He envied them. That laughter. The shrieks and giggles made him feel left out. He could hear them at the kitchen sink as he finished up his lonely breakfast at the edge of their frothy, bubbly world. From the sounds of it, it was a glitter-glazed world from which he was excluded. Locked out.
Lately Asad had even changed places from his favorite seat at the head of the table so he could watch Zoya bathe Zaid at the kitchen sink.
Yes, this was the same seat that Zoya had mistakenly occupied on her first morning at the Khan house. And then he'd walked in, seen her in it and blown a gasket.
Here she was, not knowing her place again. First, she'd invaded his bed the previous night and then argued with him. "Main iss kamre mein pehle aayi thi toh yeh kamra mera hua. New York mein aisa hi hota hi!"
"Yeh apka New York nahin hai! This is my room," he'd thundered back.
It was uncanny how Ammi had tried to pacify him that night when he'd raged at Ms. Farooqui for being "nihayati badtameez and bad-dimaag."
"Asad, sabra karo beta. Mehmaan hai, do-char din mein chali jayegi. Usne saari umr thodi na yahan rehna hai!"
Famous last words!
And the next morning, this. Barely holding on to his temper he'd told her to vacate his chair. Very curtly. (Of course at that time he hadn't known that her pizza slice was hugging his butt. He was a goner. The slicing and dicing of the Akdu karela had already begun).
He didn't even know that his undermining had begun the second he'd set eyes on her.
He'd glared at her with all the venom he could muster that morning. But never one to be down for long, her brow had arched at his rude dismissal. He'd been rude to her at each meeting. She'd called him out on it the night before: "Aap hamesha mujhse ladne pe amada rehte hain!"
That morning those lips had pursed ... and then that mischief-making farishta had peeked through. And so had that elfin dimple.
No, this time she didn't yell back at him. May be because Ammi and Najma were there. Or because she was a guest in his house.
It felt like it was years ago ... or was it just yesterday that Ms. Farooqui had spouted yet another of her shayari gems?
Ruhani sukoon aur dil main chain hona chahiye,
Ruhani sukoon aur dil main chain hona chahiye,
Apka naam Asad nahi, chairman hona chahiye!
As ridiculous it had been, it turned out to be the perfect ice-breaker. How quickly her silly sher had diffused the nuclear tension.
Najma and Ammi had tried to cover their delighted smiles behind their hands.
This was a first. Finally someone had come along to challenge and unseat the fierce and frosty Akdu.
The rest? History.
A sassy Jhansi ki Rani had continued to trump a stick-up-his-ass Jahanpanah.
She had tried to take revenge on him a few weeks later. Taken his seat. Again. And, made him serve her.
It was meant to be. He would be needing all the practice to get used to his displacement and undoing.
Asad grinned at the memories as he sipped his coffee. Funny how he smiled more easily now. And funny how he didn't get migraines from clenching his jaw so tight in those joyless days ...
Those Zoyaless days.
That first night when she'd blundered into his bed, he'd seethed and gnashed his teeth at her girly clutter scattered all around his room.
It was sacrilege. She'd defiled his place and marked her territory. It was an act of war.
And now when he saw the baby clutter around the table and counters ...
Nope. Not even then did his blood pressure spike. He'd learned to let go of his tight policing of emotional boundaries and borders. He'd closed the door firmly on the obsessively neat but barren 17th century.
"ZAID!" Zoya's squeal popped the memory bubble in Asad's head. "Allah miyan, what's wrong with you! You did that on purpose didn't you, you little monkey?"
Zaid cackled in merry mutiny and splashed his mom even more. He laughed with his head thrown back when she tickled him.
His little baby tub fit just right in the kitchen sink. And the sink was at just the right height to not hurt her back. It felt a little sore on some days. So she had problem-solved in her own unique way.
Asad watched Zoya impatiently shove her hair back off her forehead. Baby shampoo bubbles snowflaked her hair. Of course. She never remembered to tie up her hair before doing anything messy.
It was as if ...
Dilshad loved these daily dramas too.
It was way better than the soaps on TV. She'd just finished talking to Najma and smiled serenely from the living room as she watched Asad tie Zoya's hair back with a clip. Then with his handkerchief he proceeded to wipe the soap residue off her hair. OK fine, he tolerated some messes. But that didn't keep him from making things neat and right as much as possible.
For a flash, Asad's body hid Zoya from view as he tied up her hair. He scraped a lazy thumbnail deliberately over her now-exposed nape.
Thankfully Zaid's babbling covered up her shocked hiss.
Zoya felt that touch zing right through her and she turned to mock-glare at her husband. But that glare melted into fierce longing and accusation: how dare you do this now when my soapy hands are full and we have an audience? And, that too when in a minute you'll walk out and I won't see you for 9-10 hours! She blew the suds on her hand toward him in a flying, flake-speckled kiss for revenge. The gauntlet had been thrown.
Zaid gurgled in glee. He blew bubbles too.
Dilshad didn't even know when her son had become so adept at these domestic tasks like tying up his wife's hair. It looked as if he'd been doing this forever.
But he hadn't.
Mera ziddi Asad, she used to think of him in his previous Akdu avatar, eternally worried that no one would be able to pierce his adamantine shell.
The explosion of baby toys and paraphernalia didn't seem to bother him any more. Now, at bath time, he'd even learned how to avoid Zaid's splashing and seeking fingers by holding his son's wet hands and planting a quick peck on his sleek head.
Dilshad beamed. This daily soap was her favorite--the reruns were highly addictive and got the highest TRPS in her book.
Dilshad watched Asad nudge Zoya away after Zaid'd been rinsed and nod to her to hold up the towel as he picked up the squirmy, drippy bundle. Zoya enfolded the baby in his fluffy towel painted with giraffes, zebras, elephants and lions. She slipped the hooded end over his head after wiping the impish face. Zaid chattered and cooed, snug between his Ammi and Abbu.
The rubber ducky slid from his hands. He'd just spotted his dad's tie and missed his parents' familiar eye lock.
But his Dadi didn't.
She rolled her eyes. Here we go again.
Her hawk eyes didn't miss Zoya massaging her lower back either. Allah! She'd forgotten to call the massage woman. Dilshad got cracking. And she missed her son glance her way and then taking advantage of his mom's distraction plant a quick kiss on his wife's surprised lips.
She blushed and dimpled. Her scandalized whisper of "Mr. Khan, Ammi's watching!" made him grin in apology and victory. But that grin was short-lived. His son had managed to wiggle out of the restraining towel. He yanked his dad's tie before munching on it--he'd been eyeing it ever since his dad came over to the sink.
Zaid crowed and tugged harder. The tie was soft and soothing. He mashed his itchy gums harder on the silken fabric singing his favorite song.
At work Asad smiled a half hour later looking at the picture Zoya had just sent: Zaid wearing Abbu's loosely-knotted tie, and nothing else. The boy was still gnawing on its end--it probably wouldn't surivive the kid's erupting teeth.
On weekends Asad got his own turn with Zaid and bath time--and he made up for all the lost weekdays with a vengeance. Zoya had convinced him that daddy and son could romp in the tub in the bathroom. And there they played with bubbles, yellow duckies and ships. They splattered and splashed--well Zaid splashed. His daddy mostly wiped surfaces down with a stack of washcloths.
Now if Asad had his way he'd spend hours in there with Zaid"cleaning out the tiny spaces between Zaid's toes, gently scrubbing his ears and each little perfect fingernail.
But Zaid felt impatient.
He had so many things to explore, worlds to conquer, and his dad just kept getting in the way. He wanted to grab duckies and shampoo bottles. He wanted to make ships fly. Everything looked edible ... he wanted to suck on soft washcloths to ease the itch on his gums. And besides, it was such fun to watch his dad make this weird sound whenever he tried to do that.
When Asad wasn't wiping down wet surfaces he was batting his son's busy little hands that got into everything. The kid wouldn't stay still so that he could get in between the toes for the cleanest clean. No amount of gentle fatherly chiding would make his son listen.
"Mr. Khan, enough!" Zoya would have to remind the Jahanpanah and his shehzaada. "He's getting all wrinkly now."
Another distant memory gushed by: Same tub, him in it.
Ms. Farooqui intruding on his privacy and sanity.
As usual. First his bed. Then his chair. And now ...
He'd been more shocked than angry that day and had nearly jumped up in confused alarm. Only her sensible squeak, "baithe rahiye!" had kept him from a performing a full monty that day.
Good god! What shayari would have fallen from her lips if that had happened, he'd often wondered.
"Well, I would certainly have recited some sher if you'd saluted me, all proud and erect!" Zoya had sassed him much, much later. She'd snapped her fingers and rattled off a new one:
"Shan se uthte hain jab bina kameez ke,
Shan se uthte hain jab bina kameez ke,
Salaam dua karte hain Jahanpanah apni kaneez se!"
His dignity had lain sprawled and splattered in a bubbly mess that day. He'd been too stunned to find her naughty peek and muttered, "six pack?" even remotely amusing. It had incensed him more.
Yes, that was the beginning of the end of Akdu Ahmed Khan.
At least he'd been spared her shayari that day. Lucky him. May be she'd been too stunned herself to frame an incredibly foolish sher.
But it hadn't stopped her from anointing him with a new nickname; it had stuck with him ever since. He'd been gleefully objectified to his six packs. She'd even giggled that infernal giggle as a parting shot.
"Jahanpanah, hurry," she urged now, and pop went the memory bubble again. "We'll get late. Aunty's already texted me like a bajillion times!"
They were all at the Siddiqui House this weekend. Nuzzhat was moping. After a short engagement ceremony, a lovesick and knuckle-dragging Faiz had gone back to the US.
Another week, and it would be Nikhat's turn.
The nest was getting emptier.
Zoya was moping too: Aapi and Jeeju had left a week ago. Between herself, Nuzzhat and Shireen, they planned to give misery so much company that it'd choke to death and throw itself off a cliff.
"And Zaid Miyan and Dobby Miya-oon were driving through the dark jungle in an open jeep racing to get home to save Ammi and Abbu," Ayaan was re-writing history and entertaining his nephew.
And his nephew's mom and aunts too.
Who, after all, could resist the tales of Zaid miyan and Dobby miya-oon.
Zaid's eyes and mouth rounded in wonder as his Chachu got started on the much-awaited sound and special effects. His Dhoni bear lay forgotten. Chachu made sounds of jungle animals that the daring duo would have heard on their journey through the wilderness: Cheetahs and lions roared---
But then Zoya and Humaira interrupted by singing "What does the fox say?"
Ayaan shushed them. This was no time for comedy even though Zaid loved that song.
Because right now owls hooted and tree branches rustled menacingly. The granddads made their own scary howls and growls and Zaid's head whipped about trying to keep up with the Dadu-Nanu surround sound.
Dobby snoozed under the coffee table. He didn't need to hear no stories. His crime-fighting credentials and trophies were well-documented.
"Terrified bats whooshed out from their cavernous lair as if disturbed by some eerie presence," Ayaan continued in a dropped voice.
The suspense was mounting.
Zaid's fists paused for a second in mid-air. Then his arms flapped as if mimicking the panicked creatures. Bats can fly? But aren't they for beating red balls over the stands---
Just like Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Oh, helicopter shot ... duh, of course bats can fly.
His mom had told him so.
(And Mahendra Singh Dhoni was his Mamu Jaan--his dad had told him so.)
"The cold fog rolled in ... "
Dadu click-clacked his fingers to add to the drama. Nanu made a whooshing sound.
Fog? What's fog? Chachu must obvio mean frog.
"And suddenly a ghostly figure appeared on the road. It was an evil jinn who blocked their path. It was wearing a white saree and had flowing grey hair that reached the ground. In its bloody claws it grasped a burning branch."
"Please, it was a vanilla-scented candle. It was all we could find at such short notice," Zoya mused softly. Humaira and Nikhat snickered.
"Tauba, tauba," Dadi exclaimed. "Yeh manhoosiyat sunana zaroori hai chhote bachche ko? Darr jayega bechara."
Zoya giggled at the magical retelling of Operation Pyaasi Atma. It brought back delicious memories. She snuck a peek at Asad from under her lashes; there was that telltale half-smile.
"Dadi, apko kya pata! This really happened last year," Ayaan winked at Zoya, his comrade-in-arms. Her giggling had nearly given them away that day. It was a wonder that Bhaijaan didn't suspect her role in it.
"Sab bakwas hai," his grandmother declared. "It would have been on the news if it really happened."
She frowned when she heard Zoya and Ayaan hoot uproariously. Humaira shook her head. She knew this story all too well. How she wished she could have witnessed it first hand!
"Dadi," she said. "We paid the media to keep this out of the news! Khandan ki badnaami ho jati ... naak katt jaati!"
"Hmmmph!" Dadi frowned at being taken for a fool. She rocked Zaid in her arms in suppressed fury.
"No Dadi, it is true," Zoya added with a deepening dimple. "The evil jinn with crooked teeth got his face nicely rearranged by Super Mukka!" She and Humaira giggled more and high-fived.
"Hey, how dare you!" Ayaan roared and chased after them, an enraged and puffing dragon.
They flung cushions at the Pyaasi Atma. Even Nuzzhat brightened at this merriment. She was at her mother's knee having her hair oiled.
"Bhai, why don't you say something? Your biwi and saali are being totally badtameez!" Ayaan panted.
Asad smirked behind the newspaper. It rustled as he turned a page and studiously ignored the drama.
"Badtameez dil, badtameez dil, badtameez dil, maney na, maney na!" Zoya and Humaira sang in all their besura glory to add more salt to Ayaan's wounds.
Zaid was loving this real-life comedy and action film--it was a Bollywood musical! The complete package--action, suspense, horror ... and now comedy and item number! He clapped and drooled offering his own sound effects.
"Bhai!" Ayaan roared in humiliation and dismay. "A little help here?"
Asad sighed and put the paper away. He rose to pick up Zaid from Dadi's arms. "Come beta, we'll go to a quieter place. An evil jinn is being stuffed back into its bottle here--and it could get ugly."
Zoya and Humaira shrieked in victory at Ayaan's crestfallen face. This punch from Mukka Ahmed Khan had to hurt just as much.
Operation Pyaasi Atma had been aborted once again--with even more finality than the last time.
Nuzzhat guffawed too and thumped the floor in sweet appreciation. Even Shireen didn't mind her son being taken down a notch; it was good to see Nuzzhat laughing again.
"Ye lo theek kar diya," Raziya said to Zoya who was still hopping around dodging Ayaan's retaliatory blows against his biwi and saali. She'd assumed her warrior-ninja meets nagin-pose by now.
Asad turned around and pointed the sight to Zaid.
Zaid was wearing a white kurta pajama set with a red brocade vest that his Chhoti Nani had got for him. It matched his Abbu's. And Chachu had sculpted his hair into a faux mohawk.
He looked fierce.
Well, about as fierce as a pint-sized shayar can look. There was a matching brocade topi too but that had already been mashed to a pulp by Zaid's razor mouth and had now been added to the pile of Dobby's toys.
"Mmmaaammma ..." Zaid babbled squirming to be closer to his warrior mama.
"I know," Asad laughed, "how much do you love being Jhansi ki Rani's son!"
With one last triumphant glare at Ayaan, Zoya took the wooly mess from Raziya and settled back down next to her. She wanted to learn knitting and this was her first attempt. She was technically making a muffler for her Abbu. But it had run into technical difficulties. Too many dropped stitches were making it holey and lopsided. Raziya's surgical repairs had rescued it time and again, but it was on life support--hanging by a thread; being unraveled more than knitted had made it lumpy in places.
But her father, her biggest cheerleader in the sport, was impatient for it to be completed. "Uss jagah par aur bhi garam rahega, beta," he soothed her when his daughter made faces at the unsightly lumps she was producing.
Zoya's failed attempts at knitting gave Ayaan more ammunition for his comeback.
"Please, it'll be better if Mamu wears a chhuchhoondar around his neck for warmth. It'll be more attractive. And stink less."
More pillows came sailing at him from Mona's army.
"Raaburt," his Bhabhi mused. "You wouldn't want to mess with me when I have a pair of knitting needles in my hand, would you? Now that would be incredibly foolish," she waggled her brows at him.
"Exactly," Humaira added. "Aapi's muffler has gotten long enough to even strangle someone with." She bit her tongue and looked at Shireen in apology.
Shireen didn't mind this blasphemous talk that much. Because both Nuzzhat and Nikhat were laughing.
Her eyes misted. How had she missed their quiet and gentle blossoming into young women? And now they'd go so far away---
Ayaan crashed into the center table and everything went flying. Dobby scrammed from under it in terror.
That's why. Her son and his spectacular catastrophes had always managed to distract Shireen. Each time. Everyday brought new damage control strategies and charges. And she'd missed out on watching her daughters grow up.
Shireen sniffed and turned to see Raziya smack her forehead again. Her reading glasses jiggled.
Ya Allah, another dropped stitch? Poor Bhabhi. And poor Bhaijaan. Shireen knew he would definitely, in fact proudly, wear this thing ... whatever it would turn out to be.
But she had to give Bhbabhi credit.
The old Raziya would have yanked the mess from Zoya's hands and either burned it or just finished it off herself. But Raziya 2.0 (as Ayaan sometimes called his mother-in-law behind her back) was infinitely more patient. She knew that if Zoya really wanted to learn and master knitting, she'd have to go through the process of dropping and picking up stitches.
"Frustration is all part of the process, beta," Shireen heard Raziya telling Zoya all the time when cries of "Allah miyan, what's wrong me?" became particularly loud and desperate. She added soothing kissing sounds which Shireen had never heard Bhabhi make.
And you should see her with Zaid. In their family and friends circle there had been some muted whispers of Raziya being a typical sauteli Ammi. But if you saw her with Zaid, or even without Zaid, you'd forget that terrible word. Zaid was her flesh and blood ... even if he wasn't.
Because he just was.
It was as if that deathly encounter with Tanveer in the factory had shaken all the badness loose out of her. It was as if Zoya's Ammi had taken over her ...
Shireen shook herself.
She firmly believed this in some corner of her heart. But she never said it to anyone. They'd only make fun of her for being silly.
And Shireen knew that Siddiqui Saheb would cherish this muffler-scarf thingy no matter how ratty it turned out to be. It was a labor of love.
"First experiment on me," he told his older daughter. "Then you can make something nice for Asad and Zaid."
"Haha, Mamu just said that this isn't nice!" Ayaan snorted and dodged another missile. "But finish this before winter is over, Khuda ke vaaste," Raaburt teased Mona.
"Nahin, nahin," Siddiqui would say. "Hum summer mein bhi pehen lenge. Waise bhi you kids blast the AC too high."
Shireen smiled. Fathers and daughters. She remembered Nuzzhat's attempts to knit a scarf for Rashid one winter when she was 15. She had managed to knit about 11-12 rows ... it was probably sitting somewhere, unfinished, in some dark drawer. She'd come across it when they were moving back into the Siddiqui house. A young Nuzzhat had chosen a bright purple yarn because it was her favorite color that year. Rashid would probably never have worn it ... or may be he would have. He wore and used all the things that Nikhat made for him.
Yes, having girls was heartwarming in its own way. They wormed deeper without crashes, scratches and damage control.
But then they went away ... too far ... stretching your heartstrings thin.
Uss damage control ka kya ...
"Oh. My. God. It's beautiful!" Zoya gushed the next night. They were back home. Asad had just returned from work. "But it looks kinda familiar ..."
Asad chuckled. "It should." He'd been able to get away from work sooner today and had stopped to pick up something special for her on the way.
She peered closer at the doll. It was the prototype for the ones the factory would start producing soon if all went according to schedule: a cloth doll, about a foot and half tall with realistic features and hair--she was a bride gorgeously attired in a red bridal abaya-style suit. The mehendi on her hands was exquisite, the makeup flawless, jewelry state-of-the-art.
Zoya frowned. This was weird. Why did this seem like deja vu?
Asad came closer and squeezed the doll's hand.
"Qubool nahin hai," the doll declared in a strong and firm voice.
"What! That's supposed to be me?" She squealed in surprised delight. It was only then that she noticed the doll wearing jeans and sneakers under the long abaya top.
Grinning, he pressed the other hand.
"Allah miyan, what's wrong with you!"
Zoya's laugh turned into a surprised snort. She gasped and choked and Asad stroked her back waiting for her to catch her breath.
"Oh god, Asad! This is hilarious, and so perfect!" She wiped her eyes. "But seriously, this is what we'll be making?"
Asad shrugged out of his suit jacket and went to hang it up. "We don't have to. I got them to make this one especially for you. It's supposed to have a backpack"check the box it came in. And the pice de rsistance? A miniature pepper spray!"
"This is MA!" she sighed. "So cute."
And Zoya's mind was already off and racing. "No, it's a super idea! We can have bridal dolls who say they don't want to get married"they want to study first! Won't that be cool?"
"Yes, just as cool as the Jhansi ki Rani dolls. But may be you can tone the message down to: I'll study first and get married later.' You don't want protestors camped out at our doorstep saying that we're demolishing centuries of Indian culture and values by selling empowerment dolls!"
"Aww, wasn't I the empowerment doll that demolished centuries of the Jahanpanah's cherished culture and values?"
He laughed, "good one, Mrs. Jahanpanah. Good one."
Empowerment dolls! How perfect. Zoya rubbed her hands in glee.
This was really happening.
Who knew that she'd come to India and be part of making action figures of Indian and other multi-ethnic supergirls! So cool! They'd have Mary Kom, Sunita Williams, Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, Arunima Sinha dolls, along with an entire line of historical figures: Rani Padmini, Razia Sultan, Jodha bai, Rani Durgawati, Meera Bai, Sarojini Naidu ...
Of course Jhansi ki Rani would be the centerpiece of the collection. They had consulted historians from Bhopal University to write up a brief storybook to introduce each of the historically accurate special edition dolls. They were still in talks with the Malala Fund organizers.
Zoya so badly wanted to have a Malala doll ...
But not everyone was on board. Their PR and marketing consultants had expressed unease--this was all very good and noble, but would people really buy these dolls?
"I would," Zoya had insisted. But she got that these dolls would be expensive and therefore not as enticing to an average buyer.
"Look, I'm not competing with the Barbies or the cheap stuff coming from China. In fact I want my dolls to be the anti-Barbie. So yes, these won't be in every corner store ..."
She hated Barbies. Aapi and Jeeju had never got her one. If she ever got one as a gift from friends for birthdays they usually gave it away during the Thanksgiving or Christmas toy drives around their community. You couldn't really play with them because the accessories were so tiny; the body image issues bothered her too as she grew older. What was it that Ellen Degeneres had said about Barbies? That the body shape was so unrealistic, if a real woman was built like that she'd tip over on her face.
"American Girl" dolls were more her thing. In fact Zoya cherished them more because they had personality and history, possibly also because they were more expensive"she'd saved up half the money from her allowance and doing chores, and Jeeju had chipped in for the rest.
Aapi had brought her old doll with her this time and Asad had loved it.
"Is this how you were at 9? I wish I'd known you then. Did you used to say Allah miyan, what's wrong with you,' even then?"
And that's what she wanted for her dolls: to be loved and cherished even long after the kids had outgrown them. It hadn't taken Zoya too long to persuade the designers. "These dolls'll be big enough to play with and have realistic accessories: clothes, hats, shoes, bags, backpacks, computers etc. They'll be soft and huggable, have voice recorders ..."
"But they won't be cheap. Not everyone's going to be able to afford them." The consultants reminded her.
"I understand. But I don't want them to be cheap ... or super expensive either," Zoya pouted in frustration.
"Aapi, it's true we don't want them to be too exclusive," Humaira, her partner in the venture, had said in one of their meetings. "But it might need some kind of luxury branding. How comfortable are you with that?" she asked Zoya.
"And remember, we probably won't even be breaking even in the beginning," Humaira added.
That was OK, Zoya reasoned to herself; they'd margined for that"up to a limit. They had such good ideas. It was just that moving them from paper to reality was going to be tricky. And costly.
She wanted some kind of fair trade certification which took time and money too. They were in talks with Self-Employed Women's Associations. They were even considering adding a microcredit feature to the non-profit part of their organization.
There was so much to do! And how do you reconcile ethical and socially responsible for-profit business practices with a non-profit outfit on the side?
They had already contracted with a local fashion institute to design the clothing for the dolls--it would have the designers' labels as an added incentive.
Fingers crossed, if they were able to keep afloat long enough then next year she wanted to have a kind of fashion contest--Project Runway-style (she loooved Tim Gunn!)--where designers made clothing for models who would carry identically-dressed dolls with them on the ramp for the finale. May be have a clothing line with young girls in school uniforms or sports uniforms, in martial arts robes ... and release it on children's day or National Girl Child day---
Were they being too idealistic? Too ambitious? Was this doomed to failure?
"So what?" Asad told her one night when she'd been especially down about this project ever taking off. "It's good to be idealistic and ambitious. I would expect nothing less of you. And if it fails, it fails. We'll move on."
"Really? You won't think of this as a colossal waste of money?"
"Look, we're fortunate enough and blessed. We're trying to make a difference, not defraud anyone. Jab iraade nek aur hausla buland ho toh duniya ki koyi takat humein aage badhne se nahi rok sakti."
"Inshallah," she whispered.
Zaid was fast asleep in his dad's arms. Asad stroked his hair. "Can we make boy dolls too?" he mused. "With hair that can be styled into a Mohawk?"
Zoya smiled. Finally Jahanpanah had warmed up to Chachu's styling of Zaid miyan's hiar.
"Does he need a hair cut?" Asad asked Zoya suddenly. "I don't want anyone mistaking him for a girl with his hair this long."
"Huh?" Zoya looked at him blankly at the change in subject. She blew out her breath. Jahanpanah was very particular about his hair regimen. Every five weeks he had a standing appointment for a cut. Come hell or high water, on day 35 he was in the salon chair.
How soon before Zaid was regimented into that?
"Please, it's not long at all," she huffed. "Let them think whatever they want to think. Ayaan has longish hair and no one mistakes him for a girl." She giggled at the image. "Zaid's just following in his favorite Chachu's footsteps."
Zoya looked at a frowning Asad. The mischief-maker in her elbowed her--hard. "In fact, may be you can start growing out your hair? Try a new style ... even wear a pony tail?"
"What! Are you crazy?" Asad's eyes popped so far out of their sockets that they were in danger of detaching themselves and rolling off; marbles skittering across a floor.
Zaid woke up and blinked at his dad. He turned to see his mom shrieking with laughter and rolling on the bed.
What happened? He looked from one parent's face to the other. Tell meee!
"Incredibly foolish," his Abbu muttered and started to rock him.
"Is it?" Zoya pouted prettily. "Is it that incredibly foolish? May be if your hair was longer I could get a good grip on it." She batted her lashes at him.
"Why would you need to get a good grip on it?" Asad asked, distracted. Zaid was just beginning to doze.
Oh god. Jahanpanah could be incredibly and foolishly dense at times. Ammi's right. He does need things spelled out for him.
Zoya rose on her knees and grabbed his head"no, the other one. She ran her fingers through his hair before snatching a tuft in her fist and making his neck arch.
"Ow!" he growled.
Dobby bolted under the bed. They already had a baby. Did they need to keep playing that baby-making game all the time? Hmmmphhf
"So that I can hold on to it when you make me come. Sheesh, get a clue, Mr. Khan!"
Asad's eyes glittered in speculation. He rose to place a sleeping Zaid in his crib and co*cked his head to the side when he turned back to her. "Fine, I'll schedule my cuts every 6 weeks from now."
Dobby peeked his head from under the bed. Was it safe to come out now?
"Wow, Jahanpanah, you'd do that for me? Iss kaneez ke liye itni badi qurbaani denge aap? That's so M A of you! I'll be sure to remember that this thanksgiving!"
Yes thanksgiving. In a corner of Bhopal this American holiday had made a boisterous migration. And why not. Columbus had set out seeking India after all ... and four of the Khan kids had ended up with American humsafars.
It was only right.
Last year it had been just a token celebration and on a much smaller scale. They were still being hunted. But this year it would be grander--they had so much to be thankful for after all!
The food would be more Indian than American though.
Roasted tandoori chickens instead of the turkey centerpiece, chutneys and achars instead of cranberry sauce, and pao bhaji instead of mashed potatoes. Biryani and kababs too along with many sabzis and saalans to make it a desi feast. But Ayaan had become better at his apple pie so they'd have that for sure, and gajar ka halwa and kheer would be good substitutes for pumpkin pie, right?
Zoya gave Asad a card on Thankgiving day. "Because I won't be able to say all this in front of everyone," she said when he looked at her in askance. "If I do, I might start crying."
He pulled her into his lap before opening the card to read it.
"It's from a song," she told him when he read the hand-written opening lines:
"Tum jo aaye, zindagi mein baat ban gayi,
Ishq mazhab, ishq meri zaat ban gayi."
Asad nodded. He felt the same way. He read and smiled through the long list of all the things she was thankful for. It began with his name and ended with Zaid's.
"I'm thankful for our fights that brought us closer.
For you always being there to catch me and hold me before I fell.
For the shooting stars that wrote our destiny.
For when you said qubool nahin hai,' for me.
For giving me a second life in Mangalpur."
Asad's grip tightened on her. "Please, never ever bring up that first time in Mangalpur," he'd told her a thousand times. "I nearly lost you."
But he should've known. She rarely ever listened to him. It was a Zoya thing.
He continued reading the thanksgiving list.
"For saying qubool hai on our wedding day.
For our bhaang raat and suhaag raat.
And Chand raats since."
"For the best honeymoon a girl could ask for and the Palace on Wheels.
For helping me find my Abbu.
For every gift and surprise you've given me.
For always being by my side.
For the breakfasts in bed.
The multiple org*asms.
For kissing me goodnight and being there when I open my eyes in the morning.
For all those notes and postcards.
For Rumi, Ghalib and Faiz.
For those micro-mini smiles.
For being my sexiest Jahanpanah six packs.
For being my astronaut on call who routinely gets me the stars and the moon.
For being my warrior and Jahanpanah Bond and Batman--my ultimate super hero."
Asad squeezed her to him. He cleared his throat. "Do you know what I'm thankful for?"
"What?" Zoya whispered already feeling emotional.
"For you standing up to me and not backing down for a minute. For mocking me, for standing up for my family even when I was blinded by anger or ..."
She covered his mouth. "Shh, don't bring up all that stuff from the past!"
He kissed her hand. "I have to. That's how we got here. I'm so grateful to you for being you. For being gentle and pure and crazy and true. And so goddamn stubborn. For being my lifeline and my Wonder Woman. And my Jhansi ki Rani"
"Ooh, we haven't played Wonder Woman and Batman in a while! Let's do it tonight! I can even fit into my mini-skirt now."
Asad laughed and kissed her hard. "Yes, I'm thankful for exactly that"that you can make me feel like a kid again and still turn me on with talk about playing superheroes. And Zoya?"
She looked at him. "Hmm?"
"I might regret saying this but I'm also thankful for that nutty shayari!"
"Mr. Khan! It's NOT nutty! You take that back!"
He ignored her outrage. "And I'm thankful for the way you call me, Mr. Khan' when we're in company or when you're mad, and Asad' when we're by ourselves. I love being your Jahanpanah and Akdu even though I hated it the first time you called me those names."
"Really? You hated it? I've always loved it!"
"Of course. But I'm saying that I'm thankful for all of our messy and intense history together," Asad added.
"And our chemistry?"
He grinned. "That too. I'm more than grateful for our chemistry--the way my geography fits your biology," Asad ground himself against her.
Zoya's peal of laughter made him laugh too. They'd proceeded to test some laws of physics.
Dobby sighed and settled in a corner to lick his paw.
"Make sure you're on time," she told him for the fifth time. He was going to take off early from work to join them for the festivities.
"Why isn't Thanksgiving dinner at dinner time," the Indians had wanted to know.
"Well in America everyone has dinner early. And Thanksgiving dinner is even earlier! Think of it as a late lunch."
"Because after that you roll around in a food coma, watch football, or plan for Black Friday."
"What's Black Friday? I thought there was only Good Friday."
"Black Friday is the day of crazy sales and the start of Christmas shopping."
"So why's it on a Thursday?"
The questions went on and on. Many of them were from Nikhat. Awwn. She was nervous about leaving for the US.
They'd had their you've-got-to-be-a-Jhansi-ki-Rani talk with her too. And she'd been just as upset as Najma.
Najma had sent them her Green Card and new driver's license pictures. To pacify a distraught Nikhat, Zoya had shown her those images.
Only then had Nikhat calmed down.
They'd included Ayaan in their talk with her too this time.
"Bhai is that the real reason you did that trust fund thing for the girls? You're worried about the possibility of a talaak?" A somber Ayaan had asked Asad later. "But Feroze and Omar are great guys. They'd never--"
Asad exhaled. He hated the sound of that word. That word had changed their lives as kids. That word could've come between him and Zoya.
He looked up at the night sky and sent up a silent dua for not saying that word a third time. Thank you, Allah miyan.
And thank you for sending Dobby ... and Aunty ... for all the agents of justice and angels of mercy that had made this day possible.
This thanksgiving was truly blessed. He'd come to like this American holiday.
"And also the reason why I did it for Humaira and Zoya," Asad reminded his brother quietly.
"What? But you! Me?"
"I almost said it Ayaan."
"I know! But that was completely different!"
"Still. It could've changed our lives forever. Can you imagine if--" He cleared his clogged throat. "If Zoya had left for New York? Zaid not being here, with us?"
Asad shuddered. The nightmares were long gone.
But many a night, for months, he'd wake up sweating and breathing hard. He'd feel around for Zoya's hand and grab for a lifeline--he had to restrain himself from squeezing too hard. He didn't want to wake her up and see him this upset.
And then when Zaid came, he'd wake up at odd hours and check his breathing--sliding his finger under the tiny nose or placing his hand on the little chest that rose and fell. He still recited Allah's name over his son's head when he couldn't sleep.
Those months right after the terrors at the factory had been hard even after he and Zoya had reconciled. Sometimes his mind played crazy "what if" games with him. What if he'd said the word three times instead of two? What if Zoya left him? What if he never saw Zaid?
Then his mind would torment him with "even if" games. Even if that had happened he'd have just relocated to New York to be close to them. He'd take Ammi with him. And Najma would be in the US too. It would all be OK, they'd work it out somehow.
Even if ...
Yes, it would mean that he and Zoya could never be together (because he'd never in a million years ask her to go through a Halala nikaah. He'd die first. Or kill any man who tried to touch her.)
He'd just be happy enough to see her. And see Zaid grow up. He wouldn't dream of separating Zaid from Zoya. No custody battles, no nothing.
Even if the unthinkable had happened ...
He'd go down on his knees and beg her if she'd have him; he'd live with her in sin for the rest of their lives if she said qubool hai.
Ayaan watched Asad wrestle with unseen demons. He saw his brother's fists whiten on the balcony railing as he gazed, unseeing, into the heart of darkness.
He gripped Asad's shoulder, "Bhai, I'm sorry for bringing up those terrible memories. I wasn't thinking straight. I was just shocked by how far you guys had thought things through to make it right for the girls. I can't imagine what it must have been like ..."
Asad sighed and shook his head to clear it. That abyss was haunting and hypnotic--he struggled to drag himself up from it.
"But I understand now," Ayaan went on. "You did all this because of what happened then ... because of what that bitch forced you to do."
He smacked his forehead. Idiot! Did he have to say that? He felt a lump rise in his throat. He had never realized that both Mona and Bhaijaan must've relived the horror of that word days and months after it had ricocheted in the factory. A stray bullet would have done less damage.
And it hit Ayaan for the first time with the force of a sledgehammer: all these things that Bhai had done since then--talking to Dadi and the girls at the hospital and insisting on telling them of their parents' dark history, the trust funds for the girls, the file on American legal and women's centers ... It was all to make up for those moments of stark helplessness in the factory when he could do nothing to save his imploding universe. For a man as strong as Bhaijaan to have to beg on his knees and fall apart---
And if a guy like him could be broken then what chance did the girls have? He prayed that they'd never find themselves so defenseless.
Ayaan scrubbed the tears from his eyes. "Bhai, I swear to god, I wouldn't have let anything bad happen to you both. Or to Zaid! We were in the right. She was wrong. Allah wouldn't have let her win. Together we would have turned back time to undo ..."
Asad turned and pulled him into a bear hug.
He knew what Ayaan was trying to not say. Both of them knew how helpless they all'd been that day. But deep down he also knew that he'd have said that word a third time if the tables hadn't turned that terrible day. With the gun pointed at Zoya he had no choice. If it would've saved Zoya's and Zaid's lives, he'd have said it a hundred times. He'd do it again and again. No ifs, ands, or buts about it.
They heard a shout and squeals coming from inside.
"Mr. Khan!" Zoya's call was the loudest. Ayaan grinned through tears as he saw Bhai dash inside. Wiping his eyes and offering a prayer of his own he went in to check out what the ruckus was all about.
So much giddy chatter despite the food coma. So many cameras held aloft and clicking and filming.
He should have known. Zaid miyan had to be at the center of the commotion. There he was beaming up at his minions and paparazzi ... sitting upright. Unsupported.
He prattled away, arms flapping in royal appreciation of the adoration.
Then he shrieked. "Hey, Champ! You're sitting up on your own? All by yourself? Shabash mera cheetah! Give me five!"
Zaid lifted his arm to high-five Chachu's palm, swayed, and nearly toppled. A million arms reached out to right him and cradle his head if he fell backwards.
But his Abbu got to him first.
Asad swept him up in his arms and buried his face in his son's neck. Zaid giggled and squirmed. Abbu's stubble was tickly and scratchy. But Abbu wouldn't let go.
Zoya looked at Asad, puzzled by his emotional response. She turned to look at Ayaan and arched an eyebrow. What's up? What've you done to my Akdu?
Her fists climbed up her hips; her eyes slitted: Is everything OK? What're you hiding? Something's wrong, right? Tell meeE! NOW!
Ayaan raised his hands in self-defense. "Hey, he's happy his son can sit up, OK? Jeez, stop with the Spanish Inquisition!"
Zoya made a face at him. She'd get to the bottom of it all right. She always did. She'd ask Asad and get the details when they went to the hilltop tonight. It would be their first time taking Zaid with them. They would count stars and rock the moon in the palm of their hands.
But meanwhile she had pictures to take of her Jahanpanah and their shehzada.
Aapi and Jeeju would be so thrilled. And Najma and Omar too. And then she had to update the Baby book. Another milestone crossed. Oh my god, Allah miyan, he's growing up so fast!
Song in Title:
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (2007): "Jhoom Barabar Jhoom"
Hi MayurChan, ayat20, mummyoftwo, nnn, and rajsm
Topic started by dixeij
Last replied by -jass-