went back to pounding him with her pillow. But she was glad to see his humor return. For a moment there, the dark memories of the past had almost reached out their skeletal fingers to snuff their breaths.
"Aaah!" she yelped suddenly.
"What is it?" Asad went into instant alert mode. "Are you OK? Does it hurt? Is it your back? Cramp?" He examined her legs feeling for cramps and then ran his hands over her stomach.
Her eyes watered. Once she could breathe she stroked his cheek. "Probably just another Braxton Hicks contraction. I'm fine now."
"Sure?" He'd read up on the false contractions--nothing to worry about.
"How many times have I told you that violence isn't good for you? Or for me, for that matter!" He rubbed her sides and back as she resettled against him.
"The godh bharai* was such fun, right?" Zoya mused with a happy sigh.
"Umm hmm," Asad kissed her shoulder and smiled in surrender to the change in topic. "But it tired you."
"You know, Dadi was saying that it's supposed to be a women's only function. But Ayaan and Nuzzhat convinced her to let you guys be a part of it." Zoya ignored his concerns. She was too busy reliving the fun.
"What? But I'm the father! Why just the women?" Asad asked.
"Exactly!" Zoya rewarded him with a peck on the cheek. Mission accomplished! She had trained her Akdu well.
"You know Mr. Khan, about that sex strike?" Zoya teased him a little later.
"It doesn't really work when men threaten it! It's more effective in women's hands."
"Yes, really!" Zoya half-rose to justify her point. "You know the 2011 Nobel peace prize winner? She was an activist from Liberia who along with thousands of women in their community went on a sex strike to end a civil war. And the idea of withholding sex from from their husbands to make them take a stand against the war was suggested by a Muslim woman."
"What? How do you even know this stuff?"
"I know, I read. And I love this stuff! Because there are Jhansi ki ranis all over the world!"
"That's amazing," Asad said. But then his brows furrowed. "But isn't that a sterotype: that men are hornier than women and will do anything for sex?"
Zoya tilted her head, arched an eyebrow and gave him the look.
Asad blushed. Yes, stupid question. Incredibly foolish.
"Ask yourself that when we won't be able to have sex for 6-8 weeks after the baby comes," Zoya said softly.
"Aaannnhhh!" Asad nearly decapitated himself as he fell back against the headboard. "Damn!" he muttered just as softly under his breath.
Yup, that was going to be pure hell. And even after the sex curfew was officially lifted Zoya may not want to"he'd read of women losing their libido during post-partum stresses. Yes, he could see clearly now the power of a sex strike--and the landscape looked bleak. Heck, he'd go to war for sex ... and end wars for it too. That Nobel peace prize was well-deserved indeed.
He lifted her chin to gaze deep into her eyes. "You won't lose interest in sex right, after the baby comes? We'll still ... you know, do what we do best?"
"You mean fight?" she dimpled up at him.
"Zoya!" Asad growled.
"I guess you'll just have to up your game Mr. Khan! You'll have to be badass Batman and super sexy Khan all at once. You'll have to put up shows for me, sing for me, seduce me and then, may be ... " she slowly trailed a finger down his forehead to his nose and over his lips. His tongue zipped out to burn her up. " ... may be then I'll consent to have wild, crazy, monkey sex with you!"
"Promise?" he purred.
"Cross my heart and hope to die!" Asad's hand came up to silence her for talking rubbish. Their eyes snagged and danced the sensual tango of love. Her gaze fell and shy lashes brushed her fiery cheeks.
As Zoya giggled in mock-protest, Asad got busy making up for all the lost time and chances in the coming months. It was a good thing that she was half-naked already--lesser time to waste this way. In fact he would give her a demo of upping his game right now--it would be an audition and a preview of services to come. He'd show her the full menu that she could choose from with a tap or swipe of a charged fingertip.
She moaned and her toes curled.
But why, in the middle of this gorgeous, voluptuous moment would she burst out laughing?
Asad frowned. "What?" he panted.
"Speaking of monkeys reminded me of when that monkey kicked Ayaan's butt in Agra!"
He laughed too. "That monkey was reading my mind!" Asad whispered against her neck. "Because you're only mine. All mine!"
Her nails dug into the twisting sheets. "All yours, only yours," Zoya threw her head back with a soft sigh and whimper.
"It's going to be boring without us," Ayaan had scoffed a few days earlier. "You women will get together and chatter about Shah Rukh Khan, Ranbir Kapoor and daily soaps."
"Please," Humaira had retorted. "We have better things to do than gossip about men. Our lives don't revolve around you."
"They should!" Ayaan announced. "Right, Ammi?" Shireen had stroked his head but said nothing. She'd had other things on her mind.
"But Dadi, Zoya Bhabhi is going to be very sad if Bhaijaan isn't there." Nuzzhat had tried other ways to convince Dadi.
Zoya had nodded as her lip stuck out. "It's not just my baby, you know?"
Someone put it in here, she thought to herself. And he should be right there next to me taking responsibility. She hadn't impregnanted herself all by her lonesome!
"What if something happens? As it is Aapi's back is always sore these days," Humaira jumped in. She was going to dance on "Didi tera devar diwana." It would be no fun if her Aapi's devar wasn't going to be there.
Dadi seemed to be getting pissed off at all these feeble attempts to convince her to change her mind.
"Oh, really? So for centuries we were doing it all wrong? I thought you girls called yourselves supergirls who didn't need men!"
Hey I'm a supergirl but I need my man next to me once in a while, Zoya thought as she patted her stomach.
OK, twice in a while.
Ayaan had laughed his head off at the girls' expressions but when Humaira glared at him he redoubled his own efforts. It was important to keep his brand new wife happy after all or he'd be finding out about sex strikes the hard way too.
"Dadi please? I don't want to miss out on watching these girls make fools of themselves! And the food? I want to eat all the great khana you guys are planning to serve. It's been ages since we last had a decent feast."
Dadi slapped him upside the head. "Your wedding was just a few weeks ago. Ek mahina bhi poora nahin hua hai! There were multiple days of feasts. Stop your silly excuses!"
He'd continued to torment his grandmother by adopting his favorite mode of persuasion. "Please, please, please, PLEASE!" He begged and proceeded to tickle her. He'd gotten away with that ever since he was six.
Dadi giggled and snorted. "Ayaan stop!" she wheezed. "Fine, fine! Have it your way! I was only joking." She wiped her eyes. Her cheeks were cherry-red from the exertion. "Of course the men should be there. Khushi ka mauka hai, aakhir. Everyone's welcome. But just family though."
"Yay, Dadi you're the best!" She glowed as a cheer went up from the grandkids.
"Are you sure about this, Ammi?" Dilshad had asked her later when the kids had left.
"Yes, absolutely! Why exclude our own family members from such a wonderful occasion. It could be the start of a new Khan tradition. It's a new century and a new generation after all. Let's try things their way."
Both of them had looked out at the girls practicing their dance sequences in the hall. They were laughing more than dancing. In the study, they could see Siddiqui saheb speaking into a mic with headphones attached to Zoya's belly. This was a brand new thing too--a new generation and its latest technology. They were talking to the baby. In fact everybody was getting a chance to bond with baby Ahmed Khan so that he or she would recognize its grandparents', and uncle and aunts' voices. They narrated stories or recited Quran verses and sang songs; the grandparents told the baby stories about its Abbu and Ammi, Khala and Phuphis. And of course the narrow scrapes that Chachu had gotten into all his life.
"I trust these kids," Dadi went on. Her breathing had returned to normal by now. "Apne haathon se apna shandar mustaqbil likh rahe hain. They've shown us that their way is better. And that they are much stronger and smarter than any of us."
Dilshad's eyes had misted. But she laughed when she heard Badi bi mutter, "hum toh gadhe thay! So much pain we wallowed in. And look at these kids! Zindagi mein rang le aaye. I was just teasing them. I'd never stand in the way of what makes them happy."
"Haan ... you're right," Dilshad agreed. "Zoya was telling me about this rare tree--the giant Sequoia. They're native to North America and are the tallest and longest living in the world. It's so interesting! Their seed cones need a forest fire to germinate or they remain dormant for years. These kids are our Sequoias."
A fire set nearly twenty years ago had shaped their mighty Sequoias.
Keeping secrets from the kids had led to years of dark torment. But their wisdom and compassion had cleared the thorny underbrush; now the patch of blue sky reached out to touch their sunny audacity.
On the day of the godh bharai once the Quran Khwani was wrapped up, there was just no stopping the fun and teasing.
All the stops were pulled out.
Light music, heady chatter and laughter floated out of the open doors and windows.
Despite much ragging from the girls, Raziya had outdone herself with the preparations from the ladki wala side. The girls had kidded so much about the number seven that they'd insisted that the function had to be held on the seventh day of the month too. Seven types of fruits and seven types of mithais were ceremonial; but they'd insisted on plying Zoya with seven types of chocolates. They'd smirked to see Asad frowning at all the extra sugar his wife had easy access to. Nor were the girls kidding about the pizza with seven toppings.
The ritual of godh bharai itself didn't take too long. The blessings and gifts, feeding of mithais and gulposhi--the draping of garlands over them"took much longer.
"Please don't feed me all the different kinds of mithai!" Zoya had protested when the girls tried to do exactly that.
And since the girls had insisted on the pizza Asad and Zoya were forced to feed each other ...
... And pose for a photo which was increasingly hard given Zoya's size.
The teasing and spontaneous laughter track was just as it should have been: festive, giddy and endless.
Everyone got new clothes. For Zoya, Raziya got dress material to be converted into kurtis of her liking when she was ready to fit into them. Depsite loud protests from Zoya, Siddqui saheb and Raziya had insisted in giving her some jewelry--"riwaaz hai beta," an exasperated Raziya sighed as she tried her best to get Zoya to accept the gift. She had got it specially cleaned and polished for the occasion.
"But it's so huge and so golden," Zoya exclaimed. "Abbu, I'm never going to wear it!"
"Please, tumhari Dadi ka hai. You have to keep it. Bas, no arguments!" Siddiqui flashed his eyes at her and she reluctantly shut up.
She knew it meant a lot to him that he could pass on his mother's heirloom pieces to his daughters--and her in particular. She felt grateful for the connection it provided to her ancestors; it was a connection she'd hungered for all her life after all. In fact in the end, Zoya even agreed to wear her dadi's jhoomar for the occasion to commemorate and celebrate this ceaseless bond.
She had beamed when Raziya marked her with her kajal and whispered in her ear, "just pass it on to your kids! You don't have to wear them all. But wait and see, it'll come back in fashion in twenty years!"
Yes, that's what it was about. Adding links to a chain that stretched from the past to the future.
Humaira too had quietly slipped the pearl ring back on her sister's finger. It no longer fit her ring finger so Zoya wore it on her pinky. A new ritual had quietly bloomed between the two of them--they'd pass the ring on to each other at every big moment of their lives. "It'll be our unique tradition," Humaira had vowed to her Aapi to convince her to wear the ring when Zoya refused to take it back. "Hey, no backsies," she'd told Humaira.
"Please Aapi, for me!"
Zoya had finally agreed--it did sound like a perfect little tradition to start.
Looks like Zoya wasn't going to get her way at all today when it came to accepting family gifts of jewelry. She shook her head. Why did Indians love jewelry so much? She'd pouted for a nanosecond but then cheered right up when the games began.
Zoya had loved the games**.
She'd given the girls the idea of baby shower games and Humaira had taken care of the rest. Dadi had probably had the most fun. She won the game which asked the women to tear a piece of a paper streamer which was then used to measure Zoya's tummy. Dadi's streamer had come to being the most accurate measure.
The game where through the whole evening no one could mention the word "baby"? Shireen was the first to lose. She mentioned the word in the first 5 minutes. Dilshad won that one--not once did she mention the word all night. It was in her heart but never on her lips. She had beamed with secret pride when everyone cheered for her.
The men had rolled their eyes first at being forced to play, but were soon hooked and threw themselves into the spirit of things--with a vengeance.
The girls had pulled out their childhood dolls to use as props. Asad and Ayaan competed for who'd change the baby doll's diapers the fastest.
Siddiqui saheb's diaper was the neatest looking; Rashid was disqualified because Shireen had done most of the work. Ayaan's flopped right open and fell to the floor in seconds.
Well Asad spent most of the time straightening the supplies and lining things up precisely at 90 degree angles before rolling up his sleeves and setting to work. He'd even asked for a demo. Twice.
"Mr. Khan, by this time the baby would have gone to college already!" A cheeky comment floated over his shoulder. Thank god Humaira wasn't around to monitor the use of the word "baby."
"Not without a clean bum it won't!" Asad muttered as he carefully powdered the doll's behind. Zoya looked on in indulgent pride.
"You did the best job," she whispered. "Even if you were the last one to finish!"
Asad beamed with pleasure.
"Our baby will have the straightest diapies and the cleanest bottom!"
"And the cutest! Taking after its mom's of course," Asad said.
"Aapi! You said 'baby!'" Humaira shouted as she wagged her finger from a distance. "You're out!"
Zoya laughed unaware that she'd slipped her arm through his as they gazed down at the doll cradled in Asad's other arm. When they looked up at each other, they couldn't look away.
"Behave, you two," Dilshad hissed from behind them. "Stand apart, right now!" she instructed. They reluctantly disengaged.
"Ammi look!" Zoya gushed. "Isn't Mr. Khan the best at changing diapers?"
Dilshad smiled. "Of course he is! But wait till the bachcha (Dilshad had mastered the game by substituting bachcha for baby) is squirming and crying and the diaper is all messy."
Asad blanched; his smile evaporated.
"Ammi, stop scaring him!" Zoya stroked his arm. "I think he'll still be the best, hai na, baby?" She pinched his cheek and the color returned to his face--he basked in his wife's adoration.
"Aapi! You said 'baby' again!"
"I'm allowed to say it! Baby, baby, baby!" Zoya retorted as she planted her fists on her ample waist and turned to glare at her mother-in-law next. "You scare him away then you and I will have to change more diapers. Think about it!"
Dilshad slapped her forehead and hugged Zoya. "Allah! Yes, yes, he's the absolute best. I've always known this about my son. He's the BEST!"
"See Mr. Khan, I'm always watching out for you and being your cheerleader," Zoya turned to her husband. "Aapki izzat ka sawaal hai!"
"Thank you so much," Asad quirked an ironic eyebrow at her. "I'll take whatever tattered izzat is left since you've managed to turn a Jahanpanah into a joru ka ghulam."
She butted her head against his shoulder. "So it's settled? You're my ghulam for life? We're on the same page?"
"We're on the same page ..." Asad bent his head to whisper in her ear, " ... the same page you write my destiny on every night."
She blushed remembering his reference to her nighttime calligraphy on his bare chest.
"Door khadey ho!" Dilshad ordered them even as she wiped her kajal behind Zoya's ear for the fourth time that evening. At this rate she'd have to reapply, or better yet, just carry an eye pencil around and mark Zoya with it directly every ten minutes or so.
She couldn't resist a maternal pinch of her son's cheek either.
"Ammi please!" Both Zoya and Asad protested.
Laughing, Dilshad led her away to sit down knowing that she must be tiring from standing up for so long. She shook her head and mentally tsked. Any function or party and it wasn't long before Asad and Zoya gravitated toward each other if they happened to be in the same room.
Their hungry eyes sought each other's and snaggled.
And once within touching distance Zoya couldn't helping picking imaginary lint off his clothes nor could he help tucking her hair behind her ears. They may as well have been tied to each other with invisible rubber bands or bungee cords"stretched far enough they snapped back together.
Dilshad would go cross-eyed giving them the look.
They'd behave themselves for fifteen minutes and then it was the rinse and repeat cycle all over again.
They'd been oil and water once ... angry currents and fiery twisters ... Wasn't there a poem: "East is east and west is west and never the twain shall meet"?
But, enough drama and repressed foreplay, the aligned stars had decided and conspired to toss them together"into each other's arms.
... they were forever orbiting, heat-seeking and magnetized now ...
Not that she begrudged her son this happiness. They deserved this and much more. Dilshad had seen everyone gazing fondly at these two and her eyes had stung. Let everything always be this perfect, she'd prayed. When she had looked across the room and seen Rashid looking at them as if he would start crying too, Dilshad knew that he prayed for the same.
On Skype, Zeenat had laughed to see the games; she had cried when Raziya and Siddiqui presented Zoya with an envelope containing papers for a scholarship program at the orphanage and the university in Zainab's name. That was Zoya's favorite of all the gifts she got that day. She had pressed the papers to her eyes and then gripped her Abbu's and aunty's hands tightly. "I love you, I love you so much," she'd whispered through tears. "Thank you."
Raziya had burst into tears then herself. The terrible irony of Zoya's generosity didn't escape her. On her knees, she bent to kiss Zoya's hands. She'd cried harder looking at that pearl ring. The girls had so quickly forged a bond so strong that they could have had all their lives. Why couldn't she understand this sooner?
Zeenat had wanted to come for the function so bad. But she and Anwar decided that it would be better to have her be there with Zoya around the time of her delivery and later to look after the baby. But she'd left her gift for the godh bharai with Dilshad. It was the same diamond set that she'd worn for the wedding which Zeenat had promised to give back to her today.
As the girls fastened the jewelry around her neck, Zoya's eyes locked with Asad's. She blushed and looked away when she saw the knowing look in his eyes. He had stared at the necklace, the jhumkas and jhoomar as well as the rising color in her cheeks; his hooded eyes had promised a repeat of their suhaag raat. She had worn his Dadi's jewelry then, it was her Dadi's jewelry this time--yes, it would be different this time ... new and achingly familiar ... their bodies knew each other a lot more instinctively now, their lovemaking was bolder ... they'd made new discoveries since then, found new erogenous territories to savor and conquer ...
No one had wanted the evening to end. But it had to. It was wrapped up with dances performed by the girls. Zoya had clapped and squealed"thoroughly relishing the non-surprise. And Dadi's entry had been the showstopper--an instant hit. She might even end up on Youtube.
They had all dragged her and Asad in their midst and even Dilshad had let them be this once"ishq pe zor nahin after all!
"Bhaijaan, say something to the baby," Nuzzhat begged to record his words for the video they were making. She had already asked everyone else to do it.
"You said 'baby,'" Humaira yelled and Nuzzhat's face fell. She and Badi Ammi were the only ones who hadn't used the word. Damn!
Asad had blushed ducking his head at the request to speak to the baby. In the privacy of their room he said a lot to the baby. He still wrote his secret letters to the baby on Zoya's bare stomach. But here, in front of everyone? Then he saw Nuzzhat holding up the microphone with the buds attached to Zoya's tummy.
"We're all waiting for you," Asad spoke shyly into it.
"Awww," went the girls.
"So cute!" Najma gushed.
Asad went redder. "To hold you and introduce you to everyone. Your Khala and Phuphis are especially eager to see you."
"And all your grandparents who'll have to get in line," Zoya added when she saw Dadi's face at not being included in Asad's list of favorites.
"Hey, what about me?" piped Ayaan.
"Chachu too," Asad added. "I'll teach him how to hold you properly."
Everyone laughed because it may be a while before Ayaan would be allowed to hold the baby. Most likely Asad would make him practice on a football first.
He wanted to say so much more. But he'd save that for later. Every night he silently pledged to stand by the baby; just like he'd pledged its mom.
But Asad didn't want to say that out loud now in front of everyone, especially his mother and father and ... Siddiqui saheb. Too many bad memories would be stirred up.
And this was a day of celebration, not regrets.
Yes, their fathers had turned their backs on him and Zoya and both of them had agreed, "we're not our parents."
But that was yesterday.
He looked around the room and cleared his suddenly clogged throat.
Today they were all here, by their side, waiting with damp eyes to welcome their grandchild: a grandchild that would not just unite families and generations, but would wash away any lingering guilt and regret to make room for everything bright and hopeful.
But then he grinned.
Because a sudden sunny memory came splish-splashing through. He'd been reminded of Zoya's cheeky words from a few nights ago: "I hope we aren't overloading this baby with too much symbolism and allegory, plus parable. I mean, if its head gets too swollen it'll be murder on me during childbirth, right?"
Just like his wife to put everything in comic (or was it cosmic?) perspective.
It had been such a fun day--both exhilarating and exhausting. Except for one damper: That night Humaira was trying to figure why her husband was so upset with her. All evening he'd been remote, he wouldn't meet her eye or tease and flirt with her.
She had tried sweettalking to him, kissing and writhing against him but had only gotten a snarl and a huff in response.
This was new to her. He'd never been mad at her before. Usually he'd be the one trying to make her smile and giggle and patao her in a million different ways--tickling, pinching, rubbing his stubble against her cheek and neck, running his hands down her sides suggestively ... grinding against her ...
But tonight Ayaan had just turned his back on her and curtly told her to go to sleep and not bother him.
What had happened? Did she do something that'd offended him?
Humaira sniffed. "Ayaan?"
Still the huffy silence.
"Why are you mad at me? You're scaring me," she cried.
Aw heck, he couldn't bear her crying. Ayaan turned to face her but still remained silent"and aloof. He was dying to gather her up in his arms. Yes, he had melted somewhat at those tears, but he was still mad. And he was also mad at himself for being so ridiculous ...
"Did I do something? Please tell me what I did wrong! I'll never do it again," she begged.
Now Ayaan was embarrassed. Because saying it out loud would make him look like an ass.
He sighed and ran his hand through his hair.
"We promised that we'd never go to bed mad at each other, remember?"
He had to grab Humaira tight when she burst into scared tears. Ayaan kissed her head and murmured semi-apologetic assurances in her ear.
"But what happened? What did I do?"
"Why were you cheering so hard for Bhaijaan during the diaper contest?"
Humaira walloped him hard across his arm.
"OW," Ayaan yelped.
"Are you kidding me? He's my Jeeju! What's your problem in life?"
"You're my wife! You should've been cheering for me!"
"You're such a baby! (I can't believe I just said 'baby,' she thought to herself) I can't believe you're jealous of Jeeju! Your own brother!" Humaira was now deriving a great deal of pleasure from Ayaan's obvious discomfort.
He grunted in confused displeasure. He was having trouble working through his own conflicted feelings. This was so embarrassing!
"You're jealous of Jeeju? You're jealous of Jeeju!" She crowed in delight.
"Jeeju, jeeju, jeeju," Ayaan made a face and mocked under his breath as he punched his pillow. "I'm not jealous of Bhaijaan, OK? Are you mental?"
"You're not jealous of your Bhaijaan, but you are jealous of my Jeeju!" Humaira laughed. This was pure gold. Just wait when she told Aapi. "And you're calling me mental?"
Ayaan pulled her under him. "Shut up, Jeeju ki saali."
"Hey, don't you dare call me saali," Humaira protested as she resisted his kisses.
"I didn't call you saali, I called you Jeeju ki saali--JKS!"
"OK, that's so much better. But you know what, Ayaan? I was only cheering for him because he was losing."
"Really," Humaira stroked his bruised ego. But only temporarily. "But I think our babies (again? Get babies off my mind!) are going to be running around naked because their Abbu will be terrible at changing diapers"they'll keep falling off!"
"They will not!" Ayaan objected. "Cos. by then I'll have practiced on Bhaijaan and Mona darling's baby."
Humaira giggled. "Good job! But I still can't believe that you're jealous of Jee---!"
* I want to thank my friends and dear readers Nafisa, Fatima, Ridzi and Iansomer for help in filling in the godh bharai rasm blanks. Thanks guys!
** And a double thank you, Iansomer, for suggesting the games. I really hadn't thought of doing it but you made me rethink that.
Song in Title:
Agneepath (2012): "Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin"
Edited by Klondy - 2015-07-02T20:08:08Z
"What's so funny?" Asad asked Zoya the next morning as he got ready for work.
"Ayaan!" she said as she finished checking her phone messages. "Apparently he got jealous when Humaira was cheering for her Jeeju yesterday."
"Now that is funny," Asad remarked. "May be he needs to meet General Jeeju and Mukka Ahmed Khan--it'll make him behave for a few hours."
"At least," she agreed as their eyes met in the mirror. "Aw Jahanpanah, you really love your nicknames don't you?"
Asad pulled her to him and wrapped his arms around her from the back--doing so from the front was becoming harder and harder.
"I only love the names you call me," he nicked her ear before sucking on the lobe.
"Like Jahanpanah six packs?" Zoya hissed.
"Umm mmm ..."
"Akdu Ahmed Khan?"
"My shahi tukra?"
He smiled. He had nearly forgotten that one.
"Love that the most," he ground his hips against her to show her just how much he loved that.
"No, I mean Mr. Khan, I thought you said you were getting late! Shoo! Chop chop, you should get going already!"
Asad frowned. "It's all your fault for distracting me," he groused. After a martyred sigh he picked up his computer bag to leave.
Dobby smacked his lips and smirked up at him.
"What?" he turned around, grumpier than a hungry Dobby. No, there was no such thing as a hungry Dobby; it was always a hangry Dobby.
"Don't you like it when I call you, Asad?"
Those lips curled into a slow smile--its beam colliding with the gleam in his eye. Setting the bag down on the chair he pulled her back into his arms. "I love how each time you call me Asad it's a shared secret between us." He brushed his nose against hers ever so lightly and Zoya sighed. "And a promise ... it's as if you re-christen me ... re-make me ... make me all yours, all over again."
"Good, I've been told that Zoya Farooqui kuch bhi kar sakti hai!" she managed to retort smugly before he silenced her with a kiss.
"Say my name," he whispered against her lips.
Her voice dropped becoming breathier. "Asad," she rasped.
"Good girl. But I love it even better when you say my name as you're about to come."
She moaned. "Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan! Any more talk like this and you really will be late."
He snickered. "No, really. It drives me crazy!" He sucked on her upper lip and it drove her crazy. "Those added syllables ... the throaty purrs and cries are just mmm, mmm delicious!"
"Asad, go! ... no ... don't," she sighed and he was disarmed"clean bowled.
He rocked on his heels and removed his tie. "Screw it. So I'll be late."
She was too turned on to laugh or crow in victory. Zoya's eyes glazed over as she watched him undress. Her eyes followed his hands as they skimmed his belt buckle. Her blood simmered.
"I nearly saw your seventh pack that day Jahanpanah six packs," she teased softly.
"Yes Mrs. Khan, you did have a terrible habit of walking in on me at the worst times!"
"At the best of times, you mean!"
Asad's eyes darkened.
He framed her face in his hands; his knuckles brushed her swollen lips.
"That one time when you tripped and ripped my shirt buttons open? ... God! For a second I could only think of what I wanted to do to you. What I wanted you to do to me ... this mouth ..." He bent his head to drug her with his kisses. "I must've had at least half a dozen cups of coffee the next morning."
"Why?" Zoya asked in distracted puzzlement.
"Because I didn't sleep a wink that night. Each time I closed my eyes I had visions of you ... under me ... kneeling in front of me ... naked and hot and wild ... calling my name."
Zoya moaned and her head fell back, "oh God Asad! You too?"
He sniggered in satisfied revenge and shut her up for good. There really was no time to waste on banter and what ifs and if onlys.
Nor on foreplay.
Dobby felt a hangry fit coming but then he got distracted by the purple and black bra that sailed his way.
The blood rushed ... skin burnished.
Their slick bodies shimmered ... marinating in the soft sighs and groans that filled the room.
Teeth skittered ... a hickey bloomed.
It was in the car that he realized that he'd forgotten his tie. Asad hoped he'd find a spare one in his office because otherwise the entire world would see his wife's possessive brand on him.
And they'd know exactly why he was late.
A notification pinged on his phone.
Thanks to his wife he even got honked at when the light turned green at the signal. Because he'd been too busy drooling over the latest selfie of her: a silhouetted Zoya was leaning forward, her lambent body in shadow. Her eyes still looked drugged. Tousled hair fell over her bare shoulders. She wore nothing except his loosely knotted tie--one end caught between her saucy teeth.
"Tied up in you," her text sassed in infinite longing.
Back home in San Fransisco Omar was bouncing off the walls.
Najma would be leaving for the US in a week. She was ecstatic and miserable at the same time. While she was able to share her misery with her mother and crib about missing the delivery and not seeing her niece or nephew, she hung around Zoya to ask eager questions about America--what will I do all day long? I won't know anyone! What if everyone thinks I'm dumb? Will I become fat?
"Join a gym or go walking and biking!" Zoya responded easily. "There are so many things to do. Public libraries within walking distance, parks, community centers that offer classes on everything from pottery to yoga to tennis ... walking trails ..."
"Is it safe?"
"Very! But still, always have your phone with you, call 911 if there's any trouble."
"It's that easy? The police don't hassle you? Don't take forever to get there?"
"Nope! Their response rate in getting to the scene is 5-7 minutes--at least officially." Zoya sighed. "Look, I'm not going to lie. The police in the US are known to be trigger-happy. They also may not seem minority-friendly." Her eyes grew remote. "Specially lately ... it's as if there isn't a day when you don't hear about an officer-involved shooting. The system isn't always fair. But generally, you can count on them. Omar will let you know more about the specific area you guys are in. I hope you never have to encounter them though," Zoya said as she kissed Najma's forehead.
Asad walked in just then from office and stood still as he heard them talking. He cleared his throat.
Najma looked up guiltily. "Hi Bhaijaan! Zoya and I were just talking. I'll let you freshen up," she rose to leave.
"No Najma, stay," Asad told her. "I ... we want to talk to you." He looked at Zoya and she pulled her sister-in-law down to sit by her. She understood what Asad wanted to say. They had discussed the subject often and wondered about how to broach the topic to Najma. This looked like the perfect moment.
Najma's eyes widened. She looked from one to the other sensing some kind of a grim revelation to come. "What is it? Is everything OK? The baby? Omar?"
Najma's eyes filled. Dread soaked her gut. Instinctively her hand grabbed the dupatta end to cover her mouth with it--if she stopped saying her fears out loud, then nothing bad would happen, right?
"No, no, Najma, everything's all right! We don't mean to scare you." Both Zoya and Asad rushed to reassure her. Asad strode to the closet from which he withdrew a folder.
He pulled up one of the chairs in the room and held her hand. "Don't be scared. We just want to talk to you about how to take care of yourself in the US."
Najma frowned. "Take care of myself? What do you mean? Omar will be there to take care of me."
"Of course." Asad answered. "But this is a just-in-case kind of precaution." He handed her the folder.
Curious, Najma flipped through it. Nothing made sense. It had a photocopy of her passport and her trust fund card. On another sheet were names, addresses and phone numbers of local mosques and a couple of Bhaijaan's friends who she knew were settled in the US. Good. Zeenat Aapi's numbers and address--cool!
But lawyers? Doctors? Immigration specialists? A women's shelter and organizations?
Baffled, she looked up at both of them again. Alarm bells were setting off in her head once again.
"Zoya? Bhaijaan? What is this?"
Zoya still held her hand and Asad bent to clutch the other one. "We know that Omar loves you. We only wish you the very best and all the happiness in the world. This is just a back-up plan to have if something goes wrong."
The folder slipped from Najma's nerveless hands. Tears spilled down her pale cheeks. "What are you saying Bhaijaan? How can you even think that!"
"Shh!" Asad hugged her to him. He hated doing this. She'd been so happy just a few minutes ago and he'd come and burst her bubble with fear and mistrust.
He wiped her tears. "You trust me, right?"
She nodded her head and her tears splashed on his shirt. "I never want to see you in pain. I'll kill anyone who makes you cry."
"Bhaijaan!" Najma protested.
"No, listen," Asad continued. "We all love Omar and know that he's a gem of a person. But I can't let you leave and go so far away from us without giving you some kind of a backup plan or safety net in case of ..."
He lifted her fist to his lips and kissed it. "You saw what Ammi went through. But you didn't see what I saw because I was older. If I can help it, no woman in our family is ever going to go through that again!" Asad exhaled. He felt humbled.
Thank god Chhoti Ammi had brought up this issue and made him realize that because of their parents' past their generation had the responsibility (the possibility?) to be even more alert. They had the tools and knowledge to not let history repeat itself"to knock history flat on its back if it even tried.
Najma's head fell into the crook of his neck. She was beginning to understand some of his concerns too.
She nearly smiled. Bhaijaan was just being Bhaijaan--his usual over-protective self.
But she cried harder when he went on.
"You will keep this safely with you where you can have access to this folder 24/7. Take pictures of each page with your phone. Zoya and I have already done that with ours. As soon as you get the green card stamp or whatever, make a copy of that immediately and keep it safe in here. Email or message the picture of that to us too."
"But ..." she still didn't want to believe that he could be right. Why were they saying these terrible things?
"No Najma. I'm going to put my foot down on this one. You will, you must do this. For me."
Asad couldn't sit still anymore. He shot up to pace about the room in repressed fury. "I hated Abbu for nearly twenty years. I should have hated the system more and done something else besides keeping you and Ammi over-protected and locked in a golden palace. We are incredibly lucky that Omar and his family are beautiful, wonderful people, but still---"
Zoya cupped Najma's tear-stricken face in her hands. "Your Abbu is a wonderful person too but terrible things happened. Both your Ammi and Abbu paid a steep price for it--you and your Bhaijaan did as well."
Zoya's eyes welled up too. "What Mr. Khan is trying to say is that, this is his way of making sure that you can protect yourself, watch out for your rights. And never ever feel helpless! Remember we saw that show about those Indian girls who got married to green card holders or US citizens and were mistreated when they got there? Aapi knew someone--she was really smart and strong"a PhD., teaching at the university. But her husband broke her arm once and locked her out of the house. Thank god she divorced him and is back in India doing really well for herself now."
She kissed Najma.
"I hope nothing bad ever happens to you. But we just want to give you the tools that will add steel to your spine--please let us. This way no one will be able to mess with you! They'll be like Allah miyan, don't take pangas with this girl!' And then when they find out about your Wolverine hulk Bhaijaan---!"
Asad smiled. Trust his wife to put it in just the right light--truth clad in sparkly hope topped with fantasy sprinkles. What else could he ask for. "Yes," he added. "This isn't about mistrusting Omar. Never! This is about ..."
"It's about giving you steel-plated armor so you won't be dependent on anyone." Zoya jumped in again and Asad shook his head. Why bother? She was much better at painting a clearer picture--bedazzled with glitter.
"You will be the mistress of your muqaddar instead of its victim--a super woman. A Jhansi ki rani!" Zoya clapped her hands and almost bounced in delight.
Najma giggled through her tears and Asad's smile widened--being interrupted by his toofan express of a wife didn't matter; what mattered was that Tamatar was back to being her rosy self.
"Zoya, looks like you've opened a Jhansi ki rani ki dukaan!" Najma teased.
Zoya looked up at Asad and grinned. "Yes, totally! I plan to start a factory that'll manufacture Jhansi ki ranis! Now listen, learn driving ASAP and send us a copy of your license too." Zoya held up a hand to shush Najma when she tried to protest again.
"This isn't about Omar, remember? We love him--I've known him longer than I know you guys. Bachpan se! This is about you--just you! Till the world changes to become safer and more equal for women, we'll be a power-team and have each other's backs, deal?"
"Deal," Najma promised as they both shook hands on it and bumped fists.
"So you promise to come to my rescue if my husband troubles me?" Zoya asked as she batted her lashes at her husband in question.
Najma laughed more when she saw the expression on her brother's face. "Umm, Zoya, I'll have to think more about that!"
Zoya made a face as Najma and Asad bumped fists and high-fived now.
"By the way Najma, your Bhaijaan has also talked to both Maulvi sahebs and Imams at the mosques in your area," She winked at her nanad.
"Oh god," Najma groaned as she slapped her forehead and squeezed her eyes shut. She'd be notorious even before she stepped in the country.
Gee thanks a lot, Bhaijaan.
So embarrassing--he always did that. Even the first day she went to college: he'd already talked to the prinicipal and her professors. In person.
Najma looked up in alarm at her bhabhi.
Zoya nodded knowingly. "Umm hmm ... on Skype!"
"Umm Zoya, on second thought, yes I will support you against anyone who troubles you! You let me know and together we'll kick butt!"
"Shabash mera cheetah!" Zoya crowed.
"The Hulk? Really?" Asad asked after Najma left; his lips twitched in mock-anger.
He loosened his tie after hanging up his suit jacket. No, he hadn't found a spare one in his office closet. He had made Prasad give him his. Thank god! And a blushing Prasad had only been too eager to please.
"Hunk! I meant hunk!" Zoya cried. "Heart-throb wala hunk! But obviously I couldn't say that in front of your sister!"
"Good girl. Now come here and give me a hug so I can say hi to the baby."
She did, but only after dislodging Dobby who felt increasingly proprietory over Zoya's belly these days. It had become a favorite roosting perch of his and he often purred in confusion when batted by the baby's kicking from under him.
"By the way," Asad said. "We owe Prasad a brand new tie no thanks to you!"
You're welcome!" Zoya quipped brushing her nose with his.
Baby-proofing Dobby had been on the list of pre-baby projects too. In her research Zoya had found much on the myths and reality of raising babies with cats. Raziya had expressed fears of the cat being jealous of the newborn and probably scratching it or sitting on it. Why not shift Dobby to the Siddqui house, she recommended.
But Zoya didn't like that idea. And Asad hadn't taken too long to agree with her. Life would certainly be easier without Dobby.
But not the same.
So in the sixth month itself they had begun to acclimate Dobby by playing baby sounds and cries randomly to get him used to having the baby around. Both she and Asad now applied baby lotion to their hands before petting him or playing with him--to get him used to the smell of the baby this way. And Asad was beginning to spend more time with him so that Dobby wouldn't be jealous of Zoya's time with the baby. The bed was already off-limits for the cat--the squirt bottle now a nasty nemesis. And if he did misbehave too much, then yes, Dobby was headed to the Siddiqui house for a lambi judai timeout.
In between cleaning his paw Dobby watched Asad kneel to kiss Zoya's tummy and murmur daddytalk. Baby sounds played on the iPad. The cat hopped on to the rocking chair. He had come to like it now and often jumped up on Zoya's lap when she sat in it. But in the first few weeks he must have lost one of his nine lives when his tail was nearly lopped off by it as Zoya tested it out.
The rocking chair had been a surprise for his wife. Asad had ordered it to be delivered in their absence when he'd taken her away for their anniversary night last month. They hadn't really planned anything beyond a dinner and a drive to their favorite hilltop vista point. But Siddiqui Saheb and Raziya had insisted on the getaway and given it to them as their treat.
"We couldn't be a part of your wedding," her Abbu had patted her head. "This is our belated wedding gift."
When Zoya had begun to protest, Raziya had glared at her and put a finger on her lips to mime shutting up. "Chup!"
"Bas! We've decided and it's final! Ya Allah, yeh ladki! Why are you always so contrary?" Raziya had scolded. "I'll tell Zainab," she muttered. She remembered Zeenat's words. There was a lifetime to look forward to of a contrarian Zoya--and then a new generation of mini-Zoyas.
When Zoya pouted Raziya had pulled her in a hug and kissed her forehead. "Enjoy this time. When the baby comes you'll be exhausted." She slicked the hair back on Zoya's forehead. "The first few weeks are the hardest. You'll feel that you're nothing but a machine. Your relationship with Asad will change too. I'm not saying that it'll happen to you, but sometimes men get jealous of the baby."
Zoya's eyes had widened in alarm. They both had glanced at Asad right then who was talking with Siddiqui Saheb. They were discussing plans and designs for the crib. Dadi had forbidden the assembly of the crib before the baby came but that didn't stop the men from getting the supplies ready. Siddiqui Saheb was already carving parts of the head rail. He was doing this despite protests from his daughter about the state of his hands. Rashid was helping with planing and varnishing. It was as if it were an unsaid atonement for both fathers--a necessary penance for these hands before they held their grandchild ... and touched the face of true grace.
"Jealous? Nah! That would be too incredibly foolish for Akdu Ahmed Khan!" Zoya had announced and Raziya had laughed.
But Zoya now understood the deeper significance of this gift. It was their one last chance to enjoy their time alone as a couple. Once the baby came they'd have to plan hard to wrangle rare moments like this.
A luxury hotel and spa ... couple's massages ... candlelit dinner on a private terrace ... millions of roses in their room ... It would be the perfect bubble of privacy and intimacy ... the perfect celebration of their pre-baby togetherness. They had bachelor and bachelorette parties didn't they, then why not a pre-Ammi and Abbu party? If you went a little crazy celebrating going from single to double, then why not, double to triple?
Asad hadn't been able to resist showering her with rose petals before they'd made love that night.
"You love doing this, don't you?" Zoya had teased him. Her fingers drew his face, tracing over his eyelids and nose and lips.
"It's our thing," Asad reminded her. "From our second meeting to now, flowers have loved being a part of our story."
Asad had picked a rose and similarly traced the features on her face with it.
Their anniversary gifts to each other had been unusual. Asad had debated about a heart shaped charm for her bracelet. But hearts were too overdone.
He'd finally settled on a rose gold infinity charm for her bracelet instead. It could also double as a pendant if she wished. But knowing Zoya he knew she'd wear it most on her bracelet.
He'd also given her a Yin and Yang charm on the thinnest of gold chains. He had to keep it simple. Any thing studded or jeweled and it would never see the light of day. "The chain is for when you want to wear this or any of your charms as a pendant."
She'd happily jiggled her wrist to make the charms dance. "That's us, right? Yin and Yang!"
"Soon we'll have to get you a brand new bracelet for more charms," Asad had teased.
"Umm ... may be when the next baby comes?" Zoya had cocked her head to the side and Asad had nearly gagged. She'd laughed richly up into his face.
When they'd returned the next day he'd held her back and whispered in her ear, "there's one last surprise."
Zoya had bounced in glee when he'd slipped a silken blindfold on her eyes. "Mr. Khan, please tell me you don't always carry that around with you!"
"On some days I have to," Asad said as he led her into the room. "It's multi-functional--I can use it to blindfold you, gag that mouth of yours, or bind your hands as need be."
"Asad, that's so mean! But wow, I love the way you think--we'll try all those tonight!"
He pushed her down gently into the upholstered rocker. Her hands gripped and then ran down the plush sides. "What!"
He swiveled it and Zoya flung the cloth off her eyes. "Oh my god, this is so perfect. So comfy!"
Asad knelt by her side at eye level. "I know it's been hard getting up and sitting down."
When he was around he always offered her his arm but on her own she scooted to the front and then twisted sideways to haul herself out of sofas and couches. In fact these days Zoya preferred to sit on the dining chairs--higher, straight-backed, and not as deep--they were just easier to get in and out of.
"And we can use this later when the baby comes, for midnight feedings and whenever I want to rock the baby to sleep and you're too tired."
"Promise?" Zoya asked.
She stroked his cheek. "I can't wait to see you be the best daddy in the whole wide world! On some days I'm even sure you'll make a better mom than me. But you know what, Aunty was saying that sometimes husbands get jealous of babies. Will you ever get jealous of the baby?"
"Asad!" Zoya gasped.
He laughed softly and nuzzled her. "You'll have to promise to look up at me too once in awhile. What if you get too lost in the baby and forget that I exist?"
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with you Mr. Khan! Like that could EVER happen!"
Her gift to him had been priceless--it had left him speechless. No one had ever done anything like that for him. She must have spent hours making this!
Zoya had actually had a lot of fun doing it. "It's really for the baby," she'd whispered when he'd looked up, eyes shiny with unshed tears.
Somehow she'd painstakingly created a thick leather-bound scrapbook with pictures and collages of him as a baby and a young boy. It was really hard to find pictures of him from his high school and college days. She'd made frantic facebook appeals to his friends, classmates and cousins to send her pictures. Thank god Ayaan had some great pictures with his favorite Bhaijaan. But the best part was that she had been able to add sound to the scrapbook! She had gotten Aapi to order sound strips and then ship them over and then had Dadi, Rashid, Dilshad, Ayaan and the girls record messages or comments for each picture.
On the first page, in ornate calligraphy, she'd hand-transcribed a quote from Khalil Gibran in Urdu and its English translation:
When you love you should not say, "God is in my heart," but rather, "I am in the heart of God."
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
There were other pages in the book dedicated to pictures of school awards and trophies, ribbons and badges and even snippets of some of his essays and schoolwork. There were report cards and an array of glowing teachers' notes. In fact, she'd even managed to track down a teacher of his! It was his English teacher who had once found him too boring to win a girl's love.
Zoya had got her to record a message for Asad.
"Hello, roll number 7, seat number 3, standard 4th B," Mrs. Braganza said in the recording. She went on to remind him of his love for frogs and apologized for ever thinking that no girl would marry him. "Looks like you proved me wrong." She went on to bless both of them and wish them the best.
"Aw, my Akdu was once a frog prince!" Zoya teased him as he listened to the recording again. She had wanted to include so many of their special moments ...
But she'd save that for later, for a more private album!
For their eyes only!
But still, she hadn't been able to resist a few pages on his life since she'd entered it and made it "roshan* and gulzar," she'd written and added a footnote to explain the asterisk: "And I don't mean Hritik Roshan either!"
There were cheerful captions on these pages along with more profound quotes interspersed with quirky Zoyaisms. Gibran's quote on marriage "Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music" had been annotated with a sound strip which when pressed blared out Zoya singing: "maine mari entriyaan re, dil mein baji ghantiyaan, tang! tang! tang!"
Asad had thrown his head back to laugh uproariously when he saw the caricatures and memes. Where had she even got someone to do this? This was genius!
"You actually told someone about us ... about these moments?" He should have been horrified. What must have the caricature artist thought about when his wife had made this strange request! But this was just too perfect! Memorable moments forever captured in just the right momento.
Asad hugged her tightly dropping a kiss on her head.
As he flipped through more pages he nodded in agreement and approval at more Gibran quotes.
And stand together yet not too near together:
For the pillars of the temple stand apart,
And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other's shadow.
Yes, that's what made their marriage work, right? Not swallowing each other up in a tempest of ego clashes no matter how different they were. Being whole and complete and letting the other be equal and complete too: being the Yin to the Yang--and forever caught up in an infinite embrace.
He might have been wary of hearts being overdone; but his wife certainly was not. On the last few pages she had collected all their favorite shers and love poems from Rumi, Ghalib, Neruda, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and many others, and made collages in giant inter-twined hearts. Asad grinned. Oh well. Come to think of it, hearts weren't that terrible, right? Not cheesy at all.
This was hysterical.
As an added bonus Zoya had dragged him to meet his teacher the next day.
She thought that Asad would be embarrassed to meet Mrs. Braganza, and that too with an obviously pregnant wife. But Asad had stood taller and wrapped his arm around her snugly.
"This is my wife," he'd introduced her. "I would have still been that boring perfectionist if she hadn't come along." ("Or stepped in front of my car," he muttered for Zoya's benefit only).
Back in the car he had exhaled loudly.
"A blast from the past, huh?" Zoya joked.
"Those days were tough," Asad said slowly. "And Mrs. Braganza was tougher. But I think she pushed me harder because she was fond of me. She had higher expectations from me."
Zoya stroked his hand on the gearshift. "I'm sorry, baby. I thought it would make you happy. I didn't mean to bring you down."
He turned around to face her. "No, I'm fine."
"Hmm?" He was merging into traffic.
"When the baby comes you will take a six week-long paternity leave."
"Six weeks? Isn't that a little extreme?"
"No," she sniffed. "And as the baby grows older I order you to do every crazy and silly thing that kids do without worrying about the mess."
"What!" Asad laughed. "But why?"
"Because I want you to have the childhood you missed," Zoya choked through tears.
He pulled over and tried to hold her as best he could. "Hey," Asad soothed. "Where did that come from?"
"I want to punch everyone in the face who made life hard for that little boy who played with frogs, marbles and tiger masks."
Asad thumbed the Yin and Yang charm on her bracelet. "If that missed childhood gave me what I have right now, I'd go through it all over again"e v e r y single minute of it."
He held her tighter as she sobbed into his shirt.
A week after the godh bharai ceremony Zoya had howled louder.
"What?" Asad asked through a smile. "I thought you'd love the surprise!"
"How could you!" she screeched in a full-blown tantrum. She had wanted to fling herself on the bed dramatically. But that had been impossible given her delicate condition and indelicate temper.
Zoya bawled even louder.
Asad shook his head. He thought she would fall into his arms and kiss him breathless--ecstatic with what he had managed to do for her. Just for her. He would surely get some sugar tonight.
But here she was being a hormonal drama queen.
For months he had been arranging this. It hadn't been easy. He'd sent many feelers around, told Prasad and Ayaan to be on the lookout. Finally they'd found out that Mahendra Singh Dhoni was going to be in Bhopal for an exclusive charity event. Somehow Asad had been able to wrangle passes to attend. He had known of his wife's crush on the Indian skipper well before their nikaah after all.
Last year they'd even had one of their famous all-American and Bhopali blowout fights because of Dhoni. First she had humiliated him by beating him at a cricket trivia quiz. Both Ammi and Najma had found that hilarious. Then, despite his strictest of instructions, Zoya had snuck away with Najma to watch a live cricket match. He'd seen them cheering and dancing on TV for god's sake at one of Dhoni's signature helicopter shots that lobbed the ball well over the stands!
And to top it all, she had lied to his face and got Najma to lie too! Pretending to go shopping indeed! He'd tripped her up with a trick question: and how many runs did Dhoni score? An over-eager Zoya had gushed and spilled the beans. He'd been livid. And in his usual Jahanpanah-mode he'd said unforgivable things to her.
He'd made her cry that day. She had even left home and he'd had to go after her and rescue her from Bhopal's finest gundas yet again. Thanks Dhoni. Not!
And still he had tolerated his wife's "unhoni ko honi kar de, honi ko anhoni" nonsense! Quite graciously in fact.
Which husband would buy a rival's jersey just to please his wife? Just to see that dimple glow on her face?
And now, in a fit of magnanimity, he had even arranged a meeting with her rockstar and here she was having a nuclear meltdown.
She punched a pillow and threw it at him.
Asad was helpless with laughter.
"But what I have I done? At least tell me meri ghalati kya hai?"
"Look at me!" she hollered. "I'm as big as a house. You did this on purpose. You want me to look like a bloated battleship when I meet my Dhoni!"
"Zoya, come on babe---"
"No you've always been jealous of my love for Dhoni!"
"Please! Jealous, my foot!"
"This is your revenge!"
Asad couldn't help himself. He laughed so hard that he rolled off the bed.
"No, you're right," Asad wiped his streaming eyes. "I did plan it all. I knew he was coming this month so I got you pregnant last year just to make sure that he would see you in this condition. Yep, I'm such a super planner that world class cricketers bow to my mating schedule."
Zoya sniffed. "I didn't say that," she muttered. Her hair still fell over her face.
"What? Sorry, did you say something? I couldn't hear because I'm cheering so loud at my diabolical plan's success."
"I said ..." She sniffed and sat up to wipe her face on her shirtsleeve. His shirtsleeve actually.
"I said I'm sorry, OK?" Zoya flung another cushion at him. "But you can cancel the meeting. I'm not going to let him see me like this!"
"Zoya, come on! You can't do this. Do you even know what strings I had to pull to arrange this? He meets thousands of fans every day. Do you think he cares how fat or thin you are?"
"He might not, but I dooo!" Zoya went back to wailing.
"Aw, come here baby," Asad sat down by her and tucked her head under his chin. "You are so beautiful. And no one thinks you're fat. If they do, they'll have to meet Mukka Ahmed Khan. But you have to admit it was some brilliant revenge, right?"
Zoya giggled but it sounded more like a sniffle. "Really Mr. Khan, you have a mating schedule? Is it like a timetable? Do you get alerts on your phone? When was I going to be informed about it?"
"You've been penciled in for tonight after dinner."
"Penciled in? I better be all over it, and that too with a permanent marker!"
"You are. On my heart, and here." Asad extended his palm.
"Oh really?" Zoya snorted.
Nonetheless she kissed her initial on his palm as she always did. It was a ritual. A cherished one. "You love brandishing that in my face don't you?"
"Of course! As if you don't use your puppy face to manipulate me?"
"Besides," Asad continued. "This scar is my trump card. My ace of spades--hukum ka ikka!"
"Please, Jahanpanah is nothing but his begum's ghulam! And there's been a change of plans. I want me some mating right now--pencil that in on your schedule!"
"Jo hukum mere aaka."
"Nice punning skills, Jahanpanah!" Zoya kissed him hard on his mouth in reward.
"Should I let Dhoni know?"
Zoya arched an eyebrow. "What, that he's been bumped off our royal schedule?"
"That I'm jealous as hell of him," Asad breathed against her skin.
"About you," Asad teased.
"But did you really get us passes to meet hot, happening, Mahendra Singh Dhoni?"
"Umm hmm. Though why I bothered I don't know," Asad groused. "Hot and happening hoga apne ghar mein. He better stay out of my bedroom and your head! I'm going to tear up those ridiculous passes. What was I thinking!"
"I love you, Mr. Khan."
"Of course I'm sure! Why would I say it otherwise? Allah miyan what's wrong with you, Mr. Khan? Do you really doubt m-----?"
Dhoni bear drooped. Dobby swatted him off the settee and well over the stands.
His fans cheered: Chhakka!
Twitching his tail, the cavalier cat curled up for his sixth nap of the day. Or was it the seventh? Who knew.
He winked at Asad.
Song in title:
The Dirty Picture (2011): "Ishq Sufiana"
"How long did you take to make this?" Asad asked as he thumbed through the pages of his scrapbook for the hundredth time.
"I can't even remember. I was planning it forever, but I think I might've started making it just before Mangalpur, Part Two,' " Zoya said using air quotes.
She loved to watch him pore over her gift. He had been doing that almost every night since she gave it to him. Zoya laughed when she heard him mutter, "I'm beginning to fall in love with Mangalpur!"
"So should we go back there for our second anniversary? Apna Dhaba, here we come!"
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with you, Mrs. Khan? Never in a million years! Besides, this time I might actually break Chhotu's bones."
Somewhere in Mangalpur Chhotu's left eye twitched madly.
"Did you read the article I sent you, Abbu? Wouldn't that be a great thing to do at the university?"
"Haan beta, I passed it along to the board. We'll discuss it at our next meeting. In the meanwhile see if you can prepare some talking points that'll convince them."
Although she'd taken a backseat from all the work being finalized for the university program to fight against se*xual violence, Zoya was still its research backbone. And just yesterday she'd come across a study done by Canadian researchers: when educated about risk and trained to recognize triggers, and fight back, the incidence of rape could be lowered. It was just the empirical evidence they were looking for to convince nay-sayers and doubters.
Zoya had contacted the researchers hoping to replicate the study's success.
Already they were getting inquiries and pledges from some girls' colleges across the country. With the help of some other local women's organizations they were also drafting a petition to the state legislature--Madhya Pradesh was after all one of the states in the country with the worst track record on women's safety. A recent statement by sports star Saina Nehwal had drawn more attention to the crisis. They were trying to get her on board as a celebrity spokesperson. Aamir Khan too had chosen Bhopal as the epicenter of the issue by launching a one-stop crisis center helpline called "Gauravi."
Awareness was growing; and so was the will to ignite real solutions.
The Mangalpur incident earlier in the year had made them all aware of the raw power of social media to shine a spotlight on an issue and force official action. Given Zoya's expertise she was concentrating on web design and social networking--she wasn't the twitter, facebook, instagram and whatsapp ki rani for nothing.
For now Humaira had taken over from Zoya in coordinating the logistics for a program that would be one of its kind in the country. With Nuzzhat's street theater troupe they were already advertising the necessity of such intervention on school and college campuses and local malls.
They were hoping to launch their first three-day seminar and workshop at the start of the coming academic year. The mushrooming waitlist was both exhilarating and terrifying.
What if they failed?
While Nuzzhat's college had become the laboratory for this social experiment Zoya had wanted to extend the tools of empowerment to the kids at the orphanage. The on-site computer center construction was done, the first classes already underway.
This was Zoya's real baby--teaching the kids coding and programming. In America tech firms like Google and Apple were offering free coding classes for women and minorities, an initiative called #YesWeCode was blazing a path to connect tech and social justice leaders to train urban youth. Then why not try to get these abandoned kids in a little corner of Bhopal started early? Some of the kids had shown a remarkable aptitude for tech. Fingers crossed, if she could sustain the momentum for another year she'd think of hosting her own youth coding bootcamps and hackathons. She was in thoroughgoing agreement with that article in Bloomberg Businessweek, "the world belongs to people who code. Those who don't understand will be left behind."
Nope, nobody was going to be left behind. Not if Zoya Farooqui Khan had her way.
Zoya sighed as she closed her laptop and stood up to gaze out of the arched picture window. Her hand massaged her lower back more out of habit than necessity.
She itched to do so much more. Being stuck at home for all these days grated on her. Once the baby came she'd have to take a full-time sabbatical from her two pet projects.
She ran a restless palm over her stomach. "Only doing all this for you, baby," she whispered. I want you to come into a better world where the powerless have ... a voice ... a kickass support system ...
No, that wasn't completely true.
She wasn't just doing this for the baby.
She was also doing this work for herself. She was born to do this. And Asad agreed. When discussing a name for their organization he hadn't hesitated in suggesting: "just call it Jhansi ki Rani Foundation!'"
She'd loved that too.
"Aww, that's perfect! MA! Though I would have wanted it to be Jahanpanah and Jhansi ki Rani Foundation. JJKRF!"
Asad's eyes had shuttered. "Babe, JJKRF already exists. Its paperwork is our nikahnama." His lips had quirked and he did that head shake thingie to point to the bed. "This bed is the head office of the foundation and this is our first campaign," he said as he bent to kiss her belly.
"May be, we need to schedule a meeting for our foundation, hmm?" Zoya teased.
"Oh, a mating you mean. Done!"
"Asad!" She couldn't help giggling. "You're so bad and becoming badder by the day."
"Let's discuss my performance review in the conference room," Asad pulled her to the settee after shucking off his kurta. " ... and I'll show you how bad I can really be. You be the secretary and take notes." He proceeded to unbutton her shirt.
"Please Jahanpanah, your sexist fantasies need to end right here. I'll be the rival businesswoman who threatens your empire," Zoya ran a fingertip down his chin and throat to plant a row of butterfly kisses on his collarbone.
Asad hissed when her tongue flicked out to lick him and her teeth bit down before sucking on his skin. Uh oh. The smitten capillaries burst again and another hickey loomed. These days a swollen Mrs. Khan was bent upon marking her territory.
"A primal businesswoman who's becoming a vampire, you mean," he muttered before tucking a finger under her chin to lift her face and kiss her deeply. She moaned, thrilled with the kiss ... and the smartass wordplay.
The pages on Aapi and Jeeju were done for the baby book. And with help from a local book binding service the refurbished baby book looked seamless; it was as if the newly-added pages always belonged there.
As planned, Zoya had also made a scrapbook for Najma for her to take with her to the US. Like Asad's it too captured all the moments of her life as a baby and toddler right up to her nikaah. Working secretly with Dilshad she'd tried to make it a memorable parting gift.
And it had been fun to listen to Ammi tell stories about Asad and Najma as kids while they worked together. In fact, Zoya had even recorded her long sessions with Dilshad on her StoryCorps app. What better way to make new memories for the next generation than to record their parents and grandparents' voices and stories! She'd share the link with Najma later so that when she felt lonely or missed her mom, she could click on it and listen to these conversations.
Dilshad had become teary-eyed reminiscing about the past. While the current happiness had sopped up most of the miseries of yesterday, some forgotten spasms resurfaced now and then.
"A neighbor of ours took this photo and gave it to me," she said of a picture that showed a little Najma riding piggy-back on her brother's shoulders. Zoya had included the picture in her husband's scrapbook too.
"How old is she in this one?"
"About five. Najma loved it. Whenever she'd get upset or hurt, Asad would tickle her and carry her around the neighborhood. Everyday was a new adventure. They would pretend to be tourists or explorers or archaeologists, or even detectives. People would smile looking at them."
"Allah miyan, how cute!"
"When he returned from school and finished his homework he would teach Najma everything he'd learned that day." Dilshad smiled. "He brought broken pieces of chalk from school and used the wardrobe door as his blackboard."
"Thanks to Mr. Khan, she was probably the only kid in her kindergarten class to be learning at a fifth-grade level," Zoya mused as she touched the edges of another photograph of the siblings.
She listened, rapt. This was such a gold mine of Jahanpanah history and research! Zoya re-checked her app to see if it was recording correctly. A hand crept up to rub her tummy in circles.
A glimmer of a smile broke through Dilshad's tears.
"Pata hai, Zoya? Asad would read books and comics and tell Najma these fantastic stories about faraway lands. He'd make her laugh. I don't know what I would've done without him. If she had any kind of a happy childhood it was because of Asad. I was too stressed and busy in those days."
"I was so wrong about him in the beginning, Ammi. Why didn't you tell me all this? I called him emotionally challenged, patthar dil and what-not!"
"Sometimes telling isn't enough. You have to find out for yourself. And he was wrong about you in the beginning too"so you're even! So many times I told him how wrong he was about you. But neither of you was ready to listen to reason in those days! You had to knock heads like two mountain goats not willing to give the other an inch."
Goats who'd morphed into horny bunnies, Zoya sniggered to herself. "But he really was Akdu to me, wasn't he? Always on his high horse, gnashing his teeth about tehzeeb and tameez! How women should behave and dress--Oh. My. God. Ayatollah Ahmed Khan handing down farmaans and fatwas for Ms. Farooqui!"
Dilshad covered her face. "Allah! I don't know where he picked up those quaint notions from!"
"Probably from all the books and comics he was into!" But their smiles slipped somewhat.
They knew exactly where Asad had picked up those terrible lessons from. For a young boy who had taken on the mantle of a self-appointed protector for his mother and sister, hyper-conservatism may have seemed the only logical refuge. And as he'd grown older, the concrete vault around his heart had only been more reinforced.
"Ayatollah!" Asad couldn't freaking believe it. Another nickname? And by god, this had to be the worst of the lot.
Zoya groaned silently.
Funny how that teeth-gnashing thing made a comeback.
Shoot ... she should have edited that recording before eagerly getting Asad to listen to it. But she just wanted to show him how the app worked and how cool it was that Ammi was talking about him and Najma when they were kids.
"I'm sorry, sorry, sorry!" she rushed to soothe his ruffled feathers ... and hackles. "My bad!" she held her ears and made kissy faces.
When he still wouldn't relent Zoya huffed. "Allah miyan what's wrong with you Mr. Khan? Do you remember your temper from those days? You were like a constipated dragon that had swallowed a volcano!"
"Your daily tehzeeb lectures were pretty insane too. Hmm ... let me see ... who was it who said: numaish paschim ki ada hai, sha*ram purab ka gehna. Iss mulk mein auratein issi gehne se sajti hain?' Jeez!"
Asad covered his face with an exaggerated groan. "But Ayatollah? Constipated dragon? What the hell, Zoya?"
"Fine, you've been demoted." She kissed him in apology. "You've come a long way, baby. Me too, I guess. We were both so Pride and Prejudice.' "
"So now I'm Mr. Darcy?" Asad asked, a smug eyebrow raised. "Thank god! At least that's much better than---"
"Mmm ... I love that! My own Mr. Darcy! Though you know, you were mostly the pride AND the prejudice!"
"And you were musibat AND mushkil," Asad struggled to find suitably alliterative smack talk.
"Please, I was your muqaddar! AND murad! Your minnat, AND mannat! And you better not forget it, Mr. Khan!"
Damn, she was good.
That cheeky reference to the qawwali at the dargah when he first saw and fell for her, was sheer brilliance.
There was no competing with that agile mind of hers! And not to forget the wicked winking dimple.
She was always way better than him at pretty much everything. And way righter too.
Seeing off Najma at the airport had been a hot teary mess. This ruksati was so much harder to bear. Dilshad and Ayaan were going with her to Dubai to make sure she got on her US-bound flight safely. Asad would have gone too but Zoya was close to her delivery. Although her due date was still a few weeks off, no one wanted to take any chances.
Asad hugged Najma to him as both she and Zoya sobbed at the separation"lambi judai sure was a bit*ch.
"Apna khayal rakhna and always remember, we're here for you," He whispered through a choked throat.
"Tell Omar to behave himself or super jodi Mr. and Mrs. Khan will knock his teeth in," Zoya added.
"Be happy, be you," Zoya kissed her forehead. She whispered their favorite mantra from "The Help" in her favorite sister-in-law's ear: "You is Tamatar, you is smart, you is kind, you is important."
Najma hugged Zoya sideways and repeated the version that she'd crafted just for her favorite Bhabhi: "you is cheeky, you is my best friend, you is smarter and kinder."
Heads together they wept. This was so unfair. Why couldn't San Francisco be closer to Bhopal?
Najma kissed her fingers and placed them on Zoya's stomach. "Bye baby, Phuphi loves you so much. I'll see you soon and spoil you rotten."
"God promees?" Zoya asked.
"God promees, hum sach kehta hai!" Najma sang with her fingers clutching at her throat, echoing yet another favorite Hindi song of theirs.
Miserable arms around each other, Zoya and Asad watched Tamatar walk away from them to start a brand new life. When Najma turned around for a last goodbye wave she jiggled her large handbag for Zoya's benefit. In it she was carrying her scr*pbook and customized snow globe. She'd lose herself in them on the long flight all the way to the US--it was a slice of home she was carrying with her over the impersonal continents and oceans; and this cargo was just as treasured as her copy of the holy book.
She shook the snow globe over Asia and then Europe as the airplane thundered farther and farther away from home. Thank you, Zoya. The sparkly snowflakes rained and dusted over her favorite family photograph that Zoya had inserted in there. The snow globe was a special surprise that she'd left by Najma's breakfast plate yesterday morning.
She loved it so much! Getting Bhaijaan to pose for this picture had been the hardest thing to do. She and Ayaan Bhaijaan had begged and pleaded with him. "Just one, please Bhaijaan!" He had agreed only when Zoya gave him the look. And only to erase that tiny frown that had appeared on Ammi's forehead.
"What a sweet picture! Is that your family?" the aunty sitting next to her commented.
"Mmm hmm," Najma said softly as she watched the falling flakes. "I'm going to miss them so much!"
"Who is that?"
"My Bhaijaan, our rock. No, our family's bedrock. You know what, he didn't always use to smile like this ..."
Zoya had to force Asad to go to work these days and not come rushing back in the evenings. "I want you here when I really need you and that'll be when the baby comes. I don't want you here standing on my head and lecturing me about safety and health and diet! Sheesh, you may as well put a nanny cam in here to monitor me like a prisoner!"
She frowned when she saw the speculative look on his face. "No, I was kidding! Please, no nanny cam!"
"But what if you need me? The contractions start, or your water breaks?"
Zoya sighed. She didn't know which was better: a clueless husband or an over-informed and hyper-vigilant husband. And to not even have Ammi and Najma to be a buffer between her and her Akdu's escalating anxiety!
Pure, unadulterated na-insafi this was.
"Mr. Khan, you'll be just a phone call away. Stop being so paranoid."
But he'd put his foot down. He'd work from home till Dilshad returned from Dubai.
"Fine!" Zoya pretended to be miffed. Secretly she was thrilled to have him all to herself. Besides, she knew that he missed Tamatar terribly but had no emotional vocabulary to talk about it. "But you better not deduct these two days from the paternity leave!"
Asad looked up from his laptop to argue.
Zoya wagged a furious finger in warning. "Or you'll be on the longest sex-fast of your life, mister!"
Asad's heart sank. "Fine!" he groused. "And she dares call me Ayatollah!" He still hadn't gotten over that slight.
"Mr. Khan, I heard that!"
"Good girl, just checking to see if you needed a hearing aid!"
"Hmmpphh! Watch it, or you'll be needing a walking aid."
"You're flirting with fire, you know," she mock-scolded him. "I'm this close to declaring a sex curfew!"
"Exactly ... just as I thought." She batted her lashes at him. "Now, how about that massage you promised me?"
Asad's eyes lit up.
Raziya had given Zainab a full oral report of the godh bharai ceremony and the hoopla led by the kids. She flipped through the pictures on her camera commenting on each. Now she was busy making lists for the delivery and childbirth.
But she couldn't resist one more complaint against their damaad. "Asad is just not budging. Won't listen even to Siddiqui Saheb or Rashid. Hadd hai! It's a parent's right to bring their daughter home to take care of her in these days. Zoya's right to call him Akdu."
She rubbed the stone and smiled.
"But he's a wonderful husband. You should see how well he takes care of her. Humare zamaane mein aisa nahin tha! Husbands were scared to stand by their wives and worried about being seen as hen-pecked. May be if Siddiqui Saheb had been firmer my insecurity wouldn't have ruined everything ..."
Her conscience rumbled.
" ... thank god she has him. For every pain and tear I gave her, Asad stands up to shield her ten times more! You would've been so proud of him."
Raziya closed her eyes and raised her hands in prayer.
But dread still continued to nip and chip at her heart. And she could only share this gnawing fear with Zainab.
" ... I'm scared ..." she whispered to her confessor as if terrified that saying it aloud would make her fears come true.
"What if ... ?" she couldn't bear to go on; not even tell Zainab about her deepest, darkest worries. Looking back at the past yielded nothing but a dizzying vertigo of regret.
A passing squirrel stood up on its hindlegs and stared at her, its tiny hands arrested in mid-air.
Should she just say it? But what if it came true?
The squirrel's whiskers twitched knowingly.
"She needs you most at this hour. When the baby comes what if Zoya sees me and hates the sight of me? I can't go in front of her! I wish I was dead!" She burst into tears.
For days Raziya had been harboring a new anxiety. She felt frozen in panic, was often lost in thought and ate sporadically. Her blood sugar dipped and spiked like a volatile stock's price index; her body felt clammy; her gut clammed up.
She felt a woman damned.
Yes. She deserved it.
They had all gone way too easy on her. She had been spared the true kaffarrah of a sinner. She should have been publicly stoned or lynched for her sins.
She certainly had no right to be in the presence of a child whose mother she had scarred and whose grandmother she had slayed. Would she die on the spot, struck by lightning if that child raised its eyes to look into her face? They would be the eyes of god ...
What would that child see when it stared into her guilty soul?
A week later and Zoya could see that Dilshad missed Najma terribly. She tried to hug her mother-in-law from the back.
"Do you want to see her nikaah video?" Zoya asked softly.
Dilshad sniffed. "That'll make me cry even more," she whispered.
Zoya pouted. Her mind raced trying to find ways to cheer Dilshad.
She snapped her fingers.
"I know! Let's have a missing Tamatar party!"
Dilshad frowned. "What's that? And I really don't feel like having a party."
"Ammi, it'll just be the two of us. First we'll make her favorite foods ... watch her favorite films ..." She nattered on making plans and Dilshad smiled for the first time in many days.
If she dared stay sad any longer her bahu would make it her mission to plan new and unique forms of entertainment for her. And Zoya's missions had all the finesse of a puppy in a candy shop. There would be side-splitting laughter and a cuteness overload. And a big fat sticky mess.
She looked up as Zoya dragged her towards the stairs and up to Najma's room.
"Beta, be careful! Asad will kill me if anything bad happened to you." She cautioned. "Kahan le ja rahi ho?" She picked up Dobby so that he wouldn't trip them up in his collaborative enthusiasm to gatecrash the party.
"Please Ammi! Just trust me."
Dilshad's eyes widened in alarm. She remembered Asad's favorite warning about his wife: "be very afraid when Zoya says, trust me!' "
"Let's play with Najma's things! It'll be such fun."
"Remember you promised that you'll show me Mr. Khan's and Najma's baby clothes. And I want to play with her dollhouse. I love it so much! You have to tell me all about it again."
And Dilshad let herself be diverted.
Funny, how for nearly 10-15 years they'd kept silent about those days of the kids' childhood but now it was as if she was talking about it everyday. And in the retelling, the happier memories broke through the surface clearing away the cobwebs and clutter of the sadder ones.
In the past few weeks they had already donated Najma's gently used clothes and accessories to the older girls in the orphanage. After all Najma couldn't take all of India in two suitcases with her to the US. Hana had told them that everything Indian was now available in America. "Just bring what you love and need," she'd told Najma over the phone.
"Tell me about her favorite red suit," Zoya encouraged Dilshad. Najma had refused to part with that. The dollhouse was sitting on the desk--Zoya pulled up the chair to settle in it.
Dobby promptly hopped up in her lap.
"Asad got that designer suit for her on her fifteenth birthday. He'd been saving up for months! Things had just started to get better that year. She was so happy when he let her have a little party with her friends."
Zoya stroked the slightly-warped sides of the dollhouse as she heard the note of pride in Dilshad's voice. She'd already peeked through the tiny door and windows. This past month, she and Najma had freshened up the miniature furniture and re-papered the walls. Siddiqu Saheb had promised to build brand new furniture for it.
"Ammi, I hope Tamatar's friends didn't make eyes at Mr. Khan! I'd pluck their eyes out, right Dobby?"
He gave it some thought and agreed.
Dilshad laughed. Thank god for Zoya! No longer were those dusty memories tinged with pain; they were now edged with the sun, freshly cropped with dimples--refreshed just like that dollhouse.
"I love this dollhouse so much," Zoya mused. "Tell me again how long he took to make it."
As Dilshad got ready to retell this oft-repeated story Zoya held up a hand. "No, wait, wait, let me record it."
Out came her phone and on went the app.
"I was really mad at Asad for bringing used cigarette boxes and gum wrappers home. He told me not to worry, that he'd make---"
"Aaah" Zoya cried.
"Zoya? Kya hua beta? Are you OK?"
"Ammi, it hurts!"
"Where? Abhi? We still have 10 days before your due date!" Dilshad's mind had gone blank. She tried to recall Asad's instructions and daily reminders. She rushed to massage Zoya's stomach; it was tight as a drum.
Dilshad gasped. It was time. The baby wanted to join in the play and gatecrash the missing-Tamatar-Phuphi party.
But Zeenat hadn't even come yet--she'd be landing tomorrow. How could it be time?
Dilshad's poise vanished; dread flooded in.
When they had done rehearsals for this moment at Asad's insistence as he timed them with a stopwatch, Zoya had always been on the ground floor.
Oh my god!
Dilshad's panicky fingers remembered to call Asad on his cell.
"Asad? Asad, it's time. She's having contractions!"
Asad slipped into General Jeeju mode. "Ammi, it's OK, we've practiced this. Just stick with the checklist. Start timing the contractions, I'll be there in 20 minutes." He paused as he heard squawking noises from the other end. He was already rushing out the door. "Why are you crying? Is Zoya OK?"
Dilshad sobbed in panic. Even Zoya got worried as she tried to breathe through the pain. "Asad!" his mom cried. "We're upstairs!"
He was there in under 12 minutes.
He'd scold them later for being upstairs. Right now they had to make sure to walk Zoya carefully down the stairs as she moaned through the pain. She had made it half way down the landing by sliding down on her butt step by step. A worried Dilshad hovered around feeling useless. When Asad had burst in through the main door Zoya was breathing hard between the waves of pain.
This was still early labor and the contractions were 17-20 minutes apart. But soon they'd have to leave for the hospital. Thank god they'd already packed a maternity bag last weekend--also at Asad's insistence.
He had already contacted her doctor.
As he sat her down on the rocking chair, Zoya gripped his hand. "Asad, I'm scared!"
"Shh, there's nothing to be scared about. I'm here," he faked confidence now. But when he'd heard Ammi cry on the phone the bottom had dropped out from his stomach.
"No, I mean, this is it. There's no turning back now!" Zoya panted. "We're going to be parents. What if I'm a terrible mom!"
Some of the stress left his body; he actually laughed.
"Mr. Khan, it's not funny!"
He kissed her nose. "Shh, you'll be perfect. Now let's concentrate on breathing through the next one, OK?" He put the bags in the car before coming to get her for the slow drive to the hospital.
Thank god she had Asad, she thought for the millionth time. How did women do this alone? How did her Ammi go through this all alo---?
No, she'd promised herself that she wouldn't go down that road.
Zaid or Amna, whoever's in there you better be healthy, she thought before all thoughts were swept away by the next rolling spasm.
Asad had his own fears.
With the coming intensified contractions would his wife turn into one of those pregzillas you saw on TV who raged against their husbands and yelled "you did this to me!" at them?
He glanced at Zoya sitting in the back seat with Dilshad murmuring soothing words and stroking her hand. She wiped Zoya's forehead with a damp washcloth.
At the red light he looked back at Zoya again. He could tell by her strangled moans that she was holding the screams back. Tears ran down her face.
His eyes stung.
He had his answer.
No, she wouldn't be one of those wives yelling and clawing at her husband. The silly woman was actually trying to hide her pain from them and being a goddamn Jhansi ki rani!
Before helping her into the wheelchair brought by an attendant Asad held her to him. "Stop trying to be a hero," he whispered in her ear. "You can yell at me or hit me if you feel like it."
"I don't feel like it," she sobbed into his shirt. "I love you. Thank you for being here."
"Zoya? What is it, babe?" This was not like her at all. "Why are you crying? Is it hurting a lot?"
"It would hurt a lot more if I didn't have you here with me."
"Shh, why wouldn't you have me here? Where else would I be? Come now ... be careful. And breathe!"
It was a few hours later when the pain got much worse and he heard her calling out for her Ammi that he understood. Thank god the epidural had been safely administered. Earlier he'd been skeptical of it; why add an unwanted layer of medical complication?
But now he breathed a sigh of relief.
He couldn't bear to hear her muffled screams. He couldn't bear to see her bite down on her lips ... her knuckles ... again and again. It was that typical Zoya gesture of wanting to protect him from worry that brought him to his knees again. Sometimes she was too fierce for her own good.
And why was he even surprised?
That moment when she had every right to be the drama queen, his wife, ever the unpredictable contrarian, decides to be the silent suffering martyr.
He had wanted to crush her in his arms but the nurse bulldozed him away.
The rest of the family was here. Ayaan had got a traffic ticket for speeding to get to the hospital. He hadn't stayed to argue or charm his way out of it. Not worth it. Siddiqui Saheb was wearing down the corridor tiles with his pacing.
Shireen and Dilshad clutched hands. They had already traded stories of the labor times of each of their kids. Of course Ayaan had taken 21 hours and Nikhat had been trouble-free.
Raziya huddled listlessly in one of the chairs offering silent duas and pleas. When they'd been told of the sudden crash in Zoya's blood pressure after the epidural, she'd prayed relentlessly: take me, keep her and the baby safe.
Zainab watch over her, please! I'm sorry ...
Unaware of her Jeeju's churning helplessness and mom's quiet despair, Humaira was rabid from excitement and pride. Her eyes still shone seven hours into her Aapi's labor. Even the prospect of more waiting hadn't dimmed her delight. She randomly hugged Nuzzhat or her mom because she couldn't sit still for more than five minutes.
The women had been allowed in to visit with Zoya for half an hour. Raziya had hung back. What if Zoya recoiled from her? But she hadn't been able to resist a glimpse of her either. As everyone filed out of the room, she gripped Zoya's hand in hers and raised it to her eyes. "Zainab should have been here, not me," she wept. "I'm so sorry, so sorry ..."
Zoya cried too. Yes, she missed her Ammi so much right now. She wanted her by her side so bad. For a second she felt anger at the loss and nearly turned away from the woman who had engineered it.
The nurse tried to hustle Raziya out. "Please, patient ko aaram karne dein," she ordered.
Raziya tried to slip her hand away to leave but Zoya gripped it tighter. "Aunty, I miss her so much. Why did she have to die? Why can't she be here to see my baby?"
Raziya fell on her knees. "I wish I would've died. I wish Allah gave me a thousand scars and all of your pain. Allah mujhe dozakh ki aag se bhi na bachaye!"
The nurse tried to shoo her out. "Please, you are upsetting her. It's not good for her in this condition."
As the door closed on her face Raziya saw a distraught Zoya weeping helplessly. She saw Asad talking outside to another nurse and grabbed his sleeve. "Please, go to her," she urged him through tears. "She needs you."
And turning away Raziya raced down the solitary stairs and out of the hospital doors. Her mind didn't know it but her steps dragged her to Zainab's side.
"If you want, I can ask her to stay away," Asad held Zoya. She'd calmed down in the circle of his arms.
He knew she was feeling fragile. "You have every reason to resent her. Anyone would understand that--even her."
"I don't resent her," Zoya murmured. "I just wish things had been different."
Asad raised her hand to kiss the bruises. "I know."
"I mean, so many times I see glimpses of my Ammi in your Ammi," Zoya continued softly. "And don't laugh OK ... ? Sometimes I see Ammi in Aunty too. All those godh bharai things, Ammi would have done it just like Aunty. I know she visits Ammi's gravesite almost daily and tends to the flowers and offers chadars. The caretaker there was telling me that she spends hours chatting to herself by Ammi's side."
Asad brushed his lips against her temple after pushing her hair back. "You are incredible, you know?"
"I don't know ... At some crazy moment I wonder if Ammi's spirit ..." Zoya sighed. Her hand stroked her tummy. "I just want our baby to be healthy ... and happy, surrounded by---"
The nurse knocked and they disengaged. "Insha'allah," he whispered. "And I don't know if your Ammi's spirit is anywhere else or not, but I do know that you are your Ammi's spirit." He rested his palm on her stomach. "And mine. I can't tell you how proud I am of you, how much I love you."
"Sir, if you could please step outside, we have to check for dilation."
The baby seemed reluctant to come today. They'd been waiting for hours and Zoya was tired from watching TV and tapping through her iPad.
But she had to flash her eyes at Asad when he dared to ask the doctor if the epidural had somehow made the baby sluggish or prevented his wife from pushing the baby.
Oh really, Jahanpanah?
Don't you dare, her eyes warned.
Allah miyan, he had already made too much of a scene on vetoing any talk of a C-section. Asad had rattled off all the literature and stats he'd read up on it and his wife had shaken her head and hidden her face. Jeez, Dr. Jahanpanah was on the scene and ruling court.
If she tried hard enough, she'd possibly hear him proclaim, "Order! Order!" before he passed judgment.
She glared at him. You're scaring the baby, Zoya's slitted eyes added.
But Asad was on a roll.
He'd already asked a thousand questions about the early delivery"would the baby be OK? Would the lungs have formed properly? What if it meant that something was wrong?
Earlier, in private, he'd even expressed his worry to Zoya, "may be we shouldn't have made love last night."
She'd rolled her eyes. "Please Mr. Khan, just settle down, OK? You've read up on this more than me. But trust me, babies come early sometimes. In fact Ammi said that you came a week early too. The baby's just following in your footsteps."
She smacked her head as she realized something.
"Oh my god, it IS following in your footsteps! Mr. Khan do you know what that means?"
"It means that very soon we'll have a mini-you stomping around the house."
Asad paused and looked at her in irritation. "I do not stomp!"
She tilted her head and looked at him archly. "Oh really? Soon we'll be joined by a mini-Akdu in diapers! No wait, a chhotu Jahanpanah!"
Asad snarled. "No Chhotu! Never chhotu!"
Zoya laughed at his tantrum. How quickly that nerve on his forehead arced and danced! Soon he would be stomping. "Yes, a chhotu Jahanpanah," she crowed.
"I can't wait!" Zoya squealed as she clapped her hands.
May be that's just what the baby needed to hear.
Asad was once again unceremoniously thrown out of the room as the nurses rushed about with the supplies. Outside, Humaira was dispensing hand sanitizer by the gallon. "No one's going near Aapi or the baby loaded with filthy germs," she declared in her best General Jeeju imitation.
"Haan haan why not, I don't know how you kids survived because hamare zamaane mein toh hand sanitizer nahin tha!" Dadi teased her grand-bahu.
Rashid laughed in giddy delirium.
Zoya would not remember much of what happened next but she would never forget the baby's first hearty cry. Oh yes, the lungs had formed all right, Mr. Khan.
When Asad was ushered back into the room the baby had been cleaned up and swaddled in its receiving blanket and cap; it dozed in Zoya's arms who was crying softly. Asad leaped over to whisper the adhan in his son's right ear before kissing Zoya's tears away.
"He's beautiful," an awed Asad said tracing the baby's features with his finger. He drew an enchanted circle around his son's face and gently traced the fluttering eyelids, the button nose and petal lips.
Asad's own eyes were damp. He rested his forehead against Zoya's temple and let out a soft gasp as the baby's tiny fist clenched its daddy's thumb. The white edges of its paper-thin miniature fingernails gleamed--slivers of the moon at each tip.
"Manicure kara ke aaya hai," Nuzzhat would say later when she would first lay eyes on her nephew"after both its Dadis and Par-Dadi had counted all the perfect little fingers and toes.
No doubt that pronouncement would make Ayaan mad. "He's not some prissy-ass metrose*xual! He's a Khan, a sher, OK! Aur issi baat par ek sher ho---"
"Nooo!" Everyone would yell and wake up the napping baby. He would roar to silence his fans.
Asad and Zoya looked down at the closed eyes and rooting mouth. She too traced his cheek and lips with her knuckle, "welcome home, Zaid. You is gorgeous," she whispered lifting him to brush his nose with hers.
The door was flung open and she looked up.
"I came straight from the airport. Allah miyan, my baby!" sobbed Zeenat.
A startled Zaid roared to give his mom and Nani some healthy wailing competition.
Keep it down guys, he seemed to say. It's been a rough ride.
Or at least that's what Zoya imagined him saying as she rocked him.
And each time her son dozed she would watch his rising and falling chest just like she watched his father's and sing softly: in the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight.
Wimoweh ... wimoweh ... wimoweh ...
Or as they used to sing the song from "The Lion King" when she was a kid: a whim away, a whim away, a whim away, a whim away ...
She was a brand new spanking mama and no longer a kid.
It scared the crap out of her.
But only until she looked up into Asad's face as he held Zaid. Thank you Allah miyan, she would never tire of this sight.
He looked at her just then; their eyes met and held.
"Congrats Jahanpanah, you're Abbu Ahmed Khan now," she whispered.
She cried too as his eyes filled.
No, she would never be alone. Asad would be right there next to her.
Song in Title:
Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008): "Khuda Jaane"
i am reading it on the other website.. started a week backk.. and i am on chapter 104.. its amazing.. the way u have written.. even the mature content doesnt seem cheap.. i just loveee AsYa. also AyRa are hell too cutee..
I loved the story progression and every detail in the chapters
Topic started by dixeij
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